Excerpt from White Nights, Black Paradise
By Sikivu Hutchinson
The basketball shot punched into the backboard, flipping off the rim, taking a millennium to land back, melting all buttery in his hands as he turned it around, did a quick layup, manufactured the swish of an invisible net in his head.
How you like that motherfucker? He thought to his brother standing across from him, his eyes obscured in the velvet dark of right before the streetlights fluttered on, the court stretching in front of them like a sliver of dead jungle beneath the window of a plane. Was it true that their mother had dressed them alike right down to the underwear? Was it true that she’d tried to get their picture taken for Christmas at the neighborhood Woolworth and been turned away? That she’d hired one of the church members to play photographer at the last minute, bouncing Demian on one knee and Jimmy on the other, two peas in a rotten pod. The sitting was captured in a collection of amateurish black and white pictures rammed behind the birth control herbs in her dresser drawer. The top of his head is torn off in one of the pictures; his arm around the adopted sister who’d died in a car crash right after being baptized.
She was a refugee from a faraway war torn land, they said; a boat person who washed up on the Pacific shore; never even learned to brush her teeth or write her name in English, flashed through their lives like a handful of lightning then was gone. She was his mother’s jewel, the last book in her rainbow kiddie trilogy. And when the sheriff came to deliver the news she fought him like a wolverine on speed, haggard from doing the church’s books, wrung out with grief.
Daddy, how come you didn’t bring her back from the dead like you did me? Jimmy had asked. Their dad had put his head in his hands, not trying to hide his tears. He asked the Lord to give him strength then took it back.
“There is no fucking God boys. Look what he did to your innocent little sister.”
Demian had kept the black and white picture all these years, fascinated by the symmetry of their bodies, two alive and here; one dead and floating above them, their secret guardian angel.
On the court he and Jimmy always had an audience. A wise ass regiment of snickering eleven year-olds from the Catholic Brotherhood’s after school program running color commentary on every fuck-up and half-step Demian and Jimmy made when all the other players had left and the two of them circled each other like queasy suitors. They made great sport out of Demian’s bow-legged free throw, Jimmy’s ponderous dribble and hard fakes, playing the dozens as though their lives depended on it. Pretty boy, white boy, Bambi, they shrieked. Didn’t they know that Father was a foiled basketball great. A forward with more smarts than agility, pissed on by the others for being a mongrel mixed breed. Wasn’t for that he would’ve led the team to victory. Athleticism, competition, teamwork; that’s in your genes boys, your family inheritance, doesn’t matter whether you’re so-called homemade or not, you’re part of my flesh, my soul, my body and nobody can take that away from us.
We may be from a misfit church but at least we don’t have priests who make choir boys give them head. You tell ‘em that when they try and fuck with you. They’re victims. Objects of pity. The crumbs these charities throw out to these ghetto orphans dwarfs in comparison to the billions they’ve looted from third world countries.
Demian had rehearsed, honed that line in his head, wanting to spit it out at an opportune moment, to draw blood, send the little Catholic charity punks reeling back to the parish. He could never work up the nerve or the meanness.
Could he cut himself open and quarantine the genes that were his father’s for an hour, a day, a year.
Who would assume the mantle, be the rightful heir. Speak truth to power like Dad. Lead the flock to Canaan. Beat back the Pharisees, or whatever the correct analogy was. He couldn’t remember, despite all the years of drilling, training, regurgitating biblical shit in the early days back home in Indiana.
Demian had not changed clothes from that morning. He took off his terry cloth shirt and put it on the park bench, levitating from the smell of his own must, the soggy remains of his fear and anxiety seeing his brother at the donut shop. Jimmy waited for him to get back on the court then thrust the ball at him. He caught it in his chest, cradling it for a second, faking, throwing it back to him with the same brute force that they’d learned when their father had stood over them with a stopwatch, timing them on who passed the ball the fastest.
At the tenth pass Jimmy stopped, conceding. He chucked the ball lightly at Demian, bending down to tie his high top sneakers, a floppy pair on loan from one of the Temple thrift stores.
“That reporter took a real shine to you.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“He’s not a homosexual.”
“Whatever he was he was putting the moves on you and you fell for it.”
“I have the right to speak my mind.”
“Speaking your mind is one thing, getting played for a punk is another.”
Demian gripped the ball, holding it over his head, breaking into a hard dribble. Jimmy’s breath hung in the air, a lingering rasp leftover from childhood asthma.
He passed the ball to Jimmy. Jimmy drove down the court and did a layup, squeals crackling from behind the gate.
“Time for ya’ll to go home!” Demian shouted.
“Fuck you snowflake,” they chortled.
Jimmy waved his hand dismissively at Demian. “Leave ‘em alone. What other entertainment do they have in their lives? We’re privileged to have a family, to have a place that’s ours.” He stared coolly at his brother, starter mustache droopy with dew. “Dad wants us to leave in a few weeks.”
“I’m not going.”
“You tell him that?”
“In so many words.”
“That’s not good enough. You have to be direct with him. He expects us to show leadership over there, we’re the only ones who can really be trusted not to screw up his vision.”
“I don’t really care what his vision is for that place. I have a life here that I’m not going to ditch just because he wants to play king of the fucking jungle.”
“And what life is that? Smoking weed? Staying out late, getting up late, drifting and screwing your way through every zip code in the city?”
“No, that’s Dad’s thing, get your propaganda straight.”
“Stop deflecting. We go over there for fifteen months, clear the land, get supplies, supervise construction, establish relationships with the locals. You’ll pack a career’s worth of experience into just one year.”
“I don’t want that kind of career. I don’t want to waste one second of my life busting my ass doing shit work for his pipe dream.”
“Look, I know he’s not perfect. He’s done some messed up shit, hurt some people, cast weak ones out when they should’ve been protected. He’s atoning for all that. This move is a chance for atonement. Not just for him but for everybody. It’s bigger than any one person. If you see it as just his pipe dream then you don’t get it.”
“What do Louise, Cassandra and all the other little old black ladies who’ve given Dad and the church their homes and life savings have to atone for Jimmy?”
Jimmy took a step back. “Nothing. Not a single thing. Maybe atone was an overstatement. I just know some people have been waiting their whole lives for this.”
“Then let them go in my place.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Take some acting classes. There’s a few theater groups I want to check out.”
“Theater? Dem you’ve never acted in your life. You know how hard it is to make it in that industry, to make any kind of decent living? Yeah, it’ll be easier for you whatever you do because you’re white but even then people will judge you right out the gate because you’re Jim Jones’ son. As long as we’re pariahs in this place and the conditions for black people stay the same you don’t stand a chance here. Your conscience won’t let you.”
“I don’t have the same kind of negativity as you.”
“Right, you’ve always had things, you had parents, you had white skin. You say jump, the world says how high? What do you have to be negative about when you’ve been sheltered all your damn life?”
“Get off it Jimmy I didn’t get any fucking special privileges. If anything…”
“If anything what? Mom and Dad bent over backwards for a poor little nigger orphan and left Homemade out in the cold?”
“Yeah. Yeah that’s right.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“Stop telling me what I believe.”
“No one’s saying you don’t have your own mind.”
“Stop acting like it then.”
Jimmy put his hand on Demian’s shoulder. Demian flinched, trying to pull away, his brother holding him firmly. “Remember the summer we spent at grandma’s when everyone was out on the road at the Wings of Deliverance thing.”
He was silent. Muddy water gurgled up in his throat. Baby frogs suctioned up his leg, precious as tiny glow-in-the-dark toys. Down, down, down, he’d gone, landing in the seat of a rusted trike. Down, down, down and this was surely the end, he’d thought, of his stupid eight year-old self. Never be able to eat spaghetti with melted cheese again, never be able to press up against Kira’s thigh and pretend like it was an accident, never be able to fly a plane to Brazil. He would sit at the back of the funeral home, drinking in his parents’ hysterical laments at yet another lost child. But then his brother’s arms were around him, snatching at his collar, grabbing hold to the scruff of his neck. His brother’s arms pushing through the hail of leaves, twigs, bone imploring them to stay and play for a while, take a spin on the dead baby’s marooned tricycle.
He’d jumped in the creek on a dare from a neighbor boy; keeping his t-shirt on, ashamed of his scrawny freckled chest even though he and Jimmy had been lifting bricks all summer to get buffed up.
Betcha Sambo can swim better’n you Stringbean, the boy had taunted, cramming strips of baloney sandwich in his hatchet face as he swatted horseflies away. He was the first of many audiences captivated by the spectacle of he and Jimmy; tall, gangly, thick as thieves maybe, watchful of their bodies, selectively protective of each other; now here was Demian taking the bait, jumping into the glorified piss hole he’d feared since he was a toddler.
“Yeah, I remember. What about it?” he asked sullenly.
“That time in the creek. You were petrified. Grandma—tiny little grandma—wanted to beat your butt afterward. Went on and on about this kid drowning in the summer of ’48 that they didn’t get to in time.”
“You want a fucking medal after all these years for rescuing me? That it?”
“It’s not about me. It’s about why you needed to prove yourself to that cracker in the first place.”
“I wasn’t trying to prove shit.”
Jimmy took a towel from his duffel bag on the ground. He reached over and wiped the sweat off Demian’s cheek, handing him the towel. “Didn’t want Sambo to upstage you. Right little brother? I forgave you that then. I forgive you now.”
Demian balled up the towel and threw it back at him. “Fuck off.”
“Before she died grandma used to say that we were the church philosophers, always in our heads thinking heavy, like it was us against the world. She loved that cliché, thrilled her when I took up for you.”
“Don’t trot her out to make me feel guilty.”
“Too bad she didn’t live long enough to see what we’re going to do over there. The bigger vision Dad has is partly because of her, she couldn’t do a fourth of what he’s done because society wouldn’t support a woman doing it. Dirt poor white woman, nobody gave a shit what her ambitions were as long as she popped out a son.”
“So now you want to hide behind her.”
“She thought that if someone so much as blew on you you’d float away.”
“You were the softer dreamier one in her eyes, more like Mom I guess. I defended you then, told her you could be counted on.”
Demian turned away from the court and spit. The Catholic kids had left. In the distance he could see cars flitting by across the spine of the Bay Bridge. He thought he saw someone scaling it, waving a white flag into the barreling headlights.
Jimmy followed his gaze, looking impatient then bemused. “There you go daydreaming again. C’mon, let’s go get something to eat.”