Greg Bottoms ~ Skittles

1

At a Wawa gas sta­tion and min­i­mart in Newport News, Virginia, a land­scap­er named Scott stood in line to buy a bot­tle of Gatorade. He had been work­ing for the city, weed­ing and replant­i­ng a wide medi­an strip and a flowerbed at the mouth of an off ramp, which sur­round­ed a sign cel­e­brat­ing the incor­po­ra­tion of the munic­i­pal­i­ty from one of the orig­i­nal Virginia colony shires in 1896. The job—half a day, Scott thought, most of the day maybe—was adja­cent to the store.

He was a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege stu­dent tak­ing a break from class­es for the sum­mer. He was twen­ty-four. He had been think­ing late­ly about join­ing the Army Reserves. He thought some­times about being a cop, but he wor­ried about the small spi­der-web tat­too on his neck and the let­ters P-E-A-C-E inked over the top of his right knuck­les. He had an on-again, off-again girl­friend named Courtney, with whom he had a two-year-old daugh­ter. He had some minor legal trou­bles, pot pos­ses­sion and an old DUI, and more than a few bad deci­sions behind him, includ­ing hous­ing an uncle who had an arrest war­rant out on him for thou­sands of dol­lars of park­ing tick­ets and three skipped court dates. He had a heat rash form­ing on the inside of his left thigh, which I know about because I would lat­er see it in the morgue.

 

2

Like most of the sub­jects, the peo­ple, I wrote about back then, I knew very lit­tle about Scott, what he was like, who he real­ly was. He was the vic­tim of a crime by the time I got to him. And in that way, I was like a vul­ture, hov­er­ing over the maimed and the new­ly dead, pick­ing at them, col­lect­ing what use­ful bits I could. My job was to shape some ver­sion of a true sto­ry around a crim­i­nal inci­dent. Keep it sim­ple. Vocabulary hov­er­ing around six­th-grade lev­el. Eighth grade was a lit­tle fan­cy. Six-hun­dred to twelve-hun­dred words in the crime sec­tion, C 1 to C 3.

 

3

In the store, stand­ing in line at the reg­is­ter, Scott, who was white, watched as a group of three black youths came in. They were twelve, thir­teen, and thir­teen. One was a Jamaican cit­i­zen, a cous­in recent­ly relo­cat­ed to live with extend­ed fam­i­ly. The store clerk behind the cash reg­is­ter was a South Asian man, Pakistani, in his mid-thir­ties.

As a crime jour­nal­ist, I was remind­ed almost dai­ly of the com­plex work­ings of class, race, and eth­nic­i­ty, though I nev­er explic­it­ly wrote about them for the paper because my edi­tor, a nice, red-faced fat man named Billy, said it was spec­u­la­tive and “the­o­ret­i­cal” to talk about such things as causative to any­thing, not to men­tion dicey and sen­si­tive and ask­ing for hate mail from both white peo­ple and black peo­ple. He for­bade it. He liked to remind me that I had failed to become a human­i­ties pro­fes­sor, that my cul­tur­al analy­sis—he always said this with deri­sive emphasis—was not part of this news­pa­per gig. Stick to who, what, when, where, he’d say. And I’d say, What about why? It’s the five W’s of jour­nal­ism. And he’d say, Why is bull­shit. Newspapers have nev­er once got­ten Why right so we don’t even try any­more.

It’s true, what he said. Why is neb­u­lous, an edu­cat­ed guess, a stab in the dark. Newspapers recount a fore­ground­ed sto­ry of a crime. They are so wed­ded to the dubi­ous notion of facts only that the truth—always gray—is often lost, some­times nev­er touched. City news­pa­pers in con­ser­v­a­tive areas of the South like the one I worked for most­ly turn their gaze from the ele­phant in the room—the back­ground of race rela­tions, insti­tu­tion­al­ized prej­u­dice, the deter­min­ing nature of his­to­ry and laws, pover­ty, and inequal­i­ty in America, which is so often at least part of what has brought us here, to the­se moments of vio­lence about which I spent a decade writ­ing. Not that any amount of phi­los­o­phy or the­o­ry (or pol­i­tics!) ever stopped any­one from end­ing up worm food.

 

4

Am I sound­ing hard-boiled? Or more like a bor­ing soci­ol­o­gist? This is the point in a crime novel—and I’ve read hun­dreds and hap­pen to be ABD (all but dis­ser­ta­tion) in English Literature, with a spe­cial­ty (no shit) in a neo-Marxist the­o­ret­i­cal approach to the ori­gins, his­to­ry, and forms of American noir and crime fic­tion dat­ing back to Poe—where I would reveal to you, as your nar­ra­tor, my moral seri­ous­ness, my sketchy and trag­ic past, and my self-destruc­tive ten­den­cies that hap­pen to be part and parcel of a sin­gle-mind­ed devo­tion to, an obses­sion with, truth and jus­tice. There is some­thing to this in my case—maybe I am a kind of clas­sic nar­ra­tor, an over-read and self-con­scious cliché—but my inten­tion here, in what fol­lows, is not to write a trea­tise or a mem­oir about my mean­ing­less emo­tion­al life but to return to some of the news­pa­per dis­patch­es I wrote as a reporter and retell them, with a bit more depth, I hope, because I feel I failed first time around in my oblig­a­tion to the Truth, which is obvi­ous­ly not a thing but rather a process and a pur­suit, and in my com­plic­i­ty in pro­duc­ing tepid and trite half-truths, and in my unwill­ing­ness to pur­sue Why. In the end, Why is the most impor­tant ques­tion, the bloody and beat­ing heart of every crim­i­nal mat­ter.

 

5

Getting ready to pay, the cashier asked Scott to keep an eye on the boys while he cracked open a sleeve of pen­nies and anoth­er of dimes, pulling apart the pink paper, look­ing down into the change-tray com­part­ments so as not to spill coins all over the floor. He told Scott they—the black kids from the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, but real­ly he meant young black males in general—came in and stole can­dy and some­times bot­tles of malt liquor and screw-cap wine. No prob­lem, Scott said. I’ll watch them.

He turned, as if look­ing out the win­dow at traf­fic mov­ing slow­ly through the hot and hazy day. And out of the cor­ner of his eye he saw one kid lift­ing his shirt and shov­ing a big bag of Skittles into the waist­band of his shorts. Kid was brazen about it.

Hey, lit­tle man,” Scott said, turn­ing quick­ly now, no hes­i­ta­tion at all, act­ing like that cop in train­ing he want­ed to be. “Drop the can­dy.” He walked toward the kid. “Fucking drop it right now, you lit­tle bitch.”

The clerk, fin­ished with the change, walked quick­ly toward the door to block their way out. It was going to be a col­lar, a citizen’s arrest.

Scott told all the kids to lift their shirts up. They said, Fuck you, man. Then he got in their faces, one by one, and shout­ed for them to lift their shirts or he would beat their ass­es right here.

They lift­ed their shirts, reveal­ing more stolen items in their waist­bands and their skele­tal ribcages.

The clerk cursed at them, then went toward one, who grabbed his arm at the elbow and pushed him hard to the side. Then a com­mo­tion, push­ing, pulling shirts, scuf­fling and run­ning (all of which I saw from a diag­o­nal­ly down­ward angle in grainy black-and-white sur­veil­lance footage lat­er). All three kids some­how ran out the door in a scram­ble of dropped items and a tipped-over news­pa­per rack (the news­pa­per I worked for).

Scott gave chase. He was pumped up on adren­a­line. I think he imag­ined the cops shak­ing his hand and thank­ing him lat­er. He sprint­ed for a cou­ple of blocks, into a poor, all-black neigh­bor­hood, and looked like he was going to catch at least one of the kids. But they knew the neigh­bor­hood, turned a cor­ner, leapt a fence, squeezed between trash­cans and kicked-open bags in an alley, and were gone, a stealth unit of can­dy thieves.

Scott pant­ed and cursed in the bright Virginia heat and humid­i­ty. He returned to the store, where he shook hands with the Pakistani clerk for their badass stand for hon­esty, which was also caught on tape. He got the Gatorade and a can­dy bar free. He went back out to the wide medi­an strip, smil­ing about his right­eous­ness and brav­ery, to fin­ish his work. He had left a wheel­bar­row, a hoe, and a shov­el out there, assum­ing it would be hard to steal them with the heavy traf­fic to get through (though this was a place where an unlocked bike would van­ish as if tele­port­ed). It was two in the after­noon. An hour lat­er, the clerk would become a key wit­ness.

 

6

One of the kids was named Damian Childs. That name nev­er made into my arti­cles because he was a minor. He was a sev­en­th grader at the near­by mid­dle school, a place with a full secu­ri­ty staff and met­al detec­tors and reg­u­lar vis­its from the cops. He was a decent stu­dent, almost fin­ished for the year. No prob­lems at school. No arrests. Teachers thought he was great, espe­cial­ly rel­a­tive to some of the behav­ior prob­lems with the oth­er stu­dents. Principal sang his prais­es as a polite, qui­et young man.

Damian had gone to the store to steal a bag of Skittles for his six­teen-year-old cous­in, Big Alvin. Big Alvin had told him to do it and, accord­ing to the peo­ple I would lat­er inter­view, none of whom would speak on the record, Damian had to do it or Big Alvin would have beat­en him bloody and sense­less.

 

7

In struc­tural or Marxist crim­i­nol­o­gy, if you’ll indul­ge me for a sec­ond, the the­o­ry is that all crime is caused, at base, by a his­to­ry of inequal­i­ty and pro­found­ly unjust social sys­tems, which cor­don off the poor and those out­side of pow­er, through hous­ing and edu­ca­tion and judi­cial poli­cies and court actions, in legale­se and over decades and even cen­turies, caus­ing an unceas­ing set of neg­a­tive pres­sures on lives, fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties that even­tu­al­ly lead to abnor­mal­ly high instances of crime, includ­ing theft, nar­cotics abuse, rape, and mur­der. (I read a lot of soci­ol­o­gy and crim­i­nol­o­gy dur­ing my decade as a crime reporter, and plen­ty before that as a burnt-out Ph.D. stu­dent, but none of this stopped me from get­ting jumped a few times and hav­ing my nose bro­ken by a thrown bot­tle.)

Big Alvin fit nice­ly into Marxist crim­i­no­log­i­cal the­o­ry. It would go some­thing like this: American slav­ery, more than half a cen­tu­ry of Jim Crow and lynch­ings of black males, eco­nom­ic and judi­cial pres­sures that stress and destroy fam­i­lies, an inabil­i­ty to acquire equal edu­ca­tion or wealth to pass on to the next gen­er­a­tion, a cor­don­ing off of com­mu­ni­ties into poor and dan­ger­ous neigh­bor­hoods and low-employ­ment areas and sub-par schools, fur­ther stress­ing and destroy­ing fam­i­lies, and a heavy police pres­ence in the­se neighborhoods—public health “hot zones”—which results in high-vol­umes of crim­i­nal charges, crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions, and unfair plea deals, which the charged, black males in my exam­ple, often take to avoid wild over-sen­tenc­ing because of infe­ri­or crim­i­nal defense pro­vid­ed by the state, the same state that is polic­ing and pros­e­cut­ing them, the same state whose laws and poli­cies have per­pet­u­al­ly dis­en­fran­chised them. Follow that sen­tence and, accord­ing to Marx, right after the peri­od you can end up with a guy like Big Alvin, a very pissed-off, vio­lent young man with no false hope and no delu­sions about hav­ing a good, safe, hap­py life accord­ing to the rules and sys­tems of his home­land, all stacked again­st him, a guy who knows he’s head­ed for jail or death and thus real­ly does not give a fuck. Don’t get me wrong: he was an ass­hole, but he was an ass­hole in a very dis­tinct American his­tor­i­cal, social, and cul­tur­al con­text. His his­to­ry and sit­u­a­tion and life would make an ass­hole out of, say, nine of ten peo­ple.

Anyway, Big Alvin was a cold, hard killer, though at six­teen, at the time of this inci­dent, he hadn’t killed any­one yet (he wouldn’t do that until he was nine­teen, when he would kill two men and a wom­an with a stolen police baton and a hunt­ing knife over some drugs; total car­nage, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry).

 

8

Damian and his two friends knew there was a prob­lem. Big Alvin told them to do some­thing and they had failed to do it. They gath­ered behind a fence, pant­i­ng from the run, to try to fig­ure out how to save them­selves.

One of Damian’s friends sug­gest­ed they say the white guy jumped them.

They had to say some­thing.

 

9

Big Alvin sat on two milk crates stacked on top of each oth­er. His throne, in a wide back alley behind a strip mall. He asked where his shit was. The boys said a white guy jumped them, that he was act­ing like he was a cop though he wasn’t a cop. He took every­thing.

 

10

Big Alvin, Damian, and six oth­er kids, rang­ing in age from twelve to six­teen, walked toward to the store. Scott was in the medi­an, in the mid­dle of after­noon traf­fic, fin­ish­ing the weed­ing and plant­i­ng.

Hey,” Big Alvin yelled. The kids were stand­ing on a side­walk, across two lanes of traf­fic. “Hey, sher­iff!”

Scott was on his knees. Heard some­thing over the roar of traf­fic. He looked up. He was per­plexed at first. Then he saw the three shoplifters from ear­lier and knew this was a pos­se that had come just for him. He stood up. He yelled, “Go home, boys. Go back to your fuck­ing dad­dy-less ghet­to where you belong.” There were six of them, but they were young. Half hadn’t gone through puber­ty yet and were small. Scott wasn’t scared. He was pissed off.

The rest hap­pened in less than two and a half min­utes, accord­ing to the police report, which had many quotes from the Wawa clerk.

The boys ran across the lanes of traf­fic, set­ting off honk­ing and screech­ing tires. Big Alvin, who was big­ger and stronger than Scott, threw Scott to the ground, and the rest of the boys kicked him in the ribs and neck and head. One boy, no one knows who, hit him in the head with a shov­el. When they stopped, Scott was cov­ered in blood, but still try­ing to get up off the ground and fight. He had a con­cus­sion, would have been dizzy and con­fused.

Traffic had stopped in the near­est lanes on either side of the medi­an, but the oth­er lanes were still mov­ing slow­ly, with peo­ple honk­ing.

Scott was spit­ting blood, slur­ring, and swing­ing. Still spew­ing racial slurs. Big Alvin hand­ed Damian the shov­el and told him to hit Scott.

Nah, man,” Damian said. He felt sick now, look­ing at this white man cov­ered in blood, still mum­bling and swing­ing. “He’s done. Let’s go. He’s done.”

Hit him and we’ll go,” Alvin said, no hur­ry at all. People were get­ting out of their cars now, half of them already talk­ing on cell phones. “He punked you, man. He called you a bitch. Said he would beat your ass. Hit him!”

So Damian, 12, swung and hit an already bleed­ing and bum­bling Scott in the shoul­der, spin­ning him around a quar­ter turn to face traf­fic. Scott was deliri­ous, bare­ly con­scious, and wob­bled out across the first lane of traf­fic, which was stopped, and into the sec­ond lane of traf­fic, where dri­vers had their vision obscured and didn’t know what the holdup was. Scott walked in front of a moth­er dri­ving a pick­up truck. The impact of the truck’s grill threw him hard to the ground, where he hit his already con­cussed head and went into a seizure and died with­in a cou­ple of min­utes, well before the ambu­lance showed up (because of the traf­fic jam). Big Alvin, Damian, and the four oth­er kids were a block away by the time Scott’s heart stopped.

 

11

I heard most of this sto­ry while inter­view­ing a friend of the boys and then a cou­ple of the boys’ moth­ers, one aunt, and three grand­mas (all off the record). Damian was seen hit­ting Scott with the shov­el last, send­ing him out into lanes of mov­ing traf­fic. He and the oth­er boys were picked up the same day and were set to be charged, most like­ly, with aggra­vat­ed assault and sec­ond-degree mur­der. Big Alvin said he had noth­ing to do with any of it—he was just there—and the oth­er kids were so afraid of him that none of them went again­st his sto­ry when talk­ing to the police. Then, strange­ly, Damian con­fessed to the crime, admit­ted to being sole­ly respon­si­ble for Scott’s death, which got the more seri­ous jail-time charges dropped again­st his cous­in and friends and got his charge pled down to sec­ond-degree manslaugh­ter. I found this perplexing—I often found the law and the courts perplexing—given what I’d learned in inter­views.

 

12

A cou­ple of weeks after this con­fes­sion, want­i­ng to under­stand the rea­son for it, I went unan­nounced to Damian’s house. His grand­moth­er, a school nurse, had post­ed his bail (which I doubt would have hap­pened if he were any old­er than twelve and she was not some­thing of a known activist in the com­mu­ni­ty), and he could stay at home until his court date, where he had agreed to plea, though he had many restric­tions and reg­u­lar vis­its from the police and social ser­vices. (And he was safe from any poten­tial vig­i­lante jus­tice because no whites—except me, I guess—would go into those poorest Newport News neigh­bor­hoods.) Most kids like him—I mean poor black kids from the­se blocks—just stay in jail until the hear­ing. For the most part, it is only mid­dle-class and rich white kids who’ve mown some­one down while drunk or raped a girl or injured some­one bad­ly in a bar fight who get to go home and sleep in their own beds until tri­al or sen­tenc­ing. Is this pro­gress, a poor black twelve-year-old mak­ing bail after a mur­der? In a way, yes, it is. Trust me, I was a crime reporter.

Damian wouldn’t talk to me on the day I showed up at his door. His court-appoint­ed lawyer had told him not to talk to any­one. He was tall for his age and skin­ny. He wore a LeBron James bas­ket­ball jer­sey and long black shorts. He sat in a lawn chair on their small porch, met­al bars over the win­dow behind him, while I talked briefly to his moth­er before she shuf­fled me away. He seemed, under­stand­ably, ner­vous and depressed.

His moth­er was young, may­be thir­ty, thir­ty-two, with neat, bronze-tipped dread­locks held back by a yel­low and green cloth head­band. She was impa­tient and force­ful and had a low opin­ion of me and my show­ing up at her door.

By this point, I had fig­ured out that Big Alvin was the main cul­prit, and while I thought Damian deserved to be pun­ished, along with the oth­er five kids, I knew that none of this would have hap­pened had Big Alvin not bul­lied Damian into first steal­ing the Skittles and then lat­er hit­ting Scott with the shov­el that final time. Damian had tried not to kill Scott by hit­ting him in the shoul­der, I was con­vinced, which caused him to stum­ble out into traf­fic and to his death. Witnesses had sub­mit­ted state­ments that Damian had not tak­en part in the beat­ing until the end, when he was forced to do so by Alvin, but none this mat­tered after the con­fes­sion. The pros­e­cu­tor ignored most of the record to tell a clean sto­ry about the guilt of a vio­lent twelve-year-old, take a plea deal, and move on to anoth­er case in a back­logged sys­tem.

Alvin will kill Damian,” Damian’s moth­er said to me that day. “Damian rolls on Alvin, he’s dead. He rolls on any­body, he’s dead. I’m dead. His grandma’s dead. Plain as that. You don’t know this place.”

But Damian could get a cou­ple of years of incar­cer­a­tion,” I said, “may­be more, and he’s only twelve.”

Oh, he will. I know that,” she said, look­ing at me and then at a sul­len Damian. “He knows that. His lawyer knows that. But he’s hard and he can do the time and then he’ll be out on pro­ba­tion and if he can stay clean until he’s eigh­teen, they’ll take the whole thing off his records. See, Alvin and Alvin’s old­er broth­er already explained all this to me, made it real clear, you know. If Alvin goes down, he’ll be charged and sen­tenced as an adult. He’ll get hard time. Decades. Cousins or not, Alvin and his broth­er will kill you for a wrong look. Like I said, I know what they will do to me and Damian if we give Alvin twen­ty years in pris­on.”

All of this was off the record, so I couldn’t write about it. But my boss wouldn’t have seen any of this as worth many column inch­es, any­way.

Damian was sen­tenced a lit­tle more than two months lat­er to two years in a state juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter, which can make a redeemable kid angry and hope­less, and then com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice and pro­ba­tion until his eigh­teen­th birth­day. I had oth­er crimes to cov­er. I lost track of him.

 

13

The last inter­view I did for this sto­ry was with Scott’s girl­friend, Courtney. She had plat­inum-blond hair and wore a tight tank top and jean short shorts. She lived in a small, sub­si­dized apart­ment with their daugh­ter. A piz­za box, an ash­tray filled with cig­a­rettes, soda cans. She was out of work and tem­porar­i­ly on wel­fare. Her cute, half-asleep tod­dler, blond like her, but nat­u­ral­ly so, sat on her lap. She and Scott had been estranged for a few months before he was killed. She showed no signs of grief over his death. In fact, of the time I was with her—maybe forty-five minutes—she spent most of it explain­ing how Scott had life insur­ance through the city worth 50K. She asked me if I knew a good, cheap lawyer who could help her sue Scott’s par­ents. She felt the 50K belonged to her and Scott’s daugh­ter, and Scott’s mom and new boyfriend believed it belonged to them.

I didn’t know any lawyers who did that kind of work.

Then she asked me, kid still on her lap, if I would like to get high and hang out togeth­er after she put her daugh­ter down for a nap. It would only cost me twen­ty bucks.

I looked at her. I looked at the kid, drowsy and new­ly alive and unaware. I had a vision of Scott dead in the street, hit by a shov­el, hit by a truck, and anoth­er one of twelve-year-old Damian in a dorm full of angry kids, wear­ing an orange jump­suit and slip-on shoes, cut off from the world. I said no thanks. I gave her twen­ty bucks any­way for answer­ing my ques­tions.

~

Greg Bottoms is a writer of lit­er­ary non­fic­tion and fic­tion. He is the author of a mem­oir, Angelhead (2000), an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American out­sider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013), and four prose col­lec­tions, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008), Swallowing the Past (2011), and Pitiful Criminals (2014). His work has appeared in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Oxford American, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Texas Review, Witness, and numer­ous oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals and mag­a­zi­nes. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.