It was Monday morning, maybe that’s what started the fight over all the pies. Like always, everybody was sitting around the diner having a cup of coffee or a couple of eggs, getting ready for work. And, like always, nobody looked very happy about it.
Rosie was grumbling that her old man, who was out back fixing something, hadn’t cleaned the grill right. She said she wasn’t getting squat for tips that morning and it wasn’t her fault if the eggs were coming out smoky. Joann, who was sitting next to me, was agreeing with that, saying her ex-boyfriend was always a bastard about his eggs. Me, who was throwing my good eye on Joann, was agreeing with her, saying that smoky eggs could be tasty. A couple of truckers who were passing through were sitting up front bitching about the cops on I-95. Harry was hunched over his baseball scores with nothing to say, as the Reds had lost. Down the far end, Big Rick was quiet too, looking thorough his receipts book, scowling and scratching his goatee. Down the other end, as far away from Big Rick as you could sit, Dom, huge and hairy as a buffalo, was plunked down on his stool. Sitting next to Dom was his son, Eddie. The kid’s about 16, and skinny as a beanpole standing sideways. He doesn’t say much, but when he does it’s usually something goofy.
Now, the standard story is that Big Rick and Dom hate each other’s guts on purely business grounds: each guy says the other is a stinking bastard that scrounged him out of customers and so he wants to kill him. Fair enough. Other folks claim that milk had nothing to do with it, and that the bad blood between them is because both were boinking that hot number Sarah Jennings. I mean, why else would she need two milkmen, right? Well, however it was, each guy thought the other guy was plowing his tomato patch, and so finally they locked horns. It was down to ‘world famous’ Charlie-O’s one night, and legend is that sexy Sarah was waitressing. Folks that saw it said it was like a hurricane that started in the bar, flew out onto the sidewalk, then went ripping down Main Street. I suppose that one’s a stretcher, but even the next day’s newspaper said how those two put a whole shift of cops in the hospital.
Neither guy could claim Rosie’s diner as his as both had been going there since Adam, so after the duke-out neither would leave because he didn’t want it to look like the other ran him off. Again, fair enough, but some mornings it was like a cold war in there. Rosie, who’s sort of touched in the head anyway, tried to make a joke out of it, saying they were her ‘most faithful customers.’ But even she wasn’t so batty as to say it straight to their faces. Nobody was.
Because I was running it down to Joann, trying to get a date, I don’t exactly know who started what. It was only when Big Rick spoke up that I noticed what was going on.
You see, if you’re anywhere near Big Rick it’s best to keep half an eye on him. He has the deserved reputation as the best sucker shot artist in town: you’re just standing there, and then, out of the blue, you’re knocked dead on your ass looking up at the blue. And then his boot comes down on your fool head. Of course, that’s only if you got on his bad side.
So, like I said, Big Rick speaks up. He says, ‘The kid’s full of crap, just like his dad.’ Big Rick didn’t say this to no one in particular, but sure loud enough so that everyone could hear it. Heck, even Clyde, Rosie’s old, deaf dog, pricked up his ears and looked around.
The whole diner went silent, and everyone, even Clyde, looked at Dom.
Since the fight, there had already been one or three close calls at Rosie’s diner with those two about to go postal on each other. Somehow, though, the fuse had always been cut short. I remember one time, Rosie just grabbed up the phone, didn’t dial no number or nothing, and just starting shrieking, √É¬¨Cops! Cops! Cops!√É¬Æ What a fruitcake. Another time her old man got into the act, jumped out on the diner floor armed with a raggedy old broom, swinging it around all wild ass to keep Big Rick and Dom apart. He swung it so good that be busted the overhead light, and then everybody busted a gut laughing.
But nobody was laughing now.
Real slow, Dom swiveled around on his stool, his big, hairy arms crossed and resting on top his blubber gut. When he turned on the stool like that, it made a crazy squeaking sound, which normally raised a couple of covered snickers. But this time the look on his face stopped any of that.
‘You callin’ me a liar?’ Dom said.
Big Rick was pretty cool though. He just looked across the diner at Dom like it was nothing, but his smile, if I can call it that, was all ice. I noticed, too, that he’d put the receipt book down and set his feet ready on the floor.
‘If yer sayin’,’ Big Rick said slow and clear, ‘that yer son could eat all them pies before eight o’clock, then, yeah, yer a liar.’
Now, this wasn’t good. Easy to see as a train wreck, that Big Rick was calling Dom out. And sure as hell, Dom wouldn’t back down. I was wondering if I could get to the door before the fireworks started.
Rosie spoke up, her voice cracking a bit. ‘I don’t want no trouble in my place, boys!’ Quick, she kept looking back and forth between the two, pointing at them with her spatula. The damn thing was dripping with hot, black grease, and it was getting splattered all over the place.
‘No trouble,’ Dom said in a low voice, ‘Unless he’s callin’ me a liar.’
Now the two had locked eyes and were starting to stand up. Dom looked like a couple of beer kegs side-by-side with a watermelon for a head and a pair of fire-hydrants stuck on for legs. If that starts rolling, there’s no stopping it. And Big Rick … well, when a guy that big looks at you cross-eyed you probably need a change of underwear.
Rosie threw her fat arms out to the sides like a traffic cop trying to stop a collision. In her right fist the smoking spatula was spitting burning grease every which way, and in her left she had a thick coffee mug. The crazy old bat was sure ready to defend her diner.
‘Aw no! Aw no!’ she was screaming.
It was then that Big Rick reached into his back pocket. I swear, my heart skipped two beats. I figured, this might be it, so I put my arm around Joann to cop one last cheap feel.
But, thank the NRA, he just pulled out his wallet.
He never took his beady eyes off Dom, but he reached into the fold and took out a bill. Big Rick held the green-back up by its edge, showing it.
‘Me and ol’ Stonewall here sez yer talkin’ bull stink, the kid can’t eat all the pies!’
Then he slammed the 20 down on the counter so hard that the whole damn diner shook. All the cabinets, dishes, cups, spoon and forks. Hell, all the people, too.
Except, Dom, that is.
Dom reached over and wrapped that huge paw of his around Eddie’s scrawny neck and yanked the kid to his feet. With the other hand, he reached back and flipped open his wallet. He snapped out a Jackson and with one stubby finger pressed it down on the counter.
‘Yer on, big mouth!’
Well, this threw the whole diner into a spin. Everybody gathered around the pie case and tallied up. There was a week’s supply: 13 fat pies. There were two apple, two cherry, two lemon meringue, two peach, two cream, two custard, and one rhubarb. And, Jack, make no mistake, that last was the mother! I really don’t even know why she made them, I never saw, or even heard, of anyone with the iron guts to tackle ‘Rosie’s Rhubarb.’ Why, hell, even old Clyde would just sniff’em and turn tail.
It was just then, real calculated, that Big Rick threw in his ringer. He looked at Dom, and in a casual, off-hand way, gave a shrug.
‘Course, all includes the rhubarb.’
This sent a new buzz through the crowd, but Dom just blew it off like it was nothing.
‘Damn straight!’ Dom said.
A cheer went up, and Rosie was so happy that she flashed every inch of her dentures and held up her spatula proud as a peacock. I thought Eddie gulped a little on hearing his dad agree to the √É¬¨rhubarb rule√É¬Æ, as we later called it, but, overall, the dope seemed game as ever.
Maybe it was the idea of selling out her whole stock of pies in one shot that made Rosie go along with it. Or, maybe, she was just so relieved at not having those bulls tear her diner down that she would’ve agreed to anything. But to tell the awful truth, I suspect she just wanted to see somebody, for once, munch down one of her raunchy rhubarbs.
Well, however, it was, she was giddy as a schoolgirl and high as a kite just at the thought of it. She kept on cackling that she’d never heard of such thing, and that somebody should call the local newspaper, or even the Guinness World Book. Finally, her old man told her to shut the hell up.
For a couple of reasons it was decided that Harry should hold the greenbacks and be the official timekeeper. First, being a Little League coach he had one of those timers on his watch and he knew how to start and stop stuff. Second, as that watch was about the only thing he had left after his last wife divorced him, he got the reputation of being a kind of honest Abe. Of course, some folks said he was just a plain dumb ass and he should’ve gotten a better lawyer. But, anyway, seeing as he had the watch and the rep, he was elected.
By the way, Rosie, still armed with her spatula, appointed herself ‘Guardian of the Pie Case,’ or something like that. She said, seeing as she made those pies, and that everything in her diner was always on the up-and-up, that nobody who wasn’t looking to get clobbered would try to monkey with her pies, and that being the case only she could hand’em out to Eddie. Her old man told her to shut the hell up.
So we all gathered around. Harry, with the two twentys in his pocket and his finger on his watch-button, looked at Eddie, who was sitting there with a fork and a kind of weird look on his mug, and then at Rosie √É¬± who looked pretty weird too, protecting the pie case with a greasy spatula, and said, ‘Ready?’
‘Yeah!’ both yelled.
Then Harry held up his wrist and showed it around.
‘Forty two minutes on the clock!’ He said it like we was at a big league game. We all thought Harry was doing a fine job as holder-timekeeper.
Everybody took a good gander and confirmed it: in 42 minutes it’d be 8 o’clock and we’d all be late for work. Not that anybody gave a horse’s ass, this was an event. And we were gonna see it.
‘Ok!’ Harry called out. ‘Ready! Set! Eat pies!!!’
A war whoop went up from the crowd and Rosie, like she was handling a new born, set out the first pie in front of Eddie.
It was an apple, and he wolfed that bad-boy down lickety-split! I mean he chomped it so quick I think I saw sparks flying up from the fork and pan.
Everybody was going crazy rooting for Eddie or the pies, or both, or neither, and Harry’s face was twitching like when his last wife got everything, even the doghouse.
‘One minute!’ Harry screamed above everybody. ‘He gulped that sucker in 60 seconds flat!’
‘Easy money!’ Dom bellowed, and he gave his son a good whack on the back and turned to give Big Rick a hard stare. But Big Rick was just standing there, cool as a snow-cone in December, and laughing too.
‘Serve’em up, Rosie,’ he shouted. ‘Boy’s waitin’!’ Then he pulled out one of those little cigars he smokes, spit the butt-end on the floor, which normally he never would’ve gotten away with, but, as I said, Rosie was on pie-duty, and struck the match on the edge of the counter (ditto).
While Rosie shuffled out the next pie, a cherry, Big Rick just kept on puffing away, smiling like he had the world by the nuts. Maybe it was that pose, or his goatee and that stinking cigar, but I thought he looked like Satan.
That cherry went down slower at two minutes, but that’s still pretty damn quick to hog a pie. While he was gulping it, all the guys started chanting like at a football game.
‘Bust that cherry! Bust that cherry!’
Rosie was about the hand out the second cherry when Dom said, ‘No! Giv’em the lemon! Vary up them flavors!’
Big Rick was standing by the side, one booted foot propped up on a stool, blowing smoke rings. He just shrugged at Dom and Eddie, who looked like some kind of pathetic clown with cherry pie all over his skinny face, and said, ‘Sure, sure. Anyway he wants ’em.’ Then he turned his wrist over to look at his watch. ‘Course the clock is tickin’!’ Real cool, he blew out a big old smoke ring.
Stupid as it sounds, this threw everybody into a frenzy again! Rosie pitched the lemon onto the counter and dumb-ass Eddie was shoveling it down his gullet before the pan stopped moving.
You see, it don’t take no Einstein to figure that if a guy can swallow three pies in five minutes, 13 in 40 ain’t no big whup. But three is a sprint, and 13 is a marathon. That was Big Rick’s strategy, just like Ali stuck it to Foreman. But this time the √É¬¨rope-a-dope√É¬Æ was a la Big Rick.
I know this now, but at the time I was just another wild-ass fool yelling √É¬¨Eat! Eat! Eat!√É¬Æ and shooting looks up at the wall clock. Yeah, Big Rick suckered us all.
It was on number seven, a cream, which should’ve been a breeze, that things started to go into the toilet. Eddie was looking queasy, like a puke-bomb was brewing in his guts. His eyes were real big and swimming around in his head, sweat was popping out all over him, and his lower lip was drooping down like he was more of an idiot than we knew. What with all the different colors of pie smeared on his face and shirt, it looked pretty damn gross. But I kept on looking, because it was an event, and I was part of it.
It was when number eight, a peach, was shoved in from of him that he suddenly let go a humongous-nasty burp. Quick and quiet as inflation, everybody in the joint piped down and took a step back. We all thought it was hurl-highway for sure.
But I think that Eddie wanted to show us he didn’t just have chicken Mcnuggets in his Fruit-of-the-Looms. So, with as much grit as the next guy, he put his skinny, trembling hands up on the counter and rode that vomit-wave out to shore. A couple of tense seconds passed, then he opened his eyes and picked up his fork again.
A cheer went up. We all respected him for that. I mean, we all still thought he was a dumb-ass for doing it, but we respected that in a dumb-ass kind of way.
Dom was happy as a hooker at a condom sale. He yelled, ‘That’s my boy!,’ and slapped Eddie so hard on the back that pie flew right out of his chewing yap.
Big Rick was biting off the end of another Tipperillo and smiling ear-to-ear. The bastard.
It was just into pie 9, the second cherry, that Eddie suddenly stopped. His fork was half-way to his mouth, dripping with a heavy, gooey, red hunk, and he just froze. He looked like crap-on-a-stick. Then the hunk fell off the fork back into the pan. Everybody had shut up. Then Eddie dropped the fork onto the counter.
‘I can’t do it,’ he said. He was still staring at the pie. It only had a few pieces forked out of it, and it sort of looked like a face with a twisted, crazy grin.
But old Dom didn’t notice none of that he was just all disbelief. Like somebody crapped in his corn-flakes.
‘Whaa- Whaa-‘ Dom was so staggered by this sudden turn of events he couldn’t even talk. His eyes were like two ping pong balls glued on his basketball head. Eddie was still staring dumb-struck at the grinning pie.
Then Dom laid his bear-paw of a hand on Eddie’s bony shoulder.
‘Yer eatin’ them pies!’ he growled.
Maybe Eddie was too afraid to look at his dad, or maybe that pie had him hypnotized. Anyway, he didn’t look up, but just shook his head real slow.
‘I can’t. I can’t eat’em, dad.’
‘Busted by a cherry!’ Big Rick laughed from the side.
By the look on Eddie’s mug, I knew it was over. Like some golden gloves hotshot who gets knocked on his ass first round with a pro. His steam was all gone and he didn’t have no heart left in him. He was wrecked, and everybody saw it. There was a lot of laughing and cursing, and some side bets that were going on were settled.
But Dom wouldn’t drop it, wouldn’t admit he’d lost. He just kept on standing there, glaring down at washed-up Eddie.
Then, quick as I ever saw a man move, Dom snatched up that smirking pie and smashed it into Eddie’s face. Well, the kid started choking and spitting something awful, but Dom didn’t give a rat’s ass, he had Eddie by the hair and just ground that pie in.
Eddie fell off the stool and onto the floor, but Dom just held on to him.
Then he screamed at Rosie, ‘Gimme that lemon, you old bitch!’
Crazy to tell, but she did! Pronto, with her nag-hole hanging so wide that all her dentures were dangling, Rosie handed out the lemon to Dom. If she moved half that fast on regular orders her tips wouldn’t be so damn low.
Well, Dom was on a roll and their was no stopping him now. He took that lemon and whacked Eddie right in the kisser with it. The poor kid was down on his knees, with every kind of pie jammed in his eyes, and up his nose, and down his throat. He kept flopping around in Dom’s grip like a half-dead fish you reeled into shore. We all thought it was a pitiful sight.
All the while, Dom was cussing something fierce, saying how no son of his would make an ass out of him like that, and that he was glad Eddie’s mom was dead because if she saw this she’d die of shame, and so on.
Like I said, it was pitiful.
Now, this sight was rough as sandpaper on the eyes, but nobody said anything for a few reasons. First, this being a family dispute, between a father and son, nobody thought it right to step in. Next, some folks were saying how Eddie was a dunce’s duff and the simple Simon deserved it. I think them folks were mostly the ones who lost money betting on Eddie. Last, Dom being the mean mother that he is, nobody wanted to join Eddie down there on the floor.
But see, then Dom went too damn far. He stepped over the line. He reached for the rhubarb.
Again, weird to say, but it was Big Rick who called him on it.
‘Drop that rhubarb, fat ass!’ Big Rick’s voice was like a bull-whip.
Normally, like I said, any hard words between those two and most folks would’ve been high-tailing it for their cars. But seeing how’s everything was only holding by paperclips and tape anyway, including poor Eddie down there on the floor, all of a sudden, Big Rick was our spokesman.
‘Yeah, let’im go, Dom!’
‘Don’t mash’im no more!’
That’s what some of us said.
But Dom’s blood was up. He still had Eddie by the hair in one hand and that god-awful rhubarb in the other. Both of them were pretty much plastered over in pie now, and Dom was sweating like a hog and trembling with rage. I don’t think he’s used to that kind of exertion, and I remember thinking it would be great if he just keeled over from a heart attack.
But he didn’t. He just looked around the diner at everybody, breathing hard, bull-frog eyes popping out of his head. All the while he held tight on the rhubarb and Eddie, and nobody moved an inch.
Dom was catching his breath up in gulps, trying to talk.
‘Bunch of rotten bastards! Dirty punks!’
Then he gave us all the meanest look, like we was the lowest dogs and back-stabbers ever. Joann, who was still sitting next to me, had got all green around the gills watching Eddie get pie-ed, but now she cringed behind me. I was glad Big Rick was there.
An evil smile lit up Dom’s ugly face, and he raised that reeking rhubarb up high.
√É¬¨I said, he’s getting it!√É¬Æ
Like a hooker on 42nd, that was a taunt, a clear dare if anybody was man enough. Nobody’s head moved, but some eyes shifted to Big Rick. But he was still as stone. I was about to close my eyes and pinch my nose because I didn’t want to see Eddie get socked with that vomit pie.
It was like a flash or a blur more than anything else. Big Rick just whipped a custard out of the case and let fire.
It hit Dom’s face so fast and so hard that a couple seconds passed before anybody had realized what happened.
Well, then the fit hit the sham. They just went at each other like Godzilla and King Kong.
At this point, I’m not to all-fire clear as to who did what who because I grabbed Joann and pulled us both under the nearest table. I didn’t do this to play the hero, or even to cop a couple of cheap feels, but only because I couldn’t get loose from her grip and I was afraid of getting my head busted.
It was like an earthquake, with dishes crashing and stuff flying all around. But about the blow-by-blow, or how long we were under there, or how the cops got called, hell, I’m clueless. I mean, during the whole damn thing, Joann kept screaming her fool head off and mushing her love-pillows into my face, so how could I keep track of what was going on top-side?
When the boys in blue crashed the joint they were swinging their clubs no fooling. Real professional, they beat Dom and Big Rick into peaceful, unconscious citizens. The ambulance only took a couple minutes to get there too.
The whole diner was wrecked. Everything breakable was broken. All the windows, dishes, cups, and plates were just itty bitty nothings. Even the grill was turned all topsy-turvy. Clyde, their old deaf dog, had come in from the back and was licking up some pie off the floor. Rosie was half-sitting on a busted stool crying her mascara out. Her old man told her to shut the hell up.
I happened to notice Harry, with the 40 bucks still sticking out of his shirt pocket, slip out the side door. Which, by the way, was pretty easy seeing as it had been ripped out the hinges.
Joann was still all freaked out, so, Johnny-on-the-spot, I offered to drive her home. When I walked her out to my truck, I saw Eddie out on the sidewalk. I guess he crawled out there during the brawl.
He was still down on all fours √É¬± barfing up all the pies.