You never stab a friend in the back. At least not without good reason. I’ve only done it twice in my life. The first time was when I prattled to the boss about how I saw Joe Durif loading equipment from work onto the back of his pick-up. He promptly got the sack. I’m not proud of it. But he was more of an acquaintance than a friend, and those tools were assigned to me. So I would have gotten the blame for them going missing. Surely he would have known this? The second time… well, let me explain.
It happened about two years ago. I hung up my welding mask at the end of my shift—that’s what I do for a crust, I’m an Ironworker down at the docks— and reached for my packet of lung busters. It was buried deep in my back pocket, all flat and bent out of shape and empty. I breathed in the lingering aroma of Malboros. It was nice and spicy. This made my itch for a smoke even worse.
“Hey, Bob!” I called out, shielding my eyes with my forearm against the fountain of sparks. “Can I leach a cigarette off you?”
“Coffin nails! I’m all out!”
The sparks stopped flying momentarily while Bob rolled up about four inches of sleeve to reveal a round patch on the inside of his wrist. “Quit three days ago.”
Good for you, I thought. “I’ll try the vending machine.”
“Don’t bother. It’s out of order,” Zack informed me. He was working the hammer. “You punching out?”
“Yeah, I’m calling it a day.” That was a bit of a joke. This was the late shift. Outside it was still dark, but already a faint red ribbon was visible on the horizon through the open roller-doors.
I had been looking forward to catching a few hours sleep on a bunk in one of the shipping containers provided by the boss for us shift workers, before starting my next shift. The boss was all about occupational health and safety. Revive and Survive. But now my nap would have to wait. I had a nicotine craving to satisfy, and the nearest convenience store was two blocks away.
I took a shortcut through the holding yard. Behind the warehouses ships bobbed up and down in the faint light. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around—at least that’s what I thought until I felt a searing sting to the back of my neck. “What the heck!”
I spun around. It was Joe Durif. He was standing about three feet away. “You filthy backshhhstabber.” He was swaying from side to side and stunk like cheap whisky. “Why’d you haff to go and snitch on me, Fred?”
I looked at him, not knowing exactly what to say. Eventually, I opened my mouth and said, dumbly, “You were stealing, Joe—you were going to let me take the fall for it, too.”
He stared at me with bloodshot eyes that seemed to want to roam in opposite directions. At first I thought he was going to lunge at me again, but then the anger seemed to drain right out of him, and it looked like he might cry. He worked his jaw as if to say something, but no words came out. They seemed to get caught in the back of his throat. I almost felt sorry for him then. He waived a hand at me dismissively and staggered away, muttering.
I climbed up the steps that led away from the docks, and walked briskly across a playing field. Now other people were starting to materialize out of the morning fog like ghosts. I nodded at a lady walking her poodle. At first she beamed back at me, but then her smile faded, and she gave me a wide girth, tugging at her dog’s leash. Probably wary of getting mugged.
A kid on a scooter whizzed past me on a nearby footpath. A moment later I heard a thud as he slammed into a tree. “You okay, kid?” He was staring at me from the ground with wide eyes. He nodded frantically, scrambled back onto his scooter, and sped away.
I entered the Seven Eleven, walked straight to the counter and ask for a packet of Malboro. I bent down to pick up a mars bar then had second thoughts. When I straightened up the dark-looking guy behind the cash register was taking a step backward. He nodded nervously, and hastily reached for the cigarette display, pushing an entire row of Malboros into a bag.
“Just the one. I’m trying to cut down.”
The attendant looked confused. He handed me a single pack from the bag. Then he hit a button on the register, and the drawer containing the cash slid out. He scooped up a wad of fifties and twenties and shoved it toward my face.
“Won’t be needing cash-out today,” I said, handing him the correct change. He starred at me both dumbfounded and somewhat relieved as I walked back toward the front door. I was in a hurry to light one up.
“Ah, begging your pardon, sir,”—the attendant spoke with a funny accent. He pointed to the back of my head—“but did you know there is a… knife sticking out of your neck.”
I reached up and felt around. Sure enough there was the handle. It was in deep. But the surprising thing was that it only hurt if I jiggled it around. When I took my hand away, there was blood on my fingertips. Son of a bitch! I thought. Just you wait until I get my hands on you, Durif!
The surgeons at the hospital said it was sheer luck that the knife had missed both arteries. They removed part of the handle, but they said that the rest, including the blade, would have to stay. It was too close to my spinal cord. As long as it didn’t get infected I would be okay; because the blade was stainless steel, it didn’t. But I did have some adjusting to do. For one thing, I couldn’t sleep on my back anymore. Besides, I didn’t want them to remove it. I was saving it, just in case I ever crossed paths with the good-for-nothing drunk who stuck it there in the first place.
Then one sun-drenched Sunday afternoon while I was taking a drive, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. And guess who I happened to run into. It was Joe Durif. He had found himself new employment as a gas attendant. When I walked up to the counter to pay for my fuel he looked terrified. He hastily swept aside an open copy of Hustler and apologized repeatedly for sticking me with the knife. He claimed that he had checked himself into AA and was trying to make a clean start. The whole time he flapped his ugly mouth, the flesh around the knife blade protruding from my neck itched like a son of a bitch. I asked for a packet of Malboro and when he turned his back to me to fetch one from the display, my hand went to the jutting blade.
In the end though, as much as I missed sleeping on my back, I couldn’t do it. I paid for the cigarettes and walked out. On the way back to my Dodge I ran into an old man in dirty, grey overalls. Apparently he was the owner of the place. He pegged me for an out-of-towner. I told him he was right. He pointed to the blade in the back of my neck and asked what had happened. I told him it was a long story. Then we made small talk for a while and eventually he motioned to Durif, who was sneaking wary glances at us through the shop window. “You know him?” the old man asked.
“An old acquaintance,” I admitted. Then as I opened the door to the Dodge and sat in I cupped a hand over my mouth conspiratorially and whispered, “You might want to keep an eye on the cash register, if you know what I mean.”
The old man nodded slowly; narrowing his eyes, he turned his gaze in the direction of the shop counter, where Durif had resumed thumbing through his copy of Hustler. “That so?” the old man grumbled. “Guess I’ll just have to give him the sack.”
I shrugged. That’s what you get for playing with knives.
Eugene Gramelis is a widely-published, award-winning author of suspense and dark fiction. When not writing, he practises law as a barrister in Sydney, Australia, where he resides with his beautiful wife and three gorgeous children. He invites you to walk with him athttp://gramelis.blogspot.com