The boy perched on the cement bench, squinted with the fantasy of warfare, and cautiously watched. The enemy was close. The responsibility great. The danger imminent.
Carefully he checked his weapon. His gun was loaded, but it’s range limited; Bender knew that he would have to wait for the opportune moment, dash forward, and fire before his neighbor, Mr. Cachlow, could react. Surprise was imperative. But speed was clearly the boy’s advantage; his new silver Razor scooter was ready
Leaning against the bench, its handle loosely held in Bender’s hand, the scooter had been a birthday gift. For three days he had ridden it round and round the complex. How fast could he go? He had pushed himself through training missions. Dripping with sweat he would return to his base, and his mother would remark on how hard he had ridden, how fast he seemed able to go. If she was impressed, then surely the enemy would be helpless before him.
Make no mistake; Rodger Cachlow was Bender’s enemy. Their war had begun the first week – just after Bender’s father, Ed Murdock, had moved them into the Sunny Arms Condominium and Apartment Complex.
“It won’t be so bad,” Ed had tried to reassure his son. “You’ll make new friends. There’s a pool when the weather gets good. You’ll see; it won’t be so bad.”
Bender had seen the tears gathering in his father’s eyes. “Sure, Dad,” he’d said without meaning it. He knew that his father’s pay had been cut, that they had “lost” their house, the house in which he had always lived. He knew, too, that there were fewer meatballs on the spaghetti and only occasional stops for ice cream. His mother didn’t go to the beauty parlor anymore, but he didn’t see why she would want to anyway. Bender didn’t mind that Mom now cut his hair and his father’s. The first few times he had looked kind of lopsided, but she’d gotten pretty good at it.
“What’s going to happen with my birthday?” he had asked.
“Will we have a party?”
“A small one,” his father had answered,
“A few of your friends, maybe Uncle Harry and Aunt Betty can come, nothing too big, you understand.”
“That’ll be great,” Bender had lied and he threw out the list of presents he wanted but realized he would not receive.
Mr. Cachlow was reading. The old man was always reading. Of course he never actually turned the pages. He just held the book and let the sun warm his old body. Bender thought it strange that the old man always wore a sweater and a knit cap. He would be sitting in the sun, and the day would be nice and warm, but the old man still wore that tattered gray sweater and the black wool hat.
Cachlow was the enemy. Bender knew that even though the old man had never done anything, never even said a word. Some things didn’t need to be said; Bender could just sense them. He had sensed that Sharon really liked him. He had known that the first day in the new school. She had smiled at him in a special way, and he had smiled back. Freddy Rupert, on the other hand, hadn’t smiled at all. Bender had immediately understood that Freddy would be his undying adversary.
Cachlow hated kids; that was as obvious as the unspoken reality that his mother was unhappy, that she too missed their old home, their neighborhood, their friends. She didn’t say it; she didn’t need to; with the innate wisdom of nine years of life Bender knew exactly how she felt.
Cachlow hated kids, and that meant he hated Bender. And Bender hated him. He hated the old man sitting in the sun, dropping into fitful sleep, that unread book sitting on his lap. Bender hated and plotted.
He took the power-soaker from his backpack and tried a single pump. The gratifying arc of water splattered against the Palo Verde. “Good aim,” he commended himself.
With a sideways glance, he checked out his enemy. Cachlow’s finger traced the lines of his book. His lips formed words that Bender could not hear.
“Why doesn’t he turn the damn page?” Somehow that seemed the worst of the old man’s sins. The old man didn’t look up. “Can’t he feel me watching him?”
Bender had watched the movers carrying the furnishings from their house, at least those they would take with them. Some things had been left behind or sold – some had been things Bender had really liked, things he really missed. He missed his desk, which had been too big for his room in the apartment. He had loved that desk: loved building models on it, loved drawing, maybe not so much doing homework. Now, here, most of the time, he worked at the table; it had been the kitchen table in their old house. The dining room set had been sold. It would fill the whole living room if they had brought it.
Bender didn’t mind leaving that dining room furniture behind. He had never enjoyed the fancy dinners his mother would make when company came. He didn’t like sitting straight with his elbows off the table, his napkin on his lap, and his mouth carefully closed when he chewed. He’d never been one for company—that was company that ate in the dining room. Uncle Harry and Aunt Betty would joint them in the kitchen, and Bender’s father wouldn’t harrumph at all if his manners slipped around them And Grandpa, God he loved it when Grandpa came over.
Grandpa was like a kid except his teeth clicked when they ate and he wasn’t quite so good at games. Bender missed Grandpa. They had had a special bond. Maybe because Bender had been named for his grandfather—William Bertram Murdock, Bertie to everyone.
It had been Grandpa who had given Bender his nickname. “Everybody needs a nickname,” he had explained. “But why Bender?” That had been four years ago, just before Bender had started school.
“Because you’re going to drive your teachers to drink,” Grandpa had answered with a chuckle. Bender’s parents had laughed, too. Bender, knowing it was a joke even if he didn’t get it, didn’t ask Dad for explanation, not even when he got back from driving Grandpa back to the home.
The next week, when his mother brought him to Miss Rice’s room, when other kids were looking scared and even crying, he had walked up to the thin lady with her long fingers and sharp-pointy nose who looked like a witch from one of his books; he’d walked up and stuck out his hand the way his Dad always did when he was meeting somebody new or even somebody he hadn’t seen for a while. “Hi,” he’d said, “I’m Bender,” like it was the most normal thing in the world even though Miss Rice had asked him what his real name was so she could put a mark in the book with all the kids’ names. But even though it said William Bertram Murdock, Jr. in that book, she always called him Bender; and he had liked her for that. And he loved his Grandpa for giving him a nickname that everybody knew.
Bender had loved his grandfather for lots of things, but now he just missed him. Grandpa had died two years ago. It was a long time ago, but Bender still missed him. He missed him and was just a bit angry at with him, too. Bender knew Grandpa hadn’t wanted to die. He knew that things like cancer, and heart attacks and strokes happen, that people die even though it would make their grandkids sad, that life isn’t very fair. He knew those things but he was still angry that Grandpa wasn’t around to play Monopoly and forget to buy Boardwalk, to tell him how great a model builder he was, to tell him jokes, or just to…
Bender wanted to shoot at the quail that were pecking around near the entrance to the pool. He wondered if somebody had dropped some crumbs. “It would scare them good.” He started to aim but thought better of it. “He’ll see me, and then he’ll be on guard.”
Still Cachlow’s finger traced the lines of that book. His lips forming words.
Bender saw that he had the advantage of surprise. With his left hand he grabbed the handle of his scooter and planted his left foot squarely on the deck and stood. Shoving with his right foot, he took off toward his quarry. The water blaster power-soaker Uncle Harry had given him for his birthday was at the ready. A few more pushes and he would be in range.
Suddenly. Suddenly. Bender found himself gasping in wet, soaking-wet surprise. The old man was playing him with a hose. Water was dripping from his face, from his clothes, from his scooter. Worse, Cachlow was laughing, laughing at him.
“Got you, you little joker. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you can put one over on Rodg Cachlow.”
Embarrassed and suddenly scared, Bender wanted to run, maybe even to cry. The worst thing was the old man’s laughter. It stung, and Bender didn’t know why it hurt so much. Yeah, he had been caught, but there was something else.
Cachlow laughed, and Bender heard the sound of his teeth clacking together. In the moment of that sound, he could not restrain the tears. The pain of loss burned his heart.
“Hey, kid, it was just in fun.” Suddenly Cachlow’s tone had changed. There was concern, maybe even kindness. “I figured you were game, you know that you’d enjoy getting…”
The old man had put down the hose and the book. Getting stiffly to his feet, he came toward Bender. “Come on, son, it isn’t that bad, you know. Sometimes the old guy got to win.” Bender continued crying.
“We’d better get you dried off. I got a towel right here.” Cachlow pulled a large beach towel covered with pictures of cowboys off a chair.
“Got this for my grandkid case he came to visit. That was two years ago. Probably’s outgrown cowboys by now. What the heck. I don’t know they’ll visit anyway.” Cachlow laughed again. There was a different sound to the laughter—not fun but pain.
“Sorry,” Bender said not knowing what else to do.
“Yeah, me, too. You got a name?”
“That a nickname? Must be, never heard anyone called that. Kind of like it. Me they call Quick Draw.” He chuckled.
“Sorry, bad joke; but I did get you.”
“Yes, sir.” Bender dropped his power-soaker and let go of the Razor, which tipped onto the grass. Reluctantly, he inched toward the man. “Could I have the towel?” he asked so quietly that he could barely hear his own words.
“Yeah, sure, Bender.” The old man held out the beach towel. “Actually folks have always called me Rodg; it’s short for Roger. Bender, what’s that short for?”
“Nothing, my name’s really William—William Bertram Murdock, like my grandfather, but everybody called him Bertie. At least they did until he died.”
“You must miss him.”
“Rodg; you call me Rodg and I’ll call you Bender, that okay with you?”
“Come on, Bender, you dry yourself off.”
Bender took the towel and concentrated on attacking his hair. “Mind if I tell you something?”
Bender looked up. “What?”
“Never underestimate us old guys. Know why?”
“’Cause we know how it feels.”
Somehow that seemed right. Something else seemed right, too. Bender knew he wouldn’t be quite so unhappy, quite so lonely—not anymore.