His daughter, who disappeared at age nine, was found ten years later, living inside a leather boot he had reeled in from the bottom of the Ticonderoga River.
Nobody questioned it at first, but rather, congratulated him on his catch, "the finest of the season" some called it, while others, who did not know about the incident involving his daughter, noted that it was "one odd-lookin' catfish, if I ever saw one."
It was a cold morning in mid June, and Alvin Artobury was fishing with live bait, cramming a writhing worm onto the hook, spearing it, doubling the body over to spear it again, the hidden metal underneath. He had collected the worms in the middle of a thunderstorm, with a flashlight. On spotting them, he would dash over, grab them by the handfuls and toss them into a wooden bucket, never an easy task. The worms could see him, feel the reverberations, and they squiggled into the ground, as if playing tag, or Ghost in the Graveyard, or Spud. Still, some were caught, and once within his grasp, he never relinquished the grip.
It was a cold morning in mid June, and Alvin Artobury stood on the banks of the river, watching the bobber bounce gently against the movements of waves. But he was a patient man, and did not jump to conclusions, did not reel before being absolutely sure of what was on the other end of things, until the bobber was completely submerged in water.
He feels the pull, the tug, and begins a fight which will end with no victors.
He uses his shoulders, his entire body, and he jerks quickly, then releases, careful not to break the nylon string. Beside him, in a wooden bucket, the other worms cheer in silence, hoping the sacrifice of one will save the rest, that maybe Alvin will be content for today, that they will live on for another.
The battle is by no means quick, and after half an hour of palpitations and jerks, releases, and more jerks, the catch is landed, a brown boot captured and brought to the surface, an unruly entity.
"Well I'll be ..." Alvin mutters, staring deep into the hollow cavern of the boot, wondering just what part of it could put up such a fight. Was it the sole, he wonders. Or the laces?
He stares down into the hole, and sees a thin, pale hand reaching up. He jumps back, startled, then carefully peers into it once more.
"Hewp," a voice shouts, and although the voice cannot be more than a foot deep, it sounds distant, as if recorded and played back on a foggy tape deck. "Hewp me ..." the voice calls again, a few bubbles released. Alvin reaches for the hand, touches the cold, hard flesh, and pulls gently.
And, somehow, his daughter comes sliding out, wearing the exact clothing she was wearing the last time he saw her, ten years earlier, before she ran away and never came back. Her clothes are tattered now, ripped by growth spurts, dingy and moist and moldy from the years spent underwater in a boot.
"Abigail ... Abby?" he murmurs, unable to grasp the idea that his forgotten offspring could somehow be in front of him, could somehow be alive and breathing and ...
She coughs, says she needs some water, fast, and having forgotten his canteen, he has nothing to offer her. As always, he has fallen short. She looks around frantically, eyes growing to the size of billiard balls, and then, as a last resort, dunks her head back into the river known as Ticonderoga, released.
They got along well at first, Alvin carrying Abby home wrapped in damp sheets, splashing water on her face every few seconds, as if the water had somehow become her air. She struggled at times, attempting to reacquaint her lungs with oxygen, but the element would not take.
And so she relied on water, and wandered around her old home, a drink in her hand everywhere she went, gulping it down, refilling it, gulping it down again, so her throat would not dry out.
"And ... this was your room. You remember, Abby? You remember when we lived here together? I ... I didn't touch a thing, didn't touch a damn thing. It's all as it was when you left it."
Abby smiles, still dripping from her tattered clothing. "You didn't change a thing, Daddy?"
"No, didn't change a thing," he says proudly, hands on his hips, his beard graying, more so in this one day than in the past ten years combined. "Everyone ... everyone said I should, even the Reverend, said it was part of the grief process and whatnot, but I said no. Like hell they were going to make me disrupt my daughter's room."
She seems pleased, touched at his capacity to leave things the same, but then she realizes he had done a similar thing to her mother's sewing room after she passed away, locking the door with a solid silver key, allowing nothing to touch it but dust.
The father looked at the daughter across from the dinner table later that evening, and they smiled, hoping that their locked eyes would make up for the lack of words they uttered.
"So ... what'd you do down there all that time? In that boot of yours?"
She shrugged, said the river was wonderful; there are all kinds of things to do down there.
"Like what?" he asked.
"Like watch ducks' feet paddle from below the water's surface. They look like a million tiny babies trying to swim." She paused. "What about you, Dad? What have you done?" she asked, finishing her water.
"Fished," he answered, somehow, an entire decade summed up in a syllable.
"Waiting for the big one."
That night, as they went into their respective rooms for the night's rest, Alvin finds himself in a dilemma, not quite sure if girls Abby's age still need a kiss before bed, if they still need to be tucked in, a light flicked off. He waits outside the door, hand raised, as if to knock, but something stops him. And a moment later, the door opens from the other side, and Abby catches her father standing there, statuesque, hand raised, pausing in midair, as if considering.
"Daddy? I can't sleep," she whines.
"Want me to tuck you in, kiss you goodnight?" he offers, assuming that, like always, this will put all of her fears to rest.
She shakes her head, no thanks, asks if it will be all right to sleep in the boot again, like she's used to.
He nods, bashful, and says he'll go get it from the garage.
And he does, grabbing the sloppy, slippery piece of material, ripped at the laces, and places it in the center of her bed. It smells of seaweed and moss and tungsten. She slips inside as if slipping into a sleeping bag, or a cocoon, and then smiles, winks goodnight to her father, pushes her head in deep.
Alvin Artobury, not sure what to do, does what he imagines any good father might do, and gently tucks the boot in under the white and purple blankets, kissing it goodnight at the top of the leather tongue, and flicks off the light.
"The finest of the season," Rick Hallows said on seeing the girl for the first time in years. "Truly the finest."
They are sitting at a bar in town, Eddie's Bar, and there are mounted walleye and sturgeon displayed against the oak paneled walls, men admiring them as they suck down beers, nibble on peanuts and then spit the shells on the worn ground.
Alvin glances at his daughter, noticing for the first time just how beautiful she has become, as if the ten years inside the boot had fermented her, changed her from a good beer to a great wine, metallic in taste, bitter and natural all at the same time.
Bruce Conus walks up from behind, takes a lengthy sip of beer, makes a clicking noise from the back of his thick throat, shakes his head and comments on what an odd-looking catfish she is.
The men laugh, slapping each other on the back, but father and daughter look down at the table sheepishly, wondering where they are, or what they are doing, and if this is what fathers and daughters are supposed to do.
Should I ... should I defend her? Alvin wonders. Do I hit Bruce in the face?
But he does not, and she does not expect him to. He finishes his beer and catches his daughter staring longingly at the fish on the wall, prize fish, every one. The other men do not notice, do not notice the silence surrounding them, the sound of darts whizzing through the atmosphere, connecting with the cork. They do not notice the tight lips on a girl who has never been to a school dance, never gone to a movie in Technicolor. And they do not notice the one hidden tear desecrating her gentle face, slipping down and falling to the dirty floor as she stares enviously at fish that got it right, the ones who knew that the life of a fish out of water was no life at all, and chose death instead.
"It was ... it was wonderful seeing you, Abby," he told her, hugging her one last time on the bank of the Ticonderoga River, later in that evening of the second day. The moon reflected down on the rushing water, flushing, moving onward, the ripples carrying pieces of it away all the time.
"I'll miss you, Daddy," she cried, no longer needing the water to keep her alive, the tears do just fine. "I'll miss you like I missed you long ago, when you were gone and Mommy was gone and I had nowhere to go. So I ran away from everyone, like Alice, looking for that rabbit hole, you know? You remember? Mommy used to read that story to me."
"Yes, sweetie, I remember."
He does not remember how to be a father, not sure if he ever knew in the first place, but he does know how to cry, having practiced every night for years.
"So I ran, Daddy, and I looked for that rabbit hole, but I found a boot instead and ... I thought I would be back, just a day or two on my own, but ... but then I went for a swim one day and it all felt so right and ..."
"Shhh ..." he silenced her, holding her close, allowing their tears to mingle with one another like ballroom dancers, fox-trotting.
"But I meant to be back ..."
"And I would be back now except ..."
They both realized that they had drifted apart, that the years had taken them further downstream than ever before, that no fish should be confined to such earthly pressures as breathing.
They do not talk, and he watched curiously as his daughter pushed herself back inside the boot, a golden fleet of falling hair the last to disappear.
And Alvin Artobury gently pushed the boot back into the Ticonderoga, like a miniature sailboat, and watched the river take it away, take her away, siphoning out the evil and the filth and leaving her pure, a daughter inside a boot and nothing more.
He threw her back, decided to let her grow a little.
It is midnight, and he can feel the eyes of a million nocturnal animals watching him, witnessing a goodbye.
He takes his fishing pole, baits the hook, tosses it into the deep, cold, splashing water and waits, patiently, for a fish he cannot catch, for a fish that does not exist, one worth knowing, loving, mounting on a wall.
He cries then, dunking his face under the surface, eyes open, cheeks puffy, mixing the only water he has ever known with the only water his daughter has ever known.
The boot is no longer visible through the darkness, and he wonders what ducks' feet must look like from down below.
Like swimming babies, he was told.
He has thrown her back. He has thrown her back so that she can grow a little while longer, so that he can too. Hoping, praying, that they may just grow in the same direction this time, depending on the current.
Once there was a gay midget who fell in love with the same man as a dumb mute.
Lila Ellerbee worked at a radio station, KKTY, as a DJ, but she never spoke into the microphone. She was assigned the graveyard shift, in which all she did was choose the music, set the tracks, and press the buttons. She could never spill out words without jumbles, mixing syllables and scrunching letters, putting the beginnings of words at the end and backward again, inside out as well. Like Pig Latin. It's what the children at her high school used to call her.
Hey Pig Latin, spit it out.
And so she would, she'd spit it out, a great glob of spit and mucus directly on their shoes.
But it was not required of her to speak at the radio station, merely to nod, to smile politely, to use her fingertips in robotic motions and be pleasant. And she was beautiful, dark hair flowing and eyes like green fire, until she opened her mouth and no words came out.
Big Mike had the early show (Big Mike in the Morning) and there was nothing he loved more than stepping into the sound booth to find Lila Ellerbee curled into a ball on the rolling chair they shared, her hands between her thighs, eyes closed, humming along to her freshly chosen song, cradling it as if it were a newborn child.
Big Mike had big hands and big feet and a small head, and while some might call him misshapen, Lila would have called him unique, if she could call him anything at all.
He would clear his throat to make his presence known, and she'd jump, smile, wave politely and get up from her chair, nervous, scratching her hair, trying to put herself back together, checking her watch, unable to believe the night had drifted by her again.
"You ... I listened to you on the way to work," he tells her in the early morning one day, and she nods. "Good picks. Nice easy listening."
Again, a nod. Sometimes, while playing the music, she forgot that she was not alone, that everyone within a hundred mile radius could hear her secret lullabies, that she was not as secluded as she would like to have thought.
"Well I guess I'll go ahead and ..."
She looks down, embarrassed and grabs her coat, leaves the sound booth, closes the door behind her and stares at Big Mike through the impenetrable glass that separates the booth from the office. He slips on the oversized headphones, adjusts the angle of the microphone and reaches for his coffee. He glances up, catches the dumb mute staring at him, and he raises his Styrofoam cup to her as if in a toast and then she runs, down the stairs, fast, to the Channel 67 studio below, a local news station. She is running down the stairs, and Bruce Candorly is reciting his lines at the bottom, and she trips over his little body, sending it sprawling, as if she were the bowling ball and he was the pin.
He does not cry, even though that is what people expect from midgets. Their size, typically the result of a deficiency in the pituitary hormone gland, seems to put them in the same category as children, but that is not the case. As Lila bends down to him, mouth sputtering noises as if possessed, Bruce stares at her wide-eyed, shocked, unable to understand the reasoning behind the attack.
"I ... err ... you ... blood," she manages to spew, and she grabs his miniature hand as if taking a child's and rushes him up the stairs, back to the KKTY studio and runs to the refrigerator for an icepack and some tissues.
Bruce Candorly, who is four feet three inches and sinking into the floor, holds the cut on his head and stares at Big Mike as he talks eloquently into the microphone, making hand gestures that could indicate any number of things.
Lila hands him the icepack, and both find themselves staring at Big Mike longingly, as if in a trance, waiting, wondering what life might be like if they were normal, if they too could speak words into a microphone as eloquently as he, and in the case of Bruce, if he could reach it without the humiliation of a booster chair.
"Thanks for the icepack," Bruce mumbles to her as he holds the blue bag to his forehead, but now, he seems to be in even more pain than before, on realizing that a man like Big Mike truly exists, and it not just a premonition in a dream he once had after drinking too many shots of tequilas.
She nods, does not look at him, and then Bruce walks down the stairs carefully, repeating his lines like before, preparing for a commercial shoot for Greg's Auto Loan, in which he will be paid two-hundred dollars to say, "Greg's low, low rates are smaller than all the rest!"
And although it is not much, it is work, and he always wanted to be an actor.
Pig Latin and Short Stack greet each other in the mornings as she is leaving and he is coming. The producer of the commercial for Greg's Auto Loans, who produces all of the commercials for the local channel, has agreed to allow him to intern for a few months, learn the tricks of the trade, and the midget is grateful for the opportunity. Not grateful to learn the tricks, but to be able to see Big Mike every morning, open the door for him occasionally, smiling, wishing him a good morning.
And he knows that Big Mike remembers him. Because, if nothing else, no one ever forgets a midget.
Every morning, he sees the woman who cannot speak as well, and after several mornings of nothing more than an understanding nod to one another, a broken smile, Bruce stops her.
"Listen, about the man upstairs ... do you think he could love me? Because I think I might love him."
Lila drops her jaw, shakes her head and points to herself, saying Me, Me, I'm the one who loves him.
"What?" he asks and she points to herself angrily, pounding her pointer finger into her chest.
"You? You love him too?"
She nods, smiles at the differences between them, and the similarities.
"So ... what do we do? I mean, I guess you can have him because ... well, he could never love a midget and all ..."
She shakes her head and points to her mouth, opens her lips, says nothing, then closes them again.
"And you can't talk," he tells her. "Yeah, that's right. I guess we're both coming up short in one way or another."
She nods sadly.
They are standing on the staircase, halfway up the stairs, somewhere between Heaven and Hell and helpless to their positions. Bruce is three steps higher, and with the extra height, they seem to level out rather nicely.
"Maybe if ... maybe if I can help you talk to him then you can help me grow?" he says, and she squints her eyes as if saying How? How could it ever be?
And he smiles, says anything is possible in love, and promises to meet her later that night, as she presses the buttons with robotic fingers, as she serenades the world in sounds.
"You feel ... you feel as if your heart is breaking when you see his face?" he asks and she nods, points to the paper in front of them, and he writes it down. She cannot speak and she cannot allow words to drift out coherently, so Bruce has agreed to write the love letters and she will approve them.
"And ... and you think of him as you play your songs, wondering if maybe, miles away, the radio beside his bed is flicked on and he is listening to you sing to him?" Again, she nods, this time more excitedly, and smiles, claps loudly and Bruce pushes the letters from the lead in the pencil.
"Sometimes you think you see the morning sun drift through the window but you realize that it is only his face, waking you from your slumber once more, coffee cup in hand and holding your heart somewhere within the crushed beans."
Pig Latin stares lovingly at Short Stack and she rubs his scruffy face with her hand, wondering why no one has ever touched her soul like this before tonight.
"How do we sign it? How can we ever sign it correctly?" he asks. "Your friend? Or Sincerely or ... Love?" he asks, but she just continues rubbing his face, his cheek, and smiles plainly and he puts the pencil to paper once more, and decides on love.
He says that he has seen this in a cartoon once, and maybe it will work. They wrap themselves inside a trench coat, his legs dangling over her shoulders like a father and son at the park, watching swans. Then they button the buttons and she walks around blindly as he directs with nudges from his legs into her chest, a tap from the left foot meaning turn left and a kick from the right meaning the opposite. It is like driving a horse, or a dogsled, but Lila is willing to do it as payment for the words he has written for her.
They stumble around the sound booth to the smooth sounds of John Coltrane's India and Bruce pretends to act natural.
"Hey Mike, how's it going, I'm Bruce," he says, holding out his hand, which he realizes is much too short, and instead, asks Lila to hold out hers instead, to make it look more realistic.
"So we'll try again, Lila," he calls down to her. "When I say, ‘My name is Bruce,' you hold out your hand. Got it?"
A nod of the head from between his legs.
"Hi, my name is Bruce," he tries again and like magic, her hand levitates outward. Bruce smiles at the beauty of it, at the powers he possesses, and they dance around to the music, her legs carrying both of them, his arms thrust outward as if flying, as if they will never come down again, and if they do, she will only lift him higher next time.
Bruce calls into Mike's show nearly every morning, from the payphone downstairs, and they laugh about the news and "what a mad world we live in." Meanwhile, Lila slips the notes under the base of the microphone every morning before he arrives.
And somehow, they both court the man they love, in ways that make them seem normal, in ways that make it seem real.
It is a game they play, and after the day is through, and Big Mike, with his big hands and his big feet and his small head, goes home, the two of them rush to each other, hug, and rejoice over their newfound love.
"He ... he said he loved talking to me! Can you believe that! He said I better keep calling, that it's helping his rating!" Bruce smiles.
And Lila grins as well, presses a note written on a napkin to her chest, and it reads, "Thanks Lila, you're a really great girl."
"See? He likes you too!" Bruce assures her.
And she picks him up on her shoulders once more, and he touches the ceiling, taller than any man he has ever met, and he laughs and she smiles and they twirl and spin until ... until she stops and sees her reflection in the mirror, sees the legs dangling over her. And then she is frozen solid.
"What? What is it?" he asks. "Lila, what?"
But she cannot tell him, wouldn't tell him if she could.
But this is what she thinks: He can never love both of us at once.
"Lila? What? What is it now?" he repeats, but she just stares at her image staring back, his feet kicking gently, his size three shoes touching her breasts and skimming off, like skipping stones before breaking the waterline.
They meet in the hallway, halfway up the staircase, and Bruce asks if she is sure this is a good idea. She nods, bends down low and allows for him to climb up. They wrap the trench coat around themselves and continue upstairs.
"Because ... I don't know if I'm quite ready to meet him. I don't know if we've perfected this yet. Remember, if I kick left then ..."
She makes a frustrated groaning sound and he shuts up.
They step into the KKTY office, and he has to duck to avoid hitting his head. He loves the feel of ducking.
Big Mike is talking into the microphone, talking to his listeners, and then he presses a button and plays some commercials and motions for the tall man in the trench coat to step inside the booth.
"Dear God ..." he prays, hoping his newfound height will help his prayers reach God faster.
"Hey, I'm Mike," Mike says and Bruce breathes, and Lila holds her eyes closed, then opened, staring at Mike's face through the crack in the coat.
"Hey," Bruce begins. "My name is ... Bruce."
And she reaches out her hand for him to shake, and he does, and she feels the electricity flowing through her. Too much, she thinks. I love him too much to lose him.
And she drops her better half, her upper half, and Short Stack falls to the ground once more, Pig Latin staring down through the coat, then running for the icepack.
The three stare at each other guiltily, no one sure of anything.
"I love you, Mike," Bruce admits. "And I only wanted you to love me back."
Lila points to herself frantically, and Bruce nods, "Oh yeah, and she loves you too."
Big Mike removes the earphones from his neck and stares at the two, first at the gay midget, then at the dumb mute.
"You ... you both ... love me?"
They nod in unison.
"But ... I'm married. I have a family and I'm married."
They both stare, wide eyed, expecting a different outcome altogether, but receive this instead.
The posters on the wall reveal nothing. The man before them has become a gawking statue.
And suddenly, love has faded, or changed forms, at least, and the dumb mute feels a little dumber. And the gay midget feels a little shorter.
It is midnight, and after much crying, much holding, Pig Latin and Short Stack sit side by side in rolling chairs in the studio.
"Tonight ..." she starts, words dripping out like static, but more beautiful, "we ... have ... a ... special ... guest."
And Short Stack stares at her with passion in his eyes, fiery passion that matches the green burning within hers.
"You ... think I'm special?" he asks and she nods, although she'd have rather said unique.
And the microphone is turned on, and they are live, broadcasting to their listeners a silent void, no music, just silence.
And then, they inch forward, forward still, and they kiss, holding the breath between them, letting it rise in temperature, pushing into one set of cheeks and then the other.
A million miles away, Big Mike, who is lying in bed beside his wife, listens to the silence on the radio, but hears something much different, and he pulls his wife closer, closer still, but he can never get close enough, the silence making it very clear to everyone that love is an illusion worth believing.
Copyright © B. J. Hollars 2005. Graphics this page: Untitled, from UV-Boot series. Copyright © Maxi Hellweger 2005. Used by permission of the artist.