by Josh Penzone
The mid-February winds swirled wrappers and plastic cups across the faded yellow lines of the parking lot. George had gone outside, away from The Florentine’s kitchen, to listen to his wife’s message. This was only the second time she’d called since he’d moved out in December. As he punched in his voicemail code, he grimaced at the No Deliveries between 11 and 2 sign posted by the door. Today alone, three different deliverymen had ignored it. Goddamn Apple Chicanery. It must be the most overlooked font. Per usual, his wife’s message started mid-thought. “Not like this. Not a message on the phone. You call me, George! You call me back!” The familiar mania in her voice popped in non-rhythmic crescendos reminding him of all those sleepless nights fraught with limitless concern. But now, with his boys out of her house, and safe, he didn’t need to listen to her, not anymore. He held the power button down and watched the screen go black.
A gust of wind sent his hands into his pockets. Soon enough itchy eczema bumps would surface, cracking his skin at the knuckles. A stray dog walked down the alley sniffing for food. It caught one of the wrappers and licked the dried cheese stuck to its corner. Then it stopped and looked at George. It looked cold and desperate. He shrugged as if to apologize. He went back inside ignoring a time he would have scooped the little dog up and given it a home.
The wind blew the heavy security door shut. It was a violent, final slam, reminding George to get lost in the frenzy of the Valentine’s Day dinner rush. He got word to the people working the phones to not bother him if his wife called. Just leave her on hold, he said. He didn’t have to go into any more detail than this. They understood.
Holding a food ticket, he began plating trays. Usually he was out front schmoozing with his customers; after all, a lot of them came in just to chat with him. George was a showman, affable and charming, with tantalizing stories and a deft ability to crack one-liners with such, that even if you had heard him say it before, somehow it was funnier the second time. This helped the customers think The Florentine was their special place, making the suburbanites of Columbus feel celebrated for coming all the way downtown to dine; but tonight, he just wanted to rotate the ticket wheel.
“Nikki! Nikki, your order’s up. It’s dying here! First you were late to work, now this! Not a good night for you, Nikki. Let’s go, let’s go!”
Nikki Longstreth ran over, holding a tray of salads, her blue hair invaded by blonde roots. A swollen redness surrounded a silver ring pinching her bottom lip. Other than in the ears, it was against the server’s dress code to have facial piercings.
“Being late wasn’t my fault. I was helping Mrs. Burnish find her dog. It ran like three streets over and wouldn’t come home.” She tongued the ring in her lip. “Guess some old dude was having a heart attack or something and Mrs. Burnish’s dog, like, totally sensed this, and stood over him and just barked and barked and barked until someone called 9-1-1.” She paused. “Dog’s like a super-hero or something.”
“Mrs. Burnish has a dog?” This was all George could think to say.
Nikki nodded like it was common knowledge. George had shared a property line with the Burnishes for two decades and they never had a pet, and as he recalled, Mrs. Burnish hated dogs. Was deathly allergic to them. George looked at the ticket again. “Why are you working out of your station?”
“I had to take two of Peg’s tables. These are the salads for twenty-two. They aren’t ready for their food. I’m in the weeds bad.”
“Peg only has a three-table section tonight. This means you have eight tables now? And Peg only has one?” Nikki nodded. “Does Peg look okay to you? Her eyes? Do they look…normal?”
Nikki shrugged. “Same as always, I guess.”
George examined the plates of spaghetti in his hands. From sitting under the heat lamp so long the sauce had solidified, looking like a fungal film.
“I’ll take care of this. Apologize to the table. Offer them free dessert—one of the homemade pies. And Nikki, after the shift, we need to talk about that thing in your lip.” Nikki nodded, then exited back into the fray of the dinner rush.
He hired Nikki before he had moved away from Vintage Woods Court. Over the summer Nikki’s mother had left her and her father for some cult. Well, George wasn’t sure if it was actually a cult, but that’s the word Nikki’s father had used, so he used it too. George’s mother had died when he was young, so he knew what it was like to suddenly not have a mom, and he wanted to do something for Nikki, create a healthy distraction, so he offered her a job. “You have to be nineteen to serve alcohol in Ohio, so don’t tell,” he had said. Nikki was only seventeen, but she looked much older, something about the pain in her eyes. “Some secrets are okay if they don’t hurt anyone,” he had added, trying to make her feel like she was part of something important.
After the dinner rush, George was sitting in his office, swiveling in a leather chair that was as old as the restaurant. He had yet to find the time to take down the pictures of his wife pinned to the cork board behind the desk. Maybe he had misjudged her tone earlier. Maybe Ginny was lucid today. Maybe she just missed him. But he knew better. The day he moved out, Ginny’s eyes seemed to flood with happiness as he drove away.
He unpinned a picture of her holding Adam, while pregnant with Liam, and thought of her message: Not like this. Not a message on the phone. You call me, George! You call me back! The mania was definitely controlling her voice. He laughed. She most likely had yet to take down the Christmas decorations. The homeowners’ association required all lights to be down by mid-January. That’s all it was. She had received an orange sheet, a notice of non-compliance. She just needed his help to take them down. That’s all it was.
There was a knock. Peg slumped against the office door. Her eyes were red. Her make-up was gone. “Pete took me off the schedule next week.” She wiped her face and stepped towards him. “I had a bad night is all, George. The new meds for my foot pain have me a bit loopy, but I’ll be fine come Monday. You’ll see. Could you talk to Pete? Get me back my usual shifts?”
Peg had served her first table at The Florentine in the seventies. A year ago, her fortieth year with them, Columbus Alive published an article about her dedication to the restaurant. In the article, Peg said the most wonderful things about him, Ginny, the boys, and his father. She said that she felt like part of the Scuro clan. A framed copy of the article sat on the shelf in front of him, a present from Peg.
“You haven’t been yourself, Peg. Serving is a young person’s game. You’ll be seventy this year.”
“I need to pay the bills.” She paused, most likely to give him time to think of the bad investment she had made with her brother a few years back. Her brother had taken Peg for thirty thousand. “Besides, I love this place, Georgie. You know that. I’d do anything for it. I’d never quit on you.”
She called him Georgie when he was a kid, but now she only said it to remind him of their history, to remind him that, once, she had trained him.
He unlocked the safe and began counting out bills.
“No, sir. I will not ask for a loan like all the other riff-raff through the years. The day your mother died, Betty Winegate asked your father for money to pay her rent. And we all know she spent it on vodka. I won’t be a part of that history. No, sir.”
After he had counted out two thousand dollars, he put it in a manila envelope.
“It’s not a loan.”
He held out the envelope, looking down, not wanting to see her reaction.
“Sometimes things just end, Peg.”
Nikki pretended to wipe down the salad bar when Peg stormed by. George waved her in. Nikki plodded forward, keeping her gaze to the floor.
“What does your father think of that thing in your lip?”
“He doesn’t know. Did it at a stoplight on my way here.”
Nikki shrugged. “That thing with Mrs. Burnish’s dog really freaked me out. And then after I found it, Mrs. Burnish was being so nice to me. Like really nice. And it’s not the first time she’d been like that with me. I don’t like it when she’s so nice.”
“Because I tell her stupid things. Things. I shouldn’t!” She paused. “She was talking about my mom, Mr. Scuro. My mom. Saying how if she could see me now with how helpful and how beautiful I was, she knows that no God can compete with the love of a child and…” Nikki looked up as she trailed off, widening her eyes, fighting off tears. “So, on the way here, I shoved a needle in my face.”
He sighed. “You need to take it out—not because of the dress code for the floor—but because it looks infected. Come here.” He motioned her closer. She winced when he touched her lip. He snapped his fingers twice then opened up his hand. She unclasped the silver ring and dropped it in his palm. Dried puss and blood stuck to the ring.
“How much did the ring cost?”
She told him. George reached into his pocket and dug out the cost of the ring. He guided her into the kitchen and opened the First Aid Kit. He tipped the bottle of antiseptic over a napkin and put it on Nikki’s lip. She recoiled. “Bad ideas usually result in pain, kiddo. I swear, just when I want to brag how smart you are, you do something like this.” She laughed. He poured antiseptic on another napkin and handed it to her. He told her to hold it over the hole in her lip for a few minutes and then to rinse her mouth out with salt water.
“If you don’t follow these orders you’ll need your bottom lip amputated. No one brags about how nice their gums look.”
For some reason the way she looked at him reminded him of picture of Adam holding an assault rifle outside Kabul. Both Adam and Liam had acted aggressively to the separation. Liam stayed on campus during his winter break and Adam forwent his inactive status and asked to be sent back to Afghanistan. A month later George received the picture of Adam holding the assault rifle—Adam’s way of telling him he had reenlisted.
“Go finish your side work so you can get home before midnight for once. Don’t worry your father anymore than you have to.”
George shut the office door and turned on the eleven o’clock news. Anytime a local soldier was killed in active duty, it was the lead story. He’d gotten into a fearful habit of listening to the news each night at eleven, praying that the lead story was anything else. Tonight’s lead story reported on the dozen local coyote sightings over the last month. A few cats and small dogs had gone missing and the coyotes were the assumed culprits. The anchorman warned parents to keep small children and pets in their homes after dark. When Adam was thirteen and Liam was nine, George took them camping in southern Ohio. They joked that it was an expedition to find the Ohio Grassman, Ohio’s version of Bigfoot. In the middle of the night, George was jarred from a dead sleep. Adam was already awake. His keen instinct for sensing danger made him a light sleeper even then. His right index finger was pressed against his lips and his left index finger pointed to his ear. Subtle rapid footsteps circled the tent. Adam mouthed “coyotes” and then turned the lantern to its highest beam. Canine silhouettes rose giant against the tent’s orange nylon. Adam said, “Let’s feed them, Liam.” George laughed and the footsteps scampered away. After Adam had fallen back asleep, George marveled at his son’s awareness, as he himself had no survival instinct and felt insignificant knowing that he had nothing to teach his son on the subject.
Nikki stood in the doorway, her light blue Florentine tee untucked and stained with red sauce. There were three waiters on the front of the shirt, representing the three generations of the family. He had the shirts made back when he thought the boys were interested in the business. Nikki slipped her jacket over the shirt. “Mr. Scuro, could you walk me to my car? Nick and Pete are playing cards up front and I just don’t want to bother them.”
He widened his eyes. He must’ve fallen asleep. Something he used to catch his father doing while taking inventory at the end of the night. He looked at his phone and thought about turning it back on, but didn’t. He sighed, grabbed his coat, and walked Nikki outside.
“There was a woman in my station tonight,” she said. “ She said she was friends with you, but there was something about the way she said it that made me think she was lying. She wanted to see you, but I said you weren’t in.” She paused. “You didn’t look like you wanted to be bothered tonight.” Then added. “Valentine’s Day sucks.”
“You’re smart, kiddo. You want to run this place when I retire? I don’t think my boys have much interest. Had this woman asked Liam if she could see me, he would’ve led her back to the office and pointed to where I keep the company checkbook. He has no understanding of this place.” He looked up to the starless sky. “I’m sure she was just a sales rep from somewhere, trying to catch me off guard on a Saturday. You did good.”
In the distance, a glass bottle rolled against the asphalt. Nikki flinched. He pointed to a police car. He fed them free meals to keep them in the parking lot on the weekends after closing. She saluted the officers. An animal moved into the shadows in the alley across the street. He thought it was the dog again, but he couldn’t be sure.
“She was real pretty.”
He held the door open as Nikki got into her car.
“The woman who asked about you. She was real pretty. Good tipper, too. Said her name was Alice.”
There was a scream in the distance. Or maybe some kind of celebrated yawp.
“Yeah. Why? You know her?”
He nodded at first, but then he shook his head. “Not anymore.” He offered her a sad smile. “Please don’t drive the backstreets this late at night. I know it’s quicker, but it’s not safe,” he said.
“Yes, sir, Father Number Two.”
He didn’t mind her sarcasm. He actually liked it.
“And watch out for coyotes.”
He shook his head and told her to ignore him. He watched her drive away, making sure she made a left towards the freeway. He waved and continued to wave long after she was gone. A breeze kicked up. He itched his wrist, knowing it would make it red and bumpy tomorrow. He walked back to the entrance. The wind slammed the door so hard it jarred back open. He looked out into the cold, still night and howled. It felt so good he howled again.
“Boss-man, what are you doing?”
Pete and Nick had their coats on. The front room must be cleaned and locked.
“Were you howling?”
George nodded. How else could he respond?
“Yelling into the night, looking for a mate on Valentine’s Day? I can dig it,” Pete said.
“Speaking of which, there was a hot little number looking for you earlier,” Nick said, smiling.
Pete and Nick high-fived.
Alice was making the rounds. He hadn’t seen her since a food show in Toledo last summer.
“How many times did my wife call?”
Pete held up seven fingers, then he crossed his index fingers, then he held up seven fingers again.
“That might be a record,” George said.
“It’s not,” Nick said.
“Huh,” George said, wondering about all the times over the years his employees had protected him from her ridiculous intrusions.
After a silence, Nick and Pete moved to the door and George stepped aside. Nick howled and turned to George and smiled.
“See you tomorrow, boss,” Nick said, not looking back, holding his hand up.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, George thought to himself, trying to make sense of the unrelenting schedule of running a restaurant. He sat down in that old office chair. A place he had chosen many times over his family. He’d missed sporting events, weddings, dealing with home improvements, homework questions, cul-de-sac parties, his wife’s relapses...he’d missed so much. He rubbed his hands over the chair’s arms, feeling the familiar cracks in the burgundy leather. He spun around in it and closed his eyes. He tried to picture Alice. What she looked like. Smelled like. How she touched him. He couldn’t remember any of it. Only her laugh. Her guttural, heavy laugh that seemed to play like a familiar song beckoning him to dance. That’s how he felt when the boys were young and Ginny never missed taking her meds. Those days he’d get up out of the chair when the work was done and speed home.
When the chair stopped spinning he opened his eyes. He felt lightheaded and it took him a second to adjust to the scene. When he finally did, he stared at the empty space in the wall where he had removed the picture of Ginny. He turned his phone on. No messages. He went to dig the picture out of the trash, but the kitchen crew had already tossed it. He grabbed his coat and headed for the door, momentarily entertaining the idea of hopping in the dumpster, but an unexpected snowfall guided him to his car.
Habit led him the wrong way. The moment he pulled into The Estates of Tall Pines he remembered he didn’t live there anymore, but he still drove to Vintage Woods Court. He parked in front of his old house. It was snowing harder now. Two houses down, at the front of the cul-de-sac, there was a For Sale sign in the yard. He smiled. The old coot was finally moving. Howard Havenshaw was a Vietnam veteran who had influenced Adam to enlist when he was eighteen. Ginny hated him—so did George—but Ginny hated him with a percolating violence that George feared would manifest into action. Yes! That had to be why she was calling. Howard Havenshaw would be gone forever and she needed George to know. Content that this answered everything, he drove away from his old home, away from the non-decorated trees, and decided to take the back roads to his new apartment.
The snowfall demanded attention. Every few years a high school kid got himself killed driving too fast on the country roads. Once, Adam was with a friend who had crashed his car into a ditch, trying to take a curve at eighty. No one was hurt, which was a miracle, considering the damage that was done to the Ford Fusion. While hugging his son, he screamed at him, terrified of imagining a world without him.
The blue radio lights distracted him, so he turned off the talk radio. The crunching of the snow beneath the tires folded into the darkness. He felt like he was in a different time period. The back of his wrist flared with an eczema itch so he eased off the gas to scratch it. His fingers felt wet. He had attacked his own skin until he bled. He was about to reach into his glove compartment for a napkin when something stumbled into the road and collapsed. He slammed on the breaks and skid into the other lane. The animal’s brownish fur looked white against the headlights as it lay in the snow-covered street. George smeared his bloody fingers against his beige peacoat. Three coyotes jumped out from the darkness and converged on the one that had collapsed. George pressed the horn, scaring them off into the darkness on the left. But they realigned quickly, their eyes glowing, watching, only yards away.
Beyond the hood of the car, the coyote tried to limp away. It moved down the center of the road, away from the car. Its emaciated body shone in the headlights. Its slow movement tracked in the snow. It looked weak and the others had probably turned against it for food. He knew what would happen if he drove around it.
He inched the car a few yards forward, trailing it. The coyote sensed the Subaru following, stopped, and turned. Its eyes didn’t look like those of a predator, but of something defenseless, something stuck in a place it didn’t want it be, something lost. The glowing eyes along the roadside moved with him. He rolled down his window and screamed for them to get lost, to scram. They didn’t move.
A vibration hummed against his thigh, knocking against Nikki’s lip ring in his pocket. Ginny’s ringtone. The light from the screen showed his bloodstained fingers. He silenced the phone. The news of the neighbor moving away could wait. The coyote collapsed again, it’s chest heaving. He had to save the coyote. Yes, he could put it in the back of his Subaru and save it.
He held down the horn until the glowing eyes in the woods disappeared. He opened his car door and stepped out. A bright star shone above him. Or was it too bright for a star? It must be a planet. Mercury maybe. Suddenly, a memory of Adam sitting in the snow at twelve, picking up a frozen cardinal, flashed liked a popping ember.
The phone beeped. Missed call. He watched the one bar in the right corner of the phone blink—his battery dying. A hollowness assailed him. He looked at the coyote, the undulations of its breathing became more violent. He stepped into the headlights, casting a shadow over the coyote. Again his wife’s ringtone played. He wanted to tell her what he was about to do, that he was out of the office chair, that he was about to scoop up a coyote and save it, that this was who he was now, but before he could answer, the phone died. After seeing the screen go black, a slow warm heat burned from his gut, flooding him with a terminal worry—Ginny had already told him about Howard Havenshaw moving…
Brandishing his dead phone, he did a three-sixty, searching for glowing eyes, listening for footsteps, ready to scream a barbaric cry. Then, with Mercury watching, he stepped forward, into his own shadow, towards the still coyote.