The promise, as I remember it, happened this way.
A warm August morning, early. Wally Schanno’s already waiting at the landing. His truck’s parked in the lot, his boat’s in the water. He’s drinking coffee from a red thermos big as a fireplug.
Iron Lake is glass. East, it mirrors the peach-colored dawn. West, it still reflects the hard bruise of night. Tall pines, dark in the early morning light, make a black ragged frame around the water.
The dock’s old, weathered, the wood gone fuzzy, flaking gray. The boards sag under my weight, groan a little.
“Coffee?” Schanno offers.
I shake my head, toss my gear into his boat. “Let’s fish.”
We’re far north of Aurora, Minnesota. Among the trees on the shoreline, an occasional light glimmers from one of the cabins hidden there. Schanno motors slowly toward a spot off a rocky point where the bottom falls away quickly. Cuts the engine. Sorts through his tackle box. Pulls out a pearl white minnow flash, a decent clear-water lure for walleye. Clips it on his line. Casts.
Me, I choose a smoky Twister Tail and add a little fish scent. Half a minute after Schanno’s, my lure hits the water.
August isn’t the best time to fish. For one thing, the bugs are awful. Also, the water near the surface is often too warm. The big fish—walleye and bass—dive deep, seeking cooler currents. Unless you use sonar, they can be impossible to locate. There are shallows near a half-submerged log off to the north where something smaller—perch or crappies—might be feeding. But I’ve already guessed that fishing isn’t what’s on Schanno’s mind.
The afternoon before, he’d come to Sam’s Place, the burger joint I own on Iron Lake. He’d leaned in the window and asked for a chocolate shake. I couldn’t remember the last time Schanno had actually ordered something from me. He stood with the big Sweetheart cup in his hand, not sipping from the straw, not saying anything, but not leaving either. His wife, Arletta, had died a few months before. A victim of Alzheimer’s, she’d succumbed to a massive stroke. She’d been a fine woman, a teacher. Both my daughters, Jenny and Anne, had passed through her third-grade classroom years before. Loved her. Everybody did. Schanno’s children had moved far away, to Bethesda, Maryland, and Seattle, Washington. Arletta’s death left Wally alone in the house he’d shared with her for over forty years. He’d begun to hang around Johnny’s Pinewood Broiler for hours, drinking coffee, talking with the regulars, other men who’d lost wives, jobs, direction. He walked the streets of town and stood staring a long time at window displays. He was well into his sixties, a big man—shoes specially made from the Red Wing factory—with a strong build, hands like an orangutan. A couple of years earlier, because of Arletta’s illness, he’d retired as sheriff of Tamarack County, which was a job I’d held twice myself. Some men, idle time suits them. Others, it’s a death sentence. Wally Schanno looked like a man condemned.
When he suggested we go fishing in the morning, I’d said sure.
Now we’re alone on the lake—me, Schanno, and a couple of loons fifty yards to our right diving for breakfast. The sun creeps above the trees. Suddenly everything has color. We breathe in the scent of evergreen and clean water and the faint fish odor coming from the bottom of Schanno’s boat. Half an hour and we haven’t said a word. The only sounds are the sizzle of line as we cast, the plop of the lures hitting water, and the occasional cry of the loons.
I’m happy to be there on that August morning. Happy to be fishing, although I hold no hope of catching anything. Happy to be sharing the boat and the moment with a man like Schanno.
“Heard you got yourself a PI license,” Schanno says.
I wind my reel smoothly, jerking the rod back occasionally to make the lure dart in the water like a little fish. There aren’t any walleyes to fool, but it’s what you do when you’re fishing.
“Yep,” I reply.
“Gonna hang out a shingle or something?”
The line as I draw it in leaves the smallest of wakes on the glassy surface, dark wrinkles crawling across the reflected sky. “I haven’t decided.”
“Figure there’s enough business to support a PI here?”
He asks this without looking at me, pretending to watch his line.
“Guess I’ll find out,” I tell him.
“Not happy running Sam’s Place?”
“I like it fine. But I’m closed all winter. Need something to keep me occupied and out of mischief.”
“What’s Jo think?” Talking about my wife.
“So long as I don’t put on a badge again, she’s happy.”
Schanno says, “I feel like I’m dying, Cork.”
“Are you sick?”
“No, no.” He’s quick to wave off my concern. “I’m bored. Bored to death. I’m too old for law enforcement, too young for a rocking chair.”
“They’re always hiring security at the casino.”
Shakes his head. “Sit-on-your-ass kind of job. Not for me.”
“What exactly are you asking, Wally?”
“Just that if something, you know, comes your way that you need help with, something you can’t handle on your own, well, maybe you’ll think about giving me a call.”
“You don’t have a license.”
“I could get one. Or just make me a consultant. Hell, I’ll do it for free.”
The sun’s shooting fire at us across the water. Another boat has appeared half a mile south. The loons take off, flapping north.
“Tell you what, Wally. Anything comes my way I think you could help me with, I promise I’ll let you know.”
He looks satisfied. In fact, he looks damn happy.
We both change lures and make a dozen more casts without a bite. Another boat appears.
“The lake’s getting crowded,” I say. “How ’bout we call it and have some breakfast at the Broiler.”
“On me,” Schanno offers, beaming.
We reel in our lines. Head back toward the landing. Feeling pretty good.
Nights when I cannot sleep and the demons of my past come to torment me, the promise I made to Wally Schanno that fine August morning is always among them.