The following is a short story, a fiction that I've worked and reworked a few times. I'm not sure I've quite got it right, and I know several editors of literary magazines that agree, based on their form rejection letters. So, here it is on the blog.
This story started life as part of a novel I was working on years ago, trying to sort out my thoughts on racialized police violence. I got about halfway through this gritty crime novel about police violence and an FBI trying to investigate bring justice to it, while also dealing with a killer who was targeting cops who somehow kill civilians and evade the consequences.
I didn't finish the novel, because, while I liked the concept, I wasn't sure I was the right person to write it, and not just ethnically. This gritty story just wasn't my thing, in style and tone. Every other page, I had to look something up or research some FBI or police procedure, and probably still got most of it wrong. Ultimately, after over a year of working on it, with some stops and starts, I finally gave up on it. Ironically, I told myself that even if I could finish it, the whole racialized police violence would probably be much less of an issue before it ever got published, what with all the protests and public officials talking about it. I was so young and naive then.
Still, before I trashed the thing entirely, I searched through it to see if I could salvage any of it for other purposes, and this scene stood out as a possible short story. I revised it to stand alone, and I still like it, even if it's not getting picked by editors. I had decided to let it die in the "unpublished" folder in my Dropbox, but the recent murder of Tyre Nichols, among others, got me thinking about the story again.
CW: Gun/police violence
by Jeffray Harrison
Around two in the morning, Louis Ferrer hung upside down from the roof of the Subway restaurant on Annunciation Street in New Orleans. His hips had been resting uncomfortably on the concrete edge of the roof off and on for almost an hour now, and he bet the only reason it didn’t hurt anymore was that the circulation had been completely cut off at the waist. If it hadn’t been for Jean-Pierre, his assistant and lookout, holding his knees down, pressing them into the concrete, pulling him up every five minutes or so when the blood flow to his head became too much and he felt dizzy or lightheaded, he would definitely plunge headfirst into the trash cans and plastic trash bags about fourteen feet below.
This one stretch had been almost ten minutes since he had come up for air, but he had almost finished the underlay for his new design and he didn’t want to stop now. One more minute and it would be perfect, one of the best murals he had done.
“How we looking up there, J?” he called out, his eyes still on the wall in the dim alley, carefully coming around with the spray can of white paint for the last contours of the foundation.
“Good,” Jean-Pierre grunted back, “we good. Hurry up.”
Louis felt the jolt as Jean-Pierre shifted his weight and got a better grip on his legs. “Almost done.”
“Stop,” Jean-Pierre hissed, and as soon as Louis released the top of the can and the spray cut out, his assistant had already dragged him over the edge and onto the roof, scraping the length of his stomach as he went. Louis rolled over onto his back and lay there, feeling the cold air against his face and the blood rushing back into his legs and looking up at his partner. Jean-Pierre shook out his arms like someone who had just set down two heavy suitcases after a run through the airport.
“Sorry, man,” Jean-Pierre said, cracking his knuckles slowly and rolling his shoulders, “another few seconds and I felt like I was gonna let you slip.”
“No problem, J,” Louis said, holding his hands up in front of his face. The white paint splattered and dripping across his brown hands struck him as beautiful, even sublime, framed by the blackness of the night sky and the light from the nearby street light. It made Louis think about all of the hours he had spent drawing his own hands, staring at them in different positions and angles. It had taken months for him to be able to draw hands the way he wanted to, not cartoony and blunt, but real hands, expressive and three-dimensional. One day, he had gotten tired of drawing figures with their hands in their pockets or behind their backs all the time. Men in business suits, women in bikinis, ninjas, zombies, superheroes, an entire nation of them, all going around hiding their hands in the stupidest poses, until it made Louis sick to see them.
He almost felt as if mastering hands had nudged him over the tipping point into embracing a career as an artist, the moment when he said to himself that if he couldn’t find the will and dedication to figure this out and get it right, then this would always be a hobby for him, instead of a true calling. After so many months of drawing hands, getting better at it by the smallest degrees, he found himself a junior in high school, feeling proud enough of what he had done on his own to apply to colleges, something he had never really thought about before. The idea of it alone had been enough for him to get his grades up in all of his classes, from high C’s to mostly A’s, and now, in a few months, he would be starting at Loyola University New Orleans, to study real art from real artists.
“You ready to get back to it yet, J?” Louis asked, adjusting his jacket, pulling the hoodie tighter around his face, and tightening his mask. “Less than five minutes and we’re done for tonight, I promise.”
“Okay, okay,” Jean-Pierre spit into his hands and rubbed them together.
Louis rolled over on his stomach and set the spray can carefully next to him, about six inches in from the edge of the roof. Then he slid himself forward until his head, and then his shoulders, and then his chest jutted over the side. Once he felt Jean-Pierre’s firm grip on his legs, he pushed against the side of the outer wall with his palms until his waist extended barely over the edge, and he could bend at the hip to reach the bottom-most part of his intended canvas. It only needed one thin stripe there at the bottom, about three feet down from the roof. The mural depicted a wave coming through, like a flood, carrying a whole lot of Mardi Gras beads with it through the streets of New Orleans. Louis could see it as clearly as if it were already painted there. He slowly reached up for the can, feeling around with his right hand on the edge of the roof.
“Stop,” someone yelled, and Louis felt Jean-Pierre’s grip loosen. The vise-like hands now gripped his pants legs instead of his ankles. Louis stopped trying to find the can, held on to the roof for balance, and turned his head to the left in time to see an upside-down view of two cops quickly stepping into the dark alley from well-lit Annunciation Street, their shadows stretching ahead of them twice their size.
“Damn,” Jean-Pierre shouted, and Louis’s instincts told him to brace himself before his partner let go of him completely and ran off across the building towards the other side and another dark alley to disappear in.
As his body slid unchecked over the roof, Louis heard one of the cops say, “You stay with this one, I’ll catch up to the other guy.”
He still had one hand on the roof, now clutching it tightly, but not finding much to hold on to as his legs fell over the edge and his body immediately inverted.
Louis held on the best he could with his right hand, but as his body swung down and over like a pendulum, he felt the gritty surface of the roof ripping away from underneath his fingers. He reached up with his left hand and caught the edge, but then both hands were slipping.
As his fingertips scraped off the edge of the roof, he felt himself suspended in the air for a moment with no options but to fall, and he made his body as limp and springy as he could, his feet underneath him and trying to make sure he could hit the ground with both feet together and crumple up like he did when he fell off of his skateboard.
Even trying to minimize the impact, Louis hit the ground in a heap. His feet hit first, and he tried to be as rubbery as he could, but once his legs ran out of bounce, his body kept falling, hard. He wound up on his back, pain throbbing in his knees and the back of his head, and a police officer a few feet away with a shocked look on his face.
“Stay there, kid,” the cop said, taking a couple of steps closer, one hand stretched in front of him, the other palm down on the butt of his holstered gun. “You all right?”
Louis saw the cop’s hand on his gun and knew that no matter what, he wasn’t all right. Louis stayed still for a moment, taking inventory of all his bones and moving parts to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. The cop looked over his shoulder toward the opening of the alley. Louis grabbed the opportunity and jumped to his feet as quickly as he could and took off running in the opposite direction, into the night blackness of the alley way. By the time the cop heard his footfalls and reacted, Louis already had ten or twelve steps on him.
Louis knew the alley ended in a fence, about six feet high, but he could only guess what lay on the other side. In fact, he didn’t know much about this neighborhood, except for a whole lot of blank walls and dark places he had noticed when he had driven through here a few nights ago to pick up Jean-Pierre. He hoped if he could make it over the fence quickly, he would find a blind turn or an exit to the street. He thought he might be able to hide in a crowd, as long as he kept his paint-covered hands in his pocket.
He hit the fence running full speed, as fast as his throbbing feet would let him go, and he jumped barely high enough to catch the chain link with his foot so one more upward thrust put his hands on the top of the fence and his chest over the top. He grabbed the chain link on the other side, flipped his legs over, and somersaulted onto his feet on the other side.
The moment he landed, he felt needles of pain shoot upwards from his feet through his back, but he pushed the pain back down and started running again, this time down a darker alley than before, the only light coming from a couple of overlooking windows and whatever moonlight shone through the tops of the buildings.
As he ran, he looked over his shoulder and saw the cop scaling the same fence in one leap, grabbing the top and yanking his body over like a high jumper and hitting the ground running on the other side. Louis tried to run a little faster, seeing now he might actually have lost a couple of steps with his stunt.
Another alley crossed this one a few steps ahead, and Louis waited until the last second and turned left into it, hoping to find a way to use the momentary break in line of sight to lose the cop somehow. Instead, he found himself running headlong into a dead end.
The alley narrowed sharply and stopped in about fifteen feet. Louis reached the end of it by the time he stopped running around the corner. He stood there for a moment, not sure what to do, the thudding in his chest distracting him from being able to plan an escape. Looking around in those two or three seconds, he saw no way to scale the back wall, no ladders or fire escapes to climb, not even any boxes to hide in, just bags and bags of foul-smelling garbage leaning up against a cinder block wall. While he still gasped for breath, he heard the heavy footfalls approaching and turned around in time to see the cop chasing him into the alley.
Now that he could see him, the cop was a young guy, white, not too tall, not too big, but muscular, obviously fit enough to clear the high fence like a hurdle, and probably enough to handle himself too. There were streams of sweat flowing from his shaved head, even in the cool December weather.
The cop had dark brown eyes, or dark eyes anyway, as far as Louis could tell at night. He could see the frustration and rage behind the eyes. On the other hand, Louis saw college and art school and his future disappearing behind those eyes.
“Dammit, kid,” the cop said, punctuating each word with deep breaths, his hand again on the butt of his gun, “don’t move.”
Louis felt his face flush as he slowly raised his hands into the air. He stepped back a foot or two as the cop started to close the gap between them, but stopped when the back of his foot struck a plastic bag full of some kind of soft garbage. No getting out that way anyhow.
“Turn around and get your hands behind your back,” the cop barked, his fingers closing around the butt of his pistol, the index finger releasing the snap.
Louis looked the cop in the eye and saw what he saw, a stupid kid pissing all over good folks’ property and making his job ten times more difficult. He felt stupid, too. This ended any chance to go to school, let alone to get somebody else to pay for it. He pictured his existence for the rest of his life – standing with his hands up at the wrong end of a gun. He had sold his future, his chance to control his destiny, for a beautiful blank wall, and one way or another, he would spend the rest of his life being pushed and forced into doing someone else’s will, working as hard as his parents to make someone else’s dreams possible. He wanted to wipe his face, but didn’t dare to move his hands.
Stupid or not, he couldn’t let it go. About five feet of space to slip between the cop and the wall of the alley, and beyond that, scale the fence again, run through the alley he already knew, and get back into the streets. The cop had moves, and he might tackle him or pull his gun. If he does, Louis told himself, stop running and go quietly, but at least take the chance.
He focused his eyes on the opening he wanted to take, set his heels, and took off suddenly. Before he went three steps, he saw the cop already with his gun cradled in both hands. Louis stopped immediately, threw his hands up, and said, “Okay, okay.”
Before his mouth had formed the second word, he saw the blinding muzzle flare of the pistol in the cop’s hands, heard the shot fill the alley with noise, and felt the impact like someone poking him hard in the chest, once, twice, and then another in his left shoulder.
His knees buckled underneath him, and he fell right into a puddle of thick, rotten waste water, looking up at the small patch of sky through the rooftops. Either his eyes had adjusted to the dark or someone had turned on a light nearby, because he imagined he could see much better all of a sudden. His chest burned and he felt wet and sticky all over. He pressed his hand to his chest to see if he could feel the wound, see how bad it was. Then he looked at his hand, held it over his face in the light. The alley framed it, filling the space there, with the sky as a background, a brown and black hand all splashed with stark white and deep red. Beautiful.