The Spoon, by Philip Baisley
Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash
A Brooklyn Story
Sunday nights at Schwartz’s Silver Spoon were never busy, which was good for business. Oh, not the brisket or burgers business; Schwartz did real well with that the rest of the week. But Sundays was good for the kind of business that went on at the tables near the bar in back.
I remember one Sunday night, the restaurant is almost deserted, and four of us are talking at one of those round bar tables. J—he’s the busboy—needs to bus a table close by, so he’s trying to be as quiet and invisible as possible. Connie D, he’s talking louder than he should, even though nobody’s around, telling about how he put the squeeze on a customer who wasn’t paying on time.
I says “Connie, keep it a little quieter. Little pitchers have big ears.”
Never understood the connection between pitchers and ears, but my mama said that, and so do I. I nodded toward J, over in the corner now. He’s all the time hearing stuff he shouldn’t be hearing; can’t help it. So I catch his attention and put my finger to my lips. The kid don’t miss a beat. He looks right back and then he makes like he’s zipping a zipper on his lips. And that was that. Funny kid. Good kid.
J’s full name was Jonathan Abernathy, but, Christ, who can take the time for that much name? So he was J to his family and to me and the guys at The Spoon.
I really liked that kid. Hell, we all did. I think it was because he knew his place when it came to the bar. Did his job, smiled like everyone was his best friend, and kept his ears and his mouth shut.
J was a fixture at The Spoon for a coupla years. Me, I been a fixture there forever. Me and the boys, we got homes to go to, wives to keep happy; maybe a girlfriend or two on the side. But The Spoon is where we go to talk about the stuff you can’t tell the women. Stuff you can’t tell nobody but each other. J wasn’t in on that.
I remember the night he got his busboy job.
He’d been delivering the Daily News or some such shit, making next to nothing, and he comes in with his mom and dad and his very pregnant girlfriend. Just that day, Schwartz, the owner, had put a HELP WANTED sign on the door, and I see J stop a second to look at it.
After they ate, the parents and the girlfriend have second cups of coffee, and J gets up and heads over to Schwarz, who’s behind the register. J looked like some kind of ostrich or something, with his feet moving two steps forward and then hesitating before moving again, while his gangly neck is sticking out in front of his body. Probably nerves. I mean, he’s got to be in high school, gonna be a dad, and now he’s trying to figure out how to squeeze a job into the mix. But the look on his face? That was all business; like ‘I can do anything you ask, just give me a chance.’ Schwartz hired him on the spot.
Man, you should’ve seen that kid work. He was Johnny on the spot after every table emptied. If he caught the people leaving, he’d thank them for coming. If somebody walked by him as he was wiping a table, he’d stop and say, “Welcome to The Spoon. So glad you’re here.” And the thing is, he meant it. And the customers knew it.
And Schwartz knew it. He made sure J got as many hours as he could handle, but he always stressed that J should put school first. “You’re the best busboy in history,” he’d say, “but it’s no life for your baby. That kid’ll be college material. NYU. Columbia. The sky’s the limit.”
When the baby came along—Carole’s her name, adorable little thing—something changed in J, just a little. That perpetual smile, it was still there, but maybe a little forced. The three of them, J, Carole, and Lucy—that’s his wife—they was living with his parents. That’s not the best thing for anybody, even though they seemed to get along. But c’mon. My sister took in her daughter and her boyfriend for just three weeks and it was almost World War III. So J comes up with a plan. He tells some of us regulars about it. He seemed proud of the idea, but you could tell he was looking for our approval. We told him to go for it.
He’d found a studio apartment above one of the dry docks down by the Bay. Said it had this sleeping alcove big enough for a nursery too. It was near a bus stop, so he could get to work easy. The only drawback was that the landlord wanted first and last month’s rent up front, plus a security deposit ‘cause his last tenant trashed the place and skipped. The total move-in would be $270. J had enough for the first month’s rent: $85. He’d have to ask his dad for the rest. When he told me how he was going to do it, I have to admit I was a little excited to see how it would work out.
You probably wonder how a busboy could afford even an upstairs studio apartment in Brooklyn, what with the crazy rents, but I’ll tell you, J was more than a busboy. Schwartz called him The Spoon’s “ambassador.” The kid was so freaking nice that people would drop him tips. Who tips busboys? But they did. People would stick a buck in the pocket of that white jacket he always wore. So he was making not a fortune, but a lot more than minimum wage.
So, one night, Mr. Abernathy takes the family out for dinner; The Spoon, of course. Mrs. A, she never approved of the fact that there’s a bar in back. She’s one of those church ladies. But she loves the brisket, so they go there a lot. And they always take the kid and his family.
So this particular night J lays out his plan, and then he asks his pop for the $185. Dad says he’ll have to take the money out of their savings account, which you know he don’t like to do, but he agrees as long as the kid pays the money back in two years.
Not quite two hundred bucks over two years? J knows that’s chump change on a weekly basis, and he’s thrilled. Says he’ll give his old man two bucks a week, and to call the extra payment “interest.” They shake on it, and that apartment is their new home.
And that’s how it was for a while. Every so often, Lucy’d take Carole on the bus and visit J at work, and he would absolutely beam. All the guys at the bar would make silly faces at the baby, and she’d coo and smile, and as she got older, she’d even laugh back at them. The way the three of ‘em looked at each other, touched each other’s hands or shoulders, kidded each other; we could tell that theirs was a home filled with the kind of love God reserves for young people who don’t have much else.
Still, things were tight in that little household. You could see it on J’s face at the end of every month. His brow furrowed, and his eyes seemed to sink deep into their sockets. He’d never show that to the other customers, but in the quiet of the bar you could tell.
Schwartz caught on by the young Abernathys’s second month at the apartment. He didn’t have any more hours to give, so he offered something else. Told him he’d pack up the food that was getting near when they couldn’t use it; stuff he always said he’d give to the homeless shelter but never’d get around to. Instead he’d send it home for Lucy and Carole.
Well, those “scraps” from The Spoon’s kitchen contained whole slices of brisket, Tupperware bowls filled with mashed potatoes or matzoh ball soup, and unopened cans of fruit and vegetables. At least once a week there’d be a chocolate or banana cream pie.
J worked harder than ever, and we all made sure to stuff a fin into his jacket whenever we could. And then we did more. Actually, it was Schwartz’s idea, although me or Jimmy or Vinnie could’ve easily come up with it.
You see, me and the guys like to play the ponies. Schwartz knows that. He used to call in our bets before the city started off-track betting. But what we really like is watching the trotters run at Yonkers or Roosevelt Raceway on the Island. The feel of the track, the noise of the grandstand, the aroma of our cigar smoke and the beers we’d be putting down; man you can’t beat that.
Of course, getting home in one piece without a DUI meant that somebody had to miss out on the fun. Here’s where Schwartz’s idea kicks in. “The kid’s nineteen now,” he says. “He’s as good a driver as any of you clowns. Give him your keys for the night. You get a chauffeur to the trotters, and he gets some under-the-table cash for his wife and kid.”
Peach of an idea that. Worked out well for everybody. All we’d do is toss a set of car keys to J, Schwartz would call his cousin’s kid in for a one-night busing gig, and off we’d go.
Many a good time was had talking about the Giants or the Yankees or the Knicks on those trips. We never talked shop there, not in front of the kid. But we had plenty of other stuff to talk about. I’d slip him the keys to my Caddy or Vinnie’s Lincoln plus a crisp fifty-dollar bill and an extra buck for the bus trip home after he’d delivered the last of us. After dropping us at the track, I’d tell him to get a nice steak dinner someplace and be waiting for us at 11:00 to pick us up. We knew he’d spend two bucks on a coupla slices of pizza and a Coke and take the rest home to Lucy. Never took him into the track with us though. Never took a bet for him. Never bought him a beer. J was a church kid, y’know? Gotta respect that.
Always wondered if J knew what line of work the guys was in. Was he naïve enough to think that “private sanitation” meant we was just garbage men, or was he smart enough not to ask questions? Maybe that’s the part of him I liked the most; that innocence with a touch of street smarts. Sort of reminded me of Dominic.
Dom was my older sister’s kid. He had that sweetness, like J. All through school he says he’s gonna be a teacher and show ’em how to do it right. And he tried; damn him, he tried. But he was a plodder. At St. John’s he got mostly Bs, but not many As. Couldn’t play sports for shit, so no scholarships. After a year and a half, he’s workin’ on one of the trucks. After three years he’s floatin’ in the bay. Ran afoul of somebody somewhere. “Just business,” they say. That’s the way it is with the good kids, at least most of the time. But we was all determined that J was gonna be the exception, me most of all.
What with good tips, free food, and regular trips to the track, J’s doing pretty good for himself. Next thing you know he moves his family to a full one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, and he buys his own car, a three-year-old Chevy Impala.
Now Lucy’s dropping J off at work and doing the Brooklyn housewife thing. J calls home every break, and she tells him how she’s been kibitzing at the park with the other moms, and how the kids are all playing together; how she saved so much on groceries with coupons from the A & P. And she’s loving it. And he loves telling us about it. Then Lucy comes back at night to pick him up, and she always brings Carole in to say hello. And the guys melt I tell ya. Vinnie, he was a Golden Gloves runner-up when he was a kid. You should see him take Carole into his big paws and snuggle her against his mustache. She laughs. Shit, we all laugh. It’s like we’re kids or something.
J paid off that loan from his pop, did I tell you? Brings the family right here to The Spoon and hands Dad three fifty-dollar bills, the balance of his loan plus a little extra. He calls it “interest in case we ever need to do business again.” That hands me a laugh. Funny kid.
Later that evening, Schwartz himself serves a complimentary dessert. He pulls a chair between J’s parents and tells them how special their kid is to him. Says J is like family to him.
I came out to watch at that point. So did Vinnie and Jimmie. This is what movie directors call “a moment.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy,” I hear Schwartz say, “and especially you, Lucy, I want you to know that if you ever need anything—anything—for you and little Carole, you got it. Old Schwartz’ll take care of you.” And he meant it.
Life was good for the young Abernathys. And even though J was still a busboy, while others in his graduating class were off earning college degrees, he was making enough money to send Carole to daycare while Lucy got her GED. He told us his next plan was night college for Lucy, and then he might take some classes himself. They really were going far, just like Schwartz predicted.
J had a knack for being totally attentive to the customers when he needed to be and totally oblivious when he had to, like around the bar. It was a talent that served him well about ninety-nine per cent of the time. But there was that one night.
The guys and me was talking about work, and Vinnie mentions a guy named Fisch from over in Bergen Beach. J was nearby, and I’m sure he was trying not to listen, but he must have heard a few words and I guess he assumed we’re planning some kind of fishing trip, like on one of them charters out in the bay. I truly believe he thought he might get invited to go along. He kind of sidles a little closer and starts opening his mouth, like to ask about it. I shook my head real quick and put one finger up for just a second. He got the message and turned away.
About a week later the story hits the headlines of the Daily News:
FISCH SLEEPS WITH THE FISHES
The article describes the discovery, along the shoreline, of the body of “known mob associate” Freddy Fisch of Bergen Beach.
I’m sittin’ at the bar when J comes by to take his break. The paper’s lyin’ there with the sports section turned up, and J flips it over to the front page. Doesn’t say a word. He just puts the News down, picks up his bus tray, and gets back to work; like it never happened.
That was J. He was never one to let stuff keep him from what was important. That’s why Schwartz loved him. We all felt like that.
A coupla weeks later, another slow Sunday night, and we’re all stuffing a few extra bucks into J’s jacket pocket as he heads toward the kitchen with a tray of dirty dishes. I doubt he even notices Vinnie passing two fat envelopes to Schwartz at the other end of the bar. I suspect he’d seen, and quickly forgotten, envelopes change hands more times than he wanted to over the years. As he returns from the kitchen to the restaurant floor, Schwartz calls J over and tells him about Vinnie’s problem.
“Vinnie needs a ride home tonight. Car’s in the shop. He took a cab here. You don’t mind, do you?”
J protests that he’s still on the clock, but his boss assures him it’ll be okay; says he’ll bus himself while J’s away. So J tosses his white coat onto the bar and heads out.
Vinnie’s car may have been in the shop, but he’s looking like he ain’t really in the shape to drive anyway. I steady him as he joins J on the way to the Impala.
I says to J, “Mind if I tag along? Looks like you’ll need some help with Vinnie. You can drop me too.”
“The more the merrier, right J-ster?'' Vinnie crawls into the passenger seat next to J. I sit in back.
J drives off toward Vinnie’s house in Bensonhurst, the Impala purring like a kitten powered by a 350 c.i.d. V-8. That’s when I remember the joke I’d heard the day before. J always loved a good joke.
“Hey, Vinnie, Kid,” I says. “I got one for ya. What’s the opposite of Disney?”
Vinnie goes, “Disney? What the fuck? Like in Mickey Mouse and Goofy?”
I says, “Of course, Disney, ya jackoff! What’s the fuckin’ opposite of Disney?”
“Okay, Mooch, I’ll bite,” he says. “What’s the opposite’a Disney?”
I'm starting to kind of shake and cackle even before the answer leaves my lips.
Vinnie gives me a smirk.
“Dat knee? What’s…”
And then it hits him.
“For fuck’s sake. Dat knee! Dis knee, dat knee. Christ!”
And then Vinnie lets loose a belly laugh that shakes the Chevy.
“That's a good one, Mooch. Hey, kid, ain’t that a good one?”
Vinnie’s whole body is trembling with laughter. He takes a look through the windshield, kinda bows his head, and then he grimaces and puts his hand over his stomach.
“Shit! I’m gonna puke. Pull over, wouldya, kid?”
J finds a spot where it’s safe to park, and Vinnie leans out the passenger door. I’m still laughing in the back seat.
“Disney, dat knee. Jesus, that’s funny if I do say so myself.”
J starts laughing again, you know, the way you do when somebody else is laughing and they can’t stop. He’s laughing and I’m laughing and Vinnie’s facing the pavement under the car door, sounding for all the world like he’s puking his guts out.
All of a sudden J stops laughing. He cocks his head to the left just a little, and then he turns to me. His mouth is open like he’s thinking with his lips, and he says, “Hey! That looks like Vinnie’s Lincoln over there in the bushes.”
“Where?” I says.
J turns to point at the windshield, which gives me the time I need to grab the piano wire out of my jacket pocket and slip it around his neck. At first he doesn’t fight me; it’s like he doesn’t understand what’s coming. Then he grabs at my arms. He starts kicking. He uses every last ounce of strength to try to get himself back to Carole, back to Lucy.
It takes a coupla seconds for the bleeding to start, first a thin red band around J’s neck and then a rhythmic spray when the wire nicks his carotid.
By this time, Vinnie’s up—sober as a nun—and out the car door so’s to keep the blood off him. J’s still thrashing around, but there’s no fight left in him. I whisper in his ear.
“Sorry, J. That Fisch deal, ya know. It’s business is all. Vinnie made sure your wife and kid will have all they need.”
I don’t know why, but as me and Vinnie are giving the Chevy a final look-see I smooth J’s hair with the back of my hand.
The next morning there’s this grainy black-and-white photo of the Impala on the front page of the Daily News. J’s graduation picture is set inside it. It’s a sad fucking scene.
The Spoon is quiet that night. The paper’s still sitting on the corner of the bar. Nobody’s picked it up. Over in Flatbush, lying partway under the doormat outside a cute one-bedroom apartment, there’s a big fat envelope loaded with hundred dollar bills.
While Phil Baisley is new to fiction writing, his non-fiction work has been published in books by Cascade Books, Atla Open Press, and in his own book, "The Same, But Different," by Friends United Press. He is a seminary professor, pastor, and reptile enthusiast born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and residing in Richmond, Indiana. His memoir/blog, “Tales of a Canarsie Boy,” can be found at https://www.philbaisley.com/talesofacanarsieboy.
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