a short story by Jerry Zinn
Mort grouped the glasses in a mass. All the alcohol was cleaned out. He poured Cokes, waters, lemonades, and the odd milk, into one container, a fraternity pledge’s virgin nightcap. Hardware went into the buss bin, food scraps dealt with later. All Mort wanted was to be out of that place.
It had been a slow night by Tackle Box standards. Other restaurants would have called it a Friday rush. Mort was the “staff” part of “understaffed.” When he was a kid, fish and chips was a rare treat. As an employee it was the overcooked, tartar-smeared remains he interred. He hadn’t eaten cod since the magic was peeled away during his first shift three years earlier.
There were supposed to be two other waiters, a busboy, and a food runner. The manager scheduled them, which was supposed to mean something. Not even the manager showed. He was salaried. Mort was jester, advisor, and king with all the responsibilities and none of the trappings. To accompany him was the dishwasher, out back by the dumpster trying to light a skinny blunt, and the owner, passed out in his office from consecutive sleepless nights.
On weekends there were performers, steamer trunk, train-hopping acts paid in meals and tips. So all the tables were bussed at once, after lingerers were thrown back out to sea. Frequently the acts took Mort’s tips from the tables as they shouldered their instruments. Mort confronted a comedian once about it. The funnyman denied it and landed a left on Mort’s gut. That night the three-piece jazz group had magnetic fingers.
Mort caught himself on a chair back after slipping on a French fry, the Tackle Box’s banana peel. Mort dreamed of the shower liberating him from the seafood stench. His elbows stuck to the thin layer of indeterminate slime, and he peeled them off like stickers melted to windowpanes.
“Mort Mackerel, everyone!” he called out. His last name was secret for obvious reasons. On his application he’d written Mort M., and the manager didn’t ask. Employees were paid in cash, when they were paid at all, so government names weren’t required. It was then, from his quarters in the bottom of a well of resignation, that Mort saw the handwriting scribbled on the back of a waterlogged receipt.
Where the line said, “tip,” was written, “see back.” Mort feared a cruel joke, a cutting line to finish him off. He remembered the table well, three smartly dressed men in their sixties, successful at something.
On the back was scrawled, “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”
Mort couldn’t help but laugh the loud, sarcastic outburst of a villain. “What’s next? Stocks and bonds?” Mort derided. He stuffed the stub into his apron, another submission to the random order slips, paperclips, and pens. When he brought the cart full of bus tubs into the kitchen the dishwasher was gone.
“Another Houdini. That’s four in three weeks.”
If left, Mort knew the crap would be waiting for him in the morning, so he loaded the washer. An hour or two later the dishes were done. Mort walked home knowing he wouldn’t get paid for the extra hours or even the scheduled ones.
Tomorrow was not a new day full of prospects. It was the same day, gearing up to play over again with a different cast of characters like an off-Broadway show. Mort slept soundly. It was the one thing he was good at no matter the circumstances. All he had to do was lay down, and he was good as gone, a falling cadaver caught by a hard mattress. In the morning Mort riffled through his apron and found the crumpled receipt: “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”
He looked in the mirror and noticed he’d missed a patch of beard. The resulting strands stuck out like weeds in an untended lawn. Mort felt twice his age and looked twice that. He needed a haircut, a massage, money, and a companion. Mort Mackerel would go get all that once he had something to begin with.
Mort called his old friend Andre. Andre and Mort went way back to when they were locked up in Kansas together. Neither did the crime they committed. At least that was the company line. Roughly the same age, Andre and Mort connected over a shared hatred of accountants. In different ways, accountants put them behind bars.
“Andre, if I wanted to play the ponies, how would I put money down?”
“You want to gamble on the track? Don’t tell me you loaded a pistol too.”
“Nothing like that. I got a tip on a horse. Figured I’d try my luck.”
“Your luck is shit,” Andre chuckled.
“About as shit as yours.” Mort replied defensively.
“But mine’s not as smelly. What’s the horse?”
“Knightly News. He races in the fifth.”
“The fifth at where?”
“I don’t know. That’s all the guy wrote.”
“What guy, Mort? You got a horse guy?”
“Just a customer. He wrote it on a receipt instead of a tip. I mean it is a tip, I guess. That was the point anyway.”
“Some people, man. Let me see if I can find out. How much you in for?”
Mort paused to calculate how much he could afford. “Five grand.”
“Five grand!” Andre nearly cracked the receiver. “Do you even have that kind of money?”
“It’s all I’ve got,” Mort replied. “The note said all.”
“Jesus, Mort. Are you sure about this? This guy know something nobody else knows? I found this pony. He’s got long-shot odds. And I mean long-shot.”
“That would pay out over… $700,000!”
Mort digested. “Since we’re out you picked up accounting?”
“Don’t joke. I can’t put all your money down. I won’t do it. But I’ll give you a guy’s number. If you really want to do this, call him. And… put me down for $200. But listen! You lose it all, and I’m not giving you a dime! I can’t afford to be a loan shark. Hell, I can’t swim!”
“Just give me the number.”
Not only did Mort put in the five grand, but he put Andre down for $1,000 too. That evening Mort was out of sorts, messing up drink orders, and staying in the kitchen when he was supposed to be tending tables.
“Mort! Get out there! Those people pay!” the owner yelled. But then he went back to sleep on his stool. “They pay…” he blubbered.
Mort stayed in the back and watched the time. It was 6:34, the post time for the fifth race. Seconds ticked slowly. At 6:38 Mort called the bookie.
“How’d he do? Where did Knightly News finish?” Mort was erratic. Inside raged a confusing optimism. There was something about that tip, about the way he found it, the ridiculousness that screamed for a reward. It was the turnaround, the great, promised pivot. He did his time. He worked hard. Mort wasn’t listening for the answer; he knew Knightly News won.
Mort didn’t know a thoroughbred from a Shetland pony. With the five grand he laid, he could have bought that pistol Andre alluded to. And if he’d had anything left after Knightly News tumbled in last, he’d have bought it, loaded it up, and used it.