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Two Angry Men - One Angry Woman

A Jessica Thorpe Novel

By William Wresch

Copyright 2018 William Wresch

Smashwords Edition

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Chapter 1

Early Arrivals

They both arrived early. We get a few of such men every year, but usually not until the second or third week of January. Over the years I have gotten a general sense for the process. It may have been building for some time, but Christmas sees a peak. Maybe it was a shouting match; maybe it involved punches. Usually it is the wife or girlfriend on the other end. Sometimes it is one of the kids. Maybe the cops get involved, but usually not. Things quiet for a few days while everyone sobers up, and maybe New Year’s Eve even involves a few laughs. Then there is New Year’s Day with all the football games and drunks lying semi-comatose in front of the TV.

But the anger is still there. Maybe it happens at work and HR gets involved. Another woman to yell at. Another call to security. Maybe he goes back to the shop floor with everyone keeping their distance. Maybe he takes his tools and heads out to the parking lot. Hours pass. Days pass. At some point he packs a bag and heads north on 41. We get him up here in the middle of nowhere.

Why? He remembers us from deer season. Maybe it was this year, maybe it was half a dozen years ago, but he remembers nine days of men and beer and being outdoors. From the Friday before Thanksgiving til the Sunday after, he was with friends, he had a rifle, he had long periods of quiet when he sat in a tree stand or lay behind a blind, or walked with others in a line across a field, driving deer toward others with guns.

When there was noise, it was loud. Shouts as men played cards and drank beer. Shouts across a barroom as men told bad jokes and drank beer. Shouts in the woods as men pulled their kill across the ground to waiting cars and trucks. Loud men, lots of beer, lots of space. At least that’s how they remembered it.

So now with their world coming apart, they talked to the brother or cousin or friend who had a cabin in the woods, got the keys, and drove north, back to the cabin they remembered, back to the woods, back to this little town they recalled from deer season.

But January isn’t November in northern Wisconsin. It is far colder, the sun sets far earlier, and that cabin is far emptier. They spend a day setting up basic living conditions: a little food for the twenty year old fridge, lots of blankets for the camp beds, wood for the fire and propane for the furnace, and case after case of Budweiser.

A day goes by, maybe three. They’ve got their quiet, and their space, and their beer. But it’s dark at four thirty, the TV reception is terrible and football season is mostly over anyway. Somewhere through the second or third case of beer they remember there was a bar in town. It was loud. Men shouted at each and told jokes and shot pool for beers. And it was warmer there than in the cabin.

So that’s when we see them. The second or third week of January. They sit at the bar. Plenty of stools. They order a beer. If they’re from Chicago they make me keep count and they pay at the end. If they’re from Milwaukee they put a ten on the bar and let me take what I need. They’ll have me make a pizza in the toaster oven we have on the back counter. Maybe they’ll have a shot or two – whiskey if they are from Chicago, brandy if they are from Milwaukee. But mostly they drink beer – whatever is on tap.

At some point they will hit on me. It’s pretty pathetic. It’s like they think they have to, but they can barely remember the moves. I can end it easily enough. I just stand and look at them. Eye to eye. Do you really want me? They can maintain eye contact for a second or two, and then they shrink back into themselves. The beer gets real interesting, or the TV. They get smaller in some way. Their posture slips, their chest shrinks. I think if I stood staring any longer they would break down completely. But I turn away and find a part of the bar that needs wiping, or a customer who needs a refill. And that ends that. They never try a second time, no matter how many beers they have had.

I will see them again two or three times a week. Beer, pizza, brandy. This goes on for a month, maybe two. By March they are gone. The cabin was too cold, too empty, the woods too gray, too empty. The bar too quiet, too empty. They wanted time to be alone. They got it. By March they are back on 41 headed south. Back to some job, back to some arrangement with whatever family or friends they have left. Maybe they are less angry. Maybe they are somewhat chastened. Maybe. All I know is they never come back for another January in the woods.

That was the pattern I knew from eight years behind the bar. Then the pattern was broken. Two men came early.

The first – Zeke – came January second. Nobody comes up that early. It takes longer than that just to shake off the hangover, much less pack, find someone with a cabin, get the keys, and get up here. But there he was. Midafternoon. Looking for a beer.

I was mostly cleaning, sometimes pouring another glass of white wine to my only customers – the Kaminski twins. I would refill their glasses every half hour while they played cribbage and described the various sins of the world as had been explained to them that morning on Fox News. Our comments to each other never went beyond the weather – yes it was cold, going to be colder tomorrow. That was our truce conversation after twenty years of nastiness, me being trailer trash and them being old maids. They never left a tip, they never had more than three glasses of wine, and they left me alone while I cleaned, this day being especially bad since it included three days of serious drunkenness. I used to think men could never hit the toilet. Now I knew women couldn’t either. I mopped, threw in toilet bowl cleaner, and backed out to let it all dry.

That’s when he walked in. My first reaction? I almost called 911. Part of it was size. He was well over six feet and probably went two fifty. And he had this look. He didn’t have a beard or mustache or any of that biker stuff, in fact his hair was short – almost military. But somewhere in the last week he had lost his comb and his razer. But it was his eyes that scared me. He stared. He stared at me, at the Kaminskis, at the bar, even at the cleaning supplies I had left outside the johns. I had the thought of the terminator movie where he is cataloging what he sees, before he shoots it all. I’m looking first at the eyes, then the hands, then the waist to see if he is armed. Is he here to kill us, rob us, rape us? What? I have a sawed-off behind the bar, but it has been sitting there so long I expect the hammers are rusted in place. But I start sliding in that direction.

Then he sits down. “Beer please.” And he puts a ten on the bar. Okay, he is from Milwaukee, and maybe he won’t kill us. I get a glass and put it under the tap. We have two – Miller Lite and Budweiser. I’m thinking lite beer might get my throat ripped out. I get him a twelve ounce glass of Bud, and try to keep my hands steady enough to not spill it all over the bar. I put it in front of him and dare to look directly at him while I take his ten. He looks back, but he is not looking at me, he is looking through me. It almost hurts, like he is pushing two lasers through me. I turn to go back to my register and glance in the bar mirror. Is he pulling out a gun? No. He drinks the beer straight down and stands. I come back with his nine in change. He puts a single on the bar, says “thanks,” and is gone.

I put both hands on the bar to steady myself, focus on my breathing, and wonder, what the hell was that? For the first few minutes I wonder if he will charge back in, gun blazing. But I see an F150 drive north out of town, and I know he is gone.

“Was that Rachel’s boy?” Elsie asks. Rachel who? is my first thought.

“No, Rachel had girls.” Mona replies. That got them started about all the Rachels that once lived here and who they married and where they moved to, when they, like everyone else with any sense moved away. They kept it up while they finished their cribbage game and their wine. Then they were out the door. No tip, of course.

I waited until they were gone, and then I got out the shotgun. The lever worked smoothly so I broke it open to see if it was still loaded. Yes, both barrels. Twelve gauge buck shot. It would do a lot of damage if fired. And the hammers? I didn’t pull them back, but I did check for rust. It might be dusty from sitting behind the bar, but it looked like everything still worked. I put it back and slid a bar towel over it.

Eight years I have worked here. Clark showed me where the gun was my first day on the job. We had taken it out, looked at it, checked it, and then put it back. I hadn’t touched it since. That day I did.

Zeke was back two days later. That’s when I found out his name was “Zeke.” Not that we had an extended conversation. It was like, “Hi, I’m Jessica.” “I’m Zeke.” This time he came in later in the afternoon, put a twenty on the bar, and had a pizza along with several beers. Up here you can usually get a conversation going if you mention the Packers, and I asked him if he had seen the last game. “No.” So much for that approach. There were several other guys at the bar, all locals having a beer before they went home to wives, kids, and the usual, so I wandered around getting them more beer, talking the usual nonsense about the weather and the price of pulp wood. I would check on Zeke from time to time to see if the pizza had been cooked okay, if he wanted another beer, et cetera, but his only response was “It’s fine.” Over the course of the hour he was in the bar, he only spoke two other words: “It’s licensed.” I was looking at the large automatic sitting on his right hip. And that was that.

Was he connected to one of the people in town? One of the Rachels? None of the men at the bar seemed to know him, and the Kaminski twins hadn’t seemed to make any progress on his pedigree. As for Zeke, he had given me his name, and that was all I was going to get for one night. An hour after he walked in, he left me a dollar on the bar, got in his F150, and headed north out of town.

Angry man number two showed up Saturday afternoon. He was easily a week ahead of the norm for these guys, and he was different in one other way – he was slick. This happens once in a while. Some weasel that has borrowed all the cash he can get and sold all the crap the gullible will buy, comes up here, usually with process servers on his tail. These guys are dangerous. They smile while they knife you. I knew before he ordered his first drink he would be asking for credit.

James was his name, “But you can call me Jimmy.” Slick Jimmy was pushing fifty and it had not been an easy push. He was maybe five eleven, but he had to be carrying over two fifty, lots of it hanging over his belt. His face was jowelly, his hair thin, and his eyes never stopped moving. He was monitoring the whole bar. I asked “Jimmy” what he wanted, and of course it was Jim Beam – a double, “neat”, and of course when I brought it to him there was no cash on the bar.

“That will be six fifty,” I said.

“I would like to run a tab.” He smiled, knowing in advance I would agree. Who could disagree with “Jimmy”?

“Sure. Just give me a credit card and I will start the tab.” Oops, I think I see a smile slipping.

“Oh, let’s just keep this on a cash basis.”

“Sure. That will be six fifty.” His eyes never left my face as he reached under his fat ass for his wallet. Did he think I would change my mind? Eventually the wallet came out and he unfolded a twenty. Then he proved he was an absolute sleaze. Rather than reach over the bar to hand me the bill, he kept his hand just inches from his shoulder and made me reach over to get the twenty. As I reached he made a point of staring at every inch of me. Twenty years younger I might have been embarrassed. But two husbands and two kids later, after eight years serving beer to drunk men, I just looked him in the eye and slowly took his money. Talking as quietly as I could, but knowing he could still hear me, I said, “Yes, I’ve got tits, and they’re all mine.”

He acted like he could not hear me. I got his change and moved on to other customers. I assumed that was Jimmy’s last drink. He could no more afford six fifty for a drink than I could. And I was right. He nursed that drink for two hours while he worked the room. It was all handshakes, “Packers are going to the playoffs again, right?” and “Have you ever seen it this cold before? All that global warming nonsense is a complete crock.” He left at ten knowing the name of every man in the place, and no doubt already knowing who he could touch for a “loan.”

And my tip? He left behind a quarter and a note. Written on the edge of a cocktail napkin he had written “I know we will be good friends.” What an ass.

So that was the first week with these two. They were early, which to me meant they had gotten into even more trouble than the usual bunch. One was armed, and one was slick. Both were dangerous. I had no idea just how dangerous.

Chapter 2

A “useta” town

To better understand what happened, it helps to understand this town. For starters, if you get into a conversation with any of the geezers here in town, it only takes two sentences before you get to “useta.” Things like “We useta have the largest hotel north of Milwaukee.” Or “We useta have the largest granite cutting shed in the world.” Give them half an hour, and they will give you a local history that is mostly accurate, all of it describing what “useta” be here.

All of that was before my time. But if you want the short version, the town has basically collapsed three times. The first time was the most dramatic. The town is surrounded by granite outcroppings and there was a time when people used granite in building. So a guy named Bill Amberg came to town, started a quarry west of town, and then built a cutting shed next to the tracks you can see across from this bar. Was it the biggest shed in the world? How would anyone know? Do you see people taking measurements of sheds? But it was big, and it and the quarry attracted hundreds of men in the early 1900s (yes, the town is that old). Moving the blocks required rail lines, so there was also a lot of railroad men in town, so I have no doubt about there being a large hotel for all of them. You also hear stories of monster brawls between the two groups, boys being boys. So that’s the town for a few years. Then some guy invents a new way to build buildings, and granite is no longer important. OK, these things happen, but then the local boys make things worse. They go on strike. Who knows any more what they wanted – money, shorter hours, safer conditions? A hundred years later it hardly matters. Old Bill Amberg watches this go on for a few days and then says, “OK, good bye.” He clears out his office, gets on a train, and goes off to start another business somewhere else. Some claim Canada, some claim California. Who cares? A month goes by and people realize he ain’t coming back, and the business is really closed. Most people just move away (folks from here are good at that), but a few folks decide they have a plan to make the world great again. They hold a vote to rename the town from “Pike” to “Amberg.” Surely with a town named after him, Bill will come back and all will be good. To show you just how pathetic the whole thing is, they pick a day to celebrate the name change and send out an invite to Bill. Surely he will attend. Nope. He never responds to the invite, and they never hear from him again. You would think they would eventually get around to changing the name back to Pike, but they don’t. Don’t ask me why. Eventually the hotel and cutting shed burn down. The quarry is still west of town if you want to see it. Just a hole filled with water now.

The second collapse comes about twenty years later. There was all pine forest around here, so much it took decades to clear. But eventually they had cut it all. So now what? Why not sell the land to farmers. They say the sales pitch began with “If it will grow trees, it will grow corn.” They also say the companies brought farmers up to see the land in the winter when the snow covered all the stumps. That’s probably true. Anyway, during the 1920s lots of farmers moved up here, spent their lives blowing up stumps and planting crops only to find that the land was poor and the growing season was short. They got some crops in, but they were barely hanging on when 1930 rolled along with the Great Depression. That ended farming up here. If you drive around you can see some one room schools that were used by the farmers, but the land was all taken for back taxes. What did the county do with the land? They planted trees. Look at all the county forest as you drive around. Pretty ironic, don’t you think? Families worked themselves half to death to take forest land and make it farm land, and here we are back to trees.

The third collapse is going on now. Paper mills were built in Green Bay and Appleton, and it turns out the jack pines and poplars planted on that old farm land work pretty well for creating paper pulp. So the local boys would turn sixteen or eighteen, buy a chain saw, and cut pulpwood for a living. It’s not an easy living. I went out with my first husband a few times to help trim the wood he cut. If you go in the summer, the mosquitoes are grateful for the feast, and if you go out in the winter, you spend all day tripping over stumps and roots you can’t see under the snow. And of course you still go out in the summer and the winter because you want to eat. But now some of the mills are closing, and even the ones still open are using more recycled paper. Depending on how many beers they have had, some men will blame the Chinese, others will quote the price of paper in Finland and tell you that is the problem. But mostly we know the problem is electrons. All the newspapers up here have closed, as has the local post office. Who uses paper when you can use electrons? Electrons are faster and cheaper – and cool. There are still men out in the woods cutting pulp wood, but probably half as many as there were just ten years ago.

So there you have it – a ”useta” town. We are down to maybe a hundred people in a dozen or so homes, a block-long Main Street -- and that is only occupied on one side. What’s left is this bar, a small restaurant that changes hands every year or two, a tiny grocery store that is mostly just open in the summer and during deer season, and a post office building they closed two years ago. Welcome to Amberg. It useta be more.

What do people do now? Some men still work in the woods. Women mostly work retail or restaurant jobs in Wausaukee. Old people collect social security and visit their doctors. The young either go off to college or join the army. And the young never come back.

None of this excuses what happened that winter. It wasn’t right, and can’t be made right. But in a useta town, sometime people useta have better sense.

Chapter 3

Slick gets it started

“Call me Jimmy” came in every other night the first week, and every night the second week. This is not usual. The norm for these guys is once every three or four days. Maybe it takes that long for them to get themselves under control. Maybe they just get bored. Those cabins are meant for a week or two in November. They aren’t insulated well, and it’s not like they have a lot of stuff in them. So what do these guys do? They drink, they stare at a TV screen full of ghosts, they microwave pizzas for themselves, and go through bag after bag of chips. I have seen these guys load up at the local store. It isn’t pretty. They also take their guns out. You can hear them blasting away at rocks or trees or tin cans. They fire fast, and they fire a lot. I don’t want to think about what images are in their heads as they shoot. But you can hear them out in the woods, and you know they are firing off a lot of ammo. Eventually that stops, not because their mood improves, but because they discover how much refills will cost them. The gun store in Wausaukee is not cheap. And these guys are not rich. Half the time they are up here because they got laid off or fired. Living from unemployment check to unemployment check does not leave a lot for ammo or pizza or beer.

So I was surprised to see Slick so often. I was also unhappy about it. He sat his fat ass on a stool, ordered his six fifty Jim Beam, and stared at me like I was a Christmas present in a store window. I could live with that. You work in a bar you get that all the time. What I couldn’t live with was his smile. It was the smile of a snake. You knew that would be the smile you saw as he tore out your throat with his teeth. It got so as I got ready for work I went through my closet looking for the baggiest sweatshirt I had and the biggest flannel shirt. I didn’t want him looking at me. By the second week I got so I took the sawed off with me out to my car after I closed, just in case he was around. The gun would be no problem with the cops. I went to high school with those boys. If they saw me I knew they would check my load and then promise to cruise by near closing time. But I had a towel around the gun and no one saw me that I am aware of.

Zeke was more normal with his visits – every three days. He ordered a beer, a pizza, and left after an hour. On this third visit we had a conversation – sort of. He still scared the heck out of me, and I really didn’t like that he had a gun on his hip, but I have found that if you start a conversation, sometimes you can head off trouble. And on this third visit I thought I saw trouble. He had ordered beer, but he was just staring at it. He didn’t move a muscle, didn’t say a word. He just stared at his beer. There were a couple regulars in the bar so I didn’t completely lose control, but I was plenty worried. Finally I worked up the courage to walk up to him.

“Is the beer OK?”

He looked up from the beer like he just realized he was not alone in the room.

“Do you know the history of breweries?” What?? I had no idea what to say.

“Do you mean like Coors in the Rockies, and Schlitz and Pabst in Milwaukee?”

“No, Frontenac in Quebec. He created the first brewery in North America in 1670.” He says this staring at his beer again. I’m wondering if he has completely lost it.

“So the French could drink?”

“No, they were already plenty drunk. They had wine and brandy and cognac. He wanted something they could drink that had lower alcohol content so they might still have their wits around them when they walked home in the evening and not fall down and freeze to death.”

“So beer was good.”

“No, beer is bad. But it is less bad than the alternatives. That was Frontenac’s decision.” He says this still staring at his beer. I have no idea what to say. Who the hell is Frontenac? What does any of this have to do with anything? I looked around and decided Eddie needed another beer, and I was off. That was the last conversation we had that night, if you can call it a conversation. Eventually Zeke drank his beer, ate his pizza, left me a one dollar tip, and drove off. To this day I still do not have a clue what he was talking about. I did Google “Frontenac” one day and found out he was a governor up there and there is a hotel named after him. But I saw nothing about him and beer. Of course if you work in a bar, you hear lots of things you can’t find on Google.

It was the next week, the second week of January when Zeke and Slick were first in the bar at the same time. Lots of folks were in. No surprise there, it was colder than a witch’s tit. I don’t have a thermometer at home, but I don’t need one. My tires tell me the temperature. They are old and cheap, and on a cold day they freeze. The part that is on the ground freezes flat, so as I drive in to town the tires go thump, thump, thump as the flat part goes around. This goes on for a quarter mile until the friction from hitting the road warms them up enough to melt and become flexible again. That day I thought they were going to thump all the way into town.

So it was no surprise the bar filled up early. The guys who had been cutting pulp were in by three. Their faces were so red I wondered how they had lasted that long out there. I gave them each a shot of brandy on the house. Slick came in around four and ordered his six fifty Beam. Once again he made me reach from his money, and once again I stared into his eyes, thinking if he says one word I’ll spit in his face. He smiled that sick smile and made sure his fingers brushed mine while I took the bill. What a pig.

About an hour later Zeke walked in. He headed for his usual place at the bar, but then stopped dead in his tracks. He stared at Slick. Slick stared back. I swear I thought they were going to pull out revolvers and start shooting. I am certain I saw Zeke’s hand slide near the gun on his hip. Most of the other guys in the bar were talking to each other and didn’t take much notice at first, but gradually they became aware that something was up. Heads started to turn. And Zeke got bigger. How do men do that? It’s like he inhaled an extra couple gallons of air, and stood three inches taller. If I was scared of him before, I was terrified now. I looked at my sawed off, but didn’t even think of going toward it. We were all going to be long dead before I took my first step.

But then it ended. Zeke took the last couple steps to his stool and sat down, still staring at Slick. I turned to look at Slick and saw that he was suddenly interested in his drink glass. So no stare down. And no shooting. At least not tonight. I went back to breathing, and the loggers went back to talking.

Do I have any idea what that was all about? Not a chance. I wait until my heart rate drops and then ask Zeke if he wants a beer. “Yes please.” But he’s not looking at me when he says it. Where’s he looking? I don’t have a clue. Sort of towards the back bar, but I’m sure he’s not deciding which scotch he wants. He drinks his beer, puts a dollar down for the beer and a dollar down for my tip, and he is gone. He doesn’t come in again for over a week.

Meanwhile, Slick “call me Jimmy” finds his glass of Beam the most fascinating object in the universe until Zeke leaves. Then, thirty seconds after the door closes, he turns to Billy, one of the younger loggers.

“Pretty cold out there today?”

“Too damn cold. Took forever just to get the truck started.” Billy’s about 19. Still has a buzz cut from his time in the Army. He made it about half way through Basic but then his back started acting up. It doesn’t take much time out in the woods before you get injured from one thing or another. You pick up a log and twist the wrong way, or one tree falls onto another and both come flying at you. Billy worked out there maybe a year while he waited for his enlistment to start. It was a year too long. After six weeks in the Army he was back out in the woods. What else was he going to do?

“You making decent money?”

“Hell no.” I don’t know if Billy had picked up profanity during his time in the Army, or if he was just getting started with it now that he saw the future in front of him. He used to date my younger daughter. He smiled more then.

“What’s the problem?”

At this point two other guys from Billy’s crew decide they should educate the strange guy.

“What’s NOT the problem?” Chuck White is the foreman. He’s about forty. He made a try for me once when I was between husbands. The fact that he was newly married at the time didn’t slow him down. And he’s not actually a bad looking guy, not that we have the highest standards up here. He’s got good shoulders on him, and while he is mostly bald, he doesn’t try to hide it with a comb over or any of that nonsense. And I have seen the way girls watch his backside as he walks through a room. Maybe I watch too. At least I used to. The years have not been kind. His work clothes are torn from branches grabbing at them, and he seems more stooped every time I see him. He can still throw out his chest and put really big forearms on the bar when he has a mind to, but there is less and less of that. And I can’t remember the last time he asked me out.

“We’re getting hit from every side.” Chuck continues. He has slid around on his stool and is looking directly at Slick. Chuck does this preacher routine periodically. He decides the world needs to know what he knows. I suppose that’s what bars are for. “The price of pulp wood keeps dropping while the price of gas goes up, all equipment costs more – do you have any idea what a skidder costs? Meanwhile, every land downer thinks they should be getting a bigger stumpage fee.”

“Stumpage fees?” Slick asks.

“I have to pay the landowner for the right to cut his precious trees. For a typical forty it might be hundreds of dollars, more or less depending on the value of the timber I see when I cruise the land. Of course whatever value I put on it, the owner is convinced it is worth more. And maybe it was when his father got it cut thirty years ago, but it ain’t now.”

“When I drive around up here, I see county forest and state forest, and national forest. Not much private land left.”

“There’s still some, but you are right about all the government land. We can cut there, but it is a real pain in the ass. Between all the environmental rules and the bureaucratic paperwork and the bidding process, I rather just leave it all alone.”

“Yeah, that’s government for you.” Slick nods his head. Mister sympathy. Did I see the start of that snake smile? “But it’s public land, and you are the public. Have you thought about just going in and cutting it?”

“That’s a good way to spend the winter in jail.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Google a guy named ‘Bundy’ some time. It might give you some ideas. And I can put you in touch with some people who might be able to help out.” Slick had left his bait out floating in the water. He seemed to know it was too early to yank on the rod. He smiled, waved to me like we were old friends, and left.

He hadn’t even made it all the way to the door when I stepped over to Chuck. “Don’t even think about it. You don’t need that kind of trouble.”

Chuck just smiled at me, looking a lot like he had back in the day. Mister charm. “Don’t worry about it, Jess. We’re doing fine. Sometimes we get a little loose with boundary markers, but we know not to mess with the government.” Then he tells his crew it’s time for him to get home to the “ball and chain.” He is looking at me with a funny little smile when he says this, and it almost feels like the old days. Except I remember in the old days he was loose enough with boundary lines that he ended up in court a couple times. Oh well, it was Melissa’s job (the ball and chain) to talk some sense into him. I just pour beer.

Chapter 4

It gets started a couple acres at a time

Wednesday and Thursday I am off. Morgan works those days. Morgan. What kind of name is that for a girl? Isn’t that some kind of horse? Clark hired her in one of his more brilliant moves. She’s a hottie so he thinks she will bring in the younger guys. What younger guys? Does he plan to import them? Besides, she’s a moron. The only thing she knows anything about is nail polish and mascara, neither of which are a great conversation starter in a country bar. Start a conversation about anything else, and her response is “Oh, really?” Then she heads back to the Inquirer she keeps behind the bar. I am sure Clark thinks she will eventually replace me. Fat chance. First, I have lots of miles left on this chassis, and second, if he is going to use her more, the first thing he should do is start checking the register more carefully after her shift. Just saying.

Anyway, I get two days off a week. When I had the girls with me, those were my days to clean the house and do load after load of laundry. They loved to change clothes. These days I can get all that done in one morning. So Wednesday is my afternoon to go shopping. If I just need groceries I run down to Wausaukee, but if I want to window shop, I drive up to Iron Mountain. I know, it seems a bit sad if your idea of a big city is Iron Mountain, but there is something about the place I like.

So, that Wednesday I headed up 141 for an afternoon of shopping. North of Pembine I see a row of pickups parked along the road. I recognize two of them, so I slow down to see who’s doing what. It’s Chuck and his crew logging a second growth forty along the road. On the north edge of this forty as a county forest – a pine plantation – and when I take a look over there, I decide I should pull over and talk to my old friend Chuck.

How do I describe what logging looks like up here? Most pictures of logging are of huge trees logged in the Pacific Northwest. They are massive and come crashing down mountainsides to be pulled in by huge machines. That’s not what logging looks like in northern Wisconsin. For one thing, it is flat here. If we ever had hills around here, the glaciers scraped them off and pushed them down to Illinois. For another, all the big white pines are long gone. They were turned into two by fours a century ago. That cleared land was turned into farms (I told you what happened to them), or just left in stumps. Natural regrowth turned the pine forests into poplar, birch, and jack pines. Maybe they get thirty or forty feet high. Maybe they get twelve or fourteen inches in diameter. So a guy with a chain saw can cut them down in a few minutes, then trim off the branches and cut them into hundred inch lengths. The smaller sections get stacked. The bigger ones are left where they fall. Eventually the boss will bring in a flatbed truck with a pneumatic claw at the back and load them up. In the meantime, the wood lot looks like a big mess.

I was wearing ankle-high snow boots. It’s not like we dress for fashion up here. But I was careful as I walked over to the boys. They had a pretty good path in from their trucks, but you still can’t see what’s under the snow. Could be rocks, roots, stumps. You step on the side of any of those and you can snap an ankle fast. Back when Tiny worked in the woods I went out to help a few times in the winter. I never worked so hard in my life. It’s not just the cutting and lifting, but it’s lifting while you balance on logs and branches under the snow. I felt like a weightlifting ballerina.

So I wasn’t too surprised Chuck’s crew was sitting around a fire they had made from branches. There was no wind, but it was still cold as hell. It was January, after all. And the work is tiring. Of course, being men, they are never going to say they are tired. They just decide the saw is getting dull and they need to sharpen some teeth. So they go over to the fire, sit down on one of the logs they have cut, and take a file to their chain. That’s what the three of them were doing.

“Hi Chuck.” I said as I approached. I stood close enough to the fire to feel it on my face. Of course my ass was still cold, but at least part of me was getting some warmth.

“Morning Jess. Hear anything from Tiny?” This is Chuck’s way to put me on the defensive. He couldn’t care less about Tiny, but he thinks he can put me off my stride. Just to be clear, Tiny was my first husband. We were in high school together. We started dating when I was fifteen and he was seventeen. He had just made varsity of the football team – lineman, hence the joke about him being “tiny”. We both had a bad case of high school hormones, and I was pregnant before the end of my sophomore year. Tiffany came just after my sixteenth birthday. Tiny was still seventeen. I worried the hospital in Marinette would make some big deal out of our ages, but apparently we weren’t the first. The local churches weren’t as open minded. My mother insisted we get married. And we tried, but it took over a year to find a minister who would do it. Finally we tried the guy at the Presbyterian church in Athelstane. I think the church had maybe twenty members. It’s not like he had lots of other things to do, so he agreed to marry us – if he could also baptize Tiffany. We agreed to a package deal, and that was that. I hear that church is now some different kind of Presbyterian – some kind that hates gays. Not sure how those geezers would know or care about sex one way or the other. It’s not like any of them were getting any – gay, straight or anything in between. Anyway, Tiny worked the woods for a few months after high school and then joined the Army. A couple months after he got to Germany he found his “true love.” He never told me her name. I think of her as Brunhilda and imagine her as six one and two hundred pounds. Not that it matters. It turns out the Army is pretty good about managing such marriages. They made sure all the paperwork was done right and guaranteed I would get money every month for Tiffany. So that’s that, and none of it is Chuck’s business. He had his shot after Tiny left.

“I got a Christmas card from him. He still thinks Germany is God’s perfect acre.”

“Never saw him as a Nazi, but people change.”

“Yeah.” I stood staring north at the county pine plantation. Perfect rows of green, except the rows seemed a bit shorter at the edge of this wood lot. I figured if I just stood and stared long enough he would say something, but he was pretending I was admiring the scenery. “You know if I can see it from the road, so can anyone from the county.”

“If you mean a few pines that blew down onto this wood lot, these things just happen. You can’t stop the wind.”

“Funny how the farther you go from the road, the more pines that blew down.”

“Yeah, the wind can be funny.” At this point Billy and the other kid got up and carried their chainsaws back towards the poplars they were working on. They pulled the starter cords and had the saws running while they still walked. The noise meant they now heard nothing we said, and I guess that was the point.

“They’ll see the stumps, Chuck.”

“They get paid to sit in offices and drive to meetings. Even if they saw something, they wouldn’t get out of their cars to check on it. They wouldn’t want to get snow on their shoes.”

“The snow will be gone this spring.”

“And we will have cleared this lot and taken every stick down to Green Bay.”

“That’s how you are going to play it?”

“I have a payroll to meet. A few hundred extra bucks makes that much easier.”

“Be careful, Chuck. The county has lawyers and cops.”

“Will do.” And he gives me a smile like he did back when we were in our twenties. It almost worked back then. I just waved and tip toed back to my car. He had crossed a line, but maybe he had been crossing it for years. And he did have a payroll to make. I looked north again at the pines and hoped it didn’t look as obvious to others as it did to me.

Anyway, I had a quiet afternoon in Iron Mountain. I found nothing to buy, but plenty to look at. On my way south that afternoon I looked at where Chuck had been cutting. Coming down from the north, the pine plantation looked undisturbed. Good.

Thursday I had an odd meeting out on Dow Dam Road. I was driving out to the cemetery to brush snow off my mother’s headstone. Yes, I know, that seems odd. Why bother? I’m not sure I can explain why. It’s not like she was such a marvelous mother. Boy we used to have fights. We would scream and she would throw things, and if we hadn’t been out in the country, I think the cops would have been at our door every other day. Part of it was her drinking. She loved her brandy. She told me once she was going to name me “Brandy,” but the nurses at the hospital talked her out of it. Thank God. Mostly I think we fought because we were the only people we had. It was the two of us against the world with just the aluminum walls of the trailer protecting us. She would never tell me who my father was. She insisted on keeping that line of my birth certificate blank, no doubt despite the folks at the county office. It was always just the two of us, and for some reason rather than hug each other, we shouted at each other. Weird, I know.

So, for some reason I don’t understand, I am driving to my mother’s grave. Then, up ahead on the road, I see something big and black. I think maybe it’s a bear, so I slow down. Then as I get closer, I see it is a man, and he is running, and I mean running hard. It occurs to me something is wrong, so I slow down even more. Then I see it is Zeke – the guy from the bar. Now I don’t know what to do. The guy scares the hell out of me, but here he is in some kind of emergency, so I get up maybe twenty feet from him and I stop. I get out of the car and yell at him.

“Is there a problem?”

“What?” He stops running and turns to look at me. He is breathing hard, and sweating pretty good, but I don’t see any signs of panic in his face. Something is there, but not panic. Is it anger? I take a step back and reach for my door handle.

“I thought you might be having a problem.”

“No, ah…”

“Jessica. From the bar.”

“Oh. Yeah.” He stands where he is and looks at me. If he had taken a step in my direction I would have been in the car with the doors locked in a heartbeat. Finally he seems to recognize me and his face changes again. “I was just running.”

“People don’t do that much around here.” And they certainly don’t have that look on their face when they do. At least I hope they don’t.

“It seemed like a good day for it.”

“Yes, well, if you are OK, I’ll let you get back to it.” I started pulling the car door open.

“Jessica, there was a man at the bar the other night. Be careful of him.”

“I’ve had two husbands, two kids, and worked in a bar for eight years. Careful is what I do best.”

“Good.” He stood looking at me as I got in the car and drove on down the road. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw he had started running back in the other direction. I couldn’t be sure, but he seemed to be running more slowly.

Chapter 5

First response

Friday as I came in to work I saw a county sheriff’s squad waiting by the front door. Never a good way to start the day. I parked, got out, and then waited to see what was going on. It turned out to be Davey. He was two years behind me in school, so I didn’t know him well, but when you go to a high school as small as ours, you sort of know everybody. He got out of his squad and motioned me over.

“Hi Davey, should I be calling my attorney?”

“It wouldn’t hurt you to call me Sargeant Kekkonen, and why not get into the squad so we can talk.”

“Front seat or back?”

“Jesus, Jess, would you just get in?” He pointed to the front door. Did you ever get into the front seat of a squad? Wow is it crowded. He had a computer screen hanging between the seats, a shot gun screwed to the dash, and a bunch of paper forms and little lights on the dash. He picked up a clip board from the passenger seat so I could get in.

“Did we get robbed?” I asked. That seemed like the most reasonable explanation for his visit.

“No, this has nothing to do with the bar, although I do ask you to be careful about underage drinkers.”

“That’s that idiot Morgan.”

“I don’t care who it is, and frankly I don’t care if you let a few twenty year olds have a couple beers. Just see if you can keep it to two. I would much rather have them sitting with you than downing a case of Milwaukee’s Best up some logging road.”

“You mean like we used to do.”

“Exactly. In a just world we would all be dead.”

“Wow. You’re in a good mood.”

“Yeah, well, I’m here to share my problems with you.” OK, so the social stuff was over. Down to business – whatever that was. Should I describe Davey? Mid thirties, cop hair, blue eyes, fills out his uniform in a good way, height and general shape like you see in all Finlanders. Meaning he probably just met the height restriction for the job. On the plus side, while he was only about an inch taller than me, I had never seen any Napoleon complex in him. He was always just one of the guys.

“OK,” I told him. “Let it rip.”

“I have spent the last couple days thinking of how I can do my job without sending someone to jail. But this guy needs to stop doing what he is doing. It occurred to me last night that you might be able to help.” Well, he had my attention at this point. I paused, I guess to let that sentence hang in the air, and I made sure I was looking him in the eyes when I responded.

“If I can help, I will.”

“Chuck White is cutting county trees. He used to do a few here and there, and no one cared. But now he has started taking more. He’s got a cut north of Pembine where he must have taken a couple acres of pines in the school forest.”

“I was up there a couple days back. He had taken a few, but certainly nothing like an acre’s worth.”

“I have been watching as I drive by. Wednesday he might have taken ten trees. Yesterday I went through again and he has taken at least two acres of trees. He thinks you can’t see it from 141, but you would have to be blind to miss it.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Jesus, Jess, isn’t it obvious? Tell him to stop. If I talk to him, I have to report it, and even if I don’t report the conversation, it would come out in a trial. And I won’t perjure myself for him. But hell, he was the cubscout leader for my boys. I don’t want to see him in jail. Neither does anyone else. He comes into your bar most nights. Pull him aside and set him straight.”

“I can try.”

“Jess, this is the only warning he gets. The sale of those trees goes toward our school costs. One more tree and he goes to jail.”

“Thanks, Dave. I am sure he will appreciate the warning.” I got out and stood for a minute while he drove away. Did anyone see me with him? In Amberg? You could play scrabble on the center line on Main Street and be working on your second triple word score before you saw a car or a pedestrian. At least that’s mostly true. Mostly.

Anyway, I opened at two, same as usual, knowing it would just be me and the Kaiminski twins for a couple hours. Fine. I would get some cleaning done. It’s not like Morgan would have done anything. And that’s the way it went for the first hour or so. I cleaned the toilets, took out the trash, wiped down the bar, hooked up a new half barrel of Bud. The usual. The Kaminskis came in at two thirty. I got them their wine. I counted how many frozen pizzas we had, mostly just filling the time.

Then a little after three the place started filling up. And I do mean filling. It was cold, so I could understand men coming in early, but they just kept coming. Friday night we do a little more business, but weekends are different up here. That’s because we don’t really have them. Most men work Saturday. When you can barely cover your bills in five days, you work six. So Friday night isn’t the same here as it might be places that had unions and regular work weeks. But this night was big. We have a very large bar – a semicircle that takes up half the room, leaving just some space for a pool table and a couple small tables for the ladies (meaning the Kaminski twins). By four almost all the bar stools were taken.

I’m waiting for Chuck to have our private conversation, but he seems to be late. Meanwhile, who comes in like king of the place – Slick. The SOB actually makes an entrance. He starts with the guys by the door and shakes every hand, talking to each of them, using their names, and then slowly works along the bar to an empty stool at the far end, which I see now has been saved for him. What the hell? I’m gone for two days and the man gets himself elected god.

I ignore him. God or not, he can just wait for his six fifty Jim Beam. The bar is full, as I said, so I have lots of guys who need beer, and a couple who are waiting for pizzas. Meanwhile, I am watching the door, waiting for Chuck. He finally comes in, trailing Billy and Stevie. There is one stool left and they head for that. I put three beers in front of them and then point to Chuck.

“Let’s take a walk.” I come around from behind the bar and head for the far corner back beyond the pool table. He follows me over, and then stands real close like there is something going on between us. Showing off for the boys.

“What’s with all the sweatshirts. You look frumpy.” He says, leaning in toward me.

“Oh and you are mister fashion, huh?”

“You used to look better.”

“Oh really? Name one thing I wore last week.”


“I wore sweaters. It’s winter. This bar is cold.”

“At least with sweaters you had a shape.”

“My God you men are simple.” I shook my head, caught my breath, and moved on. What else are you going to do? “I called you over here to warn you about cutting those trees.”

“You saw I only took a few.”

“You took a few the day I was there, then yesterday you took a couple acres. Don’t lie to me.”

“My truck broke down. The repair bill is thirteen hundred dollars.”

“County land is not a piggy bank. You can’t just take trees whenever you are a few dollars short.”

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