By A. E. Skalitza
We gathered, as always, on the first Sunday of the month, at the place where our friendship had begun five years ago, back when we were still in high school and working in the kitchen. Where jokes had been tossed about more often than the pizza dough in our hands. The restaurant went by the redundant name of "Pop's Pizza Pies," christened in the late '60s when some people seemed to have no idea that the word "pizza" was Italian for "pie." The owner, Kevin O'Neil, didn't have a clue either.
On this certain day, Jerry's voice boomed across the crowded room as he raised his Pilsner glass. "Here's to pretty Tessa. And here's to catching the scumbag who killed her."
The five of us standing near him at the bar, nodded at his words like we always did when we got together; Jerry's voice forever holding us to the memories and the silent allegiance we pledged to each other.
The guy next to me tipped his Budweiser toward Jerry. "Yeah, Tessa sure was hot. She had a body that wouldn't quit and seems we sure had trouble quittin' her." His name was Carl Alexander, same as his uncle who had become a gynecologist because he couldn't get enough of women. Honest to God, that's what he told us.
The lone woman of our group that day frowned and took a sip of her peppermint schnapps on ice. Lissi was a tiny thing whose head only reached chest high to even the smallest of us guys, which, unfortunately, was me. Swinging her large pocketbook over her shoulder, she raised her glass high to get our attention. "You're all forgetting, aren't you." She paused, waiting for all eyes to be on her. Lowering her voice so that we had to lean in, she said, "Tessa used to say how her father beat her up. I think you guys should remember that." Her brown eyes looked up through her bangs, soft and sad. Least that's what I know Martin thought. For years he carried his heart on his sleeve, wishing that he could hide his love for Lissi, wishing that he could be the one to make those eyes crinkle in laughter instead of looking like pooled chocolate. I swear those were his exact words – "pooled chocolate." I pictured pooled chocolate as stuff girls could do wrestling in, like mud wrestling, only deliciously edible. And that caused me to get hot and bothered, picturing Lissi in a string bikini all covered in –
Okay. Enough of that. I'm getting off-track here. Besides, mostly we thought of her like a little sister, someone to protect. So, anyway, back to Tessa. She and Lissi were friends but you couldn't find two more different women than they. Tessa was built like a Barbie doll with flowing red hair and this sexy way she had about her. She liked animals and gossip which is where I think those two meshed. They volunteered at some animal shelter and cried over celebrities splitting up. But you'd think with all of Tessa's beatings by her daddy she'd have been a really angry person. Or that maybe Lissi would take it upon herself to go after him somehow. I don't know, maybe round us up to help get some sense into him. Problem was, Tessa told us her daddy worked out four times a week on a punching bag, and sometimes when he was drunk, he beat her up instead. We wouldn't see her for days at a time. For some strange reason, though, she refused to leave home and strike out on her own. None of us wanted to bother with a tough, angry man whom we never saw, never wanted to see. Besides, Lissi probably knew we were as yellow-bellied as chickens and wouldn't go after the old man – even Jerry wouldn't. Jerry, whose voice could rattle the beams in Pop's.
What we were talking about that night (or at least clueless Carl was talking about) was that Tessa messed around with any male our age who looked in her direction. And that included me and the other guys in our group, even Martin who was so love-struck by Lissi. In a moment of temporary insanity, lust took over Martin's brain and he gave Tessa a sapphire ring to thank her for her two hours of afternoon delight. She promptly sold it because she needed to buy lipstick and get something or other done to her long red hair, hair that we loved to feel draped over our chests, hair that at her death was chopped off close to the scalp and her pretty neck strangled with her red scarf.
Now I haven't mentioned the other guy in our group at the bar that night. Sam his name was, and he was a quiet type and maybe I know what you're thinking – it's always the quiet ones who do the most damage. But I don't know. See, Sam had lost one hand and some of the fingers on the other in Pop's Pizza Pie kitchen. Horrible, it was. He was working the deli slicer and was laughing at one of Carl's bawdy jokes and not paying any attention to what his hands were doing and before you knew it he was screaming and cursing and crying like a baby. Grossest thing you ever saw. Blood poured over the pepperoni log he was cutting and they had to toss it, but not before the medics searched for his missing fingers. His parents sued Mr. O'Neil yet were so anxious to get their own hands on the money that they settled for some God-awful paltry amount. Of course it was rumored the owner had some men visit them one night and I think that had something to do with it.
Anyway, back to the story. Tessa was found earlier that Sunday and the investigation was just beginning. We didn't come right out and say it, but we smugly felt that her daddy was the killer or rather, "person of interest." Seems when she was found by the newspaper carrier, she was lying on her porch steps, her head practically shaved, and she was dead at least a few hours. Her beautiful hair was gone and they were looking for it.
Leaning on the bar and clutching his beer bottle, Carl jabbed a finger at no one in particular. "Bet they'll find her hair on one of them statues in St.Andrew's. A peace offering to get her into heaven." His paunch shook when he laughed but we all just glared at him. Lissi hugged herself, her glass pressed against her chest, and turned away. Martin put his soda on the bar and went to hold her but she shrugged him off like I knew she would. She'd do that to any of us; she always did. Nothing new there. But I gotta hand it to Martin – he never gave up.
Jerry cleared his throat and boomed, "Our table's ready, right, Mr.O'Neil?" The owner, solemn as always and of a taciturn personality, walked over and waved his hand toward the center of the room to what we considered "our" table. His demeanor, though, was more somber than usual.
We all sat down and as usual, I was across from Lissi. Jerry always sat at one end and Tessa always sat at the other. I thought I saw Lissi's eyes briefly flit over to the empty chair where her friend would be sitting, then she gulped down the rest of her schnapps. She loved her Rumpleminz on ice and could down three of them in an hour. Martin didn't mind at all if she needed a ride home; in fact, he'd pull her hand through his arm and guide her slowly wherever we were going.
We ordered the special pizza and more drinks and steered clear of any talk about Tessa. It never seemed to amaze me how Sam adapted to just having two fingers on his right hand. He wielded a pizza slice with not a bit of sauce or mozzarella sliding off. He even could hold his beer bottle and never once did he drop it. "Believe it or not," he'd say, "I developed muscles in these fingers. No kidding!" And as always, we believed him.
After the check came and we divvied up the cost, Mr.O'Neil wound his way around the tables and took our money, murmuring about missing a member of our party, very sorry and all that. Looking closer at him, his eyes were red-rimmed. Guess he missed her too.
Carl hawked a gob into his napkin and stuffed the cloth into his now-empty beer glass. "Hell, that's mighty nice of you. 'Course, we haven't seen much of Tessa lately, hehe, if you know what I mean." The owner looked like he was about to say something nasty but Lissi's hand, grasping her icy glass, swooped up like a bird in flight and the schnapps landed smack into Carl's face. Naturally, Carl jumped up and yelled, "Hey, bitch! What'dya do that for, huh? That stuff is stinging my eyes!" Mr. O'Neil plucked a clean napkin from the table next to us, thrust it at Carl, and stormed off. My first thought was that it was about time one of us stood up for Tessa. My next thought was that Carl deserved it, and then some.
But all of that was put on hold when Lissi's pocketbook fell open and shiny scissors fell out followed by a mass of red hair tied at the top in a string. I knew that hair well; we all did. Like statues, none of us moved from our half-standing, half-sitting positions, our mouths open. Lissi dropped back into her chair and covered her face. Finally she removed her hands, her eyes no longer soft like Martin's idea of pooled chocolate but rather like iced coffee, and she slowly and clearly told us what we should have seen all along.
"I hated her. I hated her for hooking up with each of you. She did it on purpose, you know. She'd tell me all about it the next day, laughing. She laughed at you! And you were all too blind to see. You thought she found you all so hot. Yeah, right. You were all just a bunch of rutting pigs and see – I had to do it. She said she was finally moving out, moving away, and her daddy wasn't home, could I please come over to say good-bye." Lissi paused for a moment and shook her head. "I'd never been at her house before. She was sitting on the porch steps with her duffel next to her. It was just us and I thought maybe she was going to give me something, you know? But it's not why she had me come over. First she laughed about all of you like she always did. But then – then she laughed at me! Told me I was untouchable, an ice princess, a professional virgin, that I should loosen up and enjoy life. Her parting words of advice to me." Lissi's hands clenched and unclenched as she spoke, her voice deepening. "It was dark and it was so, so easy. I'm small but I'm strong. You didn't know that, did you? I took those ends of her scarf and pulled and twisted. Tight. I took her away from all of you. And I took her hair you all loved so much."
You know when they say the silence was deafening or so still that you could hear a pin drop? It was that and more. It was like invisible ice coated our bodies, the table, the room. None of us moved. Out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the other customers of Pop's Pizza Pies sitting very still and staring at us. Kevin O'Neil broke through that ice, speaking into his cell phone as he came over. He snapped his fingers at two beefy men who then followed him to our table. Standing very erect and proper as always, he stated simply, "The police are coming."
For once Lissi looked directly at each of us, as if daring us not to believe her words. But of course we did. We always did. We always believed each other.
Mr.O'Neil's face was set like stone. With a voice that now could easily compete with Jerry's, he boomed, "My daughter. Tessa was my daughter. She never lived with her daddy like she told you. She lived with her mother since just after she was born and her mother wanted nothing to do with me. Tessa used her mother's last name. I was allowed to have Tessa work here but that was all I could do." He stopped and raised a fist like he wouldn't think twice about punching our lights out. His comrades behind him shifted forward slightly. He continued, "I wanted to protect her from men like you, but she was willful. I never would have thought it would be another woman who would...." His voice broke off and he struggled to compose himself. "It wasn't easy all these years, listening about your escapades. Or watching her here with you, teasing you, egging you on. Or her telling you such stories about me. She wouldn't listen when I pulled her aside. That house she was found at? An empty bungalow. Her mother didn't even know she was moving out. Well now it's over and I hope you enjoyed your last meal and drinks in my establishment. Good night."Not a word was said among us as our chairs scraped back and we went our separate ways, leaving Lissi and all the lies behind at Pop's Pizza Pies.
Anne Skalitza is a freelance writer with many short stories and essays published in magazines, anthologies, and online. Three of Ms. Skalitza's short stories have previously appeared in omdb! – “Murder on Sussex” (March, 2015), "Centerfolds on Fire" ( July, 2014), and "Marble House" (August, 2011).For more about Anne and her take on life, visit www.anneskal.wordpress.com.
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