It was 800 hours and I was seated at my desk in my office. There’s a 5” x 7” photo of Mikoon my desk, right near my monitor, which she had placed there as a final, finishing touch, as she had said, when she decorated my office. It’s one way women stake their claim on you. They leave evidence of themselves, of their relationship with you, in your home, in your car, in your office. Could be panties, could be lipstick, could be a picture. I looked at the picture. Miko is that rare beauty, miscegenation at its best: the best of an African-American G.I., and the best of a Japanese woman. She hadn’t called last night. I was a little worried. Well, perhaps a little lonely is a better way to put it. I was used to our nightly calls, looked forward to them. If she didn’t call, then there was a perfectly good reason. But not hearing her voice before I lied down to sleep made my sleep even more uneasy. It was interrupted by the ghosts of my past. The Summer of ’76. The country’s 200th birthday. Shortly thereafter, in late July, the Son of Sam, also known as the .44 Caliber Killer, began his killing spree, which lasted about a year. I am in love for the first time, with Awilda Perez, this impossibly pretty Puerto Rican girl whose father hated Blacks. She is the youngest and prettiest of five sisters, the fairest of them all. I had taken her to the movies to see Mahogany, again. We had first seen it when it had come out in March. Diana Ross was superb. Billie Dee epitomized that Black cool I aspired to. “Do You KnowWhere You’re Going To,” the theme song of the movie, immediately became our theme song. I had walked Awilda home, right to her apartment door, was poised to kiss her when the door flew open and her father grabbed her arm and violently pulled her inside. The look in her eyes, an impossible blue, haunts me to this very day. The door slammed behind her with a sense of finality. Loud, rapid-fire Spanish I heard from behind the door. And then a slap. What I thought was a slap. What I knew was a slap. I banged on the door, banged on the door, banged on the door until the housing cops came and pulled me away. “He’s beating my girlfriend!” I screamed hysterically as the cops pulled me away from the door. They were going to take me down to the precinct, but practically the whole neighborhood intervened, talking about how I was one of the good kids, that they needed to go get some of “the goddamn real criminals! Start with the father who’s beating his daughter behind that goddamn door!” That summer Awilda’s father sent her to Puerto Rico to live with his mother. She wrote me a couple of letters that summer, declaring undying love as only teenagers can. I never saw her again, never experienced that youthful love the rest of my teenage years. But the theme song from Mahogany, that question, became central to my life.
The phone rang. Before it could ring again, I picked it up. “Alexander Jones, P.I.” I glanced at the digital clock on my desk. Exactly 900 hours. I knew it was him. People who have been in prison have this respect for time that is probably only equaled by people in the military.
“This is Ernest Williamson.” A very deep voice.
“Thanks for calling.”
“No problem. This is about the Alston case. Willie told me. Capri.”
“Yes and no.” A pause. He didn’t respond. “Are you from the Marcy projects?”
“Yes.” No hesitation.
“We have to talk, about Capri, of course. What time do you take lunch?”
“Whenever I can.”
“How’s your morning?”
“Have to supervise a visit. I can see you afterwards, say 11:30?”
“See you then.”
“My address –“
“Willie gave me your business card. Later.”
The line went silent.
August.The Summer of ’76. War was in the air. Marcy Day passed with no incidents. Hannibal let me hang out with him now more than ever, took me uptown to the Rucker. We both thought there were better games in Marcy. He had teased me about being in love. When Awilda was shipped off to Puerto Rico, he stopped teasing me. I remember him telling me that love could be painful. “Pain is a part of life, little brother. Just don’t make it a big part of your life. Life is for living. There’ll be other Awildas.” No, there wouldn’t! There were no more. This is where he was wrong, the only time I could recall such. He had a girlfriend, of course, the prettiest girl in the projects. Girlfriends, I should say. The girls loved him. But this summer, he seemed to be preoccupied with something else. Not girls. He was never preoccupied with girls. He never had to pursue them. They came to him. He had graduated from high school in June, a year early. Was valedictorian. He gave this valedictory speech that, three years later, when I graduated from the same high school, Eastern District on Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg, teachers still spoke about. He had numerous scholarship offers, academic and athletic. He was going to college in a year. My father had sat the family down one of the rare times he was home – he worked two jobs and gambled, numbers and poker, on the side, took his role as provider seriously, which meant we rarely saw him, but we also never wanted for anything – said that he was going to let Hannibal travel for a year before college, see some of the world. Africa. The Caribbean. Europe. Hannibal was excited. He was reading all these history and travel books, said he was going to Italy, Spain and North Africa. “Our ancestors’ stomping grounds,” he joked. And then, one day in August, life as I knew it changed, forever.
The door buzzed. I got up, glanced at the digital clock on my desk. It was exactly 11:30. I didn’t check the monitor on my computer screen. I got up and opened the door. A fly buzzed by my ear, letting itself in.
He stood there for a second, but it seemed like an eternity. “I thought so!” he said in that deep voice, smiling a big movie star smile. I extended my hand but he moved into and hugged me as Black men do, patting me on the back of the shoulder with a heavy hand. Then he held me at arm’s length. “You look just like your brother! Little General Alexander!” He smartly saluted me.
I looked up at Ernest Williamson. He was my brother’s best friend. He had a clean-shaven head and a goatee. He stood about 6’3”, looked taller. I am 6’1”, not much shorter, but those two inches seemed like much more, like the two-year age difference between my brother and I when I was 15. Like my brother, Ernest was a natural athlete. And just as smart. He had on a Khaki suit with a light blue shirt. He carried a brown leather messenger bag that looked decidedly military. He looked like a movie star. He, as well as my brother, was idolized by the younger boys in the projects. Where Billy D. was cool, he was distant, on the silver screen. Almost not real. My brother and Ernest were near. And real.
“Thor,” I said, as if I was a kid again. My brother’s nickname for Ernest. He was called “the Hammer” by everybody else. It was his weapon of choice when he was the Minister of War for the Marcy Chaplains, effortlessly wielded this impossibly big hammer you saw construction workers with. Both he and my brother had been recruited into the gang at the same time. They were not only best friends. They were inseparable.
Ernest closed the door behind him. I watched him look around my small office. He walked to the wall with my degree and other honors from the military and the NYPD. “Your brother would be proud of you,” he said. I detected an unfathomable sadness in his voice. He sat in one of the royal purple chairs in front of my desk, filling it.
I sat down. “When did you get out?”
“A couple of months ago.”
“How did you end up at Children Are Our Future?”
“It was the only door that opened. Willie was willing to give me a chance where so many others wouldn’t. You know how hard it is for an ex-con to find employment? One study says six out of ten employers won’t hire ex-cons. And those six are the honest ones. I think it’s more like eight or nine out of ten. You have no idea how many resumes I sent out into the black employment hole.”
In my mind I calculated the time he had spent in prison. “How has it been, the…transition?”
“Great! I’m not complaining. My worst day out here is a million times better than my best day in there.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“Don’t even try.” He paused.“There are a lot of things I don’t understand about this not-so-brave new world.”Said in a very serious voice.
“Don’t even try.”
We both laughed.
“Tell me about Capri,” I said, knowing that if we went further down memory lane we’d never get to the business at hand.
“A piece of work,” he said. He reached inside his jacket pocket, pulled out a Polaroid picture, placed it on top of the mahogany desk. “I took this of her when we got her back after she ran away the first time.”
I picked up the picture. She looked much older, more mature, more knowing, in this picture than the picture Erma Black had shown me. Her hair was no longer in braids, but a perm, with a hairpiece attached. And she was really smiling, a little seductively. I attempted to hand it back.
He waved his hand. “No, keep it. Probably the most recent picture of her.”
“You said Capri is ‘a piece of work.’”
“Yes, she came on to me. I mean really came on to me. Strongly.I told Willie, tried to get rid of the case, but she wouldn’t transfer the case to another case worker. Said this is the only thing the girl knows, how to get attention, that she was just seeking my attention and approval.”
“Willie knows about your past?”
“The only one at Children Are Our Future”
“Tell me about the father.”
Ernest laughed, a deep laugh, from the pit of his stomach. “Carlton. A wannabe thug. I’ve seen far too many characters like him. You know, when Capri ran away, the agency got its private investigator, Jack Murphy, involved. But you know who found Capri?” He paused. “Her father. He said he found her on Forty-Second Street, not too far from the Port Authority. You should’ve seen how she was dressed and made up.”
“He brought her back to the agency?”
“Yes. Dressed like a whore. He thought he was making a statement, that this was an indictment of the agency. The whole family has repeatedly said, ‘Capri wasn’t no ‘ho until she came into care!’ He was full of himself when he brought her in. Acted like we should’ve given him a medal.”
Another thing Erma Black had neglected to tell me. “Didn’t this raise suspicions?” This was, of course, rhetorical.
“What happened when she was placed back in care?”
“We got her to court, tried to get her placed in a higher level of care, but Capri’s law guardian, Shakina Singh – a really good lawyer, wonder why she’s a law guardian — successfully argued against that. We were making plans to place Capri with her paternal aunt when she ran away again.”
“Your P.I. still involved?”
“Yes. Seems like we talk every other day. Jack’s one of the good guys. We both cruised Forty-Second Street two nights looking for Capri.” He paused. “This case just keeps getting complicated. You know that saying: ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ I didn’t originally have this case. It was transferred to me from another case worker. Carlton was intimidating the previous case worker.”
“Yes, right out of college. No knock on her. This character would try to intimidate anyone.”
“So you got the case.”
“Yes. I can’t be intimidated.” He stated this matter-of-factly, not bragging. “Willie asked me to take the case. I have all these ‘difficult’ cases, mostly teenagers on my caseload, many fathers are involved in planning, which is rare.”
“What about the girlfriend?”
Another laugh.“Shaquanda.Very young. She says 19, but I’d put her at 16, wouldn’t be surprised if she’s younger.” He reached into his inside pocket again, placed another Polaroid on my desk. I picked it up. “The father, the girlfriend and Capri’s sister, Caymani.” He laughed again. “I took this during one of the supervised visits. I’m the only case worker doing this, telling the families how important it is to record moments, even these moments, even though the children are in care, because as soon as they happen they are gone, forever.”
The father was in the center of the photo, staring hard at the camera, trying to intimidate it, his arms possessively around his two girls. Shaquanda had a very big smile on her glossy lips, bigger than her gold hoop earrings. She was pretty, in that “Around the Way Girl” way, as LL Cool J would say, had on too much makeup, trying to look older. Caymani was smiling shyly but not quite so innocently, her hair still in braids.
“Do you know anything about Erma Black’s history with ACS?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “ACS is supposed to look to place children with a relative when they are taken into care. The grandmother was looked at, but for whatever reasons ACS wouldn’t place the girls with her.”
“What’s your assessment of the family?”
“Did Willie quote that line from Anna Karenina?” He looked at me and laughed, knowing she had. “I prefer Dostoevsky to Tolstoy,” he continued. “I agree with Willie, but would say, ‘All unhappy families are screwed up in their own way.’”
It was a joke, of sorts, but gave us both pause. I never thought of my family as unhappy or screwed up. Wondered how Ernest thought of his family.
A fly buzzed by me. I had forgotten that it had let itself in when I had opened the door for Ernest. I watched its flight path, heading towards Ernest. It happened so quickly, had I not heard the clap of his hands, which echoed like thunder in my small office, I wouldn’t have known that Ernest had killed the fly.
“Strike three,” I said to myself. “Let me take you to lunch,” I said out loud to Ernest, tossing him a small plastic bottle of hand sanitizer.
He caught it, quickly pumped the gel on his left hand, tossed the bottle back to me and rubbed his hands quickly. “Let’s go,” he said, unfolding himself from the chair.