WINNER, Summer 2016
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY GENE BRYAN JOHNSON
Into The Twilight Zone and Black To The Future
1991: He’s near the back of Bee Sharp’s Jazz Club, standing at the bar, listening to a young trumpeter testifying about life he has not yet lived.
“Damn, he got everything in there. Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, even a little Pops.”
A skullcap and dashiki-wearing brother sits on the next bar stool, sipping Johnny Walker Red with one ice cube.
“Yeah, Louis Armstrong.”
“Louis Armstrong? Pssst. Why you even mention that coon-ass Uncle Tom?” Skullcap gulps the rest of his drink, turns to face the bar, and slams his glass down.
“Hit me one more time, Sweetheart!”
A few patrons turn their gazes from the bandstand to look at Skullcap who, bordering on drunken ostentation, shrugs with faux innocence and a sheepish grin.
The bartender puts her index finger to her lips. “Shhhh!”
Trumpet tones dance from the basement to the ceiling and back again, alternately solo-ing, duet-ing, trio-ing and quartet-ing with the piano, bass and drums, and devolving from post bop, to hard bop, to be bop, to traditional New Orleans and free jazz. The crowd, hypnotized into choreographed synchronicity, becomes the fifth member of the band, turning the club into a singular blob of quintet-ing sway. A candle-like flicker of muted lighting envelopes the stage and snakes mysteriously among the audience. Bartender Sharon refreshes Skullcap’s drink with a flourish, but he is not satisfied.
“Put another ice cube in there, would you Baby?”
Bartender Sharon once again makes a show of raising a finger to her lips, using her other hand to add the requested cube. Skullcap mimics her motion—putting a finger to his own lips before snatching the glass from the bar.
Skullcap finishes the drink in one gulp as the trumpeter’s dark suit, white shirt, lapels, and tie-width regress through the decades, from the ’90s back to the ’20s. The room spins at a leisurely pace as the musician’s face dissolves into Freddie Hubbard, then a sullen Miles Davis, followed by a studious Lee Morgan, a balloon- cheeked Dizzy Gillespie, a demonstrative Fats Navarro, to a smiling Louis Armstrong. Bending, bopping, bowing, before the beat, beneath the beat, behind the beat, these men be blowing their black lives into the fabric of American experience. Skullcap slides on the stool but catches himself as the slowly revolving room accelerates into a whirlpool of shade and color.
A dark-skinned tuxedoed man, severely overdressed but, curiously, not calling any attention to himself, pulls up a stool and leans with his back to the bar while wiping a profusely sweating forehead with a face-obscuring handkerchief. He turns toward Skullcap.
“Youngblood blow so many notes ole Satchmo can’t hear what he tryin’ tuh say.”
Skullcap’s head lifts at the sound of the vaguely familiar voice. He turns around, does a double take and looks from left to right, hoping to make eye contact with someone—anyone—but everyone is focused on the bandstand. The ghost of Louis Armstrong is standing there, smiling that famous grin and wiping that famous forehead with that famous handkerchief.
Bartender Sharon extends the drink to Skullcap with one hand and wipes the bar with her other. Skullcap, from her point of view, is standing alone. “This is your fifth drink. You might want to slow down before I have to cut you off.”
Skullcap takes the tumbler, raises it to his lips, but thinks better of it and stops short of drinking. He looks into the glass, then up at Armstrong. Then at the glass, then back at Armstrong whom, he is sure, has been dead for decades.
“Hey, Daddy, you look like you seen a ghost.” Armstrong winks at Skullcap and starts singing. “Is I is, or is I ain’t a ghost, Daddy? Drink that Johnnie Walker Red and make yourself a toast, yay—essss.”
Skullcap downs the drink and winces. “Is this a dream?”
“Do you think this is a dream?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you want to understand?”
“Do I want to understand what?”
“I think you need another scotch.”
“I do need another scotch, but I still . . . who are you?”
“You don’t know who I am?”
“I know who you are, but you’re not . . . I mean, what . . . why are you here?”
“Why am I here?” Armstrong wipes his sweating face with the handkerchief. “Daddy, I’m here to remind you how you became you.”
Say It Loud
1968: Skullcap Dashiki and Armstrong’s Ghost, invisible to everyone but each other, are sitting on a park bench watching the cars that have turned Eastern Parkway from a tree-lined boulevard, designed a hundred years earlier for pleasurable riding in horse-pulled buggies, into an expressway for impatient automobile drivers seeking a quick route through the burgeoning borough of Brooklyn. A shiny black ’63 Ford Galaxie stops at a red light, with James Brown’s Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) blasting from its down-rolled windows, Mom and Pop on the front seat, and Young Skull in the back.
“Isn’t that . . . ?”
“That’s Mom and Pop! And me! What the hell?”
Say It Loud! demands Mr. Brown.
“I’m black and I’m proud!” Pop joins in on the jubilant chorus, chanting at the top of his lungs and dancing in place to the beating drum, scratching guitar, percolating bass, and punctuating horns infecting the parkway’s serenity with the tenacity of a newly arrived invasive species. On the south median, clusters of leisurely strolling Hasidim seem oblivious to the music, even as the animations of their trailing broods seem to be choreographed by the same funk gods who’ve got black and brown-skinned neighbors on the north median beaming head-nodding smiles of solidarity in Pop’s direction. The light turns green.
“Wait, they’re leaving.”
“Don’t worry, Daddy. We goin’ with ’em.”
Armstrong and Skullcap vanish from the park bench and re-appear on the back seat, invisibly flanking Young Skull, just as the car moves through the intersection. Pop grips the steering wheel with his left hand, elbow resting on the open windowsill and right arm draped over Mom’s shoulders. He pulls her close, turns his head toward her and chants, full volume, into her ear.
“I’m black and I’m proud!”
Pop doesn’t know it—he’s not that self-aware—but he’s been waiting his entire life to feel this. A man and his woman; car so clean you can eat off the hood; car-note paid off; first-born son in the back.
Say it loud!
“I’m black and I’m proud!” Pop cannot resist proclaiming his newfound joy. Mom? Not feeling it so much.
“But he sounds so . . . ”
Mom tries to pull away, but Pop, peacocking for the same audience from which she wants to hide, enjoys restraining his wife. Young Skull, the impressionable pupil, raptly watches his father teaching him how to treat women.
Mom—mortified and horrified—tries to speak but words struggle to escape her barely opened lips.
“ . . . he sounds so . . . black.”
“Yeah, black and proud.”
Mom gets quieter, as if lowering her voice will protect her son from an awful truth.
“It’s embarrassing, showing his color like that.”
Her anxiety inspires Pop to chant even louder. “I’m black and I’m proud!” He turns around and guffaws at his son.
“Come on boy, sing!”
Young Skull laughs with his dad, drums his hand on the seatback and joins in on the next chorus. “I’m black and I’m proud!”
Mom’s voice dips so low they can barely hear it above the music. “He sounds so ghetto. Just like a, a nigger on the street.”
Father and son look at Mom, then at each other. Who is this woman? their raised eyebrows ask as Mr. Brown continues the revolution.
Say it loud!
“I’m black and I’m proud!”
Skullcap looks at Armstrong. “Can’t believe I forgot the only time Mom ever said nigger.”
“The only time you ever heard your mother say nigger. Maybe James Brown put her in touch with her inner Negro.”
“Yeah, well. I do remember Pop singing Say It Loud though. He always liked James Brown, but Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud? That song changed him—like it was some kind a two and a half minute Emancipation Proclamation—a temporary reprieve, but still
. . . you know.”
“Papa found a brand new bag.”
“Pop always talked about how James Brown and Ike Turner were men. In control of their bands and their women.”
“Whipped them into shape, huh?”
“Yeah, you. Pop hated everything about you. He hated you singin’ Hello Dolly, he hated you in the movies and hated you on television. He hated the way you always smilin’ with whitey.”
“Is that what he tole you?”
“Yep. Said it all the time.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m here. Cuz your Pop put me in your head. People even call me Pops just like you call your father Pop. That’s what they call irony, Son.”
“I don’t think my father processed concepts like irony. He was a simple guy. I think the way you represented black folks made him feel ashamed.”
“More ashamed than drug dealers, or murderers, or wife beaters and pimps?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Like I said, Pop was a simple dude. He just said you were a coon and always told me to stay black.”
“Coon huh? Never heard that one before. Been called all kinds of nigger, monkey, Sambo, and midnight ooga-booga jungle bunny from when I was a little boy. And that’s just from other black folks.” Armstrong grabs Skullcap’s shoulder—though Skull doesn’t feel the pressure. “Lemme tell you suh-mmm. Ain’t nothing blacker than what I accomplished with my horn cuz where I come from dey still fighting the Civil War—to this day. You know how many Negroes dem OATs kilt between assassinating Lincoln and murdering four little girls in Birmingham? Thas almost a hundred years and nobody know how many dead, less-un dem OATs keep a scorecard like the Nazis did.”
“OATs is Original American Terrorists, Son. My horn is me calling out the names of all the dead anonymous Negroes been kilt by OATs. And your father be calling me names. Humph. Maybe he jealous that I turned my survival into our art.”
For the first time since Armstrong’s ghost appeared, Skullcap takes time to think before speaking. “Yeah well, maybe jealousy and shame go together.”
“Yeah well, maybe they do.”
1963: Skullcap and Armstrong stroll back through a half-decade of Brooklyn-in-transition, walking beneath hundred-year-old trees and past the stoops of well-maintained limestone homes. They stop in front of Epiphany Lutheran, a majestic Gothic-style church and private school serving the middle class African-American and Caribbean-American families who can afford the tuition. The playground is filled with the sounds of recess cheer—black boys in blue blazers and black girls in plaid jumpers—playing tag and running aimlessly in circles of innocence.
“Open your eyes, Brother. Right there.”
“Right there, man. The happiest boy in the playground is you, Daddy.”
“I went to private school?”
“Ain’ dat you?”
Skullcap squints hard through the fence. “I’ll be a motherfucker.”
“Looks like you done forgot a whole lot about your childhood. You sure look like a happy boy to me.”
They stand and watch the carefree children at play. Skullcap’s face tightens as he struggles with long-buried memories. Armstrong watches Skullcap from his eye’s corner.
Then it’s dusk with weather as fine as Brooklyn gets—mid seventies, light breeze, clear skies, and a full moon. Passersby can see through the picture window of a classic Bedford Stuyvesant brownstone as Mom, Pop, and Young Skull sit down for family dinner. A chandelier radiates a muted sepia glow, the table is meticulously set with napkins and forks to the left, knives and spoons to the right, and crystal water glasses lined up with the knives. Young Skull leads the family in a solemn prayer of thanks. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and mustard greens from Mom’s garden are passed around with a casualness that only comes from repetition. Pop offers his always-present hot sauce to Young Skull, who applies it with a perfect mimicry of his father’s ritualized shake.
Armstrong and Skullcap are on the stoop surveying the subdued bustle of a neighborhood flowing from daytime into night. Skullcap points to a tall, light-skinned black man leaving a house across the street with a newspaper under his arm. The man looks both ways, not suspiciously, but matter-of-factly, and walks briskly down the block. He stops in front of The Corner Barbershop and waves before crossing the street.
“That’s Mr. Morgan. He’s a transit cop. Keeps his pistol folded up in that paper too. Just in case he needs it quick.”
“That yo’ barbershop?”
“What that mean, not really?”
“I stopped going there pretty young.”
“How you gonna stop going to the barbershop? Who cut your hair?”
“My mother cut my hair to save money.”
“Thas crazy right there.”
“It’s how they paid off the car and the mortgage, and stayed out of debt. Mom always said it was about saving one dollar at a time.”
“What did your father say?”
“Pop said Mom was stingy and uppity, but sometimes I thought that was his friends talking, cause you could tell he liked not owing the man any money.”
“But the barbershop is where boys learn how to be men. That’s where you learn how to walk, what to talk about, what to watch out for on dese streets.”
“That’s what they say. But Pop used to drop me off and come back three, four hours later. One day a man gettin’ a shave got in a fight and got stabbed and the cops came before Pop got back. Never forgot Mom’s face when she opened the door to me being brought home by the police.” Skullcap stops and thinks for a minute. “I don’t know where Pop disappeared to but they started fighting all the time after that.”
Mr. Morgan comes back down the block carrying a paper bag and his folded up newspaper. “He even takes his pistol to the grocery store.”
“I can understand that. Never know when you gonna need some heat.”
“I think I had a crush on his daughter. What’s her name.”
“You tell me.”
“Debra. Denise. Donna. That’s it. Her name was Donna. I mean, tell you the truth, I pretty much had a crush on every girl who paid me any mind back then.”
“A crush huh? What a wonderful world, all innocence and fairytales. Maaaan, when I was that age I dropped out of school and . . . ”
“When did you drop out of school?”
“Fifth grade, Daddy. Drop out and hustlin’ fulltime.”
“You know. Well you would know if you had spent more time in the barbershop.”
“Too late for that now.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Hustlin’ is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Sell some newspapers, git some onions and tate-uhs outta one place garbage and sell ‘em to another fo’ some pennies. Run errands fo’ duh hoes. Huh. When I was a boy it was unusual if I didn’t see a knife fight every night.”
“Damn. How old were you?”
“Old? I’m talking young, Daddy. Straight up young-un. Nighttime was where the money at. If I wanted to eat I had to stay up late, hustling for my bread. The eating kind and the spending kind.”
Armstrong’s gravelly voice fades into the whoosh of swaying trees and passing cars. Skullcap is spellbound by the storytelling until the sound of Mom’s screaming shatters the reverie.
Skullcap and Armstrong peer through the window as Mom gets up from the dinner table.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Calm down for a minute! Lemme explain.”
“Explain? There is no explanation. That money is for next term’s tuition and it’s due right now!”
Mom is beside herself. She puts her hands to her head and paces in a circle. She tries to process but nothing makes sense. Young Skull crawls underneath the table. Mom runs from the dining room to the kitchen and back.
“Please. Tell me how you can take the money that I saved for our son’s education.”
“I didn’t take it. I borrowed it. I mean, I lent it to Willie B. . . ”
“Willie Bubs? You lent our money to Willie Bubs?”
“Willie Bubs and them gonna open up a . . . ”
“You lent our son’s tuition to your lazy-ass, good-for-nothing friends? I’m scrimping and saving, and working overtime, and clipping coupons, and sacrificing so you can give my money away?”
“It’s an investment!”
Mom throws her hands up. She somehow manages to whisper and yell at the same time. “I didn’t ask you to contribute to the tuition because I knew you were against it. All I asked was for you to let me try to build a better life.”
“Because my life is not good enough for my son?”
“You should save your money to invest with your friends. I saved our money to pay off the house, and pay off the car, and pay for tuition because I want more for our son.”
“That’s the problem right there. You think more is white. More ain’t white.”
“What does that have to do with you stealing our money?”
Mom runs into the kitchen. Pop starts to follow but a frying pan flies through the air toward his head. Pop ducks as the pan crashes against the frame of the double-paned picture window, ricochets onto the table and bounces onto the floor where Young Skull remains cowering. Teary-eyed Mom comes back into the dining room panting with frustration and disbelief.
“Epiphany is all black. Black students and black teachers!”
“Training black children to be white!”
“You stole that money from us!”
“I invested in our future but you can’t see it because you don’t believe in me because I’m not white.”
Pop is angry with his wife, but he is mostly angry at his life. He has been slighted, spat upon, rejected, insulted, beat down, handcuffed and ignored by white teachers in the New York City Public School system, white cops, white Italian mobsters who own the trucking company he drives for, and the white Jewish vendors on Belmont Ave who he has been buying from since childhood. He is angry for every time he has been made to feel like less than a man. And now he feels it from his own college-educated wife, in his own house.
He is most angry, most ashamed, and most worried, however, about losing the respect of the one person who should believe unconditionally in his manhood. At this point it’s not clear if he’s talking to his wife or muttering to himself.
“I’m not good enough for my son? Like he got to go to private school with them West Indian coconuts.”
His parents seem to have forgotten that Young Skull is petrified beneath the table as they argue about his future.
“You don’t want him to talk like me and my peoples cause you think my son gots to be better than me?”
Mom walks up to Pop and stands face to face with him. “What kind of man steals from his own son?”
Pop turns away, slams his fist onto the table, storms out of the house, and sprints to the Ford Galaxie. Skullcap and Armstrong watch him blow through a stop sign and turn the corner.
“Damn. I thought it was tough not havin’ a father around.”
“And you don’t remember none a this?”
“I think I remember Mom throwing the frying pan, but I definitely do not remember going to private school, I’ll tell you that much.”
“Must be that skullcap you always wearin’.”
“Maybe it’s too tight.”
“If you didn’t play the trumpet you could have been a comedian instead of just a clown.”
They sit quietly, watching nighttime pedestrians and dwindling traffic. Skullcap breaks the silence.
“Later that night Pop ran through a red light and got busted.”
“That story is a family legend. They say he took the light and crashed into a patrol car with an open can of beer on the front seat.”
“Pop had a couple hundred bucks left over from the money he took from Mom’s stash. The cops kept the cash and locked him up because they didn’t believe his story.”
“That’s what they said.”
“He could a been another anonymous Negro.”
“Never got that money back neither. And Pop never forgave Mom.”
“People never blame themselves for nothing.”
“Nor for anything.”
“He, he, he. That’s pretty good, Daddy. I think you might be ready.”
“You think I might be ready for what?”
“I think you might be ready to dig up the memories hiding in those nightmares you been having.”
“How do you know about my nightmares?”
“Cause I’m in your head, Brother. We gone find out why you drink so much you can’t hold down a job or keep a woman. That’s why I’m here.”
Where Were You When
Labor Day, September 2, 1963: Armstrong and Skullcap are sitting in the windowsill of Young Skull’s room watching the child get ready for bed.
“You recognize any of this?”
“Not a damn thing.”
“You need to try harder cuz it’s waiting for you to stop being afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of your truth, Brother. I got tchoo here but now you got to do the work. Close your eyes, forget about me, and think about what’s going on inside your seven-year-old head. It’s time to remember what you spent your whole life forgetting.”
Mom comes into the bedroom, kisses her son on the forehead and turns out the light. The nightlight comes on and she closes the door. Young Skull is excited. Tomorrow is the first day of second grade at his new school and though his eyelids are heavy he has trouble sleeping. He restlessly tosses as the nightlight flickers and the door partially opens. Did Mom come back in? He tries to open his eyes but the lids resist and he drifts, unaware of what it took for his mother to make tomorrow happen. She spent her remaining vacation time from work at the Board of Education headquarters, lobbying, begging, and threatening bureaucrats until they found a slot for her son, categorized as intellectually gifted by a standardized test, in one of the city’s highest achieving (and whitest) public schools. His unshakeable faith in her commitment lulls him even as, downstairs in the living room, his parents argue.
“I am not sending him to a third-rate school, with outdated books and teachers who don’t care and kids old enough for junior high school being held back and beating on the younger ones.”
“You don’t want him in a black school.”
“He was in a black school until you decided they were the wrong kind of black.”
“Them coconuts look down on me and my peoples cause dey ain’t really black.”
“Do you even know how ignorant you sound right now?”
The fighting has intensified over the last few months with Mom accusing Pop of recklessly driving while drunk and “stupidly crashing into the police” and Pop accusing Mom of deliberately leaving him “to rot in jail” instead of bailing him out. Fortunately, Young Skull has mastered the art of simultaneously listening, learning, tuning out, and forgetting; tonight he sleeps through the noise, fantasizing and dreaming about the Romper Room-like experience he anticipates for day one at his wonderful new school.
The only white children Young Skull knows are the super-nice television friends who lightened his preschool only-child isolation. Sure, ninety percent of the children lined up for Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular were white, but their parents usually discouraged any child-to-child discourse. Just as many white kids learned about blacks from televised Tarzan movies, Young Skull’s perceptions of whites came via the boob tube in the form of Leave It To Beaver and Romper Room. This new school, which he overheard his parent’s arguing about being public (whatever that meant) promises to be a perpetual play-date of sunny dispositions and generous inclusiveness.
Young Skull awakens to the usual household aroma of oatmeal, bacon, fresh baked bread, and coffee, but today is the first school day he’s not wearing a uniform and Mom, who wants to make sure he represents the race as an upwardly mobile middle class American boy from a good family, has laid clothes out on his bedroom’s settee. She is exceptionally talkative this morning.
“Finished all your breakfast and washed your plate?”
“Pencils, notebook, ruler in your book bag?”
“Remember your pocket dictionary?”
“Mom, we checked everything already. Twice. Can we go now?”
He’s glad stubborn Pop refuses to drive them to school this morning because public transportation is always a good excuse for adventure and fantasy. Usually this means a museum trip, the Floating Hospital Boat, or the Macy’s Day Parade, but today is a special category that Mom and Pop keep calling “prepared for rest of his life,” though they can’t seem to agree on a pathway to the future.
Mom and Young Skull race down the block, reaching the corner just as the bus pulls up, hopping on board to the pleasant though bossy greetings of a uniformed and behatted driver.
“Step up. Please move to the back. Next stop, Atlantic Ave. Watch the closing doors.”
Mr. Bus Driver looks out into his sideview mirror and into his rearview mirror as his bus bustles with all manner of black folk jockeying for position. It’s crowded but after a few stops they find seats near the center.
“Mommy, don’t forget to tell me when to pull the cord so Mr. Bus Driver knows it’s our turn to get off.”
“I won’t forget.”
“Next stop, Eastern Parkway.”
The bus passes St John’s Place and the demographics begin a photochromic process that Mom is aware of, but Young Skull, on his knees looking out the window, is not.
“Eastern Parkway. Please exit from the back and watch your step.”
Mr. Bus Driver picks up speed as the traffic thins, the windows becoming an impressionistic canvas of morning rush hour whoosh.
“We’re going too fast, Mommy. I can’t read the signs. Make sure you tell me when to pull the cord, okay?”
“Don’t worry. I will.”
Young Skull, hypnotized by streaks of colorful storefronts, scurrying pedestrians, and impatient automobile-commuters, basks in the urban excitement until his wondering mind wanders back to overhearing one of his parent’s heated conversations.
“Mommy, what’s the difference between private school and public school?”
“You and Pop were talking about me leaving private school to go to public school and I . . . ”
“Sit down then, and look it . . . ”
“I know. Look it up in my dictionary.”
Young Skull sits, pulls the pocket dictionary from his bookbag and burrows while Mom unconsciously hums We Shall Overcome in the barely perceptible tone that signals anxiety to those who know her best. Her son, mindful of tension at home, suspects that her discomfort is Pop-related so, while leafing through his dictionary, he leans against his Mother to assuage her.
“Mommy, don’t forget to tell me when to pull the cord so the bus driver knows.”
“I won’t forget. I promise.”
“The dictionary says public means ‘open to all members of the community.’ ”
“So why did Pop say you had to ‘fight the system’ to get me into a white public school?”
The bus—excepting Mom, Young Skull, and one older uniformed black domestic sitting in the last row—is now filled with whites. Mom, looking up to find many of them staring poisoned darts at her, avoids the negatives but does nod at the black woman and make eye contact with an older white woman whose reassuring smile offers a bit of kindness. The relief is short-lived, however, as Mom gasps, jumps up and pulls the cord.
“Whew. Almost missed our stop.”
“You promised I could pull the cord.”
Mom sighs. “You can pull it next time.”
“But you promised.”
“Okay, but just once.”
Young Skull looks into the rearview mirror, zeroes in on Mr. Bus Driver’s eyes, kneels on the seat, and pulls the cord with a child’s defiant innocence. He holds Mr. Bus Driver’s gaze and tugs the cord again and again until Mom grabs his arm and pulls him down into the seat.
“Owww, You’re hurting me.”
“I told you, only one pull.”
Mr. Bus Driver glares into the rearview mirror.
“Once is enough black there. That cord ain’t no toy.”
Mr. Bus Driver grins at his clever wordplay while some passengers chuckle and exchange glances. It occurs to Mom that, until now, she didn’t see the driver as white–he was just a bus driver. Now, with a stare as hard as those of the other passengers, his eyes expose menace underneath the uniform. As they stand and make their way to the back door, he taps the brakes and throws them off balance. Then he stops too far from the curb when its time for them to disembark, and they have to hurriedly jump down from the bus to the street rather than gently stepping down onto a raised sidewalk. The doors start closing and the bus starts pulling away almost before they hit the ground.
Mom and Young Skull walk in brisk silence until the sight of revolving red bubble lights and blue NYPD wooden barricades interrupts their escape from the bus ride. A woman breaks from the crowd of corralled demonstrators congregating near the school’s entrance. Police officers, news reporters, and television cameras, as if on cue, turn away en masse as she approaches Mom and Young Skull with a welcoming smile. Mom breathes a sigh of relief until the woman spits at them—the saliva landing on the street but her words stinging with perfect accuracy.
“Stay with your own kind, niggers.”
Mom’s gentle handholding becomes a desperate clutch and she starts murmuring. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . ”
Negroes, Niggers, moulies too, Jiggaboo, jiggaboo, jiggaboo-hoo. Go away now, cuz we don’t want you! Negroes, Niggers, moulies too.
“ . . . I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me. . . .”
“ . . . Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. . . ”
No, no, no, no, niggers, niggers, niggers, niggers . . .
A white hand attached to a muscular white arm protruding from a whiter sleeveless tee shirt clutches at them. Mom wraps one arm around her son, squeezing so tight he cannot breathe. Gasping, he turns his head only to face a wall of bulging white pupil-less eyes protruding from snarling white faces. Flashes of white light explode through the whiteness. Mom’s hand disintegrates into a white, powdery cloud. Young Skull reaches for her but she floats away. He runs down an endless white hall, through an open white door into a strange white bathroom where matte-white octopus-shaped dust-balls dance along glossy white moldings. He ducks behind a translucent white curtain, hides in a big white bathtub, crawls to the drain and dives headfirst, spiraling downward into a moldy-white cellar packed wall-to-wall with his rosy-cheeked Romper Room television friends whose glaring white teeth flash at him like a barrage of white lightening bolts. Young Skull, blinded by the whiteness, holds his hand up to shield his eyes but instead is struck by the contrast of his dark-chocolate brown skin. Time stops for a moment as he slowly inspects the dark side of his hand, drawing it closer and exploring every vein in each finger. Young Skull, astonished by his own dark-chocolate brown blackness, looks around the room and is released from the spell. For the first time in his life he feels different. Other. Alienated, isolated, and abandoned. He gasps for air as his friends morph from undulating white shadows into blood-red gargoyles and back again. They chant: Spook! Brillo Head! Uga Booga Boo! Cannonballs of molten white venom shoot out of their flaming eyes, their flaring nostrils, their sneering mouths.
November 22, 1963: Shortly after lunchtime, Mrs. S. calls her second grade class to order. “Quiet down and take your seats please. I have an announcement.”
Young Skull is sitting next to Robert H. who, since day one, has made no secret of his displeasure at the seating assignment.
“I hope we’re not getting any more n, n, n, Negroes.”
All the second-graders within earshot cackle in solidarity with Robert’s wit, perpetuating the completely exposed yet invisible state in which Young Skull has been suspended since his first day in this wonderful new school.
Mrs. S. raps her ruler on the blackboard. “Quiet down, children. I have some news to share with you. Bad news. Very disturbing news.”
Mrs. S. takes a deep breath and sighs.
“Today the President of the United States was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. He died a little while ago. President John F. Kennedy is dead.”
1991: It’s last call at Bee Sharp’s and the band has left the building. He is sitting at the far end of the bar, napkin tucked into his collar, eating fried chicken with a knife and fork while waiting for Sharon to close out the register and join him as he heads uptown to check out an after hours jam session. Skullcap Dashiki is at the other end, half mumbling to himself and half trying to convince Sharon that, earlier, Louis Armstrong had been here.
“Come on Sweetheart. You had to see him. He was right there, wearin’ a tuxedo and wipin’ his forehead with a handkerchief.” Then Skullcap projects his voice down the bar. “You saw him, right? He was standing next to you during the first set.”
“Who? Louis Armstrong, that’s who!”
“Louis Armstrong? You said you don’t even like Louis Armstrong.”
Skullcap shoots a vacillating look of recognition and dismissal in his direction before turning to Sharon. “Look at him. Eating fried chicken with a knife and fork. You know you ain’ grown up eaten no chicken like that!”
She ignores him and puts his check on the bar. Skullcap takes his sweet ostentatious time looking at the check, taking out his wallet, counting and laying out some bills. He tries to stand but stumbles against the bar. Sharon puts a CD into the player on the shelf next to the bottles of booze. The voice of Louis Armstrong singing Hello Dolly fills the air. Skullcap Dashiki shakes his head in disgust and walks out into the night.