Chapter 2 — The Errand


The sun climbed above the yellow poplars at the edge of the garden and began warming the back of Miss Plackie’s house while carpenter bees burrowed holes in the eves of her back porch and floated lazily like soap-bubbles around the hollyhocks.  The grass in her backyard had gotten tall, especially at the corners of things.  It had been an unusually wet May so the weeds as well as the vegetable plants in the garden had all grown quickly and were taller than they normally would be that time of year.

Miss Plackie’s house rested on two slanted acres of land which lay about a mile and a half south of Waterford village and about two miles southwest of the Old River.  The architecture of her house was typical of those found in the country.  It was an old house now but when it was young someone had planted trees all around it which, after several decades, had dwarfed the dwelling and made it appear squat.  But now the brilliant and varied hues of that spring morning and the clear azure sky lent the place a bucolic peace and made it seem less shabby.

The screen door spring croaked as Miss Plackie pushed the back porch door open.  In front of her were four wooden steps leading down to the grass and a drop in elevation of three feet, certainly enough to break an ankle.  The steps lacked handrails.  She waited a minute, holding onto the screen porch doorframe, and looked down the steps then frowned.  She was trying to judge the distance between the threshold where she stood and the first step in front of her so to negotiate the whole series of steps successfully in her slippers.  And she was not entirely steady.

Miss Plackie was a middle aged woman in her fifties.  She could still appear youthful at a distance so that once in a while those who had known her in her youth caught glimpses of the beautiful girl she had once been as she gestured with her hands or turned her head a certain way.  Her hair was full and wavy and fell a few inches below her shoulders.  But these days she seldom brushed it and her once coffee colored mane had become salted with gray.  With age her frame had lost much of its feminine nuance and had grown too angular, now resembling that of a slender boy.

She wore a sheer, pale-blue nightgown.  The gown was froufrou on account of the fake ostrich feathers which edged its cuffs, neckline, and hem.  For footwear she donned clear acrylic “glass slippers” the heels of which gleamed with gold-foil.

All at once as if to say, to hell with it, Miss Plackie clopped down all four stairs in a way that looked like a skier descending a bumpy slalom.  But she made it safely to the bottom and onto the uneven grass without disaster where she then turned and angled towards the toolshed, trotting briskly across the yard.

The shed was a relatively large one as sheds go, eight feet by twelve or so, having a wide door at the front and a small square window which let in light at the back.

At the shed, Miss Plackie began pounding the door with her fist which in itself could have startled Lazarus to his feet.  But anyone else might have done the same because the person inside could be heard snoring like a thunderstorm.

“Axel!  Axel!  If you’re in there I’d like to see you for a minute.  Axel, are you there?” she hollered while still hammering the door with her fist.

The snoring abruptly stopped.

“Hold your horses, for Pete’s sake.  I’m coming,” said Axel gruffly.  Miss Plackie ceased knocking and stepped back a foot or two from the shed door.

“Okay,” she said meekly.

In the backyard a large sycamore tree overhung the toolshed where Axel napped in the mornings.  Miss Plackie had given Axel permission to live in her toolshed since she seldom needed tools and, in fact, apart from the rusty hammer in her utility drawer, did not know if she owned any.  It was late morning but Axel had only gotten four hours of sleep since breakfast.  As usual, he and Dixie had been out all night fishing.  Dixie, too, had found her bed under the card table behind the shed and had been dreaming dog dreams which caused her legs and ears to twitch as she slept.

Axel coughed twice.  Something hard fell inside the shed, hit the floor, and rolled a little.

“For crying out loud, Miss Sharon, it’s only eleven o’clock,” said Axel.

Dixie came running around the corner of the toolshed wagging her tail.

“If you have time I need your help with something—in the house,” Miss Plackie explained.

She leaned forward listening for an answer but all she could hear were Axel’s heavy feet on the plywood floor as he rose from his cot and approached the door.  He sometimes stretched himself on his cot and fell asleep with his boots on; this was one of those times.  Miss Plackie stepped back a bit more and straightened herself.

The door of the shed swung open, wide enough for Axel to stoop and step down from the edge of the doorway.  Stooping through doorways was a habit learned by a man who had knocked his head innumerable times entering or exiting tight places.  And although Axel was only a little taller than the average man he had knocked his head plenty over the years.

Miss Plackie had always been impressed with the deliberation with which Axel moved.  She waited as he, without speaking yet, stepped down and carefully closed the shed door before turning to face her.  Then he smiled a little to mask the irritation he felt for having his rest broken.  And seeing him smile, Miss Plackie bought the courteous deception and smiled back warmly and fluttered her eyelashes to express her gratitude to Axel for being as understanding of her needs as he was.  Other men, she knew, would have stormed out of the shed and shouted at her.  But Axel Browne was a gentleman.

Axel had a flat, Nordic face over which it appeared the skin had been drawn more tightly than it ought to be, making it difficult for him to frown.  He stood erect at two and a half inches over six feet and, now, in his seventy-first year of life, his blond hair had become streaked with white, causing the blond that was left to appear slightly yellow.  He wore his hair cropped close around the ears and back of skull but allowed it to grow like wheat on top, a sheaf of which flopped over onto his broad forehead.  He was a large man but not heavy.  He was sinewy like someone who chopped a cord of wood every day.  Broad in the shoulders but flat in the rump, though his thighs and calves were still well-developed and strong.

He wore an old softball team shirt he had picked up somewhere.  It had raglan sleeves that were once red but now faded to almost pink.  The body of the shirt was white—though stained here and there—with “TIGERS” emblazoned across the chest and the numeral “55” printed in red plastic ink, which had cracked and flaked but was still visible, on the back.  The shirt sagged on Axel, down below the pockets of his pants.  He wore a pair of drab green shorts, made of denim, which ended just above his knobby knees.  The shorts had extra pockets on the fronts and sides and Axel made good use of them.  He often stuffed them with fishing gear and sandwiches.  His shoes were a pair of hiking boots, battered but real leather, whose arch-supports were still good.  Axel valued good arch-support.

“Well, now, I understand you have an emergency of some sort which requires my intervention,” said Axel a bit condescendingly.

“Oh now, Axel, save the preaching for the pulpit; it’s not polite to talk down to a lady,” responded Miss Plackie.

He rolled his eyes.

“What is it you need, Miss Sharon?”

“Well, it’s in the kitchen.  I’ll show you,” she replied then turned and headed in that direction.

Dixie, who had stood by listening to this exchange, appeared to understand at least the end of the conversation.  She barked once then ran across the yard to the porch steps where she waited for Miss Plackie and Axel to catch up.

Leaning on Axel’s arm Miss Plackie climbed the wooden steps and entered the screened back porch.  Axel and Dixie followed.  From there they passed through the mudroom and into the kitchen.  It was an old kitchen with a high ceiling and high cupboards, the top shelves of which required either a tall man and a chair or a woman with a ladder to reach them.  The kitchen was cool and orderly.  But Dixie began scouting the floor anyway for edible morsels, as was her habit.

One of Miss Plackie’s straight-back dining room chairs had been pulled from its usual place at the table and pushed up against the base-cupboard beside the refrigerator.  The upper cupboard door stood open.

“I can’t find my molasses,” said Miss Plackie, exasperated.  “I know I have a whole bottle of it somewhere but I can’t, for the life of me, find it.  I think it has to be up there.”

She pointed to the top shelf of the open cupboard.

“How would it get up there?” said Axel incredulously.

“I don’t know.  Would you please just look for me?  I want to bake a batch of gingerbread cookies today.”

Axel grumbled something about “couldn’t have waited till later” under his breath as he climbed atop the chair.

“And since you’re there,” said Miss Plackie, “if you see my cough syrup or anything else, you might as well hand that down, too.”

“No, there’s nothing here.  No molasses or cough syrup,” answered Axel.

“But what’s that?”

“What’s what?” said Axel.

“That!  I see the top of a bottle up there, towards the back.  What’s that?”

“Oh, that’s just an empty bottle of some kind,” he said.

He reached back and pulled down a tallish glass bottle and shook it.

“Looks like it was a bottle of port at one time.  There’s a brown stain in the bottom.  Here you want it?”

Axel handed it down.

“Oh, thank-you,” said Miss Plackie, disappointed.  “I’ll throw it away.”

“You want me to check the other cupboards while I’m here?”

“No, I’m sure I’ll find it.”

Axel climbed down, brushed the dust from the seat of the creaky chair, and placed it back at the table in the dinning room.

“Well, is that all you needed, Miss Sharon?” asked Axel.

Miss Plackie seemed lost in thought as she anxiously wrung the neck of the empty bottle she held.

“Yes, I suppose so,” she said softly.

Axel exhaled audibly because he recognized Miss Plackie’s dilemma.

“You need me to go to the ABC store for you, Miss Sharon?” he asked.  His tone had softened into that of a confidante.

“Oh, could you?  It would be a very chivalrous gesture if you did.  Are you sure it wouldn’t be a great inconvenience?”

She stood before him anxiously, shoulders drawn, eyes pleading, hair mussed.  She reminded him of a small girl in a princess costume.  Axel felt a pang of pity course up from his stomach through his chest.  He, better than anyone, understood Miss Plackie’s addiction and the embarrassment she must have felt having to rely on someone else to feed it.

“Dixie and I don’t have anything else pressing.  We’d be happy to go,” said Axel.

“When did you think you would—you know—go?” she asked.

“I’ll leave straight from here if that suits you.”

“Why, bless your heart,” said Miss Plackie.  “That would suit me fine.  Thank you so much.  Let me find my glasses and pocketbook.”

“You’re welcome; never a problem,” said Axel.

Miss Plackie scurried to the back of the house.  Axel assumed she was headed to her bedroom since sometimes he also heard a drawer being opened and closed when she went to fetch her pocketbook.

“I just remembered, there’s a new guy at the ABC who doesn’t like me,” Axel called in the direction of the bedroom.  “I hope he doesn’t cause a problem like last time.”  Miss Plackie didn’t answer.

A minute later she reappeared in the dinning room clutching a blue, fabric purse which, in shape, looked like an Idaho potato.  It was stuffed full of bills, coins, and coupons which she clipped and collected religiously but never redeemed.

“I’m sorry, what were you saying?  I couldn’t hear you very well back there,” she said as she returned.

“I was saying that I’m worried about the new trainee at the store.  Last time I was in, he said I had to have ID or he wouldn’t sell me any liquor.  But luckily Gary intervened and let me buy what I needed.  But if that guy’s working by himself today, he could give me trouble.”

“Why don’t you show him my driver’s license?” offered Miss Plackie.

“Thank you Miss Sharon but I don’t think that will help.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Miss Plackie, “I’ll just write a note like we used to.  Show it to Terry.  He’ll take care of it.”

“But Terry died two years ago, Miss Sharon.”

“Two years?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Axel.  “And he retired two years before that.”

“Oh, my!  Time gets away, doesn’t it.  I’m sorry to hear about Terry: he was a kind fellow.  Well, then give the note to the new manager; I’m sure Terry told him about our arrangement before he, you know, moved on.”

Miss Plackie leaned over the dinning room table and began, with both hands, shuffling objects that cluttered it—books, coupon flyers, scissors, a coffee mug holding pens, doilies, two thin bud vases, half filled with cloudy water, a scattering of wilted rose petals, her prized antique flower bowl, her favorite teacup and saucer, a pile of unopened statements and junk mail, and a stack of outdated magazines (that she still intended to read)—until she found the notepad she was searching for.  She tore a sheet from it and began scratching a note in her hurried hand.  She signed it at the bottom and held it out for Axel to take.

“I feel like a damned schoolboy,” he said as he accepted the note and stuffed it into a pocket.

Miss Plackie then tore another slip from the notepad and in two-seconds completed a shopping list.

“Now, here’s a list of what I need, Axel; there’s something on it for you, too, as a thank-you.  And—”  She opened her blue potato purse and began digging.  “And here’s cash.  Is forty enough?”

“It’s too much.”

“Just bring me the change; that’ll be fine.  So are we set?”

“Well, yes, I suppose we are,” said Axel.

Axel gave Dixie, who had been cooling her belly on the kitchen linoleum, a reedy whistle.  At the signal, Dixie jumped to her feet and ran to the mudroom door where she waited, smiling and wagging her tail, for Axel to let her out.  Dixie always enjoyed visiting Miss Plackie’s house but she enjoyed even more being in her own element—outdoors.

Miss Plackie saw Axel and Dixie out through the mudroom and screened porch and into the backyard.  She stood in her slippers and gown in the tall grass, shading her eyes with one hand and watching as Axel and Dixie prepared to leave.  Axel stopped by the shed long enough to grab his backpack and hat.  He thought about taking his fishing pole and tackle box too but, at the last, decided against it since he knew Miss Plackie would be waiting anxiously at home until his return.  He whistled again and Dixie took off running towards the path that led to the road that led to the railroad tracks that led to town.  It was a pretty good hike into town from Miss Plackie’s place and the sun, by then, was high and bore down with full force.

Axel set out at a good pace, following Dixie.  He bounced his pack once to even its weight on his shoulders then turned and, without breaking stride, gave Miss Plackie a quick salute goodbye before turning back to the path ahead of him.  She smiled and waved weakly at his back.

“Oh darn!” she said to herself, “I should’ve had him pick up a bottle of molasses while he was out.”


Dixie pressed her nose against the glass, looking through the front door of the liquor store and twitched her ears nervously as she waited for Axel’s return.  Axel stood at the checkout counter with a piqued expression on his face, watching the clerk study Miss Plackie’s note.  On the counter between the clerk and Axel stood three bottles: two tall ones containing gin and vodka and a short one filled with a walnut-brown bourbon.

How long does it take to read a stupid note? thought Axel; This guy’s going to be an asshole again, I can tell.

The clerk was a short, paunchy man who wore black trousers, penny loafers, and a Hawaiian-print shirt that was splattered with parrots and palm trees but was mostly orange in color.  He looked somewhere between thirty and thirty-five years of age.  He had a round head and wavy, dark hair but a U-shaped patch of baldness exposed the shiny surface of the top of his pate.  His features in general were rounded; his eyebrows dark and bushy; his eyes bulbous and suspicious and somewhere in color between brown and black.  And overall he wore an air of cocky superiority about him.

Reading Miss Plackie’s note he smirked as if reading a joke.  Your typical Barney Fife, thought Axel contemptuously, as he eyed the man from the other side of the counter.  Then the clerk’s smirk faded and his brows knitted as his eyes shifted quickly back and forth, reading the note again.  Eventually the inquisitor rolled his eyes upward and focused them probingly on Axel.  Axel countered with his most charming fake grin, the kind a schoolboy gives his teacher when he hands her a note from home, asking to be released from class after lunch.

“I’ll need to see some ID,” said the clerk flatly, then returned Axel’s fake grin with his own brand which was more toothy and more sinister.

“Seriously?” said Axel dismayed.  “You’re going to card me?  How old do I look to you?  Seventeen?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” warned the clerk.  “I’m an agent of the State.”

“The state of what?” demanded Axel.

“Let me tell you something, mister:  I’m the one who says who does or doesn’t do business in this store!  And right now you’re about two seconds from getting your derrière eighty-sixed—permanently.  I’m not playing, man.”

“No!  I’m going to tell you something, Mr. Bigmouth!” said Axel, raising his voice and jabbing his big finger in the clerk’s face.  “I was crawling on my belly in the slime and mud and dodging bullets at night in the snake-infested jungles of Southeast Asia defending Liberty against the Vietcong before your daddy’s balls dropped!  And if it wasn’t for men like me doing the heavy lifting in this country, shit-heads like you wouldn’t have the wherewithal to attend your preppy schools and join your cliquey fraternities where all you do for four years is stay drunk and paddle each others’ asses!  So don’t—”

Axel paused to catch his breath and would have continued his tirade if he hadn’t noticed the clerk’s jaw dropped open and a look of stunned surrender frozen on his face.  Axel held his breath for a couple of seconds then exhaled.  The clerk’s eyes bugged and he swallowed hard, apparently expecting the barrage to continue.

“Are you all right?” asked Axel.

“I dropped out,” blurted the clerk.  His voice quavering with emotion.

“What?” said Axel.

“Yeah man, I only attended community college and dropped out after the first year.  I’m not the guy you’re talking about.  I’m just a working stiff like everybody else.  My dad changed truck tires for a living his entire life.  He couldn’t afford university or prep school like you think.”

The clerk appeared on the verge of breaking down.  Axel glanced sideways over his shoulder to reorient himself to his surroundings and to make sure there wasn’t a security guard standing behind him with a .38 trained on his back.

Axel sometimes forgot how he intimidated others when he became upset.  A girlfriend had once told him that when anger or disappointment gripped him, it was as if he turned into a blackhole, sucking out every ounce of air and light from whatever room he was in.  But it was never something he intended.  He didn’t want to be a light-sucking blackhole; he just wanted to say what he felt, like everyone else seemed permitted to do.  But for some reason, his emotions, his observations, his piques, his very thoughts were too amplified to be digested by others, raw.  This passion he felt was only another aspect of his life which had turned him into a human alien on Earth.  In his mind he had never been one of them but neither had he desired to be theirs—and more so since the day in Vietnam in 1968 when he died for four to eight minutes aboard a medevac Huey on its way to the Army surgical hospital—certainly not since then had he bought into the paradigm which everyone else seemed to accept as “normal”.

In a moment Axel’s anger dissipated but, at the same time, he was in no mood to capitulate.  If I get eighty-sixed by this shit-head, he thought, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.  But it would be a pain in the ass, all the same.

“Look, I’m just the courier here,” said Axel.  “I’m buying the hooch for Miss Sharon.  She’s my neighbor.  She doesn’t get out much because she’s an alcoholic.  You have her note in front of you which she gave me and I’ve given you.  We’ve had this arrangement for years with Terry—the former manager—at this store, and it worked fine.  The note bears her signature and telephone number.  Call her!  Call Miss Sharon.  I’ll wait.  I’m not trying to pull anything.  It’ll only take a minute; just call and ask if the hooch is hers or not.  Could you at least do that, please, for an old man?”

The clerk picked up the note and looked at it again.

“How do you pronounce her last name?” he asked.

“Just like it’s spelled:  Plack – ie; rhymes with Blackie, you know, like the name of a cat or something.”

The clerk shot Axel an annoyed glance then cleared his throat.  He picked up the handset of the telephone behind the counter and gave Axel one more stern look.  Axel shrugged as if to say, Go on!  The clerk held the handset to his ear for a second or two then placed it back in the cradle.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what,” said the clerk, “I believe you.  But let me ask you this:  Do Ray and Gary sell you hooch, ahem—I mean—product without identification?”

“They both do, all the time.  But they know me.  It’s never a problem.”

“You know, all you would’ve had to do was produce an ID and that would have been the end of it.  But I suspect you were already here, at the store, when you remembered you had left your identification at home, again, because you’re so used to buying product without it.  But I’m a play-by-the-book sort of guy so I’m always going to ask for ID if I think it’s prudent to do so.  You forgot your ID, didn’t you?”

The clerk smiled slyly.  He wanted an admission of some kind from Axel so Axel gave him one.

“What can I say?  Yes, I left my ID back at the swamp.  And it’s a long way back and a hot day and Dixie and I—”

“I understand.  I understand.  You don’t have to explain,” interrupted the clerk condescendingly.  “But next time bring your ID.  That way all of this unpleasantness can be avoided.  Okay?”

“Yes, sir,” said Axel  “Message received.”  He smiled broadly as he shoved his large hand into the pocket which held the money that Miss Plackie had given him.

The clerk rang up the items, counted back change, and carefully placed each of the bottles into paper bags individually before placing all three into a sturdy, solid black bag that had handles.  That done, he slid the bag towards Axel.

“Thank you.  Have a wonderful day,” he said impersonally, concluding the process.

“Uh, is the receipt in the bag?” asked Axel.

“Yes, I put both the receipt and your note from home in the bag.”

“Thank you,” said Axel who doffed his hat and left the store.

Axel found Dixie dancing with delight when finally he rejoined her outside.  He bent and patted her head and uttered the usual kudos for being so patient with him.  Then, on a nearby bench, he sat the liquor store bag down and took from it the receipt and Miss Plackie’s note which he stuffed in a pocket.  After that, he lifted the fifth of bourbon out of the bag and held to the light to inspect its rich, clear contents and, satisfied, slid the bottle into another pocket and snapped it closed.  Finally, he turned his attention back to Dixie and, while rubbing her soft jowls, put his face nose-to-nose with hers and spoke to her in a tone other people reserve for talking to infant children:

“Why thank you, Miss Sharon,” he cooed.  “You didn’t have to do that.  No, you didn’t.  Dixie and I would have gladly hiked ten miles just for the exercise.  Wouldn’t we girl?  But thank you all the same, Miss Sharon, for your generosity.  We do enjoy a nip of bourbon now and then.  Don’t we girl?  Yes, we do,” said Axel as Dixie wagged her whole rump wildly and smiled with her dripping tongue hanging from her mouth.

At that moment, Dixie might have been the happiest dog in the world.  And Axel?  Well, he felt like a soldier who had just humped a dozen klicks and returned to camp unscathed.  It hadn’t been his worst day.

Copyright by Dale Tucker.  All rights reserved.