“A Sense of Justice” by Omar ZahZah
Sometimes I wonder if part of what draws people in to a good ghost story is a sense of justice. Of course there’s a lot of chaos ghosts can wreak. No denying that. But sometimes, also, the ghosts can be more powerful than the living bodies they inhabited in one important way: they can finally realize the revenge they were too powerless to claim in life, maybe because the victimizer was too powerful socially, politically, or whatever else.
I know this was the case with my father.
I don’t know much about his life before he was a cop—we never talked about anything, and my first major goal in life was to get out of that house as soon as possible—but he was definitely one of those people who personified their job, if that makes sense, and in all the wrong kinds of ways. He enforced “the law” with a gun and baton outside, day and night, and when it came to “order” in his house (my mom and I were never credited with much of anything) he wasn’t shy about using his hands—knuckles, fists, palms… that’s pretty much all I’m going to say about that. But I think it’s enough to give a pretty good image of what life with him was like.
I’ve wondered about this a lot. You know, sometimes, I get to thinking about how informal personal relationships are, and what that can mean for how you treat people. After all, once the courtship is over, the mask can come off. You don’t need to do much work on yourself, especially if, like my father, you came from a world where your wife, like your child, is your property. The family’s been wooed, the house moved into, and that’s it—the trap snaps shut.
Maybe for these reasons, it’s not totally accurate to connect his home life to his work life—maybe the senses of entitlement were different, I mean—but I as I grew I couldn’t help but think, even as I was slowly learning how to exorcise my internal impressions with words, that someone who could treat his wife and son in the way he did would be a terrifying force to come across while he was on patrol.
There was never a time when I wasn’t afraid of him. Even during the morning, when he was supposedly at his most vulnerable because he was technically still groggy and coming to, I couldn’t stand to be near him. I can still see him now, sitting at that tiny kitchen table with the rose-patterned table-cloth in his sleeveless cotton shirt and underwear, always wearing the gaudy gold watch (a gift from his father) and dog tags from his army days he never took off, slowly slurping his black coffee and pawing at the paper. Eventually, he would light his first cigarette, and the stinging smell and fumes of the tobacco would blur into the scent and steam of the coffee (I can’t stand either cigarettes or coffee to this day.) No matter how quiet I was, how far I stood away or how small I tried to make myself, he’d always eventually look up at me, standing there in my pajamas and bare feet and, like a great evil demon with all that smoke and steam coming out of his nostrils, mouth, smoking hand and coffee cup, holler at me to get the hell out.
The thing about fiction is that you get to reduce people into caricatures. Human beings are typically complex, and made up of contradictions. So in expressing all this about my father now, I’m self-conscious about how it comes across. And, perhaps against some better judgement, I’m trying to find some empathetic moment, some selfless gesture, to balance all this out. But I just can’t. Maybe sometimes, reality can operate like fiction, after all. Or maybe that’s how it comes across to us.
Even the paper he didn’t read much. He was usually looking for some reference to a case he worked, some incident he was involved in. He was obsessed with that. Some nights he would bring his buddies over for beers, and all of them would laugh so hard they would get to screaming over pictures of the prostitutes they’d start handing around. Sometimes he’d call for me to come down (it was supposed to be my bedtime, but that, like any other boundary me or my mom would try to uphold, never mattered when he was drunk.) He’d show me one of the photos, and if he didn’t like my response, I’d get a backhand across the mouth, which would inspire a new wave of laughter from him and his friends. I remember falling asleep with the blood on my lips still wet and waking up to it dried on my pillow the next day.
It was more than just the photos, too. Especially back in those days, cops didn’t get questioned for much of anything. They were always the “respectable” ones in a court of law, no matter what the charges were, and it felt as though the judges and the local press tried to outdo one another when it came to fawning over the boys (and yes, back then it was always the boys) in blue. We certainly didn’t have anything like the internet today.
And that’s the truly terrible thing: it didn’t matter what my father or one of his buddies on the force was accused of. To this day, I get sick thinking of some of the charges. I can’t even bring myself to name them here, because it feels futile; he always got off scot-free, even—you might say especially—when it came to shooting down civilians, and civilians of color, to be more specific. His testimonies might as well have been written down in the Bible, because the word of a white cop against a Black or brown individual or family was received as though it came from heaven on high. He was untouchable, and he acted on it every day.
Like today, the killings that my father or one of his buddies took part in would lead to demonstrations. Unlike today, though, there was nothing to counter the local media’s demonization of activists. And since my dad and his buddies usually ended up being the police detail assigned to those actions, my mom and I would usually be regaled by stories about all the “skulls I’d cracked today,” usually replete with poisonous slurs.
I don’t really remember when the activity started. I wish I could pinpoint a trigger of some kind, but even all these years later, I really couldn’t tell you what it might have been. As far as I know, my father was never held accountable to a single thing he’d done in his life, which only seemed to inspire him to become more vicious in his violence, more confident in his cruelty.
But all the same, strange things started happening. And they began with me.
One night—I must have been about twelve at the time—I had just finished brushing my teeth and was about to climb into bed, when I saw something startling: my dad’s gun was sitting, upside down, with the muzzle pointed in my direction, in the center of my bedroom floor.
Now, there were only two places that gun would have ever been in my house: next to my father’s bedside, or possibly in his gun-safe (though he usually just kept that for show—he preferred having his gun on or near him as often as possible.) The last place it should have been was anywhere near me. And it’s position on the floor was, to put it bluntly, impossible; what was holding its balance? Why didn’t it fall?
Nevertheless, there it was.
Believe it or not, though, as ominous as it was to have that gun facing me, what scared me more wasn’t how the gun had gotten there, or whatever it was that put it there or was holding it in place, but what I was going to do with it now that it was here. If I took it back to my mom and father’s bedroom, there was no way they would believe it had just magically shown up and turned itself on its head all on its own, and my father had beaten me for less.
I climbed into bed and turned out the lights.
Next morning when I woke up the gun was gone, but any relief I might have felt was short-circuited when I heard my father roaring in anger. I ran downstairs to see him raging at my mother, who was on the floor, crying, and trying to back away. I’ll never forget how big his eyes were, how he kept yelling and, while my mom cried, raised his gun to her face and pulled the trigger.
So many things seemed to happen in the split second between his finger squeezing the trigger and the internal firing pin striking the cartridge primer: I, who was usually so terrified of my father I could barely say so much as a word to him, screamed out for him to stop, and my mom wailed and put her hands in front of her face, turning her head away. But what was also bizarre was what happened next.
The gun just let out a hollow click. This seemed to surprise my father, who turned his attention to the gun in his hand and began to take it apart. Meanwhile, I ran down to my mom. Our gazes were temporarily diverted in our mutual embrace, our tears, and our trembling so sharply from fear and relief that it felt as though we were one giant bush whose thin, nervous branches were being shaken back and forth by a mischievous kid.
What brought our attention back to my dad was his question: “Did you do this?”
We looked up to see the gun dismembered, an emptied magazine in his hand.
It wasn’t what he asked, but the way he asked it: it was hesitant, confused. As unsympathetic as my father was, even he couldn’t escape the fact that neither me nor my mom knew how to use that gun, much less take it apart. He was the only one who could have taken the cartridges out, and he was the last person who ever would have done such a thing. He turned and left us to go to the kitchen, shaking his head.
A few nights later, something similar happened. I’d just finished brushing my teeth and was about to climb into bed when I was a series of rounds arranged in a spiral shape on my bedroom floor. I knew these were rounds from my father’s gun. And just like before, I was more afraid of my dad than whatever seemed to be messing with his gun, so I turned out the light and went to sleep.
Sure enough, when I woke up the next morning, the rounds were gone, and when I made my way downstairs my dad was drinking his coffee, smoking his cigarette, and reading the paper, the pages crinkling and the smoke and steam blowing this way and that. But this morning, as he took his last sip, he began to sputter and gag; the retching and gagging sounds continued, tears and saliva ran down his face, until, finally, he was able to spit up whatever it was in the coffee that was tormenting him so onto the rose table-cloth.
It sat there, wet, sleek, and gleaming with spit under the weak kitchen light. And that’s when my dad slowly looked up and saw me. He was too dazed to be able to scream at me like he usually did, but the rage in his eyes flashed at me all the same, and I ran out of there.
And I knew just what it was, too: he was even angrier that I’d seen him in a moment of fear, confusion, and vulnerability. It was like catching him with his pants down.
Things continued on like that for some time, with objects going missing and then turning up in unexpected places. He beat the hell out of me when he found his badge in the toilet. Of course he wouldn’t believe it wasn’t me.
The activity not only continued, but it escalated and eventually peaked with my father’s death. He’d been shot in the head with his own gun, and forensics confirmed that there was no mitigating, suspicious circumstances, but I’ve still never been able to fully believe it was suicide. Even if he died by his own hand, I can’t help but feel that something helped him along.
There’s so much talk about haunted houses, but the smallest objects can have the most devastating impacts, too. My dad, who was physically the biggest man out of anyone he knew, as well as symbolically the biggest authority to all who were under his jurisdiction, personal or professional, had been undone by the tiny sabotage of some of the smaller items that made up his aesthetic of power. To this day, I can’t help but think that there is more than a little poetic irony in that, and probably the most comprehensive justice for all of those who were unable to claim it in life.
Omar Zahzah is a Palestinian American activist, writer, poet and horror enthusiast whose work has appeared in various publications. Omar holds a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA, with the subject of Omar’s doctoral thesis being the ways in which African American and Arab American activists and writers use literature as a means of contesting racialized state projects of policing and surveillance.