Past and Present

There are times when an ordinary errand can lead to a unique experience. Take, for example, my last trip to the office-supply store to buy legal pads. I use them to scribble on and on about my discontents, which, over the years, I’ve collected like butterflies. I had hoped they would bring me fame, fortune, or at least a decent living. But all that has been slow to appear—a fact neither here nor there. I wanted to describe my visit to the store and the adventure that followed.

As I stood at the counter with a half-dozen yellow legal pads resting on my palms, a woman of my generation walked by and dropped some composition books into a shopping cart. The cart already contained a few reams of paper, packages of ball-point pens and pencils, and some file folders. Nothing unusual about that—but the woman herself caught my attention. She was someone I had known years ago, when I lived up in the cold country and made my living in research science.

She noticed me, and her blue eyes grew wide. Her hair, once blond, was now gray, yet her walk was youthful and so was her figure, which she modestly displayed in a plain cotton dress.

I spoke her name. “Susan Westwood.”

“Jeremy Wilson,” she replied. “How about that—you here in Brightown, North Carolina.”

“Been here for ages.”

“So have I.”

“You must be a teacher,” I said, pointing to her cart.

“Actually, I’m home-schooling my grandchildren.”

“Fine idea—are you still in nursing?”

“I was head nurse at Bright County General Hospital. I’m retired now.”

We talked about old friends as the cashier totaled her bill, and we left the store together. I helped put her packages in her car and said good-bye a bit awkwardly, thinking some social initiative might be in order. But I was used to being alone and reluctant to alter my sacred routine.

A few days later, I was home and at my desk when Susan called. She asked me to drop by her place sometime soon—if possible, in the early afternoon. I said I would be there, and that was pretty much the conversation, though she did sound troubled. When I arrived at her home—a big wooden box of a house, with dormers, in a middle-class subdivision—she introduced me to her grandchildren. There were two boys and a girl, all healthy and properly dressed. I waited in the living room, while Susan sat with them in the den. One of them was reading aloud—something familiar. It was from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Other such readings included passages from the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeare’s Henry V. I spoke with Susan while the children worked on their mathematics lesson.

“They’re reading at a remarkable level,” I said, as we sat on the couch.

“Kids will learn if they’re taught. Next year, we’ll start on algebra and Aristotle.”

“Are you a polymath?”

“No, no—I’ve got together with several families. We research things, and, among us, choose the subjects.”

“Have you been schooling them long?”

“I started with the oldest five years ago. But let me tell you why I called and why the children are here. About six years ago, their father had a fling with the babysitter. My daughter Jennifer took the children and left him.”

“This modern world,” I said.

Susan gazed at me for a moment. I noticed she had put on lipstick and powdered her nose—for me?

“Whatever it was—my daughter—maybe as a kind of revenge—took up with a black rapper.”

“A rapper?—one of those churls who prance about and utter the worst obscenities imaginable?”

“Yes—I think you’ve described him. Anyway, she left the children with me and went to Houston—for a brief stay, she said. That was six years ago.”

“She deserted the children.”

“Yes—and she became a prostitute—a common whore. That rapper was her—uh, agent, I’d guess you’d call him.”

“How did you learn this?”

“I spoke to the police—here and in Houston. I even hired a private detective.”

“Where was her father?”

“He was gone before all this. I must tell you about my late husband—Jenny’s father. Perhaps you’ve heard about him. He was a doctor—a physician. He went to Africa on an errand of mercy and was beheaded and partly eaten by some obscure tribesmen. The news people played down the cannibalism. But it did exist and probably still does.”

Ah—for the peace of my humble home. This was all too complicated for an aging anchorite. What was I doing here?

“Why tell me about all this?” I asked, perhaps too pointedly.

“The rapper’s in town. I saw him a few days ago. If Jenny’s with him, she may want the children. I certainly don’t want to surrender them. I thought your being here might keep them away.”

“There are people who earn a living as bodyguards. I don’t even own a firearm.”

“Maybe I just need moral support—somebody on my side. And yes, a witness if I need one. After all, we were friends and—”

Yes, we were friends—and lovers. But I wasn’t the sturdy lad that I was in my romancing days. Still, those children were living in the best of worlds, gaining the wisdom of the ages, their minds challenged every day.

“All right,” I said. “Whenever you feel you need me here, I’ll be here.”

“Thank you,” she said—simply, gratefully, almost in tears.

Of course, keeping my promise meant sleeping in the daytime and spending lots of time away from home. But I was there when Susan felt vulnerable, though I was still bewildered by the entire situation. How could Jenny Westwood, or any woman of reasonable intelligence, fall in with the black street culture, where drugs, pimping, and whoring were all part of the accepted lifestyle. Once Jenny took up with that rapper, her fate was inevitable.

I had already perceived what a one-way street this “peace, co-exist, love-one-another” racket was. The true beneficiaries were the cynics, the race pimps, and the evildoers. Any number of white women had been seduced into the street culture, suppressing their innate aversions in the name “political correctness.” It was in such a distorted spirit, that Jenny became a whore and her mother didn’t immediately condemn her relationship. And that rapper?—he gained a white trophy to parade in the street and rent out at the best prices.

Anyway, as a deterrent, I had only limited success. Late one evening, as I sat in Susan’s living room, I was startled by an aggressive knock on the front door. Susan looked out between the drapes.

“It’s them,” she said.

“Shall I answer the door?” I asked.

“No—you sit still. I’ll answer.”

Although Susan hadn’t seen her daughter in six years, neither she nor her daughter found pleasure in the reunion. Jenny and her rapper associate wanted to come in, but Susan announced that their entry was out of the question. The rapper, speaking in low tones that seemed menacing, said he and Jenny planned to be married and wanted the children. At that point, I quietly called the law and then moved to the doorway and stood beside Susan.

“Who might you be?” the rapper asked.

“Friend of the family,” I replied.

The rapper—his name, I later discovered, was Jacquan Edge—stood perhaps six-three and was wide across the shoulders. His head was shaved and unusually round, giving him the aspect of an angry man-in-the-black-moon. He wore baggy black pants with cuffs extending beneath the heels of his laceless basketball shoes. His polo shirt looked three sizes too big. Jenny was still pretty, though made less so by the dark areas in her face. Her blond hair was streaked with red dye, and her slacks and pullover were skin tight, as tight as her consort’s were loose. Standing side by side, they looked like a waving flag—the national flag of contemporary vulgarity.

“Mother,” Jenny said, “I want to see my children.”

“No—they’re asleep now. And I don’t trust you—or your friend here. You deserted your children.”

“Like I say,” the rapper said, “we’re gonna get married. We want the kids with us.”

Susan laughed. “You’re neither one a fit parent. Why do you want them now? To give you the appearance of respectability?”

“Maybe we’ll take them,” the rapper said.

As he clenched his fist, I noticed three diamond rings on his fingers. Jenny touched his arm to get his attention. She shook her head.

“Mother—I can get legal custody.”

“Why?—to shield you in your profession? To send them to some dump of a public school?—in some dump of a neighborhood?”

“We don’t live in a dump. We have a nice house in a good neighborhood.”

“You’re not the only whore who lives in a nice house. Will you entertain your clients while your children are there?”

Jenny didn’t reply. She was downcast, but shed no tears. The rapper glared at Susan, then at me.

“What exactly are you doing here?” he snarled.

“Guarding the door,” I said.

The rapper laughed. “You’re a hero, huh?”

At that moment, a black-and-white Crown Vic arrived. The policeman who came to the open doorway wore the usual well-tailored blue uniform, shiny shoes, and a belt hung with various weapons.

“Who called the police?” he asked quietly.

“I did,” I replied. “On behalf of this lady.”

I gestured toward Susan, and the officer called her aside. They spoke for some minutes, after which he asked Jenny and the rapper for identification. He carried their driver’s licenses back to his patrol car, spoke on his radio, and waited several minutes. He spoke again and returned to Susan’s doorway shaking his head.

“Mr. Edge, Miss Westwood—I think we’d better leave the kids right here. I can’t see anything to be gained by taking them away from their grandmother. Quite frankly, your criminal records suggest it would be very bad for the kids—maybe disastrous.”

“Can I keep these two away from here,” Susan asked.

“Yes—Mr. Edge, Miss Westwood—you will leave here immediately. You’re trespassed—stay off the property.”

Jenny blinked hard, but didn’t cry. The rapper scoffed under his breath, but he and his supposed fiancée walked to the street and drove away in a black Lexus. The police officer, and another sent as backup, stood by as Jenny and the rapper departed. Then they, too, drove away.

Well, I thought that was that—in my innocence. I said goodnight to Susan, believing she would be safe from further intrusions. Still, a few days later, I did something I had never done before. I bought a firearm—a Glock Model 17 and enough nine-millimeter ammunition to fill the magazine several times. It was an expense I could barely manage, but I considered it prudent. The rapper probably had gang connections—and gangsters were known to be vindictive.

Anyway, I continued to call Susan every evening—just to be sure she was all right and to calm her apprehensions. But then one night, I called and got a voice message—the line was out of service. And moments later, Susan called me on her cell phone.

“Jeremy—there’s something odd going on.”

That and a crash in the background were all I heard. Well—I called the law once more, hurried to my car with my Glock tucked under my belt, and flew away to Susan’s house. I had visions of rushing into the house and saving her from that rapper and his sportive lady. But the police were there ahead of me. They had found the telephone line cut and Susan tied up, with her mouth taped shut. The rapper and Jenny were caught inside the house, about to leave with the children, and were now in handcuffs. The two of them sat on the front steps, their hands behind them, looking bored—perhaps used to being arrested. They would be charged with attempted kidnapping, assault, breaking and entering, and all that.

The police deposited the arrestees in one of those birdcage police cars. Medics arrived to check Susan for broken bones and give her a whiff of smelling salts and oxygen. As for me—I had to show the police my gun permit, which, of course, I had with me. I could have used some of that oxygen myself. I had got an overdose of modernity.

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