After rising above his rough background, Nate is ready to celebrate – but small-town prejudices are worse than he imagined; by Bill Tope.
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“You know,” said my friend and roommate Nate, “for the longest time I never thought I’d live long enough to celebrate this day.” The occasion of Nate’s twenty-first birthday had given rise to these ruminations. As a native of Chicago, he had lived a precarious existence in the projects, where violence and a casual attitude towards life were rife. “My dad was killed by a drive-by shooter,” he said, “when I was just eleven.” I had heard this tragic anecdote before; I also knew that his mother had had a substance abuse problem before finally succumbing to her illness at age thirty. Nate’s grandmother had raised him and his two siblings. “Good parenting often skips a generation in the ghetto,” he remarked matter-of-factly. “Granny was the best!” Granny had worked for thirty years as a security guard for Wells Fargo. She had proved a wonderful example for her grandson.
In order to mark his transition to adulthood, Nate had asked for a night on the town – a bender – such as he had denied himself for the previous twenty-one years. He had scrupulously eschewed alcohol – and all other intoxicants – until such time as it became legal for him to indulge. The advent of the legalization of marijuana in his home state of Illinois found his eyes shining with eager anticipation. He’d not experienced even a contact high.
Six hours into our bacchanalia, we came upon yet another watering hole, this one inauspiciously christened the Don’t Drop In! “Shall we?” I asked my friend. He grinned. Nate and I lurched through the entrance of the tavern, inadvertently sending the door crashing loudly into the wall behind it. Others looked up at our arrival, mildly intrigued by the disturbance. They peered at us curiously.
“Whoa, kubwa, man,” shouted Nate into the dead silence of the pub, “Be cool, dude, be cool,” and he laughed shrilly.
Behind the bar, a massive man in a sleeveless wife-beater scrutinized us carefully, not liking what he saw. Across from the barkeep, three men in honest-to-God tan leisure suits were preparing to have a drink-off; nine shots of tequila were set up, three before each man. There were scant other customers, save for another huge man in denim overalls at a pool table, holding in his large fist a glass schooner of beer, and three or four faceless people lurking at tables in the rear, who paid us little mind. Keeping us in his sights, the pool shooter took a delicate sip, then returned to his pool game. Apropos of nothing, Nate laughed loudly again. The bartender frowned.
“Can I help you guys?” he asked, telegraphing his unfriendliness.
“We want some beers,” declared Nate, slapping the bar with his palm. Nate was pretty drunk. Not surprising, since this was the fourth bar we’d visited this evening. I, as the driver, had consumed far less than my friend. He was at last legal, and it was a time for celebration. Parenthetically, Nate traced his heritage to Kenya and so studied Swahili as a hobby; he was forever dropping African words into his everyday conversation. The big bartender was inscrutable, but I could tell he wasn’t impressed with Nate’s multilingualism. “What can I get you, boys, a Black Label?” he asked pointedly, lifting his brows. The men in leisure suits – the Three Stooges – looked on, uncertain what to make of this interruption. They laughed nervously.
“Budweisers,” said Nate, the insult apparently skyrocketing over his head. “And make it snappy, my man,” he ordered. I took a moment to gaze around the tavern and soon discovered that Nate was the only Black man in the place. This didn’t bode well, I thought. The ominous feelings being levied by the other patrons were lost on Nate; he was either too wasted or else just didn’t care. I, on the other hand, was much more attuned to the vibes that were coming off the others in waves.
Rather than providing the beers, the bartender turned his attention back to the Stooges, who immediately proceeded to noisily swill their spirits. Each man lifted a shot glass off the bar, poured the tequila down his throat, then slammed the empty glass loudly onto the bar. After disposing of their libations, the three suits involuntarily shivered, gritting their teeth. I couldn’t tell the men apart.
“Set ’em up again, Buddha,” growled one of the men. Moving with studied nonchalance, Buddha decanted nine more shots.
“What does the winner of this competition receive?” asked Nate brightly, “a vomit bag?” And he laughed. Nobody else thought it was funny. Five pairs of hard, beady eyes stared daggers through him. The patrons sequestered in the back remained hidden in shadows, drinking, selling drugs, or whatever they were about. “Hey,” said my companion, “am I going to get them Buds or what?”
“We ain’t got no Bud,” said Buddha in his gravelly voice.
“Make it Coors, then,” said Nate.
“We ain’t got no Coors either,” said the barkeep.
“We outta beer, pardner,” said the man with finality. Just then the pool player walked to the bar, set his empty glass on the surface with a little click and stood, waiting expectantly. “What’s that you’re drinking, Ellis?’ asked the barkeep.
“Coors,” murmured Ellis, a sparkle in his dark eyes.
The other man smirked, filled the schooner from the tap, and then set the glass back atop the bar. “On the house.” Ellis returned to the pool table.
“C’mon, Nate,” I told my friend. “Let’s hit the road.” I placed my hand on his shoulder. Nate scowled but followed me to the door.
“You know,” he said, “I think that guy’s a racist.” I glanced back at Buddha; his face was impassive. But he was fingering a huge, ugly black revolver, which presumably he’d just pulled out of his butt. “Baadaye,” said Nate with irony, not looking back.
“In this part of the state, you have to expect a little racism,” I told Nate. “You’re probably not used to it.”
His lips twisted wryly. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m from Chicago. We ain’t got no racism in Shy-town!” We exited the tavern. “No guns, neither,” he muttered darkly.
We visited a couple more bars without incident, though we narrowly avoided one when Nate made the acquaintance of a really stunning redhead in the last tavern we crawled through.
“I might not be comin’ back to the apartment with you tonight, Stu,” remarked Nate, making quick time with the gorgeous woman. She was a progressive vixen, placing her hand comfortably on my roommate’s hip. After a couple of drinks – “Willa likes margaritas,” she told us breathlessly – we were taken aside and then advised by the manager that Willa “was taken”, and by a police captain, no less. I glanced around. At least a half dozen other uniformed policemen were strung throughout the place, getting loaded, and they looked restive. The manager advised us to take the back way out, and we judiciously complied. We staggered across the gravel parking lot to our ride.
Now, when I squinted at the clock in my little red Kia, it read almost 3am. “Bars are all closed,” I announced with relief. “I’m taking us home.” Nate made no reply; he was in the embrace of a well-earned alcohol stupor. I piloted the tiny car across town towards the off-campus university housing. Nate and I shared a flat with one other student in this, our last semester at the four-year institution.
We were within striking distance of home when I was startled by a psychedelic pattern of blue and red lights flashing around the interior of the car. I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw the frenzied array of police lights ablaze through the rear window. Immediately, I pulled off to the side of the road and cut the ignition, just as I’d been taught by my parents. I waited, my hands clearly visible on the steering wheel. Nate, who had been softly snoring, came to at once.
“What’s up?” he asked, instantly sober.
“Cops,” I said tersely. If Nate was worried, he didn’t show it.
We heard the scrunching of gravel underfoot, and suddenly there was a uniformed policeman at my window and another cop at Nate’s. My cop rapped on the window with his knuckles. Cautiously, I rolled down my window.
“You’re all in a hurry, young man?” asked the man conversationally. I furrowed my brow. I didn’t understand him.
“Speed limit’s thirty-five,” he went on. “You were going sixty, if you were movin’ at all.” He grinned eerily, like a skeleton on Halloween.
“I’m certain we weren’t going that fast,” Nate told him, speaking up unexpectedly. The cop’s phony smile instantly disappeared. He peered in through my window to get a load of Nate. His eyes turned flinty.
“You calling me a liar, young boy?” he asked quietly. There was a sound from the opposite side of the car; the other cop had unsnapped the holster of his weapon.
“Let me handle this, Nate,” I said urgently. Nate was having none of it.
“This car won’t hardly go more’n thirty miles an hour, officer,” he told my cop.
The cop looked over the roof of the car to his companion and muttered, “smart ass.” Then she said to me, “IDs, proof of insurance, registration… you know the drill.” Slowly removing my hands from the steering wheel, I reached into the glove box and extracted what he’d requested. “You too, Step ‘n’ Fetchit,” he told Nate unkindly. “ID, boy.” Nate pulled out his state-issued ID – he didn’t drive – and handed it over.
“That’s Mr. Fetchit to you,” Nate cracked. I winced. I didn’t know how they handled racism in Chicago, but in my neck of the woods, that wasn’t a winning strategy.
“Have you been drinking or using illegal drugs tonight, boys?” asked the same cop. Apparently the other one had nothing to say.
“Yes to the first, no to the second,” I said quickly, not wanting the cops to engage Nate any further, fearful of what he might say. The cop stared at me. “We drank a little beer,” I said. “We don’t do drugs.”
“Huh,” said the cop disbelievingly. “If we were to search your vehicle, then we wouldn’t find any marijuana?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I replied.
“Are there any open containers of alcohol in this vehicle?’ he asked next. As I shook my head, the police radio in his cruiser squawked, and he stalked back to answer its summons.
As my cop was involved with other matters, Nate turned to his cop and asked, “Who are you, the silent partner?” The cop did not move a muscle and made no sound. “Hey,” blurted Nate, “are we under arrest?” I couldn’t see the policeman’s face from my angle, but Nate leaned out his window and said, “We wanna see your ID.”
Now the cop seemed a little edgy, and when my cop rejoined us, Nate’s cop spoke for the first time: “The nigra wants to see our ID, Mike,” he said. The other cop looked up sharply, then stared in at Nate again, narrowing his eyes at him.
“And you can’t search our vehicle without probable cause,” said Nate. “There is a constitutional provision against unreasonable search and seizure,” he went on. “Or were you guys absent the day they discussed the 4th Amendment in police school?” He may have been only kidding, but their reaction was instantaneous.
“I just thought of something: We haven’t searched these suspects for weapons yet,” Mike observed. Then, to Nate, he said, “There’s your probable cause! Exit the vehicle with your hands behind your head. You,” he nodded at me, “stay in the vehicle. Keep your hands on the steering wheel, where I can see them.” I remained fixed in place as they took Nate from his seat to the rear of the car, the only sounds being the scuffing of their shoes on the gravel and the jingling of their loaded utility belts. Suddenly, two additional police cruisers eased to a stop alongside the first. The doors opened, disclosing four additional policemen. Now what? I wondered. One of the faceless men walked to my window, reached inside, and handcuffed my wrist to the steering wheel before I even knew what was happening. Then he and the other three newcomers repaired to the rear of the car, where Nate waited.
I don’t really know what transpired between Nate and the cops, but I can well imagine. I still have nightmares about it. There were the sounds of scuffling; of a torso being struck with closed fists and boots; of a body falling heavily to the pavement. I panicked and tried to get free of the handcuffs, and of course it was fruitless. But I didn’t remain silent. I screamed, cursed, and pleaded, but to no avail. After what seemed like hours, the man who had secured me to the steering wheel reappeared and, taking out a small key, inserted it into the metal restraints and freed me. The pack – six young, strong, well-armed men – left without a word. The brake lights on the vehicles flared brightly as they pulled out and then sped down the highway.
I anxiously exited the car and rushed back to where my friend and roommate lay silent and unmoving in the dust. I bent to one knee and felt for a pulse, the way I’d seen TV doctors do it on the tube. I was rewarded with a distinctive, though faint, beat. Nate raised his head only an inch and, with the whites of his eyes swimming in blood, he murmured “Nisaidie!” and that was all.
“Nate,” I said softly, observing the gashes and abrasions on his battered head and shoulders. “Oh, Nate,” I lamented with anguish. “What have they done?”
A week later, I stood on a small rise in the cemetery where they laid Nate to rest. Staring at his headstone, I cursed all the events that had transpired to take this sweet, dear man from us. His family – a sister and a brother – couldn’t be bothered to attend, but then it might have been too great a financial imposition to travel fifteen hundred miles to pay their last respects. Nate came from modest means, so he had a pauper’s burial. There were no cards, no bouquets of flowers, no eulogy or service, and no overt mourning aside from my own. I wept quietly. Nate’s and my other roommate said he had to study for a test. Surprisingly, there was only one policeman at the interment; on his uniform, he wore captain’s bars.
Nate’s “suspicious death” remains an open case to this day, three years later. Little effort went into solving the case. “Person or persons unknown” had committed a homicide. Nate was never able to use his education in order to carve out a career, though he would have been good at it. He had been an excellent student and had shown a natural aptitude for the work. Nate and I had been studying criminology at the university. Though my studies had at one time faltered, Nate’s passing had energized me to work harder than before. I felt now like I had a mission: I began working in the sheriff’s office two years ago. With positive work evaluations, I got the assignment I wanted; I start working cold cases next week.