2001 Undergraduate Fiction Winner
Story About a Guy Who Gets Help from a Foreign Guy He Can’t Understand .
“Kevin, I told you to come in the back door, not the front door. It looks bad for business. And tuck your shirt in.”
That was Jim, the asshole owner/manager of Bunn’s Drugs. My boss.
“I’m wearing an apron, it won’t matter.”
“It’ll be untucked in the back and people will see it every time you turn around. Now tuck it!”
‘What did you say?” I said, faking indignation and shock.
“I said ‘Tuck it,’ with a “T,” not whatever you were thinking.”
“Didn’t sound like...”
‘You’re on register two,” he said and then promptly turned his back and stomped away.
Of course I was on register two. We only had two registers and register one was for both general purchase and pharmaceuticals, which I knew absolutely nothing about. Register two was for the guy who was only there part of the time because the rest of the time he was out running deliveries. I wandered over behind the counter trying hard to tie my apron on. My fingers still hurt from playing at this bar for like two hours straight the night before. I’ve played longer than that before, even just in practice, but that night we played hard. The crowd was awesome and really got into it when we started covering old Metallica songs. Hell I even impressed myself; I didn’t break my first string until halfway through our last song.
Jim, however, was not impressed with the fact that I was an hour late to work that morning. It wasn’t my fault though. My cat, Fuzzy Nuts, went walking along my headboard again and knocked my alarm clock off. It was just a cheap ass battery operated thing so when it got knocked off, it broke. Lucky for me the furball jumped on my stomach and woke me up right about the time I had to be at work.
As soon as I got situated for a nice long boring slow Monday, the phone rang. Now that may not seem like a big problem, but you see it’s Jim’s job to answer the phone, it even says so in the employee handbook that he wrote himself, yet he never does.
“Bunn’s Drugs, Kevin speaking, how can I help you?”
“Burn’s Drugs, how can I help you?”
“Can I help you?”
Oh no, I thought. It's the old Spanish dude! I’d never actually had to talk to him, just heard tales about how much of a pain in the ass he was.
‘WHAT DO YOU NEED TODAY, SIR?” I asked very loudly and very
s l o w l y.
“No señor, no taco espanish. Try English buddy.”
“No. Not ingles. ENGLISH.”
“¿Ian Glish? Gracias señor. Me duele la cabeza.”
“Kay. . .? What the..
“Cabeza! Me duele la cabeza!”
This old guy was starting to piss me off.
“Dude, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Mi cabeza! ¿Comprende?”
“NO, I don’t comprende. What do you neeeed?”
Suddenly Jim’s voice cut in on the other line.
“Perdon usted, pero, ¿que necesita?”
The old guy simply replied “aspirina.” I could figure that one out. I kept wondering what kind of idiot called a drugstore for aspirin. Then I remembered that he was old. Old people are like that. Always making things difficult. Like here, we have old people discount cards. But not once has an old person ever presented their card until after I’ve taken their money and given them change. Then it’s, “oh you need to see the card?” and I have to refund money and explain to Jim why.
My boss finished the phone call in Spanish and gave me dirty looks from behind the counter in the back of the store. Then he stomped his way up to my register and handed me a bag with a bottle of aspirin with a note attached giving the address.
“Mr. Del Drogas is one of our most valued customers...
“Del Drogas? Oh come on, you’re kidding right?”
“No, now listen
‘What’s his first name then?”
“I have no idea and I don’t really care either He spends a lot of money in this store. That’s all I need to know Now listen here. He orders on credit so you don’t have to take any money. In case you were wondering he said he had a headache and needs aspirin...”
“Yeah, I figured the aspirina part out all by myself”
“Just take this to the address and get back here without making Mr. Del... without making him mad.”
“Why don’t you run this to him like you normally do?”
“It’ll be good for you.” He looked at me then shook his head.
Stomp stomp stomp.
I knew why he wanted me to run it. He didn’t want to have to deal with Señor Druggie, the el Pain in the el Ass.
I looked down at the address in my hand and groaned. 4711 Clearview Lane. I knew where that road was. It was in this ritzy area in the far north part of town where a bunch of rich old farts lived. They even had their own police department and zip code and everything. Clearview Lane was where some of the most expensive houses were. I had no business driving my beat up crappy cancerous rumbling Toyota that leaned to the right side through that neighborhood. Jim had a nice car and usually made the run. Why did I have to do it? I could picture all the old ladies looking through their expensive curtains with their gold rimmed glasses on the tip of their noses and their lipstick drooping into a frown where their wrinkled old lips had once been but had now totally rotted away. Old women were just so damn nosy it made me sick.
“I hate old people,” I mumbled as I walked out the door.
Outside, the weather was just the same as it was when I got to the store. Then it occurred to me that I had only been at work for like ten minutes, but it was nice outside anyway. It was one of those sort of cloudy sort of chilly mid fall days where the leaves are just turning colors and the wind blows them all over your windshield. Everything had this grayish tint to it, creating this surreal haze, yet you knew it was in fact real because the wind was just cool enough to bite at you and drive you into a solitary, lonely state of mind. I took a deep breath as I wiped a wet leaf off my door handle and hopped in. If nothing else, I thought, at least I was driving.
The trip over there took only about ten minutes, which is record time for anywhere in this city, but that’s why I’m the delivery boy. I love to drive, and I know how to get where I need to go. I don’t think Jim likes me very much, and I suck at playing store, but like I said, I can drive, and I know this town, so he keeps me around. And I am the best damn delivery boy he will ever have, too. You see, me and this town have an agreement If she lets me get where I need to go as quickly and with as few problems as possible, I’ll keep my windows rolled down so that she can hear my Metallica tapes. It’s worked pretty well so far.
I turned through the manicured bush and limestone archway that leads into richville. Despite our deal, I didn’t think that “Creeping Death” was an appropriate song to blast for my little cruise down Clearview, so I turned it off, and whispered an apology
4100,4215,4575,4613. I never have figured out how they came up with the numbers for their houses. I mean, why skip so many numbers at a time so that it makes it entirely unpredictable when a house like 4711 would pop up out of all the regulation-length regulation-green grass carpets out there? 4900.. . Shit.
I turned around in one of the huge driveways and some old guy in slacks and a sweater gave me the dirtiest look imaginable while he reached into his double sized mailbox. He looked like a pissed off bloodhound, mad because I had had the nerve to drive my piece of shit foreign-mobile onto his pure white concrete driveway. I just wished him an oil spot and rumbled away.
I found 4711 and figured out why I missed it. The road leading up to it was about a mile long and it ran through a golf course sized front lawn, so it looked like just another road springing off of Clearview. However, the brass numbers on a stack of bricks with a mailbox buried in it beside the road clued me in, so I turned down and drove as fast as I could, now that I finally had the chance to just cruise.
As I got nearer to the house, I slowed down from my top speed of about thirty five and looked in awe at a castle-sized house that could hold about four of my own apartments in it. There was a turnaround point in front of the front door, so I stopped right in front of the entrance and hopped out.
I knocked on the solid oak door, not quite sure if the huge brass knocker was for purpose or just decoration. I stood and listened to the absolute silence that shrouded the place, interrupted only by a ping or two from my engine cooling off behind me. The brass handles and hinges seemed to glow golden in the pale grey morning haze, making them look all magical, like I was walking into some place really old and, well, magical. And if you couldn’t tell just by looking at it, the complete silence surrounding the place told how rich this old guy was. In all of my other deliveries, I could hear the floorboards creaking as they came with their walkers and canes to the door. Sometimes I could even hear the little whirr of an electric wheelchair. But the door didn’t even creak when it opened up, and I had to step back to avoid getting head-butted in the chest by this little old Hispanic woman in a maid’s uniform.
“Hello?” she demanded before I had a chance to recover. She looked down at the bag in my hand.
“I’m here to see Mr....”
“Ian Glish?” she demanded, jabbing a fat little finger at me.
“I...” It took me a second, but then I realized what she was talking about, so to avoid confusion I decided to play Ian for a while. ‘Yeah, I’m Ian.”
She beckoned me into the entryway with a jerk of her fat little head and started speeding along down the hallway. I didn’t have much of a chance to look around, but I saw all sorts of paintings and vases and other typical fragile rich people stuff We flew down the hallway, up a flight of carpeted stairs, through the dining room with a monstrous oval table, past the smell of fresh bread pouring out of the kitchen, up two more flights of stairs and finally to a chamber door where Grandma Lightning finally stopped. I stood there with my heart racing, trying to catch my breath and yet trying to make it seem like I wasn’t trying to catch my breath at the same time.
Two soft knocks on the door and I heard a muffled voice speak from the other side. The maid carefully opened the door and then roughly pushed me in, closing the door behind me. I stood there in this huge chamber staring at an old guy across the room with a cat on his lap that could’ve been Fuzzy’s twin. To my right was a beautiful black grand piano, with the lid down. It was so polished that it reflected all the books lining the walls surrounding it. It seemed odd that it would be shut, but I didn’t think about it too much, because to my left was a little piece of heaven. Leaning up against the wall, side by side, were two Spanish style acoustic guitars, complete with multicolored nylon strings and flowery inlays around the sound-hole and weaving up the fret-board. I looked back at the cat in his lap, the only thing familiar to me in the room, and it half closed its eyes and purred loudly like he was saying it was okay for me to be there with those gorgeous guitars. Then I looked at the old man and he was staring right at me with a sort of smirk on his face, like he was trying to figure me out, or like he was expecting me to do something That’s about when I realized I was still holding his bag with the bottle of aspirin inside.
Feeling like a total idiot, I scuffled over to where he was sitting staring down at the floor to hide my red-hot face. I handed him the bag and chanced a look into his face. He was still staring at me the same way, but he took the bag and nodded in thanks. I turned to walk away, pissed off at myself for acting so silly. All I saw were a couple of guitars and I turned into a giddy little school boy. I reached the door and almost left when I heard the old guy say “Ian” with that thick Hispanic accent.
I turned around in time to watch him spill Fuzzy’s twin out of his Lap and hobble over to where the guitars leaned against the wall. He picked one up and sat in a nearby chair and began plucking the strings to see if they were in tune. And of course they were. I played guitar too, so I recognized that right off. They had that extra echo, that depth, that pure, perfect ring that only tuned guitar strings have. I listened quietly as the reverberations died away. Then the old man snapped me Out of my reverie when he started playing something that sounded like a Ricky Martin song
He giggled when he saw my expression and pointed at me, or rather at my Metallica shirt and laughed even harder. Then he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and coughed into the other one. Sighing slightly, he looked at me again, with that same bemused half-stupid half-quizzical look. Then, pointing at my shirt, he just said two words:
Kirk Hammett. I fell in love with him instantly, because the way he said it, I knew that this old Spanish dude liked Metallica’s lead guitarist as much as I do. Kirk’s style is so unique, so pure, so unimaginably godlike. It never really occurred to me that it was strange for an old foreign dude to know about Metallica though...
Without waiting to see my reaction he started to play various Metallica songs, and I just stood there swaying in awe as he flawlessly played the intros to “Nothing Else Matters,” “To Live is to Die,” and “Fade to Black,” in a seamless medley that I envied beyond reason. Those intros aren’t the easiest to play either. I lost my shame or fear or whatever was holding me back and motioned at the other guitar. Without stopping he nodded his head, signaling me to pick up the other guitar and sit next to him. I did and I fell in love with the guitar too. It was light, a lot lighter than it looked, and the strings were so close to the rosewood fret-board it didn’t take any real pressure at all to hold them down. The natural finish was so sleek, so smooth, it begged you to run your hand across it, following the grain of the light sandy birch veneer. It was almost as if the guitar wasn’t there, it was so beyond perfection and reality, so I strummed a few chords to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, but then stopped because I noticed he was looking at me. I looked away and back down at the guitar. Carved into the side of the neck, between the sixth and seventh fret bars, was the name Ralph.
‘Who’s Ralph?” I asked as I snapped my head up in hopes of an explanation. He just laughed.
Instead of answering he started playing the beginning to “The Unforgiven,” the first version, from the “Black Album” with the acoustic intro that required two guitars. He started plucking his part and when it came time for the second guitar to join in, I smoothly and surely played the lead part. I knew that song. My buddies and I used it as a warm-up when we practiced. But there with the old guy, we couldn’t play much more than a few bars, because then the intro was done and it’s kind of impossible to get any distortion out of an acoustic guitar. But it was enough.
‘What I’ve felt, what I’ve known, never shined through in what I’ve shown,” I sang aloud, to his obvious approval.
“Beautiful,” he said, which shocked the hell out of me.
“You know.. .you can ... but, English?” I stammered.
“Of course I can speak the ingles. I would not get very far in this country without it, buddy.”
I kind of felt bad when he said “buddy.” But he said it all lightheartedly, and kept laughing, even while he continued with a song I had never heard before. It was distinctly Hispanic, with the rapid finger plucking so ingrained into that style.
“Can you accompany me?” he asked, his nimble old fingers never faltering.
“I can try.”
So I did. And then he accompanied me, and I him again, for about an hour, each of us taking turns playing chord progressions while the other improvised leads. We didn’t play any more Metallica, but that was okay because what we came up with sounded unreal. We had this sort of bluesy salsa thing going on for a while, then a kind of fast paced Spain meets Nirvana thing. We’d get going on a song, and I’d look up at him, and he’d have his eyes closed, his face turned up towards the ceiling while he swayed slowly side to side in time with the music. I couldn’t believe this. I mean, I’d been playing for quite a few years and I considered myself pretty damn good, but here I was putting everything I had into this guitar, a grip white knuckle tight on the fretboard, sitting straight up, trying so hard not to flick up and this old guy looks like he’s in the bathroom taking a piss. So I was pretty much in awe the whole time. We traveled through some Santana meets Satan and I had problems keeping up as I watched his fingers fly around on the fret-board way up there by the sound hole. It took me along time to be able to play those Metallica songs, and they were fairly intricate, too, but this old guy... I think even Kirk Hammett would be in awe. But somehow I kept up and we created music together until about halfway through our Remember the Alamo but don’t forget when Ozzy Osbourne pissed on it song when I remembered that I was supposed to be at work that day.
“Oh shit!” I said out of the blue, stopping the music as I stood up. The cat lifted its head and glared at me from its corner of the room. “Oh, I mean, uh, yeah, I’ve got to get back to work. Thanks man, bye.”
I leaned the guitar back against the wall and did an apologetic sort of half bow out of the room and left.
“¡Adios, buddy!” I heard him yell. Then he started giggling at his own joke.
The old maid greeted me at the door.
“Finish?” she barked.
“Yeah,” I said, then asked as an afterthought, “Is his name Ralph?”
The old woman seemed annoyed at my asking her that. I guess it was kind of rude, but she gave me an affirmative nod of her head anyway, right before she slammed the door in my face.
I have no idea how long it took me to get back to Bunn’s, or even how I got back. The whole time I had the song we were playing running through my mind ceaselessly and as loud and real as it was there in that room with the old man. I couldn’t believe that I had just done that. I mean, I had played with other people before, but they were all closer to my age and ability. He. . .he was just, wow I mean, damn, it was like playing with a god.
I walked through the front door again and there was asshole personified, with the dirtiest look imaginable on his tight-lipped, cheap, clean shaven little beady-eyed face.
“I’ve told you before, I want employees to come through the back door. It looks bad when you come through the front.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, picking up my apron off the counter.
He stood there waiting for some smart-ass remark, but I didn’t feel like a smart-ass right then. I felt good, which was odd, because I was at work, in close proximity to Jim.
“So did he use his mean little maid to translate for you so he could talk your ear off for an hour?”
“No, he spoke English.”
Jim looked shocked.
“Señor Del Drogas speaks English?”
“Yeah. He showed me his guitars, too. And his name is Ralph. I’m glad he spoke English, too, because that little old maid really was a pain in the ass.”
Jim just stood there looking stupid with his mouth half open like he was going to say something. Instead, he mumbled something I couldn’t make out and then wandered away, leaving me with tingling fingers and Metallica songs in my head.
Aaron Thornton is a sophomore English major in the creative writing track at Kansas State University. His essay, “A Story About a Guy Who Gets Help From a Foreign Guy He Can’t Understand,” was selected as the winner of this year’s Touchstone undergraduate fiction contest.
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
Last updated May 1, 2003