Hash Brown Potatoes
"Sure . . . Sure." I was wide awake now, and reached over to switch the radio off. "How the hell did you get my number? It's unlisted."
His laughter was followed by a fit of coughing. "I have my ways."
I let that slide by. I was sure he did and I wasn't interested in knowing about them. I had to say something. A few moments of silence on the phone can seem like minutes and minutes like bottomless deeps. "Well, how the hell are you," I asked.
"Old," he said after another burst of laughter and coughing. "But I'm here, so I guess that's something."
I wanted to ask how his wife, June, was but stopped myself. I didn't want to venture back to her. Not even after all of the years that had passed.
He continued the conversation, telling me that he had a quadruple bypass and his children were doing fine. Then he said, "June died two years go. Wound up in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. But I stuck by her."
I cleared my throat and manage to get out, "That's a rough one."
"What about you and the Missus?"
"Old, but still going strong," I answered.
"Not as much as I used to," I said.
"I seen your picture in the newspaper a few times, and when June was alive she dragged me to a couple of your shows."
Not able to think of anything else to say, I said, "A lady of good taste."
"Yeah," he answered. "That's one of the reasons I called. I mean I'd have called anyway. But I found a whole notebook of her drawings. You know stuff done with a pencil or pen. Some like watercolors. I mean, who'd have thought she could do things like that?"
My expression must have changed because my wife asked in a whisper if anything was wrong. I shook my head, and told him that we never really know what a person can do until they do it. Remembering how venal Nick was, I thought he would want me to tell him whether or not he should try to sell June's sketchbook? But he surprised me by saying, "If I'd known she had that kind of talent, I'd have asked you to teach her." There was more than the sound of sadness in his voice. More than regret. "She never told me," he said.
I was trying to find some words of consolation, when he said, "I gotta speak to you, Jeff. The phone is no good for what I have to say."
To test the strength of his need to meet with me, I suggested Cal's. Without hesitation he said yes and asked me where it was. When I told him, he said, "I'll drive in."
"How about Tuesday at twelve-thirty?"
"No problem. I'll be there."
"I'll make reservations."
"See you," he answered and clicked off.
I handed the phone back to Ann and she replaced it in its cradle.
"That was Nick," I said.
"I gathered as much."
"Nick Tomassino from forty years ago," I said.
"I'm going to meet with him," I said, switching off the night table lamp and sliding down into my bed. "He said he had something to tell me."
"Well, I don't think it could have been very important if he's waited all this time to do it."
I didn't answer because I didn't know whether it was important or not. But it took me a long time to fall asleep. I constructed images out of memories.
Nick was a loud, crude, heavyset man, who owned a dental laboratory across from Pops. He couldn't understand how I could make a living from painting. My studio was a one-and-half-room apartment with a northern exposure in the building where I lived with my wife and two sons: Chad and Paul.
I would see Nick almost every morning and sometimes at lunch. We'd sit at the counter. The war in Vietnam was often our topic of conversation. He was a hawk; I, a dove. My experience in Korea soured me on any war, unless it was for survival as World War II had been. I didn't particularly like or dislike him. But he was part of the scene in the luncheonette, which was actually run by Eddie, Pop's son.
I liked Eddie, not as a friend but as an acquaintance. I even made several sketches of him, one of which I gave him. In it he was at the grill making hash-brown potatoes. He was pleased with it. Eddie was a fast-lane guy. Played the ponies, and although he was married also played with other women, mostly young things their late teens or early twenties.
My thoughts drifted away from Eddie, and I remembered June's crescent shaped breasts. They weren't very large, but they were beautiful to look at and a pleasure to caress. With that memory lingering, I fell into a restless sleep.
So, there I was in Cal's with Nick on the other side of the table. He was fatter than I remembered him being. His porcine eyes looked even more porcine if that were possible. But they were also dull brown. Muddy looking.
We ordered drinks. I, vodka, a Stoli on the rocks, and he Old Grand Dad with a water chaser. We chatted for a few minutes before our drinks came, talking about the old neighborhood and some of the people we had known. Neither of us mentioned Eddie because Eddie had been murdered.
Nick wheezed and coughed, while I thought about Eddie. Truth is I often think about him, especially when I'm eating hash brown potatoes. As I said before, our relationship was founded on my breakfast and lunch visits. I don't ever remember having an extended conversation with him. But he always treated me with a respect that he didn't show his other customers. Maybe it was because he thought I could see something different in him? More than what he was. After all that's what artists do--they see something that other people don't see when they look at a human being, an animal, or clump of rocks. But Eddie wasn't a rock. He was handsome man. He looked like a gypsy and he had a wicked mouth that frequently overflowed with the sarcasm.
Jarring me, Nick said, "I brung her book."
For a nanosecond, I had no idea what he was talking about. He must have seen my bewilderment. "The book I told you about on the phone."
The waiter came to table and asked if we were ready to order and I told him that we would need a few more minutes.
Nick said, "I don't know what to do with it."
"Maybe your children--"
He waved the suggestion aside before I finished making it and said, "They don't know shit from shineola." And he began to cough.
Eventually he pulled a sketchbook out of a brown paper bag and handed it across the table to me.
"You tell me if you think they are worth anything."
I nodded. Knowing Nick, I didn't know how to take "if they're worth anything." Any artistic work is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. But that's never its real worth.
"If I thought somebody would buy it, I'd sell it. A few bucks is a few bucks. Not that I need it. I got more than I'll ever use."
The sketchbook was nine by twelve. A black crinkled hardcover with about eighty pages. I opened it. The first drawings were a series of pencil sketches of hands. Some with displayed fingers, others with fingers and thumb from a side view.
"I figured you'd know what it's worth," Nick said from behind a menu.
I turned the pages of June's sketchbook. There were sketches of trees and flowers. She was getting better. There were fewer interruptions in her lines and her perspective was sharper. As I moved through the other pages, the pencil sketches became charcoal sketches. She did eyes. Noses. Ears. Then faces. By the time I saw a drawing of her face reflected in a mirror, the waiter had returned.
Nick ordered a dozen baked clams, a steak rare, and a baked potato.
My appetite had left me. I was too caught up in June's sketchbook to care about food or anything else. Turning pages, I was watching an artist grow. Most of the sketches were dated. But even if they weren't, the linearity of their placement in the book showed her artistic growth and, of course, there were giant creative leaps like the sketch of her face.
I picked up the menu and saw a Mediterranean salad, pointed to it, and said that's what I wanted, with a cup of tea in milk. Then I went back to the sketchbook.
"Funny thing, all the years and I still can't eat hash brown potatoes," Nick said.
"I can eat them, but I always remember Eddie when I do," I said, riffling through a dozen or more pages of June's book. June had sketched herself nude. She had begun to work in pastels, then watercolors. Often, she had mixed media.
"You know, I never saw her do any of that," Nick said. "We never went to a museum or art gallery. Nothin'. Not even an art book anywhere in the house. Except to your shows. I got two of your paintings. One cost five bills and the other grand."
Without comment I nodded. I knew it wasn't his idea to buy the paintings.
"Yeah, maybe she was a natural," Nick said. "Like a ballplayer . . . you could see it in a kid. Well, go explain it."
"I wouldn't even try."
The waiter brought Nick's baked clams to the table and my tea and milk.
Nick went at the clams with gusto.
I was almost at the end of the sketchbook when I realized she had put pieces of my studio in several of her sketches. I almost smiled. But I didn't. The sketches stopped abruptly, leaving ten empty pages in back of the book. The last sketch was dated April 1, 1972. The day Eddie was shot.
The sketch was darker than all of the others. It was done with a combination of charcoal and pastels. Part real, part abstract. It showed a storm at sea with towering waves. A woman was on the beach looking at the raging waters. On the right there were huge boulders covered with blood.
Nick finished his clams, looked up at me and said, "That last picture is something else, ain't it?"
"It's powerful," I said.
As the bus boy removed Nick's empty plate; the waiter arrived with our entrees.
We began to eat. There was very little conversation between us. Nick said his steak was very good, and I made the same comment about my salad, though I really didn't pay much attention to the way it tasted. I was too occupied with thinking about a way to get Nick to give me June's sketchbook without it being obvious that I not only wanted it, but that it also held a deep emotional meaning for me.
Nick stopped eating for a few moments and said, "About thirty percent of what we're paying for lunch pays for the ambiance of this place." Then he laughed so hard that he began to cough, and that attracted the attention of diners at nearby tables. He recovered with a merciful quickness and said, "I bet you didn't think I knew that word?"
The question annoyed me. "To tell the truth I never thought about what you knew or didn't know." But that wasn't true. Whenever I would see him in Pops, I couldn't help thinking how a woman like June could have married a man like him.
"Yeah," Nick began, "I know some two and three dollar words too and some in Latin." He pointed his fork at me. "I'm not as dumb as you--as most people think I am. I read. Not only the junk books that come out, but also the classical stuff. I just--what the fuck am I tellin' you that shit for?" He pushed his plate back. "I need another drink." And he looked around for the waiter, who magically appeared. "Give me another one of these," Nick said tapping the empty glass. "Make it a double."
"It doesn't bother me," he said.
I shrugged. Who was I to call him on how much he drank?
"You know, all my life people thought I was some kind of dummy. So tell me what's that sketchbook worth?"
I didn't answer immediately. I wasn't sure whether or not he was trying to set me up. Then I said, "A dealer wouldn't be interested."
"Yeah, that's what I thought," he answered. "Know anyone else who might buy it?"
"No one," I said, now wary.
The waiter brought Nick's drink and he swallowed half of it before he said, "Eddie used to look at me . . . I'd catch him at it."
"Nick, the guy is dead," I said. I didn't see any reason to discuss a dead man's shortcomings.
"Dead a long time," he said taking another swallow of his drink.
Meeting him was turning out to be a mistake. I should have known it would.
"You want the sketchbook?"
"Take it if you want it. It's of no use to me," he said.
"Anytime you want it back--"
"I'm dying," he said. "Six months, a year maybe."
What could I say to that? I couldn't say anything. Not even a squeak of sympathy that someone might ordinarily make in a similar circumstance. At our age death is more of a reality than it ever was. As for pity? I had none. Either for him or myself.
"You know, I gave that woman everything and anything she wanted to hold her to me. But it didn't fuckin' matter." He shook his head. "It didn't fuckin' matter." He sucked in a huge draught of air slowly, painfully, and let it out.
Something more than the worth of June's sketchbook was beginning to loom up--coming out of the alcoholic mist swirling through his brain.
"Yeah, Eddie would give me that you stupid son of a bitch look . . . You poor dumb bastard."
I suddenly felt cold.
Nick wagged his finger at me. "But I knew. I knew."
I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I looked for the waiter, saw him and signaled that I wanted the check.
"See, now it don't make no difference because I'm dying. Now--see, I knew that he was doin' June." Then his voice dropped to almost a whisper. "Cost me a couple of Gs. I was there when it happened. Blood all over the hash brown potatoes. That's why I can't eat them anymore. April Fools' Day."
I said nothing. If I had said anything it would have been, You poor dumb son of a bitch. You had the wrong man killed. But now it was better to let bygones be bygones. At least I have her sketchbook and my memories of her.
He smiled, nodded and said, "I had the wrong man offed, didn't I?"
I put my hands against the edge of the table. It was my turn to nod.
"Yeah, and I liked Eddie too," he said.
The waiter came with a check, and I paid it with cash.
Nick and I left Cal's together. Neither of us spoke. Without shaking hands, we went our separate ways. But now I felt as if I had killed Eddie, and I knew that I would never escape from this Albatross.
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