Peggy's counting out $100 bills on the bar at the Little Musky in Woodruff. "Three-hundred, four-hundred, five-hundred...." I'm staring at my cell phone, willing it to light up, while the Indy 500 whines overhead from an old TV. Cell service is an oxymoron in the north woods, and this is interfering with our mission to buy a 1976 Lund 14-foot fishing boat with a Mercury 20 hp outboard.
Patrons must count out hundreds at the Little Musky all the time. The bartender in the empty place regards us with no more interest than if we were dealing a hand of cribbage.
"It's all here," says Peggy. We look at my phone, lying there in the fetal position. "Why doesn't he call?" We sip our tap beers and order lunch.
We arrived in the Great North last night. On Memorial Day weekend, used boats appear in front yards here the way old dressers do in Madison. We've looked at maybe a dozen so far. Here's how that went:
Andy: "This one's in great shape!"
Peggy: "Look at the rust on the trailer."
Andy: "We're not fishing from the trailer!"
Peggy: "It's falling apart."
Andy: "Let's buy it!"
We move down the highway to another one.
Andy: "This is a winner!"
Peggy: "That motor's beat to hell."
Andy: "Let's buy it!"
Peggy's restraint is Herculean. We've never bought a boat before. What do we know? Nothing, that's what. We're pretty excited just to own a trailer.
We named Honey Badger as soon as we saw her.
"There!" I yelled when we flew around a curve and saw her perched on a freshly mown hill. Sporty and red, the black Mercury bolted onto the back, old but still potent-looking.
This time, instead of the lopsided conversation, we began agreeing on her virtues. We copied down the number written on the sign and headed into St. Germain.
Back at the Little Musky, my phone rattles to life and we head out to meet the dude. He settles - to the dollar - for the highest amount we vowed we'd spend. He's selling it for his friend who left town. "Divorce," he says, and lets the word lie there to do its work.
When I tell him the boat is our 25th anniversary present, he says, "Well, that evens it out." Then we shake hands and I forget to get a receipt.
All clichés about boat ownership are true. We begin living it immediately. Since we purchased the wrong size hitching ball, we have to head back into St. Germain to get the right one. Twice.
In an uncharacteristic suppression of immediate gratification, we decide to head back to Madison rather than stay up north for our maiden launch.
Starkweather Creek ain't no outdoor magazine centerfold. But we're home, and Honey Badger is in the water. Peggy pulls the empty trailer into the parking lot while I lower the motor and lock it in with the tilt pin. I'm standing in the water and feel eyes gazing down on me from the pier.
"Why do you have water in your boat?" asks a little girl in pink flip-flops whose family is now gathered around us on the dock. We had neglected to put the plug into the drain hole. I scramble into the boat and get the plug in. Peggy returns, and we spend our first 15 minutes of boat ownership bailing water out of our boat, then cast off.
I'm tugging madly on the starter cord as we drift into the creek, when the drain plug pops out. Water streams into the boat. Peggy takes the oars and begins to paddle us up the creek toward the handicap pier. The plug won't stay in on its own, so my contribution to our sunset cruise is holding the plug in place.
Peggy is rowing like crazy, but weeds are draping themselves over the entire length of the oars. "They're getting too heavy," she says. "How much farther?"
The carp bump into my legs as I stand shoulder-deep in the creek, holding the plug in while Peggy runs to get the trailer and then backs it skillfully down the ramp. So ends our first outing with Honey Badger.
Turns out, all you have to do is turn a screw on the plug to make it fatter to fit more snugly in the drain hole. So the next night after work we're back at Olbrich. This time the plug stays in and the motor fires. We're on the water cruising around until sunset. We stay out even longer the next day, bombing around the lake until the motor's water pump burns out. "It'll take me a week and a half to get to it," says the mechanic at the marina. "That's three days longer than we've owned it," I tell him and set sail for home. In the car.