Head Over Heels

Chapter 1

Chase

“How is fishing like sex?”

Brooks lowers his boat’s trolling motor, and we cast and slowly skim the surface of the lake. Jack and I settle back, ready for the long haul, and consider Brooks’s joke.

“When you’re done playing with your tackle, it’s time to take your rod in hand,” Jack suggests.

Brooks chuckles. “Good one, but no.”

I squint at him. “It’s not the fancy equipment, it’s the motion of the boat.”

Brooks smirks appreciatively but shakes his head. “The answer is, ‘The less you get, the more you lie, and if you don’t get any, you’re just playing with your rod.’ Chase, you shoulda got that one. Since that’s pretty much your life on both counts these days.”

I shove Brooks, hard, off his seat, almost tipping the boat, and he lands on his ass laughing. Jack says, ticked but not really, “I’m not bailing if you two losers swamp us.”

“Chase is just pissed because he knows it’s true,” Brooks says.

As if on cue, my rod twitches and jumps in my hand—crap, poor choice of words.

It’s a small sockeye salmon, but big enough to keep.

“Read it and weep,” I tell Brooks as I dispatch it and prep it for the ice. “How’s the fancy equipment working for you now?”

Brooks has a bug up his butt about these expensive lures he wants to stock in the store. I really don’t like selling people stuff they don’t need, so I bet him fifty bucks I could catch three sockeye with a lure hand-tied with yarn scraps before he could catch one with his expensive toy. Aside from the money on the line, if he wins the bet, we stock the lure; if not, we don’t.

“Son of a beast,” Brooks mutters less than an hour later, as I pack my third salmon into the ice chest. He pulls two twenties and a ten from his wallet and hands them over, then inspects his lure grimly. “Useless piece of shit. Do you have any more of that yarn?”

I hand him some, and he cuts the overpriced lure and sets to work tying a new one from the scraps.

“Why is it,” Jack muses, reaching for his coffee cup, “that if I’d gotten up at five for work, I’d be pissed, but out here I feel like I’ve won the lottery?”

It’s an excellent question. Here we are, three guys, awake at the ass crack of dawn, mainlining coffee to stay conscious, yet we’re happy as pigs in mud. I’m not a sentimental guy, but even I can appreciate how pretty the lake is this morning, surrounded by jagged Cascade peaks, including Mount Baker, the granddaddy of them all.

Of course, I have some good reasons to be grateful to be here. Not the least of which is taking my mind off the problems I have to solve at home.

Brooks recasts.

“Brooks. American Angler called. They want you for the cover.”

Jack snorts. Brooks flips me off, but it’s true—with his beard and his sportsman’s vest, he’s dressed for the part.

“Hey, I just remembered another fishing and sex joke,” Jack offers. “How is fishing better than sex?”

“You can sleep while you’re doing it,” Brooks suggests.

“You can catch and release, so no commitment.”

Brooks hoots. “Nice one. But look who’s talking, Mr. Family Man.”

I just met Jack yesterday, but within a few minutes I could tell his four-year-old son, Gabe, was the center of his universe. Or one of two centers, anyway. There’s also Gabe’s mom, whose name is Maddie. Just mentioning her name makes Jack light up. I remember a time in my life when I could light up like that over a woman. Seems like a really long time ago.

“You ever take your son fishing?” I ask Jack.

“Not yet, but it’s on my list. Fishing, backpacking, snowboarding—I’ve got big plans for him. Brooks says you have a daughter?”

“Yeah. Katie. She’s five. And you’ve got one on the way?”

“Yeah,” Jack says. He gets a faraway look in his eye. “I wasn’t around as much as I should have been Gabe’s first few years, but I’m planning to make up for lost time with him and the baby, when she comes.”

“Can you believe this guy?” Brooks asks me. He’s known Jack a while—they used to work construction together. “Seriously, if you had asked me if he would ever have a girlfriend, let alone a fiancée and a kid and another on the way, I would have laughed in your face. And look at him now. All domesticated.

Coming from Brooks, that’s not a compliment. I don’t feel quite as scornful toward domestic bliss as Brooks does, but when I look at Jack, all I can feel is relief I’m not him because if you don’t fall in love, you can’t get your heart put through the meat grinder, either. I’ve got Katie, and that’s all I need.

Jack is unfazed. “You’re just jealous. Family life has the best bennies.” He smirks.

Okay, yeah, there’s a little envy mixed in with my relief. Brooks wasn’t kidding about my drought in the sex department. When Katie came to live with me, it temporarily put an end to all sextracurriculars. It’s been a while, and I’ll admit, I’m tired of mixing it up by switching hands.

“Katie’s mom died two months ago,” Brooks says.

I glare at him, because, way to drop a bomb in the middle of a fishing trip.

Jack starts in with the I’m so, so sorry…“Thanks,” I say. “But it’s—Katie’s mom and I weren’t together, so it’s more that—it’s Katie who’s grieving, you know?”

I don’t say how bad I’m hurting for her, because—well, I figure Jack probably knows. After Katie was born, I realized that I’d joined a new club of men: dads. All of us have at least one little person who depends on us not to fuck up. No secret handshake, but there probably should be. And I’m sure Jack can imagine himself in my shoes, whether he wants to or not.

“Katie moved in with me after her mom died, and she’s okay. I mean she’s sad, she has nightmares, whatever, but she’s really doing great, considering.”

It’s me who’s trying to figure out how to do it all and do right by Katie.

Jack nods. “Kids are resilient.”

Brooks yelps and for a while we’re all distracted by helping him land his catch, and then all the dirty work that follows. After that, we swap coffee for cold brews and fish for a while in silence, only the trolling motor running. It’s so fucking peaceful. If I could, I’d spend all my time this way, in the great outdoors—fishing, camping, kayaking, you name it. I vow I’m going to get Katie out in the woods as soon as possible, teach her to fall in love with nature, the way I did when I was even younger than she is.

Of course, before I plan any trips, I’d better sort out our day-to-day situation…

It’s getting later in the morning now and even though we drop deeper, we’re not getting any bites. We leave the lines in while we eat lunch, but still nada. We decide to call it. Brooks swaps motors and we head back.

On the lakeshore, after we load the boat back onto the trailer, we strike up a conversation with two guys who’ve also just come back in from a morning of angling. They have their sons with them, Boy Scouts chasing their fishing badge. The men are sheepish, the boys restless. They admire our catch enviously.

“We hooked one,” one boy says glumly, “but the line snapped.”

His dad winces, obviously disappointed that they couldn’t be superheroes to their boys.

“Let me see your tackle,” I say to the bummed-out dad. It’s older gear, and the drag has been set way too tight. I try to loosen the drag screw on the reel, but I can’t do much.

The kids are watching, so I explain. “The line broke because this screw was too tight and when the fish ran, the line didn’t unspool fast enough. What I’m doing is called setting the drag. But the thing is, this rod is kind of beat up, and there’s not too far I can go in either direction with the screw.” I address the owner of the rod. “You weren’t doing anything wrong—you just need a new spring and drag washers.”

He shoots me a look of relief and gratitude. “Thanks,” he says, and I know he doesn’t just mean for the fishing advice. He means for the face-saving, however small.

I feel ya, dude. Ever tried to braid a little girl’s long hair? Or, hell, even brush it?

Katie has burst into tears and yelled, “Mommy could do it!” in my face more than a few times since Thea’s death.

My turn to wince.

We part ways with the dads and sons and load our own stuff into the truck.

“So where’s your daughter this weekend?” Jack asks, as we drop backpacks and tackle boxes into the truck’s bed.

“With her grandmother.”

“She watch Katie when you’re in the store?”

The store is Mike’s Outdoor Store. Brooks and one other guy, Rodro, are my assistant managers. It’s a good gig, steady, low on the bullshit, reasonable hours. I’m lucky.

I’ve gotta sort out the child care thing so I can hold on to it.

“You okay, man?” Jack gives me a quizzical look.

“Yeah. Fine.”

Brooks rests his hand on my shoulder. “Maybe Jack knows someone who can watch Katie.”

I wasn’t going to get into it, but Brooks is right: maybe Jack does. “I had to fire my nanny Friday. She was helping herself to my liquor cabinet. Shoulda guessed. Katie kept saying she smelled bad and sometimes she’d be asleep in a chair with Katie watching a movie when I got home.”

“That sucks, man,” Jack says sympathetically. “What about Katie’s grandma—that your mom?”

I shake my head. “Mother-in-law.”

Jack nods sagely. “So maybe you don’t want her all up in your business.”

I lean against the truck, tired just thinking about it. “Honestly, I’m desperate enough I wouldn’t mind. But she’s got health issues. Lung stuff. She gets tired easy.” I exhale a sigh. “You ever tried to hire a nanny? Who knew it was so hard?”

Jack shakes his head. “Maddie has, but I’ve gotten lucky in that department. My mom and sister fall all over themselves to watch Gabe.”

“Yeah, well—my parents are in Texas and my brother is an ER doc in Cleveland. Not a lot of help there.”

“Can we call a halt on the Dad’s Survival Club meeting now?” Brooks asks, with a dark look. “Get these fish back to camp and on an open fire? Crack open a few more?”

I don’t mind. Before Katie was born, I was like Brooks. Mind on the present and the pleasant, and I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to two dads talk about nannies or diapers or any of that shit, no pun intended. Anyway, I’m kind of grateful to Brooks for changing the subject. The nanny problem can wait.

“Hell yeah,” Jack and I say simultaneously.

Believe me, if I started a Dad’s Survival Club, it would definitely involve a lot of kicking back with beers.

We swing ourselves up into Brooks’s truck and head back to the campground.