Town Square Delaware is thrilled to share excerpts from local author J.E. Fishman’s latest novel, “Cadaver Blues.” Below is the third and final of our weekly installments. (Missed the first two? Read them here.) If, like us, you’re already hooked, pick up your copy at Amazon.
The lunch place sells nothing but hotdogs and sides. There’s a narrow space by the counter with a plastic chain strung between white stanchions for crowd control, but you can’t help rubbing up against the others in line—AstraZeneca employees with I.D. badges, hospital workers in scrubs, ordinary people from all walks of life in full-throated hunger for their nitrite and sodium fix. I’m in here at least once a day, sometimes twice. I know every face behind the counter, but no one has ever acknowledged my loyalty or bothered to ask my name. Maybe when you only have twelve things on the menu you expect everything else in life to feel equally familiar.
Today I order two Boston Back Bay Beanie Weanies, large chili fries and a large vanilla shake. I lay my iPhone on the table and set it to stopwatch mode. The first dog disappears in just under a minute, the second in 37 seconds. I don’t time myself every day, just on a lark. If I put my mind to it, I’m convinced that I could suck down as many sausages as Joey Chestnut or Takeru Kobayashi, the dudes who always run neck and neck in that great patriotic stuff-face known officially as Nathan’s International July Fourth Hotdog Eating Contest.
Looking down, I notice that the skin on two of my left knuckles has peeled away where they caught the big kid’s teeth. The cuts sting a little under the dab of a napkin, but they’re not bleeding much.
I set the napkin down and bide my time with the fries, eating them with one hand while I play cell-phone hangman, waiting for the too-cold milkshake to melt. I never intermingle dishes. I don’t believe in food miscegenation—the hangman word I nail after acquiring two stick arms and a leg.
I admit to having something of a racial obsession. Or, to be more polite to myself, a high level of racial awareness. I have my radar finely tuned to the racial distinctions that all people make, and I’m rarely disappointed in my cynicism about the intentions of others.
During my early years of high school—a year or two after my father’s suicide—a certain group of tough kids alternated between throwing pennies at me in the hall to see if I’d pick them up and asking for help with their math homework. At first I walked right by those flying pennies, but then an idea formed. After a couple weeks of humiliation, I began to pick up the coins, but only those thrown by Nick Deluca, the biggest brute in a tough crowd. When others dropped a penny at my feet, I’d pause, look at it, and walk right by.
For the better part of a semester, I didn’t just stoop to pick up Nick’s pennies. If he rolled one down the hall I took off through the crowds on period break like Charles Barkley going for a loose ball, bobbing and weaving, falling to my knees and pocketing the little copper with a satisfied grin.
But as finals neared, Nick stopped slinging pennies my way. In fact, he seemed overcome with contrition. “How you doin’, little man,” he’d call to me. “Everything all right, little man?”
He had his reasons. Not long before the end of the term, he approached me with a different agenda, leaning against a locker and looking down at me. “Hey, Goldberg, no hard feeling about the pennies. You know it was a joke, right?”
“You’re almost a week early. Exams don’t start till next Thursday.”
“I’m planning ahead this year.” He looked at me and cocked his head—a quizzical great ape. “If I flunk this algebra final I can’t wrestle for the rest of the year. I don’t suppose you’d be up for helping me.”
We agreed to meet the next day in the library during free period. Nick showed up first, so desperate that he had his study sheets out on the table.
I reached into my knapsack and pulled out a roll, fifty pennies wrapped tight with red paper and carefully sealed on each end so it wouldn’t come undone.
“Yo, Nick, check it out.”
“It’s a roll of coins.” He absorbed my stare. “Oh, I get it. The pennies I threw at you.”
“I can’t keep them. Religious reasons. Before the semester’s out, I wanted to return them.”
He watched as I daintily picked up the roll with my fingertips and placed it into the palm of my right hand. He continued to watch, bemused, as I wrapped my fist around the cylinder of pennies.
The first two blows caught him so quick he didn’t have a chance to defend himself. Then I kept going, pummeling his face and head. I broke his nose, his jaw, his left thumb and two of my own fingers.
The assault charges would get buried as a juvenile offense, and my long suspension from school gave my hand time to heal. More important, Nick Deluca never wrestled another match. Forget the fact that he had his jaw wired shut for a month. He couldn’t face his old friends after Phu Goldberg kicked his ass, and he moved schools the next year.
The bigger point is, I’d planned for that moment of confrontation, but I hadn’t trained for it. The element of surprise helped and pure anger served as the multiplier. That’s how a bantamweight brings a heavyweight to his knees.
Walking back to work, half sated, I come to the teenagers again. There’s a black uniformed cop there now, middle aged and balding with sergeant stripes on the shoulders. He’s wearing a thousand-yard stare, but I’m sure he’s not looking past me. As I close in on his position, his right hand rises with great subtlety and poises near his gun holster.
I draw to a stop on the sidewalk about ten feet in front of him. The noise of lunch-hour traffic on Route 202 has risen to a dull roar, and passing cars and semis stir up gusts of cold wind. The black-and-white has come to rest with one tire on the curb. The lights are flashing and the driver’s side door remains open. This scene strikes me as a bit melodramatic.
The big kid’s on his feet now but half bent over, one hand pressed into the hood of the cruiser, lower lip hanging slack, young white teeth stained red. He groans and issues a long belch, then spits a stream of blood onto the dead grass.