When mayor Earl Peck’s pickleball park wrecks the quietude of Christine Slow’s hometown, she hatches a risky plan for revenge.
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I can understand why they played at night. Last summer was the hottest on record. But for those of us who live nearby, it sounded like fireworks or gunfire. But things change, don’t they, pickleballers? Blame it on Charlie Krapf in room 32, Esther Stone in room 26. Blame it on Wilfred Slow, who taught me, his grandniece, how to shoot.
Uncle Wilfred was a southpaw tool and die maker who lost his left thumb and forefinger in a machine press. He fired his rifle with his middle finger. Everyone has one disadvantage or another. Uncle Wilfred overcame his.
Summers, he and Aunt Betty spent weekends at their cabin on the Wabash. While Aunt Betty quilted and made blackberry pies, Uncle Wilfred fished and shot squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional deer. He stirred the resulting burgoo with his right hand.
My mother left me and my father when I was four. Now, divorced three times, she stocks shelves at a Love’s Travel Stop outside of Kankakee, Illinois. Three years ago, I stopped by on my way to see Hamilton in Chicago. We caught up at the Arby’s inside Love’s. I learned she has a cat named Jinx. I’d had a Jinx, too, a rat terrier who died ten years ago, the year my father died. My Jinx was news to her.
Dad was an over-the-road truck driver who often left me in Aunt Betty and Uncle Wilfred’s care. Adderall helped him stay awake on the road until it put his heart to sleep at home.
Aside from Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, Uncle Wilfred never shot anything that didn’t contribute to his burgoo, which he made in a big pot beneath a catalpa canopy. What we didn’t eat, we took to a homeless shelter in Terre Haute. We also took Aunt Betty’s blackberry pies. My fingers stayed black all summer from the picking. One night, as Uncle Wilfred stirred his pot above a wood-stoked fire, I saw a rain of catalpa worms fall into the pot. He smiled and kept stirring.
Fourteen years later, with visions of skinned squirrels and cooked worms, I became a vegetarian. My husband, Ricky, blamed his infidelity on my vegetarianism. Our marriage lasted three years. Since then, I’ve lived with no meat, few men, and a succession of shelter dogs, currently my pit-mix, Ralphie.
On the banks of the Wabash, Uncle Wilfred told me to aim his rifle at the B in Blue Ribbon. “Squeeze gently, Chrissie,” he’d say. From fifty feet away, I hit a can more often than not. When Uncle Wilfred died, he left me his Ruger bolt-action .22 with a box of shells and a note: Squeeze gently, Chrissie. When my father died, he left me our house, a small bungalow within walking distance of Haven’s Rest, where I’ve nursed the elderly for twenty-two years. Until last summer, I hadn’t fired a gun since nursing school.
Our mayor had served our town for four terms. Served it well, mostly. But two years ago, with a town council 5-4 vote in favor, Republican mayor, Earl Peck, saw to the construction of eight pickleball courts within a pickleball shot of a nature preserve, my house, and Haven’s Rest. With the Earl Peck Pickleball Park in place, Mayor Peck planned to step down. He hoped to start a car wash, I’d learn.
Haven’s Rest residents go to bed around eight o’clock. The pickleball lights stayed on until eleven. Charlie Krapf and Esther Stone had trouble sleeping before the courts were built. With pickleball raging outside their windows, I asked Doc Wheatley to up their Ativan. Even that didn’t help.
One night last summer, I was in the nurses’ station, six rooms up from Charlie, when I heard him shout, “Goddamn tennis players!” When I went to check on him, I heard Esther crying two rooms away. I opened Charlie’s door a crack and said, “It’s pickleball, Charlie. I’ll be right back.” When I opened Esther’s door, she said, “Please, make them stop.”
This was but one night in a long line of long nights when Charlie, Esther, and others complained. On my nights off, I could hear the noise from my house loud and clear. The wildlife in the preserve would have had to hear it, too – unless they’d left their woods for the quiet of downtown. My Ralphie, calmest dog ever, chewed through a couch leg one night.
As I stroked Esther’s thinning white hair, she sobbed and said, “They’re trying to shoot me, Christine.” I assured her they weren’t, but she’d given me an idea. I got off work at eleven, just as the court lights shut off. I walked home in silence, lit by a full moon – a blue moon, the weatherman called it – a perfect night to execute my battle plan.
As usual, I was greeted at the door by Ralphie, barking like I’d been gone for weeks. I let him out to pee, let him in, and gave him a dental chew. I went into my basement, opened the stairwell closet, and flipped on the light. On the top shelf, wrapped in one of Aunt Betty’s quilts, a God’s Eye, lay Uncle Wilfred’s rifle beside a box of shells. I filled the five-shell magazine and carried the rifle upstairs. “Mommy will be right back,” I told Ralphie.
For me, four years of high school had seemed like ten. While other girls filled out, I grew five inches but only gained six pounds. While other girls cheered and ran for class this-or-that, I ran cross-country. With the exception of one meet, I was the consistent sixth or seventh runner on our seven-woman team. During the off-season, I trained alone. On summer night runs, I could hear the corn grow.
No one asked me out in high school. With my self-esteem as low as a harvested field, I might have said no if someone had asked. The night of senior prom, I saw Titanic with Beth Parker. For months afterward, I lay in bed and stared at my poster – the one where Jack Dawson says, Where to, Miss?
“To the stars, Jack,” I’d say, earthbound.
Four years later, in my second year of nursing school in Terre Haute, I was walking out of IHOP when I saw a flyer for a turkey shoot at the fairgrounds. The proceeds from the shoot went to an animal shelter, which I found strange. “You don’t shoot the turkeys. They’re the prizes,” my anatomy lab partner assured me. I gave my twenty-pound prize to the shelter where we’d taken burgoo and pies. It was at that shoot where I met Ricky. His first words to me were, “Did you know you stick your tongue out when you shoot?”
I’d been noticed.
It was a short walk through Marlene and Harold Mitchell’s yard and across a small meadow, a large meadow before the pickleball courts uprooted it. The blue moon gave me a clear view of my targets. God, or more likely Uncle Wilfred, was looking down on me.
Just outside the nearest court, I took my stance as Uncle Wilfred taught me. Squeeze gently, Chrissie, I heard him say as I took aim. I took out four lights with five shots. The sound of shattered glass was more satisfying than the plink of beer cans.
As I hurried through the Mitchell’s yard, a light came on inside their house. I entered my kitchen through the back door. I stood the rifle in a corner, poured a glass of wine, and took a sip. I hadn’t realized I’d bitten my tongue until the Chardonnay cooled it. Did you know you stick your tongue out when you shoot? asked Ricky, just before the sirens.
In case the Mitchell’s had seen me, I grabbed my rifle, went downstairs, and stashed it in my quilt. No one knocked on my door, but I’d have to take a different route next time.
My best guess was that, knowing how long it took to fill potholes in our town, it would take a few weeks to replace the lights. At Haven’s Rest the next night, I looked in on Charlie as darkness set in. From his window, I saw that the four lights I’d hit had completely lit one court. That court was empty, and the court next to it was dark enough to keep anyone from playing there. Four nights later, this time after walking through the Waterman’s yard, I silenced two more courts. Even so, at work the following night, I heard Charlie shout, “Goddamn tennis players!”
“Did you hear he hit again, Chrissie?” said Florina Nord, the receptionist at Haven’s Rest.
“I wish he’d take out a stoplight or two,” I heard a shopper say at Dollar General.
My plan was to launch one more attack and then send an anonymous letter to our weekly paper demanding silence after eight. Whack your balls in daylight, but leave us in peace at night! Or words to that effect. I’d drive to Indianapolis to mail it, hoping support would build.
Five nights after my second assault, I set forth again. With the eight lights closest to my house shattered, I advanced to the next court. I assumed my stance. I took a deep breath. Squeeze gently, Chrissie, said Uncle Wilfred.
“Police! Drop your weapon. Hands behind your head. Knees to the ground!”
I’d failed to consider the arborvitae planted around the courts. Inadequate barriers to sound. Perfect cover for a cop. This one kicked Uncle Wilfred’s rifle aside and asked for identification.
I had not changed out of my powder blue Haven’s Rest uniform that read Christine. Other than that, I had no identification. “My name is Christine Slow. I live at 762 Walnut. My ID’s at home.”
“Christine Slow?” said the cop, as if he’d misheard me. “Didn’t you used to run cross-country?”
Kneeling, staring straight ahead, I said, “About a hundred years ago.”
“More like twenty-five,” he said. “I ran for Vincennes Lincoln, before we moved here. You can stand up, Christine.” As I stood, I heard what sounded like a gun being slipped into a holster. I turned toward the sound.
By that night, the moon had waned in half, still bright enough to see a pickleball light through a rifle sight, bright enough to see a cop who was handsome in a scruffy-bearded, gaunt way. He wore dark jeans, a tight-fitting black shirt, and a black cap worn backwards. He looked like he might still run.
“I remember you from regionals my junior year,” he said. “Christine Slow, the fast runner.”
Of all the meets I ran – in four years, close to thirty – that was the one time I ran well, I have no explanation for my performance that day, but by finishing third on our team and twelfth overall, I contributed to our team win. It was the only time my name was called out on a victory stand.
“I’m Thor Hyerdall,” the cop said.
“My last name is spelled differently. But my parents thought Thor would make me stand out. Most people have never heard of the other one.”
Uncle Wilfred used to say coincidence is God’s way of saying He has His eye on us. My quilt was Uncle Wilfred’s idea: a birthday gift to me from him and Aunt Betty when I turned sixteen.
“That’s not what I was thinking. Your Dad’s running for mayor, right?” I said. “Councilman Hyerdall?”
Months before, I was at the city council meeting when Burt Hyerdall voted in favor of the pickleball courts – before he announced his run for mayor. Without his vote, the courts might not have happened, and I would not have been caught with a gun in my hands by his son. After putting my hands down, I explained all this and complained about the pickleball noise. Thor said he could understand, but he still had to take me into the station. He could vouch for my identification, and they’d probably let me come home and make a court appearance in a day or two.
“Can I let my dog out first?”
After picking up my rifle, Thor led me to his car, an unmarked red Camaro parked at Haven’s Rest. From there, we drove around the block to my house. On the way, I warned him about Ralphie. “It’s a happy bark,” I said.
After greeting Thor, Ralphie whined to go into the yard. I let him out, and as I waited at the door, I offered Thor a seat. As luck would have it, he sat on the couch above the missing leg, the leg I’d replaced with four Eric Larson novels that had shifted. The couch hit the floor, giving me the chance to explain that if Ralphie can chew through a couch leg, imagine the fear pickleball instills at Haven’s Rest. “Your father might as well have voted in a rifle range.”
Spinning his ball cap around to Boilermakers, Thor said, “Dad didn’t have much choice.” Without explaining himself further, Thor said he might be able to overlook tonight if I promised to quit shooting.
“I’m with you on the pickleball,” Thor said as he re-stacked my Larsons and I let Ralphie in.
Ralphie jumped onto the couch and, eyes on Thor, whined his happy whine. “He likes you,” I said. Thor sat beside Ralphie. I sat in Aunt Betty’s rocker, the chair in which she’d quilted.
Thor said he’d been opposed to the pickleball courts all along. He’d taken walks and runs through the preserve for years. When he heard about the proposed courts, he knew the sound would be awful. He didn’t think shooting out lights would accomplish anything, long term, but he thought there might be another way to silence the courts – at night, anyway. He said he ate supper at his parent’s house once a month. He’d be going the following Sunday, and he asked if I’d be interested in going with him. “I’ll tell them we’ve gone out a few times, if that’s okay with you. I’ll steer the conversation to the pickleball courts, and you can tell Dad what you’ve told me.”
I had not been on a date in two years, if that’s what you’d call this. I didn’t know if I could even pretend to be on a date, but if there was a chance to kill those lights…
“I’m a vegetarian,” I said.
On our way to the Hyerdall’s house, I learned that Thor had married young, about the time I did. After five years of marriage, his wife had fallen for their minister, who left the clergy, his wife, and three kids. But I learned much more.
For years, Burt Hyerdall had hoped to run for mayor. With this being Earl Peck’s last term, Earl promised to endorse Burt if Burt would push the Earl Peck Pickleball Park through the town council. But after Burt pushed the courts through, Earl pushed back, endorsing Pat Muensterman for mayor instead.
Pat Muensterman is a big-shot Chevy dealer who was endorsed by the FOP (which explained the Impala police cars and Thor’s undercover Camero). Thor’s dad had found out that Pat agreed to sell a corner of his car lot to Earl Peck on the cheap if Earl would endorse Pat and ensure his victory. Earl planned to build his car wash on the spot, and Muensterman Chevrolet would wash all its cars at eight dollars a drive-through.
“Dad thought the pickleball courts were a bad idea all along,” Thor said. “He hates them now. But what can he say – that he only voted for them so he could become mayor?” The primary was six weeks away, and neither candidate could rat out the other for fear that their own deal might come to light.
Burt and Francine Hyerdall reminded me of Ralphie: the way they welcomed me into their home. They seemed pleased their son was seeing someone. Me, even. We hadn’t finished our pea ‘n’ peanut salad when Burt asked how Thor and I met. When Thor said we’d met at Haven’s Rest, Francine said, “You do God’s work, Christine.” Burt raised his iced tea glass and said, “Here, here.”
On that note, I thought Thor might bring up the pickleball noise. But it wasn’t until we’d started on the vegetable lasagna (Thor had told his mom of my preferences) that he said, “We met the night I staked out the pickleball courts. I parked at Haven’s Rest and asked to speak to the nurse in charge. Christine.”
“Dill pickleball, you mean,” said Burt. “You never did catch the shooter, did you?”
“This lasagna is excellent, Mrs. Hyerdall,” I said.
“Please, call me Francine.”
Ralphie might as well have chewed the leg off my chair when Thor said, “As a matter of fact, I did.”
“Is that so?” said Burt. “If I had a medal, I’d pin it on the guy.”
“Pin it on her, you mean,” said Thor. “She’s sitting across from you.”
Burt’s smile could have swallowed his salad bowl. Instead, he fed his smile a breadstick and asked, “Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
At the city council meetings, I had dismissed Councilman Hyerdall as a blowhard. At one meeting, in response to someone’s remark about the endangered Eastern box turtles that were sometimes seen in the preserve, Burt responded with a ten-minute roundabout that ended with the resurgence of wolves in Yellowstone.
“My great-uncle Wilfred taught me.”
“Why’d you shoot them out?”
Now I was the one who couldn’t quit talking. Charlie, Esther, Ralphie and the couch leg – I told Burt everything. I brought up the side effect Ativan had on Charlie. A nasty skin rash. Burt finished off the breadsticks as I spoke. When I stopped, he pushed the basket aside, leaned toward me, and asked, “Have you ever thought of getting into politics? With the way you go on…”
“No way,” I said.
Who would have thought that polls were taken in a town of ten thousand, an Indiana town where Republicans outnumbered Democrats five to one, where November elections were formalities. The most recent poll showed Burt down by eighteen percent in the Republican primary. Pat Muensterman’s TV ad, Support me for mayor, and I’ll make you a deal, had had an effect before the FCC stepped in. All this Burt explained as Francine and Thor cleared the table and brought in the rhubarb tort.
“I’ll throw my support to you,” said Burt. “Make me vice-mayor, and I’ll run things. We’ll get absentee ballots for all of your old folks. And you’re bound to have some friends, right?”
“Not really. And what would I run on besides pickleball?”
I’d barely touched my tort. Meanwhile, Thor, who I thought might have jumped in to help me, ate silently, head down.
“You just say it’s time for change and shit.”
“Now, Burt,” said Francine.
“Say it like you mean it. And say you’ll fill the potholes. People are big on potholes. You and me, Christine, we’ll kill those lights in no time.”
After Thor dropped me off at home, I went straight to bed. “Me, mayor?” I asked Ralphie. “A Republican mayor?” Yet Thor, who’d walked me to my door, had said. “Maybe it’s not a bad idea. I could help, and we could get to know each other.”
I wasn’t opposed to getting to know Thor. But weren’t there better ways than running for mayor? Normal ways? For normal people, yes. But outside of nursing and shooting, my confidence had not progressed much beyond high school. As for Thor, just before he left my doorstep, he leaned toward me and patted my shoulder.
The following week, few nights went by without a call from Burt to me at Haven’s Rest. “We’ll print a thousand flyers. You and Thor can knock on doors and shake hands. I’d help, but my sciatica is killing me.”
A few nights later, he said, “Our billboard will say, A Woman for all Reasons, Slow for Change. Francine came up with that. We’ll put on a picture of you wearing your nurse’s outfit. Next to your dog. People go nuts for dogs.”
“Not happening,” I said.
Four weeks before the election, Thor called and invited me to go to Indianapolis to see the exhibit, Monet and Friends. “Mom says you get immersed into paintings or something. If we leave early, I’ll have you back in time for work.”
I could have used some immersion. Into anything. Into Thor?
On the drive over, Thor said he didn’t know much about art. But he said he thought most women liked “that sort of thing.” We talked about Ralphie. I talked about Uncle Wilfred and Aunt Betty. We talked about Thor’s ex. She’d been a 4-H queen. Not once did we bring up the election.
Immersion was right. It was like walking into the paintings: dancing with dancers, growing with flowers, swimming with koi. Thor said the paintings were “dreamy.” He called the surrounding music, “watery, in a good way.”
He never quit smiling. Whether he was aware of it or not, he took my hand as we walked from room to room. We had our picture taken together with a green footbridge and a pond of lilies in the background. The pond reminded me of the one in our nature preserve. One time, I saw a box turtle swimming there. Whether Burt had put Thor up to this or not, at work that night I called Burt and said I’d run.
Burt dropped out, saying on local radio, “Christine Slow comes from a long line of straight shooters.” He wrote a letter to the editor in my name saying I’d fill potholes, synchronize streetlights, and darken the pickleball courts at six o’clock. With Thor and Ralphie, I knocked on doors, shook hands, and promised to return phone calls. I discovered people liked me.
Two weeks before the election, Pat Muensterman came to my house. Seated just above the Larson novels, he offered me a Chevy Bolt if I would drop out. “Say anything and I’ll deny it, of course.”
When he asked if I’d get Ralphie off the couch, I said no to that too.
A few days after that, rocking in Aunt Betty’s rocker, Mayor Peck offered me lifetime free car washes in the car wash he hoped to build.
“Where?” I asked.
“That’s still up in the air.”
“The air you’re filled with?”
On the night of my election, Thor slept beside Ralphie and me.
In a town our size, the mayor keeps their day job. In my case, night job. True to his word, Councilman Hyerdall not only found a way to turn out the pickleball lights, he ate crow at a city council meeting and introduced a bill to dig up the courts. In a speech that lasted twenty minutes, he said that if Lady Bird Johnson could “beautify” Texas highways, we could restore our meadow. I doubt few council members had heard of Lady Bird, but Bill 124 (the No Pickleball Bill) passed 6-3.
I leave the gives-and-takes of city government to retired councilman and newly appointed Vice-Mayor, Burt Hyerdall, who escorted the truck carrying the Earl Peck Pickleball Park sign to the landfill. Earl started a do-it-yourself car wash in French Lick. Rumor has it he can be found most days at the casino.
On my nights off, a red Camero can be found in my driveway. On early evenings, here at Haven’s Rest in spring, as I look out of Charlie’s Krapf’s window I see butterfly weed and bluebells where pickleballs once flew. Through his window screens, I hear birdcalls, squirrel chirps, and Esther Stone’s two wind chimes. I imagine bees sucking on the milkweed, box turtles weaving through white trillium.