Records broken and spun
Mister Scratch had found some paper plates in the trash to rip up and they'd migrated to the side of our yard. Pigpie might consider them as still being in Mr. Sutkin's yard but I couldn’t chance it so I cleaned the shredded bits before I left. I pulverized an aluminum can, many dried leaves, and a Baby Ruth wrapper into the sidewalk as the liquid crystal seconds of my watch demanded more speed. They spat 3:52:07 p.m. at me when I passed under the Flynn’s Garage sign. Twelve minutes seven seconds late. I tapped crossly at the face of my watch.
Hank was polishing a shiny new vending machine in the front office. The gold knobs and silver trim gleamed.
"Juke, just in time, just in time. Com’ere. Won’t take you but a second, not even, but count ‘em. Four kinds." He tapped on each area of the glass in front of the peppermint, spearmint, cinnamon and fruit flavored Chiclets boxes. After popping some change in the slot, he pulled the plastic knob which sent a box of the peppermint shooting down to the dark retrieval area.
"Easy as that." Hank shook the box at me with a grin ready to chew. He took a couple for himself then handed me the box. "That’s a gift and don’t worry it's not coming out of your pay." I preferred fruit flavored but didn’t mention it.
He polished the knob he’d just pulled.
"Won’t have to go back to that Horace racist Inky Davis’s anymore now, will I? You couldn’t pay me to step in there and I don’t even like pool," Hank announced to the machine, giving the window a little extra polish before he tucked away his rag.
I remember on my second day in town, Pigpie showed me places she hadn’t been since she left for Washington. Inky’s, she explained, would be a treat. As we climbed the steps into the old brick building, she told me how Inky's had been around forever and that she spent many hours there when she was Shelly’s age. The place had a grand glass display case in front, loaded much like the candy store in the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory movie shown on TV around Easter.
I stood at the section of the glass where packs of trading cards were stacked in boxes and listened to the other kids ordering penny candy while Pigpie talked with some of the men playing pool. Before we left, she came over and said hello to yellowing-teeth, yellowing-undershirt, yellowing-from-nicotine-fingertips Inky. Probably more for Inky than for me she offered to buy me something. As they smoked and chatted while I made my decision, I overheard Inky ask Pigpie if she could still "whoop like Betty boop." I looked up just in time to see Pigpie blush and comment on how those days were ancient history then gesture in my direction. Inky continued anyway about some guy named Bill who used to really make her whoop, how sad it was he gave Pigpie the heave-ho and about how no one would touch her after that. Pigpie changed the topic by reminiscing how Inky served her candy when she was my age and nudged me to hurry up. Inky chuckled and lecherously said he still could.
His character rather sickened me but Inky's candy selection was beyond reproach. BB Bats, Saf-T-Pops, Rootbeer Barrels, Licorice Pipes, Caramel Creams, Big League Chew, Abba Zabas, Bubble Tape, Jelly Bellies, Starburst, Whistle Pops, Ring Pops, Spree Rolls, Red Licorice laces, Swedish fish, Tangy Taffy, Cherryheads, Lemonheads, Dots, Blo Pops, Mamba Bars, Razzles, Black Taffys, Hubba Bubba, Bubblicious, BubbleYum, Freshen Up spearmint gum, Hot Dog gum, Beemans Gum, Mary Janes, Lifesavers, Nerds, Candy lipstick, Bazooka Joe, Atomic Fireballs, Sugar Daddies, Charleston Chews, Boston Baked Beans, Sugarbabies, Bottle caps, Candy Cigarettes, Candy Necklaces, Chick-o-sticks, Wax lips, Fun Dip, Gobstoppers, Now & Laters, Pixy sticks, Smarties giant, Zero bars, Bit-o-honey, Dubble Bubble, Tootsie rolls, spearmint leaves, and gumdrops, but I’m sure he added and others I never saw.
The choice was torturous and although I really wanted a pack of Star Wars cards I decided not to be too greedy and instead chose what some of the others had. I politely requested ten of the “niggerbabies,” which were little sugar coated black licorice men with top hats. Inky chuckled at me and started to bag them, but Pigpie slapped me hard on the ear and dragged me out of the place while the men by the pool table laughed. I barely knew her at that point but learned most of what I needed to know by the end of that day. On the street, she yelled about my embarrassing choice of words. Something did feel wrong when I said it. I knew that one shouldn't use ‘nigger’ regularly but I assumed that when used in reference to candy it meant something else and was not derogatory. I’d heard people call other people "motherfuckers" but I’d also heard people say, "That’s fucking great" and they meant it as "That's really good." Plus, yellow Inky, who was a white man, didn’t chuckle or seem shocked when the other boys ordered them using the term. I wondered now if Inky had a special name for Chiclets too.
As Hank turned to me, I became filled with the desire for him to be my real father. If my real father could be anything like Hank, and he found me one day and bought me a box of Chiclets, well, that'd be something nice.
Mom and Uncle Evert never talked about my biological father. It was an off-limits topic and I gave up asking by the time I was six. When the foster system located information on my dad's sister, my aunt Pigpie, it was such a shock. Hank was probably better than my real father anyway.
As a smart marketing ploy, Hank made a sign that read: "Have a treat while you wait" with an arrow pointing to the machine and placed it on the counter where people paid for services. Yelling came from the apartment upstairs but I tried to ignore it. Hank led me to the plethora of boxed nuts and bolts. He said he sold some, but I had a hard time believing the market was that hot for the excessive stock stored along the far wall. At least nine new boxes rested among the multitude of rows since the last time I counted.
Will’s record player sat on the workbench, down from their apartment, along with a couple of crates of albums. The eighth track of Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind repeatedly asked why I keep on running from his love.
"This album is great from rim to hole, right?" The song was one of Will’s favorites - a member of the large group he used to avoid working. Hank liked it a great deal as well.
"Oh hey, that’s right. What year was this put out again?" he asked feigning ignorance and lit a Pall Mall.
"1972, and- and seven months later the same year he put out Talking Book, which is known by you but not by Will to be a far superior album. Superstition went to number one on the charts."
"Damn straight it’s superior. ‘Superstition’, ‘Blame It On The Sun’. Can’t beat em," Hank stopped to listen and took a long drag off his cigarette. "I’ll get you a soda but you can go ahead." He waved at the boxes. "Will should be right back if Mi hasn’t killed him."
Hank seemed excited to have me around. As soon as he disappeared, Will’s large boots thudded down the stairs from the apartment. I pulled down one of the full, unmarked boxes and grabbed an empty from the floor.
"No I didn’t." Will yelled from the stairway. He reached the bottom and looked over at me, Mi yelled something else at him and he yelled back "Everything dies." Whenever I saw them they were either arguing or busy making up. I preferred the making up visits. "Whattaya say, Jukebox? When’d you get here?"
"’Keep On Running’. ‘Music Of My Mind’, it’s your favorite."
"That’s right Juke, you know he played all the instruments on this one right? Listen to that." Will immediately calmed down and bobbed his head to the rhythm. "I’ve missed most of-"
"This stink bad. It no stay you wrong." Mi wandered down the steps, pouting angrily as she held a fish bowl half full of water and with a goldfish floating dead on the surface. As she walked to Will with defiant purpose the water sloshed onto the floor but the fish stayed inside.
Will looked at Mi holding up the bowl and said, "Smells like your cookin’. Get that out of my face and throw ‘em out already." He turns to me. "So stupid she’d sell her car for gas money." Then he smiled and put his hand out for me to slap him five, which I’d learned would anger him if you didn’t. I pretended to smack his palm and managed not to touch but I had to turn mine over. He slapped mine as Mi mumbled something in Vietnamese and angrily stomped away.
"You ready to get back to work yet, Will?" Hank asked returning with a Dr Pepper.
"Quit rushin' me, old man."
I grabbed a handful of the bolts and dropped them in one of the white trays, making a lot of noise when I did it. Hank and Will don’t exhibit the same interest in my counting the bolts as they once did. It took a few recounts for them to believe my accuracy at first but that ended long ago. They loved the thought that I’m able to count the bolts in a glance, but without the noise, it doesn’t seem to impress.
Hank left the Dr Pepper on the counter near me and pulled the dolly towards a green Mustang. It appeared effortless when he dropped to his back and rolled under the car. "Damn it. Can you get me that three quarter Will, I grabbed the bad one."
Will slid a socket wrench beside Hank and dug around in his pocket as he walked over to me.
"Now let’s see, so many good ones," He fanned himself with the dollar he found.
I let a big handful of bolts clink into the tray. Will crab-clawed my shirt by the pocket, stuffed the dollar in and patted it to my chest.
"Let’s go with Richard Pryor, how ‘bout, ‘Is It Something I Said’ track, oh saaay, whatever, track three."
"Track three of the 1975 album ‘Is It Something I Said’, would be titled ‘New Niggers’" I said the word a little cautiously.
"That’s right that’s the one. Good. Go ahead." Will leaned against the counter waiting for me.
I made a little ‘swishle-crackle (pause) crackle (pause) crackle’ as the album did in between tracks two and three and in my best impression of Richard Pryor, I began, "White folks tired of our ass too. They gettin’ them some new niggas, the Vietnamese." If the audience clapped, I clapped, if the audience laughed, I paused but didn’t try to imitate their laughing because usually Will and Hank would be. I clapped briefly. With a white man’s accent (which I did by trying to sound like a robot) I said, “Bring ‘em over, bring a lot of ‘em over. Niggers won’t mind…” RP accent again (which I did by deepening my voice)… “They didn’t ask us shit…"
"That’s right, that's right Rich," Will said.
I continued, "Heh, we the mothafuckas gotta give the jobs up for ‘em…" (more brief clapping) "…motherfuckas, I know why they like those motherfuckas too. Cause they got the kind of music they can dance to. Ging gong gang gung gung ging gung gung gung gung. Heh heh heh. They try to dance to Bad Luck--"
Hank waved a wrench at me, "Nah, he needs to lighten up like he does on some other tracks. Move on to that Mudbone story. The one with the witch, and hey you, you been eating magnets again or is there some other reason your ass is stuck to the counter and not over here workin’?"
"Just ‘cause he mentions Vietnam, what you got against us Nam vets anyway? It’s every damn time with you. I can’t get a word out about it, but bring up Korea and we can talk all day right?"
"You must be some serious kind of chowderhead." Hank rolled out from under the car and sat up. "Did you hear the same thing I just did? You've heard it before right? Knew I should’ve sent you back to kindergarten when you needed a tutor to learn how to scribble."
"Man, that’s so stale. I have some clippers for that ear hair. Maybe we should put on the real thing so you can hear the audience getting it."
"Just keep kickin’ mud why don’t you. He was talkin’ about your wife you know. You should be insulted but you clappin’ and laughin’ along like a seagull chokin’ on Alka-Seltzer."
Will shook his head in disgust. "Oh, oh you off today, besides, you see her pulling in any green cause I don’t. Only job she’s good for is dumpin’ dead fish and nobody’s competing with her for that."
"Respect boy. Find it. And you’re not gettin’ paid to stand around. Move."
Mi walked in carrying the empty fish bowl on her hip and walked up to me, "Ohhhh good good, Ah-bel, you stay for food okay. So good you look. Han-some." When she stood next me me we were shoulder to shoulder. She looked at Will. "You should take a look at Ah-bel. This a real man. Know how to treat a woman good. No listen to him Ah-bel. I get you food okay."
"We just ate lunch like an hour ago, Juke’s not hungry, get him some pie or something."
"Pie for dessert, no this time, this time good food, healthy."
"You heard me."
Mi walked up near him defiantly, huffed and left.
Will took a long drink from his soda.
"Go ahead then Juke give me that Mudbone would you? Will, put another quarter in his pocket already."
"He’s good from the last, he didn’t even finish." Will went into his pocket again and dropped a coin in my pocket. "Go on Juke, old man likes old man Mudbone, can’t help it."
Hank loved listening to Richard Pryor do his Mudbone, which was a heavy accented character that I had a hard time imitating. I delivered it word for word with the same pacing and pausing, same act but no accent.
The story was about a voodoo woman who Mudbone took his friend to for help with his hexed swollen feet. Towards the end, she shrinks them much smaller than he wanted with her own pee. This had Will and Hank laughing so hard they could barely breathe. I didn't fully understand why they found it so funny since they'd heard it many times. The punch-lines really only made me smile some now. Mi walked in the room holding a tray with a brown bowl and listened to me finish.
"Nigga snatched the monkey foot off her neck, swallowed that. Well he shouldn’ta done that cause they came and got his ass and took him to the zoo and you can see him if you go down there, he’s the polar bear, with little tiny feets," I finished.
"Now see, that was pretty good until the end. Even when Rich tells it, I never got the polar bear part of it. A monkey or a gorilla, he coulda turned into those, but a polar bear? A polar bear makes no sense," Will said.
"Next time you get off stage with your stand up act you can ask Rich what he was doin’, alright? Until then maybe you think he was sayin' that turnin’ into a whitey animal with tiny feet in a zoo wouldn’t be ideal. Them’s great guns you got for killin' jokes." Hank shook his head and ducked back under the car again.
"This a snack for Ah-bel. Quick here. Healthy for you." Mi held the bowl in the air, waving me closer.
"Where’s that pie?" Will asked.
"We no have pie, only salted snack." She put the tray down on the table and smiled at me.
"Beans? Man, no one eats this shit. I’ve had it with you today," Will complained, walking over and trying to grab the bowl.
Mi moved the tray away before he could. "Ah-bel eats it. He likes everything, not like you. So pickypickypicky."
Will gave her a sharp smack on her face and looked directly over at me as if he faulted me for watching. It was an anomaly in our normal formula for arguments. Usually, in argument, all were given free reign to say what they liked with only a verbal retort as part of the likely product. They played what they called “the dozens” which I thought highly inaccurate because they rarely went past three or four of the individual “snaps” but I read that term came from the sale of slaves that had been beaten until they could only sell them cheaply, by the dozen.
Will looked down at the beans and I thought for sure he'd throw them or pound them with his fist but he picked up a little with his fingers and ate it. He made a big show of smacking the food against the roof of his mouth.
"Mmm, these are pretty good. Give 'em a try Juke, if you’re hungry." there was an odd tone in his voice and also in the pacing in his walk back to the engine, casual but not his normal stride..
The dish contained heavily salted lima beans. I’ve always hated lima beans. Their size and shape makes me think of testicles and once you start thinking like that, you can’t turn back. I scooped up a few like Will did and quickly swallowed them down and smiled at Mi but Mi wasn’t looking at me because her head hung towards the garage floor.
"It is a fact, in 1979 Norma McCoy of Hubert North Carolina grew a Lima bean pod that was fourteen inches in length," I said after I took a huge swig of Dr Pepper.
Mi slowly rubbed at her cheek and stayed composed.
I belched. "Same year Martin Moore in Brighton England ate 2,380 cold beans one by one with a cocktail stick in a half hour."
"Is that so Juke? Some folks’ll do anything to keep their cars on the road, I guess."
Hank's joke at another time might have had us all laughing but Mi continued to rub her cheek. She didn’t lift her gaze from the floor while delivering the bowl. When it rested at my counter the curve of her smile grew warm and its meek slope did not compare to what it normally averaged. Mi walked casually to the steps but once near she dashed up them and I thought I could hear crying above the click of her little heels.
Everyone returned to the work for a while, even Will, until Hank interrupted the tool's clatter by starting an Art Blakey album. We listened to the drumming without comment for the next half hour when Hank asked me to tell them something about the music. I didn’t know much about Art Blakey besides him being a jazz drummer and the title of the album "Moanin." It’d been stored in the Miles Davis’s "Miles Smiles" album cover so I never got the chance to read the “Moanin” cover for any information it might have.
"The slaves who were originally brought to the U.S. from West Africa were the creators of jazz. During their breaks from working, they would make music. It was a reminder of their home; full of syncopation and special rhythmic complexity." I’d read it in a Time magazine article on Miles Davis.
"Hear that Junior, listen up you’ll learn something about where our jazz music comes from."
"I don’t need to be schooled today now, do I? Who’s the musician here? Listen, you won’t have to worry about any lessons when I move west."
"So there’ll be more room in the apartment but, hey, where you going now?" Hank said as Will wiped his hands on a rag. "Won’t be affording that move by not working."
"I’ll be making my money at the match Friday night." He stomped away and a minute later we heard his car speed out of the lot.
"Well, Juke. It's me and you again. Put on what you like over there."
As it spun to the end I lifted the needle and started it over. We didn’t say much for a while as I wrote the counts on the last of the four boxes I finished.
Hank started cleaning the tool he worked with. "Did Will ever tell you how he and Mi met?"
"They met during the Vietnam war."
"Yeah, yeah that’s the bones of it, but…" Hank tilted his head thinking. "There’s lots more nerve and meat to that story." He wiped his hands on his coveralls and retrieved two bottles of Pabst before taking a seat in one of the chairs he liked to sit in looking out on the street. He waved me over. I could smell a little B.O. coming from him when I sat down and he handed me a bottle.
"Not my place maybe but I’d rather you didn’t think badly of Will. It’s been tough on him moving back here with me. He’s still trying to find his bearings, and that anger, don’t let it fool you. He’s a boy with a big heart.” Hank put the wrench on the ground next to us as a car pulled to a stop at the stoplight. “Vietnam, mhm, Vietnam had lots of men living inside themselves, you know, living everyday with the fear of death. Will was no different, not one bit. He sought out women to keep sane like so many of them boys." Hank lifted his bottle and drank. "As I heard it, there were many women like Mi, trying to find a way to survive by taking care of soldiers. Same women I found in Korea. But Will didn’t do like the others, you gotta believe me. His mother and I brought him up to respect women. There were plenty of soldiers there that’d tell a woman who was just tryin’ to survive that, sure, they’d come back for her, and take care of her, if she’d only give him some lovin’ that night, but they never did."
The slight yellow tint of his eyes emanated warmth, sending it out along the long fluttering lashes. He swallowed a third of his bottle and released a slow muffled burp. "If April only lived until he got home, but- but see, no sir, Will Flynn wasn’t that kind of man. When he told Mi he’d be back for her he meant it. When he finished his tours, he had her come back to the States with him. I never raised a hand to April, never once. Will saw plenty of our fights. I’ve learned see. You gotta look the other way if he gets that way with her because I wasn’t in Vietnam and you can’t understand a man’s actions that’s been through what went on over there. The man gave his hand. I guess he should be able to use it for what he wants now."
We sat and listened to traffic pass and belched while drinking our beer. I thought about how they’d both treated me since my first visit. On top of what they paid me for the counting, every time I’d come Hank or Will would put extra in my pocket for any little thing I did. They always laughed and laughed and sometimes they’d stick other things in my pocket besides money, like used tissues and bottle caps but I’d keep reciting stand-up even if that’s all they ever stuck in there. These were the types of guys you care for as if they’re your relatives because they’re better than the ones you see on TV, and at least as good as my uncle. As long as Will wasn’t slapping me and as long as Mi still showed how much she loved Will the next day, then I figured it’s okay to go on loving them too.
"Will’s moving. So that means, it means you are moving too."
"I been here thirty-seven years. I’ll probably be here when you move away and probably until the big guy comes and takes me away, but I may be living over there in Tri-Pyramid’s by then."
We both looked over and saw a group of elderly people moving slowly on the grounds.
"It is a fact, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were the Great Pyramid of Cheops, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Temple of Diana at Ephesus, The Tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, The Colossus of Rhodes on the Isle of Rhodes and the Lighthouse on the Isle of Pharos. The Great Pyramid of Cheops located on the Giza plateau is the only one still in existence. It was built in less than thirty years. Memphis Tennessee is named after Memphis, the necropolis, or burial city where Giza lives. There has been speculation that the Pyramid was built by aliens or perhaps Atlantians. Many people don’t think of Egypt being part of Africa but the pyramids were built by a proud group of intensely hard working Africans. … You know- you know I’m of African descent too Hank."
Hank had been looking at me with wonder then smiled wide exposing his dark gums. "Is that right? Well, you got color I’ll give you that."
"We all are. Because of the fact of the earliest woman, Lucy, she was from Africa. We all must have some of her blood in us."
"I imagine you’re right, that is, unless we came from aliens," he continued with his wide grin.
"Or the Atlantians, but I should be going home now."
"Already? Well, come by again when you can. Don’t want me counting them bolts, I’d be all week at it." Hank pulled a small roll of bills from his pocket and tucked a five in with the Chiclets.
"Okay bye," I said and tried handing him the Chiclets.
He took my quarter drunk bottle instead. "See you later, Juke."
The automobile Hank most resembles is a Volkswagen Beetle. I say this not because he’s a fat squat man with bug eyes, although he sort of is, I say it because blue whales have hearts the same size as Volkswagen Beetles. Maybe it’d be better to say that Hank has the heart of a blue whale but that’d be a frightening physical impossibility.