Wannabes

By Lou Gaglia

Ray and Eugene, who were cleaning the upstairs carpet at the local dealership, ignored the shouting outside until the lobby window shattered.  Glass was everywhere, and the bloody-headed driver bawled out of a Camaro’s window something about taking the goddamn car back. Salesmen squeezed themselves shivering into one small office, but the boss stood his ground and glared at the driver, who sped backward over crushed glass, into the parking lot, and all the way to the turnpike.

The boys, high school seniors, continued their steam job uncertainly, asking each other what the hell just happened, when the boss strode in. “Stop working.” He turned to a young man in a suit who stood in the doorway. “Who is that guy, a friend of yours?”

“He’s not my friend.”

“Who is he then? Where does he live?”

“I know where he lives but he’s not my friend.”

Ray and Eugene stared at each other.

“Come back next Saturday, boys,” the boss told them, and they lugged their steam machines past him and tried to hurry down the stairs. “Did he buy that car here?” they heard the boss bark to the man in the doorway.

“He bought it here but he’s not my friend.”

“Where’s the phone? Get me the phone.”

“It’s in your office. He’s not my friend—”

From Herman’s Pizza, Ray called his girlfriend Carrie and told her all about the nut who’d crashed the Camaro. “I swear these guys are, like, Mafia or something.”

“There is no Mafia,” Carrie told him mildly, and Ray rolled his eyes to Eugene, who shrugged. “You watch too many movies.”

“You weren’t there. This boss guy, he gave the death stare to his worker and said, ‘Tell your friend he’s dead.’ He scared the crap out of us.” Eugene frowned out the window.

“It’s just an expression. Kids say that to each other in the hallways all day at school: ‘You’re dead’; ‘No, you’re dead;’ ‘No, you are.’  It’s a common expression. You said it me just last—”

“You don’t believe anything, do you?”

“I believe what I perceive in my own brain and with my own eyes and ears. Hey, save me a slice, will ya? I’ll be right ova.”

II

In school on Monday, the entire hallway knew what happened, but it wasn’t news to Ray or Eugene. Ray tried to tell the gossipers that he’d been there and seen it, but big Lenny and the others talked over him about that connected, mobbed up, hit-man-hot-head who hadn’t liked his Camaro’s upholstery and crashed his car when the dealers wouldn’t take it back.

“I heard he waved a gun,” big Lenny added.

“No, there was no gun,” said Ray. “We were there, we—”

“And then the boss told him he was a dead man,” big Lenny went on. “He pointed a finger at him, like shooting a gun.”

“No he didn’t,” Ray said, and Eugene shook his head and strode away.

“Do you even know who that boss is?” said Lenny. “That whole dealership’s a front.”

“Holy crap,” someone said.

“Everyone knows it but you,” Lenny went on. “That’s why I don’t even walk by there. I don’t want to wear cement slippers.”

Ray scoffed.  “I was there, so I know—”

“That guy’s a dead man. He’s dead. He’s a dead man,” Lenny said.

“Holy mother,” someone else said.

“He’s not dead,” Ray said.

“I know he ain’t dead now,” said Lenny. “I didn’t mean it illiterately.”

III

Back to finish their rug cleaning job the following Saturday, Ray and Eugene wouldn’t even look at each other or talk much. All their steam cleaning movements were hurried, and when they had to empty dirty water and refill the steam machine tank, they hurried that too, splashing up water and cursing under their breath. When they were almost finished, Eugene told Ray he couldn’t wait to get out of there and order a couple of slices at Herman’s. “I’ve had enough mob talk to last me a lifetime,” he muttered. Then that same worker from the Saturday before stood in the doorway again.

“Hey, you two recover from last week? You both looked scared to death.”  He laughed like a horse. “You scared of broken glass?”

Ray and Eugene shrugged as they packed up their machines.

“You know what happened after that, don’t you?”

“Uh,” Ray said, and Eugene drifted to the other side of the room.

“My boss made a phone call, that’s what happened. You know what making a phone call is, right?”

“Well…”

“Sure you know. Anyway, it’s not like in the movies, where you tell a guy face to face to kill another guy and give his name and everything. You call a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy, and that guy is told who to hit.”

“Oh,” Ray said, and Eugene nodded staccato-like down at the steam machine hose he was trying to clip around the tank.

“Guess what happened, though.”

The boss roared something from the hallway, and Ray and Eugene jumped.

“Guess what happened,” the guy repeated. “That guy with the Camaro—Mike’s his name—he got the call. He got that very call, and when he heard the details, he put two and two together and knew it was himself he had to hit.” The boss bellowed, closer, but the worker ignored it and horse-laughed again. “He has to hit himself, so now he’s like—on the run, man—from himself!

The boss threw open the door. “What the hell are you doing in here? Didn’t I tell you to work the floor?”

“Sorry, I’m coming. Tell your friends.” He winked to Eugene and Ray and rushed out of the office.

IV

From the back seat of Ray’s car, Big Lenny tried to tell the story of Mike the hit man, that he had—“in point of fat”—killed himself, but Eugene cut him off.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Carrie, sitting up front with Ray, yawned, “There ain’t no Mafia. What’re you, kidding us, Lenny?”

“But listen, it’s funny,” Lenny said. “This Mike the hit man, you know, he was ordered to kill himself. Get it? You see the—what’s that word? The irony—yeah, the irony of it.”

“Look,” Eugene said, “all I care about is going to Nancy’s party and meeting some different people for a change. That’s where we’re going and that’s all I want to know.”

“There ain’t no Mafia,” Carrie repeated, looking out the window.

“Oh yeah? Then why did he do it?” Lenny said. No one answered. “I said why did he do it?”

Eugene blew out a breath. “Do what?”

“Why did he kill himself, then—because they found him just yesterday. He jumped out of a motel window.”

There was a long silence as Ray made a right turn into Nancy’s development and eased the car to a stop two blocks from Nancy’s house.

“Who told you all this?” Ray said quietly, his hands still on the wheel, while Eugene fumed at the trees outside.

“Friend I know.”

“What friend.”

“Guy I know, from the dealership.”

Ray thought for a while. “Does he laugh like a horse?”

Lenny thought. “Yeah, a little bit.”

“So he jumped out of a motel window,” Ray said flatly and looked at Carrie, who knit her brows in answer.

“Yeah, down on Route 9, that’s right,” Lenny said.

“Well, how do you frickin’ kill yourself jumping out a motel window?”

“Look, that’s all I know. The guy’s dead. It’s in the papers too, so it’s true. He was splattered all over the parking lot and everything.”

Eugene glowered out the side window. “Stupid ass,” he muttered.

“Hey, don’t yell at me, Eugene. I already got an earache. I slept on one side all last night, and it’s bugging the holy living crap out of me—all the way to holy hell.”

V

Nancy’s party was filled with intellectuals—most of them college kids and maybe only half from his own neighborhood. Eugene found himself drifting away from Big Lenny and Carrie, and even Ray, and he struck up conversations with girls and guys who were art majors and philosophy majors and lit majors. He wondered where he’d be in a year or five years, away from his neighborhood, with new people like these. There were so many other possibilities on the way, he thought as he talked with the others, and he ached for escape. After four or five drinks he felt a deep buzz and sat in a beach chair next to a girl whose name was Wilma, then Willa, then maybe Wawa, and across from him was a guy name Shaboo or Shampoo or something. Shampoo was a lit major who went on and on after finding out that Eugene knew who Scott Fitzgerald was.

“Gatsby was a horrible book,” Shampoo said. “This Side of Paradise was his masterpiece.”

Eugene shrugged. “I liked Gatsby. Old sport…I liked that.”

Shampoo spoke in monotone about Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway and Faulkner and T.S. Eliot and “that whole ridiculous twenties crowd,” and Eugene sat back, blinking away sleep. After his next drink, he raised his eyebrows to Wawa when she leaned her shoulder into him a little.

“I’m a Gatsby guy,” Eugene offered at last when Shampoo stopped droning to take a breath. “Anyway, I just like to read.”

Shampoo smirked. “Gatsby and his fake mobster friends…a bunch of wannabes. Do you know that I’ve been playing pool lately with a real hit man?”

Eugene tipped his head back against the chair, and saw the top leaves of the darkened tree above him. “Really.”

“Sure, I play at Bradley’s over near the college, and I met this guy, a really fascinating guy. We play about once a week.” He paused pregnantly. “And he told me offhand that he’s a hit man.”

Eugene leaned forward, away from Wawa’s shoulder, and stared at Shampoo. “He told you that?”

“Why not, that’s his job. He’s just a regular guy.”

“No, he’s a hit man. He kills people.”

“It’s not like that.”

“He could kill you.”

“It’s not like that. Work and pleasure are separate in this guy’s world. He wouldn’t kill me. We’re pool buddies. That’s the whole beauty of it.”

Eugene looked around for Ray but only saw Lenny swaying near the barbecue.

“Beauty of it? He kills people. I wouldn’t play pool with anyone who kills.”

“How do you know who you’re playing pool with?” Shampoo said, and Wawa’s head lolled. “But at least with this guy, it’s his job, it’s all up front, and the people he kills are bad anyway.”

“I kind of admire him,” Wawa slurred.

Eugene struggled to get out of the beach chair, pushing off Wawa to get up and away from Shampoo’s knowing smirk. His chair tipped over, and Wawa almost tipped over herself, but he didn’t stop. He gave one last sweeping look at the blurred crowd in the yard, ducked out of the front gate, and crossed the lawn. The sounds of the party dulled behind him and were soon replaced by the silence and the darkness of the tree-lined development. He circled on foot for over an hour, unable to find the turnpike. No matter what kinds of turns he took, he found himself back at the party house. In the yard again, he smiled weakly to Carrie who sidled over to him.

“You look all ready to go,” she said.

“I’m ready.” And when Carrie was quiet, he added, “I’m ready to get completely out of this crazy neighborhood, totally out of here. College can’t come fast enough.”

“You got that right,” she said.

“Since I was a kid all I’ve heard is this stupid phony mob talk. I’m sick of it.”

“There is no mob, and there ain’t no Mafia,” Carrie said, and waved across the yard to Ray.

“Amen. Thank God you don’t believe that crap.”

“I refuse to believe that crap,” Carrie said. “Ever since they threw my Uncle Nelson in the river when he couldn’t make his payments, I refuse to believe any of it. I swear on my mutha.”

 

——————–

Lou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, FRiGG, Waccamaw, Eclectica, The Brooklyner, The Hawai’i Review, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was a runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches English in upstate New York and is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner.


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