All American Boys
Your left! Your left! Your left-right-left! Your left! Your left! Your left-right-left!
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I left. I left. I left-left-left that wack school and that even more wack ROTC drill team because it was Friday, which to me, and basically every other person on Earth, meant it was time to party. Okay, maybe not everybody on Earth. I’m sure there was a monk somewhere on a mountain who might’ve been thinking of something else. But I wasn’t no monk. Thank God. So for me and my friends, Friday was just another word for party. Monday, Tuesday, Hump Day (because who can resist the word “hump”?), Thursday, and Party. Or as my brother, Spoony, used to say, “Poorty.” And that’s all I was thinking about as I crammed into a bathroom stall after school—partying, and how I wasn’t wanting to be in that stiff-ass uniform another minute.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wear it every day. Only on Fridays, which was what they called “uniform days.” Fridays. Of all days. Whose dumb idea was that? Anyway, I’d been wearing it since that morning—first bell is at 8:50 a.m.—for drill practice, which is pretty much just a whole bunch of yelling and marching, which is always a great experience right before sitting in class with thirty other students and a teacher either on the verge of tears or yelling for some other kid to head down to the principal’s office. Fun.
Let me make something clear: I didn’t need ROTC. I didn’t want to be part of no military club. Not like it was terrible or anything. As a matter of fact, it was actually just like any other class, except it was Chief Killabrew—funniest last name ever—teaching us all about life skills and being a good person and stuff like that. Better than math, and if it wasn’t for the drill crap and the uniform, it really would’ve just been an easy A to offset some of my Cs, even though I know my pop was trying to use it as some sort of gateway into the military. Not gonna happen. I didn’t need ROTC. But I did it, and I did it good, because my dad was pretty much making me. He’s one of those dudes who feels like there’s no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army. That’s literally how he always put it. Word for word.
“Let me tell you something, son,” he’d say, leaning in the doorway of my room. I’d be lying on my bed, doodling in my sketch pad, doing everything physically possible to not just stop drawing and jam the pencils into my ears. He’d continue, “Two weeks after I graduated from high school, my father came to me and said, ‘The only people who are going to live in this house are people I’m making love to.’ ”
“I know, Dad,” I’d moan, fully aware of what was coming next because he said it at least once a month. My father was the president of predictability, probably something he learned when he was in the army. Or a police officer. Yep, the old man went from a green uniform, which he wore only for four years—though he talks about the military like he put in twenty—to a blue uniform, which he also only wore for four years before quitting the force to work in an office doing whatever people do in offices: get paid to be bored.
“And I knew what he was trying to tell me: to get out,” Dad would drone. “But I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I didn’t really do that well in school, and well, college just wasn’t in the cards.”
“And so you joined the army, and it saved your life,” I’d finish the story for him, trying to water down my voice, take some of the sting out of it.
“Don’t be smart,” he’d say, pointing at me with the finger of fury. I never managed to take enough bite out of my tone. And trust me, I knew not to push it too far. I was just so tired of hearing the same thing over and over again.
“I’m not trying to be smart,” I’d reply, calming him down. “I’m just saying.”
“Just saying what? You don’t need discipline? You don’t need to travel the world?”
“Dad—” I’d start, but he would shut me down and barrel on.
“You don’t need a free education? You don’t need to fight for your country? Huh?”
“Dad, I—” Again, he’d cut me off.
“What is it, Rashad? You don’t wanna take after your father? Look around.” His voice would lift way higher than necessary and he’d fling his arms all over the place temper-tantrum style, pointing to the walls and windows and pretty much everything else in my room. “I don’t think I’ve done that bad. You and your brother have never had a care in the world!” Then came his favorite saying; it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had it tattooed across his chest. “Listen to me. There’s no better opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army.”
“David.” My mother’s voice would come sweeping down the hallway with just enough spice in it to let the old man know that once again, he’d pushed too hard. “Leave him alone. He stays out of trouble and he’s a decent student.” A decent student. I could’ve had straight As if I wasn’t always so busy sketching and doodling. Some call it a distraction. I call it dedication. But hey, decent was . . . decent.
Then my father’s face would soften, made mush by my mother’s tone. “Look, can you just try it for me, Rashad? Just in high school. That’s all I ask. I begged your brother to do it, and he needed it even more than you do. But he wouldn’t listen, and now he’s stuck working down at UPS.” The way he said it was as if the lack of ROTC had a direct connection to why my older brother worked at UPS. As if only green and blue uniforms were okay, but brown ones meant failure.
“That’s a good job. The boy takes care of himself, and him and his girlfriend have their own apartment. Plus he’s got all that volunteer work he does with the boys at the rec center. So Spoony’s fine,” my mother argued. She pushed my father out of the way so she could share the space in the doorway. So I could see her. “And Rashad will be too.” Dad shook his head and left the room.
That exact same conversation happened at least twenty times, just like that. So when I got to high school, I just did it. I joined ROTC. Really it’s called JROTC, but nobody says the J. It stands for the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. I joined to get my dad off my back. To make him happy. Whatever.
The point is, it was Friday, “uniform day,” and right after the final bell rang I ran to the bathroom with my duffel bag full of clothes to change out of everything green.
Springfield Central High School bathrooms were never empty. There was always somebody in there at the mirror studying whatever facial hair was finally coming in, or sitting on a sink checking their cell phone, skipping class. And after school, especially on a Friday, everybody popped in to make sure plans hadn’t been made without them knowing. The bathroom was pretty much like an extension of the locker room, where even the students like me, the ones with no athletic skill whatsoever, could come and talk about the same thing athletes talked about, without all the ass slapping—which, to me, made it an even better place to be.
“Whaddup, ’Shad?” said English Jones, making a way-too-romantic face in the mirror. Model face to the left. Model face to the right. Brush hairline with hand, then come down the face and trace the space where hopefully, one day, a mustache and beard will be. That’s how you do it. Mirror-Looking 101, and English was a master at it. English was pretty much a master at everything. He was the stereotypical green-eyed pretty boy with parents who spoiled him, so he had fly clothes and tattoos. Plus his name—his real name—was English, so he pretty much had his pick when it came to the girls. It was like he was born to be the man. Like his parents planned it that way. But, unstereotypically, he wasn’t cocky about it like you would think, which of course made the ladies and the teachers and the principal and the parents and even the basketball coach even more crazy about him. That’s right, English was also on the basketball team. The captain. The best player. Because why the hell wouldn’t he be?
“What’s good, E?” I said, giving him the chin-up nod while pushing my way into a stall. English and I have been close since we were kids, even though he was a year older than me. We were two pieces of a three-piece meal. Shannon Pushcart was the third wing, and the fries—the extra-salty add-on—was Carlos Greene. Carlos and Shannon were also in the bathroom, both leaning into the urinals but looking back at me, which, by the way, is a weird thing to do. Don’t ever look at someone else while you’re taking a piss. Doesn’t matter how well you know a person, it gets weird.
“You partying tonight at Jill’s, soldier-boy?” Carlos asked, clowning me about the ROTC thing.
“Of course I’m going. What about you? Or you got basketball practice?” I asked from inside the stall. Then I quickly followed with, “Oh, that’s right. You ain’t make the team. Again.”
“Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” Shannon gassed the joke up like he always did whenever it wasn’t about him. A urinal flushed and I knew it was him who flushed it, because Shannon was the only person who ever flushed the urinals. “I swear that’s never gonna get old,” Shannon said, laughter in his voice.
I unbuttoned my jacket—a polyester Christmas tree covered in ornaments—and threw it over the stall door.
“Whatever,” Carlos said.
“Yeah, whatever,” I shot back.
“Don’t y’all ever get tired of cracking the same jokes on each other every day?” English’s voice cut in.
“Don’t you ever get tired of stroking your own face in the mirror, English?” Carlos clapped back.
Shannon spit-laughed. “Got ’im!”
“Shut up, Shan,” English snapped. “And anyway, it’s called ‘stimulating the follicles.’ But y’all wouldn’t know nothin’ about that.”
“But E, seriously, it ain’t workin’!” from Shannon.
“Yeah, maybe your follicles just ain’t that into you!” Carlos came right behind him. By this point I was doubled over in the stall, laughing.
“But your girlfriend is,” English said, with impeccable timing. A snuff shot, straight to the gut.
“Ohhhhhhhh!” Of course, from Shannon again.
“I don’t even have no girlfriend,” Carlos said. But that didn’t matter. Cracking a joke about somebody’s girlfriend—real or imaginary—is just a great comeback. At all times. It’s just classic, like “your mother” jokes. Carlos sucked his teeth, then shook the joke off like a champ and continued, “That’s why we gotta get to this party, so I can see what these ladies lookin’ like.”
“I’m with you on that one,” English agreed. “Smartest thing you’ve said all day.”
Off went the greenish-blue, short-sleeved, button-up shirt, which I also flung across the top of the door.
“Exactly. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout,” Shannon said, way too eager. “ ‘See what these ladies lookin’ like,’ ” he mimicked Carlos, the slightest bit of sarcasm still in his voice. If I picked up on it, I knew Carlos did too.
“I can’t tell you what they’ll be lookin’ like, but I can tell you who they won’t be lookin’ at . . . you!” Carlos razzed, still on get-back from Shannon being slick and for laughing at my basketball crack. It had been at least three minutes since I made that joke, and he was still holding on to it. So petty.
“Shut up, ’Los. Everybody in here know I got more game than you. In every way,” Shannon replied, totally serious.
I kicked my foot up onto the toilet to untie my patent leather shoes. Just so you know, patent leather shoes should only be for men who are getting married. Nothing about patent leather says “war.”
“Argue about all this at the party. Just make sure y’all there. It’s supposed to be live,” English said, the sound of his footsteps moving toward the door. He and Shannon didn’t have mandatory basketball practice like usual, but were still going to the gym to shoot around because, well, that’s what they did every day. For those guys, especially English, basketball was life. English knocked on my stall twice. “Look for me when you get there, dude.”
“Later, ’Shad,” from Shannon.
“Aight, ’Shad, hit me when you on your way over,” Carlos called as the door closed behind them. Carlos grew up right down the street from me, and, like English, was a senior and therefore could drive, and therefore (again) was always my ride to the party. We smoked him with the jokes all the time because he’d tried out for the basketball team every single year, and got cut every single year, because he just wasn’t very good. But if you asked him, he was the nicest dude to ever touch a ball. What he actually was good at, though, was art, which is also why he and I got along. He wasn’t into drawing or painting, at least not in the traditional sense. He was into graffiti. A “writer.” His tag was LOS(T), and they were all over the school, and our neighborhood, and even the East Side. Whenever we were heading to a party, for him it was just another opportunity to speed around the city in his clunker, the backseat covered in paint markers and spray cans, while he pointed out some of his masterpieces.
Really they were more like our masterpieces, because I was the one who gave him some of the concepts for where and how to write his tag. For instance, on the side of the neighborhood bank, I told him he should bomb it in money-green block letters. And on the door of the homeless shelter I suggested gold regal letters. And on the backboard of a basketball hoop at the West Side court, I suggested he write it in gang script. I never had the heart to do any actual tagging. I mentioned how my father was, right? Right. Plus Carlos was a pro at it. He knew how to control the nozzle and minimize the drip to get clean tags. Like, perfect. I never really told him, just because that wasn’t something we did, but I loved them. All of them.
* * *
When I walked out of that stall a few minutes later, I was a different person. It was like the reverse of Clark Kent running into the phone booth and becoming Superman, and instead was like Superman running into the booth and becoming a hopefully much cooler Clark Kent, even though I guess Superman might’ve been more comfortable in the cape and tight-ass red underwear than an ROTC uniform. But not me. No cape (and for the record, no tight-ass red underwear). I stepped out as regular Rashad Butler: T-shirt, sneakers that I had to perform a quick spit-clean on, and jeans that I pulled up, then sagged down just low enough to complete the look. My brother had given me this sweet leather jacket that he had outgrown, so I threw that on, and bam! I was ready for whatever Friday had in store for me. Hopefully, a little rub-a-dub on Tiffany Watts, the baddest girl in the eleventh grade. At least to me. Carlos always said she looked like a cartoon character. Like he could ever get her. A cartoon character? Really? Please. A cartoon character from my dreams.
But before I could get to Jill’s and get all up on Tiffany, I had a few stops to make. It was still early, and I had a couple bucks, so I could get me some chips and a pack of gum to kill the chip-breath. Can’t get girls with the dragon in your mouth. But other than that I was flat broke, and it was never cool to party without cash, just because you always had to have something for the pizza spot—Mother’s Pizza—which everyone went to either after the party was over or when the party got shut down early, which happened most of the time. Plus, you had to have money to chip in for whoever’s gas tank was going to be getting you to and from the party, like, for instance, Carlos. So I caught a bus over to the West Side to first pick up my snacks, then meet Spoony at UPS, just a few blocks from home, so he could spot me a twenty.
The bus took forever, like it always did on Fridays. Forever. So at Fourth Street, I got off and walked the last few blocks toward Jerry’s Corner Mart, the day darkening around me—crazy how early it gets dark in the fall. Jerry’s was pretty much the everything store. They sold it all. Incense, bomber jackets, beanies, snacks, beer, umbrellas, and whatever else you needed. It was named after some dude named Jerry, even though nobody named Jerry ever worked there. Jerry was probably some rich old white dude, chillin’ on the East Side, doing his thing with some young supermodel with fake everything on a mattress made of real money. Lotto-ticket money. Cheap-forty-ounce money. Bootleg-DVD money. My money.
I pushed the door to Jerry’s open. It chimed like it always did, and the guy behind the counter looked up like he always did, then stepped out from behind the counter, like he always did.
“Wassup, man,” I said. He nodded suspiciously. Like he always did. There were only two other people in the store. A policeman and one other customer, back by the beer fridge. The cop wasn’t a security guard, the weaponless kind with the iron-on badges. The kind my dad tried to get my brother to apply for because they pay decent money. Nah. This cop was a cop. A real cop. And that wasn’t weird because Jerry’s was pretty much known for being an easy come-up for a lot of people. You walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. No money spent. But I never stole nothing from anywhere. Again, too scared of what my pops would do to me. Knowing him, he’d probably send me right to military school or some kind of boot camp, like Scared Straight. He’d probably say something to my mother about how my problem is that I need more push-ups in my life. Luckily, I’m just not the stealing type. But I know a lot of people who are, and there was no better playground for a thief than Jerry’s. I guess, though, after a string of hits, Jerry (whoever he is) finally decided to keep a cop on deck.
I bopped down the magazine aisle toward the back of the store, where the chips were. Right by the drinks. Grab your chips, then turn around and hit the fridge for a soda or a beer. Boom. I looked at the chip selection. Like I said, Jerry’s had everything. All the stank-breath flavors. Barbecue, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, cheddar ranch, flaming hot, and I tried to figure out which would be the one that could be most easily beaten by a stick of gum. But plain wasn’t an option. Seriously, who eats plain chips?
While I was trying to figure this out—decisions, decisions—the other person in the store, a white lady who looked like she’d left her office job early—navy-blue skirt, matching blazer, white sneakers—seemed to be dealing with the same dilemma, but with the beer right behind me. And I couldn’t blame her. Jerry’s had every kind of beer you could think of. At least it seemed that way to me. I didn’t really pay her too much mind, though. I figured she was just somebody who probably had a long week at work, and wanted to crack a cold brew to get her weekend started. My mother did that sometimes. She’d pop the cap off a beer and pour it in a wineglass so she could feel better about all the burping, as if there’s a classy way to belch. This lady looked like the type who would do something like that. The type of lady who would treat herself to beer and nachos when her kids were gone to their father’s for the weekend.
Now, here’s what happened. Pay attention.
I finally picked out my bag of chips—barbecue, tasty, and easily beatable by mint. That settled, I reached in my back pocket for my cell phone to let Spoony know I was on my way. Damn. Left it in my ROTC uniform. So I set my duffel bag on the floor, squatted down to unzip it, the bag of chips tucked under my arm. At the moment the duffel was open, the lady with the beer stepped backward, accidentally bumping me, knocking me off balance. Actually, she didn’t really bump me. She tripped over me. I thrust one hand down on the floor to save myself from a nasty face-plant, sending the bag of chips up the aisle, while she toppled over, slowly, trying to catch her balance, but failing and falling half on me and half on the floor. The bottle she was holding shattered, sudsy beer splattering everywhere.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” the lady cried.
And before I could get myself together, and tell her that it was okay and that I was okay, and to make sure she was okay, the guy who worked at Jerry’s who everyone knew wasn’t Jerry, shouted, “Hey!” making it clear things were not okay. At first, I thought he was yelling at the lady on some you-broke-it-you-bought-it mess, and I was about to tell him to chill out, but then I realized that he was looking at my open duffel and the bag of chips lying in the aisle. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“Me?” I put my finger to my chest, confused.
The cop perked up, slipping between me and the clerk to get a better look. But he wasn’t looking at me at all. Not at first. He was looking at the lady, who was now on one knee dusting off her hands.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” the officer asked, concerned.
“Yes, yes, I’m—”
And before she could finish her sentence, the sentence that would’ve explained that she had tripped and fell over me, the cop cut her off. “Did he do something to you?”
Again, “Me?” What the hell was he talking about? I zipped my duffel bag halfway because I knew that I would have to leave the store very soon.
“No, no, I—” The lady was now standing, clearly perplexed by the question.
“Yeah, he was trying to steal those chips!” the clerk interrupted, shouting over the cop’s shoulder. Then, fixing his scowl back on me, he said, “Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you were trying to do? Isn’t that what you put in your bag?”
Whaaaaa? What was going on? He was accusing me of things that hadn’t even happened! Like, he couldn’t have been talking to me. I wanted to turn around to check and make sure there wasn’t some other kid standing behind me, stuffing chips in his backpack or something, but I knew there wasn’t. I knew this asshole was talking to . . . at . . . about . . . me. It felt like some kind of bad prank.
“In my bag? Man, ain’t nobody stealing nothing,” I explained, getting back to my feet. My hands were already up, a reflex from seeing a cop coming toward me. I glanced over at the lady, who was now slowly moving away, toward the cookies and snack cake aisle. “I was just trying to get my phone out my bag when she fell over me—” I tried to explain, but the policeman shut me down quick.
“Shut up,” he barked, coming closer.
“Wait, wait, I—”
“I said shut up!” he roared, now rushing me, grabbing me by the arm. “Did you not hear me? You deaf or something?” He led me toward the door while walkie-talkie-ing that he needed backup. Backup? For what? For who?
“No, you don’t understand,” I pleaded, unsure of what was happening. “I have money right here!” With my free hand, I reached into my pocket to grab the dollar I had designated to pay for those stupid chips. But before I could even get my fingers on the money, the cop had me knotted up in a submission hold, my arms twisted behind me, pain searing up to my shoulders. He shoved me through the door and slammed me to the ground. Face-first. Hurt so bad the pain was a color—white, a crunching sound in my ear as bones in my nose cracked. After he slapped the cuffs on me, the metal cutting into my wrists, he yanked at my shirt and pants, searching me. I let out a wail, a sound that came from somewhere deep inside. One I had never made before, coming from a feeling I had never felt before.
My initial reaction to the terrible pain was to move. Not to try to escape, or resist, but just . . . move. It’s like when you stub your toe. The first thing you do is throw yourself on the bed or jump around. It was that same reflex. I just needed to move to hopefully calm the pain. But moving wasn’t a good idea because every time I flipped and flapped on the pavement, with every natural jerk, the cuffs seemed to tighten, and worse, I caught another blow. A fist in the kidney. A knee in the back. A forearm to the back of the neck.
“Oh, you wanna resist? You wanna resist?” the cop kept saying, pounding me. He asked as if he expected me to answer. But I couldn’t. And if I could’ve, I would’ve told him that I didn’t want to resist. Plus, I was already in cuffs. I was already . . . stuck. The people on the street watching, their faint murmurs of “Leave him alone” becoming white noise—they knew I didn’t want to resist. I really, really didn’t. I just wanted him to stop beating me. I just wanted to live. Each blow earthquaked my insides, crushing parts of me I had never seen, parts of me I never knew were there. “Fuckin’ thugs can’t just do what you’re told. Need to learn how to respect authority. And I’m gonna teach you,” he taunted, almost whispering in my ear.
There was blood pooling in my mouth—tasted like metal. There were tears pooling in my eyes. I could see someone looking at me, quickly fading into a watery blur. Everything was sideways. Wrong. My ears were clogged, plugged by the pressure. All I could make out was the washed-out grunts of the man leaning over me, hurting me, telling me to stop fighting, even though I wasn’t fighting, and then the piercing sound of sirens pulling up.
My brain exploded into a million thoughts and only one thought at the same time—