Luke Rolfes


Luke Rolfes grew up in Polk City, IA and now teaches at Northwest Missouri State University. He is a fiction editor at The Laurel Review, and his stories appear in Passages North, Bat City Review, Connecticut Review, and many others magazines.

Straw Man

The Mexicans at the jetty are stepping on black bass. The fish they catch do not meet regulation, so they stand on them, squeezing fin and scale between heel and rock, until the body extends. The fish transforms into a longer version of itself. Flattened. The woman is frantic as she explains this to me. I should arrest the Mexicans. I should prosecute. But I’m not a cop or a lawyer. The most I can do is call the police on my radio, but I don’t do that either.

The woman’s eyes fill with tears. She’s early forties, glistening sweat through a plus-size pink cardigan. Like a nervous tic, her gaze flits back and forth between my face and the two boys with wheat-colored hair (her sons?) who yell and laugh as they play balance beam on the concrete dividers in the parking lot. I explain that a fish goes into shock when it comes out of water. Imagine if you ate a chicken sandwich, and an incredibly strong, invisible wire yanked you out of the atmosphere, into outer space. Think about how our sophisticated mind couldn’t process that pain. Think about how stupid a fish brain is.

One of the boys says fuck you to his brother. He has fallen from the concrete divider, and a patch of blood stains his left knee. The woman flinches but makes no move to scold the children. Maybe they aren’t hers after all. The hurt boy remains down for only a moment, then he remounts the divider, seemingly happy.

I turn my head to the shoulder radio. I call unit 4 to whoever is out there. Waterpatrol Craig comes back, and I ask if he will do a license check at the west side jetty. He says, ten-four. The woman seems satisfied by the official-sounding radio talk. Make sure and check the gills, she says. Mexicans stuff rocks in the gills.


Working for the DNR is my summer life. During the school year, I study graduate English at Central Iowa University—they even let me teach a section of freshman composition—but I spend May through August at the lake. This is my third year, and I’ve grown to like it. I ride a Dixie Chopper mower in the afternoon, and then patrol the grounds in the ranger’s truck after four o’ clock. Every now and then, I see disturbing things. A woman who hit her mouth on the windshield in a fender bender showed me a hornet’s nest of cut lips and teeth. I shined a spotlight, once, on a naked couple in their 50’s rolling in the sand and making animal noises. Another time I found a runner collapsed, face down, on the bike trail. I thought he was dead, but he had torn his ACL. It hurt too much to move.

My worst memory is of an old black fisherman. He waved my truck to his bench alongside the north Hampton bathroom. He had a thick mustache and strands of silver folded under a green Pioneer seed hat. His rock-hard belly ballooned into his lap. Did I hear the news, he wanted to know. I hadn’t. “Young man,” he said. “The end of this road is a terrible place.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, but the hair on the back of my neck stood and goose bumps peppered my forearms. The old man said I ought to turn around, he’d already phoned the police.

I expected the worst—a catastrophe beyond words. The reality was less exciting. A man in a pickup truck had shot himself in the cul-de-sac by the Inland Cat shelter. There wasn’t anything dramatic like a blood covered windshield. He was just slumped, dead against the steering wheel. People say it looked like he passed out.

I never saw him, of course. When I told the old fisherman that it was my responsibility to drive to the end of the road, he stood in front of my truck with his hands on the hood. I was too young, he said. I was his son’s age, and he would never let his son see a thing like he had seen. Wait for the police.

The first officer on duty, Chad, is eighteen months younger than me.


The fat lady with the kids (or whatever they are to her) asks if I will watch them while she goes to the bathroom. I don’t know what she expects of me, but I agree. First I’m her cop, and now I’m her babysitter. She yells something about minding manners to the two boys with dirty blonde hair, and then waddles off to the port-a-potty.

Almost on cue, the kids appear in front of me, breathing hard. They want to show off. “I have a trick bike at home,” says the older one. “It’s a Dyno.”

“That’s good,” I say.

“If you really want to be gay in school,” he continues, “you ride a Huffy.”

The little brother bristles. “You’re gay,” he says.

This starts a momentary wrestling match, or something close to it. They lock wrist to wrist and attempt to kick each other’s ankles. Probably a year or two separates them in age, but they appear to be the exact same strength. “Listen,” I say, “I used to have a BMX, but I broke the handlebars jumping a ramp. I’ll show you the scar.”

“We do jumps all the time,” the younger one says, no longer interested in fighting. “I could maybe jump over a car.”

“I could jump a semi-truck,” says the older.

I’m starting to wonder what is keeping their mother. I ask them how long they expect her to be.

The older one laughs. “That’s Aunt Hen. She’s so fat. We could jump her fat belly, but I think it would be impossible. She eats all the time.”

The younger goes into hysterics. “Aunt Hen is probably trying to poop all that food.”

Both children squawk crazy with laughter. Then they resume trying to kick each other in the ankle. They argue over which one is more gay. For a minute I feel that this woman has left me with these brats. Maybe she doubled back through the woods, and there was some big biker dude with a fantastic beard waiting to take her away.

It isn’t too much longer before Aunt Hen emerges from the port-a-potty, her cheeks sunburned, her hair mussed. “Thank you so much,” she says. “Did they sass you?”



I don’t know what I did to deserve Travis. He is waiting for me at the shop, smiling in ragged jeans and cutoff Led Zeppelin t-shirt. He’s short, with bleached hair and teeth that sometimes don’t touch and sometimes overlap, skinny, a chin that juts out like he’s being pulled by an invisible beard. He has one long eyebrow in the shape of an M. A boy like him exists in every American sophomore class, one who takes no greater joy from life other than cutting somebody with a cruel word or sharp joke. Teeth and talons. He’d accuse Aunt Hen of stealing food meant for orphans, or maybe even eating one of the orphans if she were hungry enough. Those two brat kids would worship the ground on which he walks.

If Travis speaks, he lies. He brags about what it smells like between the legs of girls in his high school. When I’m driving him around in the truck, he holds his fingers to his face and inhales. Then he offers me the scent of his hand. The other DNR guys have various Travis nicknames: Virgin, The Jew, Nutjob, Needledick. As he’s explained to me, black guys, especially the one dating his sister, never leave the couch unless it’s out to the mailbox to retrieve the check Obama sent. Don’t get him started on rappers, either. They make decent music, sure, but he can’t stand the way they talk -- crunk this, crunk that -- and he hates how they cruise around in their bright purple cars with the windows down, and those ridiculous, oversized spinning rims.

Two hundred hours of community service in six weeks. That’s what he owes. Waterpatrol Craig thinks Travis got caught with a whole bunch of XTC, or busted in a school parking lot selling marijuana. Though technically a criminal, Travis isn’t scary like some parolees under the DNR’s watch. The thirty-something with huge, fat forearms, as an example, beat his next door neighbor within an inch of life. Fat-arms doesn’t talk to you when you drive him around, just stares out the window, stewing pestilence. We also have one high school civics teacher who tries to pass her community service off as charity. She pays restitution for her DUI by picking up diapers and cigarette butts on the beach. A hat and broad sunglasses cover her face. She’d wear a mask, probably, if they’d let her.

It occurred to me a couple days ago that Travis likes me. I’m the youngest one of the crew, and really, the only one he talks to. For all intents and purposes, I am the surrogate older brother of a juvenile offender. I don’t know how I feel about that.

“They sent me home,” he says. He’s referring to his landscaping job. “I broke a weedeater.”

He climbs in the truck and immediately turns on rap music, the only station we ever listen to.


I drop Travis off on the dam with trash tweezers and a big sack.

“This takes at least an hour,” I say. “Go down the shoreline. Pick up all the garbage. Don’t slip and bust your brains on the rocks.”

“Aye, aye, Cap’n.”

“Try not to spend the whole hour jerking off,” I add. I don’t know why I say it, but the kid smiles. I shouldn’t joke with him.

By the time I drive the truck halfway down the road, Travis is sitting on the riprap talking on his cell phone. As usual, he isn’t going to do a Goddamn thing. After work and on his days off, he comes by and pretends to sweep or shovel or mow, and Sutton, the manager, signs his community service sheet. Sutton feels a duty to punish parolees. He assigns them awful tasks: organizing cans in the pole shed known as WaspLand USA, or running a pushmower along the disc golf fairways where poison ivy leaves outnumber blades of grass. Travis is afraid of Sutton. Sutton could call the parole officer. The parole officer could call the judge.


Waterpatrol Craig is waiting for me at the beach. Of all the black people I know, he’s the only one who wants to be a country boy. Travis says he’s the lone gang banger on the block drinking a forty ounce bottle of Pabst. He wears aviator sunglasses over his dark-skinned face; a Velcro, policeman belt holds his radio and flashlight. He likes chewing tobacco, big trucks, and farm girls in tight blue jeans. His lifelong dream is to join the ranks of the conservation officers—the biggest and baddest soldiers in the DNR army, who spend their year chasing whitetail poachers all over the state.

“Guys at the jetty had a couple expired licenses,” he says. “Wrote em up.”

I tell him about Aunt Hen and the mutilated fish.

“Heard they do that, but these Mexicans here no speak-y English,” Craig says.

He spits Copenhagen juice, and then continues, “I take it you’re stuck with the little drug addict. Kid’s been stealing beer out of the confiscation fridge. Watch him close. If you catch the little fucker, call the cops. He’s violating parole.”

I nod, and we both stare out at the small crowd populating the sand -- ninety people, maybe a hundred. Part of me really doesn’t like Craig. The look in his eyes tells me that he will make the worst kind of officer: one who enjoys ordering people to lower their voices. It thrills him when the sight of his uniform catches a man’s breath, when that man willingly allows him a look inside a locked door, a glove box, or a livewell. Nothing in the world could excite Craig more than the thought of asking a woman to prove she has nothing to hide underneath her clothes. The secret doesn’t matter. What gets him off is turning the key. Law Enforcement majors in my classes are the same. Even before they serve a day on the force, they act like they’ve joined a brotherhood of sacrifice and privilege. They look at me with smug satisfaction, knowing that they’re the ones I’ll be calling if I hear the front door creak open in the middle of the night. I’ll come running right to them.

But there are other times when Craig acts with more humanity. He and I participated, once, in the rescue of an injured horse. The owner, a hard-faced woman with rough skin and thick, braided hair, drove me around the park looking for her lost filly. She lived on a small hobby-farm several miles away, and though she was certain the filly was gone forever, she kept her eyes glued to the pastures on either side of the road. We spotted the horse standing at the edge of the woods between the fishermen’s trail and Atlantic Shelter. I don’t know if I’ve seen a sadder sight. The filly had broken its neck a month before she ran away. She still retained the ability to walk, run even, but she was hobbled by substantial nerve damage. She shook terribly, as if punch drunk by late-stage Parkinson’s. Her neck curved in an unnatural way, causing her head to hang in crippled obedience. You could see the muscles inexorably twitch, her eyes water.

Waterpatrol Craig had already found her, and he was talking to the horse gently when we arrived at the scene. He stroked her snout, and she eased into his hand, like an oversized dog seeking affection. “It’s alright,” he said to her. “Everything’s going to be okay.” The filly, when she saw me, cowered in fear. She backpedaled in an effort to hide behind Craig. I couldn’t take another step. To think that horse was in such pain that the simple presence of a human face was enough to shame it into retreat.

Craig talked in a different tone, then, when he helped the filly’s owner load her stock into the trailer. “Promise you won’t give up on her,” he said placing his hand on the woman’s sleeve. “She wants so badly to stay alive. “


Thirty minutes later, I check on Travis. The dam is empty, but I spot him two football fields down the shoreline hiding by a willow tree. In the sun’s glare, he appears as a shadow perched at the water’s edge. The lake continues to the northwest through the Lost Lake access channel, but the land we maintain ends here. There’s a yellow stake driven into the earth twenty yards past where he sits on the riprap, texting. That’s the DNR property boundary. If he were to get up and saunter ten steps to the left, he would no longer be my problem. On my way over, I pass a crumpled bag and the trash tweezers wedged between two rocks.

“You done already?”

“I can’t go on,” he says, not looking up from his phone. “I’m too thirsty.”

“There’s a lake right there to drink from.”

He doesn’t respond, shakes his head and grins at the buzzing phone before clicking more buttons.

“Who are you talking to?”

“This girl, you don’t know her,” he says. “You wish you knew her, though. Tits like buttercream, unbelievable.”

I stand there, stupidly, hoping he will rise and start picking up trash, but he makes no effort to move from the rocks. August is nearly finished, but summer remains in full force, and my hand is slick with sweat after wiping my forehead. I take off my sunglasses, and clean the lenses on my uniform.

“Be back in a half hour,” I say, finally, “Bossman should be rolling through any minute in the ranger truck.”

“Okay,” he says. “Grab me a Gatorade from the marina. I’ll owe you a dollar.”


It’s funny how an unremarkable time sticks to memory. I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck: warm sun on my bare forearms; the rumble of a neglected muffler; the smell of cut, yellowed grass. We had just dumped a load of tree clippings by the 100th Street boat ramp, and it was a long, twenty-five mile an hour drive to retrieve the mowers at the beach.

It was odd to me, laying my head against the lip of the bed, that I could enjoy the back of a pickup truck, floating along, no choices to make, no responsibility to own. My troubles consisted of waiting out a shift’s end, my itching legs, the uncomfortable shell of sunscreen dried to my face. That was me. And then there was the guy who shot himself by the Inland Cat shelter two months earlier. He sat in the front seat. At twenty-four years old, I didn’t take much seriously. I didn’t try to rationalize concepts like death, aging, or even fatherhood. Lack of responsibility felt safe. What would I say, for instance, when one day explaining to my children how a man could place a gun barrel inside his mouth? Would I bend the truth—tell them how the man suffered from a terminal illness, or that he couldn’t live with the guilt of hitting his wife in the face with a broken bottle?

Maybe I would say that the man couldn’t handle riding anymore. He wanted to drive, to feel the steering wheel between his knuckles and the rotation of tires responding to his every move. Bad choices became so real, I’d say, he could see them beckoning him forward like ghosts on the windshield.

But how could he do it? They’d want to know. How could he give away the only thing worth protecting?

You have to dare yourself, sweethearts. Don’t think about the aftermath. Just pull. But promise me you’ll never do that, no matter how much it hurts. Find me, first.

I want so badly to save you.


I walk the beach. Show some newlyweds how to keep their Alaskan Husky cool. Give directions to an old guy. A couple girls in yellow bikinis ask if they can bring liquor on the sand. As long as it’s in a plastic cup, I don’t care. An hour passes, maybe ninety minutes. The sun is high overhead before I remember to retrieve Travis.

When I hurry back to the dam, I don’t like what I see. Waterpatrol Craig and Earl, another summer employee, are messing with him from the DNR boat. They have him wading in the water after a floating life jacket. It’s a faded bubble of orange, half sunk, twenty feet from shore. Travis doesn’t know what is going to happen. Fifteen feet north of the riprap, he’ll step off a cliff. The water will go from his knees to well over his head. I’ve watched fishermen do it. They wade out in the warm mud only to find themselves plunging like a lead weight into an ocean of cold water.

By the time I remove the buzzing key from the truck ignition, I’ve already heard the yell. Travis has stepped into Craig and Earl’s trap. He flounders in the dirty water. For a moment, he disappears. Then he resurfaces, gagging and coughing. He bobs up and down several times, a yellow bonnet of bleached hair plastered to his head. Finally, he snares the wasted life jacket and hugs it to his chest. In the boat, Waterpatrol Craig and Earl have a total cow.

“Fuck you,” Travis says, “I can’t swim.”

I can hear his breathing from shore—short, uncontrolled bursts. He clings to the life jacket. I think he’s crying, or trying very hard not to.

“Kick your legs,” I say. “You don’t have to swim. Three or four kicks and you’re in the shallows.”

I worry for a second that I will have to wade in after him, but he buries his yellow head into the blaze orange pillow and frogkicks toward shore.

“You okay?” I ask when he pulls himself onto the riprap.

“You’re dead,” he says. I imagine he’s talking to the guys in the boat, but his back is turned. He marches down the shoreline to where he left his shoes and cell phone. He steps into his sneakers, then chucks the garbage bag and trash tweezers as far as he can into the lake. The bag floats, but the tweezers instantly sink and are gone. I don’t think they are expensive, but I know what Craig will do even before he does it.

“Get Sutton on the radio,” he says to Earl. He’s no longer laughing. “This kid’s going to prison.”

“Take it easy,” I say. “He couldn’t swim.”

I’m not ready for what happens next. From my vantage Travis bends over to tie his shoelaces, but he rises up with a handful of stones. Before I can say another word, the air is full of them. I see them floating in slow motion, lazy arcs over the water. The rocks make one or two backward rotations. I know right where they are going to land. I wish for one crazy moment that he threw them at me.

The guys had dropped anchor maybe thirty feet from shore. The first stone grazes Earl’s shoulder. The next one dings the hull. A third puts a ten-inch spiderweb in the glass windscreen. It’s not the worst thing a guy could do. It’s not as if Travis pulled a semi-automatic weapon and unloaded it at them, but that is how Waterpatrol Craig reacts. He yells at the top of his lungs, and I’m sure he’s using his cop lingo—assault and parole officer and felony and I don’t know what. Travis reloads, barks back, and hurls more rocks. Earl guns the motor, trying to retreat to deep water, but the old outboard sputters and stalls. Earl says Goddamnit and pulls hard on the cord. Travis throws more rocks. An older couple shorefishing on the west bank hurries to reel in their lines. The seagulls hanging out on the dam go absolutely berserk.

I don’t hear any of it, not really. None of it registers. I crouch in the grass, eyes closed, hands pressed against the sides of my head—probably some reflex I never knew I had. Warmth fills my chest, spreading to my shoulders, eyebrows, and ears. My knees quiver.

I’m trying to figure out why any of this is happening. How did I end up here, on the edge of a lake, stuck between a rock fight and a hard place? It doesn’t help that Craig is black, and Travis spends all day hating on black people. It doesn’t help that Craig would call the police on his firstborn son, or that Travis can’t swim, or that I should have been back to get him thirty minutes ago. I don’t care who’s to blame. I just want it to be a month from now –it’s mid-September and I’m back in the classroom. All of this seems like another life or another place. Travis is just a story. Craig is a device, and I am a metaphor.

When I look up, the moment has passed. The patrol boat has retreated to the far shore, and the seagulls have calmed. The old couple’s lines are back in the water. Travis has a strange expression on his face, and it takes a moment to realize what he’s staring at.

It’s me.


The road between the dam and the shop isn’t two miles, but it feels like the longest highway in the Central Plains. Travis buzzes like a disturbed hornet. He unbuckles and re-buckles his seatbelt, rolls down the window, spits, and then rolls it up. Over and over, he talks me through the scenario, the way it all went down. He wants to know if I am on his side.

“He’s going to bury me, isn’t he?” he says. He’s talking about Sutton. “I can’t be responsible for fighting back. They almost drowned me.”

“I don’t know what he’s going to say.”

“You were there. Tell ’em what happened.”

“I don’t know what he’s going to say,” I repeat. I do, though. I know exactly. Sutton doesn’t put up with nonsense. He’ll call the parole officer this afternoon.

Travis balls his fist. He cusses and pounds the dash. “Those guys said my mom can’t afford groceries. She goes around sucking dicks for foodstamps.”

He’s lying again. I say, “Why were they making you get the lifejacket?”


“Don’t mess around. Because why?”

“Because they said a couple beers magically disappeared from the fridge.”

“Did you take them?”

Travis doesn’t answer.

“I can’t believe you took that beer. It’s expired. We pick that stuff up from minors at the beach.”

Travis looks out the window. His fingers flicker to the door handle, tap it lightly, then the window crank, and finally the lock bolt. He presses the bolt, but changes his mind and tries to pincer it back up. The lock won’t budge. “It doesn’t matter if I took the beer,” he says.

I expect him to say more, but he, instead, picks up the sweating Gatorade in the cup holder between us, cracks it, and drinks deeply. After what seems like a never-ending drink, he wipes his mouth, breathing hard.

“I owe you a buck,” he says, and then, almost like an afterthought, “Goddamn, check out that fatty.”

I look to see where he’s pointing. Coming up on the right side of the road, there’s a large, shoulder-hunched woman plodding through the grass toward a parked station wagon. She’s walking with a lawn chair tucked under an arm. I recognize her immediately: Aunt Hen. The two brats with shaggy, wheat-colored hair are not far behind, careening back and forth like inner-tubes hitched to a mammoth pontoon boat.

I ease off the gas and raise a hand in greeting. Aunt Hen doesn’t notice. Clearly, the last several hours have drained all the perspiration from her body and the redness from her face. Her eyes stay forward, her steps purposeful. She doesn’t acknowledge her two trailing burdens. Their day at the lake is over. She’s on a mission: keys already out, one foot in front of the other. Nothing in the world can stand between her and the station wagon. The two boys are a different story. Both have melon-slice grins plastered to their faces. One is doing an impression of fat, old Aunt Hen, lumbering forth with puffed cheeks. His sleeves hang limp and armless. His hidden hands balloon a huge belly out of his shirt. Each bumbling step causes the younger brother to twist and contort with laughter.

I give the boys a quick honk from the DNR truck, and they lose their minds. They bounce up and down and wave furiously—hummingbirds gorged on Mexican jumping beans. For a moment, I’m forgetting about everything. I’m shaking my head and smiling. Stupid little fuckers.

Travis stares at me like I’ve gone crazy. He turns around in his seat and checks through the back window.

“They’re flipping us off,” he announces. He sounds almost happy when he says it.

I briefly worked with an angry, young parolee who roughly inspired the character of Travis. I thought, at first, that this kid was one of the worst people I had met, but after I came to know him, I realized he was just lonely. He seemed to be begging for somebody to save him from himself. I started writing the story with the intention of having the narrator save the Travis character, but I don’t think the narrator knows how.