Bryan Gruley: The Skeleton Box

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Bryan Gruley The Skeleton Box
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Bryan Gruley

The Skeleton Box

MARCH 2000



By Lucas B. Whistler

Pilot Staff Correspondent

The Bingo Night Burglar may have struck again.

In what appears to be the fourth such break-in since the New Year, the Pine County Sheriff’s Department said an intruder entered the home of John and Mary Hodges on Sunday evening while the retired couple was at bingo at St. Valentine’s Catholic Church.

The burglary wasn’t technically one because, as in previous break-ins, nothing was taken. As before, the intruder appears to have rummaged through file cabinets and desk drawers containing personal and financial documents.

“I don’t know why, but that’s even scarier than if they walked off with our TV,” said Mary Hodges, 178 Little Twin Trail.

Pine County sheriff Dingus Aho released a statement saying, “The department is treating these various incidents as burglaries.” He declined to comment further. All four break-ins have occurred while the occupants of the homes broken into were at bingo. Police have no suspects.

Bingo attendance has declined, while sales of padlocks have soared at Kepsel’s Ace Hardware. “Starvation Lake is scared,” said County Commissioner Elvis Bontrager. “Sheriff Aho ought to start doing his job, or we’ll find someone who will.”

Before a Jan. 9 break-in at the home of Ted and Gardenia Mapes, Starvation Lake hadn’t had one since 1998. B and E’s followed at the homes of Bill and Martha Nussler on Jan. 16 and Neil and Sally Pearson on Feb. 6.

“I hope the police catch somebody soon,” Sally Pearson said. “One of these times, somebody could get hurt.”


We ignored the first knock. The punk who drove the Zamboni had been barging in and yelling at us about leaving empties in the dressing room. So we started locking the door.

“Soupy?” I said. “Cold one?”

I reached into a plastic bucket filled with ice and fished out a Blue Ribbon. My squad, the Chowder Heads of the Midnight Hour Men’s League, had just beaten the Ice Picks of Repicky Realty, 7–0.

“Pope shit in the woods?” Soupy said. I tossed him the beer. He slumped on a bench between Wilf and Zilchy, his hair a sweaty blond tangle, his hockey socks bunched around his ankles. The room smelled of mildew and tobacco dip. I grabbed myself a beer, the ice stinging my knuckles, and dropped my goalie mask into my hockey bag.

Soupy hoisted his can toward me. “You stoned them tonight, Gus. When’s the last time you had a shutout?”

I shrugged. “I think I was still living downstate.”

I had left our little northern Michigan town, Starvation Lake, in the 1980s and worked at a big Detroit newspaper. I came home after getting in some trouble on the job. I could have gone a lot of places-Battle Creek, Toledo, Daytona Beach. But I returned to Starvation.

I’d been back only two and a half years, and at times it felt as if I’d never left. Which was frightening, if I let myself think about it. At other times I felt as if I’d wanted to come back all along, as if I had some unfinished business, some question I had to answer about myself. Meantime, I played goaltender at night and spent my days as executive editor of the Pine County Pilot, circulation 3,876 and falling.

“Speaking of goalies, where was Tatch?” Wilf said.

Tatch was the Ice Picks goalie. He’d been a no-show that night.

“Goalies,” Soupy said. He took a pull on his beer, the liquid clicking inside the can, then thrust it up over his head. “The hell with them. How about them Rats?”

Most of us had played for the River Rats, the local youth team, as teenagers. We’d lost the 1981 state final on a goal I should have stopped.

“State finals, baby,” Wilf said, “right here in beautiful Starvation Lake.”

There was another, harder knock at the door. Then a voice.

“Police. Open up.”

“Hell, it’s just Skipper,” Soupy said. “Game tomorrow’s at seven. Pregame at my bar. The Enright’s Pub shuttle will leave for the rink at six-thirty sharp. Adult beverages will be provided.” He looked at me. “You coming?”

“Yeah, right.” As a Rats assistant coach, I didn’t drink much before games.


The door swung open and Pine County sheriff’s deputy Skip Catledge stepped into the room. I saw the Zamboni punk slink away with a ring of keys. The deputy pointed at me. “Get dressed.”

“He wasn’t drinking, Skip, honest.”

“Shut up, Soup. Let’s go, Gus. We have a situation.”

I thought of my mother. She was watching TV in her pajamas when I left for the game. Our next-door neighbor, Phyllis Bontrager, had come to sit with her.

“A situation where?”

“I’ll be outside,” the deputy said. “In two minutes, I’ll come in and haul your butt out.”

Cop flashers blinked in the distance as Catledge steered his sheriff’s cruiser off Main Street and onto the beach road along the lake’s southern shore. The lake itself was invisible in the blackness beyond the naked trees. Twin bands of packed snow ran down the asphalt lanes between the steep banks on both shoulders.

The deputy, his hat perched on the dashboard, had spoken barely a word since we’d left the rink. He had had me sit in the front next to him. Not a good sign.

“Are those flashers where I think they are?” I said.

“We’ll be there in a minute.”

Half a mile ahead, the flashing lights obscured my mother’s little yellow house. I imagined what might have happened. A greasy pan Mom had left burning on the stove. A fireplace flue she had neglected to open. A door she had forgotten to lock. Dammit, Mother, I thought, then immediately felt bad about it. We’d never had to lock our doors in Starvation Lake. Then the break-ins had begun.

“Why no siren?” I said.

“No need to wake up the whole town.”

“Skip, if it’s-”

“Gus, I don’t know, OK? Sheriff told me not to call him and he hasn’t called me. He’s probably keeping it quiet so every old lady with a scanner doesn’t show up to watch.”

“Watch what?”

He stepped harder on the gas. The trees and houses flew past, cozy log cabins and plank board cottages built in the 1940s and 1950s, and makeover mansions of red brick and cut rock and cantilevered decks built in the 1990s. We were heading to Mom’s house, all right. There were no flames that I could see. I told myself Mom was all right.

Catledge grabbed his hat and set it on his head. We slowed. A hundred yards ahead, another deputy emerged from the shadows along the road shoulder, a flashlight beam bouncing in front of him. Catledge blinked his headlights. The beam waved us through.

Some of Mom’s neighbors stood along the road, pajamas and bathrobes sticking out from under winter coats. As we passed, one spied me and shook her head and brought her hands up into a clasp at her face.

“Christ,” I said. “What the hell’s going on?”

Static crackled on Catledge’s shoulder mike. I heard the Finnish lilt of the sheriff’s voice. “Deputy,” it said. “Did you collect Mr. Carpenter?”

Mom’s house sat on a snow-covered bluff overlooking the lake. Now it was surrounded by five police cars, two ambulances, and a fire truck. The swirling blue and red lights striped the aluminum siding and roof shingles. Why two ambulances? I thought.

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