I saw an old lady today, shuffling along on a cane and an umbrella, accompanied by a dog that was keeping a few yards ahead, poking his nose at things with his tongue hanging out. After they passed I stopped and turned to watch them, and was reminded of a day long ago and my Uncle Cedric.
You’re OK kid, Cedric used to say, winking secretly.
He said it whenever I did stuff for him, like washing his car, or going to the corner store for cigarettes. Sometimes he gave me his spare change, and when I was old enough to do bigger errands, one day he sent me to pick up a box in the back alley behind the ABC Liquor Store. That was soon after he gave me a brand new 10 speed bike for no apparent reason. Then I discovered there was one.
I met him at the far end of the lane where he was waiting in a Ford Mustang he called McQueen. Then, to impress me he peeled away burning rubber with a crazy grin on his face. Dust and dirt flew up and hit me in the face, but I didn’t mind because I had a new bike and ten dollars for my trouble. A week later I used the money and bought myself a dog. My parents weren’t happy about it, but they let me keep him anyways. I called him Champ.
Not a month after I got Champ, Uncle Cedric, going much too fast in his Mustang, ran him over right in front of our driveway. Champ lay there on the road, panting and Uncle Cedric jumped out of the car, picked him up and sped off to the vet with Champ and me in the back. I noticed an empty bottle of rum on the floor. Cedric ran into the vet’s office with Champ, and came out a half hour later. He looked shaken, gave me ten dollars, and made me promise not to tell my Mom, his sister. When I got home, Mom asked where Champ was.
He ran away, I said. I really wanted to tell her, but I had some foolish loyalty to Cedric. I went to my room and lay down on my bed, burying my face in the pillow so I could cry in private. I felt trapped by the bike and the money.
The next day Cedric saw me on the street coming home from school and stopped to tell me, with a sad look on his face, that poor Champ had to be sent to another hospital, and might not be back for a while. I had a bad feeling he was lying.
How long of a while, I asked, but Cedric said he didn’t know. Then he gave me ten bucks and made me promise not to say a word, and also would I go get another box from the alley for him that night?
I didn’t want to, but I promised to do it, hoping this might get Champ back. I thought maybe Cedric was using Champ to get me to do his bidding, but I was afraid to say anything. He burned out of there again and a little stone shot up from one of the back wheels and chipped my front tooth. All of a sudden Cedric didn’t seem so cool.
When I got home my Mom saw my chipped tooth and freaked out. I said I got in a fight at school, and the guy I fought lost his front tooth, so after that she calmed down. Late after dark, I snuck out the back door and rode my bike into town.
There was the box as usual, behind the big steel bin next to the back door. As I leaned my bike on the fence a car came down the lane with no lights on, so I walked away trying to be casual. Then the headlights came on and so did the flashing red light.
Hold on kid, a voice yelled at me.
I jumped a fence and ran home as fast as I could. The next day after school there was a police car at our house. They found my bike behind the liquor store and wanted to ask me some questions. I told them I liked hanging around in the alley pretending to be a detective and they seemed to believe that, so they left.
Afterwards, my Mom asked me what was really going on, but I didn’t tell her out of misplaced youthful loyalty to Cedric, and a nagging fear that I was already mixed up in something wrong. To make matters worse, I was afraid that if I told the truth I might not ever see Champ again.
You’re not to go out at that hour any more, she said, is that clear?
I nodded and tried to look like I meant it. What did she know about how it felt to be twelve and get paid ten bucks for picking up a box in an alley? When I told Uncle Cedric about the cops in the lane he rubbed my head and gave me five bucks.
You’re OK, kid, he said.
Then he said he wanted me to go back soon. When the day came I could hardly think between worrying that the police might show up and hoping that if all went well I might see my dog. To compound my anxiety I was still feeling guilty for deceiving my Mom, and afraid that whatever it was I was doing, it wasn’t strictly honest. Half an hour before the pickup, I got on my bike and cruised to town.
Riding down the street in front of the ABC Liquor Store, I noticed an old lady on an electric scooter drive up to the café next door. She creaked off the seat like the rusty tin man in the Wizard of Oz and shuffled into the café, leaving the dog outside.
I rode around the block several times, checking the big clock that hung in the window of the drug store. Just before the agreed time I headed down the block and around the corner like a rider in the Tour de France. I hit the alley and cranked it hard until mid-block, whereupon I jammed on the back brake and came skidding towards the box in a foolish attempt to kick up dust like Cedric’s car. I got dust alright, lost control and hit the dirt, skinning my elbow and the side of my leg.
I got up bruised and sore and looked to see if anyone had seen, but there was nobody around. Embarrassed and aching, I picked up my bike and leaned it on the fence, then hobbled over to the box. I limped back to the bike with the box, put it on my carrier, slung my leg over the top bar and put my foot to the pedal. I rode down the lane slowly as the pain began to set in. Across the street Cedric’s car was waiting in the opposite lane.
He flashed his lights and pointed left, then drove to the first corner, crossed the street and turned down into the next lane. Just then the old lady came down the sidewalk on her electric cart, with her dog ambling along beside. I waited until she passed and began pedaling.
I quickly caught up and passed the old lady, but she stayed close behind me on the sidewalk. I turned down the alley and saw Uncle Cedric’s car halfway down the block. Cedric got out and looked up and down the lane.
I was halfway there when from behind me a dog flashed by and within a few strides jumped onto Uncle Cedric, who immediately hit the dirt. I just about skidded off my bike again as I hit the brakes and came to a stop. Looking back I saw the old lady coming down the lane in a cloud of dust like a geriatric maniac. Then her cart stopped and miraculously she sprung up from her seat, throwing off the shabby old coat and hat. Under the coat she wore a police jacket and a big black gun that she kept her hand on as she broke into a run.
Don’t you go anywhere son, she said as she passed.
A minute later, two police cars arrived and took Uncle Cedric away. After she took my name, my statement, the box and my bike, the police woman sent me home in a police car, where I had to explain to my mother what had happened.
After the police left, my Mom asked me how much money I’d made doing Cedric’s pickups. I told her I had fifty bucks. She took the money, and told me she was keeping it so the dentist could fix my broken tooth.
What about Champ, I blurted out?
Suddenly she stopped looking angry. Champ’s gone, she said, he’s not coming back.
©Donald J. Nathan
January 24 2018