Happy Little Writer Sarah, St. Anthony's Stories

Flip

I’ve been behind on the St. Anthony’s stories–forgive me. I’m working on a monster one to make up for it. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote as part of my novel…it likely won’t make the cut, but I kinda like it anyway. ~ Sarah

Look. There isn’t much to say about me. I can’t think of one single thing that makes me stand out. I prefer the Republican to the Democrat, the Cardinals to the Royals and meat to vegetables. I go hunting but don’t particularly enjoy it, I tell people I can bench press 250 but that’s a lie, but everybody lies about that, so. I don’t have a girlfriend, but I have had my fair share. My parents are still married and they seem to like each other well enough. I grew up pretty ordinary.

We went to church every Sunday, more out of habit than anything. Like a lot of folks around, it was more a place to say hello to all your neighbors than to get real intimate with the Lord. Most of the time when I sat in those pews and put my forehead to my folded hands I was trying to stay awake. I’d look over and see my dad doing the same thing. I can’t think of many times I had a real conversation with God sitting in St. James or any other place for that matter. We went to nine o’clock service and then to the coffee and doughnut reception afterward in the basement. Then we’d go home and my mother would make a big Sunday supper. Sunday afternoon is when people went for drives and if you lived in the country like we did, you’d expect visitors. It’s one of the only times people from town came out to the country roads. I don’t know why, I expect it has something to do with having more time and everything else being closed. If you drove through downtown Burton on a Sunday afternoon, you wouldn’t see many cars and the supermarkets were near empty. I remember Sundays being the sacred day not because we were supposed to be thinking of God all day, like some folks suggested, but because it was the day you spent with your family. I spent a lot of time gallivanting all over the county, but on Sunday I didn’t even pick up the phone.

Everybody knows the Schusters, we’ve been around for quite some time and there are a lot of us. My dad was one of fourteen, and his dad was one of eleven. We often joke that we could swing an election in Walnut County if every last one of us voted. Being named Schuster in Walnut County didn’t necessarily get you anything special, but everyone sure knew who you were.

At holidays we used have to rent out the Elk’s Lodge because nobody’s house was big enough for all of us. After my Uncle Ray built that big fancy heated barn, we started having holiday suppers in there. You think that’s funny, probably, but you have no idea how nice this barn was. Up above there was an office and a kitchen, a pool table and a bar with a sixty-inch television on the wall and a couple of leather couches. The cattle were down below. Every now and again you’d hear them bellow, but mostly you’d just think you were in someone’s house. My dad frowned at that barn and one time when my sister pressed him he said it was ostentatious, but Uncle Ray had enough money so it was none of our business.

When I graduated from high school I did two years of community college and then went to the police academy.  I wasn’t the smartest of the bunch, but I had a good head on my shoulders. I couldn’t stomach the idea of looking at a computer all day. I didn’t think I was going to be a big detective or anything like that, I don’t even think Walnut County has one of them. But I did think that when there was some kind of domestic disturbance, I could probably de-escalate it pretty well. Or if there was a robbery, I could get as much information as quickly and calmly as possible and, you know, get it taken care of. Some people raise the temperature in the room. That’s not me.

Carrie called 911 on November 7th. It was a Wednesday, I believe. Far enough after Halloween that there wasn’t much going on. Everybody had gotten the mischief out of their systems. It had been drizzly and chilly all week, that lazy sort of weather that makes you think the sky just couldn’t get up the gumption to commit to something. It’s the kind of weather that drives people in doors. The call came in at 8:47 PM, Nancy the dispatcher told me later. She was rattled. Her hand shook like a drunk’s while she held on to that Styrofoam cup of decaf coffee. She said that Carrie sounded like she were calling in a broken streetlight or a kid playing his music too loud, her voice was so matter of fact. She just said that her father had been shot.

I was the first to respond. I think now that I probably did have some kind of conversation with the Lord, though I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I do know that I was damn grateful that it was me that pulled into that long driveway first. I was grateful that Flip’s truck was nowhere to be seen.

Flip was my first friend. He’s not always the greatest friend, nor is he the greatest husband. He’s the kind of guy that raises the temperature in a room just by walking into it. Sometimes that’s pretty great, and you just want to be around him because you figure some of the fun will rub off. Other times it turns sour. A lot of people don’t like that sour aftertaste and they fade away. I figure that if I’m going to leech off the good times, the least I can do is be around for the ugly.

Tuesday was poker night at the Palace Pub, so I knew just where he’d be: leaning back in his chair with his back against the wall so he could see everything in the room, smoking a cigarette and gloating. Everybody suspected he cheated and it was almost as competitive to keep him from doing so as it was to just win the damn game. One thing about Flip, he’d liven up the party. I worked Tuesday nights and usually picked him up and drove him home just to keep him from getting behind the wheel. Sometimes we’d go to the truck stop and drink coffee and eat breakfast. I tried to keep him occupied, get him sobered up. He and Carrie fight on nights like that. She asked me once why I stuck by him knowing he’d never change. I didn’t have an answer for her, but I suspect now that it’s because I think he tries to be a good man, just like he tried to be a good boy. He just has trouble committing to it.

When we were little bity kids, maybe ten or so, I was at Flip’s house in town. His parents ran the grocery store in Burton, the one Flip runs now, and they weren’t ever home. Flip was left with his big sister Tasha, which meant we could do whatever we pleased. That day we took off on our bicycles to the store, shoved Hershey bars and orange sodas down our pants and then made our way to the city park. It was early summer so the air hadn’t gotten that wet-blanket feel just yet, and the park was all but deserted. Later in the day when the baseball games started and the concession stand opened the whole place would be a zoo but in those morning hours we had it to ourselves.

The swings and slides weren’t as interesting to us as rest of the deserted park. We’d go to the pay phone, dial zero and make prank calls to the operator. We tried to find a way into the groundskeeper’s cottage, reasoning that there’d be all sorts of good tools in there. There was a fence around the wading pool, which didn’t open until early afternoon and we did our best to scale it without getting caught.

That day we wheeled our bikes across the baseball diamond and through a gap in the fence to where the concession stand straddled the two fields. It was a big stand with food on the first level and the announcers stand up above. We love our baseball in Burton and boys like us dreamt about the day we’d be big enough to play on that field with the Mr. Andrews calling the game over the loudspeaker. On either side of the concession stand were rows of bleachers and we often scavenged for all the things people dropped the night before and plumb forgot about. That day, at the back of the bleachers stuck between two support beams, we found a roll of cash. It was a big roll, big enough that my fist couldn’t close around it and we stood there staring at it for a long time.

“Holeeeeey shit.” Flip said. We weren’t acquainted with cursing yet and it startled me, but I reasoned the occasion warranted the language. He unwound the rubber band and began to count. There was nearly five hundred dollars there, which to us might as well have been a million.

“Let’s buy a car,” I said.

“You can’t buy a car for five hundred bucks, you dummy.”

“My daddy got his Chevy for $500 and a steer.”

“There ain’t no car worth buying for $500. It probably wouldn’t even run.”

“What would you do with it, smarty?” He shrugged and looked at me sideways as if to say “wouldn’t you like to know.”

The thing was, we knew we weren’t going to be buying cars or truckloads of candy or bus tickets to Chicago. We were still young enough to be afraid of getting caught stealing this wad of bills from its rightful owner.

“What do we do?” I asked. Flip usually had an answer for everything, and at the moment he was suspiciously silent. “We can’t keep it.”

“I know that.” He glared at me. “Who do we give it to? How do we know whose it is?”

We spent the better part of an hour under the bleacher rows, guzzling orange soda and eating melted chocolate bars trying to puzzle out this problem. We could take it to the police and have them finger print it, I suggested. Flip rejected that outright. “Do you know how many finger prints are on money you moron?” I didn’t, but I took that to mean there were a lot. Flip thought that maybe we should put up a sign that said, “If you lost something here, call this number.” I thought that sounded pretty good in theory, but then what happened when somebody started calling the number? What then? The idea of returning grocery money to a little old lady sounded heroic. The idea of meeting a burly, tattooed, grizzled drug dealer on a Harley was terrifying.

“Can’t we just take it to your parents and ask them what to do?” I was tired; this game had lost its appeal. I didn’t know what the right answer was and I was bored of trying to figure it out. That’s what adults were for—to tell you what you should do. Flip shrugged. He, too, seemed to have lost interest. Now I wonder why we didn’t just leave it there for it’s careless owner to come reclaim, or let it be someone else’s problem, but at the time turning it over to adults seemed like the safest course of action.

When we walked into Flip’s parent’s store, the assistant manager straightened his red IGA smock and scowled at us. “You better go see your mother,” he said, staring down his hawk nose at us.

“What did you think we were doing, you dummy? Coming to talk to you?” Flip sneered and stalked right past him.

The office was in the front of the store, just behind the courtesy counter. Flip’s mother sat behind the large wooden desk. The room was oppressive. The walls were paneled with warped wood paneling and the sheer amount of paper stacked on file cabinets, credenzas, and even the windowsill had to be a fire hazard. Donna pulled her glasses down her nose and stared at us.

“Did you take sodas and candy without paying for them again?” She asked without even saying hello.

“Yeah, mom, but listen—“

“I told you what would happen the next time you did that.” She hadn’t moved she just kept staring over those half-glasses. Donna was pretty in an older lady kind of way. She had very tight, uniformly curled blonde hair that I think was the result of something my sister called a permanent wave and she wore very pink lipstick. She always dressed in blazers and skirts, though she rarely left the little office.

“Mom, we’re sorry but you’ve got to listen to me, Jimmy and I found something and we need your help.” Flip spoke very fast. He looked panicked. I wasn’t sure what the punishment was for stealing merchandise from your parents’ store, but clearly he did and it had caused the blood to rise in his cheeks.

“I don’t care what you found.” She stood, went to the back of the door where there was a paddle on a hook. She kept one at home, too, I’d seen it there. My parents weren’t above whacking me every now and then but I could tell that this was not going to be the same sort of whack. Flip’s voice had reached a pitch that I’d never heard and he was talking very fast, trying to explain what had happened at the park and his concerns about the wad of money before his mother could bend him over the desk and wind up with the paddle.

She completely ignored him. She just turned Flip around, gripped him at the nape of the neck and pushed his face toward her desk. His forehead lay flat on the wood and every time she wound up and landed that paddle, the top of his head shoved the folders on her desk a few millimeters forward. He kept talking as she hit him, but it was muffled both from the desk and his own tears and that just seemed to make her angrier. I’d never seen anger like that before. Her face didn’t change; her voice was as calm as it would be if she were telling you the total for your groceries. And yet you could almost see her shaking with fury. For the most part I couldn’t see her eyes, but when she glanced up to see the folders on her desk teetering near the edge, they were flat.

The rage I was used to seeing was my mother’s loud, shrieking anger. When we’d pushed the limit to far, when I’d back-talked her one too many times, her voice would rise to an octave that I could barely tolerate. It usually went away as quickly as it came on. My father’s anger was of a quieter variety, but I’d watched him punch the wall of the barn before. Donna’s anger, though, it was a well and it’s depth frightened me.

“Get out! Jimmy, get out of here! Get out. Get out. Get out!” Flip was no longer trying to explain what happened.  He sounded furious at me, as though I was harming him by being there. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to save me from the same treatment or if he was ashamed. I backed slowly up and just as I turned around I heard his mother.

“You goddamn baby. You’re going to have to clean that up, too.” There at Flip’s feet was a puddle. The sight of that puddle seized my insides. I could barely breathe and the orange soda and chocolate churned in my stomach. All I could think about was getting as far away from Flip, his mother and his humiliation as I could.

I backed out of the office and ran out of the store. I’d left the roll of cash with Flip and as far as I was concerned, I never wanted to see it again. From then on I avoided Flip’s mom as much as possible. It wasn’t hard to do, really. His folks were rarely at school events or church; they were always running that store. I figure, though, that what I saw that day had a lot to do with why Flip always seemed so wildly inconsistent, why the part of him that drew people in like flies to honey was also the thing that drove them away.

That’s why on the night Carrie called 911 and reported that her dad was shot, I was more thankful than I’ve ever been that Flip was unreachable in the back of People’s Pub. He might turn up and be the most caring, sensitive husband anyone could ask for. He might take charge where Carrie couldn’t, stroke her hair when she looked as though she were going to crumble, field questions from the authorities.

But he might not.

I pulled into the driveway and the beams of my headlights caught the silver of Carrie’s step-mom Anne’s hair against the blackness of the old farmhouse’s front lawn. It was so light it looked like frost. She was lying motionless, her thin legs drawn up to her chest and her head bowed forward. I looked around frantically for Carrie.

My first order of business should have to be sure that Anne was okay, alive, but I was suddenly so sure that Nancy had the story wrong and it wasn’t Wayne who had been shot but perhaps Wayne who had done the shooting. I was afraid for Carrie. No, that doesn’t begin to describe it. I was panicked that I’d find her behind the house, her blond hair splayed across the grass like Anne’s, her eyes big and empty and gaping. I’m embarrassed to say it now. I lost my head. I’d been an officer of the law for ten years and I lost my mind that night. I was shouting her name and running around the house when I saw her standing deep in the yard, back where Wayne’s old Chevy sat rusting next to the shed. She didn’t respond; she just kept standing there unmoving.

When I reached her I tried to touch her, to say thank god you’re alive, but she yanked away and pointed into the open driver’s side door. Wayne was huddled against the passenger door, his chin resting on his chest. He was dressed in his work boots, old, dirty steel-toed Red Wing work boots, the kind they carry at the farm supply. He had on an ancient pair of stained painter’s pants and a button down, flannel-lined denim shirt. He had a carpenter’s pencil in his pocket and clipped to the waistband of his pants was a tape measure. It was eerie. Wayne hadn’t been a carpenter in easily ten or fifteen years. He’d been working in the home design showroom since I can remember. I opened my mouth to say just that—it was as though my brain were registering things backwards—and then I saw the rest: the pistol in his right hand and the mostly empty Wild Turkey bottle in his left. The glass behind his head glistened darkly.

I heard the sirens approaching and another car and then another pull into the driveway. In my panicked state the minutes had seemed to slow down and I felt like it’d been hours since I’d arrived but now I could let my pulse return to normal. Someone else was here, and I was relieved because I couldn’t think of anything to do.

“Is he dead, son?” I heard Sherriff Park calling across the yard. He was walking swiftly our way, training his Maglite on the ground.

“I believe so, sir.” I said.

“Is she alright?”

I looked at Carrie. She did not look back but nodded almost imperceptibly and said, “I’m fine.”

“Get her inside a car where it’s warm for God’s sake.”

I took her by the arm and led her across the field and away from the old pick up truck. The front yard was a carnival of blue and red lights, people were everywhere and radios were squawking. She stopped a moment, put her hand out as though to push me to arms length. She took a long shuddering breath, and let it out, a sob, in one stream. She caught it, her eyes closed as if she were talking herself into something. She met my eyes for the first time, nodded and we kept walking.

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