Fantasies of Ice-Fishing
Ancient Ice Cubes
In one, I pretend to skate around the ice in the furry Sorel boots Chuck lent me. (That’s what he has me call him instead of Dad.) They’re way too big. I stuff wadded-up newspaper, along with a clean pair of wool socks, into them so they won’t slip and slide and fall right off.
So, I’m lurching around, first along the hut walls, then around the hole where we drop our lines. Chuck watches me with one eye, the other focused on his rod and reel. “Careful,” he says as I pull off a quick jump turn. Now I pretend to skate backwards, picking up sloppy speed for the triple axel I’ve seen Olympic figure skaters perform. I’m about to fake the toe kick and launch myself into the air when the bottom drops out from under me. I grunt as the frigid water knocks the wind out of my chest. Then I go under.
I’d expect it to be pitch black, but the diffuse light refracts through the ice. It’s crystalline and pale blue. Schools of walleye and northern pike study me as I bob in the gentle current. I spot an old tire and some empty Milwaukee’s Best cans, a rusty bucket and a pair of Chuck Taylors tied together with algae-green laces. The water grows thick and slushy. As it crystallizes, I feel a slight pressure squeezing around me. I try to swim but can’t move my arms or legs. I embrace the strangely peaceful silence.
Soon I see them: ancient ice cubes. A woolly mammoth and some sort of duck-billed dinosaur; gigantic versions of beavers and badgers, reindeer and skunks; a hairy, heavy-jawed creature that might be a distant cousin. All of them encased in ice. Blue light dances through the viscous water. They all must’ve been down here, undiscovered, for eons. Chances are, I will be, too.
I feel a thud at my back, followed by another. The ice around my head and shoulders compresses. All at once I feel this weightless upward motion, like flying.
Next thing I know, Chuck hauls me out of the water with a pair of baling hooks. He sets me next to the fire, adds another log, and stokes the coals. When the ice melts, and I can feel my lips again, I say:
“Where’d you get those things?”
He grins. “At the getting place.” He hands me a mug of hot chocolate. No marshmallows or whipped cream, but I let that slide.
“Thanks for saving me, Chuck.”
“No problem, little girl,” he says without looking my direction.
I blow into my hot chocolate before taking a sip. “Lots of hungry fish down there.”
“Good girl,” says Chuck, baiting my hook, then his own. “Let’s get these lines back in the water.”
Inside the Hut
Sometimes the hut is an elaborate fishing house with a big brick fireplace, comfy couches, and tongue-and-groove wood on the walls and ceilings. Gives the place a warm, cozy feel. Covered fishing holes line the well-insulated walls. This luxurious cabin has a full kitchen and bathroom, a living room with giant flatscreen TV, and a small bedroom for pre-, post-, or while-fishing naps. Warm, cheery light fills the space.
Chuck and I play hearts with his new wife and twin boys at the kitchen table, sipping coffee with a splash of Irish whiskey and lots of whipped cream. We walk around barefoot on the radiant flooring, gazing at the unbroken winter-scape pouring through the windows. We make friendly jokes, laughter bubbling out of us. The fish bite, or they don’t. Nobody notices.
My friends ditch me at the State Fair to smoke weed. I should probably join them, since it might help me forget about everything for a while, but I refuse to become my mother. Instead, I roam around, taking in Artisans Village and Farmyard Follies, the Lumberjack Show and the Wonderful World of Sawdust. Mostly, I’m admiring all the families, mothers and fathers and kids, gorging themselves on cotton candy, funnel cakes, and curly fries, washing it down with Rainier and root beer, smiling and laughing. That could’ve been me. It feels terrible.
I light a Marlboro and wander into the carnival area with its Tilt-A-Whirl, Zipper, and bumper cars. The barkers ply their trade. I ignore the ring toss, pistol shoot, and balloon pop. Instead, I belly up to the Whac-A-Mole. All these games are a racket, this one no less than the others. Still, I’m angry. I’m always angry, have been for as long as I can remember. Tonight, I’m brimming with rage. So, I plug my quarters, palm the mallet, and wait.
The moles begin their dance. I swing and flail but can’t make contact. Then I realize they look more like Chuck than moles: sandy blond hair and bushy beard, green eyes and goofy grin. “Come on, little girl,” he says, climbing out of his hole. “Don’t be a quitter.”
My speed and accuracy improve, though tears blur my vision. I know where Chuck’s going to be before he moves, like I have the Force. The points rack up. Tears streak my face. I set a new high score. The attendant fakes a smile and brings me, of all things, a giant stuffed gopher.
I don’t have many family photos—we weren’t a family for very long—but there’s one I’ve kept over the years. It’s all three of us, Mom, Chuck and me, on a visit to see Chuck’s family in Minnesota. How he got her up there defies imagination. She always said all that snow and ice business was for the Eskimos, refusing to consider such a trip. She made up all kinds of excuses to avoid hurting his feelings: she couldn’t get the time off work, or we couldn’t afford it. Some of them were even true.
Yet there we are, in full color, bundled in mismatched hats, gloves, and insulated coveralls, standing in front of an olive Chrysler station wagon I don’t recognize. The sky behind us is clear, and we’re all squinting. Chuck’s in the middle, one arm wrapped around Mom’s shoulders, the other around mine, face stretched into a big grin. I’m smiling, too, fishing rod in my hands. Even Mom smirks, though she looks awkward balancing the giant motorized auger in the snow. Spindly, powder-dusted pine trees stretch away from the ice. Cold wind tousles our hair.
No matter how many times I’ve studied it, I can’t fathom when the picture was taken. I couldn’t be more than seven or eight. Mom still looked young, so it was back before the J&B and Dunhills ruined her face. Chuck always looks the same, no matter how much time passes: early thirties, sandy blond hair, bushy beard, twinkly green eyes.
Land of 10,000 Lakes
Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It became the thirty-second state to join the Union in 1858. State beverage: milk. State gemstone: Lake Superior agate. State fish: walleye. Its name comes from what the Dakota tribe called the river: mní sóta, or “clear blue water.” Hockey is the most popular sport, after ice-fishing.
Inside the Hut II
Sometimes there is no hut. No luxury cabin, no corrugated metal shack, not even a makeshift tent. It’s just me in the dim light crowding around a hole in the ice. Maybe Chuck, sporting faded brown insulated coveralls, graces me with his presence. Most times, he doesn’t. The fish don’t bite. My fingers and toes go numb. I keep wondering, What the hell am I doing here?
When I ask Chuck what I should wear, he says, “Dress in layers.” That’s the way they talk in Minnesota. But I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so what do I know about twenty-below-zero? I look into it and learn to wear three main layers: daisy-print long johns, polar fleece from Goodwill, and an insulated Gore-Tex jacket my friend loans me. Also, a scarf, hat and gloves snagged from the Army Surplus store. Chuck loans me some wool socks and his old Sorel boots. They’re too big for me, but I make do. When, tired and hungry, we finally get home, it takes forever to peel off all those layers.
The first time Chuck takes me out, it’s a clear, tranquil morning. The sunrise explodes salmon and tangerine over the horizon as we eek across the ice. The heater in Chuck’s F-150 tickles my toes through the thick wool socks.
We stop at a small cove on the north side of the lake, one of Chuck’s favorite fishing holes. There’s no one else around. He parks but leaves the motor running and the heat blasting.
“Stay warm,” he says. “This won’t take long.”
He lugs his tools across the ice and prepares our fishing hole. I only realize I’ve been dozing when the creak of the driver’s side door rouses me.
“Wakey-wakey, eggs and bakey.”
I bundle up—sweater, jacket, boots, hat, etc, and follow him, slip-sliding, across the ice. Chuck points to a stool, passes me a fishing pole, and shows me how to bait the hook. We drop our lines through the hole into the water, then settle in to wait.
It’s a calm, still morning. The trees hang heavy with snow, branches drooping so low they look like they might snap, but the skies are completely clear. The air tastes like ice. When the sun climbs into the empty winter sky, we turn our faces toward it, and we can almost feel its warmth on our cheeks.
We sit for what feels like weeks. Neither of us gets so much as a nibble. Chuck says very little. I don’t utter a word. We wait. Nothing stirs. We see no one.
“Sorry we got skunked,” Chuck says, reeling in his line and attaching his hook to one of the rod eyelets. “But we can’t sit out here all day.”
I nod and start cranking the handle of my reel. But then I feel something. I slow down. There it is again: a fish? I reel in more line, feeling another nibble or two. When the fish strikes, I’m ready. I set the hook and crank hard.
The whole time, Chuck’s sulking and packing up the truck, so he misses it when I pull a good-sized pike out of the water. I lay it on the ice away from the hole and remove the hook. I carry the fish by the lower lip over to the truck, where Chuck nips from a flask engraved with his initials.
“Caught this for you, Chuck.”
When I hold up my trophy, he smiles bigger than Christmas. I’ve never seen him look happier.
“Appreciate you, little girl.”
To cut a hole in the ice, you need the right tools for the job: an auger and a slush scoop. The auger, either manual or motorized, uses a helical blade to bore a hole through the two-foot-thick frozen crust. The slush scoop is like a huge cooking spoon with a long handle and holes in the bowl. You make the hole with the auger and clean it out with the slush scoop. Easy as pie.
Inside the Hut III
Usually, we have some makeshift structure, a corrugated metal shack or canvas tent. Nothing but ice for a floor. No heat. The structure does nothing to ward off the cold seeping into my bones, but it cuts the wind and saves us from the worst of the snow, sleet, and ice.
Chuck brings buddies with him whose names don’t register: Cletus, Bubba, Junior, Dale. They talk rot and ignore me completely or point and chuckle. Chuck stinks of Marlboros, while his buddies reek of Skoal. Some of them spit into cups, but most hawk the brown juice right onto the ice, where it freezes in little mounds.
The wind howls. Fat, wet flakes pelt the tent walls. I shiver despite all my layers. With tiny kid fingers, I shake a Marlboro from Chuck’s pack and poke it between my lips. I have to strike the lighter three times before the flame leaps into the frigid air. I puff in silence. The smoke fills me with warmth until the cigarette burns to ashes.
I’ve never been to Minnesota.
I’m awkward in my teenage body, but this guy is cute, so I deal. It’s our first date. He takes me to play mini golf. We joke and laugh when we can’t get the ball to roll where it’s supposed to, up the ramp or over the bridge, through the windmill or down the slide. We’re lucky if we can keep it inside the rails. We’re both terrible.
It’s fun, until it’s not. The ball has to go through the loop, hit a bumper at the perfect speed to make a forty-five-degree angle, roll across a long stretch of artificial turf, then drop into the cup. I swing my putter, tap the ball, and, miraculously, that’s exactly what happens. Our eyes light up.
“Omigawd,” I say.
“Nice shot.” He gives me a high-five.
“That was complete luck,” I say before his enthusiasm can morph into disgust. “You’ve seen how I play. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.”
Then Chuck rises from the hole, ball in his mouth, twinkle in his eyes.
“What the hell?” says my date.
Chuck spits out the ball, and, smiling, says, “You’re a natural, little girl.”
We’ve barely sat down in the fishing shack when Chuck gets a bite. Not two minutes later, he reels in the biggest walleye either of us has ever seen. “Get the net,” he says. I oblige, and together we haul the monster to the ice.
We’re standing, smoking Marlboros, marveling at the size of the thing, when I notice the tip of my rod bend hard.
“I’ve got a bite.”
“Get it quick,” says Chuck, tending to his catch. “Might be this SOB’s brother.”
Sure enough, I haul the fish in, and it’s bigger than the one Chuck hooked.
“Don’t that beat all?” says Chuck.
They’re too big to fit into the cooler, but they’re not exactly going to start rotting in the winter sun. We dump ice into the bed of Chuck’s truck, and lay the walleyes out on it.
Soon as we get our hooks back into the water, the fish strike. We reel them in and lay them out on the ice with the others. It’s incredible. Chuck’s never seen anything like it. Neither have I—though that’s not saying much, since I’ve only been out a couple of times. We both keep expecting some guy on a snowmobile to swing by and ask if the fish are biting. “Now and then,” we’d say.
Before long, it’s more than we can handle. I know the basics, but I’m only fifteen and new at this. Chuck’s been doing it all his life. If it weren’t for the swigs from his flask, he’d be fine. But the more monsters he catches, the more he celebrates. Doesn’t take long before he’s three sheets to the wind. His balance and coordination are so bad, I have to bait the hook for him, remove the hook from the fish and schlep it over to the truck. It’s like I’m working two lines. I can’t keep up.
I’m taking a breather, stretching my fingers, massaging my forearms, when a fish comes flying through the hole. He flops on the ice for a minute, mouth and gills working, eyes glassy. I move that direction, when here comes another one shooting out of the water and landing five feet from the first. I stare at Chuck. He stares at me. We share a grin.
“Grab the other net,” he says.
Before I’m ready, another flies up onto the ice, then another and another. It’s like they’re shooting themselves out of an underwater circus canon. Chuck watches, sauced and wide-eyed, as I scurry around, catching fish as they rocket through the frigid air. He shakes his head and says:
“It’s raining fish.”
I get him moving, but he’s not much help, soaked in Old Grand Dad. It’s too much work for one person, but I can’t just let them lie where they land. That’s when it hits me. I scramble over to the truck and jump in behind the wheel. The fish fountain seems to be pouring mainly one direction, and I back up so most of them land directly in the bed with their friends. I net most of the other ones. The few strays I can’t catch I clean up by hand.
The whole time Chuck is useless, splayed out in his lawn chair, swilling bourbon. Luckily, the deluge slows, then peters out entirely. By that time, the truck bed’s full to overflowing. I chip enough ice to cover them, though I’m not sure they’ll stay put as we make our way back into town.
“What’d I tell you about ice-fishing?” Chuck slurs.
Snow flurries dance in sudden gusts of wind. The cold air smells of campfire smoke. Voices of other fishermen echo across the ice.
Then comes the pop and hiss: a back tire has blown.
Now a screechy straining sound. I listen hard, wondering. The strange noise swells until—bam! —Chuck’s truck lurches, dropping six inches. The top layer of walleye pours out of the bed, spraying across the ice.
I crouch to investigate. “Chuck?”
His head snaps back. His eyes loll. He can’t focus. He mumbles something I don’t understand.
“The thing that connects the wheels—”
“Axle,” he slurs.
“Yeah, the axle. That thing just snapped in two.”
I expect him to rant and rave, breaking our fishing rods across his knee. Instead, he grins and his eyes go wide. “Motherlode!”
Gophers, a type of rodent, are known for destroying gardens. But where do they go in winter? When it hits minus-sixty and won’t stop snowing? Not into hibernation, believe it or not. Instead, they burrow deeper, way down below the frost line, hiding in their holes where nothing can hurt them.
I’m eleven or twelve, munching donuts at a slumber party. Chuck pops up through a hole in the middle. Grinning and smoking he says, “When you gonna come ice-fishing, little girl?” I start crying and can’t stop. I won’t tell anyone what’s wrong. My friend’s father, who smells like aftershave and drives a Lexus, has to take me home after midnight. When I step inside, my mom’s passed out on the couch, lipstick smeared, an open bottle of J&B staining rings into the coffee table.
Chuck and I get set up and put our lines in the water before I mention it.
“So my friend Andy may swing by in a little while.”
He gives me a quizzical glance. “He your boyfriend?”
I light a Marlboro with a cheap plastic lighter. I must be mid- to late-twenties at the time.
“Proud of you for making local friends,” he says. “You gonna stay a while?”
I take a deep drag, exhaling blue smoke through my nose. Something’s nibbling at my hook, but I ignore it. “He’s from back home.”
Chuck lights one of his own. He notices the nose of my rod dipping and gives me a look. When I don’t respond, he takes my pole, and pulls an impressive pike through the hole. After removing the hook and putting the fish on ice, he rubs his eyes with the heel of his right hand. His cigarette smolders. “You forget how this works?”
I lean back, cross my legs and take a long drag, squinting.
Soon I smell Andy’s earthy musk. A couple minutes later, a knock at the corrugated steel door, polite as can be.
“That your buddy?”
“Maybe,” I say, going to the door.
Andy steps gingerly into the hut. He’s tall so he has to duck through the doorway. When Chuck looks up, his eyes bug. His Marlboro falls out of his mouth. He’s so flustered, he almost drops his fishing pole. But Andy’s seen it all, so nothing fazes him.
“Hi, Chuck,” he says, stretching out an enormous paw. “Good to meet you.”
Chuck’s thick, callused hand looks tiny in Andy’s grip. His face goes pallid green. I lean against the wall and light another cigarette.
“Sorry to barge in on you like this, but”—he glances at me—“I think you and I need to have a heart-to-heart.”
Now a panicked look flashes across Chuck’s face. His right hand skips toward the knife on his belt. “Now, wait a minute,” he says, standing bolt upright. “What the hell’s—”
“I understand this might be upsetting,” says Andy, hands out, palms down. “But let’s just calm down, okay?”
Chuck throws me a bewildered glance as he eases back into his chair. I feel my face pucker. Andy takes a deep breath. I breathe in little sips. In these confined quarters, Andy’s musk is overwhelming.
“I just want to get one thing clear,” Andy says.
“I got nothing to say to you.” Chuck shakes another smoke from his pack and shoves it between his lips. He tries to light it, but his hands are quaking too much.
I give him my coldest glare.
Andy leans back and folds his arms across his chest. “So, why’d you do it?”
“Why did I do what?”
Andy fakes a smile. He’s surprisingly patient and well-mannered, for a Sasquatch. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Chuck shakes his head. “Think I’m some kinda mind-reader?”
“Just answer the question,” I say.
Andy gives me a look. “Samantha, please. Stick to the plan.”
“But your plan’s getting us nowhere.”
“Fine,” I say, shifting my weight.
Chuck sneers. “The two of you are like some old married couple. Is this the best you could do for yourself, little girl?”
I feel myself scowl. Wind rattles the corrugated steel siding. Snowmobiles whine past and Doppler into the distance.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Andy tells Chuck.
“You heard me.”
“Don’t think for a minute I trust you,” Chuck declares, but clamps his eyes shut anyway.
“Now picture this,” says Andy. “You live in a nice little bungalow by the water. You’ve got a good job at the mill, a lovely wife, and a beautiful baby girl.”
Chuck chews his lip.
“For a few years, you’re happy as clams,” says Andy. “So why do you decide one day to climb into your truck, drive off, and never come back?”
He sits silent for a long moment. I search his bearded face for clues. Andy glances at me. I shrug then notice tears squeezing out of Chuck’s eyes. I signal Andy to keep at it.
“Do you have any idea how many nights she cried herself to sleep?” Andy says. “When kids at school asked what happened to her dad, she made up all sorts of stories. You were traveling in Europe on business or dropping ordinance on enemy targets in the Middle East, sailing the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia or racing in the Monaco Grand Prix.”
Chuck wipes the tears with the back of one hand, then the other. He hasn’t opened his eyes. Little sobs leak out from behind his bushy beard.
I’m shot through with Schadenfreude. It dissipates more quickly than I would’ve expected, leaving a residue of pity and disgust. Before I realize what I’m doing, I crush my cigarette beneath a boot, then ease around Andy to where Chuck sits.
Andy makes a face. “Stick to the plan, Samantha.”
I ignore him, crouching beside Chuck. My father. Dad. “Do you realize how much I missed you? And hated you? I blamed Mom, then myself. It was convenient for her to blame me, though she knew better. She drank herself into a stupor and stayed there. Can you imagine what my childhood was like?”
Chuck’s sobbing swells. He sniffles and snorts and wipes his eyes, though he can’t keep up with the flow.
I put my arm across his broad shoulders and hold him as all those years of grief and shame pour out. It doesn’t feel anything like I expected. It’s miserable. All at once, I just want to leave.
I stand and step to the door. Andy follows me, ducking.
“Where you headed, little girl?”
“I’m not your little girl.”
“Don’t get your panties in a wad,” Chuck says. “I was just—”
“You were just nothing.” My shoulders knot up. I stretch my neck, first one way, then the other. “Good luck to you, Chuck.”
Now we’re out the door. Sunlight glimmers through a swirl of snow flurries. Andy and I stride across the ice to shore, and I never look back.
The Hole, Again
I’ve never been ice-fishing, not in Minnesota or anywhere else. Chances are, I’ll never go. Yet somehow, I ended up with the hole. It’s always there. It’s been with me since I was a little girl, and it’ll probably be with me to the end. The presence of an absence is a strange paradox, one that shouldn’t be possible. Not even thinkable. Yet over and over again, I find myself falling into that hole, sinking through the black waters like a weighted corpse.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (four times) and the Best of the Net Award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he directs the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at Oregon State University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.