After combing alleys and streets all over the goddamn neighborhood for an hour and a half, I turn the corner onto our block and see the little bastard pumping his pork chop legs, the fire engine’s plastic parts, faded pink by the sun, rattling all around him to the rhythm of the sidewalk. I pull the car alongside him and match his pace. The intermittent glimpses allowed by the space between parked cars reveal the effort and determination squeezed into his pudgy brow.
“Hey,” I shout, once I’ve reached over and wound down the passenger window.
Neither interest in answering nor an acknowledgment that he’s even noticed me trouble the little bastard’s countenance.
“Hey,” I shout again. I honk.
Does he speed up just a bit? He does. And then he clatters past my own front lawn, his face’s features stuck in their dried play-dough bulges.
Do I think this through? I do not. I gun the engine, skid to a stop at the end of the block, and leap from the car, my door gaping open, then bouncing on its hinge. I position myself at the end of the sidewalk, legs spread wide as if preparing for a charging bear, and I stare at the little bastard coming toward me as if I am a madman and he is the sun.
He locks eyes with mine and coasts to a stop a dozen feet from me. The battle of wits begins.
“Where’d you get that fire engine?”
“It’s not yours.”
“You’re right. It’s not mine. It belongs to my daughter.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“You stole it from our front yard.”
“I’m going to tell my mom you tried to molest me.”
Should I have seen this coming? The question is moot; even with advance warning I could not have designed a parry for such a thrust. I start to stammer a response, but realize immediately that anything I say will only make things worse. Stepping aside, I then feel the growing heat of shame on my face as he wheels my daughter’s favorite object in the world around the corner, down the block, and up the front walk of the crumbling bungalow on the next corner. Then I get back in the car and go home to my failure as a father.
After dinner, I approach the little bastard’s house on foot. Reaching the front door, I see the fire engine in a side yard surrounded by chain link and cleansed of all but a few blades of grass by what I can only guess is the monster than lives in the doghouse-like pile of plywood at the far end of the property. I could just take the fire engine and sneak off, but that, I tell myself, is no way to deal with a bully.
Instead I tap at the aluminum screen door. When the inner door opens I am greeted by a wave of air marinated in stale cigarette smoke and hamburger fat. A short, overweight woman in cut-off sweat pants and a tank top with a unisex toddler on her hip frowns at me from behind the mesh.
“Hi. I live down the street. Do you have a six or seven-year-old son?”
“Nine.” It takes me a moment to realize this is his age rather than a German denial.
“Oh. Well, I think that fire engine in the side yard belongs to my daughter. I think your son took it. Stole it.”
Her frown deepens. “Thanks for letting me know.” I can’t tell if I detect sarcasm or not. Before I can do anything that might clarify my interpretation, the door closes, and I am alone with the sounds of the crickets and cicadas.
Stepping into the yard through the gate, I thank a God I don’t believe in that T. Rex is in the house for the evening. And as I begin to drag the fire engine out of the yard, I hear the woman’s admonishing squawk, followed by a whining protestation, which is quickly answered with – and this, I am embarrassed to admit, is the most satisfying of the three – the thud of flesh violently meeting flesh. This and the ensuing symphony of screams and wails fade behind me as I slowly wheel home the gleaming pink proof that I will do what I must for the sake of my loved ones.