I washed down my last bite of gas station pizza with a hot gulp of black coffee from my thermos. That’s when the man came into view. He wore a bulky tan jacket, jeans and boots- the right sole flapping with each step. His breath plumed into the air while he kept his face in his phone. I scoffed. “Uh-huh.”
The poor slob’s breaths grew into thicker plumes like clouds from an old factory that had seen its best days decades ago. He stopped and peered at the gas station. Then he directed his steps toward it and took a seat on the sidewalk, leaning his old back against the wall.
“All right, hoss.”
I slid the gear-shifter into drive and pulled across the street. When I reached the parking lot, I stopped.
A man walked over to the older man propped against the wall. He must have stood about six feet four inches and wore enough muscle on him to give any attacker pause. He took hold of the older man’s collar. The older man dropped his phone onto the sidewalk. A movie played on the screen. The big man jerked him around a few times. I unlocked my door and pulled the latch.
A cruiser pulled a car over a ways up the road. Those flashing blue lights kept me in my seat.
The older man dug into his jacket pocket and handed a wad of bills over to the bigger man. The bigger man eased up and counted it. Then he patted the older man’s chest hard and walked away, saying, “I’ll catch you on payday, pops.”
The big man climbed into a Ford F-150 which sat high, thanks to a lift kit and forty-four inch tires. He rumbled away from the gas station and honked his horn. I shook my head and called up Glew.
A week later, I parked at the same spot across the street from the gas station. Glew sat parked at a liquor store adjacent to the gas station. The older man hobbled by at about the same time as last Friday night, staring into his phone of course. Glew pulled up beside him. So I drove across the street.
Glew parked beside the older man and opened the passenger side door. The older man spoke to him. Then the big man in the Ford F-150 pulled in next to the same pump he’d parked beside the previous week. He marched into the station, counting the money in his hand. The older man shook his head “No” at Glew. I parked the little car I’d picked up the day before and jogged behind the older man. I slid a fifty into his hand and said, “Just go, man.”
The older man stared at the money. Mr. F-150 walked out of the gas station. I nudged the older man into Glew’s car. Glew took off. So I took a seat up by the wall with my phone in my hands. I also wore a puffy tan jacket, jeans and boots. I kept my head down, waiting.
Mr. F-150 turned the corner. He stepped closer to me but he stopped. I watched his shadow out of my peripheral vision while exhaling puffy clouds into the night air. Come on, big boy. Come on. Reach in my pocket. It’s me-the kindly old man with his head in his phone. Come on.
Mr. F-150 clucked his tongue, turned and walked back to his truck. I swallowed. A wolf can smell a wolf, I reckon.
I crept over to the F-150. With the big man pumping his gas on the other side, I got down on my knee by the back driver’s side tire and removed the valve cap. Then I placed the tip of my flat-head screwdriver onto the metal pin inside the valve stem and pushed forward.
Mr. F-150 said, “Hey. Hey now. Hey.”
He bolted around the back bumper and grabbed hold of my collar. I reached into my pocket. He jerked me around until I faced him. I’d bet a big dollar that this old boy had bailed his share of hay. He wore a grimace at me but there in his eyes, he held a light of excitement. Oh yeah, big boy. This is what you live for. You and I. All the hum-drum daily life is just the down time until we meet like this. And now, meet this. I squeezed the trigger.
The pepper spray flooded his face. He grabbed the can right after. Oh yeah. He had put lots of fellows on their knees with that death grip. That didn’t last but a second though. He doubled over, tumbling to his own knees. He rubbed the backs of his hands against his eyes and cheeks, making a low growl. I sprayed him again in the mouth. He spat and snorted and tried to blow out all of the chemicals. A sloppy soup of mucus splattered on the parking lot next to a mashed cigarette butt.
While he bent over, I slipped his wallet out of his jeans and reached inside- lots of hundreds. I slid the cash into my pocket and checked out his ID. I smiled and said, “Max Waxman?”
He changed his tone to a weaker one, rubbing his eyes. “Aw, please now. Come on now. I need that money.”
I said, “That old man needed his money.”
“Nicodemus is weak. I got kids.”
I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll catch you on payday, pops.”
I drove a few miles on down to the rat hole motel. Glew had followed the old man or, Nicodemus, for the past week at night and learned he lived there, paying the weekly rate. Glew then used his powers of research and found out the man had lost his wife earlier in the year and took to drinking and lost his house and his car. He still managed to hold onto his job somehow. I parked the little car I’d bought for five hundred bucks, hoping it didn’t die on me. Then I tapped on Nicodemus’ room.
Glew answered the door. “Hey, stud.”
A soap opera played on the TV. A couple of suitcases and piles of clothes sat on the floor next to the bed. Glew resumed his seat beside Nicodemus. He held a box of Goobers toward me. I shook my head and took out the wad of cash along with the keys to the car outside. I snapped my fingers at Nicodemus, getting his head out of the TV. He said, “Oh, hey.”
I handed him the money and keys. “This should get you by. The car outside ain’t much but it beats walking.”
He stared at his new possessions. Then he wiped his eyes and said, “Thank you, son.”
Glew handed him a prepaid cell phone. “You have any more trouble…just call the number in the phone. We’ll help you out.”
Nicodemus looked up at me as if I was a great monument. “This don’t seem real.”
I switched off the TV. Glew said, “Oh, come on, Fairfax. It’s just getting good.”
I looked at Nicodemus. “You won’t ever know what’s real until you get your head out of that box…”
I pulled back the window curtain. “…and start looking at what’s around you.”
Nicodemus watched us leave with his mouth hung open. Just before Glew drove us away, he took a seat beside the window and waved “good-bye” to us.