ONE CHOCOLATE MALT OR ELSE

by John F. Allen

It was a bright summer day, although not particularly hot. Jared Alexander had just awakened from his afternoon nap to realize that his parents had stepped out and he was left in the care of his older brother Niles. He knew this to be a fact because he had peeked out of the side window in his bedroom—which looked over the driveway along the side of the house—and saw that his parents’ 1968 Cadillac deVille was missing.

It was a Saturday, so that meant that his parents were probably out running errands. He turned on the small black and white television in his room that looked like a spaceman’s helmet. Niles had passed it on to him last Christmas when he’d saved up enough money from his job at an ice cream parlor to buy a bigger color model for himself. Niles had just graduated high school and was going off to college in the fall. Jared couldn’t wait to inherit his room, much like Niles had when their older brother Arvin Jr. had moved out shortly before Jared was born. He had only recently returned from Vietnam and lived with his wife and baby across town.
Super Friends was playing and caught Jared’s attention for a moment until Aquaman was getting beat up until he called a whale for help. He turned off the set and sat in front of the window instead.
His bedroom was situated at the back of the house and the windows at the rear of the room overlooked the moderate back yard of the house he lived in. Some days he would sit for hours observing the family dog, King, a huge German Shepard, and any other animals or neighbors who traveled through the alley behind the house. Jared was a great artist and drew plenty of pictures of the things he’d seen, wherever he happened to be. His mother often referred to it as his “God given talent,” although he wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.
However, this day as he sat in his bedroom window he noticed that something had gotten King’s attention. He figured it was one of the neighbors who frequently used the alley. Jared found it strange that the dog wasn’t barking as he did when strangers approached. It wasn’t until he saw the figure hop the chain link fence and make his way to the side of the house that he realized why King hadn’t barked, Joseph Simmons.
Joseph was a friend of Niles who lived up the street from them. Jared had once heard his father refer to Joseph as “queer.” Jared’s mother chimed in and explained to him that what his father meant was that Joseph was “unusual.” They always argued about Joseph coming over and stormed off to their room to yell. Later that evening—whenever they argued—he would sometimes be awakened by what sounded to him like the movement of furniture that was too heavy to lift, based upon the strained grunts and moaning.
Mr. Alexander was often very hard on Niles and Jared, especially Niles. He encouraged him to go out for sports, but the closest thing to that Niles ever wanted to do was dancing and marching band. Jared could tell that his father wasn’t happy with Niles, and it was their mother who took up for him, making their father angry with her too, just like he knew he’d be angry if he’d caught Joseph sneaking up to their house.
Jared wondered why Joseph had come over when his parents weren’t home. He knew that they weren’t supposed to have company when his parents weren’t home, Niles especially. Although he’d heard his father once say that he’d rather Niles sneak a girl into the house once in a while as opposed to spending so much time with Joseph. He often wondered exactly what it was about Joseph that his father didn’t like. Jared had at first thought that his father didn’t like Joseph because he was white, but his mother said that wasn’t it. Jared thought Joseph was nice despite his freakishly long, blond hair and tight colorful clothing. He smiled a lot and seemed to have the longest conversations with his mother than anyone, including Niles.
Jared decided to investigate. He tip-toed out of his bedroom and made his way to the back stairs. He sat down on the stairs and slid down one by one to keep them from creaking under his weight. His mother once told him he was the sneakiest child she’d ever seen. He liked to sneak up on her and scare her every chance he got. She told him it was the Indian blood in him, whatever that meant. Doing this was a great source of entertainment for Jared and sent him into a long laughing spell. His mother didn’t find it quite as amusing as he did however, after she stopped yelling at him she’d often join in laughing with him.
Jared listened quietly as he heard Niles and Joseph talking.
“Hey,” Niles said.
“Hey, I didn’t see your parents’ car in the driveway. How long will they be gone,” Joseph asked.
“They just left about five minutes after I called you. I think they won’t be back for at least a couple of hours. Jared’s here, though. They decided not to take him with them at the last minute.”
“Oh, I see. Well, maybe I’ll see you another time then,” Joseph said.
“Like hell. We had plans for two weeks. I’m not going to let that little shit mess up our plans. Besides he’s sleep, which is why they left him here in the first place,” Niles said.
Jared continued to listen and wondered why it was so important for Niles and Joseph to be alone together. Most of the time, guys preferred to hang around in groups, although boys Niles age did tend to go on dates with girls. Jared frowned at the thought of being alone with a girl, yuck!
Jared stood by the basement door listening as music started to play. It wasn’t the type of music you could dance to—like on Soul Train or American Bandstand—it was slow music like his parents played in their bedroom when they thought he was asleep and they weren’t arguing. Their father had spared no expense in furnishing the second den with the best stereo equipment and largest TV set he could afford.
The stairs leading to the basement were a bit trickier to get down without making noise. But, thanks to the music playing Jared was able to slowly creep down. He saw the bedroom door was shut and quietly tip-toed up to it. Jared stooped down to peer into the keyhole. He couldn’t see anything although he heard movement. It sounded to him like they were wrestling. He remembered when his mother had gotten after him and a friend for rough-housing and figured that Niles and Joseph were doing the same.
Jared became bored with listening, so he turned to go back upstairs when he tripped on the stairs. He heard the music stop and he knew he wouldn’t have time to make it back upstairs before Niles came out to see what had made the noise. So he stood at the foot of the stairs and waited. Niles came out of the room and stopped short when he saw Jared. His afro was dented, his shirt was un-tucked and his zipper was undone.
“What are you doing down here?” Niles demanded.
“I heard someone come in the house. What are you doing down here?” Jared asked.
“Nothing, just listening to some music is all. You should go back upstairs now.”
“Who’s in there?” Jared asked. Niles looked like he did when he stayed out too late and got caught by their parents.
“No one.”
“Uh-uh, I saw you in there with Joseph. You know you aren’t supposed to have company when Mommy and Daddy aren’t home. I’m telling,” Jared said, as he started up the stairs.
Niles ran to him and grabbed his arm.
“Wait,” Niles said. “Joseph thought that Mom and Dad were here when he came by and I told him they were gone so he left.”
Jared smirked at Niles and shook his head.
“Let go of me,” Jared yelled. “I heard you and Joseph in there wrestling around.”
Niles let go of Jared’s arm and stared at him with his mouth open.
“What else did you hear,” Niles asked. The bedroom door opened and Jared saw Joseph come out.
“Hey, little guy,” Joseph said. He walked slowly towards where Niles and Jared were standing. Joseph smiled at Jared as he always did. Jared noticed that his clothes were in place unlike Niles. Apparently, Joseph was stronger than he looked, Jared thought.
“Hi,” Jared said. He felt a little uneasy with Joseph after this incident but, wondered how important it was to Niles that their parents didn’t find out.
“It’s okay, I was just leaving. No reason to not be mellow.”
Jared looked at him and smiled. “Okay, see you later Joseph.”
Joseph rubbed Jared on the head and walked past him, up the stairs and out the side door. Jared looked at Niles.
“I’m going to my room,” Jared said.
“Okay, I’ll be up in a minute,” Niles said.

A few hours later, Niles was sitting in the living room watching television when Jared came downstairs dressed in a t-shirt, his denim overalls and sneakers. He stood in front of the set and stared at Niles.
“I want a chocolate malt please,” Jared said.
“Okay, when Mom and Dad get home, ask them.”
“No, I want it now,” Jared said.
“Well, I’m not going to get it for you; we’re not supposed to leave the house.”
“You weren’t supposed to have company either. Mommy and Daddy might not like it if they found out,” Jared said.
“You wouldn’t say anything would you Jared?”
“One chocolate malt please or else,” Jared said.
Niles glared at him. He got up from the sofa and nudged Jared out of the way before turning off the set.
“Let’s go before Mom and Dad get back you little creep,” Niles said.

Jared had insisted that Niles put him in his stroller for the trip to the ice cream parlor. This had proven difficult due to Jared’s large size however, he didn’t care about that; all he wanted was his chocolate malt.
Jared was as happy as a clam; he knew that it was important to Niles that their parents not find out that Joseph had come over while they were away. He also knew that if Niles didn’t do what he wanted he was going to tell on him. Jared was kind of surprised that Niles was eager to keep him quiet. It wasn’t like he hadn’t had company over before when he shouldn’t have. Usually Niles was just put on punishment for a couple of weeks and given extra chores, which he didn’t like but soon got over. Only this time, he seemed more worried about their parents finding out. Why, Jared wondered. Maybe it was because he and Joseph had been wrestling when they shouldn’t have been.
The ice cream parlor was only four blocks from their house, easily within walking distance. Niles struggled with pushing Jared in the stroller as he had outgrown it more than a year ago. Their neighborhood was relatively quiet, a mixture of families from various backgrounds. However, only a few blocks over the social climate changed dramatically. There lived undesirables which their father often complained about. The ice cream parlor stood as an accepted neutral zone between the blighted area and the nicer area where Niles and Jared lived.
When they arrived, Niles ordered two large chocolate malts. One of the servers was Joseph—who had recently gotten hired. Jared noticed the odd look that Niles and Joseph gave each other and wondered if they were just happy that he wasn’t going to tell their parents. Jared didn’t care about Niles and Joseph anymore now that he had his chocolate malt.
As the cashier was giving Niles his change, three boys walked into the ice cream parlor. Jared stared at them because they looked mean. They all wore matching denim jackets with metal studs in the form of a raised fist. The tallest of the three wore a leather hat that snapped in the front. It reminded Jared of the one Rudy wore on Fat Albert.
Niles tried to walk in the opposite direction of the boys and head towards the door. The tall one looked over at Niles and elbowed the others, while laughing and pointing in Niles’ direction.
“Hey Sweet-meat, takin’ the baby out for a stroll,” the tall mean boy said, snickering.
Niles ignored them and continued for the door. As they were leaving, Jared heard the manager come out and order the boys out of the store. Niles continued on, nearly running from the store. As they rounded the block on their way home, Jared heard shouting and loud laughter from behind them. Niles seemed to walk even faster than before and nearly tipped Jared out of the stroller.
“Look, there’s Sugar-pants and his baby,” the boys said.
Jared felt a knot in his belly like when he knew he would most likely get a spanking. He didn’t like the boys, they sounded mean. He tried to watch what they were doing but he was scared to look at them.
Niles kept trying to walk past them until the tallest one ran past him and stood in front of the stroller.
“Move out of our way, Sherman,” Niles said. His voice was loud but nervous.
“Make me, faggot,” Sherman said, grabbing the front of the stroller. Jared started crying. He just wanted to go home. He just wanted to be safe.
Jared watched as Niles came around the front of the stroller threw his malt in Sherman’s face, and then smacked him. He reeled from the blow and grabbed his jaw. Most of the malt had stuck to Sherman’s face and hair, while some of it had ran down the front of his clothing.
Jared tried to breathe between sobbing. He tried to avoid looking at the mean boys but he didn’t want to take his eyes off of Niles because he was in trouble.
“You hit me, you cocksucker,” Sherman said. He clenched his teeth and looked at Niles with an angry glare. “Get him.”
The other two boys grabbed Niles on each side and held him while Sherman began pummeling him with punches. His eyes went flat, there was no stopping him. Blood spewed from Niles’ mouth when Sherman’s punch connected. He kept punching Niles in the stomach until he went limp. The other two boys threw Niles to the ground, and then all three took turns kicking him.
Jared covered his face in his hands and continued to cry loudly. He felt scared and helpless. He didn’t want his chocolate malt anymore; he just wanted to go home. Jared could feel his body shake in fear and wished he were invisible right then.
When they had finished each one spat on Niles before running off. A neighbor came out of their house and approached Niles and Jared.

It was sometime later when Jared’s parents met them at the hospital. His father was talking to a police officer, while his mother sat with him. She held him tight in her arms until he could finally manage to talk.
“It’s all my fault,” Jared said, as tears ran down his face.
“Honey, it’s not your fault. It was those mean boys who beat up your brother,” his mother said, hugging him.
“But, if I hadn’t asked for a chocolate malt we would’ve stayed home,” Jared said.
Mrs. Alexander stood as the doctor came out of the emergency room. She looked at him and prayed that he had good news. The doctor told her that Niles would make a full recovery and that they would keep him overnight just to be safe.
“See baby, your brother’s going to be alright.”
Jared felt happy that Niles would be okay, but sad because he still felt the knot in his stomach. He hugged his mother tightly and cried quietly against her waist.

Two days after Niles had come home from the hospital, Jared and his parents went into Niles’ bedroom and sat with him. He had just hung up the phone from talking with Arvin Jr. who was out of town on business and had called to check up on him, Niles informed them. Jared looked around and noticed the serious looks on everyone’s faces which made him feel anxious. He wondered if what had happened to Niles really was his fault and his parents were about to let him have it.
“Niles, are you okay son,” their father said, as he sat on right side of Nile’s bed.
“Yeah, it only hurts when I breathe,” Niles said, grinning weakly.
“Jared, are you feeling okay,” Mrs. Alexander asked.
Jared looked sheepishly at her, having always felt she was his greatest ally between his parents. He now wondered if she was so upset that she’d start acting like his father. He looked at Niles who couldn’t seem to look him in the face.
“I guess,” Jared said.
“Boys, we want to talk to you about what happened, are you up for it,” their father asked.
Jared nodded his head yes. He was surprised at how calm his father was. It was as though he was just as nervous as I am, Jared thought.
Niles reluctantly shook his head yes, still unable to look at anyone directly.
“How do you feel? Are you still scared,” their mother said. She placed one hand on Niles hand and the other on Jared’s back and gently rubbed it.
Jared shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head yes to his mother’s questions. He had a hard time looking at Niles or either of his parents.
“Boys, we need to ask you about what happened,” their father said. “Jared, can you be a big boy and talk to us?”
“Don’t worry, you won’t get into trouble, we promise,” their mother said.
Jared looked up into her eyes and immediately felt guilty. He didn’t want to tell on Niles but, at the same time he didn’t want to lie to his parents either. Jared tensed up and felt the knot in his stomach grow tighter by the second. He could feel Niles staring at him, making him even more scared.
“Joseph came over when you were gone. He and Niles were in the basement playing records and I said if he didn’t take me to get a chocolate malt I was gonna tell. I made him take me in my old stroller and that’s when the mean boys hurt Niles. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me. I never wanted Niles to be hurt. I’m sorry,” Jared said, as he began to cry. The tears stung his eyes. He couldn’t take it if his parents blamed him for what happened even though he blamed himself.
Mr. Alexander looked at Jared in quiet disbelief before he gave Niles a hard stare. Jared shrank back afraid that his father would start hitting Niles because Joseph had been over while they were away.
Niles tensed up as though preparing to be hit. He turned his face away from everyone, held a hand up to his face and softly began to cry.
“Shhh…it’s okay honey,” their mother said. She hugged both boys in her arms tightly and rocked them slowly. “We aren’t mad at either of you; we know what happened wasn’t your fault.”
Their father sat quietly looking at them. Jared noticed something he’d never seen before, his father had a tear running down his face. He wrapped his arms around Jared, Niles and their mother, holding them tightly. It was the first time they’d all hugged together like that. They all cried together and in that moment there was no guilt, no judgment, only love.

Copyright © 2013 John F. Allen. All rights reserved.

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