Guilt by More than Association

Susan L. Lipson
Aug 11, 2016 · 4 min read

By Susan L. Lipson (fiction)

We were arrested for shoplifting, my older brother Elijah and I. But I was the one who tried to take the CD. Elijah was the one who tried to make me put it back on the shelf.

The store security guard pushed Elijah into the store manager’s office, but only nodded sternly at me and pointed to a chair. The manager, sitting behind his desk, scolded, “Choices, boys, bad choices. Ever been arrested before?”

I could feel and hear Elijah’s rage beside me, like the heat and hiss from a campfire being extinguished, the safe way, which Eagle Scout Elijah had taught me how to do. I didn’t dare to look at him.

“Well, have you?” barked the manager.

I shook my head, glad that my long, blond hair fell over my eyes. Through my locks I peered at Elijah, whose jaw thrust forward as he replied, “No, sir. Never.”

The manager narrowed his eyes at Elijah. “Yeah, like you’d tell me if you were — right?” he scoffed. “Well, today’s your lucky day, young man. The police are on their way. Someday you’ll thank me if I’ve nipped your criminal career in the bud.”

“May I say something, please?” Elijah asked.

I held my breath, watching Elijah’s thick, black eyebrows squeeze together. Was he going to say it was me who stole the CD, not him?

“No,” snapped the manager, “you may not. I don’t wanna hear how you’re too poor to afford a CD and yada yada yada. I only want to hear the name and number of your parent, or guardian. Now.” He held a pen against a notepad.

Looking at them glaring at each other, I imagined lasers shooting from both the piercing blue eyes of the man and the dark eyes of my brother — my innocent, now blurry-looking brother.

Together, Elijah and I blurted our parents’ names, like the soprano section of our church choir, which immediately — and unfortunately — struck me as hilarious. I accidentally snorted. My brother shot me a “don’t-even-think-about-smirking” look. I hid my eyes behind my hair again, feeling even worse for the trouble I’d caused us.

The manager barked, “One at a time!” He pointed to my brother as if stabbing the air. “You first!”

Elijah took a deep breath. “We have the same parents, sir. Sam’s my brother.” I watched Elijah cross his arms, preparing for the disbelief that always followed the announcement that he and I — a black boy and a white boy, who look nothing alike — are brothers.

The manager jumped up from his chair, banged his pale, meaty fist onto the desktop, right in front of Elijah, and shouted, “SO YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY?!”

“No,” squeaked Elijah. His cheeks looked a few shades darker than usual, and sweat outlined the upper edge of his black-suede-looking hairline. He opened his mouth to explain that he was adopted, but the manager cut him off.

“Save your jokes for the cops, boy!” He then shifted his blue-ice eyes to me. I felt sweat dampening my armpits. “And you — Sam,” he addressed me, “don’t you realize you’re considered guilty by association when you hang out with a thief?”

My cheeks burned as I stammered, “B-but he — ”

“Good,” interrupts the manager, “you’re obviously embarrassed. At least you’ve got a conscience. Time to call your parents.” He picked up his phone, as he demanded my parents’ names and numbers.

I turned to my big brother and mumbled, “Mom or Dad?”

Elijah bit his bottom lip and shrugged.

I recited our mom’s name and number to the manager.

The man called her, introduced himself, and said, “Are you aware that your son is here in my store?” He paused. “Sam… He’s with a friend. I’m going to put him on now. He has something to tell you.” He handed me the phone.

My hand was trembling as I raised the phone to my ear. “Mom…um…Elijah and I are in trouble. I…I…” I burst into sobs, so I handed the phone to Elijah.

Elijah explained, “Sam stole a CD, Mom. I tried to stop him, but — “

I leaned toward the phone and cried, “I’m so, so sorry! Don’t blame Elijah — it’s all my fault!”

Elijah begs, “Please don’t be too hard on him. He was going to put it back.”

Feeling the shocked gaze of the manager upon us, we both look up.

The man’s eyes are wide open. Wide open now.

The End

(This story was inspired by a thought-provoking Facebook post by Kate Riffle Roper, a mother of black and white kids, who gave readers a poignant peek into the daily racist encounters she has witnessed while raising a biracial family. I used her story as a writing prompt for my teenage students, and then wrote to the prompt myself — here.)

Susan L. Lipson

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Author & Writing Teacher