Melissa Olson-Petrie’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been published in Blue Mesa Review, cream city review, Midwest Review, and other literary magazines. She served as a fiction editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University, where she received her MFA. She has taught writing and critical reading at universities and colleges in Arizona and Wisconsin.
To Walk Chalk
Waiting alone in the century-old kitchen, Claire slumped at the table and smoothed the curling foil label on her father’s last whiskey bottle. She had found his bottles, from retired to still-sealed, hidden around her childhood home for months after he died. “Damn,” she whispered. If a couple fingers of his whiskey were still here, maybe he couldn’t be so far away after all.
“I should have…” She twisted off the bottle cap and breathed deeply of eau de Jack Daniels, so tempting because her blind date (and at her age) was due any minute. A dot of whiskey caught on the sensitive chute of skin below her nose and drifted to her lips. Given this hint of a taste, she lifted the bottle for a swig as desperately as her father would have after days of coaxing shoe factory machines to do their work.
“I said, no. I’m forty-two. Too old for blind dates. Besides I’m not staying in Wisconsin.” Another whisper. Another swig. The familiar liquor seared her empty belly.
Imitating her mother in falsetto, “It’s not a blind date. It’s a semi-blind-date. You haven’t been out in months.” Claire toasted the memory. She could feel the whiskey tingling through her limbs and splotching her cheeks with heat.
“Haven’t seen him since high school, and he wasn’t a catch then.” She raised the bottle again.
With only dregs left, she hesitated. This moment, finishing this bottle, felt more final than anything from her father’s Thanksgiving funeral with its fake blue-marble urn.
Nonetheless, she emptied the bottle and bent forward to lay her cheek on the cool Formica tabletop. She must have dozed because moments later her toes were burning. The furnace rumbled in the basement, her usual trigger to move her stockinged feet away from the cast-iron register in the kitchen floor. Air blasted out of this vent hot enough to liquefy butter. The evidence pooled before her in the glass dish she had neglected to put away after lunch. The melted butter would add yet another concern to her mother’s list.
Twisting away from the furnace register, she massaged her toes. She swore that stealthy clouds spurted up through these iron-curlicued vents. She had lost track of the times she sensed something sooty lingering on a wall where no shadow should be. The longer Claire stayed in Decameron, the more the funereal clouds troubled her. She had taken to watching them in her peripheral vision.
The kitchen was too bright for the clouds, but she would bet her Great-grandpa Gustav had seen them too. The day he fell down the basement stairs and ended up in the Emergency Room, she had been called out of surgery, her first nursing job, to comfort him. His shattered hip would start a fatal cascade of maladies, but that afternoon he was lucid.
Grandpa Gustav told her about the case of beer bottles he’d been carrying, how her father should get his railroad watch and the tool crate from the basement, as well as how the family home had been rented (saved) by the Sharers during the Depression. The front rooms, with the eight-foot pocket doors, had been turned into a furniture showroom and funeral parlor, he said. Mourners could walk or drive past the arched palladium windows to view the deceased, but only after the Sharers had embalmed the bodies in the basement. Grandpa Gustav had raised his eyebrows to let that last tidbit sink in. Then, fading on pain meds, he had muttered, “You can see them. I can see them. Shining out at me. Chunks!”
The doorbell dinged and then buzzed with the button being held in too long, and Claire was thankful for its grating reality. She tipped up her father’s bottle, desperate for the last droplets of whiskey. She popped a menthol lozenge in her mouth and willed her father to stay with her, at least while his liquor filtered through her bloodstream.
She wove her way through the over-furnished dining room to get to the front door. With every step she pulled at her low-rise slacks, an unfortunate cut she couldn’t remember buying. They were probably hand-me-ups from her college-hopping daughter.
Deputy Sheriff Doug Schmelling was punctual for their date. Claire had just opened the door when the mantel clock chimed half-past five. She remembered Doug with velour-length hair in high school, so the amplitude of his comb-over made the first impression. He offered a rigid, “Let’s go,” and turned away to lead her to his car. This brought to Claire’s mind an odd snippet from high school about how, according to Doug’s church, boys and girls shouldn’t swim in the same pool.
She watched Doug as she pulled on her boots, her hold unsteady on the doorframe. He had been several years ahead of her in school—ROTC and hunting all the way. Now his walk swayed from side to side, indicating knee pain, and he carried his belly a bit like a basketball. Doug turned, puzzled that Claire wasn’t following.
Claire called back into the house, “We’re going.” A limp hand waved from within her mother’s throne-like recliner in the living room. More vigorous movements came from the red and green lights flashing from channel to channel on the police scanner, a Friday-night pastime that had outlived her father.
“Be right back,” Claire told Doug.
Out of habit, she touched her mother’s toes to check their circulation. Swannie’s right leg was in a thigh-high brace that had kept her practically homebound since the accident. Swannie looked past Claire at a “Wheel of Fortune” re-run with a blotchy face. Her latest crying jag had started over the last bit of liverwurst for sandwiches and had risen to include just about everything Claire had done since returning to Decameron.
Claire sweetened her voice, “How are you doing?”
“Don’t keep him waiting.” Swannie’s eyes teared as she smiled.
Claire was ready to call off the date, but through the window Doug motioned as only a cop could to what looked like a decommissioned narc car.
“I’m locking you in,” Claire called back as she grabbed a coat from the hall tree.
On the sidewalk, Doug waited for Claire to catch up. This was his turn to scrutinize. She had bypassed her never-ending wardrobe of pilfered surgical scrubs and selected a moto-zip sweater and the low-rise slacks that risked exposing her lower back, and maybe more, when getting into Doug’s car. She paused to put on her coat. “Blood’s still thin from Arizona.”
When Doug opened the passenger door, Claire came face to face with the fuzzy green dice hanging from his rearview mirror. She jabbed at them with her index finger as she got in.
“I was just noticing your dice,” she said as he wedged himself into the driver’s seat.
He reached up to touch them reverently. “Was in Walmart the other day, and there they were. Said, ‘Want me somma that.’”
The short drive to Cozy Inn was silent. They were early birds for Friday night fish fry, a Wisconsin staple she hadn’t missed. While they were being seated, a house painter downing clam chowder and beer at the counter compared last night’s income tax deadline to recovering from a hangover.
Claire wished she still had a job to pay taxes on, not to mention the money to reactivate her cellphone. She longed to be any place but here—back in her unseasonably snowy hometown, caring for her widowed, osteoporosis-ravaged mother, and dating a man she probably wouldn’t talk to in the town’s only grocery store.
At their table, she and Doug hunkered behind their menus, knowing they would order the same thing—perch, coleslaw, fried potatoes, rolls, and butter.
“And to drink?”
“Jack Daniel’s, straight up,” said Claire, hoping to keep her buzz.
“We serve beer and wine.” The waitress glanced toward the kitchen.
“Old Style.” Claire said.
Doug sucked in his chin. “Sworn off the stuff. Decaf. Two.”
“Excuse me,” Claire said. “Run a separate tab. I’ll have the beer.” Having drinks was her consolation for going on this date—that and escaping her weepy mother and the former funeral parlor for a while.
“Seen too many nice people maimed and killed by drunk drivers. Far as I’m concerned, everyone should walk chalk.”
“Chalk. Heel-toe. Field sobriety check.” He made a chopping gesture with his hand. “Your father probably saved your mom by getting run over by that Explorer first. He wasn’t impaired though.”
Claire blinked away a pulsing afterimage of an emergency surgery involving an abused toddler, one of the cases alcohol used to help her forget.
While eating, they stared out the darkening windows and at other diners. They kept their heads down and their forks moving. Claire took a sip of her beer and remembered why she had never liked the taste. When the checks came, she threw out a five for her three-dollar beer.
“Greedy divorce lawyers keep me on the brink of bankruptcy.” Doug shuffled the credit cards in his wallet.
Before seven, they pulled up to the Gustav house. Claire assured Doug that he didn’t need to walk her to the door. She was afraid that despite everything she would have to endure a fumbling goodnight kiss.
She was climbing the stoop when Doug’s muscly car skittered away. Trying not to take it personally, she reminded herself how little stranger danger existed in a town of four thousand. This wasn’t Phoenix.
Through the front room’s palladium window, Claire could see that her mother still sat in the recliner. Swannie’s mouth was open, and her head bobbed on her shoulder. She resembled an antique scene in a hand-colored postcard—framed by the still-serviceable brocade drapes and tinted by the buttery aura of the brass reading lamp.
From outside, Claire heard a muffled exchange from the police scanner. She could also make out the faint whine of a siren across town. Claire fought the urge to cry. She could go inside and join her mother, enduring the days taking care of Swannie like Swannie had done for her own mother.
Or she could walk to Sportsman’s for a drink. After that, the Oats Bin, the Drift In, the Come Back In, the Stop Lite. She’d trawl all the places her father used to frequent with his buddies.
Fog wisped from the melting snowbanks as she started down Main Street. The whole route would be about two miles, in and around downtown, ending at Reggie’s Place, which closed at 10:30. That was her goal. Fifteen minutes per bar, and then home. Swannie need never know.
At Sportsman’s, an older couple drank at a table in the window. A dusty stuffed badger wearing overalls and a cobwebbed rooster sat by their feet. Other varieties of road kill, fishing prizes, and animals too slow to escape decorated the walls.
The bartender swore he didn’t know anything about the elderly man who had collapsed there last Friday, the one Claire had heard about on her father’s scanner. He excused himself to pull pitchers for the regulars at the pool table.
She surveyed the taxidermy and nearly shrieked at a motorcycle trauma with a forehead of smashed bone and gray matter. A second glance revealed the scarlet-painted mouth and gills of a shellacked musky. She let out the gasp she had been holding.
The tavern folks around her pretended not to notice. In return, Claire avoided eye contact, hoping to dodge their sloppy sympathy. She drank her name-brand whiskey with the last of her cash and followed a televised car race from bar to bar.
Twenty minutes before closing, Reggie’s Place was emptier than the other taverns. A jukebox filled the void with a polka-type song with Spanish lyrics—music reminiscent of her favorite burrito restaurant in Phoenix.
Claire, feeling liquid at this point, took the seat of the lone man who had just stumbled toward the exit. The stool still felt warm. She pushed aside the guy’s empty beer glass.
“Jack Daniel’s, straight up,” she said, scanning the bottles behind the bar. “Hey, don’t you have any friends?”
“Chica, don’t make fun of my name.” The bartender put a clean glass on the carpet disc in front of her.
His accent reminded her of Arizona. “What’s your name? Reggie?”
“No. Gruñón. Grouch.”
“How’d you get a name like Grouch?”
He squinched his eyebrows together to form a unibrow that prickled with gray. What she could see of his body behind the bar was trim like a jogger. Then, she caught the “Oscar the Grouch” figurines and a Plaza Sésamo poster that said “Scram!” by the cash register.
“Ask you the same question,” he said.
“What’s that?” Claire swirled her whiskey, pondering how it both warmed and cooled.
“Where are your chicas?”
“On that note…” She got up, shaking her head to clear a flash of blood overflowing an operating table and slicking the floor. “No, no,” she cautioned, already refusing a ride home. “Cold foggy air ’ll do wonders for my lungs.”
Minutes later, a Rock County deputy sheriff, one of Doug Schmelling’s colleagues, spied her meandering across Highway 59, headed out of Decameron. He parked his cruiser and walked toward her bowlegged, looking as if he’d gotten off a horse and making her feel queasy.
She knew it was over when he ran the ID check on the radio. Scanner-snoops like Swannie were listening for some Friday night reality—domestic disputes, DUIs, kidnapped lawn ornaments. First thing tomorrow, whether breakfasting at Cozy Inn or Sportsman’s, someone would be talking about her.
Tomorrow, taking her mother’s place at Krazy Quilters, she would have to endure a knowing silence. Maybe there would be a token suggestion regarding “help.” God, how she hated those conversations. The Liberace-like pastor might slip her a list of local AA meetings. Claire might have to deflect Myrtle Schmelling’s smoky growl, “Imagine what you’re doing to your mother,” more successfully than she had Myrtle’s insistence that Claire should stop frittering away her nursing career and that her nephew and Claire had a lot in common when setting them up. According to the quilters, Doug’s ex-wife was shacking up with a car salesman in Stoughton.
Claire slouched on the curb with her forehead resting on her bare hands to block out the haloed headlights of passing cars. She felt cold air on her exposed lower back and decided not to care. A rust-plagued pickup truck made a U-turn and idled up next to the deputy.
“What’s going on?” Grouch asked.
“Found her slaloming the center line.”
Grouch hooked his thumb toward Claire. “How about you let me take her home? Friend of mine.”
The deputy appraised Grouch and handed over Claire’s driver’s license. “She can puke in your car.”
The floor in Grouch’s pickup crunched under Claire’s feet—fast-food wrappers, junk mail, and aluminum cans. He had bulldozed a raft of compact discs toward the stick shift to make room for her. The truck seemed to somersault backward when he belted her in. She clutched the armrest, struggling to breathe in the too-hot compartment and straining to catch the draft that came in with Grouch.
“You all right, chica?” he asked.
“Air.” She tried to open the window, but the crank broke off in her hand, leaving a stub like a diseased bone. She pulled on the door handle—realizing that her mouth was watering in warning—but Grouch had locked the door. In desperation, she grabbed her purse and spit into it ineffectually. Grouch ran around the truck and yanked her out into a crusty snowbank.
“Whole world out here to throw up on,” he said.
She dumped her purse upside-down and looked at his frowny face with its bushy graying eyebrow. She covered her mouth, attempting to stifle her inane laughter.
Grouch scooped a handful of slush and splatted it on her cheeks.
She let out an operatic scream.
Grouch chuckled as he helped her back into the truck, rolling down the window this time. He tossed her purse in the truck bed.
“Your ‘restricted’ license says Arizona, so where you staying?”
She gave him Swannie’s address and watched her Glamour Girl compact, which stuck out of the slush pile like an Oreo in ice cream, disappear in the side-view mirror as he drove.
“Old funeral hom-m-me. Embalm-m-med people in the basem-m-ment.”
Claire weighed the word home. Was home in Phoenix where she had worked in surgery for almost twenty years? Some cases—the abuse victims, motorcycle crashes, cancer patients, knife and gun club members—stayed with her to this day. For years, she had coped with a lot of tragedy and unwelcome hugging, but she lost all resilience when her father died. Even though her eyes were closed tight, Claire saw spots in an array like surgical lights.
Or was home here in Decameron? Living and sleeping in a former mortuary. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the frigid, dead bodies that had come and gone before she was born. She often wondered if they left anything behind—some spirits, some thoughts, a ghost. Going into the basement at night was impossible for her now.
“Got the perfect song for you tonight.” Grouch turned on the dome light to search through his CDs. The truck balked at a stoplight. “Tom Waits,” he said, queuing up the album. He bobbed his head as the gravelly singer began.
Claire felt like a fish gulping the air coming through the window. She willed her stomach to calm, but all she could taste was bile and gastric juice. More than anything, she wanted to brush her teeth and snuggle into flannel sheets and blankets for a long time.
She was plotting how to sneak past Swannie when the title of Grouch’s song became inescapable, “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again.” The song still played when Grouch helped Claire to the door. No fumbling kiss. Only a scowling Swannie and a purse Claire tried to disown. Grouch dropped it on the stoop before waving good-bye.
Swannie and her walker had ventured out of the front room to thank Grouch. She inquired about a relative of his who had throat cancer. Meanwhile, Claire walked her arms along the walls toward the bathroom. To the drone of their words, she stepped out of her boots, stripped down to her bra and panties, swished toothpaste in her mouth, and cocooned into the nearest bed.
The front door closed hard enough to make the blinds slap at the dining room windows. “Claire! Shame on you.”
Moments later a perplexed, “Claire Marie?” came through the wall. Claire looked around at not-her-clock and not-her-bed. She was in her mother’s room.
With a momentum that kept her upright, Claire plucked her soggy, bilious jacket off the bathroom floor and wrapped it around her shoulders like bat wings. She made her way to the basement—the one place in the house her mother couldn’t hobble with her walker.
She picked her way down the rickety basement staircase, the same stairs that had broken her great-grandfather’s hip. She breathed the musty air and listened to the sounds—the plink of her bare feet on the painted wood steps and the creak of the nails that connected the stairs to the first-floor landing.
Her mother had stopped calling her name. Claire leaned against the rough limestone wall—halfway up the stairs, halfway down. Her legs felt like numb cottony stubs. She shredded her knuckles trying to catch her jacket when it slid off her shoulders. It fell onto the rotting boards that covered the basement’s dirt floor. The room spun, and she plopped down on the steps.
On the opposite wall, she spied her Jack Daniel’s bottle sitting where she had left it among the laundry detergents, softeners, and bleach. She tripped across the splintery floor, cursing the cold and her perpetual lack of slippers.
She stared at the bull’s-eye from her childhood dart games to avoid looking at the black walls of the old coal chute, the crate of obsolete railroad tools, her father’s pile of foot-shaped wooden lasts, and especially the shadows. The bare bulb hanging over the wringer washer swung like a pendulum, creating shadows that danced around her like taunting gang members.
“Don’t scare me.” She climbed back to her spot on the stairs and sat, resting the bottle on her thigh like a shotgun.
Was Great-grandpa Gustav still here, even though he died in a nursing home? What about her father? He died just outside, walking home from lunch. Who else could be here? Did the bodies leave anything behind?
She took a lingering swig from her bottle and was replacing its cap when the light clicked off. Claire held her breath. The darkness felt so black she could hear it ringing in her ears. When, the door at the head of the stairs opened, incandescent light from the kitchen blinded her. She stared up at the light and tracked the drag and shuffle of Swannie’s walker, then the scrape of a kitchen chair.
Her mother didn’t say anything, but Claire sensed the onset of one of Swannie’s crying jags.
Claire sighed. She stood up, her body Tilt-A-Whirl, her bloodied, cold hand catching at the railing, the bottle thumping down the stairs. She reached toward the bottle just as it splashed and shattered in the dark. Such a waste, she thought, before she heard more thumps, dull and far off this time. For a moment, the gravity, the undeniable nature of falling, felt like her father’s warm embrace.
She landed on the basement floor with her father’s arms around her. His grip was crushing. He’d made no effort to save her from the shards of the whiskey bottle, and his pressure on top of her deepened the cuts. She pushed back, to stop the glass from piercing muscle and hitting bone. Only then did she realize that he had inserted himself between Claire and the others whose touch could liquefy butter.
Claire felt the heat of their anger, the weight of their demands: the abused toddler with a liver lac, the crumpled crotch-rocketeer kept alive only for the organ harvest, the stabbings and the aneurysms spilling blood everywhere, the “ectomy” that defied available medical terms, now missing a cancerous jaw as well as parts of his neck and shoulder. Their questions and accusations scorched her anew.
When the light came back on, glaring in her eyes, the clouds retreated to the shadows. Where her father had weighed her down, there was emptiness. She moaned and rolled away from the broken glass. Blood leaked from her body. Shivering, she listened to the slow heartbeats in her ears. Swannie at top of the stairs, wailed like an ambulance siren.
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