Jawbreaker

Randy Horn came to Warren Ballard's warehouse office that morning. Warren sat behind his old dented desk, watching the kid talk and talk, and finally he thought to himself, I believe I may actually loathe this son of a bitch.

"Listen, all due respect," Randy said, which was what people like Randy Horn always said before saying something disrespectful. "You had a good run, but it's over."

"I still do all right."

"Bullshit. I know the market. Again, no disrespect. Times change, that's all it is."

"That's all it is, huh?" As Warren sipped coffee from the stained paper cup in front of him, he found himself struggling to account for the depth of his animosity toward this pony-tailed jackass. Normally he liked just about anybody, even a competitor; it upset his stomach to feel this way about another person. But here stood Randy Horn again, in his black jeans and chrome-toed boots, his tight-fitting denim shirt with the banzai tree embroidered over the yolk. Warren was helpless to feel another way.

"I've tried to do business," Randy said. "I've offered to buy you out. Hell, I've offered you more than you'd pull on those locations in the next five years. Old man, you could've retired on my dime by now."

"Who says I want to retire?"

"Bottom line, you're taking up space out there," Randy said. "Every spot you still got one a them penny-ante crapboxes is a spot where I can't put a machine. Generate some actual economy."

"So you're thinking of the economy, is that right?" Warren smiled. "The greater good and all?"

"Hell no, I'm thinking of cash in my pocket." Randy smiled back. "Still don't change the argument, though."

"We're not having an argument."

"Really? You came to your senses all of a sudden?"

"I've agreed to disagree with you."

Randy kept smiling, but something darker flickered in his eyes. Warren saw a muscle bulge in the kid's jaw. Randy Horn took a slow breath through the nose. "You got your pride," he said. "I get that."

"Not so sure you do, Randy. But I know you're not getting my territory."

At last the smile faded altogether. Warren decided he preferred Randy that way. They stared each other down like old West gunslingers. It was sort of comical if you stepped back a minute.

"Let me tell you what I know," Randy said. "You're a dinosaur. And not badass like a shark or a crocodile; I mean like the kind that went extinct."

Warren sipped his coffee. "Is that so?"

"I tried to play fair," Randy said. "But I want those routes."

"You've made yourself clear on that. Many times."

"Well, here's me being clear another time. You don't want to do civilized business like a couple grown men? Sell me your locations at a more-than-fair price? Fine." Randy squared his shoulders. "Then I'll have to go ahead and take 'em."

Warren honestly wasn't sure he'd heard that last part correctly. He leaned back. "Is that supposed to be a threat?"

"Nope. That's a straight heads-up."

"Just who the hell do you think you're talking to?"

Randy Horn grinned. "Nobody," he said, turned his back, and walked out.

• • •

On his way home that afternoon, Warren stopped off at the Driftwood Tavern to have a beer with Stan Dostal, whom he'd known forty years. Stan had made his living on a string of coin-op laundries before diabetes took his foot and Stan decided — as he put it — to throw in the towel. The diabetes hadn't curbed his beer drinking, though; Warren found him on his regular stool.

"You know he's married to a Japanese gal?" Stan said.

"Who?"

"Who the hell we talking about? Horn."

Warren admitted that he didn't know much of anything about Randy Horn outside his business: a line of big, fancy, digital machines that dispensed everything from sandwiches to cell phones. Some of them even took credit cards. The kid had shown up in town only a couple years back. Warren said, "But I guess that explains the banzai trees."

"The what now?"

"Nothing," Warren said. "Never mind."

Stan waved his hand. "Point is, I hear he got his start working for the blushing bride's old man in Tokyo."

"So?"

"So that must be about like, oh, spending your rookie season starting first base for the New York Yankees, ain't it?"

"How do you figure that?"

"Japan?" Stan shook his head. "Shoot, they vend every damn kind of thing you can think of. My son-in-law says you can buy clothes from a machine over there." He gulped his beer. "You know I read somewhere they got machines that sell schoolgirl panties to perverts?"

"That sounds like an urban legend."

"Used schoolgirl panties. Can you imagine?"

"I'd prefer not to. " Honestly, Warren was starting to wish he hadn't brought any of it up.

"He's a new breed of cat, this kid," Stan said. "That's all I'm saying."

"He's just a regular old cat, Stan. Doesn't mean I have to feed him."

"Who's feeding who, now?"

"I still do all right."

Stan laughed and swigged. "Rennie, you can't bullshit a bullshitter. Hell, you know I been there."

Warren would have liked to argue, but of course his old friend Stan was right. After much careful soul searching he'd come to accept that the gumball business — not unlike Stan's laundromat — had been swirling the drain for years.

He'd started out as a young man in 1957 with a single glass-and-iron penny machine, which he'd purchased through an ad in the classifieds; he'd bought that first unit using the money he'd squirreled away sorting nails in his father's neighborhood hardware store. In the end — after Pop was long gone and the big box joints had come to town — that gumball machine had been the only part of Ballard Best Value still making any money.

By that time, of course, the penny slots had widened to nickles, eventually to quarters. Heavy cast iron bodies had given way to cheap steel or fiberglass; cloudy plastic boxes replaced the strong, clear old glass globes.

But Warren, now looking at 70, still owned around 900 of them. They'd made him a fortune over the middle decades of his life, dispensing bright orbs of color into small eager palms from the entryways of drugstores, car dealerships, newsstands, retail shops, service stations, and bowling alleys across the city and beyond. A small fortune, it was true — but enough to pay off the house and a life's worth of bills; enough to take his wife, Glynn, on a nice vacation every year; even enough to put a pair of unappreciative children through college. Land-grant, yes. But still college.

Now sugar prices were up, spare change was down, and every other week came a story about childhood obesity on the news. The bulk candy racket wasn't what it used to be, and that was putting it mildly. The cold fact was that Warren's revenue had fallen steadily for the past decade, and last year had been his worst yet. By about a mile.

"Me being you," Stan said, "I'd have to ask myself: Why not take this punk's money? Get out of the rat race. Kick back and do some fishing with your old pal Stan. You've earned it."

"I don't mind working," Warren said. "And when the hell's the last time you went fishing?"

"Fair point."

"I guess it just sticks in my craw. Him with his DVD rentals and mochaccino machines. The attitude, more than anything."

Stan shrugged. "You coulda branched out yourself, you know."

"Coulda," Warren agreed. He'd dabbled a bit over the years. Capsule toys and whatnot, different sorts of candy, those little paper transfer tattoos.

But in the end, when it came right down to it, he was a gumball man. Plain and simple. Dependable. One shape: you knew what you were in for. But what color? Just the right dash of suspense. Lord knew it wasn't a glamorous line, but he'd built a life with it, with his hands and shoe leather and his father's hardware nails. And it had always been enough of a life for Warren Ballard.

He wouldn't say it to Stan, but the whole thing made him feel old and a little bit sad. Every kid in America used to stop at the gumball machine and tug on Mom's sleeve; now they slouched past without ever looking up from the video game in their hands.

"Well, what can you do," Stan said. He raised two fingers; the bartender brought over two fresh beers. Stan said, "Here's to us old fucks."

Warren raised his mug. "Says you."

• • •

It was past dark when Warren left Stan at the bar and headed for home, two beers later and two hours longer than he'd planned. Glynn asked him on the phone if he needed a lift, but he told her he was fine to drive. She asked him why he sounded so blue. He told her it had been a long day.

Outside, in the empty parking lot, Warren unlocked the truck and reached for the handle when a voice said, "Hey gumball man. Try a jawbreaker."

He had enough time to see a stranger step from the shadows before the stranger moved his arm and lights flashed in Warren's head. He felt an explosion in his face, heard his nose crunch; wet warmth streamed over his lips, straight down the back of his throat. Before he knew what was happening, he was flat on the ground, choking on his own blood.

Warren coughed and rolled over, spit a mouthful of shocking bright red onto the gritty pavement. He heard steps, saw a pair of tennis shoes. A sudden impact to his ribs lifted him up and swiped his breath.

He felt himself go flat. He could feel the parking lot under his cheek. The pain seemed to cover him like a blanket; he couldn't breathe and couldn't move. Warren went black a moment, then managed to drag in a sip of air. Then he saw a different pair of tennis shoes.

The next kick caught him in the small of the back. Then the shoulder. Then square in the tailbone. Ribs again. The blows seemed to come from everywhere, all at the same time, and when they stopped, Warren did the only thing he could do: he lay there moaning.

Now came scraping footsteps. A pair of chrome-toed boots entered his vision. Warren looked up and saw Randy Horn kneeling over him, elbows on his knees, shaking his head slowly.

"Sorry, old timer," Randy said. "Can't fight the future."

Then he stood. Warren heard a zipper, then felt a spatter of hot liquid on his neck and jacket, and he realized dimly that Randy Horn was pissing on him.

• • •

They were heading for the emergency room at Holy Mercy — Stan driving Warren's truck, Warren slumped and reeking of urine in the passenger seat — when Glynn called, crying, and asked him to please come home.

Warren could see the police lights flashing the moment Stan turned up their street. When they reached his driveway, he saw Glynn in the yard, clutching her robe, talking to one of the cops on the scene. He also saw a bunch of his machines in a busted-up pile on his lawn. Half a dozen of them or so.

"What happened to you?" Glynn cried as Stan helped him over to the action. She hurried over and took him in her arms, then recoiled with a grimace. "What on earth is that smell? Warren, are you drunk?"

"He got jumped," Stan said.

"Jumped?" Terror bloomed in her eyes. "What do you mean, jumped?"

"Right there at the bar. In the parking lot. I was takin' him to the ER when you called."

Glynn gasped and covered her mouth.

The cop said, "Sir, are you alright?"

"The hell kinda question is that?" Stan said.

"Been better," Warren admitted. His nose felt like a potato. It hurt to be awake.

"Do you know the person who assaulted you?"

"People," Warren said. "At least two. And, no, I didn't know them." He caught the strange look that crossed Stan's face; Warren touched his arm before Stan could speak again. He nodded toward the rubble on his lawn. "When did this happen?"

The cop checked his notepad. "Around thirty minutes ago, according to your wife."

"They pulled up in a big dark truck and just tossed them out one after the other," Glynn said. "And then they drove off!"

"Did you see a plate?"

"No. When I heard all the commotion I didn't even think to grab my glasses."

Warren reached out and took her hand.

"Oh, honey," she said, and began to cry again. "Honey, look at you." She sniffed and wiped her eyes, tried to get ahold of herself. Glynn was no shrinker. "What happened to your coat?"

"Threw it in the dumpster." This brought back Glynn's waterworks and Warren did his best to give her a smile. "There, there, Glynnie. Everything's all right. Just bumps and bruises."

The cop said, "Sir, would you have any reason to suspect that the people who attacked you may be connected with the people who did this to your property?"

Warren squeezed Glynn's hand, glanced pointedly at Stan, and said, "No reason I can think of."

"Officer," Glynn scolded, "my husband needs medical attention."

The cop nodded. "I'll radio for the EMT's. Sit tight, folks."

When he was gone, Stan stared at Warren so long that Warren finally shook his head ever so slightly to call him off: not now. The three of them stood there gazing at the twisted wreckage in the yard. There were gumballs everywhere.

Stan put his hand on his hips and sighed. "That ain't right," he said.

"Tough business," Warren agreed.

• • •

When his bruises had faded, and his cracked ribs had healed, and his nose looked more or less like a nose again, Warren Ballard retired.

He sold his unused stock to a zoo in Florida and hired a national auction company to sell off his machines. He pulled a few strings with merchants he'd worked with around town; within a few days he'd set up the high school kids who ran routes for him with decent new part-time jobs. He rented his small warehouse and office space to a local plumber who was expanding his operation. Nice young guy, wife and kids.

Stan Dostal didn't look at him quite the same way again for a good long while. One afternoon at the Driftwood, Warren reminded Stan just who'd preached retirement in the first place; Stan only grunted, swigged his beer, and changed the subject.

Glynn, too, was suspicious. She didn't believe a word Warren told her about the night he was attacked; she promised that she'd be even angrier than she was about that if she weren't so pleased to have him at home. They planned a trip to Scottsdale to visit their grandkids and play a little golf in the fall.

The cops never did find the vandals in the big dark truck. When the weather warmed up, Warren followed the ant trails until he'd picked the last of the gumballs from under the bushes and out of the grass.

He found that he spent a lot of time driving around during the days. Nights, he fiddled on the computer. After brushing up on a thing or two through research, he ordered some merchandise over the Internet, had it sent to a PO box at a parcel-shipping outlet over by the mall. Only a little at first — just to dip in a toe, see how it felt. Then more.

Finally, one early morning, he went and visited his old pal Vince Khang.

Vince ran his elderly father's grocery in Little Korea, where Warren had kept a five-bank of machines nearly twenty years. Despite all the sharp foreign smells, walking into this store never failed to remind him of his own father's hardware.

"Ballard," Vince said at the counter. "You're alive."

"Still kicking," Warren said. "How's things?"

"Not so bad. How's retirement?"

"Uneventful. I hear that's normal."

Vince grinned as he rang the register. "I wouldn't know."

The old man, Whan Khang, came hobbling up an aisle. He scowled and said, "Where you been goddamn? Bring back gumball."

Warren followed the jerk of the old man's crooked thumb to the big, gleaming, Horn Enterprises machine in the entryway where Warren's own bank had been. Cheap MP3 players and accessories in place of gumballs now.

"Seon-saeng-nim," Warren said. He still didn't know if he was saying that right or not, but it was the respectful greeting he'd learned doing business around here. He smiled and said, "Times change."

The old man grimaced, waved a hand, and hobbled away.

Vince said, "He doesn't like the new guy."

"No kidding? I hear he's swell."

"He doesn't like the new guy's wife, either," Vince said. "If you know what I mean."

Warren thought he knew precisely. "Ah," he said.

Vince grinned. "Ah-so."

"Anyway, how's he making out?"

"I guess not so good," Vince said, counting twenties into the drawer from a bank bag as he tipped a nod toward Horn's machine. "They have to refill that thing all the time."

Warren chuckled. "Rub it in, why don't you."

"You looking for something?"

Warren took his gaze from the security camera in the corner, mentally kicking himself for being so obvious. "Nah," he said. "Just nostalgic, I guess. How's the family?"

• • •

It might not have been normal procedure in his business — Warren didn't know how people in other places did things — but here, a number of the mom-and-pops he'd worked with had given him keys to their establishments over the years. That way, if need arose, he could service his locations after regular business hours. Although he'd only rarely availed himself of the permission, he'd always taken pride in the knowledge that people trusted him that way.

So it was not without a pang of conscience, on the night he struck, that he used his leftover key to let himself into Khang Grocery a few hours after dark.

He used a pair of snips from his garage at home to disable the new security camera he'd spotted — the one pointing down at Horn's machine — and he didn't feel quite so bad over that part. The store's other cameras he left alone. He already knew where those were.

Awhile back he'd found a video on the Internet about how to pick the tube lock on machines like this one, so he'd ordered an assortment loose in a box and spent a few weeks practicing on them. And what the hell did you know? It worked just the way the video had claimed.

Warren spent just over half an hour completing his task. He hauled in the boxes from his truck and emptied their contents onto the floor. He loaded Horn's merchandise into the boxes, then loaded his own merchandise into the machine.

When he was finished, he hauled all the boxes back out, climbed into the truck, found a nice shady spot a block away, and waited.

• • •

Just after dawn, two black SUVs pulled up outside the store. The sky had gone pink in the east. Warren's bladder ached, and his knees were stiff, and he wished he'd thought to bring his toothbrush along. But he had a feeling this wouldn't take much longer.

Out of the SUV climbed four intimidating characters, all in sunglasses. All four of them wore fancy t-shirts that showed their lean muscles and their colorful arms, sleeved in tattoos.

The elder Khang emerged from the store just as the men in sunglasses arrived. He met them on the sidewalk, stooped and agitated, gesticulating angrily. One of the young men put an arm around Whan's narrow shoulders, and the group went inside together.

These men Khang had called to his place of business were gangsters, Warren knew. The Khangs, like all the other merchants in this part of town, made weekly neighborhood protection payments to the local jopok — the Korean mafia. Warren only knew that because he'd pitched in himself, years ago, when Whan's grandaughter — Vince's little girl — had fallen ill, and the store had struggled for a time. Warren had given Vince and Whan the proceeds from his machines at their location for six months or so. It hadn't been much. Just enough to keep the jopok from smashing out windows while the Khangs sorted their way through a stack of medical bills.

Now, at least per Warren's plan, old man Khang meant to see a little return on all those dues.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, the front doors swung open, and out came the four men in sunglasses. They carried Horn's machine between them, two men on a side. With an impressive display of teamwork they heaved the machine into the street, where it landed with a crash. The display glass shattered and fell. A dog barked somewhere nearby. The gangsters rolled their shoulders and accompanied old man Khang back into the store.

Within half an hour, Randy Horn arrived in his big dark truck, a charcoal Ford F-350 with a quad cab and super duty suspension. If at times, during the long night, Warren had debated the morality of what he was attempting to set in motion — and there had been a few moments, he had to be honest, even considering the circumstances — he stopped worrying now. Gas prices being what they were, any man who drove a truck like that to the supermarket deserved what was coming to him.

Horn slammed to a stop in the middle of the street. He climbed down, ran over to his shattered unit, and walked a complete circle before throwing up his arms and stalking toward the store. Even with his own windows up, Warren could hear Randy's profanity-laden shouting all the way up the street.

Horn hadn't quite made it to the sidewalk when the four men in sunglasses emerged to greet him. They came out of the store one by one and surrounded Horn in the street. Horn continued yelling, pointing, and carrying on, until at last he seemed to realize that he himself might in fact be the one in trouble, and not the other way around.

But of course it was too late by then. One of the men stepped forward, tilted his body, and kicked Randy square in the chest. The force of the impact sent Randy stumbling to the opposite side of the circle, face-first into a crushing elbow thrown by one of the guys over there.

Randy Horn went down as though he'd ridden a motorcycle into a clothesline. One of his fancy boots actually flew off his foot and up into the air, landing a few feet from where Randy fell.

Then they were on him.

As Warren sat watched the proceedings, he thought about the last thing Randy Horn had said to him, all these weeks ago, just before he'd commenced whizzing: Can't fight the future.

He wondered if Randy had figured out yet that the same could be said about the past.

Take Whan Khang, for example. Here was a man whose sister had been sold as a "comfort girl" to a military brothel during the Japanese occupation of Korea in World War II. A man who had grown up during a time of prejudice and discrimination toward Koreans sent to work in Japan. Why, in his home country, the official ban against Japanese products and culture had remained in place until not so very long ago.

Bigotry was ugly in any form; Warren Ballard would have been the first to agree on that point. But if a person understood history, they might understand how the sight of a red Rising Sun emblem — an emblem of some cultural importance to Randy Horn's own in-laws, no doubt — might resonate with an old Korean like Whan.

From where he sat, Warren could see all the vending items emblazoned with just such a Rising Sun emblem, which he'd been ordering for weeks. The t-shirts. The mouse pads. The key chains. The playing cards. Even the bookmarks. Dozens of perfect red circles all lined up in rows, all waiting to greet Whan Khang from the window of Randy Horn's machine as Whan opened his store this morning. All now sprinkled in winking glass, greeting only the blue sky. Warren hadn't thought of it before, but from a distance, he could almost imagine that he saw a field of bright red gumballs.

Meanwhile, the beating got so bad that when the jopok soldiers finally piled back into their SUVs and drove away, Warren felt a renewed pang of guilt, followed by a stab of panic. Randy Horn lay there, curled in the gutter, motionless, for too long.

With mounting horror, Warren processed the dawning notion that the gang thugs had actually killed him. He thought about what he'd do if Glynn had woken up in the night and discovered him gone. What on earth was he going to say to her when her got home?

Then, slowly, Randy's arm stretched out. His hand flopped against the edge of the curb. His bootless foot shifted weakly.

At that point, Warren reasoned, as he started the truck and pulled away, he was probably in the clear. Glynn would have called him by now if anything had been wrong at home. And old habits died hard; most days he was already dressed and out running errands by the time she stirred.


Sean Doolittle is the award-winning author of six crime and suspense novels, including Lake Country, his latest, and The Cleanup, currently in development as a feature film. Doolittle's books have been translated in several languages; his short stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Year's Best Horror Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. The author lives in western Iowa with his family.