“You should stop drinking,” Veronica told me once.
“I am too self-righteous when I’m sober,” I replied. “I drink to level the playing field.”
That was a while ago.
Jack had gone to his parents’ house up north for the weekend and taken Tipsy with him. I was alone for two days. I put on a good pair of white pants and went down to the Horseneck Café to level the playing field.
His voice hissed like an overflowing toilet and smelled just as bad.
The Café was crowded. I found a stool at the bar and drank beer. Two men were playing pool, and when they finished one of the men sat next to me and ordered a hamburger. As he waited for his burger he fidgeted with the napkin under his drink, slowly peeling the edges away, then rolling the pieces into tiny balls and placing them in a row on the bar. When he finished off his napkin he did the same to the label on his bottle.
I saw all this through the corner of my eye, but pretended not to notice. Soon the label was gone, pressed into service alongside the napkin. I raised my bottle to order another and level the playing field even more.
“Hey,” he said, leaning his face over my arm, “you weren’t usin’ that napkin, were ya?”
I handed him my soggy beer napkin. He made quick work of it. My cold beer arrived. I could tell he wanted to say something more.
“I lost my business,” he said.
“You did,” I said. “It’s alright.”
“Vermiculture,” he said, sidestepping my shallow absolution.
“Vermiculture,” I repeated in acknowledgement.
“You know, worms,” he said. “I was a worm farmer.”
“Check, please,” I said, motioning to the barkeep.
While I waited he began telling me everything there is to know about raising and selling worms. His voice hissed like an overflowing toilet and smelled just as bad. I had a decent buzz going, and worms were the last thing I wanted to hear about. I stared straight ahead at my reflection in the mirror. I needed a shave.
He must have become insulted by my lack of attentiveness because he took off his glasses and began poking me with them. I looked at him. His beady eyes were glowing and fluctuating as he described the loss of his beloved worms. He had a tremendous overbite and when he spoke he looked like a dog chewing on a glob of peanut butter.
Finally his hamburger arrived. I got up to go, and ran right into my robber friend, Ted, the man who had rolled me for my cigarettes at Manny’s.
“Hey,” he said, “sorry about that one night.”
“No worries,” I said. “Let me buy you a beer.”
“It’s on me,” he offered.
We sat down.
“What did you pull?” I asked.
“Not enough to justify the effort. That bastard Manny almost killed me.”
Our beers arrived. We toasted each other. It was a good time. Then all hell broke loose.
As I tipped my beer to drink the worm farmer grabbed my wrist.
“The worms have arrived,” he whispered. “They’re here.”
Then he stood up and announced it to the whole bar.
“The worms are here! They’re in my burger, the worms are in my burger!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing. The jukebox song ended just then, and the room was silent. The worm man let go of my wrist and grabbed his burger with both hands. He held it above his head and began squeezing it so that the meat crawled out from the bun. Looked like worms to me.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” Ted asked.
“Check, please,” I said, but the bartender was concerned with the worm man.
There was ground beef and onions all over the bar now.
“Only ketchup will kill them!” he screamed. He reached down the bar for the nearest bottle of ketchup. He spilled drinks, but no one moved. They were silent, mesmerized. When he had the bottle he began anointing everyone within ten feet with ketchup. It was a mess. He was out of control.
“I’ll save you all!” He turned to save those behind him, but slipped on a greasy hunk of beef and went down hard. Our savior had knocked himself out.
When the room regained its senses Ted dragged his body out the door by his feet.
“Cut his balls off!” someone yelled.
I finished my beer and walked out. I met Ted at the door as he was coming back in.
“You’ve been hit,” he said.
I looked down. My nice white pants were covered in ketchup.
“Cigarette for a dying man?” I asked.
He obliged. I left him with a pat on the back.
I was out of smokes so I turned down the alley to go to the only store open. Ted had dumped the worm man’s body in a pile of trash next to the building. I almost tripped over his legs as they jutted out. I left him there to slumber among the worms.