My latest short story. Not for sensitive or very young readers.
My neighbours, Wendy & Don, had invited me to the theatre, and they had just bought a Smart Car four-seater so I couldn’t resist making the trek in with them to the city. Don was a Billy Joel fan and he wanted to see Movin’ Out before it closed its run. After the show we went for supper at Cant’, the latest trendy place on King West, which had a huge patio where we could dine al fresco under the summer stars. It was a gorgeous evening, just a hint of warm moist breeze blowing in from the lake.
We were talking about art, and how it predicted the times to come, and we took our time, so there were only a couple dozen people still on the deck and hardly anyone, from what we could see, sitting inside, as we lingered over gelati and cappuccinos. Don had told me that the owner of Cant’ was famous for having confronted some Russian ‘protection’ racketeers, and I was half-watching a guy in chef’s garb about three tables away and slightly to my left, who was talking loudly and animatedly in some foreign language to a couple of male guests. I wondered if he was re-enacting this act of bravado. He went away and came back with what looked like a pop-gun, one of those old toys that shot pieces of cork like we had as kids. I thought this was carrying the dramatization a bit far, but I didn’t say anything.
So we go back to our conversation but I’m kinda worried, glancing over there from time to time, and a bit on edge because I think the mood of the evening has been spoiled. And they’re talking and laughing really loud in this foreign language no one else can understand. I’m trying to follow what Wendy is saying but now the chef and his guest are punching each other in the shoulder and shouting at each other. Don’s sitting facing me partially blocking what’s going on and the next thing I hear is “Blam!”, a combination of the noise from the toy gun, louder than I’d expected, and the chef guy saying “Blam!” and the guest’s hat goes flying in our direction, and the guest tips his chair back and rolls on the ground, pretending, I guess, to have been shot. They’re both laughing but now I’m steamed. I heard a couple of screams from other customers so I conclude I’m not the only one pissed off. I rise.
“Hey!” I tell them. “This is completely inappropriate behaviour. You’ve frightened several of your customers. People come here for a quiet dinner with friends, not to have their conversation disturbed by noisy and disruptive theatrics. I think you owe your customers an apology”.
The chef guy comes over, hands on his hips, a menacing scowl. As he speaks I can smell liquor on his breath. Maybe, I think, the encounter with the protection gang has unhinged this guy a bit. He’s sweating, and breathing heavily, pausing in the middle of his sentences.
“The restaurant… is closed”, he says, loudly, some Mediterranean or East European accent I can’t quite place. “What I do in my restaurant after it is officially closed… is my business. I am guessing that you… are one of those humourless jerks… with a stick up your ass… who is making a fuss so that you can walk out of here, without paying. Am I right?”
The situation is out of control and I’m regretting saying anything, regretting coming in here in the first place. I just want to leave. I look at Wendy and Don sort of desperately, searching for a hint what to do.
“Just bring us the bill, please, and we’ll be on our way.” I’m aware that the people at the six or seven tables still occupied are all watching us intently.
The chef guy knows it too. I can’t guess what’s going through his mind.
“And now… all these other good people in the restaurant… have had their meals and their conversations… ruined by your outburst… and now they will want free meals as well. It was just a toy pop-gun, for God’s sake. I was showing my friend what it is like when someone walks into your business with a gun and tries to destroy you.” He’s talking faster now. “Do you have any idea what that is like, Mister ‘this is inappropriate behaviour?’… Maybe I should go back and get my real gun and show you what happens when someone tries to steal my livelihood?”
From this point on everything starts to happen so fast it is almost a blur. A guy who looks like a lawyer two tables over to my right stands, with a cell phone to his ear, and announces “All right, that’s enough! I’ve just heard you, Sir, threaten this customer with bodily harm, and I’ve called the police.” [looking at me] “I’d be pleased to be a witness if you decide to lay charges against this goon”.
The chef guy goes berserk, charging over to the lawyer-guy’s table and grabbing him by the front of his collar. “What… you crazy?… you in cahoots with this other guy to destroy my business? You call them back, tell them is a misunderstanding. If police come here, you the one will be facing charges, you piece of shit.” He raises the pop-gun in his other arm and holds it threateningly over his head.
Most of the people left in the restaurant are standing now, but no one is moving to leave. It’s as if we’re paralyzed, or maybe it’s because none of us have received our bills for the meal yet, so we’re afraid to leave without paying, especially if the police are coming. My mind is racing, and improbably I’m trying to imagine what I would be doing if I were one of the other customers, rather than at the centre of attention.
“Back away!”, shouts a guy in a leather jacket, a couple of tables behind the lawyer-guy. He’s talking to the chef guy, and he’s standing and brandishing a gun. It occurs to me I’ve never seen a real handgun before. In fact I don’t even know if it is real. The crazy thought occurs to me that this is all a put-on, a piece of theatre for the customers’ benefit, and in a second some make-believe cops will burst in applauding and offering everyone free cognacs. Then I see the flashing lights from the cop cars, and an ambulance too.
“Let go of the customer’s collar and settle down”, leather-jacket guy says to chef-guy. Nobody moves as the police surround the patio, pushing aside the potted trees buffering it from the street, guns raised. Chef guy still has the rifle in one upraised hand and his other on lawyer-guy’s collar, frozen. Leather-jacket guy still has his gun pointed at chef guy but his other hand is now raised as the police take their positions and order everyone to stay still.
And then, from way over to my left, there is a bright flash. My eyes catch the fact that another customer has shot a flash-picture of the entire scene — he’s in the perfect position to do so. And a split second later I swear I can see the bullet coming from behind me to my left, whizzing by. And another split-second later leather-jacket guy is propelled back and down onto the floor by the bullet.
The cops rushed in, patted everyone down, handcuffed chef-guy, and we all spent hours giving statements. The restaurant kept bringing free coffee and we never did get the bill for dinner. But I don’t go downtown so much anymore, not in the evening anyway. And I can kind of imagine how chef-guy’s experience with the mobsters affected him. I have a lot of nightmares these days, and when people use cell phones in restaurants or shoot off flash pictures without warning it makes me sort of crazy.
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