Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Short Story
4405 words
SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Casting Lures

by Walter Cummins

The three men in their late thirties—Herm, Pete, Roger—were neighbors in a new tree-bare subdivision minutes away from a town in the middle of the state where the land was flat and where a shallow river flowed through the center of the shopping district. What brought them together—the basis of their relationship—was fishing. That river was where they went, out beyond the stubby brick buildings of the stores, their boots sunk into a muddy bank down from a dam as they watched bobbers and hoped for bass.

Once or twice a month Roger would coax them to walk upstream and stand on the rocks on one side of the dam to go after the mass of buffalo fish leaping into the wall of water, fish so round and dense the men hooked a scale with nearly every cast. Herm was always reluctant, pretending to cast, but mainly letting his line bounce in the current. Roger and Pete cast again and again, occasionally snagging a dorsal fin, the fish writhing horizontal against the flow of the current, bending the rod in half, the man with the rod struggling at the creature’s unnatural leverage.

Pete would grunt and spit curses. Roger was the one who really enjoyed it, animated as he fought the panicked fish, his handsome face fixed in a wide grin, having the time of his life. Herm resented the way the man treated the fish, tossing each catch on the rocks, ignoring the creature as it writhed. This wasn’t sport. Like shooting fish in a barrel, Herm complained each time with those same words. Roger would shrug. Pete would point his rod like a rifle at the dam and make bang-bang sounds. But he always tossed back whatever he caught, first stroking the torn dorsal in a gesture of repair. Herm suspected that Pete—as much as he liked fishing—didn’t want to be casting there either.

Looking at the fish strewn next to Roger’s boots, Herm was reminded of the nubile young women Roger taught in his business courses at the community college, grouped in the corridor outside his office, pulling up chairs at his lunch table, brushing imaginary dust off his lapel, their fingers lingering on his sleeve. And he knew that was what really upset him about fishing at the dam. That and Roger’s wife, Kate, a woman he would never betray if she had been his.

Herm saw those clusters of female students every time he drove to the campus to deliver supplies from the hardware store he managed. Whenever he caught Roger with them in the cafeteria, Roger gave a distant wave, clearly not inviting him to sit down, as if an overweight man in a flannel shirt and jeans would send all those young women scattering.

Roger was always friendlier when Herm stopped to visit in his office, easily casual, as he always was when it was just the two of them. Roger’s office was so neat, papers stacked in one corner of the desk, a laptop computer open in the center, pens erect in a school mug. And Roger as neat as his office—shirt smoothly ironed, tie perfectly knotted, trousers creased, light hair precisely parted. A good-looking man. Everybody said it, including Herm’s wife, Lucy, repeating what she heard from her friends, matter of fact, as if it meant nothing to her, like commenting on someone’s new sofa.

On another corner of Roger’s desk an oval-framed photo of Kate sat alongside one of their two sons, Kate with short dark hair and black eyes that burned into Herm, even when looking out from a photograph. In person, when they were in the same room, he had to turn away, afraid he would pull her face next to his and lose himself in her eyes.

He couldn’t name his emotion, what he felt for her, didn’t think it was love. Objectively, Lucy was just as attractive, maybe even more so. But Kate was the one who invaded his fantasies, aroused his secret lusts. Whatever he felt was obsessive.

And Roger seemed indifferent to her, never touching when the couples socialized, more drawn to those young students, perhaps seducing them, one after another. Easy catches. That’s what Herm thought. Did Roger toss them aside after the thrill of hooking and reeling in?

One time in the office, Herm saw a photo when Roger pulled open his desk drawer as he answered a call, leaving it open as if he wanted Herm to see, to know, the young woman in the photo, blonde, with glossy lipstick, legs crossed in a mini skirt, full breasts in a pink tank top. Eyes coy, one finger touching her lower lip as if she were about to whisper a seduction.

Herm wasn’t going to let it go. He had pointed to the photo when Roger hung up. “Who’s that?”

“A student,” Roger had said, mouth poised in the edge of a smile. Herm sensed the man was taunting him, and at that moment suspected Roger knew his feelings for Kate.

“Are you sleeping with her?” Herm had blurted.

“Wouldn’t that be irresponsible?” Roger had shut the desk drawer. Then he looked at his watch. “I have a class.”

Although he had seen that photo of the young woman for less than a minute, Herm couldn’t forget it. He saw it in his mind whenever the families gathered for neighborhood cookouts, Kate momentarily alone, staring into space, while Roger amused groups of people with stories of student foolishness. Herm wanted to go to her and ask, Are you happy? But what could he have offered if she said she wasn’t? Then Kate and Lucy would be standing together at a grill, handing food to their children.


Pete was the one who suggested that the three men go off on a fishing trip to the northern counties where the streams were supposed to be full of trout. He first raised the trip as a joke after their third pitcher of beer the day Herm caught a seven-pound eight-ounce largemouth bass, the biggest game fish any one of them had ever pulled from the river, Herm running up and down the bank during the fifteen-minute fight, crashing into bushes, losing his cap, the others urging him on, shouting encouragement, so frenetic he cursed them to shut up, his agitation only making them bellow louder. When Herm sliced open the fish to clean it, they found two crayfish in its gut, one whole, the other half-digested, the three men squatting silently as they peered in fascination at the creature’s inner workings.

Later, more serious, Pete had urged the trip as the next logical step in their development. “What Herm did today in this damn river was like a deep-sea fisherman hauling in a record-setting marlin. He bagged our first sport fish. Gentlemen, it’s time we accept the challenge of the trout.”

Roger stood and shook Pete’s hand. “Just think of it. Rainbow trout hovering in pure, swift streams, treasures hidden in the shimmer of sun glints.”

“Right,” Pete said, “trout as thick as buffalo.”

Herm’s inclination had been to say no, that it wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t want to be with Roger for a long weekend. But Lucy told him he had to. She and Kate and Pete’s wife, Millie, had their own plans. “Girls’ night out,” she called it and wouldn’t tell him what they had in mind, with a look on her face that suggested keeping it a secret was more fun than the actual doing would be.

“Know what Pete said to Millie?” Lucy asked.

Herm shook his head.

“Don’t catch anything.” And she laughed so hard she had to sit down.

Herm smiled and wondered what it would be like just to spend the weekend with the women, if he could arrange to lag behind the others with Kate, walk side by side, breathing her scent, hoping she would lean close and whisper a secret.

Once he had been alone with her, an afternoon he replayed again and again in his memory. Aware that Roger was off teaching, Herm delivered a gallon of deck paint Roger had ordered at school hours, expecting the boys to be there, not at a friend’s.

When he realized it was just Kate, Herm’s instinct was to flee, place the can in the hallway and plead that he had to be somewhere. But, before he could speak, Kate invited him in with an offer of coffee or a glass of wine, his preference. “Just water,” he told her, his throat tight as he watched her move toward the kitchen in pink gym tights.

When she had handed him a glass that looked like crystal, his hand trembled so much he had to place it on the coffee table. Kate sat beside him on the sofa, her drink a matching glass with white wine that she clicked against his water.

“This is a nice surprise,” she had said, and Herm thought she really meant it.

“Yes, it is.” He knew she was looking at him with her brilliant black eyes, her face close enough to touch. He stared down at her hand closed on the stem of her wine glass, the fingers long, the nails tapered with a clear polish.

“I feel so lucky to be living here,” she said. “To have such good friends like you.” What seemed a pause. “And Lucy.”

“We’re all fond of each other.” It was an effort for Herm to say that.

Kate seemed to shift closer. He could feel her warmth, taste her scent. Was the move deliberate? Just an accident?

After a silence, he thought to say, “Roger’s students seem to like him.” He waited for her response to determine what he would say next.

“Everybody likes Roger.”

Afterward he heard those three words again and again, hoping to interpret her tone, what she was really telling him. But then, afraid he would reach out and seize her free hand, he stood abruptly and looked at his watch. “I’d better get back.”

Kate walked him to the door. “Thanks for coming.” He didn’t turn to see if she were smirking, if she thought he was a coward. Maybe she really did consider him a friend.


For the trip to the northern counties, Pete insisted that they use his 1965 VW Beetle, his hobby car, a duplicate of the first car he had owned in high school, this one salvaged from a junk yard. He called fixing the car his busman’s holiday because his profession was auto repair, his shop a block back from the town’s main street, always crowded with vehicles up on lifts. People considered him a good mechanic, his prices fair. A nice guy to do business with. A fun guy.

He tinkered with the VW most weekends or late in the day at his work garage, spending all those hours working on the motor, intending to restore the body but never getting beyond coating the rust spots with a grey filler that he still hadn’t sanded smooth. The original green paint had faded to a dull tint, and slashes of plastic headliner dangled from the roof. Millie wouldn’t let him park it in their driveway.

The three men crammed into the small car, oversized Pete and Herm in the front bucket seats, lanky Roger bent behind them on the bench seat, a nylon pack beside him, two more on the floor. Their tackle boxes were under the hood, their rods, tents, and sleeping bags strapped to the roof rack. Every time they hit a rut in the road, the Beetle bottomed out and their heads whacked the roof. “Ow!” Pete would yell, and then moan with mock pain. Herm echoed him, playing along. Roger just smiled as if he were thinking of a pleasure somewhere else.

Herm wore his gardening jeans and a sweatshirt. Pete’s fishing clothes looked salvaged from a ragbag, rumpled, rarely washed, mud-stained, torn from tangles with bushes, threadbare at the knees and elbows. From the first days on the river, Herm wasn’t surprised Roger’s outfits came from Orvis, pockets everywhere, a match for his tailored teaching attire. But two days before this trip Roger had stopped shaving, cheeks bristling with stubble that he rubbed with manicured fingers.


The Beetle’s air-cooled engine whined, and the vent system didn’t work, something to do with rusting in the heater junction boxes, Pete explained. He’d been meaning to search the scrap yards for replacements, but now pulled off the road onto the grass and crawled under the car, tugging at the thick wires that were supposed to lift the flaps blocking the airflow. It made little difference. When he and Herm rolled down their windows, the wind blasted the interior, Roger’s hair blowing wild. Herm waited for him to complain, but he didn’t.

Herm was designated as navigator, a map of the state spread across his lap. It lacked details for the northern counties, just a few of the numbered dirt roads, some others indicated by faint dotted lines, most ignored. Herm squinted. “I think we’re heading toward this stream.” He pointed at a thin blue squiggle.

“But what if we never get there,” Roger said, “spend the rest of our lives riding around lost in this goddamned junk heap?”

“Considering our ages and life expectancy,” Pete said, “that could be close to another fifty years.”

“We’d run out of gas first,” Herm said.

Pete corrected him. “Starve to death.”

“You and Herm would last for decades on all the blubber you’ve got stored,” Roger said.

Pete slapped the steering wheel. “If you expired first, it wouldn’t be worth cannibalizing you. You’d be barely hors d’oeuvres for guys with appetites like ours. We’d just shove your scrawny ass out the window.”

“You owe me a decent burial,” Roger protested.

“Why?” Herm asked. He had a quick image of Kate, a widow at the funeral, comforting her in an embrace.

Pete pretended to think. “You’re right. We’ll just dump the son-of-a-bitch.”

Up ahead, Herm saw a short wooden bridge just wide enough for one car. “Water!” Pete shouted. He pulled off onto the grass by the bridge, and the men climbed from the VW, stretching, jogging in place to limber up. Then they popped the hood for their gear and untied their rods from the roof rack.

The stream wasn’t what Herm expected—not crystal rapids rushing over sharp rocks, but thick with tall weeds on both banks, the muddy current slowly drifting. He stood looking down at the water, dark lenses flipped down over his glasses. “I don’t see any fish,” he told them.

“What do you see?”

“Stones, rusted cans, clumps of roots. Gunk.”

“They’re down there,” Pete insisted, “the sneaky bastards.”

They assembled rods, locked on reels, threaded nylon line through guides, humming, whistling. Roger tied on a fly from the red, yellow, and black collection he had bought for the occasion, though he had never fished with flies before and was using an ordinary spinning rod. Herm chose a red-feathered lure with a treble hook. Pete used a worm dug from the mud of a coffee can. Despite the afternoon sun, a windy chill made them button their jackets, blow on their hands. Herm saw Pete tangle his line in a bush and spend fifteen minutes trying to unsnarl it before he gave up and cut it loose. Roger, as hard as he snapped his wrist, couldn’t get the fly more than five feet away from his rod tip. Herm felt a hard tug, was about to cry out to the others, then realized he had hooked a rotted log. “We don’t know what we’re doing,” he said, not sure anyone had heard.

He was the first one to take out a sandwich, unwrapping an edge of the aluminum foil and biting at a corner of the bread, trying to guess what lunchmeat Lucy had packed for him. Pete sat on the grass and ate too, a large chunk of sausage in one hand, a roll in the other, alternating mouthfuls. He passed Herm a beer.

Roger joined them, leaning against a front fender. “This isn’t the paradise we’ve hoped for.”

Herm wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. He wondered what the women were doing, if Kate had said anything about him to Lucy, if she had admitted problems with Roger. “There probably hasn’t been a fish in these waters since the Ice Age,” he said.

“Since the Big Bang,” Pete said.

Roger pulled his rod apart. “Time to move on to a better place.”

They drove for another hour, up one dirt road, down another, tried a different stream, a creek with steep mossy banks, and still caught nothing. Later, at a small pond, Pete hooked a sunfish, a tiny thing half the size of his hand; but he put on a show of excitement, panting, digging in heels as he reeled it in, then insisted Herm take his picture, posed with the fish dangling over his open mouth, then slipped the hook free and tossed it back in.

“I’ve provided the day’s thrill,” Pete told them. “You guys owe me.”


They drove again past miles of empty fields and scrub pines, seeking a town or a general store, somewhere they could ask for advice. Eventually, they found a store—more a vegetable stand with a cooler and a shelf of canned goods. The owner and his wife ended up arguing about where they had once heard about a trout stream, going back and forth, but not even agreeing whether the first turn from their driveway was left or right.

Outside Pete picked up a forked twig that he claimed was a divining rod, bringing it into the car and poking it toward the windshield, shifting directions at each intersection, until Herm snatched the twig away and tossed it out the window. “That was an anti-divining rod. Leads away from any body of water larger than a bath tub.”

They realized it was evening, the sun glowing at the horizon, then sinking slowly. “We’d better find a place to camp,” Roger said. He spread the map on his lap and identified a campground symbol in the middle of the county. “Maybe there’ll be a sign.”

Instead they found a farmer creeping on a harvester, mowing grain at the side of the road, blocking their path. But he gave them directions, traced out a route on the map with a muddy finger.

By the time they reached the campground, after three wrong turns, dusk had fallen. A few trailers and pickups with sleeping cabs sat scattered on the grass around a cinderblock lavatory. They were the only ones with a tent, setting it up in a grey haze, snapping together sections of aluminum poles, fixing cords to thin wire stakes. Then they lit the Coleman stove, grilling hamburgers from a cooler, eating in silence, swigging lukewarm beer, listening to the chug of generators from the trailers, tinny music from radios, canned laughter from portable TVs. It was cold, Herm with a jacket over his sweatshirt, Pete with an unzipped sleeping bag thrown over his shoulders. Roger just wore the fishing shirt he had on all day, leaning against a tree, eyes closed. Herm felt himself seething at the man’s ease, groping for an insult but only swallowing phlegm.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Pete said, and Roger laughed without opening his eyes.

In the tent, lying in darkness, they passed around a flask of brandy and spoke of buffalo by the hundreds and Herm’s largemouth, still marveling over the crayfish.

“Somewhere in creation there are fish to be caught,” Pete said.

“Tomorrow is another day,” Roger told them.

In the silent darkness Herm imagined he was alone with Kate, her warmth against him in the sleeping bag. Even though he knew the others couldn’t see, he turned toward the tent wall to hide his erection, hearing the soft flutings of Kate’s husband’s snores.


In the morning, voices woke them, a shrill woman shouting to someone called Leon, telling him to fill a container of water for the powdered milk. Pete got up first, sliding out of his sleeping bag and poking his head through the flap. “It’s dewy out,” he reported. “And cold.” Herm shivered as he rushed to put on his clothes. Everything he owned was damp, clammy against his flesh. Roger was humming to himself, a tune Herm didn’t recognize. He wouldn’t look at the man, suddenly furious with him, knowing he was angry because Roger had Kate and flaunted a picture of a sexy student.

Herm waited for Roger and Pete to come back before he went into the men’s lavatory to relieve himself, brush teeth, and splash water on his face. As he stared into his mirrored reflection, he saw how bleak and bloated he looked, wondering why any woman would want anything to do with him. Even Lucy, certainly not Kate. He wanted to be somewhere else, someone else.

An elderly man with thickly waved white hair stood at the sink beside him, shaving slowly, going over his wrinkled neck several times. “I saw your car,” he finally said. “What do you do? Just drive around and look for work?”

Herm shook his head as tears welled. He’d never felt so desolate in his life.

The man gathered up his kit and walked away, a dab of lather clinging to his earlobe.


Roger had cooked breakfast on the Coleman stove, sausage and eggs. Pete had brewed coffee. Herm just bit into a muffin and spit out a stale wad.

When Pete went to a nearby trailer to see if he could get information, a man with a plump wife and a pickup full of kids told them about a stream a half hour away. He’d never fished there, but a friend claimed to have had some luck two or three years ago. Herm noticed the wife staring at Roger, as if oblivious to the husband beside her and of the kids wrestling in the truck bed. Herm had to admit, the shadow of a beard flattered the man’s features. But he couldn’t remember ever seeing Kate look at Roger the way that woman did.

They struck camp, unable to roll the tent as neatly as it had been when they started off or fit all the gear back under the VW’s hood. Pete stuffed the tent onto the back seat next to Roger. Herm had to ride with the Coleman stove on his lap.

The stream, when they got there, looked ideal. That’s what Roger said. Thick leafy trees formed a canopy on both banks. White water rushed between glistening rocks, widened into a deep pool, plunged over a three-foot drop, and accelerated around a bend. “Trout city,” Pete shouted. But Roger silenced him with harsh shhhhs. “Don’t spook the fish.”

But after an hour they didn’t have a hint of a strike, their lines limp on the pool’s surface. “Did you guys stop to think,” Pete said, “that nobody else is fishing here? Not fishing anywhere? Maybe they all know something.”

Roger protested. “This is big empty county. The fish are a well-kept secret.”

“Right,” Pete said. “They don’t even know they’re here.”

Herm, his thirst hitting him, sat on the damp grass and popped open a beer from the cooler. “Good idea,” Pete said and joined him. The two of them watched Roger cast again and again, lean and athletic.

“How do you stay so fit?” Pete asked him. “Must be Kate’s cooking?”

Roger laughed, not looking back at them, still casting. “Kate’s specialty is takeout.”

If Herm had been standing next to him, he would have shoved Roger into the stream. Instead he shouted, “What about your friend in the drawer? What’s her specialty?”

This time Roger’s laughter was a loud burst. “Certainly not food.”

Pete gave Herm a puzzled look. “Who? What drawer?”

“Private joke. Not for your ears.” Herm stood, grabbed his rod, clipped on the feathered lure, and moved to the bank not far from Roger, swinging the rod back over his head, casting angrily, as if the rod were a weapon.

“Hey!” Pete shouted. “Something jumped.” He pointed at the water.

Herm rushed to cast again, jerking the rod tip high and whipping his line out behind him. When it went taut, he thought he had snagged a branch. But Pete’s cry made him whirl. It was Roger that he had snagged, the treble hook raking his cheek, one point buried in the flesh just above his lip, the feathered lure dangling like a growth. A thin line of blood crept down the side of his face.

“Oh shit!” Herm dropped the rod.

Pete made Roger sit, then cut the line six inches from the base of the hook. He brought his eye close to Roger’s cheek to study the wound. “I’ll have to work the barb free,” he said. “It’s going to hurt.”

Herm sat too, his legs weak, his anger gone.

“Roger, I’m really sorry,” he said. “How much pain?”

“Stings. Like a mosquito bite.” He was clenching his teeth.

“Let’s get him to a doctor,” Herm said.

“Do you want to do that?” Pete asked.

Roger shook his head. “Just get the sucker out.”

Pete held out his fishing tool, a steel device with a knife, scaler, and narrow-tipped pliers. He lit a wooden match and sterilized the ends, then clamped onto the hook and worked gently, trying to pull it out a fraction of an inch at a time. “Feel that?” he asked Roger.

“A little bit.”

“Yell if you want me to stop.”

But the hook came free with a bubble of blood at the tip, and the line of red flowed more freely, covering Roger’s cheek, dripping down his chin. Pete pressed hard with a cotton ball soaked with alcohol, smearing a red stain.

Herm watched silently, certain what he had done had been deliberate.

“You’ve disfigured him, Herm,” Pete said. “From now on women will turn away in disgust.”

“Nonsense,” Roger said. “It will distinguish me. Like a dueling scar.”

Pete laughed, but it was forced.

Herm tried to imagine Kate’s face when she saw the scar, when she learned that he had caused it. He imagined her thanking him. Silently. Her eyes locking onto his.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury