In the title story, La Donna is a black stripper whose white boyfriend, an actor in adult movies, insists that she stop stripping. In "Melvin in the Sixth Grade," eleven-year-old Avery has a crush on a white boy from Oklahoma who, like Avery, is an outsider in their suburban Los Angeles school. "Markers" is as much about a woman's relationship with her mother as it is about the dissolution of her relationship with an older Italian man.
Dana Johnson has an intuitive sense of character and a gift for creating authentic voices. She effortlessly captures the rhythmic vernaculars of Los Angeles, the American South, and various immigrant communities as she brings to life the sometimes heavyhearted, but always persevering, souls who live there.
About the Author
DANA JOHNSON is a professor of English in the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Elsewhere, California: A Novel.
Read an Excerpt
melvin in the sixth grade
Maybe it was around the time that the Crips sliced up my brother's arm for refusing to join their gang. Or it could have been around the time that the Crips and the Bloods shot up the neighborhood one Halloween so we couldn't go trick-or-treating. It could have even been the time that my brother's friend, Anthony, got shot for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But my father decided it was time to take advantage of a veteran's loan, get out of L.A., and move to the suburbs. Even if I can't quite nail the events that spurred the move, I know that one and a half months after I climbed into my father's rusted-out Buick Wildcat and said good-bye to 80th Street and hello to Vermillion Street with its lawns and streets without sidewalks, I fell for my first man.
From the day Mrs. Campbell introduced him to the class, reprimanded us for laughing at his name, and sat him down next to me, I was struck by Melvin Bukeford with his stiff jeans, white creases ironed down the middle, huge bell-bottoms that rang, the kids claimed, every time the bells knocked against each other. Shiny jeans because he starched them. Melvin sporting a crew cut in 1981 when everybody else had long scraggly hair like the guys in Judas Priest or Journey. Pointed ears that stuck out like Halloween fake ones. The way he dragged out every single last word on account of being from Oklahoma. The long pointednose and the freckles splattered all over his permanently pink face. Taller than everybody else because he was thirteen.
All that and a new kid is why nobody liked him. Plus he had to be named Melvin. All us kids, we'd never seen anything like him before, not in school, not for real, not in California. And for me he was even more of a wonder because I was just getting used to the white folks in West Covina, the way they spoke, the clothes they wore. Melvin was even weirder to me than the rest of them. It was almost like he wasn't white. He was an alien of some kind. My beautiful alien from Planet Cowboy.
I was writing Melvin Melvin Melvin Melvin, Mrs. Avery Arlington Bukeford on my Pee Chee folder by Melvin's second week of school. We walked the same way home every single school day. I fell in love with the drawl of his voice, the way he forgot the "e" in Avery; "Av'ry," he said it soft, or "AV'ry" when he thought I'd said the funniest thing, squinting at me sideways and giving me that dimple in his left cheek. All that made me feel like, well, just like I wanted to kiss my pillow at night and call it Melvin. So I did. "Ohhh, Mellllvin," I said, making out with my pillow every night. "Ohhh yeahh, Melvin."
I was keeping all that a secret until my eighteen-year-old brother saw my folder one day and asked me who Melvin was. "None ya," I said, and he said he knew it had to be some crazy-looking white boyor a Mexican, because that's all West Covina had.
"Avery's done gone white boy crazy!" he called out. "I'ma tell Daddy!"
I ran into my room and slammed the door to stare at my four bare walls because Daddy had made me take down the posters I'd had up, all centerfolds from Teen Beat and Tiger Beat magazines. For one glamorous week I had Andy Gibb, Shaun Cassidy, and Leif Garret looking down on me while I slept. But one day Daddy passed my door, took one look at Leif Garret all blonde and golden tan in his tight white jeans that showed off a very big bulge, and asked me, "Avery, who in the hell are all these white boys?"
"Oh, Daddy, that's just Andy"
"Get that shit down off those walls right now," Daddy said. He glared at Leif Garret.
I couldn't figure out why he was yelling at me. "But why"
"What did I say?" he demanded.
"Take the posters down," I mumbled. And that's why I was staring at four blank walls.
But that was OK, because Melvin was my world. I didn't need him up on the wall. I had him in my head. I turned on the radio to listen to Ozzy Osbourne, who'd just bitten the head off a dove a few days before, singing about going off the rails on a crazy train.
Two months since being the new girl myself, Melvin was the only one who called me by my name; otherwise the other kids usually named me after my hairstyle. Like Minnie Mouse or Cocoa Puffs if I wore my hair in Afro puffs. Or Afro Sheen if my mother had greased my hair and pressed it into submission the night before. Or Electric Socket if I was wearing a plain old Afro. Avery. To hear that coming out of someone else's mouth at school was like hearing "Hey, Superstar."
They were warming up to me, though. Lisa White, who always smelled like pee, had invited me to her Disneyland party. Why, I don't know, but I was going, grateful to be going. For no reason, one day, she said, "Hey, you," when she saw me standing by the monkey bars watching her and a bunch of friends jumping rope. "Come to my party if you want to." What I heard was something like, "Hey you, you just won a trillion, bizillion, cabillion dollars."
But everything had become even more tricky than usual. Lisa didn't like Melvin. Nobody did.
One day when the smog wasn't so bad in the San Gabriel Valley (the air was only orange, not brown, and you could sort of see the mountains if you squeezed your eyes some), Melvin and I stopped at the same place we did every day after school: by the ivy in front of Loretta Morales's house on the corner, fat Loretta with feathered hair and green eyes, in high school now, even though we used to play Barbies together, who got down with boys now, who had a mother in a wheelchair for no reason I could figure out. She could walk, Mrs. Morales.
Melvin stuck his hand in the ivy, pulling at this and that, not finding what he was looking for. "Hmm," he said. "Av'ry girl, I b'lieve you done took my cigarettes for yourself, ain't you?"
"Nuh uh!" I grinned at him and hugged my folders and books to my chest. "You just ain't looking good."
"Well, then, help me out some." He brushed his hands through the ivy like he was running them through bathwater to test it.
"There's rats in there." I wasn't going to put my hands in the ivy because it was dark and I couldn't see. If I couldn't see, there was no need to just stick my hands into all that dark space like a crazy person, I didn't think.
Melvin took off his jean jacket and handed it to me. It had MEL spelled out on the back with silver studs you pressed into the fabric. He was getting serious about looking for those Winstons. I put my face in his jacket and smelled it, since he wasn't watching me. It smelled like smoke and sweat and general boy. From then on forever, I decided, I would love the smell of boy.
"Here we go," he said in a minute. He stood up, tapped the package on his palm, pulled out the cigarette, popped it in his mouth, took the match that always seemed to be tucked behind his ear, struck it on his boot, and cupped the match while he lit his smoke, so the fire wouldn't go out. He drew a deep suck on his cigarette and then threw his head back and blew the smoke up toward the sky. Then he rolled the packet of cigarettes in the sleeve of his white T-shirt. I watched all this like a miracle.
"I been dying for that cigarette all day long. You don't know," he said, letting it dangle between his lips. He winked at me. "Whoo weee!" he hollered.
But I did know. How it felt to want something so bad. Whoo weee, Melvin. How could you not know?
Melvin tried to take his jacket back. "I got it," I said.
He shrugged. "If you wont to."
But five steps later we were at my street. Verdugo. So I had to give the jacket back anyway.
"Hey, Melvin," I started, trying to kill time and keep him with me a little longer, "you going to Lisa White's Disneyland party?" But the second the words were out of my mouth, I knew it was the dumbest question I could have asked. Like Lisa would have asked Melvin to her party, like Lisa even thought about Melvin. That was just stupid to even think. How dumb are you? I asked myself.
Melvin took his cigarette out of his mouth and offered me a puff, he knew I wouldn't. We had that little joke going on between us. He got a kick out of me being a Goody Two-shoes and not taking a puff, even though I nearly died at the thought of my lips touching something that Melvin's lips touched. He grinned. "There's your brother," he said, trying to scare me about the cigarette, but I knew Owen was already at work.
"You ain't funny, Melvin Bukeford," I said, and punched him in the shoulder.
He rubbed it like it hurt. I guess I punched him harder than I thought. "Dang, Killer, you tough when you wont to be, ain't you?" He took another puff before he said, "Lisa ast me to go to her party, but I said I didn't b'lieve I could cause of the money, but shoot, I can steal me enough money to go to Disneyland, I just ain't too impressed with her or no Disneyland neither."
I could not believe what I was hearing. Lisa asked Melvin and he said no? I thought I was asked because I was likedor on my way to be liked.
Melvin said, "She just askin everybody to say that everybody came to her little party. So what about her little pissy party." He stubbed out his cigarette. "Later, Miss Av'ry," he said, pulling on his jacket. "And don't be reaching into my stash of cigs else a big rat'll chew off your fingers."
"Nuh uh, Melvin!" I sang. I still stung from Lisa not really warming up to me that much after all, but Melvin's teasing and winking and dimples and smoke drifting hazy over his watery blue eyes made me happier. I would never need anything else in a man as long as I walked the planet earth. I watched him walk downhill in that odd slopey way he did, knees bending a little too deep at every step, like a flamingo. A flamingo smoking a cigarette wearing a studded denim jacket.
By the time I was walking through the door, home from school, Mama was running out the door to catch the bus to her first job at the sprinkler factory and later, her room-cleaning job, like always. I was only eleven but already taller than she wasand bigger all the way around. She was a little woman with a tiny neat Afro, but you didn't mess around and confuse the little and the tiny with the way she ran things. And with Daddy, when you saw big and tall, you didn't mess around with that either.
She didn't wait for me to speak before she started telling me what all I had to do. "... And the dishes, and put that pot of beans on. I already seasoned them. Don't put no more salt in them beans and mess em up, do and you know what you gone be in for. And your Aunt Rochelle sent you some more clothes. They in the living room. Be sweet." She patted me on the shoulders, hard, heavy so you could hear it even. Then she was out the door.
I was afraid to even look in the living room to see what kind of clothes were waiting for me. Aunt Rochelle's hand-me-downs from somebody's friend's cousin's daughter, used to be cool, but now that I was living in this new house in this new city far enough from L.A. that we were grateful when we saw other black people around town, I didn't like the hand-me-downs so much anymore because they were one more thing the kids could pick on me about. The fancy pants were Dittos or Chemin de Fers or Sergio Valentes or jackets that were Members Only. When they weren't calling me Afro Sheen they were calling me Polyester or Kmart, where I got my good clothes. Or they called me Welfare for getting in the "county" line when I lined up for my lunch from the free lunch program for people who needed it.
When I told my mother and father that I wanted different clothes, my mother said, "Chemin de Who for how much? You must be out your mind."
And of course I was. All eleven-year-olds were. I was out of my mind, especially for Melvin. Couldn't anybody understand that if I had just one cool outfit, like Melvin, I'd be on my way to the kids liking me for reals? Cool outfits may not have worked for Melvin, but he was an alien. I wasn't. If I tried hard enough, I'd be in. I found these lime-green polyester slacks that I really liked and put the rest of the clothes in the bottom of my bedroom closet. I imagined him saying, "Whoo wee, Ay'ry! Check you out!"
Melvin was going to get his ass kicked after school. I heard it from Terri Stovendorf, the tomboy with the protruding forehead and sharp teeth on the side like a dog. She got drunk behind the portables, cheap mobile add-ons to the rest of the elementary school. She was always pushing me around, making fun of the way I spoke. I didn't know there was anything wrong with the way I spoke. I said "prolly" when it was "probably." I said "fort" when they said "fart." I said I was "finna" go home and not "getting ready" to go home. That's how we'd always spoken and it was good enough until the suburbs. I started studying the kids and editing myself. Mama, I practiced in the mirror at home. I'm go-eng to do my homework. Go-eng. Who farted? Somebody farted?
"Groovy Jan and Cindy and Bobby and Marcia," Owen said, whenever he heard me. "Grue-vee."
When Terri told me the news, I was at the water fountain at recess taking a break from tetherball, trying to get some water from the warm trickle coming out. I had to put my lips right up against the spout and tried not to look at the gum somebody had stuck down by the drain. When I picked my head up and wiped the water from my mouth, Terri called me. "Hey, Burnt Toast."
I turned around.
"Really? Thanks." I smiled at her shyly.
"I was kidding, dumb-ass."
I scratched my scalp because I didn't know what else to do. I had eight neat cornrows that ran from my hairline to the base of my neck.
"Listen," Terri said, suddenly doing business. "You and that country cowboy guy are always going around." We said "going around" to mean dating. I smiled at the thought that people thought Melvin and I were together, even though I was still trying to keep my distance from him in front of other people. I was scared of having more wrath heaped on me.
"What are you smiling at, stupid?"
"We're not going together," I mumbled. I started kicking around a rock with my imitation Vans, which were cooler than cool sneakers. Mine were knockoffs from Kmart.
"No duh," Terri said. "Like Country Cowboy would even go around with a nigger. I meant, like, walking around and stuff."
I had been called so many names that even "nigger" didn't faze me anymore. Not so much anymore. There were Mexicans and Philippinos and Chinese kids sprinkled throughout the class, but they blended better than me. There was more than one of each of them, and when they were called "taco" when they were from Portugal or "chink," even when they happened to be Philippino or Korean, that was the best kids like Terri could do with them. With me, there seemed to be endless creativity. So all I said to Terri was "Melvin and me don't go around, walk around together. His house is on my way home."
"Whatever. He's going to get his ass kicked after school today, and you better not tell him."
"Because I'll kick your ass, too."
"No, I mean ..." I started cracking my knuckles. A bad habit I still have. I finally left the rock alone. "I mean, why are y'all going to beat up Melvin?"
Terri looked at me with disgust and wonder, like I was eating my own boogers, like Casey McLaughlin did. He modeled kid underwear because he was good looking; long eyelashes like a deer, and lips that always looked like there was lipstick on them. You could see him in those color junk ads that were always shoved in every mailbox in the neighborhoods, and he was as stupid as a stick.
"Are you a total moron?" Terri ran her hands through her stringy brown hair and left before I could answer.
I went looking for Melvin to tell, but I couldn't be seen telling him. I saw him sitting on a swing, all alone. Spinning in one direction real fast to tighten the swing chains and then spinning the other way as fast as he could to get that dizzy rush. The playground was full: a bunch of kids were playing touch football in the field, all the tetherballs were taken, two dodgeball games were going on, and both of the handball courts were taken. I couldn't see Terri, or cross-eyed Eddie Chambers, or nasty Hector Hernandez, who was always grabbing himself and lapping his tongue in and out like a snake at the girls. They would all be the ringleaders after school. The coast seemed clear enough to warn Melvin, but before I could make my way over to him, somebody called me.
"Hey, Turd Head," Harry Collins called out to me, my name whenever I wore cornrows. "We need one more person for butt ball." He walked over toward me with the red rubber ball while I tried to figure out how to say no. Butt ball hurt. You and one other person had to volunteer to get on your hands and knees facing the handball wall while two people threw the ball at you and tried to nail you in the behind. It hurt, for one, and for another, I never seemed to get my chance to try to nail somebody in the behind. Plus, that day there were my lime-green pants to think about. I didn't want to get dirt smudges on them. "Well?" Harry bounced the ball as though each bounce was a second ticking away. I stared at his stomach, which was always, no matter what, poking out from a shirt that was too small for him.
"I don't want to, Harry."
"Tough titty. We need another person."
"Well, I don't want to get my pants dirty." I kept looking over at Melvin to make sure he was still on the swings across the playground. If recess ended before I got a chance to tell him, he wouldn't have a warning.
"C'mon, man," Harry said. "Quit wasting time." He grabbed the front of my 94.7 KMET T-shirt that I'd gotten from somewhere and wore in hopes I'd have at least one cool piece of clothing. It was one of the radio stations that played Def Leppard and AC/DC, though in secret I still liked my Chi Lites 45, "Have You Seen Her?" better. Harry started pulling me toward the handball court, and when I resisted, he pulled so hard I fell down. I looked over at the swings. Melvin wasn't there. My slacks had a tear where I fell on my knees. I got mad because I told him to leave me alone and he didn't. I started to cry because I was mad and couldn't kick Harry's ass, couldn't do anything.
"You all right, Av'ry?" Melvin drawled, and suddenly he was standing beside me. I was happy he was there and scared to talk to him, to be caught with Melvin, be a combo with Melvin, permanently paired so nobody would ever accept me because of my connection to Country Cowboy. But I was still in love with his pointy costume ears, and when he spoke my name, it was the first time I'd heard it all day. Not even our teacher, old powdery Mrs. Campbell, had called on me that day. So I mumbled a thanks, I'm OK, and Harry sneered at the both of us just when the freeze bell rang.
It was the bell that told us recess was over and we were to stop whatever it was we were doing, whatever games we were playing, and come back inside. We always took the bell literally. Until the bell stopped ringing, we froze right on the spot, like statues, like mannequins. There were me, Harry, and Melvin, frozen, along with everybody else on the playground, while tetherballs kept twirling and balls kept bouncing.
This is how kids start fights: "Hey, so and so. I'ma kick your ass." For no reason, out of the blue. So when Melvin was trying to leave school with his jean jacket slung over his shoulder, that's what cross-eyed Eddie said to him. Everybody else just agreed. I had warned Melvin, but all he did was frown and offer me half his piece of Juicy Fruit.
There was, then, the usually core group of fighters and the spectators when Eddie shoved Melvin. "C'mon, Country Cowboy. Fuckin Elvis." Eddie wasn't as tall as Melvin, but he was big and sloppy. Melvin didn't seem concerned, though. He ran his right hand over his crew cut and took his jacket off his shoulder. Melvin didn't want it to get dirty. He handed it to the person closest to him without thinking, gapped-tooth John Thompson, who said, "I'm not holding your stupid jacket, Country Ass," and dropped it on the ground. Just for that instant, Melvin looked dumb and awkward, as though he honestly didn't expect such rudeness from anybody. He picked up his jacket and dusted it off. I was behind him and panicked when I thought he might know this, turn around, and ask me to hold his jacket while he fought. What would I do? It had taken me weeks to get to where I was, which wasn't very far, but I was grateful for that slight break in the torture. The tiny thaw in the frost. I was going to Disneyland with Lisa White, and even if she didn't like me so much now, maybe at the party she would see who I really was and then like me.
"Av'ry, hold my jacket, will you?" Melvin held it out and his nostrils flared a little bit when I hesitated. I glanced at Terri, who was looking straight at me with a psychotic grin on her face. Melvin thrust the jacket at me. I took it. And then, well, it slipped from my fingers and fell to the ground. Melvin looked at his jacket and then at me, those pale blue eyes looking at me brand new and different from any time before. We both left the jacket there, and then he beat the shit out of Harry, then Hector, then Eddie. Not Terri, because she was a girl, but she chased me home for two weeks straight, even though I didn't hold the jacket, and even though Melvin didn't care when I told him that they were going to kick his ass after school.
Walking home after the fight, Melvin didn't say more than five words to me. I can't even say that he walked home with me, because he was walking fast and I couldn't keep up. His legs were so long, and for every stride he took I had to take two. I was looking forward to him searching for his cigarettes in the ivy, but he said he wasn't going to go the way we usually went. He was going home another way. I couldn't blame him for being disappointed in me, I'd let him down after he'd come to my rescue during recess. But couldn't he understand that, really and truly, it wasn't a personal thing. Couldn't he understand that I could be completely in love with him, but just not want to make waves? And anyway, it wasn't like I threw the jacket down or anything. It slipped.
"But, Melvin," I said, trying to get him to go my way. "This is the quickest way to get home. Your house is straight ahead. Plus, what about your cigarettes? Aren't you dying for a cigarette?"
"Darlin ..." He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket and put it behind his ear. "I can get by with what I got right here until later."
Darlin. I'd never heard that from him, calling me that before. I didn't like the way it felt, like a pat on the head. Not like when he said my name, which felt like a kiss.
"See ya round," Melvin said and turned, walking uphill. I watched him for as long as I could see him, and I still didn't know that he was never going to walk my way again, but I was thinking, You probably should have picked up his jacket. Pro-ba-bly.
Too late. Melvin got farther and farther away, MEL on the back of his jacket, shimmering like diamonds, like he was some superstar. And me, I was feeling as though I wished somebody fighting had slugged me, too.
I walked up the hill to my house and replayed Melvin's fight. Only in my mind, it wasn't Melvin's fight. It became my fight. I imagined I had on a bad outfit, windowpane pants and a leather jacket, new not usedand a large, perfectly round Afro like the one Foxy Brown had when she pulled a gun from it and blew away some white man who was messing with her. Owen was obsessed with Pam Grier and her big breasts, and I was awed by her ability to whup ass. People who messed with Foxy were sorry, all right. Just when they though she was all brown sugar in a halter top, she had a gun or a karate kick to set them straight.
Excerpted from break any woman down by dana johnson. Copyright © 2001 by Dana Johnson. Excerpted by permission.