Harmonys front


    Sixteen-year-old Harmony Hammerschmidt had fantasized several different ways of killing Uncle Bob in the three years since being abandoned by her mother on his doorstep, the top floor of a three-flat on Chicago’s far west side. In fact she entertained three murderous fantasies specifically.
      The first involved killing only Uncle Bob. She would simply wait for some Saturday afternoon when Aunt Rosie was gone with the kids, Melissa, 12, and Jerry, 13, and with Uncle Bob passed out drunk on the couch, beat him to death with Jerry’s baseball bat and flee.
      The second fantasy entailed the exact same scenario with the difference that Harmony would hide in the hall with the bat until Aunt Rosie returned with the two monsters. In the moment of stunned surprise when the three found the hideously beaten Uncle Bob, she’d sneak up from behind and with a series of quick wacks crush their skulls as well.
    The third fantasy involved locking the two brats in their bedrooms with wedges under their doors, then dousing Uncle Bob and Aunt Rosie with gasoline as they slept, flipping a lighted match on them and bolting out the backdoor.
       With a sigh Harmony finished peeling the last potato, cut it up into the water in the pan on the stove and turned on the heat before Aunt Rosie’s squawk popped the bubble of her dark dream. “You’d better check that roast again. You know how your Uncle Bob gets when you overcook the meat,” she warned from the couch where she lay sprawled like a beached whale 16 hours a day puffing cigarette after cigarette while watching an endless stream of soap operas and TV talk shows.
      “Yes, Aunt Rosie,” Harmony sighed. Turning to the oven, she opened it and peered inside. Like she could tell anything from looking at the roast! Like she had x-ray vision and could see through to the center to see if it was properly pink! She had followed the directions in the cookbook and if Uncle Bob or Aunt Rosie didn’t like the way it came out Aunt Rosie could start making dinner herself for a change. And breakfast, too. And Melissa’s and Jerry’s school lunches as well.
      “How’s it look?” Aunt Rosie asked the moment Harmony closed the oven and turned to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.
     “Like a roast in an oven,” Harmony wearily replied, turned on the water and squirted dish washing liquid into the sink.
     “Don’t get smart with me, young lady, or you can go find somewhere else to live. We were nice enough to take you in when your mother dumped you, now you just shut your mouth and earn your keep. Understand?”
     “Yes, Aunt Rosie.” Auntie and Uncle weren’t looking out for the abandoned child, they were using her. And sadistically abusing her. In fact the whole family was. And enjoying it immensely.
      It had been a chilly, wet, late September afternoon a month before her thirteenth birthday when her mother had told her to go up to Uncle Bob’s and wait, assuring Harmony she’d only be a few minutes. The “few minutes” turned out to be forever. Harmony identified her from a police photograph a week later. Her mother had died in a car wreck somewhere in Texas.
      Harmony never really knew her father, but had the vague memory of him that a three-year-old might, like the time he rapped her across the mouth for spilling her milk. Perhaps it was her most vivid childhood memory because that was the morning he left and never came back.
   That had been 13 years ago. But now, at 16, Harmony Hammerschmidt was a “looker” with large, blue-green eyes, even white teeth, full sensuous lips and a dimpled smile that melted the heart of every boy at school. A slender, blossoming figure and long golden locks the color and texture of young corn silk were her crowning features.
        Harmony heard the door open and turned just as Jerry, Melissa and Uncle Bob burst into the kitchen, the two kids jabbering excitedly about their day at Great America Amusement Park. “You should’ve been there, Harmony,” Jerry breathlessly exclaimed, “the corkscrew roller coaster was awesome!”
       “Unbelievable!” Melissa put in.
      Forcing a smile, Harmony nodded, inadvertently catching the familiar wicked gleam suddenly alight in Uncle Bob’s eye. Damn. She shouldn’t have smiled. It seemed to incite him. Harmony studiously turned back to the dirty dishes heaped in the sink but it was too late. In three quick strides Uncle Bob crossed the linoleum-tiled floor and with an open-handed slap, smacked Harmony hard, her head bonking off the corner of the kitchen cabinet. Bursting into tears and clutching the side of her head, Harmony turned away sobbing, “What was that for?”
       Snotnosed smirks on their faces, Melissa and Jerry giggled while Uncle Bob shrilly bellowed, “That’s for whatever you did today that I don’t know about! Now quit your ballin’ and finish your chores or I’ll really give you something to cry about!”
      “As a matter of fact the little smartass was getting sassy with me just before you came in,” Aunt Rosie squawked from the couch, “so she had that one coming and she knows it!” To her children she said, “Jerry, Melissa, you’ve got some time before dinner so let’s hit the books.”
     With a last cruel giggle for Harmony, both kids said, “Okay, ma,” and scampered off to get their schoolbooks. Returning to the living room, they plopped down at the coffee table in front of the TV.
     Fixing himself a tall whiskey and soda, Uncle Bob called from the kitchen, “Wanna drink, Rosie?”
       “Sure,” she called back. “Heavy on the ice.” 
      Harmony finished with the dishes, set the table, opened a can of cat food and plopped it on a saucer, set it on the floor near the door by the water dish and kitty litter box, tossed a salad, whipped up mashed potatoes, put it on the table with the gravy and peas and called out none too loudly, “Dinner’s ready.”
     Taking their places at the table, the family was quiet, tense, every anxious eye on the master of the house as he sliced roast beef. Four slices later Uncle Bob laid the carving knife and fork down and glared at Harmony for one long, silent moment.
      “Yes?” Harmony’s whimper was barely above a whisper.
    “The meat is overcooked again. It’s supposed to be pink in the middle,” he informed her evenly.
      With head bowed and tears welling up, Harmony replied in a voice that trembled, “I’m sorry, Uncle Bob. I cooked it three minutes less than last time.”
      “Well, Harmony, I’m sorry, too. But until you can learn to make a decent roast I don’t think you deserve any.”
      There was an almost audible sigh of relief around the table. There would be no violence tonight. No plates of food breaking off Harmony’s head or the roast flying across the room. Uncle Bob apparently hadn’t enough whiskey in him tonight.
     “Okay,” Harmony replied gratefully. The miserable creep. He knew roast beef was one of her favorites. But at least he hadn’t thrown it at her. Nor was she being sent to her room. At least she could still have some of the mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and salad, thank you. She was hungry.
     After dinner the rest of the family gathered before the TV while Harmony cleared the table and washed, dried, and put away the dishes. Then, from the edge of the living room she timidly asked, “Is it all right if I take a shower, Uncle Bob?”
      Sprawled in his favorite easy chair, Uncle Bob looked up. Slurping his fourth whiskey and soda, he had to think about that one. “Okay,” he grunted, “but don’t take too long. You’re always wasting water.”
     “I won’t,” Harmony promised and immediately headed down the hall to the bathroom.
       She carefully chose the times when she requested a shower. With the bathroom doorknob broken off and not even a hook on the inside, her cousin Jerry, and sometimes her uncle, had a habit of coming in while she was showering and under the flimsiest of pretexts drawing the shower curtain aside with a sudden need to talk to her. One time her uncle even grabbed her arm and told her to turn around and look at him. Now with everyone gathered in front of the TV maybe they would leave her alone.
      But it was not to be. The sadistic games the entire family played on her were beginning to develop sexual overtones. God only knew where these games would end. Thirteen-year-old Jerry had his own ideas about that. So did Uncle Bob. Stumbling into the kitchen to fix his fifth whiskey and soda, he noticed the dirty cat food saucer on the floor. Immediately enraged and cursing, he slammed his empty highball glass on the counter.
     Everyone looked up from the TV, his wife asking with a frown, “What’s wrong?”
      “Harmony didn’t finish washing the dishes.”
      “Well get her butt out here and make her finish! She knows better than that!”
     “Ya damn right I will!” Uncle Bob huffed indignantly and stormed down the hall. Kicking the bathroom door open with a bang, he stomped into the room, snatched the shower curtain aside, grabbed Harmony by the hair and yanked her dripping-wet-naked from the shower. Marching her down the hall and through the living room to the kitchen, he stopped in the doorway, pointed at the dirty saucer and screamed, “What’s that!?”
    “What?” Harmony cried, burning with humiliation, the giggles of Jerry and Melissa in her ears as the two scrambled to their feet to watch.
     “The cat dish!” Uncle Bob shouted, “you left the dirty cat dish on the floor!”
      Naked, wet, shivering, Harmony tearfully explained, “But it still had cat food in it when I left.”
     “Well it doesn’t now! Wash it, and when you’re done with that mop up this water you dripped all over the floor.” Roughly shoving her, he ordered, “Now get to it!”
    Tearful, humiliated, resentment burning in her soul, the whole smirking family watching, a naked Harmony snatched up the saucer, washed it, crossed to the closet, retrieved a mop and mopped up the water, then fled wailing down the hall to the bedroom she shared with Melissa. Diving beneath the covers, she pulled a pillow over her head and lay their sobbing.

*                   *                  *

     Tossing and turning, Harmony groaned. With quickened breath she managed to stifle a shriek and sat bolt-upright in bed, the sheets damp, her face hot. The nightmare of Uncle Bob and Jerry taking turns at her while Aunt Rosie and Melissa egged them on was too close for comfort. Suddenly Harmony knew what she had to do.
      It was dark. Quiet. After a moment she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked at the bedside clock glowing amber. Eleven-thirty-five. In the shadowy gloom three feet away she could just make out the lump of covers that was Melissa in the other twin bed.
       Soundlessly slipping from the blankets, Harmony quickly dressed in the dark, finishing with jeans, rust-colored sweatshirt, and sneakers. Being careful not to rattle the coat hangers, she took her denim jacket from the closet, spread it open on the floor, tossed an extra change of clothes on it, her hairbrush and Bible, folded the jacket into a neat little bundle and tied it off with the sleeves.
      Quiet as a church mouse Harmony picked up the bundle, crept to the door, opened it a crack and peeked out. Aside from the steady ticking of the grandfather clock all was dark and still. With a glance at Melissa she stepped out, eased the door closed and slipped down the hall to the kitchen.
    Setting her bundle on the table, Harmony tiptoed to the utensils drawer, slowly pulled it open and in the faint glow of the street lamp outside the window, withdrew a 15-inch butcher knife. The same knife Uncle Bob had used that evening to carve the roast. Smiling with the thought, Harmony turned to the kitchen door, unlocked and opened it a crack, then turned and crept back down the hall clutching the carving knife.
     At Uncle and Auntie’s bedroom door she hesitated momentarily, listening, took a deep breath and gently eased it open. The darkened room was filled with the snarfling snore of Uncle Bob and the labored breathing of fat Aunt Rosie. The smell in the warm, closed-up room was revolting like rotting butter. But that didn’t matter now. Nor would it ever matter again.
     Barely breathing, Harmony tiptoed to the mirrored dresser where Uncle Bob always laid his keys, change, and wallet. Keeping her eyes on Uncle Bob, Harmony snagged the wallet, retreated to the hall, eased the door closed and crept back to the kitchen. Setting the knife on the table, she stuck the wallet in her back pocket, grabbed her bundle, and gently closing the door behind her, slipped out into the balmy May night.
      She hurried through the backyard to the garage to the alley where she paused long enough to dig through the wallet. Finding $43 dollars, Harmony pocketed the cash, tossed the wallet in a dumpster and set off at a brisk pace down the alley.
      At Grand Avenue she turned west. Without a specific destination in mind all Harmony knew was that she was going to put as much distance as fast as possible between herself and Uncle Bob. And she damn well might not stop until she felt the Pacific Ocean lapping at her toes.
      Harmony had been hoofing it at a steady, determined pace for nearly an hour and it was well after midnight when she made River Grove, the first suburb west of the city proper. There, a seedy-looking, unshaven man with long, greasy hair and a dirty gray trench coat suddenly reversed direction, crossed Grand Avenue and started following her.
       He probably forgot something, just remembered, and is going back to get it, Harmony silently assured herself. But then, why had he crossed the street? She picked up the pace a little.
    When Harmony checked again, her increased speed had not increased the distance between her and the man. In fact the distance between them had decreased. Okay, Harmony said to herself, fake him out. At the next corner she turned right onto a residential street. If the man followed she was going to walk up to a house like it was hers. That would put him off for sure.
      Walking quickly, in fact just short of a run, the next time Harmony looked back she was shocked. Not only had he followed her, but he must have run to catch up the moment she had been out of sight around the corner. With fear-borne adrenaline pounding through her veins Harmony looked back again and her heart leapt to her throat. Only some 20 feet away, the dirty, unshaven man was running straight for her!
      Tucking her bundle under one arm like a football, Harmony bolted across the street, jumped a picket fence, ran between two houses and cut across to the next block with nary a look back.




       As the prosecutor droned on Quentin caught himself dozing for the third time. He struggled with a wide yawn and made a halfhearted attempt to straighten out of his slouch, the admonishment of his mother to sit up straighter in court echoing through his mind like a song that wouldn’t quit. “It might help,” she had said over and over again during the past two weeks of the trial. And she really believed it. That was the funny part. Quentin smiled with the thought.

*                   *                  *

     The world called him black but he was actually the color of hammered bronze. He had a wide, friendly smile that revealed two rows of even white teeth, a prominent nose with large, flared nostrils and deep brown eyes set close together. His jet-black hair was close-cropped with twin lightning bolts that looked more like Nazi “SS” insignia carved to the scalp on the left side just above the ear. Despite his mother’s pleas he had refused to alter his hair style for the court sessions. “My haircut don’t matter!” he had stubbornly insisted. He was dressed neatly if simply in a tan suit, pumpkin-colored dress shirt open at the neck, black loafers and dark brown socks. He didn’t like ties.
      Having recently completed a three-year stint in the army, 21-year-old Quentin was already registered to attend college in the fall. Although football-player-size with a chest like a beer barrel and biceps that could break a rusty chain, he wouldn’t be going out for football. Or basketball either. He was an artist. He sculpted in clay and was good at his art because he loved it. Because, in a way, it was something only he could do. Something that he conceived in his mind and shaped with his hands, lovingly, carefully, until it was just right.…

*                   *                  *

      Quentin felt an elbow nudging his side. Snapping awake, blinking against the harsh light, he suddenly sat up straighter. “Quentin,” his lawyer whispered, “the judge is addressing you. Answer him!”
     “I said,” the judge repeated tediously, “have you anything to say for yourself before I read the verdict?”
      The verdict? Oh yes, he had plenty to say. But what good would it do? Would it change anything? The judge was white, the jurors were white, his lawyer was white, and the prosecutor was white. Quentin felt very black in a white world. He locked eyes with the judge and slowly shook his head.
      “Very well, then,” the judge responded, looking down at Quentin over the tops of his bifocals. He picked up some papers and began reading in a tired monotone.…

*                   *                  *

      The bar was packed, wall to wall people. A good, hard rockin’ band was kickin’ out some heavy, foot-stompin’ jams. Although Quentin was the only black in the place he didn’t feel conspicuous. Having grown up in Wheaton, a predominantly white, upper-class suburb of Chicago, he was quite comfortable around large groups of whites. In fact most of his friends were white. And other than a few racial slurs and fistfights years ago when a child in grade school, Quentin rarely had any trouble. Tonight would be the exception. The exception that would change his life forever.
       Wendel Globstuel, assistant manager of a Cicero super-market, mentioned to a friend that the nigger was looking for trouble just by being in the place. Wendel looked tubby in his bright-yellow Shazamm! T-shirt, and his black horn-rimmed glasses and mustache were comical. He drove an SUV that bogged in second and hadn’t had an oil change in 38,000 miles. And Wendel thought he was hot stuff. He didn’t know his foxy looking, just a pinch overweight wife cheated on him Friday nights when he worked late. And he didn’t know she was about to goad him into a fight he would lose.
         Being 6' 2" and well-built, Quentin moved among the tables and people like a friendly giant, nodding and waving to friends as he made his way through the crowd. He stopped to talk to some friends and didn’t hear Wendel call him a nigger, nor did he see Wendel’s wife dip her napkin in her scotch and soda, wad it up, and whip it at him, catching him splat on the left cheek.
       Quentin turned to see who the culprit was, immediately dismissing Wendel and his group. They were much too old for such nonsense. But right next to them were three guys and their dates, all looking barely old enough to be in the place, all swigging beer, their table littered with numerous empty bottles. Dragging a hand across his cheek confirming the assault, he asked in a knowing voice, “Okay, so who the wise guy?”
       They shook their heads, motioning to the neighboring table. Just then another wet, wadded-up napkin bounced off his other cheek. Quentin whirled around and stared at Wendel and his group. Six middle-aged adults. Drunk, laughing, Wendel’s wife in the act of wetting another napkin in her drink. Catching Quentin’s eye, Wendel snarled loudly, “What’re you lookin’ at, boy!?”
    For a moment Quentin was confused. He hadn’t asked for it. “Someone threw somethin’ at me,” he said in a low, embarrassed voice.
      “What, boy!?” Wendel yelled, angrily shoving his chair back and standing up.
     Pointing at Wendel’s wife, Quentin firmly replied, “The chick threw somethin’ at me.”
     “Don’t talk to my wife like that, nigger!” Wendel bellowed for the audience that was quickly developing.
       “I didn’t say nothin’ ’bout your wife.” Quentin retorted.
      Figuring he had the kid on the run, Wendel made a move towards him, fists clenched. “Apologize to my wife, boy!” he screamed hoarsely.
      Quentin glowered. Surprising some and bringing satisfied smiles to all, he looked the man dead in the eye and said evenly, “I ain’t your boy. Your boy’s at home.”
      “Don’t smart-mouth me, nigger,” Wendel snapped, “or I’ll knock you right on your ass so help me God!” Then he quickly returned to his seat.
      Glaring down at the man, Quentin stood with hands on hips, legs apart, “Then step outside, bitch,” he said tightly.
     “You wanna fight?” Wendel asked, his voice rising with the sudden realization that he was in this alone. Then he got a bright idea. “Okay,” he said with renewed confidence, “I’ll go outside and fight with you.”
      “Fine,” Quentin replied, then turned on his heel and made his way through the crowd for the exit.
     A grinning Wendel took a moment to look around his little entourage. They smiled back at him. With a half-shake of his head he rose from the table and sighed, “Ah well, guess I’ll just have to teach this nigger a lesson.” With that he turned and shoved his way through the crowd.
       Wendel was a 43-year-old wimp. He went to the toilet and combed his hair. He returned a little less aggressively, dusting his hands together and saying proudly, “I guess that takes care of him.”
        “Oh Wendel!” his wife blubbered, slurping at her scotch.
         Wendel chuckled. “What the heck, it was nothing.”
       Yes it was. It was cold outside. Quentin gave the man three minutes and when he didn’t show, yanked the door open and went back inside muttering, “I ain’t puttin’ up with this bull!” He made his way straight to Wendel’s table and ordered, “Get yo’ ass outside, bitch!”
      Knowing a fight in the bar would be broken up in a matter of seconds, without warning Wendel leapt from his chair and lunged at Quentin. They toppled backwards across a table and crashed to the floor, scattering drinks and guests in all directions. The band played on.
       Wendel came out on top astride Quentin. Punching him square in the face with his right, he was winding up for the second punch when Quentin managed to give him the heave-ho. Struggling to regain his dominance, Wendel slipped in the mud and the blood and the beer spilt on the floor, planting his fat face square on the jagged edges of a broken glass bottom. Trying to get up, blood spewing from the ghastly wound, he slipped yet again and landed on his butt where he sat shrieking like a woman, “My eye! God help me, I lost my eye!”
       Slipping and sliding in the puddles of disgust and broken glass, a blood-splattered Quentin just managed to regain his footing when four cops came through the door like gangbusters, two of which immediately grabbed Quentin from behind, slammed him face-down across a table and snapped the cuffs on. The third helped Wendel to a chair while the fourth called for an ambulance on his portable. And before you could say Jack Splat it was all over.
       “Hey, officer!” one onlooker called, “the black kid didn’t start it, the other guy did.”
        “Yeah,” someone else volunteered indignantly.
     Ignoring them, the officer who called for the ambulance shouted, “Okay, everybody clear the way, I’ve got an injured man here!” He moved forward clearing a path through the crowd while his partner followed, guiding a stunned and blubbering Wendel by the elbow.
    The other two cops yanked Quentin to his feet and shoved him roughly towards the door with a terse, “Okay, man, let’s go.”
*                   *                  *

    Quentin suddenly sat up straighter in his chair. “What?” he whispered hoarsely.
    “Ten years,” his attorney said drily. “You’ve got ten years in Stateville for assault with a deadly weapon. You’re going to Joliet. You shouldn’t have taken his eye out with that broken glass bottom. If it hadn’t been for that maybe I could’ve gotten you off.” The young court-appointed attorney looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry, kid, I did my best.”
        Quentin was frightened, his eyes wide with disbelief. “How long do an appeal take?” he asked as he wiped his sweaty hands on his trousers.
     His attorney was already packing up. “We’ve exhausted all our appeals, Quentin,” he said heavily, truly sad he had lost because he sensed Quentin had been telling the truth all along. “Unless new evidence comes up,” he paused, hating to say it, “there’s nothing more I can do.”
      This was it? Prison? Quentin could hear his mother crying somewhere. “But I didn’t do nothin’!” he cried, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I told ya, the man fell on the broken glass bottom, I didn’t stick ’em with it!”
       The judge immediately rapped his gavel, declaring loudly, “Quiet, son, this court is adjourned.”
     Then, as if caught in a nightmare, his heart sinking like a stone, officers were leading Quentin from the courtroom to a waiting van.
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