Three Short Stories
“Big Time Willie”
I live in a small suburb of Flint, Michigan called Burton. If you go a couple of miles from our house, in one direction, there’s a little corner store owned by an Arab family. If you go the opposite direction you find the malls, rows of fast food joints (Burger King, McDonalds) etc. Anyway, I’ve been going to that little corner store for years when I needed wine, milk, and, cigarettes (until I stopped smoking). A couple of winters ago, I stopped at that corner store to get a few things.
When I pulled up, one night, there was a very tall, well built black guy in the parking lot asking everybody who came out of the store for spare change. I don’t mind helping someone out if I have extra change, but, I don’t like being asked for money. This guy said, “Do you have any spare change?” I said, “No, I don’t”, and he walked away. The next night I stopped by the same store and the same guy was outside asking for money. When I came out of the store the guy came up to me and, again, asked if I had any spare change. I said. “Your name is Willie isn’t it?” “Yeah”, he said. I said. “Listen Willie: when I come out of the store the next time – and if I have some extra or spare change – I will be glad to give it to you….but if you keep asking me for more money I won’t give you a fucking dime.” Willie held up both of his hands, palms out. and said. “Fair enough man.”
The next night I stopped at the corner store, again. Willie saw me and he backed up. He showed me both of his empty palms, but, he didn’t say a word. I reached in my pocket and gave him all my extra change (about ninety-five cents). He thanked me and this little dance continued, between us, for several weeks. The nights that I had no change I would hold up two empty palms and he would say, “Fair enough, Kimber.” He had learned my name by now.
Over the months I learned a bit of information about Willie. He’d had a rather sad life but he also had a great, funny, outgoing personality. About two days before Christmas it was very cold in Michigan. There was lots of snow and the temperature was below zero. I stopped at the market and I didn’t expect to see Willie, because of the cold. But there he was, outside shivering. I said “Hey Willie. Come here buddy.” He walked over to my car and said “What’s up, Kimber?” I reached in my pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and gave it to him. “Is this all for me?!!”, he asked. I said, “Yes. Now get out of the cold and have a nice dinner.” I knew that Willie was an alcoholic and that he would buy a big bottle of cheap whiskey, a pack of Newport cigarettes and probably a sandwich. I just wanted to him to have a nice night in whatever style made him happy.
The next morning I went to corner store to get some milk and the owner, Rasheed, said, “Hey Kimber, did you give Willie twenty-dollars last night? “Yeah. What did he buy?”, I asked. Rasheed said that he bought a bottle of the cheapest whiskey in the store (called “Blue Horizon Whiskey”), a pack of Newport cigarettes, and three of those scratch off lottery tickets.” “Oh really”, I said. I casually asked, “How did he do with his lottery tickets?”
And Rasheed said: “HE WON TWENTY-THOUSAND DOLLARS!”
“Are you kidding me?”, I shouted. I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel. I mean on one hand I was happy for Willie that he had won all that money but on the other hand I was also thinking, “Shit, he could at least give me my twenty-bucks back.” And this is where the mystery begins. No one has seen Willie since his wonderful winnings. If he had won a hundred dollars the store would have paid him off, but, a large amount like twenty grand would have to be claimed at the state capital in Lansing. I know Willie didn’t have a car and nobody even knew his last name. It’s been a couple of years and no one has seen Willie nor heard anything about what might have happened in in his life. His whereabouts and circumstances remain a mystery.
My hope is that he got his money in Lansing, got on a bus and went to Florida where it’s warm and more comfortable – that maybe somehow he parlayed his money into more money and is living on the beach. When I get to this part of the story I always thinks of the end of that movie, “The Shawshank Redemption”. If you’ve never seen it, I recommend you check it out.
“Christmas Comes Early”
When I was a junior in high school I had just gotten my driver’s license, and, I had a Ford Falcon Woody Station Wagon to carry my surfboard to the beach and back. On Christmas Eve Day, I was down in Hollywood at the biggest music store in L.A. It was called Wallach’s Music City and it was on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street. It was the hippest music store in the world. For one thing, it stayed open until 2 AM every night. It was filled with all the new instruments like guitars, amps, drums, etc. And it also had the biggest supply of new records in LA.
Wallich’s Music Store, Sunset Blvd. & Vine St.
All the records were new. The records were all new because it was this was in the early 1960’s – the heyday for the record industry – and “oldies” really weren’t a “thing” yet….they didn’t exist. Anyway, you could take any new, 45rpm record (those are the ones with the big holes in the middle) or an LP album into one of the several listening rooms and you could listen to any record before you bought it. You could only take one of each kind of record to the room. I didn’t know it, at the time, but there was a guy working in the record department at Wallachs who would go on to make quite a name for himself with his own records. It was Frank Zappa, whose unique style and talent would later make him famous around the world.
Hangin’ Out With Frank Zappa
I used to go down to the store and play drum solos on the new drum sets. We used to have jam sessions in the store. Once Dick Dale, a surfer guitar player was playing and some of the Beach Boys were singing. I was playing drums and so was a second drummer. The other drummer was famous and had a hit record called “Let There Be Drums”. His name was Sandy Nelson. Sandy only had one really big hit because he was in a motorcycle accident and he lost one of his legs which ended his drum career. I used to love going to that store. There was always something happening. Now to the story.
On Christmas Eve day it was getting late and people were driving home, doing last minute Christmas shopping. A friend of mine named Doug was with me when we were driving out of the music store. As we left, we saw a giant Christmas tree lot on Sunset Boulevard. This was in the mid 1960’s and artificial Christmas trees, by the way, didn’t exist. I had worked on a Christmas tree lot for the YMCA, up by my house, the year before and most of the lots worked the same. We would put the trees up in rows, in sizes little to big. Once someone had picked out the tree they wanted to buy myself or another salesman would hammer a wooden cross to the bottom of the tree. This was a little improvised stand to keep the tree standing upright. If you wanted your tree to be white you could have it flocked. The Christmas tree lots would start appearing right after Thanksgiving and would stay open all during December and stop selling trees December 24th, Christmas Eve. To stop people from just taking a tree from the lot, the proprietor of the lot would hire someone to stay overnight and guard the trees.
Well, Doug and I drove by the Hollywood lot and we noticed two things. One, there were still many trees left on the lot – both big and small. And the second thing we noticed was that there was a guy hooking up the trailer that he’d been sleeping in to his car. We observed the guy rounding up, and packing up, the various tools that he’d been using in his temporary business. When he was finished packing his things, he took one last look around, got in his car and drove away towing his trailer. He had obviously closed up shop for the season.
So, The Christmas tree lot was closed for business that year. Doug and I looked at each other and had the same idea. We drove back over to where the trailer had been and found a big piece of cardboard. We took a big black marker and wrote, in capital letters, “ANY TREE $10”. Immediately cars started stopping and picking up their ten dollar trees. We made a hundred-dollars in less than ten minutes! When it started getting dark we closed up shop, too (and had an extra Merry Christmas, thanks to our Christmas tree sales scheme).
“Boxing Lessons With My Brothers”
When I was about ten years old, my older brother was twelve and my younger brother was nine. We got along just like you would expect three little ruffians to get along. Brother John was the oldest and always the leader in all of our activities. If you just think of the old black and white TV show “The Little Rascals” you’d have a pretty good picture of the sorts of jams, messes, and fun that myself and my brothers often created. We had a dog named Hoppy. He was a big black and white collie and, just like on the “Little Rascals” TV show, we would put a harness around him and he would pull us in a wagon all over the neighborhood. In our front yard we had two giant pine trees standing about forty to fifty feet tall. We each built our own tree houses in the pine trees. Naturally brother John’s tree house was the highest and the scariest to climb up to. Younger brother Danny’s was the next in height, and, mine was the lowest. I think I had the measles during our building days and I was the last one to finish my tree house.
We had so much fun together until one night my father brought a little Hispanic man home to our house. His name was Joe Salas and he owned a small liquor store in downtown L.A. Our first meeting with Joe was definitely a good one. He brought me and my two brothers the most wonderful present. We loved candy and Joe brought us three boxes of Hershey chocolate bars. We had only seen chocolate bars, one at a time, when we saved up a nickel to buy one. Now we each had a whole box of them! My father was a lawyer and Joe was one of his clients. Well, we loved Joe. Then my father said that Joe didn’t always own a corner liquor store. In fact, he used to be a very famous person. He’d won a silver medal for the US boxing at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
Joe Salas: Team USA Boxing, Silver Medalist 1924
The Mexican-American from Los Angeles holds
the distinction of being the first Latino to represent
U.S.A. in Olympic competition
My Dad did some legal work for Joe and my Dad and Joe had agreed, that as payment for the legal services, Joe would teach the Kimber brothers how to box. From then on every Tuesday night was “Fight Night”. My Dad bought a huge boxing bag and some very large boxing gloves. We made a big boxing ring in the garage. Joe taught us how to move, jab, hop around, and do combination punches. And after we worked out and practiced our new moves, we would have our three round matches. Oh boy.
Older brother Johnny, who was the strongest and best natural fighter, would fight me and pretty much beat the shit out of me every time we boxed. And then I would fight my younger brother, Danny, and beat the shit out of him. And then Danny would fight Joe, the teacher, only to get a double beating! Danny told me that even today, when he thinks about our Tuesday night beatings, he sees me and a big boxing glove coming straight at his nose leaving him with a bloody face.
Not every kid’s idea of a good time…
As I’ve said, we all loved Joe and I suppose it was cool to be trained to box by an Olympic boxing champion, but it wasn’t the most fun that me and my “rascal” brothers ever had as kids. We laugh about it now, but, at the time it sure didn’t feel like the greatest pastime, nor, the most interesting way to spend our childhoods. We would have definitely preferred that ‘ol Joe had just showed up every Tuesday night with three boxes of those yummy Hershey bars – and maybe just told us some tales of his days in the ring!