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Brewed, Crude and Tattooed
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:

One

The morning of the ‘Perfect Spring Storm’, as it was later dubbed, dawned dark and warm.

Of course, that depends on your definition of dawn. Or even warm, for that matter.

To me, Maggy Thorsen, ‘dawn’ means whenever I have to wake up to stumble out of the house, usually into the dark, to open my coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds, in Benson Plaza.

That May day, my dawn was at five a.m., the sun not even a faint glow on the horizon. And while ‘warm’ was technically a matter of degrees ¬¬– Fahrenheit, in Wisconsin – I measured it more in degrees of undress.

Sticking my nose out the door as my sheepdog Frank watered the hyacinths, I decided it was a T-shirt and jeans day. Which, just west of Milwaukee, qualifies as warm.

‘C’mon, Frank, hurry up,’ I said in a stage whisper, so as not to disturb my neighbors. I liked to think the whisper was quieter than my normal speaking voice – probably deluding myself, like the ‘shushers’ in theatres, who make more noise than the people they’re shushing.

‘Shush!’ came from the direction of my neighbor’s bedroom and then the window slammed down. Three dogs started to bark at the sound and Frank joined in.

‘Shush, Frank,’ I said in another stage whisper.

I herded my sheepdog up the porch steps, neither of us commenting on the irony.

I was hurrying this beautiful morning because I’d decided to walk to Uncommon Grounds, less than a mile away. The early hours have always been stolen treasures for me. Time that I wasn’t taking away from my son Eric, before he went to college, or my husband Ted, before we divorced.

Walking through the dark, but toward the sunrise, can be a rare pleasure.

Besides, my car was in the shop.

Frank lugged into the living room ahead of me and turned. Had I been able to see under all the hair, I knew there would be accusation in his eyes.

‘I know, I short-changed piddle time,’ I said, apologetically. ‘Tell you what: I’ll come back on my lunch hour.’

The record for Frank’s longest urinary stream was ninety-three seconds. I didn’t have that margin this morning. ‘We’ll go for a walk then,’ I offered feebly.

Through his sheepdog bangs, Frank just looked at me. I think.

‘I won’t forget,’ I said, picking up my handbag. ‘I swear.’

Frank turned his back on me and padded to the hearth. He circled, managing to sling sheepdog drool a full 360 degrees before settling on the floor with a ‘hummph’.

Cowed, I flipped on the television set. ‘Look, Frank,’ I said. ‘The WTVR Morning Show. You can watch all the pretty girls.’

Frank lifted his head and then, apparently remembering his pique, turned up his nose at both me and the TV.

Ah well, he’d get over it. Maybe I’d bring us both home a ham sandwich. Buoyed by the thought, I let myself out the door.

I was barely a block away when I realized that the temperature wasn’t quite as warm as I’d imagined, and I hadn’t brought even a light coat. In fact, it seemed to be colder now than it was when I’d let Frank out just minutes before.

A smart woman would have turned around and gotten at least a jacket.

I am not that woman. In fact, I’m the kind of woman who can be intimidated by her own sheepdog. Though it could be worse. Frank could be a hamster.

Rather than facing my pet again, I kept going, figuring that the sun would rise soon and the warm-up could begin. I was wrong, though a jacket or even a coat at that point wouldn’t have changed any of the events of the coming day.

My post-divorce house – blue stucco walls, puke-green toilets, and all – is north of Uncommon Grounds on Poplar Creek Drive. Poplar Creek Drive, as you might expect, parallels Poplar Creek, which runs north to south. The farther downstream you go, the nicer (read: more expensive) the houses. I am as far upstream as you can get and still remain in Brookhills, unless I wanted to take up residence at Christ Christian Church, just north of me. I didn’t, and I feared that was more than fine with them.

As I crossed Poplar Creek toward Civic Drive, two kids on bicycles came roaring out of the dark in front of me.

‘Hey, watch it!’

The teens were already well past and probably didn’t even hear me. The neighborhood dogs did, though, and sent up a racket.

Maggy Thorsen, bringing joy to everyone, everywhere, at five thirty a.m.
‘Shut up!’ came from one of the houses.

‘Shush, Chivas.’ Another, next door.

‘Come in here now, Skylar.’ A smooth, aristocratic voice.

Maybe because I usually drive to work, I had never noticed how many people were up at this time of the morning. Kids on bikes. Cars in driveways, doors wide open. Police officers . . .

Uh-oh.

A Brookhills police cruiser was parked at the curb, roof lights flashing as they revolved. Standing in the driveway next to a Hyundai was Sophie Daystrom, one of Uncommon Grounds’ most faithful customers. Despite being an octogenarian with a fixed income, Sophie had managed to hang onto her house – no easy task, given Brookhills’ rising property taxes.

Sophie’d once told me that her monthly taxes were three times what the mortgage total had been when she and her late husband bought the house.

‘Is everything OK, Sophie?’ I asked now, walking up the driveway.

Besides drinking coffee at Uncommon Grounds, Sophie found time to volunteer at the religious bookstore next to us in Benson Plaza, and was the newly elected queen of the local Red Hat Society – a group of women devoted to friendship and staying active.

However, none of the above required her to be up at this ungodly hour.

‘OK?’ Sophie asked. ‘Do I look OK? Would I be out here in my frickin’ duster at this time of the morning if everything was “OK”?’

Sophie made Frank look cheery. ‘In that case, are you all right?’ I amended.

‘Somebody broke into my gosh-darn car.’ This from the potty-mouth of The Bible Store. ‘The little turds broke into cars all over the neighborhood. They stole my office keys and my tape player. How the heck am I going to listen to my relaxation tapes?’

I wasn’t sure, in the interest of public safety, that Sophie should be listening to relaxation tapes while driving, but I tried to sympathize.

‘Were the “little turds” in question by any chance riding bicycles?’ I asked.

The uniformed police officer, who had been leaning into Sophie’s car, stood back up. ‘That’s what other people have reported. Why? Did you see them?’

I nodded. ‘Two kids on bikes sped past me about a block back. They were maybe sixteen or seventeen.’ Which was unusual because, at the age of sixteen in Brookhills, a kid’s Trek is transformed into a Lexus, as if by magic. Though more typically by Mom and Dad.

On the other hand, a bicycle might make for a quicker and cleaner getaway than a luxury car. Especially if the bike didn’t come equipped with GPS.

I gave my information to the officer and hurried on to work, though not quickly enough for my partner Caron Egan, who didn’t seem to think crime-busting was much of an excuse for arriving late.





Five hours later, I was still in the dog house, pulling garbage duty.

‘Dry scalp?’ Sarah Kingston asked, swiping at my hair when I came in from the dumpster corral.

Sarah is a good friend and an even better real-estate agent. She’s also about as un-Brookhillsian as a woman can get, though a few months prior Sarah did have a short brush with tennis togs and ladies who do lunch.

Thank God, she’d recovered.

Today Sarah was sporting her usual attire of sensible shoes, pleated-front trousers and baggy jackets. The only thing missing these days was the pack of Virginia Slims Menthol she used to carry in her right jacket pocket. The lighter had been in the left, apparently so she wouldn’t die from spontaneous combustion.

‘Very funny.’ I shook my hair to dislodge the melting flakes. ‘It’s snowing like crazy out there.’

And make no mistake: I found nothing particularly humorous about icy crystals parachuting from the sky on May 1st. I didn’t give a shit that we were in Wisconsin. Seems to me that even the tundra deserves a spring.

‘Will you please freeze?’ Caron said, trailing me with a paper towel. ‘You’re tracking in snow.’

Caron enjoys playing Felix to my Oscar. The Odd Couple. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Rent it on DVD.

I was freezing, all right, but not in the way Caron meant. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’ I asked as she stooped to mop up the slush my canvas sneakers had left behind. ‘It’s snowing. In May. A lot.’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘Listen, I think I saw a shovel sticking out of a drift when I looked in back.’ A sidelong glance. ‘Maybe you could clear the front walk?’

I shuddered. I hated shoveling. When we were married, Ted, my ex-husband, and I had a snow plow company clear the snow in our driveway. Now that I was on my own, I couldn’t afford to hire anyone except Petey, a misfit neighbor kid who always managed to show up minutes after I’d given up on him and shoveled myself.

Did I mention I hated shoveling? And Petey?

Happily, I had an excuse for dodging the experience this time. ‘I’m sorry, Caron, but I don’t have a coat here.’

‘You can borrow mine,’ Sarah offered.

I threw her a dirty look. ‘Besides, I’m sure they’ll plow the lot and snow-blow the sidewalks soon. That’s why we pay Our Royal Landlord Way Benson a monthly maintenance fee.’

Caron rolled her eyes and stuffed the paper towel in my hand. ‘Fine. But then I need to get out the winter floor mats.’ She disappeared in the direction of the storeroom.

Sarah raised her eyebrows at me, even as she searched in her pocket for a phantom cigarette.

‘They’re so people won’t track in snow,’ I explained. ‘Caron doesn’t like puddles.’

‘Evidently not.’ Sarah gave up on the cigarettes and nodded at the pond forming at my feet. ‘You’re still dripping.’

I dropped the wad of paper towels on the ground and slooshed it back and forth with my toe. ‘The TVR Weather Slut lied.’

Caron came back from the storeroom dragging a rolled-up rubber mat. ‘Shh,’ she said, backing past us. ‘The Weather Slu . . . I mean, Aurora is Way’s ex-wife, and they’re still tight. The last thing we need to do is draw attention to ourselves.’

Way Benson was town chairman and owner of Benson Plaza, the strip mall where Uncommon Grounds rented space. That made the toad our landlord, at least for now. Our lease came up for renewal in November and, as other tenants’ leases expired, Way hadn’t opted to ‘re-up’ them. He had plans for Benson Plaza and none of the current tenants – including, I feared, our little coffee emporium – apparently fit in.

The Plaza is shaped like the letter L, turned on its head. Uncommon Grounds was on the far end of the short side, which faces Brookhill Road, the main drag for suburban commuters heading into downtown Milwaukee. Next to UG on the same side was an old dental office that only the prior week had been converted to The Bible Store, where Sophie worked. At the corner was Rudy’s Barbershop.
Continuing down the long side of the L, you had An’s Foods, Goddard’s Pharmacy and, at the very end of Benson Plaza, Way’s management office.

The first store to get an eviction notice was An’s Foods. Then, even as owner Tien Romano and her father Luccio – or Luc – emptied their shelves and sold off their deli cases and meat counter equipment, Gloria Goddard at the pharmacy next door got her walking papers. I hadn’t heard anything about The Bible Store, which Sophie said was on a month-to-month lease, but word had it that Rudy’s Barbershop was also folding its smocks and preparing to silently steal away.

The front door swung open hard, crashing the sleigh bells hanging on it against the plate-glass window. Jacque Oui, fishmonger extraordinaire at Schultz’s Market down the street, made a dramatic entrance.

‘I am stuck in the ditch. You must call me the Triple A!’ he demanded. The veneer of French accent on Jacque’s English always grew thicker whenever he was excited or upset.

I looked out our front window. Sure enough, Jacque’s ancient little Peugeot was caught as a dying still-life, nose-first in the shallow ditch that separates our parking lot from Brookhill Road.

Sarah joined me at the window. ‘Slid off the pavement, huh?’

‘Were you going too fast for the conditions?’ Caron asked, prodding him with the rolled-up rug, so she could put it down. ‘You know when you start to skid you’re supposed to take your foot off the gas pedal and—’

‘I am not speeding,’ Jacque said. ‘Your ditch, it is too close to the road.’

I ignored that and picked up the phone. As I did, there was a loud boom. I hastily replaced the receiver. ‘Holy shit,’ I said. ‘Was that thunder?’

‘I didn’t see any lightning,’ Sarah said, getting close to the window and craning her neck. ‘Did you?’

‘Maybe it was an explosion of some kind,’ Caron contributed calmly as she rolled out the rug.

The minute she got it down flat, I pulled open the door and stuck my head out.

The snow was coming down not so much in flakes but in fistfuls. As I watched, there was a prolonged flash, like a strobe light seen through ground fog at the airport. It was followed by another muffled boom.

‘Thundersnow,’ I said delightedly. ‘God, but I love this stuff.’

Sarah shouldered me aside and looked out disgustedly. ‘At this rate, it’s going to take me half an hour to trudge back to my office. And what happened to the woman who hates snow?’

‘Thundersnow?’ Jacque said, temporarily forgetting his rapidly disappearing car.

‘Snow, it does not make the thunder –’ another flash – ‘or the lightning.’

‘Here it does,’ I told him authoritatively. My now college-age son Eric had done a report on the phenomenon of thundersnow when he was in the fifth grade. ‘But even where we are in the Great Lakes area, it’s rare. Seven-hundredths of one percent of snowstorms are thundersnows, somebody estimated.’

I couldn’t remember who, of course. Not that it mattered, as Jacque was no longer listening to me. ‘The phone?’ he said, pointing.

‘Help yourself.’ I was still looking out the door.

‘It’s snowing in,’ Caron said to me testily as Sarah shrugged into her coat. ‘Will you please close that?’

‘Let me out first,’ Sarah said. ‘I always leave my office window open this time of year. I’d better go close it or there’ll be drifts on my desk.’

Sarah’s real-estate operation was about a block and a half away in what had been a private house. It was charming, far more so than Sarah’s manners as she shoved me aside to leave us. From a coat pocket, she drew out a plastic rain bonnet, the kind my mother had worn on her head to protect her ‘permanent wave’.

‘That’s not going to keep you very warm,’ I warned. ‘Do you want a towel to put over your head?’

‘We don’t have any towels,’ Caron said. ‘You took all of ours home to wash and never brought any back.’

Had me there. Not that it mattered. Sarah had waved and was already almost down the length of our leg of the retail mall, just now reaching Rudy’s Barbershop.

‘I’ll be fine,’ she yelled and then disappeared into the snow.

‘She is dead,’ Jacque said from behind me.
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