From the night street outside, the singular aspect of the correct (chosen) Coney Island is its coffinlike suggestion of narrow rectangles receding from the sidewalk. Grease-covered fluorescent lights cast a blue pall down the solitary bar and attendant circular stools. The floor displays foot-square checkered tiles, black and white.
Two separate Coney Islands serve downtown Desiard Street, one block apart. There is no obvious reason for the duplication. The clientele are not divided along racial lines. The physical premises are more than similar, less than identical. The owner-operators know each other, speak for a few moments as they pass along the sidewalk. Yet no one--no one--patronizes both establishments. One closes earlier, at 12:30 AM: its customers pass the other on the way home and do not stop in to betray. The source of segregation remains elusive, distantly primal.
Paletello's Coney Island is thus in the early hours the only refuge within walking distance of the newspaper building. Paper rollers and like operators are a common sight, as well as the occasional reporter. There is no television at this Coney Island; Paletello provides a police scanner in a discreet position beside the register, more heard than seen, within easy reach of his stool perch. Everyone knows the enigmatic, crackly codes. Obscure locations are referred to Mac-the-human-map; he then has his moment.
When business is less than slow it is routine for Paletello to pronounce that he makes no profit after the hour of 4:00 PM--lunch being the only fiscally worthwhile shift. Yet he remains open in dim hours, to some indefinite purpose. Perhaps the only one to have ever seen him actually lock up is Mac himself. The proprietor's effort being a public service of some sort--Paletello's hazy implication.
Tonight Mac enters early from driving rounds, around 10:30, long after his delivery job hours. Paletello surrenders the standard faux-raised-eyebrow greeting. He admits no particular use for any of his customers, ritually demonstrating this upon Mac in the presence of the others; yet on nights when he talks about his granddaughter, a sentimental favorite among the regulars who have never seen her, Mac is a convenient and absolutely attentive listener.
Ret is a black guy Mac knows. Tonight he's down near the end of the counter with somebody Mac's never seen before. Mac waves broadly. Ret acknowledges him with a subtle lift of face and carries on a low intense conversation. The companion is a small man, young. He looks straight down at the counter. Ret has a beer, the visitor a glass of water, no ice.
Mac asks Paletello if Martin has been around. "No." Not nope, he perceives. No. Final.
Mac goes with coffee and a chili dog. He listens to the radio dispatcher, a curt, whiny voice advising coded scenarios and locales without any seeming confidence in the outcomes. A picture of her face rises in Mac's eye--glossy, manicured, frosted. Like a (not unappealing) photograph demonstrating the ecstasy of a kitchen appliance. Wonders how she got the job.
Ret's typical attire is a green fatigue combat shirt used for a jacket, with a faded beret. The times Mac asks, Ret denies adamantly that he was in VietNam. More adamantly as the occasions escalate. But Martin covertly assures him the truth is otherwise. If Mac picks just the right moment, Martin advises, he will eventually get to hear about the incredible, harrowing maneuvers at Quang Tri. Mac waits, watching Ret for signs of affability, weakening. He is almost patient.
Bits of the conversation drift down the counter--Ret's usual cautionary tones. Mac has not yet deciphered words from the visitor; it is more a set of high, cat-like moans. Ret works untiringly, reciting a short list of instructions over and over. Like incantations. Mac gathers the matter has something to do with the visitor's grandmother.
There's no phone number in the book for Ret. It remains a small source of longing in Mac, Ret never volunteering the location of his home.
Despite Paletello's baleful gaze suggesting otherwise, Mac rises and drifts tentatively down their way, aiming for a stray portion of newspaper on the counter. His unerring instinct for the fellowship of others. The visitor spies him uneasily; Ret tenses.
Mac halts and reaches for the paper.
The proximity is apparently too much. Their skittish visitor jumps up to leave, shaking Ret's hand quickly and awkwardly, the way a five year old boy does. Ret throws an irritated glance to Mac and reaches in vain to grasp a sleeve. He calls "Hey--don't lose what I'm telling you man,--"
Mac has the newspaper under his armpit, right hand out for an introduction. The visitor cringes, still moving, fists balled in his pockets. Mac is able to catch the crazy angle of the left eye, its iridescent grey coloring. Hugging the stained wall behind the stools, whizzing through.
"Come on over after work tomorrow or you'll get your ass picked up."--Ret.
Out the door, shoes soundless on the sidewalk. Mac, tucking his hand back in pocket, totally obvious.
He ambles over and freely occupies the vacant stool. Ret does not turn to face him. "What's happening?" "It ain't." Ret draws on the longneck bottle. "Who was that cat?" A little shiver from Ret. At the expression, maybe.
"That man is my cousin."
"What's his name?"
Ret twists the bottle. "Called him Glasseye every since he was little."
"He's your cousin? He's littler than you, a lot." Ret shrugs.
Mac's fingers drum the counter. "His eye is messed up, huh?"
Ret smiles, almost to himself. The radio crackles. "They would at school try to blow in his ear--this was before he got the new eye and it was just a hole there--they'd blow in his ear and try to see his eyelid puff out. Chase him all over the playground, blowing at him." Ret runs his finger around the mouth of the bottle. "Kids are rough."
"How'd his eye get put out? or did he come without one to begin with?"
Ret studies a moment before admitting he can't remember just how.
When he orders another beer Mac signals for one too, checking the clock and wondering if Martin will come in tonight. Paletello takes the coffee cup away. On the sidewalk a black guy glides past the open door, surrendering a prolonged look at the oddity of Ret plus Mac.
Mac reacts with pride and spreads the paper out on the narrow counter, scanning the front page as if it were a heiroglyphic of some kind rather than text. Soon he puts that section aside and lays out the local Metropolitan portion. Here he lingers lovingly, recognizing names. "A lot of times Martin is the guy to write this stuff and they don't list him. You know what I mean? It's only on important stuff you see his name, but he does a lot more than that." Ret nods absently. Paletello adjusts the squelch on the radio.
In the editorial section there is a letter in support of mandatory bicycle registration. The city's position is innocence--this particular nuisance is necessary in the fight against theft. Many disadvantaged citizens find their possessions burglarized--the ones who need bikes most; they need to be protected.
In driving at night Mac has seen the snaky coordination of gangs on bikes, how quickly they disperse after a round of rude slaps on his trunk, white eye rims in faces invisible against black night.
Having been clued in by Martin on the unsubtle subtleties of the official position, he probes Ret. "I mean, I'm not asking just because you're black, just you might know is all. I mean, we're friends." Ret's look betrays some irritation. "I know that redneck had to be harassing 'em, asking for it. They wouldn't have jumped him like that for no reason."
His reference is to the well known recent beating incident along Burg Jones Lane. The victim, up from a rural delta region, had left his pickup to ask directions at the Stop-N-Go #4, when accosted by a number of bicycles. "He probably called them niggers or something to their face. Something like that, huh?"
The bottle descending makes a rude pop on Ret's lips. "Man, I don't know."
Yeah, who knows." Mac flexes the paper. Cars pass down Desiard in low Buick-voiced rumbles, plocking on pavement interstices. The air builds to a certain uncomfortable thickness, slacking off only after long moments pass.
Then: "I've seen them out there--man, those suckers can move on them two-wheelers, can't they?"
Ret immediately draws money out of his pocket for Paletello.
"With these streets kept up as shitty as they are, it's a miracle, huh? Especially down yonder. I mean, Burg Jones."
Ret stands. "Check you later," he says.
"Yeah, all right. Later." Mac watches him take the sidewalk. He has never seen Ret with a car.
Ret is out the door, gone toward the right. Mac pictures the housing situation down that block: none. Just banks and nonfunctioning movie theatres and the row of decaying buildings along Grand Street, and behind them, heavy cottonwood growth and the river.
"You think I pissed him off?"