It would have been pathetic, were it not that the knife could cut.
The small man hosted an assortment of mannerisms. He sat upon the last seat of the bar, near a blank wall of some absolute refuge, flipping his napkin over and over. Glancing toward the bathroom door and shadowy backroom areas, where assassins held out, or worse.
Something like a whole-body shiver swept over him twice every minute and one hand remained secretive and enclosed in the unseasonal flannel checked shirt. A self-conscious avoiding of eyes, though only Martin and Paletello were there besides the subject himself.
The door to the Coney Isle sat propped open by a stack of phone books, sounds of DeSiard traffic filtering in. Paletello filled the reporter in: Glasseye had asked for Ret three times, a voice soft, country-black-inflected. Neither his good eye (roving and alert) nor the lifeless one fell in Paletello's direction as he spoke.
Paletello had found it necessary to repeat to him thrice Ret hadn't been in today.
What Martin noticed were Glasseye's ankles below a ragged khaki pantsline, sockless in crushed penny loafers. Heavy wrinkles along the blue-dark skin displayed some sort of white caking, like sedimentary deposits of lime.
"Now that you're here--" "Huh?" "My backup," Paletello whispered. He began to make his way down the bar with slow aimless deportment.
Glasseye in evident agitation half rose off the stool. Paletello drew still and asked if he was going to buy anything. Quickly Glasseye left the stool and walked halfway to Martin and just as quickly stopped. He turned back, stopped, turned again, then spoke. Paletello asked him to repeat it.
How much was coffee.
"Thirty five cents."
How much was water.
"You can't buy it. Coffee is thirty five cents."
Glasseye returned to his seat. Paletello placed the cup and saucer before him. "Anything with it?"
Glasseye looked at him briefly, then away. "How much cream-sugar is?" "Comes with the purchase." After a hesitation Glasseye shook his head no.
One of the newspaper's van delivery drivers came in for a Chicago Coney, settling several stools down from Martin. Then a transient asking for Jimmy Lee. No one knew where he was. The transient left and reappeared shortly, asking for a newspaper now.
"He ain't in the newspaper, not today anyhow."
"Don't have one. Run on now." Paletello motioned vigorously.
For half an hour the coffee cup remained untouched. Paletello went over again. "Something wrong? It taste scorched? Bitter maybe?" Glasseye steadily watched the cup.
"You can pay now." Glasseye immediately had the coins upon the table, as if already counted and stored in that denomination. "Tax makes it thirty eight cents." Again Glasseye did not understand immediately and came entirely off the stool, yet provided three pennies and put them on the counter just shy of Paletello's outstretched palm and settled to the stool again. Paletello removed the saucer and cup.
A bustle from the street, as if someone falling down. Mac appeared with the usual sincere greetings, waving, calling the transport driver by name, taking the space beside Martin. He absorbed a chili dog with its not-quite-fully-melted veneer of cheese in three swallows.
His eyes lighted repeatedly on Glasseye, the way a child's does when delighted to encounter a new person.
"Mac. A word from you. If you will."
Mac, pleased, eager: "Sure, Martin. Anything."
"Tell me what you've heard, okay. A van. A carpet van, no less. I'm imagining some paneled thing, not a conversion but one of those eight-foot jobs, right? Carrying carpet. Purportedly."
"Carpet van. Gotcha."
"Word around is that people are frightened, avoiding it. They'll run each other over trying to get away from it. They seek cheap psychoanalysis for nightmares about it. Now my request of you is: why. Why are kids on their bikes scrambling like crazy to hide from a carpet van?"
"You've seen this happen?" Paletello interjecting.
"No. It has been reported to me." Casting over toward the driver: a sullen confirmation. "I'm thinking my man Mac here might have a clue, maybe even the solution itself. Man of the streets he is, wizard of the byways."
"Gosh, I don't know." Mac is pained to be less than helpful. "Was it a Ryder, maybe?"
"Good guess. But no. I don't think it's a bomb. There's something to this, though. Keep an ear out and let me know."
Mac gazed toward Glasseye, almost longingly. Martin leaned close and whispered a suggestion. Mac looked down the counter and sat straight for a moment, barely restrained.
Paletello soberly shook his head: "Martin. What are you doing."
"A good deed. Reaching out to touch another human in need. Now get Mac here a coffee to fortify his resolve." Palello complied only with great effort. Mac drank it with one hoist of the cup, then stood up and went down past the newsprint driver, taking giant heroic steps toward Glasseye, a friendly hand out in greeting.
Glasseye was immediately off the stool, cornered and pacing. Mac halted in bewilderment. "Hey, man--it's cool--"
Glasseye's concealed hand appeared with inexpert grip on a blade.
The driver was immediately over and behind the counter, crouching. Martin whispered low and evenly, the snigger gone: "Mac. Come back here. Leave him alone, just step back slow, slow now..." Mac retained position while Glasseye skittered in small circles, eyeing a clear lane along the wall.
Mac, both arms up, palms forward and fingers tight together, like a policeman halting traffic. "Just a friendly Howdy-do here--" Glasseye antically remained in place. Slowly Mac moved forward, turning his wrist to a handshake position.
Glasseye jabbed the blade into the space between them.
"Mac! Come here!" Martin sat unable to move; Paletello's left hand inched toward the phone.
"Whoa boy," came Mac's pleasant voice. "Lets just shake here." Mac would edge gently forward; closed-mouth noises resembling shrieks issued from Glasseye and he waved the knife in an elliptical pattern, then Mac would ease back to where he had been.
"Mac--I'm telling you--get over here now!"
Then, the moment appearing more random than premeditated, Mac advanced definitively and shoved his hand into the general vicinity of the blade. Glasseye made a kamikaze dash, a hysterical pitch issuing from near his adenoids. The knife was close, very close. A button flew off Mac's shirt and pinged on the counter as he sucked air to retract his belly. The assailant eaked past and ran, still jabbing. His shoulder grazed the wall; the knife flew onto the checkered floor tile, spinning like a compass.
The blade lay between Mac and Glasseye. Both looked downward, as kids watch something they've broken for a long time. Glasseye seemed terrified, as if a thought he'd barely been able to suppress was suddenly upon him. Mac looked at him, then reached down, picked up the knife, and handed it back .
Martin stifled a soundless, choked laughter. Glasseye halfheartedly began to thrust the blade toward Mac once more.
"Whoa, bud," Mac yelled, betrayed, a little angry now. Glasseye escaped through the propped door. A pickup passed nonchalantly. Mac dashed out after him.
After five minutes he returned, quarryless. "Want us to call out for some portable O-2?"-- Martin, less than helpful as Mac gets his breath.
"That little fella can run."
Paletello, shaking his head.
"Mac. Are you OK? Seriously."
"Shoot yeah. Just found out I can't run fast as I used to. My side hurts."
"Now what would you have done if that knife had gotten you?"
"Aw. He wasn't gonna do that. He was just scared."
Paletello interjected: "Oh. You mean he wasn't really trying to stick you when he was trying to stick you. That was some kind of symbolic act."
Mac turned to Martin and handed the button back. "Don't guess you have a sewing kit on you."
"Nah. I'll just head on back to Goodwill. Get another whole shirt. Got a bunch of them there already anyway. At least five or six."
"We've noticed," Paletello said.
"A lot of times, now listen to this, they just throw those shirts out--in the dumpster. Don't even take them inside. They say people give 'em so many they don't have enough room."
"It's a real clean dumpster. I mean, not like garbage or nothing."
"A good thing to know."
"Hey did y'all call the cops?"
Mac indicated the scanner radio. "Might be interesting to hear, is all."
Then he asked the time and was off to make another delivery.
"Martin, " Paletello said.
"Don't say it. Don't even. I had no idea."
"I wouldn't want to say, but you might just want to take a little better care with your suggestions."
"You wouldn't want to, but you do anyway. Just for me. Well thanks. Thanks a whole bunch. Reform is my middle name. Just ask anyone in my entire family."