New Short Fiction Award
We value creative writing and wish to encourage writers of short fiction to pursue their dream of being published. Jerry Jazz Musician would like to provide another step in the career of an aspiring writer. Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Qevin Oji of Los Angeles is the fourth recipient of the Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on October15, 2003.
photo Sean Drakes/BlueMango
Qevin Oji currently resides in Los Angeles, where he is a Language Arts teacher at Crenshaw High School. The publication of “Anacostia” by Jerry Jazz Musician is “encouraging and a breakthrough for my fiction.” A resident of “the eastside,” he writes fiction, drama, and poetry, and is currently crafting a first novel and stage play.
“Father and Son,” photo by Qevin Oji
by Qevin Oji
One. Anacostia lay there. Two. Three. Counting gunshots. Four. Five. He imagined the bullets cutting the sky, wondered how this tradition had begun. Six. The first time he held a gun, fired his first shot, he was six years old. It was on this same night — New Year’s Eve — thirteen years ago, just after midnight. Seven.
* * *
His father’s yellowy, roach-burnt fingertips stretched and folded his hand, his small fingers, barely skilled using a pencil, around the handle and trigger. I’m gonna make you a man. A chill shook his small body. He had never felt anything so cold, not a popsicle fresh from the ice cream truck, not the cold air gushing from inside the fridge onto his face in summer. Not even snow was this cold. When he had finished molding the boy’s hand to the gun, he let go. It fell immediately to Anacostia’s knees. A flat, open palm, smacked the back of his head. You ain’t no bitch. Lift that gun up, boy!
His understanding was as cloudy as he was young. What had he done wrong, this time? Tears welled in his eyes. Why? Not one tear betta not fall, either! He looked at the boy’s mother, Candace, who he had promised to make his wife, one day. She rolled her eyes up from polishing her nails, blowing to dry them between words. I told you about hitting him. Leave him alone. Maybe he don’t want to learn how to shoot a damn gun. I ain’t raisin no sissy. Bad enough you named him Anacostia. If he was Darryl or Anthony, we wouldn’t be havin this conversation. Ain’t nothin wrong with him, or his name. He’s named for something beautiful. You call a damned ghetto and a raggedy ass high school beautiful? There’s more things got his name than you know.
Smart ass bitch. He started towards her, laughing as she cowered, shielding her nails from a smearing. He turned back to Anacostia. He was straining, trembling, to hold up the gun. He knelt close to the boy’s face, eye to eye now. Listen. When you hear the first shot, it’s midnight. That’s when you to pull the trigger. The little boy looked down at the gun, then up at his father. That’s the thing you have your finger on. Which finger? The index finger? He looked down into the light brown eyes that always gave him pause; made him wonder if the boy was truly his own. Mama’s baby. Papa’s maybe.
He was pissed now. What did you ask me? You sound like a little bitch! Who taught you that bitch ass punk shit?! Index finger!? It’s the finger you point with, little — ! Candace snickered, not looking up, focused on applying long, clean strokes of gold on her prized nails. He learned that in school. Something you wouldn’t know about. He knocked over the bottle of gold nail polish onto her new slacks. She glared at him, lips curling in towards her teeth. You sorry sonofabitch! I bought these for the party tonight. Guess you won’t be countin backward from ten tonight, huh? You need to stay yo ass home anyway. He grabbed at her ass. Go get in bed. Get ready to give me sum pussy. She ran from the room shouting. You ain’t shit, Dwayne! You ain’t shit!
The shooting began. Anacostia stood frozen. He had not heard the first shot, distracted by his parents’ argument. What you waitin on? A random chorus of booms and pops mingled with another slap to the back of his head. Steadying himself from falling, he swallowed his tears and the thick feeling within his throat. His tongue discovered that a front tooth had become looser, and with it, the slightest taste of blood. His father’s voice was a gun discharging. Pull the trigger! Closing his eyes, he pulled, feeling as if the reluctant metal would sever his finger. His father fired again. Aim it up! Point it up! When his small finger could pull back no further, he heard a click, a loud bang, and the feeling of being pushed backward. Down now, flat on his back, his father grabbed the gun and aimed it into the wideness. One eye closed, the other squinting, he emptied it into the sky, all the while looking down on Anacostia. Now the gun just clicked, empty. Click. He continued to pull the trigger as if the bullets now ripping the sky came from his barrel. Click, click. There was a quiet moment. Click. He lowered the gun. That’s how a man shoots. You just take that shit and empty it, empty it like you emptying into a woman. He walked into the house laughing, high from the unloading, his sex swinging lower, heavier, feeling baby-making good.
Anacostia had not moved since falling, had not opened his eyes, hoping that his father would leave him alone, think him dead; having caught with his body, the proverbial ‘bullet with no one’s name on it.’ According to his aunt, this bullet was perpetually airborne, seeking lodging in the sweet and willing flesh of disobedient boys. He wondered. How did his father know that he wasn’t dead? He had not moved. Did he even care? He decided that he did not. Decided that maybe he hoped him dead. He eased his eyes open and looked into the deep night sky. “What goes up must come down.” He had heard that somewhere. He decided to lie there. Maybe a stray bullet would fall down on, into him. With that thought, in that instant, the shooting stopped. His chest still rose and fell. Steeling himself to open his eyes, he took a deep breath. What would he see? A glaring father ready to whip him? Or, the nothingness more painful than fresh extension cord welted skin, tear-salved and stinging?
Opening his hands, he saw that they were empty, full of the nothing that was his constant, unshakeable companion. Moving them, he traced the meaningless patterns they made in the air, patterns betraying the empty idleness of his world. They might as well be paws. Only air was within grasping range. The shots had been more than he could count. One bullet must have penetrated a body, somewhere, he thought. Questions collided in his head. Who was dead now? Why shooting? Why this night? What were they aiming at? God?
* * *
Nineteen now, the memory of that first year, those first shots, was a painful reliving. He decided that he would not shoot a gun ever again. Still, the hail of lead outside was strangely comforting. Whizzing, he imagined, on all sides of his grandmother’s house. Though experienced now, he still did not understand his father’s comparison of shooting a gun to sex. He had only done it twice, but that was enough to know. Gunmetal was nothing like skin. The jettison of a bullet was nothing like coming. Nothing else mattered but the delicious, desperate, impossible attempt at merge.
However, there was the moment just before pulling the trigger, that moment of fear. The fear of letting go, that tall, passionate moaning fervor would be in vain. Fear of facing his minute existence the instant that the muscle spasm in his pubis subsided. The released sperm, treated as toxic waste, might possibly make him accessory to the most heinous crime — creating another life.
He imagined a wicked puppeteer sometimes in his head, sometimes in his groin, egging him on, daring him to come. Afraid, he held it inside until the very last moment, until he thought he would implode. He then let it go, surrendering it. To what? Letting it go, confirmed what he always felt. It, his seed, never really belonged to him. It was greedily coveted by perfect strangers; men seeking lost youth, seeking new manhood by swallowing his. Long-married women, well beyond childbearing, splayed thighs, wishing to capture, incubate, and issue forth his seed covered in new flesh. And, when he dealt with the white person rare in his world, police, teacher, hateful, frightened stranger, their eyes invariably lowered in covetous curiosity to the level of his crotch, gazing, eyes glazed, pausing in expectation it seemed. Did they, he wondered, expect some evil to burst forth to destroy or ravage them? The adult men in his life, uncles, teachers, pastors, had various names for this part of his anatomy. Dick. Tool. Beast. Weapon. He knew that it was all of these at once, depending.
* * *
Same spot. In front of the Good Hope Variety Store, Anacostia stood, back to the wall. Mamasun, the Korean matriarch and shopkeeper, spied him through her storefront window emblazoned with cigarette and malt liquor ads. The models had mouths wide open; wide enough to insert the end of a baseball bat, snow-white teeth bared, hovering above the set below. Anacostia glanced sidelong at the ads, wondering if he was good-looking enough for them. The people pictured were doing stupid, corny things. They did not look quite like anyone around the neighborhood. Well… maybe if you shaved them up, dressed them like Ivy Leaguers, maybe they would pass. However, there was that smile. That smile stapled on anything for sale. He was not sure he could muster that kissass smile, doubted that anyone from around his way could, or would. Where did they come from? They resembled people he knew, but not wearing the gaping, carefree smile. Walk around here smiling like that — mouth wide-open — people would think you were crazy, or ‘trying to catch flies.’ There was not much about which to smile. Besides, smiling was “for females”, a tape in his head reminded him. It happened in a picture shop. He and his best friend Delmark were squatting, posed for an instant photo. Smiling, hands fraternally clasped, the corners of their mouths drooped when the voice of a girl next in line questioned their sexuality. That moment cast the expressionless mask that would become their default, I-don’t-give-a-fuck face.
However, there were the liquor ads, these he could see himself doing. In them, the women offered pussy in a snake-eyed, violent way. The men drew it hither with equally seething looks. The men were dressed in their Sunday best, and the women wore what they would never wear on Sunday. The men’s hands were always busy, even if doing nothing. Holding the lapel of a smoking jacket, rubbing a clean or bearded chin, caressing a glass of whatever was being sold, or gesturing for a woman to come, closer. The women’s hands usually held a full container of whatever was for sale, strategically placed, so as to never cover the pinch of her waist, or the vee at the top of her thighs. The eyes of both seemed empty and vacuous, consuming anything moist in their dry, abandoned gaze.
* * *
The feel of a hand on Anacostia’s shoulder brought him out of his trance. Without looking, he knew who it was. Delmark. They had lived on the same block as children, and somehow managed to stay in contact despite the many moves that both of their families had made during their childhood. Their fathers even knew each other in prison and that was how they reconnected after a period of not seeing one another. Anacostia and Delmark were eldest of a group of five or so boys who met religiously and every morning in front of the Good Hope Variety store. When school was in, it was where they met up to walk to school. When someone was missing, the ones present made up stories about why the other was not there, true or false. Today, it was just the two of them.
Anacostia spoke. Sup Del? The heat inside him, clashed with the cold outside, created a fog, gave a visual shape to his words. Delmark looked closely at what he called “cold smoke” coming from his mouth. Likewise, when Anacostia inhaled very deeply, his speaking created a dense fog, almost a solid white. When he was low on breath, it was like a veil of chiffon. If the cold smoke had frozen in the shape of his words, they would have fallen heavy, shattered on the sidewalk, creating chinks in the cement. The ice created by Anacostia’s soft voice would have melted midair into infinitesimal drops and landed in a puddle at his feet.
Their hands met before their eyes. Each felt the other’s heartbeat in his palm. Anacostia surveyed their world through eyes stenciled onto his face from Egyptian drawings. Something authoritative and knowing dwelt just behind the darting, searching light browns embedded in stark whiteness. His gaze surmised all in its path, blinking only after what was in view had been dissected and stored for posterity. It was for this reason that Anacostia avoided eye to eye contact. While he betrayed almost nothing, he could not bear the tattletale and begging eyes of others.
Anacostia looked over the top of Delmark’s head, then down into his eyes. I made a resolution last night. Delmark shifted his posture, waiting. Facing away from Anacostia, he did not bother to look into his eyes, for he knew that his friend was looking five years ahead. Delmark could wait no longer. What was — is — your New Year’s resolution?
I’m goin back to school. Two years passed since high school and we haven’t done a damned thing. Delmark sniffed hard, pressing his tongue behind his front teeth. That means that we won’t be able to hang no more. We’ll be able to hang, we’ll just have to do it when I’m not in school, and on nights when I’m not studying. Weekends. I been thinking about this for a long time. Hangin ain’t gettin us nowhere, you know? Silence pushed them apart for the first time in a long time. Neither are you, Del. Oh, I am going somewhere, but I don’t have to wait until fall, ’cause it’s tonight. I’m goin to the Black Hole. Wanna go? Rare Essence and Trouble Funk is playin so you know the honeys will be shakin it up. Come go with me. Let’s hang out, have one last dance before you become college boy. They sealed it, hands dancing and eyes locking, a stare that left both of them knowing that they might be strangers soon. Del, you always been smart, you oughta think about goin back too. We don’t have to change just because we go to college. We can still live in the hood, love the honeys and shake it up at the Go-go. We don’t have to become white like people always told us. We can make it on our own terms, but we gon need that paper key to get through some doors. Man, fuck gettin through doors. I wanna lay the foundation, build the doorway and hang the damn thing too. Want my own. That’s cool, but you need an understanding of architecture, first. I’m with you. Want my own — our own — too. Then leave that white man shit alone. There ain’t nothin white about being educated.
They agreed to meet at The Black Hole, parting with the clapping of hands, a lingering grip, a snap of fingers, and a final pound on the chest which sounded the packed hollowness that was their bodies.
* * *
Anacostia left home amid a grandmother’s shower of ‘be carefuls’ and felt, but unspoken, ‘come home alives.’ The least safe place for him was immediately the other side of her door. She found that place inside her which contained the please-let-my-baby-be-safe mantra, the let-him-come-back-alive refrain. She spun the prayer wheel in her heart as he walked out the door, reanimating her hope. She would watch him through the window until he was no longer in sight, hoping that she he had given the wheel enough momentum, that it would keep spinning until she could turn it again, until his return.
Inside the Black Hole, tom toms, timbales, congas, bongos, cowbells, and human voices melded in response to the call. A raspy-voiced man sprayed the mike and audience with obtuse incantations and spit. They bathed in both as if they were the balms that would soothe their fever.
Anacostia could hear it all from a block away, could see it in his head, feel the vibration of real earth just underneath the sidewalk, guiding the way. It got stronger and stronger the closer he got. Inside The Black Hole was oven-hot. He broke out in an instant sweat. His feet, then his whole body began to vibrate. The scene was something akin to that Marvin Gaye album cover, the one where everyone was oblivious to anything but the dance, heads back, eyes closed, grooving, feeling it. The floor yielded to, and pushed back up, the weight of the revelers. Anacostia wondered why the hardwood planks, now past eighty, never snapped as he added his bouncing weight to the dance. A voice from behind. Tee, man, you ready to give all this up? Their hands met. Clapping. Snapping. Pounding. I don’t have to give it up. I’m gonna be able to do this all day long if I want. Once I make my money. Delmark almost scowled. You here now. C’mon, be where you at. Let’s do this. The two men stole onto the dance floor, unaware that the places across the river would frown on their dancing together.
Sweating, as they contorted and composed their limbs in original and humorous response to the music, they thought back to walking the streets as young boys, hand-in-hand. There was nothing as comforting as an arm tightly wound around the other’s neck. They remembered when they stopped. It was Delmark’s mother. Yall about to graduate high school. Yall kinda big to be holdin hands now. Don’t you think? Delmark and Anacostia declared that they would never stop holding hands and fuck whoever did not like it. They would hold hands, they vowed, even after they had married, had children, grandchildren. Never had they ever felt as safe as when they were young boys.
Bodies surrendered to the music, obeying the prompts and commands of the loudest voice. They shouted back neighborhood names. Barry Farms! Congress Heights! Valley Green! They recited lines memorized from songs. “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!” The packed bodies created a battery of humanity that could have lit up a thousand incandescent bulbs. Walls, painted black, dripped sweat, wet from the heat and humidity created by the bouncing frenzy created by the music. They laughed before the punch line of jokes they had never heard before, somehow knowing. Being on one accord is what the religious folks called it. This was their church sans the fire and brimstone; their beings were testimony, this dance, their communion. The MC’s words became flesh consumed and washed down by the sweet sweat from their brows and into their parted lips. Delmark and Anacostia were now indistinguishable from the whole, a part of the brown mass digging into the groove, an organic part of the dance. There was no light or dark skin on the dance floor. Combined, both were relative now, all combining into a unified and purposeful iridescence. They all felt the same thing, and somehow all knew it, moving their bodies in homage to a common beat. Some punctuated the downbeat, while others found a snug space between the up and down, a few played with every other beat, as a few defiant ones moved in double-time.
A gunshot outside broke the rhythm of the dance. Some ducked. The beat temporarily slipped from the grip of a few, but most held tight to the rhythm that was their very survival. The interruption made some realize how little air was in the room, how hot. One by one, they began to leave the dance floor for the open air. One by one, they inhaled their portion of the cool night. A girl commented, approaching the door. Whose late ass still shootin? That was last night.
* * *
In the alley, aside the Black Hole, lay Anacostia. A girl approached him, extended her hand to help him up from the filthy ground. He almost blinked, almost swallowed, but his hand did not reach back. He desired to touch her hand, any hand, but the air weighed tons, kept him pressed to the ground. The flirty expression on her face turned to concern. Boy, stop playing. Get up. She knelt down careful not to let her short dress ride up over her thighs. Her boyfriend joined her kneeling, arm around her thin, shivering shoulders. Others, faceless and formless, joined them, silent, helplessly staring, waiting for a glimpse of the ghostlike form to separate from the body, float up and look down onto the body it once inhabited, oddly a body itself. That was death in the movies.
Anacostia gazed into the sky. The stars, reflecting dull in his eyeballs, had not been this squintingly-bright since childhood. His back had not felt the fixed push of cement, unyielding and cold, since as long. The small moments before this one that meant so much, hung in the air, a halo circling his head that dared not enter his mind. No thing mattered anymore. There was only room for this moment inside of him. This moment that the old ones said would come, one day, always following this statement with a question of readiness. He was not ready, but his apprehension did not matter, would not postpone his expiration. He never thought that he would know death when it arrived, but it was the now, present, and it was familiar to him; something he had always known, inside. There was nothing to grasp and cling to to break this falling. There was only the dying. Only the blood filling his mouth, issuing forth from the river finding its source inside him. He was the shore. The taste of one’s blood, like no other, peerless in its singularity. No combination or juxtaposition of tastes could describe it. There was no comparing it to the taste of another’s. Its taste was knowable only to the one bleeding. He knew, now, that the taste of his own blood was the only thing he ever knew.
He tried to speak but only managed to boil the red welling in his throat, splattering his cheeks, causing those hovering over him, looking to him like angels, to gasp and whine helplessly. A slim man parted the crowd intending to turn him onto his side, or sit him upright, to drain the blood from his mouth. He wanted to hear this young boy, emboldened, he imagined, by death, speak what they all collectively knew, to speak truth. Just as his hand cradled the back of Anacostia’s head, a woman’s muscular voice boomed. Don’t touch him. Another reedy voice buttressed the booming one that held the boy down. Yeah, cause if you touch him and he dies, you could be charged for murder. Another voice. Yeah, I heard that somewhere. I can’t remember where. Another voice. I think I heard it on TV. Yes! That’s where I heard it, on TV.
The man inhaled deeply, uncurling his spine from its weeping arch over the boy coughing up a volcanic laugh, splattering with blood, those nearest him. Upright now, the man looked over the crowd. And if he dies while we’re all looking, doing nothing? That’s okay. We’re safe. Everyone acted like they didn’t see it, but the man called them out, acknowledged the boy’s humanity. The man screamed. Well, if you gonna stand there and watch the boy die, give him some dignity. At least put his dick back in his pants. He spat on the ground and walked away, shoulders rounded, then squared. No one dared touch Anacostia’s penis, peeking from his fly like a severed finger. Anacostia tried to cast a thankful glance after the man, but he could not coax his muscles to obey. He laughed loudly, inside, his tears flooding his brain, cooling his insides like spring water. The crowd moved in to block the man, or anyone, from getting near the boy.
They turned their heads like curious puppies, fascinated and dumb. Somehow, they envied Anacostia’s impending escape from this hell of history and the present wedded, this ball of tangled string whose beginning thread was hidden from their knowing, confusing their every decision, their every thought. At least he was close to the ‘by and by’ where they would all understand it better.
The bubbling in the boy’s mouth was just a simmer now; no, a vibration, faint like the last wave of an earthquake created whose epicenter was thousands of miles out to sea. The browns, known for their sparkle dulled to a glint, then a semi-gloss. Finally, his lids fell almost closed. When his chest stopped heaving, an ambulance siren finally sang.
The whisper of new death traveled through and emptied the club quicker than a fire marshall. The opened doors vomited people onto the sidewalk. Everyone looked on, silent, amused. Anacostia’s spiritless body was just another lump of flesh to be dressed up, cried over, and buried. As the paramedics slid him into the back of the ambulance, those arriving wondered, asking who, asking what. Red white and blue lights slashed their faces. They were too fascinated to feel. Delmark, looking for Anacostia, was one of the last out of the club. He saw the ambulance drive off, but would not know that it carried away his friend until the next day.
Slowly and zombie-like, people drifted back into The Black Hole. The music rushed out and sucked them into its cavernous, echoing insides. Covering the floor again, their dancing was robotic now, contorted into postures at almost beautiful, certainly and grotesque. Their stilted and staccato movements betrayed a long unacknowledged pain. The music was always a balm, the dance their only salvation, the Black Hole their relative sanity.
* * *
Same spot. Delmark stood in front of the Good Hope, looking around as if waiting for the Second Coming. The cold-smoke escaped his nostrils. He imagined himself resembling an angry bull. He inhaled deep and determined never to release the breath, holding it as long as he could, until it was nearly intoxicating. He then exhaled a torrent of tears, flailing snot and sobs from a bottomless place.
Mamasun heard his wailing and closed her register. Grabbing her broom, she ran out onto the sidewalk. She shook it at Delmark, threatening to call the police. He began to amble away. She attacked the spot where he once stood, sweeping hard as if trying to sweep away something well below the antique cement. She cursed at his back, spat at what she perceived as his drunkenness, watching, as he stumbled the sloping sidewalk, past the railroad tracks, and towards the river for which his friend was named.
The Anacostia River at Sunset
photo by Ronald Corbin, Jr.