Occupying Arthur Whitfield by Charles Johnson

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen

On a Sunday night in early October, just moments after I dropped off a fare at the Lucid jazz lounge in the University District, I got the call from dispatch to pick up my last passenger.

           “Antwon,” said Denise, the dispatcher, through her radio, “you want this one? I could give it to Akeem, but he’s in west Seattle. This place is only ten minutes away from where you are. And you’ve still got forty minutes on your shift.”

          “I’ll take it,” I said. “Then I’m going home. Who am I picking up?”

          “He says his name is Arthur Whitfield. He’s at 2412 East Interlaken Boulevard, and he needs to get to Sea-Tac for a red-eye flight at two AM.”

          “No problem,” I said. “I’ll get him there. You think he’s good for a decent tip? I need that green.”

          “Well, you never know. This guy might be loaded. So be nice to him.” 

         The address Denise gave me was in a neighborhood where some homes were selling for between $700,000 and $900,000. For some reason I thought I recognized the pick-up’s name. There was something familiar about it, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was. On the back seat of my cab, there was a copy of The Seattle Times left there by a fare I’d taken earlier to Lake City. I only went as far as high school, but I did a year of community college before my money ran out, and I still love to read so whenever somebody leaves a magazine or a book on the back seat I save it so I can have something to look at during my lunch break. I put the cab in neutral, clicked on the ceiling light, and reached for the paper. The front page, above the crease, was filled with a story about the Occupy Seattle protesters, who had taken over Westlake Park, speaking truth to power. Even though I hadn’t made it to that demonstration, everything happening there hit pretty close to home for me. 

Still, I hate it when I see her bringing home jars of Department of Agriculture peanut butter. The very sight of that welfare food made me feel ashamed.

            When I say “close to home,” I mean that literally. A place of my own, even my own apartment, was one of those things, like finishing college, that I knew I’d never be able to afford after the meltdown in America that threw us all back to the way my grandparents talked about how things were during the Great Depression. At twenty-two, I was living with my Baptist mother in her tiny house that shook all day long from trucks that pounded through the Central District, in the same cramped cubbyhole of a bedroom I had when I was a child, and she didn’t even own that place. The bank did so my Mom still had decades to go before her mortgage was paid. After the mild stroke she had a year ago (with no health insurance to cover it), I don’t know where she finds the strength to keep making a way out of no way for both of us. For seeing windows where I saw walls. But I guess black folks have doing that for hundreds of years. Still, I hate it when I see her bringing home jars of Department of Agriculture peanut butter. The very sight of that welfare food made me feel ashamed. It killed my appetite. Everything about our hardscrabble lives of daily sacrifice made me feel ashamed and second-rate. She was starting to look like a husk of the woman she’d been before the Great Recession. She looked used up and worn out, and I kept wondering what the hell was wealth? Why did a few people have so much and all the rest, nothing? Sometimes I’d stand in the hallway between the living room and the kitchen with its buckled linoleum floor, looking critically at everything we owned---the dining room table, the sofa and chair, and the cheap reproductions of paintings on the walls. All of it was used, second-hand, scarred, falling apart, some of it from the Salvation Army and yard sales. In other words, we didn’t have anything of value. All I could do was shake my head and wonder if we’d ever be able to live large like that one-percent the Occupy Seattle people were protesting. 

         So there I was, just another poor, young black man driving a beat-up jitney, with no prospects, and pissed off because just thinking about all this, the way 99% of us had to struggle, how Social Security probably wouldn’t exist when I needed it, made me so mad sometimes my hands started to shake, and I’d feel myself heating up with hatred for rich people, so I turned away from that first section of the paper, looking for the news story I thought I remembered seeing about Whitfield.   

            It was there, just like I thought, and where I should have looked in the first place. The business section. The story wasn’t long. It was about three people Microsoft was hiring for its Advanced Research Group. There were photos of the three, that fellah Whitfield among them. He was one of those cutting-edge technorati with deep pockets. You know the kind I mean. The ones who really do believe they should be running the world. Have you ever taken a hard look at the logo for Apple? There’s a bite taken out of its right side, like the one Eve gave to Adam, the original sin that got us all kicked out of paradise. The story said that six years ago Microsoft bought a company Whitfield created on the east coast. Like the other two techies, he was in transit, moving his life and belongings from Beantown to the northwest. Specifically, to Interlaken.            

              So fifteen minutes after I talked with dispatch, there’s where I was, coasting slowly along a tree-lined street, looking for his address. I saw it, a two-story Tudor on a slope---a beautiful house, probably built in the 1920s, and I’m guessing it had a nice view of Mt. Baker. Pulling up in front of his place, I saw a middle-aged man, maybe fifty-years-old (maybe sixty) fumbling with the lock on his front door---he looked pretty hammered---then he suddenly stooped down, almost falling, and did something to the door mat. When I tapped my horn, he almost jumped out of his expensive-looking, custom-made black suit, and looked round at my jitney in surprise. I stepped out of the cab, and had the trunk open by the time he reached the curb with his brown leather suitcase, which I took from him, saying, “How you doing this evening, Mr. Whitfield?”

             “I’ve been worse,” he replied.

He had a great head of vanilla hair like Newt Gingrich, thick glasses and a thin voice, and there was a strange, ugly scar on his forehead. I could see GOP in every grain of this guy. And whatever he’d been drinking---Bourbon maybe---perfumed the inside of my cab with an odor so strong it made me cough.

        I found that hard to believe, and for a second I wondered if this tetchy, short-tempered little man was channeling Steve Jobs. His movements were quick, impatient, like he had half a hundred duties barnacled to his life, like he was somebody used to barking out orders and having them obeyed. His green eyes, the shade of money, never made contact with mine, as if he didn’t see me as real, or worth either his time or attention. Dispatch had told me to be nice, so I tried my best. I held out my hand for a grip and grin, but he ignored it. I scurried around the side of the cab and opened the rear door for him to climb inside. He didn’t seem to know how to say thank you.

            Back behind the wheel, clicking on the ceiling light, I tried to catch a glimpse of his face in my rearview mirror. He had a great head of vanilla hair like Newt Gingrich, thick glasses and a thin voice, and there was a strange, ugly scar on his forehead. I could see GOP in every grain of this guy. And whatever he’d been drinking---Bourbon maybe---perfumed the inside of my cab with an odor so strong it made me cough. 

        In a fast, high-pitched voice that was anything but soothing, he said, “Take me to Sea-tac.”          

       “Yes, sir,” I said. “Right away.”

       I turned off the light, turned on the meter and station 98.9 so I could hear some soft jazz, and headed southeast toward 24th Avenue East. From there I got onto Montlake Boulevard, made my way to 520 West, and after ten minutes the tires on my cab were humming along Interstate 5. To pass the time, I said, “You flying domestic or international?”

        “Domestic. Delta.” I could hear him sigh, “I’m going to Boston.”

        I nodded. “Business or pleasure?”

        Whitfield left a silence. He had the strange habit of rubbing his knees when he talked. Then, almost as if I wasn’t there, he said, “Neither. I may be gone for a week. I have to be in court…to testify.”

        I figured I’d better leave that alone. Maybe he was being sued for patent infringement or something. Cautiously, I said, “I guess your family will miss you while you’re gone.” 

He pitched himself forward, one hand on the back of my seat, squinting over his glasses at the photo identification of me in my dreadlocks on the dashboard, sounding the two syllables of my first name like he couldn’t stand their taste on his tongue.

        “They’re in Boston,” he said. “I have to bring them here. Listen, Antwon, is that what you call yourself?” He pitched himself forward, one hand on the back of my seat, squinting over his glasses at the photo identification of me in my dreadlocks on the dashboard, sounding the two syllables of my first name like he couldn’t stand their taste on his tongue. “I don’t feel like talking. Is that OK with you?”


          “And turn off the radio. I don’t want to hear music.”

          I did as he told me.

         We rode for another fifteen minutes in total silence. I guess he felt servants should be seen and not heard. His voice reeked of venom, as if he didn’t like people at all. I could smell whiskey on him like a sickness so I rolled down my window an inch or two. And all that time, as I lane-changed toward the exit for Sea-Tac, my mind was working overtime. He was a rich asshole. Both a nerd and a turd. There was no doubt about that. But he’d just made the enormous mistake of telling me that he’d be gone for a week, and that his family wasn’t in that big old, expensive house. This was low-hanging fruit. In other words, it was a ripe opportunity for a little redistribution of wealth. And what was wrong with that? You could see this dude had more of life’s good things than he needed, and maybe even deserved. I hadn’t made it over to Occupy Seattle, but here was a chance to do my part for the oppressed---namely, myself---by Occupying Whitfield. That idea had me  smiling to myself when I stopped in front of Delta, then pulled his suitcase from the trunk. I didn’t even mind when this prick handed me his pocketful of change for a tip, then hurried inside. What he gave me came to all of one dollar and forty-seven cents. I leaned back against my cab for a moment, picking out all the pennies, flicking each one into the street on top of a crunched-up condom. Then I drove right over them, and kept the front windows in my cab wide open to clear out his smell until I was two blocks from his house in Interlaken, and that’s where I parked.

               I keep a flashlight in my glove compartment. I took it with me when I walked up the street as wind rushed with a sound like water through the plumage of trees overhead. I sprinted up the steps to his front door, then lifted the black, rubber door mat to see why he’d been fooling with it. Underneath, as I expected, I saw an envelope, and inside that there was a letter with instructions for his cleaning lady---a woman probably as poor as my mother---and a front door key. I let myself in, holding my breath, feeling for just a second as if I was slipping myself into Whitfield’s soul. I let the door click shut, relieved that I didn’t hear one of those ADT alarms going off, but now I found myself in total darkness, bumping into things in the night, my heart tightening in my chest, and sweat was trickling down the back of my T-shirt. With two fingers I wiped perspiration off my forehead and let the flashlight beam guide me along hardwood floors on the first level from room to room, and what I saw humbled me. 

             Compared to my mother’s house, this place seemed palatial. There was a big fireplace, four bathrooms, and a spacious Viking kitchen where moonlight streamed through the windows. I almost wanted to hang my head, feeling that places like this would always be foreign to me. But what struck me as strange was that there wasn’t much furniture. And while one bathroom cabinet was loaded with Zoloft, Paxil, and Risperdal, the kitchen cupboard was bare. The refrigerator was empty except for a few cans of Budweiser---I cracked one open---a loaf of Sarah Lee bread and bricks of cheddar and Swiss cheese. 

        Upstairs there was only one bed with the sheets and blankets all tangled together. I’m guessing Whitfield had only been living here for a couple of weeks, not even long enough to get a security system installed, and he was probably planning on buying furniture after he relocated his family. There was a framed picture of them on a nightstand in the bedroom. They were all standing on a sailboat, smiling at the camera. On the far right was Whitfield, his arm around a teenage girl. Brown freckles were sprinkled across her nose, she was wearing braces, and had her arm wrapped around a woman with a gentle smile and long brown hair who was so pretty I had to stare at her for a few seconds. Together like that, they looked like the perfect, privileged WASP family. I threw their photo on the bed, and keep looking in vain on the second, then first floor rooms for something I could liberate.

             Finally, I found my way down into the basement. On one side there was a utility room with a washing machine and dryer, on the other I saw a room that had been converted into an office, or a den. In there were two cardboard cartons shipped UPS to this house from an address in Boston. On the side of each carton there was a name written in black magic marker: Katherine. Ashley.

             I pried open the carton with Katherine written on the side first, and I hit the jackpot. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, all that was right there just for the taking. Several wooden hand-tooled boxes were filled with expensive jewelry, and I realized how he must really feel this woman, Katherine, his wife, was all the good there was in the world. He’d showered her with diamonds and gold trinkets as if she was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In that one carton, there were glittering necklaces, gold rings, broaches, articles of clothing from French fashion houses, bracelets, and pelf I could pawn for thousands of dollars. I started cramming everything I could into the pockets of my cargo pants, and even inside my shirt, but then something in balled-up newspaper used at the bottom of the carton to cushion its contents caught my eye.  On one page there was a family photo of the Whitfields identical to the one framed in the upstairs bedroom. Above that were mug shots of three men, all brothers with the last name Osborn. 

The beer I’d been drinking from the fridge backwashed in my throat. I felt sick.

             My hands started to tremble. My eyes panned down through a few paragraphs, and I come to find out that four months ago, right after Whitfield was in the news because he made a killing when he sold his company, the brothers Osborn targeted his family for a home invasion---just like I was doing. They broke in wearing bandanas over their faces. One of them hit Arthur Whitfield in the face with a large, cast-iron skillet he found in the family’s kitchen. They bound father, mother, and daughter with duct tape. Two of them repeatedly raped Katherine and Ashley while the third ransacked the house for cash and jewelry. Then, to destroy any DNA evidence, they set the house on fire. Only Arthur survived this gasoline grave, but probably wished he hadn’t. All three brothers were caught. The remains of his wife and daughter, who died from smoke inhalation, were cremated. He was bringing them here, I realized, in two urns. The trial for the first of the Osborn brothers was set for tomorrow.

            The beer I’d been drinking from the fridge backwashed in my throat. I felt sick. I felt, in fact, that I had stepped inside his soul and found it to be ravaged. In a single night everything he loved and worked for had been taken away in a hard lesson that whoever we are, however rich, there was nothing we could ever hang onto. Slowly, I emptied my pockets. I put back what I’d taken, slipped out the back door, and as quickly as I could put distance between myself and the house of the most impoverished passenger I’d ever had in my cab.

            When I got behind the wheel, I just sat for a spell, thinking about him. And then about my mother. I didn’t hate him anymore. I pitied him. Ain’t that a bitch? A po’ colored man like me pitying him?  All of a sudden I felt something in my cargo pants pressing against the seat. I reached into one of the side pockets, and what I pulled out was a diamond bracelet I’d forgotten to put back. I felt an impulse to sneak again into the house on Interlaken Boulevard, returning it to where it belonged. But the woman for whom it was intended was gone. Instead, I cranked the key in the car’s ignition, and I pointed its hood in the direction of the Central District. God forgive me if what I did was wrong, but I figured that bracelet would look mighty fine and belonged on the arm of my hard-working  Mom. 


Contributor Notes

Dr. Charles Johnson is a novelist, philosopher, short fiction writer, essayist, literary scholar, cartoonist and illustrator, screen-and-teleplay writer and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Seattle. A 1998 MacArthur fellow, his novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990.