Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.
Being biracial means, at least for Davon Loeb, feeling out of one’s depth in two worlds, lacking even the shelter of a home that most of us take for granted. In an odyssey that stretches from a cramped apartment in north Jersey, to South Jersey’s Pinelands, to Alabama, Davon Loeb shares the passionate, gritty details of his journey to self-discovery.
Our knees were metronomes tapping the air. And our fingers were drumbeats against backseats. And our elbows drove into each other’s soft stomach tissue. And whoever farted first, would have to grab the door handle before the others balled fists, and punched legs. And the one designated-driver — who checked his rear-view and side-mirrors every sixty seconds — who also vowed on his life to his parents after borrowing their car that he wouldn’t have a sip of alcohol, didn’t have a sip of alcohol — while the rest of us were drunken wild dogs howling at the moon — where the three of us in the backseat, passed and bobbled a bottle of Jack and a warm Coca-Cola. And this was the place before the place — before fire pit parties — where teenagers by the dozens, in our parents’ cars and trucks, parked in the deep forgotten woods. The place where John McPhee said — the Pine Barrens are dark backlands — Hog Hollow, Wharton Tract, Indian Mills. This is where we hid — where we found ourselves lost. And after steering off into the night — from the asphalt, with no pavement markers or street signs or streetlights — or cell phone service — we tunneled into that fire pit party, however many uncharted and undeveloped acres of pineland — and idled our cars, and blared our music — and no one could hear us. And while the fire grew, the embers licking the wood flanks and splitting what once was whole — we, like those embers, slipped and disappeared — and even the thousands of stars above us that tried to keep watch, couldn’t see us.
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Somewhere near the Mason-Dixon Line, close to nothing much — a Wawa, Johnny’s Farm, Smith’s General Store, Carranza Memorial, and the high school where I sat in the gymnasium as red as a peregrine’s eggs — between crosshairs, and hot house tongues, and diesel and carousel and steam — and where their heads were ready to blow, like twenty-gauged loaded barrels. But also in that gymnasium, one of the two of us could jump, definitely higher than the other, maybe higher than the backboard — and when he grabbed the rim, he could hang there, until the crowd roared. And that one was the varsity starter — look at him go. His arms, almost elastic — stretching from one side of the court, to the other, sending assists from under the legs and behind the back. Give him the ball; I bet he’ll make it. He can run. Boy, look at him run after that ball. Steal that ball. Shoot. Though I was the other one, not playing basketball. And they watched me like a watchful mob — the heavy-duty Carhartt jackets, canvas dungarees, thick-treaded high-ankle boots — uniformed and still at war — camouflaged out in the open, eyes like deep mudded burials — eyes bonewhite — sedimentary eyes, eyes full of such history. And under those fluorescents, a basketball thuds, sneakers squeak, tracks around the three-point line, cheers, and then the silence of the buzzer-beater, like the silence when cement sets, like how muscles tighten, like how both of our Black bodies were sweating.
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… In February, Black History Month, Mom probed me about what we were learning in school. I’d spit whatever random knowledge about Black History I knew — something about peanuts, and the Thirteenth Amendment, and Harriet Tubman, and the gist of every handout I was given. Maybe my defiance was out of spite; in some way I was saying — Mom, I do not want to be different from my classmates, those classmates who knew just as much about Black people as I knew, or pretended to know. So, I began to hate February. I hated the way Mom questioned me. I hated that I suddenly felt a spotlight in my classrooms. I hated the way I became something obviously different from the other kids. As a result, my grades dropped. I kept my head down, doodled, tried to escape whatever lesson — go to the bathroom, roam the halls, and then was sent to the principal’s office or to the guidance counselor, and there, questioned about my recent decline in attitude and work ethic — what’s wrong Davon? Though, I never gave them an answer, at least not a real one. I was too embarrassed — embarrassed to say that I did not want to be Black in February. So when I got home, Mom would be at me again, fiercely reminding me what my people did for an equal education: Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. She’d say — Black people died for your future. And how dare you not take advantage of what our ancestors did for you. To be fair, I agreed with her. I believed it were all true. But we lived in a town with zero-point-nine percent Black population and ninety-six percent White population, and I felt like the accidental ink blot.
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In English class when in a reading-circle and discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, I counted each student and each paragraph to anticipate who was next to read aloud. I hoped to God it wouldn’t be me because of the sheer number of racial slurs that were like every other sentence. I searched, as if looking for a typo — anticipating one word, nigger. I swear I could feel it getting closer, as if this dorsal fin from out the pages. And then there was an irrefutable reaction towards the two-syllabic sound, like an anaphylactic trigger, deep in my gut — and a titan of a thing would be released from the innermost part of me. I couldn’t say it. I wouldn’t say it. And though I’d try to predict who would be next to read with enough time to excuse myself to the bathroom, it seemed I could never outrun it. The damn thing smelled my blood and ate me whole, every time …
Author photograph courtesy of Frank Apollonio
Excerpt from The In-Betweens. Copyright © 2018 by Everytime Press and Davon Loeb. Published by Everytime Press. Reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.
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