Michael Seidel lives in a Milwaukee, WI, neighborhood called Tippecanoe. His writing has appeared or will soon
appear in publcations like DOGZPLOT, > kill author, Red Lightbulbs, Thunderclap!, and Untoward Magazine. He blogs at oldstandby.tumblr.com.
I go up a few counties to Poplar, just below the big lake, and have luck at the first place. An old motel with a tavern connected to it. A mechanism of squeaks and dry sounds, where lodgers pay a fair sum on short notice and are given two pillows and a bed that’s hard as lumber.
There’s a black ribbon tied into a tearful willow in front of the building, the sign of a place being haunted in our part of the country. I’ve been haunted places before. Ghosts have peeked over furniture at me while I worked and slept, and I’ve called them by my side, said words to calm them. They were never a thing that borne concern.
The owner, Cal, has a landfill gut and a beard that makes his face look infested with spiders. He explains what he needs from an employee and it sounds within reason. The wage is a cot that runs below the front desk counter, some microwave burritos, and shot from the tavern at suppertime. I’ll have to tip, but still, it’s more than I’ve had in some time.
He asks if I can start right away and I tell him hell yes, then go into the tavern and do pull-tabs to celebrate. Cal comes by a bit later and says, “I meant right this minute. Really. Now.”
Cal shows me around, providing a map he made himself and Xeroxed in purple. The bathrooms are indicated with raindrops and the rooms are hearts that have heat waves coming off them. It’s not to scale.
Finally he comes upon a wall holding up thirty-seven pictures. There’s a newborn that’s red as a heel, there’s a bald two-year-old just waking up with lots of wrinkles all over, there’s a baby with its stomach pressed against stairs, there’s a girl in an ugly leotard, there’s a teenager wearing what looks like a neon cake, there’s a signed noticed. A time of death. Cal pulls a white glove out of the front of his jeans. He rights the frame, giving the glass surface a little bit of his breath.
“My daughter,” he says. “She was murdered in room b14.”
I look down at the map and see a black X over the heart. There are no waves of heat.
“Oh, about twelve years ago,” he answers my question. “It was her wedding night. Some scumbag from up in Duluth.”
“But aren’t they all?”
Cal comes back by me, behind the counter. He holds out a black box. I put down the pull-tabs, all losers, and raise my hands to take the box. There’s a small key he uses to open the box. Inside is a finger bone. I look at it a while. It’s real enough. Human. More beige than you’d think. There’s a gold band taped with masking tape to the bone. The ring is swollen in the center, with alternating slashes along the sides.
“He killed her. This guy.” Cal points at the finger. “With one of the knives we used to quarter the limes. They found her all over the county, in trees and on stoops. He cleaned the room good though. Just left behind his own finger and the knife, placed right outside the door like a pair of shoes to be shined, not a service we offer.”
He drops the key into my breast pocket. Right then I know it’ll come to be a kind of anchor on my life.
“What I want from you,” he tells me sharp, “Is each time a man comes in for a room, ask him, say please, to hold out his left hand. Take the key I just gave you—he’ll think you’re handing it to him. Don’t. Instead, take the box out, take the finger bone out of the box. Make the guy hold it. Not for long. Just so you can see that he has his left ring finger still. Watch the color in his face.”
Cal brings me some blankets for the cot, scratches his eyelids, and goes away down the road in his Ecoline. His headlights having disappeared, the view over the soy fields is what you’d expect to see if you were trapped inside the stomach of an eelpout.
I have no training in hospitality, and Cal’s introduction to my work was by large just a grim reminiscence. The register is in front of me and I start hitting the keys. They make sounds, so I start tapping songs I know, until I hit a sour note and the drawer flaps open. I look at the money. There is no traffic on the road and the rooms are all either full or empty. I can hear two hacksawing voices in the tavern, so I walk over and sit down, order a soda water and a fist of pull-tabs.
The bartender is balancing nickels on the rims of highball glasses.
“I’ve got a story about Oma Lake,” says the other guy, a barback or something, with oniony skin, “There’s a load of logs, a sleigh, and a team of horses at the bottom of the lake. You know that? These lumberjacks were taking a shortcut across the lake in the winter and the whole outfit went though. The driver jumped off and he was saved, but the horses and the load went through and that was the end of them.”
The bartender, making a bridge of stirring sticks over the tub of ice, grabs the story like a baton, says, “I know this old guy, Old Mike Thompson, Marvelous Mike. He told me that when he was fourteen or so, he worked at Oma Lake Logging Camp. He was an, uh, Ice Monkey, they called him. Maybe a Tail Monkey. He’d go out at night when it was as cold as it was gonna get, go up and, uh, down the road and dribble water on the track to make it icy. The next morning, a team of horses could pull a gigantic load of logs like you wouldn’t believe. And Old Mike, uh, told me that one day, aside from icing the trail, his job was to cut enough wood to cook breakfast for the lumberjacks. Manager came in, said, ‘Thompson, you know how to drive a team, dontcha?’ Thompson said, ‘Yeah.’ The Manager told him, ‘Come with me.’
“Thompson thought, geeze, being a teamster, that’s top job in camp, you know, aside from head lumberjack. How the hell is this going to play out?”
The bartender undoes the plastic on another box of stir sticks and starts to unload them.
“So they took the foreman’s sleigh down the trail till they came to a team standing with a load of logs. He walked around and seen a teamster lying there dead as a doornail. They had been warning these guys not to climb up on the top of the load when they were driving them. They wanted them right down near the ground and this guy, uh, stood up on top of the load, fell off, and the team dragged the load right over him.
He gets quiet and bends over the bar, inches from the onion’s ear. “Well, he popped like a ripe grape!”
Both the guys’ faces go the color of pipestone heating in a skillet. They turn those faces to me. “A package of violet candies and five more pull-tabs, please,” is all I can think to say.
I take out money. The bartender balances the change on the stack of pull-tabs, which are balanced on the brick of violet candy. I walk to the wall with thirty-seven pictures on it and lift the flaps of paper to see how I did.
There’s a chime down the hallway. A fellow wearing a camo shroud comes in, followed by an expanding lung of snow, which has just begun to fall. His eyes are shifting like a level.
“I’d like a room for the night,” the fellow says. After running his credit card, I hold out the key to the box that Cal had given me. The fellow lifts his left hand. It’s covered by a black leather glove, the finger next to the pinkie hanging down like the tongue of roadkill.
I lift up the box and insert the key. The finger bone comes out easy and I tell the fellow that I need him to do something before he signs his credit card receipt.
“What’s that?” he asks.
From the box, I lift out the bone, grab the fellow’s wrist, say please, and place the bone in his palm. He goes pale as January. Immediately, three drops of blood drop out of the wrist of his glove, onto his receipt.
I think of Cal and the thirty-seven photos. Blood grows on the paper, the fellow still holding the finger, looking stricken. I think of the Trail Monkey, the kid who fell from the load, the red continent on the slick path.
What would the bartender be balancing now?
I look down and remember what I’d pulled. The tabs had two winners. It’s a sum that could compound, very easily become something more.