8/17/2015

Jerome (Short Story)

Jerome

    Jerome has been wearing the same Frank Gore 49ers jersey for the past two weeks. He’s the only one who doesn’t notice the sweat stains that darken the entire torso section of the jersey, or the putrid locker room stench. He just hops out of bed and slips on his socks, sandals and oversized neon green women’s sunglasses and stomps out of his room. This is his morning routine, and it has been for as long as anyone can remember. His poor old mother sits at a table reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. Just the same as every morning, with one difference: this morning quiet tears roll down her wrinkled cheeks. Jerome kisses her and when he notices the tears his face scrunches together in anger. “Who talk bad ‘bout you, mama?”
    “I’m fine, honey,” she says. “Jus’ your brother givin’ me grief again.” She looks at the ceiling with her eyes closed and makes the sign of the Holy Trinity across her chest. “He been drinkin' an’ he cuss at me.” She’s lying. The truth is Mikey never came back from church last night. “Jerome, baby,” she sniffles. “You stink. Change that shirt ‘fore you go walkin’ round town.”
    “Don’t talk bad ‘bout Frank Gore,” Jerome says. His mother is the only one who can tell him that he smells bad without making him cry. “Imma kick Mikey’s ass, mama. He talk bad ‘bout you fo’ da las’ time.”
    “He ain’t say nothin’ bad ‘bout me, Jerome,” she says. “I jus’ gotta headache.” She decides not to tell him about the shooting at the church and chooses instead to let him go about his day as usual. He wouldn’t understand, anyway.
    “Imma beat him,” Jerome says. “You know Jerome love his mama.”
    “Be safe, baby,” she says. She would spend the day making funeral arrangements.
    Jerome grabs his boombox and leaves his apartment. He has temporarily forgotten about his brother. All he knows is to go downtown. His radio is tuned loudly to the local hip-hop station, and he waits at the curb for his ride. The neighbor is usually there to drive him, but today he didn’t show up. After a few minutes of waiting, Jerome decides to hoof it downtown. The northernmost end of the downtown area is over two miles away, but Jerome doesn’t mind. He has walked it many times before. He cranks his radio even louder and puts one foot in front of the other, bobbing his head to the beat of N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself”.


     About halfway through his journey, Jerome passes an old church where a massive crowd of people is gathered, kneeled over, bowing their heads in prayer. Jerome crosses the street to avoid them. The police are there. Lots of police. Yellow tape surrounds the building. Big orange signs block traffic at the nearest intersection. Jerome is unfazed. The crowd stares in awe as he strolls by bumping “U Can’t Touch This” by M.C. Hammer.
    King Street is on the horizon. Henry’s Hoagies, to be exact. His first stop on every day’s downtown voyage. When Jerome walks in, Henry, the owner, works the counter while his new employee cuts meat. The bells above the door ring crisp and clear. Just the same as every day, with the addition of the new guy. Jerome trots over and plops his boombox on the counter. Henry doesn’t break his focus on the sandwich he’s making until after securing the top piece of bread with a toothpick. Then he takes off his hat and gloves and looks up gently at Jerome, who promptly cuts the music and says, “Sup?”
    “Hey Jerome. How you feelin’ this morning?” He says it in a way that suggests walking on egg shells. He doesn’t know what to expect from Jerome today.
    “Man, I don’t much feel like talking,” Jerome says. His response is the same as always. He turns away to glare at Henry from the corner of his eye.
    “I completely understand,” Henry says. “Not much to say, anyway. I guess.”
    Jerome’s lowers his eyebrows to squint at Henry. To Jerome it’s anger, but to anyone else it seems like confusion. “You been talk ‘bout my mama?” Jerome asks. He takes a step forward. “I’mma come back they an’ beat yo’ ass.”
    “Stop right there,” Henry says sternly. He is unalarmed. Quick switches from happy to mad are to be expected from Jerome. Ever since grand opening day, when Jerome wandered in for the first time; the same mood swings and childish banter. “I come in peace,” Henry says. “Have you not seen the news?”
    “Man, why you think I waste my time wit’ some shit like dat?” Jerome grunts.“You know Jerome don’ like people talk ‘bout his mama.” This response informs Henry that Jerome has no idea about the shooting at the church.
    “I’m just back here making sandwiches, Jerome,” Henry says shortly. He puts his hat and gloves back on and grabs another slice of bread. Ignoring Jerome has proven to be effective in switching him back to over to his good side.
    Jerome shuffles his feet, and saliva bubbles out between his lips. “I sorry, Henry,” he says. “My mama cry dis morn’ ‘cause Mikey been talk bad ‘bout her.”
    “Ah, man,” Henry says. “That’s messed up.” He is half addressing himself and half Jerome. He puts the finished sandwich on a plate and brings it out to a young black customer, sitting alone in a corner booth. A regular. He also knows Jerome, who has followed Henry over to the booth.
    “Sup?” Jerome asks.
    The man gives Jerome a nod and says, “Ay, Jerome. What’s happening?”
    “Man, not much,” Jerome says. He goes cross-eyed and lets his tongue hang from his mouth like a dog’s. Henry goes back to the counter where the new employee is putting on a fresh pair of gloves. Jerome notices him and becomes visibly irritated. “What he doin’ here?” Jerome asks. He swaggers over to the counter.
    “That’s Jack,” Henry says. “Today’s his first day.”
    “So you’re the famous Jerome, huh?” Jack’s hand trembles as he reaches for a thick slice of cheddar. “I’ve heard all about you,” he says without eye contact. “And your brother, too.” He puts the top piece of bread on a sandwich and stabs it with a toothpick. The toothpick hits the plate below with a thud.
    “Man, I don’ much like you, Jack,” Jerome says. “You been talk bad ‘bout my mama.”
    “Nobody said anything about your mother, Jerome,” Henry said. Now it’s time to play the Christmas card. “Santa’s always watching, you know.”
    At this Jerome stops in his tracks. “I sorry Henry,” Jerome says. “I be good fo’ now on. You think Santa brin’ me a new radio?”
    “You can have anything you want.” Henry says. “Santa’s elves will make it in their workshop.”
    “Santa get me a big radio at Walmart?” Jerome asks. “Wit da two big speakahs?”
    “Between you and me,” Henry says, “Santa said if you’re good he’ll do better then a Walmart radio. Much better.”
    “Tell Santa Jerome want da big radio wit’ da two big speakahs.” Jerome says. He smiles wide, revealing his toothless gums. “What you gon’ get Jerome fo’ Chrimmas, Henry?”
    “Still thinkin’ ‘bout it,” Henry replies. “Gotta see if you’ll keep up the good behavior. I think Jack deserves an apology, too.”
    “I sorry, Jack,” Jerome pouts. “My mama cry dis morn’ an’ it make Jerome sad.”
    “You clearly don’t understand what really happened,” Jack says. Henry shoots him a glance that could freeze an open flame. Jack walks away with a few plates of food for a man and wife with an infant child. They are all decked out in Ohio State Buckeyes apparel. “Sorry about him,” Jack says to the customers.
    Jerome rushes over to Jack at a speed so aggressive that even Henry was surprised. He didn’t think Jerome could move that fast. The Buckeyes fans stare with nervous eyes that signal to Jack that Jerome is right behind him. Wooden chairs can be heard scraping against the floor as everybody turns to watch the situation unfold. The tension in the air has put the whole town on edge. The tourists have all obviously seen the news, as it plays on the TV in the shop. Scenes of the old church flash across the screen. The crowd of people out front has grown to twice the size. A reporter is in frame to inform the public that despite the tragic circumstances, the church will still hold mass tonight.
    Jerome shoves Jack, who drops the plates of food. “Ay, white boy!” he shouts. “Im finna kick yo’ ass!” Henry has never before seen Jerome act upon one of his threats. This is not his typical personality split. This is true anger from a fifty-four year old teddy bear who likes to play the tough guy. The tourists jolt backward in their chairs and chirp with fear. The mother grabs her crying baby and cradles it in her arms. Jack and Jerome stand face to face. They are around the same height, but Jerome’s enormous stomach gives him the heavyweight advantage. Broken glass and sandwich parts scatter the floor around them. Jerome pushes Jack again. Jack stumbles back a step, then takes two steps forward with a puffed-out chest. Jerome winds up to swing, but Henry finagles his way between them before the release.
    “Hey, hey, Jerome!” Henry shouts. “He didn’t mean that. Did you, Jack?”
    “Why do you let this guy in here, anyway?” Jack asks. “He’s just freaking everybody out. Steve at The Moon Bar doesn’t even give him a chance. And last week they caught his brother shoplifting at the liquor store.”
    “This isn’t The Moon Bar,” Henry says. “And Jerome is not like his brother. Now you better watch it, before you lose your job. And get Jerome some sweet tea. Wait, no. Clean up that mess. I’ll get the sweet tea. You want some sweet tea, right Jerome?”
    Jerome is instantly calmed at the mention of free sweet tea. “Yea, yea, Henry,” he says. “Dat be good.” He waddles behind Henry over to the counter. Henry hands him a white styrofoam cup filled with sweet tea and ice. “Henry, you my buddy,” Jerome says with such affection that Henry can’t help but smile.
    Jack rolls his eyes and looks at the mess on the floor. “You’ve gotta be kidding,” he mumbles under his breath. He grabs the broom and sweeps up a pile of food and broken plates into a dustbin. Then he starts mopping the floor.
    The restaurant is consumed by a painful silence. The only sounds in the room are the humming of an AC unit and the shrills of a tourist baby. That is, until the mother decides to speak up. “This is RIDICULOUS!” she says. Her baby’s shrieking sounds like being stabbed in the forehead. “I can’t believe you just let this homeless black man cause a ruckus at your shop while this nice young man is trying to work!” She points at Jack, who fakes a grimace and continues to mop the floor. “How do you put up with this?”
    “Calm down, babe,” the husband says. “You heard about what happened at that church. You never know if one of these guys might be packing. Seeking revenge, ya' know?”
    “You two are part of the problem,” Henry says. “The guy who did it was white, just like you and me. Don’t you see that this has gone too far?”
    The husband goes red in the face and shuts his mouth. Everybody at the restaurant holds their breath, waiting to see what happens next. Jack is the first to speak.
    “Well, I wasn’t the one who did it,” Jack says. “I don’t see why everything should change just because one guy took things a little too far.”
    “Just a little?” Henry asks. “Racism is backwards thinking, my friend. As soon as you’re finished cleaning up that mess. Hang up your apron and go home. I want you to really think about what happened here today before you come back. If you still want your job, that is.” Henry looks back and forth between Jack and Jerome. Sweet tea dribbles out of Jerome’s toothless mouth as he sucks through the straw. He grins like a child with five dollars at an ice cream truck in the middle of the summer.
    “We, for one, will not be returning to this establishment,” the mother yells. Her baby still shrieks. The rest of the occupants have gone back to their food in silence, trying to pretend they don’t notice the commotion.
    “That’s fine,” Henry says. “But do me a favor and get the hell out of my restaurant. I don’t take kindly to racism ‘round here.”
    “Man, I don’t much like dem Buckeyes,” Jerome says.
    “And the Buckeyes don’t like you,” the mother says. “I knew this was too close to the ghetto for lunch.”
    “Lady, this ain’t the ghetto,” Henry says. “Believe me, with that attitude you wouldn’t last two minutes in the ghetto.”
    “Ugh! I do not have an attitude!” the mother says. She stands up so fast that her chair falls over behind her. “I can’t wait to post about this on Facebook!” She grabs her purse and her wailing infant and storms out, followed by her balding husband. After they’re gone, everybody at the restaurant seems to exhale. They go back to eating as normal. The tension is still there, though. Everybody is thinking the same thing. The thing that nobody wants to talk about. The elephant in the room. Jerome, the man who thinks his mother was crying because his alcoholic brother got drunk again. Nobody says anything, though, because nobody wants to be the one to break the news. He must be the only man in town who doesn’t know what happened last night.
    “Is Jerome ugly?” Jerome asks. This is a normal question.
    “No, Jerome, you’re not ugly,” Henry says. This is a normal answer. Jerome is back to his old self, and things at the restaurant are once again running smoothly. “Those people were ugly.”
    “Was I born dis way?” Jerome asks.
    “Yes, Jerome, you were born that way.”
    Jack walks out of the back room without his apron. He is almost out the door when Henry stops him. “Hey, Jack,” Henry says. “Pick up that chair on your way out.” Jack remains there with his hand on the doorknob for a moment, as if considering his options. He turns around and puts the chair back in its proper place, then goes back to the door. But instead of going outside, he stops again with his hand on the doorknob. This time, he turns to speak.
    “Listen, Henry, man,” he says. “I’m really sorry, I just—
    Henry puts his hand up to interrupt. “I don’t wan’t to hear it,” he says. “You work tomorrow, right?”
    Jacks nods and stares for a moment. When he finally leaves, the ringing bells above the door seem to hang in the atmosphere. Forks and knives clank against plates and the sound reverberates back around. Without a word of good-bye, Jerome powers up his boombox and shuffles happily toward the door, leaving a trail of sweet tea droplets on the floor behind him.
    “See you later, Jerome,” Henry says.
    “Alright, Henry,” Jerome says. The next minute he’s gone, on his way to the second stop in his day-long journey: Vinnie’s Sports Bar, where Mark, the owner, always gives him free mozzarella sticks. They go perfectly with an ice cold sweet tea from Henry’s.

   

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