The house is just this side of disused railroad tracks that stretch diagonally across the suburban street, cutting the property into an awkward slice. The house is close to the street, squat, the side yard brownish. Tree stumps and uneven ground make places where leaves accumulate. The tiny garage hunches down where the back yard dives to the gravel path leading to the town pool.
I know the house because I grew up two blocks away on a cul-de-sac of split levels perched back on rectangular green lawns. I know the path because I walked it every day every summer until my father bought me a horse, then a car.
In my early 40s, I am living five blocks further away, and I get to know the house on the odd-angled lot again just a little because I push my babies in the small stroller along the sidewalk, and in the big all-terrain stroller along the pool path, and because I often jog slowly past the house alone at six a.m.
But I don’t pay the house much mind.
Until one chilly morning I’m jogging, and from about 75 feet away, I notice a tall figure in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt on the front porch. At first I think he’s working a stubborn front door key. I can’t see the man’s face, or his hands, but I know it’s a man from the height and heft. I slow to a walk.
Something glints from his hands, too long, too large for a key. Closer now, I hear him grunt, hear the scrape of metal against wood, see him put his shoulder into it. I still can’t see his face, but now I’ve seen that his hands are black. That he’s black.
At least that is what I tell myself later, about what I saw, and in what order.
I don’t know when, in the sequence of what I saw, I cross the road, duck behind a shrub, and dial the police, a number memorized at age five.
“There’s a man breaking into a house on Martin Road, the one next to the tracks.”
I will always want to believe that I decided to call in the millisecond I realized he was trying to get into a door for which he did not possess a key, and not in the millisecond I noticed he was black.
The officer on the phone asks for a description.
“Tall, grey sweatshirt,” I say. “Black,” I say.
In seconds, sirens howl. I keep my eyes on the man, who doesn’t drop the tool, does not run off, does not seem even to hear. In a moment, some six police cars arrive, and now the man must hear because he freezes, and several policemen approach the house, one with gun drawn. At least that’s what I will remember, all the while thinking, I didn’t even know our little town had that many police cars.
The man drops something on the porch floor and turns, slowly, hands palms up in front of him. “Wait, I live here. I locked myself out. I was trying to get back in without waking my wife and baby.”
An officer asks his name, then pats the man down, extracts a wallet, pulls out something—a driver’s license I guess—and studies it. All but one of the cars leave, and a woman opens the front door, hand to her mouth.
The officer passes the wallet back, explains that someone called. I hear the black man say, “I understand. Thanks for checking things out.”
The police leave. The man and wife go inside. The image of his hand on her back against her yellow bathrobe stays with me.
I hide for a little while more. Then I cross the street, ring the doorbell. It was me who called the police, I’m sorry, I feel terrible. He nods, says he understands, tries to make a joke: “Well, I don’t feel great either, knowing someone can break in my house with my wife’s garden tools.”
But I know none of it is a joke, and ten years later when I hear about police in Cambridge and Henry Louis Gates, I remember and feel, somehow, complicit. I remember. I try to recall when, in the sequence in my head—man, tool, grunting, black—I decided to dial the police.
Lisa Romeo, a New Jersey resident, has completed a memoir, The Father and Daughter Reunion: Every Loss Story is a Love Story. Her nonfiction has been nominated for Best American Essays and a Pushcart, and has appeared in the New York Times, Under the Sun, Hippocampus, Sweet, Front Porch, Under the Gum Tree, and many other venues. Lisa holds an MFA from Stonecoast and a BS in journalism, and teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program. She is creative nonfiction editor of Compose.
Artwork by Damon Locks