The Morning Calm
Acid-laced coffee. Tawdry imitation 60’s décor. Indian music drifts down from worn-out ceiling speakers. The Route Sixty-Six diner, ironically located on 56th Street. New York.
Wayne stared out through the long expanse of windows fronting the busy street. In spite of the punishing wind and beating rain, people flowed back and forth by the window in amazing numbers. He was the restaurant’s sole customer. ‘Late lunch,’ his new acquaintance had suggested hours earlier.
The opening of an alley directly across the street attracted his eye.
The alley was unusual, from what Wayne had seen so far in New York, in that it extended only halfway through the block and ended in a brick wall. Also, it appeared clean, well-lit, devoid of the usual collection of crumpled trash cans. A small white sign with black lettering was placed high up near where the walls met the sidewalk. It read simply, ‘Korea.’ Just beneath were letters hand-done in red paint; ‘Alley of the Morning Calm.’
Tiny Christmas Tree lights ran row upon row up and down along the bricks, twinkling brightly in the rain. A single business had been built into the wall at the end of the alley. A blue awning stretched across its top. In a window next to the door a malfunctioning neon sign occasionally blinked “Izumi Maru,” right above a crossed knife and fork.
Wayne smiled to himself, his face remaining expressionless. Korea, translated roughly from the language, did mean ‘ land of the morning calm,’ and Izumi Maru, in Japanese, was close to ‘fountain of life.’ There was a warm serenity to the entire scene, only slightly diminished by pounding rain. He drank some of the bad coffee. A young make-believe American kid tried to offer a warm-up. The boy’s coloration and accent indicated his Filipino heritage.
“Nothing more yet,” Wayne told him.
The server began to walk away.
“By the way,” Wayne inquired, stopping him. “What’s down that alley, across the street?”
The kid’s gaze followed Wayne’s.
“Jappo restaurant. Run by Korean. Koreans hate Jappos. Serve poison fish. Jappos eat, get crazy, but always come back.”
“Pufferfish,” Wayne said, not looking at the server’s departing back, instead, his eyes fastened on the uncommon street scene before him. Pufferfish were filled with a neurotoxin that was among the most poisonous in the world. The flesh of the fish was prepared at restaurants all over Korea, however. In Seoul, the places were required by law to post a sign indicating the number of people who’d died from consuming the poison during the year before.
The most popular restaurants were those that posted the largest numbers. Wayne had never eaten the delicacy, but he’d known many Koreans who had. When prepared properly by a master chef, the Puffer meal gave its gourmet consumer a ‘high’ much more intense than cocaine and one that lasted far longer. Most of the world outlawed such restaurants, including the United States.
Wayne wondered whether the kid was right. It seemed unlikely that some rogue Japanese restaurant was serving illegal meals in the middle of a place as heavily policed as New York City.
“Korean Yakuza,” the kid said from behind him. Wayne lowered his right shoulder, then leaned back, twisting his head to face the boy. He didn’t like people approaching him from behind. The Filipino server walked past, however, to stand facing the broad expanse of clear glass.
The rain was abating with the wind, but everything outside remained shiny and cleaner looking. A group of young men had appeared from nowhere, taking up residence halfway down the abbreviated alley, crouching, bending over, and motioning to one another with weird hand signs.
“Fake, phony cowards, they are…fake cowards they are…” hissed his server, like he was repeating a line from a twisted Dr. Seuss story.
“Yakuza is the name used for Japanese mafia, not Korean gangs,” Wayne corrected him.
A homeless man passed the alley opening. He wore a tattered and torn version of Wayne’s own outfit. Irish tweed coat with worn blue jeans. Wayne noted the similarity and then shifted uncomfortably.
There was no retirement plan for hitmen. No Social Security. No Medicare. It was a lonely business without any social support network, and it didn’t pay anything near what people had come to believe it paid from movies and television.
Wayne had a few dollars invested and a solid chunk in his checking account, but every once in a while he worried about what might happen in his later years.
The street person pushed a shopping cart piled high with unidentifiable junk, the outside of his cart festooned with plastic bags tied all around it, like old tires circling the hull of a harbor tug. The man and cart moved very slowly past the opening of the alley’s mouth.
The boys from the alley moved like a single rippling stand of willows. One moment they were crouched down in the alley. The next they were surrounding the old man and his cart as if blown there by a great gust of invisible wind,
One boy pitched things from the vagrant’s basket onto the sidewalk and street, while another opened a folding ‘sling-blade’ style of knife and cut slits up and down all the bags tied to the cart. Trash spilled into piles, some of it blowing about in the remains of wet stormy winds.
At first, the homeless man attempted to defend his belongings but soon gave that up as the pack descended fully upon him. He ran but only made it a step or two before being brought down by a blow to the back of his legs. Once down, the boys began an obviously ritualized ballet of martial arts movements. Dancing and twisting, they delivered kick after kick into different parts of the agonized man’s anatomy. The gang’s enjoyment was palpable, even from well across the street and through a pane of thick glass.
The gang ended their onslaught as they had begun it, running lightly, like interlacing lemmings, to recollect back at their lair halfway down the alley. The vagrant’s body twitched while his arms and legs fought for control. He got up shakily, then tried to assemble something from the piles of junk surrounding him. He lacked the strength to refill the basket completely. Finally, grasping the cart by its bar handle, he glanced once into the alley before staggering away down the street.
“Assholes,” the Filipino server said aloud.
“What about nine-one-one?” Wayne inquired quietly.
“None of my business,” the boy responded instantly, spinning about and then walking away toward the kitchen in the back.
“Mine either,” Wayne whispered, but the kid was gone. Averting his eyes from the hypnotic scene, he checked his wallet. He put a twenty on the tabletop.
His ‘late lunch’ was not coming. He’d guessed that when they’d made the date. Wayne was used to it. He had no friends. People found his company vaguely disconcerting in some fashion no one had ever taken the trouble to explain. He’d never expected the guy to show up, but he’d gone through the motions anyway.
Outside Route 66 he stood for a moment next to the entrance. The rain was gone. The low afternoon sun was trying to penetrate between the buildings further down the street. Wayne stared at the alley mouth, breathed in deeply several times, and then walked to the corner for a cab.
Sitting on the side of his bed at the Waldorf, he looked at himself in a mirror perched above the clothing drawers next to an overly-large plasma T.V. He inventoried the image staring back at him. He was sixty but looked forty-five. He was ‘born-again’ hard, mentally and physically. He was still quick as a striking snake and agile as a Lynx. But, deep inside his blue eyes, there was a haunted lonely glint
he was not surprised to note.
The young Catholic priest had affected him deeply. Wayne was a Catholic but had fallen away in his youth. He’d gone back into a church, just to talk to somebody, the week before. It had not gone well. Unbelievably, the priest had refused him absolution for his sins. Wayne had not thought that possible. The priest had come out of the confessional to tell him, in a hushed whisper, that Wayne would have to find some other redemption from God for the things he’d done. He’d said that it was simply not within his power to forgive or offer further advice.
“Well God, what do you have to say?” Wayne asked the mirror, “or do I have to do this on my hands and knees?” Nothing happened. God remained his usual silent self.
The television was filled with idiotic sports games and awful news, so he turned it off and paced. Finally, he decided to take a walk. Three blocks from the Waldorf, on Lexington, he ran into it. The rain was gone, but a brisk wind remained. The wind drove an empty shopping cart right into Wayne’s path as he walked. He pushed the thing away with an irritated shove and then walked on.
After only a few steps he stopped dead in his tracks. What was an empty shopping cart doing on the sidewalk of a busy downtown street? Wayne looked back. The shopping cart waited, unmoving in the center of the concrete walkway.
Pushing the cart before him, Wayne made his way back to the Waldorf. The cart felt right as if it was rolling on well-lubricated ball bearings. He left it jammed against the side of the hotel’s granite entrance. A doorman looked over at him, then at the cart, but said nothing. Wayne went up to his room.
An hour later he returned, exiting through the same door. The cart was right where he’d left it, as he’d known it would be. Wayne threw an armload of used towels, a trash bucket, and some extra rolls of toilet paper into the basket. He pushed the cart toward 56th Street. He knew he didn’t really look his part. He was not properly filthy or seedy enough in his disguise but was counting on the dying light of early evening to cover a multitude of sins. Nobody paid any attention to him at all, as he made his way the mile and a half or so.
The yellow-lit opening to the alley was even more welcoming than before when he rounded the last corner. It beckoned warmly. The thronging masses of a busy metropolis had withdrawn with the fading light. Wayne checked his shoulder holster. The factory-suppressed Ruger, in twenty-two short for less sound, was there and ready, loaded with nine rounds, one in the chamber. The weapon was designed for close, nearly silent, work. It was all but useless beyond ten feet.
Wayne’s hand swept down to brush past the forty-five taped to his right ankle.
As opposed to the Ruger, it was terribly loud, devastatingly destructive, and good for much more than ten feet, as any proper backup should be. He was ready.
The shopping cart moved before him almost of its own accord. Wayne bent forward, beginning to drag one leg behind as if he was crippled or injured. His main concern was not based on either his appearance or his preparations. It was in attendance. Was the deadly flock of predatory animals going to be waiting when he rounded the corner and entered the alley, or was he merely to arrive there, abandon the cart, and enjoy the first Puffer meal of his life?
He felt their attention before he was even under their full gaze. Slowly and deliberately, he turned the cart to direct it down the alley while, at the same time, bowing his head further down so the smile he could not suppress wouldn’t alert them, His right hand sought out the warm comforting butt of the Ruger. He unsnapped the hoster release with his thumb.
Wayne heard the gang’s near-silent approach and thought of the priest. How correct that agent of God had been to deny him absolution. God, Himself, was so much more generous in His allowance for Wayne’s redemption.