The trees. That’s what I remember most. The trees, sailing by under the languid, dripping light of the street lamps. I couldn’t see them well, but they were there nonetheless. I smelled their browning, crackling leaves just beginning their descent to the street, even in those frenzied moments. There were cars, of course, and houses with their own rectangular lights beaming into my peripheral vision, but the trees. They were living things staring down at a grand transformation.
The guy was dark-skinned, Jheri-curled, totally 80s, and hard to pick up in the night made more glowering by the trees. I had seen him in the parking lot as I took out the garbage, the knife, like his hair, glinting as he pointed it straight at Al, who reluctantly handed him her purse. She shrank back on one foot, arms half-raised like bank tellers in the movies who are being robbed.
Now that I think about it all these year later, there was no conscious decision to do what I did. Just a throaty, “Hey!” I dropped the greasy garbage bucket that reeked of fried fish and potato salad, already in pursuit.
He sprinted like a high school track star. Under those normal circumstances he would have blown me away, but here, I gained. I closed in on him. Despite the sucking sound echoing from my lungs in rhythm with the shockwaves of pain in my shins with each foot that hit the pavement, it was liberating.
Life’s training wheels fell off.
From somewhere behind me came Al’s sandpaper cry – “Let him go. Let him go, kid. It ain’t worth it.” I ignored it because it was just another of her orders, a heart murmur of ten minutes earlier when she stormed out of the back door of Jac’s Supper Club, leaving me in a near-tearful fit of rage.
“When’re ya gonna learn, sonny boy?” She had gripped a whisk broom with white knuckles as if she was ready to use it on me. “Ya better wake up and change your ways, or yer gonna be out on yer ear.”
A pause of reflection in the empty kitchen. Even the cooks had punched out, and her next words echoed off the stainless steel of the dishwasher.
“I’m leavin’. Yer closin’ up.”
I had never done that before. It left me terrified. What if I F’d it up? What if there was a big, fat mess tomorrow morning, or worse?
Her purse was almost within reach. It felt near enough to touch as it bounced under the moonlight, grasped tightly in the guy’s hand, the knife in the other. He made a sharp, sudden turn to the right and headed across the open, grassy prairie of a corner house, a juvenile white oak hovering nearby. I tried the same maneuver and spun hard, nearly hitting the ground. My ankle cracked, but I righted myself.
He bought himself a step or two. That’s all.
I favored my right leg a little, but I sped up. I was a running back. I was holding an invisible football at chest level, my right arm extended, ready to ward off a would-be tackler, wearing a powder-blue Marshall football uniform, despite the fact that I had never put on a helmet in my life. The Marshall football players were bastards, once tying my hundred-pound frame to the stall in the second-floor bathroom. But they were tough, and in most peoples’ minds, legendary.
I was as tough as they were.
I became the legend.
Jac’s was my first high school job, my first paying job. Sure, I had shoveled snow, raked leaves, cut lawns and whatnot, which put a few bucks in the pockets of my Levi’s as a youth. But there was nothing like that first paycheck from Jac’s, a grand total of twenty-four ninety-one for eight hours of work. (Do the math; that’s when minimum wage was three dollars and thirty five cents.) I had actually done real, bonafide work for those dollars, and the proof was on paper, though I realize now that that work was at the expense of everyone around me. Including Al.
Al’s given name was Alvina, and she stood maybe five-foot, always wearing a black blouse and green apron. She was probably in her late 60s at that time, in fall 1985, but her beehive hair was apple red. The lines on her face cut deeply under her bifocals, craggy rivulets that reminded me of the Grand Canyon that I had never seen in person, only in pictures. She stalked around in a pair of sensible orthopedic shoes, and cussed as if she was a longshoreman, loud and long and laboriously. Even Jac, a hard man who was known to drop an F bomb or two while dropping another load of fish into the deep fryer, had to shake his head.
“Dammit to hell,” Al shrieked earlier that evening as I chatted up a cute hostess that was in my English class at Marshall. “You talk too much!”
I just laughed. It wasn’t because of the statement – I had heard it all before – but because of the inflection, a low, guttural tone that came from deep within her constitution and cut across the chaos that is a Polish supper club on a fish fry Friday night in Milwaukee. In all likelihood, it filtered its way onto the dining room floor, drifting over the sultry deep-fryer steam and the clanging of pots and pans.
“Ah, the hell with it.” She flung up her hands.
That’s what I thought as the pain in my ankle started to shimmy up my leg tendon by tendon. I was still within spitting distance of the purse, a bone-white handbag with red and blue squares on the sides and a pair of spaghetti straps.
The thief pulled away. Our steps fell out of rhythm. His grew just a tad fainter. Somewhere I realized I wasn’t a running back anymore – I was a defensive back trying desperately to keep a flanker from hitting paydirt. I considered lying out and making one last desperate dive for the purse when I nearly tripped over it.
He dropped the purse. Then came the tinkle-tinkle of something metal hitting the pavement and I realized he had dumped the knife, too. He cut another precision ninety-degree hard right and like a hurdle, nearly vaulted a chain-link fence that bridged two houses, and was gone. The reason was a pair of white MPD squad cars idling on the cross street ahead, the cops jabbering away. Oblivious.
You talk too much!
A maroon Coupe de Ville screeched to a stop behind me, and there was Al, hobbling over to where I was sitting on the curb, ankle throbbing something fierce, but I had the purse and the knife.
“I toldja not to go after him, kid.” No thanks, or even a howdy-do. “You coulda gotten hurt. Dammit, anyway …” She threw her arm around me, helped me to my feet, and I jump-stepped the entire way to her car, shooting pain through my ankle with each impact. The leaves fell from the trees, the smell like burnt toast creeping into my nostrils.
Years later, I was at Al’s wake, her hands clasped in prayer to a God she continuously blasphemed, the nails of her dish-worn hands painted, which felt like blasphemy. A table stood nearby. Littered with photos from throughout her life, I spied something else, the purse. I smirked to myself and recalled the drive we made to St Joe’s Hospital, where I was born and a night when I was reborn in a distinct way.
As Al turned the wheel and drove me and my throbbing ankle for treatment, she left me with the only words that have ever really mattered. “You’re all right, Eric. You’re all right.”
Gregg Voss is a marketing communications writer during the day and covers high school sports most evenings and weekends. In the intervening time, he is a prolific fiction writer – most recently, he had a short story published in the Winter 2018 edition of Door County Magazine, and another published in the December edition of The Write Launch. Additionally, he has completed his first long-form manuscript, a short story collection tentatively titled “The Valley of American Shadow,” which he hopes to publish in 2019. Finally, he’s also working on his first novel.