Excerpt from Desert Boys by Chris McCormick:
NOTES FOR A SPOTLIGHT ON A FUTURE PRESIDENT
The mascot— a cartoonlike Confederate soldier known affectionately on campus as Rebby the Blue— had been defiled. Unfortunately, the African American sophomore commissioned to wear the costume at the spring pep rally didn’t notice the freshly painted Hitler mustache until it was too late. Joshua Stilt fist-pumped his way onto the gymnasium floor, where he expected to be swathed in the intoxicating energy of school spirit. Instead, he was met with a wild mixture of laughter and hissing from the overwhelmingly white audience of five hundred. Afterwards, the local news sent a camera crew and a reporter to interview Joshua Stilt and the high school’s white principal about what was already being described in the Antelope Valley as the third or fourth greatest controversy of the year.
“To equate a Rebel soldier with Nazis is ridiculous,” said the principal in his prerecorded interview. “Rebels fought for freedom, you see, and Hitler fought for power. Anyone who knows history understands states’ rights and dictatorships are like Chinese food and cheese—totally incompatible.”
Peter Thorpe, the local reporter—having already heard the joke over Panda Express takeout at the principal’s house two nights earlier—decided against challenging his old friend’s logic. They had graduated as Rebels fewer than thirty years ago.
Quickly the conversation turned to identifying the culprit. For his part, Joshua Stilt—whose last name provoked jokes about his five-foot-nothing frame—became the first suspect. “If I’d wanted to make a political statement,” he told the reporter when he began to feel accused, “I’d have come up with something more intelligent.”
The story might have ended there had the local news segment not been seen by a famous film director, who happened to be this far north of Los Angeles to shoot an explosion scene in the desert. The director, a woman whose own fight for legitimacy in the male-dominated field of Hollywood action films had nurtured in her a sensitivity to the just indignations of others, sent a brief but excoriating email to the chiefs of major news organizations across California. Word spread. Soon, reporters at every major television network wanted a sit-down with Joshua Stilt. The local interest—who sullied Rebby the Blue?—was replaced by a national interest: What young black kid in twenty-first-century California would willingly don the uniform—cartoonlike or not—of a Confederate soldier?
Interview after interview produced the same response from Joshua Stilt: “I really enjoyed being the mascot, and I couldn’t change what the mascot was.” But what Joshua Stilt felt he could not do, national media attention proved able to. Shortly after the story broke, petitions, rallies, and lawsuits were organized to replace Rebby the Blue with a less political mascot for Antelope Valley High. After consulting his conscience, his Bible, his school district, and an online national poll, the suddenly apologetic principal revealed the new mascot at an assembly on the football field. An actual desert tortoise had been borrowed for the event from the conservatory, and, released from its cage, began eating blades of grass that had been painted white with the high school’s logo, a Stars and Bars flag that had not yet been replaced.
A decade later, I planned to meet Joshua Stilt at a Mission District café in San Francisco, but saw him almost an hour early, standing at the yellow edge of the Rockridge BART platform in Oakland. The weather—warm and overcast—lent a cinematic, quiet texture to the whole scene, as if we were waiting for a steam engine and not a commuter train. For a moment I considered avoiding him until our planned meeting. Checking the overhead electronic platform scrolls, however, I saw that our train had been delayed due to a post-Occupy, largely impromptu protest a station ahead. Fearing Joshua Stilt might catch me avoiding him in that time, I went over to introduce myself.
He was donning those large white plastic headphones everyone our age seemed to be wearing in transit, and I had to reach out and touch him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he slid the headphones down around his neck, I said, “I’m Daley Kushner, the guy who’s writing about you.”
He’d grown up to become a stylish, handsome young man. He’d sprouted a good eight inches not including his early-’90s-style flat-top fade (an additional two inches), complete with lines shaved into the sides of his head that reminded me, for what ever reason, of the wingtips on classic American cars. He wore large-framed black glasses and, despite the warm weather, a slim-fitting suede blazer that, only when the clouds passed temporarily, proved to be navy blue. We talked about the chance of rain and the clearer skies we could already make out across the bay until our train arrived, at which point, we found two empty seats and began to talk more comfortably.
“I won’t turn this on,” I said, showing him my digital recorder, “until we get to the café. Too much noise on these rails.”
“Very strange to see another AV kid outside the desert,” he said. “I guess you and I are special.”
“Ha,” I said—actually saying the word. I wondered (a) if he remembered me from high school (probably not) and (b) if I—far less stylish as an acne-scarred, uncombed, short-but-lanky white dude in a polo shirt—had made a good first impression. I resisted the urge to ask, and told him that once the recorder came on, the conversation would be about the ways he—and only he—was special. “Trust me,” I said. “My editor has no interest in getting to know me better.”
“You’ll seep through anyway,” Joshua said, not unkindly. His music was still on, and I could make out the snare hits through the headphones around his neck. “As soon as you choose what to say or write,” he said, “you start seeping through. And it only gets messier the more you say.”
Chris McCormick was raised in the Antelope Valley. He earned his B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and his M.F.A. at the University of Michigan, where he was the recipient of two Hopwood Awards. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI. Desert Boys is his debut.