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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Water Balloon Fight

On a small street, in a small town, two small gas stations sat across the road from each other. The fancy lights and utter convenience of the big city stations were far from there; here only was the dire need for a car's fuel, coffee in the morning, hot dogs at noon, and slushies for the kids at night. The fuel prices were controlled not by the electronic signs that you might see these days, but cards with numbers on them. Whenever the prices would change, each gas station's building would release a man to climb on the ladder and make the numbers correct
    In the east station, there was Harold Wimmersmaks, proprietor of Wimmersmaks Gas 'n' Go. His family had been around for generations at this small street, in this small town. His father had worked at the station, as had his father. His father had built the place with his own bare hands, and that man's father had been a farmer. Harold loved the smell of fresh gas in the morning and a clean shop at night, and loved tallying the numbers from each day in the back room as his son swept up.
    Across the street in the west station, the Gas Barn, Oscar Bentley claimed much of the same sort. His father's father's father's father and all that. He would go down the rows of merchandise, cupcakes and sodas and beer, straightening here and there and keeping the place clean. His own son would ring up the last customer of the night as Oscar did this and enjoyed the waning day.
    These happy men had but one thorn in each of their respective sides -- each other. To both of them, the man in his house of horrors across the street was a charlatan, a man that peddled cheap product for the unwitting customer and plotted his downfall, most likely with the liberal application of tomatoes, shaving cream, or termites. That wicked man that lived 'over there' was no friend, and no member of his family was to fraternize with any member of his family.
    Little did they know, of course, that both sons were in the same ball team after school. They knew each other, knew what each other was -- a son of a 'wicked man' -- and didn't much care. The wives sat in the same book club on Saturdays, and would chat like friends if their carts passed each other in the grocery store. They were cut from the same cloth, they'd laugh -- both wives to a gas station owner.
    Both men were ready to live their lives pretending the other didn't exist, if not for what the small town came to call . . . the water balloon fight.

It was a boiling hot July first when Oscar Bentley of the Gas Barn took a step outside to change the price of unleaded. Harold Wimmersmaks happened to be doing just the same thing. The two men saw each other, but neither acknowledged the fact, instead marching with their noses in the air to their equally-high signs. Both men changed their prices to the same thing. Both men marched back inside.
    Once in, Oscar Bentley sighed, calmed himself, and straightened his tie. The building was empty and hot. Oscar wasn't worried. The riotous July Fourth weekend was up ahead, and prices would go up to reflect it. The people in their cars would be filling up to visit grandparents or cousins, aunts or uncles. They would all need gas.
    Oscar looked around the still-empty building, and hurried into the bathroom.
    While he was busy, a delivery truck rumbled up, and two men stepped out with items for both gas station. Unfortunately, these two men didn't know the difference between them. Most of the packages made it the right places, but one crate of potato chips was replaced with another. So, when Oscar stepped out of the restroom and found a nearly-standard delivery on his doorstep, his heart began pounding. Instead of his potato chips, the ones with the perfect mix of salt and seasoning, sliced to perfection for the right size, he found terrible creations of an impersonal machine that made twisted, stunted chips covered in an awful mix of flavors that Oscar would never try hoisting on his customers.
    Meanwhile, Harold, across the street, just after checking receipts in the back room, was trying to figure out why, instead of his toe-curlingly flavorful chips, the ones that made your eyes water they tasted so good, he got a box of plain, boring, flat slices of boiled potato that looked like they tasted like dust bunnies. Nobody would buy these!
    He, and Oscar across the street, spotted the name on the package. It was him! That man, the one that ran his sham across the street and cut into my business! He must have made a mistake when ordering for this week, and instead of owning up to it like a real man, he switched the items when he wasn't looking! There was no other explanation!
    Both men looked out their window at the others' gas station, unable to see that he was looking right back due to the shadows. There's a chance that they looked right in each others' eyes, but even if they did, neither man would admit it. They both had no choice but to stock the chips they'd received, unless they wanted to hitch up their belt, puff up their chest, strut across the street (both would look just like a frog walking on his hind legs), and speak to the man in the other station.
    Neither man was willing to sink to that level. The chips went on the shelves, and when a customer would enter, both men would try their hardest to keep their eyes off of the false, fake snacks that hid in their stock like wolves in sheeps' clothing.
    This man (it does not matter whether we're talking about Oscar or Harold) was not a violent man, but this sort of tomfoolery would not stand. He wouldn't have any truck with destruction, or injury, no, but something had to be done to get back at him. He was trying to sabotage my business!
    While both men pondered on this idea, customers trickled in and out. High school kids roared up in the cars and they bought their energizing drinks and their jerkys and their cans of mountain sauce. The stuff these kids put in their bodies, both men thought. It's disgusting. But their money was good. Eventually their respective sons appeared to help with the afternoon crowd.
    Harold's son, Steven, wandered into his pop's station with a wet shirt and a big grin. "Hiya dad!" He said. His father looked at him and stared at the big damp patch, and his dripping hair.
    "What's happened to you? Is it raining?" Harold craned his neck and pressed his face against the window, peering up at the sky. "It doesn't look like it's raining."
    "It's not raining, dad," Steven said, dropping himself behind the counter. "A bunch of us guys filled up some water balloons after playing baseball and had a fight!" His great big grin caught the sun and blasted Harold with light. "It was a ton of fun!"
    "Water balloons, eh?" Harold rubbed his stubbly chin. "Yes . . . I'm sure it was quite a lot of fun. Are they very hard to fill up, water balloons?"
    Steven looked up from his cell phone. "What?"
    "Are water balloons hard to fill up?" Harold asked. His chin jutted out toward his son.
    "No. Not really. You just need to get the end of the balloon over the faucet."
    "The faucet you say," Harold repeated, nodding slowly. He wondered if he stocked any water balloons.

Just across the street, Joey Bentley was having a similar conversation with his own father.
    "The end of the balloon, you say," Oscar said, scratching at his face. His own wet son sat behind the counter.
    "Yeah. And then you gotta tie them up real careful so that the water doesn't get out," Joey explained, rummaging his fingers around and inside themselves to simulate tying a knot. "And then you just give a good strong throw! Splash!" Joey smiled, revealing a gaped row of teeth.
    "Splash indeed," Oscar said. Yes. It would work quite well. A little heave, a little splash, and Harold Wimmersmaks would be all wet. Oscar went wandering down the aisle, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out if he carried any water balloons. He found them, just at about the same time that Harold found the ones he carried. They were, in fact, the same brand. He took a look at the package, reading some of the information on the back as his son dealt with a customer.
    "I suppose they do just what they say on the tin," Oscar muttered to himself. "Just a bit of fun, nothing more. A nice, across the street rivalry with water balloons for the Fourth of July. It'll be a nice, hot day. He probably won't even mind." He smiled.

"Dad? What are you smiling about?" Steven Wimmersmaks asked from the front of the store. "It's kinda creepy looking."
    "Eh? Oh." Harold composed himself. "Just thinking about something funny. Did you have a good day besides that?"
    His son shrugged. "It was okay. Boring."
    "Don't squander your summer off. I haven't had a summer off in twenty years," Harold replied. "I've got to be open all day on the fourth, too. Lots of people will want gas." I also can't let their only option be that charlatan across the street. "I'm going to take a quick check outside," he said to his son, and walked out the front door.
    He found a little spill around the windshield-washing fluid, and set to work cleaning it up. After a few minutes he stood, stretching out his cramped back. He spotted Oscar across the road, rummaging around in his ice chest. The man's thin behind stuck out in his direction, and Harold couldn't help but imagine scoring a direct hit on him with a fully-loaded water balloon. He wondered if the chill from the ice would make the water colder when it hit.
    Oscar stood, turned around, and spotted Harold looking at him. Harold ducked out of view behind one of the gas station's pylons and finished wiping up the spilled windshield fluid.
    Oscar wondered what that fool Wimmersmaks was up to. Odd behavior was something he expected from the gas station across the street, but he'd never witnessed the man duck out of view like that before. He wondered what the man would think if he filled up one of his water balloons, took careful aim, and splashed it right on his clown feet, the ones that peeked past the edge of the pylon. Oscar chuckled to himself as he closed up the ice chest and went inside.
    Harold watched him go, narrowing his eyes until Oscar was out of sight. He hurried back into his own shop. He went to the back where the water balloons were, and picked up three packages. A total of about seventy balloons. He went to the cash register and dropped a twenty into the box.
    "Dad?" Steven asked. "What are you doing with those?"
    "Oh, just planning a little bit of fun for the fourth. Something to keep the heat down," Harold answered. Steven shrugged and went back to his phone.
    Oscar's water balloons were fifty cents more expensive, but he also bought three. His son also asked him what he planned with the water balloons, he answered in almost the same way -- that it was just for a bit of fun for the hot summer holiday -- and then Joey went back to his phone.

The next day at the ballpark Joey and Steven sat next to each other at the bleachers, swapped packed sandwiches, and started talking.
    "My dad's going to do something with water balloons for the fourth of July," Joey said. "He saw me wet yesterday and started looking off like he was planning something. Then he bought three packages."
    Steven's eyes went wide. "My dad's gonna do something with water balloons for the fourth, too! When I went to his store I was wet, too!"
    Joey turned in his seat, lunch forgotten. "What do you think they're going to do?" Mischief had grabbed both boys, and held on tight. Impish thoughts intruded their normal processes. On both of their faces grew a smile that parents know and fear -- the one that has schemes behind it.
    You know the one.
    "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Steven asked.
    Joey could hardly speak around the big grin on his face. "I think I might be. When should we do it?"
    Steven stroked his chin, something he'd picked up from his father. "We need to figure out when they're going to do it."
    "And then we strike," Joey agreed.
    If anybody had seen the looks on their faces he would have mentally filed both boys under 'trouble.'

Later that day, Steven and Joey walked into the stores that their fathers owned. Oscar Bentley was wiping down the counter. Joey wandered up to the counter, hands behind his back. "Dad? Would it be okay if I bought some water balloons?"
    "Eh? Well, I suppose. Don't forget to write it down so we can take it out of your allowance." Oscar peered up at his son. "What do you need water balloons for?"
    Joey's heart leapt, but he calmed it down. The question had an obvious answer. "My friends and I want to have another fight on the fourth, and I want to make sure I'm stocked up and ready to go."
    Oscar nodded. His head tottered up and down slowly. "Okay. You have to be prepared. Don't want them to out-gun you. What friends?"
    "Oh, you know, David, the Olsons, Robby, Will . . . Steven Wimmersmaks is going to be there too."
    Oscar's eyes went wide. "Is he now? Well you make sure that you get him good, you hear? I don't want Wimmersmaks to be able to come over here and tell me that his son whipped my son in a water balloon fight!"
    "Don't worry, he won't be able to tell you that. I'll make sure of it," Joey said. His father began to rant about the Wimmersmaks, but he had to run to bathroom or he was going to pee his pants trying to keep the laughter in.

"Are you all right in there?" Harold Wimmersmaks asked Steven.
    "I'm fine!" The tiled bathroom made Steven's voice echo. "Just needed to make sure that nothing disastrous happened!"
    "Well, okay then." Harold stood outside the bathroom awkwardly. "Are you going to have enough water balloons?"
    "Two packages will be enough dad."
    "Okay. Good. Make sure you hit that Bentley boy with a few good ones for your old dad!"
    "Uh, okay dad. I will!"
    Harold nodded, linked his hands behind his back, and stalked through the short aisles. What a day the fourth would be. Bentley and his son would wind up all wet at the hands of his family! He'd be so embarrassed, he might even be forced to leave town!

Two nights later, on July third, Harold bent down by the side of his house, running the tap. Next to him were three cartons, each of which held about two dozen balloons. They were heavy with water, and every time Harold bumped the cartons or placed a fresh water balloon they would slosh and burble. Harold's small grin could hardly be seen in the fading twilight and the shadow of the house. When he was finally done, he squirreled the cartons away in the back of his car, carefully hid them from prying eyes, and wandered back inside.
    Across the small town, Oscar did the same. He looked around him, expecting to Harold leaning out from behind a tree with a spyglass. He went inside after assuring himself that he wasn't being spied upon.
    As the fathers went inside to drink water or lemonade, the sons crept out from the darkness with their own water balloons, grinning to themselves and to the friend across the small town that was doing the same thing.

The next day was slow, hot, and bright. One could expect to see a tumbleweed rattle across the small street that separated the two gas stations. Oscar watched the door of Wimmersmaks Gas 'n' Go as he reached up to change the price of gas. The last few days had been busy as families came and went in trucks, SUVs, vans, and campers. Now, finally, things had slowed down to a more normal pace for the small town, which was generally quiet. As Oscar stepped down from the ladder his heart pounded with excitement. It was just past noon, the perfect time for a good soaking. His water balloons were hidden behind the ice chest, in easy reach for the moment he waited for.
    But he'd need to get Wimmersmaks outside and off guard. How could he do such a thing, and be ready to let fly at the right time? He went inside.
    The answer sat behind the counter. Joey looked up at his dad and found him staring. He looked around, trying to see if he'd done something wrong. "What is it, dad?"
    "I need you to go across the street to the Gas 'n' Go and ask Mister Wimmersmaks something."
    "Ask him what?" Joey wondered out loud.
    "Er . . . " Oscar looked around the room. "I need you . . . to ask him if he has a three-quarters nozzle for the air pump. Ours is cracked. Can you do that?"
    "Yeah, I guess so," Joey said, trying not to smile. "Right now?"
    "Yes, right now," Oscar said. "I'll mind the store."
    Joey got up and walked out the front door. At about the same time, Steven walked out the front door of the Gas 'n' Go. The two children met each other in the middle of the empty street. "What's he got you out for?" Steven asked.
    "A three-quarters nozzle for the air pump. You?"
    "Five-eighths. Are you ready?"
    Joey nodded. "I am so ready."
    They parted ways; Steven headed to the Gas Barn, and Joey went to the Gas 'n' Go.
    As Joey pushed the door and the bell over it jingled, Harold Wimmersmaks came wheeling around the corner of one of the shelves, found himself face-to-face with his enemy, and skidded to a stop.
    "Hi Mr. Wimmersmaks. My dad wants to know if you have a three-quarters nozzle for the air pump that he could borrow."
    "Weh? Well, ah, I'm not sure, I'll have to check."
    "My dad keeps his extra nozzles right next to the air pump. I'll just go out and see what you have, okay?" Joey turned around and went into the summer heat; Harold was right behind him.
    "I'm actually quite busy right now, I have a big shipment coming in . . . lots of cleaning to do . . . have to balance the checkbook . . . " Harold stopped stammering out reasons for business and looked across the street, where Oscar Bentley stood in much of the same manner he did, as someone taken into an unfamiliar element.
    They both dove for their hidden balloons at the same time, hoping the catch the other off guard and land the first blow. In a moment the first one sailed from Oscar's hands and landed three feet from Harold.
    "Ha!" Harold screeched. "You missed!" He heaved his first, and it went just as far left.
    "Old man!" Oscar yelled. "Couldn't hit a dead moose!"
    "I'll hit your sorry hide!" They hurled their balloons, dodging and diving to get away from the enemy's attacks.
    After a few minutes of this they stopped, panting. Oscar hid behind one of the gas terminals, and Harold was crouched by the wall of his building. Oscar had landed a good hit on the front of Harold's jeans, and Harold had retaliated with a balloon that had arced beautifully and smashed open on the top of Oscar's head, drenching him down to his shoes.
    A balloon came in from the side and exploded at Harold's feet. He looked in that direction as a balloon bounced off the asphalt and into Oscar's leg from the same direction. They heard boyish laughter, and found their sons in the middle of the street, hurling water balloons as a unit from an arsenal that outnumbered both of theirs. Quickly both men were soaked. They took better positions to hide from the onslaught.
    Oscar looked across the street at Harold as a balloon, thrown by Harold's son, splashed his feet. Harold looked back. He bounced the balloon that was in his hand and made a throwing motion in the boys' direction. Oscar nodded, and narrowed his eyes.
    The two men jumped out from behind their cover and hurled their balloons at their sons. The sons had nowhere to go; the middle of the street offered no defense, yet the sons didn't move. Instead, they cheered and laughed, spurred on as all boys are by the chaos they caused.

Harold Wimmersmaks sat on the curb outside his gas station, letting his drenched and dripping clothes dry in the hot sun. Oscar Bentley sat next to him, squeezing his shirt out. The boys had lost, pelted with balloon after balloon until they squawked out a surrender and went home to dry off. They now sat in the gas stations, minding the counter.
    Time ticked on for a few minutes, and the quiet sun dried the men. They both puffed out tired breaths.
    Oscar held his hand out. Harold eyed it, and then grasped it in his own to give it a firm shake.

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