Black and White
“Harlan, you ever feel like you’re destined for something big?"
Harlan sneezed. He covered it with his hand, then wiped his hand on the side of his seat. “Whatsat?"
“Something big. I mean, do you believe in fate? In destiny?"
“Look man. Just because we’re partners that doesn’t mean we have to get all philosophical and shit, ok?"
“No really. Sometimes I think I’m supposed to do something big. A lot of times,” Prosco was a junior officer; six months out of provisional duty and two years out of the academy. His shirt and trousers were striped with matching creases, and there wasn’t any snot smeared on his side of the black-and-white.
“When you get to be my age, it’s just the opposite,” Harlan offered, not taking his eyes off the road. “I’m pretty sure I’m destined to hump this badge through small crimes in a small-time department, then gather my small pension and spend the rest of my life playing with my small pecker."
The scanner in front of them cracked its silence. A woman’s voice:
“Units Seventy-Nine and Twenty-Six, be advised. We have a Four-Five-Nine in progress at the corner of Sixth and Pioneer. Smash and grab. Two black males, mid-twenties, wearing jeans, one wearing a Dallas Cowboys hoodie. No weapons and no vehicle to describe."
Harlan keyed the mic, “Got it, Angel. You wanna get a burrito after your shift?”
The female voice said, “Keep is professional, Unit Twenty-Six.” But Prosco sensed a hint of unprofessionalism in her reproof.
Harlan must have sensed it too because he punched Prosco in the arm. “Gonna tag that and mount it,” he said, putting the mic back into its rocker. “She digs me.”
Prosco killed the headlights before they panned across the house. There were no lights on inside. No one awake to greet him. The sky looked as dark as midnight. Somewhere wider, there was a gray line in the east. But here in his driveway, he had to take it on faith.
He tiptoed through the kitchen, taking a water bottle from the fridge and three fig newtons from a jar on the counter. He turned on the TV and muted the sound. He saw the head and torso of a journalist sitting at a shiny desk. Then shaky video of a police officer on his knees, wrestling with a shirtless teenager. The video was dark but there were bright white boxers showing well above the kid’s belt. The band of white jerked and flipped in the struggle. Then the white streak fled and the video showed the officer reaching for his right hip. Then there was another talking head. This one was black with frizzled grey hair and a suit. He was standing at a podium and shouting. Someone behind him was crying. Then the journalist looked at the camera again with her most stern countenance. And then, as if in prayer, she dropped her gaze toward the papers on her shiny desk.
Prosco heard a toilet flush and looked toward his bedroom door. When he looked back at the TV another journalist was speaking, this one with a wide and silly grin. His wife flipped a switch and squinted against the light.
She looked at the TV and back at him. “You see the thing about that cop in Florida?"
“Is that where it was? I couldn’t hear.”
She put her hand on his shoulder, walking past him toward the kitchen.
“You staying up? Want some coffee?"
“No. I’m beat."
“Don’t go to bed without saying good morning to Josie.”
“Did he kill the kid?"
“What’s that, hon?"
“The cop in Florida. He shot a kid, right? Kill him?"
“Yeah, 'fraid so. Why don’t you wake up Josie and I’ll make us all breakfast."
"You hear about Miller?” Harlan said this with his face upturned so as to keep a trickle of errant salsa from dribbling down his chin without dropping his taco from one hand or taking the other off the wheel. He licked his lips impressively.
“Yeah, what? Shot, right? Bar fight?” Prosco sucked Dr Pepper through a straw.
“Bar. Crack house. Brothel. Take your pick. Down on Malcolm X. Been at least a dozen people shot there since I came on the force. Miller was the first cop though."
“Sanders said he’s doing ok. Came out of surgery ok, I mean."
“That’s what I heard. Don’t know why they bothered responding to a call at Juke City, though. Place isn’t worth clearing out,” Harlan took another bite of his soft taco and spoke through the corner of his mouth. “You get that many dealers and thieves and crack whores on one place, there’s no one clean left to protect. Might as well napalm that shit hole."
Prosco decided not to nod at this last assertion in the way he usually agreed with his partner. He stared through the windshield and slurped at his straw. On the other side of the glass, people carried plastic grocery sacks in both directions over a cracked and weed-streaked sidewalk. Lots of people on the street this evening. Lots of them carrying a lot and having very little. Lots of them, vacant of eye and yellow of teeth, stared at the cruiser as it passed.
“They don’t want to be there,” Prosco said, almost too softly to hear.
“No but they want to survive. And sometimes to survive you’ve got to go to hard places."
“You think criminals are born, Harlan?"
“Oh shit. Are we getting philosophical again?"
“Yeah we are.” Prosco pointed out his window at two men standing next to a shopping cart. "How many of these people are going to commit crimes?"
“One hundred percent of them that get desperate enough,” Harlan said. “And if you grow up huffing paint because your crack whore mama won’t share her stash, you’re likely to get desperate."
“Yeah but it’s not like they’re stealing bread. Those punks who filleted that dog in the park last week? They weren’t desperately poor. They were just assholes."
Harlan took another bite of taco. “I’m not sure there’s much difference, partner."
The evening started fast. Their shift was twenty minutes old when Harlan and Prosco were cuffing a twenty-eight year old black male with a golf bag full of sneakers. He walked into a Dick’s Sporting Goods, picked up an empty golf bag, went over to the footwear section, filled it with Nikes, and walked out. At least two employees saw him as did three security cameras. None of them stopped him. He might have made it to a stash spot had the bag not been so heavy. Unit Twenty-Six popped him crossing a Jack In The Box parking lot.
Arrests were good for crime fighting, but they made for a lousy shift. Harlan and Prosco would spend the next two hours in various bureaucratic procedures to verify who, how, when, where, and why they arrested the man they now knew as Jameer Stevenson. Harlan parked in the jail’s intake garage and went through the secure door to get started on paperwork. Prosco held Jameer’s left elbow and ushered him past a row of black faces on benches that faced a high counter where jailers were taking their time. At least my job is better than these pogues, Prosco thought as he deposited Jameer at the end of the line. I wonder how many Jameers they’ll see tonight. Wonder how many of these Jameers are making return visits. Wonder if I’ll ever arrest this Jameer again.
“Prosco! Ask him if Stevenson is with a V or P-H.” It was Harlan leaning through a door behind the processing counter.
“V. It was on his drivers license."
“V for villain, bro,” Jameer said looking at the man next to him on the bench who could have been no older than fourteen. The kid nodded and sneered.
“Shutup,” Prosco said.
Millie worked every night, refilling chipped white coffee mugs and smiling her broad, white smile at customers. She had been at Smokey Joe’s since the days when Dallas Cowboys stopped in for dinner after games. Joe said she kept the place open. Said he owed her half the company. Even promised it to her a few times. That was back when the neighborhood was in decline and the lost profits weighed heavy on Joe. That was when he used to come to work drunk, hand Millie his keys, and disappear into his office. These days, the neighborhood’s decline was behind them; there was no further to sink. And Joe didn’t come to work at all most days. Millie had told all of this to Prosco, little by little, over hundreds of Dr Peppers.
A bell jangled when Prosco walked through the door and Millie hailed him from the kitchen, peering through the cook’s counter.
“Miss Millie.” Prosco could hear a man’s voice, tinny and crackling, coming from the back. "Who’s preaching tonight?"
"Bishop J.C. Blackwater.” Millie was coming through the silver, swinging door from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “I been knowin' him since he was a boy, you know."
“You’ve told me before.” Prosco took a seat in a corner booth and retrieved a menu from the condiment rack on the table. He liked to sit at the counter if the place was empty. Tonight there was a man in tan Carhardt coveralls slung low over a plate at the end of the counter. “He’s one of your favorites, isn’t he?"
“Sugar, he everybody’s favorite. That man is anointed. And to think I used to watch him swimmin’ at the levy while his mamma workin’.”
The voice grew while they spoke, reaching a pulsating scream that was answered by a rumbling crowd’s voice, no doubt saying, “Amen” and “Yes, Lord.” Prosco couldn’t quite make out the words.
“What’s he preaching about?"
“Oh, you know. Race relations. Injustice. Moses.” She put down a red plastic cup of Dr Pepper on the table. "Black stuff.”
Prosco nodded and smiled. He put the menu back in the rack. “I don’t even know why I’m looking at this. You know what I want."
“Coming right up, Officer Prosco,” Millie smiled and patted his shoulder as she left.
Prosco checked his phone and the other customer left. When Millie came back from the kitchen with a plate in her hand, he met her at the counter. “Turn up the bishop. Let’s hear what he has to say.”
“Oh he ain’t yo kinda bishop,” Millie slid the plate onto the counter. “This here message is kinda black folk talk. But if you want some good gospel preachin’ I got some fo yeh. I got his last week sermon right in there on the iPod. He’s talkin’ ‘bout sin and grace. It’s a good one."
“Well, yeah, but I think I’d like to hear this week’s.”
“You Catholic, right officer Prosco?” She was refilling his Dr Pepper from the soda wand. “Catholics need to hear about grace."
“Yes, I am. But I like to stay current. Let’s hear what the bishop says about current events.”
Millie sighed and walked through the silver door. Seconds later Prosco could hear Bishop J.C. Blackwater as if he were in the room with him.
Here, there is no Gentile or Jew,
A murmur from the crowd.
No circumcised or uncircumcised,
Another response, this time with clapping.
No barbarian or Scythian,
The responses came in rhythm.
And there is neither slave or free!
At this the crowd shouted and applauded.
Brothers and sisters, we are strangers in a city where white cops shoot black folk. We are aliens in a nation where people have been enslaved to pick cotton in the fields and oppressed to deal crack in the streets.
Rising now. Pulling the crowd into louder response.
This is not where we belong-a! This is not our home-a! We are citizens of a holy kingdom-a! And it is not our job to fix this kingdom-a. It is not for us to manipulate the White House or get out the vote. Oh no! It is our job to point to a better kingdom! It is our job to make this Earthly sojourn as glo-ri-ous as our heavenly home will someday be!
Speaker and audience were shouting over one another now. Racing to a climax that they both seemed to know how to create.
We have work to do, brothers and sisters! Work of kindness and righteousness! Work of justice and mercy. How beautiful on the mountains are the feet! How beautiful on Malcolm X Boulevard are the feet of those who bring good news!
Applause drown out the bishop and Millie went through the door to turn it down.
When she returned, she looked nervous. “The rest is music and such.”
"Thanks for letting me listen."
“He’s a good preacher, officer. And a good man. He don’t want no mo’ trouble for black folk. He ain’t fomentin’."
Prosco smiled and handed her another empty red plastic cup. “No, Millie. I know he isn’t."
Officers Lennahan, Snow, and Peltier were already in the briefing room when Prosco arrived ten minutes early for his shift. Peltier was playing sudoku in front of a styrofoam cup. The others were thumbing a stack of day reports.
“You boys can’t get enough of this place, huh?” Prosco joked. “Thinking about moving in?"
All three faces looked at him. None smiled. Peltier went back to sudoku and Snow responded evenly. “You haven’t talked to anybody today, have you?”
Prosco lost his grin and shook his head.
“Miller died this morning. Complications from the surgery. I guess we just wanted to be around today."
Peltier burped and took a drink out of the styrofoam cup. He had an enormous pockmarked nose and jowls that seemed weighted down by decades of carrying heavy. Prosco thought he looked like an older version of Snow, or a bulldog: stocky, short-haired, and growling.
“I’m hoping to talk to the sergeant before briefing,” Lennahan said, with his finger marking a place in the stack of reports. “I used to patrol Malcolm X. We need a new policy on Juke City."
“Yeah, like bomb the shit out of it,” Peltier said without looking up from his puzzle.
“Shut it down. There’s got to be some way to put it out of business. Code violations or something. Tear the building down."
“No, I meant bomb the shit out of with those fuckers inside. Code violations won’t do anything but move the party somewhere else."
“Maybe we should put Sanders on it,” Snow said.
“Come on. That’s not funny,” Lennahan said.
“Might work. Maybe he knows the handshake."
“No, we need Sanders around to stand behind the chief at the press conferences,” Peltier said. “You know. For appearances."
“You boys are going to get us all in trouble,” Prosco said finally. “Besides, I don’t see white or black. Sanders is blue and that’s what matters.” Instinctively, he grinned after that line, as if to counterbalance its naivety.
Peltier chuckled. “Such a fucking boy scout."
The movie was a psychological thriller starring Christian Bale as a serial killer with a conscience. His character heard the voices of his victims long after their deaths. Prosco had a hard time staying focused.
On the drive home, Mrs. Prosco gave the film one star. “Too gory for me."
“Yeah. The kind of stuff that would get to you if you watched too much,” Prosco said. “Christian Bale was good though."
Mrs. Prosco turned away the AC vent. Before this night, she hadn’t ridden in her husband’s pickup in a month. Two partners had set in her seat in that time. The date night was past due. “More bad news today."
“Yeah. Is it showing?"
“All over the news.”
“Miller was on the news?"
“Is that his name? It looked like the guy had it coming, but I still worry. Makes cops look racist."
“You’re not talking about Miller. Miller was the officer who was in the hospital all week."
“Oh, no I mean that cop in Baltimore. Looked like he could have tased—"
“Miller died today."
She patted his arm. “I’m sorry, hon."
Mrs. Prosco made overtures that she was available after the date. She didn’t close the bathroom door while she leaned over her sink to brush her teeth. But Prosco ignored them. His sleep was thin, and through it he heard the voices of Jameer Stevenson and his teenaged prison companion, laughing at “V for villain." They were joined by a man from Baltimore and a kid with saggy pants and white boxers. And a boy scout. They shouted about injustice and Moses. And circumcision.
There ain't no slave or free!
There ain't no black or white! Blue or green!
No villains or heroes. No Officer Prosco!
Ain’t nobody here wants to be here. Everybody gonna find a way out.
Bomb that shit hole!
Niggas killin’ each other fo shoes or fo dope, it don’t matter. Somebody gots to pay!
Miller died today!
Prosco woke up panting. Mrs. Prosco grunted and rolled over. The junior officer tiptoed to the kitchen and poured three fingers of something to take his nightmare away.
The call came in while Harlan and Prosco were questioning a witness to yesterday’s Two-Seven-Three Domestic Violence. The witness revealed that she was a dancer at Stray Cats, at which point Harlan became convinced of her value to the case. Prosco retreated to the Crown Vic to answer the radio. He shouted at Harlan when he heard the words, “Juke City" and "Shots fired.”
Harlan drove fast under lights and sirens while Prosco got a description of the perp. Black male. Early twenties. Black jeans and white Ecko hoodie. Black dew rag. Carrying a hand gun. Possibly two guns.
“Shit,” Harlan grumbled.
The cruiser nearly hit the black jeans turning onto Maple. They were two blocks south of Juke City and Black Jeans was running south. Ecko hoodie and dew rag. Prosco was out of the Crown Vic before it finished skidding. He chased the perp through a parking lot and caught him when he rounded a corner fast and knocked over a kid carrying a football. The kid scurried away and the perp swung wild, trying to pull free of Prosco’s tackle. The third swing caught Prosco just below his temple. Something harder than a fist. Prosco fell to one knee, had the general sensation of something slipping away, put his hand on his service weapon. He heard a shout, then a pop. It was Harlan. “Hands on your head, motherfucker!” Prosco rubbed his eyes. Felt blood on his hands and face. Tried to focus, and saw Harlan in the weeds. His knee in the perp’s back, cuffing him. Prosco exhaled. He tried to stand, stumbled, and went back to a knee.
“Sorry partner. I couldn’t—“ Harlan’s shadow told Prosco his partner had finished with the perp and was checking on him.
“Nah. That was good running. I never could have caught him. Let’s have a look at that head."
Harlan made a sucking noise and said something into his radio. Prosco‘s vision cleared. He was on both knees holding on to a No Parking sign at the edge of an overgrown, vacant lot. Black Jeans sat on the ground thirty feet away facing them near a row of bushes, his hands behind his back. The black-and-white was half in the street, half on the curb behind them. Harlan helped his partner to his feet and ushered him to the trunk of the cruiser. He retrieved a First Aid kit and found gauze. He seemed to be hurrying.
“You get his gun? I think he hit me with his gun.” Saying it made his head hurt even more.
“It’s on the hood. You’re lucky he didn’t use the other end."
Prosco let out a “Pffft,” and tried to say something cocky. Pain shot him in the head. He groaned and his vision blurred again.
“Almost looks like he did. That’s a nasty cut. Can you hold this on your head?"
Prosco sat on the rim of the trunk and pressed the gauze against his temple.
Harlan was standing in front of him, looking worried. “You stable for a minute?”
“We’re gonna get that looked at. Backup’s already on the way."
Prosco nodded and looked back toward the perp who was eyeing them and gnashing his teeth. He doesn’t want to be here, Prosco thought.
“You scared the piss out of me, partner. I’m gonna take a leak and read this fucker his rights.” Harlan walked past the perp and Prosco checked the gauze. It was soaking through fast. A trail of blood ran down his wrist and he wiped it on his still-pressed shirt. The crease went wavy and then crisp again. Prosco tried to concentrate, to control the erratic vision. He looked back across the vacant lot. The perp was sitting on his hands now, moving them forward under his legs, toward his feet. Harlan was twenty feet to the perp’s right, facing the bushes with a wide stance. Prosco’s head throbbed hard and he wondered if throbbing was a good or bad sign. He focused on the perp. Saw him slip his handcuffed wrists around his feet and into his lap. That didn’t seem good, but Prosco couldn’t be sure. He wanted to shout. Saw the perp’s cuffed hands reach for his pant leg and pull it toward his knee. Prosco remembered something. Dispatcher’s voice. “Possibly two guns.” He tried to shout but choked on his spittle. He coughed and his head felt like it would explode. There was a blurry bulge in the perp’s baggy black jeans. An ill-fitting boot. Prosco reached for his right hip. The perp’s eyes were wide. Prosco raised his weapon and managed to push words through his throat. “Stop.” He saw Harlan shaking. Glanced at him, hoping for help. The perp grimaced and lean forward.