RIDES FROM STRANGERS • by William R. Stoddart

Damian lowers the kickstand of his red Schwinn in front of the Italian Club on the corner of Sixth and Cavitt. “You look like one of the Delfeany boys. Your old man’s in the club.” Mr. Lenski pats Damian on the head. Fried food, cigarette smoke and stale beer smells waft over Damian as he steps into the warm dimness.

Inside the club, Christmas lights hang from the stamped tin ceiling. Patsy Cline is falling to pieces on the jukebox. The bartender pours Calvert whiskey into four shot glasses lined-up on the polished redwood bar like miniature bollards.

“Hey, Elliot, your boy’s here,” the bartender says. “Hey kid, Merry Christmas!” The bartender pulls a bag of chips from the rack behind the bar and throws them toward Damian.

“Sit your ass down at the table. Eat your chips and don’t make a sound.” Damian’s father is agitated. The comfort of beer, roiling cooking oil, cigarette smoke, and Patsy Cline does little to ease his anxiety.

“I don’t give a flying fuck if it’s Christmas, you owe me, Pal.” Donnie, the numbers guy, takes a shot of Calvert and chases it with a twelve-ounce draft.

“Hey, Donnie, the guy’s kid’s here.” The bartender nods his head toward Damian.

“Fuck that.” Donnie gets in Elliot’s face. “Tomorrow. Here. The money.” Donnie walks toward the door with his friend, leaving Elliot sitting at the bar.

“All those stinkin’ dollar bets add up. Christ,” Elliott mumbles as he takes another shot and wipes his mouth on his flannel shirtsleeve. “Hey, Damian, go home and tell your mother I’ll be late tonight.” When Elliott hears no answer, he swings around to see an empty table where Damian had been. “Now where the hell did that kid go?”

Snow begins to fall in heavy flakes. “It’s only a year old. I got it last Christmas. I oil it a lot and don’t skid the tires. Don’t tell my dad.” Damian holds the handlebars of his red Schwinn.

Donnie lifts the bike into the back of his Rambler station wagon. “How ’bout a ride up the hill, kid. I know where you live.”

“I’m not allowed to take rides from strangers,” Damian says.

“How old are you?” Donnie asks.

“Eight.”

“You got guts. Have a Merry Christmas.” Donnie drives away down snowy Cavitt Street.

Damian walks alone up the steep hill through the town park. It’s getting dark. As he approaches home he sees his red Schwinn leaning on its kickstand by the front door. A neat triangle of snow balances on the bike’s seat. There’s a five-dollar bill rolled lengthwise stuck in the plastic handgrip. He removes the bill, unrolls it, and places it over his face. He smells fried food, cigarette smoke and stale beer. It is, he thinks, the best time of year.


William R. Stoddart lives in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Fast Forward Press, 34th Parallel, Ruminate Magazine, and The Molotov Cocktail.


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