019. Two Rivers
Annette left a black dress that belonged to her grandmother draped over my computer chair and I put it on. The funeral for the boys would start at the church around 3 PM and be followed by a procession to the cemetery. After the eulogy some community leaders were going to speak. Then everyone was supposed to march to the Roseway Bridge and throw flowers in the river near where they found the boys. There had been chaos earlier in the morning when the city revoked the permit to march. They said it was because of all the bombings and the threats still hanging and that it was a matter of public safety. My plan was to go but leave early. I didn’t know how much I could take, all that sorrow just spinning out into nowhere.
On my way out the door Jimmy called to say that the staff meeting at Rise Up Singing was still on as scheduled. Apparently, Coworker Franklin had meditated on the idea of cancelling (due to the massive funeral) but his inner coin flip had come up Capitalism and he wanted to re-open as soon as possible.
“As a victim myself…”
—Coworker Franklin tries to equivocate the looting of Rise Up Singing with the slaughter of children—
“...I think the most important thing for the community is that we get back on our feet.”
A defiant cheek to the wind, cannon to the right, vegan sushi bar to the left—as an olive branch Coworker Franklin said we could talk about the shootings “as a family.” The first fifteen minutes of the agenda was set aside for that process.
“I was wondering if maybe we could talk,” I said.
“Maybe later. I just wanted to let you know the meeting was still happening in case you wanted to go.”
“Can we meet there?”
“I’m not going.”
“Isn’t it mandatory?”
“Fuck him, I’m leaving anyway. What’s he going to do, fire me?”
Right. Queen of the Jaguars.
The streets around Higher Ground of Africa Baptist were packed with people. It took me twenty minutes to make it through a block. About halfway into the thickest part of the crowd, I saw Credence. He was jammed up against a side door of the church, which had been opened to let air into the building. A group of twenty or so, mostly younger men, stood next to him looking in. I worked my way there. He saw me and held out his hand and when I was in range pulled me through the crowd. He was about to say something when a chorus of shouts deafened us. Over the shoulders of the congregation I saw a man with stained-glass light on his face gesturing at the ceiling. He waved his arm across the crowd and then brought it back to his heart. I thought for sure he would catch fire. I almost heard the hissing of wet wood. Another cheer went up for Jesus but everyone near me was silent. They rustled impatiently in their suits and leaned in closer. The crowd inside began to move and the choir started up. People by the doors were telling us to get back, get back, and ushers lined up on either side of the main entrance. Through the side door, I could see them carrying out the coffins. People gathered around the pallbearers in front of the church. The coffins looked like driftwood in an eddy and I thought the crowd wasn’t going to let them through, but then two hearses drove slowly through the mass of people and the crowd parted, still, while the pallbearers slid the caskets into the backs of the cars, and silent until each door had slammed shut. Then a roar went up and the hearses began to roll down the street. People closed in around us. We passed the church in a torrent of bodies and poured out onto Heritage Avenue. At the cemetery the crowd split in two columns and peeled off to the side so that the hearses could drive through. I could see the statue of the mermaid and the garden by the older graves where I’d called in bomb threats only the night before. Someone next to me was talking about the latest police reports and how—a concussion grenade went off behind me. Something was wrong. People with the bullhorns trying to keep the crowd together but the roar was building. Riot cops were coming down the hill in formation. A bottle sailed over the divide between them and us and shattered. Then another. And the shiny black birds, they beat their plastic wings. Clattering, they hit their shields. Faster and faster, until they broke and charged the crowd and the march exploded into slivers under the impact. It was more than a riot and more than a funeral. It was the conjunction of those two, grief and fear, fueled by the bombs and media cycling, combusting all around us. People were getting pushed down toward the promenade by the river. I saw more bottles come down near some cops. One got hit and the bird-crickets fell like a pack on a person running up the hill. Tear gas was fired randomly into the crowd. A concussion grenade went off right beside me. When I got up, I couldn’t hear anything out of my left ear. A man who had been talking to Credence earlier stopped to see if I was okay. I asked him if he’d seen them. He said they had stayed up by the church and were probably still there. Then he picked up a forty-ounce bottle that was near my feet and hurled it. Run, he said and I did. Rubber bullets whistled by and blasted the bark off a tree. As I ran I could feel my blood vessels swell and my heart beat like it was underwater. I was halfway back up the hill before I realized no one was following me.
I was alone. My lungs hurt and I still couldn’t hear anything out of my left ear. I pulled out my phone. There was no reception. I couldn’t get back home without crossing the riot so I decided to try to make it to Rise Up Singing and call Credence and Annette from a landline. Concussion grenades still went off in the distance but only three blocks from the cemetery the day was filled with normal Sunday sounds. A little boy played in the yard of a partially remodeled house, balancing a rock on a can of Jasco and knocking it off again. Everywhere on Colony of the Elect were kids, sun wheels spinning in the breeze and hearty blonde neighbors helping each other out. The Dawn of Compassion had come. Suffering had ended. There were traffic circles and recycling bins. At one point the trees broke and I could see the river again. Puffs of tear gas like a gentle mist appeared then dissipated along the promenade.
Duct-taped to the door of Rise Up Singing was a proclamation from Coworker Franklin. It expressed regret at the recent bombing of the auto shop and begged people not to steal from COWORKER FRANKLIN because he was a PARTNER and a FRIEND of the COMMUNITY and often made them MACARONI AND CHEESE. At the bottom was a stick figure with open arms.
The meeting was in the garden. When I came through the gate the entire staff except Jimmy was standing around a table full of donuts and shots of Cuervo. Coworker Franklin looked nervous. No one was drinking or eating and sun made the glaze on the doughnuts shine.
I asked Mirror if I missed anything.
“Just fucking Franklin admitting he’s a sellout who should die, which we already knew. What time did you leave?”
“Around dawn. You were both asleep.”
“You know, that stupid cat never came back. I spent the whole morning shaking a bowl of Meow Mix like a fucking shaman.”
Coworker Franklin was talking about the sale of the restaurant, assuring everyone that a great new era was coming. That the people who bought the restaurant were enlightened. That there would be lotus chairs made by Real Tibetans and distressed wood platters of hewn hemp. The latest in neo-colonial fusion cuisine. A patio. Orchids. A bocce court and a koi pond where now there was only a rat graveyard.
“In this time of change,” Coworker Franklin waved vaguely at the world of bombs, malls and riots outside the garden, “it’s all the more important that we stay together, even if we’ve chosen to walk in different directions.”
Mirror passed me a folded up sheet of paper. Inside was her rendering of the figure from Franklin’s sign. Next to it was a huge salmon about to tear it in half over which she’d written “Stick-Franklin in the Afterlife.” Mitch took it and drew a four-panel strip of Stick-Franklin dissolving in lye.
“But like any birth process,” said Coworker Franklin, “it’s going to be hardest during the transition. There are going to be some new rules,” he looked around anxiously. “To start with you are all going to have to get your food handler’s cards.”
Mirror rolled her eyes, “No way, dude, waiting in that line sucks.”
“And…” said Franklin, “just so you know, they’re going to shorten the name to “Rise.” Which I think is really very cool. I saw it on the new menus. They look great. Copperplate. It’s a nice font.”
I was the first to hear it. Tiny popping sounds in the distance, a quiet siren. Some dim chirping and a ripple of adrenaline went through the staff. What was it? One or two people glanced over the garden fence. More sirens and then I could feel the lift in energy. There wasn’t any fear, only excitement. Again I saw two rivers, each flowing through the same place, irreconcilable geographies. Reaching deeper, though, I found a third, cutting ever downward and pooling beneath the mermaid garden.
Coworker Franklin was talking about the schedule.
Police cars pulled around the corner and raced down the side street. Their blue and red lights reflected off the windows of the apartment buildings nearby and I saw it all differently. I saw the scene as it would be on another night. The same blue and red lights dancing on the koi pond, turning to rose and violet the white arbor trellis with its bending boughs to come. Occasional explosions like fireworks and the sky.
Coworker Franklin was talking about the robbery on the night of the shootings. How he got to the restaurant around 3 AM, and had seen a man by the shed, probably someone from the neighborhood who knew we didn’t lock the side gate. And how the man was wearing a red bandana, and had something in his hand, probably a gun. And how he had called… My breath started to slow and I couldn’t feel my hands because it seemed like the whole world was dipped in nitrogen and the slightest shift could shatter it…with all the gang stuff going on, and given the police a description of the man.
My eyes moved over to Mitch, who was standing between me and the Rat Graveyard. Don’t move, I thought, stay. Stay right there. But Mitch moved and behind her I saw the beaten sunflowers and the trampled graves. The Buzz Lightyear and the red bandana tying him to the twig cross were gone.
“Truthfully,” said Coworker Franklin, “I don’t expect much will come of it…”-–but of course something had—“and as you know, I’m not big on consequences…”—like what happens when you tie a toy to a twig cross? Or call in a description of a black man with a red bandana and a gun?
Or when you walk down an empty street drunk and wash your hair with stolen wine? Or tie a Buzz Lightyear to a cross? I didn’t say it. I didn’t say: The red bandana you found hidden in the shed belonged to the boy who was shot.
Or, the Buzz Lightyear you tied to the cross got him killed. Or, the reason Coworker Franklin called in the description of the boy in the first place was because the restaurant had been looted and he thought the boy was involved, but it was only we. I looked at the faces around me, the sweating doughnuts and the Cuervo, and I thought, these are charnel grounds and even though I hate it, I am as entangled as everyone else and part of how one thing led to another. Pollen, butterfly wings, I tried but you can’t see it. You can’t round off the small numbers because there are universes inside them. I thought I could stay above it, walk cleanly through, but you can’t. Even my bomb threats, which I’d thought of as commentary, weren’t. They were also universes. I had been lying to myself.
After the meeting I called Jimmy a couple of times but she didn’t answer so I went over to her apartment. She was annoyed but let me in.
“So I heard there was a police riot.”
“Sorry about all that stuff at Grace’s. I didn’t know what it would look like from the outside.”
“You guys do that every year?”
“No. That was the last. I mean for me.”
Another little spider crack because like the two rivers with the third hidden underneath, the bandana and the boy, I saw now that there wasn’t a single move I could make that had no effect. There is a freedom in that too.
I stepped closer and put my hand against her ear. I still couldn’t hear out of mine. She relaxed. More cracks lacing the ice. We talked about Honduras and what we could do there. She grew animated but I could feel it all coming apart in my hands. Let’s get out of here, I said. Let’s take a cab across the river and go somewhere where there aren’t funerals and koi ponds, and she agreed. We went salsa dancing at a Latino bar near the old international district. We told them we were sisters so that they’d let us dance together. Then, when we were leaving, I kissed her in front of all of them outside on the street with the light of the Salvation Army sign falling down all around us.
On the way home I wondered how many chances we get. According to Devadatta the reason things are so fucked up is that so many people are human for the first time. I put my key in the door and turned it as quietly as I could. That’s the problem with me. I want to believe in a world of endless second chances but I can’t.