At the Head of the Lakes

The night, with its streetlights and traffic lights, the tavern neon and bar signs advertising Northern Premium Beer and other vanished brews, was kinder to downtown Superior than daylight. Morning featured a taint throughout the city: a paucity of trees other than winter-hardy conifers; low, empty storefronts with FOR LEASE signs in dusty display windows; a downtown stricken more than thirty years before by the building of a mall that never seemed to take root; the booming commerce of ninety-seven bars in a community of approximately twenty-six thousand-odd denizens. There was the constant coin toss. Heads, it will be wet and cold, or tails, it will be dry and cold under a heavy slate gray sky. When the coin stood stock-still on its grooved rim, it could mean the hard times would get worse. It was as if the city, in its distant past promoted by developers as the next Chicago, had slipped its moorings and drifted now, minus captain and crew, on the waters of Lake Superior. Nights were kinder.

After a week in May of wind and rain off the still ice-covered Lake Superior, what Steven Piper with his graphic artist’s eye called The Week of Black Umbrellas, the storm tailed off to the west, across St. Louis Bay, and up and over the hills of Superior’s neighbor, Duluth. Spring, however brief it might end up being, had arrived on a southerly breeze, the sidewalks and streets wet and steaming with humidity. Piper cracked open the windows of his apartment and graphic arts studio situated above Broadway and Hammond and breathed deeply of the tardy season. He was thirsty and it was time to get out.

A freelancer, Piper preferred the dismal weather – the rain, the snow, the cold – that funneled into the head of the Great Lakes because it kept him indoors, focused and at the work he contracted for with agencies and publishers in Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago, as well as that brought in by his recent expansion beyond the Third Coast. When the weather moderated and the day-glo green buds exploded in the rare deciduous tree, when there was no cold blow off the lake, he was ready to abandon his PC and Wacom Intuos4 tablet in the studio, he was ready to seek out his version of rejuvenation in the taprooms and dives of Superior.

He slipped on a pair of old paint-splotched Florsheim loafers, an affectation because he did not paint at all, and headed out that afternoon, waving at Ed Diaz as he passed through the building’s lobby, the baker standing in the doorway of his shop. Diaz rolled his eyes. “Uh-oh, lock up the good booze.”

Piper juggled his keys, flipped them over his shoulder, danced back to catch them.

Ed shook his head and laughed. “Get out of here, ojete.”

Piper’s eyes twinkled with a shine like any other insincere boozer’s, but what could Diaz do? He followed Piper to the arched entry of the Romanesque building. “Say, man, you want me to pick you up somewhere later and bring you back to your place?” The baker was like a spinster aunt. “Leave me your keys, then you won’t be driving around hurting yourself or anybody else. What do you say, just walk yourself downtown?”

Piper couldn’t help toying with Diaz. He’d recognized that the old queen had an unreserved horn for him the day he moved into the building. The attraction was unrequited, but useful when Piper was short on cash. He flashed the older man his bad boy pout. “If you wake up at four and figure I’m not back at my place, you know where to find my spare. I’ll park the car down by the BN yards.” Piper laughed.

Diaz nodded, his cheeks and forehead torched with blush. He grumbled ojete one last time. He just wanted to take care of Piper, watch over him.

Piper drove his decades old Datsun, a faded butterscotch shoebox with a cassette player and nonfunctional AM/FM radio, six blocks to an unpaved, toxic lot along the rail yard west of Tower Avenue and sat there with his windows rolled down. Even this dumping ground smelled of spring, he thought. His thirst quickening, he left the Datsun and began to walk south on the avenue’s battered, weed-fringed sidewalk.

The Basement was Piper’s tavern of choice, but that didn’t stop him from turning in at a quiet topless joint, the small stage with its brass pole dark in the afternoon. He had a quick shot with Schmitty the bartender, who ended her own exotic dancing career over seventeen years earlier at the Three Star Lanes. Bowling and boobs. Piper befriended her at the Three Star when he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Next up was the Party on the Point Night Club, formerly an upscale men’s clothing store, where Cheek impatiently waited for that night’s band from Cloquet to show and set up. They had a double together and Piper encouraged him to lighten up, it was still early.

He stopped at each bar on the west side of Tower Avenue, pounding back drink after drink, greeting his familiars after the long working hibernation in the studio. Before he reached The Basement’s front door he was slipping into that recognizable and, to him, pleasant brownout state.

The Basement wasn’t in a basement, no steps in or out or anywhere else on the premises because of liability issues. The tavern was owned and tended by Hoover, a former English major who presided over the bar like a bookseller, attracting local academics, English professors and lecturers, the university theatre crowd for a little drama and added comedy, and Art Department folk.

The woman Piper saw at the bar couldn’t be categorized as one of the regulars. She was in her forties and elfin and could have easily passed for thirty-five years, Piper’s age, or younger. And she was sitting on the barstool next to his customary perch. He nodded and, as he sat down, said, “Good evening.”

Piper ordered a double. The woman looked at him, once, twice, three times, as he ordered another. He turned and smiled. “Excuse me, am I invading your personal space?”

She ignored him and nursed her pint of India Pale Ale. “You should really try this microbrew, it’s, h’m, let’s see if they have it here. Hoover,” he called, “Do you carry something called Hellcat IPA?”

Hoover ignored him, having recent experience with the woman. She did, however, respond to Piper. “I can believe you’ve had plenty of experience with hellcats.” Her voice was so gravel-bound Piper supposed she copped her first butt from her mother’s ashtray the day she learned to walk. He heard a blend of Lauren Bacall, Suzanne Pleshette, and Brenda Vaccaro and in his bemusement thought the voice sexy rather than snappish and he was charmed. He bought the next round, believing he was on the way to charming her back.

There had been clear skips in the record. He noticed these like bits of side conversation, a word or two that would prick up his ears. Then the brownout shutter would come down again. For how long? He couldn’t have said. For all he knew, it was happening outside of himself rather than in his own head.

She must have introduced herself at some point and he must have introduced himself as well. She knew his name and he liked how her rough voice said, “Piper.” Not Steven. Piper. And then she would laugh and he would join her. But then, the blank again.

They had moved to a table, who knew when, the woman and Piper. She was going through a divorce. If he had been sober he would have excused himself and disappeared out The Basement’s backdoor, into the alley, to his car in the parking lot. If he had parked nearby. He knew he hadn’t parked nearby. So why would he slide his keys across the table to her. What was her name? She knew he was Piper. He slid the Datsun’s keys across the table. She laughed, a high, crystalline laugh for someone with such a low, smoky voice. She laughed, smoke and glass, and he was gone again.

The woman was crying. The last time he’d seen her she’d been laughing. What was with the sadness? Then, back to the brownout.

She was into a story, the story of how her husband broke it to her. Her husband invited her to go for a ride. He had something to show her. She went willingly. Their marriage had been rocky for a year or two, but in the last few weeks they had come to an unspoken, she assumed, understanding, some temporary armistice – no more yelling, no more tears from her or their two teenage daughters. There was a calm, she said, no more arguments over inane bullshit. She went along for the ride. “I was like a dog, a pet dog, you know. Happy to go for a ride with the master.”

“We drove south out of Superior on old 35, through South Superior, past Greenwood Cemetery, beyond Pattison State Park. The windows were rolled down. The radio was tuned to a rock and roll station in Duluth. If I could have captured that moment, it would have been the best our marriage had been in years.”

South of the state park her husband had taken a right. A quarter mile into the woods.

Piper’s reception fluttered and faded. Then back again.

“There was this small cabin-like place, cheaply built and ugly with faded purple siding. The ground was covered with pine needles. He parked and we both just stared out the windshield at this cabin. It didn’t look like anyone had lived there in years, you know. Probably full of mice.”

She had glanced at her husband and was surprised to see him looking at her. “What?” she asked.

“I’ve signed a six-month lease and I move in this week, Jill.” Piper caught that. Her name had to be Jill. “I have to get my head together. I can do it out here.”

“Then,” she told Piper, “I really felt like the pet dog taken for a ride. I was the happy pet dog that didn’t have a clue she was being taken to the vet’s to be put down.”

Jill. That was her name, he remembered that.

Jill was yelling at him, her voice a lamp switched on, brightening the dark corners of his consciousness. “I can’t believe you just asked me that.” What? “I tell you the horrible end to my sucky marriage and you essentially – essentially, right? – basically, basically ask if I want to get laid. I can’t believe that.” He still liked her voice.

The last time he saw her – Jill, he knew the name from her long end-of-marriage story – the last time he saw Jill in The Basement she was back on the stool at the bar. Where he had first seen her.

Piper began walking home on Tower Avenue, heading north. The wind was off the lake. Who cared when that happened. You lived in Superior, you expected the wind to shift and penetrate your core. His brownouts occurred a block at a time, in between the streetlights on each corner. At one point he thought he saw Jill walking ahead of him, under another streetlight and alone. He peeled away, down Eleventh Street. He didn’t want her to think that he was following her.

Sunday afternoon and each window in his apartment was an erasure smudged page. “It’s a metaphor for graphic artist’s block,” he once quipped, though typically it signified the onset of a creative burst. This Sunday afternoon there was nothing more than the series of blank pages.

His sinuses were clogged. Piper could never seem to blow his nose enough after a night out. No hangovers, only the sleeping in and the stuffed nose. He rolled upright at the edge of his bed and reached for something, a tissue, a used handkerchief, a sock. Anything would do at this point. He was still dressed, but was pleased to see that at least he had taken off his loafers.

He decided to shower before going down to Ed Diaz’s bakery for coffee and a couple of Ed’s heavy cake doughnuts. As the hot spray from the shower head exfoliated his face and ran down his body, the previous evening came back, though difficult to read, like an unsuccessful print job. The Basement. The woman named Jill. Had he given her his car keys? He would have to check his pockets.

There was the walk home, what he remembered of it. She had been up ahead of him, her cute hind end. Others had been out on the street, out past closing time. Had he driven out to the Point, the sandy strip of land abutting the lake? Not in the state he’d been in. No. But why did he recall headlights passing under the trees? The tree limbs that overhung a stretch of Wisconsin Point Road?

Toweling himself off, he went and checked the pockets of the pants he had worn the night before. A mix of spare change and crumpled bills, but no keys. “Damn.” That settled it. After the doughnut brunch at Diaz’s bakery he would go back downtown and start tracking down the woman named Jill. “What the hell’d I give her my keys for?” At least she wouldn’t have known where to find the Datsun. Unless he had drawn her a map.

Piper dressed, slipped on his Florsheims, and immediately felt grit in both shoes. He took the loafers off and turned one over, then the other. Sand poured out from both.

Diaz’s bakery attracted the neighborhood’s artsy, beat element and college students, as well as older folks making a Sunday muffin run, something to breakfast on and share with the dog while reading the newspaper. When Piper walked in most of the tables were taken over by students with MacBooks and laptops, not one of them talking, just tapping the keys of their machines and focusing on the monitors. Diaz, waiting on a customer, nodded at him. He took a table by a window looking out on Hammond Avenue and a convenience store.

Diaz left his niece Luz to work the counter and brought Piper his usual. “Afternoon, man.” Outside, the sky had turned a uniform gray and a wind out of the north blew a sheet of newsprint down the avenue. “Things back to normal, eh,” the baker said, shaking his head.

“Meaning?”

“The weather. You know, man. It’s Superior.”

Piper sipped the coffee, dunked his doughnut, took a bite and glanced around. “Do you know if my car’s in the lot today?”

Diaz looked back at Luz wiping down the glass counter. Two tables had emptied, the keying chirr diminished, notebooks snapped shut. His fingertips toyed with the porcelain container of sugar, Sweet’N Low, and Splenda packets. “Sure. Any reason it shouldn’t be?”

Relieved, Piper nodded his head. “Well, yes. I thought I gave my car keys to a woman I met last night at The Basement. I’d been thinking to myself that I’d slid them across the table to her.” He rolled his eyes. “The latest edition of Piper’s Toasted Times.”

Ed shifted his chair back and away from the table. “Say, Luz, why don’t you take off.”

“I still have some clean up to do in the back, Uncle Ed.”

“That’s okay. I’ll take care of it.”

“If you’re sure,” she said, as he walked her to the door.

“Come on. You folks, too,” he said to the last full table. Piper moved to leave, but Diaz waved for him to stay.

After locking the bakery door, he came back and sat across from Piper. It began raining, the nickel- and dime-size drops smacking against the nearest windows. “Listen, you did give her your car keys.”

Piper slumped back. “Aw.”

“It was getting late and I called up to your place. There was no answer, so I headed out looking for your loopy ass. I found this little woman in the BN lot, screwing with your car door in the dark. She must’ve thought that I was going to assault her. She pulled out a, I don’t know, a knife, I thought. We got into it, man, and I hit her. I’ve never hit a woman in my life. But I thought she was jacking your car, and she came at me with a knife. When I hit her, I hit her hard.

“She went down. Your keys went flying. The knife – that was really pepper spray.”

Piper leaned forward and shook his head.

“I thought I’d just knocked her out. But it was worse. She was dead.

“I put her in the trunk. Then I found you – finally – wandering a couple blocks away. We took the body out to the Point, to the Superior Entry.” Diaz’s voice took on a more spirited tone. “Someone had to watch out for the Holy Artist, man. You need a bodyguard, a guard from yourself on days like yesterday.”

“What did you do at the ship entry, Ed?”

“Get this, there was a map drawn onto a bar napkin showing her where the car was. You draw pretty well even when you’re totally wasted, man.”

“The entry, Ed. What happened out there?”

“I tossed her body in, man. Into the lake.” A smile flared across his face. “I did it for you.”

***

Bio: Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, as well as Two Hawks Quarterly, The Dirty Napkin, 34thParallel, Wisconsin Academy Review, Acorn Whistle, Nerve Cowboy, Thema and Planet Detroit.

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