Mr. Lopez walked out of the art exhibition. He had enjoyed it, to an extent. Local superheroes on canvas. His friend had big ideas, he thought. Instill heroism into the country. He did not believe it could happen, but he came anyway, to lend his support. She was an old friend, and that was the only reason he braved coming to her exhibition held in a crime-ridden part of town.
The moon was out. No stars. No clouds. As he got to his car that was parked along the pavement, someone came up behind him. He jumped in fright as he heard her speak.
“Help me out, please.”
Mr. Lopez turned, and his nerves calmed down at the sight of a pitiful woman, clad in torn and dirty clothes. One of her hands was swollen from some disease. She had two little children with her. One played with a CARIB beer bottle cap.
“I have nothing,” he said.
“Please, sir. I eh eat in days. My children hungry. Just a few dollars to buy something to eat, nah.”
He got a whiff of her. “Stay back.”
“Just a little something, nah?”
“I told you I don’t have anything. And you’re only teaching your children how to beg.”
He steupsed so she could hear. He jumped into his car and sped off.
I should have given her a bar of soap. Let her bathe the next time it rained.
As depressed as the area was, there was a mystery to it that made him want to drive slowly to observe it, like a tourist sightseeing. It was a world far from his own—the architecture, the garbage and old wood piled on the sides of the streets, the billboards of half-naked women advertising either energy drinks or condoms, strategically placed to be noticed by anyone inside the area. Sheets of cardboard with large block letters of different colors were nailed to T&TEC light poles, advertising upcoming parties to relieve the pressures of life.
Plop, plop, plop . . .
What was that?
Plop, plop, plop.
He cursed himself. He pulled over and turned off the car engine. He did not want to get out but he had no choice. He inspected every wheel. His right rear tire was flat and he did not know how to change it.
He looked up at the moon. No stars. No clouds. In case anything bad should happen to him, only the moon would be a witness. He dialed a number. It rang four times and then went to voice mail. He checked the time. It was a little after ten. He dialed again. Same result.
He dialed a different number.
This time, Mr. Grant, the caretaker of the school Mr. Lopez worked at, answered.
“Hello, good night?”
“Grant, listen, I got a flat and I need help to change it.”
That’s all you can say?
“Grant, do you have another number for Johnny, the trainee caretaker? I’m hoping since he has his own car, he could come here and help me with this tire.”
“Well, he have he own place somewhere deep south. All I have is he cell but don’t try calling him after eight. He does be in church.”
“Church? What kind of church goes on so late?”
“That what he tell me.”
“So school business has to suffer because he’s in church?”
“What school business?”
“I have a flat, Grant! And I teach at that school, so this is school business!”
“Mr. Lopez, they have nobody around you you could ask?”
“The street’s lonely, Grant. I am seeing houses that use galvanized tin for their walls and not just their roofs. This place is always in the news for murder. Escaped convicts hide down here. It’s only because the government built some concrete houses and a community center that the place is looking halfway decent. What the hell am I doing here? All I want—”
“Where you is? Wait, my phone beeping. It almost dead . . .”
If you know that your phone has a low battery, you put it on your charger when you’re talking!
“Like, you get a flat?”
Mr. Lopez turned quickly around. A young, muscular man dressed in a vest, three-quarter pants, and an old pair of rubber slippers stood before him. He was not smiling.
“No, no. I’m just waiting for someone,” Mr. Lopez answered.
“But I seeing you have a flat there.”
“My goodness, when did that happen?” Mr. Lopez folded his arms to hide the fact that he was shaking with fear. He did not know how to mask it from his voice, though.
“Hmph.” The stranger rubbed his chin. He surveyed the area. No one else was around. He looked at Mr. Lopez. “You need help changing it?”
Mr. Lopez swallowed hard. He wished he could jump in his car and drive off. Seek help elsewhere. The smart thing to do is to tell this man to move on, but who else would help me? “Yes,” he said.
“Open the trunk.”
Like a puppy following his master, Mr. Lopez obeyed every instruction he got from the stranger on which tools to take out. When the man finally stopped issuing orders and began lifting the car with the jack, Mr. Lopez walked a distance away and dialed on his cell phone. He loosened his tie.
“Doris, dear, it’s me.”
“Michael, how’s the exhibit?”
“I can’t talk long. Listen to me. I got a flat tire and some ruffian’s changing it.”
“My God! Are you alone? Are there people from the art exhibit around?”
He looked at the stranger, who was taking the flat off the car.
“I’m alone and far from the exhibit.”
“Oh no. Why are you alone? Where are you?” she asked, as if complaining that he should have known better not to be alone.
Her whining made him feel more frustrated. “I was driving home and got the flat tire. I’m still in this God-forsaken area. I don’t know the name of the street.”
“Then just talk to me. Keep me on the phone while he changes your tire. It will help you feel safe. It would make me feel better. How was the exhibit?”
He exhaled hard. “It was okay. Big ideals and far-fetched ideas.”
“Did you ask her why she had to have it in that area?”
“I didn’t have to. It was in her opening remarks. Something about instilling heroism in people who come from deprived areas like this and have drug-addicted mothers, absent fathers. She wants people to live a life where you help others and expect nothing in return. Crap like that.”
“With people from that area? Everything for them is the almighty dollar. Unless she’s teaching them about education, hard work, and earning their own money instead of stealing it, she’s talking about dreams and fantasies. You have money to pay the ruffian for his help?”
“Of course. If I don’t, he’ll beat me for making him help me.”
“The power of money, Michael.”
“And the power it wields over those who don’t have it.” He turned around. The man was inspecting Mr. Lopez’s lug wrench. “Um, listen, just stay by the phone. If you don’t hear from me in ten minutes, then call the police.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just want to keep an eye on this Good Samaritan. That’s all.”
“Be careful, honey.”
He went back to his car.
“How’s it going?” he asked. He did not really care. He just hoped that he could somehow hurry things up.
The man nodded his head, put down the wrench, and grabbed the spare tire. Mr. Lopez looked across the road and noticed a dog with its ribs showing for all to see, lapping up flowing drain water that was rushing to join the nearest river. Even water is trying to escape the area. The dog, hungry and sick, its head hanging low, finished taking its drink and slowly walked away in the opposite direction from the flowing water, into the neighborhood.
Mr. Lopez looked down at the man, who sat on the pavement, inspecting the spare tire. Mr. Lopez shook his head in disbelief. How much slower can he go? His gaze then fell on the jack. He looked for the wrench, which should have been next to it. It was missing.
He walked behind the stranger and scanned the area around him. He could not see it. The lug wrench was missing. He did not know what to do. Anger welled up inside him, but he controlled himself. He was brought up not to accuse someone of wrongdoing without evidence, but just looking at the man, he knew he was guilty. Mr. Lopez understood the game now. The man wanted to steal.
Mr. Lopez noted the time on his wristwatch. Only three minutes had passed since he called his wife. The man fitted on the spare tire and manually screwed on the lugs.
“Do you have the lug wrench? Maybe I should put it back in the trunk,” Mr. Lopez said, trying to sound causal.
“I still need it. You know, you had the flat long.”
“No. I think I just now got it.”
“Not in the condition it in. You was driving on this flat for a while.”
“I would have heard it.”
“You drive with air-condition and thing?”
“With the radio on?”
“Hmph.” The man did not continue the conversation.
Mr. Lopez looked up at the sky. No stars. No clouds. Just the moon. Only he and the moon were fool enough to be out alone.
He pulled out his cell phone. Ten minutes was too long to wait. He was going to tell his wife to call the police. He would have called them himself, but he did not want the man to hear him.
“You calling your wife again?” the man asked.
Mr. Lopez was taken aback. He pocketed the cell phone. “Um, yes. Just to let her know that everything is okay.” His voice betrayed that he was not a good liar.
“You safe here. I’s not a ruffian.”
“Um, you heard my conversation?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you . . .”
“Nothing to be sorry for. Your kind and my kind like lion and tiger. We from the same family but we don’t want to understand each other because we only seeing we differences.”
“How long again?”
“I fixing you up real good here. Just a few more minutes. You could call your wife if you want. But don’t go far to talk like you did just now. Them young boys go think you alone. You don’t want that.”
Mr. Lopez dialed his wife again, and while it rang, he looked around. He did not see any young boys on the street.
“Michael, you okay?”
“He’s almost done.”
“You don’t find he’s taking long with that?”
“Yes, Doris, but what can I do?”
He saw the man tightening the lug bolts on the tire with the wrench. “I’ll call you back.” He pocketed the phone. “Where was the wrench?”
“Right where I was sitting.”
The man dropped it on the pavement. He then stooped down to crank the jack and lower the car. He dragged the jack out.
“All done,” he said. “Let me just put everything back in the trunk for you.” He started with the flat tire. Mr. Lopez grabbed the wrench from the pavement and followed the man back and forth as he also retrieved the jack. After the man finished putting away the tire and the jack, he held out his hand to Mr. Lopez.
“Of course,” Mr. Lopez said.
The man became confused.
Mr. Lopez switched the wrench to his left hand and fished out his wallet with his right. He took out a twenty-dollar bill. He offered it to the man.
“Thank you very much for your help,” Mr. Lopez said.
“I just want that.” The man’s gaze pointed at the wrench.
“This is mine. I can’t give it to you.” Mr. Lopez tried to be firm about it.
“I was just going to put it away for you.” The man leaned over and pulled the wrench from his grasp. Mr. Lopez felt weak. The man threw the wrench into the trunk and closed it.
“Here, take it.” Mr. Lopez pushed the twenty dollar bill into his face.
The man gestured with his hands. “No, thanks.”
“I was only helping . . .”
“Look, I know this game, okay? You’re hustling me for more money.” He took out another twenty dollar bill from his wallet. “This is all I have, okay? Just take it.”
They stared at each other.
Beads of perspiration broke out on Mr. Lopez’s forehead.
The man shook his head and walked away.
Mr. Lopez, embarrassed and confused, slid the money back into his wallet and pocketed it.
He climbed into his car and turned the key.
He turned the key again.
No, no, no! What could be wrong now?
He quickly jumped out of his car and shouted, “Mister! Mister!”
He looked around, but the man was gone.
Mr. Lopez stood alone, armed with only his money.
Kirk Budhooram was recently awarded an MFA in creative writing from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. He has two published novels, The Festival (2001) and Kirk Budhooram’s Ibis Agents (2003). He hosts Cool Your Head—Open Mic & Film in San Fernando, every second Thursday of the month, for local writers and filmmakers to showcase their work. His movies are on www.youtube.com/kirkbud.