A few months ago, I published a breif excerpt from Parlor City Paradise, a suspense novel I’ve been working hard to complete. I’m certainly nearing the home stretch but still have a little ways to go. The first excerpt I posted was actually from chapter 5. Here it isif you’d like to take another look. And, I think it’s high time I give you another little teaser. The following is chapter 1 in the manuscript’s current form. No telling if that will still be the case once all the revisions are complete. Regardless, this chapter introduces two of the story’s main characters. I hope you like it and I hope you like them.
Skid Row stormed down the sidewalk, clenching his fists and not even glancing back as he unleashed a world class string of vulgarities at Denny, McDonald’s, bad luck, frogs, losers, liars, and the disgusting, rancid, puke-filled bowl of rotten cherries that had somehow become his life. Why couldn’t he ever catch a damn break? Why couldn’t, just for a change, just for shits and giggles, one damn thing go his way? He was twenty-four-years-old and, other than his rented room at the Y and a very few personal possessions, didn’t have a thing to show for it. He’d never hurt anyone. He’d never done anything horribly wrong. So why, every time he thought things might be shifting in his favor, did they invariably turn into a steaming lump of dog crap?
The day had started out fine. He’d made it in on time, more or less, and Denny had him working the counter, which sucked but was still a lot better than slaving over a hot grill. When the short lunch rush subsided, the place was as dead as road kill. That suited him fine. He could milk away the final hour of his shift and head home; maybe even detour through the park to find Marco and score a little weed; take the edge off a bit. He didn’t have much cash but thought he could spare a few bucks for such a worthy cause.
Skid Row glanced over his shoulder. As usual, Denny was in back, hunched over his desk and elbows deep in what had to be his fourth Quarter Pounder of the day. No wonder he was built like Mayor McCheese. Skid Row’s stomach gave a heave and he averted his gaze. He began organizing ketchup and mustard packets, trying to appear busy so Denny wouldn’t make him mop the floor, or worse, clean the nasty, stinking bathrooms. You could scrub those things with bleach from top to bottom and they’d still smell like month old horse piss. What the hell did people do in there anyway? Then again, based on the look of their regular clientele, mostly soiled, unkempt and grossly overweight, the true dregs of society, Skid Row figured the less he knew about their personal habits the better. He was wondering why that particular McDonald’s was such a magnet for losers when he first noticed the totally weird looking dude making his way through the parking lot.
Skid Row moved a few steps to his right so he could see past the two for one Big Mac poster in the window. The guy had beady eyes, an oddly large mouth, small, knobby ears that stuck out from the sides of his shaved head, and a face that, at least from a distance, appeared wider than it was tall. In short, he looked like a frog, in beat up work boots and shabby, oversized gray coveralls that were torn at the knees.
“Keep moving, Pal,” Skid Row muttered, knowing already it was wishful thinking. Not for the first time, he told himself he should find a job in a better part of town. So he hadn’t graduated high school. Big deal. It wasn’t like he was a total idiot. He had to be qualified to do something more than sweep floors, sling burgers and wait on weird ass frog dudes. How had his life ended up so thoroughly in the shitter?
Deep down, Skid Row knew that simply moving to a better part of town wouldn’t solve his problems. Dip a turd in chocolate. It may look and smell a little better but it was still going to taste like a turd. The entire Binghamton area was an armpit. Poverty, drugs, crime, high unemployment and low morale, it was no wonder everyone was leaving. What was he still doing there? If he ever wanted to make something of himself, if he really wanted to find his way in the world, the first step was to get the hell out. That’s all there was to it. Find a better job in a better town. There were plenty of nicer parts of New York. Or, Skid Row supposed, he could head straight down the east coast. Even working at McDonald’s wouldn’t be so bad if he was in Tampa, Daytona or Fort Lauderdale. Bikini babes would be a big step up from frog dudes and ugly ass losers. Of course, he had to get through the rest of the day before he could make any life-altering changes. So, he pasted a smile on his face and prepared to deliver the standard line. Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order please?
Right away, Skid Row knew something about the guy was seriously off. He entered the small foyer, then paused like he wasn’t sure what to do next. There are only two doors, Skid Row thought. Come in or go out. It shouldn’t be a tough decision. Evidently, though, it was. Through the clear glass, he looked on as the newcomer slowly turned and studied the door he’d just come through. He started to reach for the handle as if he’d had a change of heart. No such luck. He turned again and, after another brief hesitation, pushed his way inside.
The first word that came to Skid Row’s mind was shifty. The guy’s strange, buggy eyes kept flitting this way and that. Did he think someone was after him? Who the hell would want him? Or, Skid Row thought with a slight twinge of alarm, maybe he’d come in just to case the joint. He didn’t think he’d ever heard of anyone knocking over a McDonald’s but there was a first time for everything. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to imagine a loser like this suddenly pulling a gun from beneath his dirty coveralls. Skid Row took half a step back and prepared to dive for cover. No gun was forthcoming and he slowly relaxed.
“You hiring?” the guy asked, speaking in a strange sort of whisper and never making eye contact as he approached the counter, walking, almost tiptoeing like he was afraid the floor might give way under him at any moment.
Skid Row didn’t respond right away. First, because he had the distinct impression the guy had not really come in there looking for work. He definitely wasn’t dressed for success. Along with his dingy, ill-fitting coveralls, his hands looked like they hadn’t seen a bar of soap in weeks. Something dark and greasy stained his palms, and there was so much gunk underneath his nails he might have been wearing black nail polish. And second, Skid Row was still marveling at how much the dude really did look like a frog. It was creepy. His skin wasn’t green, thank God, and he didn’t have any visible warts or bumps; but it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a long, thin tongue come snapping out of that big mouth. Do you want an order of flies with that? He had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing.
“You want to work here?” Skid Row asked once he’d pulled himself together.
“Sure, Man. That would be great. I can start right away.”
Fat chance freak. Skid Row knew they weren’t hiring. Even fulltime employees recently had their hours cut because business had been so lousy. No point sharing that bit of information. He grabbed an application and slid it across the countertop. “Just fill this out,” he said. “I’m sure someone will be in touch.” No one would but that wasn’t Skid Row’s problem.
The guy accepted the application and, instead of walking away, clutched it in one grubby paw and continued to stand there, staring at Skid Row like the world’s stupidest statue. What was his deal?
“Is there something else I can do for you?” Skid Row asked, suspecting he wasn’t going to like the answer. And that’s when things really went to hell.
“Yeah,” the guy said, blinking, clearing his throat and blinking some more. I, uh… I was in here a while ago….”
He proceeded to stumble through a totally bogus story about the purchase of a supposedly burnt cheeseburger. Skid Row would have bet his entire measly paycheck that, not only had the frog man not been in there earlier that day, he’d never been in there period. Some faces you just didn’t forget. He was trying to scam some free food and that’s all there was to it. The problem was Skid Row couldn’t come right out and say that. He couldn’t just call the dude a liar. He thought of Denny’s oft-repeated mantra that the customer was always right. That, as far as Skid Row could tell, was the only piece of business acumen Denny had acquired during his failed semester and a half at community college. Day shift manager was as high as the grease ball was likely to climb up the corporate ladder. That didn’t alter the fact that he was still the boss. And, of late, Skid Row had had some “issues” with his customer interactions. One more slip up and there was a good chance he’d be out on his ass. Did that mean he had to put up with being lied to? He was still working on that one and his “customer” appeared to be getting a tad impatient. He glanced at the door and started rhythmically shifting his weight from one foot to the other like he was doing some sort of amphibian fucking cheeseburger dance. It might have been entertaining if it wasn’t so weird.
“So what are you going to do?” he asked? “You sold me bad food. I’d like a new burger or a refund.”
Skid Row hesitated. Why did he even have to bother with this? A double cheeseburger was like a buck. If this Kermit-looking dude was that hungry, why didn’t he just buy one? The truth was, if there were any burgers ready, Skid Row would have happily handed one over just to be done with the whole thing. It was no skin off his butt one way or the other. But, there were no sandwiches in the warming tray and nothing whatsoever on the grill. Everything had been tossed after sitting around too long. Vera was currently on her break and Randy was in back, either washing dishes or jerking off in the big walk-in fridge. Skid Row wasn’t even supposed to be in the grill area. That meant that, if any food was to be cooked, Denny would have to get off his fat ass and do it. He’d wouldn’t appreciate the interruption and Skid Row didn’t want to do anything that would necessitate any extra conversation with his boss.
“Here’s the thing,” he finally said, spreading his arms wide and hoping to give the impression that he really did want to help. “I don’t remember seeing you in here before.” Is it possible you visited another McDonald’s instead?” There wasn’t another burger joint within a mile in any direction. Skid Row knew it and he figured his customer knew it as well. That would explain his red face and buggy eyes suddenly bugging even more.
“I’m a paying customer,” he croaked, his voice going up half an octave. “Why are you giving me a hard time?”
How about because you’re trying to rip us off, Skid Row thought and again had to bite his tongue. “Please understand,” he said, pointedly looking down at the guy’s filthy but otherwise empty hands. “You don’t seem to have the defective product.” He liked the way that sounded. “Without that, I have no way of knowing that you really made a purchase.”
There. It was smooth and subtle but he’d clearly called the guy’s bluff. Skid Row figured that would be the end of the conversation. He was wrong.
Frog man pulled himself up to his full height, which wasn’t all that much. “You’re calling me a liar?” he said, his voice going up even more.
Hey, if the flipper fits.. “I’m not calling you anything,” Skid Row replied, trying to keep his own voice calm but beginning to lose the battle. “I just need to see some proof of your purchase. Do you have the receipt?”
“Who the hell keeps receipts from McDonald’s?” the guy asked, slamming a hand on the counter.
The only other person in the restaurant was a middle-aged dweeb with a laptop and a coffee he’d been refilling for the past hour and a half. He looked up to see what was happening and Skid Row promptly flipped him the bird. The man opened his mouth, but then disappeared behind his laptop monitor.
“I’m sorry,” Skid Row said, turning back to his customer and crossing his arms in a gesture of finality. “Without some proof of purchase, there’s really nothing I can do for you.”
“Oh yeah?” The frog dude started bouncing on his toes and a bubble of spit formed at the corner of his mouth. “Well what about this. What if I was in here before but you were too fucking stoned to remember. Did you ever think of that?”
Up to that point, Skid Row thought he’d done an admirable job keeping their conversation on as calm and professional a level as possible. He’d kept his temper under control and hadn’t said anything he thought Denny would disapprove of, but that last comment crossed the line. So maybe his hair was a little too long to be considered stylish. Maybe he liked to toke-up once in a while. Maybe he enjoyed sitting in the dark listening to Kyruss and Queens of the Stone Age. That didn’t make him a stoner. Customer service or not, he wasn’t about to just stand there and take a bunch of verbal abuse from some Alligator World escapee.
“I explained the situation in perfectly reasonable terms,” Skid Row said, raising his voice and leaning halfway across the counter but keeping his company approved smile solidly in place. “If you still don’t get it, you must be even stupider than you are ugly, and that’s really saying something. If you have some sort of problem with me, you’re more than welcome to take it up with my manager. He’s eating a big cheeseburger right now so you may have to wait a few minutes. I hate the thought of wasting so much of your valuable time so here’s what I suggest instead. Do us both a favor and hop back to your lily-pad or wherever the hell it is you came from. Thanks and have a nice day… Kermit.”
For several moments, nothing happened. The shake machine hummed. The ice maker rattled. Temperature controlled air hissed through overhead vents. Then, with no warning whatsoever, Skid Row learned something he wouldn’t have expected. His odd looking customer’s resemblance to a frog extended beyond his physical appearance and somewhat squatty stature. The little fucker could jump. One moment, he was just standing there: blinking, gaping and generally looking like a moron. A split second later, he’d launched himself into the air and over the counter where he landed on Skid Row like a ton of unwashed bricks. Skid Row fought to keep his balance but his worn sneaker slipped on the tile floor. He flung out an arm for support but it was already too late. He was going down. His head smacked against the cup dispenser and a metal cabinet before striking hard on the floor. He saw stars and it took a moment for him to grasp what had just happened. He’d been crushed by the world’s largest and smelliest frog.
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