GM - Story #7

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Chapter 5

Alex Svoboda wrapped his checkered apron around his neck and twisted his long, dark hair under his Fortunato’s Pizza Parlor cap. He watched his mother exit the restaurant. The bells on the door clanked together as he eyed her through the plate glass window. He stood still, tracking her as she disappeared down the hill into the morning sun.

“It’s always something with her,” he thought as he eyed the waifish Japanese girl sitting sheepishly in the booth by the bar.

He gave a tug to the door to make sure he locked it behind her as she left. The restaurant wouldn’t open until 11:30. He had three hours to clean the floors, scrub the bathrooms, refill the salad bar and make the garlic knots.

“Just a couple hours,” Winona said. “I gotta help a friend. And I gotta keep her out of sight until I figure out what’s going on and what to do. Just keep an eye on her.”

As Alex approached, Amaya shirked. She recoiled into the booth and whimpered like a kitten.

“I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said, fanning his hands to either side of his body. “You hungry? Thirsty?”

Amaya cowered in the booth, lowering her eyes below the edge of the table.

“You’re safe here,” he said. “You want water?”

Amaya didn’t respond or react until Alex took out the clear plastic pitcher and filled it with ice. He held it under the faucet, topping it and set it on the table in front of her. He slid an empty cup and motioned for her to pour herself a glass, but she declined. Alex reached over and poured the cold water for her. When she didn’t move to drink it, he left her alone and grabbed his mop to clean the floor.

Ignoring her, he glanced her way as he mopped and noticed her small hand grab the glass and move it to her lips. He left her alone while he entered the freezer and brought out the ingredients for the salad bar. He dumped the lettuce from the night before and refilled each dressing carafe.

“Pepperoni?” he asked Amaya, holding up a long, bright-red stick of cured meat. “Mushrooms? What do you like to eat?”

Amaya shook her head and took another sip of water.

Alex brought her a hard roll from the counter. She smiled and nodded in appreciation.

“You want a soda?” he asked her, pointing at a can of Pepsi in a display case.

Amaya nodded and made a sound he hadn’t yet heard from the girl. She giggled as he popped the top of the can and slid it in front of her.

“I have to clean the bathroom,” he said. “Stay right there.”

Amaya looked blankly at him and then slowly took a sip of the soda.

“You want to draw?” he asked her, taking one of the paper menus and flipping it over to the plain white side. “Here’s a pen. You can draw pictures while I’m busy in the can, okay?”

Alex wiped the counters, sprayed the toilet, sponged the porcelain and wiped it dry with a rag. He mopped the floor and refilled the toilet paper.

When he returned, he noticed that Amaya sat more upright. She had drawn a picture of a monster. Alex washed his hands in the sink and sat next to her.

“Not bad,” he said. “A monster.”

Amaya let out a tiny burp from the fizzy soda. Alex laughed and Amaya giggled with him. She pointed at her drawing and spoke to him.

“Pokemon,” she said.

Alex took the pen and sketched a dragon in the corner of the paper. It had a flared nose and bulging eyes. Its sharp, twisted claws spread wide as its flaming wings enveloped the top of the page. He quickly gave it detailed scales with sophisticated shading and shadows and a hint of smoke billowing from its nostrils.

Amaya’s eyes bulged with beaming admiration.

“Sure you don’t want a garlic knot?” he said to her, sliding the metal tin across the table to her.

Instead, she investigated the salad bar. She found the bin of sliced cucumbers and pointed at it, eying Alex for permission.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll just be over here mopping the kitchen floor.”

The faint sound of a car door slamming caught his attention. Through the glass window, he saw three figures crossing the street toward the restaurant.

Alex dropped the mop and moved rapidly through the dining room toward Amaya. He grasped her by the hand, causing her to drop her cucumber slices on the floor. He pulled her behind the bar and crammed her between the ice maker and the sink cabinet.

“Stay here,” he said, crouching down to her eye level. “Don’t move and don’t make a sound. Understand?”

He raised his finger to his mouth and whispered “shhh.” Amaya nodded in startled understanding. Their eye lock snapped with the sound of pounding on the store window.

“Yo, Yo, Alexi,” called Edeyo Okeke, a taller, more muscular young man about five years older than Alex.

“Open up,” he shouted.

Tall, dark-skinned, Edeyo stood at the door, his shiny, bald crown reflected the sunlight. Alex unlocked the door. Edeyo brushed past him and strode into the dining area. Alex moved ahead of him to cut him off.

“I just washed the floor,” she said. “Why don’t you sit in a booth and I’ll get you some knots.”

Edeyo looked at the polished sheen of the dark linoleum and scuffed his shoe.

Rulon Jones, Alex’s childhood friend and roommate, filed in behind Edeyo. Rulon had not slept at the apartment the previous night. Alex noticed swelling above his left eye, with a dark splotch of brown, purple and yellow discoloring under his eye. Rulon smiled tentatively and gave Alex an awkward half hug.

“What happened to…” Alex started to say.

Rulon shook his head and walked by, moving to an out of the way corner of the restaurant.

Behind Rulon, stood a tall, muscular man, 20 years older with wild brown and gold braided hair. He stood in the doorway, studying Alex. When he spoke, he revealed a mouthful of gold-grilled teeth that complimented the tattoos running up his neck and along the side of his face. Alex recognized him as Julio De La Cruz, who owned his apartment building and several others in his section of town. Edeyo lived in the same apartment building as Alex and Rulon and came around every month to physically collect the rent in cash from them.

Between Alex’s job at the pizza place and Rulon’s part time gig as a maintenance hand at the local zoo, their income barely covered the rent and left little extra money for living expenses. Edeyo often hassled and threatened them, badgering them to turn over all the cash they had, and leaving them hungry and cold for weeks while they recovered from the financial struggle. But, since Rulon turned 16 and obtained a driver’s permit, they started hiring him to move cars from one part of the city to another. The payments exceeded his total monthly income for the month.

Edeyo gave Rulon the assignments and took him under his wing, often inviting both he and Alex to wild parties in his apartment, just upstairs from theirs.

“What do you guys want?” Alex asked. “The place is closed. I could get in trouble letting you in here. Boss lady comes in an hour.”

“We just want some beers,” Edeyo said. “And maybe some of them bread balls.”

Edeyo walked toward the bar, nearly bumping Alex’s shoulder. Alex moved to cut him off from rounding the corner. He reached over the bar grabbed a plastic cup, yanked on the handle to the tap and poured himself a beer.

“Cops come accusing us of vandalizing a car last night,” Edeyo said. “Down by that bridge your old lady hang out at.”

Alex kept his eye on Julio, who roved the restaurant like a slow-moving ghost haunting the place in plain sight. He rotated around Alex, keeping his eyes trained on him as he observed the décor of the restaurant. Rulon slid into a booth and kept his head down.

“Cops towed an important car last night,” Julio said. “You know anything about that shit?”

“I don’t know nothing ’bout that,” Alex said, trying to mask his unnerved inner tension with heightened street slang. “Nothing ’bout no car.”

“Fuck-up here screwed us,” Edeyo added, pointing at Rulon. “Your old lady didn’t see nothing?”

“I told you, they had the car taped off by the time I got there,” Rulon said. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Shut up little fuck,” Edeyo snapped. “I’m asking your roommate.”

Alex glanced at the bar as if he could see Amaya through the wood panels like a super hero with x-ray vision.

“Old lady’s cocked every night,” Alex said. “Saw her this morning. Said she was out cold all night. Didn’t see shit.”

Julio turned his back and observed the paintings of the Italian coast. Alex heard him growl quietly to himself before turning back to Alex.

“I got another job for you,” he said.

“Take the train down to the airport again?” Alex asked. “Like that time before?

“Train down. Drive back,” Julio said. “Fuck-up - you drive the cars down. Little man - you drive them back.”

“Why wouldn’t…” Alex started to ask.

“That’s not how it works,” Julio cut him off, moving deep into his personal space. “You go where I say. You do what I tell you. You don’t fuck this up like your little friend or we fuck you up. Dig?”

Rulon sat quietly with his head down in the booth.

“It’s simple,” Edeyo said. “Take the train down. Get the car. Drive it up. Leave it be.”

“You go to the garage at East Valley and South 80th, bay number 11” Edeyo added. “Lock code’s 118126. You got that?”

“118126,” Alex repeated, glancing quickly at his roommate in the corner. “Got it.”

“There’ll be a car parked in there. Keys’ll be wedged in the crack between the bottom part and top part of the seat. Leave it unlocked with the keys in it in the loading dock area of the Woodland Park Zoo. That’s all you do. You get what I’m sayin? Gate’ll be open. Just drive right in.”

Alex nodded his head in understanding, muttering “Loading Dock” and “Woodland Zoo” to solidify his grasp of the instructions. Edeyo and Julio grabbed a tray of garlic knots from the end of the bar. Alex darted his eyes at them.

“Now listen good,” Julio said, his smile dropping to an intense grimace. “You don’t go looking in that trunk. That’s my shit in there. I got cameras and I’ll know if you even so much as open up. You understand mi amigo. You open that trunk; I open your head with a bullet to the brain. You hear me?”

Alex nodded, but the gesture failed to satisfy Julio.

“I said, you understand me?” he shouted and smacked Alex on the side of the head.

“Yes, yes, man,” Alex replied. “I heard you. I’ll do just like you said.”

Julio allowed the tension in his face to ease and pulled a roll of cash from his pocket.

“That’s a hundred now,” he said. “And, another hundred when Edeyo gets what we need from the trunk. Remember, leave it unlocked. And, don’t go looking around at shit you ain’t supposed to be looking at, or I gotta take care of business. You hear me?”

“Yes, I hear,” Alex spoke more loudly.

“Good,” Julio slung his arm around Alex. “You’re a good kid Alexi. You got a future with us. You stay clean and do what I say and we take good care of you.”

At that, Julio turned to Edeyo and Rulon and waved for them to head out.

“Later tonight; my place,” Edeyo said as they left the restaurant. “You and little fuck-up can get messed up on some good shit - get with some girls from the hood.”

Alex nodded as the three visitors closed the door behind them, crossed the street and sped off in their black and gold-trimmed Camaro. Alex stuffed the five twenty-dollar bills in his pocket and rounded the corner to retrieve Amaya from her hiding spot.

“Good girl,” he said to her, although he knew she couldn’t understand. “They can be nasty dudes. They’d see you and ask a whole buncha questions I can’t answer.”

Amaya looked at him with big, dark brown eyes.

“What were you doing wandering around the Fremont Troll anyway?” Alex asked her. “Sounds a little funny my mom says she just found you on the side of the road and don’t want to call the cops.”

Amaya stared blankly, but with a hint of a smile.

“Moma better bring them Child Services people here soon,” he said to her, understanding that she couldn’t interpret his words. “Boss lady’ll come and you’ll have to go hang out in the alley. That ain’t no place for a kid… or a mom.”

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