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      GAS FOR LESS

                             Zonyx Report GifAnim:  Taillight from Gas for Less, short story

Cheshire
Winter 1962 

 

 

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                                     by Mike Zetteler              From M'waukee Stories
                                                                                                   
Life in the 1960s

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   Late August, damp, a rare Milwaukee night like the sudden lick of a warm tongue.  A night that made people in Donnie Groeling's neighborhood of two-family frame houses and imitation brick siding throw their windows open wide to the soft heavy air, letting out the faint sounds of television sets that flickered blue in living rooms up and down the street.  The kind of night that seemed alive to Donnie: sounds of traffic a few blocks away on Hopkins Street and of distant moving freight trains carried over to him softly as he stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, giving him the feeling that the city was full of people and excitement, if he could only find them.
     He walked slowly to his car, deciding what to do that evening.  His carefully combed hair was still damp, feeling cool against the back of his neck.  The thick water-stiffened hairs caught at his collar as he turned his head, looking at the downstairs window of one of the houses across the street.  He could make out the shapes of motionless heads outlined above the back of a couch facing a television set in the half-dark room.
     He heard the sound of gunfire come cracking out from the program they were watching.  Tinny clusters of shots, remote and tiny in the quiet street.  He figured they were watching a western. Or maybe a war movie?  No, he couldn't hear hand grenades or bombs, just gunshots.  Who cared, anyway?  Little pictures on a little screen weren't real.
     The cigarette in his hand was forgotten for a moment as he inhaled deeply the fresh, pleasantly damp night air and looked at the house and listened disgustedly for a while, thinking, God, they must be old, or crazy, or -- what?
     He shrugged.  He didn't know.  But he'd be damned if he'd spend his life like that, sitting in front of a television set, getting old.  But what was there to do tonight?  It was Friday, there was no work tomorrow, he wanted to get high and think about Lorri -- maybe at the Castaways Bar; it was a long time since he'd been there, but they had a sharp band, he knew.  He remembered when he used to go there all the time, before he started going with Lorri, when he was still hanging around with Grant Scherrer and the rest of the guys.
     Christ, they hadn't even been old enough to drink, Grant and
Ray were still in school then, but they had those ID's Grant made in Print Shop.  They had great times then.  Why didn't Lorri like his friends?  They were all gone now, in the Army, married -- Grant in jail, at least he was for a while.  Waukesha, then Green Bay.
     Donnie sighed.  He'd really like to see some of his old buddies again, after going with Lorri so long, going out withZonyx Report Photo:  Lorri L. in short story, "Gas for Less" her friends, couples she knew.  He needed somebody to get drunk with.  But he didn't know where anybody was, except Grant.  And Grant was so different now, hanging around with his spade friends, going to that spade bar, Curt's, on Lloyd Street.  Donnie didn't think he'd have enough guts to go there like Grant did.
     Donnie enjoyed the feeling of warmth in the air, the Zonyx Report Photo:  Donnie G. in  short story, "Gas for Less"breeziness and growing coolness of the night.  He looked up at the sky.  It was what he and Grant used to call drinking weather, with the sky looking huge with the wind stringing out the clouds, rushing over the moon with large opening and closing shapes, and you stood below, actually feeling the earth around you, dark and warm and, most of all, quiet, everybody who was square was in bed while you drank, maybe beer you had somebody buy for you, quarts, sitting around late on the deserted playground, or lying on the grass someplace, looking up -- that was even before any of them had cars.
     That was a long time ago, Donnie thought, shaking his head.  But it was drinking weather now, somehow it always had been. But it was bad when you were alone, you really felt lonely then.  Damn Lorri for breaking up with him.  Or letting him do it, same thing.  He could be with her right now, at a drive-in movie or someplace. But last Friday was the last time.
     Absently he twisted the ring on his little finger, the ring Lorri had worn.  A wide gold band with an encircling design of tiny hearts.  It was too tight, even for his little finger, but he wore it anyway.  How in the hell, he wondered, could a girl suddenly act as if she never heard of sex?  He remembered the drive-in, drinking beer and putting the cans under the seat, and necking, moving her hand to where he wanted it.  "If you think I'm going to do that every time you feel like it you're crazy," she had said.  And she had been so cute, with her face turned towards him, her long hair brushing her shoulder, the white, partly unbuttoned blouse where he could slip his hand under the bra he would unhook, getting her nipple all the way into his palm, though parked by Lake Michigan she would leave it on because of the cruising cop cars.   She  had that pouting look  when she was mad, that he couldn't say, as he had wanted to, "Well, why not, what are you for?"
      She had surprised him when they had first met, being so rigid.  He had expected the daughters of the Catholic families he had grown up with near St. Leo's School -- Polish and German, mostly, like the Majkowskis and Zindlers and Bauers -- who went on to Messmer High to act really pure. 
     But though she was Lutheran, some French in her background, she had still managed to drag him to church one time.
     And she was hard to argue with, even if she wasn't that bright -- she would say things like "Oh, you're disconsolate," and he would have to explain it meant sad, nothing to do with being stubborn or impossible, which he figured out she meant.  After all this time it seemed they were back where they started, when he'd never been able to say much to her, just feel empty inside looking at her.  And if she didn't understand now, he'd decided hopelessly, she never would.
     "You just gonna sit there and play with yourself?" she had asked, and he had no response to that.  But he knew he could never see her again if  he had to give her all that power. 
     So they had finished the beer -- he drank most of it, grimly
 -- and had driven home in a sullen huge silence.  Well.  He missed her now,  and he knew it would get worse, but the hell with her.  He'd find something to do.  He didn't need her and her stupid talk about what kind of furniture she wanted when they were married.  Married -- my God.  Look at the guys he knew who were married.  They all said not to do it.  The ring, though.  Twelve bucks wasted.  The best friendship ring he could find.  Good thing it wasn't a diamond.  But Lorri's old lady said she had to wait until she graduated high school to get engaged.  The old bitch.  Not that he wanted to get married soon.  Sometimes in winter he thought about moving to California.
     He walked across the street to his car, still deciding what to do.  Grant, he thought.  Well, why not?  He knew where Grant was, working at the gas station.  He'd get off sometime around midnight, or maybe he could take off for a while and go to a nearby tavern.  Donnie figured he could hang around the station for a while, it would even be fun, kicks -- as long as Grant was there.  He wouldn't want to be there alone.  Hell, Grant was his buddy, used to be anyway, even though Lorri didn't like him.
     The street had been freshly tarred and graveled with that layer they always put down, and he stopped beside the car to wipe off the dust that filmed the fresh waxy polish of his black shoes.  He always liked the looks of his car sitting at the curb.  Zonyx Foto '57 Chevy .PNGIt seemed to be waiting, ready to take off.  A
'57 Chevy, Adobe Beige and white, so far without lake pipes but with skirts.  That was one good thing about work, he could afford a good car.  He hated work, it was dirty and he was always ruining his clothes.  He didn't like to wear old clothes, even to work.  And sweat!  Standing at a packing machine for eight hours until his T-shirt stuck to his back and chest in wet patches, a clinging rag.  And sweat trickling through his eyebrows, burning and blurring his eyes.  He made good money, though, and he had a sharp car.  He hoped he'd be able to keep up the payments somehow when he got laid off.  Well, he'd collect Unemployment for a while.  Living at home, he could even try college, but then he'd lose the comp money.
     After the thunk of the closing car door the street was quiet again.  The headlights picked out the cars parked at the curb, the bases of trees along the sidewalk.  Nothing moved -- except for a moment at the end of the block.  A bunch of kids came around the corner, and he could hear them through the open car window, yelling and swearing for probably no reason at all.
     "Hey Cindy I'm gonna say what I did before," Donnie heard a boy call out hoarsely.  "CINDY LIKES RAW MEAT!" he yelled.  There was raucous laughing, then they were gone.  Donnie smiled.  They were just young punks.  But still he knew he used to do that, walk the streets, hang around the playgrounds, with Chuck Bauer and Grant and Ray Malina, looking for fights, going to dances, having a ball.  Funny how Grant had changed, getting really wild, while he had sort of settled down.  Grant had been in the Waukesha juvenile center with some colored guys, he started going around with them when he got out, coming by once in a while wearing now a stingy-brim hat, a cord suit with a vest, the works.  Then his picture had been in the paper with two Negro youths after a rock 'n roll riot at the Colonial Theater on Teutonia, where he hit a white cop on the head with a pint bottle, almost the only white guy there.  On probation and over 18, so of course it meant Green Bay, and that was the last Donnie had seen of Grant until he'd driven into the Center Station for gas on his way to pick up Lorri, it was the night they played poker for pennies with her aunt and uncle.
     Donnie drove off, thinking it was about time he saw Grant again and talked over old times, he needed to be with somebody, have some good times.  He'd wait until Grant got off and they could go someplace.  Donnie knew he was afraid of the station and the neighborhood, it was really
black there, even a little afraid of Grant too, but Grant was sharp, at least he lived, and Donnie had to do something new, everything seemed so dead.
     The station was about twelve blocks from Donnie's house, at the intersection of  Twentieth and Clarke Streets.  This too was Donnie's neighborhood, or at least it had been.  Now it was a
Negro neighborhood; the corner by the playground where he and Grant had hung around a few years back had been taken over by colored kids.  Donnie never walked through this part of the city any more, he felt hated and afraid, though he didn't know why he should.  Sure, he had talked about niggers and getting a spear in the back and pretended anger when he saw one with a white girl, everybody did, but hell, it didn't mean anything, at least he didn't feel anything -- but then, he thought suddenly, shaking his head, feeling that you didn't feel anything wasn't the same as really not feeling anything, you shouldn't think about it at all.  But that was impossible -- except maybe for Grant. How could Grant act so natural?  But anyway he still felt strangely attracted to this part of the the city, to the dark people standing around on the sidewalks, moving in clusters in and out of lit-up bars whose lights reflected off of shiny cars.  He was glad he was going to the station, eager to see Grant.
     The station on the corner was newly built and modern for the run-down neighborhood.  A large round sign atop a tall column, rising from a concrete base stuck in a small bit of grass between the sidewalk and the curb of the driveway announced in letters seen painted on by day and neon-glowing orange by night (though the glass tubing could be noticed flickering faintly even in the brightest daylight): CENTER SERVICE STATION.  On the driveway of white freshly-laid concrete -- which the attendants tried to keep clean of tire-marks and the black pools of dripped oil and smudges of scuffed-in grease by frequent hosings -- were placed square metal signs on stands, offering in bright-red letters on white-enameled tin:
Gas for Less, and Cigarets 26.
     Donnie whipped the wheel of the car around on Twentieth Street, braking sharply because he had been moving fast to beat the wave of oncoming traffic halted at the red light on Clarke Street, wincing as the car scraped on the hump where the entrance sloped down into the street, an old street, residential though it carried heavy traffic, with a high crown in the middle.
     He ignored the many gas pumps that rose from the oval concrete islands dotting the drive and pulled the car up abruptly in an empty area next to the low concrete-block building, out of the way of customers' cars when they stopped for gas.  The car rocked from end to end, violently at first, then settling down as he hit the brake pedal hard when the car was inches away from the low cinder-block wall that divided the Center Station's property from the yard of the adjoining house.
     The wall paralleled an old wooden fence around the yard, separated from it by a narrow strip of grass, beyond which, on the other side of the fence, grew only a few sparse patches of grass and weeds.  The rest was hard-packed dirt and a narrow cracked sidewalk leading from the street, through a wire gate hanging on one hinge, past battered overflowing garbage cans and an ash box, to the shadowed porch of the house.
     Donnie sat in the car for a moment, suddenly feeling daring, knowing that Grant was in the station.  Then he was racing the motor and listening, then racing it again, building up the rumble of the exhaust to a roar, and still higher; so that it popped and crackled through the pipes, and even louder, then letting it back off finally with a series of sharp-breaking noises, diminishing to a faint purr, then silence as he turned off the key.
     Donnie smiled, satisfied, as he got out of the car.  It really had a tough pair of pipes, he thought, even now.  I guess I showed them.  He could feel that whoever was in the station had stopped what they were doing and had turned to look towards the noise.  He was suddenly glad that Grant was there.  He'd hate to be here alone, the only white person.  He decided at the last minute that the paperback book sticking up out of his back pocket wouldn't look very cool; he flipped the thin edition of Malamud's The Assistant onto the seat. 
     He could see Grant in the garish, brightly-lit interior of the station through the large panes of glass, wearing his gray attendant's uniform.  Donnie studied the station to see who else was there.  The door, metallic-gray and smooth, was open to the night air.  There was Aaron, the other attendant on duty, huge and ponderous, very black, talking with Grant and smiling broadly, displaying his white teeth of which he was very proud.  Grant had told Donnie that twice a day, even if there were cars honking at the pumps, Aaron went into the men's room and brushed his teeth for five minutes straight, by the clock.  There were two little Negro kids, maybe eight or nine years old, a boy with a striped polo shirt with a hole at one shoulder, and a girl in a faded pink dress which ended short above brown matchstick legs.  Her coarse hair was gathered into short stiff pigtails, merely little knobs on her head, by scraps of ribbon, and she and the boy were buying candy from the machine placed against one painted cement-block wall inside the station.
     "Say man, watch this now," the boy called to Grant, running outside and doing a quick forward flip on the driveway. 
      "Watch this, hey Grant watch this," he yelled, and he took a running start and flipped again, bouncing up as he landed on his feet on the hard white pavement.
     "Yeah, that's no good," said Grant. "Let's see you do a one-hander. Come on, do a one-hander now."
     "You gonna give me a cigaret if I do my one-hander?"
     "You gotta do it, though. No chickening out," Grant urged, grinning. "Let's see you do it."
     "Okay man, I'm gonna kill you with my one-hander. You watchin' man? My one-hander'll kill you."  He took off, springing quickly, and did the flip on one hand -- at the last minute holding back slightly as if afraid of the concrete, the arm bending a little too much -- barely making it, but coming up on his feet.
     He jumped up happily. "Ha, give me my burn now," he said, holding out his hand.
     "Do it again?" he asked, jiggling up and down.
     "You be goin' on home now, I got business," Grant said, walking over to a car pulling up at a pump.  A bell rang inside the station.  The boy ran off down the sidewalk, the girl following slowly behind, looking placidly around with her brown staring eyes.
     Donnie stood next to the car, folding his shirt sleeves so they were even, exactly twice-rolled.  Soft voices drifted over from the porch hidden in blackness in the near-by yard.
     "White boy sure do make a lot of noise, don't he?"  It was a girl's voice, thick and silky.
     "Sure do," another girl answered.  Then there was giggling.
     Donnie looked straight ahead, feeling his race grow red. They were talking about him, his racing the motor.  He figured he knew who the girls were, they had come into the station that one night when he had been there, to buy cigarettes and drink Cokes from the machine outside.  They had kidded around with Grant, wearing tight pants and tight sweaters with deep V-necks like a boy's sweater, bright and close-clinging.  He had thought then that they were looking at him, but he hadn't been able to say anything, though he had been interested in one -- she was really nice-looking, and very light, too. He had liked the way she had moved her body around, standing close to Grant.  They brought with them a sweet cloud of scent, maybe it was that oil of Bergamot DJ Gene Noble talked about on WLAC, the southern station he always picked up in the car late at night that played a Zonyx Fiction Sound:  Play Turbans' .MP3
new music.  But he'd been afraid, and goddamn it, he did have this picture in his mind of a big black man with a razor coming after him because he was white, and he felt it was true. How did Grant manage to be so natural?
     He stared straight ahead and walked into the station; out of the corner of his eye he saw the glowing red ends of cigarettes in the darkness of the porch, but that was all; the harsh glaring lights of the station did not penetrate far into the darkness; he had stood out on the driveway with Grant that one night, but they could see into the yard only as far as the rust-scabbed swing-set that stood there, chains dangling from it emptily, while kids scrabbled around in the dirt under it and along the fence, racing and yelling late at night; while from the house, usually darkened, a few windows showing faint yellow light below the edges of the lowered shades, came low rich laughter and higher pitched shrieking laughter, and sometimes violent shouting from parties going on and from vague shapes of people sitting out on the porch, bottles clinking; and people were passing to and from the house, sometimes staggering and calling out, past the kids in the yard, while Donnie had watched and listened, fascinated by the whole scene.  Why hadn't he come back before this, he wondered now.  He supposed it was because of Lorri.
     Grant was standing by the open drawer of the cash register, counting gasoline company stamps.  Grant had told him how they had to account for everything, listing it all very carefully, though they still managed to screw the company.  His arms were actually thin in the short-sleeved summer uniform, but deeply tanned.  He had tattoos on both forearms.  He stopped counting, the stamp book in his hand, and raised his arm in a salute to Donnie as he walked through the doorway.
     "Yo! How's mah man tonight? What you doin' down here?" He was talking still with his Negro accent.  Donnie couldn't really tell how much of it came naturally and how much was put on.
     Donnie nodded at him, feeling self-conscious again in the harsh bluish fluorescent light.  He hated  these kinds of lights and the modern glassy buildings that went with them, they made you feel you were in a hospital or a bare tile bathroom.  "Hi ya Grant," he said.  "I was hoping we could go catch a few.  You can take off, can't ya?"
     "Now you knows I don't get off until twelve o'clock, 'n ole Aaron here is too lazy from keepin' all his woman satisfied to work for me, but hell -- there's some good old port in the storeroom if you want it."  Now and then he dropped the accent. "Stick around, we be goin' later."
     "Ah -- yeah, I guess so." Donnie shrugged, thinking, what the hell, he needed something to drink.
     "That old inspector'll be goin' by here any time now, be careful."
     "Don't worry," Donnie said.  In here, huh?"  He opened the door to the little room, its walls lined with plank shelves stacked with layers of oil cans.  Inside he found the gallon of white oily-looking wine, and raised it, supported by his bent elbow, to drink as much as he could without stopping.  He drank until he felt flushed and slightly sickened.  Then he forced down some more and replaced the bottle and walked back out.
     "How was it?" asked Grant.  He was leaning against a tall metal desk.  There wasn't supposed to be any place for the attendants to sit in the station.  A radio wasn't allowed either, or Grant would have had on King Richard at WRIT, the rock 'n' roll station they all started listening to in high school.  Or WEMP with Joe Dorsey and Wire Request.   But now he went to
jazz clubs too, like the Ad Lib downtown,  and liked local organist Beverly Pitts.
     "All right, man," Donnie answered.  "Say, we gotta get twisted tonight."  His eyes blurred the picture he saw of Grant in his gray uniform, smiling, big brown eyes, skinny tough body, crest of forward-falling black hair.
     "Fine," said Grant.  "Fine as wine, fine as wine."  He jumped up on the desk, sitting on his hands on the hard metal.
     "But where's your girl?"
     Donnie shrugged.  "The hell with her."
     "Oh ho, oh ho -- she done give you the air.  And now Donnie's in the valley of tears," he went on with comic exaggeration.  "Deep in the valley of tears," he said with mock sadness.
     "No man, cut it out," Donnie said, smiling.
     "Yeah, his girl left him, and now he's gonna play the role and get drunk."
     Donnie couldn't help laughing.  He knew it was true.  But now Lorri seemed so far away.  He protested, but Grant went on: "Your ass was grass and she was the lawn mower, and now you're gonna get stoned -- well, you just have some more wine, you need it."
     Donnie gave up and went to have some more wine.  Grant was a great guy, he thought, funny as hell.  He chugged down the sweet wine, almost gagging.  He wished he could talk like Grant, with that accent.  But still, he wondered if Grant wasn't really putting them all down very slyly -- if there were only white people around Grant would say nigger and things like that just like everybody else.
     "Say there, Tommy, how's it goin'?" Grant called out to a man in the doorway after he and Donnie had talked some more.  The man was tall and light-brown with a thin moustache.  He had a wide face, pleasant, and he was smiling at Grant.
     "All right, get to work, you been foolin' around here long enough," the man said.  "Gimme a pack of Winstons."
     "Get to work hell, you know you don't do nothin' yourself all day.  You really gonna pimp 'em out tonight, though, ain't you?"
     "That's right, I got a lot happenin' tonight."
     "Aaron, give the man his cigarettes so he can get the hell out of here."  Aaron, standing nearest the open doorway, stepped out to the cigarette case outside and the man followed.
     Grant had a plastic hairbrush in his back pocket and he took it out and brushed his hair back on both sides, looking in the mirror on the candy machine, fingering his hair in front so it came down on his forehead.  He tossed the brush in the air, caught it, and stuck it back in his pocket.
     "Hey Donnie," he said, quiet and serious, "You still got your gun?"
     "What gun?" Donnie asked, momentarily puzzled.
     "You used to have a gun, didn't you -- that little baby you stole from your uncle or someplace -- remember you had it that one night . . . "
     "Oh yeah, yeah, the one I got busted with."  He remembered it now, he was remembering a lot of things from when he was younger.  "Hell, the cops got it a little while back.  I had it in the trunk and I was drivin' some stuff for Chuck to his new pad and we got stopped and they arrested us for suspicion of burglary.  But it was all his stuff and we got out the next morning.  They kept the gun, though."
     Tracked it back to his
Aunt Marjorie eventually, he knew, but he got off because a city attorney decided that though it had been loaded it hadn't been under his control.  Even got a pass on carrying a concealed weapon for the pearl-handled knife they took from his pocket, by signing a standard form promising not to sue for false arrest.  Chuck hadn't been real lucky, though, since it seemed obvious many of his 45 records -- doo-wop like the Mello-KingsZonyx Fiction Sound:  Play Mello-Kings .MP3 and See-Saw by the MoonglowsZonyx Fiction Sound:  DL from Moonglows Site -- had been bent on purpose till they cracked.
     That was a long time ago, he thought, when he had taken the gun, a .25 automatic Detective's Special, from his aunt's house -- his uncle Harold had been a detective captain before he died, fairly young.  Some kind of jaundice, they said. 
     Donnie had fired it exactly once, out in the woods, after he learned accidentally how to cock it by sliding the top of the barrel.  Before that, with the clip out, he had been pointing it at things and pulling the trigger, even sticking it in his mouth, but of course nothing happened, not a click.
     Later he had wandered the streets one night with Grant and Ray, looking for somebody to roll, or pretending to.  He wondered if he really would have done it.  It had been a cold sloppy snowy night, too cold for anybody to be out that exactly suited their careful plans to be on the right street, by the right alley.  They really acted tough in those days.  Like carrying rolls of nickels wrapped in friction tape in their pockets, though he had never hit anybody with them.
     Still, right out of high school and hanging around the corner he had felt great with the compact automatic shoved into his Levi's pocket.  One of the guys who had punched him around had ended up at the same house where a bunch of them took turns looking in the bedroom doorway where Carol Kuntz in just her panties was being wrestled around on the bed, tits jutting out and bouncing like footballs, by another guy from the corner.  He'd kept his underpants on while he was trying to pin her down, but wasn't getting anyplace, as Donnie took in the scene.  He hadn't seen very many bared nipples on real girls and he knew he could watch the pink circles and long, flailing legs with her crotch covered by the thin white cloth that had shocked him at first glance because of the heavy gun he thought he might enjoy pulling out if someone gave him shit . . .
     "What about it?" Donnie asked.  He looked for a place to sit down.  The wine was finally hitting him, he felt relaxed as he moved around.  Finally he hoisted himself on top of an oil pump.  The flaked red paint looked like it was covered with a thin layer of oil, but it was the only spot.  He didn't see any open cans, but he could smell a slight misting of solvent in the air.
     "I just wanted to borrow it -- didn't you read in the paper about those guys that came into the Center Station on Walnut Street.  These colored guys, they were screwing around with the pumps, and when the attendant tried to kick 'em off they said no white guy was gonna tell 'em what to do, and they said they was gonna cut his hoses if he didn't -- "
     "What's that?" asked the man Grant had called Tommy, stepping back into the station.  "What you talkin' about now?"
     "Ah, these colored fellas came into the station on Walnut, and they told the attendant they was gonna kick his ass and -- "
     The man grew excited. "Sheee-it," he said scornfully.  "I know about them things, the guy wants to make hisself some money so he sticks it all in his back pocket and says some rough colored man with a knife come into the station and made him lay down on the floor and took his money, and all the while he's got the money his own self, right there in his own back pocket.  Don't tell me that shit."
     "No no, Tommy -- they didn't take his money, they were gonna cut his hoses, just 'cause he tried to tell 'em to stay away from the pumps.  Man, I'm gonna get myself a gun to keep here if I work nights -- "
     "Hey man," Donnie said, glad to have something to say, feeling casual now, a part of something exciting, his voice softer now, more like Grant's.  "You know Ray Laessig, don't you, that bar by my house --  he showed me the gun he keeps there -- he's got this big old forty-five behind the bar, and he says if someone ever sticks him up he's gonna give the guy everything he's got, all the money, the keys to his car, his wife
-- then when the guy walks out he's gonna let him have it, right
in the back -- "
     "You damn right," said Grant. "I would too."
     "In the back?" Tommy asked, almost shouting. "You mean 'cause a man takes your money you gonna turn around and shoot him in the back?  Man, that's terrible, that's stealin' a man's life, shooting him in the back."
     "Well hell," said Grant, "How much chance do they give you, walkin' in with guns and takin' all you got --  lookit they shot that tavern keeper down here at the Hop Inn by
A. 0. Smith's a while ago, and he wasn't even tryin' to stop 'em.  I don't mean here, this ain't my money anyways, but -- "
     "Unh-unh, not shootin' a man in the back when he's walkin' away.  A fair fight I can see, you know, when somebody pulls somethin' on you -- I had a cousin once who get shot twice when a guy pulled a gun on him, once in the arm and once through the mouth, and he still went and killed the fella with a homemade knife.  A homemade knife.  But I wouldn't go and shoot nobody in the back, that's stealin' a man's life.  Stealin' a man's life," he repeated.
     Donnie listened to the argument, deeply absorbed, intrigued. He wondered how it felt to be shot at, to go after somebody with a homemade knife.  He remembered walking the street with the heavy little gun, plowing through the snow in his soaked shoes, freezing, straining to see somebody leave a tavern and go down a dark street.  He guessed he would have gone through with it, when you got that far and you've got the gun in your hand and you're with your buddies you can't stop it. He had felt that night the way he did now, as if you were off someplace looking at yourself doing something big, something dangerous, only tonight he didn't need money, it was kicks like he could find around here, and he was going to ask Grant about those chicks next door.  He needed more wine.
     Tommy stopped talking and started to walk out.  He had a long red Oldsmobile convertible parked in the drive.  "I see you later," he told Grant.  "You too," he said to Donnie.  "You Grant's friend?  My name is Tommy."  He stuck out his hand.
     Donnie shook his hand, nodding. "Donnie," he said. The man nodded back at him and strolled out.
     "Take it easy, now," Grant called after him.
     Grant looked at Donnie and shrugged.  "His name is Tommy Calhoun," he said.  "He's always in here shooting off his big mouth."
     Donnie looked up, surprised.  He thought the guy was sharp, he had taken it all in, thinking how great it was at the station. Then he decided Grant was just natural, he could argue with Tommy if he felt like it, even talk about colored guys to a Negro if he felt like it because it didn't occur to him that he might be saying something wrong.
     But it occurs to me, Donnie thought.  So how did you get like Grant? My God, the thought came suddenly, did you have to go to jail with them?  Hell, he wasn't going to jail any more, he had a good job, all he wanted was some fun.  But then, he didn't have to go to jail, he had Grant to take him around, to lean on.
     The bell rang again as a car stopped abruptly at a pump, and Grant sauntered out.  Aaron was already at the hose, pumping in the gas, and Grant picked the sponge out of the water can and headed for the windshield.
     Donnie looked out the big plate glass window at the houses across the street, weaving on his perch on the oil pump, feeling dizzy.  He watched Grant stick his head in the window of the car, talking to the driver, a Negro.  Something was wrong someplace, he thought, he wasn't like Grant, there was that sudden sickening picture again of the black man with the knife, looking like he imagined Tommy's cousin had looked, it was too late for him, he should just leave these people alone . . .
     "What's the word? -- Thunderbird!" Grant burst into the station, flipping his hairbrush.  The white plastic handle twirled twice in the air, catching the light, then he caught it. "Say man, I just heard, we're gonna have a party later, across the street.  You're coming, ain't you?"
     "Ah . . . " What the hell, Donnie thought, Tommy had been friendly, and what was he gonna do anyway, sit home and watch television?  He heard himself say through the warm winy haze he was in: "Fine as wine, fine as wine."
     Donnie looked out the window again, feeling content in a lazy floating way.  He thought about the tits on that spade chick, she might be there, her thrusting tits, her rumpy pushing body. He had found something to do, all right.  He realized he was twisting the ring on his finger again, and he made another rhyme, smiling to himself: "Lorri will be sorry."  But that was silly, he thought, she wasn't even going to know what he did, she was already just a dim figure in his mind.
     "Great," said Grant, flipping through another book of  stamps.  "Little while yet."  He slammed the drawer of the desk shut.
     "Sure," said Donnie. "Just as long as somethin' happens tonight.  I got lots of time."  He looked out the window, feeling already how drunk he was going to get.  The wind blew outside, pushing in on the glass, the orange and blue tavern lights across the street wavering from the distortion of the glass.  The bell rang again, and Grant walked to the car on the drive, dipping down and picking up the sponge, flipping it in the air and catching it as he walked away.
                                             
AN END Zonyx Report Dancing Scorpio Mascot
 
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copyright 2003
      mike zetteler
[Revised from an earlier
version in
Cheshire,
Winter 1962]