by Keegan Lawler



Dad and I walked to the edge of the community dock, fishing poles in hand. We took our usual position, me at the edge of the diving board, Dad behind me, his line dangling off the side. My legs were long enough that I had to keep my toes pointed up to keep the rubber soles out of the water, ripples echoing through the water whenever I stopped paying attention long enough for them to break the surface.

I waited for Dad to get his pole set up first. In my lap, I held the Styrofoam cup we got from the gas station a few miles down the highway, a cartoon worm’s grin on the sticker pressed into the cracked lid. Inside, a dozen or so flesh-and-blood worms made their way through wet clumps of dark earth unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside of these cups.

I still used the first pole I was given. Dad had bought it when we were still in southern Idaho, with Tasmanian Devil and Tweety Bird stickers all over the casting button. When Dad finished setting up his pole, he handed me mine. I opened the mud cup and pulled a wiggling worm out.

He watched, out of the corner of his eye, as I brought the worm to the hook. I pressed its pink body through the sharp edge, then glided it down along the hook. Dark guts spilled out of its pierced sides as I pulled the rest of the worm’s body around, then forced it once again through the sharp metal edge of the hook. When he saw the worm, curved like an S so it wouldn’t fall off, Dad nodded.

The worm danced at the bottom of the line, hovering above the water, as Dad attached a metal weight just above it. He wrapped the line tight around his hand to tie the weight on, blood pooling below the skin on either side of the line.

“Tonight, we’re fishing for catfish,” he said.

Catfish are bottom-dwellers that sift through mud and muck with stinging barbs. I understood then what the weight was for.

I brought the line over the water and pressed the casting button. The worm and the weight made a “plop” sound as they broke through the surface, plummeting down the fifteen or so feet to the bottom. Dad dropped his off the side and sat just behind me, on the back of the diving board. When my line began to pile up on the surface, I reeled in a few clicks until the line was tight, and imagined the bleeding worm hanging just a few inches over the lake floor.


Dad’s first love in life was fishing. Before my mother, before the sports he dedicated every fall and spring to, before fatherhood, he was a twelve-year-old boy casting for hours in any body of water that held life.

Whether it was the streams and creeks crisscrossing through the Treasure Valley, pulling real and fake worms across the murky waters, or in Oregon, wading in rubber waders through marsh and cattails in sloughs along the coast, Dad took his fishing pole with him everywhere. In his hands, a fishing pole was a conduit to the natural world that his heart depended on for hope, his intoxicating ability to dream, imagine, and reimagine his past, present, or future into anything he wanted it to be.

Dad talked about his dreams when he fished. He often told me how, someday, he would fish for king salmon in Alaska. Like how, someday, he would finally fix up the 1966 Ford Bronco that slept for months at a time in the empty lot next to our house. Or how he would completely remodel the house, from the appliances to the door handles to the trash cans, and how, someday, people would be jealous.

He had been taking me fishing since I was four, when the only thing I ever did was wait for bites, then tell him so he could reel them in for me. Back when we used to catch tiny rainbow trout in the regularly stocked ponds along the greenbelt. When we’d get home, we would lay them out on the driveway and measure them with a tape measure, Mom always making us pose with them for a picture, like we were in the black-and-white photos in the corners of old bars.

But in North Idaho, less than a hundred miles from the Canadian border, where evergreens climbed mountains so close they felt as if you could reach out and touch them, I could barely keep myself focused on the pole in front of me.

As Dad talked about the fish he had caught, the fish he wanted to catch, and the ones that got away, my mind wandered. I nodded along and kept quiet, having learned young how to keep people talking about themselves and how, if I did it enough, I could go unnoticed and avoid the suspicions that swirled around me.


Teenagers climbed up the edges of the rocky hills across the lake, their shouts echoing back to us. They crawled toward a cliff edge, looked over at the water below, and dared each other to go first. A boat waited for them at the bottom as they pushed and jeered at each other. Eventually, one by one, they jumped, their feet breaking open the hard water below, and came up laughing wildly.

Dad and I sat quietly and watched them over our poles. They say fish can hear you. I didn’t believe that, even then, but I kept quiet, just in case. The tips of our poles were steady, stoic, as we sat with empty faces, watching time slip out in front of us.

“It’s alright,” Dad said finally. “I’m sure we’ll get bites eventually.”

I nodded.

“It’s just probably not late enough,” he added.

I looked out toward Mt. Spokane, towering off in the distance. In the winter, spotlights wrapped the mountains in light that led skiers safely down its slopes. But this time of year, its presence was just a warning of the coming night, when the sun would rest and the temperatures would drop off significantly.

I reeled up my line to check that a sneaky fish hadn’t stolen the worm without me noticing.

“Got a bite?”

I shook my head. Dad sighed, then shrugged his shoulders.

The worm was still there, unmoving. I pushed the casting button again and watched it float down out of sight.

“Any minute now.”


Whenever Dad asked if I wanted to fish with him, I said yes, because I knew he wanted me to come. Because I knew that little boys were supposed to take after their fathers. Follow them around, love the things they loved, and hate the things they hated. Because I knew little boys who didn’t were whispered about and watched like they’d done something wrong.

I had learned that the best way for someone to love you, or to show you loved them, was to tell them what they wanted to hear. It didn’t matter how you felt, how your heart longed and desired. The truth, the whole brutish weight of it, was cumbersome, difficult, and distressing.

It was like when adults asked my favorite sport, and I would say basketball, though I got yelled at most games by the coach. I wasn’t aggressive enough, and my incoordination affected everything from dribbling to layups, but it was the sport I was best at because I was tall for my age, and planted myself firmly in the key with my hands straight up. It was just easier to lie.

Even when I had to do things I didn’t like and pretend I did, it always felt good to be wanted.


The last waves from the jumping teenagers across the lake hit the shore behind Dad and me, then ricocheted back out from under our feet. The waves shrunk to nothing, the movements of water slowly falling back into itself, somewhere in the middle of the lake.

When it was still like that, Dad always said it was like glass. It only happened during the late evenings, or in the offseasons, when it was too cool to swim or boat. The water lay totally flat, a kind of peace, while all sorts of things people didn’t like to think about swam just under the surface.

The orange-red sky broke out over Mt. Spokane in the distance. The lake’s surface took everything that was well-known to me—docks, boats, fixtures of the land I knew well—and skewed it in the low, directional light, until it might as well have been something new altogether.

It was beautiful, though I didn’t say so out loud.

“Keegan!” Dad yelled.

I looked back at him.

“You have a bite!”

I whipped my attention back to the pole and started to reel it in, listening to the clicking sound of the plastic as I did. Dad reminded me to reel slow and steady. I did as he said, reeling only a click at a time.

The weight didn’t feel right for a fish, much less the catfish that hovered in the lakebed, but I suspended my disbelief for a moment. Hoping that if I pretended hard enough, bad news would not come.

When the hook broke the glass-like surface, bringing only a slimy piece of lakeweed with it, I sighed. I had been prepared for the catfish to come up fighting, to have to grab it from behind its head to not be stung by its barbs. I had been prepared to show off the skills a boy like me should have.

Next to me, Dad sighed too. It had been half an hour and neither of us had gotten a bite.

“Some nights,” he said, “they just aren’t biting.”

I nodded. Dad looked at me, trying to catch my eyes. I kept my eyes down, knowing if he saw my face, it would betray my true feelings. Eventually, he gave up, letting his eyes drift out to the boats in the still water. We sat together, emptiness swirling and braiding between us, loving each other in the only way either of us knew.

“We can go if you want,” Dad finally said.

I paused for a moment, letting his words hang in the air between us. I knew if I answered too quickly, it would lay bare something I wasn’t ready to show, so I held the moment for as long as I could.

“Okay,” I finally said.

I reeled the line up, trying not to move too quickly or seem too excited. I threw the weed and worm back to the lake, then looped the hook into one of the pole’s eyelets, cinching the line tight to secure it.

Dad took his time packing up, looking out to the water he loved, the hour of dusk shooting out in the dying rays of the sun.

“You know,” he said as he finished packing, “you don’t have to come fishing anymore.”

In the water beneath us, I looked at our reflections, the passing moment that, once gone, could not be reexperienced or redone. I knew little about my father, less still about myself, but I knew enough to know what I was supposed to say, and how desperately I didn’t want to say it.


Dad nodded and leaned down to grab his tackle box. We walked together in silence back to the shore, the dock swaying gently under us.

“It’s ok,” he said as we headed toward the concrete stairs that climbed up to the house, “I’ll take your sister.”

Over his shoulder, I caught the last of the ripples from the reeled line, the worm, and the lakeweed. The water, again, became like glass.



Keegan Lawler is a writer currently living in Washington State with his family. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming from The Offing, Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Permafrost Magazine, and Tahoma Literary Review, among others. His chapbook, My Own Private Idaho, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks.

Back to Vol. VIII: “Lines”