Friday, 2 April 2010
AT THE NORMAL CAFE - part 5 - PAYING WHAT IS OWED By Chris Allinotte
At the Normal Café Part 5 – Paying What is Owed
Lenny checked the window; there was still nothing there. The taste of maple syrup clung to his mouth, turning to acid as he tongued it. Still, picking at the waffle gave him something else to do, so he prepared another mouthful and looked away from the parking lot for a moment. Nothing he could do would erase the bet. He could just try to forget for a little while, regain his composure, and come up with a plan.
The TV was bleating about some useless piece of junk for sale, but was preferable to watching the Sports News, which was good for nothing but heartache now.
He watched the bouncing girl in tights for a moment. Yes, this was much better than being reminded that both the Cubs’ Pennant hopes and his own life might end on the same night. God-damn that guy! To have had the game in the bag, and then have it fall completely to shit over the actions of a fan too stupid to leave the ball alone. The police had escorted the guy out of the stadium. It was no surprise. Right now the entire city wanted the guy taken out and beaten.
Lenny ran sticky fingers through his hair and checked the window again. The diner was reflected in ghostly outline. Behind him, he could just make out Dwayne’s yellow cap. The reek of whiskey had been unmistakeable when they’d exchanged hellos earlier. Tonight though, his friend would have to deal with his troubles alone. Lenny sipped his coffee. The Bensons hadn’t found him yet, but it wouldn’t be long. He attempted another forkful of waffle.
Breakfast at midnight soothed him. He’d been coming here so long that Bev would have the waffles in the toaster just as he reached his table; they were his favourite. Good old Bev. He managed another bite but the taste was still disappointingly flat. He sipped his coffee and wondered again how his dreams had come to depend on the fate of a single ballgame.
There was no “first bet” in his memory. Of course there wasn’t. Gambling begins in childhood; and the kid who learns the fastest gets the most marbles. But the kid that learns to work the rules, like Lenny, he sends the skilled kid home crying every time. It was a talent his Uncle Tyler had nurtured.
While it wasn’t the best upbringing for a kid, he’d been happy, and while his parents had spent their weekends decorating and selling other people’s houses, he’d sat in the breeze of a rusty table fan and watched sports with his uncle.
“See kid, the trick is knowing the variables. All these damn teams are more or less the same. There’s the top five, obviously, that win most of their games. Stay away from them.”
Lenny had just nodded, taking it all in. Tyler sat back, flipped to another game to check the score, then continued his sermon, “Unless of course, you get word that it’s worth your while to get some money on it.”
“Like you know they’re going to lose?”, the boy had asked.
Tyler’s expression had been hard to read. Before answering, he’d gotten up and limped to the fridge for another beer. As long as he could remember, Uncle Tyler had trouble walking. That had been the reason he’d started watching Lenny in the first place. “Long as the kid doesn’t want to go anywhere,” Tyler had said, “he can hang out with me.” Lenny, already a pasty-white TV junkie, had supported that idea whole heartedly.
“You can’t ever know that Lenny,” said Tyler, coming back from the kitchen. “But the smart man keeps his ears open. Say you find out the morning of the game that the star centerfielder has pneumonia for example, you might lay a couple bucks against them winning that particular game. People that don’t listen, that just play the stats – you’ll come out ahead more often than not.”
When he turned thirteen, Tyler started placing bets for Lenny, using his allowance. Sometimes he won, and turned the windfall into video games, CDs or other fleeting pleasures. When he lost – and he did lose – Tyler had taught him to suck it up. “When you’re going to bet, Lenny, you’re better off if you just put the money aside, like it’s already gone. That way if you need to pay, it’s all done.” A strange look had come over his face then, and he’d gone silent.
The last day he’d ever spent with Uncle Tyler was a losing day. Lenny went over, and paid up as soon as he got in the door. He got a warm can of pop from the kitchen and took up his customary spot on the ratty striped armchair near the TV. Tyler had lost too, and sat glowering at the screen. Thinking to cheer him up, Lenny said, “No way we could’ve seen that one, huh Uncle? Guy breaks a finger and then hits for the cycle. Lucky jerk.”
Tyler didn’t respond for a long moment. He stared hard at Lenny, really giving him a good look up and down. Just as Lenny was starting to get uncomfortable, Tyler asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up Lenny?”
“That’s easy. I want to be rich,” he replied with a smile.
“Yeah? That’s good,” said Tyler, but the way the stubbly corners of his mouth were pulled down spoke differently. “What are you going to do to get rich? What are you good at? What do you like to do?”
Lenny shifted in his seat. It was hard to look away from those cold, red-ringed eyes. Uncle Ty had never asked him this stuff before, had never said anything serious to him that wasn’t about betting.
He swallowed, then said the first thing that popped into his head, “I don’t know, really. I figured I’d take business courses.”
Tyler nodded, “Business courses. Yeah. That’s good. You’re good with numbers, right?”
Lenny flushed a little, “Not really. I know money, but Calculus? No way.”
Tyler waved a hand in dismissal, “That’s what I meant. What else?”
Lenny gestured with the remote, “There’s always the games. I figured I’d work some desk job, and make the real bucks being smart.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Tyler exhaled in a hiss. “That’s what you think.” He buried his face in his hands suddenly, then ran the fingers back through his greasy grey hair. “Jesus kid. I’ve fucked you up. Your dad too. Your mother too.” He was getting louder. “They shouldn’t have left you here so much.” He turned and walked toward the kitchen, talking to himself now, “What the fuck do I know about raising a kid?”
Lenny stood up. He wasn’t sure where this was going, but he didn’t want to be sitting anymore. Just to say something, he tried, “I like spending time with you Uncle Ty. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Tyler turned back around and limped as quickly as he could to Lenny. It was still pretty fast, and Lenny actually flinched, thinking crazily that his Uncle was about to deck him.
“Lenny, you like spending time with me? You wanna be like me? Take a look, kid. Take a good look at me.” He stood there in his dirty Cubs sweater, arms spread.
“You’re the coolest person I know.” said Lenny, almost whispering.
“Lenny, I’m not cool. I’m fucked. You want to know why I limp? Huh? You asked enough times. I never told you. Well, here goes. Here’s what you get ‘being smart.’” He sat down hard on the chair and put his leg up on the coffee table. As he started pulling up the leg of his track pants, he said, “I was so smart, I bet five grand I didn’t have on the Cubs, and they lost.”
The nylon cuff slid up over Tyler’s knee and Lenny sucked in a deep breath. His uncle’s joint was a tragedy – all lumps and white scar tissue. Tyler looked up at his nephew. “I think you should go home now Lenny and I don’t want you coming over anymore.”
Lenny opened his mouth to object, but Tyler shook his head. “Don’t argue Leonard. Go home, call up some other kid, and go to the mall or something. Be a kid. Study your business books. Be something. Don’t be me.” He got to his feet again and picked up the beer bottle on the coffee table. Finding it empty, he walked into the kitchen again. Lenny was doing his best not to cry, but felt the tears coming regardless. His voice quaked as he said, “You’re all I’ve got.”
Tyler didn’t stop. Lenny heard the rattle of bottles as the fridge door swung open. His uncle’s voice drifted out to him one last time, “Jesus kid, I’m sorry.” When he didn’t return to the living room, Lenny left the apartment. He cried all the way back home.
Twenty years later, his hair was starting to turn grey, he worked for a strip-mall accounting firm, and he’d lost five grand he didn’t have on a game the Cubs weren’t supposed to lose. It’s not your fault, Uncle Tyler, he thought. You were the only father I had, and you did the best you could.
A sudden sweep of headlights across the parking lot turned his stomach to soup and his arm spasmed, knocking his plate off the table to explode on the floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and squatted down to start picking up the larger pieces. Bev arrived with her dustpan.
“Lenny, quit that. You’ll cut your hands all up,” she said.
“Nah, Bev, let me help,” he replied, hating how shaky his voice came out.
“C’mon Lenny, this is the most exciting thing I’ve had to do all night. Don’t worry about it,” Bev said with a little smile, then started to sweep up the mess.
Lenny slid back into his seat, and despite himself, checked the window yet again. The Benson brothers would find him eventually. The waiting was killing him.
Lenny watched Bev go over to the garbage can and her favorite spot behind the counter. He played with his fork. He’d only had two bites left, but he missed having them. This threatened to be the final thing that would make him break down completely. Across the diner, Big Dwayne got up from his booth. I should go talk to him when he gets back, thought Lenny, remembering the sullen, haunted look on the man’s face.
Sudden movement at the counter caught his eye. The stranger had spun around on his stool and now bolted to his feet. He had a gun in his hand. The crack of the shot was deafening. Dwayne staggered back and fell into the bench seat there. Lenny’s hand went white around his fork. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking, They’re here. The Bensons sent this guy to kill me. The door was two tables to his right. It might as well be across the room. Still, he couldn’t stay here. He kept his eyes on the stranger, who was starting to wave the gun around, and was moving his mouth, saying something. Slowly, he inched to the edge of his seat, and sank to the floor, where he’d be out of sight behind the big centre booth. Some of the guy’s words started coming clear, “… LAUGHING at Me! Quit..” The gun crashed again and the huge picture window behind Lenny exploded. Lenny started to scream and then bit down hard on his lip; bit hard enough he tasted blood. A rush of wind from outside raised gooseflesh under his sweaty shirt. I’ve gotta get out of here.
Whether it was the pain, the fear, or the fresh air, he found he could hear again. Bev was speaking, “…forgot your change sir …” She was talking to the shooter. Unbelieveable. He looked again at the door. He might still be able to make it. Lenny started to crawl, and had gotten just two feet down the aisle when the first tiny jag of glass found his palm. Shit. He bit his lip harder. This is stupid. I’ve got to walk. Bright yellow light flashed between the legs of the tables by the former window – headlights. The light stayed constant; the car wasn’t turning. Christ! The Bensons! He decided to make a sprint for the door.
Lenny tensed to spring. Balling his fists, he was surprised to find he was still holding the fork. Before he could move, Bev screamed, and it was almost as loud as the gunshots,“DAWNIE – NO!!”
The gun crashed again, and Bev cried out. Lenny’s heart was thumping painfully in his chest. His thoughts were a blur: that son of a bitch … oh God, I’m next … if the Bensons don’t get me first!
The desire to escape won out above all and he shifted to make his move. Glass scraped against the linoleum. The stranger came closer. Lenny felt his last bite of waffle in the back of his throat. There was a sudden thud; and the stranger yelled in pain. Around the corner of the center booth, the stranger came into view, falling to his knees clutching his head. In his mind, Lenny heard Bev scream again. Without thinking, he lunged forward with the only weapon he had, his fork. He jabbed the stranger again and again.
As noisy as the gun had been, the place had fallen nearly silent. Lenny could hear the neon “Open” sign squeaking as it swung freely out into the night, and back into the diner. He could hear the little shucking noise as the tines pulled free of the stranger’s shoulder, before he plunged again.
From beyond the broken window, a voice said, “Stop that. He’s unconscious.”
Lenny looked over his shoulder to see a woman standing at the broken window. He dropped the fork. She stood in silhouette in front of the headlights that were still shining in. He asked the only question worth asking, “Are you from the Police?”
“No, but they’re on their way. My name is Judith. I’m … a friend. Of his.”
Chris Allinotte is a Toronto based writer. His work has been published on the web at such great sites as MicroHorror, Flashes in the Dark, the Oddville Press, and more. For more details about Chris' writing, check out his blog at: http://chrisallinotte.blogspot.com/