When cleaning his room, they may see a shirt tossed over a chair and smell him, faint, on the collar. They may embrace his pants, as if carrying him to bed like when he was a child. A box may be unfolded, his things taken from an intricate web of placement — his stack of DVDs or baseball cap on the chair, his schoolwork — each object an anchor holding him to this world. Just days ago, he was alive, their son. Now he is an aching memory that pulls away their deepest joys and hurls them into emptiness.
They place his absence inside the box. Duct tape stretched across the seams. It has to be. When we love those we’ve lost that love turns us inside out and pain rises above our voice to drown us, the loss must be contained. If not, we die too.
The son’s absence is seen briefly, in candlelight. In the clutch of family, it is carefully squeezed from the body. In the politician’s speech, his absence is lifted to history. In the pastor’s sermon, it is frozen, in the love of God shining on his face in the coffin.
And with each act of containment and distance, he becomes everyone’s son. People gather outside the church and many carry an emptiness in their arms they once called brother or father, sister or mother, uncle or aunt, friend or lover. Filing past the coffin, they purify their loss with his innocence. He is everyone’s son. He is everyone’s bullet hole. He is everyone’s stop-and-frisk, everyone’s arrest, everyone’s time in jail, everyone’s envy of the rich and shame of poverty, everyone’s dying inside the shadow painted on their skin, everyone’s fear of who they will never be.
They poured their emptiness into his name and threw it at cops, threw it at windows, punched it onto a man’s face in a store and hammered it onto the shelves. They had nothing but his name and blind fury and no exit.
And wherever his name crashed, a brief light showed a world of shadows, writhing, in a city of closed eyes.
Here is a chalk outline on the sidewalk that any boy or girl can be buried in. Here is yellow police tape used to make mummies out of children. Here is a pool of blood that can be your mirror. Here the name nigger belongs to you like a four-hundred-year-old chain. Here your skin is a night of screaming. Here your lips are red from fighting your reflection. Here, prayer is a broken ladder that you will climb anyway.
I want you to know there is no point telling you his name because you will forget it.
I want you to know that another child will be killed today, most likely by a peer, because black-on-black death is a veil in front of a veil. I want you to know the police load their guns with the stars of the American flag. And secretly, many of us are grateful. We’re scared of people without faces.
And they will keep dying inside the closed eyes of the city because for them there is no exit.