Right of Way
by Gary Clifton
Dwight Eisenhower had just been elected President. Word on the street was happy times were here again. In the neighborhood, times weren't worth a damn. Ralphie only knew Eisenhower was President because he'd seen the news on the little round, black and white T.V. in Jackson's Furniture Store window.
Heavy snow the night before was compounded that afternoon by a freezing north wind relentlessly seeking clothing leaks. Old Mr. Dell saw Ralphie standing out of the wind in his grocery store entryway and offered the kid a quarter to deliver the widow Kovac's groceries. "Get $3.65, cash." He handed Ralphie change for a ten.
Ralphie dropped off the grocery box, thanked Mrs. Kovac, and with Mr. Dell's cash safely in his britches pocket, was short-cutting back along the C.B.& Q. tracks. In the late afternoon dusk, head down into the wind, footing was better on the flat, graveled surface. Street lights up on Front Street provided limited light a half block away.
Most everyone around knew Dirty Jim, commonly regarded as a harmless, crazy wino, slept in an abandoned car just off the tracks. Rumor said Jim had been a successful middleweight boxer. Ralphie, a typical skinny 14 year old, didn't know or care. His thoughts were consumed with sex and how to get out of the cold.
"Gimme yer money, kid," Jim scrambled up the raised right-of-way. "Or I'll kick your ass." Jim came at him, head down, swinging wildly. He was fortyish, his face mangled from years in the ring. Ralphie was nearly overwhelmed by foul body odor despite the sharp wind.
Startled, terrified, Ralphie stumbled backward. Jim missed with a roundhouse right and went down, landing hard on the ties. He gurgled several times, then lay still. Ralphie ran all the way back to Dell's, levels of imagined punishment skyrocketing with each step. He was a kid and the wino was an adult. That he'd done nothing wrong didn't factor.
"The hell's wrong with you, Ralph?" Mr. Dell accepted Mrs. Kovac's grocery money and handed over Ralphie's two bits. He eyed the kid closely.
Ralphie, a slum kid with no conception of rights, concluded he would catch hell no matter what. Awake most of the night, the angry wind moaning around the eaves of his mother's small frame house, self-delusion ramped up a wild blur of punishments.
Groggy, exhausted, consumed with paranoia, he trudged through the cold the next morning to Public School 97. The hallway was toasty warm as he overheard a kid he didn't know drop the nuclear bomb: "Hey, man...hear about that crazy wino, Dirty Jim...lived in that old car down by the tracks? Got run over by a train yesterday evening. Musta been sleeping on the tracks. Guts all over."
Ralphie, eligible for the free lunch line, skipped eating that day.
In time, folks clucked their tongues and condemned the wino for laying drunk on the tracks. A street kid, but a smart one, Ralphie concluded Dirty Jim would be just as dead if he ran his mouth. So he never did.
BIO: Gary Clifton, forty years a cop, published a novel in national paperback and has published or pending several short fiction pieces on Writer's Type, Spinetingler, Yellow Mama, Broadkill Review, Shotgun Honey, Boston Literary Review, 50 Word Stories, Black Heart Mag, Disenthralled, Fiction on the Web, Spasm Valley, Bewildering Stories, and Liguistic Erosion. Clifton has an M.S. from Abilene Christian University.