The Slave Quarters
Chapter 21 – Warmth
By Rock Kitaro
– Mika “Happy Ending”
There are things about African Americans that I can’t help but find truly endearing. For starters, there’s the gospel music, a genre that’s been stuck in my head for the past few days. I hope Miranda’s burning a CD for me when I get back.
But also…when it comes to church congregations, the unity, warmth and acceptance. It’s in times of tragedy or celebration that these people really know how to put aside their differences and treat one another as family. Everyone is a brother or sister, momma or pops. You feel loved. You feel supported. Even the few Caucasians are embraced and welcomed with warmth.
I wish this sentiment could carry on every day. I wish strangers, pedestrians, and passengers could see one another in the same light regardless the circumstance. I wish they’d put down their phones and look each other in the eye; say hello, smile and don’t be afraid to step out of their bubble. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Talk to someone. Learn something new. The world is too big to confine yourself to one ideal, one culture. As long as your faith is strong, there’s nothing to fear and you’ll never be offended.
Some people slight the south, calling it “the Bible Belt” as if that’s a bad thing. In my opinion, it’s the “Bible thumpers,” those who embrace the “God first” mentality, those are the people I’d want to surround myself with. These people have an optimism I severely lack. Theirs is a pure beauty that shines through my gloom and melancholy. They have an ability that, to me, seems almost superhuman in the sense that I find it impossible to ever emulate.
That ability…is forgiveness.
The wake of KeNedra Thompson takes place at the Goshen Heights Community Center. It’s a huge turnout. KeNedra’s classmates, friends, relatives, and various figures from the majorette community have come to bid farewell. The parking lot is packed with vehicles having to park curbside along the streets of the neighboring houses.
The golden lawn of browning grass is garnished with sprinkled red leaves. The maples themselves still have plenty of foliage in their vibrant crowns as the morning sun trickles through the canopy. It’s brisk but warm enough for people to leave their heavy coats in the car. Thus, everyone is donning their Sunday’s best, black if they had it.
Leanne elects to stay in the rental while Jessica accompanies me to the front entrance. We’re dressed corporate but don’t intend to stay long. Her beauty and my bruises draw unwanted attention yet, oddly enough, I’m not nervous. In fact, I’ve found that when I’m attending public events with a purpose that transcends the sole act of socializing, I function much better. My agoraphobia remains subdued. My heart remains stout. The bouquet of yellow roses in my arms serves as my olive branch.
The reception lobby’s loud and congested. It’s a wake, sure, but there are so many reunions going on. Jessica hooks onto my arm as I see “brothas” checking her out. I smirk and nod their way. They nod back as if to congratulate and say, “Aight, now. Gah head.”
Two girls wave at me. I reciprocate, marveling at their charm, their modest attire providing a glimpse of the mature women they’ll one day become. It’s Jacqui and Meghan, the two prominent members from KeNedra’s majorette team. They’re surrounded by friends from other teams, all high school students, glowing with blooming youth and promise.
Like the guys, the girls seem surprised to see Jessica with me. I know she’s out of my league, but I confess, my ego starts to swell as Jessica squints with a playful glare as if I’ve forgotten the majorettes are all minors. I whisper if she’s jealous. She responds by merely jutting her chin and batting those long lashes.
Nearing the banquet hall, I spot two familiar faces dressed in sharp purple vests over their black attire. They have to do a double-take to recognize me with the patch under my eye and the queen by my side. Immediately, the brothers erupt with laughter and disbelief as their friends stand puzzled.
“What in the hell happened to you?!”
“This man stay in trouble, boi. Shieet! Hahaha!”
“For real, though. Is there ever a fight you’re not involved in?”
“Straight up! Can’t take this dude nowhere.”
“You know what? Shut up, both of you,” I chuckle.
Jessica releases to let me embrace the brothers in that awkward hand-clap pull-hug technique that I never truly mastered.
“Bruh! You really need to learn how to fight or something!” says O’Shea.
“Forgive me, but I do seem to recall slinging one of you over a sofa set.”
Jamar laughs, clapping his hands as their young friends turn wide-eyed in shock. Apparently O’Shea is known for his prowess and the fact that this here white boy bested him is somewhat hilarious.
“Ah, man! I wasn’t even ready. You came out of nowhere with that kung fu shit. I got you back though! Look at his face. Hey! Look at his face.” O’Shea brags.
“Yeah. You got me back.”
“Anyways! Who dis?” Jamar asks.
“Yeah, Cloud. Who am I?” Jessica asks, flustered to just be standing there in awkward silence.
“I’m sorry. This is one of my best friends and colleagues, Agent Jessica Arroyo. Her expertise was pivotal in solving the case. She used to work for the FBI so, yeah. Best watch your back.”
“Okay! Okay! I’m Jamar Thompson aka JT Smooth. This my little brother O’Shea aka O’Sssh!”
O’Shea tries to give Jessica a hug but Jessica juts her hand like a spear, preventing him from coming too close. The disappointment on O’Shea’s face is priceless.
“You’ll have to excuse their profanity, Jessica. I assure you, I have been working with them about that.”
“Um. Profanity is just an expression by which we add emphasis. Can’t help it if society wants to demonize the practice.” Jamar explains.
“Well said.” Jessica compliments.
“No! Jessica, please. For the love of God do not encourage it.”
There’s a round of laughter before I continue with, “They graduated from Cedar Creek a few years after we did.”
“Oh really?! How are the Razorbacks? You know I was valedictorian, right? Cloud here was salutatorian. You know. Second best.” she smirks.
“OH!” Jamar and O’Shea tease with far too much enthusiasm.
“I like her. Girl’s got jokes.” O’Shea says, inching his way closer to Jessica.
They proceed to…I guess, spit game? Chatting her up. She’s the center of attention and lovin’ every second. I stand back and let her have it. Everything is pleasant, so gregarious and down to earth. I don’t sense malice in a single soul. No one’s staring at me with contempt or suspicion. There’s nothing but affection in the air. It’s a general sentiment of “how can I help you” more so than “how can you help me.” Amazing. I should’ve expected nothing less from the Thompson family.
As the jokes and revelry progress in full swing, my eyes are drawn to the banquet hall. It’s an open room of warm earth tones, a mocha carpet and beige walls. A golden chandelier illuminates the room casting a candlelight hue over everything. The wooden dais is front and center with floodlights washing over KeNedra’s closed casket.
Guests move in a slow procession to pay their respects, signing the bottom part of poster board before making their way to the gold trimmed stainless steel box. The poster board, it’s a portrait of KeNedra Thompson smiling in a black gown from her prom in junior high.
The sight of her makes my heart flutters. Emotions overwhelm and before I realize, I’m walking down the center aisle with my gaze fixed on her portrait. I don’t want to cry. I don’t want cry, but it’s all so sad. I know without a shadow of doubt, that with all the support and genuine affection in this room KeNedra could’ve been anything she wanted to be. Her life was robbed. She was stolen. Her life, cut short. No. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.
It’s happening. I’m not in control of my body, just along for the ride. I don’t get in line to step onto the elevated dais. Instead, I arrive front and center and descend to my knees. My hands, my sweaty palms graze over the dense fabric of this scratchy carpet.
KeNedra…Goodbye. I close my eyes and I still see her face. Her eyes. Her hair. Her innocence. The well of heated saline gushes over. I cry.
Taking the life of someone so young is the worst thing anyone can do. It makes me so mad. It’s not fair. It’s inhuman, pure evil in its most fucked up form. If only Calvin could be murdered more than once, I’d do it over and over again. I know I shouldn’t be this way. I know I shouldn’t be so angry. I’ve sworn to uphold the law and I’ve murdered more than my fair share but I’ll never hurt juveniles. I’ve never attacked the innocent. I don’t even know KeNedra like that. I barely know her family. But this rage, this undeniable, inconsolable rage that I’ve had locked away so long. I hear it, screaming from that dark abyss where I wish I had a heart. I can’t ignore it. It burns. It breaks through the cracks of civility with savage aggression. Why’d she have to die? Why her? It’s not fair. It’s not fair!
“IT’S NOT FAIR!!!”
My roar is loud enough to be heard in the bathrooms. I’m gripping at my hair, crumbled in despair. I know everyone’s watching. It’s the last thing I wanted but I’ve completely lost it. Embarrassment, followed by frustration and anger. Everyone’s watching. I’m trying to get a grip but damn! It’s so hard. These stupid emotions. This harboring resentment. This suppressed desire to reach out and attack everyone. So self-righteous. So self-important and for what? What good is it? Why am I so trapped in my own head? I’m nobody! Just a grain of sand, a single breath passed over one’s lips. I knew I was bound to burst at any moment, but why now? Why pick this moment to completely shatter to pieces? Right where everyone can see me.
Then, something remarkable happens. A consolation only a mother could provide. Three women in their church hats walk over and kneel next to me. They give me a warm back rub and pull me in close. They embrace me like a lost puppy caught in the rain, in search of a home. Their words are so simple, maybe even cliché and generic to most, but to me…it’s exactly what I needed.
“Everything will be alright. The lord will provide.”
My teary eyes look up to the women, their rosy cheeks and beaming smiles. “Look to the Lord for forgiveness. Whatever you did, He is ready to take you back. He’s waiting. Trust in Him. The Lord is your salvation,” They tell me.
The three ladies marvel at my profound expression. I feel as though I’ve been unlocked from shackles that have chained me down for so long. Everyone in the first three rows is staring. They’re wondering who I am or why I’m so emotional. They whisper amongst themselves and thankfully, they’re well informed with accurate information.
Jessica’s coming. Oh god. I don’t want her to see me like this. I’m basically slapping myself to wipe the tears away as I struggle to pull myself together. One of the ladies, her adult son lends me a shoulder and helps me up. I thank him and the women for their kind words, not verbally, but through a series of jittery nods.
“Cloud, are you alright?” says Jessica.
“He just had a moment. He’ll be fine,” a woman says with a proud smile.
“Yes. Thank you.” I finally express with a crack in my voice.
Jessica’s in awe. Never before has she seen me on such display. Even after my own mother’s funeral, I just went back to class and continued studying as if nothing had happened. But here, now…
“Cloud. Come here, boy.”
I look beyond Jessica’s shoulders to the voice in the front row. Oh my gosh! Amarah was sitting there this whole time. Giving my face another wipe, I approach the mother and bend a knee. Amarah Thompson. She pats my head and tends to my cowlick to straighten it out.
“Why are you crying?” she asks.
I’m shaking my head, trying to find the words to say. I’m glancing out the corner of my eye, worried about Jessica watching, and Amarah thinks it’s cute.
“How can you be so forgiving? Don’t you feel any anger? Why doesn’t it consume you?”
“Cloud, it’s what our Lord and Savior taught us to do. She’s my baby and I love her dearly. But she’s gone now to a better place. One day I hope to see her again.” she says as her eyes begin to gloss over.
“You will see her again, Ms. Thompson. Of that, I have no doubt.” I assure her.
Reaching into my pocket, I retrieve a silver barrette. It’s three inches long, dull in luster, with a smooth yet bumpy tapestry in its textured design. I embrace Amarah’s thin-skinned hands and gently place the barrette neatly within her grasps before closing her fingers over it.
Before she can see what it is, I’m already up and on my way back down the aisle. Jessica watches as Amarah examines the barrette and gradually she recognizes. KeNedra is wearing the same silver barrette in her portrait up on the dais. A cheerful laughter fills the room as Amarah kisses the barrette and rocks from side to side, so happy and glad to have a significant piece of her daughter back in her life.
Jessica is enamored at the priceless sight of a mother rejoicing, a mother remembering the good times of her daughter’s short but productive life. Her joy is contagious and I, for my part, take great pride in knowing I was able to deliver some semblance of that.
Walking the center nave, I stop a few feet before the exit. I close my eyes and with one hand in my pocket, I turn to my left. There’s a vanity mirror at the other end of the banquet. And there, as expected, I see KeNedra’s ghost smiling at her mother. Her visage appears as condensation on the glass but she’s smiling, holding back the tears. I don’t know if she’s aware of my presence or if she even knew what I did for her. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know how heaven works or why souls are bound to graves or whatever material they carried with them the majority of their days. Death is still the greatest mystery and now, I can honestly say, it’s one case I’m no longer in any rush to solve.
At sundown, a candlelight vigil is held for the Thompsons as well as the friends and family of Tiquasia Payne, Denedra Harrell, Samantha Fox, Ashley Hunt, and Alisha Collier. It’s held at the riverwalk in downtown Augusta. Jamar added me as a friend on MeBook and posted photos. They were gorgeous. I liked every one of them.
Funny…only the local news showed up to broadcast this momentous occasion of peace and solidarity. There were ten times more mourners at the riverwalk than the contentious lot protesting outside the precinct. Thousands of men, women, and children of many races showed up to light candles inside seashells. Ever so gently, they cast them off on the flat mirror like surface of the Savannah River. The pictures of mothers embracing their children, of students and faculty members tearfully saying their goodbyes…it made my heart swell.
The vigil lasted for two hours and during that time Amarah never let go of KeNedra’s silver barrette. The most endearing photo was of Amarah, smiling that bright hopeful smile. Her eyes were directed up to the twilight sky where stars shimmered and shined.
So badly I wish I could’ve been there. With family.