Second Place in Fiction: "The Goddamn Chuck Mangione Song"

City Paper

The itch hit me between Sporting Goods and the Garden Shop.

Up ’til then it was just another Wednesday morning in Decaymart– the Limburgh K-Mart, and I’m not just calling it that to be clever. The place looked like it should’ve been dragged behind itself and shot. Most K-Marts these days have those overhead signs that are all red, but this one had to have been the last on Earth to still have a glowing aqua-blue Mart next to the red K out front. And even that sign looked like it wanted to peel itself straight off the building. Everything nailed down inside the store was colored that same shade of aqua-blue, and everything stunk of burnt plastic.

I’d been pushing the cart up and down the aisles for close to a half hour when I’d realized that the only thing I’d managed to fill it with was a ten-pack of plain white briefs. Tighty-fucking-whiteys. I couldn’t say exactly when on that trip that I felt the urge to get a fresh pack of underwear. But there they were and I couldn’t think of one other thing that I needed or even wanted from that place.

So there the underwear sat, keeled over like some poor chump bleeding out his last good remaining years, and there I was just staring at ’em. Stared too long, I guess. The cart I was steering nearly plowed into one of the geezers that ruled Decaymart most weekday mornings, some old coot dragging his last breaths behind him in a metal canister. Came within a half inch of t-boning the bastard. I might’ve excused myself but the coot didn’t even look my way. He just kept on, dragging that tube with one hand and picking his shirt pocket for a phantom pack of Pall Malls with the other. No cart on him, no goods to purchase either.

You know, I might’ve been just fine right there—with the underwear, the geezer, the burnt plastic stench, everything—but then it happened. It was like being caught under a hot white glaring spotlight, the kind they mount on choppers and prowlers, except the burning light was that easy listening music they pump through the speakers hidden somewhere up above.

And it was that goddamn Chuck Mangione song that started to play.

Maybe you know the song. It’s that smooth jazz tune with the horn line that goes “doo doo doooo do doot do dooo…” The song that’s been the scourge of cramped elevators and waiting rooms and places like Decaymart for a generation. It’s catchy, sure. So catchy you couldn’t get it out of your ear with a 10-inch drill bit. Most of those easy listening tunes just fade into the background, but not this one. It comes off like some pale-faced creep constantly looking over your shoulder, always wanting you to know that it’s there. It was a massive hit back when I was a teenager in Bay Ridge, when Decaymart looked like every other K-Mart in the world. Back when half the cars I’d boost would have that song going on the radio while I was boosting them. I’d be trying to make with some chick in one of those same cars and wouldn’t you know it, that horn line would come bleating through the radio once again. It was as if that creep went and crawled into the backseat. And well, it just killed it, you know?

I ditched the cart and the underwear right in the middle of the aisle and split. A half hour in the parking lot listening to some hard rock station coming in scratchy through the car stereo wasn’t quite enough to force the doo doo doooo out of my head, even with the volume cranked.

No matter. Something was going to bounce ol’ Chuck one way or another.

And something sure as hell looked like a powder blue ’85 Buick Skylark that swept across my rearview mirror and parked three spaces down from me. A little old lady with a fake-looking fur coat, a too-tight pair of white stretch pants, and a twig of a cigarette dangling from her beak hopped out of it. By the time she made it past that sign, I’d already stuffed the Glock from the glove compartment into my waistband and was rifling through the tools in my trunk until I found a screwdriver and my jimmy.

Would you believe I bought the jimmy at Decaymart? Not sure why I bought it. Never thought I’d actually use one again. And you know, damned if I still haven’t. As I was scanning the lot, I had the tip of the jimmy wedged between the window and the door of the Skylark when I noticed the lock knob inside fully erect. Jesus. The old broad didn’t even lock it. Been there seven years and I was just starting to wonder if anybody in that town ever believed in a lock. I hopped in and tossed the jimmy on the floor.

The Skylark’s interior was pretty nice – plush, cozy, a nice shade of cloud gray to match the permanent haze of cigarette smoke. Hell, I could’ve spent the afternoon driving around, cruising the local junior college chicks, and maybe have that beast dumped in some ditch by sundown, but I had something else gnawing at me. The itch, as it were. So I cracked the panel under the steering column and worked that old magic I used to do when I was a teenager in Bay Ridge.

Christ, it would’ve taken a place like Limburgh to make me realize just how much I’d missed Bay Ridge. Limburgh’s on a map, sure, but it’s not on the map. If you asked me seven years before how I wound up in a place like that, that’s the answer I gave you. Why I stayed for so long I couldn’t tell you. Most folks would figure a guy in my position would wind up in some exotic paradise. Somewhere like Tahiti. Now there’s a place I can’t even find on a map, let alone tell you what language they speak there. Smuggling in cold, hard U.S. currency? Forget it. That type of thing was never in my wheelhouse.

Couldn’t say where on the map the other guys wound up. Except for Bunny Ragovoy of course. Bunny wound up in Miami. I only found this out when he turned up on the news one day. Bastard didn’t last two months there before they were fishing chunks of him out of the Biscayne Bay. Miami’s on the map all right.

But even Tahiti must be easier to find on a map than Limburgh. I holed up in a one-bedroom apartment – four thin walls, a wide front window, and a pretty good view of the dirt lot across the street. The window’s where I spent most of my years. Watching and waiting. For who exactly? I didn’t know. The Feds, those greaseballs we cut out, whoever cut Bunny to chum—somebody was bound to come. That much I was sure of.

Except nobody ever did. It took four straight years of watching absolutely nothing out that window to get me to stop waiting. I kept on watching though. Sometimes those dope smoking teenagers hanging around that lot could almost pass for Feds or gangsters. Either way, it beat the shit out of watching whatever was on the tube. Doo doo doooo…

I hit the 61 going south, driving past all those warehouses and places with the silos on the outskirts of town, straight on through to farm country. Keeping the needle bubbling around 45, I passed my guy three miles out. Same car, same spot as ever – black and tan prowler parked behind the washed-out sign for the orchard. I used to think about pushing it up to 55 or 60, just to see if those blue and reds start flashing. To see if anybody was alive in there. 

Five miles later another sign came into view – yellowed plastic with orange lettering. My stomach dropped and my heart revved. I nearly had to pull over to catch my breath. Before I knew it, the Skylark was kicking up gravel in the parking lot of Dainty’s Convenience Store. Then it came to a halt right around the side out of sight of the windows. Sometimes there was a produce stand near the road or maybe a pickup truck or two parked in front and a couple of good ol’ boys standing around chewing cuds, shooting the shit. Not that day. The lowest-hanging fruit was damn near falling off the branch. And goddamn was I ready to pick it.

Except – oh, shit. When I cracked the door and a rush of cool air slapped my cheek, I suddenly realized how naked my face was. I quickly looked the Skylark over and found something on the floor behind the passenger seat. Thanks a bunch, you old broad! She left me some kind of silk scarf. It was butter-colored and plastered with red flowers, but shit, what else was there? I wrapped it around my face and the stench of burned Virginia Slims filled my nostrils. Christ. Seven years before it was armored cars and Kevlar vests and the finest in German-engineered submachine guns. I grabbed the Glock and took a deep breath.

The words. Oh, you forget just how much you’ve missed those. They poured from my lips like a stream of vomit. It felt good just to get them out of me. Goddamn, I missed it. “All right, let me see your fucking hands!” I shouted when I charged through the door, not knowing who or what in that dim shack of half-empty shelves I was even waving my gun at. 

I found the counter and the woman behind it. She was another old broad, just like the ones Decaymart was crawling with. She didn’t budge, so I shouted again, “C’mon, lady, let me see ‘em!” I inched closer. She was propped up on a stool, hunched over behind a cash register that had a hand-written sign stuck to its front. No returns, no exchanges. “Didn’t you hear me?!” I shouted again. “Hey!”

Third time, no charm. Whatever buzz I had was wearing off quick. I leaned closer and noticed the pair of sealed eyelids behind the thick lenses of her horn-rimmed glasses. Christ, the broad was napping on the job. “Hey, wake up!” Nothing. I slipped behind the counter and poked her doughy face with the barrel of the gun. Still nothing. A weird feeling struck me. When I pulled the gun back, there should’ve been a red barrel-shaped spot on her cheek, but there wasn’t any color to her at all. I wanted to ignore it, so I poked her a second time, harder, and that time she keeled over and fell to the floor.

She never stirred, not even a twitch. She just laid there, a cold lump nestled between a cabinet full of Marlboro cartons and a glass case full of scratch cards. I pulled the scarf from my face and took her spot on the stool. Then I just stared at her. The horn-rimmed glasses stared back at me, looking like a pair of tossed dice. I don’t need to tell you what roll came up. Just behind me sat the cash register, and there it would sit, untouched like one of those hot dates riding shotgun in a boosted car when you-know-who just came on the radio. 

I walked out a few minutes later, empty handed save for the gun. A northerly breeze blew across the lot, kicking up a cloud of dust that pointed the way to Limburgh. Just around the side, the Skylark’s motor hummed, ready to take me back. It was still only the morning. And I still had a pack of plain white briefs to buy.

Doo doo doooo.

Copyright © 2018, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
45°