Sam Coughlin is proud of his privilege. Why wouldn’t he be? College degree. Black Lab named Scout. Takes her to the manmade creek in his affluent subdivision every day. Corporate ladder climber. Homeowner. Flipped two so far. If skin color had something to do with it—so what? Works hard. Pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Didn’t matter what kind of boots—or how high the straps. Fact that there was wealth on his grandmother’s side wasn’t something to be embarrassed about. Way Sam saw it—privilege got dealt like a hand of poker. He’d gotten a great hand—still mattered how he played it.
Why waste time feeling guilty about competitive advantage? Life is competition. Company promoted him based on his ability to gain advantage for them. Masculinity depends upon creating advantage for family. Sam’s father taught him this. He’d do anything for his family.
Stepping on another man if he had to was simply part of the game. Unpleasant part. Necessary at times, but nothing to gloat or speak about in certain company. White Male American. Wife of a different ethnicity. Supports her Black son from a different marriage. Has a fairer-skinned daughter with his fair-skinned wife. Flies Old Glory from their home. Another flag too during election years—has the blue candidate’s name on it.
Latter flag wasn’t flown when Sam lived in the south. Only in California. Home of the Liberal. Sign of acceptance in his front yard signals this to all. You’ve probably seen one like it. Reads, “In this household—blah blah blah.” Material goods like the family RV were rewards for these virtues—or at least the appearance of having them. Big cars. Pool in the backyard. Latino landscaping crew and car washers. Life was good. Knew it too. Sam burned the candle at both ends for years. Corporate whipping boy with a regional director title. Not seeing his family took a toll. Gained the company man fifteen—then it was twenty. Bulging gut broke buttons on his white Brooks Brothers shirts. Wife started tickling him through the kite shaped holes his fat poked through. Stopped sewing the buttons back on. Sam began coughing uncontrollably at night. Thought it was allergies at first. Got a humidifier. Couldn’t get back to sleep most nights. Bothered. He’d lay in the space between waking life and sleep. Remaining still. Devices turned off. Sleep hygiene taught by a more disciplined female regional director failed. Just as he’d slip into sleep an energy that felt like fingertips would crawl up his neck. Each touch from the invisible hand pressed into his throat, poking the ribs of his esophagus. Squeezed. Gasping followed. Fought violently for air. Couldn’t breathe. Went on for weeks.
First time Sam felt the energy was on a Wednesday. Dozed off watching troubling news on a social media site after a long day of driving the California coast. Officer from another state knelt on a Black man’s neck. Killed him. City of Angels revolted. Police mobilized. Los Angeles locked down. Felt like the whole country was burning. Sam and family lived in an affluent suburb in the Santa Clarita Valley. Felt safe. Forty minutes from the city. Protest proof zip code. Santa Clarita offered better schools. Cleaner neighborhoods. All seemed to change after the knee on the neck. Made Sam reconsider how to best protect his family. Too much work. Worry. Finances. Extra weight. Falling behind in the race. White man’s burden. Purchased a gun.
Greatest fear? Home Invasion. Wife shared Sam’s concerns. Move was her idea. Said she didn’t want him to have a heart attack. Life would be slower in the South. Lower cost of living. California could wait. They’d return with a nest egg. He’d get more sleep. Kids would adjust. They did. Sam’s wife did too. Spending became her thing. Saw more of his children. New job put him in a luxury box for most professional sports. Found an affluent southern social circle. Euphoria set in. Geographic cure seemed to work. Bought a new lease on life. For him. For his family. Return to privilege lasted a few weeks. Soon as the last box was emptied. Final piece of furniture put in its place. Sam began losing sleep. Hand around his throat got heavier. Gripped him tighter. Nightly episodes began to wake his wife. Sometimes the children.
Plagued by nightmares. Went to a shrink. Told her an eerie energy climbs up his body. Forms into a hand. Wraps around his throat. Speaks in an inaudible whisper. Chokes him. Promises death. Doesn’t want his wife to think he’s crazy. Against his better judgment—shared the dream with his therapist. Rope around his neck. Legs dangling. Life slipping from his body. His now Black body. Muscular. Bruised. Beaten. Couldn’t make out the face. Fear overcame him. Jolted him awake. Bed full of sweat. Heart racing. Felt like him who was hanging—but how could it be. Therapist indulged him for a while. Discussed his subconscious mind. Perhaps it was his stepson. Suppressed fear of raising a Black man’s son in a White household. Or maybe it was his wife’s ex-husband. They’d moved to North Carolina without much notice. No thought of how the move would affect him—or his relationship with his son. Sam felt no guilt over this. Wasn’t raised to.
Sam was great at brushing off white guilt. Built a blended family. Hired Black's. Gave everyone a fair shake as far as he could tell. Only one employee accused him of racism, which Sam shrugged off as ridiculous.
His wife and stepson were Black. Provided for them. Moving was a decision that was best for him—for his family. Still the dream haunted him night after night. Impressions from the hand left what looked like red rope marks on his throat. Sam became convinced it wouldn’t be a heart attack that took him out. It’d be the hand. Haunting dreams of his hanging. Choking him.