Detective Sergeant Block’s name matched the man himself, a square-jawed, square-faced, square-shouldered policeman whose pale gray eyes revealed little. That night his pale grays scrutinized the older man seated before him.
“So, how does this work, Detective?” said the older man. “Should I call you Detective? Or should it be Sergeant?”
“I don’t care, Mr. Giambrocco. Just start at the beginning. Walk us through the events of this evening.”
“You can call me Tony. It’s really Anthony, but everyone calls me Tony. Everyone except my Nonna. But it really started long before tonight, you know? I have to go back to 1965 to the real beginning.”
“Whatever, Tony. Just get on with it.”
“Okay. I used to work at a fast food restaurant called Howdy’s Hamburgers. You’re too young to remember it. It’s long gone. Curt Gowdy used to do their commercials on the radio when he announced the Red Sox games. ‘Howdy, I’m Curt Gowdy,’ he’d say, and dive in to the commercial. I worked at Howdy’s to earn money for college. I was determined to leave this place and not get stuck in Rollstone forever.”
“Okay, okay. And please. Call me Tony. It was a Thursday—I remember because there was a big basketball game, and games were on Tuesdays and Thursdays—so I guess it might have been a Tuesday, but I’m sure it was Thursday. Anyway, Rollstone High was playing Saint Bernard’s High for the city championship. We used to call them Saint Barnyard’s. I don’t know if they still do.”
Detective Block twirled his index finger in a circle.
“Yeah, sure—sorry. You know what it’s like between the two schools now. Well it hasn’t changed much. Most of the St. Bernard’s kids were Swedes and lived on The Hill, while the rest of us at the public high school lived across the river in Little Italy. We called it The Patch. There were other kids, like yourself, not that you’re a kid, but most of them were from those two areas. So, the rivalry between the two schools always had ethnic overtones to it, you know?
“Anyway, after the big game, kids started streaming into Howdy’s. St. Bernard’s had won, and their kids were chanting ‘Blue and White! Blue and White!’—those were their school colors—taunting the public high schoolers in their red-and-gold jackets. The parochial school kids were being turds, but they were just kids, you know?
“Anyway, I had my eyes on this black-haired beauty named Maria Marinelli. She was the first girl to ever work at Howdy’s. Up until then they always hired boys. I’d been working on getting a date with her all week. That night she was on French fries, working behind the counter with me. Every chance I’d get I’d tease her about her fries. You know.
“Of course, Erik Carlson shows up in his blue wool sports jacket with white leather sleeves and his letter for varsity baseball. He’d been pushing me around ever since junior high. There was that one time when he beat me up after school and threw me in a trash can in front of everyone. I always said I’d get even, but he was a big jock and I was just a scrawny nerd. Still, I was sure I’d get even sometime.”
“Does all this have a point?” Detective Block was clearly becoming impatient.
“Yes. What happened tonight has a direct connection to what happened that night in 1965. Here’s how it went back then…
Erik Carlson swaggered up to the counter.
“Hey, Rocco. I see you’re still slinging burgers,” he said.
“My name’s Tony and you know it. What do you want, Carlson?”
“What I don’t want is your attitude, Burger Boy. I’ll have three hamburgers, two fries and a Coke. And extra pickles on the burgers.” He leaned into the window and leered at Maria. “I like pickles, don’t you, Maria?”
Maria busied herself with the frying baskets, but I could see the color rising to her face.
“That’ll be seventy-six cents, Erik.”
“Wait a minute. You didn’t write anything down. You didn’t ring it up. How do you know how much it is?”
“Because, Erik, I do this for a living.”
“Yeah? Well I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
“Three hamburgers at fourteen cents is forty-two cents.” The register chinged as I slammed the keys. “Two fries at eleven cents is twenty-two cents.” Ching. “And one Coke at twelve cents is twelve cents.” Ching. “Your total is therefore seventy-six cents.” Ching-ching. The register drawer popped open and I stuck out my hand for the money. “Which you would have known if you hadn’t flunked Mr. Hobbs’ math class in eighth grade.”
Carlson sneered and said, “You just got lucky.” He tossed a wrinkled dollar bill on the counter and I gave him his change.
A few minutes after he retrieved his order, an irate Erik Carlson elbowed his way to the front of the line.
“Hey, Burger Boy! I told you I wanted extra pickles!” He waved a half-bitten burger in my face. “I got no pickles! None!” He proceeded to peel away the top of the bun and thrust the red, yellow, and white mess of ketchup, mustard, and chopped onions at my nose.
Instinctively I backed up a step. Erik wound up in a fastball motion and pitched the burger remains at my head. I ducked and heard a scream. I turned to see a startled Maria with a half a burger stuck to her hair and red, yellow, and white spattered over her face and uniform.
I lost it. We kept squeeze bottles by the register for customers who wanted to drench their French fries in ketchup. They were within easy reach. I grabbed one, pointed it at Carlson and squeezed hard, emptying the bottle all over his blonde hair, chiseled face, white tee shirt, and blue wool sports jacket with white leather sleeves and his letter for varsity baseball.
After the initial shock, Erik roared and grabbed me by my shirt and hauled me over the counter and through the window. In spite of his superior size and strength, it was an awkward move, and we tumbled to the floor with me on top. I heard an ‘Oof’ from Erik and he lay still.
When I arose, I was covered in ketchup. We used an off brand that came in gallon jugs and was made with a healthy dose of Red Dye Number 2, which made it a deep red. Some might call it a blood red.
A co-ed screamed, and then another. One of the St. Bernard’s kids punched a kid in red and gold. Pretty soon everyone was fighting. Someone ran to the parking lot to fetch the cops who were always hanging about on game nights. They called for back-up. And an ambulance. The cops shut down Howdy’s for hours.
“That explains the arrest on your rap sheet. What’s the rest of the story?”
“The rest of the story is that the manager fired me and wouldn’t give me a reference. Between that and my arrest record I couldn’t get the jobs I needed to earn enough money for college. I gave what money I had to my younger brother and he went to school instead. He earned a degree in hospitality management from the state college and opened the Gondola restaurant here in town.”
“Where you were working tonight as a waiter.”
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. I like my brother, and I’m thankful he lets me work there, but tonight he made us wear these ridiculous outfits.” Tony stood up to display a dark green shirt and bright red pants, with a white sash tied at the hip like a cummerbund. Red spots peppered the sash like a modern painting. “I know it’s the colors of Italy’s flag and everything, but it makes me look like a candy cane or an underprivileged pirate. It was very embarrassing. Besides, who in their right mind would wear white in an Italian restaurant? All that tomato sauce.”
“What has all that got to do with what happened tonight?”
“It just goes to show motivation and state of mind, that’s all. There are extenuating circumstances around what I did.”
“Let’s get to that.”
“So, I’m walking by this table tonight, and I hear someone say, ‘What’s that smell? It must be that Dago greaseball waiter again.’”
I turned, and there was Erik Carlson and his sneer, his wife Maria at his side. Yes, that Maria. And sitting in the middle of the table was a squeeze bottle of ketchup. It triggered me, you know? For the second time in my life I lost it.”
“The squeeze bottle was within easy reach. But so was the steak knife. I don’t know what came over me. I stabbed him. I don’t know how many times. I got tired after a while. Like I said, there were extenuating circumstances.”
Writers’ workshop and writing group