The following excerpt from The Black Kids, copyright © 2020 by Christina Hammonds Reed, is reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.
The Black Kids – Chapter 5
Lucia and I stand in line at Western Union behind a balding Russian man with really long ear hair like my old piano teacher. Save for the television in the corner, it’s quiet, eerily so, and I try to keep my feet perfectly still so my sneakers won’t squeak on the linoleum. Sometimes when I have to pee really badly or when I can’t make a sound, I pretend that I’m a runaway slave and I have to be very still, or else I’ll be discovered. It’s fucked up, but it works. Usually this place is a swirl of tongues and transactions, like waiting at the airport, but without any of the excitement of going somewhere. There’s always some baby fussing while some mom screams “Get down from there” at some kid, which sounds pretty much the same in any language. Today, it’s just me, Lucia, and the bald man.
Together, we watch as a crowd pulls a white man from his truck and begins to beat the shit out of him. His long blond hair swings from side to side as he staggers, disoriented, with each blow. In a different world, he’d be a lead guitarist rocking out, not a broken construction worker tumbling. A man flashes gang signs at the helicopters hovering above. They’re not even ten miles away, but it might as well be a whole different country. There are my fancy school and my fancy neighborhood, and then there’s this. The television flickers in fragments across the Russian’s head as he shakes it. He turns to look at me angrily.
“See?” he says.
Lucia places her body between the two of us.
“No hablar con el,” she says.
The man returns to the screen.
Lucia speaks to me in Spanish when she doesn’t want white people to easily understand what we’re talking about. She taught me when I was younger, and then as soon as we got the chance to study languages in school, I chose Spanish. And anyway, it’s LA; if you even half pay attention to the city around you, you’ll learn it by osmosis. It’s not like it’s a secret language, but it’s easier for her and easy enough for me. I’m sure to everyone looking at us we’re an odd pair, a lanky black teenager and a tiny Guatemalan, always together. Lucia’s favorite cashier is Jose. If he’s working, everything goes smoothly, and they joke and laugh in Spanish about how he’s going to marry her.
When she’s done, she kisses her fingertips and places them on the envelope before sliding it across the counter, where Jose converts it to a textbook for Umberto, guitar lessons for Roberto.
Today, Jose isn’t in a joking mood.
“El mundo en que vivimos.” Jose sighs. His eyes are fixed on the television screen, where the news shows images of a man slamming a slab of concrete down on the truck driver’s head.
“Sí,” Lucia says.
Jose’s hair is the dark of an oil slick at night. He’s younger than Lucia, and Mexican, not Guatemalan. He lives with his cousin and abuelita in a small house in Highland Park with three bedrooms and a bathroom, and if you climb up on his roof, you can see the city on a clear day. He sounded like a real estate agent when he told this to Lucia.
“I’m going to own my own business,” he said last week, a declaration of intent.
“Doing what?” she said.
He wants to own one of those places downtown where they sell cobijas San Marcos and clothing and key chains and Coca-Cola in glass bottles.
The San Marcos blankets are super plush and have different designs on them like cute kittens and majestic lions and Strawberry Shortcake and the Dodgers. A few weeks ago, Lucia took me downtown and had me pick one out. The air downtown is always the color of a nasty loogie, but I like the buildings because they’ve got character. Which is why I also love the blankets.
The one I chose had a white tiger on it, lounging like a queen.
“You take it with you when you go to college,” Lucia said, and it was like she was preparing us both for goodbye.
“I wish I could take you with me to college,” I joked, and we laughed, but then I felt kinda bad ’cause it made it seem like Lucia was my personal servant.
When I was younger and had a nightmare, I would walk downstairs to Lucia’s room and crawl into bed with her, and she would tell me stories about her boys, and her country, and the handsome but very bad man-devil she divorced before she ran to the United States. He did unforgivable things, she said, for what he thought were the right reasons. She used to think so too, until she didn’t. And so he became the villain in my bedtime stories. “Tell me about Arturo, who lives in the house by the bridge,” I’d say.
Jose is not like Arturo, I say to Lucia. Jose is a good man.
“What’s a good man?” Lucia sighs. “They’re all good, until they’re not.”
But I see the way she looks at Jose, like maybe she’d like to sell cobijas and clothing and knickknacks and Coke in glass bottles with him. Like maybe she could sit up on his roof, cuddle up in a blanket, and watch the fireworks over Dodger Stadium. I can see her dreaming up their life together and deciding maybe they could be good. I wonder if she’s going to tell him today that she’s leaving soon.
Although I try not to watch, my gaze finds its way back to the television screen. The truck driver lies on the ground in a halo of his own blood and hair. Nobody goes to help him. The police are nowhere to be found. Some man walks up, takes the wallet right from the truck driver’s pocket, and runs off. Finally, the truck driver gets to his knees, and another man comes up almost out of nowhere and appears to kick him in the head. I feel myself wince.
“Go out with me?” Jose says. It’s the first time he’s said it for real and not just as a joke.
On the television, the man drags himself into his truck and tries to drive away. The people at the intersection continue to throw anger at passing cars. From up above it looks like somewhere I’ve driven through a thousand times, but also somewhere I’ve never been. I bet my dad would know where it is.
“Okay,” Lucia says softly to Jose, and I look over at her because she’s going home to Guatemala and what’s the point of even going on a date when you’re gonna leave, but maybe that bloodied truck driver made her forget, or maybe he reminded her why she left. Or maybe being around Jose makes her think she might want to stick around a little bit longer.
Jose completes the rest of the transaction in silence.
On our way home, as we cross the street, Lucia reaches for my hand like she used to when I was little, and even though I haven’t done so in a long time, I hold it.
By the time we get home, the city is burning. The buildings are stripped bare, and people yank the guts through their skeletons.
Lucia hands me a small envelope.
“The Katzes said it was accidentally delivered to them, and they kept forgetting to bring it over.”
“You open it,” I say. My heart feels like it’s going to fall right out my chest and splat right on the kitchen floor.
“It’s your future, mija.”
The envelope says my future has been wait-listed.
I want to cry. I’m in at other schools—really good schools, even—but Stanford is the school I want. Close to home, but far enough away to be some other me. Somewhere I can briefly stop being a sister and a daughter, but only an hour’s flight away in case Jo needs me. I don’t know for what, exactly; maybe in case her broken brain delivers a rough uppercut and she needs me to pull her up, squirt some water in her mouth, ice her bruises, and tell her to keep fighting. I need to be somewhere I can still feel the ocean, my ocean, in my hair and skin. I’m convinced Stanford is the only place I’ll thrive. I want to throw up. I want to disappear. I want to crawl into a hole with embarrassment. I feel all of these things and burn up in their atmosphere as I hurtle down.
Lucia pats me on the thigh. “Everything’ll work out alright.”
Instead of crying, I watch.
Up goes a shoe store.
Up goes a laundromat.
Up goes a TV repair store.
Up goes a mattress store.
Up goes a liquor store.
All of it goes up.
My mother calls me from her car phone. “It’s going to be a while. I’m going to try to take the 101 to the 405 and see if that’s better. I’m afraid to get on the 10.”
My father calls me from his car phone. “I’m okay. I’ll get there when I get there. It’s bad. Really bad. Stay home, okay? Promise you won’t try to go out with your friends. Not tonight.”
I call Jo from our living room. The phone rings and rings, and I’m afraid she’s not there, but she is.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Of course I’m not. It’s so wrong. I’m so tired of this shit. They had the goddamn evidence right in front of their faces. It was right there, Ashley! I mean, they don’t fucking see us even when they’re looking right at us.” Usually when Jo goes on about one of her causes, it feels so far away—like she’s angry because she knows she should be and not because she actually feels that shit in her kidneys. But this . . . this feels different. Even I feel it somewhere in my innards, pulsing.
“You should come home,” I say, “until everything’s blown over.”
“I’m not leaving Harrison here alone,” she says. Stupid Harrison. Just because he maybe survived tetanus doesn’t mean he can save her from everything else.
“Just bring him here with you!”
“I’m not subjecting him to Mom again after what happened at dinner.”
“Is it him you’re really concerned about, or you?” I say.
She doesn’t respond.
“Jo . . . don’t do anything stupid, please?” I think of her handcuffed to her high school flagpole, fighting for brown people halfway across the world. She spent her suspension calling our local congressperson. Jo’s the kind of person who would accidentally find herself in the middle of somebody else’s riot.
“Dude. What the hell, Ash?”
The phone clicks, and then my sister’s gone.
Christina Hammonds Reed holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. A native of the Los Angeles area, her work has previously appeared in the Santa Monica Review and One Teen Story. The Black Kids is her first novel.
Music by Catlofe
Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed