They left the windows unlocked in his wing of the Bear County Rehabilitation Facility. The authorities figured that if you ended up there, you had followed all the other court-ordered mandates and sobering up was a personal choice, not just a condition of probation.
It made it easy for Big Frank Dombreau to escape.
He was a large man, 300-plus pounds, but that didn’t stop him from launching himself through the window next to his bed one late summer night two weeks into his stint. If caught, he’d be hauled back to jail. But he couldn’t take three more weeks of the place. Big Frank was thirsty.
The facility was at the top of a hill, a Soviet-looking cinder block building that used to be a school overlooking the northern Michigan coastal town of Bear River. Frank had gone there for junior high before the county turned it into a place where alkies, dopers and other criminally inclined addicts could dry out. Sobering up in the building wasn’t all that different from attending school there, Frank decided: boredom intermingled with the smell of industrial disinfectant.
After launching himself into the warm night, Frank could have gone home, but Lisa would be there and he’d rather stay sober than see her. He still had a scar on his face from the frying pan attack that landed him in this mess six months ago. They’d been pretty hammered, sucking down cheap wine in the kitchen of the house they rented on Spruce Street before their friend Tommy showed up with whisky. There was a fight about money. Lisa attacked him with the pan she’d just cooked tacos in that was sitting on the stove. It was still hot. Ground beef and grease was smeared on his face along with the blood.
“You fat lazy piece of shit,” she kept saying.
The insult didn’t make much sense. Lisa was bigger than him and he was the only one with a job, loading and unloading trucks at the cardboard factory. But Frank, a dozen drinks in, defended himself and smacked her good after the fifth or sixth blow from the frying pan.
Tommy and Lisa both jumped on Frank and began beating him. He knew they’d been screwing, too.
But when the Bear River cops showed up, Frank was the only one arrested, charged with felonious domestic violence and left to rot in the Bear County Jail for months while his case moved to trial. He behaved and when sentencing rolled around, his court-appointed attorney talked the judge into letting him serve the remainder of his time at the rehab facility.
Now Big Frank, as he’d been called since his days as a right tackle on the Bear River Bears football team, had run out of patience. He didn’t know where to go, however. He struck out on the highway north toward LaFlur Lake where there were dozens of vacation homes. Some folks might still be up enjoying the rest of summer, but there would be plenty houses already shuttered for the season. Big Frank didn’t see any reason for those cozy cabins and all the liquor in them to go to waste. If he was smart, he could last the whole winter there, crawl into a nice den and hibernate like a bear.
The first place that caught his eye was a little deer-hunting cabin. It looked just like his Uncle Dino’s where Frank first sipped beer at 7 and lost his virginity to his cousin’s friend, Amber, ten years later.
Big Frank still blushed at the memory.
Deer season wasn’t for another month and a half and the cabin was closed. It was a safe bet there’d be booze.
The lock on the door was a joke. Frank only had to nudge the door a little for it to give. He decided to fix it before he left.
But for now, there was booze to find. He wasn’t disappointed. A glass bottle stood out on the kitchen counter next to an ancient toaster. Frank looked at it and read the label aloud to the empty room.
He shrugged and poured himself a drink in a smudgy glass he pulled out from a cupboard. Before taking the sip, he lifted up the glass and said “Cheers” to the ghosts in the room, perhaps the ghosts of his past, too.
He didn’t wait for the ghosts to cheers him back, greedily sucking down the drink that tasted pleasantly like licorice and pouring another, filling his stomach with that familiar golden, glittery feeling he’d missed while living like a goddamn priest for half a year while in custody.
The cabin consisted of three simple rooms: a kitchen, a large sitting room with a fireplace and a large bedroom with four bunk beds. Big Frank would have eight beds to choose from.
But it was September and, even though it was warm during the day, by night it could get chilly, so Frank decided to sleep on a pullout couch next to a kerosene heater in the main room.
First, however, there was drink to attend to. He poured himself another Sambuca and walked around looking at the framed pictures on the walls. The pictures dated back to the 1940s, when the place was probably built, black and white pictures of stiff looking guys in plaid wool coats just home from war standing next to slain deer hanging from trees or tied on to the hoods of large sedans. By the 1960s, pictures with similar poses were in bright Technicolor, with the colors improving throughout the ensuing decades, as well as newer, younger faces, undoubtedly the men’s children.
There were also several military plaques on the wall and Frank soon deduced that all the men who belonged to this particular hunt club had served in the war together. The only picture that gave Frank pause was of the six or seven men outside in the leaves shirtless in a wrestling pile. Their smiles were exuberant.
The Sambuca was drained when Big Frank returned to the kitchen for more, so he began seeking out more booze.
He opened and rummaged through every cupboard, finding nothing but dusty plates and mugs. There was an old, unplugged fridge from the ‘50s where Frank found three warm cans of beer. He cracked one and went looking for more.
He turned the joint inside out, finally ending up in the bunkroom where he found a closet blocked off from the room by an old sheet tacked to the wall. There was an old footlocker at the bottom, hidden by a row of coats.
Frank opened the footlocker, which was filled with magazines and pictures and an old box of condoms. On the cover of one magazine, “Adonis: The Art Magazine of the Male Physique,” featured a picture of a smiling, muscular man in a tight bathing suit on a beach, flexing for the camera.
Frank crouched down and dug a little deeper. At the bottom were some Polaroids. One showed two naked men in a tight embrace kissing, standing in this same room decades earlier.
Frank admired the look of contentment on their faces. He thought of Lisa and shuddered. In the increasing depths of his booze buzz, Frank pondered if he ever really liked women. Maybe I’m gay, he thought.
Frank dragged the footlocker over to a lower bunk bed, stretched himself out, pulled down his pants and tried beating off while looking at the beefcake mags and various Polaroids of the men engaged in a seemingly endless variety of sexual actions.
But Little Frank was a limp noodle. It was nice that the gents in the pictures were having such a good time, but to even get anything stirring in his groin, Frank had to shut the locker, tightly close his eyes and think about rolling around in the sleeping bag with Amber that first time. She had smelled like Tootsie Rolls. She ate them constantly that trip. Frank had only lasted a minute or two then. Now it wasn’t long before he was messy and panting on the bottom bunk.
He cleaned himself up, put the footlocker back just as he had found it, fixed the lock on the door and sat down at a table to write a note on a post-it:
Sorry I drank your Sanbooka but I really needed it and I promise to buy you guys a bottle if I ever can. IOU. Big Frank.
Frank left the note underneath the empty bottle where he’d found it and left.
It was dusk now and Big Franks’ body and brain were demanding more booze. He wanted to be sure the next place would have some better supplies and a little more wholesome vibe. He walked down to LaFlur Lake, which stretched and swayed a few miles toward Lake Michigan. There was only a half-mile of sand and dune grass between the little lake and the big lake. Dozens of houses ringed the water. One of them had to be the refuge Big Frank was looking for.
He settled on a small, but newly built cabin right on the water. There was no one home – the blinds were all shut tight – and it didn’t look like anyone was around at any of the older cabins surrounding it. Plus, there was a rowboat under a tarp behind the house. Big Frank thought fishing might be fun.
The biggest selling point, however, was the tacky sign hung next to the front door: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” My kind of people, Frank thought. There was bound to be booze in there. The lock on the newer house was a hard to jimmy. Since there was no one around, Big Frank just kicked it in. He wasn’t disappointed in the offerings. Simple, but comfortable. Frank spotted a bar with a multitude of bottles and his heart melted. Whisky. Rum. Vodka. Gin. All full. He looked in the garage. Three jugs of wine and two full cases of beer. There was also a plugged in freezer filled with steaks, chicken breasts, bratwursts and pork chops.
Big Frank didn’t know where to start. Standing before the little bar by the bay window overlooking the lake, he closed his eyes and reached out to grab a bottle. When he opened his eyes, his paw had the whisky. He toasted the ghosts of the house and his past and started guzzling straight from the bottle while watching boats far out on the lake. He kicked his shoes off. He sat down and watched the water.
But it wasn’t meant to be. As he got settled in, drank more and looked around the place, Big Frank began noticing things in more detail. There were three laundry baskets of baby toys in the main room. In one of the bedrooms was a crib. He began inspecting the photographs in frames around the house. An older couple his dad’s age, their adult children and at least a half dozen small kids shared the cottage. There were pictures of babies everywhere.
Big Frank thought he could handle it, given the grand provisions at hand. Instead, he sat at the table and finished the entire fifth of whisky as dark spread across the sky over the lake. He was soon sobbing, a pain rising up from a deep and uncontrollable place, a place Big Frank was more afraid of than anywhere else. The tears streamed down his face into his beard as he looked at the lake and thought about Joey.
His son never made it to three. Ten years earlier, he’d been hit by a car and killed while Lisa was dead drunk on the couch, “American Idol” playing in the background. Big Frank had been at work. He never trusted Lisa’s version of events, but it did no good to question his wife. The boy had somehow unlatched the screen door, walked across the front yard and wandered into the middle of the street wearing nothing but a diaper and an undershirt. A teen boy in his daddy’s pick-up couldn’t even see the poor little guy. The collision played over and over in Big Frank’s imagination as he watched the dark come in over the lake, a vision powered by the pictures of all the staring babies in the room.
He had to flee.
Frank didn’t trust the next place would have such great food and drink, however, so he found a wheelbarrow in the garage and loaded it up with as much meat, liquor, wine and beer as he could. A mostly full moon was out now and he was sloppy from the whisky. Big Frank wasn’t sure how far he’d make it, especially because all the bottles made a racket clinking together as he pushed it down the little gravel road. He briefly thought about taking his haul out into the woods a few miles down the road. Maybe he could lift a tent and some camping supplies from a garage. But that would be a long walk. And it was late. He was drunk, tired and hungry. He wanted a steak and more booze.
A house a few doors down seemed dark, so Big Frank parked the wheelbarrow next to the side door and clumsily tried breaking in. But he couldn’t get the door to budge. He grabbed a bottle of vodka from the wheelbarrow, opened it and took a swig before walking around to the front, screened-in porch.
He got on the porch easy, but couldn’t get the main door open even when he kicked with all his weight. He slumped down and sat on the porch next to the door. The vodka was stifling his hunger so he drank more. The moon shone down on him as he drank and drank. The moon was the last thing he remembered seeing.
What happened next is that Big Frank felt a poke in his belly. His eyes were hard to open, but he forced them. His heart sank. A goddamn cop was hovering over him on the porch. His eyes burned. Frank noticed it was daylight.
“Hey, big guy. Get up.”
Frank was in a fetal position, clutching the bottle of vodka. He saw there were a few swigs left in it.
“Don’t even think about it,” said the officer, a young guy with short hair and wraparound sunglasses. “You’re trespassing, bud. You scared this family half to death.”
Frank noticed a concerned man, woman and their teen daughter standing way back from the porch as if Frank had cooties. He noticed the cop was wearing latex gloves.
“And we know you broke into the place a few doors down. Come on, bud. I’m gonna have to take you in.”
Frank sat up and caught his breath. Everyone was staring at him.
“First, give me the bottle. Then get up,” the cop said.
Big Frank sighed and looked at the bottle, then unscrewed it and guzzled the rest of the vodka. This did not make the deputy happy. Frank expected this. The deputy lunged at Big Frank, who clocked him on the head with the empty bottle, which didn’t break. It left Frank’s hand and rattled as it rolled on the porch. The deputy fell over howling, clutching his bloody head. The family screamed. Big Frank ran past them and found his wheelbarrow full of booze and thawing meat. It was heavy but he was strong. He quickly walked the wheelbarrow down the gravel road, grabbing a bottle of rum and taking a swig. He felt even stronger now and started trotting. Soon, Big Frank felt bigger and stronger than he ever had in his life, running down the road with the wheelbarrow as fast as he could.
John Counts has published fiction and nonfiction in the Chicago Reader's Pure Fiction issue, Midwestern Gothic, Anthology of Chicago, Joyland and the book "A Detroit Anthology". He is a contributing editor at the Great Lakes Review where he coordinates the online Narrative Map essay project for the Midwest region. He currently works as a crime reporter at The Ann Arbor News.