It was early morning but already a rusted Ford Escort gathered lazy johns across the street from a downtown bar. Spanish moss hung limp as a washrag from the magnificent live oaks which routinely buckled Tallahassee’s sidewalks into uneven surfaces, like ice floes jammed in a fjord. The trees here, towering as they did, still failed to shade either the Ford or the No-Tell Bar & Grille which simmered across the way in what locals called Frenchtown, a district segregated de facto if not de jure, shoeboxed into a strip mall with a bicycle shop, a greasy spoon and a 7-11.
COME IN a neon sign buzzed like an outsized mosquito. IT’S KOOL INSIDE.
A black man slouched at a plywood counter next to the bar’s plate glass window. Rode hard and put away wet, you might say, a can of Budweiser sweating inside his fist like a whore in a church.
“Damn, it’s sticky.”
He was generally known to regulars as the Bear. He was heavy in the shoulders, like a bear. Big humps above the neck, like a grizzly. And heavy slabs of muscle still hung from a large-boned skeleton over a gut that, with recent habits of nutrition, was actually wasting.
But the sobriquet which followed Barrett Raines probably came from his early morning habit, the one you could see him at, now, as he abandoned his beer to spoon gobs of honey from a mason jar into a mug of scalding coffee that steamed alongside.
“Good morning, Tallahassee!” a deejay cackled like a magpie from a radio Bear guessed had been salvaged from the French Resistance. “It’s seven forty-five for those of you confused about yer watch. And we’ve got sunshine in the Sunshine State!”
Did they ever. The heat and humidity index for north Florida began its inexorable climb to misery every year just about this time, a fact joyfully chronicled by meteorologists who apparently never spent a day outside.
“A beautiful day here in the Capital City,” the deejay chattered on breezily. “Humid, though. Ninety-seven percent at the moment. And not a smidgen of breeze showing . . .”
“Not a smidgen,” Bear agreed.
He reached for breakfast. An alligator-sized pickle waddled with a boiled egg on a plastic plate.
“. . . and if you notice the streets look a little empty,” the deejay chirped on, “guess what? It’s spring break! Yeah! All those frat boys and coeds out of town! Daytona! Pensacola! Wherever! Gotta tell you, though, it’s fine by me. A break in the traffic!”
The deejay’s chatter segued to Vince Gill – “When I Call Your Name.” Something about a guy coming home to find his wife’s left him.
“Would you cut that shit off, Shark?”
“Click,” a black man with a tonsure wreathed in silver killed the bar’s radio.
Barrett could not help but notice that the Shark showed not a bead of perspiration whereas he, twenty years younger and propped beneath the bar’s single and massive window unit, was sweating like a June bride in a feather bed. Bear just shook his head. Some things were imponderable.
Shark Snyder banged a roll of quarters into the register. He owned and ran the No-Tell and was not pleased with the tab Bear had amassed since separating from his wife.
But Shark would not deny a man his smokes. The Marlboros were supplied with the grace of a true Southerner, something Barrett Raines could appreciate. The Bear, after all, was originally from Deacon Beach, a small town on the Gulf. (What the hell did “originally” mean in that context, anyway? Could you originate from more than one place?! Wasn’t that redundant, or tautological or some shit?) There were nothing but fishermen on Deacon Beach. Shrimpers, mostly. Sunburned men, angry and white, who owned everything.
Barrett zipped off the Marlboro’s ribbon like the string from a Band-Aid, tapped a smoke free. He couldn’t understand how he’d wound up in this place. He’d done all the right things. Had always managed to make his mark.
But something always tarnished the trophy. Take school—Barrett graduated valedictorian from a high school where most black kids didn’t even finish. Doesn’t mean shit to the shrimpers of Deacon Beach. There were no scholarships waiting. No eager inquiries from colleges or universities.
The young Raines immediately enlisted in the army because there, he knew, was a way off the Beach. And that went all right. Bear took his G.I. bennies and a hitch in the reserves to a small, liberal university in Texas. He discovered literature and pursued a double major, was respected by his profs and popular with students eager to champion social justice and tolerance and the like.
But at the tail end of his senior year, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait. Barrett’s artillery unit was activated, and the Bear went to war. Students and faculty seemed cool upon his return. The black man familiar to them, the earnest student notorious among his classmates for actually enjoying Aeschylus and Euripides, did not sit well with the returned soldier who without apology killed tanks and infantry in a terrible, desert storm.
“One day I’m Koom-Bye-Yah with the white boys,” Barrett shared that thought with Shark on a previous occasion. “Next day they’re treating me like a house nigger.”
“Ain’t nuthin’ new in that,” Shark’s grunted rejoinder was short on sympathy.
Then Bear married his hometown’s homecoming queen. Girl of his dreams. Any man’s dreams. They’d made nine, almost nine and a half years. Couldn’t say without a hitch, who could? But nine good–damn good years. With two boys. Twins! And now, looked like, that was all going down the drain, too.
The beer chugged down Bear’s throat like molasses. Hell of a thing, being separated from your wife. Your family.
But at least he had the work, his calling, his gift. The work had been wonderful, at first, had sustained the Bear and justified him righteously. That was then. But now, scarcely a year after coming to this unfamiliar place, Barrett Raines slouched in a bar at eight o’clock in the steaming morning, nearer to forty years than thirty, in debt and in danger of losing along with his job the only woman he’d ever loved in his life.
Bear fumbled open a book of matches. A hot draught of tobacco and tar coiled into overtaxed lungs.
“Thought you was quittin’,” Shark interrupted the Bear’s rumination.
“I am. Sometime.”
Barrett told himself, and Shark, that nicotine kept his weight down. Raines was lucky to have a coffin’s worth of height and a rawboned physique to carry his weight. It was a chassis that held the strength and tone more tenaciously than most. Even against cigarettes.
“Killed John Wayne,” Shark reminded Barrett mournfully. “Kill him, it’ll sure as hell kill you.”
“Not if I eat well.”
Time for the morning ritual: Down with the pickle, the egg and then the beer to chase.
“Go Seminoles!” Barrett belched, and then to Shark, “‘Nother one.”
“Pickle? Or aig?”
“Very witty,” Barrett twisted a clip-on tie from his frayed and ringed Arrow collar.
“You owe me forty-eight dollars and fifty cents,” Shark reminded his sole customer of the morning. “That’s a lot of Bud.”
“No cash,” Barrett pulled out his pockets to prove it. “State’s got our paychecks held up.”
“Since when do state workers miss a check?”
“The budget’s stalled, all right? The governor’s constipated. What am I supposed to do?”
“Vote democrat. Take Ex-Lax.”
But Shark slid a Budweiser down his marine-ply bar. Barrett caught it just in time to hear the door tinkle open. A new prospect for the morning? Spiked heels. Tank top. Ambitious breasts. Celia stretched beneath the air conditioner like it was a shower, “It’s hotter than four hundred hells melted and poured in a tin thimble.”
“Have a seat, Ceal,” Barrett pulled one out for her.
“My meter’s running.”
“I’m down to a stroll myself,” Barrett smiled broadly. “But you’re welcome to a seat.”
“How ‘bout a smoke?”
“All right.” Barrett tapped the pack for two when brakes locked to draw his attention outside.
“Shee-it,” Shark paused at the register.
A trio of teenagers spilled from a rusted van onto the sidewalk across the street. Gang members. Shirts and shoelaces. A jack slammed beneath the Ford.
Barrett turned to Shark, “Your car?”
Only a couple of seconds to raise the car. Hubcaps spilled to the sidewalks like nickels on a plate. Celia was already bored.
“How ‘bout we start the day off with a bang,” she slid a finger inside Barrett’s collar.
“Sorry. No can do.”
A power wrench hammered at lug bolts outside.
“Tired?” Celia swung into Raines’s lap.
“Well, yeah, but mostly broke.”
“We can go on credit.”
“I’m in debt.”
“So’s the government,” she stretched like a cat. “Doesn’t stop them.”
“Good point,” Barrett nodded, though whether he was talking about the government or her tits would be hard to determine.
Wham! The Ford collapsed to its axles. The van inhaled its hoodlums, burned rubber out to the street. And then a siren wailed.
“Here come de calvary,” Celia sucked her Marlboro.
The calvary had come. But not for the teenage hoods. An unmarked Crown Vic glided smoothly to a halt beside the compact Ford. The driver heaved out, a boulder-sized redhead with a leather bulge beneath his shoulder. He strolled, this man, from the Crown Victoria to the No-Tell’s entrance, tapped the door open–
What was that accent? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Someplace, for sure, where they ate a lot of cheese.
“Cricket,” Barrett greeted the newcomer. “Good mawnin’.”
“Time to travel, Bear.”
Barrett heaved a huge sigh, finished the last slug of his Bud, ground out his butt. Only after he fetched a jacket from the floor would anyone see the badge and the gun which clued the work that once had made Bear a proud man.
Only then would you know that Barrett Raines was a cop.