Chili Time

“You’re a frequency that’s got no tuner,” he said without giving a shit to the social awkwardness of it. Was he gonna be one of those who truly don’t know or care or was he one of those guys who think it’s cute to flaunt convention? If there’s anything to be gained, it’s usually from the former and very rarely from the latter.

He’d taken the stool beside me. I looked across my shoulder to him and nodded. Maybe this thing about frequency was the problem. I had no clue.

“You’re energy, all bundled up with nowhere to go.”

It was strange. If I was energy, why didn’t I have even enough to reply to this nutcase? But I didn’t so I resigned myself to let him ramble, if that was going to be his choice.

He looked around real quick, then back at me, sizing me up. Not so much my appearance, I felt, just my body language and vibe – like how I was going to take him.

After a few seconds, he said, “my uncle’s name was Gordon Fault. He owned these streets, you know?” It was after 1 a.m. on a Friday. He was referring to the streets of St. Bernard, a middle/working-class neighborhood that seemed to sliding down the rungs toward lower class.

I nodded even though I didn’t know. I’d noticed him come in, as everybody does anybody else past a certain hour. There was nothing weird about his appearance, just an elderly guy in white sneakers and a ball cap and button down shirt. But this one way conversation was turning a little strange – quick – so I gave a closer look to what was then right beside me. I twisted on the stool to get a handle on what I was dealing with. But when I did, his eyes were right on mine and too severe. Too intense to even notice their color so I went back to looking ahead at the cook fiddling around in his steam. Sometimes it felt like I lived for those odd moments of uncertainty and wonder at where something like that was leading. But not always.

“I know what I’m talking about,” my new friend added. I could tell he wasn’t turning away from me.

By my guess, he was in his late sixties. His appearance was wholly unremarkable but those social skills could’ve used some fine tuning cause – to go on about his analogy to frequencies and radios – he was filtering through me with some static.

“Used to toughen his hands with creek rocks,” he said of his uncle again.

“Ah,” I said, turning to him and back again at the cook, hoping to break his stare.

“Yup. Creek rocks. I know what I’m talking about.”

I’d just wanted to end the week in Chili Time, but not. But this fella was pulling me back into it. He was making the decision for me that I wasn’t willing to.

“His name was Gordon. Gordon Faults. Was famous round here. Nobody messed  with him.” He spoke of this uncle with a certainty I found hard to take seriously since this was certainly mostly folklore. But he said all this with the primed conviction of somebody already deep into an argument and defending his interpretation of things. But why me? I wondered. Why now? Does he always wander the streets this late thinking about his uncle? Or just tonight? In just these minutes?

“He used to start down there at Tiller’s Bar, it’s called Stumble In Saloon now,” he said, pointing his thumb down toward the train tracks.  “You’re too young for that. Used to walk up from Elmwood Place, hitting all the bars and whipping anybody’s ass that’d look at him sideways.”

I’d finished my Big Time Burger already. There was nothing left on the plate but bubbly grease and onion ring crumbs and soiled napkins. I was lonely and tired at the end of my workweek. I didn’t want to leave, but was leery too of where this was all heading. So I just took another sip of water from the plastic Coke glass and allowed it unfold.

“Fought Golden Gloves. Then he’d walk up here to The Anchor. Anchor Tavern? Was right up the street here at the corner of Church. You know where that is?” He was bobbing his head in the direction opposite the train tracks.

“Nah. I work up by the university. I know the neighborhood but not real good.” Chili Time’s the closest place outside University Heights that serves food that late and I don’t have the patience to deal with the late-night college crowd anymore.

“Well, he’d start down at Tiller’s and work his way up here. Nobody wanted any piece of him. And he was only five-eight.”

The skinnier, better groomed waitress came over and asked him if he wanted the usual. He said yes. She walked away writing it down on her pad. She was young and clean, her hair a natural dark, ash brown. And I’d noticed her to be gracefully well-spoken and mannered with the other customers. Why was she there? I wondered. Maybe she was a student up the road.

“He used to hang a sack of creek rocks in the barn. Toughened his hands up that way.” This old man put his fist in his other hand and started squeezing it, like one might test the ripeness of a fruit.

“Made ‘em hard,” he said.

Punching rocks in a sack seemed like a pretty stupid thing to do but I kept that to myself, telling me instead of him that maybe this uncle had rocks in his goddamned head too.

“Uh huh,” I said instead, looking back and forth again. But his gaze on me wouldn’t yield. I was growing uneasy with it but, at his age, I figured the discomfort was the only threat.

“I know what I’m talking about.” This talk of his uncle was beginning to build like a sermon. And, though I wasn’t challenging, his manner and speech were beginning to possess the conviction of a man defending the existence of God. He was really working himself up over this uncle.

“Yes. I can tell,” I said, meaning no foul. It wasn’t clear if he was drunk. His words weren’t slurred. He gave off no odor. His clothes were clean enough and of the proper fashion for a man his age. He didn’t really look like a miscreant.

“He could knock a man out like this.”

He opened his hand in front of his face. He primed the fist he’d been squeezing maybe four inches away from the open palm. Then he struck it, hard and fast, right in front of his face. Once. Then again. And then a third time, each strike making a loud smack. Nobody else seemed to notice. Maybe they didn’t care or they were afraid of drawing his attention. But I played it cool. I raised my eyebrows and nodded and said, “woah.”

“Right in the nose. Smash it. That’s all it took. Fuck up anybody. Put any man out.” He paused, then added again, “I know what I’m talking about.”

I sat there fumbling through the yellow-light decisions: when to just nod, to look over at him or not, to say something and what or whether to just shut up. Our exchange had just dropped in my lap. I was unprepared and confused but at the same time didn’t give a shit.

“A short punch just like this.” He punched his open hand in front of his face again and again it cracked. Still, nobody looked. Not the fry cook or the waitresses or the jokester who picked up the dirty dishes with his cart. “Short punch like that would knock out any man.” I could tell he meant a short punch like that from his uncle, not just anybody.

“I know what I’m talking about.”

I nodded and kept a stiff stare on the fry cook with his grey curls under a greasy cap, tossing eggs and potatoes around on the griddle.

“When he died, he didn’t even have a suit. That’s included in the funeral. I don’t know about the pants. But Imwalle down the street took care of it. Now it’s gonna be a brewery.”

“Mmmm,” I said.

“My ma called it a bone suit,” he said. “Won’t do nothing but hold bones.”

I’d lost faith in love. Lost faith in art. And had never had faith in politics. Or money or much faith in people or The Good Book or The Holy Ghost. And the scraps of moral gratification from the forty hours of “civic responsibility” weren’t doing much either. So was there salvation to be found in anything? There I was feeling empty as a goddamn ice cream cone, ready to drive home to nothing while there was this fella who at least had his bad-assed, bare knuckle uncle.

The waitress brought him water. I took my check and, with all the confidence and sincerity I could muster, said to him, “you have a good night, now.”

He turned on his stool to look up at me, straight in the eyes one last time. His parting words were, “I know what I’m talking about.”

“Yes. I can tell. I believe it,” I said. I was too weary for sarcasm or irony, even. I just put the words out there like the tip I left beside the plate. Then I walked to the register and paid the check to the skinny girl and drove off, trying to leave it all behind. But I didn’t. I still got this story.

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