Authors: Kim Reid
During the day, it was my favorite part of downtown Atlanta. But in the shadows of dawn, when trash cans looked like crouching men and park benches might be hiding child killers, I began to regret cutting through the park. My pace quickened into a near run until I reached the other side, still telling myself I wasn’t worried about dead children or how the person who killed them hadn’t been caught yet. Once I made it to the bus that would take me into the suburbs, I thanked God for getting me there and promised to walk around the park from then on.
I felt more confident about my first day, thinking the school uniform would make it a level playing ground. But when I arrived at school, I saw that I couldn’t even get the uniform right. We had been given instructions to buy our uniforms from a specific store, but I figured I’d save some money on the blazer and buy only the skirt. The skirt was in a plaid cloth specific to the school, but the only requirement of the blazer was that it be navy blue. I made the twenty-mile bus trip to the nearest Buckhead Men’s Shop, on the north side in a part of town I’d never visited. There were kids in the shop buying uniforms for my school and other private schools. Their mothers picked out the full ensemble of plaid skirt (gray pants and striped tie for the boys), blazer, shirt, and socks. At the cash register, a mother rang up a full set for each day of the week, except for the jacket, because she told her son he could get by with three. Ma had given me enough money for two skirts and one jacket. The shirts I was to buy someplace less expensive.
I was the only kid in the store without a mother, and it struck me as odd—why did teenagers need their mothers to shop with them? But I must have struck them as odd, too, because they looked at me as if I was the one who had it wrong. I bought my blue and gray plaid skirt and school crest, and crossed Peachtree Street for the bus south. I decided I’d buy the blazer and shirts at a department store, not tell Ma, and pocket the difference. That was the advantage of shopping alone.
I saw the error in my plan when I realized that standing next to all the other blue blazers, mine wasn’t navy at all, but closer to cobalt. The topstitching around the lapel called attention to its cheapness, and the fancy-looking school crest I’d sewn on the left pocket as instructed did nothing to enhance the quality. Instead, it highlighted the fact that I’d paid only sixteen dollars for the blazer, which until now I thought had been a bit of shrewd bargain hunting. My bra was visible underneath my thin, cheap white blouse, which kept me from taking off the jacket once outside in the late August heat. When the other girls took off their blazers, I noticed their collars were pinned down neatly by tiny buttons on the tip of each collar, not flying every which way like mine. And my blouse had no polo player on a tiny horse running across the front.
We were required to wear black-and-white saddle oxfords, which I’d never worn before. Every girl in the school had on the same shoes—leather, thin-soled, slightly tapered at the toe. Not me. I bought my shoes at Butler’s downtown because they were the only saddle oxfords I could find that were stylish, as far as saddle oxfords went. My pleather (fake leather, as in, plastic) shoes had a round toe, thick black soles, and a flap of notched, black pleather covering the laces. Originally, I’d planned to switch the black flap with homemade yarn pompoms in the school colors, which I’d thought would give the otherwise ugly shoes a little style. I was grateful Ma had talked me out of that. As it was, everywhere I went, girls stared at my feet.
I’d been in school only a week and the dead boys had already been pushed off my list of worries, replaced by schoolgirl concerns like wearing the right clothes, making new friends, and wondering what the next four years would be like with little to no black boys being part of my new school’s population.
As if a reminder to heed Ma’s warning to be more careful, another boy went missing the day after Labor Day. His name was Milton Harvey, and he was fourteen. I tried to keep in mind that he was only missing, that he might be found. I speculated that he got tired of his parents and ran away from home. Instead of some really terrible thing happening to him, maybe he’d only been knocked in the head, had amnesia, and couldn’t remember where he lived.
But living with a cop, you knew even as you made up such scenarios that you were being childish, that if the boy wasn’t found within the first twenty-fours that he went missing, he likely wouldn’t be found alive. This was what Ma said every time a TV news story talked about an abducted child, chastising the police spokesperson being interviewed for giving false hope to the terrified parents who always appeared in the story to plead for their child’s safe return.
“What else can they say?” I’d ask her.
“Nothing really. It’s just sad knowing how things will probably turn out.”
Just the same, I tried to imagine the boy hanging out with a friend somewhere, trying to make his parents feel bad for some wrong they’d done him.
A week later, Milton Harvey still hadn’t turned up. An article ran in the newspaper, “Police Ask Help in Finding Teens.” It showed pictures of the two boys still missing, the fourteen-year-old who’d been missing a week now, and one of the boys who disappeared at the end of July. Ma said the police felt certain that the boy missing since July was the one still lying in the morgue unidentified, but that his parents were just as certain the body wasn’t their child’s. All I could think was how regular they looked, how much like the boys at my old school they were. One had a smile that reminded me of a boy I liked in seventh grade, a smile full of bravado created by anticipation and fear of a fast- approaching manhood. I don’t know what I expected to be different, but I hoped for something that would set them apart from me and my world.
Milton Harvey had just started ninth grade. So had I. He’d asked his mother if he could miss the first day of school because he didn’t have the latest style of sneakers and was worried about being teased, reminding me of my own shoe embarrassment. The last time he was seen he’d gone to pay a bill for his mother at a bank two miles from home. I’d completed similar grown-folk’s tasks for Ma, usually dropping off a payment at a branch downtown before I changed buses between school and home. The bike he’d borrowed from a friend to run the errand had been found behind a tree in some woods along the route between his home and the bank. The bank said he’d completed the transaction, so someone got him on his way back home. The police didn’t think he’d run away. I rode my Huffy Strider ten-speed everywhere. If I ever ran away, it would be the first thing I’d take, but I didn’t believe the boy had run away, either.
There was also a description of what the boy who might be the second boy from Niskey Lake Road was wearing when he disappeared—black knit pants and a black T-shirt. Ma told me later that it was a Kiss
T-shirt like the one she brought home for me after working an extra job as security for the band. Just like mine, which was probably wadded up in the back of a dresser drawer, or torn into dust rags in the broom closet. Maybe just being black kids living in the same city, having to be in the same streets every day, taking the same routes and unknowingly crossing paths meant that what we shared outnumbered the things we didn’t.
I wanted to ask Ma more about the boys from the newspaper article, and saw my chance when she sent Bridgette out of the kitchen before she began cleaning her gun. Our dog, Copper, left the room, too, either to follow Bridgette or maybe because his dog sense told him that a gun was something he wanted no part of. Ma wanted me to watch her clean the gun so I’d learn. She’d already given me my first shooting lesson with her personal revolver, which consisted of shooting cans off tree stumps on some family land out in the country. First, I had to get used to the gun’s weight, how to steady it when holding it out in front of me. Then Ma taught me how to use the site on top of the .38’s barrel to line up my target. She stood behind me and braced me the first time I experienced the gun’s kick from a fired round, and I remember smelling Chanel N° 5 and gunpowder, a nauseating mix of sweet and acrid, like burned brown sugar.
There was no getting around the fact that guns were a part of how she paid the mortgage, and they were kept in the house. They were out of sight but not under lock and key every minute of the day. So she wanted to make sure that I understood how they worked, but mostly that I respected what they could do. She didn’t think Bridgette was old enough to learn how to use guns, but she’d also been schooled in what they could do, how they worked, and had been allowed to hold an unloaded gun.
We sat at the kitchen table and I tried to think of questions to ask about the missing kids that wouldn’t give away my worry. Once I did that, she’d have more justification for keeping me from places like the skating rink. While Ma spread out the old towel kept around for this job,
her red nails a fiery contrast against cold steel, she emptied the chamber of its bullets and went right on talking about whatever trivial thing we’d been discussing when she sent Bridgette from the room, plans for next summer’s family reunion, I think. As I watched her, I forgot about the missing boys, and instead remembered the man she shot when she was a street cop, a clean through and through in the shoulder that left the man wounded but alive. It left Ma alive too, despite the man’s attempt to make me an orphan that day.
She lined the bullets up on the towel, the pointy ends all going the same direction. In most things, Ma was haphazard, disorderly, and usually made things up as she went. But in her police work, she always had a plan, a pattern that was not to be disrupted. She went on and on about whether we should reserve space at a public park or hold the reunion in someone’s backyard, but I couldn’t help staring at the gun. I only wondered how quickly she could pull the gun from its holster if she surprised some bad guy during a robbery in progress.
Some professions can’t be gone into half-assed. Some require being called to them, like giving your life to the church or the throne or the mob. To be successful at those jobs, it should be something you feel in your bones is the thing you have to do, or someone has to catch you at a young age and groom you into it. Being a cop should be the same way, but that’s not exactly how it was for my mother.
It was the man who’d stalked Ma that convinced her to become a cop in the first place. She’d been working a combination of part-time jobs that barely paid the rent, kept the lights on, and filled our stomachs—usually as a bookkeeper or an apartment-leasing agent. The leasing agent job got us free rent, but it came with a price. I remember her boss being the nastiest sort of man, mostly because he was always asking for some “chocolate pie” from her, right in front of me. I guess he figured calling it that would fool a seven-year-old, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. Ma was able to keep him off of her, but he always threatened her with eviction. She was sick of the man holding her and her children’s fate in his nasty hands, and started looking for a job that would pay a twenty-six-year-old single mother with no college degree a decent wage.
She was friends with an off-duty cop who worked security for our apartment complex. He teased her that since she liked to think she was so big and bad, why not take the police exam? When she received yet another threat of eviction from her lecherous boss and landlord, she asked her friend how she should go about applying for a police job. He laughed and told her he was just messing with her. She couldn’t be a cop—she probably couldn’t even pass the physical agility test. Ma told me later that he was probably right about the physical exam, but she wanted to try anyway. Besides, she was going to need rent money. She figured being a cop was as good a job as any.
Ma still wasn’t fully sold on the police officer business until something happened that changed her outlook on a few things, including making a living, keeping her kids safe, and not ever letting a man hold her fate.
While Ma was working in the leasing office at the front end of the apartment complex, Bridgette and I were playing in the grassy area between buildings, just outside our patio and the wooden fence that enclosed it. A man came from nowhere and stood about twenty feet from us. He asked me something about Ma that I can’t remember anymore, maybe her name. I didn’t say anything to him, just grabbed Bridgette’s hand and ran onto the patio and into the apartment, locking the sliding door and putting the broomstick into the track for extra measure.
Our apartment was like a townhouse, with an upstairs. I watched the man from behind curtains in a downstairs window. He stood in the grass separating the back of our building from the back of the next building over, watching our upstairs window, the one for Ma’s bedroom. I kept the phone with me, ready to ask Ma to come home from the leasing office if I got too scared being by myself. After about ten minutes of staring at the window, he walked away.
I’d never been as happy as when Ma finally got home. I told her about the man and gave her the best description I could. She wrote it all down, and told me next time something like that happened, to call her right away. Before we went to bed, she must have checked the locks on the doors fifty times. It worried me because I’d never seen my mother frightened of anything. Even before she became a cop, she was not a woman you wanted to mess with. Nothing happened that night, but the next morning when Ma opened her curtains, he was there, staring up at her bedroom window again. By the time she went to the phone to call the police, he was gone. She figured, or hoped, that was the end of it.
That night, Ma checked the windows and the doors, but she turned down a friend’s offer to spend the night. She took a bat upstairs to bed with her, just in case, and made Bridgette and me sleep in her bed. I figured that was as much for her nerves as our protection. Only Bridgette could sleep, being three and not old enough to be afraid. Ma kept looking out the window, expecting to see him, but relieved when she didn’t.