Heybuddy didn’t come back the next night, but Matt did, and he brought a few of his friends with him. They came in right after the drunk rush, that dead space of about thirty minutes when the diner is totally empty. You usually get about thirty minutes of nothin’ after the drunks from the drunk rush stagger out, and then the pre-breakfast crowd starts trickling in: old guys that get tired of trying to go back to sleep, truckers that are about to hit the road, people like that.
I don’t know what he was thinking, really. I guess he was pissed at being manhandled and threatened the night before, and figured he would come back and extract a little vengeance. What he didn’t count on was how angry Ralphie and I were. He didn’t realize that Heybuddy was never coming back, and he didn’t understand about the void he had created.
“What’s up, fuckers?” He asked, strolling casually in, his three friends spread out behind him. One of them had a baseball bat, and one had a long metal pipe. “I came back to get my stuff.”
“I threw your shit out as soon as I came in tonight,” Ralphie said, walking out of the kitchen. He was wiping his hands with a rag, and for just a second, I was more afraid of him than I was of the guys with the makeshift weapons.
“Guess we’re just gonna have to take it out of your ass, then,” Matt said.
“Bring it, skippy.”
“Should I call the police?” Jandy asked from behind the counter.
“Don’t sweat it,” I told her. “This is only gonna take a minute.”
“Less than that,” Matt said, grinning. I saw something flash in his hand, something metal, and I wasn’t sure if it was a knife or iron knuckles until he swung at me. Knuckles. I ducked down into a crouch and punched him square in the balls, which I guess wasn’t what he was expecting at all, because he looked really surprised about it.
By the time I stood up from my crouch, the guy with the bat had stepped up and was starting to swing at Ralphie.
Before his cooking job, Ralphie had actually been a bouncer at a club. He had quit because he said that side of things was ruining it for him, and he needed a job where he didn’t have to deal with people. Of course, he took about a 90% pay cut when he decided to work at the diner instead of the club, be he always claimed it was worth it.
Ralphie stepped into the swing, caught the bat, and jerked it out of the guy’s hands. The guy stared at his empty hands and then looked up at Ralphie’s smiling face.
“You picked the wrong friend, asshole,” Ralphie said, and swung the handle of the bat around, catching the guy in the jaw and lifting him off his feet. Ralphie didn’t hesitate at all after that, just stepped over to the guy holding the pipe and cracked him over the head with the bat. That left one more friend, standing there with nothing, facing down Ralphie and I.
“Just go,” I told the guy.
“What’re you gonna do with them?”
“We’re gonna throw these two out in the gutter,” Ralphie said, indicating Matt’s other friends. “And we’re gonna drag him around back and beat the ever-livin’ shit out of him.”
“I’ll call the cops.”
I stepped up and punched the guy in the face. In the movies, that kind of thing always knocks them out. In real life, it just breaks their nose. He staggered backwards, holding his nose, screaming. Blood was gushing out from between his fingers, so I shoved him towards the door. He didn’t need another hint—he turned and took off.
“Get out,” I said to the two friends on the floor. They struggled to their feet and ran. Matt tried to go with them, but Ralphie reached out and knocked him to the floor.
“Not you, numb-nuts. You came back for some shit, and now you’re gonna get it.”
“I’ll go to the cops!” Matt gurgled. Ralphie had stepped around behind him, his elbow bent around his throat in a chokehold. I guess that made it kind of difficult to talk. “I’ll call the cops, I’ll sue your asses off, and I’ll have you thrown in jail!”
I looked up at Ralphie. “Fuck it, man,” he said. “You’re the one that’s so good with words.”
I kneeled down to Matt’s level, trying to think of something significantly menacing. Nothing came to me. “No. You won’t.” Then I nodded to Ralphie.
He released his chokehold and grabbed a handful of Matt’s hair. “Let’s go, sugarpop.” He dragged Matt back behind the counter and into the kitchen, making his way to the back door.
“Are you guys…gonna kill ‘im?” Jandy asked.
I looked around the diner, just a quick glance to make sure there was no one else in it, and then I looked back at her. “Maybe,” I said. I don’t know why, but it felt like honesty was the only way to go.
She looked scared, but she nodded a little nod, and then her eyes dropped to the floor. I continued to look at her for another few seconds, until she was able to look up and meet my eyes. “But…maybe not, right?”
“Maybe not,” I told her. “You gonna be okay in here?” Another nod from her, and then I was out in the dark employee parking lot with Ralphie and Matt.
We didn’t kill him, but we worked him over pretty good. It wasn’t a fair fight, and I’ve never felt good about doing it. I didn’t feel good about doing it at the time, and I don’t feel good about it now. It was two against one, and he wasn’t any kind of a threat to begin with. We kicked the shit out of him, plain and simple, and we probably sank to his level in the process. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t good, but it was justice. And it was the right thing to do, believe it or not. I don’t know how that can possibly make sense, but it does.
We worked him over and then threw him into a trash bin, and when the cops showed up an hour later, saying his friends had called them, we told them about how we had had to fire Matt the night before and about how he had come in tonight ranting about how he had found a way to make us pay. Something about getting some of his friends to beat him up. They asked a few questions and then ordered some pancakes, never suspecting that as they ate, Matt was back in the Dumpster, bleeding and broken.
I thought that was the end of it.
It would have been a good ending, I think: bad thing happens, bad thing avenged, they all live happily ever after.
It’s been said before, but I don’t mind repeating: there is no happily ever after.
Months passed, and although I realized I was probably drinking more than usual, and smoking more pot than before, I didn’t once connect it with the Heybuddy incident. I started hitting the clubs with Ralphie, and he started hitting the clubs even more than before.
Willy came in a few times, but not nearly as much as before, and he pretty much lost his status as a “regular.” Even when he did come in, he didn’t talk much—just sat there with his coffee, staring at the table or out the window, glancing at his watch. It was like he had to come in and serve his time.
We were all screwed up, but none of us knew it, and even if we had known it, I doubt we would have known why.
Since then, I’ve developed a theory. It’s a pretty lame theory, to tell you the truth, not at all well thought out, and lacking all kinds of logic. But it seems like the truth, and that’s good enough for me. My theory is that there’s magic in the world.
I’m not talking about street-magician, stage-magician, watch-me-cut-this-woman-in-half magic. I’m not talking about the shit that made Frosty talk. I’m talking about fireflies in the forest on your first camping trip, or waking up to find a snow-covered world or looking up at the night sky and seeing a star that you know for sure is yours. I’m talking about the power of innocent discovery and I’m talking about the stuff that makes no sense in a logical world but is the truth nonetheless.
There are moments of magic in the world, and as we grow up, we are trained to ignore them, to write them off. Heybuddy was a throwback to that magic. He brought the specialness of life back into our lives, and he exuded the innocence of wonder.
Without him in our lives, the world reverted back into its harsh, gritty reality, and we had no buffer. And reality takes its toll, you know?
Life went on without Heybuddy, but it was harder for everyone. It wasn’t anything that anyone was going to voice, but I think we all knew it.
Ralphie got the closest to talking about it one morning after the drunk rush. He was almost as wasted as the fools he had been cooking for, and he was trying to sober up a bit before he hit a club that didn’t open until dawn. He was sitting at a booth, dropping ice cubes into a steaming cup of coffee so that he could drink it faster, and he looked over at me. He was smiling, but it seemed like a sad, desperate smile.
“You know,” he said, holding up his coffee cup and pointing it at Jandy (who was over in a corner booth, making out with a random customer—the only customer in the place), “None of us would be like this if Heybuddy still came in.”
I didn’t answer him, and I doubt he would have heard me even if I had, but I agreed. We were all falling.
And that’s how it went. We all knew we were doomed, but none of us would admit it, and none of us knew what to do about it. I think what made it worse was that we all expected Heybuddy to come back. Every time that damn bell over the door rang, we expected to look up and see him, with his huge grin and his huge wave.
And every time we saw just another customer, it screwed us up a little more.