When I opened the wooden, eight-panel door to Fatty’s bar, a muscular man in a yellow tank top banked the seven ball into the lower right corner pocket and scratched, the skinny bartender poured Budweiser into a pint glass, and the laughter–the animation I heard while out on the street–was pinched silent. The other billiard player was unaware of my presence. He was standing beside Derek Ellis waiting for the pint of beer. Derek Ellis was wearing a brown fedora and seated at the bar. He was looking at me. The three middle-aged men seated with him were looking at me. The waiting billiard player followed the bartender’s eyes to mine.
We were all thinking versions of the same thought, I am certain of this, that I was the only white man in the room.
The commercial ended, which brought the skinny bartender’s attention to the television on the far corner of the maple wood bar. The screen showed a photograph of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson standing together. She was wearing a necklace and a black dress.
By the time the anchor said, “The O.J. Simpson civil trial began today in Santa Monica, California,” everybody was looking at the television but Derek Ellis.
He watched me cross the room. He was wearing brown slacks and white wingtip shoes. I sat on the neighboring stool and watched the newscast.
There was an image of O.J. Simpson in a gray suit and yellow tie smiling in the court room, followed by an image of the crime scene–a man in blue coveralls working a bag over a body.
“Simpson was acquitted of murder in the criminal trial twenty-one days ago by a mostly black jury.”
The broadcast cut to a silver-bearded black man wearing a purple T-shirt on the street, “Are you serious? You got one black woman on a mostly white jury, and you expect justice?”
The skinny bartender slid the pint of Budweiser to the waiting billiard player. A man in a tweed coat at the bar asked contemptuously, “Who was expecting justice?”
The skinny bartender shook his head. The waiting billiard player ran his thumb down his red suspenders and took his pint of Budweiser to the pool table. The newscast continued. I inferred from the ensuing silence that the man in the tweed coat’s question was a faux pas, that it should not have been uttered in my presence.
I listened to the billiard balls being racked. A current pulsated in the room, a static energy. It was the same hair-raising tension that warns me off the mountain prior to an electrical storm.
“I’ll have a Budweiser,” I told the skinny bartender.
He avoided my eyes.
I heard the rack break behind me with what sounded like two balls pocketed. Derek Ellis watched a Chevrolet commercial. So did the three other patrons seated at the bar. I heard another ball pocketed. The skinny bartender polished the maple wood.
There was a picture of a mangled Toyota 4Runner and a cement truck on its side on I-25 from rush hour.
The man in the tweed coat laid down a five-dollar bill with some change, stood and left the bar. Nobody spoke.
The skinny bartender scooped the change into his palm, picked up the bill, turned his back to me and opened the cash register. He sorted the money then closed the drawer.
“I’ll have a Budweiser,” I told him.
The skinny bartender ignored me.
I folded my hands. I would have paid a hundred dollars to have an empty glass to hold.
I heard the billiard players start a new rack. Under any other circumstance, I would have acquiesced to the force of the unwelcome, but I didn’t come to be welcomed.
A man with white shirt sleeves rolled up on his forearms pointed to the metro area on a weather map of Colorado, “Tomorrow we’ll have more of the same.” The map behind him changed. “You can expect a high of sixty-two degrees for Thursday and Friday.” The map changed again. He pointed to the forty-four over downtown with his index finger. “Temperatures will be getting cooler over the weekend.”
There were two other men, apart from Derek Ellis and me, at the bar. They went out the eight-panel door.
I looked in the mirror. One of the billiard players put on his suit jacket. The other, the one in the yellow tank top, put his cue stick in its case. Eleven balls were in play on the table.
The skinny bartender had his head down as he polished the maple wood. I watched in the mirror as the wooden door closed behind the billiard players.
Derek Ellis and I were the only customers in the bar.
“I’ll have a Budweiser.”
The skinny bartender picked up the remote control and changed the channel on the television. He set the remote on the bar then collected the dirty pint glasses.
The three of us watched the O.J. Simpson story on the ten o’clock news. They used the same headline. They showed the same image of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson standing together, the same image of O.J. Simpson smiling in the court room, the same image of the crime scene. It was the same broadcast with a different anchor.
After the O.J. Simpson story, they showed a video of the mangled 4Runner and the cement truck on its side on I-25. We sat through the commercials and watched in silence as the same weather was forecasted.
I said, “I’ll have a Budweiser.”
Derek Ellis turned from the television to look at me. The skinny bartender didn’t.
Looking past Derek Ellis, at the Olive Garden commercial, I asked, “Were you expecting justice?”
We made eye contact for the first time. He didn’t answer my question. His eyes were brown and clear. Seconds passed. I felt the eyes of the skinny bartender on me. The Olive Garden commercial ended and was followed by a commercial for Master Card.
The skinny bartender said, “Can I help you?” It was not an offer of service.
“We’ll have a round of Budweisers.” I slid a twenty dollar bill across the polished maple wood bar without breaking eye contact with Derek Ellis.
The skinny bartender reached for his towel. The Master Card commercial was followed by an advertisement for Bud Ice. When the narrator told us to, “Drink Bud Ice, but…uh…beware of the penguins,” Derek Ellis let out a sigh. He nodded.
The skinny bartender dealt us a coaster each. He poured a Budweiser for Derek Ellis followed by a Budweiser for me. I started on the beer. The skinny bartender took the twenty-dollar bill to the cash register and returned with my change. I set the half empty pint glass on the coaster, peeled off two dollars and left the tip on the bar.
Derek Ellis asked, “What are you doing here, son?” The way he addressed me was paternal but not unfriendly.
“I came to find out if you were expecting justice.”
Derek Ellis and the skinny bartender laughed.
“Jack,” Derek Ellis said, “he came in here to find out whether or not you and I are expecting justice for our good friend O.J.”
I said, “No, sir.”
“What do you mean, son?” Derek Ellis was still smiling.
“I came to find out if you were expecting justice.”
“Oh,” Derek Ellis put his palm on his chest, “so it’s just me. Jack’s opinion doesn’t matter.”
“What are you, a college student? Are you doing some kind of research?”
Derek Ellis put his glass down. He looked me over. His eyes rested on mine. He asked coldly, “Who are you?”
“I doubt there is such a thing as justice.”
Skinny Jack picked up the remote control and turned down the volume on the television. “He’s a white-skinned philosopher, Derek.”
“Is that right? Are you a philosopher?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m interested in your opinion is all.”
“Who are you to come in here like this,” he referenced the empty stools and the unplayed rack on the pool table in a sweeping gesture, which I took as an allusion to the lack of melanin in my skin–”and buy me a draft? Who are you?”
“I no longer believe in these things.”
“You no longer believe in what?”
Skinny Jack whistled and twirled his index finger around his ear.
“Believing,” I said, “doesn’t make something real.”
“You mean like the Easter Bunny?” Skinny Jack asked.
“What’s your point, son?”
“Can there be justice for Nicole Brown Simpson?”
“Are you asking whether or not it is possible?”
“I’m asking whether or not it exists.”
Derek Ellis clicked his tongue and expelled a loud sigh. He looked at Skinny Jack then at me, “Well, you’re something. You are something.”
“What can the court offer Nicole Brown Simpson?”
“You mean now that she’s dead?” Skinny Jack asked.
“Her kin are alive.”
I said, “That’s retribution.”
“So get the right man.”
“Do you agree?” I asked Derek Ellis.
“Do I agree with what?”
“About the right man?”
“What’s this about?” Derek Ellis asked. “What can a country philosopher,” he looked with contempt upon my Carhartt, boots and ball cap, “know about justice?”
“What do you believe in?”
“Grief and retribution.”
“You came in here to tell me that?”
“Who are you?”
“I came in here to find out if you believe in justice.”
The same Bud Ice commercial was on the television: a car chase in a rainstorm.
“What happened?” Skinny Jack asked.
I said, “Excuse me?”
“To convince you otherwise.”
“I met a dead woman.”
“Ah, Christ, Jack, haven’t we heard enough?”
“She had been dead for months.”
“You mean a ghost?” Skinny Jack asked.
The sedan was forced to stop at a railroad crossing. The penguin in the back seat sang, “Dooby-dooby do.” The driver ran screaming from the car.
“What sort of corpse did you find?”
I was sitting on the rose-colored cotton sheets of the unmade bed when Derek Ellis unlocked the deadbolt and opened the only exterior door to Elaine’s studio apartment. He took off his brown fedora, hung it on the hat rack beside my Carhartt then switched on the lights.
The loaded Peacemaker was visible in its holster. The wind blew the sheers from the open window.
“Keep your hat, Mr. Ellis. We’ll be going out.”
He was going to have a difficult hike up the mountain in his wingtip shoes.
Derek Ellis took the fedora from the hat rack and held it with both hands at his belly.
I walked over the hardwood floor to the desk built into the half wall separating the kitchen from the rest of the studio apartment.
“Mr. Ellis,” I said, “come in.”
He shut the door behind him.
“Have a seat, Mr. Ellis.” I gestured to the metal folding chair at the desk beside me.
He sat down. His fedora was in his hands.
The dusty frames of the nine photographs were still face down on the desk. They looked as if they hadn’t been touched in the two years since I was last in Elaine’s apartment.
“Which is your favorite?”
“My favorite what?” he asked coldly.
“Who are you?”
I liked Derek Ellis. I liked the way he unashamedly studied me. I liked the way he looked me in the eyes.
The dracaenas were dead in their pots. The wood-framed television, the VCR, the alabastrite woman were all covered in a film of dust.
“Set them up,” I told him.
He put his fedora on the corner of the desk. Sweat broke on his brow. I stepped into the kitchen, opened the drawer and took out a cotton dishtowel.
“Dust them off.”
I gave the towel to Derek Ellis.
“No. Not like that. I want you to look at her, Mr. Ellis.”
Sweat beaded on his chin, his upper lip. I could smell it. Derek Ellis looked at the photograph of Elaine.
“Thank you, Mr. Ellis. Now hand it to me.”
Derek and Elaine Ellis were in their early twenties. They were seated in a restaurant. He was behind her, wearing a white jacket over a black shirt. She was wearing a cherry dress.
Elaine was fifty-two when Derek Ellis killed her. I had never thought of her as a young woman. I had never thought of her as experiencing anything apart from her death. I put the photograph on the desk.
“Who are you?” Derek Ellis asked.
“What’s happening in the photograph?”
“Who are you?”
“Answer the question.”
“We were celebrating.”
“Elaine had just graduated.”
The revelation felt profound. “What did she study?”
Derek Ellis was perplexed by my line of questioning.
“What did she study?”
The statement stunned me. I needed to change the subject. I needed to finish what I had come to do. “Put on your hat and stand up.”
He did. He faced me. “Who are you?”
“Mr. Ellis, I think you know why I’m here.”
“You think I murdered my sister.”
I let the statement stand. “Open the door, Mr. Ellis.”
I looked at the alabastrite woman on the dusty television and thought about the way he lived in Elaine’s apartment, the dead plants, the photographs he kept face down on the desk–there was nothing sinister about it.
“How do you know my sister?”
I took my Carhartt from the hat rack and put it on.
“Who are you?”
“Open the door, Mr. Ellis.”
He was standing an arm’s length away. “Tell me how you know my sister.”
“Open the door, Mr. Ellis.”
“I’ve gone enough places in my life. I’m not going anywhere now.” He turned the metal chair and sat down. He looked tired. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care. You come in here with a gun and tell me to look at my sister. Who are you?”
“Calvin Ramsey. I found your sister.”
Derek studied me. He crossed to the door and hung his fedora on the hat rack. He unbuttoned his green shirt. “You come in here and tell me to dust them off.” He picked up a videotape. “No, not like that.”
He surprised me with an uppercut to the chin. I was on the hardwood floor and couldn’t make out his words. He helped me to my feet. The room was undulating.
“She asked me to do it.” Derek pushed the tape into the VCR. “This was waiting for me when I got back.” He went into the bathroom. He had the Peacemaker.
The metal folding chair was on the television. There was the sound of somebody breathing into the microphone. The frame shook. A woman, supporting herself with the wall, crossed to the chair. She held a folded piece of paper. She sat down. It was Elaine.
I took the cotton dishtowel and dusted the screen.
Derek came out of the bathroom. His suspenders were hanging from his pants. His shirttail was out. Under the silk shirt, he was wearing a white tank top. The sweat had been washed from his face.
I turned up the volume.
“It will come with a price.” Elaine was emaciated, wrapped in a green blanket and shivering. “But you already know this. You’ve known it all along, that it will not be easy for you, that it never will. Derek, I love you for that.”
Elaine wiped her eyes with her knuckles. Most of her words were unintelligible as she spoke about her pancreatic cancer.
She stopped to collect herself. She sat up. Elaine looked into the camera. “That is not what I meant to do.” She dried her cheeks. “Derek, there’s something I need to tell you. You’re all that’s left of us. I pray I’ve forgotten nothing, overlooked nothing. Not everyone will understand mercy. I couldn’t leave you without any kind of protection. There is a video will in my safe-deposit box. I pray you never have cause to use it.”
Elaine looked at her notes. “I’m worried I forgot something.” She looked up. “I’m tired, Derek.” She was looking into the camera. “I’m tired of doctors. I’m tired of pain. I’m tired of being cold. I don’t say this to complain, but to remind you it’s a gift you’ve given me.”
I turned off the television.
Derek laid his silk shirt on the bed and walked to the kitchen. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful for your devotion to my sister, Calvin.” He laid the Peacemaker on the counter. The cylinder was empty. “It was your talk about retribution.”
There was a portrait of a girl wearing an orange blouse on the desk. She looked like Elaine.
Derek opened a cupboard. “When I got here, she was yellow with jaundice.” He took out two glasses. “Her intestines were blocked by the tumor. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t shit. They scheduled her for another surgery.”
Derek saw me looking at the portrait.
“That’s Cecilia, Elaine’s daughter. Would you like a glass of water?”
I stood to reach for the glass. My jaw throbbed. I set the glass down, braced myself on the desk and looked at the portrait. Cecilia was about sixteen years old. She wore braces.
Derek drank his water.
I picked up the photograph.
“The next day she could hardly walk. I helped her brush her teeth. Elaine laid the toothbrush in the sink and told me it was time.”
It took awhile for me to process that.
“Where’s Cecilia?” I asked.
“She was killed in a car accident in high school.”
I sat down.
Derek finished his glass.
“How old was Elaine when she lost her daughter?”
“Forty-one.” Derek set the glass on the counter, walked to the foot of the bed and sat down. He took off his shoes.
Benjamin teaches English at Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado. He is currently seeking representation for Fidelity, the novel from which The Easter Bunny is an excerpt. Other excerpts from Fidelity were published in Fast Forward 2008, G Twenty Two Literary Journal, decomP magazinE and Fast Forward 2009.