Web Site: Windchill from Level Best Books
This story first appeared in "Windchill: Crime Stories by New England Writers" published by Level Best Books.
Cletus Wilkes has a smooshed up, squashy kind of face that looks like someone punched him real hard up under the chin making his whole face sort of scrunch up and jut out. If that's what happened it happened a long time ago cause now he's got so many chins a punch would just sort of bounce off. Right now his chins are wobbling as he chews and a fine sheen of grease pools up on one chin before slowly sliding down to the next one finally dripping lazily onto the big paper napkin tucked into his collar to protect the light tan of his uniform shirt.
"Damnation, honey, I believe you make a better smoked sausage than your old man done," he says grinning at me as he licks a slick of ketchup off his thick, rubbery lips.
"Thereís still two more in the pan, Chief Wilkes," I tell him smiling. "No sense in them going to waste."
"Well...," he pretends to think about this even though I know good and well heís been eyeing them all along.
"An empty frying pan means a sunny day tomorrow."
He laughs and his belly rattles the dishes on the counter.
"Well, I'll just eat them as a community service then," he says. "Effie Parnell likes to hang her wash out on Thursdays and gets damn cranky if the sun ain't shining."
I carry his plate back into the kitchen. The bell on the back of the door jingles and two city hunters in neon orange caps and camouflage jackets head for the beer coolers.
"So, what's Old Bruno think about this being a cyber-cafe now?" He raises his voice so I can hear him even though I'm not ten feet away and the kitchen door is standing wide open. He pronounces the word "ka-FEE".
I pretend to think about it as I spoon the sausages onto his plate and add another scoop of baked beans.
"I donít think Pa has any idea what the internet is," I say putting the plate down in front of him. "He just knows it makes money and thatís good enough for him."
As though on cue I see the hunters settle into the folding metal chairs at the two work stations tucked between the camping supplies and the display of sweatshirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, and other junk with the words Pine Creek Gorge, Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon on them. I glance at the clock but those two have been in here before and never argue when I tell them what they owe for on-line time.
"How's the old reprobate doin, anyway?" Cletus says spearing the sausage with his fork sending a spray of hot grease in my direction. I jump back.
"Not good." I grab a dishrag and wipe the counter around his plate. "He hasnít been downstairs in weeks now. I keep telling him he should see a doctor but you know him." Cletus laughs while he chews, his cheeks puffing out like a blowfish.
"I sure do. All Bruno's problems can be found in one place - the bottom of a rum bottle."
"You could go up and see him," I offer. "Might do him some good to talk to someone besides me." Like that's gonna happen. The last thing Cletus Wilkes is likely to do is haul his fat ass up two flights of steps to the rooms above the store.
"Some other time," he says. "You tell him I was askin after him though."
One of the hunters is leaning over the counter. He has a pair of iridescent orange sunglasses on a Philadelphia Eagles lanyard around his neck.
"Sign out front says you dress out deer here."
"Thatís right," I walk to the end of the counter just glad to be away from Cletus's slurping sounds for a minute. He sounds like a pack of coyotes on a dead cow.
"You fellas get lucky?"
"One guy in our group, so far, what's it going to cost him to have you take care of it?"
"Depends," I retrieve a price list from under the counter. "We can just dress it out for you or cut it up and package it or..." I explain the different cuts of roasts, chops, and steaks plus our sausage making and smokehouse options.
"Says here you can store the meat, too."
"Yeah, we have a big walk-in freezer downstairs. Some folks donít have room for a whole deer at home."
"Can I take this with me?" He indicates the brochure.
"Sure." I smile at him. The men that come in here from the city never give me a second glance, they like their women to have some body on them, and that's just fine with me.
"You ain't cuttin up them deer by yourself, are ya?" Cletus asks.
"Nope. I used to but I got Porky Heinz coming in whenever I need him to do the skinning and butchering. He was working at the IGA up there in Binghamton till his mama got sick and he come home to look after her. Heís a pretty good butcher."
Cletus nods. "Good thinkin. You got your hands full runnin this place now that Old Brunoís taken to his bed." He looks around. "Place looks real good, I have to say."
"Yeah. Business is growing. We got a lot a hunters up from Philly and Baltimore this year. City boys tryin to have an 'authentic' wilderness experience." I laugh, I heard about that on the talk radio last week. I like listening to the talk radio while I work in the big kitchen in the basement where Porky cuts up deer for the city fellas and I make the sausages and pies we sell.
"Glad to see you doin so well," Cletus shovels beans into his big mouth. "I used to worry about you and Old Bruno bein stuck out here so far in the woods alone but it looks like youíre doin jest fine."
Lying sack of shit, I think but I just smile.
"Sorry to bother you again." I look up. The hunter is back.
"Do you have any 7mm cartridges? Remington Magnum."
"I'll look." I know darn well we donít but these city guys think we're a bunch of hicks if I don't at least make an attempt.
"What you huntin with?" Cletus asks as I enter the storeroom.
"It's a custom-built," the hunter tells him, "bolt-action."
"Got one a them built-in range finders in the scope?"
I can hear Cletus snort all the way in the closet. "Figgers."
"Sorry," I tell the hunter. "All I have is 30.06." I hold up a box.
"Naw, that's okay. I think I've got enough for now. Do you have any pies left?"
"Just Dutch apple and lemon meringue. Iíll have fresh ones tomorrow."
He nods. "Wrap up an apple for me."
As I'm boxing the pie, Cletus eyes it with disdain. "Don't tell me I'm too late for a piece a your mincemeat pie today?"
I give him a smile. "I keep the mincemeat in the kitchen. Ití's just for my favorite regulars. Too much work to make it for everybody."
Cletus looks genuinely relieved. "Your momma made the best homemade mincemeat pies I ever had in my life. She musta passed her pie-making genes on to you."
"You fellas just like the mincemeat because of all the booze in it," I tell him as I finish tying the string on the pie box. "Mama used a good amount of suet in her mincemeat. It helps marry all them spices. I've got plenty of suet."
"Well, if Porkyís makin deer sausage I reckon he's butcherin some pigs, too."
I keep my back to him. "Something like that."
"I can't hardly b'lieve you can cook like she done. You was just a little kid when she passed on."
"I was ten," I tell him trying to keep the edge out of my voice. Ten years old and forty miles from civilization with a drunken father, not that any of that concerned you, Chief of Police Cletus Wilkes.
Cletus shakes his head, "It's a wonder you was old enough to remember."
"I started helping her when I was old enough to stand," I say. Somebody had to, I think. "Pa had me stuffing sausages when I was big enough to reach the grinder. I made them sausages you're eating now."
"Well, they're fine. It's a wonder you have the time to run this store and do all the cookin and still take care a your old man. Harry Jenkins says he and the missus drive out here every Sunday after services just so's they can have some of your mincemeat pie."
The Reverend Harry Jenkins is the pastor of the Baptist Church my folks belonged to, not that I can remember ever going there except on Christmas and, after Momma died, not even then.
"Yeah, him and Barty Hollaway used to come out to play pinochle with Pa. Whitey Pringle, too. I made Reverend Jenkins take them each a couple pounds of sausage and a pie just this past Sunday."
"Ain't you a sweetheart!" Cletus chuckles. "I 'member some of those card games. I filled in often enough. You was always lurkin around - skinny kid with those big, wide eyes a yours..." He widens his eyes and mugs for me. I look away to hide my disgust. "Bringin us sandwiches and pie. You was so obligin."
Like I had a choice. I carry the box over to the counter by the cash register. The hunters are both looking at the same PC monitor laughing at some Flash movie one got in his email. Snow falls like glitter through the lights in the parking lot. Only four o'clock and it's dark outside. Winter is closing in.
"Looks like more snow," Cletus says, cutting the last sausage into small pieces as though it will be the last sausage he ever eats and he wants to make it last.
"Never know what will happen during a long winter." I turn my back to him and start refilling the coffee-maker. I normally get half a dozen fellows in around supper time and, when the days are short, supper time comes early.
"Your Pa sure is lucky to have you. Donít know what heíd do being sick and all way out here in the middle of nowhere. I'm real glad you worked things out with him. I recall a few years back you wasnít too happy here."
I grit my teeth and control my breathing. I was fucking miserable, I want to scream at him. I was beaten and abused and used like a whore and you fat fucks just brought him more booze and played cards and pretended not to see anything. I take a deep breath.
Not any more.
"Well, all that's changed now," I say to the coffeemaker. "I turned eighteen and can sign the checks and keep the store running. If Pa kicks the bucket over the winter I'll just stick him down in the meat locker until Spring."
Cletus almost chokes himself laughing. "You do that. You got room for two-hundred and seventy pounds of useless meat down there?"
I turn around. "Yes, I do."
A bewildered look flashes across his face. "You know," he says gravely. "Your father always loved you."
Right. Every chance he got till he was too fat to find his dick.
"I know," I say. "Only thing I worry about is that he'll get up in the middle of the night and try to go hunting again. He hasn't done that in some time and I always found him and brought him back but if he were to go out when I was sleeping, well, who knows what could happen?"
He studies me a minute. "We got SUVs now and cell phones down to the station. If anything happens all you gotta do is call." I watch the cluelessness muddle up his dumb look. Cletus has cultivated that for so long it has settled in permanently.
"We'll be fine. Frankly, I think this is going to be a real good winter," I lighten my tone of voice. "Hunters are already starting to bring in deer to be processed and Iíve got a lot of plans for the store here. I might start having some of the ladies in town bake pies for me and Porky comes in when I need him. But donít worry..." I give him my best smile and this time itís for real. "I'll still make sausages and mincemeat pies with my own hands just for País special friends."
Cletus grins happily.
"Youíre a good girl, honey. Still takin care of us and all."
"Glad to," I say. I put my hands on the counter, lean forward and fix him with a reassuring smile. "I put aside a whole shelf full of meat downstairs that Iím keeping special just for you boys."
About two hundred and seventy pounds of it.
"You ready for that mincemeat pie?" I tease. "With a nice scoop of ice cream on it?"
Cletus claps his big, fleshy hands together and rubs them vigorously. "You bet, honey, you bet."
I go to the kitchen and take out the very special mincemeat pie I keep on hand. I keep it in a separate compartment next to my very special home-made sausage.
"The secret to making mincemeat," I tell him as I scoop vanilla ice cream onto it, "is to make sure the suet you use has been soaked in liquor for a good long time."
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|Reviewed by Regis Auffray
|Great story. Well-written. It captured my attention right at the start and held it till the end. My mind is reeling as to the possibilities here. Well done, Kathleen. Thank you for sharing. I love short stories. Love and peace,