Monday, January 24, 2005

The Daemon* In Dad

This story was written by my eldest brother, Lucien, Jr. I'm quoting it here because it is so amusing; also to preserve and make it available to our far-flung family members.

*Tutelary divinity -- a celestial being inferior to God but superior to man.

Lucien A. Agniel was an implacable foe of ill-gotten gain -- most particularly when it was gained at his expense.

When I was 8, I accompanied him on a business trip from our home in Jefferson City to Hannibal, Mo., a distance of more than 100 miles.

My dad had made hotel reservations in Hannibal by mail. When we detrained, he hailed a cab with the two-fingered whistle that today remains one of my major frustrations. I remember my small suitcase bouncing against my legs as I ran after him to the auto. It was almost a dead heat between Dad and a man with two suitcases, but Dad had a knack for winning the close decisions. The other fellow looked at his broad shoulders and black scowl. There was no argument.

Dad gave the driver the name of our hotel.

"Right," said the driver. He signaled for a left turn, swung the cab around in a wide arc and pulled up across the street at the hotel. "That will be 50 cents."

"Right," said Dad. That word shot out like the first hiss of steam from a pent-up radiator, and he slapped a half-dollar into the outstretched palm of the driver. I can still hear the clap of coin on flesh.

I knew better than to question Dad about getting rooked. He said nothing to me while signing the hotel register, but I detected him muttering "sonovabitch" to himself as we followed the bellboy to our room. Almost absent-mindedly, he gave the boy 50 cents -- a lot of money in Hannibal in 1927.

Then he went to work. From his sample kit, he removed two large 10-penny nails. He put them carefully in his vest pocket, hung up his other suit and told me to wash for dinner.

When we went out to eat, there were several guests sitting on the broad, shaded porch of the hotel. The taxi was still parked where it had deposited us and the driver dozed at the wheel. We walked down the street to a restaurant.

I can't remember much about that meal. I know that Dad had very little to say. His appetite, however, was good and his spirits rose as the meal progressed. By dessert, I had enough courage to ask for some ice cream with my pie. He was almost gracious in ordering it.

When Dad paid the check, he bought three big cigars and lit one immediately. I didn't think it expedient to ask about the movie because Dad obviously had something on his mind. Back at the hotel, we sat in the vacant porch chairs and watched dusk descend on Hannibal. Dad said nothing. But the blast furnace glow of his cigar reminded me he had something important on his mind.

At last, the thing he was waiting for came to pass. The cab driver crawled out, locked his car and walked across the street to a hamburger stand.

"Wait here," said Dad, when the last hotel guest went inside. As stealthily as possible, he moved his hulking 240 pounds out of the reclining chair. He put his cigar on the porch banister and walked down to the taxi. For a few seconds, he stood there, casual and relaxed -- a tourist enjoying the warm summer evening in Hannibal. Then he squatted beside the right rear wheel and propped one nail under the tire. With his foot, he lodged the nail securely in place. The cab was headed into the curb and would of necessity be backed out.

Quickly Dad stood up and walked around to the other side of the cab where he performed the same task on the left rear wheel. He came back to the porch and picked up his cigar. "That sonovabitch better have two spares," he said grimly.

In another 30 minutes the driver came out, started his car and backed away. There was a sad, whooshing duet as both tires underwent simultaneous puncture, while in the wings, Dad broke into the incongruous, high-pitched giggle which most people found infectious.

"Sonovabitch," I shouted, clapping my hands.

"Here," said Dad, grabbing my wrist, "Don't say that!"

The driver got out, looked at his sagging rear tires, stared woodenly in the direction of the laughter and went back across the street to use a telephone.

"Here," said Dad, "Skip down to the corner and buy a paper. We'll see what's at the movies."

"It's almost 9:00 o'clock, Dad. We'll have to hurry."

"If we need to," he said, almost exploding with suppressed mirth, "We can always take a taxi!"

I left him shaking with laughter, and went after the newspaper.

Lucien D. Agniel, Jr.


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