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 whayou 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 coul 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, stpped 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 coored 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 fist 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 dcision 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.
[For more about Walter Mosley and his works, see the Walter Mosley Web site.]