Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Rockwood didn’t have no elementary school so it sent its children many blocks away to learn numbers, cut up the King’s English and forget what innocence was. One particular day stands out, unforgettable even if I was trying to unrecord it outta my memory: There I was, minding my own damn business, a child small and skinny and sentenced to the shadows. You see, for a male child being big and strong, but slow, is just fine. Everyone knows not to test that boy, or if they do, they keep a distance while they do it—outta arm’s reach at the very least. Small, slim and fast works, too—you’ll be good at the games boys play by juking dodge balls, 2-hand touch tacklers and queer smeerers. What does not work is small and skinny and slow, especially if you get moved ahead one grade class because of some test you took before you could even read. That’s what I was, a child ahead of his time, a boy both lanky and little and so dead on my feet that I was always picked in that last pocket of losers.

That’s why on that fateful day, the day my life began, I wadn’t doing no more’n my usual, playing the background, avoiding competition like my existence depended on it. But the great DeMichael Quantavius Chesnutt Bradley was having none of it.

That’s what I was, a child ahead of his time, a boy both lanky and little and so dead on my feet that I was always picked in that last pocket of losers.

“Aiiiyo,” DeMichael, who was almost the size of a grown man but actually about the same age as the rest of us grade schoolers, commanded, “you in the race now.”

Put a question mark on the end of that if you feel like it, just know it ain’t always the tone of the voice, let alone the words being said, sometimes it’s the size of the speaker and whether he has a reputation for puttin his paws on people with repercussions that’s at issue. DeMichael had that rep and he was actually twice my size, a great big, broad-shouldered child with frying pans for hands. Word was he had already been held back a grade, but a year’s growth in no way explained young black Hercules. I grew up in a Cartoon Network era where grown-ass adults stalked me with evil characters straight outta my nightmares, house pets who killed whole families in every episode, kids who committed war crimes every weekend. With TV for a teacher, it was easy to imagine DeMichael as a complected Hercules who might actually tear my head from my torso if I told him no, I don’t wanna run, DeMichael, I’ma just be chillin right here by my self.

“Get in on this, family,” DeMichael encouraged, or threatened.

Let the embarrassment begin: And let me mention, my competitors could fly—Trey, Miguel, Keisha, Free, these wadn’t regular schoolchildren, now. They were no less than the future stars of every sport. They were the exalted, with a destiny to leave me in the dust, dust up to my dead eyeballs. I pictured my body post-race; a dusty old mummy cast in last place forever like the people at Pompeii cased up in ash.

I stared at them from my shade tree: The handball wall where they was gettin ready was flush-white with smogless sunlight. They stood out black and tan, tall and short, boys and girls. But they all had wings for feet. It had rained the day before and there was still dew in the dark places, under trees and in the shadows cast by everything above us. I liked to play those spaces anyway, but days after the rain were especially good for the shadows. I didn’t understand athletes, the way they let the sun beat on them, how they wailed away at they own bodies with invented torture.

Lookin back now, I realize that running was such a big deal to us because we had to do it all the time. Every game required running, but it went way beyond that. The city of Oakland had no yellow school buses. This meant that we sometimes took the public transit, when it wadn’t running late or so crowded the adults body blocked us back to the street. In them shamefully frequent instances, we had to make a run for it. We ran along boulevards, sprinted through vacant lots and warehouse back alleys, hopped fences and trespassed private properties, and played the angles between the front and back bumpers of cars gridlocked in traffic. We ran because we had to and naturally necessity became the way we played, which made sense since all our play was really just a way to ready us for the world. Suffice it to say, our teachers understood when we showed up a few minutes late for the start of class.

I was fittin to face the world hecka slow-footed and complected, a bad combination when you consider all the scrapes people of the sun find ourselves in.

“Time to run,” DeMichael ordered.

I moped over to the wall and watched as the others knelt like ready predators, bodies planked perpendicular above drawbridge lever arms. I watched as shoulder muscles pulsed with weightless waiting, each hand shaped a hollowed pyramid against the gravel and sneekered heels beat battle drums against the concrete wall.

I copied—kneeling, I imagined I was a character not in a psychotic cartoon but in one of the video games I couldn’t afford, was too scared to steal, and anyway would never have daddy’s blessing to play—ON YOUR MARKS, DeMichael called from where he knelt, ready to race as well, the fifth predator, and I was just prey in the game, a peasant open for plunder in Assassins Creed: DeMichael De Medici, a prostitute fittin to be iced in Grand Theft Auto International Boulevard—GET SET, he said, even though I was still just figuring out what to do with my feet—GO!

I stood straight up and like always everyone was two steps clear of me before I even started moving. Trey took the lead. Miguel, who was beautiful, flew right behind him, and Keisha, taller than all of us, taller than a teacher or two, Usain Bolted right after them. Free was short and small, but her legs rapidly disappeared into a whirling rainbow of green and orange and purple shorts and socks and shoes. The color wheel fled ahead and I gave up as usual, and then I caught an image of some interest out the corner of my eye—big, slow ass DeMichael was lookin at me and I was lookin at him and we was tied stride for stride, and then I was giving myself the beginnings of whiplash from trying to hold his gaze as he fell back from my pace. And now I was striding, knees up and out, proper form, and Miguel, who gave up winning the race and relaxed into less than a sprint, was coming back to me too. I was close enough to him to see sweat sparkling the braided rope of brown hair that swung behind him. Keisha and Trey and Free flew away and the dirt and grass and ants and bees that they shoveled up with each back kick hit me like bugs into a windshield. I closed my eyes and imagined Miguel’s Rapunzel braid flying away and his toy head bucking back and forth. I thought how I had broken every toy my parents had ever bought me. Not outta anger, just experiments—How far could my plastic superhero fly when I threw dude? How fast could the toy car go when I revved it hecka hard? What ever happened to that other one?

Keisha won, like always. Trey finished second, outpaced at the very end once again. Free spun into third. And Miguel finished fourth. I was fifth, way ahead of DeMichael, who admitted afterward that he only made me run cuz he didn’t feel like finishing last. He didn’t expect that I would outrun him.

After the race, he pulled me by the arm so hard I thought I was fittin to come apart like a character in one of my crazy cartoons. It woulda been poetic, Boy succeeds for first time ever at anything his daddy ain’t make him do, next minute goes and gets killed by hulking mutant ten year old: The Short Benighted Death of a Dumbass.

DeMichael, though, was nice enough not to dismantle me right then and there. “You gotsta make one of, ya know, the other kids race. One of them slow friends you got,” he advised.

I couldn’t make nobody do nothin. I was thrilled I was faster’n DeMichael and scared of what he might still do with my arm. Free was following after Miguel, playing with his pretty boy braid. DeMichael hadn’t let go of my arm. Keisha was walking back toward the tree balancing pebbles on her fingertips and flicking them at Trey with her free hand. Trey ducked the pebbles like Muhammad Ali, no nerdy uncoordinated slaps, no scared squinting eyes, just calm, cool fakes and feints, like he was born for movement. He somehow kept talkin trash the whole time, too, tellin her how she was just tall and lucky, fast for a giraffe. I wanted to be that kind of cool. Meanwhile, DeMichael maintained our arm-lock.

“I cain’t make nobody race if they don’t want to,” I whined, no Ali in me.

“Yes, you can.”

“No, I cain’t.”

He stared at me. This was going nowhere.

“Nah. How?”

“Family, just tell ‘em I’ma kill ‘em if they don’t. Ain’t hard.” If Trey was Ali, DeMichael Quantavius Chesnutt Bradley, I thought, was Mike Tyson crossed with a glock.

Mercifully, that brick house of a boy let go of my arm and then he balled his fists kinda playfully and circled me and threw a couple jabs my way. They thudded painless against my scared-stiff shoulders. I looked at him and was surprised at the light in his eyes. He was just playing. It dawned on me that DeMichael had no actual intentions on hurting me.


After recess, we went back to class, everyone except for Free, who stayed outside to say her prayers, and DeMichael, who I figured was praying to the ditch day gods cuz he was nowhere to be seen all of a sudden. I sat in the back of class. Two rows in front of me, Trey fell asleep as soon as his butt hit his chair, his head angling down into the bony pillow of his shoulder. Keisha sat up front in the middle seat. Even sitting down, she sat up straight and was a full head higher than all us boys. Miguel, meanwhile, sat in the middle row, where three lovestruck girls tended to his braids. They giggled as the teacher talked. Free’s praying shadow rose from the ground and her actual body walked back inside and sat down in the seat next to Keisha. Her posture was perfect just like Keisha’s. The teacher told the girls behind Miguel they needed to stop all that giggling or go outside. And then, without no warning, things got crucial: A woman burst into class in shrieks and hollers. She was obviously crazy. Her eyes bugged out and she looked around the room confused. She had that Baghdad blow-out hair. She paced around the front of the room mumbling to herself and didn’t no one wanna touch her cuz not only was she talking to herself, she was bigger’n everyone in class, including our teacher, Mrs. MacDonald, who was this short, extension chord thin, squirrelly-lookin lady with all the traits you’d expect of a second grade teacher, young, white, female, too nice, too square, except for her tats. One tat read NAMASTE in looping green letters, another was of an elephant in lotus position, and a third said NO GODS NO MASTERS. This was Oakland, after all, wadn’t nobody a four-sided square, not even the teachers. Half the class hated school while the other half was like me, pretending they hated it, too, meantime loving it on the low. But nobody hated Mrs. MacDonald. So when the troubled woman made a straight line for her at the head of the class, being heroes and whatnot we kids just froze like it was winter in a cold world.

The woman stopped mumbling and pacing and faced Mrs. MacDonald. She got real quiet and then she lunged and struck at our teacher. They both went flying against the wall. The next thing I remember is a bunch of flailing open-handed, scratching and smacking. Blood studded the white board, slurring the spelling lesson that had just started. We just stared like we was hypnotized or somethin. The women fell this way and that. Mrs. MacDonald was the one screaming now, not to mention fighting for her life just as much as the crazy woman was trying to end it, or whatever it was she wanted to do. What the woman wanted no one knew, but the fight rolled on, bouncing off the front wall with the white board to the walls on each side, like three-dimensional ping pong. They battled back to the head of the class, where Mrs. MacDonald stood when she taught us, but now the big woman had took hold of Mrs. MacDonald’s bird neck and was going to town strangling her. We, the students, finally came to. Somebody threw a book at the attacker. It missed.

“Punch her, Mrs. MacDonald!” someone yelled. “In the stomach!” Mrs. MacDonald couldn’t do that. Her hands went limp and fell open at her sides and her face turned paler than it knew it could get. “Kill the bitch!” someone cried, and for a second it wadn’t clear whose side they was on. Then Keisha threw her old, eaten up textbook and it caught the assailant in the ribs, which loosened her hold on Mrs. MacDonald’s neck. Mrs. MacDonald began fighting back again. She elbowed the crazy woman somewhere sensitive and the woman wailed, “There’s ants on me! Help me! There’s ants in my skin! Cain’t you help me?? Why cain’t you help???”

I remember hearing that and wondering who was most in danger. I jumped up and jetted for the door. I could hear others following me. We became one big, bootleg relay team racing for the Principal’s Office. It was a short distance, maybe 200 meters, maybe 300. Keisha and Trey caught up to me, but I was really running now and not even they could pass me. We burst thru Principal Morgan’s double doors all at once.

“Mrs. MacDonald is getting strangled!”

“Gettin killed!”

“Killed?” Principal Morgan looked about his unorganized office space, gangs of files in folders on the floor, papers scattered all over, and the boy serving out detention in the corner. DeMichael sat there, his body tilted against the wall in a cynical gangster lean. He looked up curious at the crowd that had formed. “Killed?” He parroted Principal Morgan.

“Killed!” “Come help!”

“Can I?” DeMichael asked.

Principal Morgan had a look on his face that I’d never seen before. Adults always seemed to know what was what. Even if they couldn’t fix it, they understood what the problems and the stakes was. But not Principal Morgan. I could tell by his pancake face that he understood way less about what was going on than we did and it might take too long to get him up to speed. He looked over at DeMichael, then back at us. “Yes, DeMicahel,” he decided, “you should come help.”

So we dashed back to the classroom. My lungs burned with the taste of hot pennies and trampled dust. I was the first to try to jump on the woman which meant I was the first to realize that tussling with a dope fiend ain’t easy. She backhanded me to the ground and as the left side of my face smacked the cold tile floor, my life unofficially began. Life hurts. I rolled over onto my side and groaned in pain. I curled up to protect myself and watched the drama unfold from fetal position. Trey and Keisha took they turns wrestling the woman and did a little better, probably on account of not being newborns. But they still was just kids so she banked them both back into infancy. Meanwhile, Principal Morgan, who was still in the womb, hung back like a bitch. DeMichael rushed in just as Trey was chucked aside. The woman hesitated as DeMichael approached her. She was not counting on no full grown man confronting her. Before she could defend herself, DeMichael threw a right cross that started in San Francisco, crossed the bridge and made contact with a frightening bone on bone crack. The woman jerked back and went to sleep before she hit the floor. It was a terrifying moment in time. Everyone just sorta went still wherever we stood or (in my case) lay, except for Mrs. MacDonald who was gasping back to life and returning to her European complexion. Then old dead-leg Principal Morgan made the next move. Old man got on his cell phone and called the po-lice cuz I think that was the only thing he knew how to do, call in the authorities. “Multiple assaults,” I remember him saying. “Children and adults in danger.”

Meanwhile, the attacker lay motionless as a mall statue. Keisha and Trey got up slow, dusting theyselves off, making sure they limbs still worked. I stayed on the floor at eye level with the woman, watching her for signs of life. I heard a low gargle and then the sound of wind pressed thru too tight a space. She was snoring.

Cuz of all the craziness, the po-lice showing up, cuffing up the concussed woman, asking us a bunch of who, what, when, where type questions we couldn’t answer to they full satisfaction, and them deciding they was gonna take DeMichael away in a squad car, and whatnot, we ended up gettin outta school late and missing the bus back to Rockwood. That wadn’t no big deal. By then, I was recovered enough to do what we usually did when the city forgot about us: I followed my friends, if I could call them that, thru our alleyways, over our fences and in between gridlocked cars. There was just no DeMichael following behind us now.

There was rumors that went around about what happened to him, rumors the po-lice actually charged DeMichael with a crime, sent him to juvie behind saving Mrs. MacDonald’s life, rumors which lookin back on it now I take to be true because the boy did disappear on us for quite a while after the incident. I was a kid so it all kinda washed over me at the time. But knowing what I know now about the way the authorities do the least among us, I suspect DeMichael really did catch a case that day. The perils of black Hercules, I suppose. Moral of the story is, being a hero ain’t necessarily good for your well-being: Let the lady die. Keep your cape in the closet. Don’t try that Luke Cage shit in real life. It might just cost you a chunk out your childhood.

In them early days, we bore witness, never testified, lived and learned and forgot the lessons. Chalk it up to nigga shit and humanity if you need to and charge it to the game. The crackhead came and went. Mrs. MacDonald took a week off to heal from her injuries and then she returned, same as ever, still our favorite teacher despite her weird white girl ways. Business returned to usual. Even DeMichael would be back around eventually, bigger and badder than before, and quieter and less playful, too. But I never did meditate much on it. The world was simple then, as was Copeland Born. The po-lice and our principal were bad. And so was crack. And to mess with black Hercules was to mess with your very life.

Keenan Norris’s work has appeared in Oakland Noir, Los Angeles Review of Books, BOOM: A Journal of California and popmatters.com. He serves as a guest editor for the Oxford African-American Studies Center and Words, Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture. His books include By the Lemon Tree (Nomadic Press, 2018), Brother and the Dancer (Heyday Books, 2013) and Luster (Goliad Press, 2019), which will be published later this year.

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