Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 19 / Pace Makes the Race

Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 19 / Pace Makes the Race November 11, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost18 / Carnivorous Plants


The running track at T. State did not encircle a football field. The track lay by itself, at the base of a grassy slope on the northern rim of the campus, surrounded by dilapidated wood frame houses. T. State students rented most of these buildings, with others occupied by some of the more peripheral offices of the school administration. A handful of fraternities and sororities, including Alpha House, the black student fraternity, sat directly atop the bluff, with fine views upon the river. Bars, dives, and warehouses not yet uplifted by gentrification bounded the enclave to the north and east. A gritty, grimy neighborhood, part student ghetto, part administrative wasteland, a portal to the harder realities of urban education.

Since arriving in Portland, Eli had driven to this neighborhood on weekends. The running track was much closer than anywhere else he might go to do speed work, so he endured the depressing backdrop to his sprints. He’d become used to the grey, leaden quality of the day as it unfolded there, fog slow to burn off, clinging to student clunkers like the one driven by Rupert, sticking to litter, broken beer bottles, chipped and peeling paint. Eli had grown accustomed to human marginalia, too, detritus drifting in for parties the night before, or drug deals.

Eli was used to seeing these things, and so, early on Sunday morning following Thanksgiving, as he and Rupert trotted down the incline to the track, through wet grass and damp mist, he didn’t think much of the van parked by the edge of the bleachers. He saw the van, an old beater, grey as the day, with battered side panels and rusting fenders, and he saw too, rear doors swung wide open. The van was 40 yards distant, though, and shrouded by fog. Rupert, cantering next to him, represented the business at hand, and Eli, too, remained preoccupied with the events earlier in the month involving his students and Pritchard, and so as they approached the track, he also barely took note when another car, a late-model Toyota Camry, pulled up behind the van and parked.

Harry sat waiting for them, on a bench by the track. Though his exercise would only involve holding the stopwatch, Harry hunched forward, a towel around his neck, as if he was the one preparing to race. His sweat bottoms were already off. When Eli approached, he rose to meet them. “How do you feel?” he said to Eli.

Eli grinned at Harry. “Just dandy.”

Harry held up the headline on the front page of the Week-Old Cheddar. “You saw this, I assume.”

Eli nodded, making a concerted effort not to escape from Harry’s Cheshire smile. “Yeah. Pretty fucked. But whatever.”

“Let’s just say I’ll tell people I was proud to have known you. Though I’m not sure why you would put your neck on the line. I know I wouldn’t. It’s like Sebby’s show wagers. There’s no payoff worth the risk.”

Rupert glanced at the headline, shook his head, and laughed. “Dude,” he said. “You got some giant balls.”

Eli grimaced, twisted his torso in an arc, bent over to check his shoelaces, grim and determined.

* * *

In Portland, among the palest of the major American cities, the public schools imposed a curricular revolution to reclaim the intellectual heritage of its racial minorities. Indeed, the origins of the Diversity Project at T. State owed much to energy bubbling up from Portland public schools with the publication of the first African-American Baseline Essays in 1987. Diversity Project program leaders were now demanding that T. State include the Baseline Essays in the university’s core curriculum for all students.

It had all started with the appropriately named Matthew Prophet, Ret. Lieutenant-Colonel, US Army and revered African-American Superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Prophet also happened to serve on the Board of Trustees for Tillamook State University. Prophet’s calm manner belied his sense of urgency about educational disparities across racial lines, as well as his commitment to tackling the problem from every available angle.

The Baseline Essays debate had recently heated up, and penetrated Eli’s own classrooms to the degree that he had endured cackling from Blade. “We gonna turn you inside-out, man. We gonna blackwash you!”

Eli wrote at two levels in his Week-Old Cheddar essay. He was careful to present his own ideas via a carefully analytic, dispassionate, and moderate voice. However, he also expressed equal parts bemusement and scorn for all participants in the national debate.

As Eli reviewed the Baseline Essays, the fierce national debate between militant black nationalists and Ivory Tower cultural conservatives perched in the back of his mind. There was Leonard Jeffries, busy back in New York terrorizing administrators at CCNY with entirely spurious notions about Ebonics and melanin and the inherent racial superiority of black people, his style so offensively brutalizing that Eli assumed he’d set back the cause of minority hiring for decades. At the same time, Allan Bloom and the preposterous Dinesh D’Souza had done their part to inflame white America with their impossibly recondite rhetoric about the infallibility of the Western white man’s intellectual tradition and the debased corruption of modern youth and modern culture.

Eli had no truck with any of this. And he credited his father on this count, at least. Tobias, who could have assumed the mantle of public intellectual and revered sage had he wished to, operated at an intellectual depth that precluded easy solutions or analyses based on fundamentalist, procrustean shackles upon the mind. History had its own reasons. On this point, Eli and Tobias could agree. Eli did not know what to expect on campus and in his classroom once his essay began to circulate, but he did not assume Pritchard meant for it to be a healing, bridging contribution to campus harmony.

* * *

They jogged the quarter-mile strip. After two laps, Eli stopped and sat down on the track to stretch, peering up at Rupert, who was twisting his torso at the waist, shrugging his shoulders, loosening his arms. Rupert. A one-lap sprinter who relied on upper-body strength to carry him through the last part of a race. Eli was counting on these things, that Rupert’s youth and high spirits would lead him to expend too much energy early, and that in any case he would not be able to relax his big body enough to sustain four strong laps. Eli would concede the first two laps, let Rupert build as big a lead as he could, then reel him in the final half mile.

Harry set his watch, checking the track for obstacles, scanning empty bleachers, eyes narrowing, pinching his sharp nose, as if looking for something, or at someone, no one else could see. After a moment Harry turned back toward Eli and Rupert, strolling to the starting line. “Let’s do this before the mist burns away,” he said. Already, they could see the sun carving holes in the curtain of fog. “Four laps,” he said. “Don’t use yourself up chasing Rupert, Eli. Stick to your game plan.”

Rupert and Eli spoke briefly about who would start from the inside lane. Eli ceded the spot to Rupert. It didn’t matter. Rupert would claim the lead in a matter of strides anyway. Eli discarded his sweat top and steadied himself at the starting line, feeling the familiar surge of adrenalin, his energy gathering like a storm.

Harry fired an imaginary starter’s pistol. Rupert and Eli launched themselves down the short piece of straightaway and into the first turn. Rupert swooped around the turn like a hawk. Eli immediately dropped ten yards behind, finding his own rhythm. He noted with satisfaction the sense of lift he felt when beginning a race, that his strength was boundless. Rupert, up ahead, was running well within himself, however. That was clear no more than two hundred yards into the race, as they exited the turn and relaxed on to the backstretch. Eli watched the pumping motion of Rupert’s arms, muscles in his legs and back flexing together, like meshed gears. Eli knew they were running too slowly. He fought the urge to accelerate, to stride past Rupert and seize control of the race.

Rupert trotted the first lap. They shambled past Harry. Rupert looked back at Eli and grinned. Eli felt strong and powerful. But this sloth-like early pace was not how he thought the race would unfold. The uncertainty disturbed his concentration. Eli glanced at Harry, holding the watch, ticking off seconds, and he saw the questioning look in his eyes. “Just run your race, Eli,” Harry admonished. “Don’t worry about Rupert.”

They ran at nearly the same pace through the next lap. Eli passed the bleachers for the second time. He was not tired, and fatigue could not account for what he next saw, peering into the dancing columns of mist, the anxious, angry face of his father, urging him on. Tobias wore a black trench coat and fedora and he carried a folded newspaper, which he waved at Eli. Exert yourself, son, he was yelling. Claim the lead. Eli shook his head confusedly as he swept by Harry. “You’re doing fine, Eli,” Harry shouted. “Stay within yourself.”

* * *

Stay within yourself. Eli clung to this phrase, with its connotations of humility, calm strength, and achievement rooted in a kind of earned self-knowledge or self-awareness. As a runner, Eli appreciated the pressures inherent in a race made this practice easier said than done. For instance, in this competition with Rupert, Eli would need to exercise enormous self-restraint and summon a confidence in himself and in his style to avoid falling into the trap of trying to beat Rupert at his own game. He would need to trust that Rupert would tire radically and that he, Eli, would somehow feed upon this loss of energy, Rupert’s loss his gain, resulting in a burst of energy from Eli corresponding to Rupert’s decay. Eli retained focus and held his pace. He trusted. But stay within yourself also resonated with Eli’s judgment on Afrocentrism and the conflict between values of empathy and truth, leaving him troubled and unsatisfied, as it did everyone else.

Eli certainly disliked factual inaccuracies that prevailed in Afrocentric materials. These inaccuracies were rife. He found them irritatingly irresponsible. But even more, Eli found distasteful the concept of history as therapy. He believed truth was more important than any of us as individuals. And that didn’t mean truth was absolute or fixed. History was storytelling, so of course different versions of the story told us different messages about who we are. But merely shaping history to the story we wanted to tell for political or reparational reasons benefited no one.

Eli did not ignore the question, “Whose truth?” He knew winners wrote the history books. He knew American minorities were almost by definition losers based on standard renditions of history as inscribed narrative of predestined triumph – the manifest destiny of the pale king. Victor narratives excluded counterfactuals. Power itself excluded counterfactuals. For these reasons, ideas of intellectual inclusion did make sense. But Eli believed the Diversity Project weakened itself enormously the moment it subordinated legitimate educational and intellectual and social goals to a purblind cornucopia of therapeutic and self-esteem mantras.

“We are dealing with a contradiction that cannot be reconciled,” Eli wrote in the Week-Old Cheddar. “Power shapes and distorts our stories about ourselves. But correcting for this distortion only recreates and reshapes storylines without making them more credible or interesting. The test of a story is if two groups with opposed or different views can accept it, or at least accept most of it.”

So yes, it seemed he was saying to Baseline Essays evangelists, concerning civic matters of race and reparation: Stay within yourself. Earn self-knowledge and self-awareness based on accommodations that even those you view as hostile can essentially hold to be true. Only these “consensus” truths could ultimately offer racially marginalized and beaten-down Americans therapeutic and self-esteem outcomes that made sense and that could endure.

* * *

Eli and Rupert curled the turn, Eli’s impatience pressing hard against him. He had plotted every exigency except this one, the possibility that Rupert might try to outfox him, that Rupert might put defeating Eli above frolicking and showboating. Rupert appeared to be shuffling around the track, but Eli appreciated the significance of the tactics he was using.

To most spectators, probably even to Harry, who knew about racing mostly from the horse track, an image of fluid grace would distinguish middle-distance runners from sprinters like Rupert, an economy of motion and energy spread over the full length of the race. This image of fluidity contributed to the common view of racing as a competition between individuals, an ultimate, definitive measure of speed and endurance. At a mile, Eli knew (as did Rupert), that Eli was the faster of the two. It didn’t matter, though.

Rupert’s restraint, that he was running so far within himself, husbanding his energy for the final lap, demonstrated the overwhelming importance of pace in any race not a sprint. And it had taken Rupert, a sprinter himself, over-muscled and powerful, to reveal this fact clearly to Eli, that most competitive outcomes ultimately depend little upon the speed and endurance of individual runners. In life, as in sport, the fastest runner, the best runner, did not always win. Mastery belonged, instead, to the person who could dictate the pace, the one who could establish the terms under which other runners expended their energy. That runner had the power, was the one who would control the race and its outcome.

With a lap and a half to go, Eli could wait no longer. The first half mile had been not much more than a good workout for either of them, but in the final lap Rupert would own the advantage of enormously superior natural speed. The race would be a quarter-mile sprint after all if Eli didn’t act now. He made his move. They were still on a measured pace, Rupert ten yards ahead playing cat-and-mouse, running as slowly as he could without relinquishing the lead. Eli lengthened his stride and within moments, he had moved up alongside Rupert, adrenalin once again coursing, his confidence now a rising cushion under his feet. He expected to surge by Rupert, to gain a quick, decisive, insurmountable lead. He saw himself flying down the straightaway, past the bleachers, past his father, who would be standing and shouting with pride, past Harry, too, who would excitedly wave him into the final lap of the race.

Eli pulled several yards ahead of Rupert, but as they streaked by Harry, who was clanging an imaginary bell to tell them this was the last lap, Rupert had regained the lead. They were sprinting now, and while Rupert was beginning to tire, he still wouldn’t concede an inch to Eli. Down the backstretch and around the final turn they flew, with Harry shouting, and Tobias indeed now on his feet, but with disappointment twisting his face. Come on, son, don’t let me down again. This is the fourth time. Can’t you get it right? Can’t you get it right? God damn, boy! Are you a fool? And here was Eli, now in the home stretch, running through fire, running through sand, uphill through mud, slogging now, losing momentum, Rupert pulling free in the last 30 yards with a desperate burst, busting past Harry, who flipped the watch off at 4 minutes, 28 seconds. They had run the last quarter in 63 seconds, but Eli had lost the race.

Eli jack-knifed, hands on knees, breathing heavily. Rupert walked by, slapping him on the butt. “You a tough sonofabitch,” Rupert panted. Eli silent, glancing toward the bleachers. He could no longer see his father, of course. He could see two black men in sweatshirts staring down at him, though. Behind them, a rising light from the east showed off lettering and logo on the van’s side panel. Leatherman Tool Group. The taller man meant nothing to Eli. But as the sun now broke fully through the fog, arcing light in sheaves across the tiers of seats, forcing both men to shield their eyes with their hands, Eli noticed the shorter one was Shahid.

* * *

The next morning, with every ounce of insouciance available to him, Eli strolled into his classroom the day after he raced Rupert in November, Shahid was seated in his place at the front of the room, pointedly reading Eli’s essay in the Week-Old Cheddar. Other students were also holding the newspaper and chattering amongst themselves.

Stillness accompanied Eli into the classroom. Black students in the back of the room peered quizzically at him. Blade was rapidly folding a page from the newspaper, small, strong fingers moving like weaving machine shuttles. The Rover Boys rumbled amongst each other, a low guttural shifting of seats and bodies Bear folded into his vast body, brow furrowed. Drew Hypo stretched out his vast body like a becalmed walrus or sea lion, the newspaper lying open upon his belly like a blanket. Flatbush leaned into Fiske Newton, whispering.

Eli seated himself on the table at the front of the classroom, allowing his legs to dangle. “So, you guys saw my little manifesto in the Week-Old Cheddar. What do you think?”

What did they think? Did they think at all? Eli frequently pondered the mental state of the college student, and what most struck him was how much all of these students shared, not what divided them. They were all half-formed and still child-like in their assumptions about and desires from the world. What they wanted the world to give them was simple pleasures, basic opportunities, hope and happiness, satisfactions of the flesh and spirit and mind, in varying combination.

And truly, black students at T. State (even while burdened less than white peers by layers of baby fat and burdened more by environmental stress) shared equally with their white counterparts this adolescent pleasure principle. Shahid excepted, of course. While Eli anticipated a hammering from Afrocentricity champions, he was not entirely surprised by the deference his students showed him, a touching benefit of internal doubt or uncertainty. Of course, in his experience, black youth had been programmed in a sense to accept the Afrocentric perspective as gospel, and to assume those who opposed it were racially motivated. But he also knew this commitment was also more abstract or theoretical than confirmed by fact, and so they looked at Eli expectantly, a real person, their teacher, and not a cardboard Klansman, not fictive output of an overheated imagination.

A tiny paper airplane zipped smartly toward Eli from the back of the room, darting and diving and soaring only inches above the heads of the students closer to the front of the room. The airplane landed on the table where Eli sat and skid smartly to a stop against his briefcase.

“Air mail delivery for the Pro!” Blade chirped. “Open it, man!”

Eli unfolded the airplane. In large block letters, Eli read the word aloud to his students. “REPARE.”

“That’s right, man,” Blade continued. “Reparation. Give us what we’re owed. That’s what this shit is about.”

Fiske Newton raised his hand, shaking his head. He filed a gold-flecked pen in his shirt pocket and folded his hands primly in his lap. “We all know Tracy’s emotional,” he said. “But what I’m sure he’s trying to say is our heritage matters, not just to African-Americans but to all Americans. We are part of this land. By repair, we mean instatement of our contributions and our language traditions into the American canon? Who can object to that? I’m sure that is what Tracy means to say.”

“No Fiske Newton, that ain’t what I mean to say. I mean to say what I said. Reparations is back wages, man, for all the sweat and blood we spilled for the slave master. And for all the sweat and blood we spilled since then. Make it right, man!”

Students laughed and shifted in their chairs. Blade was always good for a smart-aleck remark, but the idea of reparations, which had of course surged and ebbed over time, really since the end of slavery, remained an enormously uncomfortable subject that even many black students were reluctant to touch. Unconsciously, all heads turned toward Shahid. Who did not disappoint.

Shahid set down the newspaper and smoothed his robes and cocked his head at angle to take in both Eli and the rest of the classroom. “Yes,” he said, nodding at Blade. “Make it right.” Then to Eli. “Don’t know who’s feathering your nest, man. Who set you up to write this shit? Cause I know you wouldn’t have the stones to print this if someone didn’t have your back.”

Eli met Shahid’s gaze but said nothing.

“This whole thing about Afrocentricity. Dumb word. White man’s word. I get the positional meaning, and how ghetto pit bulls like Leonard Jeffries want to use the whole Africa thing as a weapon for beating the white man on the head. But Jeffries misses the point. You beat the white man on the head long enough, he’ll agree to your demands. But then he’ll co-opt those demands and become the station agent for making good on them. Then you’re in the white man’s world of negotiation. At that point, white man owns what you thought was yours.”

“What’s your point, Shahid?”

“I’m an engineer, Professor. A civil engineer. A civilized engineer. My people built the Egyptian Pyramids. The Suez Canal. The Aswan Dam. We know power is about construction. Who has the resources to construct bridges and dams and tunnels and canals – the infrastructure of the visible world. Who has the resources to construct ideas – the infrastructure of the invisible world.”

The visible world. Shahid’s concrete imagery – particularly in contrast to the abstract concepts Eli regularly forced the class to wrestle (an exhausting and often irritating endeavor, for all involved) – energized the students. When Shahid paused, they hooted and hollered, with the Que Dog and Flatbush leaping up to step, while Blade T. from his seat kicked his legs high in the air and exulted.

And what Eli noticed, not for the first time, was Shahid’s hold on all students, not simply the African-Americans. After the chaotic scene between Jake Jackson and Blade and Shahid (and Eli) several weeks prior, and after the conclave with African-American students (and Laurel) in Eli’s office later that day, Eli had feared that black-white relations in his class would spiral out of control. Instead, just the opposite seemed to have happened.

Shahid spoke some truth, in some way, that resonated with all students, white, black, and in-between. And remarkably, the impact was less to turn the students against Eli than to simply mute the conflict, almost to render it inconsequential, even while it remained of enormous personal consequence to Eli and Shahid. Again, he had to wonder whether it was simply the resilience or spontaneity for short attention span of youth – a youth, to be sure, that he personally had always less experienced than witnessed among his peers.

Amidst the hoopla, indifferent to the joie de vivre he had incited, Shahid pressed on. “The white man stoops to negotiate with black Americans about the content of their education. He speaks through house niggers like Matthew Prophet, who only knows submission. But education is not something handed to you or doled out like medicine. It is something you take for yourself. You stake your claim to an education. You have property in your education. You don’t lease your education. So yes, Professor. The black man will build his own infrastructure. And yes, it will be Afrocentric, if Afrocentric means constructed on a foundation that makes sense to the black man and that makes power for the black man.”

“Knowledge and power are two separate things, Shahid,” Eli said. Both worthy in their own way. But you destroy both when you mix them.”

Shahid smiled, his eyes hardening. “Yes. A fine description of the perils of race-mixing, Professor. Well, we’re in agreement on the need for purity, at least. But your distinction between knowledge and power is methodological. The white man trains us to assume his perspective is the only perspective. He hides his power behind his truth, his methodologies. You strip away the truth, you disassemble the methodologies, and you expose the power. Which is rooted in the land. Control of land and resources. Control of the physical world. Control of wealth. We Africans will know we are free when we own our own methodologies.”

Satisfied, supremely so, Shahid exhaled and blinked. He turned his gaze from Eli and stared specifically at Fiske Newton, as if to convey some direct message. “So yes, Tracy had it mostly right when he delivered the REPARE message to the Professor by air mail. Give us what we’re owed. But what Tracy surely meant by REPARE was We will take what we’re owed.”


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