Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Walter Mosley
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-316-07303-2
The morning air still smelled of smoke. Wood ash mainly but therewas also the acrid stench of burnt plastic and paint. And eventhough I knew it couldn't be true, I thought I caught a whiff ofputrid flesh from under the rubble across the street. The hardwarestore and Bernard's Stationery Store were both completely gutted.The Gonzalez Market had been looted but only a part of its roof hadbeen scorched. The corner building, however, Lucky Dime Liquors, hadbeen burned to the ground. Manny Massman was down in the rubble withhis two sons, kicking the metal fixtures. At one point themiddle-aged store owner lowered his head and cried. His sons puttheir hands on his shoulders.
I understood how he felt. He had everything in that liquor store.His whole life. And now, after a five-day eruption of rage that hadbeen simmering for centuries, he was penniless and destitute.
In his mind he hadn't done a thing wrong to anyone down in Watts. Hehad never even thought about calling someone a nigger or boy. Butthe men and women down around Central and Eighty-sixth Place tookeverything of Manny's that they could carry, then smashed and burnedthe rest.
Four young black men passed in front of the liquor lot. One of themshouted something at the white men.
Manny barked back.
The youths stopped.
The Massman sons stepped forward with their chests out and theirmouths full of angry sounds.
It's starting all over again, I thought. Maybe we'll be rioting awhole year. Maybe it won't ever end.
The black men crossed the threshold of the Lucky Dime's propertyline.
Stephen Massman bent down to pick up a piece of metal that had oncebeen attached to their counter.
One of the angry youths shoved Martin.
I held my breath.
"Halt!" a man shouted through a megaphone.
A dozen or more soldiers appeared out of nowhere. A black soldierwearing a helmet and camouflage khakis talked to the black men whilefour white soldiers stood in an arc in front of the store owners.The rest of the troop stood across the property line cutting off theravaged lot from the street.
Most of the National Guardsmen brandished rifles. A crowd wasgathering. My hands clenched into fists so tight that my rightforearm went into a spasm.
While I massaged out the knot of pain, the black soldier, asergeant, calmed the four youths. I could hear his voice but myfourth-story window was too far away for me to make out the words.
I turned away from the scene and fell into the plush blue chair thatsat at my desk. For the next hour I just sat there, hearing thesounds of people in the street but not daring to look down.
It had been like that for the past five days: me holding myself incheck while South Los Angeles went up in the flames of a race riot;while stores were looted and snipers fired and while men, women, andchildren cried "Burn, baby, burn!" and "Get whitey!" on every cornerfamiliar to me.
I stayed shut up in my home, in peaceful West L.A., not drinking andnot going out with a trunk full of Molotov cocktails.
WHEN I FINALLY roused myself the street down below was full of blackpeople, some venturing out of their homes for the first time sincethe first night of rioting. Most of them looked stunned.
I went to my office door and out into the hall.
There was the smell of smoke in the building too, but not much.Steinman's Shoe Repair was the only store that had been torched.That was on the first night, when the fire trucks still braved thehails of sniper bullets. The flames were put out before they couldspread.
I went to the far stairwell from my office and down the threeflights to Steinman's side entrance. There was a burnt timberblocking the way. I would have turned around if it weren't for thevoices.
"What the hell you mean you don't have my shoes, white man?"
"Everything is burned up," a frail voice replied in a mild Germanaccent.
"That's not my fault, man," the angry voice said. "I give you myshoes, I expect to get them back."
"They are all burned."
"And do you think if this was my store that I could tell you Ididn't have nuthin' for ya?" the customer said. "Do you think ablack man could just say his store done burned down so he don't haveto make good on his responsibilities?"
"I don't have your shoes."
I shoved the timber out of the way, smudging the palms of my handswith sooty charcoal. When I came into the burned-out room, bothoccupants turned to look at me.
Theodore was a short, powerfully built white man with little hairand big hands. The irate customer was much larger, with a wide chestand a big face that would have been beautiful on a woman.
"Hey, Theodore," I said.
"Wait your turn, man," the Negro customer warned. "I got business totake care of first."
He swiveled his head back to the cobbler and said, "Those shoescosted me thirty-six dollars and if you can't give 'em up right nowI want to see some money across this here hand."
I took a quick breath and then another. There was an electric tingleover my right cheekbone and for a moment the room was tinged in red.
"Brother," I said. "You got to go."
"Are you talkin' to me, niggah?"
"You heard me," I said in a tone that you can't make up. "I been inthe house for some time now, trying not to break out and start doin'wrong. I've been patient and treadin' softly. But if you say onemore word to my friend here I will break you like a matchstick andthrow you out in the street."
"I want my shoes," the big beautiful man said with tears in hisvoice. "He owe it to me. It don't matter what they did."
I heard his cracked tone. I knew that he was just as crazy as I wasat that moment. We were both black men filled with a passionate ragethat was too big to be held in. I didn't want to fight but I knewthat once I started, the only thing that would stop me would be hislifeless throat crushed by my hand.
"Here you are, sir," Theodore said.
He was handing over a ten-dollar bill.
"Your shoes were old, you know," the shoemaker said. "And they bothneeded soles. It was a good make and I would have bought them forseven dollars. So here's ten."
The burly man stared at the note a moment. Then he looked up at me.
"Forget it," he said.
He turned around so quickly that he lost his balance for a momentand had to reach out for a broken, charred timber for support.
"Ow!" he shouted, probably because of a splinter, but I can't sayfor sure because he blundered out, tearing the front door off of itslast hinge as he went.
There was a sleek antique riding saddle on the floor, under ashattered wooden chair. I moved away the kindling and picked up thesaddle. Theodore had received it from his uncle who was a ridingmaster in Munich before World War I. I'd always admired theleatherwork.
Setting the riding gear on a fairly stable part of his ruinedworktable, I said, "You didn't have to pay him, Mr. Steinman."
"He was hurting," the small man replied. "He wanted justice."
"That's not your job."
"It is all of our job," he said, staring at me with blue eyes. "Youcannot forget that."
It was a question asked in a voice filled with authority. It was awhite man's voice. Putting those bits of information together, Iknew that I was being addressed by the police.