The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

After our first winter here back in 1973, we rejoiced in surviving both it and the intrusive visits of our rough-edged bachelor neighbor, Peter P. Which of the two had been the biggest burden was a toss up.

But spring finally came. Peter P. was our Finnish neighbor to the west, and we arrived just when he, recently retired, apparently needed someone to adopt. All this was in fact a mixed blessing, a rain cloud with a silver lining, so to speak. 

It was normal, we came rapidly to realize, for my ex-wife to come downstairs in her nightie in the morning and find an uninvited and grizzled old stranger—who spoke broken Fin-glish—sitting unannounced at her kitchen table, drinking the cold remains of yesterday’s coffee. Right there, folks, there goes the silver lining. (And maybe part of the ex, too.)

We were new. He kind of broke us in to his way of visiting, which meant he popped in anytime and made himself at home. Barely housebroke, was he.

So it was that one spring morning, with the just-returned blackbirds singing in the trees outside, we came downstairs to find him once again nursing yesterday’s coffee, waiting for the fresh stuff. He was patient with us. We had not yet realized that life begins at 5:00 am here, sharp. Barely time broke, were we.

He reached down between his feet, opened an old burlap bag, and dug out an ugly fish about a foot and a half long: it had lips, held it up in the air and stated: “The sucker’s’re runnin’.”

Then he asked, “Got you a scoop shovel?” I nodded, still half awake. Suckers. Scoop shovels. I couldn’t have figured the connection between suckers and scoop shovels out had I been completely awake, and questions weren’t something that Peter P.’s ability with the language handled well. I nodded agreement with him a lot and then waited to see what he was talking about.

He and I, it turned out, were going to “get us some for smokin’,” and we had to hurry. Hurry? Did suckers get up early? 

I grabbed the scoop shovel and we jumped into Peter P.’s 1961 Galaxy 500, and away we went. As we drove along, I looked around. It was an unspoken testament to the eccentricity of his life. Empty whiskey bottles were in evidence, left over from five years before, before he quit drinking. The neighbors had told us, their eyebrows raised, that we should have known him then, if we think his manners were somewhat crude now. He’d be at your table, same as before, except drunk.

Also in the car appeared to be most of the clothing I’d ever seen him in. Old coats, shirts, bib overalls. None of it washed, just kind of airing out. There were old magazines, empty bean cans, a grease gun, his chain saw, pieces of fire wood, some sprocket chain, several unhealthy looking coffee cups, a broken axe. This car was the Peter P. museum on wheels, coming to your town.

But I knew a little about suckers, so I asked him: “Don’t we need spears?”

He shook his head, went on about the best wood chips to smoke’em with, best temperature, best Kelvinator refrigerators for smokers, maybe a Frigidaire in a pinch, etc.

We turned into Pleasure Park at the north end of Otter Tail Lake, and immediately saw the DNR seining walleyes. They netted them there, pulled the females out, removed the eggs for hatching under controlled circumstances, and threw the walleyes back in. Also in the net were a lot of suckers, which were being placed in gunnysacks brought by a few other people, who were ahead of us in line.

I looked around Peter P.’s car for sacks. I saw old corn cultivator teeth, planter discs, one old boot with no laces, an ashtray full of bent nails, a hoe, several empty bags of Red Man chew, a tipped-over carton of milk—now more like curdled art—but no sacks.

When our turn came, the DNR guys greeted Peter P. like it was old home week. “How you been, Pete?” “Been saving the big ones for you, Pete.” And so forth. It turned out he’d been coming here as long as I’d been alive.

To make a long story short, I stood knee deep in a wriggling slimy reservoir of suckers and, with my scoop shovel, pitched the trunk of that Galaxy 500 so full of suckers that the tail pipe dragged all the way home.

“You should’a brought your overshoes,” Peter P. admonished me on the way home, as the car shimmy-shammied left and right with the rhythm of the suckers slopping back and forth in the trunk. They shifted first to one side, then the other.

I sure would next time, I told him.

But there wasn’t a next time. He was gone by the next spring. The truth is, it takes a long time to appreciate character in another human being, and sometimes they’re gone before we do.

It’s spring. The blackbirds are out there in the trees, singing about it. They like early morning. 

I hope in Peter P.’s heaven, somebody is leaving lots of cold coffee and a warm hearth for him when he goes visiting.