of Subfusc County
by Bruce Henricksen
Sometimes, leaning on my mop by the
old suit of armor, Id watch them through the window while I was cleaning up in the
restaurant. Half the time Homer was late, and it was just Paula and Oscar in the parking
lot next to Babe, our sky-blue stork, in the moonlight by the county road. To the naked
eye, they didnt match up real good back then. Oscar only amounts to about
five-foot-nine and one-forty. His right knee cant bend thanks to Vietnam, and he
gobbled pain pills loose from his pocketsstill does. Now Paula, though, she was a
different load of beef back then. Everything about Paula was writ in spades, and her
walking problems were a matter of payload.
Oscars what you might call
conversationally challenged, and folks joke that he needs a special license plate. In
those courting days, standing at the window by Lancelotwe named that rusty heap of
armor LancelotId imagine Oscars "yups" and "nopes"
out there struggling to do romantic duty as hed stare down at the gravel with the
bats swooping overhead. From time to time hed tip his head way back to look at Paula
above the bosoms. And sometimes Id get a tear in my eye from remembering about me
and Irene when we were young, and how we had wished the stork would land on our porch.
Its strange how sometimes a memory can be soft and nice, and other times that same
memory can feel like a swallowed stone. And often the memory of Irene would swoop from one
to the other, from softness to hurt, just like those bats in the parking lot as Id
stand there with my mop and bucket at the restaurant window.
Like I said, Paula was a big fat
woman, six-foot-two and boo-coo pounds. If Paula took a notion to go calling, Homer,
thats her brother, hed hoist her into the back of the 4x4 and check the tires.
Homers a big man himself, strong as an ox, some say, and twice as smart. Paula is a
patriot, and when they started talking on the TV news about how Americans better lose
weight, and also when she saw how businesses in the county were suffering from the effects
of the flood, well, Paula, she put two and two together and came up with the idea to be a
"Say what?" Homer
Paula explained how stripping
would trim the fat and raise public awareness, but Homer, who works at the paper mill down
in Black Paw, he replied how he didnt want to think of other things that might rise
if guys from the mill were gawking at her shaking her booty like Jello. He was proud of
that remark and repeated it to all the boys at the barber shop, stretching his grin around
a row of gravestones that pass for teeth.
"And besides," Homer
told her, "you cant dance a lick that I ever seen. Strippers gotta dance, you
know. It aint just standing there strugglin out of them bib overalls."
But Paula was determined, and
this is how me and my friend Ole fit in. There had been hard times up where I worked on
the Mesabi Iron Range, still are. Theres folks up there happy to eat crow soup, and
that aint just an expression. Anyway, after Irene passed away I lost my job, and
that little split-entry house where we had lived together all those years became a haunted
place. So I packed up some stuff, sold the house, and moved down here to Cold Beak.
I wasnt sure what Id
do with myself here, but pretty quick Providence showed up disguised as a defunct fried
chicken place for sale on the county road out by I35, not far from where the New Hope
River winds through our valley and makes it so pretty, nothing like what you might think
just hearing a name like Cold Beak. Me and Ole, we figured we know a business opportunity
when it puts its paws on your chest and licks your face, and we snapped that old chicken
place right up.
So we set to fixing it into a
fancy supper club with lots of red felt and mirrors to cover where the windows were
boarded. It was good, after all that sadness up on the Range, to be building something.
Ole and me sang and sawed and hammered away, pausing at noon to unwrap sandwiches and
pickles, which we ate quick sos they wouldnt get dirty, then plunging back
into creativity, which the ignorant might have called pandemonium. Ole even had the idea
to paint pictures on the ceiling, like in that church that you hear about in Italy, but we
finally figured wed best let that dog rest.
One afternoon, it was May and
the weather had just turned warm, we were outside figurin where to put the plaster
stork as we waited for Lars Johnson, the plumber, to show his bony face. Lars had vowed to
make every effort to be there that day, "every effort" being the workmans
escape clausethe fine print in the verbal agreement. Oscar, whos my younger
brother, was there that day pretending to help when Homer pulled up in his Dodge Ram with
Paula as cargo in a big cushioned chair. It was like she was the Queen of Mardi Gras up
there with her blond curls popping out in all directions like bed springs. Hauling Paula
down onto solid ground wasnt something you undertook just for small talk, so me and
Ole and Oscar walked on over so she could stay put. The saplings that we had planted off
to one side of the parking lot leaned on their crutches and gawked at the show.
"See you got that plaster
stork you was talkin about," Homer observed, climbing out of the cab. Homer had
a voice full of rumblings and explosions that would usually cause a stranger to take a
step back and check for exits.
"Yes sir!" Ole beamed,
unphased by Homers volume. "New owner of that miniature golf place up in
Hinckley couldnt see no use for it, so I got her for a song. Good as new, too,
cept for where kids splashed paint on her butt there."
"Well, you get her painted
up," Homer predicted, "and shes gonna look real good. You fixin to
call this place The Stork Club then?"
"We aint decided on a
name yet," Ole said, "but I figure a supper club can always benefit by a stork,
whatever you name it." Eventually we called the club The County Road Vista to avoid
In this part of the country
theres always some introductory thrashing around the bush, and if theres no
stork handy you can always talk about the weather, which we did for a while too that
breezy day in May when the Paula float pulled up. But finally Paula said how she
hadnt got all afternoon to be the big attraction in the back of a pickup, and so we
were "cutting to the chase." She liked to talk like city folks on television.
The chase was how Paula wanted
me and Ole to let her strip in our plush new supper club. She took her a pinch of
snoosewhat folks from elsewhere call snuffand focused her eyes down at us from
her throne, eyes big as moons under that curly, springy hair. Then she explained how we
boys had the opportunity to be part of history because this wouldnt be the sort of
strip club that exploits poor young girls that cant find a decent job. This would be
a strip club that would help fat people have pride while they trim themselves down. The
way Paula explained it, you can try to improve without being ashamed of yourself in the
We were all pretty quiet for a
moment after Paulas declaration. You couldve heard a moth fart. Ole adjusted
his feed cap and stared off at some clouds over the Mobile station, and Oscar found a few
stones to push around with his sneaker. If Oscar was in Cold Beak to court his old flame,
which we all figured he was, he was doing a darn pokey job stoking up his nerve. Folks
were always making chances for him to throw light on the issue of him and Paula, but Oscar
isnt much for throwing light. Hes more your fog chucker. Anyway, pretty quick
Paula went on about how she pictured it all.
"The way I picture it all,
we gotta divide that club in two. Folks dont want to be eatin their meat and
potatoes with a big ol fat girl yankin her clothes off and shakin her
stuff right there. They dont want their kids askin a bunch of questions. So
the strip club is a separate room, where we serve drinks and carrot sticks with low-fat
"And besides," Homer
put in, dropping his elephants trunk of an arm over the door of the cab, doing his
beaver grin, and lowering his voice sos the folks inside the Mobile station
wouldnt hear, "were gonna put shock absorbers under that stage so there
aint no tidal waves in the beverages next door."
"I got this stage name
picked out," Paula continued, ignoring her brother, whose fat jokes were wearing
thinner each year, "and its Paulotta, because theres a lotta me.
We have this big horse scale on
the stage, and folks can buy chances on the day when I get me down to 300. On that day I
change my name to Paulessa, and someone wins the jackpot. What you think of my idea,
Oscar?" she finished off, homing in on my brother dead in the eye.
Oscar, he had no more to say
than a minnow in a pond, and the clouds over the Mobile station were still pretty
interesting to Ole. I expected him to say how they looked like this animal or that. Oscar
was back to pushing his shoe around in the gravel, and my fingernails grew an inch before
Ole spoke up.
"Well," Ole said,
jerking his eyes down from the stratosphere, "you sure got you a new idea there,
Paula, and were gonna give it serious thought. I never did make a business decision
straight off the bat, and theres lots of sides we gotta look at. Like whether the
community is ready for such . . . things. But were gonna think on it and then
well get back to you." Then he tugged at the beak of that old feed cap as if
something formal was going on.
"Might as well surrender
right now, boys," Homer bellowed as he climbed back into the cab. "Arguing with
Paula is like arguing with cement."
He jammed the pickup into
reverse, nearly colliding with an old van labeled Johnson Plumbing that Larss
"every effort" had brought to our driveway. Of course no plumbing work actually
occurred that day. It was just the warm-up visit, the one where the workman walks around,
nods wisely, and spouts terminology. Hed get started in a few days, he said. Up in
these parts, you can sometimes tell from a fellows rocking hand just how broad a
term "a few days" is meant to be. The rocking of Larss hand made it clear
that nothing was clear.
Now this might be the point in
the story where I ought to stick in some sort of villain, someone that can be described
real vivid, maybe with skin like grease bubbling in the pan, who never takes a bath and
whos out to thwart Paula. But this isnt a made-up story for a book. Maybe
itll get to be a story like that when folks in future generations here in Subfusc
County tell about Paula. Maybe this made-up guy with the skin problemI see him with
a cigarette poking out of one side of his mouth and his breath whistling in the
otherwill have secret, whiskey-soaked meetings out in the woods with his cohorts,
and maybe therell be a plot to burn down the new restaurant. Or, since
everythings got its shadow, maybe tomorrows storytellers will make
Paulas enemy be another woman like the ones we ogled in the Zapp Comics years
From a storytelling point of
view, I can see how having a villain would make sense and come to be, just as dreaming up
Judas made story sense by puttin flesh and blood on the idea of betrayal. But the
truth is that the villain in Cold Beak was just the circumstances themselvesthe bad
economy, the old attitudes that people clung to, and other vague stuff that really
wasnt wrapped up in any one person.
Of course there was debate and
falderal about Paulas plan. The churches in town, Ole said, acted like branches of
one religion called Judgmentalism. And there was one person who said some pretty rude
things, one of those who never had a thought blow through her head that she didnt
straightway express. But once Paula promised that she wouldnt take everything
off, that there would be a costume with spangles and feathers and safety pins big as shoes
for the grand finale, well, once that was cleared up it was the Chamber of Commerce that
carried the day by convincing folks of the potential economic advantage to Cold Beak and
all of Subfusc County.
And darned if the Chamber
wasnt right, and Homer was right too about not arguing with cement. Hes really
a bunch smarter than an ox. The grand opening of The County Road Vista and the Paula Show
was on the Fourth of July, just a few days after Lars, after a medley of worried phone
calls, got the plumbing done. People came in busloads all the way down from Duluth and
over from New Persiflage, and further off too. The motel was jammed full, and Barry Olson
let out plots for campers in a field where he forgot to plant his soybeans. The line at
The Vista straggled out past the stork, and Marvin Updahl, hes our Sheriff, Marvin
sent one of his boys to patrol the crowd sos they wouldnt spill into traffic.
You can tell from the polished
shoes when folks aint from around here, and the group from Houston had neckties big
as sandwich boards. We sat them down at the table by Lancelot, the suit of armor Ole found
down in St. Paul. Lancelot is sort of propped up with sticks inside, but his ax is always
poised for trouble. The Texans were "crapulous and carminative, in that order,"
said Ole, who had got himself a vocabulary book so as to impress bigwigs coming to see
Paula. We figured if there was any ghost in that armor capable of judgment, the ax might
see some use. The Texans only stayed in Cold Beak a day, though, not brushing too close to
any of us hayseeds, maybe figuring that the snoose habit would rub off and next thing you
know theyd be smooching with farm animals.
And I supposesince
were coming to the part of the story where the villain, if there was one, would be
booed and carried out of town on a railI suppose when folks in the future tell the
Paula story, there might be a temptation to stick in villainous tourists like extra jokers
in the deck. They might tell it sos the Texans come to town and just out of old
ranch-style meanness find ways to try to undo all the good that Paula was doing for Cold
Beak. Because to tell the truth, people here in Cold Beak are a little insecure about
outsiders, afraid theyll think that were just a bunch of doofusses. And lots
of times in stories villains are stirred up out of such fears. But the Texans didnt
really do any harm, and most of the tourists seemed pretty darned friendly.
If you can call your kid brother
a tourist, Oscar was the most regular of the tourists, dragging his shrapneled leg around
in Paulas wake. He was nervous at first on account of he hadnt seen many
near-naked women outside the family, if the family includes the cousins over in Frog
Landing. But coming to view Paula was a publicized event, like seeing the Gophers play the
Badgers, not a guilty, sneak-around event. So shyness melted right off like frost on the
Paula called what she did
"performance pieces," and there was one at eight and one at ten Wednesday
through Saturday. She worked hard, her blond curls flapping, and each night a few pounds
melted straight down her legs and through the cracks in the floor. Paula waved various
props aroundbacon strips, cheese wheels, frying pans, and so onand every now
and then shed yank off some piece of clothing. Jan Tollerud, sitting at the end of
the bar under the antlers, gawked so hard that a fly buzzed into his mouth and out again a
minute later. Jan is always disheveled and pungent, like hes been rolled in kitty
litter, and there are those who wonder if he was formed by human contact.
One night Paula tugged a live
piglet from her smock. It escaped squealing over the bar, knocking the carrot dip into the
lap of the art critic who was up from Minneapolis. The pig hid behind the jukebox for the
rest of the evening, letting out a little oink now and then as it saw fit. But the critic
gave Paula a good write-up anyway. He saw lots of meaning that us folks in Cold Beak
couldnt see, and his review was full of words like "sudorific" and
"postmodern." That quieted the last of Paulas detractors, and from then
on, in her finale costume, she was Queen Paula, our own laughing, dancing savior.
When Paula started her book,
that Paglia woman came from Harvard to help with the spelling and stuff. She was nice. Me
and her went fishing, and she even caught a perch. Thousands of copies of the book were
sold on the Internet, and when Paula went on Oprah some doctors from St. Paul called about
opening a fat farm under her name. Quick as you can grill a bratwurst, they built a
hotel-type place out on the New Hope River by the old creamery. But just as quick, it
started to sink into the river, what with the weight of all the clients. It was like the
river was saying that it had its own job and wanted to be left alone. So Barry Olson sold
them that field that had been the camp ground, and now we have the Paula Pringle
Institute, with its famous Rotunda of Resolve, raking in the dollars on high ground,
looking down on the river and the new golf course.
So Paula saved Cold Beak after
the flood. She shook and shimmied and laughed until God winked down on Subfusc County and
the whole region was prosperous and smiling. Everyone in town lined up at the bank with
piles of bills to be counted out with much licking of thumbs. The collection plates are
still stuffed every Sunday, and the Judgmentalists have let their outrage evaporate like
last years joke. Why, I even saw the husband of one of the pastors wearing a Paula
sweatshirt in the grocery store the other day. Seems like a moral position dont have
much chance against prosperity, a carton of milks got more shelf life. I thought
that up and said it to the boys at the barber shop and they laughed, except for Jan,
whos about as dumb as a box of rocks.
By and by Paulotta got to be
Paulessa and plunked for matrimony. After a few months of courting in the moonlight by the
stork, with the bats scribbling their swoops in the air overhead and me looking through
the window, Oscar shuffled off with his bride back to his little farm south of here.
Thats where they live now, and they have me down to supper Sundays when Im not
busy at The County Road Vista. And I hear that there are a lot of fat people marrying up
at the Pringle Institute, which doubles as a weight-loss clinic and a love boat. The local
clergy got themselves new cars and new sun decks on their houses thanks to the spike in
the bliss business. Seems like everyones getting married except Ole and me.
Homer, he moped for a month or
two when he didnt have his sister to haul around, but then he started stretching
himself out in the new tanning salon. He got brown and shiny as a Thanksgiving turkey,
then he took to splashing on cologne, tugging on his Paula sweatshirt, and walking the
road up by the Institute. Folks thought he was climbing a fools hill, but darned if
he aint gonna be married next month. Were not an adventuresome people here in
Subfusc County, and one of the boys at the barber shop commented on the wisdom of Homer
sticking with fat.
"Its like with ice
cream," the fellow said. "Once you get used to a flavor, aint no sense in
"Or its like when you
got a good fishing hole," Jan Tollerud put in, shooing a fly off his nose. "No
point drivin up every dirt road lookin for another."
A third fellow was about to
offer his comparison, but Homer roared out, flashing his rubble of teeth sos
theyd know he wasnt mad, that any more such talk wouldnt be polite.
Usually talking about good taste with the boys at the shop is about as productive as
discussing the Dow with a carload of basset hounds. But when a big man like Homer asks for
quiet in a voice that rattles windows, folks dont get analytical. So, as cuttings
accumulated on the floor and pomade penetrated scalps, the boys took to boasting about
fish theyd caught and people theyd met, all lies and tall tales shameful
enough to shrivel the ears.
One Sunday in October I was down
to the farm for Paulas special meatloaf supper. The day was warm for the time of
year, so before eating we sat in the yard and watched the swallows arcing about. The creek
in back of the house, which empties into the New Hope River about a mile away, made a soft
sound. The maple leaves in the grass were sheets of gold beat thin, the sunset was all
purple and orange, and the clouds on the horizon had that corrugated look. Peoples
spit was all bronze from the snoose, and their remarks seemed poetic and beautiful, no
matter what they really said.
We watched the cattle out in the
pasture shuffling back toward their dormitory, and pretty soon Oscar would be hooking up
the milking machines. In the meantime, smiling sheepishly off toward the corncrib, he
performed an overture of throat clearing. Then he asked if I wanted a nephew or a niece.
Paulas under 200 now, and the doctor thinks everything will be smooth as butter.
Me and Ole, weve been
sharing the same house for quite a while. We added a room on the back for the pool table
and the Paula memorabilia, and Lars Johnson, after every effort, found time to fix us up
with a sauna and a hot tub. And Ive got my pictures of Irene. It was hard losing
her, and as I said, hard when jobs dried up on the Iron Range. Now that Im where the
economy is better, thanks to Paula, I wonder how Irene would feel if I started walking up
by the Institute like Homer did sos I could meet me one of them prosperous types
too. Its been a lovely sight, seeing people all rich and fat ambling along the road
when the air is snappy and the leaves turn color. But I guess its like what that
fellow at the barber shop said about ice creamIrene was the best gift to my life,
and experiments would be ungrateful. And besides, Irene is doin a pretty good
imitation of a river, waltzing and laughing through my thoughts and making a summertime
sound. I wouldnt change it.
Its winter now in the real
world. A couple months ago, me and Ole got us a big St. Bernard named Swede, who drips
saliva by the quart and snacks on the evening newspaper. On a cold night theres
nothing like stretching out by the fireplace with Swede and some cocoa in my Paula mug.
Then I think about Oscar and Paula, and also about rusty old Lancelot and Babe, our
sky-blue stork. Soon I turn to thinking how Ill be playing with my nieces and
nephews and wondering what new wrinkles theyll give the world by and by.
If you ask me, theres a
lot of fine things still ahead in Cold Beak. When I try to imagine them as I relax in the
evening, they mix themselves up with thoughts of Irene when we were young and starting out
on the Range. And all those hopes and memories, the personal things and the things about
Cold Beak, and America too, and the futureall those things are a river laughing and
turning in my head while Swede dozes, digesting the evening news and turning all of the
worlds troubles into fertilizer. And then it seems to me that the embers in the
fireplace are a city that you see at night coming over a hill in your car, a city down in
a valley glowing with dreams, a cluster of separate dreams that add up to one big dream.