by Gary Clifton
“Good afternoon, Mr. Silby,” I called out to the last customer on my paper route as he was stepping out into the cold.
“Hey, kid,” he grunted. Grabbing the rubber-banded newspaper I’d just tossed onto his porch, he retreated into the warm interior.
The last and scrawniest of four kids, I lived with Mom in a one-room walkup above Willie’s Pool Parlor. She bartended at the Blue Goose, across the street, squeezing out rent money. But that sorry paper route paid for what food we could afford. Mom was working and, for supper tonight, I’d warm over gravy and beans. We hadn’t seen the old man since he lit out with that stripper from Omaha two years earlier.
Walking north out of the nice homes on the hill, I scrambled down the embankment and onto the Santa Fe tracks to take the shortcut home. The half-mile route took me by the old abandoned building where every kid in the neighborhood knew Happy Jack squatted, living inside the dusty caverns in a cardboard box.
Word was, Jack had been a formidable professional fighter in younger days interrupted by several stints in the penitentiary. Now sixtyish, rotund, his face was invisible in the mass of white hair and a full beard yellowed by grime, scar tissue, and cheap wine.
Jack was known as a sort of combination abominable snowman and Frankenstein monster. Nobody knew his last name or even whether “Jack” was correct, for that matter, but everyone knew he was crazy as the Wolf Man.
The icy wind found every soft spot in my clothes. Walking with my head down, I’d normally run like hell past Jack’s hiding place. Scared? You bet. Jack had lain in the gap and jumped out to scare the be-Jesus outta me several times. Dunno why he didn’t freeze to death, waiting. The nutball had actually chased me a short distance, once. The good news: he could only run thirty feet.
The January sun had set and twilight’s diminishing light provided limited visibility. In hindsight’s perfection, I suppose I should have walked the long way around, but what the hey, Jack was just mostly bluff... mostly, I rationalized, in logic of a twelve-year old. Besides, it was cold.
Then, Holy Mother! In the name of insane monsters everywhere, there he was. Six feet ahead, he sprang from the bushes and roared like a wounded mule: “Gimme yer money, kid, or I’ll kill you.” The words were horrifying, electric, paralyzing. His stench was like two dead rats, even in the cold wind. I was done for.
“Mr. Jack, I ain’t got no money,” I stammered.
He rushed — perhaps waddled is more accurate — towards me, throwing wild left and right roundhouse punches while spitting guttural sounds like a hog rooting in slop. A quart of muscatel wine will make a man do that. Had he managed to keep coming, I suppose I’d have been a goner all those years ago and never been able to tell about the incident.
But, lo, on the third step, barely perceptible in the dim light, his eyes rolled upward, then disappeared into all white. One final grunt, and Happy Jack — whatever the hell his name was — flopped, face up, on the crossties like a giant water mattress. He twitched several times, then stiffened, eyes wide, staring at outer space.
With no intention of getting closer, I could see in the dim light that Ol’ Jack was deader than last year’s news.
I followed the prescribed rule for such circumstances: I ran like hell all the way home. We didn’t have a TV, but I listened to my mother’s bedside radio all evening, waiting for somebody to find a dead wino on the Santa Fee tracks. Didn’t even eat my beans and gravy. No news. I was probably guilty of murder, in kid-think reasoning. They’d hang me sure as sundown.
The next morning, I trudged back up into wealthy man’s town to P.S. 223, mentally comprising my murder confession to the school principal, Mr. Whitesides. He’d hold me until the cops came to take me away in chains. My feet weighed 37 pounds each. Great God, prison and the gallows at twelve.
Sitting on the bench outside Mr. Whiteside’s office was Billy Brent, the kid always in the most trouble in the whole county. A scruffy, husky kid a year older than me, he was the neighborhood bully. Years later, I’d hear he went to the joint for murdering a man over a baked possum.
“Kiss off, you skinny little punk.”
Terrified. Confessing-murder protocol dictated no reply was advisable.
“Hey, punk, you hear about that goofy wino, Happy Jack? They found him this morning. Went to sleep on the tracks, and a train run over him. Heard he was strung out along two blocks.”
“God, dude, that’s awful.”
“Naw, not awful. Screw-loose drunk shouldn’t been asleep on the tracks. They’re sayin’ he probably passed out.”
Heavenly music drifted down. The light in the room turned crystal clear. “Imagine that,” I said.
Stumpy little Mr. Whitesides stepped out of his office, the top of his bald pate blush-red — not a good sign. “George, what are you doing here?” In his hand was a twelve-inch razor strop, the deadly weapon of sadistic misery he used to give licks to miscreants who had crossed the line — one that I was standing astraddle of.
I avoided fainting from sheer fright and mumbled, “I just wanted to see if I could help my good friend, Billy Brent.”
“You’re not my friend, punk.” Conveniently, Billy uttered the dumbest comment possible.
“Inside, Billy,” ordered Mr. Whiteside. “George, you’re gonna be late for homeroom.” He gestured, and I fled.
I made homeroom just as the bell rang. Happy Jack would not be any deader if I bothered Mr. Whitesides with trivial details. Ol’ Whiteside was up there whuppin’ on Billy Brent’s useless ass, and I wasn’t gonna hang. God, life was good.
Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton