By CHRIS HELVEY
It was Tuesday morning, so early the crows weren’t even cawing. I was in the rear of the Three Point Market buying night crawlers. Bob Hemphill and I were going to do some fishing on the Ohio. I was meeting him down below the Falls of the Rough. Bob was an artificials guy; he favored the legendary Mepps Panther Martin Sonic Spinner. I was a live bait man myself. Three times out of four I caught more fish than Bob. He always claimed, though, that he had more fun, and got more exercise. I’ll give him the exercise.
I opened the old refrigerator where Sam Hanks kept the night crawlers and pulled the plastic lid off the first tub. One worm lay like a desiccated stick on top. I dug in the mixture and uncovered three or four more. They were alive, but not by much.
I stuck that tub back and pulled out another. All the worms in it were alive, but none of them looked very lively.
“What kind of crappy worms you carrying these days, Sam?”
Sam Hanks lifted his head from The Courier-Journal and gave me the evil eye. “They’re only worms, Roy. Not like you’re buying cattle.”
“They don’t look very healthy.”
“So? All you’re going to do is drown them.”
“Yeah, but for the prices you charge they should lift the lid off and slither to the truck for me.”
He snorted and said, “Fuck you, Roy Bledsoe.”
I gave him the finger, bent my head and started sorting through the cartons. At three dollars a dozen I sure as hell wanted the best night crawlers he had. I wasn’t worried about Sam’s feelings. We’d been friends ever since ‘Nam.
Both of us had grown up in Louisville—me down in Portland and Sam south of Dixie Highway. Hadn’t known each other as kids, gone to different schools, played different sports, that sort of thing. Then, along toward the end of the war, we’d both gotten drafted and ended up in the same unit.
By the time we’d survived basic, the situation in South Vietnam had gone to hell. We’d gone over knowing we were jumping into an inferno. Colonel Workman had set us up on the perimeter around the American Embassy—sort of the last line of defense.
For the first couple of weeks it wasn’t so bad for us. The South Vietnamese were still holding outside the city. We could hear artillery and occasionally someone lobbed a shell our way, but mostly we sat around and listened to the war crackle on the radio.
At the start of the third week our allies began to buckle. Once they broke, the Vietcong began pouring through like water through a busted dam. Just before dark on Tuesday of that week, a mortar round smashed into a building down the block, and we knew the shit had hit the fan.
No use going over all the details. If you were there, you already know all about it. If you weren’t, I can’t make you understand how bad it was. Sam and I were young and dumb, but we knew enough to be scared shitless. Yeah, we got shot at and both of us got Purple Hearts from some Cong shrapnel, or maybe it was ours. We caught one of the last Hueys out of town and didn’t quit cold sweating till we got back stateside.
Once we got back to Louisville, lots of our friends asked us if we’d killed any Congo. Neither Sam or I felt much like talking about that. When you get your ass kicked it’s kind of hard to feel good about much. Sometimes when we were tired, or had soaked up a few beers, or if one of the young guys was really full of himself, we’d tell a few stories. But that was about it.
Sam’s place was called Three Point because three roads came together in front of it. The store had been around a long time. Sam bought it from his Uncle Dave after his uncle’s liver started giving out. Sam and his wife ran it together until she left him for a dentist in New Albany with a weakness for tie-dye blondes and Vicodin.
For a few years I’d kinda lost touch with Sam, only seeing him now and then at a ball game or maybe the bowling alley. Then I’d taken early retirement from Ford and started fishing. One day I’d been driving around trying to find live bait and seen his sign.
I pulled the best looking batch of crawlers out of the old fridge and glanced through the big plate glass window. Three other vehicles were in the parking lot now and the clouds were starting to darken. Sure as shit it was going to rain. My luck had been lousy all spring.
Ronnie Ellis, who ran a used car lot over on Shelbyville Road, was buying coffee, and a couple of waitresses from Shoney’s were stocking up on Winstons. A long haired kid—think it might have been one of Tom Detwiller’s boys—was fingering the Old Car Trader mags. Those Detwiller boys were trouble. All the time mouthing. Worse than their old man. Tom usually got obnoxious only when he drank.
One of the waitresses was older and uglier than my sister. The other one was having a bad hair day, but she had a real fine ass. I studied it as I carried my tub of crawlers toward the cash register.
The little bell above the door tinkled and a one-eyed black man walked in with a shriveled up Asian dude behind him. I winked at the waitress with the bad hair as we passed in the aisle, but she didn’t even crack a smile. What the hell. Maybe her feet hurt.
Ronnie Ellis was in front of me paying for his coffee. He turned as I came up and looked me in the face. Ronnie had been a motorcycle dude when he was young. Rode with the Misfits or the Mystics, or one of those gangs. Scars zigzagged across his face like tribal markings you see on the National Geographic Channel.
“Hear they’re catching some good cats, Roy.”
“Who told you that?” Ronnie was always selling something.
“Toby Whitehouse. Saw him over to Bingo Saturday night.”
I nodded. Toby Whitehouse drove a Metro bus, never went fishing and was full of stories.
Ronnie’s eyes shifted to something behind me and his upper lip curled up on one end. “No telling what you’ll see these days,” he said. He punched me on the shoulder—harder than he needed to. “Catch a big’un for me, Roy.”
“I’ll try,” I said, and stepped up and put my worms down on the counter. Sam had gone to the back. Probably to take a piss—he had an old man’s bladder—and I looked at the pictures of missing kids he had taped to the counter. They all looked big-eyed and innocent. Life was too much for me to comprehend most days. Way too much.
The black guy was down at the far end of the counter. I could smell his sweat. It smelled a little like Old Milwaukee and a little like fear and a little like something else I just couldn’t place.
With his one good eye he could see that I was watching him. We looked at each other for a minute. He was older than I’d thought. Him being so skinny had fooled me. But there was age in that face, the sort of age that comes when a man just resigns himself to the foibles of the universe. I’d read that once in a book. When I retired I got a library card. Only 3 percent of Americans have one. I used mine about twice a month. I’m a slow reader.
The one-eyed man looked at me. Then he looked away. Then he looked at the candy racks. Then he looked at the door to the back that Sam had walked through a moment ago. Then he picked up a couple of Snickers bars and jammed them in his pocket. He moved slow and jerky, like a mechanical man.
He lifted his head and looked at me. Guess he wondered what I’d do.
I didn’t do anything. Two Snickers weren’t worth a pimple on my ass.
Sam came in through the back door just as the black man went out the front. Sam was drying his hands on a paper towel and studying the black man’s back. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he had his suspicions.
I was just reaching for my wallet when all of a sudden Sam’s eyes got real wide. I hadn’t seen them that wide since that last chopper ride. He was staring over my shoulder. I turned around, slowly.
A knife was waving in my face like a shiny silver flag. The Asian dude holding it looked like a deranged escapee from Central State. His eyes were weird, shiny black and full of spastic lights. His mouth was open, exposing rotten teeth and letting his breath escape. It smelled like decaying fish and mustard and soy sauce and half a dozen other spices and who knew what else. He was Vietnamese. Now that I had looked at him good I could see that. Rumor has it they eat dogs.
“Fifty dollar, fifty dollar,” he screamed, waving that knife around like he meant business.
“Fifty dollar, give me fifty dollar.” He looked at me and then he looked at Sam and then he waved the knife at Sam.
“What the hell?” It was the Detwiller kid. I’d forgotten he was still there. “What the hell? Damn Sam, you gonna take that from that sawed off gook?”
“Fifty dollar, you give me fifty dollar.”
The knife flashed close enough for me to see how big it really was. It was the kind of knife chefs filleted fish with. My guts curdled when I saw that.
“Shoot the son-of-a-bitch, Sam. Pull out that .357 and blow his Cong brains out.”
I glanced at the Detwiller kid. His eyes were sprung open and his whole body was trembling like he was afflicted with the St. Vitas Dance. I wasn’t trembling. Least I don’t think I was. Sure was sweating though. One of those cold sweats where your heart pounds like a pneumatic jackhammer and your asshole puckers up till a doctor couldn’t push a toothpick through it.
Sam didn’t say anything. He just put his palms down on the counter, right over the picture of a brother and sister who were missing from Bowling Green.
“Fifty dollar, fifty dollar.”
“Shoot the slant-eyed bastard.”
“Fifty dollar, give me fifty dollar.”
“Kill him. Kill the fish-head.”
Sam just looked at the man with the knife. Not belligerently. More like he was trying to get a handle on just what the hell was happening.
I was just sweating. Sweating, and remembering.
My heart was pounding way too fast. Doc Biddle had told me to watch getting excited. That Vietnamese kept waving the knife around like he was going to tattoo the universe, and I was sweating bullets.
Leaning back a little, I tried to study his face. Just in case I had to talk to the cops.
He looked just like any other Vietnamese to me. Even during the war they all looked alike to me.
This guy was old and skinny and had a few stray hairs above his upper lip that might pass for a mustache if you weren’t particular. He had on dirty white pants and a camouflage shirt that was unbuttoned. A red bandana drooped across his forehead and he had a tattoo on his left wrist. It was a picture of a tiger and some sort of Asian word beneath it. I wondered what it meant.
“Give me the money. I must have the money.”
Sam took a deep breath. I kept sweating. The Detwiller kid had stepped behind the Tom’s potato chip rack.
“What do you want the money for?”
To a stranger Sam’s voice would have sounded calm. We’d been around each other so much that I could hear the tension running through it like strands of razor wire.
“Shoot him, Sam. He’s crazy.”
“Fifty dollar. I need fifty dollar for my family.”
“Don’t talk, shoot.”
“You need some money for your family?”
The knife swirled in the air, slashing and slicing. It smashed into my tub of crawlers and split it wide open. Dirt and worms spilled out onto the counter. Worms started crawling across the photos of all those lost kids. Sweat ran down the crack of my ass.
“Fifty dollar, fifty dollar.”
“Don’t be a pussy, Sam. Shoot the gook.” The voice of the Detwiller boy sounded distant, as though time and space had moved between him and the rest of the world.
Events seemed to unfold in slow motion. The knife blade flashed.
Disembodied voices shrieked.
Sam picked up a loaf of bread he used to make sandwiches at lunch for the construction workers and the school kids and tossed it on the counter.
The little TV was on above the counter, and the announcer was talking about the benefits of calcium, especially for women.
My left eye had started to tick. It hadn’t ticked like that since Seoul.
“No money,” Sam said, “but here’s some bread and a pack of Dixie loaf and a hunk of cheese. Hang on and I’ll get you some milk.
The bell above the door tinkled.
The door shut again and the room seemed suddenly quiet. Too quiet for comfort.
Too quiet for me. Too quiet for my nerves. I could hear them singing, whining high in my head like a posse of mosquitoes.
“Now quit slinging that knife around and wait here. I’m going to the back and get you a gallon of milk. I know your face now. You live down on Trent. Got three or four kids. Bet you ain’t got no job. Jobs is scarce right now, specially for foreigners. Just hold on.”
Sam turned and walked slowly to the back. When the door swung shut behind him, it was just me and the man with the knife.
“Fifty dollar,” he screamed at no one in particular. Or maybe, he was screaming at everyone. He stared at me all wild-eyed with his hair standing up and his bandana slipping down over one eye. He jabbed the knife at me.
I raised my arm in front of my face, and the tip of the knife nicked me just below the elbow. Blood started to flow. It felt surprisingly warm.
The Vietnamese’s eyes locked on mine. His were red rimmed. He looked like he was ready to cry. Part of me wanted to cry, too.
“Fifty dollar,” he mumbled. “I need fifty dollar.” He looked at the knife. Then he turned and looked out at the morning. I wondered what he saw and what he was thinking. Then I wondered what would drive a man to try to rob a convenient store. Try to rob it of fifty lousy dollars. After a minute I looked out at the morning myself.
I had figured right. It had started to rain, a fine light rain, no more than a silvery mist shimmering in that early light.
I thought about other rainy mornings. Some of them had been fine, oh very fine. But they had been in another life, and I had been another man.
When I looked back the knife was lying on the counter. It gleamed dully in the fluorescent lights. I looked around for the little man. He was out the door, running zigzag across the parking lot, carrying the bread and the cheese and the Dixie loaf. I never did learn to like Dixie loaf.
He was running awkwardly, like one of his legs was shorter, or he had a heavy weight on his shoulders, or maybe the morning had just tilted seven degrees sideways.
He ran out into the street without looking. A red Honda had to burn rubber to keep from hitting him. For a second the Honda’s tires skidded on the damp asphalt. Then they gripped, and the driver jerked the wheel, and the little man ran on.
I heard the back door swing open and turned around. Sam came in carrying a half gallon of 2 percent. He asked me a question with his eyes. That was one of the habits he’d picked up over there. I shrugged. There was nothing to say. I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and wrapped it around the cut.
Sam sat the milk on the counter. The worms were crawling lethargically toward the ends. We looked at the crawlers and the photos of the kids and the knife.
“Fifty dollar,” I said.
“Yeah,” Sam said.
“You could have drug out that .357 you’ve got under the counter,” I said. “Drug it out and shot him, or held him for the police.”
Sam looked at me. His blue eyes had faded with the years. In the quirky light they looked almost the color of a blue jay’s feathers. Then he turned and looked out at the morning and the silvery rain. Then he smiled. One of those sad lopsided smiles like my dad used to give me when he was in one of his blue moods.
“Naw,” Sam said. “There’s been enough killing. You and I saw enough to last a lifetime, didn’t we?”
I nodded. Suddenly I wanted a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee and a sausage and biscuit. “I guess we did at that, Sam. Guess we did.”
We grinned then, grinned at each other like we did all the way back in Seoul. The announcer on TV was talking about some movie star with big breasts who had been found passed out drunk in a trash can in San Bernardino. Sam sat the milk down on the counter, and we began corralling the worms. I thought about that man with the knife, wondering what he had been in his other lives. Outside it was raining harder.
Chris Helvey is the author of Purple Adobe and the editor and publisher of Trajectory Journal. His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous reviews and journals. He earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University.
Editor’s Note: This story was a finalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.