Chapter One: Late Winter Sky
After listening to Fiona’s screams on the voicemail, Cecile had come to sit on her bed, her bare feet planted on the floor, her hands twisting the bedspread beneath her. She’d been out in the garden looking at the weeds and wondering what to do with them for over an hour. She hadn’t heard the house phone ring and rarely took her cell out of her purse when she was home, so she’d been surprised when she came back in and saw the number of missed calls. She dialed into her voicemail with dirt still clinging to her hands. As the first message played, all she could make out was her daughter-in-law shrieking into the phone, “Augustus!” That was all Cecile needed to jab end, cutting the message off. She didn’t want to hear whatever came after that. She made her way up the stairs to her bedroom, where she’d been sitting now for as long as it took to count to one hundred three times.
Cecile forced herself not to look at the dresser or the bedside table, where she’d placed pictures of Malcolm and Augustus and the grandchildren in various poses over the years. She told herself to count to one hundred one more time, but when she got to ninety-nine, she couldn’t bring herself to say the next number. Whatever had happened was on the other side of it, and she still wasn’t ready. She started again at one instead, and had made it to thirty-three before the phone next to the bed began to ring. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Thirty-six. One more ring and it would go to voicemail. She wanted to let the call go, to prolong it—whatever it was—a bit longer, but how could she? Augustus was her only child, her only link to her husband, Malcolm. She leaned over to the bedside table and picked up the phone. Before she could even say hello, the screaming started.
“Mama! MAMA!” This was followed by a string of unintelligible words.
“Fiona, stop yelling. I can’t understand you.” Cecile surprised herself with the low tone of her voice, the even pace of her words.
“Augustus! Mama, they called me. It’s Augustus.” Fiona’s words came out in snot-and-tear-filled chokes.
Cecile had never particularly liked her son’s wife. She loved that Fiona was kind and a good mother and adored Augustus, but had she met her under other circumstances, Cecile wouldn’t have given her much thought. She’d always imagined Augustus with someone strong and centered and full of fire and drive, not a woman who had the body of a twelve-year-old boy and called her “Mama” when not even her own son did that. She often wondered where she’d gone wrong and what had caused Augustus to choose this wisp of a white woman who laughed to cover up her nervousness and never said more than a few words unless someone asked her a direct question. She worried that her own intensity had proved too much for her son, had caused him to choose the opposite of her, both in color and in temperament.
But when Malcolm was dying, Fiona had shown a strength that hadn’t been evident in the ten years she’d been a part of the family. She cooked and cleaned and sat with Malcolm when Cecile had reached her limit. Toward the end, she helped bathe and feed and turn him without batting an eye. And after he was gone, she was a presence in the house. Once the kids had been dropped at school, Fiona would come by and just sit, scrolling through her phone or absorbed in one of those adult coloring books, only speaking every once in a while to let Cecile know she was still there. She’d make lunch without asking, leaving it in the fridge or covered on the counter. After a few hours she’d gather her things, peck Cecile on the cheek, and say, “Bye, Mama. I’ll stop by tomorrow if that’s all right with you.”
The visits had gone on for a solid month before Cecile summoned the strength to tell her not to come the next day, to wait until Sunday dinner, when she was expected with Augustus and the children. “Of course, Mama. Whatever will make you feel better.” This was her daughter-in-law’s simple, quiet response. Cecile had wished Fiona would show some flicker of emotion at being so summarily dismissed, but there was no anger, no frustration, no worry about how Cecile would fill her days or eat lunch without her. Cecile had wondered, not for the first time, what lay beneath the placid cool of Fiona’s hazel eyes, the pale skin, the slender frame. How had ten years passed with Cecile knowing no more about what made her son’s wife tick than she had the first time Fiona came to dinner?
Cecile hadn’t expected that a woman so slight could scream this loudly. “Fiona. Take a deep breath. Good. Another one. Now speak to me slowly.”
“I can’t say it to you, Mama. I can’t. Here.” Static filled the space as she passed the phone to someone.
“Mrs. Brown? I’m Detective Simmons. I’m very sorry to have to tell you this over the phone, but your daughter-in-law insisted we call you.” He cleared his throat, and when he started again it sounded as though he were reading from a transcript on a notecard. “Ma’am, I regret to inform you that your son, Augustus Brown, was killed early this morning. Ma’am, you’ll need to—”
Cecile hung up the phone and started counting again from where she’d left off. Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight.
Her eyes hadn’t left the wall in front of her the entire time she’d been sitting on the bed. When Malcolm had died, two years ago, she’d repainted the bedroom blue, a shade just on the knife’s edge of gray. Her plan when she entered the paint supply store had been to get the same buttercream color she and Malcolm had used years before, but she’d gravitated toward the blue paint samples, pulled by their cool tones. From the moment Malcolm had died, an uncomfortable heat had radiated through her. It would flare in different parts of her body throughout the day, and as she waited for it to subside she’d imagine a book of matches, lit all at once, burning just beneath the surface of her skin. She never knew when it would happen or how long it would take to dissipate, and it added to her confusion, her loss of control over herself and her place in the world without her husband.
When Cecile discovered Late Winter Sky among the paint samples, all the matches extinguished at once. She bought gallons of it, much more than she needed for the bedroom. She didn’t want to run out of it, ever. Back at home, she didn’t even take off her coat before prying open the lid of one of the containers, dipping in a brush, and painting the palm of her hand. Seeing the blue there, feeling its tacky texture, inhaling the chemicals, Cecile took what seemed like her first deep breath in the last four months. Ten, if you counted from the time when the doctors said Malcolm would likely never recover from his stroke. She pressed her painted palm to her chest, ruining her coat, and the coolness of it soaked through the layers of wool and cotton and skin until it finally chilled her from the inside.
She didn’t know how it was happening, but she was grateful for it, grateful that she’d found an answer in a store she could return to whenever she wanted. Nothing had ever been able to calm her quite like this. Not Augustus or Fiona or their kids. Not her friends. Not food. Nothing at all. How strange that paint, something she’d never given a thought to, did the trick. She stood long enough for the sun’s shadow to move from one side of the room to the other. When she finally thought to move again, her legs and back were stiff and her arm asleep, but she was better. She knew it.
She lined up the cans in the hallway outside the bedroom door and then moved all the furniture to the middle of the room. Cecile knew Malcolm would have told her to put down some drop cloths and line the trim with painter’s tape, but she no longer had the patience for perfection. All she wanted was to get this blue on the walls so she could be surrounded by it. As she painted, she thought she might leave the bed in the middle of the room and stare at her Late Winter Sky walls until she died. The thought prompted her to work even faster. When the first trickle of light hit the window, Cecile was just finishing the last wall by the door. The room was bathed in sunshine as she peeled off her sweat-stained, paint-covered clothes, dropped them on the floor, and crawled into the bed on Malcolm’s side. She slept straight through until dinner and then ate on the bed, letting the color’s coolness wash over her.
Even now, two years later, the blue continued to still her nerves. Whenever memories of her long-ago life threatened to overwhelm her, whenever she couldn’t remember some simple fact like whether or not Malcolm liked olives, she’d retreat to her bedroom and stare at the walls. She hadn’t hung any pictures, to ensure that the tranquility remained uninterrupted. She also kept a little piece of painted cardboard in her purse, for when she was out in the world and sadness or fear or anger started to close in on her, narrowing her field of vision and filling her mouth with a sour taste that burned the back of her throat. This continued need for Late Winter Sky reminded her of how weak she had become, how dependent on whatever comfort she could find.
When the phone rang again a few minutes later, Cecile didn’t even let the first trill finish. She yanked the cord out of the wall and threw the whole thing—base and receiver—as hard as she could across the room. It hit the middle of the wall, leaving a black mark on the paint and a crack straight down to the floor.
Fiona would not let Cecile see Augustus until he had been cleaned and prepared for viewing at the funeral home. Fiona said it was for Cecile’s own good, that she wished she herself could erase the sight of her husband with the grimace on his face that meant he hadn’t died painlessly or peacefully. Cecile was livid, but she held her tongue, as she knew Malcolm and Augustus would have wanted her to do. She tried to busy herself with calls and preparations but mainly sat looking out her kitchen window, her piece of cardboard constantly between her fingers. The paint was chipping and the cardboard itself was pulpy from all the handling. She wondered how many others she’d worn thin over the last two years.
Cecile still wasn’t clear exactly what had happened. It didn’t make any sense that Augustus had been shot four times in an alley at five-thirty Thursday morning by a police officer. She hadn’t believed it at first, said they were talking about the wrong person, the wrong family, because there was no way her Augustus would have been doing anything that would cause him to be shot by the police.
When she’d finally met with Detective Simmons and he’d given her the details, her rush of relief made her want to hug him. She’d felt bad, of course, that someone else’s son had been killed, but she was overwhelmingly grateful that it wasn’t her Augustus. The boy she and Malcolm had raised in their house on the edge of the University of Chicago campus where Malcolm taught Economics—he was still safe. The son who had been a Boy Scout and played the trombone and asked, when he was about to enter a prestigious science and math academy, to transfer to an arts school where he could practice all day—he was perfectly fine. The young man who had gone to the University of Michigan, and finally become infatuated with numbers the way his father had hoped, and majored in Statistics while he played in jazz bands—he was where he should be right now, in a meeting or at the gym. The man who had come back from college and decided to go to business school instead of becoming the professional musician he’d always dreamed of, because he saw what all the auditions and rejections were doing to his friends and didn’t want to fall out of love with his passion—he was still alive.
Of course it wasn’t her son, the one who had fallen head over heels for delicate Fiona when he met her on a blind date and married her eight months later, despite Cecile’s objections and Malcolm’s worry about their future together. Two years later, when he was about to make partner at his consulting firm, came their son, James, and three years after him Alethia. He was complete and happier than Cecile had ever seen him, until Malcolm’s stroke. Augustus had crumpled under the weight of watching his father fade away. The day of Malcolm’s funeral, Augustus had held her hand with an urgency she hadn’t felt since he was eight or nine. He gripped her fingers as though that would stop what came next: lowering his father into the ground, throwing dirt on the casket, walking away and leaving him behind. Augustus had clung to her and wept on her shoulder in a way that squeezed her heart, just as it had the very first time she’d held him against her chest, moments after he was born.
It couldn’t be that man who had been shot four times by a police officer. That man was sitting in his office overlooking downtown Chicago, wondering why his wife wasn’t answering his calls. That man was planning a vacation for later in the summer and already thinking about what to get his kids for Christmas. That man was coming to his mother’s house for Sunday dinner, as he did every week. Cecile had already bought the pork chops and pulled out the frozen carrot cake she always kept on hand.
No, she’d told Detective Simmons, there was no way her son had been killed by the police. She was very sorry for the mother of that other man, but her son was safe.
And yet, of course, it was Augustus. All of her care and love and protection hadn’t been able to save him from whatever he’d faced in that alley. And now, three days later—the first time she’d been allowed to see him—she realized she wasn’t prepared. Fiona had been right: right to protect her, right to be the only one with the memory of him fresh from being killed. Seeing him now like this, she could pretend for a brief—so brief!—moment that he was sleeping, simply resting his eyes, the way he had when he was a teenager who couldn’t get enough food or sleep to keep him going. Seeing him from the entryway of the room where the casket lay, she could still pretend it was someone else’s son. But as she narrowed the gap, she knew it was Augustus. She’d memorized his face over the past forty years, could have drawn it from memory if she’d gone blind and needed to recreate him. The way his nostrils flared and the bridge of his nose sat wide and strong. The way his right eyebrow arched involuntarily. The way his mouth—her mouth—was full and slightly pouty, a pout that on her looked somber but on him became sultry. His skin had been the envy of every woman in their church, smooth and a shade of deep brown that reminded Cecile of the vanilla she’d tipped into his oatmeal each morning.
Oh, how she’d loved to stroke his cheek when he was just a boy, sleeping, his arms thrown over his head—inhaling his scent and watching his eyes flutter beneath their lids, wondering what he was dreaming about and if he’d remember to tell her in the morning. Standing over him now, she was struck by how beautiful he was. She’d never understood how she and Malcolm had created something so awesomely perfect. He had never stopped delighting her. Watching him turn into alternate versions of the two of them had been like watching an artist complete a painting.
And now she was the only one left. Both parts of her were gone, leaving her with…what exactly? Before Augustus, there had been Malcolm. Before Malcolm…she couldn’t quite remember anymore. Cecile had been theirs longer than she’d been anything else. Without either of them, she was untethered from the world.
She couldn’t tear herself away from the casket, just stood there looking down at this unanimated version of her Augustus. What had happened? What stroke of bad luck had befallen her son? Three days after the shooting, no one had any better answers than they’d given her that first day at the hospital. The security guard in the building where Augustus worked said he’d seen her son leave the building around five in the morning, in running clothes. This made sense, Fiona told her, because Augustus had pulled an all-nighter at work to finish a project. Rather than go to the gym in his office building, he’d decided to go for a jog by the lake. He’d texted Fiona just before he left. The security guard said he’d seen Augustus come back around six-fifteen and circle the building a couple of times, finally slowing to a walk. When the guard went out to check the side doors for deliveries, he saw cop cars speeding down the street. He thought he glimpsed Augustus dip into the alley between two buildings. A few minutes later, the guard heard four shots. The police told Cecile that Augustus fit the profile of a robbery suspect, that when they approached him her son had lunged at an officer, which caused another one to fire.
And that was it. That was all Cecile has been told about her son’s death. No one would tell her what he’d been wearing or if he’d been listening to music or if, when he hit the ground, he was already dead or lay there knowing he would never see any of them again. No one could tell her. No one understood how important it was for her to know all this, to try to visualize the last minutes of her son’s life just as she’d witnessed his first. All they told her was that it was an active investigation and they would provide her with details when they could. When they could. As though she were some nosy neighbor fishing for information. “I am his mother!” she wanted to scream. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. She had let her only child be killed, and so she could not now claim what she had failed to protect.
Finally Cecile willed herself to sit in one of the metal chairs in the tiny viewing room, hard and cold on the backs of her legs. She didn’t mind. She liked having something solid beneath her as her stomach shifted and swayed, just as it had last summer when Augustus insisted she come on his company’s boat cruise around Lake Michigan. She’d sat near the railing for the entire party, too scared to move for fear of further disrupting her rebelling belly. He’d worried that she wasn’t having fun, just sitting there sipping her ginger ale, but she’d loved every minute, relished watching as the younger associates sought him out and the older partners clapped him on the back and told her he was one of their rising stars. She hadn’t even been sad when she thought of Malcolm as the boat floated along, only grateful that he had given her this boy, had helped to shape him into the laughing, gentle man in front of her. Augustus had caught her watching him, waved from across the boat, and winked when she raised her glass of soda to him.
She stared at the casket, her life with her son unfolding in odd sequences. The morning of his christening, how he’d laughed as the blessing trickled down his forehead. His first solo recital, when he’d made a false start and searched for her in the front row before beginning again. When he was learning to walk—how, each time he fell, he’d clap his hands and say, “Careful!” before scrambling up again. When he walked down the aisle at his college graduation and handed her his diploma, saying, “This is for you.”
None of it made sense, the order in which it was coming to her now, but she couldn’t fight it, couldn’t stop all the moments from running together until they blurred and brought her back here. Cecile dug in her purse, feeling for her little square of freshly painted cardboard. She rubbed it between her fingers, faster and faster, her eyes never leaving the casket. After hours or minutes, she didn’t know which, she walked toward her son. She stroked his cheek, squeezed his hand, kissed his forehead. Her sweet Augustus. Just before she collapsed, she slid the piece of Late Winter Sky into his casket to keep him safe.
When I started The Absence of Color on November 1, 2016, as part of National Novel Writing Month, I wanted to write about Augustus, an unarmed Black man who is killed by four Chicago police officers. I thought I would tell the story from the point of view of both his mother and the reporter covering the story for the local news. I wrote a draft of the first chapter, “Late Winter Sky,” in the first seven days of November. After the election on November 8, I put the book and the idea away, too devastated to force myself to think of sadness in my creative pursuits. Though I wanted desperately to write out my hurt, anger, and sense of betrayal as a Black woman in a country where nowhere felt safe, I was afraid to write, to speak, even to ride the subway, for fear of who I’d encounter and what they’d say. I was quiet for a very long time.
I’ve picked up the novel over the last couple of years, writing a few pages or chapters as events in the real world made me think there was still a space and need for this story. I wanted to explain that Black people deserve care and protection regardless of their circumstances and despite society and the media telling us otherwise. I needed to show that white people make choices that hurt Black people, even the ones they love. I sought to tell a story about what it means to love and suffer loss and fight to be on the right side of history when the lines are blurred by race and class. I needed, more than ever in the current climate, to write about finding purpose and compassion in the madness, in the pain, in the damage we do to each other when we’re broken by life and lash out.
With this story, told from the point of view of four women whose lives intersect in the aftermath of Augustus’s murder, I am reminded that life, like people, is never as simple as black or white.
Heather McClean works and writes in Chicago. She received a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Chicago Graham School and was the 2014 recipient of the Graham School’s Student Writing Prize; she was nominated for the same prize in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Chicago Literati, and a personal essay appeared on the Barrelhouse Magazine blog.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021