Jeff Burt has published in Gold Man Review, Bird's Thumbs, Per Contra, Lowestoft Chronicle, and won the 2016 Consequence Magazine fiction prize. He works in mental health.
Fine-tuning the Anthropic Principle
Fibs and fables are the foundation of the Mississippi side of Illinois, and if the politics of Chicago are to be trusted, obfuscations and subterfuges uphold the east side of the state, too. The whole state is a brick of lies. Lies about the blues being regional and peculiar to the Quad Cities. Lies about the Guernsey cows being more intelligent than the Holsteins, since I’ve never heard of a Holstein drowning in a ditch while sunbathing on a hot summer day, but I have winched up a Guernsey. Lies about the lead mines, some intimating the mines had been maintained in secret by the U.S. government to protect important ores from radiation, like alchemists saying they could make gold from lead. Lies about the women, saying they were wholesome, patriotic, religious, when I didn’t meet one woman who hadn’t slept with someone else already, didn’t despise the Republican and Democratic parties, and couldn’t tell you the difference between faith and religion. Except Dian Stroud, who not only knew about religious intolerance but had practiced it by burning down a small chapel on a forlorn hillside stuck in the middle of a farmer’s field, abandoned by the road and the Congregational denomination a century and a half ago. Dian had wavy hair, the kind that looks like it might unravel into straightness but can’t quite relax all the way. That was fitting for her personality, too, because just when I’d think I had her into total and recumbent peace, she’d wiggle free, kip to her feet, and wonder what we were doing next. That said right away we weren’t doing what I wanted to be doing, not next, not ever. Illusion. Lies about catfish, too. The stories came out of the mouths of farmers at the gristmill while I was bagging feed and fighting off chaff that stuck to my skin tighter than sweat. Everyone had a big cat tale, full of whiskers and sinister looks and a bent hook and a towed boat, sometimes a missing appendage on a coon or deer, making out as if they were some kind of Mississippi crocodile, trading swamps and straits for locks and sloughs. One farmer swore that a cat had the same type of eyeball as an alligator, but I’d dissected a cat eye and can tell you it’s closer to any old fish than an alligator, that third clear lens that slides over keeping them from looking like an aquatic goat more than a catfish. Farmers seem to forget the purpose of eyelids is to keep the eyeball wet, to keep it clear of chaff, which is why I’m blinking all the time on the job. I’m the one that seems more like an alligator. A cat keeps its eyes open twenty-four seven, kind of like Dian does with me, making sure I don’t make a move she can’t defend. One day Zeke Buller told me he had an eight-foot catfish lying in the bottom of his pond where his cows drank. It had taken to scaring the cows and now he had to find a different source of water out in his pasture. I told him he just needed to catch it, but he said he had attempted that. “I’ll dive for it. Not like it’s gonna eat me,” I laughed. “Big enough to,” he said, matter of fact like. “You’re kind of wiry though. All gristle and bone. Probably spit you right back.” “Now you’re talking,” I smiled. “One hundred bucks.” Zeke tipped his cap. “Deal. Come out any time you like and I’ll show the mucky bottom where that daddy cat lives.” I got home at five, and with the evening lit up until close to eight-thirty, I figured I could get in about three hours of deep pond fishing. I was a little confused as to what to wear. I had shorts, but I didn’t want a catfish biting right through the bare skin. I didn’t want heavy pants, and I was too inland to hook up a wetsuit on short notice. I did have a pair of skintight black silk long-johns that I had used for cross-country skiing once, and decided those were my best option. I hoped that Zeke’s wife wouldn’t be near. I had gone to high school with her, all four years, had asked her out a couple of times, unsuccessfully. No man wants to be seen in underwear by a girl who rejected him in high school. I vaguely remember driving, dust swirling behind in the rear view mirror on the county trunk shortcut, the gravel spitting against the wheel wells. But I don’t recall leaving town. I don’t recall turning off the highway onto the County Truck G and then to the paved County Truck H. I wondered if I had smoked a joint or something, but knew I had not. I couldn’t afford a joint. I was buzzed nonetheless. I stood on the tractor behind Zeke. He didn’t speak a word the whole trip to the pond. He asked if I needed any help in the water and I confidently told him no, not that I had thought about it. It seemed like the best mood to give off to Zeke, like the perfume a woman gives when she passes by that intrigues but also tells you to back off because you can’t afford it. The water was warmer than Lake Galena, warmer than a bath almost. It was green, gunky, mucky, algae growth from the cow shit runoff enough to wrap around your legs and pull you under. I had trouble imagining any kind of fish could live in that water. I kept my tee shirt on and the black underpants, slipped on a pair of rubber mocs, and waded in. The pond was about thirty yards wide and forty to fifty yards long, but Zeke warned me it went deep. About four feet in, the pond’s ridge dropped off and I was in over my head. I took a breath and tipped upside down, feeling through the muck for the surface of the bottom. It was rocky, which pleased me. The cat would be easier to catch. I went back and forth, side to side, and found in the middle of the pond an old fence, complete with barbed wire. I found it with a hand ripped by a barb, and I wondered if catfish like sharks went to blood in the water, but I decided the water was so dark with muck no fish would see blood anyway, and the muck stunk, so that would also cover the smell of blood. I tired quickly. I could hold my breath about thirty seconds, and the constant going up and down gave me the gasps. Just when I thought I should give up, just when I had grabbed the wire one more time, the bottom fell out of the pond. The water was much cooler, and the barbed wire took me down well over ten feet under, if you can go over the under. That’s when I felt slime in motion against my leg, whiskers against the bare ankle. It rubbed against my leg for several seconds, but I might be exaggerating how long because of how eerie it felt. I tried to estimate how long the catfish was by guessing the speed it swam and how many seconds it took to pass, but I couldn’t remember the formula. Even if I could have, I had become too light-headed to figure it out, and maybe I didn’t know the formula in the first place, math not being my best subject in school. I had a similar problem with Dian. When she’d rub my knee, it seemed like I lost about three minutes of time. I could swear to you she rubbed my leg repeatedly, though she only squeezed my knee and rubbed it once. I could swear to you that her hand had been on my knee long enough for me to enter another dimension of time, live another life, and return. Illusion. All illusion. I came up and attempted to triangulate the spot, but I wasn’t good in geometry either. I took off my tee shirt and went back down to tie it on the wire, and this time, with my head inverted and my hands busy, I felt the cat slide over my left leg, and then two seconds later between my legs, splitting them, forcing them to a wide angle. It had girth, as my father used to say, knew it had a sloughing jaw. I whooped when I had gulped enough air. I smiled. The herds of cows had come and were staring with big mooneyes at me, crapping, chewing, and mooing. Hell, I felt like mooing, too. Then I got out, toweled off, and went home. When I got near my place, I was haggard looking, my hair still wet and my legs ferociously dirty, like I’d been chasing pigs in a pen. Dian poked her head out of a window and asked me to come over and share lemonade, but I just pointed to my body and shook my head no. She laughed, and before I could put in the key, she was standing next to me. “You look like you’ve been in the runoff from a field of cows.” “That’d be accurate,” I puffed. “Been chasing a mighty big catfish in a deep pond up on Buller’s farm.” “Buller’s? You mean Zeke Buller. He’s a smiler. Doesn’t like to talk much, though. His wife complains.” “He’s a farmer. Most farmer’s learn how not to talk. A good thing to know.” “Yeah, suppose that’s right. Most of us have to unlearn speaking out loud all of the time. We all think our thoughts are so important.” “I need to change.” “Aw, baby. You just strip and shower and I’ll get out the hose and rinse off these…what are these, anyway? Looks like silk underpants. I wear them in the winter.” “They’re a special kind of underwater leg warmer, that’s all.” “Why’ve they’ve got a hole for you to pee out then?” “Cuz when you got to go underwater, you got to go.” “But can’t you just pea in the water straight away, like in a wetsuit?” “I don’t know,” I said angrily. “I bought ‘em and used them like they said. Pee could be bad for the fabric.” “I wouldn’t be putting my worm out underwater,” she laughed. “Specially around no catfish.” I went into the bathroom, stripped, and showered, and heard Dian open the door and leave, then two minutes later a sudden drop of water pressure and the lack of cold water. Dian fussed over me. Got me lemonade. Made me a turkey burger with a slice of tomato and some red onion. She rubbed my neck, and I could tell she was horny, between boyfriends, but my muscles had all smoothed out from the swimming and diving, and for sex, you need a little tension. I knew she liked cuddling, so I turned on the television to a Drew Barrymore movie, and put my arms around her, but the next thing I remember she was kissing me on the forehead and shutting off the television and the lights and closing the drapes. I heard the door click, and I was grateful to have the couch alone.
The next day I came to the pond prepared. I had borrowed some chain link fence that belonged to my uncle, enough to make a square eight foot by eight foot. I had two inflatable rafts to tow the pieces out to the area above the cold canyon where the catfish lived. I was going to plant the chain link around the upwelling of cold water, forcing the catfish either into the caged area, or out of it. I knew I could probably plant the fence in the muck, and I knew I could square it up with the clamps. The first two sides went in the muck easily and I clamped them together, but they kept falling over. I had to keep my foot on one to get the third one off the raft, and in taking the third one from the raft the fourth piece fell off and sunk, and on the way down pierced the raft and the raft half-deflated like a balloon whizzing around helter-skelter over the water. I persevered. I got the third piece in the muck and clamped it to the second one, and this time it stood. I had to dive to find the fourth piece, and then had to bring it up into a position to place it. It took all of my breath, so I scrambled aboard one raft, then paddled to the other and hung my legs over it. I thought I would stop for the day when a sudden commotion in the center of the chain link drew my attention. The water boiled. The catfish rippled the water like a breaching submarine, straight for the raft with my legs on it. I lay transfixed. The ripples were so large I knew the catfish, yet to be seen was huge, ugly, and too big for me to grapple. It did not hit the raft. Like a great white shark, it submerged, went to deeper, darker waters, and I could trace where it went by the massive roiling of the water. I didn’t need a fence. I needed to get it toward the shore. I retrieved a rope and pulled the chain link back to shore, and then made a little chute out of three sides near the shore, and let the fourth stand near the opening. I would bait the catfish to the chute, and then like a cowboy does with a wild horse, close the chute behind him.
On the third evening, I came with a present, a batch of crappies in a steel cage that would make a terrible racket and draw the cat naturally. Clouds and a little lightning appeared to the north, and the sky to the west was a beautiful orange as the sun started to set. The catfish hit quickly. The cage came up out of the water. The catfish was roiling mud like a storm drain. I ran into the water and slid the fourth side of the fence over. I had my prize. I ran up the hill, down the hill, and about another half-a-mile to Zeke’s. He took his ATV out, and his wife followed in the tractor. I was ecstatic except for the black underwear, but was too excited to be embarrassed. Some Holsteins had beaten us to the pond, an audience. Zeke dropped his boots and rolled up his pants. I stood like a cow, dazed at my success, as if I was ready for milking. Zeke waded to the back and then stepped inside. He kicked around a few times, then plunged both of his arms deeply in the water, and drew out a three-foot wide snapping turtle dragging six feet of nylon netting trapped over its shell and wrapped around it’s left back foot. “Son of a bitch,” Zeke said, laughing. “Son of a bitch,” I said, depressed. “Well, it’s not worth a hundred dollars. Can see why it scares the cows. What a hideous thing. I’ll pay you half, but you have to take this fencing out of here. You can keep the turtle.” I nodded, speechless. I drove my uncle’s truck near the pond, and as the sun set and clouds turned from orange to red and gray, and as the lightning to the north moved to the east, I loaded up the fencing and carefully unraveled the netting from the turtle and placed him in the bed of the truck. I thought I’d take him to the Mississippi the next day. After I had closed the tailgate and stood at the door, I looked back at the pond. It looked so still, like a gleaming black floor I could walk on, and in a flash of lightning, looked like flint or obsidian that the Native Americans used for arrowheads. Dian would be waiting for me back at my apartment. She’d be wondering how the catfish hunting had gone. I knew the turtle story would be public after the next visit Zeke made at the gristmill, so the snapping turtle had to grow, maybe double in size, maybe have a bite that could break the leg of a cow. Illusion. This time I would have to create it. I was bone tired. I needed to tell Dian that I didn’t want to be a rebound fling, that I honored her too much just to fulfill myself and prey upon her in her time of need. That would be wrong. That I loved her too much, like a sister. I would appear pure, idealistic. Fake. An illusion. It might work. #