My name is Landesky. That’s an alias, by the way. I always use one. Sometimes I go by Othello Portright. Sometimes a bartender whispers Who’s that dashing gentleman in the discreet linen suit? to which an in-the-know blonde replies (in a hushed tone) Who, that man? Why, that’s Gladstone Fitch. Online I usually use the name Shannon Goldwhip. Haven’t used Landesky since the last time I was in Mexico City. And what was Mr. Landesky’s first name? Was it Rick? No . . . maybe Paul? Just for safety, we’ll avoid getting to know anyone on a first-name basis. Never know when you’ll run into a member of the Nieves gang. Mexican coke has made it pretty far up the East Coast in recent years. If those frat boys only knew about the bodies. But that’s besides the point. This mission makes Mexico City look like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese.
The sun has started to go down, but nights down here are as hot as the days. The AC in my rental car is blasting, cool air swirling around my bald head. It’s trips like these when I’m glad baldness runs in the family. That is, if I even have a family. Maybe I shave my dome. Maybe I’m the kind of guy who misses a haircut and before ya know it you’re being mistaken for Brian May. I turn off 95 following signs to Norchalk. It’s my first time. Nothing spectacular. Just exit after exit of gas stations, fast food joints, car dealerships, billboards, pieces of tire strewn all over the road (causing me to swerve more than once), another strip mall, a bridge, and a downtown area with three- and four-story brick buildings that really drive home that small-town charm.
I cross another bridge. It’s dark out now. Time to get out and stretch. I park the car a few blocks away—close enough to make a quick getaway, but far enough that no-one will see the car pull up. I open the door and feel the splash of water under my shoe. Doesn’t this sorry-ass hick town have storm gutters? Didn’t see any rain on the way in. I shake my shoe and act like it doesn’t bother me as I stride down the sidewalk with long, graceful steps. The Landesky family has a long history of long legs, culminating in the superstardom of Terry Landesky (my first and second cousin) who started 74 games at center for the Dallas Mavericks before a knee injury cut his career short. I’m even taller than poor Terry, but never had his natural athleticism. I probably would’ve had a good career too if I hadn’t spent my high school years cultivating my mind instead of doing suicides in the gym with Coach Farmer, a tyrannical man who reminded mom of the communist politicians back home. Don’t let man like that tell you what to do she would say. No good. Big mustache. Words I live my life by.
There’s a strange electricity in the air. Like Bruce Springsteen has a show tonight at the amphitheater. Black-clad gangs of students brush my shoulder as they pass. Their laughter is obnoxious and loud. One group which speed-walks past me (paying me no attention) all have bandanas over their mouths. The leader is mumbling about someone named Aaron (or Erin). I’ve been around enough bandana’d people to know to stay out of their way. Twice I see groups of kids shouting at each other across the median, pointing and threatening a fight. The older folks pace up and down the sidewalk, minding their own business. I sympathize with them. Let us not forget, however, that they were once young and making noise in the street to the bewilderment of the older generation. It’s like ole Winston Churchill used to say: “You’re young and radical until you get old and your joints stop working.”
I pretend to look for a place to grab a bite. I even bother to check out the menu at a place called “Norchalk Sushi-rito.” From the looks of it, they specialize in making sushi rolls the size of a burrito, but they also have salads and soy broth. I might have to stop here for lunch on my way out of town. But, though I appear to be contemplating my dinner options, I know exactly where I’ll be eating tonight.
There it is. I hold up a polaroid, circa 1980, and lower it to compare. Pablo’s Sí-Food hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s still the statue of an old-timey diver holding maracas, welcoming guests as they enter. The exterior of the building is pink and green and lined with multi-colored Christmas lights. Even the tacky sign and logo were never updated. I peek at the menu in the window. A lot of cheap shit. Fish tacos sound okay, depending on the fish they use (it doesn’t say). This is the part of the job where you miss the comforts of home.
I blow on the coffee which is most likely Folgers—instant, and definitely not fresh. The interior is as tacky as the exterior. Did we need a fishing line nailed to the joist and a shark fin sticking out of the rafters to drive the point home? This kid waiter . . . Khaled is his name, I think . . . he keeps scratching his beard and I’m wondering what kind of whiskers I’m gonna be picking out of my food in a minute.
The dumb hostess didn’t listen to me and put be in a booth far away from the kitchen, right next to a big window. Very inconspicuous. What’s worse, the bathrooms here are at the front by the doors so there’s no good excuse to go snooping around in the back. Either way, good opportunity to scope the place out. I’m blowing on my coffee which is ice-cold by now when a young couple comes in the front. The man makes eye contact with me. I nod, playing it cool. The girl asks for a booth, and the dumb hostess looks out over the whole deserted restaurant and decides to put them right next to me.
Now they’re keeping their conversation hush-hush, as if I’d bother eavesdropping on their meaningless exchange about how she’s studying medicine and his dad helps him pay to live in one of the new hi-rise tower just off campus called The Dalton, and his neighbors make too much noise and his new roommate Todd cooks weird-smelling food late at night.
Then the kid waiter, who apparently couldn’t find any matching clothes before coming into work (college towns have always struggled with the concept of a dress code) decides he’s ready to take my order.
“Well my kind sir,” I start, buttering the kid up, “I think I’ll be starting with some chips and dip.”
“Chips . . . and . . . dip . . .” The poor kid is struggling to get his cheap pen to work. One mustn’t dive in on a case like this. Play it cool. Like any ordinary customer.
“Now, as for my entree. Says here you can order a live lobster. Now, do you guys do the thing where you get to pick out which lobster you want? I mean, is there a tank where they’re all runnin’ around?” This is the part where subtlety is key. Never be obvious about your mission. But, if an opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate. A younger man would writhe in his sit right about now. But ole Landensky is a seasoned pro—a cool customer.
“Uh . . .” Cali looks up, like he’s scrambling for an answer. “Yeah there’s a tank. But . . .” He squints. I think I might’ve blown it. He’s onto me. I look down at the menu, playing it off like it was a joke.
“Oh, it’s okay, don’t wor—”
“Let me go ask my manager.” He scurries off to the back. Maybe I jumped the gun. I’ll hold off til tomorrow. But I have to order something. Maybe Mr. Ladinsky is a big lobster fan. Makes sense.
One of the gangs I recognize from earlier enters the restaurant. They’re all laughing in the obnoxious nothing is funny but I’m laughing anyway way. Good distraction. Maybe they’ll be a handful for ole Kaleb, giving me an opportunity. But then again, maybe tonight’s not the night . . .
The kid waiter comes back out, scratching his beard. I try not to stare in disgust.
“Hey, I’m sorry sir but I can’t find my manager anywhere. If you’ll just give me a second—”
“No worries, Caleb. No worries. Just bring me some chips and dip for now. I’m not that hungry. I’ll be in town all week. Not feeling lobster tonight anyway. I was just askin’.” I think he bought it. He gets up to go take the orders of the gang. They’re shouting drunk nonsense at him. This is my chance.
I get up and slink to the kitchen, acting like I’m looking for a bathroom. I even clutch my tummy for effect. People will be much more accommodating if you act like your bowels are churning. I turn around a refrigerator and I’m in the kitchen. One guy is at the grill, mixing a few piles of meat around a flat top. The clanking of his spatula conceals the patter of my gentle, deliberate footsteps. I duck under a counter, knife drawn. It’s in here somewhere. I skirt along the shelves, past plates neatly organized and racks of silverware, past a soda fountain and a humming ice machine. My heart is pounding. It’s fucking hot back here, damn. Sweat pours off my egg. I’m melting. I duck around a corner when I hear Caleb coming, bumping my slick head on the underside of a counter. I don’t think he heard me. He’s clearly in a rush, sloppily throwing chips into a paper-lined basket. Poor guy. Just trying to make a living, and I bet he deals with assholes like this on a regular basis.
There! I raise my knife, instinctively. Across from me is the tank, stuffed with eight or nine lobsters with blue rubber bands on their claws. The little ones are all the way on the left, separated from the bigger ones by a plastic divider. And where the biggest ones should be . . .
I’m back at my table before Caleb knows any better. He drops the chips in front of me. I smile, but before he can see my friendly face he rushes off. On top of one of the chips (one of the red ones) is a big long hair which I know isn’t mine. No matter. I wasn’t planning on eating anyway. I take a deep breath. The guy is gone and the girl is sitting alone, staring out the window. I wipe my head with a napkin. The operation is blown for tonight. No harm, no foul. I need a shower . . . if they have such a thing in ‘these parts.’ I leave a twenty on the table and casually stand up, stretching upwards, banging my head on a chandelier. The girl giggles, but buries her face in her arm. I smile back, as if I thought it was funny and as if my head wasn’t throbbing in pain.
“Here,” I say, in my friendliest voice. “You want the rest of these chips?” Sucker.
She laughs. For the first time since I arrived in Norchalk I see a human glint in a person’s eye, like in a movie where you can tell they’re a robot because of a reflection in their pupil, only this time she’s the real girl and everyone else is a robot.
“Sure, I’ll take em off your hands.” You’ll be flossing with ole Caleb’s beard hair in a moment, dear.
I put on my fedora, and give her a ‘tip o’ the cap’ on my way out. I hear behind me one of the gang shouting about racing to tip. Yeah right, I’m sure you’re all great tippers. My twenty will be the best tip ole Caleb gets all night.