BY LARRY BROWN
Copyright is held by the author. This story was first published in Satellite (ebook 2012).
HE BECOMES a lunch regular, arriving with his notebook at the restaurant about 11:30 and taking the closest open stool, even though each booth has a jukebox. While waiting for his food he pulls out a pencil and writes in the notebook. I’ve tried peeking. His other arm, however, blocks the view. He smiles sometimes when he is writing. The smile resembles a smirk.
His lunch order: Liver and onions, a Coca-Cola and, as he always says, One extra side dish please, ma’am. Meaning a side plate. He pours a puddle of ketchup on this side plate. Then cuts up all the liver and begins to eat, dunking each piece of liver in the ketchup and scooping up a forkful of onion on top. After he empties his plate of food he drinks the Coca-Cola straight down and buries his burp in a napkin. He doesn’t overtip.
The day before President Kennedy’s visit to the city (people here in Dallas, if truth be told, are more excited about the undefeated Longhorns) I shoulder open the kitchen door, my tray full, and find him already seated. But at a booth. He is flipping through the jukebox songs. As I go about serving, and as I wonder about him, his jukebox plays. The big wide beat, the rowdy saxophone. Chubby urging his baby to twist.
A song can rearrange you. Once. The other times you hear the song it doesn’t matter what you think you feel. It’s you making stuff up.
The music fades. I approach the booth.
You’re out of place, I say.
His eyes narrow.
A booth, I say quickly.
Over the past week or so a rawness has crept in. He used to be a plain kind of skinny. The notebook is closed.
Nearby, someone sneezes.
Bless you, he says after a moment.
My surprise becomes a smile.
He opens the menu.
You must be a writer, I say.
His answer is to order toast, unbuttered, and a glass of milk.
Before I can stop myself I say, Extra side dish?
He appears to still be reading the menu.
Ma’am? he says.
Nowadays, he says, when I hear this Chubby sing about twisting, he sounds…
He closes the menu. Looks right at me. I nod, agreeing already.
Then he just shrugs.
He is bruised about the eye but, for another breath or two, will still be alive. He wears the pullover sweater he wore to the restaurant on cooler days. At each elbow is a man in a hat, escorting him. Another man, also in a hat but with his back to the camera, lunges, gun drawn from inside his suit jacket. The picture and story, of course, fill the front page of our Morning News.
I handed him two bills the day he sat at the booth, the extra one with my phone number. He stuck it inside the notebook, as if to mark his place. As if agreeing that his wedding band, like most, was negotiable. He didn’t call. The next day he didn’t show for lunch. I didn’t even know his name then.
Shrug, not Twist, I think when I hear Chubby now.