We had to play late in the day, as we couldn’t secure a court for the morning or early afternoon.
* I wrote this beginning seven years ago but never went back to it for any number of reasons, not the least of which was I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. But I’ve played tennis hundreds of times since with and against countless players, both singles and doubles, with men and women, in Brooklyn and Queens, outside in frigid January and inside a temperature-controlled bubble, early in the morning and late past midnight, and Paulie is still the only friend I’ve had who was murdered by the police.
I still occupy the same don’t-know-what space.
I’ve written dozens of stories where characters are victims of abuse, of violence, but it’s always presented as slapstick, absurd and unreal. People have died, though never by gunfire, and people have disappeared, but almost every narrative is about what happens in the wake of such events or the inevitability of such events. The violence is never depicted on the page in real time, so to speak, but relayed in retrospect, through the thick haze of a compromised memory. Or it resides completely in the imagination, so that the violence is internal, is about neuroses and anxiety.
In one story, a narrator says that his mother used to beat him nightly with kitchen implements, a cheese grater, a rolling pin, etc. What she beat him with depended on what they were having for dinner that night.
That line was funny to me then when it tumbled out and into a story and it’s still funny to me 10 years later.
Maybe it’s the maxim attributed to Steve Allen that comedy is tragedy plus time. If we need a formula or reason for why something is funny this one seems apt.
But there’s never any mention as to how much time has to elapse before something is fair game, before it’s funny. There’s no formula for this part of it, so perhaps it’s determined case by case. How was the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, is funny. But I haven’t heard any jokes about September 11 yet, though it’s possible I’ve missed them as I don’t get out as much as I used to and don’t pay attention as much, either.
We never see the narrator’s mother beat him in the aforementioned story, and he is well on the other side of this abuse, as it is many years later. And to be fair, we’re never actually sure if any of this happened, if we can take the narrator at his word.
Characters might imagine owning a gun, might fantasize about using one or, more likely, being the victim of gun violence, of getting shot themselves, but none of it ever comes to pass.
Paulie’s murder was perverted and totally fucked up, but it wasn’t part of some absurdist fiction and never felt that way. As with every trauma, there was disbelief and shock, but it never felt absurd, per se. This is America, after all, and those that are paid to protect and serve brutalize and kill all the time.
Which is probably why Paulie has never found its way into any of the fiction I’ve written, because it’s too real.
Here is a mixture of fact and assertion: Paulie was a white guy, tall and skinny as fuck, gentle-hearted and a pacifist, bright and immensely talented, kind, generous. All of what people say when the victim is the last person you ever thought could get murdered by police.
But the truth is the cops can kill anybody. They do it all the time.
I can say that Paulie worked as record producer and sound engineer and was out scouting bands on a Friday night. He’d recently moved back home to Wisconsin from Brooklyn and was crashing with friends while looking for his own place and trying to regain his footing in a life he’d thought he’d left behind for good. But Brooklyn wasn’t going to be home for him and he knew it and he probably belonged in the woods doing his own thing, making music, rebuilding computers.
I can say that I met Paulie through his wife, Mae, who was my student at Pratt Institute. I can say that Mae was and is brilliant, a math and technology geek with a gift for language. In class I’d mentioned that my computer, a Dell PC, had been compromised. I’d caught the virus, the malware. Mae said her boyfriend was a whiz and could fix it right up.
I can say that Paulie came over and cleaned out my computer and it took all day, about seven hours from start to finish. He explained how computer viruses work, how they are spread and team up to make a network of supercomputers. I pretended to understand what he was talking about. I can’t remember what else we talked about during that time, but we covered quite a lot, particularly music. We made plans.
I can say that if Paulie allowed me to give him any money, it was a token amount and only after I insisted. The second time he spent a whole day cleaning out my computer he refused what I offered and accepted lunch and dinner instead.
I can say that Paulie and Mae had me over for dinner once or twice.
I can say that I have a Mac now because Paulie said I should switch and the prospect of him rescuing my PC over and over, taking advantage of his kindness and friendship wasn’t at all appealing.
I can say that after a long night of loud rock and booze on November 7, 2012, Paulie, inebriated and exhausted, accidentally went into the wrong house. All of the houses on the block looked the same, and he’d only just started crashing with his friends that week.
The homeowners called 911 when they heard someone downstairs. The man of the house recognized the intruder as Paulie, the young man who was staying with the neighbors next door and walked him outside, as Paulie was quite impaired and needed assistance. This is when the cop pulled up, never identifying himself as a police officer, called for everyone to get on the ground, and drew his weapon. Paulie stumbled toward the cop, said something like, Want to get weird, and the officer shot him three times. The neighbor on the ground was calling out, It’s okay, he’s my neighbor, as it happened. The neighbor said Paulie was moving away from the cop when he was shot.
The cop said Paulie reached for his gun because of course.
I can say that I won’t mention the cop’s name because why should I, because it doesn’t matter.
But I’m not sure what all of this accomplishes other than basic journalism.
For an infinitely better and detailed account of what happened that night, I can refer you to my friend Joshua Furst’s brilliant essay “On Wisconsin.”
Josh was my colleague at Pratt and closer to both Mae and Paulie, was the one who broke the news to me over the phone the next day.
Josh is also from Wisconsin, and his essay is a trenchant look at the region and its people, their ethos and dysfunction, all while illuminating the particulars of Paulie and Mae and the cop. He covers what happened before the shooting and what happened after.
The what happened after includes what you’d expect. The cops claiming the shooting was justified, no formal charges, no admission of guilt or responsibility, but enough community outrage and political pressure for the cop to eventually resign.
Mae wrote to me several months after the shooting and said, “I don’t know anyone else who lost a person when another person decided to kill him. I think it’s different from when people die in any other way. And it’s vastly different between you and me, your father and Paulie, but I wonder how much the thing they have in common weighs.”
The weight Mae refers to here is hard to measure. Had Paulie died in a car accident I probably wouldn’t feel compelled to address it quite like this, whatever this is or isn’t.
The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. — Samuel Beckett
That’s how it is with everything I’ve managed to write, how it is when it comes to Paulie.
How it is when it comes to cops killing people. Like Trayvon Martin, like Eric Garner, like Philando Castile, and now like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Who’s gonna protect me from you? The likes of you? The nerve of you? — Gil Scott-Heron
In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” the author gets to do what so many writers have wanted to do themselves — kill a book critic. The lead-up to the violence is funny, and it’s a particular kind of humor, broad and farcical. What leads to the shooting is one stale cliché after another and were it a stand-alone piece it would be indistinguishable from a bad undergraduate short story submitted for workshop.
When Anders is shot in the head, the reader doesn’t object because we’ve seen him acting the pompous fool, i.e., he was asking for it.
It’s what happens after the shooting that makes the story brilliant, what Wolff does with narrative, how he manipulates time and memory and form to such a degree that one could make an argument that Anders the critic was saved by the bullet, that it was the best thing that could’ve happened to him.
This probably can’t be true in real life, except maybe for those suffering with a terminal illness and intolerable pain. Certainly that wasn’t the case for Paulie, who was looking to get his life together again and was barely into his 30s.
Playing tennis after a friend dies in this manner is strange. Like everything was strange after my father died unexpectedly two days before my 26th birthday in 1997. Eating meals, talking to my mother or sister, going back to graduate school, anything at all quotidian, all of it felt grotesque somehow, senseless, and profoundly wrong.
Everything in the world felt different, the sun up in the everywhere sky, watching a baseball game on television, listening to music, breathing.
One difference is my father died and Paulie was killed.
Another difference is my father’s death leveled me in every way and I’m still trying to figure out how Paulie’s murder has impacted me, other than anger and grief. The violence of such a death, the American stupidity of it all.
Of course, for Paulie’s family, for his closest friends, for Mae, it’s another story entirely.
Nothing to express and an obligation to express.
While driving through rural Georgia in the fall of 2016 with my closest friend, the writer Samuel Ligon, he joked that my presence in the car was going to get us killed. A cop was going to pull us over and we’d all wind up on the news that night.
I sometimes forget that people see me as brown. I sometimes forget that my school friends used to call me spic.
I remember asking my friend Amanda, who was complaining about dating white men and the myriad problems of doing such a thing, do you think of me as white or nonwhite? She said she’s never considered me white.
I remember coming across an article in The Rumpus titled “We Are Many, We Are Everywhere,” and going through the names of a long list of writers-of-color. As I moved from the As down through the alphabet and approached the Rs (it was arranged by first name) it occurred to me … I’m going to be on this list.
And there I was, sandwiched between Rita Dove and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.
While I’ve never thought of myself as white, I also never thought about how others see me, how they might characterize or categorize me as a person or as a writer.
Of course, being Latin and presenting as somewhat Caucasian at the same time affords one this sort of luxury. Black men and women never forget they’re black, not in this country.
So here I was, a potential mortal liability to my friend Sam while driving through Georgia.
Stories of cops brutalizing and killing people fall in and out of fashion. Why one instance becomes a cause célèbre and another doesn’t has to do with chance and what else is going on in the news cycle and the particular kind of narrative surrounding the killing. Of course, in this age of the cell phone, having the murder filmed changes everything.
This is what sells newspapers, gets ratings, but why one killing and not another always feels capricious.
Not when it comes to George Floyd, which is an awful exception, as there was no other reaction beyond outrage and uprising.
I can and have imagined my life ending in a car accident or some sort of cardiac catastrophe, but getting shot and killed is unimaginable.
Even though my name is Robert Lopez and I look like my name is Robert Lopez.
This was especially true, that we were courting some kind of potential danger, when Sam wanted to stop and get out of the car to touch the cotton as we passed through a sequence of cotton and pecan farms. I made sure to stay inside the car, certain that some overseer somewhere was taking aim through a telescopic lens.
Turns out I can imagine the unimaginable.
Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. — William Saroyan
I play a lot of tennis, and it’s always the same. It feels great to hit a passing shot while falling away at the baseline and awful when I hustle up to the net to retrieve a drop shot and push it wide. I can crush aces up the T, but double-fault far too often, make way too many mistakes for not moving my feet or watching the ball contacting the strings.
That first time playing tennis after Paulie was murdered, I kept thinking about him after every rally. Imagining the unimaginable scene. The stage blocking of it, what actually happened, not how it might be rendered in a story or essay or film or play. The sound of shots fired in the wee hours of a suburban-like Wisconsin neighborhood. Residents waking to that sound, rushing to kitchen windows to look outside, then spilling out into the street. The cop with the gun in his hand vibrating with adrenaline, with elation, maybe even glee, the neighbor on the ground cowering in fear and horror.
I try not to think about Paulie bleeding out on the ground, dying.
Then back to crosscourt forehands and down the line backhands and wondering how anyone can think Paulie a threat, regardless of circumstance. Knowing the cop had to think of himself as a cowboy, as a kingshit movie character.
Absolutely knowing this murderer, this police officer, like so many of his brethren across this godforsaken country, thinks he’s in a video game or a movie.
I never thought of it as material, as subject matter.
One of my tennis partners is a friend named Amadou Diallo. He’s a good player and a better guy, a freelance journalist who often writes about technology for Forbes.
He isn’t the Amadou Diallo who four cops fired 41 bullets at in the Bronx on February 4, 1999, but he could’ve been.
All of us could’ve been or could be someday soon, particularly those of us with darker complexions.
You can get killed just for living in your American skin. — Bruce Springsteen
Tennis is almost always a respite from the real world, one of its many blessings, but not that first time after Paulie.
Such is the weight of grief and trauma.
Of course the cop had been cited for excessive force more than once. Had a few reprimands in his jacket. Once, after responding to a call of some teenagers doing donuts in a parking lot, which means the kids were in their cars driving fast in circles while braking hard, so that they could leave tracks in the pavement, this cop brandished his weapon and attempted to shoot out the tires of the cars as they sped away.
He fired his gun at a bunch of kids playing in a parking lot.
And they let him continue to serve after this.
Of course there’s enough human tragedy here for several works, but probably not enough time for it ever to be funny. You can write an essay, a novel, you can visualize a compelling movie, but then what? What do you have then?
Sit still […] til they remember how your boy was killed. — Patricia Smith
I can say that Paulie and I played music together, recorded a few demos, and promised to do more of it. He was a whiz who could play all the instruments and had the technical expertise all recording engineers possess. He and I talked about making an album together in Wisconsin once he got settled.
He’d lent me some CDs before he’d moved back home, including a special edition of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, which all engineers and producers geek out on. I wanted to mail them back to him but kept forgetting to and I finally did and the package arrived two days after he was killed. Now when I type this, that Paulie was killed, it doesn’t seem quite as fucked up and perverted, though, of course, it’s still fucked up and perverted.
Such is the nature of time and familiarity.
Since Paulie was killed in November 2012, police in this country have killed roughly 12,000 people, but that’s for another essay, a different movie.
Paulie wrote me an email a month before the shooting, said, “I’ve crashed and burned in Wisconsin, but if you’re up for mailing those CDs to me I’d appreciate it. If not, no big deal. Hope to see you on the flipside, brother. I’m back to being a musician again.”
When I listen to the two songs we recorded together, I especially dig the sweet fills of Paulie’s guitar, him playing exactly what was needed to enhance the vocals, the emotion.
I’m going to go play tennis today, November 25, 2019. If I think about Paulie when I’m out on the courts, it will be in the context of this particular essay, not who he was as a person, as a musician, as a friend. This is what gets lost over time or what can get lost if we’re not careful.
But, even if we are careful we inevitably lose the humanity of those lost. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of being a person in the world, that we all become a story for someone else to tell until no one is left to tell it firsthand, if it’s told at all.
It’s the same with my father, other relatives and friends, students and acquaintances, with everyone I know who isn’t here anymore, everyone who has changed tense.
And we turn him into an anecdote, with no teeth, and a punch line you'll tell for years to come […] and we become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on. […] Well, I will not turn him into an anecdote, it was an experience. How do we hold onto the experience? — John Guare
But that day about a week after Paulie was killed, I wrote that I got to play tennis today and was thinking about Paulie all the time.
I said that it was windy and at that time of year with the sun hanging low in the sky, it was hard to see the ball coming in and out of the shadows.
Robert Lopez is the author of six books including A Better Class of People, to be published by Dzanc Books in April 2022. His first nonfiction book, Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere, will be published by Two Dollar Radio in March 2023. Parts of this essay will appear in Dispatches. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Stony Brook University.