from Chapter 6, "Friendly Fire" regarding Merrick Square Market's unforgettable proprietor back in the earl 1960s
I have to laugh though, when I remember how much he terrified me when we first laid eyes on each other, way back then.
Usually there’d been this little old lady in a flower-print dress behind the counter. But that day, as I was pushing the heavy front door open, hot on my daily pound of hamburger mission for Mom—I spied him and he spied me.
“Who are you and whatta you want?” he demanded. He sounded so official. I froze, half-in, half-out.
He was a scrawny little Richard Widmark with a crewcut. I was thinking that since I was still halfway out, maybe I ought to turn back and be all the way out. But there was the hamburg problem…
“State your name and business!”
“Ah. He’s deaf,” he said to himself.
“Well. Good. So, what is your name, and what’s your game?”
“Game?” I blinked. That had rhymed.
“Look, I’m running a business here, all right? I need to know who I’m dealing with. Can’t be letting just anyone come barging through that door, now can I.” He squinted at me. “Hey, you’re not ‘just anyone’ are you? And by that I mean… riffraff?”
I’d never got the third-degree on the hamburger run before. It’d always been just, you know, going to the store. My heart raced. “No-o?”
“Good. Right to the point. A man of few words. But c’mon, kid. Whattaya say… let’s close that door, eh? You brought up in a barn? You’re letting in flies.”
I stepped back to the door, squeezed the knob, pulled….
“OK then, let’s try her again, by the numbers: what’s… your… name?”
“Tommy?” That came out as a whisper. I’d barely heard it myself.
“Tommy? No! Now wait just a doggone minute here, young man—not… you’re not… the Tommy?”
I gawked at him.
“Good God, man! You are, aintcha! Why didn’t you say so! Come in, come in, sir. And welcome to this humble emporium.”
I deliberated for a moment thinking… empori…? but stepped in anyway, closing the door behind me.
“How can I be of service?”
He was still confusing me. “Service?”
“Well you are the customer, and…?” Here he was obviously waiting for me to fill in the blank with something. Seconds ticked off the clock. “And…?” he prompted. But I was hopeless. “And…? The customer…? Is always… right!”
“So, what can I get you, my new little friend?”
Friend. I cleared my throat. “Hamburg…?”
“Ah! Hamburger! The food of the gods! Follow me. We’ll fix you right up.”
And he was off! I did follow (but at a safe distance), feeling as though I’d somehow just passed a big test I’d never even studied for… and wondering how in the world he’d ever heard of me.
Fortunately, the next few store visits proved much more uneventful. But then one day, I found Cal behind the counter with Police Chief Green leaning on the front of it. They were deep in conversation.
At six-and-a half feet, the chief towers above almost everybody here in town, and is the spitting image of Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol. My head barely clears the counter. The two stopped talking, as I pushed my sticky nickel across the wooden surface.
“For the popsicle,” I explained.
Cal frowned. “Chief Green? I give you here… one Tommy Lyford.”
The chief nodded.
“I imagine you’ve heard of Tommy?” he added.
A few seconds passed. The chief cleared his throat. He focused on me. “I b’lieve I might know his dad, Raymond. Ray your dad, son?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh…”
“Good man, your dad,” and with that the chief winked, which made me feel good all over. I was actually part of an adult conversation! Just like a regular guy!
Cal went on. “I’m surprised you haven’t heardof Tommy.” I smiled, relishing how he’d called me “the Tommy” that first day, making me feel special. “See, Tommy here…?” and now I felt my grin blossoming into a bigger sunnier grin… “he’s the town’s worst trouble-maker.”
A sharp jab from my boxing glove heart slammed hard into my ribcage! My jaw unhinged! The big smile went sliding right off my face like a fried egg off a greasy spatula!
“You don’t say,” mused the chief. “Hmmm…” He was now taking an obvious second look at me… a serious look this time… a recalculating look…
“Hey, Tommy,” Cal said suddenly, and I snapped my face up to look at him. Surely, I’d heard him wrong… “Tell you what. Why dontcha tell the chief Green here what you told me about him yesterday... behind his back.”
My brain gasped, What? but only a “Whaaahh?” escaped my bee-stung lips.
“Yeah,” Cal went on. “I knew you wouldn’t have the brass to repeat that, not to his face anyway. But oh boy, you’re a pretty big talker when a guy ain’t around to defend himself, ain’tcha.”
“I never… I never… I…”
Chief Green’s Tyrannosaurian head lowered itself down above mine, blocking out the overhead lighting. “That true?” boomed his voice. “Sayin’ things ‘bout me, young Mr. Lyford?”
“I… No, I…” But the fight-or-flight instinct had already kicked in and I found myself back at the door, clawing and hauling it open as if my life depended on it, a difficult task when the door’s as massive as Ali Baba’s Open Sesame and one of your paws refuses to drop its popsicle!
Landing ready-to-run on the sidewalk outside however, I caught wind of the raucous volley of Haw-haw-haws booming behind me just before the door slammed shut…
So that was it, eh? OK, I got it. All just a big joke then, eh? And me…? The butt of it.
I could feel my cheeks burning… but on the other hand though, at least I wasn’t in any kind of trouble at all, thank God! Which was a pretty big relief.
I slunk away a little demoralized though, trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzles of adult humor… Cal’s in particular, which was obviously unpredictable. One of the customers’d called him ‘a real loose cannon’ once, and I guess I know now what he meant by that: you never know what he’s going to say next or what he’s going to do.
Like the time he and I were talking and all of a sudden he says, “Hey! Let’s play a game!” I say, “All right. What game?” and he says, “Arm-punch!” And I say, “Oh I dunno… I don’t much like the sound of that!” and he says, “Why not? It’s fun!” and I say, “Sounds painful.” He says, “Nah, we’re men. We can take it. And besides, you get to nail me just as hard as you can, right here…” him, twisting sideways, and sticking out his shoulder to present me his upper arm. “Well,” I say, “I guess I do like the sound of that,” and he says “I thought you might. So. Ready?” He winks, with a nod down toward that tempting target of his upper arm, so I say, “OK… I guess.” “Good!” he says. “Make a fist,” so I do, but he says, “No, no, no, Tommy! Never position your thumb beneath your fingers. You’ll break your thumb like that!” “Oh, OK,” I say, delighted to be instructed in such manly stuff, stuff bound to come in handy some day. “There, that’s better,” he says. “Now, are you clenching? Making a firm fist?” “Yuh,” I say, “I think so.” “OK then,” he says, “take a deep breath and count to three!” I inhale. “One…”
…which is exactly when Cal just up and sort of taps me all of a sudden on my upper arm, not awfully hard… not with any swing to it or anything… just more or less a single rap, like on somebody’s front door, like a secret knock or something. But somehow, whang! That little tap connects to the funny-bone nerve in my arm, sending a lightning bolt bouncing back and forth between my shoulder and knuckles! “OWWch!” I moan.
“Oh,” he says, “did I not mention I was going first? Guess we probably shoulda discussed that… but anyway, it’s your turn now. So go ahead, Tommy boy, take your best shot! Give’er to me straight, Doc! Do your worst!” And here he screws up his face in an exaggerated grimace and proceeds to wait… me, just looking down at this now-broken wing hanging off my shoulder and no longer responding to any of my brain’s commands.
“Ahem… Ready whenever you are…” he says. I can see he’s enjoying himself.
So finally, I reach down with my left hand and clutch a swatch of my right shirt-sleeve, haul up my dead-weight appendage, and sort of fling it weakly at his, where it has every bit as much effect as a splash of water from some child’s little pink plastic beach-pail of water…
“Oooh,” he says flatly. “Somebody forgot to eat his Wheaties this morning.”
And despite the electrifying pain, and the embarrassment…I start laughing my butt off. Because, face it, it’s funny. On the other hand, if some kid had hit me like that on the playground, I’d probably’ve gone crying off to the teacher. But this? It’s a totally different thing.
See, Cal (an adult) actually likes me for some reason, and that’s what’s important. Usually being a kid means being treated like a ghost by adults, like somebody ‘invisible’… and if they ever do notice you, it’s probably because you’re making ‘a ruckus’ or something. One of the million and a half things that really stinks about being a kid is that old children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard rule of thumb (which is why they invented The Kids’ Table at Thanksgiving). So, if and when one of them just ups and speaks to you all of a sudden, like you might be an actual human being with, God forbid, a personality, well… it’s a little like that TV show where Cosmo Topper’s the only human around who can see and talk to the ghosts. Cal Wright not only sees me… heck, he even seems to enjoy talking to me… and playing our ‘game.’
Like that Saturday, for instance, I strolled in off my paper route. Lost in the Bangor Daily News over at the counter, Cal muttered, “Sorry. No vagrants on the premises.”
“Hah!” I laughed. “Vagrant? Look here,” I crowed proudly, patting my jeans’ which were just a-bulging with everything from pennies to dollar bills. “Paper boys collect on Saturdays, my good man. These saddlebags are full of gold…”
Immediately I bit my tongue, but it was too late: Cal was already halfway across the room and, before I knew it, dangling me upside down by the ankles… quarters, nickels and dimes rolling all over every-which-way across the floor! The man, I swear, is Clark Kent!
Next, he discarded me onto the floor like some sucked-dry beer can in order to count the loot he’d scraped up. “Two dollars and twenty-eight cents!” he hooted. “The customer has just bought himself two dollars and twenty-eight cents’ worth of credit. We thank you for shopping at Merrick Square Market.”
By then though, I’d grown accustomed to his ‘humorous’ shenanigans and was pretty confident he’d return the money before I left. I was also in the mood to dish him back a little of his own medicine (intentionally or not, the man was creating a little Frankenstein monster in me). So off I swaggered to the meat counter, hauled three Italian sandwiches (instead of my usual one) off the countertop, and swung over to the soda cooler to lift two dripping wet root beers by the necks out of the ice water. Down at the register, I proceeded to load up the counter with candy bars, potato chip bags, and homemade whoopee pies. “Add these up, my good man,” I said, “and any amount over two dollars and twenty-eight cents entitles you to extra newspapers in the future…”
Or that time just back from my visit to Massachusetts, me loaded up with all these really neat novelties I’d bought at Jack’s Joke Shop down in Boston: the itch-powder; the disappearing ink; the switch-blade comb; the very realistic ‘fake smoke’ cigarettes; the gross, plastic, housefly-encased ‘ice-cube,’ and the deck of marked playing cards. But best of all by far was the ‘puke-pad,’ that ever-popular, soft-rubber ‘vomit-puddle’ suitable for plopping down on anyone’s floor, counter, or table (its ‘stomach-bile’ swirls artfully inlaid with colorful plastic bits of corn kernels, string beans, baked beans, and pepper slices). And somehow I’d discovered that sprinkling a little water onto the pad adds a very lifelike glistening, which invariably helped to trigger a victim’s gag reflex. I laid it out on the floor as a trap for Cal.
When he finally clapped eyes on it, I said in a trembling, sickly voice, “Haven’t been feeling very well all morning, Cal… Was afraid this was gonna happen. Geez… real sorry…”
“GAH!” He was off, sprinting to the bathroom with one hand clamped over his mouth!
Later,after I’d spilled the beans, he (wouldn’t you just know it) couldn’t wait to spring the same prank on Mrs. Edgerly… and after her, an endless hit-list of various customers he just had to try it out on. Long story short, I lost my puke-pad for two weeks, and by the time I finally got it back, there was hardly anyone left in town to pull it on…
But that’s Cal in a nutshell. Just a big kid.
A couple of weeks ago, I came up with a particularly diabolical plan to even up our score. I would lock Cal inside the walk-in refrigerator. Yes, that would mean a serious escalation of our friendly hostilities, but the name of the game is, after all, one-upmanship...
After what felt like an eternity of waiting and pacing around that morning, the man finally did venture inside the cooler with his shopping-list of phone-order items. Like a madman, I slammed the air-sealed door behind him, twisted the dead-bolt assembly to ‘locked,’ ha-HAH, and then sashayed oh-ever-so-nonchalantly around to the front of the unit. Peering in at him between the milk bottles showcased along the customer-accessible window-display, I exulted. “It doesn’t pay to fool with Tom Terrific, Cal! Yeah, that’s right, Mister! I locked the door behind you! Now, just ma-a-y-b-e-e (but no promises here) if you say ‘Uncle,’ I’ll come back and let you out… in a couple of hours. Ha-hah!”
But the bum wouldn’t even vouchsafe me a snort! Totally preoccupied with the task at hand, and rudely oblivious to me (even humming to himself), he went about filling up the case next to the locked door with butter and cottage cheese as if I were nothing more than just another run-of-the-mill housefly!
“Oooh. Tough guy, eh? OK, then, have it your way,” I called, making a big show of leaving. “Ta-tah! Adios, amigo! See you tomorrow, Cal ol’ boy!”
I did, though, dutifully report to Mrs. Edgerly down at the checkout that her boss was now cooling his heels back there as a prisoner-on-ice, so that she might let him out when, or if, she saw fit… and then I laid low for a couple of days for my own safety (I’m not stupid).
Maddeningly however, when I did eventually reappear, Cal made no mention of my little victory. That spooked me, as it probably indicated he was planning something very ‘special’ for me in return. I mean, I knew he’d never simply fold in one of our little one-on-ones… and yet he was behaving as if he couldn’t care less.
I began to wonder about that. It nagged at me, and I knew it was something I must investigate. It kept me pacing around the back end of the store until, eventually, Cal slipped out of sight into his back office.
I sprang immediately back to the refrigeration chamber, unlatched the big, white, bank-vault door, hauled it open, and… oh yeah… sure enough… there it was. Installed on the door’s backside was a dead-bolt-lock assembly identical to the one on the front, its evil twin—yes, the door had a switch on the outside, and one on the inside as a safety device to protect anyone from getting locked inside… intentionally or otherwise!
So of course he wasn’t concerned when I’d…! And here I’d been smugly congratulating myself on being so…!
Suddenly Cal’s unexpected voice right behind my ear nearly lifted me right off the floorboards! “Thinking of going into locksmithing when, or if, you finally grow up?”
I spun around. He’d practically been standing on my heels, and there was a smug smirk pasted onto his ugly mug. He had been playing a waiting game on me, watching me and biding his sweet ol’ time for just this juicy, ha-hah-I-told-you-so moment. He’d played me like a damn kazoo!
As my ego fizzled out on the floorboards, I managed the most vile, malevolent scowl I’d ever…
“You know what?” he practically chirped, so chipper was he feeling. “We haven’t played our game in a while… you know: arm-punch…?”
Dive! Dive! the submarine-movie siren wailed in my skull, and though I instinctively feinted right and sprung to the left… Whang!
Cal’s depth charge practically blew the arm right off my torso anyway!
“OW-ch!” So much pain for so little movement on Cal’s part! How does he do that with just a tap?
“Oh wait, I’m sorry… I guess it was your turn to go first this…”
“Aaargh!” Clutching my dead right wrist like a bouquet of wilted, long-stemmed daffodils in my left fist, I charged! Mercilessly, I pelted Cal with a flurry of wet-noodle lashes!
“Hey… we playin’ arm-punch,” he asked with a giggle, “or arm-tickle!” I was giving him everything I had! But oh, if only I’d been born a lefty… or ambidextrous even! Why… I’da...! But my right was useless now. I’d been reduced to a one-armed fiddler crab with the big claw rubber-banded…
“Well, much as I’d love to… I just can’t stand around playing kiddie games all day,” Cal said. “Work to be done and all. So, ta-tah! Adios, amigo!” Brushing by me, he tousled my flat-top like I was some little kid or something! And just walked away!
Man! My life, I realized, was just a Roadrunner cartoon, starring me as Wile E. Coyote!