With every mile Johnny drives, Lester Cronin is closer to dead. Nobody knows this yet but me. Nobody ever talks about what happened to Grandpa Eddie anymore, like the whole family just forgot all about it. But I never will. The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life. I’m just coming home to take care of business first.
Officially I’m on active duty until September, but I had enough leave time left to out-process two months early. Dad and Johnny picked me up at Detroit Metro in Johnny’s Delta 88. We get the first view of the Mackinac bridge coming up from I-75 and the sky stretches out around the ivory suspension arches. The blue of the lakes blends together with the blue of the sky, reaching up toward the clouds. Our windows are down and the damp, dense air tastes cool and fresh, not like the thick Georgia heat I just left.
Dad sits in the middle of the backseat, crowded in by Johnny’s blue sweatpants, duffel bags and two pairs of basketball shoes. Johnny got a scholarship to play at Hillsdale but he spends the summer at home, up north with the rest of the family. There’s only three beers left in the case of Busch that Dad bought at the Shell station in Pontiac. He cracks one for himself and passes another up to me.
“Bet you’d like one of these, eh Johnny?”
Johnny jerks the wheel just hard enough to wet Dad’s t-shirt with Busch.
“Colonel Henry ain’t doing so good, Buck,” Dad says. “The hard life’s finally catching up with him. Walks with a cane now.”
“What’s he, ninety-two?” Johnny asks.
“Ninety-four in November,” Dad says.
“Might still have a good run left in him,” I say.
“Looks rough since the last time you seen him, Buck,” Dad says. “Something in his eyes, like the fight just ain’t there.”
“I’ll never count Henry down ‘til he’s out for good,” I say.
“Your Grandma Clio’s doing great, though,” he says. “Women get the better end.”
Grandma Clio’s a good thirty years younger than Henry and she had a rough time keeping up with him until a few years ago.
I didn’t see Grandma Clio or Henry last year when I came up for Christmas. Spent Christmas Eve with Grandma Gloria. The old two-story farm house looked more faded and beat-up than I remembered. The white outside walls are stained with time and weather and the barn is in even worse shape—a cold wind blowing down from Ontario would take it down. It was good to see family but it’s not the same as it used to be. Dad’s side used to be close, now everybody’s doing their own thing. Cousin Gwen spent Christmas Eve with her boyfriend’s family, something nobody would’ve done when Grandpa was alive. After Grandma downed her fifth shot of Kessler’s she told Aunt Alexa that Gwen could forget about spending next Christmas Eve with us.
There’s not much room in the old house anyway, with all the new grandkids running around. It’s a big enough house for a regular family, but not for us Metzgers. It gets really loud with all the little shits running around with jingle bells and crying to open their presents. I had to step outside every ten minutes or so just to clear my head. Right before dinner, Dad, Uncle Karl, and I all sat out on the porch a good half hour in sixteen degrees and wind. We passed around the Seagram’s and chopped beef ’til they called us in for dinner at ten. Uncle Karl couldn’t hardly walk by then and the raw beef and cracker crumbs were frozen to his moustache. Aunt Julie was so embarrassed that she grabbed him by the ear and drug him into the back room. Later on, Karl kept telling me, “See what happens when you get married? Don’t do it, Buck.” He must’ve said it about twelve times and Aunt Julie kept giving him a look like he murdered her sister or something. I bet Karl got it good back home. Sure as hell didn’t get laid.
We’re still a half hour from the house but I can taste the cedars and the evergreens, the fresh Lake Huron water. Down below Johnny’s side of the bridge is Fort Michilimackinac and on my side the public access beach; at least a hundred people are running around with coolers, beach balls and beer. There’s sailboats and freight ships under the bridge where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan and the ferries spray white foam from their engines on route to Mackinac Island.
“Ever wonder why Mackinaw is spelled with a “W” in Mackinaw City and every time you see Mackinac on the other side of the bridge, it’s spelled with a ‘C’?”
“It’s so the Buckeyes, Fudgies, and Trolls learn how to say it right ‘fore they cross the bridge,” says Dad.
I’ve been a lot of places in the last four years and there’s nothing so clean, nothing so green and fresh as the U.P. shoreline. In some towns around here, like ours, they got no-franchise laws. It keeps everything like it was in the old days, but there’s not many new jobs and no new business. When I was a kid, places like St. Ignace seemed big, but across the bridge all we’ll see is a town smothered in spruce and birch, no city sprawl, just small blue or white houses scattered in the dark green hills.
“See that cement support there,” says Dad. “There’s a body in there. Under the tower. Mason fell in when they were pouring cement. Nothing they could do but keep on pouring. My old man worked with a guy, Steve Pitt. He seen it happen.”
Dad’s been moonlighting—working construction and at the loading docks again. There’s been steady work there for a few years now. When me and Johnny were kids, he used to do a lot of odd jobs on the side. For a couple years, he worked the woods steady. He’d pay Johnny and me five dollars each to go with him and trim the limbs off the big trees with a bow saw and stack the wood. One summer he was working out by Bear Creek. Johnny and I would bring our poles and flies and go after trout when we finished the work. A couple times, Dad’s chainsaw dulled and he set it down and joined us at the creek. Mom always said you could never shut him up before he got drafted, but that’s the first time he really started talking to us.
“It’s your first day of freedom. We should keep this buzz going. Hit the Skunk House or the Channel Marker. It’s still happy hour.”
“Maybe we should get back and see everybody,” I tell him.
“Your Mom’s working ‘til late and your brother Tommy’s fishing with your uncle Karl. You’ll see everybody else soon enough. Plenty of time.”
“We should go to the casino,” says Johnny.
“How you gonna get in?” Dad asks. “You ain’t twenty-one yet.”
“What casino?” I ask.
“I got it covered,” Johnny says.
“There’s casinos up here now. At the reservations.” Dad grabs Johnny by the sweatshirt sleeve. “Where’d you get a fake ID you little son of a bitch?” Dad lifts his hand to cuff him but he slaps his own knee and starts to laugh. “Just like your old man.”
We take the scenic route through St. Ignace, downtown, past the bus stop where I left for the Army almost four years ago. We stop at the IGA for a twelve pack and sandwiches.
“Just enough to get us there,” says Dad. “They got free drinks in the casino.” He turns to Johnny. “Made it past the bridge—guess you can have a couple now.”
Johnny cracks his second Busch by the time we pass the exit for home. He keeps the Oldsmobile on a straight course north to the Sault.
When I was nineteen, we did a training mission out in Death Valley, at the NTC. It was my second trip out there. First time we flew, the second time we came back on busses. We stopped in Vegas for a few hours and most of the guys hit the casinos or the whorehouses. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t get into the casinos, but there were slot machines everywhere. I played some at a McDonalds and a couple in a gas station. Sergeant Sullivan said it wasn’t a problem unless I won a big jackpot. Then I’d need somebody to claim it for me. If that happened, he said we’d split it. I lost my last twenty-five bucks, except for a quarter. I bet that last quarter and won back five bucks. When the busses lined up to leave for Georgia, Sergeant Morgan didn’t make it back to the convoy in time. They said he was with some red-haired midget prostitute. Next time we saw him he was Private Morgan.
The Sault casino is darker than the ones in Vegas, but there’s enough glass and bright lights to make it glow purple in the night sky. The hotel that’s connected is bigger than any I’ve seen in this city, even though it’s half the size of the smaller Vegas casino hotels. The electric beams around the lower section light the outer doors like gold.
“Who’s feeling the luck tonight?” Dad asks.
“I’m gonna tell you guys something, but don’t get pissed,” says Johnny.
He shows us the fake ID and it’s my real drivers license that I thought I lost two summers ago when we were swimming out at Detour State Park.
“You little cocksucker.” I grab his collar and Dad grabs my arm.
“What’s done’s done,” he says. “Johnny, you’re gonna sit your ass in the car a good hour, then you try to get in. You get arrested, we ain’t bailing you out till we got our fill of free drinks, got it—dumbass.”
The casino is bigger inside than I thought it would be. Except for the cigarette smoke, it smells clean and new, like cedar and carpet shampoo. The floor is red, gold, flat and hard. The entry looks like the fancy hotels where we had our battalion Christmas parties. Instead of dress blues there’s workers all around in their white shirts and dark red bowties. Most the gamblers wear t-shirts, ball caps, jeans and flannels. The security guard stares at my ID and looks back at my face a few times before he lets us in. Johnny might have a problem when he tries to get in. There’s animal mounts all around the front area and a statue of a Chippewa warrior next to some steel-framed display cases with old black and white pictures of Ojibwa Indians fishing the St. Mary’s. Besides that, it’s not much different than the Vegas casinos. What I saw of them from the lobbies.
“Let’s hit the blackjack table,” Dad says. “Don’t tell the old lady, but I lost my overtime check on those quarter slots last week. Slot machines are for suckers. Least with blackjack you got a fighting chance.”
Soon as we sit down, there’s Johnny beside us at the blackjack table.
“Told you to wait a while,” says Dad.
“It’s cool. Heather works here. Saw her coming in for her shift and we walked in together from a side door. Lend me a couple twenties. I’ll double it in an hour.”
“I’ll give you twenty. Only got forty here. Need to hit the ATM.”
Dad and I both change twenty and bet the two dollar minimum. Johnny goes straight to a dollar machine. It’s not long before Dad’s down to his last four bucks. He gets a pair of sevens and the dealer’s showing a four.
“Split ’em,” he says. He draws fours on both. “I need to double down on these. Johnny, give me back my twenty, you motherfucker,” he yells out toward the dollar slots. Johnny can’t hear him through the Bob Seger cranking from the lounge speakers and the ringing of the machines.
“Sir, we’re gonna need you to calm down,” says the dealer. He waves in the security guard.
“What you need, four bucks? Here.” I slide the tokens toward him.
“Sir, there’s no exchange of tokens at the table. This is your warning.”
Dad cracks his knuckles. “I see how it is. You don’t want me to double down. Just hit ’em you little prick.”
A fat security guard with greasy hair taps Dad on the shoulder. “You’re cut off sir. Any more language like that and we’re gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Dad draws a jack and an eight. The dealer busts. “You motherfucker,” Dad says. “I should’ve won double.”
The guard grabs Dad’s shirt collar and jerks him out of his chair. Three more security guards come running over. Dad’s chair falls to the floor and his beer pours out all over the felt.
“Look what you done,” says a second guard, this one female. “Get his ass out of here before I call the cops.”
“He didn’t do shit. It was your boy here,” I tell her.
“You need to leave too,” she tells me.
“What did I do?” She doesn’t answer. I look at the dealer and he just he looks away. “You can’t do this—it’s not right,” I say.
“Are you gonna leave the premises or do we need to escort you out?”
“Check the cameras,” I say. The dealer and the guards ignore me.
I grab what’s left of my tokens and join Dad in the parking lot. Johnny’s nowhere around. The two guards are still walking back to the door.
“I’ll be seeing you around, you fat bitch,” I tell the fat one. He reaches for his club but the other guard stops him.
“And I’ll be looking for you,” he tells me. His body starts to shake but he’s not afraid. Wants to prove something here and now.
“It’s not worth it,” says the female guard. “They’re not worth it.”
One night, down in Columbus, Georgia, a couple fat-fuck bouncers like this guy kicked my friend Doug out of Ernie’s Roadhouse. Opened the door with Doug’s head. Me, Roberts, Morgan, Diaz and Rizzoli waited till they closed up and then we followed one of them to his apartment. We put his bald head through the window of his own Camaro. His scalp was hamburger by the time the glass cracked and shattered. He curled up on the sidewalk like a baby and just started crying.
When all the apartment lights started coming on, I thought we’d be busted for sure but we squealed out in Rizzoli’s truck just when somebody opened the door and started yelling at us. My chest got real tight and I had a hard time breathing. My hand was cut and bleeding from the window glass. On the way back to Fort Benning, we passed a state trooper and I thought for sure we’d get pulled over. Somebody must’ve seen the truck and the plates. By the time we got back, my buzz was gone and I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t slept right since. The bouncer had it coming. I never felt bad about what we did. It’s just scary to think how easy it is for somebody to come after you when you don’t expect it.
That’s how it is too, like that kid in Bosnia, Samson. He was alert to everything in the field, but he didn’t see it coming when that fuel truck ran him over. A few feet here or there, could’ve been any one of our sleeping bags. There’s just too much shit like that to think about. Most the time, I have to drink myself to sleep if I can sleep at all. Then I wake up sudden like the time the blue Kevlar fell from the ammo shelf in that Bradley, right on my forehead and damned near knocked me unconscious. I’m shaking good now, and breathing heavy, but it’s not fear—more like adrenaline.
Dad and I wait by the car for a good half hour but Johnny never comes out.
“Let’s get a drink,” Dad says.
There’s still a mismatched seven pack of Busch and Old Milwaukee in the backseat of Johnny’s car but we don’t have the keys. We walk out to the gas station across the road from the parking lot. Dad wants Kessler’s but they don’t sell liquor.
“Let’s go into town and get a pint,” he says. “We ain’t got nothing better to do.”
It’s at least a couple miles to downtown, but we head out into the dark down Shunk Road.
“Your Ma gets home in an hour,” Dad tells me. “Gonna be pissed we’re not there yet.”
“Maybe the casino wasn’t such a good idea,” I tell him. “Johnny might be in there all night. What’s that on your arm?” It’s the first I notice of the blood on his sleeve. It looks purple on his faded red t-shirt.
“Must’ve happened when that fat fuck pushed me out the door. He’s lucky I’m so drunk or I would’ve kicked his ass.”
“We could give him some payback.”
“When we get back to the casino parking lot, we’ll stake out the place, figure out what car is his. Then we . . .”
“I ain’t sitting around all night trying to find his car. Loser like that ain’t worth that kind of payback. Should’ve knocked his ass out in the parking lot. That’s what he deserves.”
It’s not too long before we come across a party store. There’s no houses around, just the flashing neon sign and a flood light in front of a garage door. Looks like someone just turned an old house into a store. The purple-green light from a bug zapper shines over the rotted screen door entrance.
“Evening, gentlemen,” says a white-haired lady with brown oval frames. She’s only about five foot two but must weigh close to two hundred pounds.
“Hey there,” says the old man. “Don’t suppose you got a pint of Kessler’s for me?”
“It’s Saturday night. Sold out the pints but I got a fifth if that’ll do you.”
Dad grabs a brown paper bag of venison jerky and a box of Swishers. The lady puts it all in a bigger brown bag with the fifth. Dad snags his red t-shirt on the screen door latch. It rips a good size hole before the door springs back against the frame. The sound echoes like a rifle shot over the field and the neon sign shakes above us.
We finish off more than half the Kessler’s by the time we make it to the St. Mary’s river, ducking into alleys and side streets along the way for shots. Somehow we end up on Portage between the Edison plant and the country club.
“We should probably head back and find Johnny,” I say.
“Let’s take a break here. Just for five minutes,” Dad says. He starts walking toward a bench when a blue Chevy Silverado pulls up.
“William, is that really you?”
Most people who know me call me Buck. A handful of friends call me Billy or Billy Buck. Only people who ever called me William were Great Grandma Aideen, Mrs. Gurov and Stacey Larson. I’m a couple years older than Stacey, but we used to hang out. Met her at a baseball game about ten years ago. Her brother Ben was the catcher on my team, little league through high school, ever since they moved here from Marquette.
“What are you doing out here, William?”
“Came with Johnny. He’s still at the casino. The old man and I got tired of blackjack so we took a walk. What are you doing?”
“Dinner at the club. They asked me to play in a quintet. Hey, you guys want a ride somewhere?”
“Which way you headed?”
“Just on my way home. Kind of hungry though. Want to grab some food?”
“Alright.” Dad’s slouched over the park bench. I help him to the truck.
“Is he okay? You guys had a few,” Stacey says when she gets a good whiff.
“It’s those free drinks at the casino,” Dad says.
Mom must be back from work by now. She’ll be pissed off for sure that we’re not home, but we can’t do much about it since Johnny’s our ride. More than anybody, Mom was there for me while I was on active duty, sending me letters and taking care of my business back home. Last time I talked to her, it was from a phone booth in Columbus. The whole time I was riled up, trying to handle the idea of going back to civilian life. She was trying to calm me down with all her logic, but I just got more frustrated. She put up with me until I mentioned getting payback for Grandpa Eddie, then she told me I was acting just like him and Lester Cronin so I hung up. When we get home, I’ll try to explain everything—that it wasn’t her, just the stress. Then I’ll never mention what I’m thinking again. People don’t seem to like the truth much, especially mothers.
Stacey wanted to eat at the Palace but it was too full, so we decided to go across the street to Frank’s Diner. Dad’s passed out in the truck. “Just let me rest a couple minutes,” he told us three times. “Then I’ll come in for a burger.” He’s done for the night.
We cross the street by Maloney’s and turn left toward Frank’s. There’s a group of young stoners in flannels and black sock caps. Must be college guys, but they’re trying to act gangster. They eye up Stacey when we walk past. The one with the nose piercing gives me a bad look. I feel their stares from behind us until we get to the glass door of the diner. It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mixed together while a brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth.
“Ever eat here before?” Stacey asks me. She sniffs in the greasy air and cringes.
“All the time before I left. Food’s great here.”
“Just be the two of you,” the hostess says. She’s cute but has a pudgy face and braces that make her look younger when she smiles. Her brown hair is tucked into a dark hair net and her face is spotted with acne.
“Your Dad okay out there? I feel bad,” Stacey says.
“That’s what you get when you pass out early in my family.”
“He looked really tired. Didn’t get much sleep?”
The waitress sets down two glasses of ice water and two plastic-covered menus.
“They got up early to pick me up at Detroit,” I tell her. Truth is, it’s the Kessler’s that knocked him out. I’m tired as hell too, but I can’t sleep lately. Last three days I slept one hour.
“What’ll you have?” the waitress is blonde. She’s about Mom’s age and looks familiar. With our family you never know.
“I’ll have the Fat Frankie,” I say. Stacey squints at me.
“Great choice,” says the waitress.
“Sounds real healthy,” Stacey says, “but I’ll have the roasted turkey, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with a Fat Frankie,” I tell her when the waitress is gone.
“So you just got back today,” Stacey says. “How does it feel to be a free man again?”
Her eyes are hungry and locked into mine but they’re glossier than I noticed ‘til now. She must’ve had a few drinks at the club or maybe toked it up with the other musicians. I kissed Stacey at a party in high school and she even wrote me a few letters when I was gone, but not much ever came of it. Something will come out of this situation, though, the way she’s looking at me.
“I saw Blake Braune the other day,” she tells me. “Asked me if I knew how you were doing. I didn’t realize you’d be getting out so soon.”
“Me either,” I tell her. “I took all the leave time I had left so I could get back in time for the fall semester. How’s Blake? Only seen him once in the last four years.”
Most people think Blake and I are close since we played on the same teams together, hung out with the same crowd. Truth is, I haven’t been thinking much about him or the old crowd for the last couple of years. While I was gone, the platoon brothers were my family.
“I don’t see him much, she says. Seems fine. Last week I had to pick up a hammer for my Dad at Cronin’s hardware and I ran into him and Jason.”
“That place is still open. I was kind of hoping they burned it down by now.” She gives me a funny look and I realize she doesn’t know the rumors about Lester Cronin killing Grandpa Eddie. She doesn’t know how much I hate old man Cronin so she must think I’m crazy. The name Cronin makes all the hair on my body stand up and I feel a tingling over my scalp. We don’t say a word until the waitress comes back with our plates. Stacey might still be looking at me the same way, but I can’t focus on her eyes. Faraway places and people and times I’ll never see again flash through my mind. Sitting down at the booth made my buzz more intense and the room starts to spin around us.
“Here’s your dinner,” says the waitress. “You want light mayo for that turkey?”
“How about mustard?” Stacey asks.
The waitress nods. “Be right back with that. Enjoy.”
Stacey stares down my Fat Frankie and fake gags before she smiles at me.
“Hey, this is good shit,” I tell her. “Want to try it?”
“I don’t eat red meat,” she says.
“Your loss. Don’t tell me you don’t like a good burger once in a while.”
“When I was a kid. Now it just makes me sick to think about it. Red meat comes from smart animals. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel as much pain, right?”
It’s the kind of bullshit we tell ourselves to justify our stupid theories about life. It’s the kind of lie we tell to sleep better at night. Most people don’t bother calling other people’s bullshit for a lot of reasons. I’d be stupid to call bullshit when a beautiful girl like Stacey looks at me the way she’s looking at me now, so what I tell her is, “You might be right.”
Her lips curl. I feel her leg brush mine under the table. She reaches out to touch my arm and it calms me as much as I can calm. There’s a loud noise from the kitchen, like the chop of an axe or the sound of a mortar fragment on metal. I jump up from the booth enough to bang my right knee on the wood. First she looks at me, scared, then we both laugh like it’s some kind of joke. I feel the cold in my chest and sweat over my whole body while I nod and watch those beautiful red lips move.