Ms Woodley’s voice echoed out from the study hall room. She had returned from filing her cards. ‘What happened to Andre and Adrian?’ she asked the other students. Adrian and I paused. We were halfway down the last row of books, very close to the door. The other kids in study hall remained silent. I looked at Adrian. His blond bowl cut was characteristically long, draping just slightly over his blue eyes. He mouthed his command to me, ‘Shut up.’
We could hear Ms Woodley walking among the stacks. ‘Andre,’ she called out, ‘Adrian.’
Adrian pointed his finger towards the door and kept waving it. He wanted me to go for it. I threw my hands in the air. It was too dangerous. He was crazy. He gestured over his shoulder that he would try to head back to our study table. I understood him. One of us would survive and the other would be caught. I nodded my head. I would go for it. As he turned around and began retracing our steps he made the ceremonial clicking sounds of the human amoeba. I went for the door, crawling on all fours, my body hidden between two rows of young adult fiction. As I emerged from the covering of the shelves and extended my hand towards the door knob I sensed a lurking presence. I turned to my right and standing ten feet from the door was Ms Woodley, her hands on her hips and her large square glasses on the tip of her nose, shaking her head. She was a tall woman with a thick figure and older than we could calculate. I jumped to my feet and screamed. I ran back the way we had come, past the rows of books and into the room of tables and other students. Adrian was already sitting calmly at our desk pretending to read a book. I sat down opposite of him and pushed a mass of homework in front of me. Ms Woodley returned to the room. She yelled our names.
Adrian looked up slowly as if nothing had transpired. ‘Yes, ma’am is something wrong?’
Adrian looked at me and winked. I had to clinch my teeth so that I wouldn’t laugh. Then he let out a hint of a chuckle. I couldn’t contain it. A ripple of laughter blurted out of my nose. I sounded like a startled pig. The other students erupted. Ms Woodley exclaimed sternly, ‘Enough!’
She shook her head at us. We sat there stoic, having returned to our faux-academic poses. She didn’t reprimand us. It wasn’t worth her time. Soon enough, our parents would be there to take us away and relieve her.
I was in fifth grade now. Adrian was in fourth, but we were close friends. Our parents worked late, so we stayed in study hall until they came to pick us up. Even though he was younger, Adrian was very popular in the lower school. He was funny, smart, and a good athlete. He had the makings of a classic St. Albans boy. But he was also weird and imaginative. We spent our study halls inventing games for the other students and dodging the firm rule of Ms Woodley. During the day we played the popular playground games, football or smear the queer, the latter in which the football would be tossed around and any one brave enough to catch it would be chased, captured and crushed to the ground until he relented. In the late afternoon, we retreated into our own world, telling stories and jokes until it was time to go home. I noticed that he was not only popular but kind to the kids who were unseen and disliked. He didn’t take cheap shots. He walked around campus, beaming, as if he had solved the inherent conflict that ate at the rest of us, the challenge of being one’s self and also being accepted.
‘Let’s go.’ My father was calling out for me. He stood at the edge of the room wearing his suit. He smiled at Ms Woodley then walked out of the room, back to the car outside. I packed my things and left, nodding to Adrian and the other students. I squeezed into the back of our dark-blue Oldsmobile. The theme song of my parents’ favourite radio show All Things Considered emanated from the car speakers. A newscaster announced the ongoing issues: Wall Street, the decline of American cars, Dan Quayle. It was 1988, election year. ‘How was your day?’ Mom asked. Against the buzz of NPR and the usual questions, my brain turned off, my emotions retreated. My eyes registered blankly the familiar landmarks and streets as we drove home: The Roy Rogers on Wisconsin just past Sidwell Friends School, The 7-Eleven by Tenley Circle, the Thai restaurant my parents loved at the intersection of Nebraska and Connecticut. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. They weren’t unpleasant. I just couldn’t sink into their world. I registered they were very interested in grades so I did my best to keep them as high as possible. That would keep them off my back. On the ride home I sang little songs to myself in the back of my head. I told my mother, ‘Everything is fine.’
The bell rang and we came rushing in from recess. I had caught a couple of touchdowns during our game and it felt good. I jumped into the piss line along with the other boys. The small bathroom rippled with chatter. Our heartbeats raced. We were sweaty and excited. The past twenty minutes had been an escape from the realities of Ancient Greek history. It was my turn and I walked up to the stall and unzipped. Taylor Janis stood behind me waiting in line. As I peed into the white porcelain urinal, he must have sensed something, some weakness hanging about me, some weakness within himself, and an opportunity to make himself more liked in the eyes of others. Taylor wasn’t disliked but he wasn’t necessarily liked either. He, like many of us, was unseen. I, no longer entirely disliked, was happy for the moment to be amongst the unseen. Something snapped in Taylor and he pushed me into the stall. My yellow stream shot around erratically though it didn’t hit my pants, only my hands. It wasn’t enough to ruin me. The boys in the bathroom laughed and Taylor laughed the loudest, his outburst forced and over the top. I zipped up and turned around. I could see in his eyes a feigned innocence. ‘It was only a joke,’ his face seemed to say. I couldn’t resist. He had given me a free pass. I wound up my right arm and punched him full-on in the stomach. My fist dwelled there for a brief moment in the bony undeveloped pouch of his young body. His sinewy frame collapsed on to the cold blue tiles and he crunched up in a ball. I adjusted my blazer and walked out of the bathroom.
Old Principal Gordon sat behind his desk and Taylor and I sat in small chairs across from him. A reddish hue swelled around Taylor’s eyes and cheeks. He had cried for a long time. Gordon was a round white man with grey hair. Everything in his office – the chairs, the desk, the bookshelves, the floors – was made of a fabulous brown wood. When I was in his office I thought of my mother and how she had read me excerpts from the books of Charles Dickens. ‘This is classic literature,’ she had told me – ‘English and classic. You must learn it.’
Gordon leaned forward slightly and asked me, ‘Did you punch him?’
‘I did,’ I said. Unlike with some of the other teachers, there was no room for lies with Principal Gordon. It was best to tell the truth and to apologize in earnest.
‘You know that’s wrong.’
‘I do, sir. But he pushed me into the stall while I was peeing.’
I repeated myself. ‘I know it was wrong, sir, but he shouldn’t have pushed. I know what I’ve done. I won’t do it again.’
Mr Gordon turned to Taylor. ‘You shouldn’t have pushed him, son. That’s not what young boys or young men do.’
Taylor’s eyes were swollen with pain, fear and embarrassment. He could barely look at me when we were told to shake hands. At St Albans, it was always made to be about honour. If you punched a kid you would be disciplined but if you lied or cheated on a test they were likely to kick you out. Gordon sent us back to class. Even though I had been wrong, the other boys in class nodded at me in approval. Somehow they respected me. I looked at Taylor and felt bad. I had taken something away from him in order to feel better. When I thought of the punch I felt sick. Though I had also felt a slight pulling away from the world of the disliked and simply unseen. I felt visible, part of a core, and perhaps that comfort was worth a little bit of guilt. Later, I saw Adrian. He walked up to me and said, ‘I heard what happened. You OK?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘Did Gordon get you bad?’
‘Not so bad.’
‘How was the fight?’
‘Didn’t like it.’
‘Yeah, fights aren’t fun,’ Adrian said. ‘But still,’ he continued, ‘you did what you had to do. Taylor shouldn’t have pushed you.’
I could see things clearly from Adrian’s side. He was right. Taylor had sought to take advantage of me, to make me look bad and I had successfully defended my image.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He won’t ever do it again.’
It was all about honour or at least a very nice picture of it.
The winter retreated and the spring unfastened its sunnier, warmer days. We could play football again without wearing our puffy winter jackets. Adrian and I evaporated the long hours after school with fantasies of amoebas and superheroes. Recess possessed us with football matches on the blacktop. During organized athletic time we often played Capture the Flag on the sprawling grounds of the school. I didn’t cry anymore when I came home. I looked forward to being dropped off in the mornings. It was 1989 and George H.W. Bush was president. All the kids in school were split half-half on who should have been president. We all echoed with inexplicable passion the political leanings of our parents. Some kids would run around the school yard yelling, ‘Read my lips: No new taxes!’
I would tell other kids, ‘Dan Quayle is an idiot.’ I had soaked it in from my father. In the car, listening to talk radio, he routinely noted that Vice President Quayle was a fool. At home I noticed how my parents’ framed pictures of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale hung conspicuously in our basement among the more common photographs of uncles, aunts and cousins.
Sometimes my father took me with him when he ran errands on the weekend. We rode away from our neighbourhood in the park and across the Rock Creek Parkway towards downtown. We drove south out of the parkway. The Potomac River roared by us on one side. Runners and cyclists pushed their way past the river. On the other side we passed first the Watergate, then the Kennedy Center and finally the monuments. Tourists and tour buses dotted the corners of the broad avenues. We went past this and took the road into Southeast Washington where my father managed apartment buildings. He would park his car next to a dull, red-brick building and tell me to wait in the car. He disappeared through a doorway and I would sit there in the car. All of the buildings looked about the same. They were simple homes. All of the people walking around the street were black. The truth was harsh and apparent. This was not a nice place to live. The streets were small and the lawns were littered with plastic bags or big wheels. I watched people move about – old black women pushing carts off to the store, young kids skirting around the corners playing games and regular grownups walking up and down the street, some with purpose and others aimlessly circling around the block four or five times before my father came back. Whenever he got back in the car he would sigh and say, ‘I can’t believe it.’
Something would always be wrong with his apartments. Rent unpaid, appliances broken, duties neglected. He complained about his tenants, told me that he had threatened to evict them. But he pushed on, week after week, sometimes bringing me with him to the apartments, sometimes not. I don’t think he evicted anyone or at least he never brought me when he did. He took on those apartments like a duty, like he owed something to them. I asked him once, ‘Are we rich?’
He said, ‘No, we are middle class.’ He said it like he didn’t want to be rich and didn’t want to be poor either. He was proud to be placed right there in the middle. And because he was proud about it I was proud too. We were in the middle – not like the kids at my school and not like the kids who played in the streets near the Southeast apartments. I wondered where other people like us belonged.
My parents bought a house. It was only five blocks away from our old house but it was nearly double the size and it was new. Before we moved in, while it was still being built, my father had taken me to the unfinished site. We walked around the half-formed structure, the young developer showing us around the shell of what would become our home. My dad took me aside and, smiling, looking genuinely happy, said, ‘This is our house.’ He was ecstatic – a rarity. The house had three wooden decks and each of them looked onto the property, populated by the tall, expansive trees of Rock Creek Park. He and the developer talked about agreements and details as I investigated the house. As we pulled away in the Oldsmobile, my dad turned to me and said, ‘You know, I don’t trust that guy. It’s always something with him, always has something up his sleeve.’ Then he laughed, eliciting an odd middle ground energy between his usual stern state and his periodic moments of happiness. I laughed too because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
We moved into the new house, my brother Chad taking a bigger room that I would get when he went off to college. One Saturday afternoon I bumped aimlessly around the second floor of our house, bored and indifferent. I had exhausted my video games, my back issues of the Uncanny X-Men, and was listening to Chad’s copy of R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant. Over and over I would play the last song, the lyrics pumping out mysteriously: ‘I am Superman . . . I can see right through you’. From the kitchen downstairs my mother called out my name, her voice ringing through the wide halls of our home. It seemed all of the windows looked out onto rich vistas of nature, yet we were still in the city. At night we could see deer darting across the woods. My mother called out again and I shouted back, ‘What?’
‘I am going to the Safeway,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come?’
I perked up. My father was out with the Oldsmobile which meant we would take the new car, Chad’s car. It was a used ’84 Volvo station wagon, silver and bulky, a rectangular tank. Chad drove me to school now and every morning we listened to new music, a rotating stack of cassette tapes. The drive lasted fifteen minutes, twenty minutes on good days. Twenty minutes might be the entire side of a tape.
We got into the car and as my mother turned the key I recalled an alarming piece of information. The album in the tape deck was Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., an acronym for a rap group called Niggaz With Attitude. It only took a few moments for the car to start and for the tape machine to roll and for the music to pulse through the speakers, though in those few moments I made a surprising decision. Chad and I delighted in the narratives of N.W.A. – the gun shots and beat-downs of gang violence, women being courted and fucked and the brimming hate of police officers, a segment of authority we had not yet encountered but inherently disliked. We relished the rappers’ use of foul language, particularly their prolific applications of the words ‘fuck’, ‘bitch’, and the re-imagined and repossessed slur, ‘nigga’. Reciting the lyrics aloud in the car elated us. The wild, aggressive phrases – fuck the police, it’s all about reality, express yourself – became natural to us. We understood that this was offensive music but that it was also very good. It was difficult art – filthy and amazing. Even at school, the music had become an unlikely gospel trickling down from upper-school students like my brother to the would-be honourable boys in the lower school. All of my friends knew the lyrics: little white boys, age eleven, wearing white shirts and ties, expressing themselves boldly with phrases like, ‘I said “Fuck you bitch, and kept going,”’ and stumbling awkwardly around the word nigga wherever it popped up, leaving a dull, blank silence in its place. Notions of Los Angeles, of guns, of gangsters, of drugs, of violence, of brutal sex seemed so far away and so seductive. We all listened anytime we could, knowing that the adults around us would cry if they knew what we were doing. And in the car, I knew, in that short period between the turning of the ignition and the presence of sound emitting from the speakers, that this music was not suitable for my mother. Yet, inexplicably, perhaps to test the boundaries of her tolerance, I neglected to remove the tape from the deck. In hindsight we can recognize this as a mistake.
We rolled along for several blocks, from Nebraska to Broad Branch, before my mother began to digest the lyrics and sentiment of the music – niggaz getting shot, hos being slapped, niggaz getting drunk and bitches getting fucked. Eventually she cracked. ‘Get this out of here,’ she snarled. ‘This is garbage.’ She unravelled quickly and with increasing bitterness.
‘It’s Chad’s tape,’ I said.
He wasn’t even there to defend his name. Though, it was his tape. She pulled the car to the side of the road and turned to me. A complex cramp, a mixture of fear and regret, settled deeply in the core of my chest and stomach. My mother’s light-brown skin flushed red. Her beautiful dark-brown eyes reflected a severe disappointment and unparalleled disbelief as if she herself had been one of the women slapped by a member of N.W.A. My heart receded. ‘This is not appropriate music,’ she said. She pointed her finger at me as she spoke. ‘This is not how we talk about or treat women. This is not how black people talk about each other.’
My mistake had been embarrassingly stupid: how come I hadn’t ejected the tape before we left the house? What was I trying to find out that I didn’t already know? Disaster had been inevitable. Her words seethed from her mouth, her anger uncharacteristically intense. ‘This is garbage,’ she kept repeating. She wasn’t entirely shouting at me but at something else, something bigger and more important than the both of us in the car. Her anger exposed a divide between us that I couldn’t grasp. I knew immediately that I would have to agree to never listen to this music again and yet to listen to it as much as possible outside of my parents’ orbit. We sat in silence for a few moments and then she adjusted the radio tuner. Three stations comprised my parents’ repertoire: the classical station WETA, NPR and WPFW, a public station that played the black music – R&B, jazz, soul and world – that my parents liked. When I rode with Dad on weekend errands, he hovered intensely around the music on WPFW – the sliding guitars and raspy voices of Mississippi bluesmen, the Kansas City jazz of an old Basie jam session, and the soul-funk interplay between James Brown and his horn players, Fred and Maceo. ‘This is real music,’ he would tell me, ‘Not that crap you listen to.’
Mom pulled the car back into the thoroughfare. The atmosphere had lightened ever so slightly but I could tell she had been possessed by this incident. ‘I marched in D.C. when I was barely grown-up,’ she said.
She turned her eyes fiercely to the road and oncoming traffic. Her small, thin hands squeezed the rubber casing of the steering wheel. I could see her veins bulging, anger and astonishment pulsing through her body. She was alert and possessed as if she had been whipped awake from a narcotic slumber. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘You don’t understand.’
The news came in the morning while we were in class. Our teachers called an abrupt meeting and gathered the entire fifth grade. They quieted us down and one of them said, ‘There has been an accident.’
While riding to school with his older sister, Adrian Lescaze’s car had crashed. His sister would recover but Adrian had been thrust violently against the window; he was in critical condition. They told us to take a twenty-minute recess, to think about the news and to come talk to them if we had any questions. I slid off my chair and walked down the long hall past the sixth grade classrooms, past the library and Mr Gordon’s office and out the front doors of the lower school. I walked up the stone stairs that led to the road that coursed through our campus. It wound up to the Peace Cross where we often played games in the afternoons and then it split off in several directions: to the National Cathedral, the athletic fields and to the upper school senior circle where older boys, almost men, walked about with their books and loud conversation. I sat down on a ledge near the stone stairs. Across the road some boys played games on the large blacktop. I waited quietly until we were called back inside.
The next day Adrian fell into a coma. The entire lower school, teachers and students alike, grew somber. The gothic stonework of our beautiful buildings seemed to absorb our lingering sense of doubt. Walking inside the building one could see the gargoyles, sitting above our doors; they were guardians of the young children who sometimes punched each other and called each other cruel names, but at other times knew when to solemnly respect life’s odd and heavy shifts.
Several days later, a priest walked into our homeroom in the midst of class. Adrian was dead. Our teacher, a young man in his thirties, didn’t cancel school but allowed us an extended quiet time for the remainder of the day. He said that boys, even men, could cry under these circumstances. Some boys just stared ahead at the chalkboard. Others read books. I burrowed my head down towards my desktop and cried into my arms. My shirt sleeves grew clammy with tears. Study hall felt empty without Adrian. My parents picked me up and my mother hugged me. She wasn’t distant or stern. She just held me for a long time and then we got in the car and drove home.
I was riding my red ten-speed around the neighbourhood on a weekend. Our new house was situated within a large cul-de-sac off Oregon Avenue, a busy street that ran alongside Rock Creek Park. One side of our street ran up a steep hill and then flattened out on the other side of the loop into a more reasonable incline. Zipping down the steep incline on the bike instilled fright and exhilaration in me. I could only get halfway down before applying the brakes. If I had kept going, gradually picking up speed, my bike would have accelerated past our stop sign and boldly into Oregon Avenue where I would have likely been crushed by traffic. Had I escaped traffic, I would have plunged head-first into the dense woods of Rock Creek Park, my body shooting into a thick, old tree. It was a suicide run, extremely dangerous and remarkably fun. I rode my bike around our cul-de-sac for a little while. I was still trying to understand the implications of a young boy laughing, playing games and telling jokes, and then suddenly being gone, shut out from the world. Logically, I understood it. People died. But I had never understood what it meant to be within such close proximity of death. Or rather, I suddenly understood that we were always within proximity of death. It swelled around us at all hours, quietly deciding whether to take us away or to let us stay. I sat on my bike at the top of the hill, my legs still touching the ground, steadying me. I watched below as cars drove quickly by the park on Oregon Avenue. I thought about it for several minutes, the idea of letting my bike glide down the hill, past the other houses on my street and into a sandwich of metal, concrete and tree bark. I understood that I had a choice, that I could unhinge myself from my minor adventures as an eleven-year-old boy. The power of the decision enticed me. It would be the biggest decision of my eleven years, to guide my bike down a hill to certain death. I lingered there poised to descend, my fists gripping the handlebars. I lifted my legs to the pedals and the bike began rolling forward. I accelerated towards the intersection and held back from pulling the breaks at the halfway point. A surge of excitement ran through me, yet it was fleeting. A sharp internal alarm went off in my head, less a mark of fear but rather a direct message from within that I was being foolish. I pulled on the brakes first moderately and then with increasing force. The tires squealed as the bike fought its intense trajectory. I came to a halt about fifteen feet from the intersection. Cars flew by in either direction. I laughed aloud. I turned my bike around and slowly crawled up the hill.
The summer following Adrian’s death my parents sent me to Texarkana, Texas to visit Louise Elizabeth Pendleton, my mother’s mother, my only living grandparent. She took the Greyhound out to Washington, DC to pick me up. I had to ride the bus all the way back to Texas with her. It took two days. She was a tough woman with a sharp tongue. She was tall and slender and her whole body seemed to be a long, terse muscle. When she grabbed me by the arm, it was like being put in a vice grip – I couldn’t run away, I could only be dragged around the room as she cursed me out. On the bus she sat closer to the front and let me dwell in the middle so that I could have some space.
There was an extended stop somewhere in Virginia. I bought some baseball cards at the station and played a few quarters of Punchout in the small terminal arcade. It wasn’t Punchout with Mike Tyson, just the regular version. I wasn’t very good. When I got back on the bus I ended up sharing a seat with a teenager. The kid started talking from the moment the bus left the station and didn’t stop until he got off in the depths of Tennessee. ‘You ever finger a girl?’ he asked.
‘No, haven’t done that yet.’ I said.
‘Oh, you will. First that and if you get ‘em going then they’ll tug on your dick.’
‘That sounds awesome,’ I said. And it did. It sounded fantastic. He was skinnier than me. His arms were like two little twigs sticking up from the side of the road. His face was a narrow avenue of acne with little patches of facial hair. I think he said he was fifteen.
‘Yeah, it doesn’t happen all the time. But when it does I love it. Me, I got a skinny, long dick. A little wrangler.’
I couldn’t believe him. He was so anxious to talk about girls he had been with and girls he had only dreamed about. For me all of them were still dreams or, more accurately, had recently just become dreams. With few exceptions I had never really dwelled on the idea of liking a girl. The bus pushed forward into the night. He asked me about my school. ‘What’s it like, all black kids or are there white kids too?’
‘It’s both, white and black,’ I told him, ‘And other kinds of kids too.’
‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘Y’all get along?’
I thought about the kids tackling the hell out of each other on the field and calling each other names. ‘Yeah, we’re all fine. Everyone’s friends.’
I found myself oddly defensive of the system that had rejected me for an entire year. Now that I wasn’t such an outcast, it didn’t seem so bad. In fact, I sensed a bit of pride rising in me. I was a St Albans boy.
‘Yeah, we all try to be friends too but every now and then there’s an ass-kicking for one reason or another. Then the white kids gotta be on one side and the black kids on the other.’
We sat in silence for awhile, the undying hum of the bus radiating against our ear drums. ‘But to me,’ he said. ‘It don’t make no difference. Just trying to get me some pussy, you know?’
I laughed and nodded. I thought I knew what he meant or that at least, soon enough, I would. He got off somewhere in Tennessee, I can’t recall. We had talked the whole time, must have been five or six hours. I felt like we were friends and that if we lived in the same place we would hang around the yard talking about girls and football at recess. Though he was older and I knew he wouldn’t like the weird fantasies of amoebas and outer space that Adrian and I had dreamed up during study hall. That was little kid stuff. We shook hands when he got off. ‘I’ll see you around,’ he said, as he walked through the aisle and down the steps.
I had been moved by our immediate friendship. When he was gone, my grandmother checked on me. ‘Did you have fun with your friend?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He was really cool.’
Inside, I cringed a little. She would have slapped the both of us had she heard the words coming out of our mouths. She might not have even understood us, our foul words a distant vernacular from her stern, proper English. I thought of her as growing up in black and white; my world was colour – vivid and graphic, gritty and offensive.
‘Well, get some sleep now,’ My grandmother told me. She returned to her seat and I lay my head against the window of the Greyhound. I looked out to the darkness – the road, the cars, and towns passing by endlessly. That boy, I would never see him again. Not only because we lived far apart from each other but because the paths we had been put on were so different. If we ever came across each other again, we wouldn’t recognize each other; we would be serving different purposes to the convoluted system that guided our actions. I had never felt rich before because so many of the kids at my school truly were rich – parents who were politicians, lawyers and bankers who drove Audis, BMWs and Mercedes. But that kid, from the way he talked about his small house packed with brothers, sisters and cousins in rural Tennessee, I could tell he was poor. And yet, he was one of the happiest people I had ever met. Like Adrian in a way. I didn’t know what to do with the fact that I wouldn’t cross his path again. I liked it and hated it at the same time. And eventually, drifting off to sleep, I was okay with it. Things came and went and we were all kind of alone.
The Texas summer was like a microwave turned on high and we were the food, steadily cooking. I was half-naked and sweaty on the living room couch, three vintage iron fans blowing hot air around the room, bringing some minor bit of comfort to my sorry existence. Grandma was cooking cabbage and beans, her daily ritual. I had been spared from yard work and was reading a book. I didn’t care much for reading anything except comic books but my parents had said my reading comprehension needed to improve so they put me to work on a list of summer novels. I crept languidly through a handful of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea narratives.
I was stuck in Texas for a month. The days passed like slow-motion films. Each morning began as the sun rose, crackling in the sky. By nine, the heat filled my grandmother’s home. Perfunctorily, the ancient fans were turned on and would blow air all day long. Outside, the grass in the backyard was a brownish-green colour and stiff, hot and sharp. The houses up and down the road were wooden and worn-in. The neighbourhood felt old, stuck in some history that was both distant from me and oddly part of me. Some of my people had come from this place and I now lived far away on the East Coast in a big, noisy city. I went to a school where a cathedral loomed over us, where the sons of the distinguished and wealthy wore ties and walked the halls. Those boys’ summers were spent in places that sounded like fantasy lands – Shelter Island, Hilton Head, Nantucket. My vacation unfolded in a dusty, old town. I was far away from everything, part of nothing.
When my grandmother was outside washing clothes and hanging them on the line I huddled next to her crusty stereo system and played a cassette tape I had purchased with my own money. It was Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys. My brother and I had listened to their first album, License to Ill, extensively. It had been big, simple beats mixed with raw guitar hooks much like Run-D.M.C. The rappers’ cadences were clear, easy to sing along to. Paul’s Boutique was different. I had expected it to be like their first album but instead it was dense, murky, almost creepy. I sat in the dining room next to the speakers, the heat of summer emanating throughout the room, listening to the thick quilt of samples and quirky, almost opaque lyrical references. I much preferred reading, over and over, the long lyric sheet that had come with the tape than picking up a book. I would read the lyrics, which often differed slightly from what was being sung, in tandem with the songs trying to sort out some meaning to the non sequitur phrases beaming out from the speakers. In unison, the rappers sang: ‘Homeboy, throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell’. Who was Ricky Powell, I wondered? Why was his girl being dicked? That sounded mean. I examined the cover of the album. The graphics were so small on those cassette-sized fold-outs. There was a cluttered storefront – Paul’s Boutique – with racks of men’s clothing pouring onto a sidewalk somewhere in New York. The narrow building stretched endlessly into the distance, its dark and dirty brick contrasting against a blue afternoon sky. This is New York, I thought to myself. Outside, my grandmother washed clothes and hung them on the lines. Insects I couldn’t see made loud, yelping noises. Around four or five, when the sun began to retreat, I got permission to go up the street to a corner store about half a mile away. I walked up the road. It was momentarily barren and then, out of the blue, a semi would come barreling along. Texarkana was barely a town. My grandmother called it a drive-through town but she loved it. Moving along the sidewalk I passed by greying wooden houses with peeling paint and rustic porches. The corner store was steamy and dark. I walked to the back of the shop and picked up a grape Nehi from an ice-filled tub. It was fifty cents. Outside, I pressed the cold plastic bottle against my sweaty head. I looked down the street towards my grandmother’s house. I could see the heat rising off the road in thin films like gasoline. I sucked on the bottle of Nehi, the sugary grape fluid instantly revitalizing me as I walked back to the house. A few cars zipped by me. They were going nowhere or getting out of town.
There were framed, sepia photographs placed all over my grandmother’s living room where I spent my time reading. In one picture my mother was maybe seven years old, dressed in Sunday church clothes, looking happy with her hair hanging down in two long pigtails. She had grown up in this house. In another picture, my grandmother, as a kid, sat on the front steps huddled in closely with her brothers and sisters. There were ten of them. They had also grown up in this house. They were all dressed in ragged clothes. Some of them were minuscule kids and others were older, clearly teenagers. All of the boys looked grumpy and annoyed. Their eyes shot out at me like little dark bullets as I looked over their faces. Their frowns reminded me of my father; there was always some burden lurking beneath the surface. There was a picture of my great-grandfather. Standing there posing for the camera in his suit he looked more elite than the boys at St Albans or their lawyer parents or the president on television or the politicians in framed pictures in my parents’ basement. The picture seemed so old, so distant. He was like a king or a noble. His face was long and distinguished, his dark wavy hair pressed firmly to the sides of his head. Like my grandmother, he had lightly toned skin, not the rich, dark hues of my father’s brothers and sisters. He appeared serious and important, his eyes furious and flush with intelligence. It seemed he was looking directly at me, questioning my existence, considering whether I lived up to the high mark of the family name.
‘He worked for the postal service,’ my grandmother said. ‘He rode the rails, protected the mail. He was one of two coloured men in the service who had a gun.’
‘He taught us to read and write,’ she said. ‘We learned piano. We spoke French. He knew that it was important for coloured folks to be educated.’
That word, ‘coloured’, seemed impossible but my grandmother said it without flinching, like it belonged to her. When she spoke of historical black figures like Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. DuBois she called them Negroes. Those were her words, the words of another era. When I listened to N.W.A. or other rap groups they called black people niggas. When my mother told me to be wary of white people I imagined them calling us niggers. Sometimes I heard older black folk call other black people niggers – there was a clear difference in the end of the word, whether it was ‘-ers’ or ‘-as’ denoted spite or affection, respectively – but either way, it stung. My parents had books on their shelves from the seventies that called us ‘Afro-Americans’. Some people simply called us black. There were so many words for us, so many nuances – it really depended who was talking to us and the nature of the conversation. White people it seemed were either just rich or poor.
At night, I watched basic television on an old black and white box in the living room. No cable and no VCR, just the simple offerings of the networks. Out of the sheer need to hear voices from what now felt like the far-away world that I actually came from, I would watch typically unthinkable programs like the nightly news. Dan Rather’s dry, serious reporting reminded me of our house in D.C., the NPR broadcasts in our car, and the endless sections – Metro, Politics, Style – of the Washington Post strewn about our kitchen. Inexplicably, I was missing the tenor of life around my parents. How had my mother, I wondered, ever lived in this house, in the pulsating nothingness of Texarkana, Texas? She hadn’t lived in Texas her whole childhood. Before she was a teenager my grandmother moved them to Chicago. She had told my mother that she wasn’t going to let her grow up in a place where she wasn’t allowed to go to the library. I hated going to the library but still it scared me that I wouldn’t be let into a library or any place because I was black.
Listening to the Beastie Boys during the afternoons, their shape-shifting beats and narratives about people or places further distorted my foggy grip on reality. They rapped about high plains drifters which I understood to be nomadic cowboys then referenced being caught in speed traps which were modern predicaments. My father talked about speed traps, cowboys did not. On one song the gruff Beastie Boys rapper MCA announced in a vicious snarl, ‘I was making records since you were sucking on your mother’s dick.’ I wondered how one ‘made a record’. Where did they come from? How long did it take to make one? I learned the tape so well that I knew where the curse words happened. I would turn down the volume or stop the tape if my grandmother was nearby. The days stretched on like infinite sunsets and I wasn’t quite sure when I would return home.
On a blazing day I sat shirtless on the couch. I had given up on a book. The length of the days, of the summer, of the books that never seemed to end had worn me down. I was a bit upset, on-edge. I needed my injection of ice-cold sugar. I stood up and called out to my grandmother, in the kitchen tidying up. ‘I am going up the street to the store.’
‘Well, okay,’ she said. ‘Be careful.’
I snapped back softly under my breath, annoyed and self-conscious, ‘Oh shut up, why wouldn’t I be careful?’
She stormed into the living room like a bolt of electricity – this woman was fit and strong, walked several miles every morning. I shrunk back into the couch.
‘Don’t give me any lip and don’t you ever tell me to shut up,’ she said. ‘Now listen, you see your great uncles over there?’ She pointed to pictures on the other side of the room. Her brothers were sitting on the porch of the house, looking up at me with those dark, burdened eyes.
‘When they were young, not much older than you, they had to be careful walking around here. They just talked to a white woman and that could be enough to get a crowd started. We never knew when white people were going to turn crazy for no reason.’
She moved in closer and pointed her finger at me as if she was a teacher and I was her indignant student. ‘They would take our young men. They would come in a group and just take them off the street. They would beat them up, knock them into a pulp, and tie them to a tree with a rope, hang them. Sometimes they cut of their genitals and set them on fire. Just like that. There was nothing we could do.’
Her voice relaxed. She could see that she had frightened me. ‘You just need to remember that. I worried about my brothers all the time. I worried about your mother. And now I’m going to worry about you.’
‘Can I go to the store now?’
‘Yes, get on up there and get right back.’
She paced swiftly back to the kitchen muttering indistinguishable words under her breath. I put on a T-shirt and pushed out of the house, the screen door slapping loudly against its frame as I hurried up the block. As I passed the old houses on the way to the store, I imagined black people being dragged away from their porches by men in Ku Klux Klan costumes. I could only think about such images in black and white. The idea of the Klan and vicious white people was more alarming in black and white than colour, like old horror films with Dracula and the Wolfman. At night I would lay awake, the fans blowing away, recounting scenes of assault and murder. I would think to myself, if they had come for me, I would have just shot every one of them I could. And then I would bite them and kick them until they just gave up on hanging me and shot me right then and there.
Later, my grandmother and I sat in the dining room and ate cabbage and hot dogs without buns. ‘Your uncles,’ she said. ‘They were in the war. Everett was a Tuskegee airman. It was a great honour for him to fly.’
Even away from St Albans, notions of honour surrounded me. My great uncles had fought in the war with honour. My great-grandfather had served his government honourably, the coloured postal man with a gun. I sat there at the table, the swell of the day’s heat just beginning to recede to its den before returning the next morning. I walked over to one of her small iron fans, sitting on a table blowing air around the room. I adjusted the fan so that it was blowing more clearly in my direction. As I moved the fan, my grandmother, not even looking at me, noted quite sharply, ‘Be careful with that fan. Don’t want to lose any fingers.’
Photograph courtesy of Brandon Bartoszek