and the meek shall … move along quietly
Mary Beth eased herself onto her hands and knees behind the counter to scrub the last coffee and ketchup stains out of another exceedingly long day behind the counter. She just about heard the toneless chink of the little bell over the front door. There was only one person in the world that made the bell ring like that. Mary Beth stopped scrubbing and listened. Quick footsteps so light they couldn’t crack a robin’s egg confirmed her suspicion. They stopped directly opposite her on the other side of the counter. Silence. The tut of a tongue. More silence. A sharp breath of impatience.
Mary Beth put her hand on the counter and took her time to rise to her full height. She suppressed her surprise at Penelope Pincher visiting this side of the city this late in the evening. Mary Beth picked up a towel, slowly wiped her hands and gazed down at the anorexic figure, pale as winter.
Withholding both deference and insolence Mary Beth said, “Good evening.”
Gripping her gloves tightly, blinking several times in rapid succession and addressing a far corner of the café’s ceiling Penelope said, “Return on investment is insufficient. The café is to be sold.”
She said it without moving her lips. Her rime ice eyebrows did not quiver, not a muscle in her glacial face as much as twitched.
Penelope fidgeted her gloves back on. “You’ll be informed in due course,” and with that she spun and marched out without a shimmy, a sway, a wiggle or a waggle.
Still wiping her hands Mary Beth contemplated the rigid retreat and wondered how that woman removed her face before retiring. Did she wipe it off with a damp sponge or crack it with a hammer?
The following morning Mary Beth opened the café as usual letting the twin pillars of percolating coffee and Ralph’s muffins prop up her spirit. While she wiped the stools along the counter where the the regulars would soon gather like starlings Mary Beth wondered which one of them would spout the over-worn saw that a team of ten with a good set of picks and shovels and a steady diet of Ralph’s muffins could have dug the Panama Canal in a week.
The little bell over the front door tittered to announce the arrival of a wiry man with a deep tan and just a dash of salt in his peppery hair. Decked out in a checked short sleeved shirt, faded jeans and battered work boots he bounced in like a bantam weight and called out, “Morning, Beautiful.”
“Morning, Pete. Coffee’s just on. It’ll be a few minutes.”
Pete stopped and inhaled deeply, “Brewing coffee and baking muffins, fragrance of the morning, fortifies the spirit, revitalizes the soul, invigorates the flesh.” He clapped his hands and threw in a shimmy, “Let’s roll baby roll. Today is going to be better than any day to date.”
Mary Beth raised an eyebrow. “Back burner on our stove at home is kicking up again. Any chance you can take a look at it?”
“How long you had that stove?” he asked while settling on his personal stool.
“You put it in.”
“That was years ago.”
“That’s how long we’ve had it.”
“Christ, Methuselah’s cooked eggs on that thing.” Pete paused as if in thought. “I’ve got a rewiring and renewal job in a ritzy house coming up. Might be able to scare up something.”
The bell over the door giggled. A pin cushion man with heavy freckles and a Gordian knot of hair on his head rolled in. He took up station on the stool next to Pete, “Morning, all.”
“Morning, Barry,” said Mary Beth.
“Ah, the socialist banker —,” said Pete.
“Shut up, Pete. It’s too early.”
“For bankers maybe, but not for us that work for a living, eh Mary Beth?”
Rather than respond Mary Beth served up two steaming mugs of coffee.
You’re a life saver, Mary Beth,” said Barry. Without turning towards Pete he continued, “Since when did you start working. You spend more time gassing at Gary’s and lounging at Larry’s than any three people I know.”
“The barber shop and the corner store are the veritable switch boards of the community. It’s how I keep in touch.”
Barry ladled in the sarcasm, “Just what the world needs, a well connected electrician.”
“You may mock and you may scorn,” said Pete climbing unto his soap box and repeating his often repeated sermon, “but there you will find unrivaled wit, unequaled courtesy, generosity without limit, gravity without arrogance, gaiety without vulgarity, in short, all that constitutes goodness and it’s there the browbeaten, bullied, abused and intimidated scuttle to seek succor against an unjust society. We, the Gabrielinos de Yaanga, stand ready to help them.”
“Attacked any windmills lately?”
The bell chuckled to announce a monastic crowned pale faced man, the last of the Early Birds. His arms stuck out of the billowy sleeves of his short-sleeve shirt like thin straws, his face always fixed as if he was about to apologize. His glasses continually slid to the end of his nose. Except for the police these three were about the only white people Mary Beth ever saw in the neighborhood.
“Morning, Ed,” said Mary Beth. “Usual?”
Ed looked glum, glummer than usual. Anyone who’d lost their job, partner and house all at the same time and just found a hole in their pocket would, by comparison, have appeared bright, buoyant and cheerful. He sat down next to Barry and buried his head in his hands. Mary Beth took that as a, ‘Yes’.
“Morning, Cheerful,” said Pete.
Ed ignored Pete. He kept his head in his hands. He didn’t touch his coffee. Mary Beth put a sugar dispenser and spoon next to his mug, slipped a shot of coffee into hers and leaned against the back counter. She folded her arms, brought the mug up to her nose and let the rich aroma creep all the way to her follicles. Ed loaded his coffee with three heaping spoonfuls of sugar before before pouring in an extra shot directly from the dispenser.
“Four sugars,” said Barry. “This must be bad news.”
Slowly wagging his spoon inside his mug with a clink and a clank and a clink and a clank and without looking up Ed said, “You want to tell them, Mary Beth?”
Barry and Pete looked at Mary Beth with question mark eyes.
“The café’s being sold,” she said.
“So?” chorused Pete and Barry with a shrug of their shoulders and a turn up of their hands.
“— to Harry Bucks,” said Ed.
Four palms slapped the counter in unison.
“We’re screwed,” said Barry.
The bell over the front door called Mary Beth to work. The stools along the counter began to fill with the last to be hired and the first to be fired. The very lucky had jobs. The less lucky needed two. The unlucky had to find ways of stretching their morning coffee and a muffin into lunch and sometimes dinner. Mary Beth read each face as it came in so she’d know when to become distracted in order to facilitate a hasty retreat before the bill arrived or when to give change in quarters to those who paid in nickels. Nothing was ever said and no tally ever kept. Most made up what they could when they could. They’d all been coming to Perdita’s for years. Plucked out of the great post-war push towards prosperity like unusual weeds Mary Beth knew each and every circumstance the bad, the poor, the needy, the embarrassed, the reduced, the straightened, the flat out and the knocked out. Denied any birthright, displaced, disenfranchised, exiled to a bohemian existence they relied on slick grooves and clever moves to look after themselves and each other. Mary Beth often thought that whoever named the place Perdita’s must have had a crystal ball.
Mary Beth had no need of a crystal ball to know what was coming. Harry Bucks had two interests and only two interests in life. How to make money and how to keep his great big fat hippopotamus ass perched on a mountain of it. There was no room for a barely-break-even-diner in his burgeoning empire. There’d be no more muffins, no more informal credit, the lucky, less lucky and the unlucky would have to get their breakfast, and for some lunch and dinner, elsewhere. No doubt about it Perdita’s was on the skids.
News of the sale made the dingy spring morning even dingier. A cheerless cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the counter reducing the light and leeching color out of the café. The regulars sat round-shouldered over their coffee as if it were raining. Chin wagging, jawing, ribbing and leg pulling reduced to nothing more than a subdued hum. There was never a lot of laughter in the morning, but today it was even more sporadic than usual. Everywhere Mary Beth looked she saw gloom, bleakness, dull dusky eyes, and weary motions, with one exception.
“Morning, Mary Beth,” said Sammy. “Is it too early for tunes?”
Same question every day since Mary Beth could remember. Whenever he didn’t have any work, and that was far more often than it should have been, Sammy’d hang around the whole day, play tunes on the juke box, dance, swap stories and lend a hand here and there.
“Course not,” said Mary Beth. “Ya’ll go ahead.”
Sammy turned towards the jukebox. It was his idea to get the thing in. It was his idea to stock it with records from local bands and he alone had mastered the art of getting it to play without ever putting any money into it. After coaxing the machine into life he spun and started to dance. His arms whirled out of sequence with each other like some kind of eccentric helicopter. His feet never left the floor, his legs barely moved, yet somehow he’d glide up and down the café slaloming around people without seeming to try. Mary Beth had studied him for years and still couldn’t figure out how he did it. While Sammy danced he cleared tables, made strangers feel welcome, and greeted friends. Everyone in the place was Sammy’s friend.
Mary Beth settled into her rhythm catching snatches of small talk, town talk, idle talk, and back talk as she topped up those who stayed and settled up with those who could afford it.
“Hey, Slim. Hired or fired?” “Neither, just bone tired.” … “County jail last I heard.” … “One day late and they cut the damn electricity. Twenty-five bucks to reconnect. Damn!” … “Damn!” “… price of being poor keeps going up.” … “Mmmm-mmm I do declare that a team of ten … “Police closed that place down a week ago.” … “Wrapped himself around a telephone pole.” … “Nah, too little time and even less money.” … “Scared? Hell no! That woman got a right hook like thunder. Knocked that fool burglar clean into next week.” “Nobody with a lick of sense’d mess with …” “What’s one more in a world of worry?”
An ordinary day, the regulars absorbed the news of the café being sold and more or less moved on just like they always did, just like they always had to.
The following days remained just as ordinary. Nothing changed. It kind of reminded Mary Beth of ’39-’40 when Europe had got itself into a dither. Everybody jumped up and down and declared war on each other … and then did next to nothing for the best part of a year like they plumb near forgot about it. Mary Beth was in the same boat until she arrived for work on a wet Sunday morning to find Ralph fuming on the sidewalk. Someone had haphazardly nailed three two-by-fours across the front door. They’d buried two huge spikes through each end into the frame and another directly through the heart of Perdita’s in the center of the door. From the marks on the wood Mary Beth guessed they’d used a sledge hammer.
“What this?!? What this?!?” Ralph gave the lowest two-by-four door an all-mighty kick. The two-by-four appeared unperturbed.
“Well,” said Mary Beth folding her arms. “We were told we’d be informed. I guess this is their way telling us.”
“My knives!!” exploded Ralph. “In kitchen!! She take! She take! Take cook knives take cook soul!!” Pounding the door with both fists Ralph launched into a torrent of some kind of Chinese that Mary Beth was grateful she was unable to understand.
“Morning, Beautiful. What’s all this?”
Mary Beth turned to see Pete with his hands on his hips.
“It would appear the sale has gone through,” said Mary Beth.
“Ralph not taking it well?”
Mary Beth didn’t dignify that with an answer.
Ralph spun around, stopped and stared. To Mary Beth he wasn’t looking at them, but at something far distant. His arms made a barely perceptible pumping motion as if he was drawing something towards him. His eyes narrowed to darts. His whole body swelled slightly. He crouched. He coiled. He let out a glass shattering scream, whirled and landed a karate kick square in the middle of the middle two-by-four of the door. This two-by-four appeared to have noticed.
“Ralph! Ralph!” said Pete making a feeble waving motion, but not, Mary Beth noticed, getting too close to the irate cook. “Not that way.”
Ralph turned back towards Pete. “My knives, Pete! Not right. Not right. No pay. Three weeks!” Ralph held up three fingers the way people hold up one when they aren’t being polite. “You know me, Pete. I work. I work hard. I work all time. Never ask for nothing. Best cook this side of Mississippi. Best cook that side of Mississippi too. Everywhere I go.” Ralph looked like he was coiling for another kick. Pete stepped back. “Everywhere I go. No respect. Chinese man never get respect in this country. They spit. Slap. Kick. I take that. Don’t fight back. My knives,” throwing his hand in the air. “My life! Cook with no knives is cook with no hands, no arms, no heart,” giving himself a great thump on the chest with his fist. “I get my knives.”
He spun and delivered another pile-driver. This was an argument these two-by-fours were definitely going to lose.
Waving his hands as if he were flagging down a car Pete said, “We’ll get them. We’ll get them, Ralph, but not this way. It’ll attract too much attention.”
“How then? How we get knives?”
“Through the window at the back. Calm down. Wait here. My toolbox’s in the truck. We shall storm the evil fortress and liberate your unfortunate waifs in a trice.” Pete spun and headed off towards his truck throwing, “Just keep cool,” over his shoulder, “I’ll be back in a trice.”
Ralph looked up at Mary Beth his eyes widened from darts to discs. “What trice?”
“He’ll be right back.”
That seemed to be enough to calm Ralph down, at least slightly. “Why?” he asked in a soft voice. “Why they do these thing? I work hard. I no ask for anything. I work for everything. Never take what not mine. They spit. They slap. They kick. They say Chinaman go home. Why, Mary Beth? Why can’t this be my home?”
Mary Beth’s mind helter-skeltered for an answer, but all that came through was a single blues refrain that often came to her as she worked behind the counter. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know why this world hates me so. Thankfully Pete was back with his toolbox before Mary Beth was forced to stumble out an answer that would only be pathetic.
“Quick, let’s go,” said Pete leading the way around the back. Mary Beth stood guard while the other two made an indelicate entrance. They were no more than an instant. Ralph had his knives, but still had the look of a man quite prepared to whip up a dish of fricassee of Penelope.
“Split up and lay low,” said Pete. “I’ve got a plan, just need to tie up a couple of loose ends.” Turning towards Mary Beth he added, “I’ll drop by in the next day or so with some good news.”
Ralph turned and headed home. Pete galloped off towards his truck and his next assault on an unjust society. Mary Beth stared at the broken window for a moment. Having started the day with an incandescent cook and quixotic electrician she decided she needed a little calm and common sense and strolled off to Reverend Farewell’s Free Church of the Spirit, Rhythm and Soul with an uncanny sense of freedom.