by Ruth Moors-D’Eredita
I’m not sure how much you already know. This is not something I’m proud of.
It was twelve years ago. There was a good kid, he was fourteen, two years younger than you are now. His name was Anthony Green.
I shot him, and he died.
I was a union electrician back then. Mom and I were separated. You were four years old.
I was not a great dad, and I was not a great adult. I’d bounced around for a while after you were born. I wanted to work, but I also wanted to drink. When the union job opened up, I took it. But I had no seniority, and the economy was bad. I’d go down to the union hall every day and check the job chart. Most days they didn’t use me. I was barely making a living that year.
Mom held it all together for us. She’d get home from work and make dinner and play with you. She read you your books before bed. She folded the laundry and watched her shows on TV at night.
I mostly drank. I drank in the house, and when Mom gave me the eye, I drank in the backyard. I busted things up. I drove drunk.
Mom got sick of it. I knew I was on thin ice with her. It unnerved me, like something was coming and I didn’t know what it was or how to get myself out of the way of it. She started looking at me with this sadness, and taking deep breaths.
“The breathing is how you tune me out,” I told her.
“It’s yoga breathing, Bobby,” she said. “Everything isn’t always about you.”
One night I came in late, drunk, and could barely walk. I bumped hard into the dresser in our bedroom. Mom sat up in bed and told me not to come home like that anymore.
“I’m sick of the goddamned drinking,” she said. “If you think you’re going to pass out every night like your father, you’re wrong.” My father was a good guy, and he worked hard, but Mom was right, he drank. He drank in his chair in the living room every night until he passed out.
I didn’t know when I was a kid that, your dad’s an alcoholic, you’re a sitting duck for it. I’m not excusing myself. I want you to know you have to be careful. If you remember anything from your Sweet Sixteen today, honey, remember that.
The next morning Mom took you to preschool, came back in the house, and threw me out. She told me to shape up. “Come get your things after work,” she said.
I went to stay with Grandmom.
I’d stop drinking, and make it a week, a month, and that’s when I knew I was in a battle. Even on the days I was working, when I didn’t feel like I was going to puke, I felt off.
I worked HVAC on the convention center for a while, then they put me on the parking garage at the stadium. I couldn’t concentrate for longer than a few minutes. I thought too far ahead. I panicked I’d never stay sober. Coffee went down like acid. I couldn’t eat. I slipped and drank a few times. After a few beers, I felt better.
The day I shot Anthony, I’d been sober again for a few weeks. But I hadn’t seen you in a month. Mom wasn’t calling me back. I had the shakes. That morning, I was down at the union hall looking at the job board. One of the foremen, Mike Doherty, came up to me.
I’d never been on a job with Doherty before. He was an old-timer, and kind of cantankerous. He was next in line to run our local. It felt like a chance to me.
“You’re with me today, Bob,” he said. “Clock in and meet me out back.”
What a shithole his truck was.
He says to me, “We have to look at 21st and Lehigh.”
Let me stop here and back up and say a couple things.
Number one, Philly has the oldest electrical grid in the country. We don’t shoot power out to one spot, like with direct current. It’s alternating, and there’s a lot of places for the grid to crash, all that extra equipment to balance the current. And it had been raining. When it rains hard, underground equipment goes down. Every component has to be cleaned and tested before they’ll send power out again. And North Philly is not at the top of anyone’s list for fixing things when they go down.
Number two, my entire life, I avoided north Philly. Most white people did. Every day, we heard about shootings and carjacks and gangs. One year, my mom went completely ballistic because the city was going to bus north Philly kids to our school. And my dad, like with everything else in his life, was disappointed by north Philly. When he got home from the service, he went to pharmacy school at Temple University. He loved it up there, he loved Broad Street, he loved the neighborhood. He hated that it went downhill. He’d read an article in the paper and say, “I guess they’ll knife you for a nickel up there now.” He’d watch the evening news and say, “Jesus Christ, what did they do to Beirut? It looks like north Philly.”
He never thought about why that happened out there, and I didn’t either.
That was my frame of mind when Doherty told me to clock in. Before I got in his truck, I went out to mine and got my Beretta. I tucked it under my shirt.
I should have told Doherty I was on edge, but I was intimidated. Doherty was not the type of guy to chat. He was listening to the radio. The Phils were ten games out already, the second week of May. They’d lost three of the last four at home. I remember Doherty shaking his head and snapping off the radio like he couldn’t take it anymore. We pulled up to a video store.
The store was in an old brick building with apartments upstairs. They’d been on auxiliary power for a few days. The guys who went up in the bucket to check the pole earlier said the transformer checked out fine. It was our job to go inside and check the panel boards.
A group of kids stood on the corner. Up in an apartment window, a woman looked at us. The entrance to the store was grimy and the front windows were caged over. I followed Doherty inside.
“Yeah, how you doing?” Doherty said to the guy behind the counter. “Here to check your electrical.”
The guy pointed to the back room. I took my flashlight from my belt and turned it on.
We saw a hallway and door. Doherty opened the door, and in the dim light we saw a toilet and janitorial supplies. No panel board anywhere.
Doherty said, “Probably in the cellar.”
“Want me to go ahead? See what I can see?”
I was trying to make a good impression with Doherty. I needed the income to prove myself to your mom. If a guy like Doherty liked you, you worked.
I started down the cellar.
I didn’t make it three steps when I hear a commotion on the landing behind me.
I turned, and in the beam of my flashlight saw an animal hanging from Doherty’s pant leg. Doherty cursed and kicked the wall and whatever it was fell off and ran past my boots into the cellar. We heard it hit the water.
I got itchy all over.
“Jesus Christ,” Doherty said. “How wet is it down there?”
I shined my light and we both saw water up to the second stair.
“Yeah, okay, no,” Doherty said.
I followed him back into the store. The kids who were out on the corner when we arrived were standing inside now, joking around up front.
“Yeah, we didn’t find anything,” Doherty said to the guy behind the counter. “Someone will get back to you.”
The store was narrow, and the kids faced us, standing shoulder to shoulder in a little semi-circle between us and the door.
“Excuse me, son,” Doherty said to a big kid in the middle.
The kid didn’t move.
“Excuse me, son,” Doherty said again.
This time Doherty took a little quarter step and started in just slightly with his shoulder between the big kid and the one next to him. The kid on Doherty’s left yielded a little, but the big one planted himself and lowered his chin at Doherty. Some alert shot up inside me and surged into my brain, like a flare.
That fast the big kid swung and knocked Doherty to the ground. I lunged to grab Doherty but he fell hard and one of the other kids jumped on top of him and starting pounding him. The guy at the counter shouted “Hey hey hey!”
I wanted to get my back against something. I doubted I could make it out to the truck, and I couldn’t leave Doherty in there alone. The kids to the left of me were laughing. They were young. I just remember thinking No no no. I squared off at the kid in front of me, Anthony Green.
During the investigation, the guy at the counter told the detectives that he heard me say, No dude, come on, dude. He heard me say Doherty was an old man, tell your friends to leave him alone, you can have our money. Call it a day, man.
I don’t remember talking to Anthony.
I remember Anthony’s eyes. The excitement shining in them. Anthony’s eyes were filled with that wonder little kids lose after a while. He was having fun. I can still see his sneakers and his pants. They were nice school uniform pants. He had a neat haircut, shaved up the side. I remember thinking he wasn’t very big.
Anthony held out his hand and told me to give him my wallet. I looked down past his open palm. On the floor, the kids were going through Doherty’s pockets. I was scared. I thought to reach inside my shirt and grab my Beretta. Instead, I saw myself put my wallet in Anthony’s hand.
Anthony lifted his shirt and put my wallet in his waistband. Then he raised his fist like he was going to pop me, too, like his friend popped Doherty.
I reared back a little and Anthony’s fist grazed my shoulder. I lost my balance and lurched backward. I tripped over Doherty’s leg and landed on my back on the floor next to him. Doherty was gasping, struggling to get up. I tasted stomach acid in my mouth. I looked up and Anthony was straddling me, looking down at me. I grabbed inside my shirt for my Beretta and leaned up and fired it at him.
Anthony fell back. He was making high, gulping noises. Now Doherty was on his knees, patting himself frantically. He looked at me and saw the Beretta.
I got on my feet and knelt next to Anthony. Blood was pulsing from his neck. It was staining the floor between us. Doherty looked from the blood to me with wild eyes. He shouted, “Who told you to fucking carry on my fucking job!”
I spread my hands on Anthony’s collarbone and pressed down with my palms. I thought soon we would hear sirens, and I knelt there, pressing down. Anthony’s blood filled the spaces between my fingers and colored my hands up to the wrists.
“Help is coming. Help is coming, buddy,” I told Anthony.
In that moment, all I wanted was for Anthony to live. Wanting that, being unable to bring him back, has crowded out everything else. Anthony alive was all I wanted in the moments after I shot him, and all I’ve wanted since. I have never been clearer about anything. What I want most in life is for Anthony Green to be alive.
I was still kneeling over him when the police got there. They took Anthony to the ER at Temple, and he died.
Anthony’s mother gave a statement to the prosecutor. The day Anthony died, she’d allowed him to walk home from school for the first time. He hated taking the bus. His mother said Anthony would have had straight A’s that semester, but he had a C in Spanish. She told him he could walk home with his friends when he got the C up to a B. So after every Spanish class, Anthony asked his teacher to figure his average. The day before I shot Anthony, he got an A on a quiz. That afternoon, he got off the bus, ran inside, showed his mother his B average.
The next day he walked home with his friends. On the way they all stopped at the video store to see the Nintendos.
Anthony’s mother said, “My son is dead because they see us different. My son wasn’t worth anything to the man who shot him.”
I can never stop hearing what she said. Because when I shot Anthony, everyone assured me, you get jumped, all bets are off, you’re justified. My lawyer said it and it turned out to be true. The witnesses did not help the prosecutor. The guy at the counter told how before he ran out the back, he heard me plead with Anthony. The lady upstairs didn’t hear anything. And none of the kids remembered what happened the same way. One of them was twelve years old. Two of them had priors. All but the little one had reefer. My lawyer punched holes in all their stories. I got what they call a judgment of acquittal. And here is what I could never say out loud, but I want to say to you.
Once I gave Anthony my wallet, I didn’t have to shoot him. I could have stayed quiet down there on the floor. I know right from wrong. The detectives who interviewed me got it right. Anthony would have followed the rest of his friends out the door. I knew that to be true then. Reading his mother’s statement didn’t so much confirm this truth to me as repeat what I already knew was true. I killed Anthony in a moment of fear, but there was anger in me in that moment, too. My anger pulled the trigger. And I haven’t been punished for that.
The day of the acquittal, I drove up to see Mom and you. In the driveway up at the house, there were leaves all over the pavement. I saw your scooter leaning against the front step. I stood there for a minute, looking at the doorbell I installed when Mom and I moved in. I rang it.
I heard you run for the door and wait there on the other side before opening it, just like Mom taught you. Then I heard Mom, and the door opened.
“Daddy!” you said. You were excited to see me.
I bent down to pick you up. “Hi Peach,” I said. You inspected my ear with your little fingers. I felt your breath on my cheek.
“Mommy, it’s Daddy,” you said, like a little reporter.
Mom looked at you and me and said, “We have gymnastics at four.”
I said to her, “Can I talk to you?”
“Honey, go on, get ready for tumbling,” Mom said to you. “Daddy will still be here when you come down.”
I will never be the kind of person who thinks ahead to reassure my own kid like that. I put you down and Mom and I watched you run upstairs.
Mom said, “Well?”
“Donna, I just came from court. I came straight here to see you,” I said.
“Are you drinking?”
“The judge granted the acquittal.”
“Well you didn’t do it on purpose. Jesus.”
I wanted to touch her. I wanted to reach my arms around her and gather her in and put my face against her neck and close my eyes and bawl, right there. My mind was saying, I did do it on purpose.
Instead I said, “I will do better.”
“Bobby, spare me,” she said. “And you’re planning to do what about work?”
“They say I can go back. I don’t know how much work I’ll get, but I can go back. Probably have to do nights for a while.”
“Nights, Bobby. Are you serious?”
I closed my eyes. I knew what she was going to say.
The union didn’t have to do anything for me. The cost-cutting guy in the mayor’s office said not only did the unions rip the city off on pricing, but were criminals, too. A couple union thugs killed an honor student who’d done nothing more than walk into a video store after school. Maybe, the mayor said, it was time for the city to re-open all the union contracts. Maybe it was time to start thinking about right-to-work laws. Make the city more competitive for business.
But Doherty dug in. He told us one big non-union building goes up, that’s like Stage 1 cancer. You throw everything you got at it, try to cure it. Two go up, it’s Stage 2. You don’t want it to get any worse. You hit the open job sites—the non-union sites—in the middle of the night and tear them up. Doherty’s guys could destroy hundreds of thousands of dollars in concrete and steel and equipment and labor in half an hour.
Mom knew what was what.
“First off,” she said, “nights is the worst thing you can do. They’ll take advantage of you now. They’ll have you out there busting up sites in the middle of the night, like you see in the paper. And for what? You get acquitted, and now you’re going to go bust up scab sites for them? You going to prison for them after all? What are you thinking?”
“Not all night work is like that,” I said. “There’s good third shift work too.”
She rolled her eyes at me. You know your mom. Her big thing is, Actions speak louder than words. I had not even got to what I came to tell her.
So I said, “I want to live here with you and Kayleigh again.”
Just then you came running down the steps in your gymnastics outfit and handed Mom your pink hairband. In two seconds, Mom put your hair in that ponytail like a little waterfall down your back.
I said, “Give me another chance, Donna.”
I said it so low, I hardly heard it myself. But I said it.
“We have to go,” she said.
I walked you out to the car and strapped you in your seat. I watched you and Mom drive up the street and turn onto the avenue. I got in my truck and drove back downtown.
Inside the union hall, guys were reading the paper and drinking coffee. I went into the back office. Doherty’s door was open.
“Bob,” he said, “What can I do for you?”
He did not stand up or even look at me full on.
“Hey Mike,” I said. “Thanks for taking me back.”
“Them’s the rules. So what can I do you for,” he says again.
“Have anything you could put me on?”
I tried again. “I’m trying to patch things up with my wife. I have to work.”
As soon as I heard my words in the air between us, I thought about what Mom said when she kicked me out. Not everything is about me.
I tried to rephrase.
“You can count on me, Mike. I’m sorry about what happened.”
“When you available?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Might have something for you in south Jersey.”
“Don’t thank me. See Dave Joyce.”
“Thank you,” I said anyway.
At the pay window, Doherty’s secretary handed me a slip of paper with Dave Joyce’s number. I called him and he told me third shift on a cold storage warehouse job started at ten, he’d meet me there.
I drove east over the bridge across the Delaware. On the Jersey side, I filled up the truck at a Quik-Stop. I went inside to pay and bought a sandwich. At a picnic table in the parking lot, I ate and watched the planes take off at the airport. The sun set behind the oil tanks on the Pennsy side. I got back in my truck and slept for a while.
Then I drove out to the job site to be on time for Dave Joyce.
When I got out there, the site was at the edge of the Pine Barrens. I could see they’d cleared acreage for a warehouse. It’s always so dark out there. There was no temporary lighting up yet, and a lot of the time, I installed the temp lighting. So I started getting my tools out of the back of my truck. If there’d been a second shift on that job, it was gone. In my headlights, I saw they had the concrete pad done, and were starting to frame.
I turned off my truck. Soon Dave Joyce showed up. He flipped on his headlamp so we could see. He had his belt on. He had an eight-pound sledge in one hand and his toolbox in the other.
He looked me over and said, “Ready? Follow me.”
I walked behind him across an apron of surge gravel. He reached the chain link security barrier first. In the light of his headlamp, I saw the contractor’s signage. It was an open site. There was no union on the job, and there was no third shift. Someone left the fork latch unlocked for us. I never found out who. Dave Joyce lifted it and we walked through the gate.
I followed him to the edge of the concrete pad and tried to swallow the fullness in my throat. I watched Dave Joyce line himself up to where the first, newly installed anchor bolt entered its steel column. He hoisted the sledge like a baseball bat, swung low at the bolt, and smashed it. The new-cured concrete cracked all around. The steel column it held in place rang and vibrated and gave way. The column tilted away from its base and took the concrete with it. Like when a tree falls and pulls up its root ball.
The half-circle of dark, piney woods around us absorbed the sound like it was nothing.
“Now do the rest of them,” Dave Joyce said, and handed me the sledge.
About the Author:
Ruth lives and works in Vienna, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She is a member of the Woodbridge and Stafford workshops and is writing her first novel. Punishment is her first published story.”