A shroud descended upon Eli as the classroom emptied. Through the remainder of the week and into the next, his unhappiness only deepened, drilling like a diamond-tipped augur toward his core. He sleepwalked through his classes, shaken by knowledge that Shahid almost certainly would return to torment him. In class, the students were lethargic and unresponsive, as if they, too, were waiting for something to happen, something larger and fleshy. Something more alive than the dry bones of history Eli swept before them.
Eli could not rid himself of a vision. He pictured Shahid, squeezed into the same chair with Blade and the white diversity proponent, Laurel Modigliani, the three of them whispering, conspiring, shouting him down, mocking him. Then he would see his father, standing in the doorway, leading them in chants of outrage and derision. Tobias, puppet-master, nemesis.
On Friday, Eli spoke to Harry, seeking some way to explain his anxiety without sounding foolish. Harry didn’t really understand. “I don’t think so, Eli,” he said. “Shahid is no reformer. You wouldn’t find him anywhere near Laurel. He doesn’t approve of race-mixing. He’s an urban revolutionary, a separatist. Malcolm and the Panthers are his models.”
Eli wasn’t so sure. He imagined Black Panther Field Marshall Don Cox, sipping white wine and making polite small talk with Otto Preminger and Cheray Duchin in the parlor of Leonard Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse on Park Avenue. Revolutions require strange bedfellows, he mused. In fact, he could see Shahid mingling with some latter-day, post-modern equivalent of the Bernsteins. Someone in the film industry perhaps. Someone white but compliant, like film director Shananie Wolfe, whose movies featured vaguely third-world heroines trapped in post-industrial, bureaucratic mazes, Kafkaesque nightmares of hacked computers and canceled identities. But no doubt, Shahid preferred to operate within tightly organized cadres and cells. His revolutionary brotherhood gathering at night, in backstreet apartments with drawn shades.
Eli was dithering, though. Put simply, black America unnerved him. He could smoothly articulate his discomfort. Eli was the kind of enterprising intellectual who needed to defend any opinion with a principle, as if the stated principle would somehow elide and render inconsequential its underlying impulse. In this instance, assimilation provided a framework for understanding how America accommodated the racial and ethnic diversity of its population.
For Eli, the nation’s great gift to its immigrants was the opportunity it provided for them to leave their pasts behind, at the waters of the farther shore. Free from the burden of history, legacies of oppression and brutality, they might then boldly face and embrace the future. Black America unnerved him because it represented the antipode to this principle. It could not be digested. Its history could not be eradicated, whitewashed, as it were. To this extent, blacks resisted rebirth into a status fully American, and thereby fully free.
Eli understood the key to maintaining freedom within a capitalist democracy was to avoid a situation in which any class or group of people became the permanent doormat or mudsill for the rest of society. But this was what troubled him about the plight of African-Americans in the United States. A culture of victimization, an identity politics based on weakness, not on strength, had condemned black Americans to recurring cycles of poverty and violence. For most blacks, racism as a historical reality provided the starting point for their understanding of themselves and their status as Americans. No matter that racism had essentially been eliminated as a legal, or structural, obstacle to full black participation in the promise of American life. So long as blacks insisted on limiting the ability of individuals to define themselves in terms transcending race, the claims of the past upon the present and the future, expressed through paranoid fantasies of powerlessness and victimization, would continue to be overwhelming and debilitating. It was history that trapped American blacks, far more than any ghetto or housing project, far more than the police or institutional racism.
The unease Eli experienced personally in the company of black people extended well beyond this insight, however, plunging more deeply into his own psyche, into fears from childhood of a rage unleashed, of a world unbalanced, its axis shattered.
* * *
When Eli was young, Princeton preciously preserved, like folk art, its own black ghetto, a few dense blocks of dark and tiny row houses circumscribed by the university, the mansions of the gentry, and the Borough’s small, exclusive commercial district. This shopping quarter also buffered the black neighborhood from white ethnic enclaves, tree-lined streets where working-class Roman Catholics sprawled on lazy summer days in wife-beaters, Italians and Poles mostly, living in shabby duplexes, driving dented Chevy’s, spawning children hard and tough who did not even pretend to like black people.
Eli lived only minutes from these neighborhoods, himself, also near the university, in a stone house with a slate roof and a long curving driveway. Those minutes might as well have been an eternity, though, so far was he from comprehending the earth-crushing emotions engendered by race consciousness. It was not that Eli himself either liked or disliked blacks. He never thought about them at all. His friends, children of professors at the university, were white, and the geometric, self-enclosed rhythms of college life defined his existence. They limited his vision, preserving within him a quality unique to children of the academy, a kind of pre-racial innocence.
A small, bright-eyed boy, Eli lived apart from society, in a mythic world marked only by the passage of the seasons, each singular for its attachment to a collegiate sport and a set of athletic heroes. His sense of himself rose and fell like a tiny bellows, pumped by the fortunes of his Princeton Tigers.
Eli was an expectant boy. On football Saturdays, before his accident, he sprinted down barricaded streets, blocked off from traffic for the fans. He darted, like a scamp, like a squirrel. He dodged right, then left. He broke tackles. He found open field. He found grace. He knew his world to be an orderly place, where one could measure precisely the margin of a victory or a defeat. By the size of a smile. By the number of tears.
“You are a good little boy,” his father would say in his admonitory, paternal way. “But you don’t know the world.”
* * *
Eli found out about the world in junior high school, where black and white students mixed like a bad stew. Nasty niggers in this dump, he and his white friends from the Township learned to say. And they knew this from experience, from muggings and shakedowns in the hallways and bathrooms, heads slammed against doors and lockers, smells of cheap wine and dope and hot breath close upon them. They feared black kids, who were loud and boisterous and angry, and they admired Borough whites, tough, working-class kids who smoked cigarettes and carried blades and came down hard on any nigger who got in their mess.
On Fridays, the strongest, baddest white and black students fought to determine strutting rights. Like clockwork, word spread through the vaulted corridors of the school, leaping from locker to locker. Mick Miller and Dab Carter. Duking after school. Behind the tennis courts. Be there, man. No one knew who arranged these fights. They just happened. The final bell rang, students poured down the hill, past the baseball field and tennis courts, to an isolated corner of the school grounds, where they milled, smoked, bantered, and flirted in their rough, untender, adolescent way. Then the combatants appeared, each flanked by three or four friends. Horseplay diminished. The students, eyes widening in awe, spread themselves into a loose circle, white kids ranging themselves on one side of the lawn, separated by several yards from the blacks, who, because fewer in number, clustered more tightly together, drawing strength and ferocity from their nearness to one another.
At 13 or 14, Miller and Carter were renowned for their feral vitality. But there the similarities ended. Miller, lank, sloe-eyed son of a state trooper, was a pure athlete, already nearing six feet, with broad shoulders and long, powerful arms. On his 13th birthday, he pitched a no-hitter for his Little League team, striking out 17 batters in seven innings. He could throw a football 50 yards, but had been kicked off the junior high team after two games when the coach found him under the bleachers with the coach’s 16-year old daughter.
Had the coach’s daughter offered herself to Carter, he too would not have demurred. But this outcome was inconceivable, for Carter was too short, too ugly, and too black. He did not possess Miller’s natural grace and style. He squatted, barely five-three, with a square, pushed-in face, and he looked perpetually aggrieved. But what he lacked in athletic ability and other natural advantages, he made up for in pugnacity and sheer orneriness. The most punishing fullback in the school’s history, as a seventh grader, he accounted for 80 percent of his team’s total yardage. The sum total of the coach’s football philosophy was give the ball to Carter, and get the hell out of the way!
Down by the tennis courts, Miller and Carter stood toe to toe. Carter’s jaw, like the cow catcher of some tiny, coal-black locomotive, jutting out and jamming up into Miller’s chest. Though no blows had yet been struck, both boys breathed heavily. Who knows what they thought. Or felt. Under other circumstances, Carter would have been taking handoffs and swing passes from Miller. Here by the courts, surrounded by half the school, they were merely going to pummel each other into oblivion. That was their destiny, and if they did feel anything, it might have been that each punch must carry the anger and pain of a life already spent, a childhood blasted. “C’mon man,” Miller sneered. “Let’s get it on.”
* * *
By the time Eli entered high school, students had grown beyond these rituals of single combat. Or maybe they just no longer needed stand-ins to act out personal fantasies of regeneration through violence. And so we see Eli, one fine spring morning in 1976, his sophomore year, peering through the window from his French class.
“Ecouter le poem de Victor Hugo!” Monsieur LaClos, perched casually on the front of his desk. Softly chuckling. “C’est un poem d’amour.”
Eli did not ecouter, however, for through branches of a blossoming cherry tree outside the classroom, a dozen students, white on black, were getting it on all right, air heavy with shouts and curses. A senior from farmlands across Route 1 pulled a bottle from the trash barrel and waded into the melee, his arm cocked over his head, waggling the bottle like a pom-pom. The melee was on, indeed, with older students eagerly leaping through the doorway of the high school and sprinting from around corners of the brick building to join the fray. Meanwhile, the other students in his French class joined Eli by the window, their faces, drawn and pale, pressed tightly to the glass.
* * *
Late in the afternoon, Eli eased past the cordon of cops surrounding the high school. He poked his way home, cutting across the empty lot in back of the football field. Beyond the lot, a small wood separated the school from residential streets on the north side of town. A narrow path wound through the wood alongside a small creek. As Eli started down the path, he thought about the rioting. He wondered about anger other young people, black and white alike, carried. He wondered about the special intensity of anger among black students.
Eli passed through the wood, deep in thought, his eyes to the ground. By the time he noticed the twins, it was too late to backtrack. Eli had known Lester and Chester Darden since the fourth grade, when the school district began to bus black students to all elementary schools in Princeton. Their father was a maintenance man at the local country club. Their mother was the town meter maid. The Darden’s lived in a duplex on John Street. They were not poor. The parents were sweat-of-thy-brow Christians, seeking only to rear children whose happiness and prosperity would exceed theirs. But the taproot of racial bitterness poisoned their dream.
Lester and Chester had been cute boys, with round, alert faces and sunbeam smiles. By junior high school, though, the brightness had faded from their eyes. They hung with a rough crowd. They performed poorly in school. Something within them, within their spirits, had soured. Eli could only with difficulty understand what had happened to them, but he knew this was a common pattern among black children in Princeton. Many turned hard and bitter in adolescence. Eli’s father called this darkness passing into their souls the curse of Ham. It was, he explained to Eli, the shadow of the past.
* * *
The twins stood in a small clearing near the edge of the wood. They smoked cigarettes and stared at Eli. Two other boys Eli did not know stood with them. He guessed they were from Trenton, home to guys capable of shit that scared even the toughest kids from Princeton.
Eli walked toward the clearing. He would have to pass these boys to get to the street. He kept his head down, hoping they might not recognize him.
“Wheeler! Happenin’ man?”
Eli tried to edge past them. “Nothing.”
The boys blocked his path. He stopped and looked up at them.
“Nothing!” Lester was heavy-set. A long Afro pick stuck out of his hair, a Black Power fist cresting the handle. His eyes were bloodshot. “I saw you today, man. You were out there in the parking lot. I saw you, man. You were gonna light up some niggers, weren’t you?” The others laughed and crowded more tightly around Eli.
“I was in class.”
Chester, Lester minus the Afro pick, stared at Eli’s desert boots and laughed. “He wasn’t going to light up any niggers with those. I’d have killed the motherfucker. Anyway, he’s a crip. You a crip, aren’t you, boy?”
Eli didn’t say anything.
Lester examined Eli’s leg. “He ain’t a crip,” he said. “He used to be a crip.” His tone, while rough, was not unsympathetic. “You get hit by a car? I heard you got hit by a car. Isn’t that what happened?”
“That was Chuck Sneed. He’s dead.”
Chester nodded thoughtfully. Suddenly, one of the two Trenton boys spoke up. “Man, we can’t let this white shit pass without paying the toll.” He laughed excitedly. “Man, you gots to pay the toll!”
“What toll?” Eli said, knowing the inevitable shakedown was about to begin.
“You gots to give us ten dollars. You gots to pay the bill, man.”
“I don’t have ten dollars. I don’t have any money.” Eli pulled the front pockets of his jeans inside out. This was the truth. His parents would not let him work until his 16th birthday. In the meantime, he subsisted on a meager allowance, his young life denuded of adolescent pleasure. Tobias said this penury imposed discipline and built character.
Before Eli could push the pockets back into his pants, the excited boy pressed him against a tree. The boy held up a silver switchblade. He snapped the blade’s release button. “Don’t pull that shit on me. You white. You rich. You got them nice desert boots. You don’t give me ten dollars, I’m gonna cut you.”
Eli eyed the blade for a moment and looked over at Lester and Chester. “I swear,” he said, “I don’t have any money.”
Lester shouted at the boy with the knife. “Man, what shit you pulling, Rodney? Wheeler’s all right. Put that motherfuckin’ knife away. He don’t have no money for you.”
Rodney paused, puzzled and angered by the rebuke. As he slipped the knife back into his pocket, he turned back toward Eli. He laughed.
“You a scared motherfucker.”
“No, I’m not scared,” Eli said, his voice low. “I just need to get home.”
Chester flicked his cigarette butt to the ground. He pulled a package of Kools from his jacket pocket, placed one cigarette in his mouth and offered another to Eli.
“You smoke, man?”
Eli took the cigarette. Chester held a lighter in his hand. He lit his own cigarette, then shifted the flame under Eli’s.
The other boys laughed. “You got to puff, Wheeler,” Lester exclaimed. “Ain’t you never smoked before?” The other boys took cigarettes from the package of Kools. For a moment, there was silence while each one inhaled. With the exception of Eli, they were all practiced smokers. Eli tried to inhale, but the smoke somehow found its way to his stomach. His head felt like a helium balloon bobbing on the end of a string. The sensation was not unpleasant, though, and in this lightness of his spirit, he imagined he might be friends with these boys.
Lester spoke up. “You hang out with Shiree, don’t you? I seen you with her.”
Eli nodded. Shiree was one of his favorite people. They were good friends. She was a big girl, with a flashing smile and quick movements. Shiree’s ease with white people and her unwillingness to wrap her blackness around her like a chador had complicated her relationships with other black students at the high school.
“She your ho?”
“I said, she your ho?” Lester was exasperated.
“My ho?” Eli had no idea what he was talking about.
“Your HO! You sleep with that black bitch?”
The other boys were laughing at Eli.
“No,” he said. The idea of sleeping with Shiree had never occurred to him. But now, in the swirl of the smoke and the sudden warmth rushing to his head, the notion of sex with Shiree also amused Eli. Her gazoongas were huge, like chocolate pudding mountains. Eli pictured them liberated from their hammock-like brassiere cups. He relished the image of himself scaling those peaks while she squealed and squirmed beneath him.
“No,” Eli said again, laughing heartily, taken in by the mirth of the moment. “But I’d love to get my hands on that black bitch’s boobs.”
And then no one was laughing.
“What you say, boy?”
“I said I’d like to get my hands on her boobs.” In the close silence that enveloped the clearing, the jocular tone he tried to adopt did not materialize. His voice squeaked and stalled.
“You call her a black bitch.” Lester was not smiling. “You gonna pay that toll now, Wheeler.”
“I told you guys. I don’t have any money.”
The four black kids once again surrounded Eli. Rodney cupped his knife in his hand. Chester’s lighter also reappeared. He flicked the lighter. He pointed the flame toward the other Trenton boy. “Burn him,” he said quietly.
“What?” Eli squeaked.
“I said burn Darnell.” Chester poked Eli with his other hand. “Or we gonna fuck you up good.”
Darnell was tall and thin, with a reddish Afro. Pink blotches spread across his face. He stared intently at Eli, his eyes vacant, his smile blank. He held out one arm. Translucent scar tissue covered the palm and much of his forearm.
“I can’t burn him. This is crazy.” Eli looked to see if anyone else might be coming down the path. It was empty. His head turned toward the school, he didn’t see Lester’s fist coming, landing hard on the side of his head, knocking him to the path. Eli’s face smashed a rock, bruising his cheek, cutting open his lip. He staggered to his knees, but now Rodney was taking his shot. His kick landed high up on Eli’s rib cage, near his lungs. Eli found himself flat on the ground again, gasping for breath, waiting for the next blow. But the blow did not come. After 20 or 30 seconds, Eli pushed himself to his knees.
Chester stood over him. “You gonna burn that motherfucker, or we gonna kill you. You burn him. That’s what he wants. You do it.” He paused. “You do that, then you can go.”
Eli breathed heavily. His head throbbed. Dirty tears streaked his face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry openly before these boys. Then Rodney was on his knees next to Eli. He took the switchblade and held it to Eli’s ear. “Motherfucker,” he chirped softly, “you burn Darnell, or I’m gonna cut off this ear.”
“Get up, Wheeler,” Lester said. He offered one large, calloused hand to Eli. After a moment, Eli took the hand and allowed Lester to pull him to his feet. Darnell still stood there, his hand outstretched, like a beggar seeking alms.
Eli took the lighter from Chester and stared at it. It was yellow, a cheap disposable Bic. He flicked it once, watched the flame for a second, and then let it die. He thought about running, but he knew he wouldn’t get ten feet before these boys caught him. He flicked the lighter again. Slowly, he moved it close to Darnell’s outstretched hand. He looked into Darnell’s eyes. They were a dark grey, with flecks of black and red.
“Why do you want me to do this?”
“Cause it feel good.”
Eli slid his hand under Darnell’s palm. He lifted the flame until it was about six inches from Darnell’s skin, near enough to feel warm, but not do any damage.
“That’s not good enough, Wheeler. You got to burn him.”
Eli moved the lighter closer to Darnell’s hand. The flame licked his palm, flattening where it met flesh. Darnell’s body stiffened. He smiled. Eli’s own arm quivered, but this time he did not lower the lighter. A sweet putrescence now filled the air. Darnell closed his eyes. His head jerked and writhed. A bit of smoke filtered through his fingers. The other boys stood quietly, transfixed by the sacramental power of the ritual.
Eli held the lighter to Darnell’s palm for 15 or 20 seconds, his own hand soppy with sweat, cheeks dampened by tears. Suddenly, he turned toward the creek and pitched the lighter into the water. He spun back toward Darnell and the twins.
“There!” he cried. “Are you happy? Did I burn you enough?”
Darnell turned his palm over and stared at the gelatinous pulp in the center of his hand. He grazed it gently with the fingers of his other hand.
Eli sank to his knees, lunch slipping from his stomach like an eel, sliding brown and silken onto the trail, into bushes by the edge of the creek. Eli crouched upon all fours. He sniffed the soil. He could not bear to lift his head. He could not bear to see the melted hand, and the tenderness of Darnell’s touch upon it.