By Tim Baker
Perspective is everything.
From Al Godfrey’s perspective it didn’t look like a five star restaurant.
Godfrey couldn’t see the mood lighting or hear the jazz trio providing soft background music and he was not greeted by a man in a tuxedo when he pushed his way through a hole in the chain link fence at the back of the parking lot.
There was no linen tablecloth or real silverware for Al Godfrey; instead he huddled in a corner behind the dumpster trying to protect himself from the cold October wind.
The smell of food—real food—wafted from an exhaust fan over his head, making his mouth water. He struggled to recall the last time he had eaten a meal that hadn’t been thrown away by somebody else.
Although he had little use for calendars these days, he figured it must be going on seven years now. Whether it was seven or seventeen, it mattered little to Al. What mattered most was that after twenty-three years of loyal employment some jerk-off asshole with a trophy-wife and a boat had decided Al Godfrey was expendable.
The first thing he lost was Ida.
They had been dating for almost a year when Al got his walking papers. Al’s feelings for her and her two kids—Alfred, 11 and Amanda, 9—had grown far beyond anything he had ever expected. He had planned on using his annual Christmas bonus to buy Ida an engagement ring. He never got the chance.
After six months of unemployment, his disposable income had been completely disposed of and prospects for gainful employment were bleak for a man his age with a dated skill set. Ida hung in there longer than any reasonable person could be expected to. Al couldn’t recall which one of them had cried more when she announced the end of the relationship.
It was her last words to him that stuck in his mind like superglue…
Someday you’re bound to get back on your feet, and there’ll be a lucky woman there waiting for you.
From there, life went downhill at breakneck speed.
Before long Al was selling everything he owned just to pay the rent. Living without cable TV, a telephone and often no electricity gave way to begging, borrowing and even stealing. He lasted almost a year before he was evicted. Four months later he was forced to sell his car, leaving him with nothing in the world but a (stolen) shopping cart to carry his worldly possessions, along with whatever aluminum cans he scavenged for cash at the metals recycling yard. His clothes slowly deteriorated into unrecognizable rags and eventually his shoes provided more ventilation than protection.
The only reminder of his real life—that hadn’t been lost or taken away from him—dangled from his wrist. The color had faded from it long ago and he had repaired it more times than he cared to remember. Amanda had lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve when she had given it to him. He told her he loved it—and he meant it. Al had immediately secured the handmade, beaded bracelet to his wrist, where it remained to this day.
A gust of wind whipped around the corner of the dumpster, dropping a styrofoam coffee cup on the ground next to him. Al swatted it away.
“Son-of-a-bitch, I’m too damn old for another New Jersey winter on the street. I gotta go where it’s warm.”
The cup rolled a few feet away before the wind pushed it back into Al’s lap.
“God damn it,” he said, crushing it in his hand and throwing it behind the dumpster.
The kitchen door opened, followed by the sound of something heavy being dragged across the asphalt. Al peeked around the corner to see a high school kid wrestling a large plastic trash can toward the dumpster. The scrawny kid flipped back the plastic lid and squatted to lift the barrel. He heaved the contents into the dumpster, closed the lid and turned to go back inside the restaurant. Al was too hungry to let the opportunity go by.
“Hey, kid,” he said, stepping from behind the dumpster.
“What! Jesus Christ, mister,” the kid said, snapping around, “you scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry, kid, really I am,” Al said, trying to sound sincere. “It’s just that I’m starving. Can ya help me out?”
The kid tucked his greasy brown hair behind his ears and shrugged.
“What do you want? I got no money.”
“Can you bring me something to eat? Just some scraps before you throw ‘em in the garbage—anything, man, I’m starvin’.”
The kid looked over his shoulder into the kitchen and ran a hand across his mouth.
“Come on, kid. I ain’t asking for no lobster, just a handful of fries, a left over sandwich, a bone with some meat left on it—anything.”
The kid paused a few seconds, absently scratching his pimpled face.
“All right, wait here.”
The kid disappeared into the kitchen, returning moments later with a carry-out container.
“Here you go, mister.”
“Thanks, kid, thanks a lot.”
Al took the container back to his spot behind the dumpster and flipped back the lid. The table scraps were the closest thing to a real meal he’d seen in weeks. There were a couple of stuffed shrimp, the remains of a plump pork chop, green beans and a wedge from a club sandwich. Al devoured the leftovers in less than two minutes, flipped the container behind the dumpster and belched loudly.
“That hit the spot,” he said. “Now, if I can just find a warmer place to sleep…”
Al emerged from his dining area and headed toward the ocean. It looked like another night under the boardwalk.
Before retiring for the night, Al decided to make use of the restroom in one of the hotels on Danny Thomas Blvd. Waiting in the shadows for a group of people to enter the lobby, he used them to shield his entrance to the public men’s room. Thankfully, the restroom was empty and somebody had left a magazine in one of the stalls. Sitting on the toilet reading an article about how to take strokes off your golf game, it occurred to him how some of the most common acts in life were never truly appreciated until they were unavailable to you. Squatting behind a tractor-trailer truck at a rest area with no toilet paper could certainly put things into perspective.
Even though there was no realistic chance he would ever play golf, he read the article to pass the time.
The bathroom door opened, interrupting his reading, and Al reflexively lifted his feet to avoid detection. He listened intently. Two men. Footsteps to the urinals at the opposite end of the bathroom. The buzz of zippers. Muffled splashes.
One of the men zipped up and went to the sink to wash his hands.
“So it’s a done deal, right?” one man said.
“All set. I sent the money this morning by UPS,” the other man replied. “I got a brand new condo in Flagler Beach. The package’ll be there in four to seven days. All we gotta do is get outta this hole, head to Florida, find a spot on the beach and a couple of young and willing women and we’re home free. By the time anybody notices the money’s gone, we’ll already be sunburned. They’ll never find us.”
“You say this condo of yours is on a golf course?”
“Fourteenth green is practically in my back yard.”
“I always wanted to learn how to golf.”
Al rolled his eyes at the magazine and stifled a snort.
The second urinal flushed and the restroom door opened again. Al’s legs were beginning to shake from holding them up and he hoped the men were leaving.
“Nice to see you boys,” a different man said. “You come here for the piano bar?”
“Gino…” one of the men said with a trace of nerves. “How you doin’?”
Damn it, Al thought. Take your reunion to the bar.
“Frank sent me to find you guys—says he wants to talk to you about something.”
“What about?” one of the men asked.
“There’s only two things Frank would want to talk to you two about…money and money…so you figure it out,” Gino said. “Now let’s go.”
“Hey, Gino, you don’t need to wave the piece. We’re comin’. Just lemmee wash my hands.”
Al forgot all about the pain in his legs at the mention of a gun. Now he really wanted these guys to leave. The sound of water running was interrupted by an outburst of movement. The next two sounds he heard overlapped each other.
“What the…” Gino said.
Al had never heard a real gunshot, and even though it didn’t sound like the ones in the movies, he knew that’s what it was.
“Mother fucker,” Gino moaned.
Another two shots from a silenced gun, followed by two heavy thuds and the bathroom went silent.
Adrenaline surged through Al’s veins, but he forced himself to remain perfectly still and silent for several seconds longer. When he could no longer hold his legs up he decided to take his chances.
Dropping the magazine and pulling up his pants, Al slowly exited the stall, moving cautiously toward the exit. He glanced at the first body as he stepped over it. The dead guy’s clothes were clean—if you ignored the bullet hole and the blood stain—his shoes had no holes in them and he had a nice, warm jacket on.
Just that quickly, escape took a back seat to wardrobe. Moving as fast as he could, Al stripped naked, stuffing his rags into the trash can. Just as hastily, he took the clothes off the dead man, blood stains and all. He relieved the other two men of their wallets and everything else in their pockets, giving brief consideration to the guns, but deciding he would rather not get caught in possession of a murder weapon. Stuffing his newfound possessions into the pockets of his new leather jacket, he stepped out of the men’s room and walked briskly and purposefully to the street, holding the jacket closed to conceal the bright red stain on his new shirt.
On the street he broke into a full-out run and didn’t stop until he was four blocks away, under the Baltic Avenue sign. He stopped just long enough to catch his breath. In his mind, everybody from wise guys to cops were hot on his trail and the visual kept him moving because it didn’t matter who got their hands on him first…it would not end well. Al pushed on a few blocks north until he came to an all-night greasy spoon. Pushing through the door, he passed a booth full of drunk kids and headed directly to the back and slid into a booth with a clear line of sight to the front door and easy access to the kitchen door and rear exit.
An obese server with green stripes in her eggplant-colored hair set a paper placemat in front of him and dropped some silverware on top of it.
“Coffee?” she asked.
Al tore his eyes from the door and looked at her.
She walked away and Al returned his attention to the door, wondering if he had gotten away with it.
“Hey, you!” a voice yelled, as the door to the diner slammed open.
Al’s heart nearly exploded and he let out a small yelp.
Another drunk kid pointed at the booth where his friends sat and staggered toward them. A rowdy chorus of greetings was exchanged and Al leaned back in the booth to regain his composure. The girl with the neon hair reappeared and set a cup of coffee in front of him.
“Thanks,” he said to the server.
“You wanna order anything?” she asked.
“Food,” she said flippantly, “do you want any?”
Not sure of how much cash he had, Al needed to stall so he could inventory his score.
“Yeah, gimmee a few minutes,” he said.
She waved an indifferent hand toward the back of his booth as she walked away.
“Menu’s in the rack,” she called over her shoulder.
Al emptied the contents of his pockets and dug for cash. He spotted a fifty in one of the wallets. A fifty would more than cover anything this place was serving. He relaxed a bit and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
New clothes, some walking around money and a hot meal soon on the way.
Things were looking up.
He perused the menu and decided on a meatloaf dinner with mashed potatoes, carrots and a side order of bacon.
“Did you say bacon?” the server asked.
“Yeah, bacon, do ya mind? A side a’ bacon.”
“Whatever,” she said, shrugging. She took his ticket to the order window and clipped it onto a stainless steel wheel and spun it toward the cook. Al was pretty sure he saw her roll her eyes, too. When she had resumed her place behind the counter Al emptied his pockets onto the table.
“Like she’s got room to talk,” Al muttered to himself. “Wide-load has the balls to judge my eating habits…shit.”
Before his meal arrived he had tallied his take: Three wallets with various IDs, credit cards and such, $586 in cash, three cell phones, a Rolex watch, two poker chips from a boardwalk casino, a silver flask (mostly full—of a very smooth scotch), cigarette lighter, a pack of Marlboros and two envelopes. He had trouble containing himself; this was the score of the century. He returned the items to his pockets and began planning his immediate future. He’d get himself a nice room for the night with a credit card, order room service breakfast in the morning and maybe hit a casino to try and increase his holdings.
When his food arrived he made a conscious effort to eat slowly and breathe between bites, mostly to calm his nerves, but also to savor the meal. He paused long enough to raise his coffee cup toward the server and she waddled over to top it off. Her nametag said Krystall and the tattoo on her neck said Bite Me. Al wondered if her parents had envisioned this reject from society when they chose her name.
As his nerves settled, Al replayed the scene in the men’s room. Obviously the first two guys had ripped off somebody named Frank. Frank must have found out about it—or at least had enough suspicion to send Gino after them. One of the guys took a shot at Gino, who then shot the two of them as he fell.
What a mess.
Al chewed a piece of bacon and continued to mull the whole thing over. One of the guys said something about mailing a package to his condo in Florida and nobody missing the money until they had a sunburn.
Al dug through his pockets and pulled out the two envelopes; airplane tickets for a flight leaving Newark International the next day at 4:42 p.m. and arriving in Jacksonville, Florida at 9:37 p.m. The tickets were in the names of Paul Bender and William Santini. There was also a rental car agreement in Bender’s name.
Al flipped through the wallets until he found Bender’s. The image on the driver’s license revealed it was Bender’s clothes Al was wearing. He studied the dead man’s driver’s license: height—5’9”, weight—185 pounds. Al was 5’10” and was probably down to 165 these days. Bender had brown hair and eyes; both a match with Al’s—even though Al’s hair had begun graying a few years ago. Al’s untrimmed beard and moustache was the biggest difference between them; other than that, he was fairly certain he could pass for the former Mr. Paul Bender.
He relaxed…really relaxed…against the back of the booth and savored his last piece of bacon.
“I’ll bet Florida is really nice this time of year,” he said.