Mob Rule: Part 41
On the run from old Joe Kennedy and the D.C. spin parade, Jack and Vanessa hole up in Savannah in a vain search for relief
By John Armstrong
I was prepared when we got to Savannah, not that it did me any good. There were two pay phones, one out of order and the other in use by a man with two old cloth shopping bags at his feet who looked as badly off as we were. I shuffled and danced and muttered behind him in an agony of impatience but he just stood there saying “Ummm-hmmm” every few seconds. By his reaction, whatever they were telling him wasn’t terribly exciting but he seemed determined to hear all of it. At one point he pulled the phone away and I thought he was going to hang up but he was just changing ears.
I was anxious to get the phone but I was also hopping back and forth on my feet while I waited because our bus had no toilet on it, and it had been a long time since Tallahassee. I considered solving both problems at once, just unzipping right there and letting go on Mr. Chatty’s leg, but then Vanessa appeared beside me, back from the ladies’ room.
“I’ll hold our place, you go do what you have to,” she said, and pushed me towards the washroom. While I was in there I heard the bus driver on his microphone again, calling out for passengers to reboard. Making a phone call to New York was turning into the kind of job you needed to work up to with something easier first, like emptying the ocean with a teacup.
Then I remembered I’d bought ‘Free Spirit’ tickets that allow you to get on and off the line’s buses at will for a month. The ticket seller had been pushing them as a promotion and I’d said fine, sure – it wasn’t all that much more and seemed like it might be useful. I’d been so concerned with putting distance between us and Tallahassee I’d forgotten about it. If they did somehow figure out we’d taken the bus, which they might just do when we never showed up for our flight, the last thing they’d expect us to do is get off again so soon. It might be just what we ought to do. I could have New York send enough money to buy a car and just drive home. Things were looking up.
I walked back out of the Men’s feeling 20 pounds lighter. My wallet was slightly lighter, too. There were no urinals in the washroom, just coin-operated stalls with a red-lettered sign on each door that said, “Time Limit Enforced.” I pushed coins into the slot and wondered what they meant; did someone come around and rap on the wall if you dawdled?
I didn’t have to wonder long. I’d barely settled myself when the door swung back open, a loud buzzer began sounding and an insistent, tinny voice from a speaker in the ceiling said, “Deposit $2 for three more minutes.” There was no ignoring it, either – the buzzer increased in volume and the voice kept repeating itself until you paid up. Fortunately the clock and pay-slot above the paper dispenser took bills. Unfortunately it didn’t make change. It didn’t have to – it had the customer right where it wanted him. To be fair, I should say that when I re-upped my time it spat out another two squares of tissue. Value-added, the economists call it.
I was finished well before my money was up and mollified myself with the thought that the next man through would be surprised with a couple of free minutes. I should have known better. When I stood up from the seat, the little counter beside the money slot clicked and whirred, resetting itself to zero. When I stepped out, the door swung shut behind me and the tinny voice said, “Thank you – please come again!”
Outside, Vanessa was frantic thinking we were going to miss our bus.
“What were you doing in there?”
“Getting an education,” I said, leading her back to the payphone. A young woman had replaced our friend and we got in line behind her. I told Vanessa about the tickets, and said now we could take our time, make our phone call, and freshen up while we waited for the next bus North or for some cash to arrive by wire transfer.
“I did about as much freshening up as we can afford,” she said. “I don’t know about the men’s room but in the women’s the soap is free but the taps aren’t. Or the towels.” With only fifty-cents on her, she’d had to dry her hands on her sweater.
Which reminded me that I needed more change to make the call. Vanessa held our place while I went to get it. Both the lunch counter and the Gift and Sundries shop had signs above the cashier saying “No Change Except with Purchase – No Exceptions!” so I came back with another package of cigarettes rather than buy another soft drink or candy bar I didn’t really want. That gave me enough change for a quick call with no chit-chat.
“Nice racket, huh?” I said, feeding coins into the phone.
“I thought you were the champion of the free market entrepreneurial system?” she replied. I was saved by the receiver being picked up in New York and a female voice, again not Abby’s, saying “Thank you for calling Luciano & Associates” and asking me if I minded holding. I did, but she didn’t wait for an answer.
When she came back I said, “This is Jack Kennedy again for Frank or Meyer.”
“I’m sorry but neither of them have called in as yet. May I take a message and have them return your call?”
“Did they leave a message for me after I called the first time?”
“Neither of them has picked up messages as yet.”
I racked my brain –
“Can you contact them, or Joe Gallo? This is an emergency.”
No, they could not contact Mr. Gallo, or anyone else. They did not know when to expect to hear from anyone. Did I want to leave a message for him?
“Yes – for any of them. Tell them I’m in Savannah, Georgia and they need to wire me funds to Western Union so I can get home. I also have important information for them.” Halfway through the operator cut in demanding more money.
“Did you get that?” I shouted down the line but I could hear the Luciano secretary saying, “Hello? Hello?” at the other end and knew the call had been cut off. I could call back in the morning or try Frank’s home later on. At least we were in the same time zone.
We sat down at a booth in the coffee shop and were counting our remaining money and making plans when a waitress came by and placed menus in front of us.
“Just coffee, please” I said, and went back to sorting coins and bills. After plane and bus fare and assorted expenses, it was a pitiful amount, particularly in a place where paper towels in the washroom were sold by the sheet.
“You might as well order something to eat – five dollar minimum check for booths,” she said, pointing up at a sign on the wall. I scooped the money back up.
“Actually, I think we’ll have to go somewhere else. Sorry about that.” I took Vanessa’s arm.
“Y’all have a nice day,” the waitress said, bending down to collect her menus again, then under her breath, “About two blocks down there’s a nice place for working people, Cooter’s. Bottomless coffee.”
It was a very nice place, if you weren’t fussy about things like fresh paint and clean floors and glass covers so the flies couldn’t get at the pie. A lot of Savannah folk seemed to be able to struggle along without those niceties. The place was doing a roaring business and we had to wait to get stools at the counter.
When the waitress finally dropped two coffees as she flew by, I called after her, “You always this busy?”
She didn’t answer until she came back my way again with a load of dirty dishes in her arms.
She pushed them through the order-up slot back to the kitchen and grabbed another armload of meals for delivery, then stopped for a second and said, “The busboy and the other waitress didn’t show up this morning. The boss’s washing dishes and cooking and I’m serving and bussing tables. So you’ll get fed when we get to you, okay?”
“No complaints,” I said, and thought a second. “You hiring? We’re a little low on funds.”
“Your friend ever waitress? I assume you know how to clear a table and run soapy water into a sink.”
Vanessa said, “I can learn” and the woman turned her head and yelled back through the hole in the wall, “Cooter! The cavalry’s here. Got a waitress and a pearl-diver for you.”
Cooter was a medium-sized man in his 40s with a full-sized belly. The waitress, Lurlene, tied an apron on Vanessa and said, “Follow me, hon” and Cooter pointed a cigar stub at an uneasy ziggurat of dirty dishes.
“Dive right in, son, and don’t forget to put on gloves. You’re going to be in there awhile.” He turned back to his grill and flipped sizzling meat with one hand while cracking eggs with the other. Various pots and pans boiled and smoked on the side burners. I plugged the sink, turned the taps on and got started.
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, January 10, 2016