I’m not sure how old I was the first time I heard people joke about the weather in Wisconsin. It probably wasn’t until Elementary School that the jokes made real sense to me. My dad has always told me that I’ve understood humor since I was a toddler. His reasoning for this was that I knew when to laugh at jokes, even the adult ones. But there’s a difference between laughing at a joke and understanding one.
One of the constant jibes you’ll hear about the weather here is that it appears to be bipolar in nature. In a week’s time you can experience all four seasons. This is especially true in the Spring when you can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in a matter of hours. Even though it was the end of July, the oddity of Wisconsin weather was in full affect.
On Monday we had overcast skies, a high of forty-nine, and a low of thirty-seven. Today we managed to hit a high of ninety-four with eighty percent humidity. Even as I sit in Chuck’s parent’s cabin, a cabin that has air conditioning, I can still feel the sweat that soaked into my cotton t-shirt hours ago stick to my skin. What else is there to say besides “welcome to the northwoods of Wisconsin.”
“You alright? We were starting to wonder if you fell in.” Chuck said to me as I exited the bathroom. The remark earned a laugh from the boys and a backhanded slap to the shoulder from his girlfriend Wendy. “What? He was in there so long that I thought he was taking home the Steiny tonight for sure.”
The Steiny was an award we made up back in Middle School after a classmate of ours named Markus Stein. He had been a frail looking kid who also happened to have narcolepsy. While other kids teased him by calling him names like Marko Narco and Sleep’N’Stein, we were secretly mean to him by naming an undesirable award after him for the first person to fall asleep at a party. Although I didn’t realize how mean this was at the time, looking back on it now, it was a real dick move on our part.
It’s funny how stupid and bizarre traditions like the Steiny can live on in friend groups. We came up with that in sixth grade. How old would that have made us? Twelve? No, we would have been eleven when we came up with that shit. Here we are now, fourteen years later, still referencing a joke aimed at a poor kid with a sleeping disorder.
“I might take home the Steiny tonight,” I said ignoring his first question, “but it won’t be by passing out drunk on the toilet. You fuckers have already been knocked out, but I’ve got to roll against Adair tomorrow and I’m still in the boom-run as well. I’ll need a good night’s rest and a clear head if I stand any chance.”
“Come on now,” Greg said with a laugh. “You’ve got no chance against Adair and you’ve already won the boom three years running. Getting pissed tonight will make it more of a competition, and it will also make your annual visit a little more fun.”
Greg had a point. Not about giving the competition a chance, that was nonsense. He was right about me needing to enjoy my limited time with them more. Growing up in Hayward was a blessing, but there’s something about growing up in a small town that makes you want to hightail it out of there as soon as possible. That combined with the fact that my parents moved south meant there wasn’t any obligation for me to come back to the town.
What brought me back was them. Every year I would come back the week of the Lumberjack World Championships. The five of us would spend the week in the cabin catching up, partying, and then competing in the Championships. Well, all of us would compete except for Symeon. Although he quickly became the best at anything else we tried to do growing up, lumberjack activities were Sym’s only discovered kryptonite.
“I won’t be getting pissed, but I’ll have one more beer before hitting the sack.”
The answer was enough to satisfy Greg as he gave me a pat on the back coupled with an “atta boy Halsey.”
“I can’t believe this is our last night out here,” Wendy said as I poured the Oatmeal Stout into my glass from the growler we picked up from the Angry Minnow earlier in the day. “When are we going to be able to do this again?”
“Well all of us except for Hal are in the area,” Tim said as he cut a lime in preparation of his next drink. “We can always have smaller get togethers, but if you want all of us to be there than it’s up to him.”
I took a long sip as I let his words sink into me. It might have been a sad statement, but it was certainly true. Both Tim and Greg were teachers in the area, and getting together, particularly in the summer, was a breeze for them. Although Symeon and Chuck worked in different fields, both of them still lived in Hayward. That gave them a distinct advantage in our group get togethers because they always took place in the sleepy tourist town.
“Well if you guys don’t want to wait another year to do this again, then you’re more than welcome to visit me in St. Louis.”
My offer was genuine, but part of me knew it wouldn’t be possible. Sure, some of them might be able to come and visit me on an odd weekend. Getting everyone down to the city though for a week would take a whole other level of coordination that, in reality, only gets applied to major family events. That’s one of the things about growing up that they don’t tell you about when you’re a kid. You know, how that growing up often means growing apart.
Growing up it was easy for us to stay close. All of us lived on the same street and were involved in the same extracurricular activities. Then college came, and most of us went our separate ways. That’s how it begins. Slowly our lives became different as we headed in different directions, and, when you’re heading in different directions, staying close naturally gets hard. It’s not as though we care about each other less than we did growing up. It has more to do with the inconvenience of all of our lives being pulled in different directions. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
“Hey,” I said while looking around the room. “Where’s Symeon? Maybe I won’t be claiming the Steiny tonight after all.”
“Nah, he’s still up,” Greg said. “He went out onto the porch to get some fresh air.”
“Fresh air, huh?” Chuck said sardonically. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
I couldn’t help myself but to laugh at him. “What in the world is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” Greg said with his trademark wry smile. “Chuckie boy can’t help himself. Every now and then he just needs to say something a little dickish.”
“That’s not very PC bra,” Chuck said in a voice that mockingly imitated a strange frat boy slash surfer bro fusion. Greg slowly shook his head as he tried not to laugh. “Ha, how is anything I just said not politically correct?”
Chuck pretended to flip his hair to continue his poor impersonation. “We of the dickish variety find it personally offensive when you refer to us as little. It’s a common micro-aggression that I won’t allow. I prefer the macro-aggression. So if you call me a dick then you must be factually accurate by calling me a big one.”
“Oh dear,” Wendy said as she sympathetically rubbed his back. “You shouldn’t make a claim like that when you have someone who can fact check it.”
Out of all the friends I’ve ever had, Chuck has always been the one who is the most fun to watch become flustered. The guy has always been one shade of white away from being translucent. However, as we showered him with laughter, he morphed from Irish creme to beet red in a blink of an eye. In an attempt to not embarrass himself any further, he would always shyly turn away and grab something to cover his mouth. On this occasion he grabbed his drink and turned to examine the pictures on the fridge.
“Alright,” I said as I tried to reel in my laughter. “You guys should find some aloe so the pea-shooter here can recover from that burn. I’m gonna check on Symeon.”
Armed with my beer in one hand, I slipped into my boat shoes and slid the screen door open. The humidity hit me like a wall. How in the world could it still be so warm this late? I didn’t know the exact time, but if I had to guess I’d say it was sometime between midnight and the buttcrack of dawn.
I didn’t see him right away when I stepped onto the porch. All I could hear was the sound of crickets chirping, the paddle boat bumping into the dock, and the occasional buzzing of the bug zapper. Even though I only had been on the porch for a matter of seconds, I could feel beads of sweat form and begin to drip down my back.
As I rounded the corner of the wraparound porch, I found Symeon sitting on one of those crappy, plastic Walmart lawn chairs. He had pulled the chair all the way up to edge of the porch and as close to being directly under the bug zapper that hung from the ceiling as possible. I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but he was peering down at the railing and poking at something on it with his bony index finger.
“Hey,” I said.
He must not have heard me approach because he nearly jumped out of his chair when I called out to him.
“Easy there killer,” I said with a laugh. “Is it okay if I join you?
Symeon looked up and flashed me a grin. “I’m pretty sure it’s a free country.”
I pulled up a chair, and watched him go back to messing with something on top of the railing.
“So,” he said, “you ready for your roll against Adair tomorrow?”
I laid back in my chair and looked out at the lake. “Yeah, I’m as ready as I’m gonna be. How are you holding up?”
He didn’t look up this time, but he did continue to smirk. “I’m doing just fine. Should I not be?”
“Fine is fine by me,” I said as I swatted at a mosquito that chose me over the bug zapper. “It sucks that it’s already Sunday. Where in the world did the time go?”
“Where all time goes. Off down the conveyor belt of life.”
“What?” I asked.
Symeon laughed and swept away my remark with a wave of his hand in a manner that reminded me of a tired cat that lost interest in its toy. “It’s nothing.”
I took another sip of beer. The dark, sweet nectar seemed to cling to the rim of the glass before sliding back down to the bottom. “I don’t know about you, but I’m sweating balls out here. You wanna come back with me to the AC?”
“Not just yet,” he said, “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. The combination of sweat and the last remnants of styling clay made it feel thicker than usual. “Shit, that sounds serious. You wanna talk about it?”
The bug zapper let out another loud buzz and both of us looked up at it. The pale blue light of the UV light bulb flooded out of the wire mesh and into the night.
“Do you know how a bug zapper works?” Symeon asked.
The somberness in his voice sent a chill down my spine. I wasn’t used to seeing him in this state. The guy had always been so annoyingly positive when we were growing up that we used to joke that his farts were made out of sunshine and rainbows.
“Ugh, it zaps the bugs to death?” I mused.
This drew a laugh from him that seemed to come out of his nose rather than his mouth. “Yeah, that is the end result, but I’m talking about how the thing actually works. Do you know why bugs, like moths, are drawn to the UV light?”
“Honestly, I’ve never thought about it before,” I admitted.
“Right now scientist don’t know the exact reason why they’re attracted to it, but they do have some fascinating ideas on the subject.
I leaned forward in my chair. “Fascinating? I think we might have different definitions of that word.”
“Ha,” he said. “Just hear me out.”
“Alright Professor Sym, lay it on me.”
“The first theory is that they utilize the moon to help them migrate. It’s like a giant reference point in the sky. However, when they see a UV light, they mistake it for the moon and fly to it instead.”
“So they’re dumb?” I asked.
He looked up at the bug zapper and smiled. “Well they’re just bugs. No one was making them out to be geniuses.”
“Fair enough,” I said after another sip of beer. “They can’t have a theory more fascinating than that, can they?”
“Despite your blatant sarcasm, I think one of other theories on the matter is actually interesting,” he said. “The theory that makes the most sense to me is that it’s an escape mechanism for them. If a moth is in danger and they can see the sun or the moon, then that light represents a way out. When they see the UV light it’s like a giant follow-me-to-safety sign and they fly to it.”
Seeing that he was done with his moth theories I leaned back into my chair. “I’ll give it to you. That is remotely interesting, but I disagree.”
Symeon furrowed his brow. “How so?”
“I think they’re just stupid bugs. If I saw a giant glowing blue light coming from a cage that was producing a strange noise, then I’d be running from the light so fast that even you couldn’t catch me.”
This caused him to chuckle again. “Would you though?”
He scooped something off the railing and carefully clutched it in his fist.
“How many people do you know who simply do something because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do, but don’t know why they’re supposed to do it? How many people go to college because going to college is what you’re supposed to do? How many get stuck in a career because it was the first job they found out of school? How many people have you seen get married because they just so happened to be dating their spouse when they reach an age they thought they should be married by?”
“Yeah,” I said after taking another sip of beer. “I can think of a few people who fit that description.”
“I think there’s more than a few,” he replied. “We’re not living our lives. We’re like this moth here just thoughtlessly flying into the light... A light that’s not even real.”
He looked down at his balled up fist, and then brought it closer to his face.
“Hello Mr. Moth,” he jokingly whispered. “You see that light over there. Yes, that’s the one. If you fly to it you’ll die.”
He opened his fist and the moth darted out into the air. Frazzled at first, it flew in frantic circles around our heads. After a few seconds passed, it went from circling us to flying back and forth in front of the bug zapper.
I don’t know why, but I could feel my free hand clench the arm of my crappy plastic chair. Why did I care whether or not this bug chose to fly to its death? Although it was stupid to care, I could feel my heart sink when I watched it inevitably plunge into the wire meshing and then fall to the floor with the softest of thumps.
Symeon bent over, picked up the electrocuted moth, and set it on top of the railing with the other dead bugs he had piled up there. “Even when you warn them it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
Not knowing what to say, I greeted his remark with a nod. Sipping on the last of my beer, I sat and watch more bugs pointlessly throw away their lives in the Wisconsin summer heat.
(Check out Malcolm's debut novel "The Draxler Program" on Amazon.)