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A beach-town seafood cook, alone while his wife resides in a TB sanitarium, befriends a divorced waitress. Nothing “going on” between them, but who ever believes that? A small, quiet man accustomed to minding his own business gets a wakeup call…

CHAPTER SEVEN

It was later in October when Mabel told me one day that Dawson wanted to see me. I was just coming on shift. It was two p.m. and we had the whole night ahead of us. It must be something special or he would have just come on back after I had relieved the lunch staff and had the kitchen sorted out to tell me what was on his mind.

I went through the main dining room and down the little hall to the restrooms and Dawson’s office. His door was open, cigarette smoke trailing out into the still air of the hall. He was reading some stuff on his desk.

“Hi, Walter,” he said.

“Mabel said you wanted to see me.”

“Yep. Close that door, will you?”

His voice sounded funny, like a voice gets when it has a load on its tongue just waiting to be dumped. I closed the door.

“Thanks,” he said. He was reading the stuff on his desk again. “Sit down, Walter, I’ll just be a minute.”

I sat on the small sofa chair in front of his desk. I wondered if he’d changed his mind about the TB. I had worked the first few months expecting that at any time. It just didn’t seem right he could wait this long to change his mind about that. I wondered if the cops from Tampa had found out where I worked and put in a word with the Duval County health department. Then I wondered if one of the bus boys had accused me of stealing food. That happened once years ago when I was a short order cook in an all-night joint in Cincinnati. The boss believed me instead of the bus boy, who finally broke down and confessed it was him stealing the food. But I had been scared, because that’s how bad rumors started. In this business a bad reputation could kill you. My palms felt damp now, just remembering. No, not remembering. I was scared now.

Dawson shoved the papers aside and lit up another of his Camels. “How’s Chris, Walter?” he said.

“She’s all right. Getting a little better. She may be able to come home for visits in the spring. She’s all right.”

“Glad to hear it. And Sally?”

“Sally is fine. Her grandparents are spoiling her rotten. She’s perfect. She’s okay.”

“Spoiling her, huh? You know, that’s what our Ginny says we do to her boys. She’s right, probably. Why not? Why the hell not? Even my grandkids won’t be young forever.”

“Not even long enough,” I said.

I got a lump in my throat, thinking how Sally changed between the times I saw her. I swallowed and tried to concentrate, because I knew he didn’t call me to the office to talk about kids. He could have done that in the kitchen later. He always had before. He had mentioned Chris right off the bat, but didn’t blink when I said she might be staying with me in the spring. It didn’t fee like this was about Chris.

“By the way.” He blew a careful smoke ring at the ceiling.

Here it came, whatever it was.

“By the way,” he said again, “I hear you’re seeing Corinne.”

So that was it. I stood up.

“I’ll be in the kitchen.”

“Now, wait.” He knocked ash, hung the Camel in his lip and folded his hands on the desk. He was a big man. He was over six feet tall, broad and big-boned. The Florida outdoors and restaurant work agreed with him. Me standing and him sitting didn’t make him look one bit smaller or less impressive, not at all.

I cleared my throat. “That’s none of your business, Mr. Dawson,” I said.

He kind of narrowed his eyes and his mouth thinned out. He had a big head and it was mostly bald. All the skin on his head was deep bronze from the sun. His hands were big and hard from years of hanging on by his fingernails. His eyes could be hard. They were hard now.

“Don’t get tough with me, Walter,” he said through the Camel. He was the one who looked tough. Damned tough. “I don’t need your getting tough with me.”

“I’m not trying to be tough,” I said. I hadn’t expected anything like this. “It’s just that’s my business, that’s all.”

“Let me say my say before you decide that,” Dawson said.

“What I do on my own time is my own business.” I cleared my throat again, hating it that I had to. I was scared, but he had to understand that my business was my own.

“All right, Goddammit!” He stubbed out the butt like he wished it was my neck. “Did I say different? I don’t deserve this crap from you, Walter. Don’t get so Goddamn uppity with me! I’m trying to tell you something that might keep you from getting hell beat out of you.”

That got through to me.

“You’re not trying to tell me to lay off seeing Corinne?”

“I’m trying to tell you it might be a good idea. Now, wait!” He held up one of those big hands like a cop stopping traffic. “Listen, will you?”

“All right,” I said.

“Sit down, then.”

I sat back down and he looked me over like he had never seen me before.

“You’re some feisty little rooster, ain’t you?”

“I mind my own business,” I said.

“So do I. I hate my business being interfered with. I hate things to happen that hurt my business. If you get killed, that’ll hurt business. If Corinne ups and quits, that’ll hurt business because the customers really like her. Here I’m trying to stay open longer than I ever did before, and I don’t want neither one to happen.”

I was listening now. “Why should either one happen, though?” I said. “I mean, anybody can quit anytime. But especially that part about somebody getting killed?”

“You know Bill Ombear, guy runs the Derby House, don’t you?”

“Just to speak to. Tough guy. Tough friends, too. Why?”

“That’s where Corinne worked before she came here.”

“I know that.”

“She tell you why she came here?”

“To work for the famous Dawson’s Seafood Restaurant.”

“That’s flattering, but it ain’t the truth,” Dawson said. “Not all of it, anyway. Bill Ombear had the hots for her. Ombear’s buddy Rennie Cross got him started on her. Rennie used to hang around with Corinne’s old man, going deep-sea fishing, drinking, like that. Rennie made a pass at Corinne and she shot him down like she always does. Then he started in after her at work over at the Derby. Bill hadn’t paid any attention to her before then.”

“Ombear’s got a reputation with women,” I said.

Dawson nodded at me. “Bill usually has plenty of stuff on tap, but he got to looking Corinne over and told Rennie to buzz off, he wanted some of that for himself. Then Bill told Corinne she was gonna be his new skirt. She told him to go to hell just exactly the same way she told Rennie. Ombear got mad as hell and told her it was fuck or be fired.”

I was tight all over now, and now I really was scared. The crowd that hung out at the Derby was a rough bunch. I was sick, too, in the pit of my stomach. I could tell she had got to be pretty important to me by then, because the thought somebody like Ombear just taking her over like that made me feel like throwing up.

It had gone on right here on the Beaches, too, and everybody knowing but me. Everybody laughing at me riding around with her all the time, and waiting for Ombear to catch me at it, beat the crap out of me. He was a mean son of a bitch.

All for a Roman holiday. That was one of Corinne’s sayings from her mother: all for a Roman holiday. It meant the way people will run six blocks to see the fresh blood in a car wreck or to watch a house burn down with everything a family owns inside.

This all ran through my mind in way less time than it takes to write it down. I had to say something. Dawson was waiting.

“So she’s Ombear’s property, huh?” I said.

“Oh hell no,” Dawson said. “That piece of shit? No, you still don’t understand, Walter. We could handle Ombear. I can handle Ombear. We could make him lay off or even call the cops if we had to. Not that I had to when we were both in high school. I kicked his ass then and I could now. But they don’t like Ombear much, the cops. They’d be happy to dance him around a little if I asked. Corinne didn’t go down for him, Walter.”

The sickness went away so fast I was dizzy. “She didn’t?”

“No. She just walked right out of there and called a cab and went home. She was so mad she wasn’t thinking, because when her daddy asked her why she was home early, she told him. He blew his stack and jumped in his car and drove up there and went after Ombear right in his own restaurant. Rennie was there.”

“I don’t remember hearing anything about this,” I said.

“You wouldn’t have. You were probably off somewhere minding your own business.”

“All right, all right,” I said. “Didn’t the police do anything?”

“They said he had it coming.”

“Why, those pricks.” I was getting mad now. “That bastard Ombear — “

“That’s exactly what the cops said,” Dawson said. “Let me finish.”

I just looked at him.

“Corinne’s old man nearly killed Ombear,” he said, grinning. “He broke Ombear’s nose and cracked two ribs and knocked at least one tooth out. He beat Ombear so bad he was in the hospital for a week and some of those scars are going with him to his grave. Rennie tried to stop Corinne’s old man, and he hit Rennie once. Once. He knocked him cold. He said the next son-of a-bitch he caught messing with his daughter was going to get his balls cut off and fed to the seagulls.”

I couldn’t take it all in. “Her daddy did that? Mr. Valland? He’s retired!”

“He’s a retired city fireman from Macon, Georgia,” Dawson said. “They called him Bull ever since he broke a grown man’s jaw when he was fifteen. He is absolutely as mean as they come, Walter. And from what I heard today, Bull figures that the next son-of-a-bitch messing with his daughter is you.”

“Oh,” I said.

There didn’t seem to be a lot else to say.