|Jul/Aug 2016 Fiction|
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
Like a morgue, no matter the blistering pavement or the bulb red temperature outside, the classroom remained a cold chamber. Windows frosted inside with tiny stalagmites of ice rising around the edges. Books stiffened like frozen meat and made slapping sounds when the covers shut. And chairs all stuck in place, screwed down by the alabaster man in front of the room.
"Morphodites and Bedlamites," our junior-year English teacher shouted over the heads of the class, a cloud of white smoke billowing out of his mouth.
Mr. Hedgehog, as we called him, was a prickly, short-limbed monster who wore a frock coat no matter the weather and wielded a baton like the conductor of a manic orchestra. He brought the baton down on our essays as if they were hideous scores of sheet music. He beat on the covers of books as if they were hidebound drums. More than once, he beat on the back of a pupil's hand. Then, lightning quick, he'd snap out the words: "Just a love tap!" His tongue practically hissed against his teeth.
Before we were born, he often told us, before we were "dirty thoughts in our dirty parents' minds," our city had been the site of famous riots with fire hoses, street bombs, and bloodhounds. At the start of one long hot summer, "the Blacks just rose up," he said, "and the South fell down."
He taught English but rewrote history with every book we read. His baton slapped my desk and sometimes slapped my hand, too, when I corrected a fact or a date. About the riots, he had the year right, but the city and state were wrong—and there was something else wrong, too. He spoke the word "Black," as if it was the sound you made at the first bite of a wretched meal.
During exams, he paced the aisles with his baton, bringing it down on the head of the student who reached for an eraser or a bottle of whiteout. He saw any answer but the first as evidence of cheating and any stray ink on the page as evidence of guessing, more vile than cheating. He saw closed eyes as the work of moles and crossed-out words as the mark of worms. He saw errors in us all and even foresaw our end, as he put it, "scratching out the days like birds on a shrinking shore." What exactly he meant, we couldn't figure out, except that it sounded like the last line of a novel. Maybe one he wrote? Like a lot of our teachers, he hated teaching, hated especially teaching his subject, and dropped reminders of his once promising writing career before the Great Sacrifice he made for us all. He trusted no book and told us how every author got it all wrong except one. Dizzy with opium and teenage girls, with salty air and sailors, with jazz and martinis, with gunpowder and arms, every American writer wrote a pack of lies, he said, except the one who came on like a liar—with a fake name and the full costume of a fake Southern gentleman. When we read The Only Great American Novel, our teacher fondled the ribbon tie he wore and, at each dramatic plot twist, brought one of the tips into his mouth for punctuation.
"Can't depend on nobody but your slave," he told us when we reached the sidewinder ending. "That, mes enfants, is the moral."
When I raised my hand with a correction, he delivered a sharp love tap to my knuckles with his baton and said, "Not this time, smarty pants. This time you let it stand or dance those prissy feet right back to the counselor's office!"
No one else said a word, frozen in their seats, frozen in time, so I let my hand fall. In the next row, another student sat stiff but angled his head around to look me dead in the eye. Boogie, the sole senior in our class, almost never looked up from his desk and never raised a hand. Yet on the field, his wide hands tore through the air to catch pass after pass and run play after play. "Best Offensive Player in Acadiana," the papers said, "Best Running Back in Louisiana." He had another title on campus, too: "Best All-Around Black." Black and white students sat in the same class but on different student councils and for different award ceremonies, long after that long hot summer and long long after Reconstruction. To most, that was just a fact, no question. So when Boogie wouldn't pose with his Best All-Around Black trophy, the other students chalked it up to vanity.
"Too big a star for us already, Boogie," they teased, but our teacher put it another way.
"Maybe he's holding out for valedictorian," Mr. Hedgehog said. "Now that'd be a plot twist!" Then he clapped the air in applause.
Boogie was barely passing English, barely passing all his classes, even though, rumor had it, his college test scores set a campus record. Teachers constantly found him dozing in his seat—when he showed—or drawing odd shapes instead of writing answers for fill-in-the-blank exams. For multiple choice or true/false, Boogie placed an X in every box, and for essays, he wrote with backward letters in a cursive hand that caused our English teacher to wrinkle his nose.
"Give a jock a pen," Mr. Hedgehog said, "and he uses it like a rip saw."
When he taught Civics, his other subject, Hedgehog called us "miscreants and reprobates" and pronounced civilization like it was a congenitally contracted disease. Close contact with Mr. Hedgehog, we were sure, would be worse than any STD. He'd leave you bloody with quills.
We were riding across the Atchafalaya Basin, Boogie and me, down one of the longest bridges in the world, 18 miles of concrete rising over muddy swamp. The water below looked nearly black, but it was covered in patches with a green overgrowth like the hide of some prehistoric creature. Through the patches, tall gray trees rose up, bald and spiny, the skeletons of a day when cypress was cut down like reeds. They looked like old debutantes, those trees, with their branches spread out for a waltz and their trunks arranged in billowing rows of pleats. The whole picture was frozen in time, except for the quivering nose of the car and the quick tongue of the running back next to me. For that moment, I had no idea where we were headed and little idea of where we'd been. As if the swamp itself gave us permission, we lifted right out of the car, right out of high school and the roles we played: the football star and the quiz kid, the stag and the fag.
Nearly dizzy from the night heat, I struggled to remember how Boogie ended up in my car. Already painted a Jenny Woman at school, I'd openly set my sights on studying the cheerleader stunts. During the game, I couldn't tell a route from a sweep, but I knew every step of an arabesque. All season, I followed our football team to away games, this time to a school in Assumption Parish in a town called Confederate. I secretly hoped to join the cheerleaders, to sit on the bus next to the players and their broad backs and wide grins. In the locker room, I might've been taunted for the direction of my eye, but in the bleachers I could stare openly at the boys in padded shoulders and tight lace-up pants. And when they lifted each other off the ground or delivered slaps to backs and rear ends, I could throw my hands together with the cheerleaders and yell each player's name out loud.
After the game in Confederate, I'd sat at a red light, yards behind the school bus, while tumbles and twirls ran through my head and a circle of players huddled before my eyes. Without warning, the passenger door opened and Boogie sat down beside me. He said not a word. He just looked straight ahead until the light turned green.
On the long drive back, he pumped me with questions, and to each one, I lied. Yes, I drank every lewd shot he could name. Yes, I smoked this, snorted that. Yes, I yanked it in the lockers, in the bleachers. Yes, I'd nailed a girl, nailed her good, nailed her again and again. I hadn't done any of it, not yet, but I knew the signs of a test, and I knew how to score an "A." Still, I didn't know where the test would end. Suddenly, Boogie looked me in the eye and asked, "Ever stick it in a guy?"
I stammered and pretended to look at traffic, not ready to switch on the truth.
"A guy ever stick it in you?"
My eyes stared at the school bus ahead, and my tongue thickened.
"Ain't any different," he said. "A hole is a hole."
The words hit the windshield and burst like fruit. No one had ever talked to me like Boogie, like I was another player on the field. His talk made my ears burn and my head throb, but his voice wasn't the only one I heard. All around, I heard the furious sound of pent-up laughter. The laughs slipped out of the cracked windows of the school bus ahead, crammed with the rest of the football team, the pep squad, and the cheerleaders. The players rose and fell in shadows against the window with pantomime movements and quick jerking arms. The cheerleaders beat time with their gloved hands, and the pep squad opened their mouths in unison. They looked like they were cheering Boogie and me from the back of the bus, but I knew they weren't. Already the rumors were starting, already the talk was hitting the air like splinters of glass, clear and piercing. What was Boogie doing with that fag?
I opened my mouth and laughed, a tinny nervous laugh. Boogie laughed along, his eyes shining like copper pennies in a fire. Did either of us know what the hell we were doing together?
To avoid any more of his questions, I asked Boogie some of my own. Why didn't he talk in class? I'd seen him write down an answer when Mr. Hedgehog called a question, but Boogie never spoke it out loud. Why?
"Don't play by the rules," he said, "when the game is rigged."
"But what about your grade?" I asked.
"Got that in the bag."
For a moment, Boogie fell silent, his face set in concentration. Whether from the stadium bleachers or the seat next to him, his sturdy body looked built for the game, built for running, catching, and tackling men on a wide field. Yet up close his face looked delicate, like a guy about to play a cornet, with a shadow around his eyes and a worry on his lips. Did he have the breath ready? The notes right?
"Oh, I'll pass," he said, almost in a whisper. "Wanna see my study guide?"
I gripped the steering wheel and nodded yes. What would he show me?
The bar was named after one of its lewd shots: Between the Sheets. Only everybody called it Sheets. "Don't skid the Sheets," I heard one guy say to a burst of laughter—before a cloud of silence moved overhead. Once Boogie passed through the door, a hand went up in my direction, palm forward. Then a string of eyes lit up, feet spread, and nostrils flared. No one said a word, but I heard them clearly. What is it you want? Drinks rattled in glasses, and a funk song throttled the floor. What is it you want, white boy?
Suddenly, I wasn't just the fag. I wasn't just the queer quiz kid. Here, I was white before all. Even with the red flashes of Sabine skin, even with the wild bush of hair, I wasn't black. At Sheets, there were only two options, no choice, the same as Boogie's award at school. Other people may have argued about prairie Cajuns and swamp Cajuns. Other people may have argued about pure French and Sabine French, Creole and mulatto, quadroon and octoroon. Here, there was no argument. Everything was clear as black and white, and I was the pink-eyed opossum in the room.
In the static of the moment, a hand on my shoulder jolted me into a chest-exploding gasp. When Boogie shouted "Boo" into my ear and I jumped, the rest of the crowd laughed, then turned back to pound the bar for more shots. "Slippery Nipple!" "Screaming Orgasm!" "Cocksucking Cowboy!" they hollered, and the names echoed in my head. Down at the end of the bar, Boogie introduced me as "little bro" and told everyone I was there to help with his studies. The guys in jerseys scoffed but looked at me as if a quiz kid might have some use after all. First time at Sheets, first time as little bro, I thought. What was next?
Most of the guys towered over me, and their hair rose even higher in geometric shapes, flat tops, blunt sides, sharp tips, sometimes with angular lines cut through the hair and to the scalp. Or else, their hair fell in a sheen of loose curls. The cloud of pomade filled my nose like musk, and I would've played little bro to any guy in the room. None of them laid a hand on me, though. None grabbed my shoulder. Instead, they barked at the girls in shiny spandex and chunky gold necklaces and grabbed at the air left in their path.
Just past the bar, the dance floor filled with couples jerking hips to songs about freak-a-zoids, robots, and neutron bombs falling from the sky. The whole place shook when a growling singer commanded them to "tear the roof off the sucker" and hands testified when a voice shouted about a black First Lady, but the dance floor really turned to riot with a song about an atomic dog. All at once, everyone shouted "dogcatcher" and bared teeth at the mirror ball as if it was the moon. The glistening bodies and surging beats drove the heat way up until bottles exploded and the guys in jerseys rained 40s of beer over Boogie's head, and I suddenly remembered they won, our team won, and Boogie's name would splash all over the papers again. With fiery eyes, he schooled everybody on his moves and boasted of going pro faster than any rookie in history. His voice roared in a way it never did in class, and his hands looked wider than ever as they arced the air. Right then, I wanted to be the hips jerking next to him, the knees dropping to the floor and the feet twisting into the ground. I wanted to be his freak-a-zoid little bro.
Instead, I was the hands on the wheel leaving the bar, taking directions from Boogie as the car winded through a neighborhood nearly as crooked as the bayou next to it. Lights from another car blazed in the rear view mirror, then vanished before blazing again. Houses leaned in and out of view, most with a steep pitched roof and long galley porch. Then Boogie pointed his finger at the only Victorian house I'd seen in Lafayette, with millwork like tattered lace and a small domed doorway. On the steps, he grinned at me, and I grinned back. What would he show me now? At Boogie's first knock, a voice shouted "Entrez," and he pushed the door open with one hand. The night was hot and damp, but the house was cold and dry, with vents blowing from the floor. A single light clicked on at the end of the hall. Boogie walked straight ahead with sure steps, but I held back and eyed the street. When I heard the hum of a car engine, I slipped inside the house, feeling for the wall and blinking at the dark until my hands tipped over a coat rack. As I set it back, I could barely see the outline of a frock coat. I froze. Now I knew Boogie's study guide. It wasn't any spandex girl at Sheets, and it wasn't ever to be me.
Down the hall, Boogie's hands flagged me toward an open door. His face beamed like a fugitive with a free boat and a way out. On the bed, a man's bare ass rose in the air, while a white silk nightshirt pooled around his face. Could he see me, I worried. Could he see anything? A chill had me rubbing my arms until Boogie laid his hand on my shoulder.
"You first," he said.
My hands dug deep into my pockets, and I shrank into my shoes, then shook my head. So Boogie dropped his pants and jumped right onto the bed and right into Mr. Hedgehog, thrusting his haunches back and forth with his teeth bared and his head aimed at the ceiling. Outside, the moon shone like a disc of ice, white and cool and quiet. Yet inside, a grunting sound came from the bed, and it wasn't Boogie. The sheets were twisting and a set of hands were shaking and Mr. Hedgehog started to scream. A shrill sound tore out of his throat and rang overhead. In the window, a face eclipsed the moon. First one, then half a dozen guys in jerseys stared straight at the bed, straight at Boogie riding Mr. Hedgehog. They'd tailed us here, the football players, and now they crowded the window with flared eyes. Boogie didn't stop, though. He didn't see them, so he kept thrusting into our teacher while his teammates kept moving their mouths until a loud word rose up, then two: "Dog! Gay dog!"
At that, Boogie's head whipped down and caught sight of the players in the window. Suddenly, he was the dead-eyed guy in class again, wordless and blank. He slipped out of Mr. Hedgehog, slipped off the sheets and onto the floor. Then Mr. Hedgehog fell, too, clawing at the air and gnashing his teeth. He tore a chunk off Boogie's shoulder and anointed his own skin with the blood. Then he curled into a ball and started moaning about headlines and reputation and a wrecked career.
Boogie's eyes flickered back to life, and he bolted down the hall, out the back door, and hit the ground running. The players howled into the air, shaking the houses awake, then revved their car and left a hot streak on the road. I should've busted through the window and emptied my chest to the night. I should've torn the roof off the house and chased the players with a mad fury. I should've run after Boogie and hollered his name to the moon. Instead, I dropped to the floor and tucked tail, lower than any dog and stiffer than any opossum.
Yet when the cops showed, I found my feet and a story, however wrong or full of lies. I told them Mr. Hedgehog had lured me to his place with the promise of an "A" and a shot at a trophy. I told them he had pounced on me in his nightshirt and had shoved my face into a pillow. I told them he had a seizure in bed and had fallen to the floor. The teacher stayed silent as a corpse in a morgue. What could he say? That the promise went to a black boy? What could he do? Point his baton at the truth? No, he kept his thin lips shut while I told the cops my sidewinder of a story and Boogie ran free, with his long legs and his strong back leaving not a trace on the ground or a scent in the air.
Behind closed eyes, I followed his moves. He ran all the way down the street, to the end of the bayou and right out of this city, right out of this state, right out of history, as far away as his feet could take him. Come winter, he wore a second hide, wrapped himself in a cloak of wool and slept under the northern lights. No one's dog, he studied the sky and redrew the constellations. No shepherd to heed, no flock to fold, he cut a crisscross path in the snow like a guide for the outlaw and the wayward, the outcast and the misfit. When I finally reached him, he shaded me in the sun, warmed me in the moon. Under his cloak, we lay together, and no one could tell the black sheep from the white or the field of stars from the dome of night.