It’s a Tuesday. That’s the first thing I remember. We’re at Jefferson Park playing Hide-n’Go-Seek. There’s my sister, Evie, hiding in the crawling tube on the playground, and my best friend, Derrick, by the swings, still undecided where he should hide. There are other kids with us, but I’ve forgotten their names and can’t picture them without instead seeing the ‘friends’ of titular characters from our favorite TV shows and movies.
We’re about to start a new game when the teenagers on the basketball court form a semi-circle as two of them get ready to fight. The two are Felix Johnson and Mitch Scanlon, who are hands-down the toughest kids we know. They’re fighting because Mitch called Felix a “nigger.”
At some point, Felix lifts his shirt and shows the gun. Because what I’ve always really wanted to do is make this into a work of fiction, I can say he flashed anything: a cop’s badge or an Austin 3:16 tattoo or even his genitals. But I’ll stick to the original image of him flaunting a gun. Because it’s true. When the rest of us see it, we freeze wherever we are. Felix is the only one moving, maybe in the entire world.
On the surface, this is about a fight I saw when I was eleven years old. Almost twelve, almost a teenager.
But I think it’s really about a kid, me, demanding not to be treated like a kid, anymore. Derrick is a year older than me, but this rush to grow up is mine alone. We don’t live in the nicest part of town. When we moved here, mom said we had to stay where she could see us. We had to fight to be allowed to go by ourselves to Jefferson Park, which was around the corner and two blocks away from our apartment. So here we are in this park we fought so hard to get to. Suspended and waiting for someone to make a move that unlocks us so that we can run back home.
I lose Derrick early on in this memory. To this day, I joke that he ran home, having pissed his pants.
He says he doesn’t even remember what I’m talking about.
In this moment, Felix goes from being a cool kid who sat at the back of the school bus, smelling like cigarettes and talking loudly about getting blowjobs from our older sisters (even to kids without older sisters), to a key reference point in my psychological landscape.
There he is in my dreams, serving ice cream at Ebetts Field where I take my wife on our honeymoon. In other dreams: fleeing with the rest of us from flying zombies. Sometimes, he works the door to my daydreams, checking my ID and making me pay a cover charge before I slip into a memory that I’ve lived and imagined and wrote a million times before.
In reality, Felix is average size for his age. Being a few years older than me makes him only a few inches taller. I’m probably reducing him in stature to purge him from my psyche for good. I’m remembering this and writing it down for the same reason.
But all of this is all an exercise in futility. Now as always.
And yeah, a small part of this is about racism.
This is the focus that my past professors and peer reviewers are most encouraging about. First, though, they tell me to emphasize how poor we all were, as if all racial minorities need to be poor, too. They ask me to put rips and tears in our clothing and lice in our hair. They want some of us to have Kool-Aid mustaches. I refuse to put one on Evie, though. I’m very protective of my sister – even in my writing.
Some of them want everyone in the story except Felix to be white. This includes me and Evie – Pacific Islanders who are part Seneca Indian and part Japanese. This also includes Derrick, who in the words of one kid we go to school with, is “midnight black.”
I’m told to play up the moment when Mitch calls Felix a nigger, but I like to play up the possibility that he didn’t.
Or that he called him nigga because that makes a difference.
Or that he was joking. Because that also makes a difference.
I’m told to focus on the big conflict, but instead, I’m interested in the gaps and thresholds of speech.
Back on that “Tuesday” afternoon, Felix lowers his shirt, concealing the “gun” and punches Mitch in the face. He taunts Mitch, who is so dazed that even we can see how bad a shape he’s in from across the park. We all watch Mitch as he runs away – Felix and their friends pointing and laughing.
There’s something to this.
But it depends how I end it. In the first ending I write, Felix walks by us afterward, triumphant. One of his friends is worried that we might call the cops or tell our parents about the gun. But Felix shrugs us off and calls us “stupid little niggas” and moves along.
In Ending #2, he and I meet eyes. “I’ve been watching you,” he says. I don’t say anything, just stare back, until he invites me to join his group. This ends the narrative where I’m looking not to be treated like such a kid, anymore. It also makes sense because we’re all minorities, all of us, we are.
No amount of writing can ever un-write that.
What I’ll say happens in real life is this: the teenagers leave when a parent steps in and tells them to stop. In a day or two, whenever we see them at the park again, they act as if nothing happened. Felix and Mitch are all buddy-buddy. They blast their music and throw rocks at us if we get too close to their spot on the basketball court. We continue our games, a bit more mindful of the teenagers until some of us become them.
That summer is pretty unremarkable otherwise. Every day, sunny and comfortable. Our hands, even years later, still smell of the concrete and the chain-link fence of Jefferson Park.
Francisco Delgado is a writer and a PhD candidate in English at Stony Brook University. His creative work has recently appeared in Wigleaf, Prairie Schooner (blog), Side B Magazine, and is forthcoming in Glimmer Train. He is working on a multi-genre collection, of which “As Kids in Jefferson Park” is a part, that interrogates the relationship between memory, fiction, and nonfiction.