VICTORY OF FISTS
by Guy Stewart
Approximately 60,000 words
There were three of them and one of him on the dark outdoor basketball court of J. E. CARTER High School.
“I ain’t a ass,” Langston Jones said. “But I do got really big hands, like a golden retriever puppy gots big paws.” He held up his hands then knelt down, setting his scuffed basketball to one side. Tightening the laces on one basketball shoe, his big hands trembled with anger and excitement. “Poetry’s more powerful than bigotry or murder,” he breathed. Sort of like a mantra only it wasn’t helping. The words made a cold cloud by his mouth.
He stood up at the free throw line. The three of them had lined up under the basket. The shortest one laughed, the tallest one said, “Gonna be FIGHT CLUB for boys.” The in-between didn’t say anything. With their hands stuffed in the pockets of their hooded sweatshirts and faces invisible in shadow, Langston figured they were probably a bunch of Thorn’s Thugs.
Picking up his basketball, Langston’s breath glowed in the headlights of a car driving past as he said, “More like a poetry slam.” The lights cut through the shadows hitting two black chins – the short one and the tall one – and a white chin in the middle. Breath looked like ghosts near their faces. When the car was gone, their faces disappeared while near the school wall, a shadow moved.
The middle boy said, “We’re here to kick your ass, white boy.”
Langston nodded. “I ain’t a ass and I ain’t white. I’m biracial.” He flashed a mouthful of perfect teeth. “My momma’s black and my daddy’s white, but I ain’t seen him since I was five.”
“Dumbass,” said the tallest boy, stepping once toward him.
“I thought you said I was a smartass?” Langston said then snapped his mouth shut, offering a sick grin. He gripped the basketball fiercely with one hand and shoved the other hand in his pocket.
What did they want with him? He was wearing a thrift-store jacket and his basketball was scuffed and dirty and he had nothing worth stealing. But he knew the answer was that Langston Jones had a big mouth, few friends and lived not-quite in the poor part of town behind the hospital. He’d made a bad, bad enemy in ninth grade – Thorn had been his best friend since kindergarten. Even when Langston beat Thorn, aka Stanley Conyers, to a bloody pulp between seventh and eighth grade they stayed friends. But in ninth grade, a girl, a basketball team and living on opposite sides of town had split them. Ever since, they’d hated each other and Langston gave up the rest of the few friends he so it would never happen again. Now he had to stop fighting altogether or he’d lose his whole future.
The middle one glanced at his friends then popped a white fist into a white hand. “Gonna kick your white ass,” he said.
“I don’t have a white ass,” Langston said. “It’s kinda dark ‘cause dad was white but Mom was black and I found that out when I was little see ‘cause dad would spank me ‘cause I’d get in fights and then never shut up, especially when people think they’re about to grind me into a pulp. You know, I ain’t never lost a fight, neither. Not since Ben Pequot beat me up when I was four, but that doesn’t exactly count...”
He couldn’t stop fighting today and he was still talking when they rushed him. He didn’t stop talking and he didn’t do martial arts. He just hit ‘em and hurt ‘em any way he could and always in the worst places.
It didn’t take long.
It never did.
The short black guy went down first. Softly sing-song, Langston sang, “‘Ashes, ashes, they all fall down!’” and laid him out with a single punch to the face. He added, “I hate fighting, actually. I got these big hands, see and they hurt afterward ‘cause your chin – it’s actually called the maxilla – is made up of two bones that are fused sometime by the end of your first year.” The hood of the boy’s sweatshirt fell back and Langston saw a face. “It’s a helluvalot stronger than my finger bones, even when I make a fist.” Another car passed by. Langston saw the blood spattered on the boy’s forehead. The shadow on the wall fled farther then stopped. Langston whispered, “‘He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y, Of a muscular punch that's incredibly speed-y.’”
The other boy laid still, moaning, beads of blood on his forehead. Then he started rolling back and forth.
The white guy was next. Langston swept his legs out from under him and shoved him backward at the same time. He was pretty sure the guy landed a punch, but Langston was too busy saying, “You know that old saying, ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’. It’s actually true.” to really notice. The boy’s head bounced off the pavement and Langston drove his elbow into his gut. Langston kept talking, “Your head has farther to fall so it has more time to let gravity pull it down, increasing the acceleration. Your own personal head is moving faster when it hits the ground than your short friend’s head over there.” The white boy’s supper spewed from his mouth and Langston shoved him on his side so he wouldn’t choke on his own barf. Launching from the ground, he raced after the running tall black dude.
The dude was faster and better than the other two, but Langston was faster. He tried to tackle him, but he stiff-armed Langston like an offensive guard and cut into the tennis court.
Langston followed, saying, “You know, if you was chasing me, I’d cut across the fields ‘cause I might think I could outrun you there. If I was really fast, you might not think it was worth chasing me very far ‘cause you’d have to hurt your hands beating me up. You might give up and let me go. But it’s stupid to go into this tennis court, ‘cause,” Langston grabbed the other boy’s sweatshirt, swung him around and slammed him into the pole holding up the cyclone fence. The dude staggered backwards. “See, you just caged yourself and it’s easier to take you down. You know, like Wolverine or Spiderman when they were both in those cages?”
The dude screamed obscenities and flailed, terrified, panicked. He connected a half dozen times, ringing Langston’s left ear. Once he connected with Langston’s nose. It started to bleed. He tried four times to knee Langston in the ‘nads, but hit him in the thigh instead. Langston said, “I’m gonna have a really nasty charley horse when we’re done.”
The dude screamed, grabbing Langston’s hair.
“OK, enough of this,” Langston said, “I gotta get to the library before it closes.” He lifted the dude by the neck of his sweatshirt and then slammed him down on the asphalt, driving his elbow into the other’s chest. The dude’s hand sprang open and his hood fell back when Langston lifted him again. His eyes were wide. Langston slammed his head into the asphalt again. Again. The dude tried to squirm free, grabbing weakly at Langston’s hands.
Langston slammed his head against the ground again.
The dude stopped moving.
Panting, Langston stood up and looked around. For the first time really saw the darker shadow against the orange bricks of the school as it moved back and forth, like it pacing. In the distance, he heard a siren. He wiped blood from his chin slowly, feeling the split lip.
The boys he’d laid out first were gone. He shook out his hand. Hitting a guy in the face always screwed it up. He hated getting hurt, but fighting felt good. He’d like it if everyone just left him alone, but he’d hate not having the adrenaline rush. He liked the rage, the thrill. He hated the downward spiral back into routine. He’d once read, “We need to learn who we are, REALLY are, before we can truly make a try at self improvement.” He only felt he was really himself when he was fighting.
He took a deep breath, sprinted back to the basketball court and picked up his backpack and his ball. Looking up at the school, he listened to the siren and touched his lip again. Fingers steady, the fighting thrill that made them tremble faded back to peace.
From the shadows on the school’s wall a boy’s voice whispered, “Two core one two seven, L. I’m yours.” The shadow slid sideways, rippling with the cracked brickwork and was gone. Langston scowled, shaking his head, squinting. Had he really seen the shadow move and heard the voice – or not?
The siren drew nearer and he imagined the squad car coming down 40th and taking a left onto Hematite. He ran through two baseball fields and vaulted the low fence at the edge of the school’s property, along Hematite. He crossed as the flashing lights of the squad entered the intersection two blocks away. He flew down the alley. It wasn’t a smelly, city alley rather an orderly suburban one; pairs of garbage cans neatly closed and side-by-side, decent cars parked outside even though it was dark, a few of the garages had flowers on the alley side. Clean. Tidy. Quiet.
He jogged up to Iolite, right a half block, left into the alley between 36th and 37th and three blocks to Lapis Lazuli where he took a right. Miner’s Park Library was an easy jog of five blocks. The maple, oak, ancient elms and other, newer, stranger trees were in full leaf and street lights made wild shadows on the sidewalk.
Miner’s Park Library was a low rectangle of maroon brick. Three wide, floor-to-ceiling windows peered into Miner’s Park east across the street. The other sets faced north and south, overlooking a rock garden on one side and a stand of tall foxtail grass on the other. The west side of the building had no windows at all, facing the parking lot, with the main entrance and offices. Back there, the wide sidewalk was pocked with circles of soil growing different flowers and bushes – tulips today and dead branches. In the center of the library, there was an outdoor courtyard with five pine trees, a white gravel circle and four gray, concrete benches. A single door opened from the library into the courtyard. There were windows on each wall facing into the courtyard, which he loved to look out during winter
On his way to the west side, he smiled to see people sitting at the tables, bright light pouring from the windows like molten gold cooling with the night.
He stopped at the turnstile door into the library and turned slowly around. Was someone watching him? He sighed; he wasn’t really paranoid. It just seemed like Thorn or his thugs or their Thugmobiles were always harassing him. A little paranoia never hurt anyone. He grimaced, dabbed his lip and went inside.
I couldn’t exactly go into the library bleeding like I was. Fighters don’t hang out in libraries. But I do.
So, I wiped my face as best I could, shoved one hand in my pocket and backed into the revolving door. Wrapping my arm over my basketball, I hid my hand so Phoebe, the assistant librarian, wouldn’t see the bloody knuckles. If she did notice, she’d ask questions. I’d hate lying to her, but I couldn’t exactly say, “Oh, I got the bloody knuckles while I was beating the crap out of three guys who tried to jump me back at school.” I don’t cuss in the library. The Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda once said, “Rudeness, yelling, anger and swearing are a weak man's imitation of strength.” I got three of the four mastered: I wasn’t rude most of the time, I don’t yell, and usually the only person that hears me swear is me, besides, if Mrs. Urthan, the head librarian heard me cuss, she’d kick me out and wouldn’t let me back in for a month. With finals coming up, I need the library to chill in. The anger thing is what I’ve been trying for eighteen years to control. I wanna control myself, but it’s impossible.
Phoebe, the assistant librarian, was helping a little kid find a book and not looking at the doors. I cut right and slipped into the bathroom. I locked the door, set down the ball and my backpack and went to the mirror.
“Ugh.” My lip was split all right, and it was puffy, too and there was dried blood smeared on my cheek from my nose and a single drop on the neck of my orange CARTER hooded sweatshirt. I chewed the inside of my cheek, then ran the water until it was as cold as it was gonna get. You can’t wash out blood with hot water ‘cause it cooks the proteins in the blood and leaves a permanent stain. I took a paper towel, soaked it then soaked the spot.
A couple minutes later, I was cleaned up. I unlocked the bathroom door real quiet-like and peeked. Phoebe was still looking the other way. I slipped out and went around to the east side of the library, and took my usual seat – the desk as close to the window as I could get. I stared.
For a while, all I could see was my reflection: a tall, skinny, biracial kid with too-big hands, cornrows, wearing an orange sweatshirt, jeans and almost new basketball shoes. After a few minutes, I could see past myself to the world outside.
Like that for a few minutes. Out of my backpack, I took the maroon notebook with the big gold M on it. My hands started to shake. Just like they do before I fight, my hands tremble before I write.
See, I write poetry. Not like flowery poetry or stuff that talks about how depressed I am. I write poetry about the thing I know best – me. I write it because if I didn’t, I’d kill someone. Maybe literally.
I opened the book, thumbing through the pages I already wrote on. All kinds of poems. All kinds of forms. I don’t do the same thing over and over again. I try different kinds because different forms can say different things at different times.
Does that make any sense?
Somebody belched real loud over by the computers. I looked up and a bunch of kids my age busted out laughing. I didn’t notice them when I came in but they’re all from CARTER.
I load my stuff up again and duck into the stacks, heading for the farthest corner. I stop for a second and look back and there’s this girl I seen before. She’s a senior, too and wearing black pants, black T-shirt plus black sequined tennis shoes. Sequins? Isn’t that too flashy for a gothgirl?
She bent over some kid in a wheelchair then looked up and our eyes did Velcro for a second. I pulled back into the stacks of books and hid in the corner. She looked great. But I don’t have time for a girlfriend and I don’t want anybody to see me with a smacked up face.
I plopped down on the floor and looked at the numbers facing me. They’re all 800 something. I pulled one out.
I remembered something about haiku from ninth grade English: 5-7-5. We had a student teacher who grew up in
I did haiku for two weeks solid because I had to. I hadn’t done any haiku since then.
Maybe it was time.
I slid away from the books and leaned back against the wall, closing my eyes. I was sitting right next to a floor vent; warm air huffing up past me. Good thing. It was kinda cold on the floor.
I slid away from the world, the ache in my hand fading; the throbbing sense that the skin on my lip was stretched too tight eased into the rhythm of pumping blood, flowing through my body; healing cuts, growing bruises. The world’s touch went away and pretty soon, all that’s left is the thrill of the fight. The victory of fists smashing opponents swelled like my lip until it was all I could think of.
I opened my eyes, took out the notebook and turned to a blank page. I fingered the little, white rubber finger grip I put on all my cheap, round pens. Leaned forward. Took a deep breath.
victory of fists
deflecting words and laughter
like leaves, turn spring rain
After staring at it for a while, I frowned.
It didn’t look quite right. Something was wrong. I grabbed my lower lip with my left thumb and finger and when I squeezed, tears sprang to my eyes. I’d forgotten my split lip. Lucky I didn’t break the new scab. I raised my eyebrows. I hummed. Something...I didn’t erase – I never erase. Grams says I might lose important lessons if I pretend my mistakes never happened. I wrote it again with two changes:
victory of fists
deflecting words and laughter
as leaves turn spring rain
“Yep,” I said. That was what I wanted. I whispered it, testing the words in the regular air instead of the air of imagination and I still liked the way they hung. I stood up, grabbed the pack, went to the end of the row and peeked around the corner. She was gone. So were most of the others. Must have talked to all their friends on rLife and gone home. I was one of the first people I knew who moved from MySpace and Facebook to rLife ahead of the crowds. Now everybody was on it. I didn’t have the time or energy for lots of friends. I had a future I had to get to.
I went out the other way, across the library from the computers, stopping at an empty table to make sure I had what I needed.
“Crap,” I said, though I’d rather have said something else, but Phoebe was standing four meters away and she’d have heard me for sure. I’d forgotten my Pre-Calc book at school. And I needed to do the homework.
I needed to pass everything with flying colors so the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology wouldn’t find any reason to revoke my tentative acceptance.
Did you know they can UNaccept you if you do a Senior Slide second semester rather than keep up your grades? They can. I wanted to get that final letter. The one that said I was in it for sure. That wouldn’t happen for five more weeks, after CARTER sent them my final final grades. Until then? I was on self-probation. I had to be perfect. Grams was the voice inside my head: Study hard. Get good grades. Go to college. She was the reason I had to get there. I had to help save her life.
My own voice added: Don’t get caught fighting. Don’t get caught fighting. Don’t get caught fighting. Easy.
With the pack slung over my shoulder, I waved to Phoebe and headed out the door.
It was cold and still, the brightest stars shining through the city lights. Almost like fall. I took a deep breath and let it out, coughing for a second; cold air in warm lungs.
I slipped my free arm through the other pack strap, settled it on my back and headed back to CARTER – this time running one block north to 33rd then turning left and running west for four blocks to Hematite and taking it all the way to CARTER – six blocks. I had to go to the back door, where the night janitors have their smoke break. I knew ‘em all: Josh, Mary, Eric and Jody, the boss. They start at 3:00 right after we get out of school, then work ‘til 11:30. It was only 9:30, so I’d catch them right at the end of their cigarettes – they’d be happy then.
I jumped the fence again and sprinted across the baseball diamonds and into the Community Gym parking lot. It was pretty much deserted by now and I saw Josh, Mary and Jody standing up on the loading dock, around one of the dumpsters, talking under a cloud of smoke.
I stopped at the bottom and looking up, said, “Hey!” Nobody smiled and at first, I thought something had happened.
Then Jody busted into a grin and said, “Langston!” She frowned at me, “You forget your books again?”
I looked down at my feet, really embarrassed. Jody had a little name, but she was a big woman. She was everyone’s mama at CARTER. What she said, everyone did. She’d done a bit in
She grunted, took a long drag, blew the smoke high and fast and said, “Get in. Get out, or it’s my ass in a sling.” She crushed it and lit another one. So did everybody else. She was the boss and she’d just said that break wasn’t over yet.
I nodded, pulled myself up on the dock and ran into the school. Nice thing about after school hours is that no one tells you to slow down. So I sprinted to my locker, grabbed the book and was back before they finished their cigarettes. “Thanks a lot! Mr. Welfare thanks you, too!” I called as I jumped off the loading dock.
She waved, stubbed out her cigarette and turned to go back to work. Everybody else followed her and the big metal door banged shut on the night.
Back over the fields, right on Hematite and straight south. I counted the blocks as I snugged the pack tighter on my back to make it quit bouncing so much and started counting streets. Hematite split around
East joined with
The house was dark except for the deck window of the living room. I slowed down and walked around the yard for a while, catching my breath. I may be in good shape, but I still ran almost two miles from school.
Anyway, pretty soon, my breathing slowed down and I went in the deck door. Grams was watching TV and reading a book.
“Hey, Grams.” Grams is mom’s mom. She’s black as midnight with hair blue-white as a snow on a clear, frozen day. A book in her lap and the TV on low, she’s doing both like she always does. She ain’t one of those old people who get lost in TV. Sure, she had a heart attack a couple years ago and she was diabetic. Doctors said the attack damaged her heart some and then found she had Congestive Heart Failure. She had to take insulin pills to keep her blood sugars steady. She was almost a bionic grandma.
Maybe someone will figure how to cure Grams. Biomechanics, what I’ll be doing in college, might figure out a way to repair CHF. Maybe someone would make an electric pancreas. They’d do it faster if I was there. Her CHF scares me. I don’t want her to die, but they said she had a small stroke, too. Didn’t affect her reading at all. In fact, when Gram can’t get a book in large type, she makes me or Jasmine get books on CD.
Jasmine – we call her Jazzy – is my eight-year-old cousin; mom’s sister gave her to us when she was three and she’s lived here ever since.
“How’s your day?” Grams asked.
I stayed out of the light of her reading lamp. I didn’t want her to see my split lip and I said as normal as possible, “Good. I gotta do a bunch of pre-calc homework.”
She smiled and shook her head. “A math genius and a good boy to boot,” she sighed. “The good Lord’s blessed you beyond measure, Langston. Beyond measure.”
I passed by her, giving her a peck of a kiss on her head and winced as the spray-stiff hairs pressed the split lip. I said, “G’night Grams.”
“Don’t you stay up all night now! I can hear you creaking around up there when you don’t sleep! You’re graduating in thirty days, Langston. Study hard. Get good grades.”
Smiling, I said, “OK! OK, Grams!” Heading upstairs to my room, I took the steep, narrow steps two-by-two, took a left. Looking level with the old, brown carpet I could see three piles of dirty boxers, socks, T-shirts, shirts and jeans and a stack of books by my bed. Then my bookshelves: mostly Clancy, Ludlum, some Asimov and Brin. Then one shelf of medical stuff: Gray’s Anatomy, Textbook of Human Physiology, STIFF (about life in a morgue – ha ha ha) plus other stuff I found at used bookstores and garage sales. I used to have poetry books. Then I found out the ones I had came mostly from my dad, so I dumped them. I kept ten Dr. Seuss books from when I was little and five by Shel Silverstein: Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, The Light in the Attic, and Falling Up. I scribbled out dad’s name inside those covers. I have a CD of Silverstein’s music, too that I bought on my own: The Best of Shel Silverstein: his words his songs his friends.
I don’t have any posters. No women, no basketball, no football. I hate sports. They’re stupid. I play, I just don’t watch. I tossed the backpack on my desk, turned on the desk light and turned off the ceiling light.
I guess I lied: I got one poster.
I shuck the sweatshirt and drop it in a pile, untie my basketball shoes while I hop around on one foot and then go to my desk and get down to homework.
Sixth hour physics.
“Don’t you just hate Stanley Conyers?” said Amanda Wheat as Langston sat down. He was five chairs back and pressed against the lab tables. Amanda flicked her perfect, blonde hair in what she thought was a really sexy way.
“I got a reason, but what’s yours?” he snapped, scowling at her. “Thorn ain’t got friends – just people he uses.” He locked gazes until she blushed red from her neck to her scalp and turned away to face the front of the room.
Everyone knew him and Thorn hated each other. Even though they hadn’t had a fight since right after seventh grade, they’d been best friends once. They lived on opposite ends of town and their lives couldn’t have been more different, it was jealousy that drove Thorn. Langston had everything Thorn wanted; Thorn had...a few things Langston wanted. What dislike he felt toward Thorn was just to return the courtesy. Fact was that
Langston stared at the back of Amanda’s head. She’d hardly said, “Boo,” to him before this and now she was trying to start a conversation? What was up with that?
The room phone on the wall in the corner rang. Mr. Lamprecht growled from his desk, got up, stalked over and jerked the phone off the hook. “What?” He listened for a minute then looked at Langston. He crooked his finger as he hung up and said, “They want to talk to you in the principal’s office. Bring your stuff and your pass book.”
“Will I be coming back?”
“I doubt it. Sounds like you’re in big trouble.” He smiled like a baboon yawned: all fangs. The man was practically a fossil, his hair was iron gray, his beard iron gray and he wore a tie and a button shirt. Sometimes he even wore a tweed jacket! “A relic from the middle of the Twentieth Century,” is what he called himself when he was in a good mood.
Langston held out his passbook. Mr. Lamprecht was also a racist. Not like everyone is racist, but Southern KKK racist. He just never got caught saying or doing anything bad enough to get fired, but there’d been only four black kids in the Modern and Advanced physics classes. He managed to drop three of them down to Applied – all but the undeniable best student in Advanced Physics.
Mr. Lamprecht had tried to get Langston moved down to Modern Physics the first day: “Did you know that you’re supposed to have had algebra two to get into this class. I’m sure one of the counselors just misread your transcript...”
“I had algebra two,” Langston said.
“Well, I’m sure taking algebra two this year...”
“I’m in pre-calc this year. I’ve had straight A’s in math and science since ninth grade. Check my transcript, Mr. Lamprecht,” Langston had said. To Mr. Lamprecht, numbers were religion. He might manipulate his classes to favor students of a particular color, but grades were pure numbers – and numbers were sacred...
“Langston? Can I have the pass book?” Langston blinked back into the present. He handed the book to Mr. Lamprecht. Someone in the class snickered. Mr. Lamprecht signed the pass, handed it to him and said, “You’re still responsible for the homework assignment and the worksheet. See me after school.”
“Yes, sir,” said Langston. It galled Mr. Lamprecht that Langston had the highest grade in this class. It was even better than teacher’s pet, classic computer geek with 1960’s ponytail, Charlie Rice. Langston was pretty sure it was Charlie who’d snickered.
He headed down camera-patrolled hallways to the office. His passbook was checked by two teachers and two deans of students on the way from the science circle on third floor to the main office on second.
When he finally reached the office, he poked his head in the door, saw no one but the secretaries and stepped in.
The secretary on the left looked up. “Langston? What have you done now?”
He let himself smile a bit. The big redheaded lady was his self-appointed guardian. Ms. Perschell had been there on the day of his first and only fight in ninth grade. During the second week of school, one of Thorn’s thugs had shoved him during lunch. Langston slopped spaghetti sauce all over himself and the floor. It was lucky for the kid that Langston had stepped on the noodles and slipped when he was lunging to pound the kid’s face into the ground. If he hadn’t hit the floor, both the kid and his own school career would have been dead. She’d comforted the glaring, spaghetti sauce-spattered ninth grader who’d sat hunched on the chair, hands trembling. She’d been watching out for him ever since.
“Nothing I can think of, Ms. Perschell. How’s your day today?”
She sniffed and looked bothered, but he saw the faint smile. “As well as can be expected. The air conditioning is on the fritz again.”
“Whaddya need that for? It was freezing cold outside last night,” he said.
She gave him a strange look then said, “Mr. Smith is waiting for you.”
“Mr. Smith, the new assistant principal?” The old one’d had a heart attack two months ago and they’d sent Mr. Smith to replace him until the end of the school year. I’d never seen him before except from far away. I knew he was big, black and had a shiny, bald head.
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and muttered, “Dang kids,” as she gestured him back to the office.
Mr. Smith’s door was open and he looked up from his desk as Langston looked around the corner. “Langston Jones?” the assistant principal’s voice rumbled. Langston nodded. “Come on in.”
Langston sat down carefully, laying his physics text, passbook and notebook across his knees. Mr. Smith caught his eyes and said, “I looked at your record. And I asked the police liaison officer to check your records, too.”
Langston felt his back hunch, tried to sit up and failed. He swallowed hard and said, “Yes, Sir?”
Mr. Smith watched him for some time, his left hand rolling a pen over the back of his thumb and back between the thumb and forefinger again. Finally he said, “Three boys report that they were mauled by some sort of animal last night on school property.”
“What?” escaped from his mouth before he could clamp his jaw shut.
“One of the boys seems to think you might know something about it.”
Langston’s jaw locked. He shook his head slowly.
Mr. Smith looked down at a manila file folder, opened it and said, “You have as many spots on your record as a cheetah, Mr. Jones.”
Langston nodded but Mr. Smith didn’t see. His eyes were on the file. “I also see you’ve applied to the
Langston’s eyes went a bit wider and his hands stopped shaking.
“You have a responsibility to yourself and in an oblique way, to me as well. Don’t do anything to leave all those people to fend for themselves Mr. Jones.” He leaned back suddenly and shooed Langston away, closing the file and tapping it with one wide, heavy finger. “One last thing: before you kill someone, come and see me.” He paused and softly spoke the words, “I’m watching you.”
Last period was Theater and passed in a flash. Gothgirl was in that class and took up the other corner the back row and got out almost ten minutes before the period ended. Langston always had the corner by the door.
When the bell rang, he was out of the class, to his locker and on the way home. Once he was outside, Langston found it was cold and gray, threatening rain. He ran home again through the alleys, avoiding just about everyone he knew.
Except he saw gothgirl in the black sequined high tops again at the corner of Kryptonite and 37th, pushing a kid in a wheelchair. She was wearing a black dress and tennis shoes covered with red sequins this time. “Red?” he said.
Langston kept running, but for three blocks, he couldn’t think of anything else but her. On 34th, he got his rhythm back and sprinted the rest of the way.
Once he reached home, he hurdled from the ground up to the deck and landed like an Olympic gymnast, arms in the air, looking up into the damp sky. He opened the door and almost ran his mom over. She was pulling on her jacket.
“Ma! Where’re you goin’?” he exclaimed.
She smiled at him, nodded to Jazzy and Grams who both had their coats on already.
He sucked in a breath and held it.
“We’re going to Open Store,” his mom said.
“Do I have to…”
“We can’t carry enough stuff without you, Langston. We need you,” she said. His mom was a full ten inches shorter than he was. But she took his arm in her hard, calloused hands and squeezed gently. “Please, Langston? Do it for Grams and Jazzy.”
Langston hated Open Store. It was a “food shelf with dignity” where the wealthy donated food and the poor paid what they could for groceries. He hated feeling like charity. He hated more than anything the pitying looks the workers gave them. Mrs. Cottonseed was one of the cashiers and didn’t restrict herself to dirty looks; she freely offered her comments on everyone who came into the store. By the time they were done, Langston’s hands were usually shaking with barely controlled rage.
Jazzy put her hand in his and looked up at him, smiling a gap-toothed smile.
He took a deep breath. “All right. Let’s get it over with.”
In Moms’ little car, there was barely enough room for the four of them. It’d be worse with the groceries. Jazzy pressed hard against him as they drove and he circled his little cousin with his arm. Reaching out to touch his mouth, she said up to him “How did you cut your lip, Langston?”
He touched his free index finger to his lips, leaned down and whispered, “It’s a secret, but I’ll tell you later.”
She smiled, nodded and said, “Mommy, can we get donuts today?”
The conversation wandered easily until they pulled into the parking lot and got out. When they walked in, Langston grimaced. Mrs. Cottonseed was cashiering. She was large, black and wore a long dress with a red head kerchief. People had another name for her behind her back.
She looked over her shoulder as the bell above the door rang. Scowling, she said, “Weren’t you here a couple days ago,
Langston’s mom smiled. “I was, Mrs. Cottonseed. Nice to see you, too.”
“I thought you had a job? You know we serve only the indigent here.”
“I can only work on-call at The Villeroy nursing home – I can’t get a full time day shift yet. I don’t want one of the all night ones – someone has to be home at night for Mom and the kids.”
Mrs. Cottonseed fixed Langston with the same disapproving look she always gave him. He ducked past her. Grams already had a grocery cart. She was chattering with Jasmine about what was on the shelves and their favorite foods.
Langston’s mom wandered down a different aisle to pick out treats for each of them, as if they were in CUB shopping like normal people. Shoving his hands into his CARTER sweatshirt, his hands shook with fear or anger – he couldn’t figure out why Mrs. Cottonseed made him feel so twisted.
Grams stopped suddenly and said, “Toasted Oat Ringers or Frosted Toasted Oat Ringers?”
“What?” Langston exclaimed.
“Cereal, Langston! What kind of cereal do you want?”
He muttered his choice and once they were moving, stayed a little further back until they reached the check out. Mom went first, grinning back at them with her secret treasures. When Grams and Jazzy reached Mrs. Cottonseed, she rang them up silently, looking hard at Langston. Suddenly she said, “You need a job, Langston? We got some bagger openings here. We could use someone like you.”
Shaking his head, he replied, “I’ve got a lot of work to do at school.”
She sniffed. “Your momma shouldn’t be shopping here, boy, not with a big, strong man like you in the house! You should be working to bring in money for the family and not putting on fancy college airs!”
Langston felt his breath catch in his throat. His hands shook uncontrollably. He tried again, barely managing to say, “I’m getting an education so I can get a good job to support the family.”
Mrs. Cottonseed’s mouth laughed, but her eyes didn’t. She said, “What good’s education? Don’t put food on the table, does it? Your responsibility is to your family – not making more of yourself than you’re worth! Get a job and quit lettin’ your family starve!”
“You meddling bitch!” Langston shouted, slamming both fists down on the moving food belt, exploding a bag of potato chips with his right hand, blasting the shards of sliced tuber all over the stunned cashier. “Who the f...” The babble of fight welled up in him, but Jazzy stood beside Grams so he bit his tongue and blood gushed into his mouth. He spun away and ran out the door, shoulder down, slamming it back against the brick wall, sprinting away from the store.