Splitting it Three Ways



The fan stirred the soupy air with none of the force necessary to transform it into a cooling agent. The A/C had clunked off again and hour ago with the sound of a drunkard falling down a metal staircase. Candles guttered on the mantle over the sealed up fireplace, my little piece of protest against the gagging efforts of the landlady over the antebellum charms of the split-level ghetto cottage. I’d left the door to the porch cracked for the prayer of a breeze off the Cape Fear, though I knew it meant there’d be a cicada or two to scare up from the filthy living room the next day. Also, open doors and windows were kind of like television—they could bring entertainment in the form of domestic quarrels or drunken sing-alongs or whispered plots. It wasn’t uncommon for the Wilmington Police to play a role in a production just beyond the edge of my rental property as they did this particular night.


A blue loop of light went round the ceiling at a quicker clip than the fan and a red one chased it. Radios squawked and tires chirped on curb; other clichéd sounds of The Man arriving. I listened. Car doors heaved closed, muffled protests, young men’s voices raised in timbre (which, I once read, is an inheritance of ancient survival tactics, like dogs showing their bellies or avoiding eye contact). I slipped out from under the damp sheet, clicked the dog shut in the bedroom with her peaked ears and ready bark, slid out to the balcony and beheld the quotidian sight of three young black men cuffed on my curb with two white policemen standing practically on top of them. One cop was advising them to divulge or produce anything that could hurt them.


Boys, he drawled, I’m tryin’ to help y’all here. If y’all got something in that car I should know about, go on ahead and let me have it before my partner digs it up? Much better idea.


The young men chose to remain silent, which they had not been made aware was their right. Silently myself, I congratulated them, lit a smoke and leaned over the railing. Good cop let his veil slip as he scowled at me through my smoke; I waved lazily like I was on his side and he, no doubt divining my skin tone, eased his scowl into a tight-lipped smile. Presumable bad cop emerged from the Nissan Maxima with a Mag Light trained on his opposing palm. He slammed it down on the cruiser’s hood like he was at cards.


Which one of y’all shitbirds owns the crack?


Soft curses, almost like prayers, puffed up from the young men on the curb. I felt my own crawl up my throat with an exhalation of Marlboro. Stay silent, I implored them, three times over, catching myself as my voice almost became audible across those impossible ten yards. They did as I wished. Good cop paced like a professor, hands at his lower back.


C’mon now y’all, he cooed, I can split this rock three ways and charge all of y’all or one of you can man up and take it.


The filter burned my thumb. Now I didn’t know what to implore them to do. My memory scrambled over legal knowledge—wouldn’t the driver just automatically get it? But if he did, and it wasn’t his, what did that mean for these men?


Y’all got ten seconds to get smart, good cop sighed.


Bad cop took up a position behind them with fat fingers that tickled Glock grip. I dropped my smoke in the grass accidentally, grateful for the first time for the humidity of the night that would extinguish it. My mind raced: could I call out advice without getting arrested myself? What would I say? Stay silent? Someone claim it? Should I at least let the cops know I was watching with the eye of a critic and not some smug white interloper in this blacked-out block? Time ran out. Bad cop hoisted the first young man one and folded him—bam!—on the hood. Bam!, two, bam!, three. Three distressed, bruised letter L’s with cheeks pressed to the hot hood of a Caprice. Good cop flipped a blade open and sighed again, snapping that rock in three. I went inside to try for sleep.


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