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By Mike Hudson

The girl sobbed quietly into the linen napkin. She was tall, dark haired and willowy, and maybe 30 years younger than the man sitting across the tiny booth from her, who slouched back and took a long drink from a tumblerful of Glenlivet. He was a writer, or had been.

"Come on. You knew what this was," he said, and she quickly got up, her hip striking the corner of the little table, and headed back in the direction of the ladies room. The man had seen it all before and remained unimpressed. Whatever humanity he might once have possessed had left him a long time ago.

The restaurant was old, the oldest in Hollywood they said, with dark oak woodwork, red leather booths and banquettes and a faded mural that once depicted the countryside near Venice but was now almost indecipherable covering all four walls high up near the white tin ceiling. The place had an odd but famous name and the man had lunch there a couple of times a week.

Bukowski drank there and Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler and John O'Hara and Nathaniel West and Jim Thompson. He wasn't as good as any of those guys and he knew it, but at least he could afford to drink in the same joint.

Out on the boulevard the tourists passed the place by, in a hurry to get out of the hot sun and into the Hard Rock Cafe or some other trap specifically designed for them. They wouldn't think of coming into a place like this.

At nearby tables, he could hear other men, industry guys, talking about opening up the China market or the insanity of Charlie Sheen or whatever it was that the industry guys were talking about that day. They spoke in low tones, measuring their words, frightened a little that the person they were talking to, having lunch with, might turn what they said against them.

The waiter, who was a tall man from Eastern Europe and looked to be around 90 years old, appeared suddenly, carrying a tray. He placed a corned beef sandwich on the table in front of the man and a Cobb salad in front of where the girl would have been sitting had she not gone to the ladies room to cry.

"Will there be anything else sir?" he asked.

"I'll have another one of these George," the man said, tapping his finger on the rim of the glass.

"Very good sir."

The aged waiter wore a black tuxedo that was half as old as he was. He only wore it while he was working, and had it dry cleaned once a week. It hung beautifully on him, the man thought.

The girl returned and had fixed her makeup and was smiling as she slid into the booth.

"I'm sorry," the man said.

She acted as though she hadn't heard him. She'd brightened considerably and he wondered whether she hadn't done something in the ladies room besides fixing her makeup.

"Could we get some wine? I'd love some wine," she said, smiling.

When the waiter came back with his scotch, the man ordered a bottle of cold Riesling she'd once said she liked. She dug into her salad as though she hadn't eaten in days.

"Very good sir," the old waiter said.

The wine came and he poured her a glass, which she drank in three gulps. She poured the second glass herself, filling it almost to the brim. She was very beautiful, in that dark Bohemian sort of way he liked, and was great in the sack, and had taken great care to not get herself pregnant, which was about all you could ask. Some guys never learn.

She put a huge forkful of salad into her mouth, pushing an errant piece of watercress in with her fingers. He was doing the right thing, he thought. Much longer and she'd be talking about moving in or getting married.

Lunch started to break up around two and the industry guys who'd been talking about the China market or the insanity of Charlie Sheen began making their way towards the exit. She finished her Cobb salad and poured another glass of wine. He took another bite of his corned beef sandwich.

Out on the boulevard, the white sun hung high in the sky and only the tourists, in their stupid tee shirts and shorts and fanny packs and sneakers were anywhere close to comfortable. They were just thrilled to be there. They walked, looking down at the sidewalk at the stars of Tex Ritter and Thelma Ritter and Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson, bumping into other tourists or pausing to take downward looking photos. One woman from Minnesota asked her companions whether the stars were actually buried underneath their stars. Her companions weren't sure.

"I don't think so," one said, and they walked on down to Disney's Hollywood Studio, which wasn't really a studio at all, the actual Disney Studio being of course in Anaheim, for some ice cream.

"You really are a son of a bitch Tommy," she said across the little booth table. "You really are."

He thought about a different girl in a different year in a different city. He looked at his watch.

"People have said that," he said.

"I'll bet they have. I'll bet they said it over and over."

"Look," he said, but then George, the waiter, reappeared and the man finished his whiskey and handed him the glass. Might just as well get tanked at this point, he thought.

"Very good sir," George said.

"Come on," the man said to the girl. "There's no reason to make this any harder than it already is. You know I care for you."

He extended his right hand across the little table, placing it near hers on the white linen tablecloth. Perhaps it was the two large whiskeys, but he never even saw it coming. The fork pierced the back of his hand with such force that the tines bent on the tabletop when they came out the palm. He instinctively recoiled, which served only to tear further at the muscle and flesh and bone.

His scream pierced the air, causing the waiters to stop in their tracks and the few remaining diners to stop talking and chewing. She let go of the fork, picked up her purse and slid out of the booth.

"Maybe I'll see you around sometime," she said, standing over him smiling. And then she was gone.

By the time George made it back to the booth the man's blood had completely soaked the white tablecloth, spreading out in a widening pool. His face was blanched and twisted with pain as he tried unsuccessfully to pull the thing out.

"Get an ambulance," George called to the cashier.

Actually, it was marvelous. He'd felt nothing so real in years.

On the way to the hospital, one of the EMTs asked him what happened. They'd given him a shot for the pain and, between that and the whiskey, he was as high as a kite.

He felt the urge to speak, but couldn't think of anything to say. He turned his head away and thought of something else.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 20, 2011