We hope you enjoy this excerpt from The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten, new from Night Shade Books.
Day One: Not Too Good A Day, Really, Overall
1. Fish Icing
The winter the zombies came to Lake Woebegotten (and everywhere else on the planet, too, of course, but let’s not overreach here, knowing your limitations is one of the first steps towards having a life that’s not as miserable as it might be otherwise), Gunther Montcrief woke up in the deepest darkest coldest part of the night with a powerful need to urinate, and sat up in his old fish shack with the cracks in the walls stuffed with the crumpled pages from phone books while the wind whistled through the holes he’d missed and his little stove radiated weak heat and the cot springs creaked under him, and he thought about how terrible it was to get old, except being old and alive was better than all the alternatives, which were pretty grim if you dwelled on them, so better if you didn’t.
Could be worse, after all, could be worse. Still, the time was he could drink like a fish or a sailor and go to bed and sleep straight through the night and get up in the morning and let loose with a stream that sounded like a roaring river as it hit the toilet bowl and then go out to the bar and do it all over again, but since he hit sixty or so he’d developed what the fellas down at the Backtrack Bar called a girlie bladder and it seemed like he had to pee about fifteen minutes after every time he took in a tablespoon of liquid. He thought about just picking a corner of the shack to let fly, but since he barely had room to turn around in here, it didn’t seem like a good idea to make it any smellier than it already was, and the smell of piss had a way of cutting right through the smells of wood smoke and fish and old sweaty boots and moist coats and making its presence known. He also considered taking a slug from the nice big bottle of bourbon he had tucked in cozy next to his cot, but the thought of pouring even another drop into his bursting bladder was too horrible to contemplate, maybe even as bad as facing down a plate of lutefisk or trying to repair a foreign car where everything was in metric. So he pulled on his boots over his thick socks and wrapped his big blanket around his long underwear and opened the door to the shack and, yup, that was winter out there, the ice on the lake shining under the moon and starlight, but even though the end of his nose went numb right away it wasn’t as cold as the first time he went fishing with his father as a boy, the coldest winter on record hereabouts, when your ears would pretty much just turn to ice and snap right off as soon as you poked your head outside.
Gunther crunched a couple of steps away from the door, the top layer of snow turned into a hard shell of ice, and pulled open the flap of his long underwear, an ice wind taking that opportunity to swoop in and freeze his nethers. He went ahead and did his business, steam rising up from the snow, and thought about the story his father used to tell about his old friend Johnny who went outside to pee one night and got caught in a sudden cold snap, and they found him the next morning frozen through-and-through like an ice cube, his urine frozen too in mid-stream still attached to him, so he looked like a statue or maybe more like an obscene kind of sculptural fountain like they might have in San Francisco, which Gunther’s father always without fail called SanSodom FranciscoGomorrah, though he got a wistful faraway look too when he talked about the times he’d been on leave there during the war, as if for a den of relentless iniquity it hadn’t been so bad.
It wasn’t that cold tonight, not even so cold that your piss froze partway down and hit the ice at your feet with a tinkle, but it was cold enough. Gunther started to put himself away and hotfoot it back to the relative coziness of his little wooden shack on the shore when the sky overhead lit up brighter than noontime, and he shaded his eyes and tilted back his head and there in the great black sky was the biggest fireball he’d ever seen, and he’d seen the every-hundred-fifty-years return of the Whimsy-McKennit comet. This was a streaking meteor that was either the size of a house and up very close or the size of a Midwestern state and very far away, and Gunther felt a dark thrill of satisfaction that the world wouldn’t survive him after all, that it didn’t much matter if he was the last of the Montcriefs, since this was the dinosaur-killer-sized space rock Hollywood had been trying to scare people with for the last bunch of years. Gunther wondered if it would be earthquakes or tsunamis or volcanoes and then wondered if the people in Lake Woebegotten, deep in central Minnesota away from the dangerous coastlines, would even notice the end of the world, apart from the ones who’d lose their satellite TV reception and their ability to order shoes off the internet. Maybe there’d be killer tornadoes as tall as skyscrapers. It was a thought—
But then the meteor exploded silently into dust, pretty much, tiny cinders no bigger than fireflies drifting down, and off on the distant horizon he could see faint glows, and he wondered if this was only one of a bunch of falling meteors, like the giant flaming rock he’d seen above him was just itself a tiny fragment of something much larger, chopped into seemingly infinite pieces like slivers of a holiday fruitcake when you finally couldn’t put off eating it anymore and had to go ahead and be polite. With that big light gone Gunther couldn’t see much of anything, his night vision blown, so he stood there in the snow and thought about the end of the world, which maybe wasn’t tonight after all, but which anybody with any sense had to realize was long overdue. He went shuffling back toward his shack and heard a strange thumping, and paused in the doorway, but it was too cold for caution and he was letting all the heat out. He pulled the door to behind him and waited a minute for his eyes to get adjusted to the dim and saw his big red-and-white cooler shaking and shuddering and twitching like one of those Mexican jumping beans that had a worm inside and that you really shouldn’t eat, as he’d learned as a boy to his dismay.
He went over to the cooler, wondering if maybe a raccoon had somehow gotten in to go after his walleye catch and then been trapped inside, which seemed unlikely, but then most everything did when you thought about it. Gunther popped open the latch and lifted the lid and a dead walleye flopped up over the edge of the cooler and Gunther sat down on his ass hard and it hurt and he started laughing and then just as suddenly he stopped. Turning on his little battery-powered lantern he could see the four good-sized walleye he’d caught, but hadn’t yet cleaned, jumping and flapping and jerking around, their ugly mouths full of little sharp teeth working furiously. Looked like they were trying to eat each other and making some good progress, with chunks of scale and flesh missing out of most of them. Gunther had never known fish to come back to life several hours after death and turn to cannibalism but then he wasn’t some kind of expert, was he, and since it was happening, that meant it was just something that sometimes happened. Probably had to do with pollution. He grabbed one walleye by the tail and flopped it down on the floor of the shack, where it twitched and twisted and snapped at him until he put his boot down on its side and held it still. After some awkward rummaging around and leaning as far as he could without letting his foot up he found his hatchet and squatted down and aimed a chop just behind the fish’s head, but the angle was awkward and it took a few blows before the head was entirely separated. Head removal stopped most things from doing much of anything, in his experience, but it didn’t seem to make much difference to this walleye. The body stopped twitching but the mouth kept opening and closing even though anything it ate now would just fall right out the back of its head. Gunther grunted and thought about how chickens run around with their heads cut off and how cockroaches can get by just fine without their heads and thought this must be something similar, and even though he’d never seen the like before, well so what, there was nothing new under the sun and he wasn’t so full of himself that he thought he’d seen everything.
He took off the heads of the rest of the fish until all four heads were on the floor together snapping at each other, then he sighed and scooped them up in the blade of his shovel and kicked open the door and ran with the shovel full of heads out in front him like he was in a spoon-and-egg race with a shovel instead of a spoon and fish heads instead of an egg until he reached the hole he’d dug for fishing earlier, which was slushed-over and on its way to being frozen again. He dumped the fish heads in the depression and banged down the shovel a few times until he made a hole and then pushed the heads in and watched them sink.
Back in his shack, warmed up with a big gulp of bourbon even though he knew it would send him back to pee again before first light, he curled up in his blanket and thought about falling stars and when he dreamed, he dreamed of fish heads sinking forever down in dark water, mouths opening and closing, opening and closing, chewing up everything they passed, which it seemed to him in his dream was pretty much everything there was in the world.
2. Zombie Walk
Ingvar Knudsen and Otto Tofte were sipping coffee at the counter in Cafe Lo (the sign out front read Cafe Loquacious, but if you went ahead and said all that you were just putting on airs, and might as well go around wearing Italian leather shoes and driving a red convertible car and thinking you were better than everybody else). They were both looking up at the new flat-screen TV above the counter, which was a controversial addition to the diner. There was a television mounted on the wall in Backtrack Bar where you could watch Twins games and the like, and that seemed right and proper, and even if it was an old screen that gave an orange tint to everything, well who cared, baseball was still baseball even if the ball was orange. Baseball belonged in a bar just as much as beer and whiskey and pickled eggs and holding your nose when you went into the bathroom. But at a diner it seemed like you ought to be alone with your thoughts along with your coffee and maybe a newspaper spread out on the counter, so there was a bit of grumbling when the owner’s granddaughter Julie Olafson put in a new shiny flat-screen TV when she moved back home after years away and took over after the old man had a stroke, poor fella, and him so hale and hearty up until then. Julie compromised by keeping the sound turned down, but the picture on, and just now the TV was showing a shaky handheld camera view of lurching bloody men and women staggering slowly down a city street, arms outstretched. One passed close by the camera and he had one eye hanging out of his head like a yo-yo at the end of a string.
Otto grunted. “What’s all that then.”
“That’s something,” Ingvar said. “Could be for Hallowe’en, you think.”
“Could be,” Otto allowed. “Closer to Christmas now, though.”
“What it is, I bet,” Otto said. “Is one of those zombie walks.”
Ingvar looked into his coffee cup for a long time. “What’s that all about then?”
“My nephew Rufus, you know Glenda’s boy?”
“Used to play first base for the Martens at the high school, had a good arm. Got himself a scholarship, that right?”
“Up to a college in the cities,” Otto said. “Fell in with a wrong crowd. Got a tattoo of a spiderweb on his neck.”
Ingvar grunted. “Not something you see every day.”
“Broke his mother’s heart. He did one of those zombie walks. Everybody dresses up like they’re dead, with make-up and all, and go in a big crowd down the street, talking about brains and such. Like a parade.”
“So that’s fun then. Never see something like that in a parade here.”
“I guess,” Otto said. “Except for the Pretty Good Brotherhood of Cnut. They lurch along pretty slow in the fourth of July parade.”
“They have those swords though. And the Viking helmets with the horns.”
“They say it takes all kinds, but I don’t know.” Otto took a sip of coffee and glanced back at the screen. The zombies were gone, and a couple of shiny-haired newspeople were talking with serious looks on their faces, and there was some kind of text crawling across the bottom of the screen, but Otto couldn’t make it out because he’d left his glasses in the truck. He was only forty-two and never needed glasses before and while he’d let Barbara convince him to wear them for driving after he nearly ran down the Munck boy he wasn’t about to go around in public, not with those frames Barbara picked out. They were blue and kinda square-looking. Who did she think he was, some kind of rock and roll star?
The screen switched to some kind of star map and Otto figured they were talking about the big meteor shower last night. The sky lit up enough to wake him but not Barbara, who could probably sleep through the end times and the Rapture and a four-piece swing band set up right in her nightstand, because who could hear anything over her snoring anyway? Otto had gone to the window but by then the big light was gone and it was just a bunch of shooting stars, pretty enough but what it came down to was rocks falling out the sky and that wasn’t much good to anybody so he went back to bed.
Julie came in from the back and topped up their coffee. She was a pretty girl in her early thirties with ice-blue eyes and an aggressive chest that she pointed at you to make you tip more than was healthy or necessary, and Otto tried not to notice how tight her waitress uniform was, though he half-thought it was on purpose. “Heard on the radio this morning about some kind of riot in the Cities,” she said.
“Ish,” Ingvar said. He was seventy and looked a hundred, and even though he wore patched bib overalls everybody knew he was sitting pretty, having turned his already-successful family farm into an even more lucrative sand and gravel quarry. Otto didn’t think it was right shipping off so much of the town’s land, since land wasn’t something you could get back, but Ingvar’d bought a new scoreboard for the high school baseball team so you couldn’t say he wasn’t generous, though he could’ve tried a little harder to be anonymous about it. Just asking for the gift to be anonymous wasn’t enough. Word got around. Made people uncomfortable to be around him, since you were afraid he might be afraid you might ask him for money, as if you would, that’d be the day.
“Everybody’s always upset about something.” Otto sipped the coffee, which wasn’t as good as in the days when Julie’s grandfather did the brewing, but it was hot, and since winter was just getting underway hot was the important thing. “Probably too many people trying to get a talking muppet doll for their kids, that kind of thing, people forget the true meaning of the holidays.”
“It’ll blow over soon, whatever it is,” Julie said. “Too cold to be out on the street making a fuss anyway.”
“Yep.” Ingvar hunched a little more over his coffee as if to warm himself, probably thinking of that big, cold, empty farmhouse of his out on the edge of the prairie, his children moved away, wife dead these fifteen years, and all his farmland transformed into pretty much a great big hole in the ground where there used to be gravel and where there was, now, just empty space and some iced-up black water. Otto was a farm equipment salesman, not a farmer himself, but he knew it took a special kind of used-up old and tired to turn your back on the land that had sustained your family for generations and let a company come in and rip the land up to spread on driveways and road projects. Ingvar might have gotten a little richer out of the deal but Otto wondered what he did with himself all day now.
The bell over the door jingled, and Otto hunched instinctively against the blast of winter cold that came bursting into the diner. He wasn’t about to spin around on his stool to see who’d come in, but the look on Julie’s face was enough to make him twist a little and glance back, casually, as if just checking to see what the weather was doing.
His nephew Rufus stood in the doorway, winter coat unzipped and spilling feathers from a long tear in the sleeve, shirt torn half off, hair and eyes wild. Nobody said anything, until finally Julie said, “Get you something?”
“I can’t believe you’re just sitting here,” Rufus said in that tone he had, the one that broke his poor mother’s heart, like everybody around him was dumb as a bunch of chickens and he couldn’t bear their company. “Haven’t you—haven’t you watched the news?”
“Heard there was a commotion in the cities,” Otto said. “Some kinda riot.” He paused. “You get caught up in that?”
Rufus laughed, shook his head, and took a stool on the other side of Ingvar, who was still contemplating his coffee. “You mean you don’t know? I guess the media’s trying to cover it up, or else they don’t believe it…” He shook his head. “I drove here as fast as I could once I got away, to make sure you and mom and everybody was okay, but I should have known, in this town, who would even notice if the dead started walking? You saw a zombie you’d probably just ask him what kind of gas mileage he got in his hearse.”
Ingvar turned his head slowly to Rufus. “Zombies, huh? Your uncle was telling us about them. People dress up funny and act dead.”
“I’m talking about people who are dead acting like they’re alive,” Rufus said. “My girl—” He shot a glance at Otto. “A friend of mine, she’s a junior, studying social work, she’s been volunteering at the hospital in the hospice unit, and she told me it started down in the morgues, the—you know, the cadavers—they started getting up off the tables and…” He shook his head. “Attacking people. Killing people. And then the people they killed got up and started killing other people. My friend went into the hospital first thing this morning and said it was all screaming and craziness, and she saw a man she knew, who’d died of cancer just the day before, come running down the hallway as fast as a dog chasing a car. Tried to take a bite out of her, but he didn’t have any teeth.” Rufus covered his eyes and started laughing. “A zombie with no teeth, can you believe that? Like he might gum you to death? So she ran away and there were police running around and shooting and yelling and…”
He uncovered his eyes. “So she came to see me. Campus was normal, no dead people, I guess the skeletons in biology lab don’t count, maybe you have to have some muscles left to get up again, I don’t know. I told her I’d bring her here, where it was safe, but we had to stop for gas right off the interstate, and she went to pee, and she didn’t come back, and when I went looking for her there was blood coming out from under the bathroom door and something inside that sounded like chewing. I thought maybe I could save her, so I pulled the door open, and there was a mechanic in greasy overalls with a big dent in his head and blood all over him and Winnie, she—my friend—she was trying to stand up on a leg that looked like a shark took a bite out of it and her eyes were all glassy and they were both reaching for me.” He plucked at his coat. “Almost got me. But I made it to my car, and drove here as fast as I could, and…” Another laugh. “You’re just sitting here drinking coffee. The dead have risen from their graves to kill the living, just like in the movies, and you’re just sitting here drinking coffee.”
“Well,” Ingvar said after a moment’s contemplation. “That sure is different. A guy could get pretty worked up about something like that.”
3. Rapture Ready
Pastor Daniel Inkfist sat at his desk with his feet up on a pulled-out drawer saying “Hmm” and “You don’t say” and “Don’t that beat all” and other sorts of things to fill the gasps when his friend Pastor Cantor had to take a breath in the midst of yelling. Eddie Cantor had always been excitable, ever since seminary, but “excitable” usually meant getting worked up about the Twin’s chances at the pennant or the sorry state of the offering plate these days or how short skirts were getting every summer, wasn’t it shameful, like to make a man lose his mind.
Only now Eddie was yelling about the End Times and the Rapture and other things that, generally speaking, Lutherans didn’t put much stock in, since if you actually sat down and looked at the Scripture there wasn’t much to support the idea of a time of tribulation and the Antichrist becoming president and legalizing gay marriage and marrying the Pope and carving 666s and swastikas and bar codes into people’s foreheads. Eddie had a Southern wife and Daniel supposed she’d been gradually filling him up with Pentecostal hellfire and brimstone over the years and, for whatever reason, it all came bubbling up today. Eddie usually called to talk sports and complain about the challenges of ministering to a flock in St. Paul and to wax nostalgic about their time in the seminary when they’d talked more about theology and the calling and wrestling with matters of faith and less about bake sales and choir robes and Christmas pageants. Now he was talking about the dead rising to smite the unbelievers.
“Now when you say the dead are rising,” Daniel finally said, “am I to take that as some kind of metaphor?”
“No, Daniel, you’re to take it as me saying that dead people are wandering the streets and attacking anyone they can reach and when people run away and slip on the ice and fall the dead people fall on them and start trying to eat them. And it’s not just people. I saw a run-over dog start dragging itself around even though it had a tire tread mark right across its belly, snapping at people. It’s the end times, Daniel! But there’s no Christ taking us into heaven! The Lord swore he’d never destroy the Earth with a flood again, and most people assumed that meant next time it would be fire, but it’s not fire, it’s just teeth!”
“Okay then,” Daniel said. “So you give Pearl my love then.”
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you.” Eddie’s voice had gone hoarse and quiet. “I’m locked in my office, afraid to come out, because we were having a memorial service here and the corpse sat up in the coffin and took a bite out of his great-granddaughter’s throat. I’m calling you up to warn you. For gosh, Daniel, don’t you have any dead people in Lake Woebegotten? Step on a cockroach or something and watch it come back to life if you don’t believe me!”
“A lotta guys in a situation like that might call the police,” Daniel said.
“You think I haven’t tried? The lines are jammed. You call 911 and you don’t even get a busy signal, you just get a drone. It started last night, did you see it, the shooting stars? I thought I might talk about it in my Christmas sermon in a couple of weeks, about how it reminded me of the star that heralded the birth of Christ, but I think it heralded the coming of the Antichrist, it… you… no time to… before it’s…”
“Eddie?” Daniel said, but the connection turned to fuzz and squeals and static. He sighed and dialed Eddie’s home number, hoping to catch Pearl and let her know her husband could use a visit right about now, and was maybe a mite under the weather, but he just got a recording saying all lines were busy.
After thinking for a while, Daniel went down to the church basement/rec room/storage area, checked to see that no one else was around, and slid aside the eye-wrenchingly painted backdrop from a never-to-be-repeated vacation bible school performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That revealed a concealed door that led to a corridor cut into the living rock, though he’d never really understood the term “living rock,” since rock was neither alive nor dead, and saying “living rock” seemed kind of animistic or even pagan, like something BigHorn Jim who lived in the woods and worshipped Odin might say, except he mostly said “By Thor’s Mighty Beard!” and similar exclamations. Daniel picked up the lantern from the floor of the corridor and lit it with a kitchen match, then slid the door shut behind him. He reached up and tugged the cord running along the low ceiling overhead, and though he couldn’t hear anything, he knew a bell would be ringing elsewhere.
Daniel walked down the corridor, marveling as always at the steady temperature of about 55 degrees, whether it was muggy summer or bleak winter up above. The floor was rough but mostly even, and though the walls got awfully close together at a few points, it was never so tight he had to turn sideways. No one knew when or why this tunnel had been carved, though there were plenty of theories bandied about by the few who knew of its existence, notably: secret interdenominational love affairs; ill-fated attempts at smuggling liquor; a guy getting bored halfway through digging out a basement and wandering off; and a well-meaning but unworldly minister deciding to take part in the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves despite Lake Woebegotten being too far north to be much use, but it was the thought that counted, anyway.
These days it was mostly just used as a shortcut to avoid going outside in the winter, though it had been useful for negotiating the peace during the Great Lutheran-Catholic Bake Sale War of 1979.
When Daniel reached the other end of the corridor, which opened out into a little stone room with a scrounged couch, a wobbly desk, and a couple of folding chairs, Father Edsel was already waiting for him. The priest was wearing four sweaters and an earflap hat. He’d been assigned to Lake Woebegotten from Galveston, Texas, twenty years before and had never gotten used to the weather. He was known to wear mittens well into spring, and if the parishioners hadn’t complained, he would have kept Our Lady of Eventual Tranquility “a balmy 85 degrees” year-round, and expected the flock to pay his heating bill.
“I suppose you’ve heard then,” Edsel said in that grizzled old-timey prospector voice of his.
Edsel sat at the desk, pulled open the drawer, and began laboriously laying out his preferred accoutrements of sin: a pipe, pouch of tobacco, and several small pipe-cleaning implements. “The dead are coming back to life. Hell unleashed on Earth. You didn’t hear? It’s all over the radio.”
By “the radio” Daniel assumed Edsel meant the online radio stations on his computer, because normal radio stations you could hear in Lake Woebegotten didn’t carry the kind of conspiracy theories Edsel thrived on: tales of reptilian overlords, the secret machinations of the Batrachian Illuminati (a branch of the Bavarian Illuminati populated solely by the immortal survivors of the lost city of Atlantis), consensual alien abductions, brainwashed sleeper agent Congressmen, and secret military units devoted to exploding the heads of mountain goats by will alone. If pressed, Edsel would admit that he didn’t believe in aliens or Atlanteans or reptoids, but he did believe in Satan, the Adversary, the Prince of the Morning, Big Red, Lucifer, Shaytan, the Lord of the Flies, the Father of Lies, Old Nick, Mr. Scratch, the Tempter, the Old Serpent, the Lord of this World, Old Hob, the Prince of the Powers of the Air and Darkness, Mephistopheles, the First of the Fallen, Mister Dis, Old Gooseberry, the Angel of the Pit, and the Author of Evil, AKA the Devil. All the workings of various conspiracies could be traced back to Satan, and everyone who saw aliens or reptile-men or Sasquatches or Mothmen was really seeing Satan and his minions.
The rumor was Edsel had even taken part in an exorcism, a real pea-souper, back in the days before the church frowned on such things.
Daniel was less sure about the existence of the devil, though Martin Luther, the namesake of the Lutheran church, had been unequivocal on the subject—he’d encountered the Devil frequently, often while sleeping or having a bowel movement, and found arguing with Satan no more remarkable than bickering with his wife, once going so far as to tell Satan to suck the shit out of his anus. (Early Lutherans were an earthy bunch.) Nevertheless, most Lutherans Daniel knew tended to be more worried about the price of seed corn and diesel fuel than the perils of direct Satanic influence, which, all in all, was the sensible position.
“I had a strange phone call from a colleague,” Daniel admitted. “Saying the dead were rising and attacking people. I thought I’d come to see if you’d heard anything odd from your contacts in the cities.”
“The archdiocese doesn’t even remember I’m out here. This parish doesn’t show up on any of the maps because the bishop from back when the organizational charts were drawn up hated the priest here. Ever since then Lake Woebegotten has been a kind of Siberia for priests. Though I fought for the placement, myself. I had too much meddling down in Texas, and it’s nice to be left alone.” Edsel filled his pipe. “As for the dead coming back to life, that’s easy enough to test. Come with me to see Mrs. Mormont. She’s not long for this world. The doctor just called and said I should come over when I have a moment to administer last rites, if it’s not too much trouble, maybe if her house is on my way to someplace I’m going already. I was just on my way out when you rang the bell.” The bell system had been installed during the Bake Sale War when the Catholic and Lutheran ministers had been unable to contact one another directly for fear of reprisal, and so they’d worked out a way to hold clandestine meetings in the tunnel that connected the two church basements. “If she wakes up with a hankering for brains, we’ll know the stories are true.”
“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to be at the deathbed of a woman of another faith. It might be seen as an attempt at… poaching, I guess.”
Father Edsel grunted and puffed his pipe, clouds of sweet-smelling smoke rising. Daniel had never smelled tobacco like Edsel smoked anywhere else, and he wondered sometimes if it was tobacco, but wasn’t prepared to address the question. “Widow Mormont hasn’t been conscious for days. I don’t think anyone’s too worried about a deathbed conversion. What do you say?”
“Well, I suppose I could ride along. I don’t think there’s anything to all this about the living dead, mind you, but if it would help set your mind at rest, I’ll come.”
“It’ll do you good to grapple with Satan,” Edsel said. “The soul’s like a muscle. You have to make it work to make it strong.”
4. The Sixth Commandment
olph, proprietor of Dolph’s Half Good Grocery (so called for its slogan, “It Isn’t Half Bad!”), stood out back on the loading dock and made cryptic hand gestures meant to guide the delivery truck driver in. Though the driver had done this every week for years, he still came in at a slant or scraped his bumper on the railing by the steps half the time, and today he was even unsteadier than usual. “Running late today!” Dolph called when the driver emerged with his clipboard, keeping his voice cheerful, though he was actually mad enough about the delay to eat lead and spit bullets.
“Sorry,” the driver said, handing over the clipboard and raising up the sliding door at the back of the truck. “Traffic like you wouldn’t believe on the freeway past the warehouse, some kind of pile-up, biggest I’ve ever seen.”
“Hope nobody was hurt.” Dolph ran his eyes across the inventory sheet on the clipboard while the driver began hauling boxes out and setting them on the loading dock, willing the man to move faster, faster, faster.
Instead the driver paused, looked Dolph in the eye, and shook his head once. “I saw at least five cars. Three of ’em upside down. There’s not a lot of traffic out there in the middle of the day, and the roads were fresh plowed, so I don’t know what happened. There were a couple of wreckers and an ambulance and three police cars off on the side, and somebody’d moved the cars out of the way, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.”
“Probably just inside the ambulance trying to get out of this cold,” Dolph said meaningfully, glancing up at the sky, which was the steel-gray of a dignified old patriarch’s hair.
“Could be,” the driver said, and went back to work double-time, passing boxes over to Dolph, who heaped them haphazardly on the dock. “I heard some funny stuff on the radio, though, apparently all heck’s breaking loose over in St. Paul, some kind of epidemic—”
“Yep, I heard something was going around,” Dolph said. “That’s winter for you. Cold and wet makes you sick.”
The driver paused again. “Well, I don’t know. Some folks say it’s viruses and bacteria and such that make you sick, not getting cold.” He put his hands up by his temples and waggled his gloved forefingers like antenna. “You know. Little bugs.”
“So that’s about all the boxes then.”
The driver looked into the empty back of the truck for a long time, as if maybe a box had eluded him, then nodded. “Yep.”
“Looks good to me,” Dolph said, handing back the clipboard with the signed delivery sheet. “Drive safe now. Stay warm.”
“You bet,” the driver said.
Dolph looked at the boxes piled there on the dock, thought about the time it would take to get them loaded on the dolly and the pallet jack and take them into the storeroom at the back of the grocery, looked at his watch, and raced for the front of the store. A quick glance up and down the aisles showed no customers—typical in this weather—and Clem, the high-school dropout stockboy/cashier/all-around-dogsbody with the lazy eye, was arranging cans of beans on the shelf according to some arcane system of his own devising, possibly relating to label color.
“You might wanna go over to the bank for some quarters,” Dolph said. “No big rush. I think you might be running low.” He hoped so. He’d taken just about all the change out of the register and hidden it in his office that morning.
“Oh, I guess so.” Clem nodded slowly. “You okay here by yourself?”
“I can manage. Why don’t you take a break and get a little lunch over at the Cafe while you’re out? Take your time, have a cup of coffee, maybe bring me back a ham and cheese if you think about it, no big deal though.”
“Sure thing.” Clem went about the painstaking business of finding his coat and scarf and gloves—one glove was over in the freezer section for some reason—and then paused at the door with a little wave before walking out.
Dolph loitered by the front door, and a moment later, Eileen Munson came in carrying a purse as big as a mail bag, looking shapeless in her oversized brown coat, though he knew the shape underneath pretty well by this time.
“Some guys wouldn’t keep a gal waiting like that,” she said, and Dolph grunted, shut the door, turned the lock, and hung up the little sign that said “Back in fifteen minutes.” Eileen was already gone, vanished into his office, and Dolph went in after her, excitement rising as it always did on Eileen’s shopping day. A lot of the town’s women drove half an hour to the super Wal-Mart over in Dodgewood to do their shopping lately, but Eileen was his most reliable customer.
When Dolph stepped into his cluttered office, Eileen was leaning on the edge of his desk, her clothes in a neat pile on top of the battered filing cabinet, dressed only in some of the most complicated underwear Dolph had ever seen—there were stockings and garters and a sort of bustier thing that didn’t quite cover her bosoms and a little lace choker thing around her neck and black high-heeled shoes with little feathery puffs on top and lacy ribboned skimpy underwear that didn’t leave much to the imagination, which was okay though, because Dolph had never had much of an imagination anyway.
“You like it?” Eileen said, with that little half-smile she always had when she was showing off something new. “Got it off the internet.”
“It’s a heckuva deal if you ask me,” Dolph said, sweeping the files off his couch while simultaneously dropping his pants.
“You old sweet talker,” she said, and he pulled her over to him.
Fifteen minutes wasn’t ever long enough, but then again, it did get the job done.
After they were finished and dressed again and sitting on the couch instead of doing other things, Dolph poured her a cup of coffee from the thermos on his desk and had one for himself, and looked at her silently for a while. Eileen was just a hair past forty, both the kids she’d had recently off to college, husband obsessed with restoring the vintage Mustang in his garage (though you’d think he’d get sick of cars, what with running a dealership all day), and she’d been visiting Dolph for the past six months or so, every week, usually wearing something new. She might not be one of those magazine fashion models or Girls Gone Wild like you saw on the late night TV, but she had a sweet pretty face and nice full hips and a good set of curves on her. He said, “How your husband can spend all his time tinkering in the garage when he’s got you in the house, I don’t know.”
She sipped her coffee demurely, which always impressed him, since she wasn’t so demure, other times. “He hasn’t touched me in months, and when he does, he doesn’t like the lights on. He’s ashamed of his belly, I think, like I expect him to look the same as he did when he was playing high school football, like time doesn’t march on over all of us.” She shrugged. “This is more fun. Like playing dress up. Sure gives me something to look forward to every week, better than the Lutheran Women’s Circle. But how do you feel about it? You know—adultery?”
“Technically speaking I don’t believe it’s adultery for me. I’m not married, after all. I’m committing some other kind of sin, no doubt, but not that one.”
Eileen shook her head. “I like to know what I’m up to. I looked it up. Minnesota law says, ‘when a married woman has sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband, whether married or not, both are guilty of adultery.’ Both. That’s you too. Burns me up that it doesn’t say anything about a husband doing it though. So as long at Brent sleeps with some unmarried girl, that’s okay?” She paused. “Not that I think he would. He’s only got eyes for that Mustang he’s been rebuilding.”
Dolph shifted a little on the couch. He was an adulterer? He’d always figured, since he wasn’t actually breaking any vows, he was in the clear, and the bulk of the burden of sin was sitting squarely on Eileen. “You should probably do your shopping,” he said. “Clem’ll be back soon, don’t want him to suspect anything.”
Eileen rolled her eyes. “That boy’s dim, just like his whole family. We could do the naked watusi in the produce section and he wouldn’t figure anything out. But I do need to pick up a few things.” She leaned over, pecked his cheek, and gave his crotch a friendly squeeze, making him jump. He waited a few moments for things in his loin area to subside before rising himself, and found her filling a basket from his tiny fancy-food half-shelf, with the stuffed grape leaves and truffle-infused olive oil and Belgian chocolates and other such things that he’d finally started carrying at the insistence of some of the summer people. Eileen was the only local who ever bought them, and she didn’t buy them, exactly, since their arrangement had evolved to the point where she got to walk out the door with two big free grocery sacks full of whatever she could carry after one of their rendezvous (which he pronounced “randy-voos” for the comical value), something that struck Dolph as a little too close to paying for a lady’s affection, though Eileen saw it differently: “Most guys would buy a gal dinner first. You just buy dinner after. It’s like you get to eat your dessert first. Isn’t that every little boy’s dream?”
Dolph went to the door to take down the “Back in fifteen minutes sign,” and that’s when he saw the dog trying to eat Clem.
Clem didn’t look that worried yet—the dog was trying to bite his ankle, and Clem was shaking his leg like he was trying to fling a glob of manure off his heel, trying not to spill the paper cups or diner to-go sack he held in his hand, the result looking like a peculiar sort of spastic modern dance, or else a dance not modern at all, but old: like a dance by St. Vitus, maybe, or else the tarantella. It wasn’t a very big dog, looked like old man Levitt’s miniature pinscher, though something had gone funny with its back legs, and they were all twisted up.
“That poor dog,” Eileen said, standing with him by the doorway. “What’s wrong with it?”
Dolph shrugged, pushed open the door, cleared his throat, and said, “Need a hand there?”
“No, I wouldn’t put you to any trouble.” Clem was dragging his leg now, with the dog’s jaws fastened firmly around his pants and, judging by the pained expression on Clem’s face, maybe some of the meat underneath.
“No trouble. I could at least take that bag from you.”
“That’s okay, I’ve got it.”
“I’m happy to,” Dolph said. “I’m already outside.” He didn’t want to stay out here much longer without his coat, either, but Clem was a good Lake Woebegotten Lutheran boy, which meant he’d refuse any offer to help at least twice, maybe three times, though since he had a dog biting him, Dolph was hoping he’d settle for the bare minimum of two.
“I suppose if you’ve got a hand free,” Clem said, and Dolph strode over and took the lunch bag and the beverages from him, and then they both stood looking down at the dog, which looked like its back half had been run over by a car, which might explain why it was so cantankerous, but didn’t explain why it wasn’t in a ditch licking its wounds and gradually freezing to death. Its jaws were working methodically, though it was trying to chew through a layer of denim and a chunk of boot leather and probably thick socks under that. Dolph didn’t speculate on the possibility of long underwear. That was Clem’s business.
“Guess I should just reach down and pull it off me.” Clem didn’t sound excited about the prospect. He bent, grasped the dog’s upper and lower jaws, and grunted. “He’s on there good.” With much prying he got the jaws open and flung the min-pin, whose name was Alta for some reason, toward a convenient snowbank. Alta landed on his ruined back legs, but didn’t howl or growl or make a sound, just came crawling forward again, relentless, jaws working, eyes oddly fogged-over.
“Reckon it’s rabid?” Clem asked.
“I don’t know. Usually you see some frothing and such with rabies.” Dolph shook his head.
“Fella at the diner was talking about zombies,” Clem said. “Could be a zombie dog.”
Dolph didn’t say anything for a long moment. Zombies. He was willing to bet Clem still believed in the tooth fairy, but zombies were a stretch even for him. “It could be rabies I guess,” Dolph said. “If it weighed more than eight or nine pounds it’d be scary. We should call old man Levitt, let him know.”
“You should just put it out of its misery.” Eileen joined them on the sidewalk, and with her cheeks rosy from the cold, Dolph thought she looked as pretty as Helen of Troy, and judging from the bulging grocery sacks in her arms, she was fresh from looting Sparta.
“Hate to put down another man’s dog. But maybe…” Dolph went inside for a moment and came back with a red plastic grocery basket and a 16-pound frozen turkey. He plopped the basket upside-down over Alta and then put the turkey on top. The basket thumped and rattled a bit, but didn’t shift too much under the dog’s attempts to escape. “There. All secure. Go on in and call Mr. Levitt, Clem.”
Clem nodded and limped toward the door. Probably oughta get that ankle of his checked out, at least splash some alcohol on it. Dolph would have to remind him. It was entirely possible that Clem might be careless and get an infection and lose his foot from something as simple as a dog bite. His daddy had lost three toes and an ear the time he fell asleep on the porch when he was supposed to be repairing a loose board and got frostbite instead, and Clem wasn’t anywhere near as bright as his father.
“I’ll see you next time.” Eileen took a step toward him, and for a moment Dolph had a little thrill that she might touch him in public, something he was pretty sure she’d never even done with her husband, but she just said, “Thanks for the groceries,” in his ear and then sauntered off to her brown station wagon with the fake wood paneling on the sides.
“Life could be worse,” Dolph said, and the dog under the basket under the turkey thumped loudly, as if it wanted to agree, or maybe disagree. It was hard to tell with dogs, especially rabid half-run-over zombie dogs.
Copyright © 2010 by Harrison Geillor