In 1976, Princeton preciously preserved, like folk art, its own black ghetto, a few dense blocks of dark and tiny row houses circumscribed by the university, the mansions of the gentry, and the Borough’s small, exclusive commercial district. This shopping quarter also buffered the black neighborhood from white ethnic enclaves, tree-lined streets where working-class Roman Catholics, Italians and Poles mostly, lived in shabby duplexes and drove beat-up Chevies. Their children were hard and tough. They did not even pretend to like black people.
Eli lived only minutes from these neighborhoods, near the university, in a stone house with a slate roof and a long curving driveway. It might as well have been an eternity, though, so far was he from comprehending the earth-crushing emotions engendered by race consciousness. It was not that Eli himself either liked or disliked blacks. He never thought about them at all. His friends, children of professors at the university, were white, and the geometric, self-enclosed rhythms of college life defined his existence. They limited his vision, preserving within him a quality unique to children of the academy, a kind of pre-racial innocence.
This was Eli, a small, bright-eyed boy, living apart from society, in a mythic world marked only by the passage of the seasons, each singular for its attachment to a collegiate sport and a set of athletic heroes. His sense of himself rose and fell like a tiny bellows, pumped by the fortunes of his Tigers. On football days, before his accident, he sprinted down barricaded streets, blocked off from traffic for the fans. He darted, like a scamp, like a squirrel, dodging right, then left, breaking tackles, finding open field, finding grace. He knew his world to be an orderly place, a place where one could measure precisely the margin of a victory or a defeat. By the size of a smile. By the number of tears. “You are a good little boy,” his father would say in his admonitory, paternal way. “But you don’t know the world.”
* * *
Eli found out about the world in middle school, where black and white students mixed like a bad stew. We got some nasty niggers in this dump, he and his white friends from the Township learned to say. By then, they knew from experience, from muggings and shakedowns in the hallways and bathrooms, heads slammed against doors and lockers, the smell of cheap wine and dope and hot breath close upon them. They feared the black students, who were loud and boisterous and angry, and had come to admire the Borough whites, the tough, working-class kids who smoked cigarettes and carried blades and came down hard on any nigger who got in their mess.
On Fridays, the strongest, baddest white and black students fought to determine strutting rights for the following week. Almost like clockwork, the word spread through the vaulted corridors of the school, leaping from locker to locker. Johnny Miceli and Dab Carter. Duking it out after eighth period. Behind the tennis courts. Be there, man. No one knew who arranged these fights. They just happened. The final bell rang and students poured down the hill, past the baseball field and tennis courts, to an isolated corner of the school grounds. There they milled, smoking cigarettes, bantering and flirting in their rough, untender, adolescent way. Then the combatants appeared, flanked by three or four friends, and the horseplay diminished. The students, their eyes widening in awe, spread themselves into a loose circle. The white kids ranged themselves on one side of the lawn, separated by several yards from the blacks, who, because fewer in number, clustered more tightly together, drawing strength and ferocity from their nearness to one another.
At thirteen or fourteen, Miceli and Carter were both renowned for their feral vitality. But there the similarities ended. Miceli, the son of a state trooper, was a pure athlete, already topping six feet, with broad shoulders and long, powerful arms. A year before, on his twelfth birthday, he pitched a no-hitter for his Little League team, striking out seventeen batters in seven innings. He could throw a football fifty yards, but had been kicked off the school team after two games when the coach found him under the bleachers with his sixteen year old daughter.
Had the coach’s daughter offered herself to Carter, he too would not have demurred. But this seemed unlikely, for Carter was too short, too ugly, and too black. He did not possess Miceli’s natural grace and style. He was squat, barely five-three, with a square, pushed-in face, and he looked perpetually aggrieved. His father was serving forty-to-life for aggravated homicide and his mother was a junkie. Carter lived with his grandmother. But what he lacked in athletic ability and other natural advantages, he made up for in pugnacity and sheer orneriness. He had become the most punishing fullback in the school’s history. As a seventh grader, he accounted for eighty percent of his team’s total yardage. The sum total of the coach’s football philosophy appeared to be, Give the ball to Carter, and get the hell out of the way!
Down by the tennis courts, Miceli and Carter stood toe to toe. Carter’s jaw, like the cow catcher of some tiny, coal-black locomotive, jutting out and jamming up into Miceli’s chest. Though no blows had yet been struck, both boys breathed heavily. Who knows what they thought. Or felt. Under other circumstances, Carter would have been taking swing passes from Miceli. But they knew the drill. Here by the courts, surrounded by half the school, they were going to pummel each other into oblivion. That was their destiny, and if they did feel anything, it might have been that each punch must carry anger and pain of a life already spent, a childhood blasted. “C’mon man,” Miceli finally spoke, his voice barely a sneer. “Let’s get it on.”
* * *
By the time Eli entered high school, students had grown beyond these rituals of single combat. Or maybe they just no longer needed stand-ins to act out their own fantasies of regeneration through violence. So it seemed, at least, to Eli, who found himself staring out the window of his French class one spring morning. Through branches of a blossoming cherry tree, several dozen students, white on black, were getting it on all right, the air heavy with shouts, curses, thuds, screams. Other students in the class stood by Eli, their faces, drawn and pale, pressed tightly to the glass. Eli watched a senior from West Windsor pull a bottle from the trash barrel and wade into the melee, his arm cocked over his head, waggling the bottle like a pom-pom.
Later that afternoon, Eli eased past the cordon of cops surrounding the high school. He poked his way home, cutting across the empty lot in back of the football field. Beyond the lot, a small wood separated the school from residential streets on the north side of town. A narrow path wound through the wood alongside a small creek. As Eli started down the path, he thought about the race riot. He wondered about the anger other young people, black and white alike, carried within themselves. He wondered about the special intensity of that anger among black students.
Eli passed through the wood, deep in thought, his eyes to the ground. By the time he noticed the twins, it was too late to backtrack. Eli had known Lester and Chester Dardon since the fifth grade, when the school district began to bus black students to all the elementary schools in Princeton. Their father was a maintenance man at the country club. Their mother worked as a meter maid for the police department. The Dardon’s lived in a duplex on John Street. They were not poor. The parents were sweat-of-thy-brow Christians. They desired only to rear children whose happiness and prosperity would exceed theirs. But the taproot of racial bitterness poisoned their dream.
Lester and Chester had been cute boys, with round, alert faces and sunbeam smiles. By middle school, though, the brightness had faded from their eyes. They hung with a rough crowd. They performed poorly in school. Something within them, within their spirits, had soured. Eli could only with difficulty understand what had happened to them, but he knew this was a common pattern among black children in Princeton. Many turned hard and bitter in adolescence. Eli’s father called this darkness passing into their souls the curse of Ham. It was, he explained to Eli, the shadow of the past.
* * *
The twins stood in a small clearing near the edge of the wood. They smoked cigarettes and stared at Eli. Two other boys Eli did not know stood with them. He guessed they were from Trenton. That was where hardcore blacks lived, young guys into rough and tumble who scared even the toughest kids from Princeton.
Eli walked toward the clearing. He would have to pass these boys to get to the street. He continued to keep his head down, hoping they might not recognize him.
“Wheeler! What’s happenin’, man?”
Eli tried to edge past them. “Nothing.”
The boys blocked his path. He had to stop and look up at them.
“Nothing!” Lester was heavy-set. A long Afro pick stuck out of his hair. A Black Power fist crested the handle. His eyes were bloodshot. “I saw you today, man. You were out there in the parking lot. I saw you, man. You were trying to light up some niggers, weren’t you?” The others laughed and crowded more tightly around Eli.
“I was in class.”
Chester, minus the Afro pick, looked just like Lester. He stared at Eli’s desert boots and laughed. “He wasn’t going to light up any niggers with those. I’d have killed the motherfucker. Anyway, he’s a crip. You a crip, aren’t you, boy?”
Eli didn’t say anything.
Chester was looking at Eli’s leg. “He ain’t a crip,” he said. “He used to be a crip.” His tone, while rough, was not unsympathetic. “You get hit by a car? I heard you got hit by a car. Isn’t that what happened?”
“That was Chuck Blusciewicz.” He was a classmate of Eli’s who had been killed by a car that had jumped the sidewalk on Nassau Street one Saturday night a few years earlier.
Chester nodded thoughtfully. Suddenly, one of the two Trenton boys spoke up. “Man, we can’t let this white piece of shit pass without paying the toll.” He laughed excitedly. “Man, you gots to pay the toll!”
“What toll?” Eli said, knowing the inevitable shakedown was about to begin.
“You gots to give us ten dollars.”
“I don’t have ten dollars. I don’t have any money.” Eli pulled the front pockets of his jeans inside out. This was the truth. His parents would not let him work until he turned sixteen. That would not be for another five months. In the meantime, he subsisted on a meager allowance, his young life denuded of adolescent pleasure. His father claimed this penury imposed discipline and built character.
Before Eli could push the pockets back into his pants, the excited boy pressed him against a tree. The boy held up a silver switchblade. He snapped the blade’s release button. “Don’t pull that shit on me. You white, so you rich. You don’t give me ten dollars, I’m gonna cut you.”
Eli eyed the blade for a moment and looked over at Lester and Chester. “I swear,” he said, “I don’t have any money.”
Lester shouted at the boy with the knife. “Man, what kind of shit you pulling, Rodney? Wheeler’s all right. Put that motherfuckin’ knife away. He don’t have no money for you.”
Rodney paused, puzzled and angered by the rebuke. As he slipped the knife back into his pocket, he turned back toward Eli. He laughed.
“You a scared motherfucker.”
“No, I’m not scared,” Eli said, his voice low. “I just need to get home.”
Chester flicked his cigarette butt to the ground. He pulled a package of Kool’s from his jacket pocket, placed one cigarette in his mouth and offered another to Eli.
“You smoke, man?”
Eli took the cigarette. Chester held a lighter in his hand. He lit his own cigarette, then shifted the flame under Eli’s.
The other boys laughed. “You got to puff, Wheeler,” Lester exclaimed. “Ain’t you never smoked before?” The other boys took cigarettes from the package of Kools. For a moment, there was silence while each one inhaled. With the exception of Eli, they were all practiced smokers. Eli tried to inhale once, but the smoke somehow found its way to his stomach. His head felt like a helium balloon bobbing on the end of a string. The sensation was not unpleasant, though, and in this lightness of his spirit, he imagined he might be friends with these boys.
Lester spoke up. “You hang out with Mercy Lawd, don’t you? I seen you with her.”
Eli nodded. Mercy Lawd was one of his favorite people. They were good friends. She was a big girl, with a flashing smile and quick movements. Her ease with white people and her unwillingness to wrap her blackness around her like a chador had complicated her relationships with other black students at the high school.
“She your ho?”
“I said, she your ho?” Lester seemed exasperated.
“My ho?” Eli had no idea what he was talking about.
“Your HO! You sleep with that black bitch?”
The other boys were laughing at Eli. He realized Lester meant whore.
“No,” he said. The idea of sleeping with Mercy had never occurred to him. But now, in the swirl of the smoke and the sudden warmth rushing to his head, the notion of sex with Sheree did seem funny. Her gazoongas were huge, like chocolate pudding mountains. Eli pictured them liberated from their hammock-like brassiere cups. He relished the image of himself scaling those peaks while she squealed and squirmed beneath him.
“No,” Eli said again, laughing heartily, taken in by the mirth of the moment. “But I’d love to get my hands on that black bitch’s boobs.”
And then no one else was laughing anymore.
“What you say, boy?”
“I said I’d like to get my hands on her boobs.” In the close silence that enveloped the clearing, the jocular tone he tried to adopt did not materialize. His voice sounded weak and thin.
“You call her a black bitch.” Lester no longer smiled. “You gonna have to pay that toll now, Wheeler.”
“I told you guys. I don’t have any money.”
The four black kids had once again surrounded Eli. Rodney cupped his knife in his hand. Chester’s lighter also reappeared. He flicked it and pointed with the flame toward the other Trenton boy. “Burn him,” he said quietly.
“What?” Eli sqeaked.
“I said burn Darnell.” Chester poked Eli with his other hand. “Or we gonna fuck you up good.”
Darnell was tall and thin, with a reddish Afro. Pink blotches spread across his face. He stared intently at Eli, his eyes vacant, his smile blank. He held out one arm. Translucent scar tissue covered the palm and much of his forearm.
“I can’t burn him. This is crazy.” Eli looked to see if anyone else might be coming down the path. It was empty. With his head turned toward the school, he didn’t even see Lester’s fist coming, landing hard on the side of his head, knocking him to the path. Eli’s face smashed against a rock, bruising his cheek, cutting his lip wide open. He staggered to his knees, but now Rodney was taking his shot. His kick landed high up on Eli’s rib cage, near his lungs. Eli found himself flat on the ground again, gasping for breath, waiting for the next blow. But it did not come. After twenty or thirty seconds, he pushed himself to his knees once again.
Chester stood over him. “You gonna burn that motherfucker, or we gonna kill you. You burn him. That’s what he wants. You do it.” He paused. “You do that, then you can go.”
Eli breathed heavily. His head throbbed. Tears edged down his face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to cry in front of these boys. Then Rodney was on his knees next to Eli. He took the switchblade and held it to Eli’s ear. “Motherfucker,” he chirped softly, “you burn Darnell, or I’m gonna cut this ear off.”
“Get up, Wheeler,” Lester said. He offered one large, calloused hand to Eli. After a moment, Eli took the hand and allowed Lester to pull him to his feet. Darnell still stood there, his hand outstretched, like a beggar seeking alms.
Eli took the lighter from Chester and stared at it. It was yellow, a cheap disposable Bic. He flicked it once, watched the flame for a second, then let it die. He thought about running, but he knew he wouldn’t get ten feet before these boys caught him. He flicked the lighter again. Slowly, he moved it close to Darnell’s outstretched hand. He looked into Darnell’s eyes. They were a dark grey, with flecks of black and red.
“Why do you want me to do this?”
“Cause it feel good.”
Eli slid his hand under Darnell’s palm. He lifted the flame until it was about six inches from Darnell’s skin, near enough to feel warm, but not do any damage.
“That’s not good enough, Wheeler. You got to burn him.”
Eli moved the lighter closer to Darnell’s hand. The flame licked his palm, flattening out where it met the flesh. Darnell’s body stiffened. He smiled. Eli’s own arm quivered, but this time he did not lower the lighter. A sweet putrescence now filled the air. Darnell closed his eyes. His head jerked and writhed. A bit of smoke filtered through his fingers. The other boys stood quietly, transfixed by the sacramental power of the ritual.
Eli held the lighter to Darnell’s palm for fifteen or twenty seconds, his own hand soppy with sweat, cheeks dampened by tears. Suddenly, he turned toward the creek and pitched the lighter into the water. He spun back toward Darnell and the twins.
“There!” he cried. “Are you happy? Did I burn you enough?”
Darnell turned his palm over and stared at the gelatinous pulp in the center of his hand. He grazed it gently with the fingers of his other hand.
Eli sank to his knees, lunch slipping from his stomach like an eel, sliding brown and silken onto the trail, into bushes by the edge of the creek. Eli crouched upon all fours, his face close to the soil. He could not bear to lift his head. He could not bear to see the melted hand, and the tenderness of Darnell’s touch upon it.
Calvin’s Ghost © 2014