talking to strangers
fiction by dan morey
Caroline pulled up outside Wicker World at the Plaza America. Her front tire rolled over the curb and her son Ricky rose up beside her.
"Goddamn it," she said.
"You can't park here," said Ricky.
"I'll tell you what it is. It's these sunglasses. I can't see the curb."
She snapped the glasses off her face, tangling them in her hair.
"And this stupid haircut. That's the last time I go to Estelle's. I'm going to Haircrafters next time."
"Mom!" said Ricky.
"What the heck do you want?"
"You can't park here. This is a fire lane, and there's no parking in fire lanes."
"Who's parking? Does it look like I'm parking?"
Caroline dropped her sunglasses on the floor and tried to pick them up without undoing her seatbelt.
"You lousy..." she said. "You filthy, lousy..."
Her leather jacket squeaked, and her hair fell over her face.
"That's it!" she said. "I've had it!"
She whipped off the seatbelt, grabbed a fistful of hair, and scrunchied it roughly behind her neck.
"You're parking all right," said Ricky, who had begun to play with the toggles on his jacket. You've been here for at least..." he studied his watch..."Two, no three. Almost three minutes. That's definitely parking."
"Quit yammering," said Caroline, getting out of the car. She found her glasses and tossed them on the dashboard.
"If one of these stores exploded, the firemen would have to come," said Ricky. "And you'd be in the way."
"If you see a fireman, tell him to get in the car."
"Shut up," said Caroline, struggling out of her jacket.
Ricky looked at his watch. "Six minutes," he said. "Definitely parking."
Caroline got back in the car and shoved her jacket under the armrest.
There, she said. Now I can breathe.
"I don't think they should make leather red," said Ricky. "It looks cheap."
"Would you get out of here already. Go put up your flyers. You could've been done by now."
Ricky unbuckled his seat belt and got out of the car. He stood there looking at his mother.
"Well, " she said. "Get going."
"Hug," he said.
"Oh, for God's sake, you're not leaving for Timbuktu."
"All right. Come here, then."
Ricky went around to the driver's side and embraced his mother. She told him she would pick him up outside Stevo's Pizza at seven o'clock.
Now go! she said.
The first place Ricky went was Pickles Deli. A barrel-chested man with a bushy mustache looked up from his newspaper.
"You want something, kid?"
"Uh-huh," said Ricky.
"I hope it ain't pastrami. Tell me it ain't pastrami."
Ricky stared at him and played with the toggles on his jacket.
"Kid," said the man. "Tell me it ain't pastrami you want. I really need to hear it ain't pastrami you want."
"It ain't pastrami I want," said Ricky.
"Good. Cause we ain't got no pastrami. And we ain't gonna have no pastrami. Not till tomorrow anyway."
Ricky moved a toggle up toward his neck.
"Quit fiddling, said the man. Why is it kids are always fiddling. Do you see me fiddling? Am I playing with my belt buckle over here? Am I fooling with my ring?"
"You're chewing on a toothpick," said Ricky.
"And don't start with the whys. That's the other thing about kids. Always with the why this, why that."
"That's how we learn."
The man stood up. "Kid, he said. I am not here to teach you things. I am not an educator. What I do is make sandwiches." He put his thick hands on the meat scale and the screen showed five pounds. "Now, I'm asking you for the last time. What kind of sandwich do you want?"
Ricky tugged his toggle twice, and asked the man for a pastrami on rye.
"Why you little..." said the man, coming out from behind the counter. "I work for a living! Get out of here! Out!"
After Caroline dropped Ricky off at the Plaza America, she drove to a tavern called the Fiddle Inn and went inside. A thin-lipped man with an overbite turned from the bar and looked her over. He wore a blue T-shirt that said "Fiddle Inn" on the front and "Stumble Out" on the back. Jimmy Cagney was on the TV shooting people.
"What's yours?" said the bartender, who was very fat. Wait, let me guess, he said. A Sidecar. No, a Gin Rickey. Am I right?
My son's name is Ricky, said Caroline.
That settles it. Gin Rickey for the lady.
Caroline got comfortable on a stool. The Man in the Blue T-shirt winked at her.
Here you go, said the bartender, dropping a slice of lime into the drink.
Caroline took a sip. It's delicious! she said. But strong. You don't think it's too early, do you?
I won't tell if you don't, said the bartender.
Ricky sat down at a table halfway between a joke store called Pull My Finger and Java Man, a coffee shop with a wooden caveman outside the door. He read over his flyer. To whom it may concern, it began. I am a twelve-year-old boy who needs money to go to Japan. I am not in a wheelchair. I do not have Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, or Multiple Sclerosis. I am not affiliated with Mr. Jerry Lewis in any way. I am just a regular twelve-year-old boy who wants to go to Japan to visit Megumi. Megumi is a singer who sings the famous song I Like to Pet Kitty, Meow, and I think her hair and her eyes are pretty. So I am asking for donations so I can travel to Tokyo, Japan and see Megumi. Won't you please lend a hand? Please?
The handwritten flyers were photocopied with Ricky's address at the bottom so people could send checks.
Three empty glasses, of varying shapes and sizes, formed a semicircle in front of Caroline at the bar.
"...and I didn't really like that last one either," she was saying.
"Which one?" said the bartender. "The Montmartre Cocktail? "
"That's the one. I didn't care for it. It was too, I don't know, vermouthy."
"That's the funny part, said the bartender, leaning in. It's called a Montmartre cocktail, but the recipe calls for Italian vermouth."
"Is that so," said Caroline.
"That is so," said the bartender.
Caroline smelled pickled fish on his breath. She glanced at her watch.
Italian vermouth is sweet, just like you, he said.
"You don't say," said Caroline.
Yes, he said. I do say."
The guy at Pull My Finger told Ricky a joke that involved a polar bear, an accountant, and a roller-skating nun. He told Ricky that that was what humor was all about-nuns on roller skates, not cheating the public with phony charitable causes. Making fun of children with disabilities was no sort of comedy in his book. Ricky tried to explain that he wasn't making fun of anyone, but the guy, who looked very silly giving a moral lecture in rainbow suspenders, shoved some joke gum in his pocket and shooed him out the door.
Ricky sat down outside Java Man and gave the gum to a little girl who was passing by. Three teenagers occupied the table next to him, all wearing some combination of denim and leather. One of them was messing with a phone. He started to snicker.
"What's so funny?" said the one with the safety pin in his lip.
"It's just this article," said the One With the Phone. It's hilarious."
"What's so funny about it?" said Safety Pin.
"It's talking about these crazy North Koreans-"
"Hey," said the third teenager, the one in the eye patch. "I knew some Koreans once. They ran a battery store over on 16th Street. A whole store with nothing but batteries. Triple A, double A, Cs, Ds, nine volts, those big flashlight ones, car batteries, phone batteries, camera batteries. That's all they sold. Batteries."
Ricky leaned back in his chair, gathering in every word, toggling spasmodically.
"Anyway," said the One With the Phone, "These North Koreans, they got, like, these
nukes. Just like the Russians, you know."
"And us," said Safety Pin.
"Yeah, and us.
"Doesn't Iran have nukes too?" said Eye Patch. "Or was that Anthrax? Yeah, I think it was Anthrax. I remember because of the band. My dad has all their records."
"But listen to what they call the missiles, " said the One With the Phone. That's the hilarious part-
"You're anti! You're antisocial! sang Eye Patch, playing air drums.
"They call them," continued the One With the Phone, "Tap a dong 1, and tap a dong 2."
There was an explosion of laughter. Safety Pin banged the table with his fists and Java Man coffee came out of Eye Patch's nose.
Safety Pin said, "Get the fuck out."
"No shit, " said the One With the Phone. "It's right here. Look."
He showed Safety Pin a photo of Taep'o-dong 2 on the phone and Safety Pin said, "The Koreans are right. Those things totally look like giant dildos."
Ricky wanted to know what a dildo was, but thought it best not to ask.
After a while Eye Patch said, "I know you can go bald on your head, right. But can you, like, go bald on your ass?"
"What the hell?" said Safety Pin.
"No, for real," said Eye Patch. "Like two days ago me and Fun Boy are getting ready to moon the dining room window at Perkins, right? So I pull down my pants and Fun Boy's like, 'Jesus. You got one bald ass.' And I'm like, 'What?' And Fun Boy's like, 'That is one hairless ass, my friend. Take a look.' So I do. And sure enough, there's nothing there-not one hair. I think my ass has male pattern baldness, man."
Safety Pin and the One With the Phone looked at each other. Safety Pin broke out laughing.
"What?" said Eye Patch.
Did you happen to sleep over at Fun Boy's the night before?" said the One With the Phone.
Eye Patch said, "Yeah. So?"
"Well, did it ever occur to you, that possibly, just possibly, Fun Boy SHAVED YOUR ASS, you idiot? He's been doing it for years!"
Safety Pin howled with glee and shook the table. Eye Patch stood up and shoved a hand down the back of his jeans.
"I'll kill him!" he said.
People stared; Ricky was frightened.
"And what the hell is with that stupid eye patch," said the One With the Phone. You look like a freaking butt pirate.
Ricky decided he'd skip Java Man and try to put up some flyers at the sports store instead.
Caroline was halfway through a Sloe Gin Fizz when the Man in the Blue T-shirt moved down the bar and sat next to her. The bartender came out of the back room smiling, but frowned when he saw the new seating arrangement.
"'Nother Bud, bud," said the Man in the Blue T-shirt.
The bartender took his empty glass over to the tap, filled it, and handed it back.
"Thanks, Fatty" said the Man in the Blue T-shirt.
"That was rude," said Caroline, grinning.
"I was just kidding. Fatty's used to it. You wanna shoot some pool?"
"Okay," she said.
"Better get another drink first. Where'd Fatty go? Fatty? Oh, Fatty. The lady needs another drinkie."
They could see the bartender in the back room, watching them. Caroline started to giggle.
"Oh, Fatty," said the Man in the Blue T-shirt. "We see you. Be a good Fatty and bring the lady another drink. And no more of that French shit. She'll take a Budweiser."
Inside Balls Etc., the sports store, Ricky found a blonde girl talking to a slick-haired young man in a suit. His loafers were on the counter, and he was juggling a soccer ball with his bare feet.
"And I have some big name clients, too," he was saying. Some really big names."
"Really?" said the girl.
"Oh yeah. Major names."
He flipped the soccer ball up into his hand, and the girl said, Wow.
Ricky said, Excuse me, but the man kept talking.
"Business is great and all, but what I really want to do is play Olympic soccer. The national team is pretty weak in the midfield right now, so I think I have a good shot."
"Wow," said the girl. "That's amazing."
Ricky walked up to the counter, toggle in hand. He explained about the flyers, but the girl wasn't listening. "Whatever, she said. Put them up wherever."
The man said, "Here, Chief!" and threw the soccer ball at Ricky. Ricky stepped aside, and the ball bounced under a rack of football jerseys.
Nice catch, said the man.
"So anyway..." said the girl.
"Yeah, what was I saying?"
"You were telling me about your big name clients.
"Oh, I've got big names, all right. Guess who I just set up a website for?"
"No way!" she said. "I love Wally Plotkin.
Best bowler in the state. Great guy, too."
Ricky taped a flyer to the window, and went back to the counter.
"Do you have any Hitomi Ryobi posters?" he said.
Who? said the girl.
Hitomi Ryobi. He plays in the NPB league.
Nippon Professional Baseball. The Japanese league.
Where do you think you are? said the man. Tokyo?
Ryobi doesn't play for the Giants, said Ricky. He plays for the Carp.
There's a baseball team called the Carp? said the girl. The Carp?
"Sure, said Ricky. The carp is a very respected fish in Asia. It represents strength.
"She doesn't have any Japanese posters," said the man. "Why don't you go put up some flyers in the salon? Lot of sympathetic old ladies in there. Know what I mean, Chief?"
Caroline looked up from the pool table at the bartender, who was sitting on a stool watching Jimmy Cagney. She drew back her cue and struck the nine-ball, sending it off the felt and onto the floor. It landed with a glassy thunk behind the bartender, startling him.
Don't fall off, Fatty, said the Man in the Blue T-shirt. You'll break the floor.
Caroline heaved with laughter.
"You're definitely cut off," said the Man in the Blue T-shirt. "You can't even tell a nine-ball from a cue ball anymore."
"It looked white," she said.
"You sure it didn't look pink," he said, refilling her glass from a pitcher of beer.
"A-haw-haw-haw," she brayed. "No, it didn't look pink."
Caroline sat down in a chair and pushed the hair out of her face. She'd lost her scrunchy somewhere.
"This stupid hair is driving me crazy," she said.
The bartender found the nine-ball and walked it over to Caroline. She let out a belch that drove him straight back to the bar.
"I can't stand this hair!" she said.
"I can't stand," said the Man in the Blue T-shirt.
"Huh?" said Caroline.
"I said, 'I can't stand.' Because I'm drunk. Get it?"
"Oh," said Caroline. "Right. A-haw-haw-haw."
They drank for a while and watched TV. The bartender snorted when Jimmy Cagney rammed a cantaloupe into his girlfriend's face.
"Let me fix that for you," the Man in the Blue T-shirt said to Caroline.
"Fix what?" she said.
He got up and stood close behind her.
"Relax," he said, tying back her hair with a plastic zip tie.
Caroline closed her eyes and let him massage her shoulders. When he began to tongue her earlobe, she jumped up.
"Whoa there, mister," she said. "That definitely isn't where this is going."
"That's what you think, he said.
"That's what I know, Ratso."
She checked her watch and said, "Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit."
Ricky had been sitting on the curb in front of Stevo's Pizza for an hour watching trash swirl in the corner of the plaza. The wind brought garbage from all over the parking lot and held it there, like a whirlpool. He saw hamburger wrappers circling around the vortex with plastic grocery bags, bank envelopes, ticket stubs and business cards. He even thought he saw a dollar bill, but it turned out to be a coupon printed like money that said: "One buck off any permanent at The Best Little Hair House in Town."
Inside the pizza shop, a woman was shaking a little girl.
"What's wrong with your mouth?" she said. "Answer me!"
The girl stared mutely out the window. Ricky recognized her. She was the one he'd given the joke gum to.
"It's blue!" the woman shouted at the pizza man. "My daughter's mouth is blue! You poisoned her!"
Ricky heard a loud thump, and turned to find his mother's car rolling towards him with one tire up on the curb. She stopped and got out unsteadily.
"Oh, honey," she said. "I'm so sorry." She hugged him. "I forgot all about you."
"Where were you?" he said.
"Just visiting some friends. I lost track of time."
"Never mind which friends. I'm here now, and everything's all right." She looked at him. "Right?"
"Yes," he said. "Everything's all right."
They got into the car and Ricky smelled a familiar stale scent, like the recycling bin when it was full of beer cans. He yanked at a toggle and stuffed the remaining flyers into his jacket.
"Throw those things out the window," said Caroline, pulling off the curb. "People will find 'em and read 'em."
Ricky thought about it for a minute, then tossed the flyers. They flew apart in the wind and fluttered downward, moving inevitably toward the vortex in the corner.