August Pasternek trudged along the surprisingly deserted street, beads of sweat pouring down a face which many referred to as “cherubic.” Chicago was gripped by a heat wave, now in its eighth day, and what forecasters predicted would last at least another eight. Hell was snow-capped mountains, crystal lakes and fields of wild flowers in the comparison. Air rippled above the furnace-like asphalt, creating those illusions of water in the distance. Air conditioners chugged in the windows above, dripping moisture onto the sidewalk. Bulletins, every hour and on the hour, advised the elderly to stay indoors, avoid any strenuous activity and to drink plenty of water. But Augie couldn’t stomach the confines of his lonely, memory-filled apartment.
A month after his beloved wife, Sarah, had passed away from cancer, he had received a letter from his sister in Jupiter, Florida, begging him to pull up stakes and move into her extra bedroom. With its tropical climate and lower cost of living, Florida was a Mecca for the old, infirm and retired. He had given the invite serious consideration, for Chicago was going to the dogs; and not beagles and poodles by a long shot, but packs of rabid, ravenous mongrels. Crime was rampant, English a second language and welfare at its all-time high. But, no matter how much he had willed himself, how could he ever leave Sarah? If not for him, who would put flowers on her grave and talk to her on the first Sunday of every month? Just the thought of deserting her, sent extra rivulets of sweat meandering down his back. Cursing his husbandly foolishness, he clutched the brightly-wrapped present tighter to his chest.
Just then, as he stopped at the curb, looking both ways for non-existent traffic, he spotted them coming in his direction: twelve or so boys, not much older than thirteen, dark and mean lean, their smug faces already telegraphing their malevolent intent. Augie glanced around for an avenue of escape, but it was too late. Damn, if he was in his prime, he wouldn’t have even considered scuttling off like some helpless whelp.
As they drew near, they split ranks as he knew they would, penning him in with a horseshoe formation. Their leader, an older boy of perhaps fourteen, with a hoop earring and decaying teeth, brought his face to within inches of Augie’s. God, what he wouldn’t give to wipe away that smirk with a punch straight to the jerk’s schnozzola!
“Hey, old man; what’s happening?”
“Uh... I’m out for a walk.”
The kid looked around at his companions, smiling. “The old fart, here, is out for a walk.”
There was a chorus of laughter as though walking had been deemed a humorous activity. Christ, you’d think he was wobbling along on stilts!
The kid brought his face even closer to Augie, his breath reeking like a outhouse under a hundred-degree sun. There was a booger, as big as a clam, in his right nostril.
“It’s kinda hot for a walk, no?”
“Not for me, and, apparently, not for you.”
“Don’t get smart, pops. What’s that, a present?”
“I like to wrap my heart medication.”
The kid grabbed hold of Archie’s collar and screwed it up like a tourniquet. “You old piece of shit. I oughta...”
Suddenly the kid glanced up the street, released Augie’s shirt and headed off at a brisk walk, his gang following close behind. Wondering about the reprieve, Augie turned and noticed a police car slowly cruising down the street. For once, right in the nick of time!
As it drew abreast, the driver rolled down the window and looked at Augie with an arched brow. “Everything okay here? Those punks giving you any trouble?”
“No, officer. All’s well.”
“You sure? On your say so, we’ll roust the little bastards.”
“Really, officer, everything’s just okey-dokey.”
Frowning as though he didn’t believe him, the cop offered a small salute and continued on his way, turning onto a side street at the next corner.
With a sigh of relief, Augie turned down a side street in the opposite direction and hustled along as fast as his arthritic legs would carry him, trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the gang.
The neighborhood in which he found himself was a blighted area of rundown, turn-of-the-twentieth-century brownstones, with grimy windows and chipped, soot-blackened bricks, brightly spray-painted with graffiti. A few cars, minus tires, were parked at the curb, scabs of rust spreading across their dented bodies like leprosy. Not a soul could be seen, not even lounging on the fire escapes. Augie was nearly halfway down the block before he spotted a man idling in the space between two stoops of cracked cement. As he approached, the guy stepped out to block his path, taking a last drag of a cigarette and flipping it into the street.
This man, on his very best day, made the kids look like altar boys in the comparison. He was huge, maybe six-four and two-fifty, with the flattened, jowly kisser of a bull dog, tattoos festooning his massive arms from his shoulders clear down to his wrists. Augie spotted a Tweetie Bird, a fire-breathing dragon, assorted knives and daggers and a rattle snake curling through the empty eye sockets of a leering skull. He looked hopefully for a heart bearing the word “Mother” but failed to spot one. Even at a distance of twenty feet or so, he could smell the nose-flinching concoction of both stale and new sweat, whiskey, bad breath and filthy clothes and – oh yes – a strong undercurrent of meanness, if that was all possible.
“You’re a little off the beaten path, pops.” A gritty chuckle. “Sorta like... like an old, mast-less ship in troubled waters.”
“Uh... I think I might have taken a wrong turn a ways back.”
Suddenly, a second cretin, that Augie had failed to notice, stepped out and joined his friend from between the stoops. This one, small and scrawny, with a pockmarked face and the runny, inflamed nostrils of an addict. Strangely enough, despite the sweltering heat, he was dressed in a wool, ankle-length coat and watch cap. Small, tear-shaped tattoos. directly beneath his eyes, bespoke of a few years behind bars.
This pair was hardly an Abbott and Costello act.
“C’mon, guys. I don’t want any trouble here.”
Tweetie Bird snorted a laugh. “Then you shouldn’t have taken that wrong turn.” He sidled forward, his thumbs hitched behind his belt. “Let’s play a little game of southern sheriff. You’ve just been caught in a speed trap and, lo and behold, of all the luck, your fine happens to total every last cent you have in your wallet.”
Overcoat snickered. “Christ, Biff, you sure have a way with words.”
“I made it all the way to the eighth grade. Advanced English course.”
“Look, guys. I’m... uh... not carrying much money. A fiver, if I remember correctly.”
Tweetie held out a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt and suddenly came up with a knife in the other. “Hand it over and make it quick.”
Placing his present under an arm, Augie fumbled out his wallet and handed over the five. “That’s all I have, honest, on my mother’s grave.”
Tweetie snatched the bill, gave it a cursory glance and stuffed it in his pocket. I oughta carve you up for traveling so light. Now the present.”
“Oh, no, please. Not the gift.”
“Now!” The knife sliced the air only inches from Augie’s nose. “Or I’ll cut a bloody smile clear across your throat!”
“It’s... uh... it’s not going to be your size and color.”
As Augie reluctantly handed over the present, Tweetie grabbed it and handed it off to his partner. “Now get your ass out of here, old man,” he hissed, grabbing Augie by the arm and propelling him up the street. “And if I don’t like the gift, I’ll catch up to you right quick and you won’t be so lucky. Haul it! Get outta here!”
Wasting little time, Augie scurried up the street, his arthritic hips paining him something terrible and his heart pumping so rapidly he thought it might burst. Turning a corner, he leaned back against a building and took a gulp of humid air, counting his lucky stars that he had gotten away in one piece.
Suddenly a loud explosion echoed up the quiet street, rattling the window panes over his head. Ah yes! Another trip wire well placed! Chortling, he hurried on his way, glancing at his watch. If he made a beeline straight back to his car, he’d have time to grab one more present out of his trunk and take another walk on the wild side.
Copyright © 2003 by Gerald E. Sheagren