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by Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. The dead-end gang. Tyro 21:29–34. [ISSN 0836–4346]
It was one of those days that carried with it the strangeness of impending change, although this was not something an eight-year-old fully appreciated. All I understood at the time was the frustration at the discovery my Tastee-Freeze would cost a carefully hoarded five cents more than it used to cost, and maybe five cents more than I had. My sweaty-faced friends looked up at the storekeeper with the same truculent lack of understanding.
"But it only cost a nickel yesterday!" I protested.
The old man behind the counter looked down at us with the sad-eyed kindness of age, but even the wisdom of those many years was insufficient to explain inflation and supply-side economics to a disappointed mob of eight-year-olds. Add ten more years of growth to us and move the store to the Bronx that Mr. Schwartz had left after the war, and the baseball bats we carried might have meant something very different; with us, they just meant baseball.
"Well, kids, all I can say is that the people who sell them to me raised their prices. I had to raise mine too... so I could pay for my own things." He smiled his kindly smile. "But I guess I can afford a one-day-only special for old customers. Go ahead, kids, take the treats and go out there and hit a few long balls for me." Mr. Schwartz claimed to have played for the Dodgers when he was younger, but we'd never found his name in any of the record books.
One reason we all liked him was that he was at the age when he could forget about being an adult for a time, lose that ineffable dignity that adults wore like a mantle, and remember just being a kid. I don't mean to give the impression we couldn't empathize with his monetary problems... we were just getting used to the idea of having our own money to buy things with, and we liked to believe we understood adult finance. Nonetheless, we accepted his offer, and dipped sweaty hands (and faces, for the store wasn't air-conditioned) into the delicious frost of the freezer before heading back to St. Louis park across the street.
"Well that's a drag," grumbled Joey, slumped bonelessly across the bleachers, upside down with the sweetly melting colored ice trickling sluggishly into his mouth.
"Yeah," echoed Chucky, the group's savant. Chucky was our intellectual leader 'cause he could always put in words what the rest of us were feeling. Kind of a shame we lack that easy empathy as adults, but we've been given words to take its place. I enjoy that gift more than I can say, but sometimes I miss the older gift. Silence fell across us for a time, like the drifting cloud shadows, only the whine of the cicadas and the occasional passing car intruding. The sugary ice brought the inevitable cold-headache, but it was a pleasant sort of pain. There was gritty dust from the baseball diamond on my lips, mingled with the salt sweat of the World Series we had just played out, and the summer smell of old sneakers was there in the sun, just at the edge of perception.
On the cleat-scuffed sand of the infield, two sparrows fought over a scrap of something, wings kicking up little dust-devils. A squirrel sat up, tail curved into a grey question mark, legs Cossack-curled beneath him; then, in the most military fashion imaginable, he crouched belly-down and began slinking across the fresh-mown grass towards the sparrows. Sulking, I watched from the intermittent shade cast by the bleachers as the squirrel crept ever closer to the quarrelsome pair, deftly extracted the disputed morsel from their midst, and made off with his prize. From such things come inspiration.
"Hey, guys, look!"
"What about it?"
"He swiped that nut from the birds!" I emphasized.
"Birds don't eat nuts," observed Chucky.
"Yeah, they do," argued Joey. "My father says so."
"Do so!" The argument became a good-natured scuffle, culminating in a panting heap on the fragrant grass beside me. "Anyways, what about the dumb squirrel?" Joey grinned at me lopsidedly from atop Chucky.
"He stole that nut from the birds," I repeated with the patience of our weekday-afternoon hero, Colonel Hogan, trying out an idea on his fellow prisoners of war.
"So?" echoed two voices from flushed faces.
"So we can do the same thing," I said, the sound of superior logic in my voice.
"Steal nuts from birds? You're the one who's nuts!"
"Yeah," Chucky confirmed.
I punched him hard on the shoulder, and the three of us rolled about the grass for a while longer until, out of breath, we collapsed again. "No, stupid," I explained. "If we can't buy stuff from the store any more, we can just take it, like the squirrel did."
"No way!" said Joey. "My Dad says it's wrong to steal from people."
"We wouldn't steal stuff, not really. We could leave the same amount of money we always used to pay. Teach them to raise prices!" Triumphant, I waited for them to concede my point.
"You may be right," mused Chucky.
"Yeah," said Joey, usurping Chucky's privilege.
"But not from Mr. Schwartz," I continued. "He's always nice to us, almost like another kid. Maybe from the Steinberg's store... they don't like kids."
"Hmmm," said Chucky. "We'll have to be smart about it. They have special policemen in big stores to make sure no one steals." There was a nervous-excited look in his eyes, the sort of thing I can remember feeling myself when I discovered where my grandfather hid his private selection of chocolates before we kids came to visit.
"Two of us can watch while the other one takes the stuff," I pointed out.
"How will we know which ones are the policemen?"
"They'll be the ones with the guns, stupid!"
"Will so!" And with that, Chucky took Joey by surprise and rolled him over on his back. Even at that age, there was precious little honor among thieves.
When that brawl had ended, I answered the question. "Doesn't matter. All we've got to do is watch and make sure nobody's looking while we're taking. It'll be easy," I finished casually, not meeting their gaze.
"If it's so easy, then you go first Smartypants."
"You have to help too."
Joey considered for a while, then looked at Chucky for guidance. Our guru shrugged.
"Why not?" Before any of us could get up the courage to back down, he rose from the grass, disentangling himself from Joey, and started off in the direction of the mall. Joey and I exchanged apprehensive looks before following.
Together, in a nervous cluster, we passed through the automatic doors and into the air-conditioned supermarket. We'd argued every time about how those doors worked, but no one ever agreed. Dad had said something about an electric eye, not that this helped much; it was a little more technology than we were prepared to cope with, as our idea of High Tech was Maxwell Smart's shoe phone. Today's children don't even find any magic in personal computers, which leads me to wonder if perhaps some magic hasn't gone out of the world. In any event, I suppose it was a good thing we hadn't set our hearts on robbing Birks.
It was early afternoon of a midweek day, a Tuesday if memory serves, so the store was nearly empty. I shivered, part anticipation, part temperature change. My fellow carpetbaggers were equally uneasy, and I whispered to them to act more normal. Acting normal's the toughest thing in the world to do when you've got something inappropriate on your mind. Normally, we made our way to the candy aisle. When the aisle was empty, I saw we'd made our first mistake.
"Hey, the bags are too big!" hissed Joey.
Both looked to me for guidance and, budding criminal mastermind that I was, I answered quickly. "Cut 'em open, then." Out came my penknife, proudest of all possessions. "Tell me if anyone's coming." While they watched the ends of the aisle, I cut a hole in the nearest bag of Tootsie Rolls and began stuffing my pockets. I drew back just as a cart rounded the corner, but the woman behind it hadn't seen anything. Neither had my two vanished guards.
I almost ran, but it wouldn't have been normal. I smiled foolishly, and made my way slowly to the door, ignored in that benign way busy adults all have. I was so spooked I didn't even remember to leave money behind; of course, I didn't have any money to leave, yet another oversight. The exit couldn't have been more than fifty feet away, but by the time I got there I felt like I'd walked through the house of Dracula at midnight on Hallowe'en. I was sweating so hard it almost felt cool when I reached the street. Then I sprinted like a fool back to the park. Chucky and Joey were there, laughing so hard they could barely stand. If I hadn't been so shivery with anger, I'd have punched one of them.
"Bet you thought you were funny!"
"Yeah," laughed Chucky, and Joey just nodded.
"Just for that you can't have any!" I pulled my swag out of its hiding place and waved it in their faces.
"Hey, he got something!"
"Let's see!" demanded Chucky.
"No! You didn't help, so go steal your own!"
"All right, we will! If you did it, it can't be that hard."
"Go ahead," I said around a mouthful of candy. "I'll wait for you by the fountain." I was thirsty already, the cloying caramelized sugar combining with a mouth gone dry from my narrow escape. And off I walked. I didn't look around until I'd had a drink of the warm, stale, metallic water, and by then they were across the street. I popped more candy in my mouth and thought for a moment. Sure they were creeps, but they were my friends. I couldn't let them go alone, could I? Sucking another Tootsie Roll for courage, I headed for the store.
When I found them, they were standing in front of the counter, looking nervous, but they got a sheepish, grateful look on their faces when they saw me.
"Well? You going to stand there all day or you going to get something?"
"We were just deciding," grumped Chucky.
"So decide then." They looked at each other, and encouraged, reached out for the torn bag. At that moment, a heavy tread sounded on the hard floor and one of the men in red coats turned the corner of the aisle. Two hands shakily withdrew from torn bags, several long seconds too late. If we'd run right away, we might have escaped, but he had us hypnotized, the way birds freeze up when they see a snake. Slowly, confidently, he slid towards us. A single Tootsie Roll dropped to the floor in slow motion, hit with a dull click.
"What's up, kids?" His voice seemed icy with menace, and the store suddenly felt very, very cold. We looked at each other, but said nothing. One long arm darted out, boney hand seizing the open bag, and a horrible certainty flamed in those eyes.
"We didn't take nothing, honest!" Joey blurted out.
"I didn't say you had, now did I? But maybe you've got a guilty conscience, hmmm?" Realizing that I still had a large, glutinous mouthful of evidence, I swallowed hard, and for a moment there were two lumps in my throat. I started sucking on my teeth to clear away any telltale stains before I spoke up. Cagney would have never been taken alive, Copper; what I said was, "I didn't take anything!" Which was true, this time. This seems to have been my first attempt at semantics, a word I'd never heard of at the time, and I like to think I've gotten better at it over the years.
"Then what's that in your mouth?" he replied, bending way down to look into my eyes. "And what's that in your pockets?" he continued relentlessly, darting a hand into my jeans and emerging triumphant with some of the remaining candy. "I think we'd better go have a talk with the Manager." Still hypnotized, we followed numbly at his back, not even thinking of making a break for it. Generations of hardened rogues, unseen ghostly spectators to this debacle, undoubtedly turned their backs on us in shame. Up a flight of stairs we trudged and, without knocking, on into a smoky office.
The manager was a slim, balding man, and sat with his feet up on one of the few clear spots on his metal desk. Shoes off, tie undone, cigarette dangling from thick red lips, The Gazette absorbing all his attention. He had one of those military haircuts, and the nameplate on the desk, half-buried amidst a stack of papers, said something German. All I could think of was Herr Colonel Klink, Kommandant of Der Shtore. Our captor cleared his throat loudly and the Manager put down the paper, sat up and straightened his tie. He looked us over, gave us a fatherly wink that was no doubt intended to be reassuring, and peered inquiringly at the redcoat.
"I've caught some thieves, Sir," and he brandished the evidence. ("Zese prisoners vere caught trying to eshcape, Herr Kommandant!")
"Well, boys," said Klink, trying (and failing) to look stern. "What do you have to say for yourselves?" None of us could bring ourselves to speak. ("Remember, lads, nothing but your name, rank, and serial number.") Seeing his opportunity, he promptly launched into a long lecture on the evils of shoplifting. If you've ever had a father, you've heard it all before, so I won't bore you with the details; if you don't have a father, drop me a line; I also write Science Fiction.
"I can't punish you," he finished, out of breath, "so I'll just have to phone your parents." ("The Geneva convention prohibits me from punishing you as you so richly deserve...") Rummaging beneath the litter atop the desk, he pulled out a pen and pad of paper. "Your phone numbers, please." Joey and Chucky meekly complied (as permitted under the articles of war), but I held my silence.
"What's wrong, son, cat got your tongue?"
"I don't remember my phone number," I lied, trying to look young enough that it would seem credible. Even in that state of resignation, I had no intention of becoming the instrument of my own doom. Klink looked bemused. "Really, Sir, I don't!"
"All right, you can all go now. I'll phone your parents later." He looked at me in puzzlement, evidently unsure whether he should really believe me. ("I see nossink, Colonel Hogan...") "I suppose I'll have to ask about you..." And out we went, down the stairs, through the chilly store, through the efficient automatic doors, and out into the afternoon heat. The doors snicked shut behind us, leaving us to sulk our way across the street, too sullen even to try and dart between the cars. Back in the park, we slumped down by the bleachers once more.
"Well that was a really dumb idea," said Joey, kicking at a clod of earth.
"You didn't think so before," I replied defensively.
"That was before you got us caught."
"You got us caught."
"We all did."
"Okay, we all did." I thought about it for a moment, and realized I was thirsty again. With a little bit of luck we still had enough money between us to buy a Coke from Mr. Schwartz.
"I've got another idea," I said.
I don't recall what happened next, but I do remember the bruises they gave me. The bruises have long since faded, but the memories are tender as ever. Some things you just remember.
This may be my oldest piece of fiction still extant, and was written way before I learned of writer's groups—and it shows. I've edited it lightly to remove the most egregious literary sins, but it could still benefit from an overhaul; I present it nonetheless for its historical value. In hindsight, this story was clearly influenced thematically by Ray Bradbury's work, which I discovered as a teen, though in no way was I attempting to emulate his style; there's only one Bradbury.
Colonel Hogan and Colonel Klink were the two principal adversaries in Hogan's Heroes, a 60s sitcom that hasn't aged at all well, even allowing for the flaws of the genre. But at eight, it was great fun, or so I recall. Maxwell Smart and his shoe phone, of course, are from Get Smart, a sitcom that still strikes me as funny nearly 40 years later. Cagney's "you'll never take me alive, Copper", is from The Public Enemy; I doubt I knew that as a kid, but I sure remembered the line from some afternoon spent feverish and swaddled on the sofa in front of the TV. Birks is a Montreal-area jewelry chain; Steinberg's was a largish Montreal-area chain of supermarkets in an era before the really big chains came in and wiped out the independents.
Is it true? I'm not saying. The statute of limitations may still be in effect, and after all, who really remembers full details of their youth?
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