HAROLD ADVANCED TOWARD JESSE SHOUTING, “Nigger!” The familiarity of that word snapped Jesse out of his reverie. I was sure I was about to witness another assault. Jesse eased up from the crosstie he sat on and looked down at the ground, never making eye contact with Harold.
“Why don’t you look at somebody when they’re talking to you? What’s the matter with you? You’re a nigger, ain’tcha? Answer me! Ain’tcha?!” Harold pushed his finger into Jesse’s chest, hard. Jesse fell backward over the crosstie the way a ninety-year-old man would—in sections, ass, back, head.
“Hey, everybody, we got a nigger in class. We got a nigger in class.” Harold pranced around like he had just knocked out Cassius Clay.
“Hey, Harold, leave him alone. Let’s play some football.” I was really more annoyed that we weren’t playing football than I was concerned for Jesse.
“What are you? A nigger lover?” Now Harold was mad at me.
“No, I wanna play. Let’s play.”
Harold picked up the football and threw it at me. “Let’s play then.”
“We still need one more,” Pete said quietly. He didn’t want Harold mad at him too.
“I wanna play.” It took a moment and a lot of self-introspection to realize those words came from Jesse, who was still lying on the ground, propped up on one elbow.
Other than saying “here” every morning to answer the roll, I never heard Jesse say a word unless the teacher asked him a question directly. If asked a question, he would either nod his head, or whisper yes’m, or no, ma’am, or say nothing at all. I could tell he wasn’t dumb though. You could see intelligence in his eyes the same way you could see intelligence in a dog’s eyes.
“You can’t play with us, nigger, you’re a nigger. Niggers can’t play with white boys. What’s the matter with you?”
“Let him play, Harold,” said somebody, and then another said, “Yeah let him,” and yet another said, “Come on.” Everybody was feeling the same about this. By everybody, I mean everybody but Harold.
“OK, good,” said Harold with a maniacal laugh, clapping his hands. We all figured out this was not going to be a good thing for poor Jesse.
Jesse jumped up quickly, surprisingly quick. He walked with a noticeably longer stride as he made his way to Pete’s side of the team. He carried himself with a discernibly different demeanor. He was completely upright. His shoulders were no longer slouched as they usually were. His reflexes were sharper. He stuck his chest out. He looked us in the eyes. He wore confidence on his face, not smugness, but happiness, as if he were about to eat a Thanksgiving dinner. Who is this guy? I wondered.
“You probably don’t know how to play,” Pete said, trying to reassure Jesse, “but we’ll teach you.”
“I know how,” Jesse said without hesitation. We looked at each other with stunned faces. We wondered how and why this transformation had taken place.
Harold Spartani was the biggest, strongest kid, not only from our class, but at least through the first two grades in Jess Rulam Elementary. It was rumored he once whipped a third grade boy while riding home on the school bus. He was of Italian descent, though he had light-colored hair. He had broad shoulders, a barrel chest and thick neck. To me he was like a grownup. I was as scared of him as I was of most grownups. He must have been close to four feet tall. To me that made him a giant. He was unconquerable, unchallengeable, and indisputably, our leader.
If he looked at me, I paled with fear, which always brought a smirk to his face as if he knew I was a coward. We were all cowards back then. I envied Harold. How was it that he was born with such physical prowess, and I was but a runt? I spent many an hour pondering what a wondrous existence it must be to be born king. There was nothing for him to fear, and he feared nothing, or so we all assumed.
When you are the lesser, fear becomes a way of life, and life itself is feared. When you are the greater, life fears you. We all feared him, and we all envied him. He enjoyed his kingdom at our expense, but we didn’t mind. That was our station; it was merely that, and nothing more. I imagined myself as Harold Spartani almost every day, wondering what it would be like to be him.
The football lifted high off of Harold’s foot and soared into Jesse’s hands. A flash of apparel whizzed by me, flapping in the wind. I heard the rags make a whipping sound, like a flag in a stiff breeze, as he zipped past.
I was transfixed as I watched him approach Jude, who was hunched in the familiar football position, poised with both arms about to make a certain deadly embrace and put an end to Jesse’s newfound valor. Jesse planted his foot, juking his head. He waited for Jude to shift his body weight in that direction, then cut sharply and effortlessly in the opposite way and left Jude grasping at air. Jude hit the ground with a crunch, looking exasperated. He thought victory was so close at hand, but it proved just beyond his reach.
Harold was not as easily faked. Grunting with every stride his thick legs made, he rapidly advanced toward the suddenly hard-to-catch Jesse. He quickly closed the ground between him and his prey, held out both hands and shouted, “Yeah, nigger!” He was about to clobber his adversary, an enemy he in reality feared because he was a threatto his kingship. Though he was much skinnier and lighter, Jesse was a couple of inches taller than Harold. To a discerning eye, it was obvious he’d grow and fill out a lot more, and someday, might be a formidable foe.
Jesse braced himself for the horrific impact. I knew from Harold’s mass, Jesse’s amazing speed, and their general trajectory, that this was not going to end well for Jesse.
When Jesse first aligned himself under that floating football and gathered it in, I was, for that split second, proud of him. I was proud of him because he was demonstrating something in this inevitable suicide mission that I lacked—intestinal fortitude. I could avoid most would-be tacklers on the playground, including Harold. He even got angry at me one day because he couldn’t catch me and looked somewhat embarrassed by the fact. From that moment forward, without saying a word, and with little more than a glare, I’d simply slide to the ground whenever he got within reach. I was like an abused puppy, totally submitting to a greater master.
Jesse, in my eyes anyway, was about to take a stand for all the small people, on all the kids’ playgrounds, and all the grownups’ playgrounds in the entire world. Even though I wanted to be Harold, for the reason that it’s much better to bethe hammer than the nail, I was nonetheless proud of Jesse.
I wanted him to beat Harold, and then maybe, I could beat him too someday. Jesse took my place. He was about to take this crushing blow, for me. He was where I wished to be, if only I could. Go, Jesse, go, I was secretly thinking—safely though, within the confines of my cowardly mind.
Jesse suddenly extended his long arm and planted the palm of his hand in the middle of Harold’s barrel chest. I watched the back of Harold’s head bounce off the ground with a thud like a ripe muskmelon. Jesse crossed between the two car tires we used for the end zones. With a tiny smile, he whirled around to see what had happened.
I had seen Jesse smile before, but only after somebody sneered an insult or cursed at him—but this was a different kind of smile. It wasn’t his usual apologetic smile. This smile said something fun just happened for the first time.
Harold rubbed the back of his head, vigorously. He sat there dumbfounded on his humiliated ass. When he saw we were gaping at him like he’d just sprouted wings or grew a third arm or something, he looked at us, one by one, and began to cry, not out of pain, but out of embarrassment.
“Damn you, Jesse,” he said between sobs. “I wasn’t gonna hurt you. Look what you did to me. I’m bleeding.”
Snickers were coming from one, then another, then another, then everybody, except me. The irony was deliciously funny, but the reality of the moment was glorious. I took it in like a dry-backed sponge. Not a laugh-out-loud moment, but a smile-quietly-and- ponder-the-magnificence-of-the-universe moment.
After Jesse scored his illustrious touchdown and turned back to see the whimpering fallen leader, the brief smile vanished from his lips and was replaced by a sadness. His shoulders slumped, his clothes appeared looser, and his head tilted downward. In a span of three heartbeats, he converted from a confident, statuesque champion of payback immortality, to a downtrodden, humble wisp of societal debris. He looked exactly like he did when he was lying on the ground, watching Harold perform his we got a nigger in class dirge just moments earlier.
Jesse shuffled toward Harold, as if drawn by an innate responsibility to apologize for the crime of momentarily being good at something. He approached the sobbing boy. Slowly, he held out his hand as an offering of peace, but had a regrettable look on his face as if he knew what was about to happen.
Harold quickly and viciously slapped Jesse’s hand away. He jumped up wiping his nose and started pummeling Jesse savagely. His teeth clenched, he snarled, and his fist hit hard. Jesse went down with a thump, fast. Harold used every curse word he had ever heard and vaguely knew how to pronounce. I didn’t recognize most of them, but some I knew very well. Jesse offered no resistance. He accepted the fist to his face willingly and only meekly exposed one hand to deflect the pummeling. I watched, not in horror, but in disgust. What had become of my new hero? He briefly appeared as a glorious champion for all the small people, in all the playgrounds in the entire world, but now disappeared just as quickly. He went back to the humble dust of the lowest rung from which he sprang. In the span of less than one minute, the thoughts in my head went from the noble, Go, Jesse, go! to the ignoble, You are just a damn nigger.
I went home that day and felt ennui for humanity.
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