Having no idea he was about to get an education on flat bellied home wreckers at Small Things Incorporated, Mac Johnson headed on in to Marvin’s Meals. The archway was no small thing. In fact, it opened up a whole new world, complementary to and yet deeply different from the sculpture gallery ruled over by Marvin Terrio’s ultra talented wife, Bridget. Mac Johnson spotted just half a dozen tables and a long row of booths along the near wall, but his practiced eye estimated the space could accommodate at least twenty tables without making even the most paranoid fire marshal nervous.
And he’d bet a dollar to a donut hole, those other fourteen tables, with accompanying chairs, were neatly stored in one of the back rooms. Keep out just enough tables to seat everybody with a little space left over during the winter season, break out the rest to feed the tourist mobs during the summer. Especially the bikers traveling to and from the big Rally at Sturgis, South Dakota.
There was a horseshoe shaped counter as well, with batwing doors leading into the kitchen. Marvin would serve those counter sitters himself, like as not, with–
“Mac! Long time no see!” Cherry Terrio was already angling toward the booth he’d selected, coffee pot in hand. The young brunette was a stunner; she could have kept the café going on looks alone, even if her Dad hadn’t been the kind of cook you just didn’t find in small towns. Too bad–really too bad–she was as gay as a three dollar bill, dominant partner in her relationship with the slender blonde…what was her name? Think fast, Mac! He hated it when he couldn’t come up with a name he should know.
“Like I said to your Mom,” he grinned, faking it as only salesmen and politicians could, “my apologies. Just you today, Cherry? Don’t see the blonde bombshell around.”
“Paula? She’s in the kitchen, helping Dad. He’s teaching her prep work. We have time for that now, with the initial remodeling done and the summer rush gone.”
“Prep work?” Johnson’s surprise showed. “Never thought I’d see the day Marve trusted another Soul near his vegetables. Either he’s slipping, or your better half slipped something into his tea.” Tea, not coffee. Marvin Terrio brewed some of the best coffee in the state, if not the best, but he never drank the stuff. English heritage, the five foot four, former bantamweight boxer said. Which was most likely a joke, since the Terrio family had originally spelled their last name as Thériault, both in Canada and, before that, France. Marvin the Mangler’s grandparents had despised the English to the days of their deaths.
Marvin Terrio had a twisted sense of humor. He also had a thing about his long dead, English-hating grandparents. Grandpa Thériault had smelled of cheap cigars and cheaper whiskey; Grandma Thériault had reeked of moth balls, insisting on hugging and kissing little boys who didn’t care to be hugged and kissed. By elderly, smelly relatives, anyway. Rumor had it Marve had been a holy terror with the women in his day.
Not that he lacked charisma even now, but Bridget had him by the heart and everybody knew it.
“Nah.” Cherry poured a cup of coffee without asking. Mac always wanted coffee. “Neither. Real deal is, Dad’s always believed in the master/apprentice system, and since I don’t have the slightest interest in taking over the kitchen, Paula’s stuck with playing apprentice. Not that she minds all that much. Last night after the café closed, I couldn’t shut her up; she kept going on about the right way to slice celery, shred lettuce, you name it. The girl is insane.” Her eyes sparkled as she said it; having the blonde interested in something outside of their upstairs apartment and their online business was a good thing. “Take your time eyeballing the menu; it’s all new and improved.” With that, she sauntered off with the coffee pot, making the rounds of the tables.
The menu was indeed “new and improved.” Mac had never seen one like it. Instead of putting the cheap dishes toward the back, for kids and seniors and such, the smaller items were all up front. Small Things Incorporated, indeed. An inscription in flowing calligraphy explained.
Food is good, but it’s not that easy to find smaller portions in most restaurants, discounting the fast food venues. So we start out with the easy stuff, easy on the budget, easy on your waistline, and work up from there. ____Marvin Terrio
It didn’t take Johnson long to make his selection, an egg salad sandwich on multigrain bread. Good egg salad sandwiches were getting scarce as hen’s teeth, but if Marvin was making it, this one would be as fine as frog hair. Cherry looped back, took his order, and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Mac to slouch a bit, enjoy his coffee, and scan the décor.
Overhead, the Terrios had painted the ceiling with a powerful mural, a combination of blue sky and building storm clouds. The walls were, now that he noticed, a continuation of that mural, mountain peaks flowing downslope to verdant valley country. There were three separate streams, all converging at the archway entrance. Not a speck of wildlife, yet one got the impression that it was there, just barely out of sight, deer among the trees, birds everywhere despite being technically invisible. Were it not for the furniture and parquet flooring, one could easily have imagined he was eating outside, enjoying a picnic mere minutes before the skies closed up completely and the rain came pouring down.
Wow, he thought, impressed. Nothing but wildlife sculptures in Bridget’s domain, nothing but open country depicted in Marvin’s…quite a masterpiece for two former New Yorkers. Had Bridget done the mural? No…no, that wasn’t her style. Cherry and Paula, probably; both of them were graphic artists who made their livings online. Above booth height, the only interruptions to the landscape art were half a dozen black and white photos of Marvin “the Mangler” Terrio in action. More than a mere ham-and-egger, a shade less than World Champion material, Terrio had in his time been an anomaly among bantamweights, a power puncher in a world of high speed flurry-flickers. The others in his weight class had feared him mightily; Mac knew that much from reading up on the man. In the end, he’d retired with a pro record of 38 wins (all by knockouts or TKOs), 19 losses (all by points). Most of those who’d beaten him had done so by running away while managing to look good doing it. Or, if the reports were to be believed, they’d had a judge or two in their pockets.
He’d fought two men in the Top Ten, the first being one of the few who’d actually mixed it up a bit with the Mangler and survived to tell the tale. Marvin admitted to losing that one fair and square but said the other guy, who won a split decision a few months later, should have gone down–but Marve hadn’t quite healed up from the war with the first guy, and his reflexes just weren’t quite up to the task.
Outside, the snow was starting to thicken, the black gelding at the hitch rail looking more like an Appaloosa now, spots of white taking over as the dropping temperature began to allow more and more flakes to stick to the horse’s sturdy rump. Not that his rider would care; the old renegade had doubtless journeyed through more than a few blizzards in his time.
The sandwich was delivered by none other than Marvin himself, moving with a grace that hinted at his earlier prowess despite the white apron, white chef’s hat, and white moustache.
“Got time to sit for a sec?” Mac hoped he did; the older man–twice the age of his sculptor wife, he claimed, though that was probably a bit of an exaggeration–had some of the best stories around.
“Likely.” Terrio’s blue eyes twinkled. His face was unmarked despite his former career. Not even a cauliflower ear. “You’ll be the last customer of the day, or I miss my guess.” He slid into the booth across from his customer, leaned his elbows on the table, and looked around, just enjoying his little kingdom.
“Probably.” Mac took a healthy bite of his sandwich. Excellent as expected. His eyes wandered down the row of tables, settling for a moment on a group of three men, all of them in their thirties or thereabouts. He swallowed, chased the egg salad with a slurp of coffee and commented, “I more or less recognize everybody else in here today, but those three?”
“Ah.” The Mangler glanced over his shoulder, then chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
“You might not think it’s funny at all, Mac. Depends. Are you politically correct?”
Johnson smiled. “Only on the job. Privately, I’d like to be as outspoken as Donald J. Trump. Just don’t figure it would be good for business. But no, I can’t be offended by anything you say. Unless you’re trying to get me to start dating again, in which case I’ll tell you it’s none of your business.”
The old chef shook his head. “I’m not about to go there. Those three? The blond guy is an Eckist–”
“Eckist. A member of a religion called Eckankar. Don’t know much about it.”
“The brown haired man with the checked shirt? Mormon.”
“And the black haired gentleman, darker skin, tan coat…Muslim.”
“They’ve gotten to be regulars. Meet in here around this hour every day. Quiet, don’t bother anybody. But you know old Hank, he’s got to have a smart-alecky response to everything and everybody. So he has this joke. Starts out, an Eckist and a Mormon and a Muslim go into a bar….”
Johnson had that MEGO look, My Eyes Glaze Over. “I don’t get it.”
“Heh. I didn’t either, but old Hank, he had it figured out. See, none of those three drink alcohol. So Hank’s point is, they wouldn’t ever go into a bar.”
“Old Hank isn’t much for punch lines, is he?”
“Nope. He just lets it hang there. But he’s got something for everybody. See those two young ladies at the far table?”
Mac hadn’t noticed, but he should have. They were chatting quietly together, nursing Cokes, sharing a milkshake with two straws like old timey boyfriend-girlfriend couples. “Not a couple, I’m guessing?” It wasn’t really a guess; the girls gave off an unmistakable vibe. They were definitely on the prowl.
“Oh, they’re a couple, all right. A couple of flat bellied home wreckers.”
“Flat bellied–” It took Johnson a second, but he got it. Flat bellied home wreckers. Sort of a self explanatory term that was, a species description like a redheaded woodpecker. There was a male of the species, too; it was a flat bellied home wrecker who’d neatly stolen Janie right out from under his nose, four years ago. A chiseled young Adonis with a head full of dark, curly hair and six-pack abs to die for. Or so his ex had described him, the day she’d decided to gloat. Three months later, Mr. Wrecker had committed suicide; for two years after that, Janie had begged Mac to take her back. He’d explained his position simply: I’d rather die.
Twenty minutes later, Mac had paid his tab, climbed back into his ride, and eased on out of the parking lot. The snow made him glad to have fog lights, but the black gelding–now mostly white, everywhere on top–was still standing calmly at the hitch rail. Sleeping, it looked like. “See, horse,” Johnson said, though of course the animal couldn’t hear him, “you got it right, being gelded and all. Those flat bellied home wreckers don’t present you with the slightest bit of temptation, and that’s a blessing.”
Not that the real estate agent truly wished to part with his privates in order to gain peace of mind. Those flat bellied home wreckers didn’t tempt him anyway. Not much.
Bridget Terrio, now that woman was another matter altogether. He wasn’t about to tell her husband that was ninety percent of the reason he hadn’t started dating again. He stayed away from Limpid as much as he could without losing potential sales, but he was hooked. He wanted…not Bridget, exactly, but someone like her, and there wasn’t anybody else like her.
“A divorcee, a flat bellied home wrecker, and Bridget Terrio walk into a bar,” he muttered to himself, watching the slickening road through the sweep of the wipers. “Bet old Hank couldn’t come up with a punch line for that one, either.”
For our readers who may not be familiar with the terms “Eckist” or “Eckankar,” the definitions can be found at A Glossary of Eck Terms.