by S. M. Murdock
All Nick could think and say was, “Thank God!” on the day Auntie Zo arrived. Her opportune arrival marked the day that his only employee stomped out over a dispute for a 25-cent raise, leaving Nick, the liquor store manager, to deal with the lengthening queue of customers snaked behind the circa-1970’s Unitrex cash register during rush hour.
Nick also downed the last roll of stomach acid neutralizers from the shelf display that day. The consumption of 24 rolls throughout the month was a direct result of his stress over his gambling losses, and owing money to Tooth, the neighborhood loan shark. Aptly nicknamed for the gold-capped central incisor he sported.
“Dude, could you get a move on? I’m in a hurry,” a voice called out from the line.
As Nick was bagging marked-up beer, unfiltered cigarettes and greasy snacks for the customer in front, a tall old woman with graying dreadlocks appeared at his side.
“It looks like I made it just in the nick of time... no pun intended, of course,” said the old woman. Her flowing skirt, Birkenstocks and spotless white T-shirt hung loose on her spare frame. “I saw the signs in the tea leaves that you badly needed help, and here I am.
“I would have been here sooner, but rolling in from cross-country in an old RV isn’t the fastest way to travel,” she explained. She nudged Nick aside and began keying purchases into the outdated register like a pro, exact and efficient.
All Nick could do was continuing bagging sundry items until the last customer left the liquor store, smiling. The old woman had a way with people.
Later, when asked what to put on her new name tag, she insisted on “auntie.” Nick asked who “auntie” was, and Auntie Zo claimed to be his “long lost” godmother. Nick hadn’t known he had one, lost or otherwise.
He shrugged at her eccentricities and handed her an application to fill out.
* * *
Auntie Zo’s hands held fast to Nick’s face. Two quick puffs of air were blown into each of his eyes like the tonometer at an ophthalmologist’s office, except that Auntie Zo’s breath smelled of corn nuts and cloves. Fortunately, the old woman was tall, so when she grabbed his head, he was fairly sure she hadn’t injured anything.
“Hey! What gives?!” he yelled.
“It’s all right, Nick. My tea leaves said you needed that for tomorrow,” she grinned. “The leaves told me to share my gift. It’ll help.”
“Help? Help what? And what’s with the saliva shower? It’s unhygienic. Artificial tears would have sufficed.”
“Come now, Nick,” Auntie Zo chided, “I didn’t spit in your eyes.
“Unfortunately, the leaves can be very stingy on information, but they’re not stingy with wisdom. You will begin experiencing the world as I do, seeing the cosmic energy surrounding us, meeting your karma. It’s temporary, only for a day. Learn what you can.”
With a wave of her dusting cloth, Zo ended the conversation, turned to the Marlboro credenza and began cleaning.
At least she’s tidy, Nick thought, and made his way to the back office to fetch his briefcase and call it a day. He was due to turn in the monthly store ledgers, invoices and receipts to Maurice, the store owner, that evening. With the help of the stomach acid neutralizers and a little creative accounting, he made sure everything reconciled. It could be a huge problem if something were wrong with the books. Maurice gave the impression of being laissez-faire, but Nick suspected that any problems concerning the store would be resolved with fists.
* * *
“For crying out loud!”
Nick scanned the neighborhood for the littering perpetrators. He stooped to snatch up a realtor’s advertisement from the “welcome” mat at his door. A foot away was a small calendar and matching notepad — a marketing giveaway from a competitor.
The paperboy had already disappeared with the pinkening of dawn. Except for the much tanned neighbor across the street — who must be hitting the skin bronzer more than usual this week — there was no one in sight. Everything else made it to his doorstep, so where the heck was the morning newspaper?
On the swept walkway was a sealed plastic baggie with samples of gravel inside, but no paper. Another baggy of more gravel from the same company sat on top of the lawn. Next to this useless sample were the morning paper and a sausage link of miniature Chihuahua feces semi-hidden underneath a bordering shrub.
“I can’t believe this crap,” he grumbled.
Nick would have laughed at his wit, but he was still tired from yesterday’s stress, and too pissed off about the mess. With each piece of advertisement picked up, his temper climbed up a notch. Miniature dog feces only made it worse.
He grabbed the Daily Signature, and with the newly acquired freebies — sans feces — he trampled back into the house and into the pristine kitchen. At the end of the kitchen counter, in tidy stacks, were various ads and giveaways. The stacks were part of the week’s mental To Do list, under “Complaints.”
The morning’s marketing materials were expeditiously sorted into the existing stacks followed by a scolding comment hissed through gritted teeth. Barely audible, a gentle tap, tap, tap interrupted Nick’s mutterings. He walked to the door.
On the other side of the security hole, Nick peeped at an old man in a baseball cap and white coveralls. The pearly smile on the stranger’s golden, leathered face was bright and cheerful.
“Yah?” said Nick, opening the door.
“Good morning, sir. Here, for you.”
The old man nodded and handed him a card advertising a professional painting service. On the surface of the card were big block letters announcing the family-owned business, and two new pennies attached with a strip of adhesive. Printed above the copper pieces was: “Need a fresher and brighter outlook? Allow me to give you my two cents. We’re the best!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Another ad for something I don’t need. My house doesn’t need new paint. It’s perfect.”
“Yes sir, but colors make things good, bright, happy. Happy is better than perfect.”
Nick took a step forward and poked the older man’s shoulder back. The smile dimmed in the other man’s face with each press of Nick’s finger. The business card fell from his bony hand and landed onto the tiled foyer.
“No paint job! I’m happy with perfect. Now get out of here!”
The painter’s expression morphed into one of surprise, then confusion. He shuffled to his pick-up truck, intent on escaping without further confrontation.
Nick trailed him to the middle of the lawn, shouting, “Take your trash and don’t come back!”
The pick-up’s engine sparked to life. Black fumes belted out of the exhaust pipe as the truck was ground into gear and driven away. Nick didn’t turn back to the house until “Piedad Family Painting” on the truck’s tail was the size of newspaper print.
The small brass “no solicitors” sign went askew as the front door slammed shut. Slippered heels on expensive tiles echoed with Nick’s footfalls, making for the kitchen. “I need a nap,” he muttered to himself. “But first things first.”
The first business card pulled from the “Complaint” pile was a real estate agent’s. Her grinning face was lithographed onto a corner. “Yah, lady, you won’t be grinning for long,” Nick said to the photo, fed up with solicitors ringing the door bell and marketers littering the yard. He picked up his cordless phone and started punching buttons.
Later That Morning...
Hoarseness forced Nick to stop at the fifteenth call of the morning. The stacks of advertisements were half their original size.
Ding-dong, the doorbell rang.
Expecting another solicitor, Nick marched to the door. The tattooed 6’s on Stefan’s shaved head filled the peephole. Stefan pushed the doorbell again.
“Hey, Neatnick, open up! I know you’re home!”
“Maurice sent me. It’s important.”
Nick had to open if Maurice needed him. This was the first time Maurice had ever sent Stefan, his nephew, part-time assistant and thug over to Nick’s home. Stefan was a squat man and built like a tank. He also had the face of a bullfrog, not to mention a sallow, green tinge to his skin.
Through the peep hole, Nick thought Stefan looked a little greener today than usual. He opened the door.
“What’s up, Stef-” Nick didn’t say more as the tattooed newcomer pushed his way in.
The front door closed behind with the help of a booted foot. Stunned, Nick was grabbed by his shirt front while knuckles tattooed with “B-U-L-L-Y” on them connected with his right eye. The fist then popped his nose with a crack. Blood dripped onto Nick’s shirtfront.
“Hey man, next time open your door on the first ring.”
“Wha-?” Nick asked dazed. His eyes blinked multiple times trying to alleviate the pain in his head. Both hands covered his nose.
Stefan released Nick’s shirtfront and scanned the foyer and living room.
“Nice crib. Is this what you bought with Maurice’s money?”
“I paid him back,” was the muffled response.
“Not all of it, man. You shouldn’t borrow money if you don’t intend on paying all of it back,” admonished Stefan with a holier-than-thou tone.
“I paid him back,” Nick repeated.
“No, dude, according to Maurice, you still owe him three bucks.”
“Oh hell! You broke my nose for three bucks?!”
“Don’t get disrespectful. You owe him. Maurice wants it today.” Stefan stepped forward threateningly.
“Okay, okay. Money’s in my wallet. Just relax!”
Oddly calm now that payback for his creative accounting methods had caught up with him, Nick pulled out a wallet with his free hand; his other hand still pinched the bridge of his nose. Bloody fingerprints marked the soft leather. Only two dollar bills nestled in the folds. With a mental kick, Nick remembered the ATM he passed on the way home last night.
Nick placed the bills in Stefan’s meaty palm. He was hopeful that Stefan’s sloped forehead was an indication of a lack of awareness and mathematics.
“That’s only two dollars.”
Drat! “Hold on! I’ve got change.”
Nick dug deep into his pants’ pocket, grabbing all the change at once. Stefan stuck his hand out for the money.
Ninety-eight cents was counted out. Nick looked up at Stefan and nervously patted other pockets... nothing. Stefan’s other tattooed fist swung fast and jabbed him in the left eye, this time, each knuckle spelling out “S-U-C-K-A.”
“Ow! Aw, crap...”
Another punch landed in the midriff. Nick doubled over, and dropped to his knees, cradling himself. Stefan’s voice rang close and low to his ear.
“Maurice wants all of his money.”
Blood began to drip onto the foyer’s tiles. Moaning, Nick watched the droplets seep into the grout. His thoughts strayed through the fog of pain to list the possible cleansers that would clean his blood from the off-white grouting. Baking soda! That was it... and a toothbrush!
“Look man, I’d loan you the two cents, but it’s against my principles,” Stefan continued.
Nick felt a hand grab his hair. It yanked him from his reverie. Stefan’s face had turned an ugly red from his usual sallowness. The change in color didn’t bode well. Nick’s eyes were swelling, but luckily he spied a small square of cardstock on the tiled floor, snatched it, and flashed it in front of Stefan before another punch was thrown. Beefy fingers released him, and the pennies were extracted and pocketed.
“Perfect,” Stefan ruffled Nick’s hair. Without another word, the stocky man opened the front door, stomped out and slammed it behind him.
Aching from the beating, Nick pulled himself up using the doorknob. Brakes squealed loudly to a stop right outside the house. Tenderly, he peeped through the security hole once again.
A paint-splattered, gold Ford F150 halted in front of the house. It parked directly in Stefan’s path. A young man dressed in clean, white coveralls opened the truck’s passenger door and stepped out. His jet black hair was cut short and neatly combed; his pleasant face was almost cherubic. He approached Stefan who had stopped at the edge of the lawn.
Through the peephole, Nick watched and listened to the exchange. His hearing was heightened by the diminished sight of his blackened eyes.
“Hey, is this your place?”
“What’s it to you... Angel?” Stefan asked derisively, spying the embroidery on the other man’s breast pocket.
“You owe my father an apology.”
“I don’t apologize to no... umf!”
Stefan’s head snapped to the right as a white-covered elbow smacked it from the left.
The lawn’s soft grass cushioned Stefan’s fall and cradled him in unconsciousness. In five seconds flat, the young man in white coveralls hopped into the waiting truck. The unseen driver gunned the engine and they both sped away.
Stefan hadn’t moved since dropping. Seeing the stocky man’s prone form created a happy tickle at the back of Nick’s throat, and little bubbles of gratefulness percolated inside of his broken nose.
He waited a few seconds before turning from the peephole. Finally! Someone from up above was looking out for him. Nick felt his luck had changed, especially with having found the two pennies to stave off further beating.
How lucky was he to have witnessed Stefan’s comeuppance right at his very doorstep, and he didn’t even have to lift a finger. This is how Auntie Zo’s cosmic energy, karma or whatever she called it must work, Nick deduced... instantaneously. Maybe today, cosmic energy was working on his side.
He winced. The pain from grinning reminded Nick of his injuries and of a frozen gel pack waiting in the freezer. The soreness also triggered regret for the verbal abuse he extolled on the local merchants that morning.
The discarded ad for Piedad Family Painting still lay on the foyer tile. Nick picked it up making a mental note to also pick up the trash from the lawn later — maybe inconspicuously drag the unconscious Stefan over to Mrs. Vega’s yard along with her dog’s crap.
At the kitchen, Nick grabbed the gel pack from the freezer and assessed his home’s interior. Maybe the old painter was right, perhaps it could use a fresh coat of something brighter, fresher, he thought.
Perhaps he could call the local merchants again and apologize for his rudeness earlier.
Perhaps he could politely ask Mrs. Vega to pick up little Chiquita’s lawn presents from now on, instead of his depositing them onto her stoop as a lesson.
Perhaps he could stop by the liquor store and surprise Auntie Zo with a compliment for the good work she’d been doing.
“Naw, karma is on my side now,” he concluded, still nursing his eyes, “best to leave things well enough alone.”
A gentle tap, tap, tap sounded at the door.
Copyright © 2007 by S. M. Murdock