This week’s story time contains adult themes, so please read at your own discretion.
Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, was officially recognized as a federal holiday in the United States three days ago, on July 17th, 2021. The holiday commemorates the day in 1866 when the last known slaves in Texas were finally legally liberated.
I wrote this short story last year after being shocked by incidences of police brutality towards African Americans, specifically the brutal treatment of African Americans with mental illness. These stories seemed to go mostly untold. Deborah Danner who perished in 2016 as a result of questionable police brutality, wrote an extremely enlightening piece about her mental illness called “Living with Schizophrenia” that I used to gain more insight into the thoughts of my main character. I hope this story raises awareness of the prejudices and biases that persist and leads to more discussion on how we can do better in the future.
There were four vinyl chairs in an apartment near the tracks. Their floral print of lime green and white flowers never grew old. Doris counted her days by their slight tremors, which were like the shaking of her hands from the meds. Neither motion was constant, but both were certainties of everyday life.
Doris held her scissors still and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. 17, 18, 19–she meticulously cut the last number from the advertisement, dropping it into a bin overflowing with tiny cut-outs. Working numbers, writing codes, these were the tasks of her life. She spent her days writing numbers like symphonies. Still, no one believe she’d cracked the code to racism.
Her unsipped coffee cup formed rings as if an invisible stone had skipped its surface. She took her train breaks to walk the building, eradicating 19’s from signs, doorways, and the lives of her neighbors. It was an endless task, but the ripples had to start somewhere. Today, she was determined to finally free the curse on her neighbor’s door, number 19. Hammer in hand, Doris took the stairs, past the third, second and then finally to the first floor.
Inside Apartment 19, the baby was finally falling asleep. Sometimes, the sound of the train could do that. Sherrie looked in the mirror for the first time that day. It was always a surprise to see a youthful face in the mirror. She’d never wanted to be a mom, but now that motherhood had happened, she was determined to be the loving, attentive parent she’d never had.
Bang! Bang! The sound of the hammer echoed into the apartment, past a thrift-store plaid couch and down a narrow hallway into the used pine crib where newborn Stella stirred and then let out a long cry, the I-was-dreaming-of-a-beautiful-boob that-never-runs-dry, kinda regret.
Sherrie marched towards the door, where more sounds echoed, but thought better and went to the crib to sweep up Stella and rock her gently. Then, mother and baby dashed through the apartment to peer through the peephole.
“Is that you, Doris?” Sherrie could see an upside-down hammer and the short curly hair of her neighbor.
Doris couldn’t stop to chit-chat, one more nail and apartment 19 would officially be number 9.
“Doris, you woke Stella,” Sherrie was agitated but hoping to avoid a confrontation.
“I’m doing this for everyone,” Doris lowered her eyebrows drawing them in as she spoke. It was necessary to widen the circle of safety and eradicate 19’s.
Sherrie opened the door on the chain just as the number one landed on the carpeted floor.
“Doris, give me the hammer,” Sherrie extended one arm through the crack and tried to snatch the hammer away. Her neighbor was off her meds again, that much was certain.
“How old are you, Sherrie, telling me to give you my hammer.”
“19, Doris, now don’t you make me call somebody,” Sherrie made one more swing for the hammer before Doris raised it over her head.
“19, 19,19,” she held the hammer high.
Sherrie moved back, slamming the door. Her heartbeat like the hammer woke baby Stella, now wailing again. “Get away from my door, Doris. I got a baby here and you swingin’ a hammer at me? I’m calling the cops.”
Doris gave the door a hard stare. “I’m doing this for everyone.” “One day, you’ll thank me.” She pushed her eye up to the outside of the peephole as if she could see in and then slowly moved out of sight. As soon as she had left the hall, Sherrie exhaled and picked up her cellphone. Should she make the call? Doris looked worse than last time. Clearly, she was capable of anything. But the NYPD were also capable of anything.
Sherrie found a pacifier on the kitchen counter which reminded her that she had someone else to think of now; besides, she dialed the 9, Doris was out of her mind, then the first 1, then 1 again. Doris took the silver 1 and went back down the hall. On the way back, she pried the 19 button from the elevator key before noticing a new poster hanging inside: June 19 Jamboree. Doris ripped the number off the poster, but as soon as she stepped out of the elevator, she noticed three more posters tacked to the message board. Doris rushed back into her apartment. She needed scissors and she needed them fast.
Responding to these types of calls in these sorts of neighborhoods was the reason officer Handley drank. He didn’t like the dark buildings, overcrowded with blacks and immigrants. He was pretty sure everyone there was looking for a reason to jump him or lynch him when he wasn’t looking. It was for that reason he always unclipped his holster before he responded to these kinds of calls.
Female, in her fifties. Erratic behavior, needing to be picked up for a psychiatric hold. It was a story he had heard many times before. Fucking two hours. That’s all it would take for it to be someone else’s beat. He checked the clock in his dash and hit the sirens. Responding to emergencies always got his heart going. The thrill of passing motherfuckers on the freeway. The jolt of another pair of handcuffs and another booking number just minutes away.
Doris cut with precision, 19, cut, gone, and in the bin to be burned that evening. She’d be up all night at this rate, and that was okay. This was just the sort of all-night quest she needed, after a day of widening the circle. Eliminating racism one number at a time.
The knocks on the door were authoritative. Doris knew what those knocks meant.
“NYPD, open up!” the knocks were solid, commanding, and Doris cut a few more scraps from flyers before she unlatched the door immediately retreating to the table to continue her mission.
Not this again. Officer Handley had a strong feeling of déjà vu pushing open the ajar door of apartment 314. The vile green chairs, the same smell of coconut lotion with buttered popcorn. A huge trash can topped with cut-outs sat in front of a table, and Doris, scissors in hand continued her motions.
“I’m busy, what you want?” she had a grip on those silver scissors; this was not going to be easy.
“We have a complaint from a neighbor, Ms. Dee and we’d like to talk with you about your activity this afternoon.” Officer Handley called in back-up and stepped in. The room took on a tremor, starting small and building almost to a seizure. He grabbed his holster, almost instinctively. God, it smelled in here.
Badge number: 1988, 1988, Doris repeated the words, and held her breath. This was her moment. The circles sensed her vibration. She could rid the world of this curse, this racism in action, with just one well-meant cut.
“Mam, I need you to put down the scissors, and put your hands over your head.”
Isn’t that how the slaves were led into this country? Hands up, head down. Don’t look at anyone in the eyes. Just nod and keep your eyes down. Not today.
Doris lifted herself from the green chair and held the scissors up high. She was ready to die for her people.
“Put those down,” Handley had the gun out. It was black steel in white hands. It was authority. He aimed at the scissors that Doris lifted high over her head. In his mind, this black bitch was more than dead.
“Doris, I need you to drop the scissors, and keep your hands up!” Now!” It wasn’t the first time Doris had heard those harsh words, but the rumble of the train outside was more than just today. It was the rumble of change. She lifted the scissors up higher, cursing 1988.”
A shot rang straight through a hand. A hole, silver scissors hit the floor. A green linoleum chair with a clean hole. Vintage no more. Red bloodied floor.
Doris used her unshot hand to steady herself on the chair.
“This isn’t the end!” Doris steadied herself, 1988, this is it. She knelt to pick up the scissors intent to ram the officer and knock him over. His firearm ready, Officer Handley fired the rest of his bullets into Doris, leaving her still and smoking on the floor by the overflowing bin. Another black dead. Was this shift never going to end? Paperwork, and what day was it? June 19th. God damn, the paperwork.