The Smart One
A Wapakoneta Novel
Wapakoneta, Ohio as seen in this novel is an alternate universe, entirely fictionalized version of an otherwise very fine and beautiful community. It is not their fault that I fell in love with the name.
Eventually Paulie roared the Mustang out of the parking lot, mad by the way he was driving and Dink couldn’t really blame him. From a distance the Mustang looked like the driver’s side was covered with some kind of tribal tattoos. Dink thinking, still, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
He was rounding up the shopping carts – again – checking to see if the ones that hit the car had any paint transfer, but it didn’t seem to stick to the chrome, or maybe the rain flaked it away. Looked back over his shoulder to see old man Spangler, looking down at where the Mustang had been, kicking at the wet asphalt with the toe of his shoe. Had to be looking at those paint flakes.
Dink clattered the carts into their bay at the front of the store then held the customer door open as old man Spangler approached. He waggled a finger at Dink, and Dink walked back out into the rain.
“You’re going to pay for this, young man.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Dink said.
“My insurance premiums went up after Louetta Holzer took her tumble in the produce aisle and my agent is going to have a cardiac if I have to call him about this.”
“It wasn’t me.”
Old man Spangler spoke through gritted teeth. “Look, you’re lucky I don’t fire your sorry ass over this.”
“My sorry ass? C’mon–”
“I saw you flipping Paulie Spitale off as he was walking into the store. That bad enough, but if one of my customers had seen it? A lot of church ladies shop here. No, maybe you didn’t push the carts, but you’re mixed up in this, I can tell.”
“Sir, you heard what Crystal Beekman said. This is so unfair.”
“If you want fair, you can go find another job. I can’t account for Crystal Beekman, maybe she was in on it.” He turned, looked across the parking lot. “Which car is hers?”
“I don’t know,” said Dink.
“Well find out so I can check the bumper. Anyway, I don’t want the claim on my insurance, and if Paulie Spitale wants his car repainted, it’s coming out of your pocket, so find a place to do it cheap. Not too cheap. Paulie did it cheap and that’s why you’re in trouble now. So no watercolors, okay?”
“This is not okay.”
“I’ll pay cash, take it out of your pay, twenty-five, thirty percent per check till we’re even. You don’t like this, you got a better way to do this, you go talk to Paulie Spitale’s dad, see what their lawyer has to say. But from what I hear, his daddy probably won’t waste the lawyer’s time dealing with you. Hear what I’m saying?”
Dink nodded. It made rain drip off of his nose.
“You been a good worker these last couple of weeks, that’s why I’m not sending you kicking rocks down the road. I was gonna give you a raise after ninety. You keep your nose clean here on out, I’ll still do that. Get your debt off faster.”
Dink nodded again.
“Good. Any questions?”
“Before or after tax?” Dink asked.
“Don’t be a smartass,” said old man Spangler. “That’s why you’re in trouble now.” He turned and walked into the market.
Dink trying now to do the math in his head, two times twenty-nine times minimum wage minus one-third. It made his head ache. By the time he took groceries to Albanee for rent there wouldn’t be a whole hell of a lot left for–
Now wondering how much it would take to repaint Paulie’s car, how long he’d be short for, how long to pay it off at one third times minimum wage times twenty-nine times two. Heavy with the sadness of it, he looked out across the parking lot, at the cluster of carts that had been left out there since he’d rolled the others back, the job of that sissy guy again.
Maybe if he hadn’t been a sissy. Punched Paulie Spittle a good one in the nose when he said that about Albanee, strangled him right there in the rain and left him lying in the lot, taken the keys out of his cold dead fingers, hopped in the Mustang and gone for a nice, long drive–
“You’re getting wet.”
Crystal Beekman saying this, standing in the overhang of the market, two pink bags from Spangler’s dangling off one hand.
“Suits my mood,” Dink said.
“I heard the old man ranting about you in the meat department,” Crystal said. “What he’s doing to you, that sucks.”
“Could be worse.” Dink wiped rain out of his eyes, decided he was being stupid standing there and getting wet, stepped up under the alcove next to Crystal. “But hey, thanks for sticking up for me. I owe you one.”
“Darn right you owe me one. That car I described? Belongs to my boyfriend.”
“Damn it, Crystal–”
“It’s all right. He deserves it. He’s cheating on me. I just haven’t gotten around to breaking up with him. Gotta find a place to crash before I make my move.”
“I hear that.” Dink wishing he’d been that smart, he wouldn’t have ended up in this situation with Albanee, though it did have its benefits.
“So who was the genius pushed the carts into Paulie’s car anyway?”
“My big brother,” Dink said.
“What the guy who went to Afghanistan, something weird like an army cook, but ended up getting decorated?”
“Andy,” Dink said. “No. This is my other big brother. Brad.”
Crystal’s upper lip twitched. “Brad? He’s kind of–”
“I know,” Dink said. “Whatever you’re thinking. Whatever you’ve heard. But he’s family and Paulie Spitale would have taken him apart, so thanks for covering.”
“You owe me, Dink. I’m serious.”
“You name it. I’m serious.”
Crystal looked out across the parking lot. Lips turned up into a smile. “I do need to get moved.”
“With your boyfriend around? He won’t get the wrong idea?”
“Don’t get me wrong. I meant anything, but you can probably understand that after right now I just want to keep my head down and my nose clean.”
Crystal laughed, deep and throaty, didn’t match her looks at all. “Nothing like that. I mean, if it came to that you could take him down easy. But that’s not it. This is something else, needs to be done by the end of the day. Quick in and out–” She stopped and looked at his face. “Nothing illegal, nothing risky. Just need a hand with some business.”
Dink nodded. “Okay.”
“When you get off work?”
“They close at eight, I do some cleanup. Call it eight-thirty?”
“You want me to meet you somewhere?”
“I’ll pick you up here. It’s close by. Bring you back when it’s done. Lemme think about it, maybe I can think of something to help you out with this car thing. Might cost you another favor, though.”
Dink studied her face, one corner of her mouth turned up like she knew a secret, wasn’t telling him everything. “Let’s see how this one goes before we commit to anything else,” he said.
“You got it, cowboy.” Her lips went to a full blown smile. “I see why they called you the smart one in high school.”
Dink surprised. “Who did?”
Crystal shrugged. “My crowd.”
“Was that before or after I dropped out?”
“There’s more to smarts than book learning. Guy I know with his doctor’s degree in something something is working a Mickey Dee’s in south Lima. ‘Would you like fries with that?’ Two roomies in a slum and he sleeps on the couch. You sleep on a couch, Stapleton?”
Dink shook his head, glad she hadn’t asked that a couple of weeks ago.
“All right. Pick you up here, eight-fifteen then?”
“Right.” Back down into that half-smile again. “No putting one over on you. You really are the smart one.”
Her turning and walking across the parking lot, strings of denim covering the bottom corner of her ass, Dink realized. No clue on that tan line thing. Thinking he wouldn’t cheat on that, what kind of a guy was she hooked up with do something like that.
And when she ducked down into her car at the far end of the lot he sighed and stepped back into the rain, toward the other loose carts, off to push that ball of dung or whatever it was back up that unending hill again.