I picked up the receiver. “Put me on your ‘Do Not Call’ list. Thanks.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Colane, it’s Dave.”
“Dave?” I said. “Dave’s not here, man.”
“Dude,” he said, laughing, “I was calling to see if you still wanted to go ice fishing. You never told me.”
“Yeah, don’t you remember? I asked you at Irene’s party.”
“Don’t tell me you can’t remember Irene’s party!”
“Was I invited?”
“Of course you weren’t invited. That didn’t stop you from showing up, though, and drinking all their booze.”
“And you asked me to go ice fishing?”
“Dude,” Dave said, “are you drunk? You’re acting stupid.”
“Seriously, man, are you coming or not? We’re leaving next Friday.”
“Where you going?”
“To Wild Horse Reservoir, near Elko. We’re leaving Friday and coming home Monday. My cousin, Bubba, is driving us. He has a camper.”
“You have a cousin named Bubba?”
“I was adopted,” Dave said. “So what do you think, man? Can you swing the time? Brent’s on board — he said he’s coming.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said, looking at the ceiling. “I’m not much of a fisherman. Come to think of it, I’m not much of a man, either.”
“We don’t just fish, you know. There’s a lot of drinking involved.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Drinking and fishing go together like … like tits on a boar, I guess.”
My forehead wrinkled. “Huh?”
“Never mind; I’ve been drinking. Anyway, you coming?”
“Well, if you’re going to twist my arm … then yeah, I’ll go.”
“Seriously? I wasn’t twisting that hard.”
“Well, it would be nice to get out of town for a while. I’d hate to deprive Reno of my presence, but the citizens will just have to bear it.”
“Awesome, man! That’s great,” Dave said. “There’s a lot of preparing to do. You need to get some warm clothes and some snow boots. You can borrow my fishing gear; I have lots of poles. You’ll also need a fishing license.”
“Fishing license?” I said. “I don’t know much about fishing. Is there a test involved?”
Dave laughed. “No, no test. You just need money.”
“I don’t have much of that, either.”
“You can get a license at any drug store. It won’t cost much. And remember: We’ll be meeting at Bubba’s at five on Friday morning. I’ll e-mail you directions.”
“Five?” I said. “You got to be kidding.”
“It’s a long drive. And the sooner we get there, the sooner we can drink.”
“I’ll set the alarm,” I said.
It was still pitch-black when I arrived at Bubba’s house in Fernley. A large diesel pickup and a towable camper were parked out front. I parked in the driveway, which was crowded with cars. The garage door was open, and I saw three figures silhouetted against the darkness. I climbed out of my car, coffee mug in hand.
“Hey, there’s Colane,” I heard Dave say. “How’s it going there, man?”
I walked into the garage. “I’m frickin’ tired. I’m not used to this getting-up-early bullshit.”
Dave and Brent were standing beside a tall, chubby guy who had thick stubble and a missing front tooth. He was wearing a camouflage suit.
“Colane, this is my cousin, Bubba,” Dave said.
“Nice to meet you,” Bubba said, offering his hand.
I shook it. “Likewise.”
I looked around the garage, which was packed with a boat, four-wheelers and a large hunting-cap collection mounted on the wall. Bubba himself was standing over a table covered with tangled fishing line and a cluttered tackle box.
“Nice place you got here,” I said.
“Thanks,” Bubba said. “Hey, what did you say your name was?”
“Colane, huh? All right, check this out.” Bubba drew in a deep breath, then belched out my name: “Cooooolllllaaaaannnnneeeeee!”
He grinned. “Cool, huh?”
I turned to Dave. “How long’s that drive, again?”
“Here,” Brent said, reaching into an ice chest and thrusting me a beer. “Have one of these. It’s too early for coffee.”
I accepted the Heineken he gave me. “We’re drinking already?”
“Bubba’s not,” Dave said. “He’s got to drive. But check this out.” He lifted a hefty jug off the table and handed it to me. Liquid sloshed inside.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Read the inscription.”
I did. The bottle said “Microbe Killer.”
I handed the bottle back. “Where did you get that?”
“It’s been in the family for ages, since the 1880s, I think.” Dave uncorked the bottle and took a long swallow. “It’s got 7UP, whiskey and orange juice inside. It kills microbes.”
“Maybe later,” I said, opening my Heineken. “I usually don’t hit the hard stuff until 10 a.m.”
“We better get on the road,” Bubba said. “You guys can put your shit in the camper. There should be plenty of room for all of us to sleep.”
My eyes widened. “We’re sleeping in the camper?”
“Well, yeah,” Dave said. “There aren’t many four-star hotels up there, Colane.”
“Our uncle has a cabin outside of Elko,” Bubba said. “We can park there. You can sleep in the house, if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The whole place smells like dog shit.”
“Gross,” I said. “He’s got an old, musty house, or something?”
“Not really,” Bubba said. “The problem is he lets his dogs shit inside.”
“The camper will be fine,” Brent said.
We were on the road by six. Bubba drove. Brent had shotgun, and Dave and I both sat in the back.
Brent wrenched open a beer as soon as we hit the freeway.
“Don’t let no one see that,” Bubba said. He turned around to face us. “Hey, you guys want some music? I brought a few CDs.”
“Sure,” I said.
He fiddled with the radio, keeping one hand on the wheel. Soon, the cabin was filled with the twangy sounds of Conway Twitty’s greatest hits.
“Hey, Brent,” I said. “Pass me one of those beers, would you? And hurry.”
“Want some microbe killer?” Dave asked. His jug sat in his lap.
I looked from my beer to the jug. The music was stabbing my eardrums like an icepick.
“Absolutely,” I said.
Dave handed me the jug. I uncorked it and took a long swallow.
“Damn!” I said, gasping. I handed the jug back. “Holy shit, that’s strong.”
“It’ll kill all your microbes,” Dave said, taking a long pull himself.
“Yeah, as well as your brain cells,” Bubba said.
“Colane doesn’t need to worry about that,” Dave said. “Do you, Colane?”
We cruised along the freeway, passing the jug back and forth.
“Check it out,” Brent said, pointing. “You can see Lovelock Cave in the distance.” He turned in his seat. “Can you imagine all the pioneer settlers who made the trek through the Forty-Mile Desert? They were a different breed. We’ve got cars and freeways and airplanes. We’ve got it easy.”
“Yeah,” Dave said, staring out the window. His eyes had a drunken, glassy tinge. “I wonder what they’d think of us?”
Brent snorted. “They’d probably say, ‘Take me back to the desert — please!’”
Bubba turned up the music, effectively ending Brent’s philosophical musings.
We were on the outskirts of Lovelock when my bladder copped an attitude.
“Hey, Bubba,” I said, passing Dave his jug. “Can you pull over when you get a chance? I got to take a leak, like now.”
“Do you want to stop in town?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I can’t wait that long. We got to take the first exit we can.”
“I wouldn’t piss in Lovelock if my gums were on fire,” Dave said, sipping his microbe killer.
Luckily, there was an exit up ahead. It led to a road that ran under the freeway. We took the exit and pulled alongside a field of sagebrush.
“Thanks,” I said. I opened the door to step outside … and immediately toppled onto my face.
“Holy shit,” I heard someone say.
I looked up to see Bubba fiddling with something in the cab. For a moment, I thought he was going to help me. But instead, he emerged with a camera and started snapping shots.
I tried to get up and immediately toppled again.
Brent appeared and grabbed my arm.
“What the hell?” I said, trying to find my balance. The whole world was blurry.
Inside the truck, Dave screamed with laughter.
“Microbe killer!” he yelled, pointing at the jug. He raised it to his lips and took another long swallow.
“Can you walk?” Brent asked.
“My legs feel like rubber,” I said. “Here, let me try to stand on my own.”
Brent let go of my arm. I wobbled and crashed into the truck.
Bubba rolled down his window and took another picture.
“Here,” Brent said. “Let me guide you to the other side.”
He helped me walk so that I was shielded from the road. He left me leaning against the camper so I could do my business. I sighed and started urinating.
“Might want to unzip, first,” Brent said.
I looked down at my drenched pants. “Oh. Shit.”
It took me awhile before I was finished.
“Wow,” Brent said, checking his watch. “How much did you drink?”
“Not that much, I thought,” I said. “That stuff must be strong.”
I struggled to zip my pants and toppled once more. Brent leaped forward to catch me, but it was too late.
My face fell in something soft … and stinky.
“He landed in dog shit!” Dave said, still screaming with laughter. “Bubba! Bubba! The camera!”
I tried to roll away. My hat fell off my head. My cheek was smeared. Bubba stood over me and snapped photos like a paparazzo.
“Jesus Christ, Colane,” Brent said. He knelt down to help me.
“No,” I said. “I’ll get up myself. I’m already humiliated.”
I grabbed the camper and pulled myself up. Everyone watched, with Dave laughing and Bubba snapping photos. I struggled to stand, but my legs were too weak. Down, again, I went.
This time, I landed in my own puddle of urine.
Dave’s screeching laughter echoed across the sagebrush field.
I used some hand wipes to clean myself up. Bubba tore a paper bag for me to sit on.
“Hey,” Brent said. “I’ve got a new nickname for you: Shitface.”
“OK, seriously?” I said. “You guys are going to make fun of me for the rest of the ride?”
“No,” Dave said. “Why stop there? We’re going to make fun of you for the rest of the weekend.”
“Back in college, Colane always got along well with his professors,” Brent said. “He was a … what do you call it? Oh, yeah: a brown-noser.”
“C’mon,” I said, leaning back in my seat and closing my eyes. “I don’t want to hear any more shit.”
“Of course not,” Dave said. “You’d rather roll in it, instead.”
He and Brent screeched with laughter.
We pressed on past Winnemucca. Dave kept gulping his microbe killer until he abruptly passed out. His head dangled above the open jug, drool running from his mouth.
The minutes stretched into miles. The Conway Twitty CD ran its course. Bubba replaced it with AM talk radio. I had the sudden urge to blow my brains out.
I was slowly recovering from the alcohol. I felt dizzy and sick. I tried to sip water to replenish myself. The microbe killer had done its trick. I doubted anything had survived inside of me — microbe or otherwise.
“We’re on the home stretch,” Bubba said, as we sailed into Elko. “It won’t be long, now. My uncle’s cabin is close to the reservoir.”
Dave awoke, startled. His eyes glanced around, then landed on the jug in his lap.
“Microbe killer!” he exclaimed. He took a long swallow … and immediately passed out again.
Blankets of snow covered the landscape. I stared out the window, absorbing the scenery. Acres and acres of barren wilderness stretched out on either side of the truck. Straight ahead, the road looked like an asphalt ribbon on a sea of white.
We passed the Nevada Department of Transportation maintenance station, which contained snowplows and housed the employees who worked there. Farther along, we turned off the highway and jostled over a rocky dirt road until we came to a small cabin in a clearing.
“We be here!” Bubba said, killing the engine. “Finally, I can have a drink!”
The cabin’s front door opened, and a short, stocky man with long, white hair and a long, gray beard ambled out, stomping through the snow.
“Holy crap, Bubba,” Brent said. “You drove us all the way to the North Pole.”
“Is that my boys?” the man hollered.
“Hell, yes!” Bubba said.
We all hopped out of the truck. My legs weren’t so uncertain, now. I still felt a little dizzy, though.
“Great to see you, boys,” the man said, giving Bubba and Dave a bear hug. He motioned to me and Brent. “Who are these unsightly youths?”
“Colane, Brent, I’d like you meet our Uncle Billy,” Dave said. “He’s the one who taught me how to fish.”
“Yeah, and then you moved off to California with all them other prune pickers,” Billy said. He laughed and held his husky gut. “Well, what the hell you guys waiting for? I got lamb stew cooking. And tomorrow night, we’re having pan roast.”
“He’s a helluva good cook,” Bubba said. “That’s why he’s such a fat bastard.”
“Yeah, and you’re taking after me,” Billy said, laughing.
He led us up the front porch and opened the door. Immediately, two snarling, growling dogs barreled down the hallway toward us — and toward me, specifically.
“Knock it off!” Billy hollered. “Sit!”
The dogs froze and planted their haunches, still eying me suspiciously. A drop of piss dribbled down my leg.
“Sorry about that,” Billy said. “They don’t get out much, and they’re not used to strangers. You like dogs, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “But I like my testicles, better.”
“Ah, they won’t hurt you,” Billy said. “And if they snarl, just tell them to shut the hell up. They’re actually real pleasant, once you get to know them.”
Brent reached out to pet one of the dogs. It bared its teeth and growled. He quickly recoiled.
“Make yourself at home,” Billy said, leading us into the living room. A couple of old sofas and a worn recliner lined the wall, and an ancient TV stood on a rickety shelf. “You boys need a drink?”
“I do,” Bubba said. “But just one. I’ve got to get the propane going in the camper. I’ve also got to carry some of our stuff in.”
Billy moved into the small, adjoining kitchen.
I settled into the recliner. One of the dogs instantly appeared at my feet and growled.
“Oh no,” I said. “Nice doggie.”
“Actually, you might want to sit somewhere else,” Billy said, glancing in from the kitchen. “That there is Duke’s seat.”
I quickly leaped to the nearest sofa and sat beside Brent. Duke curled up in the recliner and gave me a triumphant stare. The second dog clicked into the room and sat at the recliner’s base. Its eyes bore into mine.
“Good dogs,” I said.
They both bared their teeth and growled.
I heard clanking in the kitchen. Billy returned with an armful of glasses and handed one to each of us.
“What’s this?” Brent asked, eying his glass.
“Black Velvet, on the rocks,” Billy said, settling into an armchair. A cloud of dust flew from the cushion.
Dave threw his drink back in one swallow.
“Oh, shit,” he said, closing his eyes. His body started to waver.
Billy leaned forward. “You all right?”
“Don’t mind him,” Bubba said. “He’s been drinking microbe killer all the way up.”
Dave’s head tilted back, and he started breathing heavily.
“I hope he wakes up in time for my lamb stew,” Billy said, shaking his head. “You guys will love it — it’s an old recipe. I added a bottle of wine, as well as some bourbon. Can’t remember if I added the lamb, though.” He slapped his knee and laughed.
“How’s the fishing, Uncle Billy?” Bubba asked.
“Great,” Billy said. “Old Idaho — that’s a buddy of mine — he caught four trout last weekend. Big suckers. None of them was tagged, though. Some out-of-state guy got the big prize.”
“What kind of fish you catch here?” Brent asked. “You said trout?”
“Yeah. Trout and perch. The perch ain’t good for nothing. You can fillet them and make fish nuggets, but it’s a pain. Most folks here want the trout.”
“Do I got time to hook up the propane before dinner?” Bubba asked.
“Great,” Bubba said. “I want to get that going so the camper’s warm when we go to bed. Dave, you want to give me a hand?”
Dave’s eyes opened. “Oh. No thanks.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Bubba frowned, shaking his head. He got up and left.
“Maybe I can give him a hand,” I said, standing up.
Duke and the other dog let out a deep, throaty growl. “Quiet!” Billy shouted.
The dogs whined and lowered their heads.
“Sorry about that,” Billy said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into them. It’s like they smell another dog on you, or something.”
“Dude,” Brent said, laughing. “They probably smell the dog shit on you! I bet that’s what it is.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” I turned to Billy. “I forgot to mention, but I fell in dog shit on the way up. Can I use your shower later?”
“Wait … what?” Billy asked, frowning. “You fell in dog shit?”
“Not on purpose,” I said. “See—”
Billy held up his hand. “Microbe killer?”
Both Brent and I nodded.
“No need to elaborate,” Billy said, grinning. “That pretty much sums it up.”
Later on, we gathered at Billy’s small kitchen table and devoured the steaming lamb stew. The dinner was delicious. Billy had even made garlic bread and apple pie.
“You didn’t think this old bachelor could cook, did you?” Billy asked. Gray sauce dripped down his beard.
“I know I sure can’t,” I said. “The only dinners I make come out of a box.”
“Well, I did cheat on the lamb,” Billy said. “I bought it from the store in Elko. I usually try to butcher it myself.”
“Don’t feel bad,” I said. “When I make Tuna Helper, I use tuna from a can.”
After dinner, we hit the booze. Billy’s kitchen counter, refrigerator and windowsill were covered with colorful, half-filled liquor bottles. Billy started pouring us drinks, and after two glasses, time became an abstraction … much like everything else in my blurred vision.
Billy had satellite TV with several music channels. He tuned to a country station and turned up the volume. I started to enjoy the music … which meant the alcohol was working.
Bubba sat at the kitchen table, gulping greedily from his glass. Brent sat across from him, munching on peanuts from a bowl.
“I’ll tell you, this is the life,” Bubba said. “I love coming up here. I never feel as free back home. Up here, there’s no worries, no nothing. Just the lake and the fish.
“Plus,” he added, “I can fart and say ‘fuck’ anytime I like.”
“I’m glad I came,” Brent said, throwing back another handful of peanuts. He followed it with a gulp of gin.
“Is Dave going to be all right?” I asked, pointing. Dave was lying on the couch, snoring heavily.
“Yeah,” Bubba said. “He always passes out early the first night.”
“That’s ’cause he’s gotten soft in California,” Billy said, waltzing into the kitchen. He picked up a random bottle and drained half of it. “Them guys can’t hold their liquor.”
“Yeah, and Dave’s kind of a lightweight, anyway,” Brent said. His mouth was full of peanuts. “He always drinks too much too quickly. He never learns.”
At that moment, Brent’s head tipped forward. Half-chewed peanuts spilled from his mouth to the tabletop.
“Damn, Brent,” I said, touching his shoulder. “You OK?”
He started breathing heavily through his nose. More peanuts fell from his mouth.
“It was like the lights went out,” Bubba said, shaking his head.
“You’re all amateurs,” Billy said, letting out a hearty laugh. He picked up another random bottle and drained it. Then he started dancing and singing along to the music.
We finally left for bed around 2:30 a.m. Bubba and I headed for the camper, leaving Brent and Dave inside.
Outside, snow had started falling. It was already two feet deep. We crunched through it toward the camper.
“Oh, man,” I said. “I forgot to piss. Is there a toilet in the camper?”
Bubba answered by relieving himself in the snow.
“Works for me,” I said, unzipping. An icy chill stung my crotch. “Ah, damn! That’s cold!”
I looked down. “Hey! Hey! My dick looks like a bellybutton!”
I took the top bunk in the camper. Bubba had put clean sheets on earlier. He slept in the adjoining bedroom.
Outside, the wind howled. I burrowed deep into my blankets, trying to keep warm. If I rolled against the wall, I could feel a chill. The wall must have been an inch thick.
It took me at least two hours to fall asleep. I tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable. The bunk was too small, and too hard. I’d also had too much to drink. I never could sleep well when I drank. Other people, like Brent and Dave, could pass out with no problem. But me, I lay wide awake, as if I’d drank a pot of coffee.
I finally drifted off around 4:30 a.m. Unfortunately, a loud knocking woke me up at 5 a.m.
“Rise and shine!” Billy called from outside.
“Huh?” I said, groaning. I rolled over.
Bubba emerged from the bedroom, already dressed. He opened the door to let Billy in. Outside, it was still pitch black and snowing.
“Hey!” Billy said, stepping inside. “I thought you might want some coffee.” He offered a plastic carafe.
“Great, thanks,” Bubba said. “I was just about to come looking for some.”
“I got breakfast cooking,” Billy said. “Eggs, waffles, chorizo. That should start us off right.”
“Sounds good,” Bubba said. “I’m coming.”
“Morning, Colane,” Billy said. “How you doing?”
“It’s five in the morning,” I said.
“Yes, sir. And a fine morning it is, too.” He laughed. “All right. I’ll see you both inside.”
He left, slamming the door behind him.
“That was nice of him,” Bubba said, picking up the carafe and pouring some coffee. “I’ll leave the rest for you.”
I lay with my eyes closed, my head swimming. I didn’t answer.
Bubba took a long swallow of coffee, let out a sonorous fart, and left.
My eyes snapped open, and I rolled over.
“Seriously?” I said, mumbling to myself.
It took only moments for the stench to permeate the small, stuffy enclosure.
And it took only moments for me to get dressed and depart.
The savory scents of sausage, eggs and coffee came at me as I entered Billy’s home.
Unfortunately, so did his two dogs.
“Duke! Beth!” Billy hollered, poking his head in from the kitchen. “Sit!”
The dogs stopped in their tracks and glared at me.
“Morning to you, too, mutts,” I said.
I crossed the living room and walked to the kitchen. I had to step over a sleeping bag and a pile of clothes, which were lying on the floor.
Dave and Bubba were sitting at the table, drinking coffee. Brent sat at the table, too, but he was still asleep. His head hung, and he sat slouched.
Billy was standing over the stove, scraping a frying pan.
“Hey there!” he said. “Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”
I grabbed a mug of coffee and sat.
“Whose stuff is that?” I asked, motioning to the living room. “I almost tripped on it.”
Bubba looked at Dave and laughed. Dave frowned.
“It’s not funny,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
Bubba shook his head, still laughing. “Duke, the dog, he pissed all over Dave’s stuff.” His large gut shook as he laughed.
“C’mon,” Dave said, glaring at the table.
“I told you not to sit in his chair,” Billy said, flipping some eggs. “You should have stayed on the couch. He wouldn’t have bothered you none.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I woke up after you guys left and moved to the recliner,” Dave said. “I was sore; that couch hurt my back. When I woke up, both my sleeping bag and gym bag were drenched. That goddamn dog pissed all over them.”
Bubba and Billy hollered with laughter.
“I told you, he don’t like people in his chair,” Billy said. “That’s where he sleeps.”
“Well, he can have it back,” Dave said. “I’m crashing in the camper tonight.”
“Not before you do your laundry,” Bubba said. “All your clothes smell like piss.”
“So what?” Dave asked. “Colane’s clothes smell like shit.”
“Hey, and my clothes smell like puke!” Billy said, beaming. “The three of of should stick together.”
I looked at Brent, whose head was still hanging.
“Should someone take his pulse?” I asked.
“I tried waking him, but he wouldn’t budge,” Billy said. “He’s out for the count.”
“Well, he won’t want to miss breakfast,” Dave said. “I better try again.”
He gave Brent’s shoulder a gentle shake. “Brent? Brent? Time to get up, bud.”
Brent slowly roused from his stupor. He looked up at us, his eyes glassy and dim. He sucked in a breath … and immediately started choking.
Dave slapped him on the back. Brent spat out a mouthful of half-chewed peanuts.
“Mmm,” he said, running his tongue along his gums. He squinted his eyes. “All right, which one of you bastards stuck peanuts in my mouth? It’s not funny — I could have choked.”
We all shook our heads and exchanged looks.
Billy appeared at my side.
“You want some Carolans for your coffee?” he asked, holding a bottle.
“God no,” I said, putting a palm over my cup. “I think I might still be drunk from last night.”
“I’m definitely still drunk from last night,” Billy said, uncapping the bottle and taking a long swig. “Story of my life.”
Breakfast was delicious. Billy had made chorizo, egg-and-cheese burritos, waffles and toast. I had only a plateful, but Dave kept getting up for more.
“I love that chorizo,” he said, returning with his third helping. He’d covered his entire plate.
“You ought to take it easy on that,” Bubba said. “It’s spicy.”
“It’s damn good is what it is,” Dave said, shoveling a heap into his mouth. “Billy, you ought to go on Top Chef. I’m serious.”
“Nah,” Billy said. “I’d rather go on that show with the British guy — the one who screams at everyone. If he pulled that shit with me, I’d stick a spatula up his tight white ass.”
The food, as well as the coffee, helped improve my mood. I scraped my plate clean and fetched another cup of coffee. This time, I added some Carolans. Last night’s alcohol finally was wearing off, and I wanted to prevent the inevitable hangover.
The two dogs — Duke and Beth — tapped into the kitchen. They planted their haunches and started begging.
“There’s the motherfucker who pissed on my clothes,” Dave said.
“Oh, Duke’s not a motherfucker,” Billy said, talking more to the dogs than to Dave. “He’s a good boy. Aren’t you?”
He tossed them a handful of eggs. The dogs wolfed them down.
“So you got a male and a female?” Brent asked.
“Yeah,” Billy said. “Duke there, he’s the lord of the manor. It’s his way or the highway. He’s always got to be first to eat, and he gets the recliner in the living room. Beth’s more submissive, but she’ll snarl if he pushes too far. The other day, he tried to eat her biscuit, and she damn near ravaged his throat. They’re like an old married couple. He’ll go to sniff her ass, and she’ll start yapping and growling. And then he’ll crawl in the corner and sulk.
“Sort of reminds me of my marriage,” Billy said, sipping his coffee. “The way I figure it, if I’m going to have a bitch in my life, I prefer it have four legs and a snout.”
“I thought the folks up here preferred the bleating variety,” Bubba said.
Billy laughed. “You ought to tell that to my buddy, Idaho. He’s an old Basco. You should wait till he’s drunk, though – he’s more easygoing when he’s drunk. Otherwise, he might get offended and slit your throat.”
Bubba unhooked the camper from the truck. Billy emerged from the house with an armload of gear. Brent and I helped him stow it in the back.
Dave had gone into the camper to change clothes. He came out dressed in a thick, highly insulated snowsuit with a tight hood and large boots.
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Brent said, as Dave trudged through the deep snow toward us.
“What do you think?” Dave asked, smiling. “It’s a Carhartt.”
“You look like you’re about to walk on the moon,” Brent said.
“Go ahead and laugh. We’re going to be in below-freezing temperatures all day. You won’t think it’s so funny, then.”
“Nah — I will,” Brent said. “Even if my nuts shrivel up and turn into ice cubes, I’ll still be laughing.”
Dave frowned. “If you want a joke, forget your nuts – just glance at your dick.”
“You two need to grow up,” Bubba said. “Keep it up and I’ll fart on both of you.”
Billy had a tilt-bed trailer, upon which was a snowmobile. Attached to the snowmobile was an ice chest loaded with drinks and food, as well as additional gear. Bubba backed the truck up and hitched up the trailer.
“Let’s hit it!” Bubba called, sliding behind the wheel.
We all climbed into the truck. Billy took shotgun. Me and Dave and Brent sat in the back.
We drove for a few miles until we came to a turn between two hills. We rumbled down a bumpy road until we came to a large clearing surrounded by hills and blanketed by snow.
“That’s the reservoir,” Dave said.
“Where’s the water?” Brent asked.
Dave snorted. “It’s frozen and covered in snow, stupid.”
“All right, that’s it.” Bubba lifted his ass.
“No, don’t!” David yelled. “We’re sorry!”
A number of trucks were parked along the shore. Clusters of fishermen dotted the landscape. Their clothes stood out against the brilliant, snow-covered backdrop.
“We sometimes drive out on the ice,” Billy said. “But I’m not sure if you can this year.”
“Yeah, I’d rather not,” Bubba said. “I just got this truck. We don’t need to relive the Titanic.”
“We could use you and Uncle Billy for flotation devices,” Dave suggested.
Bubba lifted his ass and grimaced. “Dammit. I thought I had one, but it went away.”
We parked and climbed out. Billy hoisted himself onto the snowmobile.
“Check this out,” Dave said to me and Brent. “This beats hauling stuff by hand.”
Billy kicked on the snowmobile and eased it off the trailer. Bubba then tied a large, plastic sled to the back.
“Hey, cool,” Brent said. “We can tow all our stuff.”
We loaded the ice chest into the sled, as well as the tackle boxes, poles and a motorized auger.
“We ready?” Billy called.
“You betcha,” Bubba said. “Let ’er ride.”
We followed Billy and he slowly drove onto the lake. A few feet of snow covered the ice.
We trudged along, walking single-file. For some reason, it seemed like the opening scenes in “Planet of the Apes,” when the three astronauts are exploring the Forbidden Zone. I gazed at the sprawling landscape and the expansive sky. Or, rather, I tried to. The glare was so bright, it was blinding. Luckily, I’d brought sunglasses.
We finally found a spot toward the west rim. A couple of hills stood in the distance, along the shore.
The wide, open lake stretched in front of us. We unpacked our chairs, gear and portable stove. Bubba fired up the auger and drilled a hole. He bore through several feet of ice before hitting water. A pile of ice shavings surrounded the hole, which he kicked away.
We each took a turn, drilling our own individual holes. Dave drilled two, as did Billy.
Everyone had their own fishing gear except for me. Dave let me borrow a pole. He tied on a hook and rubbed the end with a greenish, glittery substance.
“Power Bait,” he said. He swabbed some from a jar and stuck it in his mouth. “Tastes damn good, too. It’s no wonder the fish love it.”
I lowered my line into the water until I hit bottom. I then reeled up slightly, so that my hook would hover along the bottom.
“Hey!” Brent said, looking at Dave. “What the hell is that?”
Dave was sprawled in a chair alongside his hole. Next to him was a plastic stand. It held his fishing rod at a high angle. He’d fastened a couple of Christmas bells to the line.
“I fish in style,” Dave said, putting his hands behind his head.
Bubba had a similar setup, except instead of bells, his line had a rattlesnake’s tail.
“Does that work?” Brent asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Bubba said. “The first time I did it, it scared the hell out of me. I must have jumped, like, five feet. But when you got a bite, you know it.”
“And here I am holding my rod like an idiot,” Brent said. He glared at me. “No wisecracks, Colane.”
“I wouldn’t think of it,” I said.
We spent the next 20 minutes in silence, staring at our lines.
“Are there any fish in this lake?” I asked.
“It’s all about patience,” Bubba said. “The fish are on their own schedule. They’ll bite when they bite.”
“Luckily, we got plenty to keep us occupied,” Dave said, clomping to the ice chest and wrenching open a beer.
Brent and I tromped to the ice chest, too.
All of a sudden, a loud jingling sounded. We turned to see one of Dave’s rods bending toward the water.
“Shit,” he said, plodding toward his chair. He couldn’t move quickly in his oversized suit. He looked like the Patterson-film Bigfoot as he trudged through the snow.
The moment he reached his line, the jingling stopped. He reeled it in, but there was nothing but a hook. The bait was gone.
“Ha!” Bubba said. “The one that got away.”
“He was a big one,” Dave said. “Seriously.”
“Yeah. He probably had the $1,000 tag,” Billy said, laughing.
He had set up a portable propane stove and was heating coffee. He also had a large pot over a flame, into which he had added cut-up meat, onions and garlic, as well as several cans of beans.
I wandered over to him. “What are you making?”
“My world-famous chili,” he said, smiling with pride. “It’s a prizewinner.”
“Oh, no,” Bubba said, looking up. “You’re going to give us the farts, Uncle Billy.”
Billy laughed. He grabbed a bottle of bourbon and added half of it to the chili. The other half he added to his stomach.
“Colane!” Brent called. “Your pole!”
I spun around. My fishing pole, which I’d left lying on the ground, was jerking with slight spasms. The fish gave a desperate, sudden yank, dragging the pole precariously close to the hole.
I rushed through the snow and grabbed the pole before it fell in.
“Hook him!” Dave called. “Flick your wrist!”
I snapped my wrist upward and started reeling. A beautiful golden-orange fish emerged, dangling from the hook.
“Yes!” I shouted. “Yes!”
Dave and Bubba shook their heads.
“What?” I said. I help up the fish in triumph.
“It’s a perch,” Dave said.
“What? So?” I unhooked the fish and held it in my hand. It writhed in my grasp, and its scales were sharp and slimy.
“It’s the trout you want,” Dave said. “They’re big and silver. The perch are garbage. They actually overcrowd the trout.”
“Shut up, asshole,” I said. “You’re just jealous because I caught the first fish. Brent, get a picture. I’m hanging this on my wall.”
Dave shook his head and laughed.
Bubba caught the first trout. One moment his line was still, and the next it was bending to the point of breaking. He gave a few tugs and then reeled the sucker in. It was long, fat and silver, and it writhed and flopped in his hands. He slammed its head against the chair to kill it quickly. Blood splattered onto the white snow.
“Oh, man,” I said, turning. “It’s like a scene in Fargo.”
“That was the one I had hooked,” Dave said. “You only caught him because I wore him out.”
“Sure, sure,” Bubba said, smiling.
“What’s the limit here?” Brent asked.
“We get five trout apiece,” Bubba said. “After that, you got to throw them back. You can catch all the perch you want, though. I think they want to get rid of them.”
By then, I’d caught four perch. Brent had caught three. We’d thrown our prizes into a large pile.
“So those are no good?” Brent asked, motioning to the pile.
“Nah. I can fillet them,” Bubba said. “They won’t go to waste. We can make fish nuggets.”
“I make a mean fish nugget,” Billy said, stirring a bloody mary. He’d been so engrossed in his cooking that he hadn’t touched his poles once. Quite a few bites had gone neglected. He probably would have had a whole mess of fish by now, had he not been cooking for us.
We took a break for lunch. The stress of fishing had aroused our appetites. We stood in line with plastic bowls as Billy dished up heaping servings of chili.
“Oh, man,” I said, savoring my first bite. My eyes rolled back in my head. “This is awesome, Billy.”
“Delicious!” Dave said. He spooned in another mouthful. “Damn!”
Brent poked his chili with his spoon, squinting his eyes. He fished out a small, blue glob.
“What’s this?” he asked me, his voice a whisper. He turned his back so Billy couldn’t see.
“I have no idea,” I said, looking at the glob and frowning. “It’s all glittery,” Brent said.
“It’s Power Bait,” Billy said, approaching from behind. He held his belly and laughed. “That’s what gives it its flavor. Good, ain’t it?”
“Delicious,” Brent said, forcing a smile.
“Now I can finally do me some fishin’,” Billy said, tromping toward his poles. He baited his lines and dropped them in the water. He had a bite within moments.
We ate and watched as he reeled in the line. The fish was small and golden: a perch.
“Flying fish,” Billy said, wrenching it off the hook. He tossed the perch in the air; it landed within a foot of Brent’s chair.
“What the hell?” Brent said, turning.
Billy caught three more “flying fish,” one after the other. Each one he lobbed toward us.
“Whoa!” Dave screamed, as an airborne fish buzzed his ear. He spilled some chili on his lap.
“I want to catch me a trout,” Billy said.
The spicy chili had scalded our mouths and throats. We each stood about the same time to visit the ice chest.
“Yes!” Dave said, snatching the last beer.
Brent reached into the chest and fished around. He came up empty.
“Dude,” he said, frowning at Dave. “Give me a sip. Please.”
Dave chugged the beer and let out a huge belch.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling and crumpling the can. “It’s gone.”
“There’s more in the truck,” Billy said. “I brought about six cases. Bubba, strap that chest to the snowmobile. I’ll get more.”
“Let me come with you,” Bubba said.
“There ain’t room,” Billy said. “I’ll be fine. The truck’s not far.”
“All right,” Bubba said. “If you’re sure.”
They strapped the chest to the back of the snowmobile. Billy kicked on the motor and started cruising toward the truck. Soon, he was a dot on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Brent gathered some snow in his glove and stuffed it in his mouth. He caught me staring at him.
“What?” he said. “My mouth’s burning!”
Bubba walked toward the stove and picked up a bottle.
“Hey,” he said. “There’s some bourbon here. You guys want some?”
“No thanks,” Dave said. “I just had a beer.” He looked at Brent and grinned. “And it was good.”
Brent shoved another handful of snow into his mouth.
We each returned to our poles. I kept looking in the horizon, hoping to see Billy. There was no sight of him.
“Ugh,” Dave said, sighing. He shifted in his seat. “Man. Ugh.”
“What’s wrong?” Bubba asked.
Dave stood and stared into the horizon, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“You see Uncle Billy anywhere?” he asked.
“No,” Bubba said. “Why?”
Dave started pacing in the snow. He squeezed his knees together.
“I need the snowmobile,” he said. “Like, now.”
“What’s wrong?” Brent asked.
“It’s that damn chili,” Dave said. He started hopping from one foot to the other. “It caught up with me faster than I thought.”
“It ain’t the chili,” Bubba said. “It’s probably the three helpings of chorizo you had this morning. I warned you, remember?”
“Oh, yeah,” Dave said. “I forgot about the chorizo.”
“Are there any bathrooms around here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Dave said. “I can see two from here.” He pointed.
I followed his finger. Way, way in the distance, I spotted two tiny brick enclosures. They were the size of a portable bathroom. One was farther away than the other, but it was located on a gentle slope. The closer one, on our right, stood atop a steep hill overlooking the lake.
Dave looked from one to the other. His eyes landed on the closer, steeper bathroom.
“Well,” he said, “I can’t wait for the snowmobile. I got to start walking.”
He started trudging away from us, with his giant, lumbering gait. His boots sunk into the snow with each step.
“All he needs is an American flag, and he’d look like an astronaut,” Brent said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Without turning, Dave lifted his middle finger and held it up. We all laughed.
“That does suck, though,” I said. “I feel bad for him.”
“He gets what he gets,” Bubba said. “I warned him over and over about the chorizo.”
“Where do you think your Uncle Billy is?” Brent asked. “He’s been gone for like 15 minutes. I could sure use a beer.”
“I hope he didn’t run out of gas,” Bubba said. “He’s in no shape to walk that far. His blood pressure’s pretty high. His doctor told him to quit drinking.”
“It doesn’t look like he listened,” I said.
“Oh, he’s cut way down,” Bubba said. “Believe me. Compared to past years, this trip is tame.”
“Huh,” I said.
We resumed our fishing. Soon, a lumbering dot appeared on the horizon. We looked up to see Dave ambling toward us. He followed the same tracks he’d left.
“Did everything come out OK?” I asked, as Dave approached. Brent and Bubba laughed.
“Yeah,” Dave said. “Before I got there.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“No. I almost made it. I was like 20 feet or so away, but I couldn’t hold it. I had to throw my jeans into the hole. It’s one of those pits with a building around it. There aren’t flushing toilets. And then, get this: there wasn’t any toilet paper. Luckily, I found a tiny roll stuffed in the windowsill. It was covered with cobwebs.”
“So you’re going commando under that moon suit?” Bubba asked.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Dave said. He walked toward his poles and took a seat. “It was like an explosion.”
“That’s enough to quell my appetite,” I said. “Good thing we already ate.”
Dave looked around. “Uncle Billy’s not back?”
“Huh.” Dave picked up a pole and baited the hook. Suddenly, he shifted in his seat. He let out a groan and abruptly stood up.
“Damn it,” he said. He started trudging toward the bathroom.
Brent cupped his hands around his mouth. “Houston, we have a —”
“Fuck you, Brent!” Dave screamed.
We watched him disappear into the horizon.
Dave was still gone when Billy returned with the ice chest. Bubba and I helped him unload it.
“Sorry I took so long,” Billy said. “I ran into Idaho and some other guys I know back there. We had a few drinks. They caught the most beautiful trout.”
He looked around. “Where’s Dave?”
“There he is,” I said, pointing.
Billy squinted. “What the hell’s he doing out there? That’s like a half-mile walk.”
“We’ll let him explain,” Bubba said.
Minutes later, Dave stomped into the camp. He walked to his seat and sat without saying a word. Silence hung in the air.
“You must be pooped,” Brent said.
“You’re treading on thin ice, Brent,” Dave said.
“Really?” Brent stamped his foot into the snow. “Seems pretty thick to me.”
“Ah, leave him alone, Brent,” I said. “The day’s taken a lot out of him — including his chorizo.”
Dave closed his eyes and sighed.
“It ain’t your day, is it, Dave?” Bubba said. “First, the dog pisses on your clothes. Then you shit your pants. What’s next? You going to throw up on yourself?”
Brent and I laughed.
“If I throw up, it ain’t going to be on me,” Dave said. “I got another target in mind.”
Billy shook his head and reached into the ice chest. It was crammed with beer and liquor.
“Don’t worry if we run out,” he said, unscrewing a bottle of Crown Royal. “There’s still more in the truck.”
“Good deal,” Brent said.
The afternoon began to lag. Clouds had covered the sky, and the fish weren’t biting. It also got colder. I stuffed my hands in my pockets, trying to keep them warm.
We each took a turn drilling a new hole, as if that might improve the fishing. Brent drilled his close to mine. He set up his chair and submerged his line.
“Hey, Colane,” he said. “You ever hook up with that Janice chick? The one from Irene’s party?”
“Nah,” I said. “We left things kind of weird. I didn’t get her number or anything. She said we’d get together if fate allowed it, but I already know it’ll never happen. Life’s a game of cards, and I’m always dealt the jokers.”
“Yeah,” Bubba said, chuckling. “I hear you.”
“Well, don’t give up,” Brent said. “Talk to Irene. Maybe she can give you Janice’s e-mail or something.”
“Janice? Was that the girl in the green turtleneck?” Dave asked. “The one I saw you talking to?”
“She was a doll,” he said. “I wouldn’t pass up the chance. Look her up on Facebook. That’s the easiest way.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not a Facebook stalker.”
“She ain’t on there, is she?” Brent asked.
“No, she’s not,” I said, sighing.
“It’s tough with women,” Dave said. “I haven’t dated for a long time. I mean, seriously dated. I’ve had a few nights out, but nothing’s ever developed. Sometimes I think I’d like to be in a relationship, but mostly I’m apathetic. My attitude is, like, either it happens or it doesn’t.”
“Yeah, but with that attitude, it usually doesn’t,” Bubba said.
Dave nodded. “No kidding. Maybe I’m in a rut — I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to meet someone. There’s just never the time, or the opportunity.”
“Brent gets around though, don’t you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I do meet plenty of women.”
“‘Plenty’?” Dave said, snorting. “You get more ass than a stall.”
“Than a toilet seat, dude,” Bubba said. “It’s ‘You get more ass than a toilet seat.’ Ease up on the alcohol. You’re starting to stutter.”
Dave frowned and took a defiant swig of beer.
“Yeah, I admit, it’s true,” Brent said. “But I’m like you, Dave: Nothing serious ever develops. On one hand, I’d love to meet my soul mate. But on the other hand, I enjoy my independence. I love being able to go out on weekends and do whatever I want. The freedom’s great. Sometimes it seems empty, but mostly, I enjoy it.”
He threw up his hands. “I know, I know — that sounds terrible and I’m not supposed to say it. But it’s the truth. What can I say? I don’t want a relationship. I want my freedom.”
“No, I get you,” Dave said. “You’re certainly not alone. Maybe it’s a male thing.”
“Not for me,” Bubba said. “I got married when I was 22. I couldn’t wait. I hated being on my own.”
“You’re married, Bubba?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I would have had you meet my wife, but she’s in Washington, visiting her relatives. She didn’t want to be alone while I was fishing.”
“I told you he was married, didn’t I?” Dave asked.
I shook my head. “No, you didn’t.”
“Well, anyway, I love it,” Bubba said. “We get along pretty well. We try to do things together. And she’s real sweet. She cooks the best meals. She knows what I like and fixes it without me asking. She’s cool like that. It’s like she reads my mind and knows how to make me happy.”
He shook his head, looking into the distance. “I don’t know what I did to deserve her, but I’m damn lucky. And I wouldn’t trade my marriage for any one-night stand.”
“See, that’s what I want,” Dave said. “I’d love to have that. But how the hell do you find the right person?”
“We met at Walmart,” Bubba said. “She was a cashier. I started talking to her, and one thing led to another. Eight months later, we were married.”
“Huh,” Dave said. “And here I was wasting my time on Match.com.”
“Don’t you get tired of marriage sometimes?” Brent asked. “I mean, I’m sure you have a great thing. But you’re our age. Don’t you ever want to go clubbing, or bar hopping, just to show that, you know, you still got it?”
Bubba laughed. “I don’t think I ever had ‘it.’ If my wife ever wised up and left me, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I tried to pick someone up in a bar, I’d be lost.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You could wallow in the corner with me. I usually need company.”
“I guess to each his own,” Brent said, shaking his head. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever get married, to tell you the truth. I got a good thing going. Why mess it up?”
“You might think differently in a couple years,” Bubba said. “People change.”
“Do women change?” I ask. “Do they grow more attracted to guys like me as they get older?”
“No,” Dave said. “They pretty much keep liking the handsome, rich guys.”
“You mean the guys who are the complete opposite of me?” I asked.
“Damn,” I said, shaking my head.
“What about you, Billy?” Brent said, turning in his chair. “What do you think about marriage and women?”
Billy hadn’t spoken. Instead, he was sitting beside his hole, watching his line and nursing his bourbon. He looked up when Brent called him.
“Hey, yeah,” I said. “You mentioned you had a bad marriage.”
From the corner of my eye, I noticed Bubba shaking his head at us.
“What are you fellas talking about?” Billy asked.
“Women … and if they’re worth it,” Brent said. “You’re a bachelor. Do you enjoy it?”
Billy shrugged. “It’s a life. I can’t complain.”
“Did you like marriage?” Brent asked. “Would you recommend it? We need some advice.”
Again, I noticed Bubba shaking his head. Dave looked at the ground.
“Well, I don’t know,” Billy said. He took a swallow of bourbon. “I enjoyed being married, actually. I mean … it was good. But things happen, you know? Life, I guess, takes a different turn.”
“I was telling these guys, I’m not sure I’m cut out for marriage,” Brent said. “I like my freedom. And that’s what you got, living out here. I’m envious, man. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. You can go out and go fishing at the drop of a hat. I mean, who else can do that?”
“My wife left me,” Billy said. “That was about … well, if I’m approaching 60 … I guess about 17, 18 years ago? Something like that. But yeah, she took off. I got off work, came home one day and, well, she was gone.”
“Jeez,” I said.
Billy took another drink. “The note didn’t say much. Just said she was headed east, and not to follow her.” He shrugged. “I didn’t. I wanted to, actually, but … well, I wouldn’t know where to find her, would I?”
“Sorry about that,” Brent said, his voice soft.
Billy looked at the sky. “I kind of just went on. I kept working. I retired. But it wasn’t the same after she left. Actually, it hadn’t been the same for a long time. We’d grown apart. We lived in the same house, but we didn’t know who the other was anymore. You could say we were aware of each other, but that was it. We didn’t speak much. Not more than was necessary.”
He licked his lips. “It was weird when she left. It shouldn’t have bugged me. It should have been a weight from my shoulders, if you think about it. But it was weird. It was like something was gone, some presence, some feeling. Some … what would you say? Memory? Hell, I don’t know.”
“I guess things can happen,” Brent said. He looked at me. I shrugged.
Billy turned to Bubba. “You remember Sarah, don’t you? You would have been young, but you knew her.”
“Yeah, I remember her,” Bubba said. “Dave and I both do. Right, Dave?”
“Yeah. Aunt Sarah,” Dave said. “She was nice.”
“She was really nice,” Billy said. “One of a kind. And Joseph, he took right after her. Sweetest kid. You boys remember Joseph, don’t you?”
Bubba sighed, shifting in his seat. He crossed his arms.
“Yeah, I kinda remember Joseph,” he said, looking at the ground.
“He would have been your age. How old are you now?”
“I’m 29, Uncle Billy. Joseph would have been 28. Actually, he would have been closer to Dave than to me.”
Dave looked away.
“That’s right,” Billy said. “I remember you kids playing together. Every family party, the three of you and that sister of Dave’s would be all over the place, causing all sorts of trouble.” He looked from the snow to the sky. “Those were good days, when we did those family parties. We don’t do them much anymore, do we?”
“We do them sometimes,” Bubba said. “The problem is, you’re way in the hell up here. It’s hard for everyone to visit.”
“Yeah, I know it is,” Billy said. “And that’s my fault. But I hate the drive. You understand that.”
Bubba pulled his hat lower on his head.
Billy looked at me and Brent. “That’s how it happened, you know. A car accident. Joseph was driving with the neighbor lady and her kid to California. They were going to visit Apple Hill.”
“We don’t have to talk about this,” Bubba said.
“They were going to visit Apple Hill. I remember that clearly, because it was fall. The lady — Karen, was her name — she had family near there. They were going to meet up and take the kids to an orchard, where they could pick apples.”
He swallowed. “It was on the freeway, I know that. These teenagers came up, and they were out of control. They were flying, the police told us later. Must have been doing 100 or more. They came up from behind and rear-ended them. Karen’s car spun out and hit a tree. She was a young woman, too. Her kid made it out OK. He was in the hospital for weeks, and no one knew what the hell was going to happen; if he’d make it or not, you know. But he did, man. That kid pulled through. He’s got some nasty scars, and he can’t hear in one ear, but he can walk, and he’s alive.”
I was holding my breath. I think Brent was, too.
“It wasn’t the same after that, between me and Sarah,” Billy said. “Neither of us had done nothing wrong. But we didn’t know what to say to each other. We didn’t know how to talk anymore. We tried to keep going, and we did, I guess. Just not in the same direction.”
He picked up the bourbon and raised the bottle to his lips, but then he abruptly set it back in the snow without drinking.
“I moved out here when I retired,” he said. “We’d always talked about that — Sarah and me. She loved to fish. Man, did she love to fish. We went everywhere. Topaz, Caples, Tahoe. We did Pyramid a few times, of course. And we never liked living in Reno, much. It’s a good city. I’ve got nothing against it. But we liked that feeling of being free, of being able to see the stars at night. The problem with cities is you can’t see the stars.
“I look at the stars almost every night,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite things, just sitting and looking at the stars. It makes me think. I’ll think about Sarah, and where she might be, what she might be doing. And I wonder if sometimes she thinks of me, too. She probably doesn’t, but I’d like to think she does.
“But most of all, I think about Joseph. I think about the man he’d be, and whether he’d have turned out like me or not. Well, I wouldn’t have let that happen, and believe me, neither would Sarah.” He stared at the distant shoreline, his elbows on his knees.
“I talk to him, you know,” he said. “It probably sounds stupid, but I do. When I look at the stars, I’ll say, ‘Hey Joe, what’s happening? What’s new, kid? I miss you. Your old man misses you.’”
Billy nodded, looking down at the snow.
“He was a good boy,” he said. “I loved that kid.”
Silence draped over us like a wet towel. I picked up my beer and took a sip.
Suddenly, the loud buzzing of a rattlesnake startled everyone. We jolted to see one of Bubba’s lines bending.
“You got one!” Billy shouted, jumping to his feet. “Reel him in! Reel him in!”
Bubba grabbed the line and tugged. The fish tugged harder. The rod bent even more.
“Slack! Slack!” Billy shouted. “Give ’er slack!”
“That’s got to be a damn giant,” Dave said, standing up.
Bubba tried to reel the fish in, but it kept pulling.
“You got it,” Billy said. “Keep going — you got it!”
“C’mon, dammit,” Bubba said, gritting his teeth. He yanked at the line. “Damn bastard.”
“C’mon Bubba!” Billy said.
Bubba pulled, trying to hook the fish. Abruptly, the line went slack.
“Shit!” he said, rattling the rod, fishing around. “I think I lost it.”
“It’s gone,” Billy said. He sighed and stepped away from the hole. “That was the $1,000 fish, I kid you not.”
“Damn,” Bubba said, reeling in the line. Nothing but a hook emerged from the water.
“Too bad, son,” Billy said, resting his hands on Bubba’s shoulders. “You had him, too.”
“I should have hooked him when I had the chance,” Bubba said. “I can’t believe it: I missed the big one.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Billy said. “That fish is probably old, and smart. I bet he’s got five hooks lodged in his mouth. He’s been around, and he ain’t going to be easy to catch. You did what you could.”
“Well, I would have gotten him if you hadn’t been screaming in my ear,” Bubba said. He turned and gave his uncle a playful shove. “He saw your fat ass and got scared.”
“Hah!” Billy said. “I think it was your fat ass he saw. You were blocking me.”
Out of nowhere, Billy thrust his gut out and pushed Bubba with his belly. I’d never seen anyone get belly-bounced so hard. Bubba, who was a big guy, stumbled backward, losing his balance.
Behind him stood the stove.
“Bubba!” Dave called. “Watch out!”
It was too late. Bubba tried to regain his balance, but his arms went flailing. He hit the stove and toppled over it, knocking over a pot of hot coffee. We heard a sizzle and a shriek.
Bubba landed on his back. The stove fell on top of him.
“It burns!” Bubba yelled, flopping like a fish. His thigh and stomach were drenched in coffee. “It burns! It burns!”
“Damn, Bubba,” Billy said. He darted forward to help. “Are you OK?”
Billy, who wasn’t watching his feet, stepped into Bubba’s ice hole. His leg slipped into the water, and he crashed to the ground.
“Shit!” he hollered, one leg in the water and the other askew. “It’s freezing!”
“It burns!” Bubba said.
Dave, Brent and I did the only thing we could: We burst into hysterical laughter.
It took awhile, but we were able to help our comrades. Bubba was burned, but not too bad. He packed some snow and held it against his skin.
Billy’s leg was stiff and solid. Ice formed on his pants, and he walked like a peg-legged pirate. He said it hurt to bend the knee.
“We better get you in the truck,” Dave said. “We don’t want you to get frostbite.”
He turned to us. “I’m going to take him to the truck and get the heater going. It’s getting late, anyway. We should start cleaning up.”
He and Billy drove off on the snowmobile. Brent, Bubba and I started packing our gear and piled it in the sled. It took us only a few minutes to clean everything up.
Bubba hobbled over to his trout and laid them gently in the sled. He’d caught three of them.
“What about our perch?” Brent asked. He and I together had caught about 30. We’d thrown them in a large pile on the snow.
“Ah, leave ’em,” Bubba said. “It’ll give the coyotes and buzzards something to munch on.”
Brent and I both pulled the sled. We held onto the same rope. Bubba marched ahead, carrying a pack on his back and some chairs in his arms.
The sun descended as we trekked along. I paused once to look back. The sky was purple and red, and the colors reflected off the snow. All around the lake, other fishermen were packing up, too.
We came to the shore and climbed up a hill toward the car. Once more, I looked back. By now, the expansive sky was fading like dying embers. And silhouetted against the darkness, I saw a large bird making a beeline for our camp.
At least someone would appreciate our perch.
Billy took an hour-long shower when we got home. The warm water thawed his leg and made him feel better. He even made the pan roast he’d promised. I was expecting an actual roast, but it was more of a seafood stew. Billy included crab legs, prawns, shrimp and plenty of cream.
“Plus, I can’t forget the most important ingredient,” he said, grinning. He uncapped a bottle of bourbon and poured half of it into the pot.
The other half, of course, went into his stomach.
The rest of us drank diet soda and water.
Exhausted from a hellacious day of fishing, we decided to retire early. Brent opted to crash on Billy’s couch. Bubba, Dave and I made for the camper.
It was about nine when we curled into our bunks and sleeping bags. Outside, the temperature plunged below freezing. Bubba turned up the thermostat.
I was about to drift off when I realized I had to piss. Sighing, I rolled out of bed and climbed into my clothes. I tried to be as quiet as possible; Bubba and Dave were already snoring.
I stepped out of the camper and into the frigid night. The winter chill sucked the warmth from my body. I shivered in my jacket as I stepped onto the snow.
The clouds had dissipated, and the sky was clear. It looked larger, grander, than I’d ever seen it. There wasn’t a light around for miles. The only light, in fact, came from the moon and stars.
I tromped to the edge of the camper, where the snow was yellow from previous excursions. I summoned all my strength and made my contribution. The cold air made it difficult.
I finished and zipped up. I was about to return when I heard something. I paused and listened.
There it was again: a voice. Somebody was talking, softly.
I crept to the edge of the camper and peered around the corner. It was difficult to see: the darkness enveloped everything. I closed my eyes and listened, trying to locate the source of the sound.
It was farther off, toward Billy’s front porch. I had to squint, but suddenly, my eyes separated the figure from the darkness.
It was Billy. I could make out his large frame and his long beard. One of his dogs — I couldn’t tell which — stood beside him.
The soft talking, which had stopped, started again.
It was Billy, for sure. He was sitting on his front steps, looking at the night sky and talking to the stars.
I watched him for a while, though I knew I probably shouldn’t. I felt like an intruder — an eavesdropper. But I couldn’t hear what was being said; I could hear only his faint voice.
After awhile, Billy stood up and opened the front door.
“Good girl, Beth,” he said, as the dog walked inside, its claws clicking.
Billy turned. “Duke? Duke! Where are you, boy? Come on inside.”
I heard a low, throaty growl behind me.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
We stayed the rest of the weekend and left Monday morning. Billy gave us a long hug goodbye. His eyes were moist.
“You guys come back any time,” he said. “Really. The fishing’s always good. And we can hunt deer later in the year.”
He stood on his front porch and waved as we drove off. His dogs stood beside him, like sentries.
“I’m not going to miss those damn dogs,” I said.
“Neither is Dave,” Bubba said, smiling.
Dave shook his head and laughed.
We were mostly silent on the ride home. The snow grew fainter farther west, and the landscape turned brown. We were returning to civilization, to our everyday lives: to our jobs and our homes and the banality they disguised.
Somewhere along the way, I turned to look in the distance. If I squinted hard enough, I thought I might see Elko, and beyond that, the reservoir. And I thought I might see Billy, out there on the ice, his bourbon nestled in the snow as he reeled in the big one.