Pomona Queen


By Kem Nunn

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 27, 2000. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

“Kem Nunn writes directly out of the lineage of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. If there is a contemporary writer with a deeper sense of evil, I don’t know who it would be. Pomona Queen is utterly first-rate” — Jim Harrison

Lost in a southern California barrio, Earl Dean has a hard time believing there is one living soul in this foul-smelling night who wants to be found by a salesman hawking vacuum cleaners. What awaits Earl in the faint glow of a distant porch light is the world of Dan Brown.

Dan Brown’s brother has been killed. Dan has plans to handle the revenge, and Earl has strayed into the crossfire. Dan is the last of the road warriors, a murderous, drug-crazed biker who only thinks of laws as things to break. But more than Buddy Brown lies dead in the moonlight. From a time when the valley was the hub of the nation’s citrus industry to the defoliated sorry mess of today, it has come down to one fact. Earl Dean, broken-hearted vacuum cleaner salesman, owns the last single acre of orange groves in Pomona. And like his great-grandfather before him, he must come forward to claim his inheritance.

“Kem Nunn does for Pomona what Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Nathanael West did for Los Angeles.” — Los Angeles Times

“Nunn is a swift, economical stylist with a gift for the absurd.” — San Francisco Chronicle



Certainly the natives of Southern California were an inferior race. . . . Physically they were not strong, lithe and active, like the Cheyenne or Sioux, but squat, fat and unattractive. Untrustworthy they were, and ready to kill on provocation or for gain, but not brave or fierce.

—F. P. Brackett

A Brief Early History of the San Jose Rancho and its Subsequent Cities: Pomona, San Dimas, La Verne and Spadra

Earl Dean lost a good deal of hair quickly in his early twenties and the experience had left him in the habit of rubbing his head. In the beginning, he believed, the habit had sprung from curiosity, wondering at a given moment, say, just how many more of the bastards had jumped ship, which was how he thought of it then. He thought of it in terms of desertion and betrayal. When he rubbed his head now it was generally for some other reason. He knew what he looked like. He would sometimes catch himself at it while receiving bad news, listening to Carl upon the subject of Adverse Possession, for instance. The man had unearthed the item in a dog-eared copy of The Real Estate Handbook. It was a law by which he hoped to separate his stepson from his inheritance, namely the last acre of citrus in the Pomona Valley, and definitely qualified as bad news. Dean also rubbed his head when something was making him nervous, which was why he rubbed it now. When he became conscious of the act he stopped.

It was the part of town he was in that he didn’t like, a run-down barrio south of Pomona someone with a sense of humor had thought to call Clear Lake. There were no sidewalks in Clear Lake, no streetlights, practically no roads. The lake, if in fact you wanted to call it that, was nothing more than a large hole dug to accommodate the runoff from a nearby cement factory. The stuff that filled the hole was the color of coffee and stank of rotten eggs.

It was an odor which, on the evening in question, Dean thought unusually strong. It seemed to fill his ’62 Falcon station wagon as it humped along in the gathering darkness, a front end in need of a rebuild rattling and shimmying as the car passed over what, in Clear Lake, passed for a street. The rear of the wagon, filled as it was with Dean’s equipment, rattled almost as loudly as the front. The equipment was this: a dozen dollhouses and half a dozen vacuum cleaners. Except of course that you weren’t supposed to call them vacuum cleaners. Air purifier was the correct title. The dollhouses were the free gifts people got for allowing you to demonstrate the difference.

*  *  *

Dean drew a hand through what was left of his hair and looked once more at the address he had scribbled on a notepad before leaving the office. Not that the thing did him much good here. The place was a maze of cheap, look-alike tract homes and most of the addresses were illegible, though it occurred to him that this was perhaps intentional. It seemed to him the sort of neighborhood in which a good many of the citizens were probably wanted by someone, a collection agency, the law, an estranged mate. . . . Thinking this he paused to marvel that somewhere out there in the foul-smelling night someone really did want to be found by a vacuum-cleaner salesman.

But then that prospect was of course suspect itself, given the level of telephone soliciting currently going on back at the office. The way it was supposed to work was that the girls at the phones were supposed to do a little preliminary screening. They could, for instance, make sure the prospective buyers were of age. They could make sure the people knew what it was they were being asked to look at. In three weeks on the job, however, Dean had already seen enough wildgoose chases to induce skepticism. The Clear Lake address had made him suspicious when he’d written it down, though Betty, the chain-smoking heifer who had sent him here, seemed to think they had a hot one on the line. Of course Betty had been wrong before, about a number of things, and Dean, lost now in the bowels of Clear Lake, a quarter moon shining slyly above him in a murky sky, was just about ready to bag it and start looking for the exit. He would tell Betty the address was nonexistent. He would tell her someone had been pulling her leg. These things happened and he had just about convinced himself of it when the address suddenly appeared before him—a series of painted wooden numbers tacked to a stucco wall at the end of a narrow, weed-choked driveway. The numbers were illuminated by a light that had been left on in the carport, just as if someone were expecting him.

Dean pulled to the side of the road and looked down the narrow drive. The carport was empty, its grease-spattered floor shining in the light. There were half a dozen yellowed newspapers in the drive and a pair of big chopped scooters parked on what was left of the grass. The scooters were not of the variety to set a man’s mind at ease. There were some tools in the yard, near the bikes, and a tire leaned up against the fence, which had been built to screen off the front of the house. Behind the house a pair of ancient palms scratched at the sky, their fronds tipped with silver in the scant moonlight.

Dean slouched behind the wheel, double-checking the address on the card with the wooden numbers at the end of the drive, torn between his gut feelings for the place and Betty’s words about a hot one, torn, one might say, between fear and greed. He allowed himself the momentary luxury of imagining it a predicament he no doubt shared with other movers and shakers, those sleek characters he’d observed on his last drive down Santa Monica Boulevard, landsharks behind tinted glass, car phones pressed against sleek, predatory heads. The image, however, was only marginally comforting and he made himself stop. The bad part was, Dean was proving to be something of a salesman. In three weeks he had already sold more Cyclone Air Purifiers than anyone else in the office. Also, there was this: the selling, if in fact he kept at it, was only the beginning. Just last week the office had been visited by a former graduate, a man who had himself begun in sales, just like Dean, then worked his way into management, a position in which he now took a percentage of what everyone beneath him made. Dean had sat in his metal folding chair and watched the figures go up on the blackboard. He’d seen the dollars multiply like rodents. He’d seen the branch manager’s fire engine red El Dorado with the white leather interior parked in front of the office, shining like the Star of India between the California Thrift & Loan and the pizza parlor, and it had not been difficult to imagine he was at least as smart as the oily-looking bastard who drove the thing. Nor did he have difficulty imagining the precise look on his stepfather’s face at that moment in which Dean would come forward, enough bread in hand to claim his inheritance, claim it as his great-grandfather had claimed it before him—surely a magical moment in which some cosmic arc would come full circle, in which parallel lines at last would meet, in which, at the very least, Earl Dean’s stepfather would be given to understand he had just been quite righteously fucked in the ass. The image suited him. It was motivational. Armed with it, he was a salesman. He could stare down fear. It was enough at least to get him out of the car, get him around to the back, and start him toward the house, a dollhouse jingling at the end of one arm, a Cyclone Air Purifier at the end of the other, across the ragged grass where the scooters hunkered like mutant insects, chromed pipes and high-gloss lacquered tanks shining softly in the moonlight, and not until he’d rung the doorbell did he realize that somewhere between the Falcon and the porch, distracted no doubt by the sweet scent of victory, he had stepped in dog shit.

*  *  *

The door was answered by a huge, blond-haired woman. At least her hair was blond on top. The roots were black. She was dressed in a kind of flowered shift beneath which her breasts bounced like a pair of underinflated beach balls. She was barefoot. She had a beer in one hand and the door knob in the other. When she saw Earl Dean, with his dollhouse and Cyclone Air Purifier, she said, “Shit.”

“Who is it?” Someone Earl could not see spoke from the interior of the house.

“Looks like a fucking salesman,” the woman said. She looked at Dean’s shoes. “With a case of the dogshit blues.”

“Tell him to go fuck himself,” the same voice said.

Dean thought of leaving. But then he had come so far. He had stepped in dog shit. He asked instead if someone had agreed to a demonstration of the Cyclone Air Purifier, thus making themselves eligible for a free gift.

“What?” the woman asked in return.

“Oh, yeah.” a second voice, clearly female, issued from the room behind the fat woman.

The man Dean had yet to see responded angrily, “What in the fuck would you do a stupid thing like that for? Tell him to beat it.”

The fat woman looked at Dean and shrugged. She moved as if to close the door.

“No, no, wait,” the second female voice said.

Dean could hear footsteps and soon a thin brunette appeared in the armpit of the blond. “He’s got a free gift,” she said. She looked at Dean. “We want our free gift, dude.”

Dean took the girl to be in her late teens. Perhaps she was twenty. She was dressed in a pair of black jeans and a sleeveless purple top. She wore a faded red bandanna on her head. A thin golden ring pierced the delicate wing of one nostril.

“The free gift is for watching a demonstration of the unit,” Dean said. He was speaking to the girl and he wondered how he had managed to say something as corny as “the unit.” One was supposed to refer to said unit as your Cyclone. As in: I’ve come to demonstrate your Cyclone, Ms. Finkbinder. The power of suggestion. Though in point of fact, Dean attributed his success as a Cyclone salesman thus far to his ability to ignore the rules most of his brother salesmen were trying hard to live by. In his opinion the rules did little more than play the man trusting in them for a fool.

“That’s not what the lady on the phone said,” the brunette told him. She was leaning forward now, her pale face shining in the light at the side of the house, her eyes warming to the fight.

Dean thought of telling the girl she was mistaken. It quickly occurred to him, however, that Betty may have said exactly that, or something just as bad, and he allowed himself a moment of silent hatred, which he felt, under the circumstances, might be divided evenly between fat Betty and this dark-eyed waif before him. “If the lady told you that,” he said, “she was mistaken. I’m suppose to show you the machine. You get the free gift for seeing how it works. You are of course under no obligation to buy.”

“Of course,” the fat woman said.

“So what’s the free gift?” the brunette asked. Her voice was filled with suspicion.

Dean raised the dollhouse. “Odds and ends,” he said. “Things you can use around the house, cleaning products, that sort of thing. If you’ve got kids—”

“For Christ’s sake.” It was the man who spoke again. He was at the door now too, and Dean took him at once for the owner of at least one of the bikes on the lawn. The man looked to be only slightly taller than the blond, and probably about as heavy, except of course that the weight was distributed differently. It was also made of different stuff. His was bone and muscle. He was bare chested. A leaden pair of jeans hung about his hips. He was sporting a T-shirt tan of the classic variety, arms and neck nearly black with a combination of sun, dirt, and grease, while his torso remained the color of a new baseball. It looked just about as soft as a new baseball too. A long, pink scar wound its way over one hip and disappeared beneath the jeans. He had a couple of tattoos on his forearms, a pair of Harley-Davidson wings on one shoulder and some fancy blood-red letters on the other that read NO GUTS NO GLORY. The man’s face, which was large and somewhat triangular in shape, was nearly as white as his torso. Dean found that the face looked like something a pit bull might own. The hair that capped it was thick and black, though streaked here and there about the temples with bits of gray. The man wore it pulled back in a ponytail. He wore a three-day beard and one thick tuft of black hair beneath his lower lip. Without taking his eyes from Dean, the man reached out suddenly and cuffed the brunette on the back of the head, nearly knocking her out on to the porch with Dean. “You greedy little dirtbag,” he said to the girl. “You called the dude out here, now you can fucking well see his act. Shit. We can all see it. Is it any good?”

The question, aimed at Dean, took him somewhat by surprise. “The act or the machine?”

“Fuck the machine, pardner. We could use a little entertainment here tonight. Couldn’t we?” He reached over and swatted the brunette once more. “Couldn’t we?” he asked again.

“A fucking dollhouse,” the girl said. She was standing where the man had knocked her, one foot in the house, one on the porch with Dean. She was looking at him in such a way as to suggest that, clearly, what-ever happened, from here on in, it was all his fault.

“Well, what did you expect?” the blond asked her. “A trip to Hawaii?”

“Send his ass in here,” the biker said. He had already left the door and was somewhere back in the room beyond it.

“He’s coming,” the blond said. “He’s gotta fix his shoes first.”

“What’s wrong with them?” The man’s voice again.

“I told you, he stepped in some of Henry’s shit.”

“Well, Jesus, tell him to be more careful for Christ’s sake.”

When Dean had finished with his shoe he gathered his stuff and went inside. He did so with great reluctance. The thought of not doing so at all occurred to him. Scraping the last of Henry’s droppings from his wingtip, he had considered making a run for the Falcon. Something kept him from it. He liked to think it was courage rather than greed, a stubborn adherence to the salesman’s code, if in fact there was such a thing. If there was it pleased him to imagine it was something like what the marines said, all about how when the going gets tough, the tough get going, so that passing through the door, he was able to see himself, for a moment at least, bathed in a kind of heroic light and it was, he thought, just the sort of thing that got one through the night in the bowels of Clear Lake, probably in a lot of other places too, for that matter. The moment, unhappily, was short lived; it died at about the same time he saw what was in the house.

“What’s the matter, pappy?” The biker asked him. “Never seen a stiff before?”

*  *  *

Dean had, by this stage of the game, seen a number of stiffs. Most, however, had appeared in shining coffins, surrounded by freshly cut flowers and bore little resemblance to what the biker had in his house. This body was naked and white, stretched out upon a bed of ice in a large red freezer with the words Coca-Cola, and beneath that the phrase “Things go better with Coke,” in white script across the side. The makeshift coffin sat leaking water into a soiled mustard-colored carpet in what Dean supposed was the dining room. A table had been shoved to one side and turned against a wall. There was a chandelier hanging from the ceiling above the freezer. The chandelier had the appearance of something someone had paid a fair price for at one time. But a lot of the glass parts seemed to have been broken and the thing hung at a slightly skewed angle. Still, there was enough glass left to glitter in the light cast by the tiny bulbs, which were shaped like the flames of candles, and the glitter was repeated in the ice that lined the red box. The scene did not look quite real and there was an oddly charged moment in which Dean saw, rejected, and saw some more. When he believed it he turned away.

“You don’t have to look at it,” the blond told Dean. Then to the biker: “What did you bring him in here for anyway?”

The biker was very drunk. Dean could see that now. He wondered why it hadn’t seemed so obvious when the man had appeared at the door. Possibly because he could now see the man on his couch, surrounded by beer cans. The guy had his legs out in front of him and his arms up over the back in a kind of crucifixion pose. His naked chest shone in the yellow light of a small lamp situated on an end table near the couch. He had his head tilted back and was looking at Dean with one eye. “The hell,” he said. “Let’s see what you got, dude.”

“Maybe another time would be more convenient,” Dean said. Maybe in another life was what he meant. He was trying to keep his voice from shaking.

“Maybe so,” the blond woman said.

“Let’s see your fucking dollhouse,” the brunette said. She took the thing from Dean’s hand and began to open it. She appeared not to notice anything else.

Dean was about to leave. He had in fact already made his turn toward the door when a beer can sailed across the room, missing his head by inches and crashing against the front door. The blond woman said, “Hey.” The biker told her to shut the fuck up and when Dean looked at him again the guy was holding a knife. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, man,” the biker said. He spoke from the couch, staring steadily at Dean. “You think I’m drunk? Question is, how drunk? That right, smart boy? You think you can get out that door before I can get over there? I’ll cut your fucking nuts off, man.”

Dean felt a sudden flash of moisture on the inside of his thigh and fought to shut it off. He had of course heard about people pissing their pants; it was just that for some reason he had always assumed this would not be his fate. The man on the couch looked to have a good fifty pounds on him. The blade of the knife in his hand was a good ten inches long. The instrument gleamed in the same soft yellow light that lit up the man’s chest and stomach. It was hard to know just how crazy the bastard was. Maybe he had killed the other guy. It was a thought.

“Don’t fuck with him, honey,” the blond offered. “He’s gone a little bit nuts.” She was speaking softly, just loudly enough for Dean to hear her. “That’s his brother,” she said.

Dean assumed she was talking about the man in the freezer. He stood where he had stopped, at the edge of the room. No one spoke. They were all looking at him. Dean tried to get his mind to do something. It was like trying to coax speed from the Falcon. He dropped to one knee and began to fumble with the cardboard encasing his machine. Apparently he was going to show them the unit. His body seemed to have made the decision without him, as if some emergency system had kicked in, taken a quick inventory of options, and settled on the line of least resistance. He found, however, that a good deal of the feeling had left his fingers, creating for him the sensation that he too was a spectator, watching as some other meathead tore at the tape that sealed the box, and all the while trying desperately to remember exactly how to begin.

Slowly, he began to come up with something, a very rudimentary plan: show them the unit, as quickly as possible. Then leave. The plan seemed to help. The words began to form. They were the words of the class—all about filters and airflow. He also began to think about which of the parts before him might serve as a weapon in case the part about leaving didn’t work out. Perhaps, he thought, the guy will have another beer and pass out. It was the light at the end of the tunnel.

“A vacuum works by suction,” Dean heard himself saying.

“Yeah?” the biker said. “I could go for some of that shit my own self. Know what I mean?”

“Suction demands airflow,” Dean said.

“Hear that, girls? Best listen to this dude.”

Dean had begun a search of the carpet. He was hunting for some bit of trash with which to continue his demonstration: A bit of trash on the palm of the hand. Cover it with the nozzle. Turn on the machine. Turn it off. The trash would still be there. Now turn it on again, this time making sure the nozzle was held above the trash at a slight angle. Zoom. Gone with the trash. Airflow, Ms. Finkbinder. But he was having difficulty. He kept catching glimpses of the corpse. The floor beneath his hand kept doing things, as if it meant to desert him altogether.

He had at last managed to dig a good-sized ball of lint from the carpet. He placed it on the palm of his hand and looked at the man on the couch. The guy had resumed the crucifixion pose, head cocked, one eye open, one closed. The pose suggested, among other things, a certain level of concentration on the man’s part and for a moment Dean and the biker faced one another across the gleaming collection of metal and plastic at Dean’s knees.

“I know you,” the biker said all at once. At least Dean thought this was what he said. It was difficult to be sure. The man had spoken softly, slurring his words, speaking, it would seem, as much to himself as to Dean.

Dean said nothing. He was not interested in any more surprises. He had begun to envision the guy’s passing out as if his thinking about it hard enough might make it so. He bent over the machine and was surprised when the man spoke again, his voice having shed the thick, drunken slur of only moments before, sounding suddenly more like the man who had first come to the door. When Dean raised his eyes he found to his great horror that the man had gotten off the couch, knife in hand, and was moving toward him.

*  *  *

“Fuck, man,” the biker said. “I said, I know you.” There was an attachment in the kit used for lifting dust from corners. Dean felt his fingers, slick with sweat, close around it. He got to his feet and stared into the man’s face, the black eyes, the silver front tooth, the whitish scar running through one brow and down across the bridge of his nose. The guy was six inches taller than Dean. He was armed. Dean had a corner duster.

“Hey, give the guy a break, Danny,” the woman said.

Dean turned a bit in the direction of the woman. Behind her he could see the thin brunette. She was standing alone in the kitchen, the contents of Dean’s dollhouse spread out all around her—a yellow box of SOS pads, a small bottle of 409, a pair of pink latex gloves. . . . It was another world, Dean thought, in the kitchen. He longed to go there, amid those familiar items. He would instruct the girl in their use. Her gratitude would prove undying. In the dining room the corpse seemed to exude a pale white light all its own.

“There’s nothing in here but a bunch of shit,” the brunette said.

“Fuck a duck,” the biker said. He turned to the blonde. “I know this fucker,” he said.

“Good, Danny.”

“Good, Danny,” the biker repeated, making his voice high and whiny. He lurched a step forward and put a hand on Dean. The hand seemed to take up most of the space between Dean’s neck and shoulder and he could feel the guy squeezing with it. He could feel the weight of the thing bending him over and he had to work to stay straight beneath it.

“Fuckin’ A,” Danny said. “Fuckin’ Johnny Magic.” He turned Dean with his hand so that Dean was facing the two women. “Johnny Magic,” he said once more. The brunette took a step away from the counter and looked at Dean as if she were seeing him for the first time. “Yeah?” she said.

“Yeah,” Danny mimicked once more. “Listen to her,” he said. “She don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

The girl went back to her dollhouse. “So what?” she asked.

The biker turned to Dean “Tell me I’m wrong, dude.”

Dean stood looking into the narrowed black eyes, groping for a clue. It had been a long time since he had heard the name.

“Johnny Magic,” the biker said. “I used to party to this cat, man.”

The biker took a poke at Earl Dean’s arm. “Dan Brown, asshole. You look like you just shit your pants.”

Slowly Dean began to rearrange the features of the man before him. Get rid of all that hair, chop it down and channel it—a flat top with fenders, just enough in front to get a little roll out over the widow’s peak. Shave a good forty, fifty pounds off the body, make it long and lean, skinny almost—kind of skinny that was nothing but cords and cables. . . . The fact was, if he concentrated hard enough he could just about make it all work, turn the clock back—what? Twenty years? Dan Brown? The name did things. He could still hear people whispering at parties, “Watch yourself, asshole, Dan Brown’s here.”

And he supposed if this really was Dan Brown standing before him, then the body on ice was his little brother, the one they had always called Buddy. For Earl Dean had followed the Brown brothers through the Pomona public-school system. They’d started out three or four years ahead of him, a pair of hardasses in T-shirts and tankers. Kind of guys you’d see in the morning on your way to school, hanging out with their buddies, DAs and jelly rolls slick with grease, cancer sticks spooling out misty threads like pale gray question marks on the damp morning air and if you were on foot you made sure you took the long way around. They said Dan Brown could kick the shit out of his old man by the time he was fifteen, and after that, they said, there was no stopping him. He’d once gone after a shop teacher with a ball-peen hammer, ended his stint at Emerson Junior High School in impressive fashion, amidst a swarm of helmeted cops and flashing red lights. He’d shown up a year later at the high school, where he lasted about six months before stabbing a security guard in the throat with a screwdriver at a football game. He’d done some time behind that one and when he got out he was done with school. You’d still see him around though. He had a panel truck by then and when the beer flowed and the locals got down to serious speculation on the subject of overall, all-time badassery, everyone had at least one Dan Brown story to tell. And when the stories had been told, theories were advanced as to where it would all end, hard time, a padded cell. . . . And then one night in the heart of the sixties Dan Brown had taken a cop’s nightstick away from him and beaten him to death with it on the front porch of some shabby tract house in the dead of summer.


On Sale
Oct 27, 2000
Da Capo Press

Kem Nunn

About the Author

Kem Nunn is the author of Tapping the Source. He lives in northern California.

Learn more about this author