Helen Got the Day Shift
The sign at the north entrance of town says: MARMONT, FROM OURS TO YOURS! The lake underneath the bubble letters looks like Marmont, the family playing on the beach doesn’t look like anyone I know. Next to the sign, there’s a long, white stick. A thin slash crosses the top like an open wound. Must say, I don’t care for it. The sign and what it says. Every word of it’s true and makes me sick every time I drive by it. We did get record snowfall that winter 6 years back, but most folks don’t think about it too much. And Marmont? Yeah, it is our town. From a retired grocery clerk like me to our police chief, the whole thing is ours. We own this. We’re all in on it together. Small towns get like that. Give everyone enough time and they know everybody. You know what goes along, what to say, when to shut up. It’s the only way Helen ended up married to Pete Shepherd.
I knew Helen before she came to work for me at the Park’n Shop. One perk of living in such a clustered town is you get to see people young and innocent. I knew Helen and Shep, hell I don’t even think his old man called him “Pete,” when they were just grammar school kids and I came back from the Army. From then on, it wasn’t hard getting a job at Park’n Shop and it didn’t get too hard staying on there either. By the time Helen worked with me, I was a day shift manager. Drove a snowplow for the town too. Paid a little, but I never slept much and needed to keep busy anyway. Retired from both now. I don’t see Helen or her boy Rusty anymore since spring after the snowstorm. It’s just as well. She worked both jobs soon after Rusty was born, all on account of Shep. I don’t think people are born bad, time changes them. Lord knows I have since 6 years ago when I traded Helen shifts that one evening. I don’t much care for people anymore bad or good.
Still, I don’t know if I even cared much for Shep back in the day. The term “stinker” never applied better than it did to the freckled, wild-haired kid I saw running around some nights raising all kinds of hell. Then he went from a stinker to a man, and from there he became the fixture of every small town: the local drunk. On typical Fridays, you could catch his performance at Denton’s Corner Tavern. He played all the classics: bitch about his wife, bitch about his kids, swear he could drive home, then end it with the fan-favorite finale: fall down drunk. By that time, I gave the man about as much respect as a mustard stain on an old work shirt.
Rusty wasn’t too unusual a sight in the Park’n Shop breakroom, working on his math or keeping busy with a coloring book by the potbellied stove in the town hall if wintertime. Those nights working the plows got to be pretty late sometimes. We’d salt the roads if the weather gave us a heads up. Nights, it snowed hard enough we not only cleared the roads but needed to push mounds of snow off sidewalks to deposit them in the backlot of the movie theatre. In summertime, the place filled with steamed up cars and empty bottles. Wouldn’t surprise me if Rusty’s whole existence started right there. But in wintertime, the place became a perfect dumping ground. Some storms, we could maybe make 2 to 3 mounds of snow after the fact. 6 years ago, we topped that at an even 12. Late nights and a lot of work, but Helen didn’t mind either. I imagine it kept her and Rusty away from Shep. No job, plenty of beer, an open tab at Denton’s, and a friend on the police force convinced Shep he could be cock of the walk. When somebody or something reminded him otherwise, he got mad. When he got mad, he got punchy. When he got punchy he looked for the closest thing around. Helen always made sure she got closer than her boy.
A lot of mornings opening up at the Park’n Shop, especially after the weekends, Helen came with one blue eye swollen. Sometimes bruises dotted her pale arm like dirty mud puddles. She always kept up appearances with a smile and an explanation. The cut on her forehead: “Oh, I slammed up on an open cupboard. So stupid.” The swollen lip: “Had a nightmare and rolled right out of bed onto the floor. Pretty dumb huh?” When she walked for a limp nearly 3 days straight: “Slipped on the kitchen floor and fell. Me and my fat ass.”
Only thing real about those excuses were probably those little insults. Reeked of Shep; he often repeated them after a beer or 10 at Denton’s. Everyone else heard it too but did nothing. Like I said, everybody knows what goes on and most folks didn’t mind much if their own lives didn’t get rocky. Shep’s friend on the police, Baxter, I might have to take exception to “nobody being born bad.” That little blonde weasel never liked me much and the feeling came all too mutual. Nope, Shep never had to worry much about the law. His buddy kept him free of anything worse than a ticket, let him know if the taxman came knocking, and even then, Helen still put her money in Shep’s hand. Just like her bruises, everyone knew the worst of where that money went, but kept tight-lipped.
Truth was, I liked Helen. I liked having her around. I liked watching her dote on her little boy. She laughed like water spilling out of a bottle, bubbly and light. During the day, she could get me laughing on and on about what some dotty old lady complained about. Those winters we both worked the plows and chatted on our CBs throughout the shift. She’d follow her route from Willow to Ohio Street and onto Main. When I came off Broadway and Lake, we’d pass each other on opposite ends of the empty lot. Ships in the night to be sure, but my old heart got a little warmer those days when she waved and I waved back.
6 years back, just before Thanksgiving, I could barely keep my eyes open during the day. Even before what happened, the notion of retiring seemed sensible. Shopping turned into straight-up gladiatorial combat over the last few frozen turkeys. Helen, me, the pimple disguised as a teenager I had running registers, we all got ground down to nubs each day. Rusty went from a typical sight in the breakroom to a certifiable landmark when the school let out for break. I went to alert-mode the Tuesday morning Rusty wasn’t there, but Helen showed up for work. She hardly kept her hands from trembling as she helped me restock frozen foods.
“What’s wrong?” The lima beans could wait and I just figured the register boy would have to survive without the two of us for the time being.
I took Helen to the breakroom before she could finally stammer out, “Shep didn’t, he didn’t come home and…”
When I offered her Kleenex, her hand stopped shaking, got steady as a bullet fired from a gun, and swatted them away from her. For that second, her eyes glinted on the sides like the jagged edge of a tin can. I just stepped back and let her go on with it.
“Rusty wasn’t home this morning. I-I didn’t check him when I got home last night. I can’t find them!”
We waited outside the store for the police. To this day I can’t understand why they need to ask me so many damned questions. Marmont’s got its own force, only 6 years ago it was smaller. Only 2 officers, a dispatcher, and a chief then. I knew the wheezing, geriatric dispatcher, Harold, as well as he knew me. Still, Shep beat them to the punch. While we waited outside for the patrol car, Shep’s muddy ride squealed into the lot. He burst out of the driver’s seat like he had a spring up his ass. Just before he shut the door, I spied the familiar yellow, red and white cans of Shep’s favorite liquid lunch. I guessed there were enough cans on the floor there to put new aluminum siding on half the houses in town.
“Hey, Baby!” He announced, holding open his arms like he got back from some long deployment rather than sleeping it off in some abandoned lot or campsite. Almost made me want to laugh a little too, until Rusty’s pale face popped up in the rear seat. I think he tried talking, but just kind of burbled something on account of his blue lips. That’s when it dawned on me, the weather report the night before got close to zero.
“Sonofabitch!” Helen never cursed much at work and only a time or two with us working the plows. Felt like somebody slapped my head clean off. Shep stood there, arms still up, mouth open, and just let her march over to yank Rusty out of the car. When she handed him to me, I got goosebumps just brushing my hand across the thin windbreaker he had on. Helen didn’t even wait to see me take him inside. When I looked over my shoulder, she already stood face to face with her husband and shouted right at him. Maybe she figured her words could just cut him wide open. It wouldn’t surprise me much if that’s what she wanted.
“Marmont police dispatch. What’s your emergency?”
“Harold, stop screwing around. This is Al over at the Park’n Shop. Who’s coming?”
“Deputy Baxter said he’s on his way over.” Harold’s voice drifted off in my ear. Shep socked Helen square in the stomach, and my skin filled with what seemed like a million fire ants.
“Back away now!” I screamed loud as I could and ran back out into the lot, nearly getting hit by a lady and her van. Right then and there, I wished I never took up smoking in the service. Sounded quite a bit more like Harold than an ex-grunt ready to rumble by the time I reached Shep. Helen struggled to get up off her hands and knees. Didn’t think much then, if I did I might never have shoved Shep back into his car. I helped Helen up and we huddled together waiting for whatever Shep brought our way next. The only time in my whole life I felt grateful Deputy Baxter showed up. Despite my good intentions, I doubt I could do much for Helen except slow Shep down while he broke my hip or gave me that heart attack my doctor kept warning me about.
“Got trouble?” Baxter just strolled over like he never heard the word “emergency.”
“Just came to drop off the kid,” Shep rolled his shoulder and winced, “wife went nuts and this old asshole shoved me.”
My hammering heart sank when the crowd that had been behind me since the incident started suddenly vanished the next time I looked around.
“That’s not true, Baxter. He knows it too.” The bastard had actually tried silencing me with a wave of his hand. Those fire ants came back and I wondered how easy I could shove that little badge down his throat.
“Ma’am? You strike your husband?”
“No. He took off with Rusty in the middle of the night.” Baxter may as well have turned invisible then.
“What’s the story, Shep?”
“Just come by to drop off my boy is all.”
“He socked her right in the gut, Baxter. You stupid as you are short?”
Baxter threatened to drag me into the station and lock me up. I challenged him to, reminded him a whole crowd stood out front when his best buddy decided to smack the wife around. I didn’t really expect anyone to speak up, small towns and all, but I also wasn’t kidding about Baxter’s intelligence. On a good day I’m sure he had trouble telling right from left.
So, Shep went away and Helen went home with her boy. The rest of the day everyone walking by with their frozen turkeys and boxes of stuffing looked at me like a leper. Suppose they all figured the best course of action for me would have been to keep my mouth shut. Maybe they were right in a way. Shep got out 24 hours later, just in time to be home for Thanksgiving. Just waltzed right back into the home he didn’t own. I spent the day with a turkey pot pie, a Twilight Zone marathon, and doing my best to not think about whatever was happening on the other side of town.
For a time, things went their usual, quiet way about Marmont. At least for those who couldn’t be bothered to look. Me? I took notice how Rusty never left the store whether Helen worked or not. She took just about every shift thrown her way, at the store or driving plows. If she wanted those hours away from Shep and his fists, looking bruised or raw nearly every time his sorry-self rolled in for beer, Helen certainly got her wish.
The weatherman warned everybody the storm coming down from Lake Michigan was one for the books. The store seemed like it suffered from a second Thanksgiving. People rushed out with canned goods, powdered milk, batteries, flashlights, and candles. Even Shep peeled his worthless ass off the couch to buy a few of his own essentials, like beer and Slim Jims. At the town hall it got to be a kind of “all-hands-on-deck” situation. All hands equaled 5 of us, but like I said, extra shifts didn’t bother Helen or me much.
The plan seemed simple enough anyway: 5 of us cutting the town into sections like a pie, salting every road our plows drove over. As luck had it, most of the snow that came into town with November had long turned into brown puddles, more mud than snow. The usual route, the usual idea. Salt away and then gird ourselves for the mother of all storms. The boys and Helen all bet they’d get to 7 mounds in the empty lot this year. They took bets sitting by the potbellied stove. With that, we got our gear and drove off. Helen gave Rusty a peck on the cheek and came along. She limped on one side and when she caught up with me it got impossible to un-see the scabbed cut on one eyebrow.
Out there that night, with the town so quiet and battened down, I shivered with something colder right down in my marrow. Across the lake you could even see the storm front moving in, black clouds prowling around the dirty gray horizon getting ready to pounce. The inside of my cab never felt so nice and Helen’s voice over the CB never came so welcome.
“Need a change of diapers, Old Man?” She waved across the lot. The dome light behind her gave the angel a halo she deserved. I gave her both my middle fingers and tooted my horn. Laughter and the grinding of gears helped push back the darkness and cold a bit too. It kept me going through my route. Laid so much salt I had to swing by the town hall for a new load halfway through. Meanwhile, the storm just kept crawling over the lake. Swore I even saw lightning inside it at one point. Sometimes a flickering, blue light shone in a house here and there. I guess most kids counted on no school. Shep more than likely lay passed out on the couch too drunk to even care about that.
And with that little thought, the rage came crawling back. A good, loud part of my mind took to the idea of just driving over and sending the plow straight through the living room of the house. Hell, I knew where Rusty and Helen were so I didn’t need to worry about them. Just ram the front of the plow right through that goofy grin of his and send it flying out the backdoor. The idea didn’t lack appeal. By then I pulled back around to finish my last leg of the route and Helen waved from the empty lot, enjoying a cigarette; I thought she quit a year before. I asked her that when I climbed out of my cab to join her.
“I gave it a go,” she offered me one. Peer pressure is a hell of a thing even past age 50. We enjoyed our little vice in the empty lot an hour past midnight like the only 2 people on earth: the battered wife of the town drunk and the old bachelor. Somewhere on the other side of town, a plow bellowed.
“So, how are you Helen?” To my surprise she laughed that happy, watery chuckle of hers I knew from so few better days.
“Oh, just peachy, Al.” I got a fairly strong, friendly punch in the shoulder and just shrugged. “Same as I always am, Al. Same as yesterday and all the others coming down the line.”
“Yeah,” and with that, the laughter evaporated, “well, Shep hasn’t been too happy since Thanksgiving. Turkey only patches things up so far.”
“To hell with patching it up, Helen. Can you get away?”
“Away where, Al? Get a studio across from you? Me and Rusty with bunkbeds maybe? Get real, Old Man.” She waved a hand and I found an interesting puddle of slush to focus on instead. “Can’t really run off with my boy, make me just like him.”
“He’s going to kill you someday.”
“Yeah,” she exhaled smoke and vapor, “I suppose he might.” When I did look, her eyes flashed that same, sharp, gunmetal gray edge from before.
Stayed quiet after that for a while until Helen pointed to the sky where a small bit of storm clouds broke for some stars. “Nice out here, isn’t it?” I nodded, and before I knew it, I leaned in closer. So did she.
“Can you take the day shift tomorrow? For the plows I mean? Instead of opening the store?” She smiled and that deadly edge in her eyes vanished.
I leaned back to my respective side.
“Please? I need to spend time with my boy. Rusty needs a day in the snow. No one will be able to come into the store anyway. I’ll plow that night.”
I shrugged my yes. “What about Shep?” The smile stayed by the corner of her mouth.
“Nighttime, I’m sure he’ll be at Denton’s. So, it’s okay?”
Her hug shocked me more than a kiss might have I guess. It had been quite a while since my last hug and that night it came from the best friend I had. So, I squeezed back hard as I could, just in case the end with her and Shep came sooner rather than later. Didn’t believe it would be so soon.
Quite a storm that morning. Like Helen suggested, I just kept the store closed. A nap at home and some coffee at town hall was all I needed to keep moving. Up and down the roads I went. Snow fell in a lacy curtain across town at first. Then it turned into a solid sheet, and the plow just crawled down the street. Still, the salt seemed to do the job. The boys’ predictions went better than they thought too. By one o’clock, we were already at 7 mounds of snow in the empty lot. Kids and their parents ran all over them in colorful snowsuits like little bursts of warmth in the storm. I laughed till I cried when I honked my horn and watched a bunch scatter. Even spied Helen there one time, playing atop a mound with her boy.
When the shift ended at five, I may as well have never bothered plowing. The roads, sidewalks, the whole town looked like God’s fresh, new printer paper. Even the young ones grew tired. Only in small towns when a storm comes up and the kids go home, the adults come out for their own fun. Denton’s shone like a lighthouse on Main Street and it called in all the lost ships of the evening: drunks, loners, the town elders, and those just off work. Inside was every bit as lively, warm, bright, and crowded as the streets just beyond the threshold were not. Helen knew her husband well enough. Shep and Baxter occupied a booth at the rear with a few others that reminded me of those ape specials you see now and again on the Discovery channel.
Talk at the bar and on the radio said the storm might last a whole week at the very least. I told myself all I wanted was a beer and to go home for bed. Only I never could lie very well to myself. Each beer led to the next. The bar grew emptier with each tick of the clock. Just me and what remained of Shep, Baxter, and the other small-town dickheads. Not much later and then just us 3. I wandered over before my feet even knew it.
“What?” Shep growled at me. I went to make a fist and surprised myself with the empty beer bottle still in my hand. Shep stood, Baxter stayed put. Some cop he was.
“The hell you doing with that, Al?” This close, Shep smelled like a brewery. He smiled and that did it. I jerked my head forward and flashed some teeth of my own like a rabid dog. Shep fell over the table and straight on his ass. The wounded, puppy-dog look in his eyes pushed all the anger out of me and I giggled at the town bully.
“You’re off your meds, you old fart.” Shep picked himself up and marched out the door.
“Shep,” Denton called from behind the bar,
“Tab me, asshole.” When Shep left, a plow horn tooted as it passed.
Now Baxter stood and the shine of his leather holster seemed too real just then. Same with the butt of the revolver sticking out of it. Any drunkenness vanished as he said, “Sticking things where you don’t belong, Al. You, me, Shep. Shit, even his woman. We don’t like it here? Move.”
When I left for home, sleep didn’t come easy.
Radio told right. Apart from being a record snowstorm, it was a record for the weatherman being right for once. The storm lasted a little over a week. The boys at town hall were wrong. Got to be 12 mounds of snow, each nearly the height of the movie theatre. For close to a month, it got to be all anyone talked about. At least until somebody noticed the town seemed a little less drunk, a little less bruised, and a little more pleasant.
At first, most folks thought Shep just couldn’t leave his house. No one saw Helen or Rusty either, so it seemed alright. The snow died down and people burrowed out from their homes but still no sign of Shep. Snowed in went to being sick; some folks thought maybe Shep finally ran out of money and bar tabs so he lacked a reason to come out anymore. Then Christmas became New Year’s and new questions rolled along with it. Helen got interviewed by the police, the local paper, the county paper, and still said the same thing, “He went to Denton’s and never came home.” The local cops knew the story and figured Shep probably did just run off. The state boys needed some convincing. Then Helen brought up all the times he went out drinking with Baxter and disappeared days at a time. Despite everything, I really do wish I could have been there to see Baxter’s face at that.
January went to February, and as the buds bloomed on branches, the snow finally got to melting. First person who spied the bumper in the snow mound was a kid playing hooky from school. After what came next, I imagine he’s never skipped another day of school in his life. A town tow truck pulled it out. I helped dig some of the snow. Out came Shep’s crappy little rust bucket from beneath a 12-foot-high mound of snow. Inside was Shep. What remained of the drunken bastard withered away into a sort of blue, marble statue. His black lips peeled back in a scream, and I like to think that’s just the way bodies look after 4 months of freezing in a car. Only I know better since I was there. Didn’t take much thought to see why the upholstery got torn up or why it was wrapped around him. Must have gotten cold buried under all that snow. Cold and dark. Some nights, I just lie awake in bed trying to imagine how it must have felt knowing there wasn’t anyone coming for him, or how each muffled grunt and groan of the plows above meant just another foot or so of snow buried him just a little deeper. Before I close my eyes, I wonder if he suffocated first or the cold did him in at the end. Either way, Pete Shepherd went out screaming in the dark while the town went about business as usual.
This time the police asked Helen, Denton, Baxter, and me who saw what and what sort of alibis we had. When my turn came around, I thought long and hard on that. Luckily Denton could vouch for me and I for him. Hell, even Baxter backed us up since after Shep left we hung around for a while still. It was only when they asked me about Helen’s whereabouts that night that the thoughts clicked home. She asked me to switch shifts, day for night, but buried in our parkas and snowsuits, who could tell anyone apart for certain?
So, I lied, “Helen got the day shift.”
Small towns, they know when to speak up, when to stay quiet, when to see something, and know what’s needed to just go along. The last good bit of me hopes Helen planned it spur-of-the-moment like. I don’t like picturing her thinking and plotting, how she probably tooted her horn as Shep left Denton’s. I don’t like to think how easy it must have been: “Come on in hon, it’s cold. I’ll give you a lift home.”
“I can drive!”
“Fine, drive you to your car?”
Full of booze, full of himself, Shep couldn’t be too hard to persuade. Helen knew her husband better than anyone else. She knew him inside and out, drunk or sober. Like us, she knew how every drunken night ended: passing out. After that it probably didn’t take much longer. Find his car. Put him in. Park it behind a mound. Push a little snow over it. Then let the town do its work. With zero visibility and plows running all night, everybody could bear a little responsibility in the end. After that, it flew out of her hands. Shep was left to the town and awoke in a freezing darkness I only conjure up in those sleepless nights that came after.
Don’t see Helen much anymore. Last I heard, she’s thinking about moving up north to Rockford. It’s a nice enough city. Rusty can go to a good Middle School, make new friends. She’s free now, no matter what she did. Helen took the night shift – I lied for her – and she got free of this town. I don’t think I’ll ever be.