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Jack Palms walks into a diner just south of Japantown, the one where he's supposed to meet Ralph. As he passes the Wait to Be Seated sign, he wonders if these things didn't come standard issue with Please at the start not too long ago, back when the world was more friendly and kind.
But Jack knows what Ralph and the rest of the people who come to a place like this would tell him: Fuck that.
The diner's built out of an old cable car, with a lunch counter along one side and booths on the other. Ralph sits alone at the last table, eating, hunched over his plate, long brown hair hanging curly around his face, his blue-and-white Hawaiian shirt clashing with the ugly checked wallpaper. He hasn't gotten any younger or prettier over the years: His pockmarked cheeks move like a rabbit's, his eyebrows form a thick mustache over his eyes. He wears wide sunglasses, the kind blind people wear, pushed up onto the top of his head.
Ralph smiles when he sees Jack. "Jacky boy," he says, showing Jack the other side of his booth with a big hand, not getting up. "You look good. Like you added a little weight." He winks. "In a good way."
"Thanks." Jack pats his rib cage. He calculates it's been three years since he last saw Ralph. Three years and then the phone call this morning, asking Jack to come in on a deal.
"You see that game against the Mets?" Ralph starts, saying no one should be allowed to pitch around Bonds, the steroids home-run machine, that the Giants lost because the Mets did just that. Ralph shakes his head. "I guarantee you: They pitch to Bonds, he puts that shit in the Bay."
"Just coffee," Jack tells the waitress, who's come out from behind the counter. She stops with the brown-rimmed pot tilted over the table. When Jack says, "Decaf," it's clear she's not happy about having to go back for the other pot.
"And toast," Ralph adds. "He'll have a wheat toast, darling." The waitress, pushing forty and only a few years from when the days on her feet and gravity will own her, smiles and tips her head. "Thank you." He winks. When she's gone: "You got to have toast or something. So they know we're not camping." He tilts his head, forking more waffle into his mouth.
"Just don't eat it." He shrugs. "I'm buying."
"Right," Jack says. Next to Ralph's untouched water, two butts half fill his ashtray: one coming in and one with his coffee, waiting for Jack and his food, Jack guesses. He's a quarter into his waffle and has a side of eggs and bacon that he hasn't touched. Ralph did a good job syrupping the waffle: buttered it first, went liberal, and stayed away from the fruit flavors-no blueberry or apple bullshit.
"Listen, Jack." Ralph barely looks up, cuts the next quarter waffle into strips. "I'm real sorry about how that shit went down with Victoria. How you handling yourself?" He looks up, pauses from eating.
Jack runs his finger over the rim of his coffee mug. "Getting by, Ralph. Thanks for your concern."
"Because I feel for you about Victoria telling people you hit her." He shakes his head. "That wasn't good." He looks at Jack, like he's trying to get it all figured out right then and there. "You didn't, right?"
"And that wasn't cool that they pulled the money for your sequel, dumped the project." He forks a big piece of waffle into his mouth. "I'm sorry about that too."
"So what's the basics here, Ralph? The big picture?"
Ralph nods. "It's a buy," he says, mouth full, using his fork to point. "Easy and simple: a buy and a sell. One big trade, no small shit or breaking up of product. We each stand to make a couple thou for a few days' work."
"You said on the phone we'd be set for good."
Ralph shrugs. "Shit, Jack. I needed to get you down here to hear this, right?"
Jack looks around the diner, thinks about how it'd feel to just get up and walk out. But then he considers the two thousand reasons to stay and the guy from the bank calling this morning about his missed mortgage payments.
A sip of coffee and Ralph cuts off some eggs with his fork and adds them to what he's already chewing. "You want this bacon?" he asks. "I'm trying to watch my cholesterol."
The waitress comes back with the decaf pot and fills Jack's cup until he stops her about an inch from the top. He's glad Ralph doesn't ask about the decaf, doesn't want to explain that he had his coffee at home and knows a second cup will leave him too jittery to deal with Ralph's shit. She drops off a small plate of dry wheat bread, lightly toasted, at the top of Jack's placemat. Little pats of butter line the side of the plate, the kind you have to peel the paper off of. Ralph drops two bacon strips on top of the bread. "Make yourself a sandwich," he says.
Jack adds a sugar to his coffee and stirs it with one of the diner's dirty spoons, adding a half-and-half. "So what's the who? The when?"
Ralph goes on eating. "The when is still up in the air, but I say it happens within the week. Thursday or Friday. The who you don't need now. I'd tell you, but it wouldn't mean anything. You're too long out of this game."
Jack nods, sits back in his chair, and looks at the little white mug of decaf, thinking about whether he should walk out. "Tell me why you need me."
"Listen. You made that sequel, you'd be in a whole different world right now, financially and otherwise." Ralph holds up his hand, stopping Jack before he can tell him to shut up. "I know," he says. "Enough. But I'll just say I heard you're touching down on your luck, that maybe you could use a little money. That's why I called."
Jack takes a bitter sip of coffee, puts the mug back down. "I'm listening."
"I need a side, a guy who can come along, maybe drive a nice car and get us into some respectable places if these guys want a nice time in the city. You still got the Fastback, right?" Jack nods. "And that mug of yours can still get us past a few red ropes. More than mine anyway, probably more than any of the suckers' I know."
Jack lifts up a triangle of toast and looks at it, puts it back. With butter, maybe it'd be all right, but plain it looks like warm cardboard. "You see my name in the papers lately?" he asks. "No one gives a shit who I am anymore."
"Exactly, my man. They see you, people don't care, but maybe a small part of them remembers your face, knows you from the movie. I know it, you know it. That's why you wear the hat." He points to Jack's baseball cap, the Red Sox World Series Edition that he's taken to wearing when he comes into the city. "They recognize you and sometimes it's good: 'Oh, Jack Palms, you the man from Shake 'Em Down.' Then sometimes it's not good; someone says, 'You the guy got addicted to smack and hit his wife. The one never made a second movie.' Either way, bad or good, they like knowing you, recognizing someone they think is a celebrity. And we get the treatment we want."
Jack doesn't want to believe it comes down to this, to hear this is what people think of him, that he's down to the point where these are his options. He's been up in Sausalito for a long time now, two years of hiding away from the city, cleaning himself up, but he can't hide out forever, especially with his money from the movie running out.
Jack takes a deep breath. The flat surface of his coffee has no reflection. Bacon lies across his toast, grease soaking into the bread. He wonders how Ralph can still be eating like this and partying like he used to, how nothing's changed, nothing's come along and kicked his ass like the newspapers did when they came to take Jack's picture in handcuffs.
"I apologize, Jacky." Ralph puts his hands flat on the table, no longer eating. "But you know how it is. I know the papers got it wrong, but let's be honest about the street: You not the man anymore, Jack, but you still got something."
Jack sips his coffee: cold already and bitter. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. "Okay," he says. "I'm in."
Ralph nods, fluffs his eggs, and forks in a mouthful. "Good," he says. "It's Eastern Europeans coming in from out of town, Czechs traveling big-time, looking for a large chunk of blow. We meet them, take them out, show them The Guy, and see that the deal goes off. It's easy."
"Right. And they'll pay big for that."
"Relax." Ralph stops eating for a beat, points his fork at Jack. "Why so skeptical? It's just a trade. Big trade. Don't doubt, bro." He forks up a big chunk of eggs, rubs it in the syrup. "I just need a backup. And for high rollers, I have to look good. That's why I call you. When I say we do this, I mean we do the fucker. No stops." He brings the fork to his mouth.
Jack nods. It's been a long time since he's worked anything. Maybe he's just getting nerves; maybe he just needs to be involved with something outside of his own house. He thinks about where he'd be right now if Ralph hadn't called: probably at the gym lifting or out on a morning run, things he needed at first to keep himself sane while he cleaned up. Now he's clean; he needs something new.
"When do we start?"
Ralph laughs while chewing and catches some egg going down the wrong way. He coughs into the top of his fist. When he finishes catching his breath, he says, "That part you can just leave up to me, baby."
Two days later, after Jack's run his three miles and just started a coffee, Ralph calls again. He says to meet him downtown that night at eight, at the Hotel Regis on Stockton. Jack doesn't know the hotel but knows the neighborhood around it: the city's boutique shopping. The finest places: only designer names and upscale hotels.
Jack takes out a cigarette, his one of the day: the one he smokes with his cup of coffee in the morning, the one that reminds him where he's been. He kicked the junk three years ago, one thousand sixty-six days exactly, and hasn't had a drink in two years. No other cigarettes, just this one every morning.
He looks out over the Bay while he smokes, through the huge kitchen windows that were the biggest selling point of the house, the thing Victoria fell in love with first. Now he's used to the view, to seeing the tiny sailboats move about on the water while he eats. As he takes a long drag, he feels the familiar nausea and closes his eyes, eases into the comfort of his chair. The rest of the cigarette goes slowly, bringing the day to a crawl that Jack can appreciate now, knowing the afternoon will feature things he doesn't know and might not be prepared for.
When he's done, he snuffs out the cigarette, gets up and washes his hands, scrubs them vigorously with soap to remove any of the smell from his fingertips, knowing it won't ever work. He takes down the cereal and a ceramic bowl off the shelves that Victoria had installed when she remodeled the kitchen.
He skims the front page of the newspaper while he eats, looks out over the Bay, thinking about what Ralph's going to get him into with this and whether it's worth it. Compared to sitting around all day, there's hardly a choice. Compared to losing the house and looking for an apartment he can't afford either, he's ready to hit the shower and get dressed to go.
The phone rings and Jack waits it out, finally hears his answering machine beep. The plain voice of an agent from his bank comes on, the second call in as many days, asking Jack to call back, make an appointment to come in and discuss his loan. Jack knows what the bank knows-that he's late on the second payment in a row now and doesn't have the money. He's just transferred the balance from one credit card to another, buying himself some time, but the bank won't wait much longer.
Out in the Bay, a steamer makes its way around Alcatraz, heading for the port of Oakland.
Jack dresses in jeans and a dark button-down, not tucked in. For too long he's been up here wearing sweats and tracksuits, going to the gym, and it feels good to be clean, dressed. Back in L.A. he dressed up for parties, went out to clubs all the time, had work to take care of. With Victoria, he'd dress even nicer: tuck in, wear a suit jacket every once in a while. But that was back then. Even before the divorce, after her first time in rehab, they stopped going out, mostly just stayed at home to nurse their addictions.
He stops at the mirror in the living room before going out to the garage. This is where he usually puts on his Sox hat, but now he leaves it on the rack. He looks at himself in the mirror, runs his hand over the short brown hair that he cuts himself every couple of weeks with electric clippers, smoothes the skin over his face that he shaves clean now every couple of days. In L.A., he used to have his hair styled and he'd wear a goatee or something else whenever he wanted, shaved himself with an electric, and had a good time playing with the styles, but not now. Now he shaves with a razor, hot water, lather, and a badger brush. His face feels tight, the skin sensitive, but he takes his chin in his hand and looks at the side of his face, the bump on his nose from when he broke it playing football in high school. He's still in there, he tells himself, the guy he's known his whole life, alive and breathing, has the same looks that got him the movie, and has even added a little muscle since he made Shake 'Em Down, the movie where he drove the fast car, won all the fights, got all the girls.