Chapter Twenty-two

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It was only Monday, but given the emotional bruising I'd taken, there was only one place to go after work, and it wasn't back to my apartment. I needed TLC and good advice in equal quantities, and the only source of that brand of alchemy was Mickey's dive, the Garlic Palace. Claudie would arrive promptly at 6 p.m. to help me with my love life since the Web was closed Mondays, and I would be comfortably full of pasta by then compliments of Mickey's dear sainted mother, who taught him everything she knew about cooking.

Forget the fact that a lifetime of culinary experience boiled down to two maxims: fresh is best, and use garlic. Training aside, Mickey served a mean Pasta Carbonara.

I'd sent Jimmy home with a little sleuthing homework: to remember everything he could about his Chicago colleagues at the brokerage firm where he used to work, including the late, unlamented Princess. We were set for a debriefing lunch on Tuesday. What to do about our personal situation was my night's project.

I left my car in the parking lot next to Mickey's place. I even got the rock star parking spot right next to the front door.

Even early on a weeknight, the Garlic Palace oozed cigarette smoke. Forget the recent non-smoking ban on bars in Illinois, the building had been a pool hall for the last 50 years. The smoke stains were all that kept the wallpaper attached.

Mickey himself was in fine form behind the bar. His forehead glistened underneath the strands of hair he'd yanked across his head to cover the bald spot, and his five o'clock shadow arrived promptly at 3:30 p.m. But he was dressed to thrill in a brown polyester shirt with a loud geometric print and black jeans.

I took my accustomed stool exactly three seats to the left of the end of the bar. Dead center was boring. This way I got to yak at Mickey while I kept an eye on the rest of the action. On the way to my bar stool I noted that Mickey wore the usual black loafers, no socks. Yep, my short friend was right in sync—with the perfect pick-up ensemble circa 1971.

Mickey hadn't needed to find this gear in a resale shop because his closet was still chock full of vintage items from the first time they'd been trendy. If I asked, I was pretty sure he wouldn't even know that Captain and Tennille were getting divorced. Apparently, the Doc Marten thing hadn't worked out.

Without a word, Mickey put my diet Coke on a napkin in front of me and wiped his hands on the white apron he habitually tied around his middle.

"Eating?" he said.

"Depends," I replied. "What's good?"

He rolled his eyes. "Everything." He pulled his order pad out of the apron pocket. "I'll put you down for the special."

"What is it?"

"Fabulous." Then he walked two steps away to put his order in through the cubbyhole to the kitchen.

I shook my head. "It's a free country, Mickey. Usually, I decide for myself what to eat."

"Yeah, but that's at home, Cupcake. At my place, I'm the boss."

I was about to give him my usual song and dance about customer service when I recognized what he'd called me. "Cupcake?"

Usually, Mickey calls me by my name since I'm not much into nicknames. The ones applied to me as a child were neither kind nor memorable, so I gave them up.

"What of it?" he said. He stood behind the bar wiping his hands on a towel and casing the joint. Clearly, something wasn't right. I saw he got into a fighting position, his feet spread wide apart and his hands flat against the cooler, and I barely said hello.

Mickey smelled trouble on the wind. Maybe he'd picked up the scent in Viet Nam. He never said, but like the weather vane, Mickey was seldom wrong.

For once, I humored him. "If I have to be a dessert, couldn't I be a vanilla gateaux or a chocolate éclair?" I said. "Cupcakes are so common."

Mickey shook his head, but he laughed. "Trust an English teacher," he said.

For Mickey, that I'd studied English in college and taught for a while branded me for life. Like religion. Instead of Jewish or Catholic, I was lit-ter-a-ture with four syllables, and he was about to launch into the usual harangue about my hoity-toity ways and condescending attitude. The key word was uppity with a capital U, but I wasn't in the mood.

I clasped my hands together at my breast and prepared to pull out all the stops. "But Mickey," I said plaintively, "words are my life . . . my breath . . . my meat . . . my drink . . . my. . . ." I never got to finish my sentence because Odin leaned over my shoulder.

"Maybe you should check your cell phone once in a while, Wordsworth."

I should have listened to Mickey's warning and hid in the bathroom until the storm blew over.




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