Alva and the private investigator
Sometimes it seemed as if Alva was feeding half of Brooklyn. There were regulars. Marv, for one. Alva had found him confronting a large, aggressive-looking Norway rat in the alley behind hers. She could see Marv’s rumpled old felt hat above the fence. He was gaunt and shaky when she first invited him to come in and have some stew. That was last winter when it was cold, and Marv only went out to scrounge when the weather allowed. Now he came in for stew a couple of times a week, never asking for anything else but always bringing something for Alva. A newspaper, a wire hanger, a desk lamp with a burned out bulb, and sometimes an orchid plant. People on the upper east side in Manhattan regularly threw them away. On trash days he traveled by subway, got off at Bloomingdales, and walked the streets between Lexington and Fifth Avenues collecting the detritus of the rich. Alva placed all the orchids in the front window of her restaurant and they came back to life under her care.
Benny, a taxi driver who had driven Alva back from Penn Station after a visit to her cousin in Georgia, had helped Alva carry the bushel baskets filled with vegetables and peaches she had brought back with her. Three days later she called for his car and gave him a peach pie. Now he stopped by the Café at all hours, sometimes by himself and sometimes just dropping off fares who asked for a good place to eat.
Late one evening Benny brought a man into Alva’s Café. They sat at the counter. The man wore a gray sport coat, brown trousers and scuffed black shoes. He had a two-day growth of beard. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. He downed a cup of coffee and pushed the cup forward for another.
“What’s wrong witchoo, Sugar?” Alva fussed at him before she even knew his name. She poured the second cup of coffee herself from behind the counter. “Benny? Where you been hidin’?”
“Alba,” Benny never did say her name right, “jyoo got to gib my fren some food. He all tired out.”
“He’ll get his food if he tell me what he wants,” Alva said.
“This here is Lonnie. My friend Lonnie McSweeney. He been working all night two days,” Benny said.
“Oh, yeah?” Alva opened a menu and slid it in front of Lonnie. “What’s that you been working at, Sugar?”
Lonnie studied the menu.
“I’ll have the chili. And a diet Coke. And some of that minestrone soup on the board there,” he pointed at the daily specials board. Then he closed the menu and rubbed his eyes.
“He a detectib,” Benny offered in a loud whisper to Alva. Benny’s accent was strong. It had taken Alva a little while to get used to it. “I drive heen suntine.”
“Oh? Po-leese, huh?” Alva asked.
“Private,” Lonnie said.
Alva transferred the order to the kitchen and returned to the counter.
“So, what kinda things you detect?” she asked.
“Anything you need,” Lonnie answered.
“Like cheatin’ husbands and wives and things like that?” Alva asked.
“Yeah, there’s a lotta that. It’s a livin’. Pays the rent. Keeps the wolf away,” McSweeney said.
“Well, tell me this, Mr. Detect-Anything, you ever find someone who had gotten himself disappeared for a long, long time and look like he don’t want nobody to find him?” Alva asked.
Lonnie McSweeney looked up at Alva through weary eyes. “Who’d you lose?” he asked.
Alva smiled at him wistfully and said, “It’s a long story, Mister. You come back again when you got some time, huh?
“Hey, bring that chili out here for this gentleman. He got a hunger on,” she called back to the kitchen.