Here’s the revised draft of Chapter 2 of Sin Against the Race, taking up where Chapter 1 left off. Enjoy!
Chapter 2 – Sin Against the Race
Alfonso boarded the Line 21 bus and found it already filled with comatose students heading in for the first day. Many looked like freshmen. He slowly migrated towards the back and suddenly saw Roy Krebs, sitting on one of the inward facing seats south of the backdoor, his face buried in his iPhone. He still looked as skinny as ever and his hair still looked as red as Malcolm X’s. He last saw Roy in high school, prancing on stage in Italian Renaissance garb, calling for his Juliet. And he was damned good, too, Alfonso recalled.
Silly anxiety tried to prevent him from approaching Roy and speaking to him, a variation of the same bullshit that kept him from visiting Sammy for so long. A preprogrammed prohibition against Roy did not exist like it did for Carver Street – he didn’t care who saw them together. He feared Roy’s rejection. Seeing him brought on waves of guilt about what had been and what could have been. Even in high school, Roy lived in the closet for no one and dealt with a lot of bullshit as a result. Alfonso had it easier because he stayed down low. Guilt. Not only did he avoid the bullshit by being down low, but he hung with folks who regularly dished it out to Roy and others who did not conform to SBB, or Standard Black Behavior. What a chickenshit, he thought. Guilt. Alfonso gave himself credit, though, for never dishing the bullshit, even to make himself look good. And anyway he never sought out such people to hang with or befriend. He didn’t have to. He was the councilman’s son. They sought him out. Friendship with Alfonso meant status. Conversely, Alfonso felt it his duty to cultivate such relationships as a way to bolster his father. It always came back to the family business, his fallback excuse: Berry, Inc. Guilt.
Alfonso processed all that in a matter of seconds, and then continued on his course. Just as preprogrammed DNA hadn’t stopped him from finally visiting Sammy at his store on dreaded Carver Street, he would not let worries over the past stop him from at least saying hi to Roy. Besides, despite feeling like a Capulet to Roy’s Montague, they were always cool with each other back in the day during their infrequent encounters. And Alfonso needed allies, lots of allies. He had to try. He planted himself right in front of him.
“Freshman jitters?” Alfonso said.
“Nah, not yet,” Roy said, then he looked up. “Alfonso!”
“How’s it going, Roy?”
“How are you?” He stood up and gave him a quick hug, which took them both by surprise, though Alfonso welcomed the embrace. “I was just reading about the clinic fire and thinking about you, wondering if you heard,” he said, sitting down again. “I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks, Roy,” Alfonso said, still stunned at how easy that went.
“You wanna sit here? I’m about to get off anyway,” said the woman sitting next to Roy.
“Thank you,” Alfonso said. He took the woman’s seat. “Got a text about it not long after it started. I was just over there. I still can’t relate to it. It doesn’t seem real.”
“It’s so damn random. And it’s too soon.”
“I appreciate that, Roy. Thank you.”
Roy smiled. “You know, I was at the friends’ gathering for Carlton, at Reverend Tamera’s.”
“You were? Oh that’s so cool, Roy.” He started to tear up, thinking ‘Why hasn’t this brother been in my life?’ “I’m sorry. I’m so mad at myself for not being there.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, no, man, it’s good, it’s good. I appreciate hearing people talk about him. I spent the whole summer not talking to anyone about Carlton. I felt like I had to pretend that he never existed, like everyone else in my family does.”
“Yeah,” Roy said, “I can relate.”
“Of course,” Alfonso said, “it’s not the same as losing a parent.”
“Greif is grief. And my life’s not in a fishbowl, man.”
Alfonso smiled. This brother is every shade of cool, he thought. “Are you looking forward to college? You’re still acting, right?”
“Hell yeah! I got a scholarship from the Theater Department.”
“Yeah, thanks. And I get to take an advanced stage workshop.”
“You’re first semester? Shiiit, brother, save something for upper division!”
“Who’s giving the workshop?”
“The Mr. Patrick, who won four Tonys? I’m scared of you!”
“I’m scared of him!”
Their conversation flowed with such ease that neither noticed their arrival at the campus bus depot. The exiting bodies gave them a clue. As they disembarked, Alfonso made Roy promise to let him know when the final performance for the workshop would take place. Roy took down Alfonso’s 411 on his cell. Alfonso did the same.
“You’re an Apple queen, too, huh?” Alfonso said.
“You know it, girlfriend. Since day one. Hey Alfonso,” he moved closer and spoke in a softer voice. “Come hang out at Sammy’s sometime, you know, if you can.”
“Thanks, Roy,” he said, smiling, “I might just do that. Catch you later, brother.”
After another quick hug, they went their separate ways. Alfonso still carried with him the day’s burdens, those experienced and those yet to come; yet he also felt buoyed, not just because meeting Roy and Sammy lifted his spirits, but because he had the courage to meet them at all.
Once he arrived in the classroom, he knew his high had ended. Time had come to squeeze tight his sphincter so that he could exist around those he called familiars. The first person he saw was Leon the football player. Alfonso took a seat next to him.
“I didn’t know you were taking this class, man,” Alfonso said.
“Hey, ‘Fonso? What up, dawg?” He got up and gave him a manly, one-arm hug.
“First day,” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, here we go again. Summer treated you good?”
Alfonso made a non-committal head nod. “You ever take a class with Euclid before?”
“Nah, dawg,” Leon said. “But this fit with my Communications major, so you know, whatever. Sounds like a good class from the description.”
Before more banality could take place, Professor Euclid walked into the room. He smiled at the class as it settled down.
“I’m sure this is the first class of the day for most of you, so welcome back,” he started. “Current Topics in the African-American Community. That is what this class is entitled. During the semester, I want us to cover all sorts of topics and discuss their sociological implications on the various black communities that exist in this country. I had planned something else for today, but in keeping with my desire that the course stay very current, I thought I would start with something very recent and close to home. Some of you live in the Huck, right?” A few heads nodded, a couple of hands went up. “Well, if you do, you may have noticed or smelled fire this morning.” Alfonso felt his body chill. “The Huckleberry Community Clinic just burned down.”
A few stirred. Some sounded oohs and ahs.
As Professor Euclid described the clinic, Alfonso started to recite in his head the mission statement posted at the entry door, just beneath the founders’ photo. ‘To serve those in need, To comfort those in pain, To guide those who are lost, To heal those who are ill, To provide for the health and wellbeing of all the community: That is our charge.’ He repeated it, his lips nearly mouthing the words as he did. He remembered those words as if he had written them. They clung tightly to him, as tightly as he held Carlton’s hand as he slipped further from his grasp, until he was no longer there to hold.
Meanwhile, the class had become engaged in a lively discussion.
“What’s the impact of the center’s lost?” Professor Euclid repeated.
“But didn’t the county approve needle exchanges?” a student said.
“Yeah, Todd, but the city didn’t,” Leon said, looking at Alfonso, who did not return the glance.
“But the county runs the health programs, not the city,” Todd countered.
“That doesn’t matter, Todd,” said another student. “The exchange brought the wrong type of element to the neighborhood.”
“Sybil,” Todd said, “we’re talking about the Huck. The ‘element’ already exists.”
“Naw, see, Sybil’s right,” Leon continued. “I mean a city has a right to refuse programs that it doesn’t approve of. And members of the city council do not approve of the needle exchange program. Does the county have a right to force it on cities and communities?” He kept looking at his homie for head nods of support. None were forthcoming.
“People!” Professor Euclid said. “You’re not answering the question. How will the center’s loss impact the community?”
“It means that more people are going to get HIV,” the councilman’s son said in a heavy voice.
“Why?” the professor asked.
“Cause they’ll be using dirty needles or having unsafe sex. Cause they won’t get tested. Cause they won’t have that resource there for those services. And with it gone, it’ll just make it easier to pretend that AIDS doesn’t exist. Make it more invisible.”
“He’s right. Excellent, Alfonso.” The professor paused. “What aspect about AIDS in the community have I emphasized? Alfonso just said it. It’s invisible. Huckleberry Community Clinic represented a visible presence, a reminder that AIDS exists. And now, thanks to this fire, that presence has been taken away.”
Leon glared at Alfonso, who didn’t seem to notice. He barely recognized that he had spoken. His mind floated back to the storefront he visited every day and the motto he memorized more readily than any verse he learned in Sunday school.
* * *
Roy arrived at his first class in good enough time to get a seat of his choosing, on the far left side, partway down the steep incline of the classroom. How appropriate, he thought, that Ancient History should be taught in a Roman-like arena. Soon the space filled with bodies and first day chatter. The professor himself walked out exactly at 10:00 am. Roy was shocked that he was a black man.
“Good morning. I am Benjamin Quill and this is History 105, Introduction to Ancient History.” He wrote all this on the board, then walked to the lectern.
“We will begin,” Professor Quill started, “with a reading of the epic poem of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a hero. A warrior figure. He is an archetype of the sort of heroic figures we will find in epic poems that were written much, much later. He antedates the Homeric epic poems by at least 1500 years. We will read of his legendary conquests. And we will meet a rival who eventually became his close friend, Enkidu.” He paused to look up from his notes. “They were not homosexual lovers,” said the Professor. He walked away from the lectern and over to the other side of the stage. “They were not homosexual lovers,” he reiterated. “And let me say right here and now,” his voice quivering, “in our studies of ancient history, we will find it best if we refrain from ascribing cultural standards from our world to that of the ancients. Our cultures have different values.”
Roy stopped writing in his notebook and put the pencil down.
“People with a certain political agenda,” Quill continued, “will try to tell you, for example, that the ancient Greeks were accepting of homosexuals and homosexuality. That statement is nonsensical. One cannot compare our age with theirs. People with political agendas need to stop clouding the facts for the sake of their own narrow ideologies . . .”
“No, seriously?” Roy said aloud. Those nearby snickered. He began doodling in his notebook while tuning out the Professor completely.
In the very back, at the top of the arena like auditorium, Bill Hawk stared and stared as Professor Quill pranced from one side of the stage to the other. He couldn’t have imagined his first day starting more strangely. First he almost missed the bus because the large fire near his house distracted his attention. Then, although he came to campus the day before to plot out where all of his classes met, he got lost in the shuffle of students getting off the bus. He hustled to get to the right building, but when he walked into the classroom, he nearly fell over from vertigo. He had never seen such a steep auditorium. Walking down the aisle looked akin to scaling the Matterhorn. None of that, thank you, so he took a seat at the top of the room, what his mother would call the nose-bleed section. As a final insult, he realized, as he hurriedly got out his notebook and a pen, that he sat at a left handed desk. Damn! Fortunately, he could scoot over a seat to one fitted with a “right” desk. “Bill, today thy name is drama,” he muttered as he resettled. He normally didn’t think of himself as a drama queen, but that morning showed him his potential in that area.
After surviving the Frankie Freshman freak-out syndrome, now he had before him an uptight, nelly professor with his panties in a twist. Bill had felt a small amount of pride when the professor entered the lecture hall. He had expected his ancient history professor to be an old white guy with white hair wearing a wrinkled, button-down cardigan, not a 40-something African American dressed in a stylish gray suit. Now all pride had faded. The large auditorium turned into a church in the black section of his puny hometown. The air became hot and heavy with summer sweat. He could hear the ladies fanning themselves with pamphlets and see the brothers looking stoic and still. And a preacher man at the pulpit thundered in a familiar singsong, exorcizing devils almost to horrible to name.
“You’ll find countless examples of their tampering with history,” Quill continued. “‘An army of lovers.’ What does that mean? They don’t know, so they ascribe their own values to it. Suddenly, bam! Plato is gay. Does that make sense to you?”
Bill also tuned out the Professor. He wrote AMEN in his notebook in block letters and then drew a thick line though the middle of them.
* * *
On the first day of classes, all the student groups set up their tables to recruit, recruit, recruit along the hilly incline of the tree-lined, cobblestone walkway in front of the Student Union in the center of campus. Alfonso had to set up a table for the African Students Association, or ASA. He dreaded the task, not being in the space for it at all, and wanted to skip the whole thing. But the first thing Leon said after Euclid’s class ended was, “See you on the walk.” So, he was expected. He had to buckle down and keep it real.
Alfonso went to the group’s office in the Student Union to collect his wares. Then he trotted downstairs and out to the walkway. The campus installed built-in tables and benches years earlier during a renovation, so groups didn’t have to bring out folding ones anymore. Alfonso always picked the table that sat in front of a small alcove just off the main walk. Folks liked to mingle among themselves in that space, their own personal grotto shielded from the rest of the world by low hanging trees.
It didn’t take long for them to show up. Homeboys and homegirls slid the flesh with Alfonso before going into the green grotto. He greeted them all with the usual smile and upbeat tempo. That was the persona Alfonso maintained within the group, a hyper, upbeat dude, sort of the group mascot. Someone who possessed no worries. Someone who smiled hard and laughed at everybody’s lame jokes. Someone who never complained while doing all the grunt work to keep it happening. Someone who was only a disembodied mask and, in fact, did not exist at all.
In the past, Alfonso never took notice of the mask he wore. He just wore it and went on. But everything had changed. He could feel the mask smother his sensitized, scar-ridden soul like an iron maiden. And a soul in trauma often steps outside of itself and helplessly watches its body writhe in torment. So for the first time, Alfonso experienced a fit of hyper self-awareness and helplessly watched himself shuck and jive with the others, as clearly as if he viewed everything from a table across the walkway. The words “jigaboo” and “Stepin Fetchit” rang through his skull. He wondered if Aunt Jemima ever wore lavender do-rags.
He whipped out a cigarette and soon enveloped himself in smoke, hoping that the nicotine would dull the pain and erase the reflection staring back at him.
Then up bounded Cynthia. He muttered “Fuck!” a little louder than intended. She was to join him at the table and he tried not to smoke around the uninitiated, though he couldn’t imagine spending a whole lunch hour jigabooing without frequent nicotine injections. His mind resented being in the present and required heavy coaxing. He took the fag from his mouth and discreetly put it out under the table, and then sat it just under his right leg. He didn’t want it to go to waste.
“Hello, Alfonso,” she said.
“Hi Cynthia!” He got up to give her a hug. The fag fell to the ground and rolled away.
“How was your summer?” she asked.
Gurneys. IVs. Monitors. Oxygen pumps.
He fumbled for his pack of cigs. “It was alright, you know. It was OK.” A cigarette appeared in his mouth. “Just worked downtown, you know.” He fumbled for his lighter. “But how was your summer? That internship in DC must have been off the chain! How did it go?”
“It was a lot of hard work, but it was a beautiful experience.”
“That’s great!” he said. “Fantastic! You felt you got a lot out of it?”
“Yes, I certainly did. You should try for it next summer. I’m sure your father can help you get it into the program.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Alfonso nodded. He lit the cigarette.
“So where did you work this summer Alfonso? Did you end up working in your father’s office?”
Pills. Hypos. Bed pans. Puke.
“Oh, no, no. I mean I worked at City Hall, but in the City Clerk’s office. It was cool. You know, city policy stuff.”
“How interesting,” Cynthia said.
Slowness. Stillness. Sleep. Silence.
He puffed harder.
“Well, welcome back,” she said. “Thank you for setting up our table. I see folks have gathered back there, so I’ll go say hi. I’ll be back.”
She retreated to the grotto where the homies mingled amongst themselves. Alfonso looked back, startled to see such a crowd. He didn’t realize so many had gathered there. He barely remembered talking to them.
Bill began his first lunch hour in college dutifully checking for the African Students Association’s table, a homework assignment he received before classes began. He walked up the hill, past the other groups, when he saw ASA’s banner on a table near the top of the walkway, catercorner from the steps to the Student Union. The first thing he noticed, as he approached the table, was a brochure about the tutorial program.
“Are you interested in joining the tutorial program, brother?” said a friendly voice.
“I already did. Reverend Johnson told me I should come by and introduce myself. My name is Bill.”
“Welcome, Bill. I’m Alfonso. Are you a freshman?”
“Excellent! Glad to see you getting so involved already, brother,” he enthused, beginning his automated sales pitch. “As you can see we sponsor a lot of programs, both on campus and in the community. We try to maintain our ties, you know what I’m saying.” Bill nodded. “How did you get involved?”
“My mom,” Bill said, almost blushing.
Alfonso liked Bill’s response and giggled. “Parents are like that, aren’t they, Bill? My family goes to Reverend Johnson’s church, too. How long have you guys been going?”
“Since last summer,” he said. “We just moved into town.”
“Alright, then. So your family lives in the Huck?”
“The Huck? Oh, you mean near Huckleberry Park? Yeah, we do. We live on 48th, right across the street from the park.”
“Sweet. I know some folks on 48th. You know Mrs. Parker?”
“She’s our downstairs neighbor!” Bill smiled.
“Small world, ain’t it, Bill,” Alfonso said.
“There a lot of churches on the south side of the park, so many in fact that folks call it the Bible Belt.” Bill giggled. “How did you family end up at Beacon Hill First Baptist?”
“Through my mom’s connections. She’s very old school like that. Work the church, you know what I’m saying?”
“Oh yes. I sure do,” Alfonso nodded.
“So when she got a job here in the city, and I got enrolled here at State, she asked around for the best church for networking.”
“In the Huck, that would be Reverend Johnson’s,” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, that’s it. Oh, so Reverend Johnson talked about the tutorial program one day over the summer, and my mom thought I should get involved. She sort of insisted.”
Alfonso felt himself relax talking to Bill. The mask was not needed. But before he got too comfortable, Cynthia returned from the grotto.
“Hello!” she said in a loud friendly voice. “Did you say that you know Reverend Johnson?”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “My family goes to his church and I work in the tutorial program.”
“Oh yes,” she said, all smiles. “He told me to expect you. I’m Cynthia Greenfield, ASA president. And this is Alfonso, our recruiting secretary.”
Cynthia offered her long fingered hand to Bill, which he took and shook lightly. Alfonso wondered why Reverend Johnson didn’t tell him about Bill, but remained silent and let Cynthia steal the show.
“You need to start coming to our meetings,” she continued. “Did you invite him yet, Alfonso? They’re open to everyone. And you’re already so involved. It’s good to see us helping our own.”
Leon appeared suddenly and grabbed Cynthia by the waist and pulled her closer.
“Hey, you!” she said. “I’m on duty!”
“Fonso, man, you’re supposed to be watching out for my lady,” he said, looking at Bill. “What’s up with that?”
Bill made a weak smile that turned more into a blank stare.
“Leave him alone, Leon,” Alfonso said, with a protective tone in his voice. “He’s just here to hook up with the group. Reverend Johnson sent him. He tutors at his church.”
“Yes,” Cynthia said, “he’s one of us now. So stop trying to scare him away.”
“I’m just messing with him.” He stuck out his hand to Bill. “Leon, man. Welcome.” A bone-crushing handshake followed. “When did you start tutoring?”
“Just this past summer. I used to tutor at my old church.”
“In a small town, where I grew up.” Bill bent over the table and put his name and info on a list.
Leon brought up his left hand, which carried his Android phone. “Oh, Alfonso,” he said, “I think your father is about to come on the midday news. I got it on here.”
He placed his cell on the table so folks could see. A few others from the grotto came out to crowd around. Bill walked behind the table and stood next to Alfonso, who wore defeat on his face. This was Leon giving him a beat-down after what happened in class, and he knew it. Seeing his father talk about the clinic with an audience was bad enough, but seeing him with the ASA group somehow seemed a trillion times worse. Not only would he have to wear a mask, but the mask would have to verbally high five his father over something his soul was in deep mourning about. The very thought nearly sent him into rigor mortis.
“Councilman Berry,” the reported started, “you have had disagreements about the Huckleberry Community Clinic since it opened last spring.”
“Yes,” he said.
“It offered many health services for the community, so how do you feel about it no longer being here and would you oppose it reopening in the same spot?”
“Look, I know that they offered many programs, but the bottom line for me has always been their insistence in maintaining a needle exchange program. A needle exchange program has its place, I suppose, though I think there isn’t enough documentation to support whether such programs are beneficial or not.”
Alfonso felt depth charge after depth charge go off in his gut. He didn’t have to look to know that Leon stared at him with relish.
“But the bottom line for me is, this neighborhood has seen enough blight and negative publicity. It does not need a needle exchange as well. Ours is a residential community, a family community. Children live here. This just isn’t the appropriate setting for this sort of activity. After the tragedy of the fire, I hope that they elect to move elsewhere.”
“Straight out!” Leon said, clapping. “He’s right, he’s right. Your father’s keeping it real, Alfonso.”
Others started clapping.
Bill looked at Alfonso, whose face looked ashen.
“Alfonso, your father is on the city council?”
“Uh-huh,” he said blankly. “Excuse me.”
He quickly left the table and ran across the walkway and up the steps to the Student Union. Folks didn’t take much notice, except for Bill. He almost wanted to ask if he was alright, but felt awkward since he just met him and no one else seemed phased by his rapid exit.
“Well, Bill,” Cynthia said. “I hope you can come to our first meeting of the year this Thursday. We’ll be talking about the Freshman Orientation Program. We always start the school year with that.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Bill answered
“Cool, man,” Leon said, offering another bone-crushing handshake. “Later.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you later.”
“Bye, Bill,” Cynthia said with a sweet smile.
Bill walked across to the steps of the Student Union and entered the building himself in search of food, though part of him wondered about Alfonso. He saw the eateries ahead, but notice a men’s room and felt the need to use it. He darted through the door and found Alfonso leaning heavily on a sink, making sobbing noises.
“Alfonso!” Bill said, rushing to him. “What’s wrong, man? What’s the matter?”
Alfonso stood up, sans mask, displaying his red eyes and wet face for Bill to see.
“He didn’t have to do that!” he cried.
“Who? Who didn’t?” Bill asked.
Alfonso could have meant his father or Leon, but referenced neither as it seemed too much explaining to do.
“My cousin started that clinic,” he said in a strained voice. “He died last summer, from AIDS. He’s gone, and now his clinic’s gone, too!”
He started to cry again. And Bill felt no hesitation giving this man he barely knew a tight embrace, while other guys seeking to relieve their bladders filed in and out behind them.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.