I wrote the following short fiction piece early in one of my Creative Writing classes at California State University, Long Beach.

Image by Ray Shrewsberry • from Pixabay

The call from Herman B. (not his real name) came at one-thirty in the morning on Thursday, less than twelve hours after the takeover of the Capitol building. Herman wanted to explain why the seizure happened to the senior reporter for Infamy’s leftist website. “We went in with a plan, but other people got carried away. It was the rush of the moment.” He told Jeff Burrows that he should understand. “You protested in the sixties. You guys did crazy things.” Burrows retorted defensively that he never took over the capitol building, although it didn’t mean they hadn’t considered it. Herman wouldn’t let it go. “You guys rioted and burned buildings. You all blew up shit. You all wanted to launch a revolution.” Herman was convinced. “Well, the only difference between you and us is that our revolution is to take back America.” Jeff was silent. 

Finally, Burrows pressed him, “Can we meet somewhere so you can give me the details?” There was shouting in the background at the other end of the call. Burrows strained to make it out. Herman had placed his hand over the phone to smother the voices. He finally came back on. “Look, we’re getting set to get out of town. My men don’t want me talking to you. We think they’re coming for us.” Burrows figured the “they” would be the FBI or Virginia State Police, D.C. Police, or all of them. “How do you know?” Herman laughed at the question. “Don’t you think we have friends in law enforcement? They’re standing with us.” The statement offended Burrows, whose brother was a former FBI agent, but he knew it was probably true. It didn’t surprise him. He’d met his fair share of right-wing sympathizers through his brother.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“Look, I can come to you. I can get in your car, or you can get in my car and do a quick interview.” Burrows could still hear people arguing in the background. This time Herman B. didn’t cover the phone. Whoever they were, they cursed him for trusting a reporter, especially one from a left-leaning website. At one point, someone shouted, “Fake News!” “Stop it,” Herman screamed at the shouter, “He’s okay with me.” Herman turned back to Burrows on the phone. “The Virginia Inn on Dixie Boulevard near Fort Meyer. Call me when you get here.” Burrows was tired. He had only gotten an hour of sleep when Herman called, but this was too important to worry about sleep.

The Virginia Inn is where tourists go when they don’t want to pay the high rates of the District across the Potomac River. It doesn’t stand out along the string of low-cost motels along the boulevard. Herman B. told Burrows last week that they were on their way and would only stay for two nights. They didn’t care that the place was run-down. The five men, all Arkansas New America Militia members, weren’t there for the ambiance. It was just a place to gather, plan, and sleep.

Image by mmreyesa from Pixabay

Burrows had been talking to Herman for a few months before Wednesday. The thirty-six-year-old mechanic from Witches Fork, Arkansas, was an ex-marine and an Iraq war veteran. Herman wanted everyone, including the leftist media, to know that a reckoning was coming. “This is bigger than one man or one movement,” Herman had told Burrows during their first phone call, “I’ve been reading your stuff. You have a following. I figured that you might be good enough to warn them.” Burrows quizzed him about who “them” was. Herman just snickered on the phone at the question. “I’ve read your stuff. You know who the real enemy is.” People like Herman fascinated Burrows. They both shared skepticism of big government but looked at government through a completely different set of eyes. For the right wing, the government was anyone who didn’t believe as they did.

Burrows wasn’t scared of Herman. He felt sorry for him. They had finally met in person on the Tuesday morning before the mall rally at the restaurant next to the Virginia Inn. After the first couple of calls with Herman, he told one of his partners, “This guy is not dumb. He sounds delusional.” Neither Herman nor any of his men wore masks. Burrows was laughed at for wearing his. The interview with Herman went fine. It was the one with his men that went downhill quickly. They couldn’t get off Burrows wearing a mask and refused to talk to him. “What are you hiding?” one kept repeating. Another got up in his face, “I don’t talk to men behind masks.”

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Herman and his people from Arkansas weren’t the only ones staying at the Virginia Inn. The group was packing up their pickup trucks when Burrows finally arrived. The parking lot looked like a big truck rally. The license plates in the parking lot told the stories of journeys to the capital from as far west as Oregon and Arizona to Michigan, Mississippi, Alabama, New York State, and Maine. They were all here to “take back America,” as Herman had told Burrows months ago when they had begun their correspondence. Now, they were in a hurry to leave after the debacle at the Capitol. News of deaths and injuries had started to filter out through the news.

Burrows caught up with Herman B. as he was settling into the driver’s seat of his pick-up truck. “I thought we were going to talk?” The other men in the car with their leader started shouting at Burrows. “Shut up!” Herman called back as he exited the truck without turning off the ignition. He grabbed Burrows’ arm and pulled him away from the group. “What now?” asked Burrows. Herman leaned so close into Burrows that the reporter had to pull back to find a healthy distance without offending the man. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back. Real soon. The people that betrayed us?” he paused, “They’re going to get theirs.”

Image by joanbrown51 from Pixabay

The reporter wanted to know if the taking over of the Capitol building had been planned as he implied or spontaneous. “All I’m going to say is that we knew what we were doing.” Burrows pressed him, “Was this coordinated? Did the President know? Was he pulling the strings?” Herman turned to him, laughing, “Why does everybody think we’re being controlled? Did it ever drop on you people that it’s maybe us who are doing the controlling?” Herman pulled a letter-size envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Burrows. “Here, take this. This will be a start to understanding what is about to happen.”

He looked back at his men shouting to get in the truck. From the corner of Burrows’ eye, he saw one man pushing a gun through the rear driver’s side window. Herman suddenly put himself between Burrows and the man, staring the man down. The gun retreated into the cab. “Look, I’ll send you more stuff through that encrypted email folder you sent me. I want all of them to know that this shit hasn’t finished. Not by a long shot.” Herman turned back to his truck and jumped in. Burrows could hear him cursing the other men in the dual cab. The car pulled away from the motel, joined by other trucks in a caravan heading back out onto Dixie Boulevard.

American History
Image by SEDAT TAŞ from Pixabay

Burrows was walking back to his car at the far end of the parking lot when he saw flashing lights on Dixie racing toward the motel. It took a moment to realize that they belonged to police cars, many police cars. There were no sirens. He turned to see if Herman’s truck and the others had left the parking lot. There were police cars, at least twenty more, boxing in the caravan. A man wearing a green-colored flak jacket had jumped out of the back seat of Herman’s pick-up truck carrying what looked like an AR-15. He started firing at the police cars advancing on the group from my side of the parking lot. Burrows fell behind his car and closed his eyes, but he couldn’t shut off his ears from the thunderous volley of gunfire raining down on the Virginia Inn parking lot.

He could almost hear the bullets jumping around the motel and street. Burrows couldn’t see the action, but he knew this would be bad. Five minutes of shooting ended with shouts of “We surrender!” and screams of agony. Burrows waited. Sirens, more lights reflected in the motel windows, and more screaming, but no gunfire. He slowly raised himself to see what had happened over the trunk of his car. There were uniformed FBI SWAT officers, Virginia State Police, Arlington Police, and D.C. Police advancing on the caravan of pick-up trucks. Their AR-15 rifles and big handguns pointed wildly as they shouted orders, turning over bodies to see if they were still alive.

Herman’s head was lifelessly hanging halfway out his driver’s side window, blood streaming down the left side and onto the truck’s exterior. All the windows were shattered. There was blood everywhere. The first man who had jumped out of the rear cab with the AR-15 lay halfway between the parking lot and the sidewalk, his legs crushed between the back wheels of Herman’s pick-up. Burrows figured Herman had probably tried to back up from the police cars before him and accidentally ran over the man with the AR-15.

Burrows started shaking. He had never been in a gunfight. A riot, yes, but never anything quite like this. His journalism instincts kicked in, and he pulled out his phone and started shooting videos. He kept shooting video until his battery had run low. Everyone was too busy with the carnage to notice him. Burroughs decided against interviews thinking it would only raise questions about why he was there this early morning. Instead, he returned to his car and found an alternative exit into a quiet residential street behind the Virginia Inn.

The early morning sun was already breaking through the blinds in his office in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington as Burrows finally opened the letter-size envelope that Herman had given him. While he scanned the pages, he was also listening to network anchors on the television on his desk with breaking news: Big shoot-out in Virginia. White Nationalist militia. Law Enforcement. Multiple dead and injured. Handwritten at the top of the motel’s stationery, Herman had written a Declaration of Independence. What followed was atwo-page rambling and threatening manifesto about what would come on January 20 and the months ahead. “When democracy fails us, revolution is the only answer,” Herman had written.

Image by Markus Winkler from Pixabay

The manifesto was spread out on the desk, and Burrows thought about what would have been if the police had not shown up. He was sorry to have seen Herman dead. While he couldn’t have disagreed with him more about his politics, he understood his frustration. At some point, Herman began to feel that he was forgotten. He used the word “betrayed” a lot in their conversations. When Burrows would ask him who had betrayed him, he would reply with comments like the swamp, Government, and Corporations. Herman had told Burrows that he and his people just wanted to be remembered for their contributions to America. In recent phone conversations, he had told Burrows that White people had been pushed to the background and that the New America militia was just one of many groups across the country who were getting ready to “take back this country.” Herman even used the phrase “by any means necessary.” Burrows found that ironic.

Re-reading the manifesto and thinking back to all his emails, texts, and phone conversations with Herman, Burrows remembered that the name of the President of the United States was never mentioned. He did remember the last phone conversation before he came to D.C. for the rally. “This will not be the last time, and we will not be the last ones.” Now that Herman was gone, Burrows thought about those words. The inauguration was less than ten days away. He put the letter down and returned to the story on the computer screen. He wrote the first words, “The threatening of America continues….”

1968 A Year of Living Violently

The following essay was submitted as my final project for English 404 Creative Nonfiction Spring 2022.

In 1968, I was nineteen, living in the Bronx. I couldn’t feel how deep was the water around me or know I would almost drown in it. My mind and life were mired in an ocean of depression and anxiety. The turmoil was lurking on the horizon. Youth were challenging the world order. War was everywhere, in faraway lands, on American streets, in our souls. The war in Vietnam continued to eat the young even as we protested across this country. The champions of a peaceful revolution were assassinated. Racist forces held their ground against the forward movement of American history. The old voices told us to believe that America was exceptional. Racism, sexism, income disparities, and class warfare were only aberrations. They called us communists, rabble-rousers, and traitors. According to them, we were the real danger to America. They sicced police violence down on us. Bodies and blood flowed like a flash flood across America’s urban landscape. I battled for survival inside the cyclone, where my life would be defined by two lies: a “normal” life during the day and a dope fiend at night.

It was not what I dreamed 
when I was a kid 
looking into the future 
or what my mother and father 
had wished. 

Amid the violent chaos, 
a quiet but deadly menace 
stalked the Bronx. 
Its campaign for death
swept me up. 
Manhattan Beach, CA Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I pushed back against the waves of depression with long subway rides from the South Bronx to Greenwich Village to seek camaraderie with other anti-war compatriots. There were the secret Thursday shopping excursions into Manhattan with my girlfriend Chicky, who hid the relationship from her family. We swore we were in love. The Fridays with my boys at Saint Anselm Catholic Youth Organization. We would shoot hoops and pool and then run off to Carlos’s basement apartment to smoke weed and listen to Red Foxx and Moms Mabley comedy albums. However, despite my worst efforts, my life was besieged by a growing heroin habit, the petty crimes to feed it, and the inevitable drug overdoses. I was scared, confused, and angry, and sure I would be doomed to six feet under.

In the dope world,
everyone lies and cheats. 
It’s the bargain with the devil. 
imported from some foreign country 
smuggled across thousands of miles 
hidden in suitcase bottoms 
to apartments full of naked women 
mixing it with baby milk powder 
or rat poison 
into a glassine bag 
so you can buy 
from a man with no name 
in some dark hidden hallway.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I was old enough to go to Vietnam, but I wasn’t ready to die in a faraway land. So, I bluffed my way out with a military service deferment only in a war or national emergency. But, the powers in Washington, D.C. couldn’t or wouldn’t admit there was a war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, my friends were disappearing from the hood—drafted to become the wounded and dead bodies that kept piling up in field hospitals and black bags 8,637 miles away. Young people, the fodder for the war machine, lost faith in the Vietnam conflict and the illusion that America was exceptional. At home, another battle raged on between my father and me. Even as the bleak reality of the war filled the evening newscasts and newspaper headlines every day, my father declared America was winning. I only saw death and hopelessness. In protest, I burned my draft card at a UN rally.

Abandoned apartments 
became shooting galleries 
like the one
off Willis Avenue 
where a violent moment, 
a drug overdose, 
played out 
like a bad crime movie 
that would not stop.
It was my daily dance with mainline, 
straight into the central vein. 
Slumped in a broken down 
upholstered chair
that had seen a more peaceful, 
relaxing time.
My hands smeared 
with pain and blood, 
surrounded by the smell 
of alcohol, weed,
a grease-stained brown shopping bag, 
a trail of dead food, 
half-empty beer cans,
and desperate dreams.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

It was the year of cities burning. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. I wanted to join the urban guerrillas committed to tearing it all down. I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching televised pandemonium. I left a Wall Street trading job to enlist in the South Bronx social justice army to battle over community control of public schools. The New York City Teachers’ Union closed the city schools against community control, the largest strike in the city’s history. Community groups, parents, and teacher allies vowed to battle the union and the Central Board of Education in the streets and schools. The days were filled with marches, school board meeting takeovers, and Black and Latino parent mobilization to fight for local control.

There is a ritual.
There is always a ritual 
when preparing 
for the violent death
that is sure to come.
Don’t worry about sterile. 
Ignore the dirt on the stairs
to the apartment, 
the old blood dripping down its walls, 
or the smell you swear is 
“Man, did someone shit up in here?” 
This is not Good Housekeeping certified.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The cops lined up military-style in a straight-line shoulder to shoulder on that Friday, September 13, in front of JHS 52, with their shiny badges and nice crisp uniforms. Their police hats tipped just right on their lovely crew-cut white heads. Their job was to keep the threatening hordes of black and brown mothers and their children from conjuring up a new life and future beyond the South Bronx and public housing and run-down tenement buildings. The parents were there to open the school for their kids. They could pledge allegiance to the flag, grow up to be successful Americans, and move to New Jersey, Long Island, New Rochelle, or Connecticut. It could happen. It’s the American Dream. Instead, they were destined to work low-paying jobs. You could find them at the greasy spoon in El Barrio, shuffling clothes racks down 7th Avenue or sorting through boxes of vegetables at the Hunts Point Market. 

injecting directly into my vein 
was the only way 
to enjoy the fruits of the opium poppy. 
I pulled out the eyedropper
 and a small needle 
ready to shove heroin
Smack, H, Chiba, Junk, Skag, Dope 
 into my body.

An old bottle of murky water 
the rusting bottle cap 
on an equally rusting coffee table
leftover from the last fool 
who overdosed while 
crying for his mommy, 
“Don’t take this ride on the mainline home.”

I’m choking from the stink 
that’s floating around me. 
I needed to get high 
with my last five dollars 
until payday Friday.

The police megaphone announced there would be no trespassing that day. Not on their watch. The spotlight turned onto one constable, a defender of the social order, the vanguard against disorder. A young, fresh-faced stalwart for a way of life, an ax handle in his hand. This ax handle, typically 32 to 36 inches long, was not the usual official policeman’s nightstick. The longer ones worked best for big timber and splitting wood. The shorter lengths were superior for smaller timber and general utility work. The latter was also best for beating those black and brown people who thought they could trespass onto public property as if they were taxpayers. On this day, the American Dream turned into an American nightmare. The one defender of the social order would use that ax handle as he saw in those news reports from the south. They knew how to use the ax handle properly. Swing and never miss.

Into the bottle cap 
I so carefully squeezed 
one, two, three drops 
of unclean water.

The water slowly mixed 
with the off-white specks of heroin. 
Cooked it with a match 
underneath the cap 
until it blends into a muddy liquid.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The picture in front of me was vivid, living in my nightmares for years into the future. Swing baby, crush some heads, some Friday daydreams. Swing that ax handle like it’s 1968. The angry spittle foamed from his face and those of his comrades. The message was clear. The ax handle would crash through some heads and bodies to teach them a lesson. “Don’t fuck with us. We’re the man. We are the power.” No amount of black and brown mothers with their innocent children at their sides could stop them. Not one. It was madness run amuck. They went after the first black guy they saw, swearing that he was the Black Panther Party. As if they all looked alike. Brown hands reached out to stop the arrest. Nightsticks and the ax handle blocked the charging crowd. I grabbed a blue uniform. A club and an arm then wrapped around my throat choking me. My eyeglasses crashed onto the sidewalk. My breath escaped from my lungs. Two arms became four become six as I was lifted and hauled to a waiting police car.

My belt wrapped around my upper arm 
looked for the central vein 
that cried for the high.
And the muddy water sucked up 
through the thin needle
from the rusting bottle cap 
through the weeks old cotton ball 
up into the eyedropper 
back down through the needle 
and down I plunged 
and the rush of warmth
that turned to panic
while my soul was
falling and falling and falling.
And I realized
this is not a trip home or into paradise.
No one would save me here.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Those guardians of society proved they would do anything to protect their American Dream. The war for social justice continues until this day.

Suddenly, I was falling out 
out of the apartment
down broken stairs
spilling out into the street
where I heard heavenly music 
crashing with the sounds of sirens, 
what my father would later call me 
in the emergency room,
I’m shrieking, 
I’m alive,
I’m alive. 
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