The wiry old man in the faded green sweater shuffled to the back of the restaurant slowly and climbed up onto a stool at the bar. Beside him sat another old man with gray hair and a rather large nose under which sat a bushy mustache. He was leisurely working his way through a meatloaf sandwich.
“You’re late, Chester,” the man said, taking a big bite.
“Sorry, Henry,” Chester said picking up a menu. “I don’t move like I used to.”
“I don’t do a lotta things like I used to,” Henry said. Chester looked at him and they both laughed.
A young waitress ambled over and Chester ordered a corn beef sandwich and it arrived a short time later. As he and Henry talked and ate, a third old man, this one wearing a plaid cap, joined them at the bar. When he sat down he took off his cap, revealing an almost completely bald head.
“You’re late, George,” Chester said.
“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled. “I don’t move like I used to.”
“I don’t do a lotta things like I used to,” Henry said, and they all laughed like it was the first time they had heard it.
George opened a menu and adjusted his thick glasses. “Hmm, what looks good today? Roast beef? Nah, I had that yesterday. Liverwurst? No. Hey, Swedish meatballs, that sounds good.”
Henry grinned and Chester chuckled. George looked at them. “What?”
“Nothing,” Chester said. “That just reminds me of something.”
“Just something that happened here a long time ago involving Swedish meatballs.”
“And what would that be?”
“George, have you ever heard of Marty Gutman?” Henry asked.
George thought for a moment. “Gutman. Didn’t he play for the Raiders in ’71?”
“Well, I guess I never heard of him then,” he said a little snottily.
“You never heard of Marty Gutman?” Chester asked, his shaggy white eyebrows rising slightly.
“No I haven’t,” George said, getting agitated. “Now, what’s the big deal?”
“Alright, George, about ten years ago-“ Henry started.
“C’mon, Henry, let me tell it,” Chester said.
“But I tell it better than you.”
“But you always tell it.”
“Fine, just tell it.”
“Go ahead tell it.”
“Will somebody tell me what the hell it is you’re talking about?” George said.
Henry hiked his pants up a little further on his protruding belly. “Marty Gutman used to be well-known around here; somewhat of a celebrity. He was a large man, probably still is.”
“A very large man,” Chester chimed in.
“Yup,” Henry continued. “You might say his name suited him well. But he was a nice enough young fellow. And, as you might imagine, the one thing Marty could do well, probably better than anyone in the tri-county area, was eat. I’ve never seen anyone put away more food in one sitting than Marty Gutman. Well, except for maybe one person, but I’ll get to that later. So of course everybody told Marty he should go pro — hotdog and pie eating contests and the like. He had all the big names after him — Oscar Meyer, Little Debbie, and that company that makes those little frozen pizza things.”
“Those things are good,” George said.
“That they are. But Marty just wouldn’t do it. He was happy working his nine-to-five factory job, plus he didn’t think it was right getting paid to do something he loved so he just kept going to the various buffets and all-you-can-eat places around town to get his fill. And of course he was in here every Friday. He never missed the Frenzy.”
“The Friday Feeding Frenzy,” Chester said.
“Oh, that’s when the person who eats the most food gets it for free, right?”
“That’s right,” Henry continued. “Well, as you can imagine, that was right up Marty’s alley. He’d come in exactly at 7:30 and sit at that booth.” Henry pointed to a booth in the corner where a young couple was sitting. “It was always kept empty for him on Fridays. People would start flocking in at around six just to see him eat and Tommy, the owner, loved it. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that drink prices doubled on those nights.”
“I’m not sure it was a coincidence, Henry,” Chester said. “I think maybe Tommy was-“ Henry glared at him. Chester smiled. “Oh, I get it.”
“So, of course Marty beat all comers, it wasn’t even close — chicken wings, cheese sticks, potato skins-“
“Swedish meatballs?” George asked.
I’ll ever forget it. You remember that night, right Chester?”
“I’m not that old yet, of course I remember that night. I was sitting right where I’m sitting now.”
“Actually I think I was sitting there and you were sitting here. Remember we switched because of the air conditioning?”
“Oh yeah, that thing was really cranked up that night. I could barely feel my-“
“Uh, fellas, what about the meatballs?” George interrupted.
“Oh, yeah. So we were right here, except I was where Chester is, well, you get the picture.”
“Do remember the buzz in the air that night, Henry?” Chester asked.
“That I do. Tommy posted the food they were using for the Frenzy the Wednesday before, so everybody knew it was meatballs. And we all remembered the last time it was meatballs — Marty had set a personal record—289 if I’m not mistaken, and we were all expecting him to try and beat that.”
“When Marty came in, it was like Elvis on his comeback special. People stood and cheered, women threw their napkins at him, I even think someone asked for his autograph.”
Chester blushed. “I’m just a fan is all,” he said quietly.
“Anyway, the first trays came out at exactly 7:32. The challengers always sat at the next booth and there were three guys that night: two who looked like they were in college and a small Asian fellow. Now, you could tell the two college guys were just having fun, they were laughing and talking, but the other guy looked a lot more serious.”
“He did look serious,” Chester said. “He wasn’t smiling or talking to nobody.”
“By eight o’clock, one of the college kids was out; I don’t think he even got up to 30 meatballs. By 8:30, the other one was gone, hightailed it the bathroom. So that just left Marty and the other guy whose name we found out later was Johnson, a little odd I thought for an Asian guy.
“For two hours they matched meatball for meatball; the trays just kept coming. And the place just kept getting fuller and fuller, apparently word got around quickly that Marty actually had a challenge on his hands.
“Right around 9:45, it looked like Johnson was done. He wasn’t moving and it looked like he was barely breathing. He reached for another meatball and slowly brought it to his mouth. Marty looked over at him and smiled; he knew his victory was near. It was as quiet as church in here. Then Johnson opened his mouth and unleashed the kind of noise that previously I had only heard come from a pregnant moose. After the mighty belch, he smiled and popped the meatball in his mouth.”
“That was the first time I ever saw Marty worried,” Chester said.
“That’s right. I think he knew at that point it wasn’t going to be an easy win and the battle continued. About an hour later, both guys looked like they couldn’t go on much longer. By then Marty had destroyed his old record and they were tied on number 325.
“You could tell Johnson was getting anxious and, in what can only be described as an act of insanity, quickly shoved two meatballs into his mouth. Marty looked shocked. After Johnson swallowed, a kind of glazed look spread over his face and his head drooped forward; he was finished.”
“Of course we started cheering Marty on,” Chester said.
“That we did but I didn’t think it was going to make a difference. After a moment, Marty glanced over at Johnson again and, in what can only be described as an act of bravery, grabbed three meatballs and popped them in his mouth. Well, as you can imagine, we were all stunned and burst into applause. Johnson knew he was defeated and slowly started making his way out of the booth.
“So everybody’s cheering and carrying on but over all that ruckus, there was another sound, I think Chester heard it first.”
Chester nodded. “I did. It started as kind of a low rumble, but then got louder.”
“Then somebody yelled ‘Look at Marty!’ and we all looked. His chest was heaving and he was shaking all over and that sound was coming from him.”
“So, what was happening?” George asked.
“What do you think was happening? It looked like he was about to send those meatballs back to Sweden.”
“The first one came back at exactly 10:51 and I know that because it flew about 12 feet and stuck to that clock.” Henry pointed to the wall where a dirty clock was hanging. “So we all scattered.”
“I ducked behind the bar,” Chester said.
“Yeah, and I got under a table.”
“Yeah. The deluge continued for a while, some witnesses have him giving back as many as ten meatballs. And, as you can imagine in that situation, it got other people started, you know, giving back their own food. It wasn’t a pretty scene; let’s just say that Tommy’s old wet-dry vac wasn’t enough to clean up that mess.
“Anyway, Marty was finally able to make it to the bathroom. About an hour later, he emerged. We could tell he was embarrassed, not so much at the mess he created, and by the way I heard the bathroom needed new fixtures after that.”
“Yeah, those meatballs weren’t just coming out of his mouth,” Chester said.
“We get it, Chester. But Marty was most ashamed at having lost the contest and letting us all down. He slowly made his way to the register, carefully avoiding a few puddles. Those of us who were left clapped and cheered when we saw him and he kind of half-heartedly acknowledged us. Of course Tommy told him he didn’t have to pay, but Marty insisted, that was the kind of guy he was. The bill came out to something like $90 and Marty paid and left. That was ten years ago and he hasn’t been back in here since.”
The young waitress approached George, who had suddenly become very pale. “Can I get you something?” she asked.
“Um, just some water, thanks,” he said.
The waitress rolled her eyes and walked away.
“That’s some story,” George said.
“That it is,” Henry said.
“What happened to the Asian fellow, Johnson?”
“He was one of the first out the door,” Chester said. “For someone who had just eaten over 300 meatballs, he could sure move.”
“So do you think Marty’s ever coming back?” George asked.
“That’s an interesting question, one that Chester and I have spent many an evening discussing. We don’t know but we hope so. That’s why we’re here today and every Friday at 7:30, hoping he’ll walk in.”
George looked up at the clock. “It’s 7:30 now,” he said.
Suddenly the door of the restaurant swung open. The three men turned to look. A large figure stood there, practically taking up the whole doorway. The sun was directly behind the person and the men had to squint and shade their eyes.
“Is that…?” Chester asked.
“I don’t know,” Henry said a little excitedly. “He’s the right size, the right shape. It, it could be.”
As the door closed, the person came into focus. It was a very large, very upset-looking woman. “George!” she yelled, approaching the bar. “You were supposed to meet me ten minutes ago!”
“Uh, sorry, dear. Fellas, that’s my wife,” George said. Henry and Chester looked at each other and smiled sheepishly. “I guess I have to be going,” he said, stepping off the stool.
“Well, okay, take it easy, George,” Henry said.
“See ya, George,” said Chester, slapping him on the back.
As George walked away, they looked at each other again. “It could have been him,” Chester said.
“Yup. Maybe next week. So what’s the Frenzy food tonight?”
“Uh, onion rings I think. Are you entering?”
“Of course. I bet I eat more than you.”
“Yeah, we’ll just see about that.”
“Well, c’mon, let’s get over to the booth,” Henry said getting off his stool and hiking up his pants.
“Alright, I’m going,” Chester said, slowly climbing off his stool. “I don’t move like I used to.”
“I don’t do a lotta things like I used to,” Henry said and they both burst into laughter.
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Portland Fiction Project
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