Me and Dusty England

he wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld

-James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Appearance is destiny. Just ask any born-blonde with double-d cup breasts. Or any dwarf. You can’t judge a book by its cover…you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover…but aren’t most books sold largely on the strength of their covers?

My gorgeous mother spent most of my childhood on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors of the tenement flat that we lived in. Outside, on Chicago’s Southside, it was poisonous and filthy, but in our home every surface was scrubbed and polished clean. My mother kept the windows shut, banning the stink and evil.

On weekends, one of my four real uncles would take us for a drive through the country, far outside the city limits. Mother would stuff me in the back seat with the picnic basket and off we’d go, in a beat up old car on the highway. Sometimes we’d get a really late start in the afternoon and end up in the forest at twilight, the woods alive with insect din and the searchparty lamps of the firefly.

Holding mom’s hand (but I never called her “Mom” or “Mommy”; I never called her anything; there was no need), I’d follow her follow my uncle into a hazy clearing. We’d put down a blanket and sit and eat fruit. Our blanket was just a cheap white bedspread, vivid between the dark grass and my mother’s long legs, her beautiful taupe legs. I can’t tell you how many times, as an adult, I’ve fantasized about going back and trying to find those woods, just to sit in that same spot on some summer twilight and chide her selfish ghost.

She kept an unusual piece of furniture in her bedroom, a lacquered red dressing cabinet, taller than I was then, with a built-in closet whose door swung out on baroque hinges and there were little drawers at the top. The little drawers were full of nothing but buttons, every possible variety: glass and bone and ivory and wood buttons; big square buttons from England, little scuffed leather buttons like knots. I’d slide a stool to the dressing cabinet and climb up and open each of the four little drawers to count the buttons in them, giving up when I’d thought I’d reached a million. The right-most drawer was magical, containing nothing but buttons colored red. Every shape and size and texture, but all red. I liked to peer into the drawers at night with a flash light while my mother slept off a party. That dressing cabinet makes me think of the grief that my mother’s beauty brought to both of us.

I’d sit on the edge of her big old inherited bed, my pajama’d feet dangling over the dusty throw-rug that covered the chilly cement floor, and watch sternly while she rifled through the cabinet for this or that pair of stockings, this or that brassiere. If I didn’t approve of an item of clothing I’d just sigh. A worldweary sigh.

I didn’t talk much in those days. If I sighed like that my mother would usually change into something else, unless I was very wrong, in which case she’d say Honey, you might not like this particular item but it’s not you that I’m dressing up to please. She’d check herself in a dim oval mirror tilted on the cabinet’s top and just about the time she’d be combing her hair, or petting lipstick onto her pout, my moon-faced grandmother would show up and I’d be ushered like a lunatic to my unquiet bed.

And thirty minutes after that there’d be a Cadillac’s bullying horn and mother would hurry out the door, only to return at the crack of dawn all chewed up, a button or two missing from her blouse, grandmammy snoring on the living room couch (her glasses skewed) and me wheezing, upset in the blue dark at the top of the stairs by her bedroom. I always waited there for her, unable to sleep until she was back in the house. One night, I remember, she came back with an amazing rip in her red silk top, clutching a little white eyeless teddy bear that her date had forced on her.

As she passed me where I fretted at the top of the stairs she suddenly stooped and kissed me and got me all snotty and salty-wet and said Honey this bear’s an early birthday present for you from your motherfucking step-uncle Cecil.

I only remember bits and pieces from those days: the rest is murk. I see my early self as a gray photograph on the bottom of a troubled ocean. I see the front of the black-bricked tenement we lived in, the pale shades lowered in dark windows, through a sulfuric curtain of smoke and flames. Also, there’s my memory of my childhood fantasy of who my father was. He was bearded and long-haired and sad-looking. A white fellow. I’d seen his picture on a pageless calendar that hung in my mother’s bedroom, over her bed, virile and territorial. I can see him now, his arms out-stretched.

At the age of nine, right before my freakish growth spurt, I found myself living with Foster Parents, the Englands, in Pulaski Park, a middle class white neighborhood on the other side of Chicago. The change happened so quickly that I had no idea where my mother, or my grandmother or four real uncles, had vanished to. One day these people seemed to exist, and the next day they didn’t. One morning my mother unlocked her bedroom door and cornered me in the bathroom and spontaneously shellacked me with sad kisses. She thrust that hideous eyeless white teddy bear into my arms and sobbingly begged me to keep it always and remember her by it. Begged me to never lose it.

A minute later there was a beige sedan with the insignia of the state of Illinois on its doors parked out front in the drifting haze, which twinkled with sparks, downwind from the incinerator and a white man and a white woman got out, the woman breathing through a handkerchief and they came and got me. And so my mother was gone, or I was gone, I mean and the next thing I knew I was in Pulaski Park, standing on the front step of two old white-haired white people called England, clutching that eyeless white bear and sniffing bored tears. That’s the day I became an England, nick-named Dusty.

Sweet, skinny old Mrs. England bent over and wrapped me in her dry white arms and exclaimed Welcome to your new home, son! I never felt so black in all my life.

If before that I saw myself as “tan” or “camel” or “caramel” or any other of the euphemisms that Negroes had appropriated to salve the social burn of blackness, I now knew better: I was black. Black as coal. Bible black. Anthracite obsidian dark-side-of-the-moon subterranean black. No, it never really occurred to me, in so many words, that I was black, until the day I got white parents. It took some getting used to.

I attended an all-white elementary school called Eisenhower Elementary. Fourth and fifth grade crawled by with the ordinary geologic slowness of the time scale of the child (in which an hour equals approximately a week of adult elapsed time) with little or no incident. During sixth grade was when it happened: pituitary gland betrayed me with its freakish ambitions and I shot up, growing to six foot three by the end of seventh grade.

I was a bookish, sensitive child. But I was six feet three and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds at the age of thirteen and I was black on top of it all. A lustrous crude-oil black. I had athlete written all over me, but I rebelled, I deliberately cultivated a magnificent gracelessness, displaying fiendishly spastic inabilities on every playing field. In the beginning, team captains would fight bitterly for the right of first pick to get me on their squads. They’d feel invincible with me towering over my skinny white playmates at the center of whatever team; walking across a basketball court, my comrades clamoring for battle in a bunch behind me, I would feel sick at the nauseated fear I generated in the faces of the opposing team.

Everyone learned soon enough, however, what I was determined to teach them: that I was lousy at sports. In my incapable hands a basketball became lifeless as clay. A football seemed coated with grease. Also, at various parties I also set out to prove that I couldn’t dance (lacking rhythm), that I was only barely concerned with girls (not sex-crazed, no potential rapist) and that I preferred classical music over funk, r&b, gospel or soul. It was silly, of course, to go to such an extreme, but that’s the nature of adolescence. I refused to be an open book. I expected to be treated the same as anyone else at my school. As complicated, individual, mysterious, secretive and contradictory as anyone else. In short (or tall, that is): fully human.

Eisenhower Elementary, then Joseph Pulaski High School. Time began to accelerate. The false miracle of puberty attacked. My voice was segregated into unblended octaves; I stuttered and bumped into stuff and the thing between my legs…what Ma England had been in the habit of calling my “dinky” when she used to bathe me…it grew and seemed destined to shame me.

The harsh candy of perfume that wafted from gum-popping floss-headed girls in the hallways at school, or in a line at the record store at the Mall, put me into rich panics of longing. Never having been kissed by a girl, the idea didn’t move me (strange how we adults tend to forget that kissing is an acquired taste, like oysters, beer and cigarettes)…what I dreamed of, instead, in my furtive puberty-bed…those nights and afternoons and mornings I took the time to pacify The Thing by throttling it…what I fantasized about was holding some white girl’s hand.

That was the plot of my inner porno: a little white nail-polished hand, engulfed by my big black one. The idea aroused me more than any klieg-lit act of sodomy you can imagine. Receiving my change from the freckled cashier at the Pants? Got ‘Em, with her blue-veined hand dumping sweaty coins into my palm, was painful heaven.

The real miracle of my second childhood with the Englands was how little ridicule the three of us attracted together. There I was, at the age of sixteen already six feet and ten inches tall, flanked by this dry little elderly white couple, my hand grasping the old lady’s with the touching insecurity of a baby elephant’s trunk. I can’t imagine a sillier picture. But the neighbors were merciful, or was it because the image of us together was too ridiculous to ridicule, too funny to be made fun of, far too laughable to…?

Only once, I remember, crossing the parking lot of the Pulaski Park Mall, my fragile white mother in tow (me wearing the glassless eye-glasses I’d begged for), both of us in dignified dress, when a souped-up hotrod with flame decals screeched a semi-circle around us and a lank-haired hooligan (I knew his name, by the way: Jamie-John Arnold. To this day I hate him) shouted, over the loud rock music from his car’s eight-track player, Take that gorilla back to the zoo! But other than that and the routine stares we accumulated when wandering from our familiar suburb, nothing excruciatingly ugly pops to mind. Mostly, it was just that banal drone of discomfort the dispossessed will always inhabit.

Except. Ah yes, I remember.

The Prom.

2.

Ma woke me by tickling my big feet where they dangled foolishly over the bed’s edge. “Rise and shine, Dusty,” she chirped. “It’s a lovely Saturday morning!”

It’s unfair how the intensity of the tenderest facial expressions ruin the face over the years. Ma England’s mug was grooved and creased and rutted. She leaned over my dwarfed bed smiling that broad, unmitigated, love-fluorescing smile, and instinctively my arms rose up around her. Her twinkling corn-flower blue eyes were recessed in a topological map of the Badlands. The imprint of all those little streams and rivulets and wrinkled river beds told their soft story on my smooth black cheek as she left a kiss.

Sunlight streamed through the blue curtains of my open bedroom window. A breeze parted the fabric, the sunlight intensified on the leathery white soles of my feet. The gas-run buzz of a dozen distant lawn mowers, mixed with the squeals of fat children and radios announcing and dogs gossiping over great distances and screen doors slamming next door, was on the warm air.

I could picture all those industrious home-owning men, red-faced under fishing caps, their bellies bouncing, pushing and pulling their mowers around the slender trunks of trees, the rocky fringe of the garage. From time to time there’d be the whack of the mower blade scalping a base-ball, or shooting a stone at an ankle. I lay there peacefully, a pampered freak, a black Gulliver in suburban Lilliput. A sweet green breath of freshly mown grass blew over me.

Still half-dreaming, I had an aerial view of the green and mauve grid of my neighborhood, the split-level homes fixed to perfectly rectangular lawns, partitioned by the scuffed concrete interstices of sidewalk, trimmed by the shiny black asphalt of driveways, the total pattern awesomely neat. From high high up, I watched the neighborhood children flow back and forth between houses along the narrow channel of the sidewalk, some fast and some slow, like an exchange of electrons on a circuit board.

In the matrix of the suburb of Pulaski Park, our house was close to central; and in the structure of the England residence itself, my bedroom was dead-center; and in the cell of my bedroom, I lay along its equator, panting. The suburb of Pulaski Park was essentially an elegant maze, leading, through a sophisticated complex of blind-alleys and sharp turns and other distractions, directly to the central treasure of my gigantic black heart.

“Dusty! Dusty get up, boy! Breakfast is nearly ready!”

It was Pa England. Pa was a decent old guy, but it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t prepared to love me, not the way his wife did. Any love from Pa went to Ma; it focused through the lens of Ma and warmed me that way. Pa had agreed to adopt in the first place as a loving sacrifice to her. He loved that old woman so fiercely that one day she said, after reading an article in the Tribune, Pa I think we should adopt an underprivileged Negro boy and raise him as our own and Pa didn’t even blink (or he didn’t blink for long) and said Okey-dokey. A funny little man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a perpetual squint.

“Coming, Sir,” I called through my door, hopping into pants.

“Okey-dokey, Dusty,” he said. I could hear him limping down the stairs. I put on a tee shirt and my glassless eye glasses.

I stooped low and out my door, bent forward all the way down the quiet stairs, touching for luck various things on the way to the kitchen: the corners of the framed photos of Family England on the stairwell wall; the pawn-like knob at banister bottom; the dusty fat leaves of a tall rubber tree plant in the living room.

Barefoot, in shorts and white tee-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, my feet smothered in the deep orange nap of the living room carpet, I nearly belonged in the picture. The mirror tiles on the far wall, near the arch that opened into the kitchen, however, mocked me coldly. Did you say you nearly belong in the picture? They seemed to say. Well, take a good look at the truth. I dreaded it. It was the shock I suffered every day before sharing breakfast with my adopted family. Daily, I had to face the wall of mirrors and that tall black creature there. Who are you? I’d ask. Who are you? And sometimes my reflection would just growl at me, a surly bear blocking the path.

“You’d better hurry, Dusty. Pa will beat you!” Mother England was grinning over the stack of pancakes she was shifting to my side of the table. Pa and I were both fast eaters.

I was already halfway through a lopsided stack of her silky hot pancakes when Ma said, in all blinding innocence, “Have you asked a girl to your senior prom yet, Dusty?” which paralyzed me mid-swallow. I blinked. Across the yellow Formica-topped breakfast table, Pa stiffened. Pa and I were both wise in a terrible way that Ma, it seemed, wasn’t. My senior prom? my heart retorted belligerently. I’m a colored behemoth attending an all-white high school in the city of Chicago, Ma. What do you think?

But of course I didn’t say that. I just looked at Pa and he winked and said, “The prom’s not such an important thing, Mother. If you ask me it’s just a lot of foolishness, an excuse for kids to taste liquor. I’m sure Dusty is better off sitting that one out.”

His thin white hair, the few fibers that sprawled across his sun-browned pate, began rising into the air, as though somehow sensing an impending lightning strike. He kept having to pat it down. He took a mouthful of bacon, and said, summarily, “I wouldn’t worry about it, boy.” He smiled and showed the burnt flecks on his old teeth. “You’ve got better things to do, around the old homestead, with me and Ma on prom night!” Pa suggested, for instance, a Chinese checker tournament.

But Ma wouldn’t have it. “That’s nonsense,” she said. “A boy’s senior prom is the single most important evening of his high school career. Why, in a way, it’s like the doorway to adulthood. It’s something you don’t want to miss, dear,” she said, and sat a big black pan of scrambled eggs on a tin plate on top of the counter beside the stove and turned to face us with her bony speckled arms crossed over her flat bosom, warming to the subject, and prepared to set Pa and me straight on the matter. She leaned back against the hot white face of the stove and looked me firmly in the eye and said, “Dusty, surely there are girls you’ve come to notice during your time at Joe Pulaski High, girls you might like. Well, the girl among that group that happens to like you back, she’s the gal you ask. You’re not going to sit there and tell me my very own son’s a chicken, are you?”

Helpless, my gaze scurried back to Pa again and he said, “Mother, Dusty isn’t even interested in girls. He’s a bookworm! Bookworms don’t…”

But Ma cut him off so firmly that it suddenly dawned on me that she wasn’t the scatter-brained cherub that she seemed most times: she knew. There was iron in her and under all that powdered sugar was a tough old bird I’d never bothered to notice before and she knew. She knew the subtext of the conversation and she would have none of it.

She cut Pa off, saying, “Oh Edwin that’s pure bunk and you know it. Dusty’s a healthy young man and healthy young men have an interest in girls. Dusty’s perfectly normal and of course he’s interested in girls! I never heard such foolishness! So you just hush and let Dusty answer for himself!”

Pa just shrugged sheepishly and then sighed and looked at me pleadingly, as if to say Your Ma’s an eccentric woman but I love her so we have to go along with her, no matter how futile and crazy a thing it is, so just say what she wants you to say but you and I know the truth, Dusty…you’re a Negro…that’s how it is…we didn’t make this world but we gotta live by its rules…

I said, looking down into my toppled stack of cakes, “I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, ma’am.” My voice came out in squeaks and barks.

“Yes you have, Dusty! You’ve given it an awful lot of thought…I can tell. Too much thought, if you ask me. It’s very simple. You go up to a girl and ask her if she already has a date to the prom and if she says yes, well, there’s no harm done because some other fella beat you to it. And if she says no, she doesn’t already have a date to the prom, it’s a sure sign that she’s willing to go with you! Goodness sakes, Dusty, I’m not suggesting that you should ask Greta Garbo to the prom! A sweet girl with a sense of humor who’s light on her feet will do. She doesn’t have to be ravishing. Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some girls are not particularly easy to look at from the outside, but on the inside they may be a Mona Lisa.”

(Too true, Mother England! I’m thinking of you, of course, at this moment.)

The healing rays of her love for me were so powerful that I was actually beginning to believe that attending the prom was possible. Why, after all, shouldn’t I expect to be able to attend my own senior prom? It wasn’t as though I was an ax-murderer, or a two-headed man! So what if I was the lone colored boy in a graduating class of four hundred and fifty, the lone black face in a total student body (not counting four Koreans, a Mexican and a girl from the Philippines) of over one thousand white ones?

Should that pose some sort of inevitable restriction on my participation in the complete franchise of adolescent suburban-American life? Was I necessarily mateless, despite my extreme popularity at school? (The answers to the above questions, respectively: yes and yes.)

Putting my fork down, I poked my thumb and fore-finger through the lenseless gaps in my glasses and rubbed my eyes and said, tiredly, “There are a few girls at school that seem nice…”

“That’s the spirit, Dusty!” she said, and pleased, she began dishing out the scrambled eggs. When Pa had a certain amount on his plate he stuck his hand up and said, glumly, Okey Dokey.

Pa was expecting the worst.

After breakfast I helped Ma England by toweling dry the dishes, towering over her as we stood together at the sink. Pa sank into a speechless funk and wandered out back. We watched him through the kitchen window, plucking litter from the hedge that fenced our property. Then he froze suddenly, clutching a fistful of trash, and crouched down, peering hound-like into the prickly mass of the hedge, galvanized.

From where we watched him, it looked important. He remained in a crouch for quite awhile before acting. Then he bent into the bushes, exposing the pink over-flow of his rear end above the tartan plaid sock of his trousers, and the long red comma partitioning his cheeks, and he fetched something out of the earth, after much pawing. He turned towards us with his prize, holding it high where it twinkled in the sun, and he ambled to the kitchen window with a big smile on his squinty red face until we could see he was displaying an old quarter and Ma said, “Now Pa’s out of his funk.”

Later I went back to my room and flopped back onto my bed and thought over it again: the prom idea. It made my heart run in boozy limping circles. It made my mouth dry as a sock. It made the crotch of my khaki-colored shorts swell like a blister. It made me feel sick.

Just to imagine myself in a powder-blue tuxedo, the night alive with twinkling lights and music, a fragile white hand clasped in my own… but who was connected to the apparition of that hand? My imagination could trace a wrist from the hand, and a forearm connected to the wrist, and an elbow leading the arm into the diaphanous sleeve of something lacy and perfumed…after that, nothing. I wasn’t bold enough to insert a girl I already knew into my sordid dream. But just the thought of a little pale clasping hand, angled on a faun-tender arm, was enough to stir The Thing in its sweaty lair and it lifted its swollen head and demanded I tend to it. And that was the one cliché of negritude I couldn’t disown, discredit or downplay: the size of my johnson. Oh it was big. It was a big dumb animal and it bothered me day and night to pet it.

Monday morning I climbed out of the family station wagon and waved bye to Pa and faced the long gray concrete and glass bunker of Joseph Pulaski High School (we all called it Joe High) with my usual sour stomach of nerves, but on top of that was a new sweet dread, the dread of having to hunt for a girl to take to the Prom.

When I entered the building, turning right into that long bright bustling hall, which was lined with gray metal lockers and trophy cases and out of date maps of the world, my eyes were scanning the crowd of lip-biters; of spotty faces; of fidgety boys and girls I had grown up with. I looked down on the lank, sparrow-brown center-parted tresses; the luminous blonde pageboys; the curly red mops; the glossy black bobs; the sandy bowl cuts; the frizzy-dry mouse-brown perms; the oily pompadours; the bristling crew cuts of stone-bicepted jocks. The tops of so many different heads, and not a one like mine, which was a close-cropped field of pepper corns (Ma herself was my only barber).

“England!” There was a slap on my lower back. I looked down. Nathaniel Cohen.

“What’s up, England?” Cohen was all head, amplified by a bulbous helmet of thick red hair. His face was so heavily freckled that it almost looked like a brown face speckled with white spots. He had a long thin red beak of a nose that bore, at all hours of the day and night (and in the shower as well) tinted aviator’s glasses that covered half his face and reflected the face of anyone speaking to him with the insolence of fun house mirrors.

Only I, as his best friend (he’d adopted me my freshman year), had ever seen the pupils of his eyes. (The occasion had been his father’s funeral and Cohen’s eyes were blood-shot). He was wearing, as ever, an old green camouflage army jacket with the name J. Wayne sewn over the right breast pocket.

I went to my locker and Cohen trailed me there. Following tradition, he turned the combination on the lock and opened it for me, because it hurt my back to stoop to it. I took off my new wind breaker and hung it on the thin metal door, then took off my glasses and folded them carefully and laid them on a shelf. Then I took the heavy black Chemistry Is You book off the shelf and slammed the door.

“I have something I need to discuss with you, Nathaniel, but if you tell a word of it to anybody I swear I’ll cut your eyelids off and bury you up to your neck in the desert. Understand?” I gave him the most serious threatening face I could think of.

Cohen zipped a finger across compressed lips. I looked first left, then right, down the hallway to make sure that hostile ears were out of range. I said, “Remember that talk we had around Christmas time, when Mr. McCurdy’s class was having that Christmas brunch for juniors and seniors and I couldn’t attend because of the flu, only, as you know, I secretly wasn’t sick at all, but I couldn’t go because I didn’t have a date? Remember what you said about your cousin Rebecca?” I paused to gasp for breath. Then my voice came out in a squirt. “Is she still available?”

He said “Becky Silberstein? She’s in Oregon at College. Besides, she’s fat.”

“I don’t care if she’s fat.”

“No,” he said, stepping back two paces, as if trying to get the full perspective on a vast object, “I mean really fat. The whole family is fat. Christmas she was chunky. By Easter she was a hippo. The Silberstein effect. That whole part of my family is record-breaking. What do you want with a girl like that, England?” His eye brows climbed over the rims of his sun glasses and stuck there. “You been invited to a wedding?”

I just stared at him until he got it. It took awhile.

“Oh!” he said. “The Prom!” He punched my arm in slow motion. “I knew you had a dick, England!”

I shhh’d him with a stern finger. The hallway was one long spying ear drum. Its lacquered doors and polished surfaces gleamed with thirty years of sedimented gossip. (An acute sense of privacy derives directly from an acute sense of shame, and who could have been more ashamed, in that school, than I was?) I grabbed Cohen and pulled him towards me, just about right up under my chin. We were practically in my locker together: it must have looked strange to the passing throng. Cohen tapped my solar plexus.

“The Prom,” he whispered. He began grinning broadly. Above that candy-yellowed rictus (highlighted by two gold teeth, dead center), reflected in the mirrors of his shades, my two black faces frowned. “You need a girl,” he sang softly, then nodded with the calculating gravitas of a black marketeer. After which he shrugged. “But Becky’s out of the question.”

Why was I turning to dorky old Cohen for help, anyway? As a Jew at Joe High, he was nearly as untouchable as I was. And to top it off he was a nerd. As virgin eunuchs, the two of us had been practically driven into a close friendship by negative social pressures, or by a Darwinian process of elimination. In matters of the mating ritual, we were the mute teaching the blind to drive.

So it was inevitable that I doom myself by turning to outsiders for help. It was logical, after all. If I’d needed to improve my chess game, I’d have turned to Fink, the school prodigy. In matters of sex, therefore, I turned to Jack Perkins. That boy in Algebra 3. The one who was always leaning towards my desk during exams. School legend had it that he’d touched at least one nipple of every cheerleader on the Varsity Squad. He’d told me himself, in the shower after gym one day, that Carly Benjamin’s breast had squirted milk all over the seat of his father’s car at a drive-in movie (and this confession, as obviously bullshit as I now know it was, gave me an instantaneous erection at the time).

Perkins was the only teenage boy I knew who really smelled good. I always smelled him when he came into the class room. My eyes were shut as I slumped in my pathetically small desk-chair, daydreaming, my legs unfurled across the aisle, and then I smelled that coconut tanning butter that was Perkins. He made his way coolly down the aisle, nodding archly at various teenage Brahmins (the rich kids, the athletes, the kids on the staff of the school paper) until he slid into his seat beside me, stepping over my tanker-pipe legs to do so. My eyes popped open. My eye glass frames were skewed stupidly on my face.

“How’s it goin, champ?” He winked at me, combing his fingers through his medium-length, center-parted hair. He had the honey-bronze voice of an FM radio DJ. His nose was so tiny and sharp that I couldn’t believe that his nostrils had real holes in them. He was dimpled as well. He could deepen the dimples by clinching his jaw muscles, which he did habitually, especially while smiling.

There was a certain pose he’d mastered, which I’d seen him execute in the hallway, or at top of the steps behind the school: a shrugging slump, from which he’d peer, a la James Dean, from under a drooping lick of hair…it drove girls crazy.

“Ready for the big test?” I said. I said it sotto-voce, conspiratorially, while the teacher squeaked evil white pagodas of mathematical hieroglyphics on the black board way up in front of the class. As Mr. VanDendries marked the board in a fury of white slashes, my innocent question suddenly made his activity seem more sinister. Perkins looked quickly up at Mr. VanDendries and then back at me, putting two and two together.

Panic darkened his pretty face. “What test?” he hissed.

“I guess you came late that day.” I leaned across the aisle towards him. “VD is giving a test on chapter nine this Friday. Quadratic equations. Twenty five percent of the final grade.” (I tried to sound disgusted, when in fact I was looking forward to it). I adjusted my fake glasses, a tic that indicated that I was thinking. Computing.

Perkins clinched his jaw and his dimples deepened but no smile popped out. He was staring down at his desk top. He blew out a fatalistic sigh. He buried his face in his hands. “That’s perfect. If I get anything under a C in this class, my old man will think twice before getting me a car for graduation. I’m fucked, England. I’m doomed, man. I’ve been partying all week.”

I let the doom sink into him a little while. When he’d collapsed so far within himself that it looked like he’d never climb out, I offered a rope.

“Maybe I can help you, man,” I said. Perkins perked up.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’ll make a deal,” and here my whisper went subsonic. “I’ll let you…” I almost choked on the word “…cheat off my test if you help me with something.”

He looked like a boy on his way to the electric chair who’d just heard the phone ringing in the warden’s office. “Sure, England, but how can I possibly help you?” His voice underlined the “I” and double-underlined the “you” as if to say, “Our world’s are so absolutely impossibly unrelated…are you telling me they intersect somewhere?”

“First you have to swear an oath of secrecy.”

He was intrigued. I asked him if one of his parents was dead. He said no, but his grandfather just passed away.

“Swear on your grandfather’s grave.”

“I swear on my grandfather’s grave.”

“I need a date for the prom. Can you get me one?”

I could tell he wanted to laugh but he clinched his jaw muscles and his dimples deepened and a smile popped out. “No problem,” he said, “champ.”

Mr. VanDendries turned from the blackboard and faced the class. He smiled and clucked his tongue behind his dentures, clasping his hands in front of his spotty old face in a mean-spirited prayer. He always wore the same gray woolen trousers and brown sweater. The sweater always had chalk on it. He crossed the room to his desk and sat on it, legs dangling playfully. He cleared his throat and swept an arm back towards the blackboard. “To some of you, what I’ve just written up there must look rather like Chinese.” He looked pointedly at Perkins.

“Am I correct in assuming so, Mr. Perkins?” He tossed his chalk in a little hop and caught it with a flourish.

“I’m sure there are some, sir,” said Perkins and the whole class laughed.

3.

Three days later, just a day before the big Algebra test, Perkins met me in the cafeteria, easing ahead of me in the long line to receive a ration of meat, a dollop of mashed potatoes and a splintering of green beans. He spoke to me without looking at me, focusing his attention instead on the ladle that the cafeteria worker had suspended over his tray.

“It’s on,” he said. At first I thought he was talking to the middle-aged woman in the hair net. When I didn’t respond, Perkins said “Hey, are you receiving me?” I said Sorry! Yes, yes I’m listening. Go on.

“Meet me in the back parkinglot, by the fire exit. That door is always propped open on Prom night. We can sneak in that way without drawing attention. She’ll be with me. Be there a half hour after the program starts…that’ll be nine. If you’re late, you can find us inside. Only it’ll look fishy.”

I could barely speak, I was so excited. I wanted to kiss him. Not only had Perkins provided me with a date for the Prom, but he had also, essentially, provided me with my first girl. Ever.

He was leaving the line when I put my tray down on the counter top and grabbed the back of his sweater. He stopped and looked down at the sweater where it stretched to my hand and I let go of it.

“Hey Perkins…” I was practically stuttering with gratitude.

“Just be sure you have the right answers for me tomorrow, Champ! That’s all I ask in return, bro.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s hot, man. I promise you, a good time will be had by all. Trust me.” I stood there in a happy daze as Perkins returned to his reserved table in the middle of the cafeteria, the table of the elite. Every girl at that table had waist-length straight blonde hair, in varying shades (Carly Benjamin, the queen bee of the table, the one who never had to look because she was always being watched: hers was platinum blonde. Cohen told me it was from a bottle).

When Perkins sat down, he looked across the bright room and smiled at me, and the others at the table, even the ones with their backs turned, looked to see where he was smiling and a few of them laughed. I couldn’t be sure that some of them weren’t in on my secret, but at that moment it didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was me knowing that somewhere in the world, and not very far away (a mile? a block? down the corridor?) a girl was thinking of me. She was imagining me, just as I was imagining her. She had agreed to it, she had accepted Perkins description of me…she had to be a rare person.

There was no misinterpreting Perkins’ description… and there was only one way for Perkins to have described me…Negro giant…if she accepted that, the remaining details of my composite could only please her. I was sensitive and cultured, I had a good sense of humor…I would show her the best night of her life. She would think I was what I dared to hope I might be: a rare creature. And maybe, too (just the thought of it made the serpent in my pants start hissing)…maybe…

The test the next day, or the cheating of it, I mean, went without a hitch: Perkins copied from my paper, angled so he could read it easily, with the fidelity of a Xerox machine. After he’d finished, I went back over it and changed a few of my answers so they’d be wrong (only knocking a few points off of what I was certain was nearly one hundred)…a smooth move to throw VanDendries off the trail…not that he wouldn’t be suspicious when Perk the Smerk turned in a higher score than mine…

Perkins low-fived me (I had to reach down so he could slap my palm) on the way out of the class room. Then, suddenly, he grabbed my crotch and jiggled it fraternally. “Air it out, man…you’re gonna be using it next Friday!” We low-fived again. I went home.

I aired it out.

I woke from a feverish nap. Ma England was vacuuming. I could hear her, through the thin wall of my bedroom, bumping the iron snout of the old Hoover against the base board of the little hall outside my room. The dusty old thing sucked and wailed like an infernal hound on the scent of a bear. She backed it towards the little upstairs bathroom that was mine. I sat upright in bed, heart pounding, thinking she might find evidence of what I’d just been doing…a puddle of semen on the blue tiles of the bathroom floor! Good god! I jumped out of bed.

“Dusty!” Ma switched off the Hoover. The wail dwindled with a grudge. “I didn’t realize you were home so soon from school, sweetheart!” She gave me a big hug.

“Gotta go, Ma.”

I slipped by her into the bathroom and locked the door. Sure enough, I found a little lake of microscopic fish swimming frantically at the foot of the toilet, their tails flicking like whips, going nowhere at a tremendous speed, the nearest fertile egg a thousand yards away (a semen light year) in the Lilly house next door. The beautiful college-aged daughter. Never saw her walk more than a few feet at a time. Laid in a lawn chair in the back yard all day, no ambition but to perfect her flesh in the sun. Tangerine bikini.

I took a wad of toilet paper and swished the thick puddle up. A second wad finished it. I flushed the toilet.

In the dim hallway, the air was full of agitated dust. Ma was stooped dangerously to wind the frayed cord around the hooks screwed at both ends of the heavy handle the cloth bag dangled from. The machine was a nasty old antique…I had feared the beast as a child. Words calligraphed in yellow on the dark green cloth of the bag had since faded into faint crusts.

I reached around Ma and straightened her with a hug. “Ma,” I said, “Didn’t I tell you not to strain your back that way? Do you want to give me and Pa a heart attack? Let me vacuum this hall…you know you shouldn’t be carrying this heavy old thing up the stairs!” She chuckled and let me lead her downstairs to the living room. We sat on the sofa and looked through a photo album spread open on the coffee table. There were severe faces in it, peering sternly at us from the last century. At least two of the well-dressed gentlemen pictured full-length on the crumbling tin plates in the album’s front had been slave owners. Ma had never confessed this; it was Pa told me.

“This was old George Cavanaugh.” She chuckled over a silvery photo. “He was a real rake, the old coot. My grandfather, Dusty! His wife was Olivia Payne Travers. She shot him! Caught him with her sister. He survived it…they had two more children together after he recovered. We’re strong stock, Dusty.”

I merely smiled. Truth be told, I had no interest in the horrible people in that book. Without a doubt, they would have hated me…each and every one. Even County Travers, who Ma proudly pointed out was an abolitionist… would he have nodded with pride to see the weird mingling of bloodlines his work eventually lead to? I doubt it…he would have had a fit, as Pa might put it. Look at him! Those straggly, billy-goat whiskers. That stern expression, those maddened eyes. Posed with a rifle. Hand on his hip. He would have hated me. He would have sold me to the circus.

Towards the rear of the book, where modern times commenced, according to Kodak, there were black-and-white, and then color, snap shots of me from the age of nine up. It was difficult to identify myself with the grainy early shots, like Big Foot sightings, I saw there. Look at that featureless little blackie in striped shirt and knee pants, pushing a toy truck on the orange (light gray in the snap shot) carpet.

Or outside with a fishing rod, beside Pa, in front of a pond, my eyes downcast sheepishly, a grin splitting the spade of my little face. Or the color shot at the table in front of my tenth-birthday cake (first party in new home), my eyes caught in a blink, the little white child beside me selfishly reflecting the majority of the flash bulb’s illumination, his blue pupils reflecting red in the film, his fair hair tousled under a paper party cap with balloons printed on it.

Why, when looking at that happy photo, can’t I shake the impression that its his birthday, and me just a guest? I’m at the center of the photo, yet my eyes go first to him. The cake glitters in front of me, Dusty written in red cream all over it…why does it persist in looking like his cake, his candles, his wish to fulfill when the candles got blown out? (Ironically, this little boy was later to die in a lake).

“Dusty.” Ma closed the book. She sat back in the couch, her bony little hands folded in the lap of her flower-printed house dress, and turned to face me. She looked at me carefully before speaking.

“I have a date, Ma,” I said, reading her mind. “It’s all taken care of.” I was glad to be able to say that. Otherwise, I was afraid she’d be disappointed in me.

“Pardon me?” She was confused.

“The Prom…”

“Oh, yes! Indeed. That’s very good, Dusty. I’m very pleased. I can’t wait to tell Pa! He’ll be tickled to death!” She clapped her hands together softly.

“Wasn’t that what you wanted to ask me about?”

“Frankly, Son, no.” Her face got grave again. She had to look at me again, carefully, before speaking. “How old are you, Dusty?” She said finally. She said it quietly, like it was a very personal thing to discuss. Old people get in that habit.

“I’m eighteen, Ma. Nineteen in the fall.”

“And how old do you think I am?”

I smiled and proceeded to answer what seemed at first to be a simple question, but I had to stop when it dawned on me I had no answer. How old was she? I had no idea. I didn’t know the age of my own mother.

I hazarded a guess. “Fifty?”

She laughed and laughed. She pinched my cheek and had to use the shoulder of her house dress to daub a tear of mirth from her eye. When she regained her composure she told me that Pa himself would be sixty soon, and that she was twelve years older than Pa.

I couldn’t believe it.

“People warned us the age difference would be a problem as we got older, but Pa and I think that it’s worked out quite well. Women usually out-last men, you know, by about fifteen years, so we’re balanced, I think. We’ll probably go around the same time. We couldn’t ask for a nicer anniversary present, Dusty.”

I stared at her, then at the coffee table, then at the floor. She kept talking.

“I know you hate to discuss such things, Dusty, but you’re very close to being a man. Your childhood is drawing to a close. Ho hum everyday realities are soon to become fond memories, son, which is the beauty of life. We shouldn’t hang on to things, you know, but it’s human nature. We cling to what we know. But change is what life on earth is about. We fear change, you know, so time is the Lord’s apparatus for forcing it.” She took my enormous mitt in hers and coaxed me to eye contact.

“The same force that brings Spring to us every year, sweet heart, is also bound to take me away from you. I’m telling you this, Dusty, because it’s important that we make plans for when the day comes. When Pa and I leave this earth together…well…” She squeezed my hand. “Well, son, you’ll be alone in the world, to put it frankly, until you make a life for yourself, a family of your own blood.”

She had to coax me to look at her again, but when I did she closed her eyes. She had a serene look on her face, and I realized that that was exactly how she would look at her funeral.

4.

That week I was a sleepwalker. The days passed like tense music from which the crescendo had been foolishly removed. I vibrated between two equally destructive emotions: hope and dread. I began, through the repetitive magic of obsessing a daydream, to form an image of the girl that would be waiting for me at the back parking lot near the fire exit on Friday.

I knew, for instance, that she wouldn’t be a knock-out. If she was a knock-out, Perkins would have kept her for himself. And besides, the last thing on earth I wanted to do was go waltzing around with a beautiful blonde Kim Novak on my arm…that would be asking for trouble. But she would probably be pleasant to look at. She would probably be a brain, too, because Perkins knew that I was, and only a truly cultured girl would have the sense and courage to agree to a date with a colored boy anyway. And she wouldn’t be colored because Perkins didn’t know any colored people besides me… because there weren’t any for miles.

She’d probably be Jewish. Jewish girls were known to fall in love with Negro men from time to time…I’d read that in a racy magazine that Cohen kept under his bed at home. Cohen himself had told me that his cousin Rebecca Silberstein had been in love with Nat King Cole for half of her life. Her parents were even proud that she kept photos of him on her bedroom wall. So my girl…I could see her already. A shy little bookish Jewish girl with shoulder-length chestnut curls, and those heavy Semitic breasts (“Did you ever see a flat-chested Hannah?” is how Cohen used to put it), in an embroidered satin blouse and a knee-length skirt and black pumps with a silver locket around her graceful neck with a picture of Nat King Cole in it. I’d take her glasses off and she’d turn out to be lovely. We’d hold hands and look at each other with a deep understanding.

The day before The Prom, Ma proposed a kind of fire drill for it. At seven o’clock on Thursday evening I drove to the Pulaski Park Mall and bought a box of chocolates and a mixed bouquet of flowers. I was dressed as nicely as I could (at my size it was extremely difficult to find formal clothing) in a burgundy cardigan sweater and a white shirt and knit tie with trousers from The Tall Man’s Emporium.

I drove back home and rang our doorbell twice, curtly. I waited. Acting her part, Ma didn’t answer the door straight away, but responded with the tardy hauteur of a teenaged beauty (she couldn’t know that this phase of the drill was irrelevant: my date would be delivered to me at a secret corner of a darkened school parkinglot with the pomp and circumstance befitting a bale of marijuana). She opened the door, dressed in a dark blue dress with white polka dots, her luminous white hair pinned up, looking like a celebrated authoress of whodunits on her way to a dinner banquet of peers.

“You look really nice,” here my voice broke, “Marguerite.” It gave me a weird chill using her first name like that. But she’d insisted, to make the simulation seem more authentic, that I treat her like a real girl that I was taking out for the first time. So I called her Marguerite. I presented her with the flowers and chocolates and she set them down on a chair just inside the door. I extended my arm and she took it. She seemed to weigh about ten pounds.

I walked her down those familiar concrete steps to the walk. Crickets chirped and fireflies flared coolly in the bushes. Kids up the street were playing hockey on roller skates, the mean slap of sticks on puck reaching us a full second after the image. Twilight was hissing up out of vents in the earth like a magic gas. I felt a terrible nostalgia for that moment, suddenly, as though I were already remembering it from a remote location in the future.

I held the car door for Ma and she folded down onto the sun-warmed car, which was just beginning to cool in a breeze that tousled the head of the maple tree over us. Ma smiled up at me, looking so touchingly small. It seemed as if the car was about to drive her off without me.

“A true gentleman!” she said.

I drove nervously with Ma watching, but I managed, despite the added pressure of motorists and pedestrians staring at us as we puttered like a shy hallucination through their lives.

I guided the station wagon into a diagonal parking space in front of a little island of a building across an open lot from the sprawling complex of the mall. The little building had glass walls with filmy pink drapes that filtered into abstractions what I could make out of what was going on inside. There was movement and sparkles of light. The marquee over the entrance said Pulaski Park Ball Room and then under those big blue space age letters smaller words said modern dancing since l957. I put the emergency brake on and looked over at Ma. She nodded.

We made our entrance and everyone in the luxurious twilight haze of the ballroom, where bossa novas boomed from discreet loudspeakers, looked up at me, bending their skulls back on frail necks. Some of them could only bend far enough back to see just parts of me. Seeds of light swirled around us, tossed copiously from a big mirrored ball that rotated under the ceiling. I was so near to the ceiling myself that I could hear the cranky whine of the motor that drove that ball round as we passed under it. Hearing it partially destroyed the seamless magic of the ballroom for me.

As we commenced to dance, I attempted to hide behind my glassless horn-rimmed glasses…attempted the difficult trick of averting my eyes from the squinty gazes that glinted dully from every angle of the room. It occurred to me that my body itself was a serious breech of etiquette. At my height, the impolite truth is that a tiny woman comes face level to my crotch. I’d never noticed it, hugging Ma at home, but in public it glared. Ma asked me how tall my date was and I lied (probably) claiming her a little taller than Ma. So we adapted strategically to the problem. I learned to keep a little to the side, my arms out a bit, to produce the illusion of closeness without pressing my groin into my partner’s face.

After a few different dances we got the hang of it. Gradually it became fun. When Ma was tired I bought her a soft drink and we sat a few out in the chairs that lined the glass walls. It felt queerly like a real date. I squinted to plane the wrinkles from her face…her voice itself was that of a young woman’s. Her perfume smelled as sweet. Had she really been young once?

“What was it like, meeting Pa?” I asked.

She shook her head and sipped her drink. “Pa was the rudest man I’d ever met. That’s what intrigued me about him, I guess. All the other men I knew treated me like god’s gift, but not your Pa. He treated me like a stray puppy, honestly. I was so angry with him, I stayed up nights thinking of sarcastic things to say to him the next morning. I was thirty, you know, Dusty. I’d already been married and divorced when I met Pa. He told me he was a college man, but that turned out to be a fib. We worked in the same grocery. It was at the tail end of what they call now the roaring twenties, just before the Great Depression sobered us all up a little ! We thought our feet would never touch the ground, but touch the ground we did.”

She took another sip of her drink, and though it was only gingerale, it seemed to have the effect of making her tipsy. She loosened as we talked.

“Would you like to know a secret, Dusty?”

I said of course, but in truth I wasn’t sure. Something about the way she took a deep breath and then paused before saying it gave me the feeling that hearing it might change my life forever. She cut her eyes wickedly at all the other elderly white people dancing through the blue room in front of us, and they all deflected their gazes furtively.

“Before I got serious with Pa I was in love with a colored fellow. Did you know that? I’ll bet you’re surprised,” she said, slapping my knee, and by god she was right. I was stunned.

“Walter H. Phillips.” She said the name with pride, then repeated it again under her breath, marveling at the sound of it. “I haven’t said that name out loud in forty years!” She finished her drink, then said “In fact, I think I’d like to hear myself say it again.” She took a deep breath. “Would you mind if I did, Dusty?” I said no.

She put her tiny wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “Tell me if you do mind, dear. Honestly.”

I said, Ma, really, it’s okay. Say it again if you want to.

“Walter Harvey Phillips.”

She closed her eyes. “He worked for the colored newspaper, The Defender. He wasn’t a reporter, I believe he set type, but he carried himself like a newspaper man. Wore one of those hats, and his shoes always polished with a spit shine! My, he was dandy. Fine and dandy. All the ladies in the grocery swooned when he came in, but of course most pretended to look down on him because he was colored. Most, but not all. You look surprised, Dusty, but the truth is, in many ways, relations between the Negro and Caucasian races were actually more advanced in those days. Ordinary people got away with quite a lot, if they were discreet. Unmarried love calls for extreme discretion in any case, so, in the end, it doesn’t make much difference.” She handed me her empty glass. “I’d like another, sweetheart,” she said.

I fetched it on wobbly legs. When I crossed the vast room from the bar back to her, she was in the process of fending off an unwanted proposition to dance from a red-haired Casanova (spotted scalp glinting under sparse curls) in a white ascot and spats. “Ah, my date’s back with my drink!” she announced suddenly as I materialized, golem-like, behind the old rake. He turned and looked up and stepped back and stumbled against a chair. Ma patted the seat beside her and I sat.

“We called him the Duke of Woodlawn avenue.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

“The Duke of Woodlawn avenue. The grocery was on Woodlawn avenue, on the Southside, near the University of Chicago. He came in every day to buy a few things. Bachelor food. Bread and jelly, tinned meats. One day… you know I worked as a cashier… one day, you see, I just couldn’t help myself and I offered to cook him a real dinner. My goodness! My best friend, Jenny Doyle, she was a cashier at that grocery too and she practically had a fit! She was just jealous, of course. But she claimed I was betraying my race, but do you know what I told her?” Ma handed me her drink so she could gesture freely with her arms.

“I told her, Jenny Doyle, my race is the human race,” and here Ma brought both hands to her heart, “And the only way I can betray the human race is if I mistreat another human being, isn’t that what the Bible says? Well, that shut her up once and for all.” Ma took back her drink. She reached up and patted her hairdo demurely with a faintly trembling hand.

I could sense that she wanted to say more, but the look on my face wouldn’t let her.

5.

That night I had a fierce murky tropical erotic dream. My mother, my real mother, slithered through the warm silt of the dream like a soft brown sea snake, wrapping herself incestuously around the jutting forms of my subconscious. She kept reaching and touching me in that terrible place, and I kept fighting her hands away, her fingers like the nipping jaws of predatory fish. I woke up gasping in my black bedroom, my belly slick with my own sticky genes.

A gibbous moon peered down through my open bedroom window and blew a cool breath on me. I might as well have been lying on a straw mat in a thatched hut in the jungle.

Under my room, in the master bedroom downstairs, Marguerite and Edwin were mumbling harmlessly in their sleep, their unisex chests rising and falling in effortless synchrony, their little white bodies fixed to opposite sides of the bed.

They were not of my people, I was not of them.

I reached under my bed for that ragged eyeless dingy white teddy bear I’d been keeping all those years. I had to reach way under to the back of the bed and when I retrieved it I used it like a rag, to wipe the semen from my stomach. I looked at it with contempt, as surly as an African king. That pathetic little bear was the only evidence, besides my black skin, of who I really was; or what I had been.

I rose from my bed in the darkness and crossed the room. I stooped through my bedroom doorway and crept naked down the stair steps. At the bottom of the stairs, the rubber tree plant, exactly as tall as I was, stood like a solemn Indian chief in the ultra gray haze of the living room. I turned left, away from the living room, and padded down the short hall towards their bedroom. The creaking complaints of the floorboards were muffled under the thick carpet.

I stood still in their open doorway for the longest time. Edwin was snoring, and Marguerite tossed and turned. Sheer curtains floated over the picture window beside their bed, and violet milk from the moon spilled onto a few objects on the sill. An empty flower pot, a little ash tray from Mexico, a bottle of medicine.

What was I doing? What did I want? Was I dreaming?

I got as close to the bed as I dared to, standing beside Marguerite’s side of it, the right side of my body silvered by the window. Anyone walking across the front yard at that moment would have seen my silhouette through the curtains.

Marguerite’s silver white hair flowed out in waves across her blue pillow like rays of light from a pearl. Her mouth was shut in a prim smile. The odor of the mentholated ointment she rubbed on her chest to ease breathing on warm nights rose in faint waves from her.

With a silly thrill I thought I must be losing my mind, because I began, softly, to call Marguerite’s name. What would happen if they woke up and found me standing in their bedroom in the middle of the night, big and black and naked, clutching that ragged white teddy bear? My penis dangled hugely like a hose. How bad would it be if one of them woke up right now, and what would I do about it? Would I run away if they woke up at this instant?

Marguerite, I said. Marguerite.

Three times I called her name, and the last time it was not a whisper any more…it was almost loud. Edwin stopped snoring abruptly, and Marguerite turned on her side, towards me, her lips parted, her red silk pajama top gray in the moonlight.

She said That’s exactly what I’m talking about and my heart flinched and I sucked a sharp breath and my first impulse was to run until I realized that she was still asleep, talking to herself in a dream that didn’t concern me.

I lay the teddy on the pillow besides Marguerite.

Carefully, I backed out of the room.

6.

When Pa gave me the keys to the station wagon the next day he just dangled them over my open palm and gave me a long look before dropping them. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I was going to drive over to the Standard filling station to have the car washed. I climbed in and the car sank a few inches under my weight. Pa just stood there at the top of the stairs, whistling soundlessly. I sat behind the wheel of the car and waited. Finally, grudgingly, he went into the house. I turned the key in the ignition, put the car in gear, and backed timidly down the driveway.

Five hours later I was parking discreetly in the back lot at school, smelling of Old Spice, my heart pounding, the air in the car electric with the stench of my freshly polished shoes. When I turned the headlights off, everything went absolutely black for a moment, until my eyes sensitized themselves to the moonless light. Everyone else was parking in the lot in front, where spotlights bathed the entrance to Joe High, over which hung a red white and blue banner that read Welcome Seniors and under that The Prom ’72.

I had driven right by all that on my way to the back lot. The lights up front were dazzling. Girls in peach-colored chiffon dresses glided in pairs up the path towards the tall glass doors, squired by boys in powder-blue tuxedoes. There was a giddy hubbub of cars jockeying into spaces, a lot of frivolous honking and cat calls, teens lounging in loud clusters, boys showing off, girls giggling and popping gum and sprinting here and there with up-to- the-minute scandal news. I had driven right by it, the bright lights leaving green spots in my eyes, towards my lonely position in the dark lot out back.

I took my glasses out of the glove compartment and slipped them onto my face. I sat for a few moments in the car and savored the homey comfort of its familiar odors: the vacuum-tube-heated scent from the dashboard, the mildewed cracked leather seats, the stinky grease all over the jack that Pa kept on top of the spare tire. Along with tacky new melodies of fragrance; the shoe polish and the Old spice…plus the hum of sweat newly rising from my nervous arm pits. I had sealed my armpits with waxy lids of deodorant and here they were already beginning to stink.

I opened the car door and a humid summer nightwind blew in on me. I knew that when I stepped into that wind, I would begin the first in a series of lengthening steps away from the old white people that had raised me. I got out and slammed the door and jogged up the concrete stairs to the Fire Exit door. Just as Perkins said, it was propped open. Bright noises from the Prom inside filtered out to me.

It was a cloudy night. Out of reflex, I kept glancing at my watch, but I couldn’t see its numbers. The last time I’d seen the clock was on the illuminated dial in the car and then the time had been five before nine. I didn’t want to walk back down to the car to check, but I was sure it must have been nine thirty already. Perkins was a half hour late. A terrible realization commenced its dawning. I suddenly felt duped. Perkins wasn’t going to show. When I saw him on Monday he was going to shrug and say Sorry about that, England. She chickened out at the last minute, and what could I do about it? Take him to court? Beat him up? Use foul language against him? It wasn’t his fault anyway.

It was my fault for being a Negro. I could feel the accumulated fantasies of the previous week dissolve in a few sad moments. I looked around the pitch-black lot, and the darkness ceased looking mysterious, ceased looking pregnant with future daylights…it looked absolute, now. It looked like an impenetrable wall.

I felt sick. What would I tell Ma? She’d think I was hopeless. Pa would just shrug, because he already knew I was hopeless. I could see myself playing Chinese checkers with Pa the rest of the night, him letting me win out of pity.

Just at the moment I had finally resolved to leave my position beside the Fire Exit door and make the humiliated trek back home, a brand new white convertible Ford Mustang, headlights flashing playfully, came screeching around the corner into the lot, crunching the gravel in a crazy stop, parking at a wild angle beside the station wagon. It was Perkins with my date! I burst into a spontaneous smile. I tried to look cool, but it took all my self-restraint to keep from running down the stairs to the car, spouting happy nonsense.

Instead I put my hands in the pockets of my trousers and hoped my clothing didn’t look too informal (a powder-blue tux in my size was absolutely impossible to find).(Ma said that the sweater made me look like a college man).

“Hey Champ!” Perkins’ head popped out the Mustang’s window. The car was parked at such an angle that I could only see Perkins’ side of it, and his headlights were blinding me. Perkins was just a silhouette, and the girl in the seat beside him was completely obscured. The suspense was killing me.

“Sorry we’re late, bro…” He scurried out of the car and ran up the stairs to me. In his white dinner jacket, and the spot lights from the idling car behind him, he looked like a movie star. He might as well have been a dark-haired James Dean. But I was too excited to feel morbid comparing myself. If I was a freak of nature, then so be it, I thought. I reached down to him.

He slapped my palm. “Cop stopped us!” He was out of breath. “Can you believe that? Had to grease his palm with a ten spot, man. But that’s the least I owe you, England! I got a ninety-five on the test! The old man was generous in his appreciation, bro…” He swept his arm in a grand gesture towards the Mustang. “First thing next week, man, you and me will go cruisin’ with the top down! In style! Huh?”

But the last thing I cared about at the moment was his car, as beautiful as it was: that was just something else he had that I didn’t. What I wanted was in the car. That was something of my own, or at least that fell within the territory of my dreams. Perkins punched my arm and said The moment of truth! and hopped back down the stairs, cutting through the high-beams around the front of the car, over to the passenger side, and yanked the door open. A tall blonde unfolded herself from the car. My mouth went dry. I began to blink nervously. Perkins took her by the arm and escorted her gravely around the car’s front. As they passed through the headlights, I saw that it was Carly Benjamin! The Queen of Joe High!

She was my date! I was going to the Prom with Carly Benjamin! The most beautiful girl in Pulaski Park. In the short space of time that it took them to cross from one side of the car to the other, a thousand white-hot thoughts, the cascading shrapnel of a joyous explosion, dazzled down through my soul. Of course, I thought. That’s why she stared at me that day in the cafeteria…that’s why. She’d always liked me, but I was too blind to see it. Maybe I wasn’t such a freak, after all, and maybe she wasn’t too beautiful to enjoy sensitive thoughts, experience deeper emotions. It suddenly occurred to me that everything I thought I knew was wrong. And it was a relief….because everything I’d known up till that point was misery.

The two of them stood on the driver’s side of the car and Perkins seized the handle and I drew myself straight and tall and proud, all six foot ten of me, and he opened the door and reached in and switched the engine off, and then he drew back and there was more movement and I realized with a jolt that he was helping someone else out of the back seat of the Mustang. There was a lot of fuss, as the person appeared to be wedged too tight back there. There was a lot of grunting and groaning. With a loud birthing-moan they extricated her.

Perkins helped what appeared to be a middle-aged black woman in a tight, fringed red dress, out of his brand new sports car. She teetered on her heels when she stood beside the two of them. Her stomach bulged a bit at the dress’ shiny midriff. I could feel the corners of my smile melting into a lifeless thing down my face. I could feel a nasty chuckle tumble out of me, in an alien voice that seemed to come from a rotten spot so deep inside that the chuckle turned to sulfur on my lips. I could feel the gods snickering at me.

Perkins was back up in my face, leering with his boozy grin. Carly and the colored woman stood two steps below. Carly’s arms were folded over her chest, and she was practically glaring at me, daring me to react to the situation. But Perkins seemed oblivious. He was quite pleased with himself.

“Dusty England,” he said, turning back towards the woman, “I’d like you to meet Darletta McFadden.” He bowed. She took a step up towards me and extended her swollen black fingers. I shook her hand and she said “My my my. You a big one, honey.”

She looked me up and down and licked her lips. She broke out into a snaggle-toothed grin. At first I thought that one of the teeth was popped out in front, but I saw later it was a tooth with a ruby in it. The neckline of her dress plunged to reveal massive sweaty black teats, vandalized by light brown stretch marks. She caught me staring and wiggled her hips suggestively. She elbowed Carly and Carly laughed, looking me straight in the eyes.

Perkins drew closer to me and whispered, “Had to drive all the way over to Niggertown…you know, um, Blue Island, to find her, man. The beauty of it is, she’s yours for the night. Had to pay forty dollars, Bro…but it’s cool ’cause I owe you. Upshot is, that forty bucks includes everything, my man. Everything. You know what I’m saying! You’re a lucky man, England! There’s gonna be plenty studs out there tonight ain’t even gettin’ to first base….but in your case, see…home plate’s already paid for!” Perkins started laughing and Carly started laughing and the prostitute started laughing too.

I would have walked down those stairs and got in the station wagon and driven off without a word if it wasn’t for Carly Benjamin. But the way she stood there, smirking…expecting me to do just that…to flee back to the sad security of my adopted parents, my tail between my legs…I wanted to teach her a lesson. I wanted to show her I was stronger than anything she’d ever heard of before. Perkins was another matter…it was impossible to be mad at him… was that the secret of the ruling classes?…he was just ignorant, uncouth. He owned the world, and to him, Negroes and women both were just heirlooms he’d inherited from his grandfather. He was genial and friendly to everyone in that relaxed, superior way. He was above all of us in the world; the furthest beneath him were Darletta and I; and nothing I could do would ever affect him, nor put a dent in his sphere, nor even a slight wobble in his orbit unless, of course, I opted to assault him. As some brothers would. But that was never my style.

But Carly Benjamin, she was a subordinate, too. A servant. That was the animosity she felt for me, the bizarre pleasure she seemed to take in this breathtaking humiliation of mine. It was one servant despising another servant for being a servant. She was a servant of a much higher caste, of course, but still, she was not impervious to me like amiable Jack Perkins was…I could bother her in some way. I could at least ruin her cruel pleasure for that night. I forced myself to smile.

I reached out and Darletta McFadden, of the Niggertown McFaddens, took my arm.

The dance was in full swing when we made our entrance. There was a brief frozen period of shocked stares, and then little discreet eruptions of mirth bloomed around the dance floor as the four of us cut across the middle of the room, towards the table of refreshments at the other side, near the stage where a large band was playing. In the twinkling lights of the darkened room (another mirrored ball, this one a hundred feet up, under the steel girders of the gymnasium), Darletta didn’t look nearly as bad as she could have, but still she looked terrible.

She looked slovenly and chubby and loose. She looked old enough to be my mother. She was wearing an oily black wig, in the style of a bob, like a cap. White eyeshadow was smeared over her lids. Her blush looked painful in slick red bruises on her brown cheeks. Her eyes were bloodshot and tired. Still, she kept giggling, looking high up to me, and squeezing my forearm. She kept pointing out the different dresses, the glittering decorations, the big band on the stage under all those lights.

I handed her a plastic cup of punch and she sipped it and frowned and said, “Baby, I ain’t drunk no fruit juice since I was toilet trained.” She winked up at me. “I sure woulda liked ta toilet train you, though.” She hugged herself against my waist and I felt an acid heat tingling where her hot body rubbed me. I felt my Thing stirring but I thought of horrible subjects until it began to deflate again.

Carly and Jack stood just a few feet away, leaning against the refreshment table, ignoring each other and staring at us. Jack was grinning broadly and giving me a thumbs-up. Carly turned sideways from us and said something that made Jack double up with laughter.

I said to Darletta, “What’s it like living in Blue Island? Is it nice?” She disengaged herself from my legs and looked up at me like I was crazy. “Nice? Nice?” She blew out a disgusted breath. “Honey, I live there ’cause that’s just exactly where I ended up. That’s where stuff falls to, baby. It’s just the bottom of things, that’s all. Things fall, and they keep on falling, but one day they gotta land. That’s where I landed, that’s all.” She looked at me like I was an idiot. “You talk like a white boy,” she said. “And I’m paid to be nice to you, but I ain’t paid to answer no motherfucking personal questions. You dig?”

I said that I didn’t mean anything by it and she said “You wanna be my friend? Get me something good to drink.” Her eyes pointed to kids drinking in various spots around the room. “I know they ain’t all drinking no apple juice.” She suddenly grabbed my arm before I could leave to fetch her a drink. “And why don’t you take off them phony glasses while you’re at it, sugar? Frankly, I can’t see the point.” She held out a hand and I removed the glasses and placed them there. She put them in her little black patent leather purse.

I went to the refreshment table and sure enough I found a bowl of red punch that had been spiked with strong spirits. A few kids came over and patted me on the back as I stood there, and one girl, a mousy little thing from my chemistry class, had the nerve to say Dusty, that girl of yours is striking! I wanted to strike her. I ladled some high-test punch into a cup and brought it back to Darletta and she downed it with a gulp.

She had her eyes closed and licked her tongue slowly around the fat perimeter of her shiny lips and when her eye lids rolled up again, as slowly as the eyelids on a black-eyed doll, she looked straight through me. “You got to be the funniest looking white boy I ever seen.” she said. And I thought, and you’re nothing but dirt but I didn’t have the nerve to say it.

I looked over at Carly and Jack and they were kissing and hugging in a loose dance to a Beach Boys tune the band was playing. Little Surfer Girl. The song was so white that it seemed to congratulate them. I looked at my date and felt sick to my stomach. I was losing the war. Carly was grinning vacuously into Jack’s chest, her platinum blonde hair pouring across the elegant white sleeve of his leading arm.

Darletta caught me staring wistfully at the two of them and started shaking her head slowly from side to side, one hand on her broad hip, like she pitied me. I tried to ignore her. Time dragged on with excruciating precision, like a long, notched nail being extracted from my heart.

Darletta let herself smile again when the band started playing a Burt Bacharach tune. What’s It All About, Alfie? “That’s my song,” she said. She started singing along with it and her voice was so careful and out of tune that I suddenly felt sorry for both of us, I grieved for us, my pity and compassion and miserable sad sorrow formed a bubble around us that blurred the stupid staring grinning faces of the teenaged white monsters and I wanted to cry.

That’s how I felt, suddenly. After years of it. Because everyday of my life for the past nine or ten years had been exactly like this; this new situation was really not much worse. Everyday there’d been the stares, the giggles, the whispers, the idiotic or rude or cruel remarks, the asinine jokes in bad taste, the isolation, the oddness, that damning sense of eternal mistake, of basic horrible wrongness about myself. I once fooled myself into thinking that my height had a lot to do with it, but my height, in truth, was just a silly twist in the ugly joke of my being a real-black nigger in a white white, very white world. Originally smuggled into this merciless country as bits and pieces of DNA stored in the semen of some long-dead African.

Darletta reached out and pulled me to the middle of the dance floor. The crowd parted to admit us. I felt woozy feverish with renewed shame. Everything was dark and distorted. My lips inflated to the size and texture of truck tires. It took me a while to realize that my eyes were closed. The music came to me from the other end of a long metallic tunnel. When I opened my eyes, a crowd had formed around us. Nothing but friendly smiles, tragically misplaced, wobbled in a circle we centered. Darletta was ashamed of neither herself nor me. She pulled me along through a formless shuffling slow dance, pressed hard and lactating sweat against me, her fat hot breasts demanding attention. Her breath rose into me like a warm, earthy spirit. I felt myself swelling down there were she was.

She ran her tough, short-nailed hands expertly over my lower body. Unspeakable images marched through my imagination. Shocking, graphic snapshots. Scenes from the inferno; a raunchy, writhing black Eve; an even blacker serpent. My imagination revealed to me, in a virile convulsion, for the first time, exactly what it was that my body was really after… which wasn’t just holding somebody’s hand. I wasn’t quite me anymore: I was becoming my body. I was becoming a natural being, suddenly; my old thoughts ripped and falling like spent cocoons. It was then that I realized that growing up meant giving up poetry, and that poetry had nothing to do with life. Life is not poetic. Poetry is the rejection of life. Poets die miserable.

We kept dancing simply because I didn’t have the courage to cross the floor again in order to leave it. I don’t know how many songs went by, but eventually Darletta and I lost the novelty of our freak appeal and all the innocent white couples went back to the business of kissing and grinding together to the music. Teacher chaperones patrolled the audience to make sure that hands remained in polite places. One of them, walking near to us, behaved as though we were figments of his imagination; he broke into a nervous giggle and turned away.

Darletta said, “Boy, don’t you wear me out dancing! I won’t be worth a damn later on. Won’t have a drop of that sweet juice left. Let’s sit this one out.”

We took a couple of seats in a dark corner. We had nothing to say to each other. I looked around the gymnasium: not a sign of Carly and Jack anywhere. They were probably necking happily in a hidden spot already, laughing at me. I hadn’t taught Carly any fucking lesson. I hadn’t proven anything. I was just sad and tired. A sad tired freak with a tired whore on my arm.

I was desperately trying to think of a way to get out of that building and into the station wagon and safely back in my room without drawing attention to myself. Maybe I could sneak off while Darletta was in the Ladies Room…she’d have to go eventually, to vent the liquor she was tanking. What would it matter to her, anyway, if I snuck off? She’d been paid already.

“Say,” said Darletta suddenly, “Seriously…why you talk like a white boy?”

“What? What do you mean, exactly?”

What do you mean, exactly,” she said mockingly. “That’s what I mean, exactly. You talk like a white boy. If you weren’t such a big fine chocolate black nigger, I’d think you was a faggot. Don’t take it personal, baby.” She put her heavy wide hand on my leg. “I’m just curious, is all.”

My first impulse was to explain to her that I’d been adopted by white parents as a child, but then I thought better of it, because that wasn’t the point, in my opinion.

“Why, if I’m speaking proper English, does that mean I’m talking like a white boy? Does being colored automatically mean being uneducated?” I was becoming angry. It was a sore point with me.

She looked at me sideways. “What you mean, proper English? You think there’s only one way of talking? You think somethin’s more right just ‘cuz white folks do it?”

“It has nothing to do with black or white,” I said. “There’s proper English, and there’s slang. Plenty of whites speak slang as well. It’s not just Negroes. But if you want to make the best impression, you have to speak the English language as it was meant to be spoken.”

She took a long look before snorting, “Honey, let’s face it, you only gonna make one kinda impression yo’ whole damn life and the sooner you face that, happier you gonna be.” Then she stood up and patted me on the shoulder and vamped ostentatiously across the floor to get herself another real drink. I watched her lean forward over the refreshment table, her broad ass jutting, the fringe on her dress shimmying, her thick strong legs apart, her scuffed heels bent under her. Some red-faced kid was pouring a cup for her and they were chatting. A few others straggled over. She was drumming up business. She probably had a special discount rate for students. She’d be hopping from car to car in the parkinglot later that night. She wouldn’t even have noticed if I snuck out on her right at that moment.

Then I looked up, and felt trapped.

Coming across the floor towards me, grinning like Alfred E. Neumann, was Cohen. He was wearing his traditional camouflage army jacket, but his aviator’s glasses were off and his hair was slicked back. His ears protruded proudly. This was his idea of going formal.

If he caught me with Darletta McFadden, I’d be mortified. I’d never hear the end of it. I tried to scrunch down in my chair.

“England!” Cohen was thrilled to see me. “I see we’re both here stag! That’s perfect. We’re gonna have a helluva time, man. You are here alone, aren’t you? How long you been here? I decided at the last minute to come.” He sat in Darletta’s chair, beside me. He was too stupid to realize that the chair was already warm.

“I mean, what the hey, a man only gets one senior prom in his life, right? Who else made it?” He looked happily around the room.

“There’s Boney,” he said, pointing out one of his fat pariah friends (who, I had to admit, was at least with a girl who hadn’t been rented for the night).

I was too paralyzed to speak. I just watched with morbid anxiety as Darletta came snaking back across the dance floor in her lascivious hoochie-coochie towards us, a cup of ninety-proof sloshing in either hand. Every time her huge ass jolted on a footfall, spoonfuls of punch exploded from the cups.

“Holy shit,” said Cohen. “Who is that?”

She got closer and closer, my angel of death. My giddy reaper.

“England…she’s coming this way!” Cohen turned to me and said, “If she sits down over here, you do all the talking, okay? You know I’m not good with girls…will you look at the bongos on that lady!” Cohen grabbed my arm and clutched it so tight that I thought that I’d scream. When Darletta stopped directly in front of us, Cohen dug his nails so deep through the sleeve of my sweater that I shrieked and snatched my arm away.

Darletta handed me a half-empty cup of punch and remained standing. “Friend of yours, honey?” she asked, smiling down at Cohen. Cohen half-opened his mouth and a sound like a baby bird came out.

“Nathaniel Cohen, Darletta MacFadden.” I intoned monotonously. Cohen hopped to his feet and gestured frantically for her to take his seat. She curtsied grotesquely and sat.

“You dog, England!” Cohen punched me in the arm. Standing in front of me, he was as tall as I was seated. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend.” He turned to Darletta. “And so pretty, too. Darletta…that’s a French name, isn’t it?”

My prostitute date giggled coquettishly.

“That’s a fine ruby-inlaid tooth, there.” he said.

“Nate,” I said as I stood. “It’s getting late. I have to get Darletta back home before midnight or her parents will have a fit.”

Darletta hooted and said, “Shit, I think I’ve heard it all, now!” Her laughter was deep and dirty, like an alley cat rolling around in her belly, but it was so full of real relish that it almost felt good to hear it. I must admit, I was on the verge of laughing myself.

Cohen looked stricken. “You can’t go already! You just got here! The night is young! Come on, don’t do this to me, England! Darletta doesn’t want to go yet…do you, Darletta? Come on, make this big jerk stay awhile. He just wants to keep you all to himself, that’s all.” He made a fist at me, standing on his tip-toes. I glanced at Darletta and smiled and she winked back at me.

I could see that she was flattered by the fuss that my idiotic friend was making over her. She began primping and preening like a virginal southern belle. She even tugged the corners of her wig to correct its angle. It was a revelation to me that Nate found Darletta not even laughable, but somehow attractive. He kept hopping around us like an excited little dog.

“Whatsamatter, afraid I’ll steal her from you? Some friend you turn out to be! Come on,” he whined, “Just one dance and then you can go…” but I had Darletta’s arm and we headed for the Fire Exit.

“I think your little friend likes me,” she said when we got outside.

Then she went on her knees, smacking her lips, and did as Perkins had instructed.

-June, 1993

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