Erik Therme has thrashed in garage bands, (inadvertently) harbored runaways, and met Darth Vader. None of these have come close to the thrill of releasing his debut novel, Mortom. When he’s not at his computer, he can be found cheering on his oldest daughter’s volleyball team, or chilling on the PS3 with his 11-year-old. He currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa—one of only 7 places in the world the UNESCO has certified as a “City of Literature.” Learn more about Erik on Facebook and Twitter.
Excerpt from Mortom
© Erik Therme 2014
Andy sat quietly at the kitchen table, wondering again how this woman could be related to his mother. Mary stood five feet, weighed somewhere in the ballpark of two hundred, and carried all the personality and charm of a cardboard box. A grunt escaped her mouth as she lifted an oversized can of beans from the cupboard.
“It’s rude to stare,” she said curtly. He dropped his eyes.
“Kate gonna be okay?”
“Just an upset stomach,” he said, looking over his shoulder. She was still in the bathroom and there were a few things he wanted to get out in the open before she returned. “We’ve had an interesting day.”
Mary began cranking on the can with an opener, eyes on him. “Figured you’d be in town. Didn’t know Kate was coming. Should have called before you come over. I would have cleaned up the house some.”
“We would have called, but you aren’t in the phone book. That’s sort of odd, don’t you think?”
“Never been in there. Called once to ask about it. The phone people said it was a mistake and they’d fix it. Never did, but it’s just as well. I like my privacy.”
“Still, that’s part of the service you pay for. You should get it fixed.”
“No one calls but your mother. She knows the number.”
“You’ll have to suffer with the onions,” Mary said stiffly, which meant the subject was closed. The beans went into an aluminum pot on the stove. “You never did like onions. Well, these come with them already inside, and I ain’t picking them out.”
“We didn’t come here to eat.”
“Always have food for kith and kin. Lots of folks been coming by and bringing food. Funny how when a person dies, folks seem to think the living needs to be fed. Funny how most people also come to the funeral.”
Andy mustered a polite smile.
“But I know you been busy,” she said. “I hear your wife got your house and you went to an apartment. Shame. Should have treated her better and maybe she would have stuck around.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s funny about divorces and courts and wills and such.” Mary took a bag of cocktail wieners from the refrigerator and emptied it into the pot.
“Have you been to the house?” he asked. “It looks like someone came over and cleaned out the fridge. I just wanted to thank you if you were the one.”
Now he was going to catch her. If she said she had been to the house, he would ask her about the smell. If she played dumb, it was because she was the one who had put the rat there.
“I surely did not,” she replied sourly. “Craig never was one to grocery shop, especially for perishables. Most times he just ate his meals down at the café. Course, he used to eat here a lot as well. But not much before he died.”
“Why’s that?” Andy ventured.
Kate appeared in the doorway, her face pale and splotchy.
“There you are,” Mary said with a smile. “All better?”
“A little, I think.”
“Let’s get some food in you and see what it does. I got some leftover tuna salad from last week in the fridge. Got a powerful smell to it, but it should still be good. The key ingredient is fresh pickle juice.”
Kate’s face lost more color. “I think I’m going to go lay down.”
Mary shook her head as Kate staggered out of the kitchen. “Poor thing. And that davenport of mine ain’t very kind to lay on. Craig always said he was going to let me have that one of his in the basement, but he never got around to getting it over here.”
“You can have it,” Andy said in a low voice. He did a quick check over his shoulder, hoping Kate was out of earshot. “If he wanted you to have it, I’ll make sure you get it when the legal stuff is all finalized. I just can’t understand why he didn’t leave it all to you anyway. Doesn’t make any sense why he left it to me. Why do you think he would have done that?”
A cold smile surfaced on Mary’s lips. “Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
They stared at each other. Andy dropped his eyes, not wanting to get into a war of wills. He needed to keep the conversation moving and as relaxed as possible.
“Fetch the plates and silverware from that cupboard behind you,” she told him. “Next to the radar range.”
He went to it and found paper plates and plastic forks. “I don’t see anything but this stuff—”
“Gave up on real dishware long ago. It’s easier to just throw stuff away. Usually I just walk to the fence and drop it over into the dump. Billy don’t care.”
“Runs the dump.”
Andy said lightly, “This wouldn’t be a boyfriend of yours now, would it? Come on, you can level with me. Got any new men in your life that no one knows about?”
Mary banged the pot of beans down on the table. “No man in his right mind would come around this place sniffing for the likes of me. What kind of a question is that?”
“You’re curious about some funny stuff,” she said, taking the chair across from him. “Now bow your head.”
He did as he was told.
“Lord, please bless this food even though you don’t seem to bless this family. Amen.”
She snapped her fingers for his plate. He held it out as she spooned a mess of beans and wieners across it.
“What about Craig?” he asked. “Did he have a girlfriend named Debbie by chance?”
“Nope.” “How are his friends taking it? I imagine living here for so long he had quite a few of them.”
“Craig kept to himself,” Mary answered shortly.
Andy stabbed at his beans, growing frustrated. Any second now she would tell him it was rude to talk at the table, and that would end the conversation completely. On his mother’s side of the family, supper was for eating and nothing more.
“Surely Craig had friends at work,” he pushed, trying to keep his voice casual. “Did he work here in town? I heard he drove to Keota a lot.”
“He worked at the graveyard with Ricky Simms.”
Andy felt his stomach kick. “Ricky Simms? Was he a good friend?”
She gave a noncommittal grunt.
“Does Ricky live in town?”
“Across the street from Craig’s house. Can’t get any more in town than that.”
He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I think I saw a young girl over there . . . is Ricky her dad or something?”
“Granddad,” Mary replied after a short pause. “Why are you so interested?”
“I just. . .” His palms were sweating and he fought the urge to wipe them. “Someone left a casserole on Craig’s front step, and I was wondering if it might have been them.”
It was a horrible lie and he knew he was sunk. To his surprise Mary dropped her stare and continued to eat.
“Ricky Simms is not the most pleasant man I have known, but Craig took a strong liking to him. Like I said, Craig worked with him until a few weeks ago, and after that he just did his cans.”
“One of the things he did in Keota. He’d drive around on that moped of his, fishing aluminum cans out from dumpsters and trash barrels. Strange hobby if you ask me. He’d keep them in his garage and return them once a week. I never understood it.”
The fork slipped from Andy’s fingers. Cans. Aluminum cans in the garage. Tin.
“I have to go,” he said, almost knocking over his chair as he stood. “Can you tell Kate I’ll be back?”
He was out the door before giving her a chance to respond.