By Pierre Anton Taylor
The old neighborhood had changed for the worse. The high brick wall that had once been a part of his father’s factory was covered with ivy creepers, mottles of lichen, and faded graffiti. Sickly yellowing weeds grew between the cracks in the broken sidewalk. At the curb, obscured by plastic trash and piles of leaves, stood an old sycamore whose roots has caused the cement to buckle, a last remnant of when the area had been tree shaded, thriving, catering to the employees from the battery works..
He stood in front of the candy store he had frequented as a youngster. It hadn’t changed much, just become a little shabbier. The white paint on the double front doors had bubbled and peeled. The storefront windows near the entrance, repaired with duct tape and cardboard, looked as if a hole had been punched through it.
“That’s quite an antique.” A square shouldered black man on the step leading up into the store spoke the words. He was referring to the black sedan parked at the curb.
“It’s a 1960 Plymouth Fury. Fully restored.”
“I know that. I was about your age when I would have given my right arm for one of those.” He held up the stub of his right arm. “Instead I gave it for my country in Vietnam.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The young man grimaced. He always felt uncomfortable saying it because it was such a cliche. “Thank you for your service.”
“Wasn’t your fault. I just got careless. Ripley’s the name, by the way. I didn’t catch yours.”
“Wayne, Wayne Bruce.” He felt a little awkward as he extended his hand, but the black man grasped it firmly with his left.
“And what brings you to this neighborhood, Mr. Bruce? Lost? Or looking to pick up some cheap real estate?”
Wayne Bruce shook his head and glanced around again, reorienting himself after so many years. Abandoned buildings and the apartment towers that used to teem with activity now appeared worn and past their use by date. The brick enclosure to the crumbling factory site he used to think of as towering had retained some of its respectability if not its height. The candy store abutting the wall emitting a faint single source amber light, the tavern on the corner across the street where Central teed into Battery, neon beer sign sputtering in the dark round window open for business.
Ripley kept his gaze fixed on the young man, a lithe six foot two, tangle of dark hair framing a square face and jaw, dark intense eyes under darker eyebrows, and with a deferential confidence to his manner. A tailored black gabardine three quarter length coat with attached cowl draped snugly across the broad shoulders. The crew collared dark gray jersey clung to the shape of the angular torso topping a pair of slim black slacks and casual half boots.
Bruce then smiled and indicated the candy shop. “I used to come here when I was a youngster. My favorite candy was a Chunky bar. Mr. Rick still the owner?”
Ripley showed a frown and squinted at the tall young man. “You know old Rick?”
“Sure, he made the best egg-cream around.”
Ripley’s frown intensified, taking a closer look at the white man who had just parked his antique Plymouth on one of the roughest streets on the east end of the city. “No, he don’t do that no more. Hasn’t done that in a real long time, make egg-creams. Kids today don’t know what egg-cream is. But you are right, he made the best.”
A stiff breeze rattled the branches of the sycamore and persuaded some of the last leaves to release their grip and float reluctantly to the concrete. Both men looked in the direction the wind had come, at the lead gray mass hovering over the tall spires and square silhouettes of the downtown district, the tawny streak of late afternoon sky crushed by darker clouds at the horizon.
“You say Bruce? That your name? Like this place here?” Ripley pointed to the grim shadows hovering above the wall and the sign that had been creatively overwritten.. “Bruce Battery Manufacturer? That you?”
Wayne nodded. “My father.”
“The Battery Man. I remember the billboards. Nobody Beats A Bruce! You that kid? I heard about you. Come on, come on in.” He pushed the door open and the hinge squeaked like a cry for help. “He’s in the back, come on.”
Bruce didn’t need urging to step up and in. The candy store was familiar though smaller than he remembered it. The counter with the white scale, now a nicotine yellow, atop the display case of penny candy, jaw breakers, licorice whips, and candy bars. A diagonal crack mended with yellowing translucent tape ran across the display glass. On the back wall by the cash register the slotted black shelves of tobacco products mostly empty. There were plastic toys and odds and ends household items, clothespins, wooden matches, boxes of plastic forks and knives on shelves along the opposite wall. A rack next to the shelves displayed an assortment of flimsy plastic Halloween costumes and masks from the holiday a few weeks past. Boxes, some unopened, some empty, were stacked on the floor toward the rear of the small space where a doorway was covered with a threadbare flowered green curtain stirred by the sound of shuffling behind it.
“Yo! Rick! Hey! Old man! Somebody here to see you!” Ripley’s grin was mirthful, glee ringing his eyes.
A grave low voice answered, “If it’s Kerr, I already gave him my answer. What don’t he get about ‘shove it’? The curtain parted to a frown under a head of close cropped silver wool and a mean squint distorting the dark brown face. Pale framed thick lensed glasses held together at the bridge by a bulge of masking tape sat on a crooked nose, the tip of which appeared lighter than the rest of the ebony exterior.
The old man came to a stop, a walking cane in each hand, and craned his tall torso forward. “Who are you? You don’t look one of Kerr’s. . . ?” He gave a sidelong glance at Ripley who was trying to maintain his composure and not burst out laughing, and then turned to face the tall young man in black. A smile slowly cracked the harsh demeanor exposing red gums and missing teeth. “It’s you, ain’t it? I’d know that canary eating grin anywhere.” To Ripley, he snapped, “What you laughing at? I don’t see nothing funny!”
Easing himself behind the candy counter, Richard Richards, Mr. Rick to most of his customers, took up his iconic position in the eyes of the young man. “Lemme guess. A Chunky bar.” At the young man’s nod, he slide open the rear door to the display case and reached in. “You remember how much you used to pay for one of these?” he asked as he set the foil wrapped candy on the top of the counter.
Wayne paused to recall. “A quarter.” And then, “But I remember when they went up to fifty cents because I came in one day and all I had was twenty five cents, two dimes and a nickel, and you told me that the price had gone up. But you sold it to me anyway, that I could pay the rest next time.”
The old man chuckled. “That’s right. And you shoulda seen the look on your face when you realized you didn’t have the right amount. You mighta cried.”
“Did I ever pay you back? I don’t remember. I hope I did.”
“I don’t recall either. Not that it matters after all this time.” He held up the silver square. “Nowadays one of these will set you back five dollars! Think anyone can afford that?”
Ripley nodded in assent, “Not around here they can’t, that’s for damn sure!”
“This young man here used to keep track of my inventory. He knew every candy I carried and how much of it I had. He’d come in here with his daddy and name off everything I had in the case. I carried newspapers back then, and Mr. Bruce would come in for his morning and his afternoon edition. He always had this one in tow. Go straight to the glass and put his nose up against it.” He shook his head in recollection. “Time’s are gone.” And addressing young Bruce, “I’m sorry to hear of his passing.”
The tips of Wayne’s ear’s reddened, darkening them, and he twisted a grin in agreement and acceptance of the condolences. And as if to offset the tension of the emotion, he pointed to the soda vending machine’s garish edifice over to one side in the corner, the only thing that seemed out of place. “I remember the big red cooler you used to have there. It rattled whenever the compressor came on. The first time I heard it I nearly jumped out of my shorts. That and the treasure hoard of candy were my first impression of this place. And you used to have a comic book rack over there too. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor reading them. Those are good memories, Mr. Rick.”
“Aw, you were a pest, always asking questions, you were curious about everything. And then you went away to school, somewhere, some place foreign I heard. Your mother sent you off to get a proper education. And you’d come by every once in a while when you were home visiting, and I seen you were developing into a fine young man, taking more after your ma than your husky pop, though. She only come in here with you a couple times I can remember but I could tell she was high toned.” He lowered his eyes at the memory, “She doing well, is she?”
Wayne gazed out at the failing light of the darkening street. He nodded, “Yes,” as if to himself. “Mother is doing well as can be expected. Dad’s brother, Harold, is taking care of the details, managing the Bruce business empire.” A hint of bitterness in his attitude. “Life goes on even if not for Wallace W. Bruce.” He erased the frown with a bright smile as if it had never been there. “I thought that while I was in town for the funeral I’d see if I could still get a Chunky at the only place I know that sells them.”
Rick gave an appreciative guffaw. “Well, you are in luck, this is the last one! I stopped carrying them half a dozen years ago when the price went up to two dollars. I didn’t think anyone would ever want a square of chocolate, nuts, and raisins that bad. I kept this one as a souvenir of when candy was cheaper than crack.” He pointed to the shelves behind the display glass. “You see anything in here that reminds you of a Zagnut or Good & Plenty or a Clark Bar, Abba Zaba, Big Hunk, JuJuBes, Milk Duds, or Pay Day?”
“You had those little wax bottles with fruit syrup in them. . . .”
“Yeah, Nickle-A-Nips, go for over a dollar now. I can’t get a lot of those old candies anymore. It’s my distributor, he carries all these off brands. You ever hear of a Ball Park? it’s shaped like a frankfurter, made mostly of sawdust as near as I can tell, and held together with a chocolate tasting glue. Bigga Jigga? I don’t even want to think what it’s made of, but I heard somebody lost a tooth biting into one, pulled it clean out of his gums. And Plenty Good? Just a box of hard candy pieces swept up off the candy factory floor. O’Hara’s? Some kind of high fructose soybean glop, and Dummies, just little pills of color flavored chalk. This Wacky Wax? It’s just artificially sweetened wax. That can’t be good for your gut.”
Ripley nodded vigorously, “Eat enough of that, stick a wick up your butt and call you a candle.”
“You might need a new distributor.” Wayne offered with an understated chuckle.
Rick shook his head. “No, can’t, Kerr controls the East Central District. He has a say in just about everything that gets bought and sold in this neighborhood. His guy makes me carry these knockoffs and threatens me when they don’t sell! He made me install that drink vender. It’s expensive, besides. Has to stay plugged in all the time, uses more lectricity than the rest of the shop! Usta carry his girly magazines but it just attracted the kids, and they’d want to shoplift something, sometimes because they thought they needed it, other times just because they thought they could. Sell ‘em under the counter now, you gotta ask to see ‘em, and if you’re asking, you buying one.”
“Kerr? Where have I seen that name, from around here?”
“Joeseph Kerr. That’s his warehouse down the block, in the old garment factory, you mighta seen the sign painted on the side of the building when you turned down Central coming into the neighborhood.”
“I did. Kerr Novelty, Inc. Big letters.”
“Big crook, if you ask me. Came from out east about ten years ago. He’s got his fingers in other pots, too, buying up real estate. He owns Quinn’s, the tavern across the street, and the old folks apartment building next door. I heard he was partnering with some developers for a project down at the other end of Battery. Bound to be a boondoggle like most projects in this town.”
“Calling the cops ain’t gonna do no good. They take forever to get to this end of town. Kerr’s probably paying off somebody at the precinct to lay off in his turf.”
“And he’s been looking at the old factory site, your pop’s place.” Ripley spoke up. “Heard he wants to move his operation to over there.”
Rick threw him a quick glance. “B, you know that’s just a rumor. Ain’t no truth to that.”
“Yeah, that’s what I overheard at Q’s. And you know why that’s bad news for you.”
“Yes I know, but no need to talk about something ain’t gonna happen until after I’m dead.”
“You see, man, this building, old Rick’s crib in back, the candy store, they all on the factory property. Somebody buy that factory, they get the candy store in the deal.”
Wayne cocked his head to one side, “Is that true? I’d have to look up the property deed in the company archives.”
“No, no, Bion is right. This is part of the factory property. It had been the foundry foreman’s residence before the site was converted to Bruce Battery Works. I was one of your old man’s original employees back when he started out. Then after the accident, well, he helped me. . . .”
“Here, here,” Ripley was pointing out the window as the streetlights sparked to life at the encroaching gray, “The Up To No Good gang, I’Van and J’Van. I haven’t seen them in a while. Somebody musta bailed them out.”
Rick concurred. “They on the prowl early, looking for a stray bird. They must be desperate.”
“You know them?”
Ripley nodded solemnly, “We had occasion to get close.”
Rick chuckled, “Bion ripped open a case of whupass on those boys. They know not to mess with him.”
Bion pointed with his stub. “The redhead? That’s I’Van. He’s a nasty piece of work. The other one, the kid, J’Van, he’s dangerous because he doesn’t know how strong he is. But he’s a follower, not a leader. They do muscle for the local numbers guy, and strong arm the unwary for their nickels and dimes. They try to intimidate everyone else. Those that cross them usually end up in the hospital.”
“The bookie is in Kerr’s pocket. He couldn’t operate without his say so. His boys are the neighborhood pit bulls.” Rick added.
“And they’re taking a close look at your Plymouth at the curb. Might not be too wise to leave it parked there for long. I can go stand by it. They’ll know enough to steer wide.”
Wayne held up his hand. “No, please, I don’t think that will be necessary. Thanks for the offer, Bion, is it? An unusual name if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Naw, man, that’s cool, everybody trips over it. I got it in Nam. It’s because of my last name, Ripley. The guys in the platoon used to call me Believe It Or Not, and it got shortened to BION, and then just B, what most folks knows me calls me.”
“I don’t believe it!” Rick was leaning forward on his canes glaring out the window. “Just this minute, coming down the steps, it’s old lady Winslow, I’m sure of it.”
“Her daughter musta forgot to lock the apartment door again,” Ripley said, a trace of concern in his voice.
“She thinks she’s going shopping, got her purse and her shopping bag. . . .”
“Wait till she gets around the corner to find that the market been closed for two years now.”
“If she gets that far. I didn’t think they’d do that. They are lower than scum. Knocked her down, one of them has got her purse, laughing.”
“Call the cops!” Wayne had started toward the door.
“Calling the cops ain’t gonna do no good. They take forever to get to this end of town. Kerr’s probably paying off somebody at the precinct to lay off in his turf.”
“She might be hurt!” Ripley raced through the door, “Call for an ambulance!”
Rick replied to Wayne’s questioning look, “He was a medic in Nam. He’ll see to her till the meat wagon arrives.”
“The men, they’re gone, where. . . ?”
The old man looked up from dialing the phone, “Can’t have gone far, mighta ducked into Q’s to divvy up the loot.”
Wayne became very quiet, overcome by an ominous calm. He glanced at the Halloween display, the black domino mask with peacock feather eyebrows in its cellophane bag. He unclipped it from the rack and held it up. “How much?”
Rick shook his head. “Try it on first. See if it fits.”
Wayne ripped open the bag and plucked off the feathered decorations and slipping the mask over his eyes. “Better call for a second ambulance.”
He strode down the steps, skirted the rear fins of the Plymouth Fury and stepped quickly across the darkening street pulling the cowl up over his head as the first of the rain began to fall.
Wet occupied the air and chilled it. In the yellow-brown light of the doorway to Quinn’s Tavern, the rain striking the concrete jumped like sparks off a hot griddle. The door opened quietly, disturbing neither the wide shouldered man with the bar towel over his shoulder, gaze intent on the square of color TV mounted above the bar, who laughed along with the track, a rheumy asthmatic rasp, or the other two hunched over in the shadows of a back booth, laughing, giggling, but not at the TV, a sitcom about people who frequent a bar similar to this one although certainly less sinister.
The young one looked up, questioning at first and then frowning his face into a growl at the perceived threat. The redhead jerk his eyes up from the emptied contents of the purse like a dog guarding a bone. He was about to raise his head and bark when two rigid fingers jabbed the larynx causing a choking spasm gasp for breath at the same time the base of a palm slammed into the apex of his nose with enough force to render him unconscious. As the dark haired man boy rose to defend his partner, a well-placed kick to the sternum knocked him back into the sitting position with his head bouncing against the tall booth, an open target for the elbow that struck him full face and broke his nose. The man behind the bar had just brought up the shotgun as the round glass ashtray that had been between the two unconscious thugs struck him on the bridge of the nose knocking him down.
A black gloved hand gathered the pile of belongings in the middle of the table and returned them to the purse. There wasn’t much to the loot: a change purse, a wallet stuffed with grocery coupons but no legal tender or credit cards, a lipstick tube, hair pins, an empty pack of spearmint gum, a sheaf of letters held together by a ribbon, the scent of lilac.
No one paid attention to him as he set the purse on the stoop to the apartment house where a few neighbors had gathered with umbrellas to shield the old woman who was sitting up now, looking around bewildered, rubbing the elbow she had hit after being pushed down by the hoodlums. A siren sounded close.
Ripley glanced up once to see the tall cowled figure, eyes shadowed by the black mask before the ambulance’s flashing red and ambers saturated the rain dark street. After the medics had taken over, he stood in the soaking downpour and stared at the empty curb in front of the candy store. He sensed that it was just the beginning, a perfect storm of coincidences gathering at the horizon that would rain down justice and injustice alike, and transform the lives of those who lived in the decaying industrial fringe of the city, a city whose name had always resonated as a cesspit of crime and corruption.