Lock and Chain
There are some summer nights when nothing moves. The air sleeps, the crickets chirp as isolated metronomes and it seems as if everybody chooses that time to stay put indoors.
I was walking from the bowling alley back to my apartment, an hour’s worth of exercise I was settling into. My habit on a jaunt like that was to amble along, thinking about nothing and everything, hands in pockets. The voice cut my reverie and I froze.
“Who you callin’ a nigger?” The voice was high-pitched, sharp, but strained.
I looked up. Seven young black men were arranged next to and against the dark-side Mr. Quik brick wall. Two of them pushed off the wall to complete a semi-circle in front of me. The speaker was a thin, gangly guy about my age, wearing a Dodger cap around his neck. He was glaring at me.
“Nobody,” I answered.
Dodger Cap feigned surprise. “You called me a nigger!” He looked around for support, agreement, chiming in. One guy, unbelievably wearing a leather jacket, nodded.
I shrugged. “No.”
He convulsed, affronted. “You callin’ me a LIAR?” he yelled.
The group moved, but stayed the same. Dodger Cap took a step forward. Only then did I realize I wasn’t an observer, but a participant. The radar I’d developed since childhood had faded to black. This was not banter and I had failed to act before it had gone too far.
Dodger Cap took a wild swing at me. I stepped back and when the guy on my right tried to grab me, I side-stepped and pushed him into the others. He and Dodger Cap went down.
Suddenly heavy metallic clinks broke the muffled silence. Leather Jacket had a length of large-linked chain, a heavy padlock at its end. With two short swings he got it in motion, the others stepped back and he swung at me.
I saw the flash on my left and I ducked. I felt the padlock cut the air above my head and thud into the bricks, chunks and fragments flying. I pivoted and ran, bursting through the group into the parking lot beyond. I ran without looking back, without thinking of anything but distance. I heard vague jeers and a word or two. I didn’t look back. I ran until I was sure they couldn’t follow. I got home in under half an hour.
The anger I kept expecting never came. My usual pattern of self-abuse over any perceived failing never raised its ugly head. I’d fallen out of a useful habit because I had come to believe that the world had changed, that it was fundamentally different, that my past was an anomaly that the present would never enact.
I was wrong. I didn’t even shrug it off: the moment of recrimination simply dropped away like a dead leaf. The radar, that useful habit, came back, like retrieving the old flannel shirt that’s become a second skin.
I kept walking, kept passing through the same area where once seven guys tried to make trouble and seldom gave them another thought. As lessons go, it was relatively painless.