Bolesy loved his Camels as much as he loved his life. He loved the design of the packet, the squat size of the cigarette, the whole idea of a Turkish and domestic blend; he loved the aroma of the smoke and the way it curled away from the burning cigarette when there was no wind; he loved the smell the cigarettes left on his fingers and he sniffed at them during the interlude between cigarettes. He bought them by the carton and when he left his room he put a full pack in his front shirt pocket; he used the opened packs when he returned.
He began smoking when he was twelve. He stole two of his mother’s Pall Malls from the long red pack on top of the fridge and he climbed high up a tree along the railroad tracks and smoked his two cigarettes. He hadn’t really dreamed of sex yet, though he had imagined little Mary Prescott’s butt in her underwear and her shining naked chest, but even his imaginings could not beat the bliss of sitting high up in a tree and smoking cigarettes.
He would filch from his mom’s pack, or from his father’s pack of Camels upstairs on the dresser, but this became dangerous as his father would whip him if he caught him, and his craving outgrew the number of cigarettes he could safely pilfer. So he hung around Hondo’s gas station and would buy an RC Cola, and when the attendants were out pumping gas he would hurriedly jam thirty cents into the machine and yank the yellowed knob and his heart would jump when his pack of Camels and book of matches fell to the bottom of the tray.
He’d still go down to the railroad tracks to smoke his cigarettes though he no longer felt he had to climb the tree. He began smoking in the alleys, blocks from his house, huddled against the wind beside a garage or a row of garbage cans. Occasionally a car would bolt down the alley and he’d scamper away.
Bolesy needed another source of cigarettes so he took an after-school job at Rudy’s Delicatessen. In truth, it was not much of a delicatessen, although Rudy would cut a slab of liverwurst, spread a weak mustard, stick it between two slices of rye and call it a sandwich; he kept a large jar of pickles in brine on the counter. He reasoned that if the kid was old enough to work he was old enough to smoke, and he deducted the cost of the Camels from his pay.
In the summer Bolesy told Rudy how the kids were stealing from him after their ball games. He opened his shirt a couple buttons and mimicked shoving in a Popsicle or a candy bar. ”Works much better with the baseball uniform—they fit so loosely,” he said.
“Is that the truth?” the old Jew asked him.
The next day Rudy caught a number of the thieves red-handed, made them take off their jerseys and the contraband tumbled to the floor, and he banned them from his store. This was difficult for these youngsters, as all the ball players and the girls came to Rudy’s after the games for their soda and ice cream or Popsicles, their bicycles would be thrown two or three deep on the wide sidewalk in front of the deli. It was apparent to all that Bolesy had tipped the old man off and so the nickname “Rat” stuck and carried into his final year of high school.
Bolesy and Rudy had their falling out several months later. Rudy was in the back of the store using the toilet, or perhaps he was resting. Bolesy put down his duster and went behind the register to look at the cigarette rack. Almost unconsciously he reached up for a pack of Camels and slipped it into his trousers pocket. He was very much aware of the jut in his pocket and as he went back about his work he walked almost stiff-legged, careful not to bend or mutilate the delicate cigarettes.
It wasn’t long before Rudy called him to the counter. ”There were five packages of the Camel cigarettes and now there are four. Yet no one came in the store. Explain this to me.”
Bolesy stood alone, his face rubescent, and he tried to look away from Rudy’s eyes. Already, he understood the futility of lying. ”I put a pack in my pocket,” he said.
“Why would you do this to me? Steal from me?”
“I don’t know why.”
Bolesy no longer liked himself as Rudy’s helper and anyway he looked old enough now to buy cigarettes at the A&P so he stopped showing up at the deli and took a job at Smitty’s Grill. He worked the booths across from the counter and Smitty taught him a few things at the grill; when business was slack they drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Smitty smoked Lucky Strikes.
Midway through his senior year his father’s health was in serious enough decline that he took his doctor’s suggestion to retire, and the family moved across country from Newark, New Jersey, to Vista, California. They bought a modest three-bedroom house with a swimming pool that Bolesy and his brother used for the first week they lived in California.
The father died shortly after they settled into their new home and their mother collected the insurance money. Bolesy took a job at Sambo’s, bussing tables. During the week before his graduation Bolesy fell asleep while smoking one of his Camel cigarettes. His mother and brother got out of the house without injury but Bolesy was taken out in an ambulance, the side of his face and neck closest to the floor charred and blackened, with permanent damage done to the tissue. The high school graduated him in absentia but when he went back to Sambo’s later in the fall they quickly faded him from the schedule. The new manager did not say this to him, but he felt Bolesy looked too freakish for Sambo’s.
It was late in the spring when his mother saw the notice in the local paper. She cut it out for Bolesy though she was unsure how to present it. She considered leaving it on the desk in his refurbished bedroom or at his place on the kitchen table. She carried it around with her all day and finally just handed it to him while he was watching the television.
“Rehabilitation Restaurant?” he asked. “What would I want with a Rehabilitation Restaurant?”
“I thought you always liked your restaurant work.” She sounded hurt.
Bolesy lit a cigarette and read the notice.
“Besides, I don’t think this is so good for you. Sitting in this house, looking at the television, reading the papers all day. You can’t just sit here the rest of your life.”
“Who said I’d sit here the rest of my life?”
“You are one ugly sumbitch,” Gunner said when he first met him.
“Got burned in a fire,” Bolesy said.
“That explains some of it,” Gunner said.
They had been paired as waiter and busboy and Gunner was certain he had drawn the short straw, even before they had served their first dinner. Bolesy, for his part, hoped to find at least one person at the Restaurant he could talk with and he guessed that person would not be Gunner.
The afternoon before the grand re-opening Mr. Wooster had assembled all in the magnificent hexagonal dining room for final thoughts and a mock run-through, but no one paid him any attention. Wooster stood out on the dance floor in his bow tie and vest, awaiting an opportunity to talk that just didn’t happen. The reason everyone had come over was that Willie the barman had promised to ice champagne, courtesy of the County, to toast their re-opening. They sat scattered throughout the stations, clinking empty glasses with spoons, waiting on Willie and the champagne.
Finally Rickey blurted out a question. ”Suppose nobody shows up tomorrow, Mr. Wooster?”
It was a question Wooster was not prepared to answer, a simple thought that had not occurred to him. ”Vy vouldn’t zhey show?” he asked.
“Suppose they don’t like us.”
Earlier in the week the Carlsbad Breeze had run an unflattering feature about the transition. The title of the story, “End of an Era,” expressed its tone, a swan song to a proud landmark that had stood watch over the town since its earliest days; Miss Maggie at the County took exception to the slant and felt the caption over the accompanying picture crossed the line. She called the editor to register her unhappiness. ”I thought we could at least count on you to be fair to us,” she said. ”Would it have been so difficult to be fair?”
The photograph that covered half the front page was taken from the southwest corner, at Elm Street and the Coast Highway, from the vantage point of the four clay chickens in their red-bricked pen. The familiar sign was visible, Fine Dining—Family Style Chicken Dinners, but the topmost sign on the pole was replaced with the new logo, two rolling R’s. And though the grainy black-and-white photo presented the building’s heft and its might—the strong facade and the gables and the domed turrets and cupola, it captured none of the structure’s grace nor the nuance that gave it its charm; imperceptible were the imbricated fish-scale shingles, the gingerbread trim and delicate cornices and the greens and golds of the stained glass windows. The caption over the image read, Grand Lady in Rehab.
Mr. Wooster pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. ”Belief you me,” he said, “dey vill like us.”
Willie the barman was greeted with whistles and cheers as he crossed the dance floor with five chilled bottles of Moët & Chandon cradled in his arms. He brushed past Mr. Wooster and set the champagne down in the open area at Bolesy’s table. He cut away the foil with his corkscrew and unfastened the wire cage that held the cork and gave each bottle a shake; enough so that each cork popped and lifted off for the high ceiling. Mr. Wooster clapped at the first popped cork and retreated from the dance floor, back toward the kitchen, to his office.
Willie directed Bolesy to carry a back-up bottle beside him and they moved from pocket to pocket. Willie filled each glass solemnly and with a bow. The women seemed to appreciate the show, it was only Lillian who raised her eyebrows. Bolesy felt good about being included in this ceremony. Maybe when he wrote his mom he would tell her that he had poured the champagne. No matter. When Willie emptied the first bottle, he, Bolesy, was there at the ready with the next full bottle. He accepted the empty, marched it back to his table and lifted the next full bottle. It was almost as if he and Willie had worked it all out in advance.
The barman filled Rickey’s glass and in one clean motion Rickey brought the glass to his mouth, drank off the wine, set his glass back down. ”More,” he said.
“I won’t appease the boorish,” Willie said.
“Ahh piss the bush?” Rickey asked, but Willie had already moved on.
He bowed before Tawkee, the dinner cook, and Tawkee covered his glass with his hand. ”Won’t have any of your poison, Willie,” he said. ”Lemme know when I can get a beer.”
“We don’t celebrate grand re-openings with beer, my dear friend.” When all the flutes had been filled Willie raised his own glass. ”To our success,” he toasted. ”May we have a good, long run.”
Bolesy carried the last bottle, still full, back to the table and poured his own glass. He fired up one of his Camels and savored the burnt taste of the cigarette mingled with the sweetness of the champagne, and he searched out the woman several tables over who reminded him in an inexact way of Mary Prescott, his boyhood friend; she also had a toothy smile and dark hair and eyes and was similarly small-breasted.
Mary had smoked with Bolesy from seventh grade into their freshman year at high school; then she began to avoid him and before the school year had finished she was giving him looks that said stay away, I don’t know who you are. This was at a time when Bolesy was working after school and on the weekends and didn’t associate much with his classmates. He wanted to ask Mary to come and smoke with him again behind the garage out in the alley, but he sensed that she had grown unapproachable, or at least that it would be best if he didn’t approach her. When his family had left for California he did not have a chance to say goodbye.
The woman he was looking at got up from her table, flute in hand, and came straight for Bolesy. She appeared to walk with a limp. He feared she had caught him staring at her.
“You the gatekeeper?” she asked. It wasn’t till she motioned at the champagne bottle with her glass that Bolesy caught her meaning.
“Help yourself,” he said.
She smiled, hand on hip, and reached for the bottle with her opposite hand. ”A gentleman would’ve poured it for me,” she said, and filled her glass.
Bolesy blushed. He already felt the perspiration sting his scalp and bead on his forehead. He looked up at her and thought her prettiness was different than Mary Prescott’s; her features were flatter or more rounded, or maybe it was that Mary’s were sharper.
She made a V with her fingers and pushed them up to her lips, and Bolesy felt he had a chance to redeem himself. He hastily shook a cigarette from his pack and leaned across the table to light it for her. She took a deep drag and exhaled. ”You might offer me a seat,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I’m not thinking.”
She drank her champagne and poured herself another glass. ”Why you sitting by yourself?”
“I don’t really know anyone yet,” he said. ”I don’t mind sitting by myself.”
“My name is Cheryl. I’m the lunch bartender. Your name is Busby?”
“Bolesy,” he corrected.
“Ballsy,” she said.
He was the only one who had come over in his work clothes, which for the busboys was a white shirt and black slacks. Now he wished he had worn a turtleneck or one of his high-collared shirts. He felt excited, nervous, not at all sure what to talk about. ”You remind me of a girl from my old neighborhood,” he said, “back when I was growing up.”
“She must’ve been a raving beauty.” Cheryl winked. ”Were you madly, passionately in love?”
“We smoked together.” Bolesy shrugged. ”One time she unbuttoned her top and showed me her chest. That was about it.”
Cheryl caught a piece of tobacco in her mouth, rolled it to the tip of her tongue and expertly spit it out. She swallowed the last of her champagne and stood with the bottle in her hand. ”Those childhood romances were tough, weren’t they?” She turned and headed back to her table. Bolesy was certain she was limping.
He didn’t follow everyone out through the kitchen door. It was congested, they all seemed to be making plans, so he detoured down the short hallway that led to the bar. He would let himself out through the front door and have a cigarette on the steps of the porch, watch the cars sail by on the Coast Highway.
“Hey,” a voice called to him. ”Come here.”
He stopped and looked around. The bar was empty and beyond the bar he could see that there was no one in the lobby. To his right, along the back wall of the bar was a curtain. It moved.
He looked in through the slight opening in the curtain and saw a denim skirt, a blouse and a bra draped over a chair. He moved the curtain aside and saw Cheryl, her back to him, amid the dusty tables, boxes and broken barstools, trying to fasten the zipper of a skimpy black and red sequined outfit.
“Come in here and help me zip this thing,” she said.
He looked at her naked shoulders and her back, her skin so vulnerable and the way her torso tapered into her waist and then flared back out again at the hips—he was shaking now, his hands were shivering, and he knew he would be of no help with the tiny zipper. He took a step into the storage area and let the curtain close behind him.
She stopped fidgeting with the zipper and turned and faced him; she stretched out her arms and tried a curtsy, but she lost her balance and grabbed onto a barstool. ”Do you like me in my Victorian tramp uni?” she asked. She looked down at her chest. ”I guess I don’t quite fill the cups.”
His instinct was to tell her she would be beautiful no matter what she wore, but he was unable to form the words to say it. He craved a cigarette. He wanted to get away, but knew he would stay right where he was till morning, if only she would stay too.
Michael J. Martin is a Chicago-area writer stitching together his first novel, one word at a time.