Better by You Better

           My boss’s car heater was broken. Luckily the drive to the Dane County municipal building was a short one. Spring was in the air, but it definitely hadn’t sprung yet. I shivered all the way. Some of it was definitely nerves.
           “You’d think he was Jesse James or something,” my boss said. “I wonder what else this guy has done. Gotta be bad news.”
           “Yeah,” I agreed, wondering about all the fuss.

           My boss, the district manager for all Galaxy of Sound stores in Wisconsin and Illinois, was a Kamehameha Schools grad who’d gone to UW to play football and never left. He’d hired me, someone with no retail experience at all, not just to work at the record store, but to manage it. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. Sometimes life goes your way.
          He’d called me at home the night before. “Lanning, I got a call from the District Attorney. He’d like to see you tomorrow, 11:30, about what happened at the store on Friday.”
           “Huh? The district attorney?”
           “Yeah, no kidding.” He sounded as amazed as I was.
           This was the D.A. people talked about becoming governor of Wisconsin. A big wheel.
           “Why?” I asked. “For something this simple?”
           My boss paused. “I guess maybe it’s not that simple. I’ll pick you up at the store at 11:00.”

           We passed through security and went to the information desk. After a brief phone call, a security guard took us up in the elevator. The guard knocked on a massively impressive door.
           A buzzer sounded, the guard opened the door and closed it behind us, not following us in. This wasn’t the D.A.’s office; it was an outer reception area.
           “Hello,” the thirtyish redheaded woman behind the desk said. “You’re here about the shoplifting incident?”
           “Yes,” I answered, amazed even more about why I was here, at how insignificant it sounded the way she said it.
           “You’re the one who detained him?”
           “Could you please wait out here,” she said to my boss.
           She knocked. I looked nervously back at my boss as I passed through another impressive door.
           “Sir, this is—“ she looked back at me.
           “Lanning Lee,” I said.
           “Oh yes,” the D.A. said, rising behind his mahogany desk. “How are you?” He came around the desk and shook my hand. “Thank you very much for taking the time to come in today.”
           The receptionist disappeared back through the door without a sound.
           “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to a leather chair in front of his desk. He sat down. “This is Janet. She’ll be taking down our conversation here. “
           I looked at the woman who sat to the left. She gave me a small, unsmiling nod. If I’d been uptight earlier, it was nothing compared to the way my heart was beating now. I’d never been in serious trouble with the law, but I was beginning to feel like I was a criminal.
           “Let’s get started. In your own words, Lanning, can you please tell me what happened last Friday night. Please be as specific as you can.”

           I’d been standing behind the register. Andrea, Nina, Julie, and I were on duty. The store had been crawling with customers. Friday nights were always hectic, and we were dragging our butts to closing time. The line at the register was still a little long, but I could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The four of us agreed earlier that we were headed for a beer as soon as we could close the doors.
           The last person in line came up. He was one of those strapping Wisconsin lads with bodies built by hard farm work, faces formed by fresh whole milk and hearty homemade bread, perhaps by hand-churned butter and eggs laid that morning – but with a difference. Probably in his early 20s, he had longish yellow hair and wore an oversized green surplus Army jacket. He carried nothing.
           “Yes,” I said, “how can I help you?”
           “Oh yeah,” he said, pointing to the glass case on my right. “I gotta have one of those Judas Priest cassettes.”
           I slid open the door and took out a copy of their latest, Stained Class. “Anything else?” I asked?
           “No thanks, no, that’s all. Nothing else.”
           I rung him up. He looked beyond happy to have the tape. “Have you listened to this one yet?” he asked.
           I told him I hadn’t.
           “Oh man, you gotta listen to this one. This is the greatest. Judas Priest is the rockinest group alive. You really gotta listen to this one.” And off he went, waxing ecstatic over Judas Priest, talking about a concert he’d seen, quoting lyrics, and on and on. After a while it was like I wasn’t there. He just seemed to be talking to the world in general.
          Judas Priest was okay, but heavy metal was not way up there on my favorite genres list. No doubting from his rambling that he saw them as gods. He didn’t appear to be drunk or drugged out.
           I glanced over at Andrea who was arranging the post rush chaos of the top thirty albums rack on my left. She rolled her eyeballs. And I knew she was a big Judas Priest fan.
           “Okay, I’m going to go now,” he announced loudly. “See you.” He waved his left hand at me, and his jacket opened up just a bit. I could see one of our in-dash cassette players under his armpit.
           “Andrea,” I said, coming around the counter. “Call security.”
           “What?” she said, looking confused.
           “Call security right now.”
           I walked quickly to the store entry. He was just out the door. “Hey, hold up,” I suggested. He turned around. In one swift move, I put my left hand on his shoulder and reached inside his jacket for the player.
           He said nothing, but the look on his face was a twisted cross between a smile and a genuine look of horror. He grabbed for the player t the same moment too, got to it first, and pulled it out, backhanding me with it. Heavy metal. I’ll say. Those Clarion players were solid steel and built to last. I felt the blow on the side of my head and my ear went all prickly. I swung for his stomach.

          When my dad gave me boxing lessons, he told me that only idiots tried to hit their opponents in the face. “In the ring, over lots of rounds, you may be lucky, cut him above the eyes, get blood streaming so he can’t see, maybe close one or both of his eyes if there’s swelling. But we’re talking about street fighting here. It’s survival. No Queensberry rules. The first choice is to hit him in the balls. He’ll go down. If you can’t hit him in the nuts, go for the stomach. Knock the wind out of him and he’ll go down. You can do that by hitting him in the throat, too, but that’s a pretty small target if he knows something about boxing and his chin’s tucked to protect it. In the balls or in the stomach. Got it?”

          My blow to his stomach hit rib. Now my hand hurt. He swung again and hit me on top of the head with the cassette player. This too hurt. A lot.

          “And get in close,” my dad said. “He can’t get full momentum on his swings if you’re in close."

          I let go of his jacket and pushed up against him, giving him a sharp knee to the groin. Unfortunately I hit his thigh as he tried to turn away from me. I grabbed him around the neck with my left arm and tried to knee him in the nads again. Another glancing blow off his hip.
          The player connected with my neck, a little less forcefully, since I was right up against him, and I thanked my dad for his good advice. I reached back and gave him a solid blow to what my dad would call “the bread basket.” Just as my dad had predicted, I could hear the wind rush out of his mouth. A thin jet of mucous flew from his nose. Down he went, but because I had my left arm hooked around his neck, I came down on top of him. We rolled around on the mall floor as I kept jabbing him with all my might. I had the sense that we were attracting quite a crowd. My right ear was now prickly and ringing.
          Someone grabbed me by the arm and neck and yanked me to my feet. The look on the security guard’s face was homicidal.
          “It’s not me,” I yelled, “it’s him!” The security guard recognized me and let go my arm. “Sorry,” he said, “sorry.”
          Another security guard had my opponent face down on the floor with his right arm twisted behind his back. Now the police came bursting through the main entrance. There were lots of questions for Andrea and me, and for some folks in the audience. The night dragged on. Andrea brought me a cold pack from our first-aid kit. I really needed a beer.

          “Okay, Lanning,” the D.A. said. “This is great. We’ve wanted this guy for a while. We’ll type up a deposition for you to sign. We can nail him both for shoplifting and for assault.”
          “You’ve been after him for a while?” I asked. Maybe he was a Jesse James.
           “Yes. He’s been in and out of juvenile detention since he was thirteen. He’s got a long sheet, but since he turned eighteen, we haven’t been able to make anything big stick. He’s always gotten off somehow. Technicalities and the like. Now, thanks to you, I’m sure we can put him away. Maybe not for a long time, but for three to five years, maybe.”
           “In prison?”
           “Yes, prison. We want to get him off the streets.”
           “Will I have to go to court?”
           “No, this won’t go to court. With your deposition this is a clear-cut violation of his probation.”
           “How old is he?” I asked.
           Three years younger than me. I thought about that.
           “We’ll call you to let you know when you can come in and sign the deposition.”
           "Ah," I hesitated. “Do I have to?”
           “What?” The D.A. gave me an odd look.
           “I mean, do I have to sign the deposition?”
           He glanced over at his secretary. She sat stone-faced. “Well, um, no, you don’t have to sign it. But Lanning, you do understand that he’s broken the law repeatedly for many years. You can help us get him off the street.”
           “What else has he done?” I asked.
           He cleared his throat. “I’m not able to tell you that, but I assure you that shoplifting and assault are not the most serious crimes he’s committed.”
           “Like murder or rape or something like that?”
           He cleared his throat again. “Well, I can say that he’s never done anything like that. But think about it. He could have killed you.”
           I reached up and touched the still very large, very tender bump on my head. “At least he didn’t call me a slant-eyed sonofabitch,” I mumbled.
           “I’m sorry?”
           For a moment I thought he was apologizing.
           “I’m sorry,” he repeated, “I didn’t hear you just now.”
           I cleared my throat. “You wouldn’t believe the things that have happened to me in that record store. I’ve been called a Jap, and I’m not even Japanese. I’ve been called a Chink, and I’m not Chinese either. I’ve been called a gook, a slant-eyed sonofabitch so many times I lost count — you name it. I’ve had every racial slur thrown at me in there. One guy on crutches said that if he weren’t on crutches he’d kick my kamikaze ass. What am I supposed to do? I’m the manager. It’s not like I can get into yelling matches or jump over the counter and get into it with these guys.” I looked at the D.A. “What I said was, at least this guy didn’t call me a slant-eyed sonofabitch.”
           “I see,” he said, looking down at his desk. “I’m sorry to hear this.”
           I think I understood him correctly.
           “Could I go now?” I asked shakily. I was absolutely drained.
           He gave me a long, searching look. “You’re not going to sign it?”
           “Do you want some time to think it over?”
           I stood up. “No thank you.”
           He reached for a button on his desk and pressed it. The door opened and the receptionist held it for me.
           “Are you sure?”
           I turned around. “Yes, I’m sure.”
           My boss got up and gave me the strangest kind of worried look. “Man, what happened to you, Lanning? You look like you ran into a steamroller.”
           “Nothing,” I said. “I just wouldn’t sign the deposition against him.”
           My boss said nothing. The security guard escorted us down and out to the front entrance.
           Finally, when we reached the car, my boss asked, “Why not?”
           I swallowed and shook my head. “I don’t know. They told me he’s done all kinds of stuff. They’ve been trying to put him in prison since he turned eighteen. He’s committed a lot of crimes. Why would he stop now. They’ll get him.”
           “But isn’t that why you should help them get him now, when you can do it for them? So he can’t do anything else?”
           I sucked on my cigarette and blew a long stream of smoke at the ground. I had put up with a lot of shit in Madison. “Look at us. You and me, here in this frickin town,” I said. “If not this time, they’re gonna get him. If he keeps it up, I really hope they do. But these guys, this place, they can do it without any more help from this slant-eyed sonofabitch.”

                                                                                                                                            I can't find the words
                                                                                                                                            My mind is dead
                                                                                                                                            It's better by you better than me

                                                                                                                                                                          – “Better by You Better Than Me”
                                                                                                                                                                                    Judas Priest

Mahalo for reading!

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