Squid Soup

by Salvatore Difalco

 

A long black hair was floating in Charlie Squillaci’s bourbon. He stared at it for a minute, honing his disgust. It was powerful. Tender music whining over the speakers—a Roy Orbison love song—angered him. He summoned the waitress, in red velveteen to the upper thighs. It was well into May; he tried to puzzle out the reasons for the selection—other staff wore other costumes, none red, none velveteen, but nothing came to mind. When he told her that he found a hair in his drink, she smiled.

“A hair?”

“That’s right. May I get another drink?”

“Ew. Sure thing. Your friend is late.”

“Yes, he is. Observant of you. When he comes, please bring him a vodka martini with two olives.”

“I can do that.”

“And please, take this away.”

She grabbed the defiled drink and moved on with small but quick steps, as though her ankles were bound together. A person’s walk says so much about them. What did hers say? Charlie didn’t like this cocktail bar, not really. The Tiffany lamps grated, as did all the old wood and threadbare bordello broadloom. The hair in his drink punctuated the dated, dirty vibe. But it was convenient, and quiet. A place that drew little attention.

By the time he finished his second bourbon his shoulders relaxed and he had a nice buzz happening. Sinatra came over the speakers with The Best Is Yet To Come, and it was fine. The liquor bottles lined up behind the bar glinted and whispered in their secret tongues. A throbbing green magnum held his eye until Penny brought another drink and stood by his table as if waiting for him to comment on his friend’s tardiness or some other nothing. Maybe she suspected he was one of those people who say they are waiting for a friend, when actually they are simply too embarrassed to admit they are drinking alone. Charlie had been guilty of this in the past. Not this time, though he wasn’t waiting for a friend per se. To call Ricky Carbone a friend was to denigrate the people who were his friends, not to say there were many.

A couple argued at at a booth across from his table, a blonde woman and an older man with silver sideburns. Charlie tried to ignore what they were saying, but sometimes that’s impossible. Sometimes people insist that you acknowledge their drama, validate it. The woman scored good points. The man had cheated on her numerous times. He’d made promises. He’d been verbally abusive. Three strikes, as far as Charlie could tell. The man defended himself by talking about his insecurities, money troubles, work problems, his ex-wife and kids.

“You never see them!”

“But I pay for their damn private schools, don’t I?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Then don’t talk about it anymore.”

The woman covered her face with her hands and burst into tears. Charlie was hoping she wouldn’t, that she’d stay strong and tell this idiot to go fuck himself; then again, weeping can’t be avoided at times. You just have to let it out.

His cellphone buzzed and he checked the message. Ricky was here. Where was he? Charlie swung his head around too quickly, setting off a momentary swirl of vertigo that made him grab the edges of the table. This happened now and then when he moved his head too quickly or when he stood up abruptly. Maybe something to do with blood pressure. He shut his eyes and took a moment to regain his equilibrium. When he opened his eyes, Ricky stood by his table in a full-length black PVC coat salvaged from the Matrix wardrobe department.

“You could have found a better table,” he said.

“The booths were occupied.”

Ricky snapped his fingers. “No clout here?”

“It’s not like the old days, paisan.”

“I hear you, Squid. I need a beverage pronto. Got stuck in traffic. This city’s gone to the dogs. You can’t make a move without some dickhead up your ass. I was telling Julie—you know Julie from Darrigo’s—I was telling him he better not get too comfortable this summer. It’s gonna be a hot one. It’s gonna be a heat wave like you’ve never seen before. You’ll be frying eggs on your Cadillac hood, I told him.”

“We talking global warming?”

“Global warming, ha.” Ricky rolled his eyes. He shouldered off his coat and draped it on the chair back. “Global warming my ass. Global warming.” He snapped his fingers for service.

Charlie noticed with annoyance Ricky’s freshly manicured fingernails, shining like polished shells. The lengths people went to beautify themselves.

“She’ll be here shortly. I ordered you a martini.”

“You know me too well, Squid,” Ricky said with a gap-toothed smile.

Charlie wanted to get right to the point. He wasn’t interested in getting shit-faced with Ricky or sharing confessions. Penny showed up just as he was about to start barking like a dog. He snatched the martini and downed it in one swig.

“Bring another,” he said, chewing the olives. “Please.”

“Nice to see your friend arrived safely,” she said with a sparkle in her eye.

“We’re touched by your concern,” Ricky said.

Clearly, he resented the insinuated conversation that had taken place before he arrived. He wiped his lips with his hand and wiped his hand on his trouser leg. He looked mean even when he was happy. It was just one of those faces.

“So, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?” Charlie asked.

“Easy, Squid. Let me have another drink and relax a little. You’re in a fucking hurry? Haven’t seen you since Martino’s stag and you’re itching to split? Don’t insult me, man.”

———

They drank. The place got busy and louder than normal. Someone was celebrating a birthday at a big central table, surrounded by back-slapping well-wishers, a few sporting paper party hats, all imbibing to excess. A cake with hissing sparklers arrived to broken applause and slurred cheers. People sang Happy Birthday in widely varying registers, at different tempos, swaying. Charlie’s head started spinning and he had a hard time hearing Ricky, who was telling him how an uncle of his had two families, one here and one in the old country.

“How the fuck did he manage it?”

“What’s that?” Ricky said, cupping his ear.

“How did he manage it!”

“Lots of lying. Uncle Frank could lie to anyone without batting an eye.”

“Guess that goes without saying.”

“He had three kids here, younger, and four older kids back in Sicily. He’d fly back and forth every few months. For work, he’d say. He was importing cheeses from Italy. And he was running numbers in Buffalo, so he had a few bucks.”

“Did his wives ever catch on? What about his kids?”

“Yeah, he got charged with bigamy, sentenced to a nickel in upstate New York. The kids eventually all met up and still connect at reunions and such. Uncle Frank, God rest his soul, died in the joint. Some skinhead shanked him in the showers just a few months before his release. He’d been put up to it. Which brings me to the situation, Squid.”

“Situation?”

“I meant mission, yeah—your mission, Squid, should you choose to accept it, hahaha.”

Charlie smiled but wasn’t amused.

The couple in the booth had been quiet for a time. But now the woman, recovered from her crying jag, had more to say to the man with silver sideburns. Ricky’s eyes opened wide as her voice rose above the bar chatter and music.

“You know what you can do with your apology!”

“Simmer down.”

“Simmer down? You fucking prick!”

The man said something under his breath.

“What did you say? Repeat that! I dare you to repeat it!”

The man mumbled something else, and a crashing of glasses and scuffling ensued, fleshy slapping sounds, grunting. Then the woman violently bolted from the booth, handbag under her arm, a camel shawl flailing from her hand.

After a good pause, the man with the silver sideburns followed her out, head bowed.

A delighted Ricky munched some ice cubes, a habit of his Charlie had always disliked. Made him shiver watching him.

“These people,” he said, “these people don’t know how good they got it. Takes nothing for it all to go south, know what I’m saying? Take your eye off the ball for a second and poof, it can all go up in smoke. You gotta maintain, know what I’m saying? You gotta stay sharp, watch your back and so on. You never know when the bogie man is coming for you haha.”

Charlie gave him nothing. He didn’t want him to think he was his yes man. He didn’t want to pump up his tires. He let him ramble on, munching his ice.

“Like when an animal gets slaughtered,” Ricky said, in the middle of one of his digressions. “You can be cruel about it, and you’ll taste the stress in the meat, swear to God, or you can be humane. And then you’re eating tender, know what I’m saying?”

Penny stood by their table, smiling with her small white teeth. It must have been difficult to keep smiling relentlessly, a real test of one’s mettle. Then again, maybe something happens to the face muscles after a time; they set like a mask, just freeze into that thing.

“Buddy-boy,” Ricky said, “another drink?”

“I’m good, but you go ahead.”

“What I want is a porterhouse steak Chicago-style with a side of rapini.”

Penny said, “Can’t help you there. We only serve finger foods.”

“If I wanted fingers,” Ricky said, popping an ice cube “I know where to get the real things, know what I’m saying? None of those processed jobs. I’m talking flesh and bone. You know what you can do with those processed jobs.”

“Very funny,” Penny said, maintaining the smile.

“He does stand-up part time. Makes the people laugh.”

“That’s when I don’t make them cry,” Ricky said.

Penny smiled even harder and moved on.

They finished their drinks and paid the bill. Charlie left Penny a huge tip, hoping she would find her way out of the darkness.

———

Ricky insisted they stop at the Tulip in the east end for a bite to eat. They served a quality steak there, but no rapini. Ricky ate with appetite. Charlie picked at his T-bone. It was okay, but he wasn’t that hungry. Ricky still hadn’t stated precisely what he wanted. Charlie suspected it was something bad enough for him not to spell it out. You never knew who was leaning in.

They paid and Ricky told him he’d be in touch soon.

“I’m cabbing it, Rick.”

“I can give you a lift. What’s with you?”

“I’m gonna cab it.”

“Have it your way, boss. I’ll be in touch.”

Ricky walked off, hands in his pockets, head bent as though he were looking for loose change on the sidewalk. Charlie hailed a cab and gave the turbaned driver his address.

———

Charlie removed his shoes and socks and relaxed on the sofa. Sometimes you needed context. You needed details to fill out what by necessity had to be left blank. Then the bigger picture presented itself as a natural extension of the details, however minimal. You filled in the rest with your imagination. That went without saying. And it took some imagination to flesh things out. But with zero details, one was left thrashing like a fish on a dock.

He listened to Bach fugues, soothing in the evenings. He’d first discovered Bach in Kingston Penitentiary of all places. A lifer had turned him on to the Brandenburg Concertos. His cellphone buzzed. Tina. He didn’t feel like talking. He’d been avoiding her. Not that they had anything going on. A few drunken wrangles. But she’d been calling him every few hours for two days. Maybe it was important. Most likely it was nothing, so he ignored it. She left a few garbled messages. Something about “they” were going to get him with the numbers, or at the numbers. He had no idea what she was going on about—the numbers. What numbers?

All that remained were specifics. And then a decision. A simple yes or no. That’s the way it worked. He went to his bedroom. He opened the closet door and searched for a locked wooden case among his shoeboxes. He kept the tools of his trade in the case. They’d gone untouched for several months. He had been semi-retired, gently refusing gigs. He didn’t need the money. He had no debts, no wife, no kids. He was free of any entanglements—at least most of them.

His cellphone buzzed again. Ricky sent a text. It was simply a name: Iggy Macaluso. Iggy, or Ignazio, used to be a regular at the poker games staged at the Benvenuti Social Club, a real donkey. A big mouth. For a guy from Palermo, Sicily, where reticence was the ultimate mark of character and manly virtue, this Iggy babbled like a village gossip. Names, places, scores, nothing was sacred with him, nothing beyond blathering about. He had the earmarks of someone with a limited mortality. At least in Charlie’s circles.

The way Iggy played poker and the way he shot off his mouth rubbed Charlie the wrong way, and he wasn’t the only one. But that was besides the point. If he were to act out all his disgruntlements and petty beefs, overpopulation in this world would be solved. The idea that we’d all get along one day as we march arm-in-arm toward a glittering future was stupid. There would always be bad men and women, annoying men and women, and there would always be people solicited to quiet them. One separates vocation from inclination or preference.

———

Charlie had done some reading in the joint: Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, Camus, whatever he could get his hands on. If he understood nothing before reading these great thinkers and writers, he had an inkling afterwards. For one thing, he understood himself better. Any guilt he may have felt was expiated: he wasn’t committing random acts of violence; he wasn’t running people over in a van; he wasn’t shooting up malls and knifing strangers in the street. Charlie Squillaci was a professional. People throw that term around lightly these days, professional this, professional that. But Charlie was the picture of professionalism.

Another text arrived from Rick: Seven and Seven Lounge.

The joint was in the east end, near the city limits, but he’d never been there before. He got in his nondescript grey Buick and set off. It was a mild May evening, dusk slowly purpling the city, neighbours out enjoying their freedom: he envied them to a degree, strolling with loved ones. He had no partner, no siblings, no steadfast friends—just a few cousins scattered far and wide. Perhaps a handful of people would attend his funeral, when that day came. And it could come at any time, such was his caste. Did he despair about this? Not really. Very little is needed for a happy life, as Marcus Aurelius observed. It is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. Perhaps he had missed out on some of these beautiful life things. On the other hand, he had found his true calling, and had pursued it with passion. Not many people could say that.

He drove east and within minutes darkness fell. The glare of oncoming headlights blinded him. He turned his head too quickly and felt a tickle of vertigo. He pulled over to the side of the road, put the car in park and tried to regulate his breathing. He had to get this thing checked out before it became a serious problem.

———

He must have dozed off. When he opened his eyes a man was peering into his passenger window. He started. Then when he saw the fingerless gloves and filthy face, he understood it was a homeless man begging for alms.

“Get the fuck away from my car,” he said.

The bum gestured and made a sad clown face.

Charlie reached to his console.

The guy backed away from the car, hands splayed at his chest. Then a bright flash lit up the car windows.

Charlie shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the homeless man was gone. This wasn’t good; he’d never passed out in his car like that without being shit-faced. He’d heard of inner ear infections fucking with a person’s equilibrium. Maybe that was it. Or he was getting too old for this life. Maybe that was it. The Squid had seen better days. The Squid was washed up. Time to put him out to pasture.

He thought of another thing Marcus Aurelius had said: You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. Ha, Charlie pitied the poor bastard who thought he had his shit together, his inner strength and all that, but who could not foresee or imagine events that in the end were unforeseeable but inevitable, as if following a secret code or hidden pattern permitting no deviation.

Continuing east, he drove for some time in a daze when he realized he’d forgotten his destination. Odd. What was it? The Zulu Lounge—no that was in the west end. Heaven and Hell? No, that used to be a strip joint. He never brought his cellphone on jobs, so he couldn’t check the message. And he never wrote anything down. It was all in his head.

He drove on, struggling to fill in this sudden memory gap. Nothing came, zilch. How was it possible? It felt like the part of his brain containing the location had been surgically removed. Driving wasn’t helping, so he pulled over into a gas station. He sat there and played back the day in his mind. Iggy Macaluso—yes, he remembered seeing his name in a message. But the location—a blank. And while he knew he had the power to revoke this horror, by thinking positively, he nevertheless started hyperventilating.

He exited the car, hoping the cool air might clear his head. He walked without direction, passing darkened storefronts and shuttered row houses. He didn’t see a soul. He kept walking with no sense of direction or purpose. His thoughts narrowed in scope, focusing on the pavement in front of him and nothing else.

Finally, he passed a diner, dully illuminated, the windows thick with grime, the sign—Three Square Eats—aslant. He opened the door to a jingle of bells and stepped inside. A few drab men sat at the counter, hunched over coffees. The waitress, in a species of nurse’s whites, grimaced when she saw him. He sat at a booth across from the counter. She hurried over with a glass pot of coffee and filled the cup on his table without asking if he wanted it. She was young, maybe twenty-something, and thin. Her hair looked like charred straw. 

“We’ve met before,” she said.

“We have?”

“Yeah, at the Exhibition, back a few years.”

He looked into her eyes: a dullness there disqualified any ill intent.

“Yeah,” he said, “maybe.”

She stood there with the coffee pot for a time. She wanted him to say something to validate her remembrance, but he was having issues in that department.

“So, you remember me?” she said.

“Sort of. I meet a lot of people in my line of work.”

“And I don’t?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“I’m just saying.”

One of the men at the counter laughed to himself, his shoulders rising and falling. It alarmed Charlie for some reason. Why was he laughing? What did he not know or understand about this joint and his place in it? His head swirled: he needed nourishment.

“A piece of pie, please.”

“We have apple and blueberry.”

“Blueberry, a la mode.”

The waitress walked away, clutching at the small of her back. For a moment Charlie thought he saw something jabbing out of her spine, a metal rod perhaps. She turned and caught him looking. He averted his eyes, pretending to gaze out the filthy windows into the lifeless street. He figured a munch of pie might get his blood sugar back up and improve his cognitive functions. He couldn’t remember the last thing he ate.

He was in difficulty. It wasn’t just a state of nerves. An overpowering dread fell upon him like a black cloak. He considered calling Ricky on a pay phone, but if he admitted he’d forgotten the location, word would spread like wildfire. He’d be ostracized, or worse. He knew too much.

The waitress brought the pie with a scoop of beige ice cream.

“Enjoy,” she said.

One of the men at the counter looked over. Charlie couldn’t see his eyes. They were either set very deeply in his head or the dim lighting explained it, but he couldn’t see his eyes. The pie tasted of nothing and as he forked it up he noticed that his hand was a pale shade of blue. He put down the fork and studied his hands: an unmistakeable shade of blue. He looked around to see if a coloured light was shining somewhere. Except for the slabs of dark red defining the upholstered booths and stools, the place was black and white, with infinite shades of grey.

He finished the pie. The waitress poured him more coffee. Her arms were like bleached sticks. He pitied her, but also feared her.

“Finding yourself in the ranks of the insane,” she said, leaning close, “do you stay put and make the best of the company given, perhaps even improving their lives, or do you escape?”

“I would choose to escape,” Charlie said. “People rarely change.”

“Do you think you can change?”

“I think I have changed.”

“I agree. I think you have changed. I think you are changed.”

But all of this was making Charlie’s head heavy. He almost wanted to rest it on the table, but resisted that impulse. He needed to get back on the road.

“Is there a pay phone? I forgot my cell.”

“Nah. But you can use ours. No long distance.”

———

Ricky wasn’t happy. He started yelling at Charlie. He had never yelled at him. It was too late, he said. Iggy was gone.

“What do you mean gone?”

“He left town.”

“When did he leave town?”

“Couple of hours ago.”

“So I would have missed him anyway.”

“Wrong,” Ricky said. “The timing was planned. It was perfect. Now—now it’s too late. Something wrong with your head, man? Tell the truth, Squid. You didn’t look right to me. You didn’t look right at all. Your eyes, I could see it in your eyes. Unsteady.”

“How do I make this right?”

“Like I said, Squid, it’s too late.”

He rang off.

As Charlie walked back to his table, the man who’d been laughing at the counter grabbed his wrist; he tried to wrest it free, but he held on.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t belong here.”

“I don’t know you.”

“Tell them I want out of here. Tell them I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Charlie wrenched his arm away from him and returned to his table. He finished his coffee and gestured for the check.

“Oh, that’s just Pernel,” said the waitress. “He’s harmless. But he knows the score.”

“He does?”

The waitress flared her nostrils, took a deep breath and burst into tears, something Charlie had not anticipated. What was odd is that while tears flowed down her gaunt cheeks, she remained perfectly still, composed even, her face a mask.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m mourning,” she said.

“For whom?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Nothing was obvious. Charlie’s head ached. He felt queasy. He rubbed his temples.

“You should stay here,” she said. “This is a safe space.”

“Safe? Safe from what?”

“Do I have to spell it out?”

“Stop it,” he  said, anger welling in his chest.

“You forgot the numbers, Squid.”

“The numbers? What is it with these numbers? And why you calling me Squid?”

“You forgot the numbers.”

He’d had enough. He quickly paid and exited. He thought he heard her calling behind him, but didn’t turn around.

The streets were completely deserted. He stood there trying to situate himself. Everything looked unfamiliar, the storefronts, the street signs. He felt strange, detached from his body, from the experience of being there. He moved toward the car on unsteady legs. He was surprised he remembered where he’d parked it.

Just as he approached the car a sudden bang startled him and he tweaked his neck. The dizziness came on strong this time. The entire street wobbled and tilted. He had to hold a parking meter to gather himself.

Time was passing, its current strong. But he was caught in a whirlpool. He could feel himself being spun into its vortex, sucked into its frothing core. He staggered to the Buick, opened the door and got in. He was exhausted. He could barely lift his arms. He leaned his head against the headrest. He could hear music. Where was it coming from? Was it Roy Orbison? Roy Orbison? Roy Orbison?

———

He must have dozed off. When he opened his eyes a man was peering into his passenger window. He started. Then when he saw the fingerless gloves and filthy face, he understood it was a homeless man begging for alms.

“Get the fuck away from my car,” he said.

The bum gestured and made a sad clown face.

Charlie reached to his console.

The guy backed away from the car, hands splayed at his chest. Then a bright flash lit up the car windows.

Charlie shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the homeless man was gone. This wasn’t good; he’d never passed out in his car like that without being shit-faced. He’d heard of inner ear infections fucking with a person’s equilibrium. Maybe that was it. Or he was getting too old for this. Maybe that was it.

He thought of another thing Marcus Aurelius had said: You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. Yet, Charlie pitied the poor bastard who thought he had his shit together, his inner strength and all that, but who could not foresee or imagine events that in the end were unforeseeable and inevitable, as if following a secret code or hidden pattern permitting no deviation.

 

 

 

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