Man Chokes on Fishing Lure, proclaimed the titillating, front-page headline. Gina folded the newspaper on the breakfast table to hide the painful words. Through the glass patio door she watched the rain soak the weathered cedar deck outside.
She should have chosen. Had it been weakness or selfishness? She agonized over which character flaw best described her, hoping it was the former, but fearing the latter.
Yesterday the police had interrogated her all afternoon after it happened, and by the end of today the rest of the city would know. She unfolded the paper and read the ghastly story again:
Two men drowned in an apparent fishing accident below the Bowerstock Dam early Sunday morning. Another fisherman who arrived later at the scene discovered the bodies. Police found an aluminum canoe and two paddles several hundred yards downstream, and one of the men's pickup truck was parked above the dam.
Police theorize that Mitchell Conroe, 32, and Jake Hassleback, 33, both of Lawrence, were fishing and frog hunting from the canoe when Hassleback snagged Conroe in the mouth on a backswing while casting his line. The embedded lure caused Conroe to choke, and he overturned the canoe in his struggle to remove the lure from his airway. In an attempt to rescue Conroe, Hassleback struck his head on the canoe, and both men drowned.
The unidentified fisherman who found the bodies said “They done real good before they drowned. There’s dead, hacked-up frogs layin’ all over the riverbank.” Police continue to investigate and are asking anyone who may have seen the men in the canoe to contact them.
“No way it happened like that,” Gina said aloud to herself as she sipped her coffee.
The past three months of Mitchell Conroe’s life had been as unstable as the canoe from which he drowned. First, there was the job transfer from San Francisco. "Shouldn't be more than a year or two," his V.P. had tried to reassure him. If things worked out, he would be Director by this time next year. After that, he could escape back to the West Coast. Mitchell was confident he could make it happen, but it would mean sacrifice and unpleasantness for awhile. He could usually figure out a way to get what he wanted. He was on his way up.
The Midwest Division of National Cartographers, Inc. was a sterling opportunity for him. He was in a new office with new people: among them, Jake Hassleback’s girlfriend, Gina Tumen. She was refreshingly honest, and her uninhibited energy attracted Mitchell like the pull of the river over the Bowerstock Dam. Their initial friendship quickly deepened.
Through Gina, Mitchell had come to know Jake, a surly man driven to seek entertainment in all of its manifestations. Occasionally after work the three of them drank in a tavern near the office. There was a compelling quality about Jake that was hard to ignore. Partially it was his appearance -- big-boned and angular with wild thatches of black hair sprouting from his arms, neck, and back -- but mostly it was his potential for weird amusement that persuaded Mitchell to do things he otherwise wouldn't.
Jake was always wound up, as if something inside of him wanted out, but couldn’t find the exit. Everyone else seemed timid in comparison, and it was easy to get lost in Jake's shadow. Mitchell was quiet-natured, which only magnified the contrast between the two. Sometimes Mitchell played along with Jake’s adventures so he didn't appear wimpy.
Life was too comfortable in Lawrence, Kansas, for Gina, and she was sliding into a major rut. Other than teenage vacations to Walt Disney World and national parks with her family, she hadn't traveled much. She often wondered how life in California would be. Mitchell had the answers. The more he told Gina about San Francisco, the more curious she became -- to Jake's elevating agitation.
At the tavern after a strenuous workweek, he, Gina, and Jake had just finished a pitcher of beer. Mitchell was full.
"Come on, Mitchell," Jake insisted, "You can slosh down one more."
"Well I suppose I have room for another," Mitchell relented.
Jake ordered another pitcher, and Gina smiled at Mitchell.
"Did you ever go to the theater when you lived in San Francisco?" she asked him after a sip of beer.
"Sure," Mitchell answered, "on a regular basis. I tried to take advantage of those things. Some people live in big cities all their lives and never go to the theater -- or museums. They just never get around to it or have no interest. You've got to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves." He smiled at Gina. The waitress set the beer on the table, and Jake paid her.
"I'd love to go sometime," Gina said. "It sounds so ... different."
"Maybe you'll get to do that someday," Mitchell reassured her. He turned to Jake, who scowled. Evidently, he’s not a theater lover, Mitchell thought.
"What do you do around here for entertainment, Jake?" Mitchell asked, sensing he should change the subject. Besides boozing it up in dives like this place, he thought.
Jake looked hard at Mitchell. "Froggin’," he said flatly.
"Froggin'? What exactly is froggin'?"