I’d seen dead people before, but they’d been in coffins. Where they belong.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
In keeping with tradition, New Year’s Eve 2017 was like no other New Year’s at Smugglers’ Inn, ever. Nothing happened. As in no fist fights. No nudity. No employee walk-offs. No appearances by former employees, feared dead, who had been secretly living in the attic crawlspaces for weeks. The three seatings in the dining room filled, emptied and re-filled like clockwork. Our regular customers complained that the New Year’s menu items were half as numerous and more expensive than they were normally while the folks who go out once a year smiled and ordered splits of $6 champagne for $18. It was hardly worth writing about. So, I didn’t.
Instead, I waited, hoping that something freaky would occur on Valentine’s Day that would be worth sharing with the loyal followers of this blog. All 26 of you. As they say in the comic books, be careful what you wish for.
Next to New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day is the busiest day of the year for Smugglers’ Inn’s hospitality division. If you have a sit-down restaurant and you aren’t busy on February 14, you may wish to consider throwing in the towel. If Ihop took reservations, they would be booked on V-Day. Smuggler’s Inn was over-booked. While we do not do three seatings as we do on New Year’s Eve, we pretty much assume that every table in the place will fill at least twice between seven and 10, the hour when our kitchen closes during the week. We assume that some people who make reservations will not show. Just like the airlines. Unlike the airlines, though, we don’t employ any fancy algorithms to predict how many people out of 100 reserved seats would otherwise go empty. We leave that to whomever is taking reservations, usually the seating hostess. Karin.
I’ve not mentioned Karin before in this blog. That’s because she’s new. And now gone, so I can say what I think, which is that Karin was the only Smugglers’ Inn seating hostess to have been challenged by the job. Nice person, lovely human being--don’t get me wrong. But the woman couldn’t say “no” (or lots of other words that had only a few more letters, if you’ll permit me to be blunt. ) When someone would call on February 13 and request a table for six February 14th at eight o’clock, Karin would look at our reservation book and see a line through eight o’clock along with all the other o’clock’s. Karin would apologize and explain to the party in question that we were booked after which, the party in question would say, “Pleeease!” and spin some hooey about a boyfriend on leave from Afghanistan or a girlfriend just out of the hospital. Karin would buckle and say, “Well, just show up and we’ll squeeze you in.”
It's hard to know what Karin was thinking, exactly, because when Carol, the day manager, discovered a sheet of names and times that had been folded and stuck in our (completely full) reservation book, she called the off-duty hostess up and fired her. I wouldn’t have fired Karin, but then, I’m the good cop. It did provide us with an excuse to give to people who had made reservations when they had to wait, on average, 20 minutes to be seated. We offered everyone a complimentary glass of champagne for the inconvenience and most people seemed mollified. Hey, you don’t want to look like a sour puss on Valentine’s Day.
In the end, the weather came to our aid. While Minnesotans are famous for not letting snow or ice keep them off the roads, a mini-blizzard was in the forecast and couples who may have been tempted to spend a little more time holding hands under the table and staring off into space opted to skip dessert and coffee in order to make it home before the predicted ten inches of the white stuff.
I would almost say that Karin’s crappy reservation-taking had ended up being a positive thing, were it not for one party that showed up 15 minutes before our kitchen was set to close. There was no record for a party of five under the name, “Fannig”, either in the reservations book or on Karin’s informal waiting list, but I wasn’t about to turn them away. One of their number was confined to a wheelchair and judging from how the man pushing it was panting, they had ignored the handicapped access on the side of the building and had manhandled the chair through a couple of inches of new snow in our parking lot.
“Right this way,” I said and seated Los Fannigs at a six-top that had been set for two all evening. It was pretty clear they were a family, maybe our first one of this Valentine’s night. None of them looked under 55. I’d assumed that the woman in the wheelchair was the matriarch. A metallic, heart-shaped balloon was attached to a fun-sized Oxygen tank protruding from a vinyl pouch on the back of the chair. Its buoyancy had been compromised from the short push outside in the cold weather. The heart was trying its best to stay afloat. Much like the Fannig’s, I thought.
“Thanks a lot,” said Erin, the server in whose section the Fannig’s were now seated. “I was worried you'd stopped loving me.” Erin knew she would likely be hanging around an hour and a half for a five-dollar tip. She had been our seating hostess before switching to serving, where the money was. Erin was not particularly well-suited to either of these jobs, but her sharp wit and writing ability(she claimed a degree in English Lit from the National University of Ireland, in Galway) made her an indespensible part of Smugglers’Inn, the advertising agency. A venture that was seeming like something that I had only imagined. On this cold night in February, anyway.
The anticipated snow fall had begun. Within, I’d say, ten minutes a third of the patrons in the bar had evaporated. The dishwashers and the cooks were no less anxious to get home, but they were stuck until the Fennig’s ordered. I thought I would remind their server of this fact.
“No, I don’t have their fookin’ order, boss,” said Erin, not waiting for me to finish my question. (I hate when Erin calls me "boss", but somehow when she says "fookin" I find it charming.) “It’s some sort of send-off for the old gal. They’re blubberin’ like she’s dead already. Poor gal. You'd think they'd give her a shave with the perm."
I offered to get the Fennig’s order myself and Erin called my bluff. I came back twenty seconds later. Without an order.
“Jesus! I said, "They’re reading poems. In Hebrew, I think.”
Erin correct me.
“Welsh? Who speaks Welsh?”
“Tom Jones is Welsh,” Erin volunteered.
I ran down the lyrics to “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “It’s not Unusual” in my head, but what was coming from the Fennig’s table sounded decidedly more ancient. And sadder.The heaviousity emanating from the Fennigs’ table swept across our dining room like the wave at a football stadium. Couples who had been touching foreheads and petting arms disengaged. Hands went up, signaling for checks. $22 plates of Surf ‘n Turf were cleared away, half eaten.
“Who let the stink bomb off?”
April, not the month, the cocktail waitress, was surveying what had been a full dining room when she’d finished her shift 20 minutes ago. She peered out from the kitchen, still left-swiping messages on the iPhone that every 21-year-old seems to come with. Unlike me or, I gathered, Erin, April had a Valentine who would be waiting for her.
“We had an active shooter situation while you were on the phone. Twenty dead. You just missed the news cameras.” Erin delivered in a deadpan voice. By now, she had turned in the Fennig’s order and was just hanging out with me by the hostess station, shooting the shit. Every tab but the Fennigs’ had been paid and change given. It was 10:08.
April looked at the Fennigs, who, except for the old woman, were working on their salads.
Erin made a shooing motion with her hand.
“Run along, youngster. Get laid for the rest of us.”
April did not run along. She walked very deliberately through the dining room to the kitchen, turned around and walked back, each time passing very close by the Fennig’s. She said one word and that was “dead”. Actually, April said a lot of words, but they all meant the same thing: the guest of honor at the Fennig’s dinner was almost certainly a corpse.
“How can you tell?”
I’d seen dead people before, but they’d been in coffins. Where they belong.
I’d seen dead people before, but they’d been in coffins. Where they belong.
“They’ve tried to cover it up with make-up, but she has lividity on the left side of her face, which indicates that was the side she was lying on when she died. Plus, she isn’t breathing.”
Erin crossed herself. Irish.
“You need to call an ambulance ,” April said. “It’s against state law to transport a body without a license.”
“I guess we’d better, then. Thanks, April. I’ll get on it. Oh, April? I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t…”
“Don’t worry. I am, like, the scroll of discretion.”
April left then to rendezvous with her date. And, I had no doubt, to tell anyone on her contacts list that there was a dead lady at the restaurant where she worked.
“You never called the ambulance, did you?” Erin asked after she’d returned from cashing out her last couple of tables and returned to see me rooted in the same spot.
“I was just about to,” I said. “Then, the old gal sat bolt upright in her chair, looked about and, seeing the joy-filled faces of her clan gathered about her, clapped her hands once, which seemed to be the signal for everyone to pull out their phones and take selfies with grandma, then, after maybe a minute of seeming lucidity…” I snapped my fingers. “--back to dreamland. The old gal hasn’t stirred again. Sucks getting old.”
“You’d have to tell me about that,”said Erin, then added, “They tipped me fifty--the Fennig’s. Fifty on 78 (dollars).”
“No kidding? And what do we tell April, when she insists that the woman was deceased?”
“That she made a mistake, that’s all. No harm done. Say, do you think the old lady could have narcolepsy, waking up like that and going back to sleep?”
“Narcolepsy? Hmm. I’ve never seen someone with narcolepsy. Until tonight, I mean.”
And that was Valentine’s Day 2018 at Smuggler’s Inn. Having to serve dinner to a corpse might have gone down in restaurant lore for the ages, but the narcoleptic who was mistaken for a dead person was not that great a story and everyone immediately forgot about the Fennig’s. Well, I’d forgotten about it.
Until today, when I came to work and saw a bit of red foil sticking out of a pile of snow from the recent Easter blizzard. (Why do I still live in Minnesota?) I don’t know why, but I pulled it out and it was a completely deflated heart-shaped balloon. Written on it in a Sharpie was, “Thank you, Smugglers Inn!”
Whomever had written the message had left out an apostrophe, but I didn’t care. I pinned it to the whiteboard in my office with a magnet. Then, I called the previously-fired Karin back and asked if she wanted any hours. In my opinion, the girl hadn’t been guilty of any crime save having a big heart. If you can’t have a big heart on Valentine’s Day, what’s the point of showing up?
Next time I write, I will have advertising activity to report. Turns out April’s uncle didn’t have a funeral home. He had five and was in negotiations to buy two more. April, quite kindly, suggested to her uncle that he really needed some outside marketing help and didn’t she know just the guys? Anyway, a bit of good luck. Or maybe just Karma.
Happy New Year and Valentine’s Day and Easter from the new agency of record for Washburn-Benson family of funeral homes. Remember, you’re alive as long as your relatives are still speaking to you.
Monday, November 27, 2017
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is one of those things, like the coelacanth or the Snoop Dogg award for community activism, that shouldn’t exist, but yet, there it is. The museum occupies a small space in a one-story building on Venice Boulevard in West LA, 1200 miles from Blaine, Minnesota and Smugglers’ Inn. Other than the fact that both institutions have websites that have been “under construction” for years, we scarcely have anything in common. They are a non-profit organization that owes its existence to a an endowment from a Swiss industrialist of the previous century who followed a charismatic mystic. The mystic maintained that around the time the dinosaurs disappeared, The physical dimension that contained the known world halved and that, basically, the other side got all the cool shit. We are a combo restaurant and ad agency. Which, all of a sudden, doesn’t seem that strange.
This is how I remember the call:
“Hello, Smugglers’ Inn.”
“Yes, we sent you an email.”
“I’m sorry. Lots of people email us.” (A lie.)
“I’m calling for The Museum ...(MUMBLES)...ology.
“THE MUSEUM OF JURASSIC TECHNOLOGY.”
The woman on the line then explained that her real job was as a personal assistant to an actor whom I’d never heard of, but pretended to know in the hopes of finding out what the hell she wanted. She was working at the museum “just for the summer, until (ACTOR’S NAME) got back from a three month ayahuasca cleansing with a shaman in Brazil.”
Suddenly, I remembered that I had to order towels.
“Is there something that I can help you with?” I asked, regretting that I’d asked.
“You have an employee there...Pogo?”
His name is “Pongo”. So, If I said “no”, I would not be lying. Technically.
“To be perfectly frank, we’re not keen on answering any questions about our employees without a very good reason. Did you have a good reason?” I regretted asking. Again.
“This is going to seem like one of those miraculous coincidences, but MOJT’s next exhibit will highlight instances of inter-dimensional travel in shamanistic cultures throughout recorded history, augmented by statements by quantum physicists who argue for a multi-verse models of the universe where competing dimensions exist on top of one another and can, in theory, be bridged.
“And the coincidence is, what? “MOJT” and “poop” have the same number of letters?”
I didn’t actually say that, of course. But I was thinking that I needed to get to those towels. The young woman went on.
“The shaman whom (ACTOR’S NAME) is currently receiving guidance from has claimed to travel to another dimension and on occasion, encounter others who were making similar journeys.”
“I see,” I lied.
“Well, quite recently, my guy’s shaman encountered another shaman who was trying to lead an acolyte whom had lost his home. This is all coming from (ACTOR’S NAME).
“Nothing. How does this involve us at Smugglers’ Inn?
“Getting to that. The two Shaman’s communicate, but they don’t really speak the same language, one being from Brazil and the other being in Sumatra. Sumatra is part of Indonesia.”
“You know your geography.”
“I had to look it up. Anyway, the lost acolyte’s name was “Pogo” and his spiritual center was in Blaine, Minnesota, specifically a restaurant that had portholes and shopping center
“I had to look it up. Anyway, the lost acolyte’s name was “Pogo” and his spiritual center was in Blaine, Minnesota, specifically a restaurant that had portholes and shopping center
nearby. I went on Google Earth. You got portholes.”
My worldview is pretty elastic, but it doesn’t stretch to include shamans who communicate telepathically in the never-never. It occurred to me that someone was probably pranking me.
“One minute, please,” I said and extracted my clunky Galaxy Note V from my too-tight cotton/poly manager pants. The voice recognition on Google worked, which was good since I couldn’t have spelled “Jurassic” had you given me four tries. My phone showed a picture of a deliberately blacked-out storefront blocked by a tree and hard by place called “Hurry Curry” along with a phone number and a website for the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Legit.
“Sorry for that, Miss...”
“Wendra. Would you rather I call back in the morning?”
“I’ll be asleep. No, please. Go ahead, Wendra; this is interesting.”
“OK, here’s the elevator pitch. The Museum wants to fly Pogo to Los Angeles for our opening, but that’s not the big thing. You know what TED talks are, right?”
“Sure.” I sort of knew--smart folks talking, normal folks pretending to understand.
“Well, Dr. (EGGHEAD’S NAME) is one of the the physicists who is helping us put together our show. He’s been asked to do a TED talk on multiverses and he wants your man, Pogo, to appear with him and tell everyone how he made the journey from Sumatra to Blaine, Minnesota.”
“And how was that?” It had taken substantial donations from our entire staff to get Pongo to Jalalabad, Indonesia with a bit of cash to get himself to Sumatra. It was not a round trip ticket.
“I told Dr. (EGGHEAD’S NAME) that he should come up with a more scientific name, but he’s a big Deadhead and I guess that’s, like, the name of a Phish song.”
Don’t ask. I didn’t.
“Basically,” the young woman said, “your man, Pogo, was able to get from Indonesia to Minnesota in a matter of minutes when his Shaman opened a hole to an inter-dimension. The Shaman actually carried him on his back for the short duration of the journey, like a Sherpa.”
“That explains the name, anyway.”
“I know; it’s pretty wild. I’ve caught a couple of (DR. EGGHEAD’S) lectures, and he presents a ton of anecdotal evidence. He’s identified four cultures where these voyages had been described. There are probably loads more, since societies with shamans tend not to leave written histories.
I no long thought the person on the other line was pranking me. Scarier still, I was convinced that she was completely sane.
“I’m a bit busy, um...”
“Gretchen, I wish you all the best, but I am sure that you can understand, given the current political climate, my reluctance to discuss our employees with strangers. I can tell you there’s no one named Pogo here.”
“I forgot to say that (DR. EGGHEAD) is offering Pogo, or whatever his name is, two thousand dollars for appearing with him on stage. This is on top of the airfare and expenses that the Museum would cover.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“Believe me, we’re stretched just to cover the airfare, but (DR. EGGHEAD) has deeper pockets and he’s looking big picture. He thinks that being able to show off a living inter-dimensional traveler would help prove what lots of quantum physicists believe, that there is no one, definitive reality. If this talk gets noticed, your guy could be doing this a lot. He’d be famous, in a YouTube, Scientific American sort of way.”
I was silent. My brain was catching up.
“Look, let’s do this,” the caller went on, “When I hang up, check out the Museum of Jurassic Technology online and satisfy yourself that we aren’t some false front for ICE or anything. The museum is actually closed Mondays, but I’ll be in the rest of the week and your guy can get me there. If he calls Wednesday or Friday, there will even be someone there who’s been to Indonesia and who speaks some Tagalog. I’ll give you my cell, too.”
Gretchen apologized again for keeping me from my work and ended our call. I looked at her number, but all I saw was a two with three zeros. Two grand is about what Pongo earns at Smugglers’ Inn in a month. Those were OK wages when we’d hired him as a dishwasher and prep cook, but we’d quickly drafted Pongo to help out with Smuggler’s Inn, the ad agency and it was here that he’d shown his worth. Pongo’s talent for big picture thinking and his intuitive ability to know what tactics would motivate people had helped us win pitches. We didn’t trot him out for company, but he was our head of new business and planning all the same. Since his “vacation”, Smugglers’ Inn had been little more than another theme restaurant with agency pretensions. Well, it was high time our little, ginger-haired Sumatran reaped some good karma after all of his his contributions to the team.
When Pongo showed up at 3:45 for his five-o’clock shift, I pulled him into the office and sat him down.
“Pongo, I’ve looked over the the brand manifesto for the University Hospital Network that Cat worked up from your notes--brilliant. I want you to know that if we end up with an assignment from these people, I’ve decided to give you a one hundred and fifty, no, two hundred dollar bonus. How does that sound?”
Pongo did two back flips in his chair, high-fived me and ran off to change into his uniform. Damned if I was going to let some mad scientists from California poach my head of new business. Heck, they hadn’t even cared enough to learn how to say his name.
Friday, June 2, 2017
|"The Nunz" by our seating hostess, Caitlyn.|
“Nunzio! Nunzio, Nunzio, Nunzio! Life is a Broadway musical since Nunzio came to stay. Every day, he eats pork chops and does not pay. He corrals our waitresses and asks them if they pray. He says, “Chicks dig the uniform.” Oy, vey! Now, all I want is for this priest to go away. Away! Away! Away!”
OK, Andrew Lloyd Weber is not now trembling in his Beatle boots. I’m just trying to find something to sing about after this whole Nunzio affair. It ain’t easy.
If you’ve been keeping up with this blog and you didn’t just land here looking for pirate porn, then you know that on December 31st, 2016 your friends at Smugglers’ Inn witnessed a miracle. Well, some of us did. We clearly saw our former dishwasher and planner, Pongo, appear just in time to rescue New Year’s Eve from certain disaster even though, as would be revealed later, Pongo was then 9,000 miles away on the island of Sumatra. Members of Smug’s kitchen staff, who were raised believing that miracles not only happen, but that when they do, it’s your duty to report them to the Mother Church, wrote a letter to one Bishop Hebda of Minnesota, explaining the unexplainable appearance and subsequent disappearance of someone who was never there. I signed this letter, but I never imagined the bishop would reply, let alone do what he did. Hebda forwarded our letter the papal ligate in Rome. “Ligate”. Now, there is a word no one knows. Two months later, “Special Advocate Nunzio” arrives. He is supposed to find alternative, non-miraculous explanations for what I and five others saw that night or, barring that, verify the miracle. Chef Jorge and cooks Little Jorge and Miguel, who penned the letter to the Bishop (in Spanish) are over the moon. They would be; they don’t have to feed this guy.
Although I am sure “Senor cura”, as Little Jorge calls him, has a stipend, he prefers to eat three meals a day at Smuggler’s Inn. Smugglers’ Inn isn’t open for breakfast, but when the white van from the local Catholic church drops Nunzio off at our place at eleven AM, either Little Jorge or Miguel has an omelette and toast prepared and waiting for him. He eats lunch around four then, in the European tradition, has supper at 10 PM. It’s a lot of food. You would think Nunzio might appear the slightest bit grateful, but rather the opposite is true. He complains. Almost no one complains at Smugglers’ Inn; we’re in Minnesota. Certainly, no one complains about our food. Our menu? Yes, we do not have a very imaginative menu, but we have been preparing those items the same way since 1972. Consistency counts for something in the restaurant world, even if it doesn’t in the ad land. Smugglers’ Inn, the ad agency, has been re-invented so many times that I’m not sure if we’re calling ourselves as marketing enablers or brand champions this month. Cooking is different. You do not need an proprietary algorithm for making beer cheese soup. You need two bricks of Velveeta, an equal volume of Low-melt© butter substitute, a gallon of whole milk, a low-heat source and voilla! Creamy nectar of the gods.
“Abomination!” Nunzio had declared after Little Jorge served him some of our First Mate’s Beer Cheese Soupe, for which we are justly famous. “Abomination” is a word that means the same in Italian and Spanish as in English. Even if it doesn’t, the “Are you trying to poison me, motherf***r?” glare Nunzio shot Little Jorge needed no translating. Did I mention that Nunzio looks like Zero Mostel? It’s true. Check out “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. Anyway, after the “abomination” comment, our head chef, Jorge, came to me and asked if we could drop beer cheese soup from the menu and replace it with something Nunzio had suggested.
“Menudo? You want to serve menudo instead of beer cheese soup?”
“It reflects the changing demographic of the market,” Jorge told me with a straight face.
Seeing my ears turning red, Jorge added, “Plus, beer cheese is a lotta cholesterol.”
Granted, a stick of butter doesn’t have as much cholesterol as equal volume of beer cheese soup, but that is not the point. The point is that none of our previous head chefs ever had any difficulty explaining beer cheese soup to his Mexican, Ecuadorean, Panamanian or Honduran kitchen staff before. They could see that our customers liked it and that was enough.
“Jorge,” I said, “Smuggler’s Inn is a nautically-themed restaurant that also makes ad campaigns. Or brand experiences. Don’t you think that people are confused enough? Now, we are supposed to offer Mexican fare--Mexican fare approved by an Italian priest?”
I sent Jorge back to the kitchen and counted backwards from two. This had to stop.
“Where’s Nunzio?” I shouted to no one in particular. “Nunzio! Nunzio! Nunzio!”
I found the chubby cleric in the parking lot, shaking holy water on the hood of a modified Honda Civic with a brahma bull decal in the windshield and a home-made spoiler that looked like it had been fashioned from aluminum siding. Nunzio, I was aware, had a side-hustle blessing cars.
“When you’re done there, Nunzio, kindly see me in my office. Thank you.”
Three minutes later, I heard an unmuffled engine and squealing tires. Great. Our landlords at the Northtown Shopping center could follow the rubber strips right to our door. In no time, Nunzio appeared in my office, standing with his hands clasped in front of him and looking drifty, as if he’d been interrupted while meditating in the garden.
“What is it you wish, signori?”
A musical car horn sounded outside, playing what I had always called the Mexican Hat Dance Song. Who would have guessed that there were so many Latin tuner boys in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota?
“Nunzio, I would appreciate it if you would not stray from your mission while you are with us.”
“Nunzio, stray? Signori...”
Nunzio gave me his best pout. If you do check out “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, look up the scene where Zero Mostel’s character gets caught dealing in erotic pottery. It’s that look.
“Father...” I began.
“Technically, I am not a priest. I will be a priest again, God willing, but for now, I am a humble servant of the Holy See.”
Nunzio looked heavenward just as the Mexican Hat Dance horn sounded several times in a row.
“How much you get per car?”
“Get?” Nunzio cocked his head as if he had no idea what I was talking about.
“$20? $50? I know the guys gave you $100 for blessing the kitchen.”
“Donations! Si, donations. Given willingly. The Church does not “charge” for blessings. Signori, I know that you are not of our faith, but surely, you understand that donations are necessary to maintain the good works.”
The “Mexican Hat” horn sounded once more and I had to put a hand on Nunzio’s shoulder to keep him from going to it.
“Nunzio, you’ve been her for what, three weeks? You’ve taken statements from everyone who was in our kitchen on New Year’s Eve.”
“I did not take your statement.”
“What do you mean? I told you that I saw Pongo plain as day. Your guy in Rome checked with your priest in Sumatra, who reported that he had encountered Pongo in the company of a holy man.”
“But you refused to swear to this. Which ees...suspicious.”
We had been over this already. “I resent being asked to swear on the blessed virgin,” I said.
“My son, we do not swear ON the Virgin...”
“Again, Nunzio, I’m Lutheran. We don’t swear. It’s just not our thing.”
Nunzio spread his hands apart, palms up, like he expected songbirds to come roost on them.
“Did you call the Lutherans to verify your miracle, my son?”
I have asked Nunzio never to refer to me, or any Smugglers’ Inn employee, as “my son” or “my child”. Two weeks ago, one of our cocktail waitresses had come to me saying that Nunzio had offered to hear her confession. “All the while, he’s saying, “my child, my child” and staring at my tits.”
A young, dirty-minded Zero Mostel. Did I say that already?
“Look, Nunzio, I don’t know if you fully understand how Smugglers’ Inn operates, but there are two parts to our business. On one hand, we’re a restaurant, but we are also an ad agency--sorry, a marketing consultancy--that does branding projects. For money. The idea is that when the restaurant is slow, the branding biz will be busy and vice-versa.”
“Yes. Yes, it is a little complicated, but it works. Or, it has worked. Right now, neither one of our core businesses can seem to make a profit. It’s got me half out of my goddamn mind.”
Nunzio’s head snapped back in mock offense. As it did, an involuntary little belch escaped his lips. Nunzio crossed himself, a motion that was probably meant to dispel the unmistakable odor of mint. So that’s where that missing bottle of creme de menthe went.
“Nunzio...” I began.
The “Mexican Hat Dance” horn sounded once again and I physically
had to restrain Nunzio from going to it.
“Nunzio, I need your undivided attention for one minute, OK? Thank you. In case it’s not obvious, we’re trying to cut our operating costs just so we can keep the lights on. If you’re going to be staying with us more anything more than a few more days, I’m going to need you to pitch in. Now, I’m sure that the church must have given you some kind of meal allowance so, from now on, I would like you to sign for whatever you eat. I’m going to ask that you reimburse the restaurant at half of the menu price, just so we cover out-of-pocket expenses.”
“Out of pocket expenses?” Nunzio chewed the words as if he was weighing his possibilities, then said, “No, I don’t think that is possible.”
“I guess you’ll be wrapping things up, then.” This was really the outcome I had hoped for. More than his mooching, Nunzio’s presence was a disruption that I just didn’t need.
“Unless there is another miraculous event, I cannot stop the investigation unless directed to do so. Neither can I allow church funds to flow to a company that is involved in, what is the saying? Yes! Cyber espionage.”
“Eet is my unna-standing that you were recently trying to convince a drug company into giving you the account, as you say. It is a profitable business, the making of medicines, no?”
Nunzio held up a finger.
“What do you think this drug company would do if they know someone had breached their internal firewall to gain an unfair advantage in a news business pitch?
Nunzio had said, “breached their internal firewall” without any trace of an accent, but had pronounced pitch like “peach”. Suspicious.
“That wasn’t our fault!” I protested. “That kid we hired from the Geek Squad was just supposed to find out who else they were talking to. How were we to know that he was part of an anarchist hacker ring that posts horrific pictures on websites of companies that engage in animal testing? We found the guy at Best Buy, for cryin’ out loud. Don’t they vet their employees?”
“A leetle bird. A leetle bird.”
Nunzio mimed launching a bird into the air and watching it fly away.
One of our team, it seems, had taken the Nunz up on his offer to hear his or her confession. This changed everything.
“I would not think it would be a bad thing if Smugglers’ Inn made some small donation to ease the church’s burden. A small amount, say, fifty dollars a week.”
“You are right. A hundred dollars is better.”
I was stunned beyond speech. This was what happens when you write letters.
Outside, the driver with the car to be blessed was revving his engine impatiently. I saw the corners of Nunzio’s mouth curl in a little victory smile. God, but he looked like Zero Mostel.
“If there is nothing else signori,...”
Then, a square of acoustical ceiling tile exploded. There was a blur of orange-red hair and Zero Mostel’s face was gone, replaced by a 4-gallon stainless steel tureen. Like the one we mix beer cheese soup in.
The mendicant holy man grabbed at his thighs, which were nude.
“Como?!” said Nunzio. His voice sounded as if he were in a well.
“Looks like you’ve been pantsed.”
“Pantsded?” Nunzio echoed. He went to yank the pail from his head only to be driven off balance by the unexpected resistance of the gaberdine slacks that were bunched about his ankles. He fell hard, hitting the square corner of a filing cabinet before landing on his posterior in a giant pratfall, the dislodged tureen bouncing on the floor with a “clang!” that caused the employees who had been lurking outside to rush in to see what the commotion was about.
Nunzio sat clutching his hip where the filing cabinet had bitten him, swearing in perfectly serviceable East Coast American English (Providence? Baltimore?), oblivious to the fact that his junk was peeking out from behind his tidy whiteys for any and all to see.
The novelty horn sounded once more and in that instant, my faith in god, Martin Luther, karma and the Minnesota Twins had been restored. I addressed my Smugglers’ Inn brethren.
“Guys,” I said, “everything’s cool; Pongo’s back.”