Another Man Down
(Remembering the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith and the acquittal of Jason Stockley)
Roger O’Faolain woke up with a start that Saturday. He could already hear his wife bustling around in the kitchen making coffee and eggs, and even this early, the Mexican gardeners were solicitously watering his lawn – and, oh yes, it was his birthday. His wife had an early news show on and the news anchor was talking about protests over the most recent white-policeman-killing-black-man acquittal, this one in St. Louis.
He got up and shuffled into the kitchen. Unseasonably warm September weather meant that not only did people shoot one another a lot more, but that the real estate season lasted longer, and this Saturday was going to be packed. His wife turned, and as she did so, he thought, “She has put some weight on. Just one of those things – so have I.”
“Happy birthday, darling,” she said, and he opened up a package to find a cashmere sweater. They both laughed. “Well, I did think it might be the weather for it when I bought it,” she said.
“Any word from Mandy?” he asked hopefully, noticing that before she had even started drinking her second cup of coffee, she had taken her IPad out and was on Facebook.
“No, probably later,” Sarah said, also hopefully, while Roger thought of how he hated that rich boyfriend his daughter lived with in California. But their apartment was beautiful and, just like her Dad, his girl was climbing the ladder inch by inch.
He heard Sarah sigh. He wondered if Sarah would have preferred that their daughter had some illness that made her weak and frail and vulnerable. Just like she held tiny premature babies for two hours daily, because a study had shown that human contact helped them immeasurably, she probably wished she could similarly blanket and hold Mandy. He and Sarah knew one another so well – just a sigh, a fleeting expression, and each knew what the other was thinking
“Another one acquitted, and he planted a gun that had his fingerprints on it in the car to justify it,” Sarah said, nodding at the TV set.
“He ‘feared for his life,’ did he? Although you would like a kinder, gentler world, it isn’t and never will be. After a while the rage stops. It’s just another man down,” he sighed.
He was not resigned. He really was angry, Sarah noticed. She reasoned that of course he would be. That Irish father of his had been a deacon back in the day and had done a lot to unify the Catholic Church when segregation started to go. Roger had told her about the march organized by Martin Luther King in Cicero, black and white priests and deacons walking together, and some children too, and the sign his father had held that read, “Be not afraid, saith God the Lord.”
Roger watched the gardener outside the window stop and stretch. Life was not so complicated for this man. He was eating his breakfast and yawning because it was still early. He was taking things fairly easy, while something in Roger always thought there were boxes he still had left to tick.
“You know what I noticed on the march, and later when us kids were playing around the basement and our father was talking about unifying the churches? Two things,” he said, eating too fast and putting on his air of conviviality, which Sarah noticed was always switched on a few minutes before he left.
“The hair, how it was rough and grew up, not out, because I was a child and they touched my hair and I touched theirs. And then I observed to the black deacon’s child how the palms of his hands were pink like mine. I noticed, too, how when those deacons left the church, they tipped their hats down to hide their faces. I don’t think that has changed.”
“Yes, is it really so different now?” Sarah asked.
“Of course it’s better, but then, maybe not so much,” Roger sighed again.
Sarah was flicking through her Facebook feed and suddenly said, “Oh, my goodness! Remember Rebecca Bernstein?”
“Rebecca Bernstein, a very complicated and unkind so-called friend of Mandy’s, as I recall. Father was Jewish, mother Catholic.”
Sarah sat down a little uncomfortably, but nevertheless spooned more sugar into her coffee. Suddenly a scenario flashed through her mind. The second Bush had been President then and the market was about to fall, and being a commercial real estate agent, Roger had actually liquidated half their stocks. It wasn’t that detail she remembered so much about that year, but Mandy lying on the basement floor screaming.
“They hate me, and now someone said something about me and Dad, and it’s so terrible and I know it was Rebecca and that’s only one thing she does.”
Sarah had looked at the computer, horrified at the comments, accusations of foul and lewd things about Mandy and her father. Later there were weight comments, and then an open letter from Rebecca to Mandy detailing all the ways Mandy was weird and did not deserve to sit at their lunch table. But she could not confront Rebecca’s mother. She thought she was going to, but then dried up as soon as she saw her.
“So I’ll have you do a couple of residential showings this afternoon. Key for the lockboxes in the normal place. Let me text you that Sheridan Road address, though, because I’m not sure about it. It’s a 32-unit building, but I don’t have the address,” Roger was saying.
“Rebecca Bernstein is marrying her Sudanese nurse; she had a brain tumor, but the last checkup was fine. Oh, my gosh, they’re going to live in a terrible part of town,” Sarah gasped.
Hastily adjusting his tie, Roger quickly leaned over the IPad and murmured that Rebecca’s intended looked okay to him. Sarah did not feel that way, for Roger had not spent hour upon hour coaching Mandy, who would climb so high after she graduated, into ignoring the cyber and real-life bullies. Even this photograph of Rebecca made her feel slightly nauseated.
The gardeners left and Sarah hummed as she did some housework. Rebecca Bernstein marrying! Black, hmm, African black, even in Chicago that’s going to be hard. You hurt my child, you spearheaded a campaign to wreck two years of her life, oh girl, I hope things will be hard for you, she thought. Sarah, normally so mild and motherly, and a church-going Catholic like Roger, even allowed herself to think that Rebecca’s brain cancer of a few years ago had been divine retribution for what she had put her child through. Mandy would have poured scorn on that idea. They had been very close, Mandy and Roger, and now she had even forgotten her father’s birthday.
She stopped humming after a while. Maybe it was the unseasonable September heat, or the last missile North Korea had sent over Japan, or a horrible feeling that Mandy was soon going to get a proposal from that rich bastard Dexter, but she noticed that she felt rather low. She sighed and thought of her mother’s admonition when she had felt low as an adolescent. “You’ve got to make an effort, darling, everyone has to make an effort.”
She washed and styled her hair, wondering if she should send Mandy a reminder about Roger’s birthday, and then said to herself, “No. That chicken flew the coop six years ago. Let it go.”
She phoned the hospital to tell them she wasn’t coming in today to hold the babies, and the head nurse was quite upset.
“Oh, I would love to. But the selling season is lasting so much longer this year. I would, but Roger needs me to help out and the mechanic said a new car is what we need, the rack and pinion, the brakes. Minis are not a good buy. Don’t ever buy one.”
“Okay. Well, we do appreciate your time with the little ones when you come. Keep ticking the boxes,” the nurse said.
Sarah found she was dithering around a lot with a sort of menopausal suburban angst. On the TV Antifa were beating people up, and then on a talk show a woman was talking about how she had become a man, but was now becoming a woman again – if you supported Black Lives Matter, you were also meant to support this woman’s kookiness – and those pathetic 24-week preemies, you couldn’t have them, not if you supported the Resistance. And most definitely, no one was going to go on a march for black rights carrying a sign saying, “Be not afraid, saith God the Lord.” Everything now was money, which shouldn’t really affect her as they had money, but she still loved to remember when Roger had played “Little Boxes” on his guitar and sung Pete Seeger-style.
Dusting in the attic later, she pondered on a photograph of the black and white priests and deacons holding hands in a circle, and little Roger grinning in the way a child does who is open to another quite different knowledge, closer to the gardener yawning as he waters the plants before the punishing off-kilter heat of the sun attacks in mid-September.
That morning she was all over the place. She walked the dog and the morning was done before she knew it, and just after lunch Roger rang.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“Oh, 1966 for a little while, and then 2007.”
“We have the Donald now, remember? It’s 2017. Come on, Sarah. Are you upset because thinking of Rebecca Bernstein brought up all that business again?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said simply.
“Well, you should leave now. It’s a young couple and she’s the one that needs convincing. She doesn’t like the $120 monthly fee for the parking garage. They’re nervous, but you can do this,” he admonished her.
Clunk. Car keys in the bag and, oh … she rushed back into the house to get the key for the lock box. She didn’t need to check the address, because she knew what the building looked like.
An hour later Sarah swung into the parking garage on Sheridan, but, rifling through her bag, she realized that she had forgotten her phone. She peered at the barrier and tried to see through the dark glass of the little booth nearby, which said “Ring for Assistance.”
A voice boomed out of the darkness.
“You’re lucky I’m here checking the log books,” the small man in the booth said. “What can I do for you this fine day?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot my phone. I should have brought it, you know, it has the visitor’s-pass barcode on it.”
“Does it now?” he sighed. The other guy had just gotten fired for not keeping the visitor log up. “I would like to let you in, ma’am, but you don’t have papers or nothing?” the man asked, and as he leaned out, she saw that he’d had a full inch of his face scraped for skin cancer. She recognized the nature of the wound because her neighbor had just had the same procedure.
“On the phone,” she sighed.
“Well, there is a lot of things that are ‘should of.’ I’m sorry, ma’am, you’re going to be late,” he said.
She started to sweat in the ungainly way fat people do, and a tear even rolled down her cheek.
“You don’t know how many ‘should haves’ there are,” she said. “That policeman …”
“Oh, Jason Stockley? Don’t surprise me,” the man answered.
“He should be in jail for murder, and no baby, no little one that is six months or older, should ever have its skull smashed so it’s easier to pull out of the birth canal, and my daughter should have called her daddy for his big six oh.”
Her hand fumbled with the reverse. “Stop,” he said. He got out of the booth and went to the barrier, observing the car.
“Just let me log the car. A Mini station wagon. That’s hipster, but those cars, they don’t need to be bigger. It’s a good car, but needs a lot of fixing,” he mused.
Then he boomed, “It’s enough. It’s the third day of protests in St. Louis. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. But maybe not just yet, right? Sambo got to wait a little,” he finished, and hurt shone in his eyes. Then it was back to day-to-day business. “Okay, you get to go through. What’s your firm?”
“Coldwater,” she said.
“Nice. You can never trust a man that drinks warm water,” he said.
Incongruous as his red pants, she thought. Not what she expected, but still, a fine man.
Roger walked into his house slowly. He thought of watering the grass again, because walking through what he owned always calmed him down, but the Mexicans had done their job well and everything looked good – too green, in fact.
He smelled hash browns, corned beef and cabbage in the house. It was a particular favorite of his.
“I cancelled the 7PM appointment,” he said. “Did …”
“No, she didn’t,” Sarah said quickly.
They chatted quietly over dinner. “Just like my mother used to make,” he said, as she knew he would.
Three glasses of wine later, he was lying on the uncomfortable 70’s white sofa, one of Sarah’s “finds.” The baritone singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah sung with the sonorous authority with which only a gospel choir can sing. “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel …”
Later the chorus came in singing “Be not afraid, saith God the Lord,” and he remembered how he had held the sign as they walked that day fifty-one years ago. His mother had worried about their safety, but relented when his father had shown her the picture of Jerome Huey, killed by a gang of whites in Cicero a few days before. He was nine then, but he remembered all of this.
“It is enough,” the baritone performing Elijah was now singing. Elijah found the small still voice. But Roger was still seeking. He had spent so much time doing so well that he couldn’t find it.
For solace he opened his Bible and saw where his father had underlined, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” and the mid-September sun shone one last time through the window. Then the dark came and it covered the day, and the sins of the day drained into the wordless world beyond money and bullets.
Chicago, September 2017