Tobias the Bruiser Grabs My Nickel
Gary Cadwallader

My nickel was my nickel. Can’t say it plainer than that. When Tobias said, “Gimme,” I was mad, but I turned it over. I showed him my ferocious little teeth for a smile. Tobias was a leopard-clad giant. Not a ruby-cheeker, a wuss…not short…not short. I wondered what rocket could launch me high enough to bite his jugular while I hung on like a rat terrier, poking my fat finger in his eye.

But there was no rocket. There was no box to stand upon, nor a herd of little jackals to tear and overwhelm him all jungle-like, neither.

There was Koko.

Koko, all seven feet of him, weighed one-sixty-five, and he lived like a walking stick in old wooden boxes behind the burned out Uptown Theater. All round his knick-knack patty-whack castle, his castle of splinters, were offerings of onions and rag dolls and blue-eyed kittens and perhaps a fetus (perhaps it wasn’t).

I told Koko, “I want revenge.”

I left a dog’s hind leg as a gift and whispered through the hole that said, “Speak here!” I had to climb on ladders and boxes and naked tangles of worshiping spines, but I whispered my wish.

“What have you brought?” came a thick dark voice.

“Leg of dog,” said I, “but there will be more…could be more…should be more.”

I could smell his breath coming from the box. The bodies underneath me twisted about. “Will you give me the nickel Tobias took?” he asked.

“But it’s mine!”

He waited. He paused. He sat in tangled black silence and then I saw his finger poke through the hole as if it were sniffing. It could see me somehow. I knew when the tip spotted my eyeball and pointed like an arrow, a javelin, a spear.

“All right,” I said. “My nickel.” I climbed down to wait. Out of a nickel, in for a treat.

Humming came from the box all day. In the night I could feel green-mean ivy. And Short Mama’s kudzu climbing up my back. I sat so still the vines thought I was a rock or tree. Two days more and still I sat, until I was covered, until I was a bush.

And then Tobias came.

“Who has done this?” he asked Koko’s box. Blood dripped from the corners of his mouth. His cheeks were sunken and his long arms weak. He coughed and spit red drool upon the ground. His leopard-skin suit hung too big, his shoes were untied. He wore one yellowed sock. “Who has done this?” he asked again.

“I did,” said me, the bush, the ivy lumpy thing. “I have cursed you, Tobias.”

Tobias looked, but could not see. He swung his stick, chopping leaves on my left, on my right… still he couldn’t see. He fell in a great heap and blood poured from his ears. It gushed in great red heaps, rouge globs, rusty streams, then trickled to nothing.

“The nickel!” said the box with Koko in it.

I scrambled from the kudzu and searched and searched. I turned out the leopard pockets of Tobias the newly dead man and stripped him bare as a herring. He lay upon his pillow of scarlet earth watching with fishy eyes and an open mouth. There was nothing.

Nothing but a paper receipt: Pearlamine Tea…five cents.

“You best be finding my nickel,” said the box and the menacing finger poked through, sniffing at the wind.

“I just gotta get me some tea is all. Some Pearlamine tea, maybe? Want some, your highness, your tall, black stickiness? I’ll get it for ya.” I took a step backward.

Splintered wood flew into the air and Koko slithered up like a snake, snake, snake! He was blue-black like a cobra and when he pulled his shoulders forward, it looked like he wore a cape. His eyes sparkled like silver. “Small man, you have a nickel that belongs to me!”

“I don’t have it, Koko. But I know where it is.”

“Ha! Think you’re gonna find just where he spent it, do you? So be it, but know that only your nickel will do, not no other, not if you find a hundred nickels nor a hundred times a hundred, nor a hundred times that.”

Sweat dripped in my eyes. I’d never heard of such a sum. Couldn’t imagine it if I tried. Koko slicked two fingers with spit and waved them round like fangs. “Let the wind carry you forward, small man, and let sickness follow in your wake.” And he pointed his slimy fingers at my throat.

…and here I sit at Donna Mae’s Pearlamine Tea Stand, laughing with my newbie friends. “Tobias the Bruiser is no more!”

“Yea for Bushie-Man,” as they now call me, for kudzu sticks to your ribs. “No more bullies. Yea, hurray!”

I held up my hands. “Throw nickels, if you please…a nickel? It ain’t much. A nickel?” They drifted away like I were plague. “Rat-tailed trolls!”

Donna Mae brought another cup. “In a bit of trouble, Bushie-Man? I might be able to help you…for a price.”

“What you want?”

“Tobias gimme a nickel once. It were special and I didn’t know, so’s spent it. Spent it good, did I. Would like to have it back?”

“Where’s it?”

“Gived it to Koko for a magic spell. He laughed and laughed, did he. I don’t know why.”

Urban myth, fantasy, stories of men who live in boxes. Yeah, that's modern lit! I’m sure they’ll quote me in English 101 after this. Well, William Kennedy might, if he had a sense of humor.

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