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The Lynching Tree
By Michael Stein
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2000 Michael Stein
All rights reserved.
That night, felt, seen, heard, not fully felt, not truly seen, scarcely heard, and still in me.
Awake, I try hard to recall — not that recollection is any use — what he wore, his face, what I saw or mis-saw when I looked at the night, when the boy stepped away from the wall. Perhaps the images I'm extracting from memory are the ones any man in my position would make up.
In the dull heat of this mechanical bed, a call button for my handshake, the walls as white as my mother's clothesline, there are moments when the shooting still seems imminent, and there are moments when that night vanishes. For as long as I live the images will be there in the first minute of my waking. I don't expect otherwise.
There are few hours when I can rest. I have always had the power to skip over whole days and nights as if they did not happen; this power is now a blessing.
I am here. Secrets have been locked in this room before, and I will leave secrets behind too. The land is full of young men like me, policemen wooed by fury, moving ahead with their eyes shut. But none, I think, as extreme as I.
What will I do next, where will I go?
The curtains are drawn, the windows tight, and I hear cars outside going too fast.
I am the one who wanted an answer to the lynching, and without an answer what is the point of my story? Only this: to explain is to be forgiven.
Butras was the one who wanted nothing. Outside, in the world, he proceeds with a certainty and purpose I envy.
My story is my story. It is history. It is not myth and hero. Does a black man telling this story mean anything to anyone?CHAPTER 2
My first day at work when I saw Butras from across the back room of the police station, I saw teeth striking teeth. It was a strange thing to notice first, but it stuck in my mind.
Butras saw me and came over. When he squeezed my hand, he squeezed it hard and kept moving forward until we stood very close. By the time Butras stopped, it was as if we were in the center of a ring and we were scheduled to fight. I didn't realize then that he was someone from my past, although I figured there would probably be classmates from my high school on the force.
I could smell Butras' aftershave on his neck. It was a powerful, rum odor and Butras wore too much. Or perhaps it was the odor of panic in my own sweat.
In the glare of the squad room the other men, pacing back and forth in their slow black shoes, were drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and smoking cigarettes. I studied the bookcase where trophies from teams the department sponsored were kept. The American flag sticker on the side of the bookcase read: "These colors don't run." I heard the noise — stories fighting other stories — and the forced click of the broken wall clock. If I shut my eyes and breathed in, it was the smoke and rattle of my freshman dorm. It was as if I were back at Rutgers.
I was told I would be sharing a car with Frank Butras from that Monday, the first of December to the end of the month. He would be my teacher. After the New Year I'd get my own car and I would work alone like the others.
Butras leaned toward me and whispered, "You're gonna get it now. Keep your head down." Then he turned toward the eight or ten guys seated near their tall blue lockers, some getting into their uniforms, others undressing, the end of one shift, the beginning of another.
"This is Donald Gambell, the newest product of the Academy," Butras introduced me.
"Should we tell him about you, Frank, or let him find out on his own?" The way they teased him I could tell he was well-liked.
Then I heard:
"We know who Gambell is."
"We've read about him in the paper. Pompan High. Recent college grad. Doing what he wants with his life."
Butras asked, "We all want to know: you satisfied with the spread you got in The Record?"
"Can't get a better story," I said.
I didn't tell the reporter who did the profile on me all the stupid things I'd done in Pompan; he was only interested in the positive, the new black officer who could "go where no man had gone before." I didn't tell him how I smashed my first motorcycle, driving late at night without a helmet, pulling into my driveway too fast, waking neighbors. I didn't tell him I'd been suspended from Pompan High for cutting classes sophomore year, and how my father had hit me for the last time the night he found out, how I caught his hand and warned him never to hit me again.
The reporter didn't seem to know I'd been written about in The Record years before.
"You'll have a good month working with the master," Tom Prescott said. Tom had black hair everywhere — inside his ears and nose, up his neck, thick on the tops of his hands. "Just remember that although he acts like an old man sometimes, he's only a few years older than you are. What are you Frank, 26? Oh, and Gambell, don't forget to cut us a break when you talk to the press again."
"Okay, that's enough," Butras said. Then he put his arm around my shoulder and guided me around the room as I shook hands with each, like it was a receiving line.
Around me, conversation shifted to other subjects:
"Where's Teddy today?"
"Hurt his hand."
"So you're in for him?"
"They couldn't do any better."CHAPTER 3
During the ride out on December 1st, Butras taught me how to handle calls and use the radio. He showed me around the district and taught me a few short-cuts. The town looked wealthier than I remembered it — more redwood decks and gas grills covered with black tarpaulins, more TV dishes on roofs and signs for house alarm systems. Butras seemed to know the history of every home and the people who lived in them. It was information I never had growing up there, near these very houses, or perhaps information I never paid attention to.
"That's the place where the Tinisher kid had the breakdown, went crazy, what have you. He wouldn't take his pills and it took seven of us to get him to the hospital.
"That's where Mr. Molotsky lives." He pointed to another house. "He's getting on in years and asked me to hold a key to his house. In case he needed someone to get in some time. Some one will ask you to do that when you've been around a while.
"Dennis Paul's house. Ten kids. Right now he's in the holding cell, daughter accused him of rape. I heard this banging when I came in the station the other day. Banging and banging in the back where the pens are, and no one is paying attention. We got five holding cells you know. And I go see what's happening and there's Dennis in a cell and I say, 'Dennis, what are you doing here?' and he says, 'They think I raped Carol, but I didn't, could you tell them I didn't Frank?' And I say, 'I'm not here to judge you Dennis. I have nothing against you.' And he wants to tell me the whole story, but I don't want to hear it. I mean I've known the guy my whole life. So I say, 'Is there anything I can do for you Dennis?' And he says, 'Yeah, they won't give me my contact lenses or my medicines.' I tell him, 'I can do that,' and that's why he's banging, because no one is treating him like a person just because his daughter accused him. But I don't know what happened, do I? And I'm not here to judge him because then anyone can go around judging me."
At 5:30 that afternoon, there was a demonstration at city hall about school budgets. We couldn't even get out of the station lot because of the traffic.
Butras said, "It's all right with me if everyone has a right to march. But don't go sitting down in the street and blocking traffic. If I'm hustling somewhere and you're in my way, I'm thinking: are you really that bad off that you're ruining things for me? And I have to believe, No Sir. Let's keep some perspective on things, fellas. You get yours and I get mine."
Butras leaned on the horn and wouldn't get off until some of demonstrators moved out of his way.
Butras said, "You know any of these people?"
"No one looks familiar," I answered.
He seemed disappointed. He was always asking me who I knew. For some reason, he figured if he didn't recognize someone, I would.
"I'm new here, you know," I said, trying to make a joke.
"No you're not," he said, irritated.
The late afternoon sun was almost gone. Butras continued to lean on his horn. A woman, about 30 years old in a red parka, gave us the finger.
Butras rolled down his window. What interested me was the tone of his voice.
"Is anything wrong?" he asked her.
She hesitated and glared.
"Well, is there?" he asked.
"You're making quite a noise out here," she said.
"I knew something was wrong," Butras said. "Why didn't you tell me sooner. Oh, by the way, if you let me pass through, my horn might miraculously get quiet again."
He wasn't tense. Nothing was upset inside him. There was a lot I was going to have to learn to get through the year, I thought.
Butras rolled up his window. "God, I hate these people," he said. "Town's gone crazy since that lynching. There's one protest or another every day. The lynching started it. It wasn't like this before."CHAPTER 4
Thirty days later, New Year's Eve, Wednesday night, the Knicks were at the Garden against the 76ers, just across the bridge in the city. Everyone in Pompan was watching cable, or listening to the radio, pissed that they still blacked out home games. The Knicks had their last shot at the title with Ewing getting older. They were playing like crazy men for Van Gundy.
I liked driving the squad car even though it didn't have an AM dial Butras and I could catch the Knicks on. Every time I thought about the Knicks I couldn't get over the fact that Ewing was a rookie when I was in fifth grade; that he was near retirement and still pulling in 7.5 million a year for his sixteen points, ten rebounds. The car radio had a microphone attached to a silver horseshoe that hung from the dashboard just over the lighter. I never thought I'd enjoy the big round Cavalier, a power car. I liked driving it any speed I wanted up roads marked No Trespassing, up private roads. I hadn't worried about speed in a month. No more tickets for me. If a state trooper pulled me over when I was in my own car, I'd take out my wallet with the picture of me and the Governor at the Academy on graduation day. The Governor had his arm around me and was smiling after a lunch of rubber chicken and peas.
In the month of December, I had grown to enjoy feeling menacing-the heavy pistol, the sharp siren whine, the blue lights gyroscoping, making people dizzy. It was the same feeling that I got when I was weight training. I didn't speak much about this pleasure of my job; I didn't want to jinx it.
Night-riding was best, gliding through Pompan. Shark Chevrolet, a fish-car that could belly flop up a curb, that could take the sandy roads out past Thomas Jefferson Middle School, a car that never broke down, a car that still had power at 80 miles per hour. I liked that the seats were flat black and burned through my starchy white shirts on sunny days, even in the winter.
Butras always had some remark that would snap me out of my drifting. He needed to keep the night passing. December 31st had already been a busy night so he was lively, jumpy. Like me, he had grown up in the town, and not in one of the big houses in the Winthrop Hill area either. I had grown up five blocks away from him, not far from his own Johnston Road.
After dinner at D'Angelo's, I let him drive. I could see the road clearly enough at night but everything was a little blurry when there were oncoming headlights. It had been that way since I started driving at sixteen, even with glasses. I saw the fuzzy halos sometimes around street signs, around porch lights or headlights. Night vision.
Most evenings, very few people called. We just drove and listened to the dispatcher call in fires and rescues. At times, the job seemed like one endless drive, without purpose, nothing much to see, an unthinking kind of emptiness. I kept notes in my head, things to think about when I got in from our shift at 1 AM. I'd light the candles by my bed, put some jazz on the radio, and stare into the dark thinking of my night and of Clarise.
Whenever I asked Clarise if she loved me, she said, "What's your name again?" and pushed at my chest. Then she said, "You're okay for a man."
I was planning to see her after my shift, drive into the city when I got off at midnight, New Year's.
Pompan, New Jersey was a perfect rectangle on the county map, four miles by eight miles. New housing tracts on the north side past the shopping area called The Plaza were mostly unfinished, interrupted by the bad economy, but the houses that had gone up were huge, with pillars beside the front doors, so unlike the other parts of town where the homes were small and vinyl-sided. I had grown up in one of the small, neat houses near the other small shopping area, Oak Lane. The Hudson River was three miles away and sometimes you could smell it like a greasy meal. Across the river in the city was Clarise.
Butras hated that the car was always hotter than the weather. December was his season. All year he waited for the cold. He was the kind of guy who sweated everywhere he went; if you bumped into him, you'd be surpised by how wet he was. He liked being out of the car, on foot, cold but sweating still.
"I feel like taking my shirt off, don't you?" he would ask me on the coldest nights.
"You'd still have one of those priss T-shirts on underneath, wouldn't you? It's winter here. Love it or leave it."
It had been a difficult month together locked in the car, a difficult New Year's Eve so far, although just the week before it seemed almost as if we had reached some understanding (he didn't shut me down as fast), laughing at some of our disagreements, ignoring others because I was about to become a graduate of the University of Frank Butras. Nearly all I knew about policing in Pompan came from him and he must have thought there was something important about that, about how he'd be the one I'd call for advice when I went out on my own.
On December 31st at 11:45 PM we were taking the usual circling route around town, near Bryant School, the one the white kids of Pompan got bussed to from the richer Winthrop area because of the elementary school overflow. Bryant stood on top of the hill which sloped down to the mostly black neighborhood around Trygon Park. Not many complaints that made it out from dispatch came from down the hill, but this call had come from there, an address just south of Bryant.
When the call came in at 11:45, Butras hadn't spoken to me in over an hour.
The dispatcher said, "Group of kids in dark parkas, wearing hats. Anonymous caller believes one youngster had a gun. Not sure from a distance if it's a toy or real."
When we saw the kids running, Butras put up the headlights. "Some friends of yours," he said.CHAPTER 5
A month earlier, on the last afternoon of November, one of the black reps from the Pompan City Council, Mrs. Ellis, came over to meet me at my father's house. It was a Sunday, sixteen hours before I started as the only black patrolman in Pompan. My father sat on the brown couch under the window, his hands stiff on his knees and Mrs. Ellis sat on the blue chair next to him. My sister Brenda stood near the CD player, staring out the front window over the evergreens, and I stood beside her, overheated, one hand on the bookcase. Mrs. Ellis was about 40 years old and wore an expensive gray suit. She had long straight hair and glossy tangerine lipstick. My father didn't know Mrs. Ellis (she lived across town in a predominantly black neighborhood) and he reported to us before she arrived that he hadn't voted for her in the last Pompan run-off.
My sister gave her a big smile. My father quietly finished his coffee.
"I hear good things about you. Rutgers, right?" she said, giving me a low, sidelong glance, after quickly checking over at my father. "My nephew goes there, my older brother's boy. I guess he's not a boy anymore. Well, I just wanted to welcome you back to Pompan."
"I'm looking forward to starting," I told her. I was respectful but wasn't about to give her much in conversation. I could tell she had not come to meet me; it was her chance to introduce herself to my father, one of the few black lawyers in town. He was heavy-set and bald with a little patch of gray over the ears. I used to tease my mother that we were the only people who had ever seen my father outside a three-piece suit. He had an elegance; he dressed like a minister.
Excerpted from The Lynching Tree by Michael Stein. Copyright © 2000 Michael Stein. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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