Jason Black lived on West Riverside Avenue. At 31 years old, he had five children, and had been happily married for seven years. Both of his parents had died by the time he had turned 21. His biological ancestors were German, but he had been raised as an Ojibwe Indian. Born in the late 1980s, his biological mother Jenna quickly succumbed to meth. His biological father, Joe Madison, was serving a life sentence in federal prison. The two Ojibwe who had raised him had been in their sixties when they had adopted him. They had been raised in the old way and had been told they must adapt to the White Mans way or everything they knew would die with them.
She was unable to have children. They argued on what to do for 10 years. One day in 1988, she woke up with an idea and, for the first and last time in her life, Blue Heart Black Bear played the race card and adopted a white baby named Jason.
He attended St. Mary’s Catholic School along with all the other kids. They shortened his name from Jason Black Bear to Jason Black so he would better fit in. Jason grew up fluent in the Ojibwe and Cherokee languages, with English as his first and language. And as his parents had planned, he was given 10,000 years of Indian knowledge and heritage. He was in the process of passing this to his children who blended in among the majority of their fellow white classmates.
Eagle’s Claw and Blue Heart had owned most of the land from the west side of Melrose through to Sauk Centre following the Sauk River upstream heading west. Back in the 1960s, they had been told that in order to keep their land and their house, they needed to have electricity. In the 1970s they were told they needed indoor plumbing. They always seemed to come up with the money and the county was always surprised, not with just the money part (we’ll talk about their money later), they were surprised there was no anger in being ordered to do so. Eagle’s Claw and Blue Heart accepted it. There was no honor in fighting the law of the land, especially when it was a fight they knew they would lose. They had been offered land in a trust up near The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Reservation, but their visit showed them there was no future there. For them or anyone who stayed, getting money to do nothing was a curse they did not want put upon themselves.
Jason was outside chopping wood, his son Greg was attempting to argue with him. “But dad, if I go fishing now the lunar calendar states the best time will be today between 2:30 and 4:15p.m. Otherwise, I would have to be out at three in the morning.” Every time Jason brought the ax down, it made a ‘thunk’ sound. His youngest daughter was in the house, still too young to be on her own. His older sons were at camp.
With Jason’s youngest son, while maintaining eye contact, “Everyone else can answer my question. What does Okoboji mean, the definition?”
Greg looked up at his father raising his ax again. Behind his dad, the Sauk River flowed and Greg wanted to go fishing so bad, it felt like his skin was itchy. “Um,…Dakota origins, from the word Okoboozy. I think it means lake weeds?”
Jason looked down at his six-year-old and said, “Reeds and rushes, close. You can go fishing.” Greg looked like he was going to explode as he ran to the garage and got his Batman fishing pole. He ran past his father, tackle box in his left hand, pole in his right hand he headed to the river. Inside the garage were two deep freezers, one was for meat they got while hunting or at the meat market, the other was full of fish caught by Greg. If allowed to grow up Greg would one day make his living fishing.
As always, Jason thought of 50 different outcomes of his son going fishing, ’He could die of drowning?’ he thought. ’He could trip on the way there and bust his head open.’ ’He could get attacked by a bobcat.’ ’He could catch a bunch of fish and be just fine.” All the outcomes and possibilities raced through his mind as he chopped wood. He didn’t like being morbid, but he did like being prepared. For the moment, he set the ax down and quietly checked on his son who was down by the river, just to be safe.
Elias had moved to Minnesota from Mexico City with his wife and two daughters. The turkey plant paid him well, they lived in the trailer court on the southwest side of town. He sent a lot of money to his parents every two weeks, which kept them in the trailer court, for now. He begged his stubborn mother to please move to Minnesota and told them constantly how nice it was. The sun shone as he rushed his family to St. Mary’s for church. His wife Joanne had given them a late start.
Mass was already underway. Elias and Joanne smiled, so did their daughters. Father Zimmerman was at it again:
“Lord, I don’t know what you have against the Minnesota Twins, but we really needed that win last Tuesday. The Detroit Tigers don’t have a shot this year, their line-up is horrible. On behalf of the Twins and their upcoming game against the Yankee’s, I beg you, Oh Lord, please let Kyle Gibson or Jake Odorizzi have steady hands when they throw their pitches. Please guide the balls to the strike zone. Please make sure the New York Yankees,” Father Zimmerman paused, “Well, Lord, you don’t have to hurt them but, you know, just… I’m not going to say it, but, my dear God, please give our Twins strength this upcoming game. Amen.” The whole church chimed in, “Amen”.
After church, they took their daughters downstairs to the church basement for a pancake breakfast. Their daughters Maria and Maddie were picky eaters but, when it came to pancakes, there was no problem. They had moved here a year ago and were steadily making friends. They liked Melrose.
As they walked to their cars with full bellies, Joanne remarked, “That lady is yelling at her son again. Poor little guy.” Elias agreed with her.
Heather was furious at Ty. His stupid dog had gotten loose. She screamed, “Listen, you little bastard, you go get your dog or I’ll find her and run her over.” Ty got his shoes on and went looking for her, leash in hand. The neighbor’s garbage can had tipped over, there was rotting meat, it was there he found Reba.
“Here girl, get out of there.” After two days of sun, the smell was horrible. He hitched her collar to the dog leash. A quick glance made him think grass clippings had gotten blown on the meat. Ty brought the dog to his back yard. A half-hour later, the dog was vomiting profusely. Heather yelled at Ty to clean it up before the dog ate the puke again. Ty used yellow rubber gloves and gagged a few times. He tried sneaking off to church for the evening service. He liked when Father Zimmerman talked about baseball. He liked football season even better. The priest really liked football 10 times more than baseball but his mother stopped him and said she would go with him, then they ended up not going.
Monday morning found Chief Schaefer with his feet on his desk and, his hands behind his head. Behind him was his window facing the Sauk River. On the other side of the river stood a big red brick house. As he sat there thinking his phone started to ring. Picking it up, he said, “Schaefer” in a few seconds, he spoke again. “Be right there.”
At the Melrose hospital, he entered the room and found Alice on the hospital bed, her hands being inspected by Dr. Wong. He asked her, “When did it start?” Alice tried not to see her husband, “Last Friday.”
Dr. Wong, “And you’re sure it’s not poison ivy?”
Alice, “I haven’t been in the woods for some time.”
On her hands was a very red rash. She continued, “It itched like mad at first, but now it just looks bad.”
As Chief Schaefer approached them, Dr. Wong asked, “Could it also be an allergic reaction?”
Chief Schaefer became angry, “Where is it?” Alice wouldn’t make eye contact. He asked again almost yelling, “Where is it?”
Dr. Wong was a serious man. He liked to heal people. He also liked to stay out of other peoples’ business. “Do you guys need a minute?”
Chief Schaefer asked once more, a little more forcefully, “Where is it?” Alice sheepishly said, “Behind the graham crackers.”
A moment later after he had left, they heard him driving his police car out of the hospital parking lot. Then Dr. Wong whispered, “I guess that answers that.” As he stood up from his swivel chair, he said to her, “I’ll cancel the blood work.” Alice hung her head low, grabbed her purse and left.
When she got home the Chief was sitting at the kitchen table. In front of him were two bottles of green dish soap. She had her hands out, palms facing forward. “I was wearing the rubber gloves…” Chief Schaefer interrupted her, “You know goddamn well you aren’t s’posed to be using that. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
Alice stammered, “The other stuff doesn’t work as…”
She was interrupted, “I don’t care, make it work, we have a dishwasher. Honey, I am not going to lose you this way.” He approached her and took her in his arms, “Promise me you won’t use that again.” She hugged him back, apologized and said, “I’m sorry”.
Later, back at the station, Deputy Primus peeked her head in the Chief’s office and said, “Something weird going on at the Professor’s house.” The Chief pointed at two bottles of dish soap and said, “Will you take those please?” She said as she grabbed the bottles, “Again? G’night Chief.”
As the two night deputies took over, things wound down. He said goodnight and went home. He forgot about the Professor and his house.
Tuesday morning Ty grabbed his pack, his baseball glove, and his ball cap. His mother screamed at him for a while, but even that didn’t deter his good mood. With everything packed and ready and on the front doorstep, he wanted to say goodbye to Reba before he left. Running around the house to the shaded back yard, he saw her ferociously chewing through her rope. He saw her eyes were bloodshot, she looked weird and skinny.
Reba knew he would be coming to her eventually, he always did. She had woken up knowing this, she also knew something was wrong with her. She got through the last of the rope. As her best friend reached down to her, she snapped at him.
Standing up quickly, he was more surprised than anything else. He asked, “What’s wrong girl? C’mere.” The brown dirt around her dog house shot up in little puffs of dust as she raced away from him.
The way he said, ‘C’mere’, always melted her heart. She loved him more than anything else in the world. She turned from him and ran straight as fast as she could. He tried to catch up to her but she was faster, her little leg muscles pumped as she ran. He last saw her as she shot through the church parking lot. He would never see her again. From the front of the house, Ty’s mother screamed that the bus was here. As he boarded, he begged her to find Reba: she assured him she would.
Two minutes after he was gone, she was putting on lipstick and getting ready to head to the truck stop in Sauk Centre.
(In six days, as Ty in his orange swimsuit is getting ready to jump off the diving board into Moose Lake, being cheered on by all of his new friends, Black Hawk helicopters will swoop down upon the camp, men using ropes will be jumping down from them. Ty will be ordered onto a CDC van at gunpoint by soldiers in yellow hazmat suits, he will be shivering in the air-conditioning, he will be held in quarantine for two weeks after that before being released to his father, who will be on his knees crying when he first sees him. This will confuse Ty, because he thought his father hated him.)
As the yellow mini-bus pulled away, Heather breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Being a single parent isn’t easy’, she told herself. Granted, because of the stifling financial chokehold on its single fathers, Minnesota enabled her to not have to work, 70 percent of Ty’s father’s paychecks went to her. This provided her plenty of time to get laid, but she was turning 35 this year, getting action was more and more difficult. She had been married to Ty’s father almost a month before she first cheated on him. She remembered telling him, “Just because we’re married doesn’t mean I’m only going to have sex with you.” He had taken it for almost a year. ’What a loser’ she thought before he filed for divorce. She put on her sexy pink blouse and a pair of tight jeans.
As she got into her car, she saw the Professor’s house had vines on it. She didn’t remember them being there before. They sprawled up the corner of the house, the upstairs window was covered. She stood there in her dirt driveway, car door open and scratched her head while asking herself, “Have those always been there?”
The truck stop stood along the I-94 highway. There were plenty of truckers passing through, but it was a Tuesday and it might be difficult. Weekends were better and easier.
Four hours later, with no men in sight, she sighed, finished her cocktail and left, her long brown hair illuminated by a red neon Budweiser sign. As she exited the truck-stop bar, she looked back at the sad old-lady bartender who was fiddling with a broken radio. It was getting dark. She thought about stopping at a local bar in town, but the husbands that would come home with her, their wives knew about her and were always suspicious. She didn’t want the drama again.
As she drove back into Melrose frustrated, she parked her car and rounded the house to grab Reba. The dew in the grass got her feet wet. The dog had crawled back to her dog house. Heather assumed she was so limp because she hadn’t been fed today. She attempted to feed her some lunch meat in the kitchen, but the dog wouldn’t eat. “Must not be feeling well”, she said softly, though she didn’t really care. As she carried the dog, she could feel what she thought were muscles twitching underneath the dogs furry skin.
She tossed Reba into her bed and did some shots of tequila. With the dog there, at least she didn’t have to sleep alone.
Badly dehydrated, Reba had been hallucinating all afternoon. It was out of simple habit she had returned to her doghouse, she didn’t remember ever having slept anywhere else. When Heather picked her up, she was too weak to protest. The smell of food made her want to vomit, but her stomach was empty and her body had little moisture.
Around 11 p.m. Reba the dog passed away. She would be missed, by Ty at least.
Earlier that same day, seeing that the grass was at the point of no return, Bill finally asked his wife to mow the lawn. As he made it out to the front porch with his walker and watched her, a little yellow bus drove away across the street. She seemed to be doing a fine job. For a while, instead of mowing grass it looked like she was bailing hay because of all the thick green clumps the green mower was kicking out. When Karen was finished and drenched in sweat, she walked across the street and picked some of the vines from the Professor’s house. She thought the red tint to the leaves looked pretty. She commented that it was strange they didn’t appear to have roots.
Without washing her hands, she asked her husband if he wanted a sandwich. This time he ate it. The street was quiet: he watched Heather get in her car and leave. She didn’t work. He wondered where she was going. ’With the little guy gone, who will she scream at?’ he thought. Bill pulled his sweater close. Across the street, he watched the vines sway in the wind. They had grown up one of the maple trees behind the Professor’s house. He had a multi-colored wind-sock in his front yard: it was motionless. He decided he needed to sit on the front porch more often. He didn’t remember the vines, nor did he remember who planted them. Behind him, he heard his wife start to vacuum again. As she worked, her hands started to itch. As he ate his sandwich, his mouth started to tingle.
Herbie was better at driving the giant green and yellow garbage truck than Luis. They had collected garbage from the center of Melrose on Monday. Today was to have been the northern half, but Luis called in sick this morning and said he had poison ivy all over his hands. With that their routine was greatly upset and Herbie was angry. Usually, Luis rode on the back of the truck so if there was an issue, someone tipped over a garbage can, overflowing garbage, he would correct it. But not today, nope. Every time there was an issue, he had to get out of the goddamn truck. Working his way across northern Melrose he became more and more angry, thinking things like, ’He’s nursing a hangover.’ or, ’Son of a bitch just wanted to sleep in.’ At one house, his green one-piece uniform got sprayed with garbage juice on the front, some of it got in his mouth. All he had to rinse his mouth out was half a bottle of Diet Coke. When he was done rinsing, he could still taste garbage.
Herbie had doubted Luis’s excuse until he arrived to pick up the garbage at Luis’s house. Luis lived next to the giant blue water tower. He came outside to see Herbie dressed in only a pair of unbuttoned shorts. As the two men stood there inspecting his hands, he explained, “It hurts so bad I can’t get a shirt on.” embarrassed, he asked if Herbie could zip up his shorts. There were red bumps, not blisters, spread up his arms to his elbows. He had spread a topical cream all over his hands repeatedly that day. As Herbie left (a little less angry), he wondered where the rash had come from. He was glad he didn’t have it.
There was a little clothing store in town. Joanne, wife of Elias (from the trailer-park) was one of two employees besides the owner. She mostly folded clothes there. The meat market next door made an excellent and well above average beef jerky. She had gained almost 25 pounds because of the smells wafting over from there. Working there, she was constantly hungry. To make matters worse, the owner of the clothing store was addicted to Old Dutch Potato Chips, so there were always a ton of those in the break room.
A nice man had ordered for his wife a white scarf. He said they were, “Having trouble getting around,” and asked if they could please deliver it?” It was on Joanne’s way home, so she said sure. At five o’clock, she said goodnight and wondered what she would be making for her family for dinner. She stopped at Bill and Karen’s house and got out of her car.