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Jeff Esterholm
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counterweight.jpeg
Art by W. Jack Savage © 2015

Counterweight


by


Jeff Esterholm

 

 

 

 

Danny Sizemore knew what he didn’t like about Slim Nordquist: Slim looked like Curly, that skin-headed fat fuck from the Three Stooges, those gluttons for pain his old man loved to watch commit general mayhem at seventeen minutes a shot, all in the name of laughs. Thing was, Slim wasn’t committed to laughs. When Slim went Stoogesque, he would mimic Curly’s 1930s New Yorkese. “Am I gonna hurt you? Why soitenly!” Clipping an overreaching knob in the back of the head, he would gurgle, “It’s moida!”

Danny first met Slim when the fat man came up from the Twin Cities looking for Rusty H, Danny’s predecessor in what they called, oddly prim, Sales and Marketing. Slim stopped by the house in the west end and asked his questions in a professional manner, none of the funny banter. Rusty needed to be hurt. Danny said he might be found in Two Harbors, West Duluth, Superior’s North End. Nowadays, given any direction, finding Rusty H would be a losing proposition. For anyone.

Breakfasting at the Harmony Café, Danny got the news from Ducky Barnes. Slim was making a return trip to Duluth. He had someone to see.

Danny executed a double take worthy of Oliver Hardy, another of the old man’s late show favorites. “Who?”

“Ooh, wise owl,” chuckled the Ducks. He was a past and future yardbird of the Stillwater correctional facility, happy that he wasn’t in line for the Slim Treatment. “It’s you. Daniel X. Sizemore.”

It was a Saturday in June. The sun was out. The ice was off Lake Superior. Tourists were in Canal Park. All these things were true, yet June had flipped to February.

Ducky split. Danny popped one of the pills from detox.

                                                   ***

They said their goodbyes at Duluth International. The old man trundled his little green tank of life, the yellowed tubing a rubber mustache beneath the nose, his sugar babe Marla, twenty years his junior, had the carry-on over her shoulder stuffed with magazines and Dramamine, and Danny, the benefactor of the couple’s Hawaii adventure.

“I don’t know how you swung it, but thank you kindly.” The old man clapped a hand on his shoulder. Marla, already bowled over by an attack of pre-flight nausea, smiled her thanks. Neither of them knew what Danny did for a living these days. All he ever told them was that it involved promotions in the Twin Ports with occasional visits to corporate in Minneapolis. Going into any more detail than that, Danny joked, he would have to kill them. Or they would die of boredom.

“Let me worry about that. I’m just happy I can do it.”

Danny hadn’t worried. Once he made the decision, he was all in. After cutting the smack, he sold the surplus. Dicier shit? Sure, but there was a clientele. His employer’s customers were not siphoned off to the adulterated product. Minneapolis got its money. Danny got a little extra for himself and enough to send the old man and Marla on an all-expenses-paid vacation. He hadn’t worried about it, hadn’t overreached. Not too far.

He walked back to the short-term parking lot, heard the propulsive surge of jet engines. They were gone for two weeks. He knew he’d done right. No question. His father deserved one kick-ass vacation in his hard life and, since his time was short, there was no better time than now.

                                                   ***

Danny arrived at this line of work after his layoff from the steel plant in that little shithole of a town up the North Shore. He’d commuted for nineteen years, wicked winters included. Then it was done. A friend living across St. Louis Bay in Superior, working for the railroad in between treatments for heroin addiction, turned him on to selling.

It was a difficult sell. At first mention, he walked out, shaking his head, wondering why in the hell life at the head of the lakes was such a shitcanned affair.

With the UI drying up, Danny indulged in one last wasted night on his own drug of choice. The evening went very bad very early because he got stupid with grief: the job loss, his girlfriend moving up the hill to her folks’ place in Hermantown. Stinko on Jack, he sat in the backyard and dialed up everybody who had ever wronged him or done right by him, scorning in the one instance and thanking the others by singing theme songs from happy sitcoms of the Seventies and Eighties. It was awful for the scorned and the loved. His old man and Marla, on the “You’re Beautiful List,” had him packed away to detox before first light.

Discharged from detox with a clorazepate prescription, Danny called his friend. He was interested and, long story short, got himself a new job. Shortly thereafter, Rusty H got his layoff notice.

                                                   ***

Clorazepate? No effect. Once home, he paced, popping his head out the front door to check the porch, peeking out the living room drapes. The view from the dining room window of the narrow walk between his place and the neighbor’s. He looked from the kitchen window at the backyard, the daylilies, the garage, but knew he’d never spot him coming down the alley. Cup of instant coffee, up the stairs, looking out the front and back bedroom windows. Slim would know where to find him. Danny had played it straight except for the past few months. When Slim was looking for Rusty H, who did he ask for directions? Danny. Where? The house he was pacing in.

He drummed the side of his head. He had to turn down the panic knob. Take another pill and breathe. He looked from the front bedroom window. It was what he needed. Lake Superior, Park Point, the Aerial Lift Bridge, Canal Park. Normalcy. Tourists crawling from shop to gallery to restaurant to ship canal and the lift bridge.

                                                   ***

The vacationers were still a luau or two away from returning to their house on Greysolon, empty except for Danny on a step ladder in the attached garage, reaching blind in the dark space of the rafters. His hand touched two plastic-wrapped packages. The one on the left. The good stuff. Safe. The package to the right. The not-so-good. Danny pulled the bundle down and stowed it in his backpack.

                                                   ***

Canal Park was a carnival without rides. Tourists hit chichi restaurants and shops and slept at the lakeside hotels. A strip joint grandfathered in with redevelopment received less than furtive looks from dads in cargo shorts. When Danny was a kid, all there had been between the ship canal and the warehouses was a burger-and-fries drive-in and a statue of Neptune. And the Aerial Lift Bridge over the canal. That was the constant. Canal Park would be preferable to waiting at home.

                                                   ***

He split from the manic stroll of the out-of-towners and entered the deli-saloon near the bridge. A sailboat was leaving the marina. The bridge horn blared and the lift span began to rise so the vessel could pass through to the lake. He drank coffee, ate free popcorn, and watched the slow upward movement of the span and the downward grind of the solid block counterweights that lifted it from either end of the bridge.

                                                   ***

Sunday morning, he watched from a Canal Park Drive bench. The crowds were slow to build, but when they did he was disappointed. He’d enjoyed the sounds of the lake, the gulls, the chirr of the early morning traffic.

He thought he might be better off walking the loop of the drive. Danny lifted the backpack and glanced across a break in the tourist stream. Slim was sitting on the bench opposite, lifted a hand, waggled his fingers, a Curlyesque greeting, temblors shaking his body. Then he flicked his hand around and gestured. Come here.

Danny’s eyes narrowed. He launched himself off the bench. He walked at a near run, glancing back to see Slim cut gracefully through the tourists.

Traffic was at a standstill on Lake Avenue. The bridge gate was coming down. Both ran onto the lift span as the horn blew, long short long short. The deck was going to rise. Danny stopped and looked toward the harbor. A sailboat leaving port.

Slim stopped, shook his head. “That horn was pretty unnoivin’. Wait right there. It’s as good a place as any.” He pulled a .38. “You think you’re the funny man?”

The bridge control house was a level up. The tender came out. “You can’t be on the bridge. Get your butts off. Now!”

Slim swung the muzzle to the tender. “Get back to runnin’ your bridge, Edmund Fitzgerald. This doesn’t consoin you.”

The tender looked at the gun, at Slim, at Danny, then back at the .38.

“Unless you want it to consoin you. Hey! I’m open to all comers.”

The man shook his head and backed away to the bridge control house.

Slim rolled his eyes, shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll have to kill him later anyways.” The span began to move and he lurched and grabbed hold of the railing. “Cripes, youse nearly lucked out there.”

The span rose. Danny watched the counterweight come down. He swung the backpack to his feet. “I’ve got what you want. I’m going to give it to you. We’ll be good. Right? You go your way? I’ll go mine?”

“Of course. We’ll give you a gold watch.” The counterweight ground down, the deck rose. Slim wagged the gun at the backpack. “In there?”

Danny nodded. Slim gestured for him to pass it over. Danny swung it past and Slim lunged as the backpack went over the end of the span. Down on his hands and knees, Slim watched as it dropped into the canal. The counterweight came from above and pressed him between its concrete mass and the span’s steel edge with the irrevocable consequence of a boot stepping on a June bug.

It takes three minutes to lower the counterweights and raise the bridge span. It took three minutes, even with the counterweight crushing down on Slim’s head and shoulders. The tender stepped from the control house. He and Danny looked at each other.

The sailboat passed below, out to the blue, wide-open lake.







suburbancreep.jpg
Art by Bill Zbylut © 2016

Suburban Creep

by

Jeff Esterholm

The laptop in the leather bag that the twins, with Myra’s help, had bought him for Father’s Day remained on the curved roof of the hybrid until he took the turn at High Crossing Boulevard. Amazing. Yes. It was amazing. It was amazing stupidity on his part.

And now a woman named Spring had the laptop in the leather bag.

“Hi. Is this Trent Gardner?” A youthful voice.

“Yes.”

“Hi, my name is Spring Fairchild. I’m so happy I reached you.” There was honest relief threaded through the high chuff of her laughter. “I found your laptop bag this morning. On my way into Madison? And I found your business card in it. I don’t think the laptop is damaged.”

He closed his eyes. First thought: relief that the laptop was not damaged. But how did she know? By pushing the power button? No. If she had, she wouldn’t be calling him. “Excellent.” Second thought, voiced: “Where can I meet you to pick it up?”

Trent had rushed to get out of the house that morning, running behind, the meeting with the Care-and-Share 2-gether Collaborative board of directors scheduled for eight-thirty, Myra, his wife, asking if he could pick up the twins from t-ball practice at five-thirty. “Sorry, hon, no,” – and then, of course, she wanted to get into it. He cared more for the food shelf and homeless shelter he managed on the city’s eastside than he did about his own family.

“Hon, this isn’t the time.”

“When then?”

“Later.” Trent walked out to the garage through the mudroom, Myra’s response, “I work, too, you know,” sparked and faded with the click of the door. His hands too full with the insulated lunch bag, coffee mug, newspaper, and laptop bag, he put the last on the roof of the car and realized it was gone when he reached for it on the passenger seat a half hour later in the Mendota Free House parking lot. What was the breathing exercise Myra had been trying to teach him? Something she learned at the conference for insurance company executives. He was huffing by the time he walked into the board meeting.

Trent met Spring at a coffeehouse on Willy Street. He guessed she had teetered off the peak of middle age a few years before, an apple-shaped hippie in decline with the voice of a twelve-year old. She exhibited a needy friendliness that tugged a bare smile from the corner of his mouth.

“I’d like to give you something. A reward. But I only have this.” He waved the plastic he had used to buy her a mocha breve and himself an Americano.

“The coffee’s fine. I’m just happy I was able to locate you.”

“I insist. I’d like to send you something.”

She looked at him, considering, and then gave him her address. She said it was one of the bungalows on Jenifer Street.

That night at home, everyone in bed, Trent returned from his nightly neighborhood stroll. Myra understood that it relaxed him. It cleared his head to walk the suburban residential streets after dark, to see families, comfortable by all appearances, going about their after-hour lives by lamplight, television light, and notebook light, a seeming surfeit of ease after the day’s work was done, unaware of the poverty less than twelve miles away, and unaware of him, peering in from outside. Trent was invisible in his hometown, in this suburban community.

He opened his laptop and dropped down with a focused daze into the image and video files. Digital window peek pictures. The women of the neighborhood in the marquee lighting of their bathrooms, the subdued light of their bedrooms, captured through the space between shade and window frame. Then he opened the video of his first. She begged, but then the nylon cord, too tight, the accident. It had been an accident. He told himself that. The second and the third? Those were not.


And now Trent Gardner had Spring Fairchild’s address on Jenifer Street, out of Sun Prairie and into Madison. It was out of his normal range, but he had been thinking about expanding. Besides, what was normal? It was all relative.






asgoodonhim.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2019

“As Good on Him as on a Dead Man”

by

Jeff Esterholm

 

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.

A 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 here.”

I thanked him. “Is the ball cap still there?”

There was a pause as he scanned the area. “Yeah.”

“You can have it.”

                                                  ***

Young 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 ice-covered inlets.

My Lucky Penny.

                                                  ***

On 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.

“You tore ass, man,” one friend said to McAlister. “You hadn’t pulled us along, we’d all be a blood stain on Lake Avenue.”

“You are a fuckin’ lucky penny, man. Our lucky penny,” friend two said.

“Damn,” chimed the first. “Lucky. Penny. Lucky Penny McAlister.”

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.”

To 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.

                                                  ***

He 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.

Lucky 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.

These days, bicyclists, my young men, provide sales and service throughout the city.

                                                  ***

After 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.

“Anita, Lofgren. I’m on Connor’s Point. You’ll want to come out here. It’s your former CI. McAlister.”

By 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.

                                                  ***

It’s what happens after this.

It’s 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 Duluth.

A 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.

“Yes.” It was in the newspapers, on TV and radio. It was hard to miss.

“A fentanyl overdose.” Fentanyl. Neither of us use any of its street names.

“I 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.

He shrugged. “Yes and no. She didn’t know what she was doing. It wasn’t the best.”

It happened on the Iron Range. In Minnesota. It was his product. “What are you going to do?”

“I was going to ask you.”

I looked at him.

Then 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.

He bounced the question back to me. “What are you going to do?”

Lucky Penny. He made good money working the North End for me. Too good.

                                                  ***

Lofgren 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 yellow tape.

“You want to take a closer look, Anita, before they take the body away?”

I 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?”

Lofgren 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.”

I 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.”

Lofgren wrote in his pad. “Yeah. We’ll follow up on that. Get it to the gang taskforce.”

“You take care of it, Joe. Don’t let the state and feds get the credit. We have to take care of our own.”

He smiled. “Right.”

And 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.

He 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.

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