“Do you know why they call me the Coward King?”
“Why is that?”
“Because, as it goes, to the victors go the past.”
“What do you mean?”
“The history books are wrong about me. It’s true, I’ve done terrible things, but what they don’t teach in schools is that I had to, I had to do those terrible things.”
“Why did I have to do them? Why do men do anything? As King I was forced to make difficult decisions I never chose to make, but it was my duty. And in times of war, those difficult decisions became impossible, but unceasingly necessary.”
“It’s been years since the last war.”
“Don’t be naïve, there’s always war. Men go to war because they must – it’s what makes us human, so it becomes part of our existence. Kings though, that’s different, the role of King shifts. There was a time when they built statues in my honor you know, statues that I lived long enough to see brought down – but war, war is constant.”
I’d never met the Coward King before. The last time I’d spoken to Pete, he was a shepherd that had lost his flock. The time before that, he barely spoke, trembling in fear at the red-eyed, goat-headed half-man that silently towered over him. And while I never knew who I would be speaking to during any particular visit, it was always Pete I was looking at. Aged, of course, but time had been outwardly kind to him. His strong, handsome features said little of his internal struggle. Only his eyes, often wide and vacant, gave him away.
I met Pete in the summer of ’67, after the riots, after the National Guard had been called in, when everything changed. They said that the violence had erupted because some white police officers had killed a black cabbie, but everyone knew it went beyond any one event. The black cabbie’s name was John Smith, though it could’ve been anyone, any number of John Smiths could’ve been the catalyst for what had been culminating for years. The riots lasted three days, three days was all it took to dismantle an entire city. In the weeks that followed, uncertainty hung in the air. Some people tried. They went about their days desperately clinging to routine, praying that maybe if they pretended hard enough, it would be so. But there was a mass exodus of, not just whites, but affluent blacks too, out of the city and suddenly, Newark had been altered. The possibility of healing, of revival, was never given a chance. Eventually, I would move on too, but at the time, Newark was my home.
For a long time after the last day of violence, the city was a ghost town, its people either having deserted it or who were still too afraid to face the aftermath. But many of Newark’s business owners who had built their lives in the city needed to see what remained, if anything remained. Folks like Pete and I were there on the streets immediately after the mayhem had ended, gauging, not whether we could afford to go on, but how much it would cost to do so. There was hope among us.
But, the harmony that existed between my past and my future ceased the moment I stepped through the cracked, wooden door frame where a glass pane once stood, kicking around the thoroughly looted remnants of Bendemann’s Grocery Store, of my grocery store – hopes of salvaging something, anything, dashed. There was little I could do, so I spent the rest of that day helping others where I could.
Pete and his ten-year-old son Charlie were standing outside his once popular diner on Broad Street, staring into the charred hole that stood in its place, when I approached.
“I’m sorry,” I remembered were my first words to Pete.
“Me too,” he replied as he turned to me. We spoke casually and openly about what we had lost, as strangers do in times of shared tragedy. Charlie had remained silent during our exchange, staring dispassionately at the destruction around him.
We turned off of Broad Street together and onto Central Avenue where a butcher friend of Pete’s owned a storefront. Pete became distracted by the remains of a fallen statue honoring a white police officer that once stood proudly, audaciously, on Central Avenue. When he noticed that he no longer had a grip on Charlie’s hand it was already too late. The official report was that Charlie had lost sight of his father for a split second and stepped onto the street into the path of a passing car, nothing more than a terrible tragedy. Pete and his wife, Sara, suspected otherwise, but it was too fantastic an idea that such a young child, not yet world-weary, could’ve suffered from depression, let alone be suicidal.
Soon after Charlie’s death, Pete’s headaches began. The doctors found a benign tumor on his parietal lobe, which they said was harmless. The most damage that it would cause, they said, was chronic discomfort, but that it could be safely removed. After the operation came the voices. The tumor had acted as a valve, its removal unleashing a torrent that had been crying out for decades, previously unheard and unheeded. Charlie’s death suddenly made sense to Sara, Pete’s madness being the missing link. The illness must’ve been imparted to Charlie, just as Pete’s blue eyes had been. It was an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable, and it was enough for Sara. Still reeling from Charlie’s death, she was unable to cope with Pete’s rapidly deteriorating state and left him.
I kept in touch over the years, as the world Pete once knew began collapsing in on him. Then one day, he disappeared. Nearly a decade passed before he emerged again, Newark had taken him, had swallowed him whole.
“You don’t understand do you?” Pete said to me tearfully, still as the Coward King. “Some choices are not choices at all.”