The Mortal Nuts

The Mortal Nuts

by Pete Hautman

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Seventy-three-year-old ex-poker player Axel Speeter has one more winner-take-all hand to play with a pair of crooks who are after the $260,000 he keeps squirreled away in his room at the Motel 6. A "New York Times Book Review" Notable Book for 1996.  See more details below


Seventy-three-year-old ex-poker player Axel Speeter has one more winner-take-all hand to play with a pair of crooks who are after the $260,000 he keeps squirreled away in his room at the Motel 6. A "New York Times Book Review" Notable Book for 1996.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard fans who have yet to discover Hautman's wryly comic, warmly human characters and madcap plots are in for a treat. Septuagenarian Axel Speeter, former roving gambler, now star taco entrepreneur at the annual Minnesota State Fair, lives at the Motel 6 despite having squirreled away $260,000 in cold cash inside coffee cans. Bucking the doubts of two pals from his swashbuckling gambling days-auto mechanic and junkyard proprietor Sam O'Gara (returning from Hautman's Drawing Dead and Short Money) and pint-sized Tommy Fabian, the fair's mini-donut king-the sentimental but streetwise and ever-libidinous Axel sends for Carmen, the sexy daughter of his mistress and business manager. Carmen, a med-tech student in Omaha, may be wild and possessed of a larcenous heart, but Axel knows that she sells tacos like no one else. Following her to the fair this year, however, is her skinhead lover and drug-dealer, Valium-hooked ex-con James Dean, who plans to steal Axel's coffee cans and head for Baja. When he can't find Axel's cache, Dean's interest turns to the midget donut king and his stash of cash. Mayhem ensues, inevitably. This is about as offbeat as a comic crime novel can get, and entertaining enough to win Hautman a whole passel of new admirers. (June)
Library Journal
In the latest from the author of Short Money (S. & S., 1995), 73-year-old Axel Speeter runs a popular taco stand at the Minnesota State Fair, lives at the Motel 6, and stashes his loot in coffee cans. His part-time lover, Sophie, and her curvaceous daughter, Carmen, run the concession, while Carmen's ex-con lover contemplates the theft of Axel's fortune. Idiosyncratic characters bounce off each other against colorful backdrops. Crisp, solid, and dryly humorous, this is highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/96.]
Thomas Gaughan
Cantankerous 73-year-old Axel Speeter makes enough money selling tacos during the two-week run of the Minnesota State Fair to support himself for the rest of the year. Of course, Axel lives in a Motel 6. But he has accumulated $260,000 in cash and keeps it in Folger's coffee cans. He also has a fiftyish sometime lover, Sophie, who has a voluptuous daughter named Carmen, and they both work for Axel. Carmen has a skinhead boyfriend named James Dean, who sets his sights on Axel's cash. Strange events ensue. Hautman has a wonderful ear for low-rent dialogue and powers of description that make the sensory welter of a gargantuan midwestern state fair come alive. His skill as a creator of comic crime novels ("Drawing Dead" [1993], "Short Money" [1995]) has been likened to that of Elmore Leonard and Joe Gores, but after a hilarious start, "The Mortal Nuts" takes a grim and jarring turn. Even so, it is skillfully written and will entertain many crime-fiction fans.
Kirkus Reviews
Another riotous carnival of larcenous fun à la Elmore Leonard—this time set in and around a real carnival.

Taco tycoon Axel Speeter, who doesn't like banks, keeps his fortune in Folgers—$260,000 in seven coffee cans, to be precise. Sophie Roman, newly promoted to manager of Axel's Taco Shop, doesn't know about it, but her footloose daughter Carmen does, and soon so do Carmen's boyfriend James Dean and his new skinhead friends, Tigger (the little, dumb one), Sweety (the big, even dumber one), and Pork (their pumped-up crank connection). All Axel wants to do is max out his take at the Minnesota State Fair; all Carmen, an aspiring nurse, wants to do is dose herself with bigger and bigger hits of Valium—at least until she samples the crank; all Dean wants to do is plunge his arms up to the elbows in Axel's greasy greenbacks. While all are biding their time waiting for Hautman's hilariously overgalvanized plot to kick in, Axel reminisces about some long-ago hands of poker he played with his buddies Sam O'Gara, the human randomizer, and Tommy Fabian, the monarch of Tiny Tot Donuts; surprisingly capitalistic Sophie and increasingly brain-dead Carmen jockey for position at the taco counter; and Dean goes after Axel's buddy Tommy Fabian, of Tiny Tot Donuts, and spends a lot of time mangling bits from the John Donne book borrowed from the sister he killed back in Omaha. Even minor characters, like the Motel 6 night manager and the clotheshorse twinkie Axel's hired for the State Fair stint, share the tunnel-vision looniness, convinced, like Axel and Dean, that their ships are about to come in. Hautman (Short Money, 1995, etc.) provides pleasantly hallucinogenic dialogue that faithfully reflects the mixture of nonstop junk food, increasingly toxic drugs, and background noise from the Tilt-a-Whirl and the hog pens just outside the midway; the whole world vibrates, with each felonious dreamer always on the cusp of a carnival buzz.

Joyfully loony—as blissful as a ton of cotton candy.

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The Mortal Nuts

By Pete Hautman


Copyright © 1996 Pete Hautman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0620-9


"She don't seem so bad, Ax. Get her tuned up, maybe a new set of shocks."

"I got a hundred eighty thousand on it. They start to go at a hundred eighty thousand." Axel Speeter gripped the wheel hard, trying to suppress the shimmy that had developed thirty thousand miles before. It was a good truck, but getting old, the way things do. He looked at the speedometer. Fifty miles per, about as fast as he dared go, cars passing him on both sides, people in a hurry.

Sam O'Gara rolled down the passenger window and expelled a wad of Copenhagen. "Hell, Ax, they start to go at a hundred eighty miles. That don't mean you got to buy yourself a new truck every Monday morning."

"I had this one ten years. I don't want to have to worry about my truck busting down during the fair."

"You worry too much, Ax. Plus, you don't never listen to me.

Axel Speeter shrugged. He worried just the right amount, he figured, because when it came to the Minnesota State Fair, he couldn't afford to take chances. And he always listened to Sam. They'd been friends going on fifty years.

But that didn't mean he always trusted what he heard. He rested his right hand on the Folgers can on the seat beside him.

Sam said, "What you got in that can?"

Axel ignored the question. "Look, I want to buy a new truck," he said. He drifted into the right lane, pulled off the freeway onto Highway 61. "You going to help me or not?"

"I say I wouldn't help? Hell, I'm riding shotgun, ain't I?" Sam was looking at the coffee can. "You're still a goddamn peasant, ain't cha, Ax?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know anybody's told you, but they got these things called banks now, guaranteed by the government of the United States of America."

Axel clamped his jaw.

Sam muttered, "Goddamn peasant. Prob'ly got it all buried in your backyard."

"I don't have a backyard, Sam. I live in a motel."

"Well, there you go."

Axel thought, There he went where? Sam was always saying stuff that meant nothing and acting like it proved whatever crackpot point he was trying to make.

Axel said, "Goddamn right I do."

Sam looked at him. "Goddamn right you do what?"

They drove for a few blocks, neither man talking.

"I just want to make sure I don't get stuck with a lemon," Axel said.

"You know what they say about lemons."

West End Ford came into view on the right, a block ahead. Axel turned on his signal and started to slow down. "What do they say about lemons?" he asked.

"I don't remember," Sam said. "Something about lemonade."

King Nelson leaned a hip against the immaculate hood of a new Bronco and watched the two old men through the showroom window. The big one was kicking the tires—literally kicking the left front tire of the white '94 F150. A lot of the old farts did that, kicked the tires. What did they think, that there might not be air in them? That the wheel would fall off? King didn't know what they thought.

King remembered the big one from the day before. The old man had crept into the lot in a beat-up '78, got out, and walked straight to the row of "certified preowned" pickups.

At first, King had thought the old man wasn't serious, just a lonely old dude who had stopped in to waste his time, but after a few minutes the guy ... what was his name? King scanned his memory. Some part of a car. Dash? Hub? Axle! ... Axel had zeroed in on the white '94, a more modern version of the rust-speckled, creaking wreck he'd driven into the lot.

An inch or two taller than King's six one, Axel had veiny, chiseled, deeply tanned forearms and wide, sloped shoulders. He must've been a monster when he was younger, King thought. Axel's eyes were yellow at the corners, with green irises and pupils of slightly different sizes. The top of his head shone smooth pinkish brown, sprinkled with rust-colored freckles, framed by two swaths of thick white wavy hair over each ear, which met in a curly little ducktail above the collar of his white short-sleeved shirt. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but kind of slow on the uptake. Yesterday, King thought he'd had the sale wrapped, but then the guy—Axel—had backed off, saying he'd have to have his mechanic check it over.

And here he was, back as promised, with his mechanic, a scrawny old dude in greasy coveralls and a quilted, visorless welder's cap, under the truck now, looking at god-knows-what, while Axel walked around kicking the other three tires and examining nearly invisible chips and dings on the truck body.

King decided to stay inside for a while, let the mechanic finish looking things over. They'd be in a more decisive mood after the sun pounded on them for a while.

"Carmen's going to like it," Axel said.

Sam said, "Say what?"

"I said Carmen's going to like it. She hated that old truck of mine."

Sam wriggled out from under the truck. "Carmen the nudie fountain dancer? Thought you shipped her off someplace."

"I did. She's in Omaha." Axel did not like being reminded of Carmen's naked fountain dance. He wished he'd never told Sam about it. "She's going to medical school," he said.

"You're shittin' me. Carmen wants to be a doctor?"

"Actually, she's studying to be a medical technician. You don't need college for that. It's sort of like being a nurse."

Sam scratched his grizzled jaw. "Huh. She didn't never strike me as the nursey type."

"She's a good kid. Just got in with a bad crowd." Bad company and drugs, that was what had inspired Carmen to strip her clothes off, middle of the day, and dance nude across Loring Park. She'd been arrested, on that particular occasion, while cooling off in the Beiger Fountain.

"I'm flying her back to work the fair," Axel said. "She's doing much better now, Sam."

Sam shook his head.

Axel said, "What?"

"I didn't say nothing."


"I tell you one thing, though. I wouldn't want her changing my bedpan."

King waited until the two of them were standing, looking at the price sticker, arguing, then he left the cool showroom and strode confidently across the hot tarmac. The two men stopped talking and watched his approach. He was ten feet away, still bringing his smile up to full power, getting ready to offer his hand, when the mechanic, all squints and wrinkles and dirty fingernails, jabbed a forefinger at the side of the truck.

"What about these here stripes? He ain't paying extra for no dee-cals."

King stopped and opened his mouth, not sure what to say.

"I like the stripes, Sam," Axel said.

"That don't mean you got to pay for the fuckers."

"Why not? You don't think I can afford stripes on my truck?"

"Only a damn fool pays for looks."

King said, "There's no charge for the stripes."

Both men glared at him as though he had cut in on a private conversation.

"The stripes were there when we took it in on trade," King explained, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut.

Sam crossed his arms and spat, missing King's tasseled loafer by four inches. King took that as a bad omen but not a sale-killer. He started to tell them a few things about the truck, give them the canned sales pitch, directing his best lines at the big one, Axel. Axel listened, rocking back and forth on his heels, pushing out his lips now and then and licking them with a pale tongue. King tried to draw him out a little, asking how he liked the weather lately, asking what he thought about those Minnesota Twins.

"What about these here square headlights?" Sam interrupted.

King explained that the new halogen headlamps were brighter, lasted longer, and were more attractive than the old round ones.

Axel said, "I don't like 'em."

King ignored the unanswerable objection. He asked Axel how heavy a payload he would be carrying. Guys liked that word. Payload.

Axel shrugged. "Lots of tortillas," he said.

King said, "Tortillas?"

"That's right," Axel said. "Lots of tortillas. I'm gonna need a topper too."

Sam had climbed into the driver's seat. "Jesus, Ax, you get a load a this radio? I bet you gotta go to school or something to run the fucker."

As Axel looked at the radio, King told him about its automatic search function and ten available station presets, five AM and five FM.

Sam said, "FM? He don't need FM."

"I like the FM," Axel said.

"Since when did you listen to anything except 'CCO?" Sam asked.

"Carmen's going to like it," Axel said. "She hated my radio."

Sam said, "So who the hell you buying this for?"

King smiled weakly, almost wishing this Mutt and Jeff team would just up and go down the street to the Chevy dealer, buy a truck off of those assholes.

"Speedometer says twenty-five nine," Sam said. "How far'd you spin 'er back?"

"Excuse me?" As far as King knew, they hadn't spun an odometer in three years, not since the state attorney general had taken a personal interest in a truck his son was buying.

"I said, 'How far you spin it back?' It's a simple damn question."

"Those are original miles," said King.

"What the hell's that mean, 'original miles'?"

"I mean the odometer is accurate."

"I don't doubt that. What I want to know is, how far'd you spin 'er back?"

"What about this air bag?" Axel asked, reading the embossed letters on the steering wheel. "I don't want the air bag."

King was confused, but happy to be talking about something other than the mileage. "You don't want the air bag?"

Axel said, "How do I know the son-of-a-bitch won't just go off?"

"Go off?"

"I'm driving down the highway and the son-of-a-bitch just goes off"

"That won't happen," said King.

Sam had his head down under the dash. "My best guess is, the way these pedals are worn, she's got better'n fifty thou on er.

Axel said, "For cryin' out loud, Sam, the man says the mileage is what the mileage says it is."

"You don't want to know what I think, why'd you bring me?"

Axel grunted. "Good question."

King could feel himself starting to lose it. It was hot as hell out there. The sun felt like an iron on the yoke of his peach-colored shirt, which was turning dark around the armpits. It wasn't healthy, this work, walking from an air- conditioned showroom out into the heat, back and forth. That was why so many car salesmen had heart attacks. The two old men, who didn't seem to mind the heat, were both examining the steering wheel again.

Axel said, "What do you think, Sam?"

Sam shook his head. "Air bag ain't a bad thing to have, Ax. You run into something, you might like it."

"Yeah, and it might blow up right in my face, never know what hit me."

Sam muttered something, scratching his beard.

"What's that?" Axel asked.

"Nothing," Sam said. "Wouldn't make no difference what I said."

"Fine. So what do you think? Think you can monkey-wrench it?"

"Shit, Ax, I could monkey-wrench a gorilla."

Axel turned back to King. "You mind we take it for a spin?"

King took a deep breath, dredged up a smile, pasted it on his face, and handed Axel the keys. Ignoring his own best instincts in favor of company policy, he said, "I'll have to ride along, of course."

Sam snatched the keys and hopped into the cab. "C'mon, then. Let's have us a look at what this fucker can do."

A few minutes later, King felt his facial tic start up again. It had been months since it had bothered him, but Sam had coaxed it out. The old bastard must have kept a whole army of guardian angels busy to have lived so long. His idea of a test drive was taking it up to seventy-five on a residential street, then locking up the brakes, leaving about five dollars' worth of rubber on the tarmac.

"Brakes seem good," Sam said. And that was only one of Sam's several "diagnostic tests." When they finally bounced over the curb back into the lot, missing the driveway by six feet, King had to excuse himself, go to the rest room, and sit down on the toilet for three minutes of deep-breathing exercises. It didn't help. His cheek was twitching every four seconds.

His only consolation was a feeling of gratitude at having survived. Axel had seemed equally shaken up by Sam's driving. When King rejoined the pair outside, they were heatedly arguing the truck's price. He might as well have been invisible, for all the attention they paid him.

"Wouldn't go a dime over twelve," Sam was saying.

The sticker price on the F-150 was $14,975—not a bad price, King thought, unless you considered the test drive the vehicle had just endured. That and the fact that Sam was probably right about the odometer reading. They didn't spin odometers at the dealership anymore. They mostly bought the vehicles pre-spun.

Axel shook his head. "Too low. There's no way they'd even consider that," he said.

True, King thought, happy to have Axel arguing his case.

"How about fourteen even?" King said to Sam.

Sam growled, ignoring him. "Goddamn it, Ax, even with the topper she ain't worth more'n thirteen."

"Sam, you told me it was solid."

King decided he'd do best by keeping his mouth shut. He found himself staring at the tattoo high on Axel's right wrist. A faded blue blotch. He couldn't tell what it was intended to represent.

"It's solid, but I sure as hell wouldn't go fourteen."

"You think it's worth thirteen?"

"They throw in a topper, maybe."

King Nelson's head was swinging back and forth, trying to follow the negotiation.

Axel said, "With the topper I'd definitely go thirteen five."

Sam crossed his arms. "Pay what you want for the fucker. See if I give a damn. You don't never listen to me anyways. You know I'm always right."

Axel shrugged. There was right, and there was right. He rolled his wide shoulders, then turned a yellow grin on King. "I'll pay you thirteen five, including the topper. And I'll need to pick it up tomorrow."

King closed his eyes and inhaled slowly through his nose, the way his doctor had recommended. It didn't help. His cheek was jumping like a bug on a griddle.

"Why don't we step inside," he said. "Get out of this sun, see what we can work out."

The figure they arrived at, nearly half an hour later, was $ 13,590. King knew he was going to get reamed by the boss on this one—the truck should have gone for fourteen plus. The difference would come straight out of his commission. He'd have to invent some story. Tell the boss he was matching an offer from one of the other Ford dealers. Or it was for his girlfriend's father. Something like that. Or maybe he'd just quit, get back into telemarketing vinyl siding. At least in that business he hadn't had to actually look at his customers. He focused on the sales contract, transcribing numbers and filling in the blanks, doing what he had to do to get the pair on their way.

Axel had excused himself. King assumed he'd gone out to his truck to get his checkbook, but when he returned he was carrying a Folgers coffee can, the two-pound size.

"So you happy now?" Sam asked, firing up a Pall Mall.

Axel nodded. "I think we got a good deal," he said.

"Coulda got better."

"Maybe, maybe not. I think we did good." Axel pulled out onto Highway 61, brought the old truck slowly up to forty-five. He was looking forward to driving the new one. The salesman had promised to have it ready, complete with topper, first thing in the morning.

"You're a goddamn peasant, Ax. I ever tell you that?"

"Not in twenty minutes, at least."

"You really gonna bring that Carmen gal back for the fair?"

"Sure. She's worked for me five years now. The fair is my life. I've got to have good help. Besides, she hasn't seen Sophie since Christmas."

"Thought those two didn't get along."

"They'll do okay. You know how it is, mothers and daughters. Like I said, Carmen's changed, she's matured. She'll get along with her mom just fine. She's not this wild kid anymore."

Sam rolled his eyes and expelled a cloud of brown smoke, filling the cab. "I ain't sayin' nothing."


Excerpted from The Mortal Nuts by Pete Hautman. Copyright © 1996 Pete Hautman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Pete Hautman is the author of Godless, which won the National Book Award, and many other critically acclaimed books for teens and adults, including Blank Confession, All-In, Rash, No Limit, Invisible, and Mr. Was, which was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Pete lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Visit him at

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