s

...

"Big strong guy your age ought to be pretty much set by my way of thinking. Pretty wife, job, coupla kids, house. Fishing on Saturdays. Church and pork-chops and gravy on Sundays. What the hell's the matter with you Jimmy? Where's your pride?...."

five blocks
fiction by john richen


Wally shifts in his seat as he navigates his 4-wheel electric scooter over the lowered indentation in the concrete walk. Years of practice. He could execute that maneuver in his sleep. Two red flags flap from a white fiberglass pole mounted over the electric engine. There's a basket mounted on the front with a rolled up newspaper, a brown bag containing a can of tomato juice, and a dirty orange scarf. Leon strolls along behind him, white wisps of hair fluttering in the breeze and his red leathery hands clutching his wheeled walker with its Cadillac emblem duct taped to the front. He hustles to catch up with Wally who alternately guns, and then lays off the throttle of his small machine so as to keep the distance manageable for his friend.

Leon moves up next to him, and the two momentarily travel the sidewalk side by side. A car and a buggy. Two pistons in the same tired engine. Wally periodically shoots a couple feet ahead, then stalls. Leon rolls past him, then whoosh, Wally shoots by again. Flags bouncing, hair blowing, never fully in synch but always together.

"You know Leon, I've been thinking. I'm gonna suck it up and vote this year," Wally says, out of the blue and almost as if it was a question as Leon pulls even.

"I've been thinking the exact same thing," Leon answers with something less than certainty. "Never seemed to matter much what I think, but for some reason it seems important this time around."

"Yup!" Wally's eyes narrow as he shoots ahead and swerves hard towards the curb to avoid a sweaty and huffing pair of nylon-clad runners. The flags wave right, then left, then right again. Shaking his head, he wipes a drip of goo that suddenly reveals itself on the end of his nose with a grey handkerchief that emerges from a hidden place below his lap. "I'm thinking I'm gonna get registered, buy a stamp, and actually send that vote in this time around."

"Sure Wally, that'd be a good thing to do. That'd be the right thing to do, especially with it being your civic duty and all."

The Scooter stops, and Wally turns quickly. "Not much for civic duty, Leon," he says indignantly. "I'm not feeling that. I don't owe anybody a damn thing. Not a damn thing! That's not what I mean."

"Okay, okay Wally," Leon backs off. "Don't go getting your hairs up on me. I didn't mean to say you owed anybody. Casting a vote would be a good thing to do though."

"Yes it would."

First Wally, then Leon arrive at the curb and watch as a red, white and blue postal jeep roars around the corner scattering dried leaves along the street in front of them. Neat stacks of paper banded together sway inside the truck. Talk radio blares from a small transistor radio. They can't hear the actual words, but they can hear the talking clear enough. Angry words. Accusatory. Unpleasant. The postman grins and waves. He knows these two. Both Wally and Leon wave back, laughing, thinking: Slow down Joe. Keep your eyes and ears open or your gonna hurt someone someday.

"I wonder...if I just gave my ballot to Postal Joe do you suppose he would...naw...he'd probably need to have a real stamp on it."

Leon scratches at a spot behind his ear and looks at his friend. "Wally, I can front you a stamp. I've got spares."

"Well I couldn't...."

"It's just a front. You can get me later for it."

"That be nice," Wally says, relieved. "Not that I couldn't get one myself you know. It's just... well I'm a little light this time of the month...."

"It's not a problem Wally. No problem at all."

"Okay then. Thank you Leon." Wally tips his hat with an exaggerated flourish as he zips forward again.

"You're welcome, Wally." It's almost a whisper, and Wally can't hear it because he's blowing his nose too loudly.

--

Wally steers the scooter right past the transient with the Rip Van-Winkle beard and the pungent aroma of a musk-ox. He approaches Leon from the sidewalk to his left. His clothes are torn and rumpled, his skin grey and irritated. Clumps of brown grass and twigs are woven randomly into his matted hair. His teeth don't match up right. Stepping in front of Leon's walker, he places a dirty black boot up against the front left wheel. The walker stops with a jolt. Leon quits pushing, pokes his bifocals back and pulls himself straight. Leon is old and frail, and the young man is large and feral.

"Spare some?" The beggar demands. Eyes wild and dangerous. He grabs the front of Leon's walker with a dirty hand. "Help a brother in need, old man?"

Leon exhales. "Get your goddamn foot out from there and take your hand off my legs. Then maybe we can talk." He holds his ground as Wally reverses, wheels around, and pushes up aggressively against the beggar with his scooter. He's messing with my friend. Nobody messes with my friend!

"You better move that big ugly shoe of yours before I roll this here jalopy right over the top of it." Wally's face turns an impressive shade of crimson. He is gripping his steering wheel so hard the veins on his arthritic hands pop up like fat, blood-colored earthworms. The beggar's expression shifts from veiled menace to concern.

"Whoa. Hold on there old man. Easy. I didn't mean no harm. I'm just tired and hungry an' all. Just real hungry..." He pulls his boot back while letting go of Leon's walker.

"You look too young to be a tired old man. How old are you, son?" Wally peers curiously into the beggars haunted eyes. "What's your name?"

"Jimmy. I'm 27...."

"Only twenty- seven? Christ." Wally's eyes narrow. "You feel alright about pan-handling money from a couple of senile old geezers who don't have enough banked to pay for a decent pair of shoes anymore, Jimmy? That make you feel good inside?"

"No." Jimmy gazes down at his boots. "It don't, to be truthful. It's just...look, I come up from Sacramento three weeks ago and I can't find work. Got nothing to my name. Least right now anyway. I been looking, but there's nothing out there..."

"That so, Jimmy? Looking pretty hard are you, Jimmy? Answer me something then: how you planning on getting a job, getting something to eat, living a respectable life when you smell like a goat and look like a chimney-sweep, Jimmy? Big strong guy your age ought to be pretty much set by my way of thinking. Pretty wife, job, coupla kids, house. Fishing on Saturdays. Church and pork-chops and gravy on Sundays. What the hell's the matter with you Jimmy? Where's your pride? You look like you been sleeping in a dumpster. Like you got ringworm."

"It's not like that," Jimmy growls, face suddenly darkening again. "I don't have time for this bullshit. It's none of your business what my story is. You don't want to know anyway." He stops talking and glares at the two friends. "You guys gonna help me out or what?"

"None of our business? None of our business? What you're asking for is a cash money transaction between us and you. And then you say 'none of our business'?" Wally's righteousness has him puffed up fatter than a feather pillow now. "You'll just have to explain that to me, Jimmy, seeing as I don't understand your thinking."

"Okay. Okay. Just forget it." Jimmy, beaten, steps backward. "Just forget the whole thing. I don't need no lecture. I just want something to eat. That's all. Just forget the whole thing ever happened."

Leon brushes what remains of his exposed hair back under his cap and pushes his walker between the two antagonists. Always the peacemaker. Hair the color of a dove. Conflict upsets his digestion processes. He puts one hand on Jimmy's muddy shoulder and slips two neatly folded bills into his hand with the other. Eyes bulging like baby onions behind his bifocals. Cracked, rubbery lips. He looks distorted as he smiles.

"Don't mind Wally. He doesn't mean any harm. Might not seem like it up front ...but...well, it's more that he doesn't like to see anyone out here working the pavement that has a chance to be somewhere else. Somewhere warm and friendly. That's all it is. Nothing personal. Take this. Not much, but it's what I'm gonna give you. Get a cup of coffee and a sandwich or something. You'll feel better."

"Guy's a fucking psycho is what he is." Jimmy pokes an oily index finger at Wally, pockets the money and moves away from the two men, shaking his head and muttering darker though unintelligible profanities under his breath.

"WHAT'D YOU SAY JIMMY?" Wally yells. "SPEAK UP. I CAN'T HEAR YOU, JIMMY."

Jimmy lifts his arm and flips Wally the bird as he rounds the corner. He is gone.

"HIGH TIME FOR A FLEA DIP JIMMY."

Leon smiles and looks at his friend in a mixture of mirth and wonder. "Shoot Wally, leave him be. The kid's all beat up. Who knows what the story is? Sure it's not a happy one. You've been down on your luck before. You know what it's like."

"Yah, I suppose," Wally agrees. "But I've never been so low that I smelled like a pig. Guy's gotta have some pride Leon. Not gonna get anywhere in life without a little pride. And that's all there is to say about that."

---

Across the street Eunice pushes her empty shopping cart with mechanical determination, eyes locked on a spot on the ground two feet in front of the cart, moving in a precise line towards the grocery store. She wears a light blue stocking cap with a LA Gear logo stiched to the fabric pulled down so low that the color of her eyes is nothing as much as a hint. Her feet are warm in a pair of white rubber boots that are scarred and scuffed, but whole. Not more than a cart's length away a businessman with a face the shape and contour of a pine-cone simultaneously talks loudly into a cell phone, and comes to the realization that a bag lady is preparing to interfere with the route that he has chosen for his own passage. He attempts to step in front of the cart. He's in a hurry. He's important.

But Eunice doesn't care a stitch how important he is right now. Nor does she slow her motion to let the terse figure cut in front. The man with the pine-cone face growls commands into his phone as he pulls his body back at just the last moment. Clipping past, the grocery cart is all crashing metal and hard rubber thumps. Shaking her head with exaggerated disdain at his foolishness, Eunice passes. Step, step, step. Eyes down. Never straying from that perfect straight line, that line that keeps her life orderly and sensible and moving in a forward direction.

Reaching the entrance to the store she turns her cart crisply ninety exact degrees and moves between the twin-glass doors that have slid open in soundless welcome. Soft music instantly fills the space around her. The instruments never sound right and Eunice always wonders what has happened to the singing. The words aren't there, but oh how she wishes they were. They should be there...

They should be there.

She stops momentarily, looking first right, then left. Then, head down, eyes forward, Eunice proceeds straight toward the "DELI" sign, her favorite section of the store with its bright displays and platters loaded with meat, fish, and cooked vegetables. Step. step, step.

Taking a package off a shelf full of sandwiches, Eunice reads: Meal Solution! Tasty & Nutritious. Mediterranean Wrap. $4.95. It looks like a handful of alfalfa sprouts, mushrooms and onions wrapped in a flour tortilla. There's a packet of mayonaise and a packet of mustard next to a grey pickle spear, and the whole "meal solution" is wrapped tightly on it's styrofoam platter with plastic wrap.

She looks more carefully at the shelf. Meal Solution! Ham & Cheese. Meal Solution! Greek Salad. Meal Solution! Delicious Turkey Sub. Everywhere Eunice looks "meal solutions" are boldly proclaimed.

She sighs, irritated. "What on earth? When did meals become problems? A meal isn't a puzzle. A meal is a meal." Eunice talks aloud to herself, which she finds under most circumstances more efficient than talking to others. She puts the wrap back on it's shelf with all the other solutions in disgust, then pushes the cart over to the salad bar. It is a feast for the eyes: colorful bowls of peas, lettuce, beans, corn, broccoli and peppers. And on the other side are tins of cubed turkey, salami, ham and different kinds of crumbled cheeses and salad dressings all placed carefully in a bed of shaved ice. Eunice looks at each container in the salad glacier carefully, taking note of the lushness while savoring their flavors through attentive hazel eyes. After a moment she gets a small condiment cup and a lid. Grabbing a plastic bottle half-full of ranch-style salad dressing Eunice fills the small cup all the way to the top, spilling not a drop, and carefully snaps the cap onto it locking the lid in place. She places the container into her shopping cart exactly centered on top of a napkin.

Time is wasting. Taking leave of the salad bar, Eunice executes a sharp 180 with her cart and moves towards the "PRODUCE" department. No wasted energy or unecessary turns or angles. Point A to Point B. Step, step, step. A bland, sythesized version of Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" floats through some unseen speakers, but there's no Sinatra to be heard. What a complete waste, Eunice thinks. What's the point of that? She begins to sing the words softly to herself, but can't fully smother the emasculated composition as she moves among the sweet aromas of fruit and rows of scrubbed vegetables. Stopping her cart in front of a pile of fresh carrots, Eunice tugs a plastic bag from a roll above her shoulder and examines the orange pile in front of her. After a moment of inspection she takes two large, blemish free vegetables from the middle of the pile, places them first into the bag, and then into the cart next to the dressing.

The checkout counter is walled-in by glossy entertainment magazines, plastic trinkets, candies and breath enhancement products; vain modern annoyances which hold no appeal to Eunice. She drops her carrots, napkin and the dressing onto a rolling black rubber mat and pushes her cart forward.

"Good morning Eunice." The grocery checker wears a brown polyester apron with a name-tag reading: Hi, I'm Julia. The line below reads: Customer Service Specialist. "Did you find everything alright today?"

"I don't like the music in here."

Julia smiles, "Yes, I know you don't Eunice. If you promise not to tell I'll let you in on a little secret: I don't like it either." She winks at her and punches in a sequence of numbers and drops the carrots onto a scale with an infrared scanning eye peering malevolently up from somewhere inside. There is a beep, and sixty-three cents reads on the cash register screen.

"Thats too steep for a couple carrots," an irate Eunice exclaims. "Did you charge me the salad bar price? Those carrots are NOT from the salad bar."

"No, that's the right price. These are organic carrots. See those little tags on the tops, Eunice? They cost a little bit more I'm afraid."

"They're carrots," Eunice declares with a frown. "Just the normal carrots."

Julia gives Eunice a look, voids the transaction and punches in a different code. Thirty-seven cents.

"That's more like it," She nods. "A carrot is a carrot."

The checker grabs the dressing container and the napkin and places them on the scale.

"I'm NOT paying salad bar price for that napkin."

Julia tries not to giggle as she removes the napkin from the scale. "Sorry honey. I guess I wasn't thinking there for a minute."

"I should say so." Eunice agrees, watching the cash register readout intently. There's another beep. Eighteen-cents.

"Will that be everything this morning?"

"Yes."

"Okay then, your total comes to fifty-five cents. Any bottle slips for me today?"

"No." Eunice takes a worn rubber Seattle Seahawks coin purse from her coat. She squeezes the ends and the top opens like a valve. Turning it over on the counter reveals a quarter, three nickels and three pennies. She shakes it empty and then looks at the checker.

Julia counts the change out loud, "Twenty five, thirty, thirty-five, forty and one, two, three. There's only forty-three cents here Eunice."

Eunice is quiet. She's on a schedule. It hasn't taken many visits for her to figure out that Julia keeps some extra change in her apron to help cover those customers who sometimes find themselves a few cents short.

Julia gives Eunice a stern look, but there's nothing behind it and Eunice knows it. "Honey, I really can't keep on doing this. My boss doesn't approve of it. Doesn't like it at all. I can't afford to lose this job."

Eunice stands immobile, staring quietly at the younger woman. It's time to go.

Julia sighs and takes a quarter from a pocket in her apron, covering the balance. Tearing the receipt from the roll, she bags up the carrots and dressing.

"I prefer paper."

Laughing out loud this time, the checker removes the items from the plastic bag and places them in a large brown paper bag. Eunice offers a short nod, takes the bag and puts it in her cart.

"You have a good day now. Stay out of trouble. You hear, Eunice?"

Eunice starts to push her cart forward towards the exit, but then, uncharacteristically, stops and peers straight back at Julia.

"What is it Eunice? Did we forget something?" She quickly scans her workspace. "Your napkin? What?"

Eyes of hazel lock onto eyes of blue. A moment passes. Then another.

"Eunice, what's wrong?" A look of concern eclipses the checker's cheerful face. "Are you feeling okay?"

The old woman leans forward.

"Meals are NOT a solution!"

She says it defiantly, and stands, time suspended, to further punctuate her comment before she turns and grabs her cart. Eyes locked forward Eunice pushes her groceries across the aisle and out of the sliding glass doors and into the grey afternoon. There's places to get to. No time to waste.

Julia, wondering, watches her until she moves from view. Perfect straight line. Step, step, step.

(illustration: john richen)


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©2004 John Richen • Smokebox
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