By Donald Quist
Thursday, September 22, 2011—An hour after the arrest, phone calls from South Hartsville rush City Hall. These citizens have faced harassment, detention, and accusation because of a lie.
They want answers.
I introduce myself, “I’m the Public Information Officer. How may I help you?"
The callers protest. I listen quietly. I share their frustrations.
When they fall silent, tired and waiting for me to respond, I carefully recite the statement I’ve prepared: “We don’t want to dwell on this crime. This matter will be settled in court. It is not for us to judge, to condone, or condemn.”
Feeling dismissed, most people hang up their phone.
But one man does not relent.
He asks me, “Do you know how many times cops stopped me over this mess at Jack-Be-Nimble? How many times my son was stopped?”
“Our thoughts are with all those affected, truly. The city is also thankful for the tireless effort demonstrated by many members of our local law enforcement.”
In the weeks immediately following the fire and alleged theft at Jack-Be-Nimble, I heard of white officers storming through Southside accosting black men. City officials saw a surge in complaints about law enforcement and reports of misconduct, intimidation and verbal attacks. Downtown, in the vicinity of the crime, police increased patrols. Walking around unaccompanied by a white person often subjected me to questioning. Returning to my car after a late movie showing, a pair of officers approached me. One officer asked if I owned the vehicle. I said yes. He asked for my name and when I gave it to them the other cop smiled in recognition. He tapped his partner and said, “That’s the boy that writes for the Mayor.” They let me leave without having to show identification, and a mix of resentment, gratitude, and guilt, covered me like a heavy wool coat.
The man on the phone laughs. “They’ve gotten you, brother.”
He asks, “Are you black?”
“Aren’t you angry?”
“What do you want me to say, sir?”
“The city owes the black community an apology!”
“We will not apologize, sir.”
“I can’t apologize, sir.”
I hear a click in the receiver and then the dial tone. Pressing the handset harder to my ear, I listen to the airy pitch become a howl.
For Immediate Release:
911 Call Leads to Discovery of Robbery and Arson
Hartsville, SC—Wednesday evening, January 26th, 2011, Hartsville City Police and Fire Fighters received a 911 call for help at the 100 block of E. Carolina Avenue. When authorities arrived they saw smoke coming from Jack-Be-Nimble, a child’s clothing boutique. Police officers gained entry to the building where they discovered a fire and a person lying inside on the floor. They pulled the victim to safety and fire fighters contained the flames. The victim was transported to an area hospital and is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
Darlington County Sheriff’s Office Crime Scene Units were called to the location. At this time Hartsville City Police officials say two black male suspects entered the store shortly after dark, robbed and assaulted the victim, and then set fire to the building.
“This is a blatant disregard for human life and property, and justice will be served,” said the Hartsville City Manager, “I have all the confidence that our city police officials will get to the bottom of this heinous act.”
This crime is currently under investigation. If you have any information regarding this case you are asked to call the Hartsville City Police Department or your local law enforcement agency.
A coalition of local pastors working with friends and family of the victim, organized a prayer chain a few days after the crime. Over a thousand people lined up along Carolina Avenue, shoulder to shoulder, covering the two city blocks from Sixth Street to Fourth. State Senators, members of City Council, and the City Manager stood among those gathered. I had a spot near the intersection of Fourth Street and Carolina, five buildings down from the chard remains of Jack-Be-Nimble.
Preachers positioned themselves every few yards to lead their section of the chain in prayer. The ministers signaled each other. Heads bowed, dropping in a wave down the sidewalk. I lowered my chin to my chest, closed my eyes, and reached for the hands of the strangers to my right and left. The holy man nearest to me began to pray. He asked God for solidarity. He pleaded for swift justice and mercy for the souls responsible for such a heinous act.
While the pastor recited scripture I recalled the orange haze that shrouded the same block nights earlier. The light from the street lamps bounced off smoke bellowing from a blackened storefront. I remembered the smell of burning plastic tickling my throat. Fire fighters pushed back spectators and residents evacuated from the conjoined buildings. I inched closer, peering fearfully at emergency medical technicians kneeling around a pale body draped in a white sheet. The memory is mute. I can’t remember hearing anything over the sound of blood rushing to my skull.
Finally, the minister pleaded for Jesus’s intercession and said amen. I released my neighbor’s hands and wiped my sweaty palms on the sides of my pants. One of the strangers, a greying white woman, leaned in to hug me.
“Peace be with you,” she sighed into my ear.
“And also with you,” I replied.
She let me go. We smiled and nodded at one another, and then I turned away to walk home.
The line scattered. I moved with the groups heading east towards Third Street. Cutting between people and cars, I overhead someone say, “We’ll catch them. We’ll show those animals.”
I realized I hadn’t seen any other young black men in the prayer chain.
After I reached my house I sat on the front steps thinking about “those animals” and what made them less than human. A police cruiser rolled past. I quickly rose to my feet and went inside.
I volunteered to distribute police sketches of three black men wanted for questioning. The posters described them as potential witnesses but many saw accomplices. Some of the shop owners downtown believed the men in these illustrations might have served as lookouts. Rumors spread. Some speculated at least five were involved in the attack on Jack-Be-Nimble.
People said, “They picked her place because they knew she would be in the store alone after dark. They had it all planned out, the animals."
I wondered if I had ever seen the faces on the poster skulking around the block? Maybe at the coffee shop I frequented. Did I ever see these men standing outside beneath the awning, sipping from steaming cups while considering the high-end kid’s clothing store next door and how much cash might be inside?
I spent time studying the police flyer. In the illustrations one man had neat shoulder-length dreadlocks. Another had a short fade. These two faces looked familiar, but I couldn’t identify them. The last man had more discernible features, sharp check bones and a wide jaw sloping forward to a pointed cleft chin. A tiny crucifix dangled from his left ear. He wore a baseball hat low over his forehead and his eyes vanished below the bill.
I imagined his hidden gaze staring into my home between cracks in the blinds and curtains. I often envisioned narrowed grayscale pupils floating over me when I lied in bed. His image surfaced in my dreams.
For many weeks I couldn’t stop searching the dark for the shark-like man in the fitted cap. And then one slow afternoon I entered the coffee shop beside the former Jack-Be-Nimble. The café looked empty except for a single barista standing behind the counter. She fiddled with the nozzles of an espresso machine, her back to the front door.
I approached the register and said hello. The barista turned around. She jumped.
Clutching her chest she said I had startled her. I apologized and gave my order.
Before preparing my drink she smiled and told me to, "Be careful. The boys they're looking for look a lot like you."
I glanced over at the police poster taped to the window of the front door.
I couldn't see my resemblance in the ashen faces.
Days later I stopped seeing images of the police drawings in places I felt vulnerable.
In October of 1994, while my mom attended a funeral, I spent time with my grandmother at the Wash Tub Laundry on Fifth Street in Hartsville. I had wanted to be outside riding bikes with my cousins instead of watching daytime soap operas on ceiling mounted televisions. My grandmother removed a load from one of the large dryers and dropped the warm clothes into a rolling laundry cart. She pushed the cart over to a clear table and ordered me to help her fold. While we worked she tried to explain the plotlines on the Young and the Restless.
“You see him, with the mustache?” she said raising her chin in the direction of the nearest screen. “That’s Victor Newman. He’s a handsome white man. Him and Chuck Norris on Walker, Texas Ranger.”
I ran a finger over my smooth upper lip.
During commercial breaks, advertisements for the nightly news played clips of Susan Smith crying for the return of her children, “I just can’t express it enough, we just got to get them home. That’s just where they belong, with their momma and their daddy.”
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t play outdoors or how my freedom related to two missing children I had never met. I pleaded with my grandmother to let me leave the laundry mat. Again, she said no.
“It’s not safe for black boys to be riding around until they catch the man that took that white woman’s children or she confesses to having taken those kids out herself.”
“But I’m nine, Old Lady.”
“You think they care? Shit. They were putting children younger than you on slave ships. Ask your daddy, he’s from Ghana.”
“That was a long time ago.”
She stopped folding to remove a crumpled paper towel from the pocket of her ratty stretch pants. She pulled the Winston butt from her lips, tucked the cigarette and its fading embers into the wrinkled napkin and crushed it in her fist. A final wisp of smoke rose from between her fingers.
She leaned close to whisper to me, “It was only two decades ago, right down the road in Lamar, a hundred white folks showed up at a schoolhouse and turned over a bus full of black children. They didn’t care if they were kids. Black is black. Not a one of those people saw any real time in jail. They’re still out here, walking around. They never went anywhere, they still own everything, and who knows what they’ve raised their children to believe. They’ll treat you like a dog. Shit, a dog’s life may mean more to them.”
The Old Lady reached for the lighter and Winstons she kept in the breast pocket of her jean jacket. She lit a new cigarette, breathed deep and continued folding.
“White people get funny when they think their women are under attack. You ever hear of Rosewood?”
“No, Old Lady.”
“Cause they don’t want you to know. A town in Florida made up of freed slaves. One white girl claims a black man hurt her and the town is burned to the ground, people are hanged all strange fruit. They’re serious about their women.”
We continued folding in silence. We finished as the saxophone squeals of The Bold and The Beautiful theme song filled the laundry mat. I didn’t bother asking to go outside again.
For Immediate Release:
SLED Continues jack-be-nimble investigation
Hartsville, SC– The Hartsville Police department will turn over its examination into the assault and arson which occurred at Jack-Be-Nimble earlier this year. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division will continue the investigation with needed assistance from the Hartsville Police Department. The Hartsville Chamber of Commerce is still offering $25,000 to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of the two suspects involved.
The City Manager closed the door to our offices and locked it behind her. She sat in the chair across from my desk. Slouching down in the seat she stared up vacantly. Her eyes scanned the water-spotted ceiling tiles and the insect carcasses trapped between the sheaths of the florescent lights.
After a few silent seconds she sighed. “This is going to hurt our relationship with the black community,” she said.
A blinking cursor waited on my computer screen. I counted the expectant flashes unsure how to begin filling the white space.
“Our relationship?” I said.
“The City and black people, yes.”
“Probably.” I punched down on the keys—For Immediate Release: HARTSVILLE MOVING FORWARD AFTER JACK-BE-NIMBLE ARREST.
She groaned. “The men the owner described for those sketches never existed. It’s like Susan Smith in Union. How are people expected to move forward together when stuff like this keeps happening?”
My pinky ricocheted off RETURN…was arrested and charged in connection to the assault and arson which occurred at Jack-Be-Nimble on January 26th, 2011…arrest was made by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED)…
“Did the profilers tell you when SLED will take her into custody?” I asked.
“No, they didn’t tell me when. Did you talk to the Mayor?”
“Yeah.” Hartsville’s Mayor issued a statement: ‘Despite the shock and anger, these events succeeded in helping to unite a community. This city witnessed outpourings of love, people banding together in their resolve to make our streets safer, and this is what we should focus on. My hope is we will continue to hold on to that commitment to our city because the only way we can move forward is together.’
The City Manager sat up in her seat. She watched me for a moment. “Are you mad?”
“You knew her.”
“I thought I did.”
“Do you still believe her? Even after everything SLED has on her?”
“Doesn’t matter if I believe her or not.”
“Not really, but do you?”
“I don’t know.”
The City Manager stood. She told me to finish the press release and have it ready to send out whenever SLED makes the arrest. Before the City Manager exited the room she asked, “Why did she have to say they were black?”
I typed, because America, because of its long history of violence towards people of color in response to perceived attacks on white femininity, because of Florida’s Rosewood Massacre in 1923, because she knew there would be many ready to believe her, people ready to be validated in their belief that people with my skin color are animals.
I held DELETE and shrugged.
In the weeks waiting for law enforcement to arrest the owner of Jack-Be-Nimble, I searched for earlier indications of her culpability. I tried to consolidate the person I knew with notes from the profiler's investigation. The image of the kind woman with the round face who ordered cheaper editions for me at the college bookstore was reshaped by "conclusive with self-inflicted wounds." A person I chatted with regularly at Chamber of Commerce functions, a demure and devoted mother and wife who started her own business, a person whose persistent grin never revealed how much debt threatened to crush her and her family, transformed; reinvented in response to “an absence of DNA evidence” and failed polygraph tests.
Like animals, humans can become especially vicious if they feel trapped or afraid. Does she remain a victim, guilty or innocent, if not a victim of the crimes she says she has endured, then a victim of her own hopelessness? I began to understand there exists truth in what I see and what I do not see, and I had to acknowledge the limits of my perception. I began to accept I might never understand how she felt in that moment, real or imagined.
Thursday, September 22, 2011—The WPDE reporter watches her cameraman clip the tiny microphone to the lapel of my blazer. I’m thankful I didn’t wear a striped shirt this morning, but disappointed I didn’t have the foresight to shave.
The reporter smiles slyly, “The Mayor didn’t seem happy to see me in your office. He stamped out of here pretty fast. He doesn’t trust you to speak on the arrest?”
“He trusts me. He’s just curious why I’ve agreed to talk with you when we’ve already released a statement.”
The Mayor, the City Manager and the new Police Chief have all refused to appear on television. I have said yes, and the reporter doesn’t ask me why. Perhaps she worries I might consider the risk of embarrassment and change my mind. If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I want to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp dirty fangs to snap my bones. If she asked, I’d tell the reporter the same thing I told the Mayor—my position includes relaying important messages to citizens, and the news camera offers me a venue to do my job better.
Instead, she asks me if I know what I’m going to say. I tell her I plan to repeat the sentiments expressed in the press release.
She smiles again. “You know I have to ask about your officers? There were a lot of complaints about their search for suspects and the way the former Police Chief handled things before he retired.”
“Some say he did too much, some say he did too little. I don’t know much about it, I wasn’t full-time yet.” The cameraman turns on the wireless transmitter and hands it to me. I fasten it to my belt. “We were very grateful to have Interim Chief Thompson serve us and now we have Chief Hudson who expresses a real commitment to community oriented policing. The City supports local law enforcement and the fine work done daily by so many of our officers.”
I repeat this once the camera comes on. My validation of area cops leads the six o’clock news and airs again at eleven. The Mayor texts me around midnight to say I did well.
The City Manager thanks me when I enter her office the following morning.
I approach her desk.
“I’m surprised to see you,” she says. “I thought you might want to quit after all the calls yesterday.”
She says I looked good on television. She liked what I said during the interview, about our responsibility as human beings: to seek compassion, to demand more than good enough and to celebrate sincere efforts to improve.
She reminds me there will be more calls today.
I tell her I know.
I turn to exit the room, and she says, “Sorry.”
Startled by the earnestness in her voice, I stop moving.
“Why are you apologizing? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes, I know,” she says. “I just thought someone should say it.”
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is the author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Knee-Jerk, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and The Adroit Journal. He has written essays for Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, and Slag Glass City. He has fiction forthcoming in J Journal, and nonfiction scheduled to appear at The Rumpus and in North American Review. He serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.
Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:
Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting
Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting
David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme
Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own
Gene Kwak: Dirty Work
RE Katz: The Shift
P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City