Henry was already famous in the family by the age of fifteen for having used a logical argument to get out of going to church every Sunday. Sitting in the field beside his grandmother’s house, so late in the evening that the traffic that all day rattled the house rushing by in both directions on 115th street was all by then elsewhere. He was reading a book by flashlight in the tall wild grass of the ownerless field. Which is how he earned the nickname of Firefly that summer. It was a nickname that failed to stick.
“Our Father,” said his grandmother over dinner. She rarely got further than that. She sat alone at the table in a kitchen lit only by the gas ring arranged like a circle of sapphires under the pewter kettle, that had been handed down from the days of the Civil War, or so the story went, boiling water for her oatmeal.
Of the people who once had sat as a noisy well-fed family around that scarred table, two were now dead and two married; so Ma-Ma cooked only for herself and Henry now, and her meals had lost every pretense of elaborateness. Cheese and crackers most nights for herself, or oatmeal on a night when she craved the heat, and sandwiches for Henry…his beloved BLTs…with the tomatoes sliced thinner than stains. Bacon nearly burnt. Lettuce sparse and mayonnaise laid thick like a consolation.
Ma-Ma couldn’t even see Henry from her place at the kitchen table; the field he sat in with his sandwiches and his flash light and his book was on the other side of the house. If she wanted to see him she’d have to go in the bathroom and peep through the little window over the bathtub. Which would mean climbing into the bathtub.
All she could see from where she sat, hands folded and held to her forehead in a posture of aborted prayer, was the matrix of black trees rooted in the iron plate of the yard, and the dim yellow life in the upper windows of the neighbors’ duplex.
Ma-Ma had yet to establish clearly in her heart just who she had the biggest grievance with, the married or the dead. But had she ever once dreamed, when she was still in the ripe-bellied years of her pregnancies, that her whole life would one day consist of being left behind? Terry, Ma-Ma’s daughter, Henry’s mother, was one of the dead. Pop, Terry’s father, and Ma-Ma’s husband, was the other. Both of them were closer at that moment to Ma-Ma than Henry was.
Henry switched off the flashlight and put the book he was reading face-down in his lap, and when his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he saw the fireflies suspended in space all around him like luminous berries in the dark jelly of the summer night, as though he might just reach out and pick one and relish the flavor of light. What fascinated Henry most about the fireflies…or lightning bugs as the neighborhood kids called them…was how the light they made…some green and some yellow and Henry was sure that once he had seen a blue one…was only for each other.
They went from birth to death completely oblivious to the human presence, lighting the fields at night without the slightest care as to how this mating ritual might strike the human imagination. Except when a cruel kid like Nathaniel Mullins caught some and pinched the bellies off and wore the posthumously radiant organs like cygnets on his knuckles, chasing some girls with his hideously beatified hand.
Henry had to laugh at himself just then. Nathaniel Mullins hadn’t done anything as innocent as that in ten years! Nathaniel Mullins was in the Cook County Jail for puncturing a man’s lung with an ice pick. Henry tried to picture Mullins in jail, reading a book, with a thoughtful expression on his big round face.
Meanwhile, the book that Henry was reading, as intelligent as Henry was, was incomprehensible to him. It wasn’t just the cultural difference between the author, D.H. Lawrence, and the author’s reader, Henry, which explained Henry’s sincere bafflement in the face of the text. It was the sinister nature of all interactions between men and women in his book, which Lawrence seemed to take for granted as a given in the basic knowledge and experience of his audience, that kept the book’s message mysterious to Henry.
Or put it this way: the boy in the field with a book and a sandwich, who switched off his flash light just then in order to look at the fireflies, was a virgin.
“You tell anybody and I’ll skin you alive,” promised Henry to Crip Beckett, earlier that day.
Crip was called Crip because of his foot: he had a left foot that was more like a fist and forced him to commute with a drag in his leg, which prevented him from playing, or even attending, team sports, not to mention the fact that he was as yellow as pancake batter. The Pediatrician blamed his mother for the first problem (the wild life she had continued to lead while pregnant) and the neighborhood blamed his father (the Pediatrician) for the second. Crip was yellow because his mother had opened her legs for a handsome Jew named Doctor Gold.
Both Crip’s infirmity and his coloration had resulted in a default friendship between Crip and Henry that soon enough outgrew its hurt beginnings and became real, despite the fact that Crip, who Henry called Charles, was ruining Henry’s chances of ever meeting a girl.
Crip couldn’t even get near a basketball court or a softball diamond or a football field without asking for trouble, so Henry stayed away from these places as well, in loyalty to Crip, but how was Henry ever going to meet a girl, then? That’s where the girls of Morgan Park congregated after school everyday, and on the weekends: along the sidelines of the playing fields, dressed up in their finest, blazing like Easter in hard-candy auras of nigger perfume. Each little queen was an oyster, rich with her ova pearls.
The playing fields of Morgan Park were dominated by a ruling class of black-skinned, heavily muscled, flare-nostriled athletes who thundered back and forth across the trampled grass with the terrifying mass and excellence of Tyrannosaurus Rexes. If you stood nearby, with your eyes closed, at the height of a game, listening to the competitive cheering and shrieking of the girls, and the crunch and slap and grunts of the colliding teams, and you whiffed the steamed surge of testosterone and blood and heroic breath that hung over the pitch, altering the North American sunlight, you might faint with disgust, or swoon in a rapture, depending on your personality, but you would never mistake the experience for being anything other than elemental.
“Not even your sister,” added Henry, after the pause it took to think the preceding four paragraphs, but what he meant was: especially not your sister, “Not even Chloe. Don’t even tell her.”
“I ain’t telling anyone shit,” said Crip. “Not Chloe or mommy or Santa or Jesus or Zorro or Batman or nobody. Not even if they tortured me. Satisfied? Okay? Not even the motherfucking Green Hornet and Kato could make me tell, brother.” The suspense was killing Crip. “So?”
Crip leaned forward across the cafeteria table. Funny thing was the whole cafeteria got quiet at that moment, through sheer coincidence, as though they were all waiting to hear the secret being born in a whisper on Henry’s lips. Henry looked left and right and waited for the hubbub to swell again before leaning across the table to meet Crip half way. Close up to Crip he could see a resemblance to Chloe in Crip’s eyes and it made Henry’s heart flinch in a way that felt to Henry that his heart was saying her name. Chlo-ee.
Chloe had come about in the days that her mother had more-or-less restricted herself to the rigors of her common-law husband’s demands for bend-over-the-kitchen-sink sex, the result being that Crip’s older-by-ten-months sister was exactly the right color for a child whose mother was black and whose father was even darker by considerable magnitudes. Chloe, in other words, looked like she belonged to both of her parents.
Crip, on the other hand, being the result of a post-natal exam, with his butter milk skin and gray eyes and wavy hair, barely looked traceable to even his mother. Still, he was beautiful. As was Chloe, in her perfectly opposite way. Her black-is-beautiful way. Those big lips and high cheek bones. That narrow waist. Those ten-pound titties each, as Mr. Guffman, Morgan Park’s P.E. instructor (and Henry’s nemesis), would have put it.
“Charles, man, I’ve never…” confessed Henry. “I’ve never…” he started again.
“Ever?” asked Crip, almost delighted, the first syllable of the interrogative attenuated with disbelief. “Never …?”
The cafeteria hubbub had returned to its normal pitch; Henry mumbled one little last thing but Crip couldn’t make it out but he didn’t need to. He’d heard enough! He suddenly felt ten feet tall. Even now, hours later, in the dark of the field beside his grandmother’s house, Henry could feel that Crip’s self-worth had been notched higher a peg by Henry’s sad little confession of inexperience, which was strangely like an admission of guilt. As though Crip was now shining somewhere over there on 114th street and changing the quality of the darkness by which Henry was attempting to enjoy the dance of the fireflies, one block over.
Henry switched on the flash light again and trained a glass moon on the cream colored pages of Women In Love. He loved the name Gudrun. He tried to imagine Chloe in the book; he tried to imagine Chloe as a middle-class girl in turn-of-the-century England. He heard his grandmother gargle and then run water in the sink and then flush the toilet (for good luck) preparatory to going to bed. All he had to do was wait for her to stretch out on the sheets and nod off into the arms of her whimpering dreams and then he could put the book away and sneak off to the ‘Monthly,’…the wild party in the abandoned house on the corner of 111th and Throop.
Three times previous he’d planned to and three times previous his courage had failed him but tonight he swore it wouldn’t. This month he would go. The deciding factor had been that earlier in the week, some thirteen year old had said to Henry, with such contempt, “Nigger, you don’t even know what a Monthly is!” and Henry had retorted, “Know what it is? Fool, I’ve been invited!” Which the thirteen-year-old had found hysterically funny. And so now Henry had to go.
The wild party had become a tradition that year, held there once a month since the beginning of the summer. That the police hadn’t yet bothered to shut the whole thing down was a tribute to their sense of the Negroes as semi-savages beyond the behavioral limits of civilization anyway, so why bother trying to force them to comport themselves like decent white folks? They were beyond the pale. Let them do whatever they wanted, as long as it didn’t cross over the tracks into Beverly, or Roseland, or the other white districts. Plus he’d heard that the police themselves had on one occasion attended and enjoyed the results.
“Firefly,” Ma-Ma called through the little bathroom window, “Don’t you stay up too late reading, now. You still have school tomorrow. Lock up the back when you come in.”
From Ma-Ma’s house on 115th street to the Monthly party at 111th and Throop was twenty five minute walk down streets that Henry had never seen after six o’clock in the evening before. Henry took pathetic comfort in the heavy silver cigarette lighter that he could feel in his pocket as he walked. He brought it along with the idea that an older woman at the party would come over to where he was standing and ask him for a light.
When Henry rounded the corner at 111th street he saw the whitewashed shack of the house, a-glow like a particularly sinister jack-o-lantern. He could smell the rocket fuel of beer and jocklust from all the way up the street. The house stood there, grunting and shrieking on its grassless lot, and Henry slowed in his approach on the broken back of the sidewalk until he came to a dead halt in the moonlit desert of the front yard, wondering what to do with himself.
Over the sound of all those male voices was a James Brown record, blasting from a back room over raspy speakers, and Henry saw that some shadows on the porch…silhouettes repetitively lifting bottles of beer to their lips like trumpets…could see him standing there, so all he could do was go in, against his better judgment, towards the source of the awful odor that soured the air around the house like a warning. The smell was like breath; the breath of the house as it ate its bad dinner.
The front room was dark and cleared of all furniture, with a window that opened out to the porch, and a window in the warped wall at right angles to that one, facing the street that Henry had just walked down, half-covered in filthy old cobwebby drapes that bunched on the wooden floor, at least a foot too long for that particular window. If you approached a corner, the corner reeked of damp rot and rat droppings. Figures sat here and there against these walls, in various degree of slump and consciousness, and Henry was at least sophisticated enough to identify the buzzing blue cloud, that most of them were connected to, as reefer.
What light there was in the room was spilling from the narrow kitchen doorway, which was flickering with emergency candles; Henry assumed that that was where the beer was. A line of thick-necked jocks, some in their puffy white letterman jackets, backed up to where Henry was standing, hands in his pockets, doing his best to look like he knew what he was doing there.
“Yo,” somebody shouted, “Check out the caboose!” and the boys in the line turned around and laughed at Henry. The laughter sounded like a 45 rpm record, slowed down to 33. “Get in line, brother,” said one of the thick-tongued slumpers on the wall, “Before ya lose ya place.” He made a gesture that had nothing to do with anything, then added, hoping for a laugh, “Hurry, while supplies last, baby.”
This was not the time for Henry to admit that he didn’t drink. So he got in the line, which seemed to be inching forward at the rate of one customer per minute, and he wondered: how long could it reasonably take to fill up one little plastic cup of beer, or hand someone a bottle? Henry hoped to God they weren’t just taking swigs from gallon jugs of homemade liquor; he’d seen that; the last thing he wanted to do was swallow the spit of a hundred niggers.
There were no girls at this bash; the irony wasn’t lost on Henry that the greatest number of pretty girls he’d ever seen gathered in one place had been at the Church picnics he had long-since argued his way out of attending. He glanced around the dim room and was very nearly brave enough to sneer at the room with contempt. This is a party?
The James Brown record was finished and no one bothered to start it again. The line advanced. And again. And again. Soon Henry was close enough now to the heart of the meaning of this gathering of bucks to see what someone less willfully naïve would have guessed at, already: the jet-black girl on her back on the kitchen table, sizzling in her dull sweat.
Her heart-shaped face was hidden shyly or hatefully under an arm like late sleepers will sometimes protect themselves from a cruelly innocent sun. Her navel was belligerent and her bosoms were masses on her chest that trembled and lurched as the boys shoved sex into her, and everything lower than her arched belly looked burst and messy, thickened to the table in the dark puddle they moved her on with urgent adjustments.
A boy would take his turn at holding her ankles and the next few in line behind him would already begin preparing. Some of them just boredly unzipped, but others showed genuine enthusiasm and stripped down to the level of black bare ass, unashamed to show a bobbing hard-on in a room full of colleagues. It was safe to look, because no one was looking at anyone looking.
Henry stepped out of the line, pulling his chin. From the way certain boys were talking…a couple who were conversing behind him while waiting to go to bat, and one or two to the side who were just now buckling and zipping up and lapsing into a languid search for beer…Henry gathered that the girl wasn’t even the main attraction. It was the reefer they were all here to buy; the girl had just been provided as a sacrificial courtesy.
With a Novocain face, Henry found himself a bottle of beer and sat himself in a dark corner of the kitchen, leaning against the disconnected refrigerator, and watched with intelligent curiosity. The detachment was a new discovery and served him well. One boy punched the girl lightly in the cheek on his way away from the table; the gesture struck Henry as some kind of declaration of free will. There was comedy, too: a fat boy jiggled as he came, like a rhino, farting, which scattered the cue behind him.
Henry just sat there and nursed his warm beer, but didn’t have long to wait; the girl called a halt to the proceedings in a little while; all she did was climb down off the table, rubbing her eyes and then waving the last two away. She gathered her clothes from somewhere and got them on quickly and staggered outside, and Henry followed her at a careful distance. She was headed for the alley, with a little bit of a limp, rubbing her right hip sorely.
“Does your brother know about this?” called Henry. He shocked himself by laughing. He felt great.
Copyright © Shawn Casselle 2003
Shawn Casselle was born in Los Angeles, California, and has lived in Chicago, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Brooklyn, San Diego, London, Berlin, Hamburg, and Stockholm. He currently lives and works in Berlin.
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