Dead Schmed

Pete Hautman did it! In November, our favorite local mystery writer won the 2004 National Book Award. One of the nation’s highest literary honors, it was awarded for Godless, Hautman’s twelfth novel. (It is his fifth Young Adult title.) He tells us that he is now paid $2,000 a word. We think he is joking. We pray he is joking. With writer and poet Mary Logue, Hautman lives in Golden Valley in the winter, and near Lake Pepin in the summer. Pete has three brothers, all of whom are legendary wildlife painters immortalized (sort of) in the movie Fargo. He went to the same St. Louis Park elementary school as Al Franken and Joel and Ethan Coen. Coincidence?

We are thrilled to present this wintry ghost tale from one of Minnesota’s literary treasures.—The Editors

***

I smelled something burning. My imagination? It smelled like a cheap cigar. I tried to ignore it, to wipe it out by concentrating ever more fiercely on my computer screen.

Struggling to meet the deadline for Brooked for Murder, the fourth novel in my fly-fishing-detective series, I had arrived at the point in the book where the plot had become so unlikely that it took a drink—several drinks—for me to proceed. So I was sitting in front of my computer drinking Scotch. I was drunk. But I was not smoking. The odor of burning tobacco persisted. I blinked. A faint haze seemed to have settled between my eyes and the screen. Something was definitely burning. I turned in my chair, not sure what to expect, and found my grandfather Smed perched on an invisible chair a few feet behind me.

“Pete!” My name exploded from his lips in a yellow-tinged cloud.

I sat with my chin hanging down over my Adam’s apple as the blur of combusted tobacco hit my sinuses, closing my nasal passages as effectively as a pair of vise grips.

During his lifetime Smed had smoked a type of short, black, powerful cheroot that he’d had to order by mail because no reputable tobacco merchant would stock them for him. He would chew the mouth-end into a flat, black, tarry mess, occasionally trimming it back with a child’s blunt-ended scissors to allow smoke to pass through. Apparently, death had not inspired him to change brands.


I willed the hallucination to disappear. Smed puffed away contentedly, his blind eye drifting.

“What are you doing here?” I managed to ask.

“Came to tell you a couple things, Pete. Things you should know.”

My throat made a noise, the squeak of wet air being forced through a sphincter.

Smed elevated his snow white eyebrows; one eye followed his brow up, the other remained fixed on me.

“You think maybe I shoulda called first? I used to live here, y’know. Died here, too.”

It was true. I had inherited my grandparents’ home, and was now living in it.

“I got to tell you, Pete, Dink hates what you did with the living room. You didn’t like her wallpaper?”

Dink was my grandmother’s name. She had been a small woman.

“It was falling off the wall,” I said. I didn’t mention that it was butt-ugly as well—beige flowers on dirty pink, lighter where the pictures had hung.
“Makes no difference to me. Just thought I’d pass it on. Women, can’t live with ’em when they’re alive, can’t live with ’em after, either. I’ve been twenty-five years dead and she still worries about my damn liver.” He puffed energetically for a few seconds, obscuring his features in a smoky haze. “Listen, Pete, some people think it won’t matter what you did with your life. That’s what I thought. I was wrong. Came to tell you that, Pete.”

“This isn’t about wallpaper?”

“It’s about your books,” he said. “Know how many books you’re going to write?”

I shook my head.

“Well, it’s not my place to tell you. But let me give you something to bite down on. You ready for this, Pete?”

I wasn’t, but my head moved slowly up and down.

“The day you die, not one of your books will be in print.”

I swallowed, not sure I’d heard him correctly. Not sure I’d heard him at all. Not even sure he was even there.

He held me impaled with his good eye while the other made a random exploration of the space above my head. You would think that, having shuffled off his mortal coil and all, Smed would manifest himself with two good eyes, but apparently it doesn’t work that way. Another logic might suggest that he would look exactly as he did when he passed on, but this did not hold to be true, either. When Smed had died he’d been a scrawny, wasted creature with several days’ growth of beard and a grotesquely swollen belly. Smed’s ghost, however, was cut from Smed’s image circa 1965 when he had been decidedly old, but not yet sick.

I waited for him to give me the “but.” I mean, you just don’t drop a bomb like that on somebody without some reassuring follow-up. Something like, “But they’ll all be available on CD-ROM.” Or perhaps the suggestion that after my death my work would be revived as had that of Jim Thompson or Vincent Van Gogh—that, at least, would have taken the sting out of it. The ghost, however, was not delivering. He drew his scissors from the front pocket of his white short-sleeved shirt, clipped off the masticated butt of his cigar, let it drop to my office floor. I followed it with my eyes.

When I looked up, he was gone. All that remained was the gummy black cigar butt, the news that my dead grandmother hated my new wallpaper, the pronouncement that I would die an unknown hack, and a roomful of ectoplasmic cigar smoke.

***

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