In late May my sister calls. Her son Maurice is being sentenced in Kansas City on June twenty-third. The charge is armed robbery. She needs to go, but does not want to go alone.
I stand in my kitchen, waiting for water to boil so I can make green tea. It’s a beautiful late-spring afternoon, and I like my kitchen on such days: it’s sunny and comfortable and warm. Also old, which does not bother me. The tile dates from the previous owner, who had a love affair with dusty pink. The picture window no longer opens, the cabinets are dark and unappealing, and the floor is actual linoleum. Through the open side window comes the sound of buzzing saws. A neighbor is renovating her kitchen for the second time since I have lived in this leafy little suburb; somebody died and left her a wad of cash. Across the way another neighbor is refinishing his attic, and on the next block up a dumpster sits in a driveway, collecting construction mess. In towns like this there’s a constant churn of improvements, additions, refurbishments. On the outside my house looks the same as the others. Inside the best I can do is patch whatever breaks.
“What day is the twenty-third?” I ask my sister. I don’t want to go to Kansas City. I don’t want to attend a sentencing, to see my thirty-four-year-old nephew in chains.
I have no viable excuse. By then my semester will be over, my luxurious summer leave well begun. My children are teenagers and old enough to take care of themselves for a night. If the trip takes longer than that they can stay with their father and his wife. The airfare is steep but it won’t break me, though it would have bankrupted my mother. I can put it on my credit card.
I pour boiling water into my mug and the steam rises, the sharp scent of lemons prickling my nose. “Let me check on flights.”
It will end up being a busy summer. In June there are two trips: first an East Coast college tour with my daughter, and then Missouri, where I sit in a dim and chilly courtroom to watch my nephew be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
No. Not the rest of his life, it only feels that way when the words “twenty-five years” smash down upon us. The judge, distracted or bored, mumbles the sentence, and it is as if my nephew’s life has just ended, as if they’ve put him down like a dog.
In July I’ll drive my daughter to the Rhode Island camp where she is a junior counselor, then take my son to New Hampshire for a walk around the campus of the boarding school he will attend in the fall. In August the three of us will spend a few days at a friend’s condo on the Outer Banks. Also in August, Michael Brown will walk down a street in Ferguson, Missouri. A few minutes later he will be shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson. His body will lie in the street for four hours while his mother looks on.