by Charles McGuigan
Donk, though his real name was James, was hitting him up for money again, and Anthony liked to save it. “Give me some money, Tee,” Donk asked his little brother.
“You can’t have my money, bro,” Anthony told him. So Donk left their bedroom, and Anthony heard the front door slam shut. It was freezing outside, just past eleven, a couple nights before Christmas, and Anthony could imagine his brother, a guy cut from the same cosmic cloth he was cut from, make his way through Blackwell down to Hilllside Court, where he knew Donk would buy a little weed. Less than an hour later, the phone rang, and James made his way to the living room. As soon as Anthony picked up the receiver and held it to his ear, he recognized the voice. It was the mother of one of Donk’s best friends. “You guys need to come down to the hospital,” she said. “Your brother just got shot, along with my son. Tell your parents to come down.” Anthony and his mother and father piled into the car, and headed over to Commerce Road. James heard his parents reassuring themselves that his older brother would be fine, that it was an accidental shooting. After all, James shot himself in the leg one time. But as they made that left turn onto Commerce, Anthony had a deep, sinking feeling, followed by a wave a nausea. As they crossed the 9th Street Bridge, James looked out the window at the city lights reflected on the black river water. It was like a Christmas tree, or the heavens brought to earth. In the MCV emergency room, the family was ushered into a waiting area. When his mother told a nurse that she was there about her son James Clary, the woman simply nodded and said, “Let me get the chaplain.” And now Anthony knew for certain that his brother was not going to make it. At that point, Donk was brain-dead, kept alive by ventilators and other medical machineries. Anthony entered the room where his brother lay in a hospital bed. His head, swollen to two times its normal size from the trauma, was swaddled in white gauze. Anthony could not see his brother’s face, but he sat on the edge of the bed and he grabbed Donk’s shoulders and shook him. “Why you got to be out there all the time?” Anthony asked of the unresponsive ears. “Why you got to do stuff like that? You said you weren’t going to leave me. You know, it was always supposed to be you and me. I love you Donk. I love you James.”
We are sitting in a dining room on tall chairs around a taller table. Anthony, his wife, Tara, and their four children—Alissa the eldest, Anthony and Caleb, the identical twins, and Kaylee, the youngest—live in this beautiful home on East 12th Street in what hipsters now call Manchester, but to Anthony will always be Blackwell.
It was just about a mile and half away, almost directly south, in Hillside Court, where his brother was shot eighteen years ago. He left behind a two-month old daughter, who recently graduated from high school and is about to enlist in the service.
“I’m gonna take you back,” says Anthony, and the room we’re sitting in seems to grow smaller, as if we really are retreating from this current time to that past. “I was seventeen and my brother was twenty at the time,” Anthony says. “I was a sophomore in high school, and Donk wasn’t in school or college or anything like that. He was one of the average guys on the block selling drugs. He wasn’t like a heavy drug dealer. He was out there nickel and diming it.”
That long-ago night down in Hillside Court, between two bricks on Southlawn Avenue, in one of those dark crevices where anonymity was assured, Donk bought a bag of marijuana and tucked it away in his jacket pocket, and then he and one of his best friends hurried along the cut to make their way over to a side street and to the comparative safety of Oak Grove. They didn’t get far.
A guy named Terry, who had a reputation in the bricks as being particularly violent, pulled a gun on the pair before they were able to make it to the side street.
As he held the gun, Terry said, “Give me what you’ve got; give it up. You know what time it is.”
Before Donk could hand over what little money he had, his friend was running off across an open field in the center of the ring of projects. Terry raised the gun, and fired a single round that blew away part of the young man’s hand, who kept running, now faster than ever. Donk began running in the opposite direction, and again Terry raised the gun and fired. The round struck Donk in the back, instantly severing his spinal column, and he dropped like a sack of meal to the ground. Lying on the ground, face up, he begged for his life. “Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me,” he said. “I ain’t gonna tell or nothing.” Terry just shook his head, and stood directly over Donk. “You think you gonna live to tell this one?” he said. “You think you gonna live to tell on me?” Terry lowered the gun and shot Donk in the head, and then he fired a parting shot in the young man’s face.
“And we know all of this because at that time a young lady who knew my brother very well was on the second floor of a brick, and she saw and heard everything that happened that night,” Anthony tells me.
Though he’s told this story, and relived it, hundreds of times over the years, Anthony is still shaken by what happened that night. “My brother was the kind of guy who like if you two got in a fight the day before he was gonna sit out and hang out with you the next day,” he tells me. “My brother and I are a lot alike. Just like, ‘Let it go.’ He wasn’t a pushover, but he was a lover of people.”
Growing up, Anthony was more fortunate than many of his friends. “You grow up in the bricks in the inner city and you see death, murder, drugs and all that stuff,” he says. “My parents weren’t drug-addicted or anything like that, and a lot of my friends’ parents were. We were like the safe house everyone could come to. My dad is a hard worker and made sure we ate, made sure we got what we needed. And my mom’s a hard worker also, and she’s still working till this day as a front end manager of the Target on Forest Hill Avenue.”
And fortunately for Anthony, the city schools intervened early in his life. In the fourth grade, he received an IEP (Individualized Education Program), which ensured he would be placed in a smaller classroom setting. “And all the other kids were laughing,” Anthony remembers. “’LD kids, they learning disabled,’ they’d say things like that.” Anthony shrugged off the ridicule. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he says. “My teacher, and I’ll never forget her, took her time with me. That thing changed my life. I saw someone outside of my home really invested in me and that just rocked me. So I got to see how other kids in the classroom could all come together and help each other, even if it was by just not teasing each other, you know, or motivating each other. We all had something in common.”
By high school Anthony was in general education classes. During freshman year he pursued a young woman who was simply not interested in him. Disappointed, forlorn, Anthony looked for something to fill his time. One of his oldest and dearest friends, Bernard Butts, suggested he take up football. “He introduced me to the football coach and it was on,” says Anthony. “Football was like a saving grace for me. And my brother was always up in the stands during the games, cheering me on.”
After his brother’s death, though, football was no longer the answer. “My whole world was turned upside down,” he says. “Football couldn’t give me the peace I needed.”
Two days after his brother was murdered, Anthony attended church at a place called the Richmond Christian Center at the time. The accompanying youth church was called Youth Empowerment Station. “There was a youth pastor named Calvin Duncan, a big time basketball player in the day at VCU, and he changed my life,” says Anthony. “Here I had another person that was invested in my life, that didn’t want anything from me but to see me have some joy in my life.” There were other men at the Empowerment Station who also helped him—Jonathan Banks and Sir Walter Scott, III, to name two.
“They didn’t force-feed me no bible,” Anthony recalls. “They just did life with me. They all looked like me, they all talked like me, but they weren’t in the street.” And in the basement of the church there was a sound studio. “They made beats and they recorded music,” Anthony says. “I first thought it was corny, it wasn’t cool, but then I started seeing we all alike, we all escaping something. Those dudes became my family. That church became my second home. And that’s where I met my wife.”
Even before he met her though, Anthony was enthralled with this young woman. On the bus home from Huguenot High School, he would see her walking up the street. She wore a pickle suit, the uniform of a JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) member. “But I could never see what house she was going into,” says Anthony.
At a youth camp, sponsored by the church he attended, Anthony was enjoying a hip-hop concert with a hundred other kids. “I was like super-excited,” he says. “And I turned around and there’s the girl. I didn’t see her on the bus going up to the camp.” Later that day, the youth pastor presented Anthony and Tara with the same award for righteousness. “We just kind of hit it off,” says Anthony. “One thing led to another, and we started writing a lot of music together.” The pair would eventually marry, build a new house in Blackwell, and begin a family.
Music had become a passion for Anthony, and to this day he still produces beats and sells them. He pauses from the interview and raps out a song he wrote about his brother. It’s called “I Wish,” and it smacks of the harsh reality of his brother’s death, but there’s something redemptive in it, too. “My wife and I rapped for fifteen years,” he says. “It was positive, life-motivating type of music that we did. My wife and I released an album years ago, but once our kids and stuff came a long, we backed off.”
Anthony earned a bachelor’s in political science from St. Paul’s College (now defunct), and later a master’s in human services with a concentration in marriage and family counselling from Liberty University. Counselling made sense to Anthony. “I really want to be out here in the trenches,” he says. “That’s where I belong. My wife and I were youth pastoring a group of kids at a local church on Bainbridge called the House of Prayer. We saw a lot of ourselves in those kids and knew what they needed, and what they needed wasn’t someone to tell them you’re doing wrong, or you need to do this or that. What they needed was somebody to be there and do life with them. And just doing that changed the trajectory of a lot of those kids’ lives.”
Professionally, Anthony worked in day-treatment counselling, intensive in-home counselling, and then he started doing skill building. While serving on the board at Better Housing Coalition he learned about Virginia Supportive Housing. “And it was like light bulbs were exploding in my head,” he says. “This is my heart beat. I’ve been working with them for six years now, and it’s what I should be doing.”
In a few days, on a Saturday, Anthony will be over at Mosby Court. “I’ll be up there with Lieutenant James Killingsworth of the RPD, a really good friend of mine who’s practically like family,” Anthony says. “I’ll be talking about how life isn’t always what it seems to be, that you can do something about it. I will tell them there’s hope outside of drugs, there’s hope outside of pushing the next pack, there’s hope outside of being a jackboy. A lot of these kids know that, but they see no route to that. But there is: Education, education, education, education, education.”
We move out to the front porch, and Anthony stares intently into the black asphalt that lines 12th Street. “I can look down at that asphalt and it still looks the same as it did when I grew up here,” he says. “But when I look up at the houses that replaced the bricks, I think, my God it’s all changed. I’m grateful for who I am today. I am grateful for what I experienced. It’s made me the person I am today. If I hadn’t experienced the things I experienced, I wouldn’t have the appreciation for other people, I wouldn’t know how to love people.”
Anthony mentions the man who thrice shot his brother, and is currently serving a 93-year prison term. For several years now Anthony has been working on something for this man. “I’ve been penning a letter, which is pretty much done now, and I’m just working up the gall to send it to him, he says. “My heart and my desire and my faith allow me to forgive him for what he did. I am trying to see him as God would see him, and not just seeing him as someone who’s taken someone from me, but seeing him as someone who needs to have what I’ve been given the opportunity to have. I believe he should do the time for his crime.”
And then Anthony Clary says this: “He had three or four kids and he doesn’t know them. He’s already spending an eternity away from the people that love him. He’s taken my brother away from us. And though I believe he should have to do the time for the crime, I don’t believe he should have to spend an eternity away from the God who loves him deeper than any person could ever. If I operate out of a place of real forgiveness, I can’t be angry. He did horrific things, but I hope he can see what true forgiveness and love mean.”