Tropical trees sway alongside this cement-filled beach town as I cruise past construction workers hanging a sign that reads, “Welcome to Paradise!” The cement walls on my left and right block out all but the tops of houses and sad palm trees follow the breeze around like a whip. I turn into a diner close to the beach only because I can’t find anything worth stopping for before then.
The sign outside reads, “Beach House of Pancakes,” next to three palm trees hiding a blacktop parking lot from the high-way but it doesn’t do much good. As soon as I park I hear the whistle and rattle of semi-trucks passing by. I walk in and take a seat inside a booth near the door.
I feel a paralyzing chill run up my back as I thumb through the menu. I’ve had chills before, but this one feels like maybe my spinal chord is locking up and that I need to stand up and scream, “Help Help!” before rigor mortis takes over. Instead, I twist and pop my back before the waitress approaches.
“Hi, can I take your order?” The waitress is a woman in her thirties. I can tell she smokes by the color of a couple of her teeth. That rotted, decaying look of the mouth of a smoker hasn’t bloomed yet for her. Besides the teeth she’s pleasant and takes my order. She starts walking away when a man who just walked into the diner pushes her to the ground. I can’t believe I didn’t notice this. An older man, I can only see him from behind, is wielding a gun and spinning it around the diner. He has gray hair and is wearing nothing to distinguish himself. He doesn’t cover his face.
“Alright motherfuckers! Nobody move!” The man yells. His voice sounds familiar.
“Everybody put your hands up where I can see â€˜em. I am not afraid to use this!” He yells as he spins around towards the cash register where a panicked, greasy haired man quivers at the sight of the barrel. And when he spins I see his face.
There are grooves in my grandfather’s face that are very unique to him. He’s got pock marks from acne whenever he was younger that never went away. When I was a kid I used to think that one of the scars looked like a little eyeball. They’re hard to see from a distance, but the little nooks and crannies in his faces, particularly on his cheeks, stand out like monuments.
I am looking at his face and I see the scars and I know it’s him. He hasn’t turned all the way to me so I begin to stand up. He won’t shoot me. All I have to do is ask, “What the hell are you doing?” It’s not that guns don’t scare me though. The sweat running down my back reminds me that I am human and that I can be hurt. A fat woman with two children pressed against her boobs screams out of the corner of the diner as I stand up with my hands in the air.
“Shut up!” my grandpa yells over his shoulder at her table. He’s got a pillowcase in his other hand.
“Hey! . . . What do you think you’reâ€””he says to me. His conviction falls right out of his face as his eyebrows turn upside down. “Rich?”
“Yes.” I say.
“What the hell are you doing here?” He thinks I have foiled his entire plan. He is about to run. Although Ed is forty years older than me I don’t believe it. The look of desperation in his face reminds me of so many other people I’ve met. I want to help him.
“I don’t know if this is the right time or place to answer that.” I feel the stomach acid inside my gut creep up my throat.
“Well, you better get out of here.” He says to me. He motions towards the door with his gun and once again the diner is quiet except for the muffled whimper of children. I look around and realize that if it weren’t for me, Ed’s plan would be moving along smoothly.
I wonder for a moment if this was the reason for me to come down to Naples. I wonder if I’m supposed to stop my grandpa from murdering someone. It crosses my mind that I might have to try and take the gun from him. Besides the few ceiling fans spinning above us there is no other movement in the room. This is taking too much time. We have to do something.
“I can’t do that,”
“Why not?” Ed looks at me and I see his look of anxiety turn to fright in his eyes. By the way he crooks his head I know he’s contemplating the scenario: Him or me.
“Look, we can’t just stand around in here and discuss whether or not you’re going to shoot me or whether or not you’re going to rob these people.” I say as I point around the room. “Besides, the cops will hopefully be here soon.”
With that Ed storms out of the diner carrying both an empty bag and a gun. He pulls at my shirt and we both fly out of the steel glass doors and into the cloudless sunny parking lot.
“Wait!” I try to get him to stop pulling me along. We get up next to his car. An Oldsmobile is too clich© for an old man, Ed told me before all of this, so he drives a red Trailblazer.
“Get in the car,” he looks across the hood at me and I understand how serious the situation is. I climb into the car and he flops down next to me in the driver’s seat.
The tires screech and the engine gargles as we pull out of the parking lot and it makes me think about death rattles. I wonder how it will sound when Ed drops. He doesn’t look like that will ever happen by the squint of his face over the hood of the car and out into the busy high way but he is an old man.
“Where are we going?”
“WE? You’re asking where WE are going? Fuck, I had no clue you were there in the first place,” Ed says while he pounds the steering wheel a few times trying to make sense of the coincidence. “and besides. . .” he trails off.
“Besides what? Look, I’m not going to turn you in or anything. I just don’t want to get arrested or shot. And it’s a perfectly valid question to ask. You’re driving.”
“Yeah but to run into me at a restaurant that I’m trying to hold up, what I haven’t seen you in a year and some change, and then for you to be okay with it is throwing me off. What is wrong with you?”
We drive until we’re about a mile from the beach and then we drive some more. Ed takes us down a road parallel to all of the protruding hotels that block out any view of the ocean to a little place called Tin City. It’s a restaurant sitting on a dock and it is pretty barren. The sign hanging over the door is a skeleton of what it used to be. There are unlit lights that trace the insides of the words covered in crust. Before we get out of the car though, my grandpa finds out about his condo.
“I’ve been having a pretty weird time too, you know. Don’t act like you’re the only one who wants to hold up a restaurant.”
Ed rolls his window all the way down and asks me why I’m in Naples and I tell him about my job and my lack of commitment and then I tell him about how his door was knocked open when I first got down here.
“Somebody broke in?”
“Maybe,” I tell him.
“That was my fault.” Ed says, “I don’t know why I did it. I was looking for a necklace your grandma left behind. I was just about to pawn; you know that little pearl necklace that never meant anything to her?” He assumes that I know what he’s talking about, “I asked a friend of mine about it, to see how much it would go for, and he said, ˜Pearls like that, you could get a couple grand.’” I look at his oval face and he thinks I’m looking in his eyes so he looks away, “I never found it, so then I got desperate. You weren’t supposed to see all of that.”