“Buddy” by Benjamin Austin

“Pickup for Angelo.” He leaned on the counter.

“For who?”

“Angelo.”

He jerked his chin up—he had been told he mumbled. He had a deep voice and people often had trouble hearing him, especially over crowds and music. “If I have to yell to be heard, I’m not gonna have fun,” he said to his mother earlier in the week, over the phone, in justifying his aversion to loud bars and clubs.

“Well look at that! Right on time, Angelo!”

She was easily ten years his senior. She wore tight jeans, a glittery top, heavy blue eyeliner— “synthetic,” he thought, a look he deemed excusable in women his age, but in her? Shouldn’t she have grown up by now? Angelo had a history of struggling with clerks and cashiers, especially the bubbly ones like her. “It’s not that I’m anxious, it’s more that I’m bored,” he told the most recent tinder girl on their second date, in justifying his aversion to small talk.

“Awesome.” He was already frowning and he knew it.

“Here we are!” She half whispered. She opened the pizza box and turned it toward him. Instead of inspecting the product, Angelo looked at her, and watched her mandated smile shrink into something else, something easier to read.

“Okay. Can I the uh…” He snapped his fingers, straining to remember words and grammar.

“Parmegian and hot peppers?”

“Yeah.” He smacked his lips—an unusual gesture for him. She nearly lunged to grab the paper packets out of the cupboard behind her, then tucked them into the box.

“All set?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Okay, well have fun, buddy!”

He grabbed the pizza and started out the door. He winced, thought to stomp his foot, thought better, but turned around anyway.

“You know, there’s nothing fun about this transaction.”

“What do you mean.”

She had yet to take her eyes off him.

“I’m in my mid-twenties picking up a personal pie on a Friday night, alone. Fun is probably the last word I would use to describe… this.”

He pointed at himself and then the box of pizza. People at the bar were starting to turn around.

“Ok?” she drew out her syllables.

“And buddy? Really? Do I really look like a buddy to you?”

“That’s just the way I…”

“Would you call your dad buddy? Your boss? The president? No. So it follows that there is a…an undeniable element of… of… condescension there, in that word, wouldn’t you agree?”

He was shaking, laboring to form coherent sentences.

“That’s not how I…”

“Listen, I won’t tolerate being called buddy—not in a family restaurant. Get me your manager please.”

Panicked, the waitress rushed through the swinging doors and disappeared into the kitchen. Angelo had not initially intended to ask for the manager, but under the implicit duress of his audience at the bar, in the interest of publicly vindicating himself, his brain had short-circuited and produced a combination of sounds that breathed life into the disagreement he now wished had never started. But there was no turning back. The soles of his shoes clung to the floor and his pulse vibrated through the tips of his toes. He looked down at the pizza box in his right hand, now dangling parallel to his leg, dripping marinara sauce onto the hardwood floor. He didn’t bother readjusting it. He could feel the spectator’s eyes on him, their bodies turned on their high stools, but he didn’t dare even steal a peak in their direction. God, but he really did hate being called buddy. “What is wrong with people?” he thought, pumping himself up. “She knew what she was implying, she must have.” The manager broke out of the clattering drone behind the swinging doors, throwing his weightlifter shoulders with every step. He wore a gold chain, a bright blue button down, a full beard and a look of contrived apprehension. He jingled his watch and tied his hands together.

“What seems to be the problem here?”

“Yes sir. You employee disrespected me.”

“Yeah, uh.” The manager scratched his head with one finger, briefly looking away. “She called you buddy, she said?”

“Yes sir, that’s correct.”

The manager moved his hand about in a search for words. He had an earring in the not gay ear.

“I mean…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I mean that’s just how people talk, right? I don’t think she meant anything by it.”

“No, I’m not…” People were turning around again and Angelo softened his voice. “I’m not buying that. It’s patronizing, okay? Like… there’s a reason you call your dog and your small child buddy you know, like “hey little buddy!”

He scratched the head of an imaginary dog with his loose hand.

“It’s not, like, an innocuous word.”

Before he knew it, Angelo had found a second wind, a fresh surge of confidence. He felt his shoulders pulling back, his chest muscles breathing. In that moment, he believed in his argument. He was in the right. The manager took a moment to contemplate Angelo’s response, swaying his head from side to side.

“Okay, well, that’s fine, and I know you said something to her about the president, right? You wouldn’t call the president buddy, and I get that too, right?” He cleared his throat. “But listen sir, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but… you’re clearly not the president.”

“Yeah well, believe me, I know that.” Maybe this would end well. Maybe they would end up bonding over this.

“So… And I grant you, it’s not the most respectful term. I will grant you that. But let me ask… would you mind if she had called you dude?”

“No.”

“What about man?”

“Not at all.”

Bro?” He lifted his nearly conjoined eyebrows.

“I don’t think so.”

“Now let me ask, if the president walked in right now, and took a seat at that booth, and you were assigned to his table, would you have the nerve to call him bro, man or dude?”

“Absolutely not.”

“So, you see what you’ve done here?”

“I’m not following.”

“You’ve admitted to a double standard.”

“How so?”

“I don’t mean to cause offense, but I think you may have some, hmm, personal issues with the word buddy.”

Angelo scoffed in an ostentatious show of indignance.

“Absolutely not. That’s not… That has nothing to do with… Look—I know what your point is. I know what you’re doing. You think that you’ve trapped me into admitting that the word buddy is somehow equivalent to man or dude, but really, I’ve done no such thing. You took one shred of evidence I used to support my claim and you poked a singular hole in it and now you’re suggesting that you’ve won the entire argument. Hate to break it to you, but that’s not how it works. That’s what conspiracy theorists do. All they do is… they just.. they poke holes in researched and documented evidence with the intention of… of refuting the accepted truth, rather than providing evidence of their own to support their own theories. Plus, even if your approach to the argument was viable, your logic is still off. Like, sure, I wouldn’t call the president dude or man or bro, and I wouldn’t call him buddy either. But that doesn’t mean buddy equals man equals dude. That’s like saying… That’s like saying I don’t like reading in the car because it makes me nauseous and I don’t like, I don’t know, eating cheese while I’m driving because dairy makes me nauseous, therefore books and cheese…”

The boss raised his voice.

“Okay, enough. I have work to do, real work. What is your end-game, here, buddy?”

The entire bar turned around. This was high quality entertainment—Broadway in the pizza parlor. Angelo could tell from the boss’s half open mouth and wide, anticipatory eyes that he had not intended to use that word, but did it matter? Given the context, slip or no slip, how could Angelo possibly overlook an insult of this magnitude without appearing weak? The marinara sauce had dripped onto his pants and he could feel it soaking through his jeans. The room had gone quiet. A lone, small child made a happy yelping sound on the other side of the restaurant. Angelo darted his stare between the manager and the chandelier above the bar. At a loss for words, under the influence of his audience, Angelo confusedly lifted the box of pizza and flung it toward the swinging doors. The box opened mid-air, freeing the pizza which twirled and gyrated like a poorly tossed frisbee and intercepted the jaw of a young, tubby busboy who, in a lousy attempt at shielding his face, threw the bucket of dishes forward, lost his footing and tumbled into the shards of porcelain plates and wine glasses that dinged and clinked across the floor. Moments later, he sat, clutching one hand with the other, writhing and showing his teeth and cursing in Spanish under his breath. There was blood dripping from his hand into a rapidly accumulating pool that drifted through the shards of porcelain and snaked around the unapologetic, upright pizza, which, excepting the tainted ratio of marinara sauce, remained curiously intact.

Angelo stood, fists clenched, stealing glances around the room, unsure of what to do with his body. The boss looked at him like a self-righteous schoolteacher, knowing the argument was over, proud to have kept his temper and run out the clock until the little jackass caved and messed up for real.

“I’m calling the cops,” he declared, and turned around and hauled his disproportionately beefy shoulders through the swinging doors into the kitchen, stepping over the busboy.

This was now a crime scene. The Busboy had turned his attention to Angelo, and now screamed the obscenities at him, only half of which Angelo understood—he was embarrassed to admit how little Spanish he knew, despite his Peruvian roots—and a hulking, ominously gentle looking biker man had thumped over, without a word, and now took post between Angelo and the door, crossing his tattooed forearms that couldn’t have been much smaller than Angelo’s thighs. The patrons at the bar were yelling too, some standing, some sitting, pointing their fingers at Angelo and tossing around phrases like “out of your mind” or “psychotic,” nodding at each other in fleeting intervals, finding evident solace in their unification against him. Angelo looked through them, still standing, frozen, now mildly nauseous. He was in the wrong, he had overreacted, and maybe he was guilty of some irrational, deep-seated aversion to the word buddy, but the overarching thought, the chorus that screeched through his mind like an out of tune violin was this: “Wow I suck with strangers.”

The cops cuffed Angelo. He cooperated, and when the officer finished his legal spiel, Angelo declared out loud that he wished to exercise his fifth amendment right at this time—a statement met by a loud, anonymous farting noise—presumably from the lips of a child—then an uproar of laughter, then applause. Even the arresting officer choked on his words as he led Angelo outside and sat him on the curb. Angelo waited while the policemen consulted with the manager, who shrugged and threw his arms up and pursed his lips like the situation was bigger than him, more than he could handle, and what would he do without the heroes of the Madison, New Jersey police department? Then he shook their hands, some more than once, nodding with a vigor suggestive of Parkinson’s disease. The comically large group of cops broke out of the parlor, all smiles, and one of the younger ones hoisted Angelo up and led him away from the restaurant, and when he palmed the back of his skull and pushed it into the squad car like a hardcover into a bookshelf, a raspy female smoker’s voice warned Angelo, artlessly, to watch his head, “buddy.”

 

 


Ben Austin is a writer from Austin, TX. He likes to fish and hike in his spare time.

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