The Ice King
Johnny Jenkins hated jigging. He didn’t see the point of sitting atop an upturned pail fighting the wind all day when he could achieve more or less the same effect with the careful employment of a few tip-ups. Johnny’s favored method of fishing was to straddle the corner stool at Doze Inn, swigging whiskey and glancing periodically through the dusty Plexiglas window overlooking Chute Pond. He never placed the tip-ups so far away that he could not spot their bright flags without leaving his barstool. And no matter how late or how dark the evening grew before he secured his haul, Johnny could always find his way back to the stool thanks to the Pabst Blue Ribbo and iller Light signs that shone faithfully, if not steadily, through that same Plexiglas window.
Come opening morning of Mountain Fire Department’s annual Fish-O-Rama, Johnny knew he wouldn’t be able to fish as he preferred. It was likely that some goateed flatlander sporting new hiking boots and a red windbreaker would be occupying his barstool. Even if not for the flatlander, Johnny knew he couldn’t spend the day watching his tip-ups from the warmth of Doze Inn. This weekend—Fish-O-Rama weekend—Johnny’s cousin had chosen to visit from Nevada. Johnny knew that it would not do to allow his white collar cousin to believe that all he did all winter was sit on his barstool and watch for orange flags. He knew he would have to make his life seem difficult and rewarding. He would have to spend the morning jigging.
Johnny’s cousin Steve was neither quiet nor competent, and if Johnny had thought about it, he probably wouldn’t have liked the man. But it wasn’t Johnny’s job to think about his cousin, only to pick him up from the airport in Green Bay and to entertain him until they met up with the family for supper. On the way to the fishing hole, Steve Jenkins looked curiously from the far side of his cousin’s pickup at the shanties that were scattered willy-nilly over the land.
“Those people have so much space in that huge field. Why do you think they build such tiny houses, and so close together?” he asked.
“I don’t think they have wives,” said Johnny.
Steve nodded his head, frowning. He considered himself lucky to be living just outside Las Vegas, lucky to be the only cousin born and raised outside Oconto County. Being single in a place like northern Wisconsin didn’t look half as easy. It seemed the benefits might not outweigh the drawbacks, what with the tiny houses and all. Steve thought that maybe if he lived in northern Wisconsin, he would buy a big house even if he didn’t have a wife. Then again, he thought, it’s easy to think you’d do things differently until you actually step into another person’s shoes. Upon consideration, Steve Jenkins had no reason to believe himself an exception.
Steve, of course, had never been ice fishing, and he wasn’t much for the cold. Over the phone from Santa Barbara, Steve’s father had warned him against flying to Wisconsin to visit his grandfather in the Suring nursing home. Steve would be obligated to stay with his alcoholic uncle and cousin; and, in February, a stay with John and Johnny Jenkins meant at least a day spent sitting on an upturned bucket, fighting the wind and hoping not to fall through the ice.
“You don’t have to worry about falling through the ice,” Johnny reassured him later that day, as they sat atop their buckets on Chute Pond, which everyone called a lake, the prime ice-fishing spot in Mountain. “There are more than two feet of ice, here. It only takes a couple inches to support a person, even a fat bean counter with heels on his boots.”
Johnny was trying to be friendly, but he didn’t realize how much his cousin did not want to break the ice. Now Steve cursed himself for having worn his pointy Durangos instead of borrowing his uncle’s heavily insulated rubber boots. He understood the physics behind Johnny’s message: spreading his weight over greater surface area would maximize his chances of staying on the right side of the ice. When they were done, Johnny would expect Steve to walk the fifty yards back to the pickup truck, and once in the truck, the two would cross another half mile or so of ice on their way back to the landing. Considering the minimal surface area offered by the heels of his boots and the four tires of the truck, Steve entertained fantasies of safer travel. He thought that maybe when they were done fishing he could stick one foot in each bucket and sort of scoot back to shore. But as great an idea as this was, Steve Jenkins knew he couldn’t do it. Johnny would want to load the bait and tools into the buckets for the trip back. He could not imagine his cousin allowing him to carry all the poles, not to mention the worms and the ladle, in his hands as they walked. And Steve couldn’t just put these items in the buckets around his feet because he would likely break them. Or kill them, in the case of the worms. He didn’t see any other men slinking along on their bellies, but he didn’t see any other fat bean counters, either. Plus, it was still early in the day. Most of the men hadn’t left their fishing spots yet.
Had he been left to his thoughts for much longer, Steve Jenkins would have probably thought to feign illness. He would’ve probably tried to make himself vomit while his cousin was ladling ice chunks out of his hole. If he did this right, he could use nausea as an excuse not to ride in the heavy truck, and then he could make his way back to shore using whichever method he deemed safest.
But Steve didn’t have time to think about feigning illness because pretty soon there was a tug at his line. He really didn’t want there to be a tug. In fact, he’d let out a great deal of line and had been pretty lazy about jigging it. While his cousin had a small pile of crappie next to his hole, Steve only had a pile of Kleenex. In this sort of weather, the man could not keep his nose from running.
For a minute or so, Steve tried to pretend there was no tug on his fishing line. Hoping not to catch the attention of the man next to him, he worked carefully to free whatever creature had been unlucky enough to encounter his hook.
Johnny was amused by his cousin’s efforts to conceal his catch. He let Steve sweat it out a little; he watched him let out more line, watched him dip the tip of his ice rod down into the hole. After a minute or so, Johnny grew bored and decided to offer Steve some relief.
“It’s not a fish,” Johnny said. “To catch a fish, you would have needed to use a bobber and some fresh bait. The pan fish nibbled that moussie off a long time ago.”
Johnny grabbed the line at the end of Steve’s jig pole and hauled it in without difficulty until something caught against the bottom of the ice. The line Steve had been using was only two pound test, but Johnny knew it would be unlikely to break even under double or triple that weight. Still, he doubted that the object would be so big that he would have to enlarge the hole in order to haul it in. Had he been alone, Johnny would have cut the line as soon as he recognized he’d caught something other than a fish. But he thought this was an important lesson for his cousin, who couldn’t even seem to tell a live, biting fish from a submerged stick. Johnny thought that maybe his cousin didn’t even believe him that he hadn’t caught a fish. Maybe it seemed to him that Johnny was trying to sabotage his fishing efforts. So Johnny worked the object until it was part way into the bottom of the hole and then told Steve to hold the line while he went to the truck for his gaff.
Steve wondered how much more fishing the two men would have to do before they could warm up in the tent on shore. The large tent, or rather the string of several tents, was provided by Mountain Fire Department; and it, not the fishing, was the real purpose of the Fish-O-Rama. Steve’s father had explained this on the phone from California.
“The Fish-O-Rama is a kind of a census for the men up north. After months of wintry isolation, they come out of their milk parlors and down from their log skidders to see who’s still around and whether anyone ever managed to shoot that fourteen-pointer out of Digger Hansen’s cedar swamp. Technically, it’s a fishing contest to raise money for the fire department. And maybe the men tell their wives they’re going fishing. But they spend most of their time gambling.”
Steve could not help but notice the gambling earlier that day as he and his cousin had passed through the tent before heading onto the lake. It hadn’t even been noon yet, and there were more than a hundred men, already drunk and losing money. The gambling itself did not surprise Steve, who worked as an accountant for one of the largest casinos in Vegas. What interested him was the regional variation. He had heard that several Indian tribes had casinos in the Northwoods, and he imagined these to offer most of the Vegas attractions—craps tables, one-armed bandits, discount buffets. He knew Wayne Newton and Cirque Du Soleil wouldn’t perform at these Midwestern venues, but he figured the places would provide their own sort of entertainment. Unlike the reservation casinos, however, the Fish-O-Rama was beyond Steve’s imagination.
After a few minutes in the tent, Steve learned that the men weren’t even gambling for money. Some of the games looked familiar enough—cards, raffles, a roulette wheel made of plywood and garage springs. But the prizes were another matter altogether. Steve saw a man in a brown thermal suit and feedcap boast of having “won” the raffle. In front of the prize table, a throng of drinkers parted so that the man could make his way back to the bar carrying six quarts of heavy weight motor oil, duct-taped together into two bundles.
“Courtesy of Davis Auto Repair,” one of the ladies from the Ladies Auxiliary announced over a crackling PA system.
“Is that what you win, in the raffle?” Steve asked his cousin, “Motor oil?”
“No, not always. Last year I won a half load of crusher fines from Huffman Gravel,” Johnny reassured.
Huffman Gravel was the most prosperous business in town.
“Oh yeah, the old man also won—twice. A pizza and four tappers at the corner bar, and $50 towards a pheasant mount from Floyd’s Taxidermy. It’s a good prize, but the old man’s gotta get off the couch and shoot at some birds, if he expects to make use of it.”
Steve walked up to the prize table and looked for himself. Sure enough: three dozen eggs from Patsy Nenning; a box of shotgun shells; broaster chicken for two at the Amoco station (valid only on Thursdays nights, and only before the chicken runs out); a handsaw and miter box; and a gallon of windshield washer fluid, also courtesy of Davis Auto. What surprised Steve most about the raffle table was the price of the tickets. $1.00 each, or six for $5.00. Thousands of tickets had already been sold, and the value of the prizes barely exceeded the cost of the tickets.
A buxom young lady in braids—she looked like a milkmaid, except for the MFD tube top and the green money apron—asked Steve how many tickets he wanted to buy.
“I already have some,” Steve lied.
“Not for the raffle, for The Wheel.” The milkmaid indicated a table supporting a three-foot-tall plywood wheel with sections numbered 1 to 100.
“No, thank you,” Steve said. “We have some fishing to do.”
Still, Steve watched the men gathered in front of The Wheel. As soon as a hundred tickets were sold, the milkmaid gave the contraption a hearty spin. The man who won—Steve gathered that his name was Fuzzy—was offered the choice of a beef tenderloin, a bottle of brandy, a side of bacon, or a four-foot-long Braunsweiger. Despite the bottle of brandy, Steve thought of this event as The Wheel of Meat. He supposed he could have called it The Wheel of Indulgences or The Wheel of B’s. But the first was too Vegas, and the second didn’t have a ring to it. He definitely thought of it as The Wheel of Meat.
The Braunsweiger had troubled Steve a great deal, and he thought of it out on the lake while his cousin was retrieving the gaff.
“What will Fuzzy do with a four-foot Braunsweiger?” he asked.
“Fuzzy didn’t take the Braunsweiger. Fuzzy took the tenderloin. The next guy, Snuffy, took the Braunsweiger.”
Johnny was irritated that his gaff was dull. Whenever his father, John Sr., borrowed his gaff, he seemed to make it a point to stick it in a tree stump or in the dirt. Johnny could tell his father had borrowed his gaff, because now it was dull. He made a mental note to leave the gaff in the driver’s side utility box next time, so John Sr. would be unlikely to find it.
Steve was still thinking about the Braunsweiger and holding the line as Johnny set to work with the dull gaff. Steve hated liver sausage. For most of Steve’s school years, his mom had sent him to class with liver sausage and onion sandwiches. When he asked Linda Lerning to the eighth grade dance, she told him that she wouldn’t go anywhere with a boy who smelled like liver and onions. Steve still ate his share of onions, but even a whiff of liver set his stomach turning.
Not that it was difficult to set Steve’s stomach turning. He felt a bit peaked just watching his cousin work the gaff into whatever lay under ice. Johnny had insisted that whatever was on the line was no living creature, but Steve thought that the gaff must have been used at some point on a living creature.
Finally, Johnny worked the object up into the hole.
“It’s a boot,” Johnny announced.
Steve commented that the boot his cousin had speared looked like the black rubber boots most of the men in the tent had been wearing.
“Yup. A steel-toed Ice King.” Johnny was pleased at his cousin’s observation. The guy did notice a thing or two, it seemed.
On a whim, Johnny decided to leave the boot on the gaff. He took some pleasure in imagining his father having to pry the tip loose from the boot before he used it. Johnny leaned the items against the truck, hoping they would freeze together.
An hour later, when Johnny determined that the two men had been out in the wind a respectable amount of time, they packed up the equipment and headed to the truck. Johnny made much better time than Steve, who refused to pick up his feet when he walked.
Though Steve had earlier feared the weight of the truck on the ice, when he neared the vehicle he became drawn to it. It was as though the truck was his lifeline and he needed to grab hold of it. He quickly shuffled to within about six feet of the vehicle and lunged toward it, reaching to the side-view mirror for support.
Johnny had not expected the sudden move, and he was startled. He was also irritated that the force of the big man’s lunge had knocked over the gaff and boot. Jolted by their fall to the ice, the two items had separated.
Johnny secured the dull gaff in the driver’s side utility box while Steve shuffled to the passenger side without letting go of the truck bed. Waiting for his white-knuckled cousin, Johnny decided he may as well throw the steel-toed Ice King in the truck, so it wouldn’t make its way back into the lake for some other fisherman to hook.
About halfway back to the landing, Steve noticed the foot.
“There’s a foot!” he exclaimed.
“There’s no foot,” Johnny answered.
Noting smoke wafting from the chimney of a tarpaper shanty, Johnny turned the truck so as not to disturb the fishermen inside. It was then that he finally looked down and saw the foot. The foot, and technically part of a leg, had somehow loosened and protruded from the boot during the ride. At first he figured it was roots or perhaps some string—maybe the laces—but when he got a decent look at it, Johnny couldn’t deny that it was a foot. It was white, mostly. And stringy. Underwater, the only thing that gets that white and stringy is flesh. And in a boot, it would make sense that the flesh would be a foot. It all made sense, when he thought about it.
Johnny didn’t realize that he had stepped on the brake as he was looking at the foot until it was too late. He had stopped in a slush pocket. The back tire went down first and then the front one, both on his fat cousin’s side.
“Get out of the truck,” Johnny ordered his cousin.
But Steve would only crawl across the seat toward Johnny. Pretty soon, the back tire on the driver’s side started to sink, too. Johnny thought he could see where this was going. He got out of the truck.
Steve would not follow him. He would not leave the sinking vehicle.
The truck, of course, was not going to sink very far. It had only broken through the first layer. But Steve did not know that, and he stayed in the truck. Johnny tried to pry his cousin out of the seat and onto the wet ice, but Steve slammed and locked the door as soon as his cousin eased up.
Johnny was wet, now, and he realized he had the boot in his hand. Before he stopped the truck, he had picked it up to inspect the foot. The only thing to do now that he was wet and had the foot was to start walking.
When Johnny got about half the distance to the Fish-O-Rama tent, Steve began honking the horn. From the tent, the officers of the Mountain Fire Department took turns with a pair of field glasses to see what was going on. Johnny’s fat cousin was honking the horn of Johnny’s sinking Dodge while Johnny walked toward them carrying a boot. The officers of the fire department designated Digger Hansen to go pull the Dodge out of the slush pocket. Digger drove right past Johnny on the way to the truck, but he didn’t slow down.
Johnny already knew the foot belonged to Digger’s dad. Digger’s dad, Leslie Hansen, had drowned while he was out on a logging job last December. His skidder had broken through and had sunk to the bottom of Chute Pond before he could get out of it. After a few days, Samuel Messer and his boys managed to get the skidder out of the lake but they never had found Leslie.
By the time Johnny arrived at the tent, Digger Hansen had the Dodge chained up and positioned for extrication from the slush pocket. Steve was still honking the horn.
Johnny knew that the Fire Department would be eager to look for the rest of Leslie Hansen, now that they had something to go on. Leslie had been well-liked in the town. He was a second-rate logger, but he had always been generous with his time and equipment when there was a barn to be raised, or torn down.
It was too loud in the tent for anyone to notice Johnny as he walked in. Young Lindy Nenning was about to spin The Wheel, and everyone was eager for a shot at the brandy. Johnny placed the Ice King on the table next to the wheel and told Lindy that he had found Digger’s dad. He then turned toward the bar, not wanting to draw attention away from Leslie Hansen’s foot. Lindy Nenning made an announcement over the PA:
“Leslie Hansen’s body has been found.”
It took a few moments for the men to quiet down. Lindy repeated her announcement.
“Leslie’s Hansen’s body has been found by Johnny Jenkins’ cousin from Nevada . . .”
Lindy glanced toward the minister’s wife, who was standing behind the bratwurst table with her hands folded and eyes cast upward.
“ . . .Let’s all please join in a moment of silence for Leslie.”
Cody Messer bowed his head. In the quiet of the tent, he could hear the intermittent blasts of a truck horn out on the lake. Glancing down at the ticket in his hand, Cody couldn’t help but wonder if his number would have been chosen next.