Contributing editor Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel Long Division, of which this is an excerpt, and the essay collection How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He is an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College.
I thought to myself that if ever there was a time to bring my Serena Williams sentence game to the nation, this was it. With all that still water in his eyes, LaVander Peeler was in no shape to win, or even compete. I figured he’d miss his first sentence, or maybe he wouldn’t even try, and then he’d have to sit on that stage for two long hours, with drowning red eyeballs, watching me give those fools that work.
“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV.
“Before we begin, we’d like our prayers to go out to the family of Baize Shephard. As you all know, Baize is a young honor-roll student who disappeared a few weeks ago in the woods of Melahatchie, Mississippi. We will be flashing pictures of Baize periodically throughout the night for those of you watching live in your homes. If you have any information that might help in the investigation, please alert your local authorities. Let us take a moment of silence for Baize Shephard.”
“LaVander Peeler,” the announcer resumed, “is our first contestant. I’m sure most of you know that LaVander tied for first place in the state of Mississippi competition with our second contestant, Citoyen Coldson.” Seemed weird that we were going to be first and second. “LaVander Peeler, your first word is ‘lascivious.’”
LaVander Peeler stood up with his balled fists at his side. He stepped to the microphone and looked down at his feet.
“If lascivious photographs of Amber Rose were found on Mr. White’s office computer,” LaVander began, “then the odds are higher than the poverty rate in the Mississippi Delta that Mr. Jay White would still keep his job at the college his great-great-grandfather founded.”
LaVander Peeler walked right back to his seat, fists still clenched. No etymology. No pronunciation. The crowd and the contestants started clap- ping in spurts, not understanding what had just happened. I was clapping the skin off my hands when they called my name. I stepped to the microphone, pumping my fist and looking at LaVander Peeler, who still had his head tucked in his chest.
“Citoyen, we’d like to welcome you, too.” “Thanks. My name is City.”
“Your first word, Citoyen, is...‘niggardly.’”
Without uttering a syllable, I ran back to our dressing room and got my brush. “I just think better with this in my hand,” I told the voice when I got back.
“No problem. ‘Niggardly,’ Citoyen.”
“For real? It’s no problem?” I looked out into the white lights hoping somebody would demand they give me another word—not because I didn’t know how to use it, but because it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.
“Etymology, please?” I asked him.
“From Old Norse nigla.”
“Nigla? That’s funny. Am I pronouncing the word right? ‘Nigga’dly.’ Pronunciation, please.”
“Nig-gard-ly,” he said. “Citoyen, you have 30 more seconds.”
I kept squinting, trying to see out beyond the lights, beyond the stage. “Okay. Y’all have time limits at nationals, huh? I know the word, but it’s just that my insides hurt when you say that word,” I whispered into the mic. “And I wish it didn’t but it does.”
“Is that your sentence, Citoyen?” the voice asked.
I sucked my teeth and sped up my brushing. “You know that ain’t my sentence.”
“Citoyen. You have ten seconds.”
I slowed my brushing down and angled myself toward LaVander Peeler. “Um, okay, I hate LaBander Veeler,” I said.
“Is this your sentence, Citoyen?”
“No. Um, I truly hate LaBander Veeler sometimes more than most white folks in Mississippi hate President Obama and I wonder if LaBander Veeler should behave like the exceptional African-American boy he was groomed to be in public by his UPS-working father, or the, um, weird, brilliant, niggardly joker he really is when we’re the only ones watching.”
I brought the brush to my waist.
The judges looked at me for about ten seconds without moving before they turned toward each other. The head judge covered the microphone and started whispering to the other judges.
“Noooo, Citoyen,” he finally said. “We are so, so sorry. That is not the correct, appropriate, or dynamic usage of ‘niggardly’ in a sentence. An example of correct, dynamic usage would be, Perspiration covered the children who stared incessantly at the woman in the head wrap since she insisted on being so niggardly with the succulent plums and melons. Please have a seat.”
I started brushing the skin on my forearm, then pointed my brush toward the light.
That’s all I could see.
I walked toward my seat, then turned around and headed back to the microphone. “I mean, even if I used the word right, I still would’ve lost. You see that, don’t you?” The buzzer went off again. I threw my brush toward the light and the buzzer kept going off. “That’s messed up, man,” I told them. “What was I supposed to do?” I saw Cindy offstage to the right, motioning for me to sit down.
“Forget you, Cindy! Look at LaVander Peeler over there crying. I hate that dude. Naw, I mean really hate. I be sitting at home sometimes praying that someone will sew his butt hole tight so he could almost die from being so backed up. I’m serious, but look at him over there with tears in his eyes, looking crazy as hell on TV. It don’t make no sense.
“Now look at them Mexicans.” The buzzer went off again. I turned around and looked at the Mexican girl on my row. “You think it’s hard for y’all in Arizona? Look at us. Look at us. They do us like this in our own state. Ain’t nothing these white folks can do to make you feel like me and LaVander Peeler feel right now. They scared of y’all taking their jobs. They scared of us becoming Obama. I mean, do y’all even call yourself Mexican? Ain’t this a competition for Americans? Peep how they made slots for Mexi- cans but you don’t see no slots for no Africans or no Indians. Where the Indian and African players at? Shit.”
Stephanie stood up, stretched her back, walked right up to my face, kicked me in my kneecap, and said, “Please sit your fat ass down.” She whispered in my ear, “I’m trying to help you out. Seriously. You have no clue how you’re playing yourself right now.”
The buzzer went off again.
I put one hand on top of my belly blubber and started going over the top of my head with the palm of my other hand.
Short, fluid strokes.
“I ain’t playing myself. Shoot. What was I supposed to do?” I said to everyone one more time. “Bet you know my name next time. And I bet you won’t do this to another black boy from Mississippi. Shout out to my Jackson confidants: Toni, Jannay, Octavia, Jerome, and all my country nig- gas: Shay, Gunn, and even MyMy down in Melahatchie just trying to stay above water. I got y’all. President Obama, you see how they do us down here? You see?”
With that, I walked off, right past my chair, past the Mexican girl who kicked me, directly into the backstage area. Then I turned back around and walked back to the middle of that stage.
“And fuck white folks!” I yelled at the light and, for the first time all night, thought about whether my grandma was watching. “My name is City. And if you don’t know, now you know, nigga!”
During the first mile of the walk home, I flipped-flopped looking at the cover of Long Division and watching my feet miss most of the huge cracks in the asphalt on Capital Street. Every time I stepped on a crack, I thought of all the folks in Mississippi and the Southern Region who saw the contest live on TV and all the people around the globe who might see it later. The second mile I walked on the sidewalk down North State Street, and every time I missed a crack, I thought of the folks who would hear about what I did on the internet. I figured that everything I did would be sent in Facebook links with messages like, “Jade, clink that link girl. I just can’t.”
Everyone I knew would see what I did. Worst of all, Grandma would see it and be completely embarrassed when she went to church next Sunday. Everyone would look at her and say stuff like, “It’s okay, Sister Coldson. Your grandbaby ain’t know no better.”
I walked in the apartment and sat down on the edge of Mama’s bed. I wondered if Mama made it to the contest or if someone called her cell and told her what happened. Either way, Mama was probably on her way home to give me a legendary back beating. She would cry while doing it, too, I figured, and think she failed. But maybe for a second, I thought, Mama would understand that I was completely stuck on that stage.
One way to curb the back beating I was going to get was to write down my version of what happened. If I wrote about it, Mama would think I learned something from it. The only problem was that Mama took our used laptop to work with her, so I wrote on a blank page in Long Division.
After writing for about 30 minutes, I went back in the garage and glanced at the clock. It was 8:50. The competition was supposed to be over at 9:00. I didn’t want to but couldn’t help turning on the TV.
One of the Katrina twins was on his way back to his seat and the crowd was doing that under-excited clapping which meant he couldn’t appropriately use the word he was given in a sentence.
“Great try, Patrick,” the voice said. “You’ve represented New Orleans, city of refugees, exquisitely tonight, and you can place no worse than third if our final two contestants get their words right.”
With that, the Mexican girl walked onstage.
“Stephanie,” the voice said, “if you can use this next word correctly in a dynamic sentence and our last finalist misses, you’ll be our new champion. Thank you for blessing our stage with your presence.”
The camera panned the rest of the competitors sitting in the back- ground who were looking either sad and salty or just happy to be there. And sure as shit, there was LaVander Peeler to Stephanie’s right, head still down, fists still balled up.
“Stephanie, your word is ‘cacodoxy.’” Lord have mercy. I’d never heard that word before. And when the spelling popped up on screen, I felt terrible for her. Stephanie went through etymology and pronunciation.
She held her hands behind her back. Then she started tugging on her ponytail and tapping her left foot on the front of her right foot. She stood still with her hands right on her hips and started looking up at the ceiling.
“Fifteen seconds, Stephanie.”
“You people really do think you’re slick,” she said loud enough so we could hear it, and started her sentence. “The man behind the desk is not only annoying, he also suffers from keen halitosis and severe cacodoxy, causing him to make my brother and me put our names in some quotations.”
The buzzer sounded. “No, Stephanie, I’m sorry. ‘Cacodoxy,’ a noun, is an erroneous doctrine, like ‘Up with hope and down with dope.’”
“Are you serious?” she asked without leaving immediately. “You won’t even use it in a sentence?” She sat down with her arms folded tight against her tummy, and you could see her mouth the words “That was so fucked up” before tucking her head into her chest.
Work, I thought. She gave them that work!
“Our last competitor is, surprise, surprise, LaVander Peeler,” the voice said.
LaVander Peeler walked up to the microphone the same way he had before his first word, “lascivious.” “You can do it,” I said to the screen. “I’m sorry I left you.”
“Seems like a lifelong dream might actually come true for this special young man,” the voice said. “LaVander Peeler, if you use the next word cor- rectly, Mississippi will be proud to call you our National Can You Use That Word in a Sentence champion. LaVander Peeler, your final word is...”
LaVander Peeler raised his head and looked right into the light.
In the background, Stephanie shot her head up, too. LaVander Peeler didn’t blink at all. Again, he asked for no etymology. He balled his fists tighter and watched the light. I could not believe what was happening. “Don’t do it,” I said to the screen. But I wasn’t sure what it was I didn’t want him to do. And neither was LaVander Peeler.
He opened his lips slightly and stood there in front of the light. Watching his parted lips shaking made me think I understood what LaVander Peeler was feeling and doing on that stage. Since the first day I met LaVander Peeler in eighth grade, he made it clear that he would always consider all things—including ways of being an exceptional African American, ways of winning all contests, and ways of using language to shield him from being just another black boy. Considering all things prepared him to win the regional contests, but it didn’t prepare him for what it would feel like to not be given a chance to really lose. I didn’t get it until that second. It wasn’t at all that we were there just for decoration, like LaVander Peeler Sr. said. LaVander Peeler and I, or LaVander Peeler or I, were there to win the contest. They’d already decided before the contest even began that one of us needed to win. The only way they could feel good about themselves was if they let us win against the Mexican kids, because they didn’t believe any of us could really compete. Yeah, we were all decoration in a way. But it was like LaVander Peeler, specifically, was being thrown a surprise birthday party by a group of white people who didn’t know his real name or when his birthday actually was.
Maybe LaVander Peeler thought I understood we were all being given an unearned birthday party, and that I did what I did on stage to show other chubby black Mississippi boys with contentious demeanors that dignity and pride and keeping it one hundred were more important than being decoration.
But it wasn’t.
That’s what I realized, looking at LaVander Peeler shaking on that stage. In order to be the first Mississippi black boy with a head full of waves to win a national contest in anything, you had to actually win—not make a speech about why the contest wasn’t fair after you lost.
“‘Chitterlings,’” he began. LaVander Peeler paused again and looked behind him, then hard to his right, then turned hard to his left. He looked back into the light, tears finally streaming down his face, and said, “Citoyen’s grandmother couldn’t understand why the young sibling from up north refused to eat the wonderful chitterlings upon finding out they came from the bowels of a big-eyed hog named Charles.”
No bell went off for a good eight seconds. Then, out of nowhere, bal- loons fell from the top of the stage. Popguns went off! That “Harlem Shake” song played. Blizzards of confetti fell in front of the eye of the camera as Cindy and two of the judges walked onstage with their hands over their heads.
The voice behind the light screamed, “LaVander Peeler, you have done the unbelievable! Times are a-changing and you, you exceptional young Mississippian, are a symbol of the American Progress. The past is the past and today can be tomorrow. LaVander Peeler, do you have anything to say? Would you like to thank your state, your governor, Jesus Christ, or your family for this blessing?” QUOTE
“...who entered the kitchen like a monster and asked,” LaVander Peeler said, “‘Why are y’all eating all my children?’”
The music completely faded out and the balloons and confetti stopped coming down. Cindy held the trophy right next to LaVander Peeler and he said it all again: “Citoyen’s grandmother couldn’t understand why the young sibling from up north refused to eat the wonderful chitterlings upon finding out they came from the bowels of a big-eyed hog named Charles who entered the kitchen like a monster and asked, ‘Why are y’all eating all my children?’” he said. “I’m saying that ‘chitterlings’ are the children of hogs. All things considered, I’m saying it literally, too, not metaphorically. Chitterlings are the children of hogs.”
“But you already used it correctly, LaVander Peeler,” the voice said. “And you did it quite dynamically, I might add.”
“All things considered, I’m saying that chitterlings are the children of hogs.” With that, he closed his teary eyes and tucked his head into his chest. The crowd gasped. And I did, too.
But now what was going to happen? Would there be a three-way tie? Would the three finalists have to spell again? Cindy slyly did the glide off-stage with the trophy. LaVander Peeler went and sat back in his seat. The camera stopped focusing on LaVander Peeler and instead just panned all the competitors.
Then out of the left side of my screen, LaVander Sr. marched out and yanked his son by the crease of the elbow off that stage. A few seconds later, a woman I assumed was Stephanie’s grandma came up onstage and started pointing at Stephanie and telling her to get up and go. Eventually, Stephanie got up on her own, with her arms still folded, her head still tucked in her chest, looking at the ground. She walked off the stage, but not before she threw a finger sign right at the camera.
A few seconds later, the voice behind the light walked right across the front of the camera and onto the stage. The voice bent and whispered something in the ear of the twin from New Orleans who was also in the finals. A few seconds later, one of the twins was holding LaVander Peeler’s trophy over his head with one hand, and the other twin joined him with both of their backs to the crowd. The twins let everyone know that as crazy as the night had been, the trophy was definitely in the hands of its rightful owners, Katrina’s Finest.
I turned the television off and sat on the floor of the garage with one of Mama’s old brushes. I wanted to get nice with myself at the thought of something I knew. But there was too much I didn’t know, like when Mama was coming home, how hard I’d get my back beat, if LaVander Peeler would be my best friend now, how folks would talk to us all around Jackson, what made me say those things to the Mexican brother and sister, and how La- Vander Peeler collected the courage to go from Fade Don’t Fade to that adolescent black superhero on stage.
I knew I could never ever hate LaVander Peeler again after that night. And crazy as it sounds, that was enough to make me feel good about throwing the brush under the bed, getting nice with myself like a true champ, and writing my story until Mama came home to tell me why what I did was wrong for me, wrong for black people yet to be born, and wrong for the globe. Mama would tell me this, I figured, while crying and giving me the legendary back beating of my life.
And after the back beating, I’d tell her not to cry. I’d tell her that I understood why I deserved the welts on my arms and back. And when she was quiet and gently rubbing the welts up and down, I’d turn around and say, “Mama, all things considered, I feel like I love LaVander Peeler.”
But when Mama finally came home, none of what I thought would happen really happened. I didn’t get beaten. Mama didn’t even tell me what I did wrong. Quiet as it’s kept, she barely said a word to me. She just folded up in her bed and kept crying on the phone to my grandma, saying, “I’m so sorry, Mama. I’m so, so sorry.” And since Mama didn’t whup my back, I didn’t tell her I felt like I loved LaVander Peeler, not just because it might make her remember that she didn’t whup my back, but because I didn’t actually know what I meant. I didn’t think my body wanted to kiss or even grind up on LaVander Peeler. But I also knew that no one on earth could make me happier or sadder than that boy either.
That felt like love to me.
The phone kept ringing the next morning and Mama told me not to answer it. I wanted to ask her why it was ringing so much and why I couldn’t answer it but I’d made it this far without a back beating and I didn’t want to chance it.
Forty minutes later, we were headed to the bus station. Mama didn’t say a word to me the whole trip. She bought my ticket when we got to the bus station and waited in her car until I got on the bus.
Then, just like that, Mama left.
No “I love you.” No “See you later.” No “Behave yourself.” I was headed to Melahatchie, Mississippi, for four days to stay with Grandma.
I walked all the way to the back of the bus and person after person, no matter whether they were old, young, black, brown, clean, or dusty, was messing with their cell phones and bootleg iPods. Some folks were talking. Some folks were listening. But most were texting. I walked to the back of the bus hating all the sentences I imagined those folks writing, hearing, and reading, and I pulled out Long Division.
Five minutes after the bus took off, I got a tap on my right shoulder. I turned around and one of the girls who had been two seats in front of me was now sitting right next to me, and her friend was sitting in the seat in front of me. Both were looking me dead in my face. They were cute up close, but cute in two different ways.
The cuter one was slightly sleepy-eyed. I liked that. She looked at the cover of Long Division and said, “Who wrote that book?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “We going to Waveland,” she said. “Where you going?” “Melahatchie, to stay with my grandma.” “You heard of that girl they call Baize Shephard?” she asked me. “That’s her real name,” I told her. “They don’t just ‘call’ her that. She lives next to my grandma.” “You the boy from the game last night, right? The one with the brush who was cutting up on them white folks?” “Yeah, I guess.”
Sleepy Eyes looked at her friend in front of us. “Told you that he was the one with the brush,” she said. “The one from that private school.”
I almost forgot the new brush was in my hand. I started brushing to help me with my nerves. “Fannie Lou Hamer ain’t no private school,” I told her.
“This girl right here,” she pointed to her friend, whose eyes weren’t sleepy at all. Truth be told, her eyeballs were so large and round that when you looked at her you wondered how she could ever sleep. She was wearing this muscle shirt that would’ve fit just right except her pregnant-looking belly made it cut off too soon. The girl had plenty of stretch marks on her stomach, too. As someone who had plenty of stretch marks himself on his biceps and waist, I always liked stretch marks on girls, even if it was on the front of their bellies.
“She told me that she wants you to holler at her,” Sleepy Eyes said. “She tweeted on her phone this morning that she think you was smart and fine, even if you heavy.”
“No, I don’t,” Stretch Marks said laughing. “I’ont think you fine. I don’t even know him. Stop lying, V!”
Sleepy Eyes just looked at Stretch Marks for a full eight seconds without saying a word. Then she looked back at me. “She told me that she wishes she could take a video with you for her Facebook with you saying one of your sentences.”
“Okay,” I told her and got next to Stretch Marks while Sleepy Eyes taped us. “My name is City,” I said into the camera phone, “and meeting these two cute girls right here on the way to Melahatchie made a day that started off sour as warm buttermilk into a day destined to taste something like a banana Slurpee.” I looked at Stretch Marks’s face and she was giggling her ass off.
“Can we touch your brush?” Sleepy Eyes said to me and put her phone in her pocket.
I handed it to her. “That’s a different brush than the one I threw at the contest.” She smelled the brush and she handed it right back.
“I get why you said what you said to that Mexican girl,” she told me. “It was funny. I just don’t think she had nothing to do with it, though. I don’t mean to drop no shade. I’m just wondering how come you didn’t go off on her brother like you went off on her.”
“I don’t even know,” I said. “That’s a good question. I said what I said because she was there, in my row, and I wanted her to feel worse than us. But...” “But you don’t know what that girl was feeling. You just didn’t even care.”
“That’s true,” I told her. “And after I left, she put in that work.”
“I would never be in one of those games but if they did me like they did you, I would have done the same thing you did,” she told me. “I would have gone off on the brother though. That would be wrong, too, but that’s what I would do. I woulda called him a li’l Mexican bitch.”
“I don’t know about all that,” I told her.
“Why you don’t know. That’s pretty much what you did. You just snapped. I saw it. Would you do anything different if you could do the game over?”
That was one of the best questions anyone ever asked me. “I guess I would have been more prepared for what they were gonna throw at me. And no matter what, I shouldn’t have never left my boy, LaVander Peeler, up there by himself.”
“Shoot. At least you internet famous now,” she said. “Is he internet famous, too? LaVander Peeler, I’m talking about.” “I don’t think so,” she said. “He was too serious to be internet famous.”
I tried to look smooth and real-life famous as Stretch Marks and Sleepy Eyes walked back to their seats. They kept looking back at me and smiling every few minutes. Sleepy Eyes’s smile made me embarrassed for her, but it also made me want to go in that stanky bus bathroom and get nice with myself.
I picked up Long Division and was reading when three white boys who looked like they were in college came from the front to the back of the bus with their camera phones ready.
One of the boys put his phone in his pocket and sat next to me. “Sorry if we’re bothering you, big guy,” he said. “It’s just that was some funny shit you did last night, man. Could I record you saying, ‘The Ron, I hate you more than LaVander Peeler?’”
“I guess I could say that,” I told the boy, and looked up at Sleepy Eyes and Stretch Marks, who were still watching me.
“Cool,” the white boy said. “And if you wouldn’t mind, could you say your name after you tell me you hate me?”
It felt like a weird thing to do, especially given what I had said about white folks at the contest, but as soon as he got his phone ready, I put my internet-famous arm around his neck, looked right into the phone held by his friend, and said, “The Ron, I hate you more than LaVander Peeler. My name is City.”
I kept looking up from Long Division on the way to Melahatchie, but Sleepy Eyes and Stretch Marks didn’t turn around and smile at me for the rest of the trip.
Not even once.