Dear Jacq,

By Keenan Norris

You was hella tall for a girl. Beanpole thin, with them highwater jeans and Beverly Hills Polo Club T-shirt and all that trappy, nappy hair, Jacqueline Deveraux, I couldn’t imagine you amongst us. The way you walked, so cautious, barely out the door and already your arms was crossed over chest, like you was bracing yourself for whatever might come next; eyes alive to anything that might be coming after you, a prey animal with eyes at the sides of your head and backside braced for escape.

And what, I wondered, must she think of this new, old place? Where living spaces, apartment doors, porch steps melt into bedrooms and barbershops and beauty salons and homeless sleepers and Mexican tamale stands and so much poverty and flavor? Idn’t it strange? Idn’t it sad? Idn’t it so much humbler here than the words that spill out the mouths of the rappers your daddy, your momma, one of them, maybe, probably both, never let you listen to? You thought you knew us from your television in Temescal, Piedmont, Montclair, Danville. It’s just East Oakland, Rockwood, up the way from where the Warriors once played, right off a freeway, and back on—and away. I ain’t know you from Eve, but I assumed much; firstly that you and kids like you who was supposedly raised so much better, assumed so much about hoodrats like us.

I didn’t realize I had at least as much to learn from you as you did about the hood. But none of that would happen until after the Youth Control did what it did with me and I came back home angry and hustling. So when you peeped me staring at you from across the courtyard, where I sat perched on the closed dumpster lid, just another, human layer of waste, you was frightened or you was disgusted or you just wished you was somewhere else and you turned away. It would be a whole year before I laid eyes on you again.

+

Momma used to riff how black folks always look so young, melanin being the magic trick that it is, we don’t grow old on the outside, we just drop dead one day. But not only did my people look good, no one close to me had had to touch that six feet under type of turf. Even if they caught a heart disease or too much sugar in the blood, my people just outlasted that shit. We was all fititn to live forever, me included, so that day that they bussed me away was the first time I knew what it was to die from the world. Gone went everything Oakland-associated, not just the nasty dirty dangerous parts of the town, but the whole en-tire thing. Now I appreciated how first light came in against the night, warning morning, cracking open the sky one spear of light at a time. During my bid when I sat down and read him and he spoke to me it was from that appreciation that I understood what Homer, who I gotta believe is a hundred poets given one name, meant about dawn, its fingers and roses. And even though when I was first in this motherfucker we call the town I had held it all at a distance, now I knew I would miss our days, the hood rat common things, the parties that ended in rowdy-ass second lines spilt into the street, and the brothers pirating basketball courts with East Bay funk dunks, and the flashy A-rabs in they plush velours, jewelry dripping off necks and wrists as they stood outside they storefronts selling us they dreams.

Dogtown, Jingle Town, Funktown, Chinatown, the Fruitvale and Deep East fell into my sudden past and the present fled off through Durant Square, San Leandro and Hayward and Fremont and Newark, the last names that I knew; and the bus just kept going.

Out there deep in the California countryside, we seen the sky start to turn orange and the sun turn a color between hell and fire. A very serious, official voice came over the intercom tellin us that there was a forest fire about ten miles up the way. It was fittin, the intercom man didn’t put it like that, it was going to become very, very hot and it would stay that way for a while, but no need for concern, we would be out of range of the blaze soon enough.

The bus turned into a straight up oven and we cooked inside that mug. I looked out the window and watched as the sky filled with black flecks of ash that fell like black snowflakes, or what I imagine snowflakes would look like if they was on fire. The whole sky turned dark with smoke. A guard went down the aisle way and snapped shut all the bus’s windows but not before I tasted what I was pretty sure was a cinder. It burned and crumbled into hot dust on my tongue. I put my head back and swallowed it, not really caring no more what would happen to my insides. It went down easier’n I expected, a painless moment, and I closed my eyes and I imagined I was one of them cinders released by fire from the earth to wander the atmosphere, headed somewhere.

+

The California Youth Authority was abolished I don’t know exactly when, but from what I’ve been told, the idea was that juvenile offenders would be quote-unquote “rehabilitated rather than punished.” As I understand it, the Youth Authority was a punishment-based institution which ended its own life with CO-staged gladiator fights, scandals and lawsuits, State Supreme Court hearings. The reformers came in and done purged the whole outfit, po-lice lost they jobs, program directors got they walking papers. Basically, folks got wise to the fact that knockin hard heads in they hard heads wadn’t accomplishing anything but creating more and more super predators, or whatever it is that woman Hillary called us back in the day. Long story short, some kind folks who ain’t left the Obama era got a-hold of baby boy jail in California and renamed that mug Youth Reform, and went about revolutionizing an institution.

Despite the fact that a fully stocked library, meditation sessions and yoga might seem like the last things predatory muhfuckas was made for, that’s exactly what was instituted. Before the Reform, the only time you might see a book was with the bedroll they gave you in solitary. But with the Reform came the books and with the books came enlightenment. Things was going in the right di-rection. But you know and I know we ain’t supposed to have nice things. Right before your boy arrived, a gang of crackers with they heads still stuck on Trump came into power and turned the lights out on all that. No more California Youth Reform, now California Youth Control. Meditation and fresh food was out, while anything that would aid in us not mugging a tourist on the BART train was in. Like, the library was not all the way abolished. We could still hit it up during daytime hours, but the titles was cut back to the basics, textbooks on vocational subjects, a few classics and a handful of revolution-restricted books: Like, no Malcolm, only Martin. No Garvey, only Atlanta Compromising, no La Raza, just los Ustados Unidos. That’s how I started to read Homer, not Socrates, and it’s how I got to know about all the Negro leaders without guns. These was the same texts daddy had dismissed as “boojie Negro handbooks for punkin out till you croak.” I always figured it was the fact that my old man had no college and a big ego and a big brain with no books in it not penned by Iceberg Slim that was the reason he felt the way he did. I mean, you gotta have a damn big pair on you to tell your charcoal-colored child that The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and The Talented Tenth ain’t no more special’n the nigga doing the weather on the evening news. Part of becoming an adult, I think, is learning that mommy and daddy ain’t God, that they’s just folks same as every other mistaken person.

Not that I condemn them for none of it. They was just doing what made sense to them, which was to get by as best they could, not read about doing it. If there was a college degree in Stretching Water and Rice Five Ways, Working for the Post Office and BART and Never Taking Your Kids Nowhere Unfamiliar, Black Americans would have a 100% graduation rate. They couldn’t keep us outta PHDs in Not Learning Spanish and No Other Language, Having Your Ass Inside by Nightfall and Not Fucking with the Same Shit White People Do. My parents didn’t read books cuz books will not save you. Books will not pay the rent. Books will not keep you safe at night. A loaded glock beneath the night stand, however, will, even if it will get you in trouble a different way.

With all the cutbacks, it seemed like all it was to do in the Youth Control was hang out in my cell, read stories, tell stories, and wait to be tested. When someone did get tested and drama did jump off, the COs broke it up by any means necessary and then they locked the whole facility down so wouldn’t be no round 2. Then couldn’t nobody venture freely, even though 99% of us had had nothin to do with the disruption. More cell time. The COs would bring us books while we was locked down if we asked them to. Most brothers probably just threw them shits under they bed and did push-ups instead, but I read and read and the stories stuck with me: Frederick Douglass pledging to fight every man at the docks just for the right to work, Richard Wright by way of an Irishman sneaking books out the Memphis library and into his brain, Harriet Jacobs tellin how after Nat Turner’s rebellion the slave masters got real particular about the love and forgiveness and Jesus part of the Bible. I would read of this or that situation that the author found theyself in and I would try to reason out how I would handle the same set of circumstances, which was way worse’n my circumstances, and in this way I found myself talking with dead men and dead women as much as I did the living dead who populated the Youth Control.

When I was reading the literature, I was safe. It was a whole nother story, Jacq, when I was out the cell and the other inmates was eyeing me, trying to place and label me. I knew it wouldn’t be long till they stopped studying me and started handing out the tests.

He was twenty-three years old, gang-affiliated, and had hubcaps for shoulders, having been locked up in one facility or another since the stone age. I’m pretty sure you coulda fit two of me inside old boy. He was a brother with one of those real righteous African warrior names, not that that matters much: Whoever named him ain’t raise him, I’m sure about that, because as I was walking back to my bunk with my first care package cradled in my arms, I heard heavy footsteps behind me, then a whisper of a voice at my back. “You know a lil nigga like you gon’ get asked for that there.”

I turned around. The care package was nothin special. Honestly, I wadn't even sure what was in it cuz I had yet to open it and my parents never was the type to just lavish me with gifts, especially after I went and fucked up. It’s the thought that counts, or somethin like that— I assumed they’d sent me some shirts and underwear, non-perishable snack food, maybe some music if I was lucky.

I was the opposite of lucky. Just holding the package in my hands and feeling home again was the best part, not the gifts. I just wanted to feel home in my hands and here this dude was wanting me to hand over what little I still possessed. I wanted to tell him no, so, lacking impulse control and whatnot, that’s exactly what the fuck I did: “NO,” I blurted out, which surprised me. The word came hoarse and raw. I surprised myself, to be honest. For a long second, me and him just stood there looking at each other. I could tell he was surprised, too. Here was this skinny little kid, not even a gang banger, just a regular kid who happened to end up in juvie somehow, going head up against a fully grown gangster of a juvenile delinquent. What’s up with this one? Don’t this lil kid know any better? he probably wondered.

He hesitated. His hand, which was already outstretched to snatch the package from me, hung there in the air like a dead tree limb fittin to fall on top of me. I was thinkin the same thing he probably was, which was, what the fuck is this kid thinkin? When the stick-up man asks you for your things, you give them to him and go the other way. Live to fight another day, as they say.

I don’t remember what happened next, who unfroze first, me or him, or whether he snatched my package or whether I handed it to him. I don’t think it matters. All I remember is the weight that I felt press against my empty palms as I walked back to my bunk. The package was gone but I still felt it there, all the weight and whatever else of home and homesick sadness— I climbed in my bed and put the covers over me and still my hands wouldn’t let me be. I ran them through what was left of the separation at my scalp: I could still feel the difference between the two sides even with my hair cut low. Still anxious, I started doing things with my fingers, contortions of triangles, circles and cubes. I don’t like building things in real life, never been much with my hands. But I started stackin like the gang kids stacked, one sign, one crew, then another and another. I discovered that I could stack whole houses, massive architecture, whole nations of gang sets. It’s strange how you pick up certain things just from hanging around and half-noticing the world around you and don’t even know that you know all this stuff even though it’s right there for you hovering in the darker corners of your mind. The stacking finally did the trick. Building a world by hand is hard. I got tired and teary-eyed. My hands started to shake and my mind drifted away.

+

I was visited. Daddy peppered me with questions. How was I doin? I was OK— not dead. Was anyone messin with me? Nah. Did I like the comics they sent? They could send different ones if those wadn’t my favorites. I liked the comics in the care package just fine, I said. What about the candy? You ain’t let it get stale, did you? Nah, I ate it all. Were the guards civil? Yeah, no problems so far. Was I exercising? Was I reading? Was I depressed? Was I X? Y? Or Z? I’m good, I lied. Ain’t no problems, I told them. I just have to keep my head down and serve out my bid. No lasting harm will come to me, I assured. I could tell momma was verging on tears, but she kept them inside her eyelids. She is not the one to tell the world that she’s hurting. None of us is. Stand up, daddy commanded. I flinched. You heard me, boy. Stand up. And lift up yo’ shirt. What? You heard me, Cope. I heard him so I did as I was told. I raised up my shirt so he could see for hisself that no one had cut or in no other visible way abused his boy. But it’s so many ways to be hurt and most of them ways you cain’t see. I heard the way his voice relaxed and it was then that I realized the fear that had been hiding in him all along.

+

Not everybody there was out to hurt me. Matter-fact, most them boys didn’t want no problems. There was DeMichael, who I’ma get back to later, who made all kinda problems, but not intentionally. And there was Miguel, who was beautiful, may he rest in peace, who had not a drop of violence in him, even if his blood did get shed. And this one and that one and the other, Jacq, I could go on for days about the complicated complected children of the Youth Control. There was even a white boy, Larry, who was designated my cellmate and who I got along with despite all the rules written and unwritten.

The segregation of inmates was another area where reforms had reformed the reformers: Apparently, in the days of the Youth Authority race relations was Jim Crowed badder’n a Birmingham bus before the boycotts. Going to the pen was like getting drafted into the military except instead of fighting for America, you had to fight for your race be it black or Mexican or white or the Others. There was no personal choice in the matter, just get to scrapping based on skin color. Then the Reform came through like MLK and Obama combined, had people of different races and rival gangs living in the same cell, like alliances and disputes wadn’t shit. And that wadn’t too smart— I won’t go into the delinquent details such as was explained to me. With the Youth Control taking over, now the new hype was “limited integration based on past data.” What had been shown to work to keep kids and officers safe while also “decreasing racial and gang tensions” would be “implemented as policy effective immediately.”  For example, the “newly processed inmates without gang affiliated data,” prime squares like yours truly, might bunk with those of a different race, while them that had such affiliated data was placed back under Jim Crow. 

Larry had a lighter sentence’n even I did, which was probably a complexion related compensation cuz this boy had actually put his hands on folks whereas your Cope had never been in a fight in his slightly sheltered life. But the nigga was cool even still. Larry was in the Youth Control for gettin kicked out every public school in his little white bread town, usually after a fight or two that left someone hurt. That sorta thing was enough to get you locked up if you did it enough, but in amongst all the kid criminals in California, most of whom could claim gangs, guns or drugs on they rap sheet, Larry’s crimes wadn’t all that worrying. What I liked about Larry, other than that he was one of the few white niggas in the Youth Control, making America a little more equal every day he was incarcerated, was that he was entertaining.

When they had us on lock-down, which was most of the time, even my reading had its limits: I ain’t Malcolm, I cain’t read 24/7. Fortunate for me, Larry had him a gang of stories to tell, stories for days. That boy; he told me bout secret orange grove opium farms and meth lab explosions, red-eyed rednecks and they rifles (which Larry said he used only for hunting, explaining to me how to endanger an eagle at any distance), and fishing trips on the water by hisself out in the middle of nowhere when the world was just trees and blue sky and a warm sun.

“Ain’t nothin better, Cope. I swear to you. One day when all this is over and we’re grown, you and your wife are gonna come visit me on the land I buy and we’ll have a cookout or somethin. You’ll get to appreciate country life, the natural world. You might even decide to move outta Oakland.” Other times, though, his mood was sadder. “Where I’m from is a dying place, Cope. It’s all meth and oxy addicts back home. People are either taking it to get high or they're making it and selling it. That’s why the only way most of us leave is by prison or that pine wood.”

Really, Larry’s decrepit-ass farm country sounded a whole lot like the so-called inner-city. And sure enough by the time I was finishing up my bid, a few handfuls of white boys had been dropped into the Youth Control.

Of course one of them peckerwoods just had to show his ass and his ignorance, which only required that he get his hands on a writing utensil: NIGERS GO BAK TO AFRIKKA, with one G, he wrote on a wall in the kitchen. Wadn’t even educated enough to put three Ks in Africa. Racism don’t correlate to intelligence.

That incident aside, though, most of them white boys was cool, or at least not no worse’n the complected kids who was locked up in that mother. They came to us from Turlock and Hemet, Bakersfield and Blythe, but they hometowns and the color of they skin didn’t mean much: They wadn’t different from us when it came down to it, hard luck, bad decisions, bad breaks, diagnosed disruptive, or retarded, now expelled, medicated and incarcerated and segregated inside a facility where everyone was scared of everyone else even though we was really just one hurting child with however many different bodies, different faces, different names.

+

DeMichael was the only inmate besides myself who made the library a regular part of his routine. Unlike me, DeMichael did not spend his time in the library constructively. He didn’t read a single thing, just sat in a far corner drawing pictures on blank sheets of paper and literally twiddling his thumbs. When I think back on it, I realize all’s he was doing was the same thing the staff constantly encouraged us to do: Conflict resolution and tension reduction. DeMichael was reducing and resolving tensions and conflicts by staying out the way of everyone he had beef with, biding his time amongst books.

I knew he remembered me from the neighborhood. But DeMichael made a point of keeping his distance from me as well. And then one day out the blue he came and sat down beside me. Our shoulders bumped into one another and I sank back a little. He gestured at the book I was reading, Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. It was the kinda superficially safe book the Youth Control allowed us. I flipped to the title page and showed him: Up From Slavery.

“You could write the sequel, call it Back Down in that Motherfucker. I never thought I’d see you in here, family.” DeMichael’s voice boomed through the room. “You was always so nice and well-behaved.”

“They put me in day school on the island, then the judge got his back up and sentenced me here.”

“That’s how they do. They don’t care about us, blood.”

I told DeMichael some of Booker T. Washington’s history of founding Tuskegee University and keeping white people happy and such and he told me more about his history. Once upon a time when he was an even younger youth, he got locked up and then he fucked up and stomped out some kid for ganking care packages from fellow inmates. DeMichael went all violent Robin Hood sticking up for the kids who couldn’t stick up for theyselves. But what he was unaware of was that the thief was stealing for a gang, not for hisself. When the gang went for revenge, didn’t nobody stick up for DeMichael. Ever since then, my man had had no friends in the pen. “Don’t try and do good deeds for people here— just stay to yo’self, family. Real talk, blood: You just wanna lay low. Get this down time over with. But if someone do test you, you gotta let ‘em know. It’ll probably happen sooner or later.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. Most likely. If all you got when it do go down is these books, you won’t be prepared.”

“A gang member already stole my care package,” I confessed.

“And I’m not gettin it back for you.” DeMichael laughed loud as a car stereo. His shoulders rose and fell like the green blips that mark the rise and fall of treble and bass. Between the laughter and the straining sounds made by everything he leaned on, DeMichael was a sound system his damn self. His chair was crying with all that up and down of treble and bass. You know,” he said after a second, “it’d be smart for a smart nigga like you to learn to fight.”

The next time we met in the library, DeMichael was ready to teach. Problem was, I was an unprepared student. “Now, now,” he said, “for starters, see how yo feet is, you never gon keep balance standin like a ramrod, family. Loosen the fuck up.”

His voice took on a different tone. Like a teacher talks, like he expected to command my attention. I listened as he talked me through the repositioning of my terrified body, then slow and patient, he led me through the basics of how not to get hurt, starting with my breath. A couple years later in a private school on the other side of Oakland, I’d take an acting class where the teacher went on and on about our diaphragms and cycles of breath and all that good stuff. It made more sense coming from DeMichael, how if a fight seemed about to jump off I would have to breathe deep into the scared places, the heart, the jaw, the shoulders. He had me breathing and settling into myself and standing balanced and sure and then he swung on me right in the middle of the library, I guess to put his lesson to the test. I ducked what was actually an intentionally wide, weak right cross, tucking quick, and came back up staring at him calmer than I knew I could get.

“That’s right. Always keep yo eyes open,” DeMichael counseled.

I looked over at the library supervisor, an ash and olive colored cat who looked like death eating a burrito. He was actually eating a burrito. He looked up at us with tired, drooping eyes. Neither me nor DeMichael was bleeding. I figured that he figured that that meant that he was doing his job cuz he went back to ignoring us and eating his burrito.

I looked back to DeMichael. “What was that?

“Just me wonderin if you was payin attention, blood.”

“All’s you been teachin me how to do is breathe and stand.”

“That’s where it starts, family.” He began to circle me, left to right, right to left, and then taught me how to walk like the newborn I was, “Like this, like this, not like that, like this, side to side, slide, slide. Now if he’s coming sidestep, don’t be fallin back like a bitch. Break his rhythm, come forward, flick out that left, just flick it, you got long arms. Ain’t about hittin nothin, it’s about that distance.” He showed me how to confuse a boy’s feet, how to fuck up punching angles, how never to give up somethin unless I was gettin somethin back for it, and only later to let my hands fly. Like I said, DeMichael Quantavius Chesnutt Bradley was a born teacher.

“And if all else fails, family,” DeMichael told me, dapping me up at the end of our lesson, “just get you a weapon. Don’t buy it off of none of these jokers, though.” He gestured in all four di-rections, which I took to include everybody in the Youth Control, and he laughed loud as car stereo speakers. “Anybody dumb enough to hand over they weapon’s prolly too dumb to wash it.  Don’t wanna get AIDS off a blade while you in here.”

+

One of my best inmate traits happened to be my willingness to follow rules: I made my bed, I kept things clean, didn’t carry no contraband and never cussed at the COs. All this was notated day to day for three-hundred sixty-five days straight in the log book which they kept on me. They kept a log like that for every inmate. But while other kids had they logs full of infractions, the only issue they had on me was my clinical depression: To which I say, of course I was depressed. 100% of the boys up in there was clinical depressed. It was like sayin someone in college had earned they high school diploma. I bet if you put the warden and the COs on the psychiatrist couch, they’d come up depressed too. Every single person inside that institution was a depressive either by nature or nurture. Where I had the other depressives beat was in the details: I followed the rules to the best of my ability, which was considerable, best of all being I was on time for everything, every bed check, every cell search, every meal, which meant I was always first in line for lunch, which meant I grubbed pretty good in lock-up and put on weight till I was broad and strong, rocked-up like that river in Los Angeles. But it also meant I wadn’t woke to what was going on behind my back till it was too damn late. “DeMichael’s boy.” His voice rasped into my ear like a thousand years of weed smoke.

“My name’s Cope.”

“Nah, it’s DeMichael’s boy. You that faggot’s boy. You a faggot.”

I knew he was right behind me. I weighed my options. Now, it’s a lotta talk about how in jail you cain’t let nobody punk you, this, that and the third. I cain’t speak for big boy jail, but in the Youh Control that’s a flat myth: I was punked plenty times and came out the other end unraped and undead. I didn’t really care that this future felon was pulling my card. The reason I turned on him and put my chest straight into his chest was cuz of what he was sayin, or at least damn near sayin, bout DeMichael.

The boy didn’t budge a step. We stood there face to face, chest to chest.

“Don’t speak on DeMichael. He’s a good dude.”

“Where’s the good dude now?”

I wadn’t bout to look around for DeMichael. He never ate with the inmates at lunchtime. Everyone knew that. The boy was just wanting to distract me so I would leave myself open to be assaulted.

“He’s my friend,” I said, my eyes right where they needed to be. “Fuck outta here.”

I made my move quicker’n a hiccup, shoulder rolling away from the force of the boy’s first blow just like DeMichael had instructed the smaller man should do. I felt the right cross coming and ducked it. I had seen this boy Shawn Barnes beat the dog shit outta other inmates, shit he was to blame for a good 50% of the time they had the facility in lock down. I had seen him fight enough to know he wanted to get his hands around my neck and then start in with the knees to the stomach and other brutality. I stayed low and drove into Shawn at his waist and rose up with old boy on my back and for the first time I felt like a superhero. He was caught mid-move, in the middle of lunging at me, so when I lifted him it was really his own momentum that did the lifting and flinging, even though to the untrained eye it mighta looked like I effortlessly tossed him over my shoulder and into the table and chairs behind us. I heard the crash of his fall and the oooohs and oh shits of the other boys. I turned and looked at him lying there, looking broken, and I considered jumping on him, damaging him with slashing punches that would trademark his face. But that was too much. I knew I didn’t have it in me to hurt no one like that. 

Then the COs, who could be downright neutral when things was tranquilo, turned into riot cops. Arms locked together and moving in formation, they tear gassed us. The smart kids had cigarettes stashed in they socks and put them shits in they nostrils to filter out the fumes. The rest of us dummies cried for our mothers and hit the floor, gaggin and chokin. I just stood there watching kids crawl toward the bathroom. Then someone rabbit punched me in the back of the head and I went down hard, chest-first. I could hear the officers behind me herding people by race and gang affiliation into separate corners. I crawled for the bathroom and had almost made it when someone grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me back and climbed right over me. I took a knee to the head as he scrambled into the bathroom. Then another, heavier dude took the same route right across my spine. I checked to make sure I wadn’t paralyzed and kept crawling. My head contacted someone’s shoe and I scaled over them like was done to me and then I finally wedged the bathroom door open one finger at a time. At least three of my fingers, I later found, got bruised black and blue from people slamming the door on them as I tried to claw my way in. It was like an evil rock climbing game where the climbers decide to push each other down the fuckin mountainside instead of helping each other make it to the peak.

Jacq, what I’m bout to tell you is a kiddie prison thing that don’t nobody like to talk about. As inmates we never even spoke on it amongst each other. It was too stupid, too gross, too degrading. Inside the bathroom, kids was throwing hands like straight razors, aiming for vital organs, trying to clear a path to the toilet so they could take a dunk in the same place where we all took our shits. I was afraid I would end up in a stand-up fistfight with a kid with sharp eyes who seen me throw Shawn and knew what I would try. I didn’t really have no back-up plans. I decided not to fight. I kept low, put my head down and scrambled toward the toilet. Right as I came within reach of the lid, I head butted the backside of a boy with hubcaps for haunches. I went down once again, face planting into a hundred years of bathroom bacteria. The tear gas snaked underneath the door and made me weep just for breathing. I got up gagging and put a shoulder into the boy’s ass and was knocked back again by the wall that was old boy’s butt. This was not the ass of a teenage inmate, I realized. This was the ass of a twenty-somethin asshole who ganked little kids’ care packages. An object fell from the waistband of his jumpsuit and clinked on the ground. I looked down and it glinted up at me thru the waves of gas: A spearheaded plastic tool.

I picked up the shank and knifed him, driving the tool into his ass. Motherfucker jumped out the way, his face dripping with toilet water. He was blinking, trying to see what happened behind him. He kept blinking and blinking and blinking blindly. I tossed the tool aside and leapt for the toilet. The relief was instant.

Jacq, you remember the scene in Malcolm X where the cops come for Malcolm on larceny charges? He’s at the barbershop, gettin his conk. I think Shorty Spike Lee is the one cuttin heads, matter-fact. Anyway, Denzel’s got lye all in his hair and the shit’s burnin like a mug so he runs into the bathroom and puts his head in the shitter to ease the pain and then you hear “Nigger, get your head out of the toilet.” It’s the po-lice. Shorty’s cuffed and in a minute they both bout to be in blues. Well, in my situation my head’s in a gotdamn toilet and it’s COs in gas masks that make they voices sound like Lucifer on lithium. They barkin at me to get my head out the goddamnn toilet. Total chaos. Only difference is that unlike in Malcolm’s day, now behind they masks most of the COs is black and brown dudes from the same hoods that the inmates is from so nobody calls anybody a nigger.

+

The facility went on lock-down for a week solid and shit went quiet. We was all sentenced to our book and bedroll. I awaited my individual penalty. I recall like a bell rang in the darkness the letter momma sent me during that quiet time. From Oakland, she wrote how daddy’s old lady in L.A. had sent them a newspaper clipping and a photograph in a manila envelope. The news piece announced that the body of his estranged eldest son had been located deceased in one of the homeless camps that littered the city. The toxicology would take weeks to come back, but the camp where he was found was known as an open-air drug market filled with the mentally ill, the formerly incarcerated. Overdoses was common as colds. He was your half-brother, momma wrote. When daddy got the news, she reported, he just waved it away, said he wadn’t gonna talk about it, that he would find the money and travel down for the funeral by hisself, that his son’s addiction and estrangement was a long story without no real answers, just a gang of issues. I think momma knew not to press him bout it. It wadn’t really her business, nor mines, she wrote. Daddy wadn’t no deadbeat. His financial obligations was fulfilled. This son of his was an adult by law at least.

The photograph his mother sent was cut from some other source, maybe a school yearbook, maybe a family picture. I thought about the woman cutting herself out the picture and sending the remains to us. The dead young man was just a normal-looking young man with thin but broad shoulders, like mines, big starving eyes on a hard dark face like mines. He was the color of shadows. He looked like me. I won’t lie and make a drama where wadn’t none in reality: Our uneven crew cuts was the same, our strong jaw was the same jaw, his face was my face just a few years maturity and exile apart, but the brother couldn’t haunt me if his ghost tried. I didn’t know him from Adam. His image only made me want to know the man who connected us across mothers, across time and blood and death. There was so much I wanted to ask daddy. I wanted to know about his life before my life, all the years he had piled up on the earth before me and what it had made him into and what it was he wanted for me. But I never did ask. My questions wadn't innocent little things, Jacq, I wanted to know him. But I didn’t, not really. Who was he? Why was his love so peculiar, parsed out like relief money if the relief only came when you ain’t really need it? I imagined sweat cuttin roads down his bald head, down the sides of his face, and the muscle between his thumb and forefinger bulging up and down on rhythm like a heart beat exposed to the world.

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Poetry by Cynthia Cruz

Excerpts from Goliad 1.2

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from Richard Burgin's upcoming collection, A Thousand Natural Shocks

Goliad Press, 2018

 

 

The Follower

By Richard Burgin

Freddie Flowers has had another heart attack, or as they might say today “he experienced a severe challenge to his heart space.” I heard about it on TV while I was crawling on my floor on the way to my bathroom.

                  But really, why was I thinking so much about him? Had I been dreaming about him in the middle of the night or half-watching his talk show where he regularly parades a bevy of famous and sometimes quasi-erudite guests who then engage in an endless gabfest about their latest movie or discovery about the brain?

                  Unlike me, Flowers is a master of self-control and should anything begin to get even the slightest bit heated, he astutely backs away with impeccable control like a graduate student in an argument with his professor who first wants to show off, but suddenly realizes his professor’s appreciation is rapidly turning to anger, and so he drops his argument, often with a clever joke. Of this Freddie was an absolute master and was able to make use of the technique for the duration of his career.

                  Freddy Flowers was born in a small Midwestern town, the kind of place that grows Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett. He was a tall, dark, lean all-American boy who grew into an all-American man with looks that fell just short of a leading man in the movies. Freddy knew how to marry well, too.  His first wife was a wealthy diplomat’s daughter. His second – more directly helpful, was the daughter of a network television producer. I will say he never hyped his own products much, but then according to Wikipedia, he never published a book – an area in which I actually exceeded him.

Yes, we were in fact classmates in the same graduate program at Columbia, where I both admired and criticized him – in my mind that is, as I talked little to or about him to anyone, especially my fiancé, who already seemed dangerously impressed by him. It is highly unusual in the age of memoirs for him not to have authored one himself. Why should someone like Flowers, who ostensibly knew everyone of note in the Western world, (he was still working on the East,) not write about people when he could get them on his show, and in essence consume them?

                  In addition to perhaps being the most widely respected talk TV host, he was also the least controversial. Watching him became de riguer despite his embarrassing dilettantism in virtually every subject and because his other worldly social skills more than made up for it – to the point where he was not only the most nearly perfect TV talk show host, he was perhaps the most perfect American man of his generation, a liberal by all accounts, yet never one who espoused a controversial liberal cause, like say “Black Lives Matter.”

                  I am crawling to the bathroom in the dark because I lack the strength to stand up and do it. I still haven’t figured out how to successfully use the plastic portable urinal I was given by Tamara, or Lady T, my caretaker.  She’s a tall, strong black woman from St. Louis, a little overweight, but in all the right places. Outside of being too bossy at times, I have essentially fallen in love with her and told her so many times. She says she just wants to be friends, but lets me touch her briefly from time to time in special places, making a combination joke/reprimand while I do it. Realistically, she’s about thirty years younger than me and our backgrounds are too different. I am an academic novelist manqué, she a caregiver who doesn’t read literature, probably watches Real Housewives reality TV shows and has no interest in the arts. Of course, I barely do now either. I lost virtually all interest in reading years ago.

                  “I’m a shopper,” she proclaims proudly, so sometimes I give her an extra hundred dollars or so to buy herself a little something. When she returns from her shopping excursion, an incredible childlike smile lights up her face and she hugs me back a few seconds longer than usual and once even let me kiss her twice on the neck.

                  When she leaves I miss her terribly. I must confess despite my age I’m suffused by fantasies of all the things I want to do to her, all the places where I want to kiss her. What finally pulls me out of this world of imagined pleasure, of course, is the realization that because of my neurological illness my penis is now quasi-dysfunctional, and much of my time, I’m trying to find ways I could hide it from her if we ever tried to make love.

                  I stub my toe again as I crawl out of my room towards the bathroom. When I was a kid, crawling was fun, the way hide-and-go-seek was once fun, whereas now it’s more like Russian roulette, especially when I try to walk. Falling is the number one cause of death for people with Parkinson’s.

                  I cannot picture Freddy crawling. I picture him only getting in and out of black limousines. We were at the same program at Columbia grad school yet I’m crawling in the dark and he has his own driver, I’m sure. I know his Wikipedia page says he came from a working class family, but I don’t believe it.  His hands look uncalloused, his face almost anxiety-free, and his hair incredibly thick, considering his age, which is actually the same as mine. I realize now that his show is on while I’m crawling. I can hear him talking in his dulcet, considered voice – because I often watch his show as part of my sleep ritual, (otherwise I would have to talk to myself.) All this explains a lot though it leaves me with the fact that I am crawling in an effort to get to the toilet before I piss my pajamas while he is making ten thousand dollars every time he says a sentence on TV.

                  I guess I’m lucky that I never knew him well as a fellow student; in fact I instinctively avoided him during my years at Columbia. If we were friends, he would probably have slept with my eventual wife or at least with one of my girlfriends. In either case they would have had a lifelong secret crush on him. It’s absurd to be jealous of a man with no talent. It’s even more absurd to be jealous of someone so completely lacking in global vision and compassion, who despite his wealth, gave so minimally to charity, and even then primarily to his own foundation.

I secretly harbored some acting ambitions myself, more secret than my writing ambitions, for which I somehow published just enough to eventually get tenure at my second-rate college but left behind, a resume dominated by two novels that were equal failures like two identically failed twins.

                  I’m now about equidistant from my bedroom and the bathroom. For a moment I’m not sure which is my immediate past and which is the future. Faulkner thought that everything was past – the past was, is, and will be. No one can dispute that as soon as we think of it, the present becomes the past. But where is the future? Doesn’t it too exist only when it’s in the past? Until then isn’t it really more like imaginary time than time itself?

                  It’s been over six years since I’ve had my disease, which no doubt influences my thinking. There’s no question that it’s diminished my capacity to remember my life chronologically, which isn’t completely a curse. The older I get, the less I trust chronological time – the time of clocks and calendars. How foolish it seems, what an endless lake of illusion. Chronological time is to real time what clothes are to the naked body. Its purpose is to hide real time just as clothes exist to cover our naked, helpless flesh.

                  At certain points you hit your saturation with doctors and just can’t bear the process of getting dressed, then undressed, sitting or standing (equally painful,) while you wait, filling out the same forms over and over, tired of trying yet another drug that doesn’t reduce nerve pain because nothing does.

                  When I went with Tamara at first it was better because I had her company, and because there were rewards. She would hold my hand and in so doing let me dream. All of this to explain why I haven’t done anything about my cataracts. My brain, my penis, and my eyes, in no particular order, are the three areas I won’t let doctors do surgery on, although I did have a radical prosectomy, but I was knocked out for the whole time. Tamara wasn’t working for me then. A witch named Wendy removed (ripped off) my catheter.

                  I was an only child. Perhaps feeling some guilt for my sometimes lonely childhood, my father would take me to a ball game, or when he was younger, take me skating or sledding more than he might have. Even so, at school or at the park I would occasionally fantasize that some bigger kid three or four years older than me was my brother. That I merely had to tap his shoulder and he would turn and immediately recognizing me as his brother.

                  This feeling gradually dissipated as I got older, until I enrolled at Columbia’s graduate school in English and occasionally felt those fraternal yearnings, imaginary though they all turned out to be when I looked at and listened to the deep tones of Flowers, the most naturally charming man I’d ever seen, (as if his charm were a sweater he pulled over himself every day). Finally, when I could stand it no longer, I invented a reason to talk to him. He did all the right things though I had kind of ambushed him in the locker room after a softball game. I might have observed a nanosecond of irritation, but after that he gained immediate control and reassembled all the temporarily disrupted parts of his face and personality, like a top of the line, impeccably programmed computer.

                  I stub my toe again, but I still lack the strength to stand up, especially in the dark with every light switch out of reach. Crazy things go through your head when you get on all fours. It’s like going back in time when our species first established itself on earth. Before that, who knows? Maybe we did our first crawling in our mother’s wombs. I told this to Tamara once when I tried to touch her as if by accident, and she agreed with me. (If only she agreed to my other ideas about us.) All of this means that Freddie Flowers once had to crawl in darkness too, though I wouldn’t be shocked if he found a way to wear a shirt by Ralph Lauren while he was in there crawling.

                  It’s in the nature of man to think that if he just had the opposite of one thing in his life, everything would be different, better. A brotherless boy wants a brother, (as I did), a girl vice versa. Nearly every couple at some point thinks they might be happier if married to someone else. Even big-hearted, strong-willed, God-fearing Tamara did. She sometimes would reminisce about a beau from the past. And I of course, had Freddie Flowers.

                  Flowers alone seemed completely comfortable in his world ,which more than anything else might have been the ultimate key to his emcee success. I heard that Flowers hates to be called an emcee. To have someone on his educational TV show call him that is an insult. But, once again he needn’t have worried – no one ever called him an “emcee” or anything close to it. People looked at his Yves Saint Laurent suit and tie and saw his $300 haircut, which I’m sure the network paid for anyway, and thought this man is far above the emcee level. He is at minimum a pundit, and even that doesn’t do him justice, even that is like using the word “colored” when you should use “people of color.” The difference is slight on one hand but immense and unforgiveable on the other.

                  But the issue of Freddie’s name, or title to be precise, didn’t go away as easily as he hoped. Other hosts from other news shows on rival networks were being called “analysts” or “hosts” as well. It wasn’t always easy for Freddie to win the battle for respect, but on one especially lucky day an elderly woman skating in Rockefeller Center slipped on the ice and had to have her hip replaced. Freddie was holding and comforting the woman as the cameras shot away. Even I liked him for that, for a few days until I realized he was being given a Good Citizen of the Year Award, and within six months leapfrogged “emcee”, “pundit”, or even “analyst”, straight to Flowers just like Dylan and Madonna ascended into Hollywood’s one word status.

                  By now I’ve been crawling and resting, then crawling again for fifteen minutes. As I heard the slick, pseudo-jazz theme that ended his show I thought that at least I wouldn’t think of Flowers anymore. I’d wasted enough time doing that and all because his show happened to be on when I fell asleep. I always have the television on when I attempt to sleep and still know of no better remedy for insomnia than one small glass of vodka mixed with an all-night dose of CSPAN. When I’ve asked other people how they get to the promised land of sleep they often cite CSPAN as well, although a number of them also cite Freddie Flowers, which naturally puts a smile on my face. I never tell them, of course, that I knew him at Columbia, that I probably had a lunch or two with him, that he showed no particular intellectual ability in class, and that we may have dated the same woman, perhaps even the woman who became my wife.

                  I’ve told Lady T about my special connection to Flowers but she was unimpressed.

                  “Sounds like you didn’t know him that well, that he didn’t really have much to do with your life, so you’re wasting your time thinking about him now.”

                  I looked at her and it occurred to me that Freddie probably never had slept with a black woman and probably never even had a black friend who wasn’t in show business.

                  “If you’d go out with me I wouldn’t think about him anymore.”

                  “We can go out to a restaurant as buddies. But you want more than that.”

                  “That’s true. I love you, is that a crime?”

                  “You need to meet more people. I’m the only one you talk to. That ain’t right. When’s the last time you had a girlfriend?”

                  “I don’t remember time like I used to.”

                  “Why don’t you call her again?”

                  “She’s very busy.”

                  “You’re not – since you retired you could see her again.”

                  “I would rather see you. You’re the only person I love.”

                  “You love my booty is more like it.”

                  “I love every inch of you.”

                  “I already told you I’m a sick woman. I don’t do sex with anybody no more.”

                  “You couldn’t be as sick as me. How could you take care of me if you were?”

                  “Cause I have to.”

                  “I’ve told you many times I’ll take care of you.”

                  “Not the way I was raised. I told you that. I’m a Christian, I shouldn’t even let you talk to me this way, much less let you touch me all over the place.”

                  “How else can I express my love?” That made her laugh.

                  “I do love you, just keep your hands away from my cooter, deal? And my butt too, while you’re at it.”

                  “But you laughed and seemed to like it.”

                  “Don’t go pryin’ into my mixed up emotions. I haven’t had sex in three years. And I’m not starting with you.”

                  “But you said you love me.”

                  “I do love you, I’m not taking that back, but just as a friend. I want you to be my buddy. I’m a sick woman. I got damaged nerves like you. Sex would just hurt me. I don’t want none of that anymore. Professionally friends, or friends. Those are your choices. You decide.”

                  I actually did think long and hard about it. When you’re a cripple, “thinking”, which is mostly just remembering, becomes your chief way of spending time. I thought of my ex-wife Zoe the most, oddly enough since we’d been divorced over twenty years, and the second most, my basically failed career as a novelist, then as a journalist, then as an academic the next most, in that approximate order. I thought how I had always wished I had a brother, though a sister would have been nice too.

                  “You need to see your friends more,” Tamara correctly observed. I thought of my death a lot and sometimes when I had to crawl I thought of suicide and remembered my father’s observation: “When you’re dead, you don’t even know you’re dead.”

                  The next time Tamara was washing my dishes I walked up to her and said “I’m ready to be your friend.” Immediately she shut off the faucets.

                  “Thank you,” she said, giving me a heartfelt hug.

                  “Thank you,” I said, turning my body away to hide my erection.

                  In the weeks ahead I kept trying to treat her as a friend, though she could have had me anytime she wanted. Meanwhile her client list grew and I saw her only twice a week in the afternoon and sometimes it was just a trip to the supermarket and back. Gradually she became like a fading song whose melody, however, could still break your heart.

                  It’s safe to say that Freddie Flowers had never met anyone like Tamara, much less got to kiss her on the neck. A shiver runs through me. It is dangerous to think of Flowers in the middle of the night. It’s somewhat akin to thinking of suicide. I shut my eyes tightly and the next thing I know I was in an audition room sitting beside Freddie Flowers. He was wearing a beautiful light blue linen suit and a yellow silk tie. It was obvious from his unforced but confident smile that he knew, that we both knew, he was going to get the job. The interview was just a formality.

                  I looked at him more directly than I should have until he noticed me, probably assuming I was some star struck fan, or else another gay man visually in love with him. I had long ago figured out that he occupied the fantasy lives of at least as many gay men as he did women.

                  His eyes were already off me. The door to the audition room was open and his name was called. He rose from his chair and in his typical stately yet natural stride, turned his back to me and walked towards it. Suddenly I got up from my chair and ran towards him. He looked slightly concerned and raised his left eyebrow.

                  “You can help me,” I said. “Tell them how talented I am as an actor and as a writer. You have to Freddie, I’m your brother.”

                  “I’m afraid you want much more than being my brother,” he said, turning to walk through the door that slammed shut and locked behind him.

                  Later, after I’d agreed to just be Lady T’s friend, I told her about my dream.

                  “Millionaires and TV stars. You have a pretty wild dream life.”

                  “But it’s not a fantasy life, not completely. Remember I knew Freddie Flowers. We were in the same seminar at Columbia.”

                  “I hear you. You talk about him all the time.”

                  “I do?”

                  “The last time you told me that you only knew him a little, that you only talked three or four times. Then you keep telling me stories where you talk a lot. So which is it – you can’t know him a little and a lot.”

                  We both laughed. Then she suddenly snapped her fingers. “A month or two when I first started working for you, you used to tell me about this famous British actor you knew.”

                  “I know no British actor,” I said.

                  “Check that. He was American but he moved to England. He was a director too. Kevin…”

                  “Oh yes,” I said rather casually. “It was Kevin Spacey.”

                  “That’s right, Kevin Spacey. H’s the star of House of Cards isn’t he?”

                  “Yes, he is but that was an entirely different kind of situation.”

                  “How’s that?”

                  “I never really knew him.”

                  “But you told me you did.”

                  “I would have liked to have known him. That’s what must have confused you. Whereas, with Flowers I know him but I wished I didn’t.

                  “That sounds confusing honey.”

                  “I’ve had a pretty confusing life,” I said, and laughed again.

***

Many times when Tamara left me to go to her own home (which I never saw), I’d think of an oversized raindrop hitting the sidewalk, a clear sign of things to come, since often it would start to rain. I headed home by taxi, turning down a ride from T, because I didn’t want our perfunctory hug and kiss in the car that made me sad, angry, frustrated, and then sad again.

                  I thought I would think about her as I walked home, but instead I thought about Kevin. On one level it is certainly foolish to follow a human being. Even hiring a detective to do it reveals a certain weakness and lack of judgement on the client’s part. In my case, of course, I was both client and detective and also didn’t receive a detective’s compensation, yet it proved to be one of the most fulfilling experiences I ever had because Kevin was so talented and dedicated to his art. He enjoyed various honors that came his way but the vast bulk of his time he devoted to his serious work, such as directing Shakespeare at the Old Vic, which was ultimately the source of his universal respect.

                  The experience of following Kevin was superior in every way to the experience of following Freddy, although I followed Freddy for a much longer time, and also slightly knew him as I’ve mentioned before. Kevin’s influence was far greater; he had an actual aura that surrounded him like an invisible friend. I heard and committed to memory only four or five sentences yet each had the weight of a prophet’s meditation. As for his sexual ambiguity, I didn’t ask and he never discussed it. I think that made him trust me more and believe in the “seriousness” of my imaginary film quarterly. It’s probably why Kevin accepted my long handwritten interview request. It demonstrated a certain mastery of the form – if only my novels did as well.

We started walking, me following a step behind. I noticed that his t-shirt was magnificently bereft of any sponsors. We talked about his playing Hamlet at the Vic, about his current project Othello, and then he asked me if I’d like a drink at the local pub. Of course I said yes.

                  Everything was going suspiciously well. Kevin told show business stories and I laughed at all the appropriate places. For a while our conversation achieved a kind of perfect flow like the ocean. Then he asked me why I hadn’t been using a notebook or recorder. The truth is I’d forgotten about my stated purpose completely, I was having such a good time.

                  “Oh, well, machines only bring out the dumbness in people,” he said, laughing. “I won’t care about it if you don’t.”

                  “Deal,” I said with such earnestness that he laughed out loud and ordered another whiskey sour. Apparently he was going to let the matter go which should have been enough for me, especially after my colossal blunder. But by failing to record the whole interview I’d also eliminated my reason for a follow-up appointment to go over the material one last time.

                  And then a miracle happened. He said “Oh well, we can always do that another time.” How kind he was. As if he knew I’d been following him for days now and on some level accepted it. He shook hands and smiled again at me. Another drink came with a check. Did I bring enough? What a penny pinching fool I’d been to not bring enough money to buy him dinner.

                  Kevin was talking on his phone now, presumably to one of his “people”. I leaned forward like a jockey so as not to miss a word. Meanwhile, Spacey stayed completely still.

                  “Sorry about that,” Spacey said to the phone that he was holding like a violin. He is the embodiment of grace, I remember thinking. “I promised this interview a long time ago. It’s for a new top notch film magazine. No there aren’t any photographers here. This is a serious journal. They don’t care what my face looks like, they actually care about what I have to say.” Then he turned toward me, letting the violin/telephone dangle as it were.

                  “What did you say the name of your journal was again?”

                  “Cinéma Vérité,” was all I could come up with, a term used to describe a documentary style of film making. Kevin gave me a funny look and I knew it would all be over in a few minutes.

                  “Is your journal a kind of retro nod to Goddard and Truffaut?”

                  “Something like that,” I said, looking around the restaurant nervously as if any second I’d have to photograph it.

                  “Did it start in Paris? Is there an office there?”

                  “I’m not sure.”

                  “I know, I’ll Google it from my phone.”

                  “It’s so new, there may not be anything on it yet…”

                  “That would be surprising if there was nothing. Unless of course, there is nothing there to find.”

                  I buried my head and conceded defeat.

                  “You know, I enjoy talking with people who have your level of understanding of film and drama, whether they’re from the business or not. What I don’t like is being deceived.” My head was still bowed half under the table cloth, as if I were a dog.

                  “What is it that you really do then, and why did you really want to see me?”

                  Still in my hidden position, I said, “I’m sorry that I misrepresented myself. Forgive me.”

                  Finally, I rose from my squatting position and turned for a nanosecond to see the ineffable expression on his face and then ran out of the pub unwittingly sticking Kevin, whom I meant to take out to dinner, with the bill.

***

It was a crushing blow to stop following Spacey. I never spoke to anyone about it, lest of all to a therapist, for whom I still have an abiding contempt. I became my own caregiver. Perhaps that’s why I fell in love with T, or at least thought I did. She kept telling me I didn’t really love her. I guess she had to say that to keep her distance and her job.

                  “You just love the way I look,” she’d say.

                  “That’s true. But why can’t I also love you?”

                  “We just too different.”

                  “If you gave me a chance.”

                  “I’m done with men. Black men, white men, yellow men, all men.”

                  “I love my family even though I don’t see my father much.”

                  “Funny, cause when I was a kid, I was always chasing after my mother.”

                  “See, that’s something else we have in common. I worshipped my father, always wanting to play catch or talk with him. But he was a very successful architect, well, contractor actually. He warned me about trying to write or act but I didn’t listen. I should have. I always followed him but never his advice.”

None of the times I followed people ever led to anything violent, though there was a close call in an airport bathroom. I never really considered it a crime or serious invasion of privacy. There are certainly no laws against it, (unless you’re on their property, and if they leave the wrong shade pulled up it’s really their fault isn’t it?)

                  After Kevin, I never tried to follow anyone of magnitude. By the same token I never tried to scare any of the people I followed, even during my muscular years. I suppose that roughly 90% of the people I followed were men, which never struck me as odd because women understandably get scared more easily than men, and as I said, I had no desire to scare them.

                  After Spacey, I lost my desire to get into their vacant homes as well. He’d set such a high standard of elegance and unpretentiousness it seemed pointless to follow other people, much less secretly enter their homes. I might as well have lived the rest of my days like that were it not for the absurd reappearance of Freddie Flowers in my life. I was still a graduate student at the time, not even married yet, so there was hope when I saw a notice by the library about a seminar on “The Responsibility of the Media,” or some similarly titled tripe, in which the incredibly dapper Mr. Flowers, in spite of his youth, had secured a spot as one of the panelists. In a way, it foretold his whole life. It was the kind of thing my father would have participated in, expecting me to be impressed while a silent inner voice in Freddie Flowers told him this is nothing: “You will never meet anyone truly important here, nor truly rich either. It will just add one more line to your resume, that’s all.”

                  What was in that resume? Who did he know? Could he have met Kevin Spacey perhaps, and seduced him with his Southern charm, impeccable manners, and dark good looks? But surely Kevin had too much strength of mind, too deep a soul to fall for the likes of Freddie, and yet I couldn’t shake the thought.


              When you are so consumed by something while walking, as I was then, it’s like a form of blindness. You are following someone but you’re not aware of it. {I call it “Unconscious following.”}To add to the confusion, the sky was completely gray and it was starting to drizzle. I was walking back from Flower’s disgustingly stellar performance on the media panel when I inexpliably lost my way, somewhere between Columbia and Barnard, {the women’s school that is a kind of female, Columbia, though they hated to be described that way} Apparently I’d been following a teenage boy who was dressed only in a wet pink shirt and torn jeans. We were in a little side street, too small to be a street, but too big to be an alley, when he suddenly stopped walking and turned to face me.


                  “Here,” he said.

                  “What?


                   “What do you think I mean, faggot, you’ve been following me for 15 minutes.”


                  I shrugged. “What about the police?”


                  “They don’t like to work in the rain. Now get over here behind the dumpster and suck my dick and don’t even think about stopping till I tell you, you can.”                             

                  ……I followed his instructions the whole time. When he was done I realized that he was brandishing a gun, I hadn’t noticed before. I was neither hysterical nor aroused, as if I hadn’t noticed it.     

                  “Now say “yes sir’, he said, brandishing a paper bag at me as if it might be concealing a gun or a knife.

                  “Yes sir.”


                  “And don’t spit nothing out either.”


                  Again, I did what he said. He had a weapon of some kind after all.     

                  When he was through {which was very quickly} he walked away without saying a word, as if I were only a mammal.

                  “Maybe you can be here around this time next Sunday and maybe you can do me.”

                  I thought of little else till I got home where I immediately started shivering. It was a singularly hideous experience but since it never happened again, I didn’t consider it revelatory in any way. I did vow to never follow anyone again, more specifically men I didn’t know, but within a week I was following again.


             ……You can make the case that everything in the world is following something starting with the sun and earth} though I’ve never felt that anyone is following me, except on Facebook, if you want to count that.


             Lady T believes that God talks to us directly in dreams. In a sense it’s not too far from what Freud thought. I believe we follow what we yearn for most in life. We are all followers trying to capture what we find missing in ourselves. Last night in my dream I was following my father and someone else through a forest that was also part jungle, which led to a grave. I ran as fast as I could and called out my father’s name but I couldn’t catch up to them. Tamara says she pictures heaven as always being held by her mother. I picture it as a place where men can walk together at an easy pace, not afraid to look at each other. For that vision I’m prepared, old as I am, to begin my education again.

Richard Burgin's 20th book and 10th collection of short fiction, will be published in Spring 2018 by The Goliad Press. His stories have won 5 pushcart prizes and have been reprinted in numerous anthologies including the Best American Mystery Stories and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He is the founder and editor of the literary magazine Boulevard.