Freedom Lane: The Sharpest Tool in the Sink
Paulie watched his pizzeria burn, his nephew, Da’Quarius, standing by his side. The firefighters continued to spray it with water, controlling the blaze as best they could. Paulie and Da’Quarius were joined by Rose and Helen, who parked around the block. “We came as soon as we heard,” Rose said, putting a hand on Paulie’s shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” Helen said, staring at the pizzeria, flames reflecting in her glasses.
“Where’s Tony?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know,” Paulie said, not taking his eyes off the fire. “Inside.”
“Paulie,” Helen said, an uncharacteristically sullen tone in her voice. She put her hand on Paulie’s other shoulder.
“We were fighting,” Paulie said. “That last few weeks, I’ve ignored and dismissed him almost constantly.”
“It’s OK,” Rose said. “You two were friends. That’s what matters.”
“Don’t talk like he’s gone!” Paulie snapped. “He can still be alright. He can still -”
Paulie’s voice broke, and tears started to stream down his cheeks. The weight of the fire and Tony being inside the inferno was finally too much for him. The others stood with him, supporting him with their silence. “He can’t be gone,” he said softly. “He just can’t!”
Then, a figure came from the alley. “Holy shit,” Da’Quarius said. “Is dat…”
Tony walked toward them, limping, carrying something in his hands, clutching it to his chest as if it would fly away if he let go. “Tony!” Paulie shouted, pulling him into a hug. “I can’t believe it. You’re okay. I need to tell you… about all that happened. I’m so -”
“Paulie,” Tony said, handing Paulie what he was carrying. He smiled as he did so, falling hard to the ground right after.
“Get the ambulance!” Rose shouted, falling to the ground at Tony’s side. She started giving him chest compressions as the paramedics rushed over, carrying over their equipment. They called to another to bring the stretcher.
Paulie watched, backing away when the paramedics relieved Rose. He finally looked at what Tony had handed him as they worked on him. It was the framed dollar bill, the first he had made. It was signed by his sister, Helen, his first paying customer. Under it was the framed picture of him and Shronda he had kept in his office.
Tony was taken into the ambulance, a respirator around his mouth. Paulie watched, aware that Rose was telling him to go with him but unable to move. He turned back to the blackened bricks, breams, and ash that used to be Pauile’s Pizza on State Street.
He looked at the wreckage that used to be his life’s work.
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
Season 10, Episode 1: The Sharpest Tool in the Sink
Paulie looked through the windows of his pizzeria, named after him at the insistence of his late fiancée, Shronda. He had just opened the doors, a huge “Grand Opening” banner across the windows. He stood by his counter, the small kitchen staff waiting along with him.
“So this is your place?” Helen asked, coming inside.
“My name’s on the sign, isn’t it?” Paulie asked, smiling as his sister eyed the place up. “I’m waiting on my first customer.”
“She’s here,” Helen said, approaching the counter. “Give me a medium pie; pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Hurry up. I’m hungry.”
“You got it, sis,” Paulie sad.
Helen reached in her pocket.
“Whoa!” Paulie said. “I’m not charging my own sister.”
Helen scoffed. “You’re already giving away the product,” she said. “That’s bad for business. You’ll be going in under in six months.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Paulie said. “But that’s Shronda’s idea: family eats free.” He put his hand on top of the framed picture of him and Shronda next to the register.
“I’m paying you something,” Helen said, digging in her pocket. “I’m not going to walk all the way down here to not be your first paying customer.” She slapped a one dollar bill on the counter. “Happy?”
“Not yet,” Paulie said. He took a pen from the mug by the register. “I want to frame that dollar. Sign it.”
Helen laughed. “You’re such a stunad,” she said, signing the dollar. She passed it back over to him. “Now are you happy?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said, looking at the drying ink on the dollar bill. “I’m happy.”
Two days after the fire, Paulie looked over the mess that used to be his pizzeria. Yale hospital was going to be his next stop. Tony was still laid up after his bout of smoke inhalation. He had to crawl through caution tape to get in, and he shouldn’t have even been stepping over the mess of his burnt pizzeria.
“Paulie?” A voice said from the front door.
“Da’Quarius?” Paulie asked. “What are you doing here?”
“I came after school,” Da’Quarius replied, climbing inside, stepping over some debris that fell from Tony’s apartment above the restaurant. “I still can’t believe dis place is gone.”
“Me neither,” Paulie said. “Every time I wake up, I think it was all a horrible dream.”
“Have you decided what you’re gonna do?” Da’Quarius asked.
Paulie sighed. “The insurance company will pay for the damages,” he said, “but I haven’t seen the amount yet. They may end up giving me enough to clean up the damage to the building only. I may have to deplete my own savings for everything. Friggin’ lawyer bullshit.”
“So that might be it for Paulie’s Pizza?” Da’Quarius asked.
“I don’t know,” Paulie replied. “It may be time to retire after all.”
Da’Quarius nodded and looked around one more time. He turned and walked back outside, ducking under the caution tape. He was upset, but he wasn’t showing it; he rarely did. Paulie hung his head down, ashamed of himself. He had just told his nephew that his promised inheritance might be off the table.
Paulie walked into Tony’s hospital room, knocking lightly on the door. “You up?” he asked, entering.
“Yeah,” Tony said. He was laying on his stomach, his ass sticking up, uncovered, beet-red, and covered in salve. The hair on his head was singed off on either side, giving him a makeshift mohawk.
“Do you have to have your ass out?” Paulie asked.
“What?” Tony asked. “I burnt it running away when the ceiling came down. It needs air to heal.”
“You’re fine,” Paulie said. “Your just scorched your ass hair off.”
“But it was a lot of hair,” Tony said. “It’s gonna take forever to grow it all back.”
Paulie laughed along with Tony. It had been a long time since they did. “You got somewhere to stay?” he asked when the laughter subsided.
“I’m going to stay with my mother,” Tony replied.
“Oh,” Paulie said. “You can crash at my place if that doesn’t work out.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said. “It’s only temporary. I’ll be back where I belong as soon as we rebuild Paulie’s.”
Paulie looked away. He didn’t have the heart to tell Tony that he was unsure whether or not he’d be rebuilding. If he took the insurance money and sold the lot where Pauile’s once stood, he’d have enough for a comfortable retirement.
“Speaking of which,” Tony said, leaning over, and grabbing some papers off his nightstand. “A friend of my mom came in here today. Turns out he owns the building and the lot next door to us.”
“Oh yeah?” Palulie asked. “He’s not looking for money from any fire damage, is he?”
“No,” Tony said, handing the paper to Paulie. “He’s sick of maintaining that lot for free parking when there’s meters on the street. He wants to sell it to you. Paulie, we can expand the pizzeria.”
Paulie looked at the paper. There was a name and number. He folded it up and put it in his pants pocket. “Look -”
“Don’t do that,” Tony said.
“Do what?” Paulie asked.
“Apologize for what happened,” Tony replied. “Before the fire, I mean, when we weren’t talking.”
“I was being a jerk to you,” Paulie said, “and you nearly died.”
“Me dying’s got nothing to do with what happened,” Tony said. “I’m sorry I was such an idiot. I’m not always the sharpest tool in the sink.”
“What?” Paulie asked. “That’s not a saying.”
“You know what I mean,” Tony said. “I’m gonna try real hard not to do anything that stupid again.”
“Well you’re forgiven then,” Paulie said.
“Good,” Tony said. “All that took was almost dying.”
Paulie looked at Tony, and the two started laughing again.
Tony pulled his pizza from the oven with the large wooden peel. He swung it to the counter, dropping it onto the metal plate. It fit perfectly. “Wow,” Paulie said, looking over Tony’s shoulder. “That’s perfect, especially for your first try on your own. You’re a natural.”
“Thanks,” Tony said, hanging the peel from its hook on the wall. He looked at his creation: a large pie with pepperoni. He had been working and training for the last week, and Paulie felt it was time for him to try one without help. He was happy he did not disappoint his new boss.
“Now what?” Tony asked.
“Now we eat it,” Paulie said. “I’ll be the judge to see if your pie tastes as good as it looks.”
“It’s a pizza,” Tony said, cutting into eighths with the cutter as Paulie had shown him dozens of times. “It’s hard to fuck up a pizza.”
“You’d be shocked,” Paulie said. “You ever eat one of those greek abortions they call pizza? Stunads claim to have invented it.”
“Idiots,” Tony said. He put two plates in front of him and put a piece of pizza on each. He walked them out to a booth and put them down. Paulie sat across from him and picked up his piece, taking a bite.
“Holy shit!” Paulie said, taking a bite.
“What?” Tony said, still holding his own. “Is it bad?”
“No,” Paulie said. “This is amazing!”
“Better than you?” Tony asked.
“Don’t go too far,” Paulie said. “You got a gift for slinging dough. I’m glad you came in begging for work when you did.”
“Begging?!” Tony exclaimed, dropping his pizza on his plate. “You were the one who practically begged me to come work for you!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Paulie said, taking another bite. “I guess we both remember that day differently.”
“Well, the two of us working here together is good fit either way,” Tony said, finally taking his first bite. “Damn, I am good. You’re lucky to have me.”
Paulie sat in his makeshift office: the kitchen in his home. He had letters, papers, and plans strewn about his table. There was so much to do in order to reopen: demolition, rebuilding, electrical work, gas lines, plumbing kitchen appliances, restaffing, not even taking Tony’s apartment into consideration. The list of what needed to be done was growing, and it all required money.
There was a check in the letter holder on his right. It was from his insurance company. It was more than he had hoped for, but he wondered if it would be enough. There was also a matter of the lot next door. He had always wanted to expand, installing a table and seating area and a hiring a waitstaff, but that was more money than he’d be able to muster together. No matter how Paulie cut it, he’d have just enough between the insurance and his savings to just about get everything running again how it was.
The process was going to take months, and he’d be out the income he would have gotten. Bills and his cost of living would eat into a big chunk of that. Selling his lot sounded more and more viable by the moment.
“Madon,” Paulie said, putting his hands on his face and resting his elbows on the table. “What am i going to do?”
He was addressing his photo of Shronda, the one Tony had saved from being incinerated. She stared back, smiling happily as she always had, the one tooth missing from the top of her smile. The only problem was that she wasn’t answering.
Paulie sighed and stood up, stretching. He had a lot on his mind. Da’Quarius would understand eventually. Rebuilding was a huge ordeal, and Paulie was coming close to his mid-sixties. Most men his age were looking to hang it up. Tony would understand as well. He’d have to stay with his mother for a while, but he’d find a job and land on his feet. He always had that blind luck that got him out of the most dire of situations. He had just survived an inferno with only a reddened ass and a new hairstyle after all.
On the other hand, what if they didn’t understand at all?
“Hey, kid,” Paulie said, entering his sister’s house on Freedom Lane for Sunday night dinner. “How are you doing?”
“Good,” Da’Quarius replied. “How’s everything going with your place?”
Paulie shrugged. “I’m going over the papers and everything just about every day,” he said. “The numbers aren’t adding up to where I need them to be, and it’s driving me up the friggin’ wall.”
“Keep at it,” Da’Quarius said. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah,” Paulie muttered as Da’Quarius ran off. “Thanks, kid.”
Rose greeted Paulie next, asking the same question and getting the same answer. Helen didn’t bring it up, but Paulie knew that ignoring sensitive subjects was her way of helping.
Dinner was served, and Paulie’s Pizza was once again the topic of conversation. It was tough to avoid it when everyone had it on their minds. “The guy next door reached out to Tony,” Paulie said. “He wants to sell his parking lot to me. I’d be able to expand as I rebuild if I do.”
Paulie watched Helen, Rose, and Da’Quarius. He wasn’t going to bring it up, but he found himself eager to get some feedback. “Can you afford that?” Rose asked. “I’m sure your insurance will just cover what you had.”
“This is true,” Paulie said. “I’d be on my own. I can always apply for a loan.”
“Bah!” Helen said, waving a hand. “Greedy bankers won’t give a man your age a loan. They’d figure you plan on dying before you can pay them back.”
“Well I guess that’s off the table,” Paulie said.
“What about retirement?” Da’Quarius asked. “You seemed to wanna hang it all up an’ shit when I saw you da’ other day.”
Paulie sighed. “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but that’s quickly becoming my best option right now.”
Helen scoffed, not bothering to hide it.
“I gotta do some homework after dinner,” Da’Quarius said.
“That’s fine,” Rose said. “You can be excused after we eat.”
Paulie watched as Da’Quarius ate his meal in silence. He knew he felt betrayed, but he didn’t want to lie. Paulie felt awful about taking the pizzeria away from his future, but it seemed like less and less of an option the more he thought on it.
Helen walked into Paulie’s Pizza on a Friday evening, a redhead woman with her. She showed her to her favorite booth and approached the counter where Paulie was waiting to take her order. “Another one?” Paulie said quietly. “You don’t waste any time.”
“Shut your mouth,” Helen snapped.
“Whoa,” Paulie said. “What’s with you?”
“She’s different,” Helen said. “Her name’s Rose. She wrote and sent pictures to me when I was in the slammer, and we just ran into each other the other day.”
“So this chick’s crazy, huh?” Paulie said.
“No,” Helen said, shaking her head. “She’s a sweetheart, so treat her nice.”
“No problem,” Paulie said. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“Good,” Helen said. “I’ve been bragging about your place here, and I don’t want to be made out to be a liar on our second date, so you better make us a hell of a pie.”
“You know I will,” Paulie said. “I’ll make it myself.”
“Good,” Helen said. “Get me my usual, and your better be charming as hell when you bring it to us.”
“Helen,” Paulie said, smiling. “I’m always friggin’ charming!”
Helen laughed. “Thanks,” she said, walking back toward the table. Paulie was taken aback. His sister had thanked him. He knew his woman was imporatant to her.
Paulie watched as Helen sat across from her date. She told some joke, and Rose laughed. Paulie went in back and made Helen’s pizza himself as promised. He brought it out as soon as it was ready, carrying to the table on a metal tray. “Here’s your pie,” Paulie said, setting it on the table.
“Thank you,” Rose said, smiling awkwardly. Helen wasn’t there. She had to have excused herself to use the restroom.
“I’m Paulie,” Paulie said, smiling, “Helen’s brother.”
“I know,” Rose said. She laughed a little. “I’m Rose, I mean. Rose Masters.”
“Don’t be nervous,” Paulie said. “My sis can be intimidating, but she’s a big teddy bear inside.”
“I know,” Rose said, blushing a bit. “I know it meant a lot for her to bring me here to meet you. She talked a lot about you and your place. She’s very proud.”
It was Paulie’s turn to blush. He wanted to say more, but Helen returned. “Pizza’s up!” she exclaimed, resuming her date with Rose. “Wait ‘til you try this, Rose. There’s no better pizza in this city than the pizza my baby brother makes.”
“I’ll leave you two in peace,” Paulie said with a little bow.
“It was nice meeting you,” Rose said.
“Likewise,” Paulie said, offering a smile.
“You two sure got chummy,” Helen said, passing a plate with a slice on it to Rose. Paulie smiled as he went back to the kitchen. He had a feeling Rose was going to be around for a long time.
Dinner ended, and the conversation about what Paulie was going to do with his pizzeria ended with it. Da’Quarius had gone to his room to do his homework, and Paulie was sitting in the living room with Helen and Rose. “I guess I should head home,” Paulie said, looking at the time. He stood up.
“Not yet,” Helen said. “I have to talk to you.”
“Madon,” Paualie said, stopping himself mid-stretch. “I thought I’d escape without a lecture.”
“I’m not going to lecture you,” Helen said. “Sit down. I need to get something. Rose, don’t be here when I get back.”
Helen walked toward the back of the house, and shuffled her way down the basement steps. “What’s she up to?” Paulie asked Rose.
“You know she doesn’t tell me anything when she wants to be secretive,” Rose said. She stood up. “I’m going to make a cup of tea.” She got up and walked into the kitchen where Paulie knew she’d be waiting and listening.
Helen came up a couple of minutes later, carrying a canvas bag that looked like it should be hanging from he back of a utility truck. She put it on the table in front of the couch and sat couple of feet away from Paulie. “You’re not retiring,” she said. “You owe Da’Quarius a pizzeria.”
Paulie sighed. He was expecting this conversation at some point. “Did he put you up to this?” he asked. “I know he’s upset with me and all, but he should understand my predicament.”
“He’s not upset at you, you stunad,” Helen said. “He’s smarter than that, and you know it. He’s worried about you, and he doesn’t know how to talk to you. He looks up to you like the father figure he never got to know. He told me he can see why you’d want to retire, but he doesn’t want to push you to do it.”
“Why not?” Helen said.
“Because you won’t let yourself,” Helen said, giving off a tone of someone who’s tired of explaining. “You’ve never broken a promise, Paulie, never. How would you feel relaxing in your retirement, knowing that your place is long gone, and it won’t be there for Da’Quarius when he’s old enough to inherit it.”
“I’d be miserable,” Paulie admitted.
“Retirement doesn’t suit you,” Helen said. “You and Tony and the kid have too much fun in that place.”
“You’re right,” Paulie sad. “But there’s the issue of the money, the dirty, friggin’ money. I don’t know if I can afford to rebuild it how it was, let alone buy the lot and expand.”
“You haven’t asked me what’s in the bag yet,” Helen said.
“I assumed it was some kind of torture device,” Paulie said. “You planned on using it on me if I decided to retire without a fight.”
“I know you won’t,” Helen said. “Sometimes you just need a slap in the face to get you to move in the right direction. So answer me now: will you fight to keep your place and make it better than it was?”
“Yes,” Paulie said. “Of course. I was an idiot for thinking otherwise.”
“Good,” Helen said. “Look in the bag.”
Paulie looked at his sister for a moment before leaning forward. He opened the clasp on the bag and opened it. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at. “Madon,” he said. “Where did you get this?”
“This,” Helen said, pulling the bag of hundred dollar bills toward them, “is your inheritance from our father.”
“What?!” Paulie said, standing up. “I knew he had left something, but all this?! How much is in there?!”
“Don’t know,” Helen said with a shrug. “I never bothered counting it.”
“And why am I finally seeing this now?!” Paulie demanded.
“I’m a woman of my word,” Helen said. “I was told not to even breathe a word about this money, which may or may not have been obtained through nefarious means from some unknown associates of our father, unless it was absolutely needed by either of us. I’ve used it sparingly in the past, but I’ve never really needed it. I was going to give it to you to open your restaurant, but you unfortunately got the money another away.”
Paulie didn’t asked Helen to elude, and she didn’t. He had gotten the money from a lawsuit when his fiancée was killed in a drunk driving accident. “With this…” Paulie said.
“You can rebuild and expand,” Helen finished. “Use this for cash payments only. Contractors usually work cheaper if you can pay in cash.”
“I know that,” Paulie said. “Sis… Helen.”
“Don’t get all sappy on me, Paulie,” Helen said. “I’m just doing what I promised to do. Just make sure whatever is left goes to the kid in some way. Rose will kill me if we don’t help him go to friggin’ college.”
“Alright,” Paulie sad. “You got it. Thank you.”
Helen smiled. “You’re a good man,” she said. “I’m proud to have you as a baby brother.”
“Give him a hug for god’s sake!” Da’Quarius yelled from the top of the stairs.
“And he’s your son!” Rose shouted from just outside the kitchen door. “You’re proud to have him as a son!’
“Madon,” Helen groaned. “There’s never a moment of privacy in this place.”
Paulie looked over the progress of his pizzeria. It had burned down a little over two months ago, and it looked like he’d be back in business soon. He had purchased the lot next door for a steal in what he can only describe as the deal of the century, and the reconstruction of his livelihood was in full swing.
“Hey!” Tony said, rushing in through the thick, plastic drapes that were acting as makeshift windows during construction. He still hadn’t cut his hair, so he still had the mohawk look despite it growing back.
“You gotta come outside and see this!” Tony continued. “Your electrician is fighting with the power company!”
“What?!” Paulie exclaimed. “Why’s that stunad arguing with them now?!”
“He wants them to reimburse him from he wire that was stolen,” Tony said. “He’s ripping them a new one.”
“That wire got stolen?!” Paulie shouted. “Madon, I just bought that last week.”
Tony chuckled. “It didn’t get stolen,” he said. “It’s in the back of his truck. He thinks he can get them to pay for it since they blew off his meeting with them.”
“Not on my job!” Paulie said, marching outside. “I told these mooks I want no shenanigans here! I hired old family acquaintances and paid in cash. Respect should still mean something to these assholes.”
Nick, the electrician, stepped inside, turning off his phone. “No dice,” he said. “They’re assuming no responsibility, and they pushed my appointment to Tuesday.”
“Look,” Paulie said. “I know your pop from way back, but if you pull a stunt like that again, I’m kicking you off this job, capeesh?”
“But we could’ve gotten paid for -”
“I don’t care!” Paulie shouted. The other workers stopped to watch a Paulie reaming, an event that had happened once a week since construction began. “This is my place of business, and I will not have this kind of bullshit going on. I paid for the friggin’ wire, and I expect it to be installed with no hassling of those mooks from the power company. Are we clear?!”
“Yeah,” Nick said, looking away. “I told you it wouldn’t work anyway, Tony.”
“You put him up to this?” Paulie asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said, looking away. “I’m just trying to save you some dough.”
Paulie looked like he was going to yell again, but he stopped, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly instead. “Don’t put ideas in people’s heads,” he said, keeping his cool. “I got an interview.”
“For what?” Tony said, following Paulie toward his office. “Are you replacing me?!”
“What?” Paulie said, opening the door to his office. It was furnished with a card table and two folding chairs. “I’m hiring a waitstaff, and I want to have my head waitperson here to help hire and train the others before we reopen.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony asked. “Any cute waitresses apply?”
“You,” Paulie said, pointing. “I do not want you coming anywhere near… Just be careful with these girls.”
Tony gave Paulie an odd look. “Sure, boss,” he said. He left, going around to see where he could help.
“So,” Paulie said, looking over his desk to Alice, who had applied to be head of Paulie’s waitstaff. “I see you’ve worked as a waitress for a long time now. Have you had anyone working under you before?”
“Yes,” Alice said, giving Paulie a bubbly smile. “I did the schedule at the State Street diner for the last four years, and I’ve trained all the waitresses who are currently there.”
“And why, may I ask, do you want to leave the State Street diner?” Paulie asked.
“Do you know the owner, Noli?” Alice asked.
“Yeah,” Paulie said. “Fat, hairy, Greek asshole. He kicked me out of there once for defending an old man he was harassing, and I haven’t been back.”
“He’s the reason I want to leave,” Alice said. “You seem like you’d be a much nicer boss.” She offered Paulie a smile and a wink.
“Well, you’re definitely qualified,” Paulie said. “Screw it, you’re hired.”
Paulie reached over the desk and shook Alice’s hand, sealing the deal. The door opened, and Tony burst in. “Don’t do it!” he exclaimed.
“It’s nice to see you too, Tony,” Alice said.
“Oh!” Paulie shouted. “I’m in the middle of an interview here!”
“It actually just ended,” Alice said, standing up. “Looks like we’re going to be working together. Exciting, isn’t it?”
“That’s not the word for it,” Tony said.
“Wait a second,” Paulie said. “Do you two know each other?”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “We used to date.”
“That’s not the word for it,” Alice said. She slapped Tony lightly on the cheek as she walked toward the exit of Paulie’s office door. “See you around, coworker. You might want to get that hair cut properly before we open.”
“Fire her!” Tony exclaimed as soon as she was gone.
Paulie sighed. “I’m guessing you two didn’t break up so well,” he said.
“Fuckin’ right we didn’t!” Tony shouted.
“But I’m not firing her,” Paulie said. “She’s the most qualified person who applied.”
“So torturing me is an added bonus?” Tony asked.
“Look,” Paulie said, putting his paperwork into a folder, “I can’t ask anyone who applies to be a waitress if they’ve dated you. It’s discrimination. You’re going to have to deal with it.”
“Fine,” Tony said. “We’ll just see how long she lasts with me in her face all day, oozing my machismo all over her.”
Paulie massaged his temples with his fingers. “Tony,” he said.
“Yeah, boss?” Tony replied.
Paulie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Please don’t,” he said.
Tony watched Paulie for a moment. “Sure,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee she’ll keep me civil. You know what I’m saying, boss?”
Paulie took another long breath. “Just try, OK?” he said. “that’s all I’m asking.”
“Sure,” Tony said. He left the office again, leaving Paulie to collect his thoughts.
Paulie walked with Da’Quarius on Saturday, going past the park with his dog, Dutchie. Some of the contractors were working, but Paulie needed a day off from all the construction. “How’s da’ place comin’ along?” Da’Quarius asked.
“Great,” Paulie said. “You should see our new area. It’s beautiful.”
“I cain’t wait to see it,” Da’Quarius said. “How’s Tony doin’?”
Paulie sighed. “He’s being Tony,” he said. “He’s a gagootz, and he fits right in with these contractors I got around the place.”
“So he’s gettin’ on yo’ nerves?” Da’Quarius asked. “You screamin’ at him an’ shit.”
“No,” Paulie said. “I’ve been telling him calmly what I need him to do, and there’s no arguing.”
“What?” Da’Quarius asked, turning toward Paulie. “But you guys love arguin’.”
Paulie chuckled. “It’s not good for our health,” he said.
“Sure it is,” Da’Quarius said. “Aren’t’ you da’ one who said holdin’ in all yo’ anger is bad for you?”
“I did,” Paulie said. “But things are different now. I almost lost Tony, my oldest and best friend, and I was barely even talking to him when it happened. He almost died, and I would have always remembered that I spent his last weeks being pissed at him.”
”But dat ain’t you,” Da’Quarius said. “Go get pissed at him an’ shit. You’ll just going to flip yo’ lid if you hold all dat in.”
”You don’t understand, kid,” Paulie said. “Him and I aren’t ever fighting again, you dig?”
”Fine,” Da’Quarius said. “Just remembered I warned you when all da’ little arguments you’re ignorin’ turn into a full-blown attack on Tony.”
The following Monday, Paulie was back in his pizzeria, making sure all the renovations and rebuilds were moving forward, and he was pleased with the results. The permanent power was due to go on the following day, which meant the contractors could start the final phase, the commercial kitchen equipment can come in, and he’d be back in business before he knew it.
“Hey,” Geno Massaro, the general construction contractor, said, lightly knocking on Paulie’s office door. “Can I pull you out of here for a minute?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said, getting up. “What disaster are we narrowly averting today?”
“No disasters,” Geno said, putting on his hard hard. “I just think you need to see the living area upstairs.”
“Tony’s place?” Paulie asked. “Everything is alright?”
“Just follow me,” Geno said. Paulie followed, going up the stairs to Tony’s half-finished apartment. The floors were still bare wood, the windows plastic sheeting, and there were no furnishing. There was an air mattress in the center of the room with some blankets and a pillow.
“What’s going on up here?” Paulie asked.
“I don’t know,” Geno said. “We’re assuming a bum got in and is squatting. We looked all over, but haven’t found anyone. We need to make sure he doesn’t fuck anything up before our final inspection.”
“Madon,” Paulie said. “I would have called this a definite disaster.”
“We’ll just make sure a cop is around when we know he’s here,” Geno said. “They usually scare them away.”
“Hey, boss!” one of Geno’s workers said, running over from what will be Tony’s kitchen area. “You gotta come see this too?”
”What now?” Geno asked, going into the kitchen. Paulie followed and saw that the worker had wanted them to see: a sink full of soapy underwear.
”This is disgusting,” Geno said. “We don’t even have full plumbing.”
There was a bucket next to the sink. “The bum’s been hauling his own water up here,” Paulie said. “Where is it draining out to?”
”The basement,” Geno said, he was poking around the items in the sink with his pen. “We’ll have to get all that water cleaned up.” He pulled out a white tee-shirt, exactly like the ones Tony wears, calling them his “wife-beaters”.
“That dirty…” Paulie muttered. “When I find that son of a -”
“Good morning!” Tony shouted, coming in with a bag of donuts and a tray of coffees. “I figured it’s time to start talking about casa de -”
“You friggin’ stunad!” Paulie shouted. The construction guys all stopped working, waiting for the latest Paulie thrashing. They had been quite entertained by them, and they all looked forward to the next installment.
“What?” Tony said, shrugging. “What I do?”
“You’ve been squatting here?” Paulie asked.
“Oh,” Tony said. “Yeah. I was getting on my mom’s nerves, so I figured I’d give her a break. This place is just about done, so I got an air mattress and came back to my apartment early.”
“I told you you can stay with me,” Paulile said.
“I don’t want to intrude,” Tony said.
“WHAT THE HOLY FRIG DO YOU TIHNK YOU’RE DOING NOW?!” Paulie shouted. “You’ve got an air mattress in the middle of a construction site, you’ve been dumping your dirty underwear water into the basement, and you’ve been squatting in a building that hasn’t been approved for human habitation! Which part of that do you think isn’t you intruding?!”
“Why’s the water going into the basement?” Tony asked.
“THE FRIGGIN’ PLUMBING ISN’T HOOKED UP TO THE FRIGGIN’ STREET, YOU FRIGGIN’ ASSHOLE!” Paulie shouted.
“Is ‘friggin’ the word of the day or something?” Tony said with a chuckle.
Paulie lunged, grabbing Tony by the front of his jacket. He got within an inch of his face. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t put my electrician up to shenanigans, don’t mess with who I hire, don’t dump water into my basement, and DON’T SQUAT IN MY FRIGGIN’ PLACE UNTIL I SAY YOU CAN SQUAT HERE, YOU FRIGGIN’ FRIG!”
Paulie let go of Tony, giving him a little push. The two backed away from each other. “Feel better now?” Tony asked.
“Yeah,” Paulie said, breathing. “I actually do.”
The two looked at each other for a bit and then started laughing. “Get this shit cleaned up,” Paulie said. “Then you can stay on my couch. It’s probably warmer. At least I have heat, you stunad.”
“I’ll have my stuff cleared out of here by the afternoon,” Tony said.
“Good,” Paulie said. “I need to go stop at the port-o-let. I forgot how yelling at you can jar my bowels.”
The construction guys gave each other an uncomfortable look as Paulie went downstairs.
“Boss!” Tony called. Paulie turned to look at him. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Paulie said.
Paulie returned to his home on Willow Street later than usual. He wanted to make sure everything was in order for the power hookup the following day, and he had gotten stuck in a loud and obnoxious conversation with Nick, his boisterous electrician.
“You here, Tony?” Paulie said.
“I’m here!” Tony called from the den. “I’m just making myself at home.”
“Good,” Paulie said. He went to his fridge and pulled a Miller Lite from the top shelf. He had earned one of them with the day he had just finished. He turned to go join Tony when he saw his sink, full of soapy water. He pulled a wooden spoon from a metal cup near the stove, dipped it in the water, and pulled out a pair of white boxer shorts with the Italian flag on them.
He walked toward the den with the boxers still on the spoon, held out in front of him. “Tony,” he said.
“Yeah?” Tony replied.
“You and I are gonna have a little chat right now,” Paulie said.
Coming this summer: an adventure so big it can only be Freedom Land da’ Movie 2 In Space!