Chapter XI. - Hearing The Screams
[Excerpt from The Brigade by H. A. Covington]
O, God, that I were a man!
I would eat his heart in the market-place!
Much Ado About Nothing – Act IV, Scene 2
Annette Ridgeway had led a life of sufficient privilege, and sufficient just plain good fortune, so that until the age of seventeen she had never attended a funeral before. On this cold and rainy afternoon in January, her luck ran out. She stood with a group of her family and friends on the sodden grass beside a long dark hole of brown earth into which some men in overalls were about to lower her only sister. Janet Ridgeway had turned sixteen only a month before she swallowed an entire bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills, and almost a whole bottle of Jack Daniels from her father’s liquor cabinet. She then passed out on the plush carpeted floor of the rec room in the two million-dollar family home in West Linn, Oregon, and choked to death on her own vomit.
Annette stared at Jan’s peaceful face, like a golden little angel, visible through the glass window at the top of the coffin. The minister was droning in the background about the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but Annette tuned him out. What he was saying had no relevance to what was happening to her. It was just background noise.
Annette watched the face in the glass slowly disappearing into the ground, burning into her mind forever the last sight she would ever see of her sister. They had only been a year apart; Annette’s parents sometimes joked with them, “You were a mistake, Annie, but you were so beautiful we just had to make another one.” This would be the last time that she would ever see this person, this part of her that had been there always, now been ripped away from her for the rest of her life, now sliding down into the earth out of her sight forever. Annette knew that she had to control herself, that she mustn’t go insane. She leaned over the edge of the grave, her long blonde hair falling from her black-draped shoulders, straining for that very last glimpse of all. She could see her sister’s dead face, barely visible in the shadows at the bottom of the grave, before the dirt began to fall on it and she was gone.
Her boyfriend, a tall and good-looking kid in a somber suit named Eric Sellars, grasped her arm, afraid she would fall in. “Annette, we need to go now,” he said, quietly but firmly, gently easing her away from the grave.
“It’s not over,” she said.
“I know,” said Eric softly. He understood perfectly well what she was really saying to him. “But the ceremony is. You need to come away now and be with your parents. They need you.” Annette turned and walked away from the grave without another word. She had not cried during the entire funeral. Since the one explosion of hysteria and grief in Eric’s arms when they had heard the news together, she had not cried at all. Annette went straight to her sobbing wreck of a mother, Lorraine. She quietly took Lorraine’s arm from her father and led her back to the waiting black stretch limo parked along the gravel cemetery pathway. It was as if none of the other hundred or so people attending the funeral even existed. Annette ignored them all, and none intruded.
Ray Ridgeway stared after his wife and daughter. He was a distinguished-looking man in late middle age, expensively dressed in Armani and professionally coiffed. He prided himself on requiring neither Rogaine nor Viagra at his age, and he had the bright and even teeth of a young man, polished but not even capped. Ray was the CEO of Continental Bank, a senior partner in the most successful brokerage firm on the West Coast, and a power player in the financial world. He had just made the stunning discovery that rich and powerful men down through the millennia always made at some point in their careers—that he was powerless to cheat death. His child was dead, and there was no one to negotiate or bargain with, no one to threaten, no one to bribe, no strings that could be pulled, no way to fix this.
Technically Jan hadn’t even been murdered, she had taken her own life. Ray’s common sense and lifetime of experience in the real America told him with perfect clarity that the man responsible was completely untouchable, and that there was nothing to be done. He was shaken to the core of his being by the loss of his youngest child, and he was icy with fear for his oldest.
He beckoned to young Sellars. He had approved of this boy from the beginning, a steady and intelligent young man planning a career in engineering, and he was grateful for Eric’s relieving him of his fears for Annette’s future, since even at their young age he could sense that they were a solid couple and would probably make if they decided to give it a go. It was Jan who had been driving him and Lorraine frantic for the past year. “Eric, is Annette…all right?” Ray asked the younger man anxiously.
“I don’t know, sir,” Eric told him frankly. “She won’t talk to me.”
“Or me. I’ve tried. I’ll try again tonight,” said Ray.
He did try again that night, asking Annette to join him in his study in the West Linn mansion. She sat down on the couch, still wearing her black mourning dress from the funeral. “Mom won’t take a sleeping pill,” she said. “She says she won’t ever take anything again. I suppose that’s understandable in view of what happened to her last prescription. I think she’ll sleep, though. She’s exhausted. Empty, I suppose would be a better word.”
Ray poured himself a stiff shot of Jack, aware of the irony of consuming the drug that had killed his daughter as a means of ameliorating his grief at her death, although he said nothing. He knew that Annette would catch that irony as well, but he said, “This is a hell of an occasion for me to ask you this for the first time, but do you want one? Have you started drinking yet?”
“I don’t think I’m going to start,” said Annette.
“Smart decision,” said her father with an approving nod. “But then, all of yours are smart. I wish your sister had possessed your level head.”
“Dad, no need to dance around it. Jan’s decisions were just plain stupid. She was self-destructive, she had no sense of self-esteem and no inner strength. She let the whole adolescent angst thing get on top of her, she just went with the flow, and it killed her. She got involved with drugs, she got involved with a nigger, and she did both at once. If that’s not the classic definition of a self-destructive personality, I don’t know what is.”
Ray looked at her oddly. “The psychobabble I get. You picked that up from your mother and her hundred and one self-help books and fads, not to mention TV. But the racism is a new one on me. Where did that come from?”
“Where racism always comes from, Dad,” said his daughter calmly. “From close and regular contact with blacks.”
“Oh? And how many blacks do you have close and regular contact with at Ashdown Academy?” inquired her father. “Three? Four?”
“One was enough,” she replied coolly. “Look, Dad, can we take all the shocked disclaimers as read? Or to quote one of your own favorite sayings, don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. I know what every white person in this country knows, even if they’re all too terrified to say it out loud. They’re not Africans-Americans, they’re niggers. They aren’t equal to us in any way, they never have been, they can’t tie their own shoelaces without an affirmative action program, and they’re not even very nice. Now, what did you want to say to me?”
Ridgeway looked at her, bemused. “Okay, fine, we’ll leave the deep political and philosophical debate on diversity and multiculturalism for another time. And yes, you’re right, we all know in the privacy of our own thoughts that when all is said and done, they’re nothing but niggers, and they won’t ever be anything else. But the fact is that society doesn’t allow that viewpoint anymore. I always thought of myself as pretty smart, but I’ll admit to you, I have no idea how on earth we have gotten to—well, where we are, but we have.
"The point is, Annette, and it’s the point I have to make sure you understand completely, is that whether we like it or not, we have to live in the real world. Down throughout the centuries, society has always had certain rules that men and women were expected to live by, and I don’t mean just the laws on a statute book. Always there have been certain people who by common consensus, however arrived at, have been allowed to flaunt or disregard those rules, so long as they do so within certain commonly accepted if unstated parameters of discretion. This Lucius Flammus is one such. This society has decided, for what reasons I will not even try to speculate, that tall men with black skins who can bounce a ball up and down on a wooden floor are a politically and socially protected species. For all practical purposes, Flammus is immune from the consequences of his behavior. The fact is that other than a few minor narcotics violations, which we can’t prove, his behavior isn’t only not illegal, it’s actually encouraged as part of his public persona.”
“How can you talk about Jan’s death in those detached bullshit terms like it was some kind of sociological phenomenon?” cried Annette bitterly.
“Because it is the only way I can talk about it, the only way I can think about it, and not lose my mind! The only way I can not take that gun out of my desk and go kill Flammus, thereby destroying not only myself but you and your mother, and losing all we have, and leaving you two alone and destitute in this horrible place,” said Ridgeway harshly. “Annette, suicide is not the solution to anything. It wasn’t the solution to Jan’s pregnancy, and it wouldn’t be any kind of solution for me, or you, or your mother.” He knelt beside her. “Honey, do you understand what I am saying to you? Do you understand that with your silence, your refusal to grieve, your refusal to accept her death and get on with your life, you are scaring the hell out of Lorraine and me? And Eric too, I think?”
“So we’re all nothing but a bunch of hogs slopping at the great American trough, and every so often the big black butcher comes among us and drags one of us away squealing, and we just look the other way and accept it as the price of all that lovely swill and jam our snouts back in deep, so we don’t hear the screams?” demanded Annette. “Is that it?”
“Yes,” admitted Ridgeway. “I know how contemptible that sounds, but yes, Annette, that’s how Americans have to live, because the powers that control our existence have decreed it. You live your life, and you try to do the best you can for yourself and your family. Insofar as possible, you avoid all contact with the system, especially the so-called justice system. You stay away from politics and controversy and anything that might get you noticed, you build what you can for those you love, and you hope to God that every time that black or brown butcher comes into the pen, he passes you and your loved ones by and takes someone else. And you don’t hear the screams. You never let yourself hear the screams.
"You mustn’t, Annette. You must condition yourself, harden yourself, train yourself, deceive yourself if need be, however you have to do it. But you never let yourself hear the screams off in the darkness, because if you do, that way lies madness and self-destruction, and you may well drag your loved ones with you. I’m sorry, but that’s the way real life is, Annette. I understand how terrible this sounds, and if by telling you this I have lost your respect, then I am deeply saddened. But I am your father, and I have to tell you these things, because no one else will. I am telling you, desperately trying to convince you, because you’re young and idealistic, and in the world of today that is deadly dangerous. Normally we hold up youth and idealism as good things, and so they are, but only in certain channels that the powers have pre-approved. I know you, honey. I know that stubborn streak you’ve had since you were a little girl, like that time when you were five years old and you sat at the dinner table until four o’clock the next morning rather than eat your Brussels sprouts. You are dangerously close to letting your youth and idealism draw you in a direction that society does not approve, and will not allow.”
“I never did eat those damned Brussels sprouts,” Annette reminded him.
“No, you didn’t,” Ridgeway agreed with a soft laugh. “You got me there. But honey, if you try to pursue this matter of your sister’s death, you won’t be a little girl defying your father and a plate of vegetables. You will be crossing a line that America forbids you to cross, and you will be punished more savagely than I think you can possibly imagine, especially with the, uh, situation here in the Pacific Northwest the way it is now.”
“Maybe the NVA will solve the problem and kill Lucius!” said Annette irrepressibly.
“Maybe,” agreed Ridgeway. “I have to say I don’t think much of his good judgment in remaining at Ashdown in view of what’s going down in the city. Nor will I shed a tear if and when that happens. But Annette, I want you to promise me something. Dead serious, I want you to promise me that you won’t do anything stupid along that line.” His voice was anxious.
“And just what do you think I’m going to do, Dad?” she asked artlessly.
“Now don’t you go pissing down my back and tell me it’s raining, young lady!” snapped Ray. “I know perfectly well what is going on in that beautiful head of yours, and I say to you again, this isn’t a plate of Brussels sprouts you can get your way on through sheer mule-headedness! I want you to promise me that you’re not going to try to contact this damned gang of racist psychopaths who are running around Portland murdering people and bombing things, and try to get them to kill this Flammus character!”
“And how would I do that?” laughed Annette merrily. “Come on, Dad! It’s not like they’re in the Yellow Pages under A for Assassins or anything! And none of the kids at Ashdown are likely to hang with them after school. Our student parking lot looks like a Lexus and BMW dealership. Not a pickup truck with a rifle rack in the bunch.”
“I don’t know, but honey, I am scared shitless that you are going to go floundering around in biker bars in McMinnville or something stupid like that, asking dangerous questions about some truly dangerous people, and you’re going to get into some horrible situation. Either the police or FBI will pick up on what you’re doing and arrest you under the Patriot Act or Suppression of Domestic Terrorism Act, and I will have to spend half our savings on lawyers to get what’s left of you back—sorry, I know that sounds horrible too, but you know what I mean—or else what’s worse, you might actually stumble across a real racist death squad and they’ll kill you. Annette, please!” her father begged her urgently. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid like that! We’ve lost one child, and now you’re all we’ve got left. If we lose you, your mother and I will die too, inside, in a way that doesn’t bear thinking about. Please!”
“I promise, Dad, no bars in McMinnville,” she told him.