“Taste Your Lips of Wine”: Noir Short Fiction By Jeff Esterholm
Jeff Esterholm, author of “Taste Your Lips of Wine,” has previously published short fiction in Beat to a Pulp, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, and Midwestern Gothic among others. In 2013, he received the Larry and Eleanor Sternig Award for Short Fiction from the Council for Wisconsin Writers.
In the late fifties and in northern Wisconsin of “Taste Your Lips of Wine,” trucker Frank Odegaard is a young man with a seemingly simple plan. His mother’s finances are in a downward slide, and though Frank’s older brother, Rick, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, would gladly pitch himself from a Lake Superior pier for her, that is not going to set the situation square.
Frank’s plan? The holdup of an illegal casino and brothel tucked away in the northwoods. Complicating Frank’s plan, each in their own way, are his sister-in-law Nadine, a registered nurse at a TB sanatorium, and the bartender Johnny Patzau. Other confounding features are the emotional tug on Frank to take the anticipated money and skip the Midwestern small town life.
Rick Odegaard and his kid brother, Frank, sat in the Ore Dock Tavern at Fifth and Calumet, three blocks south of State Highway 2, on the backside of noon on a sweltering August Saturday in 1958, when the already soused Rick began to slide, skinny ass over teakettle, from the padded red vinyl of his bar stool, declaring, “I would walk off a goddamn pier—”
Frank caught him by the elbow and the bartender, Johnny Patzau, smiled. The Odegaard brothers were well-practiced, graceful as modern dancers in street clothes.
Rick concluded his do-or-die statement of purpose as the wobble and roll ceased. It was as if nothing had interrupted him. “—and drown in the bay for my mother.”
“Our mother,” Frank said. He had been drinking icy Northern drafts, two or three.
The older brother raised a finger, twirled it, for Johnny behind the bar. Another Black Velvet. Neat. “I would do it for her, even before I’d do it for Naddie.” Rick’s wife, Nadine. He slapped the bar.
Frank covered his glass with his hand when Johnny reached for it. Shook his head. His brother would soon be spewing diarrheic gibberish, the signal for Frank to roll him home.
“Drowning in the bay still leaves her empty-handed. Old Man Nord will still send his son around.”
Rick agreed. “I swear, I don’t know where her bucks go.”
They go the same place yours go. Frank thought it, didn’t say it. He ducked his head and said something that Rick could not pick up.
Frank sighed, shook his head. “There’s this place I go by on my route. Okay?” Rick gave the high sign. “Place outside of Hurley, in the woods.” Frank’s whisper—he’s considered the joint often, heard of its existence from the brotherhood of truckers, only spoke of it to one other person, someone who could help, a second gun. It would solve the problem. Money draining through their ma’s sixty-five-year-old fingers like it did. “What I hear, they’ve got slots and roulette. Women from around town make some money there, too. You know? Cops turn a blind eye.”
A vague whisky smile crossed Rick’s thirty-eight-year-old puffed pink face. It had been a long time. The memory of it: Making love with Naddie when he was home on leave. That’s all they did until he stepped back on the train. But then he gave Frank a stern look. “You go there? Park your truck out front? Get some young ass?”
…he’s considered the joint often, heard of its existence from the brotherhood of truckers, only spoke of it to one other person, someone who could help, a second gun.
Johnny Patzau passed, wiping down the bar, whistling the Everly Brothers hit from earlier in the year, “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” Rick’s abrupt slap to his brother’s head was a sorry failure, but he was otherwise clear. “South Shore will have you out on your ass if you’re caught screwing on their dime.”
Frank drove delivery—regular stops at diners, bars, resorts—throughout northern Wisconsin for South Shore Wholesale Foods, Inc. “Fuck’s sake, they won’t. Anyway, what I have in mind, we’ll need a car.”
“A car? You don’t have one. Naddie’s got her Chev, but she’d say no fucking way. ‘To drive to a whorehouse?’ No.”
“We’ll need a dependable car. Nadine’s Bel Air. To get out there and get the fuck away.”
Rick arrived at his half state, watchful before the fall, and then the sudden slipping, unaware, into the blackout stream. “Away? Away from what?”
Frank softly said it. “From Sylvia’s Hideaway, the place I’m talking about. Listen, listen. After we hit it. With what we can pull, ma won’t have to worry about Old Man Nord or his goddamn kid for a good long while.”
Rick blinked, but it was as if he agreed. “Naddie’s car.”
To himself, the kid brother added, And your service revolver.
Frank gathered in one arm the hundred thirty-five-pound bag of russets that was Rick, slapped a generous tip on the bar with his free hand, gave a nod to Johnny Patzau.
Johnny smiled, dropped the money into the tip glass behind the bar. “Wait? I’ll give you a ride.”
Frank was tempted, knowing that it would be hotter than fuck all else on the streets of Port Nicollet. But it would be all the more so sitting inside Johnny’s car, even with the windows rolled down. Instead of yes, he said, “No. Thanks. I got him.”
It was a three-block walk east on Fifth Street to Rick and Nadine’s paint-flaked clapboard duplex that stood a half block south of the shipyard. Frank wanted to get in at the shipyard, had a go, but he and the hot rivets did not get along—would’ve paid better than South Shore, that’s for sure. One good thing was meeting Johnny Patzau.
“Rick’s looking like the ghost of your old man.”
Johnny didn’t make the cut either. But now it was the hot afternoon and people gawped from their porches. Anything counted as entertainment. Frank stumble-bummed his brother along. He flipped them off when they stared too long. Old Man Nord cackled like a crow from behind his porch railing, old Arco Coffee can for hawked chaw at the side of his rocker. “Rick’s looking like the ghost of your old man.” Frank told him to stick it. Their old man dead in ’53. Ma had a taste for the stuff now, probably did for a long time.
Nadine, a nurse at the TB sanatorium weekdays in Duluth, was hanging laundry on the line in the backyard, hair up in a babushka, wearing a sleeveless cotton top and faded purple pedal pushers. Barefoot on the dandelion lawn. She saw Frank hustle Rick up the wooden stairs to the apartment on the first floor, pulled a clothespin from her mouth, and called out, “I’ll be right in to give you a hand, Frankie.”
He nodded, knowing she’d try, but hoped she wouldn’t bother. When he had Rick settled in bed, his snoring like the terrific buzz and cut of a lumber mill’s circular saw, Frank stepped over to the chest of drawers and pulled one open, reached in under Rick’s rolled black dress socks and underwear and ran his hand over the barrel and cylinder of the .45. Rick had a second gun that he’d mentioned when he was honorably discharged after twenty years, one with an eight-round magazine, but, patting around, Frank couldn’t find it.
The edge of a drawn shade tapped and he turned. Nadine called for him from down the hall. Frank paused, then went to her, like a schoolboy who would pay when he reached the principal’s office.
The first time with her was on the screened-in back porch in June. Afternoon. Always, it turned out, after they poured Rick—veteran of Europe, the Pacific, Korea, more scars in than out—into bed. Nadine had walked Frank out onto the back porch, and she told him, the afternoon sun white hot, a green humming through the elm leaves, scent of lilac, the buzzing of bees, the silence of the butterflies in the weedy garden outside the screen door and down the steps, she told him this the first time she finished him off, “When I blow a man, he stays blown.”
She said this as she wiped her lower lip with a curved index finger. She licked it clean. Nadine eyed Frank and he returned the look, tucking himself back into his dungarees, zipping the opening closed. He returned the look intently and smiled. It was because he pictured someone else kneeling in front of him. He absolutely thought of someone else.
That night, the Ore Dock was filled with jukebox melodies spun at forty-five revolutions per minute, Saturday night persuasion patter, the clink of bottles and glasses, men and women imbibing to smooth the path to bed, the backseat of a car, to whatever space was available. Frank knew the course wasn’t as open for people like him.
He sat at the end of the bar. He’d figured himself out a year ago, at twenty-seven. What the fuck had he been doing with his life? His mind spun. Frank had gone so far as to check the law, went to the Carnegie Library in downtown Port Nicollet. By state statutes, his was a sexual perversion or deviancy. Fuck them. Frank felt fearless. He drank the Northern longnecks that Johnny slid his way while the bartender appeared to nurse a single beer all evening. “Watch out,” Johnny Patzau said. “I might be trying to get you drunk.”
Frank exited the tavern by the backdoor, into the alley where the Mercury Eight coupe was parked at a slight remove from the other vehicles. The car was old, a ’46, but cherry, and he climbed past the front passenger seat’s tilted back to the leatherette upholstery of the backseat and waited, stretched out, his eyes peering through the car’s rear side window. The alley was dark except for one bare light bulb thrust out over the tavern’s door, lighting the red brick wall, the dented trash cans all in a row. Frank waited for closing time, waited, handling himself, hardening, waiting.
A figure finally emerged and made for the car, joined Frank on the backseat, and exclaimed, “Hello, big boy.”
“Aw, Johnny,” Frank chuckled roughly.
“What, big boy? What?”
“What took you so fucking long?”
The two lounged, panting at either end of the backseat. Johnny wiped himself dry with a tail of his sweat-dampened white shirt. Frank, pants and boxers down around one ankle, looked him in the eye, heart rate slowly returning to normal.
“Well, she’s a good runner,” Johnny said, patting his car, pride in ownership. “And if Nadine nixed it from her end.”
“Rick had it nailed. She thought I’d be out chasing strange quiff.”
Johnny’s grunt built to a laugh. “I know what you really like, baby.”
“That’s right,” he nodded. “You up for it?”
Johnny smirked. “Give me a minute.”
“No. Come on.”
“Of course, baby. Say the word.”
That clinched it for Frank. And there was something else, looking across at Johnny in the dim alley light filtering into the backseat space of the Mercury: They could take the money for themselves. Leave this town, all of it. All of them. Leave it all behind.
They heard the rumble of a car start up and then pull away, down the alley, but paid it no mind.
It was nightfall when the two men rolled into the dirt parking lot fronting Sylvia’s Hideaway. Johnny, behind the wheel, gave the lot the once-over, then said, “Quiet. I mean, I’ve never been here. But doesn’t it look quiet to you, baby?”
Another car turned in and parked on the other side of the lot. Frank heard its tires and counted it with those already there. He didn’t know if it was quiet or not. He’d never been inside. Frank shrugged and said, “It’ll be good. It’ll be good.” A squeeze and a kiss and they climbed from Johnny’s Mercury Eight.
Later, they would realize that as a couple they shared a two-minds, one-thought sensibility. That night, Frank and Johnny walked through the door, glanced at each other, and thought as one, Fuck, no masks. They went with it, viewed as odd ducks by everybody at Sylvia’s Hideaway, patron or employee.
Johnny improvised his conception of a well-heeled duffer up from Minneapolis, a Remington shotgun hidden beneath a moth-eaten blue overcoat, and Frank, as he was in any new situation, wide-eyed and reserved, not uncomfortable, but alert, a .45 in the pocket of his out-of-season jacket. Frank and Johnny may have looked out of their element—the overcoat and jacket when the temperature was still in the high seventies—but they took in the place. There was no hiding.
Women sat at round café tables lining the wall at one side of the long room. These daytime waitresses, laundry workers, housekeepers, farmers’ daughters, housewives—some from as far away as the Twin Ports to the west and Iron River to the northeast in the Upper Peninsula, the others homegrown—gave a passing glance to the newcomers and smiled, but who they were waiting for were the boys they really knew, the boys they really liked, the ones who’d paid and paid well in the past: doctors and dentists, bankers, judges and lawyers. The women nursed weak tea drinks.
Three hiked their hemlines up ever so slightly, honey for these newcomer bees. One couple, a zaftig, frizz-haired woman in steel-rimmed glasses and a longshoreman strayed from his Lake Superior port danced cheek to cheek to a slow number by Patsy Cline that played on the Seeburg. She whispered in her partner’s ear and he pulled back, quick to blush, then grinned, leaning in again.
A scrawny woman in her fifties tended the bar opposite the working women.
A wide, rounded archway opened up to a back room where Frank saw someone on an obvious losing streak at roulette, the wheel operated by a stick of a fellow who looked like Percy Kilbride, albeit bent, of Ma and Pa Kettle fame.
A scrawny woman in her fifties tended the bar opposite the working women. She had a sly drift to her strabismus-afflicted eye that said she’d seen more than anyone would ever care to see, and hinted of a vicious streak like Frank’s Aunt Harlean, his ma’s sister, whose slap to the back of the head when he and Rick were kids was a no-warnings-given crack of the whip.
Aunt Harlean’s double smiled and Frank’s wariness increased twofold. “Good evening, boys. I’m Sylvia. Take your coats off and name your pleasure.”
Two women abandoned their table and moved to acquaint themselves with Frank and Johnny, moved with the heightened artlessness of those practiced at the trade, at least of those who spent their daytime hours waiting tables, making lunch for their children, nursing their babies, and pleasuring, tired or not, their boyfriends and husbands.
Sylvia’s sliding eye fixed on the two men unswayed by her girls. “Take off your coats, boys,” she said. She laid a maple baseball bat across the bar, her muscled forearm tattooed with a man-of-war. Gray stubble rode her upper lip that curled in a smile that was not a smile. The dancers’ song ended and they drifted off to the side.
In the seconds of quiet between singles, the Hideaway’s door slammed open and everyone flinched each in their own human way: The working women chirruped like a forest’s cloud of birds; Sylvia screamed, “Fuck;” Pa said, “What;” and the roulette-losing gambler soiled himself. Another customer, fresh from the john, scattered his many chips across the blood-red linoleum floor. And they all faced the front door, Johnny backing to the bar, Frank to the opposite wall.
It was Nadine. And she waved Rick’s missing pistol, the Colt with the eight-round magazine. “You dirty—” She stabbed the barrel at Frank.
“Aw, goddammit,” Sylvia whined.
The Pa Kettle lookalike, he casually put his hands behind his back and said, “Well, isn’t this a fine how-de-do.” Then he brought a piece forward that looked too heavy for him to hold and point with any ease or accuracy, an assumption Frank felt deeply wrong. Pa knew what he was doing.
Sylvia gripped the bat just above the knob, but she didn’t lift it up.
The next record dropped in the jukebox. The Everly Brothers. Johnny grinned and shook his head.
“What in the green-eyed hell do you think you’re doing?” Sylvia demanded of Nadine.
Frank’s mind pinballed and he looked across the room at Johnny. Johnny shook his head, said, “Baby, I didn’t bargain for this.” He carefully laid the Remington 870 down and toed it off to the center of the room. Frank whistled, something of a despairing warble, and did the same with his weapon. They’d watched enough Dragnet and Highway Patrol on Ma Odegaard’s Du Mont television set. They’d seen all the TV westerns, too. They were happy to have the weapons nowhere near them.
Nadine shrieked in recognition when she saw the revolver skate across floor.
“Must I ask you again?” This time, the muscles in her arm flexed and she tapped the slugger on the bar, wood on wood.
Nadine’s gun hand dropped.
The cannon at the opposite end of the room didn’t waver. Pa was steady. “What would you like me to do, Syl? Could hold her all night.” He gave a nasty laugh.
“What do you want, gun moll? You want Jerry here to blow you back out the front door?”
Pa—Jerry, as Sylvia called him—had the grin of a ravenous jack-o’-lantern.
Sylvia said with disgust, “Oh, leave your pistol on the floor there and get the hell out of my establishment.”
Frank and Johnny watched, relieved, as Nadine did exactly that, not backing out but turning and running.
“Bang,” Jerry barked. He laughed at his joke. “What about these two?”
“These two nancy boys.” Sylvia pursed her mustached lips. The Everly Brothers’ hit faded out. No one got up to plug the box with more coin. “These two’d be in a load of trouble, don’t you think?”
Sylvia looked at Johnny, then Frank. “We have our quarterly raid coming up tonight, boys. Sheriff’s department, some police.” She checked the watch clipped to the flat bosom of her drab housedress. “Boys like you, you wouldn’t like the county lockup.”
Jerry agreed. “It’s a little ‘we scratch your back, you scratch ours.’ Every once in a while, they attempt to clean up. For the papers, understand. But you two? In jail?” He whistled forlornly.
Frank said, “We understand. Could you just, um, lower that gun of yours?”
Jerry smiled and, like the corners of his mouth, the pistol remained up and on them.
“Couple of chuckleheaded virgin bandits, you two,” Sylvia said. “Leave the shotgun and the forty-five where they are. Get your asses out of here. Out back. Climb out the goddamn window and go back from where you came.”
Sylvia’s backdoor was nailed shut. She apparently didn’t like surprise entrances from the rear of the building or nonpaying absconders. Frank and Johnny left by the window. They ran and stumbled through the dark woods until they finally decided it was safe to walk, angling their way back to the highway to hitchhike back to Port Nicollet.
“She was right. What a couple of bandits we turned out to be,” Johnny laughed. “More like the Haynes sisters in White Christmas, giving the slip to the sheriff in Florida.”
Frank threw an arm around Johnny, pulled him away from the road and down to the ground. They rolled, kissing hard, near merging, one into the other.
Afterward, the two men skinny-dipped in a lake down in the woods, mosquitos be damned. Frank and Johnny held each other, neck deep in the water.
“You’re good with that?”
“I want you to be happy, baby.”
The next afternoon found the two on the road, the Mercury Eight regained, U.S. 61 in front of them. They were moving to the Twin Cities and beyond, leaving their covert lives in small town Wisconsin behind.
Rick Odegaard, to the wonder of everyone he ever knew, stopped drinking, cold turkey, no assistance from AA or any other group. He stopped. The width of his backyard, a gravel alley, and another backyard, his mother’s, separated Rick and Nadine, but never divorce. Rick died in 2000, stone sober and nodding in a recliner, watching the History Channel.
Nadine lived across the alley from her husband with Ma Odegaard, caring for the old woman who might very well have lived forever, until she died a week after her hundredth birthday. Nadine’s senile dementia diagnosis followed closely on Ma Odegaard’s death. Rick had her admitted to a care center in Duluth. She may be living there still.
Frank and Johnny left Port Nicollet and the Odegaard family behind in the late summer of 1958, settling first in Minneapolis. In the mid-sixties, they relocated to San Francisco, even farther from their roots. At Bay Area parties, they were known as the couple with the outrageous tale about a long-ago caper in the Midwest. They had tried robbing a rural Wisconsin casino and brothel, a fully illegal enterprise, and failed. No one could believe it. Frank and Johnny? Desperados? The two men told the story for years. Their friends laughed until tears ran down their faces.
Johnny died in the mid-nineties, a heart attack, and Frank had him buried in Colma, the City of the Silent. One day, a bereft Frank looked around and found that everyone he used to know was gone. He returned to his roots in the Upper Midwest and passed in 2005.
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