It's better for you than half the stuff you THINK is good for you.

The Pros of a Matchstick—Installment VIII – 9 June 2014

Here’s part eight. Quickly we’re catching up to where I currently am in writing this beast.

 

Sunday, 12:20 a.m.

Linwood stopped in at a bodega he frequented in the West Village. He waved hello at the teenaged Indian cashier behind her theft-resistant barrier made from chain-link, and made a beeline for the refrigerated cases lining the back wall. He selected a soda, and a bottle of cheap, strong rum from the rack directly across from it, then brought them over to the cash register. She ran a nervous hand through her hair, making sure that every strand was in place before she spoke.

“So. How’s life been treating you, my friend? Keeping dry and out of trouble?”

Linwood chuckled. “If only you knew, Kiran,” he answered. “Can I get these and a pack of the number sevens, and a box of strike-anywheres?” The cashier did as she was asked, then began ringing up the items. “You and these matches, Linwood. You know, you’re the only one that comes in here and buys these from me.”

“That’s ’cause I’m a special kinda guy. There’s no one like me in this entire world, Kiran. Haven’t you realized that by now?” Linwood flashed a smile as he set two twenty-dollar bills on the counter. Kiran took the money as someone came in the store.

“Well, if it ain’t the young buck.”

Linwood turned and saw Reggie standing at the entrance. He went over to give him a handshake folded into a hug. “Haven’t seen you in a while. Boss man told me you were on a cabbie-killer tonight. Goin’ okay?”

“Yeah, no complaints so far.” Kiran gave him his change, then greeted Reggie. “How’s it goin’ beautiful?” Reggie asked her. He walked the same path Linwood had a few minutes before, to the coolers at the back of the store. “Thanks, Kiran,” Linwood said as he picked up the brown paper bag concealing his purchases inside. “So brother,” he called out to Reggie, “knocked off for the night?”

“Yeah,” Reggie answered, coming back to the counter with a sports drink. “Kinda hungry, though.”

“Hell, I could use a quick bite. Want a little company?”

“Yeah, alright,” Reggie said. “There’s a place I know close to Gramercy Park. Best omelettes in the city.”

“Sounds like a plan, man,” Linwood told him. “I’ll follow you over there. Bye, Kiran,” he called out as he left the store. “Tell your father I’m comin’ back for ya, okay?”

Kiran laughed, and ran a hand through her hair again. “Good night, Linwood.”

 

Reggie and Linwood sat in a booth at O’Kelly’s Diner, a greasy spoon on 23rd near Lexington. Even at this hour, with the sky threatening to open up again at any moment, the place was packed with groups of hungry diners recollecting their evenings, and waitresses in stained aprons and forced smiles darting across the floor. A plump waitress with brown hair tied back in a ponytail and a sweaty fatigued face brought them coffee and menus, then scurried off to handle a rowdy bunch three booths away.

Linwood picked up his mug and took a sip. “You’ll never guess what I got into tonight, man.”

“What?” Reggie sat back and listened as Linwood gave him an abridged rundown of his and Arlotta’s night.

“So, the young buck finally got him a piece, an’ can’t wait to tell everybody all about it,” Reggie said after. “If I wasn’t so sure I’d’a thought she popped your cherry, Linwood,” he said through a chuckle.

“In a way, that’s jus’ what happened,” Linwood said. “I mean, this girl is somethin’ special, Reggie, I’m tellin’ you.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then stirred the creamer and sugar packets the waitress left him into his coffee.

“It’s been a while, but I know where you’re comin’ from,” Reggie told him. “I been married to Carla for fifteen years now, got two beautiful girls that get bigger every day. Still, sometimes I look at her, an’ she’ll look at me, an’ it’s like we’re still your age, thinkin’ we can take on the whole fuckin’ world. But we know better, now.” Reggie took a sip of the black coffee and scanned the worn, warped menu for his order.

Just then the rowdy bunch at the back of the diner rose in a cacophony of laughter, of loud, drunken speech. The chubby waitress inspected their table for whatever tips they left her, and with a defeated sigh she stopped at Linwood and Reggie’s table. For the first time Linwood got a decent look at her. She was a shorter, rounder, female version of Jamieson, without the glasses.

“Rough night?” Reggie proffered.

“You could say that,” she replied, without looking up from her notepad. “What can I getcha?”

“I’ll have… a Denver omelette an’ hash browns, an’ the kid’ll have the same,” Reggie said. Linwood began to protest but Reggie cut him off. “You’ll thank me for it, an’ besides, I’m the one payin’.” They handed the waitress their menus and watched her stumble away on weary feet.

“Thanks, Reggie,” Linwood told him through a sip of coffee.

“No prob.” Reggie looked around. “Yo, Linwood. Didn’t she look like Jamieson? A lot like Jamieson?”

“You saw it too?” The two men laughed, trying not to get the waitress’ attention.

“So tell me, man. How’s the cabbie-killer comin’? Got any stories for us, yet?”

At once the insane fare from the Williamsburg Bridge came to mind. “I—I jus’ told ya ’bout Arlotta, man,” Linwood said. “What could be more excitin’ than that?”

“More excitin’ than random pussy? As a cabbie? In New York? Everythin’, prob’ly.” Reggie’s cellular phone rang just then. “The wife. Sorry man, I gotta take this.” Linwood nodded as he stood and answered it. “Hey honey. Nah, I’m havin’ a bite wit’ Linwood…” Reggie stepped outside. The plate glass trumped Linwood’s eavesdropping abilities.

Got any stories for us yet? Linwood couldn’t get past the uncanniness of it all. He’d begged for this shift and the most unlikely things kept happening to him—or at least in front of him. “Pay attention to the oddities,” he said aloud to himself, paraphrasing what Jamieson had said to him outside of Renduto’s. “What if everything is a fuckin’ oddity. What then?” For the hundredth time Linwood jumped out of his skin; the waitress crept up as he spoke to himself and cleared her throat, her arms full with two plates of steaming food. He didn’t know how much she had heard, but he judged from the look she wore she caught just enough to be put off.

She put the plates down and the two shared an uneasy moment. “You… want some more coffee?” the waitress asked him. Tightlipped and embarrassed, Linwood nodded. With renewed vigor she hurried away from the table.

Linwood let out a sigh and turned to watch Reggie talk to his wife. The Jamieson-esque woman came back to the table with the carafe of coffee, poured as quickly as possible, then left again as Reggie came back inside. Linwood didn’t think he had ever been so happy to see anyone.

“Carla,” he said as he sat, with a slight worried look. “Apparently her brother was killed today. The guy on the Williamsburg Bridge, the one that got run over by the M, ya know?” Linwood froze. “What wit’ this terrorism shit goin’ on they only jus’ identified the body an hour ago, an’ now she gotta come down to make it official. Damn.” Reggie looked down at the plate in front of him, then back up at Linwood. “You alright, young buck?” he asked. Linwood nodded. “Yeah, I’m cool.”

“I know Carla’s hurtin’ right now, but to be honest that little motherfucker wasn’t doin’ the world no favors ‘cept bad ones,” Reggie said, picking up his fork. “Look at this spread, man. I’m tellin’ ya, you’ll thank me for it.” Reggie reached for the pepper shaker and the ketchup bottle, using both liberally as he prepared his omelette to some secret specification. He shoved a huge forkful into his mouth and let out a hum. “Fuckin’ delicious. Eat up, young buck, eat up,” Reggie prodded. Linwood forced a smile and did as ordered, but thoughts of the fare on the bridge tracked through his brain. The two sat in silence, eating.

“So,” Reggie said, placing his fork on the chipped plate with an audible clink. “Stories. Gimme one.”

“Uh… okay,” Linwood said, trying to clear his throat around a forkful of egg. “Well, this cop, right? H—he came…” He trailed off, watching a little blond girl wearing a pink backpack walk past the picture window. “I know her,” he told Reggie, confused.

Really?” Reggie said incredulously. “What kid you know would be walkin’ the streets at one in the mornin’, Linwood? On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t answer that an’ incriminate yourself, man,” he added with a chuckle.

“Look, you asked for a story, right?” Linwood asked. “Gimme a sec and I’ll bring it back for you.” He squirmed out of the booth and bolted from the table, out onto the sidewalk behind the girl. She was still within earshot when Linwood spotted her. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, kid!” The girl stopped and turned to face him, but made no other move to indicate she recognized him.

“It’s okay, I’m not a pervert or anythin’ like that. I won’t hurt you,” he reassured her. “You remember me? From the train this mornin’? I sat next to you when that guy farted.” The little girl smiled. “Yeah, I remember you,” she answered.

Linwood walked up to her and knelt so they were at eye level. “Ya know, you shouldn’t be out here this time’a night, kid. Kid,” he said with a scoff. “I hate to be called that. Even when I was a kid I hated it. What’s your name, sweetheart?”

The girl hesitated, then said “Veronica” in a voice Linwood barely caught.

“Well, Veronica,” Linwood said, “you gotta be hungry, right? You wanna eat wit’ me and my friend? He’s a nice guy. Hell, he might even buy your breakfast for you. Wha’ddya say, huh?”

The two of them walked back into the diner and sat down in the booth next to one another. “Well now, what’s this, young buck? You really know this kid?”

“Yeah, kinda,” Linwood answered. “Her name’s Veronica. I saw her on the train into work this mornin’. Jesus, this’s been a weird day.” He called to their waitress, then turned to the little girl, still clutching her backpack to her chest as if her life depended on it. The waitress came to their booth again, and for the second time shot Linwood a strange look.

“You need me to bring another menu for ya?” she inquired.

Linwood nodded. “Can you bring her a glass of orange juice too, please?” The waitress scurried off to do as she was asked. “I’ll leave the tip if you catch the check, deal? That chick’s gotta be tired of me by now, so I’ll be generous,” Linwood said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, okay, man,” Reggie said. He looked at the scared little girl sitting across the table from him. “My name’s Reggie, sweetheart. It’s nice to meet ya,” he said with a smile. “Apparently you know my friend here, so I won’t drill ya. Trust me, I know how tough it is for some kids. I was there once too, ya know.”

“So was I,” Linwood interjected. “You act like I was born wit’ a silver tea set in my mouth, Reggie.”

Reggie laughed as the waitress returned with the juice and another ratty menu. She set them both down in front of the little girl and eyed Linwood warily as she spoke to Veronica. The little girl pointed to something in the menu without saying a word, and the waitress wrote it down, took the menu when the girl handed it back, and left with it.

Linwood waited for Veronica to finish her glass of juice. “Tell me. Why are you out this late at night? Where’s your mother?”

“I don’t have a mother,” the little girl answered matter-of-factly. “I live at St. Anthony’s.”

“The orphanage in Flatbush?” Reggie asked her. “You’re a hell of a long way from home, little one.”

“How old are you?” Linwood pushed.

“Eight.”

“Eight,” Linwood echoed. “Jesus. Why’d you leave the orphanage?”

Veronica looked into Linwood’s eyes, and a few beats passed before she spoke. “I… just don’t like being there. The nuns always beat me and the kids there hate me. My mother’s dead and I don’t know who my father is, and I’m alone all the time.” She spoke the way a zombie might, flat and without inflection.

“So did you just ride the subway all day?” Linwood asked her. Veronica reached into a pocket on the front of her backpack and pulled out a paper transit pass. “I ask for money in Times Square and buy one of these every Thursday,” she answered before either man could ask.

The waitress returned to the booth laden with another fumarole, this one a huge plate of scrambled eggs, four sausage links, and a small mound of hashed potatoes. Immediately Veronica tucked into the food.

“Seriously?” Reggie asked the waitress. “This is what you bring this tiny girl to eat?”

“She’s obviously enjoyin’ herself, Reggie,” Linwood interjected before the waitress could react. “She picked it. And she’s smarter that we’re givin’ her credit for. Could you bring her another glass of OJ, and another refill on our coffees, please?” he asked her. “And the check, too,” he added as the waitress stalked away.

The two men watched with interest as Veronica made headway into the huge plate of food in front of her. At length she put down her fork and looked up at them.

“Thank you,” she said. She gave them a smile, then went back to her food.

The waitress came back just then, with the carafe again and another glass of juice, and the check. As she poured the coffee Linwood handed Reggie the check without looking at it, then pulled out his wallet and set two bills on the table, a twenty and a ten. Reggie set the same amount on top of the check. For the first time that night Linwood saw the moon-faced waitress crack a smile, and walk away from the table with an even gait.

Reggie turned to the girl. “Lemme ask you a question, Veronica. How do you get past the nuns?”

She looked up at him. “Like I told you, they don’t care. I leave in the morning and come back early the next day. At night I just leave through a window on the first floor. Nobody ever notices me.”

“What are you lookin’ for out here?”

“Something else. Anything else.” She finished her orange juice as the men watched her in awed silence.

Linwood rose from the table. “Let me hit the head, then we can get outta here,” he said to Reggie. When he came out he saw Reggie and Veronica on the sidewalk outside. Reggie was on the phone again.

“… an’ we’ll make sure she’s comfortable, just for tonight. We’ll straighten all this out in the mornin’, Carla. You say who’s watchin’ the girls? Ah, okay. Yeah. Yeah, I’m comin’ down now. I’ll see you in a few. Okay.” He hung up and turned to Linwood. “We settled things while you were gone, young buck. She’ll stay wit’ me an’ the girls tonight.”

Linwood sighed with more relief than he meant to let on. He didn’t want to be saddled with a kid for the rest of the night, even if she was even-headed and far more mature than she should have been. But he didn’t want to drop her off at some godforsaken orphanage in the middle of the night, either—especially since Veronica didn’t want to be there in the first place. He walked the both of them to Reggie’s car, and made sure Veronica was buckled in the backseat. Already she was comfortable enough to drift off to sleep.

“An’ you think gettin’ some strange beats this shit,” Reggie said through the window to Linwood. “Sometimes I forget the world’s still new to you, Linwood.”

“Not so new anymore, brother,” Linwood replied. “Listen, you two get home safe, okay? I’ll see you Monday, probably.”

“I gotcha,” Reggie told him with a chortle. “Catch ya later.” Linwood watched the two of them pull away from the damp curb as a fine, misty rain began to fall again. He got in his cab, frisking himself for his cigarettes as the radio crackled to life.

Callin’ cab two-eight, where da… Sit da fuck down, ya goon!” Dennis roared into the radio, and a beat afterward a crash exploded through the two-way. Linwood abandoned his search and snatched up the receiver.

“This is 3C28, come back dispatch,” he rattled off. “Jus’ got back from a food break…”

Listen, Linwood,” said Dennis, out of breath and breaking protocol, “I needya ta come back’ta da garage an’ take dis shit-fa-brains home.” Linwood knew at once he was talking about Ricky.

“On the way, boss,” Linwood said. The radio went dead, and he remembered the paper bag from the bodega on the seat next to him. He replaced the receiver in its cradle, found the fresh pack of cigarettes in the bag, and started the cab.

 

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