By Tom Love © 2003
Frankie was a regular guy, what you might call a stand-up guy. It's just that he had a coupl'a bad habits. He beat one of them, cigarettes. But the other, gambling, proved to be more difficult. Seems there was no patch to help you quit scratch-off tickets. Not that he lost a lot of money...well I guess that would be determined by what you call "a lot." For Frankie, $30, $40, $50 or more a day, his usual contribution to the Lottery Education Fund was “a lot.” Yeah, he was hooked.
Frankie did most of his wagering (always on Scratch-off tickets) at lunchtime. He visited his friend Tony, who ran a cramped but sunny liquor store in a strip mall not far from Frankie's day job. Frankie stopped by almost every day to buy scratch offs. In doing so, he became true friends with Tony, a Lebanese immigrant who had owned the store for 10 years. They talked about each other's kids and ex-wives (Tony's ex tragically died of pulmonary hypertension the summer before). Tony talked about once being an engineer constructing dams in Tunisia, and on around Morocco, down the west coast of Africa. He talked of picking cashews off the trees (poisonous until roasted) and helping clear wild mango groves with machetes.
A cast of eccentric characters wandered in and out of Tony's liquor store. Homeless alcoholics stopped in for a pint of Mr. Boston Vodka with money gathered from the kindness of drivers at interstate exit ramps. Others were lottery players using systems they had derived from the hymnal page numbers posted on Sundays worship schedule. Assorted young people came in to cash payroll checks (Tony charged 2.5%). Store owners came in asking for $5.00 in quarters to help them get through their noon day rush. All had one thing in common: They all thought the world of Tony.
Frankie didn't have many friends. He worked alone, not part of the usual team/project scenario so prevalent in offices. Frankie's boss didn't really understand what Frankie did and didn't really want to. It got so Frankie could pretty much come and go as he pleased. Tony became one of Frankie’s real friends. Frankie would run by the grocery store and buy bread and fruit and cheese and together, Frankie and Tony would have lunch at the counter of the liquor store. Other customers were always welcome to share a chunk of French bread or section of grapefruit or maybe a section of mango that Tony would deftly slice with a knife. Frankie had never seen a mango cut and served in this manner. An elliptical section was cut, skin still attached. And then Tony would press on the back of the slice and the juicy golden fruit would fan out from the skin and stand up invitingly for eating. This became their ritual. Bread, maybe some fresh sliced turkey from the grocery deli, Swiss cheese, and of course, the mango which rang up at a dollar a piece off-season and two for a dollar in season. Tony always asked how much the mangos costs on a given day. He harkened back to the days in Africa when they were $2.00 a dozen.
Frankie looked forward to lunchtime each day. Gambling took a back seat to conversations with Tony. And yet he couldn't give up his addiction. He would just get that part out of the way, not paying much attention. He usually lost. Then he would start with some topic, sometimes politics, and Tony would add his international two cents. This was the way it would play out most days.
One particular day, Frankie had brought the usual mango, and Tony was busy applying his patented slice, fan and serve technique. The knife he used was an enormous butcher knife. Frankie was not paying much attention to what was going on around him; He was scratching away on a "Lucky Seven" ticket, trying to line up three sevens. Then a very loud voice beside said "Hey old man! Give my all your money!"
Frankie jumped, his hair on end, and looked to his left. Here was a slender black man, in his 20's with a gun. He was nervous, waving the gun back and forth.
"C'mon man, open up the register!"
Then, in one swift move, Tony lunged across the counter with the butcher knife and plunged it deep into the throat of the would-be robber. Immediately blood spurted. It streamed out of the sliced artery onto the counter, onto the mango. The young man, still standing, staggering, tried to scream but only gurgled and spit blood. He spit blood into Frankie's face. Frankie vomited.
Tony still held the knife in position in the robber’s throat. Breathless, eyes wide, Tony was talking in Arabic, it sounded like praying. He pulled the knife back the perpetrator fell to the floor, bloody and lifeless. For a silent moment, a moment which seemed to last longer than it really did, Tony and Frankie stood and stared in horror.
"Somebody call 911," Frankie said at last. Tony called and in a mixture of English and Arabic told the address to the operator. The police arrived in minutes.
Frankie stayed away from the liquor store for a few days. When he came back, the counter area had been cleaned up, Tony said he had a cleaning service come in. Frankie didn't have much to say to Tony that day. He didn't even want to gamble. His visits became few. His gambling habit died. Later that year, Tony sold the liquor store to a younger man. He retired. Frankie dropped by the store a few times out of curiosity but didn't like the new owner.
About a year later, Frankie was at the airport to meet his daughter who was flying back from Europe. He made his way to the international section, a separate waiting area from the rest of the terminal. He was in the back of a large group when he saw Tony! He made his way to the front of the group and embraced his old friend.
"Frankie, Frankie, Frankie, I miss my old friend."
"Me too, Tony. I miss you too."
Tony was there to greet his older brother from Syria. They talked a while, caught up on kids and ex-wives, and left it at that, not mentioning that terrible day. Frankie introduced his daughter to Tony when she came off the plane. They said their good-byes and Frankie walked his daughter down the corridor, looking back once and waving to Tony who waved back.
Tom Love is a writer from Atlanta, GA.