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[1 of 5] Long Division, Book One, pages 1-49, Book Two, pages 166-172, by Kiese Laymon (2013) copy 01

Author: Kiese Laymon

Laymon, Kiese. “Book One, Pages 1-49, Book Two, Pages 166-172.” Long Division, Scribner Book Company, 2013, 2021.

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Apr-13-23 Wording change

“Twice upon a time, there was a boy who died and lived happily ever after, but that’s another chapter.” —ANDRÉ BENJAMIN, “AQUEMINI”

“I don’t wanna time travel no more…” —Erykah Badu, “Window Seat”

—ANDRÉ BENJAMIN, “AQUEMINI”

BOOK ONE

ONE SENTENCE.

(BOOK ONE, pages 1 – 11)

LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him. Last quarter, instead of voting for me for ninth-grade CF (Class Favorite), he wrote on the back of his ballot, “All things considered, I shall withhold my CF vote rather than support Toni Whitaker, Jimmy Wallace, or The White Homeless Fat Homosexual.” He actually capitalized all five words when he wrote the sentence, too. You would expect more from the only boy at Fannie Lou Hamer Magnet School with blue-black patent-leather Adidas and an ellipsis tattoo on the inside of his wrist, wouldn’t you? The tattoo and the Adidas are the only reason he gets away with using sentences with “all things considered” and the word “shall” an average of fourteen times a day. LaVander Peeler hates me. Therefore (I know Principal Reeves said that we should never write the “n-word” if we are writing paragraphs that white folks might be reading, but…), I hate that goofy nigga, too.

My name is City. I’m not white, homeless, or homosexual, but if I’m going to be honest, I guess you should also know that LaVander Peeler smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re too close to him. It’s not just me, either. I’ve watched Toni Whitaker, Octavia Whittington, and Jimmy Wallace sneak and sniff their own breath around LaVander Peeler, too.

If you actually watched the 2013 Can You Use That Word in a Sentence finals on good cable last night, or if you’ve seen the clip on YouTube, you already know I hate LaVander Peeler. The Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest was started in the spring of 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased. Each contestant has two minutes to use a given word in a “dynamic” sentence. The winner of the contest gets $75,000 toward college tuition if they decide to go to college. All three judges in the contest, who are also from the South, Midwest, or Southwest, must agree on a contestant’s “correct sentence usage, appropriateness, and dynamism” for you to advance. New Mexico and Oklahoma won the last four contests, but this year LaVander Peeler and I were supposed to bring the title to Mississippi.

Anyway, LaVander Peeler has way too much space between his eyes and his fade doesn’t really fade right. Nothing really fades into anything, to tell you the truth. Whenever I feel dumb around him I call him “Lavender” or “Fade Don’t Fade.” Whenever I do anything at all, he calls me “White Homeless Fat Homosexual” or “Fat Homosexual” for short because he claims that my “house” is a rich white lady’s garage, that I’m fatter than Sean Kingston at his fattest, and that I like to watch boys piss without saying, “Kindly pause.”

LaVander Peeler invented saying “Kindly pause” in the bathroom last year at the end of eighth grade. If you were pissing and another dude just walked in the bathroom and you wondered who was walking in the bathroom, or if you walked in the bathroom and just looked a little bit toward a dude already at a urinal, you had to say “Kindly pause.” If I sound tight, it’s because I used to love going to the bathroom at Hamer. They just renovated the bathrooms for the first time in fifteen years and these rectangular tiles behind the urinal are now this deep dark blue that makes you know that falling down and floating up are the same thing, even if you have severe constipation.

Nowadays, you can never get lost in anything because you’re too busy trying to keep your neck straight. Plus, it’s annoying because dudes say “Kindly pause” as soon as they walk in the bathroom. And if one dude starts it, you have to keep saying it until you have both feet completely out of the bathroom.

But I don’t say “Kindly pause,” and it’s not because I think I’m slightly homosexual. I just don’t want to use some wack catchphrase created by LaVander Peeler, and folks don’t give me a hard time for it because I’ve got the best waves of anyone in the history of Hamer. I’m also the second-best rebounder in the school and a two-time reigning CW (Class Wittiest). Toni said I could win the SWDGF (Student Who Don’t Give a Fuck) every year if we voted on that, too, but no one created that yet. Anyway, it helps that everybody in the whole school hates LaVander Peeler at least a little bit, even our janitor and Principal Reeves.


When LaVander Peeler and I tied at the state Can You Use that Word in a Sentence contest, the cameras showed us walking off the stage in slow motion. I felt like Weezy F. Baby getting out of a limo, steady strolling into the backdoor of hell. In the backdrop of us walking were old images of folks in New Orleans, knee-deep in toxic water. Those pictures shifted to shots of Trayvon Martin in a loose football uniform, then oil off the coast drowning ignorant ducks. Then they finally replayed that footage of James Anderson being run over by those white boys off of Ellis Avenue. The last shots were black-and-whites of dusty-looking teenagers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee holding up picket signs that said “Freedom Schools Now” and “Black is not a vice. Nor is segregation a virtue.”

The next day at school, after lunch, LaVander Peeler, me, and half the ninth graders including Toni Whitaker, Jimmy Wallace, and strange Octavia Whittington walked out to the middle of the basketball court where the new Mexican seventh graders like to play soccer. There are eight Mexican students at Hamer and they all started school this semester. Principal Reeves tried to make them feel accepted by having a taco/burrito lunch option three times a week and a Mexican Awareness Week twice each quarter. After the second quarter, it made most of us respect their Mexican struggle, but it didn’t do much for helping us really distinguish names from faces. We still call all five of the boys “Sergio” at least twice a quarter. LaVander Peeler says being racist is fun.

It kinda is.

Anyway, everyone formed a circle around LaVander Peeler and me, like they did every day after lunch, and LaVander Peeler tried to snatch my heart out of my chest with his sentences.

“All things considered, Fat Homosexual,” LaVander Peeler started. “This is just a sample of the ass-whupping you shall be getting tonight at the contest.”

He cleared his throat.

“African Americans are generally a lot more ignorant than white Americans, and if you’re an African-American boy and you beat not only African-American girls but white American boys and white American girls, who are, all things considered, less ignorant than you by nature—in something like making sentences, in a white American state like Mississippi—you are, all things considered, a special African-American boy destined for riches, unless you’re a homeless white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues, and City, you are indeed the white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues who I shall beat like a knock-kneed slave tonight at the nationals.” Then he got closer to me and whispered, “One sentence, Homosexual. I shall not be fucked with.”

LaVander Peeler backed up and looked at the crowd, some of whom were pumping their fists, covering their mouths, and laughing to themselves. Then he kissed the ellipsis tattoo on his wrist and pointed toward the sky. I took out my brush and got to brushing the waves on the back of my head.

It’s true that LaVander Peeler has mastered the comma, the dash, and the long “if-then” sentence. I’m not saying he’s better than me, though. We just have different sentence styles. I don’t think he understands what the sentences he be using really mean. He’s always praising white people in his sentences, but then he’ll turn around and call me “white” in the same sentence like it’s a diss. And I’m not trying to hate, but all his sentences could be shorter and more dynamic, too.

The whole school year, even before we went to the state finals, LaVander Peeler tried to intimidate me by using long sentences in the middle of the basketball court after lunch, but Grandma and Uncle Relle told me that winning any championship takes mental warfare and a gigantic sack. Uncle Relle was the type of uncle who, when he wasn’t sleeping at some woman’s house and eating up all the Pop-Tarts she bought for her kids, was in jail or sleeping in a red X-Men sleeping bag at my grandma’s house.

What Uncle Relle lacked in money, he made up for in the way he talked and taught the ratchet gospels. The sound of his voice made everything he said seem right. When he opened his mouth, it sounded like big old flat tires rolling over jagged gravel. And he had these red, webbed eyeballs that poked out a lot even when he was sleeping. I could tell you crazy stories about Uncle Relle’s eyeballs, his voice, and his sagging V-neck T-shirts, but that would be a waste of time, especially since the detail you just couldn’t forget about, other than his voice, was his right hand. The day after he got back from Afghanistan, Uncle Relle lost the tips of three fingers in a car accident with our cousin Pig Mo. Now, he had three nubs, a pinky, and a thumb. You would think that if you had three nubs, a pinky, and a thumb, you would keep your hand in your pocket, right? Uncle Relle always had his right hand out pointing at folk or asking for stuff he didn’t need or messing around with weed and prepaid cell phones. He told everyone outside the family that he lost the tips in Afghanistan.

Grandma said Uncle Relle lied about his nubs because he wanted everyone to know he was a damn survivor. In private, she said, “A real survivor ain’t got to show no one that they done survived.” Grandma was always saying stuff you would read in a book.


“Lavender Peeler,” I told him while brushing the sides of my head and looking at his creased khakis, “Oh, Lavender Peeler, my uncle and grandma thought you would say something white like that. Look, I don’t have to consider all things to know you ain’t special because you know ‘plagiarize’ is spelled with two ‘a’s,’ two ‘i’s’, and a ‘z,’ not an ‘s,’ especially since if you train them XXL cockroaches in your locker, the ones that be the cousins of the ones chilling in prison with your old thieving-ass brother, Kwame, they could spell ‘plagiarize’ with ummm”—I started to forget the lines of my mental warfare—“the crumbs of a Popeyes buttermilk biscuit, which are white buttery crumbs that stay falling out of your halitosis-having daddy’s mouth when he tells you every morning, ‘Lavender, that boy, City, with all those wonderful waves in his head, is everything me and your dead mama wished you and your incarcerated brother could be.’ ” I stepped closer to him, tugged on my sack, and looked at Octavia Whittington out of the corner of my eye. “That’s one sentence, too, nigga, with an embedded quotation up in there.”

“So.”

“And your fade still don’t fade quite right.”

Without even looking at me, LaVander Peeler just said, “Roaches cannot spell, so that sentence doesn’t make any sense.”

Everyone around us was laughing and trying to give me some love. And I should have stopped there, but I kept going and kept brushing and looked directly at the crowd. “Shid. Lavender Peeler can be the first African American to win the title all he wants, y’all,” I told them. “But me, I’m striving for legendary, you feel me? Shid.”

Even the seventh-grade Mexicans were dying laughing at LaVander Peeler, who was closest to me. He was flipping through one of those pocket thesauruses, acting like he was in deep conversation with himself.

“Shid,” I said to the crowd. “I’m ’bout to be the first one of us with a head full of waves to win nationals in anything that ain’t related to sports or cheerleading, you feel me?”

Toni Whitaker, Octavia Whittington, and Jimmy Wallace stopped laughing and stared at each other. Then they looked at both of us. “He ain’t lying about that,” Toni said. Octavia Whittington just nodded her head up and down and kept smiling.

The bell rang.

As we walked back to class, LaVander Peeler tapped me on the shoulder and looked me directly in my eye. He flicked his nose with his thumb, opened his cheap flip phone, and started recording himself talking to me.

“I shall not stomp yo fat ass into the ground because I don’t want to be suspended today, but this right here will be on YouTube in the morning just in case your fat homosexual ass forgets,” LaVander Peeler told me. “I do feel you, City. I can’t help but feel you. I feel that all your sentences rely on magic. All things considered, I feel like there’s nothing real in your sentences because you aren’t real. But do you feel that a certain fat homosexual is supposed to be riding to nationals tonight in my ‘halitosis-having daddy’s’ van? I do. All things considered, I guess his mama don’t even care enough to come see him lose, does she?”

LaVander Peeler got even closer to me. I smelled fried tomatoes, buttered corn bread, and peppermint. I held my arms tight to my body and counted these twelve shiny black hairs looking like burnt curly fries curling their way out of his chin. I scratched my chin and kept my hand there as he tilted his fade-don’t-fade down and whispered in my ear, “You know the real difference between me and you, City?”

“What?”

“Sweat and piss,” he told me. “I’m sweat. All things considered, sweat and piss ain’t the same thing at all. Even your mama knows that, and she might know enough to teach at a community college in Mississippi, but she ain’t even smart enough to keep a man, not even a homeless man who just got off probation for touching three little girls over in Pearl.”

LaVander Peeler closed his flip phone. “One sentence,” he said, and just walked off. “All things considered.”

ALL CLEAN.

(BOOK ONE, pages 12 – 20)

Turns out LaVander Peeler commenced to tell our principal, old loose-skin Ms. Lara Reeves, that I called him a “nigger”—not “nigga,” “negroid,” “Negro,” “African American,” or “colored.” I figured it was just LaVander Peeler’s retaliation for someone turning him in two months ago for calling me an “f-word.” I know who snitched on LaVander Peeler, and it wasn’t me, but after he got in trouble for calling me an “f-word” he started calling me a “homosexual,” because he knew Principal Reeves couldn’t punish him for using that word without seeming like she thought there was something wrong with being a homosexual in the first place.

I guess you should also know that no one else at Hamer or in the world ever called me an “f-word” or “homosexual” except for LaVander Peeler. I’m not trying to make you think I’ve gotten nice with lots of girls or anything because I haven’t. I felt on Toni’s bra in a dark closet in Art and she twerked on my thighs a few times after school. And I guess I talked nasty with a few people who claimed they were girls on this website called WhatYouGotOnMyFreak.com, but really that was it. Truth is my sack stayed dry as hell, but I don’t think you’re supposed to feel remedial about sex unless you make it through tenth grade with a dry sack. The point is that even if LaVander Peeler caught you watching him piss once, I don’t think that should really qualify you as a homosexual.

Anyway, I sat in Principal Reeves’s office waiting to tell her that I didn’t call him a “nigger,” but that I did bring my wave brush out after lunch by mistake.

In Principal Reeves’s office, next to her bookshelf, was a poster with a quote from Maya Angelou. The backdrop of the poster was the sun and in bolded red letters were the sentences, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean. Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

I hated sentences that told me that my emotions were like something that wasn’t emotional, but I loved how those red words looked like they were coming right out of the sun, red hot.

Ms. Lara Reeves had been a teacher since way back in the ’80s and she became the principal at Hamer about four years ago. The worst part of her being the principal was that she was also my mama’s friend. My mama was known for having friends you wouldn’t think she’d have. Mama had me when she was a sophomore at Jackson State fourteen years ago. She’s old now, in her early thirties, so you would expect her to have only Black friends in her thirties, but she had old Black friends, young African friends, and super-old friends like Principal Reeves.

Mama taught over at Madison Community College and Principal Reeves took a politics course from her. When I first heard that my principal was my mama’s student, I thought I’d get away with everything. But it was actually harder for me to get away with anything since whenever Principal Reeves didn’t do her homework or answered questions wrong, she liked to talk to my mama about how I was acting a fool in school.

On Principal Reeves’s desk, you saw all kinds of papers flooding the bottoms of two big pictures of her husband, who disappeared a few years ago. No one knows what happened to him. Supposedly, he went to work one morning and just never came back. If you looked at pictures of Principal Reeves back in the day, you’d be surprised, because she looked exactly the same. She had the same curl at sixty-two that she had at thirty-one, except now the curl had tiny rays of gray.

Principal Reeves also kept a real record player in her office. In the corner underneath the table were all these Aretha Franklin records. Mama loved Aretha Franklin, too, but she only had greatest-hits CDs, which she’d play every time she picked me up.

I invented calling Principal Reeves “Ms. Kanye” behind her back because even though she asked a lot of questions, you really still couldn’t tell her nothing. She asked questions just to set up her next point. And her next point was always tied to teaching us how we were practically farting on the chests of the teenagers on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee if we didn’t conduct ourselves with dignity.

Before Principal Reeves stepped her foot in the door of her office, she was saying my name. “Citoyen…”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I’d like you to start this test,” she said, and handed me a piece of paper. “It might take you the rest of the year to complete it but we have plenty of time. Don’t look at me with those sad red eyes.”

At Hamer, they were always experimenting with different styles of punishment ever since they stopped whupping ass a few years ago. The new style was to give you a true/false test with a bonus that would take you damn near a whole year to do if you messed up. And the test had to be tailored to what they thought you did wrong and what you needed to learn to not mess up again. The craziest thing is that it was usually harder understanding what the test had to do with what you did wrong than taking the actual test itself.

I was shaking my head at that bonus question, thinking about how many months it would take me to write those three stories, when Principal Reeves got all serious.

“Citoyen, do you know who the great Brenda Travis is?” she asked me.

“Umm…”

“No. You do not know. Brenda Travis was a fifteen-year-old high school student from right up the road in McComb,” Principal Reeves said. “That young lady canvassed these same streets with the SNCC voter-registration workers fifty years ago. She led students like you on a sit-in and for the crime of ordering a hamburger from a white restaurant, the girl was sentenced to a year in the state juvenile prison.”

“Just a regular hamburger?” I asked her. “Not even a fish sammich or a grilled cheese? That’s crazy.”

“That contraption holding your teeth in place, that’s the problem.” Principal Reeves sat at her desk and started riffling through the tests.

“I don’t get it,” I told her.

“Today is the biggest day of your life, Citoyen. You want to waste it calling your brother LaVander Peeler a ‘nigger’ and using a wave brush on school property?”

The problem was that at Hamer, you used to be able to use your wave brush until the second bell at 8:05, but ever since Jimmy Wallace beat the bile out of this cockeyed new kid with a Pine wave brush during lunch, you could be suspended for something as simple as having a wave brush on school property.

“LaVander Peeler ain’t my brother,” I told her, “and I didn’t think I was wasting it. I’m ready. You’ll see.”

Principal Reeves just looked at me. I tried to look away toward the bookshelf so I wouldn’t have to look at her face.

“What’s that?” I asked her. “That’s so crazy.”

“It’s just a book,” she said.

“I thought you said we were never supposed to say ‘just a book’ about a book.”

Principal Reeves made that rule up last year. She had every book in her bookshelf placed in alphabetical order, but on the floor underneath the shelf was a book called Long Division. There wasn’t an author’s name on the cover or the spine. I couldn’t tell from looking at it if it was fiction or a real story. The cover had the words “Long Division” written in a thick white marker over what looked like a black background with all these pointy blues, some wave brush bristles, a thin slice of watermelon, a cat sitting real regal, some clean Nikes I’d never even seen, and some sticker bushes. The three dots that generally sit on top of the “i’s” in “division” were missing, but there were three dots under the word instead.

“Who wrote that book?”

Principal Reeves ignored my question and just looked at me.

“Please stop looking at me, Principal Reeves.”

“I’ll stop looking at you when you start looking at you. You’ve got to respect yourself and the folks who came before you, Citoyen. You.” She paused. “Didn’t your mother, you, and I sit right here before the state competition and talk about this? What did your mother tell you?”

“She said, ‘Your foolishness impacts not only Black folks today, but Black folks yet to be born.’ But see, I don’t agree with my mama…”

“There are no buts, Citoyen,” Principal Reeves said. “You are history. Kids right around your age died changing history so you could go to school, so you could compete in that contest tonight, and here you are acting a fool. The day of?”

“Is that a question?”

“Fifty-one years ago, Black students took responsibility for the morality and future of this country,” she said. She was so serious. “They organized. They restrained themselves. They put themselves in the crosshairs of evil. They bled. And when the cameras were on, they were scared. But they stepped up and fought nonviolently with dignity and excellence, didn’t they?”

I just kept looking down at Long Division and started to smell the french fries coming from the cafeteria.

NNever mind that book, Citoyen. Is it too much to ask of you to respect those students today?” she asked. “Look at me. Those that are still alive are watching. You know that, don’t you?”

“You mean tonight?” I took my eyes off the book and looked at Principal Reeves. “Tonight, they’ll be watching?”

“Yes. Tonight they’ll be watching, along with the world. But they’re always watching, so you must behave and compete accordingly. This is just another test. I’m not gonna suspend you or tell your mother. However, if you act a fool one more time this semester and fail to complete the test, I have no choice but to reach out.”

I hated when folks used the word “however” in regular conversation. You knew that the person you were talking to was so much wacker than you thought as soon as you heard that word. “I know,” I told her.

“One more thing,” she said and closed the office door. “Two things, actually. First, I don’t want you to come back to school until you finish the test. Second, I hear from LaVander Peeler and a few other teachers that you’re spending a lot of time alone in the bathroom stalls.”

I looked down at the wet stains on my shoes.

“Have you been—”

“What?”

“Touching yourself inappropriately at lunchtime?”

“Lunchtime?”

“Yes. I’ve heard that after many of the boys go into the bathroom to yell ‘Kindly pause,’ you have a tendency to… listen. We don’t want to halt natural human functions at Fannie Lou Hamer, but that activity might be better suited for home, possibly before you go to sleep or maybe even when you wake up.”

I raised my eyes to Principal Reeves. “I’m good,” I told Principal Reeves. “You’re telling me not to get nice with myself on school property. I hear you.” I started walking out of her office, then turned around. “Wait. Can I borrow that book? I’ll bring it back tomorrow. I just never really seen a book with a cool title like that and no author before.” Principal Reeves slowly reached down and handed me the book. “I haven’t finished it yet,” she told me. “Be careful with that, Citoyen.”

“Why?”

“Just be careful,” she said. “See if it can help you with your test. If not, leave it alone. Some books can completely change how we see ourselves and everything else in the world. Keep your eyes on the prize.”

“I’m good,” I told her before walking out, folding up my test, and placing it inside Long Division. “Don’t worry about my eyes. And that prize is minessss, with all the ‘s’s.’ ”


At 3:15, LaVander Peeler and I waited on the curb for his father to pick us up. I had Long Division in my hands. LaVander Peeler had on these fake Louis Vuitton shades and he kept looking down at my book.

“What you looking at?” I asked him.

He asked me if I had figured out the difference yet between sweat and piss. I looked up at LaVander Peeler and noticed two continent-sized clouds easing their way through the sky behind his fade that didn’t fade. I thought to myself that a lot of times when you looked up at the sky, you’d see nothing but bluish-gray shine, and a few seconds later continent-sized clouds would slowly glide up and take every last bit of shine out of the sky.

I didn’t like the drippy ache in my chest that I was starting to feel, so I opened up Long Division and read the first chapter while LaVander Peeler and I waited for his father, LaVander Peeler Sr., to drive us to the Coliseum.

BOOK TWO

SPECIAL GAME

(BOOK TWO, 166 – 172)

I didn’t have a girlfriend from kindergarten all the way through the first half of ninth grade and it wasn’t because the whole high school heard Principal Jankins whispering to his wife, Ms. Dawsin-Jankins, that my hairline was shaped like the top of a Smurf house. I never had a girlfriend because I loved this funky girl named Shalaya Crump. The last time Shalaya Crump and I really talked, she told me, “City, I could love you if you helped me change the future dot-dot-dot in a special way.”

Shalaya Crump was always saying stuff like that, stuff you’d only imagine kids saying in a dream or on those R-rated movies starring spoiled teenagers on HBO. If any other girl in 1985 said, “the future dot-dot-dot,” she would have meant 1986 or maybe 1990 at the latest. But not Shalaya Crump. I knew she meant somewhere way in the future that no one other than scientists and dope fiends had ever thought of before.

Shalaya Crump lived down in Melahatchie, Mississippi, across the road from Mama Lara’s house. A year ago, before we moved to Chicago from Jackson, she convinced me that plenty of high school girls would like me even though my hips were way wider than a JET centerfold’s, and the smell of deodorant made me throw up. The thing was that none of the ninth-grade girls who liked me wore fake Air Jordans with low socks, or knew how to be funny in church while everyone else was praying, or had those sleepy, sunken eyes like Shalaya Crump. Plus, you never really knew what Shalaya Crump was going to say and she always looked like she knew more than everybody around her, even more than the rickety grown folks who wanted other rickety grown folks to think they knew more than Yoda.

It’s hard to ever really know why you love a girl, but all I know is that Shalaya Crump made me feel like it was okay not to know everything. You could feel good around Shalaya Crump just by knowing enough to get by. That’s what I loved about her most. Sometimes, she asked these hard questions about the future, but she didn’t treat you like chunky vomit when you didn’t get the answer right.

It’s hard to explain if you never been around a girl like that. It’s just that no other girl in my whole life made me feel like it was okay not to know stuff like Shalaya Crump did. The worst part of it is that I still have no proof that I ever made Shalaya Crump feel anything other than guilty for leaving me with Baize Shephard. I’m not just saying that to sound like a brokenhearted white boy from New York City in a dumb novel in tenth-grade English. If you want me to be honest, everything I’m telling you is only half of what made the story of Shalaya Crump, Baize Shephard, Jewish Evan Altshuler, and me the saddest story in the history of Mississippi. And it’s really hard to have the saddest story in the history of a state like Mississippi, where there are even more sad stories than there are hungry mosquitoes and sticker bushes.

It really is.

Shalaya Crump claimed she could love me three months ago, depending on how you count. It was January 4, 1985, the last day of my Christmas break. I was about to leave Melahatchie and head back to Chicago. We were sitting under a magnolia tree in a forest we called the Night Time Woods, sharing the last bit of a can of sardines. I was just tired of not saying all of what I wanted to say to her, so I licked the sardine juice off my fingers, picked up my sweat rag, and asked her what I’d been waiting to ask her the whole break.

“Shalaya Crump!” | said. “Can you break it down for me one more time. What I gotta do to make you love me?”

Shalaya Crump laughed and started digging into the red dirt with her dark bony thumbs that were covered in these Ring Pop rings. Right there is when Shalaya Crump wiped her greasy mouth with the collar of her purple Gumby T-shirt and said, “Why you gotta be so green light lately, City?”

“Green light?”

“Yeah, you never stop. All you do is spit game about ‘love this’ and ‘love that.’ I already told you that I could love you if you found a way to be…” Shalaya Crump stopped talking, looked me right in the eyes, and grabbed my fingertips. “City, just listen,” she said. “Look, if we could take a spaceship to the future, and we ain’t know if we’d ever come back, would you go with me?” Shalaya Crump was always changing the subject to the future at the craziest times.

I swear I tried to come up with something smart, something that would make her think I could be the skinniest, smartest boy she’d ever want to spend the rest of her life with. “Girl, in the future,” I told Shalaya Crump, “when we take that spaceship, first thing is I think that Eddie Murphy is gonna do a PG movie. And umm, I think that Michael Jackson and New Edition are gonna come together and sing a song at our wedding, but ain’t nobody at the wedding gonna care because everyone at the wedding is gonna finally know.”

“Uh, finally know what?” She stopped and let go of my wrists.

“Finally know, you know, what that real love looks like, baby.”

“City! Why you gotta get all Vienna sausage school bus when you start trying to spit game?” She paused and actually waited for an answer. I didn’t have one, so she kept going. “Just stop. You stuck on talking about love but I’m talking about the future. Can we just talk about that? What happened to you? One day you were just regular and we were playing Atari and hitting each other in the face with pine cones. Then, just like that, you get to stealing Bibles to impress me and wearing clean clothes and talking about love and getting jealous of Willis whenever we watch Diff’rent Strokes and asking me all these questions about which senior I have a crush on. Can’t you just be yourself?”

“I am being myself,” I told her. “I don’t like how you look at Willis.” | knew that making Shalaya Crump love me wasn’t going to be easy, so I didn’t let her little speech throw me off. “You talk all that mess about me, but you the one who didn’t always talk about the future like you do now.” | looked in her eyes, but she was looking at the ground. “No offense, girl, but you talk about the future way more than I talk about love.”

“But I’m not just talking.” She wiped sardine grease off my lip. “That’s the difference. I’m asking about what you’d do with me in the future, like in 2013. For real! Would you come with me if I could get us there?” I just looked at Shalaya Crump and wondered how she could say I was being all Vienna sausage school bus and all green light when, seriously, she was the one always wondering about life in 2013. No kid in 1985 admitted to thinking about life in the ’90s, and definitely not in 2013, not even while we were watching The Jetsons.

“Never mind,” she said. “You don’t get it.”

“I do get it,” I told her. “I get that I might not be the one for you. In 2013, I’ma be like forty-three. When I’m forty-three, you’ll still think my hairline is too crooked and my sweat’ll still stink like gas station toilets.” | looked up and hoped she would interrupt me. She didn’t. “Anyway. You could never love me even if I was the skinniest, smartest boy in the South. I truly know that now.”

Shalaya Crump finally laughed and looked me right in my mouth. “City, I’ma ask you one more time to stop being so Young and the Restless. Don’t never ever say ‘truly’ around me again. Never!”

Shalaya Crump was the queen of taking a show or a person, place, or thing and using it like an adjective. No one else in Jackson or Chicago or Melahatchie or on TV could do it like her. If she told you not to ever use a word around her, you knew it was a word that should never have come out of your mouth in the first place.

Shalaya Crump took her eyes off my mouth and started looking at my hips. “Look, City,” she said. “I could love you the way you want me to, really. I could if you found a way to help me change the future in, I don’t know dot-dot-dot a special way.”

“Dot-dot-dot? I thought you were done with that read-your-punctuation style. You don’t think you played that out last summer?”

“Just listen. I need to know if you’d come with me, even if we couldn’t ever come back.”

Shalaya Crump was always saying weird stuff like that and trying to create new slang. One day, she called me on the phone long-distance during the school year and said, “City comma I realized today that I hate Ronald Reagan. When I’m president comma I wanna make it so you never have to be in a classroom with more than ten other kids from Head Start all the way through twelfth grade. I think I might wanna make it illegal for parents to leave their kids with their grandma in Melahatchie for more than three days at a time if the grandma don’t have cable or good air. What you think?”

I waited for her to laugh after saying that, since my ma was always sending me to stay with my Mama Lara for weeks at a time. Mama Lara didn’t have good cable or air either, and neither did her grandma, but Shalaya Crump didn’t laugh, so I fake-laughed for her and said, “You love you some English and civics classes, don’t you?” A few seconds later, when no one was saying a word, she started laughing all late into the phone. Only Shalaya Crump could laugh all late into the phone and not care about using up her grandma’s long distance to talk about hating Ronald Reagan. It was stuff like calling me long distance and telling me stuff that didn’t make sense and laughing all late at my jokes that made me think I could tongue kiss Shalaya Crump.

Anyway, I had a lot of questions about how to change the future and be special to Shalaya Crump, but my Mama Lara drove in front of her trailer right after she said that thing about coming to the future with her. Mama Lara told me that it was time to take the bus back up to Chicago. I left Shalaya Crump that Christmas break without a kiss, a hug, or any-thing, but I did tell her, “I’m coming back to fly to the future with you for spring break, baby. And when I do, you better love me. Or at least like me a lot.”

“I already like vou a lot.” she told me as I got in the car. “Don’t call me baby no more, though. Just be yourself and come back in March. Please. I need you, City.”

I promised myself right then and there that I’d never call Shalaya Crump “baby” if it meant that she’d be my girl, and that I’d find a way to be special and change the future when I came back down to Mississippi for spring break. In the meantime, no matter where I was in my dreams, I always found a way to kiss Shalaya Crump. Sometimes I’d be in a blue jungle or a raggedy glass airplane, but there would always be a phone hanging out of a tree or underneath a seat. I’d find a phone and dial 1-4-1-1. When the operator answered, it was always Shalaya Crump and she always gave me the best directions to get to her. Once I got to where she was, every single time we kissed with a little tongue and pressed our fronts together until I woke up sore.

In real life, between January and March, I thought of all kinds of ways to show Shalaya Crump I was special. I wrote every plan down in this thick college-lined notebook I should have been using to take notes in English class. The notebook was called GAME in bold capital letters. Sometimes I would think I had the perfect plan, but after a few days, I knew that whatever GAME I came up with wouldn’t be good enough for her. Then, on the first day back down to Melahatchie for spring break, I got lucky.

GAME found me…

BOOK ONE

CHITLIN CITY

(BOOK ONE, pages 21 – 31)

“Sphincter,” LaVander Peeler’s father said from the driver’s seat. “Use it.”

“Sphincter,” LaVander Peeler started. “A tightened sphincter can be a sign of_”

The Astro van started veering over to the side of I-55 and LaVander Peeler Sr. clicked the emergency lights on. “Boy, what I tell you?” He smacked LaVander Peeler right below his heart and grabbed a fistful of Izod. “Don’t matter if you think you know the word. That’s what the white folks think you supposed to do. Don’t be too doggone eager. Act like you got some sense.”

LaVander Peeler cut his wet eyes to me in the back seat.

“Don’t worry ’bout that boy,” he told him. “Y’all play too much. This is bigger than both of y’all. I want you to do exactly like them winners.”

LaVander Peeler Sr. sat back in the driver’s seat and placed his hand on his son’s knee. “Ask for the pronunciation. Ask for the etymology just like the Indians do. Say the word back to them as proper as you can. Say, ‘I am going to use “sphincter” in a sentence now.’ No gon’ or gonna. You are ‘going to’ or you ‘shall.’ And then you say the sentence as slowly as you can. I’m talking about a whole second in between each word, LP.

“Smile, too. If you wanna talk with the doggone judges, don’t break no verbs. Just say, ‘Well, all things considered,’ then say what you got to say. Toss some composure and thoughtfulness at they ass, too. And hold your doggone head up.” He grabbed LaVander Peeler by the chin and tilted it up. “LP, listen to what I’m telling you. They think you were lucky to get here. Both of y’all.”

LaVander Peeler Sr. looked at me like I said something wrong.

“These folks think they so slick, trying to decorate the contest with a little color. You didn’t come here to lose, son,” he said. “You are better and more prepared than all these folks put together because you had to be. Listen to what I’m telling you. This is bigger than you. You understand?”

LaVander Peeler didn’t answer. I closed Long Division and watched still water flood the gutters of LaVander Peeler’s eyes.

The trip to the Coliseum took about twenty minutes and all twenty minutes, except for LaVander Peeler Sr. nicely greeting me, were filled with him testing LaVander Peeler and getting mad at every little thing he did wrong. But it wasn’t hateful mean. It really wasn’t. It was loving mean, at least to me. If Mama drove me to the contest, it’s exactly the loving mean I would have wanted her to share with me, just not in front of LaVander Peeler. That would’ve been too shameful.

“You left your brush,” LaVander Peeler Sr. said as I got out of the van. He handed it to me and shook his hand side to side. I told him thank you and felt sorry that I had to crush his son in front of millions.

But I also felt something else as I walked into the Coliseum. There was something wrong with Long Division, the book I’d borrowed from Principal Reeves’s office. Even though the book was set in 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the fact that the narrator was Black like me, stout like me, in the ninth grade like me, and had the same first name as me. Plus, you hardly ever read books that were written like you actually thought. I had never read the words “chunky vomit” in the first chapter of a book, for example, but when I thought about how I’d most not want to be treated, I thought about chunky vomit.

I’m not saying the City in that book was exactly like me. I hadn’t read enough of Long Division to know for sure. Still, though, I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name “Crump” was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read. And you know what the scariest part of the book was? Near the beginning of the first chapter, the name “Baize Shephard” appeared.

A girl named Baize Shephard lived right next to my grandma’s house in Melahatchie, Mississippi, and she had gone missing three weeks ago. Folks made it a big deal because she was an honor student and a wannabe rapper and some folks say she liked girls. Baize did this rhyme over this Kanye beat about Trayvon Martin and James Anderson called “My Hood to Your Hood,” which got around 18,000 hits. When Obama visited Mississippi after his reelection, he said we needed to treat all our missing children with the same care and vigilance. Ever since then, you’d have a Baize Shephard update every day on the news and Grandma and her crew started their own country investigation. I understood it could have been coincidence that my name and Baize Shephard’s name were in this book with no author, but it still made me feel strange and lightweight afraid to keep reading, especially since my mind should have been on winning that contest.


Walking to the green room in the Coliseum was crazy, just like Uncle Relle said it would be. Grown white folks were looking at us like we were giving out $400 shopping sprees at the new Super Target by Northpark Mall, and LaVander Peeler was eating it up, saying “All things considered and moving his hands too much when he talked.

When we got to the green room, a lanky woman with an aqua fanny pack around her waist and the name “Cindy” on her left breast came up to us.

“We’ve heard so much about you two and your ordeal with Hurricane Katrina. And good Lord, all that oil y’all had to deal with on the coast,” she said. “It was God’s will that you’re here with us and we’re gonna take great care of you. Eat all the fruit salad and corn bread y’all want before the event. Get good and full.”

I looked at LaVander Peeler and just started brushing my hair. Long front strokes. Short side strokes. “You know we’re from Jackson, right?” I asked her. “Not the coast. Where you from?”

“Oh, we heard about that.” She ignored me and pointed at the brush. “So cute. But there will be no props beyond this point.” She held out her hand for my brush. “We can’t change the rules just for you, no matter how special you gents are. This might not be the Scripps Spelling Bee, but this is our national competition and we’ve got one shot to do it right. We will be televised live and seen on digital cable by millions of folks around the globe. The eyes of the world are upon Mississippi tonight and we can’t have our special kids up there with brushes, can we?”

“I ain’t giving up my brush,” I told Cindy as LaVander Peeler and I walked into our personal dressing room.

When we got into the room, LaVander Peeler just looked at me and didn’t say a word. He looked and smelled the same, but he wasn’t LaVander Peeler from Hamer any more. LaVander Peeler looked older, madder, glowier, and–I guess–realer than ever. “City, I shall keep it one hundred, as you say. You are embarrassing the fuck out of me,” he said in a tone I’d never heard him use. “This ain’t school no more. You are really blowing it.”

“Blowing what?” I asked him and waited for an answer. He just stood shaking his head side to side. “Why can’t you ever just bust jokes like everybody else at school? Why you gotta be so serious and try so hard to bully people?”

“Me? I don’t bully nobody. You’re the bully.”

“How am I the bully?” I asked him. “And what am I blowing?”

“Everything. You blowing everything, but that’s what I expected.” He started lotioning up his neck. “All things considered, it just would have been nice if you placed in the top ten. I’m winning this shit with or without you, though. I will not lose.’

“Then what?”

“Then I’ma beat them in whatever else they put in my way,” he said. “Everything. All things consid-ered, I will never lose to these people. Ever. They need to know that. When I’m married to Malia Obama and living in the biggest house in their neighborhood, they need to know they will never beat me.”

“Nigga, Malia Obama don’t even know you exist,” I told him. “What is she gonna want with a goofy with a fucked-up fade, who talks fake-proper all the time?”

“Whatever,” he said. “All things considered, I don’t expect you to understand. These people just need to know.”

“And you winning this competition is gonna show them whatever it is that they need to know?” asked him. “Fool, forget white people. Why don’t you try to win this for your real people? Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m winning this for all the real chubby poor niggas in Mississippi with tight waves and contentious demeanors.” He looked at me with lightweight awe in his eyes. “You like that sentence, right? And maybe you could win it for all the tall Mississippi niggas with, you know, good breath and flip phones and messed-up fades that don’t quite fade right. You feel–“

“City,” he cut me off. “You and I both know you shouldn’t even be here. That’s what’s so funny about all of this.” He turned toward me and smirked. “And you know exactly what I mean,” he said. “Think about it. At the school competition, what word did they give you?”

I knew what the word was, but I wasn’t about to say it. There had been three of us in the finals. We were all supposed to get five words. If all of us got every word, our school sent three reps to state. Everyone knew Toni Whitaker was going to win. She had the highest GPA in the ninth grade and never made less than 100 percent in English. Toni got “coup d’etat” for her last word. We’d all heard the word but had no clue how to use it in what the judges called a dynamic sentence. LaVander Peeler got “in-fanticide” and I got…

“‘Chitterlings,’ City?” LaVander Peeler asked. “‘Chitterlings’? And you had the nerve to brush your hair while getting all country with it. I’ll never forget your dumb ass. You stood up there with no shame, and said, ‘My grandma couldn’t understand why the young siblings from up north refused to eat the wonderful chitterlings upon finding out they came from the magical bowels of a big-eyed hog named Charles.'

“I was nervous,” I told him. “Wait. I thought I had the hardest word. How many folks know that ‘chitlins’ and ‘chitterlings’ are the same word? You didn’t know, did you?”

“They knew,” he said, “and that’s why they gave you that word. I know you see it. Everybody else does. You get them Black words every time the championship is on the line.”

“Black words?”

“All things considered, you can spin your sentences fairly well,” he said.

“You think so?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said, ’cause your dumb ass will say anything. But you ain’t even on a regional level as far as really spinning these sentences go. They want you here. My daddy and Principal Reeves even said it.” He turned his back to me and started laughing to himself. “I bet these contest people give you ‘hyper-tension’ for your first word tonight.”

‘Hypertension’? That’s a Black word?” That’s all I could come up with.

“Exactly. It’s so simple and Black,” he said. “Just like your dumb Black ass. And, by the way, only simple Black people get ‘hypertension,’ and compared to ‘capriciously,’ they might as well have given you something easy like ‘homosexual,’ because that’s a compound word, too. And, all things consid-ered, that’s what you are: white homeless fat homosexual City who is going to get hypertension after he loses this competition to LaVander K. Peeler.”

“‘Homosexual’ is a compound word?” I asked him. “What’s the ‘K’ stand for?”

LaVander Peeler started laughing and humming the beat to the Piggly Wiggly commercial. I put my brush down on my bag and gently went over the top of my head with the palm of my hand. Mama and Uncle Relle had never said anything to me about getting Black words or about how the people at the competition wanted me there. I couldn’t understand why they needed me if they already had LaVander Peeler.

It didn’t make sense.

“Let me ask you one more question, LaVander. Let’s say you’re right. Why would they need me if they already got you?”

LaVander Peeler looked at me like I was crazy. “What’s wrong with you? They think it’s all about them, not us. They feel good about themselves just by having us in the contest. But they’re in for a surprise.”

“Why?”

“Because, like I said, this exceptional African American is not letting these white folks win this contest. They messed up when they let me in. Come along if you want to. All things considered, I have to get my clothes on and start focusing.”

LaVander Peeler acted like I wasn’t even in the room by stripping out of his clothes and into his outfit for nationals. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to look. I glanced up once and saw him butt-booty naked, pulling up his boxers. I didn’t get why he brought a change of boxers for the contest. Maybe he was always changing his boxers in the bathroom of Hamer. Maybe changing his boxers at strange times, not just saying “All things considered,” was really the weirdest thing about LaVander Peeler.

I didn’t want to tell you this, but I think I should. LaVander Peeler’s pubic hair was some of the nappiest I’d ever seen in my life. I’m talking about it looked like a black cabbage patch of tight balled-up cabbages. The truth is that LaVander Peeler was skinnier than me by a good thirty-four pounds, just like every other boy in my grade, but his sack was much rounder, wrinklier, and older-looking, too. I think I had plenty of width on him in the privacy area, but I couldn’t be sure.

I really couldn’t.

We were both in there writing words on paper and practicing asking for the Latinate when Cindy came in without knocking. “Gents, turns out you’re right. City, you can have your brush with you as long as you want. My boss understands cultural difference and wants to make you as comfortable as possible. This is going to be a global experience. So you should wear these, too.

She handed us two Rocawear button-ups.

I looked at LaVander Peeler. He looked at me. And for the first time, his look asked me what I thought. All I could really think about was what he saw when he looked at me. I know he saw ashy hands and a wave brush. But I knew in that second that he couldn’t hate me. He didn’t have to like me, but he definitely couldn’t hate me when there was so much work for both of us to do in the next three hours. We had to show everyone, including white folks, chubby jokers with tight waves, and skinny jokers with suspect fades, just what was possible.

I reread the first chapter of Long Division until it was time for us to perform.


When we left our dressing room, we walked into the general prep room where some of the competitors walked around, talking with each other and mouthing sentences. I scanned the room the same way I do when coming into any room where it is obvious most of the people aren’t Black and Southern.

Over in the corner were the two white boy twins from Louisiana. They had “Katrina’s Finest” airbrushed in brown block letters on the back of these tight dirty sweatshirts. The twins were outside a huge group of white kids huddled in the corner looking at something. The kids at the back were all on their tippy toes trying to see over the cluster of about fifteen kids. You could see that the white kids kept fake yawning, and rocking these half smiles. Between white faces and white shirts, I saw a cheek and a neck that was a little less dark than mine. And to the left of that cheek was a folded forearm that was close to LaVander Peeler’s color. I started to get a terrible déjà vu feeling.

I tapped LaVander Peeler on the shoulder and pointed to the crowd. He walked toward the other contestants, got on his tiptoes, swiveled his head a bit, and started scratching the scalp part of his fade. Then he walked out of the room for almost two whole minutes.

When LaVander Peeler came back in, he looked at me, exhaled, and shook his head again before walking to the other corner of the room and slumping in the corner. I got to rubbing the top of my head with the palm of my hand and followed him.

“What is it?” I asked him. “What happened?”

LaVander Peeler looked up at me, eyelids half covering the brown of his eyes, bottom lip just hang-ing. “They got us,” he said on volume two, when he’d just spent five minutes talking to me on volume seven.

“Why?” | looked over at the crowd again.

“They got us.”

Cindy came in and told us to get in line. As the crowd broke up, they taped our respective states on the back of our shirts. “LaVander Peeler, look,” I said, and pointed to these two Mexican kids with Arizona tags on their shirts. Arizona is the state where the governor made a rule that Mexican kids couldn’t learn Mexican history in high school and another rule that said you could try to arrest Mexicans as long as you thought they were Mexicans. During one of our Mexican Awareness weeks, Principal Reeves taught us that Arizona was becoming the Mississippi of the Southwest.

I thought that was good for Arizona. I knew LaVander didn’t.

LaVander Peeler got in line as he was told. He didn’t pout or whine. LaVander Peeler’s eyes had that slick mix of shock and shame. I can’t say that he was crying because tears didn’t pour down his face, but he had more water cradling his red eyeballs than I’d ever seen in the face of someone who wasn’t actually crying.

“Your eyeballs are sweating. Or is that piss?” I asked him, trying to make him laugh. LaVander Peeler ignored me. Still water flooded the bottoms of his eyes from the time he got his Mississippi tag until we reached the stage, the crowd, and those white-hot lights.

WORDS, WORD, WORK.

(BOOK ONE, pages 32 – 37)

I sat on the left side of the stage, third seat from the aisle, and LaVander Peeler sat in the same seat on the other side of the stage. At the end of my row was the one Mexican girl. At the end of LaVan-der Peeler’s was the one Mexican boy. I looked at their name tags for the first time. Jesse Cruz and Stephanie Cruz. And the words “Jesse” and “Stephanie” were in quotations.

I thought to myself that if ever there was a time to bring my Serena Williams sentence game to the nation, this was it. With all that still water in his eyes, LaVander Peeler was in no shape to win, or even compete. I figured he’d miss his first sentence, or maybe he wouldn’t even try, and then he’d have to sit on that stage for two long hours, with drowning red eyeballs, watching me give those fools that work.

“We’d like to welcome you to the Fifth Annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jack-son, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV.

“Before we begin, we’d like our prayers to go out to the family of Baize Shephard. As you all know, Baize is a young honor-roll student who disappeared a few weeks ago in the woods of Melahatchie, Mississippi. We will be flashing pictures of Baize periodically throughout the night for those of you watching live in your homes. If you have any information that might help in the investigation, please alert vour local authorities. Let us take a moment of silence for Baize Shephard.

“LaVander Peeler,” the announcer resumed, “is our first contestant. I’m sure most of you know that LaVander tied for first place in the state of Mississippi competition with our second contestant, Citoven Coldson.” Seemed weird that we were going to be first and second. “LaVander Peeler, your first word is ‘lascivious.””

LaVander Peeler stood up with his balled fists at his sides. He stepped toward the microphone and looked down at his feet.

“If lascivious photographs of Amber Rose were found on Mr. White’s office computer,” LaVander began, “then the odds are higher than the poverty rate in the Mississippi Delta that Mr. Jay White would still keep his job at the college his great-great-grandfather founded.”

LaVander Peeler walked right back to his seat, fists still clenched. No etymology. No pronunciation. The crowd and the contestants started clapping in spurts, not understanding what had just happened. I was clapping the skin off my hands when they called my name. I stepped to the microphone, pumping my fist and looking at LaVander Peeler, who still had his head tucked in his chest.

“Citoyen, we’d like to welcome you, too.”

“Thanks. My name is City.”

“Your first word, Citoyen, is… ‘niggardly.'

Before uttering a syllable, I ran back to our dressing room and got my brush.

“I just think better with this in my hand,” I told the voice when I got back.

“No problem. ‘Niggardly,’ Citoyen.”

“For real? It’s no problem?” | looked out into the white lights, hoping somebody would demand they give me another word- not because I didn’t know how to use it, but because it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.

“Etymology, please?” I asked him.

“From Old Norse nigla.”

Nigla? That’s funny. Am I pronouncing the word right? ‘Nigga’dly.’ Pronunciation, please.”

“Nig-gard-ly,” he said. “Citoyen, you have thirty more seconds.”

I kept squinting, trying to see out beyond the lights, beyond the stage. “Okay. Y’all have time limits at nationals, huh? I know the word, but it’s just that my insides hurt when you say that word,” I whispered into the mic.

“Is that your sentence, Citoyen?” the voice asked.

I sucked my teeth and sped up my brushing. “You know that ain’t my sentence.”

“Citoyen. You have ten seconds.”

I slowed my brushing down and angled myself toward LaVander Peeler. “Um, okay, I hate LaBander Veeler” I said.

“Is this your sentence, Citoyen?”

“No. Um, I truly hate LaBander Veeler sometimes more than some of y’all hate President Obama and I wonder if LaBander Veeler should behave like the exceptional African-American boy he was groomed to be in public by his UPS-working father, or the, um, weird, brilliant, niggardly joker he really is when we’re the only ones watching.”

I brought the brush to my waist.

The judges looked at me for about ten seconds without moving before they turned toward each other. The head judge covered the microphone and started whispering to the other judges.

“Noooo, Citoyen,” he finally said. “We are so, so sorry. That is not the correct, appropriate, or dynamic usage of ‘niggardly’ in a sentence. An example of correct, dynamic usage would be Perspiration covered the children who stared incessantly at the woman in the head wrap since she insisted on being so niggardly with the succulent plums and melons. Please have a seat.”

I started brushing the skin on my forearm, then pointed my brush toward the light.

That’s all I could see.

I walked toward my seat, then turned around and headed back to the microphone. “I mean, even if I used the word right, I still would’ve lost. Plums and melons? You see that, don’t you?” The buzzer went off again. I threw my brush toward the light and the buzzer kept going off. “That’s messed up, man,” I told them. “What was I supposed to do?” I saw Cindy offstage to the right, motioning for me to sit down.

“Forget you, Cindy! Look at LaVander Peeler over there crying. I hate that dude. Naw, I mean really hate. I be sitting at home sometimes praying that someone will sew his butt hole tight so he could almost die from being so backed up. I’m serious, but look at that nigga over there with tears in his eyes, looking crazy as hell on TV. It don’t make no sense.

“Now look at them Mexicans.” The buzzer went off again. I turned around and looked at the Mexican girl on my row. “You think it’s hard for y’all in Arizona? Look at us. Look at us. They do us like this in our own state. Ain’t nothing these white folks can do to make you feel like me and LaVander Peeler feel right now. They scared of y’all taking their jobs and cutting them in they sleep. They scared of us becoming Obama or O-Dawg. I mean, do y’all even call yourself Mexican? Ain’t this a competition for Americans? Peep how they made slots for Mexicans but you don’t see no slots for no Africans or no Indians. When I say Indian, I mean Native American. Where the Native Indian and African players at? Shid.”

Stephanie stood up, stretched her back, walked right up to my face, kicked me in my kneecap, and said, “Please sit your fat ass down.” She whispered in my ear, “I’m trying to help you out. Seriously. You have no clue how you’re playing yourself right now.”

The buzzer went off again.

I put one hand on top of my belly blubber and started going over the top of my head with the palm of my other hand.

Short, fluid strokes.

“I ain’t playing myself. Shoot. What was I supposed to do?” I said to everyone one more time. “Bet you know my name next time. And I bet you won’t do this to another little nigga from Mississippi. Shout out to my Jackson confidants: Toni, Jannay, Octavia, Jimmy, and all my country niggas: Shay, Kincaid, and even MyMy down in Melahatchie just trying to stay above water. I got y’all. Death to all our opposition. President Obama, you see how they do us down here while you up there calling us thugs? You see?”

With that, I walked off, right past my chair, past the Mexican girl who’d kicked me, directly into the backstage area. Then I turned around and walked to the middle of that stage.

“And fuck white folks!” I yelled at the light and, for the first time all night, thought about whether my grandma was watching. “My name is City. And if you don’t know, now you know, nigga!”

CLICK THAT.

(BOOK ONE, pages 38 – 49)

During the first mile of the walk home, I flip-flopped between looking at the cover of Long Division and watching my feet miss most of the huge cracks in the asphalt on Capital Street. Every time I stepped on a crack, I thought of all the folks in Mississippi and the Southern Region who saw the contest live on TV and all the people around the globe who might see it later. The second mile walked on the sidewalk down North State Street, and every time I missed a crack, I thought of the folks who would hear about what I did on the internet. I figured that everything I did would be sent in Facebook links with messages like, “Jade, clink that link, girl. I just can’t.”

Everyone I knew would see what I did. Worst of all, Grandma would see it and be completely embarrassed when she went to church next Sunday. Everyone would look at her and say stuff like, “It’s okay, Sister Coldson. Your grandbaby ain’t know no better.”

I walked into the apartment and sat down on the edge of Mama’s bed. I wondered if Mama made it to the contest or if someone called her cell and told her what happened. Either way, Mama was probably on her way home to give me a legendary back beating. She would cry while doing it, too, I figured, and think she failed. But maybe for a second, I thought, Mama would understand that I was completely stuck on that stage.

One way to curb the back beating I was going to get was to write down my version of what hap-pened. If I wrote about it, Mama would think I learned something from it. It also could count as the homework Ms. Reeves gave me. The only problem was that Mama took our used laptop to work with her, so I wrote on a blank page in Long Division.

If you watched the edited version of the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest on YouTube tonight you know that I hate LaVander Peeler and I have a head full of waves that could drown you and your barber. Public speaking isn’t even in my top eight pleasures, but I still tied for first place in the Fifth Annual State of Mississippi Can You Use That Word in a Sentence contest.

After writing for about thirty minutes, I went back in the garage and glanced at the clock. It was 8:50. The competition was supposed to be over at 9:00. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help turning on the TV.

One of the Katrina twins was on his way back to his seat and the crowd was doing that underexcited clapping, which meant he couldn’t appropriately use the word he was given in a sentence.

“Great try, Patrick,” the voice said. “You’ve represented New Orleans, city of refugees, exquisitely tonight, and you can place no worse than third if our final two contestants get their words right.”

With that, the Mexican girl walked onstage.

“Stephanie,” the voice said, “if you can use this next word correctly in a dynamic sentence and our last finalist misses, you’ll be our new champion. Thank you for blessing our stage with your presence.”

The camera panned the rest of the competitors sitting in the background who were looking either sad and salty or just happy to be there. And sure as shit, there was LaVander Peeler to Stephanie’s right, head still down, fists still balled up.

“Stephanie, your word is ‘cacodoxy.'

Lord have mercy.

I’d never heard that word before. And when the spelling popped up on screen, I felt terrible for her. Stephanie went through etymology and pronunciation.

She held her hands behind her back. Then she started tugging on her ponytail and tapping her left foot on the front of her right foot. She stood still with her hands right on her hips and started looking up at the ceiling.

“Fifteen seconds, Stephanie.”

“You people really do think you’re slick,” she said, loud enough so we could hear it, and started her sentence. “The man behind the desk is not only annoying, he also suffers from keen halitosis and severe cacodoxy, causing him to make my brother and me put our names in some quotations.”

The buzzer sounded. “No, Stephanie, I’m sorry. ‘Cacodoxy,’ a noun, is an erroneous doctrine, like ‘Up with hope and down with dope.'

“Are you serious?” she asked without leaving immediately. “You won’t even use it in a sentence?” She sat down with her arms folded tight against her tummy, and you could see her mouth the words “That was so fucked up” before tucking her head into her chest.

Work, I thought. She gave them that work!

“Our last competitor is, surprise, surprise, LaVander Peeler,” the voice said.

LaVander Peeler walked up to the microphone the same way he had before his first word, “lascivi-ous.” “You can do it,” I said to the screen. “I’m sorry I left you.”

“Seems like a lifelong dream might actually come true for this special young man,” the voice said. “LaVander Peeler, if you use the next word correctly, Mississippi will be proud to call you our National Can You Use That Word in a Sentence champion. LaVander Peeler, your final word is..

LaVander Peeler raised his head and looked right into the light.

.. chitterlings.'

In the background, Stephanie shot her head up, too. LaVander Peeler didn’t blink at all. Again, he asked for no etymology. He balled his fists tighter and watched the light. I could not believe what was happening. “Don’t do it,” I said to the screen. But I wasn’t sure what it was I didn’t want him to do. And neither was LaVander Peeler.

He opened his lips slightly and stood there in front of the light. Watching his parted lips shaking made me think I understood what LaVander Peeler was feeling and doing on that stage. Since the first day I met LaVander Peeler in eighth grade, he’d made it clear that he would always consider all things–including ways of being an exceptional African American, ways of winning all contests, and ways of using language to shield him from being just another Black boy. Considering all things prepared him to win the regional contests, but it didn’t prepare him for what it would feel like to not be given a chance to really lose. I didn’t get it until that second. It wasn’t at all that we were there just for decoration, like LaVander Peeler Sr. said. LaVander Peeler and I, or LaVander Peeler or I, were there to win the contest. They’d already decided before the contest even began that one of us needed to win. The only way they could feel good about themselves was if they let us win against the Mexican kids, because they didn’t believe any of us could really compete. Yeah, we were all decoration in a way. But it was like LaVander Peeler, specifically, was being thrown a surprise birthday party by a group of white people who didn’t know his real name or when his birthday actually was.

Maybe LaVander Peeler thought I understood we were all being given an unearned birthday party, and that I did what I did onstage to show other chubby Black Mississippi boys with contentious demeanors that dignity and pride and keeping it one hundred were more important than being white folk’s decorations.

But it wasn’t.

That’s what I realized, looking at LaVander Peeler shaking on that stage. In order to be the first Mississippi Black boy with a head full of waves to win a national contest in anything, you had to actually win–not make a speech about why the contest wasn’t fair after vou lost.

“‘Chitterlings,'” he began. LaVander Peeler paused again and looked behind him, then hard to his right, then turned hard to his left. He looked back into the light, tears finally streaming down his face, and said, “Citoyen’s grandmother couldn’t understand why the young sibling from up north refused to eat the wonderful chitterlings upon finding out they came from the bowels of a big-eyed hog named Charles.”

No bell went off for a good eight seconds. Then, out of nowhere, balloons fell from the top of the stage. Popguns went off! That “Harlem Shake” song played. Blizzards of confetti fell in front of the eye of the camera as Cindy and two of the judges walked onstage with their hands over their heads.

The voice behind the light screamed, “LaVander Peeler, you have done the unbelievable! Times are a-changing and you, you exceptional young Mississippian, are a symbol of the American Progress. The past is the past and today can be tomorrow. LaVander Peeler, do you have anything to say? Would you like to thank your state, your governor, Jesus Christ, or your family for this blessing?”

.. who entered the kitchen like a monster and asked,” LaVander Peeler said, “Why are y’all eating all my children?’

The music completely faded out and the balloons and confetti stopped coming down. Cindy held the trophy right next to LaVander Peeler and he said it all again: “Citoyen’s grandmother couldn’t understand why the young sibling from up north refused to eat the wonderful chitterlings upon finding out they came from the bowels of a big-eyed hog named Charles who entered the kitchen like a monster and asked, ‘Why are y’all eating all my children?’

“I’m saying that ‘chitterlings’ are the children of hogs. All things considered, I’m saying it literally, too, not metaphorically. Chitterlings are the children of hogs.”

“But you already used it correctly, LaVander Peeler,” the voice said. “And you did it quite dynami-cally, I might add.”

“All things considered, I’m saying that chitterlings are the children of hogs.” With that, he closed his teary eyes and tucked his head into his chest. The crowd gasped. And I did, too.

Cindy slyly did the glide offstage with the trophy. LaVander Peeler went and sat back in his seat. The camera stopped focusing on LaVander Peeler and instead just panned all the competitors.

Then from the left side of my screen, LaVander Sr. marched out and yanked his son by the crease of the elbow off that stage. A few seconds later, a woman I assumed was Stephanie’s grandma came onstage and started pointing at Stephanie and telling her to get up and go. Eventually, Stephanie got up on her own, with her arms still folded, her head still tucked in her chest, looking at the ground. She walked off the stage, but not before she threw a finger sign right at the camera.

A few seconds later, the voice behind the light walked right across the front of the camera and onto the stage. The voice bent and whispered something in the ear of the twin from New Orleans who was also in the finals. A few seconds later, one of the twins was holding LaVander Peeler’s trophy over his head with one hand, and the other twin joined him with both of their backs to the crowd. The twins let everyone know that as crazy as the night had been, the trophy was definitely in the hands of its rightful owners, Katrina’s Finest.

I turned the television off and sat on the floor of the garage with one of Mama’s old brushes. I wanted to get nice with myself at the thought of something I knew. But there was too much I didn’t know, like when Mama was coming home, how hard I’d get my back beat, if LaVander Peeler would be my best friend now, how folks would talk to us all around Jackson, what made me say those things to the Mexican brother and sister, and how LaVander Peeler collected the courage to go from Fade Don’t Fade to that adolescent Black superhero onstage.

I knew I could never ever hate LaVander Peeler again after that night. And crazy as it sounds, that was enough to make me feel good about throwing the brush under the bed, getting nice with myself like a true champ, and writing my story until Mama came home to tell me why what I did was wrong for me, wrong for Black people yet to be born, and wrong for the globe. Mama would tell me this, I figured, while crying and giving me the legendary back beating of my life.

And after the back beating, I’d tell her not to cry. I’d tell her that I understood why I deserved the welts on my arms and back. And when she was quiet and gently rubbing the welts up and down, I’d turn around and say, “Mama, all things considered, I feel like I love LaVander Peeler.”

But when Mama finally came home, none of what I thought would happen really happened. I didn’t get beaten. Mama didn’t even tell me what I did wrong. Quiet as it’s kept, she barely said a word to me. She just folded up in her bed and kept crying on the phone to my grandma, saying, “I’m so sorry, Mama. I’m so, so sorry.” And since Mama didn’t whup my back, I didn’t tell her I felt like I loved LaVan-der Peeler, not just because it might make her remember that she didn’t whup my back, but because I didn’t actually know what I meant. I didn’t think my body wanted to kiss or even grind up on LaVander Peeler. But I also knew that no one on earth could make me happier or sadder than that boy either. That felt like love to me.

The phone kept ringing the next morning and Mama told me not to answer it. I wanted to ask her why it was ringing so much and why I couldn’t answer it but I’d made it this far without a back beating and I didn’t want to chance it.

Forty minutes later, we were headed to the bus station. Mama didn’t say a word to me the whole trip. She bought my ticket when we got to the bus station and waited in her car until I got on the bus.

Then, just like that, Mama left.

No “I love you.” No “See you later.” No “Behave yourself.” | was headed to Melahatchie, Mississippi, for four days to stay with Grandma.

I walked all the way to the back of the bus and person after person, no matter whether they were old, young, Black, brown, clean, or dusty, was messing with their cell phones and bootleg iPods. Some folks were talking. Some folks were listening. But most were texting. I walked to the back of the bus hating all the sentences I imagined those folks writing, hearing, and reading, and I pulled out Long Division.


Five minutes after the bus took off, I got a tap on my right shoulder. I turned and one of the girls who had been two seats in front of me was now sitting right next to me, and her friend was sitting in the seat in front of me. Both were looking me dead in my face. They were cute up close, but cute in two different ways.

The cuter one was slightly sleepy-eyed. I liked that. She looked at the cover of Long Division and said, “Who wrote that book?”

“I’m not sure,” I told her.

“We going to Waveland,” she said. “Where you going?”

“Melahatchie, to stay with my grandma.”

“You heard of that girl they call Baize Shephard?” she asked me.

“That’s her real name,” I told her. “They don’t just ‘call’ her that. She live next to my grandma.”

“You the boy from the game last night, right? The one with the brush who was cutting up on them white folks?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Sleepy Eyes looked at her friend in front of us. “Told you that he was the one with the brush,” she said. “The one from that private school.”

I almost forgot the new brush was in my hand. I started brushing to help me with my nerves. “Fannie Lou Hamer ain’t no private school,” I told her.

“This girl right here.” She pointed to her friend, whose eyes weren’t sleepy at all. Truth be told, her eyeballs were so large and round that when you looked at her you wondered how she could ever sleep. She was wearing this muscle shirt that would’ve fit just right except her pregnant-looking belly made it cut off too soon. The girl had plenty of stretch marks on her stomach, too. As someone who had plenty of stretch marks himself on his biceps and waist, I always liked stretch marks on girls, even if it was on the front of their bellies.

“She told me that she wants you to holler at her,” Sleepy Eyes said. “She tweeted on her phone this morning that she think you was smart and fine, even if you heavy.”

“No, I don’t,” Stretch Marks said laughing. “I don’t think you fine. I don’t even know him. Stop lying, V!”

Sleepy Eves just looked at Stretch Marks for a full eight seconds without saving a word. Then she looked back at me. “She told me that she wishes she could take a video with you for her Facebook with you saying one of your sentences.”

“Okay,” I told her and got next to Stretch Marks while Sleepy Eyes taped us. “My name is City,” I said into the camera phone, “and meeting these two cute girls right here on the way to Melahatchie made a day that started off sour as warm buttermilk into a day destined to taste something like a banana Slurpee.” I looked at Stretch Marks’s face and she was giggling her ass off.

“Can we touch your brush?” Sleepy Eyes said to me and put her phone in her pocket.

I I handed it to her. “That’s a different brush than the one I threw at the contest.” She smelled tthe brush and she handed it right back.

“”I get why you said what you said to that Mexican girl,” she told me. “It was funny. I just don’t think she had nothing to do with it, though. See what I’m saying? I’m just wondering how come you didn’t go off on her brother like you went off on her.”

“I don’t even know,” I said. “That’s a good question. I said what I said because she was there, in my row, and I wanted her to feel worse than us. But…”

“But you don’t know what that girl was feeling. You just didn’t even care.”

“That’s true,” | told her. “And after I left, she put in that work.”

“I would never be in one of those games but if they did me like they did you, I would have done the same thing you did,” she told me. “I would have gone off on the brother though. That would be wrong, too, but that’s what I would do. I woulda called him a li’l Mexican b—–.”

“I don’t know about all that ” I told her.

“Why you don’t know. That’s pretty much what you did. You just snapped. You treated that girl like a little Mexican b—–. And you went off on the Native folks for no reason at all. We both saw it. Would you do anything different if you could do the game over?”

That was one of the best questions anyone ever asked me. “I shouldn’t have never left my boy, LaVander Peeler, up there by himself.”

“Shoot. At least you internet famous now,” she said.

“Is he internet famous, too? LaVander Peeler, I’m talking about.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “That nigga was too serious to be internet famous.”


I tried to look smooth and real-life famous as Stretch Marks and Sleepy Eyes walked back to their seats. They kept looking back at me and smiling every few minutes. Sleepy Eyes’s smile made me embarrassed for her, but it also made me want to go in that stanky bus bathroom and get nice with myself.

I picked up Long Division and was reading when three white boys who looked like they were in college came from the front to the back of the bus with their camera phones ready.

One of the boys put his phone in his pocket and sat next to me. “Sorry if we’re bothering you, big guy,” he said. “It’s just that was some funny shit you did last night, man. Could I record you saying, ‘The Ronster, I hate you more than LaVander Peeler?'

“I guess I could say that,” I told the boy, and looked up at Sleepy Eyes and Stretch Marks, who were still watching me.

“Cool,” the white boy said. “And if you wouldn’t mind, could you say your name after you tell me you hate me?”

It felt like a weird thing to do, especially given what I had said about white folks at the contest, but as soon as he got his phone ready, I put my internet-famous arm around his neck, looked right into the phone held by his friend, and said, “The Ronster, I hate yo white ass more than I hate LaVander Peeler.” I looked at the white boys steady smiling. “My name is City.” The Ronster was giggling trying to angle himself so he could get a selfie.

I felt gross.

I kept looking up from Long Division on the way to Melahatchie, but Sleepy Eyes and Stretch Marks didn’t turn around and smile at me for the rest of the trip.

Not even once.

DMU Timestamp: March 17, 2023 08:51