This is America, A Novel: Chapter One

Jubilance impregnated the vibe of the bar and birthed laughter. It started with the old men and women reminiscing on how simple their once complicated issues had seemed. Just as they stopped, another group, this time the just college-graduated bar-philosophers. The thick rimmed scrawny man, in the middle of the pack, had rehashed joke made by Albert Camus, “Some people talk in their sleep, lecturers talk while other people sleep.” It was a hit. The laughter reverberated. The walls were pencil point thin and the owner didn’t care about sound proofing. The connected store operated during the day, and the bar at night.

In a brown leather booth next to one of the two windows of the bar was the sole group of black people. Despite the blatant ignorance of the others and the bar, and possibly because it, when the laughter rolled to them, the group laughed twice as loud. Unlike the others there though, this group put up no illusions about who they were. One of the women wore a black shirt with white contrast lettering, “Legalize Melanin”. The woman sitting across from the one who was melanin-unapologetic wore a white hat with the odd globally accepted symbol for women, Venus. Within the circle of this symbol was a minimalist styling of the black panther fist. There were two men with them, unremarkable next to the vibrant, confident women, like crows next to peacocks. But despite the plain dress, they kept the conversation lively, accompanying jokes with claps and the occasional get out of your seat laugh.

The laughter was almost perfectly contagious. He sat alone nosing an effervescent amber cider; at last sipped the drink and then closed his eyes. In that moment he was in a desert of arid, cracked earth. The dried clay slabs of this desert dirt crumbled under his faltering step. He didn’t know where he was going. He’d sweated through his shirt and his eyes stung from the salt. Through the haze of mirage, he saw where his feet were carrying him to. His uneasy steps lengthened. In an instant he was running. Then goal was in front of him. The tree was thick like an oak but instead of bark it was adorned with strips of charcoal. The sun passed through the gaps of this hollow tree of embers and on noticing that, he reached for one of the branches. He picked the sole apple from the tree, the branch that birthed the apple crumbled into blackened dust. He took a bite.

He opened his eyes again, shook his head, and picked at the fries that had long gone cold in the basket. August ate his fries one at a time, dipping them in the once cool ranch dressing before devouring. He saw the recent-college graduated white men who were enjoying their philosophy jokes and wondered if they knew Camus had died in a car accident. August thought often that he’d share the same fate as the outsider-philosopher. He then glanced at the solitary group of black people and realized he may have been the only other person to do that. He didn’t look away though, seeing their smiles and authentic existence made August want to join them. Maybe then he could he could stop being afraid all the time. He, of course, didn’t join them but the longing tagged along as August left the bar.

Leaves from the surrounding trees sung their unnoticed song as the warm wind passed through. The lonely man noticed the feeling of the wind enveloping him for a moment. No one but August would mistake this sensation as a hug. He smiled for the first time all evening.

There was yelling. A man wearing nothing but a confederate flag came running from an alley. The orange streetlights made the blue of the rebel flag look purple, and at some points the purple was so vibrant that instead of being angry or supportive, some looked confused. As he ran he chanted, “Kick the niggers out”. No one for sure knew exactly what he meant either. Out of the city? Out of the state? No, just out of the bar. He had left the bar as soon as the group came in, and only hours later did he come back decked out like a redneck Donald Duck. Some people were so embarrassed just by proxy of color that they tried to get rid of him. They pulled him by the underarms but he squirmed enough to lose their grip. So, the crowd gathered to restrain the man.

August stood. It was a train wreck that only he had seen coming, but he didn’t warn anybody. One of the black men from earlier came out of the bar and when the man chanted “nigger” he started quickly for the flag wearing representative. In a moment that transcended a street fight into a professional boxing highlight reel, the black man August would later know as DeMarcus delivered a haymaker so violent the flag flew open, exposing genitals resting on concrete. The rebel was out cold, and lost another civil war.

First, was only the honking and passing of a car two block over. Then there was another. Before another car could pass, the crowed gutted the silence. “What just happened,” some asked among themselves and when there wasn’t a satisfying answer, they tended to the downed man. They helped him up, tired the gasoline scented flag around his waist but the man’s knees buckled and he fell again. August noticed a blue glare of someone’s phone. Someone’s calling the police, he thought. But before the anonymous front lit person could make the call, the police, somehow, was already there.

Demarcus, Red, Aniela, Dom stayed there, not in the paralysis of fear, and not in any guilt-ridden manner either. They stood justified with feet firmly planted. Why won’t they run, August asked himself. Both cops were white, and as such they addressed the fearful, panicked crowd of their kinfolk first. They mumbled, and fired insults in hushed tones. Violent. Barbaric. August knew then what would happen. He turned the opposite direction and walked with his hands in his jacket pockets. In the distance were a series of high-rise apartments each adorned with a random arrangement of both yellow incandescent lights and white LEDs, each neat box of the building as another life living a life completely disconnected to all of this. All August could think of as he heard Aniela yell, “What the fuck is he being arrest for,” was why the drunk redneck hadn’t left when he walked in. The thought was interrupted by an unrelated thought “Fuck, I have to work tomorrow.”

Slings and Arrows started as a two-person endeavor: Amber Veracruz, a once promising writer who found a passion in editing, and Deigo Valdez, who had won multiple awards but couldn’t escape that something was wrong with the publishing world. After a chance meeting online, the two decided to start a project together. A year later the literature magazine Slings and Arrows limped to life. The team steadily grew from two to five to ten, then twenty. Viewers of the magazine did not match this growth, their site settled at a few thousand viewers a month. This is not an easy task in itself but it was also not an achievement that would bring in money. In fact, no money came. Viewers grew to the upper thousands and then exponentially grew. Soon Slings and Arrows started making money, enough so that Amber and Diego no longer had to work their day jobs and could spend their daily efforts on the magazine.

Slings and Arrows became a community, a place where fringe writers could congregate and share their work. Editors working with the company would provide critique on the work and suggested points of improvement. Slings and Arrows even offered mentorships, connecting professional writers with professional-hopefuls in effect, Slings and Arrows revived a corpse of history and brought back apprenticeships. By then, Slings and Arrows bought an office building downtown. When the local media smelled the blood of the story of this company, the flocked in. Seven years ago, KVTV’s, which nobody knew what it stood for, aired a five o’clock news story about Slings and Arrows. The first segment of the story was an interview with a down-trodden boy who looked at the floor each time the reporter spoke to him. He refused to make eye contact with the camera but within the few glimpses he made to the camera, he bore the dynamics of his lonely soul. Isolation waltzed with passion, and depression mated with tranquility creating a deep cesspool that were his brown eyes. The reporter was a straight-backed blonde-haired woman, who spoke with enthusiasm through cold eyes. She asked the boy about the application process to Slings and Arrows. “You had to provide a writing sample,” he paused then looked to the ground for a moment. “There was a lot of paperwork too. I’m honestly surprised I got in.” The boy smiled to accompany the candid statement. The reporter pressed on, “How do you feel participating in this landmark program?” The boy didn’t hesitate, “In the context of years, my life is short, but in experience it is longer than it should be. Being here reminds me I’m not alone. For the first time I feel okay with calling a place home.” Just then below the kid’s face slide text reading, August Warren, age 17.

The magazine turned artist developer expected top performance from both their employees and apprentices, though this would not be obvious from the office furniture at the time. Editors of the still running magazine laid back in beach chairs and twirled pens in their hands. There were no cubicles. Office walls were dedicated to the popular artists who hosted their works on the magazine. Each wall had become a mural and they connected to tell a larger story of Slings and Arrows: they gave a damn about art. The apprenticeship lasted a year, in this time they expected artists to produce one great work and contribute to Slings and Arrows in a meaningful way. This last part was intentionally left vague so as to not limit creativity. August produced and provided nothing to Slings and Arrows. They let August stay however, because he had a knack for editing that was difficult to come by. When August left Slings and Arrows bound for college, there was no ceremony like there was for others. The company and he parted with an issue he edited entirely on his own.

During college August experimented with multiple methods of expressing himself. He painted with pastels, took up photography, and spent a great deal of time woodworking. Nothing stuck. Every pursuit became a comparison of his idealize passion of writing. It was of great relief to himself that August reunited with his love of language and graduated with a degree in the great bastard language. It was also a great convenience that when he started looking for jobs, Slings and Arrows was looking for a slush reader. August applied and was accepted to work there within two weeks. Those who didn’t know August congratulated him, those close to them knew something was the matter but didn’t know what. He developed a persistent headache that got stronger with any attempt of medicine, he vomited for the first two night after getting news back of his employment, and when he stood August’s knees would buck sending him back to the floor where he was already spending most of his time. This onslaught forced August to admit he was horrified of working there again. Between his apprenticeship and his current employment, Slings and Arrows transfigured from is corporate-lax image. The lawn chairs where editors worked from were replaced with desks and undersized mesh chairs, the hybrid open and closed spaces closed off completely. Cubicles sectioned off space like those seeking land in the Gold Rush and each of the office forty niners were looking for the gold of tranquility. Thus, the maze of cubicles took over. Slings and Arrows paid for artists lodging and food for the duration of their apprentice phase. This apprenticeship system was replaced wholesale with unpaid internship positions. The works of art that the walls of the original building had become was painted light blue, and then white, leaving no semblance of the artistic value that had once adorned it. These changes came from a simple consequence. Amber and Diego sold the magazine and connected ideas to a larger company so they could pursue other interests. That believed those who bought it out would keep the intent intact. Despite Amber and Diego both publishing articles in separate newspapers about “the monstrosity” that was the media company, nothing changed. Slings and Arrows had hunted its uniqueness to extinction.

When August applied he knew the state of the magazine, but he was more interested in finding a job that paid at all. He had already begged for so much along his way, finding an actual paying job was the least he could do.

August leaned back in a chair holding a pen. He squinted at a binder clip bound novel moving it closer to his face as time went on. With eyes suddenly wide, he brought his pen to the page fiercely underlining a sentence and carving an “X” of an entire paragraph. He never did this with a red pen. He remembered his own inadequacy when he saw the it. Instead he marked with blue and orange. Blue highlighted grammar mistakes and accompanying correction and orange corrected logical structure and the ordering and usage of concepts. Orange was the quality all things that make a novel great but which many didn’t pay mind. One of the drawers in August’s desk was filled with orange and blue pens.

When August took the position as slush reader, he struggled with the pace demanded of him. Haste paralyzed August. He couldn’t recall which manuscripts he’d read or why he rejected them. Within two weeks he had changed his rate from three to four novels a week to a single one. He took to pens and notes soon after. It was his own naivety that made him think this slowing down was appropriate to do without speaking with his boss Daniel. By the end of the third week, Daniel approached August.

Daniel looked no older than August, whose face already betrayed him by making him look five years younger. Slicking back his already gel-slicked hair, Daniel spoke. “August, I know you’re new around here but we have these things called quotas,” Daniel paused making sure August understood. “And it seems to us all that you aren’t meeting them. I was sent to figure out what you were doing instead of your job.”

Nodding and handing Daniel a manuscript filled with crafted notes of improvement, August said, “This.” August never made eye contact. Daniel, looked deeply at the stack of pages, read the first page, then threw the culmination of another human being’s work in the trash. “You can’t waste your work on people like this, there are more hacks than there is talent.” He walked away. The unsaid expectation, was that August up his quota, that he needed to stop trying to improve the work he was reading. For a few hours, August did just that. He read quickly and made knee jerk reactions on the first few paragraphs. By lunch the manuscript beckoned him again. By the end of the day, the manuscript was in his backpack. He spent the next few days finishing his edits and sent it back to the writer. He had forgotten about it, and had regrettably adjusted to the impersonal pace Slings and Arrows wanted him to do. Then by luck, he picked up an edited copy of the manuscript he had edited just weeks before. He handed it to Daniel and didn’t say a word. Daniel, after running his greasy fingers through his hair, thumbed through the first few pages and smiled. “This is great, good find.” Before August could return to his new normal, he was called into the office. Daniel made August tell his bosses the process he had gone through to develop that manuscript. By the end of the day, August was allowed to work on just one work a week and he would work with those with promise in developing a better manuscript.

Despite this minute renown, August worked alone and no one ever bothered to stop to talk with him. Every now and again one of his coworkers would tap him on the shoulder to talk about work, but never about his personal life. Which is why, when Megan the magazine designer tapped him on the shoulder he jumped out of his chair.

Sorry, he repeated but she had already moved on. “We’re trying to start a team luncheon sort of thing. Come join us and chat.”

It was an absurd situation. When Megan met August six months before, her culture overshadowed her kindness. She was “pleased to meet him” and asked him the gamut of introductory questions, but it was the Q and A’s end that illustrated her upbringing, of which August should have been long accustomed to. After feeling approximately acquainted she extended her hand to meet August’s loose curls and patted. Saying nothing, August walked away. As he walked he still felt the petting, he was an animal in a zoo and she was sufficiently interested in how this exhibit of mixed-race curly hair felt, so she did what anyone at a zoo would. No matter where he went in the following months he felt the spectral stroking, his own nerves rebelled and echoed that sensation, but grew steadily benign. When the feeling subsided, he was left wondering what society would rear somebody to dehumanize a person that way. And now he was going to lunch with the spawn of such a society.

The local news droned and the murmur of fellow lunchers played the harmony, creating a fog of sound. The station finished a piece on growing unemployment of recent college graduates. The newscaster, a near-middle aged white man with blonde hair attempted a cultural critique, a practice lauded by his own generation, and argued that recent college graduates lacked work ethic. A red banner streaming across the screen reading, “Breaking” interrupted the segment. The station rehashed the events with the confederate and DeMarcus where they called the confederate, “a hard-working man with a loving family”, and described DeMarcus as a trouble child who could never escape the shadow of the crimes he committed in adolescence.

The news reached August’s table and all but Quinta and himself wrenched their necks to get a view of a too-small TV mounted on a too-far away column. They squinted, and after a while they turned their chairs to stop their owl-like distortions; they leaned forward in part to see better but also because the story of the hard-working white man and the violent black man affirmed to them that a white man with a loving family could not be racist. When the reporting stopped they were frozen like lily toned gargoyles. Life returned slowly and they turned their chairs back to eat. August observed the spectacle as an anthropologist would for a foreign culture and he wondered if there was any meaning behind their careened necks. Maybe, he hypothesized, it was their way of signaling others to pay attention, but he couldn’t get further in thought because he felt a Quinta staring at him from across the table. She had a smirk on her face and she scrunched her thick eyebrows. Anybody with sense knew that this was the look of “can you believe this?” August nodded at her but then he looked away making conscious effort not to look at her again. When the rest of the lunch group resumed eating a diaphanous silence filled the void. Despite the continuing drone of the television, August heard clothes ruffling and the watery crunch of forks stabbing into fresh salad.

Slicing through the silence was Jason who asked a question in the form of a mumble. He sat in the middle of the pack and some must have made out his intelligible uttering because two others around him nodded with him. August suddenly realized what the question was as more people turned to look at him, and to prove that August’s suspicion was correct Jason Nemitz asked again, “What do you think about all of this?” Nods and hums accompanied this question.

Their eyes muddled August Winslow’s thoughts but before he could feign disinterest in the topic a woman, August’s boss pressed deeper, “As a black man in America, how does this make you feel?” This question prompted a multitude of others, as if the woman’s question was somehow profound or just now expressed in those words for the first time. The cacophonous questions wouldn’t cease. Suddenly he was drowning. The ocean engulfed him with a cold embrace. August fondly remembered this feeling from his time on the Pacific coast. August thought about how far he would have to swim to get back to the surface and it seemed to him it would take days to breathe again. The vast blue darkened slowly around him and first he thought it was because he was fainting, which to him would be a welcomed death. Instead it was the blackening of the sea because even light could only travel so far. He started to shake and scratched at his throat as if it would help him breath but neither death nor further promise of life accepted him. His collared shirt seeped his stench and it was so damp it stuck to him but the others paid him no mind. When he had come to, August realized they had turned to Quinta who handled their ignorance much more deftly and confidently. She did so with such authority that she supplanted her beliefs into August. It was as if she had been voicing an unsymbolized world in his mind. It dawned then on August, as it would many times in the future, that the future of a more progressive future was more feminine than him, and it was blacker.

August Winslow was alone in his admiration for Quinta. As Quinta answered questions that could only be the result of profound ignorance, boredom crept into other’s faces. Some picked at their salad, others twiddled their foolish fingers, and the attention on Quinta faded as quickly as it erupted.

August should have known the reversal was coming, but he was too busy in thanking whatever gods that might exist that it was over. Except it wasn’t. Instead the attention was flung back to him. “So now that you’ve gotten a chance to gather your thoughts,” one of the many faces began, and then all of eyes wrenched back to him. Most of all Quinta’s eyes who expected him, as a black man, to stand up for something greater than himself. Most of all Quinta, who knew she said what needed to be said and wanted August to back her up. Most of all himself, who knew what he had to do, what he had to become if only for a second to turn this small tide. He took a deep breath. Then another. He stood up. Then fighting against himself and his expectations – all expectations for that matter—he turned and walked away. Quinta shook her head seeing August’s head droop low, his shoulders slumped, his entire aura projected to the floor.

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