The gleaming, converted red fire truck made the left onto Jefferson Place and slowly crept its way down the sleepy residential street. The driver remembered the block from a previous encounter. “If this particular street was a painting,” she thought to herself, “it would be titled The suburban cliché. From the cookie-cutter houses laid out perfectly on either side of the street to the rows of Norway maple trees putting the punctuation mark on every home, down to the perfectly manicured lawns. All that was missing were fireworks and the American flag.
The hot late afternoon sun reflected off the truck’s worn paint and illuminated every dent and scratch in all their glory. It seemed as if the entire truck was covered with evidence of a long life except for two panels, one on each side. The “3 Strikes” logo, written in a striking burnt orange script was perfectly centered in the middle of a black tank. Drops of ocean blue water hung over the tank as if they were suspended in time. Encapsulating the design was a clean white circle. Her partner Ronnie was quite proud of his artwork, which he was fond of pointing out whenever he could. As the truck came to a stop in the middle of the road, the breaks gave off a slight whine. “Well if they didn’t hear us coming, they will now,” Randi thought to herself.
Giving herself a quick glance in the rearview mirror, Randi brushed her dirty blonde hair away from her green eyes. “Don’t worry, you’re beautiful,” Ronnie said with the slight hint of sarcasm. Ignoring his quip, she applied a thin coat of lip gloss and smacked her lips in delight. At the same moment Ronnie slid out of the passenger seat, in a worn white t-shirt and orange bathing suit, opened the door and made his way up the outside ladder. Climbing the seven rung ladder was a breeze by now and within seconds he grabbed the top rung. His slightly pudgy frame made it over the railing and just like that he was sitting down, awaiting his public. Randi could hear him up top and with a deft touch, she ran her once manicured fingers over the radio dial and turned up the volume. Seconds later, the entire block was flooded with the melodic voices of ABBA and like gophers on the plain; the tiny faces of children began popping up from all corners. Children who had no idea what an ABBA was nevertheless knew the familiar strains of “Take a Chance on Me” and what that meant.
The Dunk Tank was here!
Randi could hear the shrieks of glee come pouring forth and could already count the green in her hands. She picked up the colorful wooden cartoon character pelican, who told potential customers they had to remain behind his purple bill and placed him on the street, ten feet away from the truck. She turned her head towards the back and shouted, “You ready Ronnie?”
“Take a chance, take a chance…”
“Are you kidding me? This is like Christmas for me! Especially after the last time.” His booming voice had no problem being heard over the melodic chanting of ABBA.
Randi giggled and remembered the last time Ronnie “entertained” the inhabitants of Jefferson Place. At the onset, the arrival of this curious looking fire truck, combined with the music radiating forth from its speakers had drawn the folks in for a look. On further review, the inhabitants saw an Italian man with a paunch in his mid-twenties sitting above a pool of what might be water. In those first few moments, smiles and joy were abundant as children and elderly folk alike all gathered around to see what was what. Cheer and joy were the currency of the day and the only thing that could spoil the moment was Ronnie himself, or more specifically, his mouth. A mouth that had flipped the day on its ear and infuriated the inhabitants of Jefferson Place to the point they almost overturned the truck. If the police hadn’t arrived God only knows what would have happened to them.
“Okay, I see a door opening to my left. It’s go time.”
Ronnie looked down at his two-foot perch. It had been awhile since he swept the floor clean of the dirt his flip flops had collected and deposited. His Hamilton MM3 megaphone (complete with lime green lampshade) sat silently next to his left foot. He loved his Hamilton as much as Randi, or more – depending on the day.
Like a maestro preparing to conduct his latest symphony, Ronnie cracked his knuckles, cleared his throat and clicked on his megaphone.
“I’m sorry, sir. I thought after the last time we talked you would be wearing a dress.”
The man in question, a Chinese gentleman in his late forties, narrowed his eyes in anger. He would not be surprised this time, nor would he be rattled by that obnoxious prick sitting on his perch. The father of one muttered an obscenity to himself and made a beeline for the truck.
“To be honest I have to admit, I respect you. Any man willing to embarrass himself in front of his friends and family deserves some admiration.” Ronnie was now standing up, his bright orange bathing suit fluttering in the breeze. His belly peaked out from his slightly stained white t-shirt. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Hey, Randi, do me a favor. Give this guy over here, the one mincing towards your door, three free throws. Don’t charge this man one dollar. It’s the least we could do for taking his pride.”
Other doors had opened and a crowd would soon be forming.
“Hey, Jim. If you don’t shut him up I will. Knock this guy on his ass!” shouted his next door neighbor.
“Yeah, Jimmy, drown that creep!” said the same neighbor’s wife.
Randi put the truck in park and grabbed the bucket of lime green softballs on the passenger seat.
“Well, sir what will it be? Would you like three freebies?”
“You’re damn right I want those balls. I’m going to drop him in that filthy water and then I’m going to peg him between the eyes with my other two throws.”
“Yeah, Jimmy!” said Mr. Morrison, the block’s resident historian.
“Get that jerk!” eight-year-old Billy Morgan shouted with more anger than an eight year old should have, before being admonished for his language by his embarrassed mother.
Randi laughed, climbed out of the truck and took the bucket of softballs with her. Walking towards the back of the dunk truck she said, “Now sir, remember this is all fun and games. Remain behind the pelican at all times. You can dunk my partner all you want, but you can’t maim him.”
“Don’t worry about a thing, Randi. We could give this guy fifty balls and the results will be the same. I’ll sit here on my throne nice and dry, and baldy will depart just as he arrived—a loser.” Ronnie was almost cackling in delight.
The man in question—Jimmy, had had enough. “Give me those balls! You’re going down, asshole.”
“Remember folks, if you want your chance to shut my partner up its ten dollars for three balls,” Randi reminded the crowd as she handed Jimmy the three balls.
“How about this, Randi – if anyone else wants to try and knock me down, and by a miracle they happen to do it, we’ll refund their money!”
A loud murmur went up from the block and Randi looked at Ronnie quizzically. “You’re that confident nobody here can shut you up?”
“Damn right I am, starting with this virgin doing what he does best—juggling balls in his hands.”
The crowd, growing feverish with excitement, was now cheering on their fellow neighbor to hurry up so they could get a chance. Jimmy stood there, drilling a hole into this stranger who had decided to come into his life and torment him as if he was in high school again.
Ronnie Telemundo sat on his perch, what he referred to as his “throne” and laughed some more. He was already imagining what he would say to the man after he missed on his third try. In a high pitched voice Ronnie pretended to beg.
“Please, sir, please! I was only saying those horrible words in jest. Please don’t send me to the dirty depths below. I might catch cold or worse! Hey, Randi, when was the last time we cleaned out the tank?”
Randi stood leaning against the side of the truck. Despite the time of day the sun was still bearing down and she tried to hide in narrow field of shade. She wiped her forehead with the back of her right hand and without looking up at him casually asked,
“What month is it?”
“Then I’d say October of 92.”
The crowd laughed and had gathered even closer around the truck. They wanted to see the dirty, grimy pond water this loud mouthed fool would be swimming in. The old fire truck, now dunk truck was outfitted with clear glass to allow the very privilege. For those who were close enough, they could see what looked to be green water swishing back and forth. No doubt some form of malaria had made its home down there. The sides of the pool were lined with old water marks and dead bugs. A squeal came out of little Suzy Yacacono when she saw the water beetle climbing up the inside of the pool wall.
Ronnie could look into each and every one of their wide eyes. If this played the way he thought it would, he and Randi would be laughing straight to the next block. He climbed around to the edge of the truck and found little Suzy.
“Do you really want to see me swimming with those slimy, yucky bugs?” he asked with his face crinkled up in disgust.
“Yes!” came her immediate reply and the good folks of Jefferson Place all laughed. A couple even gave her a high five and smiled in agreement.
With an exaggerated pantomime, Ronnie stood up and signaled time out.
“Fine. If you guys really want to see me in there, in that filth you have to let me mentally prepare. I mean, if by the divine hand of God himself, this guy, or probably somebody else, knocks me down I want to be prepared.”
Ronnie stood up and began to stretch his arms. He shook his head back and forth, ran his fingers through his hair and sat back down. Putting his hands out in front of them, so that everyone could see, he opened and closed his fists twice. Then, quite slowly, he reached behind his back, waited a moment or two to heighten the drama and produced a copy of War and Peace he had hidden under his shirt. With the flourish of an old stagehand, he found his bookmark and opened the book.
“Okay, now I’m ready. I figure I can finish twenty pages in the time it takes good Mr. Personality over here to make a fool out of him-“
His last word was interrupted by the clank of a softball hitting the back wall, a good six inches to the left of the slightly rusted bulls-eye. A disappointed OHHH came out of his neighbor’s mouths.
Ronnie choked on his spit and the laughter that managed to come out was both loud and cruel. ”Are you kidding me? You thought you’d sur-“
Once again Ronnie’s sentiments were cut off by the smack of a softball, this time a mere two inches south of the target. The ball was thrown with such furious anger it almost ricocheted into the crowd. A louder AWWWWW rose up from the mob.
“One more, buddy. One more, pal.” His over-enunciated speech made the perfect partner along with his Cheshire grin. “One more reminder of how instead of playing baseball as a kid you took up ballet.” Ronnie stood up and did his best impression of a pirouette. Despite their best efforts, some of those gathered in the crowd chuckled.
Jimmy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened them and narrowed his gaze on the red dot directly in the middle of the bulls-eye. There would be no more jokes, no more comments from the asshole sitting on his dumb chair ten feet away. This time he would drop him. He might not even say anything afterwards. Just turn and walk back in his house so that if he managed to come out of the water in time he could see the back of his Levi 501s. Let the cheers erupting from the crowd do the talking for him. His lips pursed into a tight smile. This was it. He could hear his neighbors cheering him on with encouragement. It was hero time.
“Hey, friend, stop thinking about your next door neighbor so we can let somebody else try and fail.” Ronnie looked for Randi’s face and gave her a knowing wink. She merely rolled her eyes and waited like everyone else to see what would happen.
Jimmy rolled the ball in his right hand and slowly brought it back behind him. With a mighty step he cocked his arm back and upon releasing exclaimed with the frustration of years of embarrassment pouring forth, “I’m not your friend!”
From the moment the lime green ball left his hand it looked to be a picture perfect throw. It felt right, sounded right, it was right!
Until it was wrong.
Jimmy’s lime green softball traveled the necessary ten feet needed, with enough velocity to cause the bull-eye to go off, sending Ronnie Telemundo to a date with whatever floated below. Yet somehow, the ball barely skimmed over the top edge of the painted metal tin. He might have missed the bulls-eye by the width of an eyelash!
Perhaps Jimmy didn’t account for the slight change in wind speed, or the drop in the barometric pressure. Maybe a drop of sweat fell into his left eye, obscuring his vision for a crucial millisecond. Or could it have to do with the sun peeking out from the clouds at the exact moment Jimmy released his throw. All these are valid reasons, perfectly reasonable hypothesizes as to why Ronnie Telemundo somehow, someway stayed in a seated position.
Of course if Jimmy, and the rest of his neighbors on Jefferson Place, were made aware of the small detail of Ronnie’s left heel tapping a button before Jimmy made his first throw, thereby shutting off the switch that would cause Ronnie to fall into the water, maybe then they would understand. Whatever the reason, Jimmy had thrown his last ball and Ronnie remained high and dry.
Ronnie stretched War and Peace high above his head and read out loud, “Vera, she said to her eldest daughter who was evidently not a favorite, how is it you have so little tact? Don’t you see you are not wanted here? Go to the other girls,” With an ounce of delirium he began laughing and then placed the book behind his back before jumping up in ecstasy. “Oh no oh no oh no oh no! You failed again! Unbelievable! Buddy you failed again! I’m going to start calling you Vera! Vera, how is that possible? Go away Vera! You are not wanted here!”
Without saying a word, Jimmy walked away from the truck.
“Would somebody please shut this guy up!” the anger in the voice of Mr. Morrison was plain as day.
“Yeah, where’s Ben? He’s got a good arm,” said Mrs. Claiborne.
“Yeah, Dad can do it!” shouted Ben’s overly excited twelve-year-old son.
Ronnie had sat back down and was once again reading. “People please! Could you keep it down? I’m trying to enjoy the intricacies of War and Peace and your shouting is not helping matters.” Ronnie paused, looked at the crowd and nonchalantly exclaimed, “Besides, isn’t your friend Ben just another version of our last contestant Vera? You know, overweight, not that bright with a cheesy thin mustache hiding your green teeth?”
Those assembled went to answer back before Ronnie interjected with one more sentence, “Or am I thinking of his wife?”
Shouts of rage arose from the din. If Ronnie didn’t piss them off previously, now they had hit their collective breaking point. The crowd rapidly began to produce ten dollar bills and shake their fists high to the heavens. Every man, woman and child each demanded to go first. Randi tried to keep some semblance of order, while making change for the widow Mrs. Foley. It would be a long night for the residents of Jefferson Place.