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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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This seemed to satisfy Bromstad's inexplicably sudden, childish interest. “Okay,” he said. There was a long silence. The PederCo employees subtly abandoned their company's owner by starting their own low conversations.

“Mr. Bromstad,” Ms. Pedersen began, a little unsteadily, “I can't imagine your chicken drummies will take much longer.”

“Let's keep our fingers crossed,” he said grimly. Their discourse vaporized. Ms. Pedersen glanced around for help and, finding none, gently and silently cursed her traitorous employees.

“You enjoy drummies, hm, Mr. Bromstad?”

“Every right-thinking person does,” he responded grumpily.

“Ha, ha. Yes.” More punishing silence followed, and there was a lull in the game, so Ms. Pedersen could not reasonably turn her focus to that. She tried to meet Bromstad on his own level. “If you could have only one snack, Mr. Bromstad, which would it be?” she asked sweetly.

“Hm? Snack?” He formed his face into an expression suggesting that he was being bothered by unseen biting flies. “I
don't know,” he said, shrugging dismissively, “something fried or . . .”

There was more intense nothingness. Her last push had failed. Ms. Pedersen glanced at the side of his irritable head, looking for a way in. She was about to make an uncontroversial statement about the pleasant weather when Bromstad again burst forth with unexpected vigor.

“How about a reading?” he asked.

Ms. Pedersen's employees looked to her for guidance.

“I think that would be splendid,” she said, clasping her hands near her chest.

“Yes, great!” “Oh, that'd be super!” “Please, please!” came the chorus of voices from PederCo staff. Cheatham Imprint Books, Bromstad's publisher, had sent over a case of his latest,
Dogwood, Anyone?
as thanks to the PederCo staff. Ron fetched a copy of it from a stack on the counter near the tortilla chips.

Ms. Pedersen and the staff gathered around, ignoring the baseball game (which was going south for the Twins, as Baltimore's shortstop had just hit a three-run shot), and Bromstad began reading from Chapter 6.

“Bip Stuyvesant called his brother Ewell at 10:00
A.M
. every day of the week. ‘Ewell has his head in the clouds,' Bip would say when people asked why. ‘He's a dreamer, and someday he's gonna dream hisself into a big load of trouble.'”

Gus's voice was in good form and as he affected Bip's tone, and the people in the skybox noticeably relaxed, if only slightly.

“It was the Tuesday after the big Sugar Beet Daze parade when Bip called Ewell at the usual time and Ewell didn't answer. Bip let the phone ring twenty-three times (he counted), figuring that Ewell might be down in his root cellar sorting tubers, but even those twenty-three rings weren't enough to raise Ewell.”

Bromstad was lost in his reading now, really warming to his own material. PederCo's staff, witnessing Bromstad's transformation from the odd, belligerent man who had oppressed the skybox into the warm, engaging, public Bromstad, began to loosen noticeably.

“‘Oh, Ewell,' said Bip, crawling onto his Massey-Ferguson, turning it over and speeding down county Y the two miles to Ewell's place. Pulling it up in front, he hopped from his seat and burst through the front door. There in the front room he found poor Ewell, passed out, buried under a large pile of frozen fish fillets, in the early stages of hypothermia.”

Sensing that at last they were in good hands, the PederCo staff began to fall into the story, and Bromstad, who throughout his years had honed a keen sense of his audience, pushed his characterizations even more.

“‘Ewell! Oh, Ewell, what kind of a loony scheme are you up to?' Bip cried as he pushed and clawed the fish fillets off his unconscious brother and scooped him up into his powerful arms. He mounted his Massey-Ferguson, pulled Ewell up onto his lap, and floored it speeding toward the Dogwood Downs Community Hospital. Bip paced the floor for two hours before he was allowed to see him.

“‘Ewell, you dreamer! What in the name of mercy were you up to?' Bip asked.

“‘Oh, Bip,' said Ewell weakly, ‘It ain't what you think.'

“‘Well, it can't be,' said Bip. ‘'Cause I ain't the foggiest what you were doin' under those fillets.'

“‘Well, I was watching the
Top of the Day
program out of Duluth, when Tina starts a-talking about how if you got the dry skin, there's a remedy you can do right at home, with ingredients you already got. Now, Bip, you know I got the dry skin.'

“‘I know,' Bip said, tears in his eyes.

“‘Well, they says where if you make a paste of salmon, it was, and lemon juice and some other things I don't remember and put it on your dry skin, it'd work wonders.'

“‘Oh, Ewell,' said Bip, guessing what had happened.

“‘But I didn't have no salmon, just those fifty pounds of perch fillets that Mr. Clousin give me after his trip to Lake of the Woods. So—'”

At that moment Jennifer fairly burst through the door and announced triumphantly, “I have your drummies, Mr. Bromstad!”

This interruption clearly upset Gus Bromstad considerably. His face darkened as he stared, eyes wide, at the poisonous intrusion. Jennifer immediately sensed that it was the wrong time to be cheerily presenting steaming trays of drummies.

“Whoops,” she said quietly.

Bromstad began by hurling the book at her, which missed by more than a dozen feet. Then he rose from his seat and, cursing most foully, made his way to the snack area, where he began to upend trays, never stopping the steady stream of obscenities.

So violent and unexpected was this outburst that it was impossible for the PederCo employees to laugh even when Bromstad ran out of snack trays to upset and in his rage tried to uproot one of the heavily anchored stadium seats, presumably to throw that as well, sputtering and cursing at it as he did. He even comically anthropomorphized it, referring to it several times as “you”—and then a rapid-fire set of vulgarities—“stadium chair,” but no one had the slightest inclination to smile or titter.

It was his thorough condemnation of young Jennifer that was perhaps most upsetting. She was obviously not “a stupid breeder cow” as Bromstad had called her. Nor was she a “witch” or a “filthy spy.” There was a great deal of wincing when Bromstad called her a “stupid, sobbing chickenmonger.” She was indeed pitiful, standing in the doorway, crying openly, wearing large oven mitts, barely holding on to a sizable pan of steaming fowl.

Once Bromstad had finished his tirade and stood spent and panting in the middle of the suite, it was nearly a minute before Ms. Pedersen's skill and instinct in the hospitality arts finally reengaged. “Well. Thank you for the reading, Mr. Bromstad. I think we all enjoyed it. Jennifer, set that down, get some buckets, and start sponging some of that sauce off the carpet, will you?”

Several minutes later, from a camera platform on the upper deck, Bromstad, smiling warmly and accompanying himself on the banjo, sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to the rowdy and appreciative crowd of 44,873 people at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. They roared their approval when he finished and roared louder as he continued in his reedy tenor, doing a second verse with lyrics of his own composition:

“Bus me out to the big dome, / Bus me out to the hump. / Maybe I'll catch me a foul ball, and get me a big-headed Gus Bromstad doll.” The crowd cheered and clapped wildly. Bromstad handed off his banjo, mounted a railing, and fell back into the waiting arms of the fans, where he was passed around for nearly a full revolution of the stadium seats.

CHAPTER 3

I
ndignities are not nearly so unbearable if no one is there to notice them. Or so thought Pontius Feeb upon suffering yet another indignity in a remarkable and consistent string of them. Starting, of course, with his being fired, followed closely by his running over a police officer and being jailed for nearly twenty-four hours. (He was told that if the police officer had died, he—Pontius—would have been charged with vehicular manslaughter instead of reckless driving. Luckily, Pontius had only run over the officer's ankle, and the man had fully recovered after two weeks in an inflatable cast.)

The story had made the Metro section of the
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
, with a headline reading
DRIVER JUMPS CURB, HITS POLICE OFFICER
. Pontius, rightly or wrongly, perceived a bit of editorializing in that comma. It might as well have read
DRIVER JUMPS CURB
TO
HIT POLICE OFFICER
. Or
DRIVER JUMPS CURB
AND CRUELLY
HITS POLICE OFFICER
. Plus, there was the word “jumps.” It was entirely too forceful a word to describe the leisurely pace at which he
drove over
the curb. “Jumps” connotes high speed—seventies-cop-show-type speed—the driver
hunched over the wheel, grinning fiendishly, bearing down on his prey with murder in his eyes. A Tempo in first gear was wholly incapable of jumping anything, he thought.

The story itself was pretty dry and brief, but there was the inflammatory quote by the officer he'd hit: “‘I don't know what he was thinking,' said Pierce, an eight-year veteran. ‘Maybe he went a little nuts, or maybe he hates cops. I don't know.'”
Why in the world didn't they ask me?
Ponty thought. The cop had said it himself: “I don't know what he was thinking.” If they had asked, they would have found out that there was no murderous intent, no going nuts, not cop hating, just a simple case of a human hand's getting caught in the broken seat of a Ford Tempo.
I'm sure it happens every day
, thought Ponty.

If he felt ill used by the headline and the officer's wild speculation, he was more stung by the fact that they'd published his mug shot next to the story. Even under the most favorable of conditions, Pontius did not photograph well. He was, as his father had often told him, “not much to look at” or “like a bum at a ballpark” to begin with, and, since he was five foot eight, too often the camera was literally looking down on him. This made for an unfortunate angle at which to capture his slightly heavy brow, as his eyes ended up peering out of the shadows of his own forehead, which was prodigious. Photos often made a bad show of his smile, too, which in person could be quite warm. As seen by the camera, it looked like a pained grimace, frozen in time by a flash, only top teeth apparent. There was no opportunity, as there was when he spoke, to see the bottom teeth, the friendlier of the two rows by far. His hair, what was left of it, was an undistinguished gray and very badly behaved, sitting well back on his head, parts of it always poking straight
up and out, as though he'd “combed it with an eggbeater” (his father again).

His ability to select and purchase unflattering clothes was seemingly unerring. He'd given up on even trying to reverse the trend and settled on the idea that if there was a style that made him look sharp and dapper, it had yet to be invented or had fallen out of fashion hundreds of years ago and would not be seen again in his lifetime. In fact, he had hard evidence that this was true. The two times in his life that he felt he'd looked good in his clothes, and had in fact received more than one compliment, he'd been wearing a costume. Once for a Halloween party he'd dressed as the Roman Praetorian prefect Sejanus and felt quite at home in the toga. Many years later, for a very strange murder-mystery evening at a fellow employee's house, he'd been instructed to show up in character as someone named Sir Reginald Twyhammer. He'd rented a Sherlock Holmes outfit, jettisoned the deerstalker and the meerschaum, added a monocle and a snuffbox, and, in the opinion of more than one female guest, looked very dapper. But aside from these rare and minor victories, his had been a life of steady sartorial defeats. For the past twenty-five years or so, he'd stuck with plain brown shoes, a solid-colored wool/poly-blend slack and a cotton/poly-blend short-sleeved, button-collar business shirt. In the winter he often added an Orlon crewneck, also solid-colored.

Given all this, the odds were that his mug shot would be utilitarian at best and, at worst, severely unflattering. And in fact it was worse than that. He had been slightly dazed by the stress of being arrested, handcuffed, and processed. But he'd been unprepared for just how shockingly criminal he could look,
even in a setting conducive to it. His hair was thoroughly out of order, twisting this way and that, a few strands pasted down on his greasy-looking forehead (and he had never before had a problem with oily skin). One eyebrow was slightly raised, something he didn't even know he was capable of, his head tilted forward with apparent threat. His lip was curled as though he had just finished uttering a curse at the police photographer, perhaps even taken a desperate swing at him. He had to admit he looked the type of character who would jump a curb and try to run down a cop. He could not even pretend that it wouldn't be noticed, as it had been placed above the fold on the same page as the local celebrity gossip column.

The newspaper story had led directly to his next humiliation. A week after the incident, a letter arrived at his rented house in South Minneapolis:

Dear Mr. Feeb,

Given your recent public behavior, regrettably, my client has chosen to invoke the moral-turpitude clause in your lease. You have thirty (30) days to vacate the premises. As you know, Mrs. Parsons is a frail woman and has been weakened by the shock of this scandal. The sooner the strain of it can be relieved, the better for her health, which as you know is not optimal at this time. Should you choose to vacate even earlier than thirty (30) days from today, she would be most grateful, as it is her desire to have a garage sale, and she does not wish to have your presence there driving prices down. Please notify me if this is your intention. Otherwise, mail your keys to my address within thirty (30) days.

Sincerely,

J. Michael Winslow

Howard-Stritch Attorneys

Pontius was unaware of a moral-turpitude clause in his lease, because he had signed it more than fourteen years ago. Plus he had yet to be convicted, and he doubted that his arrest, as shameful as it might have been, would qualify as an act of moral turpitude. It seemed to lack the depravity and baseness that he'd always associated with turpitude. Still, he did not want to upset Mrs. Parsons or J. Michael Winslow. He moved out three weeks later after a frantic search for a new place.

And now, his freshest humiliation, perhaps his deepest, made endurable only because there was no one around to point and laugh. At sixty, Pontius Feeb, former trade-magazine editor, former writer of little-read history books, was alone in the tiny kitchen he shared with four roommates, leaning over the sink eating Our Pride brand macaroni and cheese out of the pan using the spoon with which he had prepared it. When, mid-bite, the bitter sting of this indignity overtook him, he set the pan down, perched on the edge of a vinyl-covered kitchen chair, and wept quietly for a minute before returning to finish his lunch.

P
ONTY SAT DOWN
with his roommates, Sags, Beater, Scotty, and Phil—all summer students at the University of Minnesota, for a meal of packaged ramen noodles that had been dressed up with browned hamburger. When Ponty had resigned himself to living with fraternity buddies, he'd imagined that the only time they got together as a group was to put Volkswagens on roofs or construct and drink lustily from beer bongs. That they ate all their meals together and were a reasonably sober bunch was a surprise to him, and he told them as much.

“Yeah,” said Sags, fork poised at mouth, “we've been in school together since kindergarten, so we're used to it.” Ponty
had been at his new home for just a week, and of his roommates, Sags stood out as the cleanest. His hair reminded Ponty of John Denver's or perhaps John Davidson's, and his array of clean and pressed button-collar oxfords was seemingly endless.

“And you decided to go to college together?” Ponty asked.

“Yeah, it just seemed easier. You don't have to make new friends if you don't want to,” Sags replied, pushing up his delicate horn-rimmed glasses.

“So you're a writer?” Scotty asked. He hadn't been at any meals yet because he'd been working evenings at Blimpie's. Scotty had only one eyebrow. It covered both eyes, luckily, but its deviation from a straight line was only slight, dipping minutely above his nose. Ponty had already noticed, in his brief time there, that Scotty was not meticulous where fingernail cleanliness was concerned, and there was always some dark matter beneath them. He made a mental note not to eat at Blimpie's U of M location.

“Yes. Yes, I am,” said Ponty tentatively, knowing that his current situation threatened to prejudice them regarding how good a writer he might be.

“Would I know any of the books you've written?” asked Beater. Beater, or William Beatty, was enormously tall, to the point that Ponty felt slightly irritated by it. The last three or four inches of his height seemed to be pure self-indulgence. Beater had a clear and resonant voice and very mature comportment. The whole package made Ponty feel small and somewhat elfish.

“Well,” Ponty said, swallowing some noodles, “I write books about history, so they're a little off the beaten path.” They all looked at him expectantly. “Let's see, I wrote, um,
Push Me, Pull You: The Importance of Railroad Handcars to an Emerging Industry,
um, and . . .” he said, trailing off with some barely audible noises in his throat. Silence followed. Ponty felt compelled to fill it. “That was interesting. Um, I also wrote
Where Did Amerigo?: Vespucci and the New World,
” he said, chuckling self-consciously at his own title. When he conceived it, he'd been quite proud, thinking it both spicy and commercial. Now, after speaking it here, he tasted ashes in his mouth.

“Uh-huh,” said Phil, in the same tone he might have used had Ponty just revealed his favorite brand of linoleum. Phil had the traditional look of a skinny stoner, with long, unkempt hair, jeans so ragged they threatened to disintegrate at any moment, and dingy, almost yellow T-shirts bearing logos and icons that Ponty could only guess represented a taste for irreverent, disenfranchised music groups who recorded on independent labels. Still, so far as he could tell, Phil was not a stoner. There was no smell about him other than what you would expect from any college student, he did not use patchouli oil, and once Ponty thought he'd heard him say to Sags, “back when I was still doin' rope,” strongly implying that his THC days were behind him.

“Let's see,” said Ponty. “I wrote one that sold quite a number of copies out of the Gooseberry Falls State Park's gift shop. It was called
Old von Steuben Had a Farm: The German-American Settlement of the Midwest
. Maybe you . . . you might have seen that.”

Far away a dog barked.

“Did you have a publisher, or did you just do these yourself?” asked Beater, with a scrutiny in his deep voice that made Ponty uncomfortable.

“No, no. No. No. All of them were published through Jack Pine Publications, right here in Minneapolis. They made their name back in the fifties with the Rick Darling mysteries. . . .” he said, making a question out of it on the last three words. None of his roommates showed any sign of recognition, so he continued, “And also, they did Gus Bromstad's first book. . . .”

All of them now made exclamations of familiarity. “Oh, no kidding?” said Phil. “I just assumed those were published out of New York.”

“Well, they are now,” said Ponty, “But Jack Pine did
Letters from Jenny
,” he said, again making a question of it.

“That's a Gus Bromstad book?”

Ponty, disoriented by the attention he was receiving, allowed his pride to lead him into a conversational trap.

“Oh, yeah, that's Bromstad. I know him, you know.”

“Really?” said his roommates in unison.

Ponty now realized he had to reveal the shameful truth of his association with his fellow author. “I, um . . . well, I know him in the sense that he and I once had a bit of a contretemps at the Russell L. Dwee Book Awards ceremony.”

“Russell Dwee? What's that?” asked Phil with a slightly accusatory tone, as though it were Ponty's fault that there was something called the Russell L. Dwee Awards.

“Russell L. Dwee? Grain magnate. Founded Pulstrom Mills. He was a great lover of literature, so he started the Dwee Awards.”

“And that's where you met Bromstad?” asked Beater, leaning toward Ponty.

“Well, had a bit of a contretemps, yes.”

“Right,” Beater confirmed. “And what is that?”

“An embarrassing moment. A little tiff, actually.” They
stared at him. “Things went badly. I was forced to give him a wedgie.”

There followed a stunned silence.

“My reasons were sound. He threw a dinner roll at my friend and refused to apologize.”

“Gus Bromstad did that?” said Sags. “The Dogwood guy? I can't believe it. He's all—what do you call it?—homespun and stuff.”

“You sure it didn't slip out of his hand?” asked Beater.

“He was four tables away,” said Ponty. “I went over and demanded an apology, he got lippy and then pushed me, so I wrestled him to the ground and, you know . . .”

“Gave him a wedgie,” said Sags helpfully.

“Exactly.”

“Why a wedgie? That seems a little . . . well, unconventional, don't you think?” asked Beater.

“I guess it's a primal response. Growing up, I was always the smallest one in my class, I had to defend myself, and I found the best way to do that was to take away the perceived power of my attackers. A wedgie does that—and safely, I might add. I don't know, it seemed the right thing at the time. Almost seems kind of silly now. Didn't really help my career all that much either. Word gets around, you know.” Ponty faded into a reverie.

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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