What’s in a Name?
Throughout her twenty-six years of life, Anna Douglas had been lousy at names. Whenever she was introduced to anyone, the name, no matter how simple, would slip right through her like water through a sieve.
Making good eye contact, smiling warmly but not flirtatiously, nodding or taking the person’s hand with just the right amount of pressure, these things dominated her concentration and left her powerless to absorb anything else.
It didn’t even have to involve a handshake. Just the eye contact and awareness of the smile were enough to derail her.
She tried like crazy to overcome it. She always made sure to repeat the person’s name as it was being said. But it would evaporate within seconds.
On the other hand, she never forgot a face.
In her job as a dental receptionist, she could instantly identify a patient who’d been there before, even if it was only once and more than six months ago. In fact, she could even tell you the approximate date of that visit, sometimes, the exact date.
The patient’s name? Not a clue.
But it wasn’t her ineptitude with names that ultimately caused the trouble; it was her uncanny ability to remember a face. That and smoking.
Every afternoon, as much as she hated to, she’d ask the other receptionist to take over while she stepped outside for a smoking break. Then, in all kinds of weather, she’d stand there, cursing herself, vowing to quit and puffing up a storm.
Employees, for obvious reasons, had to use the side of the building away from the main entrance to do this. That’s where she found herself one afternoon, huddling in a recess of the building against a stiff January breeze and trying to finish off a Salem Light.
The parking lot in front of her was nearly empty. A green Nissan pulled into a spot about twenty yards away, and a man in a blue parka started to get out. She recognized him as one of her boss’s patients and was trying to think of his name when a black Lincoln Town Car came around the corner of the building.
It pulled up next to the man, as the passenger window was lowered, and Anna saw a face. Also, a gun.
In terror, she ducked further back into the recess as shots rang out. Then she heard the sound of the car as it pulled away.
After a long moment, she got up the courage to slowly and carefully peek around the corner. The man was lying motionless on the pavement, next to his opened car door. She started toward him, and then it dawned on her. She’d seen the shooter. She’d seen his face.
And since she was incapable of ever forgetting it, what in God’s name was she going to do?
* * *
The victim, a thirty-year-old man named Eric Wardowski, had been coming in for periodontal treatment and the replacement of two crowns. He was a numbers collector for the Scalesi crime family and he’d recently been skimming money off the top, possibly to pay for his dental work. Unbeknownst to him, his perfidy had been discovered by the higher-ups.
The hit Anna witnessed took place purely by chance. Wardowski’s car had been spotted entering the parking lot by Sonny Cortino, who, along with his bodyguard, was pulling out of the McDonald’s across the street.
Sonny was a major mob figure in the Greater Boston area, second only to Gus (Grim Reaper) Galtieri on the FBI’s chart. The unexpected sight of Wardowski in his car made Sonny grin like a shark. He’d never liked Wardowski from day one.
Customarily, a lower-level functionary would have dealt with something like this, but Sonny decided to do it himself. Neither he nor his bodyguard, in their haste, noticed Anna as she huddled in the shadows.
And that’s how Sonny Cortino’s face became permanently engraved in Anna’s memory.
Two cops, who’d been cruising in a patrol car a block away, heard the shots and got over there. They were too late to see the Lincoln Town Car take off, but not too late to find Anna, distraught and shivering, but ready to do her civic duty.
Which is how she became a key witness in a trial that would capture national attention and would send her directly (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) into the witness protection program.
* * *
The Big “T” Diner in Titusville, Florida, was enjoying a larger-than-usual lunch crowd. Elizabeth Handley, one of the two waitresses on duty, had all she could do to keep the orders straight. Which got in the way of keeping her name straight. Elizabeth Handley.
Anna had picked it herself. It shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was.
Nick Limnios, the owner and short-order cook, was trying to get her attention. “Elizabeth!” he called out through the kitchen passageway for the third time, before she realized. “Pick up this burger special, okay? I’m running out of room here.”
“Sorry, Nick,” she said, slipping behind the counter and grabbing the plate.
“Maybe you should get your ears cleaned out,” he suggested.
It was supposed to be instinctive by now, but after eight months, it still required conscious effort. Especially when she was under stress. She’d chosen the name because it was so unlike her real name, but maybe that was a mistake. She didn’t regret choosing Florida, though. At least, she didn’t have to freeze to death to smoke a cigarette.
The Feds had not provided plastic surgery to change her appearance, but her hair was now short and blonde, instead of long and brown, she wore large-rimmed glasses rather than contact lenses, and she’d stopped wearing lipstick. They assured her it would be enough.
The timing was good, if anything could be called “good” about it. She’d been bored with her job as a dental receptionist and was thinking about quitting anyway. She was dating no one, having broken up with her boyfriend just before the incident.
The hardest thing, and it was a beaut, was calling her parents. She’d only been given one phone call to tell them she was disappearing. It made her cry every time she realized she’d never see them again, so she tried not to think about it.
She carried the burger special over to a table where two white-haired retirees were sitting. One of the men gave her a smile.
“No one delivers a burger like you, Elizabeth,” he said with a wink. She had no idea what his name was.
“Thank you, hon,” she told him. She called all the regulars “hon.” She’d once read that Babe Ruth, who also couldn’t remember names, called everyone “pal.” She figured, if it worked for him…
Presently, the lunch-hour crowd diminished, and there was only one table with customers. It gave her a chance to step outside behind the diner for a cigarette.
After a bit, she was joined by Marge, the other waitress. She didn’t know Marge’s last name, but her first was no problem because the two of them wore name tags on their uniforms. Anna had often thought how nice it would be if the whole world wore name tags, like a big convention.
I should look at my own, she thought, remembering how Nick had to call her three times. Whenever something like that happened, it rattled her.
Marge, her fellow smoker, was an obese woman in her fifties who sweated a lot. She had a foghorn voice that Anna found grating. Worse than that, she was nosy.
“Where did you say you lived in Cleveland?” she rasped, apropos of nothing. “I just remembered, I’ve got cousins that live on Denison Avenue. Where did you say you lived?”
“Clark Avenue,” she said, which was true. She’d actually lived there at one time, when she was little. The Feds had worked with her to develop a backstory that would be familiar and easy to tell.
“Isn’t that near Denison?”
Anna had no idea. She wished more than ever that she didn’t smoke. Then she wouldn’t be trapped out here with this sweaty, bovine Grand Inquisitor.
“They’re pretty far away from each other,” she said, hoping they weren’t right next to each other and Marge knew it. She felt the familiar urge to get away from this woman.
“Listen, I should get back inside,” she improvised, stubbing out her cigarette. “I need to wipe down my tables.”
“It’s your own fault, you know. You make those geezers drool all over them.” Marge gave a damp, throaty laugh.
“I guess it’s the burden I bear,” Anna said, smiling, as she stepped back into the diner. Nick was in the kitchen cleaning the grill, and the place was empty of customers. But not for long. Through the picture window, she could see a white Cadillac with Massachusetts plates pulling up outside the entrance. She felt a chill.
The Feds had considered the Big “T” Diner a safe enough place to work. It was small, off the beaten path, and it did mostly local business. Occasionally, there was an out-of-state plate in the parking lot, but never, until this moment, from Massachusetts.
No problem, she thought, trying to stay calm. It’s a big state. They could just be grandparents, down here visiting their kids.
But the two large men getting out of the car and approaching the diner didn’t look at all grandparently. They were in their thirties, one with a mustache, the other one, clean-shaven. They both wore golf shirts, had dark, slicked-back hair, and seemed to be arguing.
Anna’s stomach lurched, as their faces registered. She’d seen them before. They were at the trial, sitting among the spectators. She was absolutely sure of it. They were right at the entrance now, about to come inside. She had to do something. What?
She ducked into the ladies’ room and locked the door. She didn’t know if they’d seen her. They could easily kick in the flimsy wooden door if they wanted to. She stood there in the middle of the tiny room, hyperventilating, fighting the panic. A glance in the mirror made her look away. To her own eyes, despite all the changes, her face still looked exactly like Anna Douglas.
The two men were inside the diner now. She could hear them through the door, as they were evidently continuing their argument.
“Hey, what kinda jerk doesn’t have a goddamn GPS? That’s what I wanna know.”
“The smart kind. I don’t need no satellites watchin’ how I drive.”
“Well, I think you’re nuts. Hey, hello?” the first one called out. She realized Marge was still out back and the front of the diner was empty. “Hello!”
“Yes, sir?” Nick was coming out of the kitchen. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, maybe you could tell us where they’re hidin’ this place we’re tryin’ to find. This Spiney Woods Country Club.”
“Piney Woods Country Club,” the other corrected.
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Nick. “It’s supposed to be around here?”
“It’s supposed to be on Route 420.”
“Ah, okay, that makes a difference. I can tell you just how to get there.”
Anna held her breath, clinging to a desperate hope. Could this be all it is? Really? Just an incredible coincidence, and now they’re going to leave? Could I, out of all human existence, be that lucky?
She strained to hear what they were saying, but it had become muted. Nick must be giving them the directions. Anna gnawed at her lower lip. How long before they left? She might not hear them going out. How much time could she safely give it? Five minutes? Ten?
“Hey, awright, thanks a lot,” said one of the voices. “By the way, you got a nice place here. How come there ain’t no customers? What’s the matter, the food’s lousy?”
The other one let out a barking laugh.
“It so happens,” Nick said haughtily, “we get people coming all the way from Orlando, just for our burgers. This is the slow time between lunch and dinner. It’ll start filling up.”
“Yeah?” said the first guy. “You run this place yourself?”
“I do all the cooking. I got two waitresses; one of ’em’s out back having a smoke. I don’t know where the other one is; she must be around somewhere.”
Come on, come on, Anna silently implored them. You’ve got the directions. Don’t you have to be at that country club? Come on, leave already!
“All the way from Orlando for one of your burgers, huh?” The first one again. “Hey, we know somethin’ about burgers, right?”
This got another laugh from his friend.
“I ate twenty-two of ’em once in a contest,” he explained to Nick. “Which I won.”
“You also won the puking contest afterwards.”
Now they were both laughing.
“Well, I guarantee you,” said Nick, “whatever those burgers were like, they were nothing compared to the quality of my burgers.”
God, Nick, what are you doing? Shut up.
“Ya think?” said the first one. “Hey, I’m hungry enough. Let’s find out.”
She had to grip the sink to keep from collapsing to the bathroom floor. Because of Nick’s stupid ego, they were staying, and she was going to die. There was no escaping it. They’d recognize her instantly, and she was going to die.
But then the second man spoke wondrous words, life-giving words. “Hey, listen, I don’t think we got time to hang around. Don’t we gotta get there already?”
Yes, you do, yes, you do, yes, you do spun like a tape loop in Anna’s head. And then her heart sank.
“Nah, we got lotsa time. You should relax a little. C’mon, sit down.”
She was still gripping the sink. She stared at the drain and tried to think what to do. She couldn’t just cower in there until Nick came looking for her. There was no choice but to go out.
Okay, so make it as natural as possible. Wash your hands, dry them, and step out the door, all calm and carefree.
And there was actual hope, she realized. If they were sitting in Marge’s section, she could just continue on into the kitchen. Marge would take care of them. With any luck, she could stay there until they were gone. She tried to hold onto that, as she opened the bathroom door and stepped out.
They were sitting in her section.
“Ah, there you are,” Nick said over his shoulder as he moved back into the kitchen. “We got customers.” The understatement of the year.
Smile, she told herself, just keep smiling. They hadn’t seen her smile in the courtroom, so it would be yet another thing that was different. She went behind the counter and drew two glasses of water. Then she grabbed two menus and some silverware and, on unsteady legs, walked over to the booth where they were sitting.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen, how are you today?” she said, adding a drawl to her voice as she handed them the menus.
“We’re doin’ good,” said the one with the mustache. He squinted at the name tag on her breast. “Elizabeth, huh?”
“That’s right.” She kept the smile going.
“What did you name the other one?”
His friend cracked up laughing.
Anna felt the anger rise up in her, absurdly. She tamped it down.
“We’ve got some specials on the back of the menu,” she said. Maybe it was good if they were fixated on her breasts, not her face.
“Nah, we don’t care about that,” said Clean-shaven. “We’re gonna have hamburgers, ’cause my friend here can’t resist ’em. Your boss said people came all the way from Orlando, just for your burgers. Was he tellin’ us the truth?”
“Absolutely,” she said, even though she had no idea what Nick had been talking about. “They come from even further away than that.”
“Pretty impressive,” said Mustache. “You like burgers, Elizabeth?”
“Oh, I can take them or leave them. What do you like on yours?” she asked, trying to move things along.
He looked at her directly for the first time. She kept smiling and hoped for the best.
“I like bacon, cheese, onions, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, whatever you got. With lots of fries.”
“You’ve just described our burger special. How about you, sir?”
“Just plain with nothin’ on it, and you can skip the fries,” Clean-shaven said. “I gotta watch my figure.” Mustache chuckled at his friend’s wit.
“How would you like them done?” Anna asked.
“Medium well,” said Clean-shaven. Mustache chuckled again.
“My friend here is a wimp. Make mine so rare I have to mop up the blood afterwards.”
Anna inwardly cringed. “Okay, then. How about drinks?”
Clean-shaven looked up at her. She tried to meet his gaze. “You got any Jack Daniel’s?”
“I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to serve alcohol.”
They both rolled their eyes. “You got coffee, though, right?” said Mustache.
“Yes, sir, we do.”
“I bet people come all the way from Orlando just for the coffee, huh?”
He gave her a wolfish grin. “Good for you, Elizabeth, you stick to the program. You’re a good employee.”
“Well, thank you. Would you like your coffee now, or do you want to wait for the burgers?”
The phone hummed in Mustache’s pocket, and he suddenly lost interest. He pulled it out, frowned at it, then started tapping on it. “We’ll wait,” he said, not looking up.
“Okay then,” Anna said and got out of there.
She turned toward the kitchen, then suddenly realized what she could do. Her shift had only an hour left before Rosa, the relief waitress, came on. Why not get sick, fake the mother of all migraines?
“Oh, Nick, I can’t stand it,” she’d say. “I’ve got to go home and lie down. It won’t be busy for a while, and we just have that one table. Marge can take over, can’t she? I promise, I’ll work extra tomorrow to make up for it.”
She got to the kitchen just in time to see Marge leaving via the back door.
“What’s going on?” she asked carefully.
“Nothing,” said Nick. “Her ex-husband is being a jerk again, so she has to go pick up the kids at the day care. It’s okay, you can handle things for a while.”
It was all Anna could do not to cry.
Nick must have noticed it, because he looked at her oddly.
“Are you okay?”
She willed herself not to cry.
“I just don’t like those two guys out there,” she said.
“Hey, I’m not crazy about them either, but business is business.”
Yeah, like Murder Incorporated.
She shrugged and sat down by the refrigerator to wait for the food to be ready. She would have loved a cigarette, but she wasn’t allowed to take a break while there was still an active table. Waitresses had to be available in case the customers wanted something.
Please, please, don’t let them want something, she silently prayed.
Nick finished up the two burgers, one with everything, the other with nothing, and now she had to go back out there.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and, smile in place, approached the booth.
“Here you go, fellas,” she sang out. Whatever conversation they were having stopped as she put the plates in front of them. Mustache grinned at her.
“Is it rare enough?” he said. “I wanna see that blood flowin’.”
“You won’t be disappointed,” said Anna. “I’ll go get your coffee.”
She slipped behind the counter, poured two cups from the pot, and grabbed the creamer. When she returned to the table, they were both chomping away.
“Hey, this ain’t too bad,” said Clean-shaven through a mouthful of food. Mustache had to struggle to keep parts of his concoction from slithering out of the bun, but he seemed content enough.
“Let me know if you need anything,” Anna said as she moved away. “Enjoy!”
She ducked back into the kitchen. Normally, Nick wanted the waitresses to hover and be attentive to refilling customers’ coffee cups, but in this case, he seemed to understand. So if no more customers came in, she’d only be in front of them one more time, when she was delivering the check.
No customers did come in. Fifteen uneventful minutes went by before she heard Mustache call out, “Yo, can we get a check over here?”
She’d had it all made out and was ready to go. She pushed open the kitchen door and, wearing the smile, approached the booth.
“How did you like your burgers?” she asked them. “Were they to your satisfaction?” She placed the check on the table.
Mustache gave it a brief look, then pulled out a roll of bills. “I’ve had worse,” he opined. He peeled off three twenties, which more than covered it, plus a sizeable tip.
“Well, thank you, sir, come again.” She almost bit her tongue as she said it.
The two of them got up and started heading toward the entrance.
Anna began to clear the dishes from the table, holding her breath. They were at the front door now, opening it. As soon as that Cadillac pulled away, it would be over. Unbelievably, it would be over.
It was Mustache, still standing in the doorway.
“I just wanted to tell ya you’re all right, ya know? Some waitresses hang around and bother you the whole time with stuff like, ‘How are you enjoying the salad, sir? Would you like more coffee?’ I hate that, and I appreciate your respectin’ our privacy.”
“Well, thank you. And I was glad to do it.” He had no idea.
“Yeah, you’re okay, Elizabeth. By the way, what’s your last name?”
It was as if he’d punched her in the stomach. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Her last name. She’d totally forgotten it.
Make one up! she told herself. Anything! But the only one she could think of was Anna Douglas.
He was staring at her now, with the beginnings of a smile. “What’s the matter, you don’t want me to know…”
The phone hummed in his pocket. He took it out, looked at it, and muttered, “Shit!”
His face darkened as he read the text message. “Son of a bitch!” he said.
Suddenly, it was as if she no longer existed to him. He pulled open the door and strode outside, where Clean-shaven was waiting. He grabbed him by the arm, yelling something, and they both got into the car. With a squeal of tires, they pulled out of the parking area and were gone.
Anna stood staring out the window at the empty parking lot. Nick came out of the kitchen.
“Well, that wasn’t too bad, was it? What kind of a tip did they leave you?”
Anna was still staring out the window, eyes unseeing.
“Handley,” she said softly. “Handley. Elizabeth Handley.”
“What?” said Nick.
She looked at him, noticing him there for the first time.
“Elizabeth Handley,” she told him. “I know it as sure as I know my own name.”
Then she started laughing so hard, she was afraid she’d never stop.
About the Author
For many years Lenny Levine enjoyed a career as a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonalds, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has also composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, Diana Ross, the Pointer Sisters, and others. His short stories have been widely published in literary magazines and journals. In 2011, he received a Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.