If she had lived, I know she would be ashamed of me. I’m trying to change that.
My mother adored her morning coffee. I imagine her in my espresso shop, quiet, unimposing, lifting her drink and winking at me the way she did when I was a little kid in Oregon. A few months back I started the place with her in mind. She would love the mahogany counters, the polished brass rails and gleaming Italian machinery, the rich aroma.
Black’s—that’s what I call my shop, in honor of the family name. Mom was always busy, they tell me. A dutiful housewife with a set jaw and silky, raven hair twisted back in a bun. She bore secrets no one should have to carry alone, and when at last she did seek support, she found only hostility and greed and a cup of conspiracy that spilled over into the lives of her family.
Dianne Lewis Black. Despite her weariness, her eyes sparkled. That much I remember and hold on to.
She’d still be with us if not for Uncle Wyatt’s mistake, and I still hate the carelessness that stole her life away. I was six when she died. I watched her fall, a stone’s throw away. For two decades, that one moment held me in its grip. I wallowed in its rage through my young adult years, courting violence and a nasty drug habit. I tattooed my cynicism onto my forearms.
Live by the Sword on one. Die by the Sword on the other. Despite all this, I’ve never stopped believing that we are created with the ability to soar. But then circumstances slash at us and pluck our feathers, and we get entangled in our sins. We fight to get free. We struggle, flapping our wings, beating at the air. Exhaustion leaves most of us numb.
Thirteen months ago I decided to break away. I packed a U-Haul and left Portland to live with my brother in Nashville, Tennessee—a place to start over, start clean. A safer world, I thought. This morning proved me wrong. Sitting here at my desk, putting it on paper, I hope to gain a glimmer of understanding. This is my way of processing, I guess. Not that it’ll change things. My shop is in shambles, and a fellow human being is dead.
Two and a half hours before the shooting at Black’s, I was barely out of bed and shaking off my nightmares. I stumbled from the bathroom toward the kitchen, feeling cheated of sleep, quiet, and a general sense of sanity. My brother’s guitar strumming in the living room did little to improve my mood. I wouldn’t think of asking him to stop, though. Music is Johnny Ray’s love, his life, his very breath, wrapped up in a three-minute, three-chord, country music ditty. The man has his dreams, and with a name like Johnny Ray Black, how can he fail? I’d do anything to make it happen for him. “Sounds good,” I said, pausing in the doorway. His eyes jerked up. “Aramis? Don’t scare me like that.”
“I thought you were long gone, kid.”
“Should’ve been. I’m running late.”
Cross-legged in his Tabasco boxers, surrounded by sheet music and scribbled notes, Johnny Ray shifted his guitar and tucked a section of yellowed newspaper under his knee. “Guess you better get movin’.Listen, grab yourself a muffin on the way out. Should be one left on the table.”
“Another of your bran concoctions?”
“You got it. All natural, from scratch, and still warm.”
“Ahh. That explains the smell.”
I pointed at his folded edition of the Nashville Scene, a weekly rag full of local news, events, and divergent viewpoints. “You hiding something from me, Johnny?”
“We’ll talk later.”
“I know. You’re looking to get me tickets to the U2 concert, aren’t you?”
“Don’t go gettin’ your hopes up.”
My brother pressed his knee down on the paper and shifted his attention back to his guitar, golden brown hair falling over his shoulders, bronzed skin glowing—evidence of his weekly tanning bed routine.
He believes “you’ve gotta look the part, gotta be video friendly,” blaming his music aspirations for his obsession with health and appearance. Truth is, he’s always envied the fact that I got Mom’s Mediterranean coloring. I joke with him that he got the talent and I got the looks.
“How can you sit like that?” I asked. “Doesn’t your butt get numb?”
“As a rock.”
I slipped into the kitchen, scowled at the lone muffin, then rummaged in the cupboard. “Hey, what happened to my Froot Loops?”
“You finished them yesterday,” my brother called back.
“I did not.”
“You did too.”
“Well, it wasn’t me,” he said. “I wouldn’t touch the stuff, and you know it.”
“Fruit, Johnny. It’s good for you.”
Knowing that I lack any culinary skills, Johnny Ray gets a chunk of my change each month and does our grocery shopping and cooking; Froot Loops and Dr Pepper are his two concessions to my dietary needs. He asked, “What would you do without me, little brother?”
“Spoil myself rotten.”
“Honestly, I worry about you. You can’t survive on caffeine forever.”
“It’s better than the stuff I used to do. Cheaper too.”
“And legal, Aramis. I’ll give you that.”
I went to the table, hefted the muffin, and took a bite. Yum, yum. Lots of fiber.
“Still, there’s something not right,” my brother said as I returned to the living room. “You’ve stayed clean for a year now—which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong—but I can see it in your eyes. You’re still on edge.”
“On edge?” I snorted. “I’m dog-tired. Drop it, okay?”
“You’ve always got a reason to avoid the issue.”
“Uncle Wyatt. And the way Mom died.”
“What? Where did that come from? It was over twenty freakin’ years ago. Why keep dredging up the past?”
“See now, that’s your pain talking.”
“Dude.” I pulled on my jacket. “I know you’re trying to help me, but it’s too early in the morning for psychoanalysis. I have to get to work.” I took another bite.
“It’s come full circle—that’s all I’m trying to tell you.”
“Sure. If you say so.” With my mouth full, my words were pebbles rolling in wet gravel.
“I’m not sure you’re ready for it.”
“Gotta go. My customers will be lining up soon.”
“I’m probably gonna regret this, but…Aramis, does this look familiar?” My brother’s question brought me to a halt. In his hand, waved into view from the folded newspaper, he held a silk cloth with Mom’s initials embroidered on it: DLB. Hours after my mother’s death, after the police had come and gone, I’d realized this memento was missing. She’d given it to me in confidence, saying that it held secrets, and then someone had stolen it away. I’d always wondered if the thief had known its significance. He must have. “Is that…?” I took the cloth from my brother, cradling the soft material. I felt like a boy again. Six years old. Choked with emotion.
“It’s Mom’s handkerchief.”
“I found it last night.” Johnny Ray gestured toward the front door. “On the steps, in a FedEx envelope.”