I Broke The Law

I Broke The Law by Mick Shane

 

A cold front arrived today and winter has officially begun. Going for coffee I see an old man sitting under the big clock on the front steps of the courthouse. His hair and beard are wild and gray. He has two black eyes, a few stitches in his swollen lower lip and the left side of his face is scabbed like he was dragged across concrete. His jeans are dirty and his t-shirt is bloodstained. Bare feet. Dirty toes. Shivering. He is wearing a plastic I.D. tag on his left wrist as if he was recently released from the hospital. The old man is writing on a wrinkled fast food wrapper with one of those tiny pencils you find at a library reference desk (no eraser). He has a second pencil tucked behind his right ear. When I walk past him he looks up at me and nods. He has bright blue alert eyes and although he is old and beaten down he has the wiry build of a former athlete.

In the coffee shop I buy two large black cups to go. On my way back home I sit near the old man on the courthouse steps and offer him one. He hesitates briefly then accepts it, rolling the cup around in his hands for the warmth before taking a cautious sip.

Tough night? I ask.

The old man laughs a good laugh that fades to a painful moan. Justice, he says definitively with a powerful voice as he fingers the stitches in his lip. Got just what I deserved. We sip our coffee watching the lawyers, criminals, traffic and time go by. He hands me the fast food wrapper he was writing on.

 

When I was a young man I drank whiskey

I broke…

The law. Promises. Hearts. Bones (mostly those of other’s).

 

In the middle of my life…

I was sober. Driven. Ruthless. Healthy. Lonely.

 

Nearing the end of my life

I drink whiskey again. Smoke. Steal. Fuck. Break bones (mostly my own).

But I promise nothing to nobody.

And I have no heart.

 

I drank whiskey when I was young, I say to the old man as I try to return the poem to him.

Keep it, he says.

I offer him my coat, a black jean jacket that is a little too big for me and will be huge on him but will be warmer than nothing. (The change from the $20 bill I used to buy the coffee is in the pocket).

I’d rather have those boots, man, he says, wiggling his bare toes for me to see.

No way, I say with a smile. Too much history.

There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the fault of his feet. Samuel Beckett said that, he says to me with a wink. Have we met?

No.

Well, thanks for the coat. And the coffee. Mighty generous, he says as he slips the jacket over his shoulders. The old man stands and extends his hand. We shake. He walks down the courthouse steps, crosses the street and sits on the steps in front of the public library. I fold his poem and put it in my back pocket. Then I walk three blocks to my lonely little home and turn the heat up high.

 

Wilmington, NC 7/08

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