Desperate Lives

by Alex Clermont

Keith never recognized anyone in the newspapers. The black and white pages were full of unfamiliar faces that belonged to people he would never meet – people known for doing important things outside of the world he lived in. Where he lived no one was known for anything except living, dying or killing. When any of the three occurred national attention was never brought to bear, but instead the thing just happened, it stopped, and then it happened again to someone else. Today, however, was different. So although the reporter didn’t know his name, and the artist’s sketch looked nothing like him, Keith was in the papers. Keith Henry and his two friends had made headlines.

Keith sat in the driver’s seat as smoke from the marijuana joint filled the idle car, slowly creeping its way from the back to the front. It captured the moonlight coming in through the surrounding bushes and illuminated the space inside the rust-red four-door sedan with a gray haze. There was no traffic on the highway so the smoke was the only thing moving until the joint was passed to Keith. As always, he declined it with a wave of his hand and continued to read the article.

The caption under the sketch read, “A manhunt has been put into effect for the murderers of Officer Jamison, Officer Daniels and the two officers murdered last month.” Exhaling slowly he folded the paper and threw it out of the driver’s side window. Buck noticed the sigh and, after taking a pull then passing the joint back to Shannon in the back seat, he said “What up? Whatchu thinkin' ‘bout?” Keith’s hazel eyes stared through the front window in an unfocused gaze that took in everything. He responded, “Just thinking about what we’ve been doing.”


“I don’t know. I’m not saying I’m sorry, or that we shouldn’t have done what we did. I’m just not sure if we should keep doing it.” Raising his voice slightly he continued, “That piece of shit Douglas is gonna die tonight. I don’t give a fuck about him. But some of these other guys…”

He trailed off then said, “I never thought I’d be in a situation like this.”

He leaned his head back against the worn fabric of the headrest. The car was the only thing his mother had left him after a second stroke put her in the grave. Before Keith spoke again he rubbed his head against the stained nylon to remind himself of her. His mother was fifty-two years old and worked since she was fifteen, but the only thing she left the world to prove she ever existed was him, the car they sat in, and his dead brother Blake. All of this flashed through Keith’s mind, straightening his back and adding a determined tone in his voice that was absent before. He said, “Forget it.”

“Nah man. You got something to say, then say it.”

“I’m fine.”

“Aight yo. You still down to do this, right?”

“Yeah. Shannon, give me the list. Let’s see who Douglas’ partner is.”

Shannon quietly passed a sheet of paper forward from the back seat. The paper was lined with thousands of soft wrinkles from having been balled up and flattened out several times over the last two months.

Using his connections as a legal aid clerk, Shannon had gotten the names of police officers in the city with the highest number of civilian complaints. Officer Douglas was number six from the top. The name tensed Shannon’s muscles when he looked at the list for the first time. He instantly wrapped his thick fingers around the paper as he stormed out of his office – giving the printout its first set of wrinkles.

The verdict was not guilty. Before the last syllable was said there were cries and shouts and calls for order from the judge. Later that evening Shannon and Keith talked about the outcome of Officer Douglas’ trial over a bottle of vodka. Rain battered Keith’s kitchen window and created a constant white noise that filled the silence they maintained for minutes at a time. When they did speak it was in slurred curse words that betrayed the poison that they drank by the glassful.

Shannon, Blake’s childhood friend, seemed to take the verdict harder than Keith. He could look at Keith and see Blake’s slim build and dark brown skin. They even shared the same unintentionally crooked smile. Shannon cried in low, mumbling, sobs in contrast to Keith’s blank stares. Eventually he fell asleep on Keith's sofa, a crack between his thick lips let out the stink of liquor that filled the area around him. The next day the two told a few stories about Blake over orange juice.

“… She gave him her number but as soon as she got in the taxi, right in front of the club mind you, he gave this all-over body shake and deleted her number from his phone then and there.”

Keith clapped and laughed at the same time. “Blake had no patience for women with bad breath.”

Shannon continued, “I ain't gonna lie though. Her breath was stank! Smelled like she she’d be chewing on dirty jock straps.” They both laughed this time. For twenty seconds they bent forwards or backwards, and held their stomach or their cup of juice. When the laughter died down Shannon’s smile slowly disappeared. His lips straightened as he looked down at the ground.

Keith’s mood changed as well as he said, “I think about him every minute. It’s not that he’s gone. It’s that I know he’s gone forever, you know. It’s not like he went on a vacation, or even moved to another country. He’s just gone. My brother doesn’t exist anymore.” His lips tightened, “Like he just disappeared and all these pictures I have in my head of him learning to tie his shoe laces, riding a bike for the first time, smiling when he told me about his girl… they’re all I have to remind me that I had a brother.” Shannon nodded his head and held back tears as he had been doing almost everyday since Blake’s death.

With the cup still in his hand Keith leaned back into the kitchen chair. “I can’t believe what the hell happened yesterday. Five people saw that piece of shit shoot Blake in the head, and he’s not guilty.” Shannon covered his mouth with his hand and quietly shook his head in disbelief. “Not fucking guilty!” With his last word Keith threw his cup on the kitchen floor. The porcelain shattered to pieces that flew in every direction – some heading towards Keith’s face, though he didn’t move, and his eyes didn’t close.

Shannon was startled, but ignored the mess on the floor as Keith did. Finally, the tears he had been holding back quietly streamed down his face and he said, “I want them to feel what I feel.”

In a harsher, angrier voice, Keith said, “I want them to feel what Blake felt.”

Sitting in his mother’s car with Buck and Shannon, Keith looked over the list of names handed to him and wondered about the dozens of complaints that put Officer Johnson – or any of the officers for that matter – on the list. Did he shoot somebody? Did he beat up somebody? Was it a strip search? Maybe it was something as simple as a few illegal searches of people guilty of being brown.

Leaning over to look at the list, Buck said, "How the fuck do you say this mothafuka's name? She warts. Sha warts... Wartz welder? This dude should get popped for that fucked up name alone." Keith smirked slightly, but Shannon’s face remained the same.

Eventually Shannon said, "That ain't funny. We’re gonna take the man's life.”

Buck turned his head to look at Shannon in the backseat. Shannon said, “Nothing about this is a joke.”

Buck smiled, "C'mon man. It's a funny fucking name."

Shannon remained silent.

“You serious?”

Buck turned around in his seat. It bent back and made a strained squeak as if on the verge of snapping under Buck’s huge frame. Looking Shannon in the eyes he said, “Yo, Schwarzenegger, or whateva the fuck his name is, is probably laughing right now after smashing some nigga's face on the sidewalk. You sitting here worrying about me disrespectin’, and the dude is getting paid to beat on anyone he don’t like. So why you care? Man, he ain't shit. That's why we gonna pop him tonight with that mothafuka Douglas."

Shannon said calmly, "If they laugh, that doesn't mean we have to. We're not them, and the reason we out here isn't the same reason they have for smashing someone's face into the concrete. I don't find anything funny in this."

"C’mon man. What do you think this is? Some kinda holy mission? Nigga, this ain't the crusades. We gonna kill'em cuz they been killing us. One of'em almost choked me to death. One of'em put Blake in a fuckin' casket..."

"Hey!" Keith shouted. "Calm down. We’re doing this because it needs to be done. Just like last time. Now let’s keep it quiet before someone driving through remembers that they saw a bunch of guys in a car fighting."

Buck turned back around in his seat and sat down. He said in a low voice, "Y'all niggas blowin' my high right now," then took one last pull on the joint and put it out. Reflexively, he touched the small, unnatural dimplings on the skin of his neck. There were two, and each appeared just an open palm's length away from the other. After massaging them for a few seconds he coughed and relaxed his body.

In the car, behind the row of bushes on the side of the barely traveled road, they waited quietly for the men on the list to come. Keith thought twice about leaving the newspaper he had been handling all day out in the bushes. Opening the door slightly he picked it up from the dirt ground and threw it on the dashboard.

Earlier that morning, while Keith was getting his haircut, his barber Sam asked, "You saw the paper today?"

"Didn't get a chance to pick it up. Why? You wanna know my horoscope?"

"Nah. The front page was about those cops who were killed."

"So? It was on the TV too. What was different about the papers?"

Sam said, "Nothing.” He paused and adjusted his glasses. “That's why I ask if you saw it. None of those reporters came around to ask us anything about that cop. I didn’t see not one camera.

“That Jamison patrolled this place for years. I seen him more than once holding some young man down on the floor with a knee in his back, telling whatever crowd gathers round that the boy has drugs. He got at your friend Buck a few times too, I think. Someone killed the man and all they can talk about is how his wife feels. You get what I'm saying to you?"

The younger, neighboring, barber looked up from the half shaven scalp in front of him and said, "Yeah man, I hear you. I saw that bullshit on TV last night and with all due respect, even though he a black man, I don't care how his wife feel."

There were a few noises of agreement from others in the shop, but most just nodded. Sam said, "Well I wasn't saying that. The woman's been through something I don't wish on no one. What I'm trying to point out is that nobody asked us what we thought, and we seen the man day in and day out."

Going back to work on his customer’s head the neighboring barber nodded in agreement.

Sam continued to talk while sharpening the edges of Keith’s hairline. "As far as I know, the man was no good. But they never asked us about him. They have a press conference and have the wife crying for the cameras, asking us for justice. Then the papers put out some pictures that looks like the Jackson Five without Jermaine or Michael, telling us we should go hunt these brothers down and call the police when we see‘em."

The barbershop erupted in laughter, but Keith just chuckled.

Sam asked, “Where they get those pictures anyway?”

The younger barber replied, “Some sketch artist drew’em looking at those blurry videos from the cop car.”

“My tax dollars at work,” said Sam.

Keith asked, "So you don't think these guys need to be brought in?"

"I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that there are two sides of a story. In this case, we got his crying wife and then there’s us. And from what I can see, our side ain't getting told."

Shannon nudged Keith from behind and said, "I think I hear something."

"Give it here."

Shannon passed the earpiece for the police scanner he held. Keith listened for the number of the police car that held the next two men on the list. Hearing it, and where they were headed, he told Buck, "He's right. Let's put the flares out."

All three of them ran out of the car towards the highway. They each held a flare and lined them up on the road one behind the other with each flare closer to the side of the road than the one in front. After lighting the flares, they ran to the bushes. There they waited in silence for the sounds of a patrol car.

Keith was the one who thought of using flares to catch their attention. The night after Shannon's drunken blackout they weren't sure what to do about how they felt. Blake was dead and the man who killed him was free. They imagined him after the trail going home to his beautiful house outside the city, having sex with his beautiful wife, and sleeping soundly in his comfortable bed. Knowing that his life was in no way altered by Blake’s murder filled both Keith and Shannon with a rage that contorted their faces to the point where they looked to be on the verge of either tears or shouts.

Their rage was different from each other’s though. For Keith it wasn't only that he lost his younger brother – the boy he helped raise into a man – but it was the fact that that loss wasn't his only one. His life had been a list of things that went wrong because of who he was, and where he lived. Why was it that his best friend sold drugs for a living? Why was it that his brother was the one dead? Why was it that the only thing his mother could pass down to him was her beat-up old car?

For Shannon the feelings of rage were very specific. He had seen Blake get murdered. With both of them handcuffed on the city sidewalk he had seen the bullet enter his best friend’s head. He had seen the life that escaped from Blake’s eyes, and the piss that filled Blake’s pants as his body lost the strength to hold on to either. Even more important than that, to Shannon, was the friendship they had before Blake was killed: they graduated from elementary school together. They went to the same college. Blake was his child's godfather. When he was depressed Blake was the only one, besides his son, who could snap him out of it. He cried about losing his best friend, and about the fact that his son might be murdered in the same way when he gets older.

Buck was out of the conversation that Keith and Shannon had. His feelings about Blake's death were similar to theirs, but they weren't new. He’d had friends who were killed before, and he had friends who were killers. He had seen death up close. Unlike Shannon or Keith, Buck never had anyone around him worthy of the label "family," and so his closest relationships were always hard to maintain. Other than rage, he was numb to emotions and moved on instinct. It was Buck who was the first to hear the car approaching.

Buck said, "Yo, it's them."

Tonight they were looking for some kind of release for their rage. They didn't call it revenge, and they didn't call it justice because those categories didn’t match or matter – whatever judgment was placed on their actions didn't change the motivations. The why was all they knew, and the why was all they cared about.

Soon they all heard the sounds of the approaching police car. Through the bushes they saw lights of blue and white coming towards them, approaching the flares. Buck had his shotgun out while Shannon and Keith pulled out their pistols. As soon as the car made a full stop, Buck could see the driver reach for his car radio. Before he had a chance to touch it Buck fired through the open driver side window, hitting the driver with a spray of metal pellets that covered his face and neck. Leaving no time for the officer to react Buck, Shannon and Keith came running out of the bushes firing into him to make sure he was dead.

The policeman in the passenger side began firing at them through the front window. His bullets pierced holes through the thick glass and scattered the three around the car. Buck stopped firing and hid behind the trunk. Shannon and Keith ducked low but moved towards the passenger side while shots whizzed over their heads. Keith moved past Buck from behind the car while Shannon went around the front. As they both neared him, the policeman stepped out of the car firing in Shannon’s direction. He let out two shots before Keith began firing at his exposed leg from behind. The second of Keith’s three shots hit him and he fell out of the car onto the asphalt of the highway. Shannon fired at his right arm, causing him to drop his gun. Both of them stood over the officer and after Keith kicked the gun away they began shooting repeatedly into his right bicep and shoulder.

The policeman lay on the ground in a growing pool of his own blood, its red matched the tint that the flares gave his alabaster skin. He shouted and twitched in pain as Keith shouted, “You can take the camera out now!” Buck got up from behind the car and walked towards the front as Shannon and Keith kept their eyes on the bleeding policeman. Keith bent down and looked the man in the face. The intensity of the twitches died down slightly as the policeman met his eyes. Keith thought he could see the spark of recognition in Officer Douglas’s face. Maybe the officer recognized the man who had sat in at his murder trial – in the courtroom everyday, wearing a suit and a look of barely concealed hate.

Keith saw that spark. He nodded to confirm that he was that man, and then stood up again. Both he and Shannon raised their guns, aimed at the officer’s head and fired until they had nothing left. The “click click” of their useless pistols signaled that they were finished, but Shannon kept pulling the trigger – his hand gripped the gun like it was that sheet of names. His arm began to shake and the skin on his face twisted and reddened.

Looking up and away from the dead man on the ground, Shannon opened his mouth and let out a scream, a wild wail that filled the empty air. Keith and Buck stood still and just listened as Shannon emptied himself into the night. The sound glued their feet to the ground and made their hearts pump harder because they knew exactly what was behind it. It was an anger that was in them too, and had been filling their hearts for as long as they could remember being alive. They heard Shannon and couldn’t do anything but understand as he emptied himself of that anger.

With nothing more to give, Shannon lowered his head and breathed in deeply to refill himself with the cold air and the smell of death that now surrounded him. Buck ran to their car, quickly turned it on, and drove to meet the two on the street.

“We gotta go!” he yelled.

Keith grabbed Shannon’s shoulder and said, “Come on.”

They ran to the car and managed to close the doors behind them right as Buck sped off. After about thirty second’s worth of driving they passed a car heading towards the scene, but were sure that the man behind the wheel wasn’t anyone to worry about. The adrenaline from the ordeal began to subside and Keith turned around to look at Shannon, “You alright?” He said.

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Good.” He took the gun from Shannon’s hand and said, “It’s done.”

Shannon looked back, shook his head and said, “No. It’s not done. We’re not done.” Keith was silent for a moment. He looked at Buck who looked back at him from the corner of his eye. He turned again to Shannon and said, “You’re right. It’s not done.” Keith turned back around and wiped their fingerprints off the guns as Buck continued speeding back to the city. He repeated, for him and for the others, “No, it’s not over.”

Desperate Lives by Alex Clermont

© Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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