June 26, 2010 § 2 Comments
a street opera
by Larkin Vonalt
We’ve just turned off the television, the Lakers winning Game Six of the playoffs, when we hear the voices, shrill and angry.
“Don’t you touch me, nigger, I’m done with you! You get this bitch off of me! Get — off me!”
A male voice rumbles in answer. We can’t make out what he’s saying, but he’s angry too. I look at my husband.
“They’re at it, again,” he says.
We are assuming that the ruckus is from the brick house on the corner. A young couple lives there and their arguments are frequent and loud, interspersed with booming parties and out-of-season fireworks.
The damn fireworks had been going on all afternoon and into the evening, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. It makes the dogs crazy. Earlier that very afternoon a guy the next block over had one go off in his hand. We heard him screaming until the ambulance enveloped his cry with its own. It’s a long time to scream, and it was gut wrenching to hear him. Even if it was his own fault.
Looking out the dining room window, I can see fireflies flittering in the treetops. At dusk, they’d risen from the grass like sparks. The house on the corner is silent.
“No, it’s not the people in the brick house.” There are more voices now.
“Don’t you come around here, anymore, bitch. You’ve got no business, here!”
“Get the hell away from me, you ho. You better be watching your own man, you just stay away from-.”
“He ain’t yo’ man, you stupid—” There’s a loud slap, followed by screaming.
The women are on the lawn of the house across the street. “It’s Garrett’s,” I tell my husband.
You can only see through our front door in a place about four feet off the floor where there is a flaw in the frosted glass.
“Don’t look through there, they’ll see you,” my husband says.
He’s right, you can’t look through that door without being backlit, hunched over to peer out the dime-sized area of clear glass.
Garrett Wilkerson had been the first person to welcome us to the neighborhood. He’d done some handyman type work for the house’s former owner and when he came over to introduce himself, he explained that he’d been asked to “keep an eye on the house.” In fact, he only had one eye. The other was clouded, the result of an industrial accident years ago. A one-eyed man asked to keep an eye on the house. For the longest time, I couldn’t get my head around that. Now, when I thought of Garrett I didn’t think of his eye at all.
He’d grown up in the rambling white frame house across the street and lived there still with his brother Junior. When we first came to the neighborhood, his mother Miss Pearl still lived there, but she has since gone on to Assisted Living. She wouldn’t be pleased with the rumble now spilling out across her front porch and on to the lawn.
“It’s that woman, again isn’t it? That woman Junior was involved with,” my husband says. A car door slams and I peek out to see a little white car pull away from the curb and roar away.
“Yes, I think so.”
The police had been drawn to the Wilkerson’s house several times because of Junior’s lady friend. Late one winter night, she’d gotten a ride to Junior with a guy she’d met in a Cincinnati nightclub. Turns out the car they rode up in was stolen. When they’d stopped in front of the house, a passing cop had run the tags. In a kind of “kick ass and take names later” operation, everyone in the house had been forced outside in their nightclothes, and handcuffed up against the squad car.
Garrett explained all of this the next day when he came over to return the snow shovel he’d borrowed.
“I told Junior that she wasn’t gonna be nothin’ but trouble, but he doesn’t listen to me.” Garrett spent some time locked up when he was younger, he doesn’t like trouble. A few weeks later he reported that Junior “was done with all that.” Until tonight, presumably.
Our front bedroom looks out across the wide avenue between us and the Wilkerson’s. I go upstairs, turning off the hall light so that I will not be seen in the open window. It isn’t nosiness that sends me there (okay, well maybe a little) so much as concern. They are still shouting across the street, and too often on this side of town, arguments end in a hail of bullets.
The scene before me could not have been set any better by August Wilson. A middle-aged man leans against a porch pillar, his arms crossed. Another man sits on the front steps. In the yard, half a dozen women are in a loose circle. Many stand with their hands on their hips. In the dark, I can’t quite make out their faces. We know Garrett so well now that I would recognize him even in the dark. He is not upon this stage.
One of the women slaps the other and she is shoved, hard, across the lawn. A man standing in the shadows steps forward to catch her, wrapping her up in his arms and holding her there. The slapped woman is screaming at the pair.
“Bitch, I’ll fuckin’ kill you—“
That’s enough for me. I take the cell phone out of my pocket and turning my back to the window to shield the lit screen from view, I dial 911. Later I will learn that my husband is calling the cops too.
I explain the situation carefully to the 911 operator. She is asking me questions about us, and our telephone number and did we want the officers to come by our house too?
“No, no, no. These people are our neighbors. We like them. We just don’t want anything awful to happen, and things are definitely heating up over there.”
“Okay, I’ll make a note of that. We’ve got cars on the way.”
The first car to arrive isn’t the cops though. It’s the little white car that had peeled out ten minutes before. Oh shit. When people leave an argument and come back again it often means they’re coming back with a gun. Shit, shit, shit.
Within seconds though, the police arrive, running lights only, no sirens. Blue red blue red blue red blue red blue red blue. When I see the officers get out of the car, I laugh a little. They’re white. White men wading in to a hornet’s nest of angry black women.
But they move slowly, hands off their weapons, palms forward, fingers spread. “Now, let’s just settle down,” one says, but he says it gently, like he’s talking to a group of small children. Blue red blue red blue red, the lights flash.
On the street, another officer stands next to the driver of the white car, a woman, as it turns out. She’s holding a sleepy toddler in her arms.
Junior’s former lady friend, sobbing now, walks with a cop back to the car, their faces colored alternately blue and red in the flashing lights.
“Kiss the rings, bitches!” she turns and yells at the women watching her go. The officer pats her shoulder and she shrugs it off angrily. “Don’t you touch me!”
Another woman yells something back from the steps, but the catcall goes unanswered. Junior’s old girlfriend allows herself to be helped into the passenger seat of the little white car, while the other woman tucks the baby into a car seat. They leave in a more measured pace, given the gaggle of police cruisers still lining the avenue.
The other officers retreat down the steps, gently, gently. The blue and red lights stop. Sitting on the edge of the porch, the aggrieved woman, the one who’d been slapped, begins to scream and howl. A cop trains his car spotlight on her, sitting there, rage pouring out into the summer night.
One of the officers approaches the shrieking woman.
“Now, come on. It’s late,” he tells her. “People are trying to sleep.” She nods at the cop, stands up and stomps off into the house, Junior on her heels. Who would have figured that Junior, an ordinary-looking fifty-something black man would have these kind of problems?
The cops are getting back in their cars, doors slamming. One cruiser drives away at high speed, lights flashing, sirens blaring. There’s some kind of trouble somewhere else, but the others don’t follow.
On the porch, the man still lingers against the pillar watching the women on the lawn.
“Did you hear what that bitch called me? I shoulda yanked her in a knot.”
“That ho. Who does she think she is anyway. That brother is lucky to be rid of her, crazy bitch.”
“Did you see when she slapped—I couldn’t believe it”
They are playful now, shadow boxing each other. One pretends to push; the others spin away, all grace. A big girl in a pale yellow sundress sings a line, all gospel and soul.
“Damn, she’s gonna sing now. Girl, don’t sing.”
“I can sing if I want to.”
“Oh Lordy, let’s go inside, it’s la-a-a-te girlfriend.” The women begin to filter across the lawn, and up the porch steps.
The girl in the yellow sundress turns and faces the street. Can she see me in the window? Perhaps Tony next door is sitting out on his porch.
“Jeeeesus loves me, this I know,” she sings. It isn’t the jaunty Sunday school hymn I learned. It is something far more beautiful than that.
“For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong.” Her face is tipped to the sky, her arms flung wide.
“Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!,” she belts out, “Yes! Jesus loves me . . . . . “
And then, with a sweet hush, she finishes “For the Biiiiible. Tells. Me. So.” The last note hangs for a moment in the summer night. She turns and walks up the steps into the house.
Shrouded in the window across the street, I want so much to applaud.