Lapidus, a recent recruit, was inconsolable.
That the tanning shed could misfire and leave your skin a pale color was not what he was expecting. Everyone needed to be the same shade since one’s military review was based on the tones of your skin. Any skin tone, other than black or brown, meant a one way ticket to the prison’s electro grid and for a month and a sure bet of unemployment for a year.
“If I fail this time,” said Lapidus, “then my career is over. Based on the *Heinlein rules* only military men have the right to vote and only officers can get the top civilian jobs,” he said to his friend, Donny Macloskey.
“What’s the big deal?” asked Macloskey. “If you fail the test, you fail. The prison grid only puts you out for a month . The ban on employment only lasts a year while you go on welfare.”
“I’ve got four children from an infant to a 12 year old,” said Lapidus. “That’s the big deal. How will they eat if I don’t get a steady salary for a year?”
“Besides,” said Lapidus, “my 12 year old just got diagnosed as schizophrenic. He’ll never get completely well. All we can do is manage his symptoms.”
“Tough break,” admitted Macloskey. “One hopes your skin will be dark enough to pass the paper bag test.”
The following morning the recruit sought out Corporal Highsmith, a man for whom he had done many favors. When he had served in Highsmith’s unit Lapidus had written love letters for him to send to his girlfriend.
“How’s my shade?” asked Lapidus. “There’s something wrong at the tanning bivouac . I don’t know if I am dark enough.”
“Step into the light,” said Highsmith.
The corporal held up a paper bag next to Lapidus’ face to see if he was brown enough.
“Close,” said Highsmith. “Close enough for rock and roll.”
Lapidus smiled. He was almost there.
“But not close enough for rhythm and blues,” admitted the corporal. “Sorry.”
Lapidus’ smile faded. He was screwed and he knew it.
The next morning he said goodbye to his wife and children. The three youngest; Suzy, Sally, and Stevie would be alright. The oldest, Ronnie, had already descended into madness. He was now paranoid and had begun threatening harm to his siblings. Nonetheless, 12-year-old Ronnie was his first born and nothing could change that. He tousled his hair and gave him a hug goodbye. He walked out of the house and jumped into his brand new truck. It was the only expensive thing he owned.
He drove to the parking lot of the prison’s grid center, parked the truck and then walked into the employee entrance. For the next thirty days he was hooked up to the grid, performing minor tasks and receiving mild shocks for tasks that were undone or done too well.
Thirty nights later he walked out to the parking lot to get into his super-charged Ram Truck. Two blocks after leaving the grid building Lapidus’ expensive truck was pulled over by a police cruiser. Then a second cruiser pulled alongside the truck. Lapidus wasn’t thinking when he jumped out of the truck to meet the four patrolmen. He was still wearing his prison uniform.
Seeing him exit the truck the first officer yelled “Down on the ground! Down on the ground!”
Then the officer from the other car also began screaming at him.
“Show us your ID!” he shouted at Lapidus.
Lapidus, not sure of what to do, put his hand into his pocket to retrieve his identity card. Surely, that would put an end to this misunderstanding.
Seeing this, the third officer began to shout, “Take your hand out of your pocket!”
Now confused by the conflicting demands Lapidus spent too long with his hand in his pocket. He took his metallic wallet out to show the officer that he was harmless.
When the first officer saw the metallic wallet he shouted “Gun! Gun!”
All four officers fired at Lapidus. The first two shots went wide. The other two found their way to Lapidus’ unarmed body.
He was still alive when they loaded him into the ambulance. For the minute that he was conscious he remembered; the wrong shade at bivouac, failing the paper bag test, working at the grid. All Lapidus could think was “It’s no fair. It’s no fucking fair! It’s no…”
He died a few minutes later on the way to the hospital.
The ambulance attendants ignored Lapidus’ body. The ambulance drove on blindly through the dark and sentient night.
Rabbi Steven Lebow’s work in civil rights has been profiled in the New York Times and the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Wall Street Journal, CNN and NPR. He is a Senior Rabbi who lives in Atlanta, Georgia.