The two women stood from the augured hole as ice crystallized on the fishing line. Beth rolled her lips over her teeth and bit down. Her incisors ached with the cold and blowing snow. Finally, Henry asked, “Did you touch him?”
Beth fisted her fingers in both pockets and turned to Henry: her eyes dark stones.
A wave of heat broke against Beth’s sternum and across her hairline. She swallowed the saliva at the back of her throat, and watched Henry chew the inside of her cheek while she waited for Beth’s answer, the fringe of Henry’s gray hair whipping in the wind. Beth said, “To hug him hello and good-bye, just like I did with you but less often.”
“You never kissed him?”
“I never anything-ed with him. He never knew.”
“You never told him.”
“How could I?”
“You just told me.” Henry turned and stomped to the second tip up hole, away from Beth.
Beth looked back at the Humdinger, the portable ice house they bought last year from Cabela’s Bargain Cave just weeks after Leonard died, three years after Rags’ death. The Humdinger nestled fifty yards from the next closest ice house, Hard Up, a permanent house made of plywood and 2x4s painted camouflaged green and brown. The other mismatched houses on Steward’s Lump—Going Fishing, Marty, Trash House, Master Baiter—seemed uncharacteristically peaceful. The snow muffled sounds of shouted curses and crushed beer cans; the haze of the blizzard softened primary colors and blaze orange. The Trash House’s pile of empty beer cases, propane tanks, busted chairs and buckets was covered in white.
The Humdinger appeared tight and safe. Before today, Beth had imagined Henry’s reaction in the canvas walls—maybe nodding, maybe even thanking Beth for loving Henry’s husband Leonard when she couldn’t. Not this.
Beth blinked back the sting at the corners of her eyes, looked up at the sky—flat gray, no shade change, no cloud shape, just thick lead. Snowflakes landed on her lashes, something that used to make her feel beautiful.
Turning, she saw Henry stooped over their other tip up. Beth marched towards the hole, her face burning in its flush. The ice gagged under her feet.
Henry clenched and splayed her mittenless hand and said, “Dug into the damn minnow bucket with my bare hand instead of the scoop.” She pulled her lips into a circle and sucked in a breath, “Fucking stupid.” Henry jammed her hand back into her mitten. “It’s burning. Think I’m gonna puke.”
Taking her friend’s mittened hand, Beth rubbed it hard. Henry’s face was white, green at the edges, her lips the color of a crappie belly. She felt Henry’s knuckles and thought of her fingernails like creek pebbles. Beth said, “I never loved him more than I loved you.”
Henry huffed, yanked her hand away, and stomped to the Humdinger. Beth rebaited the hook, lowered the line, and reset the tip up. Icy crystals ticked against the orange plastic flag. A shout came from one of the ice shacks. Across the lake snowmobiles whined, then nothing. The hole in the ice glazed. They weren’t going to catch a thing.
Beth looked over her shoulder, but the Humdinger revealed nothing. She glanced to the plowed ice road they’d driven in on and her Jeep. She’d named the Wrangler Sir Wildgin when she bought it for her sixtieth birthday, the fourth she had celebrated without Henry during the Moratorium. Beth had been sick of her practical Crown Vic. People assumed she was a cop, which was fun the first couple of years since she flashed her high beams at friends and got them to pull over, but she was always stuck behind slow pokes who thought she would give them a ticket. She wanted to be young and spunky, fun and unpredictable again. Every year as soon as it hit fifty degrees, she took the top off the Jeep and drove all over town, into Alexandria, down around the rich lake homes, blasting the Bee Gees or Bob Marley with the wind in her hair, trying to reclaim something lost.
She checked the tip up and glanced back to the shore. A herd of kids they’d passed on the drive out, maybe a dozen of them, were making a rink—an awful day for it. The foolishness of youth. She had to squint her memory to see her own similar days. The ice boat she and Henry had made in high school, the only girls in the tri-county competition.
As Beth got to know the feeling of wanting Leonard fourteen years ago, she took to wearing her shoulder-length hair up. Tarnished brown and streaked with silver, Beth fought her hair into a ponytail or a falling apart French twist in the obscene notion that Leonard might see her neck and want to touch it. As if the plush of the twenty pounds she should lose made her neck supple, not fat. As if the three moles that had appeared in the shape of a boomerang under her left ear would tempt him.
Beth couldn’t have said exactly when she fell in love with Leonard. In the beginning, it wasn’t that kind of a love. It was more like what she felt for Henry. Until then, one day, it wasn’t because she found herself sitting at their kitchen table over venison sloppy joes and lima beans, wondering what Leonard looked like if his flannel shirt was unbuttoned, and what his beat up old hands might feel like at her low back.
There’d been a handful of moments before the Moratorium, sometimes with as many as two years in between them, when Leonard seemed to actually see Beth. Once, forty-five years into knowing him, she’d arrived at the farm, and the power had gone out. The air was cool and scrubbed, still ringing with ozone, lilac leaves dripping, and the good earth scent drifting up from the fields. Leonard sat on the steps in a clean t-shirt, hair still damp from a shower, his thin frame poised with the grace and strength of a buck. Henry nowhere to be seen. Low and sweet he’d said, “Come watch the fireflies with me, Bethesda.”
“Only if you don’t call me that, Leonard.”
“Why? You don’t like it?”
“It sounds like a witch’s name.”
“Exactly right. You’re bewitching.”
When she’d gone to sit by his side, he reached for her hand and her breath caught. He buttoned the cuff of her shirtsleeve, and she waited for his eyes to make contact with hers, felt his sandpaper fingers on her skin, a touch that electrified her. She could smell Ivory soap mixing with his heat. She thanked him and still waited for his eyes, but he was transfixed by the lightning bugs, and that, too, was charming.
The Brasselman brothers: Leonard and Rags. Leonard three years older and Henry’s husband for forty-two years until his heart attack last year. Rags the one Henry loved for the last thirty-five of those years, though he was married to, and raising children with, Diane until he died four years ago. In most of that time, Beth dated serially. And then she fell for Leonard. And after that, she started the Moratorium, hoping to someday return to the farmhouse, knowing that could only happen if Leonard or Henry was dead.
Back in the Humdinger, Beth gave Henry a new beer, and opened one for herself.
Henry nodded toward the Humdinger’s plasticized window and said, “We should buy a motorized augur. That guy’s cut three holes in the time it took us to cut one.” She added, “Makes us look like amateurs.”
“I know. And you want a permanent ice house when we always said the great part about the Humdinger is that we can take her anywhere.”
“But we don’t go anywhere. We just go here.”
Beth said nothing. She stretched her pinching back and checked her line. Without looking at Henry, she asked, “Did you know?”
Henry shook her head and said, “No.” She rubbed at her knee with a mittened hand. “I guess I thought you two were just like siblings.” She jigged her rod, sipped her beer. She turned the heater up a notch, wouldn’t look at Beth. “Just because I don’t obsess about sex like you, doesn’t mean we didn’t have sex. I didn’t deprive him,” said Henry.
“I didn’t say you did.” Beth sighed and jigged her rod. She pinched the inside of her lip between her molars. “I told you I loved him. Which I did. And he didn’t love me.” Her skin flushed in another hot wave. Sweat gathered at her neck, a drip rivuleting to her cleavage. Her palms perspired inside her mittens, though her fingertips were numb. “I’m glad you had so much hot fucking together. That’s really great.”
They were silent a long time. Beth stood and peered out the Humdinger’s window to see if the tip ups’ flags had gone off. Neither had. Henry hated the window, couldn’t understand how in this day and age there wasn’t plastic that could be seen through clearly. Beth always argued in favor of the haze. She liked the world muffled and blurred.
In the distance, snowmobilers opened their throttles on the uninterrupted plane of the lake. When the sound was gone, Beth said, “I’m sorry, Henry. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you.”
“I mean I knew there had to be something. Your best friend doesn’t just vanish.” Henry jigged and sipped her beer. She spoke to the hole in the ice. “I tried to ask Leonard about it. I thought maybe he’d done something to offend you.” Henry flipped the handle of her reel once and held the rod still. “I considered it, of course. But I couldn’t think of a single time I’d ever seen him love you or you him. I knew the way I was about Rags before he’d made his decision about staying with Diane, and even after too. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Did a hundred little things to let him know I was thinking of him, to get him to notice me—cooked his favorite roast, wore green, played Harry Nilsson—and I’d never seen you do anything to catch Leonard’s eye. Had never once seen you and Leonard look at each other the way Rags and I did.”
Beth was quiet. Henry was right. He’d never once looked at her in any way but as a friend. He’d rejected her with indifference. Beth pulled her hat farther down on her head and considered telling Henry about wearing her hair up.
“Did you?” asked Henry.
“Did I what?”
“Did you two ever look at each other like that?”
“He only had eyes for you.”
“Ha. He only had eyes for the farm.”
Beth nodded, jigged. “It was a thing I liked in him. The way he didn’t care what others thought.”
Henry fiddled with the reel’s handle. Spun it back and forth. Had stopped jigging.
Beth said to the ice, “It reminded me of you.” She added, quietly, “Of the way you used to be.”
Henry cocked her head, turned and ran her eyes over Beth’s face. “So I’m the reason you wanted to have sex with my husband?”
It was Henry who had convinced Beth’s parents to let them build the ice boat in the back of the pole barn. Maybe because of the scholarship for some of their materials, Beth’s parents let the girls work on the boat, regardless of chores and homework. They poured over plans, ordered the sail, picked out sheets of ash wood in Alexandria, and finagled cleats and blocks from Washed Up Marina. Henry’s mom got them old hockey skates to have grounded down for runners. Bloom’s Hardware donated bolts, lag-screws, screw-eyes, wire nails, and spikes. One of the other competitor’s dad did the mill work for them. Beth’s father even got a salvaged Ford steering rod from one of his buddies. Absorbed in the work, Beth would catch Henry chewing the inside of her cheek. When she did, Beth flicked her hand to get her to stop. But sometimes, both of them so lost in the work, Henry caused her cheeks to bleed, and she couldn’t eat spaghetti or drink orange juice until they healed.
The girls sawed, glued, bolted, screwed, nailed until they had the tiller, hull, mast, and runners—until they built a simple but sleek ice boat.
Race day: the boys—loud, shoving—didn’t look at Beth or Henry before the event started. The girls took third because they finished. Three other boats didn’t: hull sideboards cracked, guy wires snapped, masts broke. The cracking of wood far louder than the ice’s thundering popping, though even the ice noisier than usual since nearly the whole small lake had been plowed free of snow. That day, the wind stronger than forecasted, it should have been Beth to sail the boat, her extra size and weight could have helped through the tacking and jibing. Standing on the ice, toes numb, snot frozen, voice hoarse with yelling, she willed the boat across the finish line: choked up on the sail’s imaginary rope around her arm, pined for the wind’s tug and pull. They might have taken second, maybe even won.
Beth left the Humdinger, checked the tip ups’ flags, peed on the lee side of the portable, and came back with two more beers from the case in the snow. She was chilled all the way through, her previous sweat damp and cold against her.
In the Humdinger Henry said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Beth nodded. They reeled in their minnows. Both were still alive, untouched, eyes bulging. Wordlessly, the women threw the minnows into the holes and turned off the heater. Beth pulled the tip-ups while Henry broke down the ice house.
Beth had caught them a couple of times. Maybe that was their plan—to get caught so it would be over. Then it would be too late for explanations: they’d get what they wanted. But Henry and Rags had to be found out by someone who didn’t know: Leonard, Diane, one of the kids.
At the annual July Fourth picnic at Henry and Leonard’s, Beth had arrived early. She wanted to help with the final preparations because Henry’d been sick that year—a head cold that had gone to her chest. Maybe it was the oscillating fan on the kitchen counter that kept them from hearing her car on the driveway’s gravel, her opening and closing of the screen door, her shuffling of bags loaded down with potato salad, chips, beer, and fireworks.
The vinegar smell of Henry’s homemade barbeque sauce stung her eyes as Beth walked into the kitchen and saw Rags’ hand on Henry’s hip. They stood close, foreheads nearly touching, whispering. Henry saw Beth first, and flawlessly, immediately, she said to Rags, “You’re right. There’s a thread there,” and moved her hand to where his had been, her two fingers plucking an imaginary bit of nothing from her waist. Rags blushed, coughed a hello to Beth, and said he had to go buy ice for the coolers.
In the oscillating fan’s air—blazing humidity then suffocating whirlwind—Beth thought her sacks of groceries would bring her to the floor as Henry smiled at her, nearly winked. Beth wore the sweat of the kitchen; her mouth watered as if she might puke. But Henry took the beer from her and thanked her for the casserole she’d brought earlier in the week and never once said why or how she could lie straight to Beth’s face even though there’d been no reason to: she’d told Beth about Rags since the beginning.
Before the Moratorium, Beth hoped for Diane’s death—quick and painless. She didn’t dislike Rags’ wife—Beth had attended enough Thanksgiving and Easter dinners to know Diane was a kind woman, a bit dull—wearing a different cat sweatshirt for every event—but kind. Beth couldn’t keep herself from the indulgence of made up newspaper headlines: Diane Brasselman, 46, Killed by 18-wheeler or Brasselman, 49, Mother of Three, Dead After Aneurism. Beth was sure Henry would convince Rags they should be together and then Beth could have Leonard. She would help on the farm without bitching, would probably lose the weight she couldn’t shrug since Leonard didn’t care about food. They could sit by the wood fire. Leonard liked his brandy, and maybe he’d teach her to do the same.
In the first raw months following Leonard’s death, as spring emerged and everything seemed to pair off, Beth had been angry at Leonard. She hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye. She’d expected he would outlive Henry, who’d had a bum knee forever, had suffered something undiagnosed that Beth was sure was a mini stroke, and whose parents died before her own and before Leonard’s. Then, Beth had thought there’d be some kind of fairness in the end. Some kind of lasting love for her too.
In the twilight Beth and Henry shoved the last of the gear into the Wrangler, and the women sat in the jeep, waiting for it to warm up enough to turn the heater on full. They rolled their windows down two inches, though it was probably impossible to go through the ice this late in winter. They sniffled, wiped their noses, and applied Chapstick. Henry said, “Sir Wildgin’s taking his sweet time tonight.”
In the distance, someone on a ladder plugged in a floodlight above the children still at the rink. The light hung from a tree, casting an old-fashioned aura about the skaters. Beth imagined them cheering the light, though she couldn’t hear so far away. They looked like a muted Rockwell painting.
“That was why you left?” asked Henry. “Since Rags wouldn’t have me? No chance you’d get Leonard?”
Beth stared out the window at the gray, the snow racing on a blast of wind, and the tree line along the lakeshore a darker gray than anything else, except for the white haze of light at the rink. The forced intimacy of the Jeep—safe in the oncoming heat, just the two of them against the world—felt all wrong. “No.” She had hoped it wouldn’t go this far, had hoped Henry wouldn’t be hurt so there wouldn’t be all these questions, had almost hoped Henry had known so Beth wouldn’t have to lie. “I convinced you to tell Rags you loved him.” Beth watched Henry flip her jacket’s zipper, her lips smashed together, her jaw gnawing at the inside of her cheeks. This had been a very bad idea.
“So you could…” Henry’s voice trailed off, waiting for Beth.
Beth reached to turn the heater up.
“You said you were sick of seeing me so unhappy,” said Henry.
“But you wanted my Leonard for yourself.”
Beth dropped her voice, faced Henry. “Your Leonard? How many times did you tell me how lovesick you were? How many times did I hear the wrong brother saga?”
“That doesn’t mean you can love my husband.” Henry’s lips regained the blue-pink she’d crushed out of them. A few wisps of hair blew in the heater’s breath around the edge of her hat.
“It doesn’t mean you can love your husband’s brother.”
They said nothing, the heat blasting, blood pushing to numbed toes and fingers.
Beth wondered if Leonard asked for her during the Moratorium. If he ever even noticed she wasn’t around for dinner or to help with the butchering, the hay. That was probably it, missed as an extra pair of hands. Probably cursed for it. Maybe, in the end, forgotten.
“So you saw I wasn’t going to leave Leonard, and you didn’t have the balls to approach him.” Henry redirected the heater vents. “God knows he didn’t.” Another beat, then, “Why did you tell me?”
Beth shook her head, then blew a breath threw her tight lips. “I thought it would help.”
“Did it? Do you feel better?”
“Not me. You.”
“You’re too selfish for marriage.”
The heater chugged, and Beth could smell the cold on their coats. She blew her nose and turned on the radio, but the choices were two pop country songs, a Ford truck commercial, and some Grateful Dead song Henry hated. Beth clicked the radio back off.
Beth used to imagine living in the farmhouse with Leonard—Henry and Rags run off somewhere upstate, someday to return so the four of them could sit over drinks and laugh about how well things turned out. At the farm with Leonard, it would be serene, content. Maybe some days she would get mad like Henry did that he never washed the dishes, that he spent his free time in the basement. But maybe if he was living with Beth he would want to be with her during his free time. If nothing else, she’d have what Henry didn’t complain about, a warm body next to her if she woke up from a nightmare, a person to sit across from while drinking coffee, someone to buy her medicine when she was sick. The littleness of what she wanted could make her bones ache if she let it.
“I thought you should know because, before, when you were so sad about Leonard—”
“—Don’t say his name. It’s my name to say.”
Beth bit her lip, tried to bite hard enough to taste blood. “When you were so sad about your husband, I thought it would help if you knew how much I missed him too. Thought we could divide up the sadness and get over it together.” She bit her lip again, and with her incisors she pinched away a small piece of tissue from her bottom lip. It tore like toilet paper, the cheap stuff at the Muni.
Splitting the grief was bullshit. Beth could see it now, see in herself what she wanted to hide, drop to the bottom of the lake. Again her skin flushed hot from her sternum to her hair. She closed her eyes and saw the headlines she’d made for Henry: Henrietta Brasselman, Dead at 52 After Stroke or when she was angriest, Henrietta Brasselman Shot by Unknown Intruder.
She wanted to hurt Henry, make her feel the tiniest sliver of what she’d been left with when she couldn’t have Leonard, couldn’t have Henry, couldn’t have anything at all. There was never any real danger Henry wouldn’t keep Beth at her side, only Beth could have called the Moratorium. Henry is weak for me. To have this one thing. No brothers, no husband, no love but that of a transplanted farm girl.
Beth breathed in the tinny air of the Wrangler, watched their humid breath collect on the windshield. Her heart cleaved.
She put the Jeep in first, shifted to second, and drove slowly. She watched the ice houses in the rearview mirror, swallowed back her new guilt, stinging worse than the old.
“Stop. I want to watch them,” said Henry.
Just two hundred yards from the slope where Beth would have to gun Sir Wildgin to get over the hump and back onto the pavement, a hundred yards from the ice dams that lined themselves up like a mountain range, she pulled to the edge of the ice road in one of the many places blown free of snow. The heat blasted its dry, chemical smell at them. She clicked her headlights off, and again the rink was lit by the single flood light strung up in a tree on the bank.
For several minutes, they watched and neither of them said a word, just listened to the gusting heat and under that, the occasional cycling of the engine. The snow swirled, but it had let up a bit, and as it grew darker, the wind ebbed. Every once in a while, through the cracked windows, a shout or laughter came from the children on the ice.
Beth still recalled sailing the ice boat: lying down in the hull so the boom wouldn’t hit her, one hand on the tiller, the other wrapped with the sheet’s rope. A slow gathering of momentum, then a sprint as she trimmed the sail. She yanked her hat off with her roped hand, the wind’s fingers teasing her hair. Choking up on the rope: flying. Shushing blades, hurling wind. Trimming the sail, wind tugging back on her roped arm: a kind of push-pull embrace. Just the way she’d known love to be—get closer, pull back, close in, release. A sailor always had to tack, watch for pressure ridges and open water.
In the Wrangler, Beth pulled off her hat, and Henry did the same. The smell of Henry’s dryer sheets wafted in the Jeep. Through the windshield, from the original gang, only two boys and two girls, similar in age, siblings or friends, worked without words on a project they’d obviously done many times before. Their fire burned in a metal pit nearby. The pump, operated by a fatherish man, flooded water onto the ice. The kids spread the water with wide blade snow shovels. One of them used a towel fixed lengthwise to a board nailed to an old broom handle. Steam rose in heavy sheets from the lake water, warmer than the night. It shrouded all of them in a fine haze, a gentle blurr. As if real life could exist as it did through the Humdinger’s window.
Henry asked, “What do you think he wanted?”
Beth turned the windshield wipers to intermittent so they could watch. She could see now it wasn’t such a bad night for rink building if they kept at it, the lake water they were pumping up would melt the snow for a while. “He wanted you. I see it now.” She squinted at the boy throwing a couple more logs on the fire. “I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m damn glad to have you back.”
Beth held her hands in front of the blowers, wiggled her stinging toes. Through the windows, laughter. She dropped the heat one level and heard the snowmobilers before she saw them. The engine cycled and laughter from the rink split through the crack in the windows.
Henry said, “Let’s go to the Muni.”
“They’ll ask us how we did out here.”
“We’ll ignore them.”
Beth had the better love. She doubted Leonard would have ever seen her the way Henry did now, again.
They watched the skaters and listened to the wind throw ice crystals against the jeep. The ice, blown clear of snow, reflected the distant spotlight. The heat still blasted. Beth pulled her fingers through her hair. The static sounded like fireworks.
Beth took a last look at the kids on skates. The steam rose around them, and the light, filtered through the falling snow, made them look other worldly, made them appear as if they were in slow motion. She smelled their fire and Henry’s dryer sheets. She wanted to tell Henry: look at that rink. Those kids doing this beautiful thing. Making something out of nothing. Instead of sitting. Instead of just trying to take something and not even able to do that.
Henry hit the gas. At the same time, she held the buttons to roll both front windows down all the way. The ice was clear, just as if a track had been plowed. Only the pressure ridge that looped around the shore would stop them. She was up to thirty miles per hour, the pedal still jammed to the floor. The engine whined, and she shifted to third, peaked at Henry, who clutched the middle console and the oh-shit bar on the door. Her eyes were wide, hair wild with static.
“Do it!” yelled Henry.
At forty-five miles per hour, Beth jammed the brakes, and the Jeep did a long slide. Then a tire caught, and they looped, tight and fast. Everything slowed—like the car accident when she broke her leg, like the call from Henry to say Leonard was dead. The centrifugal force glued her head to the neck rest. Out the windshield the dark lake swooped. Another tire caught, and for a moment it felt like they lifted off one side. They righted, and she turned her neck, body pressed to the seat, her belly woozy with the turning. At the sight of Henry—eyes shining, smile swabbed across her cheeks—a lump formed in Beth’s throat and the wooziness vanished. Beth wanted to woop, but a tire caught again, and again they shushed a huge circle in the ice, grays unspooling before her, uncoiling, out the window a filmstrip breaking. Wind raced in her hair. They looped again: sailing.