HE DIDN’T BUT HE WOULD
“What do you think I should do?” Louie asked Teddy. Now Louie was the owner of the dollar store. And not in bad shape for a guy who never dreamed of a work-out. Lean and snarly in disposition. Especially when someone was trying to make him look like a fool. Or steal from his shop. On the other hand, Teddy was diminutive by the standards of his peers. And he was scared. Which was not uncommon for Teddy. Who managed to get himself in more trouble than was his quota. And he was alone. None of the other Drug Store Bandits was within ear shot.
Teddy hung his head and muttered, “I don’t know, sir.” His voice was trembling. Lost in the bubble gum he was chewing.
“Spit out that gum,” Louie demanded. “I can hardly understand a word you’re saying.”
Teddy took a small piece of paper out of his pocket and placed the gum into it. Without actually touching the gum. As if his fingers might contaminate the precious gum. Then replaced the paper in the pocket that had given it birth. Louie watched all of this with some amazement.
“Yes, sir,” Teddy said.
Louie raised his hand as if he was going to strike the small boy. The boy winced.
“How deep is the ocean?” Louie asked.
The boy was caught off balance. He was reluctant to ask the shopkeeper to repeat his question. And maybe it wasn’t the question the shopkeeper intended. That could only make matters worse. Teddy was in no position to test the boundaries of Louie’s wrath.
“What’s your father going to do when I tell him?” Louie asked, waving his hand over the boy’s head.
A small smile swept across Teddy’s lips. That was at least a question he could answer. Although it wasn’t a topic close to his heart.
“My dad doesn’t live with us,” Teddy replied, his words wavering with emotion.
“Is he under the lawn?” Louie asked.
Teddy stared at the shopkeeper. A cloud of perplexity short circuited his thoughts. Another question he could not understand. What a day to wake upon. Nothing had gone right for the boy since his eyes had first glimpsed the peeling paint on his bedroom ceiling. That morning.
“Dead?” Louie repeated. This boy is as thick as a door knob. Louie blamed the educational system. You can’t teach anyone anything without a slap across the knuckles. With a ruler. Or at least the threat. Now they had taken terror out of the curriculum. And where are we now? Ruled by morons. And the sons of morons.
“No, sir,” Teddy said. “Just gone.”
Louie shook Teddy’s head. Then stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. He was about to speak again when he took a fist out of his trousers and punched at the ceiling. God, he was angry. But he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t just the shoplifting. Hadn’t he done his fare share of that when he was younger. It was more the disrespect. He couldn’t get any respect from his customers. Who thinks highly of a man who runs a dollar store? He couldn’t get any respect from his accountant. How can you live on these earnings? Or his banker. No. we can’t give you another extension on your loan. But now even kids thought they could come in and spit in his face. It burnt.
“You come into my store and try to steal me blind. What the hell were you going to do with a bunch of hair pins?”
Teddy hesitated. “Give them to my grandma.”
Louie threw his head back. “Gee.” He laughed. “I suppose it’s her birthday.”
“And I’m supposed to believe that! What’s your grandmother going to say when I phone her and tell her what you’ve been up to?”
Tears slipped out of Teddy’s eyes. He wiped them off with the back of his hands.
“You can’t do that, sir.”
“And why not?”
“It would break my grandma’s heart.” Teddy sniffled.
“You’ve gotten into trouble before?”
Louie bit down on his lip.
“Does this routine work for you much? This sniffling, cry baby routine? When are you going to take responsibility for your actions? Jesus, you make me sick to my stomach.”
Louie grabbed the small boy’s shoulder. “Look at me!”
Teddy looked up at the shopkeeper. Louie raised his hand and jabbed his finger in Teddy’s chest. Teddy couldn’t hear any longer. He wanted to. But he long ago had turned off the volume. As soon as the jabbing started. Or the threats. Or the slaps. Teddy went into mute.
“I don’t want to see you in my store again,” Louie roared. “And if there are any more incidents in this plaza with you involved, I will report it to the police. And I’ll let them break your grandmother’s heart. Your mother’s heart. Or anyone else with the same last name. Am I understood?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Yes, sir. You are understood.”
Louie squeezed the boy’s shoulder.
“I should put my foot…” Louie began but stopped. “What good would it do?”
He pushed Teddy toward the door.
“Get out of my sight!” he cried.
Teddy walked toward the door. He wanted to turn around and curse the shopkeeper. But he did not. He wanted to warn him that he’d be back with his friends. The other members of the Drug Store Bandits. And then he’d show the shopkeeper who was boss. He didn’t. But he would.