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Excerpt from PARLOR CITY PARADISE

 

Skid Row stormed down the sidewalk, clenching his fists and not even glancing back as he unleashed a world class string of vulgarities at Arthur, 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 Arthur 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. 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, Arthur 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 Arthur 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 2-for-1 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 gonna taste like a turd. The entire Binghamton area was an armpit, a haven for poverty, drugs, crime, high unemployment and low morale. Anyone with any sense had already packed up and left, so 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 imagined, 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, mainly because he had the distinct impression the guy hadn’t 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 days. Something dark and greasy stained his palms, and there was so much gunk underneath his nails he might have been wearing black nail polish. Skid Row was also 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? Skid Row had to cover his mouth to hide a smile.

     “You want to work here?” he asked, once he’d composed himself.

“Sure, Man. That would be great. You got an application? 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. “It’s all online,” he explained. “Just visit the website and enter the store number. You can fill out an application there and I’m sure someone will be in touch.” No one would but that wasn’t Skid Row’s problem.

He figured that would be the end of it, but instead of walking away, the guy continued to stand there, his befuddled expression making him look like the world’s stupidest statue. What was his deal?

“Is there something else I can do for you?” Skid Row asked, already knowing 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 Arthur’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 Arthur 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, almost 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 were to be cooked, Arthur would have to get off his fat ass and do it. He 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 too. 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 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 and thought for sure that would be the end of the conversation. He was wrong.

“You’re calling me a liar?” the frog man asked, his voice going up even more.

Hey, if the flipper fits…. “I’m not calling you anything, sir,” Skid Row replied, trying to keep his own voice calm but beginning to lose the battle. “I just need to see some proof of purchase. Do you have the receipt?”

“Who keeps receipts from McDonald’s?” he asked and then slammed his hand on the counter.

The only other person in the restaurant was Delmont. He was at his normal corner table and appeared to be talking to his biscuit as he used a plastic knife to carefully slice it in half. He looked up, gave them both a wide grin and then went back to his task.

 

“I’m sorry,” Skid Row said, doing a mental eye roll, 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 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 Arthur 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 Tripping Icarus or Sleep. 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 hitting 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 ugliest frog.

 

-Chapter 2-

Ricky Fixx sat in his high-backed leatherette desk chair, picking at bits of foam through a tear in the seat cushion and staring impatiently out the window. He couldn’t actually see anything through the glass because the single pane had a large spider web of cracks in one corner and was coated with a decade’s worth of grime. That suited him fine. There wasn’t anything to see out there anyway, unless you counted the rusting chain link fence that separated his lot from the long-abandoned auto salvage yard next door. A nice clean window likewise would have provided more natural illumination than his cramped office really deserved. He was well aware of the warped walls, uneven floor, threadbare puke-green carpet, and dangerously sagging ceiling. The last thing he wanted was a good look at any of it.

He’d positioned an old brass floor lamp in one corner, its single forty watt bulb barely providing enough illumination to work by. Ricky didn’t mind that either. Proper lighting would have given his clients a better view of the squalid surroundings and that wouldn’t have been good for business. He also imagined that the long shadows cast by the lamp must make him appear more formidable and threatening. In his line of work, perception was everything.

Ricky straightened when he heard the crunch of tires on gravel. “About damn time,” he said under his breath, and quickly pulled out his top desk drawer to check his reflection in a small mirror. He tried a few scowls, settled on one, slid the drawer closed, turned back to the window and waited. He’d practiced this routine and had it down to a science. It was all about the timing. He heard the thunk of a car door and seven seconds later, the sharp creak of the first wooden step. The man’s tread was slow, heavy and, as he crossed the small front porch, Ricky could feel the entire trailer lean in that direction. He held his breath until he heard the slight rattle of the doorknob. That was the trigger. With his arms folded over his chest and his head tilted just so, he used a toe to push off from the wall. He swung slowly around and came to rest in perfect alignment with the doorway as his visitor entered the room.

“Sorry I’m late,” Carl said, staring at Ricky but then immediately dropping his eyes. “I had a busy morning.” He turned and tossed a beat-up brown briefcase onto a dorm size couch. He then looked up, sniffed and shook his head. “Are we gonna be getting out of here anytime soon? You said– ”

“What do you got for me?” Ricky asked, both cutting him off and ignoring his question.

Carl frowned. “How ‘bout you answer me first?”

Ricky blew out a breath and flicked one finger toward the empty chair on the other side of his desk. “Have a seat,” he said when Carl didn’t move. When Carl still didn’t move, Ricky grudgingly got to his feet. There were important business matters to discuss and he wanted to face the big man eye to eye, a feat made possible thanks only to the custom built eight-inch-high platform on which his desk stood.

Ricky needed special shoes to top out at five foot six. Carl was a solid foot taller and at least a hundred and fifty pounds heavier. Where Ricky had the slight build and sallow skin of someone who’d been frail since birth, Carl was a mountain, barrel-chested and burly. He had thick lips, sunken eyes, the type of beard any lumberjack would be proud of, and a mop of curly black hair which, as far as Ricky could tell, covered most of his body. Even his knuckles were hairy. His size and rather bestial visage made for a terrifying combination. That was the main reason, really the only reason he’d been given the job.

In Ricky’s expert opinion, Carl was a bungler. He was slow, clumsy, no good with firearms and not especially bright. Those things hardly mattered because he usually got what he wanted with a simple glower, which happened to be his normal expression. On those occasions where violence became necessary, he often exceeded expectations. On one hand, that created some problems. On the other, it sent a clear message that Carl was not to be messed with. And by extension, Ricky wasn’t either.

He wasn’t in the mood for Carl’s bullshit or his lousy attitude but Ricky knew he’d have to at least humor the man or they’d never get anywhere. “First off,” he began, clasping his hands behind his back and pacing as far as his ten-by-ten platform would allow. “There is no ‘we.’ You work for me and I’ll toss you out on your over-sized ass if you don’t show me the proper level of respect. You got that?”

Carl winced and Ricky knew he’d gotten his attention. To his surprise, though, Carl wasn’t quite ready to back down.

“If you want respect,” Carl said, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on an especially low section of ceiling, “maybe you shouldn’t run your business from this upholstered bathroom stall of an office.”

“We’ve been through this,” Ricky said, again settling into his chair. After a few moments of silence, Carl sat as well, his own chair groaning under the weight.

“I know this place is a dump,” Ricky said, picking up a pen and twirling it slowly in his fingers. “It’s temporary. It’s also necessary. Cops leave us alone because they don’t know we’re here. But as long as our customers can still find us, we’d be foolish to relocate. Besides, we’re rent free.”

Carl made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. “Rent free? That’s because it’s a cesspool. This entire road spent a week under water. Haven’t you noticed that no one else lives or works around here? There’s no telling what kind of mold and fungus is growing in these walls. We’re breathing all that shit in. Doesn’t that bother you?”

It did, but Ricky preferred not to think about it. The trailer had been scheduled for demolition following the 2011 flood that left much of Broome County and surrounding areas submerged. Ricky had had his trouble with local law enforcement and needed a new place to set up shop, preferably somewhere under the radar. It cost him five grand for the demolition crew hired by the City of Binghamton to overlook the single-wide on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Getting electrical service proved a bit more challenging until he got the right amount of money into the right hands. It wasn’t exactly Trump Tower, but in his business, inconspicuous was the key.

Ricky didn’t want anyone looking too closely at him, and with most of his clients being junkies, cons and losers, the situation seemed to work well for everyone involved. That didn’t alter the fact that the place really was a shithole and undeniably unsafe. Ricky no longer noticed the foul stench that permeated the furniture, walls, carpet and everything else. He was, however, aware that the air he breathed was none too clean. He was averaging about one respiratory infection per month and started every morning by hacking wads of brownish gunk into his bathroom sink. It was even worse than when he’d been a two-pack-a-day smoker, a habit he’d given up on his thirtieth birthday after a sobering conversation with his doctor. He hadn’t had a smoke in nearly eight and a half years.

Although he still drank too much coffee and booze and purchased most of his meals from a drive-thru window, overall, Ricky felt better about himself, or had prior to moving into the old trailer. He knew he needed to relocate, for his own health if nothing else, and he figured he’d have the necessary capital after one more big score, which was the main reason for the meeting with Carl.

Of course, if he were being completely honest, a business practice he tried to avoid, he knew they could move at any time. He was cheap so was naturally reluctant to leave a place with virtually no overhead. Mostly, though, he didn’t want his partner to know how well they were really doing. Ricky also hadn’t decided if, when the time came, he really wanted to take Carl with him. Shouldn’t a change of scenery mean a change of partner as well? That could present complications but certainly nothing he couldn’t handle as long as he planned accordingly. He’d already taken steps in that direction.

“So what’s the story?” Ricky asked, rubbing his palms together and glancing pointedly at the briefcase Carl had brought in with him. “Is that thing full of sunshine?”

Carl’s demeanor suddenly changed, confrontational morphing into something smaller and more submissive. He glanced to one side and then the other, his gaze finally settling on the small red notebook he always kept with him. His expression gave nothing away, but Ricky had been around the man long enough to recognize the signs. Something had gone wrong. He bit back a curse and waited for the bad news.

“I saw the Sweeny brothers,” Carl began, studying his notebook as if it contained all the secrets of the universe. “I told them about the price increase. They didn’t like it but they agreed.”

“No choice,” Ricky said. “They want my product; that’s what it costs.”

John and Jake Sweeny owned an electronics boutique called The Buzz, which was really just a front for pirated software and video games. Ricky had a connection with a cousin in New York City. He paid twenty percent of retail for knockoffs of all the hottest new stuff.   He then tacked on a fifteen percent surcharge of his own before selling it all to the Sweenys. Prices fluctuated based on how much the same items were selling for on eBay. Ricky added his fifteen percent regardless and told Jon and Jake, or had Carl tell them, they could take it or leave it. They always took it because Ricky was the only game in town.

“So what else you got?”

Carl continued to study his notebook and Ricky wondered what, if anything, he had written there. It wasn’t like they had hundreds of clients to keep track of. In fact, there was only one person Carl was supposed to go see. Was he so stupid he had to write it down so he didn’t forget? Ricky knew he wasn’t, which made Carl’s fixation on the notebook more than a little troubling. He recognized a stall tactic when he saw one.

“I went to see Kristi,” Carl said, still not looking up.

“That’s great. Did she pay you off or suck you off.”

Kristi was one of three aging hookers who looked to Carl and Ricky for protection. Ricky highly doubted the skanks needed it. The down-and-outs that paid for their services rarely posed much of a threat. Still, if it made them feel better to have a hulk like Carl looking out for them, Ricky had no qualms about taking their money. Besides, even if they weren’t the most attractive creatures he’d ever seen, he wasn’t above letting them show their gratitude once in a while.

“I got seventy bucks from her and another fifty from Debb. Never saw Trudi.”

“Uh-huh.” Ricky said, even more convinced the conversation was headed nowhere good. He didn’t give a shit about this nickel and dime stuff. There was a grand total of one thing he did care about and Carl seemed determined to talk about anything and everything else.

“Let’s see,” he said, thick fingers fumbling as he flipped to a new page. “I stopped by T.J.’s place.”

Ricky glanced at his watch and judged that his pulse was racing at about twice the speed of the second hand.

T.J. Tyson was a smalltime bookie with a big time lifestyle. He ate in the nicest restaurants, drove a late model BMW, wore fancy Italian suits and only bought and drank top shelf liquor. He also sometimes had to borrow money from Ricky when he didn’t have enough left in the till to pay off his winners. In the past, he’d owed upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. Currently, however, his ledger was nearly clean. Collecting from him was not on the list of high priorities.

“I talked to the wife,” Carl said, awkwardly crossing and re-crossing his legs. “She said T.J. is in Atlantic City for the week. I’ll touch base with him when he gets back.”

“And did you shake any school kids down for their lunch money?”

Carl offered a weak smile and hunched a little lower in his seat. He appeared to be attempting to retract his head into his own neck hole like a turtle disappearing inside its shell.

Ricky knew what was coming next. He’d known all along. He watched Carl squirm and might have been amused had the circumstances been different. Beads of sweat had formed along the big man’s brow and he used the back of a hairy arm to wipe them away.

“I do have some bad news,” Carl finally admitted, pushing against the back of the chair and trying to get as far away from Ricky as possible.

“You don’t say.” Ricky steepled his fingers, leaned back in his chair and braced himself for whatever was coming.

Carl swallowed and nodded.

“Then tell me!” Ricky demanded, a sudden edge in his voice. “And you better not leave anything out.”

“Well,” Carl wiped his forehead again. “I went to see him just like you said. I told him he was behind on his payments and he had to make good or things were going to get ugly.”

“And?” Ricky picked up a paperclip and started twisting it in his hands.

Carl watched for several seconds and then continued. “I told him I really didn’t want that to happen. I said we had an agreement and he wasn’t living up to his end of the deal.”

“Did you remind him that we haven’t seen a penny from him in three weeks?”

“Yes.”

“And what did he say to that?” Ricky asked, twisting the paperclip until the thin metal snapped.

“He said he didn’t have the money. He said he had other obligations and that we needed to give him more time.”

“We’ve already done that. I assume you explained that to him?”

Carl nodded and licked his lips.

“And what happened after that?”

“Um…     Nothing.”

Ricky leaned forward and placed his elbows on the desk. “Pardon my ignorance but what exactly do you mean by that?”

Carl squirmed and then met Ricky’s eyes for the first time. “I told him he had to pay. I told him we’d given him all the time we were going to. He said he understood and then he… sort of ran away.”

“He…  what?”

“Ran away,” Carl repeated reluctantly. “I took off after him but…” he shrugged. “He’s a lot faster than me.”

“And you did nothing to stop him?”

“What could I do?”

How about your fucking job? “So what you’re telling me,” Ricky said, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, “is that your briefcase there is empty and his current whereabouts are unknown. Is that about right?”

There was no need for Carl to respond. His sullen features told Ricky everything he needed to know. It was only the latest in a long line of screw-ups.      Ricky knew they could find their target again. It wouldn’t be difficult, but that wasn’t the point. He’d given Carl a very simple task and the idiot had been unable to deliver. That meant he’d have to wait even longer for his money. That was irritating, but what bothered Ricky even more is that Carl had made him look incompetent and unprofessional. He didn’t like that one bit. He glared across the desk and then stood and took a step toward the window. Then, without warning, he spun around, grabbed a snow globe paper weight and hurled it at the wall. It struck a framed picture of former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and his infamous butt fumble. The glass shattered and the picture crashed to the floor.

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