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The Hardest Part

Second-place Winner – 2017 Fiction Contest

The five women, all in their thirties and costumed as pigs in pink cotton onesies, faces hidden by Petunia Pig masks, trotted in through the back door of the house on the corner of 16th and Marquette and into its dark kitchen. The one who led them through the unlocked door, Joanne Severson, held a finger up to the lips beneath her Petunia snout. “Shh.” A giggle. Then she called out, “Kids, come here a sec, will you?”

Patrick, Kim, Tom, and Richie, this last, the youngest, a purposeful accident conceived in anger on a humid summer night in a Lake Nebagamon cabin, came on the run. Patrick, the oldest of Joanne’s four, flipped the kitchen switch. The three circular fluorescent tubes that made up the fixture centered on the ceiling flickered to cold brilliance. The shining masks tilted at her children.

She thinks back on that now, years later. Patrick was the one who turned on the light, wasn’t he? He always had. She had to watch that with the other kids. He was the one.

The five women, a bowling team sponsored by Edelstein Brothers, Quality Jewelers and Optometrists, were half in the bag. They grunted and oinked, and then laughed, slapping their pink-cotton knees. The children, the three youngest anyway, with their sleepy grins, were ready to play. But Patrick, Joanne’s Book-of-the-Month-Club edition of In Cold Blood in his hand, index finger tucked in between the pages, marking where he was when interrupted, looked embarrassed for all these ladies, these adults. They were moms and most of them, though not Joanne, did work outside of the home. This was the exception. There was the one who mixed the dough and seasoned the ground beef in the backroom kitchen at Dominic’s Pizza. Another was a Holmgren Clinic nurse who wore a starched white uniform by day, a black stripe across the fold of her white RN cap. And the elementary schoolteacher. She subbed at Roosevelt Elementary, where Patrick went through the sixth grade. All of them were bowlers. He didn’t run, squealing and laughing like his sister and brothers, when the bowling team took off after them with their riotous snorting.

The team numbered five. They had all been her friends. Up to a point, Bonita Weir had been her best friend.

She remembers Bonita grabbing Patrick, who was fourteen, a small fourteen, and rubbing up against him until Joanne shouted at her. Later, Harlan, Joanne’s husband, said, “Don’t mind Bonita. She’s just a cock tease. Nothing ever happens.” That may have been, but she didn’t like a woman in her mid-thirties smushing her boobs into her son’s face.

The true and irreversible break with Bonita came when Joanne and Harlan, it was more Harlan, decided to move out of Port Nicollet’s old North End neighborhood. “You’re what?” Bonita was cooking beef kidneys for dinner when she dropped in. Joanne and Harlan lived across the street in the middle story apartment of a triplex. That late afternoon, Bonita’s kitchen smelled of urine.

“You’re moving where?” She stirred the boiling kidneys, which she insisted were a real treat, but Joanne thought the kitchen, likely the whole Weir house, smelled like a bathroom where absentminded boys routinely missed the toilet.

“Uptown. Four blocks from Roosevelt Elementary.” Joanne already regretted the move and it hadn’t even happened yet. She knew everyone here in the neighborhood. Over the past eight years they’d rented two different flats that were only two blocks from each other. Harlan grew up three houses down the street from where they were living now. Joanne and her girlfriends would dress to the nines, heels, the works, and walk downtown when the stores stayed open Thursday nights, stop at the Elbo Room for a fifty-cent mixed drink on the walk back to North End. 

“Uptown.” Bonita said, like the urine stench had finally crept into her own mouth. “That’s rich.”

Harlan wanted the kids to be able to walk to school. The only place better, he told Joanne, would have been a house right across the street from Roosevelt. None of those were for sale. She knew he had been thinking, You don’t have a driver’s license. She knew he had believed, It will be a safe walk for the kids mornings and afternoons.

The move didn’t cut her off from the bowling team. That was a good thing. She knew the ladies she bowled with on Tuesday league nights, champs three years running. A great bunch of gals in those days. But Joanne knew how nosy they could be. Sometimes it would make her cringe, wondering how much they knew about any of those they spoke about. Who’s that sleeping around? Her? Oh, that tramp. She kept her mouth shut. Whose kid is having trouble in school? Who’s having trouble in the bedroom? The one who didn’t want to have sex the other night, but her hubby did. Big time. Both feet against the small of her back, he pushed her out of the bed.

Everything, almost everything, had been fair game. But then, with Patrick, it was all, you know, mum. Oh, they sent flowers. They were very kind in their Hallmark way. But then they were mum. That was the word for it. And they didn’t stop by to visit, like they would taint their own families if they did. As if it would happen to one of their kids if they talked to Joanne.

People assumed that they knew what the hardest part was of all this. They were guessing.

The hardest part wasn’t calling Harlan. Those who didn’t know might have thought it would have been. He was second cook on the S.S. Pamela Brown. The Great Lakes freighter steamed away with him every year, into November, sometimes later. Once he was gone for 365 consecutive days and earned a commemorative belt buckle. Calling him when he was in the Port of Ashtabula was not hard at all, although she couldn’t reach him. He wasn’t there. She had to tell his captain, and she imagined the captain telling him, making Harlan go quiet, the news bringing him to his knees. But that wasn’t the hardest part.

That part about not being there. That was the Severson side of the family all over. That was like Harlan’s father, gone when he was most needed. 

Harlan’s family, a large one, moved from the farming community of Hamburg, North Dakota, to Port Nicollet and the south shore of Lake Superior in the mid-1920s. They lost a youngster back there in the Hamburg area. That loss was before Harlan’s birth in Port Nicollet. That older brother, he was buried on the North Dakota prairie.

The child’s name was Johnny, and his death would bubble up in conversation with Berit, Harlan’s domineering mother, as she entered her nineties. Johnny’s story would arrive, carried in, a ghost in her guttural voice as she stroked liver spots on the back of an onionskin hand. 

“Daddy.” She called her husband Daddy. “Daddy left a basket of chokecherries on the porch. He left them there and off he went with my brothers, Ole and Nels. Off to town like drunkards will do.” She shook her head. “They came back. Ole and Nels. But Daddy, he went off on a bender.”

The oil furnace in the old woman’s living room, it filled a good fifth of the space, ticked with heat. They would wait for her to go on, though they knew the story too well, knew how it ended. The little boy ate the chokecherries that his father had left on the porch and grew sick. By the time the doctor arrived, and then, much later, the father, Johnny Severson was dead. 

Berit dealt with it.

Her mother-in-law dealt with the loss of a child. Joanne had always wondered how.

The New York-based company that owned the shipping line that the S.S. Pamela Brown was a part of flew Harlan Severson home from Ashtabula. Joanne’s brother Andy offered to go pick him up at Duluth International, but she chose to do it by herself.

It was the longest, quietest drive home from Duluth that Joanne and her husband would ever take together. Quiet along Highway 2, except for the rushing summer wind sluicing in on them through the open driver and passenger side windows.

But that wasn’t the hardest part.

Joanne screamed, anyway she thought she screamed. Was it at the sleepy-eyed police detective? She thought it was the sleepy-eyed one on the phone, the one who asked her whether there was an adult male relative who could come in. He wasn’t even leading the investigation. Andy, her brother, he would know for sure if she screamed or not. He was there. 

The hardest part wasn’t identifying Patrick, though it started out to be. The police wouldn’t, no, they wouldn’t let her do that on her own. In fact, they didn’t want her to see him at all. During the phone call, someone asked her, and it could have been the sleepy-eyed detective, then again it might not have been, someone asked her, “Is there an adult male relative who could come in?” The police thought it was a job for a man when, here, she’d carried Patrick for nine months and then given birth to him while Harlan sailed the Great Lakes. Fourteen years ago. Fourteen. Years. Ago.

Andy was there. He went with her to the police station, its entrance at street level, on a side street, not the grand, stepped entrance to City Hall at the front of the imposing brownstone structure. The squad room chatter dropped from locker room towel crack joviality to nothing when Joanne and Andy walked in. One cop, the one she recognized, he was wearing a loud plaid three-piece suit, his sleepy eyes widened briefly, he nodded to them and walked over to a glass-walled office where his partner was, talking with the chief of detectives. The plaid detective interrupted the discussion and Detective Blomfeldt emerged from the office.

The morgue, its walls a milky two-tone institutional green, was one level below the floor of metal desks and interview rooms and reached by a hazardous granite stairwell and hallway that reminded Joanne of Roosevelt Elementary and the kids, Patrick, running in the hall at the bell ending the day.

Blomfeldt knew. She knew. It was Patrick on the autopsy table. He was covered by a white sheet to just below his chin. All the clichés came to her. He looks like he’s sleeping. He looks so peaceful. Before she could criticize herself for thinking that way, her mind switched: Whatever they did—Who were they? Why had she thought “They” instead of “He,” instead of “She”? Did she even think “She”?—whatever was done to him that in the end ended his life did not show on his face, his fourteen-year-old face at rest—his fourteen-year-old face at rest. Why does he need to rest? He’s fourteen. What killed him did not show on his face beyond the purple welt across his right temple and his dark, swollen eyelids.

Blomfeldt looked at her, but Joanne could not even say, “Yes.”

Andy settled it. “That’s him. That’s Patrick.”

The hardest part wasn’t telling Patrick’s sister and brothers. It was like she was Donna Reed, easing the Bailey children’s minds when Jimmy Stewart went off in It’s a Wonderful Life. It was like giving them The Talk, all at once.

“Something has happened to Patrick.”

And Richie, of course, was all ears. Kim didn’t want to hear it and neither did Tommy. It was like they already knew, hearing Joanne talk on the phone in the kitchen. Hearing their mother, what she had to say. No tears. Anger.

Joanne let the two of them slip out of the room. They would be okay.

They were okay, Kim and Tom. They were, weren’t they?

Richie sat on the hassock and listened as she told him, his eyes big and wide.

The hardest part wasn’t telling others, because no one else was around, no one outside of the immediate family, and even then, inside, it was not a topic to bring up in conversation over coffee and dessert. It was a violent murder.

She drifted away from the bowling league and continued in the PTA only spottily. Then, through the school group, she met Lynette.

Everyone the Seversons knew had two or four kids. One was rare. Three? Never. Lynette and her husband had four, like Joanne and Harlan, or like Joanne and Harlan used to have. It was what she was missing. Someone like Lynette. Someone to talk to. Someone to talk with about anything, everything, when you got down to brass tacks. Then there was this, after months of meeting over coffee and cigarettes, catching up over the phone. Lynette, opening up to her more than Joanne would have expected or would have wanted.

“Can I tell you something? I couldn’t take my eyes off you when I first saw you.”

Joanne thought, Oh, and took a deep breath.

“Not true. I did look away when you glanced my way. Do you remember? That February PTA meeting? That February, the winter after? You know? After Patrick? We went out for lunch at Sully’s after the meeting.

“I couldn’t believe that I’d met the woman, the mother of Patrick Severson. It was beyond what I was used to. 

“Can I tell you?”

Joanne felt a sinking. Of her mind. Of her heart. She nodded her head anyway.

“I would drive by your house the rest of that summer and fall, before I knew you, and, do you know, I would not have known you if I happened to see you walking down the street. The photographs in the local newspaper? They didn’t do you justice.

“Seeing where you and your family lived on Marquette. Seeing you, Joanne. Seeing you in the school library for the PTA meetings. You, your house, your life. I couldn’t see how it touched you. Patrick’s killing. Not you. Not the house.” She caught herself. She laughed. Joanne looked at her. The other woman’s laughter dying with embarrassed abruptness, as if she finally understood.

But then Lynette continued. “Of course, not the house, but still. You know? Total blanks. I couldn’t understand it. How could you go on? How could everyday life go on? I wanted to understand, but I just couldn’t see how you did it.

“I couldn’t see how you, how any of it, could survive.”

It came out that way, Lynette’s words. A flood. Joanne looked on. The blank described by Lynette.

Time passed. It was like those old movies where calendar pages are blown away by the winds of the season. Month by month. Time passed, flew by. Her children got older. Time passed. But at her core. There. That was where nothing had changed, time had stopped, and it was always the evening that the two police detectives came by the house without calling, came to the front door, the front door used only by relatives arriving for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas dinners, arriving for celebrations. She had always thought that if any of her kids would get into trouble, it would have been Richie. But, no. It was Patrick. 

At the core: Patrick met someone on his Sunday morning paper route and that someone killed him. 

At the core: Patrick was dead at fourteen.

What was the hardest part?

The hardest part was the sound of him leaving the house that Sunday morning in 1966. Remembering that thump of the solid kitchen door, the slap of the screen door, she could hear both sounds from her second floor bedroom at the front of the house.

Joanne lived in that house on the corner of 16th and Marquette, four blocks from Roosevelt Elementary, for forty-six years beyond 1966, until her surviving children, at Richie’s urging, moved her to Saint Thérèse’s By the Bay. And in all those forty-six years that she lived in that house, all of the other departures by the back door, from out of the kitchen and into the backyard and into the wider world, each reminded her of Patrick’s leaving that Sunday morning. That was it. The thump of the back door closing, followed by the slap of the screen door. The sounds that she heard behind the mask of her face.

It was always that one Sunday morning in 1966.

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Jeff Esterholm’s short stories have previously appeared in Wisconsin Academy Review, the Akashic Books online flash fiction series Mondays Are Murder, Crime Factory, Flash Fiction Italia, Midwestern Gothic, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, Shotgun Honey, and Yellow Mama.

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