TURNING THINGS UPSIDE DOWN

10/28/2020 5:01:17 PM
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A Native New Yorker, born in Harlem and raised in The Bronx. I spent a great deal of time visiting, living in and working in Virginia. As a result, many of my short stories are in the vein of Zora Neale Hurston, with extensive use of southern black dialect.
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Alvin Joseph “Poppa Joe” Jackson steered his car into the Sunoco gasoline station lot, and parked adjacent to a grassy embankment. He got out of the car and began walking to where three men were standing in front of one of the gasoline station's two work areas.

He and his younger brothers, Ernie Lee and Loomis, operated an illegal numbers policy game in the small, northern Virginia town of Creston. Bettors chose three-digit numbers and wager that they will match a result appearing in horse-racing reports later that day; the three numbers came out individually. The brothers were assisted in their efforts by their cousin, Sheila Jenkins, who owned a beauty parlor on Creston's bypass highway, where some of its customers placed bets with her. Poppa Joe was currently making his daily rounds collecting bets.

Marshall Powell, the gasoline station's owner, was inside one of the work bays helping Jack Wilson remove tape and old newspaper pages from the windows a car that had recently been painted. Donald Gaines and Albert Walker, both of whom worked at a nearby army base, watched, as they passed time until they returned to work from breaks. Standing with his arms folded, Thomas Sanker, who had recently retired from the State Department, was commenting on Marshall's and Jack's work, and an assortment of other topics.

“What say everabody?” Poppa said, as he approached the men. They returned his greeting.

The sixty-six-year-old Poppa Joe, whose reddish-brown skin was evidence of his Blackfoot Native American heritage, was built like a dwarf's thumb.  The “do-rag” scarf he wore on his head each night and Dixie Peach hair grease flattened his salt and pepper colored hair against his head, while simultaneously creating small hair “waves”.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Marshall's teenaged nephew, Chuckie, who was visiting from New York City for the summer, at the pumps putting gasoline into a purple van.

"Say dere, New Yawka!" shouted Poppa Joe in the boy's direction.

Chuckie waved at Poppa Joe, and then returned to watching the meter on the gasoline pump.

"Bet dat boy cain't wait to git back ta New Yawk de way you got him out hair in dis hot ass sun," said Donald.

Marshall looked up from what he was doing and replied, "He loves it down hair. 'Sides dat, Ah thank he gotta girlfren, too."

"Izzat right?" asked Albert.

"Thank it's one of dem Lynch girls," responded Marshall, as he removed tape from one of the car's doorhandles.

"Shit! Dat boy might not nevva wanna leave Creston," Donald said and laughed. "Johnny Boy Lynch got some pretty daughtas."

"You ain't nevva lied," agreed Poppa Joe, as a removed a partially chewed toothpick from the corner of his mouth.

            "Say, Poppa," said Thomas. "We was jus' talkin' 'bout how dat black secur'ty guard at dat hotel caused a real shit storm fo' Nixon."

"Damn right. What's his name? Mills? Or sumfin like ‘at," responded Poppa Joe.

"Frank Wills," said Thomas. "Bet dem white folks sorry dey evva gave a nigga de keys ta anythang."

Poppa Joe and the other men laughed

"Guess po' ol' Frank jus' thought he was bein' helpful. Had no idea what in de hell dem men was upta," said Thomas.  "Nigga gits his ass in trouble when he ain't got a job, den gits caught up in some white people's shit fo' doin' his job." He shook his head and chuckled.

"Cain't wait ta see how dis works out," said Donald. "Tricky Dick might have'ta start packin' his bags."

"We'll see. He's been 'round a long time. Might have annuver trick or two up his sleeve," Poppa Joe replied. "Tommy, lemme borra yo' glasses fo' a minute."

Thomas removed his eyeglasses and handed them to Poppa Joe, who put them on and took several small, rectangular, betting slips from the back pocket of his beige khaki pants.

            He looked towards Albert. “Wha’ chu gon have cuzin’?” Poppa Joe colloquially referred to all men as "cousin".

"Gimme seven-ten fifty cents straight an' fifty cents combo. An' two-nineteen de same way," said Albert. The numbers in these types of bets would win if the day's number came out in the order it was given or in any of its possible combinations. A three-digit number in sequence paid more than if it came out in a combination of the three numbers.

"Damn if two-nineteen ain't wunna ma pet numbers. Ah might play it maself taday." Poppa Joe wrote the numbers on one of the slips, initialed it, tore away the top white sheet and gave the bottom yellow sheet to Albert; he quickly pocketed the two dollars Albert handed to him.

“What ‘boutchu, Donald?” asked Poppa Joe.

Donald gave him a three digit number.

“Shit if dat ain’t wunna my pet numbers.” After he finished writing and gave Donald a copy of the betting slip, Poppa Joe glanced into the bay and removed the eyeglasses. "Whose car izzat?

"Bernard Chichester's," answered Marshall. Forty-three-year old Bernard “Chitty” Chichester was the fruit and produce manager at the local Safeway supermarket.

"Ah thought it looked familiar. Paintin' ain't gon help dat jalopy. Barely runs. Betta be some magic paint," said Poppa Joe. “Ah’d ravver have Fred Flintstone’s car. Lease Ah cain make it run wif ma feet.”

The men laughed.

Poppa Joe continued, "Chitty might as well sell dat car fo' parts, stedda wastin' money onna paint job." 

"Jack tuned up de engine a bit, too. Ah heard he's gon try an' sell it," said Donald.

"Sell it?" said Poppa Joe, incredulously. "Shit, jude haveta be a special kinda stupid ta buy dat piece o' junk. How much he askin' fo' it?"

Marshall said, "Ah 'ont know. Cain't be too much."

"Prob'ly jussa few empty soda pop bottles," said Poppa Joe. "Dat nigga might not even be able to givvat car away."

Albert laughed and said, "Well, dey say dat one man's trash is annuver man's treasure."

"Well, Chitty should take dat piece o' trash down ta de dump, put it inna hole an' make it buried treasure," said Poppa Joe.

The men laughed.

Marshall was in the process of re-attaching the rear license plate to the newly painted car, when Albert said, "Jus' cause you said dat thang 'bout a treasure, Ah'ma play Chitty's license tag numba. Gimme eight-sixteen fo' a dolla straight."

Poppa Joe put the eyeglasses back on and began writing.

"Dat's a good idea,” said Donald. "Give it ta me de same way."

Albert, Jack, Tommy, and Marshall also played the same number for the same amount of money.

After he finished recording the bets and giving copies of the betting slips to the men, Poppa Joe returned Thomas' eyeglasses. He chatted with them for a few more minutes, then said, "Well, Ah gotta finish seein' folks, so lemme git on down de road. See you fellas later. An tell 'at New Yawk boy Ah said ta behave hisself. Don't be goin' 'round breakin' deese country gals' hearts." He laughed and began walking towards his car.

Leaving the gas station, Poppa Joe drove half a mile up the bypass and stopped by the beauty parlor to check in with Sheila.

"Hey dere, pretty lady," Poppa Joe said to Sheila, as he walked through the entrance of the beauty parlor.

Thirty-four-year old Sheila was tall and thin, and wore her hair in a short afro. She was wearing a long, cotton dashiki dress, with an African-print design.

"Hi, Poppa."

"How's Aunt Alice?"

"She's alright. But me an' Howard kinda worried 'bout lettin' her continue ta drive. She's almos' ninedy." Howard was Sheila's brother.

"Izzat right? Yeah, may be time fo' huh to let uvva people take huh around."

"She's so damn pigheaded, though. Won't let nobody else drive huh car."

Poppa Joe laughed. "Jus' like ma muvver was. An’ speakin' a drivin', Ah was jus' downat de Sunoco an' saw dat Bernard Chichester got his jalopy painted."

"Dat piece a junk?” Sheila said incredulously. It useta ta leak transmission fluid up an' down de road. He had ta ride 'round wif a case o' de stuff on his backseat."

Poppa Joe laughed. "Ah know. But it's his money ta waste, so mo' power ta him. Well, lemme git on ma way. Ah'll holla at ya later."

"Okay, Poppa," said Sheila. "Ah'll touch base wif Erna Lee inna little while ta give him what Ah got so far."

"Tell Aunt Alice an' Howard Ah said 'hi'.”

After exiting the beauty parlor, Poppa Joe stopped to use the pay telephone outside of it to call Loomis. After he finished giving him the bets and their respective dollar amounts, Poppa Joe told him the story about Bernard Chichester's car. He concluded by stating, "Dat damn car ain't worf nuffin mo' den a case uh empty soda pop bottles."

Loomis laughed. "You right. An' dem niggas is crazy fo' doin' nat. But, shit, if dat numba comes out, it's gonna be a muvvafucka!"

"Damn right," agreed Poppa Joe. "You heard from Erna Lee?”

“Yeah, he called in jus’ befo’ you did.”

“Alright. Ah'll get back witcha later, little brotha." He hung up the telephone.

During the day, Poppa Joe called in more bets to Loomis from various payphones.

At three o'clock Poppa Joe called Loomis. "What was the firs' one?"

"Was a nine, Poppa," responded Loomis.

Poppa Joe smiled. "Guess dat's it fo' de fellas. Whew! Dodged a bullet wif dat. Okay. Git back wif ya in a bit."

As the day went on, Poppa Joe called in bets for people who played the second digit after hearing the first of the three digits.

Two hours later, Poppa Joe called Loomis again. "What was de second?"

"It's a one."

"Alrighty."

More bets were called in to Loomis by Poppa Joe for those who wanted to play the last digit.

At approximately five o'clock, Poppa Joe called Loomis for the final time. "What was de las' numba?"

"Was a eight.

"'Kay. See ya in a bit."

When Poppa Joe pulled into Loomis's driveway, his brother walked outside to meet him.

"Man, we gotta real shit storm," said Loomis.

"Whatchu mean?"

"Albert, Marshall, Donald, Jack, Tommy an' Chitty all hit de numba straight!"

"But, dem niggas played eight-sixteen!"

“Well, Chitty came by de fillin’ station right afta you lef'."

"An' what happened?"

"Dey was tellin' him 'bout yo’ cracks 'bout his car. Anyway, he saw dat dey'd read his tag numba upside down. It's not eight-sixteen, but nine-eighteen, so he drove up ta Sheila's an' put in new bets fo' all of dem. Sheila said Chitty’s bet for hisself was de biggest."

"You shittin' me," said Poppa Joe.

"Ah wish Ah was. Might be a week or so fo' we cain pay off deese bets."

"Wair's Chitty now?"

“Jack said he drove out ta de Ford dealership ta look at cars."

"Shit! Did he winnat much from us?"

Loomis told him how much. "'At's good enough fo' a nice downpayment onna a new car."

"Good googa mooga! Damn sho is!" exclaimed Poppa Joe. "Black sonuvabitch. He wonnat much, huh?"

"Yep. Sho' did,” said Loomis. “Ah already tole Erna Lee an’ Ah tole dem uvva fellas we'd pay 'em off nex' week. Dey was okay wif dat. Dey know we good fo' it," said Loomis.

"Heard from Chitty, yet?" asked Poppa Joe.

"Yep," replied a smiling Loomis. "Said he'll sell ya his ole car since you was admirin' it so much earlier taday."

"Ain't dat some shit? Sorry bastard," said Poppa Joe, as he laughed.

A smiling Loomis then said, "But, Chitty tole me ta tell ya he ain't figga'd out how many empty soda pop bottles it’s gon’ cos’ you, yet."

 

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