I was 7 years old the first time I watched my dad clean a catfish. We were in the kitchen of the old ranch house in the Pocono Mountains where we’d go every summer to escape the city. He cut off its head. Even separated from its body, the fish’s lips smacked together like it was still breathing. I was terrified. And strangely fascinated. The same feeling I had had a few years earlier at my grandparent’s house on the dirt road side of Capitan Bermudez in Argentina, where my grandfather slaughtered a chicken and let it run headless through the yard.
For men like them, when it came to blood and guts, there was never any blushing or hesitation. As for me, I could not have turned out more different.
In August, I won the Tennessee College Public Relations Association’s silver award in feature writing for my profile of Maddy Banic, a mental health advocate and former University of Tennessee Lady Vols swimmer who earned a national title in her last NCAA championships.
The story was first published as the cover story for Accolades Magazine, an annual print publication of the University of Tennessee’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. It was reprinted in the spring/summer edition of Torchbearer, the university’s official alumni magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from the story. You may read more at the hyperlinks above:
Banic had fought too hard for it to end like this. The depression diagnosis her freshman year; the panic attack at the 2017 NCAA finals that saw her scratched from two events and hospitalized; the near suicide attempt months later in her apartment; the three-month NCAA-enforced separation from a team that wasn’t sure it wanted her back anyway. This was Banic’s final national championship as a collegiate swimmer, her last chance to leave with a medal—not for herself but for the teammates who took her back and voted her their captain in the fall of 2018, entrusting her to lead them.
With an evening final in the team 200-yard medley relay remaining, [head coach Matt] Kredich issued Banic a challenge: collect yourself and lead your teammates, he told her.
“She looked at me and took a deep breath,” Kredich remembers. “And she said, ‘OK, I can do that.’”
Hours later, Banic, Meghan Small, Nikol Popov, and Erika Brown won gold. It was Tennessee’s fourth NCAA relay title and Banic’s first national title. It was a moment. But even as Banic stood beside her teammates on the podium wearing a coonskin cap and a wide-eyed grin—joy erupting from the parts of her that had hurt for so long—she knew it was not the finish.
“This sport is something you do—it’s not who you are,” Banic says. “You can step aside and then come back. You don’t have to give up. You don’t have to hide that you’re struggling. You can seek help.”
My dad told the story again in late June in Jonathan’s workshop, with saltwater, spin, and fly rods hanging on hooks above his head and Jonathan, my fly fishing sensei, sitting with a fat cigar in mouth on a stool beside his tying table, listening.
“I would set Brian up, then I would tell him: don’t reel it in until you feel a bite,” Dad recounted. In this story, he turns to my brother, Victor, and sets his bobber and hooks on a small minnow we had caught in a stream feeding the small lake in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Before Victor can cast I’m already reeling in my line. “Did you feel a bite?” Yeah, yeah, I say. On the other end the dying minnow, whole, flaps in the water.
The fly was an olive green color, and in the grey cloudlight you could see a golden shimmer from the tinsel-like thread that wrapped around its fat inch-long body as it danced feet above the clear blue waters of the Watauga River.
The fisherman stood waist deep in the ripples whipping the fly above him four, five, six times. With every forward motion he shot out a little more of the heavy orange line with his left hand. His right forearm moved in sync with his torso. He brought the line behind his body one final time, and when it laid out flat he cast it forward and released. The line shot through the guides of his rod and fell nearly 30 yards upstream, just above a deep pool.
After the fly, a woolly bugger, settled to the bottom, the man stripped in line a few inches at a time until it was close enough that he could pick it up and go directly into a back cast. The dance continued every time he brought in the line.
I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.
I wrote a draft of this short story as a final project for an English elective my senior year of college in 2010. I had loved reading Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, a collection of short stories where he first introduces his iconic character, Nick Adams. I hoped to imitate Hemingway’s minimalist writing style, while also filling a gap I thought existed in the stories (I hadn’t yet read “Now I Lay Me,” a story from Hemingway’s Men Without Women collection, and wanted to make my own attempt at explaining why Adams returns from war so distraught and detached).
In Our Time is heavy. The stories are full of grief. They are told in an emotionless way (Hemingway was famous for his iceberg theory, where he kept the deeper meaning of a story under the surface). Thanks to two good friends and editors, I’ve made several improvements to the prelude and story, which I’ve titled “The American Offensive.” I hope you enjoy it.
This short story is inspired by the song “Elephant” by Jason Isbell.
Emily’s long porcelain legs shivered in the drafty cold of the sleepy Tennessee bar room. Above her, two dusty speakers rang out Clay Pigeons. She sat stoically in a short dark blue dress that clung tightly to her body. One of her hands tickled the chicken skin forming along her thigh.
“Take my sweater, Em,” Andy said to her.
“It’s Emily, Andy,” she replied with a smile.
Andy shook his head. For six months, they’d met at the same bar every Thursday night to watch singers with beards and sweat-stained hats play songs for middle-aged couples and a few yuppies, like Andy, who lived in the neighborhood and were bored with other bars where college kids hung out.
The first Thursday, Andy noticed Emily, blonde and skinny, sitting by herself. She had big blue eyes and her arms were pale and muscled. He approached and stood beside her to order a beer. She did not turn to face him, even when he spoke to her.
“I didn’t know anyone else under the age of 30 came here,” he said.
“I don’t come for conversation,” Emily replied, her eyes never moving from the bar top.
Seated on hot aluminum bleachers, I watch them on green-yellow grass.
Sweat soaked Sunday warriors, their heads craning toward the blue sky, panting like race horses, chasing a once-white ball, kicking, colliding, falling to the ground, and rising again; a pattern stitched in ninety minutes.
Blooming along a walkway
on Sequoyah Drive,
you are a dogwood tree,
lip-pink flowers blooming,
hypnotic in the breeze;
You are thin and steady,
limbs veiny, reaching to the sky,
your flowers dancing to a native beat,
while I admire you on a sunny April day.