Rudy KosharA three-inch roofing nail pierced the blood-stained bandage on Marty Dubrov’s left index finger above the knuckle. When the waitperson with a name tag reading Adia saw it, she let out a short, high-pitched yelp and covered her mouth with her hand. She backed away, bumping into a customer walking down the aisle of Old Country Inn. Cringing, Jeff Dubrov sat across the table.

“Whoa, it’s okay there,” said Marty, whose laughter rose above the restaurant chatter.

“Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Whoa, it’s okay there,” said Marty, whose laughter rose above the restaurant chatter. “Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Look, it’s just a fake. A novelty shop joke.” He slid it off his finger and held it out to the woman. She looked at the nail as if it were mangled road kill.

“Love, I didn’t know what that was,” she said, still shaking her head. “I thought you’d come in here with a horrible injury.” She looked at Jeff whose smile was thin and sharp.

“I always carry this little thing with me to get a reaction. People respond, you can bet on it,” said Marty.

“I certainly did,” said Adia with a nervous laugh.

“You doin’ okay today, young miss?” asked Marty.

“I was coping. Till I saw that thing.” She shook her head again and paused for a deep breath.

“I’m supposed to ask you how you’re doing, in any case. So, let me start again. How are you two gentlemen today?”

“Drunk,” said Marty, unsmiling.

Adia was stone-faced. Her gaze fastened on Marty, then Jeff, who shook his head and said,

“It’s another joke.” His voice knifed the air.

Adia frowned, turned back to Marty. “I’m a little slow today. I thought you were serious.”

“You’re doin’ fine,” said Marty. “Don’t worry. People usually do a double take when I say that.”

Adia nodded warily.

“We can order right now,” said Jeff tersely. “Dad always gets the BLT. I’ll have the Caesar salad. Coffee for him, black. Ice water for me.”

*

“You’d be amazed at the reactions I get to that thing,” said Marty to his son. “Last month when I was in the hospital for my heart, I had all the nurses and orderlies just laughing and shaking their heads. People came in to see the bloody nail. Even surprised one of the doctors. I gave him a real scare. He’d never had a patient pull that on him. Made his day. They all knew my name at the hospital when I left. All on a first-name basis. Man, we had fun. The ward was hoppin’.”

Jeff had heard the story several times. “It gets a little old after a while, Dad.”

“Not to people who see it for the first time,” said Marty, looking hurt. “It brings a little humour into their lives. Something unexpected. No need to be serious all the time, is there, Jeffrey?”

“It can do more harm than good. That waitress for instance; she’s anxious. She’s busy. And to have someone come in with that kind of prank… She may not understand you’re joking.”
“Could be ‘cause she’s foreign,” said Marty, surveying the restaurant. He spotted a small girl at the far end of the large dining room. He started playing Peek-a-boo with her, first covering one eye with his hand and blinking the uncovered one, then covering the other, then both eyes. He inverted his hands, made two circles with his thumbs and index fingers, and held them to his eyes as if wearing glasses. Jeff looked around to see the girl imitating his father.
“Dad, that kind of thing could be misunderstood in a public place these days.”

“Aw, come on, Jeffalator. Where’s your goofy gene? People think I’m gonna molest her? I’m just playin’ with the little girl. What a cutie. Those golden curls. And that smile. She’ll be a looker judging from her mother there. The blonde. You could take a peek, Jeffey boy. Now that you’re single again.”

Jeff had already looked. The little girl’s mother had honey-coloured hair and a sweet smile, but she was also much younger than him. “I’m nearly fifty, Dad. A woman like that would have no interest in me. Anyway, she may be married.”

“She’s not wearin’ a ring, Jeffster.”

“You see that from here?”

“Still got twenty-twenty vision, boy. At eighty-seven, mind you. Wish my heart were as good as my eyes. Hell, if it were, I’d be the one chattin’ her up. That waitress is takin’ her time, isn’t she?”

Several minutes later, Adia brought the food. As she laid the plate with the BLT in front of Marty, she grazed his coffee cup. Several drops splattered the table. “I’m so sorry, Sir.”

“No problem, little lady,” said Marty. He used his napkin to wipe up. “Just bring me another napkin and more swill.”

“Swill?”

“Sure, swill.”

“It’s a little outdated. Swill. S-w-i-l-l,” interjected Jeff. “People often use it when they’re talking about booze, like swilling beer or even bathtub gin, back in the day. On the farm, that’s what folks used to call pig slop. But some say ‘swill’ for coffee.”

Adia’s eyes narrowed.

“I do lots of crossword puzzles,” said Jeff, smiling. “And I publish some of my own puzzles too. I’ve had a couple in The New York Times, LA Times. I love words I can taste and feel. Words that zip or pop or murmur or roll or meander. Swill, well, you can swill it around on your tongue and it takes you from taverns to farms and back and lots of other places and times too. Swill travels well.”

Adia nodded. “I like words like that too.”

“Where you from, young lady?” asked Marty.

“Right here. Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve lived here twenty years.”

“I mean really from.”

Jeff blanched.

Adia smiled. “My parents came from Lagos, Nigeria. But I was born in London. My father was a lit professor at Birkbeck College.”

“So, that explains your accent,” commented Marty. “Sounds British, but I still like it. You could go on TV with that accent. Make commercials. For classier things like expensive lawn mowers or those step-in bath things for old folks.”

“That’s a lovely compliment. But to me, Midwesterners still sound like they speak with an accent.”

“No kiddin’?” asked Marty.

“No kidding.” She looked relaxed for the first time. “You two gentlemen enjoy your meal. I’ll be around in a few minutes to see if you need anything else.”

“Nice girl,” whispered Marty after Adia left. “But on the big side, wouldn’t you say? Big-boned.”

Jeff sighed. “Dad, you have to stop the joking every time we go to a restaurant.”

“Aw, come on, Jeffkins. We’ve had this conversation before. I enjoy it. And so do other people.”

“Mom used to be mortified.”

“Your mother, bless her soul, had the same problem you have. Too serious. No sense of humour. It was bad for her health. I think she would have lived a little longer if she had just taken a look on the bright side. And you, well, my advice is you need to loosen up, Jeffster. It’s not good to always be so down-in-the-mouth. You’ve got to just let the divorce go. A little humour always helps. Wouldn’t hurt to get laid either, I suspect. Right, old man?”
Jeff made circles in the table with the condensation from his water glass. “About the joking, Dad. There’s a time and place for everything.”

“True enough. But humour’s always a good thing. Your mom believed that too, when she was younger. Why, after a glass of wine, you shoulda seen her. I had her laughin’ so hard she peed in her pants once. That’s one of the things that drew me to her. Not the peeing part, her laughter. When she laughed, the whole damned world danced. I felt like I’d failed in the later years when I couldn’t get her to laugh anymore. I tried. When the laughter goes, there’s nothing much left. When she stopped laughing, she started dying.”

Jeff looked away. The blonde and the little girl had left. He looked at Marty who was fingering the rusty nail which he’d placed on the table in front of him. “And the waitress, Dad. Calling her ‘young miss’ or ‘little lady.’ People don’t say that any more, not to an adult woman. You have to be careful about language.”

“Especially when the lady in question isn’t so little, huh? Heh-heh. I know, I know, I shouldn’t say that. I’m too old to learn what you can say and what you can’t say these days. But she’s a nice black gal. Real clean, and friendly. And she takes the ribbin’ like a champ. I’m not doin’ any harm.”

Jeff ate the rest of his meal in silence as his father talked about a new car wax he’d found, the manure mix he planned to use on his little stand of tomatoes, the sorry state of American politics. Jeff nodded periodically as he thought about asking Marty for a loan. He decided against it even though he needed cash to see him through until the end of the month. His bookstore was losing money, and he knew he couldn’t hold on long. Two months ago, he had the choice of meeting his payroll or paying the utility bills. He’d thought of cancelling his program of literary readings because he couldn’t afford to keep the place open extra hours on weekends and evenings. He was about to see his vision of creating a vibrant downtown literary centre go up in smoke. Many times he’d told himself, it was fitting: first a divorce, then business failure. What next? Good things came in threes, his father always told him—Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, Three Stooges. Bad things too?

As Marty paid for their lunch, Jeff noticed Adia’s acorn-coloured skin and how one side of her mouth rose in a crooked smile. On the way home, he thought about the lilt of her voice when she said “gentlemen.” It was the first time since his divorce that a woman had occupied his mind for more than a few seconds.

After dropping his father off, Jeff drove back to his efficiency apartment. He checked his answering machine for messages, but here was nothing but a robo-call from a credit card company offering to unburden him of the high-interest rate on his Visa account.

He spent the rest of the afternoon watching a college football game. When the commercials ran, Jeff muted the sound and did New York Times crossword puzzles. When the crowd streamed onto the field to celebrate a victory he realised he didn’t know which teams had played. After eating leftovers, he fell asleep for half an hour watching more football. He started another crossword puzzle but was too tired to finish. He thought of making a few revisions to a difficult puzzle he’d been working on, but he didn’t have the energy. It was half past nine when he curled up in bed.

*

A month later, he sat at a table by himself at Old Country Inn. It was as crowded as ever, but Jeff felt alone. Adia delivered his meal.

“I remember you,” she said. “You were with your father, right?”

“That’s right. Sorry, did I not notice that you took my order?”

“It wasn’t me. I took over for Jillian. She’s done for the day, and I have her tables now.”

“Ah.” Jeff looked at his food. “Oh, I didn’t order this. I always get a Caesar salad.”

“Oh dear. Jillian wrote BLT, I’m sure of it. Let me take it back and I’ll have them rush a salad.”

“No, no. It’s okay. I’ll have this. I haven’t had a BLT for a long time. It looks good.”

Adia nodded and smiled. “You did a lot of crossword puzzles, right? And wrote them too.”

“You have a good memory.”

“You seemed to be a student of language. You told me about the word ‘swill.’ I’m working here to earn some money for my M.F.A. I’m already accepted, but I deferred for a year to save more. I write poetry. I love to talk about words with people.”

“I’m not exactly a student of language. I write puzzles. I know bits and pieces about lots of words, nothing more.”

“Still. There are lots of ways to play with language, and make it sing for you.”
He shrugged. “I suppose so.”

“And your father? Where’s he? He’s a character, that one.”

Jeff lowered his eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Adia. “Something happened?”

“Heart attack. Waxing his car. The funeral was two weeks ago.”

Adia’s face clouded. “I lost both my parents. Years ago. In a traffic accident. It’s a violent revolution when they’re gone. No matter how close you are to them.”

Jeff nodded. “You were probably annoyed by his silly jokes.”

“At first. But he actually helped me. Saved my job for me.”

“How so?”

“I remember that day. I’d been on the job only a week and I’d managed to mess up as much as it was possible to mess up. Broke several glasses. Even took the wrong order to the same customer twice in a row. When you and your father came in, after he pulled out the bloody nail, I went to my supervisor and told her I didn’t think I could handle the guy at Table 7. She told me I had better, or I was gone. So I did it. I had to adjust to whatever he gave me. He tested me, and I managed. I had to admit he was pretty funny. My mother would have said he had a playful soul.”

“He embarrassed most of his family when he did that. We’d heard and seen his routine so many times, and people waiting on him got flustered.”

“Maybe souls don’t get to choose the bodies they inhabit. Or if they do, they make confusing choices.” Adia looked around. “I have to get back to my shift.”

Jeff ate the BLT while reading the newspaper. When Adia came back to the table to clear his plate, he asked a question he’d thought about most of the meal.

“I wondered—this might be a little forward, I don’t know if you’re with someone—if we could meet sometime. We could talk about words and how they play. How they sing.”

Adia’s eyebrows lifted. “That’s the nicest invitation I’ve had in a long time. I am unattached, for the record.” She tore off an order slip, wrote a telephone number on the back, and handed it to Jeff.

“I’ll call soon,” said Jeff. “And watch out, I may also invite you to read some of your poetry at my bookstore—if I’m still in business.”

He left Old Country Inn after waving to Adia who was taking orders from a table of eight. He sat in his car but didn’t start it right away. He let his mind drift and after a few minutes looked at his watch. He had a doctor’s appointment in an hour to discuss a recurrent back problem. He still had time to make a detour to his bookstore. There he rummaged in some boxes he’d stored in the back after his father’s death. He arrived at the medical centre about five minutes early, and as he walked to the entrance, he slipped Marty’s roofing nail and bloody bandage over his right index finger.

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Rudy Koshar’'s fiction and nonfiction appear in Guernica, The Montreal Review, Wisconsin People & Ideas, Black Heart Magazine, Revolution House, Eclectica, and elsewhere. His short story “Fallen Magi” was the second-place winner of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters 2013 Fiction Contest. The recipient of Guggenheim and other fellowships, he has written or edited seven books on modern European history. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.