An Old Short Story I'm Rather Fond of  

Posted by Benjie in , , ,

When I was a junior in high school (that's 11th grade for my other culturely readers), my English teacher saw some promise and encouraged me to write a short story which would be entered in the NCTE writing awards contest. This happened in the spring of 1980. In the fall of that year, I had to write an impromptu essay to complete the contest entry. What follows is the story that won me the honor of being a "finalist" (hope you enjoy it):

Keep Your Feet on the Ground . . . Professor
By Benjamin Potter

I saw Jim the other day. We used to be real good friends, Jim and me. Then things started happening. I’m not saying Jim’s a bad guy, and would stand up against anybody who tried to hurt him, but we just ain’t as close as we used to be. We became bosom buddies my first day at school in Trenton Elementary . . .

“What are you doin’ over there? That’s my standin’ place and my water fountain!” Those were the first word he ever said to me.
We were in the third grade and both thought we were tougher than shoe leather, so on went the fight . . .
“You want me moved; you move me!”
“Okay! I will!”
With that we were both on the ground, and I was on top when the teacher, old miss “Crouton” Cruchon (nobody liked her and if you could see her, you’d know why), came around and pried us apart.
After our parents got called and we got our licks we were sent back to class. On our way there, Jim said, “You was beatin’ me, surely. And anybody who can beat me gots to be okay.” Then he stuck out his hand and we shook. From then on we were best buddies. Everybody knew that if they wanted to tangle with one of us, they’d have two fights on their hands; and so they stayed clear of us, and we kept our noses clean of fights.
When we got in the seventh grade we had three of our five classes together. We never skipped classes. Jim was smart, even though it didn’t sound like it when he talked. We were both twelve, and already knew more than some of the seniors at Trenton High. We caused havoc in most of the classes we had together (that’s how we got to know “Ole Bringert” pretty good). Ole Bringert was the principal. He was pretty cool for an old guy. After about the fifth visit he told us just to scream a little while he hit his desk with a book. We made it look real by rubbing our eyes when we walked out.
As we got older we started settling down. (We started dating girls, and girls don’t like to go out with guys that rough-house like we did.)
In the ninth grade, Jim started getting serious with this girl, Joann. Me and him started going out on double dates a lot. Then him and Joann had a fight and we laid off the dating for awhile.
Jim started smoking, and, I’ll admit, I tried it but I didn’t get anything from it, and it didn’t help me any so I just didn’t.
One day Jim said, “Funny thing, this little cigarette. One person can get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and another can’t ever get the hang of puffin’ on one.”
“You know that’ll hurt you. It causes cancer, you know,” I said, trying to act smart.
“Yep, and one of these days I’m gonna quit. Not right now, but I’m gonna quit and when I do, I’ll put my pack away and never touch them nasty old things again.”
I knew this would happen because when Jim said something would be, it would. He was like that. And he did put down his pack just like he said he would, about a year later.
Two days after we had talked about the cigarettes, Jim and me were leaning against a tree, talking. As usual, Jim had out his pack and I was watching some birds making a nest. It was early spring. Pretty soon we had a similar conversation to the one a couple of days before.
“. . .that’s right, Professor (Jim called everybody ‘Professor’), one day I’m gonna quit these old boogers for good,” he said, holding up his smoldering, half-smoked cigarette, “but on thing I ain’t never gonna do is dope. Dope’s dumb. Anybody ever asked you to do dope, Tony?”
“Nope, and if the was to do it, I’d bust their headlights out.”
With that Jim came up with an idea. He came up with a lot of ideas when we were leaning against the tree. This was our “thinking” tree. It was the halfway point between our houses. Most of the time his ideas were pretty good, so we began to work on this one quickly, starting with a vow.
“Let’s vow not to never do dope and to break people of it,” Jim said.
“Okay, I’m with you on the vow, and think it’s great to make a pledge to stay clean. But how do you think we’re gonna get other people off of it?”
“We’ll work on that later, but right now I gotta go home. Keep your hat in place, Professor.”
Jim always used funny sayings like that. Him and me used to think up sayings like it to say all the time. After that meeting we started saying, “Keep your feet on the ground,” to everybody—only Jim put a “Professor” on the end.
About two weeks later Jim called me and said, “Come on over, the plan’s in action!”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I hurried over to his house and almost wore holes in my sneakers in the run. When he let me in he said, “Be careful that the cops don’t start seein’ you come over here. This operation’s delicate as a china bowl, and the policers might get the wrong idea.”
We went into his kitchen, and I saw three plastic bags full of dope. I thought he had forgotten the idea, but then he started pouring it all down the garbage disposal and I knew we were in business.
We did this for about a year. Jim got so happy about “helpin’ those poor slobs,” as he put it, that he decided to do himself a favor and put down his pack for good.
I don’t know where he got all the stuff, but from the cuts and bruises he had, I could tell that he had to fight for it. He never asked me to help him get it. I couldn’t understand this, and so we started breaking apart as good friends. No matter how much I begged, he wouldn’t let me help.
One day we had a fight about it. Jim said that he just wanted to keep me clean of the cops in case something happened complicating things, but I didn’t like his reasoning. I wanted to know where the junk was coming from, and I wanted to help get it. I let him know that real quick. He threw me against the wall and started hollering . . .
“Cool down, Tony! Go home ‘til you can handle things. I can close down here, and I’ll call you when there’s some more to do. . . Oh! And keep your feet on the ground, professor, we gotta keep things churnin’ around here so’s to help those poor slobs!”
As I walked home I saw two suspicious-looking guys in a brown sedan. I didn’t think anything of it except that they were sittin’ in the car and starin’ at the front of Jim’s house (I had gone out the back) instead of going in. I thought they were relatives or friends of his dad’s. That was a mistake, as I would soon find out.
On my way home I stopped under the tree and sat down to think and to cool off some. I mostly thought of the good friendship Jim and me had always had. I started getting real poppycock thoughts. I knew why things were starting to crunch our friendship—Jim’s and mine. I was starting to grow old. I was gonna die someday, but Jim never would die. That was an impossibility. He was too smart to grow old and die. He’d outspend everybody’s life and still be flushing dope down his kitchen drain. Yep, that’s what I thought that day. And it’s true, too; I don’t take to thinkin’ things that ain’t true.

Jim didn’t call me until about two weeks later. He talked real soft like he was afraid of being heard. “Listen, I’ve done a lot of the work slowly and quietly myself lately ‘cause some junk-jockeys have been watchin’ the house. I think things has quieted down a little. Be careful on your way over, they may be hawkin’ behind the scenes.”
“Okay, I’ll be over quick. Keep your feet on the ground, and don’t let those pushers scare you. I’ll keep my eyes opened.”
“Keep a strained eye for the plainclothes policers, too. I think maybe the word’s out, but it’s the wrong word.”
“Quick and quiet, professor.”
With that I was out, with caution hanging over me like a rock. All I could think of was Jim’s warning, “Quick and quiet, professor.” It kept coming back to me over and over. When I got close to the house, I saw the brown sedan, “That must be the pushers’ car,” I thought. As I got close enough to see, I saw the two goons sneaking around the house, so I just moved within earshot an heard yelling from inside the house.
“You’re the one who’s been messin’ up our customers!”
Then I heard Jim say, “I ain’t been messin’ ‘em up; I been settin’ ‘em straight!”
Then the two goons busted in and about five minutes later, came out with two guys that I knew to be junk-jockeys, and Jim in handcuffs . . . and four bags of dope. Then I knew what had just happened. Jim saw me, but nobody else did. He gave me one of his “signal looks” that told me to get out of there but come help in the jail problem.
I went to the jail two days later to see Jim and things fell apart.

“They’re gonna move me to a reform school and there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it, Tony.”
Then I just lost my head and started yelling and saying things that had never crossed my mind. I don’t know what got into me. “That’s what you get! None of this ever would have happened if you had let me help! That’ll teach you to try to help dummies! Sometimes I think you’re dumber than they are . . .”
“You don’t mean that!” Jim cried out with horror on his face.
I started cooling down then because Jim was shaking me with that look of despair in his eyes. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m sorry, Jim, but things just don’t seem to make me care anymore.”
Then Jim started crying. I’d never seen him cry before. I couldn’t handle it and turned to walk out. As the door was closing behind me, I heard Jim crying out, “Keep your feet on the ground, professor!”
“Yeah, sure,” I said to myself, “I sure will, old buddy.”

Well Jim’s out now, and I saw him the other day. He’s got a broken ar---
“Tony! You’re not ready yet—you better get your suit on. Jim’s funeral is in an hour.”
“No! No! He’s just got a broken arm!”
“No, Tony. Remember? He took an overdose in prison and . . .”
“No! No! He kept his feet on the ground!”

Yep, old Jim won’t ever die. He’s too smart for that. Oh yeah! I’ve got to get over to Jim’s house; we got some more dope to destroy. Good ol’ Jim, he’ll always keep his feet on the ground.

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