Icarus Is a Black Man
Day's white-hot so I hit the streets, loosey behind my ear still smoking because I haven't even had the time to put it out and save the rest for later. With this child support check scorching a hole in my pocket too, I'm burning at both ends. What it is: just another day.
No stamps so I head to the store — not the Arab joint on the corner where the dude knows the cigs by feel so he can reach for them without turning his back, but the tienda four blocks over where they're dark Dominican and'll sell you a single stamp for $1. I pick up iced tea and Skittles, too — tropical, because a day like this calls for it. Yomedes licks the stamp before she presses it on, even though it's self-stick, and she gives me this look like, Later? But the American flag is branded on the stamp with the word FOREVER, which reminds me how it feels every time I drop the child support in the mail. I've already got all I can handle.
I beat it out into the daylight, but it's so hot. I stuff the Skittles and envelope in one pocket, the iced tea in another, and that's when I hear it:
Put your hands where I can see them.
I stop cop-quick, I'm glued to the pavement, muscle memory triggered by actual memories. This cop is pulling me over and I ain't even driving, but it's all the same. I don't remember putting on this hoody, but here I am, sweating, hands stuffed into my front pocket, fingers stuck together like in some giant black Chinese finger trap.
Put your hands where I can see them. That voice again, quiet, tickled, and it sounds familiar, like I've heard it every day of my life.
On command my hands pull out of my pocket. The officer circles around, and I can feel my Skittles change, they suddenly melt soft like a gram of weed, and my iced tea is as hard as a 40.
Hands where I can see them, he says a third time, because complying isn't enough.
My neck is as visible as anything, so I start there, fingers rough and frayed like rope, and I put my hands where he can see them, noose-tight, till I can't breathe.
Are you carrying any weapons, he says, and it isn't a question, because just like that my hand does his work: one finger's a trigger, the other's a barrel, pointed at my head.
Are you carrying any weapons, he says, and I try to holler Only these hands, sir! I'm trying to be honest with the police, but still I can't breathe, I can only mouth the words. He can hear whatever he wants me to say though, and his face goes white-hot, and I'm begging him not to, shaking my head, but he doesn't see — he doesn't see me — so he says it again:
You carrying a weapon.
And like a chain shackled around my hands I feel the pull, feel it down deep, a hoe raking over the coals inside me, and my finger's turning, and I'm trying to keep my finger-barrel against my head, I know the familiar hard feel and I know it's less dangerous to point it at myself than him, but still it's turning. And I see the look in his eye, the recognition of a truth revealed, and it's not so pleased as I thought, but scared, scared to the dark hidden places, and even a little sorry. I'd like to speak up, but I'm burning at both ends and besides, I can't breathe.
And what would I say if I could? That this isn't me? Would I ask aloud, How many ways can you die walking down the street? Or worse, would I ask him to see me, to spare me, defer to the Man, bow down and submit, even now? Yes, sir.
And I wonder, as my gun-finger draws to within range of the Man: What about everything else he could say? What about: You have the right to remain silent? Because if you can remain silent, you can also speak your peace, even if anything I say can be used against me. Or maybe he could say — so obvious it hurts — Drop the weapon, or even Hands up. But my finger comes round to him, and it's sweaty, metal-slick. Slowly, mournfully, duty-bound, the cop reaches for his gun, while I'm begging him with my eyes to give me a chance, to just say, Hands up. I know even that isn't enough, though. Even with my hands up in surrender or praise, even with my voice raised in protest or worship, even when we cry out or cower down, when we take flight or rise above, you and I both know it'll just be another case of a guy like me flying too close to the white-hot sun, instead of getting on the cold black ground where he belonged.
Justin Reed's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Epoch, Consequence, Flash and elsewhere. He lives in Boston, where he and his wife are teachers.