I ask for water for the third time after the waitress ignored me the first two times. I know the third time won’t be the charm. She nods in my direction and it doesn’t take a detective to read the look in her face: I see she won’t be bringing me any water. The manager has been making noises in my direction, pointing and talking to the waitress. She tried to have me leave four times already, making motions to bring over the check or asking if I wanted anything else or if I planned to take up her table the entire day and if so if I was planning to repay her for her lost tips—okay, she didn’t say that last part, but I could tell by her eyes, which now that I really study them are a bit too close together, that she was thinking it. I ignore her motions and her requests and her silent snide remarks. I know there’s a line of people waiting outside for this table, but I was here first, and, besides, I haven’t got my story for the day yet.
The Sunday paper is sprawled across the table. I have not read one word. I turn the pages rhythmically. If anyone was watching—and while people do stare at me, nobody watches me, not the way I watch them—they would discover that I turn the page exactly every forty-five seconds. I don’t bother with my watch anymore. With practice, anyone can discover the beauty of knowing time. If you understand intervals, train yourself to do something over and over at the same interval, it becomes second nature, a clock in your brain that ticks and subliminally lets you know when it’s time to move on. Turning pages in the newspaper is like that for me. Even when I change sections, as I do approximately every fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the section, my timing is not thrown off. My internal clock doesn’t let it. I continue to move with the time, not reading the news so much as living the news. Why read the newspaper, stuff that happened the previous day, when I can live in the news that will happen tomorrow? I’m a news junky, and I want the latest in what happens, even stuff that has not technically happened yet, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I find that stuff when I listen to what people say when they’re at their most vulnerable—when they think they’re eating a safe meal with their friends or family.
I switch through the conversations around me, turning my head like the knob on a radio, trying out each table like a station, focusing in for a few moments before moving on. From the ideal table, I can tune into eight conversations without much effort, and about four additional conversations if the acoustics are just right and the background noise ideal. They put me against the wall today, and I’m stuck with five tables within tuning range. There’s not much going on. A family squabble, the reminiscing of a high school football game from the seventies, and the travel plans of what sounds like a to-be-divorced woman and her teenage son. They’re going to Disneyland, ostensibly to celebrate the divorce. It’s amazing what people celebrate these days
Across from me is a table for four occupied by an older man and a younger woman. It takes me only a few seconds of sorting through the emotions before I know that this will be my story. A casual listener might not realize that this conversation is pay dirt, dripping with glorious mystery. I was always a mystery buff and because of that, I’m not a casual listener. The man wears a satiny blue spring jacket and wide dark sunglasses. His hands are folded in front of him over a burgundy sweater, and his legs dangle outside the cushioned bench, as if preparing to run at a moment’s notice. He has gray hair and a pink face. His head keeps moving but you can’t tell what he’s looking at because of his glasses. He speaks out of the side of his mouth, giving his words an unformed feel.
“Brad’s been working on her, she probably changed her will again,” the man says. I turn my head to the left so that my right ear is closer to the table. I read somewhere that one’s right ear is better for overhearing conversations and one’s left ear is better for listening to music. I’ve eavesdropped enough to know that this is true. Once I learned the trick, my ability to listen to conversations increased dramatically. I let my eyes lose focus, better to concentrate more fully on the conversation, like a blind person, focusing one’s efforts on one less sense sharpens the others significantly.
“She threatens to change it every week,” the woman responds. “She’s using it as a weapon to change us. It’s not going to work. We’re not going to fall for it, regardless of how much the old bag has stashed away. Have you found out how much she has stashed away?”
The man grunts in the negative and takes a large bite from his egg sandwich. I listen to munching before the woman starts in again. Her voice sounds a bit desperate, as if the façade she was grasping threatens to slip away. “What did she change it to this time?”
“Eleanor wouldn’t say, but she spoke how happy she was that Brad had attended her the previous week. He came over and ate with her on the weekend.”
“Brad’s breaking our once a week rule! We all agreed.”
“Yes. And it seems to be working for him.”
I suck the final few drops of coffee from my mug. If there is a conspiracy between coffee shop owners in the city, then they would see me a mile away and would refuse me service. They can do that: refuse whomever they want service, like casinos that refuse the card counter, or clothing stores that refuse the lady buying clothes each week for a weekend affair only to return on Monday. But there is no conspiracy because each week, as I rotate through the coffee houses and diners, I find no places that refuse me service. They don’t recognize me, and if they heard, they would. It’s not like you can miss me in a crowd. They don’t know that when I sit down with my family-sized breakfast and bottomless coffee mug at seven in the morning on a Sunday, I’m there for the day. I have a wonderful bladder, and I can hold my coffee all day if need be. I’ve found a few diners who don’t mind me so much, they don’t mind me taking up space or eating into their profits. But those high-minded establishments are far and few between, and it is only in those places where I’ll chance getting up to drain the morning’s coffee. In the other establishments, if I do get up, I’ll return to my seat and find my table occupied by a family of four trying to decide what type of butter and syrup delivery systems they should order, square or round.
Except for a pile of bushy black hair, I can’t see what the woman looks like. “I spoke with Herbert,” she says. “He’s still with us. He keep worrying that we’ll report him to the bar or something. I keep telling him that it’s not unethical to protect our peace of mind from that hag but he can go on and on about his duties to his clients. When this is over, we should think about reporting him just for spite and the blabbering I have to deal with every time I speak to that insufferable man.”
“Does he still think we’ll be needing his services once she’s gone?”
I hear the smile in the woman’s voice. “Of course, darling. You should know me better by now. Herbert is as convinced of our sincerity as the hag—well, at least before Brad started in on her again.”
“So what did Herbert say? Did she change her will again?”
“Not since yesterday. Herbert has not been dragging his feet on her requests for meetings. He visits her once a month, but he only goes when I’m there, so there’s not much we’re missing.”
“How is she doing? Any closer?”
“Not that I noticed. She’s forbid the doctors from talking to us now. We have no idea when the old hag will die. With Brad starting in again, it better be soon. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep up with this.”
By now, even a casual listener would see why this conversation is interesting. I see the framework of the detective story forming: a large family fights over the last will and testament of the matriarch. She probably has a fortune stored away. Grubby old women usually do, the grubbier the bigger the fortune, or so the suspects always believe. If she’s killed, there’s a whole family of suspects. From the sounds of it, any one of them could do it. But would any of them do it? I get too far ahead of myself. I try to slow my breathing but find it difficult. I wasn’t always this big. Largeness, like most great things in life, happens slowly, almost too slowly to notice the change. I never minded the girth, but there are a few things that I found difficult to get used to: one is that inertia increases with one’s size. Stopping becomes a bigger challenge than moving, and once I grow excited, calming myself feels like trying to stop a moving train with nothing but one’s breath.
“Does she talk to Herbert about her health?” the man asks.
“She has not respect for that buffoon. For however much I despise her, she’s not a stupid woman. And however much I hate to admit it, it’s probably where I get my cunning from. The old hag knows how to read a person—well, with the exception of her children. We were always a difficult lot. Herbert knows less than we do.”
“I wish she’d just die already. This is killing me. Her sitting on top of her oversized bank books up in her oversized house looking down her nose at us,” the man says.
“Oh, I don’t think she looks down on me so much. You, you know she never thought you were good enough for me. I sometimes wonder if she was right about that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve asked one small favor of you in this, and you still refuse to do it.”
“I spy on your brothers and sisters. Why isn’t that enough?”
I’m a mystery buff. Ever since I was a child, when I read my first mystery book, The Mystery of the Watermelon Thief, I have tried to recapture that initial feeling, the feeling of living in a mystery, not knowing everything. Mystery books and newspaper stories provide little mystery for me now. I either solve them when provided with the first clues, or grow bored when not enough is said to deduce the conclusion. When the detective solves it at the end with undisclosed truths, well, that’s not a mystery book, that’s a fraud. When the clues are given, the suspects seem to whisper in my ear whether they’re guilty. It’s little challenge, and besides, it’s not real. Not real like this is real.
The waitress serves breakfast to the man and woman, and I jot down notes on the prospective mystery in my small book. I never became a detective because of my physical limitations. The waitress stops by my table. I keep my head down and continue to scribble, I point to the empty glass of water and mug of coffee. I know it will do little good but I still feel as if I have some rights as the customer. I know it’s not so much that I give these places bad business—because clearly I spend enough here. It’s that a fat person taking up two seats at one of the diner’s tables is not the most appetizing inducing experiences for other customers. They want me in, the feed bag attached, and me out as fast as possible. A fat customer, like a fat chef, is not the best way to sell food.
“She’ll die of natural causes soon enough,” the man says. “We just need to stay on top of things until then. You have Herbert and I have your brother and sister. What more do we need to do? Brad won’t be able to keep up his acting. He has too great of a temper on him. This’ll be over soon enough. Now, eat up and let’s get going. Your mother’s birthday is this week and we need to buy her something special, something to make her not think of Brad’s visits anymore.”
“You are a weak man,” the woman says, her voice garbled by the foodstuff in her mouth.
I wish I had more information on this family. It will be fun to follow the newspapers, figure out who the prosecutors will pin the murder on. I found my story for the day.” I squeeze up out of the bench and walk over to the couple. I keep my eye on my table, ready to spring back if the waitress makes a move to evict me.
“Mr. Thomas,” I say when I’m in front of the table. “Is that you Mr. Thomas?”
The man looks at me, confused and woman looks down. She’s much prettier and younger than I had suspected. As I study her at my periphery, I realize that it’s not that she’s younger but that her face was frozen with shots. Her skin, while smooth, gives her a surprised look. Even without her wrinkles, the rest of her features reveal her age.
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “You must have me mistaken for someone else.”
“Stop joking. Don’t you recognize me? It’s George, George McCord. I work at the post office down the road. You always stop in to pay your bills. It must be the uniform, you don’t recognize me without the blues.”
“Again, I’m sorry, but my name is not Mr. Thomas, and I don’t live around here. We’re visiting Janice’s mother in the neighborhood. You must have me confused with someone.” Janice still refuses to look at me, picking at her food with her fork.
“I am so ashamed. I’m sorry, Mr. . .”
“Mr. Nielson,” the man says.
“I’m so embarrassed, Mr. Nielson. Please forgive me. I’ll crawl back to my table and hide under the, well, the tablecloth.” I smile and pat my stomach familiarly. Mr. Nielson laughs with me and I turn to catch the waitress clearing away some of the dishes off my table. I grab the coffee stained mug and hold on to it, daring the waitress to pull it away from me.
“Mr. and Janice Nielson, daughter and son-in-law of Eleanor,” I write in my book. This week, they will receive an unexpected gift from me. Their mother, Eleanor, will finally reach her final peace. And then the real mystery will begin. Lots of mysteries and deeds ahead of me. For such a fat man, I have a surprising way with deeds. I busy myself counting the number of ripped out pages in my book before the current page: thirty-two. Soon there will be thirty-three.