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 ï¬‚oor. 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 inï¬nity 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?”
“They buy some cheap-ass router made in—what?”
“They buy some Hong Kong router made out of sheet metal and chewing gum and guess what happens?”
“Breaks down,” I said.
“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.
NOTHING—NO MATTER HOW DEFTLY THROWN, catapulted, launched, lobbed, chucked, or heaved—nothing flies with the grace of a lure cast right. After my bamboo rod accidentally broke in half and disappeared down a sewer grate, I set out to perfect my cast on dry ground with the genuine article, my father’s telescopic Shimano rod and spinning reel with the Dyna-Balance rotor and ported handle shank. Do not fuck with me, I hissed at the trees, hooking balled-up socks strewn about the backyard and reeling them in. I plunked lures into spaghetti strainers from across the yard, then across the street, farther and farther away. For serious distance, I tied nuts and bolts to the line and cast them down the street. A hailstorm had dinged up most of the cars on 165th Place, so it didn’t matter much when I plunked one on somebody’s hood.
When dad took me out to a little bass lake in Ludington, it was like getting called up to the majors. We loaded up the boat in the pre-dawn dark and whispered over the electric motor hum as we glided into North Bayou. We had the lake all to ourselves. I landed my first cast amid a cluster of lilies, depositing the lure directly onto one of the floating lily pads—then ruined the beauty of it by turning to see if Dad had noted how masterful a shot it was. He said nothing, though his forehead puckered a bit while he busied himself with his own rig.
“All right then,” he said, blowing into his hands and rubbing them, though it wasn’t cold. “Here we go. Here we go.”
He gave a little laugh. The man loved to fish.
Dad liked to use Hula Poppers, a bass lure that resembles a frog in a grass skirt. The frog floats on the surface, hopping every now and then when you give the rod a sharp tug. If you’re a bass, the Hula Popper looks like breakfast served on a lily pad. Of course, hidden underneath its grass skirt are about nine thousand barbed hooks. In my father’s Muppet universe of a tackle box, the Hula Popper was my favorite. “Can you imagine,” Dad said once, as I ran my fingertip across its sparkling green skin, “some guy in a factory painting these lures all day. All I can say is get an education.” In the winter, I liked to smuggle Dad’s lures and hoard them in my underwear drawer. Hula Poppers. Meps spinners. Rapala minnows. The magic fluorescence of eight-pound test line. If neither imported beer cans nor the translucent paper wrapping of Japanese firecrackers heralded my awareness of beauty in this world, then it was fishing tackle for sure.
The moon over Hamlin Lake was the color of a fresh red penny. You had to keep quiet out there because the smallmouth heard everything, even the crickets—which they sometimes ate, my father said, along with mice and birds if they got hungry enough. The idea of a bass eating a sparrow seemed implausible, but it excited me. I gave the rod a little jolt to pop the lure. There was slack in the line, so I cranked the reel some more, then tried again. Still the line was slack—I was reeling in air. Something wasn’t right. My father was tying off his lure, paying no attention. I wondered. I wanted to ask. Had my knot failed? Had the lure flown from the line during the cast? It couldn’t have—we both saw it land. We heard the rubbery slap of the lure against the lily pad. We saw the water ripple around it.
Then I see it. A coil of moonlight spiraling down from the tip of my rod into the water like a stretched-out Slinky. My line—tracking slowly toward the boat. Right about when it dawns on me that fishing lures can’t swim, the Slinky hammers down like piano wire. The rod comes alive in my hands. It’s running a hundred thousand volts. The world goes white. I hear the Shimano screaming. It’s zipping out drag. Droplets of water hitting my face. A fish.
“Dad. Dad. Dad.”
“Goddamn,” he says. “Set the hook.” His voice is thick, unrecognizable.
“You got a fish. Set the hook.”
TO SET A HOOK TAKES A FRACTION OF ONE SECOND and requires little in the way of high motor skills. Yet of all the steps required to land a serious fish in an honorable way—without using a drop net, say, or a stick of dynamite—it is the one most frequently botched. A proper hookset, according to The Ultimate Bass Fishing Resource Guide, goes down like so:
Upon feeling the strike, turn to face the fish. Drop the rod tip quickly and snap the slack out of the line with a fast overhead strike. This will pound home the hook point the same way a hammer pounds a nail into a board.
Precisely as my father advised. My problem was that the bass didn’t strike. It snuck. It snuck the lure and headed straight for the boat, causing the line to double back upon itself. The lack of tension made setting the hook impossible. The bass swallowed the lure. So instead of setting the hook into his jaw when I finally reeled out the slack, I set the hook into the lining of its stomach. Instead of playing the fish for sport, I muscled him into the boat hard and fast, disappointed by the ease of it, as yet unaware that I had shred its internal organs into strips. This became clear when Dad netted the fish and peered into its mouth, saying, not quite under his breath, “Shit. Shit. Shit.” It was the language he reserved for the lost cause, the hopeless situation that nevertheless required massive amounts of concentration.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” With his free hand he rooted though the tackle box in search of the de-hooker, a sort of needle-nose pliers designed for extracting swallowed lures, then inserted the tool deep—impossibly deep—inside the fish’s gullet. But the most he is able to extract is a thick wet sucking sound, and if I am not yet certain that this fish is doomed, my father’s chatter, “Fucking mother of fuck,” takes on a religious quality that doesn’t bode well one bit.
The bass continues to wiggle and fight. And when the wiggling stops and the bass hangs limp, Dad ceases his digging and pulls the fish through the water to revive it, repeatedly, every minute or so. Each time the bass revives a little bit less than the time before and eventually not at all. Then Dad begins to force. You hear the sound of tissue and tendons snapping, not unlike the sound of weather stripping getting ripped from the trunk of a Buick. When at last he frees the lure, Dad holds the bass in his hands with the delicacy of a newborn and begins pulling it gingerly through the water, back and forth, sluicing water through the gills while I inhale and exhale, back and forth, until he finally pushes it away, the shadow of the world’s greatest fighting fish gliding down and disappearing beneath a ripple of dawning light.
STUCKEY AND I LIKED TO SIT on the roof of his garage, where we enjoyed an unobstructed view of Mary Hobbs’s bedroom window across the alley. If we gave it enough time, Stuckey said, we’d see something hot, some teenage girl-on-girl, some bare tit. Some unobstructed Mary Hobbs. But we never did. Mostly we just tore up roofing shingles and threw them at Thor, a vicious dog that belonged to the Berseaus, two doors down. Stuckey reacted sympathetically when I disclosed my fear of fish.
“Your problem makes sense,” he said. “Everything you describe—the puking, the dizziness, the feeling you’re gonna pass out. It’s actually pretty common.”
I was about to unload another shingle on Thor, and balked when Stuckey so readily understood my predicament.
I said, “You’ve heard of this?”
Relief surged through me like adrenaline. I launched a shingle high and wide. It hooked toward the beast then veered off, missing by a hair. I thought, of course. Who wouldn’t be affected by the sight of a sleek beautiful fish gasping for air, its rainbow colors turning black from suffocation? At the very least, at the absolute bare minimum, I told Stuckey, why not kill the fish as soon as it’s caught? Why not saw their heads off as soon as we get them in the boat? At least then they wouldn’t die so slowly.
“Has your mom told you the medical terminology for your problem?”
“She doesn’t know my problem. How come?”
“We did a unit on the brain once. I think I might be able to explain this.” Stuckey peeled a fresh shingle from the roof and sidearmed it. A lovely throw, snaking through treetops, cutting down maple leaves as it flew across the Berseaus’ yard and scored a direct hit. The dog shrieked. “In layman’s terms, JB, I believe you are what’s called an‘unbelievable pussy.’”
“Fuck you, Stuckey.”
“Or, if you prefer, Vaginous Gigantis,” he said. “I believe that’s the medical wording. Ask your mom if you want, because my Latin’s a little rusty.”
Jeffrey James Stuckey: age thirteen. Around the neighborhood we were best friends. At school he tended to forget who I was. If on Sunday I stayed overnight at his house playing Atari, by Monday he passed me over at the lunch table. He was four years older than me but, on account of a growth hormone deficiency, looked right about my age. Supposedly the illness had taken a toll on the size of his business; some of the kids at school had begun referring to him as Señor Micropenis. I had yet to confirm this. Though perhaps this explained why Stuckey had lately taken to wearing a padlock inside his underwear and was always daring me to punch him in the balls.
“See there, JB? That’s your sickness talking. Vaginous Gigantis, or, if you prefer, your gigantic gaping vagina. Be strong. You can beat this thing.”
Stuckey ringed his mouth like a fish and pretended to gasp. “Poo-see… poo-see…,” folding his arms inward like little fins, swimming around the rooftop. “JB, you are the essence of pussy,” he said. “You are a frozen can of concentrated cunt juice.”
THE MOST FISH WE EVER CAUGHT IN A DAY was five, six, maybe seven tops. Eight by some tragic miracle. By my own worst-case estimate, Dad’s new cooler was big enough to hold fifty or more, its capacity equal to that of a kiddie pool. Since our boat itself was not much more than a kiddie pool with a motor bolted to the stern, Dad and Uncle Billy had to rip out the back seats to make room. We stood by and watched them do this, Stuckey and me handing off tools as needed. It was Memorial Day weekend. The Harvester strike was by now the longest strike in U.S. history. When Dad called out for the reciprocating saw, I knew he was rushing the job. Word had gotten around. Vast schools of perch, millions and millions of them, hitting bare hooks about three miles off Lake Michigan’s south shore. Between the four of us, Dad said, and the cooler, we stood a good chance of nabbing every last one of them.
HAD YOU ASKED ME IN THOSE DAYS what was the more complicated task, putting a manned space capsule into orbit or backing a boat trailer into Lake Michigan, I would have hesitated. When my father prepared to launch the boat, the air got charged with strange particles, a bad energy that buzzed in your head. The man couldn’t back up a boat trailer. He grew tense just thinking about it, just as soon as the lake came into view as we motored northward on Lakeshore Drive. You saw it in the way he kept checking his blind spot, the fabric of his T-shirt binding up around the shoulders and neck while cars sped past. At the southside public access ramp on Lake Michigan it was worse. The place was overrun with people like us. Hundreds, thousands of us, our inbound fish coolers stocked with aluminum-flavored beer and geometrically shaped sandwiches. We were desperate for leisure—yet willing to take time out of our day to observe someone else’s disaster.
When Dad prepared to launch the boat, adults who didn’t know better liked to volunteer their services. They wanted to be hand-signal givers. They wanted to gesture and point as we backed into the water. Because mirrors and headchecks alone weren’t enough. You wanted human agency. You wanted someone who’d been drinking since dawn to guide you and your family, encased in two tons of steel and glass, backwards into the water. One time, shortly after returning from the war, Uncle Billy felt up to the task. His experience signaling medevac landings under enemy fire qualified him, he felt, to guide my father’s boat trailer into a standing body of water. Neither Billy nor my father ever disclosed what happened next. All that’s known is that my father somehow missed. And now Billy, who survived two tours of Vietnam more or less intact, refuses to get out of the car until the boat is safely afloat.
Billy hunched down in the passenger seat while Dad plotted his course. Stuckey and I sat in back. From here you could see the largest steel plants and oil refineries in the world, where my father and uncle worked, rising from the shore like black windowless cities. Behind us, at the bottom of the textured concrete incline, was the same lake water they pumped through the plants to cool them. The water was the color of mustard, rumored to be flammable. While my father made his final frantic headchecks, Uncle Billy turned to Stuckey.
“We’re gonna need a little help back there, little man. Think you can flag us in?”
Stuckey said, “Sure,” and bolted from the car without so much as asking how one would do such a thing.
I thought, Sure Stuckey. You do that.
Stuckey’s disease made him fearless. He shied from nothing, and always freely ventured out of his league. It irritated me. Because of his small size, because of his hormonal deficiency, the world bore its weight a little lighter on Stuckey. If he took a risk and failed—hogged the basketball, say, and chucked a low-percentage shot from the three-point stripe—hey, no big deal. It was the disease that failed. Not Stuckey.
The Buick rocked when Dad shifted to reverse, his eyes watery and wide in the rearview mirror as we commenced our lurching descent.
I find myself eager to observe Stuckey’s form. I want to mark the precise instant his breezy hand signals break down to a flailing animal panic. The Hand Signal Givers always begin casually. They start by waving us back, back toward the water as if it couldn’t be easier. At least until my father’s abrupt heel-toe style kicks in—the way he compensates for uncertainty in the outside world by acting with extreme decisiveness behind the wheel. But Stuckey, it turns out, doesn’t wave casually. He doesn’t wave at all. Instead, he looks down the ramp to check that it’s clear, then gives my father the thumbs-up. That’s it. That’s all he does. When Dad hesitates, Billy tilts his passenger mirror inward and I can see a little fisheye version of Stuckey reflecting back.
“He says you got a clean shot, Brother.”
The brake pedal clunks loose and we are moving down. At the halting speed of a silent movie, the water rises to meet us. On any given day, here is where the trailer veers into a jackknife. Here is where a beach ball blows into our path and causes massive overreaction on Dad’s part. But not today. Today the boat plunges straight into the lake, the rear bumper of the car hovering out past the waterline when Stuckey hops onto the hitch and rides it another couple of feet. Just when I think we’re about to be carried off by Lake Michigan, Stuckey draws his fingers into a fist and pops it on the lid of the trunk. Thunk. Like it couldn’t be easier.
OUR BOAT WAS AN ALUMINUM STARCRAFT. It was small and light, and you were likely to see as many of them floating on Lake Michigan as alewives gone belly up. What set it apart was the 140-horse Johnson outboard. It was the same engine they used to drive double-decker houseboats up the Mississippi. Holstered in our little Starcraft, that Johnson was obscene in all the right ways. The guy at the marina refused to install it. He said it would be like strapping a jet engine to a motorcycle. I thought, Why not? Why not do that? My father seemed to agree, and did the job himself. He crammed all those horses into our little boat, just as he crammed The Cooler, effectively transforming the Starcraft into a high speed fish receptacle. On account of the engine’s heft, the boat floated unevenly, ass-down, nose-up, and passengers were invited to ride up front for ballast. So equipped, the boat’s top speed was unknown, just a tantalizing theoretical number beyond the reach of the speedometer. And that, my father said, was real top speed. The speed you didn’t have the guts to go.
Dad steered us north by northeast, until what surrounded us was a grey-blue sky that we drew a line through the middle of. On the boat we pissed into a rusted Folgers Coffee can, then dumped it into the lake. I gotta go to the can was the joke, and the coffee can was the custom. I was good at the can. Pissing inspired in me a competitive rigor, and I liked to time my leaks to coincide with dramatic conditions—the boat short-hopping whitecaps, say, or cracking the whip on a waterskier. Adults had difficulty with the can. Women tended to squat nervously above it, as if they’d been led into some kind of trap. Uncle Billy kneeled delicately. Dad held it up to himself as if it were a doll house commode, always somehow surprised when the piss ricocheted off the metal onto his clothes and hands.
When it was my turn for a go, Dad cranked the wheel to throw me off mid-stream. Even as I stumbled, homing in on that can was easy. There was a certainty to pissing in the can—even as it skidded across the deck. If I were a better person now or then, more caring or compassionate regarding our fresh-water friends of the deep, I might have found less enjoyment in all of this. After all, that big cooler was waiting in back to be filled with ninety-nine dead perch. That’s how many fish we would catch today and suffocate: ninety-nine. Fourteen of which would be caught and subsequently filleted by yours truly. And yes—this would bother me. But there are other forces at work here. The speed of the boat. The rush of the blood. The hammering wind. Let’s face it: if you want to look backward and learn something, you’ve got to keep your childhood traumas in perspective.
WHEN DAD THROTTLED down the Starcraft we feathered the water and slowed to a celestial drift. Gone were the Wicker Park sunbathers to the west and the steel plants to the south—though you could still make out the smoke stacks floating in the distant haze, feeding into the clouds. Dad reminded us that it wasn’t pollution: “If the smoke’s white, it’s only steam.” Over a quarter century later, as I write this, I can’t say for certain whether he was correct—that dark smoke is poison and white smoke only steam—or if his statement pretty well sums up one of the greatest lies in modern history.
Much of what the man said was implausible. He said that fish can’t feel pain. He said it with conviction. His brother backed him up, and Stuckey piled on, too, stating the facts as they occurred to him: “It’s commonly known, JB, that fish can’t feel pain. They adapted this wondrous trait over billions of years in order to withstand vicious lamprey attacks.”
“Stuckey, how could you even know something like that?”
“It’s called history. Try it sometime.”
I was never able to match wits with Stuckey. Even if what he possessed wasn’t actual knowledge, he nevertheless knew how to use it, whatever it was.
We replenished our beverages, baited our hooks, dropped our lines. Today’s venture bore little resemblance to our
solemn hunt for bass. Perch weren’t bass—not by a long shot. Perch were smallish, flat, crappie-like. They had pluck, sure. They were spunky. But no man in the history of the world ever told a fish story about a half-pound lake perch. Instead of the priestly reverence my father observed while bass fishing, today he flipped on the transistor radio and did his best Gordon Lightfoot, manually wiggling his larynx with his fingers while he sang, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Uncle Billy proposed that we pass the time with a few rounds of Better Than Honky. It was a word game we played until the fish started biting.
“Nephew—you go first.”
The object of Better Than Honky was to come up with a word, any word, that insulted white people as much as nigger insulted blacks. So far, nobody had ever come close.
“Super Fat Honky,” I said.
“Too wordy. Go Brother.”
“Cracker,” my father said. Everybody laughed.
Billy pointed his beer can at Stuckey and crushed it. “You. Go.”
“I like that. Original. Nephew, go.”
“Sorry. That’s for women only.”
Another of Dad’s implausible facts: babies born to mixed-race couples emerged from the womb with bright orange hair.
“It’s just sad,” he said, shaking his head. “These babies are marked from birth. And I’ll tell you what. I feel sorry for them.” In reality, the only orange hair baby I’d ever met was Rusty McCune, and Rusty was Irish like us. Dad had also maintained that the real nutrition of a potato was stored entirely in the skin. He said that what mom peeled off and tossed into the trash was, in fact, the essential thing we needed to live. The fact that fish don’t feel pain was in this league of implausibility.
Another fact—implausible but later confirmed—is that my father was a member of the National Socialist Party of America, a.k.a., the American Nazi Party. I hesitate to mention this. It’s hard to make a sympathetic hero out of anybody who writes out a quarterly dues check and mails it off to the south Chicago chapter of American Nazis. For years my mother kept this information secret. Until long after she left him, until long after he had vanished from my life and from hers, she never said a word about it. Perhaps she worried that I would judge her for finding enough content in the man’s character to actually marry him. When she asked him for a divorce, my father slapped her so hard that you could see it on her face for days. For a period of weeks you saw the slaps appear and reappear like bad dreams. So there you go: A Wife Beating Nazi. Plus, he owned guns, one of which he kept in the glove box wrapped in a canvas bank-deposit bag. Tally it up and you get a Paranoid Gun-Loving Wife-Beating American Nazi. On paper, I can’t deny this.
But he didn’t teach me to hate. There were no swastika banners strung from the ceiling of our house. No private rituals during which we basked in the glory of the supreme white race—unless you count the Indy 500. I recall nothing in the way of suppertime Holocaust denials. Dad liked to use the word nigger, but his greatest hero was Muhammad Ali.
“How about Jewbag?” asked my father.
Uncle Billy acknowledged that Jewbag sounded pretty bad. It had a certain something. But since Jewbag didn’t apply to all whites equally—if it applied to any whites at all—he said Jewbag was an invalid entry.
The game stopped while Stuckey took his turn at the Folgers can. There was no reason he couldn’t play the game while he took a piss, but I think Uncle Billy was caught off guard by Stuckey’s handling of the can. I think we were all caught off guard.
Stuckey had lowered his shorts and held the can tightly to his groin, as if he’d trapped a lightning bug in there. To my knowledge then and now, I don’t believe there is a single circumstance under which it’s acceptable to watch another man take a piss, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Stuckey. The way he pressed that can into himself with both hands, airtight. His whiz drumming up against the metal. Complex acoustics accompanied his progress. Variations in pitch and tone that could not be ignored. Suddenly that cruel nickname popped into my head: Señor Micropenis. And then Stuckey said something that made me wonder if he knew that I knew.
“What they say about black men,” he said. “Is it true?” A silence took hold and deepened as Stuckey let out his last tympanic squirts. He persisted. “You know. About the size of their dicks.”
“That’s a myth,” said my father. He coiled the pull string around the Johnson and fired it up on the second try. There were millions of perch out there.
BY OBSCENE IN ALL THE RIGHT WAYS, I mean we went dangerously fast, and after my mother abandoned these excursions to prepare for her exams, we went fast dangerously. I especially liked to position myself at the bow, coil my arms around the handrails, and lay my head out over the rushing water. I liked to spit into the water and watch it disappear into the rush. This was never allowed under Mom’s watch, and I was grateful for the latitude. Grateful that I could be flipped, at any moment, from the bow into the lake, and get my head chopped off—always the leading adult concern. Don’t fall in. You’ll get your head chopped off by the propeller. Everybody knew somebody who had fallen off a boat and got his head chopped off. Or somebody who dove into the shallows at the quarry and ended up a paraplegic. Or somebody who got a shiny red apple for Halloween with a razor blade hidden inside. Dad understood the debt of recklessness fathers owe their sons. How recklessness inoculates against fear. How recklessness teaches you to tighten your grip when you need it, and to loosen your grip when you don’t. When he pushed that little Starcraft beyond the speedometer, the water turned hard as marble. When we got up into the air, jumping the wake of a passing ore freighter, the water had consequences. The way it slammed into the hull like thunder from hell, like we were landing on broken glass. Obscene in all the right ways. What I mean is that the boat sounded like it could rip in half at any moment. And this made me laugh out loud. Because maybe it was true. Maybe somebody out there really would get his head chopped off. But it wasn’t going to be me. MM
Listen to an audio version of The Cooler, read by the winning author.
THE SPONSOR Tamarack Funds
THE STORY “The Cooler”
John Bresland, 36, received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa last spring. Several of his radio essays have aired on public radio, and his video essay, “Les Cruel Shoes,” is a current feature on Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts. His story “The Horns You Get” appeared recently in North American Review, and his commentaries appear regularly on editorial pages throughout the Midwest. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with his wife, Eula Biss.
“This story came from my memories of growing up on Chicago’s south side at a time when U.S. industry was being dismantled and shipped abroad,” says Bresland, whose story is a chapter from a novel-in-progress, How to Be a Man. “The kids I ran with in those days were wild, resourceful, unmedicated, and so were most of the adults. I often wondered while writing ‘The Cooler’ how we salvage good lessons from bad teachers.”
THE 2007 TAMARACK
Minnesota Monthly will begin accepting entries for next year’s Tamarack Award competition on March 1, 2007. Check here for official rules and submission guidelines.
Interested in reading more of the Tamarack submissions?
Check out two stories that tied for fourth place:
“How to Ride Greyhound” by Eric Vrooman
“Beautiful Country” by Amanda Coplin