OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2015 (Joint Runners Up)
Mama looked up from her Bible when the white boy walked into the South Liberty Street Baptist Church.
“Signs and wonders. Look there Jerome.”
He had blond hair, blue eyes and a smile like Jesus in the one and only stained glass window behind the pulpit.
“You know him, baby?”
I shrugged. “Can you really know a white boy?” As if we hadn’t traded nods and smiles. As if I didn’t know exactly who he was.
“He goes to your school, don’t he?”
Another shrug. There was only one high school in Marion, Illinois. All the boys went there until they graduated or got kicked out. All the girls went there until they graduated or got pregnant.
“What’s his name, baby?”
I looked at my hands like I was sorting through a list of white-boy names, like his was coming to me one Caucasian letter at a time.
“It’s a different kind of name,” I said. “Foreign sounding.” A blond-haired, blue-eyed name carried across the Atlantic Ocean by a grandfather after the last big European war; a name that twisted African tongues in unusual directions.
“Weis-brot.” I wrestled with the syllables as if I’d never said them out loud before. “German name. Somebody told me it means white bread.” I said those last two words a little bit too loud, because someone in the pew behind us repeated them.
“White bread.” Aunties whispered it to Uncles, who whispered it to cousins, who whispered it to friends. “White bread,” passed along the rows like a collection plate, until it was too heavy to go any further.
Everyone turned a sideways look toward the first white boy who ever came into our church, walking down the aisle like a Crayola-fleshtone alien from a world where color didn’t matter. Africans are good at keeping track of white boys. Glance at them the way you look at the sun. Long enough to get your bearings; not long enough to ruin your sight.
Don’t look at a white man direct unless you mean to kill him. Everybody in my part of town knew that rule. Things might be different in Chicago but in Marion, race relations hadn’t caught up with the law.
Weisbrot had a first name, but there was no need for it in the South Liberty Street Baptist Church. He looked uneasy, the way white people usually do when there’s one of them and lots of us. He didn’t belong in our church but he didn’t know exactly why. He didn’t know anything about Brown v. Board of Education. He didn’t know about the troubles in Selma, Alabama, or the Minister from Atlanta who was about to make things different.
He didn’t understand about the seating arrangement inside the church either. Most everybody thought he’d slide into a row where the coffee colored people sat, but it didn’t surprise me at all when he eased himself into the dark-skinned section of the church; sat in the empty spot beside my mother opposite from me. That empty spot was always there because Mama was a prostitute. The shameful seat, the mercy seat, reserved for a blond-haired blue-eyed boy who didn’t know any better than sit next to a whore in church.
“Hey there Trick Baby.” Weisbrot gave me a little two-fingered wave and smiled big enough to show off all his professionally straightened teeth. “Good to see you, man.”
“Jerome,” I told him. “My real name’s Jerome.” On the street I was the bastard son of one of Mama’s careless tricks, but Jesus wouldn’t hold me accountable for that. Inside the church I had a Christian name.
“Sorry Jerome.” He stuck his hand across Mama like she was a statue of Mary Magdalene put there to hold some space between us. We shook hands the way white people do—grabbed onto each other like we were about to have a tug of war, pumped our arms up and down as if we were driving a spike into the heart of a racist vampire. That shake went on until the preacher cleared his throat, ready to begin the first mixed race service in the history of Southern Illinois.
Things usually started with a song, but this Sunday would be different in honor of the visitor with the German name. This service would be quiet and dignified, the way the white man’s god wanted Christians to discuss salvation and damnation. Like burning in a sea of brimstone wasn’t really a big deal.
When the service ended I raced for the exit without saying goodbye to Mama or to Weisbrot; tried to get out the door before the change that always took place when I left the peace inside the church for the chaos of a small town ghetto. In a second Jerome was gone and Trick Baby was back, like cheap wine turning into blood. Like bread turning into flesh that’s just light enough to remind everyone of the power white men have over black women.
“Wait up Jerome,” Weisbrot called after me. “We need to talk.”
Maybe we did need to talk, but not until we were outside where a crowd had gathered to see if a dove would land on the white boy’s shoulder. To see if he’d ascend into the clouds like Jesus or ride off in a car nobody in the black community could afford.
“Wait up Jerome.”
Maybe they’d forget about the trick baby at the very bottom of the social ladder, who was way too delicate to support all the weight piled on top of him. But probably they wouldn’t.
“T-Baby.” Today I was to be tormented by Kerwin Cox, fresh out of prison in Joliet, the biggest criminal fish in a very small pond. Getting bigger all the time by eating little bait-fish like me.
“Why’d you bring a white boy to our church?” Kerwin twisted his upper body, loosening up for a world-class trick baby ass kicking in the front yard of the church. A crowd of girls gathered in a circle around us, giggling girls dressed up like Easter eggs. They struck lines that showed off their curves so Kerwin could appreciate their charms if he happened to look up between calling me names and breaking my bones.
“I didn’t bring the white boy.”
Kerwin Cox put his hands on his hips and looked at me like he was a parole officer and I was an inmate on house arrest.
He wouldn’t need a gun for me, but everybody knew he carried one underneath the left arm of his blue blazer. My eyes danced around the churchyard looking for an escape route. Maybe the circle of girls would open for me, the way the Red Sea opened for Moses. Maybe Kerwin would lose interest in assault and battery when he noticed all the girls standing barely out of reach.
But his hands were already balled into fists. The skin on his knuckles blanched so tight, the love, hate tattoos stood out like warning signs on the interstate.
More girls all the time. African-American-Christian girls dressed in their Sunday finest fluttered around us like a swarm of vampire butterflies waiting to see a trick baby’s blood spilled on holy ground.
I mumbled prayers that were really more like pleading. I promised God things I couldn’t possibly deliver if he came through for me just this one time.
“Hey now,” a white boy’s voice said over my right shoulder. Weisbrot’s voice, more self-assured than it should have been inside a circle of blood-thirsty teenage girls.
They didn’t know white boys were untouchable, even a blond haired, blue-eyed white boy who visited a black church on South Liberty Street to show his solidarity with the slightly effeminate son of a prostitute. Kerwin Cox didn’t know it either. He didn’t think about all the black men who spent their lives in prison for killing men with names like Weisbrot.
Kerwin Cox was like a rattlesnake that warned his victims before he struck. Gave them time to think about the poison that would carry them to the grave. Let them know there was no escape. It didn’t matter what happened in the next minute or the next hour, the important time is always now.
White boys always came to the ghetto prepared for trouble. Weisbrot had something in his hand. Something cylindrical and colorful. Something way too non-lethal to worry Kerwin Cox.
Weisbrot pointed a spray can at Kerwin’s face and released a cloud that turned the gangster’s threats into coughs and turned his fists into ineffective rags that couldn’t wipe the mist out of his eyes.
“Easy Off oven cleaner,” Weisbrot said. He took me by the arm and led me through the circle of pretty girls, away from Kerwin Cox who was using all the curses he’d learned in Joliet—about trick babies and white boys who were going to die for blinding him.
Weisbrot and I stopped behind the line of girls who wanted to comfort their favorite bad boy but were afraid of the pistol he found in the holster underneath his blazer.
“Goddamn it.” Kerwin waved the pistol around at the blur of color that was moving too much for him to tell who was on his side.
“Don’t do something you’ll regret,” I called from behind the girl-circle that grew tighter and thicker as it shrank around Kerwin Cox.
“Really brother. Think about it.” Brother, a gentle word sure to provoke more anger.
Three wild shots. Three Sunday dresses too blood-stained to use as burying clothes. Too many screams to count as people ran in all directions. Kerwin Cox ran too, when his vision cleared enough to see what he had done.
So did Weisbrot. Away from the black ghetto where he didn’t belong. Away from the trick baby he’d come to visit without a proper invitation. He vanished, like white people always do when trouble starts on South Liberty Street.
Mama’s hand closed on my shoulder. “We better get out of here before the cops show up.”
“Bringing that boy here will cause him lots of trouble,” Mama said. “You gonna give him what he came for?”
“Didn’t bring him. Not gonna give him anything.”
Mama smiled. “You pulled him onto South Liberty Street as sure as the moon pulls the tides.”
“Worked him good.” She kissed me on the forehead. “Don’t set him free ‘til he’s all used up.” That was the core of Mama’s prostitute philosophy.
Murders make everybody nervous.
Black boys at Marion High School clustered together, like wild dogs in a pack. Mean enough to do serious damage in a fight even if they didn’t win. Warrior boys, whose ancestors killed lions to prove their manhood. Dangerous boys with imaginary straight razors in their pockets and make-believe pistols in their lockers. Crazy boys who laughed at death because there was nothing to live for in America. White boys left them alone because they had too much to lose. They found a redbone loner to hate instead, one who wasn’t black enough or manly enough to run with the pack.
A trick baby has to watch out all the time, pretend he doesn’t care if everyone in the world hates him for things he can’t change—especially the white boy with the German name who keeps turning up.
Weisbrot mouthed the words, “Hey now,” as he brushed passed me in the hallway. Whispers spread around us like slow leaks in a steam heating system.
Everyone knew about the three girls who died in front of the South Liberty Street Baptist Church. Kerwin Cox pulled the trigger, but the shots were fired because Weisbrot followed Trick Baby to a place he didn’t belong. No one could put the blame on Weisbrot; he was rich and white, so everything fell on me.
Kerwin was the murderer; I was the accessory.
I walked among the shelves of the Marion High School Library, looking for a book that would tell me how to fix things.
“Hey now.” Weisbrot stood in the history section thumbing through a text about the Civil War. He always knew where I was going because a trick baby’s options are so few in a mostly white high school in a mostly white town with a mostly white police force.
“Cop car’s parked out front,” Weisbrot said. “Where they can arrest you without making a scene.”
“Can’t hide among the books,” he said. Like a white boy knew anything about hiding.
“Got to go out the front door,” he said. “Face the cops head on. You haven’t broken any laws.”
“There are white laws and black laws.” I could feel the tears gathering in my bottom eyelashes. They’d roll over when they were big enough. The law of gravity didn’t have favorites.
Weisbrot put a hand on my shoulder. His fingers trembled like they were charged with electricity, like I was filled with explosives that would blow up the world if he didn’t get it right.
“I’ll walk out with you,” he said. “Out the front door of the school. If the police are still there, we’ll go with them. If not, I’ll drive you to the station. I’ll be strong for you.” His face hovered so close to mine I could smell the spearmint gum on his breath.
I pulled a random book from the nearest shelf and opened it.
“OK,” I said to a picture of Abraham Lincoln laid out in the first presidential coffin in America. “Let’s go.”
The police car was parked at the end of the sidewalk underneath the American flag. One cop and one cop car was all they sent.
The policeman stepped out of his cruiser, scratched his head and looked at the blond haired blue-eyed white boy holding hands with a mostly black fugitive. He opened the back door of the police car and told me to, “Get in.”
Weisbrot’s hand was too hot and wet and full of nervous ticks to hold. I wiped my fingers on my pants and looked at my friend who might not be able to keep his promise.
“Mr. Weisbrot,” the cop called him. “You got no business with this boy.”
Weisbrot didn’t produce a can of Easy Off oven cleaner and blind the cop. He didn’t baffle him with legal talk about probable cause and civil rights.
“Well . . .” Weisbrot tried to climb into the back seat of the police car, but the policeman stopped him with an index finger pushed against his breastbone.
My not-so-strong friend backed up easily, as if he was a robot controlled by a radio transmitter broadcasting from the headquarters of the Klu Klux Klan.
Way too easy. Way too weak. Exactly what I expected.
“It’s OK.” I slid into the back seat of the cop car. I waved at Weisbrot through the window. He didn’t wave back.
They took me to a special room with a mirror on one wall so I could see how scared I looked and detectives on the other side could take notes to use against me. I knew exactly what to do. My mother had been arrested hundreds of times, and they always let her out because she said nothing to the cops except, “I want a lawyer.”
But Mama was a prostitute and I was an accessory to murder, so who knew what the cops would do. I was pretty sure this whole thing would end with me going to prison where men like Kerwin Cox would kill me if I didn’t commit suicide first.
My interrogator didn’t use the n-word once; that meant the tape recorder was turned on.
“Why’d you do it?”
“I want a lawyer.”
“How’d you know he had a gun?”
“I want a lawyer.”
“Where did Mr. Cox go after the shooting?”
“I want a lawyer.”
Someone pounded on the mirror from the other side. The door to the interrogation room opened, and a white man wearing a pinstriped suit, and black wingtip shoes walked in.
He sat a briefcase on the table and said, “My client invokes.” The most beautiful lawyer sentence I ever heard. He was definitely my first lawyer and I was probably his first trick baby.
“Is my client under arrest?” He opened his briefcase so he could scare the cop with legal papers if he had to.
“Not exactly,” the cop said. “Just have a few questions.”
“My client doesn’t want to answer any questions.”
He looked at me. “Ready to go, Jerome?”
“His mother is a . . .”
My lawyer popped his brief case open again, in case the cop finished his sentence. When that didn’t happen we left.
Weisbrot sat behind the wheel of a bright red muscle car in front of the police station. I climbed into the passenger seat and waved goodbye to the lawyer.
“I sort of lost it at the high school,” Weisbrot said. “Sorry.”
“That’s OK,” I told him. “White people have a different way of being strong.” I leaned forward and kissed him tenderly, and sincerely, giving him no choice just like my mother would have done.