For a long time, she studied the photo of the four of them. Was it 1994, maybe '95? They'd rented the upper floor of a beach house at the Jersey shore and had a great time. She remembered how Michael had loved everything, how excited he'd been over eating lobster for the first time, squishing his feet in the sand, and his bright eyes watching the fireworks set off from that big boat offshore. He was such a sweet little boy then, aged nine or ten, thoughtful towards his mother and excited about everything.
What had happened now to his sweet easygoing nature? How had he ended up on the national news, an example of the kind of person everyone in the country hated? Surely, they had not taught him to disrespect black people or anyone for that matter. He played with black kids when he was in grade school and junior high though not after that. She thought back – had she or Jim said things? Well, Jim now and then had used the N word, not often. He got mad at things on the news sometimes. Had he ever specifically told Michael not to associate with or respect blacks?
"Oh, Mom, don't be stupid," her daughter said after it happened and Evelyn had wondered and wondered out loud to her about these things. "Dad is a freakin' bigot. And so are you!"
"Me? Why would you say that?"
But Kristen had claimed someone was at the door and gotten off the phone.
Was she a bigot? She didn't think so but why did Kristen think she was?
Evelyn looked around at her beige and brown kitchen. It definitely needed an update; they'd lived in this rowhouse since 1981, the down-payment a gift from her parents. Jim hadn’t wanted to accept that at first but she'd talked him into it and eventually he got over his uncomfortable sense of being obligated. Jim came from a long line of cops and army men and he believed in being self-sufficient if you were a man. It was okay for women to take gifts and handouts.
Right now, he was stony and silent down in the basement, supposedly working on one of his projects but more likely drinking and staring into space. She decided to take the risk of going down.
"What?" he said angrily when he saw her. He was at his workbench and yes, drinking a beer, probably his fourth or fifth. Anymore, she hated his days off and dreaded his coming retirement.
"I thought we could take a ride up to New Hope this weekend. Have some of that flourless chocolate cake we had last time. Just walk around."
He turned on her with fire in his eyes. "What? And have someone figure out who we are? Spit on us? Maybe worse?"
"Oh, Jim, how would anyone remotely know who we are?"
"It's just a matter of time. Some fucking reporter or something."
"No, Jim. I don’t think so. Only one has asked to interview us and I said no."
"Those assholes in church. That woman yelled at me."
He was right; that had happened. And Kristen had called her again, all worked up. She was hardly speaking to any of them now. "I'm so glad I'm married with a different name," she barked on the phone. "And that I live in Wisconsin. I can pretend I never heard of Michael. I told you he was a moron, Mom! I know him better than you do and he's a blood thirsty, macho idiot! So embarrassing for the rest of us. Once someone here figures out who I am, I could lose my job!"
"Oh, why would they do that to you?" Evelyn said. "They'd have no legal ground."
"But they could drum up something," Kristen insisted. "The other teachers are having class discussions on police brutality and I should be doing it too. But how can I dare bring it up? If any of them find out my connection to Michael… Well, I'm afraid to think of it what some people might do. My very life might be in danger."
"Well, honey, you could just admit who you are and make a point of not condoning what he did."
"Oh yeah, Mom. You're assuming humans behave rationally. News flash – they don't. Some asshole would throw paint on our house or cars, maybe run us off the road, who knows? We're in danger now, Mom. Scott is in danger; the kids are in danger. I hope Michael knows what he did and doesn't make excuses for himself because there aren't any."
Evelyn felt as if her heart was sinking into the floor and down into the earth. Was her life over? Would all their friends abandon them, would Jim turn into a hermit, would she be left alone in the world, an eternal outcast?
The phone rang. It was not a friend, but Michael's lawyer. Michael was being held in jail and the bail was set at $350,000. "We're not paying it," Jim had barked and she didn't have access to that kind of money herself. Though their savings were in CDs with "and/or" both of their names, she wouldn't dare sneak the money out. In matters of finances, Jim was in control.
"No," she told the lawyer for the second time. And then she hung up. It hurt her but she had no choice.
"It's not," she'd heard Jim say to one of his cop buddies on the phone, "that no one has ever roughed up a suspect, but why did they need to do what they did?"
The friend must have talked a while because next Jim said, "Kicking in the head. I never kicked anyone in the head."
And later in the conversation, "I'm thinking of taking an earlier retirement. Who wants to work in this environment? Our hands are tied, yes, but someone might try to-"
He stopped the sentence there but she understood. All of the family was in some degree of danger. Two nights later, someone spray painted the garage door with MURDERER in tall jagged red letters and the night after that, a brick had broken a side window. Even though Michael didn't even live with them. He had his own apartment, formerly with a girlfriend but she'd left him before all this happened.
According to the news and visible on an endlessly playing video, what happened was this: Michael, his partner and two other cops were present at the scene. Michael and his partner had forced off the road a black man in his thirties who'd been driving erratically. Or so Michael's lawyer stated. They dragged him out of the car, tased him, cuffed him and continued to kick and abuse him until he stopped moving. He died the next morning.
"Michael," she said, unable to hold back her sobs when she'd been allowed to see him one time. "Why? Why did you and your partner kick him when he was face down on the ground and cuffed?" She pleaded with him but he wouldn't look at her and would not answer. Finally, since she wouldn't stop asking, he said gruffly, "I was afraid for my life."
"But he had no gun," she said.
"How was I to know that?"
"How would he have shot you face down on the ground and cuffed?"
He shook his head and wouldn't look at her and after four more silent minutes, she stood up and signaled to the guard that the visit was over.
Jim did not know that she'd gone. "I don't want anything to do with it," he mumbled.
She knew how hurt and disgusted Jim was. But she did wonder. Had her husband ever done the same kind of thing but just gotten away with it? Had he beaten people, even caused a death? Before cellphone cameras, anything could have happened and gone unreported. Days passed and she wanted to know the answer to this but was afraid to ask. As it stood now, she felt that her family, her marriage and everything she knew was heating up while sitting on thin ice. If it all fell through, what would happen to them all? And this whole thing would drag on for months – constant coverage on news channels, there would be a trial – it would be endless.
Reporters started showing up and the entire street knew who they were. Her best friend Pat had not abandoned her but Evelyn noticed that she would not come to the house. Mostly they talked on the phone and twice, she went to Pat's house. Out of concern for her friend, Evelyn wore sun glasses and a brunette wig when she went over there and for that matter, anywhere she went. She stopped going to church and the priest somehow had neglected to visit after she called him. She debated whether to call again.
Pat set out coffee cups and brownies and the two women sat down together as they'd so often done but everything was different, no longer cozy.
"I am so afraid," Evelyn said. "He's put us all in danger."
"Maybe you should go on TV, go public and disown him. Just say that he wasn't raised like that and that you never taught him to disrespect black people and that you don't know what came over him. Make it clear that you do not approve of or support him."
There was a long silence while Evelyn wondered if Pat had lost her mind. She had kids herself – would she disown any of them? She tried to think of a good enough reason for that when her friend broke into her thoughts. "What if you found out your child was a pedophile? What if he raped and murdered a little girl. What would you do then?"
"Well, he hasn't done that!" Evelyn snapped.
"No, but…what would you do if he had?"
Why was Pat asking her such impossible questions? All she really wanted by coming here was a moment of peace, of escape. A moment of pretending that things were normal. Maybe discussing their current projects, Pat's quilting and Evelyn's lamp making – not this endless despair with no way out anywhere she turned.
"I'd better get home," Evelyn said, gathering her purse and jacket and standing up. "Better get some dinner on."
"But you just got here," Pat said. "I'm sorry; I know I said the wrong thing."
Evelyn shook her head. "I know, it's hard to know what to say. I'll see you another time when things cool down a little." And no matter what Pat said, she would not stay.
A terrible thought came to her in the middle of the night and she sat bolt upright. "Jim, Jim!" she said, poking him in the shoulder until he awoke.
"What?" he said gruffly.
"Please don't hurt yourself out of despair, honey. Please, please don't leave me. I couldn't bear it."
"Why the hell would you think I'm leaving you?"
She paused. "I meant…I meant like hurting yourself, you know."
Long time before he answered. "I'm not going to do that. But I'm filling out the paperwork now for retirement. And then we're going to move."
"What? You mean leave our house? Our home?"
"If you want to stay here, be my guest, Evelyn. But I am getting out."
Her heart pounded and she wondered if her hyperthyroidism was back. For a moment she felt she might vomit.
After a long time, he said, "You have to do some messy things when you're a cop, but you don't do it on film."
"What do you mean?" she said, her heart really racing now.
"People don't just do what you tell them to," he said. "Drunks and people on drugs don't just get out of the car like meek little mice and stand there while you frisk them. They fight back, they run, they spit in your face, they-"
"Jim," she said slowly, "why is it aways black people? No wonder they run or fight – they know they're probably going to die!" Was he an idiot?
"It's not always black people. I deal with white trash all the time – druggies, meth dealers, you name it!" He was getting riled up.
"I just read the statistics," she said. "Like fifty percent of those bad stops are black people, but black people are only thirteen percent of the population."
He shook his head. "You don't know what it's like out there. But I'm not excusing Michael. He's an idiot."
"An idiot for getting caught or for beating the man to death?"
He didn't answer. And in that moment, she felt rage. Not fear, not hurt, not embarrassment, but pure rage. It wasn't like her to feel this so intensely.
She got up out of bed and started to dress.
"Where are you going? It's the middle of the night?"
She didn't answer. She didn't know herself, but she was definitely going somewhere.
About the author
Margaret Karmazin’s stories have appeared in North Atlantic Review, Mobius, The Speculative Edge, Another Realm and many other magazines. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards.
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