The Curmudgeon


Monday, April 30, 2007


A Tale

The three liked to play with an old man who lived nearby. Every couple of days the old man shuffled forth from his home and, just as grimly coated in summer as in winter, made his muttering way to one of the three small general stores which inhabited the next street. The street was also home to three dry-cleaning establishments, an electronics repair shop and two caf├ęs whose varied and authentic ethnic cuisines were varied further by the frequency with which successive proprietors followed one upon the other; but the old man patronised none of these establishments. He went only to the smallest of the three general stores, which also happened to be the one closest to his home. Entering, he shuffled down one aisle and then up the other, inspecting everything on display as if searching for discrepancies before picking up bread, tinned meat and a carton of milk. The bread was always white and medium sliced; the tinned meat was always the same brand; and the moment the old man had counted out the necessary money and shoved the groceries into his murky satchel he took leave of the friendly Indians behind the counter with foot-shifts and mumbles like those of a boy caught shoplifting and dragged back to pay.

It was on his way home that the three liked to play with him. Two of the boys would approach him from the front, the first blocking his path with ostentatious friendliness and keeping up a flow of chatter as the second hovered and grinned at the edge of the old man's vision, distracting his attention with implied threat of ambush; while the third came up from behind and gradually opened the satchel on the old man's back. The satchel fastened with a zip, and it was a matter of some finesse to open it all the way without the old man's feeling anything, particularly after their first few successes. The three boys took turns in their separate missions, which they named Engage, Wingman and Stealth; the shout of "Split!" from the one assigned to Stealth duty was cue for the three to make their escape as the old man's satchel flapped all the way open and disgorged its load of groceries onto the pavement with a dry clatter of metal and plastic wrapping.

On the occasion of their last bit of fun with the old man, the boy assigned to Engage was the largest of the three. It was short-sleeve weather, and the brand name of a notable sporting goods outlet sweated to contain his paunch. Although not the best talker on the team - his bulk and his cheerful if somewhat vacant expression made him most effective in the Wingman position - he had, over the past few months, gained more than enough experience for the job; and he chattered away with a will, complimenting the old man on his dress sense and consistent choice of groceries, and asking whether he needed any windows washed for cheap, while the other two hovered about their tasks.

Just as the boy assigned to Stealth duty was about to make first contact, the old man disconcerted them all by pushing one of the satchel's straps off his shoulder and tugging his arm from the loop. The old man's arms were stiff, so the action was far from rapid; but since he had never before taken any action beyond muttered monosyllables and nervous glances, the three were as nonplussed as if he had suddenly sprouted a cape and begun throwing vehicles at them. The boy on Stealth duty instinctively stepped back a few paces, in case the situation should turn unpleasant; the boy on Wingman duty saw this and moved to join him.

The boy assigned to Engage was left staring the old man in the face. As he observed his two friends in retreat, he found his flow of conversation drying up. The old man swung the satchel off his back and held it tight against his skinny coat-front, his small colourless eyes never leaving the boy's. One of the old man's hands moved out of sight behind the satchel. Perhaps it went inside the old man's coat. There was a small, discreet sound. "Split," the old man said, and the two boys behind him rushed to make their escape as the front of their friend flapped all the way open and disgorged its load of groceries onto the pavement with a wet splatter of liquid and meat.


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