[This novel is currently available as a manuscript and is available for review.]
Most giants live in legends, but this one lives next door. Kids see him as a freak. Women see him as a threat. Only Lake Michigan fishermen, men used to danger and hugeness, call him by name: Johnny Lindstrom.
When Johnny’s folks die, he has no one to watch over him, and his neighbors are torn between helping or getting rid of him. A neighbor boy, Carl Jonsson, who hides his polio-withered hand in his pocket, is likewise afraid of the giant who lives next door. But a fiddle, a fire, a sanatarium, and a daring rescue effort for Carl’s Pa lost in a storm on the lake on bring the boy and the giant together – in life and death.
The story unfolds across four seasons in the early 1950s in Door County, Wisconsin. It is a story about the power of irregularity and the nature of a small, closely-knit (Swedish-American) community.
EXCERPT – CHAPTER ONE
The Giant, a Novel by Jeff Kunkel
Ma kept her distance from him and warned us, “Stay away from him. His body is too big, his mind too small.” She could have saved her breath. We kids saw him as a freak and never let him get within a stone’s throw of us. If one of us spotted him coming our way, we’d shout “Giant!” and scatter like spooked deer. My little sister went cold at just the thought of him, so she kept him out of her thoughts. But at night she wasn’t so lucky. He showed up in her dreams, and when he did, she ran into my room, jumped into my bed, and pressed her perfect, soft palms against my boney chest.
The only people who weren’t afraid of the giant were Lake Michigan fisherman like Pa, men used to danger and hugeness. These men called him by name, Johnny Lindstrom. It was in their company that I saw him up close for the first time, when I was twelve years old. That was fifty years ago, but I will never forget that day or the year which followed, four seasons thick with fate for the giant and all who knew him, especially me.
From our bar stools at Rock Tap, Pa and I had a good view of Gills Rock, safe harbor for the Washington Island Ferry and a dozen weather-beaten boats like Pa’s fishing tug, Two Lucky Swedes. Pa ordered a beer for himself and a cola for me, and I curled my right hand around the glass and shoved my left hand deep into my pocket, where it belonged.
Behind us, a fisherman said, “Here comes the big guy.”
I didn’t move.
He opened the only door in the place, so I was cornered. A gust of wind which had just blown across forty miles of cold, deep water hit my bare neck and made me throw off a shiver. The giant clomped his way across the fish-slick floor and sat on the empty stool on the other side of Pa. Out of the corner of my eye, I sized him up against Pa. Pa was six-two, two hundred pounds, and bigger than most men, but the giant was a hundred pounds heavier and a full head taller than Pa – a big, square head of wind-tossed, red-blond hair. He had the blue eyes of a boy and the yellow teeth of an old man, though I knew for a fact that he was younger than Pa. A tangle of blond hair circled his bull-neck and ducked under his dirty t-shirt collar, making me think that he was covered with hair from heat to foot like some forest beast. Over his t-shirt, he wore blue bibs and a barn coat that stunk of grease, dirt, and sweat. He pulled his hands out of his coat pockets, folded them as if about to pray, and set them on the bar. I’d never seen hands like his, newborn-tender and man-tough at once, with deep, pink wrinkles of soft flesh folded into work-calloused skin, and thumbs as thick as my wrist.
I took an interest in hands, especially strong, manly hands, because when I was three years old, I took sick, woke up one morning, and could not move my left hand. Over the next few months, that hand withered and pulled into itself as if ashamed. My folks did what they could. They refused to treat me like a cripple, even though I thought of myself as one. They taught me that if I used my head, I could find a one-handed way to do most anything – dress, work, even play ball, and when I was older, shoot, fish, and run machinery. But there were things my folks couldn’t do. They couldn’t talk about my bad hand, as if such talk would somehow make things worse. And they couldn’t use the word polio, as if the bug was asleep in my body and would awaken if named. But I thought about that hand more than I thought about my face, and I did my best to keep that hand in a pocket or mitten, out of sight.
“How you doing, Johnny?” Pa asked.
The giant nodded but did not answer, which made wonder if he knew how to talk.
Pa rapped the bar with his knuckle and called to the bartender, “Ivan, a soda for my neighbor, Johnny Lindstrom.”
Pa didn’t buy him liquor, and I knew why. My Uncle Hans, Pa’s brother and fishing partner, had once bought the giant a bottle of whiskey – just to see what would happen. The giant got drunk and busted the empty bottle across my uncle’s head. After that, no one wanted to see a man of Johnny’s strength and size get liquored up. But for the most part, these fishermen didn’t mind being around him and even hired him for odd jobs. He could heave hundred pound hay bails from barn floor to hayloft all day long, heft a barrel of iced whitefish onto his shoulder, or gut a chub with one slice from his knife and a flick of his thumb. He could work wonders with wood, too. Pa once said, “Johnny can cut, carve, steam, shape, and fasten wood like he was born for it.”
Without saying a word, the giant sipped the soda which Pa had bought him. His butt spilled over the stool. Once, he turned my way and looked me up and down, which so rattled me that I didn’t take another sip of soda until he clomped out of Rock Tap and went on his way, wherever that was.
On our way home from Rock Tap that day, I asked Pa, “Can the giant talk?”
“When he wants to,” Pa said. “Don’t call him a giant, Carl,” Pa added. “Giants live in fairy tales, not on the Door.”
The Door – what outsiders called Door County – was my home, a skinny spit of land which juts away from Wisconsin like a thumb on a mitten, with big water on three sides: Green Bay to the west, Lake Michigan to the east, and to the north, Death’s Door, a ship-swallowing stretch of shallow water, strong currents, unmarked reefs, and rock islands. A scattering of fishing villages ran up one side of the Door and down the other. Most Door families could tell stories about Death’s Door – stories about shipwrecks and big blows. Most fishing families on the Door could also tell stories about a relative or neighbor who got caught in a blow off Death’s Door and was never found. Ma’s brother, Sven, was swept overboard in a blow – his body never found – so she feared big water and swore she’d never marry a fisherman. But she met Pa, a fisherman to the bone, and they fell in love and got married. She worried herself sick every time he crossed Death’s Door to check his nets. All of us on the Door were shaped by rock, water, wind, and ice.
The giant lived on the farm next to us, with his folks, Len and Lena Lindstrom. His folks got married in Sweden, sailed to the Door, and bought eighty acres at the tip of the Door, half of which rose into a rocky, wooded bluff overlooking Death’s Door. Len built a tall, square house and barn, and where the soil was deep enough, he planted cherry trees. He was five feet tall and bent forward, his legs and feet never quite catching up to his head. Lena was short and skinny – an unlikely pair to make a giant. Their firstborn, Stanley, was a boy like any other – six pounds at birth. Johnny came along two years later and weighed sixteen pounds. Doc Vorquist, just out of medical school at the time, once told me, “Lena wailed for a day and night before Johnny was born, not sure if she should hold him in or push him out. I had no idea how to help her.”
Pa said that by the time Johnny was two, he was already head and shoulders above the other toddlers, so it was plain to everyone that he wasn’t right in the body. By the time Johnny was five or six, it was plain to everyone that he wasn’t right in the head either. I don’t know what Len and Lena made of their second-born son, but I do know that they took him out of school after the second grade and kept him on the farm – away from school, church, and other kids. Johnny helped his Pa with the farm, worked odd jobs, and spent his free time alone at Northpoint, the rock-tumbled tip of the Door, where the wind could take you right off your feet.
By the time Johnny was sixteen, he was good with wood and bigger than any full-grown man on the Door. About that time, Johnny got it in his mind to start his own ferry business, so he built a rowboat made of oak, eighteen feet long and six feet wide, with long, hand-hewn oars. Johnny kept his ferry pulled up on a stone beach near Northpoint. He charged half the price of the Gills Rock-Washington Island Ferry and put out during weather which kept all other boats in the harbor, but most people didn’t want to get in a boat with him, so he never got much business. Still, he kept the boat ready, and every once in a while somebody who had to get to one of the islands right away hired him. Whenever Pa and I walked past Johnny’s boat, Pa admired the workmanship but also warned, “Don’t you or your sister ever get in this boat with Johnny, you understand? ”
Pa didn’t want us near Johnny if Pa wasn’t with us.
A few weeks after I saw Johnny up close for the first time at Rock Tap, his life took a turn for the worse. It began with his Pa getting sick. One cold morning, Pa came in from chores with a troubled look on his face and said, Len Lindstrom is awful sick.” On the Door, “awful sick” meant pneumonia, and pneumonia was a killer.
Pa, Donna – my little sister – and I ate breakfast, while Ma fried up a second breakfast. She put the cooked fish and eggs into a picnic basket, covered it with an oven-warmed towel, and said, “I’m taking this to the Lindstroms.”
Looking at me, Pa said, “Go with your mother.”
I stood, ready to escort Ma.
Donna pointed at me and said, “The giant will get you!”
Ma and I bundled up and walked out the back door, the cold, dry air filling our lungs. We walked down the path to Pa’s bluegill pond. The dark green water made the pond look bottomless. Once, Pa was fishing for bluegills in our pond and caught a five-pound trout, the kind of fish he caught in the lake, a hundred feet down. No one knew how that fish got into our pond. Donna and I figured that a water-cave must run from the lake to our pond and that sooner or later, one of those bodies from beneath the waves of Death’s Door – maybe even Ma’s brother, Sven – might end up floating in our pond, the bluegills nibbling his swollen, blue fingers.
The Lindstrom farmhouse, painted white, stood out like a cloud against the brown fields and dark woods. A ribbon of smoke rose from the stone chimney and disappeared into the pale blue sky. Johnny’s big, black wolf-dog began barking from inside their barn, so I picked up a stout stick with my good hand and watched the barn, worried that the door would swing open and the giant and his dog would come for us. We kids believed that the giant fed live rabbits and chickens to his dog and that if the giant got hold of one of us, he might feed us, whole and kicking, to that dog.
Ma knocked on the farmhouse door and said to me, “Put that stick down.” After a minute or two, Lena opened the door and looked at us. Her grey hair was parted in the middle and pulled back from her creased forehead, her grey-blue eyes moist and full of worry.
“How is he?” Ma asked.
The way Mrs. Lindstrom looked and spoke spooked me, and I wanted to turn and go home, but I followed Ma and Lena into a room darkened by drawn curtains. Old Man Lindstrom lay in his sick bed under a stack of quilts. His head was propped up by goose feather pillows, his eyes closed. Hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.
Mrs. Lindstrom touched him, and he opened his eyes, thin, pale blue eyes, like the sky above his house. He blinked at us.
“Mr. Lindstrom,” Ma said. “We brought you some breakfast.” She set the basket on the bed.
He closed his eyes and coughed, a sound so raw that I thought his pink guts would come out of his mouth and pile up on his chest. Ma, now worried that we might catch whatever he had, turned away from him, and she hurried us out the back door. I grabbed my stick and was glad that I did, because the barn door opened, and the wolf-dog came for us. I stepped in front of Ma, hoping for one good swing before we got eaten.
That was the first time I ever heard the giant’s voice, his voice so deep and clear that it sounded like he had a bullhorn in his throat. The dog halted in his tracks, sat, and growled.
“Champ don’t hurt nobody less I tell him!” the giant shouted. His body filled the dark doorway. He could talk – and he was talking to us!
Furious, Ma shouted, “Johnny Lindstrom, that god damn dog is a menace!!”
We turned and hurried away.
That was the first time I ever heard Ma use the Lord’s name in vain, but not the last.
Two days later, Aunt Ellie – Uncle Hans’ wife – came barging into our kitchen with bad news, “Old Man Lindstrom is dead.” Before anyone could speak, she added, “That ain’t the worst of it. Lena’s dead too.”
“Lena?” Pa asked, his eyes widening
“Herre Gud,” Ma said, raising her hand to her mouth.
“What happened?” Pa asked.
“Their old work horse kicked her skull in, that’s what happened,” Aunt Ellie said.
Stunned, all of us sat at the kitchen table, taking in the news.
“She won’t kick nobody else,” Aunt Ellie said. “Johnny killed that horse with an axe.”
This was too much for Donna. She ran out of the kitchen and up to her room. I didn’t get up and run, but I was shook too. Ma and Pa stared at each other, speechless. Aunt Ellie looked at me, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Her fresh, glowing skin, high cheekbones, and perfect lips and teeth were the envy of every girl and woman on the Door, but no one wanted her eyes – flashing, nervous eyes, soaked in shame and ready for more. Any woman married to Uncle Hans would have eyes like that. Most of the time, my uncle was a hard-working man of few words, like Pa, but he’d gone off to fight the Nazis in Italy, and when he came back, he was different. I once asked him, “What was Italy like? Did you shoot anyone over there?” He wouldn’t answer me, and he never talked about the war, but he took up drinking. Every few weeks, he went on a binge, and more than once, Aunt Ellie had to get him out of jail.
After a long silence, Aunt Ellie, her eyes still on the Lindstrom place, said, “Things don’t look too good for Johnny now.”
All weekend, folks talked about the Lindstroms, swapping what they heard, trying to sort out what had happened on the farm that night. Doc Vorquist gave the most even-handed account: “Len’s lungs filled up with fluid and he drowned. For some reason, Lena went to the barn at night. She must have spooked the horse from behind, because he caught her right in the temple. She was dead before she hit the floor.” Folks were shocked by the twin deaths and upset by Johnny’s violence toward the horse. Everyone wondered: Now that Johnny has no one to look after him, what will become of this man whose body is too big and mind is too small?
The next day, Pa drove his tractor to the Lindstrom barn and came out towing the bloated black carcass of the horse murdered by Johnny. Pa and a few other men buried the horse in the woods. When Pa came home, I asked him, “What did the horse look like?”
Pa said, “Johnny took her down the same way Lena went down – one blow to the head.”
I didn’t ask any more questions, but I began to have bad dreams about what the giant did to that horse.
Two days later, the peel of the steeple bell at Swedish Covenant broke the morning quiet. Unlike my little sister, I liked funerals and all that went with them -bundles of white carnations and red roses, black suits and dresses, sobs, wails, and sighs. And if one was really lucky – faintings and smelling salts! I even liked the mournful music – Swedish as royal blue, and it all ended with huge platters of food and yard games for us kids.
Ma, Donna, and I got to church early and sat in our pew, Ma on the aisle. She wore her best black dress and a black fishnet veil across her face. Donna wore her black dress, the high, wool collar making her scratch her neck a lot. I wore my black suit and white shirt.
Our pianist played one sad song after another, and just by listening, I could tell that she hit more black keys than white ones. She was new to our church, a woman about Ma’s age, with long, dishwater-blonde hair. Her name was Klara Hepner, and she wasn’t one of us. She was German and Lutheran, and she lived in Bailey’s Harbor, a village along the lake about fifteen miles to the south. The hands of our regular pianist had been crippled by arthritis and got to looking a lot like my bad hand, so we needed Klara Hepner’s hands. How I envied her hands, perfect for making music with the piano – wide palms, long, nimble fingers, sensitive touch. People said Mrs. Hepner played other instruments too, the clarinet, accordion, flute, and violin. I loved to listen to music, but I figured that making music was for other people – people with a good voice or two good hands, people like Mrs. Hepner.
A girl about my age, twelve or so, sat in a pew near the piano. A waterfall of yellow-blonde hair spilled down her back. Who is she? Do I know her? As if she knew someone was looking at her, she looked back. I saw her green eyes and pink lips and no I’d never seen her before and no she didn’t look right at me and no I wasn’t much to look at anyway and no she wasn’t even the cutest girl I’d ever looked at, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. This upset me. I’d made up my mind that girls were for other boys, not me, boys with two good hands and way more guts and charm than I had. I forced myself to look away, pushed my bad hand deeper into my pocket, and tried to get hold of myself.
From behind me, Aunt Ellie’s boots clip-clopped against the wood floor, and Ma slid toward me, making room for her. Uncle Hans was not with her. Ever since Johnny had beaned him with that whiskey bottle, Uncle Hans had taken to calling Johnny a half-wit and staying away from all the Lindstroms.
Mrs. Brigitta Vallien, a tall, regal woman, entered next, followed by her short, slight husband. She wore a dress as black as coal, a royal purple shoulder shawl, and a black hat pinned to her dark hair. As far as I knew, she was the only woman on the Door who wore fingernail polish and the only woman who had gone to college. She got her degree from some university in Sweden, sailed for America, and married not long after she got to the Door. She raised six children, ran Vallien’s Grocery Store in Gills Rock, and bossed around a bunch of women who called themselves the Door County Christian Women’s Coalition. We boys often called her Queen Brigitta, because as far as we were concerned, she ruled the Door. She could look a man in the eye and speak the truth without crying or screaming, and she could speak that truth in English, Swedish, German – or even a couple of dead languages. Once, Pa had some kind of run in with her and said, later, “I’d rather face a blow on the lake than get into it with that woman again.” I figured that she must have lit into Pa in one of those dead languages and spooked him.
My best friend, Jimmy Jirlow, limped into church with his folks. I liked Jimmy because he had a club foot and knew what it was like to be a cripple. Each night, his Pa had to strap a steel and leather brace on his leg to keep his foot from twisting inward. By morning, his whole leg ached. Jimmy looked at me, made a face, and pointed behind him. Mr. and Mrs. Lindstrom’s older son, Stanley, entered with his wife, Carol, and just behind the couple came the giant – two heads taller than his brother. Johnny, eyes on the floor, walked through the doorway, but not all of him made it. His forehead banged against the upper door jam, which made him yell, in his big, deep voice, “Ow!”
Startled, folks turned around. None of us had ever seen Johnny in church, so his head-banging entrance rattled us all, especially our new pianist. She lost track of her hands and hit all the wrong keys until she jerked her hands to her chest, looked down, and set them down on the right keys. Johnny staggered, as if he might pass out and come crashing down, but he stayed on his feet and re-gathered his wits – whatever wits he had. His hair usually looked like an August weed patch, but somebody had oiled, combed, and parted it. He wore the same outfit I’d seen him wear at Rock Tap: work boots, bibs, and barn coat. With his eyes on the floor, he lumbered up the aisle behind his brother, and right behind him came his big, black, chicken-eating dog, its slimy, pink tongue hanging out its mouth. Aunt Ellie looked over her shoulder, saw Champ, and gasped – which startled the dog and made him bark. Donna grabbed my hand. Johnny turned and wrapped his big hand around Champ’s muzzle, throttling a second bark. Mrs. Hepner looked up and hit another string of clinkers, and people began whispering to one another. Stanley, Carol, Johnny, and Champ kept moving past everyone and sat in the front pew, with Champ curled up by Johnny’s big boots. Donna’s hand was shaking, as if it was twenty below, so I put my arm around her and looked around to see if anyone had fainted. Queen Brigitta waved her hand in front of her face to get some air.
Pastor Donald Nordenberg, or Pastor Don, as most of us called him, opened the door near the pulpit and stepped into the light. He wore his funeral uniform, a neck-to-ankle black robe. He was a tall, thin man about Pa’s age, with sunken, pale cheeks and thin lips which quivered when he got upset He looked a little underfed too, which is the way most Door bachelors looked. Folks wanted to fatten him up and hook him up, so they brought their aunts and friends and sisters to church. Mrs. Vallien took charge of the rest. She waited for the right moment, introduced Pastor Don to the new woman, then backed away so that the two were forced to talk to one another, fall in love, and get married. But he didn’t marry. He stayed skinny and single and lived alone in the house next door to the church.
As was his habit, Pastor Don walked with his long-fingered hands pressed together in front of his chest, and he kept his eyes on the floor, either because he was shy or because he was watching for something that might trip him. Once he got to the altar, he stopped and turned toward us, but without lifting his head or eyes. This was the pianist’s cue to bring her song to an end, which Mrs. Hepner did like a pro. People quieted and sat up straight, and I glanced again at the girl with the yellow-blonde hair. Pastor Don lifted his head and opened his mouth but was so taken aback to see Johnny and the wolf-dog that he could not speak. He closed his mouth and again looked at the floor, regathering his strength for another try, his lips beginning to quiver. When ready, he looked up a second time and said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Lifting his arms, he added, “All rise.”
On the Door, we stood for brides, judges, and the dead.
Some of us stood faster than others, but we all stood, turned around, and waited. Six strong fishermen in black suits carried the first casket up the aisle. The casket was made of pine and painted with glossy black paint. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – the dead joining the living for the last time and my chance to see what death did to the face and hands, about the only parts of the body not hidden by clothes. Would they open Mrs. Lindstrom’s casket? After parking the casket at the front of the church, one of the casket-carriers opened the lid. The crowd held its breath. I stood on tiptoe and leaned a little to my right, expecting to see the horse-kicked face of Mrs. Lindstrom, but instead, I found myself looking at her husband. He was not sweating, like when I had seen him on his sick bed. His face was dry and grey, and his eyes were closed. He looked more sick than dead, as if he hadn’t quite shaken his pneumonia and might at any moment sit up in his casket and cough. His hands, which still looked strong and ready for work, were clasped across his chest.
“Are they sure he’s dead?” I asked Ma.
Always interested in who comes first and why, I asked Ma, “Who decided Mr. Lindstrom should be first?”
“I don’t know, Carl,” she whispered.
“I thought ladies come first.”
She looked at me and pinched her lips. “Yes, but he died first,” she said with authority. “Now hush up.”
The casket-carriers walked to their reserved pew at the front and stood. The second casket, same as the first, came through the church door, carried by another six men – including Pa at the right rear position, the tallest and strongest of the six. I made a mental note that if they ever asked me to carry a casket, I had to get on the side where I could use my right hand. Once the men had the casket lined up alongside the other, Pa opened the cover. A few people looked away, but not me. Mrs. Lindstrom’s face didn’t look horse-kicked at all, not even black and blue. Her hair was combed and curled. Either that horse had kicked her where it didn’t show, or someone at the funeral home had worked wonders with makeup. Husband and wife lay side by side, as they had in their farmhouse bedroom for so many years. If they had opened their eyes, they too would have been surprised to see Johnny and Champ in church. Johnny pulled out a red handkerchief, put it to his nose, and blasted snot into it.
“Is the giant crying?” I asked Ma.
She shushed me.
But questions kept coming to my twelve-year old mind: What does the giant think about being in church for the first time? Does he know we don’t want him here? Does he know his folks are dead and not just sleeping? Does he think about heaven and hell and where dead people go? Does he think about God? Does he wonder why God gave him such a big body and small mind? Does he worry about being on his own?
The funeral, being a double, lasted two hours. By the time the pastor said his closing prayer, his voice was so hoarse that I could hardly hear him. He led Johnny – and the rest of the family – out of the church and to his house next to the church, where they could have some privacy. No one had fainted, wailed, or cursed God, but the giant had showed up in the house of God for the first time. And so had the girl with the yellow-blonde hair. As I made my way downstairs for the meal, I kept my eye out for her. I even had a question ready to ask her: Was that the first time you saw the giant? We boys piled our plates high with meat, bread, and cookies, went upstairs, and sat on the church porch. Jimmy, usually brave and sure, looked worried.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The giant is on his own now,” he said. “Nobody to watch him. He can roam the woods and roads at night like a mean-old-bear.”
From the porch, we boys watched the men lower the caskets into the double-grave. The men’s choir, standing alongside the grave, broke into verses of an old Swedish hymn and sang the old couple out of this world and into the next. Their voices rose and fell like a swell on the lake and had such power that I wouldn’t have been surprised to feel the floorboards rise and fall under my feet.