The Battles of Leuctra
by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
This part of town was new to me. I drove past the cracked sidewalk, past the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a riot of colors, and past the patch of dry brown grass. At the ten-foot high section of concrete block wall, I eased my rusty old hatchback to a stop.
There was a small shrine at the foot of the wall, with burnt-out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!
“I shall make every effort to rejoice,” I thought, “as soon as I get this pizza delivered. The last of the night. Then it’s home to my bed and the sleep of the just. It’s a good pizza, too, one of Mogie’s scrambled egg specials. Ho, what’s this? The local nocturnal wildlife gives tongue.”
The night was cloudy. I peered into the darkness behind the concrete wall whence came the wailing.
“Oh, heck no,” I said.
Unwilling to believe my eyes, I threw on the parking brake and forced open the driver’s door. It was a junkyard replacement in the wrong color and fought me like an angry ex-wife every time. Or so I imagined.
On the other side of the concrete block wall was a baby. A crying baby. In a beach towel with a big yellow smiley face on it. The towel might have been white when Clinton blew that sax with Fleetwood Mac. It was gray now, and ragged. One little foot poked through a hole.
“Oh, man!” I said, looking around. Nobody. Nothing. Just the baby. An abandoned baby in a torn towel on the outskirts of town.
Maybe it’s a gag, I thought. It was dark. A doll? The kind that cries?
As the thought formed the clouds parted. A fat summer moon seemed to spring into the sky. Its light shone down.
A real baby.
* * *
“Think, snapperhead,” I thought. “Don’t get worked up and do something stupid. Maybe the parents stepped away for a moment. Leaving the baby here in Mad Max’s back yard.”
“Hello?” I said, then upped the volume. “Hello!” That made the baby cry louder. Nice going, I thought.
By now I was at the flat concrete remnant that served as floor for the block wall. On one side all that sad mess and the word “Rejoice!”; on the other, this crying baby.
I stepped gingerly onto the concrete. “It’s okay, little buddy,” I said, trying to shove a comforting coo into my voice box. The little crying thing was five feet away from the edge I now occupied. Closer now, I saw where the tot’s toes were tangled in threads where its foot — His foot? Her foot? — poked through the hole. The baby was jerking the foot, trying to free it and getting madder by the second.
A mound of black plastic trash bags had been piled on the concrete. High as my head and overflowing off the concrete foundation onto the ground. It was old garbage that had cooked under the hot sun and still stank. The baby lay between me and it. “Thrown away like so much trash,” I thought. “Well, nuts to this! The pizza can wait. Let Mogie fire me.”
I saw where a bag had been chewed open by an animal; it let out a trickle of nauseating brown liquid. It was creeping toward the baby. My throat clicked in revulsion. Heart thumping, I leaped to scoop the towel-wrapped baby out of the filthy liquid’s path.
I had just straightened with the baby pressed to my chest when I thought: If this is a mistake, I could be on the burner for kidnapping. Suppose some crazy young mom is taking a hit of junk on the other side of this trash mountain and is keeping quiet because she thinks I’m law. Suppose she rushes out screaming and flailing a brick or a syringe. Suppose she’s calling the real police. Suppose—
The sputter and growl of a small engine kicking on interrupted the thought. I spun in time to see a ginger-headed kid on a yellow moped swinging away from my car, Mogie’s orange thermal pizza bag perched on his lap. He looked furious, as though stealing my pizza was the last thing he wanted to do. His face also had a boyish prettiness, if I’m any judge.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey!” The angry ginger kid began circling around toward where I stood on the concrete slab cradling the baby. His scowl deepened.
“That’s right,” I said, nodding. “You don’t even take off with a pizza on my watch. You just bring that right back, and we’ll say no more abou—”
Light and pain exploded behind my eyes. Thinking the wall was falling on me, I pressed the baby tighter against me and bent to cover it with my body. Then I took one between the legs, and the baby was wrenched from my arms. Crashing to the dirty concrete, I saw a tall, slim figure running away in strappy sandals, a flap of dirty once-white beach towel visible over one exposed brown shoulder.
The moped swung in close and the figure jumped on the back, one arm flung around the driver’s skinny torso, the other holding the howling baby.
I rolled onto my back and sucked in lungfuls of air. When I could move without puke filling my throat, I hobbled gingerly back to my car. On the front seat was a hand-printed note on a sheet of lined yellow legal paper. I blinked a few times to focus on the block capitals.
We are sorry, but we are hungry and cannot afford to pay for this now. Please come to our rally here on Saturday. We will pay you what we owe plus a tip. Show this note. You’ll know who to give it to.
I goggled, still woozy. “A tip doesn’t cover bashing my head,” I said. “Jerk!” I felt the back of my skull. No blood, but a nice egg was swelling and sending a dull ache throbbing through my skull to my forehead. “Ouch.” I eased onto the driver’s seat and sat sideways with the door open, legs out, and tried to think. The garbage stink wafted over to me.
Should I call the police? Probably.
And tell them what? If caught, the pair will claim I was making off with their baby and the young mother panicked. Kidnapping trumps pizza theft.
I went over what had happened in my mind. The young couple placed the baby by the wall to lure me out of the car. The kid walked the moped over, with ninjalike stealth, while I was with the baby, only kicking it on after he had snagged the pizza so he could pick up his girl and baby and flee into the night.
A few yards beyond the wall, a water spigot stuck up out of the ground on a length of pipe. I shambled over, fighting dizziness, and cranked the knob. It screeched and cold water ran. I caught the water in my cupped palms and wet my head and neck. Then I got down on all fours and put my head directly under the chilly flow. It soothed the throbbing egg.
This is good, I thought. I should get one of these. For the next time a girl beats the crap out of me.
A wave of pain hit me. I moaned. My rattled brain was jumping grooves.
Why did the girl attack me? Did she think I’d hold the baby hostage and demand the return of the pizza? A slow tense hand-off like in the cowboy movies? That’s lunacy. Maybe her thinking was screwy. Drugs? Had they spent their pizza money on illegal stimulants?
The concrete block wall was now between me and my mismatched hatchback. Legs bowed, I walked over and surveyed the side with the gold paint and offerings. The sodden teddy bears drew my eye: could anything be sadder? The red word “Rejoice!” on the gold wall. Red and gold were the colors of the U.S. Marines. Were these the childhood stuffed animals of a marine who fell in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Peering at the ground around the hill of garbage bags, I could see the faint tracks of the moped’s tires where the couple hid. The tall girl with the brown shoulder. The handsome ginger kid with the angry expression.
My head was clearing. Though still stunned, I could think a bit. It occurred to me that it had gone wrong.
I wasn’t supposed to pick up the baby. The kid had intended to snatch the pizza before I had a chance to pick up the poor howling thing. Maybe the plan was that I’d chase the angry ginger kid for a few yards, during which time the girl would run out from behind the trash bags and scoop up the baby. Then the kid was to speed over, pick them up and drive away. What was I going to do, after all? Push over the moped and risk hurting the baby? It was only a pizza.
But the kid had taken too long getting to my car in silence, or the moped hadn’t started right away. Coming around from behind the hill of garbage bags and seeing that I’d picked up the baby, the girl had panicked. She’d grabbed a rock and clobbered me on the head. That didn’t cause me to loosen my hold on the baby, so she’d kneed me in the wobblies.
I shifted queasily.
Testing my neck’s range of motion, I looked up at the big silver moon. It seemed to gloat up there. Well, screw you, moon, I thought. I had folded the yellow sheet of paper and slipped it into my back pocket. Now I took it out and unfolded it. Please come to our rally.
What sort of rally? It didn’t say. I bet they’d rather I skipped it now, I thought.
I drove cautiously back to Mogie’s and told him I’d been robbed. He chewed whole packs of fruity gum because he was quitting cigarettes. He was also cranky from overwork. My news failed to improve his outlook.
Taking the long way home, I peered into windows and scanned sidewalks and parking lots as I drove. No yellow moped.
I stopped at Olongapo Ollie’s for a candy bar and soda and spent some time wandering the aisles, looking up when the door chime sounded. I also bought some aspirin and swallowed three in the car.
When I got to my basement apartment and got into bed, my head hurt when I lay straight back on the pillow. Since I fall asleep flat on my back, this was damn awkward. Looking at the old red folding travel clock that had been my father’s, I saw that it was already Friday morning. My shift at Mogie’s would start at one in the afternoon. I took ten milligrams of melatonin, wondering vaguely if it was safe after the aspirin.
That boy on the moped was good-looking, I thought. Skinny.
I shifted uncomfortably, aware of my head bump and genitals.
* * *
On Saturday, I drove in a leisurely fashion to the edge of town, then past it to the gold-painted concrete block wall. Seeing a crowd of people, I spun back and parked in a lot belonging to an abandoned factory a hundred yards away. My watch said noon.
Moseying over to the milling group with my hands in my pockets, I tried to get a sense of what was to come, but no dice. Somebody was cooking sweet Italian sausages on a little grill set on a truck tailgate; somebody’s boom box was playing old Hall and Oates hits. She was, in fact, gone. The sausage griller was shirtless and covered with tattoos. I dislike tattoos; it’s like a person’s body is yelling at you.
As I got closer to the concrete wall, I looked for my three: my angry ginger kid, his brown-shouldered girl and their baby. I also glanced around nervously for another face but didn’t see it. I hadn’t expected to.
Angry dad, angry baby. Of course, the baby had had its foot caught. Maybe the kid was caught in something, too. And a dangerous baby mama. I withdrew my hand from my pocket and probed the egg on my head with an index finger. Ouch.
Then I saw my kid. He strode through the crowd to a position by the concrete block wall. There were a couple of discarded wooden kitchen chairs on the ground by the wall now, along with three plastic milk crates, a brown ottoman without its cushion and the black metal frame of a futon. There were also two stacks of old tires.
The kid carried an old bullhorn megaphone, with its stubby bell attached to the box, and the whole thing painted fire-engine red. The red enamel paint was chipped in spots, showing yellow. He fiddled with the bullhorn so it made amplified clicks, and then he turned to face the crowd. His calves bumped a crate.
Several people moved to occupy the various objects suitable as places to sit. A man who had taken a kitchen chair noticed a heavy woman with a bendable leg brace and offered the chair to her. The woman thanked him and eased herself in stages onto the chair. I smelled rubber softening under the hot, beating sun.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Max Christopher