Preorder the Memphis Music Issue TODAY and lock in an exclusive limited-edition vinyl record!

Become A Member Shop Login

Photo by Ales Krivec

Penitents Upon the Rocks

The old sunken highway. Noon. Wind in the oaks and long spermy clouds leaking over the sky. A kind of dinge to the air, and the lake water quiet and gray like pooled grease. Far ashore, cedars flicker in the breeze. Everywhere is the sound of roaming air, of wild, lunging atmosphere.

Two brothers, both tattooed, came to this place years ago. In the drear of evening, they stripped to their long johns and, both feeling buxom with drink, swam to the sunken highway. It had gone under winters ago. Long after the road had ceased to be a thoroughfare of logical travel, a dike gave way and the lake waters rose and the asphalt sections broke and what remained was a ramp of pavement and loose rebar leaving the shore and going down into the murk. Like a road leading to the frigid nethers of the world.

These brothers sought out the highway often. Flathead catfish spawned in the crevices and hollows of the pavement. This was the place to noodle. Huge, grizzle-bear catfish, whiskery with age. Pale in the dark fathoms like krakenous ghosts. Talk and rumor floated among the fishermen. The fish below the sunken highway were big, some the size of propane tanks. One was said to have beached itself, a monstrous grandfather, and when its belly was slit open, inside was a stillborn child, something likely tossed over the side of a party pontoon by a drunken teen mother. Other horrors were sure to lurk the deeper you went.

But these brothers, Lepshums by blood, were tavern-brave and stricken with brawn from their sawmill jobs. They off-bore crossties six days a week and were amply muscled from such work. And they were noodlers. Which is to say they fished with their hands, chest-deep in water where moccasins and snapping turtles dwelled, reaching into holes and hollow logs. Between them, they had but sixteen fingers.

Both settled on this afternoon to come to the sunken highway. They were on their way to the burial of a precious and matronly aunt and were already tipsy form pre-funeral beers and soap-eyed from crying and they needed a covered dish to bring, casserole or egg salad or something, and as yet had nothing, and the road led past the lake and there it was and they stopped and stripped from their trousers and blazers and swam out.

“We’ll noodle us a fish,” sniveled Doug, the eldest. His face was covered with a mossy beard and he smelled of brut cologne. “A big one. Cut it up and bring it to the dinner. They can’t fault us none for that. And it’s what Aunt Vergie would have wanted.”

His brother, Lum, bald with a bar code tattooed on the back of his neck, strung his belt around his long johns and hitched a stringer of Old Milwaukee to it. The cans bobbed in the water. They made a jingle. It was nice. Such things might save a drowning man. And both brothers were in league against drowning. It was what frightened them most. But they were also in league against being pussies and so would say none of this.

Out at the highway, they caught fiddlers for an hour or so, small trivial fish of much bone. They threw these back. Their knuckles were bloodied and they were chin-deep in the tarn, their breath blowing up little squalls. Doug had been finned through the palm and the wound bled like a stigmata.

“Well shit,” he said, suckling his hand. “I don’t hardly believe there’s a good fish out here today.” He now seemed freshly saved from a deep, impenetrable sorrow. The sight of blood was wont to bring such a reaction from him. It had done so in past times.

Lum looked out over the lake. A Jet Ski was scooting over the water, its wake rising white and sudsy. It was piloted by a man in a neon-green life jacket. A redheaded girl rode at his back, the long flame of her hair reaching out behind her like afterburn.

“No. There ain’t no good fish out this way,” said Lum. “But yonder goes some cooch.”

Doug looked up. “Where’d they come from?”

“I don’t know,” said Lum.

Doug, lonely with age, a man who had thrown dog-faced women as simply as emptying bed pans, opened a beer and guzzled. “Maybe we should holler them over here,” he said. “Get something going.”

“Won’t be nothing but trouble,” said Lum.

“Ain’t that all we’ve ever known?”

True. Both men were accustomed to blights of trouble, weeklong benders, and broken marriages, but they were ballsy, with much girth about the groin.

“Well,” said Lum. “Call them over then if you can.”

Doug climbed atop a piece of highway slag jutting form the lake and waved. The Jet Ski turned and roamed over slowly to what appeared to be the sight of some peckerwood distress.

“Everything okay?” asked the man. He rode the Jet Ski coolly, his Oakley sunglasses flashing. Behind him, the girl’s wet red hair lay tangled over her brown shoulders.

“Oh, we’re fine,” said Doug. “Just out here doing a bit of noodling. Thought we’d say hello. Hey, that thing there you’re riding is pretty nifty, ain’t it?’ The Jet Ski’s engine gurgled. On the back, a speargun had been lashed to the seat with bungee straps, the harpoon shining.

“It really is a jumping little ride, ain’t it?” said Doug.

“It’s all right,” said the man. “Cost more money than it’s worth, really.”

Doug pulled the empty pockets from his long johns, wringing water from them. Lum crawled toadly up onto the slag and squatted, the four remaining beers dangling from his belt.

“Y’all want a beer?” he asked.

The man shook his head. “Better not.”

“Better so,” said Lum. “That little piece you got behind you there looks thirsty. But maybe she’d like a drink of something other than beer, reckon?”

The man turned his head the way a dog might, cocking an ear. “Sir?” he said.

The Lepshums clucked heartily.

“Believe my brother is saying that your girl is dick hungry for sure. What I mean is she might not really be getting fed the right amount of lovin’,” said Doug.

The Jet Ski pilot looked back at the girl. “Do you hear these guys, SheEllen?” he said. “They talk fierce, don’t they?”

The girl hid her mouth behind a pruney hand and giggled. “They have problems,” she said. “Heartaches.”

The Lepshums, pale and lurchish like marooned sailors on their slag piles, gave each other looks. In their wet, limp underwear with their stringer of beer they looked like men recently swindled of a fortune.

The girl went on giggling.

“Is she okay?” asked Doug.

“No.” The man shook his head. “She isn’t.” He lifted the sunglasses from his face and perched them on his head. His eyes were abalone pale. “Neither of us is okay.”

“What’s the trouble?” asked Doug. What at first has been sorrowed randiness had now morphed into curiosity, and even concern.

“You diagnosed it,” said the man. “Not enough dick in my woman’s diet. She’s suffering from love-scurvy. I can’t seem to rouse a hard-on ever since we lost a fish out here last summer. It was a huge lunker flathead that snapped my line.” The man wiped something from his eye. “So maybe you’d like to swim out here and throw the root to her. We’re not proud enough to turn away charity. I’ll jump off and tread water until you’re through.”

The Lepshums gave each other counseling stares. Neither of them had encountered rich slickers of this sort before. They were beefy men who rolled hay with barbarous women, but here was some kind of proposal, an offer of thighly delights that no backseat coupling or billiard-room romance had prepared them for. Their love history was sordid, but contained, within its own ramshackle form, a sort of decency. They would honeymoon inside a Porta-John were the moment right, but to possess a woman on the back of a Jet Ski while her man dog-paddled about as witness seemed beyond them.

They hummed and hawed for a long, boring time.

“Let me ask you,” said the Jet Ski pilot. “You said you were out here for the fish, right? You consider yourselves anglers? Well, here is a real lunker prize.” He twisted on the Jet Ski saddle and groped SheEllen’s thigh. “You might ought to think about hanging a hook in her.”

Lum popped a beer and blew foam from the mouth of the can. “We don’t use hooks,” he said. “We noodle.” He held his arms out to show them. “With our hands.”

“Your hands?” said the girl. Her face was a flashing bright disk.

“Oh yes, honey doll,” said Lum. “We get down in the mire with the fish and just yank them up. Don’t use no rod ’n’ reel.”

“Why do you do that?”

The Lepshums considered this.

“I reckon,” Doug finally said, “it’s because we’re just two plain mean-ass sonsabitches.” He sneezed and thumbed a long thread of bloody phlegm from his nostrils.

“That’s right,” said Lum. He nodded proudly. “We don’t give a fuck.”

The Jet Ski pilot spat into the lake. “Well if that’s true,” he said, “why don’t the two of you jump down off those rocks and show us how it’s done?”

The Lepshums fell to grinning like boys in the throes of their first whoremongering.

“By God,” said Lum. “You two just watch!”

He lept from the slag pile and floundered in the water before gaining his footing on the sand bottom. Doug slipped in slowly behind him and both were soon groveling at the bellows of the sunken highway. Cheers came from the Jet Ski.

They were not long at such trials. Soon, Doug raised up a fish so large and ornery it was like fire stolen from the earth’s furnace, a twisting old fish with Fu Manchu whiskers, something that had lain for so long on the lake bottom it had the look of wise sleep in its eyes. It was perhaps four feet in length. Doug grunted and struggled with it and finally climbed atop the slag pile and held it at arms’ length by the gills, his face showing stern amazement. He didn’t know how he could have missed such a creature earlier, why only now, at this moment, it was being offered to him.

“That there is a goddamn fish,” the pilot said.

And it was. This creature grunted and burped in his arms, a huge goddamned thing heaving like a power surge, an electric baptismal burp. What would save the world were it to ever desire saving.

“One helluva goddamn fish,” Doug agreed. Lum wallowed up onto the rocks and stood beside him and they were together there when the girl on the Jet Ski began to squeal.

“I want it!” she said. “Oh, I want it. I want it. It has to be mine.”

Her face was teary. She slapped the shoulders of her man and bucked and reared on the Jet Ski, deep as she was in her wanting throes.

“You heard her,” said the man. He’d put his sunglasses back on and was staring at the Lepshums. “Give us the fish.”

Both brothers shook their heads. “Woman can’t have everything she wants,” said Doug. “This fish is ours. We noodled it.”

“Give it to us,” the man on the Jet Ski said again.

“No.” Doug held the fish at arm’s length, its tail whipping up. “The fish will feed our kind, but I don’t see the use folks like y’all could get from it. I don’t believe folks like y’all have ever had a use for such things.”

It seemed a fine speech. Perhaps a eulogy for all that the derelict and unfortunate of the world might lose, a pardon-plea for all moral debt they might incur. The loss encountered. So drunk on the words were Doug and Lum, they didn’t see the man on the Jet Ski unlash his speargun and ready the harpoon. They were giddy until he spoke.

“I’ll show you the kind of use we might could get out of it,” he said.

The gun made a kind of sucking bursting sound when it was fired. The spear lodged firm in the body of the fish, spilling blood over Doug’s legs and splashing it darkly upon the slag pile, the feathered tail of the harpoon wagging, the retrieval coil leading down into the water. Doug dropped the fish and it fell writhing onto the pavement, and both he and Lum stood mutely numb as the Jet Ski roared over to them.

The man on the Jet Ski leaned over the handlebars and simply plucked the fish off the slag pile and handed it to SheEllen. It lay in her lap and she sat stroking it the way the old and cronish are known to stroke cats. The Lepshums said nothing. They were transfixed like penitents there upon the rocks.

“This fish,” said SheEllen, “is better than religion. I feel myself getting lathered.” She began panting. The color rose to her cheeks.

“Yes,” said the man on the Jet Ski. He was grinning up at the Lepshums. “I think it’s restored me. I feel ready as a dog with two dicks.” He turned and began licking at SheEllen’s face.

“Let’s get back to shore,” said SheEllen. “In a hurry.”

The man on the Jet Ski wasted no time. He turned his rig and they sped away, the water misting white against the black waiting cedars.

When they were out of sight, Doug sat down on the slag pile.

“They took our fish,” said Lum. “They took it and now we don’t have a thing to bring to the funeral.”

Doug shook his head. “I guess it wasn’t ours,” he said. “We wanted it in the wrong kind of way.”

Then they were quiet for a long time as the day ended, and just before nightfall they swam back to shore and drove, wordless in their sorrow, to the burial of their Aunt Vergie. She had already been buried when they got to the cemetery, the graveside service now only pamphlets and tissues blowing around in the breeze and through the gray grass. The grave, neatly mounded, waited under and ash tree. Flowers had been strewn about.

“I think it’s good we missed all what went on here,” said Lum.

“Yeah,” said Doug. He licked his wounded palm and spat blood onto the dirt. “We are awful. Plain awful. And we didn’t need to see all the kind of good that was happening. We might not have knowed how to take it.” 

Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Alex Taylor

Alex Taylor is the author of The Marble Orchard, and the story collection, The Name of the Nearest River. He has worked as a day laborer on tobacco farms, as a car detailer at a used automotive lot, as a sorghum peddler, at various fast food chains, as a tender of suburban lawns, and at a cigarette lighter factory. He holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi.