Authors: Johnny B. Truant
The Bialy Pimps
by Johnny B. Truant
This is for Robin. She knows why.
This story takes place in 1998. If you think that's a dumb time to set a story because nothing significant was going on in 1998, then you're forgetting about House of Pain's debut album. And if you're thinking that was in 1992, I'd say you're splitting hairs. And also, fuck off.
Work’s a Bitch
“Life’s short and hard, like a bodybuilding elf.”
– The Bloodhound Gang
“This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.”
It was the summer of 1998, and all was well with the world.
Philip, with whom all was not entirely well, was sitting in his office. Of course, calling the back room at Bingham’s Bagel Deli an “office” was really more wishful thinking than anything else. It was enclosed by three walls and did have a door, but the door was never shut, half because Bingham’s was too familiar of a place to have closed doors and half because it was impossible to close without removing some of the floor tiles first. The office itself had long ago given up such niceties. There were three tiles missing, and the bordering tiles sloped into the void, creating a pothole in the middle of the floor.
The walls, which used to be white, were now more of a smoky gray – likely due to years of accumulated airborne grease from the days when Bingham’s was Chester’s Weiner Hut, and even way back from when it was Pizazzle’s. Not that this mattered; most of the paint had chipped away long ago, revealing the surprisingly resilient white drywall beneath it. And although nobody but Philip and the Morrissey Anarchist remembered him, everybody seemed to enjoy the appearance of Jason in the plaster.
Jason first appeared in the plaster back in the mid to late William Era, as it would have been known had anybody chosen to reference it. He came from the wall, arriving as miraculously as an oil stain Jesus, but eliciting far less media attention and virtually no religious adoration. Nobody came to kneel humbly before Jason’s portrait and beg forgiveness for their sins, and the Pope did not come to bless it… not even once. Rather, once the shape in the chipped-away paint was recognized as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the then Bingham’s shift manager, someone had simply traced it with a pencil – following the crescent contour of his largish nose and the profiled angularity of his blocky haircut, around his skull and down the back of the collared shirt he appeared to be wearing – and that was it.
The miraculous portrait naturally faced East, toward the Holy Land. Jason himself, however, appeared less than pious. He cast a secretive, meddlesome, slightly downcast look and sported an ivory grin (which the artist had also outlined to the tooth) that made the onlooker feel as if his fly were unzipped, or as if Jason were scheming to get it unzipped and then to laugh about it. The somehow devious shadow on the high side of his mutton-chop sideburn (formed by a small line of remaining paint) seemed to underscore his intent for misadventure. And above it all, the artist had written “Jason” in tall, proud, capital letters and had drawn an arrow from this which speared him in the forehead.
Should anyone doubt the power of the miraculous portrait, they needed only to turn around – where they’d see a photograph of Jason in the flesh, smiling in his leering sort of way, that somebody had taped inside of the paper towel dispenser above the vomit sink. When anyone washed their hands, Jason, long since fired, still had a dominating presence: he peered out from his paper towel citadel in his unsettling way, and his miraculous wall portrait loomed from behind. It was a profound experience.
Now, Philip, unmoved by the miraculous presence of Jason, was staring at the screen of the antiquated office computer. He had a problem.
Philip’s problem, which was not
problem, was everybody’s problem, really. In truth, nobody at the store cared about the problem because it was omnipresent and immortal, and this included Philip, who had a problem only insofar as he considered it his managerial duty to care. And still the problem persisted.
The problem, if it was indeed that, was that the store was not making any money. It was old news. Old news which was still a giant pain in district manager Wally’s ass... which made it a pain in Philip’s on the days that Philip chose to care.
The phone rang, and Philip grabbed it before it could ring twice.
“Is this Philip Martin?”
Philip cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear and leaned back in the chair, which rolled into and became shackled by the pothole. “Yeah,” he said.
“This is Frank from A-1 Exterminators. How you doin’?”
Philip looked at the computer screen, which displayed an Excel spreadsheet filled with red numbers. “Fine,” he lied.
“Dan call you yet?”
Philip sat up straight. The chair remained anchored. “Who’s Dan?”
“Dan? Dan Spykowski. He was the one came and looked in your basement. Dan says you got no rats.”
Philip pulled the phone from the crook of his neck. “Oh, we’ve got rats. I know we have rats. Did he put out any poison?”
“Yeah, Mr. Martin, but like I said, Dan says you got no rats. Dan says you got roaches.”
“We’ve got a lot of things.”
“Since you hired us for rats, I just wanted to let you know you got no rats. Roaches. You know.”
“I’ve seen The Rat myself. I don’t care what Dan says. I know we have rats.”
rat, or you seen
“What’s the difference?”
“Like I say, Dan says you got no rats. You seen a rat once, maybe twice, he’s maybe coming in from next door or something. Dan says he didn’t see no nests or whatnot, so he ain’t living there. Maybe he left, you know?”
Philip sat back. What was the point? The Rat was immortal, anyway. How many times had Philip killed him? Three? Beckie had killed him a time or two, as well. And of course, Trip had killed Squeaky, perhaps the most famous of all of The Rat’s incarnations. Squeaky’s carcass had been on display just behind where Philip was sitting, and yet he lived on today. It was like chasing a ghost.
“Where did you leave the poison?” he asked the exterminator. Philip didn’t have much faith in A-1 and wouldn’t put it past them to leave poison on top of a box of chips in the back stock room.
“All over the basement. Bright orange boxes, you’ll see ‘em. We get ‘em in packs of five, and I think Dan said he used a pack. But like I said, Dan says you got no rats.”
Philip felt suddenly tired. “Did Dan say we got no rats?”
“Like I said, Dan says you got no rats.”
“None at all?”
“This is coming from Dan?”
“Right from Dan.”
“And what did Dan say?”
“Dan says you got no rats.”
“All righty then.”
“Bill’s in the mail,” said Frank from A-1, and then there was a click as the line went blank.
Out in the lobby, the Anarchist was having problems of his own.
“Vegetables,” the customer in front of him repeated. “Whatever’s healthiest.”
The Morrissey Anarchist allowed his fingers to linger over the touchscreen of the register, unwilling to take his eyes off of the small blonde man in front of him for more than a second or two.
The customer was in his early twenties and reeked of marijuana, as usual, and had his hair pulled back into an untidy pony tail, as usual. And as usual, in the opinion of the Anarchist, he was being a whiny hippie fuckhead.
Jittery eyes, a nervous semi-stagger. “Whatever’s healthiest,” he said.
Captain Dipshit, as he was known among the staff, came in each day and ordered a bagel with vegetables. When asked what kind of bagel he wanted, he said, “Whatever’s healthiest.” When asked which vegetables, he answered, “Whatever’s healthiest.”
Philip had named him “Captain Dipshit” after the Captain came in one day and ordered a bagel for his dog – a ratty-looking spaniel of some sort who Captain Dipshit informed Philip was a vegan. Philip told him that dogs are carnivores. Captain Dipshit replied that his dog was actually more like a collie, which was clearly incorrect in addition to being confusing. Then he asked to see the day’s avocados, declared that they looked “like a booger,” and tried twice to pay for his food with a gas station receipt.
The Anarchist eyed the Captain. He couldn’t figure him out, and consequently he didn’t trust him. After more than a month and a half, Captain Dipshit had still not decided which bagel was healthiest. He had still not decided which vegetables were healthiest. It was baffling.
The Anarchist glanced down. On the Toppings sub-menu of the register, he touched
“I don’t know what’s the healthiest,” said the Anarchist.
“How can you not know?”
“Whatever’s healthiest,” he repeated. A nervous sidestep conveyed the fact that he was in a rush, as was always the case.
The Anarchist pressed:
“I’m in a rush,” said the Captain.
“Can you hurry?”
Darcy Meyers, A.K.A. “Tits” or “Milksacks,” came over and glanced at the register. She made a face, then looked up, confused.
“He wants whatever’s healthiest,” explained the Anarchist.
Darcy frowned. “Then you’ll want horseradish.” She pulled a blueberry bagel from the back shelf and began making the Captain’s sandwich.
Philip’s phone rang again.
“Philip? This is Tracy.”
Tre Constantine had become “Tracy” when, in an unlikely case of name roulette, Bingham’s had hired a second Tre. For clarity, the original Tre became “Tre C” for a few hours before being slurred into “Tracy” – a name which he inexplicably embraced.
The other Tre had quit at the end of the year. A good thing, because Philip had felt uncomfortable calling him by the clarifying nickname the rest of the staff used: “Black Tre.”
“Hey Tracy,” said Philip.
“I’m going to be late to work tonight, just to let you know. I have a paper I need to finish lest I flunk out.” He paused. “Oh, and my washing machine just gave me a message that said, ‘Uneven load.’”
Philip chuckled. “Load.”
Darcy, who had felt compelled to sterilize her hands after making Captain Dipshit’s sandwich, re-emerged from the back room wearing a maroon apron, looped over her head and worn as a full smock. She was the only worker who did this. Many wore no apron. Others, like the Anarchist, wore theirs folded over and tied at the waist. Beckie Nichols – who was very tall, very blonde, and very dangerous when angry – wore hers, even during wintertime, over very small shorts. It made her look naked underneath, something which Army Ted had pointed out repeatedly.
The door made a rusty creaking sound, and a familiar customer entered.
“Oh, shit,” said the Anarchist. “Not again.”
“Philip?” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
Philip shifted in his chair, jarring the caster against the edge of the pit and causing his elbow to slam into a roll of register tape, which fell to the floor.
“How are things?”
Philip looked at the Excel spreadsheet again. Annoyingly, all the numbers were still red.
“We’re alive,” he said.
“Surprised to hear my voice?” Wally asked, then chuckled.