Thursday, October 9, 2008

GOTCHA! The Last Jabberoo

The following is another short piece of unpublished fiction by the old man. As with much of Dad's fiction, it is, most likely, based upon factual events.

One does not have to be familiar with Indianapolis' near west side in the late 60s or early 70s, or with the political machinery of the era, to have an appreciation for this piece, but it would probably be helpful!

As blog material, some may think it's too long. I disagree. It is worthwhile reading, and should be savored like a fine bourbon.



GOTCHA! The Last Jabberoo

by Rick Johnson

Shorty and Sluggo were the closest and best pals any person in Benton City had known.

Their friendship began in grade school and continued through high school, where both were standout athletes. Their camaraderie grew through the chaos and danger they survived in Vietnam as Army infantrymen.

When that lamentable paragraph of their lives ended, they came home to face what, to them, was a tougher struggle than Nam. Serving there had left them with deep, invisible scars.

People were happy to see them again, greeted them warmly, and treated them well. But few people talked about Vietnam with any knowledge, and most acted like Nam wasn't happening. There were no parades, no sort of official recognition. They had been gone. Now they were back.

Shorty and Sluggo went to the American Legion, with their proud fathers, only a few days after their return. They left, after a couple of beers, when the old vets began telling them what it was like to serve in a real war. As if that wasn't enough to rankle them, several legion members went out of their way to tell them what a shame it was the Legion could not welcome them as members because congress never declared war.

They left angry and bitter, and each vowed never to return. Each was sure they had seen enough and done enough in Nam, and had enough knowledge of history to know they served in one of the worst wars this nation has fought.

Shorty returned to his job in the lumberyard, and Sluggo ended up with a good job as a heavy equipment mechanic. It took them more than two years to shelve most of the bad memories of Vietnam and to deal with the indifference of the public to the war. The pair did a lot of beer drinking and cavorting, seemingly without ever having or considering a serious thought.

Eventually, Sluggo got serious…real serious, about what he called his little piece of velvet…Sadie. Sluggo was the first to get married. Shorty was the best man at his wedding. Observers predicted Sluggo's marriage to Sadie would quickly break up the old friendship.

Not so. After only a few weeks of closely observing Sluggo and Sadie and their evident happiness, Shorty decided he'd get married too. The young woman he'd been dating nearly as long as he'd known Sluggo, almost fainted when Shorty proposed, but she hurriedly said yes.

Sluggo was Shorty's best man, and within a few weeks, Shorty and his bride Sally, and Sluggo and Sadie were sharing a double. It appeared their friendship would be eternal.

The wives had never been as close as Shorty and Sluggo, though they had known each other all their lives. Sadie and Sally got along with each other extremely well, and with each other’s husband. They picnicked together, swam together, went sailing and shopping as a quartet, and their laughter was infectious and enjoyable to all the people who happened to be around them.

One aspect of their relationship was the merciless kidding in which Shorty and Sluggo engaged. They razzed each other regularly with harsh sarcasm and jagged comments, in an effort to see how much abuse the other could take before losing control.

The wives did not relish much of the repartee between their husbands. Neither did they understand how two people could speak so roughly to each other and remain friends.

Sadie and Sally decided it was some sort of mechanism, likely brought about as a result of their service in Vietnam. They believed the caustic comments their husbands showered upon each other was a guise they used to shield their true feelings for each other. They also wondered if their husbands were punishing each other for the guilt they had for having survived Vietnam, when so many of their buddies had not. The two women could only guess though, because Shorty and Sluggo refused to talk about Vietnam in front of them.

Sadie and Sally endured the verbal jousting, because Shorty and Sluggo never spoke to any other people with such scurrilous language.

During one exchange Sluggo said to Shorty, "Hey…ain't it time for yer mom's birthday?"

"I fergit."

"Think it is. You got wheels for her pushcart last year. Don't you think you oughta get her a coat this year?"

"Naw...She'll pick one up. Think I'll get her a new shoe for her wooden leg. She drags that one so much.”

The next day, Sluggo mailed a terribly smelly and worn shoe to Shorty's mother. The note said, "Shorty said you needed a new shoe for your wooden leg. I was afraid he'd forget your birthday. You know how he is. Love Sluggo.”

“P.S. If you need a good coat…call me. I know how cheap Shorty is.”

Close acquaintances were positive the longstanding friendship was over when, on the occasion of Sluggo's first wedding anniversary, Shorty hired a squad of people to act like cops and had Sluggo dragged out of his home on the trumped up charge that he had failed to pay several dozen parking tickets. Sadie cried, shouted, and pouted, trying to keep the police from hauling Sluggo to jail. She wrote a check, offered the intruders cash, and they refused both. The uncooperative, uncommunicative, interlopers marched Sluggo out of the house in handcuffs to a dark colored station wagon and drove away, despite her sobbing pleas.

Sluggo was taken by the bogus police to a neighborhood tavern. When Sluggo arrived, Shorty was gloating over his ingenious prank. Once the handcuffs were removed, they began punching and hugging each other. They drank beer until the tavern closed. Then they fell asleep in a booth.

Sluggo wasn't mad about the gag, but the shared mood of Sadie and Sally was another matter. They believed Sluggo had been arrested. Sadie, whose anniversary plans were shattered, went with Sally to the county jail. They took turns inquiring of the sour-faced jailer, asking if anyone by the name of Sluggo Sego, alias Malcom Edward Sego, had been booked for failing to pay parking tickets. Until the shift changed,Sally and Sadie kept getting the same answer…"NO"…in increasingly angrier tones.

Sadie and Sally, worried, puzzled, and scared, decided to go home and wait, after extracting a promise from the jailer that he would call them if a prisoner named Sego was delivered to him. Sally was worried about Shorty. She'd called home but there was no answer. Where could he be, she wondered.

Not long after Sadie and Sally got home, neighbors on both sides of the double heard windows-rattling screams from the house. The distraught, weary wives had discovered their errant husbands home in their own beds. Furious, they routed the beer-laden pair from their beds and began chasing them. Sadie was armed with a broom, and Sally wielded a rolled up magazine. They were swinging them like baseball bats at their husbands. So furious was their attack, Shorty and Sluggo ran outside to escape. Their wives continued to chase and swat at their husbands outside.

Neighbors soon called the police.

When the real police arrived, they found Shorty and Sluggo in their under shorts, pummeling each other in the front yard, convulsed with laughter.

"Slug, I thought you called them."

"Hell, I thought you did. I didn't have any change, remember? Boy are they pissed at us. Wonder what it's gonna take to make it up to them?”

They guffawed and rolled on the ground. Their wives and the two policemen who were watching gave no expression of humor.
"And this is our wedding anniversary," Sadie told one cop.

With a grimace the cop said, "How many years?"

"Our first," she said softly.

Tugging his cap as he left, the cop shook his head and said, "Oh my."

The furor of that escapade had cooled only slightly when Sluggo triggered another incident in observance of Shorty and Sally's first wedding anniversary.

Only a few minutes before Shorty came home from work at the lumberyard, a large moving van pulled up at the double. A crew of men emerged from the truck and went to Shorty's side of the house. Sally answered the door, and a gorilla-like, gruff-speaking man pressed a legal looking paper into her hand saying, "I got orders to pick up yer furniture'n household goods. That's a replevin paper from the court."

Sally spluttered, blustered, and babbled, but could not think of or manage to speak a coherent sentence. She started yelling, "What??? What??? What???", and walking around in short, erratic arcs. The men shoved her gently aside and rapidly removed every object in their view from the small apartment and placed it in the truck.

In about thirty minutes, the men had the truck loaded and locked. They were driving off, when Shorty pulled into the driveway. Sluggo drove up a moment later and parked his car in front of the house.

Smiling, Shorty approached his wife, who had run out to meet him. "What's for supper, sweet cheeks?" he said cheerily as he grabbed for Sally to give her a hug and kiss.

Sally dodged his arms and yelled, "Supper? What's for supper? Hell, we don't even have a table or chairs, no refrigerator. Those men," she said pointing frantically at the truck moving up the street, "took everything. They even took the silverware my mother gave us."

Tears were running down Sally's cheeks, but she was not sobbing. She was butt-chewing, head-whopping mad, and Shorty knew it.

Shorty's expression of cheerfulness quickly changed to one of puzzlement.

"They? Who the hell is they? What did they take, and why?" he demanded.

Sally handed Shorty the paper one of the men had put in her hand. "They said they had orders from the court and gave me this. That's all they told me. They took everything we had, put it in that big truck, and drove off."

Sally began a gyrating trek around her husband. Hopping first on one leg, and then the other, she waved her arms excitedly and yelled over and over, "What the hell…and I mean what the hell," she bellowed through sobs, "have you done?"

Shorty turned a tight circle and tried to keep up with her hops and dips and looked at her face. He'd never seen her so upset. He tried to talk softly and console her. He reached for her several times, but she kept avoiding his arms.

Shorty looked at the paper she had given him. It looked like some sort of legal document…Olde English headings, his typewritten name, and some unreadable signature on the front. Then he opened the paper.

"Happy Anniversary You Chump"
I owed you one
Guess you'll sleep on the floor tonight
Or did the boys take that too?
Love and Happy Returns
Sluggo and Sadie

Shorty felt a surge of anger. He turned around and saw Sluggo standing nearby wearing a leer, which stretched from sideburn to sideburn. It was the first time Shorty could remember definitely wanting to murder his best friend.

Choking with laughter, Sluggo started walking toward Shorty and said, "Hey, let's have a beer. Got any?"

Shorty knew he had it coming. Even so, he was mad to the marrow of his bones. But he didn't want to display too much evidence of it…at least not right away.

"Hmmph. A beer? Hell I got no beer. Got no refrigerator. No nothin. This paper here says you got it. So…," Shorty said expelling his breath, "if we have beer, we gotta have it at your house."

"That's good enough. Let's get a brew."

Sluggo had come close enough for Shorty to measure him for a punch, and he threw a haymaker right hand, which Sluggo ducked.

The two men grappled, and began rolling around on the ground and laughing.

"You bastard," Shorty said, "you really nailed me. Really got to me...But, boy, I don think Sally thinks this is a damned bit funny. She looks like she's gonna vapor-lock."

Ignoring Shorty's observation, Sluggo said, "I wish I had a picture of your puss when Sally gave you that paper and did that little war dance around you. She looked like a mad stork. It was funnier than hell," he choked through his giggles.

Sadie had come outside after hearing the commotion. She saw Sally crying, and the two Dobermans, as she called them, rolling around in the front yard again…cursing and punching each other and laughing.

"I hope they kill each other," Sally said through the sobs.

"Sometimes I don't think that would be a bad idea, but what have they done now?"

Sally dabbed at her eyes and began explaining that Sluggo had played a practical joke on them. While she spoke, the moving van, which had taken her belongings away, returned to the house.

"Sadie, oh Sadie, run inside and lock your house. Don't let them in. They might be after your stuff now."

Sluggo spotted the van during one of the tumbles he and Shorty were taking on the lawn, and he jumped to his feet.

"Hey Roscoe. Glad yer back," he yelled to the leader of the group. "Get that stuff back in the house before Shorty and his wife kill me."

Sadie punched Sluggo in the back with her tiny fist, and in a half-snarl, half-shout said, "Don't forget me, Buster. I could kill you too."

It took a few hours for their relationships to once more approach normal. Sadie and Sluggo had planned to host Shorty and Sally's anniversary dinner. The excellent meal did a great deal to salve any remaining anger. Shorty and Sluggo, much aware of how their actions and pranks upset their wives, made promises at the table that, henceforth, they would keep their hard kidding to themselves, and would not pull practical jokes upon the other which could upset their wives. It made their wives happy to see them shake hands and make, what they believed, was a long overdue agreement.

They drank several bottles of wine, and feasted on lasagna and a huge spinach salad.

Shorty and Sluggo helped clear the table and then went to the living room, while Sadie and Sally prepared to do the dishes.

"Hey Slug…are we going to the West Side Outing and Marching Society bash next month? If we are, we better get our names on the list quick, or we won't get in."

"We've never missed that. Sure we're going."

"Well, we've never taken our wives before. Think it will be OK?"

"Sure. Lots of guys take their wives. It's a nice deal. No trouble. We know just about everyone. No reason not to go. Let's plan on it."

Sally entered the room drying a dish. She was smiling again. "Shorty…I forgot to tell you your dad called today,” she said sweetly.

Before Sally could say more, Sluggo broke in cheerfully and said, "Hey that's great. Did you get his name? That's something Shorty's always wanted to know."

Sally reddened, whirled, and left the room in a series of stiff legged stomps that shook the house. Shorty and Sluggo heard her explaining to Sadie what had happened in shrill, angry tones.

Shorty dropped his head, "You just had to do it, didn't you?”

“Got to taper off. Damn…can't quit something like the old jabberooo in one night. Might get the bends or diarrhea."

They laughed and started talking. All the while, Shorty swigged his beer and icily waited to execute a retaliatory verbal thrust. He wanted Sluggo to roast on a white-hot skewer of sarcasm peppered with galling invective…all provided by him.

Nothing Sluggo said that evening presented Shorty with the opportunity he wanted. Only a scorched-earth linguistic blow would satisfy him as a reprisal. Sluggo always seemed to be able to do that to him…deal him a lethal jab. Of course, he did get in a few himself. Great ones, in fact, but it seemed he always thought his best ones hours or days later…long after he could use them for maximum effect.

“Damn it…wish I was quicker,” Shorty thought.

“Must be slipping,” he muttered to himself.

As he and Sally went to their home, he hoped to conclude their anniversary celebration. In that, at least, neither he nor Sally was disappointed. They really did love each other…most of the time.

The Club, as it was known throughout Benton City, was solidly non-political. So much so, that many of the political meetings of both parties…public and private…were held there. One veteran political writer observed in his column that more deals had been cut in The Club than in all the joints in Las Vegas. No one disputed the statement.

The Club's ambiance was close to being like an old fashioned speakeasy. While many of its members wouldn't want their membership in the club listed in their obituary, all relished going there, and were privately pleased they were members. They enjoyed the tingling excitement of either being a witness to, or participating in, the assorted illegal acts, and seeing, in person, some of the big shots they read about in the newspapers and saw on television.

Proprietors of this unique hostelry were Lefty Fon, PeeWee Olofson, and Red Keers. With Fon, an ex-policeman, and Olofson, a professional poker player and bookie, and Keers, a former city councilman and real estate broker, there was enough horsepower and connections to get almost anything done at any time, no matter which political party held city hall.

The three entrepreneurs liked to help their fellowman, and did so, usually for a price. But the price was never too much, and the favors, PeeWee, Lefty, and Red told folks, were strictly limited to the club membership. But the three men had passed out so many membership cards, that if any one held a true roll call of its members, it would have been the largest club in Benton City.

It was a good place to take a date and dance, have a good meal, bet a horse, play a parlay card, pick up pool and lottery tickets, get a traffic ticket fixed, or see if a street could be repaved or new sidewalks could be installed.

The Club was also the spot to start for a policeman or fireman who wanted a promotion or another job assignment. Through their interlocking connections, one of the big three at the club could seemingly always deliver.

Aside from the politicians of both parties who frequented the club, it was also a watering hole for a couple of priests. One, Father Duffy, drank straight, generous shots of Old Fitzgerald. He drank enough of that 100 proof, carmel colored fluid to earn the whispered nick name of "Father Fitz."

Upon entering the club, he took off his collar, jammed it in his pocket, and put a $5 bill on the bar. None of the three owners ever touched that five spot, and neither did the head bartender, Boom-Boom Haithcock.

On the few occasions an efficient newcomer behind the bar served Father Fitz a drink and made change from the priest's $5 bill, Father Duffy would snap on his collar and inquire if PeeWee, Lefty, or Red were around. The sacred 5 bucks was always returned to the bar under the glass of water.

Some observers claimed that same $5 bill made 100 or more trips in and out of the club in the safety of Father Duffy's pocket.

Occasionally, a sinner, in his cups and worried about the destination of his soul, would spot the good priest and slide into a seat next to him at the bar. Then, after a few generous shots of Old Fitz, Father Fitz would listen to a mumbled confession and give a muttered absolution. This was a very private matter. No one attempted to eavesdrop or talk about it. It was, as Father Duffy said, a matter of taking the church to the people. It didn't matter to Father Duffy that the sinners seeking forgiveness were Baptists or Presbyterians.

One of Father Duffy's tasks each fall was to give the benediction and pray for fair weather for the most important gathering of the year for the club owners and the club members.

Annually, the club hosted a free bash. Although none of the newspapers, radio or television stations recognized it as a social event, by the number of people who attended, it was the event of the year on the city's fly-specked social calendar. Huge tents were put up in the parking lot. Large kettles of Hunkystew were cooked over wood fires. Other large pots were used for boiling fresh roasting ears and for distilling a lethally torrid concoction called green chili. One bowl of that green lava would melt the engine block of a Cadillac.

Cooks prepared fresh Polish sausage and hickory-smoked hams. Fresh, deep-fried catfish and pounds of cole slaw, baked beans, and potato salad were popular menu items. Hundreds of loaves of hard-crusted bread and fresh rolls were kept under large plastic covers.

And, of course, there was booze. Red, Lefty, and PeeWee had enough beer to float the city-county building, and hard liquor in quantity sufficient to insure a hangover for each of the city's populace.

On the day of the bacchanal, the three owners were always too busy mingling and politicking to bother with the details of running the actual party. They left that task to their trusted employee Harold "Boom-Boom" Haithcock.

Boom-Boom was more than six feet in height and weighed 250 fat-free pounds. He was as sturdy and strong as an oak physically…with about the same IQ.

Many people were certain Boom-Boom could play football without a helmet or any other protection.

He earned his nickname and his reputation as very young man. They said of him, "Boom, he hits you! Boom, you hit the ground!"

The legend carried over from the cloakroom and playgrounds, to the streets and the barrooms. He was honest, loyal, and trained to do his job exactly the way the three owners required, despite his shoe size IQ.

Boom-Boom's topics of conversation were limited to beer and women, and he did not fare well either in indulging or conversing about either.

While on duty at the club, he watched and listened to everything and everyone. He became a master of observing aggressive body language, and listening for raised voices that alerted him to brewing trouble. On those occasions, Boom-Boom suddenly and quietly appeared at the side of the potential offenders, offering quietly, "Why don't I give you guys one more little drink before you leave…real friendly like." It was an offer only a few fools refused.

Trouble was a commodity Lefty, PeeWee, and Red could ill afford, especially if police were to become officially involved. Police of every rank frequented their place. They winked, blinked, and nodded, and generally turned their backs on the poker games, the pin ball machines, the horse players, and other illegal shenanigans, while they were being plied with free meals and drinks.

The owners never wanted to embarrass a policeman, and did not flout illegal activities when police were present. They didn't make payoffs to winners on the pinball, slot, and poker machines while police were on the premises. The racing forms and other horse racing materials were kept well out of sight in the bookie's room, and no bets were ever taken over the bar. But they knew the police were not fools.

At best, their attempts to cover up were a fragile, easily-pierced veil, and the owners knew it. They also knew that any little incident within the club confines could force police to do their jobs, and such action would compel their many political acquaintances, judges, attorneys, and bureaucrats to turn their backs on them.

"You gotta remember," Lefty told his partners, "We're venerable here. Shit runs down hill, and we're the bottom a the hill."

Father Duffy stood in his robes early that Saturday morning, sprinkled the three owners, Boom-Boom, and all the cooks and bartenders with Holy Water, and said in his softest whiskey bass, "May this blessed dampness from the sky be all we feel today. May the sun and good fortune shine upon all of us for this day. Amen"

Lefty pressed a $100 bill into the priest's hand and said, "Thanks for the good incantation."

Lefty escorted Father Duffy to a table, where he poured him a drink of Old Fitz and left the bottle beside the glass.

"I know it's a bit early, but I don't know how long you can stay, so I want you to feel homely here"

Father Duffy smiled at Lefty's malapropism. He was accustomed to making understandable English from Lefty's snatch-and-grab vocabulary.

"Kind in the extreme you are. A special blessing to you," the priest said as he slipped off his robes, undipped his collar, and took a probing sip of Old Fitz.

"Ah...It will be a glorious day. Will Father Graber be here today?" Father Duffy said with a smack of his lips.

"He's been invited. He said he might be here. Want I should call him?"

"I might do that later. We were discussing a horse named Pious One yesterday. It's off today, and we might want to place a wager."

"Oh, great," Lefty said with a weak smile. "I've got to do a few things. Make yourself accommodated."

Lefty walked away scowling and muttering. “Damn, give him a C note and he and Father Graber are going to beat me on the head with it. I better see how good that horse is. With The Man on their side, they might embroil me.”

Lefty broke into another weak smile when he checked the racing form and saw Pious One was an 80-to-l shot in a seven-horse field. In eight starts, he's always run last. Could he be due to win? “Please, Lord, make him run last just one more time,” Lefty beseeched The Almighty with a rapid glance skyward.

He hurried to find his partners, and told them to dodge Father Duffy and Father Graber the rest of the day, and why. They looked at the table where Father Duffy was seated, smiling, sipping his drink and studying the racing form.

"Look who's here,” Red said with a gesture toward the front of the tent.

All three men frowned. It was Father Graber, and he was walking toward Father Duffy like a man on a mission.

"I got a despaired feelin’," Lefty groaned. Red shook his head and departed to do his chores. PeeWee chomped the stub of his cigar and said, "Won't be the first time we been beat with our own money. Won't be the last. Don't worry about it."

Lefty ducked into the restroom. He'd just zipped his trousers when he heard the sound of a voice he now dreaded.

He began to wash his hands slowly.

Father Duffy said, "Oh, Lefty, Father Graber and I want to play Pious One with you…a hundred dollars on the nose to win. Knowing your generosity, we're sure you'll give us track odds, should God's good fortune shine on us. If we win, we are going to split the money between our parishes and put it in our poor relief funds in your name."

Father Duffy stood beaming as he put the $100 bill into Lefty's palm. Lefty managed a stunned, sick smile.

"You...a...a...You want track odds? Well...a...well.... a… we don't normally pay track odds."

"Oh, we know that. But this is a special thing, and for such a good cause. If we win, you'll be many times blessed. And if we lose, thanks to your generosity, we've really lost nothing," Father Duffy said as he lightly gripped Lefty's shoulder and leveled a wilting smile upon Lefty.

Lefty's resistance vaporized. Fatalistically, he jammed the $100 bill into his pocket, and then shook the priest's hand.

"A C-note to win on Pious One. Track odds. You got it, Father."

Lefty went to the bookie's room and placed the bet.

"When we gonna know about this nag? It's a California track."

"Not till tomorrow morning's paper comes out, unless you want me to give my pal in L.A. a call," the bookmaker said.

"Spare me the expense. I'll wait till Sunday morning."

Lefty exited, wondering if there was someone somewhere who'd listen to a prayer of misfortune for a couple of priests. “Better not do that. Why…that'd be like playing Russian rolaids. I could get expatriated for that,” he reasoned to himself.

Lefty dutifully warned his partners that the bet was down. All three shook it off and joined the conviviality of the burgeoning crowd.

A polka band blared its tuba-punctuated rhythms. Saxaphones, snare and bass drums, guitars, tubas, clarinets, trombones, trumpets, accordions, and other musical instruments, played with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm, lent their sounds to a stew of music from the tents.

Shorty, Sally, Sluggo, and Sadie settled into the tent where the Michigan Street Sweat Shirt Band was performing. To all but the younger people, the band sounded like the collision of two semis, one loaded with empty tin cans and cymbals, the other filled with glass bottles and explosives.

The quartet sampled all the food, with dancing and drinking between courses. Shorty was still seeking adequate retribution for Sluggo's keenly delivered verbal uppercut on the eve of their anniversary. He manufactured one opening as they sat sipping their beer.

"Hey Slug…Boom-Boom asked me the other day why you take Sadie with you everywhere you go."

"Yeah? Well…what did you tell him?" Slug said, playing along.

"I told him she's so ugly you hate to kiss her good bye."

Shorty beamed for an instant in the glory of his remark.

"Boo, Boo, Boo," came the assessment from the trio.

"You behave yourself tonight," Sally warned Shorty. "That wasn't even funny."

"That's the best you can do? Better give it up, pal," Sluggo smirked.

Sadie glared at Sluggo and said, "You two better not start blazing at each other tonight. Any more of that, and Sally and I are going home."

Shorty took a drink of beer to hide his chagrin. “Boy did I fart and fall. Seem to be doing that a lot. What were those goodies I had ready to fire? Boy, boy, can't think of a damned one,” Shorty thought.

He drained his cup and reached for the pitcher.

"Hey, drink up. I'll go get another pitcher," Shorty said as he refilled everyone's cup. Still chastising himself, he jumped up and headed for the bar.

As the bartender topped off the pitcher, Shorty decided to behave himself. He only hoped Sluggo would do likewise. He grabbed four fresh cups and the pitcher, and headed back to the table.

As he weaved his way through the crowd he saw John "Digger" McCorkle talking to Sally. McCorkle was a tall, handsome man…the son of a very successful mortician. Digger always had a pocketful of money he casually flashed around. Not that he spent much though…

It was common knowledge that Digger handled his quarters as though they were manhole covers. When it came to reaching for money to spend, Digger acted as though his pockets were full of razor blades or hot coals. Digger was free with only one thing…that which Shorty called Bad Mouth.

Digger sober was insufferable. When drinking or drunk, Digger could not long be endured by man or beast.

Shorty didn't like Digger. To Shorty, it seemed, Digger had honed arrogance and his tongue into much too fine a cutting edge, and was far too free with his caustic remarks.

Shorty continued through the crowd, juggling the cups and the pitcher until he reached their table. He put the beer and cups down and sat beside Sally.

"Digger here asked Sally to dance," Sluggo said.

Shorty glanced up at the tanned, manicured, perfumed, and sartorially resplendent man of Scottish ancestry. He's about half drunk, Shorty had noted, when he's at his disgusting best.

“I'd really like to feed him five,” Shorty thought, but instantly reconsidered, remembering his promise to himself.

"Well, Digger…if the lady wants to dance, that's up to her,” he said softly with a smile.

"What say, sweety? Wanna dance with the Digger?"

"My feet hurt right now," Sally demurred. "Perhaps later."

Digger smiled, making the cleft in his chin and his dimples appear much deeper than they really were.

"Certainly ma’am. I know how it is after attending welding class all day and then having an oaf such as this tread all over you. Did you wear your safety shoes?" Digger said, making a slight bow.

Shorty started to leap to his feet, but Sally's elbow caught him in the ribs. Sluggo was going to jump up too, but Sadie caught him by a trouser pocket and yanked him into his seat.

"Better leave Digger, or your old man's gonna be wiping your ass in the morning," Sluggo spat from clenched teeth.

Digger, ignoring the threat, bobbed and weaved a tipsy path to the bar.

"I'd like....I want....I...I…I," Shorty blabbered.

"I... I... I...Yippee-Ki-Yay! You sound like a cowboy song," Sluggo growled and reached for the pitcher of beer.

While Sluggo poured, Shorty finally gained control of his tongue. "That jerk. How's he lived so long?"

"Dunno. He's had his share of whacks. Never seems to learn, though. Gets about half blasted and lets his mouth run off. He sure can get a guy hot in a hurry," Sluggo observed.

"Yes, and you two were ready to do something right here," Sadie blurted.

"I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn't been here to keep you in your chairs," Sally said.

The two women nodded emphatically, then shook their heads in disgust.

"Well I know. I'd a grabbed a leg. Shorty'd a grabbed the other, and we'd a made a wish with Old Digger,” Sluggo said.

"You gals think yer married to a couple a wimps? You want some clown like that coming up and walking all over you?"

"We know we're not married to wimps," Sally said. “We know that no one' s going to walk over us."

"Hey Sally," Sluggo said with a dead pan expression, "you really take welding lessons? Has Shorty been steppin’ all over you? You got your safety shoes on?"

All four of them burst out laughing, and then got up and headed for the dance floor. No sooner had they arrived than the Sweat Shirt Band went on break. As a substitute, they switched on the jukebox. The first tune was a moldy-oldie Glenn Miller piece.

"Wanna go sit down or do a little slow dancing? This piece was my mom's favorite," Shorty said.

"Let's dance it out, man," Sluggo said. The wives nodded agreement.
The two couples began dancing, and they were amazed at the chemistry which began to flower as they held each other closely and glided around the dance floor. Shorty felt the vibrations his Sally was giving him as she pressed close and he stroked her back gently. God, he did love her, and was so thankful he had her. He turned to observe Sluggo and Sadie, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and there was Digger. The mellow mood vanished.

"Mind if I cut in."

Shorty did his best to remain calm, cool, semi-collected, and a gentleman.

"That's up to the lady," he managed.

Sally looked up at him," It'll be all right. I'll finish this dance and come back to the table."

Shorty walked back to the table and drank a beer. “Boy what a moment that was…then the Digger spoiled it. Hey, I got to get some of those old records out. They're great mood setters,” he mused.

Soon, the number finished, and Sluggo and Sadie returned.

"Where's Sally?"

"I saw her heading for the lady's room," Sadie said.

In a short time, Sally returned. She plopped into her chair. She opened her purse and got a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

"Hey babe, what's wrong?" Shorty said.

"Yeah. What's the score? Digger do something…say something?"

Sally didn't answer. She shook her head and continued to wipe her eyes. Sadie reached across the table and patted Sally's hand.

"Want to leave. Sally?"

Sally nodded affirmatively.

"Well, I want to tell the three of you this. I'm not leaving here till I know what happened to Sally. And by God, I mean we'll stay here till the beer goes flat, if it takes that long," Shorty spat.

"Might as well tell him Sally. He can handle it. We can handle it," Sluggo said.

"Well he said, ‘that's an unusual perfume you're wearing.’ Before I could thank him he said, ‘when did they start putting lavender in flea soap?’”

"I just laughed at him. Then he said, ‘it must be nice for you girls to get out without having to wear your flea collars.’ I gave the jerk a punch and laughed at him again.”

"I told him he was such a smooth talker," Sally's voice trailed off.

"Then what?" Shorty insisted.

"He started groping me. I told him to quit and started to leave, but he grabbed me up close...well you know. He said none of the other girls he danced with minded. They expected it, in fact. He made me feel so cheap."

Shorty was on his feet in an instant…glancing around the room like an angry eagle looking for Digger to pounce upon. Sally once more pulled him into his seat.

"Come on now...It's over. Let's forget it. I feel better now," Sally said forcing a grin.

Sluggo watched Sally's little smile and felt positively homicidal. How he'd like to rearrange Digger's all too handsome face… Where is that jerk?

Sluggo was seated facing Shorty and Sally. He looked up and grinned. There, emerging from the crowd, was Digger. The enemy had been delivered to him. Sluggo leaped to his feet, before any one at their table knew what was happening, and blocked Digger's path.

"You prick. You come by to see if you can grope my wife too?"

Shorty started to get up, but Sally grabbed his leg and pinched him until he sat down.

"Damn it baby, quit that. I'm feeling like a yo-yo. I wanna talk to that guy."

Shorty could have brushed her aside, but in this crowd, he did not want to hurt her or someone else if he slipped making a quick move. He decided to see how Sluggo fared before he jumped into the fray against his wife's wishes. He glanced at Sadie. She was aghast.

"Big shot," Sluggo growled. "I asked you a question? I want an answer. You wanna call our wives dogs while I'm standing here? Or do you just get tough with the gals?"

Sluggo was taking little half steps from side to side. Digger, by now totally blasted, was having trouble focusing his eyes, but his tongue was still in lashing order.

"Get out of my path," he demanded haughtily.

"Why don't you and your rough-neck pal take your broads to the manure spreader you drove here and leave."

The face-to-face confrontation had not escaped Boom-Boom. Like a great hawk, he had glided noiselessly up to the chest-to-chest meeting.

Digger stood motionless, except for his eyelids blinking drunkenly, like a well-dressed lizard.

Sluggo's left hand grabbed Digger's shirt and tie. Shorty could see Sluggo's weight begin to shift to his right leg. Sluggo's right hand was drawing back at the same time. Just before that balled fist reached its apogee, Boom-Boom grabbed it and gave it a slight tug. The laws of physics then asserted themselves.

Boom-Boom's tug caused Sluggo's grip to slip from Digger's shirt and tie, to the tie alone. The tie, which was a clip on, came off in Sluggo's fist. Sluggo began a pitching, stumbling, tumbling fall backward.

Sluggo bounced and slid across two tables. His arms flailed and bashed men and women alike. He tipped over pitchers of beer, mixed drinks, and plates of food, and slid through the contents, before he landed on the floor in a dazed heap. He heard screams and shrieks and the voices of Boom-Boom, Lefty, and Red as they tried to restore order.

He got to his knees, then to his feet. He looked at himself. He was a smelly, gooey, beer-soaked, food-spattered mess. He looked at the people whose table he'd just slid across. He saw one man holding some icecubes to a lady's face. Another man was hopping around…dabbing at his crotch with a napkin.

"I'm sure sorry, folks….really sorry. If you send the bills to the club for what I've done, I'll pay."

Sluggo's comments were ignored. Brushing baked beans and potato salad from his shirt, he made his way back to the table. He was feeling stupid, mortified, and mad as hell. He kept looking for Digger. He saw Shorty talking to Lefty. Sluggo had never felt dumber in his life. He looked at his left hand, which still clutched Digger's tie, and quickly threw it to the floor in disgust. Lefty turned to him.

"Shorty tells me Digger was shootin’ from the lip again...that's what started this...I'll take care of the Digger.”

"You don't act drunk…neither does your pal, so you can stay. The mayor's wife's been slugged in the chops, and a bowl a chili got tipped in the deputy chief of police's lap. He's claiming he's got scalded balls. ‘Scuse me ladies.”

"I think I can handle it, but no more trouble…OK? Things like this give the club a bad eye," Lefty said somberly.

Sluggo nodded OK, and sat down next to Sadie. He looked at Sadie, but Sadie would not look at him. She was staring at Sally. Sally stared at her. Shorty was staring at him. Sluggo was boiling inside. He smelledt errible. He was damned mad. He'd made a spectacle of himself. He had a punch cocked and ready to throw. Now, he had no target. He felt thwarted, frustrated, humiliated.

Shorty started to smile. Then the smile broke into a wise-ass smirk that escalated Sluggo's rage.

"What the hell you smiling about? Where'd that damned Digger go?" he snarled.

"Hey, he left. Blew right out of here. He had nothin’ left to prove," Shorty said, as he set the stage for his coup.

Sluggo's kettle of rage instantly went past boil. He knew he'd had just enough beer to be a little out of control, but he'd taken enough. He wasn't going to take any more…especially from his best friend.

"Nothin left to prove? What the hell do you mean by that?" Sluggo snapped.

"It's obvious he's too much for you…too fast for ya. Don't know if he hit you three or four times…he's so fast. But he sure put your ass across two tables."

Shorty knew he had scored, and scored big. It was the one he'd been waiting for all these weeks. This could be his finest hour. He could see the muscles in Sluggo's neck tense, and a murderous expression spread over his face.

Shorty gloated with the pride he felt in delivering his blow.

"Why you must be some kind of a jerk, blind, or both. He never touched me," Sluggo screamed. Not in his entire life had he felt such an anger build within him. He sure as hell wasn't going to endure another insult this evening…especially not one from that smirking jerk across the table that was supposed to be his buddy.

Shorty was almost ready to scream “I GOTCHA” and burst into laughter, when he saw Sluggo coiling to spring.

He had no time to talk…too late for that. Sluggo and Shorty lunged simultaneously, and they collided at mid-table like a pair of wrestlers at center-ring. They began punching each other, not with good humor or laughter, but with snarls, growls, and curses.

Sadie and Sally ducked when their husbands launched their across-the-table assault. Then, they began screaming and pulling and punching as they triedt o separate them. Nothing worked. Sluggo and Shorty were landing heavy blows upon each other. A few of their errant punches struck people nearby, and other fights erupted.

As the number of fights increased, politicians, dignitaries, bureaucrats, attorneys, judges, off-duty police, and just plain folks, began a stampede for the exits. The stampede turned into a mob, and more fighting broke out.

Neither Boom-Boom, Lefty, Red, nor PeeWee, could restore order. Soon the shrill of sirens was heard, and minutes later, about a dozen cars of the Benton City Police Department arrived to restore peace and quiet.

Nearly two-dozen people, including Shorty and Sluggo, were arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Newspaper and television people who'd never bothered to show up during previous years, arrived en masse. Among the pictures they got was one of the mayor's wife having a black eye treated while sitting in front of an electronic poker machine. The photographers also took pictures of electronic slot machines, pinball, and other gaming paraphernalia within the club confines, noting as they did so, how many politicians, police, and bureaucrats were cleaning up after the fights.

The pictures triggered a lot of high-level questions, and a certain amount of indignancy, that this club could operate illegally, with seeming immunity.

From no publicity, the club went to page one in the newspapers and prime-time evening news.

Shorty and Sluggo got into another fight in the paddy wagon, which resulted in a couple of additional charges being filed against them. Then they quit speaking to each other. Sadie and Sally refused to bail them out.

Lefty, Red, and PeeWee showed up at the lockup with an attorney and a bail bondsman to get everyone out of jail. It cost them $3,500 for the bonding fees and the attorney.

As a result of the publicity and pictures, the expenses for Lefty, Red, and PeeWee, were just beginning. The following Monday, the vice-squad raided the club and seized the pinball machines, poker machines, and electronic slots. They locked up the bookie and confiscated his records. Lefty was charged with being a professional gambler. Later, Red and PeeWee were also charged.

When they tried to reopen the club, the state's liquor regulation board revoked their private club charter, and with it, their liquor license, for serving non-members. All of those persons, once so secretly proud they were members, publicly denied being members, and the club, with no official list of members, could not refute the charge they had served non-members.

Once the chief of police learned how many off-duty police had been members of the throng, he got their names and suspended every one of them for a day, on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer. The suspensions included the chili-scalded deputy chief.

Everywhere Lefty, Red, or PeeWee went for help, they met turned backs or blank stares. They had gone from respected hostlers, claimed as friends by many, to conniving hustlers, to be shunned by all, within the space of a few days

Then the lawsuits began. The deputy chief of police filed the first one, alleging he developed a serious groin infection from the green chili which toppled into his lap when Sluggo slid across the table. He sought medical expenses and punitive damages. His wife filed another suit for loss of consortium. Lefty blew his top when he read the wife's law suit.

"Consortium? Consortium? What the hell's her damned green house got to do with him having his balls scalded?"

After having one hell of a laugh, Lefty's lawyer defined the word for him. Lefty didn't see any humor in his remark or in the dozen civil suits that were later filed against the club and the club owners.

For days after the brawl, Shorty and Sluggo did not speak. Shorty knocked on Sluggo's door one evening and told Sluggo he and Sally were moving. Sluggo said to hell with that, they would be the ones to move. Another fight broke out. Sadie and Sally let their spouses flail upon each other until they became arm-weary and quit. Then, both couples moved and they never saw each other again.

Sadie and Sally still spoke and periodically tried to get their husbands together again. But the gulf between the men became as permanent as they believed their friendship had been.

There were times Shorty considered the price paid for delivering that GOTCHA, only Sluggo really never knew that's all it was. Shorty thought about going to see Sluggo and trying to straighten it all out many times, but he never did.

Sluggo smarted everytime he thought about Shorty. He was convinced Shorty had delivered a low blow, fouled him, with intent to publicly humiliate him. He thought of the old friendship many times, and wished that night had not happened. What he really hated was the fact that Shorty, whom he'd generally bested, had lanced him with the last jabberoo. He knew if they ever did get back together, all he'd want to do would be to humble Shorty the way he'd been mortified. It wouldn't be worth it, he reasoned.

Digger awoke late the Sunday after the party at the club. As he drank some tomato juice and gulped aspirin for his headache, he read the account of the brawl and arrests made.

He recalled nothing but having a few drinks…a few too many, the way his head felt. He had no bumps or bruises. He hadn't been arrested. That was obvious. He was thankful he'd left before trouble broke out.

"Probably some rough necks. They've got too broad a membership there. Too many blue collars to mix with the refined," he said aloud as he turned to the classified obituary section to see how hard he would have to work that evening.

With the club padlocked, Lefty saw none of the old gang. Then, one day he answered the phone at his home. He instantly recognized the voice of Father Duffy.

"Lefty my boy…very sorry about your trouble. Glad I left with Father Graber when I did. The archbishop would have had my collar if I'd been caught."

Lefty had a tacky, clammy feeling. He chillingly remembered the priest's $100 bet. He'd forgotten all about it after the brawl, the arrests, and the lawsuits. He did not know if Pious One was a winner or a loser.

"Glad you got out too. We've been having a lot of trouble. Don't know if we'll get to reopen or not. People 'er treatin’ us like we got pyorrhea," Lefty said glumly.

Father Duffy choked slightly, stifling a chuckle at Lefty's comment, then said, "Well…it's all a shame. I'll hope and pray for the best for you and the boys. I waited to call you till things cooled a bit."

"Thanks father. We need help…all we can get."

A long pause ensued. Lefty hoped the priest had gotten so plastered he'd forgotten making the bet. Or, even better, considering all that had happened to the club and its owners, would forgive the bet.

Lefty was going to let the priest talk first.

Father Duffy decided Lefty should have the next word.

A long soundless wait groped at time.

Finally Father Duffy could wait no longer, "I called to see when I could pick up the winnings on Pious One. Remember I told you Father Graber and I were going to share the winnings for our poor relief?"

Lefty wanted to cuss. As if he hadn't been buried under an avalanche of troubles, he now faced another whacking. He wasn't sure he could handle it. He wanted to blowup and tell the priest to go to hell. But he let his insides churn and said nothing.

"Lefty, are you still there?"

"Oh, a...a..yeah, still here. Just thinking father. You know they nailed our bookie and got all his records."

"Oh sure, I know that. But this was more than just a casual bet. It was between us…man to man. Much more than just a bet…and for such a worthy cause," Father Duffy said unctuously.

An even longer pause ensued. “Boy he can make a guy crawl with guilt,” Lefty thought, “but then, that's his job.”

"Lefty, is something wrong?" the aggressive priest said, breaking the silence a second time.

"I'm just figurin’ where I can come up with the money. I checked the form that day, an’ your horse was 80-to-l. I don't know what he finally went off at."

"He went off at 85-to-l. He won by six lengths," Father Duffy informed him in a precise, helpful tone.

"That's $8,500 I owe you. Right?"

"Right you are, son. When can we get the money?"

"Come to PeeWee's house in about an hour. I'll have it for you. See you then," Lefty said as he hung up the telephone.

"I'm takin’ a $8500 thumpin’. I feel like cryin’…feel like gettin good 'n’ boiled," Lefty said aloud as he poured a shot of whiskey and gulped it.

Lefty put on his coat and headed for PeeWee's house.

Lefty really needed something or someone to slug…to smash as hard as he could. Events of that Saturday night raced through his mind, and rapidly focused up on one individual…Digger. It was a perfect target. During the drive to PeeWee's, he mentally inflicted every sort of punishment imaginable upon Digger. He wished the club was open, just so he could bar the bum from ever coming there again.

As he drove, he knew he would not do anything to Digger…at least not in person. But Boom-Boom was looking for work, and this was the type of work old Boom did well. He made up his mind to see Boom-Boom as soon as he paid Father Duffy. He felt a lot better. He would feel better still when he knew Digger had been deeply bruised.

At PeeWee's, Lefty handed PeeWee the title to his Cadillac. “I need $8500 real quick."

"No problem Lefty," PeeWee said. "Wait a minute…I'll get the dough."

Lefty stood fidgeting in PeeWee's living room. PeeWee soon returned with a stack of bills. "Here's the 85...," he said with a chomp on his cigar.

"Why you in such a rush?"

"Remember Father Duffy's bet?"

"Yeah. Hoped he'd forget it. I didn't. I checked the paper the next morning. I knew it hit. That's all we needed. I just didn't bring it up. You ain't gonna swallow the whole 85 yerself. There's three of us in this. Share ‘n’ share alike," he said returning the car title.

Lefty nodded, and smiled, "I'd welch if it was anyone but a priest. He's coming over here to get his money."

PeeWee looked slightly surprised, "Why here? Why don't you take it to him?"

"Not me. I been oblivioned. No luck at all. Let him come get it. I take it to him, I probably get robbed.”

"The guy's a priest, an he's got no contrition fer us. He oughta be regressing cars fer some loan company or somethin’.”

"It's irrigating as hell," Lefty groaned. “The only guys that ain't turned their backs on us is two priests, an’ they both got their hands out."

PeeWee's cigar made a trip from one side of his mouth to the other. His brow furrowed and he looked bewildered for a second. Then he smiled. He was almost certain he understood what Lefty said.

He certainly knew how he felt.

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