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Friday, August 26, 2022

Blood Sport

 Blood Sport by Alex Cerveniak


“Welcome to Clyde, Ohio.  Boyhood home of General James B. McPherson, the highest ranking union officer killed in the Civil War.”  

Go back to Michigan, Danny.

As I drove into town on U.S. Route 20, I realized that the northern Ohio town I grew up in-- a town I had been bragging about coming from for the last ten years-- was indeed, a shithole.  Other than a Civil War officer, the place’s claim to fame was a Whirlpool washer factory, the largest in the world.  I grew up in a white, two story house across the street from the sprawling factory, and 100 yards away from a place my friends and I called “the trails.”  

Looking back, the trails were nothing special, just a large strip of woods interlaced with winding dirt paths that paralleled the railroad tracks running through town.  For a gang of mid-teen boys, they were the final frontier.  Throughout our youth, we built dozens of forts back there.  Some were simple stick tee-pees, others were extravagant condos built from shipping pallets we had stolen from the other side of the factory fences.   

The trails were also home to a small creek that flowed out from a reservoir on the other side of the city and disappeared under the Whirlpool factory.  The creek was fairly polluted, but it was our creek, and we loved every inch of it.  We mostly fished for chubs, but once there was a rumor that someone saw a pike swim through the culvert under Mulberry Street.  We hunted that fish for a whole summer.  

Our gang fly fished on the creek every day there was open water.  We made the switch from push-button zebcos to fly rods when we were around 11 years old.  It was right after we ran into a girl fishing the creek by the name of Bella Wright.  She fly fished, and didn’t give our group of bait fishermen the time of day.  She was beautiful, and for some reason, that meant we had to start using fly rods.  

For the next week we went down to the creek with our spinning rods and whipped our bobber and worm rigs back and forth through the air before letting go of the button.  Not too long after, we had real fly rods, and were glued to every fly fishing related magazine article we could get our hands on.  Most kids our age had Playboy, we got off on Fly Fisherman.

If we weren’t building a fort or fly fishing for chubs, we were raising hell in a neighborhood that had a reputation for being the worst in town.  We all laughed the first time we heard that, and I still kind of snicker about it today.  Supposedly, it was common for flaming paper bags full of dog shit to show up on front porches, rocks to be thrown at cars and garage windows, and bottle rockets to land near sun bathers.    

There were six of us in our gang, each who brought some type of character trait to the group that the others didn’t possess.  

Erik was the comedian, and deathly afraid of removing the hook from any fish he landed.  To get around this phobia, he would fling his Cortland double taper fly line through the air at lightning fast speeds, like a cowboy forming a rodeo loop above his head.  The g-forces built up until the hook ripped free, and the fish would fly through the air like a bullet.  At one time or another, each kid in our group had a black eye to show for it.  He wasn’t a terrible fisherman, but he usually relied on the rest of us to figure out what flies to use or where to fish.

Mark was the shit talker.  He had an older brother who belonged to a gang of bait fishermen that would beat the crap out of us whenever they caught us fishing the reservoir, a place where you could catch bluegill on every cast, and which was also home to the last three state record largemouth bass.  Mark’s older brother left for school an hour earlier than Mark, and Mark used this opportunity to sneak into his sibling’s bedroom to snag much needed supplies for our forts: cigarettes, fire crackers, and fishing magazines.  He also spent considerable time eavesdropping on his older brother and friends’ conversations, bringing us back critical fishing intel we would have never figured out on our own.

Bella was the neighborhood tomboy.  She was the best caster in our group and easily the hottest girl in school, in a girl next door kind of way.   She didn’t take part in the supposed lawlessness the rest of us were often accused of, but she was the first one to step in the creek and the last to call it a day when we fished.  She started fly fishing before the rest of us knew what fly fishing was.  I think her dad got her into it.  He was one of the high-ups at the factory, and could afford to take fancy trips out west or to the Catskills.  I think he started fly fishing after seeing The Movie, which might explain Bella’s crush on Brad Pitt.  Then again, what teenage girl didn’t have the hots for Brad Pitt?

I always had a secret crush on her, but never had the balls to make a move.  I was secretly hoping to run into her while I was back in town.  Fifteen years of wondering, “What if?,” has a way of building courage.   

Scott was the best fisherman in our group and my lifelong best friend.  He was also the poorest kid on the block.  His foster parents refused to buy him anything other than second hand clothes and the occasional birthday present.  He never actually owned a real fly rod or fly reel.  To fish the way he loved, he built his own fly rod by super gluing zip ties to a broom stick.  The zip ties acted as guides, and he retrieved line into the cargo pocket on his left pant leg.  He got laughed at a lot for his gear, but no one laughed at his ability to catch fish.  He had an x-factor quality about him that he used to outfish the rest of us every time out.  Despite failing most classes in school, he knew the latin names for every bug in our little Ohio creek, as well as anything you could ever want to know about any fish that swims.  

A week before I moved away, he was found dead near one of our favorite holes on the creek, just downstream from an old railroad bridge.  The newspaper said he committed suicide, but I never believed it.  They said he was very distant from his teachers and classmates at school, and that he suffered from occasional bouts with depression.  The only time I ever saw Scott depressed was during the winter when the creek froze over.  Scott might not have had anything meaningful to look forward to in life as far as jobs or material possessions go, but he didn’t really care about any of that kind of stuff.  All he wanted out of life was to fish as much as possible, and maybe take a trip to some of the places we read about in the magazines.    

Then there was Jesse, the reason I was back in town.  Jesse had a supermodel hot, chain smoking mom and an alcoholic father who had the nasty habit of ripping Jesse out of bed during a dead sleep and beating him unconscious whenever he had a bad night at the factory.  Guilt-ridden after sobering up, the old man would usually take Jesse shopping in hopes of buying his son’s forgiveness.  It was these shopping sprees that kept Jesse’s fly boxes full and his bedroom floor hidden by the latest and greatest in fly fishing gear.  

Jesse hated Scott for the fishing ability his top end gear couldn’t make up for, and he took every opportunity he had to put Scott down.  I guess that’s where I came in as the peacekeeper of the group.  I don’t know if I was a very good mediator, but I always found a way to stop other guys in our group from getting into a fight.  I was always a laid back and extremely na├»ve kid who didn’t take anything other than fishing very seriously.  Ironically, it was usually me who found himself slugging it out with anyone who tried fishing our territory on the creek.  

Every fight started the same.  Some arguing, I’d get shoved in the chest, I’d shove back, and then punch them in the throat.  I never meant to punch anyone in the throat; I guess I just had bad aim.  We’d would trade punches until the other person cried, or quit.  We didn’t have to worry about the other guy pulling a gun or some other weapon- though I did chase Jeremy Duckman through the trails with a stick once.  

I didn’t leave town by choice- my mom took a job in northern Michigan- but looking back, it was probably the best thing that could have happened after losing my best friend.  Finding new fishing spots and making new friends helped me set aside all of the anger and grief I was dealing with.

I guess you could say it was a transitional period in American culture.  Some people still watched black and white TV with UHF/VHF antennas.  Microsoft Windows had just been released, but you still had to know your way around MSDOS.  The term soccer mom hadn’t been coined, and it was still a few years before an old lady would sue McDonalds for something like ninety million dollars after she spilled hot coffee on her lap.  Kids still watched Saturday morning cartoons, and even in the worst neighborhood in town, we didn’t lock our front door.  

As I drove back into town for the first time in nearly ten years, I realized that I had bronzed my old stomping grounds as something much greater than what they really were.  I had been fortunate enough to fish all over the world since leaving.  Places like Alaska, Argentina, the Keys, and two trips to Kamchatka.  Yet no matter what river I was standing in, my thoughts always went back to that little creek in Clyde, and Bella.  

I wanted to turn around towards Michigan, but I couldn’t.  I had to find out what came of the gang after I left, especially Bella, but that wasn’t the reason I was there.

I was back at the request of the Clyde City Police Department.  Apparently Jesse was in some trouble and the cops were hoping an old friend could get him to talk.  From what the cop on the phone said, Jesse had burned all of his bridges with the old gang, and I was their hail mary.  The detective wouldn’t let me in on what he was in trouble for, only that he was looking at a life sentence if convicted.  

For some reason, I hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from the old neighborhood after leaving.   I was a little nervous about seeing Jesse or any of the guys from the old gang again.  I heard a rumor that Jesse and Bella got together after high school.  I fished angry for a couple days after, why would a girl like her settle for a scumbag like him?  He wasn’t good enough for her.  She deserved a guy who could really fish.   
Not some poser who only dressed the part.  

I stepped out of my truck in front of the brick building and heard someone chant, “Go Bucks, Michigan Sucks!”  I turned around to see a short, red headed old man in jeans and a leather jacket looking at me with a wide grin, pointing at my Michigan license plate like he had just done something really cool.  I smiled back, and politely replied, “We’ll get you guys next year.”

I paused for a moment, as he looked like he wanted to say something, but after several inaudible grunts fumbled out of his mouth, I pulled the door open and walked inside the police station.  

Inside, an old woman with an indigo colored wig typed frantically in front of a computer screen.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m here to see Detective Hogan.”

“What is your name?”  she asked as she picked up the phone.

“Dan Thompson .”

Detective Hogan was your stereotypical, overweight police officer.  He was also our D.A.R.E. instructor in 6th grade.  Our class was the first in Clyde to go through the D.A.R.E. program, and ironically, the largest drug bust in Clyde High School History occurred during our senior year.  

“Hi Dan, I’m Detective Hogan. Please, follow me to my office.”

We walked past two doors through a narrow, dimly lit hallway before Detective Hogan stepped into a small room to our right.  His office was cramped, barely big enough for the large metal desk and particleboard book shelf along the left wall.  He must have had to leave the room after farting.

“Thanks for driving down, Dan.  Can I get you a glass of water?”

“No thank you, sir.  I just drank a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew on the way down.”

“Careful son, that shit’ll kill ya.” he joked, before a serious expression took over his face.

“Listen, I’m not going to beat around the bush.  Your buddy Jesse has dug a mighty big hole for himself.”

“What’d he do?”

“I don’t know if you’ve kept in touch with Jesse since you moved, but he has been in and out of jail on a fairly regular basis, mostly for fighting.  This time we’re holding him on Murder I charges.  We are hoping you can convince him to tell us where he dumped the body.”  

I just sat there, shocked.

“You sure you don’t want something to drink, you look pale, how about a jelly donut?”

“Sir, I don’t think Jesse could ever kill somebody.  You sure you’ve got the right guy?”

“Oh we’re sure all right.  One of our guys pulled him over for speeding and his waders were covered in blood.  The arresting officer knew something wasn’t right when Jesse tried saying all of that blood came from a gut hooked fish.  After we…”

“There has to be some kind of mistake.”  I interrupted.  “Let me talk to him.”

He picked up the phone.

“Bring our boy Jesse back up to the interrogation room. He has a visitor.”

He walked me back down the hallway, through the main lobby, down a small set of stairs and through a door labeled INTERROGATION in gold letters.  He pointed to a large mirror on the opposite wall.

“You need anything, I’ll be right through there.”

There was a small rectangle table bolted to the floor, with metal chairs at each end.  I sat down in the nearest one and it made a screeching sound as I pulled it across the floor.  

Jesse entered the room through a different door.  “Holy shit, look what the cat dragged in!”  he laughed.

Through the baggy orange jump suit, I could see that he had put a few pounds on since I had seen him last.  

“Is it true what Hogan said about you, that you killed somebody?”

“Yeah, they got me, but those pigs ain’t ever gonna slap Murder I on me, not without a body.”

Trying to change the subject, he asked, “Guess who got 42-inch northern pike in the creek after you left?”

“Who’d you kill?  Why would you kill somebody?”  I yelled.  “Are you fucking retarded?”

His body language went from casual to guarded, as if he had just realized how little I knew about the situation.

“You know how my old man used to beat the shit out of me.  Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  

“That doesn’t mean you’ve gotta kill somebody!  What could someone do that is worth killing them over?”

He started to speak, only it was like something dark inside him controlled his lips.

“You remember that little bitch Bella that would always outfish us on the creek?  Well I started fucking her every now and then after you left town.  We were out fishing last week, and she tells me that she is leaving me for a bait fisherman.”  

I don’t know what infuriated me more, the fact that he had killed my first true love, or that he accused her of loving a bait fisherman.   I could feel the anger building up in the back of my throat as he went on about how he couldn’t let her leave him.  

“You son of a bitch!” I screamed before jumping onto him over the table.  I grabbed him by the throat with my left hand, and uncontrollably punched him with my right.  Blood exploded onto my clothes with each blast, and with each hollow thud, I remember being frustrated that I just wasn’t hitting him hard enough.  

“Where is she?  What’d you do with her body?”  spit sprayed out of my mouth as I roared.

Three uniformed police officers burst through the side door Jesse had come in from, and began dragging me off of him.

“You’ll never find her, you ain’t fished that creek in years.”  he moaned.

I could feel the cops’ starting to pull me off, and suddenly, I was slammed into a pool of Jesse’s blood on the tiled floor and handcuffed.  

“Lock him up!” Detective Hogan yelled

I assumed he was talking about Jesse.

“Take the other one to the hospital!”

“You’re gonna lock me up?  Fuck you, you pig, that piece of shit got what was coming to him!”

“Listen, it don’t matter what he deserves, you’re going down on attempted murder charges.  Read him his rights, Bill.”

“Wait!”  I pleaded

“I know where the body is, its somewhere on the creek.  I don’t know the exact spot, but give me a couple days and I’ll find it.”

He paused for a few seconds.

“Alright, you find that body or your ass is mine!”

The other officer unlocked the handcuffs from my wrists and pointed me towards the door.  

“And don’t even think about running for Michigan!”  

I walked out of the front door of the police station and noticed the old red head.  Again, he yelled, “Go Bucks, Michigan Ssss…”  Then his eyes widened as he realized I was covered in blood.  “Fuck you.” I bluntly replied before getting into my truck.  

I turned the ignition over and the tears started streaming down my face.  By the time I made it to the hotel, I was crying uncontrollably.  

Before checking in, I quickly took all of my bloody clothes off and put on new ones from my suitcase.  

“You okay, mister?”  a sweet female voice asked from behind the counter.

“I’m fine, gimme a room for two nights, smoking if possible.”  

I hadn’t touched a cigarette in three years.

I handed her enough money to cover the bill and asked, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could find Erik Williams, would ya?”  

“Hmm, Erik Williams?  Oh wait, he is a fishing guide over on the reservoir.  If he ain’t fishin’, he is at the
Town Tavern on Main Street.”

“Thanks.”

I pulled into the boat launch parking lot just as Erik and two sports were coming off the water.

He was at least a foot taller than when I left, and solid muscle.  He had a short moustache and shoulder length scraggly blonde hair.  He briefly glanced over at me as he was being tipped, and then a split second later he looked back up and we locked eyes.  A huge smile formed on his face, and he yelled, “What the fuck are you doing back in town?”

“You busy tomorrow?”  I asked.   “I need your help.”

That night we caught up at the bar.  I told him about the trout streams in northern Michigan, he told me about his time guiding bassmaster wannabes on the reservoir.  

“Is Mark still around?”  I asked.

“Yeah, but he doesn’t fish anymore.  He got heavy into the drug scene after Scott.  He has been in and out of rehab- I think he did some time for selling heroin.”

He tilted his head back, finished off his beer, and then slammed the mug on the wooden bar.  We were both silent for some time before making eye contact again.  I could see that something was bothering him.  

“You hear about Jesse?”  he asked.

I told him about my visit to the police station.  

“And that’s why I need your help tomorrow.”  

He knew that Jesse was being held for murder, but he didn’t realize it was Bella who he killed until I told him.  

He looked away, staring at a young woman with jet black hair as she bent over the pool table.

“Yeah.  I’ll help.”

We met up at the head of the trails at dawn the next morning.  Erik stepped out of his truck and grabbed two fly rods out from the back end.  

“Just in case.”  He suggested.

I gave him a look of disbelief.  

“Dude, you really think he’d tell you what area the body is?  I don’t think you hit him that hard.”  he jabbed.

There was a nervous cloud of fear hovering over the two of us as we walked the main dirt trail back to the creek.  Neither one of us wanted to accomplish what we came there to do.  Despite being mildly caught off guard by Erik bringing fishing gear, I was happy to pretend that we were just two old friends going fishing.  

“Wanna start at the big oak?”  I asked.

“That tree fell down five years ago, right across the creek.  Damn near impossible to land anything, but it’s worth a shot, I guess.”

Erik had become an accomplished fisherman in the time since I left, and he was no longer afraid to take fish off the hook.  He picked apart every inch of the water, letting nothing go to waste.  Throughout the entire day, I don’t think I saw him false cast more than once.  It didn’t matter if he was the first one through a run, or on sloppy seconds, he caught three fish to my one.  

The sun started to set and we had fished the entire length of the creek, all except for the run below the railroad bridge.  

Go back to Michigan, Danny.

“I don’t know if I can go there.”  I said.

“I haven’t since it happened.”  he replied.

Without saying anything, the two of us reeled in and set off on the trail towards the factory.  We came down a small hill towards the water, and around a small bend when the bridge came into view.  Its rusty wrought iron frame towering over everything around it.  A small pale mayfly flew past.

“Scott would have known what kind of bug that is.”  I reminisced.  

Vitreus.”  Erik stated without hesitation.  

“Someone has been doing their homework.”  I laughed

“I’ll give you first stab at the run for that.  Go ahead, I’ll be right through.”  

I watched him work his way under the bridge.  Just as he disappeared around the next bend down, a chorus of mayflies filled the air.  I focused on one and watched it glide up towards the sky before hovering over my left shoulder.  As my head was fully turned back, something out of place caught my eye through the cloud of smoke I had just exhaled. As the ghostly gray fog dispersed, I bobbed my head back and forth, trying to make out what I was looking at in the brush.   

“What the hell is that?” I whispered out loud.

“Erik!” I cried as the cigarette fell into the creek.

Her face was nearly unrecognizably bruised.  Her green eyes were still open-- terrifyingly wide open.  A small lock of her long brown hair was trapped to her neck; pinned down by a length of flo orange fly line, deeply embedded into the skin around her throat.  The surrounding vegetation was mangled and flattened.  

“Erik!”  I screamed again.  

I couldn’t move.  

I screamed in anguish.  Every inch of my body hurt and writhed in sorrow at the sight of her.  The leaves on the trees wilted with each painful sound that came out of my body. Half cry, half growl.   

After each of us gave statements to Detective Hogan, Erik asked if I wanted to head up to the bar with him, and maybe fish the reservoir the next day.  

“No, I need to get out of here.”

“Come on man, you can’t keep running every time somethin’ bad happens.”  

“I ain’t running, I need to get home.  I’ve gotta tie for a trip in the U.P. next week.”  

“Come tie at my place, I’ve got plenty of materials.”

“I’m sorry man, I’ve gotta go.”

I started towards my truck.

“I know your secret.”  he said as my hand squeezed the door handle.

I let go and faced him, fists clenched.

“What secret?”

“You can’t blame yourself, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” my voice fluttered

“You know damn well what I’m talking about.  I saw the whole thing.”  he said

“Saw what thing?  I challenged.

“I saw you and Jesse and Scott on the bridge that morning.”

I looked away.

“It wasn’t your fault.”  he put his hand on my shoulder.

“It doesn’t feel that way.”  I said, pulling away.

“Fish the reservoir with me tomorrow.”

The next morning as I stripped a popper along the edge of a floating island of lilly pads, I told Erik how the fight between the two had started out like most of the other fights in those days.  

As we were walking across the railroad bridge, Jesse was making fun of Scott for his gear.  Instead of backing down, Scott immediately got in Jesse’s face.

“Sorry, my daddy doesn’t feed me with a silver spoon!”  he yelled.

Jesse came back, “At least I have a daddy!”

Erik was walking up the dirt trail along the creek when he heard arguing.  He looked up to see me jump in between the two.  

Before I could calm them down, Scott swung wildly at Jesse.  His forearm struck me in the side of the head as his fist connected with Jesse’s jaw.  Jesse recoiled and shoved me out of the way to get at Scott, only instead of shoving me out of the way, he shoved me into him.   

He hit the ground so hard.  You could hear the air coming out of his body over the sound of the impact.  

We didn’t even look over the side of the bridge before picking up our rods and running home.  We were huddled in Jesse’s bedroom trying to figure out what to do when we heard the sirens.  

“I couldn’t just leave him there.”  Erik said.  We were still casting, but neither one of us was fishing.

“I jumped the factory fence and flagged down a guy on a forklift.  He went inside and called an ambulance.  When the police came, no one even asked me what happened, they just assumed he did it himself.”

It was quiet on the boat for a long time before we called it a morning.

“So when are you coming back down?”  Erik asked me.

“I don’t know, never.”  I answered.

“You need to come up to my neck of the woods one of these days.  We’ve got some great smallie lakes.”

As he promised to come up the following summer, I knew he never would, but I smiled and told him I’d have a case of beer waiting when he got there.

I got in my truck and made my way through a few side streets before turning west onto U.S. Route 20.  

“Thanks for visiting Clyde, Ohio.  Boyhood home of General James B. McPherson, the highest ranking union officer killed in the Civil War.”


Blood Sport

  Blood Sport by Alex Cerveniak “Welcome to Clyde, Ohio.  Boyhood home of General James B. McPherson, the highest ranking union officer kill...