Open 2024 Stories - R. P. Singletary


Lake Effect

By R. P. Singletary


Even with Linda, the lake waters would feel like ice through my insulated waders and the thermal underwear and wool socks. Had been 22 when I first switched on the truck an hour earlier, lazy sun barely up, maybe by now a balmy 25 on the mercury, if accurate. I tapped the vehicle's gauge, no budge. Only more ice moved its drop sudden and sharp off bringing branches of overhead tree to land on my windshield, the glass already cracked and I had no plans to replace it, at least during what little remained of my lifetime. Yeah ice a good thing, can still feel that much here and there, body not covered in what did the doc call it yesterday, yeah neuropathy.

I felt enough of my fingers to know I held the mug as I exited the pickup. I looked down. Bare hands, solid grip – firm I kept telling myself. I held the coffee. Sturdy. I had done well with that pair of manual workers. Ha, manual workers, what a pun. Chuckling, I spilled my hot drink, but no harm through all the layers of comfort. I rubbed a moist finger across the other rough and chafed hand, dry like old cornbread in need of a deep dunking in some restorative soup of Mama's.


It was winter all right, at least by coastal measures, and I saw lingering, proud leaves of every squished shade of red and yellow dying all around my swollen feet, too much salt on last night's dinner. The lake would come later, I hoped. For now, I was on dry land, and it was cold, but green of winter here surrounded me: Pines, mostly longleaf, leggy and elegant like Linda.

Some daydream of a fantasy, me out on the lake somehow with can't-swim Linda calming my head and heart, while waiting on go-to Bob, oh man. No sign of the guy, little reason for worry, all typical with him, the craziest duck hunter in this section and sure, he'd have some bold excuse for his lateness, always some fool antic and twisting of fact for that old boy. An original, all right! Often a good laugh, if he didn't kill you with his unsuccessful pranks like the time when we were both much younger and he flipped the duck boat over in the midst of a fluke ice storm that served up pneumonia and influenza to us and most of the state that year. No idea what the man had started laughing so hard about that morning. No idea why I had listened to the coot last week. Here I stood alone beside my truck, reliving his last words to me.

“Best haul our asses back out for one last shot,” Bob said last Wednesday at his pond shack, where we'd gone to pretend we were fishing.

“Too late in the season,” I told the silly man, but he wouldn't have any of that language.

“Don't sass me, young man.”

Like any aged outdoorsman from these parts, he shot back more nonsense right at my tender point: “Be good for us both, dontcha know, might be last chance you get.” Then he motioned at his neck before crossing himself like a holy man, which he surely weren't. “Ever, last chance ever,” he added along with some joke no waked or wading senior would laugh at if he had a faith in any heaven's-worth God or luck-pressing karma and had come to understand men can attain an age beyond the hunt, especially given the day's subfreezing temps, our dangerous duck blinds, and the tricky winds at play out on the lake at that very moment

No need for reminder of looming fate. We'd both grown up on Depression farms, knew the agribusiness of life and eventuality of the other, had hunted every day of our manhood from old enough to hold a shotgun until three years ago, every season little sense given for tiny license no matter who wore the big game warden badge that short term, and we'd seen it all flow out in every living color of drip from cattle or horse, deer and turkey, or way back when, squirrel and raccoon, hell maybe even gator, if I could safely report that as fact these days.


Oh, we knew how to respect danger. We knew limits. We didn't have random shootings either, schools always open and happy places for quiet study not bang-bang crazy headed for another lockdown. Yeah back then, we knew about the basic and important stuff without all the backwards drama of these days' shouting’s and shootings – never quite sure when one talk's saliva turns right into another bullet's blood, too fast and all unnecessary, forever over nothing. I might do well to leave this place, after all.

Old man me, I liked to rant, but I'd not yet had my coffee that morning, as my waking dream attested, but I knew and Bob knew. Better than to keep me waiting like this. Old man me. The thought pulled me ashore from that middle-of-lake reverie, Linda, gun respect, boyhood swamp wanderings, peaceful life, olden times, better. Last week at his river shack, we'd gone through all this, reliving shared memories since earliest days, and we'd gone down there after the doctor's news. His from the year before, mine from the day prior.


Same doctor, barely different news. But because of the last two years, go figure, we'd kept apart, all hunts interrupted, yes, yes far too many “pre-existing conditions” to understand what safe distance meant and all the kids and grands admonishing against this, that, and the other, and man, I had tried my best to get back out there, but more doctors kept calling Bob and me both about all kinds of old and new diagnoses and prognoses on what to do and not. And the kids and grands phoning when the line free, to render their oft-conflicting versions of excuse and advice, unneeded and unheeded in all four of our unfit hearers, Bob's and mine.

“Well, God damn....”

I can't remember which of us said it first, those three our calling card, ever since high school our hunt-greet grunt. He'd finally showed up. Slid in the wet mess of muck and leaf and needle until his truck stopped, this time not against that pine, but you couldn't tell it, based on all the dents and nicks in his vehicle and the poor tired tree. I felt like the pine had shouted several choruses of AMEN, but no that was his door slamming and him cursing (typical), his weight too heavy in worn-tread, ragged boots sliding across lowland earth like the truck's extended-life, cheap tires had seconds earlier.

“Well, God damn,” the other of us said back.

At least some things never change, I thought to myself, finally slamming my own rusted truck door that rattled to open and close in any season, rain or dry any more, and I thought Bob needed a new carriage....

“Just let an ol'--”

“Yeah yeah, good morning to you too,” I said back.

He had his back turned to me, unusual for the guy. Even my malfunctioning ears whispered as much to me. Fiddling with shells, he was. I could smell that sound, the sharp residue of gunshot and moldy paper of its box.

“Empty,” he muttered. “Empty, every last one, not a single god--”

“What's going on over there, buddy? Need a whiskey this early to calm your rattles?”

“Hell no, need proper equipment, which I ain't got none of on this body any more--”

“I got plenty of shells,” I said.

I knew he wouldn't take me up on the offer. I sipped my coffee and leaned back against the truck. I shuddered against the cold metal of one of my oldest trusted companions. A newer friend I held in my hand, the perfect mug embossed with World's Greatest ___, birthday gift from Linda, now that's the one gonna outlive us all. I had asked her what went in the blank, only to cause her pretty face to pucker up. Like a hug, hot and creamy, hmmm, perfect mug.


The sun peeped, and in and out of my head's talk, I gave them both a wink, yeah the rising warmth of day and my reclining lovely back at home, Linda still toasty and in bed, always smiling and strong like eternal sun. After I finished up this would-be hunt with this no-count cad, I'd head back home for a late breakfast, all the trimmings in the cold weather, and whether or not the local-milled grits or backyard-fresh omelet would come to feature fresh waterfowl from our early rise at watery attempts, we'd have fun the rest of day. For sure, Linda and I would. I'll wink a drink to that! I thought.

“Don't like to beg or borrow. Not me, not me, you know.”

Bob finally showed his face through all the mutter of ruckus with his man toys.

“Don't need no whiskey or beer from you either. No shells either, mind you. Thank you very much, sir, damn you.”

With no further commentary, Bob piled back into his truck, slammed the door, and cursed about a forgotten doctor's appointment in town, yet another second opinion, I think the man said.

“That would be third or fourth opinion at that point, bud, I do believe,” I said but to myself, all alone that fast. He'd already rumbled down our pretend road that cut rough through the woods to the lake, and I didn't bother to shrug a goodbye in his direction.

“A drink to your health,” I did offer up, but not just to Bob, to all of the rest of fine nature, my own future good will included. “Boy, what a fine hunt, we have us here today.”

Through the truck window stuck partly open, I searched. Linda had packed me a full to-go canister of black coffee. I looked it over before I realized this sentimental, senile slight of man sought out his Harry, but no that old beauty of a Lab, he gone where we all headed. Mere scratches left on that tattered passenger seat and in the center console my coffee, steam rising as if to indicate (as if needed) sweet passage of time waits for no man, dog, or beast. I reckoned I hadn't tightened the lid well enough, damn neuropathy, and saw more spills on the floor mats in the pickup.

I eyed our boat at the clearing. Might be a good hunt after all. Well-hidden at our secret landing, all in order down there ready for ducks. Perfect colors of winter, ripe 'til the end. If you can see the shades of this dreary season, you know what will showcase the finale. Battle of wills: Bare branches of hardwoods stretching to touch free heaven, their roots exposed by recent rains reaching for any comfort and support, even from uncertain hell?


I supposed there must be some sort of balance in it all, but what tips the scale at such a time? Not for me to judge, at least that day once the sun's light shook a dozen birds out of hiding. I'm a hunter. I didn't flinch. I knew the call. Old instinct to yearn for gun, despite lack of hand sensation in latest years. I probably could've hit a couple and retrieved them well enough without my Harry, my own eyes fair enough in the morning fog and at that considerable distance, but I didn't want to ruin the sound of an otherwise decent day for what was left of these ears.


R. P. Singletary from US is a lifelong writer and a native of the southeastern United States, with recent work in Literally Stories, Litro, Teleport, CafeLit, JONAH, Ancient Paths, Flora, and elsewhere.


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