The cool salt air blows on my face. Above, dark purple neon lights buzz like angry mosquitoes and proclaim “Baltic Avenue Diner.” One of the n’s is burned out and the l flickers every couple of seconds. Dull green plastic siding encases the building and cardboard covers one window. My stomach rumbles; I haven’t eaten since breakfast.
I push the door open, ringing the bell duct taped to the handle. Inside a dozen or so people pick at their meals. One or two glance up, dismiss me and return to their conversations. I grab a stool at the counter and drop my duffle bag on the floor.
A plump, gray-haired waitress with Fran on her nametag pours me a cup of coffee. “How do you take it?”
“Black is fine.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she asks.
“Nope. Thought maybe I’d try a new start in a new town.” I sip my coffee. Strong. “If a man were looking for work, where would he go?”
She thinks for a moment. “The Electric Company is looking for folks with lineman experience.”
I shake my head. “I have trouble enough changing a light bulb.”
“The Water Works always needs more manual labor.”
I smile. “That sounds more my speed.”
“And there’s always the casino,” she says with a frown. “They’ve sucked this town dry, but they always seem to be hiring.”
“I’ll keep that in mind as a last resort.” I’ve been on the road for months. Perhaps now is time to stop. I’m not allergic to physical labor. And I’ve never lived by the ocean.
My stomach rumbles again. “What kind of pie do you have?”
“Best pie in the city. Apple, cherry and peach.”
“Let’s go with cherry.”
Fran returns with my pie, and the bell on the door rings. The diners go silent. I turn to see a cop as wide as the doorway. Stains cover his blue-black uniform; the gold buttons are tarnished. The billy club hanging from his belt displays plenty of scratches and dents.
“Officer Callahan.” Fran’s smile disappears.
“Cup of coffee and two donuts, Darling.” He raises his voice so the whole diner hears. “Can’t stay long. Just making the rounds collecting the tax.”
A diner groans. “We’re all taxed out, Callahan. Income tax. Luxury tax. School tax. What’s it this time?”
“Poor tax,” he says in a gleeful Irish brogue. He ambles down the aisle, stopping at each booth, collecting from reluctant patrons. He works his way around the diner and comes to a stop next to me. A crooked smile creeps across his face.
“I don’t recognize you, fellow.”
I take a bite of pie. The cherries are tart and the crust sweet and flaky. Count to ten while chewing. “Just got into town.”
“A vagrant?” His eyes light up and his hand reaches for the club.
“No,” interrupts Fran. “He’s renting one of the rooms in back.”
He looks to her and then me. “Is that so? Well, Mr. Cherry Pie, residency makes you subject to the tax. That will be fifteen dollars.”
I glance at the waitress.
She presses her lips together and nods.
I pull out a twenty and hand it to the cop.
“Andy Jackson!” He holds the bill up and examines it. “Haven’t seen one of these in months. You are from out of town.” He adds the twenty to his roll. In return he gives me a pink slip of paper, smaller than a regular bill with 5 printed on it.
I wave the slip in the air. “What the Hell is this?”
The cop shrugs. “The local scrip. It’s all anyone uses in the city. If you plan on staying, you best get used to it.”
Callahan gulps the rest of his coffee. He shoves one donut in his mouth, wraps the other in a napkin, tips his hat to Fran and leaves.
“Nice friendly town you have here,” I tell the waitress, while contemplating the pink scrip. “About that room?”
“It’s actually just a cot in the back with a shower down the hall.”
“Four dollars a night.”
I slide the pink bill across the counter to her. “I guess I have use for this after all.”
The room is small but acceptable and a pleasant change from sleeping on the ground.