The Stairwell

Gavin Jenkins

I leaned against the landing windowsill. Carrie descended the courthouse stairs and sat on a ledge a few steps above me. She removed Kleenex from her purse and began crying. John, her son, was on trial for shooting and paralyzing a police officer – my brother Aaron.

It was August, and in the sixteen months since the shooting, I had never considered her pain. I stepped toward Carrie but then hesitated, wondering what my family of cops would think if I consoled her.

Carrie was forty-nine and heavyset. She wore blue scrubs, had long, braided hair, and sobbed too loud to ignore. I climbed up and introduced myself. She extended her arm slowly, and as we shook hands, her grip was soft, palm wet and cold.

I looked down and said, “My family and I don’t hate you.”

Guilt fueled the lie. Carrie was one of four black women there for her son. The rest of the courtroom was white: the judge, jury, and our family. We filled the gallery with uncles and cousins – all cops. At home, we called Carrie garbage, her son an animal.

“I don’t hate you or your family either,” Carrie said.

Just then, my mom walked past the top of the stairs. She stopped, saw us, and kept going.

“Tell her I’m sorry she’s going through this too,” she said.

I believed Carrie's sincerity, but by pleading not guilty, her son was making Mom relive the shooting. It was day three of the trial, and already, Mom had watched the dashboard video of her son wrestling John, saw a photograph of a nine millimeter bullet lodged in her son’s spine, and listened to a doctor testify that he would never walk again.

Carrie wiped her eyes. “You have to understand,” she said. “This is my son’s whole life.”

Her son was twenty-five and faced a maximum of 126 years in prison. He’d been raised in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, educated in one of its worst schools. But his violent past made sympathy difficult. Before he’d turned eighteen, John had been arrested four times. Two incidents involved guns. The night he shot my brother, John had a warrant out for his arrest. He’d escaped from a halfway house, where he was staying as part of a pre-parole program after doing three to six years for armed robbery.

Carrie crossed her arms and rocked. “He’s a good boy. I know it.”

Relatives mocked my empathy the moment I exited the stairwell. “Let me guess,” one uncle said, “she said he was a good boy.” At lunch, a cousin wasn’t as nice: “Shouldn’t you be eating with your new family?” The next day, a family friend, also a cop, warned, “Don’t be naïve; she’s been wearing blinders since she lost him to the street.”

Only Mom was proud of my compassion for Carrie. While the jury deliberated, she ordered the others to stop harassing me.

"Leave him alone, please, for me," she said.

I was thankful for the protection. As the lone male civilian in the family, I’m used to verbal abuse. But more was at stake than losing a political debate on Thanksgiving. I feared a hung jury would vilify me for years.

That didn’t happen, though. John was found guilty on all counts. The judge said he was “a dangerous individual” who was “incapable of being rehabilitated.” He sentenced him to thirty to sixty-one years in prison. The relief I felt lasted almost as long as it took my brother to wheel out of the courtroom.

After sentencing, Carrie sat in the stairwell and cried into her phone. My cousin and I walked past her, and we heard her say, “I want to jump off a bridge.”

As we reached the next floor, my cousin said, “I’ll drive her to the bridge myself.” I begged my cousin for some humanity but was silenced by words I’ll never forget. “She raised that monster,” he said. “She deserves this.”

My mom’s brother, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather became police officers. And so she raised a cop. One morning, a few days after the trial, I visited Mom. I found her on the couch, holding her knees against her chest, crying. Her white hair was matted down. She’d been up since three a.m. because of a nightmare. I wrapped my arm around her, grabbed the remote, and turned off CNN’s coverage of Ferguson. She didn’t deserve the pain either.

Gavin Jenkins is a student in Pitt's nonfiction MFA program. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Beijing Review, Shenzhen Daily, Hot Metal Bridge, and The New Yinzer.