Hey, Rube

An excerpt from ‘The Last Meh of Chick Valentine’ – Copyright © 2017 by Michael Kuch

THE BREAKFAST CROWD AT THE KENSINGTON DELI

Thinned into a small queue waiting to pay their checks.

A quartet of dink-faced hipsters, freshly smug and failing reverence, postured around the front door, snot deep in their smart phones to notice Chick Valentine as he slipped past.

Chick dressed in vintage stovepipe pants, slim-cut shirt untucked and suede brogues, could’ve been one of their elder tribe members.

Hip because Chick was.

It wouldn’t have donned on the clueless poseurs this old dude with the cool swagger was the real thing.  Genuine Bohemian Boomer.  Musician, songwriter and artist, dressing the way he had, for forty years.

He took a stool at the end of the counter and caught a clip of four middle-aged dads bantering in the corner booth and a pair of senior couples three down.  He removed his straw fedora and played with the brim turning it up and pinched in the crown.  Combed his fingers through a crop of sandy hair feathered with silver at the temples he wore neatly tapered over his ears and collar.  He dropped a weathered leather messenger bag on the vinyl tile, then nudged with his foot to the side.

The Alpha of the Dad Pack looked familiar enough.  Like money wasn’t a problem.  A Saturday regular holding court with his boys.  Reminded Chick of his old bassist, Ozzie, back in the day when they made music people listened to, bought in a record store, and took home to play on a turntable.  Chick’s Gretsch White Falcon hollow body bellowing under his raspy, bluesy voice.

Slick Money was hustling the new waitress and floated a Bro nod Chick’s way when they caught eyes.  He’d had men hit on him plenty of times on the road, but Alpha Daddy didn’t seem the type.  If anything, Chick was counting on the two old birds with matching Gatorade hennas gossiping over their husbands would recognize him.  Mooch up for a photo or autograph.  The heady times of public adoration and signing napkins were all behind him now.

“Geez, look what the cat dragged in,” said Ruby, making her way over.

“Hey, Rube,” said Chick, looking up.  He thought of standing and hugging her, but the moment was awkward, Ruby perched at a distance behind the counter.  “How you doing?”

“All Aces, hon.”  Ruby was holding a pot of coffee black as tar and syrupy as molasses like it was a dirty diaper on fire.  “Coffee?”

Chick nodded, pushed the cup and saucer toward Ruby.  “I’ve been away.”

“Were you ever here?”

CHICK LET IT GO

Ruby in perpetual predatory mode ready to lay three decades of guilt on Chick if he let her, knowing he should’ve called and not been so damn aloof the past few months.

“Pots been sitting longer than those flea turds in the corner,” Ruby said, letting up a little.  “Make you a fresh one, Chicklet?”

“Nah, don’t bother.”

“Menu,” Ruby turned over the cup on the saucer and filled it.  “Or the usual?”

“How’s the brisket?” Chick reached for the sugar and free poured for a two-count in the cup.

“About as tough as the purse you carried in.”  Ruby crimped her mouth and raised her eyebrows.  She pulled a handful of creamers from under the counter and spread them in front of Chick like she was packing bullets.

Chick cleared his throat about to say something.  Managed, “Ru.”

“You’d know if you dropped in, or called once a year.” A last crack to remind Chick in case he stepped out of line and got smart with her.

Okay, fine.  Ruby made her point and got it out.

“Smoked meat, lean as you can make it, please,” said Chick.  “Tell Barn he’s shaved five years off my life eating here.”

“Tell him yourself,” Ruby nodded toward the ceiling.

“Rockefeller’s upstairs patschkeing around with the books trying cheat his way to an early retirement.  If I ever talk to Grumpy Ass again, I’ll let him know Mr. Hollywood is here free-loading a meal.”

“You’re a riot, Ruby.”

“What I keep hearing, it must be true, Chico.”

RUBY LEFT FOR THE KITCHEN

Chick could hear Ruby bark the order to the line cook through the open window. 

He sipped his coffee, reached into his bag, pulled out a plain manila envelope and set it to the side waiting for Barney.

Ruby returned with a platter piled high with smoked meat on light rye, a dill pickle that could easily be a stunt double for a cucumber and a heap of crispy coleslaw on the side.

“Barn cutting back on portions?”

“Real funny coming from a guy who eats for free.”

“Touché, Ruby.”

“That’s right,” said Ruby, again with the eyebrows.  “I’ll get you some toothpicks.  The caraway seeds are like rocks, a bugger you get one caught up there.”  Ruby rolled her tongue in her mouth.

Chick smiled.

“Don’t go spilling any or you’ll be cleaning the mess up, Rainman.”  Ruby went to check on the other customers after topping up Chick’s coffee.

Chick bit into the sandwich, engulfing a corner, letting the warm mustard drip to his chin.   He was noshing on a pickle wedge when Barney came from the side and squeezed him gently on the shoulder.

“Cicero.”

“Barn.”