“The Effects of Urban Renewal on Midcentury America” by Jeff Esterholm
Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.
This week, Jeff Esterholm muses on urban renewal in Duluth and its effects on one man’s upbringing.
The Effects of Urban Renewal on Midcentury America
by Jeff Esterholm
Canal Park, Duluth, Minnesota
The last time I saw my father was in October of 1972. He stepped from the club in Canal Park and looked up and down the sidewalk. Kenny Franks was a good six footer, not including the gray-dusted flattop, decked out in a Hershey-brown leisure suit with white stitching at the lapels and cuffs. His shirt was white, the wide collar flapping over the jacket’s lapels like the wings of seagulls squawking over a French fry in the near empty lot by the Aerial Bridge.
My mother and her boyfriend drove away with me. They snatched me from the sidewalk where I’d been waiting for my father to come out after making his last business deal of the day. My mother pulled me from that world, left me crying and pounding at the car’s window as we passed him exiting the club, looking for me up and down the street.
She met her boyfriend at the steel plant in Morgan Park. That’s how things went. They’re probably not much different now. People meet people at work who can change their lives. Then they change the family’s life. His name was Billy, but she called him Buck, and he told me to call him Bucky or Dad or Pa or anything I wanted except son of a bitch, because then, he said, whipsawing through an Elvis karate move, “I’d have to thrash you.”
Forty-four years later, I stepped into the club looking for Kenny Franks. A girl performed acrobatics in the nude on a floor-to-ceiling pole. Expecting to find him there was no doubt foolish, but not any more than believing that if he wasn’t there someone would surely know him and would tell me where he could be found.
By 1972, Kenny Franks’s world had been crumbling for nearly ten years. This was thanks to urban renewal in Duluth’s bowery. Buildings were falling to the wrecker’s ball, bars like The Classy Lumberjack, The Spalding Hotel, the places he did his business. Whatever that actually was. I’d heard of three occupations over the years: loan shark, pool shark, and gallbladder trafficker.
New office buildings rose up out of the heaps of bricks and Kenny Franks was pushed out to the canal neighborhood to do his business, to its warehouses, taverns, and strip joints.
My mother’s boyfriend drove a ’72 Plymouth Barracuda, black top, the rest a beery gold. I chose not to call him anything, at any time. He was how my mother decided to renew her life. He wasn’t a loan shark. He didn’t trade in black bear gallbladders with sailors on the boats from China. That issue continues in some Midwestern ports, but not as easy as in Kenny Franks’s day. Now it’s treated like it’s a federal crime. The boyfriend didn’t deal in illegalities. He fabricated fence posts at the steel plant. “Fabricated.” That was his word for it. And he, the boyfriend, the man with the multiple names, was a union man. He busted a number of heads in his day. I hated him. I wanted my father. Kenny Franks.
Although initially I was sure the bartender in the club knew my father, how could he? He was bearded, wore a flannel shirt, dark-framed glasses, and didn’t have a clue who Kenny Franks was. The bartender, a kid in his thirties, could have been my son.
The hipster bartender looked at me kind of strange. I looked down at my shirt front, my red hands. I slipped out of the club, much like my father in 1972, looked up and down the street, and came to myself: a fifty-five year old who’d gone job to job with a five year plan to near success. I came to myself, looking at my hands, my shirt, and went back to the rental in the public parking lot. He, the boyfriend, had told me what he’d done to my father. And I knew what I’d done to the boyfriend.
He was in his eighties, out in his garage, working at an emery wheel. His back was to me.
In a corner of the garage was a stack of what he called “liberated” fence posts, cold hard iron clad in green. I picked one up and approached him from the rear. Sparks burst in front of him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
When he turned around, I swung the fence post down across his face. I didn’t stop swinging.
JEFF ESTERHOLM’s work has previously appeared in Mondays Are Murder, as well as in Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, and RE:AL. In 2013, he won the Larry and Eleanor Sternig Short Fiction Award sponsored by the Council for Wisconsin Writers.
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—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in the neighborhood you chose.
—Include the neighborhood, city, state, and country next to your byline.
—Your story should be Noir. What is Noir? We’ll know it when we see it.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Accepted submissions are typically published 6–8 months after their notification date and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to [email protected]. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: Nov 7, 2016