on Him as on a Dead Man”
The day that
Lucky Penny McAlister’s body was
discovered, the mercury was flirting with thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. His
death fifteen hours before, give or take an hour, an hour and a half, occurred
on a sixty-nine-degree day, a sensible sixty-nine since it was the last day of
April. It made meteorological sense. But Sunday, the first of May, near
freezing. To be honest, there is no meteorological sense to be made of this
city, locked as it is into the extreme northwestern corner of Wisconsin. This
rough diamond takes what blows in out of the east-northeast, off Lake Superior,
or what rolls on it like a whiskey-dicked drunk, I’m not talking about my ex
here, from the hills of Duluth. McAlister, let’s say, got caught up in the heat
of the moment.
kid in a heavy parka and shorts, those baggy britches promoting some
professional football or baseball team, but now, so drab, a person couldn’t say
which sport or team, the kid probably didn’t know, didn’t care, they were
hand-me-downs, came bicycling down Main Street on Connor’s Point at 9:30 that
Sunday morning, past the cement plant and grain elevators, as if it was
planned. He found McAlister face up in the weeds near Howard’s Pocket, wet snow
like rounds of Oreo cream filling covering his eyes, a rust-colored Great Lakes
ship at anchor less than twenty feet away.
The kid, straddling
what he called his trick bike, was struck by the snowy eyes, the blue cast to
the face, the bluer lips. He pulled out his phone. “It’s me. Yeah. He’s still
I thanked him. “Is
the ball cap still there?”
was a pause as he scanned the area. “Yeah.”
“You can have it.”
men bicycle throughout the city no matter the season or time of day. You might
notice this. I did, early on. That it’s men, not women. Bicycling. And not on
too expensive bikes with narrow razor tires or wearing skintight
Day-Glo-colored racing uniforms. No costumes. Street clothes. In winter, yes,
some use fat tire bikes, they often ride them year-round, while others prefer
the tire chains ordered from Durango, Colorado, or that place in Finland. That
is a business expense. The time of day might be when the taverns close, well
after two or three in the morning, and then the young men can be seen bicycling
to a house party, a girlfriend’s apartment, mom and dad’s basement, or some
other night’s squat. It may be the middle of the day. My rule: special care
with deliveries, day or night. They have lost their driver’s licenses through
one too many DUIs or an all-of-the-above selection from the cafeteria plan of
driving infractions. They do better on their bicycles. They know the city. They
know streets, trails, paths, and alleys. The backyards where no fences will hem
them in. They are adept at evading capture. Lucky Penny McAlister was arguably
one of the best. One January night, twenty below zero, he eluded the police by
biking down onto the frozen St. Louis River, looping in and out of the river’s
an overpass sidewalk fifteen years ago, after nearly being run over by a
speeding white and yellow GMC Jimmy, he was dubbed Lucky Penny. The recent
removal of a plantar wart from his right heel left him limping, but he and his
two friends, both stoner Duluthians, made it to the other side thanks largely
to McAlister’s efforts, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, that’s what they
called themselves, after a trio of underground comic book characters, swearing
at the already gone Jimmy and laughing, relieved to still be among the living.
tore ass, man,” one friend said to McAlister. “You hadn’t pulled us along, we’d
all be a blood stain on Lake Avenue.”
are a fuckin’ lucky penny, man. Our
lucky penny,” friend two said.
chimed the first. “Lucky. Penny. Lucky Penny McAlister.”
shook his head. He wasn’t one for superstitions or claiming luck as his own.
Everything he did was accomplished by what he
could do, physically, mentally, even at that young age. “Blow that smoke
someone else’s way.”
McAlister, Lucky Penny was a curse. But the nickname stuck to him, a plain name,
like Bob or Joe to anybody else. To him, no. It was a curse.
thought he was working under-the-radar jobs, shifting video gambling machines
with a loaner Econoline from bar to bar in the county’s backwaters, until his
rabbity awareness of the Sheriff’s Department directed him home, to the city,
and the manufacture of synthetic drugs, cannabimimetics, and their sale. I
pulled him in and told him that nothing was under the radar or small time. That
he would have to pay. Lucky Penny was smart. I turned him as a CI. His talk
resulted in convictions. The convictions wore down the competition. It was an
easy flip to bring him into the bicycle crew.
Penny worked the northside of the city after his getaway on the ice-covered St.
Louis River. The neighborhood is populated with fixed and low-income residents.
It turns lucrative when the Great Lakes sailors are in port. Historically, the
North End has always benefited from sailors’ dollars. Taverns, tippling houses,
basement gambling dens. The red-light district. Money pocketed, police turned
to look the other way.
days, bicyclists, my young men, provide sales and service throughout the city.
the call from the kid on Connor’s Point, Sunday morning’s second call came in
from Captain of Detectives Joe Lofgren. I answered, “District Commander
Sobczak,” feigning sleepiness. It was a day off.
Lofgren. I’m on Connor’s Point. You’ll want to come out here. It’s your former
the time I arrived, our CSI team, or the one and a half individuals that make
it up, the half a technical college intern, was finishing its work. A one-sided
conversation roiled my head. I was telling Lucky Penny, on his back and dead,
that this is what happens.
what happens after this.
something you don’t want to hear about from someone in the same business,
someone who could turn into competition. We walked on Park Point beach in
fifty-five-year-old woman, a machinist at a garage door manufacturer outside a
small Iron Range town, had died. “Did you know?” my colleague asked.
It was in the newspapers, on TV and radio. It was hard to miss.
fentanyl overdose.” Fentanyl. Neither of us use any of its street names.
heard that.” There had been an uptick in overdoses. The woman from the Iron
Range was the most recent. People outside of law enforcement and outside of the
trade wonder how that can happen: a fifty-five-year-old grandmother, factory
worker, gardener, bowler, blue ribbon winner at last year’s county fair for her
potato salad, dead from an opioid overdose. It happens. She could have been
your retired neighbor. “Accidental,” I said.
shrugged. “Yes and no. She didn’t know what she was doing. It wasn’t the best.”
happened on the Iron Range. In Minnesota. It was his product. “What are you
going to do?”
was going to ask you.”
looked at him.
he told me that his people had already determined that McAlister made the sale.
He was freelancing. Duluth, the Iron Range, rural northeastern Minnesota. Lucky
Penny. He was bucking the existing fentanyl and OxyContin trade.
bounced the question back to me. “What are you going to do?”
Penny. He made good money working the North End for me. Too good.
finished his preliminary report out to me. The Lake Superior wind blew cold and
birders, Connor’s Point, though light industrial now, is perfect for birding,
left off with their nature activity and with the local news teams crowded the
want to take a closer look, Anita, before they take the body away?”
was quiet, standing apart, but then said, “He always wore a baseball cap. The N
and Y were black like the rest of the cap. Did you see that anywhere, Joe?”
glanced over the scene. “No.” The grass and weeds, thistle, bindweed, burdock,
brome, were a uniform dun, flattened by the winter’s snow. The fresh overnight
traces would leave soon enough. The dirty, ice-hardened patches, they might
last until June. Nothing was going to sprout green anytime soon, even if it was
the first of May. “I think something like that would’ve stood out. We’ll check
along Howard’s Pocket.”
nodded. “I remember that he was proud of that cap. If this was gang related,” I
looked at Lofgren, “The killer may have just decided that the cap looked as
good on him as on the dead man.”
wrote in his pad. “Yeah. We’ll follow up on that. Get it to the gang
take care of it, Joe. Don’t let the state and feds get the credit. We have to
take care of our own.”
I knew that cold May day where in our city the kid in the parka, shorts, and
dead man’s baseball cap would be bicycling. The particular street, trail, path,
or alley. Or, if not on his trick bike, where he would be at rest, earbuds in.
wouldn’t be hard to find.
Jeff Esterholm's work has
previously appeared in Yellow Mama, Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books’
Mondays Are Murder, Crime Factory, and Mysterical-E, as
well as in Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, Regarding Arts &
Letters, Wisconsin People & Ideas, and Flash Fiction Italia.
In 2013, he received the Larry and Eleanor Sternig Award for Short Fiction from
the Council for Wisconsin Writers.
well known that an artist becomes more popular by dying, so our pal Steve Cartwright is typing his bio with one hand while pummeling his head with a frozen
mackerel with the other. Stop, Steve! Death by mackerel is no way to go! He (Steve,
not the mackerel) has a collection of spooky toons, Suddenly Halloween!, available
at Amazon.com. He's done art for several magazines, newspapers,
websites, commercial and governmental clients, books, and scribbling - but mostly
drooling - on tavern napkins. He also creates art pro bono for several animal
rescue groups. He was awarded the 2004 James Award for his cover art for Champagne
Shivers. He recently illustrated the Cimarron Review, Stories for Children, and
Still Crazy magazine covers. Take a gander ( or a goose ) at his online gallery:
www.angelfire.com/sc2/cartoonsbycartwright . And please hurry
with your response - that mackerel's killin' your pal, Steve Cartwright.