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At first he thought the trill and bleating note was part of a dream. A sweet note so high it had to be the angel that Aunt Bellandra said the blue god sent, "to save the black mens from fallin' out the world complete. He got a real high voice like a trumpet an' he always come at the last second, after a fool done lost his job, his money, his wife, his self-respect and just about everything else he got. Just about dead," Bellandra proclaimed, clapping her hands together loudly, "an' that's when the angel sing."
Back when he was a little boy, Socrates feared his tall and severe auntie. But he was also enthralled by her stories about the black race in a white world under a blue god who barely noticed man.
"When he almost gone that angel just might make his move," she'd say. "And when a black man hear that honied voice all the terrible loss an' pain fall right away an' the man look up an' see that he always knew the right road but he never made the move."
Again the high note. This time strained a bit. This time a little warble in Socrates' sleep.
"But not everybody could hear it. Some dope fiends too high an' some mens hatin' too hard. Sometimes the angel is that much too late and his song becomes a funeral hymn."
Socrates jerked himself upright in the bed, opening his eyes as wide as he could. He was afraid that the music he heard in his dream was really the dirge of that tardy angel-that he'd died in the night and it was too late for him to make up for all the suffering he'd caused in his evil years.
He sat up on his fold-out sofa bed. There was a slight whistle in his throat at the tail end of each breath, a whistle that blended into the high notes of the trumpet playing somewhere outside. The music was like crying. A long sigh breaking down into a cascade of tears and then gasping, pleading notes that seemed to be begging for death.
The luminescent hands on the alarm clock told the ex-convict that it was three thirty-four. In less than an hour and a half he had to get up and get ready to go to work.
He listened for the song in the notes but the horn went silent. Socrates let his eyes close for a moment, then opened them briefly only to let them close for a few seconds more. He was considering putting his head back down on the couch cushion when the horn sounded again. This time it was playing a slow blues; a train coming into the station or maybe just leaving.
Socrates' sleepy nod turned into appreciation for the music. He swung his feet over to the edge of the bed, stepped into the overalls that were on the floor and stood up, pulling the straps over his shoulders. He slid his feet into the large leather sandals he'd found in a trash can on one of his delivery runs for Bounty.
Leather slapping against his heels, Socrates walked out of his apartment door and into the small vegetable garden that led to the alley. The black dog raised up on his two legs and dragged himself to his master's feet.
The horn song was coming from the left, from the lot where a warehouse once stood. The warehouse had once supplied the two furniture stores, now abandoned, that flanked Socrates' sliver of a home-a corridor between the two stores that had been walled off.
Outside, the trumpet notes were loud and clear. The music took on an angry tone in the open air.
The night stars seemed to accompany the song. Socrates wondered why he didn't get up before dawn more often. The night sky was beautiful. There wasn't anyone out and it was peaceful and he was free to go anywhere with no metal bars or prison guards to stop him.
The burned-out lot was vacant but it wasn't empty. Two rusted-out cars, several large appliance boxes, various metal barrels and cans, piles of trash and even a rough and ready structure stood here and there designed by the temporary traveler, the homeless or the mad.
Socrates couldn't see the musician but that blues train continued rolling. His aunt Bellandra's words were still cold in his mind. Leaving the black dog behind the gate, Socrates walked toward the lot, leather heels slapping and gravel crackling in his wake. Everything seemed to have reason and deep purpose-the yellow light in Mrs. Melendez's window, the cold from the night breeze on his shoulders that he felt without shivering.
He stopped at the edge of the lot and watched the half moon just above the horizon.
Baby bought a new hat, Socrates imagined the notes were saying. She bought a yellow dress. They were the words to a song the barber used to play on the phonograph on Saturdays when his half brother Garwood would take him for his biweekly buzz cut.
She's gonna ride that Greyhound bus and take away my best.
"Hey!" Socrates shouted and the music stopped. "Hey!"
The answering silence was like a pressure on Socrates' eardrums.
He didn't know why he'd come out into the dark night unarmed, out in the dangerous streets of his neighborhood. Three weeks earlier a woman had been shot to death, execution style, and dropped in the alley. The neighbors said that all she wore was a silver miniskirt and one red shoe. He'd forgotten the name but she wasn't even twenty, brown and slender except that she had large breasts. When he heard of her death, Socrates' first thought was that when she was born he had already been fifteen years in an Indiana prison cell.
Something hard and metal fell. Socrates moved quickly in his awkward shoes.
"Stay 'way!" A small man leapt over a toppled water heater and ran the length of the lot through to another alley. By the time Socrates reached the end of the lot, the little man was gone.
"Looks like your watch must be a little slow today, Mr. Fortlow," Jason Fulbright said in way of greeting. It was seven fifty-seven a.m.
"Say what?" Socrates answered, none too friendly. Fulbright was a tan-colored black man with thick lips that he compressed into the thinnest disapproving frown that he could muster. He showed Socrates his own wristwatch, tapping the crystal.
"It's almost eight," he said, his high voice like an accusing cat-bird. "You're on the seven forty-five shift aren't you?"
"My bus driver must'a got it mixed up today," Socrates said in a bit milder tone. He liked his job. He felt good coming in to work every day. He needed that paycheck too.
"Your bus gets you in too late. You should take an earlier one," the young man said. "Even if you get in a little early at least you'll be on time. Yes sir, if you want to make it in this business you got to take the early bus."
Fulbright clapped Socrates on the shoulder. Maybe when he felt the rock-hard muscle of that upper arm he began to realize that he was in over his head.
"Don't put your hands on me, man," Socrates uttered on a slight breath.
"What did you say?"
"I said, keep your hands to yourself if you wanna keep 'em at all." All the reserve he had built up, all the times he told himself that men like Jason Fulbright were just fools and not to be listened to-all of that was gone. Just a few hours of missing sleep and a strong dream- a fool playing his trumpet in the middle of the night-that's all it took, one bad morning, and Socrates was ready to throw everything away.
Unconsciously Fulbright took half a step back, but Socrates could see in the man's face that he still intended to say something else. And no matter what he said it was going to cause a fight. Not a fight but a slaughter. Fulbright was tall and strong from playing sport, but he didn't know the meaning of the kind of violence he called up in the ex-con. Socrates couldn't shake the fists out of his hands.
"Good morning, Jason, Socrates," Marty Gonzalez, the senior store manager said.
Fulbright and Fortlow had to turn away from each other in order to return the greeting.
"Mr. Gonzales," Jason said.
Socrates merely nodded. He liked the fire plug manager. Marty had once shown Socrates a pocket watch he carried that held a picture of his great-grandsire, Ernesto Gonzalez, pasted opposite the timepiece. He remarked on how much he looked like his ancestor from Sonora but how little like him he was.
"I don't speak Spanish," Marty had said. "Been to Vietnam but never to Mexico. My wife was born in Denmark. My kid has blue hair and thinks that Taco Bell is all he needs to know about Chicano culture."
Now he stood between them.
"What's happening?" the dark-eyed manager asked.
"I don't know what the heck's going on to tell you the truth, Mr. Gonzalez," Jason began.
He was going to say more but Marty cut him off. "Uh-huh. Hey, Jason, why don't you go and make sure that the twins did a shelf count and order form last night?"
"Okay, Mr. Gonzalez. If that's what you want." Jason fixed his brown and red striped tie and gave the two men a questioning stare.
"Yeah," Marty said, clapping Jason on the shoulder. "You just go on and check out the twins' work."
The twins were Sarah Shulberg, a Jewish girl who lived on Spalding Drive, and Robyn Craig, a light-skinned Negro child whose father was a plastic surgeon with an office on Roxbury. Sarah and Robyn did everything together. They dressed alike, talked about cute boys. Their mothers took turns driving them to work and home again.
"I swear I'ma break that mothahfuckah's head right open he don't get up offa me," Socrates said loudly as Jason walked away. Marty gestured with both hands for his employee to lower the volume.
"I know," the manager said. He was broad but short and had to look up to address the big man. "He's a prissy prick."
"You better talk to him, Marty," Socrates said. "He come up here sayin' that my watch must be busted, that I better get on a earlier bus. Man, I take the first bus leave in the mornin' an' I ain't ever even owned no watch."
"It's okay, Socco. Jason's just a kiss ass. He don't know."
"He gonna find out soon enough he keep on fuckin' wit' me like that."
"What's bothering you, Socco?"
"Nuthin'," the big man said. "He just made me mad, that's all." Marty nodded and looked down at his feet.
"Yeah, he's a bitch all right," the manager said. "Why don't you'n me and Hector unload the big truck this mornin'? Give us somethin' to do."
Socrates liked unloading the big truck that delivered on Monday mornings. Tons of groceries had to be pulled off onto the loading dock at the side of the store. It was hard work but Socrates was a strong man. More often than not he was the strongest man in the room.
He lifted and toted, stacked and wheeled thousands of pounds off the truck that day. Hector La Forna and Marty Gonzalez had to take turns just to keep up with the big, bald, black man. He worked until the sweat was glistening on his head. He knew he'd be sore for a week because even though his muscles were strong they were still old and reluctant.
"Lets break for lunch," Marty suggested at eleven fifteen.
"Lunch ain't till twelve twenty for the seven forty-five shift," Socrates reminded him.
"Fuck that. Let's get some corned beef sandwiches from the deli and go over to the park. I'll tell Jason that he can be in charge while we're gone. That'll give him such a hard-on that his wife'll send me a thank-you card."
The little patch of green across the street from the Bounty Supermarket had a park bench and table, a bronze statue of a nameless prospector and a boulder more than nine feet high and almost as broad, all shaded by a very old and green pine. Marty bought the sandwiches, with beer for after the meal. Socrates accepted the apology for Jason Fulbright's behavior and relaxed for the first time since three thirty-four that morning.
After some solid eating and drinking Socrates nodded and blinked. Maybe he napped for a minute or three. In the stupor he leaned a little too far forward and had to jerk up quickly to keep from falling.
Marty was grinning at him.
"What time is it?" Socrates made to stand but relaxed when Marty put up his hand.
"It's about a quarter to one."
"I'm a half hour late. What's Fulbright gonna do wit' that?"
"What's wrong, Socco? Why're you so nervous today?" Marty's eyes were so black that they seemed like bullet holes to the ex-con.
"Wrong? Lotsa stuff is wrong. All kinds a shit. I seen in the paper last night where the cops beat up a whole truckload of illegal Mexicans again. Right in broad daylight. Right on TV. But nobody cares. They didn't learn nothin' from them riots."
"But that's every day, Mr. Fortlow," Marty said. "What's wrong today? I mean, they didn't kick your butt."
"You mean they didn't try. 'Cause you know, man, the next mothahfuckah try an' kick my ass gonna be dead. Cop or whatever. I don't play that shit. How about that for wrong?"
Marty Gonzalez was lying on his side, propped up on an elbow.
"What?" Socrates asked after a few moments' silence.
"I didn't say anything."
"You wanna go back?"
"Whatever you say, Socco." Marty shrugged one shoulder but otherwise stayed still.
"You ever worry that you might be goin' crazy, Marty?" Socrates didn't even know what he'd been thinking until the question found words.
Marty nodded. "Every time my wife's mother comes to dinner until about an hour after she leaves."
Socrates' laugh sounded like far-off explosions, a battery of cannon laying siege to a defenseless town.
"You always been a fool, Marty?"
"I guess so. What about you?"
"Yeah, I guess," Socrates rubbed his rock-breaking left hand over his pate. "Fool to begin wit' now it looks like I'm comin' back for another shot at it. You know I was gonna break Jason's face for 'im if you didn't show up."
"And I almost let you do it too." Marty smiled. "You'd be doing that brother a favor but I'd surely hate to lose you, Socco. You're the only full-grown man in the whole store. Outside of you, it's just women, kids and kiss asses."
Socrates laughed again. "Yeah," he said. "I know what you mean. Uh-huh. Sometimes I wonder how some'a these men get dressed in the mornin'. An' here I got to listen to this shit just to make four ninety-five a hour."
"That's all we're payin' you?" Marty actually seemed shocked.
"Yeah. Don't you know what you pay people?"
"Uh-uh. They cut the checks by grade downtown. But I thought you'd at least be a grade four by now. You been here over a year. That boy you look after, Darryl's making four sixty."
"Shit. I'm lucky to have a job." Socrates looked left and right then pulled himself up and on to his feet. "We better be gettin' back." Marty stood up too. He put himself face to neck with the big black man. "Gibbs is leaving the produce department to go downtown. He's going to supervise the southwestern purchasing area."
"Yeah. He deserves it, I guess."
"I need a new produce manager." Marty's eyes did not blink.
"Uh, yeah, I guess you do. Benny lookin' to move up. He got a wife and kid."
"How old are you, Mr. Fortlow?"
"Me an' sixty's kissin' cousins."
"And you work harder than two Jason Fulbrights."
"Not if I sit out here suckin' beer all day." Socrates bit his lower lip with a row of powerful yellow teeth.
"You could be my produce manager, Socco."
"Naw, Marty. Not me. I just come in and do what I'm told. Pick that up, put that down-that's me."
"You're the best man I got, Socco. And I need somebody I can trust in produce. Produce and meat-they're perishable and need a responsible eye on 'em."
Socrates turned away from his supervisor and looked across the street at the huge supermarket with its vast parking lot. It seemed very far away.
"We better get goin', man," Socrates said to his boss.
Socrates and Darryl worked next to each other on checkout counters five and six, bagging groceries for the four o'clock rush. "How you doin' in school, little D?" Socrates asked his young friend.
"S'okay I guess." The boy concentrated on the number ten cans of tomatoes he was placing at the bottom of the bag.
"Okay good or okay bad?" Socrates pressed. He could bag twice as fast as any child in the store. His hands did his thinking for him- a trait that brought him more trouble than help over the years. "I already brought my report card home to Mr. and Mrs. MacDaniels. They got it."
Socrates finished putting his six bags into the wire cart for a small white woman. He recognized her face but couldn't recall her name.
"Can you help me, young man?" The white lady smiled at Socrates while skinny Darryl struggled with the heavy bag he'd loaded. Socrates could have told the boy that he was putting too many big cans in one bag but Darryl needed to learn for himself.
"Sure," Socrates said to the little white woman in the synthetic brown pants suit. "Happy to."
When Socrates returned Darryl was still working counter six but the only other opening was on number fourteen. They worked through the rush until it was time for the late afternoon break. Darryl was the first to get the nod from the assistant supervisor of the late shift, Evelyn Lau.
Darryl left through the deli department. Evelyn always kept Socrates on until the end because he was the best worker at Bounty; the only one who could bag for two checkout counters at the same time.
After Evelyn gave him the nod, Socrates found Darryl smoking cigarettes with some of the other children around the Dumpster at back of the store.
"Come on, we gotta talk," Socrates told the boy.
Darryl dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his Nike shoe. They walked around to the ice-making machine at the other side of the store and stood there for a while watching the blue skies darken.
"How much that shoe cost you, boy?" Socrates asked.
"Regular one sixty for a pair, but I got these for ninety on sale."
There was pride in the boy's voice but he squinted and flinched a little because he could hear a lesson behind Socrates' question.
"And you gonna stamp out a cigarette with a rubber-soled shoe that cost you a whole week's salary."
"It's mines. I bought it." Darryl said. But the defiance was only in the words, none of it in his tone.
Socrates was the only man that had a right to hit him, that's what Darryl thought. Even though Hallie and Costas MacDaniels were his foster parents, Socrates was the one who had taken him out of a life of gangs and forgave his mortal crime. The social welfare department wouldn't let a convicted felon adopt the boy, but Socrates looked after Darryl anyway and made sure that he had a chance.
"You work two weeks for shoes you shouldn't be burnin' 'em like that. Bad enough yo' feet outgrow 'em in six months. I mean where you think money come from anyways?"
Socrates could see that Darryl was angry but he didn't mind.
"And what about that report card?" Socrates asked. "You gonna tell me about that?"
"I got dees and stuff."
"An' what stuff?"
"What's wrong?" Socrates wanted to know. "Don't you do your homework?"
"They'ont like me, that's all. They just don't care. I'ont know what they be talkin' 'bout. An' if I ask they'ont even say." The glower in Darryl's eyes reminded him of the boy who spent so much time with his Aunt Bellandra.
"Why ain't they gonna like you, Darryl? It's a school. You a student. It's their job to tell you what things mean."
"But they don't. I just don't get it. They think I'm stupid, that's all."
"You not stupid," Socrates said. "You not. But that ain't gonna help if you fail in school. I mean what you gonna do if you fail?"
"I could work right here wich you. People work here. Mr. Gonzalez do."
"If that's what you want," Socrates said. "If that's what you want. But don't make it all you could have. Ain't no shame in bein' a grocer but it's bitch and a half if they think that that's all you're good for."
Socrates made German potato salad for his dinner that night. He boiled six potatoes and fried bacon on his butane camping stove. He used two tablespoons of good vinegar with mustard and minced onion, garlic powder, and a pinch of cayenne for seasoning. He ate until he couldn't swallow any more.
Then he pulled on his fatigue pants and jacket, stepped into his high army surplus boots, and put two pints of Myrtle's brand brandy in the inside pockets of the lined army coat. In the vacant lot he climbed into a Westinghouse refrigerator box carrying a red plastic milk carton box for his seat.
The sun was down and there was a chill in the air but between Myrtle's brand and Uncle Sam Socrates was snug and warm.
He used the oversized bottle cap for his shot glass and poked a hole in the box to see the night sights. He had brought a half gallon plastic milk container to use as a urinal. Socrates was on a mission like a small boy camping in the backyard, or a sniper laying in wait. He nodded out now and then, talking to his Aunt Bellandra in a brandy stupor on the plastic milk crate.
"Does the angel play for white men?" the boy Socrates asked.
"No, baby," Bellandra replied in a surprisingly gentle manner. Socrates thought that she must have been drunk to be so friendly like that. "White men don't need that angel, neither do white women nor black ones either. It's just black men so hardheaded that they cain't do right even by themselves."
"Oh Reggie! Oh yeah!" a woman's voice cried. "Oh do that! Do that! Yeah."
Socrates came awake to the sound of the lovers. The young woman's pleas got him half hard in his refrigerator box and he had a difficult time getting the right angle with the milk container to relieve himself. After a while he got it right but the stream was noisier than he would have liked.
"What's that?" a man, probably Reggie, said.
"Uh, what?" asked his girlfriend.
Socrates managed to stop urinating but the last few drops were as loud as tapping fingers on a tight drumhead.
"Who's that?" Reggie called out.
Socrates stifled a giggle thinking about how he was hiding in a box way past midnight. There he was with some clown swinging his dick in the night air and calling him out.
"Who's there? Motherfucker, I find you an' I'm'onna cut you too!"
Socrates zipped up his pants because he didn't want to fight with his business hanging out.
"Sh! You hear that, Tanika?"
"Let's go, baby. Maybe it's Arnold."
"Motherfucker!" Reggie shouted. "Is that you?"
Socrates wondered what those children would think if he stood up and busted out of his box, if he broke out on them and yelled boo. But no. That's not why he was there. He took a sip of brandy and listened to the footsteps of the sneak lovers recede.
"Beety beety dwa dwaaaa! Dwa dwaaaa!" the horn said. Just that fast sleeping Socrates was awake and sober and so excited he began to sweat.
He put his eye up next to the hole and looked. At first he couldn't see anything because his eye was still asleep. But the horn kept playing and he kept looking until finally he saw a foot, a toe-tapping foot that beat out a fast tempo for the slow sweet tune.
Socrates ripped the box apart and was on the small wide-eyed horn player, a lion on a lamb.
"What who you want?" the little colored man cried. "What?" He was more gray than brown, more boy than man. He was old and tiny and slender like a child.
Socrates raised the small man by the shoulder and cried, "What the fuck you doin' out here playin' that gotdamned horn in the middle'a the mothahfuckin' night like a fool?"
He didn't mean to say all that. He didn't care why the man was there.
"Lemme go, brother," the man said. "I ain't got nuthin' but this beat-up horn an' it ain't worth two dollars."
Socrates sucked down a deep breath and tried not to squeeze too hard. His grip was a bone breaker, a skull buster. His hands were weapons trained from childhood for war.
"I don't want your horn, man," Socrates said after a few breaths. "It's just your music woke me up. I'ont know why, I mean why I'm out here. What's your name?"
"Hoagland. Hoagland Mars."
"My name is Socrates, Socrates Fortlow."
Hoagland Mars nodded and eyed his attacker with concern.
"You wanna drink, Hoagland Mars?"
Socrates took the second pint of Myrtle's brand from his army jacket, cracked the seal and passed it over. The musician smacked his lips over his first sip and took another before passing it back.
"That's the right stuff right there," he said.
They went back to Socrates' small home after a few sips. Hoagland sat at the kitchen table playing his two-dollar horn and tasting the cheap brandy. Socrates glowered and plodded toward drunk but Mr. Mars didn't seem worried at what his host might do.
"Yeah, man," Hoagland opined, "I played behind T-Bone Walker and right besides Lips McGee. I played the Dark Room in Chi and all through Motown records. You know I figure you could hear my horn a hunnert times every day on the oldies radio station. Shit."
Socrates was surprised that Hoagland had such thin lips. "A black man, a horn player," he told Stony Wile a few weeks later. "And he had lips like a white girl ain't never been kissed."
Near dawn Myrtle and Hoagland's horn both ran dry. The little man was flagging, head dipping halfway to his knees.
"What you do with all that money?" Socrates asked.
"Spent it," the musician said. "Spent every dime. Real brandy and real blondes. Stayed in hotels where the ashtrays cost more than my whole Mississippi cotton-pickin' family could pull down in a year. Huh. Shit. I'd drop a hundred dollars on a handkerchief or tie. You know I done lived."
"So why you out in a alley in Watts tonight?" Socrates asked. "What brought you down here?"
"Black man cain't keep nuthin', brother. All we could do is borrah an' you know the white man wan' it all back-wit' interest."
Socrates didn't wake up until ten thirty-five. His pocket change was missing from the kitchen counter. Twenty dollars he kept in a sock in a shoe under the sofa bed was gone. He didn't remember pulling down the bed or falling in it. He hadn't heard Hoagland Mars stealing and neither did he care.
Socrates got to work at twelve fifteen. The first thing he saw was Jason Fulbright headed straight for him down the center aisle. But before Jason reached Socrates Marty Gonzalez grabbed the assistant manager by the arm and talked to him, told a joke, it seemed, and then sent him on his way.
The stocky manager greeted Socrates and smiled. "You look a little better," Marty said.
"I told Jason that you told me yesterday that you were sick and had to see the doctor. You know I'd forget my head if it wasn't for my neck."
"I'll make it up, Marty. I'll stay late and help the twins with their inventory."
Socrates skipped lunch and both his breaks. He worked straight until eight forty-five and then hurried out of the sliding doors.
"Socco!" Marty called at the big man's back. "Hey, Socrates." "I gotta run, Marty. I got to catch the eight fifty bus. The next one is over a hour from now."
"Hold up," Marty said. "I'll give you a ride down to Venice and you can catch the two eighty-three."
He slapped Socrates hard on the back and walked him out to his Ford Explorer. In the high driver's seat Socrates rode with no seat belt looking out at the dark streets of Beverly Hills.
"Car's nicer than my place," Socrates said. "Bet you pay more on insurance than I pay rent."
"What's your rent?" Marty asked.
"Nuthin'. I used to pay this dude but he musta died or sumpin'. But you know the place ain't worth much, it's just a space between two empty stores."
"Yeah, well," Marty said as he swerved past a red Bonneville that had loud bass music playing out of its open trunk. "I guess you can't beat that."
"Yeah," Socrates said, not really agreeing.
"So, Socco," Marty said. "What about that produce job?"
"I got a job. I mean I know it's a low hourly wage but I get tips for deliveries and I know if I get sick that somebody can take my place."
"I looked up your record. Today's the first time you were ever even late as far as I can see. You've only been sick twice."
"Man, I was four hours late today, I'm almost sixty, and you don't know me. How you know that you could trust me with that kinda responsibility?"
"I want you to be one of my men, Socco," Marty said. "I need people who I can rely on to roll up their sleeves, people who work." Marty took a left on Olympic heading east. The wide street was lined with low apartment buildings and nice single-family homes. Not many streetlights and not much traffic to speak of. They made good speed down toward Fairfax.
The car, Socrates thought, was as quiet as a tomb.
"No," he said as they turned south of Fairfax. "You let Benny have it, Marty. And just call on me for anything extra you need."
"Sure as sin on Sunday."
There was silence past Pico and Saturn and Pickford. Silence across Airdome and Eighteenth and all the way down to Venice. But when they pulled up to the bus stop and Socrates opened the door Marty said, "Gibbs isn't leaving for six weeks. I won't make my decision until the day he's gone."
Socrates swung one leg out of the door and then turned back to his boss.
"Why you want me, man?"
"I like working with you, Mr. Fortlow. I trust you."
"You don't know nuthin' about me."
"I don't know anything about anybody down at the store. We work together, that's all. It's none of my business what you do some place else."
"I'll think about it," Socrates said. "But I don't know. I mean if you give the job away before I get back to ya it'll be okay by me."
"Six weeks," the store manager repeated. "You got till then."
The bus ride took over two hours. He had to transfer twice. The connections were slow but Socrates didn't care. He was used to wasting time. All convicts were.
When he got to his place he had the feeling of coming home. Home to his illegal gap. Home to a place that had no street address, a jury-rigged electrical system, plumbing that turned off every once in a while, sometimes for weeks. It was a hard place. Sometimes when he was hungry, before he had a job, he had thought that jail might be better than starving freedom; jail or death. It was a place he slept in, a place to read or drink or almost cry. But it had never been home. It had never been hearth or asylum but now it was both of these things. For the first time he was thankful for what little he had. He was safe at least for one night more.
(c) 1999 by Walter Mosley"