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.
Dez, settled back on the apartment's snaggletoothed davenport, weighed his options. Pack his green Dodge Dart, Bev, and escape to Minnesota's North Shore and Grand Marais, or stick around for the long holiday weekend. Splitting for our hometown would leave me with our guests when they pulled in the day after Thanksgiving. Katie and Tricia expected both of us—one, a confirmed long-distance romance, and the other, a prospect. I didn't mind. Not at all. At the time I was a twenty-four-year-old horndog, mistaking that instant-on lust vibe for love, love of the luscious, large-boned Katie.
"Man, Tricia's expecting you. You're not here, she'll steal Katie's car and haul ass up to Grand Marais looking for you." The Jam's Sound Effects spun on the turntable. The bass rumbled. No knocks at the door, shouts to turn it down, threats to call the police. Dez and I leaned towards peace, love, and understanding, but were known for swinging the door wide at such knuckle raps, too intense around the eyes, visible musculature taut with paranoia, ready to jump.
He passed the small brass-bowled pipe, coughed, a chugging sinsemilla locomotive. After a slurp of Jack, he said, "She's too obsessed, Petey. I'm not acquainted with that shit, you know? I'm not equipped. I'm emotionally fragile." He did his headshake thing. Moving to the Twin Cities, he was shocked that everybody he met didn't take to his loopy outdoorsman schtick like the Grand Marais locals. A slap upside the head. A community clinic shrink set him straight.
"Yeah, yeah. Fuck that. Tricia thinks you're the love child of a Little Joe Cartwright - Greek goddess one-nighter." I don't know what region of my ass I pulled that from.
"Really? Like, Michael Landon and Aphrodite?" The vanity of men at twenty-four. Caring, not caring, wrapped in that nature of the second guess. We're all pretty much the same, even today's young men. Few admit it.
"Oh. Hell, no. I'm just fucking with you."
He roared my nickname, "English Major!" Then he stretched. "I guess I could stay in town. What would I do at home besides fatten up on ma's turkey day leftovers and listen to my uncle talk up Reagan?" Tricia wouldn't be the third wheel. Katie and I could check the end point of our three hundred thirty-six-mile romance. I could see if it was all in my head.
The weekend began like any of their other visits. Unloading Katie's car after their five-hour drive, luggage to bedrooms, preliminary love maneuvers, Friday night in Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood, tacos and burritos, pogo-inducing post-punk bands, drinking to excess, and, back at the apartment, ragged Saturday morning hangovers. Through Sunday, it was more of the same. By Sunday evening, Katie and I were puzzling out the end of all those miles. And Tricia? All big wet eyes for Dez.
We left those two spinning LPs—The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads—and crawled off to bed. The bedside alarm clock ticked off red digits. 10:30. Somehow, naked and only slightly toasted, Katie and I couldn't find each other. The music was loud: "Lost in the Supermarket," "That's Entertainment!" "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town," "Psycho Killer." I touched her, but we were hundreds of miles apart.
"Let's do something different," she said, usually so white bread.
"Like what?" Interest was lit. "This?"
"No. This." Katie chuckled low in her throat.
The bedroom door banged open, the doorknob cracking plaster. She trudged in, strange, bent, backlit by the light outside my room. And quiet. Tricia, slinky drunk. She slithered clothed over the top of the blanket that covered us, then, finally, with heavy equipment noises, she wedged her body between the S-shapes of our bodies.
"Help me." Her other vocalizations couldn't be picked out as one word or another.
Katie turned on the bedside lamp. "Trish!"
Knees and elbows, her forehead, all were shag rug burned, weeping blood.
"Help me," she mewled. "I think I killed him."
Back in the living room, we slammed stock-still—two naked, innocents, the third clothed, seared by shag. Dez was bent at an unnatural angle over the davenport, as though dropped headlong from the roof of our building to the concrete lot below, discovered broken, dragged back into the apartment, flung aside like an old overcoat. An LP continued to spin, the tonearm hiccupping at the groove's end.
I stepped on the sofa, peeked over the side. Pitching back, hand over my mouth like a drama school reject, I asked, "What did you hit him with? A fucking mallet?" The side of his face was mashed. Blood and other matter—okay, maybe that other matter was brain matter and bone fragments, who the hell knows for sure, I was an English Major, not a medical professional—congealed on the floor below his battered skull.
"Is … is he dead?" Katie asked. She couldn't act worth a damn either, but I couldn't believe how she looked, standing there without a stitch on, lit by one table lamp. I was quote responding unquote. Sad thoughts, think sad thoughts, dammit.
Tricia, on the other hand, was a hot mess. "I killed him. I killed him."
I turned on her. "Shut up, we know that. I can see that." The wind died in the Bon Homme Woody's sails. "What did you hit him with?"
She shuffled over to the sofa. My best friend had been clobbered to death by this young woman who was attracted to him. I won't lie. I was unnerved, vulnerable to attack, standing on the sofa like the life model for a drawing class. Tricia pointed at the cushion I was standing on.
Rocking back and forth, I felt something odd, something hard. I stepped to the floor and, putting a hand on her shoulder to keep her at arm's length, I lifted the cushion. Katie put an arm around Tricia and pulled her away. Beneath the cushion was a large faux marble ashtray, something from the '60s I'd picked up at a thrift shop. It had been a deep forest green, rectangular in shape. Now it was tacky with blood and broken into three irregular pieces.
Katie gasped. I loved her so.
"Christ, you whaled the hell out of him. You broke up the ashtray. You broke him up."
"He said he didn't love me, that he never did. He said he liked me. He wasn't interested in seeing me again, accept to …" Katie hugged her tight. Tricia wasn't shaking. She leaned out at me. "I wasn't going to be a fucking toy for him." She didn't sound drunk anymore. "I wasn't going to be pushed across the carpet on my hands and knees while he got his rocks off. That was done."
"Fair enough." I wasn't going to argue. There was a lot of rage, her face the color of a sliced tomato.
Katie said, "Let Pete and me get dressed." And to me, "We'll figure out what to do."
We opened the davenport, Dez's body on the dingy, pecker-tracked mattress, his head wrapped in towels—dishtowels, bath towels, beach towels. Originally a psychedelic explosion of color, they were now a sopping deep red inside a plastic wrap cocoon. I smelled iron in the air. Katie sat on a kitchen chair at the mattress's foot, Tricia sat on the other kitchen chair to the left. I was in an armless rocker on the right.
"If we were in Milwaukee, I'd know what to do," Katie said. She smoked a cigarette, one of Tricia's KOOLs, using one of the ashtray pieces that sat on the floor. She'd already wiped Dez from the chunk of faux marble. It was heavy. No wonder he was dead. She flicked an ash. "Lake Michigan. Chop him up, bag him, weigh the bags down, drop them in. Done. No floaters allowed." She ground out her smoke. Tricia threw her the pack for a fresh one.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Come on, Peter. I'm a personal secretary. I manage an office, I manage things."
Tricia's breath caught. "We don't know Minneapolis, though, or Minnesota." Her eyes began to water. "I never thanked Dez for driving us by Mary Tyler Moore's house."
I looked at his body. "He was a good guy that way."
Katie slapped her hands together. "Land of 10,000 Lakes, Trish. Remember? On the license plate!"
I was dumbfounded. We had a dead body in front of us and these two were, what, old hands at the disposal of remains?
Since the hardware store wouldn't open until later that morning, Katie sent me to the basement to find a tarp. I hadn't been down there since move-in day. In the midnight hour, it was all dank murk. A bare lightbulb swung each time I singed my forehead against it, each storage unit wavered in the light. Only one cage was locked. 1980. A different time. I found what I needed.
Katie and Tricia hadn't sat around, shooting the shit while I was gone. Dez was still on the mattress, but stripped to nothing but the bloody rags and Saran Wrap skull-swaddle. Katie had me open the tarp down the galley kitchen floor, flattening and banking it against the cupboards on one side and the stove and refrigerator on the other. Anything we had that could cut meat and bone was laid out on the counter. Katie was efficient.
We moved Dez to the kitchen floor.
Tricia had no qualms. Her cry of help me had gone by the board. Now she was all, "Let's do this!" Katie's hand swept over the cutting tools. Tricia's left hand grabbed the boning knife.
Here I became worthless. I was from northern Minnesota and tried hunting with my old man and uncles. It never worked out. I wouldn't, couldn't get a shot off. I lost my breakfast, lunch, and dinner when the dead were hung head down to be dressed out. Tricia and Katie, they worked like skilled, single-minded butchers. The buzz of an electric carving knife, the squish of meaty handholds, the slicing, sawing, the sound of each maneuver, flipping over a blood slippery thigh, hacking through the spinal column, the thump of a heavy piece of meat lobbed against a growing pile: Without a word, I bailed for the bathroom and hurled my guts into the toilet.
Hunkered down, heaving into the rust-rimmed bowl and looking at what shot out of me—no idea where anymore of the waste could come from—I heard a purred sigh: Katie, leaning against the doorjamb. "How you doing?"
I wiped my sour mouth with the back of my hand. "How's it look like I'm doing?"
"Don't worry about it. Trish and I used to hunt every year with our dads and brothers. We missed it this year to come visit you and …" She nodded in the direction of the kitchen abattoir. "We've done this hundreds of times."
"Well, not exactly this. I'm talking bear, deer, rabbit, grouse. You know. But I wanted to apologize now." I looked at her. Curious. "We had to use all your trash bags to bag him up. He would've been too darn heavy to lug around in just two or three. Dez was one well-muscled dude. Anyway. Had to use one for his messed-up clothes, too."
Katie got down on her haunches. "I'm thinking it was cutting him up that bothered you, am I right?"
I nodded my head.
"The cutting up—"
Her head jerked back. "Semantics, English Major. We all have to work together to get this right. Together. You following?"
I must have looked dazed. "Are you tracking, Peter? Listen to what I'm saying."
"Trish and I are going to make your apartment look like nothing ever happened. It will be so clean, they'll think—oh, never mind. It will be nice. Fresh."
"But we have to get rid of …" She nodded again to where, I assumed, the Dez bags were waiting. "If you have any ideas on that particular topic, we'd sure like to hear them because Trish and I, we're just a couple M'waukee girls, out of our own backyard."
We sat in the living room, the davenport closed up, the women sharing a travel ashtray. Katie was right. For all I remembered of the gore, they'd done a remarkable cleaning job. I no longer smelled blood, not really. There was more the strong smell of Mr. Clean and strategically placed piney air fresheners. The bags of Dez were, of course, unnerving, but I sucked it up and tried not to think of him the way he was. The three of us sat like we were involved in an intervention.
Sunrise would be in three hours. No one yawned. We looked at a map of Minneapolis picked up at a service station. The city of lakes. Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun—now Bde Maka Ska—Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis. Fuck me, Minnehaha Falls? I shook my head.
"What do you mean? What's wrong with these?" Katie asked. "It's still dark."
"Were you throwing up?" Tricia asked. "Your breath stinks."
"Stop it. Why not one of these lakes?"
It had to be more than a simple dump job. I asked, "What about his car? Don't you think we should come up with some plan? Like, I don't know, he left town? Not just, oh, Dez fucking disappeared, but Bev is still parked outside the apartment."
They looked at me. Katie smiled like some animated night blooming flower of death. "Now you're thinking, English Major. What's your plan?"
I yanked a large 1978 paperback road atlas from the shelf of the hall closet, above the winter coats and boots. Interstates, state highways, county trunks, paved, unpaved, you name it. It was Dez's atlas. He bought it before he graduated from the U of M. He'd highlighted the routes of his young hitchhiker's life, from Grand Marais to San Antonio and San Francisco, to Winnipeg and Nuevo Laredo with a detour to New York City, and back to the Midwest, tramping around Lake Superior and Isle Royale. I loved my compadre. Now I was planning a route to his grave.
On the living room floor, the atlas opened between the three of us to a two-page spread of Minnesota, I noticed Katie looking at me. It was all I could do to stay focused. Lakes. State parks and forests fairly deserted in late November. Gooseberry Falls. Boundary Waters. The Superior National Forest. Too close to Grand Marais. Kabetogama or Koochiching? No, too far to go. But then I saw it. The perfect final resting place.
I pressed the spot with my finger. "There!"
Katie peered. Tricia lit a KOOL.
Headwaters of the Mississippi, 1980
Katie's brand-new Chev wouldn't carry the body bags. What would be the point? Bev waited in the dark lot behind the apartment building. The temperature was in the teens. There was no snow, not a flake. Katie and I carried the bagged Dez to the open trunk, Tricia stood guard, shivering. Katie was right. Dez was well muscled, a husky cowboy, as he might have said in more together days. A light in an upper story apartment came on as we loaded the last bag.
Tricia was shaky. "Should we check that out?" She'd killed once tonight.
"No," Katie said. "Someone's taking a late-night pee."
It was a clear night, early morning, the city lights mopped up the stars. "Let's get some winter weather gear," I said. "I don't know what it'll be like up north." We gathered parkas, leather choppers, winter boots. Passing the stairwell leading to the upper floors of the building, Tricia glanced over, Taking a piss? Or watching us load the trunk? I shook my head.
We left before first light, Katie's Chev following the Dodge with the full trunk. Katie had given Tricia the keys to her car, whispering to me, "I don't want her riding with you. You can be a funny guy sometimes, English Major. That could upset her."
I drove Bev. Katie rode shotgun, head lolling against the passenger-side window. Tricia followed with no apparent issues. We made rush hour in St. Cloud, picking up breakfast at a Mickey D's, then continued on Highway 10. The ride was quiet, the land flat, November desolate, with an occasional grove of leaf-stripped trees by the highway.
The snow began to swirl down outside of Park Rapids, lines of it shimmied snakelike across the pavement. Traffic dropped in both directions. I slowed due to the weather and so that Tricia and I could keep an eye on each other. The road bent into a deep, old pinewoods. We were on our own with what we had to do. My sense of unease suddenly surged in a massive way.
Katie felt it at the same time. "What're we going to do with his car after we dump him, Peter?"
I slapped the steering wheel. "You're the secretary who manages everything. What's your plan?"
She slugged my shoulder. "Don't be bringing my words back up to me, English Major!"
I looked in the rearview mirror at Tricia in the Chev. During rest stops, breakfast, she was quiet. Her face didn't show a thing. Sadness. Despair. Resolve. Anger. Guilt. Nothing. It brought out the wiseass in me.
"What about the killer? Think she has any ideas about this? What to do with her true love's car? We're out in the middle of nowhere to dump his body. What do we do with his beloved Bev? He loved this fucking car."
Katie popped my shoulder again. "Would it hurt you to be nice?"
"I promise, she didn't hear a word."
"It's not like she planned to kill him. He was a cute guy. Why would she kill him?"
These women were fucking crazy.
"Besides, English Major, you had the brilliant idea of driving up to this middle-of-nowhere winter wonderland to dispose of the body. 'We have to take Dez's car! Make it look like he ran off!' That's pretty much what you said, smart guy English Major. Use your English Major to figure out this jam."
I choked back a laugh. She did a reasonably decent impression of me.
In the state park, we rolled along an unplowed road. The snow wasn't much more than three inches deep, but heavy and wet. If we got stuck, we'd have to tramp back to a lodge or gift shop, break in, and find a payphone.
We parked in an empty lot. I took Katie and Tricia walking along a winding, snow-greased footpath, grabbing for tree trunks and branches when we'd slip. The trees spread, the space opened up, and there it was, the headwaters of the Mississippi.
The river was not ice covered. Not too deep, not too shallow, littered with deadfall and boulders of various sizes, some moveable, others not so much. It was perfect. Even Tricia thought so. She nodded her approval. "I could see Dez here. Forever."
"He will be," I said.
Katie appraised the area with her personal secretary's eye. The eye of the fixer. Then she came close, hugged me, and planted one of her wet-and-sloppys. "You done good, English Major. It's beautiful." She pointed out ideal spots for the bagged Dez, placement dependent on depth and whether the bags could be held in place by boulders and downed logs. She popped me a light one. "I think this will come together."
The snow stopped. The sky was a pure winter blue.
Katie and I did the heavy lifting, shifting Dez from the trunk to the headwaters. I hauled each bag into the clear water, far enough out to not be visible from land or the trail come springtime and summer. The water was ice cold and soon I was soaked to my belly. By the time I was done, I was shaking and shivering and my teeth chattered. I thought I would die of hypothermia.
But Katie and Tricia, they stripped me down and huddled with me in the Chev, the heater on full blast. There were blankets in the trunk. A spare change of clothes? I'd thought of those in Minneapolis. They were stowed on Bev's backseat. I would live.
In the middle of the night, a bonfire blossomed in those deep Minnesota woods. Katie and Tricia set Bev ablaze. A perfect touch, because what else could we do? Wipe our prints and abandon it in a Minneapolis neighborhood? No. We left the car burning near the Mississippi headwaters. The exploding firelight flickered through the branches of the pinewood and shown on the water where, not far below the river's surface, my friend lay in pieces.
I've had to live with that long Thanksgiving weekend for nearly forty years, as have the two women. You're perhaps familiar with a phrase attributed to Sun-tzu, or maybe to Michael Corleone. Sun-tzu said it first. "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." As an accessory, aiding in the cover up of Dez's murder, I've done just that with Katie and Tricia.
Here we are in the years, retired and living in Milwaukee, my wife and I, both in our early sixties, fairly healthy. There's been a hot-wire through line of concern all along the way, keeping her close. She's the only one I've had to watch out for. The other? All these years afterward, she began to feel her version of remorse. When we understood this, my wife and I gave each other that knowing look. The look that lights up faces when the furnace goes out on a winter's night. We have a problem and we need to take care of it.
We took care of it last summer, shortly after giving each other that look. The three of us went sailing on Lake Michigan. Unfortunately for her, due to the weather that day, 1980's circumstances, and the onset of her remorse, there was what was officially termed an accident with the rigging and a spar. She drowned in that cold lake, my wife holding her old friend's head under the waves.
Dez disappeared around Thanksgiving, 1980. I reported him missing in December after calling his mother, asking to speak with him, and finding out he never made it north. I was interviewed by the police, as were Katie and Tricia. He'd left after the two women arrived. No. There were no romantic entanglements. We were all friends. He'd gotten a wild hair to pay his mother a surprise visit. He wasn't depressed, though he had seen someone at the community clinic.
I mention the through line of concern, keeping friends close and enemies closer. My wife and I are closer than any other couple we know. For our benefit, I adopted the habit long ago of checking Minnesota newspapers, in print and online, to see if anything strange had been discovered at the headwaters, something stranger than the torched car. Bev made the papers, but nothing came of it. No. I am waiting for the white shinbone or the sand-scrubbed and damaged skull to bob up somewhere along the Mississippi and become headline news in the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth newspapers: Body Parts Discovered in River.
Then I'll call my wife over to take a look. "He's made the papers, Tricia."
Copyright © 2020 Jeff Esterholm.