Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Be careful on your way home.
**Editor's Note** This is my entry in Cormac Brown's Flash Fiction Friday feature. He has corralled a group of talented writers the likes of Freida Bee, Ubermilf, Randal Graves, and the Baroness Von Bloggenschtern herself, not to mention yours truly. How I find myself running in such prestigious circles, I'll never know. The gist of it is this: on Friday at 12:00 AM PST, Cormac gives us a starter sentence and we write a story with it at the beginning, and we have until Tuesday at 9:00 AM PST to post it. Without further ado, this is my entry and is dedicated to a friend of mine who has just returned from a long hiatus.
Nicole’s cataracts have worsened, so I knew she was going to be running late because she had to relearn her way around. She surprised me at the restaurant when she showed up beside our usual table and asked me, "Wow, what just happened?”
I mumbled, "Why do you ask?" She folded up her white cane and threw it and her huge purse into the booth, and flopped down, "Because you are breathing like you just ran to catch a bus," she said.
"It's nothing," I lied. "Bullshit," she countered, "your fingers are twitching and you knee is trembling. What happened?"
"How do you know that?"
"I'm blind, if you didn't notice, but everything else is up to snuff. I can hear your fingers on the table and the nerves in my ass are enough to tell me the seat is shaking from your knee. You're spooked or nervous or something. What's up? Run into an old girlfriend or is someone trying to serve you court papers," she said with a giggle.
"So it's true what they say; a blind person does develop their other senses more keenly. I always thought that was a load of bunk." I tried to still my shaky knee and put my hands in my lap but they both seemed to have a mind of their own. She fumbled in her purse and got a stick of gum.
"That's bullshit," she said as she adjusted the black Wayfarer's on her nose, "Try learning Braille for a month and see how super human you feel. Don't get me wrong, being blind has it's advantages. I'm constantly grabbing the ass of the cute guy at work and getting away with it as long as I say 'Excuse me', but I'm not sure how much longer I can get away with that, not to mention the alimony payments, but that's another story." She tried to smooth down her short, spiky red hair and looked straight at me. "So why so jumpy?"
Nicole and I had been friends since high school and we had dated briefly. She was one of my oldest friends, and her bullshit detector had a three mile radius. Nicole was fun, funny, and care-free, despite the recent loss of her sight. She was the one person that I could always open up to and she stood by me with the loyalty of a collie dog. "I met a man this evening," I started.
"Oh I like where this is going," she said as she started to pop the bubbles in her gum.
"Shut up! I haven't even started and you have comments? Let me finish!" She made the motion of zipping her lips shut and I began again.
"I met a man this evening as I was waiting for you here. No sooner did I sit down than a strange man came up to me and-"
"What did he look like?" she interjected. "What?" I said.
"What did he look like? Please? I've been spending four hours a day learning Braille for two weeks and the sound is out on the TV. I'm missing my soaps and I'm missing America's Next Top Model, so I need some details here!" No longer could Nicole and I meet up for our regular Tuesday night dinner and a movie like we had always done. I had to be the entertainment now, as we had tried going to movies and me describing the show to her, but after the fifty-millionth shush, we gave up.
"Well," I thought, "he was short, dark haired, and frumpy."
"You know full well that that isn't any help. What did he look like? What did he have on? What did he smell like? I need details if it's got you this worked up." She motioned to the passing waiter as if she had seen him. The waiter nodded and held up a finger to say, "One minute," and she nodded as if she understood.
"How'd you do that?" I said in amazement. "Practice," she said with a smile, "please continue."
"Let me see...he had to be in his late seventies or early eighties. He was short. Five feet five or so. He was wearing a brown tweed sport coat, the kind with leather patches on the elbows, a green corduroy vest and a cheap brown metallic tie. He was pudgy, and sun burnt with liver spots. His hair was dark and curly but it looked ink black as if he dyed it."
"Okay, I can see him. Anything else?" she was on the edge of her seat and had her hands folded under her chin.
"He had enormous teeth, you know, like a horse," I suggested.
"Hello. I'm Philip. I'll be your waiter this evening. Can I start you off with some drinks perhaps?" The waiter had returned and his pencil hovered above his note pad.
"Hello Philip," Nicole smiled her largest fake smile and practically squirmed in her seat as she spoke, "I can tell you're new here, so let me just spell it out for you. Dale and I are regulars and we get this booth every Tuesday. We have a nice meal and a few drinks and run up a nice big bill, every Tuesday. If you get this right this evening, you can guarantee yourself a huge tip tonight, and a huge tip every Tuesday from now on. If your screw it up, I won't leave you the lint out of my pockets. Do you understand Philip?" Her smile widened by two notches.
"Yes miss, I think so," Philip was caught off guard, as all of the new waiters were when they met Nicole.
"I will give you our order in it's entirety with specific details as to each food, and how and when we want it served. I will not repeat myself and you will have to keep up or lose a seven hundred dollar tip. So let's begin, shall we?"
What followed was a culinary obstacle course with every detail spelled out to the nth degree but delivered at a shotgun pace. "...and lastly I'll have a triple scotch and soda, on the rocks with two limes, no seeds, and Dale will have an iced tea with two Sweet 'N Lows. I know you don't have them, but the Chinese place next door does." Nicole took a big breath, "Have you got it?"
"Yes, I think so..." Philip scanned his four pages of notes.
"I'd like to change my drink order please," I said in a wavering voice.
"Well, a precedent has been broken!" Nicole cooed.
"I'll have what she's having."
"But Dale, darling, you don't drink!" Nicole said.
"Well this evening I'm willing to learn," I replied.
Nicole dismissed Philip with a wave of her hand and turned back to me with a mischievous grin. "So what's with old frumpy guy?"
"It's just plain weird," I begin, "I'm sitting here and I see this guy who walks past the table as if he is off to pay his check, and then he stops as if he has forgotten something and starts walking back. He looks at me and then stops in his tracks. I swear he stands there for a full minute and stares at me. Then he comes up and introduces himself. 'Hi, I'm Mr. Waterson,' or Wasselston or Vasserstein or something and he shakes my hand. He tells me he is an old friend of my dad's and they used to work together or were in the Navy or something. I wasn't listening to well because I was still trying to figure out who this guy was. Anyway, he tells me how he had made a promise to my dad to look me up after he died. He read in the paper last year that my dad had passed on but just hadn't found the time to call me, as this was the busy time of year in the carpet business. So he tells me that he has something for me and I'm a little leery because I think that he is trying to scam me somehow, but then he tells me how he was there when my dad died-"
Philip was back and set down two tall scotches and made a flourish of lighting the candle and primping the flowers on our table, then disappeared wordlessly.
Nicole clinks her glass against mine and up ends hers. She takes a long pull and emptied her's by half. "So what does he give you?" she mutters in her alcohol fumed exhale.
I poke at the floating limes with my finger and set the glass down. "Now it gets even weirder. He tells me how my dad died in his arms and made him promise to save my life one day. He describes my dad's death in every detail that could only have been known by someone who was there! I must not have been able to hide my shock as he goes quiet for a minute as this sinks in. He tells me that he is going to save my life tonight. Then he leans in real close and I can smell the coffee and cigarettes on his breath and he says real softly, 'Tonight I fulfil my part of the tontine. If you wish to see tomorrow, walk home. Whatever you do, don't take a cab. I can say nothing else. Good luck!' he shook my hand again and left in a hurry."
Nicole sipped her drink in silence for a moment then dug through her purse and lit a cigarette. In an instant, Philip was at her elbow explaining that the restaurant had a very strict No Smoking policy. Nicole blew out a large plume of smoke and told him that if anyone complained that she would pay for their dinners and leave their tip as well. Philip scurried off.
"I've got to say darling that this is the strangest thing I've heard in a week," she bit into her lime wedge and made a sour face. "No wonder you're creeped out and drinking," she said nodding to my untouched beverage. "Hell, I'm weirded out for you!" She held her empty glass above her head and rattled the ice cubes in it. Philip was right there with a replacement and gone in a flurry of motion. "So tell me, do you believe him?"
I took a small sip of my drink to steady my rattled nerves and felt the ice and limes brush my lip as a horrible taste filled my mouth. My tongue went numb and my stomach felt warm, but my nerves remained jangled. "I don't know what to believe. It all sounds so incredible, but at the same time how could he know the small details of my dad's death. They weren't published in the paper and there was only two people there when he died, Uncle Charlie and some fishing buddy of his. Besides, what could he gain by lying to me? It's all very weird," I said again.
Dinner came and went. I struggled through my drink until I felt a little light headed, and Philip brought the bill with a broad smile. Nicole plunked down her credit card without a word, but when he returned with her receipt, Nicole chastised him about the quality of the service that we had received and said she was going to have to shave a little off of his tip for his laxity. "I will endeavor to do better next time miss," Philip said quietly. I noticed she left him a seven hundred dollar tip anyway.
We stepped out of the restaurant and into a light, misty rain. No sooner had we set foot on the pavement than Nicole lit a joint from her pack of cigarettes. I admonished her for her brazenness but she shrugged and said that if it was good enough to prescribe to glaucoma patients, it was damn well good enough for cataracts. A checkered cab was waiting for a fare on the corner. "You folks want a lift?" the driver called. I halted and thought of the old man's words. Nicole blew out a big drag, "No thanks dear. It's a lovely night for a walk!" she giggled. At this point the skies opened up and the rain came down in large, cold drops. "Suit yourself," the cabbie muttered and drove off.
In two blocks, we were soaked to the bone. My suit felt fifty pounds heavier from the water and my slacks were starting to chafe my thighs. I was starting to regret not taking the cab despite the old man's warning. Nicole shivered as she clung to my arm.
We were within a few feet of the door to Nicole's building when she tripped over an empty beer bottle on the sidewalk. She fell, and in falling, took me down with her. We laid on the ground and laughed at our drunken clumsiness as the rain came pelting down. "Well aren't we a fine pair!" Nicole tittered, "The lush leading the blind!" As we were trying to regain our feet, the same checkered cab pulled up to the curb and a tall, thin man in an ill-fitting raincoat emerged. He threw some money at the cabbie and from somewhere across the street I heard a man shout, "Johnson!". The tall man turned to look and several gun shots rang out and he slumped to the ground, followed by the sound of running feet slapping the wet sidewalk.
We must have laid there hugging each other and the sidewalk for a full five minutes before I found the nerve to get up. I went around the car and looked at the man and the cabbie. I stood in the puddle of their collecting blood knowing that neither one could be alive. "Is anyone hurt?" Nicole called to me in a wavering voice. My only reply was the sound of my twelve hundred dollar dinner hitting the pavement.
Nicole dialed 911 on her cell and lit a cigarette. "Good thing we didn't take the cab," she said between puffs, "They won't let you smoke in them now anyway."