Part IV: Conclusion: From epiphany to maturity: Walter’s path to adulthood
Walter had entered a new phase of his life with Mary Jean as a nightly companion he could talk to. She was very worried about the scar on her cheek although her doctors had reassured her that in time it would fade with the cream she was applying.
She felt very self-conscious about the long pink streak that reached across the left side of her face. Other than wearing a mask, there was nothing she could do to cover it up. Make-up was helpful but the scar was still visible as a slightly inflamed, extended wound. She had to be patient; the scar tissue would fade over time, possibly a year or more according to her dermatologist.
Now and then, she would ask her brother how it looked. Walter knew that he had to be tactful but honest at the same time.
“It’s noticeable but it’s not too bad. You’ve got a pretty face. It’s going to heal sooner than you think.”
“I hope so.” She hesitated for a moment. “I saw Wallace yesterday at a restaurant where we used to eat. He was nice and concerned about the scar. I was there with some friends from school. He didn’t introduce me to the girl he was having lunch with. Do you think he’s turned off by the scar?”
“Well, if he is, he’s a fool. You’re really nice-looking…if you’re looking for compliments.”
“You’re super nice, little brother. By the way, are you interested in anyone special right now? Amy Whitehouse has been talking about you a lot. Do you want me to fix you up?” Walter didn’t know what to say; he almost blushed and answered that he would give it some thought. Amy was a bright girl who played the piano really well. She accompanied the chorus at school during rehearsals and played for churchgoers at the Bethel Methodist Church downtown. They were about the same age or maybe she was a year older but that didn’t seem to matter to Walter.
One day, Walter and Mary Jean decided to talk with their mother about the parole situation. Mary Jean had a bad feeling about her mother’s attitude concerning her father’s parole. Kate (their mother) wasn’t at all excited at the prospect of having her husband back home and trying to rebuild their lives as a couple.
Walter had a difficult time picturing his father withering away in prison, locked in a cell with a roommate who might be compatible or possibly dangerous. Walter would be twenty-five before his father was released. Unless they visited him on a regular basis, he would become alienated from his family members. Now that parole was possible, he ought to be set free and permitted to enjoy life once again.
Walter called his mother one evening and a man’s voice answered. “Hi, is this Walter? What can I do for you? This is your mother’s friend, Jim Bob.”
“Could I speak with my mother, please? I need to ask her something.”
“She’s pretty busy right now. Can I give her a message?”
“No. I’ll call her later. Thanks.”
“Take care, Walter.” In the background, Walter could hear his mother’s voice asking something that he couldn’t understand.
Mary Jean was annoyed when Walter told her what took place. “I bet you called when they were having…you know what. Daddy would be furious if he found out what Momma was doing.”
“That’s one of the things we need to discuss with her. If Daddy gets parole and comes home, then what’s going to happen with Jim Bob and the others?”
“She’ll probably tell us it’s none of our business. She’ll make the right decision for all of us. I can’t imagine Daddy rotting away in that horrible place,” Mary Jean cried out. “It’s not fair.”
“If Daddy gets parole, does he have to live with Momma?” Walter sounded tentative and a little naïve.
“Of course. He’s not going to let some man live with his wife while he stays with us or elsewhere.” Mary Jean answered, snorting with disgust.
A few minutes later, the phone rang and Walter answered. Their mother was on the line. “Walter, I’m sorry but I was busy when you called. Is everything okay? You’re not having any trouble with those black gang members are you?”
“No. They’ve been pretty quiet since Jalen and the others were arrested. Mary Jean and I were wondering if you would be willing to meet and talk about Daddy’s situation. We’re really concerned about him”
“Well, so I am, sweetie. I haven’t really made a decision about what to do. Maybe we can all put out heads together and develop a strategy. Is Mary Jean there?” Walter handed the receiver to his sister and, as she directed, he left the room.
Walter could hear from his room a spirited conversation between the two. He could catch pieces of their conversation but he didn’t have a clear idea of what was being said.
“Walter! Can you meet with Momma tomorrow about 3:00? She can see us at the restaurant just before she goes on duty.”
“Okay. I don’t have much to do then. I’ll check with Uncle Leopold but I’m sure he won’t object.”
After listening to a brief rehashing of what Mary Jean had said to her stepmother, Walter went back to his room and studied for a while before falling asleep. He had noted that his nightmares were less frequent, although they did occur from time to time.
In his dreams he found himself in an Old West fort with a thick, wooden palisade surrounding the compound. In the distance, Indians were gathering just before their attack. As they approached the stockade, they emitted shrill cries and began firing at the soldiers standing guard. Walter was handed a rifle that Gregory had trained him to use. He began to take aim and could see dark bodies fall silently from their horses.
A sense of dominance came over him just before the alarm went off. He had a feeling of confidence that he lacked before when dealing with Jalen and his thugs. He might get in touch with Amy today and ask her out for a date.
Just before three o’clock, Walter and his sister were greeted by their mother in a back room of the restaurant normally used for parties and receptions. She was dressed in a dark blue waitress outfit with white trimmings around the neck and wrists. She looked very professional and attractive in her work clothes.
Walter and Mary Jean had rehearsed most of what they would say during the meeting. They knew their mother was caught in a double bind between being a dutiful spouse, after a three-year absence, and dealing with her lover or lovers who had now become significant parts of her life.
She sat down and faced her children. “Let me tell you first of all what I think about the situation — it’s almost a stalemate — and then you can express your thoughts and feelings.”
Walter and Mary Jean nodded and sat back to listen. Kate cleared her throat and looked them directly in the eyes. Their father, she began hesitantly, was not a criminal; he had led a normal and responsible life until the mills started to close down. He tried his best to find work so he could provide for his family. It was a bad time for everyone concerned.
“When he started to drink and do drugs, he wasn’t thinking straight,” Kate continued, looking away as she talked. “He made some horrible mistakes. I should have done better myself and encouraged him to get help for his addictions but I didn’t. We had, all of a sudden, a lot of money and frankly I enjoyed it. So, I’m to blame in part for his failure since I enabled him to do what I knew at the time was wrong.”
Kate took a deep breath and carried on. “I haven’t been as good a wife as I should have been. I’m sure you know that. For someone like me, it’s hard being alone. If your father gets parole, he’ll find out how I’ve been living and I’m not sure what he’ll do. I hope he’ll be able to forgive me, but I don’t think so.”
She looked down and hesitated. “Jim Bob is a nice man. He’s been married before and has three children he’s taking care of. I like him a lot but I don’t love him…at least not the way I loved your father before he did drugs and went to prison.
“I wish all this had never happened. I’m not happy living this way. I don’t want you to feel you have to decide whether your father stays in prison or gets out on parole. That’s my duty and it will have to be my decision. You need your father; I need the husband I once had. I don’t know what’s best for all of us in the long run. I have my ideas but I’d like to hear what you have to say.”
Walter found it difficult to say anything. “I would just like to have Daddy back with us again. It would make me feel a lot better. He would know how to deal with black teenage thugs.”
Mary Jean lowered her head before answering. “You know what we think about his freedom. He was someone I could count on. Now we’re spread out and living apart. You’re a special person for us but you have your own life. I don’t think you really want Daddy to come home in spite of what you’ve said. If he finds out what you’ve been doing, he would try to get even with you, with everyone. We all know that.”
Kate moved closer to her children as she talked. “This is the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do. I wish there was a better way but I know your father. Once he finds out about my personal life — and he will — he’ll explode. Somebody will get hurt real bad. I fear for my life and even Jim Bob’s. If that happens, your father will go back to prison, maybe for the rest of his life. A lot of innocent people are involved in this mess we’ve created. Setting your father free or on parole is not fair to them.”
She paused briefly and said, “I love you both very much. Someday I hope you’ll understand my point of view. However, I can’t pretend that your father and I can just get back together and be the same married couple as before. God help me, but I can’t agree to his parole from prison. It would be too painful and even dangerous. I just can’t.”
“Momma, he’ll be suffering every day. Don’t you think he deserves to be free?” Walter asked incredulously.
“I have to think about you and Mary Jean and other people. You know your father is not going to accept things as they are. He’ll be violent,” Kate insisted. “He made a very bad mistake. Why should all of us have to pretend that nothing happened and try to live like before?”
“Momma, I admire you a lot. The way you’ve taken care of me is something I’ll never forget. But Daddy can try to change and be a better man. If you two don’t want to live together after the parole period, you can choose to live apart.” Mary Jean had to turn away to hide the tears that were coming down her cheeks.
“Dear child, life isn’t like that. Your father is an impulsive man. He would never agree to be patient and forgive and forget. Believe you me, I know.”
“So, you’re not going to attend the parole hearing?” Mary Jean interjected.
“No, that would be too awkward. There’ll a representative who will take my place and express my wishes. I’ll write Carleton a letter afterwards and explain things. I’m sure he’ll be very angry with me.”
Walter’s voice had a trace of desperation. “Could somebody else take your place and guarantee his conduct?”
“No. I’m his legal wife and next of kin, according to the law. The parole board wants ex-prisoners to be in a stable environment, preferably familial.”
Mary Jean stared at her mother for a short while. She gathered up her belongings, shouldered her backpack and headed for the door, saying nothing.
“Walter, it’s over. We need to leave.” Mary Jane tugged at his shirt.
“I’m sorry, Momma. I hope you’re not making a mistake.”
“No, son, I’m not. If you can’t forgive me, just try to understand that my choice is the best for everyone.”
Their mother got up with them, tears in her eyes and looked at her children as she left the room.
Walter put his arm around Mary Jean’s shoulders. “I can’t believe this. Maybe she’ll change her mind.”
“No, she won’t. I heard that in her voice. She doesn’t want her life to change.”
Walter made a note to write his father a letter to explain his feelings after the parole board hearing. Somehow, he would find a way to visit him in prison. He really needed to see his father again.
Amy Whitehouse was a little shorter than Walter. Even though she was still a teenager, she was changing into an attractive woman. She had long blondish hair that she pinned back in a ponytail. Walter admired the way she played the piano for chorus rehearsals at school. She was very talented, he thought. After days of hesitation, he decided to ask her out. Walter was too young to be driving so they would have to meet at a place where most young students got together, the downtown civic center that catered in part to young people.
They had agreed to meet on Saturday afternoon around four o’clock at the civic center pavilion. Amy’s sister would drive her there whereas Walter had asked Mary Jean to take him downtown. Since Walter couldn’t afford a movie and popcorn, they would most likely walk around, play arcade games, and mingle with other young people.
Fortunately there was an indoor concert being given by a university chorale in a spacious, sun-lit area of the center. The chorale singers were performing mainly classical songs mixed with some popular music numbers. Amy asked Walter if he would like to listen to the performance. He nodded and found two chairs that he brought up so they could sit during the concert. For Walter it was special to be with someone who really liked music.
One of the numbers was a “sing-along” selection from a hit musical. Amy’s voice impressed Walter; it was a light soprano that she used with skill and ease. She had obviously been trained vocally. Amy leaned toward Walter and urged him to sing along with the crowd. The choral group motioned for everyone to join in singing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music. Walter knew this well and he sang forcefully with an open-throated style.
Amy looked admiringly at Walter and people stopped nearby to listen to him sing. His voice rang out and he negotiated the high notes with bravura and emotion. At the end, people clapped and Amy squeezed his hand fondly.
“Wow! You have a wonderful voice,” Amy complimented him.
“Thanks. I get this, I guess, from my grandmother who was a church choir director. She sang all types of music, even opera. I used to listen to her perform when she sang solos. She gave me lessons when I was young.”
Walter noted that Amy was looking at him in a special way. She had very pretty hazel-colored eyes, and beautiful hands. She had probably given piano concerts at some time. He suddenly realized how comfortable he felt around her. She sat closer to him until the end of the concert.
“Walter, would you like to come home with me for a while? My sister and her boyfriend will be there. They can be our chaperones,” Amy smiled and squeezed his hand once more. Walter agreed without hesitation, almost too eagerly.
“Okay. Let me call Rosalind so she can pick us up. Do you need to get in touch with Mary Jean?”
Walter nodded and took out his cell phone. “No problem,” Mary Jean answered. “You must have impressed her.”
“She’s really nice. I like her,” Walter said.
“Give me a call later,” Mary Jean intervened, “and I’ll come by Amy’s house to get you. Have fun.”
Amy lived in an upper class area of town. Rosalind, Amy’s sister, gave Walter the impression of a sophisticated graduate of an Ivy League school. When they were walking toward her car, she looked at Walter with curiosity, trying to size him up. Walter felt uncomfortable as though he were passing a test for social compatibility. Rosalind was obviously very protective of her sister.
The large house they entered was richly furnished with a mixture of antiques and modern-style décor. A thick Persian rug covered the living room floor. A large, ornate mirror almost spanned the whole wall in the dining room. A grand piano was located in a side parlor where Amy would practice. A tall young man with longish brown hair stood by the decorated mantel over the fireplace. He shook Walter’s hand in a casual, nonchalant manner.
“This is Peter Dubromski. He works in a financial firm in town. He graduated from Cornell in mathematics.”
“Yo, little momma. Just the name will do. Not the whole bio.” Peter said in a joking manner.
“Peter is our house mathematician,” Rosalind said with a broad smile. “He’s a very special numbers guy who helps me with financial transactions…of all sorts.”
Amy giggled and held Walter’s hand. “Walter is pretty good at math, too. He has a wonderful voice. He sang with the audience today down at the center. People applauded him.”
“Well, well,” Peter said ironically. “Maybe he can entertain us with his vocal talent. Do you happen to know Schubert’s ‘Serenade’? It’s one of my favorites.”
“Walter is only fifteen, Peter. That’s a German art song.” Amy came quickly to his defense.
“Actually, my grandmother loved that piece and she sang it a lot. I don’t know if I remember the words.” Turning to Amy he asked, “Do you have the music?” Amy nodded and looked at Walter. “Are you sure you can do this? It’s not easy and it’s in German.”
“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a German immigrant. I spoke German with him for years.”
Everyone went into the music room and gathered around the piano. Amy brought out the musical score and Walter studied it for a few minutes. Looking over her shoulder, he began to sing the familiar phrase: “Leise flehen meine Lieder durch die Nacht zu dir…” (My songs flow softly through the night to you…). Walter sang the haunting melody trying not to mispronounce the German text. As he sang, memories of his grandmother’s vocal technique came to mind. He tried to imitate the way she interpreted the art song.
“I must say, for a fifteen-year-old, you do have talent,” Peter said with complete sincerity. Rosalind applauded and praised his talent as well.
Amy suggested something in English. Rosalind asked if he knew, “For You Alone,” which was one of her favorites. Walter indicated the he had heard that sung by his grandmother as well. He didn’t remember the words but he would try. Amy played a few bars and let Walter read from the sheet music. “Take thou this rose, this tender little rose…” He did the best he could and let his voice swell with the final lyrics, “For you alone!” Rosalind applauded and even Peter had to clap in appreciation.
“Walter, with some training, you could have a career in music,” Rosalind stated. “You’re very talented.” Amy looked at Walter with admiration. After two or three popular music numbers, Walter indicated that he had to go home.
“Oh, for goodness sake, we haven’t had anything to eat,” Amy objected. “Couldn’t you stay a little longer?”
Walter hesitated but said okay, adding that he didn’t have any more songs to sing. In a teasing voice, Amy said, “I’ll be good and refuse to accompany you after we’ve finished eating, if someone asks.” Rosalind added, “Well, he’ll have to come back with a songbook so we can hear his beautiful voice again.” During the meal, Walter was questioned about his plans for the future. He mentioned college although he didn’t have any idea about what major he would choose.
“If I were you, I’d take some business courses. That will provide you with a solid foundation for many jobs.” Peter spoke with an authoritative ring to his voice. He was obviously used to giving orders.
“Don’t forget to develop your vocal talents. That can also lead to a wonderful career,” Rosalind chimed in, underscoring the fine arts. “Always the humanities first,” Peter emphasized, reaching over to take her hand. “Smith College graduates are inundated with culture before they learn to code,” Peter commented.
“Someone has to remember why we are human beings,” Rosalind insisted and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek.
“These two love birds are on the verge of getting engaged,” Amy said with a smile.
“Well, someone has to do the proper thing…in the proper way.” Rosalind’s hand caressed his cheek.
“Well, I had hoped we could do this in a more formal manner…but…”. Peter ceremoniously got up and knelt before Rosalind whose expression had completely changed. He pulled a small package out of his pocket, and said, “Dear Rosebud, heart of my hearts, love of my life, I would like very much to invite you to spend the rest of your days by my side, for better or worse.” He fumbled with the package and extracted a large, multi-faceted diamond ring that he offered to Rosalind, saying, “Will you marry me with all my flaws and warts? I promise to honor and protect you with all my heart, body, and soul.”
Rosalind took the ring and let Peter put it on her finger. “As you know, I’ve loved you for some time, charming, princely fellow. I would be honored to be your bride and wife.” Peter stood up and kissed Rosalind with passion. “Thanks be to the Lord. I thought you might have second thoughts,” Peter said with relief.
“Don’t move,” Amy said. “I’ve got to get my camera.” There were a number of pictures taken, some serious and other very humorous. “This calls for champagne,” Rosalind said. “Do we have any?” Walter begged off saying that he wasn’t supposed to drink any alcoholic beverages; however, he gave in and had a few sips with the others.
After everything had calmed down, he mentioned that he needed to call his sister to take him home. Amy interrupted and asked, “Couldn’t we take you home? Rosalind said it would be okay.”
Walter had a sinking feeling that if Amy saw the neighborhood where he lived, she would quickly change her opinion of him. He needed to explain his family woes to her if they were going to start dating. “Thanks a lot, but Mary Jean is expecting my call. You need to be celebrating your engagement.”
Amy walked him to Mary Jean’s car, holding his hand. “Your brother is a real phenom in vocal talent. He sang a few songs for us.”
“Yes, I know,” Mary Jean answered as Walter got in on the passenger side. He looked through the lowered window and said, “I had a great time, Amy. Thanks for the dinner. It was a lot of fun.”
Before Walter could react, Amy leaned into the car and kissed him on the lips. “You’re a wonderful guy. See you soon.”
“Wow! That turned out well, little bro. She really likes you.” Mary Jean smiled as she drove away from the impressive ivy-covered home.
“She’s nice. I like her too. It was kinda strange, but her sister and boyfriend got engaged after we had dinner. That was special.”
“Thank God we had something good happen today. It’s all been so sad and frustrating,” Mary Jean looked at Walter and they both smiled at the turn of events.
At school Walter took advantage of every opportunity to be with Amy. She would accompany him regularly on the piano as he sang some popular songs. The music director, Mrs. MacKenzie, had arranged a choral performance with Walter as one of the soloists. Amy was able to select songs that were best suited for Walter’s voice and style. Amy herself was scheduled to give a brief piano solo during the performance. She aspired to be a choral director one day and this was the sort of experience she needed.
Aunt Harriet had learned about Walter’s interest in the young girl who accompanied him on the piano at school. Mary Jean said she was talented and came from a fine family. After dinner one evening, Aunt Harriet asked Walter if Amy might be interested in an outdoor get-together like the one Walter had attended earlier. She and Walter could play Gospel music for the crowd. Amy could then meet some of their friends and have a good time with young folks her age.
Walter was very concerned about Amy’s political orientation. Most teenagers reflected the political commitments of their parents. He had never mentioned to her anything about Democrats or Republicans. He was afraid to bring up his encounters with Jalen and his gang members — how he had been harassed for months by black thugs who were now, for the most part, arrested and in jail.
If he asked her about black criminals, would she be honest or feel he had overstepped his boundaries? Walter decided to explain to Amy what type of outdoors meeting this would be and let her decide. If she seemed hesitant or offended, he would have to turn down the invitation. He didn’t think Gregory and his militant buddies would get along with her. They would all be Trump supporters and born-again Christians.
He said to his aunt that he would ask Amy and see if she was interested. Aunt Harriet patted him on the arm and said, “Well, I hope she accepts. Mary Jean likes her a lot.”
Walter was surprised, after his history class the next day, to see a tall black man standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall and watching the students go by. He had spiked, dyed hair, tattooed arms, ear and nose piercings, and was wearing expensive hi-hop clothing.
Just as Walter turned down the hall heading for his gym class, the black man approached him.
“Hi there, my friend. I need a minute of your time. Just so you know, my brother Jalen Carter is now in jail awaiting trial. You’ll probably be called as a witness to his character. If so, let me explain what could happen to your sister again…a lot worse, cracker head, a lot worse than before. You’d better be careful. Your cute little bitch who plays the piano might fall down the steps and hurt herself if she’s not careful. See what I’m saying? You step out of line and you’ll be sorry, white guy. I don’t have to repeat myself.” He reached out and slapped Walter lightly on the cheek, spun around, and headed for the exit.
Walter stood frozen on the spot, unable to move for a few seconds. He couldn’t believe this was happening all over again. Jalen was a sociopathic teenager but his brother was a hardened criminal who had probably been in prison and was very dangerous. Walter’s mind was in a turmoil. When would it ever end? His father’s parole being rejected by his wife, his mother prostituting herself for extra cash, Mary Jean being assaulted by black street thugs, and now Jalen’s brother and his dire threats. What was going to happen to him and the family? He would have to talk this over with Gregory at the workshop this afternoon. Gregory, of course, would recommend a violent response just to let them know there would be serious consequences for any sort of aggression.
Walter realized that the time had come to have a chat with Amy about his personal issues. If these thugs attacked her because of his involvement in Jalen’s affair, she would be terrified and would never speak to him again. He really wanted to keep her friendship; she was the type of person that he could envision living with later in life, maybe even marrying. If he told her the truth, she could make a choice to stay with him or to find someone else.
After his last class of the day and before going to his uncle’s workshop, Walter dropped by the chorus room to talk with Amy. He noticed there was a young black already talking to her. She had a wary look on her face and was not smiling. When the black saw Walter, he said, “Here’s your lover boy. My uncle had a talk with him this morning.”
Walter tried to place himself between Amy and the black youth, but he was pushed away by his opponent. “What’re you doing, honkey. Don’t get in my space again, you hear? Little Amy and me were having a conversation about certain things — like you blabbing to the police.”
Amy had placed her hand against her mouth and moved back toward the piano. Walter motioned for her to move even farther back.
“What’re you gonna do, white boy? Take me on? I’ll cut your balls off and stuff them down you’ throat. Don’t even think about it. We can get to you anywhere, anytime. This is my last warning, knucklehead.” He shook his fist at Walter and said, “Bye-bye little blond bitch. I’d like to get a sweet piece of your special place.”
After he had left, Walter went to be with Amy who was now trembling with fear. “My God, Walter. Who was that? Shouldn’t we call the police?” Walter replied, “It was a street gang member. Even if we called the police, we couldn’t prove what just occurred.”
“I’ve never seen this creature before. He shouldn’t be wandering through the school. I’m going to file a complaint with the principal.”
Walter took her hands that were icy cold and tried to quiet her. “Even if you do, they won’t take any action if he didn’t touch you. I’ve been there before.” He got her to sit down next to him and began to talk. “Amy, I’m so sorry this happened to you. It’s my fault. I should’ve let you know about my family and what took place recently with a black student, Jalen Carter, and his role in robbing downtown merchants with members of his street gang.” He went through his problems with the aggressive blacks who had bullied him for months, Jalen’s threats and the role he played in leading the thieves that had looted downtown stores. Their arrest had been profiled extensively on the news recently.
“So he was associated with the ‘Smash and Grab’ gang? That was awful.”
“Yes, it was. Mary Jean was a victim of their violence during one of the robberies. It was traumatic for her and the whole family.”
“So that’s how so got that scar on her cheek?” Walter nodded and looked down at the floor.
“There’s something else I haven’t told you. You need to know this above all.” He took her hands again, lowered his voice, and stared at her as he spoke. “My father was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for dealing in drugs when he was unemployed. Recently, he was offered parole by the governor but mother wouldn’t agree to his release. None of us are satisfied with this situation. She felt he would try to get revenge on her and some of her companions. She was probably right.”
Amy seemed confused. “Mary Jean told me that your mother worked as a waitress in a restaurant. That’s no reason to get revenge on someone.”
“It’s not that simple. Mother did some things that were really bad. She started dating men to make more money. Everyone knows about it. She’s not going to change her habits and she didn’t want Daddy around to threaten people.” Walter found that his own hands were shaking as he talked. “That’s why this gangster was talking to you. It was a sign that if I didn’t do what his crowd wanted, they could hurt you and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Amy looked at Walter for a short while. When she spoke, her voice was not accusatory, just puzzled. “You are such a good person, Walter. Even Peter likes you, and that’s quite a feat! What are you going to do? This can be dangerous.”
“I know. First of all, I don’t want to get you involved in this mess. These people are vicious and don’t have any sense of shame or remorse. If you go out with me, I don’t think I could protect you. I have some friends, but I’m not sure they could handle this black mob. The police can’t do much unless a crime has been committed, not before.”
Amy took his face in her hands, almost lovingly. “I really like you, Walter MacClain. To be honest, I’m in love with you. I can’t imagine finding a man would be more compatible with me than you. I’m not going to let you destroy yourself in dealing with these criminals. My father knows lots of attorneys and even the district attorney. I’m sure they could figure something out to deal with this gang.”
“Amy, if you let your father hear about these criminal acts, he’ll tell you to stay away from me and my kind. We’re just bad luck. You come from an upper class family. You’ll probably be going to Smith or Princeton or some exclusive school. Your parents don’t want a convict’s son dating their daughter.”
Even though Amy protested, Walter knew that she was from another background and he didn’t belong to her social group. He didn’t have the courage to invite her to the outdoors get-together that Aunt Harriet had mentioned.
“I don’t want to lose you, Amy. You’re so special in my life. But please think about what I’ve told you. Maybe you could talk with Rosalind. If you don’t want to date me, I’ll understand.” Mustering his courage, he took Amy in his arms and kissed her gently on the mouth; she responded as well, and they embraced for several minutes in the empty music room.
He was a little late getting to the workshop and apologized to his floor manager. Gregory came over and said in a teasing manner, “Well, little man. Looks like you’ve got a sweetheart these days.” He could see the lipstick marks on his collar. Walter was taken aback until Gregory showed him the lipstick stains. “Yeah, she’s a wonderful girl. When we get a break, I need to talk to you about something that happened today with a black gang member.”
“Sure. These bastards never give up. Let’s have a talk at break time.” Walter put on his work clothes and started to change the oil in a foreign car. He wished he could call Amy and hear her voice. Her father would be horrified when he heard what had taken place in the music room with the black intruder. He was losing her and there was nothing he could do other than turn to Gregory for help who himself was a violent man.
Jalen’s big brother and cousin were animals who preyed on the weak. Being weak and defenseless infuriated him in this case. He should have some means of resistance. Deep inside he sensed that this time, he would be the target of the black’s desire for revenge against any white person who got in their way.
During the break, Walter explained what had taken place in the hallway with Jalen’s brother and the aggressive behavior of his cousin towards Amy. “Well, those SOBs are bringing it home. They mean business this time. Sorry, singing man, but they mean to hurt you and your girlfriend. We need to take this seriously.”
Walter felt both relieved and concerned that Gregory was in battle mode. “I can’t just stop going to school. Is there some other way I could discourage these subhumans? All they know is violence. God knows what they’ve got planned.”
“You know the biblical expression: ‘He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.’ All they’ve got at this point is threats. We need to beat them at their own game.” Gregory made gestures like a boxer jabbing at his opponent. “I know a few friendly blacks in the ‘Hood. They owe me for favors I’ve done them. I’ll get out the word that we’re goin’ have a rally of white militants at Johnson’s farm. The battalion commander is gonna be present to oversee a planned attack on their home base in the ghetto. We would be vulnerable with all the meetings and festivities going on. That should give them an opportunity to surprise us and inflict maximum injury (Gregory slipped back into military jargon.) In this case, we’ll be lying in wait and take them by surprise. I’m sure they’ll be carrying weapons.”
Walter had a feeling that Gregory was back in Iraq plotting to destroy an enemy outpost at dawn. “Gregory, that sounds pretty bad. Won’t people really get hurt?”
“If they want to play tough, we’ll give them all they can take.”
“Can I come along? I need to see them running for their lives.”
“It’s something you’re not used to. Your uncle would be pissed if I let you get involved in a shoot’em up.”
“What if I stayed back, in one of the cars. I could help if anyone needs aid afterwards.” Gregory hesitated and then said, “Okay. But get ready for some bad stuff. There’ll be a real fire fight.” Gregory mentioned that he would lend Walter a handgun just in case he was attacked. “Remember, don’t try to be a hero. Keep your head down!”
A few days later, Walter got a phone call from his mother about his father. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your father was seriously injured in a prison fight. They’ve put him in the infirmary to take care of him.”
Walter’s first reaction was shock, then strangely enough relief. At least, now, there wouldn’t be any possibility of his getting parole. “What happened? Was he attacked?”
“I’m not sure. All the prison authorities were allowed to say was that he had been seriously injured in an ‘altercation with follow inmates.’”
“Momma, is there any way I could see him?”
“I’m sure something could be arranged for the immediate family. I’ll have to get in touch with the warden’s office and see what the conditions are.”
“Are you planning on going?” Walter was hoping they could ride together.
“Not this time. I’ll try to talk to him later when he’s better. I’m sure Aunt Harriet and Uncle Leopold could take you with them. I don’t think more than three people are permitted to visit: only spouses and immediate family. I’ll call you later tonight when I have some more information.”
Walter started to think that God’s will was punishing him. First Jalen’s brother, Amy’s being threatened, and now his father’s assault. What did that mean “seriously injured”? Was he dying?
Aunt Harriet drove the Ford Explorer up to the state prison gates. Leopold and Mary Jean were sitting on the back seat. He wasn’t feeling well so Harriet had done most of the driving. They parked in the outside reserved lot and walked to the entrance check point where a guard examined their credentials and visitor’s permit. At each stage, they were searched. Doors opened and slammed closed behind them. Only one person could enter at a time. Harriet told Walter to go first. There was a limit of five minutes per visit. Walter’s temperature was taken and his mouth was checked for forbidden objects or abnormalities. A large sign indicated that no physical contact with the inmates was permitted.
Guards and medical personnel were spread throughout the large room. A nurse led Walter down the aisle to where his father was stationed. There were patients lying on each side of his bed. Walter at first didn’t recognize his father. Tubes and IVs where attached to his body; he was heavily bandaged front and back. His face was badly swollen. Walter reached out to touch him but a guard warned: “Do not touch the prisoner.” Hearing voices, his father moved his head from side to side. “Walter, is that you?” He opened his eyes and looked at his son. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“Are you feeling okay, Daddy?”
“Just so-so. They’ve got me on medication. I was attacked by a bunch of black radicals. One of them had a knife they call a “shiv” and hurt me pretty bad. He almost got my liver. I bled a lot.”
Walter reacted with surprise and overwhelming sadness. Both had been victimized by black gangs and had been assaulted.
“I hope you’ll feel better, Daddy,” Walter tried once again to touch his father but was deterred by the guard.
“Take care of yourself, son. I think about you every day.”
He looked back as he walked toward the infirmary door. His father had raised his head to watch his son leave. Walter passed by Mary Jean moving down the aisle and he shook his head.
After Aunt Harris had ended her visit with her brother, she embraced both children and asked everyone to pray for Carleton’s recovery.
“He looks so bad,” Mary Jean exclaimed.
“I didn’t even recognize him,” Walter said. “I don’t understand how this happened.”
Uncle Leopold, who didn’t visit his brother-in-law, said, “In these prisons, they’re divided into racial gangs. Puerto-Ricans, blacks, white extremists, and others. Sooner or later, if you want to stay alive, you have to join a group, normally by invitation. Some of them are really violent guys. I think your father was taught a lesson for not playing the tribal game.”
“Joe, that’s enough,” Harriet intervened. “These young folks have plenty of grief already in their lives.”
“Do you think he’ll be okay…can he be safe here?” Walter’s voice trembled as he spoke. Tears welled up in his eyes. Uncle Leopold patted him on the back and said, “God, I hope so.”
The attending physician gave them a summary of his condition. Carleton had been given a blood transfusion. His wounds had been treated. He had been stabbed multiple times. As far as they could tell, no major organs were damaged. He would be kept in the infirmary until his wounds had healed. An inquiry would be opened about his assault but these encounters were hard to solve because no one would come forward as a witness. He then asked Aunt Harriet to verify the next of kin information in case her brother’s condition took a turn for the worse.
The look on the doctor’s face was not encouraging. Every year — even every month sometimes — he dealt with crimes of gang violence. Many of the victims died or were severely handicapped. Carleton had been assigned to a maximum security prison because his co-defendants had committed violent acts in selling drugs to adults as well as minors. A few of the children had been severely affected; one had incurred permanent brain damage.
Uncle Leopold drove back home because Aunt Harriet was very upset by her visit. It took her a while to stop crying. Walter said very little and only stared at the highway. That night his nightmares came back and he could hardly sleep at all.
At school there were no black gang members roaming the hallways. He found it hard to control his emotions when the history teacher underscored the full litany of white crimes against black victims. Blacks were so traumatized by white aggression that they had developed an inferiority complex that compromised their success in life.
One day, Walter vowed, he would challenge her conclusions, but he had to remain silent because he couldn’t put the family through another crisis. He knew this attitude was unfair but he felt a repressed anger every time he saw or came across a black person at school or in the streets.
On television each evening (his aunt and uncle always watched the local and national nightly news programs) the pundits were discussing how divided the country was. America was fighting internal ethnic wars that were ripping the core of its democracy apart. There were illegal immigrants flowing by the thousands from Mexico into the southern border states and becoming a burden on public services in the areas where they settled. Major cities were beginning to crumble under the weight of excessive migration and its financial burdens.
Walter heard a continuous analysis of national disintegration on the podcast he would listen to at the workshop. What future did he have if so many doors were closing? At least he could work for his uncle and maybe someday take over the car repair company or at least be one of the managers. Amy would come to her senses and hook up with a person of her background.
With a little luck he might launch his own country and western music group and earn money on the side. Even at his age, Walter could understand how working class people like Gregory and his generation had been seduced by Trump’s call for a movement of national renewal. Walter found it comforting to blame his lack of opportunity on programs that favored those minorities who in turn despised the white majority. The government was subsidizing the black underclass because it was the moral thing to do? Were the blacks grateful for what they received? Not really, because as Mrs. Grandfield explained in their history class, a wealthy country must insure a living wage to those it oppresses. Excessive wealth has to be shared among all citizens.
Walter remembered that his father called this system of government “socialism.” It created very little in reality but promised equal benefits to all. Carleton declared himself an independent in politics, a union member, but he voted for President Trump because his job had been taken away and sent to Indochina where working conditions were inhumane but costs of production were a lot cheaper.
That evening, out of desperation and self-pity, Walter gave Amy a call. Her mother answered the phone. When Walter identified himself, her voice hardened. “Amy is not here at the moment. After what she told us about her experience in the music room at school as well as your most unfortunate encounters with street criminals, my husband and I think it would be in Amy’s best interests for her not to be involved with you on a social basis. I am certain you will understand our point of view. Amy is very naïve and we cannot risk her safety given your relations with unsavory and dangerous people. I would appreciate your cooperation in honoring our wishes. Thank you and goodbye.”
It took Walter a long time before he could gain control of his feelings. No matter what her parents thought, he and Amy could see each other at school. He would talk with her tomorrow and explain his side of the story. He was confident they could work something out.
When he finally fell asleep, he was enveloped by scenes of coming atrocities. He was hiding in one of the cars parked at the Johnson’s farm. Black ghetto warriors, armed with handguns and rifles, were going from car to car, looking for white militants under Gregory’s command. Shots rang out when a white person was found. Screams cut through the night air. Walter grasped his firearm and took off the safety switch. As a black face appeared near the front door of the car, he opened fire with short bursts as he was trained. Glass shattered and the black man collapsed with a portion of his face blown away by gunfire. “You fuckin’ cracker, my family’ll get you.” Hearing that last-second curse, Walter realized that he had killed Jalen’s older brother. Blood spurted everywhere. He couldn’t see very much; there was a murky haze that clouded his vision. He could hear Gregory’s voice shouting out orders on the battlefield. As the alarm clock went off, he had left the car and was running as fast as he could into the forest.
He awoke muttering cries for help. His heart was beating and he had trouble getting his breath. It was obvious that he was not going to support Gregory’s trained militia against the black ghetto hoodlums. He had never seen someone shot dead in combat; he wasn’t a coward but that type of brutality and gore was something he couldn’t deal with. Both whites and blacks would die in this sort of free-for-all. The hate and animosity would still exist and nothing would be solved. Those responsible would be arrested and charged with first degree murder and sentenced to life terms in prison.
Violence begets violence and revenge. The division between the races would grow more venomous and entrenched. Black and white: the two ethnic groupings would struggle for respect and power. Protected by complicit laws and favorable TV coverage, blacks would feel entitled and safely beyond the whiplash of legal restraint. Activist prosecutors would forgo bail for minor felonies and release criminals back into the streets. Demoralized police officers would cease to apply the law in an aggressive manner. In major cities the streets would belong to the homeless, thieves, and drug addicts, but not to peaceful citizens.
Walter went to school in a fearful state. He dreaded seeing a black gang member approach him with the usual threats. Astonishingly Mrs. Grandfield’s history class was not turbulent and he hoped that the worst was behind him.
Amy was surprised to see him in the music room but she was not offended. He took her hands and tried to explain how his life could be changed and a lot different in spite of what was happening. He repeated what her mother had said on the phone and asked Amy if they could see each other on the side. Maybe just go to the movies or walk in Wald’s Park where many young people met to have picnic lunches.
Amy appeared distressed and she answered hesitantly. “Walter, you know how I feel about you, but my parents are not going to let us socialize or do anything else. As a matter of fact, this morning my father said they had made plans for me to transfer to a private prep school in Pennsylvania to finish out the academic year. I’ll be leaving school at the end of the semester. I don’t want to go but they are insistent.”
Walter backed away stunned by her revelation. “So you’re just going to say goodbye to everything we were hoping for?”
“It’s not like that. We can still keep in touch. I’ll try to convince them that you’re not a bad person. Maybe we could meet somehow and be together…” Her voice trailed off and Walter knew that he would never see Amy again once the semester ended. He was a working-class teenager with no future plans, just possibly a musical career. In her world, people like Amy committed themselves to men with Ivy League backgrounds and profitable careers. Childhood crushes were not signs of true love or future promise.
At the workshop, Gregory told Walter about the ambush plans for the black gang members. As Gregory put forth the details of his surprise and potentially deadly attack, Walter spoke up and told Gregory that he had to be honest. He explained that if he got involved, he would surely go to prison like his father, this time for a much more brutal crime. He didn’t have the determination or strength of character to get involved in a gun fight. He knew that Gregory would look down on him as a coward, as a person who would let himself be abused by black street thugs and do nothing to defend himself.
After trying to make Gregory understand his reluctance, Walter leaned against a wall and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Gregory listened to Walter’s arguments and put his hand on Walter’s shoulder.
“Listen, kid. You’re just fifteen years old. You shouldn’t be getting involved in nasty stuff like this in the first place. I don’t think you have the stomach for violence of this sort.
“You’re my boss’s nephew. I was hoping you could learn how to defend yourself in a brawl. Keep in mind that one day, no matter what, you’ll have to use violence to keep yourself and people you love safe. This is a dangerous world. Some blacks are okay; most of them pretend to like you, but deep inside they hate your guts. Even blacks who have a good life are afraid of their own in the projects. They won’t even go there at nighttime.
“As brothers on the Freedom Right proclaim, we are on the edge of a revolution. It may be cultural or armed, depending on how things turn out. We’re ready for the worse. The last thing we’ll do is surrender to meatheads who don’t honor our values. Nathan Hale said it best: ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death.’ We’re growing in numbers and one day we’ll change the way Washington works.”
Walter listened but said nothing. He admired Gregory and his commitment to his extremist ideology. Walter found it hard to imagine armed citizens roaming the streets like vigilantes, imposing their own conception of law and order. The founding fathers were great people but they didn’t anticipate that massive immigration would change the very nature of the American people and their concept of government.
He had to grow up faster than expected. Everything that had taken place was depriving him of a typical teenage existence. He had to work at a job he didn’t particularly like. His family had come apart. He didn’t have any close friends and he wasn’t a member of an exclusive club at school. He was trapped between two worlds of mutual violence. If Gregory went ahead with his murderous ambush, the black street savages would target him for retribution. They might even exact revenge on his uncle and his business. There was no place Walter could hide and be detached. He remember the expression: “You can run but you can’t hide.”
He didn’t even know if his father would be alive over the next few months; his mother would continue her way of life, having fun with her lovers and waiting tables. She would probably divorce her father and live with Jim Bob or someone like him in the near future. She loved Walter, he knew, and he adored her as well. He just wished his father had never lost his job to begin with. Things seemed much better then.
Mary Jean’s scar was beginning to fade and she had found another boyfriend about her age. She was a survivor. Walter was very proud of her.
Walter got out his poetry textbook from last year and looked up the poem by Rudyard Kipling, “If,” (1895) that had made such an impression on him at the time.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good nor talk too wise
(…)Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!”
According to the poem, he would be a man if he faced the many demands on his life with honor and dignity. All in all, that was how British colonials viewed the rigors of living in occupied territories a long time ago. But, Walter questioned, how could he be as righteous and steadfast as the poem requires you to be and still survive in a deadly and unforgiving world? Somehow, both Mary Jean and Gregory would be successful in their own manner and at their own pace. In different ways they were leaders and people would follow their example. They demonstrated the will to survive against daunting odds. Failure, as the saying goes, would not be an option in their world.
It all came down to respecting yourself and not seeking the approval of other people. At least in Walter’s eyes that was Kipling’s message. As Polonius said to Hamlet in Act I, scene 3, of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “To thine own self be true.”
Maybe the horrors of today would be replaced by the maturity and concessions that tomorrow would require. Both Germany and Japan, with generous foreign aid, went from total destruction to the economic powers they are today. Cicero’s famous quote also gave Walter the will to continue: “Dum spiro spero (As long as I breathe, there is hope).”
But in a disintegrating society, times were different and Walter’s view of his fellow man was tainted by his many doubts and fears. He had to go on but with great caution. Success was not around the corner, but a long, long away.
After school, Walter was walking down the sidewalk when he was approached by a group of black teenagers who were returning from playing baseball in the city park. They were teasing each other and laughing. In an almost reflexive manner, Walter changed sidewalks and didn’t look in their direction.