Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes chronicles ordinary people achieving vivid extrasensory perception while under extreme pain. The stories tumble into a universe of the jaded and the hopeful, in which men and women burdened with unwieldy and undesirable superhuman abilities are nonetheless resilient in subtle and startling ways. Venita Blackburn's characters hurl themselves toward the inevitable fates they might rather wish away. Their stories play with magic without the sparkle, glaring at the internal machinations of the human spirit. Fragile symbols for things such as race, sexuality, and love are lifted, decorated, and exposed to scrutiny and awe like so many ruins of our imagination. Through it all Blackburn’s characters stumble along currents of language both thoughtful and hilarious.
About the Author
Venita Blackburn is an English instructor at Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including American Short Fiction, Faultline, the Georgia Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She was awarded a Bread Loaf fellowship and a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2014.
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After school I arrived at home, took off my shoes at the door, kissed the 8x10 photo of black Jesus in the hall, ate Froot Loops over the sink so Nana wouldn't scream if I spilled milk on the carpet, and then watched TV. I used to watch this cartoon with beasts that turned to stone in the daytime and came alive at night. This was my ritual, my afternoon ceremony of duty, love, and magic. The previous Christmas my Nana came to live with us, my mother and me. In Los Angeles Christmas can be deceiving, but I loved it anyway. I dreamt of cotton snow and the oily smell of plastic holly. Authenticity never made much sense really. All that is real is what is in front of us, if the satisfaction is absolute. Aluminum icicles over the porch satisfied me deeply. Nana, not so much. I killed her, so she says, but she says everything killed her even though she's as alive as a dog bite.
Nana was smaller than me even then, a granddaughter of slaves, and knew life without electricity and frozen waffles. She knew other things too, especially about cows, not just milking them, I'd done that at the L.A. County Fair; she could deliver their babies and cure their sicknesses. When Nana first entered the house she had nothing but her long strapped leather purse, a brick-thick Bible, and that photo of the darkest Christ I'd ever seen. She didn't have a suitcase or anything. I asked my mother, "Why did Nana have to come?" She said, "Your grandmother lived with my sister, and now she lives with us." That was that. "Mama" really is God in the mouth of a child. To her I often prayed on bent knees in the kitchen with knuckles under my chin, "Please, please can I have money for the ice cream truck?" The delicious music of sweet, dairy bliss grew louder. She told me she'd given me enough change the day before, which was true, but I denied it. I pleaded. "No," she said, "I don't want you buying anything from that musky albino." God stirred her pot, and the song passed. When Nana caught me prostrate on the floor, she pulled me up and told me to honor my mother.
Nana and I spent a lot of time together while my mother worked. Well, I spent a lot of time with Nana's rules. One morning she caught me kissing the photo of black Jesus on my way to the bus stop. With her wet, bony palm she slapped me downward on the left temple. I didn't know that much pain existed in all the world. She cursed me dizzy with words I didn't know yet. Then she sat me down and read the Ten Commandments to me in more words I didn't know. I did understand that there were primarily just ten, just ten laws not to be broken. That finite sensibility meant everything to me. I may not have made it through the school day without that number, having been poked with such an emotional ice pick as only my Nana could.
In class I stared at my teacher and wondered. Electricity crackled in my blood and out my ears. She had skin like fabric, a suede eel with really great breasts. Then I knew what I had to do. When I got home I found Nana's mammoth Bible and turned to the book of Exodus and skimmed the commandments. I had to choose one, so I picked "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." My Wite-Out pen in hand, I blotted out that commandment and taped another over it: "Thou shalt not kiss black Jesus." It was specific. I was contented. In exchange for the freedom to lie I would no longer kiss Nana's black Jesus.
Several weeks passed by before the alterations to this particular holy text went noticed. Christmas left reluctantly and the Southern California rains came in lackluster sprinkles or vigorous downpours. I'd also discovered a few more transgressions that needed to be included in the commandments. Now I was free to lie at will, covet my neighbor's ass, and completely ignore the Sabbath day as needed. The day Nana found the Post-it note that read "thou shalt not drip milk on the carpet," she roared like a car crash.
"The Bible is God's word," she said, "and God is His word. That's like trying to cover up the Lord Himself. You can't put Wite-Out on God!"
"Then they shouldn't have put God on paper!" I told her.
Nana belongs to the generation of obedience as success and atonement as failure. I belong to the generation of choose your own adventure. Life means adaptation and renewal. I may convert to new faiths. I may travel to foreign communities. My arm may end up in some witch doctor's stew. I may taste like soy sauce and tears. Each cell of the planet may be lovely and terrible, but we aren't afraid to look and see. Nana calmed a little, and we spoke like women. She told me Jesus had copper skin and hair of wool, which sounds a lot like my uncle Sheldon. I confessed my reason for kissing Nana's Jesus. For good luck, I said. I lied. The truth I didn't know how to say then. I'd never kissed a man yet, of course, not a father or a brother or a lover. Kissing that photo meant kissing the best of all men because the best of all men is the one very carefully imagined.
Nana made me fix her Bible for the most part. So the commandments were returned to stone, and I had my ritual. Several winters later Nana isn't able to walk on her own anymore, so I stay by her most afternoons and read. She says I killed her with my defiance. I think I might be stealing her size. I grow bigger, and she grows smaller. When morticians remove organs and weigh them, does anyone measure the tare of the body? What does one weigh without the heart? I'd guess as much as the dead, almost nothing. I read to her from the Bible or magazines or Christmas stories that Nana approves of, but they're never the same when I say them. My mood changes and so does hers. Tonight I tell her, "The crucifix hung from the chimney with care, and Santa's reindeer stood on two hooves with hips jutted to the side in the universal manner of disbelief. Jingle your bells for me, baby; we are all angels." When she is gone I will miss her forever.
I'm sure there were errors beforehand — accidental ingestion of household cleaner, a burned palm on the stove, fingers slammed in doors, slips on wet surfaces, a house key in an electrical socket, choking on small objects, near drowning in the tub, and scabs aplenty. I can't speak about those for sure, but I know one incident well, and it was quite the spectacular, tremendous, soul-quivering collapse of good judgment and luck for my family. I was six. Moms couldn't drive for shit. I wish I could say it was a dark and stormy night, but it was a bright, cold, Sunday morning, my favorite kind. It reminded me of the time I slipped crotch down on the exercise bike in the living room and Pops had me sit on a bag of frozen peas. That would've been a day I thought impossible had it not happened. To numb the scrotum via frozen peas is a special kind of euphoria. I wore the hell out of my big boy pants that fateful Sunday morning and ate my entire chocolate, smiley face pancake at IHop. Moms wanted to drive us home afterwards. Pops pushed his lips out and the eyebrows caved in, which meant nothing good, nothing safe. Still, he loved my moms, and that was risky business.
Uncle Dwayne always said Moms had a lead foot. That made me a little proud, proud to be born from a woman with foot bones of metal. I had pride in her feet, at least one of them. My uncle has all of Psalm 139:14 tattooed on his forearm. When Moms caught me writing "one fish two fish, red fish blue fish" on my arm with a marker, she cursed him out mercilessly. Even though Dwayne outweighed her by 105 pounds, she continued. She called him a bad influence, of course, said he should find his own place to live, work more at the tattoo parlor she and Pops helped finance, said he blamed everything and everybody for his mistakes, said he blamed their parents and then the Marines, said she didn't want me to wander through the world blind, breaking things all the time like he did. Moms backed Dwayne into the space between the upright piano and the bookshelf. He flailed his arms and struck her on the lip. Quiet. I heard the house pop the way old houses do every now and then. Moms used her tongue to pull back the blood without taking her eyes off my uncle. They just looked at each other. He didn't apologize. Looking on it now, their conversation didn't seem new. Dwayne's expressions and my mother's violent tongue seemed well rehearsed, somewhat dull to them both. Dwayne's hand was open and rising when Moms was hit, the same way people open and raise their hands to block a glaring light. Both of them told Pops it was an accident. Accident or not, she was right. I did want to follow Dwayne. I would have followed him everywhere. He was always the biggest thing in the room. That meant authority to me, even then, even over my own mother.
Behind the wheel that Sunday my mother stopped being a too-skinny woman with carpal tunnel; she steered like a mad phantom impervious to solid objects and the sorry limitations of a three-dimensional world. Her face offered no emotion. Pops, on the other hand, tightened his body like deadened lobster meat; the terror of mortality widened his nostrils. She half stopped at stop signs. To her STOP meant roll with caution. No other car ever went as fast as we did, even in parking lots. Pops looked back at me. What he saw relaxed him. I suppose that happens when a person witnesses joy undiluted. "You're loving this, Alain," he said to me. I did. I loved the speed. Then our car collided with a news van five blocks from my home. I vomited up what looked like emulsified egg yolk and gutter silt. The impact killed my parents and broke my back. Dwayne and I keep their ashes together on the lowest shelf in the rear of the kitchen cabinet.
It is a bad habit we humans have, doing unsavory things with the dead.
Uncle Dwayne became my parental figure for the next ten years. Being cared for by an adult single man with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is some exciting and scary shit. Odd alone does not describe the experience justly. Dwayne always lived in our house on the floor in the den, and even after my parents passed, that's where he stayed, leaving the master bedroom unoccupied. He tried to tell me my wheelchair was a spaceship, a time machine, an assault vehicle with semiautomatic weapon capabilities. Dwayne stood six feet five inches and had skin like diet cola poured from a can, full of motion and light. In his head he was a rock star. In front of me he was a Minotaur, hooves and muscle in too-sheer boxers. I didn't just play along for the first few years, I basked in his sudden revelations. He always had big ideas. Once he drained the pool at our house and built a slide for me to go down. The problem was I could never get out of the pool if I didn't have help. One night I slid down on my own, and the thrill of the fall, the independence of being by myself in the dark outside elated me, but, of course, my chair slipped, and I landed on my shoulder. That glorious error allowed me the chance to watch the stars alone for five hours with a fractured collarbone. I thought there would be stars, but the majority of the sky presented just blackness, great and numb and chilled. Only the bizarre passenger jets and helicopters with their goofy dragonfly mannerisms floated under the dark. The eleven-year-old air conditioner whirred then stopped, then whirred then stopped in even intervals. The odor of animal waste is a noble thing, the truest evidence of living. All that evidence of life from the farms miles and miles away and the pets just over the fences nearby collected in a fierce, invisible cloud. The night wind remained callous and inert.
I thought there should be stars as I lay, so I put them there. Only a slight tip of my head could be managed postfall, but that was all I needed to drain the water from my eyes and see clearly every now and again. I filled the sky with whole galaxy clusters. I placed stars at impossible distances right next to the moon and almost the same size, still bright and molten but harmless. My moms used to draw, mostly when she was unhappy. She bought paper but would draw on anything blank and flat. She put glowering faces on the inside lids of my cereal boxes, a warning not to eat too much. She drew on the blank pages of my children's books, always the most unlikely things: enormous fruit with mouths and hands but no eyes, bloated princesses with really small feet and heads, unicorns with steering wheels and tires instead of hooves, toilets with chains over the lid, and pillows with reptilian tails and fangs. I remember laying my books open on my bed to look at the drawings a few years after the accident. That became the day I couldn't remember their faces, Moms and Pops, anymore. I remembered what they looked like in the photos around the house, the same way I remember what Komodo dragons look like from photos and video but not the way they look like lying next to me. I've never met a Komodo dragon, so I, of course, wouldn't remember. That feeling was important, so I told Dwayne. I told him it was like I'd never met my parents. He grabbed my wrist hard and held it a long time. We didn't speak while he held me, but he was angry. Maybe it was the way I said it, almost laughing, I think. I couldn't have been more than ten maybe. Dwayne's forearm tensed, the ropes of veins swelling under the scripture, "I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." Narcissists love that; it makes vanity seem ordained, holy. Eventually I cried even though I had no language for the moment, but I understood I was wrong, wrong for laughing, wrong for talking about my parents at all. From then on I left the books closed and didn't consider the ashes.
To me, life after the accident became a ten-year camping trip with my uncle. We had a mystical never-ending supply of canned ravioli and ketchup. The heel of his left foot was blown off, so he walked on the balls of his feet like he was in a production of Swan fucking Lake. It's dainty. Ten years later we were still together. More than once Dwayne camped out with me in front of the electronics store at midnight, waiting for the release of a new video game. Gamers aren't all black tees and adenoids like Kieshandra says. Gaming is the great equalizer, for sure. Race, disabilities, and that bullshit go out into the wind. For $59.99 plus tax we all become gods of light and destiny, sadistic in our will to see each other subdued.
One morning I came into the kitchen and accidentally rolled over one of Dwayne's precious sketches he let fall on the floor. You'd think I just crushed the head of a new baby the way he reacted. Turns out it was one of Tonie's sketches. Tonie is the big-boobed, hermaphrodite lawyer that co-owned Dwayne's tattoo parlor. She took over the finances after my parents passed. I think my uncle was in love with Tonie, but that goes without saying. Once he was finished coddling that sketch and hissing at me, he went over to the cabinet, leaned his buffalo head down and asked, "What you ever gon' do with this in here that's crowding up the back shelf with all this in here?"
"What?" I asked.
"This in here next to the potato flakes and Vienna sausages on the bottom shelf in here!"
"The potato flakes?"
"The fucking potato flakes. Are you listening to me with the fucking potato flakes? These ashes, Alain!"
He said it like I was supposed to have been working on a plan for the past ten years, and some invisible deadline was fast approaching. I had no idea what he meant. I had no idea that ashes had to have something done to them or with them or whatever.
"I'm not doing anything with that."
Dwayne rubbed his forearm and swore again. That was never a good sign. He looked me in the eyes then looked away like he was taking over command of a mission I had no clue was in operation. He had that gleam, another of his big ideas gathered roots in his head and was gonna sprout some fiendish blossom big as my face sooner or later. Of course it turned out to be sooner, the worst kind of sooner.
"Remember I told you Tonie is coming to dinner tonight for a little while because I told you before that Tonie is coming to dinner ..."
"I got it. I got it."
Dwayne collects ghosts, always has. Even if there were no wars for him, I think he'd hoard bad memories like some dirty cats. He let my parents linger in their bedroom after death. He put their ashes in the one place that gets opened multiple times a day. His bad habit of gathering all the stones of tragedy that should be at the bottom of a lake and counting them made me wary. I figured he wanted to recruit Tonie in his newest plan to pay homage to his sister and brother-in-law, to honor them somehow, to prop up their bones and scream to the world that he's done well. More than that, I knew Dwayne planned to propose. Maybe he planned some kind of farewell ceremony with my parents' ashes and a marriage proposal combination. I actually felt relief knowing that Tonie would be there soon. She calmed Dwayne, distracted him. With her, this next episode could pass smoothly until the next after that.
Excerpted from "Black Jesus and Other Superheroes"
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Black Jesus Brim A Savior, Belief, Tupac, and Balloons We Buy Gold The Hurt Will Make You Stronger Chew Take Me to the Water In the Middle of Everything There Are Ribbons of Light String Theory A Brief Excerpt from the History of Salt Ephemeros Dog People Barbers End of the World Ways to Mourn an Asshole Rites They Only Look Like They’re Smiling The Immolator There Are No Ninjas in the End Hold ’til Warm Ravished Not Like You, Not at All The Annie Oakley Gun Training for Women Scars Run Away Screaming