Less than 20 steps from the front door of Beasley’s building, a scrawny man in unfashionably short shorts and a windbreaker stepped out of an alley Waylon hadn’t even noticed and said, “Gimme your wallet, ugly.”
“Ugly?” said Waylon, indignation somehow emerging from the sudden surge of fright and dismay in his heart.
“That’s right,” said the man. “Now gimme your wallet.”
“There’s nothing in it,” lied Waylon.
“I’ll take it anyway,” said the man, holding out his hand palm down for some reason.
“OK, there is money in my wallet,” said Waylon. “I admit it. But listen, I really need to give this money to a guy who lives in this building. I owe him a hundred bucks. I’ve owed it to him for a few months now and if I don’t pay him tonight, he says he’s going to break my feet.”
“If you don’t give me the hundred bucks I’m going to shoot you,” said the man.
Waylon looked at the man and tried to figure out where the gun might be. Maybe in the waistband of his shorts? That didn’t seem likely. The shorts were very small. Still, how stupid would he have to be to choose getting shot over having his feet broken? Especially since there was no guarantee Beasley would actually break his feet. There was a decent chance that Waylon could just explain to Beasley that he’d been mugged and get another lecture and another extension. Although the story didn’t sound real. It sounded like an excuse. But it was true. “Could you give me some kind of note?” asked Waylon. “A note explaining to the guy that I don’t have his money because you mugged me?”
“You’re about to get shot!” said the man. “You’re staring death right in the face, ugly! Gimme the wallet right now!”
Waylon complied and the man sprinted down the alley and out of sight leaving Waylon with no wallet and only the paltry authority of his word to authenticate his story.
Beasley was cutting his ten-year-old son’s hair in the kitchen. The boy was sitting on a stool with a black garbage bag wrapped around his shoulders while Beasley hovered over him with a pair of electric clippers buzzing in his hand. He looked up when his wife led Waylon into the room and said, “You don’t have the money, do you?”
“I almost did,” said Waylon. “I got mugged in front of your apartment. The guy ran away with my wallet.”
“Mugged?” asked Beasley.
“He had a gun,” said Waylon.
“He pointed a gun at you.”
“No,” said Waylon. “He told me he had a gun and I believed it to be a possibility.”
“So you never saw the gun?” asked Beasley. His son snickered.
“No,” said Waylon. “I didn’t see it. But he was very insistent that he was going to shoot me. He mentioned death. Are, uh…are you gonna break my feet?”
Beasley laughed. “No, of course not, Waylon.”
“Whew,” said Waylon. “You seemed so serious last time when you said you were. But I didn’t think you would.”
Beasley turned off the hair-clippers and set them on the kitchen counter. Then he removed the garbage bag from his son’s shoulders and shook it out on the floor, little clumps of black hair drifting down to the linoleum. “Go take a shower, son.” He smiled as the boy scurried down the hall. When his son rounded the corner and disappeared from view, Beasley turned to Waylon and, in a low voice, said, “I am going to break your feet, Waylon. You can’t just not pay your debts. You have to learn.”
“You said you weren’t!”
“You think I’m going to threaten to break a man’s feet in front of my son?”
Waylon’s toes began to throb with dread. “I need an extension, Beasley. One more extension. Getting mugged when I was almost here, that’s just bad luck. That won’t happen again, right?”
“I’m going to watch some TV before I go to bed,” said Beasley. “If you can get me my hundred bucks before I go to bed, I won’t break your feet.” He took a broom out of a closet and began to sweep his son’s cut hair into a feathery little pile.
“That’s not enough time,” said Waylon. “How am I going to get a hundred bucks that fast?”
Beasley shrugged. “The guy who mugged you got a hundred bucks pretty quick.”
“Can I borrow a gun?” asked Waylon.
“I could use some extra persuasive power,” said Waylon. “Can you write a note that I can show the victim to explain the situation? Why they’re being mugged, why it’s important that they comply, that kind of thing?”
“No way,” said Beasley. “I can’t imagine that working.” He crouched down, swept the cut hair into a red plastic dust pan, and dumped it into the garbage can.
Waylon had been squatting behind a dumpster in the alley just long enough for his knees to begin aching when he heard solitary footsteps approaching on the sidewalk. He stood up, tried to steady his breathing, and stepped out of the alley in front of a tubby man carrying a handful of “lost parakeet” flyers.
“Gimme your money,” said Waylon. “Preferably all of it. As much as you have on you.”
The man looked at Waylon and then looked around as if he suspected he might be missing something. “Or what?” he asked.
“I’ll shoot you,” said Waylon. “I have a gun.”
“Where is it?” asked the man.
“Right here,” said Waylon. He moved his hand around inside the pocket of his sweatshirt, pretending to tighten his grip on a pistol.
“Let’s see it,” said the man.
“Trust me, you don’t want to see it,” said Waylon. “Just give me your money.”
“I’ve got over 300 dollars in cash on me,” said the man. “And this watch is really expensive too. If you show me your gun, I’ll give you all of it.”
Waylon coughed. “Um…maybe we should just go our separate ways, huh? I’ll try somebody else.”
“So you don’t have a gun?” asked the man. “No gun at all.”
“Let’s stop talking about the gun,” said Waylon.
The man stooped down and set his flyers on the sidewalk, pressing the toe of his sneaker onto one corner of the stack to keep them from fluttering away on the night breeze. He reached into his back pocket and produced a small black revolver. “Give me your money,” said the man.
“I don’t have any!” said Waylon. “That’s why I’m mugging you. I already got mugged once tonight.”
“I’ll take your shoes, then,” said the man, pointing at Waylon’s feet with the barrel of his gun.
Waylon sat down on the sidewalk and unlaced his shoes, pulling them off one by one and handing them over. “Before you leave with my shoes,” said Waylon, “could you write a note explaining to a friend of mine that you got the better of me because you really actually had a gun?”
“No,” said the man. “I’ve got a missing parakeet to find.” He returned the revolver to his back pocket, bent down with a significant amount of wheezing to pick up his flyers, and left Waylon to his self-loathing and regret.
Walking carefully back down the alley in his tattered socks, stepping around broken glass and puddles, Waylon wasn’t sure how much time he had left before Beasley would go to bed and the fate of his feet would be sealed. If he was going to try to mug someone again, he needed to exude more confidence. He needed to present himself as a real threat. He was just considering looking through a dumpster for something menacing he could brandish when he heard a scuffling sound at the other end of the alley. He ducked down behind a discarded sofa and looked over the armrest toward the commotion.
A short man in a baggy gray sweat suit was confronting a woman out taking her terrier on a nighttime walk. The woman held the leash in one hand and clutched her purse to her chest with her other hand. The man was gesturing with what appeared to be violent intent, but Waylon couldn’t hear what he was saying. The woman looked scared. Her dog cowered behind her legs. Waylon reflected that this was a much worse neighborhood than he had previously thought, what with the near constant muggings, although some of the muggings were admittedly more successful than others. He felt a rising resentment that this man had chosen a much better victim than he had. The short man’s victim wasn’t demanding to see his gun. She was terrified.
Waylon stood up from behind the sofa and strode down the alley with his shoulders thrown back, loose gravel gouging at the bottoms of his feet. “Hey!” he shouted, his voice bold and striking. “Leave her alone!”
The short man whirled to face Waylon, briefly wrestled with an internal dilemma, and fled, his footsteps slapping away into the darkness.
The woman stood with her hands on the top of her head, taking deep, measured breaths through her nose to calm herself as Waylon walked up to her. She gave him a stiff smile and said, “Thank you. I didn’t know what I was gonna do.” Her dog sniffed at Waylon’s damp, dirty socks. She looked down and said, “Why aren’t you wearing shoes?”
“I got mugged earlier,” said Waylon.
“They took your shoes?” said the woman. “That’s terrible.”
“I know,” said Waylon. “Listen, this is probably rude to ask so abruptly, but do you think you’ll be giving me some kind of reward for helping you not get mugged? A hundred dollars would be perfect.”
“I’d love to,” said the woman. “I really appreciate you intervening on my behalf like you did, but I don’t have any cash on me right now. That’s what I was trying to explain to that mugger, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Waylon looked down at his feet. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to have them broken. He wondered how Beasley was going to do it. Probably just a plain old hammer. Bam. Bam. Two broken feet.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you look so despondent,” said the woman, clasping her hands under her chin. “What if you were to give me your contact information and I was to write you a note declaring my intention to reward you with one hundred dollars as soon as I can get it to you?”
Waylon shook his head. “As much as I’d like to accept your offer, I’m afraid the world just doesn’t respect notes.”
The woman nodded sadly. “That’s true,” she said.
“So with that established,” said Waylon, “and assuming that despite the absence of cash in your purse, you have some sort of bank card in there, I’m afraid I must now inform you that I have a gun in my pocket and that I will shoot you if you don’t go with me to the nearest ATM and withdraw one hundred dollars for me.”
“I had no idea this neighborhood had gotten so bad,” said the woman.
“Me neither,” said Waylon.
After a short, tense walk, Waylon and the woman found an ATM in front of a closed gas station just over a block from Beasley’s apartment. It was still possible that Waylon had time to make it before Beasley went to bed depending on how wrapped up Beasley had gotten in the night’s programming.
“Would you please do one thing for me?” asked the woman. “Will you write a note to my husband explaining why I had to withdraw a hundred dollars? Just a quick explanation and a signature?”
“I’ll do it,” said Waylon, feeling a twinge of nobility. He liked thinking that writing polite notes could become part of his code of honor.
The woman rummaged around in her purse for a few moments before extracting a notepad and pen and handing them to Waylon. Then she turned to navigate the options on the glowing ATM display.
Waylon paused to consider the wording of the note, wanting to be direct and concise. A note of this kind, under these circumstances, had no business being ambiguous in any way. Certainly no room for light-heartedness or anything that could be construed as an evasion. All Waylon had managed to write was, “To whom it may concern” when the woman spun around, lunged toward him with her arm outstretched, and then a stinging burst of pepper spray splashed across Waylon’s eyes and he fell to his knees, pressing the palms of his hands against his face and coughing toxic-tasting saliva onto the asphalt. As he lay in the parking lot, lying prostrate in front of the ATM with his eyes burning and his nose running like a garden hose, Waylon slowly came to realize that there was no conceivable explanatory note that could possibly save his feet now.