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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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CHAPTER 15

A
bout the four strangers in the Taconite Saloon, one thing was known for certain: They had recently shopped at Pamida, the discount store in Fishville, eighteen
miles away. This was evident to the others present by the fact that all four were wearing identical brands of flannel shirts that had very obviously just been removed from their packaging (there was even a piece of cellophane tape featuring a redundant XL pattern adhered to one back). One was a red check, another yellow, and the two remaining were blue, and identical, and none looked very comfortable in their sizing-stiffened, almost crunchy states. The men's just-off-the-shelf blue jeans looked even more oppressive, and those who beheld them felt a firm conviction that some very uncomfortable pinching simply had to be going on beneath.

The strangers were eerily similar, though not identical, as though they'd been created in a factory whose quality control had slipped and begun allowing previously tight machine tolerances to loosen somewhat. They had about them a serious purpose, but for some reason appeared not to want that to be evident to the people of Holey and so put on a feigned nonchalance that was as stiff as their clothing.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” laughed one in a stilted, nearly chilling manner as they walked in. “That's very funny, Vagns.” The man it was directed at, Vagns, it seemed, did not appear to have said anything. They took four stools at the bar, and Ralph approached with as much courtesy as he could muster for such an odd quartet.

“What can I get you?” he asked, starting with Ülo.

“Oh, dear, dear, dear,” said Ülo, looking above the bar, ostensibly for a drink menu that did not exist. “Oh, it is early, so I'll just have a Klar Høker snaps—Aalborg, if you have it, please,” he added. He was immediately elbowed strongly by the man in the yellow shirt who sat next to him. “Or, actually, just a beer.”

“I've got Grain Belt, Grain Belt Premium, Bud Light, and Leinenkugel's.”

“Leinenkugel's? Is that Austrian?”

“Nnnnooo. Chippewa Falls, I think.”

“I'll try one of those.”

The other three echoed his order, and Ralph filled them all.

Conversation was light at the Taconite and decidedly lighter among the four strangers. Ralph leaned against the back of the bar, employing his remarkable ability to simultaneously stare at and think of nothing in particular. The four peered vacantly around the bar, their heads shaking, pleasant smiles on their faces. The man in the yellow shirt spoke.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” he said.

This earned him a look from Ralph. “You all right?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the man. “I was just thinking of something Ülo had said earlier.”

Ralph nodded, a gesture acknowledging that he had heard the response while at the same time confessing that he found it spectacularly uninteresting. He resumed his previous activities.

“So this is Holey?” the man said.

“'S that?” asked Ralph.

“Holey? This is it?”

“Yes, it is,” Ralph confirmed.

“Wasn't—wasn't there a mine or something here? Something like that?”

“Yes, there was.”


Ja. Ja,
I thought so. My name is Jørgen,” he said, extending his hand.

“Ralph,” said Ralph, accepting the handshake in a Ralph-like manner; that is, betraying nothing that would indicate how he felt about meeting Jørgen for the first time.

“These are my friends Vagns, Per, and Ülo.” Ralph greeted them all, and there was some difficulty getting him near a proper pronunciation of Ülo.

“Where you guys from?” Ralph asked.

“Minneapolis,” Jørgen answered.

“I live in St. Paul, actually,” Per added, looking over the tops of his glasses.

“Well, welcome to Holey,” Ralph said, and he meant it, though perhaps with somewhat muted passion.

The men from Minneapolis (and St. Paul) resumed their looking around as Ralph got back to the business of staring.

“How's the fish—” Jørgen was just starting to say, but Ralph put up a finger indicating that he would be right back, as he was being summoned at the end of the bar by another patron who put in an order for a Jack and Coke and something called a Slow, Comfortable Screw. Ralph poured the drinks and returned.

“What were you saying?” he asked Jørgen.

“Oh. I was just inquiring how the fishing had been around here in Holey.”

“Season ain't open yet. Unless you want to go after rock bass,” Ralph said, in a tone suggesting that to go after rock bass would be something akin to dancing down Main Street in a powdered wig and bustier.

“No,” Jørgen objected, “I don't want to go after rock bass. No thank you!” He laughed at this, and, inexplicably, so did his companions.

Jørgen and his friends had loitered at the bar for nearly an hour when Ralph suddenly produced small tubs of pasteurized processed cheese spread and set four of them at regular intervals on the bar, following them up with individual sleeves of saltines.

“For me?” Jørgen asked.

“For everyone,” said Ralph.

Jørgen had never seen or tasted cheese in paste form before (he'd been brought up on Havartis, Esroms, flavorful Kumiosts, and Danish Blues), so he was somewhat mystified as to how he was to handle Ralph's gift. He picked up a tub of cheese, looking for directions.

“All-natural cheese spread. Port wine flavored,” he said out loud to no one in particular. He opened it and plunged a cracker in with gusto, snapping it in half and polluting the pristine surface of the cheese spread with the broken piece and bits of shattered saltine detritus. “Son of a . . .” he said, displaying irritation for the first time since entering the Taconite Saloon. (Inside, he was filled with loathing over having to touch pasteurized processed cheese food, as he was convinced of the fact that Americans' consumption of such an abomination was clear evidence of their moral failings.)

As he passed by, Ralph noticed Jørgen's difficulties with the spread and, letting loose with a subtle but perceptible sigh, fetched four cheese knives from under the bar and set them near each of the tubs, placing the one near Jørgen with an especially heavy hand.

“This is a very thick cheese,” Jørgen offered as his excuse.

“Yeah,” Ralph concurred.

Jørgen and his associates responded to an unspoken command to consume and pretend to enjoy some of the offered spreads, probably reasoning that it was a way to endear themselves to the locals. Halfway through masticating his second cheese-encrusted cracker, Jørgen resumed his small talk with Ralph, who was again leaning against the bar.

“Mmm, this is very tangy and good.”

Ralph nodded.

“Say, that mine, isn't that the one that that guy wrote a book about—or something like that?” Jørgen asked, brushing cracker crumbs from his new shirt.

“Yeah, that's the one.”

“It involves a large killer rodent, if my memory serves me.”

“Yeah, it sure does.”

“Yes . . . yes,” said Jørgen, hoping that doing so would lead Ralph to give up more information. It did not work. “Yes,” he continued somewhat desperately, “yes.” After a moment he added, “Yes. Seems like an interesting fellow, that guy. Saw something on him on a television program not terribly long ago.” Ralph was unmoved by this piece of news, so Jørgen attempted a more direct approach. “Do you ever see him up this way?”

“Now and again,” said Ralph. That was the end of his information on the subject, and Jørgen, who wanted to remain inconspicuous, decided not to press further. They finished their drinks, thanked Ralph, and left, huddling on the sidewalk out in front to discuss their next move.

“That was a big, giant, fat dead end,” asserted Ülo. “And the cheese was ungodly.”

“True, yes. It tasted of freshly expelled vomit. And I admit our subject was not as forthcoming as I would have liked. But it should not be that difficult to find out where he's staying, if only we keep our eyes and our ears open. Our next move should be—”

“Jørgen! Jørgen, traveler is at your six!” warned Per.

“What?” Jørgen said irritably. He turned to look where Per was pointing, and indeed Jack Ryback was striding toward them in the company of two other men. One was the mustachioed fellow from the park meeting, the other was King Leo,
looking fresh and fetching in a peasant blouse of a delicate ocean hue. They were closing in on the knot of Danish men fairly quickly.

“Okay, move! Move!” said Jørgen urgently, underscoring his command by pushing his comrades roughly, first Per, then Vagns. “Come on. Come on.”

“Ow,” said Vagns, who did not like being pushed, especially when the pusher had a hangnail and his push had missed its mark, the jagged nail raking open a small cut on his top lip, which is precisely what had happened.

“You must move now,” Jørgen ordered. They walked briskly down the sidewalk, away from the approaching author and his strange entourage, ducking into an open shop, the Jurkovich Family Pharmacy. The bell tinkled as the foursome tumbled into the store, invading the quiet, Muzak-tinged air.

“Ow. You cut me,” said Vagns incredulously.

“Quiet, you little baby,” said Jørgen. He looked around to notice that the only person in the store, a placid-looking man of forty wearing a blue smock, was staring at them with a pleasant but subtly accusing look.

“Help you find something?” he said, and all were aware that he really meant “Don't bring your trouble in here.”

“We are just looking,” Jørgen said, and he began nosing around the nearest rack, which happened to be an area displaying barrettes, colorful brushes, various hair ornaments, and ponytail scrunchies. He was pretending to examine a purple Goodie-brand nylon hairbrush—as the others looked on—when the bell tinkled again and the very three men they were attempting to elude walked into the store, their progress stopped short by the presence of the four Danes blocking their way in the cramped entrance.

“Whoa,” said Ponty.

“Hey, man,” said King Leo as Jørgen, with terror in his eyes, looked up at him.

“Full house, huh?” Jack said energetically to them all.

“Ah. So sorry,” said Jørgen. “Just needed to . . .” he said weakly, and grabbed a yellow flower-print scrunchie off the display rack. Per, Vagns, and Ülo just stared nervously. In order to clear a path for the threesome, Jørgen and company walked toward the register, their leader setting the scrunchie on the counter, ostensibly with the intent of purchasing it. Jørgen had assumed that this would allow Jack Ryback and his friends to spread out into the store, but they only followed the four up to the counter. Noticing this, Jørgen said nervously, “Ah. Would you . . . ?” and gestured weakly toward the cash register.

“No, you go ahead there,” said Jack.

“Yes, please, we are in no particular hurry,” said King Leo.

“Thank you, most gracious of you,” said Jørgen, pushing the scrunchie several inches farther toward the clerk, who didn't notice because he was watching Vagns dab at the bleeding cut on his top lip.

“Um . . . you need something for that?” said the clerk.

“I suppose I should bandage it,” said Vagns, pulling his hand away to reveal a red smear.

“Yeah, mouth wounds really bleed,” said the clerk, who walked to the end of his counter, lifted a hinged section, and hustled off, leaving the seven men standing in a loose and uncomfortable knot at the front of his store.

“Sorry,” said Jørgen, shrugging.


Ja,
sorry,” said Vagns, from under his hand.

“No, no, no, no, don't give it a second thought,” said King Leo. “Happened to me more times than I care to remember.”
Ponty looked at King Leo curiously for a second when he'd finished saying that.

“How'd you do it?” Jack asked Vagns.

“I don't remember,” Vagns replied vaguely.

“How . . . how long has it been bleeding?” asked Ponty.

“Not long,” said Vagns. “Oh, I remember. I must have cut it when I was having some cheese and crackers at the pub down the street.” Jørgen was thinking that, on the whole, Vagns had done a less than acceptable job of coming up with a better explanation than “He pushed me,” but he would not be able to say so until some later time.

“You . . . you cut yourself with cheese and crackers?” Ponty asked.

“Perhaps a jagged cracker edge. It's all a blur to me now,” Vagns replied.

The clerk returned with bandages, a small generic yellow tube of triple-antibiotic ointment, and two cotton balls.

“Will that do you?” he asked.

“That looks dandy,” said Jørgen, though the clerk was talking to Vagns.

“Okay . . . bandages,” said the clerk, ringing a price into the register. “The ointment . . . and a scrunchie. The cotton balls are on the house.”

“Thank you ever so much,” said Vagns, reaching for them.

“That'll be two eighty-five,” said the clerk. Jørgen paid as Vagns swabbed at his lip with one of the complimentary cotton balls. “Need a bag?”

“No thank you,” said Vagns. “I will probably dress it here.”

“Let's dress it in the car,” suggested Jørgen strongly.

“Fine,” Vagns acquiesced, leaving it unclear to the clerk whether or not they needed a bag.

“So . . . should I bag it up?”

“Yes,” said Vagns.

“It won't be necessary,” said Jørgen, snatching the items off the counter and hustling his crew out of the store.

“Strange fellows,” King Leo said before turning his attention to the clerk. “Say, my man, I need a high-quality stain lifter to hand-wash soil out of mohair, some Chakra Pure-Fume Body Mist by Aveda, and I need these three prescriptions for amoxicillin filled, please.”

CHAPTER 16

M
uch like Mr. Spock playing a difficult tridimensional chess match against an intellectually lively opponent, Ponty was feeling assaulted on many levels, and consequently he was having a hard time keeping track of the many stresses he was supposed to be under at any given time. He could have reverted to a general sense of impending doom, but Ponty was into the details.

At present he was worried because he had not been on a date in more than thirty-five years, and that last one had ended with tensely and grudgingly accepted apologies from Ponty. They were necessitated by an incident, mid-date, when a lackluster investigation into just who had jostled their dining table, causing bisque to slosh freely into his companion's lap, had centered, unfairly, on Ponty and not on the large and clumsy-thighed passerby who had actually done the jostling and caused the
offending bisque to leap from its bowl. The whole incident was especially upsetting because Ponty had laid out considerable sums—which were scarce at the time—for the dinner and was unable to enjoy his pricey lobster thermidor with the unpleasantness hanging in the air.

Because it had been more than a third of a century since he'd asked a woman out, he'd made some mistakes with Sandi. Asking her casually if she'd “like to go bowling sometime” would have been a more effective lead-in if there were a bowling alley within a hundred miles of Holey, but there was not. This caused Sandi to interpret his question as a bad joke and to look at him with slight hostility. This in turn caused Ponty to sweat and fidget before recovering enough to ask her if she'd like to have dinner. She correctly interpreted this advance, graciously agreed, and Ponty had then retreated to begin recuperating from the stress of it all.

It was now time for their date, and Ponty felt like a foot soldier ordered to take a heavily fortified pillbox. It was a quiet and cool evening, a quarter moon visible in the still-bright sky as he piloted the Tempo to an avenue just off of Main Street, pulled into her driveway, and approached the house, compulsively attempting to smooth his hair down on the way to the door, to little effect. His hair had always had its own plan, an indecipherable internal logic as to how it wanted to situate itself on his head that no amount of tonics, combs, or smoothings could alter. Looking down at his left hand, he noticed that his knuckles were white, meaning that he had the flowers he'd purchased in an unnecessary death grip, so he relaxed it. He entered through a screen porch that had apparently settled more aggressively than the house, causing it to tilt alarmingly. He felt
like he was climbing uphill to get to her front door. Ponty's fist paused a few inches from the door and then knocked cautiously. After half a minute with no discernible result, he debated whether to knock again, deciding that it would be better to wait so as not to appear too forward. He stood perfectly still, listening intently, for a full two minutes before knocking again, taking care to make it sharper in volume but still friendly in its effect. This second series of knocks fell short of its aim as well. He tried a third time, wincing from his discomfort with having to make such a potentially offensive racket. Four minutes passed, and still the door remained thoroughly unanswered.

After some torturous introspection, he decided to test the door and, finding it unlocked, pushed it open no more than a demure two inches. “Hello?” he yelled. “Sandi?” He steeled his resolve and took, to his mind, the extreme liberty of opening the door enough to push his head through. He tried to keep his tone light. “Hell-ooo?” he said, with mirth in his voice. “It's Ponty,” he announced, but nothing changed. Pushing his shoulders through, he tried again. “I'm here!” For the first time in his life he used two words he had never used in combination: “Yoohoo,” he said, and followed that up with “Woo-hoo.” He glanced about Sandi's living room and felt the shock a man often feels when seeing so many knickknacks, tchotchkes, craft items, homey plaques, and decoupage all in one concentrated area. Everywhere he looked, notions and bric-a-brac assaulted his eyes. There were baubles, bibelots, and novelty items on every imaginable surface, many of them cat-based, though not exclusively. Before he could check himself, he had entered the room, a dazed look on his face such as the one Carter must have had when entering Tutankhamen's tomb.

Ponty saw Longaberger baskets and Snow Baby collections elbow to elbow with Hummel figurines and porcelain cats in various adorable poses. There were needlepoint wall hangings, doilies, and plants, potpourri in baskets and bowls, candles of various hues and shapes, all fragrant. He was having a difficult time comprehending all the trumpery. It made his eyes hurt.

Setting the flowers on the couch, he moved farther in, drawn there by an item on a half wall between the living room and dining room. It was perched next to a crocheted beanbag calico cat and a plaque reading
IF YOU DON'T FEEL CLOSE TO GOD, GUESS WHO MOVED
? It appeared to be a loaf of bread tied in red ribbons like a present, and when he picked it up, he concluded that it was indeed a loaf of bread that had been mummified in some manner unknown to him. He was turning it over in his hands, musing on what might drive a human being to preserve and decorate a loaf of bread, when he heard a sharp cry.

“Ponty!” said Sandi.

“Yes!” said Ponty, for there was no use denying it.

She was standing in a doorway toward the back of the house wearing overalls, a flannel shirt, and leather and canvas work gloves.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Oh, sorry, just examining the bread,” he answered weakly. He held the calcified loaf out to her without realizing what he was doing. She approached him and gave the loaf an irritated, dismissive look. He withdrew it nervously, set it back down, and smoothed his hair.

“What are you doing in my house?” she asked.

“Yes. Well. I knocked. Quite a lot, really, and you didn't answer. So I thought you might be in the shower.”

“So you came in?”

“No. Not to see you in the shower. I just—I'm sorry.”

“And you have a mustache.”

“Yes. I have to from now on. I'm Earl Topperson, remember?” She nodded in understanding, while leaving open the possibility that she still thought him insane. “Sandi, I'm sorry.”

“It's all right,” she said, though it clearly wasn't
all
right. She seemed to have more questions and perhaps a bit of resentment.

For the first time Ponty noticed her appearance, which suggested that yard work had just been, or was about to be, done.

“Ready?” he asked. “Or am I early? I mean, you look fine to me. I don't mean—”

“Ready? Ready for what?”

“Our d—” he said, and stopped himself. “Our thing. Our, you know, the dinner thing.”

She relaxed. “Ponty. Honey”—she was using it sarcastically—“we said Saturday, remember?”

“Oh, yes. And if I'm not mistaken, today is in fact Saturday.” He was beginning to perspire.

Sandi laughed a large laugh. Ponty looked at his watch for the date, even though it had no date feature, something he should have known instinctively as he'd worn it nearly every day for eighteen years.

“Ponty, today's Friday!” she laughed.

“No. No. I—” He looked at his watch again. “Is it?”

“Oh, it is, yes.”

“No.”

“Yes. It is.” She was giggling.

“You're putting me on?”

“I wouldn't do that.”

Ponty was still skeptical, so Sandi led him into her kitchen (it was decorated in a slightly more muted manner than the living and dining rooms, though it was still pretty adorable) and showed him a calendar, coaching him through the days of the week. Finally he could no longer deny the truth.

“I've come on the wrong day!” he said, looking as though he'd been recently hit with a carnival hammer.

“It's all right. It's a relief to know why you were in my house. I was thinking of macing you.”

Ponty was focusing on his own misery and didn't hear her. “How could I do that?” he wondered, in awe at his own ineptitude.

“Happens to the best of us,” she said. “You want to stay for some coffee?”

“No. No thanks. I'd better go,” he said, his voice sounding dazed and hollow.

“Oh, come on. Stay. You can help me stack wood.”

“I'd—I'd probably cause the pile to cave in and take our lives. The wrong day!” he said with amazement.

“Come on,” she said, and, taking his hand, led him past the tidy little kitchen and out through the mudroom into her expansive backyard, which was several acres of mowed grass abutting the deep pinewood beyond. To their left stood her one-car garage, a fairly decrepit old thing that listed dangerously, even more than her porch. On the right was an open woodshed, nothing much more than some green-treated poles sunk into the ground, steadied with some tongue and groove siding, and topped off with corrugated tin. Parked near it was an ancient gray Ford 8N tractor dragging a plywood trailer filled with a load of split elm.

“Make yourself useful,” she said, dragging a log from the
trailer and tossing it to him. He caught it and those that followed and gamely began stacking them into the shed, even though it was not easy on his tender hands.

“I'm glad you messed up, Ponty. Stacking wood always makes me feel a little lonely,” she said.

This embarrassed him, so he responded with a trite saw. “Well, many hands make light work,” he said.

“I guess—hut, hut,” she said to warn him of an incoming log.

“Oof, I got it.”

“So I hear you been turkey hunting with Ralph?” she asked, offering Ponty a chance to brag.

“Oh, yeah. We got one nice tom, though we still haven't filled the other tag,” he said, like a wizened old hunter who'd seen it all.

“Did you dress it, or did Ralph?”

“Oooh. Ralph did. I don't think I could handle that. Yuck. No, he's got it in his chest freezer now.”

“Well, maybe we can all enjoy that turkey together sometime.”

“Yeah, that'd be nice.”

Sandi paused her labor and leaned against the trailer. “Oh, boy. This is gonna be a cool night, but it sure is nice now,” she said, looking up at the sky. The sun was fading, the swallows were diving about the tops of the garage, and over the trees came the lonely call of the loon.

“That's all the way from the lake,” said Sandi, smiling wistfully.

“It's nice,” said Ponty, rubbing his hands together to warm them. “You never hear that in the city. Course, you probably
get pretty lonely for bus fumes from time to time,” he joked tentatively.

Sandi laughed. “Oh, there are plenty of fumes around these parts, if you look hard enough.” She grabbed a log, and they resumed their work. Sandi began laughing to herself again and did not notice that Ponty had interrupted the rhythm of their work to do some fussy straightening of the logs he'd stacked. Sandi turned to throw a log and, noticing he wasn't ready, awkwardly stopped her momentum, losing her grip on the log and dropping it squarely on her toe.

“Ow, ow, ow!” she said, falling to the ground.

“Oh, oh! I'm sorry,” said Ponty, realizing he was at least partly responsible. He bent to minister to her but hadn't any idea what propriety allowed him to do, so he simply hovered over her nervously.

“Ow, ow, ow!” she went on, though she seemed to be laughing through the obvious pain. “That was so clumsy of me.”

“It's me. There are always accidents and injuries when I'm around,” he said miserably.

“No, that's me! Ow, ow, take off my shoe, will you?” she said, gripping her left leg, and it was now obvious that she was at least half laughing.

Ponty was taken aback by her request. He had never in his life unshod a woman and had no idea how to go about it. He fiddled lightly with the shoelace, accomplishing little.

“Come on, just pull off the shoe, will you?” She laughed.

“Yes, yes. Of course,” he said, giving her light blue Etonic tennis shoe a chaste and gentle pull.

“Come on. Get it off, will you?”

He then took the liberty that she had offered and gave her
shoe a good pull. It came off, and he set it aside, though there was still a short, terry-cloth sock to deal with, and Ponty hoped that the task wouldn't fall to him.

“Take off the sock. Is it broken?” she said.

“Hang on,” he said, and his shaking hands orbited her foot unsurely.

“Ponty, it's not a tracheotomy. Would you just check to see if it's broken?”

“Yes, yes. I'm on it,” he said, and with a quick, bold yank, he removed her sock. He was somewhat shocked to discover that her toenails were painted an unsubtle red.

“Ow, easy!” She laughed again, still clutching her leg. “Well?”

“How would I know if it was broken?” he asked.

“I think it would be written on there—
just look at it, will you
?”

“Which one is it?”

“It's the second one, I think,” she said, and wiggled her toes. “Ow, yes.”

“Second from which end?” asked Ponty.

This made Sandi giggle. “From the big toe in, of course.”

“Right.” Ponty gingerly touched her toe with his forefinger. “Does that hurt?”

“Did you do anything?”

“Yes. Here,” he said, very gently pinching the end of it between thumb and forefinger and simultaneously blushing.

“Oh, I feel that.”

“Sorry. Sorry,” he said, withdrawing his hand.

“No, no. It's already feeling better. I don't think it's broken,” she said, and sat up with effort. “Just caught it right on the end. It hurt.”

“Yes, I see that,” he said.

“Shut up, you,” she said, and began pulling on her sock. “Let's go have some coffee. Hand me my shoe.”

She limped into the house on a blushing Ponty's shoulder, and they talked in Sandi's kitchen for several hours over her terribly prepared, cheap coffee.

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