“YES!” MATT Wasko pumped his fist as his glittering, baby blue ball rocketed down the lane and demolished the seven pin. Only then did he rise from the crouch he’d been holding.
He took a gander at the overhead scorecard and grinned. If Rich and Jose did their jobs, the Spares could bury the Wire Cutters in the next frame. He walked back to his team’s bench and made sure to give an extra little ass wiggle before sitting down. Take that, John Lutz.
Matt took a swig of beer and snuck a glance at the opposing team. Lutz, the new guy on the Cutters, was wearing his usual smirk and trying to snag him with a stare. Because there was nothing to do about it but hope to hell they beat the Cutters, Matt answered by lifting his beer. The gesture looked friendly, but only because he had to be careful about appearances. He was management, for crying out loud. Just being on a bowling team with men from the factory floor broke all ten personnel rules he’d learned in business school. But then, he’d never bought into the whole nonfraternization thing.
Rich made his spare, and then Jose strode to the ball return. He stepped back after picking up his jet-black ball banded with Mexican colors. Lutz, the Cutter bowling ahead of Jose, took his stance on the approach area.
He’d be good-looking if he wasn’t such a jerk. Hell, who was Matt kidding? John Lutz was the sexiest man at Slinger Wire and Cable. The office staff, female and male, got moon-eyed whenever he walked past their cubicles for a management meeting. Lutz looked like he’d just stepped out of a locker room: tall, toned, and tan, with blond hair in need of a haircut. The crouch at the end of his approach displayed pure, focused masculine control. And a really nice ass.
Not surprisingly Lutz also threw a tornado of a hook. His ball scattered all ten pins into the next zip code. Strike. Matt sagged in dismay when Lutz did it again. And again. Fuck. Lutz hadn’t thrown a strike all game… and now in the final frame, he threw three?
Matt shot a look at the score and his stomach clenched. If Jose didn’t get a strike with his first ball, the Spares were done.
Do it, Jose, he willed. Cram it down their throats.
Jose’s throw was good. Real good. The ball scattered wood right and left… all but the headpin. The best Jose could get now was a spare and that wouldn’t be enough. Already the Cutters were high-fiving Lutz and heaping scorn upon their beaten foes.
“Hey, I figured it out. I know why you guys like bowling,” snickered Ed Meany. He was the largest Cutter and also owned the biggest mouth. He marked the final score in big bold strokes. “It’s because you always strike out with the girls. All except pretty boy Wasko there. He strikes out with boys, you know? He has gay balls.”
“Nah, nothing to do with balls.” Great. First Meany and now Tiny.
Naturally, a third Cutter joined in. “Yeah, Wasko strikes out with assholes.”
And sure enough, there was Lutz tagging along by giving Matt a ‘having fun yet?’ look and showing off his perfect teeth with a shit-eating grin.
When it came to assholes, these guys were the kings.
The Cutters had real names, but everyone knew them as Eeny, Meany, Miny, Tiny, and John. The last was usually followed by a mumbled “shoulda been Mo,” which he would have been had there not already been a Mo at the plant—Big Mo, who owned the place.
Because ignoring homophobic idiots was one of many skills Matt had honed over his almost twenty years of being out and proud, he kept his jaw tight and his head down while taking off his shoes and shoving his feet into snow boots. Oh, he heard Lutz suggest he bend over when retrieving his ball, probably so someone could get in a comment about his ass, and the hoots of the Cutters seconding that notion, but he pretended he hadn’t. Matt liked his bowling balls, the blue one and the hot pink one, no matter that jerks like Lutz thought they looked “gay.” After stuffing ball and shoes—complete with rainbow laces and glitter—into his bag, he reached for the coat he’d thrown across the seat back. Outside, the windchill was in the minus twenties.
“Hey, no hard feelings.” Jose, the diplomat of the Spares, wore a smile as icy as his words were warm.
Meany laughed. “Yeah. See you losers again next week.”
Not me, Matt almost said. As of tonight, he started a two-week vacation. He only felt bad about it because, for the next two weeks, the Spares would have to use Al’s average numbers to fill in for Matt’s score. Sadly Al wasn’t very good. The only balm to Matt’s conscience was that the team had taken Matt on already knowing he never, ever missed sturgeon season.
He hadn’t passed up a chance to spear a sturgeon and all the fun that went with it, since the day he’d turned fifteen, arrived fresh from California to live with his grandfather.
Parka zipped and gloves on, he left Downhill Lanes and headed, with the rest of the Spares, to unwind for a bit at Sam and Sally’s. The bar was huddled off the frontage road, and mature, snow-covered pines surrounded its big parking lot. A mixture of ice and salt crunched under Matt’s feet until he reached the metal door. Once inside, he was enveloped by a cozy, friendly, beer-scented warmth.
“Hey, Matty!” yelled Otto, one of the regulars. “Going up at the lake house?”
Matt grinned and shrugged out of his heavy parka. “You mean the house?” He didn’t have a lake house; he had a house on a lake.
“Yeah. Okay if me and Grizzly Bear park for the day?” Otto’s bright blue eyes did nothing to offset his red nose.
“Sure you can. By the boathouse.”
“By the boathouse,” Otto confirmed.
Parking pickups and trailers on the boathouse slab and not on the driveway or road was the third of Matt’s Rules. The other two were: don’t piss on or in anything that belongs to Matt, unless it’s the boathouse toilet, and no littering. Matt kept his property pristine and expected anyone else who used it to do the same.
Otto waved over the woman behind the bar. “Sally, pour Matty here a drink, on me. He’s letting me park up at ol’ Casey’s on Bago for the sturgeon this year.”
“Good for you, Otto.” Sally winked at Matt, letting him know she’d bring his usual—Fantasy Factory pale ale—to the other end of the bar, where the rest of the Spares had congregated. She patiently listened to Otto talk about the sturgeon he’d almost speared three years before, giving Matt his chance to escape.
He slipped onto a stool beside Jose. “Can we stop losing to those damn Cutters? Thank God it’s sturgeon season, because I don’t think I could stand another week of lame gay jokes at work.”
His remark was greeted by sympathetic slaps on the back. They and the Cutters all worked at Slinger Wire and Cable, where their jobs ranged from truck driver to cutter to quality control. Matt was in public relations and the only one with a foothold in management.
He thanked Sally when she set a chilled snifter and a bottle in front of him.
Jose turned Matt’s bottle to look at the label. “Could you drink anything gayer?”
“What? You don’t like unicorns?” The fantasy creature, which was being ridden by a cat, was one of the things Matt liked most about his choice of brew.
“It’s got a fucking rainbow on it.”
“Matches my shoelaces,” said Matt. “Besides, no one should care that much about what I drink. I don’t say anything about what you drink.”
“That’s because I drink Miller High Life, ‘the Champagne of Beers.’”
“A classic,” Matt agreed, “but boring.”
“No. Unexpected. People think a guy named Gonzalez should drink Corona, so I’m making a statement of independence.”
Matt laughed. He poured his ale into the glass and closed his eyes for that first exuberant sniff.
“Speak of the devil. Look what the wind blew in,” said Rich. They looked to the door to see the Cutter gang walking in. “I really wish those guys would find their own damn gin mill.”
A reasonable expectation. Wisconsin was, after all, a state reputed to have a bar or booze-centric supper club every quarter mile.
Matt felt the way a dog surely did when the mean dog down the street entered its territory. Lutz pointed and headed his way. The closer Lutz got, the tenser Matt became. He was practically raising hackles by the time Lutz took the stool next to him. Pretending not to notice the idiot’s faux-friendly glances was making his jaw hurt. Eeny, Meany, Miny, and Tiny, as usual, took the table nearest the Spares and began with the insults.
“You know you guys’ downfall? Limp wrists.” Snickers followed Meany’s snipe from the table.
“And Wasko’s balls are gay,” said Miny.
Matt fought the urge to roll his eyes. In just a few hours, he would be in his ice shanty, poised over a refrigerator-sized hole, waiting for a bigass sturgeon to swim into view. Fishing was all about focus. Hell, he could stare into a twenty-four-square-foot hole in the ice for hours. Gazing for a few minutes into the depths of his glass was no problem at all.
Lutz leaned sideways along the bar until he’d forced Matt to acknowledge his stupid, “lighten up, they’re just assholes” grin. They locked gazes and that was all it took to shoot Matt’s pinpoint focus to hell. Lutz had the bluest eyes Matt had ever seen.
“Nice last frame there,” Matt said. He strove to always keep up his unflappable façade.
Lutz’s dumb grin took a turn toward genuine. “Thanks. I guess I’m what people call ‘clutch.’ We all like to win, right?”
Matt nodded and poured the rest of the bottle into his glass. The last time he’d fallen for this act, Lutz had lured him into a broadside of Cutter slurs.
Sally served Lutz a beer. The bar was filling up, and when two more regulars, Jen and Dawn, entered, they sparred for the remaining stool, debating whether Dawn’s purse or Jen’s ass had first dibs.
“Hey, Sally!” Dawn’s voice rose above the hoots and laughs. “Tell her she doesn’t get to sit on my purse!”
“If she orders a drink, I don’t care what the hell she sits on.” Sally shoved a pair of coasters toward them.
“Fine.” Dawn huffed. She wedged her body so she could stand at the bar between Lutz and her friend.
Matt was about to volunteer his stool—he was leaving anyway—only to see Lutz already on his feet and tapping Dawn on the shoulder.
“Take this one.” Lutz’s voice, warm and earnest, threw Matt for a bit of a loop. He’d heard other people, including Big Mo, call Lutz nice, and he’d even witnessed a few demonstrations in the break room, but this was the first time he’d seen it up close.
“Yeah?” Dawn flashed Lutz a brilliant smile as she claimed the seat. “Thanks! Oh!” She snickered to Jen. “This seat is hot—and I don’t even have to sit on a purse.”
Yeah, Lutz was hot, all right. Matt’s problem now was the distraction of a six-foot-two muscular body leaning over his shoulder every time he reached for his beer. Lutz sure looked good in a long-sleeved black-and-green Henley, and he felt good too, with a bump on the arm that felt damn deliberate.
“Hey, that’s some bottle.” Lutz picked up the empty bottle and looked at the label. “It’s… colorful.”
Matt wished he’d stop. At least he hadn’t said “gay.” Yet.
“Going down to Milwaukee tomorrow night?” Lutz was nothing if not persistent. “East Side, maybe? Start your weekend with a little pride?”
Nearly every patron within hearing distance, and Sally too, immediately laughed.
“Only ‘pride’ Matty wants to nail this weekend has whiskers, weighs two hundred pounds, and looks like Mother Nature hit it with an ugly stick,” Jose snorted.
“I don’t get it.” Lutz looked mystified.
“Neither do I,” said Rich. “But… you know.” He shrugged.
Nearby, another group, perhaps a little closer to being drunk, broke into a sturgeon-spearing song. Matt turned to give them a grin. He appreciated the show of support.
“Sorry,” he said to Lutz. “I’m not going anywhere tomorrow but down my driveway and out on the lake. The ice is hard and I’ve got a date with a shanty.” He saluted his friends with his glass before he tipped it back to chug the last of the brew. After placing his glass on the bar, he reached for his coat.
“A shanty?” Lutz looked like he wasn’t sure if he should be laughing or not.
“Ice fishing.” Sally propped her elbows on the bar and leaned forward to explain. “Matt here cuts a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, puts a shack the size of a garden shed over it, and spends two weeks with a bunch of lunatics, trying to plant his spear in a fish.”
“You’re kidding. A spear?”
“Looks more like a trident,” said Matt.
“Yeah.” Jose gestured to Meany and the others. “A fucking trident. You guys might want to think about that next time.”
“I’ll tell you what a trident is,” Meany retorted. “It’s a gay spear.”
Lutz laughed, kind of halfheartedly, and flashed Matt an awkward grin as the Cutters chortled at their own cleverness.
Matt itched to have a spear right then, but not having a weapon was probably for the best. It made it easier to walk away, a retreat helped by several patrons who’d taken offence at the Cutters’ remarks and were stepping up to educate the boys about sportfishing. Before Matt had reached the door, three more regulars, including Jen, stopped him to ask for permission to park at his place and use his boat landing to get onto the lake. It was an annual ritual and he granted all requests.
“Thanks, Matty!” That from a guy named Rob.
“Spear a big one, Matty!” Otto slapped him hard on the shoulders.
Feeling jubilant once more, Matt turned and spread his arms as wide as they could go. He made sure to give a blinding smile to John Lutz as he did. Laughter and cheers followed him to the door, along with promises to bring six-packs of beer and, in Jen’s case, a tin of her famous chocolate chip cookies.
He looked forward to it. Everything. The cookies. Friends. Solitude. Two weeks of sunrises and sunsets—and of fishing, brats, and beer—was just what he needed. A little sex would be nice, but… yeah, no way he was getting any of that this year.
He ground ice beneath his winter boots all the way across the parking lot, climbed into his truck, drove onto I-41, and headed north toward Fond du Lac.