It was our usual Friday night out at the Harmony Tavern. The usual crowd was there, doing the usual things. I was waiting for the band to start up, The Night Crawlers, a Chicago blues band featuring Big Joe Carter. Justin was waiting for something else.
"Im gettin tired of this shit," Justin said. Susie, our waitress, had just placed our beers neatly in front of us and she had given me a wink while doing this so I was thinking just the opposite.
"Tired of what? Waiting for the band? You know they start at nine."
"No Bobby," he was exasperated with me already and we had only just arrived. We didnt see each other much anymore, in fact these monthly Friday nights were just about it. Wed graduated High School, and I went off to work and Justin continued in school. And it seemed to me that each time I saw him, he was more on edge, always fired up about some issue or another and he got annoyed with me when I didnt "get" what he was fired up about. The true fact was, I "got it" but I didnt really care.
So I grunted in response and looked to catch Susies eye again as she moved through the room. He continued anyway.
"Its not right how things are run around here. I mean the people dont have a say in whats going on. Don Bugs says whats going on and we have to like it. Its not democracy."
"Democracy?" I was astonished. What the hell was he going on about anyway? Was it school that made him think like this? "This is a democracy, we get to vote."
"Yeah so long as you vote for Don Bugs." The mans real name was Don Benevolito but he was commonly known as Don Bugs. Behind his back, that is. Mostly with a kind of affection that was mixed with a good measure of fear, for he ruled the city absolutely.
"Yeah, well it works. I got a good job, I got good pay, and theres no crime. I even got retirement and health benefits. What the hell is wrong with that?" He had suckered me in. I hated when it when he did that. I really dont care much about politics, it makes me ill.
"Whats wrong with that," he explained, squaring himself in front of me, "is that you only get all that so long as you do what Don Bugs says. Thats whats wrong with that. Its corruption plain and simple. He scratches your back if and only if you scratch his. And if you dont, you disappear."
"You know," I said regaining my composure and making eye contact with Susie who gave me another smile, "you shouldnt say that shit too loud."
"Thats what I mean. Freedom. It doesnt exist here. What exists is order. We have exchanged safety and prosperity and order for freedom."
"Yeah sounds right to me." the band was nearly finished setting up now and I shifted my chair in anticipation of the show. Then I waved Susie over and ordered us another round of beer and more peanuts. I was looking forward to this. Usually they only had bands that covered pop stuff. Nothing as gritty as the Night Crawlers.
"Yeah well, it doesnt sound right to me. Things are gonna change tonight." He was whispering now.
"What the hell you talking about, man? What are you gonna change tonight?"
"Keep your voice down." He checked out the scene around us to see if anyone was paying attention. Over across the room, both pool tables were full up. The bar was crammed with singles looking to go home with someone. Nearly every other table was taken up with groups. No one seemed to be paying any real attention to us.
Over in the corner, Studs Hanken was running the usual poker game for Don Bugs. Everyone thought he cheated at cards and it was probably true. But there were two things about that; one, he didnt win every hand and two, he was as close to Don as stink on shit.
"Not me," he spoke earnestly but quietly, "well, not just me anyway."
"Yeah well what are you all going to do then?"
He looked at me and a strange smile came over his face.
"Im going to play poker," he said and took his beer.
I watched him walk over to the poker game, speak with Studs and then take a seat. The band started to play then and I started to get into them, but I had a bad feeling. I kept checking the game and wondering what the hell Justin was up to. The band played a truly excellent set for about an hour then Big Joe announced that they would take a break. He hardly got the words out of his mouth when everyone turned in the direction of the poker game because Studs was shouting. I was horrified because he was shouting at my friend. Everything else was silent.
"You calling me a cheater? Is that what youre saying you little shit?"
Justin remained seated talking calmly. "You cheated Studs and everyone here knows it. That hand belongs to me, so just let me have it and we can go on." Studs face was red as a beet and he simply didnt know what to say so he kind of stood there and vibrated. He shuddered and shook. It was comical but nobody was stupid enough to laugh.
Then Studs drew his gun. And there was a shot.
I was confused because Studs gun didnt seem to have been fully drawn yet, and I thought maybe he was so mad the gun just went off. But then I saw the gun drop from his hand and Studs collapsed in on himself, like a hot air balloon deflating. I saw that Justin was standing now, the gun in his hand still smoking. I couldnt believe it. I couldnt believe that this was how he thought he would change things. He wasnt going to change anything except his status as a live being.
Then things got worse.
At first, no one said a word, they just stared at the dead body on the floor, everyone half expecting it to move. Then, as if on cue, everyone looked at Justin standing there. He wasnt looking at Studs, he was looking somewhere else.
When the bouncers remembered themselves, they drew their guns and headed towards the table. Two other "undercover" operators also drew their guns and turned their attention to Justin. More shots rang out from opposite ends of the room, and the men dropped. People screamed and dove for the floor. I couldnt, I was fixated on Justin.
At this point, there were no official representatives of Don Bugs machine in the room. But there was no doubt in anyones mind that this was not going to remain the situation for very long. But for the moment, Justin was speaking.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please do not be alarmed. We are not going to hurt anyone. We are just tired of being controlled by a corrupt boss who dictates every aspect of our lives. We have formed a team, a revolutionary group if you will, and this is our first skirmish. Soon Don Bugs himself will arrive and we intend to negotiate with him for the release of this establishment. We want freedom for the people of this city. We want some concessions from him towards that goal."
It was apparent now that there were five others with guns that were guarding the entrances. One was in the rafters above our heads, taking the high ground. They all had rifles. Where they got them from I can not imagine; no one but Dons men possessed guns and it was illegal for others to have them. But somehow Justin and his crew had guns. This, I realized, was not a spur of the moment event, in fact it had taken a long time to pull off. I thought back to see if I could remember getting any hint prior to today that he was up to such a thing and I could not. Then I wondered if he actually had a chance of surviving the night.
They waited. We waited. An hour passed, then two. Justin wouldnt let the band start up again and he had every one sit on the floor. At first it was quiet, everyone holding their breath to see what would happen with such an unprecedented showdown. But after the first hour rolled by, people began to talk quietly among themselves. Then the second hour came and went and the beer started to flow again and conversations got louder. Justins team, at first vigilant, became looser and started engaging in conversation about their mission and beliefs. At the two hour and fifteen minute mark, every door to the place burst open and Justins six men were killed; each with a double shot to the head. The revolution was over in about a minute and a half. They left Justin alive. He was surrounded by half a dozen men in Flak jackets and commando gear, each had a gun pointed at his head. They took his gun.
Then Don Bugs walked into the Harmony Tavern accompanied by five men, three of them obviously body guards. There was no feeling of celebrity or anything like that because people always saw him. He was always around on the street, in this joint or that, talking to people, finding out about their problems. He knew everything that went on in his domain, and if trouble came into town, he snuffed it out immediately. Often brutally.
He was dressed typically in an expensive three-piece suit and he carried a thick silver tipped black cane. A single diamond earring adorned his massive bald head. He was in command but friendly. He took his time getting to Justin, stopping to say hello to the people in his path, apologizing for the trouble and reassuring everyone, quietly, that things were under control.
There was no doubt about that.
When he finally reached Justin, he dismissed the commandos and took a seat in front of the standing man.
"Sit down, Justin. Lets talk." Don said.
Justin didnt know what to do, but after a brief moment he did what he was told. He sat in the exact seat from which he had shot Studs. Don sat in the seat from which Studs had been shot. It made for a bizarre kind of symmetry.
Everyone strained to hear the conversation.
"So what is going on here, Justin?"
Justin had lost his voice, and shrugged like a little kid being interrogated by his father.
Don waited for a while, then shifted in his seat and looked back at one of his body guards who was standing just behind him and to his right. The man smirked in response. Don then turned to face Justin again.
"Justin, you are family. My cousins son." I didnt know that. "And as such I have taken care of you. I paid for your tuition in college. A good and expensive college. You have a fine mind and a quick wit. You are intelligent. I had hopes for you to be with me in my organization." He leaned closer to Justin in a Im being reasonable way and said, "so speak now and tell me what is going on. What," he swept his hands, "this is all about."
Justin looked down at his feet for a minute then looked up at Don Bugs. He had a defiant look on his face and looked straight in the older mans eyes. "Its about freedom and democracy," he said evenly. "Its about the fact that you control every aspect of life around here. And this," he looked around, his eye catching the sight of one of his dead crew, "this was a declaration of freedom from your control. Freedom for the people." He ended this with a fervent note in his voice.
Don didnt take his eyes off my friend for a minute. No trolling for smirks this time. In fact he seemed to be considering what Justin had said.
"But people dont want freedom, Justin. You must know that. People want safety, and good food, and good jobs, and places to spend their hard earned money when the time comes to relax. That is as close to freedom as people want to get. And that is what I provide." He paused.
"Justin, if people wanted what you say, I would have been gone a long time ago. The only reason," he emphatically touched the table with his pointy finger, "the only reason I am here doing the things I do is because people want me here. I make sure the laws are fair, I make sure the working conditions are decent, I see that criminals are dealt with, that the entertainment is decent, that kids are treated well. No one around here is a slacker. There is no welfare. If someone doesnt want to work, they are encouraged to leave." He smiled at this and so did his entourage. In fact, everyone was feeling more at ease. "The truly sick are provided for and so are the old. It is, in fact, a perfect society. What more do you want, Justin? Why did you want to destroy this for an ideal. For you must understand that that is what real Democracy is. A theory that never worked in history and will never work in the future. And besides, you all get to vote. Admittedly it is on things that matter only to you, but the rest is my job, now isnt it?"
"People need to be able to choose their destiny, Mr. Benevolito . Every man and woman choosing what is best for their community. Sure we will make mistakes, but that is how people, communities, and civilizations evolve. It you can only choose what is good for you, what you think is good for us, then we can never become fully human because we have never been able to deal with our demons. And if we can not wrestle these monsters, we can never over come them. Humans will evolve only when there is freedom for us to choose for ourselves, freedom to choose to do the right thing. This is what you rob us of. You rob us of becoming. You take from us our potential to be more than you or I can imagine. This is our heritage. This is the light of Western Civilization passed to us from the Greeks. You should read more."
You should read more? I could feel everyone in the place suck in their collective breath and hold it as we waited for this insult to be dealt with. Don Bugs laughed and slapped the table. The men around him laughed. The rest of us decided it was OK to breath again.
"You think I am not well read? You mention the Greeks. Have you read Plato? Yes. Well he wasnt a big fan of Democracy if I remember correctly. Was he? No. In fact he argued for the opposite didnt he?"
"Yes, the Philosopher King."
"Yes. And that is what I am. The Philosopher King," he put a big smile on his face and puffed his chest and thumped it lightly with both hands splayed. "The Benevolent Dictator." He looked around on both sides for confirmation and suddenly there was cheering and clapping. People felt relieved somehow. The last words not only reflected how they felt about him but also seemed to signal that the blood shed might be over for night.
After the spontaneous show of support died down, Don Benevolito, commonly known as Don Bugs, narrowed his vision and contracted his being, Justin being the object of his attention once again.
"One thing that a Benevolent Dictator can not allow, however, is insurrection."
A pall fell over the room.
"I am sorry, Justin. In order for this all to work, everyone must know the price of attempting to upset the delicate balance of law and mercy."
He signaled to his men and they grabbed Justin and laid him across the table. Justin struggled to no avail.
Don Bugs stood and took his cane. He pulled on its silver handle and extracted the sword sheathed within.
"Any last words Justin?"
Justin just screamed.
Justins head was hung from the sign above the entrance of the Harmony Tavern. For a while it dripped blood. But by the next day that had pretty much stopped, though the stain on the sidewalk below never faded. It remains to this day. Word spread through all corners of the city. And when people forgot, the head, which stayed there for exactly 30 days, reminded them.
We who witnessed this event went back to our daily lives, which were good and fulfilling lives. With all the security and leisure that we had before. More even, because there were no repeat incidents like the one Justin had instigated. Susie quit the Harmony soon after. I did get a date with her eventually, but it never went anywhere. She was a nice enough girl, but our shared experience of that night came between us I think mostly because we could never bring ourselves to speak of it.
It took a while, but I finally wept for my friend, Justin. And when I did, I wept for a very long time. Then I stopped.
I knew what had to be done. But I had no idea how to do it.