Bars By J. L. Higgs

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


     Clang! The sound of the closing gate reverberated, yanking Reggie awake. He'd been dreaming of the lions.  Bolting upright, he was not sure where he was. He rubbed his face with his strong brown hands and opened his eyes.  Everything was blurry. The tenderness of his swollen knuckles registered in his brain and his vision cleared, bringing the thick bars into sharp focus.            

     When he was in elementary school, Reggie's class had gone to the zoo. Though it had been hot, both lions had been awake. With tense muscles rippling beneath her tan coat, the lioness was pacing the man-made den. The male lay motionless but for the side-to-side flick of the tip of his tail. Reggie had eased his slender brown body to the front of the crowd. 

     “That's terrible,” said the lady standing beside him, her pale skin sprinkled with freckles. 

     “What?” asked the man next to her. 

     “Being caged.  I read it's cruel to confine them like that.”

     Suddenly, the male sprung to his feet.  He charged the crowd baring his teeth and let loose a frightening roar. Cowering, the people jumped back, then relaxed. The bars separated them from the lions.  

     “That's why they're caged,” said the man, wiping sweat from his sunburned head with a handkerchief. “They're dangerous animals.”

     “There are man-made habitats where they live freely,” said the woman. “Being trapped in a cage would enrage anyone.”

     “Well, I suppose it's a good thing we're not lions,” said the man. He checked the zoo's map and taking the woman by the arm said, “Come on. Let's go to the aviary.”

     Walking home from school that day, Reggie had passed the packed dirt postage stamp sized lots of his neighborhood. All the houses were bright colors–flamingo pink, ocean turquoise blue, sunny yellow, etc...Most had window boxes overflowing with flowers hanging beneath their barred windows.         

     Years before he'd started grammar school, Reggie had asked his mother, “Why do we have bars on our windows and doors?”

     She'd told him the bars were there to protect them from the bad people. He'd then asked if the bad people weren't in jail. Sighing, she'd replied that not all had been caught and put there yet.

     That evening Reggie thought about the people in his neighborhood.  Unable to identify any “bad people,” he'd climbed into bed afraid, wondering who the bad people were. 

     As the truck pulled up, two familiar beeps of its horn announced its arrival. Reggie exited the house letting the door bang, rattling its bars. Reaching the truck, he swung open the passenger door and hopped up and into the cab.

     “What's up?” asked Ramon, a toothpick dangling from his mouth, his left arm bent at the elbow across his open window's pocket.

     “You seriously need to lose the toothpick,” replied Reggie.

     Ramon laughed.  He shifted the truck into gear and pulled out. Peering through the streaked windshield, Reggie rolled down his window. Though early in the day, it was warm, with hotter temperatures in the forecast. Still, despite the heat, Reggie preferred being outdoors to being cooped up inside.

     As they drove past the closely spaced houses, Reggie and Ramon could hear music from open windows.

     “Bro,” said Ramon. “You want a ride?” He pointed at the scavenged rusting carcass of a battered Buick. 

     “The bus treats me just fine thanks,” said Reggie. “It gets me everywhere I need to go without the hassles of owning a car.”

     Continuing on their way, Ramon tapped the truck's horn and shouted out hellos to friends and neighbors. As they passed Young Santiago, pushing open the metal lattice gate that covered the front of his father's Convenience Market overnight, Ramon gave the horn a long loud blast.  Young Santiago looked up and Ramon extended his arm out the window and raised his middle finger. 

     “Gilipollas,” he yelled.

     “You need to stop that,” said Reggie. “Luisa doesn't even work there anymore.”

     “Good thing too,” replied Ramon.  “If she'd told me about how he was always trying to look down her shirt and touch her ass...”

     “Man, you need to let it go,” said Reggie, thinking about Ramon's sister, who was his girlfriend. “Luisa can take care of herself.”

     “She tell you about that shit while she was working there?”

     “Nah, man. Not 'til after she left.

     With their neighborhood receding in the rearview mirror, they reached mid-town, merging with the early morning traffic congestion.  Reggie and Ramon had been best friends throughout school.  They'd started their landscaping business right after graduating.  Their small two-man company had been operating for six years.  Only recently had they been able to repay the money they'd borrowed from Ramon's parents to start it.

     “How're your folks? asked Reggie.

     “Eh, OK,” replied Ramon with a shrug. He fiddled with the radio. “They're worried about deportation. Lydia and I told them, they've lived and worked in this country all their lives. No one's sending them back to Mexico.”

     Reggie nodded.  He stuck his arm out the window and patted his hand against the Reggie and Ramon Landscaping letters stenciled on the truck's door.

     “How are Cousin Consuelo and Luisa getting along?”

     “Good.  Good,” said Ramon. “They've even brought Isabella into the business. She's the peacemaker.”

     “So what's your ma do all day now that the girls have taken over the house cleaning business?”

     Ramon shrugged. “All I know is that Papi's been spending a lot of time down at Uncle Ernesto's. They sit on his porch playing checkers. They have their drinks and smoke their cigars.”           

     Ramon turned up the song on the radio and sang along, “Lo siento mi vida yo sé que ya terminó, corazones quebrados, esperanza que se fué. Cuando brille la luna, yo sé que no dormirás.  Ni tú, ni yo.  Ya ha llegado el triste pesar, debemos siempre separarnos.”

     “What's that mean?”

     Ramon smiled. “I'm sorry, my love. I know that it's over now. Broken hearts, the hope that's gone. When the moon shines I know you won't sleep. Neither you nor I. The sorrow has arrived.  We always have to be apart ... It's beautiful, no?”

     “Maybe in Spanish. In English, it's just plain sad.”

     “Bro, you need to brush up on your Spanish.” Ramon reached over and patted Reggie just above the knee.

     As they turned into the private development, Ramon lowered the radio's volume. At the guard house, he waved to the security guard who opened the gate. Passing through, he waved at the house's rooftop mounted video cameras. Reggie shook his head. Ramon laughed. They continued on past the lush green lawns, manicured trees and shrubs, and long sweeping driveways that led to the mansion-sized homes.

     “Can you imagine living in one of these houses?” asked Reggie, staring at the house, none with bars. 

     Ramon chuckled. “Bro, people like us don't live in houses like these. They're for rich people.  Papi says that in America, too many people envy rich people. They want to be them with their big houses and fancy cars.”

     “Who knows? We might be rich someday.”

     “Yeah.  Like me and you gonna become millionaires doing landscaping. Papi says to me, Ramon, rich people aren't better or smarter than us. It's just that most of them are so addicted to money and power they'll do anything to get more and more of it. But no amount will ever be enough.”

     “Well, I bet it's still nice not to have to worry about money?”

     “Eh, there's more to life than money,” said Ramon, gesturing toward the houses. “There's the love of a beautiful woman.”

     “And a good cigar,” they said, nodding in unison.

     Ramon pulled up to the curb in front of a massive red brick house. “I'll let Mrs. Russell know we're here,” Reggie said, leaping down from the truck's cab.

     The Russells had become customers through Ramon's mother.  She had cleaned for the Russells for over 25 years. And had it not been for painful arthritis in her hands and knees, she'd have continued running her house cleaning business and not given it to Luisa. Just before she'd retired, the Russells had needed a new landscaper. They'd known Ramon since he'd been a child; he'd often accompanied his mother to work before he was old enough to attend school. Well into their 70's, their children now adults, the Russells remained in their grandiose home, even though it far exceeded the needs of two people.

     While Ramon unloaded the lawn mowers, rakes, and barrels to put the grass cuttings in, Reggie went up to the double doors of the house and rang the bell.

     “Good morning, Mrs. Russell,” he said to the tall thin white haired woman. Though she seldom left home during the day anymore, Mrs. Russell continued to dress tastefully as if going visiting or shopping.

     “Good morning, Reggie.  How are you boys today?”

     Boys!  Reggie momentarily bristled, then let it pass.

     “Good morning, Ramon,” called out Mrs. Russell, waving. “How is Regina?”

     “Fine, Mrs. Russell. Mama sends her regards.”

     “Please tell her Mr. Russell and I said hello.” Turning back to Reggie, she said, “We miss her.  She had been with us so long.”

     “Well, I'm sure Luisa and Consuelo will do a good job.”

     “Yes.  They're lovely girls,” she replied.

     “I better get to it,” said Reggie smiling. “Have a good day Mrs. Russell.”

     “You too Reggie. Please let me know when you're finished.”

     “Will do.” 

     Once the moat-like expanse of lawn surrounding the house was mowed and its edges trimmed, Ramon started up the leaf blower. He swept it along the tops of the grass, gathering the cuttings into a pile. While Ramon finished tending to the lawn, Reggie went to the truck to get the hedge trimmer. He shoved aside a couple of red gas cans, a blue tarp, and a gray 50-gallon barrel, but didn't see the trimmer. He then moved shovels and rakes that stood leaning against the rear of the truck's cab. Lying tangled on the truck's bed was the yellow and black striped extension cord they used with the trimmer, but the trimmer was not there. 

     “Yo! Ramon ... Ramon!” Reggie shook his head and walked toward Ramon. Leaf blower roaring and noise blocking covers over his ears, Ramon was singing to himself while waving the blower back and forth. 

     Alongside Ramon, Reggie waved his hands. Ramon turned off the blower and raised one of the ear covers.

     “Where's the hedge trimmer, man?” asked Reggie.

     “Aw shit,” replied Ramon. “I was doing maintenance on it and must have forgotten to put it back in the truck.  Sorry.”

     “No problem,” said Reggie. “I'll tell Mrs. Russell we don't have the trimmer, but we'll stop back tomorrow to finish up.”

     Ramon nodded. He restarted the blower and resumed cleaning up the cuttings while Reggie went back up to the house. 

     “Yes,” said Mrs. Russell, opening the door.

     “We forgot the trimmer. So, we won't be able to do the front hedges today,” said Reggie, gesturing toward the boxwood bushes along the house's foundation. “But we'll come by first thing tomorrow and take care of them.”

     “Y'know, I think Mr. Russell used to have a trimmer,” she said. “If you'd like, I can call him at the firm and check.”

     “Nah. No need to bother him at work.”

     “Well, why don't you check in the garage, anyway. If there's a pair of trimmers just sitting around in there, it'll save you a trip.”

     “You sure?” asked Reggie.

     “Of course,” she said.

     Reggie thanked Mrs. Russell and went around to the garage. After a short search, he found the electric hedge trimmer. In short order, he completed the trimming. Then he swept the clippings into a pile, scooped them up and dumped them into a barrel. Their work completed, Reggie and Ramon gathered their equipment, put it back in the truck, and headed home.

     While Ramon fiddled with the radio, Reggie drummed his fingers on the dashboard. The melody of the song Ramon had sung earlier that day played in an endless loop inside his head.

     “So,” said Ramon, breaking the silence. “When you gonna make an honest woman of my sister?”

     Reggie smiled.

     “No, I'm serious bro,” said Ramon. 

     “We need to make a lot more money before I do that,” said Reggie.

     “Luisa don't care. She ain't all about money, bro.”

     “I know. I'd just like to have enough money to get us a place ... some other part of town.”

     “What's wrong with our part of town?”

     “Nothing, just ... you see any window bars or gates on these houses?” asked Reggie, gesturing at the mansions.   

     “Bro, if you gonna wait until you can move to someplace like this?  Why Luisa, she be all gray-haired and walking with a cane,” said Ramon shaking his head.  “No man, I'm serious.  “These people... they don't want us living here.  Best to stay in our part of town.  Where people know you.”

     Reggie nodded in acknowledgment, but knew he could never feel good or free while living behind bars in his own neighborhood. Something needed to change so the bars could come down. Then and only then would he feel truly free. 

     Ramon's cell phone began ringing and he pulled it from his pocket. After checking the caller ID, he answered it with a cheerful hello. 

     “Mama, slow down,” he said. “Dónde está papi ahora? Dónde está Luisa? Si. Nos va a venir derecho allí. Si.”

     “What?” whisphered Reggie.

     “Papi fell on his way home from Uncle Ernesto's,” said Ramon, ending the call. “He must have blacked out or something. He's at the house now and mama wants him to go to the hospital. But you know him, stubborn old man. I told her we'd be right there.”

     When they arrived, Ramon and Reggie leaped from the truck, ran up the front steps, and into the house. Crowded into the small living room, surrounding Papi, stood Uncle Ernesto, Luisa, Consuelo, Isabella, and Carmen — sisters — Ramon's mother, and some neighbors.  Ramon pushed through the crowd and bent down next to his father.

     “Cómo estás?”

     “Fine,” said the small thin dark skinned old man, opening his eyes and patting Ramon's hand.  

     Ramon's mother began speaking so quickly all Reggie got in translation was “foolish... stubborn ... hospital.”

     “If he won't go, he won't go,” said Luisa, a look passing between her and Ramon.

     Regina, hands slicing the air, responded with a fiery barrage of words.  Arguments broke out.  Papi, continued sitting in the center of the storm, eyes closed, an amused expression on his face.

     Luisa rolled her eyes.  Ramon signaled her with two sideways nods of his head. She took Reggie by the hand and led him away from the chaos.  

     Standing outside on the front stoop, Reggie placed two fingers beneath Luisa's chin, lifted it, and kissed her. Looking at her, he smiled. She would always be his and he would always love her. 

     “What can I do to help?”  

     “Nothing,” she said, shaking her long black hair. “Ramon will get them calmed down soon enough. You may as well go home.”

     “You sure?”

     “Go,” she said, smiling at him, then blowing him a kiss.

     He turned and walked down the front steps. 

     “Reggie,” she called to him. “Why don't you take the truck?”

     “What if Ramon needs it to take your father to the hospital?”

     “Hah,” she laughed, opening the door to go back inside. “You know he ain't going.”  

     “Love you,” he said to the closing door. 

     As he passed by the truck, something caught his eye.  There, atop the passenger side wheel well fender was the Russells hedge trimmer. Reggie reached into the bed, lifted it out by its handle, and continued on to the bus stop.      

     Passing in and out of the light and shadows cast by the private development's street lamps, Reggie pulled out his bandana.  He wiped the sweat from his face and neck and quickened his pace.  He wanted to make certain he caught the next bus back home.

     Rounding a curve, he saw the guard house in the distance. When he'd arrived at the entrance to the development, the night guard, who did not know him, had phoned the Russells before allowing him to proceed. Reggie had regarded the call as a nice unobtrusive security measure, much like the video cameras atop the guard house roof. Both Mr. and Mrs. Russell had been hospitable, inviting him in for a cool drink and telling him he needn't have made a special trip to return the trimmer. Seated, in their home's library, sipping lemonade, he'd felt strangely at ease as they'd engaged in casual conversation.

     “Hey,” shouted a voice from behind him.

     Reggie continued walking.

     “Hey!”

     Reggie stopped and turned around. He could barely make out the shape of a person in the shadows.  

     As the figure emerged, Reggie saw a man rushing toward him. As the man drew near, he spoke again.

     “What's your name?”

     “Excuse me?”

     “Name,” snapped the man. “What's your name?”

     “Reggie.”

     “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”

     Reggie shook his head. “Returning something to a customer.”

     “At night?”

     “Yeah. At night,” said Reggie, irritation in his tone.

     “Got any I.D.?”

     “Aw c'mon man. I got a bus to catch.” Reggie turned and began walking away.

     Reggie felt his arm being grabbed.

     “Don't you walk away from me!” snarled the man, sweat rings filling his shirt's armpits.

     “Mr.,” said Reggie, looking from the fingers gripping his arm to the man. “You better take your hands off me.”

     “I'm neighborhood watch,” said the man, letting go.

     “Good for you,” replied Reggie.

     “I have the right to ask you to show me some I.D.”

     Reggie looked directly into the man's eyes. “And I have every right to show you nothing.  You're not the police.” Reggie turned and strode away.

     “Hey ... Hey, God dammit! You stop right there,” shouted the man, pulling out a cell phone.  “You want the police? I'll call the police,” he said pressing buttons. “Goddamn smart ass, niggers,” he muttered.

     “What the hell is your problem?” Reggie walked back toward the man.

     “My problem? MY PROBLEM! My problem is you goddamn niggers think you can do whatever you want. You don't belong in this neighborhood. Who's to say you're not looking for a house to rob? You think you can just say 'Fuck You' to people and they've got to take it.”

     “That's right!” yelled Reggie, clenching his fists. “Fuck you, man.” Anger surged throughout his body.

     “Yeah. Well, the police are on the way,” said the man. “You can explain what you're doing here to them.”

     “Are you shitting me,” said Reggie, rushing toward the man.  “I told you! I was returning something to a customer!”

     “Stay away from me,” said the man, struggling at his waist. A gun appeared in his hand, stopping Reggie. “Stay right there... No... Get down on your knees and put your hands on your head,” he said keeping the gun trained on Reggie.

     “I'm not getting down on my knees here in the street.”

     “Get on your knees! Hands on your head!” commanded the man.

     Though he'd heard the man's words, to Reggie, it was like they'd come from some distant place. He could see the man's hands were shaking. His own heart was pounding. Fear had overcome anger.

     In an ear-shattering explosion, the gun discharged, startling both men. Reggie lunged and their bodies crashed together. They fell to the ground, fighting for the gun, and as they wrestled, it fired again.  

     The flashing blue and white lights of the police car racing toward the two men lit them in a stark light. When the car screamed to a stop, two officers got out, one black and one white.  The black officer advanced while his partner radioed shots had been fired. 

     Keeping his pants leg out of the pooling blood, the officer knelt down on one knee. He put two fingers against the man's neck, checking for a pulse. 

     “He's gone,” he said.

     Standing up, he yelled to his partner to request an ambulance, adding in they could take their time. The man who'd been shot was dead.

     Seizing him by the arms, the policeman pulled Reggie to his feet. Blood dripping from his hands, Reggie had tried to put pressure on the man's wound, everything felt surreal. 

     After the policeman handcuffed Reggie, he walked him back to the patrol car. He opened the rear door and helped Reggie into the back seat. With a vacant stare, Reggie sat facing the lattice-shaped cage separating the front and rear of the patrol car. A tear rolled down his face.  It fell onto his bloody hands. Luisa. Their plans. His hopes. Gone.

Nothing could save him. Not the Russells, nothing recorded on the guard house's video cameras, that it wasn't his gun or that he'd never been in trouble with the law. A man was dead. A white man. And for that alone, there was no escaping paying the price. His freedom.


Photo of J. L. Higgs

Photo of J. L. Higgs

J. L. Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a Black American. The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic and religios groups in America. He has been published in various magazines, such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Dosorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories and The Remembered Arts Journal. He and his wife reside outside of Boston.