Leanna, Fredo, and I have dinner plans every Thursday night, at The Marigold Café near the hospital where Leanna works as a hospice nurse. She spends her days changing bedpans and reading Charles Dickens to old men without wives and families to care for them; or if they could take care of them, they'd honestly prefer not to.
Leanna and I have been friends — essentially best friends — since the 6th grade when we got seated next to each other in science class. She asked my name and she showed me her notebook filled with drawings of her dog and I talked about computer games.
We hit it off and stayed friends over the past 10 years — at least that's how she'd tell it. But, if you look closely, we're really friends because have similar last names — O'Connor and O'Hannah — we're friends by proximity. But I never mention that part, she likes the stories more than the facts.
Leanna arrives first, filled with sad stories she'll never tells us. On the occasions we've gotten stories out of her, we don't have a way out because it gets too dark, too fast. That guy in room 2C who kept crying for coffee, but due to his dialysis and diet restrictions he was only allowed to have lemon water or hot chocolate. So they just gave him water with food dye and told him it's coffee; he never noticed.
Or that other guy who called her a bitch before having a stroke, foaming at the mouth, and dying in front of her. It's pretty impressive to keep your faith in humanity when someone's last words are intense hate towards you. She only tells us the good stuff; the families who leave her thank you cards after the wake and the bearded guy who comes in once a week to play show-tunes on the ukulele for the awake ones.
Leanna: How was work, Dear? (you can almost feel her leaning towards you with sincere, empathetic interest)
Me: Well, I sat in a chair, tapped on a keyboard, and didn't make any real memories other than that one time I went to the fridge and poured a diet coke that turned out to be too-flat-to-drink. You?
Leanna: The usual things. No one died, so that was good. Although sometimes I do think some of these people would have better overall lives if they didn't.
Me: Yeah, but it's a hard to offer murder-as-a-service. People tend to go to hospitals to prolong life, so they might not love the upsell.
Leanna: Oh, of course, of course I'd never suggest we kill anyone. But, sometimes they're just so...
Fredo passes by the window in a vape cloud with headphones on. We both turn to watch him and Leanna puts on chap-stick instead of finishing her sentence.
Fredo doesn't have sad stories to share — but his whole life is kind of train-wreck. He works for his dad, Jack Mergman of Mergman Motors; the used car lot on Cavalier Ave. When Leanna and I went off to college, Fredo stayed home to work at the family business and has barely ever left this town. He spent a summer in Texas with his cousins, riding motorbikes and smoking schwag-weed from an apple, but apart from that, "I'm from Wise, Virginia. Born and Raised." He's set to inherit the business, so he's "Vice President of some shit" and spends his days vaping and listening to Metallica until a poor carless schlub errors into their lot.
Fredo: How's it hangin', y'all? (Fredo yells over the café, like an asshole — a love-able asshole, but still super loud, dude.)
Us, including some of the Management: Hey, Fredo.
Marianne appears from behind the counter with menus, although she knows we know the menu already.
Fredo: Marianne! How's the kids? Benji and Geronimo still getting into the liquor cabinet?
Marianna: I don't have kids, Fredo, and I don't want them; especially if they turn out like you.
Fredo: Oh, you're a hoot, Marianne. I'll have a Mountain Dew and a Reuben.
Marianna: Disgusting. And y'all?
Me: Grilled Chicken Sandwich, extra lettuce, no tomato. And a water, thank you.
Leanna: Oh Marianne, I ate a late lunch, so maybe a muffin? Some kind of pastry, on the smaller side.
Marianne: You got it.
Marianne is such a waitress that it kinda borders on parody. Maybe pastiche is a better word? A spry 44 years old, she doesn't seem to be hindered by the label. Some waitresses seem sad to be waitresses, but she seems content with life in the café.
Fredo: Okay, Story Time, kiddos; so this guy shows up on the lot today, with four thousand dollars in cash, in his FRONT POCKET, which is a total power-move. I can see it bulging and everything. He doesn't even wander the lot like most people, he just waltz's right up to me and says "What can I buy for $4,000?" And, like, you can buy most of the cars we have for 4k. So, I ask, like, "truck, car, sedan, muscle car, what's your style?" And he looks at me, like, really looks at me with these beady eyes and says "Fast", but doesn't even change his facial expression or anything, just "Fast", like he's in a hurry. So, I point him to this 2001 Miata, just arrived a couple of days ago, 140k miles, but those things run forever, and he says nothing and hands me the cash from his pocket, rolled up with a rubber-band. No questions, just hands it to me and says "Okay, great."
Leanna: Woah! Did he look like a bank-robber or something?
Me: No one robs a bank and only has 4k to spend on a car. How'd he get there, did someone drop him off?
Fredo: No, he just walked down Cavalier St. and into our lot. Okay, so, right, it gets weirder because when we get to the paperwork, he hands me a California drivers license. Downtown LA (I looked it up afterwards) and, again, keeps staring at me like a fuckin' weirdo and I think "This guy is on the run from something, should we take his money? Like, is this blood money?"
So, I go "Okay, let me go run this by my manager" and I go to Pops and I say "Hey, this guy is on the lot, wants to buy the Miata, and he's got $4,000 in cash and looks like he's in a hurry" and Pops doesn't even look up at me, just says "Easy sale. Get him what he wants and close the deal". So, I go "No, he's really creeping me out, he just handed me $4000 with a rubber-band" and Pops says "All the more reason to sell it quick and get him on his way." So, I sell him the car and he leaves.
Me: That's it? Normal transaction, and he leaves?
Fredo: Yeah, didn't have to run credit, so I just know his name; James Ulysses Garfield of Los Angeles, California. Even his name sounds fake.
Leanna: And your father wasn't concerned?
Fredo: No, he said go to the bank and drop it off before it gets too late. He's not gonna ask questions. I just feel like the guy was up to something.
Me: Definitely up to something. Feels like a scene out of Breaking Bad.
Leanna: Well, if he's on the run he sure got out quick.
Fredo: Yeah, maybe we could all take a lesson from him.
Leanna: What, crime pays?
Fredo: No, getting the hell out of here. He took one look at this town and was like "oh hell no, I'm not spending another moment in Wise, Virginia."
Marianne arrives with our food, and offers Leanna a couple of options before going behind the counter to grab a blueberry muffin that we all know Leanna's not going to eat.
Leanna: Wise isn't that bad, Fredo. It's like everywhere else; shops, churches, people, some nice, some not so nice; all towns are like this.
Fredo: Well, I'm gonna get out. That guy did something to me, I gotta get out of here as soon as possible.
Leanna: You always say tha...
Fredo: Well this time I mean it, dude. This place is killing me.
Me: Maybe that's the best part of shitty towns like this; they kill you sooner rather than later so you don't have to deal with it too long.
Fredo: Cheers to that.
Glasses clink, Leanna sighs, and we dig in.