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The Salmonella Club
Author: Will Berry

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     The four of them would show up each and every day, even on Sunday, at the sit-down delicatessen of the Jolly Giant Food Store to drink coffee. A lot of coffee. They all carried 16-ounce refillable plastic cups that they had originally bought at Jolly Giant and therefore they were entitled to as many refills as their prostates and bladders could stand at just 25 cents per cup. One refill would last them 30 to 45 minutes. They were, all four of them, into sipping, not rapid consumption, so at 25 cents, a dollar could get them through the balance of the morning, sometimes 75 or even 50 cents might cover their time because the delicatessen manager rarely looked at them, and when he did, he just shook his head, turned, and walked away. That was the signal for them to run up to the counter for a free refill, which was a game they loved to play, the four of them, and they were quite good at it.

     Their names were Matty, Marv, Lute, and John, and they were known as "The Salmonella Club," a title they cherished. That name came from Helen, a large woman with too much lipstick and a hairdo that did not fit her round face. She worked the morning shift at Jolly Giant four days a week and named the four of them, Matty, Marv, Lute, and John, "The Salmonella Club" because she said that exposure to any one of them would cause stomach upset, severe sickness, and probably diarrhea. But Helen was the best when it came to looking the other way at the counter and the club members loved her for it and they made her an honorary member of The Salmonella Club, although they never personally told her of this honorarium. Helen easily gave away 11 or 12 cups a day at Jolly Giant but she knew that the store would survive but she was not so sure about the club members. They were all into being thin and she would wonder if they ever ate anything and decided that they probably ate one meal a day, max, wherever they could find it. The Salmonella Club had one outstanding requirement for membership: you had to be poor and they were all that, and being poor was being thin or as Matty said, 'who ever heard of fat, prosperous-looking, people picking up pop cans for a lousy nickel?'

     Marv said once that Helen was starting to look good to him and that drew a big laugh from the club members inasmuch as she probably weighed as much as any two of them and it was decided that Marv could not have handled Helen on his best day even if he should ever have another best day.

     So Helen would look away when their cups were empty and then looked back when they were filled again. 'There they all are,' she thought, 'sitting around in those second-hand plaid shirts they seemed to favor, summer or winter.' She wondered what their last names might be. Perhaps they did not have last names anymore. Poor people never seemed to have last names, she thought. They probably had last names 20 years ago when they were working and were solvent. One thing was for sure, their money was gone and their women were gone, and where the hell were their kids now? 'Damn,' she thought, 'I've got to run down to the bakery section and see if they have any day-old doughnuts for those guys. Where does one find 'salmonella' in the dictionary, Helen? Is it next to sympathy? Relax Helen. Don't get involved with the paying customers, if you can call those guys paying customers.'

     "Hey, Helen," John yelled, "Lute here says he can handle you tonight if you don't keep him up too late."

&nb sp;    "Tell Lute," Helen yelled back, "that he's really sweeping me off my feet, but this is my night for bingo."

     "Damn," yelled Lute, "stood up by a bingo game at the Eagles Club!"

     "Well, Lutie, old boy," Helen answered, "maybe some other time. Pick a day, oh, say, June 31st." The Salmonella Club cracked up. 'I'll give them this,' Helen thought, 'they have kept their sense of humor and that's good because that's all they really have. That and a Senior Citizen's discount card at the Salvation Army Store for life's little necessities.'

     "Hey, Helen," John yelled again, "not that a lady of your quality would ever be found there, but the half-price sticker at Goodwill this week is blue. Say again, Helen, blue."

     "Thanks, John," Helen said, "I must write that down with something. Lend me one of your crayons, John, will you?" She got another great laugh. 'Helen, you're really on form today,' she thought as she looked at John. Of the four, he would be the one who could operate a computer and his fingers would never touch anything but a keyboard. No crayons for John. 'I wonder what his last name really is?' She must really find that out.

     She looked at John again. Of the four, he was the thinnest. He did not look well today, nor had he for a long time. 'Wonder what he eats, or even if he does eat,' she thought. 'But then, none of these guys could ever be a model for Modern Maturity. God, I wish they would find some different plaid shirts.'

     It was getting past 11 AM and the noon lunch crowd was starting to come in, which meant that The Salmonella Club stood ready for adjournment. They all went their separate ways after another trip to the bathroom to clear the coffee. That was another requirement for membership. You did your own thing in the afternoon and evening. Helen wondered where they all went, where they could go to spend the rest of their day, and if they would be alone. Yes, they would be alone.

     "Boy, I got things to do today," Matty said. They all agreed that they had things to do today, for sure.

     Again, Helen thought about John. Where did he spend his afternoons? She guesssed that he went to museums and libraries. They all lived near the edge of a downtown in a large city so those places would be accessible on foot and neither John nor any of the rest of them had a car so foot power or perhaps a city bus would be all the transportation required. They all could walk to Jolly Giant from wherever or whatever they called home. Mean streets around this neighborhood sometimes, not the worst of the city, but a tough place when you were old.

     She wondered about the places that they all lived in. One room, a curtain around the toilet, a small refrigerator that had not been defrosted in years, she thought. Did their kids ever look in on them to see if they needed anything? Like food or medicine?

     "Hey, boys," Helen yelled, "take with." She tossed John a bag of day-old doughnuts and rolls with creme filling that Marv liked so much.

     The Salmonella Club was grateful. Good, old, Helen had come through again. "Such a beautiful lady she is," Lute said.

*****

     It was Wednesday, just a plain, old, Wednesday morning. Helen would work today and tomorrow at Jolly Giant and then finish out the week as a security guard. 'Ah, the joys of being a single parent,' she thought. Not her choice but there it was and you live with it and always for it.

     Matty was the first one to come in. She saw him at the customer service coun ter cashing in his nickel pop and beer cans for recycling and the customer service lady did not look happy with him because he had the cans stuffed into about every sack that he could find. Matty did not worry about appearances. Not for a nickel a can, he didn't. But the lady handed him two dollars and change. It had been a productive afternoon yesterday for Matty, the complete environmentalist.

     As Helen checked her coffee pots for the oncoming onslaught by The Salmonella Club, Marv and Lute came in. But no John. Unusual, Helen thought, because John was always the first one in. Certainly, the second. But never last. Everyone was waiting with no coffee. It didn't seem right to start without John. Matty, Marv, and Lute sat in silence. Finally, they came up to the coffee counter and Helen turned her head as they filled their plastic cups. "Morning, Helen," they said. "Morning, boys," she answered. "John's late this morning, Helen." "Yes, well, I'm sure he'll be around in a jiffy, boys. Say, now go over and sit down and I'll smuggle you all some doughnuts." "Great, Helen." She saw fear in all of their eyes and felt the same in hers.

     She did not know why she did it, perhaps it was instinct, but she grabbed a morning paper from one of the booths. And with the same instinct, she turned to the obituaries, and now she knew John's last name. It was Paxton. John William Paxton.

     There was a picture of him taken perhaps 20 years ago, and he was in a suit, because he was a real member of society then and they always wore suits. He had just received an award from his company for 25 years of faithful service and salesmanship and they took his picture. Unfortunately, Helen recalled, that company had closed the very next year and John had to take off his suit and look for any kind of work that a man in his late 50's could get. He had married so and so but the obituary did not say when they were divorced, but Helen knew they were divorced. John was survived by his daughter, Ilsa, of this same city. He had died of 'a sudden illness.' Dear, God, Helen thought, there was nothing sudden about John's illness.

     And for the first time in her life, she went over and sat down with The Salmonella Club. She spread the paper over the table. They all read the obituary, this short little testament to one man's life, and they read it again and again. It was so short. No degrees, no honors, no civic endeavors, just the elementary survival of John William Paxton who had died of 'a sudden illness.'

     No one looked at anyone else. Matty, Marv, and Lute just sat with their heads down. Perhaps they were praying, Helen thought. She lowered her head too.

     Finally, Lute spoke. "The visitation is tonight at Kramer's. That's fast."

     Matty spoke. "I didn't know he had a daughter."

     Marv said, "He never mentioned her, you know?"

     More silence. Oh, goddam Wednesday, Helen thought. Goddam Wednesday all to hell. Almost everyday someone they know dies, and when that happens, a little part of all of them dies.

*****

     When Helen came into the room, the room where John's coffin was, she saw Matty, Marv, and Lute ahead of her. They were wearing plaid shirts with clip-on ties and Helen, not the crying type, tried to fight back the tears. How much, God, how much?

     She noticed that the coffin was closed. Standing beside it was an attractive woman, an attractive woman in her late 40's with smart, black, clothes and a coiffure that matched her slim body and eyes that matched her expensive black dress. Her eyes, Helen thought, were just black pools that saw nothing. They had no expression. She could have just as well have worn sunglasses, such were those eyes. Ilsa.

     Finally, Ilsa, with practiced calm and measurement, spoke in a passionless voice. "John," she said, not 'father,' but 'John,' "had instructed me to not open the casket until all of his friends are here. Well, we shall now do as he instructed." She opened the casket. No body, no John, no distinguished member of The Salmonella Club. Just an envelope.
     Ilsa almost snarled as she spoke. "Well, John was just full of cute little tricks like that, wasn't he?" End of her eulogy. She picked the envelope out of the coffin. "This is addressed to Matty, Marv, and Lute, so I shall give it to you directly. Now, if you will excuse me, I must talk to the funeral director about....well, about further arrangements." Her once-even voice was almost it a rage. She stuffed the envelope into Lute's hand, and quickly walked out of the room, the weight of her slim body on the backs of her heels. When she passed Helen, without seeing her of course, Helen detected the odor of expensive perfume mixed with cigarette smoke and she noticed that her neck seemed to be arched in the position of an angry goose.

     The three remaining members of The Salmonella Club stood in front of the empty coffin holding the envelope written by John William Paxton. "Anyone want to open it and read it?" The question was Lute's and it did not prompt any response.

     "Boys, I'll read it if you like, I would really like to read it to you," Helen said.

     "Gosh, Helen, that would be great, thank you," Matty said.

     "Didn't know you were here, Helen," Marv said.

     "Please read it to us, Helen," Lute said.

     Helen opened John's letter and started to read.

'Hi, guys, and hello, Helen, because I know that you are there too.'


Helen caught the loss of air in her throat.

'Well, the old ticker finally nailed me and so I am off to the research hospital where I am probably already in their Veg- O-Matic. No body to be buried. Not for old John. I want to advance science and if they can find anything in my body they can use, then science will really be advanced. I'll bet Ilsa is really pissed off and I would hate to be the funeral director as she will want to carve him a new asshole for wasting her money on a coffin. Oh, well, she'll get her money back. So, now, you have met my daughter, Ilsa. You should have known her mother.'


     Helen drew a deep breath. How do you handle these last words from John William Paxton? Laugh or cry? Both. "Keep going, Helen," Lute said.

'Ok, guys, now as to the dispostion of all my worldly goods. Lute, you will be my executor just like real people. All of you get to my apartment quick before the landlord does. The door's open. There you will find $14.75 in a coffee mug marked "John, for 25 years of service - from the gang." Also, you will find some paperbacks I found at Goodwill that may expand your minds. Isn't it funny how you can buy great literature for 25 cents? Cheapest goods they got. Also, you will find a nice selection of plaid shirts that Helen likes so much. And they have all been freshly washed too. My shoes are crap, don't bother with them, but there is one decent pair of overshoes. Throw the black and white TV away, but the radio is still good. Well, Lute, the execution of my estate should probably take 5 minutes.'


     "That's it?" Marv asked.

     "No, Marv," Helen answered, "there's another full page here."

'And now, my friends, there is something I want to tell you. I want you to find a replacement for me for The Salmonella Club...'


     "No way," Matty said, "no way to replace John...."

     "Let me finish the letter, Matty," Helen said.

'....you have got to have four people for The Salmonella Club. If you just stay three, then you will soon be only two, and then we will have no memory, we never existed, and that just cannot be. We have got to stay alive, all of us, and that will take four of us. There are plenty of old guys or gals out there, yeah, a gal would be good. They need the three of you. You have so much to offer anyone, all of you. You are the best there is, and you may live in a world without much of its money, but you understand things that perhaps few other people can and that needs to be kept alive. Believe in yourselves always, so reach out to someone, guys, and keep me alive through that someone. Please do that for me. Goodbye, Matty, Marv, and Lute, my dear friends. And Helen, you are the best of us all. John'


     And now some tears came from Helen but she grit her teeth and said this to The Salmonella Club, "Well, boys, it would seem that you have some looking around to do. For God's sake, lift your heads up."

     The three of them looked at Helen as you would look at a housemother.

     "Tell you what, boys, she said, "free coffee for the four days of my shift to any new member, cup included. Now, how's that? Suppose you want some free doughnuts, too."

     Lute, spoke, "Thinking on it, guys, I happen to know this guy named Jay..."

     Marv said, "Bring him, Lute."

     Matty said, "Bring him tomorrow, Lute."

     "This here service for John William Paxton is now adjourned," Helen said. "Now let's get out of here before that Ilsa comes back."

     "Oh, yeah, let's," Lute said.

     Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Helen thought. There has always got to be a tomorrow. It keeps us alive today.

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Comments on this poem/writing:

The Geezer (67.26.86.5) -- Wednesday, December 25 2002, 09:19 pm

Awesome

Awesome story! I took the time to read your story, it was long but I got involved and became part of the story. Your a good writer, had a little tear in my eye. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Have a Merry Christmas today. Four poor guys drinking coffee, Great! See ya!
 
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