All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller

The Weight of Return by Marco Etheridge

Darryl slid three quarters into the vending machine and weighed his options. They weren’t all that good. The overnight Greyhound had carried him across a state line, which violated of his parole. If his tight-ass parole officer got wind of it, Darryl would be on his way back to a cell in Lucasville. First off, don’t get spotted by the cops, same as any day for an ex-con. Second, don’t get spotted by the bad guys. That left having breakfast and finding the girl. He reached for the chrome handle and pulled. A snickers bar tumbled into the sheet metal tray.

He sat in one of the plastic chairs, unwrapped the candy, and bit off a third of it. The seedy flow of the bus station eddied around him while he chewed his sticky breakfast and mulled over the plan.

Yeah, sure, there was the risk of getting popped, but that was nothing new. Crossing the state line upped the ante but tough shit, it had to be done. The bigger risk was finding the girl without getting beat to death for the looking. Seeing the girl, that was all that mattered.

Darryl wolfed down the last of the candy bar and eyeballed the big clock above the departure board. The board listed an eleven PM overnight that would carry him back to Cleveland. Fifteen hours to get the thing done and be gone before anyone noticed. What he needed next was strong coffee and information. He knew a joint that was good for both.

The bank of chairs creaked as he pushed himself to his feet, still holding the crumpled candy wrapper. He found a trash can and dropped the sticky wrapper into it. Never give them a reason. He kept his head down as he threaded his way across the dirty tile floor to the automatic doors that opened onto Filbert Street.

The morning sun floated off above the Delaware River, but the broken sidewalks were still in shadows. Darryl took it all in, the smells and the sounds. Just another rust-belt city, but he’d grown up in this one. Seven years gone and seemed like nothing had changed. Not much different from Cleveland or any of the other worn-out brick towns. They’re all the same, right down to the way they kicked a guy’s ass. He turned on Tenth Street. How do you get to South Philly? Simple; head south, keep walking.

Darryl didn’t expect a welcome home banner and he didn’t get one. It was a long walk down Tenth, with the downtown giving way to shoddy blocks of brick walkups above boarded up shops and bars. He kept his head down and his hoodie up, just another shadow causing the sidewalk.

Passing his reflection in plate glass windows, Darryl tried to figure what had changed. It wasn’t the town that was different, it was him. He didn’t belong here anymore, and him a Philly kid grown up on these streets. The bosses sent him to Cleveland, and he went. Then the whole thing went wrong, and the judge sent him to Lucasville, and he went. Not that he had any choice. Six years in prison and always he kept his mouth shut. You’d think that would buy a guy something, but no. His Philly card was revoked. Yeah, whatever, card or no card, he was going to find her.

The streets and shops got so familiar he could walk them blind, just like he had walked them blind drunk. The old neighborhood was still a shithole, no doubt, but even as a trespasser it felt like home.

The old bar was still there, as if anything short of fire or flood could change it. Neon beer lights winked in front of painted over windows. A heavy sign that read Finnegan’s Place sagged above the sidewalk. Darryl pushed open the door and stepped into a cloud of last night’s stale beer and this morning’s cigarette smoke. A few old sods were nursing their first of the day. They ignored Darryl as he walked to the far end of the bar. A burly stranger stood behind the plank.

— What can I getcha?

— You got any coffee on?

The bartender nodded and turned away. Darryl scanned the dark bar for unfriendly eyes and saw none. A mug hit the bar behind him.

— One coffee. You need sugar or something?

Darryl shook his head and picked up the coffee. It was black and terrible and exactly what he remembered. The bartender pretended to ignore him. Darryl drank down half the coffee and set the mug on the bar.

— Cliff around this morning?

The bartender wasn’t ignoring him now.

— Maybe. Who’s asking?

— An old friend, Dee from Cleveland.

The bartender waited two heartbeats before pushing himself up off his elbows.

— Don’t go nowhere, Cleveland Dee. I’ll see if Cliff is in the back.

Staring at the empty backbar, Darryl felt like he was trapped inside one of those time capsule things. The same corny signs hung above the mirror. Long shelves held knots of dusty trophies and group photos of little league teams on bended knees, bats and gloves held like offerings. The years receded over the images as they changed from faded color to silvered black-and-white. Without counting the frames, Darryl knew where and when his younger face appeared in the lineup.

The bartender reappeared through a doorway behind the bar. A bear of a man stood behind, his bulk almost filling the opening. The older man slouched under the weight of three extra decades and yet he was still a head taller than the younger barman. The bartender walked past Darryl with a deliberate sidelong stare as he sidled past.

The older man gave Darryl a hard look and pointed to the opposite end of the bar. Darryl picked up his coffee and walked to the farthest barstool. He settled himself and waited. Only then did the big man move out from the doorway.

Two meaty hands hit the bar on either side of Darryl’s coffee mug. A craggy face leaned in close and with it the smell of cigars. The man’s angry whisper held no trace of a greeting.

— Dee from Cleveland my ass. You’re only Dee if you’re in Ohio, where you damn sure belong. If you’re sitting here in my bar, then your name is Darryl, formerly of Philly, who is about to bring down a shitstorm.

— Good to see you too, Cliff.

— Hell with that and with you. What do you think you’re doing here? Just talking to you puts my ass in a sling.

— I needed a cuppa coffee.

— Which you’ve had, on the house, so now you get the hell outta my bar.

— Where is she, Cliff?

— You see my bartender over there? His name’s Marty. Good kid, smart. Any minute now he’s gonna step out to take a piss. Before he pisses himself, he’s gonna make a phone call, cause he knows what’s good for him. You hear me talking, you stupid mick? I don’t want no trouble going down here. It’s too goddamn early in the morning for that shit. So get lost and do it now. Please.

— Cliff, you give me something, some way to find her, and I’m gone.

The big man ran a hand over his face and dropped it back to the bar.

— I tell you one thing and then you leave, that’s the deal.

Darryl nodded his head.

— They got her over at Our Lady of the Perpetual with the Sisters. That’s all I know and that’s all I’m saying. Now get the hell outta here, and I do mean now.

*  *  *

Back out on the streets, Darryl headed east, his face hidden deep inside his hoodie. He turned corners where he didn’t need to, stopped beside crates of fruit stacked outside an Italian market. Darryl loitered until the grocer gave him the evil eye, but that was normal. Nobody was tailing him, at least not yet, even though he had set the clock ticking.

The Catholic school hulked over the surrounding row houses, a four storey wart of ugly brick. Darryl had seen better looking jailhouses. He circled the thing, keeping to the opposite side of the street. The place was like a fortress, pale brick walls built right out to the sidewalk. There wasn’t a bus stop or bench, no grocery, nowhere to hide. Nothing but row houses on three sides and a long wide alley cutting the school off from the rest of the block. How many laps could he make before one of the Sisters noticed him and called the cops?

Darryl circled again, peering up at the dirty classroom windows. What, did you think Becca would be standing up there waiting on you, waving down at the sidewalk? She was five when you went into the joint. She’s thirteen now, wouldn’t recognize you if you banged into her right here on the sidewalk.

This was it what happens when you don’t have a plan. Sure, you’re the ace for spur of the moment hero shit. You proved that and everyone loved you, until they didn’t. But when it comes to thinking ahead you don’t. That’s why you’re wandering the street in broad daylight looking for your teenaged daughter. What are you going to do now? How about you go ask the nuns to let you in, maybe give you a cuppa tea while they call up to Becca’s classroom, have the girl sent down to see her loving father. Then Becca comes running down the hall, plaid skirt and white shirt, throws herself into Daddy’s arms. Cliff’s right, you’re one stupid mick. 

They came for him in the alley as he made his third orbit of the building. He heard the sound of the big engine and tires grating over dirty concrete. Darryl was trapped in a canyon, four storeys of brick on one side and a wall of dilapidated row houses on the other. He stopped walking and waited.

A Crown Vic pulled up beside him, black of course. Some things never change. Two guys in the front, one in the back. The guy riding shotgun was leaned out the open window, right hand tucked under his armpit. Darryl did not recognize him, but then the back door opened, and he heard a voice he knew all too well.

— Get in.

Darryl was out of options. He shrugged, bent down, and slipped into the expanse of the back seat, pulling the door closed behind him. The inside of the sedan smelled of clashing aftershaves and well-oiled metal.

The voice belonged to Michael, Darryl’s old boss. More grey hair now, carrying maybe ten extra pounds, but still Michael. He looked more like a poet than a crew boss who would break your legs. Michael worked hard on that look. The leg-breaking came easy.

The big man waved a meaty hand towards the front of the car.

— You know the drill, Boyo, hands on the seat.

Darryl leaned forward and placed both hands on the seatback in front of him. Michael’s right hand slid up and down Darryl’s body, fast and sure, arms, small of the back, a quick grab of the crotch, both legs.

Satisfied, Michael leaned back into the seat and spoke to the driver.

— We’ll be on our way then, Sean.

The Crown Vic sped up the alley and turned west. Darryl turned to his old boss, but the man held a hand in the air to ward off any conversation. Darryl knew better than to push. Without another word spoken, Sean the driver steered out of the old neighborhood. 

The warren of row houses fell behind them. Darryl stared out the window as the car slid under the tangled hulk of the interstate. Sunlight flooded through the tinted windows. Sean steered past graffiti-tagged warehouses. He turned through an open gate that led into the industrial wasteland bordering the Schuylkill River. Darryl knew the Schuylkill. Guys that went into that river didn’t come out.

The Crown Vic sped past huge fuel storage tanks and stacks of rusted steel drums. Darryl saw stalky weeds pushing up through cracked concrete slabs and disused buildings sagging back into the same broken pavement.

The river was close now. This was going to be a short ride. He came back to see Becca, nothing more. He wasn’t trying to stir up any of the old troubles. He just wanted to see her, to have that connection. He wanted something he could hold on to, a link between the past and the empty now. And now these bastards weren’t going to allow him even that small thing. He’d started out as a thug, got turned into some sort of hero, and then ended up a martyr. They took everything from him, including his past. Now they were going to take the last thing he had left.

The big sedan swung behind a copse of stunted trees and stopped at a gravel dead end beside the river. A small cloud of dust rolled past the car and swept out over the river. Darryl looked to Michael, who nodded toward the car door and then turned to open his own. The muscle in the front seat stayed put. Darryl shouldered open the door and stepped out of the car. 

Michael walked toward the river, expensive leather crunching against the gravel. Darryl followed. Behind him he heard the sound of electric windows sliding down and the click of cigarette lighters. Michael stopped walking where the gravel ended and the weedy riverbank began. Darryl stopped beside him.

— So, Boyo, how do you like Cleveland?

Talking like it was eight days since they’d last seen each other instead of eight years. Nothing for it but to go along.

— Cleveland sucks, Michael. There’s snow up to your ass in winter and you can’t get a decent cheesesteak.

— When they free you from parole you might think of heading out west. I hear the California girls are easy on a man’s eyes.

— Michael, all due respect, the one girl I’m interested in is Becca. She’s the only reason I’m here. I’m not trying to stir up any shit. I just want to see my daughter.

The older man nodded his head, his eyes scanning the sluggish river north to south. Then he half-turned to face Darryl.

— Philly is closed to you, Lad. You know that and yet here you are. Your arrival has stirred the proverbial shit pot, meant to or not.

— So now you’re gonna whack me and throw me in the river?

The older man laughed for a moment, then his craggy face went hard.

— It won’t be me. You know how it works. The boss tells me, I tell those two in the car. They’re good lads, do what they’re told without questions. But we aren’t there just yet. I’m to tell you that Philly is closed to you and I’ve done that twice now. Sean and Jamie there, they’ll drive you to the bus station. Then you go back to Cleveland, simple as that.

— As simple as that, Michael? Those years don’t count for nothing?

— Depends on who’s doing the counting and it isn’t me. You spent a long time on the streets. You were a good Lad. Then you went and became a legend, but you only stay a legend as long as no one around here sees you again. That’s how the bosses have it set up. I’m delivering their message. Get this through that thick skull of yours. If the lads see you on a Philly street after midnight tonight, you likely won’t be seen anywhere ever again.

— All I wanted was to see my Becca. Is that too much to ask? There’s nothing fair in this.

— Fair? Are you having me on? Who ever said anything about fair? As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. Best if you remember that.

— What the hell are you talking about? Is that some of your poetry?

— Yes, just a bit of verse, an old man’s mumbling. Forget it, and the rest of this as well.

— Forget it, that’s all?

Michael pointed a finger at Darryl as he spoke.

— That’s all, Lad, and I’ve not much more to say. If you do as you’re told, you’re back in Cleveland and there’s no anonymous call to your parole officer. If you’re still here after midnight, all bets are off and more’s the pity. So, what will it be?

Darryl knew there were no more words to say. He looked out over the river where the sun gleamed silver. Then he nodded to Michael, turned away, and crunched across the gravel to the waiting car.

*  *  *

Darryl sat in one of the creaking plastic chairs. A one-way ticket to Cleveland lay on the empty chair beside him. The grift and hustle of the bus station swirled around him, but he ignored it all.

He stared at the clock above the departure board, watched the black hands ticking away the little time he had left. This is where the smart guys came up with a plan, in those last desperate minutes before time ran out. His head didn’t work like that. He listened to his gut, or maybe his heart. At that moment, Darryl’s heart was screaming at him.

The plastic chairs creaked as Darryl pushed himself to his feet. He stalked across the dirty tile floor; hoodie thrown back between his shoulder blades. The automatic doors slid open and he stepped into the night streets beyond.

The ticket lay forgotten, but only for the span of a few heartbeats. A quick hand snatched it up from the plastic seat. A few minutes later, a hawker was working the ticket line in a whisper, selling fast and cheap before the departure time came and went.

Etheridge, Marco

Image: originally posted to Flickr as Greyhound Station, Downtown Cleveland – Author Eli Pousson – Slight Edit for size.

6 thoughts on “The Weight of Return by Marco Etheridge”

  1. Hi Marco,
    Great pace, great tone and the unsaid doesn’t annoy.
    We are left with enough for our minds to play around with the details and our thoughts become part of the story.
    This was a very skillful piece of writing..
    Another thing came to me – The Title. You could spell weight / wait either way and it would work!
    You continue to send us quality stories my friend!!


  2. When Daryl asked bar owner Cliff where his daughter was, he signalled to the whole underworld “here I am, fellas, back in Philly!” A more astute fellow might have known Cliff likely lied, set him up for the gangster pickup. The atmosphere of the old gangster movies with Jimmy Cagney etc. is well re-created, and I like the Greyhound station atmosphere.


  3. It reads as the writer intends it to – swift momentum – pulling in the reader with every line. There’s not a dull moment, and the intrigue gradually builds, but without overdoing it. The protagonist and the city superimpose at places, either reflecting the other. Wonderful writing! 🙂


  4. Great story. It reminded me of some of the underword characters in my hometown. The ending allowed the readers to continue Dee’s journey on their own, in any direction they wanted to take it.


  5. Not your typical conman story and I enjoyed the hook you placed about him seeing his girl. It moved the story and intrigue along at a great pace. I hope there’s a happy reunion. Great writing. This could be a novel.


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