Chapter One: Calling
I saw you today on the midday news: a teenage boy, skinny body draped in an oversized Chicago Bulls shirt, eyes shaded by a Swoosh cap, matching red, with brim curved just so. I knew you instantly, before the label was added to the picture, before you spoke. I was struck by an emotion that had more force than direction. It could as easily have been despair as elation. A phrase ran through my mind: already grown. Words that toward the end of his life my father repeated when he caught sight of me. In the midst of disorientation, what abides is wonder at a child's taking adult form.
You looked thinner than I had imagined. The effect of Ritalin, I suppose. You were taller than the reporter, so it seems not to have stunted your growth. Like a daytime talk-show hostess, the reporter prompted, If you could speak to your dad, what would you say? She held the microphone to your mouth. For a moment you stared at her tongue-tied. Hi, Dad, you said, perhaps because that is the first thing one says into microphones.
The television people were telling a story with your image. It said ordinary, normal, the youngster next door. Not a bad appearance to have in these times when too many try to stand out.
The microphone rested by your mouth, urging further speech. You thought and then asked, Dad, did you do it? After another silence, you giggled, which struck me as appropriate for a young man asked to betray private feelings in public. Appropriate, and wonderful for being so. The reporter pulled the microphone away, so that it did not quite catch your afterthought: Why?
That is the picture the video editor ended with, the lips of the "son of accused bomber" pursing and parting in silent query.
As soon as I could collect myself, I phoned Sukey Kuykendahl. You will remember Sukey. We saw a good deal of her the spring and summer your mother was gone. Sukey was down on her luck then -- booze and man trouble -- but she perked up around you. She had a way of getting you to do things, by saying out loud what was on your mind: Those kids look too big for you. You don't want to play with them. You want to sit on the sidelines and eat cookies.
Once she named your fear, it seemed foolish, and you would head back to the game. The reporters like her frankness of manner and that forceful, high-pitched New Englander's voice, at once throaty and twittery. They have her pegged as a Cape Cod type, the lady realtor, the Yankee straight-shooter. She's the stoutish "longtime neighbor" you see saying, Good Lord, of course I know Chip Samuels. Known him for years. He grew up on my mother's estate. Salt of the earth, honest as the day is long. That man never did a violent thing in his life.
On tape, she sounds something like Julia Child.
Sukey is a strategist. If you have been following the news, you know that I have not yet been charged with any crime. When the FBI cannot make a case, they leak the name of a suspect in the hopes that citizens will come forward with evidence. Sukey thinks the FBI's approach has backfired. She tells me that people remember times the FBI stumbled. They remember how the FBI had the press convinced that Richard Jewell set the bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta. In the end the feds exonerated the fellow and apologized, which is what Wendy Moro, my lawyer, is calling on them to do now.
For the meanwhile, I am more or less on home confinement. The media are too intrusive for me so much as to walk down Bridge Way. And there have been threats, some vicious and anonymous, some open and milder, couched in language meant to evade this or that criminal statute. The open threats come from families whose houses have lost value or been destroyed. Wendy says I am safest in the cottage, watched over by the agents investigating me.
I have little need to venture out. The community college has placed me on leave, and there is no question of my continuing with the handyman jobs I used to do. For all that certain neighbors express belief in my innocence, I doubt there's a sober citizen on the Cape who would let me bring a toolbox into his home.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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