“Run for Your Life”

Fiction by Jeffrey Sussman

    I met Luke many years ago when we were college students. We were working at a resort hotel in the Berkshires. He was a waiter, who occasionally spilled soup onto the laps of guests who had reputations as stingy tippers. I was a salad man, whose job was to make 230 salads every night. Though I never spilled a salad on anyone’s lap, I occasionally dropped a dead hornet or fly onto a salad, just to learn if a guest noticed it.
    We were not the only two mischief-makers at the hotel; other waiters, busboys, and bellhops sought their own amusing forms of revenge against stingy or arrogant guests.
    Guests often ate as if they had spent years fasting. It was not unusual, therefore, for a few to keel over every summer, fall onto the floor and turn a pasty green. In such circumstances, one of the waiters would rush in with an oxygen tank, place a mask over the face of the distressed guest, and wait until an ambulance arrived.
    At the beginning of the summer, the waiters would start a betting pool; whoever guessed the correct number of at-death’s-door attacks would win about $300.
    As bad as I thought we were, I found the hotel owner even worse: he was a man of such frugality that he would have made Scrooge seem philanthropic.
    Leftovers, whether stale or fresh, were recycled; aromas and tastes cleverly disguised. Old fish and chicken were encrusted with piquant herbs. Meatloaf was an amalgam of bits and pieces that could no longer be used. Ketchup, mustard, and even mashed potatoes were taken from diners’ plates and served again to credulous guests.
    The dining room was the domain of the head waiter, a handsome, athletic young medical student. And since he was poor and the hotel accommodated a large number of widows and divorcées, he found a welcoming coital use for his athleticism. Each night he satisfied a different, grateful elderly amour. As each of his patrons checked out of the hotel, she left the skillful roué with a generous tip, all of which went to pay his medical school tuition.
    Though I enjoyed the ongoing circus at the hotel, I finally quit my job when I discovered that the owner was a serial voyeur who had been spying on my sexual encounters with my girlfriend, which usually occurred on the back seat of her car. I angrily told him off and then bid goodbye to my roguish colleagues, who took me to a local bar. I drank to my freewheeling future and sang songs of merriment.
    Unable to focus my eyes, I was driven to the local Y.M.C.A., where I was carried to a cell-like room and deposited on a hard mattress. I awoke the next morning with a brain wheezing through a fog of self-reproach. I later learned from one of the waiters that Luke had decided to become my avenging angel.
    This is what I subsequently learned: The following day, Luke drove a guest’s black Buick down a dirt road and hid it in a corn field. He unscrewed the car’s license plates; then, waiting until after midnight, he unscrewed the plates off the hotel owner’s black Buick and screwed on those from the guest’s car. He next left a note in the guest’s mail slot, letting her know that her car had been stolen. She, of course, called the police and gave them the car’s license numbers. The following day, Luke called the local police from a pay phone in town and told the desk sergeant that a car with the license numbers of the stolen car had sideswiped a parked car, run over a dog, and sped away at an inordinately high speed.    
    Later that day, the hotel owner was stopped while driving to the post office. He was arrested for driving a stolen car and taken to the police station; though he angrily protested his innocence, he was incarcerated and brought before a justice of the peace, who released him on his own recognizance as a respected member of the community.
    The guest was furious and threatened to sue the judge, the police, and the hotel owner. As she packed her bags, her car mysteriously appeared in front of the hotel, legitimate license plates reattached. Cursing and scowling, she recklessly drove off, knocking over a plastic wheelbarrow and rubber trash container.
    I did not see Luke for several months that fall, for he had accepted an opportunity to travel to Spain, Majorca, and Ibiza. He invited me to visit on Christmas Eve. He was living in a row house in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. It was a poor neighborhood, populated by immigrants who worked at menial jobs.
    I rang the bell of a tan row house that was covered with aluminum siding. Luke opened the door. He looked ravaged, his complexion sallow, his cheeks sunken, dark circles under eyes that looked half closed, and he had not shaven in days.
    “Merry Christmas, man,” he mumbled, reaching out to shake my hand. His was cool and clammy.
    “Merry Christmas to you too, brother, but you look like shit. What happened?”
    “Man, it’s the dope. I’m on smack all the time. I was mainlining for a while, but I got stopped in my van on the Belt Parkway and a cop saw the tracks on my arms. I gave him the van so as not to be arrested. Can you believe the bastard took it? These cops are no better than criminals.”
    “Are you still shooting up?” I asked.
    “Naw. After that I started using suppositories. It’s not as fast, but there’s no marks. I’m invisible when it comes to using. But, well, that’s not why I called you. I need some bread. I can make a big score from a guy coming over on Tuesday. He’ll sell me enough so that I can sell it to my contact and be in the powder for months. Can you help me out?”
    “How much do you need?”
    “About a grand.”
    “Hell, where am I supposed to get that kind of money? I’m working in the college cafeteria and library. I make minimum wage.”
    “Shit. Can’t you ask some relatives? I’ll pay you back. With interest. I promise.”
    “I’ll see what I can do.”
    I was able to borrow $300, which I gave to Luke. He thanked me and said he would find a way to get the rest. I didn’t hear from him for several months, and then I got a phone call from a nurse at Brooklyn Hospital. She told me that I was listed as a relative of Luke’s and I should come to the hospital to fill out some papers.
    When I walked into Luke’s room, I was shocked at what I found. His face was beaten raw, his eyes were blackened, a large white bandage encircled his head, his right arm was in a cast, and so was his right foot.
    “You look like you’ve been run over by a Mack truck,” I said.
    “It was worse than that, man.”
    “What happened?”
    “You know that deal I told you about?”
    “Yes.”
    “Well, I scrounged up the thousand. I went to pay this guy, and two of his thugs jumped me. I thought something like that might happen, so I brought a piece with me, a Glock nine, just in case. Well, the damn thing jammed as I tried to fire it. That made those guys pretty fucking mad, and they beat the shit out of me. I was in a coma, if you can believe it.”
    “Well, at least you’re alive. The nurse said you’ll heal. I had to sign all sorts of documents, including a D.N.R., but I think that’s just a formality.”
    I visited him regularly and watched his slow, steady recovery. By the beginning of the spring semester, I went abroad on a scholarship. I attended Clare College in Cambridge, where I read Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Marvell, and Donne. I loved it and felt I was on my way to a career as a professor of English. When I returned to the States, I got a call from Luke.
    “Hey, man, I’m living down on Avenue A, and I would like to take you to lunch. There’s a cool little Indian restaurant that has great curry.”
    We met at the restaurant, a dark narrow vegetarian hole- in-the-wall. We sat at a small Formica table in the back. I was pleased to see that Luke looked healthy and fit. His long blond hair had been neatly trimmed; he was cleanshaven, and his complexion was ruddy.
    “You look great,” I said. “Like you work on a farm or some other outdoor place.”
    “No, I’m working in an art gallery, painting in the evenings, and running my ass off in my free time. I went into rehab, but quit after a couple of weeks. The place just rubbed me the wrong way. I decided I would be clean on my own.”
    “How did you manage that?”
    “I started running. Every time I felt the need to fly, I ran instead. After a week, I was up to five miles a day. Now I do 10, and I’m practicing for the marathon. You know, I was briefly married to another doper. We were together six months. She went into rehab with me and ran off with her therapist. It saved me a lot of pain not having to deal with her. But now my life is fine. How about you?”

    Jeffrey Sussman is the author of 10 nonfiction books and two novels. He is president of Jeffrey Sussman, Inc., a marketing and public relations company in New York City.