I ignored the loudmouth. I’ve suffered worse than some schmo yelling at a movie theater screen. I felt sure he would quiet down once the picture actually started.
Down front, however, someone else wasn’t quite so tolerant. The theater didn’t have handicapped seating. In 1949 of this alternate Earth, there were a lot of handicapped people—Second World War, you know—but the idea of accommodating them hadn’t quite caught up to reality. So this guy in a wheelchair, missing his legs at about knee level, parked his ride down front, at the end of a row. Very considerate of him to be out of the flow of traffic, but the view had to be less than ideal, up close and off to the side like that.
He unlocked his wheels, spun around, and whirred his way up the aisle with strong, even strokes. He pulled up next to Loudmouth Row—no one else was in it—and spoke in a restrained, calm tone.
“Mister, you are disturbing the people in this theater.”
“Shut it, cripple.”
“It would be advisable to either shut up or step outside.”
“Oh?” Loudmouth stood up to his full, imposing six-foot-two. He moved down the row to loom over the man in the wheelchair. “Who’s gonna make me?”
Points for courage, Mr. Wheelchair. But then, maybe the man in the wheelchair was fully capable of handling this. You never know.
“You? You’re gonna need help, crip.” Loudmouth cracked his knuckles and added, “More than you know.”
“He’ll get it,” replied a skinny fellow from the eighth row. He shuffled out of the row and walked up the aisle, all five-foot-seven of him.
“Two of you, the cripple and the runt. This’ll be fun.”
“We’ll beat you into paste, mister,” the skinny guy assured him, and clapped the man in the wheelchair on the shoulder.
“You and whose army?”
That did it for me, but I’m a sentimental slob and I despise bullies.
“The army that crossed two oceans and circled the world to fight evil,” I said, loudly, rising and moving up the aisle. “The one that bought ground with blood, paid in advance, and kept paying until the other side couldn’t match the bill. The one that didn’t come home to peace and quiet just to watch pipsqueak villains go around bullying folks who are too good-natured and tolerant to say anything about it. That army!”
I heard movement behind me and glanced back. At least a dozen men came to their feet, as well as one woman.
“He means,” said one, “the Army.”
“Don’t forget the Navy!”
“And the Marines,” added another. “Sit down, boy, or walk away while you can.”
Bullies hate to back down. They hate to look weak.
“Or,” answered the man in the wheelchair, “you’ll take your teeth home in your popcorn bag.”
I would have said the bully would need the wheelchair more than the current occupant, but I’m not always a nice guy.
“Assuming you can walk,” I added, instead. “Care to step outside?”
“All at once, or just you and me?”
“Just you and me.”
“Hey! I was here first!” protested the man in the wheelchair.
“Rank?” I asked.
“Then I claim privilege, soldier.”
“Oh,” he said, crestfallen. “That’s a rotten thing to do, sir.”
“I know, and I apologize for it. Well, punk, you want to have a go?”
“You bet, soldier-boy!”
I turned and walked down the aisle to the emergency exit. I stood there, waiting for him, as he hurried to keep up. I even opened the door and held it politely as he walked out into the sunshine, working his shoulders and neck, loosening up.
I also closed it firmly behind him before he realized what happened.
“What’s the big idea?” demanded wheelchair.
“It got rid of him, didn’t it?”
A laugh erupted like a sudden thundershower, along with applause. I grinned at Wheels.
“Come on. Let’s enjoy the picture. He’ll have to pay again to get in and I’m not sure he has two nickels to rub together.”
True to form, Loudmouth did not reappear in the theater. He was waiting out front, in the lobby.
“You!” he shouted, pointing at me. He advanced, cocked a fist, and laid it across the left side of my face like a swung anvil. I kept my teeth together and rolled with it, went down. I was expecting something like this.
Before I could do more than hit the floor, roughly fourteen men swarmed him with fists and feet. He didn’t have a prayer and he desperately needed one. The lady didn’t join in. She spoke to the clerk behind the counter and got the phone.
The men picked up the bleeding and limp Loudmouth to carry him outside. He wasn’t in the mood to struggle. I looked around the floor, found what I hoped would be there, and handed it to Wheels. His face lit up like a neon sign.
A few minutes later, the police car showed up and a calm-eyed sergeant and his rookie partner asked a lot of questions. It’s interesting how the officer on the scene can put spin on the circumstances. Rather than “mob violence,” it was “a number of veterans rushed to the defense of a man being assaulted.” It might have had something to do with the sergeant being a veteran, himself. The police took everybody’s name and statements.
“And do you wish to press charges, Mister…?”
“Kearne,” I replied. “Duncan Kearne.” I spelled it for him. “No, I don’t think so. I’d say justice has been served, in its fashion. But if it turns out someone throws paint on my car or busts my windows in the next year or two, I’d appreciate it if someone at the station remembered this incident.”
The sergeant—Blake, according to his name tag—wrote for a moment more in his notebook.
“I’ll see to it, Mister Kearne. Well, if you don’t want to press charges, then I suppose there’s nothing for us to do here.”
“You might give him a lift home,” Wheels—Joseph Telford, “Call me ‘Wheels’”—suggested. “I don’t think he can walk.”
“We might just do that.”
“And he’s going to want this,” Wheels added, handing Loudmouth—Chester Horton—a popcorn bag. Chester looked inside and found his missing tooth. “Told you so,” Wheels finished.
It was a good thing the police were standing right there. Wheels could have gotten hurt.