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by Aaron Roy Even

The Blue Moon Review

Elite Spa by Robert Dall
Walk into the Elite Spa and, after breathing in the half-sweet, half-acrid smell that's a mixture of tobacco and sweeping compound, after feeling the give of the weathered floorboards beneath your feet, notice a knot of gentlemen in folding chairs gathered around an old-fashioned cooler, the kind that sits long and flat with sliding metal doors on top, near the back of the store. If you want an Orange Crush, or a ginger ale, or an Old-Fashioned Moxie, make your way down the aisle, past stacked loaves of Sunbeam Bread and dusty pyramids of Del Monte canned peaches, past boxes of Brillo pads and Froot Loops and indigestion remedies, and approach the cooler with confidence and humility (if you don't know how confidence and humility can coexist, you don't really want that soda). Walk into the midst of the gentlemen, most of whom are thickset and graying and given to wearing high-waisted slacks of manmade fiber, and prepare a greeting.

"Hi," is a suggested greeting. Not "How you doing" (unless you know them, in which case a name or two is also required), and never "Hello," just "Hi." The knot of gentlemen will regard you for a moment; perhaps it will seem like longer, perhaps it will be longer; they have time. The knot of gentlemen gathered around the cooler in the back of the Elite Spa has been there since, oh, '57 or '61, something like that, sometime before the world came unsprung, and their continued presence there keeps a lid on what's left of it. For this reason, they may regard your entry into the store with what seems like skepticism. It is.

There will come a point in your approach when you begin to perceive the gentlemen gathered around the cooler as individuals, whether or not you address any of them as such; it's more a matter of things resolving into foreground and background. Somewhere in the foreground is Tony, the owner, who is distinguishable occasionally by his twin vices of pineapple Life Savers and M.U.G. root beer and otherwise by his resemblance to Burt Young of Rocky fame. Tony will, if he likes you, nod and accept your money, dispensing change out of his own pocket if necessary; if he doesn't like you he will use the honorific "Sir" or "Ma'am," down to about age fourteen, and make a great show of strolling back to the register and ringing up the purchase and offering you a straw, smiling broadly all the while. Do not interpret the smile as a sign of happiness; he is not happy. He is unhappy, because he's had to leave his place among the knot of gentlemen; he's had to leave his place because he doesn't like you; why he doesn't like you is irrelevant.

But Tony is not the only one who might attend to you and your beverage needs. There's Mike, who is responsible for a good chunk of the Elite's instant-lottery take and who since his throat surgery speaks in a kind of phlegmy ribbet as if submerged in gelatin; Richie, whose circumference approaches his height and who took up cigar smoking as a health measure after his doctor ordered him to give up cigarettes; Al, who will discuss individual Ted Williams at-bats with anyone who might have been alive at the time; and Arthur, who favors short-sleeved polo shirts and a battered Panama hat year-round and, as delivery boy for a Beacon Hill deli, ran sandwiches and beer to JFK and Mayor Curley. Any one of them, since Tony is only technically the proprietor, might nod or grunt or dispense change or, for good or ill, engage you in conversation. You might regard them all in a single light, as relics of another era that cannot survive however tightly they cling to it. And you would be right. But that is not the whole story.

The whole story is, in fact, elusive. But your part of it is that you've been chasing down fruitless used-car leads on a hot August day in a part of town only vaguely familiar to you, and you walk into the Elite Spa looking to quell the parched feeling in your throat. After your initial disorientation, you spot the cooler at the back of the store and make your way toward it, mindful of the gentlemen, who are passing folded-up newspaper sections back and forth and speaking in mournful tones.

"The For Sale listings get longer every week."

"Who's buying, though? Three hundred fifty, four hundred grand for a three-decker, who's got that kind of dough?"

"Absentee landlords. They pack the students in and get double their mortgage in rent. Of course, they don't give a damn about the property, any more than the kids."

"What are you gonna do, though. You can't tell people not to cash out."

"I still don't understand them. After you collect your four hundred grand, you gotta live somewhere, right? You'll never get me to leave this neighborhood."

"No way, Richie, your gravity's too strong."

The whole knot breaks up at this, except Richie, who raises his hands in mock indignation before reaching into his pocket for a Don Liño. You've eased as close as you can to the cooler without interrupting the conversation, but seeing as how the cooler's in the middle of the conversation, and seeing as how you look like a student, it's all the more noticeable when you slice your way through and slide back the door and pull a soda out of the swirling vapor with a strained "excuse me" (not the preferred greeting, not even close). You start to walk toward the counter to pay for your purchase and get about five steps before realizing there's no one at the counter. You turn around hoping someone will come and ring you up, and as you do, Tony's already on his way; you dig into your pocket for a dollar, but Tony doesn't head up to the counter. Instead, he stops beside you and catches your eye and looks at you intently, like a TV detective.

"You live up on Union Place, kid?" he says.

What?" You hear him clearly enough, but you have no idea where Union Place is, and the way things are happening gives you the sense that you're not just somewhere you don't belong but somewhere you aren't yourself, where the usual rules don't obtain. What?" It's all you can say.

You know, when the cops came to break up your little party the other night, you and your friends could have ditched the attitude. I know Frank Reilly–he's the sergeant who let things cool down when he could have busted your asses for disturbing the peace. He was cutting you a break, God knows why." You observe that he hasn't answered your question, but for that matter, you haven't answered his, and regardless of that he's angling himself to sort of trap you against the shelves. An aura of bad cologne and secondhand smoke is all that separates you. You hear a clattering sound, which is the soda can slipping from your grasp and rolling back and forth in a groove in the floor; Tony doesn't seem to notice. "You leave your bikes chained to the street signs, blocking the sidewalk, you hang out on the porch blasting music till all hours, and if I ever get a hold of the guy who plays the goddamn drums...."

Just because you can afford to move out of the dorm doesn't mean you own the neighborhood." This comes from the back of the shop. You turn toward the noise and notice that the gentlemen have, without leaving their stations around the cooler, directed their attention your way. You feel the inertia and solidity of the knot reshaping itself into something sharp and poised and pointed toward you. There's no real physical danger, even though Tony still has you pinned against the Cremora, even though there are five of them and one of you—most likely, they had their last dust-ups sometime before Elvis's induction—but that's not the point. You've been identified as a threat, an interloper, and if they're wrong in the particulars you sense that they're correct on some grander level. You focus on the particulars.

I don't know what you mean," you say. "I don't even live around here."

Don't bullshit us." Someone else from in back, maybe Richie, maybe Al, it doesn't matter who, what matters is the "us." You realize that it's not so much what you're supposed to have done, but whom you're supposed to have done it to—everyone in and of that place, perhaps extending well beyond the confines of the Elite Spa—and suddenly you're more exasperated then unnerved.

I'm not bullshitting anyone." You step past Tony and into the aisle. You feel a moment of friction, a catch; not back against shelf, or you against Tony, but the moment itself rubbing up against something else, the way things are and the way they should be, slamming together like tectonic plates. And the fault line, the place they come together, is this moment of mistaken identity, which everyone in the store is now realizing for what it is.

Yeah, okay, maybe you're not part of that crowd," growls Tony. He does a half-turn toward the back of the store and shrugs, as if to say back me up guys, what was I supposed to think, then back toward you. He waits a beat, then another. Then his expression, his whole stance, begins to soften. "My mistake, okay?" He shakes his head and chuckles, which at first you don't get but then you understand he's inviting you to join in, laugh it all off. He's holding up the balloon and offering you the pin and asking you to let the air out. And in the half an instant that follows, you consider this; you consider telling Tony what he can do with his half-assed apology, or turning and walking out without a word. But in that same half an instant you consider that you could give these men something, at no cost to yourself: you could be one less thing encroaching on their lives, their neighborhood, ultimately their six-foot-radius circle around the old-fashioned cooler with sliding silver doors at the back of the Elite Spa. You decide to let the air out.

Don't worry about it," you say, letting a little smile work its way up into your face. The knot of gentlemen begins to stand down, almost imperceptibly. There's a few murmurs across the circle; a wave from Richie, who disappears into the metro section; and a nod from Arthur. You're wondering what to do next. Then you feel something tap against your foot and you look down to see the can of soda still lying on its side, as sweaty as you in the thick heat of the day. You look back up at Tony, and after a moment he stoops down and picks up the can.

This is warm," he says. "Lemme get you another." He walks back to the cooler, drops the can back into the vapor, and comes up with a fresh one, steaming cold. You follow him through the aisle, past the Ivory soap and Ritz crackers and aerosol cheese, to the front counter, where he cracks open a small paper bag with a single flick of the wrist and slips your soda and a straw inside. You reach into your pocket again and pull out a sodden, heavily creased bill. "No, no," he protests, pushing the bag at you, but it's your turn to be insistent. You thrust the bill back at him, not in an unfriendly way but not yielding either, and eventually he shrugs and rings open the register and comes up with a quarter, which you palm with a nod of your own.

Pocket your change and grab your purchase and take your leave of the knot of gentlemen, who have already started to forget you were ever there. Understand that the Elite Spa is not for you—not against you, exactly, just not for you. Pop the top on your soda and take a good long drink and go on your way.

Robert Dall lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in the Evansville Review, Acorn Whistle, and the Beacon Street Review. He is currently working on a novel, and his goal is to finish before he forgets why he started it.

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