Stories– “Xanthus Leaves Town”

Starting to put some stories in here–need to get more content in since I’m discontinuing my Facebook account.  So here’s something:

Xanthus Leaves Town

by Sean Johnston

Xanthus Washington, a tall, rangy “Nee-gro”, as some of the oldsters called him, walked out of the town’s jail a free man after spending the week inside the piss-smelling cell where they kept the drunks and other not-so-dangerouses.  A week because he smelled like beer because somebody had spilled some on him while he tried to play pool an hour before he ran into Elrod, the sheriff.  Xanthus almost turned back toward the jail and spat on the place.  He wanted to.

But they would give him another week for looking at them wrong, never mind spitting on public property.  Around here, some police enforced that law.  Some with more enthusiasm than others, some with more…selectivity…than others.

Instead, Xanthus made his way out onto the sidewalk in the bright sunshine and breathed the hot afternoon air.  He turned toward downtown.

As he moved, he could feel the hard glares of people who watched him.  He looked up and around, tried to find the local dime store.  From behind storefront glass that reflected him, he saw storekeepers as they looked out at him.

A block ahead, on the left, stood the same grocery he’d shopped since he first came to town a year ago.  In front of it, in the middle of the street, the town’s fountain, some war hero on a horse, dribbled water out of its green bronze nose.  Xanthus walked between it and a pair of old men who sat on a nearby, park bench of rotting wood.  They just sat and stared.  They did not talk either to him or to one another.  Xanthus thought he had never seen them talk to anybody, but the force of their glare toward him felt like an insistent shove in the chest.  Xanthus hesitated to look into the fountain.  It seemed reasonable that the townspeople would think he was casing the fountain for spare change by the time the old-timers got done telling the tale.

Xanthus passed the horse and rider.
A mother pushed her baby along in a stroller across his path.  He stopped and tried not to look at her.  She looked at him, and their gazes connected for a brief instant.  In that time, Xanthus did not know whether he felt pity or fear from her.  He imagined both as they passed and he went on.

The store stood just ahead, its doors open, the only such store in town that Xanthus could see.  As he went up to them, though he slowed for a moment and kept walking to the bottom of the hill, past who knew how many more storefronts, down to the bus station.

He went inside and took in a deep breath of the cool, albeit musty, air.  He thought he would go to the vending machine and get a soda, but he kept on to the ticket counter.  He looked at the schedule of destinations.

A fat man who needed a shave but had kind brown eyes lumbered up to the counter.

“Where to, Xanthus?”

Xanthus started a little, looked at the man, at the man’s name sewn in an oval on his shirt.  Calvin.  He didn’t recognize the man.  He remembered somebody saying that when more people knew you than you knew, you were famous.  He suppressed a smile.  When he came into town from Minneapolis, he never thought being black would make him famous.  But in this town, he knew it could be his having been in jail, too.

“Seattle,” Xanthus said.

Calvin muttered something and started to cobble Xanthus’ ticket together.
“How much is that, sir?”

Calvin glanced up at him, shook his head.  He handed Xanthus his ticket.

Xanthus looked at it.  The amount on it said one hundred thirty-nine dollars and six cents.  Xanthus started to get his bank card out, but Calvin held up a hand.

“Your money ain’t no good.  Jus’ take the ticket.  An’ don’t come back here no more.” And then, in a voice barely above a whisper, “‘Tain’t safe.”

Xanthus gave a shuddering sigh and took the ticket, sat down, felt Calvin watch him from that moment until the bus came three-and-a-half hours later.  When it did, Xanthus checked his ticket against the number on the side of the bus. They matched. Xanthus got up and made for the door. He felt his chest tighten, as though he expected something, some hook, to yank him back.

“Good luck, boy,” Calvin said.

Xanthus slowed but didn’t turn around.  “Thanks,” he said, and he would have sworn, if necessary, that he felt Calvin meant it.

He went out to the bus, got on, sat down just as the bus started to move out.

After they had crossed the city limits, Xanthus, for the first time in recent memory, breathed and smiled.

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