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Fortunate Son

                                                                                     Fortunate Son  

 

The night before I met Jeannetta Constantine I was wakened by a knock at my door.  It was a little before nine.  I go to bed early.

I had the moment.  That two or three seconds where I wake up and I know who and where I am but not much else.   Everything is a blank slate, so everything could potentially be okay.  Then I hear it like a voice in my head.   Anthony’s gone.   It comes back down, all of it, squashing me and blocking out the light, and I know it’ll be that way until I get the moment again.

I love those two or three seconds.  I’m trying to figure out a way to move there.

I got up and answered the door.

I didn’t even fix my hair first.  I got no more investment in what people think.

Standing there on my stoop was Otto Lemley and his father.  I forget his father’s name.

Mind you, I hadn’t seen Otto Lemley since the morning after Anthony died.  He was at the police station, telling what I was pretty sure was lies.  Scared boy lies, but lies nonetheless.

Otto had been crying for a long time, from the look of it.  His eyes looked just about ready to swell shut.

We all three stood there like a bunch of deer you might happen upon in the woods.  All frozen but the slightest move and somebody would bolt for sure. 

Otto’s father spoke first.   “Ms. Powell?  I’m sorry if we woke you, but Otto has something very important to tell you and I didn’t think this should wait.  May we come in?” 

I didn’t say anything but I did stand back and let them by.

Otto is only fourteen, but he looked like one of those gang kids when I saw him that night.  Maybe that’s all you’ve got to be anymore is fourteen.  His pants were baggy and you could see the elastic of his underwear and he wore his cap with the brim in back.  They sat on my couch.

Tanya came out of her room to see.  She is my rock.  Now that Anthony’s gone, that girl is a rock for me.

“It’s okay, Tanya,” I said.  “You just go back in your room.”

As soon as she was gone Otto started to blubber.

“It didn’t just go off,” he said.

I knew that.  As God is my witness, I knew.  In that place where you know things, it was always there, waiting for someone who knew for a fact to come along and say.

“It  was Mickey’s idea,” he blubbered.   “Mickey wanted to play Russian roulette.”

My brain clicked off so I felt like I didn’t exist.  That happens from time to time.  

“Russian roulette?  Russian roulette?”  I could hear that I was screaming but I didn’t feel like I was.  “Russian roulette with an automatic pistol?”

“Mickey took all the bullets out.  Mickey told me later that he took off the clip and took all the bullets out.”

“Well, if he took all the bullets out Anthony would be alive.”

Otto’s father said,  “Mickey didn’t know there’s still one in the chamber when you empty the clip.”

By then I was doing that thing where I watch from somewhere else in the room.  In the corner near the door, high up.  That’s where I seemed to be.  From there I could see that Otto was blubbering and I was slapping at him and screaming over and over how could he wait nine months to speak up.  And Otto’s father was just watching this.  Patiently watching.   From my corner I wondered why he was watching so calmly while I slapped at his kid.  But part of me knew.  It’s because his kid needed the slapping.  Not so much to punish him, but more so he could stop punishing himself.  Even though it’s just a small down payment on everything he’ll need to stop punishing himself.

 

Now it was because of this visit from Otto and his father that I happened to meet Jeannetta Constantine.

I was sitting at Detective Fallon’s desk the next morning, and he was telling me that yes, of course they’d bring Mickey right in for questioning.  I was looking past his head at this woman who turned out to be Jeannetta, sitting alone on the bench.  I was watching her close.  So close I might’ve missed some of what Detective Fallon said.

He sounded like he thought it could possibly come up accidental again, even in light of the new information, as Mickey was so sure the gun was not loaded.  But there had to be more to it than that, and I said so.  I came back from watching Jeannetta to say so.  

I said, “If I was to represent a gun as unloaded right now and coerce you to fire it at your head, Detective Fallon, and it went off, are you saying I have no responsibility whatever in the matter of your death?”

“Of course,” he said, “of course we’ll want to look into the whole thing very carefully.”

God help me, I was off on another crusade.  I promised myself no more of those, but what good does that do?  It’s like promising not to be affected by the next flash flood or nuclear explosion.  Say what you will when it’s not around, but when it comes, it will take you with.

Meanwhile I was still half looking at Jeannetta.

She’s a large woman, Jeannetta.  I have trouble understanding that.  I could never let myself get large.  Not so much as an issue of vanity.  As I said before, I got no more investment in what people think.  But overweight is a type of chaos.  Once you let chaos into your life there’s no telling where it--or you, for that matter--will end up.

The rest of her I understood.  Her stiff spine and her empty eyes and the way her hands twisted at her purse strap.  That sort of slack look to her lower lip.

I said to Detective Fallon, “Who did she lose?”

“A son,” he said.   “Like yourself.  But older, though.  Nineteen.”

I knew it was a son.  It looked like a son or a daughter.  That much I could see.

“I know that woman,” I said.  

But I didn’t really mean I knew her.  I meant I had seen her.  I really meant we’d waited for the bus a time or two on the same morning without speaking, and once when I was sitting in my front window watching the rain I saw her bustle by with an umbrella.   She was from my neighborhood is all I meant to say.

“Reach out to her then, Sally.  I think it would mean a great deal.”

But as I got up to do so it hit me that there’s seeing and there’s knowing and I really didn’t know her at all.

But I sat on the bench with her all the same.

It took her a minute just to turn her head and look at me.  Just to even do that much.

Then I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I lost my Anthony nine months ago tomorrow.”

Another long minute of nothing and then she fell onto me and let go with the tears.

 

I didn’t even know if Jeannetta knew I was from the neighborhood, so I was more than a little bit surprised when I came home from the post office the following afternoon and there she was sitting on my stoop.  I didn’t know she knew which house was mine.  Maybe she read it on the mailbox.  Maybe she asked around.

I asked her if she wanted to come in.

She told me she couldn’t go home because both her other boys were grown and out on their own now, 22 and 20, and her Jarred was the only boy who still lived at home.  So now the nest was empty, and there was no room for her there because the empty was too big.  She didn’t say it quite that clearly.  I put it all together and summed it up and said it again for her because I have lots of practice in how to say a thing like that.

I put her on my couch with a blanket, and she wanted to watch one of those court T.V. shows, so we did.

She asked for a glass of wine but I refused her.

I said, “No.  You do not need alcohol at a time like this.  You think you do but you don’t.  It only puts you in that out of control place that isn’t safe for you now and ultimately slows down the process of healing.  I’ll make you a cup of tea or hot chocolate, whichever you prefer.  Hot chocolate is very good when you want comforting.”

She looked up at me with eyes that looked about seven years old.  “With marshmallows?”

“Of course with marshmallows.  In this house we know about comforting.”

She sat with me in the kitchen, still wrapped in her blanket, and told me that the autopsy was back on Jarred, and that what the police had originally told her was not the whole story.

“They said they put him in a choke hold and he just up and died.  They said it was the same choke hold they use on everybody, and hardly anybody ever dies, so maybe it was something about the blood vessels in Jarred’s neck, like maybe they were defective and different from everybody else’s.  Which I never thought was true, because Jarred was healthy as a horse and just like everybody, but the autopsy came back and it turned out they beat him.  But now they say, yeah, but they had to because he kept coming at them.  They say they only beat him as much as they had to.  But Jarred wasn’t such a wild boy.  Just normally wild.”

Sometimes mothers lie to themselves about how wild their boys are.  But sometimes the police lie to mothers about how their boys died.  So I figured we would never know.  I really thought that’s how it would always be.

“How many cops were present?” I asked Jeannetta.

“Four.”

“Well, my advice to you is that those numbers are your best hope.  If there are four of them, you should talk to each one in private.  See which one has the sorest conscience.  That is, if their lawyers will let you talk to them at all.   Because if none of them break down and admit what happened, it’s your word against theirs and you’re only guessing.”

“I have to try, though.”

Of course she had to try.   But I had to give her the benefit of my experience if I could.

“Let me give you some advice about crusades.”

“Crusades?”

“When you get it in your head that you can find out the truth about what happened, or you can make somebody pay, and then you’ll at least have justice and things will be better.  I went through this, thinking I could make Mickey’s father pay, because Anthony was over at his house on a sleepover, and with three boys at his house on a sleepover and a loaded gun in his bedroom and him down in the basement getting drunk in his workshop there was bound to be trouble.  You have to be careful with crusades, because you use them to pull you up out of the feelings, and then when they drop you it’s a long fall.”

“But I have to find out, though.”

“I know.  That’s why I’m warning you about them.  That’s the dangerous part.”

By then the hot chocolate was ready so we put Jeannetta back on the couch and we spoke no more about lost boys or crusades.

After a bit, Tanya came home from school, and she started treating Jeannetta just the way she treated me at the start.  She even gave Jeannetta one of her famous Tanya foot massages, and it made Jeannetta cry, just like it always used to do with me.  I don’t know if it’s the foot massage that makes you cry, or the fact that she’s sweet enough to do it, or the fact that she wouldn’t do it if you weren’t just about ready to cry anyway.  I only know it’s a good thing.

Then Tanya made her famous spaghetti with meat sauce.

I’m telling you, the girl is a rock.

 

For a couple of days after that, Jeannetta never exactly went home.

It took her two days to realize that she wasn’t even picking up her mail or getting her phone messages.  Maybe there was a message from the police.  Maybe they were ready to release Jarred’s body, and she hadn’t even made arrangements.  Maybe there were important bills in her mailbox, like there could be a shutoff notice on the phone or the gas and she wouldn’t see it.

That seemed hard to understand because all you have to do is pay the phone and the gas when the bill comes, and then you know there won’t be a shutoff notice.  But some people do things that other way.  I just don’t let myself be one of them.

I took her house key, and I walked over there.

There were no phone messages.

There wasn’t very much mail.  A little junk mail and a bill or two.  No catalogues.  I get tons and tons of catalogues.  I guess if you don’t buy from them you don’t get them.

On top of the mail in her box was a videotape.  Just a plain, unmarked videotape.  Not wrapped or addressed.  It wasn’t sent through the mails.  Somebody had just stuck it in there.  I figured probably she loaned it to a neighbor and they brought it back.

I took it all home and gave it to Jeannetta.

“What is this?” she said.   She was holding up the videotape.

“It was in your mailbox.”

We both just looked at it for awhile, and then we put it in the VCR.

It was a tape of a baby--a little girl that looked to be a mix of races--taking her first steps in somebody’s living room.  Or some pretty early steps anyway.  It was not a girl either one of us knew.  The camera wobbled.  We could hear the daddy talking to her.  We could hear some noises outside.

Then there was some blank tape--a second or two of that blue you get when nothing is taped--and then we were looking at the street outside, though the window.  You could see the camera shake a little bit, and you kept seeing the bottom of the windowpane because I guess the guy was trying that hard to stay down.  The light was bad outside, but you could pretty much see.  You could see that there were four cops, and they had a car pulled over, and they were beating on somebody.  The guy was on the ground and they all four had their sticks out, taking turns beating on him.

I realized I hadn’t really breathed much for a while.

I looked over at Jeannetta but it’s hard to describe what I saw in her face.

“Oh my God,” she said.  “They got his hands cuffed behind his back.”

I looked back to the screen just in time to see Jarred stumble to his feet and try to lunge.  Not that I had ever seen Jarred, but by then I didn’t have to wonder what we were watching.   

Now, there were cops on all four sides of him.  So whether he was lunging at a cop or just trying to get the hell out of there was hard to say.  If he was trying to run, whichever way he ran there would be a cop, so it all comes out looking the same.  But one thing everyone would agree on.  He had his hands cuffed behind his back.

My face felt all hot.

“Want me to turn it off?” I said.  Because they had knocked him down again now and they were beating on him again with their sticks.

Jeannetta was crying.  But she still shook her head no.  I should have known better.  You had to watch it.  It was like a crusade.  In fact, it was a crusade, all by itself. 

After it went to blue we turned it off and sat perfectly still and looked at each other.

“Give it to me,” she said.

“Where are you going with it?”

“Well, the police.  Where else?”

“Oh, my god, Jeannetta, are you crazy?  You can’t take this to the police.  They’ll lose it.  They’ll erase it.  They’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that you never came in with any such thing.  You can’t take evidence and give it into the hands of the people it damns the most.”

It’s really a good thing I’m here.  She was going to take it to the police.

“Here’s what you do,” I said.  “You know the video store on the avenue?  Mr. Hill?”

“The guy who chain smokes.”

“Yeah.”

“I avoid the place because I don’t like the smoke.”

“Well, today you’ll breathe a little smoke.  You take this to him and have him make ten copies.  You stand right there while he does it.  And then you take all those tapes and you get on the bus and you take them to all the T.V. news stations and the newspapers.  Make sure all those different places have a copy.  Then it can never get buried.”

She just sat a minute.  Then she said, “Good idea.”

And she left my house for the first time in days.

 

I didn’t really know what to do for the rest of that day.  I was used to having Jeannetta around.  I was into taking care of her, so that had been giving me something to do.  I kept waiting for her to call but the phone didn’t ring.  

When five o’clock came Tanya and I put on the news.  I halfway thought it would be too soon.   But it wasn’t too soon.  It was the opening story.  A Shocking Case of Police Brutality, it said on the screen.  They even had time to make up that graphic.  I should have known.  They all like to get their hands on a thing like this first.   They didn’t say much, just that the police chief was due to issue a statement, but he hadn’t done so yet.  Mostly they just showed the video.

Then they moved onto another story so I flipped the channel and there was the very end of the tape again.  Then I flipped again and I didn’t see it on the third channel but probably I just missed it.  They probably showed it first thing like everybody else.

After I turned off the T.V., Tanya went to make dinner, and I started to get excited about when Jeannetta would come back.  It felt very exciting.  It felt like we had done a very big, important thing, and when she got back we’d have a sort of hushed celebration and just look at each other and think how big it was, what we had done.

But I never got to find out because Jeannetta never came back.

Now the part after that I can’t seem to help myself from dividing into days.  I don’t know why I don’t call the day I found the tape Day One.  But I just don’t.  Maybe because on that day I still thought Jeannetta would call or something.  That was Day Zero I guess.

Day One I woke up and it was on the front page of the paper.  Right on my walkway.  I could see half the picture before I even picked it up and unfolded it.  I could recognize that the picture was taken right from the video.  It was the part where they’re knocking him down again but you can still see that his hands are cuffed behind his back.

I turned on the T.V. and they were talking about it on the morning shows.  They even had experts in, and people who’ve been abused by the police, because they wanted to talk about it some more, but really there was no more to know right then.  All you could really do was look at that tape one more time and talk to people who have an opinion.  Lord knows they are never in short supply.

Day Two on the noon news they started yelling for indictments for the four cops.  There was even live footage of a protest down at city hall, demanding indictments.

I called Detective Fallon but he was busy and didn’t come to the phone.  Later in the day I called him back and he said, “We’re still talking to Mickey but there are no charges pending against him at this time.”

I walked to the store to get something nice for dinner, a nice cut of meat or something, and the checker was talking to the lady in front of me about it, saying, Did you see it, Honey?  I saw it on the T.V.  Can you believe that shit?

I wanted to say nobody would have seen it if it wasn’t for me.  I put it in Jeannetta Constantine’s hands and told her where to take it.  She was going to give it to the police.  But she wasn’t talking to me, she was talking to the lady in front of me.  It was really not my conversation in the first place.

I broiled the steak for supper and Tanya said it was good but really it was tough.  It was a little too tough.

Day Three I went out for a walk because other than going down to the store, which is right at the end of the block, I felt like I’d been inside forever.  I felt like I needed to fill up my lungs and breathe.

It was coming on late autumn and the air that filled up my lungs was cold.

Down at the new construction site there was a temporary fence, and someone had spray- painted on it, in big letters, Jarred Constantine died for our sins.  Except the J and the C were even bigger, to point up the coincidence in the initials.  I had never noticed that coincidence about Jarred Constantine’s initials, but I guess nobody could miss it after that.    

I went by Jeannetta’s house on the way home.

What a zoo.

There were news vans on the street out front, with big antennas, and news crews with cameras and microphones on her lawn.

I tried to go through them to knock.

A lady reporter with perfect hair talked to me.  She had so much makeup on.  In that light it looked awfully silly.  She had on a dress that was so red you could use it for highway safety.  She wasn’t even wearing a coat.

“Are you family?  Do you know Jeannetta Constantine?”  

She stuck her microphone at my face.

“I know her.  But I’m not family.  We both lost sons.  My son Anthony was killed nine months ago.  Gun violence.  That’s what killed him.”

There was a camera man behind her, filming all this.

“So how long have you known Jeannetta Constantine?”

“Just since Jarred died.  But you know, my son Anthony died, too.  And nobody’s gotten to the bottom of that yet, either.”

“So tell us about your relationship with Jarred’s mother.  What did she say to you about Jarred’s tragic death?”

“I’m going inside now.”

I knocked, and a man came to the door, a big, burly guy, like a body guard.  

I told him I was a personal friend, so he walked me in.

Jeannetta was at her dining room table with the state senator and a guy writing stuff down on a pad.  She looked up and waved at me.  I waited.  For something more, I guess.  But that was it.  She just waved at me, like I was part of the crowd on the parade route or something.  Just, Oh, hi, Sally.  And then she was back talking to the state senator again.

The big burly guy asked me if I wanted to wait.

“No, never mind,” I said.  “I’m tired.  I’m going home.  Tell her to come by my house later if she wants to talk.”

On the way home I looked up and saw it again on the back of a billboard.  Jarred Constantine died for our sins, with a big J and a big C.

Jeannetta never came by to talk, surprise surprise.  Probably she was busy with the governor or the president or something.

I put on the news at five and there was lots more about the indictments and an enhanced version of the tape but no footage of me on the lawn.  

 

After that I have to admit that the days and the numbers on the days got muddied.  I really can’t say I kept good track after that.  But I know it was more than two weeks later before Jeannetta finally came around.

She came at eight-thirty in the evening.  Woke me out of sleep.  I answered the door in my robe.  She had the storm door open so she could knock properly, and a blast of cold air hit me when I opened the door.

We looked at each other a minute.

“You’re letting the cold in,” I said.

I guess that was sort of an open remark.  She could either take it to mean come in or go away.  

She came in.

I wanted her to, but I guess I wanted that she should make that choice on her own.

We stood in the living room, me with my hands in my robe pockets.

Jeannetta said, “I don’t blame you for being mad.”

“I’m not mad,” I said, which was not entirely true but maybe ninety percent.

“It’s just all been so overwhelming.”

“I can imagine it has been.  I won’t lie to you, I would have liked it a whole lot better if you’d come to see me.  But the first few days after your kid dies is not a good time to have to be thinking about somebody else.”

“I did think about you,” she said.  “I just figured you’d be mad that I was getting all the attention.”

Then I got mad.  When she said that, the ten percent came up and I got really mad.

I said, “You don’t get it, do you?  You think this is about us?  You and me?  You come with me.  Come with me, right now.  I’ll show you what it’s about.”

I took her down the hall to Anthony’s room.

I’ve kept Anthony’s room just exactly the way he left it.  I didn’t even go in and clean.  I dust in there, but the clothes on the floor and the books spilling off the bed stand, all that stuff I just left.  And it’s funny, because before Anthony died a team of Clydesdales couldn’t have kept me from going in there and cleaning.  

Now I leave it all untouched.

“I want you to look at his stuff,” I said to Jeannetta.  “All of it.  Walk around and look.  Look at the posters on the walls and the schoolbooks and his jeans on the floor.  Look at every video game and every model car and every comic book and every snapshot.  Look at his soccer trophies.  Look at his comb on the dresser.  It still has a few hairs in it.”

I will say this for Jeannetta, she did as she was told.  I sat on Anthony’s bed and she walked around and took everything in, even though I’m pretty sure she didn’t know why she was doing it yet.  But I asked her to do it for me and she did.

“See how real he was?” I said.  “He was a real boy.  He deserves to still be here.”

“Jarred was real, too, though.  He deserves to be here.”

“I know that!” I said.  My voice was up by then.  I was all agitated.  “I know he was.  Everybody knows he was, that’s exactly my point.  That’s what I’m trying to get you to you see, Jeannetta.  Everybody in the whole damn country knows that Jarred was a real boy and that he didn’t deserve what he got.  You never have to prove that to anybody again.  You got nothing to prove to anybody.  You don’t have to prove it anymore.  I still have to prove it, Jeannetta.  I still have to make people get that.”

It was quiet for a minute and then she took my hand and pulled me up off Anthony’s bed and out into the living room.  She put me on the couch with a blanket and started massaging my feet.  It made me cry, just like it does with Tanya.  So she went and got me a box of tissues and she massaged and I cried.

Then she got up and went into my kitchen and I heard her take down a pan and also open and close the refrigerator door.

“Sally?” she called in.

“In the cupboard over the stove,” I called back.  “Except for the marshmallows, which are in the pantry.”

 

A few days after that I got a phone call from a reporter at one of those weekly magazines.  

He wanted to know about Anthony.

“What do you want to know about him?” I asked.

“Pretty much anything you want to say about him, I guess.  We can do it either one of two ways.  I can come interview you, or you can write something in your own words and send it in and we’ll print it.”

“How did you know about my Anthony in the first place, anyway?”

He got stuck on that one and didn’t say anything at all.

“Well, that was very nice of Jeannetta to do that,” I said.  “I think I would like to say something in my own words.”

“Five hundred words maximum,” he said, and he told me where to send it when I was done.

I spent the whole day writing up this really nice thing all about Anthony and how real he was.  And then I tore it up and I threw it away.  Because I kept thinking that other people would read it who had lost somebody.  I didn’t want anybody to feel the way I’d been feeling the last couple of weeks, and especially not because of Anthony or because of me. 

So instead I called Detective Fallon and asked if he would please send me the names of  two hundred and fifty kids who died.   That was what I sent to the magazine.  That was my five hundred words.  I named it, “A Partial List of Kids Who Should Still Be Here in Addition to Anthony Powell.”

I was sorry it could only be a partial list, but I think people will get the idea.  Actually, probably most of the people who read it won’t get what I’m trying to do, but those that don’t get it don’t need to, and those that need to, will.