Those five boys—the drunk ones who knocked the living shit and thirty-seven pennies out of Riccardo Hernandez—they weren’t all football players. The news people latched onto the football thing when they rode into town in their white vans, logos on the sides and satellites hitched to the roofs. They aired long, weighty shots of the rebel flag painted on the back of Mr. Johnson’s tackle shop, and reported on the deadly incident between five football players and a Mexican immigrant in front of the city hall in Riddlescreak, Virginia. But Mr. Johnson’s was the only rebel flag in town, city hall was a block and a half over, and only two of the boys were football players. When he saw the coverage, my brother’s face flared ripe and red and he snatched the remote and cut off the TV. He said that there was an agenda if he ever saw one, and in spite of everything, I have to agree with him.
There weren’t arrests for two months and two weeks after the incident, which was strange because everyone knew exactly who had killed Riccardo Hernandez, how they did it, when they did it, and why they did it—just not in an immediate sense. The police, required to fulfill a certain role, told the papers that they suspected his death to be linked with gang violence, which was also strange because prior to that announcement no one had even been aware that gangs were active in Riddlescreak.
The news vans have since left, and we’ve painted over the rebel flag, but he won’t keep in the ground, that Mexican man who’s always re-dying a block and a half from city hall. He knows what he’s done to us: we’re fractured, or we’re mute, or we’re gone away, but he wants us to know what we did to him and all the ways we started doing it two years before our boys kicked at him to watch the pennies fly, and then left him all alone to empty out on the blacktop. Here are those ways.
Our men got clean. Clean. Men who lived their whole lives with soot in their hair, soot on their lashes, soot caked under their toenails and in the cracks of their asses, men who started to believe they were made of soot and would return to soot before they could rid the soot from the crevices of their bodies: those men took showers and saw no blackness pooling around the drain. More than anything else, that broke them. After long days lining the halls of the employment office, or working nickel-and-dime jobs out of the backs of their trucks, those men would stand under shower heads for hours, foreheads against tiled walls, cursing the clean, clear water that rolled off their backs.
The day government inspectors shut down Coal Mountain, my brother came home with a pair of suede shoes. Silently, he placed them on the kitchen counter, and then rounded the corner into the bathroom where he stayed many moments longer than it took to wash hands—giving Ma and me a chance to admire them in his absence. They were blue with brown soles, stippled with a clumsy pattern of holes that might have resembled wingtips if they were on somebody’s feet, and you observing from a few feet up. But waist-high on our counter, coated in a beady haze of fluorescent light, they looked exactly like what they were: lopsided, cheap, and sad.
Finally, Erik came out of the bathroom. Ma appraised it all: her son, his clean, soot-free fingernails, the ugly shoes on her kitchen counter.
“New shoes?” she asked. Normally the words would have been an order to move them. But this time, when Ma asked, the only thing she wanted back was its answer. Erik nodded. She imitated a smile. “They’re nice.”
We sat down to eat, and Erik plunked the shoes down in the center of the table. There they stayed, presiding over the meal like some big, unpleasant, wingtipped Thanksgiving Day turkey. Ma used to talk often about the comfort of silence, about how people who truly feel at ease in each other’s company don’t feel the need to fill the natural holes in conversation—how, instead, they just live in them. There was no comfort in the silence that night, I think because of the shoes—no one was at ease in their company. They lorded over our silence with their loudness, set the room in orbit around them, pulled the color away from all else. I felt their electric blue burning against my eyeballs like a gas flame. I tasted their cheap, earthy fabric in the space halfway between my nose and my mouth. Ma finished quickly, took her plate to the sink, muttered, “Very nice, Erik,” and left her dining room and her two sons at the mercy of the encroaching forces.
Erik looked at me. We weren’t close. He had left school after the tenth grade to work in the mines because that’s where he was headed anyways. Ma didn’t want two coal miner sons with a deadbeat coal miner daddy, so more attention was paid to my education.
“You ever just do shit just out of obligation?” He cursed around me only when Ma was away.
I said I had because I had. Once, in primary school, Sammy Porter had called Erik a retard, because retards drop out of high school and don’t go to college and instead work in coal mines. I told Sammy Porter that I didn’t care because I didn’t, but I also hit Sammy Porter in the mouth because it felt like the right thing to do.
Erik was saying, “I’m not sad about the coal mine. Let them shut it down. Why should I be sad? I go down there every morning before the sun even rises and don’t get back up again until after it goes down. I’m supposed to be sad that now I get to see the sun?” His tone swelled with gravitas, but next to those shoes, he looked small. “I don’t go to parties or to the movies or none of that shit. I used to have fun.”
“You used to be crazy.”
He put his hands behind his head, his feet up on the table. “Damn straight. Fucking insane.” He swiped his forefinger through a swath of sauce on his plate, then popped it into his mouth. “People don’t invite me places because I get coal dust all over their shit. And I wouldn’t want to go even if they did ‘cause I don’t have time. Plus I don’t have anything to wear.”
Through it all I always wanted Erik to think of me as on his team. I still do. “The parties in town blow anyways.”
“When they told me the mine was closing, I went straight to the mall. Got me some new shoes. Why not splurge, ya know? I can step out in these. And now they’ll stay nice too. New shoes, new man. Maybe I’ll wear them to an interview or some shit.”
It was an invitation, that little joke, a sticky end to tack something else onto. In my silence it floundered in the air, waiting for me to wet it just a little—it would have only taken just a little. But then it was too late, and whatever my brother had tried to swim between us was too still and dry to be revived. Erik said, getting up, “An interview, or maybe I’ll meet a hot chick. How about that, kid? A real smoking chick.”
Then it was only me and the shoes.
They weren’t new. The holes in the fabric had been made with an unwound paperclip, heated on a gas stove so it would go through smooth. The soles were held in place by Gorilla Glue, some of which had oozed from the sides like mustard from an overstuffed sandwich, hardening on the fake leather in stiff globular knobs. After he got the notice that mining operations would have to stop, or else the whole west side of the mountain would cave in, Erik had intended to go to the mall, but fifteen minutes later he found himself getting out of his car in front of María Camilla’s lopsided ranch. María Camilla’s niece makes bootleg shoes in their basement, and María Camilla sells them out of the garage for 10 dollars a pop. New Erik would reveal himself to be different from the old in many ways, but he’d always be cheap.
The first illegal immigrant arrived in town, along with a kilo of Colombian cocaine. The cocaine had the company of a trunkful of unregistered weapons, and together they kept going all the way up to Ohio, while the illegal immigrant was left all alone in Riddlescreak, Virginia. His name was Jorge, let’s say.
Jorge was the first—he came around the time the mine closed—but soon Louie Smith of Louie Smith’s Carpet and Rug Factory began hiring a whole horde of new workers, suddenly not requiring they provide formalities like work visas or permits. That same year Louie Smith sent his workers’ wages plummeting well below the legal minimum. It marked the first year in a decade that Louie turned a profit. He was able to send his daughter to Princeton and his mother to a real nice hospice because of it.
One of the few things Ma still says is that the best way to predict a person’s actions is to look at what he’s done in the past, that if you have eyes for it, you’ll see that folks rehearse the big acts in their lives long before they play them out. Ma doesn’t talk much anymore about any of the things she believes in, I think because this is all that is really left.
The boys in town began rehearsing to kill a Mexican. It’s easy to have eyes for it once it’s all over. Of course they started in small ways: names on playgrounds, shoves in lunch lines, sticks thrown at cars. The rehearsing got bigger when Tommy Campbell held Mateo Colombo’s head under water for a whole two minutes at the rec center’s July 4 Pool Extravaganza. They had been playing a game in which it was important for one person to grab onto as many others as possible while those others tried desperately to swim away. Tommy was the person doing the grabbing, but when he got to Mateo, the boy jerked violently away, his eyes full of surprise. Mateo’s mouth snapped open and Tommy pushed him under. The next day Tommy Campbell was telling people that Mateo was a secret fag. Tommy Campbell is very passionate about finding out and roughing up secret fags.
Once they realized the hell they could raise as a pack, the boys began rehearsing together. They kicked up trouble wherever they could find it. Not all the men in the town had yet fractured and not all the women had fallen mute, so there was a bit of fuss about their sons marauding in big bands, hurling slurs and weightier things at Hispanic homes as they drove by. The school was alerted, but none were suspended. Mr. Porter said boys will be boys and all that.
Erik couldn’t hold a job for shit, but he started dating a girl from North Carolina, which Ma and me thought was a very good thing. We couldn’t work out how to hold him closer, so we figured the next best thing was to get him far away. He wore suede shoes wherever he went.
The very day that the five boys were finally arrested, the seven-foot portrait of Christ in Old Bailey Church began to weep. María Camilla, the old woman who bootlegs suede shoes and cleans the church on weekends, was the first to bear witness. It was a divine act of providence was what it was, according to María Camilla. But the seventy-five-year-old woman had declared the same when drowsy heads of corn sprang from her garden four months and a decent growing season after she planted them in the ground, so her credibility regarding miracles was dubious. The second time tear streaks lightened the stucco, it was Father Quince who saw. Immediately he prostrated himself. Seeing the priest’s devotion, María Camilla briefly considered following his lead, but then she considered her knees, and her hair, and what happened the last time she prostrated herself, and decided that five years of pro bono janitorial services in the name of the Good Lord more than demonstrated where her loyalties lay. Besides, she thought, as much as she liked this young white priest, his simple heart, and the way his biceps asserted themselves against the cloth of his clerical shirt, his reasons for prostrating himself were undoubtedly very different from her own.
The next Sunday, Ma took me to church. It was packed—full of folks who hadn’t attended since youth, who had torn through their homes looking for Bibles issued to them along with diplomas at Riddlescreak High, finding them under beds or in the high reaches of coat closets, and always covered in a thin film of dust. There were even the East Side Mexicans, who were not all Mexicans, but who were brown-skinned and worshiped where they lived on the east side of town, save for Easter and Christmas and other such special occasions, when they would venture two blocks west and up north another four to sit uncomfortably next to dressed-up white bodies, and then leave faster than hell at the moment of final benediction. Ma sat us up on a balcony, far from them.
The boys had just been arrested a few days ago, and all the church was rippling tensely, each community trying to get a feel on the other.
Father Quince stepped up to the pulpit and asked, “Who among you have seen Jesus?” The question was not taken how he intended. Next to me a lady with a hat like a peacock’s plume exhaled a knowing whistle, unaware that the priest was referring to the visage of the sobbing savior on the wall behind us. Many others did the same. Some also said, “Amen!” and shook their heads as though he had just espoused some biblical truth—all determined to receive the answers they had rolled out of bed that Sunday morning to find.
Father Quince told us about his discovery of the weeping portrait, how he and sister María Camilla were graced by a divine message, how he wouldn’t censor its meaning, how he was charged to share God’s word with the masses.
“Why does Christ cry in the Bible?” Following the first question, the congregation couldn’t tell if this one was theirs to field. But all knew the answer. Christ had been called to see his dying friend, but arrived too late and the friend died. Overcome by grief, Jesus wept. But why, asked Father Quince, would Jesus weep? Being omnipotent and all, he must have known all along that the friend was going to die. At this point the woman next to me let out another low, impressed whistle. According to Father Quince, Christ wasn’t crying for his dead friend, he was crying for the ones that were alive, those who wept for their own misunderstanding of death as absolute.
“You see, Christ doesn’t weep for the dead. He is concerned with the living!” He stepped backwards with his arms outstretched, allowing the weight of his words to settle down into the crowd before him.
A Bible soared through the air, its covers spread like the wings of some strange bird, and for a second before it crashed before the pulpit, I thought it might up and soar away.
It came from the far back, the section closest to the exit, where the colors adorning the sea of heads changed from blonde and red and black to a homogenous Hispanic brown. Like a pillar of salt, one woman’s body broke the murky surface, her right arm extended in the aftermath of the action. She was crying and shouting and the people seated around her tugged at her hands and whispered urgent things into her ear.
Then the church erupted. The sea frothed and shook as people leapt from their seats, throwing up their hands and cocking their heads like exotic caged creatures. One, from the Hispanic section of the sea, pointed up at Ma and me, first recognition, then hatred in his eyes.
“Let’s go.” Ma grabbed a handful of cloth around my shoulder and led me toward the side door of the balcony. I looked back to see the pillar woman still howling at the pulpit, jabbing her forefinger in the priest’s direction like a dagger. The people around her were fanning, hugging, yelling with her.
All the while, Father Quince stood with his arms still outspread, his gaze far away. That’s the last thing I saw, the pale priest, the sobbing face of Our Lord, and the hysterical woman writhing between them. Then Ma pulled the door shut behind us.
Mr. Porter—with his bad eyes for students rehearsing to kill Mexicans—lost a son. Died of cancer. It happened long before Christ wept. Little Porter was my age; we played on the same baseball team in junior high. He was first baseman and a real ass. He would trip anyone who tried to steal second, and if caught he would just wail and tell the ref that the guy had been taunting him, called his family trash and his nana a streetwalker. I once told him that I knew no one had called his nana a streetwalker, and he socked me right in the face. A year later, he came to his father, lymph nodes the size of tangerines and wheezing through what sounded like a throat of sand, so Porter drove his Chevy to the drug store for cough syrup and Benadryl. That’s what he did for two more weeks as the boy dissolved in his sickness. When they finally took him to the doctor he was in the final stages of acute leukemia. The doctor asked Porter if he had any kin from out of town, because now was the time for them to visit.
Erik goes off to North Carolina every year around the time that Porter’s son died. He tells Ma that he’s going to visit his girlfriend and Ma doesn’t say much back. I don’t tell Ma that they stopped dating, mostly because I suspect she knows. Erik throws a few days’ worth of clothes into his car, an old green Honda with rust around the tires, and promises to be back a day or two earlier than he ever is. He always takes his blue shoes, even though by this time, three years later, one is missing a sole.
I think it’s custom for him. He was away the year little Porter died. Except back then he actually had a girlfriend to visit in North Carolina, one who was sincerely grateful that he no longer left dusty black smudges around the clip on her bra when he fumbled it off, that they could sleep together on white linens without her having to wash them twice the next day. But she soon found, as we, back in the town, all found, that after spending so long deep in the ground, picking at caves and kicking up dirt, a person doesn’t come up the same. She found that she didn’t like the Erik who lived completely aboveground, splintering under the weight of the sun. Around him, she, just like all the women in the town, started saying less, watching more. She wasn’t from Riddlescreak, but by Erik Riddlescreak had found her and crawled up into her and claimed her and now, like Ma, she belonged to the tribe of the women who just watch.
Seeing the shards of their men fall to their feet, the tribe found that they fell apart in strange ways—never neat. Mothers and girlfriends and sisters and wives found they could do nothing about shoes on kitchen tables, sharp tongues, or quick tempers. They felt the constant danger of walking barefoot around their men, so they wore thick boots and thicker skins and turned up tightly inside themselves, not saying much about anything to anyone while their men wondered: why all of a sudden were they so fucking quiet all the time?
“She couldn’t hold a conversation. That too much to ask for?” Erik smiled when I asked him about her three years later. “You look more and more like Ma everyday. Don’t sweat me kid. It’s finally a good day. It’s good to see you.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“Fuck if I know. I’ll get an interview somewhere. Look, don’t sweat me kid. This is a good day. Me and the little bro.”
I had been waiting to ask him about her for so long. Ma and me had been so sure that Erik’s girl could do it. I needed to know what had happened to her, why she and North Carolina had failed to save my brother.
“I don’t know! I don’t know where she is! Probably fucking a lawyer or an astronaut somewhere in space. Please man,” his voice cracked. “You look like Ma. You really do. This is like old times, me and the little bro. All the shit we used to get into. Wilmington? You remember Wilmington.”
Truth is, we didn’t used to get into much of anything together. Before the mine closed he was always gone, and afterwards, like all the women and children, I was too afraid to come around, for fear of stepping on his shards. But once, when he asked me to go see a show in Wilmington, the next town over, I said yes, because despite my fears, I’ve always wanted him to think of me as on his team. Ma packed us tuna sandwiches with cucumber slices, and for the only time since the mine closure, she looked at her sons as though she recognized them as the characters from her earliest maternal daydreams. She insisted I ride in the back seat.
Erik drove too fast and made sharp turns, but because sometimes you have to make sacrifices for family, I kept quiet and concentrated on not letting the twisting inside of me get too tight. We got there as the show was ending, but I wasn’t upset. I wanted to ride with him for days longer, not saying much, just absorbing his loud music and nibbling on cucumber wedges.
Erik’s frustration at missing the show gave way to deviousness and he twisted his torso to look back at me. “I know where the kid wants to go.” Five minutes later we were in front of a small building with wooden paneling and a neon sign that flashed the words, DIAMOND DANCERS, in hot pink. “Don’t worry,” was all he said. “We’ll get you in.”
Having Erik as a brother, I was well aware of the seedier types of places that exist in this world. “I don’t want to go in.”
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged, and he got out of the car. “The kid doesn’t want to go into the titty bar.”
All alone in the car, I ate Erik’s cucumbers. I threw his sandwich out the window. Thirty minutes later he reappeared leading a busty redhead by the hand. She had on blue eye shadow that reminded me of the shabby wingtips on his shoes. She was giggling, “You are! You trying to make me out of a job!”
“Oh come on sweetheart, this here’s my brother. The kid’s probably never seen a titty before in his life. He’s thirteen—never seen a titty. At this point, it’s dire. If the kid doesn’t see some titties soon, he’ll probably turn out all fucked up in the head when he’s older, like watching pretty girls like you through windows and then chopping them up and shit. This is his last chance. Have a heart, sweetheart, give the kid a chance in life.”
After very little persuasion, the wingtipped redhead lifted her shirt. I spent the next ten minutes trying in vain to swallow the cucumber mush in my mouth.
All those years later, after Riccardo Hernandez, after the North Carolina girl started fucking either a lawyer or an astronaut in space, after the sole on his left suede shoe detached from the cheap leather, Erik was roaring with laughter, “Kid saw those titties and almost choked on his fucking cucumber sandwich!”
Tommy Campbell noticed the jut of Simon Kyle’s neck muscles in the locker room after a seven to forty-seven loss to Gainesville. Tommy thought they were the sturdiest things he had ever seen, like a tan canvas bag stretched over sharp, handsome stones. Maybe this happened as I gawked at the Diamond Dancer in Wilmington. Every game until the end of the season Tommy would peer through the grates of his open locker to steal a glance. Once, catching his gaze, Simon jokingly blew him a kiss, and Tommy Campbell planted his fist into the shower wall.
María Camilla set a small fire in the church. It was the first and last time she would prostrate herself. She had been vacuuming, noticed what she thought to be a visitation of the Blessed Virgin in the form of an apparition on the ceiling (it was a water stain, the ceiling was leaking), and knocked over one of the lit altar candles on her way down. She put it out quickly. When word got out, Mr. Porter swore it was an act of malice—that the woman, seventy-five and astounded by the wonders of backyard agriculture, was heading a conspiracy to topple Christ in northern Virginia. Not long after, María Camilla’s house was vandalized, undoubtedly by some rehearsing crowd of unhappy teenagers.
* * *
There were five boys there that night—are now five boys there every night. They were coming home from a party. Tommy Campbell was a hothead, friends with Porter’s oldest boy, who had just lost his little brother to a cancer brought on by illegal aliens and closed coal mines. It was Tommy who spotted Riccardo, Tommy who lobbed a slur his way, and when the man didn’t respond, lobbed the beer in his right hand. The second boy was Sam Fortner. He was the one who ran toward the man, calling after the rest to follow him. The third, Carl Edwards, was the one who spat at Riccardo’s feet, and the fourth, Casey Jowell, was the one who grabbed hold of the man’s shoulders and pushed him to the ground. It was the fifth boy—the one who would lose the sole of his left shoe in the fight—who threw the first punch, a strike that sent thirty-seven pennies flying from Riccardo’s pockets on impact.
They all liked that. They would later recall in the courtroom how crazy that made them. How upon that boy’s fist striking Riccardo’s face, sending the man to the ground and all those pennies out of his pocket, flying through the night like shooting stars or maybe rocket missiles, the whole thing turned into a game. Tommy testified that Carl said, “Get him again, make it an even dollar.” And he did. And then they all did. They picked up rocks, kicked pavement, cocked heads back to the night sky, and beat the man within pennies from death, joking about Vegas slot machines and party piñatas the whole way through.
The police came thirty minutes later and saw what they saw: the urine, the bloodied body, the rocks, thirty-seven cents all in pennies, a flat brown shoe sole, particularly loyal globs of Gorilla Glue still beaded on its surface. By the time some passerby called, the boys had dispersed. But what had happened was apparent. The next morning the police held a press conference, said a twenty-seven-year-old male of Mexican descent had been found dead on Lambert Street, that he had sustained injuries in what looked like a street fight, most likely gang-related.
The five boys were arrested two months and two weeks later. Pretty blonde women with serious faces stood in front of the rebel flag on Johnson’s tackle shop and told cameras about the hate crime in Riddlescreak, Virginia. They mentioned that Riccardo was illegal, that he’d been walking home that night from the factory because his car had an antifreeze leak. They talked about the mine closing too, but they didn’t mention how unsettlingly clean but irreparably broken we all were. Regardless of the rest, that day the news stations aired shots of the five boys being led out of their homes in handcuffs, their mothers weeping in the background, their lawyers blocking their faces with wind-whipped sheets of paper.
When the cops knocked on the door of our house we knew why they had come. Ma had blamed herself for two months and two weeks, but that day she knew she couldn’t accept responsibility. She told Erik to get the door. He ran up to his room as the banging grew louder. Once he had what he was looking for, he walked back to the front door.
In one of those moments in which a slew of bigger, more important ones hide, Erik looked in my direction and grunted to me—I hope it was to me—“Come on. Not now kid. Don’t cry today.” Light enveloped the house.
Not sure of what else to do, I stood in the doorway, watching cameras flash and neighbors howl as the police handcuffed my brother in our front yard, ratty blue suede shoes on his feet.