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Our Laurie is the six-five Black Guy, the one with elaborate braids under his NY Yankees cap, the one wearing size thirteen shoes and a South Carolina T-shirt because he'd just gotten a scholarship offer from the Gamecocks, the one who'd returned only the day before from the high school All-American basketball camp in Philadelphia, the one with brown skin almost exactly the same shade as my ex-husband's, the one we tease our daughter about because she always said the last thing she ever wanted to do was replicate my life.
"Where you from?" one officer yelled at us, and another held the barrel of his shotgun against Feets's skull, pushing it farther and farther until the opening seemed to be inside his ear, under his huge Afro. It was August 1979. Westwood, California.
Where you from? Where's your license? Where's your car? Is it stolen ? Why are you here? Why aren't you in Riverside?
We'd driven eighty miles from Riverside, the land of uncool, of orange trees and dairy farms and a tiny downtown. I was ready to begin my sophomore year at USC. Feets played basketball for Monterey Peninsula College, and our friend Penguin was a linebacker for a junior college in Riverside County. After the beach, they wanted to cruise the streets of Westwood, the paradise we'd seen only in movies.
Feets wore tight khaki pants, a black tank undershirt, and a cream-colored cowboy hat on his big natural. Then two police cruisers sped onto the sidewalk where we walked, blocking our path. Four officers shoved us against the brick wall.
I remember how it smelled.
He was their target, I realized quickly. Power forward. His shoulder blades were wide, dark wings; he was spread-eagled against the wall.
He fit the description.
A black man with a shotgun and a cowboy hat was seen threatening people at UCLA, one of them shouted.
The cop who'd taken me aside looked at my license. Why'd you come all the way from Riverside to L.A.? Where's your car? Whose car is it? Does your mother know you 're with two niggers?
Penguin was talking back to the cops, refusing to give them his license, and I thought they were going to shoot Feets. Through his ear.
They said a few more things to him, things I couldn't hear. They lowered the shotgun. He lowered his arms. They told us to find our car and leave L.A. "Go back to Riverside!" They said they'd follow us, and that if they saw us walking again, they would shoot on sight.
The patrol car shadowed us as we walked. My boyfriend walked slowly, slightly ahead of me. I knew he was afraid of the bullet that might still come, if he moved wrong. We went back to where we belonged.
What did the highway patrolman want? The Scholar had been going thirty-two miles an hour, between stops. She had always signaled.
"The right taillight's going out again," my ex-husband said.
"My seat belt is still broken," I said.
My ex-husband fishtailed in the dirt of the shoulder, trying to pull ahead of the van and the cruiser. The patrolman was yelling louder, his voice echoing off our door. "Ignore the white truck," he shouted.
"Pull behind him!" I shouted.
"No, then he'll get scared," my ex-husband was shouting.
I knew what he thought: if the officer got scared, he might shoot us.
The Scholar stopped, and the cruiser stopped, and my ex-husband accelerated and went around one more time, a terrible dance which wasn't funny but it kind of was when the highway patrolman leaped out of his vehicle then, agitated, staring at us, holding both arms wide in the air, saying, What the hell?
He had reddish blond hair, big shoulders, sunglasses.
He looked straight at me, and frowned. And that was good.
Oddly, this summer I read Travels with Charley: John Steinbeck, riding in his truck, named Rocinante, with a camper shell on the back, with his large French poodle, named Charley, who is "bleu" when clean, which means black. When they hit New Orleans, a man leans in and says, "Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it's a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it's a big old nigger."
Once Feets and I were camping across the country in a different truck-a blue Toyota with a camper shell-and we spent an uneasy hot night in McClellanville, South Carolina. At dawn, he got up and took a walk beside the Intracoastal Waterway. While we slept, the campground had filled with hunters. I lay in the camper, and from the open window near my head, I heard a father say to his young son, "See that big nigger? That's a big nigger, right there. When you get older, I'm gonna buy you a big nigger just like that."
I never told Feets exactly what the man had said. I just said there were scary people here and we should pack up and leave. We did.
If there's anything scarier than Fits the Description, it's Routine Traffic Stop.
The names or faces we've learned over the years. A brother in Signal Hill. Rodney King. The Baller's basketball coach's brothers, both of them. My younger brother's best friend. Shot nineteen times in his white truck as he maneuvered on the center divider of the freeway, having refused to pull over. He might have been high. Either hung up on the cement or trying to back up. No weapon. A toolbox. He'd just delivered a load of cut orangewood to my driveway.
"I ain't getting out," Feets said. He had his hands on top of the steering wheel.
"I know! I'm going," I said. I needed to get my wallet.
"He better not mess with her," he was saying.
"I'm going!" I said. We both knew it was my job. I bent down to get my pink leather tooled wallet. My job is to be the short blond mom. At school, at basketball games, at parent-t eacher conferences, in the principal's office when a boy has called The Baby a nigger and the male vice principal sees my ex-husband-BIG DOGS shirt, black sunglasses, folded arms the size of an NFL linebacker's, and a scowl-and looks as if he'll faint.
My job is to smile and figure out what's going on.
By the time I got out of the car, the patrolman was looking at me, and The Scholar was pointing at me.
The traffic roared past on the freeway, twenty feet away from the silent weigh station. I took my sunglasses off and felt my mouth tighten. Who had smiled like this? (A foolish smile that angered someone. Custard inside a dress. What?) "Why did you stop? What are you doing?" the cop said loudly at me.
"That's my mom and dad," The Scholar said, aggrieved. She wasn't scared. She was pissed. Her default setting.
"We're on our way to the beach for a birthday party!" I said, cheery and momlike. "Her dad and I didn't want to get separated, 'cause in this traffic we might never see each other again!"
The little women hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously afterward. They hate that I have to do it, and that I am good at it.
"What's the problem?" I asked. "Is it that darn seat belt?"
(Who smiled like this?) The officer squinted at me, then at the van.
"One of the male passengers wasn't wearing his seat belt." But then he said drily, "He's wearing it now."
He asked for license and registration and insurance, and I made jokes about how deep in the glove compartment the registration might be, and I pulled the insurance card from my wallet, and the registration was outdated and he glared at me but went back to his patrol car.
The Scholar started a low invective about California's urgent need for revenue, and I leaned into the window to say to our Laurie, "You weren't wearing your seat belt? You always wear your seat belt!"
He said, "It wasn't me. It was Bink."
Bink is darker than he is, nineteen, wearing her hair tucked into a black cap, wearing a huge black T-shirt. She rolled her eyes, furious.
"He's coming back," someone said. The officer approached the other side of the van. "I need the male passenger to open the door. Open the door," he said.
Bink opened the door slowly.
He asked Bink for her license. He didn't let on that he'd thought she was a guy. He didn't ask her or our Laurie to get out of the car. I stopped having visions of people lying on their faces in the dirt. He wrote the ticket, our Laurie looked straight ahead, at The Scholar's hair, and The Baller looked straight ahead, out the windshield, and I knew Feets was watching in the rearview without moving. I stood awkwardly near the driver's-side window until it was done.
It wasn't until that night that I felt my mouth slide over my teeth again and I remembered. A foolish, dazzling smile. Custard.
Toni Morrison's novel Sula. The mother and daughter are on a train traveling from Ohio to Louisiana, and when the white conductor berates them for being out of the Colored car, the mother smiles at him, a placating, unnecessary show of teeth, and the black passengers hate her, and her daughter is ashamed of the custard-colored skin, and her weakness.
About twenty miles earlier, outside Corona, I'd been telling my ex-husband what I'd heard three days ago. I'd given one of our many nephews a ride home after football practice, with The Scholar. We'd spent a long time in the driveway of my father-in-law's father's house, talking to two of his brothers, three cousins, and a family friend. There is always a crowd in the driveway, because the house is not air-conditioned, and the beer is in a cooler, and there are folding chairs, card tables, and stereo speakers hung on the wrought iron supports for the carport. It's the nerve center of communication for the entire neighborhood.
We talked about the newspaper article about the police review of the 2006 shooting of our coach's brother. The commission had found no fault, though the brother was pulled over three times in thirty minutes, the first time because "he had a weird look" and the second time because after the patrol car continued to follow him, he ran a stop sign and made a U-turn. The official report said he had struggled when the officers attempted to put him in the back of the car for questioning. Witnesses said he was trembling, his hands shaking, and that the officers said they were arresting him. His brother had been shot by deputies when he was very young. One officer said the man's brother reached for his Taser; the other officer shot him. The witnesses, who spoke mostly Spanish, said the man's brother did not reach for the Taser.
Mr. T, a friend, said he'd been pulled over this year in the mostly white neighborhood where he'd lived for a decade. The officers said he fit the description of a robbery suspect. He gave them his ID. The suspect was described as six feet, 185 pounds, and in his thirties. Mr. T is five-eight, rotund, and in his sixties. He was told to get out of the car and lie on his stomach on the sidewalk. He refused repeatedly, and was kept there for over an hour while the officers berated him and asked him questions.
One brother-in-law was stopped while riding his bicycle to work at 5 A.M. He is a custodian at the community college. He was told drug dealers often use bicycles now. He was given a ticket for not having reflective gear.
The father of a basketball teammate was made to lie handcuffed in his own driveway for an hour by city police, who'd been called because his neighbors didn't recognize him when he sat on his block wall. He was wearing sweatpants, working in the garden. He is an LAPD officer.
Every single friend and relative in the driveway had a story.
The Baller got her first citation earlier that year, in January. The highway patrolman followed her for five miles on the highway and had her pull over into the parking lot of a strip club. Our Laurie was in the passenger seat. He was questioned at length, about his identification, his address. The patrolman didn't believe that he was seventeen. When our daughter called me, she was crying. She said she was afraid of what I would say.
She was right. I was furious, but not about the ticket. "When you get pulled over, you put D[[[mdash.gif]]][[[mdash.gif]]]in danger," I shouted at her. "You're risking his life. Don't drive even four miles over the speed limit! He could have been shot and killed!"
Only some mothers say that to their children.
It took two more hours to get to Huntington Beach and find a parking space.
The six-four Black Guy and the six-five Black Guy arranged themselves on chairs. They were surrounded by us and six more girls on the blankets now, friends of The Baller's, eating chicken and watermelon and cupcakes.
Feets didn't go in the water, as he usually did when the girls call him the whale and, even now, try to jump on his back. He read and dozed. He had slept two hours.
Our Laurie went in the water. He was alone for a long time, the farthest out in the powerful waves of that day, and because he was so tall the water reached only his chest.
Feets had a huge natural. We used to stand in the mirror together, back in 1979, and with his ancient, tiny black blow dryer I did my hair like Farrah Fawcett and then he blew out his Afro.
His hair is short now, with a lot of gray, under his ballcap.
Our Laurie always has braids, under his ballcap. It's the braids that make people nervous. The hat. The long shorts. The intricate tiny braids that his mother makes every week, that cross his skull in complicated patterns and just touch his shoulders.
The Baby said, "Why does everyone make fun of watermelon and fried chicken anyway? Why did people always talk about Ba-rack and watermelon?"
The Scholar said, "Oh, my God, could you be any more annoying? Learn your history, okay?"
"Why don't you ever eat watermelon, Daddy?" she asked him.
"'Cause it's nasty," he said. "Just like green peas. They made me eat it when I was a kid, and I ain't a kid now."
He was slumped in his chair, half asleep. His feet were covered with sand.
When I was pregnant with The Scholar, everyone in the driveway teased us. "You got size-five feet and he got them size-fourteen boats. What the hell is that baby gonna look like?"
Who said it? Him, or one of his brothers? Or did I dream it? "What if it's a short baby with his feet? It'll be like one of those plastic clowns-you can punch it and punch it and it'll pop right back up, on them cardboard feet."
That night, he called at eleven fifteen. He was on shift. "They make it back okay?" he said, quietly, anxiously, in the echoing vacuum of the cement walls.
We had left the beach in his truck after only two hours. He had to sleep before work. "They came back about forty minutes after we did," I told him.
"I guess they got cold," I said.
Maybe they had been nervous. We didn't talk about it. "You working security?" I said. "You gonna fall asleep?"
He said he had court calendar, making the schedule for juvenile offenders who would be escorted in in the morning. He has to shackle and prepare them. He'd already told everyone at work about the seat belt. A lot of coworkers had gotten tickets this summer. "Revenue," he said again. Then he said, "I just wanted to know they made it back," and hung up.
I stood in the kitchen doorway. Our Laurie was on the couch, with the little women heckling him while he took out his braids, which were full of sand. They had never seen his shoulder-length curls before, and they kept trying to take pictures with the cell phone.
A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay.
I AM A PERSONAL ESSAY and I was born with a port wine stain and beaten by my mother. A brief affair with a second cousin produced my first and only developmentally disabled child. Years of painful infertility would lead me straight into menopause and the hysterectomy I almost didn't survive.
I recently enrolled in a clinic led by the Article's Director and Editor for a national women's magazine. Technically, we were there to workshop and polish ourselves into submission. Secretly, though, we each hoped to out-devastate the other and nail ourselves a freelance contract.
I wasn't there to learn. I've been published as many times as I've been brutally sodomized, but I need to stay at the top of my game. Everyone thinks they have a story these days, and as soon as they let women in the Middle East start talking, you'll have to hold an editor hostage to get a response. Mark my words.
There were ten of us in the room. The Essay Without Arms worried me at first, but she had great bone structure and a wedding ring dangled from a chain on her neck, so I doubted her life has been all that hard.
Two male essays wandered in late. They were Homosexual Essays, a dime a dozen, and publishers aren't buying their battle with low self-esteem anymore. Even if their parents had kicked them out, I'd put money on a kind relative taking them in. It wasn't as if they'd landed in state care, like I had, and been delivered straight into the wandering hands of recently paroled foster parents. Being gay is about as tragic as a stray cuticle, and I wasn't born a Jehovah's Witness yesterday.
I presented my essay first, and tried not to look smug as I returned to my seat. The Article's Director let out a satisfied sigh and said, "I see someone's done this before." Yes, someone had. I've developed something of a reputation in the industry for taking meticulous notes on my suffering. It was a lesson learned the hard way after my year in sex slavery was rendered useless from the effects of crank on my long-term memory.
The third essay that read absolutely killed. She'd endured a series of miscarriages and narcoleptic seizures living in a work camp during her youth in communist China. Initially I was worried, but then I thought, whatever, good for her. There are twelve months in the year, and if Refugee Camp walked away with January, the April swimwear issue would be the perfect platform for my struggles with exercise bulimia. I don't mean to sound overly confident, but much of the unmitigated misfortune that has been my day-to-day life has taught me the importance of believing in myself.
Next up were two Divorce Essays, which came and went, forgettable at best. The Editor's critique suggested as much. Alopecia followed. She had promise, but was still clearly struggling for a hook. Every essay who's been through chemo or tried lesbianism ends up bald. Bald isn't the story. Alopecia was heading in the right direction, loving herself, but she was getting there all wrong. I think she needed to focus on not having eyelashes or pubic hair. Now that's interesting. That's an essay.
The last kid was unpublished and new on the circuit. It was hard to figure out what we were up against with this one. He walked up to the podium unassisted, bearing no visible signs of physical or mental retardation. Maybe it was something systemic, or worse still, the latest wave of competition to hit the market: a slow-to-diagnose mental illness. I tried to relax. It was hard to build story arcs off problems cured by pills. Problems caused by pills, on the other hand, sold on query alone. Shit. Maybe he was an addict.
His essay was weird. I think he was about a Tuesday. Not the Tuesday of an amputation, just a regular any old Tuesday. He persisted on beginning sentences without the personal pronoun I and comparing one thing to another instead of just out-and-out saying what happened. I was trying to track his word count but lost myself momentarily as he described the veins in a cashier's hands. It reminded me of my grandmother, her rough physical topography a testament to a life of hard work. We all leaned in during one of his especially long pauses, only to realize he wasn't pausing, he was done.
The Refugee Essay applauded loudly, but quite honestly, I think her tepid grip on English and admitted narcolepsy barred her from being a qualified judge. The Gay Essays joined in too, but they'll clap for anything with a penis and a Michelangelo jawline.
My ovations, on the other hand, are earned, and this essay never once told me how he felt about himself. Although, I have to admit, if I'd been him during that section where his father didn't even open the gift, I'd have been devastated by the rejection. Not of the thing itself, but of what it represented. Like it wasn't a gift so much as it was longing in the shape of a box, wrapped up in a bow.
Look, it wasn't like this essay didn't have potential. I think everyone in that room agreed he had a certain something. But talent takes time. Inoperable tumors just don't sprout up overnight, and psychotic breaks are nothing if not slow to boil.
The Article's Director didn't bother to give him any feedback. One of the Divorce Essays tried to pipe in about the unsatisfying ending, but the Editor silenced her with the stop sign of her raised palm. Wordlessly, she stared at this essay with a sorrow that reminded me of the last look the man I believed to be my father gave me before heading to Vietnam, only later to return a person wholly different from the one who left. "You deserve something better than this," the Editor said, "yet for rules I follow, but did not create, I can't help you."