Steven Gentile’s grandfather opened Gentile’s Luncheonette in a back alley between the corners of Maple and Grove Streets in the midst of the depression. The wooden counter seated a dozen hungry patrons who wormed their way through the narrow labyrinth and beyond the screened-in wooden door. As you faced it, eight seats were located to the left-hand side of the massive cash register, four to the right. The opening between the two sections was three feet wide. Back in the day, customers, mostly truckers, constructions workers, and icemen beginning their workday at 5:00am, stood two rows deep to grab a 5-cent bacon and egg sandwich and a hot cup of coffee to go. The two things Steven Gentile remembered most in those days was the omnipresent aroma of grease, his and his mother’s unhappiness with everything about the luncheonette. Steven hated the heated discussions between his mother, father, and grandfather. When Steven’s father finally took over the reigns during the 1950’s and at last had full control over the business, he remodeled and expanded the dining area. Steven’s father toiled at the luncheonette six days a week to make ends meet. Still, the business was barely profitable.
A travelling salesman was the first customer to stop in one August morning and took one of the twelve empty seats at the counter. Despite the summer heat, he was dressed in a dark suit with starched white collar, a burgundy striped tie held close to his shirt by an engraved, worm-like tie clasp. His cufflinks were golden beetles. He looked around the empty luncheonette and then turned toward Mr. Gentile. “Coffee, make it strong, and toast, easy on the butter. Name’s Samuel Taylor. Call me Sam.” He held out a meaty right hand. Mr. Gentile wiped his hands on the towel dangling from his belt. The two men shook hands.
“Slow morning?” asked the salesman. A pale Mr. Gentile shrugged, turned his back on the man, pulled two pieces of white bread from a loaf encased in waxed paper and dropped them into the toaster. He grabbed a saucer and a mug and held them under the coffee spout and pulled the black handle forward. “I’ve got something that will help increase your prophets and help drive some traffic in here. Interested?”
Mr. Gentile placed the coffee in front of Taylor. “I’m listening.”
Sam Taylor pulled a business card from his breast pocket and threw it on the counter. Mr. Gentile didn’t reach for it, but he glanced down. There was a line drawing of a gumball machine in the center of the card. Above it he read, SAMUEL TAYLOR, below it, TEN-CENT TREASURES. “I’m in the business of selling gumball machines, sir. Not just any gumball machines, but ones that can turn a business around. You know, turn someone’s life around.” Taylor raised his coffee cup and took a sip. “Perhaps gumball machine is a misnomer, mister…?”
“Of course. How silly of me,” said Taylor, “Gentile’s Luncheonette. My apologies. As I was saying, my little machine can change your fortune. I’m confident of that. I’ve seen mysterious things occur with my machines.” Taylor looked at Mr. Gentile.
“I can place a machine with little bugs…”
Taylor chuckled. “Relax Mr. Gentile. The bugs aren’t real. They’re made of rubber. You know, little toy bugs, all kinds of roaches and beetles and worms and spiders and ants and things. You name it and my little machine has them. The kids love them. They collect them, you know. They will come to your establishment in droves and drag their parents. Your foot traffic, which if you don’t mind my saying could use a boost, will increase to levels to which you are not accustomed. The parents will order sandwiches and hamburgers from you. The kids will want sodas and French fries in addition to the bugs. And, here’s the best part. For every dime placed in the machine for a rubber bug, you get to keep 3 cents. Not bad, huh?”
“What’s the catch?” asked a skeptical Gentile.
“No catch. The machine is quite reasonable, I can assure you. And, what’s even better, I replenish the supply of rubber thingies every month, or more frequently, as needed. You don’t have to do anything except enjoy the crowds and the profits.”
Following the deal, Mr. Gentile saw a steady increase in new customers and his bottom line took a turn for the better. The bugs had brought him good luck at his luncheonette. He began a tradition of once a week, bringing home one of the plastic barrels containing a rubber bug from the machine and giving it to his son. Despite protestations from Mrs. Gentile, this practice continued for nearly a year. Mrs. Gentile periodically went into Steven’s room and tossed out all of the toy bugs. “They give me the creeps,” she’d scream. “It’s one thing to keep those monstrosities at the luncheonette, but I’ll be damned if I’ll allow them in my house!”
Life has a way of not always playing fairly. Just as the luncheonette was beginning to once again turn a nice profit, Mr. Gentile died. The general assumption was heart attack, that he had simply worked himself to death. The autopsy was inconclusive. Steven Gentile never got a chance to run the family business. Immediately after his father’s death, Janice Gentile sold the luncheonette to a group of businessmen who wasted no time in gutting the place and turning it into a high-end clothing boutique. Steven Gentile tried to make it on his own, but was never very successful at any of the odd jobs in which he toiled.
A week after his 55th birthday, Steven Gentile moved back into his old house to live with his mother. It was more than humiliating, but the unhappy and lonely Steven was broke and had little choice. The alleyway behind Maple and Grove Streets was within walking distance of the Gentile house. Over the years, Steven watched the changes at the address that was once his life and future. The boutique that replaced the luncheonette changed names three times; eventually closing and giving way to a barbershop that also faltered and which gave way to a nail salon. When the salon closed, Steven noticed a small sign above an old screened-in wooden front door that read, TAYLOR’S MAGICAL CURIOS. He rubbed fog from the front window with his hand and moved his face inches away, trying to peek into the shop. He couldn’t see a thing, so Steven Gentile, who long ago vowed never to walk into any business that occupied this location, opened the antique door and walked across the threshold.
“May I help you, young man?” came a high-pitched voice from the darkness.
Steven looked up but saw no one. “No thanks. Just looking around. Just curious, that’s all. You see, many years ago, this place, rather, this location, was…”
The old man supported himself with the aid of a cane. His skin and long flowing hair were white. His presence surprised Steven. Without warning, the old man was within inches of Steven’s face. “I didn’t mean to frighten you son. I really do need to get better lighting in here. Name’s Samuel Taylor. Call me Sam.” He leaned on the cane and held out an arthritic, boney hand.
Steven regained his composure and gently shook the old man’s hand. “No, I’m okay. That’s fine. You surprised me. I was just saying that several years ago this location…”
Again he was stopped in mid-sentence. “I know all about that, son. I’ll bet you can still smell the grease in the air, no?” The man showed false teeth.
“I beg your pardon?” Steven unconsciously took a step back.
“Don’t mind the ramblings of an old man. This is a magic shop. Remember? Come, follow me, I want to show you something.”
Steven was speechless. Robotically, he followed Taylor toward the rear of the shop, the same spot where the grill which his grandfather and father had spent so much of their working lives, the grill that was never able to provide a living for him. The grill, along with everything else, that was sold by his mother.
“Take a look at this!” The old man was deceptively fast and agile. With his cane, he dragged a nearby chair behind Steven Gentile’s legs, in the nick of time to prevent Steven from falling to the floor. With a thud, Steven landed in the chair, yet within a fraction of an instant, he was back up on his feet, his mouth open, but again speechless. There was no mistaking the gumball machine before him. The faded and chipped words, “CREEPY CRAWLIES - Ten-Cent Treasures - See what you get - get what you see,” were still visible on the glass. Here, within inches of Steven, was the very same machine that Steven’s father had in his luncheonette and the very same machine that had turned his fledgling business around. It was now empty of the creepy rubber creatures it once housed and which helped solidify a father and son bonding routine. The old man patted Steven on the shoulder. “Take it,” he said. “Don’t ask questions, please. Just take it.”
“I don’t understand,” said Steven, blood beginning to flow slowly back into his cheeks. “Where in the world did you get…”
“No questions. Take it. What harm can it bring? It belongs with you now.”
Back in his bedroom, emotions collided every which way within Steven as he stared unflinchingly at the gumball machine. His door was closed, but that didn’t stop his mother’s unwelcomed entrance. Janice Gentile walked into Steven’s room, her eyes immediately fixated on the gumball machine. “What in the world is that?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Get rid of that ugly thing now.” He wasn’t sure if she had recognized it or not.
“But mom, let me explain…”
Steven Gentile was cut short. “No buts. Get rid of it. I want it out of this house today. End of story! If that filthy piece of junk isn’t out of here by tonight, I’ll throw it and you out at the same time! Got it?” Janice Gentile slammed the door and stormed out. Steven gave her the finger and turned toward the machine. He placed his palms around the glass bowl. Bending his head slightly, he moved closer to the bulbous glass. There, stuck in the bottom of the machine’s inner workings, was one of the little plastic barrels. Old Mr. Taylor had said the machine was empty, and after all of these years, Steven just assumed same. He shook the machine and jiggled the little plastic container in order to get a better glance at what was inside. A look of surprise crossed Steven Gentile’s face. Inside the plastic was a curled up red rubber worm. Maybe his mind was playing tricks on him, but Steven seemed to recall the last toy his father had brought home from the gumball machine was an identical rubber worm. There was no way Steven was going to discard this unique and irreplaceable treasure. He looked around his room, but there was no place he felt comfortable hiding it. He couldn’t place it in the basement. His mother was sure to find it there, and that’s when it hit him. The attic! After making sure that his mother was downstairs and his path to the attic was clear, Steven placed the gumball machine in the near corner of the dark and musty attic, which stretched across and over the bedrooms. He kissed the glass bowl before heading back to his room.
The illuminated clock on Steven Gentile’s nightstand read 1:11 when the loud crash and blood-curdling scream woke him up. He was initially disoriented. It sounded as though the thumping crash had come from overhead while the scream, which to the best of his knowledge, lasted a fraction of a second, came from down the hall in the direction of his mother’s bedroom. He wasn’t sure where to turn first. He thought he heard muffled laughter, but could not make out from which direction it had come. He turned toward his mother’s bedroom and knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again and shouted. “Mom, are you okay? Mom?” Again nothing, so he tried the door handle. It opened. “Mom?” His eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness and he was able to make out the light switch, but she was not in the room. Steven wasn’t worried. He moved about like a detective, methodical, calm. He remembered the crashing sound he thought had occurred overhead, so he turned and headed for the attic. He flipped on a flashlight and ascended the stairs. He scanned the expansive space. Cobwebs, boxes, an old television set, everything looked normal. Everything that is except for one thing, the gumball machine. It was still in the corner, but now it was located in the far corner of the attic! He walked slowly toward it, shining the light ahead of him. Steven kept the light firmly on the glass bowl of the gumball machine. When he got within a foot or two, he bent down to take a closer look. Inside the little lonely clear plastic barrel was a shrunken Janice Gentile, apparently screaming, but Steven heard no sounds. He could see her breath clouding the inside of the plastic shell. His mother’s tiny hands protruded from her bathrobe sleeves. She was trying to clear the fog off the plastic and her hands continuously pounded frantically on the inside walls of the enclosure as the rubbery red worm crawled around her waist and headed up toward her neck. After watching his panic stricken mother for a few minutes, Steven shrugged his shoulders, lifted the machine, removed it from the attic and brought it back into his bedroom. “Goodnight mom,” he said before extinguishing the lights and returning to bed.
In the morning, Steven fished a dime out of his pants pocket and plucked it into the machine. He turned the handle, listened as the gears did their thing and the plastic barrel crashed against the inside of the hinged door. He cupped one hand under the door and with the other, lifted it and watched as the treasure dropped into his palm. He brought it close to his face and stared. Neither his mother nor the rubber worm moved. He carefully placed the ten-cent treasure on his bookshelf, the same one once used to display the rubber bugs his father had brought home to him. He got dressed and made a mental note to stop by Taylor’s shop and say, “Thank you.”
[Bio] Bruce Harris is the author of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: ABout Type,published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box (www.batteredbox.com). His fiction has appeared in The First Line, Inch, Hint Fiction, and online at Pine Tree Mysteries and Short, Fast, and Deadly.