"No, you didn't hurt me."
"It's not exactly like going to a charity ball, but...."
A teen-aged girl comes in—emergency, she says—and Lenkaitis puts her in the chair near the window. He probes and peers, gives her mouth about a quarter of an hour of close scrutiny. Nothing wrong. No, there's no need to pay.
"Twice a month, regular as clockwork," he says, laughing. It's clear he's pleased. "She comes by with a dental emergency, I look at it, and there's nothing wrong. A crush, I guess. But I kind of like it."
He might have called it The Forearm Smash or The Busted Skull—that is, he might have, if you believe the exaggerated accounts of his ferocity that are rehashed every season. Instead, the sign on the plate-glass window says simply: ATKINSON'S LIQUOR STORE. Old ladies with their arms wrapped around bags of groceries trudge uphill on the sidewalk that passes the window, flinching every now and then as they avoid the kids on skateboards whipping past them. A warming sun burns through the endemic Oakland haze. Black voices rag and jive on the corners, and smart black men in colorful hats strut past, grinning and faking punches at one another. Soul music wails through the grunt of traffic.
A German shepherd lies in the sun just inside the open door of the liquor store. His head rises and the yellow eyes stare balefully.
"Hey, Prince, hi, boy," says George Atkinson, bouncing through the door. He reaches down in passing and grabs the dog by the muzzle for a playful shake. Prince—all grave and hard-eyed guard dog till now—jumps up from his watch post and wiggles along at George's side, staring up and grinning, his tail going a mile a minute. When George comes in to tend store, he can stop being a wolf and start being a puppy again.
Atkinson pauses at the cash register to kiss his mother, a large, serious woman, and crosses to the back room behind shelves upon shelves of gleaming bottles.
"Ahhh," Atkinson sighs, sinking back into a worn, sprung, but eminently comfortable arm chair and flicking on the television. "That old Prince is a good dog," he says. "My daddy taught him Spanish. I bought this liquor business for my folks to run. Mainly I mess around in real estate—foreclosures, fixing places up nice that wasn't nice before, buying and selling, keeping it moving. I growed up in Savannah, Georgia, just like my folks did, and it wasn't ever very nice for us down there. But up here they got their own place now, and the store, and they much happier with it. It's a good life."