Part 7 of the Northern Minnesota Project.
In times of existential despair or confusion, Fargo Freddie liked to remember an inspirational quote he had once seen on a bathroom wall: Pussy ain’t free. To fully savor the best life has to offer, he reflected, one must always pay–psychologically, spiritually, or financially. Given this, he saw himself as one of the more benevolent operators in this world. All he wanted was money. To hell with your soul.
His was not the only brothel on the ice of Lake Ayers, but the air inside his shack never stank of dead ends and exploitation. Buoyed, perhaps, by Freddie’s belief in his own mission statement, his bitches saw themselves not as rock-bottom desperate, but as vital threads in the beautiful tapestry of humanity, which, they admitted, was unfortunately stained by semen. And, while dead-eyed, broken runaways appeal to the class of man who enjoys humiliating women more than sex, Freddie didn’t want that clientele. Their money spent just as well, but their psychic cost to his girls was too great.
Every once in a while, the Wrong Sort would open his door and stroll inside, looking for action. That they didn’t belong was obvious. They leered and sneered and the frozen breath they exhaled was as discolored as their teeth. A quick wave of Freddie’s .22 usually provided just the encouragement they needed to move along. For the slow learners, a few shots of his brass knuckles underlined the point. Freddie had never had to kill anyone, but he did not doubt that he could do so, if the need arose.
Freddie liked Lars right away. Here was a man whose face carried past tragedy in its creases but had never edged over into hateful bitterness. Lars came by often, usually with his son, who was content to color at an empty card table while his father played poker or drank gin or took a girl to his truck. The bitches enjoyed the boy’s company, particularly Irene, the bartender, whose own son had been eaten by a bear at around Paul’s age (and in whose defense she had lost her arm).
One of the hoes–Maude? Laverne?–even bought the boy a small fishing rod at the general store in town, and Freddie took it upon himself to show the child how to use it. While Lars was otherwise occupied in the cab of his pickup, they sat on small stools next to the fishing hole, and Freddie showed Paul how to attach the cheap tin lure to the fishing line, ever careful of the hooks. He demonstrated the proper way to raise and lower the pole, enticing unseen fish to bite. Paul felt the pole jump in his hands–almost lost it–and struggled briefly before pulling the fish out onto the ice. It flopped on the ice, throwing water off its silver fins.
“Shit, boy,” Freddie said, squeezing Paul’s shoulder, “that’s a fine eelpout!”
“It’s a burbot,” Irene corrected. “Eelpouts have elongated anal fins. They actually look like eels.”
“Reeny, just cook the fuckin’ thing, okay? Boy caught his first fish, you talkin’ all this shit about fish names?” Freddie unhooked the fish, then slammed it onto the ice twice in rapid succession, killing it.
Irene fried the burbot in butter on a small stove, adding salt and pepper for seasoning. The head she offered to Freddie, who fixed it to his line and went right back to fishing. Paul looked at his plate, on which rested the meat of an animal that had been alive half an hour earlier. He did not feel hungry.
“What’s wrong?,” Freddie asked him. “You thinking about the head of that fish?”
“We all got a time, kid. Worms are gonna eat us someday, and then somebody’s gonna take one of those worms and use it to catch a fish out of this lake. And when they eat that fish, they’re gonna be ingesting a little piece of us. It’s a cycle.”
“That’s not scientifically accurate,” Irene interjected.
“Irene! It’s a fuckin’ metaphor! It ain’t science! It’s a literary tool doubling as a philosophical parable! Calm the fuck down!” He turned his attention back to the boy, “Death is the price we pay so life can go on. Dig?
“Everything worth doing costs something. This fishing pole cost five dollars. The lure cost 75 cents. That dinner cost you time and that fish his life. Irene may be a mouthy one-armed trick, but she’s a helluva good cook. That will be the best fish you ever eat. I can promise you.”
Paul looked down at his food, then took a bite. Freddie was right; it was delicious. He quickly took another bite.
“What’d I tell you?” Freddie laughed. “It’s worth that little bit of sadness, isn’t it?”
Paul was too busy eating to say anything.
Had Paul looked up from his dinner, Freddie would have told him his ideas about pussy, but he reasoned that the child had learned enough for this particular afternoon. He felt his line go taut, and he smiled as he reeled in his catch.