Outrunning the Calvary, his horse had died earlier in the day from exhaustion. He spent the rest of his trip on foot, his moccasins wearing down. It was night: the sky was overcast, black. He knew the river next to him to be the Anishinaabe River. The French had changed it to the Misi-ziibi, then, it namely evolved into the Mississippi. He had made it as far as southern Missouri. Locklear slept deeply by rushing water and dreamed of his grandfather as he always did, sitting around a roaring fire in his teepee, snow blasting outside on plains in what was being established as south-west Minnesota. It was the last time he had seen his grandfather alive. As always, in his dreams, his grandfather instructed him, “You’re there.” Locklear looked up at his wrinkled red skin and questioned, “I’m where?” His grandfather pulled again on his pipe while rustling up his black hair to say, “Where you’re supposed to be. Your descendants are counting on you.” As he stared questioningly at his grandfather, he heard, outside his dream, men screaming. Leaving his long-dead grandfather in dreamland he opened his eyes.
Melrose is located in the middle of Minnesota in the St. Cloud Metropolitan Statistical Area in Stearns County. As of the 2010 census, it has a population of 3,598. A majority of the population remains white, but as of late and because of the success of the local turkey plant, there has been an explosion of the Hispanic population. The first census was taken in 1890. Population 790, it consisted mostly of German farmers.
Highway I-94 runs through the southern part of Melrose. Among the notable people who have lived there are aviator Charles Lindbergh when he was a child, his grandparents are buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery, east Melrose. Actress Calista Flockhart also lived there when she was a child. Matt Herkenhoff, who played for the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs from ’76 to ’85 and Mark Olberding who played professional basketball for the San Antonio Spurs from ’75 to ’82. The most notable parts of the Melrose skyline were the blue water tower, the St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s twin steeples and the two feed-mills. The Sauk River runs through the middle of town.
Ty attached his baseball glove to his handlebars and rode his bike to his mother’s. The baseball diamond where he practiced was nine blocks from home. He was extraordinarily excited. His mother was sending him to baseball camp up near Brainerd next week. He had to be eight years old to attend and his birthday had been two weeks ago. It wasn’t just baseball either. There was fishing, swimming and just about everything. As he rode down the street to his mom’s house, he heard the angry mail lady making a call in his neighbor’s front yard. His mother’s driveway was dirt. He wrenched the tires to a stop and made a trail, gravel crunched underneath. As he observed the mail lady, his mom yelled, “Get your stupid butt in the house.” Enthusiasm deflated he hung his head low into his red and white baseball shirt. She reminded Ty that if he didn’t shape up, she would cancel his baseball camp.
Ty hadn’t seen his dad in four years. He’d been told his dad hates him. His Mother Heather took credit for baseball camp but that was all his dad. “All the things I do for you and that’s the thanks I get?”
When his mom had calmed down he asked if he could let Reba, a middle-sized Chihuahua tied up in the backyard, loose, so he could play with her. His mother sighed and told him to give her a kiss. He ran to the backyard. She could hear him playing with the dog when she heard police sirens. She didn’t have any drugs on her that day so she wasn’t worried. She disappeared into her phone while not hearing Ty run around the backyard.
Chief Schaefer approached the Professor’s house. It had been a slow morning until they got the call from the mail lady telling them that, the old man had keeled over. The Chief adjusted his hat. Deputy Johnson had donned white rubber gloves and checked for a pulse. He looked up at the Chief and nodded no. The house was dark. Opening the shades, the Chief adjusted his hat again. Outside, Deputy Primus was taking a statement from the mail lady. The last time the Chief had seen the old man was at Ceil’s Café. He thought, ’What was that, a month ago?’
Around him were books, tons of books, towers of them. He had trouble navigating the front room to make his way to the Professor, who was laying down. They called the Coroner. The fellow deputy finished the interview of the mail lady, came inside the house and said, “She told me not even a half-hour has passed since she handed him his mail. Said he looked great for an old man.” Chief Schaefer scratched his head and looked through the mail and thought, ’Foul play?’
There was a city bill, garbage, a National Geographic magazine. “I didn’t know that still existed”, he said to himself. There was also an opened letter next to a microscope. The room reeked of antiseptic, combined with the kind of alcohol gel used to sanitize hands. Flipping the Professor over, his front was covered with antiseptic, his clothes soaked. From the stove came a burning smell. Deputy Johnson went into the kitchen and yelled, “Ouch, Dammit!”.
Chief Schaefer asked, “You okay in there?”
“Yeah, the teapot was left on. It’s empty now. He must have been making tea or boiling water? He wanted to sterilize something?”
Chief Schaefer, “I don’t know. With all the clutter of books, this place looks fairly clean already.”
On that hoarder’s TV show, when people had an abundance of stuff like this, it was usually accompanied by garbage, fast food wrappers, empty soda bottles, etc. Place wasn’t even that dusty. Old man kept on top of his mess.
Deputy Primus asked, “So what are we doing, Chief? This going under investigation or what?”
Chief Schaefer looked around the room, then down at the old man. In the Professor’s hands, crushed against his chest, was a large bottle of Bath & Body Works scented anti-bacterial hand gel. The Chief pointed down and asked Deputy Primus, “He was in his 90’s. You’re a girl. Bath & Body Works is for females, correct?”
She shrugged, “I guess.”
As they discussed, the Coroner walked in and they let him do his thing. His hair was starting to gray, he had a scrunched up face and wore all black. He wasn’t happy they had flipped the old man over before he got there, but did agree with the mail lady the old man had just died, “Within the hour.” He said.
Chief Schaefer, “Alright”, he pointed to Johnson and Primus, “You two write this up. It looks like it was his time to die. I’ll call the funeral home and get this guy on ice.” The two deputies left. Chief Schaefer looked at the wall as he pulled out his cell phone. The old man had credentials for sure. University of Oxford, Harvard, Doctorate in Archaeology, Masters in Physics, he taught at Yale. As the phone rang, he looked down at the old shut-in and thought, ’What the hell were you doing in Melrose, Minnesota?’
On the other line a man picked up, “Tschida Funeral Home”
“Got a body for you.”
“Hey, Chief. Where we going?”
As they wrapped the old man up the Chief thought about the letter next to the microscope. He picked it up. It was written in Spanish. On the microscope was a stem of something with dried up leaves on it. Without the microscope he could see there were little red fibers on it, the leaves had a reddish tint.
As he put the letter into his pocket, the funeral guys lifted the Professor up in the black bag and carried him outside. Chief Schaefer began looking behind pictures on the wall, he checked every room in the house. All the rooms were packed with books. In the old man’s bedroom he found a floor safe in his closet, well hidden. He meant to pick the lock, but didn’t have to. It wasn’t locked. Inside he found wads of cash, bank account information, the deed to the house and what the Chief wanted most, a Last Will and Testament. Placing everything in a plastic evidence bag, the Chief grabbed the house keys on a counter and locked up as he left. Inside the dark house behind him the refrigerator started humming.
“Are you sure you didn’t do anything wrong?” Karen looked out the window as Chief Schaefer walked to the police car across the street. She was wringing her hands together. Her husband assured her, “They aren’t at our house, are they?” She asked as she sat down, “When will Josh be home?” Her husband sighed, “Josh has been dead for almost 20 years now. Iraq War.”
He looked at his wife, her gray hair disheveled. She stood and made her way to the closet for the fourth time today and began to vacuum the living room. He thought about telling her she had already vacuumed the whole house, but let her do it again. It made her happy.
Bill held his hand up in front of him and saw the shaking. Yesterday he had almost fallen down. Getting old was a strange thing. Her body was just fine, but her mind was breaking down. His mind was just fine, but his body was breaking down. After she vacuumed, she went to do the dishes and said for the second time that day, “Oh, you did the dishes already, Bill? You didn’t have to. Do you want a sandwich for lunch?” He said sure.
Turning on the TV, he looked for a movie. She brought him his third sandwich of the day. He hoped she didn’t look in the garbage and see the other sandwiches there. He needed to mow the lawn, but was afraid to. He could ask his wife, but she had only done it once or twice in her life. Right now she is running on routine: he didn’t know if she was capable. Through the open window, Bill could hear Heather yelling at her son.
The Tschida Funeral Home hearse backed up to the double doors in the back. Kurt got out and locked the doors in their open position. Using the gurney, he and his assistant Lyle pulled the Professor onto the gurney and wheeled him inside the cooler. There were three other bodies. Kurt identified the Professor with a toe tag and they closed the doors, the lights went out, the fans turned on and the room went back to its thirty-three-degree mark. In an hour, another body fresh from embalming would be wheeled in and the doors shut.
The Last Will and Testament stated everything would go to his only surviving relative, a nephew down in Florida. Chief Schaefer found a number and called him, left a message. For the rest of the day, he tended to his little town. The Melrose City Police Department had five full-time police officers, three that worked the day side, two the night-shift and a part-timer. If there was a night-time emergency, the Chief would get out of bed and assist, but those were rare. The last time it happened was when the Kraft cheese plant burned down.
It was relatively quiet for the rest of the day, just a few tickets. Minnesota had a new cell phone hands-free law just go into effect. The people given their $50 tickets tried to claim ignorance, but they all knew about it and got their tickets anyway.
That night Chief Schaefer’s wife made crockpot split-pea and ham soup, a dish the Chief absolutely hated. He had forgotten about the letter in the breast pocket of his uniform. His wife pulled it out and opened it. It had become wrinkled, so she smoothed it out using her palms on top of the dryer as it hummed. After she had done the dishes, her hands started to itch.
Father Zimmerman cursed the weed eater with all his might. The kid who had been hired to cut the grass and weeds around St. Mary’s Church was attending the damned Boy Scout Camp for two weeks. He threw the weed eater to the ground and said, “By the grace of God I send this weed eater to hell.” He picked it up and threw it in the dumpster behind the church, slammed the top of the dumpster down and kicked it for good measure. He then went in to wash up. He had Bible study later and the old man who lived a few houses from the church had died. He wanted to say a prayer over his body.
The funeral home was surrounded by giant oak trees. Its location bequeathed by the death of another old man, the seven acres had been purchased from his decendants. Father Zimmerman was greeted by Kurt, who asked if he needed to be shown the body, Father said no. Kurt said, “Been in there since yesterday”. The Father turned on the lights and pulled back the sheets. The old man looked peaceful. The Father said his prayers. As he put the sheets back, he hesitated and thought, ’Is he dead?’ For some reason, the priest checked his pulse. The man was cold, there was no heartbeat. The Father did the sign of the cross and left the cooler with the creeps, which for him was rare.
Chief Schaefer’s office overlooked the Sauk River. He had his feet on his desk and his hands linked behind his head when Officer Primus peeked her head in to say, “Got the nephew on the phone, line one.”
He had sorta forgotten about him, so he asked, “What’s his name?”
As she walked away she said, “Scott”.
He picked up the phone and said, “I’m sorry for your loss, Scott. Anything we can do to help…” He was cut off. The nephew said, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Llisten, throw everything away. Just send me whatever money the old fool had. I want the house sold.”
Chief Schaefer said, “You will have to take that up with the realtor’s office. We don’t handle stuff….” Scott interrupted again, “Listen, you inbred, podunk pig. You throw everything away and send me his money, sell the house, or so help me God, I will..”
(He hoped the nephew would threaten him, when someone says, “So help me God, I will…”, you automatically think a threat is coming. If that was the case, he could file charges for a terroristic threat against a police officer. That meant a felony, and that meant jail time, which would certainly put this little shit in his place. Instead,…)
“...sue your ass for everything you got.” Chief Schaefer said, “There are a lot of books in that house that the library would be happy to take.” He was again interrupted. “Throw it all away pig.” Then the phone went silent.
After discussing it with Deputy Primus, he asked her to call the nephew back. They weren’t at liberty to sell the house, like it or not. At the very least Scott’s signatures were needed. It took her a half-hour to get him back on the phone. She said he wasn’t pleasant.
Later that day, he saw books and things being hauled to the back alley behind the old man’s house. He had called the Melrose Public Library and tipped them off. He had meant to go help them, but got a call that Schleper and Halper were fighting again, two farmers at war with each other. During planting, Halper had allegedly planted on Schleper’s land and they were ready to kill each other over it. Chief Schaefer turned on his cruiser lights as he sped away.
When Amy was called, she was delighted. As of late the housing market in Melrose had been slow and tepid. An angry man whose uncle had passed wanted his house sold. He told her there were moving people throwing everything away. He then trash-talked the Melrose Police Department, calling them brain-dead hicks. Fourth Avenue SE, right behind the church, she had met the old man who had been living there. He had been nice. Men usually were to her.
When she arrived at the house, she put a For Sale sign in the front yard. The movers would be paid with the sale of the house, she had been told. Her pink pant-suit was nicely ironed: the moving men noticed her right away. She asked what they had been told. “He said to throw everything away, the library came and took the books. There’s some nice stuff here.”
She told them, “Take what you want, the guy lives in Florida.” When she said this, she heard groans from the moving guys. They were in matching blue shirts. She asked, “What’s the problem?”
The lead guy pointed to a large green garbage can and said, “If we had known that we would have done the fridge last. Look at all the meat we threw away.” She brushed her black hair out of her face and looked. Sure enough, lots of packaged meat. ’It’ll be five days before it’s picked up.’ she thought, ’That’s gonna stink.’ She noted on top of the brown and white packages, some of which had burst open, was a microscope.
She went inside the house to appraise it. She was pretty sure she could get 130, 135, maybe? Hardwood floors, quiet neighborhood. As she thought this she heard next door that woman screaming at her son. She then heard him weeping. ’Poor little guy,’ she thought. She looked out the second story window of a now empty room. The pile of furniture and belongings in the back alley continued to grow. She started taking pictures to post online. One of the most valuable pictures, which would be marked ‘TOP SECRET’, was a picture of the upstairs back bedroom. In the picture through the window, you could see the green garbage can, the top closed.