He woke before dawn and found her silhouetted in orange, holding the sun behind her back like a kid playing keepaway. He knew he wouldn’t be going back to sleep, so he headed for the bathroom and discovered another of the apartment’s hidden treasures: a toilet-flush that could suck down an Orca.
He decided the immediate thing to do was walk down to the terrarium, order a bagel and coffee, and scan the help-wanted ads. But he never got past the headlines.
The victim was thirty years old. He was a local kid, went to Stadium High. He had come back to help his mother, who was laid up with a shattered ankle.
It was late at night. The man was walking home from a party, a few miles north of Shawn’s apartment. Two black kids asked him for a cigarette. When he reached into his pocket to get one, he was struck down from behind. A group of eight kids, aged 11 to 19, beat him to a pulp. One of them had a croquet mallet. After the victim lost consciousness, the 19-year-old performed wrestling-style drops, driving his knee into the man’s skull. He did this more than two dozen times, counting them off as he went.
After six days in a coma, the man passed away the previous afternoon. The police described it as a “thrill killing,” and concluded that the suspects did it largely because they were bored.
Welcome to Tacoma, Shawn. Try not to get killed by the animals.
The city was holding a community forum that night at Stadium High. Shawn decided he had to go.
When he arrived at the school, about a mile from his apartment, he found a kind of castle, peppered with spires. He composed several histories in his head, but figured he would learn the real one soon. He crossed a courtyard spotted with squares of frosted glass, lit from underneath, and filed into the gym.
He sat in the back row, feeling his newcomer status. It wasn’t long before the 20 rows in front of him had filled up. Dozens of latecomers were forced to stand in the back. One was an elderly woman, standing to Shawn’s right, one hand on the folded-up bleachers.
She had wispy silver hair and rather astonishing blue eyes, and looked unsteady, shifting from one foot to the other. Shawn touched the woman’s arm and asked her if she would take his seat.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “I think that’s why I don’t go to art museums anymore – I literally can’t stand them! Hah-hah!”
Her laughter, a two-beat hiccup, made a surprising contrast with the general mood. Shawn recalled his uncle’s funeral, where his uncle’s best friend finished his eulogy by telling all of their favorite jokes.
The mayor gave a brief talk and introduced a young woman, a close friend of the victim. The news reports had hinted at the young man’s character, but this first testimony expanded it profoundly.
“I feel most sorry for the world,” she concluded, wiping away tears. “Because the world… has lost the kindest… most gentle human being I have ever known.”
Many of the speakers ran along those lines. Some complained about the police, who had recorded a series of similar attacks but failed to report them to the affected neighborhoods. Others lamented the violent state of society at large, and a deteriorating sense of community.
At the end of two hours, Shawn didn’t feel any better about the killing, but he did feel better about his neighbors. He stood outside the entrance, watching the stream of faces. One of them was the old lady, who was now making her way toward him. She walked slowly, so Shawn had time to imagine her first words.
Thanks so much for offering me your seat.
Such a shame, isn’t it?
Were you a friend of his?
She arrived a few seconds later, and put a hand on Shawn’s elbow.
“Do you paint?”
Photo by MJV