By Ed Staskus
It was pitch as a tar pit when Oliver, Emma, and Jimmy the Jet glided onto the campus of Lake Erie College in Painesville. It had taken them a half hour on their roller blades to go the 6 miles from Perry with Jimmy leading the way. He wasn’t winded in the least, although Emma was puffing from fright. Jimmy had broken every State of Ohio and County of Lake and City of Painesville rule of the road.
They went by way of Richmond St., Liberty St., and Washington St. When they got to Gillet St. they swung south until they saw Royce Hall. They took a right and right away saw Old Joe Croaker. He was leaning on a black slab of nothing. When he straightened up he was taller than Oliver and Emma put together. Jimmy rolled to an unlit spot to the side. It wasn’t his duel to the death.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Old Joe said.
“We’ve been looking for you,” Oliver said.
“All right, sonny boy, now that you’ve found me, what are you going to do about it.”
“I’m going to put you on the first bus back to where you came from.”
“I come from here,” Old Joe said.
“You came from here once, but those days are long gone. Besides, you can’t go back to where you came from because that place doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Hell ain’t disappearing anytime soon,” Old Joe said.
“That’s where you need to go back to,” Oliver said.
“The pit is no good for my constitution, such as it is.” He shrugged and flakes of straw made a halo around his head. They saw exactly what Old Joe meant. Hell was too hot to handle for the likes of what he was made of.
“Does that mean you won’t leave?”
“Not unless you make me, which looks like it it’s not going to happen, you being the young ‘un you are.”
“All right, I challenge you to a knife fight in a phone booth,” Oliver said. “Your machete against my sister’s jackknife.” Emma handed the jackknife to Oliver. Old Joe started laughing. Before long he was laughing like ten thousand maniacs and choking from laughing so hard. Jimmy the Jet gave him a slap on the back. Old Joe coughed, spit out a mouthful of phlegm mixed with dust, and calmed down.
“Boy, you’re blowing hard but you ain’t making any sense. You wouldn’t stand the no-chance of a snowball in hell.”
Oliver rose up to his full height. He stood on a bench and slapped Old Joe across the face, challenging him in a way all men and monsters understood. “Only cowards don’t accept challenges,” he said. “Or would you rather throw words at each other and leave it at that?”
“You have made the last mistake you’re ever going make, sonny boy,” Old Joe said, whipping out his machete and carving pumpkins in the air with it. When a lightning bug flitted past he cut it in half in mid-air without even looking. He plucked a straw out of his sleeve and split is lengthwise with his blade like a razor. “My Spine-Splitter had never failed me,” he said.
Emma pulled her brother aside. “Maybe we should call 911 from that phone booth,” she suggested, nervously looking Old Joe up and down. They could hear Tiberius barking in the distance. “I‘ve got a quarter,” Jimmy said wobbling on his skates. “He can’t be all bad,” Emma added.
“He comes the closest,” Oliver said. “Besides, there’s no jail that can hold Old Joe.” He fixed the scarecrow with a look. “Can I borrow your whetstone?” he asked. When he had it in his hands he used it to sharpen the cutting edge of Emma’s jackknife. The scarecrow watched him with what seemed to be pity in his eyes.
“I’ll take my chances,” Oliver said. “What about you, bird brain? Are you going to stand and deliver, or not?”
Old Joe’s intelligence had been questioned every day every month of every year of his life. He had spent years trying to find the Emerald City, hoping to find a brain, but to no avail. He still didn’t have a single IQ. Even though he was dumb as play dough, he was smart enough to take offense when offense was given. It didn’t matter that it was coming from the mouth of an 8-year-old. He stepped to the door of the phone booth.
“Your days are numbered,” he said looking down at Oliver. “It’s going to be zero hour soon enough.”
“Age before beauty,” Oliver said, gesturing at the phone booth. Old Joe glared at him but stepped into it. The second step was harder than the first one. It was tight quarters for him. When he was inside it took him a few minutes to turn around. When he finally did, hunched over, the top of his head bumping the top of the booth, his elbows smooshed, Oliver stepped in and closed the door. He snapped his jackknife open. The scarecrow brought his machete to bear, except he didn’t.
The machete was bigger than the phone booth was wide. When Old Joe tried to pivot the blade, it got stuck. When he yanked on it, it stayed wedged in place. No matter what he tried he couldn’t get it free. He looked down at the towhead who was slicing open the legs of his pants and pulling straw out. It didn’t take long before Old Joe’s legs looked like toothpicks. He soon didn’t have enough strength in them to stay standing. He didn’t like the looks of what was happening. He began to collapse in slow motion. When he did Oliver started pulling straw out of the rest of him. Old Joe grimly realized the jam he was in.
“Give me a break,” he said.
“We’re not going to give you the skin off a grape,” Oliver retorted.
The scarecrow tried beating Oliver with his arms. Tiberius ran up barking like a mad dog and ripped one of his arms off. Old Joe tried to clobber the dog with his remaining arm. Tiberius sank his teeth into it and ripped it off like he had the other one. Old Joe tried to bite Tiberius, who shrugged it off. He got what was left of the scarecrow by the back of the neck and dragged him out of the phone booth. He shook him, straw flying in all directions, until there was hardly anything left of Old Joe except a snarl.
“I can do better than that by a country mile,” Tiberius said, and unleashed a growl to make all dogs proud. The scarecrow groaned. “Is this the end of Old Joe?” he asked, bitter and exhausted. Emma walked up with the box of kitchen matches Oliver had entrusted her with. Oliver gave the jackknife back to his sister and lit a match. There was straw scattered everywhere. It caught fire. Oliver lit another match. More straw got fire. Before long all of Old Joe was on fire. He stank like armpits and sulphur.
Oliver, Emma, and Jimmy the Jet stood back and watched the fire burn itself out. Oliver rubbed Tiberius’s head. The spirit dog purred like a cat getting a belly rub. Before long there were only ashes where there had once been a fearsome spook. “He brought it on himself,” Oliver said, lacing up his roller blades. Emma laced her skates up, too, as did Jimmy. It was getting near to morning.
“How did you know a knife fight in a phone booth was going to get it done?” she asked her little brother as they started back home.
“I didn’t, at least, not exactly,” Oliver said. “You never know where you are going to end up, but you’ve got to be ready to make it happen when you get there.”
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”