Jeff Esterholm returned to northern Wisconsin after an absence of thirty-plus years, pleased to find the area ripe for the seeding of his crime fiction. His work has appeared in Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder, Yellow Mama, Crime Factory, and Mysterical-E, as well as Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, Regarding Arts & Letters, Wisconsin People & Ideas, and Flash Fiction Italia. In years gone by, his work has been recognized by the Council for Wisconsin Writers and Wisconsin People & Ideas, formerly Wisconsin Academy Review. He and his wife live in Superior, Wisconsin.
Shelley had never noticed them. During her fifteen years of employment with Pinewood Jobs and Training Services, she had worn out over 361,000 miles of tire rubber traveling this one Midwestern state, her home state for all of her sixty-two years. In those 361,000-plus miles and fifteen years with Pinewood, sleeping in chain hotels—smoke-saturated suites though smoking was no longer allowed, spotty WiFi, bottom shelf Chardonnay served up at the manager's reception, tasteless scrambled eggs offered at the free breakfast buffet—working a day or two in this agency's or that agency's training room, she had never noticed them, not once. Never, that is, until last year, during the trip in September, driving roundtrip for staff meetings, from her home on the south shore of Lake Superior to the state capital and back. Then she noticed. The interstate was littered with desiccated deer carcasses. That caught her eye.
Road crews no longer scraped and dumped roadkill in the tall grass and weeds off the shoulder. The whitetail deer, an occasional black bear, wolf, fox, wild turkey, owl, the once living creature that had encountered misadventure on the state highway or interstate, was left where it had bounced for further day-to-day and night-by-night brutalization. What Shelley found strange now: The dead, deer the odds-on favorite, appeared at regular intervals. Buckskin mile markers. Besides the primitive nature of these new mile markers, there was something darkly poetic about them, like Diane Arbus photographs, yet putting her finger on this poetry was problematic.
What it came down to, Shelley concluded, was that, although she was a relatively young sixty-two—she credited her genes, moderation in diet, and, even if attended sporadically, a community college boxing class—she felt as worn and depleted by the tedium of her work as one of those piles of buckskin and bone.
That feeling of having gone beyond her expiration date—she laughed about that one, as if roadkill would have a best-used-by date stamped somewhere between the ears and antlers—would disappear by the time she reached home. Roger, her husband, would have something ready. He always did. He was the City Planner. This was her last trip; reaching home, she would be out of work status forever after. She slapped the steering wheel, one happy woman, and slipped a CD into the slot on the dashboard. The Patti Smith Group turned up loud. Shelley took early retirement, screw the rest. There was never a good time for colleagues left behind, but leave them behind she must.
She wasn't going to just sit on her butt. Shelley told them at her going away party at work. No. She had plans. Besides being a trainer, she had been Pinewood's project manager. And, for her retirement, she had a project in mind. She had been shooting photographs of Great Lakes ships since she was an artsy, patched-jean freak with feather earrings in high school. But photography had turned into a catch-as-catch-can avocation during the long run of her workforce development career, the raising of a family. 1979—the year she walked across the stage and picked up the bachelor's degree that funneled her into the industry of moving people into jobs—was so long ago. Technology had clear-cut the landscape, from her day job to her art. Her forty-year-old 35-millimeter Leica to digital SLR cameras and smartphones. Shelley tried to stay on top of it all. She had moved on to the digital world. The ships she photographed had changed in those forty years. And the bumboats? Were those floating stores around anymore, or did crews order whatever they needed online and pick packages up in ports of call? Her mind buzzed. Shelley's project? A driving tour of Great Lakes ports, and nothing was going to stop her.
Roger worked for the city and didn't plan on retiring for another year and a half, if then. Good thing, she thought, because he could be a royal pain when he wasn't working, say, during vacations and weekends. Her husband would be occupied and, with Shelley's travel, he wouldn't be irritated by her sleeping in because she wouldn't be sleeping in. She would be gone, like when she trained statewide for Pinewood. Roger knew. He understood her longtime interest in photography and Great Lakes ships. She believed that.
Her retirement dinner was a quiet affair. Roger arranged it. Just the two of them at her favorite Mexican restaurant in the near empty neighborhood mall. She talked about her plans, hands dancing over a plate of chilaquiles, building momentum as she spoke. The drive east northeast along Lake Superior, angling through the Upper Peninsula and Sault Ste. Marie, down Lake Michigan, the loop east out of Chicago, clipping Indiana into Michigan, Ohio, and on. The port cities. Always the ports, the lakers and salties. Her husband sat across the booth from her, smiling and nodding. Yes, he was. But he didn't appear to be listening.
Shelley stopped talking. "What's with you?" she asked. Her animated hands came to rest on the table.
Roger smiled broadly, then said, "I'm going to retire, too." The City Planner had plans, and he shared them. Plans for the two of them. Together. He covered her hand that lay stunned beside the empty chip basket with his. Her free hand slipped to her lap. He spoke. There was his 100-year-old aunt in Minot who tried to raise him. And then Montana, where he'd spent his teen years, the ranch for juvies—he shook his head and laughed at his long-gone antics, no one in his office knew. There was his brother in Portland, who, frankly, neither of them could stand—he liked to drink beer and sit on a lawn chair in the garage, watching the world drive by—but still, he was his brother. And Shelley, too. He hadn't forgotten her. She had family in Northern California, Colorado, Texas. "We can rent, or buy, I'd be open to that, one of those huge RVs. We can invite the kids along, if they'd want to join us. Hop aboard at different stops along the way. We could call it, I don't know, The Partridge Family 2019!" Roger's smile froze somewhere in the middle of barreling through Yellowstone National Park. She tugged, slipped her hand away from his. "What?"
Shelley said, "I have my plans. My project. I was telling you…"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Shel. What were they again? I was waiting to jump in with our road trip plans." He licked salt from the rim of his margarita glass.
Shelley took a deep breath and went over the Great Lakes photography project, again, in detail. She liked that word. Project. It didn't include Roger. "Because you're working. You were still going to be working. You're the City Planner, for cripe's sake." She caught the waitress and ordered another Pacifico. A shot of tequila, she considered that, too. Talk ground to a halt. Here they were, two professional planners who, until this evening, hadn't shared their plans.
Roger finished his carnitas and fished a credit card from his wallet. He shook his head. "We'll probably kill each other in retirement." He laughed, moving on.
He was up. He was leaving. She hadn't finished her beer. And that tequila, she would have liked that, too. He was across the room. She got out of the booth, struggled with her jacket like she was eighty-two instead of sixty-two. A waitress helped her find her arm. "Wait," she called. Roger was out the door. Shelley shook her head, thinking of what he had said. He might be right.
In the days and weeks that followed, Shelley watched in disbelief. With her project locked up in the back of her mind, Roger's planning metastasized from the dinner conversation to physical objects.
Although he continued working in the City Planner's office, his retirement date pushed out, the screening and interviewing to be done, the onboarding of his replacement, the road trip mail flooded their home. Tourism brochures and magazines, road maps, coupon books. The mail piled up on the end table by his Scandinavian recliner, and then grew in organized stacks on the footstool and coffee table. Mail arrived from forty-nine states. "Don't worry about Hawaii, Shel. I have a plan for that, too."
She riffled through roadmaps of states she had never been to and said, "You know, there are maps on your phone and tablet, right? I have GPS on my phone." She thought, I'm done with training and slides. If he does a travel presentation, too many slides with too many bullet points per slide, I will kill him.
One Saturday afternoon, he surprised her with a trip to the Vacation-USA RV lot. New and used recreation vehicles. They took a home-on-wheels for a test drive. The RV seemed a city block long, but Roger drove the beast as if he was born to it. Out of spite, Shelley would have taken out traffic lights, bus shelters, and no doubt a gas station canopy and pump island. The vehicle was all toffee, gold, and white. She shook her head. Roger's face spread into one big beatific smile. "Isn't it a wonder what they can do these days?"
Shelley watched. She seethed, then she stopped herself, wondering, Why am I doing this? Roger wouldn't notice, he was so heavily devoted to his, what did he call it, his Partridge Family Trip.
She packed up her clothing, organized her photography equipment, and loaded her Jeep.
He noticed from the patio door. "Shel? Shel. Where are you going?"
Standing by the open driver's side door, she crossed her arms. "Remember? My? Project?"
He frowned. "You'll have plenty of time to do that." He walked over to her, put his arm around her shoulders. He steered her toward the house.
Or he tried to. "Wait a minute." She whirled from his embrace.
"Let's see how it goes. You won't have to do a thing."
"After all these years?"
Roger smirked. "The trip launch won't be for a few months yet. Take a class. Something in photography. You'd like that, right? Hone your skills?"
Shelley rolled her eyes.
She unloaded the Jeep after dinner.
She wasn't averse to honing her photography skills. But when Shelley dropped into the Internet rabbit hole of courses offered by every school in the area, she was most intrigued by those at the Lake Superior Shores Folk School, and none of the courses were related to photography. Building a Birchbark Canoe. An Introduction to Apiary Arts: Hives, Honey, and Wax. Make Your Own Rope Hammock. And, this: Sewing with Buckskin. A three-day course.
Sewing with buckskin. That caught her eye.
The instructor, a back-to-the-earth hipster named Cedar, had a large selection of skins from which to choose. One skin, along with sinew and glover's needles, was included in the Sewing with Buckskin registration fee.
Throughout the three-day course, at breaks, she dawdled at the pile of whitetail skins stacked on a long worktable at the front of the room, her fingers flipping over and between the layers, some hairless, some red brown, some gray brown.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" Cedar appeared at her side and spoke as if he knew what was on her mind. The last day of class.
"They are." She considered, then asked, "Would you let another one go? I'd pay for it, of course."
He crossed his flannel-sleeved arms, the open shirt displaying a retro Maxell Tape T-shirt. From faux ponder to big boy grin, it didn't take him long to decide. "I can work that out. One won't hurt the next class I have coming up." He patted the pile of skins. "Pick what you want, Shelley. I love it when folks want to keep up and expand on their skills. Go for it."
She picked a skin whose color reminded her of the ones she had seen on the highway.
Cedar nodded his head. "Great choice. Yeah. No matter what you plan to do with it."
Shelley called to him from the basement. "Can you come and give me a hand?" She was setting up her workspace. That's what she told him. There was a buckskin laid out across the carpeted floor, the reddish-brown hair side down.
Roger's voice answered, muffled, from a distance, then it came closer to her, from the doorway at the top of the basement stairs. "I said, 'Why don't you come up here?' I have something I want to show you, Shel."
The living room was dark, the drapes drawn. His ancient laptop was connected to the TV. They stood in the middle of the room. She couldn't believe it. The TV screen glowed with Slide 1, a maddening boilerplate design, a font that changed in style and size from line to line.
With an inspired left hook, Shelley caught her husband on the side of the head. In a slow-motion sideways dive, Roger went down to the floor, but not before taking a blow from a sharp corner of the heavy coffee table and tripping a sensitive remote control. A gurgling came from deep down inside him, then faded to nothing. His presentation began to play.
She watched enough to know. Too many bullet points, too many words. "Goddamn it, Roger."
Shelley massaged her sore left hand as she returned to the basement.
The overnight traffic at midweek was light. When she felt sure about the location, she pulled over to the shoulder. She hadn't seen a marker in some time, so this seemed as good a place as any. She popped open the back of the Jeep and removed the buckskin-wrapped body, stitched in tight. She laid it alongside the road. At the next exit her GPS recalibrated. Alongside Lake Superior, she continued east, into retirement.
Copyright © 2019 Jeff Esterholm.