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ICE FISHING

Crescent Review 8.2

     It is Saturday, a brilliant, sunny, freezing January morning on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I am ten years old and my brother Ben is nine. We are excited, staring out over the icy glare at a tiny wooden ice fishing hut about two hundred yards from shore. My father, behind us, is unloading fishing gear, whiskey, and food from the station wagon. He is excited too. He pauses and takes a long pull on a silver flask, says "Ahhh..." and pulls his lips back, bearing his teeth.
     "Men, that was bracing. That was needed for a morning this cold. These are men's matters from here on in, nothing for your mother to be concerned about. This is ice fishing now."
     It's Earl Weaver's ice fishing hut. Earl couldn't pay my father for some legal work so he offered him the use of the hut all winter. My father moved out of our house for another trial separation one month ago. This is the first time my brother and I have seen him since then.
     "Mike, get the rods and bait. Ben, you take the food hamper."
     We walk to the end of a short pier. My father steps off onto the ice and turns to lift us down. He is a big man, six feet tall, two hundred pounds.
     "Don't be scared. This ice is a foot thick."
     My father takes another pull on the flask. He didn't shave this morning, and his thinning hair is sticking out at odd angles. He looks wild and happy as he walks along over the black ice under the freezing sunshine.

     The hut is larger than it looks from shore, maybe ten feet square, with a stovepipe poking through the roof. Inside, a rough table stands against one wall, under the only window and behind the pot bellied coal stove in the center of the room. In each corner, square holes have been cut through the floor and then through the ice. A canvas camp chair sits beside each hole, along with a bait can.
     The hut smells like coal and fish and wood. It smells cold and good.
     "All right men. God Damn! Isn't this something? Isn't this okay? Let's fire up the stove! Mike, get some coal. There's a bin behind the hut. Ben, cut up some bait for those cans. Let's see if we can't find some big old bass hiding out down there!"
     My father takes another hit off the flask to celebrate our arrival. He moves about with happy purpose, unpacking ham sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, building and lighting a little nest of paper and sticks to kindle the coal. He helps us bait and set the lines. Soon, the stove is glowing and our coats and wool overshirts are in a pile on the floor.
     "Men, it's time you learned to take a drink of whiskey. Now, this is definitely not a concern of your mother's. This is between men. Is that understood?"
     "Sure, Dad."
     "Sure."
     My father takes a quart whiskey bottle from the hamper. He pours a half-inch into two paper cups and fills a third. He hands the first two cups to Ben and me. I am excited and a little scared. I know drinking whiskey is very important to my father. I know he fights about it with my mother.
     "Sip it, men. Learn to drink like gentlemen."
     The first sip tastes terrible. It burns my throat and makes my eyes tear. Then, a minute later, it makes my stomach warm. The second sip tastes terrible and makes me feel wonderful, free of fear and close to my father and full of understanding. Now I know why he wants this stuff. The third sip finishes my cup. I look around at my brother and my father sprawled around the warm stove in this wonderful hut and I feel like laughing. Oh, God, things are right, things are happy!
     The line jerks in Ben's corner, tinkling the attached bell. My father leans over, seizes the rod, and begins to play out the line.
     "Ben, you've got one of the bastards!" he says.
     "One of the bastards! One of the bastards!" says Ben, hopping up and down. "Dad, let me do it! Give it to me!" He takes the rod and the fish begins to pull him toward the hole.
     "It's strong!" Ben screams, and jerks the line, and I watch it go slack. Ben stares at the line in disbelief.
     "You lost it," says my father. "It's okay. You have to play the fish. You have to let it out and reel it back gently. That was a big bastard."
     "Big bastard," Ben repeats. His face looks crushed. He looks like he's going to cry.
     "Well, men, that was a disappointment. Life sometimes serves up disappointments. God knows I've disappointed your mother from time to time. Tell you what. Because of that disappointment, I'm going to give us all another little drink. How about that?"
     It sounds great to me, shared manly solace, but Ben doesn't look convinced. My father pours the whiskey and hands the cups around. He unwraps two ham sandwiches, thick with mustard and butter, and hands us each a half.
     "It was really strong, Dad. It was pulling me into the hole!"
     "It was a big bastard, Ben! Wasn't that something? God Damn!"
     Ben is smiling again, and then laughing. I'm sipping away like a gentleman and eating my sandwich and feeling a little dizzy but pretty damn fine. Then I hear the faint crunch of feet outside and through the window I see a hooded figure approaching the hut. A knock on the door. My father lifts the latch and a girl enters, throwing back the hood of her parka as the warm air strikes her. She has blonde hair, brown eyes, and a red mouth set in a narrow, pretty face. I don't know how old she is. Maybe twenty.
     "Hi," she says, "I'm Debbie. Can I warm up in your hut for a minute? "
     "Well now," my father says. "Welcome. Welcome. My name's Tim. This is Ben and this is Mike. Well now. Won't you join us for a drink?"
     "Don't mind if I do," says Debbie. "It's past noon, isn't it? Hi, Ben. Hi, Mike. You boys sure are cute," she adds, and I realize we are staring at her.
     She removes her parka, loosing a heavy floral scent to mix with the smell of whiskey and the coal fire. She is wearing jeans and a pink sweater, and her breasts are big.
     "And to what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?" my father asks, as he hands her a full cup of whiskey. She looks at him blankly.
     "How did you get here, darling?" he asks gently.
     "Oh. I was with some guys fishin' in a hut around the point. But they started actin' up, wantin' to get inta some weird stuff. I mean, I like a good time, but these were rough boys. From Laconia. Laconia boys. So I took a walk. On the ice. Now I got no money and no ride."
     "Where are you from, dear?"
     "Guilford. You know Guilford?" She smiles up at my father and moves in on him, close to him, holding her cup of whiskey in front of her. It looks like one of her legs is touching one of his.
     "Guilford. Well, that's a fine little town, and we'll be happy to return you there safely. And may I say, it's a pleasure to have you visit with us, a lady as pretty as you. Isn't that right, men?"
     "Sure," I say.
     "Sure," says Ben. He's beginning to look like he looked when the fish broke loose. Like his face is caving in.
     "You sure talk nice," says Debbie. "I get a feelin' about men, one way or the other, pretty quick."
     "Well now," says my father, "let me freshen up that drink of yours, Debbie, and let's get you something to sit on. Mike, pull that chair over by the stove."
     "Oh," says Debbie, smiling and looking at my father, "I'm sure you'll find somethin' for me to sit on."
     "Of course. Of course, darling." My father's face is red and sweating, and his eyes are darting about. He claps his hands together and addresses Ben and me with bluff, hearty cheer.
     "Now men, there's something we need to talk about. There's another part of ice fishing that I haven't told you about yet, and that is the need to take an exercise break in the middle of the day. A lot of carbon dioxide builds up in the hut because of the coal stove, so periodically you need to refresh your lungs with lots of good, pure oxygen. Now, Mike, Ben, I want you to bundle up and take a good long walk. A good half hour walk. Okay, men? And after that we'll get us some of those big old bass. Okay, men? "
     "Are you and Debbie coming with us to refresh your oxygen?" asks Ben.
     "Don't be stupid," I say. The whiskey has made me reckless.
     "Mike, don't be a wiseass," says my father sharply. "Ben, it's only for a half an hour. It's something kids have to do when they go ice fishing. It's like waiting half an hour after you eat to go swimming."
     My father isn't making much sense, and it sounds like he knows it. Ben and I pull on our wool shirts and jackets. Ben looks scared. Debbie reaches up behind her sweater and her breasts seem to fall a little. I am dizzy, flushed with whiskey and heat. "Excellent, men, excellent. Good health first. I look forward to seeing you in a half an hour. Half an hour and not before. Mike, here's my watch. You men should be walking until at least one o'clock. Then we'll go after some of those big bastards."
     My father shepherds us through the door. Outside, it is very bright and cold. The horizon seems to be spinning slowly and I'm having trouble balancing. I start for the shoreline, thinking we can sit in the car and wait. Ben follows me. I am swaying and blinking in the glare.
     "It's cold!" says Ben.
     "It's not my fault!"
     "Well, why do we have to do this?"
     "Because he wants to fuck her, you asshole!"
     Ben considers this.
     "Well, why can't he fuck her after our day with him? Why can't he fuck her tonight or tomorrow?"
     I can't answer the question. Half way to shore my stomach seizes up and I lean over and vomit my whiskey drenched ham sandwich onto the black ice.
     At one o'clock, speaking through the door, my father tells Ben and me to walk a little longer. His plaid shirt is hung over the window like a curtain. At one thirty, shivering, with frost nipped noses and fingers, we are readmitted to the hut. My father's face looks slack, and he smells like Debbie. He has lost the manic energy that infused the morning. Debbie's mouth has changed from red to pink. Her hair looks fluffy, fuller, and her face looks moist and soft.
     "Well, men, what do you think?" says my father, clearing his throat. "Do you think there are any big ones hiding around here?"
     Debbie laughs out loud at this.
     "Oh, that's good, Tim," she says.
     Ben starts crying. "It was cold, Dad!" he says. "My fingers hurt!"
     "Now, Ben," says my father. "Now, Ben. You're fine. You're just fine. Look at Mike. He isn't crying."
     "Now come on, Ben," says my father. "Be a man."

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