By Christina Simon
Featured Image: Untitled by Tanner Pearson
We were staring at a snake eating a rat.
At my son Kyle’s 12th birthday party, about fifteen boys in the pool stopped swimming long enough to look up. Ten feet away, up on the hill, a brown snake’s mouth was wide open, and a large rat looked like it had been stuffed head-first down the snake’s throat. Its pale pink legs and tail hung out of the snake’s jaw, which was clamped firmly on the rat’s plump midsection. The rat was notmoving.
“Get my phone, I need a photo,” shouted Kyle, scrambling out of the pool. The rest of the boys followed him. Within seconds, they were watching the snake, snapping photos, mesmerized by the surreal scene. My husband joined them, along with a few of the boys’ parents.
“Can anybody save the rat?” I yelled frantically. I stood by the pool, looking up at the snake but I wouldn’t get closer. The snake was perfectly still, its mouth stretched wide open to hold onto the rat which dangled out of its mouth, limp. The snake looked about 5 feet long, with a thick body, teeth bared and eyes deadly.
“You guys, this is cool,” yelled a kid from my son’s soccer team.” I can’t wait to post it.”
“This is some sick shit,” I heard one of the dads say.
“Barry, call Rodney at the pest control company,” I waved my arms frantically toward the pool deck, motioning for my husband. He was up on the hill with the crowd. “Tell him we need him here. It’s urgent.”
“Kids do not touch that snake,” I yelled.
“I think it might be a rattlesnake,” one of the moms said.
“It’s not a rattlesnake,” I snapped at her. “There’s no rattle and it’s not coiled.” At that moment I wanted to throw my plastic water bottle in her face. “We’re sending a photo to the rat guy,” I said, trying to stay calm, but unsure what kind of snake it was.
“Get away from the snake, boys,” I instructed them again. No one listened. They leaned in closer, iPhone cameras focused, video lights flashing.
The entire party had found something more fun than swimming because the parents, except for a few moms and me, joined in the hillside show.
A predator eating its prey. Unexpected entertainment for my son’s birthday party.
It’s the summer of 2020 and CNN is reporting the truth: Black men are being killed by law enforcement at a sickening rate. Eric Garner, Jacob Blake, George Floyd. And many more. I decide I’m going to read every word Toni Morrison ever wrote. Like no one else, she deconstructs the past, the land where my ancestors, half-starved, sold and tortured, buried in unmarked graves, endured man’s inhumanity to man. In her trusted words, I find the courage to imagine a future filled with real opportunity for my children. Reading Morrison’s fictionalized America filled with enslaved people, poor people and those who were cast aside, I am thrust into their worlds. Haltingly and with a glint of tears, I re-read The Bluest Eye. The protagonist, a young dark-skinned Black girl, Pecola, desperately wants blue eyes so she will be beautiful like Shirley Temple. When Pecola finally gets the “blue, blue, two blue eyes” she obsesses over, they steal her sanity.
My son is a hoodie-wearing Black boy. He has blue eyes. They will not save him if he gets into an altercation with the police.
“Kyle, you know what to do if you get pulled over by the police, right?” At sixteen, he can drive. Freedom for him and a new set of fears for me.
Sitting at the kitchen table eating leftover pizza, he looks up, sees the news.
“Yeah mom, I know,” he says, hunched over the pizza.
“What if one of your friends is driving and won’t pull over?” I press him.
“I’d tell him to stop,” he mumbles.
“And if that didn’t work, call 911 and explain what’s going on. You don’t want to end up in a high-speed police chase. You can always call me or dad, too.”
“Mom, okaaayyyyy I get it.”
Kyle gets up and stuffs the pizza box in the trash.
I save the “shopping while Black” reminder for another day. My head hurts because these conversations are never optional–the way a conversation about eating healthy or good grades might be. Arming Kyle with words, weapons of knowledge, is my way of saying, “I love you.”
On a walk, my friend Kara tells me two baby squirrels fell out of a tree in her back yard. One died. The other one was injured so she rushed it to a wildlife rescue. She pulls out her phone and shows me a photo of the tiny brown creature with big eyes drinking milk from a bottle. It sustained a puncture wound, she said, probably from a hawk.
Her husband was worried about the long drive to the rescue center during the pandemic. “I would have done the same thing if I’d found a baby squirrel,” I say.
At home in my backyard, I decide to replace plants that have died and add a few new ones. I have no experience gardening, but it seems like a worthwhile project during a pandemic. An attempt to create beauty in a troubled, dark world. I put on new yellow gardening gloves and stab at the hard clay soil with a small shovel. For the next few hours, I dig, pull weeds and mix in bags of new soil to fortify my new drought resistant treasures: light green agave, jade plants, a mix of aloe with deep orange blossoms and purple-red rosettes atop unwieldy stems. I move the plants from their containers into the two newly prepared beds in the back yard and add a few aloe and agave near our front door. The result is a slightly amateur looking garden design with too much space between the small plants and a lack of symmetry. Still, I feel a desire to create a welcoming entry to our home. A way to contrast the haunting evil of Morison’s fictional gate in A Mercy…where, “two copper snakes met at the top.” The display of power intended to terrorize enslaved people as they entered the big house.
A gaggle of squirrels is chattering so loudly I worry a hawk will swoop down and grab them. They jump between tree branches onto the ground, collecting fallen acorns and squeaking noisily. I scan the sky for hawks but see none. I will check back at dusk for owls. I know where they perch, high up in the oak trees. Their beaks are sharpened into a fine point as if they are carved out of stone.
A police helicopter is flying overhead, a familiar sound in Los Angeles. The whirring of the chopper, noisy and rhythmic. They are looking for someone, circling in a tight pattern. The authorities’ ability to own the skies is reassuring for some, terrifying for others.
Barry texted a photo of the snake to Rodney, the rat guy, who told us it was a harmless gopher snake and said we should leave it alone.
“Ask if he can get rid of the snake now,” I pleaded.
Rodney said no. He couldn’t get there in time. There was nothing he could do to save the party.
The snake continued to devour the rat. Every 15 minutes, more of the rat disappeared further into the snake’s mouth.
“Does anybody want cake?” I shouted up towards the hill.
“Later,” Kyle said without looking down at me.
“Hey guys, come back to the pool,” I yelled again. Nobody listened.
About an hour went by—although it seemed like longer– and the rat was disappearing into the snake’s throat, slowly. At that rate, it would take a few hours for it to finish.
Eventually, I announced the party was over. The rat was almost entirely gone, only its pink hind legs and tail dangling from the snake’s mouth.
“Bye, thanks for coming,” I said, holding the gate open for the guests. Parents with arms full of their kids’ clothes, carrying shoes and car keys, said hurried goodbyes and thanked me for the party.
“That was an awesome party!” a kid said on his way out.
“I’m really sorry about that,” I told one of the moms.
“Don’t apologize!” my friend Sara told me. “It was incredible to see something like that up close.”
That night, I was still upset. Nature’s cycle of life, predator kills prey. The snake didn’t mean to interrupt the party. It found a rat and consumed it. We are the disrupters, living in the hills of Los Angeles.
Around 11 p.m., I opened Facebook to distract myself. An extreme close-up of the snake with the rat dangling from its mouth appeared in my feed. Someone at the party posted the photo with the caption, “Gangsta party.” I slammed the computer shut.
Kara and I go walking again, now our weekly pandemic get-together. A few days earlier she’d texted me to let me know the baby squirrel survived at the rescue center. I pull up to her house in Hancock Park, a historic, graceful neighborhood in the middle of the city. Her wooden fence is adorned with Etsy-made lawn signs: Black Lives Matter, Biden-Harris, Wear a Mask. An artist-made sign with the words Black Lives Matter in the vibrant colors of African Kente cloth: black, blue, red, green, and yellow inspires me to snap a photo.
Kara is white, married to a dark-skinned Black man. It’s the second marriage for both, although they don’t have kids together.
“Hi, I love your lawn signs!” I greet her. “I’m too scared to put anything out front of our house.” We live on a busy canyon street used by drivers as a shortcut from their jobs in the city to the Valley. We don’t have a fence around our house, and it is close to the street. Putting a sign up would make me feel like a target for anyone who disagreed with Black Lives Matter, Biden-Harris or even mask wearing.
“I get it,” she says. “I’ve seen racism up close and personal since I married Scott.”
“And the irony is that I’ve seen white privilege up close and personal since I’ve been married to Barry,” I say.
We give each other knowing looks, only our eyes visible on our masked faces. Our stories are well-known to each other. Me, married to Barry, a white guy who gets the benefit of the doubt in any situation, especially when people find out he has two Harvard degrees. Barry, who always tells people he’s with me because they can never figure out we’re a couple. And, Kara, married to Scott who has faced racism in just about every aspect of his life…at his country club, mistaken for a waiter. Driving while Black. Working while Black. He too, holds Ivy league degrees.
I conjure up gruesome images–lynchings, police shootings, mostly—as easily as I envision Kyle with his cap and gown graduating from college with a degree in mathematics, his best subject. I imagine him as he moves his tassel from one side to another, shaking the hand of the college president, exiting the stage proudly. I can just as easily see him running, trying to escape as the officer points the gun, his body camera turned off.
Kyle no longer has pool parties to celebrate his birthday. For the past few years, he and a few friends have gone to Magic Mountain where they spend the day riding roller coasters. I no longer worry about a surreal scene in which a snake consumes a rat before my son blows out his candles. My fear now is much more serious.
I need to know what Toni Morrison says about Black men and police brutality. What I find complicates the things running through my mind.
In 2014, the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a white officer sparked massive protests after a grand jury declined to charge the officer with murder.
In an interview with the BBC, Morrison said, “I want to see two things – one, a white teenager shot in the back by a cop running away,”
“Or a white man stands in a doorway, tries to pick out his key and is shot 44 times by police,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
“Now, when that happens, we’ll know something about race.”
Morrison is speaking bluntly, the way I talk to close friends and family, in private. With people I trust to see the world in the same way I do, through a lens of racial injustice. We always ask each other what would happen if the races were reversed in a specific situation. And yet. Morrison, in a few words, creates two vivid scenes where the racism is reversed, and white men are the causalities. I disagree with my Queen. I don’t want to see anyone shot. I want guns eradicated and violence to end. I try to decipher what she means by “Now when that happens, we’ll know something about race.” When that happens. Not if, but when. She thinks it will happen. A white guy trying to unlock his own door getting shot 44 times by police. What will that teach us about race? That police brutality works both ways. And if the cops who shoot the white guy 44 times are Black? They will go to jail for life. Perhaps even get the death penalty. Another racial reckoning will explode onto the blood-soaked streets of America.
My neighborhood is a long way and many decades from Joplin, Missouri, where my mom was raised, the daughter of Black parents, sharecroppers who came to Los Angeles later in life, looking for a better way to live, a life outside the segregated south. They found it, mostly. “Bigger houses and richer bosses,” my grandma June said. She worked as a maid for a wealthy white family in Beverly Hills and my grandfather was a gardener. They owned a tidy Craftsman bungalow in South Los Angeles. My grandma drove a shiny green Buick where she kept her bottle of Scotch in the glove compartment.
Every generation, my family has found upward economic mobility. Hard work, education, staggering student loan debt and luck. Good fortune. I grew up in Venice, California, and Topanga, the daughter of two teachers, one white, one Black, who met in graduate school at UCLA. Shopping while Black with my mom was a constant problem we dealt with. There is no easy way to prove you’re not shoplifting except by removing your clothes and emptying your purse, something we would never do.
Outside, without the false sense of security provided by walls and a roof, America’s past collides with its present, locked in a battle over my son and every other Black boy, trying to cut off our children’s routes to the future. Toni Morrison confronts this cycle of violence in soul-searing scenes of slavery: rape, hot irons on a tongue, wild eyes, Black boys hanging from beautiful Sycamore trees, an evil plantation called Sweet Home, children who cannot forget, parents who force themselves to forget, humans fighting with owls for food, ghosts of slaves, dead babies, blue eyes, insanity and haunted characters who are never truly free. Morrison interrogates racism, taking a blowtorch to the cruel institution like only she can. Then, when we can take no more, Morrison leads us to freedom. She envelopes us in the warmth of her prose, giving us hope, a way forward: “There is really nothing more to say–except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how,” shesays.
I wonder if I should plant a palm tree. A single palm tree offers little shade, but much beauty.
Palms aren’t native to Los Angeles, but they strut around the city streets like they own the place, their swagger big and bold along wide boulevards, and narrow residential streets. With voluminous leaves, they remind me of the big, teased hair worn by beauty queens.
On calm days, the palm trees rustle in the gentle wind, their nimble trunks swaying to a beat only they can hear. Watching them at sundown, I imagine they’re listening to Al Green’s “For the Good Times,” sexy and soulful.
When things are good.
In October, the Santa Ana winds blow into Los Angeles, whipping up a fury. The palms hear a rap beat, loud and thumping. With the wind as their choreographer, they’re bopping up and down, shaking their big fronds, slim trunks like legs doing kick ball changes. Rhythmically, they dominate the streets, dancing in formation to Cardi B.’s “Up,”. Cardi raps about a beef that’s unsettled. Los Angeles waits until the hot winds calm down and the wildfires stop burning. The same way America waits–uneasy, impatient, furious–until police stop killing Black men.
Until it is settled America