Fidelity. Johnson held it, slung it over his shoulders and gave his best immutable tough-guy stare, the impression of an indefatigable posture even with the reality of his old-man slouch. For a long time, he thought he would always be able to swing the pine of his monogamy at any racism because it was better than any freedman papers of the past or any despicable welfare check of the present.
And now Marguerite was gone.
The loss of his wife at home and his relevance in the classroom made for the intolerable dregs of a retirement looming. He was on its verge, the state pension was nearly in hand, and now he gazes into a kitchen opening where no woman stands and feels what men of his age feel when a slow power has come their way all their lives, but then is gone, only to show ghostly through the kind eyes of administrative assistants and bank tellers, cashiers and deaconesses.
Marguerite was gone.
That left Everett Johnson atop a high school football stadium for a Friday night. For distraction, he observed the masses below him. They muddled around the concrete-block concessions building on the corner of Brentwood and Main and purchased sugary candy, greasy popcorn, and Coca-Colas. The crowd was segregated--most of the white kids sitting in the stands and the black kids milling around the walkways and the concession area. Funny how they do that all on their own, thought Everett.
The students had come from all over Jacksonville by bus. It was a magnet school and students--of any color!--could apply. And Everett gazed at the white students who made the choice. He chuckled. Whites leave, and they come back. Never thought he'd see it. Never indeed.
Turk, a math teacher and track coach at Jackson, stood next to him. This other man cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted at the players on the field.
About the segregated students, Everett spoke up, saying, "Why are they here?"
"Who?" asked Turk.
"The white kids. It's Brentwood. Don't they know it's not safe at night."
"I guess not. They must be here for some good football."
"No, they're here for the kid who's wearing number fifty-four."
Everett wrinkled his nose. "The white kid, Turk. I know you know. The only white kid on the field. They've come out to cheer him on."
"Maybe ... or they could be here cause we're winning. People turn out for winners, you know."
Everett folded his arms and stared at his hefty friend.
"They're students of this school," Turk said. "So they have some school spirit. Nothing wrong with that."
"They do show spirit. I can't argue that they don't. I'm concerned with the kind of spirit they're showing." Everett shouted the question because the crowd cheered at the result of the next play, a hand-off to Fifty-Four. "They were students last year, those kids. And where were they last year?"
"Who cares? It ain't like all these black students come either last year. They come, now everybody come because we're winning, winning solves everything, Everett. Everything."
"Sports cliches aren't helpful."
"You sound like a damn Sports Illustrated when you talk, Turk."
Turk laughed. "That's all I read, man." He patted Everett on the back and then growled at the play on the field. "And hey, get this. They should be giving the ball to your boy, Fifty-Four all the time. Every play, man. You know it, and I know it. This crowd knows it. Black. White. Everybody. Best man gets the ball, nobody can help that."
"You don't see any issue here?"
"Everett, what you sayin'? They ain't got nobody stronger. Boy's like a bull."
"I'm not talking about football."
Everett marveled and despaired at the student body who cheered at the play on the field. He could measure nothing, no hints of prejudice, no gestures of favoritism. A bird perched on the highest bough, he observed a sweeping mass of heads--red, kinky, skin, strawberry, shiny, afro. Perhaps white rappers and black Presidents made their world immune to a system of ugly, hidden prejudices. Perhaps Turk was right to be indifferent.
Everett couldn't believe it. Any movement and the embedded splinter may hurt, may impale. Forty-three years of marriage, something open, something rich. Gone. And he was left to attend Friday night football games--football another trapping he could not embrace. He listened to the clack of pads and the grunting like laborers when he yearned for the sweet slider, the precision of a pitcher's heavenly kick, the clockwork motion of the infield and the outfield, the attention to detail, to deliver something so small to the sweet leather. Now approaching retirement in an era when King Football reigned, he had tried and searched the diamonds in the neighborhood and only found lumpy outfields filled with lonely clumps of nutsedge and he could not abide the sight of the high school baseball team whose pitcher appeared a monolithic man of stone, nothing of beauty, nothing of skill, nothing of the sweet American pastime that Everett adored, once hugging a transistor and tracing his finger along the edges and across the dimples of the amplifier covering. His belly full of popped, white corn, his head full of diamond dreams.
"We tread dangerous ground," he said.
"We'll be fine. Our defense will hold," responded Turk.
Everett could only stare and stick his hands into the pockets of his polyester slacks hanging from faded suspenders.
He considered leaving. Might as well. That way he could beat the uncertain crowd before the turn lanes of Main Street became metal medians. The parking lot promised a traffic jam at the end of the game. He could see the lot from his high perch in the stadium. There was his car among the others, a jalopy yard as diverse as the crowd below him.
And it was then, as he gazed longingly at his old Buick, the means of his escape, that he noticed some slow strollers on Brentwood Avenue. Two black young men walked the uneven sidewalk. They were headed toward Main Street, long athletic arms wrapped in bunched cotton sleeves, gaits unhurried, waddles affected by the low-ride pants Everett despised. The taller one Everett thought he recognized: Ralph, in a bunched sweatshirt and thick hoodie roping his neck, a former student, who might be nineteen or twenty now. The other kid wore a striped shirt and a hat whose straight-hard bill drove cockeyed into air.
Ralph pulled at his hoodie, sliding it partially up on his head; oh, thought Everett, if only he knew what robes he had exchanged for the rags he now wore. There was that History of another Continent. Together, crowned in the falsehood of a hoodie and a cockeyed-hat, they were amnesiac princes of that land they knew not. What tongues they once spoke! Rich and ancient tongues that spoke of rivers. Everett dreamed of everything such young men had been given and everything they could be. Visions. Dreams. Mountaintops. Yet these boys rapped not rivers, but roads. Like urban conquistadors, they dreamed of sacrificial blood and golden tribute. The so-called bling. Self-faithful and married to violence in a war for their own glory. Had they known humiliation? Had they known the terror? These young men could build, and they could destroy, liberate and oppress. What these particular young men would do Everett didn't know and couldn't know ...
Until Ralph and his friend veered right.
Until they eased through the parking lot and then walked back along the chain-link fence to the distant end where the county school board had parked a few portable classrooms for pregnant girls and drop-back-in students.
But Ralph and the young man in the hat weren't dropping back in a quarter to nine on a Friday night.
They were heading for the portables and for two figures loitering conspicuously next to the last one: a white boy in a white t-shirt and a white girl in a gray halter top. She leaned against the wall of the farthest portable, and he leaned close to her. They seemed oblivious to their surroundings, hiding, but awkwardly not.
Almost to the first portable, Ralph and his cockeyed-hat friend angled for them.
Despite the resentment of his bones, he moved, urged on by loneliness that crept out of the darkness of his own heart. He knew loss, and he could see it coming again, for he had been endowed with a gift, that splinter wedged into the dark place. A muscle pulled that wrapped around his back and hurt when he breathed too deeply. He was like someone who divined the future, for his wife Marguerite had paid the price for his third eye. Something got him going, maybe it was the girl, maybe knowing that if he ignored them all, he would return home and what he had seen, its potential, would make permanent the curse of silence. The long hallways and the air that didn't move. The clicks and the ticks and the sighs of an old house that was now audibly gnawing away at itself with aging.
He shuffled in rapid, precise movements, muttering his apologies first to Turk, then another teacher: he bowed to a gaggle of newer English teachers. On his way down, his breath quickened. His knees creaked. His imagination roared and drowned out the crowd. With the last five stadium steps, Everett could feel his twisting tendons and crunching cantankerous cartilage, so emphatic in their resistance. He deliberately focused on moving as fast as he could as the crowd growled and screamed at whatever was happening on the field. He no longer cared because possibilities filled the alleyways of the portables, so terrible that in his imagination they became probabilities.
He turned right, passed under the stadium and began a long slalom through a maze of cars between him and the portables three blocks away. Easing between the first line of vehicles, he turned sideways to avoid the car mirrors.
Like he would around the land yacht Plymouths many years ago. On his bike. Leaving the diamond worth more than any real jewel, studded with good friends in its field, and he leaned back and reached his hands to the ceiling of the dark sky and could believe that his arms were long enough to touch it, to rake his extended fingers sweaty and grimy from flexing the hot and wonderful mitt. He rode in freedom, eyes to the stars, hands happily throbbing from the impact of the ball in the mitt, whose palms were callused from the grip of the bat. His finger tips tingly from riding roughly and from the seam of the curve. And then there would be school. Segregation. Questions never asked on the dark faces of sullen black girls who stared daringly back at him from across the aisle. His guilt for thinking of the school on the other side of Main only blocks away. To be there. In those hallways. And he was nonetheless bold to ask his momma, over the popping corn. Late night.
Momma says, What you want to go to that school for? What you think they gonna do?
The questions continued and exploded into his present vision of the portable scene: the straight-billed hat stands over a huddled figure. His leg swings like a pendulum, the tick-tock of a tit-for-tat, his feet planting firmly in the figure's side, a white t-shirt smeared with gray grit. Everett is present, only one in a large crowd which includes Ralph who laughs. Everett, the old man, tries to get in, but he cannot see over the people around the brawl. He tries to get a look at the figure on the ground to see who it is, to glimpse a color of skin. But cannot. And more cops come and the next night more hands rest uneasily on holsters and someone else dies, and Everett is done with death, and it weighs heavily on his brow on a Friday night.
... it's all too easy.
Pinks and reds swell and spread in a color photo of a white face on the front page. Out of context. The high school's on lockdown as tired cops hang on corners. Hands on batons, fingers on triggers; everyone a little more anxious.
But he's finished with death, he reaches the portable lot.
He enters the gate and rounds the corner of the first portable. Yet no one is there.
The alleyway is empty. Maybe Ralph and his friend had kept walking. Maybe the white kids didn't notice. Maybe they had passed each other, sailing indifferently on through the night.
Maybe it was okay to laugh again.
He turns to go when a shriek stabs the air. He jumps, a good six inches, and then bounds--like a lead-off man aiming for a double--to the end of the alleyway, the last portables, where he takes the final corner.
There is the grotesque tableau that he feared--the girl is leaning into the straight-billed hat, against whom she leverages her weight, clutches his wrist held high. He just smiles. White teeth.
In his fist, above her desperate hand, he holds a long, curved object.
The old man cries out, grabbing an elbow, a fistful of shirt. He yanks hard, the shirt stretches, and the boy spins, straight-billed hat falling from his now-naked head. There is anger and now shame and ...
Everything slowed down with the white girl. Freed, she stared meagerly a faint wince in her brow, and he could not escape her look. She wrapped her arms around her torso, the back of them a forest of pimply rash. She was prepubescent, not yet taken the weightiness of womanhood, and somehow this fact embarrassed Everett.
During that brief moment, Ralph silently stepped between Everett and the boy who'd lost his hat. He casually stooped down, lifted the hat from the ground, and handed it to its owner.
The strange congress--the two young black men, the white boy and girl--surveyed the older man. In the calm of the pause, Everett took his eyes away from their inspection and cast them down at the curved object in the black boy's hand. It was a dollar bill, crinkled, at an angle. Smaller now that the terrible tableau had erased itself with moving, human flesh and easy, relaxed stares.
"Does that... does that belong to you?" Everett said.
"She lost it," said the boy who gripped the hat and the dollar bill tightly.
"It's mine, now."
"This ain't finder's keepers, son ... Nobody wants--"
"I ain't yo' son, and I ain't find it. I won it."
"Alright, Jamal, it's cool," said Ralph. His voice was deep and relaxed and recognizable. "Nothing been done wrong here."
"Ol' man accusin' me--"
"Shut up, Jamal. He sees what he sees." Ralph spun his lanky fingers around philosophically before pointing one at the white boy. "Go ahead. You'se caught, too. Go on 'head and show the man what you got."
The white boy shrugged, turned his closed hand over and open, pouring out its secret: dice tumbled to the asphalt ground and bounced still. Snake eyes. Two black divots on the flat white surfaces.
Ralph laughed, turned his head as if to look to a far off place, and then looked at Everett. "You'se lucky, Mr. Teacher."
"Or unlucky," said Jamal, "'pends what games he's playin'."
Ralph leaned against the portable and stroked his chin. "It do, it do."
Everett looked to the girl. He felt she was out of place, yet too relaxed. Her round features pulled tight into the center of her face as if she was holding something in. Her face was white, pink and red, splotchy, even ugly, Everett thought, and wondered why these boys would converge on her. Then, her eyes flicked to Jamal, and her lips sputtered before becoming shrieking laughter. Jamal began laughing, too.
Everett became dizzy; he could fall over at any second.
Then, from every direction, a voice boomed. "Whatever it is, I don't want none of it!"
For a second time Everett jumped: it was Turk, his fists on his hips.
"I know you--and you," he said to the black boys as he slung a meaty finger. "We don't let students back here, and I know you," he said to the white kids. "Get back to that game."
"And you," said Turk back to the black boys, taking a step forward. "Y'all get on, and I don't need to say it again. Yuh go on about your way."
"What about my dollar?" said the girl, lightly, lyrically.
Jamal made an exaggerated face and smiled. "I won it, little girl. Off you go."
"Nah, gamblin' ain't allowed on school property among these students," Turk said. "Give it back and get on your way."
Jamal gave a half-hearted frown that turned to a smile. He handed the girl her dollar, and she danced delightedly away.
They all finally left Everett, but they left for pity, not power. Taking one glance at the frozen old man, Turk decided to follow the white kids who crossed the parking lot for the stadium. The black boys dutifully retreated with the same leisurely pace with which they'd arrived. Everett was alone with the dice because no one bothered to pick them up, and the snake-eyes stared up at him. He scooped them and dished them into his pocket.
It was the only evidence of the ridiculous tableau, the sham that had been the fearful image of his mind.
The adrenaline had evacuated and now left torpor in his limbs. He crossed the parking lot slowly, and the ink black dome of the sky became higher, more curved, and far too expansive, without detail. The artificial light of the field had extended an artificial day into night and eradicated any traces of stars, the jewels of the universe and the promise of space and of motion and of eternity.
Everett rubbed the faces of the dice in his pocket, the perfect circles under his thick thumb, black concave dimples themselves.
What he feels on himself now are Marguerite's eyes. He had come home to find her on the floor at the foot of the sofa, popcorn bowl overturned and white clusters all over the floor. Rolling her onto her back, feeling the pounding of his own heart, checking for her breathing on his cheek, his own ragged breath drowning all sound, so all he could do for the sign of life was to stare into her widening eyes, two dark expanding pools. Then: palms down, overlapping. Into the sternum. Bouncing and rhythmic. One. Two. Three ... Then: pouring forth his lungs into hers, attempting to move the heaviness of death off her chest with his own aging lungs ... Then: pounding the heaping flesh that wrapped her lovely body, pounding it with more desperation than he ever felt through his hot sneakers, running from the ax-handle mob that day many years ago, having minutes before poured out from the Woolworth's like insane ants from a violated pile; and he, knowing nothing but fear, feeling the need to flee, taking the railroad tracks northwest for freedom and College Gardens only to swing open the screen door to his mother alone in the kitchen, seeing her shaped by the frame of the door like an isolated, mute idol, flaying her flesh on a washboard before a door that would never frame his father's face, and he--the son--could not even imagine it. Father's a railroad man, is what she had said without pride, without pleasure. And he knew in his racing mind carried by his racing feet, that the tracks he ran were that man's tracks. Then: with each thrust of his palms the body before him moved involuntarily on its own track, a heavy freight car teetering back and forth going where he could not, and not staying in spite of his labor upon her sternum, the place where he believed he would rest his head for an eternity of earthly summers.
In the end, he was alone with the dark discs against the white surfaces of her big eyes.
"Let me get you something. From the concession," said Turk.
Everett had reached the stadium absent-mindedly, and was standing with Turk in the grass south of the field's end zone.
"I think I should go home," was what he said.
"That ain't dangerous ground, Everett?" Everett looked at his friend. "Dangerous ground. That's what you said earlier--dangerous ground." Turk said it again and again, both surprised and then not at the same time. Turk looked from Everett to the football field and to the stands. "It's the only ground we got. And that ain't from Sports Illustrated."
Everett waited a moment. "It's so exhausting."
Turk nodded, though he kept his eyes on the field.
Fifty-Four cradled the ball in his white arms. He dashed left, then upfield, and bounced against a lineman. His right arm held the prize; his left arm, a missile, clobbered the other players. One body fell. Then another. But not him. The cheers grew with each body. His legs whipped freely through arm tackles while the defenders moved in slow motion, legs shackled with invisible irons. Finally, three defenders brought the boy down.
"Been a long time since I seen that," said Turk.
Everett grasped the dice in his pocket. "Maybe it's been long enough." He watched the next play.
The Tigers and Fifty-Four with them were close to a touchdown. Another snap, and Fifty-Four raced again with the ball into the endzone. His speed and his power carried clutching defenders with him and the mass of bodies collapsed under its own weight. Beneath that mass, the young man fell onto his arm, the ball between his ribs and his forearm, and the momentum dragged his body across the turf in a spray of grass and dirt. They all came to a stop only a few feet from Everett and Turk.
The wreckage of bodies un-piled slowly. Opposing players came to their feet and trotted away in defeat. Last to stand, Fifty-Four tossed the football to the referee.
From under his helmet, the boy's eyes were brilliant, dark and alive, two dark stars eager to pull entire galaxies into themselves in a spectacular implosion of ambition.
The boy turned and jogged back to the sideline and as he did so, Everett noticed a wide abrasion that ran across his elbow. From the wound, a thick garnet streamed, meandering around the length of his forearm and into the palm where it dripped from an index finger like a pen poised to write.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.