By A. Elizabeth Herting
The coffee was lukewarm. Tepid, rotgut diner swill. The waitress set it down in front of him in an old chipped mug. She was good-sized, just on the north side-of-young with a large kidney-shaped birthmark on her chin. A “bless your heart” kind of southern gal. He’d met quite a few of her tribe on his endless treks across the country. You could dance one step ahead of the devil, but never away from a woman like this. Ritchie felt the old familiar warmth spreading through him at the thought of it.
Reaching out to deliver his caffeine, she bent her considerable form in half, one bulbous breast swaying gently against his cheek. Ritchie set his smoke down in the ashtray and took a moment to notice several tiny, soft hairs sprouting out from her strange birthmark. On an otherwise pleasing face, the contrast of the birthmark made her stand out even more. It was hypnotic.
“Anything else, hon? The rhubarb pie ain’t too bad today. Sully made it this a’morn.’”
“Thank you, no…uh, Verna, is it?” Ritchie eyed her name tag, as it was practically jammed into his left eye. He turned on his most charming, devil-may-care smile. At twenty-nine, Ritchie Valerio knew he’d packed on more than a little mileage in recent years, but his megawatt smile was the one thing that still did the trick.
Ritchie was a special breed of cat, as his old nonni used to say. Born to a handsome Italian father fresh off the boat and a genteel, well-mannered debutante from the deep south, Ritchie used his considerable blessings from both parents to full advantage. He had a look and way about him, hailed by his most recent tryst as an Italian version of Tyrone Power, some B film actor the gals were always mooning over. With olive skin and striking bright green eyes, Ritchie was never bereft of female company, but it was his disarming, soft southern drawl that always sealed the deal. A string of Vernas from sea to shining sea could testify to it. Ritchie hoped today would be no exception.
“Say, darlin’,” he said, laying the magnolia on thick into her ear, “you mind bringing my friend a cuppa? He’s a mite thirsty I’m guessin,’ although these days, it can be a bit hard to tell.”
“Sure, sweetie. You let me know when he’s comin’ in and I’ll git it.”
“That’s the thing Verna darlin’, he is here. Cain’t you see him settin’ there?”
The waitress eyed him warily, following his gaze to the opposite chair. Ritchie felt a tingle of anticipation at her reaction, watching her intently.
“Uh, sure thing, hon. How’s he like his joe?”
“He ain’t picky, sugar. One lump with a splash’a whatever cow juice you got back there oughta do it.”
“Right. Y’all sit tight and I’ll be back in a jiff…”
Verna backed away slowly, eyes darting nervously from Ritchie to the empty chair before making a beeline into the kitchen. Ritchie sighed. Ah well, it was worth a shot. One of these days surely someone would see his longtime companion.
“Not this time, Walter, you crafty ol’ sumbitch. Just once, I’d like folks to think I’m not a-bat-shit crazy, talkin’ to myself.”
The ghost stared at Ritchie, dead in the eyes as it always did, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Walter just continued to stare, vacant eyes bulging out from a moldering, gray head. It was maddening. Ritchie could almost stand the incessant staring if not for the freakishly wide, skeletal grin. It looked like Walter was permanently laughing at the world, even though Ritchie knew damned well he was not.
“Walter, buddy, would you mind looking to your left for a few minutes? Let a man drink his java in peace?”
As if in morbid response, a piece of Walter’s left cheek slid slowly down his face and onto the bright pink Formica table in a sickening plop. The War’d been over nearly seven years and not a day had gone by where Walter was not in Ritchie’s company. Every passing year the state of his constant companion deteriorated until Walter looked more like a walking corpse than the bright-eyed, all American, blonde boy Ritchie first met in boot camp.
Walter hailed from a small town. He was the hometown football hero with a pretty little cheerleader waiting on him back home and for whatever reason, he latched onto Ritchie like a port in a storm. Unlikely pals became brothers in arms, even after death it would seem. If they kept up in this fashion, Ritchie had no doubt the bare skeleton of his friend would continue to follow him around until it literally fell apart.
They lived carefree, did Ritchie and Walter, hobnobbing with wizened, toothless hobos and hard-drinking prophets preaching fire and brimstone as they all ran one step ahead of the relentless railroad men that plagued their daily existence on the tracks. Ritchie figured they’d both seen enough in the recent hostilities, bloodied and battered in the hellish furies of war. Ritchie found himself jolting out of sleep every night, a constant parade of gore, blood and pieces of his fellow soldiers racing behind his eyes. There was no water hot enough, no liquor strong enough or woman passionate enough to scald his soul clean. Surely, Walter was a testament to that.
“Here’s the coffee for your…friend, hon. Umm…where would he like it?”
“Right there in front of him, Verna darlin,’ it’s mighty kind of you. Y’know, I once knew a Verna back in school…pretty little thing she was, kinda like you…” Verna smiled seductively as Ritchie casually placed a hand on the waitress’ hip, gently pulling her closer.
Walter flailed around for the coffee on the table, making several clumsy passes at it as various pieces of mottled skin flew off in every direction, a large strip landing directly onto Verna’s ample bosom. If she knew of this ghostly indignity, she gave no clue. Ritchie bit back a curse, talk about ruining the mood!
Just as he was making headway with the entrancing Verna, the short order cook came out in a rage. He looked like a short bag of muscle with an over sized, cauliflower head. Ritchie guessed he’d been a Navy man. Every swabby he’d ever met looked like this. Not pretty, but tough as hell. Ritchie’d known one of them, a guy from school. Killed at Pearl Harbor. Ritchie joined up right after he died. Hell, they all did.
This angry cook could be his worse nightmare. At least he would be if Ritchie hadn’t seen action in faraway places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu. Marines eat anchor-clankers like him for breakfast. Even Marines that were starting to go to seed after too many nights under the stars.
Walter levitated from his chair and began to pulse in a sickly green light as the stocky man approached. Ritchie watched the ghost getting agitated, remembering the day his friend was blown to smithereens on that godforsaken island. Walter was always brave to the point of being foolhardy. He certainly wasn’t one to back away from a fight, especially where his best friend was concerned. Ah well, let’s get on with it, then. Ready, Walter old friend?
“Alright, pal,” Sully growled at him, “pack it in, let’s go!”
Verna immediately placed her voluptuous form in between them. Ritchie guessed this was a fairly regular occurrence in their relationship.
“Now Sully, honey, this guy was just leaving. See? He’s just finishing his coffee, ya see?”
“All I see is a goddamned freak talking to his imaginary friend. I don’t want none of that in my place, got it?”
“Now, Sully, old sport,” Ritchie calmly sipped from his ice-cold coffee, adrenaline coursing through his veins. “War’s over, we both made it out. Surely, we can be friends?”
“I’ll not be friends with the likes of you!”
“Ah, well, that explains it. You must be Navy.”
“Yeah, what of it, freak?”
“Well, ya see, Verna darlin,” Ritchie crooned, “I was 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, the toughest buncha bastards ever lived. Were you aware, m’dear, that the Marine Corps is a department of the Navy?”
“Umm, well, I…” Verna stammered.
“Don’t answer him. Everyone knows that.” Sully glared at him, menacingly.
“Yes. Marines are a department of the Navy. The Men’s Department.”
Walter began pulsating above his chair as Ritchie’s words sunk in. Verna stifled a giggle, setting the cook off in a fury. The diner’s other patrons watched the scene unfold with alarm, their excitement feeding Walter’s ghostly energy. Sully turned a deep crimson shade, from the tips of his earlobes to the top of his bald head, waves of menace emanating from him. Walter grew large in agitation, flickering in and out of focus like a silent movie reel.
Ritchie thought the cook and everyone else in the joint would soil themselves if they could actually see his friend. Walter was a thing of beauty when he was riled up. He’d proved as much, insisting on going ahead of Ritchie on that awful day, before stepping on the Japanese mine that blew him into eternity. An eternity of companionship with Ritchie, anyway. That was Walter for you. Real salt of the earth kind of guy.
“You was warned, you stupid bastard…” the cook spat out the words, furious with embarrassment. Ritchie sat ramrod still in his chair and waited, nonchalantly drinking his coffee as Sully came barreling towards him. Verna screamed and Ritchie could feel the crowd holding its collective breath. Just as Sully pulled an enormous, ham handed fist back to pummel Ritchie, Walter sprang into action, once again placing himself between Ritchie Valerio and danger. The cook came to a full stop as Walter unhooked his decrepit, rotting jaw and screamed, full-on into Sully’s face.
The sound was deafening, at least to Ritchie’s ears, and the force of it lifted the Navy man up into the air, landing him hard on his ass before slamming him backwards into the breakfast counter at a breakneck speed. A huge cloud of dust and debris burst into the air, showering down onto the incapacitated cook. Not being able to see Walter, the patrons all assumed Ritchie landed the incredible blow all on his own, which was the way it’d been in many other second-rate diners and illicit boudoirs over the years. More than once, Walter’d come between him and an angry boyfriend. In his darkest hours, Ritchie actually had the good grace to feel a touch of shame about it.
Ritchie sat still for a moment, draining the dregs of his rotgut coffee. Walter calmed instantly, seeing Sully was no longer a threat. He gathered himself back into some semblance of order and reassembled his zombie-like body back into the chair. Ritchie sighed. He’d never needed Walter to fight his battles but considering the circumstances, Ritchie figured it was the least he could do for his friend’s sacrifice.
Verna ran over to Sully, bending over him and slapping the cook’s unshaven face. Sully was out cold. Walter to the rescue again! Ritchie stood up, looking longingly at the prostrate Verna before throwing a quarter onto the table. It was an exorbitant tip, but Ritchie figured Verna would make better use of it than he would. There was just something about her. Besides, he and Walter’d found the quarter that morning along the tracks in Greensboro, a piece of good luck in a string of bad nights.
“Come along then Walter, you howling old windbag. Time to move along.”
Shocked patrons parted like the Red Sea for Ritchie to pass. Walter made a final bungling grab at his coffee, the air from the otherworldly attempt sending the cup crashing to the floor. Verna’s head shot up, eyes wide in fear as she looked from Ritchie to the cup and back at Ritchie again. Ritchie took the opportunity to give her a final wink and smile, wanting to make a graceful and hasty exit before Sully came to.
“I apologize for Walter, ma’am. All them ballet lessons his ma made him take as a boy never amounted to much. Although, I hear tell he could do a helluva foxtrot! Hopin’ that coin’ll cover it, Verna darlin.’”
With as much dignity as he could muster, Ritchie put on his battered old Fedora and headed for the door, Walter shambling along behind him like a phantom shadow. After the cool dimness of the diner, the late morning sun was blinding. Walter stayed right on his heels. If Walter could still breathe, Ritchie imagined he’d feel the hot, decaying smell of the grave on the back of his neck. The thought of it made him shiver in the sweltering North Carolina heat.
“Now Walter, I’m right here, I ain’t goin’ anywhere. No need to crowd a man! Besides, we’ve no pressing engagements. Sadly.”
The two battle-weary men, one rotting on the outside and the other from within, turned and sauntered down the street. They didn’t particularly care which way they went. After all, when you had no particular place to go, you had forever to get there. The war would never be over for either of them. Not really.
They made it about half a block before Ritchie heard the telltale sound of shop bells over a door and a low female voice calling out to him. Slowing his stride and not wanting to appear too eager (although he most certainly was!) Ritchie counted to five, her footsteps urgently approaching behind him, before he and Walter turned around. Together. In perfect synchronicity.
“Well, well. Walter, you wily old sumbitch,” Ritchie said under his breath, unleashing that million-dollar smile, “It looks like today just might be our lucky day after all!”
And it was.
A man sat in a dusty old attic, holding an old black and white photo album in his hands. This was the last of it. After he boxed up his family’s old memories, they’d sign the papers and his parents’ house would be out of his hands. They’d died within weeks of each other after nearly sixty years of marriage. It’d been quite the scandal in his mother’s family at the time that his birth occurred barely five months after their wedding. A baby with a shock full of black hair and a strange, kidney-shaped birthmark on his chin.
He lingered a moment longer, looking at a picture of his Dad and an impossibly young, skinny blonde kid before they shipped off to the Pacific Theater in the waning days of World War II. How do I know this man? He swore he’d heard his father talk about him long ago. As with many of their generation, his father never talked much about his military days. His mother would get irrationally angry anytime Dad brought it up so eventually he stopped trying. The sepia-toned young man would have to remain a mystery forever. Sighing, Walter gently placed the album back in the box, feeling maudlin now that it was time to leave.
Picking up the box, he suddenly felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Gathering his resolve, Walter shook off the strange feeling and hurried downstairs to say goodbye to his childhood home. Somewhere behind him, bleached and yellowed with great age, a rickety old skeleton pulled itself up from the dust and shambled along dutifully in pursuit of the man. Shards of brittle bone broke away as it moved, glaring empty eye sockets in a grinning skull following the departing man with a dogged, otherworldly determination.
What a glorious reunion it would be for Walter. Both of them.
October 28, 2020
A. Elizabeth Herting
About the Author: A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by “Adelaide Books,” “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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