Monday, September 27, 2021

The Price of Copper and Brass, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

It was important to remember where you came from, to call up at the appropriate time the requisite grit. Nonetheless, Gustafson knew himself to grow wistful, driving in the old neighborhood. The cliché was like a secret code everyone from North End should be able to decipher and know: Don’t forget your roots. No matter how distant you wander from that rougher than rough diamond place, recall that you grew up there.

His mother raised her nine children—their old man would sometimes drop-in, in port, off the boats, drunk and abashed, but with cash—two blocks from the shipyard. Her old clapboard two-story was torn down ten years ago by Gustafson, up from Minneapolis for a long weekend. He sold off the salvageable wood to some artsy-fartsy folks from Duluth, and some Ojibwe guys bought the Monarch wood and coal-burning stove. The majority of Gustafson’s brothers and sisters now lived in northern California, in coastal cities and towns, and in Ohio, on Lake Erie, always drawn to water, always far from North End. Raymond, the oldest brother, like their mother, was in the grave. Her house gone, what remained, he saw from the alley, was a small residential lot overtaken by seemingly every trash tree and shrub dreamed of in creation, ugly under the sun, or in rain or snow, much like the rest of the neighborhood, the surrounding blocks. The down-in-the-mouth leached out, visible, in different ways.

Rodney, a kid he’d grown up with, hobbled out to the black plastic dumpster by his garage with a large kitchen trash bag. A wan little girl with lunchtime smears of peanut butter and grape jelly around her mouth followed alongside him, twirling an open Powerpuff Girls umbrella. Gustafson rolled down his window, stepping on the brake. “Hi there, Rodney.” He nodded at the girl.

The other man smiled, wiped his hands on his dungarees before shaking hands with Gustafson. “My granddaughter. Nancy.” He had to be sixty-five, sixty-six, a few years older than Gustafson. Rodney lived on disability from the long-gone steel plant in Duluth; Gustafson had always liked him. Honest kid. Honest to a fault. His smile now, that was questioning. “Patrolling the alley there, are ya?”

Gustafson lifted his eyebrows: maybe, maybe not. “Just up for a few days. Any changes?”

Rodney sucked his lips in like he had no teeth. “No.” He took a look down the opposite side of the alley, then back at Gustafson. “Nope. Same old same old.”

Gustafson thanked him, said goodbye to the little girl, told Rodney to take it easy, told them both to watch out for the rain.

It was that particular house toward the end of the block that Rodney had glanced at. That house, its yard, was all of a certain North End setting.

Continuing his slow roll down the alley, Gustafson could see the backyard of the place was mud and clay ripped up and churned by wide truck tires, big boy toys, the orange-brown slime rooster-tailed against the owner’s garage; the neighbor’s garage befouled in the same manner. Gustafson understood the people next door wouldn’t complain. And as if anyone would dare trespass on this rutted muck, the owner warned them off with a tire-and-two-by-four barricade—two stacks of tires, at least six feet apart, an old dark two-by-four stretching from one stack of gray-black rubber to the other, a tire on the top of either end of the wood crossbeam, weighing it down. The two-car garage that went with the property, besides the muddy decoration, had its door dented and askew, likely rammed in the past by a pickup truck, probably driven by the property owner.

Gustafson knew these people. They used their world up until it was dead. It didn’t bother them in the least. The dead didn’t bother the O’Neills. Not one little bit.


The sky was a heavy, washed-out blue flannel; April, cold and wet, the month when the smelt ran off Wisconsin Point. Raymond should have run. Gustafson’s brother’s life began roiling that afternoon, forty-plus years ago. He’d been washing his ’72 Plymouth Satellite, a sea-green four-door, at a Connor’s Point slip. The slip was east of a yard where an arm of a corporate monolith dismantled and scrapped Great Lakes ships past their prime. Gustafson could see the spot yet, all these years later, past the shipyard and across Howard’s Pocket, from the old neighborhood alley he eased down.

The way Raymond told it, the two of them in the kitchen of the upper duplex apartment Raymond lived in with his wife and five kids, each man with a sweaty brown bottle of Hamm’s, was that he had been washing his car when he noticed the chain. He chuckled. “The chain was looped around a piling, the other end slung tight over the edge, into the water. I’d wiped down the car — it was that sunny day—remember?—so I thought I’d give the chain a tug. It was heavy. Oh, boy.” Raymond’s eyes shone like a banjo ringing, a phrase the older brother often used to describe delight in others.

“Buckets, not just one. I eased them up, one after another.” He’d set his beer bottle down on the table, dramatized the drawing up of the chain, hand over hand. “Each of the buckets were full of scrap, copper, and brass. From those old boats, they were busy scrapping down the point.”

Raymond was proud of his discovery; his younger brother, thought differently. “Goddammit, you know who probably stole it all in the first place—”

“Fuck them.” His eyes widened to emphasize the point. “I told myself, ‘Ray, you’ve got yourself, Ellie, and five kiddos to support—”

“But the O’Neill boys. Raymond.”

“Fuck. Them.”


Wet, like the short-straw Jaycee dropping into the Tri-State Fair dunk tank, the sky opened up, and the rain came down. Gustafson looked again at the backyard mire before pulling away. By nightfall, it would be a thick soup.

At the motel across from the steakhouse on Fifth, Gustafson watched the local news. The smelt run was the second story in. The run would peak that weekend, like the night the O’Neill boys got Raymond on Wisconsin Point.

Gustafson thought of the boys now: Arne housed at Waupun; Clifford at a prison in Minnesota; Gene and Lawrence perished one Fourth of July near Pattison Park, throwing M-80s from their speeding car. Stuart, or Stu, he still lived in town, a never-to-retire con-of-all-trades.

Growing up in North End, the Gustafsons and O’Neills played football on Rusk Avenue, and baseball too. Swimming in Lake Superior in summer, skating on Howard’s Pocket, and the neighborhood rink in winter. Neighborhood kids who grew up together grew up and away from each other, the Gustafsons turning into strivers for at least the middle ground in life, the O’Neills looking to turn the easier buck, they believed, through criminality. The families managed the neighborhood cordiality. They knew each other; they shared a common history.

No one mentioned the copper and brass haul; Raymond’s filching of the O’Neills’ boodle, no one knew about it, perhaps wouldn’t care, as Raymond believed, if they did.

As he had in years past, Raymond went smelting with the O’Neills when Stu invited him along.

Gustafson heard about it later, how the O’Neills got his brother. The O’Neills and Raymond, along with the other neighborhood buddy, Rodney—someone to pass the word: Don’t fuck with the O’Neills—drove out to the Point for the smelt run.

They arrived late. Everyone was back on the beach, nets pulled in, the small silver fish in washtubs and buckets. Boomboxes pumped out the Stones and Bowie. “Rebel Rebel.” Rodney remembered that one. The beer flowed from kegs, cans, and bottles, and the bonfire flames snapped, the driftwood popped, the noisy partyers cast in orange. The O’Neills trotted Raymond down the beach and away from the firelight toward Dutchman Creek, Rodney tailing them warily. The raucous gathering of smelters flickered, a dying star.

The O’Neills beat the hell out of Raymond, Rodney told Gustafson. They didn’t have to do the other thing, but they did. “Who did it? Did they take turns? Just one of them? Their leader?”

Rodney nodded at that last: Stu.

He had pressed Raymond’s face into the wet sand as if attempting to create a death mask. After he was sure Raymond had suffocated, he had his brothers roll him over. At that moment, a wave rolled in, dissolving the imprint his terrified face had made in the sand.


Gustafson held open the storm door and knocked, the rain pattering down as if there would be no end to it ever, his boots thick, slippery with mud. An older man pulled open the backdoor, looked back into the house, then joined Gustafson on the back porch.


O’Neill nodded. He was an old sixty-five, looked like an orangutan with the belly, the long arms.

Gustafson pictured what he had planned for so many years: suffocating, drowning Stu O’Neill in the backyard slurry, packing his nose, his mouth, his throat — choking him. A crowd would gather under the evening rain in the backyards on either side of the mudflat. The few neighbors, old-timers, they would know. They would watch from the other side of the fence, smoking their unfiltered cigarettes, drinking Old Milwaukee. They knew. They wouldn’t call anyone.

“I always wondered when you’d show up,” O’Neill said. He looked away, peering at the hidden moon, and then his seven-inch prep knife swung up for the evening’s opening move, slicing Gustafson to the sternum.

Gustafson folded. He fell.

No one would be calling anyone. Those who peopled Gustafson’s dream of this night, they were not there to watch. Only Rodney, standing in the shadow of a garage, holding his granddaughter’s umbrella over his head. When O’Neill finished, Rodney turned and walked home.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have previously appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Close to the Bone, Crime Factory, Mysterical-E, Mystery Tribune, Pulp Modern Flash, Rock and a Hard Place, Shotgun Honey, and Tough, as well as in Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas. He, his wife, and their goldendoodle hellraiser live in Wisconsin at the head of the Great Lakes.

Monday, September 20, 2021

In Nomine Patris, fiction by Elena Sichrovsky

Chiba, Japan  

Shanghai, China  

Vienna, Austria  

Cartagena, Colombia  

Athens, Greece

Cebu, Philippines  

Santa Monica, USA



The word fits around his gums like a mouthguard. He purses his lips, trying to unravel the vowels of the word. The girl shakes her head and pronounces it again: “Otosan,” the weight landing on the “t” like a blade to cleave the heart from the body. A dapple of sunlight moves across her face, illuminating all the patches of sympathy he has been trying to avoid. She fingers the edge of the photograph lightly. She’s looking at the black and white image with too much reverence. There’s no piety to be commanded from the portrait of the guilty.

They stand under the blood-red pillars of a tori gate that leads to the shrine behind them.  The taxi driver told him on the way there that the shrine is dedicated to a protector of military men. The solemn gray lines of the shrine’s roof bow in folded hands, a slanted prayer to honor the bravery that bloomed in the whispers of history. History is what he is hunting down now, but there are no prayers to be offered. God is the second person on his list, but the first name is the one pictured in that photograph, the one whose scent he’s tracking across continents.

He stands there a moment longer, waiting for the girl to find some trace of recognition in the photograph. His chest aches. His lungs are pushing against the bars of his ribcage like a water balloon squished between a child’s fingers.

She shakes her head regretfully and returns it. “Gomen nasai.”  



The two Chinese characters seem uncomfortable standing beside each other. He knows they read as “father” only because the hotel manager told him so. He had asked the manager to help him translate the questions he wanted to ask at the police station. Amid the scribbled indecipherable lines, the manager had circled those two characters with a thin red pen. The character on the left is simple, two intersecting strokes crossing in the center, but the other one is tall and woven with strokes like scaffolding.  

At the police station, he pushes the photograph along with the written note under the slot in the window. The young officer behind the glass takes one look at the paper and immediately looks up at him with too much pity. His dark eyes flit between the scribbled words and the photograph before turning around and beckoning to another officer in the next desk.  

He stands and waits, wondering if he should have had the clerk translate more. If he should have had him translate how he wasn’t looking for the man in the photograph for reconciliation, but for retribution. He imagines what the officers might be saying; how they might wonder what kind of parent would leave their child with nothing but a colorless image and a grown echo of their likeness staring with eyes too hollow to have been dragged down by years.



Aside from the language lesson, he also gets a drag from the young man’s joint. “You look like you need it,” the youth tells him. 

He angles his head away, muscles clenching with the barrage of coughs charging out. Smearing a hand across his lips, he wipes the blood away and finally takes the joint.  

“Fathers are overrated,” the youth goes on, hands in his pocket and back pressed to the spine of the bench. “My old man kicked me out long ago. Best thing he ever did. I’ve made my own way, to the States and back, and now I’m getting married to a girl I’ll make sure he never meets.”

Smoke escapes from his lips and withers away into the September air. The shrinking joint passes between their fingers, a union wordless and true.  

“Why are you hunting down your dad now?” The blue eyes of the youth travel up and down his rumpled suit jacket and crooked tie. “Do you need money from him?”

He shakes his head. The joint dangles between his knuckles as he rests his hands on his knees. Inhaling deeply, he tries to pull a few ribbons of air into his battered lungs. “Not money,” he says at length. “I need something more than that.”



The knife slices through the soft flesh of the lulo fruit, opening its orange facade to reveal a quartet of green seeds joined elbow to elbow like petals. Chunks slide through the woman’s fingers and into the empty blender before they are buried in a scoopful of ice cubes. A fight unleashes the moment the blender button turns on, sharp frozen angles resisting the plump softness of the fruit. After a moment, the struggle is lost, and they yield to each other, purring into a blend of sunshine orange.

Mi papa,” the woman gestures to an older man sitting at the back of the fresh fruit stall. Her eyes crinkle with a smile, and he tries to match it with his own, a line on his face that barely curves.

He’s never been able to say those words, to turn and introduce an old man as his own. He thinks of his father in aging strokes only because of the calculation of his current age and not because he’s actually ever seen him like that. Somehow the imagined portrait feels more genuine than the actual photograph he’s been carrying around. The image in the photograph merely taunts him with the idea his father once knew how to love someone other than himself.

The woman wipes an arm against the curls sticking to her forehead, jabbering on in a language he only understands flickers of. The blender tips over, spilling the frothy sweetness into a tall glass, and she hands it to him with a twisty blue straw.

“Sientate,” she motions to the plastic stool beside the older man she just identified.

He sinks down into the seat, body sagging from the perilous weight of standing. With a practiced motion, he lays the photograph out for the man to see. As he waits for the now-familiar shake of the head and sympathetic noise, he faintly wishes he was this man’s son. He would much rather die in this stranger’s home than have the eyes of a traitor be his final vision.  



He scribbles out the name of the painkiller his doctor once prescribed, and the pharmacist frowns at the inscription before turning to the shelves behind him to investigate. Words like morphine and fentanyl massage his mind, a placebo to help ease the pain more than any local equivalent will. The doctors had advised against his pilgrimage, of course; they would rather have him turn over the contents of his savings so they could hook him up to needles and drugs that would not prolong his life but would extend his suffering.  

The day after receiving his final diagnosis, he had summoned up enough energy to demand to be allowed to go home to die. He paid his landlord the last month of rent and then had taken his gun out of the safe under the bed and put it on the bedside table. While preparing for his apartment to become his mausoleum, he found the photograph of his father in the box of his late mother’s belongings. It was a picture from their wedding day; his father’s young face filled the frame, cheeks pinched in a boyish grin. 

It was then the idea bloomed in his mind. He could shift the burden of what he was carrying onto the shoulders of the one who remained unjudged by the gavel of the world. He had a reason to live now, because there was still justice he could serve. For what could be crueler than reuniting a father with his son, only to tell him that he was dying?

The pharmacist turns back, holding up a small bottle, and he hands over the crumbled bills without question. With his half-formed hand, motions and the pharmacist’s broken English he figures out directions on how to get to the beach. Truthfully he’s never been one to cherish the bitterness of sand and scratchiness of ocean waves. But he wants to allow one more curse upon himself; he wants to feel the fury of the sun to burn his pale skin so he will be even more unrecognizable to his father when he meets him.

The pharmacist points to a bottle of sunscreen, and he shakes his head determinedly. What’s one more cancer to his decaying prison of flesh and bone? He walks out, disappearing between the married scents of grilled meat and crumbling white cheese. 



The skyscraper looms over him like a parent offering a shoulder to shield him from the buffeting rains. The smooth metal of the wall he’s leaning against leaves a dent in his forehead, but he doesn’t care. Elation is coursing fast and reckless through his veins. He forgets the photograph still in his hand as his fingers form a fist, reducing the image to a wad of crumpled lines.

“Jonathan Clark went back to his hometown a few weeks ago,” the man at the trading company had told him a few minutes ago. Suddenly a ribbon had appeared at the end of the marathon, a red line to snap at the brush of his fingertips.

Five weeks. That’s how long the doctor had given him. That’s how long he had to survive crisscrossing the globe to find a father whose voice he cannot remember.

It’s been nearly three weeks now. His body has become a fearful thing, a torpedo wrapped in sweating bed sheets, and yet he is ready. He is ready to hurl the dark shape of himself onto the spike of the sun.  

Above his head, palm tree fronds flop against the typhoon winds determined to tear them from their trunk. The browned fronds know they cannot survive the gale; still they cling desperately to what little remains of their string of fate.  



He meets his father coming out of Saint John’s Health Center. 

They speak to each other in the cafeteria, sitting across diagonally.

“I’ve been looking for you,” his father says.

He doesn’t want to know why. He looks around at the vacant halls of white death and he knows why.

 “I’m dying,” his father says, and he simply shakes his head.

“No.” No, because he has been dying, and being able to deliver the news to his father was the one twisted rope he’s been burning his hands by hanging on to.

“Why were you looking for me?” his father asks.

Why now is the unspoken refrain. Instead, he fixates on the first word of that question. Why indeed. Why would the spawn of your DNA cleave to you like residual cake crumbs? Why would the boy who shares half your likeness beat his fists against the world to find you?  

“Because,” he starts, and then a bout of coughing ambushes him. He grabs the corner of the table to keep himself from folding over. Against his chest, a battering ram sings, and he pushes his palms against his ribs as they creak and cry.

A hand lands gently on his shoulder. The hand of his father. It is a strange shape that does not fit right.

“You’re not well,” his father says. “What’s wrong?”

He sits up, pushing the hand off. It is far too late to be kind. “Because,” he continues, letting the blood dribble from his lips down to his chin, “I wanted to have someone to leave behind.”

The macaroni salad remains untouched on the plastic tray. He leaves before his father even opens the berry yogurt cup.

 He goes back to his apartment and puts the gun from his bedside table into his backpack.

 That night the nurse lets him in past visiting hours because his father is scheduled to go in for surgery the following morning. “He has a good chance of surviving this,” she tells him, pink sleeves rustling noisily as she leads him down the hall. “The doctor caught this tumor in time. It could save his life.”

“I hope so,” he says and means it. Survival is the only sentence fit for someone like his father.

He sits on the chair beside his father’s bed until the old man stirs.

“You’re here,” he whispers, raspy, surprised, grateful.

“I am.” He releases the photograph from his grip, and it lands on the edge of the blanket. A few grams that sink down like a ton. There are more miles on that small piece of glossy paper than in his entire lifetime.  

He moves his hand into the backpack and holds his father’s gaze. “I was three years, three months, and twelve days old when you left me. I am now thirty-three years, six months, and twenty days old.” His finger caresses the lump nestled there before he pulls it out, the silver teeth of the pistol winking in the moonlight. He presses the muzzle to his own forehead. “I won’t let you abandon me twice.”

A spasm of terror from the old man fills his final vision, enough to make him smile as he pulls the trigger. 

Elena Sichrovsky is an Austrian-Tawainese writer living in Shanghai, China. She's a student there at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science and also a member of The Shanghai Writing Workshop. Through her work she seeks to find the beauty in the terrifying and the terror in the beautiful. You can follow her on Instagram @elenitasich or Twitter @thesoundbtween.