The back door to the Mohawk Grill opens on an alley it shares with the junior high. When Harry throws back the bolt from inside and lets the heavy door swing outward, Wild Bill is waiting nervously in the dark gray half-light of dawn. There is no way of telling how long he has been pacing, listening for the thunk of the bolt, but he looks squitchier than usual today. Driving his hands deeper into his pockets, Wild Bill waits while Harry inspects him curiously and wonders if Bill’s been in some kind of trouble during the night. Probably not, Harry finally decides. Bill looks disheveled, as always, his black pants creaseless, alive with light-colored alley dust, the tail of his threadbare, green-plaid, button-down shirt hanging out, but there’s nothing unusually wrong with his appearance. Harry is glad, because he’s late opening this morning and doesn’t have time to clean Wild Bill up.
When Harry finally steps aside, Bill scoots by into the diner and climbs onto the first round stool at the end of the formica counter. Harry hooks the heavy door to the outside wall so the delivery men can come in the back way and the place can air out. A few flies will wander in off the street, but will end up stuck to the No Pest Strips dangling from the ceiling. Harrythrows open the large windows in the front of the diner, creating a cool draft that stands Wild Bill’s thinning hair on end. Bill is in his middle thirties, but his baby-fine hair is falling out in patches and he looks as old as Harry, who is almost fifty.
“Hungry?” Harry says.
Wild Bill nods and studies the grill, which is sputtering butter. Harry lifts a large bag of link sausages and tosses several dozen on the grill, covering its entire surface, then separates them with the edge of his spatula, arranging them in impressive phalanxes. “It’s gonna be a while,” he warns.
Wild Bill is beginning to look less anxious. The sputtering sausage calms him, and he watches hypnotized as the links spit and jump. The grease begins to puddle and inch toward the trough at the edge of the grill. Wild Bill would prevent its escape if he could because he likes the taste of sausage grease. Sometimes, when Harry remembers, he will scramble Wild Bill’s eggs in it before cleaning the surface. But Bill only gets eggs when he has money, which is seldom. Bill himself rarely has more than a few nickels, but for the last ten years, at the first of the month, an envelope has arrived at the Mohawk Grill containing a crisp ten-dollar bill and a note that says simply, “For William Gaffney.” Where it comes from is the only genuine mystery in Harry’s life. At first he thought the money came from the boy’s father, but that was before he met Rory Gaffney. Harry has met just about everyone who knows Wild Bill and determined by one means or another that it’s none of them. The money just appears. When it’s used up, Harry can be depended upon to stake Wild Bill to coffee and one of yesterday’s sticky buns before hiscustomers come in, but Harry’s generosity has its limits, and he seldom gives away food that isn’t headed for the dumpster. Once, on Christmas two years before, Harry had got to feeling pretty blue about things in general, so to get rid of the depression he had cooked Wild Bill a big breakfast—juice, eggs, ham, pancakes, home fries, toast, jelly, and maple syrup—which the younger man wolfed, wide-eyed and grateful, before going out into the alley to be sick. Since then, Harry has been careful not to make the same mistake.
“I want you to take out the trash this morning,” Harry says, turning sausages with his spatula.
Wild Bill watches each flip like an expectant dog waiting for a mistake.
Wild Bill starts and looks at Harry.
“I said I want you to take out the trash. You can have some toast.”
Wild Bill is reluctant to leave—he likes to watch the sausage—but slides off the stool and goes to the back of the diner where Harry has stacked several bags of garbage. The flies have already discovered them and are attacking the plastic in a frenzy. Wild Bill deposits each of the bags in the dumpster and returns to his stool just as two pieces of toast pop up golden brown. Harry butters them sparingly and puts the toast on a saucer in front of Wild Bill. He almost asks if he’d got into a fight during the night, then decides not to. If Bill had, there would be the usual signs, because he isn’t
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