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I wrote this a while ago, exploring first-person, present-tense, non-linear story telling. That wasn’t the intent, but when the story came to me, it was there and it wouldn’t go away. I don’t say it’s a great piece, but I’m proud of it. I also find that first-person, present-tense makes it easier for me to avoid filter words . I have no idea why. I have a chapter from my novel that’s written in first-person, present tense, and it still gives me chills to read it. Narcissism is fun!
It’s worth noting that the main character is based on a friend. We worked together and he told me what it was like growing up black, in a gang, in Portland, Oregon. I’ve taken a few liberties, but his voice rings strongly in my mind and I think I’ve been faithful to it, though I’ve toned it down. A white author writing about black experience cannot use the n-word.
The "now" and "then" are recent additions by me because some early readers complained it was too difficult to follow the non-linear story line. However, I can’t simply re-arrange the story in a linear fashion because that destroys it. Hence, my added cues for the reader. If they don’t help or distract, let me know in the comments. In fact, I’d be grateful for any feedback you care to leave. I want to be a better writer.
“Parents died in a house fire when I was a kid, so no, I don’t have no childhood photos.”
That shuts ‘em up. It always does. I roll up my left sleeve. A mess of white scar tissue on black skin.
“That’s my childhood photo.”
I got that from a night drinking and messing with a barbecue, but I didn’t tell them that. Heck, I shouldn’t even have shown them the scar, but lying always made me nervous and I felt like I had to back it up. Old, stupid habits die hard.
“James, I’m so sorry.” Frank’s squeeze—don’t even remember her name and there’s no point because she’ll be gone next week—goes beet red with embarrassment. I feel sorry for her. Frank’s my best friend now, but he’s a bit of a bastard about women. It was the only thing we argued about. I’ve found God now. I think. Not sure if he’s found me.
“No worries, girl. You didn’t know. Gonna get another beer and if you two ain’t drinkin' with me, I’m gonna be mighty offended.”
Middle of a Saturday afternoon and Frank’s here to watch the game with me. My wife and daughter are out on a mother/daughter field trip and I have a day off to watch LeBron destroy Miami. It’s a hot summer day and a few Coronas with lime go down a treat. I’m in the kitchen, reaching in the refrigerator when I hear the clang of the mail slot in the front door.
I walk back into the living room and there’s Frank, reading an envelope.
With that innocent question, my life is over for the third time.
You have no idea what it’s like growing up near Martin Luther King Avenue in Portland, Oregon. I had the luxury of traveling a lot before I got busted the second time and every place that has an “MLK” Boulevard/Avenue/Promenade—nothing ever as pedestrian as “Street”—is always through a poor black neighborhood and that’s where I grew up. That’s where I dealt. That’s where I joined a gang. That’s where I lost my virginity and, as a result, acquired my first scar. A stab in the gut courtesy of her boyfriend.
I’m not stupid. I didn’t brag to nobody, but one night hanging out, there he was. His name was Aaron and he walked up, smiled, and said “‘Sup, Jamal?”
I just nodded and he slid a knife in my gut like it was the most natural thing in the world. To him, I suppose it was. People were screaming and Aaron just walked away.
I told the cops I didn’t know who it was. You settle your own shit. Course they sent a black cop round. Like I’m gonna trust one of them. I went looking for Aaron later. I thought I sort of deserved what I got, but you gotta save face, right? Everybody said Aaron disappeared. No idea where he went off to.
I didn’t plan to grow up dealing; I wanted to go to college and study literature. Momma didn’t have much, but she loved books. Naturally, I loved books too, but lettin' on that I huddled under the blanket, switching from Heinlein to Faulkner to “Poets of the Nuyorican Café” made me a joke. So publicly, I read biographies of Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, or anyone else that wasn’t going to piss off my friends too much, though I liked them, too.
But nobody hired boys named “Jamal.” At least not good jobs. At least not in the whitest major city in the good ol' US of A, love her or leave her. Which is how I got busted the first time, dealing while working at a car wash. I wasn’t stupid and I’ve got a feel for people, but it’s not perfect. The undercovers dropped a name and asked if they could score. Later they lied their lilly-white asses off in court. There was no entrapment; I offered it to them. Guilty.
But I never grassed on no one. You don’t get two years for a first offense, but with a name like “Jamal” and refusing to cooperate, I had a DA in a bad mood. Got out six months early for good behavior, hit the streets and life was over.
I tried to go straight. I really did. But when you have to explain time in prison, you don’t get no real jobs, which is why I felt real lucky to have Christine. She was Aaron’s ex, the one I slept with. He left her a broken nose as a parting gift, but she was lucky and it healed sort of upturned. It was cute, but I hated Aaron. You don’t hit women. No way.
Christine was a receptionist at a car dealership and got me a job as a salesman. You piss clean in a cup and talk like nobody’s business and they don’t care about your past. They just want to know if you can make them money.
Christine was special. For the first time in my life, I felt like things were going good. I didn’t feel too comfortable round her mom, though. She didn’t care about my past—too many good boys get caught up in bad things—but she creeped me out. I was sitting there, sippin' iced tea, waiting for Christine and talking to Christine’s mom, Gisele. “Gee-seh-luh.” What sort of name is that?
You didn’t lie to Gisele. I learned that early on. I never felt good about lyin'. I could lie when I had to, but not with Gisele. She was a human fuckin' lie detector. I once told her I sold 18 cars last month. I just wanted her to know I could take care of Christine. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Gisele just looked at me and said “I know you’ll take care of Christine, but you didn’t sell no 18 cars last month, Jamal.”
She could have found out how many cars I sold, but how the hell did she know what I was thinking? I never lied to her again.
So there we were, drinking iced tea, and I said Clinton was going to crush Trump in the election. Gisele looked sad and said, “no, she’s not.”
And just like that, I knew Clinton would lose. Gisele did that to you.
When Christine got home that night from college, she stepped into the living room and plunked herself down on the old, ratty sofa and curled up next to me. I wrapped my arms around Christine and knew with dead certainty that I loved her. Probably the only reason Gisele let me in the house. She knew.
And then she didn’t let me in no more. I wasn’t a great salesman, but the other guys knew my past and kept asking if I could hook ‘em up. That’s how I got back in. I wanted to make money for Christine and here it was. Just one look at her big, brown eyes and I’d have given her the world if I could. So I lied and said I was making good commission on my cars, when really I was hooking up the other salesmen. And then I started hooking up more than other salesman. That’s how it is.
“Jamal? He’s my cousin in San Francisco. Don’t know why I’d be getting mail from him.”
Frank hands me the envelope and I look at the address. “Jamal, c/o James Hillman.” I’m still Jamal inside, but Frank and everybody else knows I’m James. Except for my wife, Angela, née Christine. Even our daughter, Sarah, don’t know our real names. I hated lying to her about it, but I love her as much as Christine. No way in hell I’m going to give her a gun to take her parents away from her.
I put the envelope aside and Frank forgets about it. Every nerve in my body is screaming, but I wander back to the TV, acting like nothing was wrong. I still don’t know who won that game.
New apartment. New king size bed. Mind wandering.
“What sort of name is Gisele? I never heard no name like that.”
Christine was lying in my arms, our bodies still covered with sweat, and whispered to me, “her name’s not Gisele.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“She has this thing about names and won’t tell anyone her real one. Says it gives people power over you. And stop talking that way, you’re better than that.”
“So what’s her name?”
Christine sat up and looked down on me.
“No, Jamal,” she said. “She maybe has weird ideas, but she’s my mother. I won’t dishonor her.”
Christine was sort of a Christian and honoring her mother and father (God rest his soul) was important to her. I say “sort of a Christian” because she knew I was making more money than selling cars could provide, but she never asked. I liked to think it’s because she loved me, but I never asked, either.
I sat up and wrapped my arms around Christine. I knew not to press about Gisele’s name and hugged Christine tightly, but this bothered me. Everything about Gisele gave me the willies and at this point in my life, anything I didn’t understand was a threat. Except I didn’t understand Gisele and she didn’t feel like no threat.
A couple of years before that, I got some really bad good news. I was a small-time dealer, now selling cars and coke and my supplier invited me to dinner on a night Christine was in school. I went round to the restaurant, but my supplier wasn’t there. Lamonte was. Lamonte was my supplier when I went to prison. I never dropped his name, but maybe he didn’t know that. But when he saw me, he smiled, and waved me over. “Sit down, Jamal. It’s time to talk about your future.”
I looked round, but no one in the restaurant said “cop” to me. Not even Lamonte. A waiter walked up and smiled, so I sat. I ordered a beer, took a menu, and waited for the bad news.
“I hear you play straight. And I know you do. You could have sent me up, but you went to jail rather than drop my name.”
“Prison. Jail may be shorter, but at least they got shit to do in prison.”
Lamonte nodded; he knew what I meant. You don’t, but he does. In jail you sit on your ass and play cards, waiting a few months to get out. You’re bored stiff. In prison, you’re there for a long time, so they have weight rooms, college classes, libraries, you name it. Jail doesn’t have shit, but in prison, they give you a chance to better yourself. Maybe you’ll come out with a degree. Or maybe it’s a crime finishing school, with professors who were stupid enough to get caught.
The waiter came by and I ordered. When he left, Lamonte leaned forward and said “You had my back when you didn’t have to. Now I got yours. You say the word and you don’t have to sell no more god-damned cars. I’m doing good and I want people I can trust. I trust you.”
I sat back, scared as hell. Christine looked the other way about the extra cash I was earning, but that’s only because I had a job. She was the one good thing in my life and I didn’t want to fuck it up. That’s what I told Lamonte.
“You’re a good man, Jamal. I appreciate what a good woman can do for a man, but what can you do for her? You’re a felon. You know you’re never going to get a real job. Oh, you might be a sales manager some day, earn whatever small bit of green the man wants to toss your way, but you really want to take care of her? I can offer you that. It’s a real job. I start you at five grand a month and you run some dealers. I won’t lie to you. I ain’t promisin' nothin' bad’ll ever happen, but if it does, we got each other’s backs. And you treat us right, we treat you right. You can keep Christine in college and have nice things.”
And that’s how life ended the second time, but at least it paid well.
It’s two days before I open that envelope. I know it’s stupid, but I’m scared. I don’t know what the hell to do. Christine—excuse me—Angela probably knows something is up but I tell her it’s just work. With the economy the way it is, she accepts that. I hate to lie to her, but I’m really thinking about Sarah. When she was born, she brought joy to our lives like we had never experienced. Oh, we were as happy as our circumstances could allow, but this felt like it was for real this time. Past sins were absolved and beautiful Sarah laughed and cried and hiccoughed and I even started going to church. My life was almost complete. Even changing diapers had made me smile.
Sarah had never known any life but what we had. I didn’t want to take her out of school, but there’s an envelope in my hand. Hell, I like going to PTA meetings. I want Sarah to have everything I didn’t. And so did Angela. We have the life we always wanted. It isn’t perfect, but it’s stable. And always with that tinge of fear. Now I know I should call the FBI and I know they will take away our life and give us a new one. Sarah will cry for her friends in school and I have no idea what to say to her.
I don’t know what to expect when I open that envelope, but I certainly don’t expect what I find.
I unfold the paper and read. Or at least I thought I would. The paper is blank. I turn it over, but nothing is there. Paranoid, I look in the envelope for weird powder or whatever the hell anthrax looks like, but I see nothing. I sniff the air. Nothing. I sit. I wait.
I have tears running down my face when I notice the writing on the back of the envelope.
And then the mail slot clanged. There was another envelope on the floor.
Life working for Lamonte was good. Lamonte was careful and if a dealer started using, they were out. You couldn’t trust them. I was one of several “account managers” and we were a tight group. We knew Lamonte’s star was rising and we along with it. Because I talked proper when I needed to and didn’t mind wearing a suit, I soon found myself working directly with several favored customers. You’d probably even know the names of a couple of them, but you won’t hear them from me. When I landed a narc as a customer, we had a nice celebration. Portland cops had worked real hard to clean up, so getting inside news was a real score. He got his shit for free, sometimes wrapped in Benjamins, and we heard rumors nobody else heard.
That’s how, when Lamonte got busted, I had his job. Lamonte was true to his word and didn’t name names. And Christine didn’t ask questions about my import/export business and cried when she thought I wasn’t looking. I was a “district manager” and the account managers reported directly to me. I didn’t change nothin'. What worked for Lamonte worked for me.
I open the envelope right away this time. A single sheet of paper. A single word. “Aaron.” Written on the back of the envelope was “Gisele,” in Gisele’s handwriting.
Of course it wasn’t Gisele. She died years ago.
I met Aaron again shortly before my second bust. I was pulling down a cool seven grand a month. I never skimmed, I didn’t cut the dope too much and when I fired a dealer for using, I gave them severance pay out of the expense account. Then I told ‘em to get lost.
One day on an exchange, Big Boss told me to carry. We were dealing with some new boys. They were unknown, but they had lots to move. Normally I don’t hold no truck with guns, but when the big boss trusts you to watch his back and you’re looking to move up, you do what you’re told. So I carried. And there, in an old warehouse, was Aaron providing muscle for the new boys.
I slowed down. I guess the big boss sensed something was up and he slowed down, too. Then they slowed down. All of a sudden, a clean exchange became real tense. I could see Aaron’s eyes moving from man to man, doing the math. I wanted to hurt Aaron bad. Not for what he did to me—I could forgive that—but for what he did to Christine. But I can do math too and the numbers didn’t add up. Aaron and I just stared at each other, hatred in our eyes, but the deal went down.
Big Boss later asked me what happened but I told him I just had a bad vibe. I stuck to the story. No sense worrying the man. Aaron must have lied to his big boss too because we had more deals and I always carried. You don’t need to tell me twice.
When Aaron finally came looking for me, he shot the big boss and I killed Aaron. Or at least I tried to. Lucky shot got him in the leg. The Feds offered a deal: it was self defense if I testified, Christine and I would get the Witness Protection Program, provided I kept myself clean. If I didn’t testify, I’d go down.
I don’t grass, but I had Christine to think about. It was a hard decision. I tried to keep my account managers out of it, but no deal. And I had to point out the big bosses. Mine survived being shot and Aaron’s boss went down, too. One stupid fool and everybody’s looking at me. Well, everybody except Aaron. The slippery son of a bitch was offered the deal, too. He took down his side, I took down mine.
So Christine and I live in hiding. New ID cards. New social security numbers. I’m a district manager of a snack vending company—yeah, I get the irony—and Christine, bless her, didn’t leave my side. She was just happy I was out.
And then we had Sarah.
You’d be surprised how many people die in the Witness Protection Program. The FBI drilled this into us repeatedly. All it takes is one moment of homesickness, one quick phone call, and if the people who want you want you bad enough, you’re dead. One fool went back to his old home and turned the doorknob and it blew up.
Christine and I knew the score. Neither of us had anything to go back to. Christine became Angela and I became James.
I’m staring at an envelope reading “Gisele” and I dimly remember that like Angela and myself, she had a different name. How many people knew that? Sure, she had different reasons, but still. She was buried years ago and now I have this envelope in my hand and a sheet of paper which reads “Aaron.”
Gisele died unexpectedly. She was in great health and whenever Christine wasn’t with me or at school, she was with her mom. So when one day Gisele didn’t answer her door, Christine panicked. She just knew something was wrong. Shortly after, we were at Gisele’s funeral. Brain hemorrhage. The doctor promised us it was painless and looking at her in the casket, she looked peaceful, but then, I guess that’s the mortician’s job.
I’m looking at the sheet of paper and know I have to go to the FBI now, but then there’s Sarah. What do I do about her? She’s not old enough to know what’s going on and there’s no way she’ll understand if we call her a different name. She won’t know why she has to leave her friends at school and Angela’s going to be terrified. So I do what I have to do. I buy a gun.
Normally, ex-cons don’t get to buy guns but James Hillman is not an ex-con. I buy a shotgun to avoid the waiting period and I go home and head down to the basement. I turn on the light bulb and ignore the damp, musty smell. I open my toolbox and a few strokes of a hacksaw removes most of the barrel. A bit of work with some files and cutting down the stock and I have a nasty short-range weapon. A nasty short-range weapon that’s pretty easy to hide. Pretty illegal, too, even if James Hillman isn’t an ex-con. I’m going to have some trouble explaining this when I get caught.
I will get caught. I know that, but I don’t care. But Christine and Sarah will be safe. I really have no choice.
I think about this a lot and I figure that if Aaron’s after me, he’s a lone nut. Otherwise, Gisele would have said something different, right? But no, Gisele’s dead. Who the hell sent that damned envelope?
Aaron’s Lee Harvey Oswald and I’m John F-in' Kennedy. Except JFK wasn’t married to Oswald’s ex. JFK didn’t know Oswald was coming to seek revenge for JFK being with Jackie. And I will kill Aaron and the cops will take me away and Christine and Sarah will be safe. That’s all I care about.
I stop staying late in the office and bring my paperwork home with me. Christine—or is she Angela?—asks what’s going on and I tell her I just want to spend more time with her, even if I have to work. I thought I caught her crying once. She knows something is wrong just as she always does.
Sarah likes to crawl into my lap. I kiss her forehead and keep working, my mind trying not to think of the sawed-off shotgun in my briefcase. On a hot Saturday, I’m not surprised when the third envelope falls through the slot. They always arrive when Angela/Christine and Sarah/Sarah are out.
I open it and read two words, “Tomorrow Night.” On the back of the envelope was a single name, “Lizbeth.”
That night, curled up next to Christine/Angela, I ask her a simple question.
“Her name was Lizbeth”, Christine murmurs.
But by now, I already knew that.
Sunday. Sarah’s best friend was always asking her to sleep over and, for the first time, I said it was a good idea. I am over-protective of Sarah. Christine thought Sarah staying with a friend was wonderful and had already started to plan a romantic evening but an emergency phone call from work took me away.
And an emergency phone call from Frank took Angela away, too. He says he’s broken up with his girlfriend and is upset, but since I’m not there, will Christine come? I told him to keep her away the entire night, whatever it took. I’ll be happy if she’s mad. Dead people don’t get mad. As she drives off, I huddle down further in the bushes, the shotgun in one hand and a cell phone in my pocket.
Aaron shows up just before midnight. The lights are off and as he limps to the front of the house, I watch him, quiet as the names we never repeat any more. He walks up to the front door and feels under the mat for a key. That’s good because I left one for him. If he breaks in, maybe I can get away with shooting him in the back. As he carefully turns the key in the knob, I raise the shotgun.
And then I put it down again. Good people might do bad things, but I couldn’t do this. Aaron tiptoes inside and I lift the cell phone and call the special number the FBI gave me for situations just like this. And that’s when Christine pulls back into the driveway. And that’s when Aaron steps outside. And that’s when Aaron pulls a gun and points it at Angela.
Or is she Christine? I’m confused. Gisele’s in my mind telling me I’m a good man who does bad things. I’m not. I’m a bad man trying to do good things.
I shoot Aaron in the back, rack, shoot him again, rack, shoot him again and keep going until the shotgun is empty. Christine is screaming.
You might think I’d get in trouble with that shotgun, but when you’re in the Witness Protection Program, some problems go away. “Brave Homeowner Kills Intruder Threatening Wife” read the headline. Any publicity usually means you need to leave. Publicity and knowing someone has found you guarantees it. I don’t know what we’ll tell Sarah, but the FBI tells me they already have a plan for that.
When we move into our new house, there’s an envelope lying on the floor in the foyer. There’s no name on it, but it has a single piece of paper with two words, “Thank you.”
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