Rusty perused the letter. “Little Mutumbo remembered your birthday.”
“Isn’t that nice?” Maude asked.
“Yup,” Cole said. “That kid’s thousands of miles away yet he’s like the family I never had.”
Rusty and Maude frowned in unison.
“What are we?” Rusty asked.
“Chopped liver?” Maude added.
“Fine,” Cole said. “He’s like the son I never had.”
Rusty reached across the table, seized one of Cole’s tater tots and popped it into his mouth. “Damn. Steve’s on his A-game tonight.”
“You knew Ruby Sue up and left this place to go see the world?” Cole asked.
“Sure did,” Rusty said.
“Everyone knew that,” Maude said.
“Not everyone,” Cole said. “I didn’t know.”
“Well,” Rusty said.
Maude reached over the table and patted Cole’s hand. “Sometimes you get stuck inside your head and don’t pay attention to the world, hon. It’s ok.”
Mindy stopped by the table. “New guests! What will y’all have?”
“It’s been a rough day,” Rusty said. “I deserve the full course barbecue chicken, ribs, pulled pork platter. All the sides.”
“All the sides?” Mindy asked.
“All of the sides,” Rusty said.
“And for you, ma’am?” Mindy asked.
“Oh,” Maude said. “I deserve the works too but I know I’ll be up all night on the toilet and rumor has it that can be hazardous for your health these days so I’ll just go with a nice bowl of the house soup.”
“Coming right up,” Mindy said as she walked away.
“Hazardous to your health?” Cole asked.
“Yes,” Maude said. “Kiddo, do you know that while you were out having yourself a good old time today, the world basically erupted into a fireball of shit?”
“Might have heard something about it on the television,” Cole said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Maude said. “Everyone and their Uncle is afraid to shit and they’re all calling the police station to ask when it will be safe to shit again…as if anyone actually knows.”
Cole stuffed a fork full of barbecue into his gob, chewed, and swallowed. “Why would anyone be afraid to take a shit?”
“Because there’s a psycho killing people who shit,” Maude said.
“So now everyone thinks they’re going to buy the farm on the bowl,” Rusty said. “I was at the college all day and at least three hundred kids asked me if it’s safe to shit. Honestly, I dodged the question because I didn’t think it was right to tell them it’s safe.”
“All these millennial kids were worried about finding a safe space free of opposing ideas,” Maude said. “Who knew they’d need to find a place where it’s safe to shit?”
“People are idiots,” Cole said. “I doubt the killer is after people just because they shit. He’d have to kill everyone in the world then. There must be some link between the victims.”
“Maybe,” Rusty said. “But you got to admit it, there’s no clear pattern. Most serial killers off people with a similar look or have something in common, some kind of trigger that reminds them of a person they disliked intensely.”
“Maybe the killer was once done wrong by someone who shits,” Maude said.
“Yeah,” Cole said. “But again, that’d be everyone. Everyone shits.”
“But again, other than the fact that they all were shitting the time of their untimely demises, there was nothing else that tied the three victims together,” Rusty said. “A pop star with a famous butt. An old, retired teacher. A dummy that was on his tenth year in pursuit of a two year degree. These people have nothing in common…except that they all shit.”
Cole took a sip of soda. “And everybody shits.”
“Everybody indeed shits,” Rusty said.
Cole was quiet for a moment while he dug into his food. “So Sharon has cracked the case yet?”
Rusty smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to last five minutes without asking about your Smoochy Poo.”
“Shut up,” Cole said.
“Mmm mmm,” Rusty said. “Kissy kissy, you still love her.”
Maude could tell this was not going to end well. “Enough, Rusty.”
“Cole and Sharon sitting in a tree…”
Bam! Cole’s fist pounded the table. “Shut up!”
“Whoa,” Rusty said as he held his hands out. “OK. Chill.”
“Stop picking the scab, Danny Bonaduce,” Maude said.
“Whatever,” Rusty said. “I meant no disrespect.”
Cole glared at Rusty.
“OK,” Rusty said. “I meant a slight, teeny, tiny amount of disrespect. But look, Cole, I gotta say it. This is the case of a lifetime, one that could give you and I a ticket to the big time and you are letting your personal shit with your ex-wife get in the way of pursuing your own glory.”
Ever so calmly, Cole put down his fork. He folded his hands, took a deep breathe and faced Rusty.
“Oh Lord,” Maude said.
“Go on,” Cole said.
“What?” Rusty asked.
“Explain to me, a mere peon, how you, an obviously very wise man, came to conclude that I am allowing, quote ‘my personal shit with my ex-wife get in the way of pursuing my own glory.’”
Rusty smirked. “Honestly, Cole I didn’t get this far in my mind. I thought you’d of thrown some kind of blunt object at me by now.”
Cole’s eyes traveled into the direction of his hands, reminding Rusty they were still folded. “Nope. No harm will come to you, Carrot Top.”
“OK,” Rusty said. “Look. We’ve been working hard all our lives, right?”
“True,” Cole said.
“And we don’t get as much appreciation as we deserve, do we?” Rusty asked.
“Not at all,” Cole replied.
“So,” Rusty said. “Sooner or later, this case is going to bust wide open. The man who killed all three people, including one celebrity, in one night within a two hour span, all while they were on the toilet, will be caught. Whoever does the catching is gonna be golden. That person is gonna be a guest on talk shows. They’re gonna have book deals, movie deals. The money and fame and accolades are going to pour in.”
“And you think that should be us?” Cole asked.
“Well,” Rusty said. “Better us than the woman that left you at the worst possible time of your life, don’t you think?”
Cole raised an eyebrow. “Maybe.”
“People will tell tales of our bravery long after we’re gone, Cole,” Rusty said. “Come on, man. You’re forty today. I’m gonna be forty this Fall. How many more years of excitement do we have left?”
“Excitement?” Cole asked.
“Oh boy,” Maude said. “Here it comes.”
Rusty winced. “Brace for the speech.”
“Let me tell you a little bit about excitement,” Cole said.
Rusty and Maude had heard this speech many times before. Rusty began it for Cole. “People always think it’s fine and dandy to be the hero…”
Cole was too busy being self-righteous to notice he was being mocked. “People always think it’s fine and dandy to be the hero but you know what being a hero gets you?”
“Nothing and nowhere fast,” Rusty said.
Cole pounded the table. “Nothing and nowhere fast! Like a moron, like an idiot, like a complete, stupid jackass, I ran into the house thinking I was going to be hailed as some kind of special, wonderful hero, the big man who saved the little girl from the evil killer dog but where’d it leave me?”
“No leg,” Rusty said.
“No wife,” Maude added.
“Without a leg,” Cole said. “And without a wife. For the past decade, I’ve been limping around like a lame gimp that should be put out to pasture and shot and my own wife was so disgusted by the idea of being with a one-legged man that she skipped town the second she found out about what happened to me. Sure, I got to be the big hero but all I got out of it was a ruined life.”
“Oh Cole,” Maude said.
“Buddy,” Rusty said. “You think your life is ruined?”
“Damn right it is,” Cole said. “Chief Haskell told me not to go in. He didn’t go in and he’s happily retired.”
“He’s not that happy,” Rusty said. “Lost a bunch of money on Borders stock. Poor old bastard had to take a part-time job as a Price Town greeter. Hell, it’s been so long I can’t remember who gave him that bad stock tip but whoever it was, that guy was a real horse’s ass.”
“Whatever,” Cole said. “He’s fine. And he’s got both legs. And you. You and your friggin’ Jessica Chastain hair. You’ve got both legs. You’re out with a different girl every night.”
“And none of them have dicks,” Rusty said. “Contrary to popular opinion.”
“The point is that you and the Chief played it smart and your lives are fine now,” Cole said. “Me? I had to go and be the big hero and where’d it get me? A fucking fake leg I have to take off when I go to sleep every night. That’s why I keep my head down. I lay low. I don’t rock the boat. I don’t cause any trouble. I don’t have much left, but I don’t intend to lose it on any more hero bullshit. Being the hero is not all that it’s cracked up to me, believe me.”
“Cole,” Rusty said. “You really believe that?”
Mindy interrupted with a bowl of soup for Maude and a big ass plate for Rusty. “Can I get you anything else?”
“No,” Rusty said. “We’re fine.”
“Let me know if you need anything,” Rusty said.
Cole resumed the conversation. “Yeah, I really do believe that. My life ended when I was thirty and I’ve felt like a zombie ever since, just going through the motions and for what? To save some little kid who, let’s face, probably grew up to become a degenerate scumbag like his old man.”
Rusty gasped. “Cole Walker! You take that back right now.”
“I won’t,” Cole said. “You know how the world works just as well as I do. If you’re born into shit, the world will never allow you to become anything other than shit no matter how hard you try. I’m sure that little girl tried her best but she probably became a drug fiend like Wade.”
Rusty pointed at Mindy, who was standing across the room, taking an order from another table. “Maude’s right, Cole. You really don’t pay attention to anything that’s going on around you, do you?”
“What?” Cole asked.
“Do you have any idea who that is?” Rusty asked.
“Who?” Cole asked.
“That waitress,” Rusty said.
“I dunno,” Cole said. “Mindy. Ruby Sue’s niece. What about her?”
Rusty looked around, then leaned over the table and whispered. “She’s Molly Randolph.”
Cole contorted his face in every different direction it could possibly go in. “What?”
“It’s true,” Rusty said.
“Bullshit,” Cole said.
“No word of a lie,” Rusty said.
“She said her name is Mindy,” Cole said.
“Pretty close to Molly, isn’t it?” Rusty asked. “She changed her name so her old man wouldn’t find her. She got herself out of that life, got some help from her Aunt Ruby Sue.”
“No,” Cole said. “No. I shot the shit with Ruby Sue for years and never once did she ever mention any of this to me.”
“Well, what do you expect?” Rusty asked. “The woman was probably embarrassed that her no good brother-in-law turned a pit bull lose that went and bit your damn leg off.”
Cole looked like he’d just been run over by a freight train. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. He watched Mindy as she brought a tray of drinks to another table. “So you’re telling me that’s…
“The little girl you saved,” Rusty said. “All grown up and pretty as a picture.”
Cole breathed deeply.
“Still think you wasted your life by being the hero?” Rusty asked.
Cole winced. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know,” Rusty said. “Well, Mr. Doubting Thomas, let me tell you this now. She’s just waiting tables here for the summer to save up some money because she’s going to Harvard this fall.”
“Harvard?” Cole asked.
“Pre-med,” Rusty said. “The girl has her heart set on becoming a big time doctor. She’s going to volunteer to work for Doctors without Borders and everything. Hell, some day she might give a shot to little Mutumbo.”
A tear trickled out of Cole’s eye. “Little Mutumbo?”
“Yeah,” Rusty said. “She’s going to save Little Mutumbo’s life and not just that, I bet throughout her career, she will save the lives of thousands of Little Mutumbos and you know what?”
“What?” Cole asked.
“Every Little Mutumbo that girl right there saves will be because of you,” Rusty said. “It’s all about the Butterfly Effect, man.”
“The Butterfly Effect?” Cole asked.
“Hell yes,” Rusty said. “A butterfly beats his wings. His wings hit the water, causing a reverberation that causes a fish to shit on a frog and the frog jumps out of the water and then the frog jumps on some little kid’s head and that kid gets so pissed off at the frog that he stops playing outside and goes to the library and reads a book and becomes a genius and the next thing you know that kid grows up and becomes the best President of the United States ever, the one that heals the nation and the planet and saves the world and gets everyone to hold hands and sway back and forth while they sing kum-bai-fucking-yah! That makes sense, doesn’t it Maude?”
Maude blew on her spoon. “This soup is way too hot.”
“OK Maude checked out,” Rusty said. “What about you, Cole. You get it?”
“I saved Molly,” Cole said. “Molly will save a bunch of Little Mutumbos. Many of those Little Mutumbos will go on to save the world so…”
“It’s literally like you have already save the world thousands of times over and over again,” Rusty said.
Cole leapt to his feet and smiled. “Hot damn!”
Rusty jumped up. The two buddies embraced in a bear hug.
“So can we will you stop all of this mopey shit and go take your balls back from the hypothetical mason jar and become a couple of big time heroes?” Rusty asked.
“You better believe it!” Cole shouted as he let go of Rusty. “I’ll be in the car.”
“Oh,” Rusty said. “I hadn’t finished eating yet but ok…maybe I can get this to go.”
Cole walked over to Mindy. Without warning, he wrapped the young woman up in his arms and picked her up off the ground.
“Whoa!” Mindy said. “What was that for?”
“For you,” Cole said. “Just for being you.”
Cole opened his wallet and counted out a series of twenty dollar bills. “Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty…one hundred.”
He tucked them into Mindy’s hand. “I’m sorry. That’s all I’ve got right now.”
“What’s this for?” Mindy asked.
Tears poured down over Cole’s face as he proudly declared. “For Little Mutumbo. For all the Little Mutumbos of the world.”
Cole walked out of the diner. Rusty motioned for Mindy to come over. “Hey, can I get a box for all this?”
“Sure,” Mindy said. “Least I can do since your friend’s such a generous tipper.”
“Oh,” Maude said. “He was just so happy to hear you’re going to school this fall.”
“Wow,” Mindy said. “Word sure gets around this little town fast, though I didn’t think SCC was that big of a deal.”
“SCC?” Maude asked.
“Sitwell Community College,” Mindy said. “I was thinking about majoring in Gender Studies. I hear that’s a very versatile major that can open doors to me in a variety of high paid fields. I’ll go get your box.”
Mindy walked into the kitchen. Maude fired off an icy stare at Rusty. “SCC?”
“OK,” Rusty said. “That girl may or may not be Molly Randolph.”
“I’m going to guess she’s not,” Maude said. “And the real Molly Randolph?”
Rusty hesitated, fearful of Maude’s reaction. “She may or may not be a meth addict stripper at Big Ray’s House of Fancy Funbags.”
The redhead winced in preparation of a jarring whack upside the head, which the old lady indeed delivered. “Pig!”
“What?” Rusty said.
“How do you know this?” Maude said.
“I may or may not have been getting lap dances from her for the past three months,” Rusty said.
Maude whacked Rusty upside the head again.
“What?” Rusty asked. “It gets lonely in the champagne room! People talk!”
Maude glared at Rusty in a disapproving manner.
“What?” Rusty asked yet again. “She’s eighteen! It’s totally legit!”
“You make me sick,” Maude said. “You lied to your best friend.”
“I helped my best friend,” Rusty said.
“With a lie,” Maude said.
“With a helpful lie,” Rusty said. “And it wasn’t a total lie. The Butterfly Effect chain reaction that Cole started when he sacrificed his leg ten years ago has given me many hours of pleasure today because seriously, Chastity is the only bit of talent that Big Ray’s got in that joint.”
“Chastity?” Maude asked.
“Molly’s stripper name,” Rusty proudly declared. “She told me her real name because she likes me. Strippers don’t do that for just anyone you know.”
Maude shook her head and stood up. “I have to go ask Mindy to give Cole’s hundred back.”
Rusty looked aghast. “That ship has sailed, Maude.”
Rusty put his hands on Maude’s shoulders. “Look at me, Maude. Once you start tugging on the thread of a lie, you’re going to eventually unravel the whole thing. Unless you want Cole to return to being a sorry sad sack, you’re going to have to choke this one down and realize that hundo belongs to the Sitwell Community College Gender Studies Department now.”
“But it’s a useless major,” Maude said as she picked up her oxygen tank. “Do you hear me? A useless major!”
“Maude,” Rusty said. “You’re being ridiculous. I’m sure there are many fine professions that a gender studies degree would be applicable to.”
“She’ll be lucky to shake her tits next to Chastity!” Maude said.
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Rusty said.
Maude stormed off.
“Where are you going?” Rusty asked.
“Somewhere where I don’t have to look at your stupid dayglo red head,” Maude said as she slammed the restaurant’s front door behind her.
Rusty sat down and waited patiently until Mindy returned.
“Your box,” Mindy said as she handed Rusty a styrofoam container.
“Why thank you,” Rusty said as he looked up at Mindy longingly. “I do so like it whenever a woman brings me a nice…box.”
Mindy stepped back. “Ew.”
“What?” Rusty asked.
Mindy walked away. “Not happening, Conan O’Brien.”