Co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize
In class I sit behind Rhonda. She always raises her hand. I get to stare at her arm. I kick the back of her seat so she can turn around. I can look at the side of her face. I keep going to the pencil sharpener in the front so I can look at her eyes when I walk back.
I draw two pictures the same. One for me, one for Rhonda. I draw us holding hands in front of a house. Out of the chimney comes smoke shaped like hearts. A big puffy apple tree beside the house. On the tree is a heart with our initials. I start to color. Rhonda first. Hair yellow. Skin peach. I give Rhonda the picture. She smiles.
I run up the steps to my house with the picture flapping. My mom looks but don’t say nothing. She shows my stepdad and says, Look at this shit. What the fuck, my stepdad says. He shoves a black crayon into my hand. His fat hand grabs mine and makes me color over Rhonda’s yellow hair. Same to her face with a brown crayon. He says, Now thats better. My mom says, Shonuff is.
Happy Little Trees
Bob Ross is on. He has paint. I don’t. First I grind flowers with a rock but it don’t work. I chew and chew dandelions. Spit mixes into yellow paste. I chew grass. I chew mulberries. I chew wild onions. They don’t make color so I swallow. Tingles back of the neck and waters my eyes. Chew coal. Chew red clay. Chew what a grasshopper chews. I chew a grasshopper. Crunchy, then juice squirts to back of throat. The paste is chunky brown green white. Lick off hand and chew until smooth. Open jar, chew lightning bugs. Wait till night when they light, then rip off the ass, smear it on my face.
We have a new girl that just moved from Africa. Gambia. I looked it up in my atlas and it looks like a crooked little finger in the middle of Senegal. Her name is Anter Jatta. I say it over and over. Anter Jatta. She is really dark and pretty. Everybody else says she is black and ugly. Buck says she is so black if she wore yellow lipstick she would look like a cheeseburger. He says this in front of her because she don’t understand English that much. She smiles. Her teeth are really white and straight.
I make sure I wear my African sign everyday. I even wear my afro pick with the fist on the end. At recess by the monkey bars I say to her, My beautiful Sister, what is it like in the Mother Land. The man tries to hold us down in America. I know about Senegal too. She smiles.
I walk back to the basketball court and Buck says, I see you over there tryin to hook up with that African booty scratcher. No way, I say, I was just telling her how black she was. Its okay to hook up with her, he says. Buck knows a lot because this is his third time in sixth grade. He explains, She probably got some wet jungle pussy, its neon pink. Can you imagine how wet that pussy hair is. You can swing from it like vines. All African girls cut they pussy hair in the shape of a African sign, they even dye it red, yellow, and green.
When recess is over, me and Buck walk by Anter Jatta. I raise my fist and say, Solid. Buck says, Whats up, jungle pussy. She smiles.
Everyone is talking about a ninja that’s creeping around at night and hunting kids. Dont go out after the streetlights come on, they say, lock your doors and keep your guns loaded.
That’s stupid. Ninjas don’t hunt kids. And if a ninja is looking for kids that means he is trying to find a worthy student. Maybe he seen me doing my moves in the yard. My roundhouse is good. Dropkick is perfect. Backflip needs work.
I will keep practicing so he can take me back to Japan. I checked my globe. And from West Virginia, if going east to Japan, it takes twenty-three fingersteps. If going west it takes sixteen and a half. On the globe Japan is 135 degrees east longitude and 37 degrees north latitude. Almost the same latitude as West Virginia. So maybe Japan has the same deciduous forest and the ninja wants a student that can navigate this type of terrain. He will take me on a hike to a village way up in the foggy mountains and I will train for a whole year. I will miss seventh grade. So the fuck what. I will get to throw ninja stars into people’s throats. Shoot arrows in squirrel eyes. Hang upside down from trees. Tippy toe around at night. Kill people.
I saw him one evening sneaking up the side of mountain. That’s where he watches me from so I switch my training to the back yard. With coal buckets filled with rocks I do twenty curls with each arm. Then I put a broomstick through the handles and do fifty squats. Twenty kicks with each leg on the clothesline pole. I make nun chucks by cutting my dog’s chain with bolt cutters and taping it to two sticks with electrical tape. I do the same workout for two weeks but the ninja never comes. He wants me to find him. The final test is to prove my tracking skills.
I wait till everyone is asleep and sneak out with my nun chucks tucked into the back of my black sweatpants, black hoodie, black skull cap. My shoes are white, but dirty. I keep looking behind me to make sure no one is watching. My dog tries to follow. I put my finger to my lip and say, See you next year. Step over the train tracks, take off my shoes, roll up my pants, wade across the creek. Moonlight helps me see. I smell smoke and see the glow of a fire at the top. I snap a twig. Dart behind a tree. Shit, too much noise. Breath slower so he won’t hear my heart beat. Look up in the tree to make sure he aint tracking me. I step from behind the tree. Snap another twig. Roll over to another tree. Lay on my stomach. With my nun chucks I sweep the twigs out the way and use my forearms to inch myself up the hill. Sniff soil to see if I can pick up his scent. Nothing but little balls of deer shit. Keep pulling myself up, sweep away twigs, crawl. Dirt piles up inside the top of my pants. I finally reach the top at a small clearing. My back against a tree. Peek around and see him leaned up against a rock with his back to me. The fire is dying. He knows I’m coming. Ninja, I whisper, its me, your faithful disciple. He doesn’t turn around. Ninja. Master Ninja. I have come to learn the ways of the night. He doesn’t move. Move closer. His mask is on the rock. He has an afro. I peek over his shoulder and recognize his face. It’s crazy Herbie from down the road. A needle stuck in his forearm.
Everyone is downstairs crying. I walk upstairs to Grandma’s room. It is dark. Her dirty pink house shoes are lined up by the nightstand like she just got into bed. The covers on her side are pulled back like she just got out of bed. I leave and ask my mom how Grandma died. My mom says she just turned yellow and died. What, I say. You heard me, she says, she just turned yellow and died. I will never eat dandelions again.
Gil Scott Heron
I am digging through my uncle’s closet to find clothes. I like his seventies clothes, he doesn’t wear them. I find a dark brown leather jacket, reversible, light brown suede on the other side. In the back of the closet underneath folded bellbottoms are two milk crates filled with records. I pull one out. On it is only a man’s head with an afro, 1971, Pieces of a Man. What is a piece of a man. I put it on the record player and the deep voice starts a poem about a revolution that will not be televised. I’ve heard my uncles say this a lot. I let it play while I dig for more clothes. Then this one song comes on, he is howling:
Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain, and it
Might not be such a bad idea might not be such a bad idea if I never
Never went home again.
I run to the record player and stare at the center of it with my mouth open throat thumping. I yank the needle up. Look around to make sure no one is looking and place the needle back into the groove, watching the words in the center of the record spin.
Once the song is over I put the needle back to that track and let the song spin again. Take the record off and trace my finger along its edge. I look into the man’s eyes, where is your home. I slide the record back into its sleeve and wrap it in an old tee shirt and place it on the top shelf in the closet, stack jeans on top of it, camouflage. It is mine now.
I pack my found clothes in my book bag and start walking back to the house. The gnats and moths are fluttering around the streetlight. The lightning bugs are blinking in the black. My mouth opens to sing but the words are lodged in my chest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven Dunn was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy he attended University of Denver and received his B.A. in Creative Writing. Read an interview with Steven at the CounterPath Press blog.
ABOUT THE BOOK (FORTHCOMING, 2016)
Potted Meat, a novel set in a decaying town in southern West Virginia, follows a young boy into adolescence as he struggles with abusive parents, poverty, alcohol addiction, and racial tensions. Using fragments as a narrative mode to highlight the terror of ellipses, Potted Meat explores the fear, power, and vulnerability of storytelling, and in doing so, investigates the peculiar tensions of the body: How we seek to escape or remain embodied during repeated trauma.