DecomP Magazine


THE ICE FISHERS
---
Lauren Trojniar

Lauren Trojniar lives and writes in Austin, TX. She is the author of THE2NDHAND broadsheet installment 20, of May 2006,, "This Is How You Paint a House."

Under the ice, Lewis saw the eyes, unblinking brown circles with black-dot centers. The eyes were buttons in a sequined gray gown of scales. He imagined it to be a crappie, the only fish he had ever caught in the lake. "But it could be a bluegill," he reasoned. "They could be up here too."

Dropping onto his knees, he put his eyes near the ice. Eye open, eye shut. Alternately blinking eyes while fish-looking. The fish, with its eyes forever forced open, couldn't see a damned thing. Lewis shuffled opaque frost over the spot and scuffled off the lake.

Look. The yellow, white-trimmed house was squatting on the hill as it had when he was ten. Even now it frowned at him. What was it like to be afraid of that house? He tried to squeeze his 30-year-old mind set back into boyhood. Remember tearing up the stairs with his sister to escape the cellar first? Remember the movement in the bathroom mirror when he looked up from brushing his teeth? The feeling of his parents asleep at the other end of the house -- all lights out?

Now it was just a house.

Laura was inside, stoned and listening to the radio. He found her with her feet between the sofa cushions and her drawstring pants hiked up to her breasts. Her tousled lion's mane had vined its way into the cracks of the couch and over the armrest.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey," she said. She watched the radio for some visual message coming out of the two speakers. A truck had flipped, causing a five-car pile-up and closing down the highway. The radio said it was a vegetable truck. Lewis imagined the damage to the vegetables. Hundreds of cabbages, like large wads of peppermint gum spit onto the pavement, carrots wedged under windshield wipers like phallic parking tickets, and tomatoes, obviously, squashed into a bloodred pulp over the entire scene.

"Hey," Lewis looked at the radio, "the ice is solid."

She waited until the radio finished the report before replying, "Oh yeah?"

Now the voice changed -- a commercial for used cars. "Do you want to come and try to catch something?" he said.

"No," she said to the radio, "I want to hear this." Her shirt had ridden up so that it revealed Lewis's favorite tattoo. It was written upside down on her stomach so that she could read it. It said: "fuck you future self."

Lewis left the room to look for his father's ice-fishing equipment. In the hall closet he found pack boots (too small), and in the garage he found the fishing gear. The space was chilly and needed sweeping. On his right he set the rod. Neatly next to that was the ice auger and skimmer.

The lures shone bright in the dim garage light. He squinted against chartreuse and white, wrinkling his nose as he did it. The crown jewel of the tackle was the airbrushed jig with the feathery tail, packaged like some brightly painted doll for adults. Still in its wrapper, it claimed to be painted in the UV spectrum, in which fish see color. Lewis wondered why the other lures were colored chartreuse if fish saw in a different spectrum, anyhow.

His eyes were sharp and his lips slightly parted as he put the remaining gear away. He looked around the garage for a spare box or carrier for the equipment, but finding none he went straight for a sled and dumped the lot in.

Upstairs he rooted for snacks in the refrigerator. A jar of pickles, a wedge of cheese, two beers. "Mousees?" He spoke to himself as he extracted a small, labeled container from the freezer. He thought it was probably bait but couldn't be certain until he unscrewed the lid. Inside were a dozen or so soft-bodied larvae with skinny tails. "Oh," he whispered, "like mice." The larvae rested like hibernating tubes of pus. Lewis almost dropped the jar at the thought.

"Wait," Laura said. "I'll come." He shuffled to the living room where she worked the afghan out from under the cushions.

"Change of heart?"

She grunted as the pink blanket came loose and she followed him into the kitchen, apparently no longer stoned. He presented the mousees to her, expecting to extract her girlish squeal, but she only told him that they would be a good choice for catching crappie. Out in the garage, she sorted through his selection. Like a bum in desperate need of fishing supplies, she eagerly handled each item -- setting one down gingerly and picking up the next in no particular order. The only change she made was replacing the old fishing rod with her father's new fiberglass model. And just as he was about to close the door, she ran back out and retrieved her own fiberglass rod to add to the sled.

They split up at the base of the staircase to change. One, two steps away and she was already ascending the stairs to his room, his old room. Laura had taken over the room when Lewis left for college, and kept it after she returned from college. Her former room was now a guest room, and only the trophies she had won served as a reminder of her childhood. He pulled on clothes slowly, as though each layer were aging him. By the time he reached for his gloves he was 80 and withered and ready to fish.

Laura was already in the kitchen waiting for him.

"The crane they sent to pick up that vegetable truck fell," she announced. "It wasn't secured right and it fell on the truck and a fire truck, so they have to send out another crane to pick up the crane that fell." She spoke without a breath. "I added some things to the cooler."

Lewis nodded. The itchy sweaters and hats, snow pants and heavy outer jackets made them fatter versions of themselves. In the garage, they loaded down the sled with the equipment and cooler. Then, the androgynous, Gortex-clad siblings bumbled to the lake.

They had some trouble finding a good place to cut the ice. Lewis thought a thick spot in the middle would be the best. Laura jumped on the ice and listened to see if it sounded thin.

"It's supposed to be at least four inches," she said. "You know what dad always says: 'Thin and crispy, way too risky. Thick and blue, tried and true.'"

"Does he always say that?"

Laura cleared a spot by pivoting on one leg and sweeping the snow away with the other. They took the ends of the afghan and billowed it up to the gray clouds, watching it settle over the ice like a gentle pink tissue. How nice it was to be back here with his sister. "Like old times," he said.

"Better than old times -- now we're friends," she said.

"When do Mom and Dad get back?"

"They said soon, but who knows? Are you sure you don't want to tell them you're here? Maybe they'll come back sooner."

Lewis shook his head and took to the ice with the auger -- spinning the giant, cartoonish corkscrew as he'd done before. He made a hole in the white and paused to see if some creamy, frost blood would ooze from the puncture. Water flooded up through the hole and washed his boots. Surgery continued 40 feet away on a second hole for Laura to use. She tended to the holes with the skimmer, scooping out the slush and debris. They moved quickly while they still had the ashtray light of a winter afternoon. Once the circle of ice-skin was removed, they laid prone and peered inside. Laura set up his rod with the jig and waved as she took hers to the other spot.

It was strange sitting so far apart, like they were the only two people at a giant banquet table. The snow and cold muffled the sound so that the only way they could have communicated was by shouting, and that would have scared away the fish. All Lewis could do was wait and think. Mostly he wondered what the fish looked like down there. In his mind, the unblinking fish eye moved past others in unblinking eye contact. Slippery scales moved water without awareness. Large fish and small fish collided in darkness so cold it would make any person suck in his breath and close his eyes. Neither cold nor warm, the fish huddled in their schools, arbitrarily rising up and down, opening and closing their mouths.

Lewis dipped the rod and felt some snow on his bare neck. "I will never get frostnip again," he vowed, remembering that one time when he was ten. Two of his fingers were white and waxy. He was too scared to cry; he just held the monster hand away from his body. It was five-year-old Laura who had pulled him toward home and told him what he had to do: "You have to show Mom." Lewis wondered if he would have stood there all day holding his hand if it hadn't been for Laura. Laura was always there for him. She was always the nice sister: she always tagged behind him, took his bullying, helped Mom make supper, gave him her last piece of gum if he asked.

He waved to Laura as she stood up with a fish. "Hey! I caught something!" she said, and ran over to show Lewis.

"Hmm, what is it?"

"It's a Perch." She dumped the fish in the cooler with the unopened food.

"Let's go -- I'm freezing," he said. The sun was now low and tiny, much smaller than the cold gray of the sky. Laura moved toward him like a squirrel on the ice.

"We have to go before it gets too dark," she said. "It's easy to lose your way." They packed up the gear and left the two small holes behind them.

The house was dark enough so that you couldn't tell it was there until you were at the door. "Laura, remember when we would play hide-and-go-seek at night?"

"Yeah," she reached for the light switch. "Uh-oh, the power's out!" she yelped. He reached in front of her and flipped the switch, not laughing. "That's not funny," he said. His body was still cold from the ice, and he considered going straight for a shower and to bed. Instead, he stayed up drinking wine with her. They waited for their parents in the way most parents wait for their sons and daughters -- talking about them, picturing the first moment they would see them. It had been three years for Lewis.

At midnight, he found himself walking around the house in the dark and peering at framed photographs on the walls. Would his parents look different? Even though he had seen them several years ago, he found himself imagining them as the people captured in the photos on the walls. They were slim and smiling. Laura looked different than he remembered. She had longer hair and had stopped wearing intense eye makeup. He wandered into the dining room. Full-moon shadows from the curtains created the illusion of a human in a chair. His mother. Her perfume. Another shadow: his father, thinking about fish somewhere far back in his skull. Would the fish be swimming as they slept -- eyes open as though they were dead? Deep, deep down, Lewis thought about the fish, too, and a feeling like nausea and Christmas at once crept into him. How nice it would be to just stay here forever.

WHAT THE BEACH IS LIKE




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