Mob Rule: Part 42
On the run and low on funds, Jack and Vanessa hunker down in a roadside diner and discover the unsung joys of a short-order life and red-eye gravy
By John Armstrong
I have to say, if you’ve ever complained that you had no time to ponder life’s mysteries, get a job as a dishwasher in a busy lunchroom. Once you get into the swing of it, your hands learn the job and most of your mind is free to contemplate and wander where it will. It’s also sort of a non-stop process — a room full of hungry customers can dirty plates and cups just as fast as you can wash them so you soon forget any crazy ideas like “catching up” and just settle into a machinelike routine of dip, scrub, rinse, stack and repeat. The kitchen clock was on the wall behind me so I had no clue what time it was and I was honestly surprised when Cooter tapped my shoulder and said, “Hang up your brush. Time to eat.”
It was just past three and Lurlene had hung the closed sign on the door for our 30 minute lunch break. Cooter had four heaping plates and a pitcher of iced tea ready and the four of us sat down at his butcher’s block to eat fried breaded pork chops, fried potatoes and gravy, fried breaded tomato slices and thick slices of bread buttered and fried on the grill. Cooter was of the opinion no food item was properly cooked until it had been breaded and grilled, excepting hush-puppies which he deep-fried, and okra, which also went into his fryer after being dipped in egg and cornmeal. No green vegetable or salad ever darkened a plate at Cooter’s during my short experience, save stringbeans, and he mistrusted them so much he boiled them until they were nearly white.
Letting Cooter cook for you on a regular basis would either give you scurvy or kill you outright but it was delicious and I wiped my plate clean with the last slice of fried toast.
Cooter relit his cigar stub, poured more tea, and said, “So – what’s your story?”
I decided most of the truth was better than trying to fabricate a story from whole cloth and said, “ We’re trying to get away from some people and leaving the way we did, we’re just about broke. I’m waiting for some money from home but in the meantime we’re yours if you want us.”
Cooter thought about that and blew smoke out of the side of his mouth.
“You gonna bring trouble here for us? You got the Bosses after you?” He was looking straight at me and I looked back at him square.
“No – it’s family trouble. You have no worry there.”
Cooter tapped ash and then pushed himself up from the table and retied his apron. “All right, then. I sleep here but there’s a shed out back you can use, you care to. Have to take water with you if you want any at night.
“Lurlene, turn that sign back around.”
No green vegetable or salad ever darkened a plate at Cooter’s during my short experience, save stringbeans, and he mistrusted them so much he boiled them until they were nearly white.
We worked again until eight and then closed to clean the place up. Lurlene and Vanessa swabbed the front out with bleach and water while I fished stray bits of cremated food out of the fryer and wire-scrubbed the grill. Cooter was getting his breakfast items ready for the morning, slicing onions and potatoes and bacon. About nine we sat down to supper and I felt so tired I’d be lucky if I had strength to lift my fork, but I surprised myself and finished another life-threatening plate of Cooter’s food, along with coffee and pie for desert.
The shed out back was about big enough to pitch a fit, if it was a small one and you kept your voice down, but it had an electric bulb hanging from the ceiling and a two-by-four bunk with a mattress on it. By the time Vanessa crawled back onto it from opening the small side window for air, I was asleep.
Vanessa shook me awake moments later, though when my eyes cleared enough to see there was dim light coming through the window, that hazy, barely-dawn when everything seems painted and varnished that the Irish call ‘fairy time.”
“What is it,” I asked as I pulled my pants on. I was still half-asleep but my heart was racing, expecting gunmen or some other crisis.
“I have to go to the bathroom. I’ve been holding it all night and I can’t wait any longer.” She pulled me up off the bed and towards the door. Sidewise to our honeymoon cabin was a rickety little hut with the telltale half-moon cut into the door. It looked like a harsh word would knock it over. I wouldn’t have gone into it in the dark either.
“All right, I’ll go in and check for varmints.” The door was hanging on one hinge so you needed to lift it more than swing it open, but the bench inside seemed solid enough and I used the Montgomery Ward catalogue sitting beside the hole to sweep cobwebs and their owners away.
Vanessa pushed past me in the doorway and was seated almost before I could get the door back in place. There’s no hurry like the one when you need a toilet.
I lit a smoke. We were up before the rooster but not before the milkman. I could hear the rattle and clink of his wares when the truck stopped in front of Cooter’s. He came down the side of the building and stopped short when he saw me.
“It’s all right, I work here,” I said, and held out my hands to take the wire delivery crates he was carrying. He went back to his truck for the rest of the order and Cooter opened the door just as I came up the short back steps to the restaurant, cigar already in place. I wondered if he took it out when he slept or just chewed on it like a soother.
And so the day began. Cooter had breakfast on – grits, eggs, toast and red-eye gravy, a uniquely Southern item made by pouring yesterday’s coffee into leftover grease in the skillet, stirred and brought to the boil. Even after you see how it’s made, it’s still delicious, which is a worthy achievement. We washed it down with strong perked coffee, sweetened with molasses and cream straight from the cow. Before I’d finished my second cup there was a rap on the door and it was time to work, hauling in sides of pork, gunnysacks of potatoes and other supplies from the stream of old pickup trucks that shuddered into the side driveway. When I looked up at the clock on my way back from the cold room for another load it was almost five a.m.
By the time I was done with my haulage there was a mountain of dishes with grease hardening like a second glaze on them and while I was grateful for the bed and board, on the whole and after sober consideration I decided that honest work had little to recommend it as a career.
When Cooter called lunch I grabbed a piece of fried meat and two slices of bread and took it with me out the door. Cooter didn’t have a phone on the premises.
“Had one for years and finally realized I could count on one hand the number of calls I was genuinely happy to receive”, he said when I asked. “Anyone needs me, they know where I am. If I have to get hold of someone I wait ‘til they come in to eat or send someone to fetch them. If it was an emergency I can just go up the street to the drugstore.”
Which is what I did, and this time I was ready. I’d taken my wages to date in change from the till and I jingled up the street toward the Rexall sign at a trot, looking and sounding like I’d been out robbing piggybanks. The payphone was just inside the drugstore door and it was free. I dialed my number and stood there with a handful of silver at the ready. I got the expected “I’m sorry sir, may I take a message” from the answering service operator, who this time asked if there was anything else she could help me with. I bit my tongue and didn’t mention that so far she hadn’t helped me at all, and left the same message. Then I dialed Frank’s home number and listened to it buzz for a week or so. There was no answer at Joe’s, either, and the desk at Meyer’s hotel said he hadn’t been back to his room for several weeks.
What the hell was going on? I bought cigarettes and a newspaper from the counter and walked back to the restaurant feeling sorry for myself and more than a little worried about my family. Since the day I’d come on, Luciano had never been closed during business hours and now the whole executive level had disappeared – poof! – and I was stranded in the Deep South with a handful of change and a head full of disastrous scenarios. I walked back into the druggist’s and bought a pint of something called Cracker’s Own Pure Sipping Whiskey and stuck it on the back pocket of my pants. When the time came and I laid my apron and rubber gloves down, I had no plans to sip it.
Since the day I’d come on, Luciano had never been closed during business hours and now the whole executive level had disappeared – poof! – and I was stranded in the Deep South with a handful of change and a head full of disastrous scenarios.
That night when we closed up, Cooter set out the usual fried and gravy’ed supper and despite my worries I had no trouble making it disappear. When he brought the coffeepot to the table for refills I pulled out my bottle and offered it. He gave me a disapproving look and I feared that he was a temperance man – the South is genuinely schizophrenic when it comes to alcohol. In some places, you have to drive to the next county to take a drink legally and after making the effort, people are inclined to get their fill while they’re there, which leads to some hair-raising experiences on the back roads, I’m told.
But Cooter wasn’t agin liquor, just the store-bought variety.
“You keep that in case of snake bite”, he said, and retrieved a Mason jar from the kitchen.
“This is genuine Georgia Moon, pure corn squeezin’s aged in the barrel. This’ll get ‘er done.”
He cracked the lid and dribbled a shot into my mug, then raised an eyebrow at Vanessa, who made the thumb and forefinger sign for “just a touch.” A touch was all you needed. Even mixed with coffee it was enough to lay a strong man out and embalm him at the same time.
Cooter snorted at my reaction and said, “That’s the White Dog, there. I know people been drinking it for 50 or more years and still going strong. I take a jigger or so a day, just for my health, whether I want it or not. Though I find I mostly want it after a day’s work.”
I could see that. After the initial shock, much like Lyndon’s home brew it brought on a powerful sense of calm and well-being. Cooter let out a contented sigh, unbuttoned the top of his pants and settled back, and as strangers do when a bottle comes out on the table we began to talk.
He’d been married young and widowed early, his wife taken by “fever,” which in the South means any of a hundred diseases. Lurlene’s husband had simply never come home after going out drinking one night, and she said, “To this day I’ve no idea if he’s dead or fled, and don’t much care. If he’s alive I can only hope he’s unhappy.” Which sounds harsh but then a woman left with three young children and no means of support is entitled to a little bitterness. Between them, they ran the business and made just enough to get by.
“Three seasons out of the year, most of my customers are on a tab,” Cooter says, uncapping the jar again and pouring a bit more into the mugs. “Working people trying to get by and always short. Wages pay you just enough to squeak through so long as nothing bad happens, and it always does. Except for the rich, most everyone is just one piece of bad luck between them and disaster. But I won’t let my neighbors go hungry, and these are honorable people. If they can’t pay all they owe, I get the place painted or the compressor for the cold room fixed. They make good on the debt somehow.
“Now, farmers only get paid the once a year, when the crop goes to market, so I carry them for it inbetweentimes and they supply me with my groceries – meat and vegetables and such. I pay them some and put the rest against the tab.” Most of them were sharecroppers, so whatever they dealt off to Cooter or in exchange for other services – or ate themselves – had to “fall off the truck,” as he put it.
“They work the field all year and get maybe 10 per-cent at harvest. The rest goes to the owners,” he said, shaking his head. “Farming’s a terrible life most of the time, anyway. But I’m proud to say the Free and Sovereign South has managed to make it just that much worse.” He was starting to feel the corn a bit.
I thought that I’d like to run this past my business and economics teachers back at St. Frank’s just to hear them explain how it couldn’t work. An economist, someone said, is a man who looks at something in practice and wonders if it could work in theory.
It also wasn’t that much different than how we ran our business in the North. After all, Luciano and Associates took our cut on everything in our territory, whether we did any work or not. The only real difference was one of degree. We only took about half. Then we lent them what they needed to get by and charged interest on it.
“What about you,” he asked, and I was just drunk enough to tell him, from my upbringing as a half-caste, my adoption by the Lucianos and then the whole business of infiltrating the Kennedys, the campaign, my alliance with Lyndon and how we ended up in his kitchen, drunk on moonshine and near penniless.
When I was finished no one said anything and I had the sudden fear it would be worth a few dollars to them to turn us in, but Cooter drained his mug, poured out an inch or so more and said, “Well, shit fire and save your matches. I’d put it down to drink but I don’t believe there’s enough corn been bottled to inspire that kind of story. What in the name of cheese and rice are you going to do now?”
I had no idea, really.
“All I can think of is to get myself back to New York and find out what’s happened to my family, and then go from there.” I had developed several catastrophic visions in my mind to explain things but I couldn’t even bring myself to say them aloud.
Cooter pushed himself back from the table and got up.
“You let me study on it, and I’ll see what I come up with. Now we better hit the sack – 4:30 comes awful early this time of year.”
An economist, someone said, is a man who looks at something in practice and wonders if it could work in theory.
We stayed on with them and nothing further was said. I had one bad moment when a well-dressed man with a familiar bulge on one side of his jacket came through the doors. He was a family gunsel, all right, but he was looking for a customer who was behind on his loan payments. After a while, I simply forgot about it; if Cooter and Lurlene were going to dime us, it would have happened already. They were exactly who I thought they were.
We had a half-day off that Sunday, and after Cooter counted out our pay we took a walk through the neighborhood. Off the main drag the streets were lined on each side with smallish frame house, whitewashed and neat, even with the ever-present car and trucks parts in the side yard. One yard had an ancient washing machine in the front lawn, filled with dirt, and planted with honeysuckle vines. There were trees and shrubs everywhere – brilliant azaleas, cascading willows, myrtle trees covered in blooms; Vanessa bought a used quilt and a crystal vase with a chip in it from a yard sale and people were happy to let us take small cuttings and sprigs from their yards. We assembled a bouquet and set it on the windowsill. The place looked downright homey and one morning, elbow deep in scummy water, dripping sweat, I realized I was as happy as I’d ever been.
I think it was a combination of exhaustion and the realization that I’d done my best. Whatever happened now was up to the angels and I had pretty much burned out my worry circuit anyway. The work was hard and the hours long but the company was pleasant. At night we drank coffee and smoked in the kitchen and listened to the radio. The women sometimes did each other’s hair, laughing and talking conspiratorially, sidelong glances back at us to see if we were eavesdropping. We weren’t; Cooter was teaching me pitty-pat, a native version of gin, that we played for blood even though the stakes were pennies and I could only remember about half the rules. Vanessa and I took turns pouring buckets on each other in the outdoor shower and then fell asleep when our heads hit the pillow. Well, maybe not immediately. It was our honeymoon, such as it was. All things considered, I had no real complaints.
When I said as much to Cooter he swiveled his head to make sure the women were somewhere else, chewed his cigar butt to the other side of his mouth and said, “Down here we got a saying: ‘If you got a good woman, loose fitting boots and a warm place to shit, you can put up with about anything.’”
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, January 13, 2016