The Palate Cleanser


by Joe Cappello


Len and I agreed that we should do some research to prepare for another venture. The recent sale of our company was accomplished with plenty of handshakes and smiles from the new management. There were social gatherings after work at the local watering hole and even a barbecue so that members from both companies could get to know one another. We kept hearing that Bruce Springsteen song, “Let’s Be Friends” over and over on our company sound system during lunch and breaks. We all got the point. But with a new crew in charge, who knew if we’d survive the consolidation and down sizing that was sure to follow? There’d be two Len’s in Purchasing and two Joe’s in marketing. It didn’t take a genius to spot the redundancy in that arrangement.

That’s when Len came up with his idea. We’d sell hot dogs, but not just any hot dogs.

“Home of the pounder,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “A big juicy pounder of a dog,” his hands and fingers instinctively wrapping themselves around his imaginary tubular creation. “We’ll get ’em specially made and in our advertisements we’ll show gorgeous models about to eat one.” His eyebrows shot up like someone just pulled a shade and let go. We had been given one-year contracts along with all other managers to sign by the end of the week or we’d risk being the first pink slip casualties. We had to move quickly on Len’s idea, if we wanted to ensure our careers would last more than a year.

What better place to start than with someone who had been doing it successfully? Unfortunately, the gourmet weenie aficionado turned out to be Armando Hayes, a friend of my childhood whom we now confronted in a beach chair on duty at his downtown hot dog stand. Armando was a contradiction in name as well as in the flesh. His Italian mother had salted his DNA with a taste for the impetuous, an almost reckless charge into something before it could be qualified by a single thought. His Irish father, the stoical and ineffable Mr. Hayes, laced the same DNA with caffeine genes of the tee-stained variety, marked by a nagging propensity to remain at rest.

“There’s a lot more to it than yous think,” said Hayes as he shifted his moon-shaped bottom and made the beach chair with the frayed straps groan. “Yous gotta’ know what you’re doin’, the basics. Do yous know the basics?”

Lenny and I looked at each other and simultaneously raised our eyebrows in response to Hayes’ question, the universal answer to all problems we had ever encountered in the office.

“Yous don’t know the basics,” said Hayes as he looked the other way and fanned a freshly cut fart in our direction. Disgustedly, he turned to face us, his potmarked face reflecting shades of pale pinks and blood reds as he narrowed his eyelids and locked on to his target. “First, is location, yous know, where you are. To sell hot dogs yous gotta’ have the right spot. Now, what makes a good spot?”

Hayes rubbed the inside of his tyrannosaurus thigh emitting a high-pitched clothing sound that could only result from bare skin and polyester. Very shiny polyester. He looked away again.

“C’mon, look around. What makes this location great?”

“Uh, where it’s located,” Lenny said with a smirk, slightly annoyed at the teacher/student relationship Hayes had placed us in.

“Yeah? And where is it located, my pin-striped twerpy friend?” Lenny never flinched. I was proud of him. After all, he’d been called far worst things than “twerp” back at the office.

“There are two large office buildings across the street. Lots of secretaries, clerks and administrative grunts probably come here to eat lunch. To save money, because they’re low level slobs.”

Hayes turned his head like a bird trying to be cute. “Don’t forget managers. They belong in that group too.” Hayes started to laugh. Not genuinely, but in great big heaves, like he was trying to throw up on the both of us. Lenny looked down at his left loafer and shuffled it, slowly back and forth, like he always did at the office just before calling someone an asshole. But the red that was singed on his cheeks slowly subsided as he pursed his lips into a smile and spoke with words whose matter-of-factness could have killed. “Oh? I thought we managers ate with the pigeons?”

Sensing a hint of hostility, Hayes’ smile disappeared. I spoke quickly.

“So, Hayesey, you got location, what else do you need?”

He slowly took his eyes off Lenny and frowned at me, his stringy hair flapping like untied shoelaces. “What else? What do yous think?”

Lenny and I stared down at the sidewalk hoping that someone carved not only his initials in the pavement, but the answer to Hayes’ question as well. “Dis,” said Hayes as he grabbed his crotch and pulled his member forward like a dog charging to the end of its leash. We instinctively backed up a step. “Dis!” shouted Hayes, the smile breaking out like teenage acne all over his face. “The wiener. You gotta’ have a plump, juicy wiener!” He started to laugh in short, quick heaves. He reached over to the aluminum steam table, threw open the cover and stabbed a hot dog with a long fork. He lifted it slowly, as though a sea serpent were coming out of a boiling ocean. As he did so, he turned his dog-shit colored eyes to us. I started for a moment, his whole demeanor resembling a vision I once had of Captain Ahab as he beckoned his crew to follow him to the bottom of the sea.

He laughed again, slowly in short gasps then all at once till his eyes and face looked like a crinkled French fry.

“People love to bite my wiener!” He grunted another laugh, then took a quick, vicious bite out of the dog. It snapped between his teeth and sprayed drops of hot water into orbit around his chin, as one landed in one of the many uncharted craters on his face. He held the laid open mass between his tongue and lower lip as saliva quickly filled the space like high tide rolling in. Suddenly, he pinched his eyes in a frown and stopped in between breaths. He closed his mouth and for a moment looked like a gumless senior citizen uncertain of what to do with an undesirable load. In one motion, he spit the food out, hurling the fleshy orange red meat next to the curb. He wiped his face with his hand. His resulting “Blah!” sounded like a child forced to take a dose of warm, pink-flavored medicine. He noticed our almost parental stare and sensed we were about to call the poison control center.

“Hey, so I don’t like dogs. Dat don’t mean they’re not good!”

Hayes shook with laughter. Lenny and I instinctively stepped back as he went into a contortive dance, stomping the ground with the half-chewed souls of his army boots and turning around in drunken pirouettes until he looked like a mad man.

Lenny was noticeably uncomfortable as he tried to “be cool” by placing his hands in his pockets and whistling. But he missed his left pocket completely and had to fumble for it, and his whistling amounted to muted rushes of air that sounded like they escaped from a bicycle tire. I had known Hayes for years and knew that he was on a permanent goof cycle, and Lenny and I were in the wash barrel. I motioned to Lenny with my head and started to walk down the street. When we were no more than a few yards away, Hayes recovered from his St. Vitas fit and stopped us with his sand paper voice. “Hey, yous know why I’m really successful here, huh?” He smiled as though he knew the secret to eternal youth. Len and I shrugged then half turned, eager to leave the man who never graduated high school and probably had more money than we would ever see.

“Cause I went to Street College.” He held up his arms like he was belting out a cheer.  “Got my degree in kick-ass 101. The streets are my education, not that shit vomit they spoon-fed yous in yer fancy college.”

Lenny and I didn’t say a word as we made our way back to the office. Our thoughts seemed to meld with the chaos of the city at lunchtime..women bouncing in their white street sneakers, men in short sleeve white shirts and colorful Jerry Garcia ties, cars cramming past one another to claim too few lanes with occasional staccato honks and threats. In the midst of it all, there we were, two low level manager slobs with no knowledge of wieners or the streets or corporate takeovers or what to do if we couldn’t come to that home sweet office home of ours whose role in our lives now seemed larger and more important than we ever imagined.

When we returned, we made our way to Len’s office and signed our respective contracts in silence. When we finished, Len stroked his gray-thinning hair and looked at me for the first time since we left Hayes. “So, what would we have called the place?” he asked.

“Lenny-Jo’s,” I said without hesitation. “That’s J-O, no ‘E’ at the end of ‘Joe,'” I added. Lenny’s smile stretched clear around his face as he sat back in his chair and looked straight through me to all of the Lenny’s and J-O’s of the world who never made it anywhere but here.





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