Imagine a timer, the seconds ticking away, turning into minutes, hours, days, the arrow of time streaming toward an unknown destination somewhere in space-time—the future. To make the metaphor more realistic, envision several such timelines coursing towards an unknowable collision, the end of one’s flight and the radical alteration of the others’. That is where Delia Johnson was when she met her new neighbor, not that she was aware of the unstoppable flow of time. She could have perceived events as they unfolded and what was to come, if she’d been warned. Unfortunately, life doesn’t afford such luxuries.
Delia saw the tall black man, his jaw and cheeks covered with a revolting stubble of curly hair, as she was returning from Gordon Park. A trip to the park was a rare opportunity for some fresh air but also an omen for a reduced paycheck. Not having any house cleaning jobs on the weekend meant she’d have to dip into her savings to buy food. The minimum wage she earned at the Seven-Eleven, supplemented by teaching yoga classes, covered the rent but not much else.
“Who are those people?” her twelve-year-old son, Logan, asked.
Delia avoided making eye contact with the intruders, focusing on her boys. “Those goddamn niggers are everywhere, like cockroaches, they crawl out of the sewer and infest every neighborhood as fast as they can. I can’t believe they’ve reached us here in the city. They must be on some kind of government relief program. Probably getting food stamps and a free education. God! I hate them.”
Logan explained her tirade to his younger brother, Dillon, who was only nine and not fully indoctrinated into his mother’s culture of fear and hatred. He used simpler words. Niggers were bad and should be stomped on like cockroaches. Dillon stomped his feet as if eradicating the infestation.
Oblivious of his neighbor’s derogatory words, Michael Jefferson led his daughters into their new home, a middle-class apartment on the second floor, in a neighborhood with a low crime rate. Shyla, only eight, was practically bouncing off the beige-colored walls in the hallway. “I love it, Daddy, oh my god, this is so cool.”
They hadn’t entered the apartment yet. Nia, who thought she was an adult at twelve, chastised her younger sister. “Calm down for once, Shyla. You haven’t even seen our bedroom—I can’t believe I have to sleep in the same room with a child.”
Michael paused at the door, distracted by a young white woman with red hair and two boys about the same age as Nia and Shyla. Uncertain what to do, feeling like an interloper, moving into a neighborhood with few black families, he nodded agreeably at the woman and opened the door. He was pushed aside by his daughters, Nia once again forgetting that she was a grown up. The movers would arrive with their sparse furnishings within an hour, so he brought in the food and a few cleaning supplies while his daughters inspected the apartment. By the time he’d unloaded the car, they’d decided that they needed the larger bedroom with a private bath. After a brief debate, he acceded to their request, with the stipulation that they would be responsible for keeping it as clean as the hall bath he would be using. The sleeping arrangements determined, their furniture arrived and was distributed through the three rooms. With no internet for several days, the girls entertained themselves unpacking while Michael made dinner—mac-and-cheese, fish sticks, and mixed vegetables.
Their first night in the new apartment was disrupted by indistinct shouting from next door, accompanied by intermittent pounding on the wall and a TV blaring. Michael had the bedroom next to the neighbor, with two apparently rambunctious boys. Despite his interrupted sleep, he was glad that Nia and Shyla wouldn’t be subjected to what he was certain would be a recurring event. He would have to speak to her about the noise, a task he found onerous. The last thing he wanted to do was complain to a neighbor—a young, white woman no less—on the first day of the new life he was making with his daughters.
It took a week for Michael to finally speak to the neighbor, by which time the immediacy of his complaint had lessened substantially. The nocturnal disturbances had abated for a few days. Nevertheless, he felt obliged to say something when he faced her in the hallway after work. It was almost midnight.
“I guess you work late too,” he said, hoping the haggard young woman wouldn’t misunderstand. “My name is Michael Jefferson. I’m a security guard at the Wacom building, working the swing shift.” He chuckled and added, “I hope my girls haven’t tried to microwave spaghetti again.”
“Delia Johnson.” She was frantically digging in her bag.
“You have two boys, don’t you? I saw them with you when we moved in. Good looking young men. I’ll bet they’re a handful.”
The search ended and Delia’s hands were thrown up defensively. “Please leave us alone. We don’t have anything worth stealing. Just don’t…please leave us alone.”
Michael realized he had unconsciously stepped towards his neighbor, hand outstretched, but her words reminded him that his presence was threatening to some white people. Too tired to argue, he retreated to his door and unlocked it, stepping through the portal as he mumbled, “Now I’ve got one more thing to worry about—a crazy, racist, white woman living next door.” He wanted to take the words back but it was too late.
Relieved to have survived an encounter with the black man who’d moved in next door, Delia found her keys and entered her apartment. Dillon and Logan were asleep in their beds so she went to work, beginning her daily ritual of cleaning up the mess they’d made. Food spilled on the floor, hardened into an impenetrable barrier intertwined with the carpet threads, lodged in the corners of the kitchen molding. She didn’t bother with the toys or the computer lying on the floor illuminated by a blue screen, their homework probably undone. It took an hour to get the worst of the mayhem eradicated. Too tired to shower, she collapsed on the bed in her work clothes, knowing she would be awakened in four hours to finish the job, before facing another grueling day.
Michael and Delia crossed paths regularly, sometimes in the morning, often after midnight. He spoke to her about the disturbance her boys were creating, waking Shyla and Nia while he was at work. His complaints were met by threats to call the police and accuse him of assault, a threat he took seriously considering his newcomer status in a white neighborhood. His daughters became accustomed to the intermittent screaming and banging from next door, a commotion they had lived with in their old neighborhood. But Michael hadn’t moved to Odawa Village to put up with the same rowdy environment he’d escaped. Despite serious misgivings, he complained to the apartment complex manager about the nocturnal disturbances from next door, even playing an audio clip Nia had recorded. He didn’t expect any action but events proved him wrong.
It seemed curious, almost humorous, to Michael that his interactions with Delia Johnson always occurred in the hallway after work. He had learned to approach her warily. It seemed to him that she was suffering from a mental illness, maybe several—a good example of borderline personality disorder, a psychological problem he’d read about. His suspicions were confirmed when their paths crossed a week after his formal complaint.
Delia’s gray-green eyes flashed as she passed him silently, her lips twitching with unspoken words, rage distorting her features. He guessed that this wasn’t a good time to greet her so he unlocked his door, but was interrupted when she rushed to him; her outstretched finger inches from his chest verified that his complaint had been taken seriously.
“Listen to me, you…I won’t sit by and let you people ruin everything I’ve worked so hard for.” The finger jabbed, making contact, as if it were a stiletto, and the tirade continued. “You don’t belong here so why don’t you go back to wherever you came from! You people move into a neighborhood and the crime rate explodes, next thing you know I’ll be burglarized and have to move, but I can’t afford a better apartment, god knows I just want to get away from your kind. If you file another complaint against me, I swear I’ll…just stay out of my way!” Her eyes narrowed to slits and she added, “I’ve got a gun.”
“What are you talking about?” he began, but she was already at her door, unlocking it with precision, not searching for her key as she usually did.
“We gotta run the niggers off, right Mom?” Logan asked.
“Not by making a public disturbance. You and Dillon have been bothering our other neighbors as well and several of them complained. Nothing would have come of it except that the Jeffersons are probably on a welfare program, got a government agent backing them up, so we can’t get rid of them by being a nuisance. Do you understand?”
Logan nodded reluctantly and Dillon stomped his foot, crushing the neighbors under his sneaker. “How do we get rid of them then?” Logan asked.
“We just have to be patient, be on our guard, you never know when they’ll do something, we’ll get them evicted because I know they’re living like animals next door, the thought of you boys being so close to them scares me. Just don’t go near them and write down everything they do…whatever it is.”
“Like when they flush the toilet?” Dillon asked. “I can hear them through the wall. It’s so disgusting!”
Delia smiled at him, tousling his blond hair. “No, Dillon, only when they do something unusual, like playing music loud or…or if you see any cockroaches. If we suddenly start seeing vermin, it’ll be from them because I keep our apartment spic and span. Don’t worry, they’ll reveal who they really are and we’ll get rid of them, but we have to be patient.”
Logan ran to his bedroom followed by Dillon. He returned with a notepad, ready to record everything the neighbors did. Dillon had his toy binoculars to watch them.
At Nia’s insistence Michael got some premade hamburger patties and hotdogs to grill on the Fourth of July, a community event held on the patio at Odawa Village. They were going to the waterfront afterward to watch the fireworks display. While waiting for his turn at the grill, he met several of the neighbors he’d only seen in the halls; they didn’t seem to resent his presence as much as Delia. Just as he stepped up to the grill to cook his meat, Nia appeared.
“Would you mind cooking some hamburgers for Logan and Dillon? Their mom isn’t very good at grilling. The last time she burnt them black. Please?”
“Sure, sweetie, but where’s their mother?”
Nia’s eyes rolled comically in the direction of Delia, sitting in the sun at the last unoccupied picnic table on the patio, her gaze focused on a grocery bag sitting on the table in front of her. Nia waved to Logan, sitting next to his mother expectantly and he jumped up, the bag held tightly in his fist.
Michael was too surprised to comment when the stout twelve-year-old held the bag out for Nia, who dug through it and produced a package of meat patties from the same store where Michael had shopped. “Her you go, Dad. They like them medium, not burnt. Okay?”
He nodded and she added, “We can use the extra buns from the pack we bought, can’t we? They don’t have any buns.”
He nodded again and, finally finding his voice, asked, “Anything else?”
Shyla and Dillon spoke at the same time; the overall impression was that he would be eating with his neighbor, using the trimmings and condiments Nia had carefully packed. He wanted to scold his precocious daughters for their presumptuous action but, unable to conceal a proud smile, he nodded again. With Nia and Logan watching anxiously and commenting, he grilled the burgers and hot dogs and toasted the buns. The kids took a loaded tray to the table to join his mercuric neighbor.
“Thank you for preparing the hamburgers…and sharing your condiments,” Delia said as she passed the potato salad to Michael.
“It was my pleasure. I’m glad to have this opportunity to get together.” He grinned and added, “I think that Logan and Nia cooked this up on their own.”
Delia tasted her hamburger, dressed with lettuce and tomato, topped with mustard and ketchup, before saying, “I know we got off to a bad start. Let’s put that behind us. I’m really paranoid after my marriage, my husband was abusive, an alcoholic, and lazy, never holding a job for more than a couple of months. I became a refugee in my home town, if that makes any sense…”
“I know what you mean. I moved to Odawa Village to get as far away from that kind of life as I could. We were living in a ghetto when my wife overdosed on opioids last year, and I had to get out, find a new place. You can’t imagine the nightmares I had, the thought of raising two girls in a place like that, so I worked hard…just like you, and here we are, celebrating the Fourth of July…”
Delia was caught off guard when Dillon asked, “Are you guys niggers?”
Before she could correct his impertinent words, Shyla interjected, “That’s an ugly word. You shouldn’t talk that way Dillon, not if you want to be my friend.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that mom says it all the time.”
Michael didn’t seem offended, casually waving his hand before saying, “I don’t think so, but I’ve met plenty of niggers, black people who don’t work, and steal, mostly guys that don’t have any respect for women or even themselves. I have to admit that I’ve used the terms honkey and white trash a few times myself. We always label people we’re not used to with familiar names, mostly derogatory.”
Delia focused on her hamburger as the conversation slid past, kept alive by the children. She hadn’t known that Nia and Logan were in the same class at school and had become friends, that Dillon wanted to be friends with Shyla. She certainly had no interest in Michael as a friend, even if he was turning out to be a good neighbor; Logan and Dillon had collected no evidence of misbehavior and had started keeping their own rowdy play under control, even reproving each other for excessive noise. But she knew it wasn’t that Michael and his daughters were evil—it was simply that their innate character would reveal itself eventually, a social malady she’d read about on the internet. It was easy to imagine Nia seducing Logan and getting pregnant, an outcome all too familiar to Delia; both Logan and Dillon had been born out of wedlock, Logan’s father unwilling to commit to a relationship, Dillon’s unwilling to work. Occupied by her thoughts, she spoke little during dinner and was thus surprised when Logan and Nia announced their plans for the evening.
“That was great, Mr. Jefferson, thanks for cooking our hamburgers, but I hope you guys can go to the water front to watch the fireworks with us. That would be so cool.” Delia was appalled by Logan’s anticipation of spending the evening with Michael and his daughters.
“Of course, we’re going to watch the fireworks together Logan, what else would we do?” Nia added. Delia noticed that she hadn’t bothered checking with Michael.
“Let’s clean up and get this show on the road,” he announced, prompting the children to go into action as a team, disposing of the paper plates, putting the condiments, extra tomatoes and lettuce, in shopping bags, even Logan and Dillon helping as if they were part of Michael’s family.
Michael couldn’t believe how his daughters and Delia’s sons had bonded, and now they were best friends, holding hands, screaming with delight at every brilliant burst over the quiet waters of Lake Erie. Delia was acting as if she’d taken some kind of medication, talking about her life and her hopes for Dillon and Logan, nothing like the woman who’d threatened him in the hallway. As the fireworks display reached a crescendo, she expressed misgivings about her own mental state.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind. I know I’m not a good mother but it’s not for lack of trying, but I just can’t seem to get through to Logan and Dillon, like about cleaning up or studying hard, to make something of themselves. God knows I’m one to talk, just look at the mess I made of my life, but I don’t know how to get them to be better than me, to be something…”
Michael didn’t want to sound patronizing, but he felt that she had reached out in desperation, so he expressed his own feelings about raising two children on his own. “I share your concerns about raising two boys as a woman, because I’m responsible for two girls. I have no idea what’s going through their minds most of the time. Nia took her mother’s death pretty bad and she’s trying to be a grown up, to fill a void I can’t fill, trying to raise Shyla as if she were her mother or maybe an aunt. Too often I feel as if I’m not being a good parent because I can’t be a mother, that’s a special bond that has been denied my girls.”
“Was your wife a good mother?”
Michael shook his head. “She got addicted to crystal meth after Shyla was born. There were a lot of smooth-talking niggers where we used to live. She didn’t like being a mother, negligent and bored, an easy target. I couldn’t get her to seek help after I found out about her habit. The temptations were too great and it’s so easy to get that shit…I had to get my girls out of that place, no matter what.”
“From what I see, your daughters took after you. Sometimes I think that Logan is just like my ex—lazy, stupid, weak and completely lacking in any ethical or moral purpose. Maybe it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have spoken to them the way I did about you…I’m sorry for all that…”
“I accept your apology. But I don’t think you did too badly. Just look how they’ve overcome whatever racist ideas they picked up.”
The kids were lost in the moment, slapping each other in excitement, holding hands in anticipation of the grand finale. Delia looked at them and smiled sadly.
“No thanks to me.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Delia. I heard on the radio that no one’s a perfect parent or a complete failure, kids are resilient. It’s us adults who have the most trouble dealing with new situations. Too many memories of past hardship and mistreatment. But we can learn too. Could you have imagined having this conversation with a black man, six months ago?”
“I can’t believe I threatened you with the gun my husband left behind. He had me buy it because he couldn’t own a handgun because of a previous felony arrest, he even did time. He’s on parole. I’m sorry about that…I seem to be apologizing a lot to someone I thought was a…you get my point?”
Michael nodded. “That’s all water under the bridge.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the grand finale. The children screamed, Shyla and Dillon covered their ears. When the last ember had fallen to earth, they headed back to Odawa Village, the children holding hands and Delia smiling.
Delia had been doing less late-night cleaning after the Fourth of July. Logan and Dillon were starting to help out more, making her life less miserable. She no longer felt threatened when she met Michael in the hallway, greeting him and often sharing a quick recap of their days. She was beginning to feel less like a failure as a mother. Overdue cleaning finished, she collapsed on the sofa to watch some TV.
Several loud knocks on the door woke her from a nap.
She opened the door, expecting it to be Logan and Dillon. A glance at the clock informed her that it was about time for them to arrive home from school. Instead of being greeted by her sons, her recently divorced husband filled the doorway.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“I came by to see how the boys are doing. I can do that, can’t I?”
“Not without prior permission. You know that Howey. You can’t just drop by whenever you feel like it. You need to go—”
He pushed the door open and, from the smell on his breath, he’d been drinking. Briefly, she wondered who was paying for his booze.
“I won’t stay long. I know when I’m not welcome. You made that pretty clear when you had me arrested and took Dillon away from me. I want to see how he’s doing, if you’re taking care of him right.” He pushed past her, his eyes examining the clean apartment. “Looks like you’re as anal-retentive as ever, at least about the house, but I seriously doubt that you’ve been as attentive to the boys. Right?” His brown eyes bored into her brain, threatening to regain control as they had for years.
“They’ll be home soon. You can say hello and then you’ve gotta leave. They shouldn’t see you when you’ve been drinking. That’s in the court order and you know it. You shouldn’t be here, Howey.”
He scoffed. “You don’t have to worry about me, Delia. I don’t know what I ever saw in a skinny redhead like you. So goddamn manipulative. You know what you are? You’re a fucking sociopath. I learned that word after the divorce. I probably could have gotten custody of the boys if I’d had a better lawyer. A cunt like you can’t be trusted with taking care of kids. You should be in the looney bin.”
The memory of Howey’s abusive language and domineering behavior overwhelmed Delia, rendering her unable to respond. She was doing better since meeting her neighbor, watching Logan and Dillon making friends with Michael’s daughters. She didn’t want to fall back into the abyss she’d escaped. Tears appeared in her eyes, revealing a weakness she hadn’t allowed anyone to see in her life. He noticed.
“What’s this? More games? Keeping up the act of the loving mother and devoted wife? Gimme a break, bitch, better yet, where’s my pistol? I want it now.”
She found words but they weren’t the right ones. “It’s not your gun. It’s registered in my name and you can’t have it,” she mumbled.
“Where’s my fucking gun?!” He approached her menacingly, his right hand balled into a fist.
Fear overcame her sense of foreboding, turning over a loaded weapon to Howey. Nothing good could come of this. Still, she knew that if she resisted, he would beat her, possibly rape her, and take it anyway, so she reluctantly went to her bedroom and removed the nine-millimeter pistol from the closet shelf, where it had rested in a shoe box since the divorce. Holding it as if it were a viper, she returned to the living room. There was no telling what Howey had used it for during their marriage, but she was certain he was up to no good now, not in his condition.
He took it from her and inspected it closely, removing the magazine to make sure it was loaded, before saying, “Still afraid of guns, Delia?”
She nodded. “I’m going to tell the police that you came and took it. I won’t take responsibility for whatever you do.”
He cocked it, putting a round in the chamber, before responding, “It never bothered you before.”
“Things have changed.”
Howey scoffed and pointed the pistol at her head. “No they haven’t. You’ve just found someone new to manipulate, Delia. Who’s your new boyfriend? A neighbor? Maybe that nigger next door?”
“How do you know about him?” she blurted.
Howey laughed and lowered the weapon. “I’ve been keeping an eye on you, watching out for Dillon and…and Logan. Don’t worry, I don’t care who you shack up with, so long as you keep him away from my boys.”
“It’s not like that. He’s just a neighbor. That’s all.”
He looked around and said, “Why aren’t the boys here? They always get home by now.” His eyes lit up and he looked around suspiciously. “Do you think they might be next door?”
Logan and Dillon often spent some time after school in Michael’s apartment, studying with Nia and Shyla, sometimes when he’d already gone to work. It was a good afterschool routine that had worked out well. Nia was very mature and kept Logan’s primal instincts in check, reporting his activities to Delia in private. She wished she’d had daughters, and envied Michael sometimes.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Howey took a drink from a pint of whiskey that appeared from his hip pocket. “Let’s pay a visit on the neighbor, whaddya say?”
Aware of the gun he’d placed in his belt, behind his back, certain that Michael wouldn’t be home, Delia nodded, praying that Howey wouldn’t threaten the innocent young girls living next door.
Michael had been reluctant at first to have Dillon and Logan spend a couple of hours in his apartment after school several times a week, because of the disturbances they’d caused when he’d first moved in, but Shyla had convinced him that she could handle Delia’s rambunctious older son, going so far as making videos of their activities. They usually studied but sometimes played games or watched TV. Delia had warmed to the idea after watching the videos, which Shyla made without Logan’s knowledge. Now that Michael had a new work schedule, Friday and Saturday off, he could go to a movie with Shyla and Nia and not worry about keeping them up late on a school night; they didn’t seem to mind his presence, interfering with their Friday activities. The kids were in the kitchen, reviewing their homework for the weekend, laughing and kidding one another, never getting out of hand. Whenever Logan showed signs of impatience, Nia would pose a challenge, a puzzle, a riddle or a geography question, her ideas were limitless.
Basking in the sense of family emanating from the kitchen, expecting Delia any minute, he wasn’t surprised when a knock sounded at the front door.
Delia felt as if Howey were holding her captive, pushing her ahead of him, his foul breath and hand against her lower back forcing her to knock on Michael’s door. Her awareness of the arrow of time heightened, attaining a state approaching fear, not for herself but for Michael.
“What are you doing here?” she stammered when he answered the door.
“New schedule. The kids are doing their homework, probably because I’m here, cramping their normal play routine.” Then he noticed Howey standing behind Delia, pressing against her. His tone was less familiar but not defensive when he continued, “Hi there, I don’t think we’ve met. Are you a friend of Delia?” His extended hand, the same one that had freaked her out on their first encounter, had a different effect on Howey.
He accepted Michael’s handshake and, smiling in a too-familiar way, said, “Delia’s my wife, no matter what the court says, so I dropped by to see my boys. Would they happen to be here?”
Showing no sign that he understood the threat underlying Howey’s words, Michael nodded and turned to the kitchen. “Hey, kids, Logan, Dillon, your mom’s here, and guess what? Your dad’s here too!”
Instead of the boys appearing to greet Howey, quiet murmuring emanated from the kitchen, hushed young voices that conveyed uncertainty and even fear. Logan, Howey’s step-son, had no desire to see the man who’d abused him even more than Delia. There was no love lost between them. Even Dillon, who was Howey’s son, didn’t like his father even though he had been spared most of the violence.
Delia suspected that Michael had surmised the truth of the situation because he invited Delia and Howey in before going to the kitchen, making sure his voice was heard in the living room. “Study time is over. You guys didn’t fool me, with your pretense of working hard, but now you can drop the show…”
Several seconds passed, filled with scraping chairs on the simulated wood floor, before Logan entered the living room, his disapproving brown eyes on Howey. “Why are you here?”
Howey stepped into the apartment and closed the door, a dangerous smirk twisting his mouth. “I wanted to check up on my boys, are you guys doing okay?” He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “Since I’m not around to take care of you and keep you away from socially undesirable people, I have to check in now and then…” He looked around until his eyes came to rest on Michael.
Dillon appeared with Shyla following. “I didn’t know this was visitation day.” He didn’t look very happy about the unannounced visit by his biological father.
Delia interjected, “Howey was worried about you guys, but now that he’s seen that you’re all fine, working hard, he has to get back to work…right?” She hoped that Michael caught the hidden warning in her tone. She risked a quick glance at Howey, eyes pointing towards the pistol, a slight frown conveying her message.
Michael got her message. “I can assure you Mr. Johnson, that Dillon and Logan have been working hard. They’re good kids, you should be proud of them, real gentlemen. In fact, Shyla told me that Logan earned a Good Citizenship award last week. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
Howey laughed, glanced at Delia, grinned at Logan, before saying, “Did you now?”
Logan nodded, eyes glaring, but said nothing.
Dillon added, “I’m going to do the same thing. I almost made it last week but that kiss-ass Jimmy beat me out, he’s such a teacher’s pet.”
Instead of congratulating Dillon and Logan on their achievements, Howey turned to Delia, a mocking smile on his face. “What the fuck is this about? Have you turned over a new leaf too, maybe trying to earn an award as most-reformed crazy bitch mother of the year? I don’t recognize my boys, and I can’t imagine how you could have accomplished such a transformation.” He turned to Michael and added, “She had help, didn’t she?”
Delia was fighting the voices telling her what to do, to assault Howey and shut his filthy mouth, kill him if necessary; just stop the avalanche of words and emotions she was trying to forget. Caught in a dilemma of choices, she was unable to respond, leaving Michael on his own against a man she knew was capable of assault and even murder.
Michael tried to walk an impossibly fine line. “Don’t underestimate Delia, Mr. Johnson, she’s a good mother who didn’t have the advantages offered in some suburban schools. She has laid the foundation of learning in the minds of your sons, and now they are harvesting her efforts. It was mutual good fortune that we became neighbors because we’ve been able to pool our resources. The kids study together after school, which keeps them out of trouble, and that’s been the extra help they’ve gotten. Dillon and Logan are part of a study group.”
Delia finally found her voice. “Michael’s right. I understand how you feel, Howey. You have every reason to question my performance as a mother. But I have help now, when I’m…when I’m at work or…or having problems. Nia has been like a—she’s a better mother than me. She isn’t sick like I am, she thinks clearly, like an adult, and the boys have responded to her as if she was their mother. They love her, and so do I, she’s an angel sent to save us from ourselves…”
Delia waited for Howey’s response to her desperate plea.
Michael filled the silence. “Nia is very mature for her age but we shouldn’t mistake that for being an adult. She’s the same age as Logan. She’s a young girl who’s been forced to act like a woman ever since my wife died. Your boys are not—they don’t have bad blood, a fact proven by their response to a stable, studious, after-school environment. You should be as proud of Logan and Dillon as I am of Nia and Shyla. They’ve formed a community of sorts.”
Delia’s demons had returned, brought on by Howey’s presence, the gun in his belt; they were urging her to take matters into her own hands. He was a bad man, who’d beat her and the boys he called his sons, made her life a living hell, even after the divorce, a man who couldn’t be trusted. He would act as if he accepted Michael’s words but he would be back, demanding money, threatening violence, extortion, anything to get money. Her worst fears were proven when Nia stepped confidently into the small living room.
“I know that you’re a bad father Mr. Johnson, just like I know that Delia is a bad mother. That doesn’t make Dillon and Logan bad kids. I hope you two can sort things out, but please leave us alone to be friends. I like your sons, and they aren’t a threat to society, not like you and Delia. Please, just leave us alone and we’ll be okay.”
Delia recognized the desperate plea conveyed by Nia’s words, a hopelessness born of experience, of her mother’s lifeless head held in her arms. She saw the same look in Logan’s eyes, mirrored by Dillon’s hazel orbs, and made a fateful decision.
Delia moved towards Howey but not close enough to make him suspicious and said, “What do you think? Maybe she has a point.”
His response would determine how the arrows of time would merge, unless there were other shafts yet unseen. She held her breath, waiting for the first word out of his mouth, even a syllable.
“That’s a really good sentiment, Nia, but it’s not that simple—”
Delia reached under Howey’s jacket and removed the pistol. It was heavy and bulky and the act was nothing like in the moves she’d watched. He swatted her hand as if it were a fly, but not before she’d grasped the weapon. The nine-millimeter flew across the living room, landing at Logan’s feet.
He stared at the deadly weapon as Howey punched Delia in the face, knocking her to the floor. Not thinking, Logan picked it up and pointed it at Howey.
Delia threw her hand up and screamed, “Don’t do it, Logan!” He detested his step-father, who had beaten him and her repeatedly for years. She hated Howey too but didn’t want Logan to have blood on his hands, not in front of Nia and Shyla. All of the times she’d talked about killing Howey streamed through her mind; wishing he’d die alone in a ditch or a dark alley, all those words spoken repeatedly for Logan and Dillon’s benefit. Now, her words had come back to haunt her.
Howey inched toward Logan with his hands held apart. “Put the gun down, boy, you don’t have no business with that. Just put it down and I promise I won’t punish you. You just picked it up after it fell to the floor. You didn’t do nothing wrong…”
Nia appeared from the kitchen and placed her hand on Logan’s arm. “Don’t put it down, Logan, but don’t pull the trigger either. Just relax and let me handle this.” She turned to Howey and continued, “I want you out of my house right now, Mr. Johnson. I already called the police and they’re on their way because this isn’t the neighborhood where we used to live. You can’t force your way in here with a loaded gun and threaten us. We’ll be filing charges against you as well, so run away and hide until the cops find you.”
Unwilling to leave without resistance, Howey retorted, “Not without my property—”
Delia cut him off as she got up from the floor, rubbing her aching jaw. “That’s my gun, registered in my name, and he came to take it from me. He isn’t allowed to own a gun because he’s on parole. Isn’t that right, Howey?” She glared at him. He didn’t look so dangerous with a large pistol pointed at his chest.
Michael moved towards Howey as he said, “I’ll take the gun now, Howey. It looks pretty heavy.”
Logan nodded and turned towards Michael, forgetting about Howey, who hadn’t moved towards the door as Nia had ordered. Howey lunged as Michael was taking the weapon from Logan, catching him off balance and knocking him into the wall. But Michael didn’t let go of the gun, instead he used it as a club to hit Howey in the head, stunning him. That was the moment when the police arrived and, probably having heard the sounds of a fight in the apartment, burst in with their weapons drawn, pointed at Michael. Delia couldn’t believe the irony of what was occurring.
Not thinking, she threw herself in front of Michael.
She never heard the shots that dropped her in a lifeless heap, Howey’s gun hitting the floor, the screams of the children, the orders barked at Michael and Howey by the police, Nia trying to explain what had happened, Logan saying it was all his fault.
Or maybe she did.
I hope this is a short post…it’s getting late.
When I moved to Australia, where they use kilometers rather than miles (a km is a little more than half a mile), I felt that it took forever to cover a km in the car. I waited and waited for the navigation system (Google Map) to finally announce that it was time to turn.
Jump forward…I returned to the U.S. and the miles I had grown up with. I couldn’t believe how far a mile was and how long it took to cover it…even a quarter mile seemed to be infinity. I wondered, “What the hell is going on?”
Then there were the traffic lights. Northern Virginia is not New York City…it’s worse, with what seemed 5-minute waits at red lights on wide streets with little traffic. Impatient with the delay in how time was passing, both in Australia and Virginia, I used the stop watch app on my phone to measure what seemed like hours at red lights. The delay ranged from less than a minute to about three (painful) minutes.
I swear that my mind doubled these wait times. Tripled them. An order of magnitude.
I was baffled because all the “experts” said that time goes fast as you age. Then I ran across a post that brought together a lot of ideas this blog has addressed. Speaking bluntly, time seems to speed up as we age if we don’t do new things, fall back on what some call automatic behavior, repeat each day. This makes sense.
Alternatively, if we constantly have new experiences our minds are focused, not wanting to miss something, and time dilates (I can never remember if dilation makes it slower or faster…whatever), dragging on and on and on, etc.
I suggest that everyone read the link above and, if your days are flying past, the red lights changing too quickly to notice, try some of the tips the authors recommend.
Apparently, writing about the Dao De Jing, wondering what it might mean to a person in my situation, was a useful exercise. Now, I enjoy the red lights that last for hours and nod to fellow travelers, even watching for storm clouds on the horizon…
Brian Cameron was riding high, having just successfully negotiated a deal with a competitor to share the prostitution business in a lucrative market. The opposing representative had accepted Brian’s offer without complaint, no hard feelings, simply an acknowledgement of his no-nonsense negotiating style, encouraged no-doubt by Manny standing behind him. The same commitment to efficiency had made him the most successful manager in the organization, with a minimum of violence. The boss didn’t like headlines. Brian was doing okay at forty-five, in a position to move up within the organization, maybe even become the boss one day. He glanced in the mirror and adjusted it to look at his face, covered by a three-days growth of graying beard, before turning to Manny. “Do I look old enough to be the boss?”
Manny was Brian’s muscle, his six-foot-five frame built like a wrestler, but he wasn’t very good at disguising his feelings. “Sure, maybe, there’s some gray in your beard and a few streaks in your hair, but you don’t got no worry wrinkles around your eyes. You’ve got young eyes, not mean but…well, you don’t look like a killer and that’s what fools some of the guys, but they learn better soon enough, but don’t get me wrong, I know you and I’d never cross you, but you don’t look like an old man who’s seen it all and knows what has to be done no matter what.”
Nonplussed, Brian turned the mirror back and grumbled, “Well, Manny, that was quite a speech from a guy who usually gives monosyllabic responses, but I’m going to be the boss before I’m sixty. Mark my words.”
Manny shrugged and said, “Not if you keep driving this piece of shit, it reminds me of my dad’s old Chrysler, he loved that car but the rest of us hated it.” They were at a traffic light and the engine sounded as if it were about to stop running.
Frustrated, Brian noticed a repair shop announced by a weathered signboard over two garage bays. “Black Forest Enterprises.” Without thinking, he did a U-turn and pulled into the drive fronting one of the two stalls. The name had gotten his attention, and the Audi R8 Spyder Quattro waiting to be stolen. He’d keep that in mind. Any shop that worked on such a fine piece of German engineering would be able to fix whatever was ailing his car. He tapped the horn before checking the street for threats and opening the door slowly. By the time he was standing next to his steel-blue sedan, he was met by a man wearing green overalls who looked eerily familiar.
“You didn’t need to hit the horn. I heard you drive up. You need spark plugs. These older models burn them out in a hundred-thousand miles. Your 2016 Audi S6 is one of the worst offenders.”
Brian closed the door gently and examined the speaker, a man his age with a clean-shaven face, a contemptuous smile tickling the corners of his mouth. Brian turned to Manny and said, “See what I’ve been telling you? You gotta keep your eyes open, like when I spotted this shop and knew this was the place to get my car repaired.” He faced the mechanic and continued, “So, I know you can get my car running sweet, but what’s it gonna cost me, and can you do it right now? Drop everything and I’ll make it worth your while. We can negotiate the price later.”
The mechanic lit a cigarette and replied, “I can fit you in because I was about to start a big job on that R8, but it can wait until morning. My labor rate is a hundred-dollars per hour. I have the parts in stock and, if nothing’s been fucked with and required maintenance has been followed, I can get you fixed up in an hour-and-a-half.” He shrugged and added, “The parts are about two-hundred-fifty dollars…but again, I won’t know until I open the hood, which costs a minimum of a hundred dollars.”
Brian whistled and pretended to be shocked. “You’re gonna charge me four-hundred bucks to change my spark plugs?”
“Probably more, because I don’t think this vehicle has been properly maintained.”
Brian didn’t answer immediately because he finally placed the face of the mechanic. It was his own countenance, without the beard. Intrigued, he introduced himself and learned that the mechanic owned Black Forest Enterprises and had no employees. He agreed to the basic fee and the hood was opened by Stanley Lewis, who explained that he’d been trained by Audi in Germany and spoke German, besides spending a couple of years working the Formula One circuit with Audi. The under-hood inspection was quick, timed by a single cigarette, before the verdict was declared.
“You need a new ignition chip. Someone tried to make this a street racer and totally screwed up the ignition system. That’s why the plugs failed. I can get you set up and on the road in two-and-a-half hours, but the cost will be close to a thousand dollars, only an estimate, but I have the parts in stock.”
It was time to negotiate, so Brian acted as if he were thinking before making a counter offer. “Maybe you’d take something in trade, like a new TV or some furniture…maybe something more personal, if you know what I mean…”
“I accept major credit cards, PayPal, and Google Pay. No cash. And no deals of any kind. Do you want me to fix your car?”
Brian felt like one of his clients. He was being squeezed, but he wasn’t in a position to threaten a legitimate businessman who could repair his car. “Sure.”
Stanley nodded. “I’ll need a deposit of one-hundred-dollars, using a major credit card, PayPal or Google Pay.” He smiled and added, “I opened your hood.”
That was a problem because Brian avoided using any payment method that could be traced by the IRS or the FBI or whoever else would be interested in his financial transactions. Everything he did was in cash. He had a checking account but seldom used it. He started to protest but Stanley shook his head and said, “Payment terms aren’t negotiable. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but with electronic payment or a credit card, state law guarantees I get paid. It’s a mechanic’s lien sort of. And I don’t have any cash around to attract unwelcome attention. I’ve been stiffed and robbed before so, like I said, I only accept a credit card or electronic payments. No bitcoin.”
Brian figured that it probably wouldn’t attract any attention if he were to deposit enough cash in his account to pay for the repair. There was nothing suspicious about spending a grand on a car repair, so he accepted Stanley’s terms—for the moment. “Sure, I’ll transfer some money to my PayPal account while you get started.”
Stanley thought about that a minute before answering. “Don’t take too long because I won’t put anything back together until I have the deposit. Got it?”
Brian understood that he was being squeezed and that bothered him. Manny knew it too. He was grinning as if he’d heard a good joke. Brian swallowed his annoyance and tossed the keys to Stanley before heading down the street to a nearby bank branch to make a cash deposit, so he could open a PayPal account and pay this prick. Part of his mind wanted to beat the shit out of Stanley but another, calmer, voice reminded him of what his mother had often said. “Don’t piss in your water bowl, Brian, or you may find yourself thirsty one day.”
“Shit, Brian, I can’t believe you let that fuck-head talk to you that way, laying down the law and all. Want me to go back and straighten him out?”
Brian stopped walking and faced Manny before explaining. “It doesn’t work that way with legit businesses, man, you gotta play by the rules. What would the boss think if he heard about me leaning on a mechanic in Queens? Not to mention, we got no treaties with the local boys. They’d freak out and, next thing you know, we got big trouble. Just let me do the thinking.”
Brian ignored the sarcasm and entered the bank first, waiting in line to see a teller, before depositing a couple grand in his account. He couldn’t help nervously looking at the security cameras, watching the armed guard, worrying about Manny’s sarcasm and what that meant. Dealing with banks made him thirsty, so he led Manny to a bar for a beer. They settled in a quiet corner and Brian focused on creating a PayPal account and transferring the deposit to Black Forest Enterprises. Manny kept making sarcastic comments about Brian becoming a regular citizen, following the rules, offering to break Stanley’s legs.
On a trip to the toilet, Brian looked in the mirror, imagining himself without the beard, and realized he was looking at Stanley Lewis, maybe a couple of years older. Same hazel eyes and hair, same light skin tone, build, nose, chin. He returned to the table slightly shaken.
Manny kept up the pressure, suggesting they take the car and give the grease monkey a lesson in how the real world operated. On the importance of cash in any age. Fuck the politicians and their laws. Brian agreed with Manny’s analysis after a couple of pitchers. He wasn’t going to take any more shit from a grease monkey.
“Throw the cash down and take your car,” Manny proclaimed on the walk back to the garage.
Brian was surprised at such a declaration from his backup man, as if he were giving the orders. There was a lot of give-and-take in their relationship, but Manny had never, even in jest, given Brian advice. They both knew who was in charge.
“I’ll let you know when I need your advice, Manny. Be cool and don’t do anything stupid.”
Manny scoffed, a knowing smile on his face.
They arrived at the red-brick façade of Black Forest Enterprises just as Stanley was closing the hood of Brian’s car. It was running smoother than ever and Brian was impressed, but his resolve not to be squeezed was undiminished after the ten-minute walk from the bar. Manny hung back as he approached Stanley.
“What’s the damages? I’ll bet you found a way to jack up the cost, right? Maybe a couple grand?”
Stanley shook his head. “Your engine CPU wasn’t damaged by the half-assed work done in the name of performance, so the only extra work was a new ignition chip and replacing some loose connectors. The total is $620.93. And you saved yourself a major engine job down the road.” He pointed at the high-performance sports car parked in front of the other stall and added, “I have to replace the rings in this car because the owner thought he was smarter than the engineers at Audi. He’s going to pay the price for his arrogance, on the order of thirty-grand. But you’re good for another hundred-thousand miles.”
Manny interrupted before Brian could respond, laughing loudly and saying, “Goddamn, Brian, now that I think about it, this grease monkey looks like your identical twin. But he owns a razor!”
Momentarily distracted, Brian grinned at Stanley. “You notice the resemblance, Stan? Cause I sure as hell did. What’s your birthday? Maybe we’re twins separated at birth…”
“I don’t think so, Brian. I’m forty-three and I’m sure you’ve got a couple of years on me, more gray hair and all.” He wasn’t smiling, which made Brian nervous. Stanley was so uptight.
Brian’s head rolled around for dramatic effect as he responded. “Yeah, you got me there. I’m forty-five, so I guess the twin theory is out, but maybe we’re brothers. Were you adopted?”
Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “My parents live in Brooklyn. I have a brother who looks a lot like me, and my dad. I guess some physical characteristics are strong, even in different families.”
A thought crossed Brian’s mind, something so humorous he laughed and shared it. “I don’t have a clue who my father is…maybe we have the same dad.” He winked at Stanley and added, “You know, a wolf in sheep’s clothing…”
Stanley finally smiled a little. “Given what I know of my dad’s younger days, that’s possible. What year were you born?”
Stanley’s head wagged thoughtfully. “Dad was in Germany in seventy-five, but—what did your mother do for a living, where’d she work?”
Brian laughed. “She was in the personal entertainment business, know what I mean?”
“You got it. Doing tricks here in Queens, by the docks, downtown, all over. She was a looker back then, before getting hooked on heroin, I’ve seen pictures, not one of those ten-dollar hookers, classy. You think she might have met good old dad?”
Before Stanley could respond, Manny interjected, “You guys should get a DNA test, not that it matters, not to you anyway, Boss.”
His tone was more sarcastic than before, which irritated Brian and made him think it might be time to get a new assistant. He retorted, “Maybe we will Manny, not that it’s any of your business.” He faced Stanley, snapped his fingers in disappointment, and produced a roll of twenties from his pocket, counting them as he said, “I was hoping to get the family discount, but I’ll settle for paying you with cash which, according to the writing on this twenty-dollar bill, is ‘legal tender for all debts public and private,’ so here you go.” He held out the roll of bills in anticipation of having won the legal and fiscal argument.
Stanley’s head shook emphatically. “New York doesn’t require me to accept cash, even though it is legal tender for all debts. I’ve had this conversation before, Brian. I’ve even had lawsuits brought against me, and they were all dismissed because the state of New York has chosen not to tell me what form of payment I have to accept. I know you can just transfer the money through PayPal and you’re trying to make a point, about having the right to pay me in cash. I get it, but I don’t have to risk my life or my business by accepting cash. I can’t make any exceptions. Criminals like cash, so I don’t. It’s that simple.”
The subtle message lurking within Stanley’s statement wasn’t lost on Brian. He hadn’t known about the law just quoted and that bothered him, but he was committed to not being put down in front of Manny.
Manny offered a solution. “Just put the money on that greasy desk and let’s get out of here. If the grease monkey is worried about getting robbed, he can go to the bank on his way home. I’m sure he isn’t going to tear that motor apart tonight.” He pointed towards the black sports car lurking in the afternoon shadow.
Annoyed more by Manny’s tone than Stanley’s intransigence, Brian strode to the steel desk set in a corner of the brightly lit garage and spread out the twenties before turning to Stanley, his hand outstretched. “I’d like the keys now. You’ve been paid in full including a tip for your prompt attention.”
“I don’t get why you’re making a big deal about my payment policy, which you accepted when you paid the deposit.” He threw his hands up defensively and added, “I’m not challenging you, just running my shop, fixing cars and trying to get paid without being robbed, that’s all.”
Feeling pretty loose after several pitchers of beer, Brian didn’t see it that way. In fact, Stanley’s intractable position was exactly what he was paid to deal with, and he wasn’t going to lose face in front of Manny, not to a grease monkey with a sense of empowerment because he had his own business. No way. Apparently, Stanley didn’t know who he was dealing with, so Brian straightened him out.
He left the money on the desk and strolled over to Stanley, smiling self-assuredly, before saying, “What’s to keep me from taking my car?”
Stanley’s frown revealed that he knew who he was dealing with as he replied through tight lips, “You’re a gangster and a criminal, collecting ‘protection’ money from businessmen like me to leave them alone. Guys like you have sucked the life out of the neighborhood and ruined what was once a decent place to live. Now it’s like living in a post-apocalypse nightmare.”
“This guy’s got a big mouth, Brian, why don’t I shut it for him?” Manny offered, taking a step towards Stanley, fists clenched in anticipation.
Brian held his arm up to stop Manny and said, “We don’t have to resort to violence with Stanley, he might be my brother, so take it easy Manny. I’ll deal with this misunderstanding.”
Manny didn’t back up but his fists unclenched, his jaw relaxing. “Sure, Boss.”
Before Brian could respond to Manny’s insubordination, Stanley continued, “You’ve lost it, man. You’ve become addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes from pushing people around. You’ve turned something as simple as getting your car repaired into a threat to your position in the fantasy world you live in.”
Brian swooned as if stricken by Stanley’s words. “Wow! I should run to a church and seek forgiveness, what do you think, Manny?”
Manny laughed. “Sure. Get confession or maybe last rites—something like that.”
Brian focused his attention on Stanley. He shook his head as if dealing with a delinquent debtor and said, “Well, Stan…that was quite a speech, but this isn’t the PTA, a fact you apparently failed to notice, so I suggest that you take the cash and avoid any unpleasantness…” He let his words trail off, hoping his message had been understood, not knowing why he was pushing Stanley so hard, unaware that Stanley wasn’t listening. Something was wrong but, before he could put it together, Manny interrupted his train of thought.
“I’m ready to get the hell out of this shithole.”
The pieces fell into place, but not fast enough. Manny’s insubordination had been beyond anything he’d ever expressed, which could only mean that he wasn’t concerned about professional repercussions because he was acting on orders by a higher authority—the Boss. Brian reached for the nine-millimeter pistol in his shoulder harness, but his actions were futile because Stanley’s body suddenly slammed into him, just as two gunshots rang out. He was knocked to the hard cement floor by the force of the impact but didn’t lose his gun, firing a volley in return, aiming as well as he could around Stanley.
His gun at the ready, Brian pushed Stanley to the side and prepared to continue shooting, but Manny lay lifeless on the concrete. Staggering to his feet, he scanned the area for another shooter, a backup, before turning his attention to Stanley.
“What the hell’s going on,” Stanley mumbled, lying on his back in a pool of blood.
Brian called 911 for the first time in his life, knowing this would place him on the FBI’s radar, but he couldn’t sit by and let Stanley die. And he couldn’t take his car without paying for the repairs. He shook Stanley to keep him conscious and said, “Hey, Stan, I accept your terms and I’m paying you right now.” He made a point of showing his phone’s screen to a semi-conscious Stanley as he sent his payment via PayPal.
Stanley scoffed painfully and replied, “You are a stubborn man, Brian. Is this how you conduct all of your business, with a gunfight?”
Brian looked at Manny’s body, lying in front of the garage, then at Stanley, and realized that he was in over his head. He’d never suspected that Manny, his backup, had been sent to kill him. Maybe by the boss of maybe he’d cut a deal with the Mosconi’s. Now, Stanley, a total stranger who was connected to him through their shared appearance, maybe blood, was bleeding at his feet. An innocent bystander. He kept shaking Stanley gently, keeping him awake, until the ambulance arrived. When the paramedics had left with Stanley, Brian had to deal with the police. He wasn’t arrested because he had a concealed-carry permit and his story fit with the evidence, Stanley being carried off in a stretcher, the receipt for the repair work, Manny not being licensed to carry a weapon in the city. When the police were distracted, Brian surreptitiously collected some of Stanley’s blood from the cement floor with his handkerchief, certain that a DNA test would reveal that his half-brother had saved his life. Not that it mattered.