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 sng 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 Socrtes 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 Shulbrg, 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."
© 1999 by Walter Mosley