With deep insight into character, intimate relationships, and the modern search for personal freedom, In the Not Quite Dark is powerful new work that feels both urgent and timeless.
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J.'s brother, Kenny, was always saying something that J.J. tried not to agree with. A proclamation would come out of Kenny's mouth, and J.J. would say, "That's not true," and then while the word true hung there between them, J.J. would realize that he did agree with his brother and hated himself for it. This time Kenny said, "There's too many niggas moving into the neighborhood. It's time to go." J.J. let that idea swirl around in his head, let it touch down and rise again like the funnel cloud of a tornado, and then began to explain, again, why it was uncool for a man of color to complain about too many black people in the neighborhood.
But Kenny just said, "Jay, I ain't got time for your college bullshit right now. Niggas broke into my house and stole my shit!"
They were standing in the middle of Kenny's living room, which had been torn apart by a gang, the Rogues, who had come by on bicycles, Martinez from across the street said.
"They didn't look like anything," he said. "Just boys on bikes ringing the doorbells. But they were Rogues." His arms were crossed so that J.J. could see his purple and faded USMC tattoo. His green eyes narrowed with vengeance. "Fucking Rogues," he said, and he stroked his shiny goatee, and Kenny lamented the fact that the rottweiler, his security, was dead. "After all that money on health insurance for that dog."
The sun bathed the living room in amber, making all the broken and destroyed glasses, vases, and lamps gleam like pieces of pirate treasure. J.J. stood next to Kenny, across from Martinez, and every time he shifted his foot, he felt and heard the crunch of his sister-in-law's smashed knickknacks. They were swap-meet figurines of black people playing jazz instruments or posed in swing dancing positions or little angels with halos painted unevenly around their curly ceramic hair.
"Why they do this?" Kenny said. "They didn't have to do all this. I wish I would catch one of them Negroes tearing up my house."
"This isn't right," Martinez said with certainty.
J.J. was hot, and squeamish about his brother throwing around the n-word. He looked at Martinez, protective of his sensibilities, but he was also looking at Kenny, as if for a game plan.
"It's hot, man," J.J. said. "Turn on the air conditioning?"
His T-shirt was stuck to his back after driving all the way from L.A. in his beat-up Toyota, which, of course, never had air conditioning. He had driven from UCLA, the coolness of a distant ocean breeze turning into dry desert air the deeper he got into the valley and the closer he got to Palm Springs. His brother, his mother and father, had moved miles and miles from Los Angeles, from crime, to homes they could afford. Driving under an overpass, J.J. briefly thought of covered wagons, all the distances people have traveled. But mostly, the landscape reminded him of space, the final frontier. The hills surrounding J.J. as he drove were dry, a combination of pale dirt and jagged rocks, and J.J. always had the feeling that he was driving through some other planet, the Mars or Pluto or Jupiter of Star Trek or late-night Twilight Zone episodes, land here on Earth that almost passed as outer space. Driving in his car, his flesh had cooked for an hour.
Kenny sucked his teeth and rolled up the sleeves of his red Adidas sweat suit. He was tall, not as tall as J.J., but J.J. always felt that Kenny loomed over him. Kenny was fifteen years older, and all his life, J.J. felt as though he had two fathers. Kenny's eyes, barely visible through his tinted glasses, cut through a person. With those eyes, people and situations were surveyed, decisions made instantly and never revisited. Good or bad. Yes or no. Those were the choices that Kenny gave you. Kenny had just come back from the gym and had missed the Rogues by about five minutes. The minute Kenny discovered someone had been in the house, he crossed the street and got his best friend, Martinez. But J.J. had come in the middle of the crime scene by accident. He was stopping by to borrow five hundred bucks from Kenny to make his rent. Kenny hadn't even known he was coming, but J.J. knew he'd have the money. As he pulled up, the two men had been crossing the street, slow and easy, too disgusted and too late to do anything else but have a beer.
Kenny crossed the room, wiping sweat from his shaved head and taking long strides over his ruined things. Martinez took sips from his Heineken. Kenny did not seem to hear J.J.'s question about the air conditioning, so he asked again.
"You want air?" Kenny sipped his beer. "That shit cost money, air conditioning. Better nigga-rig you a fan or something. There's some newspaper on the table."
J.J. still didn't know what the deal was about his brother. So cheap about the weirdest things, things that made a person comfortable, but he thought nothing of blowing his and his wife Joy's phone-company salary on jewelry or shiny tire rims that spun even when the car was not in motion, on health insurance for their dog, who J.J. had resented to the dog's dying day. He had bitten J.J. when he had tried to feed him, and he shook his head at the memory. Kenny seemed to think that J.J. was shaking his head about something else. "Sorry, College," Kenny said, winking at Martinez. He pointed his thumb at him and gave Martinez a look. "Scuse my French. Afro-engineer that shit. Here." He handed J.J. a newspaper from the table and slapped hands with Martinez. "This makes me want to beat somebody, I swear to God," Kenny said, and he looked around his living room as if it were the first time he'd seen the mess. The brown leather couch had been pulled from the wall for some reason, and the Rogues managed to knock a giant print off the mantel, a portrait of a serene black woman in a white church hat with a wide brim, bowing her head and clutching her white bible. Opposite the portrait, in the hallway, there was a trail of clothes, a jumble of colors and fabrics that spilled into the living room as if someone had been crawling and shedding and suddenly disappeared.
J.J. waved the paper over his face and agreed. It was, in fact, fucked up. But it would have been just as fucked up if white boys had done it. He would have told Kenny this ordinarily. Instead, he said stupidly, "We have a black president now. It's like you're talking about him when you're calling people the n-word."
Kenny looked at J.J. with squinting, concerned eyes as though J.J. was suddenly speaking Chinese. He said, "Well Obama don't live in this neighborhood, do he?"
There was a knock on the door while they considered the circumstances. Nobody moved to answer it, and they all watched with suspicion as the door slowly opened. J.J. glanced at his brother for clues. But it was just Kenny's other neighbor, Paul MacNally from two houses over, who let himself in. His flip-flops smacked on the entryway linoleum, and when he saw the mess, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans that were covered in paint.
"Bro. Just got home. Kim told me." He shook his head, and J.J. saw speckles of white paint on his sunburned face, which managed to be both youthful and craggy. "My house. Fucking Martinez's. Now yours. Shit's out of hand, dude." He reached back and tightened his ponytail.
Kenny raised his head, which was bowed down, studying his floor. "Get you a beer, Paul," Kenny said from the couch, and then he pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his sweats. "Calling the cops. They ain't gone do shit, but still."
Summertime and J.J. WAS struggling. He worked in the mall, selling cell phones part-time after losing an internship at Intel Finance Group, which he'd gotten through the business school. He had read the internship description and liked the company's favorite activity, "A trip to our Santa Clara headquarters (via our private jets) for finance intern event." He had applied, enticed by the private jets, but failed to "possess a firm grasp of financial statements and their interrelationships." He'd gotten fired, his supervisor said, "for being half-assed and lazy." She had stood behind her large, glass-covered desk then, and walked him to her office door, the smell of her musky perfume trailing behind her. J.J. had reached out to shake her hand and thank her, and she had gripped his hand and pumped it three times meaningfully, her brown, bluntly cut bangs bouncing with each pump, unspoken communication for Get your shit together. He double majored in English, the compromise for his parents, who thought going to school for anything that didn't make you money at the end of four years made as much sense as working for free. "I don't care what else you study," his father said, "but the main thing better get you a good job." Now, though, he was qualified to do exactly nothing that would get him through his last summer before senior year. He had never been a waiter, bartender, retailer, host, mechanic, accountant, bus driver. Two years at Taco Bell summed up his experience before college, and during the school year he was a work-study student stuffing envelopes and running errands for the campus news service. And English? What was he thinking? English was like a pretty girl you had a crush on. Just because you thought you loved her, it didn't mean you had to have her. And yet he couldn't stop thinking about how much he wanted her. All the places they went together when he was a boy, while his parents fought over money. What happened to that twenty dollars? Why you buy name brand? Why you shop at Ralphs? You should have went to Stater Brothers. Ralphs groceries too high! J.J. just kept turning pages, traveling distances far, far away from home. But now, where to go? How to get there? How to make a living? There was the Peace Corps. He could volunteer. Some place in Africa? But when he thought about doing something noble like that, he could only think about being broke. He was only twenty-one, but he already felt like he wanted to start over. "And all this time you could have been making money," Kenny always said. "Could have got you on at the phone company. Benefits and everything. I swear you don't have sense."
What he had been hoping for at Kenny's was a pop-in, grab-the-money, pop-out type of deal, but instead he was in the middle of a mess that was going to take a while. Kenny had a plan. It was early evening now, and everybody sat in the dining room while the television played on the kitchen counter and the lights from the pool shimmered in the backyard, just over Martinez's shoulder. Beyond the backyard fence, the mountains looked close enough to touch, dark shadows layered in blues, purples, and reds. The mess in the living room was cleaned up, and the figurines that were left looked lonely to J.J. Every time he glanced at them, they looked back at him with shiny, off-centered pupils as if to say, Do something!
"This is what we need to do," Kenny said. He played with the jumble of diamonds that ringed his pinky. The only ring he had left, since the Rogues took most of his other jewelry. Insured or not, his stuff was still gone, and he was pissed. "We have to watch out. Everybody really pay attention the next few days. Starting tonight. I mean stay up late if you have to. Police came and took their little fingerprints and whatnot, but I ain't holding my breath for some kind of Columbo shit to happen where they gone magically find these niggas with my valuables gift-wrapped with To Kenny on a tag or some bullshit."
J.J.'s sister-in-law, Joy, sat next to Kenny and sipped her wine. She still had on her makeup from her workday at the phone company but was wearing pink terry cloth sweats with a matching hoodie. She had divided her long dreadlocks into two ponytails, and to J.J. she looked like she could be one of their children. "Stop saying nigger, Kenny," she said tonelessly, sounding bored with her own request.
Kenny ate a handful of popcorn and washed it down with a sip of beer. "I pay a twelve-hundred-dollar house note every month and I'm sitting in my house, at my table, eating food I bought, so nigga, nigga, nigga."
"You're crazy, dude," Paul said with a smile, a careful smile, J.J. thought. Paul's eyes crinkled in the corners, and he had creases there even when he wasn't smiling, but his mouth was a straight line of politeness.
Martinez said, "Well." He had switched over to water. "I gotta work in, like, eight hours, but I could watch after."
"Not me, dude," Paul said. "My two jobs are killing me. Paint in the day and my graveyard shift at the plant, bro."
Kenny looked at Joy, and when she leveled her eyes at him, he looked away. "Right." She rose from the table and yawned. "Don't get your asses kicked by little kids," she said, and she disappeared around the kitchen corner.
"Well." Kenny pushed his beer can around the circles. "I have to get some sleep tonight because I have to pull a double tomorrow."
Everybody nodded with understanding, and Kenny gave J.J. a hard look. He shrugged and held his hands up. What?
"I mean, it's not like you got shit to do," Kenny said, and J.J. thought that if he was going to borrow money, again, that the least he could do would be to keep watch, at least for one night. But after, he would ask about the money. Now, he was a volunteer out of the goodness of his heart.
They stood in the garage, whispering. It was twelve thirty in the morning, and Kenny explained the mission. J.J. was going to sit in a lawn chair between the closed garage door and Kenny's enormous black Hummer that J.J. had told him not to lease because it was bad for the environment — and tacky. He tried again. "This car. Conspicuous, bro," J.J. said. "Conspicuous consumption. Plain and simple."
"As hard as I work?" Kenny said. "I will buy, lease, or drive whatever the fuck kind of car I want to. You can drive that busted-up Toyota, professor," he said, and he stroked the back of the car. He left a clean streak through the fine dust. "People see me coming when I drive this car."
It had to be ninety degrees in the darkness. The breeze blew the palm trees that lined the streets, and the streetlights were on, but J.J. would still be hidden when he sat down in the chair. In the distance, he could see the silhouette of the hills that had a big white M for Moreno Valley. Somebody close by was playing something being sung in Spanish, and a dog in a nearby yard barked rhythmically, three yelps at a time. "You good?" Kenny put his hand on his brother's shoulder. He yawned. J.J. yawned too, watching his brother. He wanted to be able to listen to the oldies station, to read his book of E. E. Cummings poems, but it was too dark to read, and any kind of noise would give him away.
"Yeah, I'm good."
"First thing you see or hear that's shady, you come and get me. Wake my ass up, all right?"
"Yeah," J.J. said. "For reals. I will."
"Check it out." Kenny pointed. "See that light way over there?" Kenny followed his brother's finger and saw a soft, solitary light twinkling in the distance. "Somebody just built that house. It's nice. I drove up to it the other day, but they got a big-ass fence around it." Kenny jutted his chin out toward a house across the street. "It ain't like over there." New people had moved in and left a couch on the sidewalk in front of their house. They had three beat-up cars, and one of them, a lime green Plymouth Fury, was up on blocks. "Look at that." He rolled up his sleeves as though he was getting ready for something other than bed. "What did I tell you about this neighborhood?"
One hour went by. It was one thirty. Cars went down the street, and then fewer did. It was two. Two thirty. The street got quiet, and nothing happened. A young girl and boy walked by, with a stroller. The boy wore a dark hoodie, which made J.J. sit up straight, suspicious. But they walked by without saying anything or doing anything. Two young people taking a walk with their baby. That was all. Nothing, nothing, and J.J. was falling asleep when he heard a car driving by slowly. He was suddenly alert, one eye peering around the edge of the Hummer. A tan Toyota stopped in the middle of the street, directly in front of the house opposite Kenny's. He saw two figures gesturing and nodding. One looked bigger than the other; the other could very well be a child. What to do? What should he do? He got up from his chair and walked alongside the Hummer to the hatchback of the car and pretended to fiddle with it. "Damn," he said, loud enough to be heard, and he pulled on the door. "I forgot my key." He turned around to face the two figures in the idling car behind him. "Hey," J.J. said, his hands shaking, and they drove off without answering.
"Ain't nobody told you to conversate with them motherfuckers," Kenny said the next morning after J.J. reported what had happened. He was gesticulating with his coffee, and some of it splashed on the counter. The house was warm already, even though it was only seven in the morning. The sun was casting a golden hue on the hills beyond the backyard. On the television, there were some good-natured barbs traded between the morning-show hosts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Not Quite Dark"
Copyright © 2016 Dana Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Now, in the Not Quite Dark 51
Because That's Just Easier 67
No Blaming the Harvard Boys 81
Buildings Talk 101
Art is Always and Everywhere the Secret Confession 115
The Liberace Museum 121
She Deserves Everything She Gets 147
Two Crazy Whores 159
The Story of Biddy Mason 179
About the Author 207