October 2016

Cowbells in Bear Country

 Bryan Harvey

The news tremored in tweets and status updates across the screen of Antoine Rogers’ laptop. A man, not much older than himself, had been gunned down on the streets of Richmond.

#SMH How many must die for America to do justice by ALL its citizens? #Racism

He had stood behind a woman at an ATM in the rain. He wore his hood pulled over his head. His face was barely visible in the streetlight.

RIP #TyMarion #Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.

The woman screamed when she saw him standing behind her, and another man, who had been in the process of unlocking his car, called out to the hooded man in the rain, who responded by turning and walking in the other direction.

How many of our sons, brothers, cousins, and fathers have to die before people realize #racialprofiling is a crime?

The white man stood watching Ty Marion when Marion, his hand going into the pocket of his sweatshirt, did an about face and headed back towards the ATM. Ty Marion was then shot once in the shoulder and once in the chest before being told to put down his weapon.

Being black is not a crime. Now I DO understand how I could just kill a man. #StopRacialProfiling

The only weapon found on Ty Marion was his cell phone. The last person he had texted was his sister. The woman at the ATM heard the casing of the phone rattle against the pavement. It sounded like a spent shotgun shell as Ty dropped to his knees. She described him as breathing heavily, as if he had a hole in his throat. His chest had collapsed and expanded and then he fell forward with his blood running into the puddles on either side of his body. His last act, she said, had been to hold up his hands.

A bottle of pink lemonade had then rolled on its side, pivoting back towards his body, due to where its neck narrowed towards its mouth, proving how the shape of the physical determines all movement. The sugary liquid mixed with the blood and the rain as the cap settled on the curb.

It was then that the woman said she had been driven to scream one more time.

How does this happen? This is the 21st century. We had come so far, but not far enough. #TyMarion

In his statement to the police, the shooter said, “I did what I thought was necessary. A woman screamed; I went to her aid.”  Many people saw no evidence of racism in the shooter’s actions. His record did not reveal a history of shooting black men. This was new territory.

Justin Jackson did what he did to protect a #blackwoman. That’s #NOTracism!

Not much was yet known about the backgrounds of the three people involved. Ty Marion and the woman were both natives to Richmond. The shooter was from Pennsylvania and had only lived and worked in the city for a few months. Ty Marion was the third murder victim to be shot on that street in two years. Many people were comparing the incident to the killing of Oscar Grant III, who was shot by a police officer while lying face down on the ground in an Oakland transit station.

Oscar Grant and now Ty Marion. We need to fight back!!! #BlackRevolution

Antoine read all the tweets. He clicked on all the links about the Ty Marion shooting, the Oscar Grant III shooting, the Amadou Diallo shooting. The stories were endless, and he was suspended in a vacuum reading them all. He had gone through a rabbit hole and now the rest of the world—the white world, that was not tweeting, was not posting, was not in an uproar about Ty Marion—no longer existed. Gravity was not a thing, only headlines and stories about killings and death directed the physical movements of his body, but other than the ages of these men and the color of their skin Antoine could relate to neither them nor their stories. He kept reading that he should know what it was like to have been profiled or, even more horrifying, to have actually stared down the barrel of a gun, but he did not know. His neighborhood and his high school had been devoid of such experiences, aside from when James Jennings, a distant neighbor, had shot his mother’s handgun off in her garage, but Antoine had not been present for the event. The closest he had come to what was deemed an accident by the police and James’ mother was his own brother, who had stood outside the Jennings garage shooting baskets on a rim with no net. Antoine wondered whether the perception of his life up to now was the result of luck or blindness.  When he first came to Charlottesville, many of his fellow students, and many of his professors, had assumed he was on the football team. He told them he wasn’t, that he used to play in high school, but had given up the game.  He had answered such questions truthfully and without feeling transgressed upon, but now he wondered if he should have been more offended by the assumption. How angry should I be? The internet suggested very. He turned from the screen to face the door opening behind him.

Jeremiah, Antoine’s roommate, entered the room. Antoine turned back towards the digital vacuum. Someone had tweeted a link about the shooter’s identity. He was half white and half Asian and employed by the city of Richmond as a police officer. He had been off duty at the time of the shooting.

“Have you been keeping up with this Ty Marion story?”

“Yeah,” said Jeremiah. “There’s a vigil tonight and a protest tomorrow in Richmond. There’s going to be a march.”

Antoine wondered how marching could bring a man back to life.

“Has anything like this ever happened to you?”

#TyMarionVigil tonight. Come out and share your thoughts, prayers, and personal experiences.

“Shit, bruh,” said Jeremiah, putting his nonprescription Malcolm X rimmed glasses back on, “this is how we live. Who hasn’t had something like this happen?”

Not me, thought Antoine, but the word true escaped his lips instead.

“You going to the vigil?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about it.”

“I’m going,” said Jeremiah, turning on his X-Box console with the whispered movements of someone in mourning. His hood was pulled over his head, and the controller in his hand quaked with the impact of distant avatars. He was taking aim and shooting them.

——-

  A hillside of hooded monks broke their silences by blowing out a thousand flames in a matter of moments. Some people hummed old spirituals from other decades—and even other centuries—as the participants in the vigil crept out of the shadows and back into the motion of everyday life. Chants then started and stopped, while many left without saying a word.

Jeremiah and Antoine dapped up some friends and parted ways with the crowd, walking back to their dorm room with the deliberation of a Franciscan order. Neither did any talking. Jeremiah had shared a story to the entire congregation of listeners about how in high school a teacher of his had once found his test answers and another student’s to be identical. Jeremiah received a zero on the assignment for cheating. The other student was white. The white student was neither accused nor convicted. Jeremiah had served detention in addition to receiving the zero. He had been innocent. At the end of his testimonial, Jeremiah had said, “I could have shared other stories, but this one hits on so many levels.” Many members of the crowd gave a hum of understanding, the kind of sound that can only be emitted after hearing the grace of truth, like witnessing a lion in mid hunt or a flash of lightning over dark waters. A gifted poet, Jeremiah had always been able to hold sway over a crowd. He still had his hood pulled over his head, as did Antoine and many others.

“You realize as long as we don’t play sports, at a place like this, or in a place like Richmond, we’re ghosts. They look through us like phantasms from some other era and don’t know what to do. They still think we’re a bunch of Tom Robinsons,” said Jeremiah. A breeze moved through the trees and hills of Jefferson as he spoke. “And they treat us like ghost busters would. See a nigger—who yuh gonna call?” He mimicked shooting a proton pack at his own shadow in the streetlight and his hood slid off. “I mean, what the fuck, yo? What the fuck are we supposed to do? I’m filled with poems, but they might as well be hollow tips because I’m as useful to Ty Marion as a dead man. You know that, right?” The embattled sage stared at Antoine, the glare of his eyes pulsing like heat in a crucible. His dreds moved in the breeze as if filled by the slow throb of an electrical current, like the breathing of snakes, and Antoine wished he was stone, because then he would have an excuse for not feeling the anger and rage that shook Jeremiah to his core. “We don’t need another Saul Williams, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, or Kendrick Lamar. We need a Nat Turner. We need a Huey Newton. Sha clack clack! That’s just a literary device.”

They stopped on the path leading to their dorm room in the Alderman Road section of campus. In a few weeks, maybe even a matter of days, from this spot, when all the leaves were off the trees, they would be able to see clearly the specter of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello crowning one of the neighboring hilltops, looking down on them and his campus rotunda, his living legacy, his breathing monument.

“It’s bull shit, ‘Toine.”

“Yeah.”

Headlights rounded the curve in the road and a horn honked at them.

“‘Toine! Jeremiah! That you? It’s hard to see you niggas in the dark.”

“Ismail, my man!” Jeremiah reached over to the rolled down car window. Hands met in the hum of the car’s engine. “Shut the fuck up you crazy Indian bastard. Where’s your rickshaw?”

Before meeting Ismail, Antoine had thought all of India was full of Hindus, but Ismail, who had come over with his uncle and three cousins, had informed him otherwise. He had also informed Antoine that his family was from Pakistan, not India. However, his uncle currently drove a cab in the DC area, which Antoine had joked must mean some stereotypes still hold true.

“What are you two Boyz in the Hood up to?” asked Ismail, inflecting his voice with an accent that was his idea of an African-American male’s, making it unclear whether he was mocking their race or his own lack of blackness. He did this often, drifting between imagined continents with the slightest flick of his tongue.

“We were at the Ty Marion vigil,” said Jeremiah, looking up to the sky with religious fervor.

Ismail looked at Antoine. Antoine nodded in the affirmative.

“That’s a shame. It can still be such a racist country,” said Ismail, his version of a sincere condolence. “Do you want some hashish? The token of one colonized people to another.”

Neither Jeremiah nor Antoine said anything, but Ismail was already turning back into the car’s hidden chambers, twisting himself between the driver and passenger seats, dredging the floorboards for a book bag. Brad, the white driver, sounded as if he might be protesting this act of charity. “Relax! It’s on me.” Ismail’s s head appeared out the window, grinning. He dropped a Ziploc bag with three joints and a lighter into Jeremiah’s hands. Jeremiah put the bag inside the pouch in his sweatshirt.

“You sure you don’t want anything?” asked Antoine, reaching for his wallet.

“You can be my personal negro trainer.” Ismail flashed the fictitious grin of an outdated caricature. And, to Antoine, the expression suggested Ismail knew of a place on campus full of rubies and diamonds and rare editions of leather bound Kipling books. As the car drove away, Ismail hung out the window, blowing kisses to the night. As the tail lights glowed red at a stoplight, Antoine thought about how they looked like the eyes of a cobra. Hell, the car—with its sleek silver body slashing under the moonlight—might even have been a Cobra.

When Antoine looked back at Jeremiah, he had already started to light one of the joints. A flame clicked twice and a stripe of smoke twisted in the air. He could already smell the hint of weed writhing in the atmosphere, transcribing the approach of midnight.

“You want a hit of this?” His eyes seemed to shrink behind his glasses.

“No, I’m good.”

Jeremiah put the joint back to his lips and inhaled. “We won’t die in this America,” he said. “The America we die in will look totally different. The white man’s an endangered species.”

“Statistically?”

“Yeah. It’s a numbers game and they don’t have enough kids. One day. . . . ” He inhaled and coughed while grinning. “It’s been foreseen.”

Antoine thought about it, but he wasn’t so confident that less white people would lead to a drastic change in how America, as a nation, behaved. “What do you think happens if whites aren’t the majority?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we learn it’s just as easy to fuck up things as it is to be fucked over by fucked up things. Fuck. How would I know?” The joint looked like a wolf’s fang riding on the ends of Jeremiah’s almond fingertips.

Antoine pictured his parents. One an attorney. The other a doctor. He felt more Huxtible, maybe even Winslow, than black. He felt adrift between a past that was not his and a future his life had always promised. “I think—”

Blue lights flashed, followed by the sound of sirens, and their silhouettes were etched in ash-like drawings on the wall of a dim cave. Snared by the flashlight of an approaching cop, Antoine’s eyes darted to Jeremiah’s hand, but the joint had already disappeared, like a coin, or a card, in the hand of a well-trained magician. The deep revelation Antoine had been on the verge of expressing had disappeared, too.

“Where you boys headed?” asked the cop.

“Does it matter?” asked Jeremiah. “There’s no curfew.”

“It’s a simple question.”

“We’re heading back to our dorm,” said Antoine. He pointed to a sidewalk that would take them there, as if the whole world could be reached if an individual stayed on the right path, the transcribed road, following the preordained steps of a culture’s expectations.

“Would you mind if I pat both you down?” The officer sniffed at the air, as if some clue to a crime might be hiding in the photons of distant stars overlooking a sidewalk in the cocoon of Charlottesville, Virginia.

“What laws have we broken?” The agitation in Jeremiah’s voice could not be hidden.

The officer spoke a ten code into the radio piece clipped to his shoulder.

“This will probably go better if we just cooperate,” said Antoine, and, for a moment, he thought his rationality had reached his friend. But then, he caught Jeremiah’s eyes as they followed a group of white students staggering through the night, blessed with the incredible power to be always present but never seen.

“No, I don’t think we will cooperate. This isn’t Apartheid South Africa. I want to know why we’re being patted down.” Jeremiah stared down Antoine—and now he did feel stiff as stone—and then moved his gaze to the officer’s white face.  His eyes paused on the man’s thick mustache. Every detail of this scene felt scripted. “What crime have we broken by being out here on the sidewalk? What system of laws have we ruptured with our presence? He’s wearing a hood. I’m not. Which of us is more suspicious, sir?” He was speaking to the heavens as much as he was to Antoine or the officer. The officer stepped towards Jeremiah. “You’ve been asked to let me pat you down. We’re on alert tonight. This is to avoid something going wrong.”

“You know—fuck you!”

Jeremiah, with his dreads hissing and his hand making a fist, stepped to the officer and then he was on the ground. A snapshot of a plastic bag being tucked in the pocket of a hoodie flashed in Antoine’s brain. He looked around with the frantic gestures of a creature coming to the slow realization that he is what’s being hunted. A glass bottle found its way into his hand—literal litter—and he hurled it at the space between the headlights and the blue flashes where he imagined there would be a windshield to catch it. Sparks of glass shards catching blue in the night exploded, and the sound of the shattered bottle caused the officer to let up on Jeremiah’s spine. His roommate rolled free and then sprinted alongside Antoine, off the sidewalk and into the woods. They zigged and zagged, footsteps starting and stopping behind them as flashlights beamed through space, warping the universe around them. The legal cackles of stoned sorority girls—white girls—filled the chasms between the columns of higher learning. And they ran—God knows where—until a hand grabbed Antoine’s sweatshirt and pulled him back into real time. It belonged to Jeremiah. He was out of breath. “I. . . .  can’t. . . .  keep. . . .  running.”

Antoine looked around. “In there.” He pointed at a green metal bin with a gold and green WM on its front panel. The two letters resembled the logo of academic rival William & Mary, the institution that had educated their own school’s founder in a time before America was America.

“Seriously?” coughed Jeremiah. Antoine noticed his friend had lost his glasses, the ones that made him look like a civil rights leader.

“Where else?”

They ran to the garbage bin, lifted its plastic cover and flung themselves over its rust-flecked walls, nestling in with the putrid stink of what no longer matters. They could hear feet padding the pavement and the sound of shouts darting between cars. Static came over a radio, and a man yelled back, “For Christ sake! Every minority on campus has a hood on tonight!”

In the cave’s dark, they could see one another smiling, trying not to shatter the safety of having gone underground with the spark of laughter. Perhaps, however, flying in the face of that need was Jeremiah setting fire to a joint, the lighter’s yellow flame momentarily illuminating the dumpster like a flashlight inside a summer tent. And this time, when Jeremiah offered, Antoine accepted, inhaling a holocaust into his lungs. No one was going to smell the weed over the rot of crushed pizza boxes, stale beer, and used condoms. No one. Not even himself. All he had to do was muffle his coughs and his laughter, and he could disappear from time and space for as long as he needed. But the longer he sat trapped in the dumpster’s cage, the less he was able to laugh as the minutes passed in the silent months of a winter’s hibernation. As Jeremiah snored quietly, the roach balanced on his fingertips and Antoine waited for God knows what—if Spring arrived, would he even recognize it? He tried to close his eyes and sleep, but he wasn’t Jeremiah: he could not rest on his new feelings of fear and anger that felt as old to him as they did new. Inside this metal tomb of a dorm room, with its resemblance to Jefferson’s skull, Antoine experienced a morose sense of being born again.

The pulse of his phone vibrated from inside his sweatshirt. He felt it against his chest like a diseased organ. When he removed the tumor’s vibration, he read a message from Brad, Ismail’s white driver: Where u hoodrats at? Started from the bottom now we’re here.U should be 2. The phone vibrated again with an apartment address and Antoine sank further into the dumpster’s entrails with an understanding for how meaningless words had come to shape the world.