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A Drifter by Day
Last Whiteman Chapter 2
They called him Joe Mexican Hat, these darkling Gringos. This, this crumbling road, was one of many daily occurrences which had compelled Jose Sombrero to rue the passing of the Whiteman. Another was the fact that his old legs had to take him almost everywhere—for the automotive race had passed away and beyond this city. The few whites left were hidden in their square towers of glass thirty floors above the city center.
If one could pay the licensing fees and bribes necessary to own an automobile, he would have to be able to fix the thing himself from the junkyard—for the supply line now stretched around the world and not out of the Ohio Valley. Or, a car owner would be compelled to employee a book-taught mechanic from Nepal, Vietnam or Korea, all of whom took a dim liking to the Mexican.
So Jose Sombrero, son of a conquered Aztec race, dearly missed the sons of the Conquistadors as he tottered near to old age. When he had been a boy, one feared an American—especially a Texan—and named him Gringo or Blanco depending on who was in whose country. But now, anyone could be an American and was—except for the whites who all seem to have moved somewhere, which, in his mind's eye, he would have to imagine as a nice place, nicer than Baltimore.
A drifter by day, Jose pushed his cart along up Harford Road. Jose was proud of this cart. Once upon a time he had set up a street corner hat and shoe stand down on Belair and Erdman. Then, one fine spring day, young negras had swooped in on him upon their bicycles, beaten him about the head and shoulders and expecting him to grovel or flee for an old wetback, they had been chagrined at his staunch defense. Jose gave back with fists, left and right, having been a boxer in his youth in Vera Cruz. After a moment's battle he stood and looked and found two stretched out and three peddling off. Thence he donned his sombrero in a pose worthy of Poncho Villa, and kicked the unhorsed bandits down the way.
Ever after he was known as Joe Mexican Hat. He had used the frames and wheels of those two captured bikes to build a merchant cart of milk crates wired together with bailing wire and became a mobile seller of shoes and hats. The bicycle tires worked well on the crumbling and pitted streets of the city that had trapped him like a fly-catching plant, luring him with its wiles up from his native land and then spurning him.
Came a time some of those young fellows brought their boys and girls to him to be fitted out with shoes and hats, under the umbrella he had installed at the center of his cart. Thus, Jose Sombrero became something of a surrogate poppy to the very sons of his enemies, so bereft this place was of the fatherly way.
On the eve of his 65th year, Jose had the morning breeze at his back, as he wheeled his cart up the road, it doing as much to support him as he did to push the load. His only real worries these days was the necessity of looking the other way when evil was done—and that was an hourly task. He had once promised himself that if he saw a Mexican girl being sold in these tents he'd do something about it. Then, last month, that occurred, just before the city went up in riot and flame. And Jose, 64-years-worn, hung his head as the two African Watchmen walked her by him to the girl-seller's tents.
That day, some 29 days past, that was the day that Jose Sombrero died. Now he was but a breathing, pushing, hat and shoe selling thing, an eunuch like the sultans of old had maimed to stand watch over their pretty prizes. The old man who had earned a name fighting off a pack of hoodlums now hung his head in shame and listlessly suggested someone buy his pathetic wares:
“Orioles hats here, Leaper Sneakers...socks too, Joe Mexican Hat has got what you need to get up and go.”
His delivery lacked passion and was only possible from long recitation.
Jose was too tired in spirit to push that cart any further and parked it at the corner of White and Harford, across from the abandoned shops, and in the very shadow of the grand and unattended church, built in proud American style with Gothic pretensions. This place was now the barracks of the Watchmen. Perhaps this was why he could not pass, that the shred of manhood in him had judged his recent past and consigned him to this low-earning corner, when every cart merchant worth his salt would be up there another half mile at Northern and Harford, set up on the grassy median, standing higher than the tents.
The bus still passed that way, going across town. Not down here, the buses didn't venture downtown anymore. Things had gotten too hazardous so that that even the robot drivers of the busses, bolted into their chairs behind the wheel, were not safe. For the hoodlums would board the bus with wrench and dolly, unbolt the driver and wheel him off to be reprogrammed for officiating dice games in some back alley gallery.
'She could not have been thirteen, that sweet Nina—I would have named her Nina. Where is she now, crying in Nigeria, singing in Turkey, kissing her Master's hand in Syria...or thrown to some rude crowd in Morocco?'
He stood under the shadow that engulfed him in the early mist of morn. The dew breeze had wafted away and the sun shone strong as he had parked his cart. Having not yet put up his umbrella, Jose looked at his feet, at his crates of bag-covered wares, and saw that a long broad shadow engulfed his, that he was, in the eyes of the just shone sun, erased, and he prayed, prayed out loud, “Take me Angel of Dread—take me across the fled river to the land of the Dead! Take me!”
'I am no man—take me!' he continued silently, hoping that some ancient Conquistador soul, or even a risen and reborn Aztec Eagle Warrior, might snatch him out of his living misery.
His Ella and he had no children. She or he were barren. He could have rescued that Nina and brought her to Ella and they would be a family, finally.
The blow did not come, but the shadow did remain.
Grope the pig of a boy-stealer shifted on by, giving the shadow a wide berth.
Brick the Dog-Trader walked his surly, scarred mutts on by, passing as far away as the tent of Madam Frey, the negress fortune teller with the blonde wig, would permit. And that woman stepped clear of her tent just long enough to look directly at the shadow casting being behind him, and covered her eyes like Lot's Wife and darted into her tent with a gasp.
The first customers of the day, four young hoodlums from down Cold Spring Lane, had been chattering and having fun and headed to his cart, when they looked up at Jose and what curse loomed behind him, and then vocally took themselves back the direction they had come:
“Look—don' look!”
“Oh shieet!”
“Oh, hells no!”
“No offense Joe—we gots ta go!”
And there, such as he could claim as community support, turned their backs on him and pranced away like rats from a sinking ship if it had sunk in the gutter at his feet rather than on the high seas.
One final act of bravery, a redemption of sorts, was required, that Jose at least meet the gaze of his taker.
Jose turned and looked up into the face of a conquistador he would have to say, a conqueror of sorts, a tall strong man with a broken version of a white-man's face all covered in soot, but with eyes like the sky that proclaimed that a once great race was not entirely fled. A symbol of Christ and of Thor adorned his wickedly braided beard. He was armed and hunting.
Jose looked into the face of the man and said, “Kill me—strike. I deserve it.”
The man's eyes blazed coldly and his right hand seized Jose by the shoulder of his poncho and turned him bodily to face the left wrist, whereupon the TV watch on his wrist opened with a smooth hum of gears to reveal the picture of a blond girl of thirteen he would suppose. The man then ground his teeth audibly and shook Jose like a rat, an action that told the old vendor that this man sought either daughter or darling kin and had come to the slave city on the bay.
“Whiteman, that soot hides you not. You are the first of your kind I have seen other than on the TV or looking down out of a penthouse window for five years. If I had seen that child, I would remember. Those who would trade such dainties here would bundle her—for the sight could cause a riot. The boys and girls of my race and of the blacks who no one cares for, they are traded openly.”
The man patted his shoulder then shook him, tenderly, askingly, and looked him in the eyes, closing the TV watch.
“I talk too much. The church behind you is a slave pen, manned by twenty Nigerian Watchmen. The police let those work their crimes in private and never investigate as they keep order on the streets. They might know the dealer, but no dealer would let them touch such a one for fear of soiled goods. I would say another church, one that deals in souls, might have sought a sacrifice. Or, perhaps, the dwellers above in their penthouses downtown have ordered delivery of such as her.”
The man then looked him in the eyes and nodded a distant yet direct thanks.
A deep pain shot through Jose's heart and he moaned, “Don't thank me, kill me, for letting those Watchmen take that little senorita!”
The man looked at him narrowly, with that asking blaze of eye.
“The Watchmen brought one of my kind, an innocent girl here not a month ago. I did not dare fulfill my boast that I would not see such as could have been my daughter sold. I am damned, and hoped...”
The man took hold of Joe's cart, wheeled it down the crumbled curb, and pushed it up the road between the tents as if not a soul but he were there, casting no gaze and making no way, but confident the gathering market goers would step aside, as they did. Silence followed the cipher of a Hinterlander like a wake, and Jose came limping quickly behind to keep up the pace.
In ten minutes Jose stood behind the man pushing his cart, as Ahmed the Newsscreen vendor glared down from his foot high throne on the median strip at the bus stop where Northern Parkway crossed Harford, where the old road that still bore vehicles crossed the road that was its eventual fate as barbarism washed over man's gleaming edifice of civilization.
Ahmed sneered down at Jose, “Spic, called Goddamned! You here first you pay me for place! You late, you go sweep gutter and give me half you price for sales got ober dere!”
Ahmed directed his ire at Jose as his two bully boys posed menacingly before the Hinterlander. The Hinterlander shoved one bully on to his backside and shouldered the other into the gutter and stepped up to Ahmed, grabbing him by the beard with one hand and made him look into the TV watch with the other. The bullies backed away, having felt something they did not wish to contest and cravenly abandoning their master to the stranger.
Ahmed's eyes started and he broke and ran up the median, leaving a handful of beard in the man's grasp. The fleeing merchant looked tiny beside the bus that rumbled down the street and pathetic before the sure stride of the man who walked calmly behind him, as if knowing when Ahmed's fat belly and slippers would fail him in his flight. Comically, the calm stride of the booted man was nearly equal to the full flight of the slippered merchant.
Jose Sombrero was still a vendor after all, and despite his sorrow there was no call to bring shame upon his profession, so he commanded the bullies of his erstwhile tyrant, “It is settled then, this is my corner. Take your Master's wares to the gutter over there and I'll not set my man upon you.”
The slouching half-breed men obeyed.
A few minutes later, the bus and it's perpetually smiling robot driver having rolled on, Jose stood by his cart, looking up the street at the tall black-clad judge come to this dying place from some harsher one stand over the kneeling form of Ahmed in the distance. The chastened news monger clasped his hands in begging prayer and spoke words that could only be guessed at. But he spoke, spoke for his life.
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