I lurched forward again, but Cal put me gently back.
“I should give Novocain, but I don’t. About this old guy. Listen!”
“I’m listening, Cal,” I said, for that was why I was here.
“Sat right where you are sitting now,” said Cal. “Sat right there, just like you’re sitting, looked in the mirror, and said, shoot the works. That’s what he said. Cal, shoot the works. Biggest night of my life, he said. Myron’s Ballroom, downtown L.A. Haven’t been there in years. Called, said I’d won the grand prize, he said. For what? I said. Most important old resident of Venice, they said. Why’s that a cause for celebration? Shut up and primp up, they said. So here I am, Cal. Short all around but don’t billiard ball me. And some of that Tiger Tonic, shake it on me. I cut until hell wouldn’t have it. Old man must’ve saved up two years of high, snow mountain hair. Drenched him with tonic until the fleas fled. Sent him out happy, leaving his last two bucks behind, I wouldn’t wonder. Sitting right where you are.
“And now he’s dead,” Cal added.
“Dead!” I almost shouted.
“Somebody found him in a lion cage submerged under the canal waters. Dead.”
“Somebody,” I said. But didn’t add, me!
“I figure the old man never had any champagne before or it was a long time back, got loaded, fell in. Cal, he said, the works. It just goes to show you, right? Could be me or you in that canal, just as likely, and now, hot damn and old breakfasts, he’s alone forever. Don’t it make you think? Hey, now, son. You don’t look too well. I talk too much, right?”
“Did he say who was going to pick him up and how and when and why?” I said.
“Nothing fancy, far as I could tell. Someone coming on the big Venice Short Line train, pick him up, take him right down to Myron’s Ballroom door. You ever get on the train Saturday nights around one? Old ladies and old gents piling out of Myron’s in their mothball furs and green tuxedos, smelling of Ben Hur perfume and nickel panatelas, glad they didn’t break a leg on the dance floor, bald heads sweating, mascara running, and the fox furs starting to spoil? I went once, and looked around and got out. I figured the streetcar might stop at Rose Lawn Cemetery, on the way to the sea, and half those folks get out. No, thanks. I talk too much, don’t I? Just tell me if I do…
“Anyways,” he went on at last, “he’s dead and gone, and the awful thing is he’ll be lying in the grave the next one thousand years remembering who in hell gave him his last awful haircut, and the answer is me.
“So it’s been one of them weeks. People with bad haircuts disappear, wind up drowned, and at long last I know damn well my hands are no good for nothing, and…”
“You don’t know who it was picked the old man up and took him to that dance?”
“Who knows? Who cares? Old man said whoever it was told him to meet him down front of the Venice Cinema at seven, see part of a show, have a dinner at Modesti’s, the last cafe on the pier still open, boy howdy, and head downtown to the ballroom. For a fast waltz with a ninety-nine-year-old Rose Queen, what a night, hey? Then home to bed, forever! But why would you want to know all this, son? You…”
The telephone rang.
Cal looked at it, his face draining of color.
The telephone rang three times.
“Aren’t you going to answer it, Cal?” I said.
Cal looked at it the same way I looked at my gas station office phone, and two thousand miles of silence and heavy breathing along the way. He shook his head.
“Why would I answer a phone when there’s nothing but bad news on it?” he said.
“Some days, you feel that way,” I said.
I pulled the apron from around my neck, slowly, and got up.
Automatically, Cal’s hand went palm out for my cash. When he saw his hand there, he cursed and dropped his hand, turned and banged the cash register.
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