Episode 8: “Memories”

Created and written by Marrton Dormish

Powers: The Serial is a fictional series based on true stories. With the exception of recognized personalities, locations and institutions from the past and present, all characters and places depicted in this series are fictional.

Ezekiel Thomas loved watching the sunrise. Even when it was partially obscured by silent wrecking balls and cranes, like this morning.

“’Bout time you come down, ol’ girl,” Zeke crooned to the tired-looking apartment building across the street from the Park Hill Retirement Community. He retied his bathrobe, picked up The Denver Post on his lap, and leaned back into his favorite finished oak rocking chair on the no-exit patio of PHRC. “No, ma’am. You won’ hav’ to hol’ yourself up much longer.”

He unfolded the newspaper and flapped open the front page in the dim morning light. “Lordy, Lordy, Lordy,” he sighed as he glanced at the headlines. “Medicaid cuts,” “CEO salary higher than company’s tax bills,” “Irish unemployment tops 14 percent,” “Car bomb kills 10 in Pakistan.” He noticed a “Special to the Denver Post” by Nathan Patrick about the famine in the Horn of Africa. “Well now, that pushy young fella is goin’ places,” he said to himself.

“Don’ know why I let you do this to me,” he shook his head at Nathan’s article, even as his hands involuntarily shook. The paper fluttered like a leaf in the wind. “Used to read the L.A. Times, the International Heral’ Tribune, the Kansas City Star, the New York Times and the Times of London, ‘bout ever’ day before breakfast. No wonder a body ends up used up in a place like this.”

The sun peeked over the horizon just then, but all Zeke could see was a tiny corner of it beneath the still wrecking ball. These days Zeke barely had the energy or the concentration to make it through one paper before breakfast. Although his natural curiosity had yet to be completely extinguished, it was only a flicker compared to its former glory. Ever since his days at Howard University in the ‘50s, when he had received what he properly thought of as his “call,” he had taken to poring over the news. He knew precisely what time the Howard library put out his favorite papers, and later, after he could afford to buy his own copies, what time they hit the newsstands.

As for his “call” to be an instrument of “Jubilee” in the world, a call he secretly shared with his best friend Charles Ellis, he saw it as a lifelong call from God inspired by the lives of the men he had studied and studied under at Howard. His call hadn’t changed since his college days, but as the decades had slowly passed his means of fulfilling it had.

He had graduated summa cum laude in political science. Charles graduated magna cum laude with a law degree. But when Charles had moved back to their hometown of Denver to open his own law firm, an increasingly restless Zeke got a job at the United Nations so he could see the world and help make history. He traveled with the U.N.’s Ralph Bunche to Africa in 1957, where among other things, they sat with A. Philip Randolph, Mordecai Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King, during the inaugural flag-raising of the new West African nation of Ghana.

Then in 1964, when he was back in Denver for his eleventh high school reunion, Zeke met Annabelle Graham, who was a senior at his old school, Manual High. He fell immediately and passionately in love with her, and asked her Baptist pastor father for permission to send her letters. Annabelle’s father, impressed by his work at the U.N., chose to ignore the age difference between the smitten couple and allowed it. Zeke and Annabelle wrote each other once a week, and for the first time in his adult life, Zeke felt pulled in two different directions. Zeke’s letters were postmarked from all over the world, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Botswana, Swaziland, while Annabelle’s were all stamped at the same Five Points post office in Denver. He hadn’t wanted to inflict his frequent travels on a young wife, and presumably, a family, but after assuring Annabelle for three years that the spate of African independence movements couldn’t last forever, she decided to stop waiting. When Charles Ellis proposed to her, she agreed to marry him.

When Zeke heard the news after returning to New York from a trip to Africa, he called Annabelle’s house, frantic. Her father answered the phone.

When he closed his eyes, even now as he sat in the rocking chair at PHRC, Zeke could still hear Pastor Graham bellow, “You missed your chance, boy! You been away too long!”

Zeke stopped writing Annabelle letters, but he started pining for her, almost as if for the first time. Somehow, having witnessed the birth of 34 independent African nations from 1957-1968 didn’t seem to matter to Zeke anymore.

The sun was high enough now for Zeke to read his daily paper without straining his eyes, but his mind was far in the past. After Annabelle and Charles got married in 1969, Zeke made what over the years he would come to see as both the worst personal decision and the best vocational decision of his life. He decided to quit his job at the U.N., and move to Denver.

He quickly received job offers from the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver and the NAACP. But having experienced the way his official position at the U.N. changed the way people interacted with him, often causing them to cover up, ignore or explain away the very realities of life that needed to be addressed, Zeke decided to seek a position that would help him blend into his native Five Points community.

One day, he was getting his hair cut at Ray’s barber shop on Welton Street in the Five Points neighborhood, and old Ray himself made an offhanded, but very purposeful comment, “You got some great stories, Zeke. You’d make a good barber.”

It was a lightbulb moment for Zeke, but he managed to inquire casually enough, “You think so, Ray?”

“Sure ‘nough,” nodded Ray. “’Cept I know you got some better offers already. When you gonna decide ‘bout those, anyway?”

“Not sure, Ray. But I don’ know how to cut hair. And ‘sides I don’t know anyone hirin’ right now.”

“Oh, yes, you do,” Ray said, grinning. He poked his chest with his forefinger. “I am. Got an open chair as of today, ‘cause JoJo, he’s movin’ back to Atlanta to take care of his parents.”

“That so?” Something inside Zeke said, This is it. This is where you need to be. “Well, I still don’t know how to cut hair, Ray. You don’ want to lose all your customers, now do you?” The three men waiting for their turn on the shop’s black leather couches chimed in, “Tha’s right!” “Uh huh.” “I can’t have no amateur messin’ with my hair.”

Ray shook his head. “See here, Zeke, I taught JoJo and I can teach you. Barberin’ ain’t so bad. In fac’, you can make a decent living if your customers aren’t too tight.” He glared in mock anger at the three men on the couch. “People always goin’ need they hair cut. Long as you don’ get your arms cut off somehow, you got a job and tha’s sayin’ somethin’ in this day and age.”

Zeke took the job. Charles said he was crazy. Annabelle, who was holding the first of her five children when she found out, just shook her head. Zeke practiced on Ray and other friends, including Charles for a while, until he could give a decent haircut and shave, and until he could manage Ray’s electric hand massager. As Ray knew they would, customers forgave Zeke’s early haircutting miscues, because they loved to hear him talk about his travels in Africa and his work at the U.N.

By the time Ray sold the shop to Zeke in 1975, Zeke had already tripled the shop’s regular clientele. “Ray’s” became “Zeke’s.” For 35 years, except for his annual two-week vacation, Zeke and a slowly revolving door of three other barbers stayed happily busy every week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 2-6 p.m. on Sundays.

Zeke shielded his eyes with his shaky right hand when the sun topped the condemned apartment building. He watched his hand shake. Zeke’s belongs to Rainey and Shorty now. Not me. Jus’ like ol’ Ray, I had to step aside. Jus’ like I stepped aside for Charles and Annabelle.

He folded up his paper and struggled to his feet. Ben would be there soon to say goodbye and he didn’t want to be in his bathrobe when his godson arrived.

The old-fashioned Chevy turn signal blinked and ticked a rhythm in time with the scratchy rendition of Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect,” which was coming from the old-fashioned dial radio in Zeke’s old ’52 pickup truck. Benjamin Ellis turned off of Colfax Avenue onto a side road to avoid the morning traffic on his way to the Park Hill Retirement Community. When the turn signal kept blinking and ticking, he remembered to manually switch the turn signal back to neutral.

Ben’s grad school semester started in Washinton, D.C., in three days, so it was time to say goodbye to “Uncle” Zeke. He was surprised how easy it had been to be around Zeke again after not having seen him since his father’s funeral two years earlier. Uncle Zeke and his father, Charles Ellis, had been the best of best friends ever since Ben could remember. So he could see why Zeke felt obligated to keep Charles’s cancer diagnosis a secret until the very end. That didn’t make it okay with Ben, but at least he understood why Zeke did what he did. Or didn’t do what he didn’t do. Zeke was right—if Charles hadn’t accidentally been hit and rendered unconscious by a hit-and-run driver, he never would have been taken to the emergency room for a battery of tests, and the emergency room doctor never would have had to be the one to reveal to Ben and his siblings and his mother that, “It isn’t the hit-and-run that’s going to kill him, it’s his other condition.” “What condition?” they had all parroted at once. “Uh, the cancer,” the doctor had said before he looked up and realized they hadn’t known.

Ben and Zeke hadn’t really talked much about the accident since he arrived in town to help nurse Zeke back to health after his stroke. All Zeke had said was, “Benjamin, I had to honor your daddy’s wishes. He swore me to secrecy. He did. I argued him up one side and down the other for months. I threatened to tell you all. But I couldn’t do it. I’m just so sorry you found out like you did, with the accident and all. I’m so, so, so sorry I hurt you and your brothers and sisters and your momma.”

After that, and after Zeke’s stroke, what could he say? “You stole my dad’s last days from me, you selfish bastard!” No, he couldn’t say that.

All his anger at Zeke vanished as soon as he saw Zeke laying there on that hospital bed. He loved the old man so much. In many ways, Zeke had been more of a father to Ben than Charles had.

The moment he saw Zeke, Ben’s mind flooded with memories—one-on-one duels on the basketball court across the street from his house, getting haircuts before dates, his first shave, hanging out in the barber shop, singing next to Zeke in the church choir, family dinners, holiday dinners, potlucks, picnics, marches and elections. Except for his two years of grad school in George Washington University’s international development program, it was hard to think of his life without also thinking of Zeke.

As he coasted toward the PHRC parking lot, he grinned when he saw a sleek looking Honda Accord bump into the parking lot ahead of him. He parked in the open spot next to the Accord and manually rolled down his window. “Fancy seeing you here,” he said.

Lora Jean Jones rolled down the automatic window on her passenger side and turned her nose up at him. “Why are you following me, sir?”

“You want to go for a ride, little girl?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I have to work, and I don’t talk to strangers,” she said in mock disapproval. Ben sighed, as he turned off the Chevy’s engine, “Too bad.”

LJ popped out of her car and around it to lean through Ben’s open window. “So you’ve come to say goodbye, huh?”

“Yeah. I never thought I’d say this, but I don’t want to. I’d rather stay.”

“Me, too,” said LJ quietly. They locked eyes for a moment. LJ blushed, leaned back. “Yeah, well, it’s not like we don’t have each other’s email, cell phone numbers and Skype IDs. This isn’t really goodbye, is it?”

“Nah,” Ben said. “I’ll be back for Thanksgiving and Christmas, too.”

“Right, well, we better get this over with,” LJ said, sniffing and folding her arms. “But I warn you, if you start crying I’m going to have to get really mad.”

Nights were the worst. Corporal Tommy Adams, USMC, aka “Coffee,” tried to stay awake most nights, because the dreams always came when he fell asleep at night. For some reason, they didn’t bother him if he slept during the day.

Summers were best. The weather was warm enough that he didn’t have to go to a shelter to stay warm. In fact, he had spent most of the last month moving from makeshift camp to makeshift camp in the mountains west of Boulder, Colo. The authorities would say he was illegally squatting on public land, but Coffee thought of it as an extended camping trip. Roughing it like he used to do in the Marines, except no one was trying to kill him this time. A sheriff’s deputy and a forest ranger had found two of his old camps, but otherwise he’d avoided detection, like a good Marine should.

He still had his Marine issue MSR Miniworks water filter, so potable water wasn’t a problem. He picked berries and roots and caught trout from different Boulder-area creeks with a cheap combo rod he’d bought at Sports Authority. The one time he had trapped a big fat cottontail to get some meat, the smell of roasting flesh had immediately triggered memories of charred arms and legs and the mutilated bodies of Marines.

Mostly he stayed as far away from houses and roads as possible, although he did “flash a sign” occasionally when he felt like a decent meal in Nederland or Boulder. Coffee wished the weather would stay warm year-round, because he knew if it did he could live like this indefinitely. It was better this way.

Getting close to people meant they could get hurt, like the 10 wounded and seven killed-in-action from his unit in Iraq, and the 12 wounded and eight KIA from his two tours in Afghanistan. There was the helicopter carrying five of his squad members shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. There were the three Hummers destroyed by improvised explosive devices, and the mortar attack on their base that randomly killed two of the best Marines he’d known. There were the cries of the wounded on search-and-destroy missions in the hellish mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. Severed arteries and blown-off limbs and sucking chest wounds. A bunkmate rendered impotent by an improvised explosive device.

Coffee’s real nightmares began when he started seeing kids’ faces. Little Iraqi and Afghan children with mismatched western clothes playing soccer amidst rubble in the street. Swaddled infants wailing in their mother’s arms. Toddlers frozen in fear after an IED explosion. The crumpled, lifeless form of Khaled, a 10-year-old he met at the bazaar near his base, victim of friendly fire during a routine check for insurgents.

“Corporal, get those kids out of here,” he heard his sergeant say.

“Hey, GI Joe,” said a kid with a New York Yankees hat. “I will be a soldier like you some day.”

“A Marine,” he corrected the kid. “A Marine.”

“Yes, a Marine. Seemper Fi.”

Semper fi. It’s semper fi.”

Coffee dreamed of the family compounds obliterated by smart bombs, civilians caught in the crossfire between marines and insurgents. He remembered every casualty from his patrols, every face deemed “regrettable collateral damage.”

He saw enemies he and his men had killed in firefights, men with thick beards, teenagers not yet old enough to grow beards, old men with gray hair. When they could, the Marines checked the bodies for “intel,” because you never knew who might have Osama bin Laden’s cell phone number on his speed dial. Before the Navy Seals got him, you didn’t, anyway.

Tommy’s parents and sister drove to St. Louis from Wright County, Missouri, after his last tour to join the happy crowd of family and friends welcoming his unit home. There was a band and a big sign and everything. It was a regular hero’s welcome.

He already felt dead inside before he had left Afghanistan, the welcome home just provided the funeral. On the long walk toward his cheering parents and sister, all he could think was, “Do they know who they’re welcoming home? What would they think if they knew everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve done?” Coffee had pasted on a smile and gone through the motions, but he was already looking for a way to escape.

When he lost his battle with sleepiness some nights, his dreams always ended with a recollection of his lone conversation with a prisoner, a Taliban fighter named Khaled. “I fight for family, for Afghanistan, for Allah,” Khaled told him in heavily accented English. “What fight you for?”

Tommy lasted six months in Wright County, helping out at his parents’ farm, jumping at every backfire of his father’s tractor, breaking into a cold sweat every time he saw roadkill on the side of the highway.

Eventually, he interviewed at a factory in Lebanon, and at two freight companies in Springfield. He worked a loading dock for two months, but had to “quit” a few days before the Fourth of July when he nearly choked a coworker to death for throwing a handful of little white snap dragon firecrackers at him during their lunch break.

He knew he had to leave when that happened. He knew he wasn’t fit to be around people anymore. His parents begged him to see a shrink, or at least, they got as close to begging as he had ever seen them get, but he knew it wasn’t the Marine way to see a shrink. You had to tough it out, to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Tommy just needed time away, time to rest, time to, well, he wasn’t sure what he needed time for, he just knew he didn’t want to hurt his family or his friends or really anyone, ever again. So he left. One morning, he rode with his father into town and said he needed some time on the road. His father teared up, tried to talk him out of it, even suggested he visit his sister a while, but Tommy shook his head. Said it was something he had to do. They endured an awkward silence until his dad pulled all the money out of his wallet—$60—and gave it to Tommy. “Call us so we know you’re safe, you hear?” Tommy nodded. Then he started walking. He got a few rides from acquaintances that first day and made it all the way to Springfield. He developed a standard line, “I want to see the country. I fought four tours for it, now I want to see it.” But he had long since stopped telling his story to anyone. No one really cared, anyway. As long as he got his ride, or a dollar or two, he offered his thanks. People went their way and he went his.

He took to calling himself “Coffee” when his family started trying to find him. Since he tried not to sleep at night, coffee was the only thing that kept him going during the day. So he became “Coffee” on the streets. I’m not ready yet, he told himself. I can’t go back yet. He preferred the streets, where he could allow his Marine survival training to keep him alive. For some reason, he felt alive on the street, while he hadn’t on his parents’ farm or on the loading dock in Springfield. He liked mountains especially, and in two years he had actually traveled enough during the warm weather months to not only see, but live off, the land in many of the mountain ranges in the lower 48 states.

Coffee spent his days reminding himself of all the good he and the Marines had done in his four tours in the Middle East, all the good they were still doing: the humanitarian aid they had delivered in Iraq, the villages they had liberated and re-liberated from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the schools they had helped build for boys and girls, alike.

But the nights always came, and, when he was too tired to keep them away, the dreams came with them.

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