“It’s coming, boys,” said the grizzled man in the back of the red canoe as he floated straight through the rapid Alex and I were fishing.
“What’s coming?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, almost laughing. “It’s coming for sure.”
Then he was past us, a diminishing figure drifting his way downstream. And then he was gone.
Thunderheads rolled in off the tops of the Ozark Mountains. The rain came soon thereafter. All in all, I think we caught about ten fish. I caught two, while my good buddy Alex Taylor, a writer from Kentucky, reeled in at least eight smallmouth bass. He even landed one decent-sized sixteen-incher with red eyes and brown scales, slick and strong like liquid muscle. Alex rubbed the lunker’s belly then let him go. We didn’t even get a picture. This was our third straight year venturing up to Yellville, Arkansas, to scour the magical waters of Crooked Creek for photogenic brownies. We thought there were better fish to come, but there weren’t. What followed instead was nearly forty-eight straight hours of rain.
“It’s coming, boys,” the man in the red canoe had said. And he was right.
Five years previous, at the ripe age of twenty-six, I was named the head coach of the Clarksville Panthers football program. I say “program,” because that’s exactly what it was—a program—complete with year-round community-service activities, youth summer camps, and strength and conditioning regimens, not to mention a season’s worth of practices and games.
There was no grizzled man in a canoe to warn me of what was coming. No thunderheads, or wind whipping in off the top of distant mountains. It was just me and my wife, Mallory, venturing into our first year of marriage, our first season as head coach and first lady of Pantherland.
In Arkansas, football is a lot like fishing; it’s important. So much so that I felt like the sheriff or the mayor, a spectacle responsible for the town’s well-being, walking around the downtown square the summer before that first season, deep in the stir of the Johnson County Peach Festival—frog races and beauty pageants—booths set up everywhere like at the state fair, the locals’ steely eyes sizing me up, taking in their new, baby-faced ball coach with stares that carried the same message as the man in the red canoe.
Alex and I were in Blacksheep BBQ when a bolt of lightning struck so close by the walls rattled and the lights went out. The lights came back on as I squeezed a bottle of “Spicy” barbeque sauce hard enough that the cap shot off, covering my brisket and fried okra in sticky red globs.
“See you like it hot,” said a kind-faced woman, the owner of the joint, as she sauntered up beside our table. “How’s it taste?”
Alex told her it was good. I didn’t. I couldn’t taste anything except the hot sauce.
Before she walked away, she added, “You boys be sure to like us on Facebook,” and then she was gone.
Neither Alex nor I “liked” Blacksheep BBQ on Facebook, but the brisket was good enough. It was still raining when we left, raining still by the time we made it to the Carlton Marion Inn, another fine Yellville establishment with a Facebook page.
Over the last three years, Alex and I have spent a total of eight summer nights in the Carlton Marion Inn. It’s a tidy motel with a gravel parking lot and a pool overlooking Crooked Creek Valley. This year, though, there’d be no fun to be had in the pool. Not even any fishing. We didn’t know that yet, but maybe we could feel it. Maybe we were afraid of what was coming, what was already there and would not stop.
We turned out the lights and went to bed talking about writing, two boys on a sleepover whispering their dreams aloud.
Two weeks into that first football season, I realized the truth about my Panthers—we’d be lucky to win a game.
Going into week three, with the undefeated Dardanelle Sand Lizards awaiting us on Friday, I cried in my new wife’s arms. Everything was new: the football season, our marriage, even our house. We were standing in the kitchen when she held me and I cried because I knew how badly we were outmatched. It seems silly now—such a small thing—but in that moment the title of “Head Coach” felt ginormous. Like our kitchen with the ample cabinet space Mal had liked so much, like the three-bedroom house, the master bath with the two vanities, the Jacuzzi tub—all of it much too large for our tiny family of two.
I wiped my eyes and headed off to practice, the dark splotches on Mal’s Panther football shirt all that remained of my worries from before.
We lost to the Sand Lizards that Friday. We lost every Friday that followed, and then, finally, our first season was over. The storm had passed, or so we thought.
It was still raining when Alex and I woke up on Sunday morning. We drove over to Subway hoping to find Ms. Vicky, a snarling sandwich artist who’d given us hell on our previous trips to Yellville. She’d once lectured us on the “Integrity of the Lettuce.” Alex and I ate it up; we loved Ms. Vicky’s jagged edges. With the storm still swirling outside, casting dark clouds over any chance we had at good fishing, we went out looking for action, looking to get cut.
But Ms. Vicky wasn’t there.
Instead, a gentle old woman named Darla made our sandwiches just like we asked her to, no condemnation offered, not even when we prodded her to microwave our lettuce. We ate without talking, the same two sleepover boys bleary-eyed and confused in the morning. Eventually, I asked Alex if he wanted to go to Branson, Missouri, “The Las Vegas of the Ozarks.” He said, “Sure.” He’d never been before. It seemed like a good way to kill the day.
On the hour-long drive up to Branson, Alex and I talked like we had the night before. We talked more on this drive than the two previous trips combined. We went to school in each other.
Alex is smaller than I am, probably five-seven or eight, with blond hair cropped down close to his scalp and a wooly beard. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t wear flip-flops, the sort of man I’ve only ever seen wear one hat (a tattered Ole Miss Rebels cap with a plastic, adjustable strap). He’s the best writer I know, a patient, quiet observer of the world, a man who only speaks when he has to, but doesn’t miss a thing. For some reason, Alex has always been intrigued by my football career.
On that drive up to Branson, Alex asked me a slew of questions about my playing days. I answered what I could, but I didn’t tell him a single story about the two years I’d endured in Clarksville as a head coach. Instead, I talked of game-winning, two-minute drives from my glory days and fights in the locker room. How I busted my head open on a urinal, and Bob, a tight end from California, superglued it back together.
About thirty minutes outside of Branson, we were coming through Harrison, Arkansas. There was a billboard on the side of the road promoting an alt-right, white-pride radio station. A few miles later, there was another billboard that read: DIVERSITY IS A CODE WORD FOR SALVATION. After that, I was tired of talking ball. Alex must have sensed this shift, or maybe something about those signs stirred up a yarn from the depths of his soul. In his measured, quiet tone, Alex told me about a woman who lived in a trailer behind the house where he’d grown up. He said she had a beard and she liked to braid it. He said he told his younger nephews and nieces the beard detached from the woman’s face at night and came crawling through the Kentucky hills in search of small children.
When we made it to Branson, the rain was coming down in sheets. As I searched for a space in the Bass Pro parking lot, Alex stared out the window and mumbled, “In Kentucky, we’d call this a frog choker.”
By the end of my two-season tenure at Clarksville, the Panthers had won only one game and my coaching days were numbered. I blew out of town just as fast as I’d blown in, leaving many of my former players to wonder what had become of the young coach who’d promised so much and delivered so little. I’m sure they were angry. I know they were. I would’ve been too.
I left Pantherland for the Morrilton Devil Dogs where I coached the offensive line, a position group I knew very little about. It was a long way down from being the head coach. A year later, I was out of football altogether. No more touchdowns, no hard-earned stories to tell on fishing trips. Twenty straight seasons, and the storm was finally over. That’s how it goes. Sometimes you don’t have a damn clue what’s coming next.
I still don’t.
I invited my good buddy to drive seven hours over from Kentucky to go fishing on a weekend full of rain. I took a job I wasn’t ready for. I left a bunch of boys hurting and confused, but as Robert Frost once said of life, “It goes on.”
You sit around and tell stories, waiting for the storm to pass, trying to make sense of it. You drive to Branson on a rainy Sunday instead of lipping scores of smallmouth bass. You wander through a Bass Pro and somehow bust the zipper off your shorts, like Alex did. You’re forced to buy a new, high-dollar pair. If you’re lucky, though, you’ll notice things along the way. Like the billboards on the drive in, or the black woman wearing the trucker hat with a bedazzled Confederate flag stitched across the crown, or the Buddhist monk sitting on the bench outside the Bass Pro, saffron robe wrapped tight around his belly, head shaved, the same cut Alex sports. You might even notice a pair of teenage lovers sneaking kisses in the rain, the boy’s lower lip bulging with snuff. Or maybe you won’t notice anything at all.
Alex and I eventually got tired of noticing things and drove back to the Carlton Marion Inn. We sat beneath the awning of Room 101 all afternoon and into the night, watching the rain as we drank beer and passed a guitar back and forth, sharing the songs—the stories—that were written on our hearts. Then we went to bed.
When we awoke, the sun shone on Monday morning.
Still a little hungover, we stumbled into my truck and headed upstream to see if the water was low enough to float. Alex had a long drive ahead of him. I held out hope he was still willing to fish.
A few miles later, I pulled my truck onto a bridge and the creek came into view. The current was fast. The water frothed like chocolate milk. It wasn’t ideal, but Crooked Creek was finally fishable.
“You’re the one that’s got to drive back to Kentucky,” I said. “What do you think?”
Alex waited a second before answering, a moment of silence to gauge the water that lay ahead of him. And then he said, “Think I’d better hit the road.”
“Hash Marks” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.