“No problem, Percy. You can’t turn down a potential tow.”
“Okay,” said Percy, as he pulled over in front of the stricken vehicle, flipping on his emergency beacon as he hopped out of his truck.
As Neil climbed out of the truck, a look of recognition lit up his face, and he called out to Percy, “This is Robbie’s car! Hey, Robbie, this thing finally give up the ghost?”
Just then, the man under the hood stood up and faced Percy and Neil. Neil was surprised to see it wasn’t Robbie. Perplexed, Neil asked, “You a friend of Robbie’s? This is his car. I thought you were Robbie.”
The man hesitated for a moment, a confused look on his face. Finally, he stammered, “Uh, yeah, Robbie, right. He, uh, lent me his car this morning. I’m an old friend, from out of town. And the damn thing just died on me. Bobby’s gonna be pissed when he finds out.”
“You mean Robbie.” Neil gave the man a quizzical look. He’d never heard Robbie referred to as Bobby.
“Yeah, whatever. Anyway, maybe you guys can give me a ride downtown. I’m kinda late for an, uh, appointment.” The man’s eyes darted around nervously.
“You say it just died on you?” asked Percy.
“Yeah, it just shut down. I had to coast to the side of the road.”
“Maybe you just ran outta gas. It happens a lot. People think they’re broken down and all they need is a little gas,” said Percy. “Let’s check the fuel gauge.”
As Percy leaned into the driver’s side window of the Honda to check the gas gauge, Neil’s cell phone rang. Robbie was on the line. “Dude, you’ll never believe what happened!” said Robbie, his voice agitated.
“This is so weird, Robbie. I’m standing next to your car right now. It broke down on your friend,” said Neil.
Percy was still leaning inside the window of Robbie’s car. As his eyes moved across the dashboard, he saw something disturbing.
“Dude, that guy’s not a friend. My car was stolen! I’m in the parking lot of the Appliance Hut right now, staring at the empty spot where I parked this morning. That guy’s a thief!” exclaimed Robbie.
Percy’s gaze rested on the Honda’s shattered steering column, a screwdriver protruding from the broken ignition switch. He slowly stood up and looked in the direction of the man still standing in front of Robbie’s car.
“Hold on,” Neil said to Robbie. “Percy, this car is...” The words caught in his throat when he saw the gun the man was now pointing directly at him.
“Stolen,” said the man. He leaned towards Neil menacingly, and quickly grabbed the cell phone. “Sorry, gotta go,” the car thief muttered into the phone, just before he shut it off and shoved it into his pocket.
Neil didn’t feel like sitting on his bed, dwelling on his recent misfortunes, especially the disintegration of his marriage, so partly to cheer himself up, but mostly to inform his best friend of Belle’s condition, Neil dialed Robbie’s cell number. Robbie answered on the third ring. “Hey, Robbie, it’s Neil,” said Neil, as soon as he heard Robbie’s “what’s up?” on the other end.
“Dude, I know it’s you. I got your number right here on my display,” said Robbie, who then launched into a diatribe against his managers. “You would not believe these chuckleheads, bro. I just sold six flat screen plasmas, I’m tellin’ you, dude, the very latest in television technology, to this rich-ass guy. I don’t know what this dude does for a living, but I do know he sure reminds me a lot of Tony Soprano, and he did pay with hundred dollar bills, and, like, I’m not sure, but I think he gave one of those bills to the guy who’s delivering the TV’s to his freakin’ mansion, and I mean, going to deliver the TV’s. He hasn’t even left the parking lot yet. He’ll probably get another hundred when he makes the delivery. Anyway, I just made thousands for the Appliance Nuts, that’s my new name for the idiots in charge here, and they, instead of being grateful, are berating me because I didn’t push the old service contract rip-off on Tony Soprano, who, by the looks of things, knows a lot about rip-offs, and sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate being the victim of one. What the hell, they should be grateful Tony didn’t just hijack one of their trucks and get the TV’s for free. That’s what those guys do, isn’t it? But maybe he’s trying to go legit. Dude, maybe he’s in the witness protection program. I’ve read about those guys. They turn state’s evidence, rat out their old friends, and then, poof, they disappear into thin air. They get plastic surgery, a new place to live, a new job, or at least a bundle of money from Uncle Sam, and they start over, and I guess, try to go straight. Anyway, bro, this is the last guy I’m gonna push some lame service contract scam on, if you catch my drift. The bottom line is, I don’t push service contracts on anybody. I mention that we offer them, which is all I’m obligated to do, and leave it at that. Dude, I make money the old fashioned way; I earn it,” said Robbie, in his best John Houseman imitation, referring to the distinguished actor’s old TV commercials for a well-known investment firm.
Neil couldn’t help laughing out loud. There were times when he wasn’t sure if Robbie truly believed what he was saying, or was just pulling Neil’s leg. “Tony Soprano, eh?” Neil said in that slow drawn out way that people often use when they’re considering whether or not to believe what another person has just presented to them as fact, especially when that other person has an imagination as wild as Robbie’s.
“I’m tellin’ you, dude. This guy’s connected. I’ll bet he at least owns a Badda Bing somewhere,” said Robbie, referring to the fictional New Jersey strip club featured in The Sopranos TV series.
Just then, a heavy set balding man of about fifty entered the diner and sat at the far end of the counter. Robbie glanced in his direction and quickly turned back towards Neil. “That’s him. The guy I told you about,” he said in a hushed voice.
“What guy?” asked Neil.
“Tony Soprano! The guy who bought all those hi-def plasmas, with cash. Don’t look at him,” Robbie ordered.
“What do you mean, don’t look? You’ve pretty much pointed him out, accused him of being a mobster. And now I can’t look?”
“Well, just play it cool. Okay, you can look now. He’s headed towards the men’s room.” Neil glanced over at the man. “Okay, look back this way,” instructed Robbie.
Neil shook his head and laughed. “Well, Robbie, you’ve got about six minutes to solve the mystery. Tony’s on his way to the men’s room. His jacket’s on the back of his chair. Run over there and see if you can find his ID, or maybe a gun in that jacket.”
“Yeah, right, Neil. Besides, he might be in the witness protection program. It’s all fake ID.”
“Man, you’ve got some imagination. Just because he’s got a Brooklyn accent, carries wads of cash, and bears a passing resemblance to Tony Soprano doesn’t mean diddly, dude.”
“Well, Neil, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it must be a ...”
“Yeah, I know the rest, Robbie...must be the hallucination of a serial conspiracy theorist.”
“No, dude. It must be a duck.”
“Not necessarily, Robbie. It could be a really well made hunting decoy.”
“Good one, Neil. You’re a laugh a minute. No, really, I get your point. You think I’m nothing but an overreacting paranoid conspiracy buff.”
“No, of course not. Because I don’t think buff is a strong enough word. I think a word like subscriber or adherent or even believer would suit you much better.” Neil laughed. “C’mon, Robbie, I’m kidding you.”
Robbie grinned. “Well, we’ll just have to see who gets the last laugh, bro.” Then Robbie added in a hushed tone, “Hey, don’t look now, but the subject of our conversation is returning.”
They both glanced in the man’s direction. Kate was walking towards him. “How’ve you been?” she asked the man. She stood next to him on his side of the counter. He reached out and gave her a bear hug.
“Good to see ya, Kate,” he said in a slightly nasal Brooklyn accent.
“See, Neil. He even sounds like Tony Soprano,” whispered Robbie. “And he knows Kate.”
“So I noticed,” said Neil, feeling a slight twinge of jealousy. And then he thought, “Why am I feeling jealous? I just met this girl. I can’t get involved with anyone. What the hell is wrong with me?”
His parents, however, had never locked their doors and never had a problem. Besides, their beagle, Pickles, wouldn’t allow anyone within fifty yards of the house without emitting an endless series of barks, growls, howls, and other noises which fell somewhere between the categories of snorting and vomiting. The neurotic canine also boasted an impressive repertoire of loosely choreographed jumps, rolls, leaps, gallops, and the occasional (after making a new human acquaintance) leg hump.
Neil wondered why the dog hadn’t met him with one of the aforementioned antics when he pulled into the driveway or at least as he turned the doorknob. A few seconds later, he had his answer when he heard the hound’s incessant baying coming from somewhere behind him, as he stood on the front porch. Neil turned just in time to see his mother being dragged across the front lawn by Pickles, as he strained at his leash, while simultaneously yipping and barking as he kept his nose glued to the ground.
“You think this dog would’ve learned how to take a normal walk by now!” Belle called out breathlessly, as the beagle continued his game of tug-of-war. Neil could hear rasping sounds coming from the dog’s mouth as he tried to gulp air while his neck strained against his collar.
The tri-colored terror stopped at Neil’s feet long enough to growl menacingly, as if to say “Don’t try to stop me, Bucko. I’ll snap you like a twig.” With that, the dog wriggled frantically past the front door, which was open only a few inches. Just as Belle lost her grip on the leash, Neil lost his on the front door knob. As the psychotic beagle burst through the front door, the door swung open hard against the baseboard mounted doorstop, and then swung back into Neil’s left arm, already smarting from his earlier encounter with the police.
Neil began to lose his balance, but recovered in time to catch his mother, who had lost her balance being dragged up the front steps by her frenzied furry friend. The front door once again swung open as Neil and Belle stumbled through the entryway. They were just in time to see Pickles, still dragging his leash, along with a small plant stand in which his leash had become entangled, skitter sideways across the hardwood entryway floor, into the legs of John Grayson, who was just approaching the front door, a can of beer in his hand.
Seconds later, the can of beer lay on the floor next to the dog, its foamy contents slowly forming a circle at the dog’s feet. As John bent to pick up the can, the cantankerous canine eyed him menacingly and emitted a low growl as it began furiously licking up the spilled beer. A minute later, no doubt thanks to his unexpected alcoholic treat, Pickles lay sleeping in the middle of the front hallway, snoring loudly.
“Oh my God, he drank the beer! Will he be okay?” fretted Belle.
“Aw, c’mon, are you kiddin’ me? This dog’s bulletproof,” answered John, as he slid the dog’s limp body a foot or two to one side, and began wiping up the remnants of the beer with a damp cloth. “Welcome home, Neil,” said John with a grin. “How ‘bout a beer, son.”
“Sure, Dad, as soon as I make sure Mom’s okay,” said Neil.
“Oh, I’m fine, Neil,” Belle assured him. “But I’m not looking forward to walking that beast later tonight.”
“I thought this was his last walk of the night,” John interjected.
“Not after that beer he just sucked down,” replied Belle. “If he doesn’t get another walk tonight, we’ll be mopping more than beer off that floor.”
Neil gave Robbie a quick run-down of the day’s events, ending with a verbal re-enactment of his encounter with Beehive Woman and her trusty canine companion. “I remember that woman,” laughed Robbie. “Whenever I was at your house, she used to drag that dog of hers up and down the street. I don’t know how she keeps her head up with that giant-ass hairdo of hers. I’m surprised she doesn’t wear a neck brace by now. Hell, that isn’t a hairdo, it’s a freakin’ monument. She needs a blinking light on top to warn low flying aircraft. I swear, she has to have some kind of scaffolding under all that hair to hold it up. Or maybe it’s just a wig. Y’know, just a bunch of hair wrapped around a giant dunce cap. That way, she can store stuff inside it. Y’know, snacks for long dog walks, a few doggie treats for Fido, maybe even some pepper spray for guys named Neil terrorizing the neighborhood. You’re lucky she didn’t pepper spray your ass, dude.”
“And speaking of not arguing with someone, Neil, I think you should consider your brother’s job offer. It sounds like a good opportunity,” said Belle.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I haven’t ruled it out. I’m just waiting until my head stops spinning from the events of the past few days, before I make up my mind. I’m so out of it, I’m still wearing my clothes from yesterday. I still need to shower and brush my teeth, that is, of course, after I have another five or six of these pancakes, and some more of that bacon,” answered Neil.
“Coming up!” yelled Jack, as he headed toward the kitchen table with a platter piled high with steaming pancakes. Halfway between the stove and the table, one of the pancakes slipped off the plate. Almost before it hit the floor, it was intercepted by Pickles, who shot through the kitchen doorway like a shark after a chum bucket. With a low growl, as if warning those foolhardy enough to attempt to retrieve the wayward pancake, the dog retreated to one corner of the kitchen with his prize, where he began noisily chomping away.
“Out of his way, Jack. He’s got a serious hangover,” warned John.
“Man that dog is quick. No need for a vacuum cleaner with him around,” commented Jack, shaking his head in amazement. He then added, “What the hell is that thing around his neck?”
“Oh, that’s your father’s latest invention,” replied Belle. “No matter how many baths I give that dog, he still has an unpleasant odor about him. I don’t know if it’s his breath, or that skin condition he has, causing him to constantly scratch himself, or a combination of the two. But your father said he was sick of Pickles going around smelling like a mackerel. So he bought a bunch of those Christmas tree shaped air fresheners, y’know, the kind you hang from the rear view mirror of your car. Then he cut them into strips and stapled them together into a collar. It seems to have worked, at least, a little.”
Almost as soon as Neil turned the corner, the snow began falling in earnest. He turned on his wipers as the huge flakes quickly accumulated on the windshield. Neil switched on the defroster as condensation began fogging his windows. The defroster was slow to work in the old Triumph, so Neil reached behind the passenger seat and felt around for a rag he’d left there. The windshield was fogging up fast, and Neil knew he would have to wipe it off a few times until the defroster had a chance to do its job.
“Where the hell is that rag?” he said aloud, as he groped around behind the seat and came up empty handed. Neil hated wiping the glass with his bare hand. That seemed to leave the windows more streaked than ever, which is why he always kept a rag behind the seat. Neil took his eyes off the road for just a second, intent on finding the rag. He saw it lying just out of reach, so he stretched his right arm as far as he could and made one last desperate grab.
“Gotcha!” he exclaimed, as he shifted his attention back to the road. While retrieving the rag, Neil had drifted slightly over the center line of the road, so he quickly cut the wheel back to the right. In his attempt to return to his lane, Neil overcompensated and began to lose control, as the car began to slide towards the side of the road. At the last second, he regained control on the now slick road. Breathing a sigh of relief, his heart pounding from the adrenaline rush during his close call, Neil quickly wiped a section of the windshield with the rag.
As Neil watched the road intently, the beam from his headlights preceded him in the swirling snow, cutting a yellow swath through the night. Suddenly, a large dog ran across the road directly in front of Neil. He swerved and hit his brakes, barely missing the dog, but losing control of the car. As he continued braking and trying to steer out of the skid, Neil found himself heading towards the front yard of one of the old houses that lined the street. Suddenly, a dark figure loomed ahead. “Please don’t let me hit this guy,” Neil thought, as he desperately fought the car’s trajectory towards tragedy. At the last second, the car responded and veered back towards the road. But it was too late. Neil heard the sickening thud of something soft and yielding as it glanced off the right side of his front bumper.