PART III – The Revenge
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights
ONE WEEK LATER.
When winter hits Manhattan its attack is unrelenting. What begins as a cleansing snowfall blanketing even the ugliest streets with a white serenity soon turns into a chaotic slop of wet, gray grunge and grit. The snow continues its pursuit of tranquility however, but it will never stand a chance, disintegrating into the grubby traps of tire treads and footprints. Like a new pet, winter is loved for its first few precious moments, but it is quickly tired of by anyone but the most devoted, and it becomes an unwanted beast, requiring a constant audience to manage its disorder. Yet, even as the clouds pull themselves apart like torn denim and as the glass and concrete towers take advantage of a moment’s bleak respite by scraping the open sky once again, the city still braces itself for the next imminent wave.
Tommy no longer ventured down to the CKY Grocery. He popped in one day when the store had no Spartan apples at all. Believing the Persian man had a personal vendetta against him, Tommy brusquely discontinued his patronage. Now he habitually grabbed a thirty-five cent banana with the morning paper from a Broadway newsstand. The bananas were always arranged upright, and Tommy could not help but make-believe they were tiny yellow skyscrapers. And even though he carefully selected the firmest of the bunch, Tommy’s chosen banana was still guaranteed to be brown by the time he reached the coffee shop.
Kicking the slush off his sneakers as he entered the coffee shop, Tommy realized his regular booth was currently three-quarters full with brash university students. He spotted a girl sitting alone at the counter, an aura about her. She had a guitar case and a backpack at her feet. Her hair was just long enough for the beginnings of a bleach blonde mohawk. She had tattoos up and down her arms, words that seemed to act as warning signs for the unsure. One in particular, on her left forearm, stood out to Tommy: FALLING. Sharona had played at a Morningside Heights hotel club the night before, and she paid the manager fifty bucks to let her sleep on the stage for a couple of hours. Had she known that Jesse Classen lived only a few blocks away, she might have called him instead.
Tommy tossed his banana peel and its cocooned, mushy brown stump into the trash. He sat down next to her. She was just planting the last syrupy bite of waffle in her mouth.
Tommy was justifiably mystified, “Waffles? When did they start serving waffles here?”
“I asked for them,” she said simply, not even turning her head. Sharona had never been bothered by strangers making small talk. She was actually flattered by how often it happened.
“I can’t remember the last time I got something I asked for,” he said. Tommy shook the newspaper to loosen it up. Intuitively, he always opened the New York Times to unveil the literary section; today it opened to the obituaries instead. He flipped back and forth until he found the review for The Manhattanite. He didn’t know why, but Tommy wanted to read it out loud to this girl beside him. “The key to reading any review, whether it’s for a movie, restaurant or book, is to read nothing but the first and last sentences.” He cleared his throat in preparation for the self-assured, ostentatious event. “Imagine for a moment that you are looking forward to reading Thomas Mueller’s much-anticipated sixth novel, The Manhattanite…”
Before he could finish, Sharona snatched the paper from his hands. As counseled, she read the second of the two most important sentences: “Now try to imagine yourself wishing that Mueller had chosen instead to stop at five.” She dropped the paper and looked at Tommy, his mouth hanging open with incredulity. “You’re right. That’s one succinct review.”
Without a fight, she released the paper back into Tommy’s hand. He began to read the entirety of the review, finally spurting out, “I don’t believe this horseshit! Who wrote this review anyway?” He double-checked the reviewer’s name, but failed to recognize it.
“Why so concerned?”
“That’s my book. I’m Tommy Mueller. And this asshole writes about me like I killed his parents or something.”
“Do you know the difference between a critique and a criticism?”
Tommy ignored the girl’s pondering completely. “The kid who wrote this review is probably some uneducated intern who thought On the Road was brilliant.”
“Who are you, Truman Capote? What’s not to like about On the Road?”
“I guess I never could appreciate the fact that Sal ever left New York.”
Sharona thought for a moment. She recalled the conversation she had had with Jesse two weeks before; when he told her he was thinking of leaving New York but he was afraid of what his friend Tommy would think. “So the book tanked Thomas. So what? It happens to all of us.”
“People don’t want different. They can’t handle change. They want everything to stay exactly how it’s always been. The same old comfortable crap packaged in the same familiar font as the last book.”
“Are you saying your other books were crap?”
“Of course they were. But they were intentional crap. The Manhattanite was supposed to showcase my real talents.”
“You might have wanted to think about the title then.”
The Manhattanite? Tommy didn’t think there was anything wrong with the title.
“Well,” she began again. “I don’t know the first thing about agents or editors, but what did yours tell you?”
“She told me my readers wouldn’t like it.”
“Well, there you have it, my man.” Sharona gulped down the last cold drop of her coffee. “You can’t let it slow you down though. I’ve had terrible reviews too, but I didn’t let them get to me. I still had something worth saying. Don’t you?”
“I thought I did. That’s why I wrote this book.” Talking to this girl made Tommy think about Rachel. He missed having conversations like this with girls like Rachel.
“So write another one then. You’ve done it before.”
The two of them enjoyed one another’s silence for a few minutes more. Tommy reached for a menu for probably the first time in ten years, and was a little surprised to see waffles right there at the top of the list. He asked the waitress for exactly that, but was told that the kitchen stopped serving them at eleven. He was never in the habit of paying much attention to coffee shop waitresses, but Tommy was certain he did not recognize this one. He ended up ordering his usual, having to carefully explain exactly what his usual was. How could she understand? This middle-aged mom working the part-time job to save some money to put towards her kids’ college funds. “Everything’s so different up here at the counter,” he said to Sharona, and noticed that the crowd from his favored booth was now dispersing. He gathered his still-wet clothes into his big hands. “Do you want to move over there with me?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. From somewhere, Sharona pulled out a few bills and plopped them on the counter. “This girl has got to get moving. If I stay in one place too long it’s inevitable that I’ll start loving it too much.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“You tell me.” Sharona slipped her coat on, covering up the tattoos. Disguising the things that defined her the most. Tommy could only stand and watch as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “Listen Thomas,” she began. Instantly, Tommy knew the following words would be the last ones she would say to him. The women he knew always used that same tone just before they left a room. “Manhattan is not for everyone, you know? And it certainly is not the center of the world.” She picked up her belongings. “Just make sure you treat your friends right, okay?”
Tommy was right; Sharona walked right out the door without another word.
Tommy read the review in the newspaper at least fifteen times over, trying to find something that made the negative parts redeeming. It wasn’t long before Kate and Jesse entered; she threw her bag on the seat next to Tommy but sat across from him with Jesse.
“Why don’t you ask Tommy?” Kate said to Jesse, continuing whatever conversation the two of them had been having before they entered the coffee shop.
“All right,” Jesse started. “We just saw this dog eating some dog food out of a bowl, and I said to Kate that I always thought dog food looked pretty tasty.”
Tommy was stumped. “Was that my question?”
“Do you think dog food looks delicious?”
“Well, believe it or not Jess, I’ve never eaten dog food before, so…”
“That’s not what he’s asking,” Kate interjected. “It’s not about whether you would eat it; just, do you think it looks good?”
“Dry or wet?”
“I’d have to say…sure. The dry stuff looks like cereal and the wet stuff kind of looks like beef bourguignon.”
“See?” Jesse said to Kate. “I told you.”
“You’re both crazy,” she said, throwing her arms up in defeat.
Jesse’s eyes lit up when he saw the newspaper spread out before him. “Hey. Wasn’t your review in here Tommy?” He reached for it but Tommy pulled the paper back towards himself.
“No. I think the guy who was supposed to write it died before he could.”
“What? Really? That’s horrible!”
“Yeah. It’s a fucking tragedy.”
“Tragedy,” Kate mimicked. Tommy could tell from her tone that she had already read the review. “That definitely sounds like a good word to use.”
Tommy turned to the window, but Broadway was extraordinarily quiet that afternoon. He would curse at the falling snow outside but he didn’t want his friends to think he’d completely lost it.
“You all right Tommy?” Jesse asked. “You seem a little bothered.”
Tommy should have known better than to assume his two best friends would not read him so easily. “I don’t know how to say this guys, but I think I’m falling.”
“Remember what Patrick told me? He said that everybody falls at some point. And he said that I was next.”
“I don’t think he said you were next specifically,” Jesse analyzed.
“Come on,” Kate said. “You don’t actually believe Patrick, do you?”
“The point I’m making is not whether I believe him or not. The point is that Rachel’s gone and, according to the New York Times, my novel clearly sucks.”
Jesse needed clarification. “Wait, I thought the review guy died?”
Tommy ignored the question entirely. “Don’t you see? All of this shit started happening as soon as Patrick came back.”
“What shit?” Kate asked. “That’s two little things Tommy.”
“Oh sure! Little to you maybe, but what about the guy it’s happening to? How do you think I feel?”
“So are you saying that Patrick Kohn came back to New York just to ruin your life?”
“Maybe. Or maybe he’s just starting with me.” Tommy leaned closer towards the two of them and lowered his voice as though the coffee shop was wired. “Maybe you guys are next. And perhaps Natasha’s death was not quite as cancerous as we were led to believe?”
Kate and Jesse turned to one another. Tommy’s ominous suggestion seemed a little too peculiar, and much too malevolent, even for him.
“I’m sure Patrick was only joking,” Kate said. “Nobody’s fortunes or misfortunes can be predicted as simply as that. Why don’t you just ask him when he gets back?”
“Where has he been anyway? I haven’t seen the guy since the day he showed up.” Tommy never did tell his friends that he spotted Patrick with that strange man on the street the week before.
Jesse was already mixing some salt and pepper together on a napkin. “He said he had to go back to Seattle. Something about business.”
Tommy questioned the story. “Doesn’t that sound suspicious to you?”
“He operates a business Tommy,” Kate noted. “That sounds like a pretty reasonable excuse for not being here.”
Tommy didn’t like to think about the day ten years before when Patrick Kohn had seemingly vanished forever, but a part of him hoped the same thing might have happened again. It was strange how Patrick had resurfaced so suddenly; odd how he could stomp back into their world tossing around hints of things to come, only to disappear all over again. To Tommy, it felt as though things were back to normal with just the three of them in their coffee shop. He wanted everything to be the way it was, but everything good seemed to have a sour note to it now.
“And what about you Kate?” he asked. “Where have you been lately?”
“Writing. Quitting that job was the best thing I could have done. I’ve gotten so wrapped up in it, and accomplished so much already.”
Tommy was proud of Kate and the creative surge she was experiencing, but he knew her well enough to know she had not yet said a word to her husband about the subject of their marriage. Of course, he couldn’t stop himself from asking anyway. “What about Gene? Have you spoken with him yet?”
“Just the mundane husband/wife stuff. He tells me the garbage stinks and I tell him to take it outside.”
“Ah. Marital bliss!” Tommy exclaimed. “It’s what we’re all striving for, isn’t it?”
The waitress finally came to refill Tommy’s coffee. But she neglected to take his dirty plate away. He doubted whether the crusted remains of egg yolk could ever be washed off that plate. And before Kate or Jesse could order anything for themselves, she had already disappeared again.
“I think you need to say something to him,” Jesse said to Kate. “It’s eating me up inside and I’m not even in that relationship.”
“Guys, listen. What I have with Gene…it’s comfortable. I’ve decided to stick it out for now only because that’s what’s easiest for me.”
Jesse couldn’t believe it. “That’s the worst reason Kate. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.” He knew better than to suggest anything along the lines of divorcing her husband and getting back together with Patrick. Mentioning things once to Kate was one thing, but mentioning things repeatedly was a surefire way to make the woman do exactly the opposite.
Besides, Kate was already changing the subject. “How are things going with you and Mr. Magoo, Jess? Has he made any more appearances?”
“Not yet, no.” From the corner of his eye, Jesse swore he saw Sharona out the window, hailing a cab from a snow bank on the other side of Broadway. Whoever the girl was, she was definitely carrying a guitar case, but she had jumped into the taxi before he could get a better look. Jesse had been so preoccupied the past week wondering what John Galloway must have been planning that he had yet to consider his own next move with the enigmatic Sharona. He certainly wasn’t ready to go looking for her poster on the streetlight quite yet. “I stopped by his place again, but there was still no answer.”
“For an old dude, he sure gets out a lot,” Kate mused.
“Either that or he’s dead,” Tommy suggested.
“I think he’s just biding his time. He’s planning something.” Jesse couldn’t help it; he enjoyed believing that his relationship with John Galloway was one based entirely on fictional heroes and villains. “If only I could find out what he’s up to. Maybe I should set up a sting operation or a stake out.”
“Now who sounds like a conspiracy theorist?” Tommy blurted out. “I don’t get it Jess. A week ago you would have been happy if the guy had decided to forget you altogether. Now you want to stalk the old bastard because you’re wondering why he’s forgotten all about you? That’s fucked up.”
“I wish I could disagree with you.” Jesse cracked his knuckles under the table, just like he always did when he knew he wasn’t being rational. The three of them used to be able to solve any of their problems at this coffee shop table, but for some reason things were much different now.
Tommy knew what the reason was, and it was suddenly staring at them from outside the window. Patrick Kohn had finally come back. Even the falling snow seemed to want to avoid him as it spattered around his feet. Tommy resisted the urge to bang on the glass, to scare Patrick away for just a little bit longer.
It took Patrick no time at all to remove his wet coat and scarf and join the three of them at the table. He sat down in the empty seat, right beside Tommy. It was incredibly surreal how normal it was to have him back. It made Tommy wonder what the point was. Why did they have to spend so much time trying to forget? What was the point of questioning any of his actions if Patrick was simply going to slide right back into their lives?
“Hey guys,” Patrick said. “Miss me?”
Tommy wanted to tell him that they’d already done their missing the first time he left them. Nothing remained for a second time. But instead, he kept his mouth shut.
“Where’s Sheldon?” Jesse asked.
“He’s at the hotel. I’ve got some errands to run today, so I didn’t want to drag him around against his will.”
“Are you kidding?” Kate’s jaw dropped. “You left your eight-year-old son alone in a hotel room? Is that a good idea?”
“I’ll only be gone for a couple of hours. Should I not have—?”
“That’s Parenting-101 Patrick. Not that any of us here would know any better.” Kate was only trying to make a joke but Patrick wasn’t laughing. In fact, Patrick hadn’t much of a reaction at all; he sat motionless, staring out onto the bustling, blustery Broadway. The other three just looked at him.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, do I?”
“None of us do, really.”
“With my son,” Patrick said, ignoring Kate’s comment altogether. “I never did. Natasha was always so good with him. I didn’t even know how to hold him when he was little; always thinking I’d break his neck or something. Now he’s sitting by himself in a big New York hotel.”
“The Beacon’s not that big,” Tommy muttered for no real reason at all.
“Listen guys. I bought that apartment in Brooklyn. And I’ve got to deal with the paperwork today. Would one of you be willing to watch Sheldon for a bit?”
“I’ve got a chiropractor appointment in an hour,” Kate admitted, massaging her lower back. “Too many years in that cheap Pendulum office chair. And I’ve already waited two months to see this guy. I can’t cancel now. He’s the best in the city.”
“Patrick, I’m sorry. They need me at work today. The new books are in and there’s no way Pond or Germ can manage without me.” He looked across the table to Tommy. “But you’re free aren’t you?”
Tommy ground a layer of enamel off his teeth.
Patrick turned to his left. “What about it Tom?”
But all Tommy could say was, “Who was that man I saw you with on the street last week?”
Patrick’s brow furrowed, but no words accompanied his reaction.
“Over on 3rd Avenue,” Tommy clarified. “He was fat and eating a hoagie the size of a small child.”
Patrick squirmed away from Tommy a little bit but eventually answered the question. “Oh you mean Jules? He works at the warehouse. I just bumped into him on the street.” Patrick waved down the waitress and he asked her for a piece of toast and an orange juice. Kate and Jesse took the opportunity to order something as well, but the waitress still did nothing about Tommy’s plate. “What were you doing over there Tommy?”
“Meeting with my agent.”
“Oh yes. I saw your review in the paper this morning.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“Sounds like the people just want more Kaspar Delancey.”
“Well, you can’t believe everything you read,” Tommy muttered. He removed the plate himself, placing it on the empty table behind him. “Trust me, The Manhattanite will catch on eventually. These things just need time.”
Kate and Jesse could do nothing but stare at the two men as they passive-aggressively one-upped one other. But the banter stopped when Patrick’s phone buzzed. Tommy noted that the family picture on the phone had already been replaced with nothing but a blank white screen. Patrick looked at the caller ID but did not answer it.
“Is that Jules now?” Tommy asked.
“Why does it seem like you never believe a word anyone tells you Tommy?”
“Because that way I never feel bad when someone’s lying to me.”
Patrick reached into his back pocket for his wallet and removed a business card. The strong smell of the leather wallet indicated it must have been brand new. Once again, Tommy failed to suppress any suspicion. Patrick slid the business card in front of Tommy; on it was the address and phone number for somewhere in New Jersey. “You can call Jules right now if you don’t believe me Tommy.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
Kate couldn’t stand it any longer. “What’s wrong with the two of you? You’re like a couple of idiot school girls arguing over whose tits are bigger! Just stop it already.”
“I don’t even know what it is we’re arguing about,” Patrick stated.
But Tommy didn’t want to hear anymore. He snatched his coat and scarf, he stood up on the bench and he stepped across into the booth behind him. It seemed easier than having to ask Patrick to get out of his way.
Jesse meanwhile was looking over the information on Patrick’s business card. “Fairmount? Wasn’t that the street my exhibition was on?”
Tommy stopped. Even though he didn’t know the first thing about Jersey City’s streets, his suspicion was officially piqued.
Kate took the card from Jesse’s hand and read the address herself. “You know what? That might be the exact same place.”
Jesse took one more look, as though the answers were somehow woven deep into the card stock. “I think it is the same place! What are the chances of that?”
“I didn’t even know you had an exhibition Jesse,” Patrick noted. “That’s an unusual coincidence, isn’t it?”
At once, all three of them turned to Tommy, each with their own reasons for doing so. Tommy didn’t know what to think of the coincidence though; he was not a big believer in twists of fate or flukes or chance. Characteristically, he was not a suspicious person, but he’d never felt more wary than he had for the past week, ever since Patrick returned. One time in his life, for just a few minutes, he was sure that destiny had to be real. It was the night he snapped open the Chinese fortune cookie and found a tooth. He thought it was maybe a clue to some ancient lost fortune, but his mother just grabbed the tooth from his hand and phoned the Better Business Bureau. Wing Fung’s shut down one week later. So much for destiny.
Tommy’s friends were the most important people in his world, but his world seemed to be spinning the wrong way lately. He considered what the girl at the counter had said to him before leaving. She said: “Just treat your friends right.”
Patrick broke him out of his reverie. “So will you help me out Tom? Can you take Sheldon for a few hours?”
“Wait, did you just say hours? Because I almost said yes there.”
“Tom, would you just—”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course I’ll come pick up the little shit.”
“Please don’t call him the little shit when you see him. Can you meet us at the hotel in an hour?”
It was preposterous to think that Patrick Kohn was back in Manhattan for ulterior reasons, wasn’t it? The man was not a problem maker, but he was not a problem solver either. If anything at all, he was a problem avoider; leaving them all ten years before without a word was evidence enough. Tommy loosened his scarf and smiled at the absurdity of his thoughts. He knew all about giving the benefit of the doubt. He knew well enough that he should treat his friends right. He also knew he really didn’t have anywhere better to be that morning, so he sat back down at the table.
“I’ll be there, Patrick.”
“It’s good to be back here with you guys,” Patrick noted, holding his glass of orange juice in the air as if to toast them all.