by t.d. johnston
The black manila envelope with stark white letters popping from the gloss leaned casually against the lazy susan, as if it had all day. And it did. The officers outside arrived less than fifteen minutes after the certified mail, for which Jeremiah refused to sign before it was signed for him with a shrug by the delivering deputy.
“What about the back door?”
The hope in his wife’s voice made it worse.
“You know they’re back there, Elizabeth.”
“Do they want Terrance too?” Dread and hope, ten seconds apart.
“He’s fifteen. Can’t be conscripted for another year.”
Jeremiah rose and placed another blueberry coffee in the Keurig. Putting his old Black Lives Matter mug under the dispenser, he pushed the button for the largest cup size, grabbed the spoon and three Splenda packets from the counter, and returned to the breakfast nook.
“It was just a matter of time, Elizabeth. I’ve had a good life.”
Elizabeth slapped her right palm on the round oak table. “You’re forty-one, baby. Stop talking like that. It took two years to get the envelope. Most of the conscripted are in their teens and twenties. Some in their thirties. What do they need you for?”
“Elizabeth, you got to understand. They’re running low on the most productive brothers. They were gonna start with over-forties soon enough. I talk like this because it’s inevitable. But now that it’s happened, I need you to take Terrance and Jolene and get to Canada. That’s what Cadence did with their kids when Robert was conscripted. Remember?”
“How do you know they made it? We haven’t had cell phones or computers for so long, and when they stopped mail delivery to brown folks’ homes we shoulda known. If you leave the country, you really leave the country. No saying hi to nobody.” She paused. “Open the envelope. Maybe it’ll say where you’re going.”
“Labor conscription doesn’t work that way, baby. It’s not like you can come visit.”
“How long do they wait before they come in to get you?”
“I don’t know.” Jeremiah returned to the Keurig and retrieved his mug. Sitting back down, he tore the Splenda packets after giving their bottoms three taps, then poured and stirred. The clank of the spoon echoed throughout the kitchen.
“I’m going to get Terrance up,” Elizabeth said. “Jolene too.”
Jeremiah held up his left palm, as if to stop traffic as he sipped his coffee. Setting the mug on the table, he whispered, “I don’t want them to remember watching their daddy go off to be a slave.”
His wife brought her palms to her face, tears welling. Immediately Jeremiah regretted his choice of words.
“I know, Elizabeth. I’ll get paid. A buck above minimum wage. Those old white men think of everything. No Thirteenth Amendment as long as you get a W-2. It’s just the labor draft. Best for the economy and all that. I’m just unlucky to be brown is all. So’s Jose Ramirez over on Autumn Grace. He got the envelope on Tuesday, so’s I hear. Tom Jansen told me when we were both putting out the trash. Bastard had a big old smile on his face. Motherf—”
“I’m being quiet. Glad you agree about letting the kids sleep.”
Jeremiah examined his mug. “I hear they call them dormitories.”
“What? Where you’ll live?”
“Yeah. But I think it’s those tent cities they built for immigrant kids back in the orange man’s presidency. This is what they had in mind.”
“How long before they get tired of waiting? Do they use warrants?”
“For labor conscription the envelope is the warrant.”
“I think you should open it. All you know is what you’ve heard. Maybe it’s, like, a year or something. Like… a deployment.”
Jeremiah looked at his wife. “Yeah. When was the last time you saw Royce Phillips?”
Elizabeth stared past Jeremiah. “About—a year and a half ago.”
Silence rang in Jeremiah’s ears. When his wife spoke, she whispered.
“They don’t take mothers.”
“How do you know that? The Phillips kids weren’t all out of the nest when Royce got the envelope.”
“The girl was sixteen.”
A chill shimmied along Jeremiah’s arms. “You know what that means, Elizabeth. Tamera was conscripted for the seamstress shops in New Mexico. And the girl—”
“You can’t say it, can you? But you know it’s coming. The pleasure hotels. That’s where the Phillips girl is.”
“But Jolene’s only thirteen. Maybe—”
“Elizabeth. There’s no maybe. The minute she turns sixteen, our baby girl’s legal to be drafted for the pleasure industry. That’s when you’ll get the envelope to go to New Mexico. You’ll all three get the envelope. Terrance first, in less than a year. Stop acting like it’s just the fathers. That’s dreaming, baby. Canada. You can’t just wait.”
Jeremiah stood and adjusted his belt to match the slight paunch in his middle. He started to extend his right hand to his wife’s cheek, but stopped when a tear beat him to her supple brown skin.
“I got something I need to do,” he said.
Jeremiah crossed from the kitchen to the open living room, then turned left when he reached the cased opening that led directly into the den. He pulled the left side of his desk away from the wall. Lifting the mauve carpet hard enough to pull the tacks from the plywood underflooring, he opened the small hinged door he’d installed when the news came that the Supreme Court had upheld the president’s executive order to withhold Second Amendment protections for all minorities of color. He withdrew the Walther PPX revolver from its two-year residence beneath his desk. He stroked the barrel three times, then set it down on his desk and lift-thumped the cherry piece back into place.
Picking up the gun, he advanced to the den window, which faced the tree line on the west side of the house. He pulled the embroidered curtain back just enough to peer out. Sure enough, there were two men posted there, weapons drawn to the ready. There would be no escape in any direction, even with the Walther. He retreated from the window and sank into his high-backed black leather swivel chair.
Closing his eyes, Jeremiah remembered the time he first saw the old black-and-white debate in London between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. He’d listened to Baldwin with a mix of horror and relief; horror at the centuries of black suffering in America, relief that most of it was behind him, behind his children. The quaintness of such relief was now impossibly distant, a speck of memory, like trying to remember what cotton candy tasted like when he was six. The journey of the black person in America was circular, in a Lovecraftian kind of way. His mother had always told him he was living in the second half of a V. “The low part, Jeremiah, but it’s moving up and there ain’t no gravity that’s going to stop it,” she’d loved to say. But sitting here now, he knew he’d always lived in a circle with no exit, except for the one now resting in his right hand.
He knew he could survive slavery. His ancestors had. Of course, they’d had no choice. It was legal. So was the labor draft. And now here he was, living in the downward curve of the white circle, the light above diminishing with the growing distance as he realized that for him, and for his wife and children, the circle would not travel its upward curve. It would not produce its Lincoln. Today the circle would become the last line in an M.
“And then comes the period,” he whispered, rising to climb the stairs to visit his sleeping children for the very last time.
T.D. Johnston won the 2017 International Book Award for Best Short Fiction for ‘Friday Afternoon and Other Stories’. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. His second collection, ‘Weeding for Eisenhower and Other Stories’, is due out in June. He lives with his family in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit his website at www.tdjohnston.com.
“Ava looks away, feeling herself flush. She hates the smell of smoke, but she’s also seen this scenario unfold way too many times before on the green line. The hulking, sullen transit cops who would squelch onto the train car right before the doors would close, yelling at passengers to have tickets out. ”