Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

J. Albin Larson


We were walking along the banks of the St. Croix River, all hard sand and sticks and small rocks, on one of those summer days that catch you by surprise. When one minute it's bright and gorgeous and you can feel the sunshine on your back like it's seeping into your skin and then, out of nowhere, clouds appear and a gust of cold air picks up and it all-of-a-sudden gets dark.

But it was sunny, perfect, when we left the Blue Ox, where we both worked renting paddleboats to the tourists who came around during July and August, when it's warm enough in Minnesota to go into the water. We got off work at the same time and I, as nonchalant and unassuming as possible, asked Kimbo if she wanted to hang out after we both punched out at eleven, just before the lunch rush.

It was the summer after ninth grade—before I ever asked to borrow my parents' beige '89 Caravan or had to fill out a Relevant Work Experience section of a job application—at the conception of adolescence when the world consisted of my parents and James J. Hill Middle School, the three or four two-lane roads where I pedaled my dad's old Schwinn ten-speed, and the unfinished basements and picket-fenced backyards I visited for video games and whiffleball. It was a time when the outside world came to me only in Social Studies class, before planes fell into buildings I had never seen in person, before the world ingested the kids I grew up with and spit them out as adults with more on their mind than high school next year and our Mid-Western river town.

We were never really friends, but I'd been to her house and she'd been to mine in groups for birthday parties and later stolen cigarettes and maybe even a Zima or beer if anyone could get their hands on one. She lived on the top of Eveline Hill, in a wooded area where a dirt and gravel road slithered up the mountain to houses that looked like cabins with fake log siding and massive stone fireplaces that whispered gray smoke into the winter air like fingers reaching up from a shallow grave in a horror movie.

Her name was Kimberly, but most everyone called her Kim. I called her Kimbo. I was fourteen. I didn't want her to know I like-liked her.

Until that point, our most intimate interactions were confined to a few awkward slow dances under bawdy paper mache streamers and low-hanging construction paper signs slung across our auditorium's proscenium boasting things like Jan Jam and Spring Fling. There weren't many kids at our school, only about 30 in each grade, so there were times when Kimbo and I would dance together—my hands cautiously grazing the area above her bony hips and her long, thin arms light and airy on my shoulders—more than once.

I had never actually done the asking. In our town and at that age, the girls took care of that.

Which was why I was feeling so good after work that day, walking along the shore with Kimbo in the sun, carrying our shoes with our socks crumpled up in them, still wearing the teal golf shirts with The Blue Ox Resort stenciled on our chests.

I didn't have a plan per se, was just happy to be there with her, watching the paddleboaters and fishermen strain against the current—her skinny, pale legs sloping out of her khaki shorts, calves flexing as her feet pushed against the sand and pebbles and sticks.

The St. Croix narrowed a half-mile or so from the Blue Ox and the trees and brush inched gradually towards the river lapping the shore. It became more difficult to walk barefoot, the twigs and rocks from the woods growing more and more prevalent in the sand, and I remember wanting to suggest we put our shoes back on, but not doing it. I didn't want it to sound like it bothered me.

That was when the clouds slipped out from the tops of the trees and the air got chilly. Kimbo said, We should have brought fishing poles if we're going to be down here.

I shrugged and acted like that would've been a good idea. Then I asked her if she really wanted to fish.

Yeah, she said. What else are we going to do?

She looked at me coyly, kind of subtle and kind of not, flashing a half-smile I'd seen before on winter nights in the woods with cigarettes dangling from our shivering lips, stolen beer cans freezing in our hands. Then she said we could try and noodle for some fish.

I knew she was a good swimmer from working with her at the dock—once I saw her dive without any hesitation whatsoever out into the river to retrieve a paddleboat someone, me, had left untied—so I wasn't worried she couldn't do it. I was more worried about myself.

My dad had told me stories about going to the St. Croix, taking deep breaths and diving down to the bottom of the river with his eyes open and arms outstretched, squinting through the dark water and feeling around for a hole to stick his arm in, waiting for a fish to come along. About the noodling tournaments they used to have in Stillwater, where the guy who pulled out the biggest catfish would win $50 and a free All-You-Can-Eat at Dale's Fish Story Saloon.

He said that if you found the right hole, sometimes a catfish as big as a human would clamp down on your forearm. That you had to fight underwater and be sure to push your legs off the bottom or you might not be able to wrestle the huge fish to the surface. My mother always scolded him for telling those stories. She said noodling was illegal because people died from trying it, although I had never heard that from anyone else. Then she'd make my dad tell me I wasn't allowed to do it and if I ever did I wouldn't be allowed near the water anymore.

Standing there along the shore with Kimbo, who looked like she wanted to try it, I was a little nervous. Then, with that same half-smile splashed across her face, she said, Come on, let's do it, and I quickly agreed, shrugging my shoulders and trying to act like this whole thing was all very boring.

I tried not to let her see I was looking as she slipped off her teal golf shirt and khaki shorts, revealing the lines on her skinny arms and legs where her tan from work ended and her skin became pale and white.

I was skinny, too, and I didn't want her looking, but when I got done taking off my shorts and shirt we both looked at each other in our underwear and laughed. Nice farmer's tan, she said.

You, too, I said, trying to seem a little suave, a little uninterested.

Just then, the wind blew and I saw her shiver, her arms crossed over her small chest and white bra. It's getting cold, she said, let's get in.

I moved forward and stuck my big toe in the river. It was cold. Then she came up behind me and pushed and I stumbled forward until the water was up to my knees. I could feel the pull of the current against my hamstrings. Before she could stop laughing I dove in, my body wrapped in cold, the St. Croix pulsing over my thin frame. She followed and we treaded there about 20 feet from shore, our heads hovering above the water, looking at each other and smiling, bobbing up and down, the river water cresting up over our chins and then dipping back down below our necks and shoulders.

So we just dive down and look for holes, right?

I guess.


She took a long, deep breath and dunked her head under. Then her legs came up and kicked, making a small splash and propelling her to the bottom. I did the same.

Under the water I couldn't see much, it was so brown and dark. I just kept pushing with my arms and legs against the current until my eyes adjusted and I could make out Kimbo's body near the bottom. She was slinking along like the sting-rays we saw on a field trip to the aquarium in Minneapolis. I followed her down, my hands sinking into the watery muck, my feet and calves splayed above my head.

We did that a couple of times, swimming to the mud on the bottom and feeling around, then coming up for air, smiling and laughing. Kimbo didn't take long breaks. She just came up, smiled at me and treaded water for a second, then plunged back under. It was never enough time for me to fully catch my breath.

About the fourth time we went down, she stayed longer than she did the first few times, just floating along the bottom a couple of feet away from me, the current drawing us back upriver.

I was trying hard to stay with her, to keep her in sight, when she stopped. I ran into her softly, our bodies colliding in slow motion, the murky brown water whirling around us. Air bubbles escaped from my nose and up to the surface. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness again, I saw her arm was stuck in a hole. I put my hand on her ankle and we waited.

I could feel some pressure in my lungs and I was about to go back up for air when Kimbo turned her head and looked at me, her eyes wide and her long, black hair spread out in thick, sweeping strands, like it was slowly reacting to an electric shock. I looked back at her arm and saw the catfish's long whiskers and thick leech-like lips circled around her elbow.

The catfish wasn't doing anything. Just letting Kimbo's arm sit in its mouth, like it was sucking on a popsicle, getting used to the taste of it. When I looked back into Kimbo's eyes, she must have seen that mine were just as big as hers, that I was scared, too. I tightened my grip on her ankle. I grabbed it with my other hand, too.

I tried to think. Tried to remember what the guys did after the catfish bit them. But I couldn't. My head was aching, pressure caving my forehead, and all I wanted to do was let go of her ankle and swim like hell to the top, then go home and never say anything about it again. I could feel the pulse in Kimbo's leg, each heartbeat pushing blood up to her dangling feet, the water sliding over and around them, yanking them back up towards the Blue Ox.

That's when it happened. I saw Kimbo's body jerk forward part by part, the water convulsing around her. First her arm in the hole, then her shoulder and head into the muck, then her stomach and waist, her legs. She kicked, struggling against the fish, and it resonated through my hands and arms attached to her ankle, I almost lost my grip. I couldn't see her anymore, the dirty water riling around us, and then I felt the muck on my forearms, my shoulders. I closed my eyes and the mud squished over my head, in my hair, cold and thick, covering my shoulder blades and legs and sliding over the bottom of my feet. I held onto Kimbo's leg, my head pounding like it was filling up, like it wouldn't hold anymore, about to explode from the inside.

The fish pulled us into the hole for I don't know how long, our bodies taut, hanging on through the cold mud and water, until suddenly we stopped, suspended for a moment underwater, my hands still clamped on Kimbo's ankle, her legs limp, floating. The water swirled around us in a whirlpool. Not knowing what to do, I kept my eyes closed, afraid that if I opened them the fish would start again, pulling us even further into the tunnel. Then Kimbo kicked and sent me free from her.

It only took two kicks to get above water. I gasped for air. I heard Kimbo gasp, too. We bobbed there for a moment, just breathing, before I opened my eyes.

I could see a little, like we were in a cavern, weak light reflecting from somewhere underneath the murky water, funnels of mud twirling under my scissoring legs. It smelled like wet leaves and dirt, like the woods on Eveline Hill after rain. I made out Kimbo's head floating not too far from mine.

I looked up and saw the outlines of huge, thick branches curling and twisting from the ceiling of the cavern like a tree upside down. Kimbo grabbed one of them. I did too, its bark damp and wet, but steady to hold. I used both hands.

You okay? Kimbo asked me, her breath steady and slowing. Her eyes glinted from the underwater shine.

Yeah, I said. Are you?

I guess.

The water calmed a little, but still echoed, splashing against the walls somewhere on the edges of the cavern where we couldn't see.

Is your arm okay? I said.

I think so, she said, her voice trembling a little.

I felt the muck dissipating from my chest and legs in the water. I remember thinking I should say something comforting like I wasn't going to let you go, but it didn't sound right. I was afraid I'd say it and she'd laugh.

Where are we? she asked, her eyes darting around the dark of the cavern.

I looked around but couldn't see anything, just the glint from beneath us and Kimbo's head bobbing up and down not far from mine.

She looked at the branches stemming from the darkness above us.

Did it bite you? I asked, swinging my arm to another branch, using them like monkeybars to get closer to her.

Catfish don't have teeth, she said.

I stopped a couple of feet away from her.

What do we do? she said.

I watched her look around for some way out, some point of exit in the dark edges of the tunnel, her eyes frantic and her head swinging around quickly, like the exit might have been moving and she needed to be fast enough to catch it skirting around in the dark. I was scared, but I didn't want her to be.

I swung over another couple of branches and held on to the same one she did. I could feel her warm breath on my shoulder and I watched her looking down at the water, at our legs dangling like worms on a line, waiting for the next giant fish to come by and bite.

Hanging there in the water next to Kimbo—her dark hair soaked down to her head, her eyes reflecting from the water and shooting around—I had the overwhelming urge to put my arms around her, to squeeze her to me for a long time. I wanted to press my lips against hers, for her to know how much I liked her, how much I wished we weren't down in a cavern beneath everything, how we shouldn't have gone into the river at all, should've just gotten on our bikes and rode along the winding gravel road on Eveline Hill and stolen some of my dad's cigarettes and sat out in the woods against a big oak tree smoking and talking about school or work or anything. But she was so close I couldn't move. I just hung there gripping the surface of the huge, slick branch with her short breaths landing on my wet shoulder.

Do you think these are tree roots we're holding on to? she said, shifting her grip and leaning closer to me.

I felt my shoulders tense up. Maybe, I said.

They're big, huh? I felt her bony hip brush against my stomach and it tightened. Our bodies looked funny under the water, distorted and paler than earlier, when we were standing in the gray light on the shore, still dry.

Yeah, I said.

Then we were quiet for a long time. I hung there feeling Kimbo's short breaths on my skin, her body bumping into mine, trying to think about what was going to happen. Then about all the things I'd never get to do. That, until then, I had been moving along like everyone else, growing up and getting older, a constant but unnoticeable progression towards adulthood, towards a real life in places I hadn't been to yet, cities in other states, different rivers than the St. Croix and woods than Eveline Hill with people who weren't from my hometown, who had completely different histories than me but had somehow followed a string of events that crisscrossed with mine. How I wasn't ever going to see those places or people. How this was going to be the end.

I remember wondering if Kimbo was thinking the same thing.

Kimbo's breathing slowed and she leaned a little closer to me, her slight shoulder against my sternum, cold and small, shifting with the waves in the dark. Her skin shivered in the water and I felt a knot in my chest and back, my fingers aching on the huge, wet branch. I looked at the side of her face, her profile silhouetted by the reflection off the water, her hair wet and stuck together in clumps over her ears, her short breaths glancing off my chest and armpit. I saw her lick river water off her lips and take a breath. Then her leg drifted over and brushed my knee, moving like a bow on a violin, playing a slow, sad song like the ones we sat through in Music class, when some of the kids would fall asleep or daydream, thinking about the boys or girls sitting right in front of them, there all the time.

I'm scared, she whispered into the crook of my neck and I leaned closer to her, my nose against her wet hair, the smell of water and mud. I bowed my head and my nose slid down the side of hers, over the wet hair to her ear to her cheek. Her leg moved against mine, her shoulder lulling into my chest, her whole body shivering. She turned slightly, eyes catching mine, wet and shiny and green like the grass on the football field of the high school we were supposed to go to in a few months. I felt like I had to do something. Like this was planned, the roots of two trees growing towards each other and meeting for a moment, considering the other and knowing innately what to do, how to touch slightly but persist with their recalcitrant, hungry paths underground.

A small swell of water splashed against my collarbone. I couldn't move, my neck and shoulders paralyzed two inches from her face.

All I needed was to lean forward one more inch, but I didn't.

Kimbo blinked, turned her head, and slunk away from me, her leg from mine, her shoulder from my chest.

The tenseness left my shoulders and I hung there slack, exhaling, my eyes straying from her face down to a long, gray figure sliding through the murky water beneath my feet. It looked as big as both of us, like it could have been one of those sharks in the movies.

Kimbo saw it, too. She moved back into me, but different this time, her shoulder and hip clanging into mine like cymbals instead of a bow and violin.

They're catfish, she said, reassuring herself, eyes darting around again, looking for a way out.

Then we saw another one. And another one. My body felt heavy, my arms straining to hang on, like if I fell it wouldn't just be into a pool of water, but off the side of a cliff. I strained my eyes against the dark and tried to see where the cavern ended but all I saw were the giant gray fish squirting around beneath me, like there were hundreds of them in there with us.

Catfish can't see, she said.

Then I felt one of them skim my leg, its greasy skin grazing my thigh. It must have touched Kimbo, too, because she jerked away from me and swung to another branch. We held on to the branches and looked at each other, smelling the mud, the disturbed water reaching up and lapping our chins and cheeks.

Kimbo looked so young with her hair wet and slick against her head, like how she used to look in kindergarten, her hair unwashed and knotted, hanging over her face. I could see her beginning to panic, her eyes fleeting around from me to the water to the fish swimming blindly beneath us.

I don't want to stay here anymore, she said. We have to swim for it. She swung her arms from branch to branch, away from me.

Where are you going? I asked.


Is that the way? I stayed put, my arms still heavy, legs still hanging slack beneath me.

I don't know, she said, swinging farther away from me. This thing's gotta be connected on both sides. There's little parts that run off into the woods from the river all over. She sounded determined.

I remember thinking of a dream I had after I saw Jaws the first time. I was swimming in a pool and "Jaws" the Shark somehow got in and ate one of the kids that was swimming. Afterwards, there were reports that all water was connected and the likelihood of a shark getting into a pool was just something we'd have to deal with. I remember telling my mother about the dream and her responding that it was impossible. That sharks couldn't get into pools. At first, I didn't believe her. It took me a long time to stop thinking I couldn't get attacked by a shark in a pool.

Just find a hole and try to get to the other side, Kimbo said, still swinging from branch to branch, the sounds of her body cutting through the water ricocheting off the wet walls. It was getting hard for me to see her. Then, quieter, she said, When you get out tell someone what happened and they'll know what to do.

Fish passed beneath me and the water became more turbulent, swishing into my mouth and over the back of my head, breaking against the edges of the cavern, drowning out my ears. I wanted her to stop. I wanted to go with her. I couldn't see her anymore.

Kimbo, I said, loud to make sure she heard it. She didn't say anything back.

I was as scared then as I've ever been, but I started moving, swinging my arms and kicking the opposite way Kimbo had gone. I had to try. I knew she would. I stopped thinking about the swirling water, about the catfish beneath me. When my hand felt the wet wall on the edge of the cavern, I breathed deep and dove down with the catfish and felt for a passage with my hands. When I found one I kicked and pushed frantically, grating the mud with my fingers and toes, always moving forward, pushing out towards the opening of the tunnel, my head pulsing and my heart thrashing in my chest, blasting blood through my limbs like fire.

In the tunnel, it felt like years passed by, like I was growing stronger with each kick, my arms and legs bulging, dark, gnarly hairs growing up out of my skin through the mud, memories cascading into my brain like from a pitcher of water. The day my dad drove me to Hastings to take my driver's test in our beige Caravan, the day I asked a girl to Senior Prom, my first job in the city, my wedding day, when I moved with my wife and two girls back to Stillwater to a house on Eveline Hill. Taking my girls to the Blue Ox and swimming with them in the shallow portion of the St. Croix, the section hemmed in by the tough blue ropes and oblong bobbers, laughing and splashing in the same water where somewhere out further the catfish lurked along the bottom, the current roaring over them in recursive, violent swirls upriver.

When I sit on my back porch on Eveline Hill now and watch the smoke from my chimney plume up through the maze of skeletal, ancient tree limbs into the dark winter sky, my cold, worn breath hovering in front of me like a ghost, I think about where Kimbo must be and I picture her far away, on the other side of the world where her tunnel spilled out into some different, more exotic body of water than the St. Croix and I can see her wet, long hair stuck to her head and those same tan lines on her skinny arms and legs as she emerges from the water and slowly steps out of the current onto shore.

©2008 by J. Albin Larson

J. Albin Larson is a graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University and lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where he is a second year law student at Creighton University. His fiction has also appeared in the Jabberwock Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, InDigest, and is forthcoming in the Seattle Review. He is also at work on a novel.

"Noodling" originally appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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