Loose Change

By: Gary Gray

 

On a hazy, hot summer afternoon in Louisville, two boys sat on the sidewalk outside the liquor store, staring at the bucket of fish they had been carrying for an hour.

“What kind of fish are they?” Darrel asked.

“I think they are Chubs?” Larry answered. “If we don’t take them back down to the creek, they’ll die.” The boys had just walked to their grandpas’ liquor store from the creek at the other end of Travillion Way, where they had spent their morning fishing.

The liquor store was their hangout; Granddad always let the boys play in the stock room. This way, he could keep an eye on them and maybe keep them out of a little trouble. At fifteen, Larry was the older of the two brothers. Skinny twelve-year-old Darrel followed his older brothers’ lead, as all little brothers do. School was out for the summer and had been for a couple of weeks. Their summer started the same way as last years, mornings fishing at the creek, playing baseball in the afternoons in the field by the zoo, hanging out with grandpa at the liquor store.

Travillion Way was a busy street. The boys’ grandparents lived there and the boys liked staying there for weeks on end during their summer breaks from school. They were free to do as they pleased, so long as it did not involve the police and was not destructive.

Ma, as they called their grandmother, had a bad hip and spent most of her time lying home alone in bed, reading books and drinking beer. Their grandfather, Slim, owned a liquor store within walking distance of the little white house, just down the road at the intersection of Travillion and Preston Streets, a busy intersection on the south side of Louisville. Sometimes, the boys would sit on the sidewalk at rush hour and watch for car wrecks in the intersection, which happened about twice a week. For them, it was always neat to see the ambulances and wreckers halt traffic for hours; sometimes there would be serious injuries and they would get to watch the dead and mangled bodies be carted away.

The neighborhood was full of small businesses. Across the street from the house, the new city Zoo was under construction, which provided much of the boys’ entertainment. Next door to the liquor store was an Italian restaurant and a beauty salon. The liquor store; however, was the neater place to be. The boys could get free Coca Cola and candy bars and so long as they did not hang out in the front of the store or play with the pistol under the counter, they could come and go as they pleased.

“Look, one of em’s dead.” Darrel said, pointing to the bucket of fish. Larry grabbed the floating fish and raised it to Darrel’s face.

“You wanna eat it?”

“Get it outta here.” Darrel swept Larry’s hand away and the little dead fish landed in front of them on the pavement. Larry stood and kicked the fish across the parking lot in the direction of the telephone booth sitting near the road. The two boys watched the fish skip across the asphalt and glide to a stop next to the booth. They stood in silence for a moment until Darrel ran to the fish, picking it up.

“I got an idea.” Darrel said smiling and waiving the little fish, as though he knew his older brother would be impressed.

“What are you doing?” Larry asked.

“I’ll put the fish in the coin return slot; Willie will find it when he checks for change. We’ll watch and it’ll be funny.” Waving the fish at his brother and giggling, he turned and stepped into the phone booth and then stuffed the small dead fish in the coin return slot on the telephone.

“Good idea.” Larry agreed. “Let’s go play inside; it’s too hot out here. We’ll come back out later and watch for Willie.” Larry said, turning and opening the front door of the liquor store.

Slim had the television on; the Cincinnati Reds were playing a day game. He always watched the games from behind the counter on his portable black and white TV set. The crisp air of the air-conditioned store was a relief from the soppy day. The boys, smelling of sweat and fish, skittered to the storage room at the rear of the store. From there they could lay their plans for the rest of the day.

Resigned to another day of boredom, Slim stood at the counter gazing through the glass window towards the street. It was a slow time of day for the store. He watched as a car drove up with two men inside. One man exited the car and glanced through the glass window at him, tucking his head before walking haltingly towards the door. The other man continued to sit behind the wheel of the car. The man entering the store walked directly to the beer cooler for a browse. Noticing the un-tucked shirt and nervous demeanor, Slim warily continued to observe the unkempt customer.

“I’m gonna go get us a candy bar.” Larry said to his little brother. He then walked to the front of the store and to the counter where his grandpa was standing. Slim was half watching the game and half watching the man on the other side of the store at the beer cooler as Larry stepped behind the counter.

“I’m gonna get some candy bars, okay?” Larry said to his grandpa.

“Yea, sure.” Slim replied, not fully paying attention, his eyes still focused on the man at the beer cooler.

Larry squatted low behind the counter below the cash register, looking for a fresh box of Milky Way bars; he never liked taking them from the rack in front because those were too stale. He fumbled through the boxes searching for his delight.

The man at the beer cooler walked to the counter and placed a six-pack of beer on the glass counter top. Slim pecked the price into the cash register and with a ding, the drawer popped open. Squatting, Larry observed through the glass counter, the man extracting a revolver from beneath his un-tucked shirt.

“Gimme what’s in the register old man? I’ll blow you’re damn head off if you give me any trouble.” The man said, raising the revolver to Slims face. Slim stepped back and raised his hands.

Larry was trembling. He realized the robber did not know he was squatting below the counter. He looked at the shelf below the cash register, seeing his grandfather’s pistol on the shelf. He knew his grandpa would not be able to reach it in time, his instincts told him to grab the gun. Larry gently grasped 45-caliber automatic pistol, his arms straining under its weight, and in an instant, he pointed it through the glass counter at the man with the drop on his grandpa. As his straining hands shook, the boy sighed. The man hearing the sigh glanced down, spotting the squatting boy behind the counter.

Knowing he was now spotted, Larry cocked the hammer of the pistol and pulled the trigger. With a deafening sound and shattering glass, the pistol discharged. Larry’s aim was good; the bullet struck the robber in the upper chest, pushing his body backwards as blood spurted into the air. As the man stumbled, his arm raised and he squeezed off a round from his revolver. The bullet whizzed past Slims head and struck the glass window beyond. Larry rose from his squat behind the counter and fired again, this time striking the man in the hip. The sound of the bullet striking bone reverberated through the store like a tree limb snapping. Larry fired again and continued pulling the trigger repeatedly, sending a hail of bullets into the limp body of the groaning man until the chamber of the .45 automatic locked open, smoke still wafting from the barrel.

The echo of the hot pistol brass dancing on the tile floor resonated in the deafening silence of the liquor store. Holding the emptied pistol in his hands, Larry’s arms were still shaking. Placing his hand on top of the smoking pistol still in the youngsters grasp, Slim pulled the weapon from his grandson’s hand and turned towards the window; outside, the car and other man had left.

Laying motionless on the floor in a puddle of blood and broken glass, the dead man had a distorted look on his face. His body was contorted amongst the boxes of liquor, his revolver lay harmlessly a few feet away in the isle.

Darrel stood in the doorway of the storeroom; his eyes were wide, and his jaw agape.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“Call the police son. Don’t come up here, just call the police.” Slim said to his youngest grandson. Darrel turned and rushed to the telephone sitting on the desk in the storage room.

The police arrived, questioning Slim and the boys, taking photos and poking around for evidence. Slim didn’t tell the police the truth. He did not want his grandson to go though any more than he already had. Slim told them he did the shooting himself, fearing for his life, he ducked and grabbed the pistol and then came up firing.

“It’s a clear case of self defense…,” they said, “I wouldn’t worry about a trial…We won’t be filing any charges on this one.” they said. “Take care of those boys.” They said.

Hours later, with the police gone, the body removed, the blood cleaned up, and the sun going down, the boys finally walked out of the store and sat together on the sidewalk. Inside the store, the evening news was playing on the television as Slim stared through the window at the boys, momentarily noticing the bullet hole in the window. As the boys sat in silence on the sidewalk, gazing up Travillion way, they spotted Willie the bum, making his dizzy trip towards the liquor store.

Willie made his staggering trip down Travillion way every afternoon at about sunset. He stumbled drunkenly, along the side of the busy street as cars honked their horns anytime he wavered close to the road. He staggered into the liquor store parking lot and wobbled his way into the phone booth. Once inside the phone booth, he leaned on the glass and reached for the telephones’ coin return slot, searching for loose change.

Probing sanguinely with his filthy trembling fingers, Willie pulled the tiny dead fish from the coin return slot and held it to his face for study. He neatly tucked it into his coat pocket and then stumbled on his way. The boys laughed.

Wrapping their arms around each other’s shoulders, the boys walked towards home along Travillion Way to tell Ma about their day.

“See, I told you it would be funny.” Darrel said.