Lovely Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Crystal clear waters, pristine forest … and a bunch of braggy tourists taking summer fishing trips. I’ll take my walleye on the ice, Illinois wusses.
But I’m good with being a local. I got a great view of the lake from my Craftsman cottage. I don’t have to pay some nightly rate for a floral calico bedspread. Winter, I got the lake. And for this, I’ll put up with the tourists and the weirdo neighbors.
The neighbors, Stuart and his brother, Fred, are fraternal twins nearing forty. They run pretentious bed and breakfasts in their historic homes, one on each side of me. I’m like a bed-and-breakfast sandwich. And it ain’t good.
Fred is married to my niece, Laura. The stringbean guy wears his hair in a stringy gray ponytail. Stuart, wears his hair in the same hipster ponytail, with more red than gray. The guy is practically mute. The twins look like a couple of art school dropouts who should run a corner weed shop.
Every week, Fred yells out at me across the lawn, “When you gonna sell your place?”
“When hell freezes over,” I shout back and throw in the middle finger for good measure. I ain’t going into a nursing home anytime soon.
Across the street from my cabin was a guy, Phil. Now it’s only his girlfriend. He had big druggie parties. I kept my mouth closed ’cause I knew he’d get what was coming. Finally, he and a couple of dopeheads drove his red Escalade through my living room. Luckily, I’d just run to the kitchen for some more salsa. If I’d prepared my tacos better, I’d be six feet under.
The cops came straight away with their warrant. My nephew, Tom, a cop on the force, found a whole meth lab in his basement. Explains the bad driving.
Phil’s girlfriend, Tyra or Tonya or something, still lives in their house. Bottle bleach and a fake tan. Glares at me every time she climbs into that maroon Escalade—her clothes and hair accessories matching the damned SUV. Like the cops didn’t notice his SUV sitting on my Barcalounger in front of the TV. Knocked on my door yelling a few times, blaming me for the boyfriend being behind bars. I got a restraining order.
I’m the old bird in the neighborhood, but I’m a Wisconsin-class ice fisher. I take home more walleye than my fellow fishers on our annual February weekend. We been doing it since Fred married Laura. Me, the twins, and Gil, the local cheese shop owner, head out when the ice is thick enough. Gil is tall, even slumped over like an old guy, and the nicest guy in Wisconsin. I go for his company … and to beat the snow pants off those guys.
After I catch all the fish, I sprinkle those swimmers with my proprietary delicious “Walleye Wonder” seasoning. So spicy it’ll make you sweat in twenty below. Sell it locally too. Pays my property taxes. And I’m not telling you what’s in “Walleye Wonder” either, so don’t ask. Don’t need anyone undercutting me at eighty—a birthday I almost didn’t see.
For twenty years, we did the same thing. We’d go out, Gil brought some kinda fantastic cheese, I caught all the walleye, the twins pouted. We’d go home on Monday, colder and happier. The February 2019 ice fishing weekend was no different—until it was.
When the ice was six inches, we packed our gear and headed out. Stuart and Fred drove their matching ATVs. Gil ran his rusted-out Toyota pickup to the middle of the lake. Me, I towed my sled stacked high with gear and a new sleeping bag.
I got to our spot just before sunset. The lake looked dark blue since the sun was setting. Same color as Gil’s eyes, those Scandinavian peepers. The three guys lounged in their respective Green Bay Packers camp chairs, feet propped on ice coolers, cans of beer in their mittens. I dragged my bright red UW Badgers camp chair off the top of my sled and popped it open. I slid up next to Gil.
“Is it cold enough for youse?” I asked.
“Naw. Only don’t let the ice melt,” answered Gil. His eyes always wrinkled with his smile, like a gnome, especially with his red Badgers hat.
Fred pointed at my new mummy bag.
The other guys followed his finger with their eyes. Fred cleared his throat, “You got a new sleeping bag. You going soft on us?”
This from a guy who just drove an ATV over to camp.
“I’m about to turn eighty. You want me to sleep in a Kmart bag?”
Stuart laughed softly and nodded. “You deserve it.”
Gil pulled his bag out of a stuff sack. “Mine’s a Kmart mummy. But, it’s pretty good.”