Poisoning Felix, by Salvatore DiFalco
Someone had poisoned Felix Garibaldi’s toothpaste! The toothbrush fell from his hand as this horrible possibility dawned on him. He held his head under the tap and rinsed his throbbing tongue and gums. Compounding the pain and concern, some of the poisonous toothpaste had spattered into his right eye which, in reaction, had swollen shut. How it burned! He splashed water on the eye to flush it. Someone’s trying to poison me again, he thought. This wasn’t the first time. He grabbed the toothpaste tube, examined it with his unaffected left eye, and after clueing in that it was actually Voltaren, a topical gel for muscle aches—he concluded that no one had poisoned him that morning. But just because no one had poisoned him that morning didn’t mean someone wouldn’t try to poison him later that day. He had enemies.
He had to meet Cass for lunch and was running late. Cass would be irked. He always showed up early for appointments. Cass and Felix had been friends for more than ten years. They used to walk their dogs together. Felix had a husky named Tony who died a year ago from an obstructed bowel. God he missed him. Tony had been a superb dog, handsome, loyal, eager. Cass’s dog Rolo was still around, a growly little thing, with a tiny head, but quite fearless. Felix missed those walks to the dog park and the frolic of the dogs. Dogs could be so much fun. That is, until they got sick. Then the grief killed you. Felix grieved harder for Tony than he did for his own father when he died a few years back from cancer. Felix never thought about the old man, one way or the other. But he always thought about Tony. He planned to get another dog one day, but only when enough time had passed for him to feel good about it.
He hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to Rosie’s Diner in the west end. The driver’s head, which sat directly on his shoulders, was the roundest Felix had ever seen, shaved as smooth as a flesh-toned bowling ball.
“Nice weather we’ve been having,” the driver said.
“Thought I was being poisoned this morning,” Felix mumbled, his mouth still feeling the numbing effects of the Voltaren, his right eye severely bloodshot, his overall appearance suspect.
“I see,” said the driver, peeking into his rearview, then discreetly engaging some Persian folk music on his earphones.
They drove wordlessly the rest of the way. This suited Felix fine. Talking to strangers taxed him. For one thing, he didn’t trust anyone he didn’t know, and some people he knew enough not to trust. You couldn’t win, really. Every time you interacted with someone, you risked being deceived, manipulated, or, yes, poisoned. He knew he was targeted. It was obvious. The question that plagued him was why? It was easy to offend folks these days, that was certain. A wrong look could summon hatred and violence, or, depending on the context, land you in prison. Felix knew he had offended people in the past. A quick temper and quicker tongue had opened him up to the negative winds coursing through the big city—which today looked gold-leafed and ready for a jamboree, everyone all spruced up and showing teeth, spring-heeled, ebullient. Good weather does that. People feel merry. People let their guards down. October thus far had been cloudless and mild. An almost festive atmosphere prevailed. But Felix had not let his guard down. He never let his guard down. Such circumspection had served him well thus far. He was still alive, wasn’t he?
At Rosie’s Diner, Cass had already grabbed a booth and sat there folding and unfolding a paper napkin, his knees shaking. He hadn’t shaved in a while and his salt-and-pepper bristles made him look bummish. Adding to this impression, he had on a threadbare Chicago Blackhawks Jersey and a black ball cap that needed tightening.
“All things considered, you’re a very ugly man,” Cass said when he saw Felix.
“And I mistook you for a male model, to be honest.”
Cass checked his watch. “A minute more and I was ordering, man.”
“You were ordering man? On a bun? My mouth’s tingling.”
“And look at your eye. Someone poison you this morn?”
“Funny you should say that. I almost poisoned myself.”
The waitress appeared at the booth, a lank-haired slip of a woman, arms so thin they looked like overcooked bucatini. Her face reminded Felix of a lemur, but an attractive one, perhaps lacking the musculature required for smiling.
“What can I get you fellas?”
“I’m going to have a BLT, hold the mayo,” Cass said. “And a pickle, please.”
“I need a minute,” Felix said, “but bring me a coffee meantime.”
“I’ll have a Coke,” Cass said.
The waitress departed. Her arms rippled fluidly behind her as she walked.
“What do you think of her?” Felix asked.
“You have a bad memory.”
“Hold on,” Felix said, sniffing the air. He thought he detected electrical burning. Never a good sign. It meant someone had tampered with the wiring or the fuse box.
“What is it, man?” Cass asked.
Felix looked at Cass but said nothing, the little voice in his head wondering if they’d use a bomb to get to him. He didn’t think so. They had more subtle ways of fucking him up. It takes a month to die by toothpaste poisoning. Or they radiate your cellphone and that also kills you in a month after your brain gets repeatedly bombarded with X-rays. How did he know this? He knew, he knew.
“Buddy,” Cass said, “you okay?”
“I’m, uh, fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
Felix didn’t particularly like Rosie’s Diner. The kitschy art, worn upholstery and banged-up wood gave it a tired, degenerate ambience not redeemed by the quality of the food, which on the whole never failed to disappoint. Food is only as good as the chef’s degree of passion—or the cook’s in this instance—and he must have been a real bum judging from his work. He’d seen the guy once, lurking in the back in a hairnet, tattooed, censorious, menacing.
“So are those dudes still after you?” Cass asked.
“Of course they are,” Felix snapped.
“What are they, Russians?”
“Russians? Ha. I wish.”
“Why don’t you go to the cops?”
“I did. I did go.”
He didn’t elaborate.
Cass had doubted the existence of these shadowy figures, whom Felix claimed to be tailing him, surveilling his flat, and plotting his destruction. The cops must have also been dubious, or saw him for who he was. Why would anyone want to surveil or fuck up Felix of all people? He was the very definition of a putz. Unless he had some gambling debts he was loath to discuss or had gotten mixed up with some online hanky panky—he was an unlikely mark for criminals or government agents. But paranoia can be compelling. Felix had lost a lot of himself when his wife Teresa left him for his next-door neighbour, a Captain Highliner lookalike who designed costume jewelry for a living, and whose creativity and self-made status had been too enticing for her to resist. So went the story.
The waitress delivered the drinks.
“Decided?” she asked Felix.
“I’ll have the banquet burger. No onion.”
“Banquet burger no onion. Copy. Haven’t see you boys in a while.”
“Keeping tabs on us, are you?” Cass quipped.
“Not really. I just remember your friend got sick last time you ate here, ha. He said we poisoned him, ha.”
Felix bowed his head, embarrassed by the episode. It turned out he hadn’t been poisoned by the diner food that day. After being rushed to hospital, and getting checked for every conceivable toxin, he was declared poison-free though questioned about his mental health.
“Yeah, and he’s really sorry about that,” Cass said. “He was a little cuckoo.”
“We lost a lot a business on account of that. It was in the papers.”
“Look,” Felix said, “I’m really sorry. I was having problems.”
“How can we make it up to you?” Cass asked.
“Don’t think you can. That’s a month’s worth of tips thereabouts. I wouldn’t ask you for that. Nah, that would be terrible customer service.”
The waitress stalked off. Felix didn’t like her tone. He locked eyes with Cass.
“What is it?”
“I fucked up, eh?”
“Buddy, you are a fuck up. No biggie. All of us have our peccadillos.”
“Why are you using a fancy word like that right now? Are you trying to make me feel stupider than I already feel?”
“Don’t think I can do that,” Cass said dryly.
An older couple entered the diner holding hands, the man wearing a beige jacket, the woman a red shawl with white stitching. The sight of them made Felix sigh. He had loved his ex-wife, and thought things had been going okay, if not great. He’d always imagined growing old with her. How lovely it must have been for them, stopping by a diner after a balmy autumn stroll, the conversation as gentle as the weather.
Felix appreciated Cass’s friendship, but a friend can only take you so far in this life. For true happiness and fulfilment, one needed a partner, a soul-mate. He thought he had found his in Teresa. He was mistaken. He feared he would never again find a partner, never again love with his entire heart, and so saw his future as a lonely walk in the woods. Unless he got another dog, of course, and he planned to when more time had passed.
The food arrived. Cass dug into his BLT like a man who hadn’t eaten in three or four days, lips peeled back, teeth gnashing bestially.
“Take it easy,” Felix said. “I’m going to ralph if I have to watch you eat like that.”
“I’m friggin hungry,” Cass said, spewing crumbs.
“Close your fucking mouth at least.”
Felix looked at his banquet burger. He lifted the top of the bun and examined the condiments. The tomato looked fresh-cut, the mustard and relish uncorrupted, and no onion presented itself. He picked up the burger and sank his teeth into it. He chewed, paused, then recommenced. It tasted okay—although the bacon could have been crispier—and he felt no adverse reaction upon swallowing. As far as he could tell, the waitress and the cook had not monkeyed with his food. Not that he thought they would actually poison him in revenge for the lost business and tips. Certainly, there were people who wanted to see him suffer. But his gut feeling told him the waitress, at least, wasn’t one of these people. And he didn’t think the cook would be so monstrous as to defile his own handiwork to get even with him. You had to trust your gut feeling, people said, and this time Felix trusted his.
Cass devoured his meal in minutes. He saved his pickle for last, crunching it with zeal. Cass, a small man, ate like a large one.
“Why don’t you order something else if you’re so hungry?” Felix asked, opening his bun and inspecting it again.
“Meeting Emma in an hour. Taking her to Dairy Queen for her birthday. Need to leave some room.”
Emma, Cass’s daughter from his first marriage, had just turned twelve. An engaging and humorous girl with a wonderful singing voice, she made Felix regret not having children. He and Teresa had planned to have children. That didn’t happen. Last he heard she was pregnant with Captain Highliner’s child, an outcome he could not dwell upon without frying a mental circuit. In addition to Emma, Cass had managed to father Barney, a strapping three-year-old, with his second wife, Gabriella, a young Filipino woman who had once served as Emma’s nanny. It happens. Emma’s mother Sara had remarried a millionaire so everything worked out in the end.
“So tell me, Garibaldi, what’s going on? How’s your head these days? Have you been looking for work?”
“Work? Are you kidding? You know I can’t work. Not now. Not like this.”
“Thought you were getting better, the therapy and so on.”
“It takes time, Cass. Not enough time has passed. I’m not ready.”
“Still collecting disability benefits?”
“Yeah. And I cashed out some retirement savings. Don’t plan on living to a ripe old age.”
“Nonsense,” Cass said, though he’d wondered on occasion if Felix was capable of self-harm. Sometimes it happens with paranoids.
Felix’s tongue felt thick. When he tried to speak he almost bit it.
“What’s the matter?” Cass asked.
He said nothing. He drank some coffee and swished it around in his mouth. He passed his tongue under his top teeth. His heart sank. He wasn’t imagining it.
“Don’t tell me,” Cass said, pushing his plate away.
Concern washed over Felix’s face. He looked at his banquet burger then looked at Cass. He grabbed at his throat: he felt it constricting. This couldn’t be happening, he thought, not here, not again. Either the waitress and the cook had conspired to actually poison him in retribution for the costly false alarm, or his true pursuers, the shadowy figures surveilling him and seeking his demise, had solicited the waitress and the cook to do their dirty work, or had independently slipped something into the food—the banquet burger’s bacon had tasted off.
“Felix, drink some water,” Cass urged, his own concern escalating. They’d never be able to eat there again, fuck sake. Felix was right—he wasn’t ready for work, he wasn’t even ready for the real world. Cass hadn’t realized the severity of his friend’s condition until that moment.
Reddening, Felix gasped and clutched his throat. His eyes looked like they might pop out of his face. He tried to speak, but his vocal chords were seized. He abruptly stood to his feet and reeled toward the kitchen, bumping the old couple’s table, his shoulders swaying side to side, arms flailing, shoes scraping the linoleum floor.
Last thing Felix saw before he blacked out was the waitress, standing by the kitchen doors, hands in her money apron, smile a work of art.
Accompanying photograph courtesy of Kelly Grieve.