They were going to catch him. Clarence knew it and yet he kept on moving. He backed down from no man, but Shorty had taught him when to run. Their clientele had recently expanded: they served schoolteachers and bankers, doctors and ministers. Then, there had been Kylene -- sweet, loving Kylene -- and, in her demise, Clarence’s understanding that he had to leave his drug dealing days behind.
“Sir, would you like anything to eat?”
Clarence had always liked trains, believed most of his life that they were classy. He promised himself at the age of five that he would board one some day, and fourteen years later, he had kept his own promise; though hardly under the circumstances that he’d imagined.
“Yeah, uh…,” Clarence stammered. “What’s on the menu?”
The porter, a tall, slender man with slick, blond hair, smiled and handed him a brief, laminated menu.
“You may see something you like here,” the porter said. “And the soup of the day is clam chowder.”
Clarence heard a quick rustling behind him and looked over his shoulder. Behind him, a young brunette adjusted her sleeping toddler’s position in her lap. Clarence observed everything: the streets had taught him to be swift to hear, yet slow to speak. Even there, on the train, surrounded by pleasant, harmless white people -- half of a high school cheerleading troupe sat just across the aisle -- Clarence did not trust a soul. He had skipped town with Shorty’s money. He knew that revenge was coming.
Clarence handed back the menu to the porter. “Yeah, man…I’ll take that soup of the day.”
“Very well, sir,” the porter replied. He retrieved the menu and advanced to the next seat.
As Clarence stared out of the wide, glass window, the green, hilly southern Ohio countryside whisked past. It was hard to believe Dayton was in the same state. He had seen so much despair there: violence and hunger were as familiar as siblings; on his block, aged, hideous prostitutes with missing teeth successfully solicited cops. Survival of the fittest existed there in a way that Darwin could’ve never dreamed. And yet, Clarence no longer wanted to live in darkness. His quest for a better life led him to the train, which was headed for North Carolina.
Clarence didn’t know a soul in North Carolina. That was the point. He saw an opportunity to invest his money, maybe get a regular job somewhere -- he’d always wanted to coach baseball -- meet a pretty, southern girl who didn’t ask too many questions, and try to live the life he’d sought since the day his father was murdered right in front of his face.
Instantly, the toddler began crying behind him. Clarence turned to watch him through the small crack in between his two seats. The little boy reminded him of his own baby, the one that Kylene carried before she died.
He had met her, of all places, at church. He arrived early that rainy Sunday morning to rough up Reverend Simmons a little, coerce him into paying back Shorty’s money. Clarence wanted to catch him right after the service -- go right upside his head in front of the sanctified folk -- but for some reason, he just went inside and listened to the sermon. It was a big Pentecostal service: plenty of shouting and speaking in tongues and fainting spells. He would’ve found it laughable, but Kylene mesmerized him, angelic in her white dress. When the service ended, Clarence decided against confronting the Reverend; instead, he went and introduced himself to Kylene.
She already knew him -- everyone in the neighborhood knew Clarence, Shorty’s dangerous right hand man -- but had not accounted for his soft-spoken nature, his attention to detail, the secret thrill she felt from watching the streets part like the Red Sea as she walked beside him. He exposed her to the streets, the fast money, low-down speakeasies in old pimps’ basements. She showed him the Bible, art and literature; taught him how to close his eyes and listen to the beat of his own heart. In time, she gave him her body, the Lord’s temple, and they made love with a passion and urgency that brought vital color into their dreary lives.
Kylene could not have known that Clarence would accept her god, and develop not only a conscience, but a desire to escape his treacherous routine. Likewise, Clarence could not foresee that Kylene would abandon her god, crave Clarence’s darkness, and become addicted to the very drugs that he told her never to touch.
When Kylene revealed that she was pregnant with his child, he gave her an ultimatum. “I’m not letting you bring no crack baby into this world,” he told her. “It’s bad enough you doing this mess yourself.” She lunged for him and they fought. As they fell to the ground, Kylene hit her head on the back of the table. He had tried to rouse her, but it was to no avail. Shorty’s money sat quietly in Clarence’s old, brown suitcase; it was time to go.
Somewhere in the middle of Kentucky, the train screeched to a halt. The passengers glanced around the cabin in bewilderment. Clarence saw the porter approaching, and then three other men walked in front of him. All four men approached Clarence.
“Mr. Miller,” said one of the men, with a deep, authoritative voice. He was redheaded and beefy, wore a tan uniform with a Kentucky State Trooper badge. “I’m Officer Thornton. These are Officers Cooper and Becker. We have a warrant for your arrest. You’re being charged with the murder of Kylene Cook back in Dayton. C’mon, boy, let’s go.”
Clarence did not resist. He knew that no matter how far he tried to run, he could never escape the darkness of his mind. It covered him as relentlessly as skin, served both to protect him and identify him, but it too, would be his damnation. He rose and let the officers handcuff him as they read him his rights. All the anonymous white faces convicted him as he passed. And Clarence cried, for the first time in years.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.19.05 @ 12:28a
1.19.05 @ 8:36a
I've known several Clarences during my counseling days. Nobody ever believed a word they spoke, except me. My supervisors always questioned me in detail about my grandiose rehab plans to send them back to school. Some of them even got their GEDs, went on to college, made "acceptable" middle-class lives for themselves even with the ex-con label. Some of them went back to prison and some of them are dead. Some of them broke my naive, middle-class heart, but the ones who didn't made it all worth while. It's funny what counseling does to one: I gave the ones who made it all the credit for their accomplishments, but the ones who didn't are somehow my personal failures.
1.20.05 @ 10:39a
Is this going to be a series?
1.20.05 @ 11:07a
No, I don't think so. It was an assignment for a writing class. But it would probably make a good book someday.
1.20.05 @ 11:09a
So you're leaving us hanging? No fair!
1.27.05 @ 3:58p
Keep up the great work, but don't leave us hanging!!!