MOONLIGHT LIZARDS - ROBERT CAPORALE
Previously published ‘Purgatory’ as in HARDBOILED in 2007
The payphone in front of the Tic/Toc Lounge is ringing off the hook.
It happens a couple of times a month usually on weekends when some unsuspecting nightcluber will make the mistake of picking up the receiver and saying, “Hello.”
The locals flat-out ignore it.
Eddie Cans walks past the ringing payphone, steps into the Tic/Toc, sits at the bar and orders up a bottle of American beer and a cheeseburger with onions.
The Tic/Toc has a short memory.
You can get a burger or a dog at the Tic/Toc and that’s it. No fries no onion rings no tuna melt no eggs over easy no nothing; just a burger or a dog any time day or night.
Auggie pulls a wet one out of the cooler. “How are things in nickel/dime-world?” he asks Eddie Cans.
“I’m out of that business. I bootleg CDs now -- remember?”
“Not in here you don’t.” Auggie slides the bottle of beer across the mahogany bar.
“No. No, Auggie, not in here, for sure. You need anything?” Eddie Cans produces a long list. “I got it all,” he says. “Top forty jazz blues rap hip-hop techno alternative...whatever...anything and everything...’cept country...I got no country.”
“What’d I just tell you?”
“This is just for you, Auggie. A special offer just for Auggie.”
Auggie steps into the backroom and drops a patty onto a carbon-crusted grill. The burger sizzles and spits at Auggie. Flames dance around the meat. A greasy exhaust fan hums and sucks the sweet smoke out across the primeval stink of a cobblestone service alley. “Hey, Record-Of-The-Month-club, Auggie yells out, how do you want it?”
“You want the onions grilled?”
Auggie drops a hand full of sliced Bermuda onions on the grill.
JoJo shuffles through the door; outside the payphone desperately rings in the gathering city twilight.
JoJo sits at the bar, orders a beer, chews on a fingernail, nods at Eddie Cans.
Auggie slides a beer in front of JoJo. “How many?” he asks.
“Three hundred and seventy-two right to the barstool.”
Auggie leans against the bar, contemplates the number 3 7 2, pops a couple of green olives in his mouth, sucks on a lime wedge.
JoJo counts every step he takes all day/all night day in/day out. It’s a left-over tick from his junkie days when he counted the steps from his flat to the methadone clinic uptown, but now it’s just a habit, something he does to keep his mind busy, and that’s OK. Whatever it takes. He has a sister named Tina who occupies her time by copying down menus in pads while she’s waiting for her Miso soup to arrive. She’s no junkie. She’s an evolutionary biologist -- she can tell you why a whitetail deer’s tail is white. She was real fat at one time, but still...something’s not quite right in that family.
“Hey, Auggie,” JoJo says, “you hear about Indigo Red?”
“He get nabbed?”
“He woke up dead.”
“For real, yesterday morning, Indigo Red woke up dead.”
“I bet that slut he was hanging with...aaa, what’s her name, the pole-dancer...I bet she screwed him to death.”
“I think he was alone.”
“They were here Wednesday night watching the ballgame; she couldn’t keep her hands off him.”
“I can pretty much guarantee he won’t be around for the playoffs.”
“Pool hall!” Auggie shouts and points at JoJo. “You just left the pool hall.”
“No guess work. I pulled a Sherlock on you.”
“Deduction.” Auggie points to JoJo’s green chalky fingernails with traces of white talcum powder dusting his shirtsleeves.
The door swings open and the band chaingangs in. One, two, three, four road weary musicians toting beat-up leather cases and a couple of scratched and dented pawnshop style amps. “There’s a payphone ringing out there,” the drummer says.
The boys at the bar acknowledge with a communal nod. “Stay away from it like it was radioactive,” JoJo warns.
Auggie points to the back of the dark room.
The band squints through lingering cigarette smoke and flickering shadows from blinking neon beer signs trying to make heads or tails of the shifting landscape.
Auggie hits a toggle switch under the bar, a couple of raw spotlights pop on illuminating a narrow room with a small stage and some round duce tables with ice cream parlor chairs decked on top.
The band sets up.
The Tic/Toc is a no-fluff-bare-boned musical Purgatory. A Bluesy Mo-Town R&B club where everyone is forever paying dues.
The band does a sound check; tapping the microphones. Boom/boom. One/two. Boom/boom. One/two. They plug in, tune-up; the narrow room quickly turns into a sound chamber filling with wandering neurotic notes that don’t add up.
Rollo Rollins, a moonlight-lizard in alligator shoes slithers through the door along with a couple of trailing rings from the anxious payphone outside. Rollo sits at the bar next to Eddie Cans. Rollo buys a round for the house including Auggie and the band. “This one’s on me,” he says, “I had a very good day.” Rollo accepts a perfunctory barroom salute by nodding back magnanimously. Then he leans into Eddie Cans, “I believe that’s your phone ringing out there,” Rollo tells him.
“Give it a rest, Rollo.”
“You want to answer it. You know you do.”
“Why you being such a ball-buster?”
“That’s what I do.”
“No one else rags on me about it anymore, not JoJo, not Auggie, not any of these bums.”
“They don’t have my sensibilities for matters of the heart.”
“You do talk some sweet shit, I’ll give you that.”
Rollo raises his bushy eyebrows.
“Do I owe you money, Rollo?”
“I’m not carrying you.”
“So I don’t have to actually talk to you?”
“No, not me, but you should answer the phone and talk to your sweetie-o, you heartbreaker you.”
“It was before anybody knew better when I answered that phone. You know that, Rollo. I was collecting cans and bottles back then and living on the streets, you know that too. And it was snowing that night, sideways, with a wind-chill.”
“I heard you stayed the night, and into the next day.”
“A man does what a man has to do.”
“Or what he wants to do.”
“You ever sleep in a flophouse, Rollo, with a bunch of stinking stew bums and junkies?”
“So when did you find out?”
“Soon as the door opened, I knew.”
Rollo shakes his head.
“Like I said, Rollo I don’t have to talk to you.”
Auggie drops a couple of beers off and waits for his dough.
Rollo pulls out a wad of bills from the pocket of his gabardines. The fat bookies roll is wrapped with a thick red rubber band. It’s a little-dick roll with the large bills on the top, starting with C-notes. It takes forever to peel down to the smaller bills. Rollo is in no particular hurry. He loves flashing his cash. He lives for it. Thing is, what he carries in his pocket is his total inventory; it’s what he owns, it’s who he is. He drops a couple of Jackson’s on the bar just as the chaotic musical notes in the background assemble nicely into a slick rendition of Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour. First the bass, then drums, electric keyboard and finally the guitar. The guitar player is a tall thin sickly looking dude named Jake from Cambridge wearing a fedora. Every note Cambridge Jake squeezes out of his black and white Stratocaster cuts across his tortured face like a razor and the elongated empty spaces between the notes land like body blows to his midsection. Cambridge Jake is the music.
“Tell me the story again,” Rollo begs Eddie Cans.
“Not a chance.”
“Once more time and I’ll get off your case forever.”
“That’s not the first time I heard that.”
“If I ever bring it up again, I’ll buy a hundred dollars worth of CDs off you.”
Eddie Cans holds up two fingers.
“A buck fifty,” Rollo counters.
Eddie Cans holds out his hand.
You don’t trust me?
It’s not that I don’t trust you...it’s just that...I don’t trust you.
Rollo folds the cash in Eddie Cans’ hand. Tell me the story and don’t leave anything out.
I’m standing in the entranceway of the Tic/Toc...
“Wait...wait...everybody should hear this.”
“I know this is going to be hard for you, Rollo, but try not to be such a ass-hole, and if you interrupt me again...all bets are off.”
Back then I’m carrying my usual trash bag full of cans and bottles around, the Tic/Toc is closing, the wind is whipping down the boulevard, and the snow feels like buckshot on my face. I’m buttoning up my overcoat and pulling a knit cap down over my ears feeling all forlorn and neglected when the payphone starts ringing. I figure, why not, I pick it up, say hello. You look cold, a voice says. You can see me? I ask. I can see you. You’re wearing a long coat and a navy watch cap, right? I glance around. The voice tells me to look up. I glance up over my head into the swirling snow between the skyscrapers. The voice laughs and says, nooo, I’m not God. I’m across the street, the Mayflower Hotel, can you see me waving? I wave back through the driving snow at this blurry figure standing in a buttery yellow rectangle of light on the second floor of The Mayflower. Come on up, the voice says. It’s toasty warm up here. We’ll have cocktails. Room 222.
I knock on the door. As soon as it opens I know what I’m up against...but still I drop my bag of refunds and step in. The room is warm. The Jamaican rum has a single ice cube in it. I take the glass.
You’re not a girl, I say.
I’m not God, either.
You got a better shot of being God than a girl.
“He looks that bad, huh?” Rollo says.
“Actually...no, he’s not that bad looking, in the right light he could fool you...no five o’clock shadow or anything blatant like that...but still you can tell.”
“And beat up like a mechanics.”
“Then what happens?”
“Come on...he didn’t touch you?”
“He put his hand on my knee once.”
“Damn. What’d you do?”
“Drank the rum.”
“There was a blizzard outside...people have been known to freeze to death.”
“What did I’m Not God have on his feet?”
“Open-toed fluffy slippers with clear plastic heels.”
“Shit. Was he wearing a wig...did he have a dress on...what kind a dress?”
“What the fuck, Rollo, if you’re that curious why don’t you just go pick-up the phone and find out for yourself?”
“You know Rollo I’m getting a distinct suspicion you got a thing going for I’m Not God?”
“Don’t try and turn this around on me.”
Eddie Cans cups his hand to his ear, leans towards the door. “Listen,” he says. “The phone, it’s still ringing out there. It’s playing your song, Rollo. Hurry; go answer it before it’s too late. You know you want to.”
Rollo gets off the barstool. His gabardine pants are wrinkling at the waist. His shirt twisting, buttons pulling, belly hanging over his belt, face flushed and his arms and legs are rubbery. He stomps a tingling sensation out of his legs.
“Are you all right?”
“You look shaky.”
“Fat guys like you fall over dead at alarming rates.”
“Tell me something I don’t know?” Rollo steps into the men’s room.
Rollo comes out in a few looking only half-baked now with his wrinkles smoothed, shirt tucked, fat pink fleshy face washed, thin hair wet combed straight back; only problem: a tell-tale trickle of piss down the front of his gabardines.
Eddie Cans is finishing up the burger and working the CD angle on JoJo.
“You know Auggie don’t want nothing hot going down in here,” JoJo says.
Eddie slides the list over. “Auggie’s a vinyl dinosaur,” he whispers.
JoJo sniffs, peruses the form.
Without missing a beat the band morphs into, Season Of The Witch.
Rollo finishes his beer, lights up a smoke, flips a ten spot on the bar for Auggie. “Anybody up for Chinese?” he asks.
Eddie Cans gestures to his burger.
“I’m heading over to The Ding/Ho for some noodles and fried wontons.”
Still no takers.
“Have it your way, smucks.” Rollo hit’s the street alone again.
“I’m not real fond of that guy,” Eddie Cans tells JoJo.
“He’s just tired of eating alone.”
He’s a good tipper. Auggie snaps up the ten-spot, wipes down the bar, buffing up every last little sweat bead droplet of water into oblivion until the lacquered African mahogany shines to hurt your eyes.
Outside, Rollo’s listening to the phone’s last chance desperate rings. To Rollo it sounds like it’s on it’s knees pleading to be answered. And then Rollo swears that phone gets personal, calling out his name.
Rollo starts sweating again and whirls away from the phone.
The phone screams out Rollo Rollo Rollo!
In a hazy moment of chaos Rollo turns back around and picks up the receiver and listens...then he says something that ends with Ding/Ho and hangs up.
Rollo unlocks the door to his midnight-blue Riviera, sinks into white leather and turns over the engine. He makes a u-turn, the wire-wheels sparkle with the reflecting neon signs. Rollo pulls up in front of The Mayflower and inspects his face in the rearview mirror before checking out the front door of the Tic/Toc Lounge.
I’m Not God struts out of The Mayflower and fandangos down the stairs like a nightmare wrapped in billowy yellow silks with pearl earrings and evening gloves. Rollo leans over and swings open the door to the Riviera. I’m Not God bends in, crosses his legs, places his gloved hands modestly over his boney knees and stares straight out the windshield.
Not a word is spoken as they cruise down the boulevard through all the early evening flash of blinking marquees.
Eddie Cans and JoJo step out of the Tic/Toc into a warm mist just in time to watch the Riviera carriage back up to the Mayflower and I’m Not God step out carrying a doggy bag from the Ding/Ho.
I’m Not God leans over and says, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
I’m not God slams the door closed.
Rollo pulls away from the curb.
The Rivera reflects back at itself in the wet blacktop.
“What do you think about that?” Eddie Can shakes his head.
“Rollo didn’t have to eat alone tonight.”
The payphone starts ringing.
BIO: Robert Caporale’s most recent publications can be seen in Wildcat, The Café Irreal, Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly, The Lummox Journal, Confrontation, and The Avatar Review. He is finishing up a short story collection and thinking about a novel. He takes MFA workshops at the University of Massachusetts.
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