Bash sat on the bottom step in the empty stairwell, thumping his foot to nothing in particular, his lips moving, then stopping. The timer light would go out in fifteen minutes and he’d have to wave his arms above his head again. Yes, he had given up smoking because of the fire alarm. The cold concrete stairs had seen a lot of him lately.
Stairs could take you up or they could take you down. And in Tulsa, for Black people, it had always been a downward motion, subterranean.
He imagined his friend Armando sitting beside him now. Armando was shot in a riot the other day. Bash couldn’t believe this could still happen. In high school they studied the Civil War and how Tulsa was built and destroyed twice. Their families knew violence, yet the worst period was the end of Reconstruction. And now, this new violence on the streets, during a pandemic with the face masks, was the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
He saw Armando as plain as day, in front of him, hands in his pockets, one foot on a stair, another foot on the landing for the third floor. He looked like he always did, with his head cocked to one side, dreads hanging past his neck.
“Ironic,” Armando said to him. “Our grandparents making it out of the ’21 riots, and now me getting plugged by a cop.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like our grandparents were careful or not careful. Everyone was involved in the destruction,” Bash said.
He knew he sounded like his father, the level-minded preacher. That history—one whole block burned in an hour, the movie theater gone, mostly White businesses at first, then the corner turned. Way after reconstruction in the Flapper era, the most violence “ever,” a narrative drummed into him at the dinner table when his father and mother would argue which was more important—religion or protest.
Armando said, “Are we just repeating the past or will it give us—”
“Momentum? I dunno,” Bash said. He twirled the copper bracelet on this wrist, a serpent pattern, given to him by his father.
Years earlier, when rioters stood in front of his father’s church with sticks of flame, he had chosen not to be a captain going down with his ship, but instead to run. As he explained to Bash, the bracelet was a gift from a parishioner who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a man who said the serpents would protect. But the man also said it was safer for a Black man in Jerusalem than in America.
Maybe the bracelet saved his father, maybe not. Bash always liked to consider pro or con. A month ago commemorated a year since he had seen his father. It all started with a disagreement about the lack of career on Bash’s part and his father’s expectation. He wanted him to finish his degree or at least try something useful, like becoming a physical therapist. All this seemed random and didn’t respect Bash’s decision to do odd jobs. Finally, he wrote his father a letter explaining he had to make his own decisions. And then the reply letter, not from his father but from his mother, disdaining how he spoke to his father. Finally, the phone call from his mother saying the man was dying.
As if reading Bash’s thoughts, Armando said, “You need to call him back, reconnect.”
“But he’s dead,” Bash said. Didn’t Armando remember?
“That’s like saying there is a finite existence.” Armando shook his head. “So how do you explain my being here? I’m not here for nothing. Just because I got shot down doesn’t mean there isn’t still a fight left.”
If Tulsa was built and destroyed twice, then it was like the temple in Jerusalem, Bash thought. His father used to quote from Matthew about how Jesus predicted the second destruction. But this was more than a story from the Bible for the Jews, who had to revolt and occupy Jerusalem, while the Romans fought back. How many times would his own people have to fight back? Would there be a wailing wall in Tulsa to commemorate the destruction? Religion or protest, you had to choose.
Then the light in the stairwell went off and he couldn’t see Armando anymore. Bash stood up, waved his arms, got the light working again. But Armando was gone.
lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry; California Quarterly; and The Midway Review. She is affiliated with the Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon and with Port Townsend Writers.
More of her work can be found at: https://thebadgerpress.blogspot.com