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Ha Ha's Last Laugh 

All morning Jack was wringing his hands over the ashes. When would she bring the ashes? Was she coming with the ashes? Would she be crying or cursing the ashes? On and on.

I told him to just sit. Have another cup of coffee. Then I asked, Was the boat ready? Was Billy OK to go along?

That calmed him down. Considering his brother always had that effect. Billy was on the simple side, so Jack had to look after him. It was sort of like having to keep calm around a child when the world was falling apart.

That morning our world wasn't exactly falling apart. We opened the shop as usual at 5:30 AM. The tanks bubbled clear with golden shiners and minnows. They were shimmering and moving fast, no floaters, which was always a good sign. In the grand scheme of things, that morning we really didn't have a serious care, except that my sister was on her way over and Jack was supposed to drop her husband's ashes into Lake Michigan.

My brother-in-law Mike was a big Scot from Colorado with chestnut hair and a red face rough as a gravel pit. When we were all kidding around we called him Ha Ha because when the fish started biting all he did was laugh--at least in the early years. It was a booming laugh like none of us had ever heard before. First time I heard it was 30 years ago on a bitter cold Thanksgiving morning. I'd gone along with Jack to fish the Calumet River down by the Cozzi metal scrap yard. Like the Chicago River, the Calumet runs backward, draining water from Lake Michigan. There, at its mouth, near a railroad bridge that descends from the sky for passing trains, you'll find guys with everything from a bamboo pole to a G. Loomis, tapping into the soul of the big lake.

There must have been ten guys there that morning, all wearing tan Carhartts and steel-toed boots. Ol' Ha Ha wore an aviator's cap with the neck strap open and the flaps blowing in the wind like dog ears. The sky was spitting snow. He jumped across the black water onto the pylons out in the river--his favorite spot. When the perch started biting he yelled, "Fish on!" Those words boomed over the river and within a few seconds the guys got their hits all in a row, their rods rising one right after another like a series of bridge lifts.

We were all pulling up doubles and jumbos, with Ha Ha out there on the pylons laughing like a madman. He worked like a machine, tearing the fish off the line, throwing them into a bucket, and baiting his two hooks much faster than the rest of us.

When the barges roared by, Ha Ha would yell, "Fun's over!" We all knew to take a break because the fish couldn't see the bait for all the mud in the water. In another 10 or 20 minutes, Ha Ha would yell, "Fish on!" And the fierce biting started all over.

My sister Judy didn't really want Jack to drop Mike's ashes in the lake. She'd been going against his dying wish for months, insisting she wasn't hurting anybody by keeping him in a brass box on top of the TV. She never got to spend much time with him when he was alive, so she might as well now. The lake had had him for 29 years, she ranted over the phone, it would have him soon enough. He was going to winter over with her in the living room, and she was good-goddamned entitled to his company!

But spring came, and it bothered Jack that Mike was still stuck behind the lace curtains of a Pullman row house. Jack knew what it was like in there, the smell of Judy's nail polish and hairspray, things closed up so tight your skin would crawl if it weren't stuck to the plastic seat covers on the white furniture. She was one of those tidy smokers who liked everything just so, a blond beauty in her younger days with hair now piled high like cotton candy and stretch pants showing a few too many lumps.

One consolation for Mike's dying was that Judy got to tend to him at the end, which finally gave them time together. But he died within a month of being diagnosed. Jack and I were sure Mike lost his will to live not because of what the doctors told him but because he couldn't be near the lake.

I felt a little sorry for Judy when she paired off with Mike. It wasn't that she was a sweet kid sister you needed to watch over. She was more the kind of sister you had to watch out for. She'd steal your clothes, always take the best things for herself and ruin them. Even worse she'd steal your guy just for sport. I never quite trusted her until she married Mike. After that, she seemed so heartsick and angry it detracted from her power over men.

Mike treated her like an afterthought. But then maybe she deserved it. Any guy who was nice, she'd push around. She always had to take it to where they lost their dignity. She made the one before Mike go shopping with her. He had to watch her try on clothes every Saturday. I mean, once or twice a guy might be able to live with this, but Judy turned it into a sort of marathon. How long would the guy last? She wanted his buddies to know she was making him do it. She went out of her way to make sure their girlfriends found out.

She couldn't do stuff like this to Mike because the lake had ahold of him in a way that made any woman seem insignificant. In all my years at the bait shop, I've seen more than a few men caught up in that.

There were guys you just knew didn't care if they caught anything or not. They just wanted to be outside goofing off, playing like little boys. They'd be ducking out of household chores, spending rent money and even grocery money that was supposed to feed their babies. On top of making boat payments, they'd hand over hard cash for rods and reels and more bait than they could possibly use, every kind of live bait and lures of all kinds: spoon baits like the Swedish Pimple, jerk baits like the Walleye Assassin, even panfish jigs not really suited for fishing Lake Michigan but with catchy names like the Whip'r Snap and Luck "E" Strike Tickle. Some might even go hungry to have a day of fishing, and sometimes I'd tell them they'd be better off buying themselves lunch.

There were others like Mike who were dead-on to the fish, never spent a dime for anything they didn't use. For these fellows the lake became an addiction, and you could always tell the difference.

When the lake got rough, most guys would come off the water a little freaked-out. They bubbled with stories of expensive rods, high-tech fish finders, and global positioning systems lost to the deep, of buddies nearly tossed overboard, of engines that stalled at the absolute worst moments and waves that nearly swallowed their boats whole. The lake on those days was a vicious mother, an evil bitch, the giver and taker of life--which always put the men in a euphoric state of awe and excitement. But Mike and his addicted brethren would only offer cryptic statements like, "It was a little rough out there." If Mike said anything more it was usually to complain of losing a fish.

Mike caught far more fish than he could ever eat. He fished often, always up to the limit, carrying licenses from Illinois and Indiana. When he knew the game wardens weren't checking, he blew through the limits for both states. More than a couple of times Jack confronted Mike about the dead fish in his Dumpster.

And for several years Judy complained about all the dead fish mounted on her walls. So many yellow-and-black-striped jumbo perch in her living room, she said, it upset the color scheme of pink and mauve. And Mike was always pressing Judy to serve fish for dinner. She kept saying the fish were coming out of her gills. It wasn't unusual for her to go to the fridge for a glass of milk in the middle of the night and find a fresh catch flopping around next to the leftovers.

Mike never responded to her complaints, but after Jack's warnings, he started sticking to the legal limits, and he donated the fish his family couldn't eat to the American Legion.

When Mike arrived here, fresh from Colorado, he was at loose ends. His folks had come looking for work in the steel mills. He found work there too, but in his off-hours he pined for the mountains. He spoke with a certain reverence about the rocky ledges, the hard places closer to the sun, the special magnetism of the rocks. He talked about the thunderstorms that were like nothing we could have ever experienced--electrical charges that could roast truck tires, blow the locks off car doors, and cause trees to explode. It's all because the land there is so high you live in the clouds, he kept saying.

Jack thought he was nuts when he first came to the shop, talking this gibberish, hungover from a night at the Hammond bars. All Jack heard was Mike complaining that everything here was so damn flat.

I'll show you flat, Jack told Mike, taking great offense at anyone who suggested there was a place in the world better than the south side of Chicago along the rim of one of the greatest Great Lakes. But Mike took some convincing. There truly aren't many scenic views near the Indiana border in Chicago.

There's the Skyway whistling overhead with trucks hauling goods in and out of the city. In bad weather, people living around Indianapolis Boulevard worry about freight liners plowing through their roofs. There's a lot of asphalt siding attempting to pass for brick. Not too many trees. The sidewalks saddle right up to the squatty bungalows.

Just across the Indiana border the floating casinos act like magnets, sucking money out of people's wallets. Smoke shops do a good business since there's no tax on cigarettes. Besides those businesses, there's the Amoco Oil refinery, the Lever Brothers plant, a truck stop, some fast-food joints, a tattoo parlor, and a fruit stand operated by a Mexican family.

Jack's Bait is just west of the state line. Except for a slight drop in temperature, you'd never sense the presence of a lake that people often mistake for an ocean. Still, Jack can talk it up for the purpose of selling bait. He's made it his business to introduce Mike and plenty of others to what he calls the mighty mistress.

Mike had a stronger reaction than most. He once boasted that three nights in the mountains was better than being in the arms of any woman. But the lake that Jack introduced him to wrapped around his soul and painted his dreams. In those dreams he could breathe underwater, or so he told Jack. Mike normally drank and smoked like a fiend. But when he was skimming over Lake Michigan in his boat, he never touched the stuff. That's probably why Judy had a hard time justifying trying to discourage him from fishing. Being near the lake seemed to calm him the way a mother's breast settles a hungry infant.

When the steel mills shut down, Mike became an ironworker. Besides being a Scot, he claimed Indian blood and had no trouble walking on steel girders 40 stories up. Later somebody discovered his skill with a crane, so in the crow's nest is where he ended up.

Mike always referred to the Loop as a big, nasty hive, but that's where he found work. If the construction site faced west, Mike smoked and drank on the job. That's when Judy was always planning interventions with the 12-step groups. But if the site faced east and if Mike could see the lake, he'd operate sober and finish the job in half the time.

Mike's dad belonged to the Scottish Rite. He said the Freemasons believe that any church worth its salt has an altar that faces east, just like the place where the grand masters sit in their lodges. Mike proclaimed that his altar was the blue gray horizon to the east, that line out there with nothing on it. Weekends, that's where you'd find him well before dawn. If it was still light when he got off work, that's where he ended his day.

When Judy met Mike, she was at the height of her feminine powers, a tall blond lightning rod in white go-go boots. Fights broke out all the time over who would pay for her drinks.

There were nicer guys than Mike, guys with more money, better looking and not so rough around the edges. But something about him must have appealed to her.

She first saw him when another gal was poking his thigh and asking, What do they feed you Colorado boys, granite? That got Judy's attention. She gave him the slitty evil eye, sucked on her cigarette, and tried to look cool. But I knew that was it for her.

There was a chemistry, no doubt, but Judy had such a big head she had no idea that with him she would never be the main attraction.

She nabbed Mike one spring morning when the perch were running heavy in the Calumet. He was fishing the river bridge at Ewing with about 40 other guys. So many lines were flowing into the water, all swaying together in a stiff breeze, they must have looked like a big wedding veil to Judy.

She sure knew how to make a show, riding up the river in a loud speedboat and a tight red pantsuit. I was selling bait with Jack on the bridge. When the cigar boat she was in plowed through the lines, the fishermen started yelling. The guys with Judy must have been drunk--they pulled over to the side of the river and ran up the steps to the bridge as if they were going to start something. When they saw Mike, standing like a rock with so many other guys, they sobered up real quick and turned right around, but Judy went with Mike. In a sort of public way, as if she was declaring she would give up her wild ways and be by his side forever.

For the wedding Mike behaved and tried to act attentive. He rented a tux and went along with a church ceremony. But he and Judy didn't have a real honeymoon, except to cruise around the lake looking for places to fish. They went as far north as Saugatuck.

No matter how hard Judy tried to bend Mike to her will, she couldn't do it. She was the one who went to their sons' soccer and football games. She was the one worrying about their grades and meeting with their teachers. When they were little, she was the one who took them trick-or-treating and shopping for Christmas trees. Mike was always too tired from chasing the fish.

One year, while Judy was taking a Christmas tree out of the back of Mike's pickup, she snagged her hand pretty good on a salmon hook. Mike had to slice the barb off it with a wire cutter, then pull the rest through without tearing her hand up even more. As I recall, that was a particularly bitter holiday. Judy had to wear a big gauze wrap that ruined the effect of her sparkly green dress. They weren't talking to each other either.

About the only thing Mike did for his boys was pay for the roof over their heads and take them fishing, or so Judy complained. But while they developed a taste for fish and fishing, they weren't consumed by it. At least that's what Judy insisted. Only problem was, as they got older and started driving, she couldn't keep close tabs.

As the years went by, like many die-hard sportfishermen, Mike fell into a predictable cycle. Weekends in spring, he'd fish the Calumet by day then camp the night at 95th Street, pulling in nets full of smelt. Summer, he'd fish the open lake for perch mostly. In the fall he'd chase the big king salmon at night, usually with a couple of buddies.

Fishing for the kings--chinook--at the change of the seasons does something to the men, makes them stand taller and improves their color, even though they do it in the dark. I liken it to when you set a houseplant outside in summer and it grows stronger because it gets that other something it needs, the thing it can't get in the house.

Fishing for kings is a primal chase under a full moon through a thick fog that boils up in the first cold air hanging over the lake. When the kings run really thick and close to shore, fights break out among the fishermen over tangled lines. A sort of weird intermittent lightning pierces the mist--the guys using disposable flashes to recharge their glow-in-the-dark lures.

Some men will try it once or twice and that's it. But guys like ol' Ha Ha make an annual ritual of it. You know they're seeing their last days when fall comes around and they're not out on the lake at night.

Some guys catch the fish and some don't, but almost all bring back spectacular tales of the monsters that got away. Mike brought back the monsters that kept everybody talking for weeks.

He once caught a king so big and strong he was exhausted from the fight and had to rest up for a couple of days. When the fish grew smelly in the back of his truck, he finally buried it in the backyard. Then one of his buddies dug it up and attempted to claim a $1,000 prize for a salmon-fishing contest in Indiana. Some other guy's puny 36-pound fish won, which enraged the grave robber--he insisted the stinking carcass was a much finer specimen.

For most of the winter Mike fished in back of the Edison power plant, near the state line, where the warm-water discharge draws all sorts of fish. It's the place to go when the launches freeze over and they aren't biting anywhere else. Judy tried going there once to bring Mike a sack lunch and a thermos of coffee, but you have to be half polar bear to stand the wind off the lake and half mountain goat to scale the limestone slabs. Then you have to squeeze through all the holes in the chain-link fencing. Judy tore up a brand-new ski jacket in the process, and she said that when she finally made it, Mike wasn't exactly thrilled to see her. She never seemed to understand she was treading on sacred ground.

To Judy, marriage was a grim retirement from her days as the favored waitress at the Sunny Side Up, a 24-hour breakfast grill that mostly served workers from the local Ford plant. As a married woman of leisure she seemed to lose all perspective. She'd become enraged over

weird stuff, like her cats acting partial to Mike because he smelled of fish. This bugged

Judy to no end since she fussed over them, always buying toys and special dinners.

In mild weather she spent a lot of time on her back porch with the cats, smoking and drinking iced tea. She'd spend entire days back there, folding laundry, painting her nails, and doing crossword puzzles. The porch was all set up with a plump couch, a fan, even a small TV. She put up a bamboo shade to block her view of the neighbor she didn't get along with, and the cats had their own bunk beds right next to where she sat.

Whenever I visited her there she'd pump me for information. Did I think he was seeing somebody? Each time I told her no, she seemed embarrassed. She tried a few quickie affairs to get Mike's attention. It worked, but not for long. She still couldn't comprehend that a man could be obsessed with anything other than a woman or booze or drugs. She kept asking herself, and me too, how could she be jealous of a lake?

Well, she was, for years. Once it got so bad she snapped one of Mike's new Fenwick rods in half. I know more than a few marriages that would have ended over something like that. But it wasn't so much that she'd destroyed something he considered precious. It was that she was trying to control him, stooping to any means. Jack and I heard it all shake out, in Mike's words and hers. Surprisingly, their stories matched.

Basically he said, "Do something like that again and I'll never love you." She said, "Why should I care, it's not as if you do."

"Well, I might." Then he headed off to fish.

I once told Judy about a support group for fishermen's wives. On Thursday nights we'd swap recipes and play bingo at Saint Francis de Sales. Sometimes we taught each other crafts like needlepoint and crochet. My friend Meg used designer yarn from a shop in Valparaiso to make hats and scarves. She also hosted wine-tasting nights, giving the group a touch of class. Judy never really gave us a chance. Her head was somewhere else, annoyed with Mike for this or that. She only eased up on him at the end.

When Mike was dying and having to take all kinds of pills, he wouldn't drink enough water. She kept telling him, "It's the lake, honey, drink up." For a while that worked, but then things got so bad I guess he didn't care.

As far as Mike's final wishes being carried out, Jack did his best. He was so nervous about placing Mike's ashes in the boat he dropped the brass box twice. Each time, it made a terrible thud against the aluminum hull. Billy helped Jack get the boat out, but Jack backed it in too deep, and Billy let the guide rope out too soon, which caused the boat to float sideways in the launch. When Jack and Billy finally left the shore, Judy started sobbing and called them back. I could see Jack was muttering terrible things, but I don't think Judy noticed. Billy just kept quiet.

When the boat pulled back in, another fellow anxious to launch his speedboat started complaining to Jack. Jack rarely yells at strangers, but this time his voice cracked: "We're planning to bury the dead here, so just relax! Show some respect." Then Billy spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, sounding like Aretha Franklin, and shouted at the man, "Find out what that means to me!"

Judy seemed to get lost in all the commotion. She was crying hard on the walkway out to the boat. I'd never seen anybody's face get so red or their shoulders shake so violently. The guy with the speedboat had settled down, maybe having realized that something serious was going on. For a moment, everything went quiet in the park except for the seagulls crying and pinwheeling around the trash cans. Jack finally managed to convince Judy it was best to let Mike go.

After clearing the break wall, which is about a mile out, Jack and Billy started to carry out their plan to sprinkle bits of Mike around all his favorite fishing spots, from the Calumet River to the Edison plant. But as they approached the mouth of the Calumet, a strong gust of wind blew a good bit of Mike's ashes into Jack's face. This caught him completely off guard, and he dropped what remained into the bottom of the boat.

Fortunately Judy didn't see this. And Jack never told her that he had to wash Mike off his face and out of the boat at the fish-cleaning station at the Hammond marina.

For weeks, Jack whispered apologies to Mike in his sleep. Finally, I told him to forget it. Mike wasn't that worried about where his ashes would end up. It was more about giving some poor soul an excuse to go out on the lake, and Jack just happened to be the lucky guy.

Anyway, ol' Ha Ha probably had the last laugh.

The day before his funeral, Judy had been calling relatives, trying to find her sons. No one knew where they were. She called us too. Did we know? We pretended not to, though they'd come in for bait earlier that morning and mentioned they were going to pick up their cousin at the 95th Street boat launch.

Later that day, with Judy still calling around, the boys decided they didn't want to bring home the evidence. So they dropped off a bucket of fresh perch with me and Jack. He rarely gets out to fish anymore, and we both love the sweet, white meat. We offered to clean them on the condition we could keep some. Then we froze what we kept.

The day Jack dropped Mike's ashes into the lake, Judy and her boys came for dinner. The perch is what we ate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Asa Shatkin.

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