Nothing like the Smell

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Here’s an excerpt from TOO QUIET IN BROOKLYN publishing this fall. The scene stars Ralph and Charlie.

La Piazza was Arrow’s favorite restaurant. It was in New Jersey where Arrow grew up and where he met the boss. Every once in a while, when he was off the beer, Arrow would get this funny look on his face. He’d say there ain’t nothing like the country and he needed it now. Then they’d drive to Allentown just for the pizza and a ride on a country road with the windows down and the grass smelling good and Arrow saying as how he could hear the corn growing.

Ralph remembered how to get there. He was good with directions, his sister used to say. He remembered to go east on 195 toward the shore, exit and drive down a country road until you couldn’t drive no more.

In the dusk, Ralph could see the lit-up sign and smell the food, hot tomato and cheese and spices. The parking lot was crowded and he had to inch into a small place, too small for Charlie to get out and anyway, Ralph didn’t think the little guy could manage it on his own, so he had to haul Charlie up and over to the front, holding him underneath his little arms. He didn’t mean to do it, Ralph would never hurt Charlie, but he banged him on the cheek with his chin.

“I want my gran!” Charlie said. He was crying because of the bang to his cheek but Ralph held him and said, “There, there,” like his sister used to say. Ralph could feel his heart beating fast. Charlie smelled like talcum powder and vomit from when he got sick in the shed. Ralph held him tight to his chest and they squeezed out the door into the cool New Jersey evening. The country, Arrow called it, nothing like the smell, he’d say, and he’d take a deep breath.

Ralph held onto Charlie’s hand, small and soft, and opened the door to the restaurant. There was a line and he heard glass and metal trays clanging together and people talking and waiters calling to one another in the kitchen. The pizza smell made him hungry and made him miss Arrow. The line didn’t move. There was a metal newsstand inside the door and Charlie pointed to it and said, “Boy,” and Ralph told him it was a newsstand.

“Will my gran be inside?”

Ralph didn’t know what to say but he squeezed Charlie’s hand. “Think so. Let’s eat first and after, we’ll try to find her. You hungry?”

He nodded.

They sat at a small table in the middle of the room. “Middles are better than sides or fronts,” Arrow’s voice whispered. “Too many people can see you in a booth or at a table by the window. Never know who might be passing by, might even be the boss.” It happened to Arrow once, but he wouldn’t tell Ralph what the boss did to him after that, not really. Arrow just waved it away and said the boss didn’t like to see them sitting on the job and eating at his expense, that’s not what he paid him for, and Ralph remembered that. It was crowded and he hoped the boss wasn’t in the restaurant with his wife and the guards. He didn’t think so, but just in case, he kept his baseball cap on low and tight.

Too Quiet In Brooklyn_SquareA waitress with a pony tail and a smile brought Ralph the menu and a booster chair and crayons for Charlie. Ralph ordered two soft drinks and a large cheese, thinking about how Arrow would have ordered a beer and the meat lover’s pizza and the beer would come to the table all sweaty, beads of water running down the sides, and the waitress would put the pizza on a fancy tray, steaming and piled with cheese and tomato sauce oozing over the crusty sides and covered with all kinds of ham and sausage and burger. And Arrow would take two pieces and slap them together, rolling them tight. He’d stuff them into his mouth while he guzzled the beer and a strand of cheese would drizzle down his chin. He’d order another two beers while Ralph sipped soda from a straw and ate his slice.

That’s why Ralph was always the designated, Arrow told him, and besides, you’re a good driver, got a good sense of direction, yessir. Sitting in the middle of La Piazza, Ralph missed Arrow and the way he always said yessir, and tried not to think of his face all puffed and his eyes bulging with blood and his tongue sticking out like he was angry with Ralph. But he shouldn’t be angry with him. Nobody should. Ralph didn’t mean any harm, no harm to anybody. Only Arrow shouldn’t have gone on about Charlie and stuck him with the needle so much. Shouldn’t have done it.

Photo: guy reading. Credit: faultless pajama (Flickr), Creative Commons.

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