Yesterday’s Fifth

The old man raised his empty glass in the direction of the barman, and in a few moments, the waitress had brought him another beer. “Put it on me tab, love,” he said, his Scouse accent standing out like a naked man in the Sistine Chapel, Iowa being as far from Merseyside as to be on the other side of the moon.

“We don’t run tabs here, mister,” she said. “Unless you’re Tom Cruise, and you don’t look like Tom Cruise to me.”

“Well, you know, my friend here just happens to be Tom Cruise,” he said, jabbing his thumb across the table at me. “I know he doesn’t look it in the dark, but once the makeup and lights go on, he’s all stars and glitter, he is.”

I took a ten out of my wallet and handed it to her. “I’m not really Tom Cruise,” I said.

“Are you sure?” she said, slipping the bill into her apron pocket. “You could be his twin.” She found my change and held it out to me.

“Last time I checked,” I said, “Tom Cruise wasn’t black.”

“All smoke and mirrors, honey pie,” the old Englishman said, and winked at her. “Hollywood magic.”

The waitress sighed. “Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, beginning to walk away from us before she’d even finished her sentence.

The old man picked up his glass and took a long drink. He wiped the foam from his lip and said, “The birds used to be so much easier to pick up. Give ‘em a wink, shake the hair a bit, and you could bag three in one night.” He grinned at me, and for a moment I could see the young man inside the old. “Or all at once, if that’s what you wanted. Oh, good times, that. You’d never think you’d get tired of it, not when you’re just a lad.”

“It had to have been the best thing in the world.”

“It was! There wasn’t anything better, yeah? We blew in—WHOOF—and brought the roof down. Nobody could touch us. Elvis couldn’t touch us, right?” He had another drink of his beer. “I’m too old to be modest. Absolute genius, we was.”

“Untouchable,” I agreed. I didn’t have a drink in front of me. I hadn’t tasted a drop in three years. My mouth was dry and my throat was aching for it anyway.

“So,” he said. He took a matchbook and a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and shook one out. He tore a match free, folded the cover backwards over it and ignited it by pulling it fast between the cover and the strip. He lit the cigarette and, failing to find an ashtray, blew out the match and dropped it onto the wooden floor. “How’d you find me, then?”

“Eddie Thurber,” I said, knowing that would say it all.

He nodded. “Yeah, I figured. I heard about the accident.” He snorted a quick laugh through his nose. “Funny, when you think about it, him going out in a car crash. That was supposed to be my ticket punched there.”

“Coincidence is a crazy thing.”

“Coincidence, yeah, but maybe it was more than that.” He leaned in close to me, and said under his breath, “Maybe it was murder.” Before I had a chance to respond, he sat back again and laughed. “I’m just having ya. It ain’t nothing but time and bad luck.” He sucked in on his cigarette. “Really though,” he said, then blew the smoke out. “How’d you figure it out? Did he tell anybody before he kicked it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I doubt it. Things like that, nobody believes anyway after forty years. Yesterday is ancient history to most people. They can’t even remember when MTV used to play music.” I reached into my satchel and took out a small leather notebook. “I found this in with the rest of his things. Nobody at the home read it, I figure. It didn’t look like they’d sorted through any of his stuff, just tossed it all into a bunch of boxes.”

He put his fingertips on the notebook and slid it across the table, but didn’t pick it up or open it. “And they just let you walk out with it, did they?”

“Why not? He didn’t have any family, no friends. From what I could tell, he wasn’t liked by anybody on the staff. Nobody cared if I took it. Saved them the trouble of carrying it to the dumpster.”

He put his hand over the notebook, covering it as the waitress came back to our table. “You can’t smoke in here,” she said.

“Oh, darling” he said. “We’re the only ones in here. It’s not going to hurt anybody.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “Law’s the law.”

He took a long drag, then turned the cigarette around in his fingers and held it out to her, butt first. “There’s no ashtray. Maybe you could be a dear and toss that out for me.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, sorry. I don’t want to drop it in my glass. I’m still drinking it.”

She looked back over her shoulder at the barman, looking for backup, but he either didn’t notice or was deliberately ignoring her. She snatched a bowl of peanuts off the neighboring table, poured them into her hand, then set the bowl with a loud smack in front of the old man. “Don’t light up another one,” she said.

“On my honor,” he said. He put the cigarette back between his lips. “I do appreciate it. Smoking’s one of my last vices, other than younger women.”

“I’m sure it is,” she said. She turned and stalked away toward the bar, presumably to give the barman a lashing.

“Be sure to leave her a good tip,” the old man said to me. “She’s having a hard day of it, yeah?”

“Working for a living’s always hard,” I said. Suddenly curious, I asked, “Why Iowa? You could have gone anywhere, anywhere at all. Why here?”

“Well, we’d been here, there and everywhere, you know? What was I going to do, go back to India? That never really was my thing anyway.” He waved his arm around the table. “This place, it’s farm country out here. I always did like a nice bit of farmland.” The Englishman shrugged. “It was time for a change anyway.”

A look crossed my face, which he must have seen, because he leaned in to me and said, “You think I was crazy to do it, I know you do. Walking away from all that. All the money. All the fame.” He grinned. “Well, not all the money. I still get a chunk of that. Not as much as the rest of them, but more than enough to keep me in Jelly Babies. That’s what our old Mr. Eddie Thurber got up to, making sure I still got my cut of things. Only fair, that.”

I took an envelope out of my pocket and set it on the table in front of me, keeping my hand on it. “Whose idea was it? You don’t have to tell me. I’m just curious.”

“Well,” he said, looking conspiratorially around the empty bar before answering. “Let’s just say it was the quiet fellow I used to spend so much time with back in me youth. There was that rumor going around that I was dead, all nonsense and that, but when I started to think about getting out of it all, he was the one who thought that might be the way to do it. Not killing me off, mind you, but letting me go and having someone else sorta…fill in for me.” He stubbed his cigarette out in the peanut bowl. “That was fine with me. We gave the new guy a cut of my action, had him sign all sorts of documents putting his soul in hock if he ever came clean—raise your glass to Mr. Eddie for the paperwork there—and off I went, into the sunset. It didn’t matter much, we were done as a group anyway by then. It was time to just let it be, yeah?”

He started to light another cigarette, but the waitress slammed an empty glass down hard on the bar, and he put the cigarette back into the pack. “That harpy’s got it in for me,” he growled. “Anyway, I got the farm and a ton of money, he got the fame and the wife and the press up his arse, so I think it was a pretty fair deal. Did you know the wife was his? I only met her once, but she was a lovely girl. Shame when she died. They seemed like the were made for each other, weren’t they? Anyway, every couple of years I’d put something new out, and he’d be the one fronting the shows and the interviews, while I sat on the porch and watched the corn grow. It’s not like I don’t work for my money,” he said. “The work I like. It’s the rest of it that I got worn out by. Smart thing to do anyway, it was. I mean, what did it get any of us really? Crazies in the garden, trying to cut your throat, or waiting outside your door for you with a gun in their pocket. It could of been me getting popped in the gut leaving the house, right?” He chuckled softly. “I shouldn’t have joked about murder a minute ago. One crazy bastard’s all it takes. No sir, I’ll keep the work and let someone else deal with the loonies.”

He reached for his beer and drained the rest of it in one swallow. “So, now that we’ve reached the subject of loonies, perhaps you’d be so kind as to tell me what you want from me, yeah? You know who I am, so cut to it.”

I slid the envelope across the table to him. “Open that when you’re ready,” I said. “There’s a phone number on it.” I pushed my chair back and stood. “It’s been an honor to meet you.”

He took the envelope between his fingers. “That’s it? I’m just supposed to make a phone call?”

I nodded. “I didn’t follow a paper trail to find you,” I said. “Other than that notebook of Eddie Thurber’s, I don’t think there’s any record of what went on with you outside of maybe a Swiss safe deposit box. Nobody’s going to find you here, even if they were looking, which they aren’t.”

“Then how’d you find me, son? Only three other people know where I am, and two of them are dead.”

I held my hand out to him, and he took it reflexively and we shook. “Not two. Just one. It’s not that hard to put together a con that fools the world, if you have enough money to do it.” I pointed at the envelope. “Open that soon. He’s waiting for your call.”

“Who’s waiting, hey?”

“Call the number,” I repeated. “Some surprises are good ones.” I took my wallet out again and tossed two twenties on the table. “Have another one for me, would you? I miss it sometimes, the drinking.”

“Sure,” he said, and then asked, “What’s your name, son?”

“Jude,” I said to him. “My mother was a big fan, sir.”

“Was she?” he said absently, and then added, “I hate surprises. Even the good ones.”

“You’ll like this one,” I promised. “Say hello to Mr. Lennon for me.”

Outside the bar, I paused before getting into my rental car. I sniffed the air, found it rich and thick with spring, more fragrant than it had been an hour ago, the sun more warm and soothing, my heart and head more balanced than they had been in years.

Everything’s better today, I thought.

Getting better all the time.

~

~

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Cheney challenged me with “If you don’t like your job, quit.” and I challenged kgwaite with “Like Ophelia, I float on a river of…”

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4 Comments

  1. Clever, clever you. I love waking up to a good yarn…

    Reply
    • Kameko

       /  April 12, 2012

      I’m a silly, definitely.

      What was funny to me was that every time I stopped somewhere this week to work on this, I’d be hearing Beatles music playing: out of people’s computers, over in-house speakers at restaurants, coming out of car windows. I’m sure that it was just a coincidence, but SERIOUSLY. So weird.

      Reply
  2. oh, clever girl. this is lovely. some say legends never die.

    (although, “presumably to give the barman a lashing” seemed a bit unnecessary)

    Reply
    • Kameko

       /  April 12, 2012

      That thing I said the other day? About deadlines? That’s what happened here: had to finish it in time to post it, so a few hiccups came along with it.

      We’ll take care of that in rewrite number three!

      Reply

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