From Traphouse to Traphouse
Even the gunshots barely registered at first. They were whispers in a room filled with whisperers. Then, moments later, the smoke of the cigarette mixed with the darker smoke of the house on fire, building to a billow. A cold smoke on a foggy morning. By the time the gunshots faded, the house was ablaze.
For a time there had been this quiet stillness, a wait between breaths. She sat in her minivan on the West side of Penn Avenue watching the house with cardboard over the windows burn and her son inside. There was the smell of cigarettes, the smolder in the ashtray, the Kool burning like sugarfree spearmint gum chased by a warmth of nicotine relief down her throat. It was a moment of serenity, of taking it all in while still not being able to process the event.
Then, he was stumbling down the front steps. Her son.
And he was at her window, pearls of sweat on his forehead, gun still in hand.
“I need the car, mom.”
She sat frozen.
“Come on, you gotta give me the car.”
She didn’t move. He drew the gun up to window height, but didn’t steady it or put his finger on the trigger. There was no emotion appropriate. This moment had never occurred before.
He said “Mom.”
She opened the door slowly, stepping down from the driver’s seat and into the empty street. She could not look at him. She didn’t feel his presence. She said, “You’re my son. You know that?” It was a question she asked herself as well as him as if she needed reassurance.
She could say nothing more. All around her silence pervaded. The last report of the gunshots in the house rung, a memory humming in the mind for what seemed like hours. The crack and pop of wood exploding into flames drowning out even the engine.
As he drove off in her van she remembered her cigarette, burning in her hand, and dropped it in the street. At the moment smoking felt insane. Heads poked from behind the blanket-curtains tacked to windows. Someone stood, a shadow at a screen door, and the older braver neighbors or those who had less to worry about perched themselves on their porch chairs daring to drink a beer out of a paper bag while watching the traphouse burn.
She saw the ghetto gathered around her like interested crows, carrion hungry for a stoop story. She heard sirens but they were a constant this side of town. Every hour they rent the ghetto and usually people didn’t worry about them too much, but she heard them differently now because this time they were for her.
. . .
In such an instance, what is a mother to do? When the police question her about her son, as the paramedics poke her for unseen injuries, hoping to find an unnoticed mortal wound or at least a scratch, how can she answer but that she doesn’t know? She can’t think of anything to say. Her blood churns in her, wanting to hold her son, her Antoin, her ‘Tone’ tight, to keep him safe. Of course she knows the answers the police are looking for, or at least has an idea, but she can’t tell them. To say it is to try to make it understood and nothing can understand what is shared in the specific valence between her and her son. What he did was wrong, yes. She can forgive him. What she had done was also wrong. All her sins would be compiled with his sins. Their sins cannot be counted and have no end. They were not a sentence. They were not: My son shot up the traphouse, burned it, and jacked my car. It went so much deeper than that, written in words only they knew, words confounding the meaning. To everyone else, she can only say: “I don’t know what happened. He asked for the car, and I gave it. I don’t know what happened.”
The firefighters clear the scene. Porches chock full of gawkers left to speculate about the cause, who know more than they let on. No one has any information to offer the police. She sits on the back of the ambulance and calls in an auto claim. She has to explain the whole thing again, how he took the van at gunpoint and then took off in a cloud. She doesn’t say, “In tears.” They tell her it is ok. They are handling it.
The smoke solidifies and rains ash on the rubble. The lawn is char. Detectives in breathing masks march in and out of what is left of the house like ants with evidence bags. They already know who he is, they only need to prove it. She calls the rental car company and sets up a reservation in a choked voice. In a half hour, Detective Williams gives her a ride.
. . .
She wakes on the couch at Auntie Anita’s on the eastside of Indianapolis, and she thinks she smells smoke, but it is nothing. In her dreams she had seen Tone’s face. Pulled up next to him at a traffic light and measured the jawline, how the bones push into view beneath the skin, the scraggle outline of hair either falling out or just coming in. She knew intimately the large eyes that bulged white with pinpoint pupils. He needed to eat, and he showed it. His teeth had been white in the front with gaps in the back. But in the dream she only glimpsed the face as it obscured itself, slowly faded into something else. Particles of face flushing off to never. Fragments going invisible. Wiped from memory.
She hugs herself and rubs her chilly arms. Then she closes her eyes and tries again to picture him. He appears in her mind, scraggly and hungry as in the dream. The memory is not obliterated. Oh God. He’s lost, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The coffee maker burbles and churns in the kitchen the next room over. She knows Auntie’s getting up soon. She fingers a cigarette burn in the rough tweed of the couch, reaches to the faithful Kools on the table to her right, finds them and, without even looking, has a cigarette lit in her mouth. She smokes it down to the filter and lights another.
She holds the cigarette lightly between two unadorned sausages of fingers. She smells herself through the cigarette smoke. A secret human smell that is usually covered over. She hasn’t washed for three days since the carjacking. She feels the skin on her back itching against the back of the couch where the tank top is pulled up, and she feels fat, and her knees ache. It’s been a long time since she has considered herself in this way. It’s been a long time since she has considered herself at all. She smokes, thinking of the grandbabies all alone back home.
Back home they are grandmother-less which is akin to being without love. Sitting on the couch she can imagine the tromping of feet on hardwood or the recoil and squeak of floorboards. A deluge of tears bursting forth in the living room and finding their way to her, to grandma-on-the-porch. Squalls finding their quiet breaths on grandma’s shoulder, boisterous shoulder-socking, chest-shoving boys finding stillness at her feet. But she is not with them now. She is chasing her son, the prodigal one who got away from her, and it is her fault. They will learn not to depend too much on her. Someday they will have to be on their own, and this is practice. Without grandma to save them.
She looks at her phone. Missed calls from relatives, cousins. She puts the phone back down. They would all talk her out of it, and she has to go on.
The room surrounding her is a lost battle taken over by garbage and dust. Across from the couch is a wooden chair with a duct-taped leg holding a 24-inch TV. There are fast food wrappers on the floor, cigarette burns in the carpet, half full glasses of water, tea, Kool-Aid, milk. Everything is half-imbibed and chucked to the floor. A roach scuttles between items, no longer interested. It doesn’t run when Auntie Anita appears, thumping down the stairs one red and blistered foot at a time, holding the railing with two hands.
She joins Auntie for coffee at the kitchen table. A domestic scene, but there are no children, and this is no home. They’ve moved on to other parts of the city and only show up when hungry.
Auntie says, “They found your car all burned up. It was on the news.”
“I know it.”
“Your boy Tone shoots up the spot, steals your car and burns it. No respect!”
“Woman, you never taught him no respect! Shit. You remember that time he and Jimmy was shooting fireworks down in South Park, came runnin’ to your place and you stuck ’em in the kitchen, told the cops they’d been eating pie the last half hour. And you went and sliced them off some pie just to prove it. That’s no way to raise a child. You can’t keep covering for them, rewarding them when they done wrong. If they’re gonna chase the devil, gotta make ’em face the devil. That’s what I say.”
Auntie Anita puts a balloon of purple fist on the table. Every movement is a chore and a complaint. Her eyes have blind spots in them, specks of angry gray, but she still sees fine. Auntie Anita groans as she leans in.
“You had kids. You know I gotta find my Tone.” The mother lights a Kool and inhales and exhales. When she has smoked about half of it, she stubs it in the chipped plate in the center of the table. “A mother does what she can, but you know how hard it is.”
“That’s why I moved to Indiana.”
“But is it really any better?”
“It’s not no better, not no worse.” Auntie lights another cigarette. This one she lets dangle from the corner of her mouth. “You think you’re gonna find him before the cops do?”
“I can’t say. ”
“And what’re you gonna do? That’s the question. And how you gonna find him?”
“I know my son, that’s how. And I know I’ve gotta do it better or worst.”
. . .
She cruises the city in her rental, looking for answers, but there are none.
She parks beside Da’Quan’s Rims and Wheels and finishes her cigarette. Rain is beginning to fall, turning into a dark mud that runs down the center of the street forming jagged puddles in the crippled asphalt. The sky goes gloomy and cars are followed by spirits of mist. Across the street, an unmarked police cruiser sits, officers only shadows behind windows, glassing her. She can feel the eyes inside watching her, boring into her, trying to measure her by the people and events surrounding her life.
She drops the cigarette through a small crack in the window, opens the door quickly and hobbles under the awning. She thinks for a minute, then pulls the door and slips inside knowing it is a bad idea but what else could she do?
The office is a dark mess of round metal and rubber. Da’Quan hunched over the drawers of his desk, springs and spins as the door closes loud. To his left is a five-foot high pile of hubcaps willy-nilly and unmatching, brake-dusted and curb-scuffed. The office stinks of chain smoking and motor oil. She can hear an air ratchet rattle and whine in the garage and has to talk loud to be heard over it. When she looks at Da’Quan, his hand is clutching his clean piece on the dusty desk.
Da’Quan says, “No time momma, I’m workin’ on bailing right now.”
“I know. I figured.”
“Your son is always bringing his troubles this way and the cops are always right behind him.”
Cowboys in a standoff, she and Da’Quan both go for their cigarettes at the same time and though Da’Quan is quicker on the draw, he has to ask to use her lighter, and she lights first, proffering the lighter which he takes, lights, and then pockets. This gives her a chance to speak first.
“Where’d he go, ‘Quan? When did Tone leave? Don’t say you don’t know nothing.”
“Can’t say when he left. Can’t say where he goes. Can’t say why he did it. Can’t even say I know this ‘Tone.’”
“Why is no concern to you, but you know where and when. At least an idea.”
“What’re you gonna do? You gonna find him, bring him home, hide him in the attic till you’re both shrivelled old bags of bones? He ain’t gonna go with you. Either the cops are gonna shoot him or someone else, but that mothafucker’s getting shot. Not that I know who that mothafucker even is …”
“You leave what I’m gonna do up to me and God. I just came to see where he went.” She points the cigarette at him.
Da’Quan says, “We gave him an old Saturn. That’s all. Said something about heading south, but if anyone else asks he said nothin’ about goin’ anywhere.”
As she parts her lips to speak, the door to the garage opens and Julian steps quickly in and shuts the door behind him. Says, “‘Quan, we gotta hit the road.”
She says nothing and smokes.
Da’Quan says, “Let’s go.” He takes a drag and wastes the cigarette in an ashtray on his desk. “Just so happens I’m heading to Atlanta. Cops lookin’ into this place too much already now. Lots of bread down there, and just maybe your boy’s down there too. You’re welcome to come along.”
She doesn’t think twice, hardly even thinks once, just follows him to her van. He gets behind the wheel.
. . .
Spotty conversation in the careening van, taking a turn every block, losing even itself in the gridwork of the city streets. She is able to be still, composed, bending only slightly at each curve. Then it is on to the stiff stretches of highway, open and obvious to the world. She imagines her son as she winds around hills. Like her, Tone has also driven through this bucolic scenery, moving from one city to the next, ditching one car after another and hiding out with family or friends. But she will never lose his trail, not so long as she has this magic that is a mother’s love.
As she and Da’Quan hover along the flat heat-illusion of highway, Da’Quan says, “The cops will catch on eventually.”
“They’re probably already tracking the car.”
“They ain’t gonna be happy with you hiding his whereabouts and all that.”
“I’m not hiding. I’m just guessing. Looks like I shoulda been a cop myself.”
Da’Quan does not even crack a smile. He says, “You know how cops see it? They see it as aiding and abetting. That’s what they’ll say. They lock your ass up right along with him.”
“Then that is what the Lord wills.”
“You crazy momma. What are you even gonna do?”
“I just need to talk to him is all. Just so he knows. So I know.”
They drive. I-74 south and east toward Cincinnati. There are stretches of road they have to talk through and stretches that awe them into complete silence. The rain is following, always somewhere behind them. They look for answers and hope that there is some answer they have yet to consider, some possible meaning that doesn’t depend on any more death and violence. Peaceful souls, they sleep in the van at the welcome center on the Georgia State line.
In the morning they are woken by flashing lights. The police have been waiting for the opportune moment. She submits to her cuffs without a word, and climbs into the back of the cruiser. She doesn’t see ‘Quan or Julian anywhere.
A half hour later she sits in a small room with Sgts. Emerson and Cook. The room is soundproof, bare, artless and white walled. The table in the middle of the room is dustless, the chairs creakless. Everything stripped of its character, the room eats any background noise and doesn’t chew. Finally, there is the click of the tape recorder switching on and Sgt. Emerson asks her if it is ok to record.
“We understand,” says Cook, “That you may have information as to the whereabouts of your son.”
“Can I smoke?”
The officers look at each other. Look back at her. Is that pity? Pity for the mother of the son?
Sgt. Cook says “No. but please answer the question.”
“I don’t know any better than you.”
“Good,” says Emerson.
She says “Good?”
“Will you tell us what exactly occurred …”
And this is what she knows of a mother’s love. She whooped Tone’s ass when, at thirteen, he told her he was a North Lake Blood. She whooped Tone upside-down, little punk with shoulder-length hair, Tone’s scrawny-ass with all C’s and D’s on his report card.
She whooped him again when she caught him, at fifteen, showing off a 9mm pistol on the front porch. Whooped him and it made her cry, but she knew she was doing right. She whooped him a final time at sixteen, when he knocked up that girl, Layla. She whooped him good and final. But when the baby, little Tone Junior, came, she hugged both the father and the baby and held them so close they were almost, all three of them, one person.
But that was when she felt her son slipping away. It was like he was surrounded by some bubble of bad blood or was like the wrong end of a magnet repelled at speed from anything good coming too close. Layla left, but the baby, Tone Junior, stayed. She took care of the baby, little tyke, young boy getting into trouble like his father. And when she couldn’t love the father directly, she loved the son as if the love that the son received would manifest as well in the father. The son like some emotional proxy. And she knew that she was right when it happened. She knew that Tone was capable of love because of how it broke him, her Tone, when it happened.
The more that she talks, the more she understands that there is nothing to be done. She lets the words out, and the words plant themselves in the silent room and grow into a jungle around her that both smothers and comforts her. Tone, her boy, running with the wrong crowd, but trying so hard to be a father. Tone, her boy, without a father and thus never knowing how a father should act.
Sgt. Emerson says, “Ma’am, we have your son in custody. We just need statements from all that were involved.”
Sgt. Cook says, “Nobody’s in trouble. We needed to be sure you would comply. We just need the whole story.”
. . .
She was watching from the porch as Tone Jr. played in the dirt in front of the house. She, in the shade, being only a leg and a shoulder visible from out of the shadows, but he, the boy Tone Jr., standing out like some monument in a flat land, spotlighted even. From her shady place she followed Tone Jr. with her eyes as he pushed the plastic truck from one side of the dirt yard to the other making rumbling noises with his lips.
This was only a week ago. A week since she hit the road, going from state to state in search of her son. Tracking him down as he went from traphouse to traphouse shooting up revenge.
It is a week now since she watched the almost-five-year old, shirtless, grinning, rumbling-with-his-mouth, Tone Jr., being shot with a spray of bullets from a passing Range Rover.
She doesn’t remember the sound of the gun so much as the screams, the screeches which now that she looks back on it were her own screeches. And she remembers the sound of the engine revving, rumbling off mockingly. It’s as if the rumbling from the boy’s mouth had been taken from him and imbued in the Range Rover, amplified. It revved and squealed off. Then she remembers her screams.
As she talks to the officers, she recalls all of this and she recalls the son’s rampage. She doesn’t know how anyone but herself can be to blame. It was she who failed to show him a father, and she who has failed as both mother and grandmother, and she is filled with overflowing grief.
Sgt. Cook says, “We understand ma’am, but he’s safe now. He’ll get the treatment he needs. People snap when they go through trauma like losing a child.”
Sgt. Emerson says, “If it wasn’t for us, he’d probably just get shot by someone else. Lucky we found him first. He’ll be locked up for a while, but he’s still alive.”
There is nothing more that she can do and she knows it. Her eyes look up from the table she has been staring at, meet the eyes of Sgts. Emerson and Cook. It is the first time she has looked an officer of the law dead in the face and felt something other than fear or anger. What she feels now is something else she can’t explain. Maybe longing. She holds a stiff position and does not shake nor stutter. She says, “So, can I see him? Can I see my son?”