Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 6 / Northeast Corridor

Weekend Reading – Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 6 / Northeast Corridor September 6, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost5 / Orlando Patterson

Princeton preciously preserved, like folk art, its own Negro ghetto, a few dense blocks of dark and tiny row houses circumscribed by the university, the mansions of the gentry, and the Borough’s small, exclusive commercial district. This shopping quarter also buffered the black neighborhood from white ethnic enclaves, tree-lined streets where working-class Catholics sprawled on lazy summer days in wife-beaters, Italians and Poles mostly, who occupied shabby duplexes, drove dented Chevy’s, and spawned children hard and tough who did not even pretend to like black people.

By 7th grade, black and white students at Eli’s school were mixing like a bad stew. Nasty niggers in this dump, he and his white friends from the Township told each other. Eli and his friends knew this nastiness from experience. From muggings, shakedowns in hallways, bathrooms. From heads slammed against doors, lockers, From smells of cheap wine, dope, a hot breath close upon them.

Eli feared the black kids, who were loud and boisterous and angry (which meant he also loved the black kids, seduced by this exotic fear and fascination). At the same time, he admired tough white working-class kids from the Borough, who smoked cigarettes and carried blades, and who confidently met the black kids on their own terms (which meant Eli also hated the Borough kids, repulsed by the ircarnal strength and bluster).

On Fridays, the strongest, baddest white and black students fought to determine strutting rights. Like clockwork, word spread through the school’s hallways and byways, leaping from locker to locker. Mick Miller and Dab Carter. Duking after school. Behind the tennis courts. Be there, man. No one knew who arranged these fights. They just happened. The final bell rang, students poured down the hill, past the baseball field and tennis courts, to an isolated corner of the school grounds, where they milled, smoked, bantered, and flirted in their rough, untender, adolescent way.

The combatants appeared, each flanked by three or four friends. Horseplay diminished. The students, eyes widening in awe, spread themselves into a loose circle, white kids ranging themselves on one side of the lawn, separated by several yards from the blacks, who, because fewer in number, clustered more tightly together, drawing strength and ferocity from their nearness to one another.

At 13 or 14, Mick Miller and Dab Carter were renowned for their feral vitality. But there the similarities ended. Miller, arctic-eyed and lank, was a pure athlete, with broad shoulders and long, powerful arms. A printer’s son, Miller was a bully, gratuitously mean, and so popular without being liked. At five-three, Dab Carter projected blacksmith strength, but with a square, pushed-in face he lacked Miller’s natural grace and style. Unlike Mick Miller, Dab possessed (as Eli well knew) an essentially genial disposition. But to his mostly white classmates he presented the snarl of the perpetually aggrieved.

Down by the tennis courts, Miller and Carter stood toe to toe. Carter’s jaw, like the cow catcher of some tiny, coal-black locomotive, jutting out and jamming up into Miller’s chest. Though no blows had yet been struck, both boys breathed heavily. “C’mon man,” Mick Miller sneered. “Let’s get it on.”

* * *

“Écoutez ce poème écrit par Victor Hugo!” Monsieur LaClos, perched on the front of his desk, fingering the folds of his flannel pants. Softly chuckling. “C’est la poesie de l’amour.

Eli did not ecouté, however, on this fine spring morning, towards the end of his sophomore year in high school. Seated by the window, peering through branches of a blossoming cherry tree outside the classroom, he instead regardé a dozen students, white on black, falling upon each other, getting it on all-right, just not as Marvin Gaye imagined. Older students leapt through doorways and sprinted around corners to join the fray. A senior from farmlands across the highway pulled a bottle from the trash barrel and waded into the melee, his arm cocked above his head, waggling the bottle like a pom-pom. Meanwhile, the other students in his French class joined Eli by the window, their faces, drawn and pale, pressed tightly to the glass.

Late that afternoon, Eli eased past the cordon of cops surrounding the high school. He poked his way home, cutting across the empty lot behind the football field. Beyond the lot, a small wood separated the school from residential streets on the north side of town. A narrow path wound through the wood alongside a small creek.

Eli followed the path, deep in thought, eyes to the ground. By the time he noticed the twins, it was too late to backtrack. Lester and Chester had early on been cute boys, with round, alert faces and sunbeam smiles. In middle school, however, the brightness had faded from their eyes. Freshmen in high school now, they hung with a rough crowd. They performed poorly in school. Something within them, within their spirits, had soured. Eli could only with difficulty understand what had happened to them, but he knew this was a common pattern among black children in Princeton. Many turned hard like obsidian in adolescence. Eli’s father called this darkening of the soul the curse of Ham. It was, he explained to Eli, the shadow of the past.

Now high school freshmen, the twins stood in a small clearing near the edge of the wood. They smoked cigarettes and stared at Eli. Two other boys Eli did not know stood with them. He guessed they were from Trenton.

Eli walked toward the clearing. He would have to pass these boys to get to the street. He kept his head down, hoping they might not recognize him.

“Wheeler! What’s happenin’, man?”

Eli tried to edge past them. “Nothing.”

The boys blocked his path. He stopped and looked up at them.

“Nothing!” Lester was heavy-set. A long Afro pick stuck out of his hair, a Black Power fist cresting the handle. His eyes were bloodshot. “I saw you today, man. You were out there in the parking lot. I saw you, man. You were gonna light up some niggers, weren’t you?” The others laughed and crowded more tightly around Eli.

“I was in class.”

Chester, Lester minus the Afro pick, stared at Eli’s Desert boots and laughed. “He wasn’t going to light up any niggers with those. I’d have killed the motherfucker. Anyway, he’s a crip. You a crip, aren’t you, boy?”

Eli didn’t say anything.

Lester examined Eli’s leg. “He ain’t a crip,” he said. “He used to be a crip.” His tone, while rough, was not unsympathetic. “You get hit by a car? I heard you got hit by a car. Isn’t that what happened?”

“That was Chuck Sneed. He’s dead.”

Chester nodded thoughtfully. Eli and the twins. For the briefest of moments, together contemplating the varieties of terminal catastrophes that seemed to regularly claim their schoolmates. Not just Chuck Sneed. But Martha Gallagher, in a head-on collision with an ambulance. Marcus Poulard, under the canal ice. To cancer, plunging toward the infinite zero over a span of months, the boys known to all as Dead Ed and Dyin’ Brian. Kyle Bard, to heroin. And, finally, young Trace McGuinn, the mast of his small aluminum sailboat brushing a downed power line. Death, as Tobias, would say, always closer to you than your shirt.

One of the two Trenton boys spoke up. “Man, we can’t let this white piece of shit pass without paying the toll.” He laughed excitedly. “Man, you gots to pay the toll!”

“What toll?” Eli said, knowing the inevitable shakedown was about to begin.

“You gots to give us ten dollars. You gots to pay the bill, man.”

“I don’t have ten dollars. I don’t have any money.” Eli pulled the front pockets of his jeans inside out. This was the truth. His parents would not let him work until his 16th birthday. In the meantime, he subsisted on a meager allowance, his young life denuded of adolescent pleasure, with a penury-imposed discipline Tobias claimed built character.

Before Eli could push the pockets back into his pants, the excited boy pressed him against a tree. The boy held up a silver switchblade. He snapped the blade’s release button. “Don’t pull that shit on me. You white. You rich. You got them nice desert boots. You don’t give me ten dollars, I’m gonna cut you.” Eli eyed the blade for a moment and looked over at Lester and Chester. “I swear,” he said, “I have no money.”

Lester shouted at the boy with the knife. “Man, what shit you pulling, Rodney? Wheeler’s all right. Put that motherfuckin’ knife away. He already say he don’t have no money for you.”

Rodney paused, puzzled and angered by the rebuke. As he slipped the knife back into his pocket, he turned back toward Eli. He laughed. “You a scared motherfucker.”

“No, I’m not scared,” Eli said, his voice low. “I just need to get home.”

Chester flicked his cigarette butt to the ground. He pulled a package of Kools from his jacket pocket, placed one cigarette in his mouth and offered another to Eli.

“You smoke, man?”

Eli took the cigarette. Chester held a lighter in his hand. He lit his own cigarette, then shifted the flame under Eli’s.

The other boys laughed. “You got to puff, Wheeler,” Lester exclaimed. “Ain’t you never smoked before?” The other boys took cigarettes from the package of Kools. For a moment, there was silence while each one inhaled. The others were practiced smokers. Eli tried to inhale, but the smoke somehow found its way to his stomach. His head felt like a helium balloon bobbing on the end of a string. The sensation was not unpleasant, though, and in this lightness of his spirit, he imagined he might be friends with these boys.

Lester spoke up. “You hang out with Shiree, don’t you? I seen you with her.”

Eli nodded. Shiree was one of his favorite people. They were good friends. She was a big girl, with a flashing smile and quick movements. Shiree’s ease with white people and her unwillingness to wrap her blackness around her like a chador had complicated her relationships with other black students at the high school.

“She your ho?”

“What’s that?”

“I said, she your ho?” Lester was exasperated.

“My ho?” Eli had no idea what he was talking about.

“Your HO! You sleep with that black bitch?”

The other boys were laughing at Eli.

“No,” he said. The idea of sleeping with Shiree had never occurred to him. But now, in the swirl of the smoke and the sudden warmth rushing to his head, the notion of sex with Shiree also amused Eli. Her gazoongas were huge, like chocolate pudding mountains. Eli pictured them liberated from their hammock-like bra. He relished the image of himself scaling those peaks while she squealed and squirmed beneath him.

“No,” Eli said again, laughing heartily, taken in by the mirth of the moment. “But I’d love to get my hands on that black bitch’s boobs.”

And then no one was laughing.

“What you say, boy?”

“I said I’d like to get my hands on her boobs.” In the close silence that enveloped the clearing, the jocular tone he tried to adopt did not materialize. His voice squeaked and stalled.

“You call her a black bitch.” Lester was not smiling. “You gonna pay that toll now, Wheeler.”

“I told you guys. I don’t have any money.”

The four black kids once again surrounded Eli. Rodney cupped his knife in his hand. Chester’s lighter also reappeared. He flicked the lighter. He pointed the flame toward the other Trenton boy. “Burn him,” he said quietly.

“What?” Eli squeaked.

“Burn Darnell.” Chester poked Eli with his other hand. “Or we gonna fuck you up good.”

Darnell was tall and thin, with a reddish Afro. Pink blotches spread across his face. He stared intently at Eli, his eyes vacant, his smile blank. He held out one arm. Translucent scar tissue covered the palm and much of his forearm.

“I can’t burn him. This is crazy.” Eli looked to see if anyone else might be coming down the path. It was empty. His head turned toward the school, he didn’t see Lester’s fist coming, landing hard on the side of his head, knocking him to the path. Eli’s face smashed a rock, bruising his cheek, cutting open his lip. He staggered to his knees, but now Rodney was taking his shot. His kick landed high up on Eli’s rib cage, near his lungs. Eli found himself flat on the ground again, gasping for breath, waiting for the next blow. But the blow did not come. After 20 or 30 seconds, Eli pushed himself to his knees.

Chester stood over him. “You gonna burn that motherfucker, or we gonna kill you. You burn him. That’s what he wants. You do it.” He paused. “You do that, then you can go.”

Eli breathed heavily. His head throbbed. Dirty tears streaked his face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry openly before these boys. Then Rodney was on his knees next to Eli. He took the switchblade and held it to Eli’s ear. “Motherfucker,” he chirped softly, “you burn Darnell, or I’m gonna cut off this ear.”

“Get up, Wheeler,” Lester said. He offered one large, calloused hand to Eli. After a moment, Eli took the hand and allowed Lester to pull him to his feet. Darnell still stood there, his hand outstretched, a beggar seeking alms.

Eli took the lighter from Chester and stared at it. It was yellow, a cheap disposable Bic. He flicked it once, watched the flame for a second, and then let it die. He thought about running, but he knew he wouldn’t get ten feet before these boys caught him. He flicked the lighter again. Slowly, he moved it close to Darnell’s outstretched hand. He peered into Darnell’s eyes. They were a dark grey, with flecks of black and red.

“Why do you want me to do this?”

“Cause it feel good.”

Eli slid his hand under Darnell’s palm. He lifted the flame until it was about six inches from Darnell’s skin, near enough to feel warm, but not do any damage.

“That’s not good enough, Wheeler. You got to burn him.”

Eli moved the lighter closer to Darnell’s hand. The flame licked his palm, flattening where it met flesh. Darnell’s body stiffened. He smiled. Eli’s own arm quivered, but this time he did not lower the lighter. A sweet putrescence now filled the air. Darnell closed his eyes. His head jerked and writhed. A bit of smoke filtered through his fingers. The other boys stood quietly, transfixed by the sacramental power of the ritual.

Eli held the lighter to Darnell’s palm for 15 or 20 seconds, his own hand soppy with sweat, cheeks dampened by tears. Suddenly, he turned toward the creek and pitched the lighter into the water. He spun back toward Darnell and the twins.

“There!” he cried. “Are you happy? Did I burn you enough?”

Darnell turned his palm over and stared at the gelatinous pulp in the center of his hand. He grazed it gently with the fingers of his other hand.

Eli sank to his knees, lunch slipping from his stomach like an eel, sliding brown and silken onto the trail, into bushes by the edge of the creek. Eli crouched upon all fours. He sniffed the soil. He could not bear to lift his head. He could not bear to see the melted hand, and the tenderness of Darnell’s touch upon it.

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