This is a new ongoing series from Potluck. Every Friday, Ray Belli will provide us with another piece in his puzzle. It's kinda like 'Serial' but not sponsored by MailChimp.
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Not the Point
The electronics store lets Pedro out around nine. His shift at the diner began at nine-thirty. On a good day, he made the drive in ten minutes, leaving fifteen minutes to nap in the car and five minutes to change outfits between jobs.
The diner was empty when he came in. A chair occasionally squeaked and a reporter delivered news on a muted TV screen. Pedro stared out the window and yawned. He gnawed a cuticle and thought about quitting—not just the diner, but the electronics store, too. Getting used to real work was like hell. His friends called him crazy for giving up the streets altogether, and Maria was starting to take their side.
Pedro tore through the dead, hardened flesh. Of course, there was Little Maria. The obligation to be a good father kept him around. Her face came to mind, and he imagined wringing her by the neck—Big Maria, that is.
Another yawn, the sound of a car zipping by. The lights across the street went out and the night outside turned darker.
The front doors flung open and three middle-aged women stumbled inside. The first woman walked with a strut crossed between a runway model and a chicken. The second precariously clip-clopped on three-and-a-half inch heels. The third trailed behind, examining her dyed roots in a pocket mirror.
“Five, please,” the tottering woman said.
“Five?” Pedro asked, counting three heads.
“I mean four.”
A fourth woman, younger than the others, came stumbling through the door. “It’s really coming to that point,” she barked into her cell phone. “It’s really, really coming to that point … look, I’m at the diner now, I’ve got to go. Yeah? Yeah? Then go kill yourself, see if I care.”
“Anywhere you’d like,” Pedro said. He disappeared to retrieve a set of menus. His chest tightened. He recognized the ladies and hoped they didn’t recognize him.
“Let’s sit here,” the runway chicken suggested. With each strut, her stomach shook like a pot of fresh jelly.
“I don’t want to sit under the fan,” said the one wearing heels. She pointed a long, red fingernail toward a vent on the ceiling. “Let’s sit by the window.”
“The booths are too tight in this place. We have to get a table.”
“I don’t want to have to put my purse on the floor.”
“Just hang it on the back of your seat!”
“Someone might steal something if—”
“We’re at the diner, for God’s sake. If you—”
The one with dyed roots pressed the back of her hand to the vent. “This thing’s not even on,” she shouted. “Let’s just sit here.”
They settled on the table beneath the fan, and Pedro returned with the menus.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he said. As he turned away, a dizzying array of spots colored his vision.
“So do you think he’s gonna call me back?” Linda, the one with three-and-a-half-inch heels, asked Barbara, the one who came in late. Linda excitedly reached across the table and shook Barbara’s arm. “They all think he’s gonna. Do you think he’s gonna?”
“I think he’s gonna. He seemed to really like you,” Barbara said. “But you can’t keep seeing two men at once. How’s that going to work with Gary? That’s his name, right? You can’t pull the same thing with Gary you pulled with Vinnie.”
“Oh, please. Gary doesn’t know how to be a boyfriend. At least Vinnie was a man,” Linda said. “Gary’s a washwoman. I say one thing he doesn’t like and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m going home! I’m leaving!’ ”
“You don’t need that,” said Debbie.
“Damn right I don’t. And you should see what his house looks like. If I ever took you to his house, you wouldn’t believe, you wouldn’t believe what a …”
Linda’s words trailed, and they all nodded in agreement with the incomplete sentence.
“ … smells like B.O. and old soup,” she continued. “Goddamned slob, he really is. No wonder his wife left him.”
“But you guys are still dating, right?”
“Who knows! He walked out two days ago during dinner. To hell with him, I can’t deal with a man like that.”
“Some of us are still married,” Barbara moaned. Her forearms fell to the table like deadweight. “Me and Kev have been married twenty-one years and one of these days we’re gonna snap. Thank God our sons are already in college. I told myself we’d stick it out until the boys were in college. Now that they’re out of the house … ”
“How old’s your oldest boy?” asked Linda. “I always forget. Your oldest boy’s how old?”
“He’s a senior. He’s getting his history degree and becoming a teacher. I told him there ain’t no job in the world like being a teacher. As long as he’s doing something to take care of a family is all that matters. My younger one’s a freshman. No idea what he wants to do yet. Joey Donahue—”
Barbara paused, and the quartet of bouncing heads became still. The alcohol coursing through their blood evaporated into solemnity as if the name of something sacred were taken in vain. The excitement drained from their faces, turning them pale.
“—Joey Donahue was his age,” Linda finished. “God … it’s going to be two months now, isn’t it?”
Her throat bulged. The others’ expressions turned limp with grief.
Pedro overheard their remarks from across the diner, and the colored spots intensified. He threw a look at Alejandro, the late night busboy, and Alejandro narrowed his eyes. He said something in Spanish, and Pedro shook his head, No.
“I still don’t understand why God took Renee’s boy away from her. That could have been any of our boys, you know.”
“It’s all the drug dealers we’ve got in this town nowadays.”
“God’ll take care of the son of a bitch who killed Renee’s son.”
“Renee was a good mother, too.”
Linda’s teary eyes narrowed spitefully. “I blame it on that good-for-nothing husband of hers who left when Joey was just a kid.”
One of them mentioned that Renee’s husband was known to hit her when he got drunk, and the women concluded—in more graphic detail—that the law should make eunuchs out of men that even think of raising their hands against a woman. They forgot about Joey Donahue, and the alcohol seeped back into their collective consciousness.
“ … sometimes Gary jokes about hitting me, giving me a ‘good old slap.’ Who the hell does he think he is? I’m not into jokes, not one for jokes. No jokes. Not into them. It’s ’cause he’s insecure. No real man wants to hit a woman. Vinnie would never hit me. Too bad Vinnie didn’t have more money. That’s all I’m keeping Gary around for now, the money. Once I find a better man who knows how to love me—”
The women looked up. Pedro stood over them at the tableside.
“Are you ladies ready?”
“Oh, sorry, guy, we didn’t even open the menus yet,” Debbie laughed. The others giggled. Pedro told them to take their time. He joined Alejandro behind the bar. Again, they exchanged something in Spanish, this time more heatedly.
“Don’t,” Pedro said. He pushed through the kitchen’s wooden saloon doors.
A cockroach shot out from a crack in the wall. It took him by surprise, and Pedro smashed it under his shoe. He moved his foot away. Still alive, the roach groped helplessly at the air. Pedro mashed it into the ground even harder.
When he returned to the table of drunken high school teachers, they placed their orders, each with incredible specificities. The runway chicken requested a bun-less burger cooked medium (but not too medium, more like medium rare, but not completely rare) with raw onions on the side plus an order of fries that wasn’t greasy, because she’d ordered them here once before and they were very greasy, and she didn’t want to have to send them back again. As Pedro scribbled, the teacher with dyed roots leaned over the table and examined his face.
“You look familiar,” she said. “Did you go to Lowe Township High?”
“Uh, no,” Pedro said.
“What’s your name?”
“My name? My name’s Juan.”
“Juan … Ortiz,” said Pedro Martinez.
“Juan Ortiz. I had a boy in class named Juan Ortiz a few years ago. Different face though. Huh.”
“We’re teachers at the high school,” the chicken confirmed.
Pedro nodded stiffly, feigned a smile, and took away their menus. He retreated to the kitchen, passing the mashed cockroach on the way. One of its dead limbs still trembled. Alejandro followed behind him and came through the door.
“Who’s Juan Ortiz?” he asked.
“You heard them talking about Joey Donahue,” Pedro said.
Pedro’s face turned expressionless, and Alejandro gave him a shove. “Are you for real? I’da went up to ’em and said, ‘I’m the son of a bitch that sold Joey Donahue the shit that killed him, and if he don’t know when he’s had enough, that’s his problem.”
“That’s not the point,” Pedro said.
“What’s the point?”
“No, say it.”
Pedro shoved Alejandro away and passed the teachers’ order along to one of the cooks.
“The point is that if it was you or me who OD’ed, they wouldn’t give a shit,” Alejandro shouted across the kitchen. Pedro ignored him and walked back into the main dining room.
The group of teachers was in high gear with laughter. The sound of fake nails ticking against everything they touched grated on Pedro’s ears. Only three more hours until he was out of this place … and six more until his shift began at the electronics store.
Another car outside, another horn, another yawn. Cold rainwater splashed up into the face of an unsuspecting passerby.
Alejandro was right. To hell with Joey Donahue. Pedro reminded himself that this was for Little Maria, this sudden change of pace.
God, he hoped she’d turn out okay.
To Be Continued …
Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.