The Sum of My Existence - 4
That Friday night, I was on the State Street express bus, headed straight for Kransky Auditorium. They had quite a program lined up as I recall: Flatcar Terry Gallagher was paired with The Can Opener against Kaiser Kretchmer and Awful Olaf for the main event. A tag-team deal, guaranteed to pack them in.
There I was, sliding around in my hard plastic seat as we took the corners, when I saw her. Her with him. Them. They were standing outside Schimmel’s, and 9 was sizing up 16 while she was reading the menu in the window, her pretty head probably thinking about the Pigs-in-a-blanket platter or a peanut butter sundae with extra jimmies. I knew what he was probably thinking. I could imagine, anyway. Me? I was thinking 16 + 9 = T. T for trouble. And I’m a guy who failed algebra.
I got off at Petunia Street and tucked my shirt in, working it clockwise around the Give-N-Take waistband of my trousers. I had an experimental pair on that night. It was in a yellow fabric that never quite took off with the public. Mr. Walker had picked out the colors himself for a new line of men’s travel wear. Called it the Trav-L Collection. No, it was the Trav-L Kollection. He had it trademarked and everything. Each color was named for a different city, as in Moscow Red and Peking Yellow. Why that line didn’t take off like a Mercury Rocket, I’ll never understand. Of course, it might have been all those zippered map pockets and passport pouches that Mr. W. insisted on putting all over them.
I stood outside Schimmel’s window for a moment, checking both the specials du jour and the part in my hair before going inside. I may have whistled a tune or two: a snatch of To Sir With Love or a bit of the theme from Gunsmoke. There was an empty stool at the counter across from the refrigerated pie case, but I moved on and took a seat with plenty of mirror in front of me. I had to keep my eye on things, and I didn’t want to have my back exposed. There was no telling what 9 might do when cornered.
The waitress was fast enough with the menu, but she didn’t engage in the usual banter about the sorry state of the railroad depot or the bumper car fatality they’d had out at McClosky Park that summer. She had to have been new, just slapping the menu down on the counter like that. She didn’t even mention the specials du jour, which I already knew to be olive loaf on white in the sandwich category and Yankee pot roast in the dinners. There was also a soup: tomato-lima bean with complimentary Saltines. I don’t recall the pies.
I flagged down the waitress, calling her Miss, instead of Danielle, like it said on her name-tag. I wanted her to know that we would never have anything more than a business relationship, if she didn’t change her tune. I don’t think I was being unreasonable.
Danielle brought my fruit cup (one shrivelled grape was lurking under a clump of beige banana slices) and my glass of buttermilk (there were two straws with a wooden coffee stirrer as big as a tongue depressor). But I couldn’t enjoy any of it with all that was going on at the corner table.
9 had just finished stuffing 16 with shrimp and was now plying her with a blue drink in a tall glass. Or was it a tall drink in a blue glass? I tried to get a better view of the thing, swiveling around on my stool for a clear view of it in the mirror. Blue or not, it wasn’t any Shirley Temple. What’s more, the drink had a toy parasol jutting out of it. I didn’t like that. It meant 9 was hiding something.
I pushed the uneaten grape around on the bottom of the fruit cup dish and gave myself a little jolt when I looked at myself in the mirror. I was smiling, but it wasn’t me. It was my face, all right, but it looked like the face of some distant third cousin. Someone I had only met once or twice.
That’s when I began the long, slow walk toward the cozy corner table. I was in no hurry, having both time and the element of surprise on my side. I could picture the look on 9’s moon face when he finally realized what was up. His eyeballs would bulge like walnuts. At that point, I was going to shake my head in disgust or wind my watch or some such thing. I’d fiddle with the old Bulova and yawn, showing plenty of teeth. Like a lion. King of the Jungle. Whatever I did, I was going to let 9 know that I meant business. That’s right—beeswax.
The walk to the corner table wasn’t nearly as long as I’d figured. I’d been fooled by the mirrors. Probably wasn’t the first, either.
Of course, 9 didn’t see me even when I was right on top of him. He was too busy showing off, all caught up in trying to balance a salt shaker on its edge to realize that I wasn’t some busboy who’d come running with breadsticks or a pitcher of ice water.
16 recognized me right off, though. She blinked and said, “Look who’s here.” That’s all. Not Howdy! or Won’t you join us? or What a nice surprise. Not even a smile from those jujube lips of hers. But I don’t blame her for sounding like a 45 played at 33 RPM—I blame 9 and the blue brew he’d been foisting on her. The girl looked as doped as a racehorse.
I jingled the change in my pockets and gave 9 my best ear-to-ear, holding it until he got a good look at me. I believe I could have smiled all night like that, knowing I’d caught him with his paw in the pie basket.
9’s eyes weren’t exactly like walnuts—more like those little round jobs you sometimes run across. Filberts.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Just ante up and take your leave,” I said. “And make sure to shell out enough for the tip.” It all sounded pretty good, and I hadn’t even rehearsed.
He turned to 16 and said, “Get a load of Tex here.”
I don’t know if he said that because of my zippered ankle boots or because I had my hands at my side, ready to go for my nail clippers if he pulled any funny stuff. Either way, I took it as a compliment, having always had an abiding respect for anyone from the Lone Star State and their two-fisted ways.
9 shook out more salt and went back to his balancing trick. 16 just looked at both of us and blinked, cute as a kewpie doll.
9 looked up from the pile of salt and said, “Better run along, sport. There must be some taffy-pull or a model railroad club meeting you can get lost at.”
He pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it at my feet. “There, get yourself a bubble gum seegar down the street and don’t stub your toe on the way out.”
“I’m taking the lady home,” I said. No, I said, “I’m escorting the lady home.”
9 laughed at that. He was all huck, huck, huck and har, har, har. Like a cartoon dog.
“I don’t see anything funny,” I said.
9 went hyuh, hyuh, hyuh.
“I’m a fair man,” I said. “So I’ll give you ten seconds to make good on the tip and clear out.” By then he was down to nine seconds.
9 wiped his eyes and shook his head. The cigarette behind his ear never moved. 16 looked about the same as she had a moment before, except that her mouth was open now.
“Can’t hardly stand it,” 9 said. Then he was cracking up again, slapping his knee. Going sneck, sneck, sneck through his nose.
“Time’s up,” I said. “We’ve all had enough of your coarse jokes and flimflam. And you can clean up that mess before you trot off.”
“Say, what do you know about salt?” 9 asked, his tone of voice changing suddenly.
“I believe it comes from the ground.”
“Anybody knows that, champ. Tell me something I don’t know. Something original.”
“Well, an antelope will dig out a salt lick with its hooves if it has to.” I had seen this in a library book once, and told him so.
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Dewey Decimal System. They’re all different.”
“Salt crystals. Every one’s different. Just like snowflakes that way.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Take a look then.”
So I did. 9 waited until I’d gone in real close before blowing that salt in my face like he was going at a birthday cake after making a million dollar wish. If you’ve ever been caught in a full-blown Okie twister, you’ll get the idea. Smarted like a son-of-a-gun. But the worst of it was watching through weepy eyes while 9 paid the tab, one of his hands on 16 and the other in the mint bowl.