A Story About Popeye’s
Growing up I spent every other weekend and two weeks in the summer with my dad and stepmom in a small, rural Kentucky county. Population 1,200. Sometimes we craved more than Long John Silvers and IGA so we would drive forty minutes to the nearby, bigger county. They had an Applebee’s, a movie theater, and a mall. The big water tower greeted us Florence, Y’all.
Even at a young age I knew the drive back home on dark, twisty wooded roads was dangerous after the beers they drank at dinner. My brothers promptly fell asleep once the car started moving. I stayed awake in the back seat and kept my eyes on the road. Years later those same roads would take the life of one of my sleeping brother’s best friends.
I convinced myself if I watched the road we would not wreck. Over twenty years later I can still close my eyes and see headlights cutting through woods, illuminating our way home. Often times sleepiness threatened to overcome me and I longed to rest like my brothers. I can still remember the burden of being sure it was my watchful gaze that delivered us home safely.
I did not outgrow my superstitions. Tonight I will check every lock in the house at least twice before bed, even if my husband has already done so. The house isn’t secure until I’ve touched each lock myself. I convince myself that the order in which I do things can mean the difference between safety and careening off that dark road to my death.
This year a Popeye’s opened two minutes from our house and my husband went to get us lunch. He didn’t come back for an hour. There was no logical reason for him to be gone more than fifteen minutes, tops. The longer he was gone the more the tight knot of worry in my stomach grew.
My mind spun with arbitrary lengths of time and what they might mean. After forty-five minutes I called the operator at our local police department to see if anyone had reported an accident in the area. I called that operator in tears, and that’s how my husband found me when he pulled into our driveway: on the front steps, phone in hand, face wet and blotchy.
He tells that story to our friends and we all laugh at what a Lucie thing that is to do. They know my odd, worrisome ways. Anyone who knows me at all does. When my husband tells the story he never fails to squeeze my hand at the end. Smile lines crease my friends’ faces. They hug me and laugh at my overreaction, at the sheer ridiculousness of calling dispatchers and hospitals because apparently the suburbs of Kentucky are loaded with Popeye’s fanatics.
It’s a story that can be funny and sweet when told by my husband. But when I remember that day my heart seizes up like someone’s reached inside my chest and grabbed it. I remember the terror I felt when I called that local dispatcher.
I remember I said the words have there been any accidents when what I really meant was have any of your colleagues shot any Black people today?
That long hour I waited for my husband to come home came smashed between countless other hours that ticked by at an increasingly terrifying speed. Ever since a jury of predominantly white women decided Trayvon deserved to die I’d watched name after name morph into hashtag after hashtag. As I sat on my porch wondering if my husband was alive, little Tamir was already dead. Eric Garner was gone and his last words whispered in our collective* ears long after he was gone (I can’t breathe). Rekia Boyd was dead, murdered by an off duty cop not far from where my husband grew up, not far from where our nieces and nephews still play.
(*I do not experience terror from police brutality in the same way Black Americans do. My marriage to a Black man does not make me Black. My Black and biracial children do not make me Black. When I walk through my life I am shielded by all the privileges and protections my white femininity affords me. Yet this is not true for the people I love most in the world: my husband and our children. So while I never experience the terror of being Black in America I experience the terror of having a Black family. But I want to make that distinction clear – fear for people you love is NOT the same as knowing your own life and humanity are constantly at risk and under attack.)
In July of 2015 the police killed Sandra Bland. She died for not signaling as she changed lanes. She died for driving a car while Black. She died for knowing her rights and stating them. She died for being a Black women who refused to cower when a powerful white man demanded she make herself small. She died because of police violence whether she committed suicide or not.
Every time my husband or our teenagers leave the house without me (and the shield of protection my whiteness provides) I worry. I worry when they go to school and work and coffee shops and grocery stores and gas stations. I worry when they’re late. I worry when their phones die. I worry they will never come home. I worry it will be the day our family joins the centuries of others who have lost a loved one to police brutality.
Sandra Bland is why our Popeye’s story isn’t funny. Because in America a Black person can die leaving their house for dinner. Black Man Killed By Police on His Way to Get Dinner does not read like an Onion headline. It isn’t outrageous when Black Boy Killed By Police While Playing With Toy Gun, Black Girl Killed By Police While Napping in her Grandmother’s Arms, and Black Man Killed By Police While Shopping at WalMart are all real headlines.
To live with and accept that reality is to live in a state of duress and fear. It is to sit helpless in a backseat while someone you don’t trust drives a car too fast down winding roads. It is to convince yourself that if you just keep watching maybe everyone will be okay, because the alternative is too terrifying to even consider. It is to smile at a story when you know we should all be crying.