Al

By Raymond Abbott

I got a call today from a boyhood friend named Tom, and he mentioned in passing the death of another school chum’s mother.  Our friend’s name was David, and his mother had caught a virus and, at age eighty, had died in a matter of days.  My mind immediately went to thoughts of Al, who used to spend a lot of time at this woman’s house when her husband was away.  The husband worked for the gas and electric company.  I remember the woman as being quite attractive and young-looking.  She was a nurse, but I guess she and her husband worked different hours.

Not every day, but often, Al’s car could be seen parked in front of her house.  The problem with this was that the house was directly across the street from our elementary school, and that meant David, who was about eleven years old, was well aware of the car parked at his house for several hours.  Of course the rest of us saw it too, students, teachers and staff at the school.  At the time I figured this all must have made David a little uncomfortable, though I never brought the subject up.

At the time, I thought Al seemed old; he must have been in his late forties, which from my perspective now, is young.  He was rather tall and slim, and had white hair, and his looks seemed average, neither handsome nor homely.  But he definitely had something women wanted.

I had heard Shirley Tucker say Al must have a whopper of a penis on him to attract the women the way he did, married women, too, almost all of them.  Shirley was the wife of the luncheonette’s owner, where I worked in high school.  I bussed, washed dishes, took orders, and made change; the place was just big enough to have one counter, that was it.  In those days long ago, making change required more out of you—you actually had to figure it out, unlike the electronic registers today that tell you exactly what to hand the customer.  But that’s a lost skill now, at least among the youth.

Al worked at the restaurant some, too.  He was married himself, and had four or five grown children, daughters mostly.  And his wife stayed with him all of his life, in spite of his renown as a philanderer.  Shirley was not one of the women in town seduced by Al’s charms.  It so happened that she died young with a brain tumor.  But Shirley had absolutely no use for Al.

In the beginning, Al worked at the luncheonette only evenings, after his full-time day job selling insurance.  For some reason, he was fired from the day job, and then went to work for Freddie pretty much full-time.  Must be something about insurance men and sex, because I knew another philandering insurance man when I was a kid.  His name was Pete, and he was an Italian fellow, a spiffy dresser and a big talker.  He screwed about anything that walked, and even bragged about it to the teenage kids around and about.

One story I heard about Pete was that once he was in bed with a client of his, and she fell asleep after they made love, so Pete left.  The woman’s husband came home unexpectedly early and found her in bed alone.  He tapped her on the shoulder to ask if she was ill, whereupon she answered in a sleepy voice,

“Oh no, not again, Pete!”  I don’t know how she explained those words to her husband, or how Pete got out of that jam.  In fact, I don’t know how either Pete or Al managed to avoid a bullet to the brain from a distraught husband, but neither died violently.  Matter of fact, I believe Pete is now retired and living in Florida.  Al is long gone.

Shirley Tucker, for her part, had good reason to loathe Al, because Al was “doing” Shirley’s brother’s wife regularly, and everybody in town seemed to know it.  I certainly had heard the story.  At sixteen, I was working several evenings, plus Saturdays in the restaurant.  Sometimes I was on with Shirley, and Al would be there for the same shift with us.  Shirley would say to me,

“Look at that dreamy-eyed bastard.  He’s in a world of his own.”  And he often was.  Men liked to say of Al that he was in love constantly.  To get him to wait on you if you were a man and there was a woman in the place was next to impossible.

How it was that Shirley’s brother Robert didn’t hear of Al’s exploits, well, I just don’t know.  But somehow he didn’t.  Indeed, Robert was friendly and cheerful with Al in the restaurant, and of course, Al reciprocated.  I guess you could say Al was especially responsive to men whose wives he was poking.  There is really no other explanation.  It was as if Al and Robert were great buddies and might even go gunning together in New Brunswick (where my father also liked to hunt deer).

One evening Al was at the end of the counter where his conversation couldn’t be overheard, exuding charm over a woman who was buying some over-the-counter medicine.  Shirley said to me, knowing that I knew everything,

“I said to Freddie that I ought to tell my brother what’s going on.  He’s being made a fool of.  But Freddie says I should mind my own business.  I guess I should.  But it galls me something terrible!”

About the only woman Al didn’t almost break a leg to wait on was a certain young woman of about twenty who would come in with her boyfriend.  She appeared to be slow-witted, and suffered from riotous acne on her face.  Her companion was a loud, stupid-acting fellow, and he always insisted on being waited on by Shirley, if she was there.  They would order a plate lunch, or maybe just a hamburger.  When they finished he would inevitably say to Shirley,

“Shirl, I need a package of Trojans.  Wets, please.”  And he practically hollered this out.  So Shirley would go and get him his skins, as we called them, and plop them ceremoniously in front of him on the counter next to his dinner plate.  All the while, the young acne-infected woman next to him would giggle.

“That guy gets me,” Shirley would say later, with a shake of her head.  “He does that all the time, you know.  Orders his rubbers after he eats, and in front of a full counter.  He must get some kind of kick out of it.  Why doesn’t he go around the side and order them the way other people do, for God’s sake?  He could order them from the dreamer, from Lover Boy.”  She meant Al.  She spoke with plenty of anger as she lighted up a smoke.

I often wondered what Shirley would do if Al hit on her.  She was an attractive woman herself, tall and well-built, solid and muscular, with nice legs.  She was probably in her late thirties.  She had dark hair and a rather attractive face, save for the buck teeth that gave her a slight horsey look.  But I didn’t feel comfortable asking how she might handle Al, even in jest.  The thought did enter my mind, but I feared that she might blow up at me, even if I asked it in a kidding way.  We weren’t that familiar, although sometimes she talked frankly to me speculating about Al’s male endowment, which made me feel rather grown up.

Al drove a Plymouth that was an offbeat shade of green, and was easy to pick out from other vehicles.  But if that was not enough to get him noticed, he had a small numbered plate.  I think it was Massachusetts plate number 36.  In those years, and maybe today, too, a small number indicated political connections.  I can’t imagine Al knew anybody high up in state government, although he might have.  More likely, however, it was his wife who was somewhat active (not in the way Al was, of course), and may have known the ropes enough to request such a plate.

Now you would think that Al, with all his shenanigans, would not want to use such a conspicuous vehicle.  It was almost as if he wanted the entire town to know what he was up to.  His car was routinely seen in out-of-the-way places in our town.  The abandoned railroad tracks, for example and the old mill pond region.  They were places you could go to neck and make out and do all that follows.  I don’t know if Al knew he was being observed, but he was.

How he could get these young women to go with him (and they were frequently much younger than he was), was a mystery, unless you believe Shirley’s theory that he had oversize equipment on him.  Or, more likely, perhaps it was his winning charm, along with expert technique.  I do not know, but I do know this much.  There was never any coercion on the part of Al.  The women went willingly enough.  He wasn’t, as I said, a bad looking guy, slim and boyish, and he had a sparkling smile (the teeth of which may not have been his own).  Nevertheless, the trysts with many women happened, and it happened a lot.

It is difficult to describe Al’s personality, because he was obviously uncomfortable around men, and spoke to them infrequently.  Only when words were needed, in the work situation, mostly.  Ah, but let there be a halfway attractive woman on the premises, and he blossomed like a flower in spring.  Suddenly all smiles, animated as can be, and gabby as a schoolgirl.  He lit up in the presence of women, and he usually took them around the end of the lunch counter where they could talk and not be overheard.  He definitely liked women, no question about it.

All we would hear were his frequent bursts of laughter, something we never heard otherwise.  I don’t recall him laughing at anything while in the company of men.  He might tolerate a funny joke and offer a weak smile at the punch line, but he would never offer to tell a joke to a gang of men.

I don’t know exactly when it was that I became aware that Al was paying special attention to Eddie Dansik’s wife, Ellen.  She was only about twenty, not bad looking, slim and bubbly, with wild-looking frizzy dirty blond hair, and she liked to laugh.  Eddie Jr. was in his mid-twenties, a car mechanic who worked in the garage across the street.  He was a hard worker, not awfully smart academically.  But he had gone to trade school and could fix your car well enough.

I guess Al used his charm with Eddie’s young wife, and soon word got around that she and Al were going out on the sly.  I know I saw the two of them often chatting for long periods of time at the end of the counter, for so long a time, in fact, it was noticed by Freddie.  And he didn’t notice much.  Sometimes the situation got so excessive that Freddie would holler, “Al, we got customers,” which always annoyed Al in a big way as he returned to his work station and immediately banged dishes around, glum and sullen, for an hour or two.

For Al to be “doing” Ellen, while still fooling around with Shirley’s brother’s wife, was not his usual custom.  This put him at greater risk for trouble, but maybe he didn’t care, or was willing to take the chance.  I sometimes wonder if Shirley didn’t have a part in what actually happened, a part in alerting Eddie Sr. as to what was going on.  It could have happened that way, but I have no evidence that it did.  Shirley would have happily played such a role, given the opportunity.  No doubt about that.

However it happened, Eddie Sr. soon learned of Al’s more-than-passing- interest in his son’s new wife.  Eddie Sr. was normally a good-natured man.  Always wearing a smile on his face, he was fun to be around, and a bit of a jokester.  I liked him a lot.  He was a wiry little man, but solid in build.  He too was an auto mechanic, but unlike Al, Eddie Sr. was a much more physical man.  Indeed, I believe in his past he had done some amateur lightweight boxing.  He was short like my father, by the way, but where my father was fair, Eddie was dark, swarthy.  My guess is that he was Italian.

I remember him once telling me, in an admiring way, how he had witnessed my dad clean out a barroom in a fight.  I liked hearing that as a boy, even though I knew by age sixteen that my father spent altogether too much time in saloons for his own good.  And ours.

Eddie Sr. came into Freddie’s with less frequency than did his son.  Al had to be there some of the time both Eddies were there, but I never heard angry words between any of them.  But that didn’t mean Eddie Sr. didn’t have plans for Al, for he surely did.

Somehow, Eddie Sr. learned where it was that Al liked to take his women, to the old railroad bed.  This was, in fact, general knowledge to most of us.  It was at this remote place that Eddie found Al and Ellen together, or maybe it was that he was lying in wait for them there, sitting in the shadows where he could not be seen.  I can only imagine the words that were spoken that night.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing out here with my son’s wife?” And from a frightened Al,

“We’re just talking, Eddie.  Really, we are.”

Meanwhile, Al would be hastily trying to pull up his trousers, and Ellen covering herself as well.  And with just that little amount of conversation, Eddie Sr. hauled Al from that vehicle and gave him a thorough thrashing.  Al’s face for a long time after that featured colorful bruises.  He could not avoid going to work and being confronted with questions as to how he got hurt.  Most of those who asked the questions already knew the answer.  But they asked just the same, and often.  I never heard Al answer any of the queries.  He just walked away.

It was rumored, and I could never substantiate it, that Al also suffered injuries to the area of his genitals.  Nothing permanent, or so the story went, but mighty painful, just the same.  It was the kind of injury one might get from a heavy work boot-clad foot being thrust in just the right groin location.

Curious thing about all of this.  I don’t believe Eddie Jr. every heard about any of this, or if he did, he never let on.  I do know that I never again saw Ellen set foot in the restaurant, at least not while I was there.

As for Al, you can be sure that he never went near that young woman again.  Beyond that, little else about Al can be determined, except that in his role as a server in the luncheonette, he could not escape having to wait on both Eddies.  Often, there was no other choice.  He avoided doing this whenever he could by disappearing into the back room so that someone else had to wait on them.

Eddie Sr., for his part, acted nonchalantly, as if nothing at all had ever passed between them.  But when Al had to take his money for the meal and give him change, I could detect a hardening grimace in the muscles around Eddie’s mouth.  He would take the change given him and stuff it in his pants pocket and leave without a word to anyone.

I don’t know if Freddie the owner knew the entire story, but I suppose he must have, because his wife Shirley certainly knew every dot and tittle of it.  I watched her disappear a time or two when she and Al were on duty alone and Eddie Sr. was about to pay his check.  She would immediately go into the unisex rest room, and in so doing Al would have to deal with Eddie Sr. alone, uncomfortable though it might have been for him.

I never saw Shirley smile wickedly as she made her hasty exit, but I like to believe in that back room alone where she couldn’t be seen or heard, she broke out in almost uncontrollable laughter.

 

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Raymond Abbott is from New England but has lived in Louisville, Kentucky for many years. His stories and essays have appeared in the Journal of Kentucky Studies, the North American Review, Creative Non Fiction, Georgetown Review and a few other magazines. Some years ago he published in New York a contemporary American Indian novel entitled, That Day in Gordon. Gordon is now out of print. Abbott once lived on a South Dakota reservation.


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