Bobby Martin wrote and lived in suburban Philadelphia, where he waited tables at an Italian restaurant called Frankie’s for 46 years.
When I finished my plate of rigatoni, My debt to Frankie Guglielmi hit five thousand, seven dollars and fifty cents. Scratch that. I had a side of Asparagus. Five thousand and ten. Too much. I wasn’t surprised when the check didn’t come. In it’s place, I got the redhead again. All five foot seven of her.
For the ten seconds it took her to walk from the back room to my table by the window, she wasn’t Frankie’s. She was mine. Sure, it wasn’t much time, but it was enough.
Five seconds to watch hair bouncing over her shoulders, her hips gyrating like a wind-up toy, her blouse trying desperately to do its job and failing.
And another five seconds to curse myself for becoming the kind of man that she could only ever pity.
She was moving fast tonight. Seven seconds tops.
“Mr. Guglielmi would like to see you at his private table.”
Her voice cracked. I looked in her eyes. She was scared. Yeah, there’s the pity.
“I know, Darling.”
I stood, grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the mouth. Her entire body tightened, but she didn’t push away. Not my finest moment, but I figured I might never get the chance again.
“Sorry about the breath,” I said as I let her go. “The mint usually comes with the check.”
I’d been to the back room before. A verbal warning here, a wrap on the knuckles there. But tonight was different. And everyone in the restaurant could feel it. They looked at me as I passed. I was a kid on his way to the principal’s office. Or an inmate on his way to something worse.
Frankie’s cigar smoke billowed out of the hanging beads that separated me from my fate. I pushed through them without hesitation.
“Sit down, Christopher.”
He spoke in a quiet, even tone. One I’d never heard from him before. He leaned back in his chair at the back corner of the room. Between us was one big table and a few big goons.
“I don’t feel like I’m being unreasonable here, Christopher.” Frankie stood and slowly made his way around the table.
“I make pasta. I make rigatoni, I make penne, I make lasagne. It’s good lasagne, it’s my grandmother’s lasagne. I give it the people. The people want it, I give it to them. And all I ask in return is a little bit of money for the trouble. A little seven fifty. No problem.”
He stood in front of me and relit his cigar.
“But with you, I got a problem.”
He took a big drag and blew the smoke in my face.
“You been comin’ into my place, eating dinner for three years and you haven’t paid your tab once.”
I smiled and tried to keep cool. “The food’s too good, Frankie. Maybe I got some money problems, but I gotta eat your food. It’s the best I’ve ever had. It’s too good.”
He smiled and reached into his pocket.
“Oh yeah? Is that it? or is it this?”
He took his fist out of his pocket and I knew exactly what he was holding. As he released his fingers, I saw the green foil.
It was an Andes Chocolate Mint.
He had me. I opened my mouth, but no words came out.
“It’s the after dinner mints, isn’t it? You’re in debt to me five grand for a few mints? Goddamnit Christopher, why didn’t you just go buy a box?”
“Because it’s not that same, that’s why!”
All at once, my voice returned to my body and for the first time in years, I was lucid.
“They’re after dinner mints. After. Dinner. Mints. If you don’t have the dinner, they don’t mean anything. Where else am I supposed to get dinner, huh?”
“You’re pathetic,” Frankie said as he threw his cigar at my feet.
“You don’t understand, Frankie, it’s mint and chocolate melting in your mouth. I can’t think straight without ‘em. I try. I tried to quit. I’m not strong enough.”
I’d started shaking so much, I’d fallen out of the chair, my eyes filled with tears, my hand outstretched, reaching for the mint in Frankie’s hand.
“Just give me one more, Frankie. Then you can do whatever you want with me.”
He sat down.
“Jesus Christ, have some self respect.” He took a deep breath. “I understand your situation and I am sorry. But you owe me money and that I cannot forgive. So what are we gonna do?”
The kitchen door opened. A server walked out and as the door swung back and forth, I saw a green box on the shelf. A sight too beautiful for words. A sight an after dinner mint junkie like me dreams of: Frankie’s entire supply of Andes.
He took a gun out of his jacket pocket and considered his options as I considered mine. If I was going to go out, I was going to go out fighting. I made my move.
As I darted out of the back room, Frankie’s goons jumped out of their seats. I only had a few seconds to grab the box and get outside. It was cool to the touch. So much power in such a small package. It made me invincible. That’s how I made it out to the street.
The first bullet felt like a hot kiss on my lower back. My knees buckled and I fell to the ground.
The second wasn’t so kind. Right through my chest.
And that brings us up to now. Here I am, on the ground. Bleeding out in front of an Italian restaurant, clinging to a box of Andes Chocolate Mints.
I open it. I take one out and unwrap it.
I place it on my tongue, mint-side down. It is a communion. The chocolate and the mint become one. And it seems for a second that I understand what it was all about.
The redhead stands over me, crying.
I’m ready to go.
It’s after dinner.