Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

The white supremacist wasn’t so white. A skater on Venice beach, he tanned, and tanned well. But he was white inside and out, the way white is, scared, you know, chicken? said my friend Jenna after he went to jail. He was her stepson’s friend, she said, but her stepson was never scared.

I met the stepson earlier, when I flew in for a visit. He held himself chest-first, with a skater’s lock, and he never met my eyes, partly because his bangs were so long. He was also a writer. We walked the dog to the beach, and Jenna pointed to his tag scrawled over half the retainer wall, another thing he did with his friend. Bombing she called it. A middle-class thing, writers and skaters – parents with good cars and three bedrooms. Jenna lived in a squat ranch that had a courtyard full of succulents she was reviving. I said I was amazed they needed reviving – succulents live.

Jenna shook her head. You don’t know.

All the time, the sound of the two skaters doing their moves in the driveway, whump whump. All the time, her fear of her stepson breaking an arm, a leg, his friend landing on him.

They are sick, said Jenna. Which means good in skater.

Her stepson had a record for theft, and Jenna said his friend envied him for it. Weird, huh? Because of that record, her stepson had a teacher who came to the house to sit next to him and a computer three times a week for two hours, sent by the Board of Ed. I saw her at work that afternoon. She had a clipboard, lesson plans, and a moustache, and I don’t know how she did it – how do you teach civics to a fourteen-year-old whose aim in life is a kickflip? She sat next to him as if they were going to play the piano together, and talked while she scrolled up and down. She said: Think of the computer as a refrigerator, with good stuff in it.

But the stepson was really skinny. He was too lively and too tall and too smart to think of food. Everything that said start in other kids meant stop to him. He had a big brother who broke down now and then and took medications – not drugs, said Jenna – so he couldn’t really skate or hang out. Jenna loved them both and you know how it is, she said, if you told the younger one he couldn’t have his friend over, he would run off for two days with the guy, who just happened to deal to other people’s parents.

I flew home with an education.

Jenna called often: The boy crashed their car, the boy wept in the bathroom, the boy stole brake fluid to thin his graffiti paint. Really, his brother with his mental problems was a piece of cake compared to him. At least they could drive him to the hospital.

I’d known Jenna for years. She was about as straight as they come: schoolteacher, museum jobs, manager of a pool for seniors, an exercise nut just like about everybody in California. We shared a love of pugs that survived her cross country move. Her husband wasn’t home often. He liked to say he drank for a living, but really he bought liquor for a conglomerate. Maybe he had other women or saw his first wife.

I was standing in a park, my pug tearing around, cell phone to my ear, wondering how things could get worse for her. Jenna’s calls were like reports from the front. She started this one off by saying her stepson had a girlfriend. Which was good. The bad part Jenna said was that the girl tried to keep him from climbing this water tower he wanted to tag. His friend had dared him and stood at the bottom and forced the girl into kissing him until the son of course climbed up to make him stop. He wrote CHKN for his friend across the side of the tower and threw down the marker, then followed in a sort of swan dive. Fifty feet.

My dog was barking like a maniac as if he could hear what she was saying. What’s his condition? I asked.

Okay, she said. He’s got a cast that works on this special board. We’ve built a ramp for the front door. His friend’s already been over with new chisel tip white-out.

She actually sounded cheerful.


Six months later her call started: My stepson died yesterday.

A gallon of booze and then pills, she said in a stop-and-start voice. He was alive when he went to bed at 4 a.m. I heard him come in.

I never sleep anymore, she said.

I petted my dog so hard in the silence he yelped. Yes?

Okay, so, she said, not at all composed. He and his friend had been out looking for girls. That’s what his friend said afterwards to the police but I don’t know, what kind of girls are outside on a school night at that hour?

She made another very sad sound. His friend was with him all night, she said, and although he came home alone, the kid snuck into the house to check up on him later.

I knew Jenna never locked her doors, I’d seen the damaged hardware. Both her sons had broken in at one time or another, the older one even broke out once in a fit of claustrophobia. She was always having to call the locksmith. She heard his friend tiptoe into his bedroom. Her stepson was still alive because she could hear them talk. She didn’t know that he’d taken pills – booze yes, that was standard, and maybe a few pills, not a whole bottle. As soon as she heard the kid leave, she got out of bed to pee and then stood at her stepson’s door. It was already getting light.

He was the kind of kid who cleaned up well, she said, right? You remember?

I nodded into the phone. She wasn’t really talking to me.

– or at least well enough that the Board of Ed sent that teacher, but he was never exactly cordial after a night out. I didn’t want to barge in. He liked his privacy.

She sobbed. She said she looked down at his door, all gouged from his board, and she put her hand on the knob and listened hard. It was the absolute silence that scared her. She went in, but she was too late. His lips were already this purplish blue. Like bruised, she said. The emergency people, by the time they showed, got out all their gear, but everybody knew it was for practice.

His friend could have told me, she said. There was time.

After my sympathy and condolences, I said goodbye and gathered my check book, umbrella, and sweater to go out. I had to drive somewhere with my husband. My pug rose to his haunches, a bit blind by now, but trotted right out to the car, no coaxing.

My husband was backing out too fast. I didn’t throw my phone at the dog, afraid he would run under the wheel. I screamed instead, but it was raining and the windows were rolled.

After he stopped, my husband had to get out of the car and shake me.

Jenna called again minutes later. She was calmer. I forgot to tell you I told his brother and he didn’t freak out. He’s in a locked ward anyway, but only until Tuesday. And Mom is going into hospice and I might have to fly to Florida this weekend, and miss the celebration of life. I mean his funeral, she said.

Yeah, I found him, she said, as if I’d forgotten.

After saying It’s all right over and over, even though no way in hell it was, I said, How is the dog? and she said she was almost finished walking him. It takes a lot of time. He’s old now, she said. Like yours.

So what if Jenna wasn’t the paradigm of mothering, she wasn’t his mother, and maybe her stepson wasn’t having any of it anyway.


Two years later Jenna read a newspaper with the name of her stepson’s friend in the headlines.

I had called her to tell her that my dog died.

Taken in a raid, she told me. The whole chinos and white shirts of Charlottesville? It would be like going straight for him. He was such a chicken. He would never run over a girl. He tried to strangle a demonstrator, and gave her a concussion when he threw her on the pavement.

I could hear her dog barking at the other end, and her comforting him.

The kid will do time now, she said, laughing. She actually laughed. That was the one thing he envied: my son in jail. I’ll bet he’s never even met a black person.

How can you not hate him? I asked. Not telling you about your son when he could have been saved – and now this?

I don’t know, she said after a while. Maybe he thought he’d be blamed. He bailed on taking all the pills with him, even though they had a pact. Scared. You were such a Jack, he wrote on the funeral webpage. Honourable, she said.

He reminds me of my stepson, she said. Not a lot does.

I would hate him, I said.

I’m sorry about your dog, she said, and hung up.

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