“Hey Mac, can you spare a five?”
Fergus looked around. The face he saw there made him wince—or rather, made him feel like wincing. Too nice a guy for that, he smiled instead. Randall Cilley hadn’t changed a bit: bulging eyes, perpetually arched brows, the halo of curly red hair. He bounced from foot to foot in a pair of canvas high-tops, also red. “Hi, Randy.”
“Long time no see, eh Ferg?” Cilley gave him a shot in the arm, too hard as usual. “What’ve you been up to? Still chasin’ jailbait?” His voice was shrill, and people at the counter moved away.
“I’ve been married for two years,” said Fergus.
“Oh. Sorry to hear that, man. You should have hung around the Warehouse. We got a batch in right after you left. Here’s one of ‘em now.” A girl stepped up to his shoulder. She had pretty blue eyes with false lashes, long hair in braids, and was chewing gum loudly with her mouth open. “This is Nina, but I call her Bubbles.” Just as he said this, the girl produced one the size of a softball which exploded onto her chin. She gathered up the residue and stuffed it back in again. “Bubbles, this is Fergus. We used to work together at the Home Warehouse.” She gave him a sticky handshake.
“So, uh—are you still there?”
“Nah. I quit after the accident.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” Fergus was starting to remember. Cilley had gotten his foot crushed under a forklift. The backup beeper on the machine hadn’t been working and, sure that he’d collect a fortune in damages, he’d quit the store and hired a lawyer. As soon as he testified that he hadn’t been wearing his safety shoes, the suit went belly up.
“What are you driving these days, Fergie?”
“Aw, you should have bought a Chevy, man. More horsepower.” Fergus was tempted to argue the point, but held his tongue. Cilley would never let it go. He always had to be right; always had to have the last word. “Me, I’m driving a Porsche.”
“How do you like it?”
“What’s not to like?”
“It’s a million years old,” said Bubbles. “And full of rust. You can see the road through the floorboards.”
Cilley chuckled. “But it’s still plenty fast, you gotta admit that.”
“Fast enough to get you a ticket every other week.”
“Where you working these days, Fergie?”
“I work for Bordillo Landscaping.”
“Bordello, huh? I like the sound of that.”
“You’re sick,” said Bubbles.
“It’s Bordillo, with an ‘i’. ”
“Can you get me a job there?” His grin was wrong, somehow; too big for his face, like a circus clown.
Fergus pretended to consider it, but that was the last thing he’d do. Cilley was relentlessly annoying. Five minutes in his company, and you wanted to hang yourself. Nobody could stand him at the Warehouse; Fergus was one of the few people who would even talk to him. “Can you climb a tree?”
“Sure I can. Squirrels do it. How hard can it be?”
“Where are you working now?”
Cilley shifted feet. “I’m at the Garden Center, their top man. I’ll be assistant manager once Al Roberts retires. Bubbles is his daughter.”
Fergus addressed the girl. “Is he going to retire soon, Nina?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Daddy’s a workaholic. He’ll never retire. Randy’ll be shovelin’ manure when he’s ninety.”
Fergus's wife Marcy appeared then, across the deli by the meat case. Fergus tried to ward her off, but she didn’t take the hint and came on over. She was a statuesque blonde, taller than any of them. “Nina?” she said, her eyes widening.
“Wow! What are the chances?”
Fergus looked from one to the other. “You guys know each other?”
“We went to high school together,” said Marcy.
“We were cheerleaders at Clifton High!” They put palms to their waists in unison. As Nina recited the chant, they threw their legs apart, snapped them together again and drove fists in the air to the beat:
Sometimes they lumber
And sometimes they crawl,
But out on the gridiron
They’re twenty feet tall!
A couple of customers applauded. Fergus said, “Your team was called the Dinosaurs?”
“First it was the Turtles,” said Nina, “and then it was the Lizards, but we had a sit-in in the cafeteria until they changed it. The coach was Mr. Smalley, the biology teacher. He was a real knucklehead. Want a piece of gum?”
“No thanks,” said Fergus.
“I’ll take one,” said Marcy.
Randy asked them what they’d ordered.
“Breaded cutlets with lettuce and tomato,” said Fergus.
“Oh, man, you should have had the Chicken Cordon Bleu. It’s got prosciutto and fresh mozzarella.”
Fergus smirked. “You always know best, Randy.” A guy behind the counter waved wedges at him, and he went to pay the man. Another spoke to Cilley. “Chicken Cordon Bleu, chief. What else can I get for you?”
He turned to the girl. “You got that change from the mall?” She handed it to him. He unfurled the bills and frowned. “There’s only three dollars here! There should be twenty!”
“I bought some makeup, too. I try to look nice for you, though gosh only knows why.”
“But we don’t have enough for the food!”
She popped more gum into her mouth. “Put it on the card,” she said.
Cilley snorted. “You maxed it out last month, remember? With makeup!” He addressed the deli man. “Can I run a tab?”
“You want these sandwiches or not?”
“I’ll take that for a no.”
Fergus and Marcy exchanged a glance. “I’ve got it, Randy.”
“Oh, no, Fergie, I couldn’t. I got my pride—”
“You got an empty wallet, is what you got,” said Bubbles. “And I got an empty stomach.”
“Hey, look, man,” said Fergus. “Don’t worry about it. I owe you money anyway, from way back.”
Cilley looked doubtful. “Really? From what?”
“From, uh, I don’t know. Something.”
Cilley grinned. “I think you’re pulling my chain, Fergie.”
Now Nina punched him in the arm. “Take the money, Randall. I’m starving.”
He leered at her stomach. “You still have a ways to go, from what I can see,” he said, and her expression had ‘bloody murder’ written all over it.
Fergus came to the rescue. “It was pizza,” he said, “when Dickie Ludden got transferred to Connecticut. You bought pies for the gang.”
Nina was livid. “Just take the money, Randy! I gotta eat!”
“Alright, alright. Thanks, buddy. I’ll pay you back.”
“You guys want anything else? Some salads or something?”
Cilley shook his head. “No, no—”
“Yes, yes,” said Nina. “I want potato salad.”
“Half a pound,” Fergus told the deli man. “The store-made.”
“We can eat at those tables outside,” Cilley said brightly.
“Naw. Thanks, anyway, but we’re gonna head on home. Things to do. Good to see you again, though.” Marcy was giving him a look.
They walked out together. Cilley had parked next to the truck, and the contrast in vehicles was striking. The Ford was new, its polished black finish gleaming in the sun. The Porsche was not only not new, but had been in enough crashes that the hood, the door and the rest of it were three different colors. Its windshield was spiderwebbed with cracks.
Cilley and Nina took one of the white plastic tables by the building, while Fergus and Marcy continued across the lot. They climbed into the pickup, Fergus started it, but then hesitated. He was watching his former workmate and recalling a conversation they’d had when the two of them stopped for a beer one night. Nobody else had stopped, of course, and he himself had only relented after Randy had practically begged him for a week. Near the end of the pitcher, he’d confided that while he’d gotten picked on a lot at school, his older brother had always been there to protect him. Rob was his hero, he said, growing up. Then Rob had been killed in a freak accident—struck by lightning at Jones Beach. “Funny how life can throw you a curve ball when you least expect it.” He was trying to sound upbeat, but Fergus had seen the tears in his eyes.
He shut off the engine and turned to his wife. “Let’s go eat with them,” he said, and she smiled. As for climbing trees, he wasn’t so sure that Randy could handle it, but there’d always be plenty to shovel.