The trouble begins when Dolf Beller, on an innocent mission for paint remover, chews an unlit cigar in Bud Bullard's hardware store, where no smoking is allowed. Within 24 hours the store burns down. Dolf's car blows up--and the feud begins.
"I marked my copy of THE FEUD with a star wherever its blend of irony, parody and slapstick made me laugh out loud; some pages look like a map of the Milky Way." (The Washington Post Book World)
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About the Author
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By Thomas Berger
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1983 Thomas Berger
All rights reserved.
One Saturday morning in the middle of October, Dolf Beeler, a burly, beer-bellied foreman at the plant in Millville, but who lived in the neighboring town of Hornbeck, came over to Bud's Hardware in Millville to buy paint remover and steel wool for the purpose of stripping a supposedly solid-walnut dresser to the wood that underlay the many coats of varnish. Years before, in an expansive moment after a good meal, Dolf had promised his wife he would begin this job the following evening. It was typical of him not to have acted quickly on his promise, though it was also characteristic that he did not forget or dismiss it and that he acted on it eventually, for he was a good husband and a nice man, and therefore his wife—called "Bobby," from "Roberta"—did not pester him about this or anything else.
"Paint remover," said the skinny high-school-aged boy back of the hardware-store counter. "Did you want a quart or a pint of that?"
Dolf chewed awhile on his unlit stogie. He had never stripped a piece of furniture before and therefore had no sense of how much fluid would be required. A certain pride kept him from asking the pimply-faced kid before him. He would have preferred to be waited on by the grown man farther along the counter, who was presumably Bud, the owner, but the latter was engaged in conversation with a thin, white-faced man whom Dolf heard him address as "Reverend."
Though he had worked in this town for years, and lived in Hornbeck only a mile from the Millville line, Dolf's acquaintance with many of its essential personages was slight. He knew none of its clergymen, police officers, doctors, lawyers, and no teachers except a substitute practitioner in the grade school, who was married to a man who worked under him at the plant. Dolf had come to Millville's hardware store today because the one in Hornbeck was closed, owing to the recent suicide of its owner, George Wiedemeyer, for reasons as yet unexplained.
"Lemme look at the cans," Dolf told the boy. "I know what a pint and quart is, but I can get an idea if ..."
"Sure thing," answered the lad, who had a quick, bright manner that Dolf never really liked to see in a young person: it seemed too fresh. "But I'll have to ask you to get rid of that cigar."
Dolf had removed the stogie from his teeth while pondering on the needed quantity of the paint remover. He put the butt back now and said, through it, "It ain't lighted."
"Well," said the boy, "I grant it don't look like smoke is coming from it, but you know—"
"You just let me worry about that," growled Dolf, who had not lived half a century to be criticized by some kid with pimples. "You just do your job and show me that paint remover."
Now the boy was stung. "We got danger of fire back there. It ain't my own idea—"
"What's trouble here?" asked the man who had been talking with the preacher but had now said good-bye to him and come up the counter opposite Dolf's position.
"I need some paint remover," Dolf said disagreeably. "If you people don't want to sell it to me, I'll take my business elsewhere."
The hardware man, who was bald in the middle of his head and wore a suit coat, a sweater vest, and a black bow tie, spoke reproachfully to the lad. "Well, why don't you take care of this genmun, Junior? We got all the paint remover in the world out back."
"Sure," Junior answered. "But I don't think he should be smoking a cigar back there."
"Oh." The bald-headed man nibbled his upper lip. "I guess I'd have to say the boy is right," he told Dolf, though looking at the counter top. "There's strict no smoking due to the insurance."
Dolf breathed strenuously in and out, past the stogie, which anyone could see was dead. He was not given to excess speech.
The boy suddenly looked worried. "He says it's out, though, Dad. So he ain't really smoking."
Dolf turned his weighty head and smirked in chagrin at no one, though the preacher had halted near the door to observe the argument from afar.
The hardware man, who Dolf believed was probably Bud, the owner, said to his son, in some exasperation, "Well, then, Junior, I don't know why you're making a fuss."
Dolf spoke then. "Because he's too fresh."
Bud (if it was he) flinched a little but made no rejoinder—which showed business sense.
The boy however decided to take it as an insult. "Oh, yeah?" he said. "Well, you just—"
His father slapped his face at this point. "Don't you ever answer back," said Bud, in a voice that was earnest but strangely calm.
Even Dolf thought that a little too strong. By now he was beginning to regret having chosen this day, after two years, for the stripping of Bobby's old dresser, which might not even be solid walnut, and when Bud went on to demand that his son apologize, Dolf stepped away from the counter.
"No," said he. "That's all right. Forget it."
"No sirree!" cried Bud, his bow tie bobbing at his Adam's apple. "We ain't going to lose customers through bad manners, I'll guarantee you that." He stared sternly at his son, whose face was flushed where it had been hit, whose eyes had got smaller with sullenness.
The minister had come back from the door. He wore a dark suit and a felt hat. He peered at Dolf for a while and then said, "You oughta get rid of your butts before you enter an establishment. Then there won't be any trouble about them, lighted or not."
This was too much. Dolf believed all preachers were loafers, and he didn't go to church even in Hornbeck, though his wife did. He said now, "You stick your nose into things that don't concern you, and you get it broke off."
"Oho," the minister said ominously. "You better be careful who you're talking to."
"Oh the hell with you!" Dolf said, and started to leave the place, but the preacher, though considerably smaller, took a spread-legged stance, blocking the route to the door.
"You bum you," he said levelly. "We got a vagrancy law in this town."
Bud now tried to call things back to reason. "He don't mean no harm, I'm sure, Reverton. Mister, I'll just go get that paint remover for you." However, he made no actual physical move.
So the man wasn't even a preacher. "Well, Reverton, if that's your goddam name," said Dolf. "You just get yourself out of my goddam way or you're gonna have my goddam foot in your ass."
Bud cried in outrage, "You can't use foul language in my store!"
Reverton swept back the tail of his suit coat and pulled a revolver from a holster that hung there. "You sumbitch," he said to Dolf. "You just back up against that there counter, you shit-heel bum. I know how to handle your kind."
Dolf could not believe in the reality of this sequence of events. You went to buy paint remover and you had a gun pulled on you? He now tried to be reasonable.
"See," he said to Reverton, "I never came over here to fight or anything." This was what he tried to say, but having a gun pointed at him seemed to freeze the words in his throat. What he heard emerge was at least to himself an incomprehensible mumble.
Reverton appeared to be enraged. "You dirty sumbitch," he said through clenched teeth, and he thumbed back the hammer of his pistol, with a sickening sound.
Dolf fell to his knees on the wooden floor, his hands crossed over his protuberant belly. But then he lifted them in supplication. He pleaded, "Oh, God, don't kill me," and sobbed, and blubbered, and degraded himself so thoroughly that later on he could not remember it without wanting to vomit.
Yet Reverton was not appeased. "Get up off'n this floor," he said. "You bum, you think you can make fun of me in front of my relatives? Kill you? I'll make you eat them words! Stick out your hands." From under his coat, in the back, he produced a pair of handcuffs.
What did this mean? Dolf struggled to get to his feet. He extended his wrists. "Are you some kind of cop?"
Reverton snapped the cuffs on him. "What do you think, brother?" He sneered into Dolf's face.
"How come you ain't in uniform?"
"When the day comes I got to explain anything to the likes of you," said Reverton, and never finished the statement.
Dolf now almost wailed. "Look here, officer. I'm a foreman down at the plant, right here in Millville. I live right over in Hornbeck. Everybody knows me over there—Dolf Beeler? And anybody down work can vouch for me come Monday. They're closed up down there today, except the watchman, he's an old-timer, Jim Watney? Listen, I'm O.K. I ain't no troublemaker. I'm a second cousin by marriage of the mayor over there, you know, Hornbeck? Horace Hemple? You might know him."
Reverton was looking at him expressionlessly. After fastening the handcuffs, he had put his pistol in its holster. Finally he spoke laconically. "Anybody could make them claims."
Bud came around from behind the counter. He said, "I figure he's telling the truth, Rev. All that stuff could be checked too easy to lie. Just let me get that paint remover. He don't mean no harm. I can see that."
Reverton went into the lower right pocket of his black vest and brought out a little brass key. He held it up, displayed it to Dolf between thumb and forefinger. He narrowed his eyes, which were normally close together, and showed the tips of his wolfish teeth.
"Welllll ..." He was making the most of the moment. "I might take a better view of it if you was to apologize."
Dolf was forced to gesture with both hands, as if praying. He was not sure of what he was supposed to atone for, but he said, "O.K., I'm sorry if I caused you any trouble."
Reverton shrugged and unlocked the handcuffs. "You just keep your nose clean from now on."
Dolf nodded dumbly, rubbing his wrists. He could not understand what had happened to him, how on a normal Saturday morning he could have had such a terrible experience. On the one hand he couldn't wait to get home and tell Bobby about it, while on the other he was not sure he could endure the shame of doing so. Luckily nobody he knew had witnessed the scene.
Bud said, "I'll just step back to the storeroom and get the paint remover. I figure you'll want at least a half gallon." Dolf remembered later that the little skunk had made that a statement and not a question.
Reverton bade good-bye to Bud and Junior. He left the store without looking at Dolf. When Bud had gone through a door in the back, Dolf asked the kid, "I guess that cop was off duty?"
Junior said, "He's a railroad detective, is what he is."
"He's not a town cop?"
"He's what you call a railroad dick," said Junior. "He's up in the yard, in Hamburg. He rousts a lot of hoboes up there."
"What's he doing down here?"
"He's my dad's cousin, see."
Dolf went to the door of the storeroom. Bud was just coming out with a half-gallon can in his grasp.
"I just want you to tell your little bastard of a cousin," said Dolf, "who ain't even a real cop, that I'm going to get him." He put his index finger, like a weapon, in Bud's face. "I'm going to get him. He won't know when nor how, but I'm gonna get him."
Bud changed color. He lowered the can to the floor and said, "That was quite a misunderstanding. Thing is, Rev deals with the type of person you got to be mean with or they'll walk all over you. He don't understand respectable customers. He thinks everybody he don't know is a tramp. He's got a hair-trigger temper and goes off half-cocked. He means well, but he goes too far sometimes." He sank his hands into his pants pockets and kicked at some imaginary objects on the floor to the left of the can. "Tell you what I'm willing to do, so there won't be any hard feelings. I'll give you a price on this here paint remover. I'll shave the profit." He smiled expectantly at Dolf.
"You go shave your ass and walk backwards," said Dolf. "You'll be prettier."
He turned and strode ponderously to the front door, tore it open, stepped out, and slammed it behind him. The glass vibrated violently but did not shatter. On the sidewalk he scanned both sides of the street for Reverton—planning, if he spotted him, to sneak up and put a hand across his throat from behind, lift him off his feet while going after his gun with the other hand. From there on the details were not filled in, though he had no intent to shoot him: maybe take the shells from the pistol, then smash it on the cement pavement, and probably kick Reverton's ass publicly, with the heavy work shoes he wore even on Saturday.
But he could not identify his intended prey among the people on the sidewalks of Millville's block-long business district.
Somebody asked, "What're you doing over here on Saturday, Dolf?"
He turned and saw a guy named Walt Huff, who worked in the stockroom at the plant. Huff was wearing a canvas jacket and a corduroy hunting cap. Over his shoulder he carried a twelve-gauge shotgun, broken open at the breech.
Without acknowledgment of his greeting Dolf asked, "Know a guy comes around here to this hardware, a railroad dick named Reverton?"
Huff grinned. "I was just down the dump, potting a few rats with this new gun of mine. I just bought it from Bud."
Huff said, "There ain't much left of any rat who gets it with double-0 buckshot. I splattered a few across the landscape."
"Bud's Hardware sells guns?"
"I guess they all do, don't they?"
Dolf had never owned a gun, not even an air rifle. He had never cared for the outdoor sports. His game was duckpins.
"I got this gun for rabbit," said Huff. "I got the double-0 just to hit rats, to break in the gun. There was some kids downere with twenny-twos. They couldn't hit a thing. They like to shit when they seen me blast a rat.... Reverton, huh? He wouldn't be that cousin of Bud's, would he?"
"Sure he is: guy with little beady eyes and he wears a full suit of clothes, shirt and tie, and a felt fedora."
"I guess I've seen him around. I never knew he was a railroad dick."
"He claims to be," said Dolf. "If you see him, tell him I'm looking for him."
"I think Reverton's his first name," said Huff, "now that I think of it. He was Bud's uncle's son on his mother's side. His last name would be Kirby."
Dolf scowled. "Well, you do know him, don't you?"
"Only a little. Bud's wife and mine are sisters. Bud Bul-lard's my brother-in-law, but I don't keep up that much with his side."
So here was a guy who came out of nowhere, a fellow Dolf knew only at work and not well even there, and he turned out to have none-too-distant family ties to the enemy. Huff would now go into the store and hear from his brother-in-law, and nephew as well, the story of Dolf Beeler's humiliation.
"What should I tell him you want him for?" Huff asked. "Or is it confidential?"
"That's right," said Dolf.
"Well, I'll tell him."
"You know him pretty well?" Dolf was developing a hatred for Huff.
"I forgot. Me and him seen them play softball down at the Legion field."
"I wouldn't be surprised," said Dolf, "if you two turned out to be real close."
"Naw." Huff started to grin, then checked the impulse. "I don't know him that well."
Dolf wondered whether he was being made a fool of. "Listen," he said. "I want to give him a five-spot."
Huff whistled. "By George, he will sure be glad to hear about that."
Dolf nodded and got into his car, which was parked at the curb a step away. If Huff went into the store and learned of the incident, it would be all over the plant on Monday morning.
When he reached home he left the car in the driveway outside the garage: washing it was among his son Tony's duties on Saturday. Tony, a thickset lad of seventeen who wore glasses, was raking the leaves that had fallen from an elm in the corner of the yard. He was a responsible boy and had never given Dolf any trouble, perhaps because of his poor vision. Boys that had some physical defect were almost invariably hardworking and good-natured: Dolf knew that for a fact.
"Say, Tony," he said, walking to the boy, "you know many kids from Millville? I know you know some, from that summer job at the plant. And maybe playing football?"
Despite his glasses, Tony played left guard on the high-school team, wearing a mask over his specs, which furthermore he taped to his head at the temples. He was a powerful lineman who could cast fear into the opposing players.
"A few I guess," he said now to his dad. "Any one in particular?"
"I was wondering if you knew anybody named Bullard?" As a young fellow Dolf had had a build something like Tony's, and when he was near his son nowadays he stood a little straighter and sucked his belly in somewhat, though he considered himself too old and too fat to be able to make much difference. He felt both pride and envy when he supposed that already Tony could probably take him. Though not yet as tall as his father, Tony was more muscular because of the weight lifting he did daily.
Tony now said, "I'll have to think about that." Behind the glasses he had his mother's face, more sensitive than Dolf's. He banged the tines of the rake on the ground, so as to free the leaves stuck there. It was not the implement made specifically for leaves, but rather the iron-spiked rake used to scratch the ground for gardening.
Tony asked, "Does it have to be a guy?"
Dolf raised his eyebrows. "I guess not."
"Well, there was this girl," said Tony. When seen through the thickest part of the lenses his eyes always seemed to be staring intensely.
Excerpted from The Feud by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1983 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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