Just Passing Through, by Joe Kilgore
Photo by FETHI BOUHAOUCHINE ☑ on Uns
Some say a hot dry wind blew him into town along with the dust and detritus of a typical August afternoon. No one claimed to know him or his history, and he was not one to divulge information voluntarily. He carried no valise, backpack, or other visual means of travel, yet his worn and rumpled clothing told a story of time on the road. Where had he come from? Where was he going? Why was he here? All questions without answers the first time he took a stool at Dooley’s Diner and ordered coffee, black, no sugar.
The waitress tried to make conversation without employing interrogatives, a difficult challenge at best. There’s only so much that can be said about weather that isn’t bad, acquaintances that aren’t shared, and current events that have long since stopped being current. But such is the plight of a tired hash slinger hoping to turn a cup of java into a piece of pie, a hamburger, or any kind of food whatsoever that might result in a bigger tip. When she held up the pot, a single nod of his head indicated acceptance of a refill.
Over the span of a human life there are very few times individuals are actually thought of as mysterious. Being a stranger in a small town is one of those times. He didn’t seem to revel however in his temporary status. Rather, he just sat quietly drinking his coffee as if he had nothing better to do. In point of fact though, he did, and he would soon get on with his business in his own time and in his own way. The other customers at Dooley’s elected to conjure their own particular visions of this new arrival’s raison d’être. Their mental depictions were completely personal and not based on anything other than boredom and limited imaginations. You couldn’t blame them though. Little of import ever really happened within their quiet hamlet’s city limits, and speculation injected at least some measure of variety into one uneventful day after another.
Coffee finished and back outside now, he ambled along the sidewalk with his right hand stuffed in his trouser pocket while his left cradled a burning cigarette. Behind him, the deputy sheriff’s squad car crept along like a slow loris on the trail of an ant. The man behind the wheel harbored the illusion that the stranger might flick the coffin nail away, thereby providing an opportunity to confront him with the village’s ongoing commitment to keep it’s streets free of unsightly litter. Of course, that would also create an opening to demand, then view the interloper’s driver’s license or other means of identification. It just didn’t do to have someone in town that the law was not familiar with—knowledge, as everyone knows, being power. But the stranger thwarted the lawman’s plan when, without looking at his stalker, he took a last long drag, stubbed the fire-end out on a post, and dropped the potentially offending butt into his jacket pocket. An educated man might have chalked the spoiled scheme up to Robert Burns’ frequently quoted admonition about best laid plans, but the deputy was not now, nor had he ever been, on a first name basis with the romantic poets.
Park benches are known to inherently possess Siren songs. They lure passersby with a promise of quiet respite. The stranger was no exception and took a seat facing the largest edifice on the town square. It was, as is the case in many counties, the courthouse. There’s something majestic about these architectural icons to law and order that go beyond their often Romanesque appearance. Perhaps it’s because their historically European exteriors frequently mask the decidedly down-home justice that is metered out amid the columns and parapets. A certain percentage of the population would probably argue that injustice is a better description of what goes on within such hallowed halls, but then differences of opinion are what makes the world go round. And though law is supposed to be the counterweight for that old profundity that might makes right, it’s well documented that lawmakers almost always have a lot more might on their side than lawbreakers. That particular inequality was in fact the very reason the quiet stranger found himself taking up space on the filigreed bench mere steps away from the local government’s house of guilt, innocence, and whatever existed between those moral absolutes.
This particular day being the Sabbath, there were a few gawkers strolling along the sidewalk that surrounded the courthouse, but there were none entering and leaving as its doors were locked tight. The stranger was content to wile away the hours on the aforementioned bench appearing to simply smoke and gaze. In reality, he was mentally rehearsing plans he had developed while physically swinging a scythe as a non-volunteer member of one of the county’s many day labor chain gangs. Hard work was the key to rehabilitation they had told him and as usual they were full of shit. Hard work, he learned from sun up to sun down, was the key to aching muscles, weight loss, plus an unceasing appetite for protein and revenge.
A look back at history would show that he consumed too many beers when he previously passed through this burg on his way to what would have been a new job a couple of years ago. And the plate glass window he had thrown the rock through simply presented too appealing a target to a fun-loving fellow well-oiled with multiple longnecks. Little could he have known that the presiding judge would view his unseemly behavior as attempted robbery rather than vandalism under the influence—resulting in an extended sentence that cost him, to his way of thinking, a job, freedom, and potentially any kind of future that didn’t tie his name to the sobriquet, ex-con. Even now he still gave at least some thought to foregoing his long simmering plan for retaliation, but try as he would, he just couldn’t get over the feeling that the punishment dealt him had far exceeded his crime.
The sweltering day eventually graduated to muggy night, and the stranger had remained in his location long enough to watch the lights go out in all the square’s establishments. There were no longer any couples strolling hand in hand or families with dogs wandering about. If one can truly be alone in the middle of an environment designed for many, he felt he was. It was time to act.
Slipping on a pair of gloves he had folded and stuffed into each back pocket prior to his arrival, he rose and began to walk to the rear of the courthouse. There, he found windows at the bottom of the building indicating a basement within. Balling his right hand into a fist, he punched out the glass and listened for a possible alarm. Had he heard one, he’d quickly be on his way, assuming fate was advising against his desire for retribution. There was only silence. So he decided the gods were on his side. Slithering through the open space he had created, he indeed found himself in a basement storage room. The angle of the moon provided enough light for him to find the door. He opened it and slowly ascended the staircase to the main floor. From there, it was easy for him to find the ornate courtroom where he had been sentenced to two years hard labor. Taking some measure of self-satisfaction in his accomplishments thus far, he strode leisurely to the elevated bench and took a seat in the very chair where his prejudicial punishment had been handed down. The trappings of power bordered the center of the judges throne. A wooden mallet, used to call the proceedings to order was on the left. On the right, stood a pitcher of water and a glass still half full. They must have been in a hurry to get away for the weekend, he mused, before beginning the final stage of his plan.
From the left inside pocket of his jacket, he removed a single stick of dynamite. From the right, a lengthy fuse. Carefully, he attached the fuse to the explosive, leaving it more than long enough to give him time to retrace his previous steps and vacate the premises before it opened a crater in, as he saw it, this hall of infamy. Removing a small box of matches from the pocket of his pants, he took one last look at what would soon be shards and ashes. Then he lit the fuse and placed the dynamite on the floor beneath the center of the bench. As he stood to leave, he took a second look at the gavel. Why not, he decided. A souvenir of his payback. Scooping it up, he turned quickly to begin his exit. When he did, the gavel in his hand knocked the pitcher off the bench. Screw it, he said to himself, the fuse was still burning and it was definitely time to depart.
The stranger bolted from the courtroom, hurried down the stairs, and dashed back into the storage room. As he was hurriedly making his escape, he had no way of knowing that the water seeping from the overturned pitcher had made its way to the dynamite and puddled just enough to drown the flame. He also had no way of knowing that when he broke the window to get in, he didn’t hear an alarm because the county had installed one of those new-fangled silent ones.
Crawling out of the window he was immediately bathed in the glow from the deputy’s spotlight affixed to the fender of his car. Such was the stranger’s surprise, coupled with his assumed need to flee an impending explosion, that he gave no thought to the gavel still in his hand. The deputy however, did. He assumed it was a weapon in the paw of a criminal. And as remarked earlier, while the lawman had little literary expertise, he was extremely adept with the inner workings, operation, and use of his 30 ought 6 Springfield rifle. Only one shot was needed.
Big events in small towns tend to have long lifespans. It was quite a while before the citizenry stopped talking about the explosion that never happened, the stranger no one could put a name to, and the deputy who surprisingly retired soon after the incident. But eventually, the episode and its participants were seldom spoken of, and only infrequently recollected. Such is the nature of life on this particular planet we inhabit, where in reality, we’re all just passing through.
Joe Kilgore is an award-winning writer of novels, novellas, screenplays and short stories. He lives and writes in Austin, TX. You can read more about Joe and his work at his website: JoeKilgore.Com
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