Face Down

Jojo thinks his life is mapped out, until he ends up face down.

By Denise Lewis Patrick

“You better not let that school call here about you being late. I’ll tell your mama. Go on now, you imp!” Jojo’s grandmother said, getting in a good whack with her dishtowel. He gave her one of his sly grins and ducked out, letting the screen door slam behind him.       

“And don’t be slamming my expensive door!”

“Bye, Gran!” Jojo didn’t even stretch his lanky legs as he rounded the corner. Like she would tell anyway. He knew he was the favorite grandkid. Unlike the way she rode his cousin Calvin’s case all the time, Gran let him get away with little things now and then. Like deliberately rolling out of the house five minutes later than he should to make his English class on time. Or blowing his entire allowance on a one hundred percent cotton, authentic Hawaiian shirt and matching Jordans and then borrowing from Gran to take a girl to the movies. Calvin called him “Slick J.” Jojo kind of liked that.

Jojo slowed his steps more. It was practically the end of the year, he was making straight A’s, and school had gotten boring. Besides, he’d only be missing homeroom.

His stomach grumbled. Although Gran’s sausage-scrambled eggs and grits had hit the spot, he had a taste for something to top it off. Maybe a couple of the fresh fried donuts from Miss Ida’s Luncheonette downtown. Everybody knew that on Wednesdays Miss Ida Watkins left her seat at the cash register empty so that she could deliver meals to the sick and shut-in members of Galilee Baptist Church. Her eagle eyes wouldn’t be there to mark Jojo as Melba and Clyde Williams’ boy, who ought to be in school. That meant he could duck in, order, and bounce out before either that clueless waitress or the ancient fry cook paid any real attention.

“baked donuts” © wenday 😀 http://www.flickr.com

Jojo made a detour. Miss Ida’s was completely out of the way, on a narrow little street called The Back Court. Her yellow, wood framed building with the squeaking screen door was tucked near the Parish Courthouse. It was one of the last black owned businesses in that part of town, along with a barbershop and a messenger office. Gran sometimes told stories of how The Back Court got its name: a wealthy white plantation owner got elected judge, and couldn’t take the thought of leaving his cook out in the country while he was sitting on the bench. So he set her up a few blocks from the courthouse with a kitchen and sleeping quarters upstairs. Miss Ida’s aunt’s cooking was so good that other judges and lawyers and townsfolk got wind of it. Her business boomed, and she taught her niece everything she knew. And she made enough money to buy that building.

Jojo had first gone to the luncheonette with his father when he was six or seven, and he not only loved the food—he was excited by the energy of the whole neighborhood. Cops, deputies, lawyers, judges…Chatot was a small town, but it was the parish seat. Anybody who was anybody with any business had to come through. You could catch bits of barbershop gossip, crime gossip, and just plain gossip on The Back Court.

Some of Jojo’s more sports-minded friends thought he was a little crazy to like watching cop shows and to find excuses to hang around a place like this, listening. His cousin Calvin was the only person he’d confided in as to why: These were the people who changed lives, for good or bad. Maybe, just maybe, Jojo would become one of them. Maybe he could be a lawyer himself, one day. And straight-arrow Cal hadn’t laughed or called Jojo out. He’d just looked thoughtful and said, “Go ’head on, then, Cuz!”

Jojo hit The Back Court at about eight-thirty. He had made good time. Things were pretty quiet as he looked up the slope from the luncheonette toward the marble-columns of the courthouse several blocks away. Probably most people were inside, getting ready for early court appearances. Yes, Jojo sometimes read the small print pages in the back of the Chatot Times that listed such things.

The luncheonette was hot and sticky inside, but the scent of cinnamon and fried dough overrode Jojo’s discomfort. He ordered two and a paper cup of their bad coffee, leaning on the counter.

The counter stools were empty, as were all the booths except one. There was a sandy-haired crew cut in a faded business suit hunched over the table, talking in low tones to a round-shouldered black guy with a shining bald head. Jojo could see sweat glistening at the back of the guy’s neck. He wondered for a second what that was about, but then felt like it was out of order for him to even look. He hoped they were at the beginning of something and not the end, because the vibe coming from them wasn’t good.

“Two-fifty.” The waitress rang up the sale and slapped Jojo’s two quarters into his palm as she handed over the grease-spotted brown bag.

“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. Jojo grabbed his bag, smiled, and hustled out.

In those few minutes something had changed. There was a commotion in the direction of the courthouse. Sirens began to wail. Jojo turned away from the sounds and headed through Parlorville, a white section of town where the big old houses set back from the street always seemed to be staring. When he was a kid and they drove by, he could’ve sworn that there was a face in every window actually staring out. But nobody else in the car ever seemed to see what he saw.

Years before that, his father said, Chatot black folk risked getting shot if they lingered too long on the sidewalk. But this was 1986, and most of that stupid stuff was over now, with people—especially kids—coming and going as they pleased. The neighborhoods were still mostly separate, but a few years ago the town had built a cool new high school right on the border straddling Parlorville and South Lake, the black community where Jojo and his family lived.

Jojo finished off his donut and crumpled the bag, looking for somewhere to toss it. Parlorville’s corners had neat wire trash baskets that never overflowed. He checked his watch. Damn, almost nine! He had to speed up to make English, because there wasn’t enough charm in the universe to get out of trouble with that teacher.

He sprinted toward the trash basket and couldn’t help doing a spin and slam of his bag and cup. Was it his imagination, or had the sirens gotten louder? Jojo’s right sneaker caught on the basket, and he tripped.
The sirens were right upon him. They were deafening.

“Police Badge” © CPOA http://www.flickr.com

“Hey, you! Freeze!” Jojo looked over his shoulder to see one marked car skidding to a halt at a wild angle near the curb. A second one shuddered to a stop right behind it.

Jojo was pushing himself up.

“Didn’t I say freeze, boy? You can’t hear me?” The cop getting out of the first car had unsnapped his holster. His hand was on his weapon.

Really? A gun? Jojo’s brain was wisecracking but he wasn’t sure if his legs would actually hold him up anyway.

“Officer, what—”

“Shut up! Spread eagle, right now!” The cop kicked Jojo onto his side. His face scraped against something sharp on the concrete as he stretched out his arms and legs. He was trembling from the inside out.

“What you doing this side of town?”

The second cop, who Jojo could not see, sounded more amused than serious. “You up to no good? Huh?”

“I—I—”Jojo’s mouth went dry.

“Huh? Answer me, boy!” the first cop yelled.

“I’m just on my way to the high school!”

“You mighty late, aren’t you?”

“Yessir!” Jojo cursed his donuts, and his mind began to function again. What were they after? Why hadn’t they just asked him whatever it was they wanted?

The radio crackled from one of the cars. Cutting his eyes hard to one side, Jojo saw a woman’s orthopedic lace-up shoes and pale ankles. A yappy dog began to bark, and its four furry legs came into view. A female drawled from the radio.

“One-nine? One-nine, theft suspect from the courthouse apprehended on Degan Avenue. Repeat, suspect in custody.”

Degan. A street across town. Jojo rolled his eyes at the crazy of it all.

“What’s your name, boy?” the first cop asked.

“Officer, can I get up?” Jojo spoke into the sidewalk.

“Oh, let him up, Phil,” the other cop said.

Jojo eased to sitting. Everything felt surreal. He blinked dizzily, his cheek burning. Something wet was on his face. The little round woman let out a kind of squeaky noise and Jojo looked at her. He should have known by her shoes, he told himself. Mrs. Russo, retired middle school history teacher. Jojo rubbed his face and looked at his bloody fingers.

“Jerry Williams!” she said. “I declare!”

Jojo wanted to say so many things. In his head though, he kept hearing his grandmother talking about “cracker policemen,” and his father talking about respect: “Give it, expect to get it back.” He decided to smile at Mrs. Russo as he unfolded his body from the ground.

She had turned to the first cop. “Phillip Gooden, I demand to know what is going on here!”

Officer Phillip Gooden went red in the face, and the other cop had quietly backed away to his vehicle. “Well, Mrs. Russo—we got a call about a black boy who—”

“Phillip Gooden, does Jerry look like a criminal? I’d say less than you did, when you were his age. Is a criminal carrying a book sack and eating donuts?”

Jojo raised his eyebrows in surprise. Mrs. Russo nodded calmly in his direction, then continued to school her other former student.

“I was witness to everything from my living room window, right over there.” She pointed to one of the wide-porched old houses that Jojo had passed by for years, then looked at Jojo. “And I called Melba.”

Jojo had forgotten that Mrs. Russo and his mother had served together on some kind of teacher panel once. His shoulders slumped. He hadn’t even begun to figure out how he was going to serve this story to his parents. One less thing to worry about now.

“Jerry, who should have been at the high school in his first period class—” she paused to give Jojo a hard look— “was sauntering along, minding his donut, when you two created all this noise.”

“Mrs. Russo, we were just following up a lead…”

Jojo found his voice again. “Could I ask what the thief dude looked like?”

Gooden shrugged. “Black kid. Skinny. Real dark, wooly head, ripped jeans—” he stopped short.

Jojo glanced down at his knee length red shorts and cocoa brown legs. He purposefully ran his hand over his close cut, impeccably lined fade. “So you mean he didn’t look anything like me. We’re just both black.”

Officer Gooden shifted on his feet. “Look, kid—”

“Oh, now I’m kid? Not ‘boy?’” The respect thing had gone completely out  of Jojo’s consciousness.

Mrs. Russo put a hand on Jojo’s arm. “Jerry,” she said.

Jojo watched a confused frown pass over the policeman’s face, as if the Jojo he was seeing in that moment was not the same Jojo he’d forced to the sidewalk, and neither of them was the skinny black boy who’d stolen something from somewhere around the courthouse this morning.

“Mistaken identity,” Officer Gooden murmured.

Just then a dark blue Ford truck pulled up behind the police cars. Jojo’s father, all six-foot-four, two hundred twenty pounds of him, got out. He moved smooth as always. His crisp gray uniform and polished-as-hell black boots were strangely similar to the policemen’s uniforms, and he surely walked with the same authority. Jojo wondered what electrical wiring job he’d had to leave in progress to get there.

Gooden pushed at the brim of his hat. “Is that Clyde Williams?” He did a double take at Jojo. “This is your son?”

“Phil, what’s up?” Jojo’s father slid his sunglasses off and reached to shake the police officer’s hand.

“Misunderstanding,” Gooden said. He glanced at Jojo. “Looks like we both went in kinda the wrong direction today.”

Jojo was trying to figure out if a whole tone change was really happening, or if he was imagining it.

“Um hmm.” Clyde tilted Jojo’s chin with one of his big hands. “You okay?” He didn’t say anything about school.

Jojo nodded. “I’m sorry, Pops.”

“Yes, well you need to go get that cut looked at. Everything straight here, Phil?”

“Yeah, we’re straight.” Officer Gooden flipped his notebook closed. Mrs. Russo and her little dog had strolled away. Jojo followed his father to the truck. He didn’t ask how Gooden and his father knew each other, or from where.

“You know this could have gone sideways in a hot minute,” Clyde said.

“I know.” Jojo’s cheek had begun to throb. He leaned back on the seat, drained as if he’d played three quarters straight on the basketball court. His face hurt.

Could that cop really not see any difference between him and the other kid? Lots of black people Jojo knew, including his grandmother, would say “No, and you know why.”

But what if it wasn’t only that Gooden didn’t see any difference between two black boys? What if he didn’t care? Why would he ever choose to be a cop, then? Jojo began to wonder how much stuff happened because no adults, black or white, really understood what they were doing or why they were doing it. He didn’t want to turn into that kind of adult.

“Pops…”

“What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” Jojo mumbled. His entire head began to hurt.

They rode in silence to the doctor’s office.

The next day, everybody at school thought Jojo’s three stitches made him look like a wanna-be rapper—or a pirate. His mother and father agreed that he could say that it happened while he was practicing shots in the backyard, one awkward move.

Jojo repeated the story over and over during the final two weeks. He was glad that he’d blown off the junior prom and even more relieved that he wasn’t exactly hooked up with a girl, or his lie wouldn’t have flown.  

Only Cal had matter-of-factly reminded him that when they’d left his yard the afternoon before the cop thing, his face was in one piece. Jojo finally spilled the whole story.

“A gun, over a donut? That’s way too intense, man!” Cal shook his head.

“And he didn’t even have to fire it to seriously mess me up. He couldn’t even see me till Pops rolled up. It was like, you gotta be somebody to be somebody…” Jojo’s voice trailed off.

Cal was quiet for a minute. “Could’ve messed your whole life up.”

Jojo didn’t say anything. Until then he’d never considered that in real life if you didn’t have a name or identity, you were a nobody. You had no power. You didn’t exist. And to some people, maybe you never did.

 


 

Donuts to gun to face down.  

Jojo was replaying the sidewalk scene in his head for maybe the hundredth time on the first morning of his summer job as he rode his bike up Chatot’s main street, Magnolia Boulevard.

His heart sped up as he relived his own anger over the cop’s confusion when he had to admit that Jojo wasn’t simply a random black person after all.

He pedaled harder up the incline as Magnolia branched off, and he was on the old highway north of town, heading for Benson’s Lumber Company. Ages ago there had been only a few houses, farm stands and fields, but now along with Benson’s there were a couple of businesses, a drive-up barbecue joint, and the very sketchy “Miss Livvy’s Hair and Nail Salon.”

He was distracted from the seriousness of his memory by the neon sign of Miss Livvy’s, which was always blinking and missing the “H.” The gossip in Miss Ida’s was that Miss Livvy wasn’t quite advertising all of her services in that sign. Whatever she did in there, she didn’t spend much money on upkeep. The wigs on stands in the big picture window looked tired, and the gravel parking lot had disintegrated into sand that blew every which way whenever a car pulled in.

Jojo was huffing a little bit now. He slowed as he neared Miss Livvy’s. The grass behind and beside the parking lot looked like it hadn’t been cut in weeks. And what was that, thrown just out of sight at the back corner of the peeling cinderblock wall? He sucked his teeth at the idea that somebody would come all the way out here to dump trash.

He squeezed his handbrakes and stopped. Very slowly, Jojo pedaled in a wide curve until he was about ten or twelve yards from the building.

It looked like…it was… a person. A brown, naked woman was lying on her stomach in the grass, and she was not moving. Was she asleep just like that? Jojo stared for only a few seconds at her hair. It seemed matted and dusty like those wigs in the window.

She was dead.

He looked away. A sour taste, his breakfast grits turned nasty, rose up in his throat. He gagged and turned his bike unsteadily, wheels crunching in the sandy gravel as he picked up speed toward Benson’s. He zoomed into the loading gates, threw his bike down and ran inside looking for his uncle, Calvin’s father.

“Uncle Cal! Uncle Cal!”

A handful of white yard workers, including the Benson sons, were clustered around the coffee counter near the office, breaking their conversation only long enough to thumb Jojo toward the cutting area where his uncle was already measuring hardwood planks before cutting them to size for an order. He took one look at Jojo over the top of his square black glasses and stood straight up.

“I–I need to use the phone, Uncle Cal!” Jojo gasped. Glancing back at the coffee group, Jojo lowered his voice. “I know it’s my first day and everything, but I saw something and I have to call the police. Please. Where’s the telephone?”

“Venice, CA” © Magnus Wrenninge http://www.flickr.com

His uncle stared at him hard. “First you go clock in like I showed you. Then go to the office and tell Caroline you got an emergency.” He paused. “Just what did you see?”

Jojo swallowed. “A woman’s body, over there behind Livvy’s. Somebody killed her, Uncle Cal.”

“Whoah, now. Wait a minute.” Uncle Cal looked over Jojo’s shoulder as he dug in his pocket and fished out some change. “Don’t you say that to the police. You don’t know. You just tell them what you saw. Hear me?” He handed Jojo the coins. “And you go use the pay phone over by the lavatories.”

Jojo nodded. “Yessir.” He hurried to do what his uncle said. He’d never called the police before. The receiver slipped in his sweaty hand as he wondered whether to dial “911” or “0” for an operator. He decided on 911. Mistake.

“What’s your emergency?” A brisk voice asked.

“A girl… a woman…there’s somebody laying out behind Livvy’s, and she’s not moving. I think something’s wrong,” he blurted.

“Is that Livvy’s out on Old Highway Six?”

“Yes.”

“You say she’s not moving? She sleeping?”

“No! No. I—I think she’s dead.”

“Dead. Who is this speaking, please?” The voice was more interested. “And where are you calling from?”

“Um. My name’s Jojo…I mean, Jerry James Williams. I’m at Benson’s Lumberyard. I was on my way to work.”

“How old are you, Jerry James?”

“Sixteen. Listen, I—”

“And you say the person is dead. Do you know—”

Jojo cut her off. “I don’t know anything. Could you just send somebody? Please?”

“We’ll send somebody out. You meet them at the scene.” Click.

Jojo left the receiver dangling by its cord and walked in slow motion past the office, past the guys who were now staring at him, past Uncle Cal. He picked his bike up and got on without brushing the sawdust off.  

Sirens.

Three cars pulled up this time, and to Jojo’s dismay one of them was driven by Officer Phillip Gooden.

Donuts. Gun.

“Well, look who it is.” Gooden said it like he and Jojo were best friends, or at least knew each other.

That was when Jojo felt a spark of hope that he was wrong about what he’d seen, that he’d made a stupid guess—but the spark was brief. He knew in his heart that he was right—the girl was not alive. He felt in his heart that something bad had happened to her.

“What have you gotten into now—” Gooden pulled out his notepad, but Jojo’s eyes followed his hand to make sure it wasn’t going toward his weapon— “Jerry?” Gooden smirked.

“Say you found a body?” A younger cop asked, sounding much more official than Gooden. “What time did you ride by here?”

Jojo ignored Gooden. “Around eight. I have to clock in at Benson’s by 8:30.”

“Okay, Jerry. Show us,” Gooden demanded. He moved to the front of the group alongside Jojo with the others following. And why couldn’t at least one of the handful of Chatot’s black cops be in the mix?

“What made you even notice anything?” The young cop asked, catching up with Jojo.

“I took the hill real fast, and I got winded so I slowed down. I was thinking how high the grass is, and then I thought somebody had dumped some trash…”

“Probably some of Livvy’s trash,” one of them mumbled.

Jojo jerked in his direction, because it sounded like he was making some kind of joke. His expression didn’t seem to deny that, but no one else took the bait.

“She’s right over there.” Jojo led them around the building. He hung back so he didn’t have to see again.

Gooden knelt.

“Black female. Definitely gone. Bobby, get the coroner up here. Looks…looks pretty young.” He didn’t touch her, and he quickly turned away and stood up.

She was still face down.

Jojo sucked in a breath. What was her name? Where had she come from? What was she doing here at Livvy’s? Why wasn’t she wearing clothes? Who did that to her?

Gooden gave Jojo a dismissive nod and headed toward his car.

“Wait!” Jojo called after him. “Don’t you need to search the area? Shouldn’t you wait for Livvy, or call her and ask her some questions or something? You didn’t even look to see—”

Gooden spun on his heel. “You a bona fide police officer now, Jerry?” All the other officers stopped as if they sensed Gooden’s tension. His face was as red as it had been in front of Mrs. Russo, and it hit Jojo that this time he didn’t have a Mrs. Russo.

“She ain’t nothing but a prostitute, Jerry, and this ain’t one of those cop shows on TV,” Gooden snarled. He adjusted his belt and holster to help make his point.

Jojo clenched his jaw, shaking his head. He tried to roll it back, tried to be calm. But the girl lying there didn’t have Mrs. Russo, either. Or Pops. All she had was Jerry James Williams.

“So, you mean just ‘cause she’s a nobody to you, you don’t care about finding out the truth of things? Is that it?” His voice rose in fury. “She’s somebody’s daughter or sister, Officer Gooden!”

Again, Jojo saw a flash or a flicker of some emotion other than anger pass over Gooden’s eyes. Then it was gone, and the man waved the other officers to their cars. He gave Jojo a head-to-toe pass that maybe was supposed to be intimidating. Jojo returned the same. Behind Gooden, he saw the young officer taking something out of the trunk of his patrol car.

“Uh, Boss—I’ll secure the area till the coroner gets here,” he said.

Gooden slammed into his car and led the retreat. There were no sirens.

Jojo thought his head and heart might explode. This dead girl was just another prostitute to Gooden. He’d been just another black kid. How could men like his father and Uncle Cal walk in the world every day never knowing the moment a white man would, could, reduce them or their sons or wives or daughters to nothing? To just bodies? To nobodies.

How could a man like Gooden live with himself?

“michael” © David Robert Bilwas http://www.flickr.com

Jojo was trembling again as he went to his bike. He waited to see the police cars disappear down the other side of the hill, though he knew that he had to go back to the job. Then he turned back to see the young cop carefully covering the girl with a gray tarp.

That’s when Jojo knew all the way through his bones that whatever it took, one day he would become a cop. He would be the man who stayed, who asked the questions. He would choose to do right by people, and he would know why: because the truth of things mattered. Because the truth was that everybody—dead or alive, black or brown or white—should count as a somebody.

 


Denise Lewis Patrick grew up in the South but now lives in the Northeast. She has written over 30 books for humans of all ages. Her work includes picture books, biographies and historical fiction, as well as poetry and short stories. Her YA story collection, “A Matter of Souls” (2014), is published by Carolrhoda Lab. When she’s not creating with words, she’s creating with visual art.

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