Monday, 4 April 2011
THE ROUNDABOUT WAY by Kieran Shea
The Roundabout Way
The Hub was a strictly a breakfast joint plugged into a seven unit strip mall, backing up to a slag-savaged creek just east of Dundalk, Maryland. Gary Nelson, twenty-seven, was a Hub regular. Stoop-shouldered at the counter, Gary pulled into the shabby pot-holed parking lot every morning to grab a bite to eat and a moment’s peace before his day labored out in a bitter blur.
Gary glanced up from the Baltimore Sun sports page spread in front of him. On the yellow cushioned stool immediately to his right an older bearded, black man sat down. He wore a khaki colored bucket hat with a Orioles baseball logo on it and had at least seventy pounds on Gary. Thick green flannel shirt reeking of cherry-scented tobacco. Gary licked a forefinger and turned a page. Ravens digest gave way to storage advertisements and then the death notices.
“Gary Nelson, right?”
Gary looked up again from his newspaper and turned.
“Do I know you?”
The bucket hat man clasped his hands on the counter in front of him and tick-tocked his head in a slow and deliberate fashion.
“Me? Nah. Not really. But I kind of know y’all.”
“Yep. In a roundabout way.”
Gary went back to his paper and turned another page, “That a fact.”
The bucket hat man looked out the breakfast shop’s streaked and grimed windows and caught his own eyes in the reflection. The December sunrise hadn’t cleared the horizon yet and the windows were still dark. The big man considered his reflection for a moment and then turned back to Gary and said, “Oh yeah, we have what polite folk call a mutual acquaintance.”
Gary started to take a sip of his mug of cooling coffee but stopped himself. He tried to place the black man’s face through a jumble of memories but found that couldn’t. An icy feeling of mistrust coiled low in Gary’s stomach, but he decided to go for humor instead.
“Someone who thinks good of me I hope.”
“Not really,” the man said somberly. The waitress arrived to take his order and he brightened. “Hey, honey. How y’all doin’? Good, that’s good. Let me see. Can I get me one of them strawberry frosted donuts and a coffee milked? That’ll be fine. I’ll eat the donut here but have to be on the road so make that cup of coffee to go, okay? ” The man turned back to address Gary, “Now then, where was I? Oh yeah, our mutual acquaintance. A while back. A young boy, three or so years younger than y’all, went by the name of Price?”
Gary stiffened, “Hey—what is this?”
“Just two men talkin’.”
“You got the wrong guy, man. You’ve mistaken me for somebody else.”
“See lying to me like that, that’s just plain rude.”
Gary hands trembled a little as he nervously started to fold his newspaper. The waitress returned with the man’s strawberry frost donut on a small plate and a lidded coffee. She slid a ticket face down on the counter as the man removed the cup’s lid and commenced sugaring his coffee from a dispenser in front of them.
“Let me lay it out for you, a’right? Eight years back. You and your boys met up with my nephew Timbo Price. Y’all were settin’ ‘bout to buy some weed from Timbo, but instead of playin’ it cool y’all up and decided to shake down my little nephew and beat his ass. A skinny sixteen year-old kid like Timbo? Shit, takin’ him off looked easy ‘cause y’all thought y’all badass an’ shit bein’ high school footballers. But Timbo? Even with his ass all beat, broken ribs, my boy braves up. Gets his arm caught in your car door and gets dragged, like, a hundred and fifty-seven feet. Oh yeah. Now you remember….”
“I’m not finished. My sister’s kid and he ends up intensive care, side hamburgered to the bone and the mess makes the papers. You boys got nailed on assault, robbery, theft, false imprisonment, reckless endangerment, conspiracy, possession, disorderly conduct, mayhem—"
“Look, man. I don’t know you.”
“No, but sure gonna.”
“I have no beef with you.”
“Wrong there. Y’all got a truck load.”
“I’m an electrician now.”
“Yeah, been following that van for a couple of days now. Good money in that, bein' an electrician?”
“Hey, listen. I did my time, man. I’m sorry for what happened to your nephew, but I did my time.”
“Paid your debt and all that?”
“Diet-state time, lightweight shit. Heard y’all practically gave it up first day you were so scared. Some image that. But Timbo? See, y’all jamming him up like that, that was the beginning of the end for him. Yeah, sure, he was dealing, but who don’t? Once he got out of the hospital he took a light pop in county but afterward? Guess what my boy go and do? Up and joined the fuckin’ Army.”
“I said he joined the Army. Floored me that. My nephew, little Timbo, fighting for the man. Done did him three tours over in that nasty business and what do y’know? Comes back here to Maryland, takes a good look around at this hard life and thinks, hey, a bullet tastes better. I hold you responsible for that.”
Gary struggled to his feet. He felt light headed and felt the world start to wash out beneath his feet. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he stammered grabbing his paper. “I got to get to work.”
“Go on then. Get to work. Free country….”
“God damn right it is.”
The man ate half of his donut and chewed thoughtfully. He pointed a lazy finger out the window after he set the half eaten donut down on his plate. “Might want to check the parking lot first.”
Gary swiveled his head and looked out the glass. The morning sun had finally crested the ragged highway tree line and the parking lot was visible now in a milky cold light. Across the parking lot a group of men huddled in a tinted, rimmed-out black Escalade backed into a slot. A steaming intestine of exhaust leaked from the vehicle’s rear.
“See? You weren’t expecting that were you? Thinking me and mine some kind of fools.”
Gary looked back at the man.
“Run along now, big boy. Those boys are waiting. Me, I’m gonna finish my breakfast here first.”
Kieran Shea blogs at BLACK IRISH BLARNEY.