(Art by spoon+fork.)
I was walking home when the phone jumped in my pants. I reached in and answered.
“Heading home, huh?”
“Well, yeah, I’m done for the day.”
“You ain’t done, yet. How about a drink?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“I got you covered. It’s time for a random check-in with you.”
“Where should I meet you?”
“Just turn around, partner.”
I looked and saw an old hard-top sedan crawling behind me. The roof was a little crooked, like the car had scoliosis, but it was completely silent. The driver flipped up the sun visor and waved to me. It was O’Keefe, crouched over the steering wheel like a wolf creeping up on a sheep.
“How are you doing, Sean?” he asked as I tried to shut the passenger door, which stopped about a foot short.
“Oh, let me get that,” said O’Keefe reaching over and slamming the door, his elbow glancing off my chest. I looked over and saw that the door unlock latch was ripped out.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You asking where we’re going because I’m black, huh? If I was white, you’d be like, ‘Let’s go cruising, dude!’”
“I’m not asking because you’re black. I’m asking because I feel kinda weirded out that you’re following me around.”
“I’m going above and beyond the call of duty to keep you safe. You’re an at-risk youth. You should be happy I’m keeping tabs on you. If your parents watched you like I’m doing now, you wouldn’t be in the spot you’re in.”
There wasn’t any music on, which was a little strange for a black driver. But I kept my mouth shut. I looked out the window. We were driving down a road parallel to the beach. There were dirty strips of red, orange and yellow in the sky where the sun was setting.
Then we made a turnoff and a row of houses with bricked-up windows went by.
“Where are we going?” I asked again.
“I’m taking you to one of my favorite bars. JJ’s.”
It became pretty clear that he was taking me to the black part of Shore Points. Whenever we had school safety assemblies they always told us to stay away from there. O’Keefe gave me some history of the place as the car seemed to pick up speed.
After World War II, the state built blocks of row houses and sold them cheap to returning veterans. Over the years, most of the men found jobs in New York or Philly. But the black ones didn’t. They stayed, took the typical factory jobs in Jersey. A lot of their sons went to Vietnam and the ones that made it back brought home their trauma and heroin habits. The neighborhood got worse with the factory shutdowns in the 80s. The township split in two and the black area got its own school district, Shore Points Heights.
“I was the valedictorian of Shore Points Heights, class of 1985,” said O’Keefe. “And I could have done it in a white school, too.”
We rolled up on a corner next to a garbage can that was crushed on one side and leaned over like it was taking a bow.
O’Keefe yanked out the keys.
“C’mon, white boy,” he said.
Everybody there was black. There were black men smoking cigarettes and black women laughing. There was a bald, black bartender leaning into a tap and filling a mug. I was terrified.
“Your feet stuck to the floor or something?” O’Keefe asked me over his shoulder. He headed over to the bar.
I came over to him and said, “Okay, the joke’s over. Get me out of here.”
“I ain’t got you handcuffed. Just walk out that door.” I swallowed and took a seat.
“Awright, the Irish are here!” shouted the bartender, slapping hands with O’Keefe.
“He’s Irish for real,” said O’Keefe, nodding his head at me. The bartender nodded his head and stared at me.
“We don’t have no Mr. Samuel Adams, here,” he told me. “Hope that’s okay.”
“I don’t drink Sam Adams.”
“What’ll you have, then?”
“I’ll take the same as him.”
O’Keefe laughed out loud.
“Bring us both some Michelob,” he managed to get out.
After a few sips, a woman came up to O’Keefe. She had on a dark blue short-sleeved shirt that was buttoned to the top and a pair of jeans. Her hair was in short knots all over.
“Jimmy, where’ve you been?” she asked.
“Here and there, here and there.”
“I’ve been missing you.”
“I’ve been calling you, Nadine, but I get to hanging up whenever your greeting kicks in.”
“Hmph,” she said, looking at me sideways. It was a sexy look. “Who are you?” she asked me.
“You a cop?”
“I know him from work,” O’Keefe interjected and gave her a hard look.
“Oh, you still at work, huh? Well, that’s too bad, then. Bye-bye, Sean.” She walked away.
“Who was that?” I asked O’Keefe.
“So I heard. Who is she?”
“An old friend.”
It obviously bothered him, so I kept asking questions to get even with him for bringing me here.
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“Have you ever fucked her?”
O’Keefe turned his shoulder to me and took a deep swig from his glass.
“C’mon, did you fuck her?”
He looked up at the clock and said, “I loved her.”
Nadine later left with some guy. I didn’t know if O’Keefe saw. We kept drinking.
“What’s going on with you, Sean?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, I’ve been by the hotel. I’ve seen that belly dancer behind the counter. I know you been talking to her. I don’t know how, because them people don’t know correct English.”
“She have like a snake in a basket and a flute behind the counter?”
“You wanna fuck that belly dancer, don’t you?”
“She’s probably just part of a harem. Them people always have more than one wife!”
At the jukebox, someone put on the first song that I knew, “Dancing in the Street.”
“Hey, O’Keefe, did you know Mick Jagger and David Bowie did this song?”
“No kidding, huh?”
“I saw the video on VH1.” Back in jail.
“I’ll bet it sounded like crap.”
“It did! Looked like crap, too.”
I staggered off my stool.
“In the back, by the last booth. Oh, hey.” He pulled out a plastic cup and lid from his front pants pocket. I was surprised he had enough room to keep it there. Then the fear set in.
“I need to take a random sample. Let’s go.” He slapped my arm.
I staggered to the back and bumped into a few people. I mumbled apologies and felt my face going numb.
When the test showed up positive O’Keefe was going to beat the shit out of me and everybody in the bar was going to stand up and cheer each punch and kick. Then I was going to go to jail in a stretcher.
We went into the bathroom. The stall and the urinal were both unoccupied. The window looked painted shut. There was chicken wire running through the glass, too. I went into the stall, my hands shaking.
“You got nothing to be scared of, if you’ve been living right,” O’Keefe said. He swung the door wide and got right in behind me.
“I’m not used to showing guys my dick.”
“I’m making sure this is legit. I want to see you tap it from the source.”
I unscrewed the lid and accidentally dropped the cup into the toilet.
“What the fuck!” he yelled. “You did that on purpose!”
“It was an accident! I swear to God!”
“I’d make you go bobbing for it, but it’s already contaminated. Good thing I got more test cups in the car. C’mon.”
O’Keefe charged out of the bathroom like a department-store manager coming after a repeat shoplifter.
“Put it all on my tab, Curly,” he said to the bartender.
When we got outside, he jumped into the car and slammed the door shut. I came over to the passenger side, but it was locked. O’Keefe stared straight ahead. I knocked on the glass but he didn’t turn.
After about a minute, he got out, shut the door and leaned against the car.
“I lied,” O’Keefe said. “I don’t have any more cups.”
I was so relieved I almost laughed. Then I felt a sharp pain in my side.
“I still have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Hell, go back into JJ’s.”
“Can you come back in with me?”
“What! You need me to shake it off for you? I’m already done with JJ’s for tonight.”
I went in and stepped quickly to the back. When I was done, I washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror.
“One lucky. . .” I muttered to myself.
I came out of the bathroom and headed for the door.
“Hey, boy!” yelled the bartender. “You think you own this place? Come in here, use our bathroom and not even buy anything?”
“I was just here,” I stammered. “I was with O’Keefe.”
“Who the hell’s O’Keefe?”
“You know, he’s black. . .”
“Who you calling, ‘black,’ boy?”
“Curly, you saw me before!”
“Dick, you seen this boy before?”
A muscular man swung out of a booth in front of me. He was wearing a plaid shirt, filthy work boots and a big smile.
“I ain’t never seen this cracker before in my life,” he growled.
I felt the adrenaline kick in and I dashed sideways and made a right angle for the door. When I got across the street to O’Keefe’s car, I could hear the entire bar laughing. I jumped in the car and got the passenger door shut on the first pull.
“I could have been killed back there!” I said.
“Nothing was going to happen. They like to mess around sometimes.” O’Keefe pulled into the empty street.
“How do you know? Me being in there’s like throwing blood and guts in front of a shark.”
“You know, you’re not the first white guy who’s been in there.”
“I could’ve been the last.”
“It’s owned by a white guy. Curly had some problems couple years ago. The bank set him up with a buyer who let him keep working there, you know, keeping up appearances.”
“Why’s it called ‘JJ’s’ when the guy’s named Curly?”
“JJ was his dad. Dropped dead in there. Heart attack. Wasn’t even 50.” Looking at me he said, “That was the only death ever in that bar.”
We were heading for a bridge, but the signal went up. The barrier went down and the drawbridge lifted, stopping traffic on both sides. A night fishing cruise was coming back into the bay. O’Keefe sighed and turned off the motor.
“You really got me, you know that,” O’Keefe said. “Dropping the cup in the toilet. I could never have expected that out of you.”
“It was really an accident.”
After a while, the boat was close enough and we could read the name on the side, “Lex Fluker.”
“Fish much?” O’Keefe said.
“I used to work on those charter cruises day or night, gutting and filleting fish for tourists.”
“Pay a lot?”
“I could get 50 bucks in tips. But I had to stop.”
“Bet you got sick of smelling like fish for days.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t what made me quit. I grew taller and my center of gravity changed. I get really seasick on boats now. You ever go fishing?”
“I eat fish.”
“You know, I don’t remember ever seeing blacks on the fishing boats.”
“Huh, the last time we got on a boat with a white captain, we ended up picking cotton.”
I laughed, but I wasn’t sure it was supposed to be funny until O’Keefe broke, too.
“You’re gonna be all right, Sean. Maybe when I get you fully rehabilitated and I get that promotion, I’ll go on one of those charters with you.”
“O’Keefe, do you think you’ll go back and finish law school some day?”
He let out a heavy sigh and near the end of it breathed out, “Naw.”
“You could still be a lawyer.”
“Not now. I’m sick inside from being stuck too long in Motherfuckerland.”
The bridge came back down and we drove up into the sky.
(Part 9 next week.)