This week we present one of the honorable-mention nonfiction works from the most recent Hal Prize contest. The Peninsula Pulse presents the annual Hal Prize competition in partnership with Write On, Door County and the Peninsula School of Art.
Jane Hillstrom’s “Dead Body One” recounts the author’s relationship with her father, a former sheriff, and one instance when she went with him on a call about a drowning victim.
“Dead Body One”
by JANE HILLSTROM
Hal Prize nonfiction honorable mention
After my speech, I gathered my notes, wondering what the audience thought, when a woman approached the podium and asked me if my father was Don.
“I’m a psych nurse. I work at Holy Family Hospital. I took care of your father.” A reminder that I’m back in the county I left the week after my 18th birthday. I glanced up at the golden sunset over a cornfield that shone through the open doors of the metal building that normally served as machinery storage. Tonight, the building served as a twilight meeting for the local Holstein Breeders Association.
“Oh, thank you,” I said. “He was there a few times.” She offered a smile filled with kindness and heart that pierced through my pretend smile. “I’m not my parents!” I screamed inside. “I’m not them. I’m only connected by DNA.”
I avoided the barbecue dinner and began the drive back to Madison, where my two-bedroom apartment and border collie, Opus, waited to love me, play with me and calm me.
I had tried to help Mom and Dad. I admitted Dad to five rehab centers, got him a part-time job through my company, drove him to a magic shop to learn new tricks and paid the property taxes on the tavern. I shopped for shoes with Mom, took her to a dolphin show, bought her dinner at her favorite restaurants and got her a white, long-haired kitten named Fluffy.
Today, Mom lived by herself in the house I grew up in, connected to the empty tavern. Dad lived in a nearby village in a government-subsidized apartment he returned to after his fourth stint in detox and rehab – the hospital stay referred to by the nurse. Both parents, an easy stop on my way to Madison. I drove straight back. Mom died two weeks later. I put Dad back in detox the day before the funeral, so drunk he didn’t even know she’d died.
Dad never took me to a neighborhood playground, to a zoo, the movies, to Pigeon Lake to fish or swim. He never took me to a park or to Copp’s grocery store to buy a donut. He never invited me to play catch with him in the yard, and he never read me even one line from a book. But, when he was the Manitowoc County Undersheriff and Sheriff, he did take me to see dead people.
The dilapidated screen door led into a small, 12′ x 12′ beer storage room with a cement floor and beer cases stacked five high. A few broken bottles leaked beer through the corner of the cardboard cases. Bottles with a few ounces forgotten by the customers added to a permanent stench of stale beer. I jumped the two worn, wooden steps up and walked into the tavern.
Now that Dad was elected Manitowoc County Sheriff, the tavern was closed to the public, the former side room now an oversized playroom for us kids. A pool table, bean bags, a pinball machine and a piano left plenty of room for my sister and I to perform dance numbers from my favorite, the Gypsy album. I sang and danced through “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” with my elbows glued to my side, my hands pointed up like petals. I rose from a squat as if I grew out of the ground like I imagined the dancers on Broadway.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness in the tavern. We never turned on the lights because the sign, “The Osman Club,” still hung on the front of the building, which invited the desperate stranger to attempt to open the locked door even though a black and red CLOSED sign sat in the window. I maneuvered the bar stools in the darkness from years of lugging cases to fill beer coolers and walked into the kitchen.
“10-54. Lake Michigan shore near Cleveland. Likely a 10-32,” Dad’s police scanner squawked. The scanner sat at the end of the bar near the kitchen door next to the black, rotary phone so Dad could hear it in the house or the tavern. Its scratchy, initial bleep notified Dad’s ears – and mine – to perk up and listen to the crime, accident or tragedy.
After listening to the police scanner for years, I knew “10-54” was a possible dead body. I also knew “10-32” was a drowning. I repeated police radio codes on the playground at school. I loved knowing something that left my sixth-grade classmates puzzled. I would say, “I need a 10-35” when I needed the time. Or “There goes a 10-51” as I watched a car weave down the road leaving our tavern.
A foreign language to my classmates, police codes were a learned language I shared with my dad. I tested myself on the codes by covering up the answer with my thumb and revealing the answer after stating the code out loud. That way, when the police scanner said “10-23,” I immediately responded, “Standby” and watched for Dad’s smile. The only other time Dad smiled at me like that was when he sat in his lounger on the porch each night, and I delivered a martini.
We lived 10 miles from Cleveland, the scene of the crime. Dad picked up the black transmitter, pressed in the button on the side and said, “10-4. On my way.”
“May I come?” I said. The anticipation of the answer made my heart pound. Dad walked through the kitchen door and into the bathroom. His step long, his gait giddy when he prepared for a police call. His shoulders pulled back, his head high, his silence spoke to the seriousness of the moment like Clark Kent as he left his desk at the newspaper to transform into Superman. Dad wore a white short-sleeved shirt, tie and black pants with no cape. I stood in the kitchen on my toes, ready to fly.
Dad kept his black, leather holster and gun in the white cupboard next to the bathtub in the bathroom off our kitchen. When no one was close by, I locked the door and slid open the black latch of the white, wainscot cupboard. His gun rested on top of the rolls of toilet paper. The gun, dangerous and tempting, like the apple Eve bit into in the Garden of Eden. The holster belt intertwined like a snake with Mom’s red and white can of Aqua Net and pink jar of Dippity-do setting gel.
I slowly ran my pointer finger down the gun’s rubber, checkerboard pattern on the grip. The forbidden metal smooth and cold. When I heard someone walk by, I climbed down and flushed the toilet. I closed the cupboard door, slid in the black latch on the cupboard, and left the bathroom looking “not guilty.”
Dad walked out of the bathroom, the two ends of the holster in his hands, the gun hung down, snapped in the leather pouch. Mom watched him while she stood at the kitchen sink and tapped the ashes from her Marlboro cigarette on the amber, glass ashtray.
“Okay, you can come,” Dad said.
I wanted to jump for joy. But this was serious business. Dead people. Cop stuff. Lights and sirens. Dangerous stuff like murderers. And miracle upon miracle, it was dad-time stuff. I followed as Dad rushed to his black Pontiac parked on the side of the house. Someone was dead. I felt so alive.
Dad dropped his holster next to him on the front seat. I slid across the black, shiny vinyl seat, scooted forward and grabbed onto the front bench seat with both hands. The deputy on the scanner said this was a Code 3, which meant no lights or sirens were necessary. Dad turned on the red police light anyway, and his tires spit gravel as we left the driveway. He looked in the rearview mirror and saw my smile.
Dad’s eyes focused on the road, both hands on the steering wheel. The unstated kid rules of a police call were, “Stay out of the way, and don’t ask questions until we are on the way home.” Then again, that was kind of the rule of our life together. “Not now, honey” meant “Not ever.”
A quarter mile down the road, Dad turned left onto the straight blacktop and headed east toward Lake Michigan. As we drove past Hartman’s farm, one of their boys walked toward the red barn. At 70 mph, I couldn’t tell which of the three boys I saw. He turned his head as he heard our speeding car zoom by just in time to see the flashing red light. I hoped, whichever brother it was, that he had seen me in the speeding car.
About 10 minutes later, Dad turned off the red light and siren and turned into the blacktopped driveway of a gray house built next to the shore of Lake Michigan. I could see the blue of the lake through the front picture window and out the back window. We parked next to a deputy’s squad car with bubble lights on top. Shucks, he beat us. The crime scene might be cleaned up by now. This would mean less time with my dad, less excitement and fewer stories to tell my friends at school.
Dad opened the car door and painstakingly lifted one leg at a time onto the pavement as he swiveled his large stomach, which overhung his belt more every year. He grunted as he pulled on the top of the car door frame to lift himself up. The deputy walked over to meet us.
“The owners found the body on their walk this morning,” he said. “Looks like he’s been in the water for a few days.”
“Any idea who he is?” Dad said.
I opened the back of the car and followed Dad. The deputy led us to the tall, overgrown grass and shrubs in the open lot on the right side of the house. I could see the beach about 25 yards ahead. I scanned the shore. Where was the drowned person? I leapt through the greenery like a kid headed to the ice cream shop. I turned to see how long it would take Dad to catch up to me. The deputy reached the sand at the edge of the overgrown brush soon after me. We both stopped to wait for Dad.
In the distance directly behind the house, a man stood next to something white, black and large lying on the ground next to the water. Dad finally reached us, and we headed across the deep sand. I didn’t want to seem overly eager by staring at the body lying on the beach, so I looked down at the uneven sand. Trudging through the sand was difficult in my tennis shoes. With each step, I slid backwards. Dad wore his black dress pants, a short-sleeved white button-down shirt, and black, shiny dress shoes that I had polished. His chest heaved as he breathed out of his mouth as his shoes slipped backward. The slim deputy in his brown, short-sleeved shirt tucked into tan pants walked easily and waited for us to catch up. His gun in his holster. We headed toward the damp sand near the water and walked toward the man. It soon became obvious the object on the beach was a dead body.
I knew Mom would never take me to see a dead body. Mom was at the Manitowoc County jail cooking food for the 200 prisoners. I managed to escape going along to butter bread and distribute food trays to prisoners. When I was with Mom, she never showed me the dead bodies in the jail’s basement, but I knew they were there because that’s what Dad showed me when I went to the jail with him. I trailed along to the morgue when he had to check with the coroner on a case.
In the morgue, the coroner pulled down a stainless-steel handle on a small rectangular door, like the handles on the door of the tavern’s walk-in beer cooler. When the coroner opened the door, a waft of cold air drifted out into the room. He yanked the metal table out of the opening. Out slid the dead body, covered with a white cloth. The coroner looked at me and smiled. He loved my full, wide-eyed attention. When he pulled back the white cloth, he performed it with the gravitas of a magician.
Today, I had escaped the chores of feeding the prisoners and was here having fun with Dad. Unlike the stale air at the jail that smelled like disinfectant, the air on the beach was fresh, and the sound of the whitecaps made the moment like an adventure at sea.
The four of us stood in a protective circle over the body and stared down at the bloated figure. No one questioned my presence at the crime scene. The body was lying on its back, arms at its side. I assumed the dead person was male from his white shirt and black pants kind of like Dad’s, but it was difficult to tell. He looked like someone had inflated him with a pump, just like the balloons I saw on TV in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. His face deformed from being in the water for days.
Red tags of flesh stuck out of the man’s shirt. The fibers of his white shirt, threads separated, intertwined with deep red flesh. His belt still buckled, yet stretched because of his water-filled body. His gray, bare feet ballooned, each toe crowding the other. The skin on his hands pasty white, with a smooth, shiny film. The skin on one hand cut, but not exposed flesh like on his chest. Seagulls walked the beach around us.
“I’m Don.” Dad shook hands with the man.
“Ed. Found him this morning washed up on the shore.”
“Any ID?” Dad asked.
The deputy reached down to pat his front pockets. “None.”
My mouth dropped open as the deputy touched the dead man’s pockets. I could never touch his dead body.
His bare feet puzzled me. If you wanted to drown, wouldn’t you keep your shoes on? I learned it was almost impossible to swim with shoes on when Donny pushed me in the pool with my tennis shoes on at the Millers’ house.
“Have someone check the piers in town for a pair of shoes,” Dad said. “Find out where he went in. Then, call the coroner and get him out here.”
The deputy glanced at me and talked into his walkie-talkie as he walked away. The man who found the body glanced at me, then at Dad. He stared down at the body and never noticed. I took two small steps back. I looked out at Lake Michigan. The waves crashed into shore. Seagulls squawked as they flew by. The body had floated from Manitowoc. Two seagulls stood on the sand.
The deputy waited for the coroner near the dead man while Dad and I walked back to the car. Sand seeped into my shoes. I walked faster, wanting to distance myself from the dead body. We got back in the car.
“Dad, why did he have those red spots on him?” I said.
“The seagulls got him. They were eating his flesh.”
“Seagulls eat people?”
“If they are hungry enough.”
I didn’t have any more questions. When we arrived home, I walked straight to the rack of World Book Encyclopedias in the living room. “Seagulls have a small claw halfway up their lower leg that enables them to sit and roost without being blown off.” The rocky waves made the seagulls hold on tight with that small claw. Occasionally, big waves must have washed over the body and rolled it. The seagulls must have flown off the body and then landed again on their banquet raft. Unstable forces did not frighten the seagulls’ quest to survive.
Sometimes stability can be found in dark places. Time with my dad and a dead body was better than no time at all. That night in bed, I stared at the ceiling. My room slightly lit from the lights of Schneider’s grocery store next door. I pinched the skin on my arm and wondered how many plucks it would take for a seagull to cut it.
I imagined the man’s body bobbing up and down in the lake; it tossed and rolled from wave to wave under the cloudless, blue sky. The man adrift, untethered, alone except for his new companions, the seagulls that found him. He offered stability over the dark, deep lake. In return, they pecked at his flesh. I drifted off to sleep.
Hillstrom has had articles published in Chicago Home and Garden, Corporate Report, Wisconsin Trails and Lake Michigan Travel Guide, and for two years, she was a regular contributor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Recently retired from a public-relations career, Hillstrom spends her days writing about her unusual life as the daughter of a bartender who was also a sheriff.
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