The Celluloid Files: 3
(Miss part 2? Click here to go back! Or click the link at the top of the page to read the story so far.)
Aggie’s words were not a figure of speech.
As I took to the streets on foot – the better to gauge the work before me – I immediately noticed the dilapidated nature of, well, everything. Unlike Aunt Nora’s lovingly tended abode, the houses on her street and the one beyond were sagging, sad creatures entirely lacking in charm. Most of them sported gaps in the roofing where shingles had clattered away in storms or beneath the sliding weight of heavy spring snows. Grass stood yellowed and shriveled, showing pale, dusty dirt beneath. Paint chips flecked half-empty flowerbeds and many of the trees on the block died long enough ago that even the woodpeckers had vacated their dry husks.
By the time I reached Main Street, my mental list of obvious fixes overflowed. The town’s housing was just the beginning – Main Street stretched out like a ghost, faded and half-forgotten. If I squinted, I thought I could almost see through it to the future. A future wherein Meadowhaven had ceased to exist. I knew I needed to see the past; to recognize the glory Aggie had mentioned and with which Aunt Nora had so often regaled us. Try as I might, it eluded me. All I saw were boarded-up windows, signs with missing letters, and weeds half as tall as I was.
There seemed to be four shops still in business. One I marked but ignored for the moment, a hairdresser, and two others. My growling stomach distracted me from paying closer attention; the second building across the street on my left let loose a smell I could only describe as mouth-watering to the point of near-delirium. But maybe that was my stomach talking.
I crossed the street after looking both ways before I realized I probably would never need that habit here. Two cars sat hunched on this side of the street, both old enough I doubted they came with seat belts. A cluster of women stopped their chatting a few doors down to cast interested looks in my direction. I ignored them. Gossiping women were the last things I wanted to deal with. I was confident I looked clean and together, but there would be the telltale redness to the eyes, the bags under them that proved I hadn’t slept recently.
Food and then sleep, I promised myself. I just hoped at three in the afternoon, the emporium of delicious smells would be as deserted as the road into town.
A sign on the window that needed a serious touch-up told me this was Benny and Cheese, which sounded like a bad rip-off of a kid’s play place. The moment I set a strappy sandal on the linoleum floor, however, it could have been called “Cheese ‘R Us,” and I wouldn’t have cared. I found myself enveloped in a puffy cloud of pizza heaven.
My mouth watered. My stomach churned in demand. My body took a seat at the diner-style counter without conscious direction. I didn’t see the duct tape holding my stool together or the sauce stains indelibly scarring the cracking floor, though I think my subconscious did. I only had eyes for the menu waiting for me and even that I saw only partially. The cover had something to do with gangsters. Whatever. The inside bore the phrase, “Chicago-style pepperoni,” and it erased all other thoughts in my head.
I ordered a large all for myself with a side of Diet Coke from the wiry blonde guy behind the counter.
“Expecting friends?” he asked.
“Nope. And even if I was, they’d have to get their own.”
He gave me a lazy half-grin and said, “Cool. Be up in a few.” He left me with my glass of icy soda pop and disappeared out the swinging door to the side of the counter.
I expected him to hand off the ticket to someone in the kitchen, but he didn’t come back. Either he was smoking something in the bathroom or the diner ran on an employee base of one.
My fingernails made a delicate tick-tick-tick sound on the counter as I drummed them along its cool surface. The whole place had a ‘50s thing going on. The counter bore a hint of stylized chrome, the stools were round and spinny. Underfoot, the linoleum looked a little newer, more like ‘70’s cheap, making Benny and Cheese decidedly less appealing. The more I looked, the less I liked. The booths were an ugly pinky maroon, faded from years in the sun and patched together with duct tape. The linoleum stains weren’t just pizza sauce; I had a feeling the beige color had once been white and decades of foot traffic had taken its toll. The place was clean, though, and that was a major plus. I’d hate to find out the only place to eat in town was a nasty gastrointestinal disaster waiting to happen.
The only other people in the diner – a trio of guys about my age – were clustered around an old pinball machine. Every now and again, the one playing did something right, lighting up the machine’s backboard and eliciting a sound like a cat’s death knell.
I pursed my lips. Not exactly the best digesting atmosphere, but anything more than cozy silence wouldn’t have met my standards today.
An undefined amount of time later – the clock on the wall, its neon dead, kept telling me time had stopped at four-thirty – my pizza arrived. I blinked at it in astonishment, then transferred the expression to the blonde guy. He gave me that same lazy half-grin.
“I guess I won’t need to buy food for the rest of the week,” I said. The thing was a monster with a deep dish crust as thick as three of my fingers, at least two cheeses that oozed and gleamed without being rubbery, and a full layer of overlapping pepperoni. It also had about the same diameter as my car’s tire. “You didn’t have to go to any special trouble,” I added, rubbing my cheek to hide a quick check for drool.
He gave me a quizzical look that upgraded my opinion from stoner to slacker. Then he lifted a shoulder and said, “It’s the usual.”
Again, I blinked at the pie and then back at him. This was usual? I didn’t want to argue. It wasn’t like I was disappointed he hadn’t brought me a special pizza to flirt with me; dating wasn’t currently on my menu. Especially now that I had a town to save in honor of my dead aunt.
The thought sobered me. I had to bite my tongue to keep the tears out of my eyes.
“Thanks,” I said when I trusted my voice again.
Blondie shrugged again, laid out a plate and silverware, refilled my glass, and went back to making a pyramid out of playing cards.
I dug into the pizza, barely pausing to breathe on the first slice. It wasn’t to drown my brain in a food coma – at least, that’s what I told myself. I knew it was a lie, but I let the gullible half of myself believe it. This was just an incredibly tasty, probably-incredibly-bad-for-me pizza and I was enjoying it after a long, long drive.
I nearly choked on it in surprise when the dying cat suddenly went into heat. The trio of guys clustered around the pinball machine gave manly shouts in perfect unison, one in despair and two in triumph. The tall one slapped the player on the back before shoving him out of the way for a turn. The third just kept laughing. He tried to talk, but only more laughter came out.
I glanced at Blondie, who just shrugged back. I lifted my eyebrows at the pizza. It went on seducing me with its well-rounded pepperoni and impressive carbs, leaving me with no choice but to eat more of it.
The losing player bought a round of beer from Blondie, obviously his punishment for not hitting the buttons fast enough. I had never been a fan of pinball; with only a pair of paddles at one’s disposal, it was as rigged as a poker game in a strip club. Plus, the constant clicking and shushing and, in this case, the sounds of feline death, gave me a headache. Or in the current case, made my headache worse.
“Don’t miss Riverglen Road,” the guy said to me as he gathered the open bottles in his hands.
I forcefully swallowed a too-big bite of heaven and croaked out, “Sorry?”
“On your way out of town. Whichever way you’re going, it’s got great scenery.” He was cute in a scrawny, lost puppy sort of way. That last part was probably just my recent loss adding a sad filter, but he put it to good use with his boy-next-door charm.
“Oh, I’m not leaving. Not for a while, anyway.” A year, if I wanted to be a millionaire. I hadn’t decided yet. Millions would look good on my sister; there wasn’t a lot that didn’t. If I failed in my quest, the responsibility would pass to her. That was about the only part of the legal documents I had retained.
His face seemed made for innocent but pleasant surprise. I was wary of the innocence, but he seemed like a nice guy. Besides, if I was going to stick around – and especially if I was going to appease my aunt’s spirit in the Great Beyond (her term, not mine) – I might as well get used to being chatted up by locals. “Really? How come?”
I wiped sauce from the corners of my mouth with a too-thin napkin and nodded as I took a swig of Diet Coke. The combination of flavors, pizza sauce and soda pop, sizzled on my tongue and helped calm my frazzled nerves. I went over three different ways of saying it before finally just blurting, “My aunt died. I’m here to take care of her stuff.” Who needs grief when there are awkward social moments to help get over losing a loved one?
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and actually sounded most of the way sincere. “Wait.” He took a long look at me, and by long I mean head-to-toe. Somehow when he did it, it wasn’t at all creepy. “You’re Nora’s niece? I’m really sorry. She was an interesting lady.”
I could tell by the way he said “interesting” that what he meant was “crazy.” I let it slide. There were lots of times I thought she was crazy, too. Who else but the half-insane would require such a task as saving a town to earn an inheritance?
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’m Vinny.” He shook my hand once I managed to drop my napkin in my lap.
“Annika,” I said, shaking back.
He grinned, and I suddenly knew what ‘like a schoolboy’ looked like. “Nice to meet you, Annika. The tall guy over there is my brother, Joey, and the jerk who’s still laughing like an idiot is Tony.” He raised his voice on the last introduction, throwing Tony a disgusted glare to go with it.
Tony took that moment to turn and bellow, “Where’d you go to get those beers, V?” I didn’t think he could have heard his name over his own laughter, but some people have remarkably good hearing. Others simply seem attuned to hearing their name regardless of circumstances like dogs when someone says, ‘treat’ or ‘walk’ from three rooms away. He joined us at the counter without looking at me. He was too busy giving Vinny a spot-on impression of a Stallone glare. In fact, the Stallone thing was more than just the glare; he had the same sort of dark good-looks melded with boyish charm. The kind that usually went with pulled pigtails, maybe, but I found it strangely uplifting.
“Here, ass,” Vinny said, handing off two of the beers. Then he tipped his head toward me and added, “I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Since when?” Tony took a swig of the beer. With a great show of satisfaction, he leaned against the counter and waggled the bottle in Blondie’s direction.
“Keep ‘em coming, J. On Vinny’s tab.” He clapped Vinny on the shoulder before he busted up laughing again.
I went on eating my pizza. Attractiveness aside, I thought I had better start elsewhere in town than with these guys. I made it a point to avoid involving myself with the immature, loud, or obnoxious. A trifecta meant a beeline for the hills. Even – or maybe especially – when wrapped up in a Stallone-like package.
“Sorry,” Vinny said to me under his breath. He went to join his brother as he was called for another turn.
Tony tipped the beer back again, watching the game with one elbow on the counter. “New in town, huh?” he asked without looking at me.
I nodded. It seemed a rhetorical question at this point. Plus, I had that no involvement thing working for me.
“Want a beer? He’s buying.”
A glance at the clock on the wall to confirm my suspicions before remembering that, oh yes, it was perpetually four-thirty here. I don’t drink a lot, generally, and even then not usually before six in the evening. I’d left my phone at home, but the sun streaming through the scratched window told me it was still well before six.
“No, thanks,” I said before stuffing another bite of pizza in my mouth.
“He’s a good kid. Funny.”
I had a feeling Tony meant that Vinny made a good mark for jokes, not that he told them well. I kept on chewing in a ladylike fashion with my mouth closed and no words falling out.
Tony finished off his beer and waved to Blondie for another. Finally, he looked at me. This annoyed me more than his lack of eye contact; the directness of his dark-eyed stare went deeper than my clothes, deeper than my skin. My cheeks flushed in spite of myself.
“Do you swing?”
A bit of cheese went down the wrong pipe. I spluttered into my Diet Coke and swallowed hard several times to clear the cough. Tony slapped me on the back to help. Then he started laughing again, a low, deep sound to match his voice, like the rolling of stormy waves on a black night.
“Sorry?” I coughed, wiping tears from my eyes. I hesitated, then remembered I hadn’t bothered to put on eye makeup before embarking on my quest for food. That only made me more self-conscious. My back felt warm where he’d slapped it; the sensation merged with the heat of embarrassment in my face. What the hell was wrong with me?
“Dancing,” he clarified with a self-satisfied grin. “Do you swing dance? I always forget that last part.”
“I’m sure you do,” I muttered. I was torn. Did I admit my ability to Charleston and rock step, leave myself open to getting to know this Stallone-faced jokester, or did I play dumb? I hadn’t been dancing in a couple years. I hadn’t been out with members of the opposite sex in…longer than I cared to comment on.
“There’s a club in the city, the Venutian. We drive up there every Friday if you’re interested.” He left me his second beer and returned to his cronies. The space beside me filled up with cold air, chilling the exposed skin of my arms.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about the offer, but I knew one thing. I was way too tired, too sore, and too stained in tears to worry about turns and lifts and flirting.
The three went on playing pinball like nothing else in the world existed but the beers they routinely chugged down. I finished off my slice and had Blondie box up the rest – a good three-quarters of the monster. After I paid, I stared at the bottle of beer still sitting next to me, untouched.
Finally, I pushed it toward the waiter-host-chef and said quietly, “Tell him thanks, but it’s not a good day for beer.” I was sure Tony would disagree, but I didn’t let that stop me. What I wasn’t sure about was why I cared at all about assuaging Tony’s his feelings.
Ignoring my internal question, I gathered up my enormous doggie box and made my exit from Benny and Cheese.