I sat at home spending the better part of the night thinking of the day ahead. The last thing anyone wanted was to see Grandpa get his vision back, at least not at the expense of the “Thunder Troll’s Treasury” (that was the name of the comic book shop) and I had scrambled my brain trying to think of suggestions. Yet, the next morning I awoke to find my notepad full of random doodles and listless scribblings.
I was determined not to be late because I didn’t feel all that secure within this new group. Had I been late, I figured they very well may have left without me. Understandable, but not something I wanted. The shop was only a twenty minute walk from my bachelor apartment so I made sure to leave forty five minutes early. It made far more sense to seem too eager than apathetic. My pace must have been quicker than usual because when I made it through the front door of the Treasury, the clock read twelve noon. Sharp.
That time rang to me of high adventure. Grandpa was stacking magazines along the aisle shelves and didn’t seem at all disturbed by the tinkling metal dragons that made up the door chime as I opened the door. The shop was normally open at 11:00 am and despite the fact it was almost always empty in the early afternoon, I suspected that Grandpa likely enjoyed the quiet of the shop. I had only been there this early once before, and that was to inquire when Gus and the group normally came in. Grandpa had told me that none of the group ever came without Gus, and since Gus normally slept until 2, it was best to come after 3 if I wanted to make sure they were there.
With 25 minutes to spare, I assumed a regular spot and bore into an issue of the game’s magazine The Siren’s Call immersing myself into an article entitled the Unicorn and the Demonic Milkmaid. While any other day the story would have entranced me, my focus was drilled towards the comic book store itself.
“You’re here early today.” Grandpa had come within a foot of me without me noticing him.
I said hello, and smiled meekly. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Was this plan a secret one, to be kept out of Grandpa’s attention? I made a note to ask Gus. (I had decided to start keeping my notebook with me at all times, because you never knew when some seemingly insignificant detail would turn out to be the key to an incredible adventure.)
“I am sorry about the shop. You seem to really enjoy it. You and all the young ones.”
Grandpa pushed his face forward and cocked his head, as if he was waiting for a response. His face was as always warm and maybe it was simply tension, but I thought he expected I was going to tell him something he did not know.
“Well, yeah, I’m...”
“Yes, you’re new. Sure. But you sure do love this place.”
“My name’s Barnaby, Grandpa.”
“Barnaby.” Grandpa looked up towards the waterstained ceiling tiles as if trying to see something from the past, “I once had a hairless cat named Barnaby. Run over by a tractor during the Maoist revolution. I think. Good cat, he was.”
“You were in China?”
“After the war, I stayed. To study. To fall in love. To do all those things youth do when cares are free. Didn’t do half of them and the half I did do, I did half-assed.”
He laughed, shaking his head at the tiles and looked at me with a calming expression.
“You were in the army, blind?”
Grandpa’s face seemed to widen and it was if his complexion had changed and he leaned forward to steady himself on the metal rack housing the tiny game figurines.
“I was blind. I was in the army. I saved a platoon.”
For a blind young man in 1943, life was not easy. Franklin Gus Bunker had gone to a special school for most of his life then, more relegated to having a place to be put, then having a place to be taught. Both of his parents had died when he was a young teen and Franklin then, as he had his entire life, was left to teach himself. But he was special.
“They call it echosounding now”, he explained, “but I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that if I listened real closely I could feel the vibrations coming off of things around me.”
“And that’s where you knew not to walk?”
“That’s where I knew not to walk.”
When school was out he would take to the local bars and sit in a back corner. He may have been 18, but no one bothered him, probably, he thought, because he was blind. It was at the Cross Keys Montana where he’d sit and listen to Woodie Guthrie sing about unions amidst the smell of freshly poured beer and second hand smoke. Despite the constant torrent of excited voices around him, Franklin could cipher the voice of the radio talking in the background about the Brooklyn Dodgers and news of the Great War.
Soon the locals would sit with him because it seemed, as Grandpa put it, sometimes people wanted someone to hear their story. That being said, if there was one thing Grandpa was good at, it was listening. The date was June 6, 1943 and Franklin was sitting at a back table with a group of American soldiers about to be redeployed to North Africa. Grandpa’s enthusiasm in detailing these events reminded me of Gus strategizing against the merpeople, and I felt a sense of fondness towards the family likeness.
Somehow Franklin had suggested to the soldiers that his keen senses would give the Allies an admirable scout. They were naturally skeptical at first. In fact, they laughed, but when he offered to prove them wrong, they took him up on the challenge. Assuming the position of a handstand, Franklin had walked, on his hands the whole time, coursing his way through the afternoon rush, courting lovers, and groups of cheering ball fans, without jostling a beer or a single ashtray.
And so it was that Franklin Gus Bunker, Grandpa, was whisked into a recruiting office by three drunken infantrymen, one doctor was bribed, and the next day he was quickly ushered onto a C-47 military cargo plane. No questions were asked and no one talked to him the entire time. He could tell that he was likely sitting with 50 or 60 other men, and by the conversations around them, many seemed familiar with one another.
Franklin realized hours later that while it worked in his favour that everyone assumed he was in the company of someone else, it was only while standing on the tarmac runway that the C-47 had touched down on, dressed in full battle fatigues with a fully loaded rifle, that everyone had left him there, by himself, assuming he was waiting for someone else.
I had never known Grandpa to be such an eloquent storyteller, and incredulous as his story seemed, the passion with which he told it, every detail seemed as if he was describing a movie picture still rolling. I had never really talked to him before, choosing instead to submerge myself in rulebooks and comic books, and was glad to have finally discovered this. I continued listening, almost with the same intentness with which I always listened to the games in the back room.
Franklin waited. It was the only thing he could think to do. After all, he figured, someone would notice them there. It was hotter than a cricket in July, he said, hotter than he'd ever been, and given the number of miles he'd flown, and the distance he'd travelled, he had lost all sense of time. Finally, exhausted by the heat and the wait and the travel, he had sat down and leaned against the tire of the big plane and fallen asleep.
He didn't remember how long he'd slept but he did remember how he awoke. He could tell by the chill in the air that it was dark, and in the distance he could hear boots on pavement, dozens of boots and urgent orders being yelled. Things like, "Over there, move it, fall in, Let's go!". And then the clang of boots hitting metal, and the slamming of metal doors. Half drowsy, he didn't respond, at least, not in time.
"Hey! Hey there! Wait for me!" Grandpa's voice was yelling into some long gone distance as he repeated his call to me, his hand up beside his mouth as if to amplify his voice. Then, the sound of trucks driving, loud and fast, away. He was alone and scared, he told me, and wandered the desert for what seemed like days without food or water and terrified that a sniper had him in his scope the whole way. His mouth had become the texture of cotton candy, sticky and dry and his legs felt like Twizzlers.
He could tell, however, that the further he walked, the more desolate his surroundings had become. At night, he had buried himself into the sand to keep warm and fell asleep to the sound of insects scurrying around his head in the sand. The only thing he smelled was dust. And that, too, was all he could taste. By the third day, his legs were chafed by the grinding crystals of sand that ground them against his heavy army fatigues.
Grandpa sighed and turned his head out the window. He had known, not by the sound of the approaching trucks, but by sheer intuition, that there was a convoy approaching and that it would be the enemy. He could picture open air and knew that running would just get him shot, so all he could do was drop his rifle and put his hands in the air. That, he said, was probably the biggest mistake he had made in the 18 years of his life. The convoy seemed to accelerate for some reason, the growl of the lead engine becoming more pronounced and he figured it was because they could see him. There wasn’t much in the desert and he also knew the Germans were being mercilessly pounded back to Europe’s Southern shore. In the middle of the Saharan desert, there was little hope that any rules of warfare would be on his side amidst a frustrated enemy. He felt like a cornered mouse as the convoy lurched to a stop beside him.
The sound of the dragon chimes broke the spell of Grandpa's story and I was back in the store, leaning on a rack of comic books and gawking at Grandpa with my mouth wide open. I quickly closed my mouth and snapped my mind back to the present. The clock read 12:45. Gus had walked in followed by Hannah and then Dwayne. Gus looked like he had just awakenned and was pushing his hair down with his hands.
"Hey, there Buddy, good to see you.", he said, while looking over the candy selection at the front counter. He grabbed 4 or 5 bags and shoved them in his military style jacket. I wasn't sure if that was his usual greeting or that maybe he didn't remember my name, so I chose not to remind him of it. In fact, I wasn't sure if he had even asked me for it anyhow. Hannah gave me a silent smile and Dwayne stood inside the door with his hands in his pockets, looking out at the street.
"Where's Parker?", I asked. There was a short silence where I think everyone expected Gus to answer, but he was preoccupied with the candy. So after a few seconds, Dwayne said,
"He's off on his own fundraiser.”
"Yeah, doin' bike tricks for the neighbours. Goin' door to door. He started this morning."
"Well, that's good, good for him! So what are we going to do now?" Gus ignored the question, choosing instead to shove a handful of Gobstoppers in his mouth and gesture with his hand that I should wait. Hannah looked at me and made the same sign as if to translate Gus' gesture.
"I, uh, so, your Grandpa there was just telling me how he went to World War II blind."
"Oh yeah?" Hannah seemed to jump when she said it, "Did he tell you how he got away from the Germans?"
"No, he was just about to tell me when..."
"Man, it's an amazing story, see, he was stuck in the desert, surrounded by at least a dozen Germans, and they all knew he was blind..."
"About time", snarled Dwayne as the dragon chimes jangled announcing the door, and in raced Parker, nearly tripping over himself on the way in.
"Guys!" Parker stopped to catch his breath, "You'll never guess what..."
Hannah ran over to him with a look of maternal concern on her face, "What happened?"
A large red scrape covered the side of Parker's face, how I had missed it, I don't know, but his legs were covered in a raspberry red road rash and there was blood on his denim shorts.
"It's OK, I took a few tumbles, don't worry about that, look at this!" Parker reached into his pocket and pulled out dozens of dollar bills, and did a little leap, kicking his heels in the air. The room was quiet except for a snort from Dwayne.
"Dwayne, shut your gob" Gus pointed a meaty finger and narrowed his eyes in warning, "The kid did great! This is a good start. Let's go. See ya, Grandpa!"
This was a good start. We had made 0.1% before we even had a plan together. This was going to be so cool. Gus pushed his massive frame past Dwayne and with an exertive grunt made his way out the door where he stood on the sunny sidewalk waiting for us. In a circle, everyone stood around Gus, excited to see what the next step would be.
"How much do you have there, Parker?" Parker did a quick recount. He had made 31 dollars by doing 31 bike tricks in the last five hours. He must have knocked on quite a few doors and despite the kid's uppity nature, I was a bit impressed by him. The kid, having completed our first heroic adventure, eagerly handed Gus the money which Gus looked over as if it were his first born.
"So, what's next, Gus?" Hannah was standing beside Gus as would a right hand man, looking over Parker, Dwayne and me.
"Well,” said Gus importantly. “It seems to me, we brainstorm."
I had a few ideas, but I was hesitant to chime them in right away for fear of coming across too strong. Everyone seemed to be waiting and finally, quietly inhaling, I jumped in, "Gus, I had a few ideas, last night"
"Hold on to those, buddy, leave them for the brainstorming session." I think I might have blushed. I wasn't aware that this wasn't the brainstorming session. Hannah angled her hips and looked upwards on an angle as if she were modelling for a photoshoot and pulled her sunglasses from the Vee in her Veeneck t-shirt. "Let's go."
Dwayne said something under his breath and we all followed behind Hannah, who was following Gus past a row of empty parking meters towards the downtown core. Don't get me wrong. In our town, the core represents a post office, a public library, a clothing store and the Dirty Beagle Pub and Restaurant. And it seemed that we would be brainstorming at the Dirty Beagle Pub and Restaurant.
"I don't have ID", I offered, somewhat ashamed, but figuring it was better to encounter the embarassment now before we got to the table. Plus, I wondered, if I was 18 without ID, what would they even say about Parker?
“It’s okay,” said Hannah. “They’ll let you in under-age, but you can’t drink.”
“Well, that’s fine,” I told her, relieved. “I don’t drink anyway, so as long as I can get in...”
“You don’t drink?!” she gasped. “Gah. When I was your age, I had been drinking for 5 years already. But I have a pretty high tolerance, so I don’t really get drunk. It’s not like I’m a lightweight or anything! Hah!”
She laughed loudly and looked around at everyone with those wide smiling eyes, as if expecting us to laugh with her. And yet there was a hint of a challenge in that look... like she was secretly daring us to agree with her. I wondered what would happen if we did. I looked around at Gus and Dwayne for direction. Both of them were half-smiling and looking either down or straight ahead, but not at Hannah or each other. I copied them.
This little event, and the silence that followed it, baffled me. I wondered whether Hannah was perfectly comfortable with her weight, as her bold statement had indicated, or if perhaps, it was the other way around, in which case, why would she have said that? This was not the last time I would be confused by Hannah’s odd social behavior. But then, sometimes she made me wonder if, maybe it was not her oddness, but my own inability to understand women, that was the cause of our numerous misunderstandings. After all, I hadn't spent a huge amount of time with many women before her.
We were quiet for the rest of the short walk to the Dirty Beagle Pub and Restaurant.
We walked into the pub in a single-file line behind Gus, who marched straight to the table in the back corner next to the flashy 70's jukebox as if he'd owned that table for years. This was my first time inside the pub, but it was clear that now I was with a group of regulars, and I felt very excited to be one of them.
As soon as we sat down at the large circular table, a trashy looking waitress appeared. "Dr. Peppers all around?" she asked dully.
"Actually, I'll take a beer this time," said Hannah.
The waitress squinted down at her. "What um... what kind of beer?"
"I don't know, what do you have?"
The waitress rolled her eyes and gestured to the bar behind her, clearly uninterested in answering such a stupid question.
While Hannah stared at the bar, Gus piped up. "I'll have a um... dos-eckwis."
"Dos Equis?" she jotted it down.
"You know, I think I'll have the same," said Hannah.
"And for you, sir?" she looked at Dwayne.
"I'll have a Dr. Pepper too," said Parker.
"Alright, and you sir?"
It was my turn. I did prefer Sprite, but it seemed like this group had a fondness for Dr. Pepper, and since I was new, and since I didn't particularly dislike it, I decided to play it safe and order Dr. Pepper anyway.
"Dr. Pepper for me too, please."