Dave Zeltserman is the Boston-based author of the award-winning Julius Katz mystery series. His crime novels have been selected by NPR and the Washington Post as best novels of the year. His novel The Caretaker of Lorne Field was short listed by the ALA for best horror novel of 2010, was nominated for a Black Quill Award for best dark genre novel of the year, and was named a Horror Gem by Library Journal. His horror novel, Monster, was named one of the best books of the year by WBUR and made Booklist Magazine's 2013 list of top 10 horror novels. Several of his novels have been optioned for film.
Marty Zucker stared with glazed eyes at the day's newspaper before dropping the paper onto the counter. It seemed as if the last two weeks all he'd done during business hours was sit propped up on his stool reading the newspaper, and it was all because of Hilda Peterson. At first the townspeople were too busy with the excitement of her potentially winning a gold medal to think about bringing their skirts to his shop to be hemmed or their suits to be altered. Then after the Peterson girl won her medal they were too busy with their parade preparations.
Zucker shifted uncomfortably on the stool. His heavily-lidded eyes opened a fraction of an inch as he spotted Allen Coskin through the plate-glass window of his shop hustling across the street. His eyelids opened a fraction more, but otherwise he didn't move, although he was pleased to see this other man arriving. If Coskin were coming over to commiserate about the slow business or the failings of their local professional baseball team, it would offer a temporary reprieve from his boredom.
Zucker liked Coskin, although he thought of him at times as one of those yappy little dogs, especially when Coskin got overly excited talking about one of the local sports teams. What were those dogs called again? There was a time when Emma wanted to get one. West Highland Terriers, that was it. Westies, that was what she'd call them. Coskins was like one of those. A small fuzzy man with white hair who when he got excited appeared to be yapping. He owned the hair salon four doors down. Twenty years ago it used to be a barber shop, but Coskin realized he could charge more money by calling his business a hair salon, so the sign out front changed, and he fancied it up some inside and started catering more to women. Even though the new salon was no longer a place Zucker felt comfortable, he continued to show his loyalty by still getting his hair cut there.
"Ho ho ho," Coskin announced as he walked through the door. Zucker felt a sense of deflation on seeing the cardboard sign Coskin carried. He also felt some irritation which he kept hidden behind an inscrutable mask, and watched as Coskin studied the front window for the proper place to attach the sign without once asking Zucker's approval to do so. Once the sign was secured to the window, Coskin wandered over to the counter and leaned against it.
"I saw you haven't had a chance to pick up a sign yet from Town Hall, and I thought I'd save you the trouble," Coskin said, his cheeks flushed and his breathing a bit ragged from his exertion. He wiped a hand across his brow and smiled at Zucker. "Marty, it's a damn good thing I'm looking out for you. Yours is the only shop in town without a sign. You don't want to be caught not showing the proper town pride, right? It wouldn't be good for business!"
Zucker grunted something unintelligible that Coskin could take as however he wanted. Gratitude. Agreement. Go to hell. Or anything else. Coskin, however, chose to take it as gratitude.
"Not everyone's using the official town sign," Coskin said. "Some folks are going full out. The Sunflower Diner's got this beauty of a banner. Must've cost a pretty penny. And that new frozen yogurt shop also laid out for a beauty." Coskin's smile turned sly, and he added, "I've got something special on order too, and it's supposed to be ready this afternoon. It better be! It's costing me plenty, more than I can afford, but it's not everyday you have a local girl winning a gold medal. And such a nice girl. We're all so proud of her. And you've got to show your town pride!" He hesitated, then, "But the town sign is fine. No one will begrudge you using it."
Zucker let out another ambiguous grunt that Coskin seemed to take as an acknowledgment, or maybe as thanks. He gave Zucker a nod, and with a quick glance at his watch, turned and headed toward the door, moving in the quick scampering way that again made Zucker think of one of those terriers. Coskin stopped at the door to look back at Zucker.
"I just popped in to help you out with that sign. Things are busy at the salon. Everyone wants to look their best for the parade."
He gave Zucker a short wave and was out the door. Marty Zucker waited several minutes before getting up and taking down the sign. Of course it bothered him that Coskin thought he had the right to put it up without his permission. If Emma were still alive she'd tell him that it wasn't such a big deal and that he should leave the sign where it was. She had a gentle way about her that would always make him feel silly whenever he acted out childishly or showed an ill temper. Reluctantly, and not without some resistance on his part, he'd always begrudgingly accept that she was right. But she wasn't around any more and whatever whispers from her that still remained in his head were faint at best. Besides, to him it was a big deal. Every shop had to fall in line? All of them had to pay tribute to this girl none of them knew? Zucker hesitated for a brief moment, then, with his thick lips crumpling into a frown, he ripped the sign in half. He stood frozen, trembling in a wave of anger, before moving back behind the counter and once again propping himself on his stool.
As his anger subsided, he felt a little funny inside, which he didn't like. He didn't know Hilda Peterson, he didn't know the family, so why did he have to join the rest of them in displaying that insipid sign? He didn't want to admit it, but he knew the reason for his uneasiness. He might like to think that he took the sign down because he didn't want people thinking they could tell him what to do, but more likely it was only because of resentment and pettiness on his part.
When Emma passed away two years ago, the Petersons didn't attend her funeral, nor did any of the other store owners, not even Coskin. Some of them sent cards, a few dropped off food at the shop, and others nodded sympathetically to him and mumbled out words to the effect of how sorry they were, but not a single one of them went to the funeral. The few, like Coskin, who bothered to make excuses, claimed they couldn't take time off from the middle of the week. Zucker knew why they didn't show up, and it was because Emma's death was a relief to them, and that was something he had a difficulty forgiving them for.
Emma was a sweet and loving person. A petite woman with soft brown eyes, a slim figure and a full head of thick, lustrous auburn hair. Zucker first saw her when she was twenty and he was twenty-three, and she was so beautiful that it made him dizzy. Forty years later nothing had changed. He might've put on forty pounds over those years, but Emma, not an ounce! And her hair stayed the same thick mane of auburn since that first day with not a gray hair in the mix. He'd look at her and melt a bit inside, not believing his luck that she was his wife. But then she started getting tired all the time and would be seized by these awful pains that would leave her unable to move. A month before her sixty-first birthday she was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer.
The next fourteen months were hard as cancer ravaged her. Most days until those final three weeks in the hospice she'd go to work with him. She didn't want the two of them staying home feeling sorry for each other, so she insisted they go to the shop together as long as the pain wasn't too unbearable. Zucker guessed she lied about the pain and that it was always too unbearable, but she'd pretend it wasn't. He knew she wanted to spend every moment with him that she still had left, so he didn't argue. His fellow shop owners and other townspeople would try to be courteous and cheerful when they'd see her, but often Zucker would catch them desperately wanting to look away, as if Emma's imminent death might stain them, or her skeleton-thin body and wasted flesh and thinning hair was too much for them to deal with, even though sparks of light and grace were ever present in her eyes. At least that was they way they acted at first. Later he could see their resentment. He'd see how they were blaming her for them having to witness her dying. So when she passed away they were just glad to be rid of her after all their months of wishing her to simply disappear, and only Zucker, his remaining cousins, Emma's sister's family and a handful of friends attended the funeral. Eighteen people. That was all. Whenever Zucker let himself think about how they treated Emma he'd find himself seething in fury, but he knew that she would want him to forgive them so he'd try his best.
Tears began to leak down Zucker's cheeks, surprising him. He rubbed a thick, rough hand over his face to wipe away the wetness, then picked up the newspaper and forced himself to stare at it, although the words didn't make any sense.
A few minutes before Zucker's lunch break, Coskin walked into view again as if he were going to enter the shop and invite Zucker to the corner sandwich shop as he usually did. Coskin stopped in his tracks, though. A look of confusion contorted his face, then his expression turned into something grim. Instead of coming into the shop, he averted his eyes from Zucker's and turned around.
Less than an hour later, Bill Wittler, Kevin Muir and Steven Hargrove entered the tailor shop, all with these extremely grave and stern expressions. Wittler owned the town liquor store, Muir a paint store and Hargrove, who had moved to town only ten years earlier, a doughnut shop. Wittler carried an even bigger sign than what Coskin had put up earlier.
"We're very disappointed in you," Wittler said in an exaggerated grave tone. "I'm not just speaking for myself but the whole Rotary Club."
"Why aren't you showing the necessary town pride?" Muir demanded.
"The girl won a gold medal, for God sakes!" Hargrove exclaimed.
Zucker looked at all three before addressing Hargrove. "Yes, she did," he said. "And good for her. But I don't know her and I don't know her family. Maybe I would if they had their tailoring done here, but I hear they use the tailor in Wellsford."
Wellsford was the town next to theirs, and was significantly wealthier. Store owners were never happy about hearing of local residents frequenting businesses in Wellsford.
"That's just childish," Wittler said.
"Maybe it is, but it's my right to be childish. And it's also my right not to put up that sign in my window. Perhaps I don't think her winning a gold medal is any more of an achievement than Danny Hughes winning a National Merit Scholarship. Where was his parade? You think she worked any harder than Danny to achieve what he did?"
"You're being ridiculous," Wittler said.
"We're talking a gold medal!" Hargrove exclaimed, aghast.
"No town pride!" Muir insisted.
Throughout this inquisition, Zucker sat upright on his stool and kept his poker face intact, refusing to show even a hint of emotion. He was amazed that he was able to do this. Emma would've been proud! While he would've been well within his rights to throw all three of them out of his shop, instead he was intent on humoring them with the same patience a parent might show ill-tempered children.
"I have enough town pride to volunteer my time donating little league uniforms every year for the local team," Zucker said. "And I've been helping organize the Rotary's potluck dinner for almost thirty years now." His eyes dimmed as he looked at them. "When Chuck MacDonald's son, Ricky, was killed in the war last fall, I was there at the funeral offering my support. How many of you were there?"
Wittler ignored the question. "Are you going to put this sign up or not?"
"I prefer not."
"Very well then." Wittler tore down a promotional sign that Zucker had in his window and attached his large Hilda Peterson congratulatory sign so it would be prominently displayed.
"If you know what's good for your business, you'll leave that up there," Wittler warned him, then all three men left the shop.
Zucker was so angry at the way those three talked down to him that he had an image of steam pouring out of his ears. It was several minutes before he was able to move, then he got up and took this latest sign down. With his hands shaking badly, he ripped it into several pieces and deposited the remains into his trashcan.
An hour later two women that he had never seen before entered his shop carrying an even bigger sign than Wittler and those others had brought. Both of these women were middle-aged. One of them was plump with small, dark eyes and a near milk-white complexion, the other was bony and wrinkly and had knobby knees that showed under the skirt she wore. Zucker had never seen either of these women before, and had no idea who they were. They both glared at him. The plump woman told him, "Shame!", the bony one also said, "Shame! Shame!" Zucker was taken aback by this and watched with stunned amazement as they cleared away all the other papers and signs in his window so they could affix this much larger sign to it. When they were done, they both turned to glare at him before leaving his shop. This new sign covered almost the entire window.
Zucker tore this one down also.
The next morning when Zucker arrived at his shop, he stood blinking for several moments not quite believing what he saw. The door to his shop was open and the large plate window was gone, replaced by a large piece of plywood that was covered with official Hilda Peterson congratulatory signs. A police officer he didn't know was waiting for him inside his shop, and the officer explained to him that his front window had been destroyed by vandalism.
"Kids," the officer said with a shrug, his eyes dull, his expression one of disinterest. "What are you going to do, right? I couldn't leave your shop open and vulnerable to further damage, so I arranged to have it boarded up. It was the least I could do, Mr. Zucker."
"You could've called a glass company," Zucker croaked out. His legs felt lifeless as he made his way to his stool behind the counter so he could sit before he collapsed.
"That wasn't possible," the officer said. "Everyone's too busy with tomorrow's parade." He showed a false smile. "I'm sure you'll be able to get someone the day after."
The officer continued to smile that same false smile as he nodded to Zucker and left the shop. Zucker sat for the next twenty minutes, his mind numb, then he pushed himself off the stool and made his way outside his shop. He stood for a long moment and stared at all the congratulatory signs. When he tried to pull one of them off, he realized that it had been plastered to the plywood. He made his way back inside his shop. The local glass company would be too busy to replace his window until the day after the parade, and the man Zucker talked to sounded as if he were expecting Zucker's call. When Zucker tried calling the glass company in Wellsford, he got the same story, although the person he spoke to sounded uncomfortable, as if she weren't leveling with Zucker. The next six places Zucker called, he got similar stories, but the seventh place was willing to come over that day. The man he talked to made a comment about Zucker's address.
"That's the town where that girl won a gold medal, right?" the man asked.
"All of you there must be bursting with pride, am I right?"
Zucker muttered something that the man could take as whatever he wanted.
Three hours later he had his glass window back. No one from the town tried to put up any more Hilda Peterson signs that day. Nor did he get a single customer.
Late that night a pounding on his front door woke him. Zucker squinted at the alarm clock to see it was midnight. He wrapped a robe around himself and stumbled down the stairs, furious that he was being woken up then. A large mob stood outside his door. The police officer from earlier that day was in it. So was Allen Coskin and Bill Wittler. He also spotted Chuck MacDonald, the man whose son had died in the war. When he saw how unnaturally twisted their faces were with hatred, he tried pushing his door closed but they overpowered him, and he was knocked to the floor.
Zucker struggled to get to his feet. "You have no right—" he started to croak out before someone hit him in the mouth with something metal and heavy. In his dazed state he absently slid his tongue into the empty space where his two front teeth had been only seconds earlier. Then dozens of hands clutched at him and lifted him off the floor.
Hilary Peterson sat exhausted in the convertible and waved at the crowd, her dark sunglasses hiding the puffiness around her eyes. Who could blame her? It had been a whirlwind since she had won the gold medal with all of her appearances on the talk shows and meeting dozens of celebrities. Just yesterday she had been in Los Angeles filming a national fast-food commercial and didn't fly into the area until three in the morning. She couldn't believe she had to come back here for this bullshit parade, but her business manager claimed it would be good for her image, even if she didn't know anyone in this hick town. How could she? Ever since she was five she was training ten hours every day so she could win her gold medal, with her training facility thirty miles away. The town was little more than a place to sleep every night, nothing more than that. But she lost the argument.
"It will make you look more wholesome," her manager argued. "Showing all that town pride and all, which will be very good for the bottom line."
And so she relented, and here she was waving at all these hicks with her plastic smile firmly in place. For a moment she froze, not believing what she saw. Several members of the cheering crowd held a long pole that appeared to be impaling the head of an older man, complete with a bloody stump of what remained of its neck. The face was so battered and bruised, and at first it looked real to her, but as she stared at it she realized it had to be some gruesome Hollywood prop. She had no idea why these people would bring something like that to the parade, but she continued with her waving as if the head didn't exist. And soon the parade moved on past it.
© 2016 Dave Zeltserman