Pushcart Prize Nominee: Benjamin Burgholzer

Along with publishing emerging writers, one of the public roles and great pleasures of an independent, small literary journal is to nominate individual poems, essays, and stories for awards like the Pushcart Prize. This is one more way to say “thank you,” to the hard working writers, without whom LPR wouldn’t exist. These nominations also require renewed attention to the craft and presence of the pieces LPR publishes, and often that attention is rewarded with renewed joy.

Don’t Go Over Your Hipboots

I lie awake my first night in rehab, a few days after my first arrest, sleepless counting ceiling tiles. A row of 5.

I think about what it was like to be 5 and think about my parents in their separate houses in separate states looking at the same picture of me in a stroller holding a brook trout on a stick, wearing a Mickey Mouse hat and a smile. Dad always says, “You can’t fish without a hat on,” and I followed this advice even then. I think I can remember that exact day the picture was taken, those worm-and-bobber afternoons in the stream-fed pond loaded with native brook trout down the street. I remember Dad’s exact words, “Put your finger on the line, open the bail, and let ’er go!” and he’d draw out the “goooo” and make me laugh until the line and bobber hit the water, over and over and over again until I got it well enough or at least until he pretended I did. I remember watching the red-white bobber come to life, disappear, take off running, as Dad set the hook and handed the small blue fishing pole to me, telling me to “reel, reel, reel!” until I was holding the tiny fish in my tiny hands, smiling.

I think forward a few more years to learning how to cast with a kid-sized fly rod with yarn tied to the end of it instead of a fly so I didn’t hook myself or anyone else. I was wearing the same Mickey Mouse hat and now equipped with a ridiculous pair of shades Mom made me wear to shield my eyes because everything was so bright then but mostly because she thought it was cute to dress me up in a hat and glasses like Dad always wore.

He said, “Fly fishing is an art performed between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.”

Dad’s giant hands holding my wrists and flicking them back and forth to 10, and 2, 10, and 2, 10 and 2, 10 and 2 until I finally got it a few weeks later, or at least he pretended I did.

The tiles in a column. 9.

I was around 9 when Dad took me to a real river—not a lake not a pond not a stream not a creek, but the West Branch of the Delaware where he had bought a plot of land and built a cabin outside of Deposit. The drive was long, and I remember watching the telephone wires and how they seemed to move in the same rhythm as the truck. He sat me on the tailgate overlooking the cornfield and the nearby factory pumping plumes of smoke into the air and showed me the pair of tiny hipboots he had bought as a surprise and helped me put them on repeating over and over again: “Don’t. Go. Over. Your. Hipboots” as I waddled alongside him on the path through the cornfield, this time with a Mets hat (because I knew by then that you can’t fish without a hat) and sunglasses that I knew were without a doubt the coolest sunglasses in the entire world. I waddled the whole way and tried to make sure he didn’t see how many steps I had to take to keep up with his because I figured I was a grown-up now or otherwise he wouldn’t have taken me here to begin with, so I better act the part.

We reached the riverbank and he held my hand for the first few steps. I remember being surprised at just how cold 45 degrees was, even with a pair of hip boots and the three pairs of adult wool socks Mom made me wear.

“Remember, don’t walk over your hipboots!” He let go of my hand and smiled and walked out into the river a little bit above his waist. He began to tie on an alewife imitation he cleverly coined “the white fly” because, well, it was white. He was close enough that I could still hear him humming.

I remember those first steps deeper and deeper into the river watching the water grow closer and closer to the top of my boots and the way it got so much deeper so much faster than I thought and how for a moment the water seemed to pause, the meniscus yet to break. Before Dad even started casting, the boots were filled with cold water and I was crying “I’m sorry, Daddy,” over and over, hysterical. The snot and tears poured out of my face as he carried me back through the cornfield to the truck, more embarrassed at the failed attempt at adulthood than miserable from being wet and cold.

“It’s okay,” he said, propping me up on the tailgate with a half-grin that seemed to say he would have been more surprised if I didn’t walk over my hipboots in 5 minutes.

This was about the same time the Wednesday night visitations started fresh after the divorce and the first move and how this was a new thing to everyone involved so we all did what we always did and fished. The closest lake was just close enough that Dad could swing by the new condo after work and pick up my younger brother and me, get dinner and fish for a few hours before he had to drop us off again and we wished he didn’t have to keep leaving but were finally starting to understand why. The lake was named the Monksville, which we cleverly renamed Skunksville due to the incredible amount of times everyone left there fishless.

Dad’s friend Larry would meet us there and he would bring his son Joey and the five of us would fish together, all wearing hats, catching nothing, wondering why exactly we continued to come here every week. But we all showed up the next week anyway.

Joey pulled a record musky out of that lake one afternoon and my brother and I hated him for it.

One row plus one column: 14.

The first joint and first drink, both alone in that same year, and how I got caught the first time smoking pot inside the house on a snow day by burning three bags of popcorn in the microwave to hide the smell, and how Mom to my complete shock declared, “It stinks like fucking pot and burnt popcorn in here,” the second she opened the door. Nobody believed me when I said it was my first time because nobody smokes pot alone for the first time, but I did and continued to most of the time and tried almost everything for the first time alone because I thought I was conducting some kind of experiment with my own body as the test subject and wanted to feel whatever it was I was supposed to feel without the hindrance of other people to interject their way of using drugs onto mine, man. Or at least that’s what I said when people asked, but really I just wasn’t very good at making friends or keeping friends or interacting with people in general.

My first funeral that same year. Record-musky-holder Joey died from a motorbike accident at a party and he smashed his head on the pavement and his brain swelled and they had to put him on life support until they found out he wasn’t going to recover. I smoked way too much that day before receiving the phone call that said we were going to the funeral. This was the first time I’d seen two grown men cry in each other’s arms and one of the only times of maybe four or five that I’ve seen Dad cry, only over drugs, only over his sons.

A row of 2 behind the dresser.

Then 2 to 14 years, and I stopped wearing hats and sunglasses and Dad was very confused by this, stating, “How can you fish without a hat?” over and over shaking his head and I used to hate it just so much. I’d stand there listening to him hum and the noise would never stop between my ears and the humming and the silence made me so crazy and by then my brother and I, who had also stopped wearing a hat, used to sneak off the river and into that same corn field by that same factory, now forgotten and overgrown, to smoke pot and cigarettes and drink and fall asleep in the sun. And we both wondered just how and why the fuck Dad spent so much time on this stupid river humming to himself and I wished I was at home getting fucked up in some kid’s basement and dropping acid and talking about philosophy and stuff and the interconnectivity of all things that people who don’t drop just don’t understand, man, but mostly just laughing for 12 hours and trying to do anything, to run away from ourselves.

That same year over Christmas break my friend said he went through his parent’s cabinets and found a lot of Percocet and that he would gladly give away for free, since we were such good friends and all, and I snuck out of the house at the exact moment he said this via AOL Instant Message and walked 3 miles to his house in the middle of the night in the snow. His dad walked out right after he gave me the pills and asked “What exactly in the fuck were you two doing talking outside at 2 in the morning on a Thursday in a fucking snowstorm?” and my friend made up some ridiculous story that I needed to talk to someone right away and his dad just kind of shrugged and went inside and then carefully made sure not to talk about that night again. I took a Percocet that night and went to bed not sure about what all the fuss was about, but the next day figured out how much to take and understood exactly what all the fuss was about.

A column of 4 behind the dresser.

Add 4 to 14 for 18 when I had stopped fishing completely.

“It’s just not my thing anymore,” I’d tell Dad who still asked every single weekend if I wanted to fish even though he knew the answer he’d get. I wanted to tell him how my head couldn’t stop racing and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that I had done and couldn’t stop doing that I wasn’t raised to do and things I was supposed to be and wouldn’t ever be every time I went somewhere quiet, but couldn’t.

Fresh out of high school and I’d already had been kicked out, dropped out, fired, and selling drugs to keep the habit going. After painkillers exploded in high school it was easy to think all of this was okay because, well, everyone was doing it, and some were just doing it a little more and if people felt the way I felt they would be too. That same year this kid Nick who I used to swap pills with asked if I could get heroin because he had heard me brag about how I’d sniffed it before. I told him no, but he must have found it somewhere because he was found dead in his bathroom two days later, the first of many deaths from my old school.

I remember thinking about those almost-overdoses and almost-911 calls when friends wouldn’t wake up and thought of all the times waking up to a pounding on the door on the floor and all the blackouts and the times waking up places I didn’t remember going to and thought about how good of an addict I must be, how good of a criminal to never get caught, avoiding the truth that it was the only thing I ever really put my mind to.

I thought about an ex-girlfriend who was there through all of this who overdosed in a sporting goods store parking lot that I used to go walk around in with Dad and my brother years before and how her lips turned purple and her face turned white, then blue and how I took out the phone to call 911, screaming “Someone help!” as she woke up and said “What happened?” and “Can I have more?”

Then 18 and just so goddamn cool because I could get people anything and the phone was always ringing from people who only talked to me when I had drugs and never ringing anymore from the people that loved me for who I was. Fresh out of high school and freshly addicted and we all knew what we were doing and the ones that weren’t right there with us would try to warn us. “Relax,” I’d say and scoff, “I can’t get addicted because a pill or a chemical couldn’t have that kind of power over me,” because I was just too smart and knew all about dopamine and serotonin receptors and how drugs affected them and that they should worry about their own fucking lives because what I do with my body was none of their fucking business anyway.

Another row of 2.

Now 20 years old with a serious collection of junkie friends in their late 20s or early 30s who got a kick out of having a young kid who was such a mess around because I always figured out ways to scam somebody to get money and had an honest face and geeky glasses so I was good to talk to the cops and got out of a lot of shit because I was just so goddamn cool and slick, man, and knew that “the key to a good lie is to believe it yourself,” which I told them all to make myself sound just so cool but really had stolen from an episode of Seinfeld.

Eventually the day came that they, they, said, “Man, you need to get some fucking help; you’re a mess,” and I could never believe the nerve of these people, stupid junkies, always so goddamn rude, and moved on to a new set of friends but the same thing kept happening until I found two men in their late 30s with enormous heroin habits that I would surely never be worse than, that I quickly became worse than. “Man, you need to get some fucking help,” they both said from the couch in between bowls of ice cream, half-dead blinks, and un-ashed cigarettes. Goddamn junkies, always so rude.

Another column of 9 on the other side of the ceiling.

9 months alone nodded-out in bed, disappearing once a day for about 3 hours to go to a ghetto between the changing shifts of cops and rush hour, still just so fucking smart, to wait in some sketchy neighborhood for however long hoping to not get beat again and that the dope is as good as it was last week and that I please oh please don’t go to jail today. Fly rods and waders dusty and forgotten in the garage somewhere but fucking Dad kept leaving voicemails to call him sometime if I’d like to go fishing with him with a sad scoff before he hung up the phone that always went unanswered.
9 months walking that tightrope all junkies know between having lost the will to live but not wanting anyone to have to find me dead in the basement one sunny afternoon because, well, they’re already fucked up enough and that would just be fucked to do to somebody. But that voice that keeps saying to shoot shoot shoot those few extra bags gets louder and louder every single day and by then I’m sure, absolutely sure, that I’ve crossed an imaginary line that people just don’t make it back from.

The perimeter of the tiles. 28.

28 days later and I’m leaving and chainsmoking the whole way home thank god and passed the program with flying colors, ready to start anew and get back on track and I’ve got everyone fooled except myself and I’m high again that same night, high again looking in the mirror after the rush wears off and nobody knows but I do and for the first time in a long time that actually makes me feel something I can’t suppress with a syringe.

I decide to give myself a chance and go to a 12-step meeting the next day, already certain it will be awful, and I analyze how it’s all just a clever pyramid scheme based on a lot of bullshit and pseudo-psychology.

I walk in way too early and ask the only guy who’s there already if he needs help setting up the chairs to which he responds, “Well, they don’t set up themselves,” so I start grabbing chairs and wait until he is just far enough away that he maybe could and maybe couldn’t hear me say, “Fucking asshole,” under my breath and that’s all I remember happening, not anything anyone else said. But I went home with a list full of phone numbers from people who all insisted that I call them, please call them, because they want to help, but a room full of strangers couldn’t help and most of those people were probably high and just lying about it anyway.

That night I’m trying to sleep but I still only sleep for a few hours at a time and tonight I can’t even get those few hours and I don’t believe in God or fate or anything like that because I am smarter than all that and “religion is the opiate of the masses” and anyone who’s anyone knows that and plus if there is a God in the Catholic sense I was just so incredibly fucked at this point so why bother but I ask for a sign anyway, for a stupid burning bush from whatever imaginary force will listen just to get some sort of fucking clue as to where I go from here because I just simply don’t know and this fact makes me cry until I can’t breathe, snot and tears pouring out of my face for however long until I finally take a second to think about how ridiculous I must look, face all swollen and red and covered in mucous and laugh at myself for the first time clean and grab the list of phone numbers and notice that one name, Sean, has an asterisk next to it. And I think “what kind of self-centered dickhead is this guy putting an asterisk next to his name to make himself more noticeable or something Jesus Narcissistic Fucking Christ” but call him anyway because I remembered he looked young. He picks up.


I ramble that I hope I’m not bothering him and that I saw him at the meeting tonight and that I don’t know what to do or say and I was never good at this kind of thing or most things really and usually just kind of average or below average and that I always tend to give up on everything and everyone so prematurely and how the fuck did he stay clean for so long at such a young age and how the fuck could I possibly expect to adjust from the fast-paced lifestyle that I was so accustomed to living to one without drugs and was he really happy and he should tell me the truth and just what the fuck do you guys do with your spare time because it seems that quitting heroin has kind of freed up my entire schedule and—

“We fly fish,” he says. “Me and two other kids from meetings. This guy Larry and this guy Danny. We have extra gear if you need it and can teach you—”


“This weekend we’re going up to the West Branch of the Delaware outside this little shitty town Deposit, you can—”

“What pool?”

“Umm, there’s this spot we go to by what used to be a cornfield a lot? There’s this ugly fucking factory right by it, but the trout are big and everywhere year round. They release water from the dam so it stays cold year—well, you probably don’t care. . . .

“Hey, Ben, are you still there?

“You been fly fishing before?


“Ben, you there?”

Five years later and the four of us still spend as much time as possible together side by side waist deep in some river somewhere listening to the sounds of the river and the fly line zipping in and out of the guides, all wearing hats.

I find myself humming often.

About the author: Benjamin Burgholzer is a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University and an English professor at Rockland Community College. When he is not teaching or writing, he spends as much time as possible in the mountains, woods, and rivers. This piece originally appeared in Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2014 issue.

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