At Oak Park-River Forest High School, Julius is a poetry stud. When the Poetry Slam Club threw its annual competition his junior year, he took the stage just ahead of guest judge and performer Reg E. Gaines, and after he won, girls and even some guys told him he was as good as Reg.
Now, as he prepares for his senior slam, his journalism class is visited by a young reporter from the local paper. The reporter is white, clean-cut, his clothes hinting–through slightly torn sneakers and worn casual-Friday work pants–at a punk-rock private life. The reporter has come to develop a page for his paper with the students. Julius would like his poetry to be published, but he’s suspicious of the reporter’s casual pose. He may be hiding something. He may try to change the poem.
The reporter promises to publish as is or not at all, but Julius still hesitates. The reporter asks Julius’s friend John if he has anything he’d like to submit. Then Julius immediately assents.
Within a few weeks, Julius and the reporter hash out a deal where they work together on an essay about black life in a suburban high school for half the period and the reporter looks the other way while Julius checks his fantasy baseball statistics or works on a new poem about a girl. When the reporter and John discuss hip-hop and John calls out during class, “Jules! Dude listens to Wordsworth,” Julius acts unimpressed.
While the reporter works with Julius on his essay he also helps a girl in the class write about a friend who died of a heroin overdose the previous summer. The girl is pretty and filled out in the hips, and Julius begins to wonder whether the reporter is exploiting him like he is the girl.
Julius and Ayana, the girl in the new poem, are in the middle of a breakup. Ayana says Julius is too full of himself. She does not say, “You think you all that” or “Y’all just a playa,” or “Why you be like that,” which are direct quotes from the girls in his previous breakup poems. Julius wonders where he got the impression that’s how people talk to each other.
Ayana tells him she thinks he’s selfish and that between college applications, working at night, and seeing her friends before she goes away to school, she doesn’t have time to work at keeping him happy. Julius wonders why she looks more beautiful to him now than when they were happy. Her hair is the color of sun-kissed fruit, her skin rocking-chair brown, her breath a silent morning. He thinks this again and again when he cries to himself at night. When he picks up the love poem again, he ends it with the girl saying, “I ain’t tryin’ to be a hatah, but I’ll see yo’ ass latah.” The reporter raises no objections to the poem’s conclusion–actually puts his fist out to be knocked by Julius’s knuckles, raising Julius’s suspicions to a fever pitch.
Julius tells his family–in the kitchen while his mother cooks and his little brother Willie sets the table–that he’s to have a poem published in the paper.
“What’s this one about?” his mother asks as she stirs vegetables in a fragrant pot.
“About how love doesn’t exist,” he says.
His mother laughs, a high-pitched laugh that Willie and Julius call “the dog whistle.”
“So it’s about Ayana, then.”
Julius tersely denies it. Willie, 12 years old and just beginning to chase girls in seventh grade, does a little hula dance and sways his head back and forth, singing “Oh Ayana, Oh Ayana,” giving her name singsong peaks and valleys. Tonight is the one night of the week their mother is home from work at the hospital for supper. Julius grabs a pen from a drawer below the kitchen counter and draws an X on the back of his hand. It’s to remind him to beat Willie for this tomorrow.
Their apartment on the southeast side of town is only three blocks from where crews are digging up Barrie Park, excavating mountains of soil after several neighbors contracted cancer. An old gas plant once occupied the site. The moves of everyone within a block of the park were subsidized, and crews labor inside a giant tent that now covers it like an airplane hangar. It’s a billion-dollar project. Looking out the window at the tent, Julius wonders whether he would rather take his chances with cancer in the park or bullets and drugs two blocks east, in Austin. When he was a toddler, before his mother left his father and took the Oak Park apartment, he lived there. His memories of that time are like dreams, foggy and buried deep in the bottom of his stomach. He thinks he would send Willie, who has fallen asleep in the bed next to him, to the cancer-causing park every day before he’d let him cross Austin Boulevard. He doesn’t write a poem about these feelings.
In school his classmates hang over copies of the paper. Julius doesn’t know whether they’re reading his poem or the heroin girl’s story, but his friends and a few people he doesn’t know come up, pat his back, shake his hand, knock his fist. John asks if Ayana has seen it yet–everyone knows it’s about her–but Julius doesn’t know because it’s been five days since they’ve spoken. He saw her that morning reading the paper near the tennis courts, but moved stealthily away.
“No, man,” is all he says.
John goes back to work on a poem. The slam team he started with Julius–tentatively named Da Trax–will perform it at the school’s slam in three weeks. It’s a reaction to when a store owner asked him last week if he stole something. John reads part of it aloud. The end of the poem rhymes “angel’s wings” with “Dr. King.”
John wants Julius to take over at that point because Julius’s last name is King, and the crowd will go wild. Julius just puts his head on his desk and thinks of how he’d rather not write anymore.
That Friday, the reporter brings a stack of papers for the students. He’s wearing low-top Chuck Taylors and there are pins on his bag for bands whose names nearly all begin with “the.”
He takes Julius into the computer room and asks him if he’s heard much response to the poem. Everyone at the paper, it seems, liked it.
“Yeah, a few people said some things,” Julius says. He doesn’t know why but he wants to get out of the room as quickly as possible. The reporter wants to talk–though he says “shoot the shit” because the teacher is in the other room and he cares little about the school’s honor code. He asks Julius if he’s getting ready for the school slam. Julius, feeling thin and unlike himself around the reporter, says he’ll get ready when he’s ready.
“You cover that Barrie Park story?” Julius asks.
The reporter says he does, looking at Julius as if he just asked a personal question in a job interview.
“Tell me about it,” Julius says, and puts his head on the desk.
At Da Trax’s fifth rehearsal, everyone on the team is ready except for Julius. He’s protective of his works in progress. He doesn’t want to water down their effect.
Da Trax consists of six poets: Julius, John, Damian, Malcolm, Peter, and Xavier, who insists on being known as X Spot when he performs. All the members of Da Trax are black, something Julius and John required, though the other original three wanted to include an Asian kid named Danny. Letting Xavier join was the compromise.
Julius is the anchor. Xavier will start out the poem because, as ridiculous as he is to Julius, he has the most energy. Julius thinks his rhymes are too close to brag rap to be considered poetry, but the way Xavier says them, like he’s squeezing them from the back of his sinuses, is effective. Each member has his own style, with John’s part culminating in the most confrontational moment of the poem. Julius will pick it up from there. And from there, he thinks, he’ll go in a new direction.
The reporter and Julius have a half-hour meeting scheduled to discuss his essay about being a black student in the suburbs. Julius has just come from lunch, where he bumped into Ayana–her eyes were cold and her lips sealed. He said “Whassup” and reached out to her, but she shook her head and huffed, and left him standing there without saying anything. Someone behind Julius said “Damn,” but he didn’t turn around to see who it was.
The reporter, dressed in business attire, wants to know how the essay is coming. He looks as comfortable in a tie as he does in his rock clothes. Julius wonders which one is the disguise.
Julius says he has too much to do.
“You can’t work on more than one thing at once?” the reporter asks, and Julius thinks he’s trying to be young and tough with him.
“Why’s it gotta be about being a black student?” Julius says. “Why’s being a black student any different than being just a student? Why can’t I just write an essay about being a student, whether I’m black or not?”
“Write what you want,” the reporter says. “If you really think there’s no difference between your experience and the dozen white kids writing essays for the student paper, then write the same thing.”
Julius thinks he’s being set up.
That night, Julius sits against the wall at the head of his bed, his pillow and one of Willie’s propping up his back. Willie has slept without a pillow ever since he saw a film on the Discovery Channel about yogis in India. Julius caught Willie wearing his mother’s nightgown one night, his head and arm both through the neck. Julius thought he looked less like Gandhi than like Martin Lawrence’s Sheneneh character. At first he thought it was something he should report to his mother, but Willie was indifferent to having been caught.
“Yogis have no worries,” he said, and Julius laughed for hours at his little brother’s gravity.
Julius has two notebooks, one on his lap, another on the bed beside him. The one on his lap is for the essay, and he scribbles intently within the margins, feeling strong about its form so far. He begins it with the conversation he had with the reporter earlier that day, portraying the reporter in a negative light that he hopes is funny, so he won’t reject it. He discusses the way white students speak when they talk to him and the way he hears them talk to each other. With him, they often drop words out of sentences.
“Where you at last night?”
they ask him.
“I was at home,” he’ll reply, emphasizing the verb.
“Weak,” they’ll say back. It’s almost a parlor game, the way they trade grammar.
He moves on to white flight, then switches gears and transcribes a rant he wants to get off his chest concerning R. Kelly, Kobe Bryant, and Bill Cosby and the expectations put on black males. As that begins to lose steam, he starts a new topic: the annual poetry slam and the black students’ dominance. But he gets just two sentences into it before he feels a block creep in behind his eyes. He lays his notebook down beside his legs. He picks up the smaller notebook and starts to rewrite possible opening lines for his part in Da Trax’s showcase poem. If he was thinking straight, he’d realize the various opening lines are thesis statements for his essay. Julius can’t cut himself out of his emotional restraints when he works on the essay. The possible openers of the poem strung together almost read like a whole.
John and Julius want Xavier out of Da Trax. He talks too much, and he’s offended them with his nascent and uninformed black nationalism. He tells John to get rid of his “slave name.” When he turns 18, X declares, he’ll change his last name to X to become Double X–a name no one can fuck with.
He leaves Julius alone because he’s the anchor talent of the team and because not even Xavier would dare to claim the name King was unfit for a black man.
“That Black Panther shit got old in the 70s, man,” Julius says. “You don’t see white boys running around with long hair and tie-dyed shirts on talking about ‘give peace a chance’ anymore.”
X just looks at Julius like it’s the most ridiculous thing anyone has ever said. Of course the white boys still do that. They’re always hacky-sacking at lunch or crowding Amnesty International meetings after school.
“And if they do, you make fun of ’em,” Julius says. “Everyone makes fun of ’em. And for a reason.”
“Well at least they’re doing something, son,” Xavier says, stepping to Julius as if to start a fight. “At least they got something to say.” He’s the first kid since K.J. Irwin back in sixth grade to threaten Julius.
“What?” Julius yells. “What did you just say?”
“Your poems don’t say shit, Jules,” Xavier says. “You’re scared to say anything, which is why you’re scared of me.”
Julius steps forward to take a swing, but he’s slow and X has already backed off. Julius’s punch to the air feels like he’s throwing a tissue. Before Xavier can come back, Damian and Malcolm grab him and carry him by the elbows toward the door of the classroom rehearsal space. Peter handles Julius easily.
“You’re a phony, Jules,” Xavier says as Damian and Malcolm push him into the hall. Julius says nothing as the door slams behind them. He waits for something to come to mind. After a moment, with nothing there, he turns around to walk back to his desk. John is miming a particularly lewd act, hips curving and pumping.
“Oh, Mrs. X,” he says. “Why… uh…didn’t you tell me you felt this way…ah…before?”
Peter crackles with laughter, but Julius turns away and reads over the poetry he has prepared.
Three nights later, the night before the competition, Julius is awake with pains in his stomach. He sits stiffly while Willie lies silently in his bed, a single sheet pulled up to his throat.
Julius wants to wake Willie, the same urge that makes a vandal crash a brick through a window. He waits for it to pass, and when it doesn’t he makes his way silently out to the living room. He ties on his Timberlands loosely and grabs his black leather jacket before closing the door behind him and locking it, slowly inserting his key to knock down the pins one by one.
He walks down Harvard Street, where the view of the sidewalk from the houses is blocked by the leafy elms that line the parkway. Julius kicks at rocks on the sidewalk, turns right, turns left, and winds up at Barrie Park. The park is full of memories for him. He played T-ball here, tried skateboarding, and witnessed a kid fall and hit his head on a rock, the muscles of his thin body twitching.
Now the park is surrounded by a ten-foot chain-link fence, a thick black curtain lining it like matted hair. Julius walks the length of the fence on Harvard, where construction trailers and police tape and orange sawhorses signal that nothing is right.
He turns up Lombard toward where John agreed to meet him. The two planned to break into the construction site to get the real scoop on the park. Of course John hasn’t shown. They’ve launched a hundred unfulfilled missions. Julius himself never planned to show.
The abandoned houses to his left are dark. When he was ten he caught his mother crying. She was coping with the end of her relationship with Charlie, a nurse from Des Plaines who would be her last boyfriend. He’d been watching cartoons in the living room, the volume up high. When he turned off the television and went to the kitchen, his mother choked on her sobs. She wiped her face clean and paralyzed the muscles in her face to a frightening smile. Eventually, she gave up with a sigh and motioned for Julius to sit at the table. After a minute passed, his mother stood up, put her hand on his head and said:
“You heard me crying, Julius?”
Julius nodded and her hand lifted off his head.
“Well, that’s nothing to worry about,” she said, and her slippers scuffed at the linoleum floor. “And someday we’ll buy one of those houses over there so you won’t have to hear any of that.”
Now, looking at the homes with their shuttered windows and blank porches, Julius is glad his mother kept their apartment. The sound of the men working under the tent doesn’t sound like men at all. There is a dull, low whir, like an old tree slowly cracking.
Near the end of the block, light cleaves the venetian blinds of a brown shingled house. The light is surprisingly yellow in contrast to the cold fluorescents lighting the work site. Julius has heard there was one family who didn’t leave, who have stayed in their home with their windows taped shut and special filters on their central air. The reporter says he’s heard the rumors too, but anytime he called or knocked on the door there was never an answer. He said one time he came by and there was music playing, Frank Sinatra, and when he knocked on the door, the lights went out and the music stopped midcroon.
Julius steps lightly up the porch stairs, his weight not registering on the old wooden slats as he keeps his feet to the edges. He gets to the window and peers through the blinds for a letterbox view of the family’s life. Inside, a cat on a bookcase looks back at him. He scans the well-lit living room and sees no one, though there are signs of life: a remote control, a plate of crumbs, an umbrella left open on the tile. He looks back over the park from his new, higher vantage point, the city stretching out behind it. The shabby bungalows and burned-out buildings, visible behind the park on the other side of Austin Boulevard, fuel a fear. He focuses instead on the white tent that crests in one corner of the park and the enormous trucks, cranes, and trailers that fill the rest. The reporter said if the monitors registered a rise in toxins, cancer-causing particles kicked up from the soil, the project would be shut down. The trouble with the plan: it takes two weeks to analyze the results. There could be poison in the air for a fortnight before anyone knew the difference.
Julius steps to the edge of the porch and fills his lungs, holding the air in his chest and stomach until a deep sting invades his solar plexus. He does it again and again, exhaling slowly. He steps onto the sidewalk and turns toward home.
At the competition, thugs and accelerated English students sit next to each other, college students home for spring break sit next to freshmen excited to be at an after-school event. It’s one of the few times the lunchroom pattern Julius wrote about in last year’s poem actually scrambles. Parents and younger siblings occupy the back rows, students the middle. In the very front are the performers and judges.
There’s no big-name judge this year, just two Chicago poets Julius has seen before when he and John made excursions to a couple Wicker Park slams, pretending to be 21. An Oak Park teacher is the third judge. The fourth is an English teacher from Chicago who’s a poet–he writes exclusively about conversations he’s had with his Hispanic students. The fifth judge, the school principal, is busy meeting parents.
Julius can’t find Willie among the crowd in back. His mother couldn’t make it this year–she was pressed into overtime–but Willie should be here. He and a few friends from Hawthorne were supposed to walk up here after school. He scans the back rows and then farther down, farther down, until his eyes
land on the reporter.
He looks lonely, sitting in an aisle seat by himself. His eyes, behind thick-rimmed glasses, seem open and empty, the way people make their eyes look when they die in movies. The reporter told Julius he would be there to write a story on the slam. When he said it, Julius thought he sounded enthusiastic. The face of the reporter now is not the face of enthusiasm.
“Calm down, man,” Julius says and punches the reporter in the upper arm, knocking him out of his reverie.
“Man, as hot as this story is, it’s Friday afternoon and I’m in high school again,” says the reporter. “As soon as the results come in, I’m out.”
Julius feels stung. For the last two months, today is all he and John have talked about, and in some ways it led to his breakup with Ayana.
“No offense,” the reporter says, sensing Julius’s hurt pride. “It’s cool. It’s just not the type of thing someone becomes a reporter for.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” Julius says, and continues up the aisle in search of Willie. He finds him among a group of admiring tweens. The sight of his little brother makes Julius both proud and calm.
Xavier, who promised to get his own team together, instead executed a one-man boycott. A team of black sophomore girls gets the crowd on their side at one point, when one of the girls makes reference to sex with a teacher, but it’s also the sort of juvenile shock tactic that immediately wipes them from the competition.
Da Trax blends just enough hip-hop braggadocio into their poetry to make it seem hip, enough politics to make it seem urgent. Julius thinks they might lose when Malcolm slips in an unrehearsed line from a Talib Kweli song as if it were his own, a line about growing up past a time of “snotty tissues and potty issues.” But the judges seem oblivious, and when it’s Julius’s turn, the crowd is properly amped off John’s introduction.
Julius opens with a dream analogy, touching on the Dr. King reference while being careful not to apply it to himself. He ends the analogy with him standing on Austin Boulevard.
“Rock rock rock, I hear from the dude pushing crack, pushing pills / I don’t need a doctor to tell me I’m ill.”
About 40 seniors explode into cheering. It’s the type of line Julius puts into his poetry to approximate a rap lyric and get the crowd going. He feeds off the energy.
Black kid in the burbs wanna say it’s hard
But can’t ‘cuz the city’s worse by far
When one valve opens, the other closes in the heart
Shit on my mind but don’t know where to start
The crowd quiets down as Julius spins out his worries like a fishing line. He drops the simple rhymes for a while, using meter to create a rhythm, and as he digs deeper into the poem, he makes references to the air and cancer, to love and friendship and revenge. The end of his 90 seconds nears and he feels as if the crowd has surrounded him, absorbed him. He feels a neighborhood in the room. He looks up to the last row and sees Willie standing on his toes in the aisle. He delivers his last line.
Have to watch what you lose when there’s nothing to prove
The judges smile and clap politely. The students do the same; there’s little of the whooping that usually follow Julius’s poems. When the judges award Da Trax first place, the Chicago English teacher makes a brief speech about the sophistication of “Mr. King’s” poem. No one in the audience listens. Julius doesn’t even listen. He’s just glad it’s over.
On Monday, and throughout the next week, everyone tells him they thought it was some combination of cool, deep, dope, freaky, ill, serious, scary, honest, weird, or powerful. Julius hears these words as both compliments and direct descriptions of his emotional state over the past few weeks.
When he sees Ayana out on Scoville Avenue after school, he approaches her with confidence.
“Hey Julius,” she says. “I saw you at the slam last week. Your poem was really interesting.”
“Thanks,” he says, blushing. “It took me a long time to write it.”
“I could tell,” she says. “It was nice that you didn’t call anyone a ho for a change.”
They both laugh, and the nervous air of lovers comes between them. She asks if he’s going to participate in a Chicago slam he’s been nominated for. He’s surprised she knows about it, since he just found out yesterday. He says he will. She asks if he will perform that poem, and he humbly shrugs.
“‘Cause city kids probably don’t care much about that stuff,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I know,” Julius says defensively. “That’s sort of what the poem is about.”
“I know,” she says and starts to turn away. “I just think it’s important for you to do it.”
Julius looks at her quizzically.
“You know what I mean,” she says and pauses with a smile. She rolls her eyes, and Julius feels a sensation all over his body like melting and stripping away at the same time, like peppers over a flame. She breathes and says, “I’m just saying.”
With that, Ayana turns and walks toward Lake Street, where a group of her friends are smirking at her for talking to Julius. Julius is left alone and warm in front of the school wondering what, exactly, Ayana is just saying.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dave Curd.