Sea of Tranquility

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Easy Riders

Levi walked away from Terry's room, encounter Mr. Brown as he went toward the front door.

"Come on, boy," Mr. Brown said. "I got to get moving. They gave me an hour. I've taken nearly two and I still need to get you home."

Levi followed Mr. Brown to the front door, where Mrs. Brown stood with a brown paper bag in her hand.

"Here, hon," she said, holding the bag out for Levi. "I put in some of my chicken and a few biscuits and a big slice of apple pie. You come back, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'll do that. Thank you for everything. I'm glad Terry has such good care. Makes me feel better," Levi said.

"Aren't you sweet," Mrs. Brown said, kissing Levi's cheek.

"Unhand my woman. We've gots to get goin', boy."

It was a five-year-old sedan that hadn't been washed in four years. There were dents in the fenders, the side windows were too dirty to see out of, but the windshield was clean and the engine sounded powerful. No one would suspect it was a police car. Levi had a hard time believing it was.

Mr. Brown was a careful driver, but he didn't waste any time.

Levi was at a loss for something to say. Mr. Brown did not have that problem.

"Want to tell me what you're doing down here, son?" Mr. Brown asked, sounding like a cop. "I can tell you are no fool, but you did a foolish thing. I want to know why you came to see Terry today. He was shot nearly two months ago."

"I came to see Terry," Levi said, no give in his voice. "That's all."

"I'll say it again. He was shot two months ago. What took you so long? You just didn't think to yourself this morning, I think I be going to see that black boy who got himself shot, boy. Few white folks feel comfortable coming to Southside."

"That's what I did. I've been thinking about it. I didn't know what happened to him. He stopped coming to track meets. My journalism teacher sent me to the City News and they found the article about a 'Promising sprinter,' being shot on his way home from practice. Your address was in the article," Levi said.

"I remember it," Mr. Brown said. "They planned a larger article with pictures and a running account of his recovery. They talked to me about it. I told the editor, he was going to stir up a passel of trouble over what happened to Terry, if he did that. He'd never thought about it and my people talked to his people and they killed the article."

"What kind of trouble?" Levi asked.

"I wouldn't want anything to happen to some white boy coming to see my son, either, no matter your logic. There are some mean ass people in this world, son and there are more than a few on the Southside. All you got to do is cross paths with one and I won't have that on my conscience, no matter how pure your motives."

"I told him that I'd be back. I don't feel like I can say something like that and then not do it," Levi said. "I like your son. He is taking what happened to him a lot better than I would."

"Most halfway normal kids would sing and dance, if the only guy who can beat them, is put out of commission" Mr. Brown said. "You didn't drop by to make sure he was out of your hair for good?"

"You don't believe that for a second. Besides, that would take two minutes. Maybe it was awkward at first, but Terry and I have a lot in common. I like him. I always admired how he carried himself. You can tell he's a winner. He'll beat this. He'll walk again. Wait and see."

"Psychologically speaking, that's what he wanted you to think," Mr. Brown said. "You aren't familiar with the basic instinct of athletes?"

"I figured that, but it didn't change anything," Levi said. "The best hundred man is always a star and Terry was the best," Levi said. "I'm a sprinter. I knew what I was looking at when I looked at Terry."

"They don't know. He might wake up one morning and the feeling could be back in his legs, or he may well be crippled for the rest of his life. The bullet is still in him and there is a chance they'd make matters worse if they take it out. You didn't know what happened to him? That's the truth?"

"My journalism teacher sent me to the City News on Monday, when I asked him how I'd go about finding out what happened to Moony, Terry. That was Monday. They located the story on him being shot. It wasn't in the sports page. It was under local news. I'd never have thought to look there. Yesterday I asked my old chemistry teacher who lives in Southside how I'd get to where Terry lives. He drew me a map and gave me the bus numbers and how to find 2nd Street. This morning, I told my track coach that I had business and I wouldn't be at practice. I didn't come before 'cause it took a while to realize Terry wasn't coming back. I was winning the hundred with him out of the field and I was jazzed about that for a couple of weeks. Then, I began to wonder, what happened to Moony Brown? I stopped being jazzed and started thinking about finding out what happened."

"I'm a cop, son. I know people. I hear a lot of stories. That's got to be one of the most lame-ass stories I've ever been told, but I believe you. No one could make that story up."

"You've got to believe he'll walk again," Levi insisted.

"It doesn't matter what I believe. The surgery to remove the bullet is dangerous, which means it's a ticking time bomb. If it stays there, one day it might move. No one knows what will happens if it does move. It's wait and see for the time being. Once the bullet wound heals, and that's a few more months, they'll reevaluate his situation. They might want to take the bullet out then, but that's a long time for my kid to sit in that chair," Mr. Brown said.

"We haven't decided which way we want to go. Terry will need to decide, but I can't believe he'll accept being a cripple, if he thinks there is another option. I don't want him disappointed. I don't want him thinking something is possible , when it isn't possible."

"He's a good student?" Levi asked.

"Straight A student. He hasn't brought home anything but As, since he went to middle school. He's smarter than me. He may not go into psychology. It's fine if he does, but he wants to take after me and that might change, in time."

"I'm sure he admires his father," Levi said and Mr. Brown turned his head to look at Levi's face.

"I've got to say, you're a very unusual white boy," Mr. Brown observed, glancing at Levi. "I confess, I don't know what to make of you. It's obvious Terry likes you. I haven't seen him perk up like this, since he was shot. Do you have black friends, Levi?" Mr. Brown asked.

"There are a couple of black guys on the track team with me, but I don't pay them any mind. I don't pay most of my white teammates any mind, either. I'm there for one thing," Levi explained.

Mr. Brown laughed.

"I think most boys who are head and shoulders above other boys, feel similarly about what they're doing," Mr. Brown said. "You don't seem a lot different from Terry. He has similar thoughts about being on a team."

"To tell you the truth, I didn't think about where I was going, Mr. Brown. I mean it being Southside and Southside being more black than white. Until I sat at your dinner table and we talked about how it is for you, I still had given any thought about my race. About us living in different worlds."

"When Lincoln was reelected, he gave one of the most memorable inaugural speeches ever given. It's probably second only to the speech he gave at Gettysburg. I happen to believe the inaugural speech was more significant, at the time he gave it. The Civil War had ended and Lincoln got reelected. He wanted the country to heal. He wanted the people to have forgiveness in their hearts. "Malice toward none, charity for all," was the way he put it. He had a plan to bring the North and the South back together and he had a plan to integrate black citizens into the Union that was healing, after the war," Mr. Brown said.

"He was shot a few weeks later and Andrew Johnson was a southerner from Tennessee. He had no charity for anyone and malice for all people of color. We ended up with Jim Crow and blacks were treated worse than farm animals in the South. They kept white people and black people segregated, for a hundred years and that's why we have what we have. People who always seem to be in power know that by keeping blacks and whites separate and unequal, that will so preoccupy us, we won't realize they're stealing the country blind. Politicians! Rich people buy politicians and they pass laws to benefit the rich, making them richer. We're not supposed to notice that racism is a tool used to keep the people at bay. We have to work so hard to pay the bills, we hardly notice how rich our politicians are getting, while they're minding the store," Mr. Brown said.

"It's nothing new. They always manage to get back into power. Eventually, the people wise up and throw the scoundrels out of power."

"I've never heard it put that way. You've seen a lot more than I've seen, but I know my family started out with more money than most people ever have. It's there for me when I finish school. Join my father in the family firm," Levi said.

"I was prepared to join my family's firm too," Mr. Brown said. "Then than tore down my Daddy's church and paved over paradise."

Levi looked at Mr. Brown. He'd heard those lines in a song, but they were appropriate in his case. Tore down paradise to build a parking lot.

"That's the way they like it. They like us to think we're completely different, because of skin pigmentation. Think about that. Think of the shades people come in. When you come right down to it, there are too many shades of skin color to count. How can only people with white skin be the only ones entitled to their full civil rights? Who makes that stuff up? How many shades do white people come in?" Mr. Brown asked. "Which of those shades of white, don't deserve their complete civil rights and who makes this stuff up?"

"Keeping us separate, so we don't really get to know each other, probably has something to do with it. That's why there is a Northside and a Southside," Levi said.

"Black folks want exactly what white folks want. They want to have a good job, raise their families and send their kids off to have a better life than we have. We want our kids to be happy," Mr. Brown said. "Exactly like most parents want."

"You've seen a lot of grief," Levi said. "And yet you have a positive way of looking at things. I'm not sure I could pull that one off, Mr. Brown."

Mr. Brown looked at Levi's face again.

"A very unusual white boy. The ones I see, come into the precinct. They're up to their neck in deep shit. It does slant my opinion of white folks, but I work with white cops. We do OK. We aren't what you'd call friends. When you work with a guy all day, the last thing you want is to is spend time with him after work. Has nothing to do with race. You can only spend so much time with someone," Mr. Brown said.

"Like with you and your teammates. That's how I see work. We're there for one thing and no one says we should be drinking buddies once the work is done. Some guys are like that, but not me. Once I finish work, I want to go home and be with my family," Mr. Brown said.

Levi listened to Mr. Brown's words. He tried to imagine being a cop.

"You take what comes at you. My father's death changed my life forever. Terry, Terry wouldn't be in the shape he's in if I could have bought a house somewhere else. I looked for a house right where the Southside meets Northside. Several people had houses up for sale. None would sell to me," Mr. Brown said. "I wasn't right for their neighborhood, but if something happens, they find themselves in trouble, they can't wait to call my ass up to fix it for them."

"Because you're black," Levi said. "They wouldn't sell to a black family?"

"Because I'm black and they won't be the ones who let a black family move onto their lily-white block. The South isn't the only place where racists live."

"What makes people act that way?" Levi asked.

"Oh, it'll change one day, but not in time to save Terry." Mr. Brown said, sounding bitter for the first time. "I've never told anyone about wanting that house. I don't know why I told you that. Racism is subtle these days, but I know it when I see it. People have learned not to be openly racist. It's bad form, but if I'd been able to buy that house, Terry wouldn't be in the condition he's in. For all I know it's already changed and those white folks would be waiting for me with open arms, but I don't want to live there any more. I belong in Southside. I belong in my house on 2nd Street. That's our home."

"He's a good kid," Levi said. "I expected hostility. He has every right to be mad at the world. What made him special, what made him somebody, was taken from him. Life shouldn't be like that, but he isn't mad. It hasn't made him mean."

"He's angry. He won't give into his anger. My boy has worked hard and life isn't fair and I never told him it was. He'll find his way, in time."

"I want to be friends with Terry," Levi said. "I like him. I didn't know if I'd like him. I don't know what I thought, but your family is no different than mine, except Terry's mama fixes dinner. She's there for him."

Mr. Brown looked closely at Levi, trying to put the words with the boy.

"Don't misunderstand me, when I say this, but don't you be coming down there on a bus again, you hear me? I couldn't stop my son from being shot, but I sure as hell can stop you from doing something that is dangerous for a white boy. You get someone to drive you. I'll give you my card. When you want to see Terry, if no one will drive you, I'll try to get away. Promise me that you will not take a bus to come and see Terry again?"

"I'll promise, but I intend to visit him," Levi said. "It's track season and I spend a lot of time at practice. I skipped practice today. I can't do that too often," Levi said. "City Championships are in a week. I graduate the week after that."

"College?" Mr. Brown asked.

"I've got my share of attention. Haven't made up my mind. I want to get high school behind me and the offers I'm considering are similar, but I'll need to see the school before I decide," Levi said.

"Sounds intelligent. We aren't sure about college at the moment. Terry was set, until this happened. We'll take it a day at a time and if he can't start college this year. We'll make sure he gets back to school next year."

"I'm sorry. He was good, Mr. Brown. I never saw him run, because he was in one of the lanes beside me, but when I reached the finish line, I could see him then. He was the guy finishing a step ahead of me. He was the guy who won almost every race, he ran. I beat him one time and believe me, it was my proudest moment as a sprinter, because I know Terry is faster than I am."

"Everyone has a bad day," Mr. Brown said.

Levi laughed.

"That's what he said. I beat him and that was a good day for me," Levi said. "That's the only time I beat him. He came over and shook my hand."

"He was putting the hex on you," Mr. Brown said. "That's a technical psychological term."

Levi laughed.

"It worked. I never beat him again. He did seem to get faster. After I beat him, I couldn't even get close to him, after that."

"Oh, you're Levi Cordoba. I know who you are now. I heard a lot about you, after you beat Terry. He was mad as a hornet. He said, he'd blown the start and he couldn't catch up. After you beat him, he spent an extra hour working on his starts each day. If I remember correctly, it was the next race he ran a 9.9."

"I was there. He beat me by five yards. But I finished second," Levi said.

"You forced him to work harder, Levi" Mr. Brown said.

Levi directed Mr. Brown once they crossed into Northside. Mr. Brown stopped in front of Levi's house, which was a half mile from the gated entrance.

"Before you get out, I want you to understand something, son. My family isn't in any danger in Southside. What happened to Terry was accidental. The gang bangers and much of my job is rounding them up, are angry young men that have no future. They're lucky if they have a presence. If you cross paths with one and he's just had a fight with his girl, or someone has cut him down in some way, that boy is looking for someone to take it out on. Someone like you walks down his street and he's going to take it out on you, make you as miserable as he is. That's why you shouldn't come down to see Terry on your own, son."

"I get it," Levi said. "I won't take a bus, but I'll be back, Mr. Brown."

"It has been a pleasure meeting you, Levi. Here's my card, it has my numbers on it. You plan to come back to see Terry, call me first. I want to know when you're coming. If you don't have a ride, we'll work something out. If I'm not working something urgent, I can probably get an hour off when I ask for it."

"Yes, sir. Thank you. I'll be in touch," Levi said, closing the car door behind him.

He took two steps toward the house and Mr. Brown's tires squealed, as he accelerated back toward the entrance.

Levi held the brown paper bag up to his nose to take a sniff of a mixture of fragrances.

The smell was heavenly.

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