Feeding the Line

Darin Fowler. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Darin Fowler. (Monte Dutton sketch)

Here’s the first installment in another series of short fiction.

“I been thinking,” Ben Fowler said, as his son climbed into the Silverado. “Me and you ain’t as different as we think.”

The boy didn’t reply. He was eighteen, thought he was twenty-one, and knew enough to be dangerous. He had his iPod and his iPhone and his earbuds, and his compact “gaming platform,” and Ben couldn’t remember whether it was a Playstation, or a Gameboy, or a Gamestation, or a Playboy, but only the last would have appealed to Ben at the same age. Playboy, eh? Wonder if it can be accessed online? Ben thought of Patti McGuire, the Playmate of the Year for 1976, with lust in his heart. There wasn’t much wrong with a little lust in his heart, not that there was anything he could do about it. Even old Jimmy Carter admitted to that, or did when he was president. Ben first laid eyes on Patti McGuire when a junior-high-school friend pulled the issue out from under his mattress. He married Lily Fowler at the end of Reagan, and Clinton won a second term the year Darin was born.

Ben wasn’t married anymore and was satisfied he wasn’t going to not be married any less. He “socialized” with a few women, two of them divorced themselves, and but he didn’t see anything serious coming of it.

Darin was a good a student. He’d played flanker and punted for the high school where his daddy and his granddaddy had also played. He and his mother apparently weren’t getting along very well, and Lily tried to hide, but not very hard, the fact that she wouldn’t mind being rid of him for a while. Most of the bitterness between them had faded away. Lily said she was worried about the boy. She didn’t like the looks of some of the people he was hanging out with, and she seemed to have serious concerns about Darin’s girlfriend, who was a Sloan from over behind the college. Ben thought his wife capable of imagining character flaws that weren’t necessarily there. He figured that, if Darin hung around with him a while, he’d be able to size up the young lady for himself. Ben didn’t want to lose the boy the way he’d lost his mama.

What once had been a cabin on the lake was now Ben’s home. The boy was out of school, just back from the beach, and looking for a job. He was going to the University in the fall, said he wanted to major in pharmacy, or whatever a young man studied in undergraduate school that enabled him to enter pharmacy school afterwards. Ben had him for the weekend and, he hoped, longer. He’d been snooping around and thought the boy could get a job at the marina. In the meantime, they’d take the boat out fishing. Ben was on vacation for the next two weeks. They could do whatever Darin wanted, within reason. If the boy wanted to stay a while, he could take him back to town to get his car.

Ben didn’t have much to say to the boy as they drove to the lake. He had his music on, and, as the sun rose, fell asleep. Ben stopped at a drive-through and bought coffee and sausage biscuits. At the cabin, he told Darin to put his things away and meet him at the dock. He carried the fishing tackle down to the dock and waited. When the boy got there, he still looked sleepy, so Ben waited for him to sweeten his coffee and then headed out to his favorite inlet.

“You know, Darin, I always thought the hardest thing about being a parent was the way it’s unavoidable not to be a hypocrite, and when a kid gets on up in his teen-aged years, he sees right through it. I don’t know how you get around it. A man finds himself jumping up and down, yelling at his kid for doing the same things he did cheerfully at the same age. Still, you feel fortunate you survived those years, and it scares you to death that your kid might not.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being a hypocrite,” Ben said. “It just means I feel bad about it.”

Darin was silent for a moment, considering what his father had said. “I appreciate that, Dad,” he said. “I guess I understand.”

“You got a bite, son,” Ben said.

It wasn’t bad. Fish were biting. They caught a mess worth keeping. Crappie and bream, mainly, but Ben hauled in a good-sized bass.

“Dad, you still drink, right? Every now and then?”

“Yeah, I’ll drink a beer or six every couple weeks or so.”

“Well, you probably, you know, figured, I drink with friends now and then.”

“I can’t say it surprises me, Darin.”

“And I was wondering, you know, I think it would kinda be cool, you know, if we drank a little when we’re doing things like this.”

“I probably brought that on myself by volunteering the hypocrite stuff,” Ben said, and neither said anything for a while. Ben tried to think it through.

At last, he said, “I was right lucky when I was your age, Darin. It was legal for me to drink, beer at least, when I was eighteen. They changed the law that year, but it was phased in, a year at a time, so that, when I was nineteen, it was legal at nineteen, and then so on and so on. If I’d have been a year younger, I’d have been a year behind every step of the way.

“I didn’t think that was right then. Still don’t. If a man can serve his country at eighteen, if he can fight and die, well, then, he ought to be able to drink a beer. I think if society’s going to define what makes a man an adult, then it ought to be across the board. Kids get to college, they’re gonna drink. Having a law that says they can’t isn’t going to work. It’s just going to make criminals out of the ones who ain’t got no sense or are unlucky.”

He took a deep breath. “But it is the law. I’ve always thought it best not to be a bad example, and, plus, your mama’s family is the kind that holds things against you. Anybody do something wrong, they always got something to throw in your face. ‘Why’d you wreck the car?’ ‘Well, it’s a wonder you didn’t wreck the car that time you got drunk with all your buddies at the football game.’ You’re, like, ‘Well, that’s not the issue here right now. I ain’t wrecked a car, not then, not now. You did today.’ It don’t do no good. They get mad at you for just pointing out the truth. If your mama hadn’t come up in that godforsaken family, she might not be so damned aggravating, and we might still be married, but she is that damned aggravating, and that’s just the way life is.”

“All right, then,” Darin said, sarcastic.

“Look, if you weren’t here, and I’s just fishing by myself, yeah, I’d have the cooler, and I’d sip on a beer or two.” He took another deep breath. “Sun gets a little higher, we’ll go back to the house and have some lunch, clean these fish. I’ll think about it. Maybe when we go back out this evening … Hell, son, it’s hard to get used to you growing up.”

When they got back to the cabin, Darin went out of his way to be industrious. He cleaned all the fish himself, told his daddy just to rest up. Pretty soon, Ben got a little drowsy and said he thought he’d take a little nap before they took the boat back out. Darin said that’d be good. He could play some games and watch a little TV. Ben retired to the bedroom. Darin gave it a half hour, crept down the hall, cracked the door, and saw that his dad was sleeping soundly. He walked out in the backyard. The swing set was still up, a holdover from when he was a boy, rusty and listing to one side. The table and chairs were as old as the swing set, whitewashed, it looked like, in the past year or two. Darin lit a cigarette and sent his girlfriend a text.

Everything’s cool. U?

Twenty miles away, Ellen Sloan, was at her job, assisting the local veterinarian. She’d worked there after school since she was sixteen. She hardly noticed that overwhelming smell of horse liniment anymore.

Working like a charm. Totally good 2 go.

When u off?

              Round 5. Get there at 7?

              Be bout rite. Luv u. Cya then. Gon be trippin.

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