I didn’t pay much attention to the little things: strangers, antics, and matters of triviality. I saw straight ahead. I saw whatever was necessary. Expending further energy would require a matter of significance. And that was what kept me safe each time I walked home from work with a load of cash in my pockets. Tips varied by the shift, but one thing stayed constant, my wariness when carrying hundreds of dollars in my pockets. It wasn’t that my neighborhood was unsafe; in actuality it was fairly laid back with little thievery. But I was no longer as young and strong. It was a growing concern. I was able to come to terms with that much. There was the thought of carrying a knife, but I had decided against it, and eventually, regretted it.
As I had mentioned, I was usually focused on my destination – home – and didn’t gawk at pointless matters. But I’d had a particularly good night at work, the boost in money exhilarating me, shrinking a host financial worries and clearing the mind with optimism. An out of state businessman had left me a hundred dollar tip. I’d relished in the bill’s newness, its crispy shine like contemporary art in a museum. It was so fine I hated to fold it. And I refused to put it in my wallet. It felt smooth and lovely between my fingers. Sure, it was only a hundred dollars, but it wasn’t about the amount. There was something wonderful about new money, its odor, crispness, and detail. I looked at new clothes in the same manner, hard-edged, smooth, unsoiled and rigid, far from wrinkled and worn.
With winter’s cold ocean breeze blowing at my side I walked briskly, my hands stuffed in my pockets massaging the c-note with my left hand, and my wallet with my right, my habitual thumb pressing at the center of it. The wind at my right cheek was icy, and a thin tube of cold air flowed into my ear canal causing the stir and then the ache. I kept my head down and walked with purpose, the crunching of runaway sand under my shoes.
A speeding car screeched the corner ahead, stopping me abruptly. I slid and took a knee to the concrete. My lower back hitched; it was a close call, but strangely no pain this time. As I regained balance, my focus shifted to embarrassment and whether anyone had seen me. But there was no one except for a woman far ahead. She was busy scurrying to her destination. I took a moment to watch. Her hurried pace made her buttocks shake and jiggle and I rejoiced in our differences, man and woman. Her walk was intense. I suppose that’s why I never saw it coming.
The thump came dramatically, like a hammer at the side of my neck. It was like a power outage when the lights and television and appliances all fail with one click, and then darkness. I was stunned. My first reaction was to close my eyes and go down to a squat. What had it been? The violent crash was echoing, my neck throbbing, as the pain was a crawling explosion, like molten lava that oozes patiently in its torment. I held my neck, eyes still closed, waiting for whatever the unknown might bring. Would there be more? A shot of this magnitude formed paralysis. While I was a bold man, this action had floored me, and expecting another blow I tightened up, hunching over and turning my back in a cowering fashion. But nothing came. Then a hand pushed me at the side of the head, like my brother used to do when we were young, my body keeling over like a statue, with my hand searching for pavement and the other fumbling at my pocket grasping in desperation. My brain said act fast. It said this is trouble.
It was one man. My eyes were open now, staring at the grainy concrete, waiting. I hated that – the waiting. But I couldn’t stop it. I did absolutely nothing to retaliate. My daze was steady, debilitated. I felt a wormy hand wriggle in my front pocket, first the left at my keys, and then the right with success. The lump that was my wallet slipped away, and the sound of quiet became deafening. There was his breathing, the crunching of the sand under his shuffling shoes, and his fingers mangling the wallet, probing, until the crinkle of cash was in his hand. I reached for his ankle, my fingers moving up his pants as I dug my nails into him the best I could. Then came the kick to my gut so that I fell back. He kicked again, and once more harder than before and I knew he’d meant to break me.
Then he fled, with my wallet still in hand. He ran like the kids we used to ridicule in grade school that lacked athleticism. He ran like the fearful. I lay on my side for a spell, and then eased up to a seat, holding my ribs, the warped burn of my neck throbbing. I sat comatose, filled with stunned reflection.
After I’d gotten home and made the necessary calls to cancel credit cards, my mind settled for a moment, and then it began to whir in shock. I poured the whiskey and sat back, staring at the television. There was jazz on the stereo competing with the television, and eventually I listened to neither. The scenario repeated in my head, the sight of the woman, and the mugger getting his hands inside my pockets. He’d knocked me good in the neck. It was swollen, blotched red. My ribs hurt like hell. I gently prodded and poked and was fairly sure none were broken. I took a swallow of whiskey and felt the burn coat my throat. And my neck and ribs called out to my throat in camaraderie. I shook my head at them all.
The mugger had gotten my wallet, but I had held the hundred-dollar bill tightly in my left hand during the assault. Once he had struck me my left hand instinctively clutched the bill, crumbling it tightly into my palm with slight of hand the same as when there were two of us working the bar and a patron secretly handed me a tip for just me to keep. I could hold a bill crumpled in my palm for an hour if need be. I could pour drinks and go on with my business just the same.
Sadly, the hundred meant nothing to me now. It was just money. Worse, it was a memento, and every time I looked at it the memory stung me.
There was no way I could work the next day. As much as it pained me to give away my shift, I did, with sourness filling me. I sat on my deck and watched the sunset. I’d been living near the sea for years, so the actual sun setting no longer carried a magical hypnosis the same as years past, when I was as green as the tourists that flocked to San Diego. Instead I was transfixed on the aftermath, the color scheme of the sky and clouds when the sun was below sea level. Tonight it was layered like feathers, fuzzy strips of pink and blue reminding me of sherbet ice cream or a young bruise, with palm trees blotted like ink over the sky. This was the time when I found meditation. Crisp quiet hovered over my neighborhood save the occasional passing car.
The night moved quickly after darkness set in, as I was face first into a bottle of whiskey. I had gone to the grocery store and spent the hundred dollars as though it were stolen, like I had skimmed it over the bar and stuffed it criminally into my pocket. It felt like that, tainted, and I wanted nothing to do with it. So I bought as much whiskey as possible. With the remainder I bought beef jerky, a nutritional consolation as my appetite was still meager, a lingering aftermath of the sting. The evening ended early and suddenly, from a hundred miles an hour to a complete halt.
After lying in pain the next morning, I bucked up and went to work. The restaurant staff was buzzing when I got there. I fought off the barrage of inquiries over the welt on my neck and the way I cringed over my aching ribs when bending over to wash a glass. Initially, they’d asked and I’d answered politely, later, more matter of fact, and toward the end, rudely so they’d finally leave it alone. It didn’t help matters that my lower back was aching as well. But this was a career injury; I’d suffered through the long years bending over to scoop ice and picking up bottles from the speed rack. It was a slight motion, like bending to fill out a form at a low counter, but I didn’t have the luxury of leaning on my forearm as I wrote. Here, my hands were always preoccupied: holding the cup while scooping ice into it, pouring a shot from the bottle while filling with tonic and soda or whatever the customer needed to water down their drink, holding and passing the drink while I placed a straw or garnish in it. My hands were busy; as a result there was no place to lean. The only consolation was below my knees where I’d installed foam padding over the hard steel speed rack at my shins. Here I could lean minimally. But it still wreaked havoc on my lower back, as I would keep erect while working.
“What you need is a big, sharp buck knife! That’s what you need,” Bob, a regular, shouted.
“Easy there,” I said, my hands motioning downward.
“Oh?” he said and turned around in his stool, giving the restaurant a once over. “There’s hardly anyone here!”
“For Christ’s sake, keep your voice down…pathetic lush,” Al said, and Bob stuck his tongue out. They were pals. I’d never seen one in the restaurant without the other.
“I don’t need a knife,” I said in order to calm them. “What I need is a night in the sack with a beautiful rich woman.”
“A cougar!” Bob shouted, and the two tables in the dining room turned to look.
“For Christ’s sake,” Al said. “He didn’t say a middle-aged girl. He just said a girl.”
“That’s the spirit! What you need…is to get your knob shined.”
This made Al break with laughter and soon we were all laughing. Wanda, a waitress, walked by and gave me the stink eye. But she was always bent out of shape so I ignored her.
Then a couple entered the restaurant. The man was short, with a vague familiarity to him. And then I saw the woman, gorgeous, with big eyes and flowing hair. The man glanced at us, but not enough to make eye contact. He spoke lowly to the hostess and she led them to their table. They walked past the length of the bar, and as the woman passed there was something about her, that beautiful figure, my mind searching, and then they were almost at the table and I knew it was the woman from the other night when I got mugged.
“That’s got nothing to do with it! It’s about how you react to the situation,” Bob said and motioned to me. “He needs to be ready next time. Get a big buck knife and gut the son of a bitch before he gets his wallet!”
“Bob, really,” Al said.
“No! This is my friend. I’m going to look out for him. I’m not going to…think when he has to go and get hit again…” and Bob’s eyes closed as his head bowed forward in a momentary lapse of focus, “that it’ll happen to my friend.”
“Bob, you’re drunk,” I said, but my attention was on the couple sitting at the corner table. Was it her? Same lengthy brown hair, and wonderful body frame. Then she got up and hurried to the bathroom. Her rear shook and shivered and I was sure. The images came back at me with a flurry and I was mesmerized by the memory, ignoring the chatter of Bob and Al behind me. Then she returned to the table.
Wanda approached them and the man spoke sourly. She went to the POS system and put in the order. The paper ticket came up on my bar printer and it read: Ketel One Martini Up, Glenfiddich rocks DOUBLE. I thought about it, though nothing came to memory, and then made the drinks.
“You recognize them?” I said to Wanda.
“They’ve been in before. Not often. The woman’s nice, but the guy’s a prick.”
“Tips for shit. Can’t hold his liquor to save his life. I wouldn’t have known him if it wasn’t for those crazy thick eyebrows and the rude way he ordered. If I were smart I’d put cleaning solution in his scotch,” she said and chuckled. But Wanda was a gutless threat, always bluffing. She placed the drinks on the tray carefully and balanced it with a lift. She was young, maybe late twenties, and very jaded. Like me, she had been in the industry too long.
“Easy now,” I said. “Give them a chance. It’s a whole new day.”
“Give me a break,” she said and walked away.
It was deep into the dinner hour and the dining room was slow. There were only four tables aside from the couple at the corner table. But my bar was steady. Bob and Al were still there. Another couple, much older was fawning over one another at the far end.
At the stools nearest the entrance were four college girls, out of their element, asking the price of every drink, and whining at each other over the inadequacies of their boyfriends and their cell phones.
“And where are your boyfriends?” Bob said over the cackling of the girls. Fortunately the girls paid no attention, and eventually, Al calmed him down. Al told him he recognized them, knew two of their fathers, big lawyer types. I added that their college educations were hardly a measuring stick for their actual intelligence, or lack thereof.
But they were having fun. In fact everyone in the bar and restaurant seemed to be fairing well except for the couple at the corner table. The man was on his fifth double, the woman her fourth drink. I couldn’t hear them speak but watched their facial expressions and gesticulations with a sharp eye. It translated to indiscretions and unease in my opinion. Her face often narrowed to incredulousness, as though she couldn’t grasp what he was saying. And the man threw his hands out in two ways: like he was tossing water out of a sinking boat, and chopping lettuce on a cutting board.
“Hank, give us a round!” Bob called over.
Wanda gave me a look that told me to cut Bob off. I gave Wanda a look that told her she didn’t know shit about how to hook a big tip out of a rich fish.
“Be right there,” I said, still facing Wanda, and eyeing the corner table. “How about them?” I said regarding the couple. “Getting out of hand?”
“They’re just fighting. I stay away and wait until he motions me over. Did you hear the guy snap his fingers at me?” she said and shook her head. “I swear one of these days…”
“Pays the bills,” I said and walked the other way.
Soon after, the old couple left quietly, leaving me more money than I had expected. But I reasoned it was because of love, the newness of it, and his wanting to show her he wasn’t cheap. Men were like that; first dates early in the relationship they often over-tipped in order to prove money was a menial thing, that it could be thrown around here and there, even as a generous tip to a bartender who had poured them only two glasses of wine. As for the four college girls, they were quite the opposite. They’d run separate charges on their credit cards, all of which averaged five percent tips. But they’d pleased the hell out of Bob and Al who normally wouldn’t have stayed so late. It had been a nice outside-the-candy-store-window experience for them. The girls left laughing over their hurried lives and youthful common ground. It had been a fine time. And I smiled and bid them well with a lying face that was thankful.
It was near closing time. Now it was Bob, Al, myself, and the couple at the corner table. Wanda said she was done waiting for the couple and wanted to transfer them to me. I told her to ask them to pay. She declined and quickly finished her side work, tipping me out, and waving a lifeless hand as she passed us at the bar and went out the door with an unlit cigarette ready in her hand.
“Set us up again,” Bob said with a drawl, his head sinking backward so that the lights above irked him every time he blinked.
“Not me,” Al said, fingering his ear canal. “Got a full load tomorrow.”
“You’re a goddamn dentist! All you gotta do is…All you gotta do is clean!”
“Easy now,” I said. “It’s tedious work.”
“I’ll say,” Al said and his face froze stunned as though he’d been slapped.
“You want to close out?” I said to Bob, hoping to feed a subliminal message to his drowning brain.
They were good and drunk, and I didn’t have the energy to baby-sit them. My body was sore as hell. It needed a couch and a gallon of booze.
“Close us out,” Al said, coming to life again, and reaching into his back pocket.
“Leave it!” Bob said and tossed his credit card on the bar. “Save it for a goddamn…tooth whitening seminar.”
As I ran his card, there was a flicker of commotion at the corner table so that the woman got up in a huff and yanked her handbag out of the grasp of the man. She clacked her awkward heels to the bathroom where the door shut violently. The man got up as if to chase her but saw me and sat down. With the credit card and receipt in my hand I watched the man wallow in his seat, pushing a hand through his hair like he might pull it out. He was too drunk and self-pitying to notice me any more. Then he seemed to remember something and slammed the table with both hands. The silverware jumped and the martini glass, fortunately empty, fell on its side.
I gave Bob the charge receipt. He was surprisingly quick in signing. Al got him by the shoulder and they were merry as they stumbled off the stools, the wooden legs squealing against the floor. Al waved a hand in thanks as they made their way out. It was ten o’clock and the restaurant was now closed. I got the check for the couple at the corner table, placed it in a checkbook, and approached the man with pain flaring at my lower back.
“Closing up shop,” I said, and the man wavered his head upward, his eyes trying to find recognition. After a moment, he made an impish lift of his thick eyebrows.
“One more,” he said.
“No more. Sorry. We’re closed.”
The table had been Wanda’s in the first place, so it was bonus. I didn’t care how much or how little this man was going to tip me. I just wanted them out.
“Fine,” he said and got out his wallet with a deep search of his coat pocket.
He pulled out a fine brown wallet, worn, but exceptional in quality. My eyes narrowed and focused intently. There was a dark blotch in the center from the grease of a finger that had forgotten its oiliness. And there was a deep scuff on the tip, a yellowed gash from a thumbnail that had grown too long. Both markings had come as a result of drunken nights, in my home.
I swiped the wallet from his hand and took a step back, frantically searching its contents. And I kept moving backward, with my head bent down as though there might be a blow coming. It was reflex, as the memory of being swatted in the neck flashed at me and I was fearful. Neither my identification nor my credit cards were there. But there deep in the side pocket was a folded ticket stub from a movie I’d seen months ago. And then the adrenaline shot came.
“What the hell is this?” I said. There was little cash and I wondered how much of it was mine, grabbing it and stuffing it into my pocket.
“Gimme that,” the man said, annoyed, though not yet realizing what was happening.
“Where’d you get this?” I said.
“That’s mine. Gimme it.”
“This isn’t your damn wallet. This is my wallet.”
Now I was taking out his credit cards and tossing them to the ground.
“What kind of moron takes a guy’s wallet and then uses it as his own?” I said. Then realizing, I bent over and picked up his credit cards. “I’ll be right back.”
“Hey. Come back’ere with my…wallet.”
I ran a credit card for the amount of the bill. Then I got my pen, and with shaking hand wrote $500 in the tip column. I used Frederick’s swipe card in order to approve the large tip. Then I closed the check to be sure the amount would clear, and it did. Instantly, vindication budded. I went to the man at the corner table and placed the checkbook in front of him.
“Sign it,” I said.
“What’ta hell is this?” he said.
“Sign it,” I said sternly.
“After you sign.”
And he scratched his name in a wild motion, not looking at the tip or total. When he was done he held the pen up to me like I was his daddy.
The woman returned while diddling with her cell phone. She grew wary of my presence, standing stiff at the table’s edge.
“Honey, what’s going on?” She clutched her handbag closely.
“I knew I recognized him,” I said to her. “You were walking down the street last night. This street out front. I saw you. Someone bashed me on the neck and stole my wallet.” Then I held up the wallet.
“That’s mine,” the man said, snatching at the air with a lethargic hand.
“You shut your mouth before I crack your goddamn skull,” I said with intense focus, staring him down like a dog. “You sit there and pray I don’t call the cops.”
Frederick appeared from the kitchen. He was concerned.
“Go lock the front door,” I told him. “I’m serious, Fred.”
He went and locked it.
“So you’re saying my boyfriend stole your wallet? Are you serious? Why would he steal your wallet?” she said to me like I was a poor peasant.
“Your boyfriend jumped out of the bushes and bashed me. How else would he have my wallet?”
“Maybe you have the same type of wallet!” she said as the intensity of the matter was now absorbed. She was anxious and complaining, “Just because you have the same type of wallet doesn’t mean–”
“Stop!” I cut in. “It’s the same wallet. It’s my wallet. You see this? An oil stain from me sticking my damn thumb on it. That’s what this is. You see that scuff here? That’s from my thumbnail, same thumb. I did this. You don’t believe me? Then I’ll call the cops.”
This backed her up. She sat down on the chair in contemplation. Then she looked at her boyfriend who was wilting in his seat.
“How can you be sure it was him that did it? Maybe he found the wallet on the sidewalk where you got mugged?”
“I recognize him,” I said dead-eyeing her.
“Well, sure, now you do.”
“I don’t care what you think. I’ll bet you two went out the other night and tied one on like tonight. I’ll bet you fought then too. I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember most of it. Maybe he does.”
“So what are you saying? Are you waiting for the cops? Is that why you locked us in?”
My body was still trembling. Half of me was glad the man was so drunk he was incapacitated, but the other half of me wished it were only the two of us, and not his woman there, so I could take him in the back and bash his head properly. But that was irrational thinking. It was how the naïve reacted. I wasn’t a kid any more. I knew better than to stir a pot that would only catch up to me later. Now I believed it was more appropriate to take the sting of unfortunate circumstances and move forward in spite of them.
“I’ve run his credit card for the amount of the check. I put in five hundred dollars for a tip.”
She took a breath inward.
“That’s mine to keep. He stole my wallet with hundreds of dollars in it. Those were my tips from the other night. I worked for those goddamn tips. But he took them. So I’ll take five hundred and when his credit card company calls, if they call, he’ll say it’s fine. He’ll do that because I’ve got all this on him. And whenever I want, I can call the cops and turn him in.”
“No you can’t,” she said. “You have no proof it was my boyfriend that hit you and stole your money.” She was petting his hair now, standing over him and holding him like a child.
“Oh really?” I said and smiled so that my cheeks quivered with nervousness. “Check his ankle. Lift up his pants and under his sock look at his ankle.”
“I have no idea. Just look.”
“I have no idea…” she repeated, shaking her head as she lifted his right pant leg and lowered the sock. There was a gash, dried with dark blood, and two smaller gashes near it.
“My fingernails,” I said, and went to her and put my fingers in her face so that she pulled her head back to focus. “Blood. See that underneath the nails? I couldn’t get it all out. Now I’m glad I didn’t.”
She looked down, and after a reflective moment, at me in concession.
“Now what?” she said.
“I already closed the charge receipt. I take the five hundred and put it in my pocket. I keep my wallet. And I’ll keep his I.D. You can have the credit cards and such. Because I’m no thief.”
I knew the whole blood under the nails thing was a stretch. There were no witnesses to the mugging, and no sane cop was going to spend time and energy trying to prove an old bartender in stinking rich La Jolla had gotten jumped. But I’d watched enough television, as I knew she had. We were a society of duped television lovers. We believed what we saw, and we were lesser for it.
The man was passed out, face down on the tabletop, his pant leg still up over his knee and the sock down at his ankle.
“Fred, call a cab,” I said to him at the kitchen door. He nodded and disappeared behind it. Then he came back and said, “I’ll just hail one. It’ll be faster.” He unlocked the door and went outside.
“I’m sorry,” she said listlessly. “I had no idea.”
“We’ll forget this ever happened,” I said. “I’ve got my wallet back, and the money he owes me. The extra money is for my injuries.” I bent over to show her my neck, and then pulled my shirt out so she could see my bruised ribs. “See this? And this? He did this. People get drunk and fight and do stupid things. If you want to do stupid things you should do them to each other, not a guy minding his business watching a beautiful girl walk up the street.”
“What?” she said.
“Never you mind.”
Frederick came in and motioned that the cab had arrived. The woman tried to wake her boyfriend. Frederick tried to help. So I cocked back and slapped the man violently across the back of the head so that he wobbled it in confusion. Frederick was young and strong and I was glad. He lifted the man and carried him out while the woman walked along the other side with the tip of his elbow in her hand in support. Within minutes, the taxi sped off down the street.
“What the hell was that all about?” Frederick asked.
I stood at the register, my back to him, while doing my cash out.
“Never you mind.”
“But Hank. The owners…”
“It’s all right here,” I said, pointing to the video surveillance cameras, “And here,” and I held up my hand, the fingernails of dried blood out for him to see.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“They don’t pay you enough to be a chef and manager at the same time, Fred,” I said. And then my lower back started and I cringed and held the counter so that the sharp pain would pass. “And they don’t pay me enough to wreck my goddamn back.”
“So what do we do?” he said and I could hear him lighting a cigarette. “What do we do, Hank?”
“Go pour yourself one,” I said and finally turned, motioning to the bottles on the bar. “I need you to open the safe. I’ve got a cash-due. There isn’t enough in my register to pull out this tip.”
I smiled big and ridiculously.
Afterward, when the lights were down and the place grew cold I apologized to Frederick for the rude way had I ordered him around. He patted me on the shoulder, still marveling over the coincidence of my recent events. I poured the tequila into our glasses. We sat at the same corner table where the couple had been, drinking until our heads began to swivel and sag. The aches in my neck and ribs were gone. It was only the soreness in my back that lingered. But that was the job. I expected this. Though every now and again there were deep concerns, where I would go and what I would do when real old age set in and my body was no longer capable. But they passed, as did the night.