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A Reasonable Explanation

It was late afternoon when I got off work.  I’d powered through lunch—pipe-fitting an overhead water main with another retirement-age construction worker—so I was hungry and my arms and shoulders ached.  But I’d been working-out regularly—mostly bench press and dumbbells—so I was prepared for our overhead task.

I parked my truck in the lot at Sandwiches by Connal and hopped out in my dusty tee-shirt, Levis, and construction boots. 

There were only two customers out front.  A gruff-looking guy in dark sunglasses with a thin mustache and goatee leaned on the small counter of the pick-up window.  A satchel of belongings (as if he were going to or coming from somewhere) rested at his feet.  The other was a balding, likewise middle-aged gent in knee-length shorts and Polo shirt, who stood under the only tree out front. 

“Have you ordered?” I asked the guy by the tree.

He nodded.

I stepped up to the order window. 

“Turkey grinder, please.  And some hot chili peppers.”

I paid the familiar, counter woman, then stepped back with my receipt.

A moment later, a young couple walked hand-in-hand from the parking lot past the gruff-looking guy in sunglasses, still at the pick-up window.  The young man asked the two of us out front if we’d ordered.  The guy by the tree nodded. 

“All yours,” I agreed.

But as he and his girlfriend stepped up to the order window, the goateed guy in sunglasses at the pick-up window asked them suddenly:

“Why didn’t you ask me?

The young man with his lady friend seemed confused and perhaps intimidated by the brusque direct address.

“Huh?” the young man asked.

The gruff-looking guy at the pick-up window turned to the guy by the tree. 

“An’ you didn’t ask me either!”

The guy in shorts and Polo stood silently.

Then the goateed guy in sunglasses turned to me.

“An’ neither did you!  Goddamnit!”

He stabbed his pointed finger in the air right at me. 

I tried to explain, calmly, that because he was leaning on the pick-up window, we all assumed he had already ordered and was awaiting his food. 

But he wasn’t in the mood for a reasonable explanation.  I could see now that he’d been drinking or drugging—in my college years, I’d worked as a bartender and had learned to judge quickly the sobriety of my clientele—which was inciting his belligerence. 

Then as luck would have it, the counter lady called my number at the pick-up window.

So I walked up to the window next to the goateed guy, where he leaned on the counter, allowing me little room to retrieve my order.  All the while, he continued swearing his alcohol-infused breath at me.  Then as I turned with my bagged order, he purposely bumped into me. 

That was it—I’d had it with this guy.  So I said to him pointedly:

“Why don’t you stop bothering people!”  

But as I took a few steps towards the parking lot, he was right behind me, yelling at close range. 

My reflexes took over and I spun around, swinging my elbow like a power forward clearing space on a basketball court.

“Get away from me!”

For all I knew, this crazy guy could have a knife! 

He jumped back—surprised by my sudden reversal of direction—but then started yelling again and took a step towards me. 

I cocked my empty fist. 

He stopped momentarily, but sure looked as if he wanted to fight. 

Admittedly, I hadn’t been in a fight since I’d gotten married 30 years ago (a promise I’d made to myself after retiring from the bar, where I was sometimes forced to double as bouncer).

Without taking my sight off of him, I put my sandwich bag on the hood of a nearby parked car.  Surely, he was bigger and significantly younger than I.  But he was half-plastered, too, so I figured I could deliver a straight right to his big mouth before he knew what hit him. 

And there was no way I was letting this guy follow me out back to the parking lot, where he might have friends waiting in a parked car.  No, if this was going down, it was going down right here, where it was one-on-one and there were witnesses to his aggression.

We stared back at one another—only a few feet apart. 

“Little, ol’ tough guy, huh!” he yelled at me again.  “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do!”

Surprisingly, my hands weren’t shaking.  But my blood was hot now, too.   So I warned him:

“One more step and I’ll lay you out on the sidewalk.  Guaranteed.”

I didn’t take my gaze off target.

He continued yelling, but started to back away slowly. 

So I picked up my sandwich and backed away, too. (I surely wasn’t turning my back on this guy again!)  I got in my truck and drove out to the driveway from where I could see him again, satchel in hand, walking away in the other direction, waving his free hand over his head, continuing to yell into the approaching darkness. 

The customers still in front of Connal’s stared over at me now.  Probably figured I was crazy, too.

When I got home—turkey grinder and chili peppers safely bagged—my wife and grad-school daughter were sitting in the living room with the TV on a local newscast.

“You know I’m making dinner,” my wife said about the take-out food.

“Lunch,” I explained and jumped to the accompanying subject matter: “You missed all the action.”

I gave them an abridged synopsis of my near-brouhaha in front of Connal’s.

“Oh, you boys,” my wife—a Special Ed teacher—opined, chalking it up to male machismo.

Our daughter shook her head.

“Da-a-ad!” she scolded.  “That’s crazy!  You could’ve been hurt.”

She was right, of course.

That’s when the anchorwoman on TV reported that a convict had been inadvertently released from the Los Angeles County Jail while awaiting his trial for murder.  He was the former leader of a local gang in our town.  They cut to the convict’s mug shot from his previous arrest—a surly-looking guy, age 38, with a mustache and goatee—who looked strangely familiar.

“Oh, God!”

“What?” my wife asked.

“That, that’s—,” I stammered, then quickly reassessed.  “No, no.  It’s not him.  It can’t be!”

“Who?” My wife had the look of a concerned parent interrogating her ill-behaved offspring.  “Not the Connal’s guy?”

But it sure looked like him. 

A few days later, the police arrested the escaped convict and former gang leader hiding-out in a motel room in New Mexico.  But he’d changed his appearance, cutting his hair, shaving his mustache and goatee.  I couldn’t tell.  Probably not.  Just a coincidence they looked alike.  Had had the same facial hair.  And were from the same town.

Of course, if it was him, he surely wouldn’t have been intimidated by yours truly.  Probably just coherent enough to have realized a fight—win or lose—would’ve brought the cops and he’d be back in jail again.

Hmm.  So maybe I wasn’t such a tough guy after all.  More reasonably, just a tired, hungry, irritated, old construction worker, who had—in one way or another—lived to ponder and pipe-fit another day!