Barbara L. Curtis
“Walter, I believe I just might get my high school diploma,” my friend Ellsworth said.
I nearly spilled coffee all down my front. “An old duffer like you?” I asked, although we both knew that I was a year older. We were taking in the view from my porch, where we could see nearly the entire neighborhood in spite of the fence and shrubbery at the front of my property. Since Ellsworth had moved in two years ago I’d spent a lot more time following the goings-on in our little neighborhood. We could see the new Quick Burger clear at the end of the block as well as the apartment parking lot across the street where a young lady in very tight pants was scraping snow off of her car. I took note of the young lady’s long glossy hair and the nice way her clothes fit.
“Why in the world would you want to get a high school diploma?”
He pointed toward the girl. “She’s the teacher.”
I shook my head. El had always possessed a bloodhound nose for good-looking women.
He smiled. “Never too late to improve yourself.” He sucked on his empty pipe.
“Or to enjoy looking at a pretty girl,” he added. “She’s Darla Thompson’s niece; runs a program for dropouts to get their diplomas.”
I didn’t ask him how he came by this information. Since his hospital stay he spent most of his days on the porch and never walked more than a block or two when he ventured out. In spite of that, Ellsworth Carlson had the scoop on every little thing that went on in this neighborhood. He knew more juicy tidbits than Darla Thompson at the beauty parlor and Father Kelly at St. Patrick’s Church combined. He sucked on his pipe and I sipped my coffee while the winter sun bathed our faces. I opened my newspaper and read the doom and gloom headlines. Locally there’d been a recent increase in armed robberies. The girl finished clearing her car windows and sped off in a dark blue Mazda.
“She doesn’t know much about driving in the snow,” I observed.
El nodded. “She’ll learn. She just moved up from California. There was some trouble down there.”
El kept quiet until I finally had to ask, “What kind of trouble?”
“Husband trouble. She just got a divorce.”
I shook my head. “A lot of that going around.” I drained my coffee cup and consulted the thermometer on the nearest porch column.
“Looks like its warm enough to work outdoors,” I said, “If you’re feeling up to it.”
“I’m fine, but you’re getting pretty old to shovel snow this wet. Don’t croak on me.”
“Not, today,” I replied.
I got the snow shovel out of the shed and proceeded to clear the walk while El stayed on the porch, nearly hidden from view. He took as much care crafting the small wooden toys as he had building custom cabinets and furniture back in the day. He still had a handsome face, but the chemo had taken a toll. I needed to keep tempting him to eat. I finished shoveling the walk and called out, “I’m headed down to the Quick Burger. I’ll bring you a cheeseburger and fries.”
“No onions,” came the reply.
“As if I didn’t know,” I muttered.
I had to watch my step going down the block. It seems few people are diligent about clearing their sidewalks these days. The smell of fried food surrounded me when I stepped into the Quick Burger. I ordered bacon cheeseburgers and fries from a man with a manager’s badge. El loved bacon. I tried not to think about the lecture I’d be getting from Doc Peterson about my increased weight and cholesterol. The manager patiently explained the electronic order system to a teenage boy wearing a trainee badge. The kid looked bored and restless.
When the kid disappeared into the back the man shook his head. “These kids have a lot to learn,” he said.
“I suppose so,” I answered. “Nice that you’re willing to teach them.”
He shrugged. “Most of the teaching takes place at the GED Center. We just supervise the food prep and hope that they don’t steal us blind.”
“At least you haven’t been hit with one of those robberies,” I said.
“Nope. That’s been mostly places with a lot of cash.” He sighed. “ We haven’t had that much business yet.”
He bagged our food and thanked me for coming in. I did my best to hurry home without breaking a leg so that the burgers were still warm when we opened the wrappers.
Between bites I asked El, “Do you know anything about a GED Center?”
He stopped mid-bite and stared at me. “That’s the place I was talking about, the place where Darla’s niece teaches.”
“Some of the kids from there are working at the Quick Burger. I don’t suppose you’ll want to do that if you enter the program?”
The look he gave me would’ve fried ice cubes.
At three a.m. I stood at the front window drinking a glass of milk. I was having one of my restless nights and I’d been trying to walk quietly so as not to wake up El who was snoring away in the back bedroom. A flash of tail lights across the street caught my attention.
A white pickup truck pulled into the apartment parking lot and backed up to the dumpster. Someone jumped out of the passenger side and dropped off a couple of garbage bags from the back of the truck. When he turned to get back into the vehicle I thought I recognized the boy from the Quick Burger. I shook my head. All of these young people look so similar. I found it interesting that anyone would drop garbage into a dumpster at this time of night. I’d run it past El in the morning. I was beginning to remind myself of Mrs. McGinty, a boyhood neighbor who had spent her life spying on us from behind lace curtains.
It was mid-morning before El shuffled into the kitchen. Although he’d completed his chemo treatments six weeks ago, some days were like this. While he fixed himself toast I told him about the truck at the dumpster.
“What do you think they were getting rid of at that time of night?” I asked him.
“If I didn’t feel like road kill today I’d go over there and see for myself,” he said.
“Point taken,” I said and pulled on my hat and gloves. The snow had melted just enough to leave a top layer of ice on the road. I crossed the street like a circus tightrope walker. No one was out in the parking lot. I pried up the section of the dumpster lid that was unlocked and looked in. It was nearly empty; just some paper and a little food trash. There were no large garbage bags. In my surprise I let go of the lid and it shut with a resounding bang.
When I returned to the house El met me at the front door. “Walt, you never were very subtle,” he greeted me.
“The lid was slippery,” I grunted and stomped the snow from my boots. “There weren’t any garbage bags in the dumpster.”
El chewed on that without comment while I hung up my jacket.
“Garbage pickup isn’t until the end of the week,” he said.
“Well somebody took those bags.”
“I can’t fault your logic,” he said.
I frowned. “There must be an explanation for the bags being dumped and then disappearing.”
El rubbed his coffee cup thoughtfully. “Those bags weren’t dumped,” he said, “They were exchanged. Somebody put ‘em in the dumpster and then someone took ‘em out.”
I thought about that. “We might pay a bit more attention to what goes on in that parking lot,” I said. I didn’t much care for the idea of suspicious activity at night right across the street.
He nodded agreement and then flashed his boyish grin. “It wouldn’t hurt to watch Darla’s niece again, either.”
“You must be feeling better,” I said. “ In that case it’s your turn to wash dishes.”
It started to snow while we were watching the eleven o’clock news. It continued most of the night and in the morning I took my coffee to the front window and watched the cars struggle through the drifts. I really was becoming a Mrs. McGinty. Before long Darla’s niece came out of the apartment building and cleared the snow from her Mazda. When she finished she backed up too quickly and immediately got stuck in a snow bank.
“She doesn’t know any better than to spin her tires,” El spoke at my side. He pulled on his coat so I followed suit. I didn’t want him to do something stupid and hurt himself trying to impress the girl. The street wasn’t as icy as the previous day but the snow berms made for tough walking. When we reached the Mazda I rapped on her window.
“We’re neighbors from across the street. Let’s get you out of here.”
“Oh, thank goodness!”
In no time we freed the car. She thanked us and held out a gloved hand. “I’m Jennifer Martin.”
“Walt Baranski. This is my brother- in-law Ellsworth Carlson.” We shook and El advised her to drive in low gear. She rewarded him with a smile that would stay with most guys for a week or two.
We trudged back across the snow berms and El surprised me by saying he was going out.
“Do you have to go to the clinic?” I asked.
“Nope,” he answered,” I’m doing just what I told you I would. I’m going to the GED Center to inquire about obtaining my high school diploma.”
My thought was that he wanted a closer look at that smile more than a diploma.
“You’ll wait forever to get a cab with all of this snow,” I told him. “Give me a few minutes to warm up the Dodge.”Half an hour later I dropped him off at a freshly painted building that had once been a hardware store. The blue Mazda was parked out front where a handful of students stood hunched over their cigarettes.
Back at the house I waged war on the driveway with my snow shovel. I wondered how El would get along with a bunch of teenagers. He had joined the Marines at age seventeen with his mother’s permission, so hadn’t finished high school. I had finally finished the driveway when a cab deposited El back at the house.
“Well, are you a freshman or a senior?” I asked.
“Neither,” he said.
As we divested ourselves of snow gear he explained, “Ms. Martin’s program is for students under the age of twenty-five. Seeing that I’m a few years beyond that age she suggested I check with the senior center.”
“Are you going to?”
He shrugged. “I’m not crazy about being around a bunch of old people.”
I kept my mouth shut.
“I am going to return to the GED Center, though,” he said.
“Oh? What for?”
“That place has plenty of fancy computers, but the tables they sit on are so wobbly it’s a wonder they haven’t all wound up on the floor. It worries Jennifer.” I raised my eyebrows. Apparently they were now on a first name basis. He said, “If you can give me a ride back there tomorrow, I’ll take a few tools and set those tables to rights.” He whistled his way to the garage. I hadn’t heard that whistle in many months.
To celebrate El’s improved spirits I walked to the Quick Burger, feeling pretty chipper myself. The same manager was at the counter; this time with a girl trainee who rolled her eyes when he asked her to go get rid of her gum.
“Still working with the kids, I see,” I commented.
He sighed. “They seem half asleep most of the time, but I keep trying.”
I selected double cheeseburgers and onion rings this time, promising myself that I’d eat vegetables tomorrow. At home I got to hear about Jennifer’s virtues as a teacher from El as we devoured our lunch.
True to his word, El returned to the GED Center the next day. Afterwards he told me, “You could set a bull elephant on top of the tables I finished today. I’ll need to go back tomorrow to get them all done.”
“You’re a good man, I said, “But don’t wear yourself out.”
“Oh, I’m taking breaks. Jennifer makes a good cup of coffee. She says it’s her only addiction, unlike her ex-husband. I guess he was hooked on drugs.
It snowed a few inches each of the next five days. I maneuvered the Dodge over the berms like a stagecoach driver to get El to the GED Center every morning. He’d come home grinning like a kid after his first carnival. He was full of details about Jennifer Martin:
“Jennifer likes to put music on while the students work.”
“Jennifer is disappointed that we don’t have more live music around here.”
“Those kids think Jennifer is the best teacher they’ve ever had.”
“I would’ve finished school if I’d had a teacher like her.”
I responded with a noncommittal, “Uh huh.” I suspected El would’ve stayed in high school if he’d had a teacher who looked like her. Our female teachers had mostly looked like Ernest Borgnine.
On the fifth night of snow at about 11 p.m. a snowplow rumbled past and plowed in my driveway. I looked out at the barrier of ice and snow and swore. I’d have to deal with it now or it would harden into a solid mass by morning.
That’s how I happened to be outdoors after midnight when the trouble started. I was taking a breather, leaning against a fence post when I heard shouting in the parking lot. At the pop of gunfire, I instinctively dropped down. A dark van sped out of the lot, fishtailing in the snow. I struggled to my feet and hurried across the street.
A man and a woman came out of the apartment building wearing coats over their pajamas. We found a boy crumpled on the snow, his right shoulder turning the white to crimson. I unwound my wool scarf and pressed it tight to his wound. The kid kept moaning but wouldn’t answer me when I asked what happened.
The woman was instantly on her cell phone. “She’s calling an ambulance,” the man told me. “We’ve already called the cops.” I could hear the sirens approaching. Within minutes the lot was full of lights and activity. El came hobbling across the street.
“I thought you were just going out to shovel the driveway,” he said.
“I needed a little excitement.”
“Where’s Jennifer?” he asked me. “Is she all right?”
We looked around the parking lot, which was beginning to resemble a tailgate party offering free beer. Jennifer Martin was nowhere in sight. “She’s probably smart enough to stay inside, “I told El.
The wounded boy was placed in an ambulance while police marked off the area. I gave my statement to a uniformed cop. A younger cop called out from the rear of the lot by the dumpster where he stood over two large garbage bags. El walked boldly close to the dumpster and I followed. We didn’t get to look right into the bags, but there was no need. The pungent smell of freshly harvested cannabis told the story. The cops got excited and pushed everyone back to the street, so we walked home.
I poured two shots of whiskey. “This’ll warm us up,” I said, handing a glass to El.
“There’s no way that weed came from somebody’s little garden grow,” El observed. “This time of year it’s from a professional indoor operation.”
“I agree. It probably wasn’t supposed to sit outdoors too long, either.”
“Maybe the cops will be smart enough to figure out that somebody close by is using the parking lot as a drop site.” El drained his glass. “It’s strange that anyone would do that now that weed is legal. I guess the cops will get to the bottom of it.”
“Maybe,” I said. “In the meantime our quiet little block is turning into a hotbed of criminal activity.”
After a second shot of whiskey we concluded that we were smarter than the cops and should look into the activity in the parking lot. After two more shots I hung my binoculars on a hook by the front door, convinced that I could single-handedly outfox the entire police force.
The next morning El was up before I got the coffee going. He paced around by the front window like a nervous cat until Jennifer Martin appeared in the parking lot. Then he shot out the door and across the street with an ice scraper in hand. I watched as he helped her scrape windows for a few minutes and then realized that he didn’t need a chaperone, so I went into the kitchen and scrambled some eggs.
Ten minutes later he came in search of coffee. “I got her car cleared off, but the walkways are a mess. They should have someone shoveling them before its knee deep. There’s no on-site manager.”
“It’s a fairly small building; only eight units,” I said. “Besides, clearing snow is the least of their worries. They’ve got people getting shot and leaving bags of dope in their parking lot.”
“I told Jennifer that she ought to look for a safer place,” El said. He shook his head. “This neighborhood’s not what it used to be.”
The morning newspaper report of the shooting was the usual non-story of “shots fired; victim expected to recover; the police are investigating.” The cops had failed to contact me to take advantage of my keen powers of investigation.
We were stirred from our ruminations by a sharp knock on the front door. I go up to answer it and found Darla Thompson peering in our front window, casserole dish in hand. I turned to tell El who was here, but he had already disappeared into the back bedroom.
“Coward,” I muttered and opened the door.
I spent several minutes nodding and trying to ease the dish out of her hands while Darla pumped me for information about last night’s shooting. There wasn’t much to tell, so she gave up and asked how El was feeling.
“He’s fine,” I said.
“Jennifer told me about the work he’s done at the Center. El had better be careful to not overdo it. She thinks he’s such a nice old man. It’s so good of him to help her.”
“Yes, indeed. Thanks for the casserole,” I said edging the door shut. I looked at my watch. Her visit had lasted seven minutes, a record for getting her out the door. El came into the front room looking glum. He had overheard the “old man” comment.
“Another mystery meat casserole?” he asked.
“I’m afraid so. We may be the ones sneaking something into the dumpster tonight,” I said.
El didn’t go to the GED Center for nearly a week. He mostly sat on the porch sucking his empty pipe and finishing the little trucks and airplanes that he donates to the Marines’ toy drive. I mostly brought in wood for the fireplace and worried about El. Midmorning on Friday while I was whipping up a batch of my famous chili El walked into the kitchen with a small bag of tools. “I told Ms. Martin I would finish tightening up a couple of chairs,” he said gruffly. I noted the “Ms. Martin”. I turned the heat down on the chili, fired up the Dodge, and drove him to the Center.
When he returned, El was more quiet than usual. It was a cold day and it wasn’t until the mild winter sun was setting that El called me to the front porch.
“I think there’s a problem at the GED Center,” he said.
I waited for him to explain himself. He fiddled with his pipe before speaking.
“Today I stayed through the lunch break and when those kids returned to their computers they reeked of marijuana,” he told me.
“Private use is legal if they’re over eighteen,” I said, “But the Center isn’t private and it doesn’t seem like a good way to attend school.”
“Nope, and it’s not good training for the work force, either. I said as much to Ms. Martin and she just shrugged.”
“What do you expect from a Californian,” I said.
El stood to go back into the house. “I don’t believe I’ll be helping out there anymore,” he said.
I was dreaming about being someplace warm, possibly California, when an earthquake began. I opened my eyes to find El shaking me to wake up.
“There’s something wrong at the apartments. Some guy has Jennifer’s car.”
My bedside clock read two-thirty. “Did you call the cops?”
“Nah, we can check this out ourselves.”
It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. I jammed on boots and grabbed my coat. El motioned for me to move quietly as we crossed the street. The blue Mazda was backed up to the dumpster, engine running but no headlights on. We watched from the shadows near the fence line. A man was in the driver’s seat fiddling with the controls on the dash.
“Looks like a car thief. We’d better call 911,” El whispered. Then Jennifer Martin appeared from behind the car and slid into the passenger seat.
Before I could stop him El removed something from his pocket, trotted to the Mazda and opened the passenger door.
“It’s all right, Ms. Martin, you just come with me.” He held out his hand to pull her from the car.
She exchanged looks with the driver who asked, “Who the hell is this joker?”
“He helps out at the Center sometimes,” Jennifer said. She looked up at El. “Please, everything is fine; just let us be on our way.”
El hesitated, still holding the door open, which must have made the driver mad, because he pulled a hand gun from under the seat. “Get out of the way, old man, or something’s gonna happen that you can’t handle,” he sneered.
The young guy didn’t know that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine. El straightened up like he was going to close the door. Instead he swung his left hand from behind his back, leaned in and smacked the guy squarely in the forehead with a hammer. He was so fast I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. The gun went off and shattered the passenger side of the windshield as the driver passed out. Jennifer screamed and covered her ears. I hit the ground.
After a minute I inched forward to check on El and the young lady. She expressed her gratitude by turning on El and shouting, “You old fool!” It made me real nervous to see how her hands shook as she grabbed the gun. “You’ve ruined everything!”
She kept pointing the gun at El as she crawled out of the passenger side and walked around the front of the car. I’ll never know if she would have shot him to make her getaway because at that moment a specter rose out of the shadows and ordered her to drop the weapon. Darla Thompson stood tall pointing a shotgun at her niece. I didn’t know what was more frightening; Jennifer holding the gun with shaking hands or Darla clad in a flannel nightdress with curlers in her hair, brandishing a shotgun.
“Drop that gun and get on your knees,” the older woman barked out.
Jennifer did as she was told. By now the apartment residents were gathering and the police cars were pulling in. Darla held the shogun on Jennifer and said, “I knew moving here wasn’t going to change your ways.” Then she pressed her lips into a thin line and didn’t speak again.
We had to hang around in the cold and give our stories to the cops. The officer listening to El tried not to smile when he heard about the hammer. When we finally got to go home neither of us could relax, so I got out the whiskey. After a drink I asked El, “How did you happen to be surveying the parking lot in the middle of the night?”
“I made a mistake,” he answered. “Before I went to bed I ate some of your chili. It came back to haunt me.”
I poured another drink and considered his statement. “I guess your mistake was a good thing in the end,” I said. El didn’t disagree.
We both took the casserole dish back to Darla Thompson the next afternoon. She didn’t look scary in the daylight, just tired. She told us about Jennifer. “If you walked into a room full of men and picked out the biggest, meanest loser that would be the one she’d hook up with.”
El spoke up, “It seems like she was a good teacher.”
“She was,” Darla agreed, “But that ape she was with used her students. The police say he was sending them to cannabis shops to case the security setups. Then he’d hold up the most vulnerable ones; clean out their cash and take their and nasty product to sell across the state line.”
“I’ll bet he gave the kids a little of that product in payment,” El said. “I didn’t tell the cops that your niece pointed the weapon at me; just that she took it away from her boyfriend.”
Darla turned sad eyes on him. “She’s still involved in this up to her eyeballs. I tried to help her make a new start but old habits die hard.”
I said, “I’m sorry about all of this. Maybe it will turn your niece around.”
“I’m not holding my breath,” Darla said.
It was snowing again as we walked home. We sat on the porch with our coffee and watched big fat flakes swirl around.
El said, “I believe I’ll start on my high school diploma next week.” I looked at him in surprise.
“A gal at the senior center talked to me about it,” he said.
“Was she good looking?”
He grinned. “A redhead.”