The fly was an olive green color, and in the grey cloudlight you could see the shimmer from the tinsel which 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 woolly bugger 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 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 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.
Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.
It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.
Edward stood at the front door of her apartment nervously combing his hand through his hair and fiddling with the lapels of his blue blazer. It was a seventh-floor apartment in one of the modern, brick-and-glass buildings downtown that he passed on his way home from work. He always wondered about who lived in these downtown buildings and now he knew: Abigail Da Rosa lived here.
Abigail was elegant but cool in a way that made her easily approachable. Edward wasn’t nervous when he flirted with her last Saturday night. They were both out dancing with friends when Adam introduced them. Later that night, she followed him to the bar and they chatted for half an hour, Edward leaning coolly on the bar with drink in hand as she sat on a stool beside him. She told him about how she had moved to the city as a teenager, graduated from a local state university, and worked nearby for an architecture firm. She mentioned a renovation at an old church outside the city, how it was her favorite project. It brought him back to a moment he stood inside the ruins of an old church in the Scottish town of Lanark where they say William Wallace was married. He felt strange and warm inside as she told him.
“Abigail, you’re fascinating,” Edward said to her. “This week let me take you out for a proper dinner, far away from this rowdy crowd, and I promise you won’t regret it.” She tilted her head to the side and smirked the way young women do. “Well, you’re smooth,” she told him. He tried hard to hide his tell, keeping his facial expression blank. She checked the calendar on her iPhone and suggested Wednesday evening. In that moment, he looked up toward a corner of the bar and murmured pointlessly under his breathe; he knew he had no plans. “I have a few meetings that may run into the early evening, but for you I would happily clear my schedule, chéri.” Abigail smirked again. “I’ll meet you at Ste. Ellie’s at 8 p.m.” He paused trying to read her reaction.
“Actually, I’d much rather pick you up and walk over,” Edward said. “It’ll be a nice night for a walk.” It was October and the air coming down from the mountains was cool and pleasant. Abigail said okay. She grabbed his phone, asked him to unlock it, and put in her phone number. “What a fitting last name,” he said, smirking as she handed it back. She smiled.
Now it was Wednesday night and Edward was there outside the door trying to control his anxious breathing. She texted him her address that morning with a smiling face emoji at the end of the text. He left so early from his place 15 minutes on the opposite side of the city that he sat in his car trying to prep himself, opening and closing website tabs on his iPhone: “15 questions for the perfect first date”; “Keys to a romantic night out on the town”; “How to show her you’re a real gentleman.” He had chosen an outfit two nights prior, but decided he didn’t like it at the last minute and ironed another outfit for the night: his favorite blue blazer, brown checkered button-down, brown wool tie, tie bar, olive pants, and brown dress shoes. “You look like an idiot,” he told himself in the mirror when he tried it all on.
Edward’s iPhone, still in the back pocket of his pants, vibrated. He checked it. “Go get ’em tiger. You got this.” It was from Adam. That night when Edward asked Abigail out they giggled about it in Adam’s car for 15 minutes. On Tuesday, they met at Adam’s place to talk about what he should do. “Just try to act like a normal human being,” Adam told him.
“People don’t like me when I’m normal, Adam,” Edward said. Adam rolled his eyes. “Do it your way, but she’ll figure you out eventually, Sinatra.”
Edward tucked the phone into the right pocket of his blazer. Then, he checked the inside pockets to make sure he had remembered everything: a roll of spearmints on the left side with a freshly-washed handkerchief, plastic black hair comb on the right. He hardly used the comb, but his grandfather always tucked it into his own coats when Edward was a boy and he liked the habit.
Pacing in front of the door, Edward whispered to himself. It was 8:00 p.m. now. “Hey, darling, all well tonight?” No, no, that wouldn’t work. “Well, you look dazzling this evening, chéri.” He couldn’t figure out his opening line. Frustrated, he hit himself on the forehead with his closed fist and scrunched his face. Further down the hallway, an older woman passed by with a young boy and stared briefly at him. He smiled at her, she didn’t smile back, then she and the boy went inside their apartment. “You’re an idiot, Edward,” he muttered to himself.
Finally, Edward knocked on the door.
He didn’t hear anything inside, but he didn’t want to text or call her. He waited for another moment. “Oh shit,” he groaned, suddenly anxious and with a strange feeling in his gut. He closed his eyes and sighed.
Inside he could hear her moving around now.
“One second, Eddie,” Abigail said in a strong, steady voice. He loved her voice. “I’m coming.”
She opened the door, fiddling with the strap of her left heel. “I’m sorry, I can’t get this. Is it late?” It was 8:03 p.m. “You’re perfect, Abigail,” Edward said smoothly, half grinning. “Absolutely perfect.”
“Well, you know just the thing to say to a lady,” Abigail responded, smiling. She grabbed his hand and kissed him on the right cheek. Edward smiled.
Abigail walked out into the hallway and closed the door. “Can you hold my bag for a second?” she asked him. “For you, Abigail, anything,” he responded. Again, she smirked. He was so nervous he could feel sweat beads forming on his neck and moistening his shirt collar.
Abigail wrapped her arm around his and they walked toward the elevator.
The boys played shirtless in the rain as the wooden boats of the local fisherman headed back to shore. It was a little after lunchtime in Juan Dolio, an hour’s drive from Santo Domingo, where I had landed by airplane three days earlier. Max and I had driven there together, and we sat together on the sand as the clouds overhead darkened and the warm rain dripped down our faces in rivulets. Beside us, a dark-skinned boy in tattered jean shorts sat looking out at the blue waves as they kissed the shore.
A hundred yards away, a boat sped forward, crashed with the waves onto the beach and settled. The fishermen jumped out. They pushed the boat deeper onto the beach, and the shirtless boys ran over, joined by a group of others who were drinking rum under the palm trees, to see the catch and make offers before the older men from the stores bought up all the fish.
“Let’s go see what they got,” Max said. “I bet you’ve never seen fish like this in the States.”
Max was right. He had come to the Caribbean six years earlier, first to Haiti and then to the D.R., to teach wealthy kids in international schools where qualified American teachers typically found easy employment. Life was freer than in New York, he had told me. “It’s just a carefree vibe, man. People don’t stress out about the little things like we do.”
I put it off for a while until Jennifer left in August. She had sent me a text while I was away working in Denver. “I’m sorry, but when you get back, I’m not gonna be here.” She took everything except the wedding dress she left hanging from the closet door in the bedroom and the dogs, which were at a friend’s house. “She was always one for drama,” Max told me over WhatsApp that night. “You need to come visit me for Thanksgiving.” He sent pictures of gold-sand beaches and dark-skinned women drinking rum from small plastic cups. In the pictures, he stood in the middle smiling. “It’s going to be freezing in NY anyway, and here it’s still basically summer. You can take pics to throw on Tinder. Girls love a guy who travels.”
I booked the trip in late October.
It was overcast the first two days in Santo Domingo and rained hard. By the third morning the skies had cleared a little. We got in Max’s rental and followed the main highway east along the shoreline. We stopped for plato del dia—rice, beans, platanos, and chicken stew—at a small corner restaurant. Two businessmen ate at a table in the corner and drank ice-cold jumbos of Presidente beer from plastic cups. Max bought a bottle for the road. Back in the car, we passed beach resorts until we found an open stretch of beach. “Usually there’s guys waving flags for you to park and spend money at a restaurant or something,” Max said. But, it was only us, the shirtless boys, and the fishermen.
Max pulled out the Presidente beer from the cooler with two cups, and we walked over to sit by the ocean and drink. He had hardly mentioned Jennifer; neither had cared for each other since senior year of college, when she made her way into my life, first a friend then a girlfriend and years later, as much out of convenience as anything, my wife. She had refused to come to Santo Domingo. “What the hell are we going to do with Max?” she had said. “Your friends don’t even like me.”
“If you tried, they might,” I had told her. “You don’t try. You don’t adapt. It’s like we’re always having to make things right for you, but it can’t be that way.”
Jennifer and I hardly fought. She couldn’t take the yelling. So just before the point when it would rise from her throat, she’d stop talking then sleep on the couch where she’d watch TV alone for three nights straight. Eventually, when I’d be at work, she’d text to ask what I wanted her to make for dinner or if there was a new show on Netflix I wanted to watch, and everything returned to its earlier state, unresolved yet pleasant enough.
The sky was dark again and I could feel the drizzle coming down from the clouds. “It’s gonna pass, dude. It always does this in November.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I told him. “It’s warm here anyway. I don’t mind the rain.”
We had watched the waves for a few minutes before the fishermen arrived on the beach, then we got up and walked over as the dark-skinned boy remained stoic looking out at the ocean. As the drizzle turned to downpour, a tall, skinny boy approached me to show off the fish he was selling.
“It’s loro,” he told me. “Parrot?” I asked him. “No, it’s a fish. It just looks like a parrot. Can’t you see that it’s a fish?” He laughed.
The size of an American football, the fish’s skin was turquoise with pink and yellow lines running along its mouth and body.
“It’s a beautiful fish,” I said.
When he realized we weren’t going to buy his fish, the boy and the others with him left us alone. Instead they ran over to their friend in the tattered shorts and shouted at him. “Enrique, come play with us!”
He turned away from the group. From behind him, a larger boy put his palms on the sides of his head. “Enrique! Enrique!” he shouted in a sing-song voice, shaking Enrique’s head like a rattle. The others danced and kicked up sand. The rain slid off their bodies. The rain was so strong now we accepted it that way rather than trying to cover up.
“You’ve got to love these Dominican kids,” Max said. “They’re so happy.”
The tall boy with the dead loro stuck his tongue out at Enrique.
“Get up, Enrique, get up,” he shouted. “We’re going to see Doña Maria.”
Enrique raised his voice. “Porque no me dejas en paz,” he said. Why won’t you leave me be?
Eventually, Enrique rose, blinking away the water in his eyes. The boys ran off, and he followed them from a distance not turning back again to look at the ocean. The fisherman were off to the stores to sell their catch and it was just Max and I standing there.
“It’s gonna clear up in a few hours. We’ll head back out tonight,” Max said. “There’s this bar in Viejo Santo Domingo where you can dance with the bartenders. That’ll make for a good Instagram post.”
“It’s fine,” I said. We walked back to the car and as he pulled away I looked through the window at the rain drops resting on the glass and beyond them to the ocean where the waves rippled. The beach was now empty.