It took the pressure off, Karen supposed, to spend Valentine’s Day with a man, even if it was this man, ghost of Valentine’s Day past, whom coincidence had handed her on the holiest of greeting card holidays. Neither of them mentioned what day it was when they spoke on the phone, of course: it wasn’t as though they were going on a date. It was just them knocking into one another again, as they had done regularly in the few years since having broken up. James had to be in town for work; Karen and her boyfriend were finished, again.
Of all places, he insisted they go to Cabela’s in Rogers, an exurb of Minneapolis whose name conjured images of chain stores and outdated fashion. All day she had been dreading the drive, dreading looking at outdoor equipment in the aisles of Cabela’s, but she had acquiesced because after all the things she had failed to do for him during their life together, not granting him this one wish seemed cruel. So she wound her way though rush hour traffic to the La Quinta in Brooklyn Park where he had a room for the night.
“How’s the car?” He asked as they got on the highway and began their requisite warming up period.
“You ever get those summer tires?”
“Really? What kind of tires are they?”
“The summer kind.”
“You still hate taking my advice, don’t you?”
After a brief pause, they started laughing, as was their custom when they didn’t know how else to deal with each other. The more they laughed, the more she felt they were entering into something together again, a space where their current lives were exempt.
When they got to Cabela’s, she gazed around in fascinated horror. She had forgotten what these places were like: monuments to the country life she had abandoned when she left James and moved to Minneapolis, a life James was committed to. The centerpiece of the store was a cascading falls, gaudy and garish with taxidermy—whitetail deer, coyotes, bears, prairie dogs, badgers, moose, elk, rams, prepared corpses for consumerist consumption, their bodies primped and primed, their eyes glassed. But in the pond at the bottom of the falls, real fish swam, their bodies gliding above the copper wishes of the store’s customers.
The scene was a lot to take in.
They walked past rows of camouflage clothing, forest colored and sized for the whole family. They walked past rods, reels, racks of beef jerky, and a large room dubbed THE GUN LIBRARY. While James took his time looking at fishing lures, she nodded as he rambled on about the pros and cons of each. But then he stopped short, smiled, and said, “I want to show you something.”
He led her across the store to a long hallway with a sign above it that read AQUARIUM. The walls of the hallway were glass tanks in which swam fish she had heard about her whole life: small mouth bass, catfish, northerns, muskellunges, fish of lore that in captivity now seemed worthy of their legends. Silent in schools or solitude, they floated as though their aquariums were a lake newly unfrozen, each twitch of gill the first movement of a season, and Karen and James were in a pocket of oxygen in the middle of that lake, warm and dry. Karen looked around in wonder, forgetting where she actually was. She began snapping picture after picture of fish suspended at eye-level. Then she looked over at James, her smile revealing her palpable excitement. He had always found a way to lead her to something he knew she’d like, even when she fought him.
“Look over here,” he said, pointing at a giant gray catfish moving with the patience of evolution. “Let me take your picture for scale.”
She stood in front of the fish, edging toward it as it slowly slipped further from her.
“Gross. That’s my camera face,” she said, when he showed her the picture.
“That’s why I always tried to take pictures of you when you weren’t paying attention,” he said, winking.
She felt a pinch inside herself; she remembered being annoyed by his undercover photographic attacks. She remembered putting her hands up in front of her face; she remembered snapping at him. Through it all, I never really realized, she thought, watching his back as he captured his vision of a large northern.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder then, each occasionally pointing out something to the other or taking another picture until a voice came over the intercom.
“Attention Cabela’s shoppers, we will be closing in five minutes. Please bring all your purchases to the front registers.”
Whereas she imagined she would have been relieved to escape the store, now something like panic grabbed at her. “I thought the store was open until nine,” she said.
“I guess not.”
“Grab a beer on the way back?” She asked.
He hesitated, avoiding her eyes. “I really shouldn’t. I have to call Anna.”
She nodded, looking at her feet, lining up the toes of her shoes with the grout on the tile floor. She knew of Anna; but just as he bristled at the sound of any of her boyfriends’ names, she bristled at the mention of Anna.
Still, though their trajectory had been set, neither of them moved until the message repeated. Finally, James started walking away, but Karen turned and looked back at the aquarium once more. Soon the lights would be turned off, and all the fish in their shimmering stoicism would flitter and sleep and do whatever it is that fish do when they are alone in the dark. It was precisely what would happen to her when James closed the door to her Honda: he would disappear briefly and then reappear behind the lit glass of his hotel room’s window, as her dome light faded, leaving her to swim alone in the dark stead of her car.
Darci Schummer, a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program, lives, writes, and teaches writing in Minneapolis, Minnesota.