SPOTLIGHT: Tambo Man by Christine A. Brooks

(An Excerpt)

“Evil? Nah, the weather isn’t evil at all. People are evil. People are evil and evil people are everywhere,” he said as his eyes canvassed the street from left to right and back again.

               “People, that’s who’s evil,” he mumbled. “And that!” he said, pointing to his stash that was caught by the wind and carelessly emptied on the ground. “That is fucking evil.”

We both rushed over to survey the damage and saw it was mostly a loss. The tiny buds had been ripped out of the shelter of the baggie and violently mixed with dirt, pebbles, and tiny shards of glass. 

“Well,” he said. “It’s a total loss. Come on, let’s go back inside. I’m curious to hear more about your life back home. In the snow,” he said with a kind smile as he gathered the litter and the weed/rubble mash and tossed it in the trash can just outside the door.

“Total fucking loss,” he muttered. “Thankfully we have these,” he said as he shook a prescription bottle at me. “Here,” he said, tossing me a tiny white pill. “This will take the edge off.”

Somehow, in the wind, I caught that tiny pill. He disappeared back inside, leaving me with an unnamed pill and an impending storm.

I strained my eyes to see the beach. It looked like a crowd had gathered. I wondered what it was they were doing. I also wondered about that pill and the note I had in my pocket. Maybe he was right, maybe if I took the pill I would forget about my betrayal. Maybe it would take the edge off…. but I really didn’t feel edgy. I was the opposite, actually. I felt completely relaxed.

It was my intention to put that pill in my pocket. Save it for later, I thought, or flush it down the toilet. I would absolutely not take it. Or would I? Could I? Take a pill from a self-proclaimed drug addict? No, normal people do not take unknown pills from strange men in diners in Southern California. They just don’t.

“Is that your car?” A cop appeared, scaring the crap out of me and demanding to know if it was my car parked in front of the diner.

“What? No officer. That’s not my car,” I said nervously, fumbling with the tiny pill in my hand.

“How do you know?” he asked, walking closer to me. “I didn’t tell you which one it was.”

Closer still.

“Oh,” I said, pretending to cough and popping the pill. Get rid of the evidence, I thought. Good plan. Even closer now, and alarmingly suspicious of me.

“I walked here,” I said, clearing my throat.

“Oh,” he said, stopping in his tracks. “Ok, have a nice day then,” he said, turning around and disappearing around the corner.

“Bye,” I said. Good riddance, I thought.

I was ready to go back inside, but my legs had an opinion all their own. They had no interest in walking. Not even to the log. As the wind swirled around me and the clouds continued to roll in, I stood there gazing down at the crowd on the beach, but not seeing much of anything other than a blur.

After a few minutes, I realized it would not get any better, and I should attempt to go back inside. You can do it, I told myself. One foot in front of the other. I made my way to the door in large, exaggerated steps and realized my knees were up way too high. Why was I walking like this? Eventually, I made it through the curtain.

Jingle. Jangle. Swooooooooosh.

The air inside was thick again with the smell of bread and Pine Sol, and I was very aware that I was drunk and high from a mystery pill. I wasn’t the happy kind of drunk from a few Mimosas at a bridal shower before the breakfast was served, but a deep drunk that had taken hours to accomplish and would take days to leave. Was it closing time? Or had I just gotten here? My ears were ringing, and the table was buzzing again. Had he answered me? Was there a train nearby? I couldn’t remember. Suddenly, a wave of nausea came over me, and I thought I was going to pass out.

As I jolted forward from the actual wave of energy, I said, “I killed someone once.”

He stopped talking, or at least I thought he did. I had only watched his lips move for who knows how long, so I wasn’t exactly sure, but I was pretty sure. The street was empty, and the diner was suddenly silent.

Cassady was nowhere to be found.

I had his full attention now.

“I mean, not literally, of course. But someone is dead because of me. It’s a weird thing when you think about it.” Why on Earth was I still talking?

He was sitting there in mid-bite of his taco, just looking at me. For what felt like an unreasonable amount of time, he just sat there.

There was nothing I could say to make it better, so I played my hand. The first one who talks loses. It was an old trick I learned in sales, and it had served me well over the years. I wanted to offer a better explanation or one that made sense, but I knew if I spoke, I would lose. I had to be patient.

He looked at me without regard now. He knew I was uncomfortable, despite that, he just stared at me. Only yesterday, or even hours earlier, we were strangers and now, here I was, confessing my deepest, darkest secrets to him, not to mention my conspiracy theories.

The small lunch crowd that had been enjoying their tuna melts and fountain sodas had long since left, and now it was just us. I was acutely aware of the emptiness of the diner.

I couldn’t remember him ordering tacos, but I knew better than to think about it too much. So much had happened and so much was happening that tacos were the least of my worries. Still, I hadn’t remembered even seeing them on the menu.

Slowly, a glorious smile came across his face.

“What?” I asked, knowing I had lost.

He said nothing and just smiled, eating his taco and drinking his whiskey.

“Here,” he offered, “have some whiskey,” he said, filling my empty water glass to the top.

Not that I was too polite to say no; it was just that it never occurred to me.

“I didn’t actually kill him, my first love. Well, in a lot of ways, I guess I did, but I didn’t pull the trigger.”

That was a stupid thing to say, I told myself as there was no gun, no trigger, just a boy in love that slept in his car on a cold winter night. A boy with a soulful existence that was taken before realizing any of his grand dreams. I wanted to explain myself, but the whiskey had me feeling lightheaded again, so just I sat there. Even if I wanted to offer my long explanation, I couldn’t. Not now, anyway.

He was still smiling as he said, “I guess it’s true what they say, about judging a book by its cover. You certainly have layers, kid, you certainly do.”

Layers? I didn’t want layers. I didn’t want to be exciting, deep, or different, certainly not different. What I wanted was to have oatmeal this morning, and go for a long walk on the beach. Instead, I spent the greater part of the afternoon drinking to excess, talking to excess, and having layers.

“Cassady!” he shouted to no one. “Cassady! We need drinks and more food. Obviously.”

Yes, I thought, we definitely needed more.

“So, when you’re not busy drinking, killing, smoking weed, and popping pills with strangers, what else do you do?” he asked, sipping his freshened-up Margarita.

“Oh no, you don’t! No more about me, let’s talk about you,” I said with a sudden burst of whiskey-soaked confidence.

“Ok, ok what would you like to know?”

“Well, your name would be a great place to start, and maybe who you are?” I was on a roll now. Finally, I would place where I knew him from. Finally, I would be clear on at least a few questions I had.

            “Oh, that’s easy, my name is….,”

“Here you are,” Cassady came over, placing a new pitcher of margaritas with clean glasses down on the messy table.

“Let me clear away some of this stuff,” she said, stacking plates up on her arms and carrying the empty bottles by her fingertips.

“Sure, great, thanks. Now, where were we?” he mumbled, gulping his ice-cold Margarita.

“Excuse me,” I belched, putting my hand over my mouth. I was suddenly very aware that I was going to throw up. “Be right back,” I said making a quick b-line for the bathroom.

I kneeled on the sticky bathroom floor and threw up Tequila, beer, whiskey, french fries, hamburger, lettuce, Eggs Benedict, and the mystery pill. I threw it all up and couldn’t help but wonder, when did I have a salad?

I was clammy all over and for a few seconds I wondered if this was how it would end; hunched over a toilet in some strange diner that no one had probably ever heard of, with a man I didn’t know, throwing up the entire day’s activities.

I wanted to sit there and feel sorry for myself, but suddenly felt much better after throwing up, so I slowly stood, propping myself up against the side of the stall and assessed the damage. My head wasn’t spinning anymore and my ears had finally stopped ringing.

I made my way to the sink and leaned on it, afraid to look at the reflection in front of me. I stood there, letting the cold water pour over my hands, debating what I must look like. Hideous, I thought to myself, you must look absolutely hideous. Fortunately, I could never look up. There was suddenly a racket outside.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

              I lathered up my hands and quickly dried them off, hurrying

back to our table to see what the noise was.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Although feeling better after my recent upheaval, I was still confused by what I was watching.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

My thoughts were jumbled, but what I thought I was seeing was him jumping around our table, smashing ice cubes with a small hammer.

I could hear him shout through the ruckus, “See! Steel is harder than ice! STEEL is harder than ice! Steel is harder than ICE! STEEL is harder than ICE! STEEEEEL IS HARDER THAN ICE!”

He was yelling, dancing around the table, and frantically shouting as he smashed the ice, the table, and the salt and pepper shakers with a small tack hammer.

This went on for a few minutes until Cassady ambushed him from behind, grabbing his hammer. He lifted his arm once more, but when he went to smash it down, there was only his hand and a lot of anger.

“Hmpf,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Hmpf.”

Slowly, I walked over to the table and sat down. I moved very deliberately. I didn’t want to startle him, upset him, or set him off again on a crazy rant. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Steel is harder than ice. I said nothing, though. I had every opportunity to excuse myself and leave. No one would judge me for that. Certainly, no one would think I should stay here any longer. Things had clearly taken a turn for the worse. I had gotten sick, and he had gone crazy, and I still didn’t know his name.

The small diner suddenly went dark as if a universal light switch had been tripped.

“What the…,” I said, looking out at the pitch-dark sky.

“Looks like we’re gonna be here awhile longer, kid. Hungry?” He asked as if nothing had happened.

Was he serious? After all the smoking, and all the fucking food, how in the name of God could he be fucking serious? I tilted my head and said, “Sure.”

I was curious about the whole hammer and ice show, but I also didn’t want to risk upsetting him even more. As odd as the day was, it was one that I knew I would never forget, so I didn’t want it to end just then. I didn’t want to do anything or say anything that might cause him to leave.

Just as I thought that I remembered the note. A tremendous storm was rolling in, and because I had walked to the diner from my hotel, almost a mile away, I was stuck here with the note, and him and my secret. I couldn’t tell him now. He was obviously mentally unbalanced. Who knew what he might do if he knew I had stolen something from his journal? I couldn’t risk it and I couldn’t back it now since I had dripped blood on it. My blood.

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