Red Wagon

  

The phrase "that will fix his little red wagon" immediately came to mind when I caught a blur of crimson from the corner of my eye. I was about halfway up the steep incline of Poplar Street when I stopped to watch Warren Mahoney's rusted Radio Flyer careening towards the downtown shopping area and the large plate glass window of Lipton's drug store.

Precisely what maximum velocity could be attained by a toy wagon carried on plastic wheels the circumference of saucers and propelled only by a gravitational pull that is in direct relation to the angle Poplar's grade, I could not guess. However, as it had left the majority of it's payload of beer cans and pop bottles strewn behind on the street, I figured it had reached top speed, being now, less encumbered.

At times, a wheel that came into contact with an uneven portion of pavement or a pebble would send the wagon airborne, promising to upset its run but each time it returned to the asphalt squarely on its tiny wheels and on course.

If it was unlikely that the Flyer's own rickety constitution or this slab of roadway would change the present course, it was even more unlikely to encounter any other impeding obstacles. The very nature of Poplar Street that had transformed the wagon into a dangerous projectile was the very nature that made it an unpopular route for both motorists and pedestrians alike. Indeed, other than people like me and Warren Mahoney, who made it a point to avoid other people, and adolescent dare devils, the street experienced very little traffic and was usually, as at that time, deserted. Therefore, with nothing to stop what promised to be a catastrophic rendezvous with Lipton's store front, the wagon continued its wild trundle and its arrhythmic clatter rang out like a toddler drumming pots and pans.

I turned, leaving the situation in the capable hands of disaster and shifted my attention up the hill on Warren Mahoney. He was standing just below to crest of the hill where the road leveled, holding the wagon's detached handle. He had nearly made it to the top with his load of valuable deposits, which he had no doubt spent the better part of the day harvesting from the downtown trashcans and curbsides, and would have been taking a brief rest after the long climb up Poplar. Instead, he was watching a scene unfold into a day's worth of lost wages and a hefty bill for plate glass.

I can't say that the sound of metal connecting with glass is something I hear on a regular basis but it is, nonetheless, unmistakable and the crisp little crack that traveled up Poplar ended all speculation as to what would act as the wagon's ultimate arresting force. Now the Radio Flyer was lying upended in the street having bounced off Lipton's window leaving behind a large pattern resembling a spider's web just below the "E" in Drug Store; two wheels were still turning. Warren Mahoney remained frozen in his state of disbelief staring at his wagon's pathetic, lifeless body while its worthless handle dangled in his limp grip. Someone, probably a Lipton employee, had emerged from within the drug store to investigate the disturbance and was soon joined by another and then Compton Lipton (grandson of the store's founder Herbert Lipton and now owner, manager and pharmacist) himself.

Warren Mahoney raised the handle over his head and flung it down violently to Poplar's hardtop where it ricocheted off and back up in the direction of the person who threw it. Perhaps the handle was angered at being severed so abruptly from its other part or perhaps from being overworked by Warren Mahoney for all these years only to be discharged from service so rudely and with such a coarse gesture. For whatever reason, the handle seemed to be using what life it had left to strike a mortal blow of some sort at anything around it and Warren Mahoney nearly lost his balance trying to avoid the sudden attack. He did not and the metal connected squarely above his right eyebrow issuing from him a howl and a trickle of blood.

Stunned, he stood looking down at his black, metal assailant in befuddled wonder with a defensive posture that suggested his apprehension of a second strike. Two gentle fingers were dispatched to estimate the damage to Warren Mahoney's head and when they returned for inspection with their tips covered in a slick, red film, his befuddled wonder turned to palpable rage. First he cursed the handle and then spat at it and then he tried to kick it. He missed his mark completely and his leg swung freely into the empty air. The force was enough to spin his body around in a complete circle on his other leg so that he resembled a drunken dancer mutilating a pirouette. With one revolution complete, he lost his balance entirely and Warren Mahoney found himself as prostrate to this cruel world as his dead wagon and its dead handle.

By now Lipton's little group had determined the wagon to be the source of destruction and had followed its probable path, littered with cans and bottles, up Poplar Street. Someone, not Compton Lipton, was pointing in the direction of Warren Mahoney who was now struggling to regain his footing in this uncertain life. Without even a perfunctory dusting off of himself he began a slow descent to confront what awaits men in this type of situation: explanations, excuses, blame, lies, damages, restitution, negotiation, humiliation and subsequent days of festering anger. He passed me mumbling and slurring incoherent gibberish all the while touching his tender wound, examining his fingers for any progress in its condition.

He made one weak attempt to collect a wrinkled paper sack of bottles but his lack of forethought to lift the sack while supporting its bottom proved fatal for the weak paper and the weight of its contents opened a large hole for the bottles to come out rolling and shattering on the pavement. As Warren Mahoney did his best to avoid additional injury from exploding glass, his foot caught the cylindrical shape of a bottle which had survived impact and Warren Mahoney went reeling with flailing arms like a beginner at a roller skating rink. Once on the asphalt, his forward momentum sent him rolling along with some loose bottles. I could not imagine what all this must have looked like to Compton Lipton and his gang from the foot of the hill but I sensed they might have been nervous with the idea of catching him before he completed the course of his tiny, metal predecessor. Fortunately for all concerned parties, Warren Mahoney's angle of direction steered him into the sidewalk where thudded to a halt along with one clinking bottle.

This was all too much to continue watching, while I had always considered Warren Mahoney an unsavory character fully entitled to all the benefits and privileges of terrible misadventures like this one, I felt a strong empathy towards him as a fellow human being and I felt embarrassed for him. I also feared the eminent arrival of a detachment of the town's police force and the inconvenience it would cause to be construed as an eye-witness. Worse still, there was the danger of being implicated as a participant in these proceedings. So, while I always take Poplar at a leisurely pace, I exerted some extra effort that day and disappeared quickly over the top of the hill leaving the aftermath to take care of itself.

Later that afternoon, during my usual cocktail hour at the Pleasure Club, I would learn the final outcome from Natty Weiner who, despite the amount of time spent on a bar stool, was a living, breathing repository for current events and local gossip. He recounted the events in their entirety as if he had been present. For the most part, he was completely inaccurate regarding what I had witnessed and while I would have liked the reassurance that what had transpired afterwards was a true account, since I had fled the scene early, his word was all I had.

As Natty told it, Compton Lipton was directing an employee to cover the blemish with a poster of 'Items on Sale.' Simultaneously he maintained complete editorial control over the information being recorded into the notebook of a young police officer - emphasizing specific facts by pointing at the debris scattered on Poplar or a silent, hangdog Warren Mahoney - pausing at certain intervals to wave at customers and reassure them that the situation warranted no concern on their part. Another of Lipton's people had produced the Drug Store's first aid kit and had set about doctoring Warren Mahoney's now crusted laceration while a second officer was placing the Radio Flyer into the trunk of the squad car.

At some point during all of this a long crack sprouted suddenly from deep within the web of smashed glass hidden behind the poster and grew the entire length of the window. There was a pause in activity to acknowledge this new phenomenon. The pause was quickly followed by a general and overwhelming consensus that the moment for clearing the area in front of the drug store had arrived. Its structure compromised, the weakened glass buckled and fell from the frame of three Lipton generations and into oblivion.

The windows last moment was announced with the cacophony of an ocean wave washing brass onto a marble shoreline but aside from splintered eardrums, no one was injured. Everyone that is, but Warren Mahoney. He had at the very moment of evacuation bent his head down to receive a swab of stinging antiseptic and remained completely unaware of his perilous position until a shard large enough to hold half of letter "N" sliced neatly through his sneaker severing his toes from his foot.

Now there was more broken glass, more blood, and a completely different set of complicated legal affairs - what a mess!

Later that afternoon, Warren's ordeal was the subject of conversation at Vernon's bar. The bartender, Mikey, had obviously been developing one of his clever one-liners, judging by the way he had stood there smirking throughout Natty's narrative. When he had replaced Natty Weiner's empty beer glass with a fresh one he announced that in light of the impact this accident would have on Warren Mahoney's scavenging business it might behoove him to seek out a se-ver-ance package. Grinning he asked us if had 'gotten it' and he repeated se-ver-ance drawing out each syllable.

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