I have decided that I would like to post the stories from my collection, Kindred Spirits, on my blog over the next couple of week. I intend on posting everything from the collection, but it is also available as an ebook for Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Smashwords, as well as in print via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and CreateSpace.
A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.
…Continued from Part Four…
During his stroll along the boardwalk, Alex has not been paying attention to the time. He looks at his watch, fearful that it is late, but sees that it is just approaching noon. He heads back into The Beat Casino and finds the restaurant: Naked Lunch Bar and Grill. The place is decorated like a Tangier marketplace, although Alex read that the casino recently toned down any allusions to Islamic art and focused more on hanging pictures of exotic food and belly dancers, as well as placing hookah pipes here and there. The place is run by a wait staff dressed in turtlenecks and berets. He spots Bruno in a booth with a martini in his hand, three menus fanned out in front of him anticipating their arrival.
“Jesus, a booth? Couldn’t you get a table?” Alex slides in across from Bruno.
“This is where the lady sat me.”
Alex watches a waiter pass by. “I swear, if any of them call me ‘Daddy-O’…”
“How are you making out?” Bruno takes a slug of his martini.
“Uh, doing OK. You know, up and down. You?”
“Taking a beating, so to speak.”
“Well, that’s the thing about luck. It’s 100% chance,” Alex philosophizes weakly.
“No. You make your own luck. Chance is something you take.” He says these words as if they were the very things he was thinking before Alex sat down.
Charlie King ambles in and sits next to Alex. He’s still wearing his goofy hat and still has his parka zipped up to his sweaty neck. He picks up one of the menus waiting on the table.
A waitress, wearing a beret and a horizontally striped turtleneck that although shows no skin certainly accentuates her large breasts making it nearly impossible to keep one’s eyes above the Mason-Dixon line, comes over and speaks first to Bruno. “What would you like, Daddy-O?”
“Mercy.” Alex rolls his eyes and picks up a menu.
“I’ll have an Allen Ginsberger with bacon and cheese, a side of fries and another one of these.” Bruno holds up his empty martini glass.
“As it states on the menu, we don’t serve the Allen Ginsberger with bacon and cheese.”
Bruno touches her hand. “For me, sweetheart?”
“OK, but don’t tell anyone, you dig?”
She turns to King who boisterously places his order: “I’ll have a ham and cheese sangwich, extra mayo and pickles on the side, French fries and one of what he’s drinking.”
“That’s not on the menu either, but I’ll see what the kitchen can do.” She lets out a sigh and leans in to look past Charlie King and make eye contact with Alex.
He’s tempted by some of the richer options. What’s the point of his diet now without Joyce to remain healthy for? What would be the harm in indulging in a burger or ribs or fried chicken? Maybe even have a beer. But he can’t escape the memory of the authoritative voice of his doctor and decides wants the healthiest sounding thing but dreads saying it. “Yes, well, I’ll have the vegetarian Neal Cassadilla and an iced tea.”
“Finally, someone who knows his groceries.” As the waitress walks off, Charlie King reaches into his parka pocket and pulls out three deviled eggs and lays them out on the table in front of him. They are in remarkably good condition considering their method of transportation. Alex shakes his head and Bruno laughs.
“What?” King shrugs as one egg’s already down the hatch. “They were having a reception over there.” He shakes a paw to indicate the general direction. “It’s not my fault no one was watching the hors d’oeuvres.”
The waitress, curiously eyeing the deviled eggs which appeared since she left, brings their round of drinks. King chokes down the remaining eggs followed by noisy swallows of his martini.
Bruno takes a sip of his drink, leans forward, elbows on the table. “I met quite the looker while I was at the roulette wheel.”
Neither Alex nor Charlie King says anything. So many of Bruno’s stories start the same way. The rest is usually just noise and innuendo. He meets a woman. They talk. Exchange phone numbers. Meet again at some point in time but nothing specific emerges. Alex has no context for it other than Bruno’s previous vagueness. He wonders if a life lacking specificity is better than one drowning in details.
Bruno narrows his eyes at their lack of response but that does not deter him: “She’s quite a find. Attractive. Funny.”
“She sounds like your type.” King schlups down his martini olives. Alex can’t tell if this is just some mindless comment or if he was trying to be funny.
“And a recent divorcée. She’s here with some meatball, but he doesn’t seem a threat.”
“Did you get her number?” King’s applying his olives’ toothpick to various foodstuffs trapped in his not-so-pearly not-quite-whites.
“I’m glad you asked, my friend. I most certainly did while the meatball was taking a leak.” Bruno pulls a cocktail napkin from his suit coat pocket and slides it across the table to Alex, who looks over his glasses at it.
“That’s a phone number all right.” Alex slides the napkin back to Bruno.
Bruno pushes it back. “It’s all yours.”
“Too soon,” King says.
Alex looks over at him surprised yet pleased to have an ally against Bruno’s desire to have Alex move on.
“Yes, listen to the security guard.” Alex points at Charlie King. “He’s on the money for once.”
“Suit yourself.” Bruno nabs the napkin and returns it to his pocket just as the waitress appears with their lunch.
Charlie looks down and is in an uproar because his mayonnaise is in a little cup on the side. He holds it up to the waitress, his toothpick dangling unassisted from his dentition. “What the hell is going on?”
“You asked for extra mayo on the side.” The waitress double-checks her order book.
“No, I didn’t. I asked for pickles on the side, which, thankfully, you got right.” He picks up a limp pickle with his other paw as if to confirm its existence.
Bruno laughs. “No, Charlie. You asked for a Ham and Cheese Sangwich with extra mayo and pickles on the side.”
King nods with approval. “Right. I only wanted the pickles on the side.”
The waitress taps King’s placemat with her pen. “You have a knife, Daddy-O. Spread the mayo with that.”
King follows orders but somehow manages to make a colossal mess of his food as he un- and then re-assembles his sandwich. Several times as he tries to eat, he needs to retrieve fallen meat and cheese and stuff it back. He alternately sulks and curses through their meal while Bruno and Alex eat in silence. When the bill comes, Bruno snatches it up.
“How much do I owe?” Alex pulls out his wallet and slides the rubber band around his wrist.
“I got it. Like I said, luck is something you make yourself. Maybe this bit of generosity on my part will bring me better luck next time.”
“He’s talking karma,” King offers.
Alex shrugs. The logic doesn’t make sense to him, but he’s not going to argue over a free meal.
“I’m going to go take care of this, hit the men’s room, and then we can get out of here so Charlie can get to work.” Bruno slides away from the booth.
“Yes,” Alex says. “We wouldn’t want him to be late.”
Alex and King sit in silence a couple of minutes before the waitress comes back to the table.
“I can’t accept this,” she says.
“Accept what?” Alex thinks it must be a delayed reaction to King’s earlier behavior.
“Your friend told me to keep the change, but there’s over two hundred dollars here. That’s a lot of bread.”
Alex sits up straight so he can see past King. “He must have been doing better than he let on.”
“Lousy bum,” King says numbly.
“He should be back in a minute. You can talk to him, although I doubt he will take it back.”
After the waitress walks off, Alex and Charlie resume sitting quietly like two kids being punished in the back of class. After a few minutes with no appearance from Bruno, Alex says, “Maybe we should go see if he’s OK.”
King nods with approval but does not budge. Alex pushes at Charlie until he gets the hint and reluctantly slides out of the booth. Alex recalls the long piss Bruno took back before they left, but his absence has been too long for even the healthiest of leaks. King dumps himself back into the booth as Alex heads to the men’s room where he confirms his suspicion: Bruno is nowhere to be found.
He comes back and tells King.
“You don’t think he left us?” King rubs the back of his neck making his hat dance up and down.
“Of course he left us. Where else would he be?”
King scrunches up his face in confusion as Alex waves the waitress back over. After some discussion, they decide their only option is to take a bus back to the city. Fortunately, they find one that will get them home nearly in time for Charlie to get to work. “Nearly” is probably good enough. Alex is certain that King is not the type to be concerned about showing up late.
After taking a look in the parking garage to search for Bruno’s car, which they don’t find, although both admit to not being sure where they parked—keeping track of the car being Bruno’s job—they find the bus and board. Without thinking, Alex gets in first and takes a window seat. King plops down next to him, squeezing Alex tight to the glass. Alex wants to push or squirm or complain but does not have the energy to do so. The bus starts on time, and the two are quiet to begin their trip. Clouds have filled the sky. King drifts toward sleep as Alex watches the passing scenery.
At some point, Alex tires of the redundant view of pine trees and speeding cars and turns to his groggy traveling companion. “I tell you, that Bruno. I wonder what got into him. I mean, really, to abandon his friends? He’s not exactly convincing me to go to his Christmas Eve party.”
Charlie doesn’t answer but merely shrugs his shoulders. That’s as good of a response as Alex can hope for. They have no idea why Bruno took off. It crosses Alex’s mind that maybe Bruno merely left the restaurant and moved his car only to make them think he left them behind. Maybe he wanted to go back to that woman he met, if there ever really was a woman. Maybe Bruno was just testing Alex with that woman’s phone number to see how he would respond. Maybe it was Bruno’s disappointment in Alex that made him want to get away. Maybe it was a way to make something interesting happen, to create an incident to add to their mythology. He can hear Bruno now: “Ha, ha, remember that time I left you and Charlie in Atlantic City?”
Another thought makes its way into Alex’s brain. Bruno mentioned the attractiveness of Charlie’s wife. Maybe this was some ruse so that he could be alone with her. It doesn’t make sense because Bruno would have that opportunity anytime Charlie is at work. Alex knows it’s ridiculous to think so, but maybe Bruno wanted a head start so that he could run off with Nadine. That would be far too romantic a gesture for Bruno and highly unlikely, especially since Nadine is at least 20 years older than his current predilection. Thirty if Bruno’s pattern continues at its current rate. Even if it could be true, King might not even care if she’s gone. He hardly mentions her, so for all Alex knows, King may be like Bruno: she’s gone, well, fuck her.
Then he thinks of his own empty home and from that pours forth from Alex a torrent of words. He begins talking about himself in a way that he hasn’t since Joyce died. He speaks about how, given the chance, he too would hit the road with his winnings, although not leaving his friends in a bind in the process. Even at his age, the thought of scrapping everything and starting over somewhere new appeals. He reveals that he would, in fact, head to a warmer climate, that he thinks about doing so all winter long and he even admits to the non-judgmental ear of Charlie King that nothing is stopping him from doing so even without striking it rich. He owns his home outright, and he has a bit of savings. Selling the house would put him in a good position to make a move. It’s just a matter of will, a matter of getting beyond the nostalgia of a life shattered and lost. Maybe this is Bruno’s intended lesson.
Alex talks about how much he misses Joyce and how he wishes she would be there when he gets home. He would trade all the winnings in the world for this: to find her sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea, working on a crossword puzzle, waiting for him as she often had whenever Alex was out. But this is a false future that will never happen, a future that only now Alex is able to begin to accept.
As Alex talks, a light snow begins to fall. It does not stick but merely swirls in the air. Alex again speaks of heading to a warmer climate. Would he consider somewhere out west? Not necessarily Colorado but somewhere closer to Ken and Gloria and their kids? A move considered much too late but one he can still entertain.
King remains quiet, perhaps listening, perhaps not. It’s been ages since Alex has been able to release so many words, although his ebullition has found equal feedback when lamenting to the bathroom walls. He is thankful for King’s passively receptive ear. He is just sitting there only halfway looking in Alex’s direction.
“Thank you for listening, Charlie. I mean that. This has done me good.”
King nods, hands folded across his chest, a slight smile unfolding on his lips.
As they approach the city, the snow ceases as suddenly as it had started. The snow from the previous night melted throughout the day as the temperature in the city moderated. But even a mild winter would not be good enough for Alex. For him, Bruno has never been a reason to stay in the area, although he may have been a reason not to leave. But Bruno has proven, perhaps intentionally, that the latter may not even be true. In a few minutes, they will be at the bus depot and heading in their separate directions: Charlie to work and Alex to his empty home, a house in which he will never spend another winter.
…Continue to Part Six…
A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.