"What the hell you mean you dont have my shoes, white man?"
"Everything is burned up," a frail voice replied in a mild German accent.
"Thats not my fault, man," the angry voice said. "I give you my shoes, I expect to get them back."
"They are all burned."
"And do you think if this was my store that I could tell you I didnt have nuthin for ya?" the customer said. "Do you think a black man could just say his store done burned down so he dont have to make good on his responsibilities?"
"I dont have your shoes."
I shoved the timber out of the way, smudging the palms of my hands with sooty charcoal. When I came into the burned-out room, both occupants turned to look at me.
Theodore was a short, powerfully built white man with little hair and big hands. The irate customer was much larger, with a wide chest and a big face that would have been beautiful on a woman.
"Hey, Theodore," I said.
"Wait your turn, man," the Negro customer warned. "I got business to take care of first."
He swiveled his head back to the cobbler and said, "Those shoes costed me thirty-six dollars and if you cant give em up right now I want to see some money across this here hand."
I took a quick breath and then another. There was an electric tingle over my right cheekbone and for a moment the room was tinged in red.
"Brother," I said. "You got to go."
"Are you talkin to me, niggah?"
"You heard me," I said in a tone that you cant make up. "I been in the house for some time now, trying not to break out and start doin wrong. Ive been patient and treadin softly. But if you say one more word to my friend here I will break you like a matchstick and throw you out in the street."
"I want my shoes," the big beautiful man said with tears in his voice. "He owe it to me. It dont matter what they did."
I heard his cracked tone. I knew that he was just as crazy as I was at that moment. We were both black men filled with a passionate rage that was too big to be held in. I didnt want to fight but I knew that once I started, the only thing that would stop me would be his lifeless throat crushed by my hand.
"Here you are, sir," Theodore said.
He was handing over a ten-dollar bill.
"Your shoes were old, you know," the shoemaker said. "And they both needed soles. It was a good make and I would have bought them for seven dollars. So heres ten."
The burly man stared at the note a moment. Then he looked up at me.
"Forget it," he said.
He turned around so quickly that he lost his balance for a moment and had to reach out for a broken, charred timber for support.
"Ow!" he shouted, probably because of a splinter, but I cant say for sure because he blundered out, tearing the front door off of its last hinge as he went.
There was a sleek antique riding saddle on the floor, under a shattered wooden chair. I moved away the kindling and picked up the saddle. Theodore had received it from his uncle who was a riding master in Munich before World War I. Id always admired the leatherwork.
Setting the riding gear on a fairly stable part of his ruined worktable, I said, "You didnt have to pay him, Mr. Steinman."
"He was hurting," the small man replied. "He wanted justice."
"Thats not your job."
"It is all of our job," he said, staring at me with blue eyes. "You cannot forget that."
Copyright (c) Little, Brown & Co, 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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