A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The shopping center was crowded. Deep in the parking lot, I finally found a spot with enough space to open our doors and not hit the next car. The outside air was hot. A low orange sun colored a few taller buildings, but black clouds were moving in from the northeast. We were there to check out a Mexican restaurant that had just opened, but Beth first wanted to visit the gift shop to buy something for a friend’s birthday. She never forgets birthdays. I told her I’d be in the bookstore when she was finished, and off she went in the opposite direction.
A dozen steps later, I saw an old Lincoln Town Car pull into a narrow slot. The driver, opening his door, banged the next car. I stopped. The passenger, a girl with coppery hair and a green tank top, banged her door into the adjacent car as well. They faced each other over the Lincoln’s roof and cackled. Tattoos on his arms, he was tall and fashionably unshaven with spiked hair and baggy jeans. What I first thought was a cigarette in the girl’s mouth was a lollypop. The door of my own car is full of nicks and dents—careless people like these two clowns. I almost said something but decided no. My mouth gets me in trouble. Beth was annoyed at my bitching about a car in front of us going 30 when the speed limit is 45. For eight fucking miles! Beth said, Relax. They’re probably tourists enjoying the ocean views. Calm down for a change!
In the bookstore, I asked Marge, the owner, how things were going.
“This summer beach crowd keeps me busy.”
“Right, everybody needs a book when they’re soaking up rays.”
“True, but I’d rather be busy than not. Where’s Beth?”
I told her what Beth was doing and asked her about La Ceiva.
“I haven’t eaten there yet, but I’ve been hearing good things.
“Do you know what the word means?”
She said she didn’t know any Spanish.
I was curious because years ago in high school I really liked Spanish, about the only class that held my attention. I had the same teacher for three years. Mr. Shay was great—magnetic and funny. In grade school, the nuns glared at me and growled, Sit still. sit still! Sometimes I wonder if I had, or still have, some degree of attention deficit. It drives Beth crazy when I flip channels to avoid commercials. My motto is: Avoid an ad at any cost.
Marge said she had a few foreign language dictionaries on the back wall, so I idled that way, stopping to flip through a few crime novels until I arrived at the dictionaries: German, French, and Spanish. I pulled down Diccionario: Espagñol—Inglés. I couldn’t find the name of the restaurant: la ceiva.There was another Spanish dictionary, but the noun wasn’t in that one either. I began to think it might be Mexican slang.
“What are you looking for?” It was Beth.
“Nothing. Let’s go.”
It had been a long day at the office. Clients could sometimes be a real pain. I was dying for a Negra Modelo.
The restaurant was a deep rectangle, dark wooden booths on both sides, tables in the middle. A semi-circle bar by the front door. The place was half full, lots of talk bouncing off the walls and low ceiling. A pretty brown-skinned woman showed us to a table halfway down the row and handed us menus. I asked her what the name of the restaurant meant.
“It mean tree, big tree.”
There were palms on the sign outside. “Palm tree?”
“No es una palma. Big tree.”
After she left, I said to Beth, “The Spanish word for tree is ‘árbol.’ I remember that one. Spanish is about the only high-school class I cared about.”
Beth gave me her squinty look. “Where have I heard that before?”
“Sorry. You’ve got all my stories.” Coming into the restaurant, we walked past two guys smoking by the front door. Even outside, the smoke stink went up my nose. “Did I tell you why I never smoked?”
“Only about twenty, maybe thirty times.”
“You got me.” I covered my heart. “How about this one? In high school, Benny, Trig and I came out of the movies one night and cut through the parking lot in back. There was a new Chevy Impala we stopped to look at. Beautiful car. Trig noticed keys left in the ignition. Did I ever tell you this?”
Beth looked interested. “No.”
“You can guess what happened.”
“Maybe. But go ahead.” She was half listening and half reading the menu.
My eyes were looking up the aisle, thirsty for a beer. “Benny and I always goaded each other into dumb shit. Bad chemistry. Next thing I knew we were speeding down a backcountry road. I was driving. On a straight stretch, I floored the Impala. In seconds, it hit a hundred. Benny was scared shitless and yelled for me to slow down, so I did. Then we were talking about how cool this car was when Trig offered me a cigarette. Cigarettes will kill you, man. We started laughing. Benny pointed out that here we were driving a stolen car, and I was accusing Trig of being crazy.”
Beth looked up from the menu and shook her head. “So, what happened?”
“A short joyride. We left the car on a side street near the parking lot.”
“You made that up.”
“No, I wish, and I haven’t even had a beer yet,” straining my neck to see if a waitress was on her way. “I can still see us flying down Vauxhall Road. But yes, it was crazy. And we were lucky not to have been caught. It scares me to think what might have happened.”
“Jail was a possibility. What were you thinking?”
“That’s the point. I wasn’t thinking. But right now I’m thinking the service is slow here?”
“They’re busy and new at this,” said Beth. “An arrest record could have closed lots of doors for you.”
“I know, I know. Do you know what we might order?” I opened the menu.
“There are burritos or sincronizadas you might like, and I’m considering camarones.”
I put my menu aside. “A few days ago, I read an article about the teenage brain, how impulsive it is. And, like a new car, it has a powerful engine . . . but shitty brakes.”
Beth really laughed, then said in a deliberately ironic tone, “But, still, after all those years of church-going, I’m very surprised that you, of all people, would ever do something like that.”
I held up my hand. “Don’t worry. No more stories about nuns and priests.”
I felt good because I had gotten her to laugh and maybe forget about my cussing the slow car that had been in front of us. Slow seemed to be the theme of this outing. About some things Beth doesn’t say what’s really on her mind or doesn’t say anything, but I usually know where she stands.
A young man with long darkish hair and a scorpion tattooed on his tan forearm was standing at the table. “I’m Kevin, and I’ll be your waiter.” He was good looking and had a ready smile. “Can I get you folks something to drink while you make your decisions?”
I asked if they had draft beer.
“Not yet. We’ve only been open for a week, but we’ll have a variety of drafts in another week or so.”
“How about a Negra Modelo?”
“You’ve got it. And, you ma’am?”
“I’ll have a margarita.”
“You’ve got it.” Then he asked if we were just down here visiting the coast. I told him we were year-rounders and asked how long he had been waiting tables.
“Just a year or two. I’m almost finished at the community college. I’d like to transfer to the university and get my B.A. This helps pay the bills.”
I told him I could identify. Working construction during college summers helped me pay my way through school. He smiled. We bumped knuckles. I wanted to ask what made him get a tattoo, but decided no, thinking it had to do with fashion or fitting into his group. He might have been offended. Everybody now had tattoos, earrings, piercings, green or purple hair, the whole shebang. I didn’t get it.
Beth was looking at the menu. I was looking at the wall decorated with a few sombreros, bright colored serapes, and two Mexican flags—red, white, and green.
Beth said, “I got a nice pair of earrings for Marge.”
“You do a better job of keeping up with friends than I do.”
“I don’t know about that. So whatever happened to Trig and Benny?”
“Trig is a first-class carpenter. He opened a small home improvement and remodeling business.”
“His first job was to remodel himself, right?”
Kevin set our drinks in front of us, Beth’s first. “Have you made up your minds?”
I pointed to Beth. She said, “I’ll have the Shrimp Quesadilla.”
“And I’ll have the Sincronizada, chicken.”
My beer tasted great. I probably drank half the bottle in one gulp.
“And Benny, whatever happened to Benny?”
“He joined the Marines. My hometown buddies haven’t heard a thing about him for years.”
For a while we just sipped our drinks and watched the people coming and going. A wide overweight woman waddled toward a back booth she could easily fill by herself. Our orders were taking forever. And I noticed a couple that came in after us had already been served. When Kevin passed our table, he apologized for the slowness and said they were missing one person in the kitchen tonight. I told him the Negra Modelo was delicious. After a while, Beth leaned forward and whispered, “Relax. Stop bouncing your legs up and down. You’re shaking the table. I think you inherited your father’s antsy gene.”
Now both of us were laughing. It was true. My father couldn’t sit still, always making or repairing something in his basement workshop. Got on my mother’s nerves. Once when we were going out to a restaurant, he wanted to telephone ahead to place our orders so the meals would be on the table when we arrived.
Finally Kevin set down our plates and told us to be careful because they were very hot. I ordered another Negra Modelo. Beth asked for another margarita. A couple I barely noticed quickly moved behind Kevin.
We munched a few more taco chips dipped in red spicy sauce while the dishes cooled off. Some of the house music was familiar. “Cielito lindo” and “Guantanamera” were songs my Hispanic teammates sang on the bus after our college soccer games.
“This sincronizada is delicious,” I said, “but I wish I had ordered rice instead of beans. You know, the musical fruit? The more you eat the more you toot?” As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t. A few days ago, I was talking to a guy my age behind the cash register at Walgreens. There were no customers, so we joked around a bit. After he recited a wildly funny limerick, he said to me, “You know, we have something in common.” I asked him what that was. “We’re both recycled teenagers,” he said.
There was a lot of noise up front by the bar. Somebody yelled out the door. Kevin moved quickly past us to a booth in the back. I heard him tell another waiter that the couple left without paying. A bald guy at an adjacent table said, “A red-head and guy with spiked hair?”
Kevin said yes.
Beth said, “I saw her. She had on a green tank top.”
Kevin said. “Damn it!” That money’s coming out of my pocket. The house won’t cover.”
The bald guy’s wife said, “Don’t worry. We’ll help you out.”
“We will too,” Beth said.
I saw the owner come in the front door shaking his head. He couldn’t find the couple. I told Beth I had to hit the restroom, which was up behind the bar. When I got near the front door, Beth had her head turned. She was talking to the people at the next table, so I ducked out.
It had gotten dark. Lights were on now in the big parking lot. I looked up and around—no surveillance cameras. People were lined up for tickets at the Atlantic Twin Cinema. The couple wasn’t in line, but they might have bought tickets earlier and ducked inside. Just the kind of people who would go to a stupid zombie movie. There was thunder in the distance followed by a bright web of lightning. I walked toward where they had parked the old Lincoln Town Car. Bingo! It was still there. I took out my pocketknife and opened it. Nobody was nearby. I stood for a minute listening to air hiss from the front tire. The car had an in-state plate with two letters and four numbers—easy to remember.
When I got back to the table, Beth asked what took me so long.
“I’ve got IBS.”
“Irritable bowel syndrome.”
“Will you please cut it!”
“I can’t. It’s all watery.”
Rolling her eyes, she said, “Good thing you’re an accountant. You’d never have made it in comedy.” She gave me that irritable squint, then told me the folks at the next table were Penny and John. “We each gave Kevin twenty bucks.”
John gave me thumbs-up, leaned toward me, and said in a low voice, “You folks are very generous.”
His description fit Beth more than me. She’s always writing checks to charities where some of the money, I’m sure, goes to CEOs for outrageous annual bonuses. But that makes no difference to Beth. “Well, so are you,” I said to John.
“When something like this happens,” he said, “the house should absorb the loss, not the waiter.”
I agreed. Then we talked for a while about where they were from. Coincidentally, Penny grew up just a few miles from my own hometown. Our high school sports teams played against each other. John had played football and was soon to have rotator cuff surgery. “Probably from football,” he said. “If I had known what was coming, I’d never have played.”
The owner of the restaurant, a hefty man with black trousers and white shirt with short sleeves, came up to the table, looked down at me and said, “Muchas gracias, señor, por damos esa información. La policia atrapó . . . . Muchas gracias.”
Beth asked what that was about.
“My Spanish is rusty,” I said. Just a thanks, I think, for telling him where the couple parked their car. “I left out what he said about the police.”
“How did you know?”
“On my way to the bookstore, I saw them get out of their car.”
We talked to Penny and John for a few more minutes. I finished my beer and paid the bill. As we were leaving, Kevin shook my hand, and the owner gave me another gracias.
Once we were outside, thunder began to rumble. After I backed out of our parking place, I noticed, at the far end of the lot, blue and red flashing lights. Slowly, I moved that way. Two police cars, one in front of the Lincoln, the other behind. I must have been wrong about the movie, but felt right about what I had done. The kid had tried to get away, but the flat tire stopped him. His head with the spiked-up hair leaned away from the cop who was barking in his face. His girlfriend sat in the car. The other cop was at the passenger door, probably shouting for her to exit the vehicle with your hands above your head where I can see them. I watch too many “Law and Order” reruns. Rain began to bang on the roof. I turned on the wipers.
Beth said, “Well, they got caught.”
“That flat tire did them in,” I said. “Bad luck.” Though I was pleased with myself, I knew better than take credit.
“I feel sorry for them.”
“They’re young and made a stupid mistake. They’re probably high on something.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll get off with a misdemeanor.”
“Why did you tell the owner where they were?”
A Saturday at my father’s gas station flashed up from the past. Saturdays were my father’s day off. I opened and closed the place. Sometimes Trig helped out. I was under a car with a grease gun. Trig was doing something in the office. A guy came in, pumped his own gas, but took off without paying. Trig ran out and yelled. I told him to keep an eye on things, hopped into my hot Ford, and peeled rubber after the guy. Out on the highway, I caught up to him, pulled close, and leaned on the horn until he pulled over. It was only eight bucks but that was a lot back then. He apologized and said he was sorry. A lot older than me, with salt-and-pepper hair, he said he just forgot, had some things on his mind. He looked sad and zoned out rather than afraid. He gave me a ten dollar bill and told me to keep the change.
“I told the owner because they robbed him,” I said. “Or robbed Kevin, our waiter.”
The road was already shiny with rain. And there was a beat-up truck ahead of us, barely creeping along.
“Maybe they couldn’t afford to pay.”
“Then why go into a nice restaurant and order drinks and meals? If you break the law and there are no consequences, you’ll keep doing it and go on to bigger things.”
“When you and your friends boosted that Impala for a joyride, were there any consequences?”
“No, but . . .”
For a minute it was quiet. Nothing but road noise and rain. Then she said, “I wish you hadn’t told the owner.”
Beth is generous and forgiving. Sometimes to a fault. I could never tell her what else I had done. As it was, she got into a mood and didn’t say a thing the rest of the way home. The truck ahead of us was barely moving, but I said nothing. Beth’s mood was contagious. Maybe I should have kept the knife in my pocket and said nothing to the Mexican owner. Rain drummed on the roof, the wipers slapped and slapped. Everything was blurred and hard to see.
Copyright 2021 Peter Makuck. This story is a corrected version of a story by Peter Makuck that appeared in Vox Populi on March 16, 2021. Our apologies to the author.
Peter Makuck is a poet and short story writer who lives with his wife Phyllis on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina’s barrier islands.