Everyday Heroes

The raucous music of the urban, young, drunk, and hip reverberated from an outdoor beer garden into the quietly busy street. Stephen, feeling very buzzed and in need of a cigarette, groped in his pockets for a Winston Light. As they departed the bar, his conversation with Jared alternated between the redeployment of Stephen’s brother, Al, and the ubiquitous young nubiles that beckoned the employed, white 20-somethings to this neighborhood, an area in the precocious, naïve stages of gentrification.

“Man, after the week I had, you don’t know how much I needed a fun night out,” said Stephen between puffs, his eyes following the tight jeans of the young girls entering the bar. A wry smiled appeared on his face.

Parking was always an issue, so the pair had to park Stephen’s Explorer behind The Souled Out, a coffee shop that showcased up-and-coming lounge-style musicians. They played for free to a scant audience of smoky demeanor. Feather, the 300-plus-pound proprietor, was a local legend known for providing a middle ground where urban hipster transplants and longtime residents of area shelters could mingle. His policy of “pay what you can” had proved beneficial for both early rising young professionals and down-on-their-luck locals in need of temporary warmth. Exposure to the locals had provided the newcomers with a sense of reality and perspective. The downtrodden, in turn, received charitable donations — sometimes earned by schooling the clean-cut newbies on the many chessboards Feather littered throughout his joint. Often new customers were shell-shocked by their first loss to a less-fortunate customer. But over time, the game of “civilized war” brought many strangers together. Several combatants played each other regularly, their board battles marked more by enthusiasm and camaraderie than vicious competition.

“Did you see a motherfucker with a guitar?!” A shout shattered the predictable clamor of the otherwise ordinary night. This was more of an authoritarian command than a rhetorical question and immediately grabbed the attention of Jared and Stephen with sobering effectiveness.

“What?” the pair responded in unison. They recognized Feather, as everyone in the neighborhood did, by his untucked flannel shirt and flowing, unkempt beard.

“Some asshole grabbed a guitar and booked!” barked Feather. “My musicians work for tips. They don’t need this shit!” He threw his ever-present black ceramic coffee mug across the lot. It shattered, sending shrapnel-like debris flying.

Stephen and Jared, having played in a band together during the drunken haze known as college, immediately empathized with the musician, who was practically invisible behind Feather’s towering presence. They glanced at each other, searching for direction. Stephen took the lead.

“Someone took a guitar?” he questioned, noticing the look of anger and panic on the face of the usually jovial proprietor. The two began to walk toward him as Feather frantically glanced left and right into the dark alleyway that had become a parking lot.

“These musicians come here and play for free hoping to get some exposure. The goddamn homeless pigs. I open my shop to them and the second they get a chance, they shit on me!” he spewed with uncharacteristic venom. Jared had never seen him like this. He had a sudden surge of sympathy for the old owner. Jared began to mimic Feather’s frantic search of the alley. He heard Stephen grunt as he leaped into the Explorer. Jared swung open the passenger door and jumped in as well, fully cognizant of the mission that needed to be accomplished. The shrill screeching of tires on pavement punctuated their acceptance of it.

Darting onto the main thoroughfare, they scanned the bustling neighborhood. They swerved down a side street, making capricious rights and lefts until they spied what they were so acutely hunting.

“There he is!” exclaimed Stephen.

Stephen slammed on the brakes. Inertia forced Jared to brace himself against the dash. He looked up in time to see Stephen simultaneously fling open the door and leap out. Stephen ran after someone across the far side of a vacant lot. Jared could now see the target wearing a long, black trench coat and carrying a guitar by the neck — without a case. Jared followed Stephen’s beeline through the open but littered lot. Jared noted that the guitar was a beautiful pearl white Fender Stratocaster, a guitar to which any musician would be strongly attached.

Stephen ran across the street, oblivious to the cars that slammed their brakes, honked their horns, and nearly ran into him. He jumped in front of the unsuspecting man and commanded, “Hand it over, motherfucker!” his hands and body clenched with an unmistakable look of confrontation. Without flinching, the man pulled the guitar up to his chest and took a step toward Stephen, looking right in his eyes.

“Fuck you!” he retorted with relaxed impudence. Stephen was momentarily taken off guard, but this only fueled his internal desire for resolution. The man was considerably bigger than Stephen and exuded confidence.

Rage enveloped Stephen’s entire existence — fury at the impotence he felt about his brother’s redeployment, bitterness at his condescending boss, resentment towards his self-absorbed girlfriend, anger at the women he knew would rather sleep with some guy who would predictably shit on them than give a nice guy like Jared the time of day. But mostly, he was furious at someone who would so brazenly deny a working class plebe the tool he needed to make a few bucks doing what he enjoyed. “Fuck that … I am doing what needs to be done,” he silently said to himself.

His fist struck the unsuspecting man. Pain shot like lightning from his second and third knuckles through his forearm. He struck again. And again. Again, now on mechanical, instinctive overdrive. Again. The guitar dropped. It was caught after a discordant first bounce by Jared as he looked on in awe at this Mr. Hyde he never knew existed. Again Stephen’s fists struck.

A distant voice in his head whispered, “You’re breaking the bones in your hand.” Again he struck. Again. Now holding the man up with his left hand, his right continued to jackhammer the stranger’s nearly unrecognizable face.

“Enough, dude! Its over!” Jared’s voice jolted Stephen back from the trancelike state of killer instinct. “We got it. Let’s get outta here!”

Sprinting back to the Explorer, Stephen extracted his keys, but adrenaline still saturated his body and made his hands quiver. He was unable to fit the key into the slot. “Gimme the damn keys!” commanded Jared, who exchanged the guitar for the keys and deftly opened the unlocked car door. Jared fired up the Explorer, slammed the car into drive, and hastily drove the S.U.V. away.

Jared wanted to ask Stephen how he was doing, but was intimidated into silence by Stephen’s rapid, heavy breathing. Silently, they arrived back at the coffee shop, where an exasperated Feather paced dejectedly in the parking lot, the musician slumped glumly on the back stairs.

Jared exited the Explorer and approached the proprietor and victim triumphantly, Strat in hand. Stephen stayed in his seat gazing at his now deformed right hand. The musician rose with a bewildered look on his face. Jared’s proud affect changed to impatience as the musician stared at him wordlessly.

“Do you have any idea what we just went through to get your goddamn guitar back?!” Jared demanded, thrusting the instrument toward him.

“What are you talking about? This isn’t my guitar.”

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