The Last Syllable
by Sophie Tegenu
Second Place Winner, Written Category
The Monster Challenge
It was dark when I awoke. My teeth tasted bitter, my hood scratched against my forehead, my legs shook uncontrollably. I picked a cigarette up from the floor and noticed a thin trickle of blood on my charcoal coated fingertip. Smoke filled my throat with little fires, miniscule sparks of black and red and evergreen. The oppressive grey ceiling cackled as I twitched uneasily. My movements caused dust to swirl off of my bed frame and blend with the smoke from my cigarette. I closed my eyes and imagined waking up in the middle of an evergreen forest, surrounded by monstrous pine trees and raging mountains. There would be streams full of reflective fish, and ditches full of crushed up leaves, and little fires full of broken branches. A distant bang interrupted by daydream and my eyes startled open. Flickering shadows seemed to mock me from across the room. A broken alarm clock began to buzz schizophrenically and I tried to shake the image of encroaching blackness from my mind.
I stood up and wiped ash off of my bedsheets. The top of my forehead always caught the mirror first, and I had to stand on my toes to see the rest of me. Every day, a different reflection. Some days, my black flat top looked like the statuesque peak of a well-manicured tree. Some days, my black nose looked like the steep slope of a black diamond mountain. Most days, my black eyes looked bloody and my black cheeks looked beaten. I never looked in the mirror for more than 25 seconds. I counted out the moments, always looking away at 20, or 22, or 23. Maybe 24 on a bad day. Never 25.
I wandered out the door in search of a meal. The fridge was only stocked with soda. I never ate breakfast at home, preferring to scavenge for my meals. The supermarket down the street was manned by an old black man who never stopped me from stealing. Whenever I entered the shop, he was always looking intently at the newspaper, or reorganizing the gum display, or checking the inventory in the back. He could have been one hundred years old, with wizened fingers and a face made up entirely of creases. I liked to watch the hesitancy with which his trembling hands opened up the Times. He always greeted me, “Nice to see you, boy,” but never said goodbye.
After taking my breakfast (a hotdog and some salt and vinegar chips) I got into my busted car and began driving to Mrs. Stevens’ home. My car was built of stolen metal and duct tape. Mrs. Steven’s home was built of marble and bookshelves. Paper, rather than beam poles, sustained the architecture of her home. Roger Stevens had taught my second grade reading class. He noticed that words stuck to cavities of my brain, burrowed themselves into my skin, flexed between my fingertips, and curled up behind the hallows of my ears. I despised sitting still, detested taking the train from my despondent foster home to my derelict elementary school. I won every spelling bee and failed every test. Roger Stevens began sneaking me candy tucked in between the pages of Agatha Christie books. I unwrapped the Snickers bars in bed and devoured the stories of Hercule Poirot with chocolate stained fingers. I began reading the books from the middle, starting wherever the candy was placed and working out. Roger Stevens introduced me Baldwin at age 8, Baraka at age 9, Angelou at age 10, and funerals at age 11.
Mrs. Stevens, to manage both her grief and her time, took my education upon herself after her husband died. She paid me $75 an hour to go to her home once a week and do as she instructed. Some days, we read in silence. Other days, she forced me to recite passages from “instrumental texts.” She always wore her white hair in an elaborate up do and she was the most elegant person I had ever seen.
“We shall be reciting Baldwin today. Stranger in the Village, Roger’s favorite. Entire essay, please.” Mrs. Stevens said when I stepped through the ginormous oak doors that guarded her castle. I rolled my eyes and began;
“From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this Swiss village before I came.”
As I spoke, I imagined the beautiful blunt I had rolled in the gas station on the way over here. I would smoke it on the way home, a treat for all of this strain.
“I was told before arriving that I would probably be a “sight” for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland.”
Once, Mrs. Stevens’ paper-white neighbor called the police on me. I waited in the driveway for 20 minutes before going in to our session, finishing up that days borrowed breakfast. I stepped out of the car to the sound of sirens and frantic shouting. Mrs. Stevens burst out of her mansion and began to gesture manically at the police officers. She called her neighbor a nosy bitch, me a brilliant misfortune, and the officer an incompetent prig. The officer warned me against suspiciously stalling again. That day, we read King Lear and Mrs. Stevens sobbed quietly in the corner.
“Your mother was a nigger. Joyce is right about history being a nightmare—but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken”
Mrs. Stevens made me read Ulysses when I turned 19. It took us over two months and it made me feel like I was high. She lent me her copy to take home, and I would often read it high. The words jumbled up in my mouth, making me feel like a mad scientist. At my first home, my foster dad mocked 5-year-old me for wanting to be a scientist. Maybe you could work in meth lab, he said. Maybe you’ll cook up crack.
“I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil.”
Mrs. Stevens wasn’t angry when I dropped out, not really. She wasn’t surprised either. She told me that she would pay me by the hour so that she didn’t take time away from work. My boys call her my sugar momma. They weren’t wrong, but they weren’t right either.
“The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”
Mrs. Steven had tears in her eyes again. She told me that I recited beautifully which wasn’t true, but I thanked her anyways. She wanted to talk about Roger, of how much he loved that essay. Of how much he hated being white sometimes. I tried not to roll my eyes. He might have hated what it meant for me to be black, but he never hated being white. I told her thanks, but I have somewhere to be. She gave me $75 and a small, furious hug.
I got back in my busted car, gave the neighbor a nice middle finger as was my tradition, and began to drive. It was a day for driving, for doing nothing else but driving. I decided to save the blunt for when it was dark out—in the winter nightfall was never far. I loved to watch the nigh time shadows shrink and shiver whenever I was high. The highway was always so much smoother than the streets near home. My streets, cracked from the footfall of heavy black feet and screeching black cars. I marveled at those smooth roads, deep black and beautiful, looking as if they were just painted anew. Roads that led to castles and government buildings and libraries, hundreds of thousands of libraries. How many books could fit on these roads? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? How many words? Billions? Trillions? I imagined spelling all the words I knew onto then flat expanse of land. Words like iridescent and pas-de-deux and discourse. No one ever expected me to know the words that I did. Words like post-modern and ephemeral and gerund. Words no nigga is supposed to know. I knew them all. I thought of the things I did and did not know as I drove around and around and around until the moon was not visible to me (it was covered by clouds) but would be visible to someone somewhere less cloudy.
I lit the blunt and let the shadows encompass me. The lights on my dashboard were heightened, the speedometer seemed to be pulsing. I felt an urge to punch the hazard light. To hear the steady “beep, beep, beep.” Maybe I wanted to create a crisis, or just feel the immediacy of the crisis I was in. I wasn’t sure, but I did know that I wanted to see the little button dance. I waved my charcoal covered fingers over the three red triangles and waited. I don’t know what I was waiting for exactly, I only knew that now was not the moment, now was not the time. I almost dropped my blunt, but managed to gather myself before anything went terribly wrong. I couldn’t fathom how long I had been driving, or how long I hovered over the hazard button. The shadows grew sharp around their edges. My tongue failed to wet the parched roof of my mouth. My eyelids felt heavy, as if five pound weights were attached to every one of my lashes.
Sound disconnected from sight, and I drove in a state of dissonance. I moved my hand to turn the radio up and a minute passed before I noticed that the music was louder. I turned on my turn signal and didn’t turn it off for half a mile. I saw red and blue lights, beautiful red and blue lights, and didn’t hear the siren until the police car was right on my bumper. The lights flashed in a symphony of color and saturation. I didn’t think I had ever seen anything as melodic, as striking, as sorrowful, as poignant as those slow, pigmented, sublime, blue and red lights. I wanted to cry. Not in fear, but in awe. The sound of the siren slowly traveled to my ear, slowly made its way up to my brain, totally removed from the visual shaking lights. I realized that I needed to pull over.
I don’t know how much time passed between me seeing the car and pulling over. It could have been 30 seconds; it could have been 30 minutes. I sat on the side of the highway, smoking my blunt, wondering who or what was to come.
“Step out of the vehicle SLOWLY, hands up” a voice called from the echoing distance. I looked at the weed in my hand and shook my head slowly. This was it. The title to Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” replayed in my head. Goodbye to all that. Goodbye to all that. Goodbye to. All. That.
“SLOWLY. Hands UP” the sonorous voice repeated. I was not capable of moving quickly. Do not worry, sir. Do not worry.
“NOW.” They were growing impatient. I imagined everything I could do. I put my hand to my neck and looked for my pulse. I couldn’t find it. Fuck. I turned on the hazards and cracked open the door. What could I do. What could I do. Fuck.
“Step OUT of the vehicle” My thoughts were racing. How would they believe me. How could I make them believe me. I was too young. I was only 20. I was too young.
The beeping hazard lights felt as though they were going through me. I was shaking, my thoughts were failing, I was too young. All I had left were my black cheeks and my black nose and all of the words I knew. So many words, so many fucking words. How could I make them believe me, how could I let them know that my nose is like a mountain and my lips are like Valentine’s day candy and my skin is the same black as their beautiful highways and my mind is as large as theirs, larger than theirs, full of words, so many words, so many words.
Goodbye to all that. Goodbye to all that. Goodbye to all that.
I knew what I had to do! I knew what I had to do! Let them know what I know, let them hear the things they have taught me. The white words I have swallowed, the poems I have perfected, the words I know! That I know. That will show them. That will show them.
I cracked the door open wider and began.
“Out! Out! brief candle!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. He yelled at me to get out. He was so loud. So, so loud. Perhaps Shakespeare would save me.
“Life’s but a walking candle.” Get out he said. Get out.
“A poor player,” I took a half step out of the car.
“That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” He told me to put my hands up.
“And then is heard no more.” I got out of the car.
“It is a tale told by an IDIOT,” I was weeping.
“Full of SOUND and FURY” I took a step a forward.
“Signifying—“ I saw it before I heard it or felt it. I saw the gun, cocked confidently at me. I saw the finger squeeze the trigger. I think I saw the bullet, hurtling towards me. It was black like the highway, like my mother, like me. I heard the bang many moments later. It was a familiar sound, the sound of my block, of my books, of my body. The sound I had been waiting for all my life.
POLICE REPORT MAY BE FOUND ON FOLLOWING PAGE.