GOING LOCAL : A Charlie Byrne Short
“What’s that all about?”
It was a Sunday afternoon, two days before Halloween, and like a couple of hooded gulls Stevie Maguire and I were up on the rail at First Street watching the surfers catch the last, dying pumps of a tropical swell that had pounded the Jersey shore for days. A hundred yards away two guys armored in 4/3 wetsuits were getting into it near the water’s edge, one out-sized and losing the tussle clearly. Nine miles north the glittering towers of Atlantic City jutted out into the sea like a gaudy robot's broken jaw.
“Dog fight,” I said, snapping my gum, “Guy snaked him twice inside.”
“Come on, is that really necessary?”
“Whoops. Looks like it’s over now.”
The smaller surfer was splayed on his back while the other bigger guy pointed an angry finger down at his heaving chest. The bigger guy kicked some wet sand, turned, and charged back into the inside froth while the defeated surfer got to his feet and stalked toward us, shortboard tucked under his arm. He looked back over his shoulder nervously, perhaps anticipating a jump and quickened his steps.
Stevie looked down, “Uh-oh.”
“Dang. I do know that guy.”
To our right the camel colored lifeguard station blocked the chilly southwest breeze and the setting sun was offering little in the way of warmth as it sunk behind the homes on the north end of town. I swung my legs back over the metal rail and planted my feet on the boardwalk and met the guy Stevie supposedly knew at the guard station steps.
“Yo, you okay, kid?”
The surfer looked away and spat, “Guy’s a total asshole. Like he owns that right. Dude doesn’t even live around here. Pennsyltucky old man wannabe.”
The kid looked to be all of a skinny seventeen, flushed and freckled. He visibly shook with embarrassed adrenaline. I knew the feeling.
“You’re bleeding, man.”
The kid swiped a hand at his bloody lip, “Yeah. Big deal. I bit it when he pushed me down. I’ll live.”
Stevie materialized at my elbow, “Hey, Doogle. That was some messed up tribal out there. You good?”
Doogle blinked as if confused and then settled sheepishly. “Hey, Stevie.”
“How’s your mom doing?”
“Better, I guess. Chemo finally took. She left me and my dad alone for a while but she’s back on me and him, ragging big time. Never stops.”
“Good to hear.”
Doogle moved past us and picked up the ramp leading down to the street dripping a salt water trail. We watched him go.
“Chemo?” I asked.
Stevie nodded. “Breast cancer. Double mastectomy. I helped his mom out with some discount cheeba when she was really ground down. She’s a social worker. Dad works for the county library.”
A few minutes later Stevie gave me a back slap and wobbled off on his rusty beach cruiser, heading south and for home. I decided to stick around and wait on Doogle’s beater. The guy finished up not long after Stevie split and approached with a second surfer, laughing and shaking their damp heads.
I was surprised to see that the guy who roughed up Doogle and his companion were older than me, both thick across the chest and clearly jazzed from their late weekend session. I took a moment to breathe and collect my anger.
“Did you have to go and do that before? He’s just a kid.”
“What’s it to you? You his mommy or something?”
“No. Just trying to keep the peace is all. He’s a friend of a friend of mine.”
“Well, mister friend of a friend of mine, why don’t you mind your own business, huh? Kid should know better. Dropping in on every freakin' wave.”
“I only saw two. Two waves. The other times you couldn’t even make the sections. I’ve been out here for an hour watching.”
“Oh yeah? Well that sniveling kook doesn’t know the rules. Neither do you apparently.”
“Oh? And what rules would they be? Grown man beating on a kid half his size for what? A little lost middle-aged glory?”
The other surfer who came up the steps with him seemed softer up close and looked wary. He stepped aside as the big man closed a foot. I didn’t move, but I made damn sure my stance was good and planted in case he decided to throw down. The bully’s eyes were slits. Mine were hidden behind my sunglasses.
I said, “I got fifty bucks in my wallet that says most of the guys out there in the lineup, even the ones you supposedly think you know, will back me up if we get into this right now. Maybe you think you’re fast, but I sincerely doubt it. This goes south what I do know is that I’m bone-positive my friends in OCPD will keep your ass in jail until Monday. I'm thinking that’ll be hard to explain to your boss, I mean, at least it’ll be harder to explain than the bruises. Do me a solid here, okay? Take your Black Horse Pike act back across the Delaware and think next time you decide to pick a fight.”
“Tough guy, huh?”
“Sweetheart, you have no idea what or who I am.”
There are electric moments in a standoff, slivers of dropping time where all is slowed, all can rescued or all can be lost. His buddy sensed this was a second or two away and moved between us and eased his friend back.
“Let it go, man. Just let it go. This guy s'not worth it.”
The bully huffed a bit and, after a moment, reluctantly took his friend’s advice. I didn’t gloat but kept ready in case there was a change of mind and charge. Sure, there was some name calling, but after they hit the ramp it was lost on me and lost on the dying wind.
An elderly man I hadn’t noticed who’d been watching the entire exchange from a bench nearby started clapping and laughed. I flashed him a grin, took a bow.
KIERAN SHEA’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Dogmatika, Word Riot, Plots with Guns, Beat to a Pulp, Crimefactory, and Needle: A Magazine of Noir ...as well as in some beefy-looking anthologies most of which will make you question the tether of his shiny, red balloon. To his self-deprecating astonishment he's also been nominated for the Story South’s Million Writers Award twice without sending the judges so much as a thank you note. He co-edited the satiric transgressive fiction collection D*CKED: DARK FICTION INSPIRED BY DICK CHENEY and his debut novel KOKO TAKES A HOLIDAY is out now from Titan Books. Kieran divides his time between 38°58′22.6″N- 76°30′4.17″W and 39.2775° N, 74.5750° W.