Andy Warren crossed his eyes and wrinkled his nose. Little Madison Woodrow Harris giggled and ducked down below the tabletop. Andy cracked open his tanned lips into a smile, showing off bridge-work from a few years back.
“Don’t worry, Stringbean. Ole’ Andy don’t bite,” said Madison’s grandpa Elmer.
“I don’t know about that . . .,” Bob Hirsch chimed in, with certain frat-days intonations. Bob played the part, too. He was round on up from his short legs to his balding head.
They were all parked around an orange Formica table at Wilson’s. The dining area was better lit by the afternoon glare coming in from the wrap-around bay windows than by long fluorescents overhead.
“Double-cheese, no onions,” Nelly called out from behind the counter. Bob looked up expectantly, as if his own cheeseburger wasn’t sitting right in front of him.
“Anyway, now that you’re here, El, you can talk some sense into Bob,” Andy addressed Elmer. “We need to change this route!”
Elmer inquired of Bob with his eyes. Bob answered Elmer’s look with a look.
“Oh, Andy’s just pissed that we’re eating burgers here . . . instead of eating stale popcorn in the basement of the Elks’,” Bob threw a thumb over his rounded shoulder, and winked and chuckled at Elmer. “Now Andy, the route’s set in stone. It’s tradition; same as last year and year before that. Everyone’s counting on it. I know little Madison down there is excited. How’d you do in your soccer game yesterday, Miss Maddy?”
Elmer saw Bob and Andy getting ready, so he got out of the way of the coming battle; he leaned back a little, hooked his suspenders with his thumbs, and let out a long sigh.
Andy came back to Bob, “Don’t you go changing the subject,” not to be ignored.
“I almost scored a goal, but this other girl, from Toledo, blocked it, ‘cause she, um, got her right foot around from my left side,” Madison reported, “which I didn’t think she could, and well, I almost scored, but we lost.”
“And what sort of pop do you want with that?” Nelly at the register: “Large fries. Two large Cokes.”
Bob looked pained by Andy’s obstinacy. “How’s about we pick this back up over at Elmer’s tonight? Round about six-thirty?”
Andy and Bob, far as they were from seeing eye to eye, were locked in a staring match. “Bob,” Andy addressed in exasperated tones, “do you want Arbor Day to mean something in this town or not? If we don’t run out there by the mall and the subdivision, we’ll lose, what is it now? A third of the town? They don’t want to drive down here, try to find parking, and all, just to see the parade. If we want them, we have to go get them.” Andy was leaning on the Formica, looking oh so earnestly at Bob. “You heard me; the town’s changing. We should be too.”
Elmer’s knee began to ache a little from all the hub-bub. He and his knee had made it through another winter a little worse for wear. But even the warm weather didn’t help when Bob and Andy got going. He swung his long leg out of the bench, and into the aisle, to stretch it out straight, to relieve the pressure for moment.
Bob was pushed back, one hand on his aching heart, the other up in defense of Andy’s brutal assault. “Six-thirty, ok?” Bob went fishing for sympathy. “Look, my cheeseburger’s getting cold.”
Not to be out-martyred, Andy slumped back in his bench. He looked from Bob to Elmer, and back down. Without raising his head, he looked up and nodded. He hoisted himself up. He grabbed the last third of his burger in one hand and patted Madison on the head with the other hand. Then he headed for the door.
After Andy had left, Bob clucked his tongue and told Elmer, “He’s sure set on rocking the boat this year.”
“Sure is. And when Andy’s set,” Elmer concurred, “he’s set.”
Bob leaned in with a conspiratorial wink, “We’d just about have to torture him to bring him back around.”
The drive south down Main Street was straight and leisurely in Elmer’s Lumina. Little plastic stars and stripes flapping on the antenna, Black & Decker ratchet set dissected and scattered across the back seat: it was almost time for Elmer to go and buy a new Chevy.
Madison stared out the window at the passing lawns as she spoke: “So why was Uncle Andy mad at Uncle Bob?”
Elmer held down the “seek” button on his radio with his right index finger. “The first one said to the second one there I hope you’re having fun. Band on the run, band on the run.” The radio kept on seeking.
Elmer exhaled. “Well Stringbean, Andy thinks the town is changing. And he thinks we should change along with it. But me and Bob aren’t quite convinced yet. And that’s that.”
Lawns passed by: flower rows and mailboxes, squat porches and flags. “And, and how do cars slow down?” Maddy asked, still with her nose glued to her window.
“Every day low prices!” a woman announced cheerily over a little static.
“They use pulleys,” answered Elmer.
“Are you sure, grampa?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’m an expert, Stringbean.”
“Fine, then . . . then what are pulleys?”
Elmer gladly extrapolated, “It’s all about leverage. I only have to push a little on the brake, but the pulleys magnify that force to slow down the wheels.”
“Is that really how it works?” Miss Madison turned away from the window long enough to interrogate Grampa Elmer.
They turned east onto Glendale Street. The oaks and maples, pregnant with April leaves, were bigger than on Main; the houses taller; the street narrower. The neighborhood lounged in dappled shade of early dusk.
“I’m Alice Cooper, and Nights with Alice Cooper is coming up at seven.”
“At’s the gist,” Grandpa quipped as they turned down an alley. They aimed for a blue garage. As they came to a stop, Elmer exaggerated his braking foot and offered: “Leverage.”
Gamely, Maddy smiled and applauded.
Bob, Andy, and Elmer were parked around Elmer’s kitchen table playing dominoes. Andy was keeping score. Madison was on the couch in the living room watching Hannah Montana.
“Me and the munchkin made hoagies for dinner. Hope she doesn’t tell on me. Susan makes great big meals almost every night,” Elmer offered conspiratorially.
Hannah Montana’s song was wafting into the kitchen: “You get the best of both worlds.”
Bob placed a three-six for a score of ten. “Alice made ribs.” Then he leaned back to admire his play.
Elmer placed a double-six for a score of twenty. Deflated, Bob frowned. Andy pulled up his chin, miming ‘not bad’, and wrote down the points. Elmer encouraged Bob with his eyebrows. Bob nodded assent, though still stung by the tiles.
“So how’s about the route, Andy?” Bob reopened the topic.
“Chill out, take it slow, then you rock out the show,” Miley Cyrus was still going.
“I can lay it all out for you: the how’s and why’s.” Andy was trying to be a bit smoother than he had been around lunchtime.
Bob hesitated to respond, closing his eyes as if summoning great patience. Elmer jumped into void with, “Shame about the Buckeyes.”
“Yeah, twice in a row a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Andy responded. But still looking at Bob, “I brought the county surveys in my –“
“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em,” Bob interrupted. “Look, you’re misunderstanding. Me and Elmer’ll take the time, if you’re willing, to convince you. But this is important.” Bob forced a smile through weary eyes and waited a beat for effect. “And you know them SEC boys just love it twice as much when they beat a Big Ten school.”
“The best of both worlds.”
Andy frowned “I’ll go to the head,” he mentioned as he got up from the table.
Bob looked at Elmer. Elmer nodded and got up too. He went into the living room and turned off the TV. “It’s about time to put you to bed. C’mon, Stringbean. Time to hit the hay. We’ll put you in your mother’s old room. And we’ll get your overnight bag out.”
Bob was left in that brief silence at the kitchen table. He rolled his eyes and exhaled, audible at least to himself.
Andy was the first one back. Bob stood up when he heard Andy coming, so naturally Andy stayed standing. “You’re not running away from a good debate, are you? And we’re still, I don’t know, at least three turns from a winner,” Andy pointed to the dominoes.
“No more games, Andy.” Elmer had snuck back down stairs and through the living room into the kitchen. He planted his hand firmly on Andy’s shoulder.
Bob waddled around the kitchen table as fast as he was able to take Andy by other shoulder. Bob and Elmer marched him over to the garage door.
“Now what in Sam Hill are you two on about?” Andy asked.
Not really answering, Elmer pleaded, “Quit jerking this way and that, will ya? You know my knee’s still sore.”
“Sorry.” Andy became pliant.
They took Andy through the door, into the garage, and flipped on the lights. It was empty, save for a lone chair in the center. Elmer had moved the car out into the back alley earlier. They planted Andy in the chair, and Bob held Andy down while Elmer fished out a handkerchief. He tied Andy’s hands behind his back as best he could.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to hurt your knee,” Andy offered.
Still securing Andy to the chair, “Aw, it’ll be fine,” Elmer conceded.
Bob cocked his hands up on his hips. Not looking directly at Andy, or Elmer or anything else for that matter, he said, “I have faith.”
“Is this still about Arbor Day?” Andy looked back and forth incredulously. “If you listen to what I’m saying for three seconds, . . .”
“I have faith,” Bob repeated. “I know I’m right. Elmer knows I’m right. You have to know I’m right.”
Andy turned an incredulous face toward Elmer. Elmer answered, “We’re a nation at war, Andy. Now is not the time to be debating the route of the Arbor Day parade.” Elmer spread his hands out in front of him, imploring Andy to agree with him. Not getting the response he was looking for, Elmer turned to get some things from the work bench. “Me and Bob talked this through. Andy, we think we should convince you that you’re wrong. So we’re gonna water-board you.”
“You’re gonna what?” Andy ejaculated.
Elmer came back with a one-liter Dasani and another handkerchief. “Susan got me a whole pack of handkerchiefs from Sam’s Club for Christmas.”
“You sure that’ll work?” Bob asked.
“Sure enough,” Elmer shrugged.
Bob threw up his hands. “You’re the expert.”
Elmer tried to blind fold Andy, but it was so loose that it only covered one eye. Bob proceeded to slowly pour the water over Andy’s forehead. Andy opened his mouth wide, took in a big mouthful of water, and spit it back up at Bob. Bob began to pour again; Andy took in another mouthful and spit it back up at Bob. Bob was almost as wet as Andy when the water finally ran out. Andy had been aiming.
Bob turned to Elmer. “He oughta be choking and sputtering by now, Elmer. We’re messing this up somehow.”
With one eye peeking out from under the wet handkerchief, Andy announced to no one in particular, “This is so stupid.”
“Well, let me try something different. I got an ole’ car battery back by the work bench,” Elmer said as he went off to rummage. Bob stood dripping and nodded approval.
“You could just talk to me, Bob,” Andy offered.
“Already told you I know I’m right,” Bob quipped, not quite deigning to look down at Andy directly as he spoke. “Just waiting to hear you get wise and come on back to the fold. Cause dang it, Andy, there are some things you just don’t go trying to change, . . . and the Arbor Day Parade route is one of them.”
“And besides, debating this now only emboldens the Columbus Day Parade Committee,” Elmer added from a dark corner of the garage.
“See?” Bob gestured with a mug face and a thumb thrown in Elmer’s general direction.
“Here we go.” Elmer came out of the corner with a dusty Sears car battery and some raw copper wires. “He won’t last long with this,” Elmer said as he handed the wires to Bob.
Bob only got two steps towards Andy before Elmer connected the second wire to the battery. There was a pop and a spark. Bob jumped back and howled, cradling his hands: burns at the contact points. Elmer just stood back waggling his fingers.
Now looking positively like a pirate with the handkerchief almost falling off, Andy chuckled at his tormentors. But seeing he was being mocked, Bob rushed to pick up the fallen wires from the wet floor. There was an even bigger pop. There was an even bigger spark. And Bob jumped back looking even more wounded.
Elmer asked sympathetically, “You wanna take a break, Bob? Or maybe I could take over for a while?”
“No and no!” Clutching both hands to his chest, half crying, and still dripping wet, Bob began to stomp on Andy’s feet. Now Bob was wearing loafers and Andy was wearing his work boots. But that didn’t stop Bob.
“You’re just going to slip and fall, Bob.” Andy was almost solicitous.
Bob just stomped harder and faster in reply. Surreptitiously, Bob started to stomp less on the steel toes, and more on the laces of Andy’s boots. So Andy started, “Well, hey . . . fu . . . damn it all . . . Bob . . . OW!”
Elmer was about to disassemble the battery with his bare hands again, but he took in the scene across the garage. “Bob, hold on there a second. There’s a technique to stomping on . . . hey Bob.” Elmer started to move from the battery to the chair to intervene. He slipped on the wet concrete, and fell with a heavy “frump”.
Bob never turned around to see Elmer fall. He just kept on stomping. “I’ll stop when he comes around.” His face was all red; this was more exercise than he had had in a spell.
Elmer pulled himself up. Now he was all wet, too. “Jeez-louise! My nackin’ knee went out,” Elmer cursed in a hush as he hobbled back and forth.
“OW . . . for chissakes, Bob . . . OW . . . ok already . . .OW! I give!” Andy conceded. “I give. You win.”
Bob stopped as much out of exhaustion as vindication. He took a step back and rested his hands on his knees. He huffed and puffed, and waited for Andy to say more.
Elmer was still limping off by himself. “Nackin’ knee! Mothernackin’ knee!”
Andy looked up with his one uncovered eye. “If it means that much to you, Bob.”
Bob was still panting heavily, but broad smile broke out across his face. “You mean it? Well, I’m just delighted . . . (wheeze) . . . that you see the strength . . . (cough) . . . of our position in this debate.” Bob was just glowing. Or maybe it was the sweat on his flush face.
“Will you go help Elmer over there? Can’t you see he blew out his knee again?” Andy directed Bob.
“Nackin’ knee,” Elmer mumbled.
“No, no, let’s getcha untied first,” Bob offered magnanimously.
“Just go help Elmer.” Andy shook his head. “I can probably untie this myself. I mean, Elmer never got his knot-tying badge as a scout, you know. He only used a handkerchief. And for chrissakes, Bob, don’t try to pick up those wires again.” Andy untied himself and stood up in no time.
With Bob’s help, Elmer hobbled over. “Glad you came around.”
“Yeah,” Andy rolled his eyes. “How’s the knee?”
“I’m walking it out.”
“C’mon, Bob. Let’s call it a night.” Andy started back through the kitchen.
Elmer stayed in the garage. He stood in one spot for a second, but took in a panorama of the scene. “Y’all let your selves out. I’m gonna clean up in here and move the car back.”
Andy and Bob headed off into the night. Andy asked, “You sure you can drive with those burns on your hands?”
“Now don’t you worry about me. I’m doing dandy,” replied Bob cheerily.
Madison flopped from side to side under the dim glow of her Dora the Explorer night-light. Bob peeked in from the doorway, and seeing her still awake, walked into the room with only a little limp. “Hey there, Stringbean. What are you doing still awake?” Madison shrugged. He tried again: “You know I’ll get in trouble with your mom if you’re all sleepy when she comes to pick you up tomorrow.” She tried to shut her eyes tightly, scrunching in her whole face. “Aw, it’s ok, Stringbean. Did you say your prayers?”
Madison nodded. “Grampa, how do airplanes fly?”
Elmer chuckled. “Aw, that’s an easy one. They’re all jets nowadays. Their jet engines push them up and forward at the same time.”
“But, but grampa . . . um, what about the wings?”
“Those are used for steering, Stringbean.”
Madison smiled and nodded. “Grampa, is the parade still going to happen?”
Elmer smiled to himself. He leaned down, tucked Madison in tighter, kissed her on the forehead, and said, “Of course it is, sweety.”
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