The clatter behind the stranger crescendoed as he clawed his way on hands and feet toward the door, ajar just enough to allow a thin haze to slice the bar's internal gloom, the dust particles within tumbling ever so slowly, as if they resided in another world altogether.
Roddy Granger heard Estelle hiss, as if she stood right behind him breathing down the back of his neck. He reached into his pants pocket, and was surprised it had become damp. Unbeknownst to him, Roddy had been peeing everywhere but where he should have been peeing; that is, into the porcelain target area. He nevertheless removed his crushed and soggy church card, placed it in his mouth and started chewing.
After Lester completed his violent arm motions, Roddy Granger couldn't help himself and sniffed the air several times. Lester had begun begun to sweat as soon as the stranger appeared at the door, a rancid secretion evinced from a subspecies of apocrine gland present at the apex of his crusted yellow armpits, activated only on occasions of extreme duress. His body knew something he didn't.
This particular man, this insurance claim investigator, whether it was due to the whisper directed in his direction intimating the unkempt-ness of a pubic bush, or the puddle of glistening olive oil at the base of the sultry cousin It-like woman's chair; this man became immediately enveloped in a tropical miasma of shallow concern, concern unfamiliar to him previously. For that reason he clutched his church card even harder to the point of almost bending it.
"You have what's called a neurosis, Estelle. You could be pulling your hair out follicle by follicle, or biting your fingernails down to their nubbins until they bled, but instead you choose to glue little pieces of paper together. Something happened to you as a child. You won't tell me what that something was but someday I hope that you will."
The olive oil Estelle poured over her head every morning to form the greasy waterfall of black hair was fittingly self-deprecating; but then, if you asked her, she'd say it was half self-deprecating. She'd point out she wasn't acting the whole time she was in the bar, only half-acting. For Estelle, everything that took place inside Lester’s bar, 'the show' she called it, was not entirely real, only half-real. So, it followed (Estelle had a logic all her own), that her act of hair-oiling was only half self-deprecating. And half self-deprecating suited her just fine.
As it turned out, the show ended up becoming something else entirely after Estelle discovered the red horn-rims. Someone had left the glasses on the bar one night. Who left them or where that person would have gotten hold of a pair that exquisite was anybody’s guess; and there’d been too many of the usual distractions, the slurring, eructations and shattering of beer mugs to even narrow it down. The bottom line was, for Estelle, their appearance was a gift from some drunken angel whom, she imagined, had swooped down like Tarzan, King of the Apes, and dropped them, inadvertently or not, for her to find.
She’d been mopping up a puddle of urine around one of the bar stools when she spotted the shades, wrapped around a crushed can of Schlitz, and right away threw a crumbled napkin over the top, feeling herself to be a secret agent at Checkpoint Charlie, sliver of microfilm embedded in a filling. Estelle had a rich imagination. She certainly didn't want to call that asshole Lester over to show him. He’d have "confiscated" the glasses, as he liked to say. Lester had been counting money at the time, straightening crumbled one dollar bills out on the side of his ancient cash register like he always did. She slipped them into her apron pocket and made a bee-line for the rest room, twirling once en route. She'd seen Sissy Spacek do a twirl in Coal Miner’s Daughter and it stuck in her head. Slipping inside the old toilet, and locking the flimsy door behind her, she clamped the glasses on over her already heavily olive-oil laden hair and they stuck fast: Red against black. Perfect. She turned and peered closely at herself in the grimy mirror over the sink. What she saw in the cracked reflection, was a visit to the Louvre itself; as if she'd flown all the way to Paris, France, had been met at the airport by the dead General Charles De Gaulle, who then planted a big welcoming smacker on both cheeks before bequething to her the Légion d'Honneur. What a find, those horned rims had been. They turned out to be more than a little something to hold onto, the lone branch growing out the side of that sheer cliff face against which she'd been clinging since Lester had taken her thing. Those horned rims represented Hope with a capital H for Estelle. And Hope, at that point, was a necessary commodity for her to keep in her apron pocket, like some people hope for baby Jesus to meet them at the pearly gates and hand them an ice cream cone.
Estelle needed Hope exactly because of what Lester had done to her, what he had taken. She couldn’t leave the bar because of it, a kind of evil magic. She certainly couldn’t show anybody what she looked like in the new red horn rims, which contrasted perfectly against her trademark black waterfall of oil. Although this wasn't entirely true. If you pressed her Estelle would admit that she could still show the regulars: The piss-in-your-pants sterno-drinkers staggering through Lester's bar, (which he had cleverly named Lester's Place).
But what she wanted to do was to show her glasses off at the mall, not inside the dingy beer hall at the outskirts of town by the closed down factory. That’s ALL she wanted to do. Her needs were modest. But Lester didn't let her. He could have, as he possessed her thing. He was allowed to by the rules. But he didn't, and so Estelle stayed within the confines of the bar, where the thing was somewhere, twenty four seven. Slept upstairs and dreamed of the old days, when she'd been free to wander around the stores, levels one, two and three, taking both the up and the down escalators, wearing whatever she wanted, not those billowing brown and black one piece shit-ass ankle length smocks he brought back from the Salvation Army store.
Estelle was forced to keep her deep dark secrets, but played the good church mouse whenever Lester was lurking around. She had to: Estelle was biding her time. Lester was in for a surprise on day, a big one.
In her frustration, Estelle further imagined herself pulling out her hair follicles one by one, neurotically, as they called it in Lester’s Encyclopedia of Mental Illness, just about her favorite book of all time, although she’d never admit that to him. The truth of the matter was, even though she imagined herself doing so, Estelle would never actually pull hairs out; only real hair pulling nuts did that, not the intensely frustrated and imaginative people of her ilk. In Lester's book they called it Trichotillomania. Estelle loved ten dollar words like Trichotillomania and murmured them whenever Lester was out of earshot, sometimes in a little high pitched voice. She'd every now and then murmur a ten dollar word and at the same time fire off her imaginary pistol, pointing an index finger at Lester's head, flexing her thumb back and forth, and making the "Pih-chew, pih-chew" sound.
What she did do was use the spine of Lester's book to scrape at the mortar between the bricks of her prison cell. She scraped day after day, gradually digging deeper, forming an escape tunnel in her head, the book's spine equivalent to a toothbrush or teaspoon back in the days when prisons were places you could escape from, that is, if you were patient. Her digging with the book's spine, of course, was metaphoric. Estelle only had metaphors to dig with, no real teaspoons or toothbrushes; or she would have dug. She would have dug with a bobby pin if she had one and could have.
The fact of the matter was, Estelle could hardly move without her thing. Lester hid it. It was no life at all living with Lester in his dead end bar. "Fuck that Lester," she'd whisper over and over and grip her eyelids and roll her eyes up so only the whites showed. She couldn't see the effect but liked to imagine someone looking at her when she did that. Because he hid her thing, Estelle would remain an apparition to her fans, even if she somehow managed to get outside. They wouldn't be able to see her. She'd need her thing for that. In her mall days, she had her thing with her and plenty of fans. They were all still out there, somewhere. She knew that. They used to look at what she'd been wearing and go "oo" and "ahh." she'd turn and swing her purse and smack her gum, all that. The only fans she had now were the drunks in Lester's bar. She figured herself to be an apparition to them as well, an apparition in the throes of their delirium; she figured they probably didn't realize she existed at all.
'They possibly share some kind of collective delirium,' she conjectured in private, usually biting her fingernails, but hadn’t decided if she believed that to be true or not. At some point, Estelle decided being an apparition within someone else’s delirium wasn't all that bad. She was complex. But again, Estelle was just biding her time. Lester had it coming.
My eyes are fine now. I’ve had both done. Miracle. No, don’t take off your clothes. Lay down. Don’t blink. Just like that. Done. They put a big black light over my head. Over. I can see perfectly. Jane Simmonds is nearly blind because she went to someone who does everything. You have to go to someone who does nothing but cataracts all week. I told her. She didn’t listen. She went to somebody who does everything. You have to look at each and every office and that’s how I found mine. I asked and asked. I met a woman in his waiting room and I told her, do you know how many offices I’ve been to before this one? Twelve. She said, do you know how many offices I’ve been to? Seventeen.
Jane didn’t listen and she’s nearly blind. She IS blind. They blinded her because she didn’t listen.
Then she got the wrong sized artificial knee. Same thing. She went to the hospital downtown instead of the one I told her to go to. They put in a size too big. Hell on earth. Gave her a six instead of a five.
She was so upset that she signed up for a retreat. I told her DO NOT sign up for a retreat, they’ll brainwash you. She signed up anyway and not only did they brain wash her but tried to empty her bank account. They had her chanting mmmm mmmm mmmm then turned around and wanted her to sign. As sweet as can be then turned on her. Nightmare. Tried to take her for everything she was worth. Three months before she came back from childhood. They forced her to do parent child dialogues, you see; had her pretending she was eight. She didn’t come back. Horrible. Here she was seventy-five, thinking that she was eight. They had her trapped in childhood and that’s exactly where they wanted her, childhood, because they could get her money that way.
For weeks this went on. Weeks. She wore her hair in locks like Shirley Temple and it was so embarrassing to be with her but who else was going to help? No one else: Me.
Dear God in heaven. I’d take her to the bank and she would stand there in line shaking her locks from side to side then try to skip but she couldn’t because they had put in a number six knee instead of a number five. She would begin to fall and I would have to hold her up. Me. Eighty. Then she’d go outside, put a finger in her mouth and stand there in the street looking at some doll in a window, not paying attention to the cars. One day she stepped right out in front of a bus. Driver threw his hands up just like this.
After she got better, I told her about the dentist who did my teeth. Jane’s teeth were bonded. I had the same thing after my teeth were bonded; developed a sizzling s. I would call her up and say,
You need to re-contour the back side of your crowns, Jane.
Didn’t listen. She was narcissistic, you see, so she wouldn’t admit to having a sizzling s. Her psychiatrist made her that way. He was arrested right in the middle of Park Avenue. Jane had been walking to her appointment and there he was, standing smack in the middle of 71st and Park with an erection. She didn’t know what to do, just stood there. When he saw her, he came at her with his erection. The police showed up and had to shock him. She had already paid him thousands and thousands. Ruined her. She became a narcissist after that and had the biggest sizzling s I’ve ever heard but still can’t admit it.
What did you shay?
Jane, you have a lisp, I tell her.
Lishp? She can’t say lisp because of all her bonding. What did you shay I had?
Bonding, Jane. And a lisp.
You can call her up. She’ll talk to you if you don’t believe me.
What do you want me to shay?
You say it wrong, Jane. It’s not show, it’s so.
I didn’t shay that. Sho what elsh is new?
Jane will never admit to having a sizzling s. Uh huh, never. Doesn’t listen, but we’ve been the best of friends for years and years.
A lesser known squandering cousin of Tutankhamen was embalmed with an erection wrapped in papyrus. The hieroglyphics reluctantly inscribed on the door of his shrine described the royal penis driving a chariot through the gates of death while straddled by an angry Sekhmet wearing sun hat and holding the ankh of life. She protected him, he thought, from Montu, who considered infidelity an abomination. The tomb maker had been instructed that Sekhmet’s breasts were to remain buoyant and sweaty for all eternity, that her head be tilted backwards and her two lion’s claw hands be digging into his chest. The man’s wife, buried next to him, arms crossed conventionally, had privately requested of the same tomb maker that her own eternal fingers be curled inward and embedded deeply within her chest wall. To assure this posture, before her passing, the wife delivered one thousand jars of beer to the tomb maker's mud brick home.
Mr. Pinsler placed the stick of chalk on the blackboard’s lip using two fingers in such a way the fleshy pads contacted wood surface first, making very little sound, inaudible to most students in the room. As he turned to face the class, a ray of light passed through the thick dirty window and lay across his cheeks for an instant.
"Dough," Weltzein, a student seated toward the back, murmured.
Mr. Pinsler slid his high backed wooden chair over no more than three inches, twisted his body and sat, laying both palms flat on his desk either side the stack of papers he earlier had aligned with considerable care.
While standing in front of the blackboard moments before, Mr. Pinsler had completed another near perfect circle using his pre-cut piece of chalk. He had gone about the circle’s labeling while discussing its assigned definitions in a voice not overbearing but sufficiently loud so as not to strain the ears of the children in attendance. He employed his usual neutral tone without over or under emphasizing any one aspect of exposition. Students were required to commit all the mentioned terms to memory, regardless of relative importance.
Every Sunday evening, seated at dining room table, Mr. Pinsler opened a new box of chalk. Using sturdy vice, precision rule, and fine toothed jig saw, he cleaved each piece to measure, within a sixteenth, two inches in length. He always placed a tea towel between table top and jaw of vice, assuring the table surface remained unmarred; the towel also made for less wobble. On Monday morning, after commanding the class to silence, Mr. Pinsler, in precisely the same order each time, unsnapped his briefcase, transferred the ten freshly hewn pieces of chalk into desk drawer, then aligned, in order, pencils, pens, and papers. After securing the briefcase, he lowered it to the floor just one side of his left foot and nudged it forward until becoming flush with the desk leg.
Mr. Pinsler consistently drew near perfect circles on the blackboard, creating the first one of the week no later than class’s end on Tuesday; although more often right after first bell Monday morning.
His near perfect circle demonstrations served to emphasize perseverance in practice and reminded students of his prowess as master and that one day, providing considerable effort was exercised over time, they too might approximate that level of skill, or not. The students remained still as a church congregation whenever Mr. Pinsler turned his back to complete the motion; even the class bully Pratt remained poised to a degree. The mathematics instructor’s arm appeared to disarticulate at his elbow in the course of travel, mimicking a compass motion yet was imbued with a cavalier, even aggressive, aspect.
On one occasion, over a glass of sherry, Mr. Pinsler shared with Ms. Poisson, the French instructess: “As Evil Kineval soars his motorcycle over a line of school buses, in near perfect trajectory of travel, remaining poised mid-flight, I too feel, Ms. Poisson, my execution of a near perfect circle sets a powerful example.”
“Oh, indeed you do, Monsieur Pinsler," she said and they had touched glasses.
Mr. Pinsler, a man of apparent high propriety, took their relationship no farther, despite the fact Ms. Poisson had applied a false mole to one cheek.
As Mr. Pinsler sat in front of the class that morning, a fly landed on the rim of his spectacles, and crawled onto the inner surface of one lens. In reaching the center, it began to clean itself. After a few moments, the fly scurried back and forth, seemingly for not reason whatsoever and thereby captured the attention of each and every student. Its wings nearly brushed Mr. Pinsler’s corneal surface several times as it performed several abrupt direction changes. The fly finally walked confidently over to the edge of the frame, around and across the outer lens surface, and came to its opposite edge whereupon it stopped, cleaned itself one final time and scampered back onto the inner surface. Mr. Pinsler observed the insect’s activity, unblinking, his eyes turned inward. The class, in turn, observed Mr. Pinsler.
"Freak," Pratt, the class bully, murmured.
On that day, Mr. Pinsler wore, as he normally did, his meticulously buttoned sweater, brown as a paper bag, his jacket, a hue of corrugated cardboard and his walnut brown slacks, under which he had strapped his chesnut brown support hose. A pair of beaver brown shoes had been polished to a uniform luster. Their color, in particular, had been carefully sought through review of numerous department store catalogs: Mr. Pinsler was acutely aware that Beaver and brown were related etymologically, or nearly so.
After the fly departed, the students slumped back into their seats; a general release of tension was felt. The Brownian motion of student activity recommenced.
“Weltzein,” Pratt hissed and yanked the hair of the boy seated to his front.
“Pratt!” Weltzein jolted backward, inhaling through gritted teeth.
“Weltzein to the front,” Mr. Pinsler stated flatly and stood. In that posture, the frays of his sweater became apparent, shone upon by that same single beam of morning light which had captured his yeast like countenance. He had worn these same articles of clothing since attending his English boarding school in capacity of student and Master both, the latter position he accepted immediately upon University graduation. Mr. Pinsler ultimately relocated to the States due to some vague issue and assumed his present stewardship.
As Weiltzein minced down the classroom aisle, all heads turned as if coupled to a mechanical actuator. Mr. Pinsler gripped Weltzein’s hair and lifted him into the air. The boy grimaced, his shoulders rising as he attempted to maintain contact with the floor.
“No talking!” Mr. Pinsler shouted into Weltzein’s ear and lowered him. The bell rang. Pinsler removed his briefcase from under the desk, unsnapped the locks, placed papers in the front-most compartment, pens in the middle, pencils in the rear. He pressed the briefcase closed, tapped it twice, locked his desk drawer and walked out of the classroom, already one minute late for his library proctorship, a responsibility which would last the entire next hour.
Due to scheduling oversight, no instructor would arrive in the home room for another fifteen minutes. The children arose and began flinging themselves around the room like autumn leaves buffeted by unpredictable gusts of wind; all of them, that is, except for Weltzein, who continued to rub his head, standing beside Mr. Pinsler’s desk.
A spit ball stuck to the side of Jiminez’s head. He, in turn, punched Luchars in the arm as hard as he could wile O’Connor crept around the corner into the teacher’s alcove, entered the bathroom, unrolled a measure of toilet paper, ran the wad under the faucet, re-emerged and pelted the transfixed Weltzein on the side of his neck. Pratt, the bully, observed O’Connor and ran around the corner, intending to repeat the same gesture. He slowed, noticing the padlock on Mr. Pinsler’s locker had been left unfastened in the professor’s hurry to leave. Pratt jumped into the air and kicked the handle upward, sending the padlock clattering across the floor. The locker door careened against the adjacent steel cabinet causing a jarring vibration.
“Pinsler.” Pratt snorted, studying two glass quart-sized orange juice jars sitting side by side on the locker floor. Their labels had been removed. Both were sealed with original Tropicana lids and each jar filled to the top with the same brown liquid. Pratt carried both jars into the classroom, placed them on the floor in front of the blackboard and unscrewed the top of one. Pratt scowled, waved his hand in front of his face, and shrieked:
“Pinsler’s dook jars!”
The children gathered and began flinching and gyrating. With everyone’s attention fixated on the dook jars, Weltzein wandered into the teacher’s alcove and stood in front of Mr. Pinsler’s now open locker. He examined the plywood board at the rear, displaced slightly to one side. Darkness was visible beyond the gap between the wood’s edge and the locker’s metal sidewall. Weltzein glanced over the locker’s top at the thin plaster wall, painted dour green, the wall which separated the staff alcove from the classroom. The darkness in the gap appeared to recede much farther than the few inch thickness of the wall. Weltzein moved his hand forward and inserted his fingers into the space beyond and wiggled them. Satisfied, Weltzein pushed his hand inward a little farther, then farther still until his whole arm was immersed within the unknown humor, all the way up to his shoulder. All attention in the classroom was focused upon the two glass jars, leaving Weltzein to his own devices.
As it happened, Mr. Pinsler had been collecting his feces in glass orange juice jars since he had been a boy at boarding school, even joining societies of like minded individuals.
With his arm fully extended, Weltzein felt his hand at least should be well within the classroom space next door yet he saw no light not desks nor students within the gap between wood and metal, only the vague twinkling of light, like stars in the night sky. As he felt no resistance and perceived no real danger, Weltzein yanked the plywood board out, turned sideways, and stepped into the darkness. He disappeared completely. A moment later, Weltzein stepped back into the alcove and brushed himself off.
Mr. Pinsler rushed into the classroom, having remembered in arriving at his library post that he had not secured his locker's padlock. Pulling up abruptly, he stared at the two jars around which the tornado of children careened. He swiveled to examine his wide open locker door in the alcove and attempted to clap both hands together forcibly. Each hand ended up missing the other almost entirely, resulting in a faint scuff.
“Seats! Every child in their assigned seat!” Mr. Pinsler bellowed.
Weltzein had already been seated, staring straight ahead calmly as if nothing out of the ordinary were transpiring.
Like a mother hen, Mr. Pinsler recapped both jars and carried them gently into the alcove.
“There will be serious repercussions,” he called over his shoulder as he placed them back down on the floor of the locker.
With Pinsler occupied, Pratt yanked the back of Weltzein’s hair again and hissed, “Weltzein.” Welztzein remained still, staring ahead at one of Mr. Pinsler’s near perfect circles on the blackboard.
Mr. Pinsler, in the meanwhile, was standing in front of his locker, studying the sheet of plywood leaning to one side. Darkness was no longer present in the rear, only the locker’s scuffed steel panel, where a large magazine center fold had been taped. The photograph showed a man standing over a glass jar releasing a torrent of loose stool . The pin up was Mr. Pinsler himself, taken some years previously. Pinsler fumbled with the plywood sheet, hammering it in place with his fist. He adjusted the two orange juice jars to previous orientation, closed the door, and fastened the padlock securely. He angrily strode back into the classroom and in a rumbling voice asked,
“Who has been in my locker?”
Pratt called out: “Weltzein. Weltzein found your jars, Mr. Pinsler, and opened them up in front of the class.”
“Is this true? Weltzein?”
The students looked at one another and a few wagged their heads up and down.
“I saw Weltzein holding your dook jar, Mr. Pinsler.” Jiminez said.
“Weltzein,” Pratt hissed.
“What you saw was NOT. . . a dook jar,” Mr. Pinsler spoke with jaws tensing. In the fluorescent lighting at the classroom’s edge, his complexion appeared even doughier than before. He spoke more quietly: “You were mistaken.”
The students remained silent.
“Weltzein. Were you in my locker?”
Weltzein arose and walked down the aisle yet did not stop and turn as had been customary to receive his punishment but proceeded straight to the board and picked up one of Mr. Pinsler’s pre-cut pieces of chalk.
“Weltzein? I did not specify the black board nor did I instruct you to touch the chalk.” Pinsler turned toward the class. “Did I specify the blackboard or instruct Weltzein to touch the chalk?”
“No, Mr. Pinsler,” half the class replied.
“Weltzein, you are already facing near certain expulsion.” Mr. Pinsler spoke in a clear monotone.
Weltzein drew a perfect circle just underneath Mr. Pinsler’s near perfect circle. The class could clearly see the difference: Mr. Pinsler’s circle was askew compared to Weltzein’s.
“Weltzein, what are you doing?”
Weltzein drew another perfect circle, then another then another, all without any effort whatsoever. He turned and addressed the class: “Mr. Pinsler keeps jars of his own shit in his school locker because he is obsessively compelled to do so. He allows Pratt to get away with his bullying because Pratt’s father went to the same boarding school as he and shares his fetish for shitting into jars.”
At that moment, the principle of the school burst into the classroom accompanied by a police officer.
“Mr. Prinsler, we need you to open your locker. Atop my desk a few minutes ago was placed an envelope containing several highly disturbing photographs. Parents have apparently received the same packet of images and are congregating in the school lobby as we speak.”
There was a burst of walkie-talkie static as Weltzein placed the chalk back onto the blackboard’s lip, making a distinctive tic on the surface of the wood.
The decorations were cheap but worked, at least for us: Wooden cross beams with hanging fiasco baskets and a faded copy of the Mona Lisa propped against the back wall between two trellis panels. The restaurant itself was tacked onto the end of a sooty two-up two-down row house block just short of the traffic circle. With all that going for it, we figured the food had to be good. The maître d' extended his arm with a slight bow. He was creepy and I felt the darkness embedded around his eyes was not due to lack of sleep. We followed him over to a table by a frosted window, which was fine; who would want to see outside anyway. The maître d' turned away, grimaced and snapped his fingers at a blond standing at the bar who looked like she was waiting for a firing squad to take aim.
Before I could say a word to the waitress, she mashed her finger down into my menu: salmone puttanesco. She copied the order down slowly. I assumed the blond was in training as a second waitress, a chiseled-faced brunette, watched her from two tables away, head cocked to one side like a peregrine falcon. Chisel face moved around the room more comfortably than ours did but never smiled and brought the drinks without making eye contact. The blond had two tattoos, one on the wrist, the other above the left elbow, both crooked crosses encased in thorns. After taking the order, she stood and glanced toward the kitchen, on the verge of saying something but didn’t; edgy as a straight razor.
Her suggestion had been a good one it turned out. The sauce looked almost too rich, with tomatoes, garlic, capers and olives but I tasted the fish. Same with their calamari fritti: Not chewy, with sparing use of batter. After the plates were cleared, I turned to Angela.
“They’re all off in here.”
She bit a fingernail. “Off as fuck.”
“The blond’s been sold into white slavery, the brunette just crawled out of a pod, and the maître d' has been dismembering bodies in the kitchen.”
“Is that what we’ve been eating then?”
The portions were big so we had them wrap up the left over carrots and salad. We usually had coffee and desert elsewhere and planned on going through the drive through at Costa.
“I would come back but not order the bread or calamari, just a single main course.”
Angela put the Styrofoam container into her purse. I agreed. We waited another few minutes, but our waitress didn’t return with the check. There was a commotion in the kitchen, two raised voices yelling in Italian. I went over to the bar and paid. The shouting truncated, and I glanced at Angela. The woman standing behind the bar had bone white hair but couldn’t have been more than fifty. She was staring at the kitchen door.
“You have a good cook,” I told her. I liked talking about food. She turned, irritated.
“Chef. He’s a chef. And he’s the boss.”
The woman tossed a hand up and down as if to suggest the boss was tough, then almost smiled but didn’t. She half-turned toward the door again, holding my money, and we all listened to muffled croaking. The woman pursed her lips toward the maître d' and tossed her head in the direction of the kitchen.
“He did the salmon well,” I said.
“He’s the boss,” the woman repeated, handed me my change and froze with outstretched hand. A plate shattered and something metal scooted against the floor, then a loud grunt. Feeling sorry for our waitress, I put five pounds on the bar. The woman stared at the back wall and mumbled, “Grazie.”
The maître d' slipped through the kitchen door, opening it wide enough for me to see the man in a white apron down on his knees; his hand was stuck inside the mouth of our blond waitress. She gripped his wrist and thrashed her head back and forth like a pit bull.
I pulled Angela's arm. “You see that?”
A metal pan crashed then clattered in the kitchen. My insides twisted while we waited for a family of ten to get through the little alcove. Grandma stood in the doorway holding a walker making tut-tutting sounds at the toddler in front of her.
The parking lot in the back was full. As soon as we got into the car, a black BMW lurched to a stop behind us. In the rear view, I watched “the boss,” the man the blond had been eating, come barreling out the back door, almost sending it off the hinge, his apron looking like it’d been dipped in marinara. He held a meat cleaver in his good hand and pressed the chewed one against his t shirt. The maître d' followed him with a towel.
“You getting all this?”
Angela watched through her side mirror.
A red-haired man got out of the BMW. The boss shoved him back toward the car, swinging one arm over his head like he was starting the Indianapolis 500. When he moved into the BMW’s headlights and held out his hand, I could see he was missing two fingers. The maître d' started wrapping the towel around the bloody portion, the boss shoved him back toward the kitchen, bellowing in Italian. The red-haired man, back in the Beemer, reversed, squealing tires the length of the parking lot.
“They didn’t call the cops; they called Red.”
“Fucking hell. Don’t look down,” Angela said.
I looked down. Our waitress lay on the floor of the back seat, covered with a shopping bag. Sticking out of her mouth were the boss’s two fingers. I turned to watch the boss as I backed up and gave him a thumbs up. He stared at us a moment, wrapped the towel around his hand, flung the kitchen door open and stormed back in.
“We still going to Costa?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Angela said. “Ask her.”
I reached over the seat and poked the waitress.
“Good choice, salmone puttanesco. I left you a tip.”
The waitress stared at us from under the shopping bag.
“We’re going to Costa. You want a coffee or something to wash the fingers down? Maybe a double espresso?”
“For fuck’s sake. The fingers are still in her mouth. She’s probably in shock.”
The waitress spat the fingers out and wiped her mouth with the shopping bag.
“Sì. Un caffé.”
“No. She’s ok.”