The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Detroit Muscle due out in 2016 from Whistling Shade Press.
Rounding the bend, Robby pushes through the water, smiling. He holds a six-inch brookie in one hand and his rod in the other. “Grandpa!” he shouts, looking around.
Farther down, the river turns another bend back to the south. He glances at the wilting fish in his hand. Its side is speckled with tiny puzzle pieces of yellow. The white under its jaw is repeated along the edges of its fins. With his palm under its belly and his fingers curled around it, he bends and holds it under the water. Its tail and fins move faintly.
Stooped over, still holding the fish beneath the surface, Robby lifts his chin and scans the river ahead.
He squints. Barely visible, his grandfather’s legs jut out from the shore into the river.
He smiles. “Grandpa, wake up! I want you to see this. I got one.”
Otto’s legs rock in the movement of the surface near the shore.
Robby stands up to his full height. The length of his grandfather’s body lies in the shallow, muddy water. His head rests on the rocky shore, his eyes staring up into the overcast sky.
It’s a moment before Otto turns his slack face toward him. His mouth hangs open. He blinks, as though trying to bring Robby into focus.
He runs to him, kicking up great arcs of water.
Otto’s mouth moves.
“What?” Robby asks.
He follows Otto’s gaze to his own hand that still holds the limp brook trout. He tosses the fish into the river and kneels. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
Otto doesn’t make eye contact.
His eyes are on the fish. It floats on its side in the shallows, thrashing now and again, trying to right its body.
Robby looks at the fish and then back to Otto. “Grandpa, tell me what’s wrong. What happened?”
Otto blinks. “…’ll die…can’t breathe…”
“What are you…?” He slips his arms around Otto and lifts him into a hug. “Don’t say that. Don’t. You’ll be okay.”.
Robby holds him tighter. “I said you’re going to be okay.”
Otto’s mouth is close to his ear. “That fish…” he mumbles, “it won’t live.”
Robby looks at the fish floating on its side. A small tremor passes through it.
Robby crouches next to Otto where he leans against the trunk of a cedar tree. Behind him, the river whispers its movement.
Otto’s legs are splayed out in front of him, palms flat on the ground. He opens his mouth, stretches his jaw, and then closes it again. He blinks. “Will you stop staring at me? I’m fine.”
Robby shifts his weight to his other leg. “A couple minutes ago you couldn’t tell me how many fingers I was holding up.”
“Well now I can.”
He scratches a spot of dried mud from his waders. “What happened?”
“I told you. I was going over to the bank to sit down and my foot got stuck in the mud. When I yanked it out, I fell. Must have hit my head on something.”
“It was like you couldn’t even understand what I was saying. You just kept going on about that fish.”
“The fish I caught.–the one I threw back.” He looks into his grandfather’s pale face. “I think I should take you to the hospital.”
He shakes his head. “I’m not going to the goddamn hospital. I feel fine.” He crosses his arms. “Just give me a minute.”
A few small songbirds land in the branches above them. They chirp and then flitter away.
“Does your head hurt?”
“Not bad…no. Let’s not make a crisis out of this, okay? Old men fall down sometimes.”
Robby scratches the back of his neck. “It’s just that a doctor could tell if—”
“You’re twenty years old. What the hell do you know about doctors?”
“Seriously, Grandpa, you need—“
“You keep that shit up, and I’m going to give you a chance to see how many fingers I’m holding up.”
He points. “We’re done talking about it.”
They stare at each other until Robby finally looks at the ground.
Otto adjusts his back against the tree. “So you caught a fish?”
“You like it?”
“It was good.”
“Well, you can keep the gear if you think you’ll go again. I don’t need two pairs of waders or two fly rods.”
Robby picks up a handful of earth and then sifts it through his fingers. “I’d probably go again.”
“Good. I can write down a few places where I used to go. You know, some secret spots. They wouldn’t be hard to find if I drew you a map.”
Robby looks up at him and shrugs. “Or we could just go together.”
Otto nods, his eyes far away and thinking. “Well, sure. We could do that, too.” He rubs his hand over his face and then rubs his palms together. “Why don’t you help me up.”
Robby stands, and Otto holds out his arm. He pulls him to his feet.
“We’ll go back to the lodge for a little dinner.”
They stand at the river’s edge. Otto starts into the mud. Robby walks at his side and holds
“Get off, now. I’m not a goddamn invalid.”
The water climbs their legs as they move out into the river. They turn upstream and start against the current.
Otto stumbles forward and then catches himself. “Jesus Christ, I always forget how bad this part of fishing is. Rivers should flow downstream both ways.”
Otto looks at his grandson. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t ask me that,” he says above the noise of the flowing water.
They walk against the rush of the current. Robby watches his grandfather.
“Worry about your own feet.”
Robby stands in the gravel parking lot outside the entrance to Gate’s Au Sable Lodge. He checks his phone and it shows that he has no service.
He looks across the lot at the GTO where it shines in the sunlight coming in from the eastern sky. He studies it, working a finger back and forth across his upper lip.
“You’re falling for her, aren’t you?” Otto says, coming through the door of the Lodge.
“I saw the way you were looking at her.”
Robby slips his phone into his pocket. “I was just thinking.”
Otto shuffles past. “Well, you can think while you’re driving. We’re all paid up. Let’s get on the road.”
He glances again at the car and then follows his grandfather towards it.
Leaning his body against the driver’s side door, Robby rests the side of his head in his folded arms on the GTO’s roof. He stares east. The car is parked on the shoulder of M-28 at the crest of a long rise. The shadows of trees stretch across the asphalt, and the highway reaches its vanishing point in the blue-green distance.
Not far from the car, a robin touches down in the middle of the highway. It bounds a few steps, pivots its head from side to side, and then flies off into the trees.
“You sleeping or what?”
Robby looks toward the trees, resting his chin on his bicep. Zipping his fly, Otto shuffles toward him through the long grass along the side of the road.
Robby smiles. “Prostate problems and constipation? You’re a wreck.”
Otto steps onto the gravel. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s pretty funny to make fun of old people, isn’t it, boy?”
He stands up straight and stretches his arms over his head. “Sometimes.”
Otto comes around to the driver’s side and looks down the road. He points. “See that bridge at the bottom of the hill?”
Robby sees the bridge and then nods.
“That’s where the East Branch of the Fox River crosses under the highway. We’ll cross it again when we head up 77 toward Grand Marais. That’s a good trout stream if you ever get up to the cabin in the future. Probably won’t have time to fish it this trip.”
Robby’s eyes go from his grandfather’s face to the little bridge in the distance. He shrugs. “Maybe you and I could come up another time and fish it. I’d do that.”
Otto stares down the highway. Then he turns to Robby and holds out his hand. “Give me the keys.”
Robby pauses for a moment and then reaches into his pocket. He sets the keys in his waiting palm.
Otto nods to the other side of the car. “Go buckle yourself in.”
Robby opens the passenger door and gets in. Otto adjusts himself in the driver’s seat. Sticking the key in the ignition, he turns the engine over. It grumbles, idling. He checks in the rearview mirror and then stares ahead into the empty highway.
He clicks his seat belt. “So you actually going to drive it this time?”
Otto pulls the lever into drive and then jams his foot down on the gas. The tires spit up gravel and a cloud of dust.
The takeoff presses Robby back against his seat. “Jesus Christ, Grandpa.”
“Just hang on.” He pulls them onto the asphalt and holds the wheel steady. The needle climbs swiftly up the speedometer and is at 60 mph by the time they shoot over the bridge.
Two fishermen in a canoe turn to watch them rocket past.
After another couple hundred feet, the GTO is going 80 mph. They are pushing past 90 when they meet the first car coming in the opposite direction. Robby grips the seat and checks the passing car. It’s not police.
Otto glances at Robby and then back to the road. “This sonuvabitch has some giddy-up in her, doesn’t she, boy?”
Robby nods. The scrubland outside his window blurs past. He huffs out a small laugh.
“Here we go,” Otto shouts, laughing out loud. The needle climbs over 100 mph. He eases the wheel to the right as the road gradually curves.
“Grandpa, you should probably—”
“I got this, boy. Don’t you worry.”
Another car flashes past in the opposite lane, the sound of it doppling and then instantly disappearing.
“God damn, we’re moving!”
The speedometer reads 115 mph. The road gradually hooks to the left and soon after begins a longer curve to the right. Gripping the wheel in both hands, Otto eases the car along the route effortlessly.
Robby looks over at his grandfather’s smiling face. He shakes his head and laughs out a smile of his own.
A moment later, Otto lets off on the gas. The speedometer slides down…100, 95, 90, 85, 80…
They are going 60 when they shimmy over a set of railroad tracks. The road curves to the left just after. When they are out of the curve and the road straightens again, the outlying homes of a small village appear on either side of the road. Otto backs the GTO off to 45 mph. “Seney” he says.
Robby studies the landscape slowing around them. “What the hell was that, Grandpa?” He laughs. “Trying to make up lost time or what?”
Otto hits the turn signal and pulls the car up to the pumps at the Oasis Fuel gas station. He cuts the engine and sits with his hands on the wheel. He sighs. “Just wanted to do that one time,” he says. “I’d never really opened her up like that.”
“She sure moves.” Robby looks out the window at a real estate sign in front of the gas station. “I think this place is closed, Grandpa.”
Otto opens his door. “It’s all yours, boy,” he says. He leaves the keys dangling in the ignition. “I’m done.” He walks not around to the passenger door, but instead in the direction of the gas station. His gait is rigid and resolute.
Robby watches him through the windshield.
Otto steps between two rust-stained gas pumps and toward the entrance of the abandoned gas station.
© Jeff Vande Zande