Novel Extract || Read a brief interview with the author here
Content warning: This piece contains racially sensitive language and situations.
At school I run as fast as I can far out to the baseball diamond and then I run back as fast as I can. My coat flaps open like wings. Like a dinosaur flying, I am. I try to feel my bones, if I can imagine them hollow. I think of Rosemary in her red coat.
Then I do the same run again. I want to feel my heart beat so hard.
Then something shocks me from the corner of my eyesight.
It’s Alejandra. She’s laughing.
Nothing’s funny, it’s not a laugh about something being funny, but just a laugh to make because you feel so good a smile isn’t enough to hold the feeling, it also needs to make noise. It needs to get outside the container of your body. She runs to where I am. She laughs the whole time she runs.
I don’t know what she was laughing about before, but now she’s laughing that she surprised me. We stay running even though we make a crash and stumble but it’s fine. It’s a surprise in the day.
Me: I was surprised. Alejandra: she was surprising.
I don’t know the word for surprise in Spanish. I know the double exclamation mark which makes a kind of exclaiming sandwich out of a Spanish sentence. Like you get to know at the very beginning, before you read the words of the sentence, that it will be an exclamation. You can get excited waiting to read the first then second then third word. You don’t have to wait until the end of the sentence to know for sure what the person who wrote it wanted it to be like.
With English you don’t know until you get to the end that you read an exclamation. You could, if you were reading it out loud, read it wrong, read it just boring and calm, not exclaiming, and then you get to the end and understand your tone was wrong, all different.
Tone is like shade like color like mood like all the different ways you could say the same thing. You talk about tone in music and tone in art. Tone in words. When I was little people said I talked monotone. That means just one tone.
I know that about how I used to talk because we visited someone we are related to in a different state of the America, I don’t remember her name, and we talked for a while and she said, The boy isn’t talking that monotone anymore, how about that.
I was the boy. I was right there. She called me the boy I guess because she couldn’t remember my name. She was family of my mom because family of my dad would have remembered my name because my name is his name.
John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt his name is my name toooooo. Whenever we go out, people always shout, John Jacob Jingle Heimer, da da da da da da da.
You could make this a song about me and my dad.
We sang this song at school and I sang it for a very long time, so many times, at singing assemblies, before Mrs. Hera said to me, Douglass, you’re named for your dad, aren’t you? So was John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt! She laughed and I thought a big OH and I understood. I couldn’t believe all the time I had fun singing that song I didn’t understand even what it was talking about. I just liked the way you sing super quiet then all the sudden loud.
I want to be aware of sounds around me. I want to be aware of my surroundings. Sounds are surroundings. They surround us even though you can’t see them. Sounds are made of things moving, we learned in music. Touch your throat when you talk and you can feel the way your voice box moves to make the noise of your talk. Your own special sound in your own special voice box like no one else makes or has.
Maybe the lady we visited who called me the boy did not know what to call me because she was used to calling my Dad our name and she didn’t want to use it for me, too. I can’t remember what color she was. She was very old, and she lived in a place with lots of other people as old as she was. I felt like they stared at me and it was scary.
She had a see-through dish with chocolate kisses in it with a heavy see-through lid on it on the table next to the little couch where we were sitting, but no one ever opened the lid and I didn’t even ask if I could. It looked like more for looking at than for eating. Like, look at the candy but it is more like art than food.
I like the tone of that upside down Spanish exclamation mark at the beginning before the words because it tells you exactly the tone. Exactly it. Exactamente.
I laugh too, to be laughing with Alejandra. If I didn’t laugh, she wouldn’t understand how happy her laughing makes me. I understand this, so I laugh. It is a gesture of friendship. I am offering her my friendship.
We’re always here. Come over anytime.
I make sure I look at her eyes for part of my laughing.
We stand in the very cold with her coat zipped all the way up and my coat unzipped all the way down our two heads on top laughing like two Spanish exclamation marks of the same sentence. We are out past the baseball diamond, as far as we are allowed to go during outdoor recess.
Alejandra twirls to get dizzy. Her coat is zipped up all the way to her chin and I see all of a sudden the tiny zipper teeth looking like a spine of vertebrae going right up to her head the way vertebrae go right up to the head they are with. Her zipper like a tiny spine strong to hold running and laughing and Alejandra’s heart which must be beating as hard as my heart because we are both laughing so hard while we spin.
I tell Dad later what I thought about the zipper of a coat looking like the vertebrae of a spine. He smiles about this and looks away from his computer with a picture of a brain on it and he says of course they do.
You’re sharp Doug. You’re on it. I like the way you see things.
The brain on his screen looks like a spooky ghost all that fuzzy white against black.
All the brains on his screen. They all look the same. But he can tell what’s different from one picture to another picture and this is what makes his own brain special. He went to a special school to learn this.
I don’t want to go to the special school with the boy who wanted to give me a cupcake, even though he was nice.
I want to stay where Alejandra is.
I feel proud I told Dad something he liked. I told him this because I knew he’d like it. I know him and I know what he likes to hear about.
I love having Dad’s name. We hold it together like two strong living vertebrae. We are a spine made of Douglasses. My dad’s dad was my Grandad and he was Douglass too. We are a spine stretching into the past of who is dead.
Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Except that in our family the men are called Douglass. All around us things change, and we die but our names are written down D-o-u-g-l-a-s-s. We get to learn to write our names then we live our lives and grow up and die and another Douglass comes. I wonder what the next Douglass will be. I wonder if the next Douglass will be a White Douglass or a Black one or a mixed one like me. If he is a mixed one will he be mixed like me or mixed different looking.
Will people know he’s mine?
What if he’s a girl?
A woman came up to Mom and me at Trader Joe’s the other day by the bananas and she said, Look at that handsome boy, where did you get him?
I made him, Mom said.
I stepped between Mom’s arms so we could both be pushing the cart and I could feel Mom’s arms around me. The top of my head is above her chin, but she can see over my head still.
The woman said, Could you make another one for me?
Like that. The same kind of joking.
It feels like the same kind of joking as when a grown-up might say, if a kid is eating something that looks good, Can I have some of that?
Or a toy even, they might say, Can I have that?
Nope, Mom said, and she made a laughing sound that wasn’t a real laugh while she pushed our cart away from the lady so the walking away from the lady wouldn’t feel like Mom thought the lady’s joke was rude.
My mom knows good tricks to do in a conversation when she wants to stop having it. I have never told her I notice when she does them, but I do.
You know, you remind me of something, Dad says after a minute of our smiling together me feeling proud and Dad feeling proud of me about my spine-zipper thought, did you ever hear of linea nigra?
WHAT I think. That’s an n-word I haven’t heard before. Maybe it’s THE n-word. The one I don’t know. I don’t say this.
No, I say.
It’s a line on our body that shows where we form in our mom’s body, Dad says. It’s where two halves wrap around and close us up so we can grow everything we need inside our bodies while we are getting cooked up in there developing. You can still see it on a lot of people, Dad says, right under your belly button, a straight line down, some people you can see it come up as far as their chest.
That’s linea nigra. Kind of a zipper. Not the n-word.
Getting cooked up in mom’s womb.
Linea like lingua like language.
Like tongue. A tongue taco to eat or a tongue, your own, that you need to speak language. To speak a language.
Like Spanish. Alejandra speaks Spanish. Alejandra is from El Salvador. Two words. El like the. Marcos is from Honduras. I asked them were they from Mexico and they told me.
No. Other places.
Linea Nigra is a kind of n-word, it must be and also it sounds like Spanish language.
It always reminds me of a spine, Dad said. It’s a kind of shadow of a spine where the body closed up around it and everything else to protect it and help the parts fit together to make a person work.
What is it Dougy, Dad says.
He knows I’m thinking a thought. I decide to ask, because he’s in a good mood.
Is that what the n-word is, that word?
Not from overflowing joy, but from other feelings and shock.
Just like the lady I asked at McDonald’s.
The young man cashier. That same laugh.
Is that the n-word! Dad says back.
His words are an echo of what I said with an exclamation mark on the end.
The same words with a new tone.
Well, it means black, he says. It’s Latin for black.
But I think the word you mean you mean is nigger, Dad says.
Yeah, nigger is the word you mean, Douglass, he says again, echoing again. He echoes a lot when his anger is starting.
I thought I didn’t know that word, but I’ve heard it. I’ve heard Brayden say it on the bus in the farthest back seat away from the driver, the seat that’s just one single seat not big enough for two people to sit on because it’s supposed to be a place for a grown-up to sit and help with an emergency on the bus right next to the back emergency doors, but we don’t have a grown-up on our bus like that, just Brayden with his bad words. Sometimes he says them to other people, sometimes just to himself.
Doug, listen, Dad says. Don’t ever say that foul word. If any kid ever calls you that word you hit them as hard as you can, understand? Just as hard as you can. Don’t worry, you won’t get in trouble, I promise. Just tell me. Try to really hurt them and then get away and come tell me. Got it? He stares at me hard.
Has anyone ever called you that word before? he says.
I shake my head. Nobody ever has.
Maybe since I’m not really Black I can’t really be a nigger.
I’m mixed which is different but the same.
Same enough for people like a girl in a pool to say I don’t need sunscreen.
I try to imagine hitting someone. I don’t know how to hit someone. Like with my backpack? Like with my coat? With my hand open so it would make a sound like a clap, or like closed the way superheroes hit bad guys? A big fist with all four fingers bent in half next to each other neatly so you can’t see the nail part and a big yellow star like the sun around it. Maybe it says POW or WHAM. You don’t see that fist hit anyone actually just you understand it did.
Has my Dad ever hit someone?
Has anyone ever called him nigger?
I don’t ask.
I try to think how I would do that.
How I could hit someone as hard as I can?
No one has ever called me a nigger. I have only heard Brayden ever say that word and he wasn’t saying it to me. I will stay far away from him, far away so he won’t ever think to call me it so I have to hit him.
Where’d you hear it? Dad said. Who’d you hear say it? Did you hear it just one time or do you hear it sometimes?
I don’t know, I said. I can’t remember.
Dad nods like I answered him even though I didn’t. He pulls his whole hand down from his forehead down to his chin over his face like his hand is a washcloth.
It means slave, Dad said. Nigger is a word White racists called Black people they made slaves and after they weren’t allowed to make people slaves anymore, they kept calling Black people nigger to make them feel like they didn’t deserve to be more than slaves.
Black isn’t a bad thing to say, Douglass, Dad said. Nigra, negro, negroid, these words mean black and black isn’t bad even though no one really uses those words anymore, we just say Black, plain Black.
You’re Black, Doug. We are Black. Black people are the best people on earth.
I think of Mom who is not Black.
And Doug, the word that’s bad is nigger, Dad says. Not Black. Black is a beautiful word. There’s no such thing as a nigger. It’s a word White racist people made up.
Remember this, Doug, he says, looking at me.
He keeps talking about it more. He says the same thing again with the words in different orders because he wants me to remember.
I try while he’s still talking about Blackness and Black people and Africa and America and racists and slavery to picture my own belly, I try to remember if I know if there is a line up the middle of it. I think it’s funny that I don’t know what my own belly looks like.
I think to grow a whole baby inside your belly, all their parts, heart, brain, vertebrae, whole spine, legs, everything in your belly, a little baby stomach, a little baby liver, two little lungs that pump air through, you must be strong. Every mom who made a baby must be strong to be able to do this. Even White moms. Even racist White moms.
There are all different kinds of strong, and also all different kinds of mistakes you can make in your thinking. My dad must know this.
When I came out of Mom’s body, the doctor handed her a big scissors and she cut the cord my tube came through in her belly all by herself she cut it. Dad was driving in the car outside that room looking for a place to park our car. I had never seen our car yet. I had been in it in Mom’s body, but I had never seen it with my eyes.
If I dream hard enough, if I stay in a deep black sleep long enough, I wonder if I can remember that time, if I can go back far enough. That time is part of my history. How I was made. Mom cut my cord and then the hospital people handed me to her, and she held me, and I was not in her body anymore. I always ask her, didn’t that hurt us both to cut that cord?
She says no, it was not a part of my body or her body but something her body grew between our two bodies to feed my body before I could eat with my mouth. We shared her body to live. Before that, Mom and Dad mixed their bodies to make me. Everybody knows that because that’s how everybody else got made, too, by their mom’s and dad’s bodies mixing to make us.
Is he mixed is he mixed.
Everyone is mixed.
The lifeguard blows the whistle at the pool when it’s closing, and all the other kids have to get out, too, not just me, I know. Still, I have to get out and I don’t want to.
Every time it happens I feel great disappointment like it’s the first time I need to get out of the pool when the whistle blows.
He’ll remember, he’ll learn, goes Dad’s voice in my head.
But you can remember and not learn.
Still, you feel the strong feeling.
And need to let it come out of your mouth in yells.
Sometimes people’s moms and also my own mom stand at the side of the pool waving their arms looking mad because their kids are not getting out after the whistle is blown. They are saying with their arms, get out get out did you hear the bell. All the moms speaking the same language of the same rules.
When your skin is wet, you can’t just put on clothes like you can put on clothes at home in the morning when your skin is dry. Clothes stick to your skin when it’s wet. You have to rub your skin with a dry towel and wait a minute and then you can try again and see if your clothes don’t stick this time. And if all the floor and air around you is wet from the wet people around you dripping from getting out of the pool at the same time, it’s harder to get dry. Probably your towel is all wet too from pool water which has the chlorine in it which is the thing you are trying to get off.
Also there are people in the changing room taking showers with fresh water but when they get out of their showers they’ll just step into a cloud of wet chlorine steam coming off of everyone else’s bodies in the changing room.
All this is the same for boys as it is for girls. Our skin feels the same wet or dry. But once you’re a certain amount grown up, you should want privacy for your body especially girls.
I know this but it was something I needed to learn.
And now I remember.
Dad’s rule is sometimes true.
There was a lady who said something to Mom in the ladies changing room.
She was talking to Mom but looking at me like I was a problem with a rule to solve it.
You should really send him through the men’s. He’s a big boy. These girls need their privacy.
This lady had a lot of girl kids, like three of them and a baby, who were taking off their bathing suits. I was looking at them, but not because they were girls. I was looking at them like I’d look at anybody, just because they were in the way of my eyes.
I said to a girl who was sitting on the bench with a towel over the front of her, too, but not wrapped around like a dress, like Mom’s, I said hola because I could tell Spanish was her native first language and we were just looking at each other and you should say hi not stare. Once you say hi it’s not staring anymore, it’s being polite.
The lady was not friendly, and my mom changed the way she was holding her body to talk back to the lady. Her voice came out lower and slower than she usually talks. She talks to Dad like this sometimes. It’s never good when people who are both mad are talking to each other. It will only get more mad between them. I know that. Mom doesn’t know that yet, She’s the one I hear doing it.
With Dad, with me. With this lady in the changing room.
The girl when I said hola didn’t do anything different from what she’d been doing before, almost like she didn’t hear me, even though she didn’t stop looking at my eyes. She didn’t answer me with words. She was sitting there twisting a rope of her hair and getting the water out of it like a hose. I kept watching. I couldn’t believe she could keep twisting more water out of it. She’d twist and drips would come out, then she’d let go and squeeze from the top of it near her head and pull down and more drips would come. She kept looking at me like we were having a conversation, but there were no words.
She put the rope of her hair over her other shoulder and started making a puddle on the floor on the other side of her. Two lakes of water that came from her hair, one next to her right foot, one next to her left foot, and they kept getting bigger. She still had water in her hair to squeeze out after I thought it should be dry already.
I was thinking I wanted to grow my hair so I could try to do that.
Her hair was so black. Not dark brown like mine but the blackest black.
People might call my hair black, but they’re wrong, it’s dark brown, and in the summer lighter brown. With gold in it at the edges, my mom says.
Black in Spanish is negro.
I was expecting the water that dripped out to be black like her hair, negro, like paint, but it was clear, like water.
Which is what it was, water.
Negro you say the e part like rhymes with tell or bell.
Not like it rhymes with knee or bee.
I made a mistake when I said it in class like rhyming with knee. And LaDonna said Mrs. Claussen! Mrs. Claussen! standing up in her chair and waving her raised hand and arm around to match her voice and get Mrs. Claussen to look at her.
Douglass said the N word, Mrs. Claussen!
LaDonna was looking at me like to see what else I might say. She looked excited like she wanted me to, like it might be a good exciting surprise, what I’d say next.
I was excited too because I said something that made LaDonna excited but I was confused, too, because what had I done wrong?
How are you supposed to know what to say and not to say if no one told you? Or if someone told you, but you forgot?
How are you supposed to remember every rule to follow at the same time?
How are you supposed to know it’s not an appropriate time to laugh if other kids are laughing? This is what happens to me at school, things just like this, so many of them. This is why I am in trouble all the time and kids who really mean to do inappropriate things or mean things know to hide what they are doing so they don’t get in trouble like I do. I get in trouble right out in the open. They know to hide. This is the difference. This difference is about autism. This is the difference about me. But if they know it, why do I still get in trouble for things I don’t understand? This is my question.
Mrs. Claussen put down what she was doing and walked over to our table of four desks pushed together. Me, Ladonna, Will and James. Three boys one girl.
If I had long hair like that girl at the pool I’d paint with it. I’d dip my whole head in paint and stand on my head like it was a brush. I’d paint my name. I’d paint words.
Invisible ink. You can see it if you put it up to a light, and otherwise not.
But you seem normal, this is something Will said to me when I had to leave class and he asked me why I get to leave class every day to go to Mrs. Wayne’s and he does not. He wants to go, too. He knows about the trampolines in Mrs. Wayne’s room.
I feel normal. I feel the same feelings from laughing other kids feel at the same time we are all laughing.
Pelo negro. I was thinking this while I watched that girl in the changing room. Negro is different in English, the word negro. It’s the same but it’s different. You can’t say it. It’s never okay to say. It’s worse than talking about Jesus. Or saying Oh my GOD not oh my gosh. Mom told me about all this even though Dad is the Black one so why doesn’t he know more about it?
These things about the bad n-word make me want to say it. I wish I knew it so I could say it. The bad one. It’s about being Black. If this word is about Blackness, I am half of this word.
My mom grabbed my hand in the changing room at the pool with that lady and all her girls and when I didn’t grab it back she grabbed my arm and pulled me away from there.
I never went back through the women’s changing room again. I go alone through the men’s and meet my mom at the end. And then maybe we drive to McDonald’s. I don’t yell.
I understand this thing and I know how to act.
We don’t get out of the car. We go through the drive through.
Mom orders at the ordering window. She puts her elbow up on the edge of the window and leans her head out and talks toward the talking box.
Hi, yes, can we please have one Happy Meal with a cheeseburger, apple slices, and a juice box?
She says it like they might say No, not today, no, you can’t. Sorry.
And when they say yes, she says thank you so much, like it’s a big deal, like they don’t give food to everyone who asks for it. Like there’s not a long line of cars waiting their turn behind us to do the same thing.
The voice from the box says our order back like an echo to make sure he has it right.
So you can’t get to the window and say, no, actually, that’s not what I ordered. They could say, yes, you did, I read it back to you and you said yes.
All of it and they don’t have to look at your eyes or anything, so they can concentrate on getting your order right, just the way you asked for it.
No one in there is telling them to look at anyone’s eyes.
The last thing they always say is, anything else? And Mom says, yes please, can we please have one hot fudge sundae and one large diet Coke.
The large diet Coke is for her. She doesn’t let me have a soda. When Dad brings me to McDonald’s, he lets me have root beer instead of the juice box. The juice box is stupid. It’s so small. It doesn’t have ice chips in it, so it’s not refreshing like soda or any other drink with ice chips inside. Then we go slowly forward in the line of cars and Mom gets the food and makes sure there’s a packet of peanuts and then she pulls into a parking space and she hands me back my box of food. I eat it in the back seat and it is so warm and delicious after I’ve been swimming and I’m a little cold in the car. Even with the little stupid juice box it is delicious.
This is how it goes when I go to McDonald’s with Mom.
I open my toy while I eat. I read the instructions if there are instructions. So it’s fun to go with Mom even though she doesn’t like the food. Only one time I remember she ordered a cheeseburger for herself. She said, Oh, this is delicious. I get it, this is why you and Dad like McDonald’s a lot. She said, But look, it’s over in a few bites and I want another one! There’s nothing to chew. I want to use my teeth and chew when I eat, she said.
When she said that I started counting my chews.
I wondered why she didn’t just order another burger if she wanted to keep chewing.
When Dad brings me, we don’t stay in the car, we go inside. It’s different. We order a lot of food and put it out all over the table before we start. Dad says, Let’s get it all. Anything you want, kiddo. He says this every time, like it’s something new to say. But I like it as much every time he says it.
All I want really is my Happy Meal and ice cream sundae with peanut crumbles on top but it’s fun to think this way and it’s fun to get extra things. He gets his quarter pounder and fries and Sprite, which is called an Extra Value Meal because it would cost more money to get all the parts separately, but you put them together and they cost less. Stores and restaurants convince you into buying more things this way, Mom said, when I told her that her large diet Coke would cost less dollars if she ordered the Extra Value meal like Dad.
It’d be like free, I tell her. This is what Dad says.
I don’t want a burger or fries with my soda, though, she says. I don’t want it even if you gave it to me for free.
She gets her diet Coke all by itself with nothing to chew at all.
When we get home, we change.
Home is the place to change, not the pool.
I’ve learned. I remember.
I don’t ask Dad to call Mom and ask her to remember what time she finishes making my sandwich and the rest of my school lunch for tomorrow. I don’t ask I don’t ask. I want to ask but I don’t. I bite the skin on the inside of my lip which is a trick Mom told me I should try for when I want to laugh at the inappropriate wrong time and this trick really works, and it also works for me to do it when I’m thinking something and I need to stop thinking it. If you hurt, your mind thinks about where you hurt. All the other thoughts go away while the hurt is happening.
It’s a very good strategy for being quiet or for trying to stop thinking a thought.
I bite my lip and I don’t ask Dad to call Mom.
The n-word. The n-word. God not gosh. God God God.
Goddamn Goddamn I heard Brayden say from the back of the bus once and everyone else was quiet. Sometimes bad words make people get quiet. People say them when they can’t control their impulses, or when they’ve decided not to try to control their impulses. When they are about to lose control. Or just act like they’ve lost control and can’t help themselves because I guess they like that feeling. I don’t like that feeling. I hate that feeling. I wonder what it’s like to like that feeling, to want it and try to get it.
Dad and I walk up to the man at the counter when it’s our turn.
We’ve been standing in line behind a little baby held up on a lady’s shoulder. The baby is so small that if the lady put her down, the baby would not be able to walk away, or maybe even sit down. The lady takes her turn and orders, and I could listen if I wanted to, but I don’t.
I look at the baby because the baby is looking at me. The baby has brown skin like the lady, brown skin like Dad, and the same color big brown eyes open looking right at me. The baby is too little to know rules about staring at people and if you do, you need to say hi. The baby is too little to say hi, probably, or say anything. There is a little pink ribbon on the side of the baby’s head, clipped to its hair. I look at the baby looking at me over the lady’s shoulder. The baby can see everything the lady can’t see. Together they can see everything, front and back and all around. But they can’t communicate about it because the baby is too little to talk.
The lady and her baby are what you call Black like Dad is what you call Black. I’m not. I’m half, exactly, officially, but not really, because Dad says Mom is not as White as White can get. He says her family is from places close to Africa which is where Black comes from. He’s talking about Italy. People from Africa brought their Blackness there. Or people from Italy went to Africa and got some Blackness there. Also she’s Jewish, and her Jewishness comes from the same Europe where White people come from, but the Jewishness, even though it looks the same as White, is not the same in the way it feels, in the way her ancestors, our ancestors, feel things. If this is true, what does it mean that skin color is just skin color? If it also changes the way you feel, what color you are?
Dad says stuff like this but I’ve never heard anyone else say stuff like this, and I’m not sure about it. I think White just looks like White and you can’t tell what place this White person’s ancestors came from. So does it matter if you can’t see it on their skin, what’s different about where they’re from? Does it matter even if Mom doesn’t really know things from Italy? She doesn’t speak Italian. Why is it a thing we talk about, is my question, where a White person’s ancestors are from if what people are called is White or Black or some half or fraction of these two things, like me, like you could put us together in a measuring cup and bake us.
Mom says no one is all one thing or all the other thing. She says everyone should be called mixed for the closest thing to the truth. She says humans are all made from mixing.
This is the kind of answer that isn’t true.
If this was true, how do I know what a person is when I look at them? I know this baby and lady and Dad are Black. I know Mom is White. I know I’m mixed. Everyone who works at this McDonald’s is Black.
I know what I see.
It helps me to look at the Black Brown baby while the baby looks at me because I’m not thinking about what time Mom made the sandwich anymore. When it’s our turn, we walk up to the counter and the man is what you’d call a young man. He’s maybe a teenager.
He says, What can I get you?
He looks nice. He smiles down at me.
Hey man, he says. What’s up.
Dad looks down at me and smiles, too. Dad is very tall. Dad is taller than most people.
I don’t know what to say when people say what’s up when they see you and I keep forgetting to ask about this.
I look up at this young man’s face. I look up higher at Dad’s face. They are what’s really up. But I don’t say that. It’s not the right answer for what they mean.
Hi, I say.
The young man and Dad smile more like grown-ups do about what kids say sometimes, like we’re cute, aren’t we, even though I don’t understand what it was I said that had anything cute about it, and then they look up again away from me. Dad looks at the bright glowing board showing all the food and he starts ordering everything. The young man looks down at his keyboard on the cash register punching everything in with his pointer finger on the ordering keys, saying the things out loud in an echo and Dad waits for him to stop punching in one thing before he tells him what to punch in next.
Dad keeps ordering.
You all are hungry, the young man says, and he smiles again. He has tattoos all over his skin. They come up his neck from under his shirt and they come out from the hands of his sleeves, too. On one hand he has letters on his fingers, and I try hard to read the whole word but I can’t because the letters are fancy and curved so I can’t read them. He also has something like this I can see under one of his eyes.
I wonder did he draw them himself or did he let someone else.
I wonder did he know what he wanted the drawings to be or did he just start drawing, or tell the person to start drawing, without making a plan before of what to draw.
I think if he let someone else do that to him, make drawings on his body that would always be there, he must like that person very much, as much as you could possibly like or love a person, to let them do that to your body, your skin. You are telling a person to go ahead and make you into their art. You are the same you on the inside that you’ve always been, but on the outside, with this other person’s art on your skin, you are about them as much as you are about yourself. If a person looks at this person’s art on your skin, they see them first, before they get down to the part that’s just you. Actually, first it’s the art they see, then the color of you, then maybe the part that’s just you, even though that part isn’t a part you can see. That part doesn’t really show.
I think probably this young man has taken our order when it’s me and Mom outside at the window, but we didn’t see his face before, or we didn’t know, if he was the one to ask what we wanted, that it was him. He didn’t ask me to tell him what answers I know about anything or what grade I’m in or say how tall I am for my age or tell me to take something like a maraca and play it so the grown-ups will be happy about me.
He just smiles and doesn’t make me say anything else about myself or answer any questions.
Then Dad is finished ordering and puts the card in the slot to pay.
We say thank you and bye and walk over to the place where you wait for them to get done cooking your food. It’s not boring because you watch them make it. There are the big baskets with fries getting fried.
And people working there standing picking up and spreading the things on the burger buns waiting for the burgers to get cooked. Like the delicious creamy sauce and the crunchy pickles. I remember how hungry I am.
I’m busy thinking and I don’t notice whatever Dad noticed to know our food was ready, that the red tray of food a lady put on the counter was ours.
He walked up to take it and I walked up behind him.
I am proud to walk with Dad. Dad is tall, taller than most people, and Dad knows how to talk to people just like Mom does. He knows just what to say. People laugh and smile at him. I stand close and listen thinking it’s something I could learn to do by listening to him, but I can’t figure out any of the rules he uses.
Thanks a lot, Dad says to the lady who hands us the food.
She smiles a big smile to him and then she looks down at me and says, Oh aren’t you cute. She says it like I am a lot smaller than I am. I’m not a baby to talk to in that way. But she’s nice so I think to ask her my question.
I have a question, I say.
Dad stands close behind me. I can tell because he puts his hand on my shoulder. I can feel his surprise behind me about why I’m asking someone here a question, not just waiting until we sit down and asking him. He thinks he knows the answer to every question.
Sure honey, what is it, she says, she catches and holds my eyes and I hold her eyes back.
It’s a woman thing to call people honey. Men don’t call kids honey. They call us Buddy or Bud or Chief or Man or Little Man.
Which is name calling, isn’t it? Isn’t that what that is?
Why is it that everyone who works here is Black, I say.
Dad’s hand squeezes my shoulder so tight and fast it hurts.
Which is worse, shit or Black? Black, I guess, because Dad says shit all the time. But I’ve never heard him say it out of our own house or our own car before now. I don’t think he meant to even say it, like I don’t think he meant to squeeze my shoulder so hard, I think he just wanted to think it but hearing me ask this question made him lose control of his impulses.
The lady is quiet for a second, then she leans back and laughs so hard and loud. She laughs as loud as her voice can go. The laugh is not happy-laughing. It’s exclamation mark laughing. The young man our friend at the cash register part of the counter hears her laughing and turns his head to look at her.
What? he says. What’s funny?
He doesn’t match her loudness. He kind of looks around the room like to see who else is paying attention, to see if anyone else understands why she’s laughing, and if he could look at any of them to figure it out without words. He kind of looks like he knows it’s not appropriate to laugh like that here, and he’s looking around to see what will happen now because it’s not something that usually happens.
He was in the middle of listening and punching in someone else’s order, a very old woman using a metal walker for something to lean on while she walks. This old woman looks over at us, too. She has a plastic bag hanging from the other side of her walker. I can see things inside, but I can’t tell what they are. I can’t tell if they are money or food or a book or something like that. I think it’s a strong plastic bag to be there holding all that stuff that looks heavy. She smiles at me the way old people sometimes smile at kids, not because of anything the kids said but just because they are kids, an extra kind smile.
The lady I asked is still laughing. She holds both hands on the counter and bends down with her face pointed at the floor while she laughs.
I wonder if her eyes are open or closed. Is she looking at the floor?
Then she stops and stands up straight and pats her own head on the side right on her hair like maybe some hair came out of place while she was laughing, but it did not. The way her hair is pulled tight it doesn’t look like it could come out of place unless you made it, unless you pulled it out.
I wonder if she knows my mom’s trick about biting the inside of your lip when you need to control your laughing. Maybe she knows but doesn’t care about controlling her laugh. There are people in the world who try to hold in their laughing, and people who don’t even try. They don’t care who sees them laugh. I have another question: why do I have to be the kind of person who learns to hold it in?
Why do I have to know the bite the inside of your mouth trick and other people don’t? The lady keeps patting the side of her head in the same spot, and I wonder if this is a trick I don’t know about. I wonder if her mom taught it to her. I wonder if Black moms teach their kids different tricks from White moms.
I wonder what part was her laughing at my question about who works here and what part was her laughing at Dad saying shit.
I can’t remember when she started laughing. If she’d already started to laugh when he said shit.
Listen, he asked why are we all Black who work here.
She says it to the young man, who asked. Now, she’s just smiling. She got all her laughing out, finally. I can hear the space in the air behind me where my dad is that his laugh would fill, but it does not. He is quiet. He makes no noise at all. He squeezed my shoulder but then he let it go right away and his hand isn’t on my body anymore.
The old lady with the walker shakes her head a little but she doesn’t laugh. I can’t tell if she’s heard my words or the lady’s words or anyone else’s. She keeps on smiling at me the same smile at me she’s smiled the whole time. The young man at the register makes one big laugh but not like the kind of laugh when a thing is funny, but he smiles at me, after he’s finished his quick surprised laugh, and he shakes his head like what I said surprised him in a good very interesting way.
It starts as a shake but ends with a nod, like nodding yes to something.
I wish I knew the answer to that one, honey. Dad, do you know?
She calls my dad Dad even though he’s not her dad because she thinks that’s what I probably call him and calling him that makes it like we are all members of the same conversation and she wants to get him to be a member of our conversation, not just say shit and then be quiet and not laugh or smile like everyone else. My mom calls me honey. I like it. I like women. I wish I were here with Mom. I wonder if she would be mad, too. Maybe she would. I think it’s hard to know people. It’s hard to know even the people you think you know very well. You don’t know what they might be thinking about all the time.
I think of Alejandra laughing and spinning.
I think she would know what I was thinking.
I think of that girl in the changing room at the pool looking at my eyes and squeezing all that water out of her hair. We didn’t say anything to each other except when I said hola.
That whole time she kept looking at my eyes maybe we were thinking totally different thoughts that had nothing to do with each other.
That’s a tough one, Dad says.
He’s agreeing with the lady about there not being an answer for this. And I should have known what kind of question it was and not asked it at all.
He puts his hand on my shoulder again, in a different softer way.
Let me know if you find out, buddy, says the young man from the counter.
He’s talking to me.
His voice is soft like Dad’s hand is soft.
A language of softness.
What I said made them use this language.
All right now, he says after a minute and everyone begins to do what they were doing before I said my question.
All right, Dad answers him, and that means it’s time for us to walk away.
All right now means goodbye. There are many different ways to say goodbye just like there are many different ways to say hello. What’s up is a way to say hello and I think it’s okay to just say hi back. You can just pretend they said hi if a person says what’s up even though it feels like a question you should answer. But why should you tell an answer to this question to a person you don’t know at all? With a line of people behind you waiting to order their food. It’s not an appropriate time to begin a conversation.
It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense. You just pretend it does. That’s the answer.
Dad fills his soda cup then I fill my soda cup then we walk to a table and we eat.
We don’t say any words at all. He does not and I do not.
I eat my burger. I eat it in thirteen bites. I feel the crunch and the mush. I eat my fries. I eat my sundae. I eat it without the peanuts on top because I don’t want to ask Dad to open the little red packet for me. I don’t want him to get mad again for a reason I don’t understand. It’s okay without the peanuts but I like it better with them because each bite is more interesting and crunchy.
Dad eats, too. He looks at me sometimes and he tries to smile at me, but it’s a trying-smile not a real smile. He tries to smile now while we eat, but it’s the wrong time for the smile. The right time would have been before. While we were standing at the counter and the lady was patting her head and being weird. So he knows his reaction was not appropriate but he is not saying any words about it. He is not trying to communicate with me about it, really, just pretend whatever made him say the word shit was not really real.
None of it feels like the truth.
I don’t know the truth.
At night, after we get home and I get in bed, at 8:30 which is my bedtime, Mom comes into my room when I’m all ready and she kisses my head and rubs my back and tells me she loves me.
Then she tells me about slaves.
It doesn’t sound like a real thing.
If it were a real thing, why wouldn’t the lady at the McDonald’s have said that was the answer: that everybody working at McDonald’s was related to slaves. Slaves are Black people who are sold and bought like things at Five Below or Target. But why wouldn’t Dad tell me this since he’s the Black one? Why not say it out loud? If something like that ever happened why wouldn’t you talk about it all the time and be mad about it still? Especially if it meant people whose family were slaves had to work at McDonald’s? But Dad is Black and he does not work at McDonald’s. I try to think of walking into Five Below and it’s all full of people to buy instead of things.
Before we left I did see someone White behind the counter at McDonald’s.
He was the only person White. He was wearing a different colored shirt from everyone else there working. This man who was White was wearing a white shirt that buttoned down just like my dad wears to go to work. Not the regular kind you pull over your head.
White on white.
The mint soap I use at bedtime makes my skin feel tingling for a while after I wash it off with a washcloth. While Mom is talking about slaves I decide not to ask questions. I’m tired of asking questions. I just let her talk. I don’t want to say another wrong thing today. I feel my skin remembering the mint soap that just washed it.
I try to go to sleep.I hope the people at McDonald’s didn’t think I was asking why they were not slaves when I was asking why they were all Black. But actually I don’t understand why that would not be an okay question if it’s true their families were made slaves. I’d be mad and want to talk about it if mine were. But wait, mine were, this is the point, this is the truth. The Black half of mine were. The Dad half. I think, do other kids at my school know this? I think, do other kids at the school I might have to go if I don’t get better at communicating know this? I try to think of this about people being slaves but I can’t figure out how to think about it. It sounds like nothing I know.
I try to remember if I made a smile back at the lady with the walker so she would know how much I liked her smiling at me. Did I reciprocate? This is how you make a friendship keep going and get stronger. You reciprocate. You do generous things. You remember and you learn about each other and you grow more friendship. Then after a while that becomes your best friend if your friendship keeps going like that.
But old people like that lady aren’t best friends with kids. They have their own old best friends until those people are dead because they are old, and then they remember them.
There’s a prayer people read when someone dies and it says, over and over, we remember them, we remember them, we remember them.
You aren’t remembering them if you aren’t talking about them.
Whoever they are.
Everyone gone from you.
Dad does not come in my room at all after Mom. He does not come in and say good night I love you buddy like he sometimes does.
I think Dad needs to work on his communicating, too, like I need to work on my communicating. Maybe I got my autism from him like I got my Blackness from him.
One thing about how I am; one thing about what I look like.
I feel the mint on my skin until I can’t feel it anymore.
I think of the young man with the tattoos on his skin all over his skin. I think of those words on his fingers I couldn’t read.
I think of slaves. Of people bought and sold and then when it’s done, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have to work at McDonald’s. I think of that mushy food they sell. How good it tastes. Why it tastes good to me. Why Mom doesn’t like it. Is it because of the slavery thing that she doesn’t like it? Is this why? And if this is why, why does Dad like the food there and Mom does not? I think of the woman who didn’t answer my question. She just laughed and laughed and laughed.
We remember them. We remember them. We remember them.
I wish I remembered the rest of that prayer.
The only part I remember is the part you say over and over.
Like in a song. It’s the part that’s always the same, the part that repeats over and over again, the part that stays the same.
Tamar Jacobs is a writer and teacher based near Philadelphia. She is a Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize winner, with work appearing in Gulf Coast, Glimmer Train, New Ohio Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Louisville Review, Grist, and elsewhere. A Book of Rules was a finalist for the 2020 George Garrett Fiction Prize awarded by Texas Review Press and a semifinalist for the 2021 Nilsen Prize awarded by Southeast Missouri State University Press. An excerpt from the manuscript was longlisted for the 2021 Janus Prize awarded by the Chautauqua Institution. A high school dropout, she is particularly proud of her G.E.D. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland.
This piece is an extract of Tamar Jacobs’ novel, A Book of Rules. Read a conversation between Tamar and Editor D. W. White about her creative process and the genesis of The Part That Stays The Same here.