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Excerpt from Jazz Moon
His fourteenth birthday arrived on a summer morning in June without fanfare. Ben knew he wouldn’t receive presents, but he expected, hoped for, some sort of acknowledgement: an extra treat at breakfast; a kiss from his ma or a handshake from his pa; a happy birthday, son from both or either of them.
At breakfast he sat on the wooden bench on his side of the table while his pa demolished grits and coffee and his ma added yeast to some dough at the stove. His eyes bounded from one parent to the other, waiting. The wait became vain hope. His appetite dwindled. He picked at his food.
Her bread yeasted, his ma turned from the stove, wiped her hands on the front of her dress, and noticed her sullen son. “Boy, what you doin’? We ain’t got time for you to be dawdlin’. Hurry up and eat and get out there and feed them animals! Go on now. What you waitin’ for? They ain’t gone feed themselves.”
He finished his grits, now cold, and left to begin his chores.
While watering the mule, his parents announced they were leaving for errands. His ma assigned him a catalog of work: “Chop the fire wood. Clear the weeds out the cabbage patch. Spread fresh hay in the barn.”
His pa didn’t say anything. He rarely did now.
His ma’s list grew. “Kill a chicken for supper and skin it, too. The fat one. Pick some blackberries so I can make that pie I promised the Reverend Ledger’s wife. Make sure they ripe.”
His ma shouldered her way up the dirt path with long strides, a big cloth bag hanging in the crook of her arm. His pa followed.
They hadn’t remembered his birthday. Or hadn’t cared enough to acknowledge it. That hurt. Losing four children—two in childbirth, one in infancy, and another after an illness at eleven years old—had made his ma and pa vacant inside. Their bodies still functioned, but their hearts had evaporated. It seemed all of their love had been buried with their four dear babies. So what that one had survived? Why waste affection on him when there were so many ways he could be taken from them? Sickness. Farm accident. White folks.
Anything could happen in Dogwood, Georgia. Ensconced in the central part of the state, the white folks claimed the town was named for the fragrant, leafy dogwood trees that flourished in the region. But colored folks grumbled that it was really named in honor of the hounds that hunted down their fugitive ancestors back in slavery days.
Ben watched his ma and pa. As soon as they rounded a bend and were out of sight, he dashed into the chicken coop, lifted up a squawking, protesting hen—the fat one his ma had instructed him to butcher—and removed a book hidden under a loose board beneath her. Lyrics of Lowly Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
It had been a gift from the teacher, Miss Percy, a pretty, young colored woman all the boys were sweet on. She traveled through Georgia, teaching a month here, a semester there. One day Miss Percy read them Dunbar. The verses put some of his classmates to sleep, but captivated Ben, who shyly asked the teacher if she had an extra copy to loan him. She didn’t, but gave him her own prized volume at the end of the semester and told him to use it well and often. She must have used it well and often herself because the cover was worn and the corners of many a page had been turned down as bookmarks. Penciled notes were scrawled throughout. Proud Ben ran home to show his folks.
“What you need poetry for? That’s for white folks,” his ma said. She was boiling laundry in a giant pot, stirring it with a wooden pole. She chewed tobacco while she worked.
“But Paul Laurence Dunbar’s colored, Ma. And these poems is pretty.”
She spat a straight line of tobacco out of the corner of her mouth. It pierced the dirt like an arrow. “Pretty? You don’t need pretty. You need to learn how to plough that field. Will that book teach you that? Give it back to that high-falutin’ teacher. Or throw it away. I don’t want to see it. I catch you reading it, I’ma whip you good.”
She hadn’t allowed him to attend school after that semester ended.
Now, with his ma and pa off the farm for a few hours, Ben had a minute window of time. He grabbed the Dunbar book and sallied through the groves of dogwood trees to Sugarfish Pond. If he budgeted his time wisely, he could swim, enjoy a few poems, and get back before his parents did. His ma would yell about his incomplete work, but he had to do something to celebrate his birthday.
When he broke through the trees and onto the bank of the pond, he saw that another boy had beaten him there: Willful Hutchison, son of the “Widow” Hutchison, and brother of those five raggedy Hutchison girls.
Eighteen years old and the handsomest colored boy in Dogwood.
Silly, chattering girls went silent when he walked by. In church, women—unmarried and married alike—peeked over prayer books and murmured have mercy. Christened “William” and nicknamed “Willie,” he was so hardheaded and disobedient, folks took to calling him Willful. Hardly anybody even remembered his given name.
Willful was knee-deep in the pond, facing the opposite direction, naked. Ben was presented with his muscled back, his full, round buttocks, his skin the color of dark, varnished wood. His weight was shifted onto one leg, causing one of his buttocks to lift into the air while the other sloped provocatively. Willful stood idly. Serene as sculpture. He was beautiful. Ben tried, but could not take his eyes away. In his fourteen years, he had often been mesmerized by the beauty of a poem or a sunrise. Years later, exquisite jazz would send him. But right now, it was Willful Hutchison holding him spellbound.
“Jesus,” Ben said. It escaped his mouth like an agitated bird from a cage.
Willful heard it. He turned around, surprised but by no means scared, and saw Ben. He neither sprang for his pile of clothes that lay in a heap near a sapling, nor attempted to hide his nakedness. He appraised Ben with the same curiosity with which Ben appraised him.
And now that Willful faced him, he saw the rest of his body: the chest with its two mounds of muscle; the stomach with a thin line of fuzz extending down the middle before culminating in a thicket of hair; the penis that dangled between his legs.
Why couldn’t he look away? Ben feared every second he took in Willful’s body plunged him further into a realm he would neither understand, nor escape.
They didn’t move. Ben was confused, riveted, but Willful exuded supreme calm, as if it was perfectly natural to stand naked in a pond with a dumbstruck boy staring at him. He radiated a monster confidence that bewitched Ben and made him understand why the women in church muttered have mercy between hymns and sometimes during them.
Willful shifted in the water. The movement broke the spell. Ben looked around, desperate to regain his bearings. Like waking from a rattling dream and needing assurance that you’re in the same place in which you went to sleep. But Ben sensed he wasn’t in the same place. And when his eyes rambled back and found Willful touching himself, that sense received a jolt. Willful’s eyes zeroed in on Ben. The spell transfixed him again.
“Jesus.” No agitated bird this time, but a plea for help. Because he couldn’t stop looking. He had heard other boys boast about touching themselves while looking at dirty pictures. And now the handsomest boy in town touched himself while looking at Ben. The thought puffed up his pride one moment, shamed him the next. Why can’t I stop looking?
Willful inhaled and exhaled, his chest fully expanding then fully deflating. His face, so placid before, now contorted. He clamped his eyes shut. His entire body heaved.
Ben felt something sticky in his pants. Moisture stained the front of his pants, rapidly expanded into a near-perfect sphere. He looked at Willful again. The handsomest boy in Dogwood had turned his big, muscled back on him, leaving Ben with the same picture he had encountered when he arrived.
He panicked, then raced through the woods. Once home, he assaulted his chores. By the time his ma and pa returned, the blackberries had been picked, the barn smelled of fresh hay, and the fat hen was a skinned corpse.
That night, as Ben lay on his pallet waiting for sleep that barely came, Willful Hutchison planted himself inside him. And Ben kept whispering, “Jesus.”
Joe Okonkwo is a Pushcart Prize nominee who has had stories published in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, and Best Gay Stories 2015. In addition to his writing career, he has worked in theater as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright and youth theater instructor. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Jazz Moon is his debut novel.