An American flag, along with several diplomas and teaching certificates, hung on the wall, right above Principal Gutierrez’s head, as she kept her hands folded atop her desk.
James and Radha sat side-by-side, neither of them saying a word. When the school called James and told him it was about their son, Samuel, and that he needed to come down, James didn’t ask any questions and drove straight from where he worked in Secaucus to their town of Jefferson, on the border of central and north New Jersey. When he arrived, Principal Gutierrez simply led him and his wife into the main office, asking if they wanted some water to drink, before sitting at her desk and just smiling and staring at them.
Radha was the one who broke the silence.
“Did something happen to Sam?” she asked, her hands gripping the armrests of her chair as if ready to be electrocuted.
Finally, the principal, who James always felt looked too perfect, no stray hairs on her coat, no creases on her skin, explained that their son, who was in the 2nd grade, had an altercation with another boy in his class.
“But don’t worry,” she told them, as Radha gripped the edges of the chair even harder, “no one got hurt.”
“So, what’s the problem then?” Radha replied, furrowing her brow. “If you’re thinking of punishing my son, you can be damn sure I won’t let that happen unless I know every detail of what exactly took place.”
The principal flashed a smile, which James hated. He too could sense something was amiss. But he also knew that the principal, who looked so pale in the sunlight, wouldn’t answer them if they kept asking questions.
“The issue,” she eventually said, “is that the fight started when the other boy called Samuel the N-Word.”
“Excuse me?” Radha exclaimed.
James stared, the principal’s body turning transparent.
“That spoiled brat should be suspended!” Radha said.
The principal tried to calm Radha down.
“We contacted his father. But he’s at work right now at the precinct so he couldn’t get back to us.”
“What’s his name?”
“Please, I’m sure we can settle this in the —”
“What’s his name damnit!”
The principal sighed. She looked at James and said the father of the other boy was Officer Lee.
The principal was no longer blurry. James arched an eyebrow. But before he could say anything, Radha got up and rushed out of the room. They found Sam, with his poofy hair and his shirt covered in dirt, seated on a bench.
In the car ride to the police station, Sam was silent.
James would peek in the rearview mirror and see Sam gazing out the window.
Radha continued to vent.
“Who does this guy think he is? Teaching such vile nonsense to his own stupid brain dead son!”
James explained that he knew Officer Lee. “He was a grade above us when we were in high-school in East Brunswick. He’s half-Asian, half-white,” he told her, but she could only faintly remember, adding it didn’t matter.
Once at the police station, Radha rushed in, gripping Sam’s hand and confronting the officer at the front desk. James stayed close and made sure his hands were out of his pockets.
“I’m sorry ma’am but Officer Lee is on patrol but I’ll be sure to pass the message along,” the sergeant explained.
Radha was a foot shorter than the sergeant but shook her finger at him, yelling that Officer Lee would pay. James could see some of the other officers at their desks glancing at them, some grinning as they typed up their reports.
. . .
James decided to get some ice cream for Sam. They stopped at a local ice cream parlor, where Radha called up her friends, telling them about what happened and how they should be vigilant. James sat outside with Sam at one of the tables with the umbrellas. But Sam just stared at his ice cream in the tiny bowl.
“Are you okay buddy?” James asked.
“Daddy,” Sam said, looking up at James. “What’s a nigger?”
James winced. But explained that the word was a bad one used by bad people.
“So I’m not a nigger?” Sam asked.
James told him no, and encouraged him to eat the ice cream, which Sam finally did. After taking a few spoonfuls, Sam was smiling and saying how the ice cream made his teeth tingle.
James smiled too when Sam looked at him, giggling.
On the car ride home, he thought about Sam in the classroom, at one moment sitting and learning like any other day, and suddenly, hearing that word yelled at him on the playground, not knowing what it meant but feeling alone, feeling distant, feeling like a freak. Radha had called the principal again, finding out that Sam didn’t fight at all, but rather, the other boy chanted the word at him, and when Sam told him to stop, the boy got louder. Radha told James this while Sam was asleep in the backseat.
“You need to do something,” she said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll have a talk with him when he’s feeling better,” James answered, who mapped out a conversation about their family history. James, whose mother was black American and his father an immigrant from India, kept old pictures of his parents and relatives, ready to be shown in moments like these.
Radha agreed with the plan, but added that James needed to make sure what he would be doing was enough.
“It’s just going to keep getting worse unless something concrete gets done,” she said. “Sam sees you as his hero. You’re his protector.”
James said he understood and kept driving.
. . .
The next day, James drove Sam to school instead of dropping him off at the bus stop. Radha was against the idea but James said he wanted more time to talk with him.
James shared their family history with Sam, telling him about how one of his grandfathers was the first few black Americans to own a business in New Jersey.
Sam asked if it sold ice cream and James chuckled.
Sam was laughing when police lights suddenly flashed in the rearview.
James pulled over, and told Sam everything would be alright.
Sam was silent again.
The officer tapped on the glass with his baton, and James lowered the window, asking what he could help the officer with.
But James glimpsed the officer’s face and his smile vanished.
With his nametag L-E-E dangling from his uniform, the officer told James to step outside. James glanced at Sam, as he exited the vehicle, and stood on the side of the road, with his hands above his head.
Office Lee, wearing sunglasses, patted him down and as his hands moved back up James’ body, he leaned in and whispered, “If you ever try to get my son in trouble again, I will make your life a living hell.”
James could feel the sweat burning his eyes.
With his arms still held high, James looked at his son through the windshield, his eyes wide.
. . .
James was born and raised in East Brunswick, a suburban enclave a few miles away from his alma mater Rutgers. His parents owned a small home in a society complex, where everyone had green lawns and pools. After James was engaged to Radha, they saved money so that they too could have a home of their own. They ended up in Jefferson, with a 2 bedroom 2 bathroom house, alongside their neighbors who also had guest rooms and white fences.
James tugged on his tie, and drank more coffee in the break room. He finished his reports, and went back home, where he ate dinner with his family, where they watched their favorite TV shows and avoided the news since it was mostly about the protests over Eric Garner.
They visited family in East Brunswick one afternoon, as the Millions March took place in New York City.
Sam was reading his stack of books in the dining room as the rest of the men in the family gathered around the TV.
One of James’ cousins, Rajesh, chuckled at the protesters on screen and changed the channel to a golf game instead.
After they watched the man with the club tap a ball into a hole, Rajesh asked James about what happened with Sam, if the other kids at school were still teasing him.
James admitted he wasn’t sure, omitting the fact that Sam had stopped eating ice cream, and stopped writing his stories.
Rajesh crossed his arms and leaned back into the cushion. He said that maybe someone should cut Sam’s hair.
James immediately looked away from the screen.
“What for?” James said.
Rajesh, still staring at the screen, explained that it was better for Sam to “blend in.”
James didn’t respond but stared.
Everyone else in the room realized this. Rajesh finally looked over at James.
“Dude, it’s what we did,” Rajesh said. “In order to live in places like these, with the great schools, safe communities, you got to adapt to your surroundings.”
James stood up and yelled at Rajesh to keep his dumb thoughts to himself.
Rajesh stood up too, and clenched his fists.
“What’s going on?” Radha said after running downstairs.
But James was focused on Rajesh. He took a step forward, and felt hands grabbing his waist.
He looked down and saw Sam looking back up at him.
“Daddy, it’s okay,” he said.
James’ shoulders eased, and he took a deep breath. They left.
Back at home, Radha and James discussed what happened.
“I agree that your cousin is a prick,” she said, as James changed in front of the bedroom mirror. “But, he was only offering a solution,” she added.
“He’s an idiot,” James muttered, as he slowly unbuttoned his shirt.
“Baby, our son isn’t himself anymore.”
“You don’t think I can see that?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that so far, you haven’t been able to solve the issue, and maybe we’re not being realistic. Maybe we do need to look at all the options.”
“And what are those options?”
“We can move Sam to a private school. We can move to someplace else even.”
“Is it? Then tell me what’s the alternative? Because I want our son to be happy.”
James looked down at his hands, as his fingers unbuttoned his shirt.
. . .
Sofa. TV. Pictures of bucolic European villagers, of places never visited, hung on the wall. Found in a flea market but from afar, looked priceless.
James stared at the ceiling as he lay in bed, as moonlight flowed in, revealing the watches on the table, the various skin creams and necklaces.
Radha was lying on her side, facing away from him.
James stared at the ceiling, remembering the time he was in grade school and he brought Indian food from home for lunch and how everyone crowded around, holding their noses and saying how gross it was, of how his mother heard him say what happened and bought him slices of cold bologna and white bread for the rest of the year.
. . .
It was the week before Christmas vacation when James arrived to an empty home. At first, he assumed that Sam’s bus was running late or that Radha picked him up from school and was still finishing errands. But after an hour of waiting and trying to eat, he paced the living-room. Fortunately, just as the afternoon began to fade, the front door clicked open and in stepped Radha and Sam. James rushed toward them to give Sam a hug but after seeing Sam for the first time all day, he stopped in his tracks.
“Hello Daddy!” Sam greeted, with a wide smile.
Radha slowly shut the door.
“Hi honey,” she said.
James looked at Sam’s shaved head and then at Radha.
“What happened…?” he said.
“Honey, I should’ve told you but…”
“Daddy! Let’s have some ice cream!” Sam cheered, taking James’ hand and leading him to the kitchen, where although shocked, James managed to fill a bowl with mounds of chocolate and sat next to Sam as he ate it. He watched Sam gather spoonfuls and giggle.
James felt dizzy but whenever Sam would look at him, he made certain to smile.
“What will happen when his hair grows back?” James asked Radha when they were alone. “Are we just going to keep cutting it?”
“This is what had to be done,” she said. “You weren’t doing anything to protect your son.”
James glared and rushed out of the room and watched TV the entire night downstairs.
He watched the news, where they showed the video of Tamir Rice being shot by the police, twice in the chest.
. . .
The day was sunny and bright. James woke up, kissed Radha good-bye and hugged Sam, before they left for school and work. After they were gone, James called his office and told them he was sick. He then called the police precinct and told the sergeant that he called the school to complain about Officer Lee’s son. The sergeant said he would pass the message along.
James tried to eat but his stomach was tight. He wore jeans and a shirt and drove around town. As the day shifted from morning to noon, he was still driving around when finally a car eased behind him and honked. He peeked into the mirror and saw the person’s face in the other car. James pulled over, as the other car drove next to his and lowered their window.
“How do you want to do this?” said Officer Lee, who was dressed in civilian clothes but wearing the sunglasses.
“How about we go to that empty field where you got your ass beat by everyone in high-school?” James said.
Officer Lee remained emotionless.
“Follow me,” he responded and drove ahead.
James waited until Officer Lee’s car was down the block before starting his.
. . .
They drove to the empty fields behind the EB High School, where a stadium had once been. Most of the homes in the area had signs reading FORECLOSED planted on their front lawns. They parked their cars on the edges of the dirt field and stood face to face in the middle.
Office Lee loomed over James, but James made sure to maintain eye contact.
“I thought I told you not to bother my son,” Officer Lee said.
“Richard,” James said. “Stop the act. We both know you’re still a scared shitless kid inside.”
“Oh yea? Well, this kid has a badge now and training. You sure you want to mess with that?”
“Mess? Who even says that? And besides, I’m asking you to tell your son to stop bothering mine. That’s all.”
Richard laughed. “My son is doing what you wished your son would’ve done,” Richard said. “My son at least knows the rules of the game.”
James warned him once more but Richard kept laughing.
“At least I didn’t act like a bitch and cry when I didn’t get a date to the prom,” James finally blurted.
Richard stopped smiling and glared.
James swallowed but stood his ground.
Richard, suddenly, charged and put James in a headlock.
James somehow managed to slip out from Richard’s grasp. Gasping for air, he dodged Richard’s punch, but Richard kept swinging, hitting James in the jaw, causing him to tumble.
Richard laughed as James kept trying to steady himself. James thought of what Rajesh said, of Sam asking him what the word meant. The anger surged. He took another shot to the ribs but with the adrenaline now pumping, he responded with a punch of his own, knocking Richard to the ground. Dust clouds formed all around them, turning their eyes red.
Eventually, they were both gasping for breath.
James saw Richard lying on his back, his chest rising and falling with his mouth open. James winced as he straightened up and plodded back to his car.
He got home as others were returning as well, wearing their black shoes and ties. The mailman was delivering letters from his white truck.
“Oh my god! What happened to you?” Radha screamed, grabbing James by the shoulders and leading him to the couch, where Sam was clapping his hands to an episode of Arthur.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” James repeated.
But Radha ran to the kitchen to get some towels and bandages.
Sam stared at James.
“Daddy, are you okay?” Sam asked.
James, with blood running down his face, smiled at his son.