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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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CHAPTER 5

H
ere's your time card. Do you know how to work these?” asked Ponty's trainer, Suzanne.

“You push it into the slot, right?”

“Right. This end first. You take and push it into the slot like this.” She pushed a dummy card into the slot. “Just like that. Why don't you take and grab this card and go ahead and try it?”

Pontius took the dummy card from her, pushed it into the slot, and at that moment in his life achieved an unsurpassable, almost transcendent new low.

“Let's go get you a uniform.”

The official Medieval Burger hat troubled Ponty a great deal. Six inches tall, constructed of some sort of synthetic mesh, puffy foam, and high-impact plastic, it was the first hat he'd ever worn to feature a battlement—or any kind of defensive structure, for that matter. Besides feeling that they were wholly incompatible with one's inalienable right to dignity, Ponty simply could not believe that colorful hats were an effective tool for selling lunch items. More than that, he had strong reservations about the whole medieval theme. One didn't have to be an
expert in European history—and Ponty wasn't—to know that medieval sanitary conditions were nothing to be admired or emulated. Sewage was disposed of openly, ditches flowed with filth, people relieved themselves out of windows, and there were few clean water sources. Plus, there were no such things as hamburgers, let alone Knave Burger Meal Combos. Still, his position there kept the wolves from the door, so he put his head down and did his job.

He worked efficiently and stayed to himself, taking extra shifts when they were offered and squirreling away as much money as he could. He stitched a terry headband into the inside of his hat to prevent itching and chafing. If it was slowly eroding his soul to have to fill the drawbridge-shaped ketchup dispensers or wipe down the trompe l'oeil house depicting ancient masonry, he ignored it as best he was able.

If not for his singular purpose of making a living, Ponty knew he would be lost. Where was he going with his life? Had
Death Rat
been some strange cul-de-sac along the road to his inevitable ruin? Would he spin out his golden years like Macbeth, his way of life fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf? Honor, love, obedience, troops of friends—should he expect to have none of these? Would he die alone in his shabby little room (assuming Sags was out when he passed), a tall foam novelty hat on his head, an unpublished rat novel tucked pathetically in his desk drawer? He had now fulfilled what he believed were his brother's expectations by failing.

A month into his ignominious tenure at Medieval Burger, he was frying taco salad baskets and, to his further disgrace, doing an excellent job of it, when Sheila, one of the very few front-of-house workers who would talk to him, passed behind and said in a conspiratorial sotto voce, “Check out the new stiff.”

Suzanne was at a register, and though Ponty could not make out her words over the din of the exhaust fans and the spattering grease, he presumed she was brusquely and condescendingly issuing instructions. This was not unusual at all. What
was
strange was that she was dispensing her tutelage to a very large, virile man, the type who, at least in Ponty's prejudicial view, steered clear not only of preparing Medieval Burger's fare but of eating it or even setting foot in one of their restaurants. What with his cotton/poly mock-peasant tunic and ridiculous headgear, he looked even more out of place than Ponty did. At six foot five, he was the tallest person in the place by a fair amount, and the battlements on his hat were raised to an impressive height. He appeared to be in his early thirties and had a long, thin face, a muscular build, and very serious eyes that seemed to slightly intimidate even Suzanne. His hair was jet-black, and though it was obvious he had recently shaved, his slight growth of beard was as dark and apparent as if he had rubbed it on using charred cork.

Throughout his shift Ponty stole glances at the new guy as he learned about portioning, grease traps, and filling out time cards. For a moment Ponty felt guiltily pleased that someone besides himself had run his life aground to the point that he would end up here. But the feeling was short-lived and unsatisfying and made him feel ashamed.

It was several days later till Ponty saw the man again. They were working a closing shift, but he was front of house and Ponty was back, so they had no occasion to speak. Ponty was doing his closing duties and had inventoried prepackaged sauces, completed a line cleaning, filtered and replaced the frying medium, and was just stripping off his apron when he heard a resonant voice directly over his left shoulder.

“I know you,” it said.

Ponty turned to see the man, smiling down on him from underneath his hat. “You're Pontius Feeb,” he said.

“I know, yes,” said Ponty, trying to be agreeable.

“‘We must consider John Tyler one of our most important presidents, one who should be lauded as much for his administration of The Webster-Ashburton Treaty as he should be upbraided for his annexation of Texas.'”

“Okay. Thanks,” said Ponty, nodding, completely mystified as to why the man was offering him such an odd phrase.

“No, no. That's yours, from
And Tyler, Too: In the Shadow of Harrison
. I used it as the opening line of a paper I wrote on Tyler when I was in college.”

The panic disappeared from Ponty's face. “Ooooh. I'm sorry, I didn't recognize it. It's been so long.”

“Yeah, sorry. My fault. It's still fresh with me because it's the only thing I did in college that I got a B on.”

“Oh. I hope it wasn't because of me.”

“Oh, no, it was—but that's a good thing. The rest of my grades were all Cs and Ds. Jack Ryback,” he said, putting out his hand.

Ponty shook it and was acutely aware that as cold and fishy as his hand was, Jack's was strong, solid, and free of any hint of clamminess. “Ponty Feeb.”

“Can I buy you a beer?”

“Yes, thank you. But I'm afraid I won't be able to reciprocate till Friday, when I get my check,” said Ponty.

Ensconced in a booth at the Point After Bar, a microbrewery and sports bar a few doors down from the Medieval Burger, Belgian ale in hand, Jack Ryback elaborated.

“Yup, that's why I recognized you. I lived with your book
for a couple of weeks at least, so your face was always staring back at me from my desk.”

“All I can do is apologize.”

Jack laughed. “No, really, you saved me. I hope you don't mind, but I took bits of it for my paper that I left unattributed.”

“Ah, what author doesn't cadge a bit here and there?”

“Really, quite large passages, to tell you the truth.”

“Hm. Well, doesn't matter.” Ponty took a sip. “How many words, about?”

“Oh, man, I don't remember word counts anymore. A lot.”

“Hundreds? Thousands?”

“How many words on a page usually?”

“Normal formatting, say, three hundred.”

“Okay.” Jack thought for a moment. “Fifteen thousand, or so,” he said, casting his eyes down.

Ponty aspirated a small amount of Hefeweizen and expelled it quickly, forcing it into his sinuses. He wiped his nose with a beverage napkin. “Well, I suppose it doesn't matter. But weren't you worried your professor might have recognized my writing?”

“No. When I found it in the library, it had never been checked out.” He noticed Ponty's hurt look. “Sorry.”

“No, no. It's all right. That was never one of my bigger hits. You probably doubled its audience.” They sat without speaking for a moment. “So how do you like Medieval Burger?” Ponty asked, realizing at once that it was wholly inconceivable that a human being would harbor pleasant thoughts about Medieval Burger.

“It's great. I think it's going to be a lot of fun,” Jack lied, in the event that his new acquaintance had some unknown head injury that caused him to enjoy his hours behind the counter.

“Have you always wanted to do something like that?” Ponty asked, hoping his voice sounded light and inquisitive.

“You know, I never did see myself working in the foodservice industry,” said Jack, while at the same time searching Ponty's face yet again to see if he was being made fun of. It didn't look that way, so he continued, “But heck, it could be good for me, and if I can get a decent schedule, I can keep plugging away with my acting career.”

Ponty was hugely relieved that a new topic had been introduced, and he leaped on it a bit too enthusiastically.

“Wow. You're an actor, huh? Would I have seen you in anything?”

“Well, that's hard to know. I just finished a run of
Strindberg's Wallet
at the Bleeding Vein Theater.”

“I didn't get to that one. I think I was working. . . .” Ponty trailed off a bit on the last few words and conveniently took a sip of beer.

“Before that I did
Oh, for a Dram of Hemlock
, also with Bleeding Vein.” Jack started peeling strips of soggy blue label off his bottle of ale.

“I think I heard of that one,” Ponty said weakly, before quickly asking, “Say, where is the Bleeding Vein Theater again?”

“Oh, it's not an actual place. It's a cooperative of artists run by two women who are really committed to doing works by newer, weirder playwrights. The hemlock play was put up at My Foot Theater, down by the old grain-storage mill.” Ponty nodded as if he drove by it every morning, even though he hadn't the foggiest notion of where it might be. “And
Strindberg's Wallet
we did in the subbasement of the H. Biddle Building
in the warehouse district. I do that stuff because I love it, but I was making my living doing commercial work, until that dried up on me.”

“Why is that, if you don't mind me asking?”

“Well, the whole business kind of shifted, so that now you really need to be kind of scrawny and, well, I call it ‘heroin-y,' if you know what I mean?”

“Oh, right. I see a lot of those pale guys with the dead eyes and the undernourished little beards. They're the thing now, aren't they?”

“Yup. In the current climate, if you're emaciated from substance abuse, you can write your own ticket. Me, I'd be lucky to get catalog work posing in canvas coveralls or thermal underwear holding a cup of coffee.”

“Well, you've got the stage acting,” said Ponty to bolster him.

“There were three people at the opening performance of
Strindberg's Wallet
. The rest of the run saw considerably lighter houses.” He seemed to rouse himself from his self-pity. “What about you? How long have you been with Medieval Burger?”

“It seems like I started in about the year 1050, but actually it's just been a few weeks. You see, I got fired, then ran over a cop and got kicked out of my house.”

Jack considered this for a moment. “Hey, it happens,” he said.

The pair finished their beers and parted, Jack to his car and Ponty to catch the 17B bus over by the Tom Thumb convenience store.

As Ponty walked into his house, Scotty handed him the phone.

“It's your brother,” he said.

“What?” Ponty whispered, pushing the phone back at him. “Tell him I'm not here.”

“I already told him you were. You should talk to him, 'cause I forgot to tell you he called about a week ago. And a couple times after that. But I forgot to tell you, sorry.”

Ponty handled the phone as though it were a small asp. Ponty was fond of that. He was a rock of a human being, confident where Ponty was unsure, successful where Ponty was not, and he had a wonderful family that he loved, while Ponty had college roommates.

“Hey, little Feeb,” he said.

“Hey, big Feeb. What's going on with you?”

“How do you mean?”

“I got a change-of-address card from you, no explanation. I called your work number, but it was disconnected. I had to do a search for your phone number, and then you don't call a brother back when I leave messages for you. Who are those people who answer when I call?”

“That was Scotty.”

Scotty called over his shoulder from where he was now sitting in the living room watching television. “Phil took some of those messages, I think.”

“And Phil, too.”

“Who are these guys?”

“They're my roommates.”

“Roommates? What happened to you? You didn't fall, did you? Are you hurt? You need me to wire you some money?”

“No,” he said with some effort, trying simultaneously to wad up a piece of message paper to throw at Scotty. “No, I'm—I'm
fine. Mrs. Parsons got a little confused and kicked me out. I think that place had some weird mold spores anyway. And as far as work . . . well, my number isn't, um, active anymore,” he said and launched a piece of paper at the back of Scotty's head.

“Why don't I come there this week? You can come back to Tucson with me, we'll get you a job down at the store? Nothing too taxing. I know you got health problems.”

“I don't have health problems. I'm as sound as a horse. Thad, no, no.” Scotty brushed at the back of his head, so Ponty wadded and launched another piece of paper.

“Sure you're okay?”

“Yes. Yes. How are you? How's Melissa and the kids?”

“They're fine. They miss you. Say, I'm worried with you on your own. Are you eating?”

“Why in the world would I stop eating, Thad? I like eating. It comes easily to me.”

Ponty now had Scotty's attention. He quickly scribbled on a sheet of paper and flashed it at him.

“What are you doing?” his brother asked.

“What? Oh, working. Writing, you know.”

“What are you doing right now? Your breathing sounds constricted.”

“I'm just . . . I'm trying to get a centipede.”

“Your place has bugs?”

Scotty came close and read the message, then nodded in understanding.

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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