It was 5:09 p. m. as Matt STRODE into High Park; in his most profound statistical statement to date he had announced the day before that his new $1100 chair had changed his life.
“It is the best chair I have ever sat in; I would have to say it has improved my life by 84%,” he had told us, “and has upgraded my gait to a stride.” He made this pronouncement displaying his clenched teeth Peter Boyle smile. Matt suffered from chronic back problems and had determined that his walking improvement had been due to the new chair. He was quite proud of his statistical background and liked to throw out a stat every once in a while. Seemed like the majority of Matt’s statistical observations seemed to come out at 84%; for example, one of his most famous ones was that High Park “screwed up to go orders 84% of the time.” I think his percentage may be a bit on the high side, although they have messed mine up before and only recently Tim had reported that he had been shorted a piece of corn bread in his order. All that aside everyone at the island was very happy for Matt, especially me, because he gave me his old chair (a nice ‘un) to replace my wife’s bedraggled one.
The usual quartet was in attendance, Tim and Mike having appeared at four, which is also my time. The topic of conversation had been the sudden appearance of a couple of the “Office Tavern Outcasts”; at first blush this term may sound disparaging, but in actuality it was not. As the saying goes “not a criticism, just an observation.” The two had come in together; one of them was John Carter, a man who had been dubbed “inscrutable John” by a peripatetic roofer who used to frequent the O. T. John’s appearance lent heavily to the moniker he had been awarded, but the inscrutability really kicked in when he spoke, or attempted to. He was indeed a rambler; he was rumored to work for a paving company. The other man was a black fellow named Henry who had always shaved half of his head, right down the middle going front to back. Henry was never known to work, relying on handouts and the benevolence of the Office Tavernites to keep him in cigarettes. Inscrutable John had stopped by the island to say hello; I guess it was a hello, although it was totally unintelligible, then he had meandered on out the door. I think Henry was mainly there for the possibility of a cigarette, for he had just walked through and then outside to where the smokers were. When we had seen the two of them come in I had given the guys a hurried thumbnail sketch of who they were; apparently I had become sort of the official liaison between the old time High Parkers and the “O. T. Outcasts.” Of course I had been an outcast myself so I was loaded up with empathy, but I was able to temper this emotion and report honestly about the outcasts; I had been decreed as accepted into the High Park realm by the islanders and considered it an honor. I was quite aware of the gravity of this unofficial position to which I had been elevated; the other three islanders being members of High Park a long time. I think all three of them were up for their twenty-year pins or beyond. Incidentally, I take full credit for coining the term “Office Tavern Outcasts”; it referred to all of us long time habitues of the bar who had become disenfranchised when Billy Davis sold the business.
Things reverted to normal after the exit of the duet and the conversation gravitated to the typical island banter of “what ya gonna have for dinner” and an update on Tim’s problematic Honda Element, apparently some sort of chronic electrical issue, to wit, three new batteries in three weeks.
There is something to be said for normalcy, even hum drum moments; this fact was driven home by a commotion down at the other end of the bar, where a few lawyers and the young girls hung out. It was painfully evident what had occurred, a sustained basso profundo bellow emanating from there. It was none other than Wade Poplar, another Tavernite.
The phrase “Oh God no” echoed around the island; Wade Poplar was a man unparalleled in his volume and his ability to turn people off. He was a big guy, I guess to go along with the big voice, and had long red hair. He was a long time O. T. guy; his claims to fame were his wallpaper hanging ability and his being from Kinston. His wallpaper career was further enhanced by having papered some McDonald’s restaurants. He was wearing a dusty looking toboggan cap with the words Green Bay emblazoned on it; of course it was done in the Packer colors. Whenever he wore it, which was all football season, he felt compelled to bellow out how his English mother had crocheted it for him; after having established that his mother was from England he would somehow work “bubble and squeak” into the conversation to solidify his worldliness and buttress his attempt to have a cosmopolitan air about him. He enjoyed saying hello to everyone personally; he was sort of the antithesis of Lisa, the High Park employee who took an hour and several visits to finally leave at the end of her shift. The difference was that Wade Poplar only did his salutations once, when he arrived on the scene. The Islanders waited with an ominous feeling of dread for the “arboreal one” to make his way to us. I delight in coming up with curious monikers for people. Please forgive.
“Hey Shady,” he screamed when he got to the island; I responded “hello”. Then he yelled out “Whoooze yur buddies?” so I introduced him to the others; they responded with mumbles and vacant looks and he moved on to hassle other people in the bar.
“What an idiot,” said Tim, breaking the silence after the passing of the all-consuming tornado. Mike and Matt were shooting accusatory looks at me; “Please move away from the island if he comes in here again so that we don’t have to listen to that,” the Peter Boyle lookalike spit out venomously. Mike was silent but you could see that he had not enjoyed the introductions. I understood totally and assured them that unlike Lisa the employee he would not be making the rounds again.
“He only goes through that mess when he first comes and merely nods to you after that,” I assured the trio. The “arboreal one” had moved on and was presently outside bothering the smokers; we heard later on that he was not received very well, an episode of stealing Johnny the Chef’s seat and spouting off that “his shit was tight,” whatever that means.
Wade Poplar spent the rest of the afternoon annoying the smokers much to our satisfaction, but the next afternoon at about the same time that Matt arrived around five we heard the bellow once again down at the far end of the bar. A pall descended upon the islanders, with much inward and outward eyerolling, awaiting the inevitable arrival of our new nemesis. He strolled up, slapping me on the back and yelling to everyone how great the Packers were doing and immediately went into his time-honored rendition of how he was a bouncer at the Keg topless bar on Hillsborough Street his freshman year at State before he flunked out.
“Yea, all them dancers just loved me to death; ya know I was kind of their protector, sort of a big brother with benefits,” he roared with a leer, tossing his abundant red locks around. This announcement was greeted with a serious lack of eye contact, two of the group having to go to the bathroom and a third having to go out to the sidewalk and call his mother. Turns out I was the only set of ears left and after a few moments of reminiscences of the “ol’ days at the O. T.” the arboreal one departed, once again heading for the smoking area. I saw Mike and Matt peeking out from the alcove at the bathroom and Tim lingering outside the double doors at the sidewalk; I guess they had seen Wade Poplar exit so they came back to their seats. Tim was the first one to speak.
“Guess the only silver lining to the arboreal cloud would be that the other Tavern outcasts didn’t make an appearance,” he said, looking around to make sure that the mention of them had not made them spontaneously enter.
“Man, that guy is the worst and most obnoxious human being I have ever been around, and I have seen some super losers in my time,” offered Mike. “If he keeps coming in here something has gotta give.
Matt had readied his clenched teeth Peter Boyle grin and added “what if he just disappeared, and never came back. Kinda been a little bit of that goin’ around lately.”
This comment caught me a little off guard.
“What are you suggesting?” I asked; I was looking right at Matt and noticed that the grin was still plastered on his face.
“It would kind of be like doing a public service; think of all the High Park people who would benefit,” Tim interjected. To be such a professed left winger Tim could make you wonder at times just exactly what went on in that big ol’ brain of his. I chose to look upon these comments as just banter, not thinking of them seriously. Thinking a little further on what Tim had said I realized that there can be a radical element in that thought line.
I looked at the three of them for a moment; there was something about the prevailing tone that struck me as being a bit disconcerting, but I chastised myself mentally for probably making something out of nothing. The conversation turned to the more exciting topics of where Andrea had decided she and Mike were going to look for another house, how therapeutic Matt’s new chair was, and Tim’s revelation that corn dogs were on sale again at the Little Teeter. Six o’clock came upon us and we departed.
The next afternoon I could tell that a palpable sense of dread had settled over the island; I did not bring it up but it was there. Mike and Tim were unusually quiet, more like morose. I tried to lighten up the atmosphere with some extremely stale jokes and alas and alack got nowhere. By the way, I always thought those would be great names for twins; somewhat akin to the elderly twins in the church I grew up in, Cliff and Cleff. But I digress. The mood did become a bit more upbeat thanks to the ubiquitous Lisa, who came around three times in twenty minutes hugging and saying goodbye. After Lisa’s lengthy departure things quietened again but only momentarily.
“Hey,hey,” came the call of Wade Poplar, wafting over the barroom chatter and the jukebox, sounding not unlike Fat Albert of yore. Of course he made a bee line for the island, hollering out all of our names and shouting “how ya doin’, how ‘bout them Packers,” etc. My three friends were acting friendly, asking about his English mother and bragging on what a great town Kinston was.
“Me and Andrea are thinking ‘bout looking at a house over there; such a great location,” Mike said, in an almost animated fashion. “On the Neuse River, ain’t it?”
Of course Wade Poplar was ecstatic at the thought of a new friend, regurgitating every fact he could think of about Kinston, from the population to how great King’s Barbecue was, and on and on and on. I was in virtual shock, not believing my eyes at what was going on when Tim unleashed a broadside.
“Wow, Wade, Kinston is so cool; my band played there some back in the 80s,” he caroled, smiling broadly. Then came the finale.
Displaying his best clenched teeth Peter Boyle grin Matt said “by the way, ol’ buddy, I might need some wallpapering done at my apartment. Got a card?” Wade Poplar was floating in heaven as he handed out a business card to Matt and then to everyone else. After that barrage the arboreal one left; I think his level of shock may have surpassed mine. My shock was one of total disbelief, and I am sure his was one of elation, so excited over having his new buddies. My mental state could best be described as one of stupefaction.
“What in hell is going on with you guys?” I asked, hardly able to get the words out. Their responses were incredible, curious, and baffling.
“Just thought maybe we were being a little tough on the guy,” Mike offered, pulling his long hair off his shoulder.
“Just being friendly,” Matt said, exhibiting a little Cheshire cat touch to his clenched teeth Peter Boyle grin.
But the blockbuster came from Tim, who was very capable of cutting someone he didn’t like off at the knees. “Just being friendly,” Tim said, downing his fourth double Canadian Mist in a gulp.
Overwhelmed is far too light a word for what I felt; fortuitously, the six o’clock hour had come and out the door we went. I had to run an errand the next morning so after swimming at Pullen Aquatic Center I headed over to the Ace Hardware store at Seaboard. I stopped short after entering the store; twenty feet in front of me I saw Mike, Tim, and Matt. Something, maybe my voyeur streak, made me stop and step down an aisle so that I was out of their line of sight. I watched as they were
poring over a stand that had axe handles in it. I could hear what they were saying, and they were in agreement that ash was a very hard wood and quite durable. I moved a little further down the aisle and watched as the trio walked to the cash register; I could not determine who actually paid for it. They left and so did I, the light bulb I had come to purchase a faded memory.
The next afternoon we had a return of the arboreal one and a return of the curious behavior exhibited by my friends the day before. I just sat and listened to the three of them go on; seems they had all become Packers fans and were inquiring whether or not they could get a Packers toboggan cap and how much it would cost.
“No charge,” a beaming Wade Poplar said, “my mom has several of them crocheted up. I’ll bring ‘em in tomorrow.” I noticed that there was some eye cutting among the three of them when the arboreal one made this statement, but at the time I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Wade Poplar left an even happier man than he was the day before; I resisted quizzing my friends about their second day of bizarre behavior, deciding that I would just wait and see how things played out. When six o’clock came around I grabbed my bag, I had ordered take-out Gumbo, and started out the door. Telling everyone goodbye I thought it noteworthy that none of them made a move.
“So you guys hangin’ out?” I asked, and got a couple of mumbled “for a bit” s for my trouble.
I left a befuddled man.
I was returning from the pool the next morning, listening to Glenn Beck, when the local news came on at ten thirty.
“Police were called to Lady Fingers Catering on East Whitaker Mill Rd. this morning at 7 a. m. When workers arrived they discovered a tall red-haired man lying in a pool of blood in front of the establishment. RPD said that he had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument.”