There’s something safe about pancakes.
You just can’t put it into words.
You could say eating them has always been somewhat of a refresher for me. If I feel overwhelmed, if I need to gather my thoughts, if I need to gain perspective, if I ever need find out where my happy place is — I go eat a stack of pancakes. Usually two, three at the most.
One time, when I was at the end of my rope, I had four. But that was a dark day.
“I’ll take a two-stack of the hotcakes,” I told the waitress. A new girl I hadn’t seen before. I would have remembered a face like that. She had the nose of an older, stricter, less attractive woman. Her eyes, though. They were showing me a completely different personality. Sweet, mischievous. The spark of innocence meets the experience of the older. Her facial incongruity disoriented me, yes, especially in such a familiar place as Arthur’s. I took it as a reminder from the gods that I should keep on my toes.
“And for you?” She asked Dutch, her authoritarian nose pointed at him like a blunt weapon while the smile in her eyes melted us both.
Dutch couldn’t look up from the menu on the table. “Cup of joe I guess?” He told me he wasn’t hungry. Probably because he was nervous about dying in a few days. Er, the possibility of dying. But I’ve already said too much.
“Got it, one coffee and a two-stack. Anything else?”
“You know, come to think of it…a ginger ale sounds mighty tempting,” I decided.
“Okie doke, a ginger ale too. I’m putting your order in now.” She walked away, detaching herself from the situation like a true professional. She might’ve been new to Arthur’s, but to the service industry — that glorious profession which encourages the proletariat to treat their equals with the same disdain as the aristocracy — she was not.
Speaking of disdain, I noticed plenty in Dutch’s crunched up face. “A ginger ale with pancakes? Mixing with syrup and everything? Blech.”
“Look at her nose,” I told Dutch as soon as she was out of range.
“Huh?” Dutch finally looked up from the menu. He twisted around in his seat, which is precisely what I didn’t want the kid to do. “What? Her nose?”
“Don’t,” I hissed. “Stop making it obvious. I’m never bringing you on a stakeout.”
His eyes narrowed. “You already did.”
Did I? “Oh yeah.”
I thought back to that time I was paid to bust some gynecologist’s daughter to catch her father sleeping with her best friend. Dutch tagged along while we followed him across town and eventually caught him fingering her in an alley next to an antique store. At four in the afternoon.
I’ve done a lot worse.
Dutch behaved himself pretty well, all things considered. I’d bring him along again if he cooled down his excitement. And didn’t wear that cologne he did. God damn, I was sure that would blow our cover.
“Listen, when she comes back, I want you to look at her nose and tell me if it fits in with the rest of her face.” Avoiding his shameful gaze, I straightened my new tie, which already had a small spot on it that I was feeling all too aware of.
Dutch rolled his eyes, more out of exasperation with me forgetting another one of his golden memories than my eccentricity. “Uh-huh. I’ll do that.”
The uncomfortable silence slogged on and I allowed it. Not just because I like to watch people squirm, though that can be a lot of fun. No, I wanted to get a feel for Dutch’s body language. I wanted to see how he was holding up under this peculiar circumstance.
I wanted to jump back on the topic of The Red Witch and her extended game of 52 card pickup that ended with a hypothetical death sentence. But I wanted to see if he brought it up first.
I didn’t have to wait very long. “Do we really have to go back to my place tonight?” he finally broke down and asked.
“Yes. So, you said that you had guesses as to who this witch lady is. Toss out a few.”
“Um,” he searched around the room, more frantically, and not for stern-nosed waitresses this time.
“Dutch. This is Arthur’s. My favorite diner on the Lower East Side. We’re always safe here.” It was a law of the universe. “Now spill the tea or I’ll box your ears in front of all these people. You don’t want that.”
“I wouldn’t let you get away with it,” he said. “But okay, I’ll talk.
“My first guess as to who the Red Witch is was last spring I started seeing this woman on the Upper West Side.”
“You’re into Janes now, eh? Told you they can be fun.”
“I‘m not you, Leon. I’m a three letter man all the way.” I could feel Dutch reliving that memory of catching me with a woman and it had the sting of a goodnight kiss from a yellow jacket. “She’s a teacher. Someone who helps people like me develop their ‘special’ abilities.”
Ambiguous. “This broad taught you how to tell better fortunes?”
“To simplify things, yes. I’d heard about this woman from other fortune tellers and mediums around town for years. She’s almost a legend. I say almost because he doesn’t exactly advertise her services. ”
“Maybe that’s because she doesn’t have any real ones?”
“Trust me, she does.”
“One of these folks introduced you?”
“Kind of. My friend Inez gave me her address.”
“OK. And Inez is?”
“A crystal gazer in the Bronx I’ve known for about, oh, five years now.”
“Did Inez go with you to see this woman?” I asked.
“No, she’s too busy. She’s got a lot of clients now since her training. Her sessions are more spot-on than ever apparently.”
“This lady must shine crystal balls or something,” I said.
“She opens the door that stands between you and your potential as a seer and a mystic,” Dutch answered. “She can tell you the secrets of the unseen.”
“Huh.” I sat back. “So, hear any good ones?”
He snickered. “No. Mostly just how to sit still in silence for an hour at a time while trying to keep my ass from falling asleep.”
“Speaking of which…” It was a nice one. Supple and bubbly, but not too firm. Two handfuls. Just how I like ’em. “How’s it doin’ these days?”
“It’s hiding. Are you even listening?” He shook his head and started glancing towards the door. “This was an awful idea.”
“Relax. I’m listening,” I sat back up. “All this time, and you still haven’t learned how to take a compliment.”
“How do you know? You barely remember me.”
Here we go again, I thought.
“Can we delay this guilt trip a little longer please? I want to know more about this magic lady.”
Dutch grabbed his jacket and started getting up out of the booth. “Forget it. I’m outta here.”
“Hey now!” I objected. “Dutch. Knock it off. I want to help you.”
He didn’t. He started sliding out of the seat. The waitress looked at us from all the way across the room, sensing a wrinkle in the fabric of her universe.
“Dutch — ”
That sweet rear of his was out of the booth. And while I wanted to enjoy the view, I couldn’t let him just dash out like this — especially if I wanted to get a piece of that later on. So I said what he wanted to hear.
“I don’t want you to die.”
He stopped, just as he was about to put his jacket back on.
It was true; I didn’t want him to. I may have a low tolerance for his emotional immaturity, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my natural born life with the guy — but I didn’t want him to die. Especially because of some sick woman’s idea of a poker game.
“Honest, Dutch. I don’t. You know I’m one of the only people who can help you with this kind of thing.”
“That’s not true. I’ll just go to the police like I should have done in the first place.”
“Baloney. They’re too busy to deal with this kind of thing.”
“No, they’re not. They’d probably get it done sooner than you would, too.”
“Is that so?” I crossed my arms, holding back a laugh. “Either way, I have an advantage over them.”
“What could that be? Your endless supply of hot air?”
“No, the fact that I actually care whether you live or die. They don’t.”
“Do you, though?”
I got him to stay, now was my chance to get him to want to.
“Yes. I do. Now, sit back down.”
Dutch looked around the diner. He saw the waitress looking back at him, with a quizzical yet benevolent look. Her nose told him to leave, but her eyes said stay.
So he put his jacket back down on the seat next to him, hand still clutching onto it for safety. Lowering his voice, he said, “Wow, you were right about her nose.”
When I’m right, I’m right. “Okay, finish telling me about this lady. Does she have a name by the way? I’m tired of this sneaky pronoun bullshit.”
“Her name’s Rebecca,” Dutch said. “I don’t know her last name. She’s a master clairsentient. Always wears black gloves.”
“The first time she came to my door was on a weekday morning, kinda early. I had just woke up. She was nice and very warm, like she always is.”
“And the other time?”
“It was in the evening on a Saturday. I don’t even know how she knew I’d be home. I wasn’t even planning on it.”
“She does know the secrets of the unseen, after all.”
“Ha, yeah. Well, she told me that I should come to see her the next day, Sunday. That it was vitally important to ‘the tapestry of life’.”
“Christ, sounds like a loon.”
“No, no, she’s very sweet, very elegant. You’d like her. I was nice and I told her I was about to leave. She wouldn’t set a foot away from my doorstep until I told her that I might go the next morning.”
“Hmm. That was the last time you saw her?
“So when did you start getting notes from The Red Witch in relation to this?”
“Well, about…I think two weeks after that, actually.” Dutch answered.
“Hotcakes are ready!” The waitress with the unforgiving nose put down the plate covered with two greasy pillows that were as warm as the afternoon desert right down in front of me. The butter looked like perfect little scoops of vanilla ice cream.
“Thanks!” I was mystified.
“No, thank you.” Dutch smiled.
“All right, I’ll see you fellas in a bit then.” She waltzed away to another booth.
We looked each other in the eyes as if an acknowledgement of the nose absolutely needed to happen between us.
“Have you talked to Rebecca since?”
“I tried stopping by her parlor one day but she wasn’t there. I didn’t get a good feeling so I didn’t go back. My cards said bad things about it anyway.” Dutch gazed lustily at the plate in front of me.
“Wanna bite?” I asked as I poured maple syrup all over everything. I handed him my fork after he nodded, giving him the first taste. A great big smile graced his eyes.
“Yeah, but I don’t get why you’d be drinking ginger ale with it.” Dutch shook his head and took a sip of his milk, which was more appropriate.
“Get over it.” I took the next bite of pancakes and savored it for a moment, letting it expand in my mouth before swallowing. “OK, Rebecca’s one of your guesses. A pretty good one, I might add. Seems witchy enough. Who’s the other?”
He started fidgeting. “Uh…”
“Remember what I said about boxing your ears.” I reached over and stole a sip of his milk. Maybe I should have ordered that instead of ginger ale, I thought.
“I also have a stalker.” Dutch continued. “His name’s Grover. A lawyer. Used to be one of my clients. Then he fell in love with me.”
Now I wanted a side of toast. “A stalker? Man, I really hate those. Sounds like another good guess. What’s this Grover like?”
“He started coming to me as a referral from one of my other clients — a broker in Manhattan who thought I helped him predict the market. Grover came to me to with questions about his wife, like whether she was cheating on him with his partner. Stuff like that.”
“Hmm. Was she?” I wiped the syrup off my lips with a crisp white napkin.
“No, the cards told me that she was okay. But his partner, he wasn’t. He was doing other stuff behind Grover’s back, like bribing people and buying prostitutes. Eventually the cards told us that. Grover started losing his mind over time, it seemed. He got worse and worse every time he showed up for a reading. He would come by a lot, telling me he’d pay any amount just to figure out how to make it to the next day. Always sweating.”
“What about his wife and kids?”
“I don’t know anything about them. It’s not like I check in with them. One of the last times I saw him, he told me he wanted to run off with me to Canada.”
“How adorable,” I said, shoveling spongy pancakes onto my fork through maple colored ooze. “When’s the last time you saw him in relation to…”
“He came by last month, actually. I asked him why he was doing this to me. He pretended like he didn’t know what I was talking about, but I think he’s playing dumb.” Dutch finished off his milk. “Honestly, part of me hopes the Red Witch is him, because it would be real easy to take care of.”
“Would it?” I asked. “He’s a lawyer, right? How big is he?”
“I wouldn’t say big. His name’s Grover Scott, of Kinney, Griffith and Scott.”
“Kinney, Griffith and Scott. That’s ringing a bell.”
The nose and its waitress walked past and asked us if we were doing okay. We were.
“It should. Kinney is the one who’s crooked.”
“Oh…” The bell rang harder. “Oh! You’re talking about Forrest Kinney, the guy who was busted for extortion this past spring! Christ. I had no idea that’s who you were talking about. I should have put the two together.”
Dutch shrugged. “So, basically, that firm doesn’t have a great reputation now. Grover isn’t so powerful anymore.”
“No wonder that sap is always sweaty these days. His life is slowly falling apart.” I was woefully close to my final bites of pancake. “Do you really think he’s the one doing this playing card baloney right now? I mean, does he even have it in him?”
“Like I said, it would be easier if it was.”
“But this Rebecca lady is more likely, isn’t she? Because of the whole abracadabra mumbo jumbo.”
“Now I gotta ask, what about this demon thing?” This part intrigued me the most because it seemed to be a sensitive topic.
Dutch flinched. “I think it lives in a wall in my apartment.” He nervously shoved a bottle of ketchup around on the table. “The one across from my bed.”
“You said it hurt you. How?” I stared at the empty plate covered in buttery syrup in front of me. Again, I really wished I’d ordered that side of toast.
“A couple nights when it was talking and making horrible noises, everything in my room fell over. I mean everything. It was a mess. I stayed up all night cleaning it. Another time, it turned my bed upside down.”
“While you were on it?”
“While I was on it.”
“Ouch.” I said.
“Yeah. I’m serious. It’s scary.”
“What does it look like?”
“Nothing. It doesn’t have a body. It’s a demon ghost.”
“Got it. And all this happened after The Red Witch started harassing you, correct? Your place wasn’t already haunted or something?”
“Yes, about a week or so after I started getting the cards.”
“Here’s your check,” the nose with the waitress said as it placed our bill in between us.
“Thanks…” I looked up at it. “What’s your name, again?”
“Annette.” The nose smiled and the girl followed suit.
“Annette. I’m Leon. This is Dutch. Nice to meet you.” I shook her hand and then put down a five dollar bill. “Keep the change.”
“Thanks!” Annette grinned. It was breaking the spell of her nose.
“Okay, Dutch. No more stalling. Let’s go to your place.” I knew with the power of pancakes in my stomach, everything would turn out alright.
I didn’t realize that Dutch moved to Chinatown.
Turns out he had made the switch close to the beginning of the year after quitting the butcher shop. While I was listening to his story about the Red Witch, I had been picturing his the place he lived in while we had our thing. It made me sad — the world of Dutch had moved on, there really was no going back to that little studio apartment in the West Village. Everything changes shape at some time or another. Evacuates. Reconfigures.
His new place was a small one-bedroom. Very dark as I walked in. Smelled like stale sleep, the kind that only lets you have a few scraps of dreams, just enough to keep you alive. It was the sleep of the restless, the sleep of the forsaken. The sleep of the lost. That kind of sleep is pretty familiar to a guy like me.
“Hold on,” he said, making his way to the light switch. We had walked up tiny stairs and narrow halls to reach the fourth floor of this old brick building. I had a hunch that most of the tenants here were from the Republic of China.
“How’d you score this place?” I had asked him on the way over.
“One of my friends used to live here. Jay. Palm-reader. Moved on up to Jersey and he gave me first dibs. The landlord didn’t care. She’s a nice old bird. Gives me my space. Doesn’t mind a few weird smells coming from my place now and again.”
“Speaking of that, you got any?” I hadn’t smoked opium since my last birthday party. That was a good time, by the way. I had a menage a trois on a rooftop in Brooklyn out under the stars, just like the people in the Bible used to.
“You know it,” Dutch chuckled. “You can smoke some, but I don’t like doing it at my place anymore. You can guess why.”
“Because there’s a ghost demon that lives in your wall?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s gotta be the pits.”
And as Dutch turned on the light, I looked around at a room that seemed completely innocuous. There was a kitchenette that looked barely used. There was a love seat covered in a deep blue sheet. On the shelf across the room from me, I saw a few books about the mysteries of being alive. To my right was a window that gave a nice view of the street outside. There was a huge tree that kept any prying eyes from the the adjacent building’s windows from staring at us.
I noticed a plant in the corner next to the window. It was a distressed shade of dark green, like it had absorbed the feelings of impending doom that filled up the space for the past two months.
“Cute,” I said. “Doesn’t look like a place where a ghost demon lives. A handsome yet troubled card reader, sure. But not a ghost demon.”
Dutch smiled as he put his jacket on the back of a chair. He was already tensed up, ready for the demon living in his wall to come flying out at us and make spooky noises. “You want some of that opium now?”
“That’d be real nice.” I scanned the walls. They were white, mostly blank. That vividly intense painting of an eagle I remembered from his old place was resting above the love seat. It was a family heirloom or something, I couldn’t remember. How did I forget such a thing existed? It was incredibly distinct.
Dutch went through a small doorway next to the kitchenette to his room. After a moment of staring at the painted eagle staring back at me, I decided to follow him.
As soon as I walked into his room, I noticed the wall above his bed was covered with playing cards — every single one he had received from The Red Witch.
“Holy,” is all I could muster.
Dutch stood back up from crouching at his nightstand to pick up the tin box holding his opium. All he did was nod, like an artist reflecting back on a piece of work he had been crafting for years.
Every card was up there, each one a chapter in Dutch’s recent history. His entire existence stared down at him from up there, reminding that he was just another man who was going to die sooner rather than later.
I noticed what the four missing cards were — the 4 of Diamonds, the 3 of Clubs, the 2 of Hearts and the Ace of Spades.
“No wonder you can’t relax here anymore. You have all this shit looming over you.” I glanced at him, feeling soft all of a sudden. “Why do this to yourself?”
Dutch looked back at me like I was missing the point, like there was some sort of power in this that made you a stronger man. Maybe there was, but still. I knew deep down this was a turned Dutch on. I don’t mean in the sexual sense, but rather in the deeper way. The mysterious way that fuels both the artist and the revolutionary. After all, he was the kind of boy that craved a good bout of dread now and then. That’s probably why he tasted so good.
As he looked back at me, he saw that I recognized this in him. It wasn’t something you can translate into words. Then, something opened up between us that had been sealed off all night and for most of the year before it.
At last, we were melting again.
We were turning back the clock, back to to before those two-something weeks last fall ended. We had something natural going on between us, a special kind of star burst.
When I spent those days mapping out his hemispheres, it never felt like work. (With some folks, getting to the finish line can be a chore, if you catch my drift.) It needed to be done, a duty, a birthright, a decree from the gods. There was a force of nature that absolutely had to come through us — there was never a question or a doubt.
As I felt our inner selves beginning to swirl around together, I realized then that I missed Dutch. I missed him oversleeping in my bed while I was getting ready for work. I missed the wild stories he told me about his life when we were passing time on the train. I missed how comfortable I felt around him, like I didn’t have to wear my masks.
But you know me. I‘m nobody’s husband.
Nevertheless, in that moment, we were excited to be around each other again. Excited and relieved. Imagine what it would feel like if you went to sleep and visited a happy place you dreamed about when you were nine. I’m serious. Stop and really try to imagine that for a second. You might begin to understand how it felt.
Soon enough, the physical caught up with the spiritual. We kissed in front of the cruel puzzle of cards that plotted against us from the wall above, as if it would defeat it, burn all the spades and clubs and diamonds and hearts away.
It was then that the sound of hell rang through the apartment.
We flew back from each other, falling to the floor, grasping at our ears.
It was time for me to meet the demon.
Coming soon — Chapter 3 of “The Empty Witch”, plus more stories featuring characters from the world of The Occult Generation, created by Ryan Fukuda and illustrated by James Zark. Click on the link to find out more about this project! (And feel free to visit my site here, too. =)
“While investigating the murder of a notorious drag performer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a private investigator uncovers a secret war between remnants of the confederacy equipped with strange technology and a secret society that fights for justice through magick.”
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