A Buck-Sixty-Eight Worth
by Mark Barkawitz
It was another hot and smoggy afternoon. There was nothing much to do, so I walked with my old dog Atom to the Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant on Colorado Boulevard near Pasadena City College. They had a take-out window on the patio, where I ordered a Big Boy Combo with a Coke and a chocolate brownie. The young, uniformed waitress—customary, little stovepipe cap hair-pinned to her tightly-wrapped coif—rang it up. She slid back my change—a buck-sixty-eight—and a receipt.
“It’ll be a little while.” She pulled closed the sliding glass window, meant to keep out the bugs.
I sat at a patio table. Atom lay near my feet. He was nearly ten now, with a graying muzzle and arthritic back legs. I reached down and petted him. He yawned and put his head down between his front paws.
We looked up. A scruffy, bent-over, old man who’d just strolled onto the patio approached our table. He leaned his wrinkled, stubbled, sun-soaked face next to mine. His breath smelled of wine and he’d obviously slept in his clothes.
“Hello,” I said.
“Does he bite?”
He reached down a knuckly hand and patted Atom’s head. Then the old wino bent low and looked Atom in the eyes. “Ya’ know, this here dawg a’ yours is the spittin’ image of a German Shepherd dawg that once saved my life.”
His bones seemed to creak as he sat across from me. His hand continued to scratch behind Atom’s ear. “It was in the Big One. WWII, that is. Back in them days, I was a young, buck private in the U.S. Infantry, stationed near the German lines. My platoon was sent in to mop up after this big battle. We was ‘sposed to pick up any stray Krauts we found hidin’ in these woods. Well, our smarty-ass first lieutenant got the brilliant idea a’ splittin’ us up to cover more ground. Right off, I knowed it weren’t much of a’ idea, but you can’t change a officer’s mind once it’s set. I’ll be damned if officers ain’t the most stubborn animals on this earth, ‘cept for maybe a mule.”
“Sure is.” For emphasis, he spit in the nearby bushes. “So I went out a huntin’ Krauts. But I got lost. So I started to playin’ my mouth harp, which I always carried with me in them days, an’ outta nowheres, along comes this German shepherd dawg. An’ he was a naturally friendly dawg, jest like this here dawg a’ yours. He liked to howl while I played my mouth harp. An’ then I started to throwin’ a stick an’ he started to fetchin’ it, an’ we was havin’ a good ol’ time. Then we laid down to rest. An’ ‘fore I knowed it, I was sawin’ logs.”
“‘Sawing logs?’” I asked.
“Sleepin’, boy.” His glazed smile turned to a serious glaze. “When I got to wakin’, it was night. Pitch. Black. Night. An’ we was both kinda’ sceared. Me ‘cause my orders was to be back ‘fore nightfall, an’ the dawg, ‘cause he could tell I was sceared. So we trampled through the black ‘til we got close to my lines. Then, outta nowheres, jumps all these soldiers. An’ I was jest ‘bout to let ‘em have it. But they turned out to be Americans. So I didn’t. But the dang dawg run off an’ the fools captured me instead. Seems that smarty-ass first lieutenant sent ‘em after me purposely. Said I was a deserter.”
“A deserter, huh?”
“Yup. Said I left my post in a time a’ war. Well, I started to explainin’ how I captured this German shepherd dawg, but with the dawg gone, I didn’t have no dawg-gone evidence. So they took me to my C. O., who wouldn’t b’lieve me no how.”
“Nope. So they court martialled me an’ I was naturally found guilty a’ desertin’, since I didn’t have no evidence. Sentenced me to stand ‘fore a firin’ squad. An’ there I was, standin’ ‘fore the firin’ squad, when my C.O. comes up to me an’ says, ‘Private, ya’ got any last requests?’”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“A’ course! Ya’ think I was hurryin’ to get myself shot? So I says, ‘Yes, Sir. I’d like to play my mouth harp one las’ time.’ So they cut my hands loose an’ I took my trusty harp outta my back pocket an’ started blowin’ the blues. An’ ‘fore long, outta nowheres, here comes that German shepherd dawg again, a waggin’ his tail and a slobberin up to me jest like we was best buddies.”
He patted Atom, as if they were best buddies now. “An’ so then my C.O. knowed I was tellin’ the truth, so they didn’t shoot me. An’ to this day, whene’er I see a dawg, like this here one a’ yours, I thank him for my very life.”
“Sir. Oh, sir,” called the waitress from the take-out window. “Your order’s ready.” She spotted our soldier buddy. “You back again?”
Instead of answering, he continued to scratch Atom’s ears.
“All right.” I got up.
“Say, friend, ‘fore ya’ go . . .”
But I was already reaching into my pocket for the buck-sixty-eight cents change. “Good story. Buy yourself a cup of coffee.”
He took the money. “Yes, Sir,” he said, as though still a buck private.
I got my order from the waitress, who pulled down the take-out window again, and Atom and I started for home. While were stopped at the red light at the adjoining corner, I looked back. On the patio, another man in shorts and running shoes sat at the table, waiting for his order. Our soldier buddy sat beside him, talking:
“Mighty nice pair a’ shoes ya’ got there, friend. Reminds me a’ the time I ran the marathon in the ‘32 Olympics…”
The light changed. Dawg and I headed home.
© Copyright 2010 Mark Barkawitz. All rights reserved.
Mark Barkawitz has earned local and national awards for his fiction, poetry, essay, and screenwriting. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals & anthologies, underground ‘zines, and is posted on numerous websites. He wrote the screenplay for the feature film, “Turn of the Blade” (NorthStar Ent., ’95) and has taught creative writing classes at the community college level. He coaches a championship track team of student/athletes and ran the 2001 L.A. Marathon in 3:44:42. He lives with his wife, has two kids, and breeds golden retrievers (Woof Goldens) in his backyard in Pasadena, CA.