Sam Cleaver

 

Oh, Virginia!

Galbraith was furious. Parker had played the race card against him, and Galbraith felt certain it was going to succeed. Galbraith and Parker were candidates for the deputy general counsel position at the Virginia university where they worked.  Whoever received the promotion would be subordinate only to the university general counsel and well positioned to take the general counsel job when Chris, the current GC, retired. The deputy job had been advertised, but everyone knew the real contest was between Parker and Galbraith, the two associate GC’s. Galbraith had been at the university for over seventeen years. He had graduated from Michigan, a top-ten law school, and had turned down lucrative offers from national firms to work in the university legal office. He had made the choice because he believed in public education as the great equalizer of race and class discrimination. He had dedicated his career to serving the university and making it a more just and inclusive institution. As far as he could tell, he was well-liked. In his mind, the position should have been his to lose. Unfortunately, as Galbraith saw it, he was a white man in a public university that had been built in part by slaves and had a long history of discrimination. Neither the deputy counsel nor the university counsel had ever been people of color. Because of that, it seemed to Galbraith that it was Parker, who was black, who had the inside track for the position. Galbraith had tried to accept and make his peace with this. But now that a decision was imminent, his frustration that he was likely to be denied the promotion solely because of race had been gradually building to a boil. 

Galbraith’s expected failure was especially galling because Parker had only been at the university for two years. Parker had arrived from D.C. in his deep blue Porsche, sporting his tailored Italian suits. He was highly credentialed, University of Chicago law degree, former partner in a top D.C. and national firm. Galbraith had heard somewhere that Parker had family in the area, but as far Galbraith knew, Parker had no connection to the university and had grown up in Chicago. He and Galbraith worked together fine. Their relationship was cordial but distant. Until today, Parker hadn’t played the race card, and Galbraith had respected him for it. It was as if he and Parker had silently agreed that even though race might ultimately determine the promotion, it was others who would choose to make it that way.

But Parker had not agreed to that at all! Galbraith thought bitterly as he piloted his Honda Accord home from the garden party he and Parker had just attended. Possibly Parker had weaponizing his race all along, but tonight was the first time that Galbraith had caught him. Twice! He replayed the scenes of his betrayal by Parker, miserably considering their effect on his prospects. 

The party had been held in one of the serpentine walled gardens of the university. The dogwoods were still in bloom and their white and pink flowers hovered over the crowd while a quartet from the music school played jazz in a corner of the garden. The university president and senior administrators mingled with a group of donors to the law school, thanking and wooing the donors as the same time. Galbraith and Parker had been circulating through the garden watching each other as they both chatted with the donors. Parker was taller than most. He had long, thin limbs with long fingers and an elongated face on which sat the dark triangle of a small goatee. Parker’s height and the shining ebony oval of his black head amidst the mainly white guests made him easy to spot. Whenever Parker of Galbraith was conversing near a possible decision maker or influencer for the promotion, the other was sure to appear to make sure that no advantage was gained. 

The deputy GC position was officially a state appointment, but the hiring decision was going to be made by Chris, the university counsel, and Marla, the Provost. Chris, was a tall white man with a full head of neatly trimmed white hair and a soft southern accent perfectly matched to his genteel surroundings. Like Galbraith, Chris generally wore khaki pants and a blue blazer and tie to work, although in summer he wore seer-sucker suits as befitted his many years as a Richmond lawyer. Parker, on the other hand, insisted on wearing his Italian suits as if he were still a partner at a fancy D.C. law firm. Tonight, he was wearing white pants and a light blue sports coat of such fine, soft fabric that it seemed to lightly glow in the evening light.

Galbraith had noticed Parker alone in conversation with Chris and had maneuvered his way across the crowded garden to join them. As Galbraith approached, he distinctly heard Parker say, “Despite all the happy talk about change, this is still very much a white man’s University.  We’ve got a long way to go.”  

Galbraith was stunned. He had worked for years to diversify the University counsel’s office. In addition, one of his proudest achievements was working with the University contracting process to substantially increase the number of minority owned firms successfully competing to win contracts from the school. Now Parker was trashing all his efforts, insisting that the only way that the University could ever atone for its racist past was to promote a black man like Parker. Instead of pushing back against such an outrageous comment, Chris was agreeing, bobbing his stupid patrician head up and down as Parker made his outrageous statement, throwing Galbraith and all his efforts under the bus. 

Galbraith was knocked too off-kilter to coherently respond to Parker’s assault, so he settled for simply joining Chris and Parker, which at least denied Parker the chance to make any other undefended remarks. The three chatted only briefly before Chris escaped to join a group of unattended donors. Galbraith and Parker separated without speaking. They continued their mutual surveillance as they orbited through the well-dressed clusters of donors in the garden.    

Parker had played the race card with even more devastating effect with Marla and Sandra, the university president. Sandra was the first female president of university. Marla was a chaired professor of Afro-Caribbean literature, and the first African-American provost. She and Galbraith had attended the University at the same time, but hadn’t known each other then. He knew that she came from the southwest corner of the state, was the first person in her family to go to college, and had come in eighth in the shotput at the state track and field championships her senior year of high school. Galbraith himself was the son of a NASA administrator father and a school teacher mother who grew up in the D.C. suburbs.  His sister was a marine biology professor at GWU. Everyone had expected him to go to college and continue his schooling beyond. If anything, his choice to work in the university administration had landed him below the position expected of him. 

Galbraith thought of Marla as a friend, but he was cautious not to assume she felt the same way. She had the gift of making everyone feel comfortable around her. As a result, she was one of everyone’s favorite people at the university, which made it hard for Galbraith to tell if she thought of him at some level of friendship with her or if he was simply another co-worker with whom she had cordial relations. 

Galbraith and Marla had gotten to know each other when they worked together on the committee to report on the use of slaves in the construction of the university. Galbraith was proud of the committee’s work. They had worked with the history department and local African-American community to locate records and oral histories of the work on the university that enslaved people had done. The committee had confirmed that it was slave laborers who had built and in some cases designed the famed serpentine garden walls. 

At the party, Galbraith had spotted Parker in a group with Marla, Sandra, and two law firm partners from the biggest law firm in the state. Sandra and Marla were far too important to be left alone with Parker, and Galbraith hurried to join them. He had approached the group as they were discussing their hopes for the university football team in the fall. Then the talk turned to the beauty of the university grounds. “I come back to the grounds every spring and fall,” one of the partners said, “and I can never get past how amazing these dogwoods and gardens look. These serpentine walls are spectacular.” 

“They call them crinkle crankle walls in the UK,” said the other partner, “I saw some in Somerset last summer.” 

“My ancestors helped build these walls,” said Parker. The conversation halted as the group took in the implication of what Parker was saying and each participant gauged how to respond. Sandra dropped her gaze from the dogwood blossoms they had all been admiring. She was still smiling, but now her smile was tighter as she evaluated the dangerous terrain they had entered. Only Marla seemed unperturbed as if this were a perfectly normal topic of conversation at a donor event. She stood in her navy blue dress, her neck encircled by two gleaming rows of pearls. The fingers of her right hand encircled a glass of white wine. Her face was set in the same pleasant non-committal smile that Galbraith had seen for years. That smile offered friendship to all and betrayed nothing. 

Parker himself seemed calm but alert like a baseball outfielder between pitches. “They came over the mountain from Pikesville to work here,” he continued. “They built a lot of the walls and stone fences in Suffolk and Pike counties. Or so they say. They couldn’t read and write, so it was all just passed down orally.” 

So there it was, thought Galbraith. The implied accusation and demand. My ancestors got a raw deal from the university, so at the very least I should get the job. What was the university going to do, screw poor Parker, his Porsche, and his beautiful Italian sports coat just like it had done to his ancestors? 

This time Galbraith tried to fight back. “Most of the serpentine walls were built with slave labor,” he confirmed, showing that he was unafraid to confront the injustice Parker was implicitly calling out. “There was a committee about five years ago that researched it and wrote a definitive history about their work.” 

Galbraith had hoped and expected that Marla would back him up and talk more about how she and Galbraith had served on the committee, and the good work it had done. But she stayed silent, smiling pleasantly at him across the conversation circle. Galbraith’s words hung awkwardly in the air, making him sound both defensive and like some sort of idiot pollyanna trying to convince everyone that the university had cured slavery with its brave report. 

“Obviously, a report is just a start,” said Sandra rescuing the conversation without a hint of defensiveness. “But I believe we’re making an honest effort to address the injustices in our past, while making sure to safeguard the great history and traditions that are the foundation of our university community.” 

“Well said,” said one of the law firm partners nodding at Parker. “We can’t be afraid to shine a light on our past. There’s a tremendous amount of good there. But admittedly some things that we wish had been different.” 

“Jason’s a great ambassador for the university,” said Marla turning her smile on Parker. “He’s driving down to Danville tonight to finalize some vendor contracts for the satellite campus tomorrow morning. Then he’s going to meet with a group of honors students in Paxton County on the way back to talk to them about the university. Some of those students don’t even know we exist.” 

Galbraith cringed and gripped hard on the Honda steering wheel. What a disaster! Parker had brilliantly accused the university and at the same time offered a path to absolution through his elevation to deputy counsel. In contrast, Galbraith had simply made everyone uncomfortable with his idiotic remarks about the committee report. He had taken a chance and trusted Marla, and she had hung him out to dry. Apparently, they weren’t friends at all! Worse, by blessing Parker in front of Sandra and the partners, she was signaling that Parker was almost certain to get the job. All because Parker was black! Galbraith felt a rush of rage and self-pity as he pulled into the driveway of his brick two story colonial.  

He parked his sedan next to Lily’s SUV. She had beat him home from her job teaching English literature at the community college. He found her inside, transferring the salmon risotto and salad she had picked up for dinner to a pair of large serving bowls. She had also chosen a very decent bottle of Merlot from the California Central Coast, which stood open next to her on the kitchen counter. She called 15 year old Scarlett and 12 year old Zach, and they ate dinner together at the picnic table under the dogwood in the backyard. Bosley, their golden retriever, trotted around the unkempt grass and bare spots in their backyard, coming up to the table every minute or so to look for scraps. 

Galbraith did his best to stay calm during the meal as his mind looped over and over what had happened at the party. He got through the dinner with the help of two glasses of wine. He even managed to navigate a mini lecture on Lincoln and Frederick Douglas from Scarlett that exposed Lincoln as a racist who wanted all black people to go back to Africa. 

Finally, when they had gotten through Zach’s homework, separated Scarlett from her phone, and the kids were in bed, he could share with Lily what had happened. Lily was sitting up in their bed, wearing a grey university t-shirt, her brown hair tied behind her head in a messy ponytail. Her index finger moved across the glass of her iPad as she skimmed through emails and advertisements. Galbraith was still dressed in the khakis and white dress shirt he had worn to the party. His sleeves were rolled up and he held a half glass of wine in his hand.

Lily did not like intense conversations late at night but Galbraith couldn’t help himself. He stood at the foot of their and recounted the party. “So the bottom line is, I’m about to get screwed out of the deputy counsel promotion for the sole reason that I’m not black.” 

“You don’t know that,” Lily volleyed back to him, her eyes meeting his over the tops of her reading glasses. 

“Yeah I do,” insisted Galbraith. “He’s not even as good an attorney as I am,” he continued, “But he’s close enough that they can give him the job without being obvious. And no way he knows the university better than me.” 

Lily looked unconvinced of the injustice, which aggravated Galbraith even more. “This affects us both,” he insisted. “If I’m deputy counsel here, I can compete for GC at any university in the country. GC of a private university could double the pay. Plus, killer housing. Look at Chris. The university gives him that place to live in.” 

“But it’s not just about the money,” he continued before she could interrupt. “This guy shows up in his suits and his Porsche 911, allegedly an ex-partner at some fancy law firm. I’ve been here nearly 20 years working my ass off to make this place more just and this guy comes here for two years, and they’re going to promote him. Two years!”

“Two years,” he repeated. “And you know what Parker’s idea of racial justice is? It’s Parker as deputy GC!  Problem solved. I bet he doesn’t care whether a single black person gets promoted anywhere else as long as he moves up. He probably did the same crap at his job in D.C. Who ever heard of him before he showed up here? It’s not like he was White House Counsel or some great trial lawyer. He’s just some guy who knows how to guilt people into moving him up because he’s black. He showed how he does it tonight at the party.”

“Calm down,” said Lily, “Chris and Marla are fair. You’ve known them for years. They know how good and committed you are.” 

“Get real, Lily,” said Galbraith. “No way Chris is not going to recommend Parker. If he recommends the white guy who looks exactly like every other GC the university has ever had, he comes off as maybe a closet racist. If he recommends Parker, he gets an A for diversity. Even if Marla were my friend and on my side, and she obviously isn’t, there still too much pressure to diversify for her not to choose Parker. And at the end of the day she’s black too. I don’t know if she would straight up pick someone who’s black just for being black, but maybe if you’re the only black person up there, you want some company.”

 “Okay, you’re getting screwed,” Lily agreed, transferring her attention back to her iPad.

“Great. That’s your definitive statement about the end of my career? ‘You’re getting screwed.’ Thanks so much for being on my side.” 

She kept looking at her iPad. He knew her patience with his complaining was close to over. “It’s not fair,” he insisted.”

“You keep talking about getting more diversity and more inclusion,” said Lily. “Great. So maybe this time, you personally can take one for the team.”

“Take one for the team?”  exclaimed Galbraith. “Screw that! You take one for the team! I worked damned hard for this. I fought with Chris to diversify the office. I brought in women. I brought in people of color. Qualified people. People who can compete and move up on merit. In ten years this university is going to have multiple diverse candidates it can choose from for senior positions in the office. But now it’s my time to move up. On merit!” 

“Don’t yell at me!” hissed Lily. 

“Jesus Christ,” said Galbraith. “For seventeen years I’ve gone to all their diversity training and all their goddamn consciousness raising sessions. You know what the message of every single one is. White guys suck! That’s the message. Fine. Whatever. Maybe we have to hear day after day that every institution white men ever created is a pile of unjust shit built by people of color who never got credit for it. Agreed we need to face our history. But you know what, I never screwed anyone out of anything. I never got a job because of racism or that I didn’t earn. So I do not accept Jason Parker screwing me out of a promotion due the color of my skin.” 

Lily’s face was tight with anger. “Jesus,” she said, “You sound like such a racist. Maybe you should get a little MAGA hat and an assault rifle and wander around Richmond complaining about how you’re losing all your rights.” 

“How am I a racist?” Galbraith demanded. “Give me one piece of evidence that ever shows I did or said anything racist. Seriously, once piece of evidence that would support anything that you just said. Other than I dared to defend myself from Parker. You can’t do it,” he insisted, “You can’t.” 

Galbraith opened his mouth to further challenge her outrageous accusation, but seeing the look on her face, he controlled himself enough to walk out of the room. He had pushed it way too far and was going to pay a serious price with Lily. But it was the truth! This kind of nonsense was exactly why people voted for Trump! And maybe they weren’t all wrong! 

Galbraith went downstairs and stood in the livingroom, his heart pounding. He pulled open the sliding door to the patio and walked outside. The night air was damp and cool on his skin. He could see the silhouette of the forgotten wine bottle on the picnic table. There was a slight, sweet smell of jasmine from the vines at the far end of the yard. The sound of classical music barely audible above the hum of the cicadas.

Rage at injustice pulsed through Galbraith. He had given up so much to take and stay in this job, and now he was getting screwed by the very people he had wanted to help. It was infuriating! Is that what life came down to? Just acting like a bunch of animals trying to get the best for your own kind? 

The face of his cell phone flashed in the darkness. Marla’s number lit up on the screen. Why was she calling him so late? He realized that probably they had made their decision, and she wanted him to know about Parker’s selection before it was announced. He composed himself to accept the result. 

Galbraith pressed the green accept button on his phone. “Hi Marla,” he said.

Marla took a breath and Galbraith immediately felt something was very wrong. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said. Her voice was missing the calm, rational, smoothness that he was used to. It was cracked, heavy, pained. 

“What is it?”

“Jason’s dead,” she said. It took Galbraith a minute to realize she was talking about Parker. “He was shot at a traffic stop in Paxton County.” 

“What?”

“The police shot him. They say he pulled a gun on a cop.”

“What?” Galbraith could hardly believe it. Marla didn’t respond. “Hello?” he said, “Marla?” 

“I told him to get rid of that Porsche,” she said finally. “He got stopped five or six times already. Maybe it’s okay in Richmond or D.C., or even here. But downstate is different. Some police don’t like black folk in expensive cars. And they especially don’t like black folks in expensive cars and fancy clothes back talking them.”

“There’ll be an investigation,” he assured her. 

“Sandra’s already called the governor.”

“Good.” 

There was another long silence. “Jason was so worried about the promotion,” said Marla. “He came down here because the senior partners at the firm in D.C. weren’t introducing him to major clients. He wanted a fresh start from all that. But there’s never been a black deputy or university counsel. Maybe he felt like he wasn’t going to get promoted, and it was happening all over again.” 

“I so wish we had announced the decision earlier,” she continued. “Maybe Jason was so wound up he wasn’t careful and just went off on the wrong cop.”

“Don’t blame yourself,” said Galbraith. 

“It’s so sad,” said Marla. “They stopped him for driving a Porsche, and they shot him for getting mad at a cop.”

“They’ll be an investigation,” repeated Galbraith. “Sandra and Chris know enough people to make sure it happens. I’ll call people. Someone will be held accountable.”

“I don’t know,” said Marla. 

Marla fell silent again. She was making a lot of assumptions about what happened to Parker, but maybe she was right. Maybe Parker was dead solely because he was black. In the end, he had fared no better than his ancestors who had built the serpentine wall. It was hard for Galbraith to wrap his head around that. It still happens, thought Galbraith amazed. It just happened now.   

“Oh, Virginia!” cried Marla. The pain in her voice cut into the dark air, slicing through Galbraith’s heart and silencing his thoughts.For an instant, he felt the same love, anger, sadness and despair that Marla felt for Parker’s death and for their shared homeland that had witnessed so many deaths like Parker’s before. 

Marla lapsed into silence again. Galbraith didn’t know what to do. Was Marla crying? Was she waiting for him to say something? 

“There’ll be an investigation,” Galbraith said again.  “They’ll find out what happened.”    

“What do you think happened?” asked Marla. 

“I don’t know,” said Galbraith and immediately regretted speaking. He had worked with Parker for two years. Did he actually believe Parker would have pulled a gun on a cop at a traffic stop? 

“Okay,” said Marla. Then, “Can you start the deputy counsel position on Monday?” Her voice was again the smooth, controlled, rational voice that he was used to hearing. “We really need someone there right away. You’ll have to do the work of three people until we can hire; your old job, Parker’s and the deputy.” 

“That’s fine,” said Galbraith. Marla didn’t respond. He knew she couldn’t bring herself to thank him. Maybe Parker would have won the promotion. Maybe even fairly, Galbraith now allowed. But the cop had snatched the promotion from Parker and given it to Galbraith. And Galbraith was all too willing to give absolution to the cop. Same as it ever was. That truth hung between Marla and Galbraith like a dark canyon so deep that neither one could ever cross.  

“I’m sorry,” said Galbraith.

“I know.” She just sounded tired now. “We’ll talk with Chris about how to prioritize things tomorrow.” Her voice vanished, and his phone went black.

Galbraith stood alone in the yard. He imagined the blood spattered interior of the 911 and Parker’s unclothed corpse which was probably right now lying under florescent lights in a dingy morgue. Galbraith felt like he had nothing to do with Parker’s death, and at the same time that it was entirely his fault. 

Growing up outside of D.C. in Norther Virginia, in a neighborhood full of transient government workers, Galbraith had wondered about his connection to the state. How much of its dark and triumphant history really belonged to him? But now he understood he was as deeply rooted in Virginia and its history as the thick oaks that grew along the ravines and washes and banks of the Potomac and James Rivers. Tonight the state had presented him with his blood-soaked and unasked for inheritance. For a moment, he considered turning down the promotion. But he knew he would take it. 

He sat at the table and poured another glass of wine. He looked up at the stars sparkling coldly over the land. There weren’t enough to fulfill all the wishes that he had, one for each soul of a life cut short by the sad history of this place. He wished that Parker had never started for Danville. He wished that Lilly would never learn how he had gotten the promotion. He wished that he and Marla could be true friends with no history between them. Most of all, he wished that he could be a stronger and better person to somehow outrun the terrible gravity of Virginia.   

 


Sam Cleaver is an attorney who lives and works in Los Angeles.


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