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The Cooler

21st annual tamarack award winner

The Cooler

(page 1 of 4)

Listen to an audio version of The Cooler, read by the winning author.

ONE DAY DURING THE STRIKE
my father came home with a trunk load of lumber. He swept out the garage before unloading, then I helped him stack the sheets of plywood on the cement floor. He had never done this before—just show up with a pile of wood. I wondered. I wanted to ask. But something in the way he clean-and-jerked that lumber from the trunk scared me to silence. When the wood got hung up on something, some unseen cranny deep inside the trunk, Dad decided that rather than investigate the cause or jiggle it loose, he would put his weight into it tug-of-war style, foot against bumper, and rip the fucker out. And out it came, trailing a mangled tube of weather stripping that had, once upon a time, lined the trunk of our 1975 Buick Century, arctic white. Unloading ceased while he tore away the remainder of the weather stripping, peeling the scab of it from the deep recesses of the trunk in a calm, businesslike manner. When all of the wood and torn rubber were stacked in knee-high piles, he said, “Wait till you see this,” closing the trunk. “Wait till you see what we’re gonna build,” betraying no emotion as the lid crashed down and jangled, metal to metal. ¶ “Where’s your mother hide the tools?” ¶ “In the tool drawer.” Did he really not know? “In the kitchen.” ¶ Our tool drawer was largely conceptual. It housed a calculator, a tin of Kiwi black shoe polish, an infinity of rubber bands, and a curling iron that my father held up to the light in wonderment and disgust. Before the walkout at Harvester, he worked as a machinist. My father made ball bearings for a living and had, until now, avoided any serious involvement in domestic projects. The bleak state of the tool drawer seemed to remind him why. He asked, rooting through the drawer, “Where’s the bevel square? The chalk line?” Speaking of them like lost children. “My nail set…my spiral screwdriver….”

Afterward, we took a long reflective walk through the hardware department at Sears. There among the power tools my father gestured toward those items he believed indispensable—saws, mostly—reciprocating, circular, compound miter. And he pointed out a router I had been admiring for its potential to be up-converted to a hovercraft.

“Bosch,” he said. “Best router in the world. The only router you’ll ever need.” When I was 95 years old, he said, this would be my router, this exact one. He was always proclaiming things Best in the World, usually stuff we already owned: Starcraft Aluminum Boats, the 1975 Buick Century, Open Pit Barbecue Sauce, Heileman’s Old Style Beer, Wendy’s hamburgers, and—though he never said so, but clearly endorsed—Penthouse magazine. “You want to tell me why that is?” he asked. “What makes Bosch so good?”

“Because,” I said, knowing the drill. “They’re built to last.”

“You don’t mess around with tools, JB. People do this. They mess around. They buy what?”

“S-H-I-T.”

“They buy some cheap-ass router made in—what?”

“Hong Kong.”

“They buy some Hong Kong router made out of sheet metal and chewing gum and guess what happens?”

“Breaks down,” I said.

“Then what?”

“Back to Sears.”

“Tell me this, JB. Where is the logic?”

“There is none,” I replied, having little idea what logic was or what it involved, except that where foreign power tools were concerned, there was none of it to be had.

“People,” my father said, “are idiots.”

After acquiring the necessary tools and material, my father’s plan was to build a cooler. A fish cooler. It was to be the greatest fish cooler in the world.

WE RIPPED DOWN THE PLYWOOD WITH the old Black & Decker table saw, drilled pilot holes with the new DeWalt, tied the lumber together with L-brackets and machine screws, and rounded off the edges with the new Bosch—it turned 30,000 RPMs and was guaranteed not to scorch. We sanded everything down, painted the surface marine white, and applied snazzy bass decals on every side. We lined the interior with Styrofoam to keep the fish alive and kicking, and upholstered the top hatch to match the seats in the boat. “Look here,” he demonstrated. “You can sit on it. Like a couch.” By the time my mother appeared it was nearly midnight, which I know because she said so. And though she didn’t react to the sight and size of the cooler, a vague shame came over me when she appeared. Applying a dollop of silicone to the hasp, my father said, “Show your mother what you built, JB.”

If my father’s way with power tools was a little rough going at times, three coats of paint and plenty of caulk had smoothed over the flaws. At every stage we had stood back and observed this great unfinished thing, a pile of lumber turned gradually into something of beauty and utility. But now my mother’s presence, the way she stood in the doorway gripping her robe, had a way of making the whole project seem absurd, as if by opening the garage door she had introduced a whole other universe of truth to the project. Beneath my mother’s shadow, the great cooler appeared low and long, like a coffin. And that, I understood, was pretty much what it was—a coffin for fish.

Mom kept to the house for the night. She read deep into her Textbook of Anatomy and Physiology, highlighting the sentence, There are two types of endoplasmic reticulum: rough and smooth. She read the line again and again until its meaning became clear. What it meant, she concluded, was that she could easily forfeit the house in a divorce. She could give up her friends, her Volkswagen Beetle, the turquoise jewelry she bought on her recent solo trip to Vegas (it was the first time she had ever traveled alone), and even, if it came down to it, her clothing, as long as that meant she could be out of there by Christmas.

MY FEAR OF FISHING BEGAN
when I caught and netted my first serious fish, a smallmouth bass. My father said that bass were the real deal. This wasn’t some pan fish you caught from the dock. Bass were fighters. You hunted bass. You stalked them. And you had to be smart about it, because inch for inch and pound for pound, the smallmouth bass was the single greatest fighting fish in the world. Dad commonly spoke of the smallmouth in mythic terms, the way you heard people talk about the Sasquatch, or the guy from Kiss with the seven-inch tongue who breathed fire and spit blood. Of course I wanted a bass. Who wouldn’t want to land the greatest fighter in the world?

Yet for all his bass hype, Dad kept putting me off. He said that before I went after the big boys, I had to earn my stripes catching sunfish off the dock. So while he and his brother loaded the boat with outriggers, downriggers, fish-detecting sonar equipment, unbreakable carbon-fiber poles, and high-end Shimano open-face reels, I tied a piece of string to my bamboo rod and asked if they could spare some worms.

Bamboo. Everything you needed to know was right there in the word. To the eight year-old ear, bamboo is fishing’s equivalent to training wheels. Bamboo could be the name for a Saturday morning cartoon character or a harmless pet that nobody loves. A hamster, a ferret. That’s because bamboo rods aren’t worthy of love. They have no reel, no telescopic mechanicals, no eyelets, alloys, or action—just a piece of string and a humiliating plastic bobber. I pled my case before Uncle Billy while my father cranked the outboard.

“Bamboo doesn’t do anything. It’s just a big stick.”

“Not true, Nephew.” Billy sighted my rod as if it were a rifle, handling it in a precise, stylized way. “In Asia this stuff grows like grass. My friend Mister Charlie used it for booby traps.” He held the bamboo alongside my head. “Imagine one of these entering the base of your skull and running clean through your eye socket.”

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah. Cool. Only Mister Charlie’d smear it in shit, first.” Uncle Billy smiled. “Give you a nice infection before it kills your ass.” Kneeling down until he was nose-hair close and smiling—Billy was always smiling; it’s how he got away with saying terrible things—he said, “There ain’t a goddamn thing wrong with bamboo.”  

Uncle Billy was a dead ringer for David Bowie. He once shotgunned a twelve-point buck and tied it to the roof of his Oldsmobile. By the time he arrived to drop off my father, blood had streamed down the windows except where the wipers could reach, and froze solid. Billy drove around like that for weeks—to work at Bethlehem, out for Chinese takeout, or to pick up his girlfriend, Denise—with that enormous frozen deer lashed to the roof of his car. He tried scraping together enough cash to have the animal properly mounted, but the money never came, and the antlers were eventually sawed off, in any case, stolen.

I dangle the bamboo off the dock, waiting for a crappie to swim along and take the bait. Nothing is lower in the food chain than a crappie. Just listen to the word. Crappie. Say it with my Dad’s south Chicago accent—creah-pee—and it sounds like something that floats in the toilet. Even my dictionary can’t find much to love about crappie, a food fish found in sluggish water. But this morning the food fish are hungry. They are biting and I hook one straightaway. I jerk the bamboo hard and the tiny brown fish flies from the water. I swing it around and around overhead until it flies away, and then I pull another worm from the carton of dirt.

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