Friday, June 15, 2012

Issue #30: June, 2012

By Patti Abbott

She saw kids like him every day since the café sat only a block from the juvie court. But this one—hunched in the doorway at seven a.m.—looked a bit older. More worn down than the usual teenager. Skeletal and dirty, like he hadn’t had a shower or even a basin to wash in for days. Smelled, too. Not outrageous, but damn ripe. He’d probably spent the night in one of the stairwells that snaked through the development. With the recent cutbacks, Tucson cops had better things to do than chase down vagrants.

Oh, what the hell. “Want in?” she asked. The boy nodded. “Got money to buy something?” He reached into his jeans and a grimy hand came up with a bill or two. With little enthusiasm, she opened the door and waved him in. “Be with you in a sec.”

After her divorce five years back, Abby got the café, the cat, Cleo, and her bike. Ned got the house, the car, and the puppy—she’d forgotten its name. Ned never liked working here—or most any place for that matter—and the cat made him sneeze. Cleo died three months later, mourning her exile from Ned. A month or two later, a car backed over the bike.

And what looked like a thriving little business in 2006 became one of the few spaces rented after the crash. Whoever thought this would be a good spot for a travel agency, a shoe boutique or a fancy pottery shop was dead wrong. Businesses that stuck fed off the nearby courts. A newsstand, a barber shop, a pharmacy, a taco stand, and a bail bondsman were her only neighbors in a retail space built for thirty shops. The guy shining shoes just had an overhang to shade him, so you couldn’t count him.

Once inside the café, the boy slumped down at a table and immediately fell asleep, head propped on his arm. She could see a hole the size of a potato in the sole of his shoe. Frowning, she began preparations for the day ahead. As the café was across from the Tucson Visitors Center but close to the courts, it got an unpredictable blend of customers. Affluent tourists mixed uneasily with people meeting a court date. Or worse still, with homeless people needing a place to pee. There was no bathroom in the café, but a public restroom was twenty feet away and gave her less than a scenic view. If the courts were closed, she might as well be too. She began making coffee—though nothing a barista would brew. Price was a top priority for her clientele. Most days she threw half the pot away.

During his time here, Ned had insisted that every item in the café be marked with its price, and although at first it seemed cheap and dumb—like him—she stuck with it even after his departure. If someone came in wanting a pack of gum, a miniature cactus, or a detailed map of the city and she was busy, more often than not, they’d leave the money on the counter. Anything to do with heat, cacti, and sun was bound to sell. And it never hurt to have aspirin, cold remedies, souvenirs, word jumbles, golf balls, comics, condoms, and small toys. On a slow day, she’d been known to do a jumble or two. She also had a copier, which came in handy for folks on their way to court. Some days, that copier got more of a workout than she did.

She went in the back room now, relying on the bell to ring if a real customer came in. The kid was snoring, and she wondered if she’d have to call the cops at some point to get rid of him. He was sure to put legitimate customers off but seemed harmless to her. She’d gotten pretty good at sniffing out trouble. Ned had left his gun behind for protection, a relic from his days in Texas. After trying several locations, she kept it in its pouch in the broken microwave.

Coffee, tea, hot water, and a few prepared sandwiches were the first order of business. Sometimes people came in with only a few minutes to spare before their trial resumed so it made sense to have something they could grab. She opened the box from Dunkin’ Donuts and put them on a clean plate. The bagels were from a local chain. She fried up some bacon because not a day went by when someone didn’t want a BLT and then put a half-dozen eggs on to boil. After a few half-hearted tries, she gave up the idea of a taqueria and stuck with typical café grub.

He was awake when she came out at 7:20. She set the donuts and bagels on the counter and walked over to his table. “What can I get you?”

“Wha…” he said, only half-awake. He looked around, seemingly surprised to find himself here. But after a few seconds, his eyes focused and found the menu on the whiteboard. She knew he was looking for the cheapest item he could order and hang on to his seat. There were only three tables and she never filled all of them. But he didn’t know that.

“How ’bout—ah—some coffee and a Slim Jim.” Their eyes simultaneously lit on the jar on the counter, the price marked on the glass in turquoise.

 “Not really sitting-down food, kid. If things get busy…”

He nodded.

“Might as well throw in an egg or two. ’Bout to go bad.”  She cursed herself. If she’d ever had a kid, he would’ve run all over her.

“Hey, thanks.” To her surprise, he pulled out a cell phone—one of the disposable kinds—and dialed a number.

Her back to him, she broke three eggs in the pan. He was calling what seemed to be a former employer, asking if there were any landscaping jobs. Painting to be done? Flyers to be distributed?

“I can get out there by bus,” he kept assuring someone. “Wouldn’t take me a half hour.”

Sounded like he had a cold, and her suspicions were confirmed when she turned in time to see him run a sleeve across his nose. Jiminy, did her good luck never end? She’d have it by the weekend. And she’d hoped to drive up to Ironwood on Sunday.

If Abby had her way—and she knew it sounded crazy because Ned had told her this enough times— she’d ditch this place and become a pot-bellied pig rescuer. She’d done it a few times when Ned was still around and sharing the café duties. Ironwood, the sanctuary an hour north of Tucson, had as many as 600 pigs at any time. People thought they were cute, bought them, and then ditched them when they turned out to be pig-sized. Teacup-sized, they called them in brochures and shops. Ha! The work was hard, just lifting the 50 pound bags of feed was crippling for a 110-pound woman. And there was no pay in it; most of the workers had regular jobs. You did it out of love—or for some other fucked-up reason. Being out at the sanctuary full-time, well, that was a pipedream. A café up there would do less business than Adam and Eve’s place in Eden.

A couple came in, saw the boy, and looked at each other.

“Get you something?” Abby asked quickly. She turned the burner off and faced them.

“We’re waiting for the tourist office to open,” the man said apologetically. “Printed the wrong opening time in the guidebook.” He pulled off his cap and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Surprising how many mistakes the books make. Wrong addresses, wrong opening times, prices…”

“I guess they can’t visit every tourist spot each year,” his wife said, trying to console him.

Abby continued to stand there, expectant. “Guess we’ll have a cup of coffee and…” he looked at his wife.

“Iced tea?” She wore one of those visors—the kind that didn’t mess up your hair. And sunglasses that took up half her face. She looked at the plate of donuts. “And maybe we’ll split a bear claw.”

“We just sell the bottled stuff.” Abby nodded toward the cooler. Five years alone and she still said we, but it never hurt to let people think someone else was around.  

 “I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey then.” They sat down at the table nearest the door and pulled out their guidebook.

“First time in Tucson?” Abby asked the couple as she set the eggs on the boy’s table.

He was talking to someone else now, telling them his mother had kicked him out when a new boyfriend came along, that his father was long gone.

“Think a father would want to see his son once every decade,” he told the person. “And I paid all my traffic fines, so I wouldn’t be tempted to hit him up for any dough. Just wanted to…”

“Been here once before,” the man said, playing with the brim on his Red Sox cap. “Back in the nineties.” He wore a Sox tee shirt too.

“We’re here on business this time,” his wife said. “Sort of looking for opportunities in the Southwest. We’re sick of the winter. Right, Hugh?”

“Right.” Hugh sounded less sure.

“And neither of us likes Florida. The rain, the insects, and everyone’s older than Methuselah.”

Abby carried the bear claw and drinks over to their table. “You mean like investing in property?” she asked. She’d just heard on the news last night that one in three houses in Tucson sold for under one-hundred thousand now. Investors could scoop them up and wait for things to pick up.

“Something like that,” the man said.  Simultaneously, they each took a sip of their drink and grimaced. Abby kept the water hot, thinking it could cool off but not warm up. The woman cut the bear claw in half, but Hugh waved his portion away.

“Sure must be hot in July,” the woman said, taking a bite.

“You bet,” Abby said, responding to a comment she heard several times a day. Her mind was on her other customer if you could call him that. He was on his third phone call, showing no signs of letting up.

“If I could just get my hands on a few bucks a day, I’d do almost any work,” he was saying into the cell. “Even turn tricks, come down to that. Done it before.” His voice rose in pitch with his misery, and Abby could feel the couple bristling behind her. “But mostly, I like to work with live things—maybe at a nursery or a in a park,” he continued. “If I could just get somethin’ like that. Even five bucks a day would do me. I don’t mind living rough.” He slammed the phone down and slurped up some coffee. The Slim Jim lay unwrapped on the table, but the eggs were gone. Abby watched as his eyes lit on the cash register, then on the couple across from him.

“Nice little spot you have here,” Hugh broke in. “Do a lot worse than owning a café by the courthouse and not two blocks from the library and art museum. Probably get a lot of tourists with the bureau right over there.”

“That’s what my husband thought ten years back.”

“Didn’t turn out that way, huh?”

“Things been pickin’ up lately,” she lied. “Worst of it’s over, they say.”

The boy was on the phone again, explaining in a lower voice that he couldn’t return a call—had no number to give out. “Phone’s only good for making calls.” His voice sound resigned to it—whatever it was.

“Okay, then. Well, the place is behind the courts in an adobe mall. Kinda blue-green.” He looked up at the window. “Stop-in Café.” Snorting, the kid tossed the phone down and put his head back on his arms.

In the years she’d been here, Abby had always feared a robbery—especially after Ned took off. Or some sort of incident she was ill-equipped to handle. Someone bursting through the door and demanding something from her—something she couldn’t possibly provide. Something Ned hadn’t put a price tag on. It was inevitable, wasn’t it? But maybe not today. It was possible that a relative was coming to pick the kid up. Maybe a parole officer, a priest. Someone harmless.

And she had the gun. When Ned first gave it to her, he insisted on taking her to a target range in Apache Junction where she could practice shooting. “Not bad for the first time,” he said, examining the target afterward. “You could really be something if you wanted to.”

“Like what,” she’d asked. It’d be great to really be something.

“You two ought to try it out?” she said suddenly to the couple.

“Try what out?” the woman said, finishing her tea. Her hands glistened with sugar in the bright light.

“Running a café. See if it suits you. I can walk you through the place some day. I’ve had about enough Arizona for this life.” She turned to the boy. “Hey, kid. Gotta name?”

He stood up, looking confused—like she’d asked him a difficult question.  

“Got a job for you working with live things. Pay’s not great, but they’ll have a place for you to sleep. Food, too. You good with animals?”

He shrugged. “You mean like dogs?”

She could picture someone coming through the door, someone with a gun or a grudge or a gripe of some sort. That gun in the microwave might not even work by now. Probably needed to oil it more than once every five years. Ned had said something about that. Faster she got this kid out of here, the better. She’d been wrong when she thought he was harmless. When she didn’t pick up the scent.

“Something like that,” she finally said. “I think you’re going to like this job I have in mind. There’s a sign just before you get to Ironwood that says, ‘We are looking for a dedicated person who is ready to commit to the care of unwanted and abused pot-bellied pigs. Is that YOU?’”

He seemed to think she was asking him the question rather than quoting the sign and said, “Yes. But is that a real thing?” he asked. “What you just said—pot-bellied pigs?”

“It’s about an hour north of here.” She scrambled in the drawer for the card she kept handy. Sometimes she solicited donations for the place and stuck the card on the jar.
“There’s a pig out there with your name on it,” she said.

“I’d need a bus to get out there.” He paused a minute. “And the fare.”

She was looking for the bus schedule when Hugh butt in. “We can give him a lift. Right, honey.” He put a ten on the table, stashing his guidebook in his knapsack. “Planned to wander north anyway.”

Abby slammed the drawer shut and handed Hugh the card. “Sure it’s not out of your way? I got a bus schedule somewhere.”

The woman—Abby never did catch her name—said, “We’re just trying places out today. Looking for an opportunity. Maybe we’ll want to rescue dogs.”

“Pigs,” Abby said. “Pot-bellied pigs.”

Hugh smiled. “We’ve done worse in our time.” He looked at the boy and then at the card. “Ready for Ironwood, Son.”

“Tell them I sent you,” Abby said. “They’ll know who Abby is.”

The boy looked like an underfed child walking out the door between them. The man, sensing this perhaps, took one arm. His wife took the other. Abby watched as they passed a trash can where Hugh tossed the card she’d given him. They passed the tourist bureau without a sideward glance, closing in on the boy so she could hardly see him now. His disposable phone still lay on the table, she noticed. She was about to run after them when the bell rang and a customer came in.

Maybe he’d come back for the phone. She put it behind the counter and stuck the Slim Jim back in the glass jar.  

Patti Abbott’s collection, Monkey Justice, was published in 2011 by Snubnose Press. She is also the co-editor of Discount Noir (Untreed Reads). She has published more than 100 stories in various venues, winning a Derringer for her story “My Hero.” She lives outside Detroit.


  1. I love the setting of this. And thanks for the anxiety, Patti, it goes really well with my morning slim jim and coffee!

  2. Smashing, writing, strong characters, beaut story. Must be Patti Abbott.

  3. Patti's people always turn out to be so damn real. You get sucked into their world, and there's no mercy for them--or you.

  4. The dread builds and lasts even when the words end. Good one!

  5. Oh, no. I just want to run after that kid, screaming for him not to go with them. Well done, Patti!