Photograph via Flickr by foxxyz
He was eating alone that night. A Chinese restaurant in a strip mall just off the Winthrop Avenue exit off I-495, across the road from the Showcase Cinemas. He’d been passing by Lawrence on his way home from a sales call up in Kittery and decided he was hungry. As he studied the menu, he listened to the two ladies talking in the next booth.
“I’m not kidding every day at five she goes home to make dinner for a man who’s been dead five years.”
“Like my cousin Mary. Long conversations with her cats. I’ve seen it. She’ll talk and then pause while she listens to the cat.”
He looked out the window, watched the cars leaving the parking lot. He ordered moo shu pork and vegetable fried rice. The ladies kept talking. The restaurant was darkish, each table had its own light, a small round bulb, red shaded; he thought, to each our own sad moon.
His food arrived. He chewed slowly, and, as was his habit, looked at each bite of food before bringing to his mouth. His mother once said, Why do you always examine your food?
Ten minutes or so later, there was a great commotion. The single waiter and the manager ran back and forth between the kitchen and the men’s room, both of which were in the back of the restaurant. They were shouting but trying not to shout, shouting. Another five or so minutes and the police arrived and cleared everybody out on to the sidewalk abutting the parking lot. The police asked all the diners—only seven people in total, a family of four, the two ladies, himself—if they would please wait to be questioned.
One of the two ladies, the one who had been telling about the woman and her dead husband, said, “See Martha, something always happens when we step out. Last week the flat tire and running into Cindy Donatello. And now look at us.” He and the waiter were leaning against a parked car watching more police officers arrive, not rushing now. Now the cops moved slowly, like they did on the television shows, nonchalant, routine. The waiter assured him, though he hadn’t asked, that what happened had nothing to do with the food.
All he knew about Lawrence was what he read in the papers, that it was a city on fire.
“I’m not saying the food’s perfect,” the waiter said.
“What did happen?”
“Somebody got whacked in the men’s room.”
“About a dozen times in the head.”
“And nobody heard?”
“Hand dryer was on. That thing sounds like a landing plane.”
A cop questioned him. He told the cop he was coming back from a sales call up in Maine when he’d gotten hungry. No, he’d never been to the place before. He’d just gotten his food. No, nothing, didn’t hear a thing.
All he knew about Lawrence was what he read in the papers, that it was a city on fire. The arson capital of Massachusetts and maybe the country. Building by building, block by block, they were burning down the old mill town. He thought of waking up in the middle of the night to that sunset glow at the wrong time. He almost could see the attraction, the love you had to have of the old buildings—those colossal red brick New England monstrosities—to want to see them turned to ash. Of course, out here by the highway you couldn’t see any of that. Out here wasn’t Lawrence. Out here wasn’t anywhere really. In dying cities, whatever life is left moves out here to the edge of the highway. He thought of the dead man. He thought of his own unfinished plate of food. The waiter was right. The food wasn’t terrible. The two ladies drove away in separate cars. Then he too left for home.
Murders weren’t uncommon in Lawrence but they weren’t an epidemic either. So they weren’t news. This one wouldn’t have even made the Boston papers had it not been for the novel way the man had been killed, slaughtered like a veal calf in a men’s room during business hours. The metro section of the Herald covered the story for two days but there wasn’t much else to say after that. The police had come up with nothing. None of the diners was a suspect. Only one of them had gone near the men’s room around the time of the murder. This was the man who found the body, a father of two having dinner with his wife and kids. He was ruled out immediately after being questioned. The bathroom window was found open and the police determined that the killer must have come in through the window and waited on the victim; then escaped back out the window to a waiting car in the alley. A clean hit. The murdered man’s name was Patrick Westly.
Unemployed, a long history of drug-related arrests. He was bludgeoned with an unidentified blunt object. The police speculated it might have been a shovel.
He started driving the forty miles north to the restaurant. He no longer had any business in Kittery or anywhere else north of Boston. He started driving up once, sometimes twice a week, to have dinner. At first, the waiter and the owner, Mr. Lee, said they knew nothing more about the Westly murder than he did. But after a while, they started telling him things. The waiter said he’d heard there was no lack of suspects. “One cop who was in here the other day said he was thinking of putting up a wanted poster offering a reward for anybody who didn’t want to kill Westly. A middleman, responsible for street level distribution, door to door stuff, heroin mostly. He was skimming more than an acceptable amount off the top. Both the runners and the chiefs wanted him over with.” The waiter pointed to a booth in back. “He was alone that night. Like you.” And Mr. Lee told him about the new policy. The door to the men’s room would be propped open during business hours. It made things awkward but what choice did he have? “People were going to Showcase to the toilet.” He also had the hand drier dismantled and brought back paper towels. “Supposed to save me money, the damn thing ruins me.”
He became a regular. He memorized the menu. The waiter brought him a Sprite with lemon without his needing to ask. They may have thought he was an investigative reporter or a private investigator, a fiction he encouraged by talking notes on cocktail napkins. Sometimes he went to the men’s room and poked around. He tried to feel some tangible absence but the entire place now was clean.
He was a bachelor who in ten years had loved three different women, all married, one who left her husband for him and then, seeing how easy that was, left him a month later. He was never lonely. He thought vaguely of his childhood, how his desire to be alone unnerved people, his mother especially. In particular, he had always liked eating alone. It was usually a calmer experience than eating with other people. The murder changed this in a way he couldn’t quite explain. Now there was even more possibility? Think of all that can be lost, irrevocably lost, when you’re eating your moo shu pork with plastic chopsticks.
Six months later he was sitting in what had become his booth, by the window, watching himself eat. A slow Tuesday night around eight-thirty. In his reflection he noticed how the soft skin below his jaw tightened when he chewed, transforming his face into someone he’d never seen before. The waiter approached and asked if he minded if he sat down.
“Of course not.”
The waiter wasn’t Chinese. His demeanor often seemed to apologize for this. He liked to show off the few words of Cantonese Mrs. Lee’s wife, the cook, had taught him. The waiter’s skin was pale in spots, reddened with pimples in others. His eyes were droopy but not sleepy.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
He took a pen out from his inside coat pocket, uncapped it.
“I’d rather you not write this.”
The guy who found him, all he saw was feet and blood under the stall.
He retreated the pen back to his pocket. He glanced up at Mr. Lee who was watching them from his post behind the bar. Mr. Lee had a towel over his shoulder and two pencils behind both ears. He often argued with his wife. At first, they’d try to keep it quiet but eventually their voices would reach such high notes their fights would become almost operatic. He often wondered what got them so excited. Possibility here too. In those arguments that other people have that we’ll never know about, never understand. Mr. Lee was watching him and the waiter. He wasn’t annoyed. Mr. Lee didn’t mind the waiter chatting up the customers. He actually encouraged it because he himself was so shy about his English.
“All ears,” he said.
The waiter leaned forward. “It’s about that night.”
“I compromised the scene.”
“I’m pretty sure I tampered with the crime scene.”
“I moved the body.” The waiter put both hands flat on the table in front of him and edged even more forward. Up close, in the red moonish light, the waiter’s pimpled face didn’t look as young as it did from more distance.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Just a little but I moved him. Who knows? Maybe I wrecked the whole investigation. The guy who found him, all he saw was feet and blood under the stall. He runs out and grabs me, saying Jesus God, but I was the one who knelt down and looked under the stall and saw him still sitting there on the toilet. All I did was tug his foot and pull him off the seat. Any idiot could see he was dead for good. He didn’t have much mouth left to breathe out of. The guy really got cracked. I just wanted to do him a favor, give him a little dignity. When the cops came at least he was on the floor.”
“Sounds like you did him a good turn. A human thing.”
“But with all this O.J. stuff, the LAPD, contamination of the crime scene and all that, I could have—”
“From what I understand these cops couldn’t have found the killer if he left a trail of egg rolls to his house. A couple of inches in an investigation like the one they’ve been conducting means nothing.”
The waiter’s eyes were suddenly moist. Tears?
“You don’t believe me.”
“Why wouldn’t I believe you? I said you did a good thing, a human thing—”
“Even if Westly was a worthless piece of shit, even then? Even then would it have been a human thing?”
The large beard-splotched face stared.
“I’m not a reporter,” he said. “I’m not anybody.”
“I know,” the waiter said and slid out of the booth.
He went to a late movie at the Showcase. It was a comedy. He laughed a few times. Still, after it was over he couldn’t have said what the movie was about any more than he could have explained why he didn’t go home right after dinner. He’d never been much of a moviegoer; all the noise and commotion. After the movie, he walked to his car and turned the key but rather than unlocking the door, he locked it. Maybe it was the movie, the walking out of a movie, that tingling in your feet. He felt light. He was still in that intersection of time when you’re not in one place or the other. He turned the key the other way and got in his car. His first thought was strange. That the eyes that met his in the rear view mirror weren’t the waiter’s eyes at all but Patrick Westly’s eyes, and they were looking at him now as they had looked at his own face for the last time in the men’s room mirror, with indifference.
Peter Orner is the author of the novels, Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, along with the short story collection, Esther Stories. His stories have been anthologized in Best American Stories and twice won a Pushcart Prize. Orner was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (2006), as well as a two-year Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship (2007–2008). A film version of one of Orner’s stories, The Raft, with a screenplay by Orner and the film’s director, Rob Jones, is currently in production and stars Ed Asner.