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Mister Baines
Flood #4
August 1956
He felt like something was up, like Alvin was frightened for a reason, and didn’t bother fussing over the way. He saw himself as the protector here, as it had been made clear to him in the look of Aunt Bell’s eyes.
After about 15 minutes they were at the grocery store, a place where most any kind of food could be had. The bullies or thieves or bandits, whatever they had been, seemed to exist only in Alvin’s darting eyes.
My, it was hot! They were thirsty when they got to the grocery parking lot, which held perhaps ten cars, half of the parking spots empty. The building was big to him in his young years, though in is older days he would remark how it would only be big enough for a 7-11 or other overnight convenience store.
As Alvin and he neared the supermarket front, two elderly white folks were rolling their cart down over the curb with some trouble, and Israel, on impulse took it upon himself to guide that cart over the curb and take it to the man’s car, a man who seem ancient, with skin so thin you could see through it to the veins within. Alvin hung back looking at Israel like he had lost his mind, and, after the man had helped his wife into the big car, and closed the back door after Israel had placed the last bag within, he reached out his hand holding two nickels and said, “Buck, get you and your brother a soda—it’s mighty hot out.”
Just like that the old man was lurching off around to the driver’s side and Israel was smiling and tossing the nickels in his left hand while pushing the rattling cart back with his right. Alvin, all of a sudden happy, began to skip, and into the store they went, eying the soda machine on the sidewalk with returning intent.
As he pocketed the nickels and pushed the cart in, as Alvin held the side of the basket with one hand, apparently his accustomed place when shopping with his mother, a large man in a white button shirt, black tie and black slacks blocked his path and looked down at him through bloodshot eyes over a light-skinned sweep of cheek, “Boy, did you ask my customer for a tip?”
“No, Sir,” spoke Israel, knowing instinctively when not to hesitate, smile or back-sass.
The man continued, “If you wish to help customers on the lot you may, so long as you do not hold out that hand less they offer to tip you first. Understand?”
“Yes, Sir, Mister Baines. I bet you will be offering to pay me one day. I work.” he said having noted the sign above the front windows and impressed with the money making opportunity of being in close proximity to both white folks as well as folks of a mind to sit on their front stoop all day.
“Watch yourself, now,” chuckled Mister Baines as he patrolled the front of his store and the boys headed back to the meat counter after that chicken and fixings…
Miss Arlene, the lady who rang out the order and recorded Aunt Bell’s bill in a book, bagged the groceries so that there were two bags, one with chicken and kale and the other with biscuit mix, snap peas and butter. This gave them both a free hand to buy their sodas from the machine, use the bottle top remover and begin enjoying their refreshment, cola for Israel and orange soda for Alvin.
They were so thirsty that they drank these right away, and Israel, feeling like the big man, reached into his pocket and put in a dime, getting them each another cold soda and 15 cents in change—which didn’t make no sense, as if that machine thought that a dime was a quarter. Thinking that this was the time to put on the good face, Israel took those three nickels back inside to Mister Baines and explained his theory of vended change.
Israel would work for Mister Baines and his son on and off for decades to come.
Placing their empty bottles in the return bottle crate next to the machine, Israel and Alvin began their leisurely way home, drinking soda and carrying groceries until they were about half way there. Crossing an alley on Prestman they were stopped by the Lanvale Boys, five mean fellows between 12 and 14 who knew Alvin by name, and before whom Alvin shook as he stopped and set his grocery bag down. It didn’t take much more than a fool to know what was about to occur, so Israel handed Alvin his bag and took his soda bottle, drank it all back as the oldest boy, a little bigger and leaner than Israel stepped up to say something. With a belch of orange soda, Israel answered by pulling the bottle from his lips and hammering it down into the front teeth of that sucker, causing blood and mess and two teeth to begin to squirt, dangle and leak.
As the older boy’s hands went to his bloody mouth, Israel kicked him up between the legs, felt nutsacks give and watched the highway robber go to his knees in the mouth of that unnamed alley. The other boys just stood around open mouthed and Israel was amazed that his bottle had not broken. Why, in the movies, bottles always broke in saloon fights. Feeling momentarily weak, Israel realized it was probably because he was right handed and that orange soda bottle had hammered home with his left hand. So he guzzled the remainder of the coke in his right hand and then hammered that down on the top of the nappy head of that kneeling, bleeding, nut-aching clown and he fell over like he was dead.
The others just stood all around and Alvin was wide-eyed and amazed. So Israel thought he’d play it up and, noting an old gray-haired man grinning and rocking on the nearest porch, said as man-like as he could to the Lanvale Boys, “Ma name is Israel, Israel Flood. Alvin here is ma little cousin. You all undastand or is you stupit?”
They understood.
It would always amuse him from this point on how right his Daddy had been, that as soon as a man calmly commences to hammer the shit out of trifling fools, that they all of a sudden start acting like they have some sense about them.
Well, he wasn’t yet thirteen, but he knew right there and then that he was already a man.
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