Charcoal: A Short story

From Blue Lake Review

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       If I were to kill myself, I would light a charcoal grill in the bathroom while laying sideways on a pillow like the lead singer of Boston. Not that I am considering it, but I do have depression issues and just got divorced and my two kids live with my wife in Florida and I’m stuck in our family cabin in northern Wisconsin. Check: It was our family cabin. Now it’s mine. I have sole ownership of it while my ex-wife has sole possession of our house in Florida, which is worth more than the cabin and it’s not mine anymore. I also gave my ex-wife half my retirement account. I drew up all the paperwork for the divorce. I separated the assets in her favor because she deserved it. I am not a good businessman.
       It’s the Fourth of July and I’m alone without my family for the first time and someone in The Circle is fucking with me. And this morning, two fighter jets flew over the house low. That’s never happened before. I’m not saying the military is after me; I’m just saying it’s an odd happenstance, especially because where I live is so remote.

       At night, the quiet here is oppressive, but lately I’ve been hearing noises. Voices, like children, from out in the woods. It’s probably birds, except I can hear undercurrents of words, the hiss of my name: Sam, Sam, Sam. Just yesterday, as I was driving down “Y”, the main road through my rural township, I saw a car from Florida and then a white van, who when we approached each other, tapped his brakes and slowed down like he knew me, like he wanted me to stop, or chase me down. Then he accelerated and disappeared.
       There are more gun shots lately, too, not fireworks but bullets; not just shotguns but the pop-pop-pop of automatic or semi-automatic weapons on the edge of The Circle of widely spaced houses where I live. When I go sit by the river, I wear a red baseball cap. It’s not a MAGA cap; instead, it’s got the logo for the Fort Myers Miracle, a minor league baseball team for the Minnesota Twins that just changed its name to the Mighty Mussels. That name change pissed me off, and I have some ideas about who is fucking with me.

       My neighbor, a 76 year-old with Parkinson’s disease who had electrodes placed in his skull at The Mayo Clinic, invited me over for drinks one Friday night back in April, just when the Wisconsin Stay at Home Covid 19 order was lifted by the state’s Supreme Court. While I was there, my ex-wife Tonya texted me: “I updated the dog’s shots. It was $350.00.” I don’t have either of the dogs with me, so I wondered what she was driving at.
       Along with my neighbor Bill was another neighbor, Tad, who I knew, and another neighbor who I didn’t: Steve Davidson. He was a big-bellied, goateed, ball-cap wearing woodsman. His camouflage cap read “Bergemann’s Plumbing.” Steve wasn’t wearing a mask. Tad wasn’t wearing a mask, either, and nor was neighbor Bill.
       Even though I’m a Lefty, I also have a belly, a goatee, and wear a ballcap. I look like a typical middle-aged ruralite minus camouflage. But that evening when I was having drinks with my neighbors, I wore a mask. It was the first time in two months that I socialized with people. In the ten years since I’ve had the cabin, I’ve never heard human night noises until I wore a Covid-19 mask at my neighbor’s get-together. To my credit, my mask was olive drab, surely enough to prove my manliness.
       “I once had 42 ticks on me,” Steve said, peering in my direction but with his head aimed away from me. He was looking at me sideways. I sat across the table from him, Tad to my left, Bill to my right. We sat inside Bill’s place because it was still chilly outside, being April. “Have you ever had that many ticks?”
“I had 39 once,” I said. He looked at me. So did Bill and Tad. We were not appropriately socially distanced. “I’m just kidding. I couldn’t count that specific.”
       “How many have you had at once?” Steve said, eyeing me with suspicion.
       “I had three deer ticks at once,” I said. “I think I got Lyme Disease.”
       “I’ve had Lyme’s Disease for fifteen years.”
       “Did you get diagnosed?” I asked.
       “I had the red targets,” he said.
       “Did you get antibiotics?”
       “I don’t take medicine,” Steve said. “That way my immune system is ready for Covid.”
       I felt the buzz in my pocket from another text. As the fellows talked about ticks and then moved on to talking about red squirrels, I pulled the phone out of my pocket. The text read: “Ask which of the kids put a dent in my new refrigerator. I can’t have anything nice with these kids.” The kids were 19 and 22 years-old, both in college.
        My neighbors didn’t comment on my mask, though I had to pull it up every time I took a sip of beer. I was drinking Michelob Ultra Light from a can and at one point had the beer, a vodka cocktail, and a glass a quarter full of whiskey they poured me that had a maple syrup flavor to it. It tasted like pancakes. I was getting a good buzz and wanted to take my mask off. Every time I sipped a drink, I had to slide the mask up from the bottom to my upper lip and then settle it back down. I was starting to look like a Liberal.
       My wife texted: “Did I tell you I got into a fight with Anne again?          Anne was a good friend of hers and an alcoholic. She met her husband at an AA meeting. They’d been married eight years and were both drinking again.
       “So Bill says you’re a do it yourselfer,” Steve said.
       “I am,” I said. “I just got done installing a bathroom floor.”
       He eyed me with suspicion. “What did you put it on top of?”
       “Plywood.”
       “You know you’re not supposed to put tile on plywood, right?”
       “I’ve never had a problem before.”
       “There’s a product you can get at Menard’s to underlay tile.”
       “Too late now,” I said.
       “You have to shim the toilet?”
       “I did.”
       “I like to have things level without shims,” he said, looking at Bill. Bill nodded and opened and closed his right fist, which was quivering from the Parkinson’s. Every day, Bill rode four-wheelers with Steve on the local trails. He said it helped his Parkinson’s. So did beer.
        “My floor was off-level big-time,” I said. “The whole cabin’s off level. Built in 1972.”
       I tried as hard as I could to defend myself, but I was a pantywaist Liberal trying to rehab a cabin on his own. Nevermind that I had remodeled three houses prior to this one – I kept Menard’s in business through 24 years of marriage. But despite that, I was no man’s man. I was the kind of guy who used shims.

        I haven’t been invited back for drinks since I had to deal with Steve, over two months now, but I have since heard Bill having drinks over there with Tad and Steve and some other people. It’s not hard to hear since our decks are both on the back of our houses and we are almost parallel to one other.
       One day, I went into the backyard by the trail down to the river to clean out the firepit. The metal grate surrounding the fire – it had a moose/tree pattern – had been moved over a foot as though it had been kicked or dragged by a large animal like a bear, but it had to have been a human. The grate was solid iron, a good thirty pounds. It couldn’t have been moved a foot by a deer, the only kind of animal I’d seen by the fire before.

       Last winter, a high-profile kidnapping took place five houses down The Circle. I’d left Florida on January 8, early morning – I was there to appear before a judge to finalize the divorce — and after traversing Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, and most of Wisconsin while drinking Diet Pepsi from soda fountains at Kum & Go’s, pre Covid-19, I turned off Highway 53 to Cable, eight miles from my place. It was 8 PM and there was more traffic than usual.
        I turned into my road, called “The Circle,” which is more the shape of a boot with the toe facing west. Some of the houses are log cabins with shingle roofs, but most have regular siding. The news made out The Circle to be comprised of rustic log cabins full of loners and hermits. In truth, the houses are regular houses with hermits, and most with metal pole barns and garages and yards full of woodsheds and woodpiles and propane tanks.
       Luckily, it hadn’t snowed much the prior three weeks I was in Florida, so I drove up the driveway through three inches of snow and unloaded my contents from the car, cranked up the furnace, started a fire, had a beverage, and checked my phone.
        A message from my sister: “How’s it going up there”
        “Good,” I replied.
        “Any new news?” she said.
        “Not really,” I replied. “Just pulled in from the drive north.”
        “I got another text from a friend: “Sounds pretty crazy up there.”
        I didn’t know how to respond since I didn’t know what he meant, so I finished my drink and went to bed at ten and slept until 10 AM, twelve hours of recovery after not sleeping for more than 30 hours and then, like every morning, read the news on my phone. Turned out that a thirteen-year-old girl from Barron, Wisconsin, who’d been missing for three months, turned up less than a mile from my cabin, and was rescued by police while the abductor, a 21 year-old, was in custody.
       I read an article in The Guardian newspaper that showed a graphic of the overhead view of The Circle, off the main road through Cable, and I was five houses from the abductor/killer. He was a killer because three months prior, in Barron, he had broken into the girl’s home with a shotgun, killed the mother and father, grabbed the girl, threw her in the trunk of his car, and drove her north an hour to the family home in Cable, where he lived alone, and put her under his bed.
        At eleven on the morning of the rescue, I drove out for groceries, and turned left around the lengthy part of The Circle back to the main road. There were two entrances to The Circle; the one to the right was closest to the main road, the left entrance the furthest. I drove left by the kidnapper’s compound on a tight path between thirty black SUV’s parked on both sides of the road for a quarter mile. The compound consisted of a regular house with a two-car garage on the lower level, twenty feet off the road. I drove by and a cop eyeballed me the whole way past.
        At the end of The Circle was a parked State Patrol officer who had me stop before I pulled onto the main road. I rolled down my window and he asked for my license, so I gave it to him, and he said, “What is your business?”
       “I’m going to the grocery store,” I said.
        “Okay,” he said. “When you come back, come through this entrance again so we know who you are.”
         The nearest grocery store was a half-hour away, and when I returned to The Circle an hour and a half later, I went to the entrance that was closer to me. The first state patrol officer seemed a little too official. “What’s your business?” is something only assholes ask.
         Another State Patrol Officer was sitting in his car, hat on, staring down at his phone. I parked beside him, driver’s side window to driver’s side window, engine idling, waiting. He finally looked up and rolled down his window.
        “Sorry about that,” he said. “I just need to see your driver’s license.”
        I handed it over, he looked at me, and handed it back.
        “This is all quite disturbing,” I said.
        “Wait till you hear the rest of the story,” he said.
        The story goes that the young man had it in his mind that he wanted to kidnap a girl, so he hunted for a girl in Barron, Wisconsin. He parked his truck near a school bus that was letting kids off. He saw her and decided that was the girl who he’d kidnap. He’d never seen her before, didn’t know her, but decided to kidnap her, so days later he followed her home. The kidnapper shaved his hair down to his scalp to avoid leaving evidence at the crime scene.
        The woman who Jayme found was a social worker, so finding a girl in big boots and a sweater – she stole her kidnapper’s clothes – was in her wheelhouse. I have never met the woman. I also do not know the couple to whom the woman took the girl in order to call the police. People do not move to Cable because they are extroverts.
        The gossip about the case is limited among the locals. No one knew the kid, none of the neighbors I have talked to or those interviewed; they’d only heard rumors about the older brother and the father, who by all accounts was a nice guy. He lived in Duluth and the son lived in the Cable house, alone. The kidnapper/murderer is in prison for life in Arizona. A recent news story reported that he had been beaten up by another inmate.
        After Steve had a few belts, he said he could take down the FBI easy. He had a lot of guns. “They walked right up my driveway. How stupid was that? I could have erased them. And all they had was pistols.”
         “Pretty stupid,” Bill said. “They don’t know how well-protected people up here are.”
         “I could take down the FBI,” Steve said. “But don’t tell them I said that.”
        I used to have a .32 caliber pistol but I gave it to a friend to keep for me after I was hospitalized for a manic episode. I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. I take lithium and other medications, one of them to stave off paranoia.
        I think it’s possible Steve, maybe in concert with Bill, would like me to put my house on the market.
        Steve said on the afternoon the girl was found, he was taking a shower after a full day of shoot brown squirrels and was all sweaty, so he took a shower. I didn’t know brown squirrels were out and about in January, but I didn’t say anything. He said he heard a banging noise that startled him. He quickly turned off the shower, wrapped a towel around him, and went to the front door. He peered out and saw a woman and a girl with big shoes slogging down the driveway fast.
       “Lucky I was in the shower,” he said. “If I’d taken her in and made the call, I’d have to go through the whole interview process, get bothered by the news reporters. I lucked out.”           
       After his twelfth lite beer, Steve said, “I once drank 42 beers in a night.”
       “How did you keep count?” I said.
       “Somebody else counted for me.”
       Forty-two was a magic number for Steve. He once had 42 wood ticks on him; he once drank 42 beers. I wanted to ask him how many guns he had and wanted him to say 42, but then he’d start to get the idea that I was making sport of him.

       A month after drinks, I walked down my hundred-yard driveway and across the road to my mailbox and noticed Steve heading in my direction in his brown pickup truck. He’d said his transmission was going out but the truck sounded fine to me. I waved at him; he looked straight ahead and drove on, not waving back. He accelerated a little bit.
       Other things: the door to my crawlspace was opened and unlocked. I swear I’d locked it after the chimney inspector came out of there. And my two sheds were unlocked, too, but nothing was taken from either. I called my doctor to up my prescription of Aripiprazole to 20 mg but I haven’t heard back from him.
       I keep looking up, anticipating another military fly-over.

       Last night, July 3, a few bottle rockets exploded over my property and fell onto my grass. I couldn’t tell from which direction they came, but I could hear teenagers’ voices across the street. Maybe they were connected to Steve, though he didn’t have kids of his own. Steve, too, was a divorcee, but of 15 years. His wife bailed on him whereas my divorce was mutually desired. My wife and I fought like Republicans and Democrats.
       Steve said he has a pole barn converted into a butcher shop. He shoots deer and makes venison sausage, says that if the country runs out of beef and steak, he’d be able to supply The Circle with venison. We’d never run out because there are so many deer and Steve had so many guns, enough to handle the FBI if he wanted to, but he doesn’t want them to know that.
       Steve also said, over beer and vodka, that the older brother of the kidnapper was now living alone in the house, and that the older brother was more dangerous than the kidnapper.
       “I think the older brother corrupted Jim,” said Steve. Jim was the kidnapper’s name. Made me think of James T. Kirk. “We gotta keep an eye on him. One of the neighbors was walking her dog by the place and the guy went to his mailbox and when he saw her, he pulled his hoodie over his face and put his head down and beat hell back to the house.”  
        Now I had a new worry: the killer/kidnapper’s brother may be prowling “The Circle.”

       It’s been almost three months since I socialized with the neighbors. I sleep in my upstairs loft with a .22 rifle under my bed. It’s not very powerful, but it can make some noise, and my friend Cortney won’t give me back my .32 pistol.
       He’s concerned because at the end of June, he and my friends came up – the first time we’d seen each other in six months – and were we listening to the band Boston’s first record, and my friend Ben said,        “Brad Delp committed suicide, right?”
       “How?” my friend Tom said.
       “Charcoal,” Bill and I said, with a little too much emotion.
        “He burned charcoal in his bathroom,” Ben said, Googling it on his phone. “That’d be the way to go,” I said. “Painless.”
        “Don’t get any ideas,” Jim said. “That’s why I’m got giving your gun back.

       Loneliness. Human deprivation. That’s what drove the 21 year-old to kill two people and kidnap their daughter. But that’s just my guess. He was alone in that house through the winter, maybe even the winter before. A 21 year-old should be out with friends, working a job. This kid had neither. Apparently, he had applied for a job online the day he was arrested. The only friend he had was a thirteen year-old girl who he had stuffed under a bed. Another young man who needed guidance and mentorship. I’m empathizing with a madman. In the hospital, they kept asking me if I wanted to harm myself or others, and I always said no to both, and I meant it. I mean it. But tonight I’m going to lay in wait.
       There will be fireworks in The Circle tonight, and whoever is fucking me will use the neighborhood din to fuck with me. But I’ll be waiting. I’m going to walk the perimeter with no flashlight, .22 in arm, and headlamp ready on my head to flash the marauders should I run across them. I won’t need the headlamp to walk the property; it’s a full moon on the Fourth, July 2020.

       I took a nap at 4:30 and then made dinner at 5:30. Progresso Vegetable Soup. I cut back on my Lithium without consulting the nurse practitioner who manages my brain medications. I’m doing it gradually though. For the first week, I’m cutting back from 600 mg a night to 450 mg. This next week, I’m scaling down to 300 mg. I need an increase in my energy level, less lethargy. I have shit to do.

       It’s five o’clock and quiet. All I can hear as I sit our on the deck are crows cawing down by the river – must be a deer corpse — and my neighbor Bill’s air conditioner chugging along. It’s still 90 degrees. He must be out riding four-wheelers with Steve. They usually return by 6 PM and have beers out in Bill’s gazebo.
      I’m sitting on the deck grilling chicken and shrimp. My wife texts:
      “Tell your son to pay me rent.”
      He’s 22 and still living at home, taking college courses online because of the Covid-19, working at an Italian restaurant 50 hours a week, playing video games, and sleeping. He’s supposed to be paying 400 dollars rent a month, but it’s only when he gets around to it. I told him he’d be paying 7-800 a month near his college, with just a room in a four-person dorm unit. He knows the reality, but I think he’s depressed, too.
       Should the artillery come, I’ve found a Wal-Mart bag full of leftover fireworks from when the kids were younger. I have five Black Cat bottle rockets and five packs of Black Cat super charged flashlight crackers. A pretty pitiful haul. Last 4th of July, my ex-wife and I were still married and went to a fireworks show at the Atlanta Braves’ new minor league stadium fifteen minutes from our Florida house. We left early because we started arguing, so we never saw the fireworks display.
      It’s 9:30 and the artillery fire is coming from all around The Circle and outside it, too. There’s more local fireworks because the main display in Cable was canceled due to Covid. I’m on the deck, slathered with Deep Woods Off. The humidity brings out the mosquitoes. At ten o’clock, I imagine this what the suburbs of Kabul might sound like. The mosquitoes are voracious.
        I wonder if the kidnapper/murderer had known about the charcoal. The two parents might have lived and the girl not been traumatized.
      It’s after dark and the neighbors two houses down are going to town with their fireworks and their kids are laughing and screaming. I just watched on the computer a 4th of July video of my kids up at the cabin lighting off fireworks. They were thirteen and ten. Those days have passed. Back when parenting ruled my life, I just wanted a drink in peace. Now I have as many drinks in peace as I want. There are no night noises except for the fireworks, but they’ll be done by midnight, and then I’ll need to grapple with how to get to bed. Maybe I’ll turn the fan on loud, start resuming my normal Lithium levels, get the sounds out of my head. I’m too lethargic to stalk the property, a little too drunk.
       I text my ex-wife and kids on the thread with the three of us, my son and daughter included: “You guys watch fireworks tonight?”
       “No,” she replies. “They got cancelled.”

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