Dan slouched in the same booth at the diner as always, swirling the dregs of coffee at the bottom of the white mug and wincing at a worsening ache in his lower back. On a Saturday morning, high school kids bulked up an otherwise slim cluster of customers into a genuine crowd, and the diner bustled the way a diner should. Waitresses bounced from table to table with pancakes and cups of hot cocoa, squeals of laughter rose up at bad jokes, and the jingle bells on the front door were in a near-constant state of ringing.
“More coffee, hun?”
For as long as he could remember, Miriam had swung between calling him “hun” and calling him “Danny.” Most everyone in town called him “Danny” still. Hard to come home from college, work your way up to detective, and have every dick in town calling you “Detective Danny.”
He nodded to the coffee without paying much attention. Ray Crane, looking tired and miserable as always, had just come in the door in his expensive-looking coat. Dan sunk a little further down in the booth, hoping not to be spotted, even though he knew Ray would have nothing to say. A high school girl in the booth behind Dan whispered to her girlfriend, “Ooh, I’d fuck Dr. Crane so good he’d forget about the old Mrs. Crane and give me a big pair of pearl earrings.”
“I just love that dismal widow look,” her friend giggled back.
Crane stood at the counter, waiting for his regular Saturday morning coffee and doughnut. When he had first moved here in the summer with his new wife Vicky, the daughter of a professor at the college in Bemidji, everyone had noted how good-looking the new young doctor was. Vicky was one of those friends Dan always expected to be around, even if they went a decade without talking. A town like Blackduck didn’t attract a wide range of folks. Most everyone finished high school and then stuck around. Maybe they went over to school in Bemidji; they usually didn’t get too far, though. For Vicky Crane to go off to Phoenix and then show up again with a PhD and a doctor for a husband was about as much as anyone could handle.
For those first months, the Cranes would come into the diner and sit at the counter, eating doughnuts, drinking coffee, and debating the newspaper, in full view of everyone.
Now, he took his breakfast to go.
Miriam, apparently noticing Dan’s fixed stare at Crane, whispered, “Any news about the case, then?”
The case, always the case. It was known around town now as “Danny’s Big Case.” And soon it would be “The Big Case Danny Couldn’t Figure.” In the three years since he’d come back to Blackduck, this was the town’s first murder. She was still just a missing person—but he and everyone else in town knew that Vicky Crane was dead. Usually you’d say it was only a matter of time until she showed up. But it had stopped seeming that way. In five months, nothing had been found. Not a goddam thing. The house, as her husband found it when he came back from visiting his folks down in Phoenix, was as it always had been. Only the plants showed any sign of neglect. As Jeannie May from next door had noted, they probably hadn’t been watered in a week. That was it, the one housewife clue they had as to when Vicky had gone.
“How do you know she’s missing and not just—uh—on vacation?” Dan had asked Crane when the missing person report was filed.
“All her shoes are there.”
The way Crane saw it, someone had come over, someone friendly enough, and they had taken her.
“But why? Nothing’s missing, nothing’s turned up, no ransom or anything—”
“Fuck, I don’t know! Maybe they’re keeping her in some basement torture dungeon somewhere!” Crane blurted.
This was a man delirious with grief, conflating real life with exaggerated CNN reports about kidnapped women chained to radiators. Dungeons didn’t exist in Blackduck; women who left their husbands did.
Still, Crane was right that all of her things had seemed to be there: all their luggage, the car, and the emergency funds in the safe. They had a joint bank account, and nothing had been withdrawn that Ray himself hadn’t taken out since October 11th, which Jeannie May insisted was the last day that the plants had been watered.
The one missing thing that struck anyone as odd was a pair of enormous pearl earrings, which Vicky had worn only for their wedding and subsequent anniversaries.
“She wouldn’t just have been wearing them? Just because?” Dan had pried. Ray shook his head solemnly.
When the investigation had first started, Ray would come up to Dan every Saturday morning and ask if they had found anything.
“When we find something, you’ll be the first to know,” he’d say. Now they just exchanged brief glances and nods. Miriam and Dan watched Ray leave the diner and Dan noticed the relief in his lower back as he sat up a little straighter.
“So,” pressed Miriam, “any news?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“I know, I know. It’d just be nice to hear something nice,” she said, wandering away, shaking her head. Everyone was always shaking their head at him. It wasn’t even out of disbelief or frustration. The headshaking seemed a universally involuntary reaction, as though the disappearance of one woman could transform the nervous system of an entire town.
His own nervous system had become characterized in the past three months by a sort of retreat, in which he would fold into corners where possible, as though looking for a place to rest without having to lay down. He suspected that the pain he was always feeling just near the base of his spine was the result. As the bells on the front door jingled he shrunk back in the booth, where the bench met the window, looking out at the lines of cars parked there. The truck that had delivered the crowd of guys coming in was one he didn’t recognize. It was silver and modern, looked brand new, something you didn’t see in a whole lot of driveways around here. And when you did, you couldn’t help but raise a brow.
Dan was especially surprised to see whose truck it was—here was Cal Jones and his cousin Bertie. Their friends Jay Simpson and Fred Gallow. Friends since childhood, all in Dan and Vicky’s class, except for Fred, who was a year younger, and always tagged along. Fred was unkempt and spastic. “Ay, Danny!” he said. Always, “Ay.” Not “hi,” not “hello.” “Ay.” Bertie and Jay too said hello and asked how Dan was doing. Just Cal remained silent, raising his head slightly in acknowledgment of Dan’s existence. He wore a ratty old hunter’s jacket and a camouflage baseball cap stained with mud or oil—nothing like the fresh new car out in the lot.
Cal Jones was not known for his taste—in cars, in beer, in women. If he was known for anything, it was for inheriting a decent piece of land and a shitty little cabin from his dad their senior year of high school, and for shooting empty beer cans off the dumpster behind the football field. He had once been suspended from school for a day for wearing a Confederate ag on his baseball cap. Insofar as a guy like Cal had glory days, they were well-passed.
Bertie and Jay were nice guys though—a little stupid, but nice. Bertie got used to apologizing for his cousin’s bad behavior. Jay got used to ignoring it—he just wanted a friend with a truck.
Fred was, Vicky used to say, “an actual angel.” In high school, he would follow her around and laugh at all her jokes. When she was married, no one was happier for her. When she went missing, no one was in more search parties. When Ray hadn’t left the house for two weeks, it was Fred who convinced him to start jogging in the mornings again.
“Any news on the case, Detective Danny?” he asked now.
“Nah, we’ve got a few leads though.” (They didn’t.)
“Well are ya workin’ today? No? Day off? Great! Come up to the lake with us, we’re goin’ ice shin’, gonna catch some walleye.”
“God willin’,” said Jay, just like his grandpa.
“Oh, I don’t want to butt in.”
“Gosh it’s no trouble,” said Bertie. “Is it Cal?”
Cal gave a barely perceptible shake of the head.
“That your new truck, Cal?”
“Where’d ya get it?”
“Why not from the dealer in Bemidji?”
“I was down in the cities anyway.”
“Why’d ya get it?”
“Sicka the old one.”
They’d never been fond of each other. But then it was probably hard to be fond of a kid who goes out of state for college and then comes home to be a cop.
“Sure you don’t mind if I come up?”
Cal shook his head.
The Jones cabin was really just a shack on some property out past the reservation that Cal’s grandpa had bought about 60 years ago. They had the whole of the lake to themselves, since they owned the eight acres around it. It wasn’t a very big lake, more like an oversized pond, but it was well stocked. Cal’s dad, before he died, had always had all the boys from their high school class up in the summer to camp and sh. Dan never got the feeling that Cal liked it very much, and when Cal’s dad passed and the cabin went to him, it suddenly became a hell of a lot less frequented than it had in those years before. One party came to mind, the summer before Dan’s last year of college, that had ended up at the Jones’. Three girls went skinny-dipping, and Dan remembered how, even at 21, their bodies already looked old.
Had Vicky been at that party? Probably, unless she had been abroad then. Everywhere Dan went he tried to place Vicky there too. A town this small, everyone had been everywhere; it was just a matter of figuring out when and why. Vicky had been at the Jones’ on maybe two occasions that he could think of. One was a strange night not too long after Mr. Jones had died. There hadn’t been a lot of people at the cabin, but Vicky had been there with her best friend Jenna, who was Dan’s girlfriend then. Cal hadn’t talked all night, eventually falling asleep sitting up. His head had fallen back against the wall and his mouth had dropped open. Bertie had fetched a minnow from a bait box outside and dropped it down Cal’s throat. Even though Bertie had done it as a joke, no one, not even Bertie, cracked a smile. Cal had coughed it out wriggling on the bare wood floor, looked around, climbed up into his lofted bed, and went back to sleep. It had all happened with the utmost solemnity, like an ancient ritual sprung up from some prehistoric nature in them.
Bertie and Cal drilled a couple of holes where the lake was the deepest, and they all dropped their lines. Dan wasn’t too concerned about whether or not they got anything, and he figured it wouldn’t be very long out there since the fish only fed when the light was changing. He looked out across the lake, which was totally surrounded by a thick wood. The Joneses had never used the land for much beyond a little hunting. Beside the spot where the cabin stood, none of the trees had been felled.
But, Dan thought, if the wood wasn’t there, and one were looking out on at prairie, the land and the sky around this time of day would look indistinguishable. But for the wind and the back pain, at about 4:30 in the afternoon you could forget you had a body at all. End of March, just above freezing—you could last a good while longer than you might in the middle of January. He looked down at his feet while he waited for a fish to bite, and wondered how you knew the ice wasn’t going to give out beneath you. He knew the tricks people used to test ice, and supposed that if ice had been tested with SUVs then it was safe to stand on. But how did you really trust it wouldn’t give out?
It came to him now, the other time that placed Vicky at the Jones’. It was an end of summer party when they were eight or nine, before Mrs. Jones left to be a folk singer. Somehow Vicky had ended up in the lake, even though she hadn’t learned to swim yet, and Mrs. Jones had had to fish her out. Vicky wouldn’t tell who had pushed her in, but it was agreed upon subconsciously by all that it had been Cal. Fred, seven-years-old, had given her a hug and his own enormous beach towel.
The fish bit, first at Jay’s line, then again at Cal’s. Cal’s fish was an enormous beast of a thing and looked like it probably ate everything in the lake it could find. Fred insisted on taking a photo of Cal with the thing. Dan didn’t think it was probably going to be a good tasting fish, for its size, but said nothing when Cal threw it in the bucket. It never ceased making him inch, seeing a fish out of water. He recognized the flopping as mere muscle spasms, but it still felt harsh and gratuitous. He knew the tears in his eyes were from the wind, but hell, why not cry over a fish for a bit? Why not cry for the fish, for the girl, for the wind?
Soon, they had enough to have a pretty good dinner and retreated inside. In the summer, fishing was meditative. In the winter, it was manufacturing, at least the way these guys did it. Usually you’d spend all day out there drinking. That didn’t seem to be Cal’s game, though. And Dan was sort of grateful not to be sitting out on the ice, drinking crappy beer.
Cal didn’t offer much direction as far as dinner was concerned, choosing instead to delegate responsibility to Bertie, who delegated Dan to clean the sh. It was something he hated doing, but was good at. Bertie baked potatoes. Fred and Jay sat at the table playing cards. Cal heated up the frying oil.
As Dan scaled, deboned, and pulled the guts out of the fish, throwing everything into a bucket at his feet, he tried to think of other things in his life. An exercise in restraint: His dad. His sister. The book he was half-reading. The piles of les on his desk. The orange smudge on the ceiling above his bed, what was that? Vicky (damnit) walking toward him in the morning—they would walk to school together. Vicky walking through the field of low-laying fog on an October morning. Vicky, when her name was Tori (would she have been a Victoria, eventually?), and they would sit next to each other in calculus and throw little balls of paper at each other. It was maddening thinking of her all the time. She was a friend, a good friend, but no one he had ever spent much time imagining, thinking of, or missing her. It’d be an easier job, he had thought often before, and had thought often since, if the dead had never cried while reciting a sonnet, or started a rumor, or dropped a birthday cake just as the candles were blown out.
Something hit the side of the bucket that wasn’t gut or bone. He looked at something shiny like a sinker or a rig. Maybe one of those spoon-shaped things made to look like a big scale. For a second he went back to what he was doing but hell what a weird thing to find, and sort of worth showing to Cal, like maybe he had lost it and would crack a smile that it had been found in the gut of a sh. So Dan reached down and pulled it out, ran it under water, and thinks, god it’s hot in here. Feels his face flush and like, like, oh there’s this artery that’s running near his jaw, down his neck that just might burst. Down the neck, through the shoulder and the pain bursts in his lower back that agh maybe needs to get looked at by Ray. Looks at the rig and pockets it—
“Where’re those fish at?”“Oh, uh, one second.”Cal takes the fish fillets and starts frying. Meanwhile potatoes are coming out of the oven and Jay’s asking where’s the coleslaw, what the hell kind of a fish fry is this if there ain’t any coleslaw? Someone tracks it down and Dan finds some tartar sauce and puts it on the table. And Cal is pulling fish out of the fryer Dan thinking hell this place smells like fish and the artery under this jaw is throbbing. Everyone except Dan and Cal have plates, and Dan says, “Here, let me grab a plate for ya, Cal.”
On the plate that settles at Cal’s place at the table, he puts fish, and potatoes, and the rig, cresting a wave of coleslaw. Everyone else is eating, talking, when Cal finally comes and sits down. He takes his fork and a bite of potato, looking at Jay while he talks. Then a bite of fish, dipped in tartar. (Dan bites his thumbnail.) Then a bite of the coleslaw and his mouth contracts and he stops, winces, reaches into his mouth. Fred’s seen something.
“What’s wrong?”“Nothing.”“What is that?”“Looks like a rig,” mutters Dan. “What?” demands Cal.
“Came outta that big fish you caught. Only I gotta say I don’t know I’ve ever seen a rig like that before. I don’t know about you, but I never heard of anyone going fishing with a pearl. Don’t know what the pointa that would be. So my only question, then, is how did something like that end up in a lake up here when you’re the only—”
“Someone explain to me what the hell—”
But Cal bolts for the door, and Dan after him, leaving Bertie’s question hanging in the air. Behind him, Dan hears the guys scrambling to follow, but he’s focused on the run, on the lake, on how it’s gotten dark quick out here, on Cal running out over the ice, out, out. Dan should run, run out after him but he hesitates thinking: Where’s he gonna go? This winter’s been so mild I don’t want to risk it.
“Ay! Ay Cal, hold up!” Fred’s there too and pausing.
Out of the corner of his eye Dan catches a flicker of something turquoise in the sky and it’s so dark you can see the whole of the universe stretched out. The whole scene is cast in this auroral glow and silent. Even Cal, running, slipping, regaining his balance and keeping pace, makes no sound. Perhaps some ice gone out below him, and he’s slipped under the black surface.
Drew lives in Brooklyn, reads poetry, and writes.