One block down from Alma Grey’s house on South Street, the road meets up with Hickory Lane. On the corner of Hickory and South is a small apartment complex. Four buildings, eight apartments within each, stand together in a pattern like the number four on a standard pair of dice. In the center of the buildings is the parking lot, and on one side, the side closer to South Street, a white gazebo stands attempting to class up the property.
If you drive down Hickory at any point of the day, you may see Nick or Jacob Donovan enjoying a cigarette on their downstairs patio area, which consists of two folding stools they use for hunting and a large cooler between them with empty cans of energy drinks atop to function as ashtrays. Jacob, the older of the two, is the one who sits and watches the cars pass or the squirrels running around or the very strange man who lives across Hickory who sits outside in his backyard watching and yelling at videos on his tablet. The black, plywood silhouette cutouts of soldiers that decorate his yard suggest that he was in the service at some point, and from his age, Jacob wonders if he was a Vietnam vet. Jacob would stroke his red beard between drags as he tried to figure out if the man is just a little eccentric or potentially dangerous.
Jacob’s younger brother, Nick, on the other hand, was active in the National Guard. Nick would sit outside, shirtless, showing off a mishmash of tattoos, the one spanning across his collar bone the most prominent. It was a tattoo of Old English script and almost impossible to read, but it seemed fitting with his other ones–triangles in a connected link like open arrow heads extending down his right forearm, thick bolts of lighting down his right calf, and a thick barbed wire around his left bicep. All of them were the same solid coal color and seemed to help accentuate his hard military body. When Nick was outside, he was more oblivious of his surroundings, opting to scroll on his phone while enjoying his cigarette.
With Jacob’s more shaggy dark red hair and beard and Nick’s inability to grow hair anywhere on his body besides his close cut brown hair on top his head, the two did not look like blood relatives.
However, when they left for work, their outfits linked them together since they both were mail carriers. Jacob worked in Tillford while Nick drove all the way to Washington Heights, almost 45 minutes west of Ellison. Having worked in concrete ever since graduating high school, Nick just started his job two years ago not long after moving into Ellison. Prior to their move, the brothers did not live together, but Nick had gotten into some trouble with law and Jacob insisted they move in together. Then he helped his brother get the job with the post office. Nick still had to blow into a breathalyzer to start his car, but that seemed to be the last remnant of the old Nick.
Not soon after getting their affairs in order, the brothers trained and became members of Ellison’s volunteer fire department. A large population of Ellison men under the age of 35 were involved with the fire department; it seemed when any men moved into town the existing members would sniff them out and start the recruitment process. Since the Donovans sat outside so often, it was easy for guys to stop their trucks on the road and walk over for a little chat to introduce themselves and invite them to Tappers for a beer or to pitch horseshoes.
The fire department was just up from Tappers bar at the corner of Johnson St. and Grell Drive. With the main freeway being close to Ellison, the department typically saw a lot of action; and since it was a volunteer fire department, everyone in town would know of any emergency as the siren in the department parking lot wailed its three sustained moans, summoning all the men to rush to the station. Shockingly for this day and age, the department still had no women volunteers. It was a boy’s only club.
Every Thursday, a bunch of the firemen would get together at Tappers and pitch horseshoes in a mini-tournament. In the past, they would just form quick teams of two with whoever was there and losers would buy a round for the winners; however, Jacob noticed the same guys were always there, so why not make the experience more structured? He had the guys form permanent teams and he kept track of scores and standings, and then to make it more interesting, everyone tossed in some cash so at the beginning of October they could have playoffs, with the winning team taking all the cash. The weekly tradition of losers buying winners didn’t disappear; this was just to add a little more excitement to the festivities.
Bradley, the owner of Tappers, loved it. He stood behind the bar on Thursdays telling people about the tournament, and even though he never outright lied, everyone assumed he was the organizer. Jacob didn’t care. He just liked keeping the stats and playing, too. He and Nick were in the running for a fairly high seat in the playoffs, and as long as Nick kept relatively sober while pitching, they had a good chance of winning the whole thing.
The brothers were outside on their stools before walking over to the bar. Tappers was on Grell Drive, sitting kitty corner with the fire station that was at the corner of Johnson St. and Grell. To get there, they just had to walk two blocks down Hickory, hang a right on Johnson St, and walk a few more blocks to get to Grell and to the bar. This way, Jacob didn’t need to worry about Nick drinking too much and attempting to drive, and they both get a little exercise in at the same time.
“Here we go, another sausage fest,” Nick slurred while talking out the corner of his mouth with his cigarette dangling from his lips, his thumb busy scrolling on his phone.
Jacob was watching the man across the street cut his lawn with an old, push mower. The sharp blades of the ancient beast glinted off the sun as the man with his leather skin and ponytail sweated up a storm as he talked and sang to himself.
“You never know. Tonight could be different.”
“I think all the women in this town are little old ladies or already married. We may need to think of hanging out down in Tillford or up in Fox Grove to get a sniff. Maybe not Fox Grove, they have a lot of women’s softball leagues. Tillford, though, should be okay.”
Jacob chuckled as he ashed into his Red Bull can.
“If you want, we can do that some night.”
“I haven’t had a date since Jackie, the freaking psycho. And that was way back when I still lived back home.”
He set his phone down on the cooler and joined Jacob watching the lawn mower. Jacob pawed at his beard.
“Wait, wasn’t there that blonde. Sherry? Terry? Something? The one you met at that festival.”
Nick flinched as some of cigarette ash fell on his bare chest and he swatted it away, just as he was with Jacob’s comment.
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t remember her name, just a one nighter. Had plenty of those. Just toss out that you’re a soldier, and you can get someone in bed for the night. But straight up dating and girlfriend. It’s been awhile.”
“Bet you tell some great stories about being overseas and going after Osama Bin Laden and ISIS. You know, because that’s what the National Guard does.” Jacob looked over at his brother who seemed to be discovering his own tattoos for the first time, examining them as he swiveled his torso.
Without even looking up, Jacob said, “They don’t know the difference.”
Jacob didn’t even attempt to argue, because that was probably true.
“Seriously, a little Netflix and chill. But legit chill, not screwing around. Sometimes that sounds pretty nice.”
Jacob stubbed out his cigarette with agreement to that sentiment. The guy across the road had finished pushing his lawn mower and had a can of Milwaukee’s Best in hand, taking hungry gulps to celebrate a job well done.
With their entertainment returning to his lawn chair to take out his aggression at his tablet, the Donovans headed to Tappers. It was only when they walked up the ramp and entered the door that Nick put his shirt on, and the chorus of greetings that met them from the firemen already assembled seemed to be praise for Nick’s choice to cover himself. Bradley, the owner, was back behind the bar along with Tammy, who always worked on Thursdays to help cover the influx of business with the firemen and their horseshoes. She was in her late 20s and was going to tech school for cosmetology. Bradley had hired her to fill in odd shifts because she lived nearby and typically could come whenever he called. She didn’t mind not having a set schedule. The extra cash helped since her days were either filled with school or with working at the Baby Gap store in the outlet mall near the freeway.
Thursdays, though, had become a permanent fixture on her work calendar. In fact, she kind of looked forward to it because the firemen were respectful and tipped well. She figured it had to do with their shirts. All of them wore their Ellison VFD navy blue shirts, and she thought it made them act a little more like gentlemen for some reason. She’d make rounds outside while they were pitching horseshoes, clean up beer bottles, take orders, and take drinks out. This wasn’t customary, but Bradley thought it was a good idea, and it was more lucrative for her since the tips she made outside were hers and hers alone.
It also gave her reason to escape Forrest, a real estate agent in town who was a permanent fixture at Tappers in the early evening. Sure, he was great looking and muscular and drove a great car, but he also spent most of his time monopolizing her and trying to get her into bed.
Nick took a quick scan of the place, and saw the real estate agent and some older couples watching the big screen television showing the Brewers game. The usual down trod yet hopeful people sat on the fruit machines trying to score big and make some cash.
“Sausage fest and the nearly dead, as usual,” Nick uttered to his brother as they made their way toward the back of the bar where all their colleagues were getting ready to head outside. Tammy was down at the end of the bar chatting with Forrest, so Nick added to make sure he was being inclusive, “And the already or nearly taken.”
Jacob scanned the place trying to find an exception to the statement, but was at a loss.
The guys were all assembled outside and most have them had already started. Tonight Nick and Jacob were competing against Joe Berg and Marty Mitchell, both soft spoken guys who were terrible at pitching horseshoes. It would be an easy victory for the Donovans, but in typical form, Nick wanted to send a clear message and not show them any mercy. When Jacob posted the scores and standings on his website later on in the evening, Nick wanted the guys to look at it knowing that they were the duo to beat. He knew the mental game was just as important as actual skill.
It was these times that made Jacob a little more anxious. Underneath it all, his brother was very sensitive, but his competitive streak along with a self-imposed moratorium on showing vulnerability often made him come across as callous and unfeeling. His military service had made him more polite and reserved, but sometimes Jacob wondered if it also made him a little less human.
As the innings went by, though, the score was a lot closer than it should’ve been. Nick was not performing well, and he was starting to spiral into self-talk and tunnel vision,which would just up his anxiety and make it worse.
Jacob couldn’t help but chuckle to himself because this turn of events was the fault of Joe Berg. At 21, Joe was the youngest member of the Thursday night crew. His boy band floppy brown hair and big doe eyes still made him appear about 17 years old, and his gentle soul was off putting to most the guys. He would toss out comments like, “Hey, those flowers sure are pretty” or “I miss being a little kid, you know?” and the guys had no idea how to respond to such openness. His mother, Elizabeth, was the minister at the Methodist church, and that intensified people’s discomfort, like he had a secret “in” with God.
He was also awful at horseshoes. Some of his pitches ended up on the grass, which he would just smile and shrug off. He was just glad to be there. But, when Nick hit three ringers in a row, Joe was the first to congratulate his performance.
In fact, every time Nick performed well, Joe cheered him on to the point that he promised him not one beer at the end of the match, but an entire pitcher.
From that point onward, Nick kept making mistakes.
After an inning of zero points, Nick went back toward the standing tables on the covered veranda and slammed his fist on the tabletop. The empty beer mug tottered off the table and shattered on the wood planks below. A string of curse words rang out as he bent down, collecting shards in the palm of his hand.
A waitress’s tray appeared seemingly out of thin air.
“Here,” Tammy said, “put them on here.”
“Sorry, Tammy,” Nick mumbled without making eye contact. He was still stewing over his lackluster performance. “I’ll pay for it, you know.”
She tossed her head back and giggled at the ceiling, “Oh, please, Nick. I’ve broken more glasses in a day than you have in a lifetime, and I’ve never had to pay for one. If I had to, I’d be paying Bradley to work here.”
Nick said nothing but nodded. With all the glass on the trey, the two stood up. Jacob was standing there looking a little worried and Joe and Marty were standing by their pit just waiting, patiently, to start up again.
“Hey! Tammy!” Joe called over the sound of chatter and horseshoes ringing as they struck their targets. “Buy that man a beer, on me! Best horseshoe pitcher out here, no doubt about it!”
“Jesus Christ,” Nick mumbled, tilted his head toward the ceiling and rubbed the back of his neck.
“No, Nick,” Tammy chastised in her best maternal voice. She had her hand on her hip for emphasis, “He’s just the minister’s son, not Jesus. He goes by Joe, I believe.”
Nick’s surly mood broke for a moment, “Shut up, Tammy,” he said smiling at her while lighting himself a cigarette.
“Sure thing, Joe,” she shouted over to the young man.
“Tammy, I need you inside,” Bradley shouted from the back door. Nick had moved back to his pit and started to pitch, almost wanting to do badly so he wouldn’t have to hear the kid’s praise. Jacob stood near the table and smoked his brother’s cigarette. “Forrest wants another Old Fashioned, and he says I make them like crap, and you are the only one who can do it right.” He took off his John Deere cap and gave a low bow form the doorway. “Apparently, you have skills. At least, that’s what he says.”
“Good God,” she sighed picking up the empty bottles and cans from the surrounding tables. “He really just needs to get a life.”
Jacob, as usual was observing, and he was able to hear her talking to herself. The veranda had odd acoustics that made everything louder and echo a bit; he wasn’t sure how that happened, but it also made people more muffled. It was as if someone turned up the bass on all the voices.
“When you’re done with his drink, you can go ahead and head out. It’s pretty slow tonight, I can take care of the guys,” Bradley proclaimed as he turned and headed back inside.
Tammy ran her fingers through her long black hair and arched her back with her eyes closed. “Oh, thank God. All I want to do is get comfy, kick back, and watch some Netflix.”
Jacob heard that statement clear as day. He turned and looked at her. She smiled and looked at the ground, heading back inside without another word.
“What you looking at?” Nick had appeared by his side. “Hey, where’s my cigarette?”
Jacob surrendered it to him and glanced back at the door, “Oh, nothing important. I was just reminded of something you had talked about earlier.”
Nick had tuned out and hadn’t heard a word Jacob said; instead, he was checking his phone. “It’s your turn.”
“I think it might be yours.”
“What does that mean?” Nick looked up briefly from the text message he was typing.
“Nothing,” Jacob stated heading over to the pits, “Never mind.”