Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Lee and Pearl

Lee ran the liquor store down the street from the old place on 36th Street, next to the 7-11. I met the guy shortly after moving downtown and losing my original underage liquor store, which was run by a guy of Vietnamese heritage, who got to know us at work because we played volleyball, and he'd played volleyball when he was with the S Vietnamese Army. Weird links...but he never questioned my age, and I tried not to make a big habit of visiting him.

Lee was a whole different kettle of fish. He was probably in his seventies or early eighties at the time, and a stereotypical bitter old man. Liquor was one of the few luxuries he allowed himself, as well as complaining about the government and shooting guns. His voice was hoarse but somehow still...sharp, unmistakeably military. He was balding and had a big ol' Sam Elliot moustache, yellowing at the lip.

Pearl was as sweet and helpful as Lee was curmudgeonly and bitter. He was tall and thin and walked with a pronounced limp, and as near as I could tell just hung out with Lee to have something to do. Most of the time he had a broom in his hand, and he would ask folks if they needed help finding anything. After some time pondering this oddity (the store was so small it reminded me of being on a boat), I realized that Pearl wasn't that interested in helping people--he was preventing them from shoplifting. Which was good, for everyone involved, because Lee hated shoplifters.

He never asked for my ID because I originally entered his store in the company of Jim, who was nearly 21 but possessed of the confidence of the truly mad. Thus, at age 20, I was incapable of buying crappy Oklahoma 3.2% beer from the 7-11, but could walk literally next door and buy all the liquor I wanted. Hence the taste for good beer.

We'd been visiting the store for a couple of months when we heard Lee and Pearl bitching about their pensions. Lee was roundly cursing the VA on behalf of Pearl, who nodded and swept and made the occasional exclamation of his own. Apparently his check was late, which was really putting his daughter in a bind, foodwise, and the VA had been less than helpful about the whole situation.

The whole situation was really pissing Lee off, though, and he said something that piqued both our interests: "Hell, government don't even pay me a pension, but I knew that goin' in! They're fucking you over!"

"Why no pension, Lee? That sounds kind of weird," I asked.

"CIA, boy! Shit, I worked in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Chile. Flew for the motherfuckers in the Greek Civil War in '47, didn't even know that's what I was doin' til I joined the merc outfit in Angola!"

"You're kidding me, right?"

"Boy, do I look like I'm kidding? I still got a price on my head for killing some prince or some shit in Angola!"

He reached beneath the counter, and pulled out a very large pistol. "This is what I got for those peckerheads if they come in here! They almost had me in '76, but I shot three of them with my hideout (here he shuffled to the end of the counter, and pulled up his pantsleg to show a derringer-like pistol strapped to his ankle) and got away."

Jim, as you can imagine, was fascinated. And, you know, I was as well. A real live spook, or former spook, living right down the street.


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