Sunday, August 27, 2006


Of Gutters and Murder

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His father was murdered.

C.J.,the little boy in this picture, plays with water pistols while his sister strikes a pose. His father just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The family tells me he never hurt anyone, he was a harmless man tied up in nasty business.

C.J.'s mom works for the postal service.

I borrowed the photo from the grandmother of the kids, a woman I work closely with. Connie is blessed with a sharp mind and a kind heart. I often seek her help with puzzling questions of the application of law and regulations. She is white; her former husband was black; by the illogic of race relations, that makes the grandchildren black.

Whenever I would visit Connie in her cubicle, this photograph would catch my eye. Something about it disturbed me deeply.

It was not Imani, looking pretty and happy in the yard. And God help me, the fact that C.J.'s father was murdered didn't really hit me emotionally. I regret the man's fate in a sort of general, abstract way. Like something that happened in a foreign country, far, far away.

Incidentally, the family lives in Kansas City, Mo. Last year, that city experienced 120 homicides. Adjoining Johnson County, Kan., with roughly the same population, had a total of 10 murders in 2005. Of course, in Kansas City, virtually all the victims were black.

No, the gutter torn from the back of the house bothered me. You can see it hanging off the house in the picture, right behind C.J.'s head. The angle artfully echos Imani's pose.

In the last few years I've put gutters on three houses. The new, plastic materials make the job relatively easy, well within the reach of even a rank amatuer like myself.

I have no reason to think that C.J.'s father would have fixed the gutter, and no reason to think he would not. Connie told me that, before the murder, he had started to do things around the house. I knew after the murder, no one would fix it any time soon.

Connie told me about water problems at the house where her grandkids lived. I told her if she would pay for materials, I'd fix the gutters for free.

So, on a warm day a few years ago, I headed off to the builder's supply store and bought all the materials I'd need. I lashed them to the roof of my ancient Aerostar minivan, along with my 32' and 16' ladders, and off I went.

Once at the house, I unloaded the gutters, downspouts, nails and other stuff. I set the long ladder up at the corner of the house. The angle was less than ideal, and the ladder's feet sat on very damp soil. But I charged right up anyway, eager to get to work.

A moment after I reached the top, the ladder slid down and I landed on top of it. Stunned, I paused for a moment. My chin bled profusely and my shin hurt like the devil. After a moment, I picked myself up and went inside.

Connie gave me bandaids and tylenol. I waited to see if the bleeding would stop, but it didn't. I wanted to finish what I had come to do, but I started feeling weak and lightheaded. I decided to go home.

I drove slowly, across the state line, a drive of about 40 minutes on I-435. I left an area of smaller homes and somewhat unkept yards and arrived in my neighborhood of big houses on immaculately groomed lots. From one-car garages and torn gutters to three car garages and lawn services.

The rest of my family was at church for some social activity. I showered and put on fresh clothes and band aids, then I joined them.

As I was eating my pizza, my wife came and found me. "Someone told me you were here, and you are bleeding."

"I am?" I asked.

"Don't you think you should go see the doctor?"

"Oh, I guess so."

So I called the doctor and they sent me to the ER. I got 12 stitches in my chin and 13 in my shin. I went home and parked myself in front of the tv.

A few weeks later I called Tony, a pal at work. He agreed to help me fix the gutters, so long as he did not have to climb the ladders.

We met over at the house on a week-end morning and went to work. Tony held the ladder and watched what I was doing. He helped me think through the work and kept me from making some mistakes. After working most of the afternoon, we were done. About five hours of work.

The black spot on my shin is long gone, but I still have a little scar on my chin to remind me not to take on too big a project on my own.

And now, when I look at the picture of Imani and C.J., the hanging gutter does not bother me.

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