(Another week, another short piece of fiction).
* * *
The bad mojo, by my estimation, started when I popped the kid’s birthday balloon with my cigarette. I thought it would be funny. Funny for me, as it turns out. The gaggle of parents, post-party, standing just off the diagonal park path, the birthday boy’s balloon, one of five, possibly six, floating harmlessly, out over into my trajectory, the arc of my route, in the direction of home, probably, although I was certainly open to being sidetracked off on any sort of pleasant diversion that might come my way, the parents, that’s where I was headed, did not find my stunt in the least bit amusing.
The birthday boy either.
¡PPOPPP! went the balloon. As I passed, gently but not in the least bit surreptitiously touching the lit butt end to the yellow dirigible. For added affect, I jumped and screamed, yelled really, setting off a chain reaction of startle amongst pretty much all the partygoers as far as I could tell. Then some children’s crying.
“Von Hindenburg,” I stated back at the now glowering parents with a very, very bad German accent as I proceeded merrily along my way. I should’ve said, “Das Hindenburg”, the thing not the person. Das, the. If I should’ve said anything at all which is highly debatable.
Amidst the, what sounded to my ear as forced lamentations from the children, I mean, come on, it’s a balloon, for fuck sakes, one of more than one, plenty left to noiselessly expire into lifeless landfill fodder in a few days, I catch a muttered ‘asshole’ on the slight summer breeze. “Don’t, James! It’s not worth it. Who knows what he might do.”
Etc., etc. &on&on
In retrospect, I’m thinking retrospectively, of course, reassessing the progression of the day’s events, it would be more accurate to trace the lineage of what can only be described as something of a shit show back before the bursting of the balloon. I am not one usually inclined to disrupt a kid’s birthday party. I am not that type of clown. The mood had begun to sour antecedently, at my local where I had been having a couple pints while taking in a rare weekday matinee ball game, getaway day.
Ren was there too. Wren, I thought in my head, for no particular reason other than our casual, bar buddy relationship came to be based on little more than a quiet contempt of one another. Wren. What a bird brain. That kind of immature jockeying for drunken dominance.
In fact, Ren, it turns out, was short for Renault, his father, as I learned, a sportscar enthusiast not of French extraction. To my mind, better than other alternatives. Ferrari, say. Aston Martin. Merc, short for Mercedes. Merc the Herc. Possibilities being endless.
Today’s contention between us had to do with my theory that within our lifetime (knock wood) the game, the good old ball game, we would see the elimination altogether of the big stud starting pitcher.
“You think a sport as obsessed with numbers and metrics as major league baseball is,” I contended, “won’t come to the actuarial conclusion that spending $30 million per year for a guy who, best case scenario, gives them 14 innings a week is a bad investment?”
Ren didn’t. In turn, I didn’t listen to the reasons why he disagreed with my irrefutable logic. That’s the basic nature of our discourse.
“Spread the 14 innings a week over 3 or 4 games instead of 2,” I plowed on in the face of his tuttuttutting, “at maybe a 10th of the cost, no more than a fifth.”
Etc., etc. &on&on
All of it, or none of it, here nor there, much mattered to the abcs of the day’s shape until I got up off the barstool in between innings, or maybe it was a pitching change, heading down to the loo for a pee. Force of habit, I put my mask on. Good force of habit, I still think, despite sitting in a pub that, while not crowded, was enclosed, the windows at the far end of the room shut tight in favour of the A/C. Fine, whatever. It was stinking hot outside and I guess it did provide some sort of ventilation although I’d want an HVAC expert opinion to confirm my supposition.
The bathroom, on the other hand, smaller, a tight space. I wasn’t planning on spending hours there but still, some guy comes in, coughs, sneezes, exhales with a mighty sigh, why not mask up, I say? What harm is there in it? My Pascal’s Wager.
Another point on which Wren and I beg to differ.
Earlier in the pandemic, after things reopened, places like our local, it was revealed that Wren fell solidly into the hoaxer camp. It’s just a cold, the flu, not even a real thing, just government overreach, trying to micromanage our lives, new world order this, new world order that, how could they come up with a vaccine that fast, it normally takes years and years of research and development, microchips, Bill Gates, Freedom! You know the type. Probably one or two in your family, circle of acquaintances, the high school knobs you weren’t sure why you were friends with on Facebook in the first place. What are you doing on Facebook anyway?
Wren created quite the kerfuffle when the public orders mandated that drinking establishments like our local had to ask for proof of vaccination before allowing anyone onto the premises. Brouhaha, harumph, harumph, will never darken the door of this dump again! Outrageous trampling of personal rights and freedoms! Harumph, harumph. I kicked up an equally disagreeable fuss (although more principled in my opinion) when I saw him sitting at the bar a few weeks on, in no way changed vaccine-status wise, I was sure, in contravention of the standing public health order. Graeme the bartender just shrugged off my complaint, What are you gonna do? You gotta make a living. I’ll never darken the door of this dump again! I proclaimed. Harumph, harumph.
Eventually, we settled into an uneasy truce, drinking together more than 6 feet apart, trading barbs and exchanging (mis)information, until mandates melted away with the onset of summer, and we returned to a totally normal fabulism. This thing’s behind us. Let us not speak of it again.
“Even Fascist Fauci has stopped wearing those things,” Wren heckles me on my way to the bathroom. Again.
“You’ve seen him using public facilities, have you?” I call back, heading down the stairs. Again.
“Do you actually believe that…”
It continued an inning or two on, outside when we were both having a smoke. I can’t even remember what it was, the beef between us this time. We’d moved on from the virus or maybe it was another virus. Monkeypox? Yeah, sure. Why not. Covid, Monkeypox, the reemergence of polio, fucking polio, a bad flu season in the offing, yet another shingles vaccine. Something.
“Jab, jab, jab,” Wren complained. “Like a pin cushion. You think that’s normal?!”
I don’t know what I said. Something. Something like, “If fuck nuts like you would actually do their part, contribute a little something to society…” Blah, blah, blah. I was done, done for the day talking nonsense with nonsense talkers. Put me off my beer. Put me off the game. “Fuck it,” I told Wren. “I’m going home. You’re destroying my will to live, man.”
“Good,” he says as I head inside to settle up. “My day’s an unqualified success then.”
Bringing me to the kids’ birthday party, the busted balloon and now this asshole in his military-grade tank of a pickup slamming his brakes to a stop right dead in the middle of the crosswalk I’ve just stepped into. I’M WALKING HERE! I think but don’t say, content just to catch the driver’s eye which I can’t because the windows are totally tinted which I thought was illegal but guess it isn’t.
Passing in front of the truck, I toss my arms in the air to make a show of displeasure and slow my gait, 60-40 confident I’m not going to get bumped, these days on these streets, you can never be too sure. My display of pedestrianly defiance is met with a short, sharp, get-a-move-on-you’re-pissing-me-off-here honk. No contrition there, I think. No, Sorry for my asshole stop, my friend. Just an annoyance at having had to obey the rules of the road.
This is where the day really starts to unravel.
Feeling justly provoked, I make my way around the front of the truck and before the driver can peel off, I reach up with my housekeys in hand and scratch out a line of demarcation across the dink’s hood, roughly aligning it with the painted markings on the road below that indicated where drivers should be stopping their vehicles behind. Honestly. I don’t know what I expected to happen at this point, what sort of reaction I’d just incited from inside the belly of the beast. I wasn’t even sure how many people were in there, singing along to Toby Keith or some other country and western hillbilly. Was it a team of brawny tradesmen? Or a mom with her baby strapped safely in a baby seat in the back.
“THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!” squeaks a voice at me as the driver side door opens, forcing me to take a couple steps back. It’s a guy, at first glance, probably a little older than I am, jumping out of the cab and standing barely taller than the hood of his truck. A shorty in other words. That hadn’t been on my list of possibilities. I’m immediately thinking, Compensatory much, little man?
He continues to screech-scream unintelligible obscenities at me, as I give him a little more ground, his arms flailing around like one of those car lot floppy air dancers. Despite this, I misjudge the degree of animosity he’s carrying on his slight shoulders. I begin pointing at the painted pedestrian crossing zone his killing machine should not be parked in, looking down at the road. That’s when the tiny fuck suckers me.
Now, the number of times I’ve been punched in the face can be counted on one hand, I think. The previous three, if memory serves, knocked me on my ass, two of them rendered me unconscious, one permanently messed with my sense of smell when the back of my head hit a curb. This one, however, just surprises the hell out of me, staggers me back a couple more steps and fills me with a raging indignation.
“HEY, RAY, I NEVER WENT DOWN, MAN! YOU NEVER GOT ME DOWN, RAY!”
The driver realizes this, I’m guessing, his best shot shot, and he turns tail, like the runty piece of shit he is, making for his open driver’s door. I give chase, high-karate-ing the door before he can fully escape back into the truck. Clutching the leg I’d succeeded slamming the door on, he falls back out onto the ground beside his truck, screeching-wailing in pain now.
I’m at a bit of a loss at how to proceed. Do I kick him, kick a man when he’s down? I’ve never kicked anyone before, not deliberately at any rate. If I’m going to kick him, where should I kick him? Not in the head. That would be terrible, too gangster for my blood. In the side of his abdomen? In his already wounded leg?
During my indecision, the driver, still yowling, crawls to safety under his truck, presenting me with a new dilemma. Did he leave the keys in the truck, I wonder. Should I hop in and threaten to run him over? What happens, though, if I succeed. That won’t do. Maybe I should just walk away and claim victory.
It is right about then that James reappears. Remember James? Basically off-screen at the children’s balloon popping birthday party. “Don’t bother, James. He’s not worth it. You don’t know what he might do.” That James.
On his way home, I guess, James has seen all he needs to see, this park asshole now evidently harassing innocent truck drivers. Enough is enough, am I right? That’s how I wind up with a separated shoulder and broken hand. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. The shoulder separated during my tussle with James after his surprise attack. My broken hand when I manage to get a good pop at him in the chaos of restraint, a couple of his friends and onlookers interceding to break things up. It might’ve been the best punch I’ve thrown in my entire life.
When all is said and done, I come out the worst for wear, health-wise. For his heroic rescue attempt, James winds up with a measly shiner. The little fuck whines about his massive leg contusion and insists on being rolled out of the hospital in a wheelchair, assuring me I’ll be hearing from his lawyer. For pain and suffering and his truck. Little man’s going to ruin me, he tells me.
I’m also the only one of us who winds up with any sort of official sanction. Public nuisance and public intoxication or something. Citation and fine, for which I’m told I should consider myself lucky.
“If you’d keyed my truck,” the police officer tells me in a low conspiratorial voice, “I’dve run you over.”
He chuckles. Just joking. I chuckle back.
“No, you wouldn’t have, officer,” I assure him. “I’m white.”
“What did you say?”
I chuckle again. Just joking. The cop doesn’t return my chuckle.
“Dafonte Miller,” I add, but refrain from raising a black power fist.
This freezes the scene. Both of us, unfriendly, uncomfortable smiles on our faces. I’m shit scared, I confess, vowing to have a very serious discussion with that side of me that thought this was a road I wanted to be travelling down. What were you thinking? I’ll demand to know from that guy.
The officer’s smile grows in both its toothiness and menace. If I hadn’t been much on his radar before, just some obstreperous dickhead, ruining children’s birthday parties and vandalizing vehicles, I probably was now. Did he even recognize the reference? I wonder. Of course he did. How couldn’t he.
Maybe he was just as confused as I was about the reason I blurted out the name.
What did it have to do with anything that had happened today, was happening between the two of us now?
Nothing. Nothing had been premeditated, the balloon, the truck, this, whatever this was right now. I didn’t get out of bed this morning and think: Hey! Let’s stir up some shit. The plan, essentially, was to have a few beers and watch a ball game. That was the direction I intended my day to take.
I just grew tired of the, what? Perfidy? Is that the word I’m looking for? The self-serving lies and shabby conduct. Wren and his counterfactual lifestyle, a lazy undermining simply to avoid the hard work of holding the true villains out there to account. The status-addled preening, consumer madness luring us to the shoals with the voices of pretend cowboys and their monosyllabic grunts. Tough! Rock! Rough! Roll! Kill! Maim! Mar!
And the balloon? What can I say? Maybe nobody should be celebrating these days. Living it up in the green and pleasant parks only recently cleared with jackbooted brutality of those with no place else to go. Maybe I wanted to dole out a little hard-knock lesson. It’s a nasty world out there, kids. Get used to it. Do I look like I’m wearing a red cardigan?
I don’t know. A stretch perhaps. A stretch.
“For what it’s worth, officer,” I break the silence between us, matter-of-factly more than anything. “This hasn’t been a typical day for me.”
He continues to grin at me, more a grimace now. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. I have to be the least of his problems out on the beat today. You’d hope, at any rate. A minor altercation that, in all likelihood, would’ve sorted itself out, no police involvement necessary. Yet, here we were. Me with a fat lip, broken hand in a cast, the other arm in a sling. Him, offended, I guess, by my utterly out-of-context taunt.
“I take it you’re able to safely find your way home, Mr…” he says finally, looking down at the ticket he’s still holding, “Belle, without further instigating any more trouble?” He hands me the ticket, still showing his teeth, literally and figuratively, I’m thinking. “Mr. Belle.”
He watches as I attempt to neatly fold the piece of paper up and tuck it into my breast pocket, the injuries I’ve sustained making it a more awkward task than usual, even more so as I discover the pocket’s been ripped during the fracas. As I try to figure out an alternative, maybe I’ll just hold on to it unti—the officer gently plucks the ticket from my hand and pops it inside my sling.
“Like we tell the kids these days, Mr. Belle,” he says, stepping past me toward the door outside to the street, “try and make better choices in the future.” I listen without turning around to his exit steps.
He’s not wrong, I think, considering the current state of me. I look down at my torn pocket and the rest of the mess of my outfit. I really liked this shirt too.
You get your hands too dirty, they’ll only let you dig ditches, I remember an uncle saying to me, after the first time I got punched in the face. Maybe the second. In that cryptic accent of his that my mom, his sister, didn’t have, Dutch, he claimed. Romanian, on another occasion. When I made it obvious I had no idea what he was getting at, he made it clearer for me.
Keep your head down and your nose out of other people’s business. You’ll be alright.
Maybe, I think, standing here, decades later, battered and bruised, nearly an old man now. Or maybe, just don’t go around bursting kids’ balloons. A code I could learn to live by.