They played in parks, our children, teetering on seesaws and careening headfirst down tremendous slides because we wanted to watch them squeal with delight; we wanted them to be happy. They perched on stools at ice-cream parlor counters, licking chocolate ice-cream waffle cones paid for with the allowance money they had saved for weeks. They studied at the library, memorizing multiplication tables and diligently researching fun facts about flightless birds for science homework assignments, for we informed them of the need to do well in school if they hoped to make something of themselves. How we hoped they would make something of themselves!
On the night in question, assailants bludgeoned 163 neighborhood children before our eyes. Hooded in burlap potato sacks and armed with any manner of weapons, the assailants’ number is commonly pegged in the thousands. Our children screamed. It happened so quickly. We had no time to rush up from our park benches and library tables to defend them. Even had we been armed, we wouldn’t have been able to halt the assailants before they had killed our children.
Months later, police still find stray rifle casings in the streets, grenade fragments in the hallways of our buildings, and bloodied knives in the places where the attacks occurred. The police say they are being meticulous, compiling ironclad evidence, but they have yet to mount a search for the culprit or culprits. Instead, they rap on our doors, begging for contributions to the Police Benevolence Association. For twenty bucks, policemen will supply us with gold stickers to paste on our apartment doors, alerting would-be intruders that Police Are Not Our Enemy.
“Who is our enemy?” we ask.
“Violence,” they say, twirling the ends of their mustaches. “Twenty bucks is a bargain. Violence is no one’s friend.”
At first, one sticker is deemed sufficient, but, over time, policemen encourage us to buy more so we can sticker them onto mailboxes, cars, foreheads, outerwear—jackets, shawls, mourning veils, anoraks—so should police accost us in the streets, they will see our stickers and know we are their friends, meaning they will not be apt to write us up for petty misdemeanors. Nor, in theory, will they hassle us into purchasing more stickers.
Officially, the atrocity is classified as “mass unprovoked rioting of a disorderly nature,” a wonky term shedding little light on the severity of our loss. We are devastated. Pop psychology tells us of the five stages of grief, but we are unable to work our way through the stages to find acceptance and hope; we still fling open our doors upon returning home and expect to embrace our children. No amount of therapists can heal us of our anguish, or such is the opinion of the municipal health board, which recommends our insurance companies deny us access to counseling services. Instead, they offer us public service television ads promoting the joys of civil obedience. The best of these ads feature animated characters from Hollywood blockbusters. In one, a cartoon duck quacks about the thrills of ratting out neighbors who do not buy enough stickers. As the spot ends, a neighbor is being hauled from his apartment in leg irons while Citizen Duck announces, “We’re all in this together, so everyone’s gotta d-d-do their d-d-duty!”
“There were no riots,” Wynaldo says one day as we step into the dim-lit lobby of our apartment building. A welder by trade, he speaks with the froggy nasal quality of one who has inhaled too many noxious gasses, too many white-hot sparks. He lost two boys during the riots and sometimes at dusk he still bellows for his boys to come home for dinner. Dinner, dinner! he’ll scream until his wife comes out and tugs on the sleeve of his tee-shirt.
“Of course there were riots,” we say. “How else do you think you lost your children?”
“A riot is a spontaneous mass uprising sparked in protest against injustices and the prevailing social order. This was not what happened here. Why would there be protests in our neighborhood? Who here was rioting? Who here was protesting?” We had not known welders could be so articulate. Prior to the riots, Wynaldo was like us: complacent. No rabble-rouser he, what he wanted most was to watch his children play. When not at the playground with them, he was in the park teaching them how to dribble a soccer ball.
“My friends, there were no riots. Where was the looting, the broken storefront windows, the mass theft of refrigerators, Naugahyde sofas, jumbo televisions we expect of actual riots? This was different. What we witnessed was the mass premeditated murder of our children.”
We stare at each other, eyes gaping, until one of us is brave enough to ask, “Well, so who did it then?”
Wynaldo strips off the Police Are Not Our Enemy sticker from his nylon windbreaker, crumples it, and grinds it with the heel of his hardy work boots into the thin royal blue lobby carpeting.
We have no mirrors, no wish to see our faces. We do not wish to see the acne blemishes, the nicks and scabbed-over scrapes that come from shaving with rusty blades and anguish. Everything has been taken from us, and now we scurry like mice into our apartments, each of us fated to mull our childless nights alone. We worry we have forgotten the sound of their voices. We have long dismantled their beds, heavy with the heart that, in doing so, we were betraying their memories, yet we hold onto mementos, toys mostly, that render our loss more palatable. No amount of PBA stickers or the repeated televised airings of Citizen Duck’s animated antics can replace our children, but by handling their old baby dolls and genuine pigskin footballs, the surprise that sparkled their eyes when first touching the object becomes alive for us. What was it that little Rafael, little Tommy, little Hannah said? Was it, Mommy, I love you! I’ll never lose this toy!
Phone calls awake us. We stumble from our beds, dropping the children’s toys that we cradled while sleeping. Picking up the phones, we are miraculously warmed by the sound of our children’s voices.
“Mommy! Daddy!” our children say.
We become tearful, fall to our knees. They are in a land far, far away, our children say, but they are well. They are happy! Still foggy-headed from sleep, we throw open the bedroom curtains, allowing the light of a gibbous moon to flood the room. We are joyful, desperate, scared, hopeful.
“Mommy? Daddy? Can you do something to help us?”
“Yes,” we say, screaming. “Tell us where you are and we will rent cars and buses and aeroplanes to come rescue you. We will speed faster than highway safety authorities suggest is prudent. We will move small mountains, storm castles, waterboard enemy combatants who stand in our way.”
Our children, knowing we are given to absurd hyperbole in moments of ecstasy, laugh, which makes us laugh, riotously. We have raised our children to be modest, humble, circumspect. They say, “We do not want small mountains or castles. We do not want rental cars driven at reckless speeds. We do not want grand gestures or torture techniques performed on our enemies.”
“Then tell us what you need! Tell us!”
“You need to buy stickers. Lots of stickers. You know how much we like stickers!”
Our children, we recall suddenly, were nuts for any kind of sticker. They’d peel them from their backings and press them onto flatscreen televisions, hardwood floors, younger siblings, just-washed windows, long-haired cats. We cursed them at the time because, once stuck, the stickers are painstakingly difficult to remove, their adhesives leaving a residual stickiness that mere scrubbing could not diminish. Now though, our irritation at stickers strikes us as a foolish consideration. We gush, “Stickers! Of course we will buy stickers! What kind of stickers do you want? Kitty stickers? Stickers of football team emblems? Tell us! Tell us what stickers you desire!”
“We want gold stickers. Lots of gold stickers! Ask the police what kind of stickers you should buy.”
“The police?” We scratch our heads, squint our eyes, flip the lids off pints of Hägen-Dazs like we do when we’re nervous, perplexed, in need of a good hug. What do the police know about our children?
The truth is not simple. Children were not massacred just to provide police the opportunity to shake us down for sticker money, yet this is the unintended consequence. In the morning, we’re told to line up on the sidewalk outside our apartment building. The police officer overseeing this round-up licks his palm and pats down a cowlick. He’s young and suspiciously clean-shaven; if he were any younger, he might have been mistaken for a child himself and killed with the others during the riots.
“Citizen Wynaldo,” the officer says, clapping his hands together. “You’re not wearing one of our stickers.”
Wynaldo looks down at his blue vinyl windbreaker. What remains of the sticker he tore off in our apartment lobby is the dark circular impression of adhesive residue: the ghost of the sticker.
“Perhaps you wish to buy a sticker,” the officer says.
Wynaldo squares his shoulders. “Nope.”
Tilting his head, the officer squints at Wynaldo. “Did you not field a phone call from your children last night?”
“Ahh. That is hard to answer, but yes, I did receive a phone call. It woke me up. Until that moment, I had been sleeping soundly.”
“Good.” The officer nods, tone deaf to Wynaldo’s irritation. “And what did your children say?”
“My children were not the ones who called me.”
The officer scowls.
“My children are dead. How could they call if they’re dead? I saw them die. I was fifty feet away, watching them from across the playground. A group of men gathered behind the azalea bushes that flowered behind the sandbox. A shot rang out from somewhere. It sounded like the pop you might hear from the starter’s pistol at a track meet. We all looked up, startled, me and the other parents sitting on the bench with me. A whiff of gun powder breezed over us, probably from whatever gun had fired. Then all hell broke loose. The men behind the azaleas threw potato sacks over their heads. It was as if they had been waiting for a signal, so quick did they charge out from behind the bushes. They were animals. They bludgeoned my children with bamboo canes. Though I was far away, I heard the blood gurgle in my children’s throats. The assailants grabbed each child and snapped their necks. It was impossible to believe they were still alive. I vaulted from my bench, but by the time I reached them, the vandals had run away. It was that quick. I held my boys, one in each arm.”
He looked at his hands, the hands that held his boys.
“Their last breaths warmed my cheeks,” Wynaldo says.
Envy stabs our hearts, for we did not have the same courage to gather our own children in our arms. We did not have the courage to kiss them and comfort them in that crucial last moment so that they could leave this life knowing they had been loved. We did not have the courage to embrace, nuzzle, cuddle their bloodied faces, their bloodied bodies.
The officer winces, the effect of Wynaldo’s story re-awakening him. His eyes become large and he looks into our sorrowful faces, allowing our grief to register on his young face. He cries, shudders, shakes his young-man’s fist to the heavens, his overwrought reaction taking us aback. We look at each other, trying to figure out what gives him the right to share our grief. Gulping air as if the wind has been knocked out of him, he leans against a parking meter. He wipes his eyes, his runny nose on his uniform shirtsleeve, and though we wouldn’t have thought it possible, he asks if we’re all right.
“We’re dealing,” Wynaldo says. “Every day is a trial.”
The officer absently spins the knob of the parking meter. When we were younger, we thought of parking meters as slot machines. Imprecise and fussy, they could award us with an extra ten minutes or malfunction entirely, stealing our quarters, our nickels, our hard-earned dimes. When the officer lets go of the knob, a red flag mechanically springs up inside the meter, indicating a parking violation—this, although no car is parked in the space.
“What we did was wrong,” the officer says. “It never should have happened. I’m sorry.”
His earnestness startles us, but as soon as he says this, shyness creeps over him. He looks away, then at the parking meter. Though we don’t know exactly what he means, we have our suspicions: sinister conspiracy theories of police involvement have circulated freely among us ever since we watched Wynaldo crumple his PBA sticker. We raise our eyebrows, crowd closer, ready our fists to pummel him.
“It was you guys—the police—who did this, wasn’t it?” Wynaldo asks.
As word spreads that we’ve cornered one of the child killers, our numbers swell. Compatriots throughout the neighborhood rush to join us, dashing across streets, bridges, highway underpasses with mallets, kitchen knives, aluminum baseball bats, tire irons that we’ve never yet used for anything but their intended purpose. We are butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. We are doctors, administrative assistants, inefficient waiters at dilapidated Italian restaurants—not people normally prone to violence—but now we seethe, swarm, feed off each other’s pent-up aggression. We are not beyond forgiving him, but first we want to maim, smash, disembowel him; we are a mob of cold-hearted yet hyper-vigilant citizens with severe law-and-order inclinations, the kind of citizens whom Citizen Duck would appreciate.
The officer cowers behind the parking meter, futilely trying to hide. His knees knock. If it isn’t for the fact that he might have killed our children, we’d take pity on him—indeed, the way he trembles reminds us of our children when they first noticed the rioters rush towards them. In their fright, they dropped Tonka trucks, teddy bears, sippy cups that we had just filled with apple juice. We had told them that monsters didn’t exist in this world, and we were wrong. Too scared to run, our children shielded their eyes beneath their hands in the moments before blunt trauma disfigured them.
The officer thrusts out his arms mea culpa style. “It happened. What can I say? It was only supposed to be a training exercise. I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. We didn’t intend to harm anyone.”
The words ring hollow, offensive, for how could harm not be the intended consequence when so much planning, stealth coordination, vile contempt went into the execution of the attacks? Our anger alarms him. We murmur for murder, blood, ocular organs—Old Testament retribution being unalterably catechized into us—yet incredibly he repeats his claim. It puzzles him, he says, throwing up his hands, how everything could turn out bad. How did it happen? “The police are a beneficent force in this world, a light among darkness. Our role is to serve and protect. That’s our motto. We save people from agony. That’s what we’re trained to do. I’m sorry. Truly, I’m sorry.”
“Show us how sorry you are.”
We wring our hands, shake our heads, brandish our baseball bats.
“I don’t have much,” the officer says, which seems fitting for this boy officer who probably blows his police department paycheck money on milkshakes, video games, and Clearasil. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a roll of gold PBA stickers, peels one off its backing, and sticks it on Wynaldo’s nylon windbreaker, centering it exactly over the ring of residual stickiness left by the previous sticker. We all know what the sticker says—Police Are Not Our Enemy—but none of us believe it anymore.
“Violence is no one’s friend,” the officer says. “Today, I give you this for free. Does anyone else want one?”
We crane our necks, stand on toes, jostle closer to catch sight of Wynaldo’s response. He glances at the sticker on the chest of his windbreaker, and then stares at the officer. The sticker itself is meaningless—a stupid slogan printed on reflective gold paper. Though we have no exact knowledge of printing costs, it’s a fair guess that it cost less than a penny to produce.
“Thank you,” Wynaldo says with a gentleness that makes us ashamed of the mallets, gardening hoes, pipe wrenches in our hands. The officer has no money, no exalted station we can ask him to sacrifice. The stickers are all he has. With grudging respect, Wynaldo takes in the officer, looking him over from head to toe as if sizing him up for the first time, and it’s almost like we can see what he’s thinking: here’s a man who has given all he can possibly give, a man like us. Tears slide from the officer’s eyes. We have seen so much crying in the past months that we would have thought another’s tears no longer had an effect on us.
“It’s going to be all right,” Wynaldo says.
The officer wipes his eyes, nose, forehead. “How is it going to be all right?”
Wynaldo starts to say something but stops himself. The officer has a point. How is everything going to turn out all right? The officer is but a glorified civil servant. Though graced with a spotless blue police uniform that commands respect, he has neither the power of necromancy to raise our dead children nor influence over governmental institutions to insure such a tragedy happens never again.
We become quiet, contemplative, thoughtful. In the streets in front of our apartment building, traffic lights switch from red to green, prompting mud-splattered trucks, rusted trolley cars, cargo vans with prominently displayed advertisements on their sides to rumble and rattle past us, stopping and going as traffic lights dictate, their drivers and passengers swiveling their heads to gawk at our commotion. For them, we are a fleeting amusement.
Who among us can fathom the motives of government, elected officials, police sergeants, neighbors operating under the influence of Citizen Duck? Who among us can fathom the machinations of power, coercion, derision, disrespect inherent in a land where an argument with an airline stewardess is viewed as a national security threat? Who among us can fathom the slippery slope that leads from an aggressive protection of liberty to its effective denial?
In the days after the riots, we howled at the four corners of our rooms. We stooped our shoulders, pulled out hair, scratched our wrists in penitential acts of self-laceration. Because we had scratched our wrists so fiercely, infections sometimes set in. We took antibiotics and watched our wounds scab over. We contemplated buying handguns from pawnshops. We contemplated taking the handguns into automobiles, basement parking garages, crowded shopping malls, rustic pastures that once inflamed our passion for idyllic beauty. We contemplated pressing the barrels of these handguns to our temples. We couldn’t understand how we were expected to go on living. Clinging to the Old World idea that the riots were divine retribution for our sins, we could not grasp which of our sins had triggered God’s wrath. What had we done to deserve our fate? Walking to work, bus stops, bar stools, lunch counters, we beseeched God to reveal to us the sins that had foredoomed our children’s lives.
Our children call again just as we come home that evening. We thrill to the sound of their high-pitched squeals as they tell us about the grape-flavored lollipops they’ve been licking, the zoos they’ve been visiting, and though we feel the parental inclination to warn them about the dangers of too much candy consumption, we are glad that, wherever they are, they are happy.
“Daddy and Mommy, tell us what you’ve been doing!”
The question startles us, for young children so rarely inquire about their parents’ activities, but we are dog-tired from working all day and cannot remember a single incident worth mentioning. Perhaps it is good that our children do not ask more often of our days because if they knew how much misery and drudgery there was in an adult’s life, they would never want to grow up. Rather than tell them the truth—that we’re sore and tired and itching for an early bedtime—we tell them tales about the airplanes that crashed into tall buildings and changed the whole world, and about the mothers and fathers that wailed with grief.
“Silly Mommy! Silly Daddy! That is not what we want to hear you say!”
“What is it you want?” we ask, conscious of the catch in our voices.
Our children laugh with so much mirth that, for the first time since we were children ourselves, we believe it possible that heaven actually exists. “Daddy? Mommy? Have you bought us any stickers today?”
Vector collection of nine different cartoon police stickers