After losing his job as a poultry distributor, William Binny spends his mornings at the local diner polishing off a cheap breakfast and perusing the local paper. A widower with an 11-year-old daughter who could pass for 14, Binny has plenty of reasons to worry about the future. Salvation soon walks through the diner doors, however, in the form of a redheaded Englishman named Valentine Peabody.
Peabody makes an unlikely proposition: He will pay Binny thousands of dollars to kill the enemies of his mysterious billionaire boss. The victims are bad men guilty of myriad crimes, but does Binny have what it takes to commit murder? For the sake of his daughter’s future, he is willing to find out. When his first few assignments do not go as planned, however, Binny starts to wonder if there is more to his new job than meets the eye. The shocking truth that he eventually uncovers brings this rollicking thrill ride to a conclusion so dramatic, hilarious, tender, and absurd it could only have been imagined by author Bruce Jay Friedman.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Bruce Jay Friedman including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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A Father's Kisses
By Bruce Jay Friedman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Bruce Jay Friedman
All rights reserved.
I first became aware of Peabody while I was enjoying my I usual breakfast at the Edward Bivens Diner, a small, noisy establishment that is not particularly outstanding in its decor, even by diner standards. There are a dozen counter seats, half that many booths and some framed and grease-stained pictures of past governors on the wall, each one a grave and self-important-looking fellow with mutton chop whiskers. Breakfast is what you might expect — juice, eggs, sausage and the like — but the price is a good one — $1.69 — and it has gone unvaried for as far back as I can remember. (The bagel, which has caught fire in our community, can be substituted for toast at a small extra charge.)
The owner, Ed Bivens, is a tall, taciturn fellow who can usually be caught standing behind the counter, tucking the flap of his shirt back into his pants and staring off in the distance as if his mind is on large issues. His wife, Betty, a short, squat feisty Nicaraguan woman, operates the grill as her private domain. When the shack in which she was living with her cousins burned to the ground, it was Ed, as the leader of our First Response Team, who had resuscitated her (and also pulled her mattress out of the flames). And thus had begun their romance, Ed having no idea of what a little pepper pot she would turn out to be.
The diner is situated directly across the road from the statehouse and the customers, for the most part, are statehouse regulars with an occasional feed salesman thrown in. A favorite topic of discussion is the local councilman, who went off to Washington to take a post in the new administration — and the fat government contracts he was supposed to throw our way. Thus far, he had not thrown any, and the feeling was that he had gotten caught up in the Beltway social scene and forgotten where he came from. He himself had written home to say that being close to all that power was like a drug. We took comfort in knowing that eventually he would have to return home, drugged or not, and face the music.
I cannot pinpoint exactly when it was that Peabody made his first appearance at the diner and proceeded to turn my life upside down. I do recall that it was at a particularly bumpy period for me. In a short space of time, I had lost my wife and been thrown out of poultry distribution.
It was the former circumstance that caused me to lose my bearings. From the moment I first laid eyes on Glo at the hog auction (and watched her wriggle with delight during the baby goat sell-off) to the day she closed her eyes for good, I do not recall our exchanging a single cross word. She was taken by Mary's Lung, an affliction thought previously to affect only the wives of nineteenth-century Welsh coal miners. But Glo had come up with it. Had I known that she would be snatched away from me with such cruel prematurity, I would have treasured our eight years together all the more. I cursed myself for teasing her on occasion about the weight she had put on, as if a few extra pounds — thirty or forty to be fair about it — could affect the essence of a loved one. It can't — and her rare and genial good nature prevailed to the last. As the end drew near, she told me not to fret.
"We'll be together in the afterlife, Binns. And I'll be a slim-bones."
I clung to that possibility — and had it not been for my concern for our daughter's well-being, I would have made immediate preparations to join my departed wife — no matter how much she weighed.
If there were happy prospects in view at that time, I was not aware of them. Still, I thought it best to keep up a pretense of structure in my life, lest it fall apart completely.
Each morning I would drive my daughter to the middle school in my pickup and wait to make sure she had gotten safely past the cluster of boys who had begun to take notice of her charms. Though she had just turned eleven, Lettie was tall and long-legged and had developed what the school nurse referred to as "breast buds." I was not personally fond of this phrase, but there was no question she had them and could easily have passed for fourteen. (The nurse had alerted me that her "menses" would be coming along shortly, another term that I found unsettling. Had she merely pointed out that Lettie would be getting her period, I might have received the news with more equanimity.)
Many of the boys in the schoolyard were of Hispanic origin, a surprising number of South Americans having settled in our midst. Though I try to be open-minded about this development (we like it here, why shouldn't they?), it is no secret that their offspring tend to be more hot-eyed than our own. (Their own scholars might even admit to that. And who knows, perhaps it has something to do with their proximity to the equator.) Whatever the case, Lettie, fortunately, did not have any idea of the effect she threw off. She did not wiggle her hips or flounce around in the style of her more precocious friends. Nor did she take the Cindy Crawfords of this world as her role models. If anything, she was a duck-walker. Yet who knows, she might, unwittingly, have been some kind of Reverse Flirt, her very modesty serving to inflame the smoldering (and perhaps innocent) Latinos. So I did not feel secure until I saw her safely past that group and on her way to her first class.
Only then would I begin my day, such as it was — which consisted of polishing off one of Ed's substantial breakfasts while I perused our local newspaper. On occasion, one of the statehouse regulars would leave behind his Wall Street Journal, and I would give that esteemed publication a riffle as well, although, in truth, the world of derivatives and debenture bonds is a mystery to me, and I had no portfolio to protect.
Still, business is a part of our world, and I felt I should at least try to stay abreast of it.
After ingesting the day's news, I would linger for a bit and ruminate on where I had gone wrong; inevitably, my thoughts returned to the day I had told my supervisor at the poultry distributor that I needed to take two months off to find myself. Though all but a week of it was accumulated vacation days, my supervisor was unhappy nonetheless.
"We're jammed up," said Mr. Wittels. "Can't you find yourself in the office?" "I tried that and didn't get anywhere."
"Suit yourself," he said, and walked away without further comment.
As it happened, the decision turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Two months later, not only had I failed to find myself, but when I tried to get my old job back I found that it had been filled by Toni Wittels, my supervisor's wife, a registered nurse who had been coaxed out of retirement, and was having the time of her life, sitting at my old desk and dreaming up new routes. Having tasted the heady and fast-paced world of poultry distribution, Toni was not about to return to a humdrum existence. (And who could blame her?)
Where I got the feeling that my job would be waiting for me upon my return is something I cannot explain. Certainly I had received no such assurance from my supervisor. Yet had I known the result of my decision, I doubt that I would have behaved differently. The time was valuable in that I got to read the works of Mr. Henry Makepeace Thackeray, our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, M. André Gide, Chekhov the Russian and the tragedies of the Bard. (I did not get to the comedies — they are on my list — but I did knock off several Molieres and a Corneille.) To my delight, I discovered that the great Edward Gibbon was understandable to someone such as myself — and that the ancient Romans had problems similar to ours — such as where were they going to get the money for bridges.
I also wolfed down Candide in one bite and found it intriguing that of all the author's mighty works, only that fast-paced little ninety-pager survives.
One might argue that I could have digested these works while continuing to work in poultry distribution, but I feel that I could not have done so full-out.
And then all of a sudden, just as I was settling into a dark future, there was Peabody, as if by sleight of hand, taking his seat at the counter, pretending to be one of us. Which is not to say that he succeeded. He may have thought he did, but he didn't.
What set him apart — from my point of view — was his mode of dress, which ran so contrary to our community style. He wore soft olive-colored slacks, moccasins with a tassel on them and sweater coats of a variety that are not purchaseable at our local stores. (And that would include the new mall.) Then there was his shoulder purse. Say what you will about us, we are not the shoulder-purse type.
He kept the sleeves of his sweater coats rolled up to his sharp elbows, in an effort, I would guess, to look like an everyday person, but it didn't work. He still stood out. Tall and slender, he had shoulders that were stooped and rounded in the manner of a distance runner. A shock of reddish-brown hair fell forward on his forehead, which I envied on sight, since my own hair has thinned out considerably. (Though I dislike the style in others, I had taken to wearing it in a modified comb-over, using ultrahold hair spray to keep it in place.) His mouth was open a good deal of the time as if he was astonished at everything he saw, and he had a tendency to pant expectantly, like a big dog, anticipating a treat. (You almost expected a couple of paws to come out.) From time to time, a droplet would form at the end of his sharp nose, which he would erase with a discreet swipe of his sweater sleeve. That was his single departure from an overall sophisticated style.
He took what appeared to be an inordinate interest in Ed (they seemed to have a past connection) and the diner — which puzzled me since Ed, his detached style notwithstanding, never struck me as being all that fascinating. If anything, it was Betty who claimed to have descended from high-born Nicaraguan stock (temporarily down on their luck) who was the more fascinating of the pair. (Granted, Ed does have the excellent collection of mouse figurines.)
As to the diner, it may not be a greasy spoon, but it is certainly not to be confused with Le Cirque Restaurant in New York City.
Yet Peabody would marvel at it, craning his long neck around from time to time and saying: "You've got quite a place here, Ed."
Then he would take an appraising look at Betty in her housecoat and bedroom slippers and say: "Did you know that you're a beautiful woman, Betty?" a comment that even Betty must have known was a reach. She is a hot little package who certainly keeps Ed on his toes, but she will never run Demi Moore a close competition in the looks department. Nor did she turn flirty when Peabody fired off one of his compliments. On the contrary, she chose instead to ignore him and to attend to her griddle.
Each morning, Peabody would order the identical breakfast — juice, dry toast and a Western omelet, which he asked to have prepared without the yolks.
"We call that a white Western," Ed would tell him and Peabody would take note of that advisory, saying, "Yes, of course."
But the following day he would continue to ask for a Western omelet without the yolks.
"I'm not wrong in asking Betty to prepare them that way, am I?" he would say. "I'm not putting her to any trouble? Because I'd rather shoot myself in the foot than do that."
"Not at all," Ed would reply, although clearly it would have been much simpler for Betty to cook the eggs in a more conventional style. Indeed, from my vantage point, close to the grill, I could hear her mumbling under her breath: "Why can't he eat the fucking eggs like everybody else?"
After he had placed his order, Peabody would lean back, survey the diner and say: "I really love this place. I've tried the other diners in town, but this is the only one in which I feel comfortable. You don't mind my coming in here each day, do you?
"No, I don't," Ed would reply.
"Because if you do, I'll vanish, and you'll never see me again."
"There's no need for that."
And after all, what else could Ed say?
At no time did Peabody so much as look in my direction, which caused a certain amount of irritation on my part. No disrespect intended, but I felt confident that my life had been every bit as interesting and event-filled as Ed's. No, I do not own a diner. But I had the two-and-a-half years of wartime service to my credit. (Six months of it in 'Nam, among the Montagnards, with whom I still correspond.) There was also my trip to the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia, with a side excursion to the fleshpots of Hamburg (this was during the period in which I tried to find myself), not to mention the handshake I had once received from former secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, during his inspection of our poultry facility.
The details of my early life are no less colorful. Having lost his tannery in a game of acey-deucey, my father, Andrew H. Binny, brought us over from Tennessee and quickly reestablished himself in an off-highway ramp convenience store that specialized in pickled sausages most agreed were of a gourmet quality. Along with his entrepreneurial skills, he had a bookish side, which he cultivated by installing a small lending library that stood apart from the pickling counter. When business was slow, he would don a stovepipe hat and a cape and read to me — with wide rhetorical gestures — from his beloved Galsworthy, switching over now and then to the lovesick poems of Sir John Suckling, another favorite. In truth, it was the cape and the rhetorical gestures that I enjoyed the most. From time to time, I am told that my speech cadence is reminiscent of my father's — an observation that causes me to swell with pride.
My mother, Gertrude Binny, was a buxom somewhat ravaged-looking beauty who quickly adopted the flat nasal tones of America's heartland yet continued to miss the mountains of her beloved Tennessee. On occasion, she would disappear with one of the lending-library browsers, a circumstance my father bore up to with uncommon gallantry. I did not do as well and felt a cold wind on my neck until I saw her safely ensconced behind the pickling counter. (If it were up to me, I would have shut down the lending library and made people buy a few books for a change. And needless to say, I lost my appetite for pickled sausages.)
At happier times, accompanied by my father, my mother would leap atop a baby grand piano in the storage area and do a series of spirited Irish jigs.
All of this is but a mere sampling of my background and, of course, Peabody could know nothing of it — and continued to ignore me. It was almost as if he went out of his way not to notice me — which gave me the feeling that he was, indeed, aware of my presence. There is no question that he was of interest to me. There was his English accent, for one thing. I have always had a weakness for this manner of speaking, awarding extra points of intelligence to those who practice it. (Obviously this is absurd, since it is the content of an individual's speech that should be paramount.)
Then, too, there was the impression he gave off of casual affluence. Money — and how to get some — had been very much on my mind. When it came time to pay his check, he would reach into his pocket, pull out a bill and lay it on the counter without stopping to check its denomination. He generally paid with a ten or twenty, but on one occasion, a couple of hundreds fell out of his pocket and on to the floor. He did pick them up, but with impatience. His attitude seemed to be that financial matters, at least on a small scale, were of no interest to him.
All dollars aside (as if such a thing were possible), the more I thought about Peabody, the more I realized how badly I was in need of a new friend. Glo was gone, of course, and though my beloved daughter is interesting in a quirky way and came up with a new passion every day — such as cable-network anchorwoman — she obviously did not supply the kind of male companionship that I often require.
It was only recently that a freak accident had claimed the life of Irwin ("Little Irwin") Stubbs, my best and perhaps my only hanging-out type of friend. Little Irwin had just come off a successful gall-bladder operation and was leaving the hospital grounds when a beer truck appeared out of nowhere and totaled his Subaru, killing Little Irwin instantly.
Excerpted from A Father's Kisses by Bruce Jay Friedman. Copyright © 1996 Bruce Jay Friedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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