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[3 of 5 - Group E] Long Division, Book One, pages 103-153 by Kiese Laymon (2013) copy 01

Author: Kiese Laymon

Laymon, Kiese. “Book One, Pages 103-153,” Long Division, Scribner Book Company, 2013, 2021.



(BOOK ONE, pages 103 – 106)

When I made it home, Grandma wasn’t there. I was swelling from the stings, but I realized this was my chance to see if that white man was really in the work shed. Grandma kept the key to the shed on her key chain that was on the dresser under her old wigs. The key chain had a million keys on it. Plus, she had this heavy pocket blade connected to her keys. She never let me hold the blade, but you could tell from just looking at it that it could slice many necks if need be.

I took the knife and Grandma’s keys and slowly made my way out to the work shed. The shed was covered in off-white vinyl siding and, like Grandma’s house, it was raised off the ground by cinder blocks. There were two words written on the shed but they had been scratched out with a black marker. Every kid who ever saw the shed said it looked like the color of a second-grade writing tablet. You couldn’t tell how much of the off-whiteness was bought and how much of it came from just being dirty. There were no windows, just four baseball-sized holes in the back, way up at the top. Every Tuesday, from sunup to sundown, my granddaddy used to sweat up a storm in that shed. Tuesdays and Sundays were my granddaddy’s only off days. Tuesdays, he’d make tables, chairs, and cabinets out of wood. Sundays, he’d drink until he couldn’t see straight enough to use anything he’d made. Grandma took all the saws out of the shed when my granddaddy drowned, but she left all the sawdust, wood chips, and cinder blocks on the floor. I liked to mess around in there, knowing I was walking on the same sawdust my granddaddy walked on.

After my granddaddy drowned, Grandma put a deep freezer in the shed filled with ice cream and animal parts. On the walls were these wooden shelves stocked with jars of pickles, preserves, pigs’ feet, and just about anything else Grandma could think of to can. If you ever got hungry, there was always something in that shed to eat, and it was probably going to be something super country like pickled pigs’ feet or raccoon. Or ice cream sandwiches.

Two little steps led up to the door of the shed. When I stepped on the second one, I heard some rattling and then four slow thumps. I looked back at Grandma’s house. The back door and all the windows were open.

The shed key turned and I was in.

On the floor of the shed, lying in the fetal position, was Sooo Sad, covered in dried blood, sweat, and sawdust. He smelled like rotten butt hole and piss, too. All he had on were white underwear and mismatched church socks. His legs were chained together from the knee to the ankle and his hands were handcuffed behind him. His hairy back had these softball-sized blue splotches on it.

“Aw, man,” I said to myself and closed the door behind me. I could see his back and belly heaving in and out so I knew he wasn’t dead. I touched his belly with my index finger and he started scooching away from me.

“Why you in my granddaddy’s shed?” I asked him. “And why your belly so hard like you pregnant, man?”

He didn’t respond, so I kicked him in the back really gently. “I said, why is your belly so hard? I’ll kick a hole in your kidneys if you don’t turn around and answer me.”

Quick as a match, the man turned as best he could. His mouth was stuffed with a grimy sky-blue-and-white rag. Sooo Sad looked different in the fetal position, with chains wrapped around his legs. He looked a lot smaller, and I don’t just mean smaller in size; I mean smaller in everything.

I got on my knees and got closer to his face. Up close like that, I saw that his thin lips were long. They reached out farther than Grandma’s lips and connected with these frown lines that didn’t really frown. And his eyebrows looked like some hyper five-year-old girl had gone HAM on him with one of those jumbo red crayons.

Without thinking, I grabbed a few hairs from his eyebrows and yanked as hard as I could. I figured he’d try to scream, but he just looked me right in the eye and started blinking slowly.

“What you do to my grandmother?” I asked him. “She wouldn’t have done this to you if you didn’t do something to her. You try to kick her in her back and call her a nigger, too?” | started flexing like I wanted to hit him in his mouth. “If I take that out of your mouth, what’s gonna happen?” I asked him. “Will you yell?”

He shook his head side to side.

“My name ain’t ‘nigger,’ you know, like you said it was. Nobody’s name is ‘nigger.’ My name is City. Really, it’s Citoyen. Folks down here call me City.” He still didn’t say anything. “But you probably knew that if you saw the contest, which I’m guessing you did since you made all those jokes and kicked me in my back. You know that if you had known my name is City in the first place, you wouldn’t be bleeding and stinking up this shed.” I took my pointy finger and pushed him right in the middle of his head.

It was so hard to look at his eyes ’cause neither one of them looked like it was looking at me.

He started using his eyes to direct me to his left side.

“What?” I asked. “What you want?”

He kept looking down toward his side. I pushed him over and looked beneath him. “What? Where’d this come from?”

There was a book beneath him with the cover facing down. I picked it up and turned it over. “Is this a joke?” I asked him. “How’d this get in here?” It was Long Division. “Is this my book? Or are there two copies?”

He looked at me and nodded his head up and down.

“Something about this ain’t right,” I said to him, and myself. I thumbed through the book to see if it was the same one I was reading in Grandma’s house. “You know where Baize Shephard is?”

He shook his head side to side, then rested it back on the sawdust.

I sat a few feet from Sooo Sad and decided I’d read a few chapters of Long Division before I left. It seemed like the right thing to do to a white man who had just been tortured by at least one person I loved.


(BOOK ONE, pages 107 – 115)

On Sunday morning, Grandma and I got in the Bonneville and headed to Concord Baptist Church at a little past eleven in the morning.

Nothing made sense.

I had found out that there were actually two Long Division books, the one I kept in the house and the one I decided to leave in the work shed with Sooo Sad. But the existence of at least two books was less confusing than the words in the books.

Maybe the book wasn’t a book at all, I thought. Maybe the book was the truth. If it was the truth, I had to figure out what it had to do with me. And if Baize wasn’t actually missing, but maybe just time traveling, that meant that Sooo Sad hadn’t really hurt her at all.

“City,” Grandma interrupted my thoughts while turning down the radio, “when you get saved, act like you got some sense. You hear me? Whole lotta folks get saved and it take them an entire life before they start living by God’s word. That’s them ol’ deathbed conversioners, them ol’ heathens trying to get to heaven a lifetime too late.”

I told Grandma that the car smelled like something died in the back seat and asked her who she was talking about. She ignored the comment about the smell and said that she wasn’t talking about anyone in particular.

When we made it to the dirt parking lot of Concord Baptist Church, the Bonneville stopped and Grandma swiveled her neck toward me. With her eyes a-twitching and mouth a-moving, almost in slow motion, Grandma said, “Okay now, City. It’s eleven forty-five. We still got time to send you up for altar call. Don’t act a fool up in here.”

Grandma and I walked into the church hand in hand. “Your hand’s wet as a wash rag, City,” she said.

“Don’t be scared.”

“I ain’t scared,” I told her.

I wasn’t lying. I stood there looking through the window at the congregation. Scared was in my mind, but it was way in the back closet. In the front of it was this excited feeling of walking into church and having all those folks treat me like the celebrity I was. Right beneath that feeling was another kind of wonder. I didn’t wonder about what was going to happen as much as I wondered about what the white Jesus above the pulpit was thinking.

I wasn’t sure if the white Jesus who my grandma had been praying to all this time was the same one above the pulpit, but even if he wasn’t, I still wondered what he thought about Concord. I wondered if white Jesus felt jealous about the way the men marched in like penguins, sweaty thighs and armpits wrapped in these black suits shining like armor. Even better were the girls who had their dresses dipping and diving like new fluorescent kites.

Deacon Big Shank, the dude in charge of all the ushers, opened the door to the sanctuary. He always kept one arm behind his back. He one-arm-hugged Grandma and shook my hand. Deacon Shank whis-pered, “We seen you on TV the other night, Little Citizen.”

He couldn’t pronounce my real name, so he called me “Little Citizen.” He had called me that ever since I was like seven years old. “Your granddaddy smiling, son.”

I stood in the back, looking around the church, feeling crazy lost. Uncle Relle was already in the church, filming it all on one of his cell phones. Part of me was still lost in thoughts of Sooo Sad while another part of me was lost in the way Mama Troll was playing that organ when a little chirpy black bird flew right past my face.

It looked like there was a whole family of chirpy black birds in a nest up in the top of the church. They’d take turns swooping down during the service. It was cool because they never pecked or shitted on anyone’s head or clothes. They just swooped and chirped throughout the whole service. The only time those birds would stop and chill was when Lily Mae did that Holy Spirit Shake or near the end of Cherry’s sermon when Troll brought back that damp funk on the organ.

Reverend Cherry stood up and said, “Thank ya, choir.” He paused and looked at the congregation and said, “We are blessed.” Then he breathed all heavy in the microphone, like he was about to stop breathing.

Reverend Cherry’s whole style was thick cane syrup mixed with lightning and lard. It really was. He had that sleepy, slow, dripping voice. Sounded like burning Bubble Wrap was up in his throat. His voice matched his sleepy left eye. You know how people with one sleepy eye look stupid, but smooth and in control at the same time, especially when they blink? That’s how Cherry’s left eye and voice were. Both looked and sounded real different and stupid at first, but you never felt sorry for him, and after hearing and seeing his face a lot of times, you wanted to have a voice and a sleepy eye like his.

His voice wasn’t all slow so that you thought his bread wasn’t done. It was slow on purpose, the slow where he was always in control of the next word that oozed out of his mouth. The thing that really made Cherry so special, and so damn strange, was that the old joker never said “uhhmm” or “Uhh” or “I mean” or anything like that. Never. Not even when he was sweating and grabbing his sacks and spitting on folk and doing the death breaths during his sermon.

I was sitting there fanning Grandma when Reverend Cherry made eye contact with me.

“Sister Coldson, could you send your grandbaby, City, up here to read the gospels for the church?Everybody in here already knows that City let them folks get him into a niggardly predicament a few days ago.” The congregation clapped and amen’ed. “When you seen the video, didn’t it remind you how we been missing him at Sunday school? Didn’t it, church?”

Cherry tucked his chins into his neck, held the Bible under his arm like a football, and inched toward me. He didn’t blink one time and he didn’t look at anyone in the whole church but me. I tried looking down but Grandma elbowed me in my rib cage.

I damn sure didn’t want to, but I stepped to the cone-looking microphone and read anyway.

The congregation wasn’t smiling like I wished they would’ve, so I kept reading. “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man;”–I never really knew how you were supposed to pause at those semicolons. I always thought I read through them too fast, but Mama wasn’t there to correct me, so it was okay. “But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to hear it.”

Cherry took the Bible from me and closed it. Then, even though he was talking to me, he walked over by the microphone, looked at the congregation again, and said, all slow, “Thank you, City.”

I hated when people said thank you just so people other than the person being thanked could hear it. I stood there beside Cherry. He had his paw on my shoulder. I glanced at Grandma. She was looking so proud.

“Awright. Amen. Little City’ll be entering God’s army soon, ain’t you?” I just looked at him. Didn’t nod or nothing. “Thank you, City. Go ahead and sit your smart self down.” He pushed me in my back.

“I hope y’all listen to what City just read,” Cherry said. “The Lord say that you ain’t run up on no temptation no different from nobody else. Listen to what he sayeth. He sayeth it’s a million different folks in this world. Black. White. Asians. Indian. Jews. Women. Mexicans. Whatevers. Mens. Gays peo-ples. Whatever you is, you got the same temptations as the next man and as all men that done come before you. But ain’t but one way to escape them temptation, is it?”

Everybody started saying “Yeah” and “Only one way, chile.”

Cherry kept going. I was into it, I think, because I had read it. “And the same voice, that Lord’s voice, makes the escape possible if you what?”

Silence. Pews started squeaking and wrists were popping from all the fanning.

When folk didn’t know what to say, they said, “W’hell.” When he asked questions–I’m not even lying–Grandma was the only one in the church who could answer his dumb questions right every time.

“Hear it, Cherry,” Grandma said. “Lord say you got to hear it.”

“That’s right, Sista Coldson. Y’all hear what Sista Coldson said? You got to hear it, church. You ready? I don’t thank y’all ready to hear it. Y’all ready to listen? Y’all ready to hear it, not just for yourself but for our baby, Baize Shephard? We gotta hear it for the babies who ain’t here to hear it for themselves. Y’all ready?”

The church roared “Yeah” and “We ready, Rev.”

“Church, somebody in here, if it wasn’t today, maybe it was last Sunday or the Sunday ‘fore last or maybe even a Sunday last year sometime, but whenever it was, you woke up and said to yourself, ‘Self, I sho’ do want to do the right thing.’

“Naw, lemme tell y’all another way,” he said. “You woke up and said to yourself, ‘Self, I need to go to church.’ Then you thought about that comfortable bed, that box fan blowing that good air on your face. You wanted to come to church. You say you wanted to come to church. Then, that voice crept up in that right ear and said, ‘You need to go to church. It will help you. It will help the community of God. Go ahead and get your wretched tail on up.’ But temptation was already up in that left ear and it made that head get real heavy, didn’t it?”

People were laughing their asses off now. I wanted to elbow myself in the head for laughing, too.

“All that temptation made that head so heavy,” he said, “like a watermelon, or a sack of sweet potatoes. Heavy. So so heavy. Then it fell back on that pillow. Bam! And you said, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m sick. Uhh. I’mo come next week. Next week.’ Only thing is…” Reverend Cherry slowed down a bit. “… next week wasn’t promised. Next week ain’t never promised. All we got is the moment and yesterday. Tomorrow ain’t guaranteed. We know that better than any of these folks.”

Reverend Cherry sped up again. “But you wanted to come to church, you claim. You knew what was right and you wanted to do that. Church, Lord don’t deal in no wants. Lord coulda carried you to church that day, but that ain’t his way. Lord give us the power to make sense of all this noise around us. Lord give us a way to slow down the noise and see everything that’s in it. Lord give us a way to recollect this chaos. And the Lord deal in what is. Lord give you the ability to do the right thing. Lord tell you what to do when you standing in front of a sea of white folks and they want you to act a fool. Ain’t that right, Li’l City?”

He looked right at me and started yelling.

“Open up your ears! ‘Lot of us got our arms open and stretched out to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit because that’s the pose we thank He want to see, but our ears ain’t open. We are steady posing, but who we thank we faking out? You can’t fake out Jesus. He unfakable, City! Them folks got you joking and jiving, acting like you ain’t got good sense, but the Lord ain’t going nowhere.

“Jesus speaketh in many tongues, but he always speaketh so you can understand. Always find you, no matter where you at. I say always! You might hear it in a deep voice. Somebody else might hear it in a little light voice. He might sang to you. He might throw it at you in sign language or maybe even one of them ol’ rap songs.”

The church was loud as hell, half laughs, half amens. Lots of claps. Then silence, no squeaks in the benches, no wrist-popping, just Cherry’s voice and Troll’s wet quilt.

“Or his voice might sound like mines do right here, right now.” Cherry slowed down. “Whatever it is, open up your ears. It’s there. He tried to tell us where our baby, Baize Shephard, was. But we ain’t listen. We ain’t wanna seem crazy!”

“I ain’t crazy,” a voice shouted.

“Who out there ready to open they ears to the right voice? Who out there ain’t crazy? Who ready to save our babies so that Baize and the rest of our children won’t be lost in vain?”

“Right here, Rev. I hear it,” another voice shouted. “Right here, praise Jesus!”

“Come on up here, if you ready to open your ears,” Rev said. “Can’t open them ears without opening them heavy heads and hearts. This ain’t no sometimes thang. Sho ain’t. This a life thang. This here is a Lord thang! Come on up here if you ready to be part of this Lord thang. Come up here if you tired of faking out the Lord.”

“I’m ready for this Lord thing,” my voice shouted. I was standing up, clapping like a seal. I swear I didn’t remember telling my voice, my hands, or my legs to move. “I love your sentence style, Rev,” my voice yelled again. “I knew better.”

“Come up here then, City,” Reverend told me. “If you really ready to give that life and soul to Jesus, come on up here. This ain’t no sometimes thang, City.”

Grandma pushed me up there, but she didn’t have to. I hoped that four or five folks who Grandma called heathens would come up to the front of the church with me.

“Wait, Reverend Cherry.” I didn’t know if Cherry could hear me but I spoke to him anyway. “I just said you had smoove sentence styles. I’m really not trying to be all about that Lord life, though.”

No one could hear me on top of all that mess. Finally, Ren and Raygord, the two grandsons of Deacon Harper known for having good hair, came up there with me.

Reverend Cherry looked at the deacons on the right and the ushers in the back and said, “Raise your right hand, sons. Tomorrow, at our First Monday Baptism, do you give yourself to the Lord? Are you ready to be saved by right? Tomorrow in the holy waters of heaven, do you..

I looked at Grandma before glaring up at white Jesus again. I wondered if any folks in the church knew about the cross-eyed white man in Grandma’s work shed. I wondered what they would think about my grandma’s relationship with the Lord and with right if they really knew. If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country. It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church. When you and everyone you like and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that i didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

One sentence.

That one sentence had the potential to be the greatest sentence I’d ever thought of, and I wished LaVander Peeler was there to hear it and help me figure out what the last part actually meant.


Everyone dropped hands and we made our way out of the church. I walked out feeling that my First Monday Baptism might be the last thing I ever experienced. Whether it was because I was going to die during the baptism or because I was going to be some wack holy dude I never imagined being, I didn’t know how I could live another day as myself after that baptism. Either way, I figured I needed to go home and write a will in the blank pages in Long Division. If I did die, I wanted to give something to all the folks I was leaving behind.


(BOOK ONE, pages 116 – 120)

  1. I leave my Pine wave brush to LaVander Peeler.
  2. I leave my XL mesh shorts to Shay.
  3. I leave my grown-folks books to Shay and Kincaid and a few of my illiterate kids’ books to MyMy.
  4. I leave my cell phone to my grandma because she needs one even though they don’t ever get decent reception down here.
  5. I leave my essays to Mama.
  6. I leave my vintage Walter Payton jerseys to LaVander Peeler.
  7. I leave my new book to Grandma because she taught me how to read.
  8. I leave my Obama Loves the South T-shirt to Shay.
  9. I want to leave my spot on that TV show to Grandma, too. She’d be better than I ever would be. And if Grandma won’t do it, I leave it to that Mexican girl from Arizona, the one who I should not have dissed.
  10. I leave my password to my email, Twitter, and Facebook to my Uncle Relle. It’s W-H-0-S-T-A-N-K

In the middle of my will in Long Division, I smelled Sooo Sad and got that feeling that someone was looking at me. I turned around and there was Uncle Relle filming me with one of his cell phones.

“Oh hey, Uncle Relle. You smell funny.”

“Funny how?” he said, and he put one of his hands in his pockets. “Don’t worry about how I smell, City. Keep doing you, like I ain’t even here.”

“It’s hard to do me when I know you’re trying to record me doing me,” I told him.

“Well, you better get good at acting like you’re doing you in the future. The reality TV shit, it’s about acting like the camera ain’t there. You can’t be looking all in the camera and making faces.” Uncle Relle turned his phone camera off and put it in some leather case he kept on his belt. “It’s a few basics that I think you haven’t really ingratiated yourself to.”

“You mean gravitated to?”

“Just listen, City. Close that gotdamn book.”

I closed my book and braced myself for another one of Uncle Relle’s speeches.

“This writing thing, it ain’t like that hip-hop shit, City. For li’l niggas like you,” he told me, “this writing thing is like a gotdamn porta potty. It’s one li’l nigga at a time, shitting in the toilet, funking up the little space he get. And you shit a regular shit or a classic shit. Either way,” he said. “City, you gotta shit classic, then get your Black ass on off the pot.” He actually grabbed my hand. “You probably think I’m hyping you just for the money. It ain’t just about the money. It’s really not. It’s about doing whatever it takes for you to have your voice heard. So I don’t know what you’re writing in that book you always carrying around, but it better be classic because you ain’t gonna get no two times to get it right, you hear me?”

“I hear vou.”

Uncle Relle put Grandma’s keys on the stove next to all this German chocolate cake she’d made. He told me he had some phone calls to make so he was about to walk down the road and try to find a sig-nal. That was his way of saying he was going to buy some more weed from Alcee Mayes.

When Uncle Relle walked down the road, I decided to go look in the work shed again. Before I went out to the work shed, I found this little battery-operated CD player that Grandma took outside with her whenever she hung up the clothes out on the clothesline. The only song Grandma listened to while she was hanging up clothes was this Halona King song called “Monsters in the Night.” I had no idea what other songs were on that CD because “Monsters in the Night” was the only song Grandma ever listened to or liked that wasn’t gospel. She’d play it on repeat over and over and over. Sooo Sad didn’t seem like the kind of white dude who would like Halona King, but I figured he might want to hear something other than squeaky mice and bullfrogs since he was chained up in that work shed all by himself.

Sooo Sad was lying facedown in the sawdust of the work shed. He had these bloody welts up and down the tops of his butt cheeks. Lying next to him was a half-empty bottle of pepper sauce.

“My uncle came in here and beat you down?” I asked him as I turned on the CD player. “I thought maybe you’d wanna listen to something. You like Halona King?”

Sooo Sad’s chest was heaving in and out. “You okay? Look, I might decide to save you tomorrow. For real. I mean, if I don’t die at my baptism. I’m serious. You want anything?”

He started trying to turn over. To the left of his hips, on the floor of the work shed, were the words “So sad…” written in the sawdust on the floor. It looked like he’d used his finger to write those two words and three dots.

“Damn man, you wrote that? Why did you add the dot-dot-dot? They use that a lot in that book. I can’t even lie to you, that’s one of the saddest things I ever seen in my life. I guess I’m sorry my uncle beat you, but you shouldn’t have called me names and kicked me. At least not in the back.”

He started trying to talk but you couldn’t hear anything but muffle since his mouth was filled with that rag. “Shut up and listen,” I told him. “If it helps, I’ve seen him be mean to folks who wasn’t even white. For real. Well, don’t think I’m gay, but I’ma pull your pants up and leave. It’s too sad up in here.” I turned my head so I wouldn’t smell him too much. “Kindly pause,” I said and pulled his underwear up all the way on his butt with the tips of my fingers.

“Look, man.” I picked up the copy of Long Division that was still right where I’d left it on the floor. “I know you gotta be bored as shit up in here. I’d be bored and sad, too, if all I had to look forward to every day was sweating and breathing in sawdust and having someone like my uncle beating my ass.”

I thought about those two words: “So sad “

“You know that I never told anyone on earth that l’m so sad?” I told him. “I’m serious. Even after all that stuff happened on TV the other day, I never thought to tell someone that it all made me feel so sad. But that’s the truth. That’s what I felt.” For the first time since I’d been in the work shed, I thought about Baize Shephard and whether she was chained up in someone else’s work shed. I didn’t think she was, but you just never could tell. “I wonder how sad Baize Shephard is right now.”

He actually turned his eyes toward me when I said that.

“This book is crazy,” I told him. “You want me to read you a little of it? It might help you feel less sad. Is it wack for me to read to vou while that music is playing?”

Sooo Sad didn’t move.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I told him. “Remember that. Sometimes the glass is full as hell, white bov. You better drink. I’m trving to help vou out.”

It might sound weird to you, but even though I hoped that I would never do anthing that could lead to my being chained up in a work shed, if I was chained up in a work shed, feeling so sad, I would have wanted someone to read a chapter of a book like Long Division to me with Halona King playing in the background.

So that’s what I did.


(BOOK ONE, pages 121 – 122)

After reading the craziest chapters yet of Long Division and sitting there with Sooo Sad, I started to understand the sad that he was feeling. There were some red, green, yellow, white, or orange sprinkles in the sad I felt, but mostly, the sad was all just layers and layers of the thickest blue you’d ever seen in your life. Whenever I’d come close to feeling that blue before, I’d pick scabs, or I’d turn off the light and get nice with myself, or I’d come up with a plan about how to get some shine in homeroom at Hamer, or I’d troll the internet with the screen name Megatroneezy, or I’d post something inspirational or something extremely ratchet on Facebook, or I’d eat bowls of off-brand Lucky Charms until I got severe bubble guts. For some reason, I didn’t want to do any of that since I had lost at the contest.

I started thinking about Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, Baize Shephard, and Mama. And when I really thought about all of them, I just felt so much bluer than ever. Yeah, all those folks tried to mask their different blues, but after the praying, smoking, rapping, thinking, drinking, and running, there just seemed to be nothing else left but blue rooms with people who were really even lonelier and bluer than Octavia Whittington, the bluest girl I ever knew.

Octavia Whittington was the light-skinned girl at Hamer with ashy elbows and the bad self-esteem. Octavia almost transferred from Hamer after her adopted parents said, “Fannie Lou Hamer doesn’t provide an environment conducive to Octavia’s depressive condition.” At one of those parent-teacher-student meetings, I remember LaVander Peeler Sr. saying that he was offended that another parent would try to bring that “doggone language of depression” into our school. He didn’t say it as plain as he wanted, because a decent number of students were at the meeting, but I do remember him saying loud and clear, “Those other folks might do it that way, but how are we any better than them if we start drugging the doggone feelings out of our kids.”

I remember the standing ovation he got, even from Mama, who was usually too busy to come to those meetings. I don’t know why, but I always felt sorry for Octavia after that. Yeah, she always stayed alone, and her eyes looked crazy as hell because she only blinked once every minute, but if there was any kind of pill or drank that could make Octavia love living, I really think she should have been allowed to take it at school, especially if other folks at school were chasing the blue away by getting nice with themselves in the bathroom, smoking weed, fighting niggas, and dissing the hell out of each other with long sentences.

I pulled out a pen from my pocket and finished writing my will on the last page I’d read in Long Division.

  1. I leave my favorite pen to this white man in the shed because he needs to write an apology to Grandma and maybe even to Baize. That would make him not feel so sad.
  2. I leave this copy of Long Division to Lavander Peeler.
  3. I leave the other copy to share between Grandma, Shay, Baize, and this white man in the shed if he decides to apologize.
  4. I don’t want to die yet but I don’t want to feel this kind of blue ever again. so sad ain’t no joke.


(BOOK ONE, pages 123 – 127)

I was two hours and twenty minutes from my baptism and Grandma was already at work on Monday morning. She planned on meeting Uncle Relle and me at the church on her lunch break. To tell you the truth, Grandma left the house mad as hell. First, she hated that she had agreed to make me wear this dashiki that my mama had left in her closet. I hated it, too. It was bright yellow with brown half moons and full red sun splotches all over it. She said that Mama had always wanted me baptized in the thing, but she was pissed when Mama called her and told her she wouldn’t be able to make it to Melahatchie. I could tell the dashiki was too big when Grandma handed it to me. When I put it on, the damn thing came all the way down past my navel, all the way past my thighs, and damn near touched my kneecaps. Plus, the neck part was too wide, so you could see the suit coat, vest, and tie underneath. I needed a shape-up, too, and there wasn’t one wave in my head since that white dude had taken my brush.

Uncle Relle came out on the porch while I was stewing in shame. He had a crazy smile on his face. “Anything you want to say to people before your big day?” he asked with his little phone in my face.

“Naw, not really. I’m good. I just hate my outfit.”

He laughed and said, “That shit looks real fucked up, but you good! Anyone you wish could be here to see you go through this day?”

I just looked at him. Couldn’t believe Uncle Relle was using the word “wish.” Wasn’t his style. “Naw, Uncle Relle. I’m good.”

“I’ll be right back in like ten minutes.”

I asked him where he was going, but he ignored me and jumped in his van.

Ten minutes later, Uncle Relle was pulling back into the driveway and someone else was in the passenger seat with him. Uncle Relle got out, walked around the passenger side, and opened the door. In what felt like slow motion, a patent-leather blue-black Adidas hit the gravel.

I knew those Adidas.

Uncle Relle focused his camera phone on LaVander Peeler’s face as he got out of the van. As soon as I saw him, I thought about how stupid I looked in that damn dashiki. The LaVan-der Peeler I knew before the contest would have ethered me in one epic sentence for that outfit, but I wasn’t sure how much of that LaVander Peeler was left since he’d gone through that hell at the Coliseum. Plus, I hated that MyMy and Shay couldn’t meet him.

“What up, LaVander?” I tried to be real cool when he walked up on the porch. “What you doing here?”

He looked at my hands. “Where’s your brush?”

“Oh.” I used my left hand to go over my hair. “Long story.”

“You just straight up wearing blouses now?” he asked me.

“Oh.” I tried to get my lie straight. “This is the new thing they wearing down here. But it’s not a blouse.” I was deep into thinking of all the ways I could blame LaVander Peeler when one of those crazy things happened where we both looked up at Uncle Relle hoping he would turn that camera off so we could say what we really needed to say.

Surprisingly, he told us we’d be leaving soon and walked into the house.

“Why you here?” I asked him again.

“My father told me I had to come.”

“But why?”

“You doing that show your uncle told me about?” he asked me. “That seems like something you would wanna do. They say we could make over a million dollars each if we do it. All things considered, only a fool could turn down that money.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” | said. “But I feel different after being here for a few days. That contest, it ain’t nothing compared to what I been through this weekend.”

He just looked at my feet and shook his head.

“What?” I asked him.

“Nothing, City. It’s just, you always think you’ve been through something harder than somebody else.”

“Follow me,” I told him and walked behind the house. I pointed to the work shed. We were still as could be. Then there was thump from the shed. Then another one.

“What’s that noise?” LaVander Peeler asked.

“That book I was reading at the contest called Long Division,” I ignored LaVander Peeler,

“it’s the realest craziest book l’ve ever read in mv life.”

“The most real?”

“It’s the most real book ever, man. For real, it’s about tomorrow and yesterday and the magic of love. I’m serious. A version of me is in the book and Baize Shephard is in there, too.

You might be in there, too. I haven’t finished it so I don’t know.”

“All things considered,” he said, “I believe you.”

We started walking back to the porch. I was leading the way. I realized it was the first time that LaVander Peeler had ever followed me anywhere. When we were under Grandma’s cottonwood tree, LaVander Peeler tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around with my fists balled up.

“City, why’d they do that to us?” he asked me. “My father just told me that the difference between me and President Obama is that President Obama never took his eyes off the prize. President Obama was clutch when they did things to him they’d never done to another president. He didn’t cry or cause a scene. He was always perfect when it was most important.”

“But you were perfect,” I told him. “You know what I mean? You were better than them. You were better than me. You coulda won that whole thing. For real.” He just looked at me. “I mean, if they gave you a real chance, you coulda won. You know that.” He started tearing up again, so I put my hand on the top of his back. “You know I hate you, right?”

“I know that,” he said.

“But I can’t even lie to you, man. You’re the smartest person I ever met in my life, other than my grandma.”

“But I didn’t win, City.” He was grimacing and gritting his teeth like someone was giving him a shot in his neck. “All things considered, the point was to win, to beat them.”

“You weren’t running for president,” I told him. “Look, I’ma show you this white man after church, okay? It’ll make you feel better about yourself when we free him.”

LaVander Peeler wouldn’t say a word.

“You gotta promise that you won’t let me drown at this baptism, though. I have a weird feeling about it. Wait. Can I ask you a question?”

“If you want to.”

“What did you see before the contest that made your eyes water up? It’s like you knew what was gonna happen before it happened.”

LaVander started scratching his chin and looking at my chappy lips. “I don’t want to say.”

“Why not? It’s over now. Just tell me.”

He looked up and over at Grandma’s chinaberry tree. “I heard the woman who ran everything tell someone on her headset…” He started trailing off.

“Tell someone what?”

“She told someone to change the final order and let the tall one beat the Mexican girl because the fat one was going to be difficult.”

“Wait.” I thought about what LaVander Peeler said. “So does that mean that they were–“

“City, all things considered”–he interrupted me and wiped his nose–“if you don’t know what that means, you really are the dumbest, fattest homosexual on earth.”


(BOOK ONE, pages 128 – 132)

Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler, and I met Grandma two blocks from the church. The sun was beaming and the grills of Cadillacs, Impalas, and Bonnevilles made the usually dusty Ryle Boulevard look like a conveyor belt of cubic zirconia. Grandma commenced rubbing gobs of Vaseline all over my forehead. She said I didn’t need to look tired and ashy on the most important Monday of my life. Then she kept saying not to be scared, that Jesus would make sure everything would be okay if I just believed.

When we got to the church, Grandma took me to a special room and told me to change. Hanging on the back of the door were three plush maroon robes. I’m talking about long, fluffy, towel-type robes, with the plushest belts imaginable. One had a piece of masking tape on the chest part with “City” written on it in black marker. The other two had pieces of tape that said “Ren” and “Reygord.” I figured those roguish jokers had found some way to skip out on this whole baptism thing.

My dashiki, shirt, and slacks were off when all of a sudden the door opened. In walked the rogues, Ren and Reygord, eating thick slices of cucumbers.

I was glad that I was out of my dashiki before seeing them. Not only because I looked straight crazy in the outfit Mama made me wear, but also because those jokers were wearing dirty camouflage shorts and yellow V-necks that had their names airbrushed on them.

“Y’all ready?” I asked them, and covered my thighs and skin-sacks with my robe.

They just kept eating on those thick slices of cucumber.

“Y’all ready for this dunking?”

They both looked at each other and started taking off their clothes. It was like they were having a contest to see who could take his clothes off the fastest.

“Y’all know about the white man behind my house?”

They both laughed. I liked that they were laughing, but it pissed me off that they wouldn’t talk to me.

“Hey, y’all. Hey.” Still no answer. “Hey. You know how we can get out of this, don’t you?” They looked at me and kept taking their clothes off. Both of them were down to their drawers. A heavy dose of Mama Troll’s organ slid under the door. The twins looked at me, looked at each other, and took off out of the room and out of the church.

I was all by myself.

Deacon Big Shank knocked on our door. When I opened it, he said that when Reverend Cherry said, “Let us have our young candidates for baptism,” I would walk out with my head down and my fists couldn’t be balled up.

While Big Shank was talking, I faded out, still thinking about Long Division and all that had happened over the past few days. I tried to think about it all as if it had unfolded like slow-motion scenes in a movie or soap opera, but it didn’t work. Then, I tried to think of another kind of movie music that would cover the slow-motion scenes, something like grainy guitar strums or light toe taps.

That didn’t work, either.

The only music that fit the scene was Big K.R.I.T.’s single, “Something,” or the whiny stuff being spat out by Troll’s organ.

Then something else happened in that hallway. Deacon Big Shank kept talking, telling me how much he liked watching Family Feud with Steve Harvey on his new flat-screen TV. Deacon Big Shank was always talking about TV. That was one of the best things about him.

“Your granddaddy would’ve been some kind of proud of you, Citizen. I’m telling you what I know. He would have. Don’t believe what no one else tells you. Your granddaddy knew some thangs that no one else ever knew. It’s like he grew out and everybody else grew up…” Big Shank kept talking and my head kept nodding, but my mind was zoning out of his speech.

For the first time since all this mess started, I thought about what it really meant to die and what my granddaddy might have felt before and after he drowned.

I realized, standing there in that hall watching Big Shank’s mouth move in slow motion, that stories–sentences, really–were all I had of my granddaddy. He died when I was two and I couldn’t remember one thing about him. I heard that he took me everywhere, dressed me up in little suits. Made me a pimped-out leather brim when I was thirteen months. He never went to church a day in his life, but somehow took the church with him. He was the best bootlegger in Melahatchie and the second best in Scott County since it went dry. He loved all the old Black sitcoms like Sanford and Son and Good Times. He wasn’t scared of hardly anything and when anybody touched him or his family the wrong way, even if it was white folks, he damn near beat the walk out of them. I heard that after he beat the walk out of someone he’d apologize and say, “I’m sho’ sorry about that. I reckon I reacts like a demon when anybody touch me or mines.” | heard he had a son named Ralph with a jump-off named Ms. Kyla Pace, and that Ralph had a number of children that my granddaddy never claimed. I heard that he hated to bathe and loved to eat and fight, like me, and that he loved thick, curvy women with big ankles and bigger mouths who liked Newports.

Deacon Big Shank was still in front of me, going on and on, and all of a sudden the truth kicked off its shoes and started clipping its toenails, just lounging in my fat head. The stupid truth was that even though Uncle Relle had killed some people in Afghanistan and LaVander Peeler’s brother had killed a man, no one I’d ever really known had died yet, except for maybe Baize Shephard.

And if Baize wasn’t dead, the closest anyone I’d known had come to dying was the white man in the work shed. And the scariest thing about it was that even if I had really known someone that died, at that moment, in that hall, death felt like the only thing in the world that you could do once. As scary as the contest had been, I knew something like that could happen again. Death, I understood, was the only thing promised, the only thing that could happen once after you were born. And no one could come back and tell you how it felt.

Or could they?

I figured that must have been the real reason everybody was swinging from Jesus’s sack. I’d paid enough attention to Grandma and Sunday school to know the story of Jesus’s resurrection. I figured that after he arose, with the help of his almighty powerful father, the Lawd, he knew what it was like to die, and probably started spreading his sentences about beating death to the whole town. Folks started following and loving and believing, not just to be saved or whatever, but to hear sentences about what it was like.

I made the decision right there in that hall that I was definitely going to die during my baptism. I just knew it. And after or while I was dying, I’d find some way to come back and save Sooo Sad like I said I would, and then I’d tell Grandma and Mama how to beat death so they could be equipped and not be all surprised when it happened to them. And I’d bring special gifts for Shay, MyMy, Kincaid, and maybe even LaVander Peeler, who at that point was probably going to have his own TV show on VH1 called All Thangs Considered, where his eyes watered up a lot and he said “All things considered” fourteen times an episode.


(BOOK ONE, pages 133 – 139)

I felt a push in the back and heard more of Troll’s damp organ. “I said, let us have our candidates for baptism.”

The backyard of the church was packed with heads everywhere. Some folks had on church clothes, but most had on work clothes. Just Reverend Cherry, Uncle Relle, and me had robes on.

The people parted and we had to walk through the middle. Gradually, they formed this humongous semicircle. All those eyes were tearing my insides up. Grandma was right there near the front. She was crying and trying to hold in tears when I looked at her. I tried to fake smile, but I couldn’t. My damn cheek started quivering all fast. Then I saw the water hole in the ground. Reverend Cherry and Uncle Relle were in the water hole, below everybody else and dressed in the same robes I had, except theirs were plush white instead of plush ma-roon. Folks stood on both sides just watching and humming the refrain to “How I Got Over.” I walked all the way to the front and saw that Uncle Relle and Reverend Cherry were sitting on the steps of the water hole.

“Brother Relle, is you ready?”

Uncle Relle shook his big head up and down. I wanted to beat him through the ground for agreeing to help with this. I swear I did.

“Wait, y’all.” Everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I swear I didn’t. “| want my grandma to help,” I said. “Doesn’t that make more sense?”

Grandma just stood there smiling and lightweight crying. I loved the smile and all, but it really wasn’t helping me out of my situation. Cherry put his hand on my shoulder.

“Little City.” He got right up on my ear and acted like he was whispering, but he was saying it loud enough, with his drippy deep voice, for everyone to hear. Troll’s playing got even lower and damper.

“Everything need order,” he said. “And order, in this here real communified world, order come from tradition, and it’s always been two men that do the dunking and take you to that other side. Now, it’s the men’s fault in this community that every time we goes to dunk a head, ’tain’t no hair of the birth daddy. And that’s something we gon’ have to take care of, but right now, one of them gots to be me and one gon’ have to be Brother Relle.”

I looked at LaVander Peeler while Cherry was talking and thought about what he said back in Jackson about my mama not being able to keep a man.

“My mama and grandma been doing what daddies supposed to do,” I told him. Uncle Relle was recording it all on his camera phone and smiling big as he could.

“Little City,” Reverend Cherry said. “That’s where your little smart self is wrong. I wasn’t there. My shell was there. Inside that shell was a coward, Little City. Sure was. That shell done filled up with something I ain’t ever knowed was possible.” He kept talking right up on my ear, but he was still looking at the crowd.

“And when you refill a shell with a substance altogether different, the whole thang changes. It was that shell that watched your Granddaddy go in and try to save that white boy. That shell knowed Tom Henry was a drunk skunk and didn’t have no faith that Jesus would make a way for him. You see what I mean, Little City?”

I shook my head side to side, but he ignored it. “But now, that shell done become a man with a warm right soul. Big soul. See, look here,” he said. “Real man let his core shine from the inside out and he ain’t got no fear.” He started looking out to the crowd and pointed at his chest. “Real man, Little City, is the Lawd’s no-fear vehicle.”

Everyone started clapping and “w’hell’ing” and “amen’ing.”

“And the only thing I can do about what that shell of me already done did when it watched Tom Henry do what he knowed to be right… is save part of Tom Henry right now.”

“What do those sentences even mean, Reverend Cherry?” I asked. Then I whispered, “I’m serious. That sentence doesn’t even make sense.”

Reverend Cherry ignored me and raised both his hands toward the clouds. Folks started clapping. Grandma set it off. Not disjointed claps on top of one another, but really organized claps, with a second between claps. Like this:


What v’all doing? Everybody else joined in and the claps sped up a little bit. Clap. Clap.

Clap. It got faster and faster. ClapClapClapClapClap. After a while, it started sounding like burning trash, twigs, plastic, and skin, but way louder. Uncle Relle and Reverend Cherry grabbed me on both sides and pulled me to the middle of the pool.

Save me, Grandma, I said, I think. Please save me. LaVander Peeler!

They just stared and clapped. The claps were all on top of one another and I couldn’t hear Troll or anything. All I heard were claps and Reverend Cherry.

Ouch. I told them. Quit. I looked down at the Lord’s rusted tears around my shoulders. I should have been cold, but I wasn’t. I knew what was next.

Reverend Cherry and Uncle Relle crossed my arms across my chest, in the shape of an X. “In the name of the father,” Reverend Cherry boomed, “we shall deliver this vivacious child to a land of the Lord’s tears, majesty, and freedom! He will be one of your greatest soldiers, Lord.”

My head flew back. One dunk.

“And in the name of the son, we invite him home. Free him from his anger!”

My head flew back again. Two dunks.

“And with the Holy Ghost, we anoint this hyper baby in your tears, the Lord’s tears, and let them tears rid him of all the physical worries of his life. He needs nothing anymore, for his soul is now and forever with You, Lord. We sacrifice his shell and pray for blessings of his soul. Keep him safe from Your children!”

My head flew back again. Three dunks.

The third dunk felt way longer than the other two. I opened my eyes and saw all these blurred squiggles floating around. I wasn’t drowning yet, but water was making its way into my mouth and it tasted like rusty rocks. I couldn’t believe how nasty Jesus’s tears tasted. I started choking and my heart began beating the hell out of my chest, so I reached both of my hands between Reverend Cherry’s and Uncle Relle’s legs and pulled hard as I could on their soggy skin-sacks like they were cow titties.

As soon as they let go, I came up moaning, fiending for breath. My heart didn’t slow down. It sped up, got ignited by that hot energy, and started screaming to the rest of my in-sides. It really did. Then my body followed my heart. It ran toward the semicircle of people. They got closer together and kept clapping. I ran back toward the water. I didn’t know what I was doing.

I just wanted to be free.

Uncle Relle grabbed the hood of my robe. I slid out of the robe and kept running, swing-ing, and screaming.

I saw formless shades of liquid brown that looked like a bowl of mashed oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate chips, burnt butter, and cane syrup. And after a while, I could see regular stuff again. I saw Uncle Relle wobble to his cell phone.

I ain’t going, I said. I ain’t going.

Reverend Cherry was after me, too. I ran back by the pool and grabbed Uncle Relle by the nubs and pushed him in the way. I think I was still yelling and screaming. I looked over at Grandma and LaVander Peeler and they were both smiling, but Grandma was crying, too.

Good tears.

Troll was steady playing that organ, bringing the dampness like it was going outta style. Grandma, I ain’t going, I think I said. I ain’t going, Grandma.

The semicircle of clapping folks started getting closer to me. There was nowhere for me to go. The sweat was steady gushing out, sloshing around my inner thighs, dripping off my forehead.

I ran over where Troll was and got under the bottom part of her organ. She was pumping the hell out of her feet, and I was right there next to them, breathing hard as a fat asthma victim, trying to ball myself up and go through the bottom of the organ. Troll’s wet music was smacking the hell out of my ears and chest, and she was literally kicking me in the hip, she was pumping it so hard. She had these dry, sand-colored, knee-high stockings that tried to cover the lightened blotches on her old legs.

A hand reached down. It was Grandma. I could tell by the stained silver ring on her pinkie. But part of me figured she was a demon with a hand that looked like Grandma’s and when I looked at her whole body it would be all splotched up like Troll’s legs.

“That your hand, Grandma?”

She started fanning me, like she would do to her friends after they caught the Holy Ghost. All this chalked-up foundation was dripping off Grandma’s chin like gobs of Tootsie Roll spit.

She was smiling just as big as she could.

“I ain’t dead, Grandma.” I looked at Grandma eyes. “I ain’t dead, am I? Tell the truth.”

“Naw, baby,” she told me. “You was just free for a little while.” She reached for my hand and helped me get up.

I asked Grandma why she let them hold me under for so long. She claimed that as soon as they dunked my head the third time, I started going into a fit.

I put the plush robe on and stood there thinking and looking at the folks in the semicircle for the first time. This funny-looking oldhead in a robe similar to mine, but a little more old-school, was there too. He was in the back of the crowd, pumping his fist, rubbing the sweat off his old bald head, licking his lips, nodding his head side to side, looking at everyone else.

You know what everybody did after about fifteen seconds? Led by that older joker I’d never seen before, they all started cheering. Not clapping or robotically saying amen, but cheering with their whole bodies, with all that loose energy that fourth graders have during recess.

I wondered if what I’d caught was the same Holy Ghost that Lily Mae and them caught every Sunday. I wasn’t trying to catch nothing. I just wanted to live and breathe and keep my heart beating and be free, but maybe that’s what they were doing when they went crazy, too.

I doubted it, but I figured everything was possible.

Out in the parking lot of Concord, all the kids crowded around LaVander Peeler and asked him questions about what he did at the contest. The grown folks did something different. They ignored LaVander Peeler and got in a line to shake my hand like I was the newest member of their gang. Finally, I wasn’t worried about waves or sweating or the meaning of niggardly or stretch marks or Baize Shephard or dashikis or representing my people or feeling so sad.

I’d beaten death, and unlike Jesus, I’d beaten death on video. I was freer than Jesus. I was saved.


(BOOK ONE, pages 140 – 143)

As soon as we pulled into Grandma’s driveway, I jumped out of the Bonneville. “City, where you think you going in such a hurry?” Grandma asked.

“I gotta go get ready to show LaVander Peeler something.”

“Oh, no you don’t. You better take your behind in there and get outta those clean clothes. We leaving in an hour.”

After mashing all my stuff in my backpack, I ran back out to tell Grandma one more thing before I left. “Grandma, if you weren’t my grandma, I’d still want to be down with you,” I told her. “I’m serious. Ufa D is the luckiest oldhead in the Mid-South. Now that I’m saved, I feel like I can be honest.”

Grandma’s crooked frown broke into a half moon. She brought her bushy brow together, tilted her head to the side, and looked me right in the eyes.

“What, Grandma? I’m serious. I’m just saying I love you. Like I for real love you. I don’t just love how you make me feel. I really love you. And until today, you were the only person I knew on earth who really loved me, too.”

“Who else you know loves you today, baby?”

“Jesus,” I told her. “Right now, I feel like Jesus likes me a whole lot, too, Grandma.”

Grandma blinked finally, and said, “Problem was that you was always wanting to taste why. You too young and that little bread you got is too soft to understand there ain’t no why but Jesus. Them atheists can say what they want, but Jesus, he the only thang done kept us from killing them folks.” She fixed the strap on my backpack. “Don’t waste another second trying to taste why by yourself, though. Jesus is already in love with you. He been in love with you. That’s what you was feeling at the church just now. I know you ain’t felt nothing like it, have you?”

“Um, naw, Grandma,” I told her. “I never felt something like that before.”

“I know. But now, see, you gotta fall in love with him by your actions. Show him you love him by acting as you know he would act. Jesus has seen parts of you that you ain’t even know was alive. And even if you was the biggest, baddest nigga in the world, he done seen the wonder and goodness you capable of. I’m just telling you what I know, baby. Jesus is in love with you, City. Let yourself fall all the way in love with him and everything’ll be awright.”

I stood there wondering about what Jesus told Grandma about that white man in the shed. I felt closer to Jesus after baptism, but I didn’t really know how he or anyone else could be in love with me. I thought about how I looked, how I’d felt the past few days, how I’d acted. I really didn’t know what I’d done to make Jesus fall in love with me, but I was damn sure ready to start reaping the benefits of that love.

Grandma interrupted my thought. She told me she was going to walk down to Troll’s for a little while to handle some business. She handed me the keys and told me to put my stuff in the car when I came back.

This was too good to be true.

I wouldn’t have to come up with some crazy plan to steal the keys if I wanted to get to Sooo Sad. LaVander Peeler walked in the bedroom while I was writing in my book. He told me Uncle Relle had dropped him off and claimed he had to run some errands. “Your uncle should stop doing so many drugs.”

“You’re right about that,” I told him. “He should.”

“Those two straggly-looking girls, the Black one and the white one, and that homosexual bov in the karate suit told me to tell vou be.”

“Okay,” I said. “You ready to see what’s in that work shed?”

LaVander Peeler and I could smell what was left of Sooo Sad’s funk from outside the shed. Couldn’t decide if breathing in through my mouth or nose was better, so I alternated. I opened the door and there he was. Unlike the other times I’d been in the shed, this time Sooo Sad was facing me when I opened the door. Immediately, he started squirming, making loud muffled sounds, begging me with his crossed eyes to let him go.

“I told you I was coming back to save you today, didn’t I? But first, you gotta do some-thing, okay?” He nodded up and down. “This is my friend, LaVander Peeler. You said you saw me at the contest, so you probably saw him too, right?”

Sooo Sad nodded his head.

LaVander Peeler wasn’t blinking at all. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I told you, LaVander Peeler. You can’t tell nobody at school about him, though, okay?” LaVander Peeler’s eyes were big as I’d ever seen them. “You see where it says ‘So sad…’ on the floor? He wrote that with his finger.”

I plopped my knees down on the sawdust of the shed and looked at the chains on Sooo Sad’s legs. “I think both of y’all should read this whole book when you get a chance. It’s really short and it’s more of a young-adult book for adults, so even if you ain’t the best reader in the world, you can still get a lot out of it. I know this is corny but I wanna read these last chapters out loud with y’all, okay?”

It was one of the corniest sentences I’d ever said, but with LaVander Peeler standing above me and Sooo Sad chained on the floor of the work shed, I read the end of Long Division.


(BOOK ONE, pages 144 – 148)

I jumped off my knees and dusted myself off. Then I looked right in Sooo Sad’s crossed red eyes. “Is Baize dead?” I asked him. “How come the last chapter of this book is like twenty blank pages? Look.” | showed both of them the empty pages at the end.

LaVander Peeler wouldn’t touch the book and Sooo Sad wouldn’t nod yes or no to my question. “Is Baize really gone?” I got close to Sooo Sad’s mouth.

“Don’t do it, City,” LaVander Peeler told me.

I ignored him and pulled the rag out anyway. Sooo Sad did this spitting thing before say-ing, “I ain’t do it, man. I ain’t do it.”

I moved down by his legs and started trying to find a little key that looked like it fit the lock. “Is Baize Shephard dead?” I asked him again. “Is that what ‘disappear’ means?”

“Your grandmother and your uncle took me down to Lake Marathon,” he said, ignoring my question. “When we get out the car, she had some folks waiting for us.”

“But is Baize really gone?”

“Most folks just watched. But some folks…”

I looked at LaVander Peeler. Sooo Sad’s story sounded too made up, even more made up than everything that had happened the past few days.

“I told them I’m already saved,” he said. “Every time I said that, they beat me in my face until your grandmother made them stop and say something about a man named…” His voice trailed off for a bit. “… Tom Henry, they said his name was.”

“That’s my granddaddy.”

I could see Sooo Sad feeling the grit on his teeth with his tongue. “Wait, were you there when my granddaddy died, too?” He looked down. “Please just tell me.”

“That’s what I’m saying. I ain’t do it. I don’t even know no Tom Henry. The folks at the lake”–he started talking slower than before–“they said Tom Henry was the one who saved me from drowning back in the day.”

“Please let me go, man. They blaming me for stuff I ain’t do.”

“You kicked me in my back and called me out my name,” I told him.

“I did that,” he said. “And I’m sorry. But I don’t know nothing ’bout that little girl. And I don’t know nothing ’bout no Tom Henry. They blaming me for everything wrong, but I ain’t do it.”

I looked as hard as I could into each of his eyes and tried to imagine my grandfather looking in those eyes as he was choking on water, running from death. “You been cross-eyed your whole life?”

“I swear before God, man, that I ain’t do what they say I did. I ain’t do it.”

“Who did it then?” I asked him.

I wanted to feel more hate, but I figured that being saved and falling in love with Jesus was making me feel what I felt. And what I felt was the feeling you would have when you read a good mystery book and made that big connection a few pages from the end.

“Y’all mad at something more than me.” he said. “I ain’t do it.”

“I don’t know why,” I told him, “but I don’t hate you even if you were there when my granddaddy died. And right now, I don’t even hate you for kicking me in my back and calling me a ‘nigger.’ For real.”

“He kicked you in your back?” LaVander Peeler asked.

“Yep,” I told him. “I already told you that. He kicked me in my back, and then he called me ‘nigger.’ But I don’t think he even knows what a ‘nigger’ is.” | looked back at Sooo Sad. “I just want you to be honest with me. Do you know where Baize Shephard is? Did you kill Baize Shep–“

“No,” he said before I could finish her name. “Hell naw.”

“You know where she is?”

“I ain’t do it. I don’t know nothing about that little girl.”

“You know who killed her?”

Sooo Sad closed his eyes. “You serious?” he asked me. “That story you reading, it said that little girl disappeared, and the man responsible for that disappearing is the man who wrote that story.”

“I know what this book said, but it’s just a book. I’m asking you where Baize’s body is.”

“You find the man who wrote that story, look to me like you find that little girl.” Sooo Sad’s voice was cracking and he was sobbing.

“So she is dead, right? I know you didn’t do it but I think you know who did.”

You killed that girl,” he said through some quivering lips.


“You,” he said as calm as anything I’d heard in days. “You know what you did to that girl, and that’s your business.”

“How could I kill her? I wasn’t even here.”

“You did it, man. You did it. You wrote it in your book. Please let me go.”

I heard him. I saw him. Whether I believed what he said didn’t matter. I saw that he believed it. LaVander Peeler, without a tear in his eye, walked closer to Sooo Sad. He got on his knees, wiped off his mouth, got a few inches from Sooo Sad’s face, and said, “All things considered, I don’t believe you can use ‘nigger’ in a sentence.”

“What in the devil is wrong with y’all?” Sooo Sad asked. “Why are y’all doing this?”

“You can’t use it,” he said. “All things considered, I bet you can’t even spell it, much less use it. Am I wrong?”

“Please,” Sooo Sad said, “y’all making this personal. I’m so sad and I just want to go home. I’m sorry for calling you out your name.”

“Can vou at least spell it?”

“N-I-G-G-E-R,” he said.

“That ain’t right,” LaVander Peeler told him.

“N-I-G-G-E-R.” He slowed it down this time.

“Nope,” LaVander Peeler said. “All things considered, I don’t think that’s right.” I got up to pull LaVander Peeler out of Sooo Sad’s face when he cocked his arm back and jabbed Sooo Sad in his left eye. Almost in the same motion, Sooo Sad reared his head back and butted LaVander Peeler right in the middle of his face. LaVander Peeler grabbed his face with both hands, made these snorting sounds, and wobbled out of the shed.

Even though I was saved, I reckon I reacted like a demon when a grown white man head-butted LaVander Peeler in the face. I gripped Long Division and started smacking Sooo Sad in his face as hard as I could, when, all of a sudden, Grandma burst in the door of the shed, breathing loud as hell. “What is wrong with you?” she asked me. I didn’t say a word. I just handed her Long Division. She wiped blood off the book and handed it back.

Sooo Sad was calling Grandma all kinds of “Black b—-es” and “niggers” and he kept saying, “I ain’t do it! I ain’t do it!” when Grandma said to me, “Gimme my keys.”

I gave her the keys and watched her pull out the butterfly blade. “Leave, City. Both of y’all both go get in the car. And lock the doors!”

Sooo Sad’s angry yells of “I ain’t do it!” slid into screams, which slid into gurgly moans by the time I got to the car. LaVander Peeler was already in the back seat, covering his ears. I’d never heard anything like the moans coming out of that work shed.

And then the moans stopped.


(BOOK ONE, pages 149 – 153)

Out in the parked Bonneville, LaVander Peeler sat in the back and I sat up front with Grandma. She sat there not saying a word for a few minutes, with one hand on my thigh and the car running. She took her hand from my thigh and cupped her face with both hands before massaging her temples with her thumbs. I placed my left hand on the back of her neck and rubbed it like she’d do to me when I couldn’t sleep.

I sat there, waiting for Grandma to say something and, really, waiting to hear from her about how being in love with Jesus was going to help us out of whatever situation we were in. I didn’t want no silly voices pass-interfering when Jesus decided to let me know what to do next. But even if you put it on the strongest leash ever, and even if you’re saved, the imagination makes more noise than a little bit and takes you wherever it wants to go.

And my imagination did exactly that. It took me right across the road into those Magic Woods and it had me stepping on dead catfish and brittle monkey bodies and the blue crossed eyeballs of white folks. All the while, all I could hear around me was Uncle Relle say-ing, “Gotdamnit. Gotdamnit. Gotdamnit.”

Jesus, I thought to myself, if you’re there, I’m not trying to cuss you. I swear I’m not.

Then, it took me back to a bed on a stage and Mama, Troll, Shay, Kincaid, and MyMy were there and they were all kissing me all over my stretch marks and showing stretch marks I never knew they had. Without warning, my imagination calmed down and took me right back to my baptism and that Halona King song was blasting on level eighty trillion.

I pulled Long Division from my bag. “Grandma, I’m fine,” I told her. “Really.”

“Your face,” she said.


“It looks like my baby done aged fifteen years in two days. Lawd, have mercy. Please have mercy. This wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

“Oh, naw. I’m fine, Grandma. I’m just waiting to feel more saved, but it shouldn’t be long now.” I sat there with Long Division, trying to get situated in the passenger seat of the car. “In a way, everything is right here.” | handed her the book. “I think Jesus wanted me to find this book. You should read this one day. There’s another one in the shed.”

“I picked it up,” she said.

“You did? Good. You should read it.”

“I love you, City,” she said and put the book back on my lap. “Galatians 6:9 says, Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. I ain’t giving up, but I didn’t do good this weekend and I reckon they ’bout to come for me. I want you–“

“Grandma,” I interrupted her, “I’m gonna miss you. You know that, right? I am. And I’m gonna miss Melahatchie so much. And you ain’t even got to tell me; I already know I can’t say nothing about what happened in that work shed. It didn’t really happen, right?” I waited for an answer. When none came, I told her, “I think I know where Baize Shephard is, Grandma.”

I reached for Grandma’s waist, smashing my head against her chest as she hugged my neck. Her heart was pounding so hard, so fast. The smell of the shed and Sooo Sad was still strong on her chest. “You scared, Grandma? We didn’t kill that man, right? Even though you think he killed Granddaddy and Baize Shephard, we didn’t kill him, did we?”

I could feel tears from Grandma’s face dripping onto my head. “Grandma, I have another question.” | pulled away from her so I could see her eyes. “What does Jesus say is the difference between the fiction in your head and the real life you live? You know what I mean? It’s like there’s two of everybody, the one in fiction and the one in real life. But what’s the difference?”

She squeezed my hand tighter and looked me right in the eyes. “Really, it ain’t no difference, City,” she said. “Because unless you use both of them the right way, they just as bad or just as good as you want them to be. But you lead both of them,” she whispered in my ear. “And don’t take no ass-whupping or no disrespect from no one in your own house or your own dreams, you hear me? Do whatever it takes to protect you and yours,” she said. “Especially in your dreams. Especially in your dreams, because you never know who else is watching.”

“Grandma,” | looked behind me at LaVander Peeler, who was looking out the rear win-dow, “that’s what I did at the contest. That’s all I was trying to do.”

Grandma tapped me on the forehead with my pencil and ignored my question. She told me to read and write when I got bored and needed to make sense of it all. She said I should never show anybody what I wrote, “… unless you really feel like Jesus forgot you and you’re trying to save your own life, or the life of somebody you love.” Then out of nowhere she said, “What I did to protect me and mines was wrong, City. I knew better.”

“But you were just cleaning up our mess, right? You were doing what Jesus would have done.”

“Naw.” Grandma looked at her hands. “I was cleaning up my own mess. Or I reckon I was punishing that man for his part in some mess that can’t never really be cleaned the right way. I don’t know, City.”

“It can be cleaned, Grandma. That’s the thing.” I wasn’t sure what I meant, but I knew I meant what I was saying. “It’s cleaner than it would be if folks didn’t fight back. We can make it even cleaner.”

“We can make it dirtier, too,” Grandma said and kissed me right on the mouth and reached across me and opened my door. “You should go, City. They gon’ be coming for me directly, so I should probably go to them first. Don’t ever go back in that house or that shed. You understand me?”

In all the years I’d known my grandma, I never imagined her as someone’s sad child. But there she was, looking like some kind of rotten blue loss was swallowing her whole, like she’d just lost fifty contests in a row in front of her parents, the boy she liked, and all the Black folks to ever live in the state of Mississippi.

LaVander Peeler and I got out of the car and stood in front of the woods. While Grandma’s Bonneville slow-crawled down the road and all these other drivers were blowing their horns and passing her, I put my hand on LaVander Peeler’s shoulder and walked him into the Magic Woods. I didn’t have to explain anything to LaVander Peeler. He wanted to come with me.

I reached down and pulled open the hole in the ground. We both looked at each other and walked down the steps. “This wasn’t supposed to happen to us, City.”

“Yeah, it was,” I told him. “Like you always say, all things considered, we didn’t really have no other choice or no other story to tell, so we had to make one.” I waited for him to say something back but he didn’t, so I looked right in his face and said what I should have found a way to say to him after the contest.

“I love you, LaVander Peeler. I do, man, and I don’t care what you say about that homosexual stuff. I know you love me, too. You ain’t even gotta say it. Just treat this like the best video game ever made and act like we just beat the game together.”

LaVander Peeler looked at me, not like I was crazy, but like we just tied for last place in the longest uphill three-legged race in the world.

The hole was huge once we got in and so much colder than I expected. “Should we leave the top open?” I asked him. LaVander Peeler just stood next to me, ignoring my question and resting his head on my shoulder.

“Listen,” I told him. “You hear something? Sounds like someone breathing.”

“City, all things considered,” he said before listening to the breathing, “I’m so scared.” We sat in silence for a few seconds. I so wanted LaVander to just reach out and hold my hand. He did something even better. “Can we read that book?” he asked me.

“Want me to read it to you? Or you wanna read it together?”

“I’m so scared,” LaVander Peeler said. “Can we read together?”

In that hole, right in that second, I felt as far away from fake and I felt as close to a real character as I had ever felt. And the craziest thing is that I wasn’t sure if that was a good, bad, or sad thing. With LaVander Peeler’s head on my shoulder, we started rereading Long Division from the beginning, knowing that all we needed to know about how to love better in Mississippi was in our hands. Baize was right. The sentences had always been there

DMU Timestamp: April 27, 2023 14:28