This story is by Lonnie Miller and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“They don’t make them like they used to,” Philip O’Conner said garnering a peevish harrumph from his father. It was a phrase his father, Dale, had coined often and with enough conviction to create the distinct impression he felt the world was one generation utter ruination. Though in this particular instance, it was a well-timed jibe clearly indicative of the improvement in communication methods offered by a smartphone. Philip had called his wife, Lynne, and let her know that they’d had an uneventful drive up to Flint, Michigan. “Did you want to call mom or do you want me to stop so you can get the carrier pigeon out of your suitcase?”
“Get off the interstate here,” Dale said, ignoring his son’s antics. “I’m hungry.”
“Two exits down there’s an Applebee’s,” Philip offered.
“Get off here,” Dale demanded, jabbing a thick finger in the direction of the off ramp. “The problem with you kids these days, is you stick to your chain stores, chain restaurants; you chain yourselves up and never get an appreciation for the local flavors.”
Philip obediently rolled off the interstate and pulled up to the stop light at the cross street. His father gestured to the right. There was nothing of any flavor in sight and he kept driving allowing his father to lead them further away from the interstate with no discernable direction in mind. He finally decided to break the silence.
“If it’s any consolation; it appears that we, kids, have reduced the number of chain smokers. So that’s something.” It took a few moments, but finally a deep resonating chuckle emanated from the passenger seat.
The residential area they were driving through appeared to have been bleached and desiccated by the sun. The residents had decided, in keeping with the ambiance, to use rusted bicycle parts and bed frames as lawn ornaments. They didn’t see anyone around besides a toothless old black man sitting in a rocker on his sagging front porch.
Philip stopped near the curb and rolled his window down. The old man got a curious expression, but kept the chair moving. “Can you tell us where the nearest restaurant is?” Philip called loudly, in case the old man was hard of hearing.
The old man smacked his gums. “Take a right. It’s about three blocks on down on the left.” It sounded as close an approximation as you can get without teeth.
A line of decrepit rust colored brick apartment buildings ran along the street he’d indicated and Philip couldn’t imagine that a few blocks away there’d be a quality eatery, but his father nodded and he acquiesced. “Thank you, sir,” Philip called as he put the car back in gear. Respect had been one of the traits his father had successfully instilled and it came second nature.
Bracing his arm in the widow frame, Philip drove. Dale started to tell a story about retiring from the Ford Motor Company down in Detroit and how the effects of the automotive downturn were felt even here in Flint. Philip was making the turn, listening and watching the animated expression on his father’s face, when suddenly his father’s jaw dropped.
Philip’s Ford Focus stopped three feet behind a Toyota Corolla. The stopped Corolla wasn’t what had made his father’s jaw drop. It was the sixty or so people of color in the street. There were twenty or more signs that said, ‘Black Lives Matter’, as if they felt the world had forgotten.
A half a dozen young men were busy rocking the Corolla side to side making the suspension squeak under the strain. The driver wore a turban on his head and held his arms out side to side for support. It was an inopportune time for anyone to have made the turn onto the street, especially so if you weren’t blessed to have been born with black skin. Dale, a stocky light skinned redhead, had never had a problem with anyone. Their dinner table had served a variety of people over the years who were invited because of their character, not the color of their skin or economic circumstance.
“Your window is still open,” Dale said softly.
Philip looked past his forearm still braced in the window and nodded. He thought about the travelling cash in his wallet, the gold wedding band and his Citizen watch, a gift from his wife Lynne. They would not be parted with easily. If someone asked for help he would follow the example his father had always set, and give according to the need and his ability at the time, but getting mugged was not something he’d ever willingly let happen. He looked over at his father with an ornery gleam in his eye and said, “I won’t give them the satisfaction.”
The people began to notice the two white guys in the Ford Focus and stared at them with a peculiar wariness. They didn’t know what kind of crazy you had to be to not be throwing your car in reverse and getting out of there posthaste. A few guys wandered back around the sides of the car, but stayed out of arms reach of Philip who had released his seatbelt and was staring right back at them with the expression of an impartial observer. The lack of fear was disconcerting in that it made them wonder if they were missing something about the odds of the situation.
The six young guys stopped rocking the Corolla and opened the passenger side door. Two bodies dove into the front seat. One going in a fluid motion over the lap of the startled Sikh and out the driver’s side door; the other stopping to riffle through the glove box. Theo Mack, a twenty something with a physique that was clearly the result of sculpting in a weight room and not earned by physical labor, grabbed the Sikh by the scruff of his neck and dragged him from the car onto the sidewalk. They were in the process of unwrapping the turban when everyone on the street froze at the blast of a, “Hey!” bellowed with vehement indignation and indisputable authority.
Philip was standing outside his car with a burn in his vocal chords from the shout. As he started forward he knew physiologically his body would be working against him, supplying the large muscle groups with the blood it was in the process of routing away from his brain. “You are here purporting that black lives matter, right?”
“We are telling you black lives matter, but you crackers aren’t listening,” Theo said. He had let go of the Sikh when Philip started forward. Some of the others started forming up behind Philip once he got past the front of his car.
“What has this man done against any of you?” Philip asked still purposefully striding towards the downed man and subsequently the muscle bound Theo.
“This raghead came here to take our jobs,” Theo said derisively.
Looking to the Sikh on the ground Philip asked, “Sir, what do you do for a living?”
The Sikh didn’t get up, but in a hesitant voice said, “I’m an auditor… for the IRS.”
“An auditor,” Philip said loud enough for everyone to hear. “Does anyone here want to sift through musty filing cabinets with people hating your guts, while you figure out if they cheated on their taxes?”
There were no takers. Philip stepped around Theo and helped the Sikh back into his car. “No one wants your job. Best get a move on.”
Philip looked from the mass of people still loitering in the street to Theo, who finally gave a shrug. The path opened for the Corolla to slowly make its getaway. The crowd closed in behind as it went, reminding Philip that he was now out in the open, with a group of people who weren’t opposed to using violence. He’d inherited his father’s solid frame and work had built his muscles into strong chords, but also like his father, he was a diplomat at heart.
The ‘whoop-whup’ of a police siren at the far end of the crowd set everyone scattering for the apartment buildings.
Theo was about to leave when Philip said, “A raghead is an inappropriate derogatory term usually reserved for Arabs, that man was Sikh.”
“Whatever,” Theo said as he ran off.
Philip slid behind the wheel of his car and looked over at his father whose expression was stolid and unreadable. “Still want to get that local flavor?”
Dale nodded, leaving Philip to wonder if anything could make his father change his ways. He waved at the police officers in the black GMC Suburban that had made a timely appearance as he rolled down toward the diner.
Dale turned to his son with something akin to pride in his eyes. He gave Philip a good natured slug in the shoulder and said, “There are still a few things they make like they used to.”