The day before the Floyd verdict, Junior Dieujuste was confronting the terrifying fact that the collective fate of fifty states and hundreds of municipalities and millions of Black people like him was in the hands of twelve people he’d never met and had no reason to trust. He was thinking about situational ethics, binary outcomes, authoritarian tendencies in Middle America, and cops who testified against their own, who were simultaneously heroes and people Dieujuste would never want to be his friend.
As he wrestled with these grand thoughts, a little Black girl streaked barefoot across the sidewalk in front of him. Dieujuste had his own toddler, Jean-Baptiste, waiting for him at home, so while the girl’s proximity to busy Massachusetts Avenue alarmed him, he pretended he hadn’t seen her. At that particular moment, Dieujuste wanted just three simple things out of life: to timely relieve Jean-Baptiste’s babysitter so as not to have to pay extra, to see Floyd’s killers convicted, and not to get mixed up in strangers’ business. He had zero ambition to be a hero or a Good Samaritan, so when he found himself crouching at the girl’s side, every faculty in his admittedly limited brain cursed his weakness and sentimentality and assured him he was certainly going to regret it.
“What’s your name, chérie?”
“Malaika.” She said the name defiantly, as if she was telling Dieujuste she was Wonder Woman. “It means angel in Swahili.”
“That’s sweet. Is your mother around, Malaika?”
Dancing from foot to foot, Malaika hid the doll behind her back. She said she wasn’t with her mother.
“Who you with, baby?”
“And where’s your auntie?”
Malaika said they could ride the subway to the stop where her auntie lived. The game of twenty questions was getting old.
“And what stop’s that, Malaika?”
She couldn’t remember its name, she said, but she’d know it when she saw it.
No way, no how, was Dieujuste going to hop MBTA subway car toward oblivion. Not at this hour. Not in a city like Boston, where fifty-year-old memories of forced busing were as ripe in certain white neighborhoods as if it had happened yesterday. He fingered his phone as if it had a trigger. He was thinking about the testimony at the Floyd trial and the regrets of the store clerk who called the cops for the counterfeit twenty. His calculus was quick: Malaika was Black. Odds were, Auntie was therefore Black. By calling 911, Dieujuste—a Black American of Haitian descent with the remnants of an accent even after all these years—risked exposing Auntie to the potentially murderous whims of the BPD or seeing Malaika taken into the custody of the Department of Social Services.
He dialed. He prayed they’d send an officer sympathique, who was kind, reputable, and preferably Black, but Le Bon Dieu—if there was one—closed His ears. The cops arrived in minutes, and they were unmistakably, cartoonishly white. Straight out of BPD central casting, Irish and Italian by the looks of them.
His heart sank. Without much hope, he wondered if the cops were thinking about Floyd, too, and about situational ethics, binary outcomes, authoritarian tendencies in Middle America, and cops who testified against their own. He thought it more likely they were looking no further than their next Bavarian Kreme, which was a terrible thing to think about one’s fellow man.
Dieujuste told Malaika that these two nice policemen were going to help find her mommy and Auntie. And not, pray to God, murder them in front of you, he thought.
Malaika first eyed Irish Cop. Then she eyed Italian Cop. Then Irish Cop again. She shrank against Dieujuste. She smelled like candy. She shoved the little rag doll into his hands for safekeeping. “Are they the good police, or the bad police?”
The bottom dropped out of Dieujuste. The sidewalk became porous, and he dripped through. Very, very slowly, Dieujuste put a finger to his lips. He glanced at the cops, who had clearly overheard. God help us, he thought.
Irritated by Malaika’s question, or Dieujuste’s glance, or perhaps just his wife’s nagging him to take out the garbage that morning, Irish Cop looked up at the subway line toward Roxbury as if he at any time expected to see the vanguard of an approaching army. His tone was flat and stubborn and full of resentment.
“Good,” he said.
Hours opened between the next few seconds. Dieujuste felt drawn to the cracks. What if I stepped off this narrow sliver of time into the plunging in-between? Everyone knew that one’s body followed one’s gaze, which was why the tightrope walker kept his chin up and eyes ahead. When time’s forward progress at last resumed, it was the lurch of a subway car.
As if more sure of himself, Irish Cop repeated firmly, “Good.”
The word was a wan and faded handkerchief wadded up against the curb. Not knowing what else to say, Dieujuste snatched at it. Hoping the coin flip turned out okay, he assured Malaika the officers were the good police.
“How do you know?” Malaika asked.
Irrational irritation inflamed Dieujuste’s brain, as if all his anxiety about Floyd, bad cops, and his son’s future was condensed into this tiny, persistent human who was so full of questions. As angry at his own impotence as anything else, Dieujuste thought savagely, I don’t know, Malaika. Maybe because the cop just said so? Twice?
Dieujuste wanted nothing more than to get home to Jean-Baptiste and hold him in his arms and smell his scalp and bury his face in the boy’s neck until he squealed with delight. He silently repeated the mantra that had never served him particularly well: I am an American. I have a right to be here. I have a Master’s degree in Public Policy. The police are here to serve me, not the other way around.
Dieujuste took a deep breath. As politely and correctly as he could, doing all he could to minimize his accent, knowing it would delay (perhaps forever) being reunited with Jean-Baptiste, knowing he should not say it and mind his own business, Dieujuste asked the officers if they would mind if he waited around while they resolved the situation.
Another long beat. Longer even than between “good” and “good.” A subway train rumbled underfoot and raced away with something that belonged to Dieujuste and left him hollow. A passing motorist screamed fuck you and leaned on his horn. Dieujuste discovered he was sweating. Indeed, he was drenched, as if he’d gone for a jog, which he no longer chanced, because he was less likely to get shot at the gym. If the cops said no, Dieujuste consoled himself, there was still time to pick up Malaika and run like hell.
Finally, Irish Cop said, “Sure, bud. Knock yourself out.”
They located Auntie. She was indeed Black, and she was shaken. She had been on the phone, she said, and had no idea Malaika had escaped from her friend’s apartment. Irish Cop assailed her with a series of humiliating questions about whether she was high or crazy or abusive or simply a bad person. He spoke as if Auntie were a child who couldn’t be trusted to tie her own shoes.
Dieujuste found himself feeling appallingly insufficiently sympathetic toward Auntie. A voice in the ear—the Devil?—kept telling him that Auntie was a flawed representative of the race. He hoped against karma that someone someday—a better person than he was—would give Jean-Baptiste more benefit of the doubt.
Just as it seemed Auntie had finally satisfied the cops’ suspicion, Irish Cop demanded an ID. Auntie fumbled around in a handbag large enough to house a Kalashnikov. Out tumbled a cascade of tampons, car keys, lipstick, breath freshener, eye pencil, and a handful of coins, one of which rolled on its edge until Malaika slapped at it with her bare foot. It came up heads.
Scott Pomfret is author of Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir; Hot Sauce: A Novel; the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails; and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Ecotone, The Short Story (UK), Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott writes from the cramped confines of his tiny Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of twenty years. He is currently at work on a queer Know-Nothing novel set in antebellum New Orleans.