by O.J. Anderson
part 1 of 2
Joe Smith sat in the corner booth of the crummy diner counting out the last of his money. He flattened out the wadded-up bills on the table, then dumped a small handful of loose change on top of them. Joe went through the cash slowly, postponing the inevitable realization that he was broke again. He stacked the coins in a neat pile.
Eleven dollars and sixty-eight cents. He checked again just to be sure. Maybe he missed a fiver in there somewhere. The second time he came up with eleven dollars and seventy-one cents. The third time he counted eleven dollars and fifty-nine cents. Whatever. Had he owned a car he couldn’t even have filled the tank. That was the point.
“Ah, crap,” he muttered.
And to make things worse, Joe’s arthritis was acting up again. He flexed his hands and shook them out. Can’t catch a break, he thought. Can’t never catch a break.
Myrna the waitress came walking over to his table. A plate in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other. Her hair in curlers and a generic cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. Myrna was all right though. She’d given Joe a free meal on more than a few occasions over the years — when times was lean, as they’d say, which was often. And in return Joe had dusted his knuckles on the chins of more than a few lousy boyfriends. Mutts who didn’t know how to properly treat a lady.
She presented the meal with little fanfare. Just plunked the plate down in front of him and said, “’Ere’s yer steak, Joey.” Then refilled his coffee cup.
Joe didn’t say anything. Myrna waited. She knew something was wrong.
Taking a quick drag from her smoke, then yanking it out sharply, Myrna said, “Mug like that’s gonna scare off all my clientele.”
He looked around the diner. No one else there.
“Aw, c’mon, Joey. Things ain’t that bad, is they?”
Slowly he turned his head up toward her, but he didn’t say anything right away. Even during good times Joe’s words weren’t exactly lilypads in a pond of profundity. He struggled with them for all but the most basic of life’s communications — work, weather, complaining about the new union rep, et cetera. How he felt was usually a topic better left unsaid, but tonight he had to say something. He just needed to say something, anything, to someone. So, eventually, he groaned, “Been workin’ since I’m sixteen, Myrna.”
She knew what he meant. She knew what he meant before he’d even said it. She knew what he meant as soon as he’d dragged himself into the diner, same as all the other bent-over mugs that shuffled in looking for hot coffee as soon as it grew dark. It was written on their faces more clearly than any of them would be ever able to say.
Guys like him didn’t know what to do with nothing to do. They had no hobbies or interests. Just work. Layoffs down at the docks had been tough all around. Guys were doing whatever they could to get by these days. So Myrna told him what she told all the rest of them; she said, “I know, Joey. I know. But things are gonna get better real soon. You’ll see.”
Joe picked up the knife and fork. Held them in two fists. “Thanks, Myrna.”
* * *
Some prettyboy hurried into the diner about the time Joe finished with his steak. Looked like he was late for a hot date. All dressed in black with a heavy wool coat and fancy glasses. Definitely not from the neighborhood. He went all the way to the counter where Myrna already had a coffee cup set out and was filling it. He seemed surprised to see it. Looked at it for a second, then sat down.
The kid sat there fidgeting for a few minutes, then got Myrna’s attention as she walked by with a towel in her hand. He ducked his head and leaned in a little as he spoke to her, like he didn’t want anyone to hear what he was saying. Myrna nodded her head a few times, listened to what he was telling her, then pointed a finger over the kid’s shoulder at the corner booth.
The kid turned for a look. Stared for a minute at the thick, rectangular man sitting there. Work boots. Blue jeans. A plain gray T-shirt and a black, zipper-front sweatshirt, the kind with a hood and two pockets in the front. Hair cut short. Nose like a doorknob.
That guy was just what the kid was hoping to find. He looked tough. Real tough. Tough as a lead pipe. Probably as dumb as a stack of drywall, but he wasn’t looking for smart. He was looking for tough, and that guy in the corner looked tougher than dirt.
He nodded a thank you at Myrna and got up. Walked over to Joe. Asked him, “Excuse me... Joe, right?”
Joe didn’t look up. He sat hunched over his coffee and grunted, “Who’s askin’?”
“Uh, Chris. Chris Allen. That’s me.”
“Right.” Chris slid into the booth across from Joe. Brought his hands together and laced his fingers. “Cold out there, huh? Wind’s really picking up.”
Joe kind of shrugged like he couldn’t have cared any less about the wind. Not one stinkin’ bit less. Chris decided to cut to the chase already.
“So, Myrna over there tells me you’re a good guy to have around. ‘In a pinch’ is what I think she said.” He waited a moment for Joe to speak. But he didn’t. Chris then asked, “Is she right?”
Again he leaned in close like he did at the counter with Myrna and lowered his voice. “Are you a good guy to have around? You know... in a pinch?”
“Why? Got yourself in a pinch, do ya?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “Big time.”
“Got nothin’ to do with me,” Joe said.
“Mm-hm.” Chris tapped his finger lightly on the table. “I know that. The thing is... I’m looking for someone to help me out. Like I said, I’m in a pinch. And I was just wondering if you were a good guy to have around.”
Bad night to be asking Joe if he was good to have around. He sure as heck didn’t feel like it. He spent the last twenty minutes or so wondering what he was good for at all. Anyway, Joe asked him, “What kinda pinch?”
Chris figured that that was as close to a yes as he was going to get. He started in, “See, there’s this guy... name’s Frank. Frank Brenner, but everyone calls him Frankie. The guy’s a real jerk.”
A couple more guys walked into the diner and headed for a table. The place was starting to fill up. Chris got distracted for a second, but then went on:
“I, uh... I loaned a friend of mine some money a while back for a little business he had going with this guy Frankie. Real estate deal or something. Anyway, things didn’t work out and they lost money. But this guy Frankie doesn’t understand that’s how these things go sometimes. He wants his money back. And my friend doesn’t have it, so now he’s coming after me. Calling me up, making all these threats. Telling me to get a wheelchair if I don’t come up with ten grand. Stuff like that.”
Joe knew the type. Couldn’t stand them. The city was full of them. Always trying to make something for nothing. He nodded and said, “Sounds like a real scumbag.”
“Oh, he is,” Chris said, taking on a slight neighborhood accent. Like he was just one of the fellas. “He’s a first class scumbag. And I hear he smacks around his old lady.”
Joe sat up a little bit. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Chris said, noticing Joe’s newfound enthusiasm. “That’s what I hear. Always picking on the little guy. That’s the way Frankie is.”
“So this mug’s really askin’ for it.”
“You bet he is. Probably hits his kids too. He’s just a bully. A wanna-be tough guy.” Chris brushed a knuckle across the tip of his nose and said, “Y’know, Joe... I’d do it myself, but I’m too close to the situation. Know what I mean? The cops, they’d come lookin’ for me quick.”
Joe nodded with a cocked eyebrow and a serious look on his face.
“So what do you say, Joe? Can you help me out, or do I got the wrong guy?”
He thought about it for a minute. He was just dejected and down on his luck enough to consider what he knew Chris was asking him to do. Joe lowered his voice and leaned in. “All right, I’ll go scuff this guy up for ya. I’ll scuff him up real good. But it’s gonna cost you some big dough.”
After looking around the diner to make sure no one was watching, Chris took a wad of cash from his pocket and slid it across the table. “That’s five hundred bucks,” he said. “And you’ll get five hundred more if I’m happy with the results.”
Joe took the money and brought it down under the table for a look. He spread the bills apart with his thick fingers. There they were all right, five one-hundred dollar bills. A one and two zeroes each. Five of them. He didn’t know what to say. He would have done it for fifty.
“Now, listen, Joe,” Chris said, “We gotta be smart here. I don’t want you getting into any trouble with the cops, you know what I mean? I don’t want people saying some guy named Joe came in here and started knockin’ Frankie around for a while. So what you gotta do is tell ’em you’re me... Chris Allen.”
“Yeah, Joe. See, Frankie doesn’t know what I look like. I only heard from him over the phone a few times or through this other guy.”
“But then the cops are gonna come lookin’ for you.”
“That’s okay, Joe, because I’m gonna have what’s called an alibi. You know what that is? It’s when someone else can tell the cops where you were. And I’m gonna be out with some people that night. So if they do come and get me I’ll just tell ’em I got an alibi. Besides that, they’ll realize that I don’t even match the guy they’re lookin’ for. That’s if the cops even bother to look for someone.” Chris laughed. “Maybe they’ll just want someone to thank for working that scumbag over real good, right Joe?”
“So let’s do it tomorrow night. Okay with you, Joe? About six? I’ll be with some friends at D’Annato’s over on 15th. It’ll be really crowded, so we’re covered.”
“D’Annato’s,” Joe said as though it were a mythical place. “I heard about that one. It’s nice.”
“It is, Joe. It’s real nice.” Chris took out an expensive-looking pen and a small, leather-bound notepad. He wrote down the address to a place called The Tavern. Tore out the sheet and slid it across the table.
Joe left the diner and headed back to his place over the thrift store. Only about three blocks walk. He zipped up his sweatshirt as far as it would go. Pulled the hood over his head and shoved his hands into his pockets. He stood a little straighter then before though. Didn’t feel the wind as much either. Joe said to himself, “You always get by, Joe. Somehow you always find a way to get by.”
* * *
The next day Joe went down to the deli and bought some bologna, a loaf of bread, pickles, a quart of milk, and a block of cheese — cheddar, the good kind. He paid for it all with a hundred. It felt good. He was working again.
But the girl working the cash machine, Sally, looked at it like it was a stick-’em-up note. Almost like she was afraid to touch it. There were no hundreds in the neighborhood.
“Whatsa matter?” Joe asked her.
“Where’d you go gettin’ a hundred, Joe?” Sally spoke loudly. Other customers in the deli craned their necks to see the hundred and who had it.
“Whad’ya talkin’ about? I’m workin’.”
He told Sally to give him some extra ones. Had to catch the crosstown bus later.
Joe carried his groceries back to his apartment and made himself some sandwiches. He sat there on the edge of his bed eating them and thinking that it’d been a couple years since he put the knuckles to some bum’s face. He shook out his left arm and threw a couple lazy punches.
His old man had taught Joe how to fight back when he started down at the docks. He said to Joe one night that there was one thing he needed to learn about fighting. The most important thing. Then he cracked Joe on the jaw and laid him out for a couple hours. How to take a punch. That was the lesson.
Joe followed his old man out of the house the next day with his lunch box in one hand, a couple loose teeth, and his jaw swollen to the size of a grapefruit. Couple nights later there was another lesson. His old man didn’t seem to enjoy doing it, and neither did he seem to mind doing it. He just did it. Like work.
The lessons continued until Joe learned how to take a punch. One evening, his father walked right up to him and knocked him back with a right hook. Joe took the punch, staggered a bit, then fired back his balled up fist and cracked his old man square on the jaw. But his father didn’t budge, not one bit. He only nodded once and walked away. And that was the end of the lessons.
Less then one year later, his old man dropped dead of a heart attack. Right there on the job. Boom. Dead. As simple as that.
Now Joe sat on his bunk finishing the last of a sandwich and thinking how the rest about fighting he had learned on the streets and down at the docks. He won a good bit of those fights too. Some guys were faster, or smarter, and some guys had a few tricks up their sleeves, but one thing was for sure: no one had ever hit Joe harder than his old man had. And no one had ever laid him out.
After a couple gulps of cold milk, Joe stood and threw a few warm-up punches. He had to shake off some of this energy. Hardly slept at all last night. His mind running wild. He couldn’t help it though, thinking that this could be something. He could do this. Why not? People had all kinds of problems, and there was no shortage of bums like Frankie hanging around putting the squeeze on the regular working folks. Maybe after tonight word would get around.
Got yourself in a pinch? Call Joe. He’s a good guy to have around.
He was a good guy to have around. A hard worker. Honest. Reliable. Good in a pinch. Myrna thought so, and Myrna always told it straight. Maybe not the brightest guy in the neighborhood, but maybe sometimes you need a hammer instead of a screwdriver — or, something like that. You were down Joey old boy, but now you’re bouncin’ right back.
Yeah. This could really be something.
He tossed a couple more punches. Harder this time. He felt ready. This bum Frankie was about to learn a thing or two. Time to head out. Joe put four hundred bucks into his wallet. The twenties and fivers he folded up and put into a small tin box on the night stand. Then he stuffed some small bills into his front pocket for the crosstown bus. But before that, he had a stop to make.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by O. J. Anderson