WHALE FOOD - JOSH CONVERSE
An entry in NEEDLE Magazine’s Needle Flash Fiction Challenge
I step in front of the Whale’s door. “Let me take it up.”
Early gives me the short eye. He tucks the paper bag in his armpit like a car stereo. “Whaddya mean? Quit fuckin around, it’s cold.”
“Don’t be greedy. Besides, you owe me from last weekend.”
“Bullshit. Eddie won’t let you up there anyway.”
“He knows you stole his sister’s bike, for one.”
“I didn’t steal shit.”
“My ass. I was with you when you did it.”
“Well, Eddie wasn’t. So fuck him. And who’s side you on anyhow?”
“My side.” Early tries to push past. “Now back your ass up. The man’s hungry. The hungrier he gets, the grouchier he gets. The grouchier he gets, the grouchier the tips get. I got no time for your cryin’, and I got no time for your bullshit. Now back up or get squashed.”
“Fuckin’ bullshit bike anyhow. Fourteen bucks I got for it.”
“Make sure I pass that on to Eddie.”
“Yeah, go and report to Eddie then. Go on. He’s up waitin’ on you.”
“Everybody in the neighborhood reports to Eddie. And Eddie reports to the Whale.” Early points west down Madison. “And the sun sets right down there. You need any more informa--”
I only need the bag. I break up Early’s monologue by snagging it.
Early’s face sets. “Gimme that back.”
“No. Now I got it and that’s it, man. I’m goin up, Early. You wanna push the issue we can, but it is going to get physical.”
“Pssh. I’ll dribble your wispy little ass all over this sidewalk.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But you aren’t getting this fuckin’ bag without taking at least one punch in the face or the stomach and you can count on that. Is it worth it? Is it worth our frien--”
Early half-steps and pops me full in the mouth. Straight right, lots of shoulder. I go down. On the ground, I take an extra kick in the belly.
“Take your ass upstairs, then,” he says. “See what you get.”
I spit out a rotten incisor and struggle up to one knee. Early walks past.
Third floor. Top of the stairs, it’s Eddie, watching the Whale’s door. He sees the bag. “Where’s Early?”
“I said I’d drop it for him.”
“Buncha lousy panhandlers, this block. Hey, how’s that sister of yours?”
“Not so good.”
His lip curls. “I know it. Paul seen her downtown. Paul says she’s not lookin’ so hot. Like a little yellow in the eyes. Like she maybe dropped twenty, thirty pounds. Not that she couldn’t use it.”
“Perforated with fuckin’ stick holes is what she is. That animal sweats dope.”
“She’s gettin’ help. She stays up my mom’s place.”
Eddie laughs. I feel his breath from two feet away. “You ain’t got the help she needs, you poor jerk. And hey,” he snaps and sticks a big finger in my face, “don’t think I don’t know about that bike, too.”
“Right, what. That’s all right, Donnie-boy. You come down here and get your little tip money and run off like you and all your little bullshit buddies always do. I can take that bike up with you anytime I want.” He gives me the Sergeant Slaughter stare-down. “Any, any, any old time.” Eddie checks the time. “Shit, it’s almost one. He’s gonna be pissed.”
The Whale’s place stinks like stale piss. Fact, between the smell and the mustard carpet and the nicotine stains on the walls and the windows, all you can think of in there is piss.
He’s in sight of a hundred years old, the Whale. Spends the day at a big desk with a big black rotary phone and calls in bets to three different horse tracks. Takes lunch just past noon. After lunch, Eddie and the Whale go over the numbers. At night, the Whale sips minestrone and a whiskey sour with two other old fucks downtown, then walks six blocks with Eddie.
But for lunch, the Whale likes an Italian beef combo sandwich, which is basically a wad of Italian beef smuggling a sausage link through half a loaf of soggy bread. Bruno’s doesn’t have a delivery guy, but the Whale’s sandwich is never late. Why? Because the Whale, full service kneecap crackin’ cocksucker that he is, happens to be a spectacular tipper.
I put the bag in the middle of the desk.
“That Eddie?” he says.
Eddie elbows me in the back.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
The Whale pulls out the sandwich. “Paul said he saw Samantha downtown.”
“Eddie mentioned, yeah.”
“Mentioned? What in the hell’s goin’ on with her?”
“She’s so sick.”
The Whale growls through a throatful of phlegm. “You ain’t kiddin’! Sick?” He peels off the wrapper. Steam rolls out. “Paul said he never saw anything like it.”
“We’re tryin’ to help her out.”
Eddie pipes in. “She got either the HIV or that hepatitilitis or whatever. That’s what Paul said.”
“That so, Donnie?”
“We’re tryin’ to help her out. I was gonna talk to you about that.”
“Talk to me about what?”
“About maybe you can help us out.”
Eddie grabs me. “Enough. This ain’t Make-A-Wish.”
“Maybe keep your dope pushers off my street.”
“Show him the door, Eddie.” The Whale raises the sandwich up to his mouth.
Eddie smacks the back of my head. “C’mon. We’re done here. Out, asshole.” I watch the Whale’s face while Eddie shoves me toward the door. A couple chomps and I hear the crunch. Blood starts running from the Whale’s mouth. Bits of Samantha’s broken, dirty, bloody hypodermic tumble from his lips. He keeps chewing like it’s nothing.
Eddie sees this and runs to his uncle’s side. Halfway there, I cave Eddie’s head in with the big black phone. Down goes Frazier.
The Whale looks down and dabs the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
It turns red. He shrugs. “Fuck you.”