A Keg of Cherry Wheat
by Jerry Bryson
“He’s really pissed off, Lucky.”
“Why? He said he liked the Christmas present I gave him at the office party.”
“That wasn’t exactly what he said,” Johnny corrected me. “He said he never had a hundred percent polyester tie before. Especially one with hand-painted spaghetti on it.”
“Well, he still laughed. He didn’t seem mad. And the idea was to bring a gag gift, right?”
“I don't think they meant that kind of gag, Lucky. You gotta watch Montaldo. You haven’t been here long. Things exaggerate themselves in his mind. He can see the simplest innocent remark as a major affront. He never acts mad. He doesn’t seem mad. Then one day he does something he considers getting even. Maybe months later.”
I let the matter drop. As I said, Montaldo didn’t seem mad at all. I was new in the Sacramento office of Holbrook exports and Montaldo helped me get settled. He recommended a realtor who found me a very good house for the money. He showed me the ropes at the office and took me to meet his clients. I even took over one of his biggest accounts. We often went out for a beer or two after work.
Montaldo and I shared a passion for microbrews. We would hit Dabney’s Pub a couple of times a week. Dabney specialized in microbrews generally, and the various brands of Cherry Wheat, in particular.
One evening, Dabney came over with samples of a recent delivery from a brewery in Colorado.
“Velor’s,” Dabney said. He had brought Montaldo and me each a half-pint mug, on the house. “They make some good stuff.”
Montaldo took a taste. “Really fine,”
I agreed after just a sip. We sat and drank for a while, without saying much.
After a few of the Velor’s, Montaldo said, “Have you ever had Kastelbein’s, Lucky?”
I hadn’t. Hadn’t even heard of them, in fact. Montaldo was glad to enlighten me.
“They’re in Michigan. They make a Cherry Wheat to die for.” He paused and chuckled about something he chose not to explain. “They claim to use a secret kind of filter, or something. Anyway, it really brings out the cherries.
“Sounds interesting,” I said. “Wonder if Dabney has any?”
“He doesn’t. Can’t get it. They say it doesn’t travel well, and that they can’t ship it this far. But I got a keg while I was in Dearborn. That’s why I drove the rental car back instead of flying. Wouldn’t let me check the keg on the plane.”
“So you have the keg, now?” The Velor’s had taken its effect. My conclusion at the time seemed to me a stunning flash of logic inspired by the very gods.
“Indeed I have. Care to try some over at my place?”
I would have accepted, but my watch told me Colonel Butch was barking over his feeding dish by now.
“Sure,” I said as we left the bar. “I’ll go home after work, feed Colonel Butch and then get over to your place about seven? Oh, I leave for Cancun the morning after, so I need to make sure the neighbor kid is still going to watch him while I’m gone.”
Montaldo closed his eyes and smiled, as if thanking some unseen spirit. “Ah, yes, Cancun.” He seemed to dwell on the thought. The trip was to meet some of the backers of one of our clients. It was the account I had taken over from Montaldo. Otherwise, he would be going to Cancun.
“I hope you don’t have hard feelings about the McMurdoch account,” I said. “It wasn’t my idea to take it over...”
“Oh no, I understand Holbrook’s reasoning,” Montaldo assured me, “we had all but lost the McMurdoch account anyway. To tell the truth, you may have saved my job for me.”
“Seven sounds good. See you at the office in the morning, and then at my place at seven.”
* * *
“He sure sounds friendly, after you stole the McMurdoch account from him.” Johnny seemed concerned.
“I didn’t steal the McMurdoch account,” I protested, “We had as good as lost the account, anyway. I just saved it for us. And old K.J. Holbrook thanked me personally. Even Montaldo said I saved his job for him.”
“Wasn’t much else he could have said at that point, was there?” Johnny let the matter drop, and so did I. I was going to be out of the office for a week. Holbrook was sending me to Cancun to meet with McMurdoch’s people and finalize our working agreement. I wasn’t too worried about Montaldo’s feelings because he said he didn’t care to travel, anyway.
* * *
It turned out the neighbor kid hadn’t asked his parents’ permission to watch Colonel Butch while I was gone. I had to discuss that with him and his parents.
Once they agreed, I had to get Colonel Butch’s food and favorite toys packed up and in the possession of the kid’s mother. Colonel Butch would stay in his kennel, except when the kid took him out for exercise.
I got to Montaldo’s house a bit late. “Ah, but it’s all the better for waiting, right?” Like the good host he was, Montaldo waved off my apology for being late. He was dressed in work clothes, like a bricklayer, but with the spaghetti polyester tie I had given him. The perfect host.
“It’s just a project I work on in the evenings,” he explained, “The keg’s in the cellar, downstairs.”
Montaldo’s house was Spanish Modern, I guess you’d call it. I think I’d heard Montaldo say it had been built in the 1950’s. But the cellar was obviously much older. The walls were local stone, laid with mortar that was starting to crumble.
When Montaldo turned on the light, I saw a couple of tree roots poking through the outer walls. Other walls made the same way crisscrossed the cellar and divided it into cell-like parts.
“They were supporting walls for the original house,” Montaldo said, “It fell in a big quake about a hundred years ago. The new place has steel beams and doesn’t need the walls. But they left them anyway. This is going to be my beer and wine cellar and the walls will help organize the place. My first keg is at the other end.”
He picked up a flashlight. With it we lit our way into the dank cellar, down the stairs and along the aisle between what I had begun to think of as cells, to the particular cell that had the keg of Cherry Wheat. There was the smell of fresh mortar among the other scents.
“That’s my project, Montaldo said, “Shoring up the walls. Got a special, — heh, heh — quick-setting mortar.” He shined the light on a pallet of bricks and a trough of mortar across the isle from the cell with the keg.
I took that as a gentle hint from Montaldo not to use up his whole evening with my visit. I was sure he wanted to work on his project. Besides, he knew I was leaving for Cancun on the morning flight.
I had planned to go home early, anyway. I wanted some extra sleep before the trip and I needed to make sure Colonel Butch was settled down in his Kennel.
The keg occupied one of the three chairs in its cell. Montaldo and I settled into the other two. He set the flashlight on the floor and produced a couple of mugs from a little cabinet beside the keg, filled them, and handed one to me. Yes, it was a stellar brew.
We traded office gossip for a couple of mugs. About then, I noticed the chains anchored to the wall.
“The first house on this site was a Spanish Manor in the old days,” Montaldo explained. “Heh, heh... They had very different labor relations back then.” He raised his mug to one of the chains. I noticed they still had the bracelets on the ends. They were still quite usable.
Montaldo launched into a history of the site. He discoursed enthusiastically while we each drank three more mugs. The topic settled onto the chains and bracelets.
“They must have chafed a lot,” I said.
“Only if the person struggled against them. Here, I’ll show you. Put this on.”
I put my hand though the cuff, as directed. I don’t think I would have let him do that if I hadn’t had all those Cherry Wheats. As soon as my hand was in the cuff, Montaldo locked it around my wrist and let out a scream of diabolical triumph. Only then did I begin to suspect what he had in mind.
“Hey, neat trick, Montaldo. Now how about letting me loose?”
But he only let out another shrieking howl of a laugh. “Let you loose? Let you loose to take my trip to Cancun?”
More of his crazy laughter. Then I realized he was mixing mortar.
“Aw, come on, Montaldo, I gotta get the dog to his sitter! I got a plane to catch in the morning.”
“Oh, the plane will fly just fine without you, I’m sure. You might as well have given the dog to the kid. I guess he’ll keep him when you don’t come back, anyway, don’t you?”
“Montaldo, just what do you think you’re doing?”
He knew very well what he was doing. He was laying bricks across the cell door. I tried to think of something to say to make him stop.
I tried joking with him. “You know,” I said, “those brick don’t really match the original stone. It’s not very appealing.”
“But nobody will see it but you and me, and you don’t really care, now do you?”
He had a point. And my humor was not going to take it from him. We argued through half the night. Montaldo kept laying bricks. At last he finished the last course of masonry, leaving me in the dark.
I supposed I at least wouldn’t die of thirst, not soon, anyway. I could at least reach the keg. I wondered how long the remaining Cherry Wheat would last. A couple of weeks, perhaps? A month? I calculated I could make the brew last until I died from starvation or exposure to the dankness of the cellar.
* * *
I sipped. I had no idea of the time. I took a sip only when I became unbearably thirsty. I didn’t want to die drunk. Family honor, perhaps. I thought I drank slowly enough to remain sober. But so would most people.
I woke up, or came to, with Colonel Butch licking my face. There were flashlights, and the glint of police badges.
“Hang in there, buddy, we’ll get you loose in no time. Robins, go get a hacksaw.”
It took me a minute to realize I was being rescued. “How... How did you find me?” I scratched Colonel Butch’s ears with my free hand.
“You’ve been here for three days,” the cop said, “Somebody at your work needed a question answered, and called your hotel in Cancun, and found you hadn’t shown up. Then your friend Johnny noticed Montaldo was missing, too, and called us. We found out you didn’t get on your flight. The kid next door was the last person to see you. When we went to talk to him, your dog got loose and brought us here.”
“But how did Colonel Butch get to me? Montaldo walled me in.”
“Huh? walled you in? I don’t think so. There’s new brick on the cell across the aisle, but not the one where you are.”
The cop realized what had happened before I did.
“Atchison, you better go get a sledge hammer,” he said.
“Huh? Why?” several of the cops asked at once.
“For Montaldo. He walled up the wrong door. He must be trapped in that cell across the aisle.” The cop shook his head, “He must have been crazy to make that kind of mistake — or drunk.”
They took me to the hospital to get checked out. While I was there, a cop came to take my statement. He told me they had found Montaldo dead.
“He died?” I was surprised. “Of what, thirst? But it wasn’t that long, was it? Just a couple of days?”
“He choked on that godawfull tie he was wearing. It had a spaghetti design on it, you know,” the cop said.
“What’d he do, hang himself?”
“No, sir, We think he tried to eat it.”
The author extends his heartfelt admiration and apologies to Edgar Allan Poe and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Copyright © 2006 by Jerry Bryson