Part 6 of the Northern Minnesota project.
Paul was four years old, a scrawny kid with shaggy auburn hair and freckles. In those days, he spent a great deal of time with Mrs. Augsburger in the living quarters above her husband’s drugstore, coloring and building elaborate Lincoln Log structures while his father worked downstairs.
He preferred Sunday, because his father did not go to work. Paul typically passed time at home within ten feet of the wood-burner, rotating his activities regularly so the heat baked him evenly. On a Sunday in December, his father called him away from his toys and dressed him in a cheap olive green snowsuit from the Sears catalog. It would have fit a large boy twice his age, but Lars never could figure out the damned sizing charts. The sleeves and pant legs were rolled into cuffs, which diminished the child’s comfort, but Paul, as usual, did not complain. It had been below zero regularly for weeks, with wind that passed through you like the spirits of the condemned. He didn’t say anything about that, either.
They climbed into Lars’ rusty red Ford pickup, but did not head to town. Instead, they followed a pair of icy ruts through the bare trees and down a gentle grade toward the lake. Wisps of snow sailed across the ice ahead of them. Lars eased the truck onto the frozen surface.
Each winter, the population of Thief River Falls diminished significantly, as locals moved their activities onto the ice of Lake Ayers. The lake’s eight square miles hosted hockey games, figure skaters, and curling, but the real action revolved around ice fishing. Local men covered the ice in small shacks that stayed in place from November through March. For the avid sportsman, any moment not spent at work was spent hiding from familial responsibility on the lake. Few women braved the ice, and none of the men complained. Without much civilizing feminine influence, the lake in winter felt like a frontier village, all hairy, grimy masculine id.
Business owners of ill repute, aware that most of their patrons would not enter their more permanent establishments for months, created elaborate temporary structures, travel versions of their regular locations, and took to the ice. Bars, gambling dens, and burlesque houses sprang up, each offering their usual fare and, most essentially, a hole cut into the ice for fishing.
Paul did not know who Fargo Freddie was, but he liked his ice shack immediately. A large flag hung behind the bar where a parka-clad woman with one arm poured drinks. A few other women sat playing poker at card tables nearby. In the corner, a radio played Elvis. Lars ordered a beer for himself and a ginger ale for the boy, then steered his son to a table.
Lars asked the bartender for some playing cards, which he gave to Paul.
“Can you make a building with these, buddy?,” he asked. “I want to talk to someone for a little while. These ladies can watch you. Like Mrs. Augsburger.” The boy nodded. Lars soon left with one of the poker players.
Paul opened the box of cards. They were cheap paper, somewhat discolored. Each card had a unique drawing of a nude woman mistreating herself. Paul paid little attention to the pictures, focusing instead on construction. His early efforts–given the poor materials–collapsed, but in time he developed an understanding of structural engineering, and soon he was putting the fifth level on a tower. The women talked and laughed and drank nearby, but did not notice his achievement.
The door opened, and a stout, unshaven man entered, heading for the bar. An arctic blast followed him, blowing Paul’s tower down. The top cards fell off the table and onto the ice, where they continued to move, pushed by the draft. Paul scurried, picking them up, chasing the Queen of Hearts across the frozen floor, reaching for it as it dropped into the fishing hole.
He was too late. Peering over the edge, he could see the lewd woman sinking beneath the surface, disappearing. Soon, he could only see his reflection, green eyes gazing back up from the depths. Then, briefly, his father’s face behind his. A harsh tug pulled him back from the edge.