This must’ve happened on a day when the factory was off. The factory, across the street from our Victorian duplexes. Its whir would pervade the block like an auditory traffic. Throughout the day, never stopping at night. Though on occasion it would shut down for maintenance. On Christmas, a Sunday. The stillness of that late afternoon, clouds outstretched above the flatlands toward a gray horizon. West Oakland almost felt pastoral.
I was in the bedroom working at the art table. The sliding window was open. I hear a cry. A door slamming. I stop working. It sounds like its coming from the neighbors’. The shouting muffled. The word help. “Help!” I stand to do something. I go out to the back deck and look over the fence. I don’t see anything. The neighbor B., she’s sobbing.
“Did he hit you?” called out a window. “Did he hit you?” Her upstairs neighbor L. “I’m coming down” he says. And another voice resounds: “Are you OK?” Disembodied, from a neighboring backyard. Catching her breath B. answers no. A plaintive vowel. A pause. “Do you want me to call the police?” The woman’s voice. B. answers yes.
I go inside. I go out to the front stoop and scan the street. I see the assailant rounding the corner onto 14th. The illegal immigrant. His obese body, hands shoved in his hoodie pocket.
L. comes down the driveway, alert. “You see where he went?” he says. He has a bat. I tell him no; “Up 14th” I say. He goes back in his house somewhere. I wait and I see B. She’s limping. Her nose is bleeding. She’s lost her phone. “This is so fucked up” she keeps saying. And tries to light a cigarette. Hand leaning on the grimed slat siding. Flick. Flick.
I go inside. I guess the cops are on their way. I tell my girlfriend in the bedroom. She grumbles and puts her headphones on. Back on. She didn’t really listen. I can’t focus. I dawdle at the art table. My roommate asks if I want a cigarette. We go out to the stoop.
A chain link fence rings the factory. Crowned with concertina wire, poised against the sullen sky. To the right is the neighbors’. I see him there. The assailant. The immigrant. Sitting side-by-side with B. on the steps. The concrete steps to their front door. Where else would he go? He lives there. They live together. They used to be together. His hands clasped, speaking lowly, just above a whisper.
L. comes down the driveway again. With his two sons. They all have bats. The immigrant scrambles down the steps. But his body. He can’t really run. He grabs a rod from a trash can at the curb and knocks it over behind him. L. and his sons are closing in. The immigrant turns and is facing them. Backward skipping in the center of the street. “Stay away from me!” he’s yelling. “Stay away!” He’s swinging the rod and skipping backwards. And he trips.
When I recall this moment now, I first hear the sound. Aluminum on flesh. Like a hollow clap. Clap. Writhing on the asphalt and holding his head. But they’re not going for his head. Rippling flesh. Clap. Clap.
B. is running toward them. And the immigrant’s girlfriend alongside B. Wailing in a broken chorus: “Don’t hit him!” they’re wailing. “Don’t hit him!” I begin trotting toward them to do something. B. pulls L.’s son aside. The other son is lifting his bat. The women throw themselves on the immigrant. His exhausted body. His shirt’s come up. They’re clasping his sore red sides. I touch L. by the shoulder. “No” I’m saying vaguely. The trauma climaxing. He looks me in the eyes. The blank sublime. The exhilaration of violence.
He calls his sons and strides back to his car. The women are kneeling on the asphalt and crying. I leave and don’t say anything. But L. is looking back and shouting. “You gone soft on me bitch! You gone soft on me!” Me. I barely understand. I watch as he slams the car door, backs out in one turn and drives off to a different county.
The cops showed up after the beatdown. I stayed inside. Justice had already run its course. Battery met with battery. Tit for tat. It was only later I learned the immigrant had called L.’s son a nigger.