Highway 131 spans the distance from Grand Rapids to Petoskey. A smaller stretch runs between my grandmother’s house in the woods and the emerald lake stocked with Rainbow Trout. We had taken a different exit.
“Hey, do you want cream in your coffee?” he asked me, knocking over a small tower he built from the white plastic cups. His own drink billowed with creamer clouds.
“Nah, I’m all right.” I picked at a scab on my hand.
“They won’t miss us,” he said. He adjusted his baseball cap. “They were driving me crazy. I can’t believe you put up with them all the time like that.”
I smiled and sipped the hot coffee. It burned the inside of my lip. “A group trip was never a good idea.”
“I’m sorry you got stuck in charge.”
I took another sip, this time letting it burn my throat. “I don’t mind so much,” I lied.
“I’d rather have gone fishing. Is there any good fishing around here? We could go sometime. We could dip out today, if you wanted.”
“I don’t really fish. I’d go along for the ride maybe.”
When I was small, on one of those bright Northern lakes, my father and I would fish catch and release off the end of the dock while the sun lingered low on the horizon and the air held a hazy purple fog. Frogs would take up the string section of the early night song, punctuated by loons. In that looking-glass lake, a bluegill swallowed my hook. My dad went in with pliers in a futile attempt to save it, but it floated, moon white belly stretched towards the sky, tendril of red.
“It’s not hard,” my angler friend insisted from across the table. “As long as you don’t mind the worms.”
“I imagine you just stand and wait, right?” I smiled a little.
Outside the diner window, Lake Michigan simmered in the early sunlight. I let the coffee warm my hands.
“Well there’s more to it than that,” he pretended to be hurt.
I pushed a loose strand of camp-dirtied hair behind my ear.
I supposed I would rather be on the water too. I imagined diving deep into those emerald lakes. I would let branches and weeds tug my curls straight, allow baptismal cold to strip away layers of dirt.
“You’ve got to be careful,” my friend went on. I listened politely because he had sweet brown eyes and freckles. “Rivers are no joke,” he insisted. “It doesn’t matter how much you love something. It can still be dangerous. You should really never be out on the water alone.”
“I like to paddle alone,” I confessed.
A beaver once swam to the edge of my boat, peering up through clear water. When I was alone, eagles followed me freely, and I didn’t feel so silly talking to them like friends. Monarch butterflies were at home on my bow, and the slick bodies of fish seemed closer, more alive.
He smiled at me. “Some people are like that. Just be careful, will you?”
I blushed, both flattered and stung.
“I’m not stupid about it.”
“You and everyone else.” He nudged my foot under the table.
I blew a little air out between my lips.
“If I had a dollar for every time a guy asked me if I was lost—”
“Hey, did you want to borrow that book? The one you asked about yesterday?”
A pretty waitress refilled my coffee, little wisps of steam wafting skyward.
“Remind me what it was again?” I asked him.
“Nick Adams stories?”
“Well you must have read them.”
I sipped at hot coffee to fill the silence.
“Do you not like Hemingway?” He asked.
“He’s a good writer.”
“But you haven’t read Nick Adams? I know you’d love Nick Adams,” he paused, waiting for me to answer. I didn’t. “It really…it just speaks to man’s relationship with nature. You seem like you’d be into that.”
I forced a laugh. “I’m not a man.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, but…I don’t think it’s the same.”
“What, because you don’t fish?”
“I’ve never found God in a dying bluegill.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means…” I grabbed a plastic creamer cup and poured it into the black coffee, watching the white and rich brown dance. “It means that it’s different. I don’t see this world as something I get to control. I think Nick Adams does.”
“It’s all an exercise in patience, and skill.” He leaned across the table. “Is this because you don’t fish?” he repeated.
Neither of us knew the sound of the other’s words.
“I don’t know,” I answered, giving up.
“Come with me today. We’ll find a stream. I’ll show you.”
Somewhere in the soft green light of the forests of Northern Michigan, where trout spawn in the streams and blood flows in the lakes, Nick Adams and a thousand other anglers have written of women and land like they were both something that could be owned.
I looked out the window at the open water of the bay. On open water there is no mastery, no taming. Open water cannot be corralled or killed, will not float belly up and limp.
There is nothing to be found in dying bluegill. No reprieve, or silence, or divine truth in hooks in stomachs, in the piercing of worms or the slick iridescent scales.
So I nodded, knowing I wouldn’t go with him. We had to go back to our group, and there wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to. This coffee break was only that.
Madeline Marquardt currently lives in Northern Michigan, but she’s taught English in Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior, and written on the outdoors and science both. You can find her at maddymarq.com.
Photography by: Lee Cartledge