We’d run out of the stuff, and Jaypop looked over like I could pull another tube out of my butt. We were crashed on his couch. It was the fourth inning, and a Series game. Plenty of R C Cola, but no more string cheese.
I gave him a sideways look and recrossed my feet on his beat-up coffee table.
“Come on, man,” he said. “Go while commercials are on. I’ll pay, but I can’t go. Millie’d kill me if I left little Jay asleep. She don’t get off till six.” He shifted his weight and dug out his wallet.
“Okay, fine.” I got to my feet, waving away the three bucks he offered.
“Convenient Mart on the corner,” he called after me. “And get a sack of them ruffledy chips.”
I jogged out to my pickup and drove like hell. The Phillies and Yankees were tied.
At the store, I collected my chips and cheese and scooted up to the counter, where an old woman on a walker had set down two cans of pinto beans and some hamburger buns. As she fumbled in her pocketbook, someone stepped in line behind me. Big, I sensed. I’m six three, two hundred pounds, and he was bigger than me. And he reeked of onions.
The old woman was talking now to the clerk behind the counter and shaking her head slow, like maybe she didn’t have enough money. The cloudy light from the plate glass window reflected off her scalp where it showed through her thin hair.
I was fingering the bills in my pocket, about to pull one out and offer it to her when, behind me, the big guy muttered, “C’mon, sister, I ain’t got all day.”
I half-turned and whispered, “Hey, buddy, give her a minute.”
“Fuck you,” he growled. “And fuck her, too,” he said, louder. “I gotta be somewhere.”
The clerk, a middle-aged man with a sour face and a comb-over, glanced up.
I turned back to the jerk. “Look, man, she’s old, she’s doing the best she can.”
Facing back to the front, I pulled out a dollar. As I slipped it onto the counter, I felt a sharp whack on the back of my head.
“Hey!” I yelled, and dropped my stuff and jerked around, meeting his mean little eyes. He bared his teeth – big and yellow -- and next thing I knew, I was on him, fists pumping into his ugly face. Then we were on the floor. Blood and spit flew into my own face, and he was grunting, his grunts turning fast into moans. I heard a tooth ping off of the metal newspaper rack.
When he stopped struggling and curled into a ball, I stood up, hands on knees, panting hard. He was still breathing, but other than that, I had no idea how bad he was hurt.
I poked him with my foot. “Hey.”
He whimpered. I swear he did.
Another whimper came from the old gal at the counter, turned now, one fist to her mouth and the other clutching her walker like it might get away. The clerk hadn’t moved. He stared big-eyed at the guy on the floor, then at me.
“Uh …okay, then,” I said, and my voice didn’t sound like my voice. As I turned and hightailed it out of there, the clerk was moving toward the phone. Shit-fire, I was a dead man.
I jumped in my car and drove like a bat, all the way back to Jaypop’s. When I got there, I drove past his house, down the alley and into his garage, where he kept this motorcycle he worked on in his spare time. I came out, pushed the doors shut, and ran, hunkered down, to Jay’s kitchen door and let myself in.
“What you doing coming in the back, man?” he asked. “And where’s the string cheese?”
“We got bigger problems than string cheese,” I told him, and proceeded to give him a rundown on all that had happened.
He laughed. Then his smile vanished, and he said real serious, “We ain’t got bigger problems than string cheese, man. It’s you got the problem. And where’s the three bucks I gave you?” He stuck out his hand for the money.
“You didn’t give me three bucks, remember? Look, man, I may have killed that guy. They’re gonna be after me -- ”
He laughed again. “You? Killed a guy? You and what army? C’mere and sit down, you’re blocking the TV.” After I started shaking so bad I had to sit down, he quit laughing. “You’re serious, aren’t you, Arnold?”
“Y-yeah.” I looked down at my bruised knuckles. “He was bleeding, it was a mess, and the clerk – he was already on the phone when I ran out.”
Jaypop stood up and walked toward the door.
“Where you going?” I asked.
“Well, somebody’s gotta find out what happened. Anyone see you coming in here?”
“Okay. Sit tight. And if little Jay wakes up, give him a cracker.”
He was out the door. For fifteen minutes I sat shaking and sucking on a warm RC.
Then, there he was back, carrying a plastic sack. And laughing.
I jumped to my feet. “What? What?”
“Well, I go up to the counter and say, ‘Hey, I heard there was a fracas in here while ago.’ The guy says, yeah, and that he’d called an ambulance, and they hauled the bruiser off to the hospital.”
“That old lady, was she okay?”
“Didn’t ask. She wasn’t there. Anyway -- ” he laughed again – “the cops came, too, and the clerk said he told them to look for a wimpy Mexican guy with a ponytail. Said he was amazed how a guy so little could do so much damage.”
The air went out of me and I sank onto the couch.
“String cheese,” he said, dropping the sack into my lap. “And you still owe me three bucks.”
View from the Top
I climbed my first tree before I was five. Got stuck. Screamed. Daddy had to walk two miles home from work in the middle of a hot West Virginia afternoon and rescue me. Like a cat, I finally learned not to climb down head-first. For the next XX years (I'd say how many, but no one would believe it) I spent time in the tops of trees, where I learned some of life's most important skills -- and pleasures. I'd say what they were (and are) but that would be telling. And you know what they say -- writers should show, not tell. So kick off your shoes and shimmy on up. Join me here surrounded by blue sky and little green leaves. Bring a book if you like, or a notebook. The apples up here are crisp and ripe and free for the picking.