Showing posts with label jeff esterholm. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jeff esterholm. Show all posts

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, November 11, 2019

Boomer in the Sky with Toxics, fiction by Jeff Esterholm

The dog sat in the doorway watching Boomer work in the darkened bathroom. Rummaging in the medicine cabinet, penlight held between his teeth, searching out Andrew’s meds, he turned and glanced at the dog, ran the light over him, a Shih Tzu-dachsy mix with a pronounced underbite. A hairy meatloaf. They fed him too much, couldn’t help themselves. The light hit the dog’s eyes, the one good one, the other sheathed in a milky cataract, and his tail drummed the floor.

Boomer took the penlight from his mouth, whispered, “Go away,” then turned back to the cabinet with its regimented orange plastic containers. A pharmaceutical wonderland, the majority in his nephew Andrew’s name, the rest belonging to Don and Joan, his brother and sister-in-law, pills to treat their late middle age: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, menopause, peeing too often or not enough, and boner pills. “Little brother.” He popped one into his mouth.

But it was Andrew who really had the goods. Boomer couldn’t wipe out the stash, the kid was battling AIDS, just a taste from each prescription, shake a few samples out into the plastic sandwich bags stuffed into the pockets of his field jacket. He counted out the caplets, the tabs, the gel caps, and, taking some, wondered what the horse pills would do.

At the distant rumble of the garage door, the dog waddled off with its welcome home bark and, in a rush now, Boomer made a mess of his drug dispensing, tablets ricochet-ticking in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a complete botch, he had time to pop a few more pills into his mouth, shove the baggies deeper into his jacket pockets, and glide off, agile for fifty-nine, the wet tracks he made coming in on the carpeted hallway encountered on the way out, down the stairs, past the Christmas tree and the presents that Don, Joan, and Andrew would be opening soon, now that they were home, and quietly, so quietly, Boomer slipped out the front door, the kitchen light popping on behind him, out into the cold and starry O Holy Night, willing himself to feel whatever he had ingested, Boomer in the sky with toxics.

Boomer, one hundred twenty pounds and dropping, had arrived in Port Nicollet just after midnight on the twenty-fifth of December. The bus beat its scheduled arrival time, so his son, Gary, wasn’t at the depot to pick him up as planned. Boomer didn’t see Saint Nick streaking across the sky either, although Keith Richards’ cover of “Run Rudolph Run” rocked through his aural memory. Gary had wired him the money for the bus trip up from Tennessee, where South Shore Grain, Boomer’s employer, had sent him for rehab. No one seemed to understand that he and rehab, although nodding acquaintances, had never shook hands and agreed on anything like the efficacy of treatment. He had stopped the smack, but that had been on his own. Shit was unheard of in Port Nick in the sixties. Things had changed.

Boomer drove Tom Dean’s ’41 Ford pickup truck along the snow-packed streets of Port Nick, away from Don and Joan’s house. He and Tommy D, passing a doobie back and forth over the engine, had overhauled the truck back in the eighties. They took it when they went fishing in the Hayward Lakes area. Good times. Now, his wife in mind, he had an erection—the damn boner pill. His wife. Were they still married? They wed twenty-eight years ago. Beautiful Mama was what he called Diana. She’d laugh and call him Wasted Daddy. The laughter ended, long gone, he understood that. He couldn’t show his face now, especially not with all the blood in his body concentrated in his groin. It would wear off like everything else.

He squatted at Tommy D’s place in the Lakeshore neighborhood of Port Nicollet, not that Tommy D knew he was staying there. Boomer knew the ins-and-outs of Port Nick. Tommy D and his second family were Christmassing in Florida, far away from the south shore of Lake Superior. He guessed his old partner in crime wouldn’t mind. Boomer had to land somewhere, temporarily, or at least feel like he could. He was hurtling toward the end of the year. There was that humming in his head over the past several days, an ache and a wave of sound building like the last chord of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” He couldn’t stand still, waiting out the crescendo, the peak and crash, so his plan was to keep on moving through the last week of December, either on foot or by using Dean’s collector-plated pickup. And, of course, sleep sparingly at the Lakeshore house. That was his plan.

He woke up in a guestroom, not cool to occupy the master bedroom. It took a few heart-racing minutes to register that he was in the guestroom of somebody’s home and not in a room at the treatment center. Tommy D’s. That’s right. Still, in bed, without moving a muscle, his body did wind sprints. He hyperventilated. Slow down. Slow down. There. He rolled his head in the direction of the bedside alarm clock and its red digits. Late afternoon of his first—second? third?—full day back in town. It was dark outside.

Boomer phoned Gary from Tommy D’s basement rec room. The green felt surface of the pool table, the sound system’s speakers pockmarking the ceiling, an eye-swallowing flat screen television, DVDs, compact discs, record albums. He called his son, who, with caller ID, immediately asked, “Tom?”

“No, this is Dad.”

Boomer noted the unspoken letdown.

“Where’d you take off to the other night? That morning? Greta and I went to pick you up. You know what we saw? We saw the bus leaving for Duluth. Taillights heading west and the other passengers standing around, waiting for their rides, but not you. Did Tom pick you up?”


“Merry Christmas. That story’s BS. I know the Deans left town for the holidays. Tell me you didn’t break in.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too. No, I did not ‘break in.’ What the hell. Tom gave me a key.”

“Before you went to Tennessee for treatment? Dad?”

Boomer didn’t respond.

“I’m going to come over and pick you up. You can bunk here. Greta’s gone to her folks’ place in the Cities till New Year’s Eve.”

“No, you don’t have to do that. I was going to go over to my father’s.”

“Grandpa’s pretty bad now. Worse, I should say. Mom irritates the hell out of him every time she stops in. She’s just trying to help. Me he doesn’t even recognize anymore. I tell him I’m Michael’s son. He remembers Michael.” Michael. Boomer pre-1968.

“Well, that’s why I wanted to get back to Port Nicollet. Thanks for the scratch, by the way. He’s the reason I wanted to get back. Take care of my father.”

His son’s biting laugh. “Dad, you can’t even take care of yourself.”


Earlier in the year, the docs diagnosed the old man with senile dementia. Boomer couldn’t expect his kid brother and sister-in-law to be the caretakers, not with Andrew as sick as he was. Boomer drove over to his childhood home, the edge dulled by some weed of Tommy D’s that he came across in a tea tin, a tumbler of Jack, and a pastel collection of Andrew’s pills.

Someone had cleared the sidewalk, the shovel standing in a snow bank near the house. Boomer tried the front door. Locked. He could have predicted as much. The sky was clear and there was no wind, the temperature well below zero. His eyes watered, turning the Christmas lights of the neighborhood into a colorful scattering of bijouterie.

The old man shot off the tracks after Boomer’s mother stroked out and died. All within a year. A quiet death in their bed on a Sunday morning. Boomer had dropped by that weekend after Thanksgiving, expecting to help her put up the light-festooned reindeer in the front yard. An ambulance beat him to the house.

He was about to leave after pounding on the door one last time, thinking maybe the old man was over at Uncle Ray’s, but, glancing around the back, he saw the Pontiac. Boomer knocked again and jumped when he noticed the white-haired old man peering out through the sidelight.

How many days had he been in Tennessee? How many weeks? Looking at his father, he could have been in out-of-state treatment for years.


“Hi, Dad.” His father studied his face. “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”



Once inside, his father looked at him with a dreaming eye and said, “Well, my gosh. Michael. You’re Michael. You’re my son.”

Boomer excused himself to use the bathroom. He took a slow, stuttering whiz and then ran the tap while he went through the medicine cabinet. Pills for his father’s dementia? He had them, a lot of them, and he obviously wasn’t taking them. Boomer swept the pill bottles up and deposited them into his jacket pocket.

He buzzed. The old man maundered, confused grievances, some final sense that his mind was no longer what it had been. “I went to Old Town and, did you know, some ruthless bastards tore down my mother’s house. Tore it the hell down. It’s a vacant lot and the city has been using it to dump snow from its street cleaning operation. I stopped in at Solberg’s across the street and he had the balls to tell me the house came down years ago. I’m going to talk to a lawyer about it. This will not stand.”

Boomer was lightheaded. This will not stand. His apolitical father quoting the first George Bush?

His father told him to come and look, he had something to show him in the spare bedroom. Boomer blinked and he was in that bedroom’s open doorway. There were framed photographs laid out on the bed: his father with his brothers, Gus and Ray, kids of the Depression, posing in their Port Nicollet Old Town backyard, Uncle Gus’ high school graduation portrait, Uncle Gus receiving a ribbon or a medal from General Mark Clark, all the brothers and sisters in Uncle Ray’s living room for a group picture, must have been taken in the seventies. There were others, all with Uncle Gus as the focus. The folded flag in its presentation frame. An Ike jacket from the Korean War.

“It’s in honor of my twin. Gus. He died, you know.” Yes, Boomer knew. Uncle Gus had kicked it three years ago.

He left his father’s house and sat in the pickup, in some zone, shivering. The key was in the ignition, the heat was on full, the snow, white feathers really, had begun to fall. The payoff, sitting, waiting, was when the old man left the house. And Boomer followed as he drove off in the Pontiac.

His father drove slowly and Boomer got the impression, maybe mistaken, maybe not, that the old man was wary of the snow banked on either side of the Port Nicollet streets, mounded high at the corners, that the snow banks were encroaching on him. The thought made Boomer cautious.

North of downtown, his father pulled into the parking lot of the abandoned railroad depot and Boomer parked on the street, watching as the Pontiac slowly circled the low building. After the sixth or seventh circuit, Boomer pulled in and blocked the old man’s progress. He walked up to the driver’s side of the Pontiac, the car’s high beams flashing, the horn blaring.

“Dad,” he tapped on the window and his father rolled it down.

“Move your damn pickup!”

“Dad. It’s me. Michael. What are you doing? What are you looking for?” The cold, the stolen drugs, the thieved liquor in his veins, he just wanted to curl up, maybe on one of those high snow banks, curl up and fall asleep. But he couldn’t. He was hurtling, the chord had yet to peak, but when it did. A day in the life.

“There used to be a convenience store here.”

Boomer glanced over his shoulder at the Port Nicollet depot sign that remained at the roofline, the depot windows boarded up in the last five years, No Trespassing signs posted. “No more. They moved. What did you want to pick up?”

The old man didn’t have to think over his response. “One of those frozen beef-and-bean burritos I can throw in the microwave.”

I want to curl up, Dad. “I can pick that up for you. Why don’t you follow me back to the house and then I’ll run over to Junior’s Market and pick up a couple of those for you?”

His father thought this over, this old man who used to reach into the backseat for a blind swipe when young Boomer gave him lip. When he found the pot in Boomer’s bedroom, making him box, box as if they were Ali and Frazier, going a few rounds in the narrow kitchen. His mom’s yelling and crying. His father thought over Boomer’s offer, his eyes blinked. Boomer wondered, Who are you? Then his father, the stranger, said, “Okay.”

Okay. “Cool. Wait, say. See. I’ve already”—he dug in his jacket pocket—“I’ve already picked your prescription up for you, too. Let’s see. It says, take two with a meal.”


“Yeah. So take these with you. Follow me back to the house. I’ll get you your burrito. Beef and bean with green chili, right?”



A few days later, a nighttime drive in late December. Diana. Beautiful Mama. She’d kicked him to the curb, moved herself out to an apartment on Larch Avenue, close to downtown, closer to the main drag. Boomer drifted by the brick fourplex in the pickup. Drifted by like a love-wracked sixteen-year-old. How could it be that the love of a woman and a son were not enough? He had given Diana a number of excuses and once thought to add, but did not, “I guess I must not care.” That would have been a lie, used only to encourage her to give up on him, finally. Which, of course, she did.

He drifted by, a full moon in December, and with the last pass scraped the sides of twelve snow-covered cars parked along Larch Avenue.


It may have been New Year’s Eve when he came to, cramped and cold, on the floor of a camper trailer. Fingers and toes numb, he tried to place where he was and forced himself to his feet. Looking out the small window, he saw that it was Don’s backyard. He was in his kid brother’s winterized cracker box trailer.

And there was Don, Joan tagging along behind, charging out of the house, through the snow, headed for the trailer and Boomer.

The kid got in some good licks, the flailed Boomer pinballing around in the confined space, Don accusing him, in between the thrown punches and kicks, of trying to kill Andrew by stealing his medication. When she finally thought the beating had gone on long enough, Joan broke it up. “I’ll call Gary to come and pick him up.”

His son, seeing the results, turned red, turned to go into the house, but Boomer, sitting at the trailer’s small dinette table, balled scraps of toilet paper packed up his nose, ice cubes in a dish towel held to the back of his head, said no. And when Gary mentioned the Emergency Room, he shook his head to that, too.

Gary took him back to his apartment and bathed him, soaking away the crusted blood with a sponge, the bathwater a dirty pink by the time he finished and lifted his father from the tub. Boomer could feel it, Gary averting his eyes, avoiding the weightless, brittle wreck that he had become.

Dressed in sweats, more like swaddling clothes, Boomer found himself settled back on a sofa with pillows and blankets. Gary sat nearby on a rocking chair. A Pat Metheny CD was playing, but the hum inside Boomer’s head had accelerated and would not let up.

The CD ended. His son ejected the disc from the player and snapped it back into the jewel case. Gary handed it to his father. Boomer looked at the guitarist on the cover, the words on the back. Gary took his Ibanez from its case, spent a few minutes tuning the guitar, so relaxed, so attentive to detail, less like his father, more like his mother, and then he began to play “Blackbird,” a song that Boomer first heard as a sixteen-year-old, stoned for the first time at a party up the south shore in neighboring Superior, at the Broadway Apartments, winter of 1968. Now, forty-three years later, he recalled looking at that blank white album sleeve, comparing it to the vibrancy of Sergeant Pepper, and saying, in what he considered a Brit accent, “Bummer,” that came out Boomer, which ended up his lifelong nickname.

His son sang the song and played his guitar. Boomer shut his eyes.

“Have I made it to another year?” he asked, his eyes still closed, tired, the fevered hum building to the last chord.

Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder, Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama, as well as Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Regarding Arts & Letters, and Wisconsin People & Ideas, formerly Wisconsin Academy Review. The Council for Wisconsin Writers and Wisconsin People & Ideas have recognized his work in years past. He and his wife live in Superior, Wisconsin.