The Kid

“Stick with me, Kid,” I said and right away I knew I had made a mistake.

Al didn’t always like being called Kid. He was unpredictable that way but I should have known that he wouldn’t like being called Kid loudly in public and in front of strangers.

I could only look away and clench my teeth when I saw how much my saying, “Stick with me, Kid,” had startled him, when I saw the sudden pain and embarrassment in his eyes.

If it were just the two of us then it would be okay. Either he would cuss me out if he wasn’t in the mood to be called Kid, or if he felt fine about it he’d say, “I’m Al, Al the Kid. That’s me, the Kid. In case you haven’t heard.” And maybe he’d kind of strut, seeming even taller, his tall, lean body swaying in a certain tough guy sensual movement. And he’d casually and slowly move his hands back over his head, stroking his long blonde hair.

But we were sitting with these two guys in a diner. Al and I were heading north and we had stopped for coffee. The diner was crowded and these two big burly guys had come in and asked very politely if they could sit at our table.

“Sure, no problem. We’re just finishing up. Got to get going,” Al had answered.

And the two guys sat down and one of them asked, “How you two fellas doing?”

We started talking about going up north to find work. They said they were carpenters, heading on up to find jobs in construction, and Al and I had looked at each other, both of us a little ashamed because we didn’t have any special skills or talents. We had both felt glum but suddenly a bright zigzag lightning flash like in a comic strip which seemed to brighten my mind and I knew that everything was going to be fine with me and Al so I said, “Stick with me, Kid.”

Right away there was this tension in the air. Not just in the air. In my body and in Al’s. I felt like some actor in a slow-motion movie, slow and painful motion. The other two guys felt it. They pretended to be very thoughtfully involved in their cups of coffee and cigarettes, each staring into his cup and then puffing philosophically on his smoke.

I wanted to say to Al, “I’m sorry. Okay? It just slipped out.” But I knew this might make matters worse and actually I was afraid.

Al’s got a temper. He could flare up and smash a cup or shove the ashtray off the table or just stomp on out, or he could get deeply morose. Then in a voice that quivered slightly Al said, “I guess I’ll see what’s happening outside in the fresh air.” And as he got up to leave I could feel him restraining himself, controlling some rash impulse. I spoke not a word. In fact I held my breath and stared out the window. The weather was shaping up bright and sunny.

When Al was safely out the door, I laughed in what I hoped was a natural, relaxed manner. “Looks like the weather’s shaping up out there,” I said, and these two guys both smiled, turned their heads very slowly, as if truly pleased by my interesting observation as they both glanced out the window, their eyes seeming synchronized with each other’s. Yes, they confirmed, the weather was indeed shaping up out there. They focused on me in such a friendly, understanding manner that I liked them both very much.

They were big, burly guys with thick red beards. They looked so much alike, dressed alike in red and black checkered shirts and old blue jeans and they both wore their hair long, parted in the middle, and tied back in ponytails. They could have been twins, but I figured they must hear that kind of talk everywhere they go, so I just sat quietly. I felt good sitting with them. They had understood what happened between Al and me and they also didn’t need to express any observations on the matter. Yet they cared. I could feel that they cared and I felt also that if I stayed there sitting with them I would end up thanking them and telling them how good it was to be sitting there sharing a table with them and I knew that everything would turn out fine with me and Al and when we got up north we’d find some kind of work to pull us through.

But I didn’t want to be saying all that so I got up and said, “See you guys later. Down the road a-piece.” I figured I’d go and find Al, say to him, “Hey, I’m sorry. I should have known better. Forgive and forget.”

On the way to the door, after I had paid the cashier and was looking back to see if my new-found friends had their eyes on me, waiting to wave a last goodbye, I tripped over the old woman who was sitting on the floor near the exit. I would have fallen if she hadn’t reached out and taken hold of my arm, easing me down beside her. She was very old and she had been in the sun. Her thoroughly wrinkled face was deeply tanned and her eyes squinted as if the sun still shone directly on her.

I felt that I hovered on the border of her sun-glazed vision. At the first instance I was prepared to lean back and away from her, for I expected an unpleasant odor. On the contrary she smelled of the sun, and even her old clothes, her long tattered green dress, the green woolen shawl wrapped loosely around her, gave off the clean, fresh, crisp smell of the sun. The smell spiraled through me like a slow, calm stab of electricity, making me light-headed.

Her hair was long and gray, and the light that came through the glass door gleamed in her hair, the gray sheen refracting the light in various shades of color. She didn’t smile or open her mouth hardly at all even when she spoke, bidding me, “Careful, careful. Don’t fall,” her voice a throaty whisper. I assumed that her teeth weren’t very good and she preferred to conceal that fact. Then she put into my hand a small white tablet, like an aspirin. She said that I should use it wisely. I thanked her and then I got up and went out. I could still feel the force of her hand on my arm, emblematic, comforting.

First I looked in the car to see if Al was sitting there, brooding and unhappy, then I walked across the wide parking lot, walked down to the river, brown, muddy, shallow water that flowed slowly along. The tablet that the old woman had given me I put in my pocket. I thought of how much Al would have enjoyed meeting the old lady. I could already hear him asking me all the details, the way his voice would become suddenly enthusiastic, high-pitched, nervous, boyishly wanting to know. I could already hear him asking me all the essentials. How exactly did she look? What exactly did she say? He’d want me to get the utterance exactly and when he felt sure that he had heard enough he’d then repeat back to himself what especially interested him. Like in this case he’d probably say, “Use it wisely. Yes man, use it wisely. That’s it. Use it wisely.”

There was no one by the river. I began to feel seriously concerned about Al. Then I saw him. He was a distance down the shore, throwing stones in the river, one stone after another, his way of calming himself down. Al knew that he was too sensitive. He didn’t like that about himself, that he could be happy and pleased one minute, saying, “I’m Al, Al The Kid. Call me Kid.” and then get so fired up when I slipped and called him Kid in front of strangers. He didn’t like that he was so volatile, and I could see that right now he needed some breathing space to work it all out. Perhaps I wouldn’t even tell him about the old woman because doing so might only remind him that while I had been talking to her, while I had been sitting on the floor next to her immersed in her radiance and she had put this tablet in my hand, saying, “Use it wisely,” at that very same moment he had been off by himself, feeling miserable and alone, tossing stone after stone into the muddy river.

Then I saw the two burly guys from the diner, the two guys and the old woman. They were helping her down to the river. She walked between them and they supported her as she stepped among the rocks, and one of them carried her bundle. They assisted the old woman as she sat down on the bank of the river. She settled comfortably and leaned back against her bundle to rest. Then the two guys walked over to me and we stood together a short distance from the old woman.

“How’s she doing?” I asked.

“She’s just great. Truly a great lady. How’s your friend doing?”

I pointed in the direction where Al was still busily throwing stones into the river. “That’s him down there throwing stones into the river. You can make out that it’s Al if you look carefully, and of course if you knew him as well as I do.”

“That’s Al, all right. Well listen, he’s going to be fine.”

“Sure,” I said.

“It isn’t always easy,” one of them said. And we smiled and looked in Al’s direction. “We’ve got to get going. How about you looking out for the old lady. We offered to take her with us but she said she isn’t ready to go just yet, and we’ve got to get a move on.”

“Sure. I’ll look out for her.”

“Think it will be okay with your friend? About the old woman, I mean?”

“It will be fine with Al. Just fine.”

“Then we’ll be going now. I’m sure we’ll run into you up north.”

I went and sat down next to the old lady. She had dipped her tin cup into the river and she was rummaging in her bundle, apparently searching for something. I took the tablet out of my pocket.

“Here,” I said and dropped the tablet into the cup of brown, muddy water.

The water turned crystal clear and the old woman and I stared into the cup of clear, fresh water. We saw the sky reflected, the wide blue sky.