A Friday Afternoon After Work: Spring 1983

by Jason Thompson

          It was a little bit after 4:00 pm on a Friday and I was tired. We had to pull a double load on a skeleton crew just so we could get the weekend off. I would have rather have worked Saturday for more money and less work, but thats factory life for you. I really wanted to go home, but I promised Linda I would pick up a loaf of bread and some lunch meat. So I parked the pickup truck about 50 feet from the store entrance and made my way inside.

            When I first entered, my feet seemed like they were fused to the hard tile floor by what my eyes saw but my brain failed to process very quickly. The cashier, who was a neer-do-well in high school named Cecil Fairley, was kneeling behind the counter with tears streaming down his rodent-like face. He was screaming frantically to two big men with guns, Tell Ray Ill have his money next Thursday! Thats when I get paid!

            The smaller of the two men replied angrily, Thats what you said two weeks ago. What did you do with the last paycheck?"

            Gimme a break!!! I have a wife and three little boys, Cecil held out his left hand to make his wedding band visible.

            The bigger man spoke with a voice that caused the display windows to vibrate, guys that have families should know better than to associate with the likes of us.

            Please!!! You gotta believe me, Cecil was really putting on the waterworks now.

            Well, now youll believe us, for about a second anyway, the smaller man said before his partner fired his gun. The last I ever saw of Cecil was a red spout with bone, brain matter, and greasy dark brown hair.

            While all this was happening, my feet still felt like they were connected to another persons body that I had no control over. It was at that moment of realization that the two men started to look in the direction in which I was cemented. I have never once claimed to be a mind reader, but I am pretty sure that they were thinking, no loose ends.

            I wanted so bad to at least shout, Look, Im not gonna tell anyone. Just let me live. Yet, all the time I was trying to work out a way to survive so I could call the police. However, the fear that connected my feet to the floor somehow also restricted my vocal cords. All I was able to blurt out were a few ineffectual noises that would have made me sound like I lost control of my motor abilities.

            Both of these men now held their guns level to my face. I was thinking very sadly that the only thing left I could do was to stand. I was locked in a perpetual stance that prohibited all movement, even that of cohesive thought when the shot came. The gigantic man who stood in the rear began to slowly keel over and fall into the candy bar rack. Once the rack and its array of Hershey and Mars Bars spilled onto the floor, what was left of the behemoths brain leaked out of the hole on the top of his head.

            The second shot came and with it most of the other mans head. He fell within only inches of his partner. The blood from both of their head wounds combined into a large pool that slowly, but surely inched its way toward the soft drinks cooler. After looking a couple of seconds longer than I should have at the gruesome red mass of liquid, a middle-aged, blond haired man about six feet tall carrying a large rifle emerged from behind the peanut butter aisle.

His eyes alternated between looking at me, like I was a child who pissed my pants, and the two nearly decapitated men. He somehow bounded the three or four yard between us in what seemed like a fraction of a second, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, placed his rifle on the late Cecils counter and slapped me hard across the face three times.

            He shouted with a deep, Southern accented voice, Boy, if you wanna get the hell outta here then you better get your goddamn head together, right damn now!!!

            It was then that my feet were able to move, but vocal capacity was limited to vowels and w sounds for what seemed like forever. I tried to ask what was going on, waaa, wuuh, woo,waah?

           What the hell are you jabbering on about? Lets get in your car and get out of here!!!, the blond man said as he grabbed his rifle. Having his rifle in one hand and the back of my neck in the other, we made our way out of the store. Normally, I dont let rough looking men with rifles in my pickup, but he saved my life. So, what could I do? As soon as I was sitting in thedriver seat and him in the passenger, he told me, I need you to drive around a while. If you got somewhere you need to go, it can wait an hour or so.

          Where do you want to go?, I asked as I turned the ignition key.

          Just drive around, be quiet, and keep your eyes up front.

           I chose the freeway that led out of town. My passenger appeared to care about that as much as if I would have chosen any other direction. When I drive, my eyes drift sometimes. Its a habit left over from how my father told me to move my eyes around to keep from becoming too complacent, and tired, when he taught me to drive. So, it should come natural that I kept stealing looks at the man beside me. The brief looks I caught let me know that his lips were arranged in what looked like a permanent sneer and that his hair and beard looked slightly awkward as if they should have been a different color, darker perhaps(?). I knew this man from somewhere. But where? I dont remember seeing him around town, but surely Ive seen him before.

          Keep your eyes on the road, he said while giving me a stare to discourage any further eye movement.

           Sorry., I said while trying to focus my eyes on the asphalt.

           Ten minutes later, the silence was starting to get to me. With my left hand on top of the steering wheel, I turned on the radio with my right. I heard a second and a half snippet of a song that I did not have a chance to recognize before the familiar looking man turned it off. Sitting rock still, he said, leave it off. I dont have time for music anymore.

           Somehow, this man with his bizarre familiarity and by the way he said the word music irked me far more than when he slapped me in the store. It was like he put a little flake of popcorn in my teeth I could not work out with my tongue. The gears in my brain were working harder than they ever did during my school days. Something must have given him a sign when my mental circuitry connected in a way that pointed to a name. The name it led me to was a single first name that I knew of no other person in possession of. It was at that exact second that I knew and he knew that I knew. Even though my vision was confined to straight ahead plus or minus five degrees, I could tell he was looking right at me.

           I could keep my silence no more. I asked, Are you who I think

           I was sure you would have come to that conclusion, and since I dont like to lie to honest people, I might as well come and out and say it.

           But you died six year ago, I said with equal amounts of belief and disbelief.

           And since I did you a big favor in that store, thats what you will tell anybody if they ask you from here on out.

            Whats going on?

            Its not really something I wanna talk about right now. And by the way, now were on the subject of favors, you owe me a couple

             What do you need?

             I want a nice warm homemade meal and a bed to sleep on tonight.

             This was not going be easy because Linda does not like company on Friday night. She loves her peace and quiet during the evening. I try to oblige her that one comfort since she doesnt get it having to work as a nurse at the psych ward.

              Sure, Ill do that.

              Also, I need for you to not tell anybody what Im going to do. I may have seemed harsh a bit earlier, but that was an occasion that called for quick and decisive thinking. Both of which you were sorely lacking at the time. I need you thinking clearly. What you saw back there is something no decent, hard-working man should ever have to see, but those were two very evil men who were going to do the same thing to you. It had to be done. I believe you are a decent man, and discretion is part of decency. So I dont need for you to go off and blab about something that nobody with a right mind would believe anyway. Got it?

              Yeah.

              I need you to understand that I am an officer of the law. So it is very important that you do exactly as I tell you. Now, do you have a name?

              Phillip James Hicks.

              Phil, lets go to your house now.

              Twenty minutes later, I pulled into my driveway. Linda was already waiting at the door

with a scowl that told me without a sound, Youre late, buster!!! When Linda has that look, its best just to face the music rather than to run away.

          I dont really remember much of what I said other than things like Itll only be one night., He saved my life., and Im sorry I forgot the bread and lunch meat. I was pretty sure she was going to send me and the man on our way when she kept interrupting me by shouting, PHIL!!! PHIL!!! PHIL!!!. When she shouts like that, counter-interruptions are futile.

              She looked at me with her exasperated hazel eyes and shook her head from side to side,Phil, what are you doing just standing there yappin like a durned fool? You gonna let that man in or not?

              Once we were inside, Linda had already started on dinner which consisted of extra servings of pork chops, corn on the cob, fried potatoes, and corn bread with apple pie for dessert. I showed the man the guest bedroom. There was only a single bed, a nightstand with a lamp and a small dresser. I turned my head and said, I know it aint much, but

              Its perfect., he said with a slight smile.

              I left him to the small room so I could talk with Linda. She talked first by sharply whispering, Phil, is that who I think it is?

              I tried to keep my word with the man, but there was no use in lying to my wife, Come on Linda. We cant go around telling people. I need you to listen to me for the next few minutes or so. I preceded to tell her everything I could. I concluded by saying, So please, lets keep it to ourselves.

             She looked at me with a smug little smile and said, I knew it when he walk in the door,

              Please, lets not talk about

              Mmmm, that smells good, a deep voice exclaimed. A couple of seconds later he sighed and pulled up a chair from our kitchen table, Look, Ill just come out with it now since you aint no idiot, Phil. And you, Linda are obviously not an idiot yourself. Ordinarily, I would have been offended by the slight insult upon my intelligence if it was not so painfully true.

              I am the man you think I am. I was on top of the world but after a while it wasntenough. I had money, mansions, cars, and I could have had any woman I wanted. But I lacked the one thing I truly needed most. Much like I saved your life, a man named Richard Nixon saved mine. He had this new fangled government agency that he wanted me to be a part of.It was made public that I was an honorary officer. But the truth wasthat it was a little more official than that. You see, Nixon was scared of drugs and he went to the one man he felt could change things for the youth in our nation: me.

              Both Linda and I looked at each other.

              He continued, For several years, we had a plan going even when that Watergate thing went south for him. I did pills that I didnt want to take and I put on weight that I didnt want to put on. It damn near killed me. So, at that time there others who tried to leech off my fame by acting just like me. They really didnt look like me as much as they did each other. There was this fat construction worker from Omaha who had a worse pill habit than me took my place right around the beginning of 77. He was supposed to last for the duration, but he didnt make it to June. At that time, I was laying low losing weight and brushing up on my martial arts and marksmanship. When that fat guy, who everybody thought was me died, I thought it would change their way of thinking. After all, if it could happen to me, it could happen to them.

              Linda who seemed entranced by our visitor shook her head and said, Im sorry to interrupt you, but I think dinner is done.

              Not a problem, Linda, the visitor said as Linda slightly swooned.

              Five minutes later, all the plates were set and our guest was really wolfing the food down. He took a moment to say, Im not just saying it, but I have eaten in some of what people like to called the worlds finest restaurants and I can honestly say that they aint got nothing on you, Linda.

              My wife, who was not an overly emotional woman, blushed at his compliment.

              Would you like for me to help with the cleanup?, our guest asked.

              Thats very kind of you but Phil and I can take of it. You just make yourself comfortable and well be with you in a few minutes.

              Once the dishes were clean and put away along with cleaning the stove, we retreated to the living room. Our guest had a sad look on his face. He nodded with a head that was heavy with tiredness and what appeared to be regret, How can you fight a war when the people you are fighting the war for are trying the hardest to see that you lose?

              I was unsure of what to say, Excuse me?

              He exhaled for about three seconds and then looked at me, You realize that tomorrow morning is probably the last time you or anyone else will see me? I am going to pay Ray a personal visit at his spring residence across the lake.

                Im lost. What are you talking about?

               People like Ray Bolton and those two guys who tried to kill you. They are what your small town and other small towns have to look forward to. Unless someone in this area died of old age or in a traffic accident, chances are Ray was behind it in some way. What passes as local law around here is about as useful as tits on a man if you dont mind my language. So the DEA has to step in. What makes Ray so dangerous is that he is more ruthless and well connected than any of these other hillbilly dealers I have encountered so far.

               But those people only come to big cities, right?

                Phil, you are a decent man, but boy you gotta lot to learn. You just wait a few years. What do you all got in this town, anyway? A factory or two that may not be here in the next ten years? A drive-in movie theater? Ill tell you what got. You got a third of the people here who never graduated high school. You got double digit unemployment even when the economy is on the upswing. You got a lot of bored ass looking people waiting for their ship to come in at the airport. Its gonna happen before you know it..

                I was about to reply to that comment when Linda stepped to my side with a glance that told me without being spoken, Dont argue with him, Phil.

                In the time it took to blink, the mood in his eyes changed to one of inquisitiveness, Hey Phil, do you mind if I see that guitar you have in the corner?

                Go right ahead.

                He walked to the corner and picked up my old Gibson acoustic guitar that sat for a couple of years unplayed. I didnt even know how badly out of tune it was. But no matter, Im sure our guest could play it a lot better than I ever could.

                You two mind if I sing a song or two for you?

                 I really dont think Linda and I gave our permission verbally, but the looks on our faces must have given him all that he needed. He pulled out the pick that was lodged between the top two strings and cleared his throat. He then twisted the tuning pegs with a little loosening and tightening for about a minute and a half. He made that guitar sound better in that short time better than I could in all of my twenty eight years. With the pick between his right thumb and index finger, he strummed out two chords before the strains of a familiar melody emerged. He sang with a voice that many have tried to emulate,but in the end there was only his and his alone:

Love me tender, love me true,

Never let me go.

                 Linda held my hand with a strength that belied her small hands with tiny, thin fingers.She looked me with that smile that won me over three years ago with tears streaming down her cheeks. I said earlier that I wasnt a mind reader, but Im pretty sure that Linda was seeing the same thing on my face.

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