I have not seen Raymond Nathan Anderson since he fled Stafford’s Grocery on September 23, 1971, leaving me to explain the short pack of chocolate Now-n-Laters candy in my outer coat pocket.
On the store counter was a big moon cookie that Mr. Stafford had readied for one of our weekly nickels. In my mouth there was a chewed Windmill cookie. In my mind was the certainty that, once Raymond came from wherever he was in the rear of the little Grocery, he would pay up. He did not pay.
In third grade, Raymond and I took turns paying five cent for two cookies from the clear, red topped canister on the counter at Stafford’s. That day Raymond came to the front of the store and bumped into me saying with a jittery voice, “I ain’t got no nickel t’day“. I stopped chewing. A suddenly tight-faced and pale Mr. Stafford rumbled around the end of the counter. Raymond fled and the Grocer locked the heavily latched door. Before I could figure things out he had snapped a picture of me with a well-used, white Polaroid One Step camera. (Yes, that one) He started fanning the ejected, magically developing paper as he called for Clifton to come out from the stock room.
Clifton was the husband of our Pastor’s third daughter, Ethel. The Store was just one hundred yards away and on the same side of the street as the Greater Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Just outside of the Store, was where the 47 Moore City Bus stopped daily at 4:00pm and discharged my Mother. He came to the front, saw me and the waving snapshot, then looked up to the clock above the locked door. Mr Stafford alternated his reddening face between me, Clifton and then back out the small, chicken-wired screened window where Raymond had been seen running.
Mr. Stafford pulled the black grease pen from Clifton’s apron pocket and wrote the word “THIEF” beneath my image. “That’s a pretty slick distraction plan you two had going there, Junior“, the Grocer said through a suddenly, narrow-lipped, minimal-tooth grin. “But, I had yo’ buddy eye-balled the whole time you were up here pickin’ out yo’ cookie“, he added. “Next time you might want to have him do a lil’ less of that head bobbing when he’s stuffing the goods into his pockets. That’s a dead give away, Buddy!”, his voice rose a pitch with the last word. Before that moment he had always called me “Jr” or “Jr. Ma’dus”. It was clear that things had changed.
Clifton put his ashen hand on my shoulder and let the thick fingers of his grip “message” into my youthful and shocked core, “Jr. Madus, you thank’n dat frien’ boy of your’n musta want them candies in place of dem cookies t’day? He musta seen you chomping down on dat Win’mill an’. figgard you want gon pay for his part!”. I was in the third grade. It would be sixth grade before this kind of logic easily caught up to me. I coughed on the words as they spit up from inside me, “Clifton, we ALWAYS get the cookies! He know he was s’pposed to pay Mr. Stafford for the cookies. He didn’t say nuthin’ bout getting Now/Laters“. Even in memory I hear my words blaring loudly and incredulously from my shaking, nine-year-old self.
Clifton side-eyed Mr. Stafford’s direction and looked back to me with a disgraced frown. “Well“, he said looking up to the clock above the door again, “Miss Rose ought to be getting off the 47 Mo’ in about an hour now.” Turning to his employer Clifton offered a well spoken parlay, “He can come work off them few nickels, Mr. Stafford, with that section of beans that come in today. I still got that rack of dirty RC and Nehi Grape bottles to wash out, too.” He paused and reached over the counter where a folded white apron appeared and was shaken loose. Not waiting for Stafford’s agreement Clifton slipped the apron over my head and pulled me toward the aisle of plank shelving. He pointed for me to start lining up cans.
Back at the front Mr. Stafford walked to the door and thumb-tacked my defacto mug shot to the door jamb. Clifton sighed and blew a whistle into the dusty air of the Grocery store’s closing in walls. The 7-Up advertising clock above the chicken-wired window churned its second hand faster and faster than I had ever seen time fly. I sweated in my overcoat as the clock’s short black hand fell toward the 4 and the long hand pressed closer to the 11.
Clifton stood with a grunt and headed to the front. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but Clifton motioned a thumb toward me and wagged his head alot before it was all over and the long hand fell between the 1 and 2 of the number twelve. I imagined the sounds of air expressing and the familiar squeal and braking of the 47 Moore bus and the opening of that heavy door until I was unable to lift another can.
With my head hanging and the tears started to build on the reality of being killed at 4:01pm, the two men suddenly stopped their hushed talking. The door was opening. It wasn’t the familiar push and pitched opening that most patrons used at Stafford’s. Instead, the door was slipping open inch-by-inch and I stood to see who was entering, anticipating my Mother’s thin, brown hand and silver wedding ring to break into view.
Just as suddenly, the men turned back to the window and I heard the bus slowing through the chicken-wired window. The bell above the door clanged a short burst and both men cursed as a tearing sound and pop of thumb tacks on the floor broke the silence of the little Grocery. “Dammit! Get him Cliff.” Mr. Stafford shouted from his side of the counter and Clifton rushed for the shutting door. The Grocer rounded the counter and joined him out the door where a cluster of the “THIEF” polaroids had been snatched.
I made it to the counter in time to see an older boy called “Slick”, wearing a familiar silver studded jean jacket, in a loping stride up the slope that lead toward the Church. Clifton was close behind him. His white apron untying with a long, stumbling stride. Mr. Stafford simply gave up at the street’s edge still yelling, “Get HIM, Clifton!” as the 47 Moore bus pulled forward and turned the corner heading back toward Downtown. In the confusion, my Mother skipped her stop at the little Grocery and glanced both ways before crossing the street toward home.
I took off the apron and, knowing that I would not be allowed back into Stafford’s Grocery, slipped Raymond Anderson’s big moon cookie and the short pack of chocolate Now-N-Later candy from the counter and into my coat pocket. The bell had broken off with one of the men’s exits, so I slipped out and around the opposite outside wall and waited for Mr. Stafford to head back inside. I slid across the two lane road toward home.
Later, when she called for me to go get a can of PET milk, my Mother told me to get it at The Market further up the block from Stafford’s. She had been thinking about all of his chasing and yelling and the shameful Polaroids on his door frame. Seeing that young boy “running for his life today”, she said, “was the last straw. It’s only a matter of time”, she shook her head, “before that man accuses somebody like you!”
Jas. Mardis is an awarded Poet, Radio Commentator and Quilter. He is a 2014 Inductee to The Texas Literary Hall of Fame and has a 2000 Push Cart Prize Winner for Poetry.