An Excerpt from The Karma of King Harald
A Quick Visit to New Bergen
King Harald proceeded up Willow Street with regal bearing.
Monarch of all he surveyed.
Up above, the maples and lindens had budded out, promising a summer’s worth of delicious shade. Harald stopped at almost every trunk, sniffed robustly, and—discreetly here and there—lifted a leg to add his own signature to the others.
The huge, ginger-colored canine was of unknown provenance. Part Chesapeake, from his looks. But the other part remained a mystery. Some folks in New Bergen joked that a moose must have had a romantic tryst with one of Harald’s forebears.
Not that long ago, Harald had been a down-on-his-luck adult dog, left at an animal shelter by a family that couldn’t afford him anymore. But then one day the boss walked in through the shelter’s doors. Harald knew instantly that this was the human for him and he made sure he got noticed. There was much tail-wagging, but no slobbery jumping up on. His sales pitch had been perfect and Harald departed with the boss that very same day.
Now, at Walleye Avenue, Harald hung a right. He trotted along with perfect self-assurance and an utter disregard for the niceties of navigation. The big goofy mutt was an existentialist of the purest sort—ever seeking for the true essence of the moment at hand. In that spirit, he paused to scarf up the remnant of an abandoned sandwich, chew a bit of gravel, pee on a gingko tree, and woof resonantly, but amiably, at a passing brown delivery truck.
By and by Harald made his way across the playground of the Georgia Dardenson Elementary School, through the parking lot, and into the maples and basswoods beyond. There he spent a constructive half hour terrorizing squirrels, noshing on twigs, and urgently inhaling the aromas of tree trunks. When he emerged on the other side of the woods, onto a plowed field of shattered cornstalks, he set his compass for a farmhouse about a hilly half-mile farther north. He spotted a person moving around up there in the yard and maybe that person wanted to play.
Harald bounded across the muddy field, dooming himself to a good scrubbing when he arrived home. That was in the future, though, and of no concern at the moment.
The dog halted just short of the farmhouse, cut to the quick. His putative playmate had climbed into an old, dark-colored pickup and was even now bouncing away down the long driveway to the east.
King Harald entertained the notion of giving chase. But the truck vanished out of sight down a long hill. The thought of human company—if it even was a thought—vanished from the dog’s mind like a bubble bursting in the sun. For suddenly, he was in the backyard, a place of inconceivable enchantment.
Early tulips were nearly ready to bloom, and Asiatic lilies and peonies had poked up amidst the dirt beds scattered throughout the long grass. Lilacs and apple trees were starting to show nubbins of flower buds. The pin maples were bright and crisp and lovely to sniff. And glittering, dancing baubles of color dangled from their branches.
Harald was no ponderer, but the spectacle delighted him and held his attention for better than fifteen seconds. Until the most interesting, most enchanting aroma hit the 220 million smell receptor cells tucked way back up his substantial snout. Hit them like a Mack truck without brakes. The smell came from just over there.
He bounded across two tulip beds—leaving disorder in his wake—and, as if sliding into home base, came to a quick stop under a flowering crab apple tree. He peered up at the most marvelous thing he had seen in, well, forty seconds.
There, dangling from a low branch, was the item that had called to him with an allure that was not to be denied. An object whose complex bouquet of scents would have challenged the vocabulary of an Elizabethan poet to describe—had the poet possessed 220 million smell receptor cells.
King Harald stared thunderstruck at the object that moved gently in the morning breeze, inhaling deeply through his nostrils.
He reared up on his hind legs, bracing himself against the crab apple trunk. With a certain reverence, he twisted himself around and began to gently prize the pretty, pretty thing from the string that suspended it among the glittering baubles.
Andy Skyberg and his fellow New Bergenites liked to say they had two seasons—winter and antiquing.
Winter had slouched away about four weeks earlier, at the beginning of April, and the gently rolling countryside was greening up nicely. The fields were mostly planted, the furrows neatly aligned this way and that. The woods and farmsteads showed the lovely green lace of mid-spring leafing out—delicate and ethereal. Even from his perch in his sister’s Plymouth Voyager, cruising northwest up the Interstate, Andy could see yellow swatches of daffodils around farmhouses and out in garden plots.
Andy had struggled awake at four that morning, fed King Harald, and put him out in the backyard with bowls of water and dog chow. Elsie Bjorklund would have stopped by at mid-morning to check on the big mutt. Now, on toward lunchtime, Andy was coming back from Lindbergh International Airport with cases of Copper River salmon and crab packed in dried ice, for a big catering gig that evening at the Flèche Droite Nation Casino.
From some distance he could see the giant figure of Lovely Lena—all blonde curls, dimples, and pink-checked gingham—slowly, creepily waving at traffic from atop the noodle factory. Lovely Lena Macaroni Corporation, on the south end of Elbow Lake, was New Bergen’s biggest employer. Along with agribusiness, St. Magnus College and Prep, and the casino, Lovely Lena kept the Beaver Tail County economy humming along.
For New Bergen, though, the summer gravy came from antiquing tourists and seekers after rural charm. The fourth- and fifth-generation Norwegians and Swedes of New Bergen held a certain small-town disdain for big-city types. But they happily put petty prejudice aside when folding money and plastic emerged from wallets and purses.
Andy pulled off the Interstate and turned right. It was a resplendent May morning, with rich blue sky and billowing cumulus clouds. Off to his right the white spire of the Elbow Lake Lutheran Church soared out of the tops of the trees, looking positively New Englandy.
Just before arriving downtown, Andy cruised by the sprawling New Bergen High School, built a few years before in the cold, sterile brick-and-glass style he thought had gone out in the ’60s. Did good-looking cost that much more to build, he wondered, than ugly?
Andy barely noticed the cop’s car in front of the main entrance, until he realized that Cass Conlin, his girlfriend and a deputy sheriff, was standing beside it, chatting with someone. Easing up on the pedal, Andy rolled down his window, honked, and waved. Cass squinted across the boulevard and then waved back.
Andy realized that her companion was the assistant principal, Dick Schaeffer—a stout fifty-something with a trim, gray buzz cut. Schaeffer glared at him, as if Andy deserved to be put in detention. The man was a notorious hard-ass, even for an assistant principal, and Andy felt sorry for anyone who incurred the disciplinarian’s wrath.
That’s when Andy noticed the strange decoration in the back seat window of Cass’s black-and-white. For a few seconds it made no sense. He couldn’t quite conceptualize the object. Then he got it.
The rear end of some adolescent male, naked, plastered against the glass, and anatomically correct.
A full moon at mid-morning, one might say.
Andy laughed, grateful to no longer have a teenaged boy’s brain inside his head. Cruising half a block farther, he turned onto Sjkegstad Street, New Bergen’s main drag. At last count the street and the surrounding neighborhood had seventeen antique shops and a big antique mall.
Andy rolled by the Norwegian Fellows Lodge International Headquarters and Museum. Next door was the Swedish B&B, in the old Ostrander Hotel. Farther down were the Finn Sisu ski shop, Tonia’s Troll Haven toy store, and Trudi Bock’s Karma Kubbyhole in the old video rental store.
Flipping the turn signal, he swung the Voyager left on Perch Avenue, then took a quick right into the alley. He crept about midway down the block and parked. Propping open the back door of Ansel’s Café, Andy began to haul the chilly boxes of Alaskan seafood down to the walk-in fridge in the basement.
* * *
Andy peered out into the dining room from the kitchen, over the line counter where the wait people picked up dishes. He gazed around the eatery named in honor of his sister Kirsten’s favorite artist, Ansel Adams. A dozen of the master’s own handmade prints graced the walls. Those glorious landscapes went wonderfully with the Prairie School decor that Kirsten favored for her restaurant. She had put up a couple of Andy’s own landscape canvases, as well. His piney, rocky lake scenes from the northeastern part of the state. Some of the best oils he’d ever painted.
Only then did Andy notice the lunchtime crowd, such as it was. Weekday business was always a bit thin before Memorial Day.
A couple of obvious out-of-towners—he lean, silver-haired, clad in a red Gore-Tex windbreaker, and she trim, sunbaked, in a royal blue tracksuit—sat along a side wall, nibbling on crusty bread and sipping red wine. Opposite them, Bob Ludeman perched on the edge of his chair. Bald, diminutive, and dressed to the nines in a pin-striped suit, he was leaning toward the couple, speaking in an animated but confidential tone. A specialist in Art Deco and Art Nouveau jewelry, Bob sold to collectors all over the world. Big spenders who visited his shop were often treated to a meal at Ansel’s.
Carter LaPorte, the managing editor of the Beaver Tail County Chronicle up in Hobartville, slouched at a tall table by the opposite wall, slurping a latté. He had today’s issue of the New York Times spread out in front of him. Sitting with him, chatting away, was local sawbones Doc Hilgenberg, whose Croque Monsieur luncheon special had so far not been touched.
As Andy’s eyes wandered over to the three women occupying one of the window tables, he suddenly took a deep, sharp breath.
Trudi Bock, owner of the Karma Kubbyhole, looked as if she was making an earnest sales pitch to Andy’s aunt, Bev Engebretson. Observing was Charlene Adams, Trudi’s second-in-command, better known as Charlie. She leapt in now and then to underscore some point or other.
Aunt Bev appeared to be interested, asking the occasional question.
Andy very nearly succeeded in tiptoeing silently back out of sight when he heard Aunt Bev holler.
“Anders, I see you there. Come on over here.”
A forced half-smile fought its way onto his face. He waggled a wan wave at the trio, then accepted his fate and walked over to join them.
“Anders,” his aunt chirped, craning her neck to maintain eye contact. “Just the boy I wanted to see.”
Aunt Bev had on her green St. Magnus College sweatshirt and blue jeans with flowers embroidered on the legs. It looked as if she’d recently had her hair done, with the gray roots nicely covered up in that garish henna tone that had been her trademark ever since Andy could remember.
“How are you doing, Anders?” cooed Trudi, shaking back her long auburn locks coquettishly. “You look positively scrumptious.”
Andy blushed and laughed nervously. He thought he looked about the same as ever. Tallish at six-four. A head of close-cropped, dark blond hair. Blue eyes—the one on the right a little lazy. A long face with a strong chin. A teeny bit over his ideal weight.
“Well, Trud, okay, you know,” he finally mumbled.
“You’ll be interested to hear this, Anders, since you’re a painter just like your Aunt Bev.”
Andy earnestly hoped this was not true. His paintings were nothing like his aunt’s artwork.
“Your fifth chakra controls your artistic spirit,” Trudi informed him.
This knowledge, Andy confessed, had not come to his attention before.
“Now Bev’s fifth chakra is right here.” Trudi reached over her baby-greens-and-endive salad to lightly touch the older lady’s neck with an aquamarine index fingernail. “As is yours. Now if you and she were to give Aerobello’s Artistry scent a try—that’s for the fifth chakra—I could almost guarantee that your painting—”
“Rosemaling,” Aunt Bev said, a little snappishly. “I rosemal.”
Andy didn’t know if such a verb existed, but Aunt Bev used it liberally, nonetheless. He wondered how he could get out of here graciously, leaving no female egos bruised.
Trudi smiled apologetically and shook her head. “Of course, I knew that. You’re famous for it.” Her voice became calming for a change, deep and gentle, like a cat’s purr. “Isn’t she, Charlie?”
Trudi’s stout second-in-command nodded. “Oh, for sure, Trud.” Charlie beamed at Aunt Bev, a broad grin spreading across her pale moon face as she pushed up her wire-rim spectacles.
“If you tried Artistry, Bev, Anders,” Trudi continued, “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if your rosemaling and painting made a quantum leap. You two would probably be in the zone.”
The ardent rosemaler looked confused. “What zone?”
“It’s a figure of speech, Aunt Bev,” Andy said. “Trud means it’d take our art to a higher level.”
“Well, that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?” said Aunt Bev, blinking up at her nephew.
I’ll put on that perfume, Andy thought, when hell freezes over. But he continued to hold up the corners of his mouth as he nodded.
“However, I didn’t come here today because of chockers or whatever you call them,” Aunt Bev continued. “I came because I wanted to talk to you or your sister, Anders.”
Bingo! Another clever sneak attack on Kirsten. From the flank. Through the wobbly younger brother.
“I know that Kirsten doesn’t want me to rosemal these precious white walls of hers,” Aunt Bev said, reading Andy’s mind, “because it would mess up those black-and-white pictures. But I figure that we could put up my rosemaling pieces as paintings. They don’t have to be permanent, you know.”
“Kirsten’s pretty adamant about not changing the look that she has going in here,” Andy replied. “But I’ll talk to her about it one more time.”
Just as he was trying to extricate himself gracefully from Aunt Bev’s sales pitch, Andy saw J. J. Lindquist, Kirsten’s head waitress, churning straight at him, balancing a pair of salades niçoises on a tray on her upturned left hand.
J. J. stopped briefly. “Hey, Andy, Doris Schattenheimer called a while ago. Said she saw King Harald out wandering around. Tried you on the phone.” The young, athletic waitress proceeded on to another window table, where a middle-aged couple awaited their order.
Andy groaned inside. Harald had become quite the escape artist lately. Luckily, most everyone in New Bergen knew him and liked him. And it was a providential break that the city of eight thousand souls couldn’t afford an animal control officer.
“You’re gonna hafta get that stupid dog a chain, Andy,” chided Charlie. “Or a new fence.”
What was with Charlie and old Harald? Andy wondered. She used to like him. And the big mutt adored her, heaven only knew why. But Charlie had been coming down hard on Harald ever since she started working for Trudi.
“Harald?” said Aunt Bev. “Chain up Harald? Noooo.”
“A taller fence, I guess,” Andy sighed. Make that item number one-million-and-one on his agenda of stuff to do that he couldn’t afford.
“He’s a real sweet dog, though,” Trudi put in, looking at Andy with an uncomfortable note of chumminess.
Andy grinned without enthusiasm, desperate to change the subject away from himself and his dog. “You like wine, Trud. I was gonna tell Kirsten about a new wholesaler I heard about down in the Cities. They got some real nice Malbecs and Zins and—”
Aunt Bev let out an involuntary yelp as she gazed over Trudi’s shoulder. “Judas Priest and take me to heaven!”
Andy and Trudi twisted around and looked through the window out onto the sidewalk. There, almost leaping with excitement, whimpering happily, was King Harald, with something green and floppy in his mouth. He looked as if he’d been mud wrestling.
Andy, Aunt Bev, Charlie, and Trudi rushed out the door. That’s when they all saw just what it was that the dog had gripped firmly in his jaws.
“Oh, my God!” gasped Trudi, going white as a plate of lutefisk. “It’s Adonis!”
She blinked furiously at Andy. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Your bloody, damned mutt killed my iguana!”