Two weeks before she died Mary switched to day shift at Mookie’s Diner. She and Mickey Quinn wanted more time together. Mickey was the day chef. He’d taken the job fourteen months earlier after moving back to the neighborhood. He’d tired of life in the big city; thirteen years was enough.
Life had not been easy for Mickey Quinn. He’d be the first to tell you much of the difficulty was his own doing. Mickey was like that. Honest. Straight forward. Said things in straight lines rather than leave you wondering. A rebellious streak got him fired from more than one job. (Six actually.) He’d never been a fan of authority. There’d been a brief stint of homelessness. (If you think four months is brief.)
In the beginning Mickey liked Mary straight away. Mary had her doubts. He seemed nice enough. She’d never seen any chef love his work as much as Mickey did. He was forever checking on the tables, making sure people were enjoying their meals, refilling coffees – sometimes to the wait staff’s chagrin. On some occasions if people seemed down on their luck, not able to order as much food as maybe they’d like, Mickey’d come out of the kitchen moaning about having made too much lasagna or how had he been so stupid cooking up four more Philly cheese steaks then he needed. He’d give the food to those who looked like they needed it most, assuring them, while doing so, that they were doing him a favor by accepting it. After all, he couldn’t eat it all and if they didn’t accept it he’d have to throw the food out and – here he would dramatically cross himself and look sorrowfully up at the ceiling – his dear late mother would never forgive him. Mary liked how he watched out for their dignity, everybody’s dignity, come to think of it. Including the wait staff, remarkably enough. Never treated them like servants, like there was nothing more to their lives than the fact they worked as waiters and waitresses. Still, she wasn’t sure. First of all she was beautiful. Formidably so by any measure. Her beauty got her attention from men (and some women) leaving her with the dispiriting task of figuring out if the person in question was talking to her or her looks.
With Mickey Quinn’s straight forward way it didn’t take her long to determine that, yes, he was, in fact, talking to her. But, she wanted to be very careful. She’d made the wrong choice more than once. She’d done exactly that seven months earlier with tall, slender, deceitful Luke. Handsome Luke. A smile that could melt ice. The mouth that wore the smile spun falsehoods so elaborate they’d make any politician proud. Like other men of handsome stock she’d slept with he was a dud in bed. During the act a disconcerting pinched expression appeared on his face making him look as if he was suddenly feeling unwell or holding back a fart as opposed to being in the throes of, if not wonderful sex, pedestrian sex – recognizable, discernible, identifiable sex. Anything, dear mother of God, except looking like you were fighting off the sudden onset of nausea, or flatulence.
Mickey signaled his interest in Mary by sending her flowers, anonymously at first. He paid his friend Rafael, a seventeen-year-old kid from the neighborhood, five bucks to deliver the flowers to Mary at the diner. Rafael made his money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, sweeping up sidewalks in front of the stores in the warm weather, washing windows, shoveling snow in the winter, and, in this instance, delivering flowers. Rafael was under strict instructions to keep the identity of the sender secret.
Mickey’d bought the flowers from Herbert Slepoff, an old man with a Santa Claus beard who sold flowers seemingly twenty-four hours a day on the corner of Lilly Street and Box Avenue. The first time Rafael delivered the flowers to Mary she asked who they were from. “Got me, lady. Guess somebody likes you.” Mary thanked him and gave him a five dollar tip which led Rafael to tell Mickey he should keep sending flowers because it looked like it’s working, the lady likes them a lot. Anyway, he thought, but did not say, she was very pretty and when she smiled his knees weakened. That, and who in their right mind gives up a ten-dollar gig if they don’t have to?
Rafael lost his ten-dollar gig the day Mickey decided to deliver the flowers to Mary himself. He didn’t have to say a word, nor did she. But she did. Soft-smiling and wet-eyed: “You.” And then the treasured first hug, where the all of each sighs dreamily, happily, into the others arms, hearts and souls and bodies fully satiated.
Rafael was well liked in the neighborhood, known to be a good hard working kid who gave his weekly earnings to his mother never keeping more than five dollars for himself. His father walked out on them when Rafael was two months old. As far as Rafael was concerned, the sonuvabitch didn’t exist. Yes, his mother drank too much and let too many men like her for that one reason, but mother and son were close. No matter their struggles, they were in it together.
Rafael attended evening GED classes twice a week, he told Mickey once, while the two of them were on the corner eating fresh apples Mr. Greenberg gave them for free because his oldest daughter Sylvia was engaged to be married and it was about time because Sylvia was pushing forty, thank you very much, and Mr. Greenberg wanted to know she was married, happy, and settled before he died. He’d not been feeling so good lately, he told them. But he was smiling when he gave them the apples which was rare anyway because everybody knew what the numbers tattooed on his forearm meant. Morris Greenberg knew horror.
“When you get your GED then what?”
“My mother says you should make your dreams come true because if you don’t they stay in your head and next thing you know they’re nothin’ but memories.”
Rafael nodded, quickly ate the core of the apple flicking the stem into the gutter. “How come you left the city?”
“Didn’t work for me.”
“It’s expensive livin’ there.”
“Costs more’n dollars. You buy into the hype about the city so fast next thing you know you don’t know who you are anymore. The city’s the center of the world, summit of the universe. Most important place on planet earth. It’s if you make it there you can make it anywhere crap, and, if you make it anywhere but there you are crap. That’s how they get your money. Millions of dollars to live in brick fortresses without backyards ‘less it’s on the roof or something. You think if you move out you’re settling for second place, if that. You think you failed. You’ve been defeated by the big city. You weren’t good enough. So you stay. Most do anyway. Ever hear of H.L. Mencken?”
“Ballsy guy from Baltimore. Died in the fifties some time. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” The city’s proof.”
“Give me woods anytime.”
“How’d you break out?”
“I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point I realized I was putting a whole lot of time and effort into being someone I’m not, and never will be. Almost anything. Didn’t matter – actor, writer, anything’d make my name show up somewhere. You start thinking, fuck thinking, believing if people didn’t know your name you didn’t exist. Like you’re invisible.”
“Like fame’s the answer.”
“Yeah. Fuck fame.”
Rafael thought for a moment, bent down, retied his right sneaker, fingers deftly flashing. “So what made you want to be a cook?”
“I’m walking home from this rehearsal on Grand Street. Winter. I see this old guy. Homeless guy. All balled up in a doorway. Store’s closed, it’s Sunday. He’s wearing a fatigue jacket. Not camouflage like today, but the World War II kind – like my Dad actually.” Mickey pauses, looks down the street, seeing nothing but his father in a World War II fatigue jacket. “Anyway… he’s all balled up in the cold. Poor guy was freezing. He’s got this shopping cart with this one wobbly-ass bent wheel next to him filled up with all kinds of shit he’s been collecting. Bottles, cans, clothing, bags filled with scraps of paper. There’s no way this guy’s not hungry. So I wake him up and ask him if he’s hungry and he says yeah he’s hungry. So I ask him if he wants to get some food with me and he says yeah but he can’t leave his cart by itself and I get that so I get us both some soup and buttered rolls and some coffee from a deli. I don’t want him eating alone. So we have a meal together.”
“What’d you eat?”
“Soup and rolls, same as him.”
“So he knows you’re equals.”
Mickey smiles. “Fuck if he didn’t used to be a high school math teacher. Dude was a mathematician; I’m talking real mathematician too. Turns out all those scraps of paper in those bags are all covered with figures and symbols.”
“How’d he’d wind up homeless?”
“Didn’t ask. Name was Mr. Reynolds. Alan Reynolds. Said all he wanted was to keep his stomach full, do his math problems, watch pretty girls, and think about his hero, this guy named Paul Erdös.”
“Some famous mathematician. Hungarian I think. There’s some book about him called The Man who Loved Numbers. Mr. Reynolds loved him.”
“You call him Mr. Reynolds?”
“What, you call your teachers by their first name?”
“Nope.” Rafael smiling, nods.
“So Mr. Reynolds tells me he spends his days doing these math problems and thinkin’ about Paul Erdös.”
“And watchin’ pretty girls.”
“Told me he works on things called infinite series and set theory, shit I couldn’t get on my best day. Looks like a different language. ”
“So you fed him.”
“Yup. That’s when I knew.”
Rafael one eyebrow going up.
“Right then I knew I wanted to be a cook. Feed people. Nothing I can think of has more meaning than feeding someone.”
“You die without it.”
“Without it lots of things. You eat you’re taking care of yourself. You feed someone, you’re helping them. There’s something spiritual about it. Watching faces relax when they begin to chow down. Almost like they can rest for a moment, catch a break. With all the death and suffering in the world, man, no excuse but greed for people goin’ hungry. I can’t think of anything more honorable than feeding people. Life is good for me now, beyond I ever hoped for. I cook food for people five days a week, Mary every day if she lets me. Take a break, she says, let me cook for you. She does too. Makes the best cheese omelet’s I ever had. Cheddar. Little sprinkling of oregano. Life with her, man, it’s gotta be one of the things makes people say heaven on earth.”
“What happened to Mr. Reynolds?”
“Never saw him again. Walked by the same place next day he was gone.”
“Ever wonder if he was real?”
“You mean did I imagine him?”
It was three minutes past one in the afternoon when the first pain struck. Mary had just served Joe Montenegro his coffee. A portly pasty man who daily stopped in for breakfast and lunch and regaled all who would (and wouldn’t) listen with stories of the good old days. (His good old days, anyway.) At seventy-three the perpetually wheezing retired bookkeeper was proud of the fact his father, the late Giuseppe Montenegro, had been a milkman. Not milkperson, thank you very much. Joe Montenegro would snap at anyone who dared to correct him and use what they stupidly thought was the politically correct word, milkperson. Bull. As low on the totem pole of success as he might’ve been in the eyes of some, his father’d been the real thing, the real deal. He’d been a milkman.
“A milkman was about a lot more than just milk. (Insert sir, madam or friends.) Poppa would bring full bottles of fresh milk and pick up the empties. This was a certainty. Life needs certainty. He’d bring his customers cream, cheese, eggs, butter, even soda pop! It is a stain on this country that the nurturance of simplicity is no more, a stain as sure as I’m sitting here. And what is life now I ask you? (He never paused for an answer and one was never offered.) People staring into those so-called smart phones and iPads. Can you think of a name that screams self-absorbed louder than that product’s name? I think not.”
Joseph Montenegro was in the midst of presenting his milkman monologue to Pastor James Winston of the local Methodist Church when Mary refilled their coffees, turned to walk away, dropped the metal coffee pot on the floor, and grabbed at her chest. Clenched in pain on the floor Mary inexplicably found herself watching a thin rivulet of coffee leaking from the coffee pot and wondered if it would reach the base of the counter. “Jesus,” she whispered, exhaling.
“You okay kid?”
“My chest.” Again, clutching. “This isn’t right. I’m wrong with me. Mickey!” Her mind shadow swimming in memories, soft patches then sudden arcs of color, pulsing, and need, so much need. Thinking, Mickey? Yes, God, the pain, can I remember, please, that lovely thing he did, his car breaking down, the state trooper giving him a ride home. Mickey baking a cake and bringing it to the trooper’s barracks three days later… Oh, God, Mickey, not now. She was sick with the flu, the knock on the door, then the key. Mickey, thank God. In he came with the best chicken soup she’d ever had in her life. He made her tea with real honey, not the dead honey sold in stores. “You’re magic with food,” she said. He kissed her, flu and all. He kissed her. Pain surging. Mickey, please!
Mary on the floor behind the counter, unconscious now, sweat soaked. Mookie holding her head, weeping, Pastor James Winston’s lips moving in prayer. The ambulance arrives. Fifty-seven minutes later in the emergency room Mary is pronounced dead.
Three months later.
He avoids all music. Melody tears holes in his chest. He does not walk down certain streets. Memories everywhere. Every street heartbreak. When he did walk it was in the park, shoulders hunched, head bowed, expecting another blow at any moment. Another would kill him. (A welcome event.) Sometimes sitting on the grass against a tree he wishes he could be a little boy again and start all over. Why would God kill a young woman with a heart attack?
It has been weeks since anyone’s seen him. He’d had his phone disconnected. Didn’t answer the door. After the burial he never went back to the diner. He just vanished, disappeared. Mookie told people he always had a job at the diner but after weeks went by nobody questioned him when he hired another day chef. Rafael stopped in from time to time, made eye contact with Mookie, one of the waitresses, heads wagged no. No one had seen him.
Mickey’s landlady said he’d moved out, no forwarding address. “He was heart broke sad,” she told Rafael. “Sometimes a body just knows when enough is enough.” Now Rafael was scared. Not that he thought Mickey would kill himself, but, then again, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been wrong about people. Hell, Billy Winston won more than $18,000 in a poker game at Sal’s Chimney Room one night, went home and put a gun in his mouth. Note said he wanted to go out a winner. Fucking people. You just never know.
Early morning bone cold tired on a bench, a pulsing ache, fragmented thoughts, somewhere in the thinking dark the day’s first birds flipped pastel jewels of sound into the air, flickers of life. He tried and failed to grab onto them, sing back in return, call out, but there was too much ache and for some reason he couldn’t move his mouth. Maybe he was still sleeping, or perhaps it was death, now, hopefully. The birds again. Again he struggled. Then a familiar voice in a whisper from far away called his name. The ache now beginning to fade, the flicker of bird songs farther away. Good, quiet, let go. Let it all go. Then, again, the familiar voice in a raised whisper. “Mickey. Yo, Mickey.” He was in motion, rocking now. Someone was rocking him. He opened his eyes, Rafael looking down at him, smiling. “Hey, we miss you.” Rafael helps him to sitting on the bench, takes off his coat, wraps it around Mickey’s shoulders, pulls it closed in front. Mickey nods, still unable to speak. Not yet. Speaking means return. Not yet.
“Me too. I’ll be right back.”