Nine Ladies Dancing

This is the ninth installment of the series, “The 12 Days of the Tilley-Blandin Coronavirus Christmas.” More stories about the Tilley-Blandin family universe can be found here.

Until May 25, 2020, Alexandra Sykes had enjoyed her second career as a Washington DC police officer. She had also enjoyed teaching high school English in Prince George’s County. She loved her work until she felt like making a change, and then she would make the change. Her husband Devon had always supported her decisions. She had considered going to law school, but her parents convinced her to avoid student debt and serve the community as a police officer. “Different sides of the same coin,” her father had told her. “In both endeavors, you are helping people when they are at low points in their lives.” Until that day in May when George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, her father’s words had been prophetic.

As a Black police officer, Alexandria Sykes was offended and disgusted by the actions of [the white police officer who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd until he was unconscious]. As a mother, learning that George Floyd had called for his mother, she was emotionally devastated. On that day, she understood that civil unrest would follow, and that the nation’s capital she served would not be spared from the public outpourings of grief and rage. Her gut tensed at the thought of what she would be expected to do when she stood toe-to-toe with Black men and women taking to the streets to channel that grief and rage.

Between the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the ongoing threats to her and her family from the unceasing COVID-19 pandemic, and enforcing the short-lived, horrific PPE Act of 2020, she felt broken. Devon struggled to provide the support a broken wife required. He did not always succeed. Too often, she did not feel like mother to her two daughters whom she loved more than every breath she took. Each day, she struggled to keep 15 minutes of “me time,” as she called it, time where nothing else but her wants and needs mattered. As the end of 2020 loomed, the idea of trying to prepare for Christmas filled her not with joy and anticipation, but dread. She felt that 15 minutes get whittled down to 10 minutes, then five minutes. Her capacity for critical analysis failed. In her job – and at home — she relied almost entirely on her training and muscle memory. Like everyone around her, she was holding her breath for something. Something that would allow her to inhale something that didn’t feel toxic.

Alexandra Sykes could not quit. She would not quit. Every day she put on her uniform, she reminded herself that she wanted to be part of the solution. She wanted to hold up her people. She wanted to serve the community. She wanted her family to be proud of her. She wanted to tell her grandchildren of her accomplishments. She would not quit. She would not quit.

So, when the Proud Boys showed up in DC for a pro-Trump rally in early December, it felt like the last shreds of humanity rush out of America like blood from a gunshot wound. Police officers were ordered were to show restraint, avoid getting provoked into doing something stupid that would end up on the front page of the Washington Post, and contain any violent groups they encountered – white supremacists, drunks, Antifa — from wreaking havoc that spilled into residential neighborhoods. She and the other officers watched as the Proud Boys tore Black Lives Matter banners from churches and randomly threaten and even assault passersby.

“They’re not worth it,” Tate Jennings said. “It’s just the last, dying gasp of white crackerdom.”

She and Tate had entered the police force at the same time. It was his first job after graduating from Bowie State. Almost immediately, Alexandra felt like she had a younger brother with Tate. They were not partners, but when their paths crossed or they shared assignments like the one on this night, they shared rapport and, more importantly, a sense of humor. Officer Sykes still possessed the capacity to laugh.

When some of Proud Boys broke off from the larger group and pounced on a Black man who appeared to be homeless, her sergeant directed her, Tate, and one other Black officer moved to intervene. They were outnumbered about three-to one and possibly outgunned. In her mind, they had the advantage of training and skills. She also figured that these Proud Boys were nothing more than bullies who would back down when confronted by a police badge.

The three officers moved to position themselves physically between the homeless man and the group. Unexpectedly, several of the Proud Boys placed hands on the officers. This blog will not repeat the racist and misogynistic language used by members of the Proud Boys, other than observe the liberal use of the N-word, the C-word, the B-word, and the P-word in accents suggesting that they were not from the District of Columbia or its nearby suburbs.

Tasers came out. Two of the Proud Boys collapsed on the ground. Rather than retreat, the others moved forward towards the officers. Out came their batons, but the officers were physically outnumbered and overwhelmed. Until this evening Officer Jennings had maintained a perfect record as an officer. However, on this evening, he made the first mistake of his career. He pulled his pistol, a Glock 19, in close-quarters combat. “I would have been better off pulling a switchblade,” he later admitted, “not that I had one.” Before Tate Jennings knew it, he was wrestling with three of the Proud Boys for control of his pistol. Someone’s finger pulled the trigger and a single shot was fired.

The 9-millimeter round struck Officer Sykes just behind her left eye and lodged itself in her brain. The coroner would later opine that she was dead before she hit the pavement. Officer Jennings’ pistol has not been found.

*****

Louis Guidry’s cell phone rang approximately four hours after Officer Sykes was killed. He stared at the digital clock next to the bed he shared with his girlfriend, Silver Tilley-Blandin. It was 2:06 AM.

“Hello?” he struggled to say when he answered the phone. He stumbled out of bed and gingerly navigated his way downstairs without disturbing Silver.

“Louis, it’s Judge Chutkan,” the voice announced. “I am sorry if I woke you up. I have some terrible news. You are going to need to prepare yourself.”

Louis clerked for Judge Tanya Sue Chutkan while he was finishing law school at George Washington University. Earlier in the year, he had intervened in a police action that saved a man’s life. Officer Sykes had been a part of the police action. Louis ended up dominating the news cycle for about 24 hours. He often claimed that he survived the media scrutiny only through the mentoring of Judge Chutkan.

“Louis, earlier this evening, I mean, several hours ago,” Judge Chutkan announced soberly, “Officer Alexandria Sykes of the Metropolitan DC police department was killed in the line of duty.”

“Officer Sykes?” Louis gasped. “My Officer Sykes?”

“Yes, Louis, your Officer Sykes. She got into a fight with a group of the Proud Boys. Someone got control of another officer’s pistol. A shot was fired. She was hit and killed almost instantly.”

Louis let out a cry of pain that woke up Silver.

“Louis!” she called from their bed. “Louis, what is it?”

He did not answer Silver. Judge Chutkan’s voice sounded tinny as Louis held the phone at his side. As Silver struggled to get downstairs to check on Louis, he raised the phone to his ear.

“I’m here, judge,” he said.

“Louis, you need to prepare yourself,” she said. “Expect reporters calling you and knocking on your door trying to get comment from you because of your public connection to her.”

“Judge, can a guy have a moment to grieve?”

“Louis, your life changed when you saved that man’s life,” she said. “You, some loser from Louisiana, Officer Sykes, and that asshole Ted Nugent are all connected in the phantasmagorical manner whose algorithm I have not yet figured out. When you intervened with Officer Sykes, you made a bargain with karma. A man’s life in return for a partial loss of privacy. That debt is coming to get paid. Because your girlfriend works for the Washington Post, the debt collector is coming quickly. That this debt is blanketed in racial tension. As a Black woman, I can’t tell you or even advise you what your grown-ass white self can or should say. You’re on your own, but I’m warning you that you need to prepare yourself. Place your grief on hold for 24 hours, son.”

“Thank you, judge,” Louis said as he ended the call.

Silver took one look at Louis and knew that all she could do was hug him and not let go.

About five minutes later, Louis’ phone rang again from an unknown caller. Ten seconds later, Silver’s phone rang. It was the same number as the unknown caller, but identified on her phone as her boss at the Post.

“He’s not calling to ask us what we want for Christmas,” Silver said.

*****

Even though they had broken up as a couple, Olympia Tilley-Blandin and Huey Newton Wallace stayed in touch. The emotional scars were not healed, so they agreed to use text messaging or email rather than Facetime or Zoom or phone calls. It made it bearable for each of them to communicate.

Huey: Hopper has left DC.

Olympia: My brother flew the coop?
Was it your cooking? Where did he go?

Huey: Didn’t U read about it in the blog?

Olympia: I am trying to keep sane. It’s enough dealing
with my parents here at the fortress, but now
Fiona Apple has moved in, too. I am avoiding the blog.

Huey: Hopper moved NYC 2b w/ Charlize.
They’re at ur rents’ crib.

Olympia: New York?

Olympia: Wait…ewwww!

Olympia: Oh crap! Does that mean you’re all by yourself?

Huey: Yes. Mayor Bowser would not
appreciate me taking on a new roommate RN.

Olympia: That’s sad.

Huey: What’s sad?

Olympia: Are you going to be alone on Christmas?

Huey: Christmas? Seriously? Who cares
about Christmas in 2020?

Olympia: A lot of people care. What about your parents?

Huey: They won’t let me home 4 the holidays.
They said “we know you’ll understand
under the circumstances.”

Olympia: Like I said, that’s sad.

Huey: Edward Norton thinks my plan is solid.

Olympia: Edward Norton the actor?

Huey: Yeah. Hopper was Zooming w/ him about the
Movie. Hopper described our plans for Christmas.

Olympia: Plans?

Huey: Yeah. Start w/ a morning run,
shower, hang on the sofa in comfortable
clothes, eat red & green mac ‘ cheese, hoist a few,
fart at will, watch all the NBA games, and open all
the Amazon packages. 1 person can do that 2.

Olympia: That sounds masculine and depressing.

Huey: Says the woman who spending
Christmas with ur rents. They are notorious.
B/t all the smack U, Hopper, & Silver have been
talking about them on the blog, it will be a wonder
if they can ever show their faces in NYC when this is all over.

Olympia: Sigh. Well, I hope your Christmas goes according to plan.

Huey: I hope ur’s deviates from the plan.

Olympia: LOL.

*****

Hopper was sure that he had not talked to his ex-wife’s sister Heidi since she had dropped into his son’s Alexis’ third birthday party. Heidi was a venture capitalist whose lifestyle was marked by incessant travel by private jet. After a meeting with a client in the Loop, she had a free hour, hence the drop-in during the birthday party. Hopper liked Heidi, but Heidi was a person who lived her life in 15-minute blocks of time, which did not leave her a lot of time for a sister who was 20 years younger than her, much less the sister’s sociologist husband. When they conversed, Heidi always – always – tried to steer the conversation to the work of other faculty members at the University of Chicago. Hopper was not a potential target for Sequoia Capital, but plenty of his colleagues were engaged in research of interest to Heidi.

Heidi was also an investor in Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine. Hello Sunshine was producing a movie whose working title was “The Living Canvases.” The movie was based on Hopper’s book. The screenplay was being written by Hopper’s mother, the novelist and screenwriter. The movie was co-starring Charlize Theron, with whom Hopper was sleeping. Charlize’s character was based on Hopper’s mother. The movie was set to commence photography next month in southern California. Hopper was expected on set. He mother, currently staying at the family vacation home an hour outside New York, was expected on set. Charlize Theron was expected on set. Heidi had offered to fly all three of them to southern California on her private jet. Hopper was talking to her on the phone, making the final arrangements for the flight.

“Our plans have changed,” Hopper announced. “Reese wants the three of us to fly to California in the next couple of days, not next month. We will quarantine near her house until the location has been decided.”

“Oh,” Heidi said. “I am returning to California myself.”

“Returning to California?” Hopper responded. “I thought you were joining the Biden Administration to run one of the nerdier agencies.”

“That fell through,” Heidi responded. “There’s a stain on my record.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Well, at least I get to spend Christmas with…”

“I get it, Heidi. You get to spend Christmas with my ex-wife and my children,” Hopper said, his pique barely concealed. “It’s not the end of the world. My kids still love me, or at least that’s what Ingrid tells them to say on the Zoom calls.”

“And you get to spend Christmas with?”

“Not that I’m making plans for it, but it looks like I will be spending Christmas with Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, their kids…and my mother.”

“Your father is not traveling?”

“No. He wants to return to his studio and paint,” Hopper said. “I think he is also going to try and seduce his houseguest. At least my sister Olympia will be there to prevent the mayhem he usually brings to the party.”

*****

Olympia winced when she saw that her brother was trying to set up a group Zoom with her and their sister Silver. You know how it is when you love someone, but it’s not the best time to talk and the best time turns out to be never? Olympia was a raging torrent of grievance towards her brother. Hopper was living the life Olympia imagined for herself. He seemed to be getting all the attention, even in his private moments. The attention that had once shown on her.

“Hopper,” she announced when she logged on to the Zoom. “It’s so good to hear from you!”

“Hi Hopper! Hi Olympia!” Silver looked like she was trying hard to be upbeat.

“Hello, dear sisters,” he sounded noncommittal. “Merry Christmas, I guess.”

“Hopper, please, just get to it,” Olympia said. “There is not going to be any Christmas this year.”

“Just like Joe Biden didn’t win the election?” he responded. “People around the world are always going to find a way to celebrate Christmas. There’s too much money invested in it.”

“Biden stole the election,” Olympia said. “And the Republican party was in on it, but the lamestream media refuses to acknowledge this conspiracy.”

“Olympia, you are so funny.”

“I don’t think Olympia is funny at all,” Silver said. “I don’t think you are funny, either, Hopper.”

Olympia didn’t like to admit it, but she enjoyed sparring with her brother, especially over absurdities. It was an activity he seemed to crave and one for which their sister, Silver, showed little patience. Hopper resented his sisters’ insistence on sharing secrets with each other, not with him. Especially when their biggest secret — about Olympia’s college roommate at Barnard known by the pseudonym ‘Astrid’ — was a fabrication. According to Olympia, “Astrid may have been involved in some narco-terrorism, helped bury a corpse or three in New Jersey, slept with every member of Vampire Weekend, and made Dean’s List.” Olympia was said to have kept a journal of all of Astrid’s adventures in college, which was kept for safekeeping at Silver’s duplex.

Hopper knew Astrid before he met his future ex-wife Ingrid. He had dated Astrid when she was interning at the University of Chicago Hospital. He knew that Astrid’s real name was Sylvia. He knew that Sylvia worked for the FBI, as Olympia claimed, but as a psychologist in an office, not as an agent in the field. Sylvia was not the law-breaking – or even law-evading – kind of girl. She was a Brooks Brothers and J. Crew kind of girl. Olympia could be a bit of a fabulist. As long as Olympia kept this hobby in check, Hopper was willing to play along.

“Hopper, you did not just call us to wish me a Merry Christmas,” Silver said.

“Well, it’s FBI Sylvia. You know, Astrid the Mystery Agent. She is not happy with you two. And maybe her employer is not happy with you, either?”

“Not happy?” Olympia responded.

“With us?” Silver whispered.

Silver and Olympia lived in that Wes Anderson-infused world where they portrayed themselves as heroines in their own films. Sisters imbued with uncommon intelligence and wit, able to glide past rocks and boulders placed in their paths. Possessed of the ability to his “pause” on any interaction. Inconvenience was the plot point in their lives that could be corrected in post-production. Like the children of other prosperous, famous, and well-connected parents, post-production was a permanent fixture in their lives. Astrid was just a fairy tale they had told each other, which defined FBI Sylvia simply as part of their fairy tale. An encounter with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, was supposed to be a setup for some kind of bohemian gag.

“Sylvia is a discreet person with a certain professional standing and top-secret security clearance now that she’s finished adulting,” he said. “All this made-up stuff about her being this ‘Astrid’ character who hung out with mob guys in college? And did all these killings? You and Silver might think it’s funny, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not like the talk that you have a journal about Sylvia that might include real, actual, factual occurrences.”

“What does this mean, Hopper?” Olympia asked.

“Yeah, what does this mean?” Silver echoes.

“Well, it looks like you and Silver may be subpoenaed or sued or maybe have search warrants issued for wherever you’re living or have lived,” Hopper explained, “or some other legal thing that could be bad for you and Silver.”

“How do you know this, Hopper?” Silver asked.

“Silver, you and Olympia are not the only Tilley-Blandin’s who have secrets.”

“Is this supposed to be some kind of Christmas present you’re dropping on us?” Olympia asked.

“Don’t be such a sanctimonious prick about it,” Silver said. “Schadenfreude is not such a good look on you.”

*****

“Uncle Ted could not be here today. But he wants you to know that he is troubled by all the so-called ‘Death by Nugent’ references in this blog. And he is upset about the way this election was stolen from the greatest president these United States has ever known. So, here’s his song…”

Uncle Ted’s upset about the election and the so-called “Death by Nugent” phenomenon described in a series of short stories about the Tilley-Blandin family.

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