Margaret Ervin teaches writing and runs a writing center at West Chester University. She writes essays and
poetry. She tries not to lie. http://basket-o-eggs.blogspot.com
Other Men's Stories
This Sunday afternoon in July finds me listlessly sunk in a folding chair, watching my ten-year-old daughter at the lake’
s edge. The tall little thing I love, a beautiful redhead, is fishing with no luck. When I walk over to jab at her face with
the sunscreen stick, I can see why. The hook is too big. She dangles it straight below her over a dozen minute
sunfish readily visible through the clear water. They take turns nibbling at the hook, but it won’t fit into their tiny
mouths. Their flat, translucent bodies circle her lure, veer away pretending indifference, dart back for another try.
Back in my seat I observe as she repeatedly rummages through her tackle box and re-baits the hook. Patience.
My chair sits in the one bit of shade I can find — a thin rim provided by some weedy shrubs. I haven’t moved in over
an hour, except once to reach back and snap off some twigs that were poking me in the face. I am a voyeur today.
Not of my daughter. I am minding her, not watching her. It’s the small group of former graduate students I am
sheepishly accompanying who seem farther away than they really are — they in the sun, I in the shade.
They are talking on topics that were mine too at their age. They laugh about a crazy sister’s wedding, long-nursed
cars and the day they finally and hilariously broke down, rotten temp jobs, and divorced parents. That last topic
interests me most.
My husband and I are thinking about separating, and for the past month I have been experimenting with short
breaks from him. Today’s travel-size separation fell into place last night when we bumped into two young couples at a
restaurant in our college town. They said they were going to barbeque at the lake and would I like to come along? I
took them up on the invitation, knowing they maybe didn’t really want me to come but also knowing they wouldn’t
My husband already had plans to go off on his own, fishing with a friend at the Chesapeake Bay. The wife persona I
choose to inhabit is game. I steer the canoe while he fishes. This time, I asked myself, do I really like sweating in a
canoe on the greasy, breezeless Chesapeake Bay in the blazing July sun, watching him fish, listening to him tell
stories to his friends? No. There is a blank patch in my brain where I don’t remember his stories. Fish are in them.
The sound of the sound of them is grating.
Now, from the shrubs, I listen to the boyfriend named Bill begin a “there was a guy I once knew” story. He tells us
this guy he knows personally, a welder, blew himself off the top of a partially constructed high rise in Hong Kong with
a plastic bag filled with acetylene. The guy was filling bags with the gas and dropping them over the edge to watch
them blow up on the way down. He did this on a regular basis. One day it was windy. In order to fill the bags, he
needed to hold them between his legs to keep them from blowing away.
“You see…” he continues. Bill is the kind of man who knows how to make things work, how to patch together multiple
data bases and how to replace a broken fan belt with panty hose purchased at the Seven Eleven. “Acetylene is a very
easy gas to ignite, easier than any other fuel gas except hydrogen. So the static charge created by friction on the
way down from the building easily caused the bags to explode. The wind on the bag that day also caused a static
spark. Amazingly, the guy landed on a twin tower only a couple stories lower. And he survived to have children.” We
Glancing over at his girlfriend, Allison, I can tell she has heard the story many times before, but she is smiling. She
might think she can stand to listen to this story for the next 30 years.
The other man, Chris, isn’t a details guy. He’s a gregarious look-at-me guy. He has an attention-grabbing way of
punching words instead of actually drawing breath for periods and commas.
“Sure!” he said last night to me, my husband and daughter, and no one in particular. “I’m going to grill up some pig I’
ve been working on a rub, my dad likes to talk shit about how great his ribs are and we’re going to have a cook off
when I go home to Seattle and I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about but bring chairs and we’re going to
fish so if you’ve got a rod bring that and just bring a side or whatever you’ve got, Natalie’s mom is bringing a salad
and Allison and Bill are bringing a side so we may have enough already so yeah the more the merrier.”
The topic of Chris’s ADHD comes up. Natalie says she thinks it’s getting worse, but his therapist says that’s
impossible. Natalie has a gently hovering presence. They have a trial child, an Australian cattle dog. Between the dog
and Natalie, Chris is herded and kept from harm without his knowledge. Under Natalie’s watchful eye, he launches
himself in and out of his chair to check the ribs, grab a beer, get the rod out of the trunk, check the ribs, adjust the
ice in the cooler, check the ribs…
His story is about going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show with his cool uncle, his father’s younger brother. He was
thirteen. He checks to make sure my daughter is out of earshot and says, “So they were all chanting ‘Virgin! Virgin!
Virgin!’ and I was thinking, no shit, I know I’m a virgin, I don’t think everything even works down there yet, so I was
confused, and then they made all the virgins stand down in front of the theatre before the show started. I didn’t
want to go down there, but my uncle jumped up and yelled ‘Here’s another one!’ So we are all standing down there in
a line, and I’m, like, the youngest one there. By a lot. And I’m wondering why all these people are still virgins, still a
little in my head. And then they ask all the virgins to say if they were to have sex with an animal, what kind of animal
would it be. Everyone is saying, horses, sheep, and shit like that. Totally unoriginal stuff.”
It’s time for his punch line. He delivers it. “So I say, so I say, ‘A giraffe… because it gives deep throat.’ The crowd
went wild. When I got back to my seat, even my uncle was a little shocked. He asked, ‘How’d you come up with that?’
and I said, Mad Magazine.”
It’s a good one, but for some reason it doesn’t make me laugh. I look at Natalie. She is smiling slightly, not really
listening. Maybe that’s the way it will be for the rest of her life. At least his favorite story isn’t about fishing.
I will never escape fishing. I frequently dream that I wade out into clear water and catch fish with my bare hands. Free
from patience. Awake, I do know how to sit hours by a stream. My mother taught me. With four daughters to raise,
she didn’t take time to sit down much — except between the hours of 5 and 7 while downing a series of vodkas on
the rocks — but she taught me how to sit still where the current eddies by a rock or root, how to tie a fly onto a
leader, how to cast with a fly rod, and how to break a fish’s neck and gut it. I recall the feeling of sticking my thumb
into a tiny trout’s throat and bending, bending, bending its pliable spine until it finally broke, all the while pretending
not to flinch. My mother made me eat it.
I chose to be a different mother by marrying the man I married. Where I sit now, at this lake, I am closer to him than
I am to her. My husband does not fly fish or drink cocktails. He does not kill or eat what he catches. He considers fly
fishing pretentious. His lip curls at the mention of it. He taught our child to fish in his way.
Maybe on my own, I would teach her my mother’s way. Or maybe my way of being a wife and mother is already
teaching her not to flinch. It works this way: his lip curls, I either reason, cajole, or (rarely) blow up. I hide things to
avoid further lip curling. I come around the side with a sharp, sarcastic jab. He blows up. I back off, reason, cajole,
and (rarely) apologize. He apologizes. We let each explosion go, watch the debris drift down, and continue on.
The other mother here, Natalie’s mom, watches Chris shoot off again, and observes, “People with ADHD are fun. It’s
better than being married to someone who’s dysthymic.” She has this vocabulary because she’s a middle-school
guidance counselor. One year ago, she formalized the divorce from her long-estranged husband, Natalie’s dad. She is
now sitting right out in the sun, not patiently listening or herding or minding, but telling stories of her own. Some of
the stories about her job are scary for a mother with a child age ten. She observes in her blunt, judgmental style, “I
don’t get why parents make it worse by waiting to get divorced until their kids hit adolescence, the worst possible
time for a divorce.”
I do get it. This summer is where it could start. I sit at a distance from my girl, still a child, and watch without cause
for concern as she baits her own hook at the edge of the lake. The odometer on my husband’s stories has hit the
breakdown point, I dream of who I am and what I want, I listen to another man’s aggressively bawdy story without
mirth and notice the last spark of my own youth is fading.