Per pushed the scrap of paper onto the floor and stared at the remains of his chili.
“You dropped this,” the waitress said, handing the paper back.
“It’s not mine,” he said.
She shrugged and carried it off with her armload of dirty dishes.
He mashed the last cracker crumb with his spoon.
“Is this yours?” the busboy said, holding the paper out.
“Not mine,” Per said.
The busboy ignored him and left it on the edge of the table.
Per took out his lighter, lit the corner of the paper, held it for a second while it caught flame, and dropped it into the chili.
“Hey,” the waitress said.
“Sorry,” Per said. He rose and left a five-dollar bill under his water glass.
The air outside was sharp. He zipped his jacket.
The door opened behind him. “Is this yours?” the manager asked, and handed him a scrap of paper.
“Hem,” the paper said.
Per flexed his toes. Hem was twenty miles away, farther than he preferred to walk in a day, even starting at dawn.
“Want a ride?” his waitress asked. She was wearing a stocking cap.
Per smiled. “I’d love one,” he said. “But it never works out.”
“Because you’re a serial killer,” the waitress said.
“I’m hell on cars,” he said.
“I’m only inviting you to sit,” she said. “On the inside.”
“Tell you what,” Per said. “If we make it a mile in your car I’ll pay you,” he pulled bills from his pocket and counted, “a hundred and thirty bucks.”
“No cheating?” she asked.
“No cheating,” he agreed, holding out his hand. “I’m Per.”
“Jennifer,” she said, shaking his hand. “My car’s over that way.”
She checked her pockets again.
“Lose your keys?” Per asked.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I keep a spare.”
She felt around behind the front bumper and came up with a black box.
“Magnet,” Per said. “Good idea.”
She took the key out of the box, put the box in her pocket and unlocked the driver’s door. Per walked around to the other side. She reached across and unlocked his door.
“You steal my keys?” she asked.
“I said no cheating,” he said.
She turned the key in the ignition. The car was silent.
“And my battery?” she asked.
“Wasn’t me,” he said.
He stayed in his seat as she rummaged in the trunk and emerged with a yellow box with jumper cables hanging off of it.
“Spare battery,” she said. “Smartass.”
She popped the hood, wired up the battery and cranked the ignition. The car started up. She unhooked the battery, slammed the hood and replaced the battery in the trunk.
“Hundred thirty bucks,” she said, holding out her hand.
Per pointed toward the rear of the car. She checked the rear-view mirror, then turned her head to look through the window. A white-tailed doe was blocking the parking space.
She honked the horn. “Bastard,” she said.
“I tried to warn you,” he said.
She burst out of the car, shouting and waving her arms. The doe blinked at her, then walked a few yards to the side. Jennifer jumped back into the car, threw it into reverse and stepped on the accelerator. The car jerked backwards and crashed to a stop.
“What the hell?” Jennifer said.
The doe was still two stalls away, chewing its cud.
They climbed from the car. The left-rear wheel was off, lying hub up on the blacktop.
“For the tow truck,” Per said, holding out a couple of twenties.
It was two thirty in the morning by the time he walked into Hem. He found a playground, unlaced his shoes, lay down on a merry-go-round and passed out.
When he woke up the world was spinning.
“Good morning,” he said.
“My mom called you a creep,” the child said.
“Your mom is smart,” Per said.
“So are you a creep?” the child asked.
“Ask your mom,” Per said.
“Your hair looks funny.”
Per sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. “Is it okay if I stop this?” he asked.
“Okay,” the child agreed.
Per dragged a foot and stopped the merry-go-round. The child’s mother was staring at him with her arms folded.
“Hi,” Per said. “Do you have any socks?”
“Socks?” the woman asked.
“I walked from Over Hitt,” Per said. “This pair is shot.”
“You walked?” she asked. “From Over Hitt?”
“I got this,” he said. He handed her the scrap of paper. “Probably means something funny is going on.”
“You got that right,” she said. “Henry? Let’s go get this man some socks.”
Per stared up at the blue sky above the bank sign. A handful of liver landed in the street.
“Yep,” he said. “I see your problem.”
“It’s been falling steadily for two weeks,” the woman said.
“You could have a festival,” he suggested. “Earn some tourist dollars.”
“Look, mom!” Henry shouted. “I found a square piece!”
“It’s a curse,” she said, “not something to celebrate!”
“I’m Per,” Per said, holding out his hand. “Thank you for the socks.”
“Oh!” she said, shaking his hand. “Sorry, I’m Kimberly. Can you fix it?”
He shrugged. “I can try. I’m going to need a grill, some charcoal, lighter fluid, wood chips, a couple gallons of water, an army blanket and two slices of toast.”
“Toast?” she asked. “You’re grilling toast?”
He stared at her.
“Right,” she said. “You’re the expert.”
Kimberly and Henry returned with a charcoal grill and a bearded man carrying sacks of supplies. “Per,” she said, “this is my neighbor, Chad. Chad, Per.”
“You do this kind of thing a lot?” Chad asked.
“I’ve never seen this much liver,” Per answered.
“But still,” Chad said, “funny stuff?”
“I guess,” Per said. “Did you bring the toast?”
Kimberly dug in one of the bags in Chad’s arms. She handed over toast wrapped in a paper towel. Per removed a slice and took a bite. “Can you get the grill going?” he asked.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Henry told him.
Per nodded and munched toast as Chad and Kimberly poured charcoal and lighter fluid into the grill.
“Do we need to do anything special?” Chad asked.
Per shook his head and wiped his lips with the paper towel. Kimberly lit a match and tossed it on top of the charcoal, which burst into flames.
“You’re not, uh, planning to cook some liver?” Chad asked.
“Nope,” Per said. “Smoke signals.”
Kimberly, Henry and Chad stared at the sky above the bank sign. Liver thudded down.
“What are we going to say?” Henry finally asked.
“Puff?” Per suggested. “Puff, puff, puff?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kimberly asked, frowning.
“Doesn’t mean much,” Per agreed, “but it goes up to the sky.”
“And people pay you for this?” Chad asked.
“Nope,” Per said.
A small crowd had gathered.
“Now!” Per said.
Kimberly lifted the wet blanket from the grill. A cloud of smoke drifted skyward.
“Again!” he said.
She flopped the blanket back over the grill.
“He’s a charlatan,” Chad told the crowd.
“Now!” Per said.
Kimberly yanked the blanket into the air. Smoke went up.
“Again!” he said.
“Look!” Henry said.
The crowd all craned their necks skyward. White shapes were drifting down.
“It’s paper!” Henry shouted. He ran to catch a falling sheet.
“Is that it?” Kimberly asked. “No more liver?”
Per pointed. A large chunk of falling liver swatted one of the papers to the pavement.
“So then what use–” Kimberly began.
“It’s music!” Henry yelled, waving a handful of papers.
“This is good soup,” Per said.
Mrs. Hansen had invited Per, Kimberly, Henry and Chad to her house for lunch.
“I’m sorry I called you a charlatan,” Chad said.
Mrs. Hansen hung up the phone. “That was Doris,” she said. “She says we’re short two baritones.”
“I can sing baritone,” Chad said.
“Mrs. Hansen?” Per said. “What kind of soup is this?”
“Knoephla,” she said. “I’m from North Dakota. Do you sing baritone?”
Per slurped soup and shook his head. “I’m a tenor.”
“Can’t you just fake it?” asked Kimberly.
“I can try,” he said, “but I’m not much of a singer. Can I have some more soup?”
The townspeople gathered around the liver, sheet music clutched in their hands.
Mrs. Mueller, the Episcopal choir director, raised her baton.
“Everyone make sure to project!” Per shouted.
Mrs. Mueller made a sour face. “May I begin?” she asked.
“Any time,” Per said.
Mrs. Mueller took a deep breath and gave the downbeat.
The citizens’ voices swelled, and the rain of liver slowed. Mrs. Karlsson took a scratchy alto solo. Per glanced up at the sky. They reached the end of the song and Mrs. Mueller gave the cutoff.
High above the bank a dot was falling.
“It didn’t work,” Chad said. “Charlatan.”
“Is that liver?” asked Mrs. Karlsson. “It doesn’t look like liver.”
“It’s a baseball!” shouted Henry. “It’s not a baseball!”
A single onion smacked down onto the pile of liver, and the crowd fell silent.
Minutes passed. The sky remained empty.
“Thanks, everybody,” Per said.
Mr. Novak rolled a wheelbarrow forward and began to shovel.
“This is good pot roast,” Per said.
“How did you get into this?” Kimberly asked.
Per chewed silently.
“Did you go to school for it?” Henry asked.
“When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do?” Kimberly asked.
Per bit down on a chunk of gristle. He raised his napkin to his mouth and spat.
“Are you married?” Kimberly asked.
Per looked at the wad of paper in his napkin.
“Is something wrong?” Kimberly asked.
Per spread his napkin on the table and flattened out the soggy paper.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I don’t know how that got in there.”
The paper said, “Neste.”
“Neste,” Per said.
“Neste?” she said. “That’s clear on the other side of the state.”
“Yep,” Per said.
“Can we give you a ride?” she asked. “Seems like the least we can do.”
He carved himself another slice of pot roast. “That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll walk.”