Freshly minted from a small, inconsequential college of liberal arts, Stuart Rosenstein surprised his parents, his longtime girlfriend, and even himself when he decided neither to apply to graduate school nor to seek his fortune at an insurance agency or stock brokerage, but instead to accept his uncle’s offer to assume ownership of the uncle’s retail appliance business, a ramshackle enterprise cemented in an unfashionable stretch of Fillmore Avenue along the fringes of downtown Fergus Falls. The name of the store was Appliance Pete’s. The official name of the uncle was not Pete, let alone Appliance Pete, but he had run his business under the name for so long that everyone called him that. Stuart presumed that an original Appliance Pete lay buried in the store’s history, but the uncle kept poor records and if he knew the story of such a person, he wasn’t spilling it. The uncle was an octogenarian with hair sprouting from his ears. The year was Nineteen hundred and Seventy-seven.
“First thing to remember,” warbled Appliance Pete to his nephew as they toured the showroom, “is that you’ll get no help from your fairy godmother. No one looks after you in business, except yourself.”
Appliance Pete walked with a cane and a slight stoop, halting frequently to accommodate a barking, productive cough that he received in a stained, yellowed handkerchief. He smelled of sweaty undershirts and unplugged refrigerators.
“No fairy godmother,” Stuart repeated dutifully. He went so far as to inscribe the phrase on a yellow legal pad.
“You can’t trust anyone to help you, especially when business goes into the toilet. I don’t sell toilets, by the way.” Appliance Pete whacked a nearby washing machine with his cane, as if to prove it was not a toilet. “Your only true friends,” he continued, stopping for a few loud wheezes and to hock up a gob of phlegm, “are the dogs.”
“Dogs?” asked Stuart.
“‘Couple of Dobermans. For security at night. You can get rid of them if you want, not that I recommend it.”
“What’s this?” asked Stuart, pointing to a brown squiggle amidst the lint and dust on the floor.
“Oh. That’s rat shit,” crooned Appliance Pete. “You’ve got rats, too.”
As his uncle delineated the assets and liabilities of both the appliance business and advancing age, young Stuart Rosenstein dreamed of what he would do once his uncle expectorated out of his life for good. With a flourish, he would rip out the yellowing linoleum floors and Formica counter tops and he would banish the slobbering Dobermans. He would replace them with wall-to-wall carpeting and Musak and track lighting, as well as the finest electronic surveillance equipment available.
“What brand of appliances do you prefer to sell?” asked Stuart, ballpoint pen poised smartly over the paper.
Appliance Pete stopped walking and gazed incredulously at his nephew. His dentured mouth formed a startled, open-mouthed ‘O’.
“Swaldmulms, from Sweden, of course!” he proclaimed.
Stuart eagerly jotted the name on the yellow legal pad.
“Is that m-u-m-s, or m-u-l-m-s, or is it—“
“When your mark spots a Swaldmulm dishwasher or washing machine,” continued Appliance Pete, “she buys it instantly. In any color! At any price! The thing runs beautifully, the mark tells all her friends, then five years later the thing breaks down and she comes to the store and, oh my goodness, she buys a new one.”
“Wow,” said Stuart in admiration. “How come I’ve never heard of Swaldmulms before?”
“Because they don’t exist!” the uncle yelled triumphantly, jabbing Stuart in the chest with a pointed finger. “Gotcha, didn’t I?”
“I think my question deserves a real–
“The minute you start believing that some super dishwasher or wonder washer-dryer is going to save your bee-hind,” proclaimed Uncle Appliance Pete, “that’s the time to leave the appliance business for something less odious, like cleaning up after circus animals. You ever think of joining the circus, boy? It’s not such a bad life.”
Stuart did not want to join the circus. He wanted to manage a business and he wanted to be prepared, and rather than continue to consult his uncle he decided to answer his questions for himself. For example, if he should catch a salesman cajoling or browbeating a customer into buying a television set, dishwasher, stereo, or refrigerator that was more expensive than the customer could possibly afford, Stuart decided he would fire the salesman on the spot and apologize to the customer profusely. If he should catch a shoplifter—say, a troubled juvenile from an ethnic minority group—he would lecture the child lovingly and send him on his way, at least for a first offense. If a valued employee should catch a cold, or should need admission to the hospital, or should need time off to take care of important personal business, Stuart would grant leave from work with no penalty whatsoever. Stuart imagined sponsoring Little League and advertising in the playbills of high school musicals. Before Christmas he would dress up as Santa and hand out candy canes and chocolate bars to all the children who walked by.
First, of course, Stuart allowed, I should hire an exterminator for the rats.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” Stuart asked the uncle.
“Did I mention the fairy godmothers? Did I recommend you join the circus?”
“Yes, and yes,” said Stuart.
“Then I told you everything. Good-bye.”
The uncle and Stuart shook hands, and Stuart watched as he waddled away.
“Oh, there is one more thing,” called the uncle. “I left you my last three boxes of Panatellos, in case you want them. Look in the file cabinet under Delinquent Invoices. I’m giving up cigars, you know. My internist says I have a permanent wad of pus in my left lung.”
On his first full day as owner, wearing the new Arrow shirt with matching tie that his girlfriend had purchased for the occasion, Stuart Rosenstein waltzed into his new business and discovered that the back room and his private office were four inches under water.
“Pipes rusted through,” said the plumber four hours later, “I see this happen a lot. Best thing to do is replace the whole set up. Six days work. Set you back about eight or nine thousand.”
“Dollars?!” asked Stuart Rosenstein.
After six months of various assaults and effrontery, including two late-night heists, three broken windows, five dishwashers each returned for defective detergent-release mechanisms that no one on staff had any idea how to fix, as well as a moderately successful embezzlement scheme undertaken by the store accountant, Stuart found himself teetering on bankruptcy, a situation with which his uncle, as Stuart remembered with increasing fervency and alarm, was more than passingly familiar.
Thus limited by time, money, and wherewithal, Stuart pared his list of capital improvements to merely one, which was to change the store name. Stuart had wanted a complete name change, a revolution of retail appliance nomenclature that would bring in startled and amazed Fergus Fallsians by the truckload. Because he couldn’t think of such a name, and because he grudgingly admitted that the Appliance Pete name was well known and established in the community, and because he couldn’t afford new stationery, Stuart settled for appending a single word to the sign on the storefront.
The word was Famous. When the by-the-book union workmen whom Stuart had bribed to do the job in the middle of the night had finished, the store had metamorphosed into Famous Appliance Pete’s. Stuart allowed himself to dream that he’d soon bask in the company of successful cookie bakers, animal acts, and professional wrestlers.
All that fame did, however, was attract tourists.
Two men—one tall, blond, and bulky; the other short, wiry, and vaguely Mediterranean—ambled into the showroom. The pair cased the floor as if on stakeout: popping open lids of random Maytags and Whirlpools, flicking buttons on stereos and televisions, eyeballing the tags dangling from everything.
Eventually, the short, wiry man sidled up to Stuart, who was wearing an unpressed Arrow shirt and a tie with a few loose strings dangling at the edges.
“You know, Mac,” said the short wiry one, “they’ve got better prices up in Fargo.” He ripped a price tag off a nearby General Electric refrigerator and pushed it in Stuart’s face. Behind him, the blond, bulky fellow was kicking the tires of a large vacuum cleaner.
“This is not Fargo,” replied Stuart through clenched teeth.
The short wiry man dropped the tag, which fluttered menacingly to the floor. He glowered at Stuart, who returned his gaze in kind, and then he called for his silent comrade with a harrumph. The two sneered their way out the exit.
An older couple stepped tenuously inside the showroom, peering about as if expecting Satan’s minions to spew forth from the heating vents. The mister wore a linen suit and a porkpie hat and possessed a prominent Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down in syncopation with inaudible and unseen farm equipment. His wife had hair of an orange color not found in nature. The two promenaded slowly up and down the aisles, as if in church, never more than an inch or two away from each other, never daring to touch any of the merchandise.
“Ya’ know,” said the woman when she encountered Stuart, her granny specs resplendent in the fluorescent lighting, “the stores in Lake Wobegon are a lot cleaner.”
“This is not Lake Wobegon!” shouted Stuart more loudly than he had intended, shaking his hands over his head. The man opened his mouth to say something, but the wife led him away.
A family of Orthodox Jews burst into the showroom. The children, three boys and three girls, instantly took to chasing each other at high speeds, playing impromptu hide-and-seek, cartwheeling in the aisles, and fingering the electronic keyboard with seventy-one programmable backgrounds. Meanwhile, the parents poked about the small corner that featured small kitchen appliances. The boys and their father were dressed in floor length black coats with shiny brass buttons and black hats; the girls and their mother wore plaid dresses that cascaded over the knees.
“You know,” said the patriarch to the junior sales clerk who had approached him, “they’ve got newer models back in Duluth.”
“This is not Duluth!” bellowed Stuart, interrupting his lunch of pepperoni pizza, candy bars, and Yoo-Hoo soft drink to come storming into the showroom, brandishing his three half-eaten Three Musketeers like a pitchfork.
That afternoon, Stuart mounted a sturdy plank suspended between two ladders on the sidewalk. For a solid half an hour he ripped away ‘Famous’, one letter at a time.
As the years progressed, changing the store’s name had become less and less of a priority, until it was not a priority at all. For that matter, Stuart Rosenstein gradually accepted the name Appliance Pete for himself. It was easier that way. Everyone but his girlfriend had turned to calling him Appliance Pete, and when she left him for a real estate agent she met at a miniature golf course, no one but a few doddering relatives and friends he didn’t see any more were left to call him anything else. His weight equilibrated at an impressive value that would balance an adult walrus, and his hairline receded to the shores of a distant ocean. He took up Yahtzee, a dice game that one could play and enjoy all by oneself.
On a day well into his tenure, when both his age and pants size had inched to the same advanced and prosaic number, Appliance Pete tossed Yahtzee dice until his wrist ached, listened to an unusually-timbered honk from a bus on Fillmore Avenue, took a few extra long puffs of a cigar (one of his own collection, having long since exhausted the supply from the uncle) and decided to give business improvement another go. Need more walk-ins, he muttered to himself. Walk-ins, walk-ins, walk-ins.
He decided to dress up the storefront window.
The next morning, with the help of three itinerant morons from the contingent of morons who worked for him, he tore down the cardboard signs advertising the lowest, lowest prices on Sony knock-off car stereos and replaced them with the largest, most elaborate projector-style television on the market, one that he was not surprised to still have in stock because no one in the neighborhood could afford to buy it.
The citizens of Fergus Falls walked by the new window display as if it were a brick wall.
Appliance Pete muttered to himself and cursed the makers of Yahtzee for three days straight, until a bell rang in his head–or in the tower of the First Lutheran Church across the street, he was not sure–and he wired the display for sound.
This way, he told no one in particular, the pedestrians of Fillmore Avenue can not only watch their hockey games and game shows and situation comedies and emergency room dramas on a larger than life, state-of-the-art television, they can also hear the body checks and pings and buzzers and laugh tracks and screams of anguish over the injuries to loved ones.
The pedestrians walked by Appliance Pete’s faster than ever. No one cared to watch larger-than-life left wingers or greedy housewives or to listen to stereophonic screams of burn victims. Business stagnated at the usual rate. Appliance Pete took to perching on a stool by the front counter and scowling at whoever dared enter the establishment. He tossed Yahtzee dice with a renewed vigor, searching for inspiration or redemption in the patterns of dots. He also took to noshing on Chef Boyardee Spaghetti-O’s straight from the can.
“I congratulate you on growing slightly less dense,” spoke a voice one especially quiet evening, at only seventeen minutes before the five-thirty closing time. Appliance Pete looked up, bits of canned spaghetti sauce escaping down his chin. Then he looked down, because the voice came from lower than he had expected.
In front of him stood a very short man grinning maniacally through yellow teeth. His body shape suggested the letter S, even as hidden under a floor length, very tattered winter coat. His head was disproportionately large, his fingers disproportionately chubby. Crowning the head, oddly enough, was a black top hat. Something in the costume smelled greatly of mothballs.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Appliance Pete.
“I’m the Gnome!” the small person cried gamely, and he tipped the top hat in salute, revealing white hair in an unconvincing combover. “I have been trying to help you as I tried to help your uncle. I congratulate you on actually hearing a little of what I have to say.”
“The Nome?” repeated Appliance Pete.
“No, the Gnome. With a silent G.” He traced a curly-cue in the air.
“How do you tell the difference?”
“Because I am very perceptive,” he admonished with a cackle. “For example, if you said to me that you felt Erie about Lake eerie, I would know that you had transposed the two homonyms.”
“Do you want to buy something?” asked the former Stuart Rosenstein.
“Oh, no!” squealed the Gnome.
“Then get the hell out of my store.”
“As you wish, Mr. Appliance Pete. But because you have proven so worthy, would you mind if I bestowed upon you and your establishment a quick, inaudible enchantment?”
“Yes, I would mind very much,” said Appliance Pete
“Too late, the enchantment already is in place. My dear ineffable deity what is that horrible sight behind you?”
Appliance Pete swiveled on his stool and bore witness to his display of dry cell batteries, electric shavers, hand-held hair dryers, and disposable cameras, none of which struck him as horrible by any stretch of the imagination. When he swiveled back, the Gnome was very much gone.
From his perch at the counter, Appliance Pete looked up and down the showroom, then up and down his body. Everything was as it always was: the cracked linoleum floor tiles, the oppressive but shoplift-preventing fluorescent lighting, the rows of merchandise that managed not to gleam and sparkle, and his flabby, mundane, world-weary self.
Appliance Pete returned to his Yahtzee game.
To his moderate bemusement, he was tossing odd numbers—fives, ones, and threes—with a greater frequency than to be expected.
In bed that night, Appliance Pete found himself embroiled in a vivid, enthralling dream involving his eponymous establishment, which in itself was not surprising as the business had always consumed his attention. Yet in the morning, he awoke with a blueprint affixed in his brain as if it had been tattooed.
“What a bunch of crap,” he mumbled to the Rice Crispies.
The Rice Crispies responded with a snap, crackle, and pop—their traditional morning communiqué.
“Fine,” replied Stuart in grudging defeat. “What the hell do I have to lose?”
At the store that morning, he instructed two employees to crate the giant television in the front window and haul it to the storeroom. To replace it, he had them fill the window with a baker’s dozen of ordinary-sized televisions, each a different model. Some were big, some were small, a few were in black and white. He perched televisions on floor mats and on bookshelves, and he hung others from the ceiling. He set many of them to the same channel and wired the sound to the amplifiers on the street. The remaining televisions he set to different channels with the volume off. In a fit of inspiration, Appliance Pete added the odd vacuum cleaner, clock radio, portable CD player, and electric hand mixer for good measure.
That night and subsequent nights thereafter, crowds gathered in front of Appliance Pete’s as if it was Barnum and Bailey. Moreover, a surprising percentage of the crowd separated themselves from their brethren and entered the store, and a surprising percentage of those who entered the store actually purchased something.
On a wintry evening in January, as Appliance Pete watched through the storefront window, a crowd of about twenty gathered to watch and listen to the array of television sets, on which multiple iterations of the same important announcement were airing. Snow, which had been nonexistent in the morning, was falling like laundry detergent. No one in the crowd seemed to mind.
“My friends, we cannot allow negative thinking to take over City Hall,” said multiple images of Mayor Mingalone, most of them in color, sometimes big, occasionally small. “Instead, we must continue to move forward, forward into the future, to create a prosperous, vital, gleaming Fergus Falls!”
“What a putz,” said a man in a ski parka and a knit hat.
“I ain’t voting for him,” replied a woman carrying lots of shopping bags, “although maybe I’ll buy a hair dryer.”
“Of course you are voting for him. Who else is there?” postured a man in a camel’s hair coat. A few in the crowd groaned in reply, as if they knew this sentiment to be true.
“Unlike my opponent, I believe in that future,” boomed the sound system, “Therefore I, your mayor, Francis Xavier Mingalone, am announcing my candidacy for a fifth term as mayor of this great city.”
“I don’t care, I’m voting for Councilwoman Engebritzen,” said the man in the ski parka, his voice carrying not at all among the snowfall and whippy winter wind. “I wonder how much they want for the thirteen-inch screen?”
“I’m voting for the Mayor,” replied the man in the camel’s hair coat. “Why don’t you go inside and ask?”
Perched on his favorite wooden stool, watching the onlookers stray into the showroom like fish on a line, Appliance Pete reached into the back pocket of his overstretched trousers and pulled out a stick of sugar-free bubble gum. He had decided to substitute bubble gum for cigars.
Sitting so close to the window, Appliance Pete felt the cold January air nipping at his neck and heels. As he blew a pink bubble to the point of bursting, he imagined the artificial sweetener diffusing throughout the store—slowly, inexorably coating the walls, floors, and merchandise.