``You're late," Mario said, barging out of the kitchen as I slid through the crowd, the wall above the donut case bullet ridden from some old battle here, before someone thought to install heavier bulletproof glass. The yellowed face of the clock there even showed the scar of a bullet, though it hadn't damaged the mechanism. The two greasy arms showed I was two minutes late.
``Sorry,'' I said, knowing better than to argue. Jobs in this part of the Outlands were scarce, state prisons, slave-wage gun factories or emergency rooms making up the larger employers. A donut shop like this seemed too tame to survive, though the owner apparently had made a bundle from the outcasts as the only 24 hour place this side of town, collecting fivers from every grungy Outsider who ran, walked or crawled through the door.
The room billowed the pungent scent of unbathed bodies and drying blood -- alcohol, nicotine and other bodily excretions adding to its deep, street flavor. I could hardly smell the donuts and coffee over it. Heads turned as I came in, the shaven heads of the skin crowd, the spiked green heads of the bikers, the black and blue heads of men straight up from fights at the bar. Although all of them had passed through the metal detector at the door, they looked armed and dangerous, perfectly willing and able to kill with their teeth if they had to. The lack of a guard made me nervous. Nothing between me and this crew but a few sheets of rusting metal and some out of date bullet-proof glass. I almost expected a riot, only the faces had none of their usual snarling expressions, as if this was holy ground and they'd called a truce in coming here.
Mario, a gruff-faced figure himself, pressed a button below the counter that released the doorway catch, the heavy metal door easing in an inch for me to slip behind the counter, the smell of the bodies fading as I stepped inside.
``You ought to have a guard,'' I said, eyeing the crowd along the counter and the even more degenerate figures sprawling along the line for take out, faces so scared I struggled to find openings for mouths and eyes.
``Too expensive, even if I could find
somebody to do it,'' Mario said. ``Beside, I install a guard, they'll start
fighting in here. That's the way this place works. I know it sounds crazy. But
it does. I don't think they want the only warm place this side of
It made the usual strange Outlands sense that everything here did, twisted logic that I still couldn't always grasp, though I'd spent nearly a decade on this side of the neighborhood walls, scrounging around from place to place looking for peace and quiet.
``You'll fine everything you need in back,'' Mario said, his big hand gripping my upper arm as he led me into the kitchen, into a world of flour and yeast and the age old machinery for making donuts. God knew no one needed modern science to improve on this, though Insiders designed a variety of robotic substitutes, none quite able to deliver a satisfying edible product as could this stuff coupled with a pair of human hands. In one corner, the pot-bellied mixer sat, like a rusting Buddha waiting for someone to pull its lever. The table sat on the right, pushed up against the wall and the window that looked out onto the front.
``That's for you to keep an eye on things,'' Mario said. ``They might not want to kill each other here, but trouble starts up from time to time. Part of the job of the baker is to escort the participants out.''
``Geeze, thanks, just what I need, a bullet in the belly.''
``They're not armed,'' Mario said. ``And you're a big boy. Besides, they all know the rules. The baker's king in here. They don't argue once you tell them to leave. Not if they want to come back again. You got any questions?''
``Mostly ones about where the nearest emergency room is,'' I said. ``But everything else looks all right. I think I can find my way around.''
It had been years since I'd baked regularly, many years, and miles, but I knew this had become a matter of habit. Like riding a bike. Once I picked up the tools, I would know what to do with them. Still I glanced outside at the crowd and shivered.
``Do the cops ever come in here?'' I asked.
``Not if they're smart,'' Mario said.
``Though I'm told they keep an eye on us during routine patrols. We're not a
popular place with the local authorities. They think we're a breeding ground
for trouble or revolution. I've never been able to get a straight answer from
city hall. But the health inspectors here frequently enough, looking for
something to shut us down over. I kept the place clean. I expect you to do the
same. If you have any other questions, ask
He jerked his thumb in the direction of a heavy-set blond woman who patrolled behind the counter like a snake, her dress so large on her large frame it could have housed two of her.
``You're leaving?'' I said, wondering how Doris, me and a small, cute brunette counter girl could handle a riot by ourselves.
``God yes,'' Mario moaned. ``If I don't get some rest I'm going to kill somebody. I've been three weeks without a baker, filling in the shifts myself.''
``What happened to your last baker?''
``Someone shot him.''
``Oh good,'' I said, fingers gripping the edge of the work bench.
``Not here,'' Mario said, catching some of my thinking from my face. ``He got drunk and then picked a fight with a few of the green leopards, a mistake in any bar this side of the wall. They shot him a hundred times before the police could drag his body back to a hospital.''
``Do any of these characters come in here?''
``All the time,'' Mario said. ``They're some of my best customers. They already apologized for killing the fool, telling me if they'd known he baked here, they would have settled for breaking both his legs. I guess they figure he could still roll donuts from a wheelchair.''
I glanced out through the three inch thick window, fully expecting to find a gang of machine-gun toting Outlander with bullet belts cris-crossed across their chest and skull and cross bones tattooed to their faces. Instead, standing among rascals nearly as disgusting in habits and appearance was a small man dressed in a tidy black suit, black bow tie, and black derby balanced on his nearly bald head.
``He wants three hundred large Coca
``So?'' Mario asked.
``So the machine's broken, remember? How are we supposed to give him three hundred sodas when the stuff won't fizz. I can fill up the cups with sweet water, but he's sure to complain when everything tastes flat.''
Mario's top front teeth clamped down over his lower lip, poking deeply into flesh as his dark eyes focused on the little man standing patiently on the far side of the glass, a little man eyed also by the gangsters on either side of him.
``I forgot about the soda machine,'' he mumbled. ``But I'm so Goddamn tired, its hard to think about anything, let alone whether the soda machine works in the middle of January. Three hundred sodas. God I'd hate to lose that sale. Who the hell is he buying for, the United States Marines.''
``He says he has a factory near here and he's just started a night shift, an angry crew who wouldn't show up until he gave them all kinds of fringe benefits. They said they were thirsty, so he came out to buy some soda for them.''
``Damn,'' Mario said. ``Did you try and sell him on ice tea? I bought a shit load of that last summer and it's been hell trying to get rid of it ever since.''
``We don't have no soda, how about ice tea?'' she said.
I heard low moan from the other patrons that served them as a laugh, eyes rolling towards the ceiling as they amused themselves at the little man's expense, yelling at him they'd sell him soda if he'd come out to their street machines for a minute.
``How much you got to spend?'' one man in leather shouted, fingering the thick black scar that marred the right side of his face.
``But I need that soda,'' the little squealed, his voice coming through the mouthpiece in a desperate rasp. ``These men told me they wanted soda, and they won't be happy with me if I bring back anything else.''
``Then, I guess I can't help you toots,''
Several wide shouldered men in greasy long hair and greasy jeans, shoved passed the little man, as he stood there looking as confused as a child in a shoot-out.
``Toot! You can't stand there,''
``Why don't you go back and ask your workers what they want and if they'll settle for ice tea?''
The little man glanced up, his round face suddenly brighter. ``Yes,'' he agreed. ``That's what I should do.''
Then, he stumbled out the door, passed the line of growling men, through the antique metal detectors to the door, pushing against the wind to get it open, holding door with one hand and his hat
with the other as he stumbled out.
``God!'' Mario mumbled, staring out through the steamy glass after the man, shaking his head slowly. ``God knows why anyone would want soda on a night like this. It must be ten below zero out there. But it takes all kind I guess. Look -- what did you say your name was?''
``Lance,'' I said.
``Lance,'' he nodded. ``That's right. Have the girls make a shit load of ice tea tonight, and sell it to anyone stupid enough to order soda. I'll have someone out here in the morning to look at the machine, provided there's no riot tonight and they keep down the roadblocks. Repairmen are a real drag about coming out from behind the walls when there's been a lot of shooting.''
``I couldn't imagine why,'' I said.
``My point exactly,'' Mario laughed. ``These Insiders are scared of their own shadows. They aren't going to die being mugged, they'll die of heart attacks thinking they might be. Most of them need to get out from behind those walls a little more, find out what the real world's all about.''
``I'm not sure they're as mistaken about the Outlands as you let on,'' I said.
``Of course, they are. They have about as much an idea of what life is out here as they do on the moon. That's because they get all their information from those talking heads on TV, people ranting and raving about how bad things are. When that's your source of information, of course you'll think things are bad.''
``If you say so,'' I said, then noticed the small brunette standing in the doorway from the front.
``Mr. Mario,'' she said in a voice so soft a mouse would have drowned her out, her eyes cast down as if fearful of looking Mario square in the face. But it was her dress that intrigued me, as tight around her perfect shape as Doris' was loose, emphasizing parts of her anatomy that might have been better left understated, especially serving a crowd like this, the eyes of which watched her even now, dirty men licking cracked lips, eyeing each other with that strange inside humor men share, as if making a silent bet which man could make a score.
``What is it, child?'' Mario asked, his voice trailing off.
``You said you would so something about our uniforms,'' she said. ``I don't mean to complain, but some of the men are acting strange when I try to serve them coffee.''
``Strange in what way?''
``They masturbate on the glass.''
``What?'' Mario roared. ``Which son of a bitch did that?''
``Several of them over at the far end,'' the girl said.
Mario squinted. So did I. On the far side of the counter, six huge figures sat, shoulder to shoulder, men in denim cutoffs similar to those once attributed to the legendary Hell's angels, though these faces had no beards, and their piercing eyes stared straight at us, as if perfectly capable of taking the building apart to get us if we made trouble.
``Oh,'' Mario said. ``The Grinning Wolves. I should have guessed.''
``Are you going to do something?'' I asked.
``I certainly am,'' Mario said. ``I'm going to leave it well enough alone. Let them do what they want to on the other side of the glass.''
``What about me? What am I supposed to do when they do that?''
``Close your eyes,'' Mario suggested.
``I'll get you and
``What we really need is change,''
``And I'm not going to,'' Mario said. ``Why tempt fate by leaving a lot of cash around.''
``Then what are we supposed to use when they bring in big bills?'' the younger girl asked.
``Use your tips.''
``Then ask for exact change,'' Mario said. ``I'm not going to have the store robbed again.''
``I thought you said you didn't have those kinds of problems?'' I said, drawing a weary glance from Mario.
``Of course we have those problems. We're in the Outlands here. Everybody who does business in the Outlands has to content with a robbery now and then. But if it gets around that we don't carry that kind of cash, people will leave us alone.''
``Or kill us for coffee when they find
out we won't give them any cause they don't have the right change,''
``Geeze,'' I said. ``And I thought I was here to make donuts.''
``Will you all relax. You're a big fellow, Lance, big enough to scare most of the characters we get in here. Even the gangs aren't anywhere near as tough at the TV portrays them, especially when they're by themselves.''
``The problem is they're so rarely by themselves,'' I said.
``If you feel there's a problem, use the phone.''
``And call who? The police? I've heard talk about how long it takes for them to respond.''
``Don't kid yourself, Lance,'' Mario said. ``They might talk about us downtown, they might want to close us up, but the beat cop has no beef with us, in fact, they're undercover people come in nightly to order coffee for the shift. Without us, they'll be drinking instant with powdered milk. Now are there any other problems before I go?''
``Not unless you want to go outside and wash down the counters,'' the young girl said, easing across the kitchen balancing two trays filled coffee pots, plastic serving trays, and a pile of silverware. Out front, on the other side of the glass, cups of recycled paper littered the counter and floor, some spilling from the mouth of the trash can near the door, but most tossed aside with each progressive wave of patron, crushed under their heavy boots, their liquid remains splattered across the filthy tiles like brown blood.
``Lance can take a mop and bucket out there later when he's done with his shift,'' Mario said. ``Traffic should slow down by then.''
``What if there's some other kind of problem,'' I asked. ``Like a machine breaking down? Who do I call?''
``Believe it or not I have a manager to this place,'' Mario said. ``Her number's on the wall.''
``If you can get through to her,'' the girl said, scrubbing out the coffee pots with a big black brush. ``She doesn't like hearing from us out here in the Outlands, especially when she's entertaining. She says her neighbors don't approve. Frankly, I think she's scared to leave her neighborhood after dark.''
``Just keep calling until you get through,'' Mario said. ``I don't want to hear from any of you unless as a last resort. Is that clear?''
A shadow passed outside the window, as a shape floated along the wall towards the counter door, pressing the call button to get let in. Despite the reflections of the glass, his long blond hair and clean cut appearance made him stand out. I almost couldn't tell he was wearing body armor, his clothing was cut so well, designer stuff, from some upscale neighborhood boutique that practically painted a target on his back for any of the roving Outlands gangs. But the clothing and sculpted hair could not hide his relationship to Mario, the same chiseled jaw, the same protruding forehead. This figure lacked only the years of sunbleached wrinkles carving texture and authority to his face.
``Tony!'' the girl at the sink cried out
when spotting him through the window, dropping several pieces of silverware as
she reached for a paper towel. She rushed towards the front just as
``Don't touch me,'' he squealed, dragging her hands from around his neck. I could smell his cologne across the room, so sweet it made the donut smell seem sour. ``You'll cover me with sugar and flour and I've got a date tonight, a real looker from the same northside neighborhood as the mayor.''
``A date,'' Mario boomed. ``How can you have a date when I have you scheduled to look in on the store tonight?''
Tony cringed, and though his brown eyes matched Mario's in shade, they would not rise to meet the man's hard gaze. ``That's part of the reason I came down here to see you,'' the young man said. ``I can't look in on the store tonight.''
``Part of the reason?'' Mario asked in a suspicious tone, one eyebrow rising high onto his crinkled forehead. ``What else could be so important to drag you this far out of your way when you could have just as easily used the telephone?''
Mario was already reaching for his wallet when Tony motioned for him to stop.
``I don't need money this time, Uncle,'' he said. ``I need your car.''
``Absolutely not!'' Mario said, replacing his wallet, and rezipping his body armor over his chest. ``I've seen what you do to cars. My mechanic is still trying to figure out how you managed do so much damage to your Sports Jet.''
``That wasn't my fault, Uncle,'' Tony protested. ``The gangs did that.''
``After you flipped them the finger and
made them chase you half way around
``They tried,'' Tony mumbled. ``But they didn't have time to circumvent the anti-theft guns before the police tank rescued me.''
``See! And you expect me to hand over the keys to my car, to have you do the same thing to it? No way.''
``But I'll be more careful this time.''
``Oh? You mean you'll launch a preemptive strike, shooting down the gang before they can shoot at you? It doesn't work that way. The car's defense system doesn't activate until you're fired on first, and I have no intention of letting you get that far with it. I'm not made of money, despite what you believe.''
``I won't taunt the gangs,'' Tony said. ``I'll pick up my date, drive her to dinner, the theater, then home again.''
``But this date is important, Uncle. I've been pursing this woman for months. She's upper crust. She moves in all the right circles. I get in good with her crowd, I'll never have people looking down their noses at me again. And if I don't take advantage of this opportunity tonight, who knows when I'll get her to say yes again.''
``Well, nobody's stopping you. Take her out.''
``How am I supposed to get to her, walk? My car's in the shop and not even you can afford the cost of a rental car these days with all the security costs and extra insurance they want.''
``How did you get here?''
``A friend drop me off.''
``Can't your friend drive you to the date?''
``It was a female friend, uncle,'' Tony said. ``I don't exactly see the three of us doing what I had in mind.''
``I see,'' Mario said, glancing at me, his eyes glinting with obvious private delight. ``Well, I suppose you could take a bus...''
``A bus? Be serious, uncle,'' Tony exclaimed. ``I told you what kind of woman this was and where she lives. Wall security in her neighborhood wouldn't let a bus stop outside their gate, and even if they did, they wouldn't let anyone inside who stepped out of a bus. And she certainly wouldn't step onto a bus, even if I had the pluck to suggest it. Her kind don't ride buses, even in broad daylight or the company doubled the armed guards on top.''
``I don't suppose it would do for your rich friend to realize just how impoverished you are, eh?'' Mario said, eyes still alive with humor.
``Please, uncle,'' Tony pleaded. ``I won't ask for anything else after this.''
``If only I could believe that,'' Mario said, laughing outloud, then paused, a thoughtful look coming into his eyes. ``I'll tell you what. Let's make a deal.''
``What kind of deal?''
``I'll lend you the delivery van if you'll check on the store from time to time tonight.''
Tony's mouth fell open.
``The van?'' Tony said. ``You expect me to lumber through the streets with a tank like that?''
``Why not?'' Mario said. ``We use it during the day to make deliveries.''
``Because the wall guards wouldn't let me anywhere near that neighborhood in a truck like that.''
``They would if you called ahead,'' Mario said. ``We deliver to some of the finest neighborhoods in town during the day.''
``But I can't ask her to climb into a thing like that,'' Tony said. ``My God. It still has tred from when the army used it for maneuvers.''
``It's better than the bus.''
``Not by much,'' Tony said. ``It's humiliating, and hard to see the road, squinting through those narrow security slits. I'll spend half the night with a migraine.''
Mario shrugged. ``Well, I offered,'' he said and turned towards the door to go.
``Wait!'' Tony said, grabbing the owner's arm. ``Why do you need me to check on the store? What's wrong with Barbara? Isn't she supposed to check on the store at night?''
``She's home entertaining,'' the counter girl said, drawing a disbelieving stare from Tony.
``What? You mean it's all right for her to have a date and not me? What does she get paid for anyway?''
``You're family,'' Mario said. ``I can't rely on hired people as much as I can family. Besides, I'm not asking you to manage the shop. I just want a backup in case something goes wrong and these people can't reach Barbara. Most likely nothing's going to go wrong, and you don't have to worry.''
``But I can't just pull over and look for a pay phone, uncle,'' Tony said.
``That's the lovely part, you don't have to risk your life ducking bullets out there. There's a security receiver right in the van. I have a special channel to my house. We don't even have to worry about someone jamming the frequency. If there's a problem, I'll give you a call.''
Tony sagged a little, glanced at the counter girl's affectionate face and cringed, glanced at me, and frowned, then let out a long sigh.
``I guess I don't have much of a choice,'' he mumbled.
``Think about it as a lesson in responsibility,'' Mario said, patting the boy's broad shoulder with his own broad hand. ``Someday, if you learn enough, all this will be yours.''
Tony stared, his gaze shifting away from
me, Mario the counter girl and the kitchen and towards the front, squinting a
little as he studied the new wave of street people just then coming through the
door, a purple-haired set of characters whose hotrods sat in the parking lot
like a set from a sci-fi movie, all chrome and machine-guns sticking out from
every angle of their cars. The figures themselves wore particularly heavy kind
of body armor, spiked iron-gray style left over from the wars in
``God forbid I should ever be so lucky,'' Tony muttered. ``Where are the keys.''
``In the office behind the door,'' Mario said. ``You know the security codes.''
Tony did not look happy as he barged
across the kitchen towards the far door, disappearing into the store room just
``I need some help out here,'' she said, glaring at the girl, who still stared after Tony like a lost puppy seeking a new home. ``Okay,'' she said softly and slowly floated out towards the front, as Tony reappeared, a ring of keys dangling from his fist.
``Take a pistol with you,'' Mario told him.
``Aren't there any weapons in the van?'' Mario said, pausing, his eyes showing a touch of alarm.
``Only the usual defensive systems. I don't believe in leaving anything else for people to steal. With the van parked right outside, the store would be the first place people would rob.''
``All right,'' Mario said, and vanished again, returning with a 32 caliber beretta, one of those sleek designer models Inlanders routinely carry, though largely inadequate in a serious fire fight. Mario sighed and rolled his eyes, his own smith & Wesson bulging from beneath his jacket.
``All right,'' Mario said. ``If that's settled then I'm out of here.''
Mario eased out through the door to the front, calling his good-byes to Doris and the girl, before punching out the code that opened the door through the glass. The front had changed hands again, crowded now with the more down and out figured I had seen huddling in the shallow warehouse doorways earlier, their rags as gray as their faces, and their eyes watching Mario as he barged through them towards the outer door. A moment later, his gold Mercedes roared down the driveway to the street and vanished in the darkness.
``What a mood!''
``Me neither,'' said Tony, staring at the pistol he had appropriated from the office, his small shape seeming unable to fit in his hand despite its luxurious design. He just seemed that uncomfortable.
``You know how to use one of those?'' I asked, preferring the much more powerful 357 revolved I kept holstered in the small of my back. I'd never shot anyone with it, but practiced often, and liked the idea that very few people would get up after I shot them. His pistol seemed like a toy to me, something suited for a lady's purse, a conversation piece at tea, nothing even remotely dangerous, despite Tony's clear disdain.
``I learned in school,'' he said. ``But I haven't practiced, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn't shoot anybody if I had the chance. Better to give them what they want and the let them go away.''
I laughed and he looked at me, strangely offended.
``Why are you laughing?'' he asked.
I shrugged and bent to recover the yeast bowl kept under the bench, rolling it along the floor, passed the spot where he stood. He grabbed my arm.
``You laughed for a reason? Am I that funny?''
``Funny's the wrong word,'' I said, glaring at his fingers until he uncurled them from my upper arm. ``But anyone who thinks like you, ought never to come out on this side of a neighborhood wall.''
``I don't understand you,'' Tony said.
``Or this part of the world,'' I said, grabbing a chunk of yeast from a glass fronted refrigerator, crumbling it to bits over the bowl. ``When people come after you in the street, they don't want money. Most likely, they're just looking for the excuse to blow your brains out.''
``So I should draw a gun and give them an excuse to shoot?''
``No,'' I said. ``You should shoot them and keep on shooting until you're sure they can't shoot back.''
``Yes,'' I admitted. ``But that's also reality.''
Tony shivered, but shoved the pistol into his pocket where it barely bulged, swallowed slowly as I filled a quart measuring bucket with water and counted out the necessary number for the mix.
``Don't worry, Tony,'' the girl said, sweeping back into the kitchen with another load of dirty utensils. ``You're girl friend won't think you're strange. She'll see you drive up in that old tank and think you're some sort of eccentric millionaire. I know that's what I would think if you were taking me out.''
Her eyes flashed hopefully as she glanced
at him, but Tony seemed to miss the cue, staring instead at the keys still
dangling from his other hand.
``Say, toots,'' she said. ``I'm a little stuck tonight and wondered if maybe you could do me a favor.''
Tony glanced up. ``What kind of favor?''
``How do you normally get home?''
``Someone usually drives me, but he crapped out. He said someone shotup his fuel tank last night on his way home from here, and he can't get a welder to fix it up tonight, so I'm stuck. My babysitter won't stay passed . She only lives a block away, but walking in that part of down is daylight is crazy. After , its regular shooting gallery. If I'm not home on time, she'll leave my kids alone. God knows, I can't have that without the commotion in the halls and streets, they'll go crazy on me.''
His face soured as he glanced out at the
street, seemingly tracing out the road along the lake to where he knew
``I can't,'' he said. ``I wish I could but I'm already late, and God knows, I'm not going to come back to this place unless I have to. I have big plans with this woman and if they pan out, then I can tell Uncle Mario where to stick this place and the future he's made for me in his head.''
``Does Tony think he's going to get
lucky?'' the girl asked, squeezing passed
``Never mind what I have planned,'' Tony said, then glanced up at the clock, and the bullet hole, and the arms that swept across its yellowed face. ``My God! Look at the time! I'm never going to get uptown when I said I would. I got to go. Don't call Uncle Mario unless you absolutely have to.''
Then, he punched open the security door, slid into the front, the few stranglers parting before him as he rushed towards the door, his pale face visible through the frosted glass even as he worked his way down the ramp to the parking lot.
Even over the sound of slapping dough from the mixer, I heard the van engine whine, a thin frail whimper rising from the other side of the store. Heavy heads turned at the counter, squinting at the glass and the shadowy silver-sided shape shaking beyond the glass as Tony turned the key again and again, always coming just short of having the engine engage. I thought he would kill the battery, and indeed, the whining grew slower and lower in volume, until a lucky spark brought the engine to a sputtering life. Billows of smoke attacked the glass, erasing the last brief glimpse I had of the van. The vehicle did not appear again until after its gears gnashed and Tony had twisted it around in the lot, driving the quarter century old Well's Fargo truck down the same slanted drive way his uncle had taken, leaving a trail of smoke behind him that lingered in the air long after the van had vanished.
``Sure,'' I said, mixing a patch of cake mix with my hands, the wet dough sticking to each finger as I plied more flour. ``But I might not be done by .''
The hope drained from her eyes. ``That's right,'' she mumbled, then wandered back out front as a new wave of customers barged through the front door, a mixed crowd that seemed to have little or nothing in common, except for their violence, banging at the bullet proof glass, demanding immediate service from Doris, who roared for them to behave themselves or they'd have to go.
``So who is she?'' the girl said, startling me, because I thought she had gone out front, too.
``What do you mean?'' I asked.
``The girl who broke your heart. The one I remind you of.''
I felt my face grow warm.
``I don't know what you're talking about,'' I said, staring down into the mess I'd made on the table, my fingers squeezing through the dough when I should have been shaping it.
``Don't me that,'' she said, her smile a lot more devious than it had seemed earlier, eyes sparkling at me, as if she enjoyed making me squirm. ``I see the hurt in your eyes when you look at me. Was she a sweet heart?''
I stared at her across the corner of the table, where she leaned back against the side of a silver industrial refrigerator, her small pointed breasts emphasized by the tightness of her dress. She couldn't have been older than 16, and yet her eyes said she'd seen as much as I had about the world, not the street level gunfire so much, but the social world of Inland, where people lived so close to other people nothing was private.
``Don't you have anything better to do than give me the third degree?'' I asked.
``Not at the moment,'' she said with the same playful smile. ``Was she an Outlander or an Inlander?''
I felt my temples throb as the anger rose.
``She was both,'' I mumbled and moved across the room to the mixer, yanking up the handle to make it stop, the smooth yeast dough already swelling from the heat of the machine's brutality.
``Both?'' the girl said, looking a little startled at my reply. ``How could she be both?''
``She started out Inland, and then found herself on the street.''
``They put her out?'' the girl said, her eyes opening wide with horror. ``Out with...''
She made a gesture towards the front
where the crowd had grown thicker and
``Not everything in the Outland is as bad as you think,'' I said, moving back to the table, where I began to slow process or rolling the dough flat.
``But you're from
``They're terrible everywhere, if you
live in the Outlands,'' I said. ``
``You sound like you've spent time in the Outlands yourself,'' the girl said.
``Out there? Inbetween the neighborhoods?''
``Not everybody lives in neighborhoods,'' I said. ``At least not neighborhoods with walls.''
``But how do you survive?''
``I told you, it isn't as bad as you think. All you see if what passes the car window when your parents drive you here and there. And it is bad a night or around the walls, people going through trash for food. But for most of us, life goes on. Most people walk around during the day just fine, go to work and the store without being too afraid.''
``Not me,'' the girl said. ``I couldn't live out there.''
``But you work here.''
``Behind glass, where no one can get at me. I couldn't walk around out there without thinking one of these animals would attack me any minute. How did your friend survive?''
``You'd better get out front before
``You're not going to answer me, are you?''
``Why go over sad news?'' I asked. ``She looked for trouble. In the Outlands, there's plenty of trouble to find.''
Yes, she reminded me of someone, though someone far less naive about inside and outside the neighborhood walls, a woman who had spent time with me in New York City until her friends and neighbors found out about her and turned her out to the street, found out about her drug use and frequency of lovers -- many of her men sharing marriage vows with those upright pillars of the neighborhood.
``We don't want your kind in here,'' the women had said during the mock proceedings that served as a trial, seeking to find something more criminal in her background than a few ounces of pot, putting her out instead of in jail, though knowing the second, apparently more merciful action equaled death, where she repeated many of the same unmentionable sexual acts simply to keep alive.
The telephone rang and I stared at it, wondering if answering it was part of my job, too, as well as protection. When no one else made a move to answer, I did.
``Hello?'' I said.
``Who is this?'' The voice on the other end demanded, a deep accent biting off the edges of the words.
``I'm the overnight baker.''
``No,'' I said. ``Carlos doesn't work here any more. I'm Lance.''
``Oh,'' the woman replied, sounding mildly disappointed.
Silence followed, interrupted by the
click of the woman's fingernails striking her side of the phone. Finally, after
a long sigh, the woman said: ``I'm Yolla, I just called to say I'll be a few
minutes late. You tell
The line went dead before I could
``Who was it?'' she asked, as she marched closer to the door, where she set some coffee beans into the grinder and turned the machine on.
``Someone named Yolla,'' I said, raising my voice to compete with the sputter of grinding beans. ``She said she would be a few minutes late.''
``She didn't say.''
``Oh God, what a night. First my ride flakes out, and now my replacement. She'd better not be later than ten, because I get a ride, I'm out of here.''
``Hey!'' I said, holding my doughy hands up in a gesture of surrender. ``I'm only the messenger boy.''
``I know, I know,''
``Sure,'' I said.
``You want coffee?''
``Nothing warm for me,'' I said. ``Back there, here I'm already breaking out in a sweat. But that ice tea Mario mentioned sounds good.''
Another group kicked open the front door, denim jackets cut off at the shoulders, arms covered with tattoos of swastikas.
She pointed to a stainless steel doored refrigerator. I nodded, and found a half full pitcher inside. I took a wax cup from the shelf next to the out of order soda machine, filled it, drank it, then refilled the cup again to take back with me to the kitchen, but stopped when I saw the little man step out from between the gang of thugs -- the same little man who had come in earlier demanding soda, his pale face and dark suit making him look like an undertaker. Now, he clutched his derby to his chest, leaving his balding head exposed to the banks of florescent light.
``Excuse me,'' he said, standing on his toes to speak into the metal mouthpiece, his voice garbled a little as it came through. ``Do you remember me?''
``Oh could anyone forget you, toot?''
The little man nodded.
``Well, we still don't have any soda, if
that's what they want,''
The little man's face brighten, tiny mouth spreading into something that substituted as a smile, as his thin mustache wiggled. ``Oh, that's quite all right,'' he said. ``I talked it over with my crew and they agreed to settle for ice tea. Can I have two hundred large cups, please?''
``That's quite all right,'' the little man said, placing his hat on his head. ``I have all night.''
Doris stared at him, started to say something, but shook her head and moved off, passing me as she moved back into the kitchen, headed for the store room. A moment later, she returned shaking her had, looking a little confused.
``Didn't Mario say we should push the ice tea?'' she asked me.
``That's what I heard,'' I said. ``What's wrong?''
``This is the only packet I could find,''
she said, holding up one small foil packet that would produce no more than a
quart of tea.
``The rest?'' the girl said. ``Everything we have is in the big box in back.''
``But this is all I could find,''
``Last summer,'' the girl said. ``He's been having us push that stuff all year. It's been going a little at a time. I guess no one noticed.''
``So what am I going to tell this guy?''
``I suppose you'll have to tell him the truth,'' the girl said. ``What's the point in lying. We can't give him what we don't have.''
This time when
``Look, toots,'' she said into the small round mouth piece. ``We're all out of ice tea except for this.'' she waved the packet before the glass. The little man stared at the packet, then at her face, his thin brows folding down towards the bridge of his nose.
``But you said...''
``I know what I said,''
``We could make ice tea from bags,'' the
girl whispered, drawing such a hateful stare from
``But you don't know what it took me to convince these people to work the night shift,'' the little man protested, his squeaky voice carrying through the small speaker like the cry of a child. He drew curious and amused stares from the men at the counter. ``I had to beg them to risk their lives. I had to promise them much more money than they deserved. And now, now if I go back without ice tea, they could walk out of me.''
The little man glanced at the disreputable faces in the crowd and realized they laughed over his babbling, dirty, unshaven men who found little else to laugh about in the brutal world of the Outlands.
``What am I going to do?'' the little man asked. ``What do I tell them when I come back empty-handed?''
``We have our troubles, too, toots,'' Doris said, unable to sound convincing with her cold sympathy, apparently thinking about the long walk home and her kids seated waiting for her alone.
The little man did not seem to notice, his head cocked to one side as he stared up at the clock, though he appeared to be thinking.
``Coffee, you say,'' he mumbled. ``Well, I supposed I could go back and ask them. What can they do to me? They can't very well walk out now, and expect to get home alive at any rate.''
``Go to it, toots,''
The little man nodded, turned away, and vanished through the sea of incoming men, like a tiny black boat vanishing through a forest of reeds, shoulders slumped, his hat slightly askew.
Outside -- through the double layers of glass -- I saw the night swell, too, a deep fog now infecting the Outlands, as people crowded closer to the store light, hugging on the ramps or near the door where heat seeped out through the cracks. Not much heat. Not enough to warm their toes or keep them from frost bike. Maybe the light attracted them, too, offering the more miserable street creatures some measure of safety. Here, they might not get gunned down. Here, they had each other for company, sharing their misery. Sharing mine. I felt sorry for them, and myself, wondering if I would eventually make the short decent from worker to beggar, now that I had given up my seat behind the wall. The thought scared me, and yet did not offend me the way living with those people had after they had tossed the woman out. I had stayed on in the community for months, fooling myself about getting over her, knowing that people felt sorry for me behind my back.
``That's the boy who fell in love with the whore,'' they said, thinking I couldn't hear. ``That's the boy who thought she was going to marry him.''
And for months, I wandered out into the darkness at night, shifting through the human trash, asking anyone and everyone for news of her. Some said they'd seen her hanging with this gang or that, clinging to the back of a motorcycle or a hotrod or a makeshift tank. None had talked to her. None had seen her recently enough for me to retrace her steps. But all those I spoke to, inside and outside the walls, told me to go home and forget her, she would only bring me trouble.
Then, one day, one of the wall men told
me she'd died, shot in a shoot-out with the feds. God only knew what the gangs
meant messing with those people, or why the feds would bother when they had
bigger game to hunt with the militant neighborhoods upstate, or the tax
revolting neighborhoods in
After that, I left, my parents protesting about my lack of future, though in their eyes when I walked out the gate, I could see the same fear of death that this counter girl had when she looked at me now. Neighborhood people just didn't make the transition well beyond the walls, not maintaining their integrity anyway, not without killing or being killed.
As the crowds thinned in the store, they thickened outside, too poor to buy a cup of coffee. I'd seen thousands of them in the Outlands between here and New York, all with the same sunburned faces, all with the same dying eyes, crippled from bullets and disease, crazy from fear, some crying in the shadows, most too sad to cry any more. Each glanced in at me, watching me, begging me with their eyes to give them hope.
``How often does this place get robbed?'' I asked, recalling something Mario had said earlier.
``Not as often as you would think,'' Doris said.
``Is it true the undercover people come here?''
``Sure,'' Doris said. ``Everybody comes here after dark, sooner or later. But I think Mario exaggerates the protection. The city cops don't love us. They think we harbor criminals or something, or feed them for free, and that if we went away, all the bums would vanish.''
``Do we feed them?'' I asked.
``Sometimes,'' Doris said. ``Mario has a bigger heart than he lets on, especially around the holidays. He also makes a point of keeping the trash bins open so they can eat our stale product.''
``I don't understand how he stays in business if people eat for free.''
``The orders, toots,'' Doris said. ``We don't have that old delivery van for nothing. It does a lot of traveling during the daylight hours, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. Everybody from the walls guards to tenant association presidents orders from us. Mario makes a killing off this place.''
``Would the cops come if we got robbed?''
``Oh yes, they'd come. In fact, they watch this place very carefully. I think they expect a riot here sooner or later.''
``Na,'' Doris said. ``These people are down and out. A lot of them are crazy. But none of them are crazy enough to bite off the hand that feeds them. Anybody who robs us has a lot more people to answer to than the police. The last time someone did, we not only got our money back, but the cops found the body of the thief floating in the lake, `a victim of gang activity,' the report said.''
This thought stuck in my head as I went back to the bench to work, the loafs of yeast now inflated again, skins so smooth it might have been the flesh of babies. I rolled one out, air spurting out the sides as I flatten it out with the roller, flour kicking up into my eyes and onto my hand, turning the hair of my knuckles white. Then, I felt rather than saw someone staring at me through the window and looked up into one of the most grizzly faces I'd ever seen, so worn and gray that the man looked dead-- dead except for dilated eyes that mirrored me. Like many of the others outside the store, this man wore rags, tatters of cloth that clung to his gray flesh as if glued. God only knew the last time he'd had a bath, and the glass -- designed to protect us from bullets -- kept his smell from invading the kitchen.
The figure slid along the window the way Tony had done early, grinning at me, his mouth half empty of teeth. Then, when he should have stopped at the security door, he slid through.
``Hey!'' I yelled. ``How the hell....''
The man still grinned when he appeared at the kitchen door, only now the smell of him swirled ahead of him, swamping every other scent -- the smell I first noticed stepping beyond the wall as a kid, the odor of urine, wine, feces and sweat mingling into a dough of its own, gray in color, caked to human flesh. It made me retch.
``Where do you think you're going?'' I asked, fingers feeling under my apron for the butt of my 357 magnum.
``It's all right, toots,'' Doris said, sweeping into the kitchen from the front, wrapping one of her heavy arms around the man's pathetic shoulders. ``He's one of ours.''
``He works here?''
The man's smile widened, drawing blood from his cracked lips.
``You b-bet I d-do!'' he said, his alcohol-smelling breath a sharp contrast to his proud tone of voice.
``Mario pays him to clean up,'' Doris said. ``But we don't brag about him.''
``Ah, D-Doris,'' the man said, reaching with his dirty fingers to pinch her ample bottom. ``Y-You know y-y-you love me.''
``Watch your hands, Vinnie!'' Doris said, slapping him away. ``Or I'll cut them off.''
``You don't m-mean th-that,'' Vinnie said, twisting his head around to grin at her, looking remarkably like an abandoned, mangy dog seeking adoption.
``You know I mean it,'' Doris said. ``What are you doing here anyway? You know what Mario said about hanging around when you're not working.''
The man's grin dimmed a little, as he smoothed back his greasy salt and pepper hair with the palms of his hands, the effort doing little to groom his disheveled appearance, his hair so full of mats it might not have been combed in months.
``I just w-wanted to say h-h-hello,'' Vinnie said, fighting back a burp. ``H-He can't y-yell at m-me for s-s-saying h-hello.''
``When it comes to you, Mario can be mad about you breathing,'' Doris said. ``What is it? Are you broke again?''
``N-No,'' Vinnie said, though his voice lacked conviction.
``Here,'' Doris said, grabbing a fiver from her purse. ``You should be able to buy another bottle with that. But you'd better pay me back on payday or I'll box your hears.''
``I d-didn't c-c-come for m-money,'' Vinnie said, even as his filthy fingers closed around the bill, shoving it deep into one of his tattered pockets.
``So what are you doing here if you didn't come for money?'' Doris asked.
``Ah, D-Doris,'' Vinnie said, with an embarrassed grin. ``C-Can't hide n-nothing from y-y-you.''
Then, licking his wounded lips, he looked around at the store, his watery eyes struggling to focus, jerking from the string of steaming stainless steel containers of cooking soup to the row of glass coffee pots further along the counter.
``If you're thinking you can steal any soup, you can forget that, Vinnie,'' Doris said, stepping between the man and the door to the front. ``Mario said you have to pay for whatever you take out.''
``B-But I w-w-work h-here,'' Vinnie said in a injured tone of voice.
``But the bums you've been selling the stuff to outside, aren't,'' Doris said.
Vinnie's grin returned, though bearing a sly edge.
``Th-That's not w-what I c-came for either,'' he said, then lowered his voice, and glanced around, studying the corners of the room as if searching for something special. ``I h-heard we h-h-hired a new g-girl.''
``So that's what you're after, you old pervert,'' Doris howled. ``Get out of here before I call the cops.''
``Don't `Ah Doris' me!'' Doris said, advancing on the man as if to crush him with her two heavy fists. ``I'm not about to let you sink your fangs into anyone tonight.''
``B-B-But I h-heard she's...''
``She's forty-five year's old, Vinnie,'' Doris said.
``And s-sexy. I h-h-heard she's s-sexy.''
``Sexy like a spider,'' Doris said. ``If you ask me I think she looks like a whore.''
I cringed. Vinnie's grin broadened.
``Y-Yeah?'' he said, rubbing the palms of his hands together. ``W-Where is s-s-she?''
``She's not here, Vinnie,'' Doris said, grabbing his arm and maneuvering him towards the door. ``Go home.''
``Not h-here?'' Vinnie said, stopping short, his watery eyes flickering with doubt.
``She isn't working tonight. If you're going to be a blood hound, at least, check the schedule before you start howling.''
``Oh Doris,'' the man moaned. ``Y-You s-s-sure she's not here?''
``It's just the three of us, Vinnie,'' Doris said. ``Now will you please leave before we all get in trouble. Someone reports you to Mario and he'll scold us for letting you in.''
Then, Vinnie squinted at me, a suspicious look coming into his eyes. ``A-Are y-y-you M-Mario's s-s-spy?'' he asked.
``No, he's not Mario's spy,'' Doris said, letting out an exasperated sigh. ``He's the new overnight baker.''
``He got shot, Vinnie. Remember?''
``Oh, yeah,'' Vinnie mumbled, his shoulder's sagging a little as he leaned against the woman, the stink of his unbathed body growing as it the room's heat warmed him after his wandering outside.
``Vinnie, I'm warning you,'' Doris said, pushing him off her with both hands. ``Mario told me if you're a pain in the ass I should call the city police. You don't want to spend the night in jail again, and get yourself beat up like you did last time.''
Vinnie turned, the way a hunted fox might turn when hearing the bay of hounds, his eyes suddenly wary, and his limbs stiffening to run.
``Y-You w-w-would do th-that, w-w-would y-you, Doris?'' he asked. ``Y-You st-still like m-me, d-d-don't you?''
``Yeah, I like you, Vinnie,'' Doris said, her voice losing some of its harshness. ``But Mario doesn't, and I need this job to feed my kids. So go away. Leave us alone. Don't go pulling any of your usual tricks around here.''
``T-Tricks?'' Vinnie said, a little of his previous humor returning.
``You know what I mean, Vinnie. You're always trying to make people feel sorry for you, especially the new people who don't know what kind of pain in the ass you can be. Well, I'm warning you, it won't work. Not with the new baker here, not with Sophie, because I'm going to tell them both all about you, and keep them from getting themselves mixed up with you the way the rest of us have.''
Again, Vinnie deflated, looking now exactly like the others outside, his eyes losing any sense of self worth they had contained coming in. I'd seen hundreds like him in the Outlands, scrambling for any crumb of importance, whether it was a job sweeping a tavern's sidewalk, or one cleaning toilets. Out there, a job defined a person, investing a person with a sense of belonging that most lacked. Some even licked the boots of the gangs just not to be alone.
``You're a b-bitch, D-D-Doris,'' he said and hick-upped, then licked his sore lips. ``I n-need another d-d-drink.''
``You need sleep,'' Doris said. ``And a bath. Why don't you go home and sober up?''
``I n-need a dr-drink,'' Vinnie said, this time more vehemently.
Then, Doris tilted her head, something flashing in her own dull eyes. ``Say, Vinnie. You own a car, don't you?''
The idea that Vinnie owned a car, surprised me, though thinking on it, I imagined it was not the kind of vehicle I would trust to drive far day or not, an unshielded rusting piece of pre-wall mechanics, no armor or defensive weapon, the kind of rust-bucket Outland kids often took pot shots at.
``S-Sure I d-do,'' he said, again with the odd pride. ``A Cadillac.''
``You're not serious considering riding home with him?'' I asked, drawing one more dark glance from Vinnie.
``What choice have I got?'' Doris asked. ``If I don't get a ride home, my kids will be all alone.''
``It's long dark ride home,'' I said. ``And in that bucket, you might not survive.''
``Now y-you j-j-just hold on th-there!'' Vinnie protested. ``I k-know how t-t-to dr-drive.''
``Maybe,'' I said. ``But do you know how to duck bullets, too?''
``Don't get him riled up, Lance. I need him, even if it means riding through a target shoot.''
``All right,'' I mumbled and went back to cutting donuts.
``You promise me a ride, I'll let you sleep in the back,'' Doris told Vinnie. But he shook his head.
``I d-don't w-w-want to sl-sleep, I w-w-want a dr-drink.''
``Fine, get your drink,'' Doris said. ``But you better not get yourself killed out there or come back here drunk. I don't need no drunk man driving me home tonight.''
Vinnie gave her another missing-tooth grin, then wandered back out towards the door, Doris pressing the security code that let him out from behind the counter. Then, out beyond the glass, he vanished into the sea of similar faces, indistinguishable from the mass of gray faced unwashed faces that had made up their minds to beg coffee. Doris shouted through the small round speaker for them to leave or she'd call the police. They looked at her, and then followed Vinnie out, neither insulted nor surprised by their rejection.
``That poor son of a bitch,'' Doris said, returning to the kitchen where she retrieved a pack of cigarettes from top of the refrigerator. Her hands shook as she struck the match, igniting the cigarette. Then, she leaned back against the door, sucking in the smoke, letting it out again in a series of slow breaths.
``He seems like he might have a sad story,'' I said. ``But then I've learned that they all do.''
``Not like his,'' Doris said. ``That was once a happy man, a man you would love to know. One of those working stiffs who just got along with everybody. Even the street people liked him, partly because he fed them or gave them work, partly because he treated them like human beings. Some of the gangs even looked out for him and his family, making sure his wife and kids got free passage through the Outlands. He ran a small deli over on the north side. I was in it once. The smell knocked you out. He could cook carrots and make them smell as good as steak.''
``So what happened?'' I asked.
``His family got gunned down.''
``But I thought you said the gangs left him alone.''
``The feds didn't. They came in on one of their usual paranoid invasions, shooting it out with one of the richer communities on that side of the town. They seemed to think the rich residents were holding on to their taxes -- as if that was anything new. Well, down came their helicopters, shooting up the neighborhood, shooting up any thing in or out of that place. It just happened that his wife was making a delivery, their van rolling out the gate just as the shooting started.''
``It wasn't armored?''
``Sure, against bullets. But you know how the feds are when they come into town, bringing in heavy explosives. They destroyed half the neighborhood, leveling buildings to the ground. I guess they thought the delivery van was some sort of counter attack. They leveled that, too. Poor Vinnie didn't have enough pieces to bury.''
``So he fell apart?'' I asked.
``A little at a time. I don't think he saw it until the neighborhood association ordered a trial, and condemned him for threatening the property values. They foreclosed on his property and put him out. God knows how he managed to survive. A lot of the street people took him in, helped him recovered -- though he's never been the same, wandering from place to place, looking to make a living.''
``So now he works here? I'm surprised Mario had such a big heart.''
``Mario hasn't,'' Doris said. ``But he knows the people around here love Vinnie. Try and fire someone they love and see how long it takes for you business to go up in flames.''
``Well, I don't feel sorry for him,'' the girl said, barging in from the front with another tray of dirty dishes. ``He's disgusting and he smells and I wish Mario would give him a job someplace else so we wouldn't have to deal with him.''
``Oh shush, girl,'' Doris said. ``You're too young to be talking like that.''
``No I'm not either,'' the girl said. ``Everybody in my neighborhood feels the way I do about these -- people,'' she said.
``Then why are you working out here if you find it all so disgusting?'' I asked.
``Because my parents thought it would provide me with a good education.''
``Ah,'' I said. ``Put a little fear of the devil in you.''
``What's wrong with that?'' she asked indignantly.
``Nothing, I suppose. I just hope you never find yourself on the wrong side of the wall. You wouldn't survive.''
``Like that girl friend of yours?''
``Yeah,'' I said, sagging a little. ``Like her.''
``Well, I won't. Because I'll never do anything that would give my association any reason to get rid of me.''
``I'm sure,'' I said. ``I suppose you hate Vinnie because he's on the wrong side of the glass, eh?''
``Yes,'' she said. ``I don't like the way any of them look at me, like I'm some kind of meal.''
``Vinnie looks at all women that way,'' Doris said. ``But you don't have to worry. He's got his mind set on Sophie now.''
``I pity her,'' the girl said.
``Don't. She knows the ropes. She lives in the Outlands.''
``Another one?'' the girl said indignantly, glancing at me, Doris, and then at the room as if expecting a host of roaches to flood out from the walls. ``Is Mario going to hire all Outsiders now?''
``I'm not an Outsider,'' Doris said.
``Not technically,'' the girl answered. ``But neighborhoods down in that part of town aren't very discriminating.''
``Watch yourself, child,'' Doris said, only half kiddingly. ``I could take offense to your remarks. Go fill the sugar bowls before you say something else stupid.''
The girl glared for a moment, but wiped her wet hands and marched to the front. Doris looked up at me, her eyes heavy and sad.
``She's not a bad child,'' Doris said. ``It's that bloody neighborhood of hers, so prim and proper. They got money enough to fight off the feds if they had to. Those kind of people ought to spend a year outside their walls just to learn what it's like.''
``They know what it's like,'' I said. ``That's why they hate it. They know what's out here. They want to keep the wall between them and us.''
``You're hard, Lance,'' Doris said. ``You have no sympathy for people, no sense of compassion.''
``Not for them,'' I said. ``I've spent too many years around them and I know how they think. That girl out there won't ever change. She'll break first. If the wall crumbles, she'll die of fright, but she'll never come to love or even like the people here, or think of us as people.''
The girl came back, carrying several bowls, from which she and Doris issued sugar to the take out crowd, her face so constricted she might have eaten a slice of lemon. Her gaze suggested she had overheard at least a little of what I'd said, and had changed her opinion of me. She did not speak until she went to the bin, where the bulk of the sugar was kept. She opened the top, then peered in, letting out a low gasp.
``Oh no,'' she said.
``What is it?'' Doris asked.
``We're out of sugar.''
``Nonsense,'' Doris said. ``Mario keeps fifty pound bags of it in back. Why don't you get us a bag, Lance-honey, you wouldn't want either of us to strain something important carrying it here?''
``Yeah,'' I said, putting down my roller again. ``You're twice as strong as I'll ever be, Doris. But I'll be a gentleman and get the bag for you.''
Wiping my hands on my apron, I crossed the room to the stock room door, flicking on the light as I entered. The office door stood at the far end, its security lock flashing a warn at me as its sensors read my body heat. On the right wall, Mario had constructed shelves for the large bags of mixes, bending, cracking shelves that would sooner or later crumble under the weight. I walked from one end to the other looking for the familiar blue bag that distinguished the coffee sugar from the other varieties, but could find none. Even after a second, more thorough search, produced nothing. I went back to the kitchen shaking my head.
``Sorry, girls,'' I said. ``Couldn't find anything.''
``There must be,'' Doris said, her voice rising in pitch.
``It's not with the mixes, I checked twice.''
``Oh boy,'' Doris mumbled. ``We're in trouble.''
``I don't see a need for panic just because we ran out of sugar,'' I said.
``You don't work the counter,'' Doris said. ``These people all take their coffee light and sweet.''
``Someone should call Barbara,'' the girl said.
Neither she nor Doris looked at me, but I knew what they meant.
``Ah, come on!'' I said. ``It's my first night.''
``It'll win you some brownie points,'' Doris said, pushing a coin into the palm of my hand. ``Besides, Barbara would really go for you. She likes the strong silent type.''
``She likes any type,'' the girl said. ``As long as its male.''
``Make the call, Lance,'' Doris said, glancing over her shoulder as the light above the door indicated newly arriving customers. She headed for the counter, followed by the again-amused neighborhood girl, who grinned a little at my discomfort.
``Damn you, both,'' I mumbled and fitted the coin into the phone, searching the list of telephone numbers tabled to the wall just above: Anthony's home phone listed first followed by Mario's and finally Barbara's, all in faded ink. I punched in Barbara’s number, but the phone responded with a busy signal.
``Well?'' Doris asked, as she shoved a container of coffee into the serving window, slamming shut her side as the customer opened his, coffee spilling out the air holes of the cup. The man squawked but Doris ignored.
``Busy,'' I said, hanging the receiver back on its hook.
``That's no good, you're going to have to call Mario,'' the girl said from further down the counter, where she served several of the sit down customers through similar windows. ``We need that sugar.''
``And I need this job,'' I said. ``Did you see the way he looked when he left here? He'll bite my head off.''
``And we need our jobs,'' Doris said. ``We don't get that sugar, we might not have a store. It doesn't take much to set off a riot around here. Call him.''
I redeposited the coin, then squinted at the number on the list above the phone, hearing my resignation with each melodious number and the ring on the other end. It rang for nearly a half dozen times before a gruff voice answered.
``Who the hell is this?'' Mario asked.
``You're new overnight baker,'' I said softly.
``What the fuck do you want?''
``We're out of sugar.''
``So where's Barbara?''
``Her line's busy.''
Mario said nothing for a moment, though I could hear his harsh breathing on the other end.
``The bitch,'' he said finally. ``I'll call Tony.''
``I could do it myself if I had his number,'' I said, trying to be helpful.
``You can't,'' Mario said. ``He's on a side band. I'll call him. You just sit tight.''
And just like that, he hung up, Doris and the counter girl staring questioningly at me as a new breed of patron piled through the front door. I shook my head, and stared the customers, clean cut characters in designer clothing -- bright purples and oranges that had become fashionable driving wear for inlander motorcycle riding clubs. During my cross country jaunt from New York, I had seen hundreds such characters, driving hundreds color-coordinated motorcycles, bullet proof bubbles shimmering in the sunlight as the roared along the roadways in groups of a hundred. Seeing them here, struck me as very strange. I had not thought them an inner city phenomena, since the real Outlands gangs of the cities tended to be better armed than the farm belt gangs. Nor would I have expected their kind to come to such a run down place as this, where they might dirty their designer clothing with grease or blood.
Some of them looked at me through the window, laughing at me with their eyes, the way the wall people had laughed during my departure from my home neighborhood back in New York, wondering what a clean-cut character like me was doing here, working like I did. Most of them came out of the business district somewhere, working white collar jobs in the tall, downtown towers. They came out for joy rides at night, roaring through the impoverished streets, defying the street gangs with their numbers, many of them staggering as they settled at the counter, joking and jostling and obviously drunk. Many of them eyed the counter girl's tight uniform, and though they did not masturbate on the glass the way the outland gang had earlier, their gazes suggested they were willing to do other things, things they could never get away with behind the walls of their neighborhoods. Again and again, Doris bellowed, ordering them to behave or get out. They only laughed, and made obscene gestures, drawing a helpless look from Doris in my direction. I wiped my hands, then felt behind my back for my 357, easing it out of its holster, depositing it on the shelf just over the bench and perfectly visible through the window. I saw several eyes go round, and heard several of the spoiled kids hushing their friends.
``I don't believe them,'' Doris said, after serving them coffee and donuts. ``Those are supposed to be the civilized people.''
``I don't think they're so bad,'' the counter girl said, following behind Doris.
``Just like the boys back home, eh?'' I said.
``That's right,'' the girl snapped. ``What's wrong with that?''
``They're spoiled brats, coming out here to show off.''
``They can't very well ride in their neighborhoods,'' she said. ``There's no room.''
``There would be room if they didn't live behind walls.''
``Oh, grow up!'' the girl growled and marched back towards the front, where she seemed to feel more comfortable at the moment.
``You shouldn't be so hard on her,'' Doris told me. ``She can't help the way she's been brought up.''
``I'm not blaming her or her parents,'' I said. ``But if someone doesn't say something, she'll go on believing she and her kind of masters of the universe. It's hurts when someone later bursts her bubble with machine-gun bullets. You know the gangs have been overrunning neighborhoods back east.''
``That's back east,'' Doris said. ``It doesn't mean it'll happen here.''
``That kind of thing always spreads,'' I said.
The girl came back into the kitchen laughing, basking in the glow of the new crowds attention, their raucous hilarity carrying through the glass grills like cackling crows. I could see their gestures even though the girl could not, as obscene in their meaning as the other gangs had been.
``What are you shaking your head at?'' the girl asked, glancing at me from the sink.
``Nothing,'' I mumbled and continued with my work.
A half hour later, the Inland gang had gone, and Tony's flushed face appeared as he stumbled through the front door, breathless from carrying four heavy bags of sugar up the ramp. Doris buzzed him in. He dropped the bags on the bench.
``I don't believe any of this,'' he said. ``I'm delivering sugar here while my uncle sleeps. I don't get paid extra for this. I don't get a piece of the profits. But I have to risk my life finding a twenty four hour convenience store.''
``Ah, toots,'' Doris said. ``You are a life saver.''
``I'm a fool,'' Tony said. ``I should tell Uncle Mario where to stick this job of his, and I would, if my father wouldn't disown me.''
``What does your father have to do with anything?'' the counter girl asked.
``He's the one who talked Uncle Mario into giving me this job, telling my uncle I needed to get out into the real world so I appreciated what I had inside.''
``He's right,'' I said, drawing a hateful stare from Tony.
``What the hell do you know?'' he said. ``None of my friends work in the Outlands. They don't have to risk their lives. The real world? This isn't the real world? It's hell, and the police or feds should take a bulldozer to it so that decent people don't have to feel like we're locked up all the time.''
``The locks are on the inside of the walls,'' I said. ``You can come out any time you want.''
This time Tony's stare was accompanied by a shudder. ``God forbid,'' he said. ``Now is that all you want? Can I go back to my date now?''
``Where is she?'' the counter girl asked, straining her neck to catch a glimpse of the woman through the layers of glass, though all any of us could see in the parking lot was the silver side of the armored van. ``Out there''
``Of course she's out there and I've got to get back to her before one of the rascals around here knocks on the window and gives her a heart attack,'' Tony said, smoothing down his hair with his palms like a 1950s greaser. ``So far she's thought this whole thing a romantic lark. But she's bound to get scared once the shooting starts, unless I can occupy her with more interesting things. I'd like to find a place where she won't notice all the riffraff.''
``Where exactly are you going to find a place like that?'' I asked. ``They're not going to let you into the prisons. Not even a neighborhood prison.''
``Stop being such a grouch,'' Doris said. ``Tony doesn't mean any harm. He's just a boy, looking to do things boys do.''
``Why don't you bring her in here so we can have a look at her?'' the counter girl said.
``In here?'' Tony said with a heavy emphasis on here. ``I wouldn't bring my worst enemy in this dump.''
``Then where you planning to go?'' I asked.
``I know a place,'' Tony said with a glint in his eyes. ``A dark little niche up along the heights...''
``Lovers look out?'' the counter girl said. ``You can't bring that kind of woman to a place like that.''
``You'll get mugged, Tony,'' Doris said. ``I've heard scary things about that place. The gangs take it over at night.''
``You think they're going to bother us in a tank like the van?'' Tony laughed. ``Uncle Mario might be cheap, but he wants his donuts delivered, and that thing can take a beating. Even if the gang's take pot shots up there, they aren't going to disturb us, and she won't even notice if I have her in the right mood. If you know what I mean.''
``Really, Tony,'' the counter girl said in a huff. ``I thought you were better than that.''
Tony glanced at her. ``And you're too young to be jealous, little girl,'' he said.
``I'm not jealous!'' the counter girl snapped. ``And I'm not a little girl.''
``You are to me,'' Tony said. ``Now I've got to go. Just do me a favor. Don't call my uncle again. Unless it's a dire emergency. I don't want to be disturbed.''
``Go, already,'' Doris said with a stiff wave of her hand. ``We'll try not to break up your little love nest. None of us like disturbing Mario when he's in this kind of mood.''
``Yeah, I know,'' Tony said. ``But you're not related to him. The most he can do to you is fire you. Well, good night.''
Tony paused long enough to survey the store, shuddering a little as he glanced at the counter, where weary prostitutes and down-and-out drug dealers hovered over steaming cups of sugarless coffee, each seemingly carved out of stone, each with an expression so lacking in hope the room darkened around them. For a moment, I saw the twinkle in Tony's eyes fade, replaced not by sadness, but annoyance. He grumbled to himself, jabbed viciously at the door release, then plunged out from behind the glass, shoving his way through the few bums huddled on the ramp.
``He's going to grow up just like his uncle,'' I said, drawing a dubious stare from Doris.
``How can you say that?'' she asked. ``He's nothing like Mario. He's irresponsible and carefree.''
``And used to having money,'' I said. ``Time will mold him. He'll grow bitter and greedy, and learn that he can't make money by selling stock to Insiders. As always, the real money is out here, in the real world, or in the poorer neighborhoods like yours. He may not sell donuts for a living, but he'll find some niche. All his kind do, sooner or later. And the rest of us suffer for it.''
We watched the van through the glass the way we had the first time, though the van swayed as it rushed down towards the street, clouds of smoke testifying to its impatience, smoke that did not totally dissipate even after the van had gone, mingling with the growing fog, seemingly making it thicker.
``It's going to be a bad night out there,'' Doris said. ``Once the fog's up anything can happen.''
I nodded. The counter girl stared for a long time after the van, her eyes wide and sad and vexed, her thin lips pressed so tight they nearly vanished. Only when the telephone jangled did she look up.
``That'll be Mario,'' Doris yelled, having moved back into the front to serve a few of the stragglers. ``He'll be checking up on Tony. Answer it, toots.''
``I curse you, Doris,'' I moaned, then snatched the receiver from its hook, fully expecting to hear the grumbling Mario, only to hear the accented voice of Yolla instead.
``You tell Doris I be little later than I say,'' she told me.
``Doris,'' I called, holding the receiver to my chest. ``It's Yolla again. She says she'll be an hour later than she thought.''
``An hour?'' Doris moaned. ``But that means she'll get in here at midnight. I have to be home by then.''
I relayed the message to the woman on the phone, heard her nails clicking on the mouth piece, then I heard her sigh.
``All right,'' she said. ``I try to come before that.''
Then, she hung up.
Outside, the night slowed as the fog thickened and moved inland from the lake, crawling up the shores and through the city, its thick white fur dulling the sharp edges of the Outlands, erasing the distinctions between this world and the world nestled behind the walls. The white became a wall of a different sort, one that made Inlander and Outlander equally vulnerable, bringing out the primitive fears in each of us. I watched the white devour each building. I watched people vanish as they walked, my fingers clutching the sides of the work bench, struggling to keep myself from vanishing, too.
Then, I noticed the lights, shafts flickering from the hollows of darkened doorways, the garage style doors of factories, the deep set doors of gateless stores, even from the shallow doors to bolted apartments -- all from tiny fires lighted by desperate people. I could not see the shapes huddled around each, but knew they were there, shadows of men and women -- and children fighting the darkness with the most primitive weapon of all, fighting back the bite of winter with scraps of newspaper and cloth, each hoping to survive to see another rising sun.
The counter girl returned from the front, now collecting all the things she had previously piled and washed in the sink.
``How you get so annoyed when Tony calls you a little girl?'' I asked.
She stopped and stared at me, her gaze hard and suspicious, wondering if I was mocking her.
``I'm serious,'' I said. ``It doesn't seem that big an insult.''
`Not to you,'' she said. ``You're not in love with someone who thinks he's too old for you.''
``How old is he?''
``That's none of your business,'' she said and started towards the front again, balancing too many items on too small a tray.
``I didn't mean to insult you, I'm just curious.''
She put the tray down on the edge of the work bench, still studying my face. ``All right,'' she said softly. ``I'm sixteen. I'll been seventeen in June. I told Tony I would be eighteen, but he took a look at my application and told me I was lying.''
``Well, you were lying, weren't you?''
``That's not the point,'' the girl said, taking on an indignant air. ``Tony cheated. That's not the way the game is played.''
``You know,'' she said, waving a hand in the air. ``You used to live behind the wall, and know how we do things there.''
``I'm not sure I do know,'' I said, lying, having heard this same story again and again back east, girls and boys like this girl and Tony, complaining about violations of unwritten laws, not one of those girls or boys understanding the world in which they lived, and how they and their seeking love had hit upon the great social flaw of our time: unwritten verses written laws. Years ago, before I was born, we had many more unwritten laws, things that bound people, that kept them corralled, things saying what people could do and not do without having to pass some legislature. People didn't blast their stereos at night. People held doors for each other, or helped each other into chairs. Little things forming the glue of society, that allowed people to come and go, to greet each other, to keep from killing each other on sight, stealing those small irritations that sets people at each others throats.
I'm not sure at what point those laws stopped or if they ever did, though most people stopped listening to them, insisting that laws be written down instead, challenging the boundaries of each others personal space, bumping each other on the street, cutting each other off on the highway, drinking in the street, fornicating in the street, doing whatever they wanted in what ever space people once considered common ground, saying that if it isn't illegal, they can do it.
Then, the written laws stopped meaning anything, too. People ran red lights. Ceased paying taxes. Shoplifted. Used Drugs. Sped down the highways. Now, it was a matter of getting caught, a roulette of individualism verses authority. But violation of small laws led to violation of big laws, then now laws at all. People bought guns to protect themselves because the police couldn't keep up with the violations. Then, people -- now irritated by violation of big and little laws, written and unwritten, started enforcing their own sense of laws, shooting each other on the streets, killing those who cursed them, robbed them, or looked at them funny.
Finally, when it became clear that no one could totally agree on what law was or who should obey them, people put up walls -- rich people at first, fencing themselves off from what they saw as constant attack: the poor seeking to steal from the rich. But then, after a while, everyone put up walls. In New York City, where I came from, many of the old neighborhoods declared themselves tiny city states, with the gays of the West Village walling their neighborhood off, and the intellectuals of NYU walling their neighborhood, and the Artists of Soho, and the old wealth of Gramercy Park. Gradually the concept spread out of the cities, to where whole towns in New Jersey or New Hamshire or New Mexico, put up walls around what had originally been invisible boundaries, arming each with guard and guns, obeying the rules of the county, state and federal governments only when those entities produced enough fire power to make them acquiesce.
``Then you're stupid,'' the girl said. ``That's probably how you got hurt with that girl back east.''
``Maybe,'' I said. ``But you just said Tony didn't know how to play either. Does that mean he's going to get hurt, too?''
``You bet,'' the girl said, her eyes full of fury, ready to add something when Doris barged through the door from the front.
``We have another problem,'' she said.
``It can't be sugar,'' the girl said. ``Tony brought enough to last us a month.''
Doris help up the deflated silver bag that had once held coffee.
``This was the last one,'' she said.
``That's bullshit,'' I said. ``I saw hundreds in the back.''
``Locked up, toots,'' Doris said. ``Mario treats it like old. He's convinced if he leaves too much out night, one of us is going to walk off with it, or someone will come in a rob us for that.''
``Looks like we're going to have to call someone who has a key,'' the counter girl said.
``Who has the key?'' I asked.
``Barbara, Mario, and Tony,'' Doris said. ``It's a shame we didn't know when Tony was here or he could have gotten us a bag or two.''
Both women looked at me, and then at the phone.
``Oh, no,'' I said. ``I did it last time. Find some other poor sucker to do your dirty work.''
``Don't be a sissy,'' the counter girl teased.
``You didn't hear Mario's voice last time,'' I said. ``He wasn't happy with my calling.''
``Nobody's asking you to call Mario,'' Doris said.
``Yet,'' I said.
``Oh, don't worry,'' the counter girl said. ``Barbara's bound to be off the phone by now.''
``And if she isn't?'' I asked.
``Just call,'' Doris said, pressing a coin into my hand.
But when I rang up the number, the phone still bleated at me with its busy signal. I shook my head.
``Then you're going to have to call Mario,'' Doris said. ``A lot good the sugar will do us if we don't have coffee to put it in.''
``You could try selling tea,'' I suggested.
``To the overnight crowd?'' Doris said, shaking her head. ``No way. They'll tear down the walls with their fingernails, and lynch us.''
``You exaggerate,'' I said.
``Look at them,'' Doris said, pointed towards the window and the grotesque faces of the remaining few who sat at the counter clutching their cups, glaring back at me through the glass.
``What if we sort of -- broke into the cabinet?'' I asked.
``Even if we could get passed the locks and alarms, Mario would have our heads, convinced we made the whole thing up about running out so we could steal him blind. Make the call, Lance, and stop arguing.''
I took a deep breath and punched out the now-familiar number, listening as the phone rang, a ring I knew must have sounded incredibly loud on the other end. Then, Mario's voice exploded in my ear.
``Who is this?''
``You're overnight baker.''
``Again?'' Mario boomed. ``What the hell do you want now?''
``We're out of coffee.''
``Apparently not enough was left out.''
``Are you sure?'' Mario said sounding more awake this time and more suspicious.
``You can ask Doris,'' I said. ``Since none of us have the key...''
``All right, I get the picture. Has Tony been there yet?''
``What do you want us to do?''
``Nothing. Just stay put. I'll raise Tony on the sideband. He shouldn't be too far away.''
Vinnie blew in through the front door like a sheet of old newsprint, bumping into the door jam before finding his way inside, one step sideways for every two steps straight ahead. He stopped and glared in at me through the window, squinting a little as if I had invaded his turf, not completely sure where or when he had seen me before.
``You're drunk!'' Doris yelled as she hit the door release that allowed him behind the counter, and he, making the transition from outside in with the same stumbling dexterity as he had the front door, banding into the glass on one side, then the other, and then bumping off the door itself as the lock reattached itself during the interval.
``Open up!'' he shouted and banged on the glass.
``I did,'' Doris shouted back, but hit the lock release again, though this time, held the door open for Vinnie to slid in. ``You're a son of a bitch, Vinnie, coming back like this. What's the matter with you anyway?''
``N-N-Nothing's the m-matter with m-me!'' he said, grabbing hold of the door sill between the kitchen and behind the counter, shifting from side to side as if standing on the deck of a ship.
``Aren't you ever sober?'' Doris moaned.
``I a-ain't dr-drunk.''
``Like hell you aren't. You smell like a brewery. You lucky you didn't drive into the lake or a wall or get your silly head shot off by gangs taking target practices.''
Vinnie grinned, revealing his mouth full of blackening teeth. ``Th-They c-couldn't s-s-see me in the f-f-fog,'' he said.
``So how the hell are you supposed to drive me home like that?'' Doris asked, her hands pressing in on her tent of a dress near where her hips should have been.
Again, Vinnie grinned, his smile as sad as another man's frown. ``I c-can dr-drive,'' he boasted.
``Yeah, and all the neighborhoods are going to swing open their gates in the morning and hand out food to the poor,'' Doris said, leading the man away from the door, leaning him against the side of the silver refrigerator. ``Just stay put. So I can get some coffee into you.''
``I d-don't w-w-want to st-stay p-put, and I d-don't w-w-want no c-coffee!''
He shook himself free of Doris' grasp the way a mangy dog shakes off a collar, glaring at me again, his dark eyes full of fury and pain, though I doubted he understood much of what went on even in his own head. I could smell the street oozing off him, oil, grease, gasoline and booze, mixing with the more human scent of sweat, urine and feces. He might have laid down in someone's shit or pissed in his pants without knowing, or he might have picked up the smell from hovering over some trash can fire, rubbing shoulders with the street's nobility, men -- if it was possible -- worse off than he was, hurting more than he was, feeling less important that he did.
``Fine!'' Doris said. ``You don't want coffee. Then what do you want? It's not eleven o'clock yet.''
A subtly different grin touched Vinnie's face.
`I w-want her,'' he sputtered. ``I w-want to know w-w-where you're hiding h-her!''
``Hiding who?'' Doris said, her thin brows knitting into a frown.
``For Godsake, Vinnie. You can't still be stalking Sophie?"
``I th-thought s-she might h-have s-s-topped by.''
``Nobody's that crazy,'' Doris said with a sigh. ``Only you would come around this place when not scheduled.''
``I think y-you're lying. I th-think you j-j-just don't want me to s-see her.''
Doris groaned and glanced at me. ``Will somebody please shake some sense into this man,'' she said.
I said nothing, yet still drew Vinnie's wrathful stare. He seemed to read something in my eyes that I could not see, some sense of pain or brotherhood I lacked awareness about. He read off my face my own painful searching, when I -- in a condition not so different from his -- had wandered the streets of Manhattan in search of my own Sophie, asking frightful men about her as I went from dark bar to dark bar.
``M-Maybe he w-w-wants to keep her for h-himself!'' Vinnie suggested, poking his dirty forefinger finger under my nose.
``Sure, Vinnie,'' Doris said, knocking his hand away as she turned the wretched man around. ``He's got nothing better to do than steal whores from you.''
She looked him over and shook her head.
``You're a pitiful sight, Vinnie'' she said in a voice so soft she might have been his mother scolding him for getting dirty after school. ``If I didn't need a ride from you, I'd call the cops and have the city put you away for the night.''
``Th-The cops wouldn't arrest me,'' Vinnie said.
``Not normally,'' Doris admitted. ``Not with all the better bait riding around out there. But the beat boys owe me a favor. All I have to do is ask.''
``Th-Then w-why d-d-don't you?'' Vinnie asked.
``Because I need the ride, damn it, and you're going to have some coffee if I have to pour it down your throat,'' Doris said, glancing up at me. ``Could you help drag this lump of lard into the stock room. Maybe if he sleeps a little before we dump caffeine in him, he'll be sober enough to drive by the time I get off.
``No!'' Vinnie shouted, shoving her away. ``I d-don't want to s-s-sleep. I j-just w-w-want to see S-Sophie!''
``Sophie's not here!'' Doris screamed, her face vivid red, as her fingers closed around Vinnie's crumbling collar and shook him.
For a long time, he and Doris stayed like that, his shoulders pressed against the side of the refrigerator, her face inches from his. Then, he sagged, his gaze covering over a little, seeming to take on a bit of the fog that climbed around the building outside. He shook free of her grasp, straightened himself, then stumbled towards the door, banging at the lock release until it buzzed for him and the locks snapped open letting him free.
``Where the hell are you going now?'' Doris demanded, though her voice sounded a little flat. ``What about my ride?''
``I'll b-be back,'' he said, voice muffled with the closing front door.
``He's going to drive into the lake,'' Doris mumbled.
The little man came in from the foggy night like a shy child, his black derby pulled down over his balding head so that the brim just touched his brows, brows that framed a deepening frown.
``Excuse me, miss,'' he said, the weariness sounding even through the ordering speaker.
Doris stopped in mid-transaction, her fingers poised above the open cash register, then closed into fists.
``Oh boy,'' she mumbled. ``Just the thing I need to make my night. What do you want, toots? We still don't have soda or ice tea.''
``Oh, that's quite all right,'' the little man said. ``I got my crew to change their order.''
With shaking fingers, the little man unfolded a piece of paper upon which he had written his order, pencil scratches marking out the number along side each item. Squinting through the double layers of glass, I could just make out the inscription for several varieties of coffee from light & sweet to black without sugar. The list displayed several teas as well.
``A hundred and fifty seven coffees?'' Doris said, her voice booming so that even the nodding fellows at the far end of the counter stirred. ``How about all tea?''
The little man's frown deepened.
``I do believe everything is quite clearly written...''
``You miss the point, toots,'' Doris said. ``We're out of coffee.''
It took a moment for this news to register, the little man staring at Doris with a puzzled expression on his face, an expression that slowly turned into a squeaky laugh.
``Oh, you're joking,'' he said and pressed the note into the glass service box, closing his side of the door in expectation of Doris' opening her side to complete the order.
``Afraid not,'' she said, making no move to open her side.
The derby did not move, but as the eyes widened, the man's brows disappeared under the brim.
``But you said...'' he started.
``I know what I said. We had coffee then. But we ran out.''
``How can you run out of coffee, too?'' the little man protested.
``It doesn't happen often,'' Doris said. ``Is there something else I can get you, if not tea?''
``You mean there's something you haven't run out of?''
``We've got donuts.''
The little man sighed, and mumbled to himself. ``I don't believe this. The crew is grumbling and threatening to walk out. I have to bring something back to them.'' Then, the man grew rigid. ``Donuts aren't the point here,'' he told Doris, jabbing his finger down on the outside lip of the counter. ``I run a business, too, and if I ran it like this, I'd soon be broke. Where is your manager?''
``At home in bed with the telephone glued to her ear,'' Doris said.
``And the owner? I demand to speak with the owner, then.''
``Mario?'' Doris said, glancing over at me as if trying to gauge if this was an important enough emergency to risk another phone call. I shook my head vehemently, mouthing as clearly as I could the single word: ``No.''
``Mario left order not to be disturbed,'' Doris told the little man. ``If you want, you can talk to him in the morning.''
``The morning will be too late,'' the little man insisted.
``Well then, I don't see how we can help you.''
``You can help me by giving me what I want!'' the little man screamed.
``But we don't have what you want!'' Doris bellowed back.
Then, they stared at each other through the glass like gun fighters, the little man's jaw twitching madly, as Doris's thick fingers drummed on the counter top. Finally, the little man's shoulders slumped, as he seemed to collapse in on himself, looking that much sadder and dismayed than he had.
``I suppose I could ask them if they want donuts,'' he mumbled.
``You do that, toots,'' Doris said. ``We'll be here all night, and we can't run out of donuts on you. We have our own baker right here in back.''
Whether the little man heard any of this, I couldn't tell, he turned and crawled through the door, losing himself in the now-thick fog, his black derby floating along in the white for a moment as if without a head or body.
The headlights wobbled up the driveway from the street, casting their high beams across the face of the donut shop like a police search light, the rumble of the wheels vibrating the building as it came to a squealing stop out front -- out front, not in the parking lot, the panicked driver leaping out the driver's side door and over the rail, landing badly outside the glass door.
Poor Tony did not look like Tony any more, hair ruffled, face flushed, lipstick on his collar along with the blood.
``What happened to you'' Doris asked, as she slammed the heal of her hand on the door release and caught him as he fell over his own feet -- more like Vinnie than himself.
``Don't ask,'' he moaned.
``Oh don't be like that, Tony,'' the counter girl asked. ``We deserve some sort of explanation for you're coming in like this.''
Her eyes flashed with a mixture of alarm and satisfaction, reminding me of the more sincere bowery preachers, who felt sorry for the street people, but thought them only getting their just rewards.
Tony glared at her, then at all of us, still breathless from his leap over the banister.
``Never mind what I owe you,'' he growled. ``You're the reason I'm like this -- you and your insistent calls to Uncle Mario.''
``Our calls didn't make you bleed,'' I said, studying Tony's wounds, a little blood showing in one of his nostrils, a little more near the corner of his mouth. Someone had roughed him up, but not enough to do real damage.
``Oh no?'' he said, glaring at me in particular. ``Tell that to my date. We were going hot and heavy when Uncle Mario's call came over the side band. She wanted me to ignore him, but my uncle started cursing up a storm, calling me every kind of jerk and idiot. I answered just to shut him up, and then he told me you people needed me back here and that was too much. My date said, no way, and threatened to get out of the van if I tried. I told her I had to come back, that something serious might have happened -- since you people told me you wouldn't call Uncle Mario unless something serious did happen. So I turned the key and she popped open the door and got out.''
``She got out in Lover's Lookout?'' the counter girl said, her face as shocked as if she had done it herself, eyes thick with images of horror. ``But didn't she get...''
``Almost,'' Tony said. ``The minute she stepped out onto the gravel, the pack of green-haired weirdoes were on her, smelling woman the way sharks smell blood. They had her skirt torn off before I could reach the van's defense system. I called out to them over the PA system, warning them that if they didn't let her go, I'd shoot. The van has the fire power. It could have blasted them all to hell. Except they noticed one small hitch in my plan. If I shot them, I also shot her. The gang laughed, then tore off her blouse -- she screaming the whole time, calling me nearly as many names as my uncle did.''
``So what did you do?'' the counter girl asked, her thin fingers up around her throat, touching the gap in her shirt, where other, frightening invisible fingers threatened to tear.
``What could I do? I got out.''
``You got out?'' I said. ``By yourself?''
``I couldn't just leave her out there,'' Tony said. ``I mean I'm the fool who brought here there in the first place, thinking I could make her and get somewhere later. If she got hurt, I couldn't go back to her neighborhood and face her father, I couldn't even face myself in the mirror.''
``But you could have gotten killed,'' Doris said. ``I've heard of people dying up there all the time.''
``I suppose so,'' Tony mumbled. ``Frankly I wasn't thinking much about that. I just got out with my electric club and started swinging out the son's of bitches. They didn't expect me to attack. They thought I would stay safe inside, call the police, and watch them have their fun. You should have seen the look on their faces when the first couple fell. They didn't know what to make of me. They didn't even react at first, which let me knock a few more down so that I could grab my date and drag her back in the van. I nearly got away with it, too, and would have if her bra hadn't caught on the door handle when I tried to push her in. Untangling her, allowed one of those son's of bitches to grab me from behind. I shouted for her to close the door and lock it, told her to call the police on the side band.''
``She locked you out?'' the counter girl did.
``I told her to.''
``I wouldn't have done that,'' she said.
``Like hell you wouldn't,'' I said. ``If you had been here or me or Doris, we would have locked every lock and rolled ourselves up in a corner of that van until the gang went away. It took guts for you to go out there, Tony. How did you get away?''
``Luck,'' Tony laughed. ``Pulling me back, the son of a bitch fell, and I fell on top of him, and then we wrestled in the dirt, him swinging at me, me swinging at him. I got a lucky punch into his stomach. He bowed over. I ran to the van, pounded on the door until my date let me in. Then, safe inside, I activated the whole defense system and started shooting, shooting everything that even looked a live as we high tailed it out of there.''
Tony paused, wiped the blood from his nose with his sleeve, then looked at Doris again. ``I kept thinking about you the whole way back, thinking how you must be getting robbed here or raped, and that you needed the van's fire power to fight off the attack. That's half of what kept me going. I felt like stopping on the side of the road to puke. I felt like driving my date home, and staying there behind the walls of her neighborhood, to have someone else do the fighting for me. But I came back. I thought you needed me. And then, I get here, and everything seemed perfectly all right. Is it? What did you call Uncle Mario for? Why was it so urgent that I come back here?''
``Coffee,'' Doris said. ``You uncle didn't think to leave enough out.''
Tony stared, first at Doris, then slowly at each of us, searching our faces with his gaze to determine if this was some sort of elaborate joke. When he decided against that, he got angry.
``You mean to tell me I went through all that because you couldn't live a few hours without coffee?'' he exploded.
``We're awfully sorry, Tony,'' the counter girl said, but didn't sound sorry, her eyes now glinting more than they had earlier.
``Well sorry isn't good enough,'' Tony said, recovering his breath as he glared at me and Doris and the girl. ``Not by a long shot. I'm through with this place and its problems. I'll get you your coffee now, but if there's another problem, I won't be back to solve it.''
With that, he barged through the kitchen to the stock room like a bull in search of china to break, returning with the same strident march, his arms full of silver bags which he dumped on my table.
``There,'' he said. ``That should hold you. If it doesn't, then go back and get more. I left the cabinet unlocked. I unlocked the office, too, and every other lock I could find back there. You can brew coffee until you drown in it, for all I care.''
``Hey, toots,'' Doris warned. ``I'd watch what you're doing around here. You're uncle's not going to be happy with you unlocking everything. Frankly, I'm not happy either since it's me he's going accuse of stealing if anything's missing.''
``So lock it up after I leave,'' Tony growled. ``I just don't want you calling me again.''
``Tony, I'm surprised at you,'' the counter girl said. ``What would your uncle say to all this?''
Tony, who had already turned to leave, stopped, his eyes glinting a little like a madman's, and his laugh sounded like a madman's laugh.
``Uncle Mario will lecture me about my future, telling me how I'm ruining myself with irresponsibility. But after tonight, I think I'm already ruined.''
``How?'' I asked, drawing Tony's painful stare.
``You know,'' he said. ``You've been on the wrong side of the wall long enough. I always thought life on my side of the wall was normal and good. I'm not so sure now.''
``You mean you'd want to live in the Outlands?'' the counter girl said, her face and voice thick with contempt.
``No,'' Tony mumbled. ``But I'm not sure I'll ever feel clean living on the inside again, knowing what stalks people out there. I guess maybe I'm starting to think it's not enough to protect ourselves, that somehow we have to go out and do something about what's out there, clean it up somehow, make it feel normal, too.''
``Good for you,'' I said.
Tony looked at me again. He did not appear grateful for my support.
``I don't think so,'' he grumbled. ``Before tonight I thought I was happy. Now I'm curse.''
``Where are you going now?'' the counter girl asked.
``To bring my date home,'' Tony said, ``and hope her father doesn't have me banished for nearly getting her killed.''
Then, without another look back, Tony turned, banged on the door release and fled back out of the store, parting the bums with both hands as if he was swimming through mud. We watched as he climbed the rail again and squeezed through the door of the van, slamming it shut in the face of the beggars. Gradually, the gears engaged and the van rolled back towards the street, its exhaust smoke now indistinguishable from the fog, its silver body soon swallowed up by the night.
``Well,'' Doris said, recovering one of the bags from where it had fallen on the floor. ``The boy wasn't too angry.''
``He didn't mean any of it,'' the counter girl said, still staring after the van, although it had long vanished. ``When Mario calls, Tony'll come running. Like he always does.''
Finally, the quiet came, part of that time of night when the energy runs out and the city slows down, and the people grind to a halt, nodding in place or settling into bed. At the counter, several junkies -- with face and body tattoos to hide the needle marks -- slumped forward against the glass, eyes and mouths distorted by their slumber. An old man, sporting an old-fashioned double barreled breech-loading shot gun, sipped his coffee calmly in between, as if nothing was wrong. Before the other empty stools, the litter from previous tenants remained, crumbled tissues, half empty cups, plastic spoons gnawed to pieces as an evening snack.
``This is the time I hate most,'' Doris staring alternately at the fog and the clock as she leaned against the door frame between the kitchen and the counter. The smell of frying donuts now filled the room, so sweet and unmistakable that even the junkies sniffed in their sleep, their tongue lolling out of their mouths as if they could taste the jelly.
``I thought it gave you a chance to catch up with your work,'' I said.
``It does. But it makes me think, too. When it's busy, there's no time for thinking.''
``What do you think about?''
``Everything,'' Doris said. ``Like I'm doing here, working in a place like this, traveling back and forth at night with all those crazies inbeween. What I'm doing bringing kids into a world like this, where they're not going to have it much better than I have it, where they're likely to get killed before they grow up. I've got two jobs, and live in a pretty decent neighborhood -- oh nothing like the place Tony lives in or her.''
Doris jerked her head towards the front and the counter girl who seemed to find small things to do, washing the inside of the window as if to erase the stains that dribbled down the outside.
``I'm not sure I could live in such a highfalutin place like theirs, but then, my neighborhood isn't as safe as theirs. We have a few guards, but no alarms, and we get broken into now and again. You'd think the gangs and thieves would pick on people who can afford to get burglarized. But poor live off the poor, or so they say. But I'm working, and working and never seem to get ahead. Even in my neighborhood, taxes for defense are skyrocketing. We spend more on bullets than we do on bread, and still three kids died last week, three kids shot -- maybe by accident, maybe for fun. But it's got us all scared. If there was a place for us to move, I'd move us there. But we don't have the options people like Tony or Mario do. Hell, most of their families moved out years ago, before the walls, before the massive killings, scared of the blacks and the Spanish, not of the violence.''
``I hear there are new communities opening up out west,'' I said. ``Maybe you could go there.''
``Out west?'' Doris said. ``Even if I could get us there without getting killed, who wants to live in a dessert with a bunch of hippies or communists?''
I laughed. ``It can't be worse than where you are or where things will be when the gangs overrun your neighborhood.''
``I don't know that. I don't know anything. That's the problem. I'm used to this misery. Why go through all that trouble to find out it's just as bad somewhere else.''
``It could be better.''
``And it could be a whole lot worse.''
``I suppose so,'' I said.
``What about you? Are you going west?'' Doris asked, her eyes narrowing a little as her voice conveyed some message I didn't want to hear, as if she would tag along if she had a man to lead her. I didn't want anyone tagging along with me, not after New York and all the trouble I'd seen there. I just wanted to find a place where I could lay my head and not have gun fire wake me up.
``Eventually,'' I said.
``It must be wonderful to pick up and go whenever you want.''
``It must look better than it feels,'' I said. ``When I was younger, I dreamed of having a house and family, and living in any neighborhood that would have me.''
``You're not restricted,'' Doris said. ``Even if you'd been put out of one place, you could find another that would take you in. You have a skill. You have a strong back. You can handle one of those.'' She indicated the revolver still on the window sill. ``Those are the kinds of things neighborhoods like.''
``Yeah,'' I said. ``But that kind of living has left bad taste in my mouth. People get too nosy, always looking in on what you're doing.''
``It's not a problem if you don't have something to hide,'' Doris said.
``Who doesn't have something to hide?''
``Me,'' Doris said, laughing. ``What you see is what you get. The problem is nobody wants me.''
``I'm sure that's not true,'' I said, then drew that same painful stare as before, one that made me look away in shame. The ringing telephone rescued me. We looked at it instead of each other. It seemed impatient, demanding an answer.
``What's the matter with you two,'' the counter girl yelled from the front. ``Can't you hear the phone ringing?''
``You handle it, Lance,'' Doris said, shuddering a little as if she expected bad news.
``Why me?'' I asked, my hands frozen on the rolling pin. ``I've been handling the phone chores all night. Why can't someone else take over.''
``Because you're used to it,'' Doris said. ``Telephones always mean something terrible has happened.''
I shook my head, then gave a tug on the phone wire, the handset tumbling off the wall and onto the flour-covered work table where I grabbed it up.
``Hello?'' I said, tentatively.
``Hello?'' a voice echoed on the other end. ``This is Yolla. I real sick. I not come in tonight.''
I relayed this information to Doris, whose eyebrows jerked up.
``Sick? How sick?''
``She says she's been vomiting since five o'clock.''
Doris seized the receiver out of my hand, cringing as her fingers came into contact with the flour.
``Hello! Hello!'' she shouted into the phone. ``The bitch hung up.''
``Do you want me to call he back?'' I asked.
``For what purpose? To have her puke in the phone to prove her point?'' Doris said, holding the receiver in front of her as if she couldn't figure out what she should do with it. ``I just don't know what to do now? Yolla was supposed to relieve me at ten. She said she would be late. That's fine. But for her not to come in at all, that's way too much. It won't do at all.''
``It means we have to call someone,'' she said, looking sharply up at me, shoving the phone in my direction.
``No,'' I said, refusing to take the receiver from her. ``You didn't hear Mario's voice that last time. He sounded peeved enough to want to fire somebody.''
``Nobody said you had to call Mario. Barbara's bound to be off the phone by now.''
``And if she isn't?''
``Just call and find out,'' Doris said, pushing the phone into my hands.
This time I wiped my hands on my apron, then dropped a coin into the phone, metal connecting with metal activating the dial tone. After punching out Barbara's number for the third time that night, I leaned against the table, phone wedged between my ear and shoulder. I expected to hear the busy signal, then glanced up sharply at Doris when ringing sounded on the far end instead. Finally, something clicked and Barbara's husky voice came on.
``I'm not home right now, but if you want to leave a message, just wait for the beep...''
I slammed the phone down.
``Well?'' Doris asked.
``Give me another coin,'' I said. ``I'll have to call Mario.''
A bear -- stirred of hibernation -- would have sounded more awake than the man who answered my call, the gruff, harsh voice mumbling into the mouthpiece so that I barely understood what he said.
``It's me,'' I said. ''Lance. Your overnight baker.''
``Huh? What time is it?''
``Just going on Eleven,'' I said.
``Eleven at night?'' he said, voice rising in pitch. ``You're calling me at eleven at night?''
``It can't be helped,'' I said.
``What the hell is wrong now?''
``Yolla called in sick. She says she's been vomiting since five.''
``So? Don't we have a bathroom she can puke in?''
``I guess she'd rather puke at home,'' I said.
``premadonna’s,'' Mario grumbled. ``That's what I got working for me, fucking premadonnas. All right. Just tell Doris to hold her horses. I'll give Tony a call.''
Both arms of the clock moved beyond the bullet holes, each tick drawing a moan from the clock-watching Doris.
``I don't believe this,'' she grumbled. ``I come all the way out here for a job, leaving my kids alone. I should be with them. I should be working near enough so this wouldn't happen. What's wrong with this world that makes people risk their lives for money?''
``Calm down, Doris,'' the counter girl said. ``Mario will take care of everything. He'll call Tony and Tony'll come to relieve you.''
``So you say,'' Doris said. ``But I'm not so sure. You saw the way Tony left here. He didn't look like the same man he was. What if he doesn't listen to his uncle this time. What if that drunken fool, Vinnie doesn't come back to give me a lift. I'll be sitting here twiddling my thumbs, while my the neighborhood confiscates my kids, outlawing me for leaving them alone, marking me down in their record books as a bad mother?''
``Tony'll come,'' the counter girl said. ``He always does.''
``I'll take you home if Vinnie doesn't show,'' I said.
``You?'' Doris said. ``How can you. You won't be done by midnight. You said so yourself.''
``I drive you home and then come back,'' I said, wondering just what kind of war zone I would have to traverse twice.
But just as I said this, Vinnie stumbled in through the front door, looking even more ragged than he had before, some of his filthy clothing torn, with signs of dried blood showing around his mouth and nose.
``Vinnie!'' Doris yelped and buzzed open the counter door for him to enter. ``What happened to you?''
The man looked worse in the brighter light, his nose a mound of mangled flesh, victim to numerous blows.
``W-Where is s-s-she?'' he demanded, even as he fell against the door frame.
``Where is who?''
``H-Her,'' he said and hiccuped.
``You can't still mean Sophie?''
``Wh-Where is s-she?''
Doris glared at me. ``And I thought things couldn't get worse,'' she moaned. ``I may have to take you up on your ride offer. This man's in no condition to drive anyone home, not even himself.''
``Wh-Where you h-hiding h-h-her?" Vinnie asked, pushing Doris' helping hands away from him as he stumbled into the kitchen, the stench of alcohol and blood preceding him, inundating the kitchen like a plague.
``For the millionth time, Vinnie,'' Doris said, grabbing his arm. ``Sophie is not here.''
``But s-she's gotta b-b-be,'' Vinnie moaned, staring around, more like a frightened child than a wounded man, his eyes so round and full of pain, I pangs of his loneliness, and wondered if perhaps I was staring into a mirror -- a mirror showing me what I might look like in a few years time. ``S-She needs m-me.''
``Needs you?'' Doris said. ``Sophie doesn't even know you.''
Vinnie grinned, his face a mask of pain, even as he laughed. ``D-Don't be j-j-jealous, D-Doris,'' he said. ``W-We can f-f-find someb-body for y-you.''
``I don't want anybody, I just want a ride home.''
``I t-told you I'd r-ride you h-home.''
``Which means we both wind up at the bottom of the lake? No thank you, Vinnie. I'd walk first.''
``Doris?'' the counter girl called from the front. ``You'd better come quick.''
``What is it now?'' Doris said, abandoning Vinnie as she launched herself into the front, stopping two steps passed the door, her gaze transfixed. ``I don't believe it. It can't be him.''
The him she meant was Mario, and his angry face barged out of the fog like a small hurricane. He slammed through the outside door then banged on the door to the counter.
``Hurry up, hurry up, you think I want to stand here all night?'' he said when finally Doris had presence of mind to push the release and let him in.
``What on earth are you doing here?'' Doris asked, backing up the whole way into the kitchen as the man advanced, his face as set as a chunk of stone.
``What the hell do you think I'm doing here?'' he growled, glancing around the kitchen, at me, at the counter girl, at the rack of donuts waiting to be fried. When he saw Vinnie, Mario's frown deepened, but he said nothing about him, or us, only about Tony, grumbling about how ungrateful the boy was.
``And after all I've done for him,'' he said. ``This is what he does to me. This is how he tells me thanks.''
``What did he do?'' the counter girl said, in a voice so shy Mario seemed to almost miss it, staring at the girl as he might a mouse.
``What?'' he said.
``Tony,'' Doris said. ``What did Tony do that has you riled now?''
``He told me to fuck off, me, his uncle. The man willing to give him a start in life. Fuck off. Can you imagine that?''
``I don't believe it,'' the counter girl said. ``Are you sure it was him?''
``At first I didn't think so,'' Mario said, slowly shaking his head. ``Over the sideband he sounded strange. Not drunk. Not drugged. Different. The man had the same voice, but not the usual whine.
`` `Yeah?' he said to me. `What the fuck do you want now?'
`` `Tony?' I said, absolutely shocked at his tone of voice.
`` `No,' he said. ``I'm the ghost of Christmas past. Of course it's me. Who did you expect it to be?'
``What could I say to that? He had actually struck me dumb. Then, he went on, asking me if I wanted him to go back to the store again, after me making him go back twice before. I managed to say, yes, and then he told me to fuck off.''
Mario's face looked less angry at that moment, then perplexed, as if pondering a remarkably complex puzzle.
``Then, he signed off and I haven't heard from him since,'' Mario said, her expression growing more and more angry again as he looked up at us. ``If that boy thinks he's going to take over here someday after that, he has another thing coming. And you, my loyal crew.''
``What did we do?'' Doris asked.
``You're the inspiration, I'm sure, filling that boy's head with ideas.''
``We did no such thing,'' the counter girl said. ``What ever Tony did, he did on his own.''
``He couldn't have. He doesn't have an original thought in his head.''
``People change,'' I said, drawing the man's angry gaze.
``Sometimes a single experience can change you for life.''
``What experience would Tony have that could do a thing like that?''
``He didn't tell you what happened to him up at Lover's lookout?'' Doris asked.
``What do you mean?''
``He had a fight with a gang, and beat them,'' the counter girl said.
``Tony? My nephew Tony?''
``That's right,'' I said.
``Well, I'll be a son of a...'' Mario mumbled, then stopped, and studied us again, his angry expression easing into something deeper and more frightening. ``Get out.''
``What?'' Doris said.
``All of you. Out.''
``But boss, who's going to run the store or cook the donuts?'' Doris said.
``Nobody. I'm closing up for the night.''
``But you can't do that,'' the counter girl said. ``We're supposed to be open twenty four hours. People'll get upset.''
``That's their hardluck,'' Mario said. ``I'm tired. I want to sleep. And as along as this store stays open, someone is going to call me and complain, telling me about this problem or that. This way, I won't get any phone calls. I won't have anybody disturbing my sleep. Out. Turn everything off, lights, stoves, burners, and then go. Clear out those people from the counter. I'll sleep here tonight.''
Doris already had her coat on. The counter girl, too. Vinnie leaned on Doris, giggling. I looked at them, then at Mario, shrugged, and slowly crossed the room to the sink, pealing off my dirty apron as I went. Then, after running my hands under the hot water, I dried them, and retrieved my coat from the hook in the store room, and my pistol from the shelf above the work bench, making the trek back to the front, where the counter door stood open and the others waited at the front door, Mario ready to lock it behind us. Someone had already shut down the lights, as well as the sign outside. A deep gloom fell over the place as the fog pressed in, now undaunted by the illumination. Shapes moved within its milky body. Faces showed then vanished again like spirits. We had to step over bodies as we left, Doris leading Vinnie out first, followed by the counter girl, with me last. The cold fog kissed our faces. I already missed the warmth.
``Good night,'' Mario said bluntly, then closed and locked the door, and vanished into the interior, his bulky bear-like shape showing through the multiple layers of glass, flicking off this forgotten appliance or that, until every light, even the small red warmer lights vanished.
Somewhere in the distance, water lapped at the shore, made closer by the thick fog. Over head, I squinted and caught to glow of a single blue street lamp. It might as well have been a star, glowing at me in the darkness.
And then, just climbing up the ramp from the parking lot, the little man appeared, his black derby riding defiantly on his head.
``I have it all straightened out,'' he said, a victorous vote to his squeaky voice. ``We'll take donuts.''
He brandished a list of his crews request, made out -- the way the coffee list had been -- in pencil and according to flavor.
``I'm afraid you're not going to get any of those tonight, toots,'' Doris said. ``We're closed.''
``Closed?'' the little man said, staring at Doris, and then at the darkened store front, his thin brows folding down towards the bridge of his nose. ``But this store never closes.''
``There's always a first time,'' the counter girl said, sounding as if she didn't quite believe it either, staring in through the window the shadowy shape of Mario who had decided to make the counter top his bed, his voice ranting and raving as he tried to make himself comfortable. I could just make out the muttered words through the glass: I'm gonna get some sleep if it kills me and God help the person who wakes me up.''
``I'll be ruined,'' the little man suddenly blurted. ``My night crew will never come back after this. I demand to talk to the owner.''
``That's him,'' Doris said, jabbing her fat forefinger in the direction of the still grumbling figure inside. ``But I wouldn't insist on speaking to him right now, not unless you want to get your head handed to you. He's in an awful mood.''
The little man squinted, and seemed to sense the danger, sagging finally, shaking his head.
``So that's it,'' he said in a low, now humbled voice. ``They're never forgive this.''
He stumbled away, down the ramp, disappearing into the fog, though his grumbling carried back for a while, melding with the sounds of the lapping lake.
``Okay,'' Doris said, clapping her hands together. ``Time to go home.''
``You want me to drive you?'' I asked.
``Na,'' Doris said. ``I'll go with Vinnie.''
``He hardly looks capable,'' I said.
``He isn't. So I'll drive. Come on, Vinnie. I'll let you sleep it off on my coach.''
Then, they, too, were gone, captives of the thick white, the backfires from Vinnie's old jalopy sounding like gunfire in the night, repeating itself again and again as the car lights came on, and the metal beast slipped down the driveway to the street. Those backfires kept up as it vanished along the northward road, leaving me and the counter girl standing on the ramp.
``Perhaps you need a ride back to your neighborhood,'' I said.
She shook her head.
``My brother'll be here any minute,'' she said, staring off into the fog, and for a moment, fell silent, looking so sad and lost, that she seemed ready to cry out. Indeed, her voice sounded pained when she spoke again. ``Did you mean what you said inside?''
``About Tony being changed?'' she asked, glancing sharply at me. ``Is he changed forever?''
``I don't know,'' I said, still staring into the fog.
``But you said...''
``I said sometimes one thing can do it.''
``Is that what happened to you?''
``We're you like Tony before you changed?''
``Enough like him to know how he might feel.''
``What will happen to him?''
``He'll wander for a while, looking to make some sense from this crazy world.''
I laughed. ``I wish I could tell you,'' I said. ``I haven't gotten that far myself yet. I'll let you know when I do.''
Again came silence, emphasized by the dark fog, out of which I could just make out the shapes of human forms stuffed into the doorways of various factories around us, a population of chattering teeth and shivering limps. Out of this vision, the armored vehicle appeared, multi-headlights looming up from the street like a beast with many bright eyes. Machine gun barrels protruded on its front and sides.
``That's my brother now,'' the counter girl said. ``See you tomorrow?''
``No doubt,'' I said with a sigh and watched her go, too, leaping into the passenger side door as a hand opened it from the inside. Then, girl and machine followed the others into the fog, leaving me to stand among the few ruined and mumbling bodies on the ramp. When I finally made up my mind to go, sirens wailed and a host of police vehicles rushed up the ramp from the street, lights blazing over the front of the store, as armored police officers leaped out of each. Overhead, a police helicopter hovered, stirring up the fog around us, flood light pouring down upon me as the men on the ground advanced.
``We got work the lights went out,'' one cop said, leaping over the banister, nearly crushing the hand of a moaning bum. ``We figured you must be getting robbed or worse.''
``Open up in there,'' another cop shouted, pounding on the door with the butt of his rifle. ``Open up, police.''
Inside the store, the bulky shape of Mario stirred, his eyes shimmering with police lights as they opened. Then, I heard the roar of the bear shaken out of hibernation. I hurried down the ramp and across the parking lot to my car, pulling out quickly into the swirling fog.