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Gordon Walsh’s insides were gurgling loudly; so loudly, in fact, that the old woman sitting at the table behind him furled her eyebrows and rubbed her stomach. “Shhh,” she told it. “Shhh!”
Gordon squirmed in his seat and checked his watch. Gas and gastric juices bubbled in his abdomen. Heartburn seared his torso. Waiters meandered through the tables, balancing trays loaded with steaming Italian dishes whose aromas did nothing to quiet his digestive system. Nervous bowel movements and acid indigestion had plagued him since childhood, but he couldn’t recall an attack this severe. Still, he would have to deal with the anxiety somehow. There was always the bathroom, but he worried that his guest would arrive to an empty table.
Tums would do the trick. “Excuse me,” he said to the nearest waiter, a tall man who, turning with a flourish, raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment and sidled over.
“Hi,” stammered Gordon. “Uh… I’m sorry, but, you wouldn’t happen to have any Tums, would you?”
The waiter’s eyes narrowed.
“Tums. It’s a kind of medicine?”
“I am… sorry, but I do not know… what ees Tums.” Embarrassed, the waiter turned toward the bar and a short mustached man, catching his gaze, bounced out of the enclosure and sauntered over to Gordon’s table.
“Hello, sir, my name is Benito,” the man said, clasping his hands. His accent was tinged Italian. “I’m the manager here at DiRossini’s. How may I help you?”
Gordon flushed; people were looking at him. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, this really isn’t that big of a deal, but I was wondering if you had any Tums. The medicine.”
“Tums?” asked the manager. He looked at the waiter and quietly reiterated, receiving a shrug in response.
“No, um, you know what?” Gordon wiped sweat off his forehead. “Is there a pharmacy nearby? Like a CVS or something?”
“There is a Duane Reade six blocks down the street. Is that what you’re looking for?”
The old lady sitting behind them turned. “Did you say you needed a Tums?”
Gordon blinked. “Uh… yes.”
“Well, I don’t have any,” she replied, “but my stomach just happens to be acting up as well. It’s been making some strange noises ever since I left this restaurant yesterday afternoon.” She glowered at the manager. “I think it’s the food.”
Benito turned a deep shade of marinara. “Of course you…” His lips spread back across his teeth. “Ma’am, I can assure you, our food is perfectly–”
“I didn’t ask you!” she snapped. Her eyes darted back to Gordon, and she smiled with sugary sympathy. “If the pain gets any worse, let me know. We’ll see if we can’t find you some medicine.”
Gordon shivered. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, dear.” She eyed Benito one last time and returned to her chardonnay. The manager rubbed his mustache with his thumb and knuckle, mumbling, “The food is not causing your pain, sir. I can assure you of that.”
“I know,” said Gordon. “I haven’t had any yet.”
The waiter chimed in. “Do you… still need zee medicine?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” Gordon tapped his foot with an impatience that Benito took as a welcome sign. Bowing, the manager touched the waiter’s arm and left; when he looked back at the old woman, there was murder in his eyes.
The waiter was dragged into the kitchen and pulled over to the counter. “I have customers, Benito,” he said in sympathetic Italian.
Benito looked around. He licked his lips and pointed toward the doorway. In the same vernacular, he whispered, “How dare she…”
The waiter sighed. “I know, I know.”
“That old putanna has been coming to this restaurant every day for the last year, and all she does is complain. Complain, complain, complain!”
“She’s always by herself…”
“Too much cheese, not enough basil, too much basil, not enough cheese, slow service, now stomach aches. I cannot even imagine how many customers she has scared away with her stupid accusations!”
“So what can we do, Benito?” The waiter threw his hands up in futility. “She’s loyal and she pays for her food.”
Benito slapped the waiter’s left hand out of the air. “She’s a psychopath! She’s filed three lawsuits against this restaurant!”
“And none of them made it to court!”
“Not the point, Antonio. You know what I’m trying to say.”
“Of course I do, signore.”
“She has embarrassed me in front of every patron we’ve had. She won’t rest until she has my head on a platter!”
“I know, but there’s nothing we can do about it, Benito–”
“That is where you are wrong, my friend.” Benito reached down into his pocket belt and extracted a small vial of clear liquid. “This,” – he shook it – “is the answer to all of our problems.”
Antonio bent down and peered in. “What is it?”
A beat. “What?”
“It leaves no trace. I don’t know how it works, but my friend has promised me it will get the job done.” He returned the vial to his pocket, stone-faced.
Antonio squinted. “So we’re just going to kill her?”
“Keep your voice down!” He looked around. “And yes, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. She’s old, alone, and all she does is complain and make people unhappy. We’ll be doing the world a favor.”
“And you want to kill her in the middle of the restaurant?”
“Of course not! The poison acts slowly if the proper dose is given. Five drops and she’ll die in the middle of the night. Nobody will know.” He clenched his fist. “Just think, Antonio, we’ll never have to see her again!”
The waiter scratched his head. “This is wrong, Benito.”
Benito clasped his hands and smacked them against his face. “Listen to me, you idiot! She is a lonely woman! A sad, lonely old woman, who has nothing better to do than piss on my reputation! We’re putting her out of her misery.”
“We’re putting you out of your misery.”
“That as well.”
A long pause. “Well, let’s say we do this. How can you be sure that your friend was right about the way the poison works?” Antonio asked.
“My friend is very reliable,” Benito responded. “I trust him. So should you.”
The wave of nausea overcame Gordon shortly after the wait staff departed. Thanks to a sharp headache and a disoriented sense of direction, it took him a full two minutes to find the bathroom.
The door was mercifully unlocked. He pushed it open using his dizzy momentum and slammed it shut, tripping against the sink and stumbling over to the toilet like a stowaway finding his sea legs. Kneeling down on the wet tile, he vomited ferociously, retching and heaving, the digestive soup pounding against his throat until he coughed from sheer lack of oxygen. Even when his stomach ran out of ammo, the sour taste persisted; he choked on the acidity of his saliva, expelling it from his throat in swinging beads of drool.
When the sickness finally subsided, Gordon used the toilet seat to hoist himself up off the floor. He made his way over to the sink and looked into the mirror, breathing heavily. His face was shiny with sweat and colored like patchwork, beet red in some spots and pale yellow in others. Sticky residue lined his lips.
He ran the faucet and sloshed cold water on his cheeks and forehead, drying himself off with paper towels. Looking into the mirror again, he stared into the terrified brown eyes of the man in the reflection and fixed his hair. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale…
Mr. Remington Scott awaited Gordon at the table. Wearing a gray suit and a platinum Rolex, he scanned the restaurant as if he owned it, smirking widely and without warrant. He anticipated Gordon’s arrival with poise and panache, folding the napkin on his lap and ordering a bottle of expensive South African white. The other customers snuck glances at him, wondering who he was.
Eventually the old lady at the neighboring table had to see what all the unspoken hullaballoo was about. She stole a glimpse over her shoulder, squinting for a better look. Mr. Scott, catching her eye, sent a suave little wink in her direction, and she melted faster than butter on toast. What a proper gentleman, she thought, returning to her wine with a grin. A handsome little thing.
Gordon came back from the bathroom, and Mr. Scott saw him immediately. In the moment that their gazes interlocked, Gordon was tempted to sprint out the door and into the countryside, far away from DiRossini’s Italian Bistro and Mr. Fletcher’s All-Purpose Convenience Store. The mob would never find him. He would work on a farm with cows and chickens, pulling minimum wage, eating lunch in the tall red silo of the barn. No cruel city corruption, only polite, hospitable country folk. Urban life would be a distant memory, one he could joke about with the farmer’s daughter.
The man beckoned him over, and with the open fields of the farm emblazoned in his mind, Gordon obeyed. Left, right, left, right, left, right…
Mr. Scott pushed Gordon’s chair out with his foot, and Gordon took hold of it and lowered himself into the seat. Mr. Scott watched with a smile, but something furious gleamed in his eye. “Gordon,” he said. “Gordon, Gordon, Gordon…”
Gordon concentrated on the man’s nose. “Mr. Scott–”
“This is a fantastic bottle.” He indicated the glass. “I poured you some. Why don’t you try it?”
“I know it’s not standard protocol to order South African in an Italian restaurant, particularly one as reputable as DiRossini’s, but… I saw it on the menu and I couldn’t resist.” Mr. Scott watched his guest. “You can have some, you know; it’s on me. I want you to spend your money where it’s worth spending.”
Gordon opened his mouth. “Well, speaking of which…”
“Speaking of what?”
“Right. Where is it?”
“I… I have most of it.” The hot spring in his stomach was bubbling. Geysers of pain and nausea were soon to follow.
Mr. Scott looked straight into his eyes. “Most of it?”
“Yes, I just need–”
“Wait, let me get this straight.” He sat back in his chair. “First I give you two weeks to find out where your boss is. Then I give you a month to get your act together and accumulate the fees, which, let me remind you, have been owed for almost a year.”
Gordon gulped down the bad taste. “I get that, sir, but you have to understand, I-I-I don’t know where Mr. Fletcher is. He never came back.”
“So he disappeared. Just like that.”
“Yes, and I never saw him again. He left me in charge of the store in his absence, and I’ve, I’ve been in charge ever since. I’ve tried calling him, calling his wife,” – Mr. Scott nodded along – “and they never responded, so I went to his house and he wasn’t there. I–I don’t know where he is.”
“Well, that’s a problem.”
Gordon was silent.
“But, there’s another problem, Gordon, which is that the last time I saw you, I asked you to have the money today. Right here at this table. And where is it? Oh, you don’t have it. Now that angers me, because the money you’re supposed to be delivering to me is not your money to keep.”
“But, but you’re right. Mr. Scott, it’s not my money, it’s Mr. Fletcher’s. I don’t own the store. I don’t have any money to pay you.”
Mr. Scott brought his hands together and pressed them against his mouth. He leaned forward. “Okay, Gordon, listen to me, and listen well, because I’m only gonna tell you this once. You’re gonna go to the bank tomorrow. You’re gonna withdraw all of the store’s funds. Every penny. And then, Gordon, if you value your life at all, you’re gonna find a way to make up the rest of your debt by the end of next week; otherwise you’d better start praying that God’ll come and destroy me himself, ‘cause that’s the only thing that’s gonna stop me from settling the score.”
The old lady behind them was speaking to the tall waiter. “I’ll get the spaghetti alla puttanesca, and make sure they don’t put on any spice. You hear that? No spice.”
“Spaghetti alla puttanesca,” Mr. Scott repeated, sliding his finger down the menu. “That does sound good. What do you think, Gordon?”
Gordon stared at his menu. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale…
Another waiter approached. “Are we ready to order?”
“Yes, I believe we are,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m gonna go for the puttanesca, and we’ll get a, uh… chicken parmesan for this gentleman right here.”
At this, the old lady smiled and touched her lips with eyes as wide as moons. Something primal awakened within her. Her insides burned with a giddy sense of renewal, and she looked over her shoulder at the man who made her feel young again.
Antonio, meanwhile, walked over to his manager, who was waiting by the bar. “Puttanesca,” he told him.
Benito nodded. “Va.”
When Antonio entered the kitchen, the bartender shifted over. “You know who that is?” he asked, pointing at Mr. Scott.
“Of course I do. I know a few of his friends.”
“Violent people, eh?”
“Yes, violent indeed. That’s why I leave them alone.”
Benito kept his eye on the old woman, who, out of some tragic coincidence, was seated at the table adjacent to Mr. Scott. The owners of DiRossini’s were blissfully unaware of the damage she had wreaked; he had concealed it well. But if Mr. Scott were to learn of her senseless tirades, Benito would likely lose his job, along with all the money and connections he had. Then he’d have nothing, and Antonio would have no reason to stay with him. With whom, then, would he share his apartment – his shower? Who would satisfy his cravings, his unreciprocated desires? No one. He would be as alone as the geriatric gentlewoman he was ready to kill.
Antonio strode through the steam-bathed kitchen. “Puttanesca, no spice,” he said to the chef, who nodded and barked out the order to his sweating staff.
The cooking steam wafted through Antonio’s mouth and nostrils, filling his sinuses with the smell of tomatoes. He put his hand in his pocket to grip the small vial within. This is crazy, he thought. All the same, he knew where his loyalties lay. Benito had given him a home, a bed and a job, seemingly out of the kindness of his heart.
But what if the poison didn’t work the way it was supposed to? Or what if the coroner came upon it in the autopsy? Would the police uncover the identity of the culprit? And killing a customer, regardless of age, called for some ethical considerations as well. Could he ever justify the act in his own mind?
The waiters circled around reading off orders, loading dishes onto platters with the grace of ballerinas. “Puttanesca!” The cook placed a bowl of spaghetti on the counter, and Antonio moved toward it as if it were a landmine.
He glanced around. Nobody was looking. He pulled out the vial and removed the cap, holding the serum just above the dish. How much did Benito say he supposed to put on? He wasn’t sure, so he dashed the entire contents of the container across the spaghetti and returned the empty vial to his pocket.
It was done, he said to himself. So why did his doubts remain?
His heart froze. When he turned around, he saw that it was the bartender who had called for him.
“The grandma you’re supposed to be waiting on is complaining that our service is awful. Get her dish and go!”
Antonio nodded clumsily.
While his eyes were diverted, another dish of puttanesca was placed on the counter. Mr. Scott’s waiter came by and grabbed the first one he could see.
Very soon now, Benito thought to himself as Antonio approached the target. His moustache tingled with anticipation. So very soon…
Mr. Scott ogled his meal as the waiter placed it in front of him. He tucked his napkin into his shirt. “Dig in, Gordon. The food here is excellent.”
Gordon wasn’t particularly hungry. The pain was back in full swing; he wished more than ever that he had gone to get the Tums. Was it too late to ask the manager for directions?
“Mmm, this is good,” said Mr. Scott through clumps of spaghetti. “Could have done with a little more flavor though…”
At the same time, the old lady snapped her fingers. She looked at Antonio, seething with rage. “I asked for no spice, god dammit! You people are inept!”
“So.” Mr. Scott swallowed. “When are we going to have the money by?”
Gordon barely mumbled. “End of next week.”
“I can’t hear you, Gordon.”
“End of next week.”
“Fantastic. Now, I–” He coughed loudly and held the napkin to his mouth. “I–” Another cough. And another.
Gordon looked up.
The man’s eyes bulged in terror as he continued to hack. “Gordon–”
The old lady turned around. “My god, how spicy did they make your spaghetti?”
Mr. Scott ceased to breathe, and his head hit the bowl. It shattered on impact, blasting puttanesca in every direction. The collision of forehead against porcelain sent out a sonic boom that spread in waves across the restaurant, startling the customers and sending a cold shock through Benito’s body. Slowly, agonizingly, the manager looked up from behind the bar. When he realized whom the poison had taken, his lower lip began to vibrate, and the restaurant proceeded to collapse around him.
All was deadly silent. Even the old woman had nothing to say. Antonio moved forward, ever so slightly, and tapped Mr. Scott on the shoulder. No movement.
Gordon Walsh saw fields. Wide open spaces, rolling pastures, grass and picket fences. Cows, chickens, and the farmer’s daughter. The silhouette of the silo against the pink-gold sunset. A world full of life and vivid color.
Gordon was insignificant, unreligious, cowardly and small, but the Lord’s love for him had remained steadfast; in his sickness, he had prayed to the toilet bowl, and the hand of God struck down the devil. Now heaven was too close for him to wait any longer. His heart swelling with untamable joy, he stood up and ran out the door of DiRossini’s. Benito followed soon after.