“Yeah, base, dead car, and these guys aren’t at the address I’ve got. Whole building’s shut down, dusty, like abandoned.”
“Huh. Okay, lemme check it out. I’ll call you back.”
And the phone goes dead in my hand. Fine. You guys check it out and call me back. Fuckers. At least Mac’s back on the phones and it’s not that asshole Jack. Small favors.
The wagon is dead like roadkill, just sitting on the blacktop in front of the garage. A grizzled Grandpa of a mechanic took about two minutes of fucking with the shifter and tinkering under the hood to figure out enough to tell me that the transmission had eaten pretty much all of its forward gears at some point last night and was now only capable of moving in reverse under its own power. At which point he chuckled and lit a Lucky Strike and commented that it would be a helluva ride back to Connecticut going twenty miles an hour and craning around to look out the back window. And then he asked me when I was gonna get the car off his lot.
Real sweethearts, these not-quite-Midwesterners.
The menu in a diner across the street from the garage indicated that my last five bucks was just enough for a cup of coffee, two eggs and hash browns and I smoked down my third-to-last cigarette while I ordered this fine repast from a geriatric in sky blue nylon uniform open to an inch above the navel.
I’ve noticed this kind of thing in small town diners. You’ll get this old hag of a waitress who’s been working the counter since the joint opened in the fifties, who seems to think that she’s still the hot number that she was back in the day. So, yeah, she’ll be wearing bright red lipstick that’s migrating into the wrinkles that march around her lips, she’ll have a big teased-up blonde dyejob hovering around her head, and she’ll be wearing this uniform with the plunging neckline and a hem short enough to reveal white cotton granny-panties if she so much as leans over the counter to wipe up a spill.
And okay, great, she’s a feisty old lady, reveling in her free spirited life and all that, but, really, the days when truckers and construction workers were trying to talk her into a quickie in the alley out back are at least a couple decades in the past. But that doesn’t stop her from flirting at me, calling me ‘hon’ in a rockcrusher coo that I’m sure is meant to be bedroom-seductive and shooting me a come-hither denture smile, leaning down when I ask for my two scrambled and hash browns, giving me a helluva view of two giant tits that lost the fight against gravity probably about the time I was born. “I’m Bertha,” she coughed out, tapping the stitching over her left swaying breast, “if you need anything, hon, you just call me.” I smiled and nodded and she shuffled off to deal with a middle-aged suit that sat down at the other side of the counter.
So, yeah, ordering breakfast while waiting for Mac to take me off hold was as far as my planning had gone. I figured killing my car to get to a closed-up building after sitting around in NYC until the middle of night had pretty much absolved me of having to think about, or give a shit about, the rest of this job. Messengers don’t have a helluva lot of reason to go above and beyond and getting this far put me, I figured, in line for whatever Ready had in the way of the Congressional medal of honor. Or, if nothing else, a loan against future paychecks so I could get a new car and have some future paychecks.
Bertha shuffled on back with a mug of coffee and tipped me a wink as she set it down. I smiled again and then busied myself with cream and sugar. She leaned on the counter, ragged nails painted fire-engine red, big veins chasing themselves across the back of her hand. “So, not from around here, huh?”
I stirred my coffee. “What makes you say that?”
She reached out and pressed her finger into the Ready Messenger logo stitched into my polo. “I know all the businesses in town, and that ain’t one of him.” She dragged her finger across my chest as she pulled it back.
I smiled. “Smart girl.” She revealed her dentures in a grin. “Yeah, just passing through on the way to a delivery.” I slurped my coffee, which turned out to be both weak and burned. Yeah, really not the Midwest.
“Figgered.” She leaned back and pushed her breasts at me. “You going to Philly?”
“Uh, I’m not really sure yet.” I tapped the phone on the counter. “Waiting for my boss to call me back on that one.”
“So, might be here a little while today, huh?” She pulled back her lips and showed my more of her dentures.
“Uh…probably not too long.” I took another sip of the coffee, which had managed to take on a bitter aftertaste. “Y’know, the messenger thing is all about rush, rush, rush.”
“Hmm, well, hon...” the cook stuck a plate up on the sill of his little window and dinged a bell. Bertha looked over her shoulder. “That’s you.” She shuffled across to the window and returned with a plate of watery eggs and mostly raw potato. Perfect. “Well, now, hon...”
And the phone rang. I snapped it up, smiling at Bertha, saw a 203 number on the display and hit accept.
“Davey, it’s Mac.”
“Hey, man, what’s the word?” I pointed at the phone and mouthed gotta take this at Bertha, who tipped me another wink and shuffled off to the suit at the other end of the counter.
“Uh, yeah, the customer sent an email over last night, but I guess nobody got it when it came in…”
“That reminds me, who the fuck’s Jack?”
“Jack, the guy answering the phones last night. Real dickhead, you’ll pardon me saying.” I scooped up a bite of the eggs. They squished when I bit into them.
“Ahhhh…don’t know him. Phones go up to the corporate office at night, so, yeah, he’d be someone up in Albany.”
I swallowed the eggs and washed them down with the tiniest sip of the coffee I could manage. “Yeah, well, he’s a fucking waste of space, man.”
“Okay, well, you can file a report on him when you get back if you want, but he’s probably someone’s cousin or kid or something. Dunno that it would do any good.”
“Okay, whatever. What about the customer?” I separated a few of the hash browns that looked like they’d actually come into contact with a hot part of the grill and forked them into my mouth. They tasted almost exactly like the dirt they’d been grown in.
“Right, yeah, they, uh, sent over a note saying that someone screwed up and they gave you the wrong address.”
“Jesus Christ…am I even in the right fucking town?” I peppered the eggs and tried another bite. The pepper caught a ride on the egg water and slid into the back of my throat. I tried not to choke.
A dry little chuckle. “Yeah, well, hate to tell you this but you’re not even in the right state, Davey.”
“Jesus, base.” And I’m kinda laughing at this point too, ‘cause, really, c’mon. “Lemme guess…Alaska, right? Japan? France?”
“Not quite that bad, but they need this thing in Ohio by end of business today.” Bertha sauntered back up and slid the bill across the counter at me.
“Ohio? Well, shit man, why the hell didn’t they just FedEx the fucking thing?”
“Yeah, well, they don’t sound like the most organized guys in the world. But you’re still on time, Davey. I talked to Bobby and he’s telling me that they’re good for it and that he’s gonna bill ‘em for your return time, plus per diem for meals and a hotel.”
Jesus. Thirty-eight fifty for, what, fifteen hours now? Okay, admittedly, be a nice paycheck this week, but still… “That’s great, man, but I’m off the clock at this point. Dead car, remember?”
“Yeah, well, weird luck there. You’re in East Stroudsburg right now, right? You made it into town?”
“Yeah, why?” I pushed my plate away and picked up the bill. $4.38. And Bertha had written her phone number along the bottom. My stomach clenched around the bites of egg and potato.
“’Cause Bobby’s folks live there and he keeps a car at their place.”
“Which helps me how?”
“Well it helps you ‘cause it’s registered as a Ready vehicle so you’re automatically on the insurance and he’s cool with you driving it to Ohio and then back to Connecticut.”
“Jeez…he must really want this account.” I dug out my wallet and looked inside, hoping that somehow there was something in there besides the one five-spot I knew I had. Not that I had any reason to believe there was.
“Yeah, well, they’re pretty big.”
“Okay, hell. Why not. Where do his folks live?”
“Uhh…” the white noise of Mac’s meaty palm covering the mouthpiece, “he says to tell me where you’re at and his dad’ll bring down the car for you.”
“Okay, uh…” I waved my hand and Bertha glided on over. “S’cuse me, but what’s the name of this place?”
She smiles like my grandmother. “This is Mags’, hon. Everybody knows that.”
“Right, thanks. I’m at Mags’, Mac. Bobby know it?”
The white noise again, and then a chuckle. “Yeah, he knows it. Says to stay clear of Bertha.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for the advice, but it’s a bit too late.”
Laughter on the other end of the line. “Okay, Davey. Bobby’s dad’ll be there in a minute. And, hey, I know this one’s a pain in the ass, but just think of that paycheck.”
“Sure, Mac. Only thing on my mind right now. Seeya.” I kill the connection, grab my shit and hop off the stool, tossing down that last five on top of the bill. Bertha smiles and blows me a kiss and I notice that her nylons are rolled down at the knee. My balls crawl up into my abdomen and I head for the door.