The day begins with me realizing I am sore. My legs, butt, lower back, even my torso feel like I’ve been in a professional football game. Which is something I know a little bit about; once upon a time, though not for long, I ran with footballs for money. Presently, my soreness is the result of sitting for hours upon hours in writing workshops. I am smack in the middle of a ten-day residency learning to write good stories—like the one you’re currently reading. I had no idea that workshops could make one’s backside so tender. The soreness spurs me to comb the residency schedule for free time. Next thing you know, I am off to the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA for a hot tub, steam and sauna.
The Hollywood YMCA is a venerable old building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed in the early 1920s, the architectural motif is Spanish Colonial Revival. Boasting a magnificent courtyard of red clay tiles and delightful queen palms, the exterior oozes with the charm and character of a Spanish villa. And as you might imagine, being in Hollywood and all, the doors have witnessed a steady parade of human characters. The infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, when he wasn’t busy killing people, used to pound the heavy bag there. Think about that. A fit hitman? Lord have mercy.
Integral to my story are the handful of men who’ve been members for longer than I have been alive. It is not unusual to see a muscular, ninety-plus-year-old man swaggering through the locker room naked. Which I happen to find totally awe-inspiring. Not the naked part, necessarily, but the idea of being in the gym at ninety-plus. Typically, I pay homage to the old dudes by engaging in their favorite pastime, storytelling. They tell. I listen. My hope is one day the secret of longevity will slip. In the interim, however, I am happy to hear their stories. And man I’ve heard some doozies. One time, a guy who was an Ohio golden gloves champ in the 1930s—he’d come to Los Angeles by way of Vegas where he’d thrown fights for the mob—told me about the day George Clooney got his lip busted on the basketball court. Apparently, the pre-famous George was a pretty good hoopster, but a feisty, foul-mouthed competitor. And as feisty, foul-mouthed men tend to, he got into a brouhaha with the wrong guy. “Whamo!,” the old boxer told me, punching the air with his gnarly fist, “the guy hauls off and socks him one, right in the kisser.”
I arrive at the Y from my residency a tad after two. The parking lot is promisingly empty, and after making my way through the courtyard, past the check-in desk, I settle in a nearly empty, almost silent, locker room.
“Thank God,” I whisper to myself, “all the old dudes are gone.”
I love the old dudes. You know this. But after five straight days of considering plot and character, I do not need more plot and character. I need sensory deprivation. Meditation. Breathwork. And everything is going according to plan. I slip on my trunks and head for the Natatorium prepared to soak my glutes in relative quiet.
Ah, but it is not to be.
* * *
Natatoriums are noisy by nature. The walls are hard. I expect the ricochet splashing of languid afternoon lap swimmers. What I do not expect is the abrasive, bombastic voice that attacks my ears. The voice emanates from the hot tub across the room. I look. What I see sweeps me into the fairytale orbit of alternative facts.It is just before Christmas 2016. Like everyone else in the universe, mainstream media has been bombarding me with images of vajayjay grabbing white men. Said images land on me, a Negro, as somewhat nightmarish. Sort of like Jason Voorhees emerging from graveyard fog, fresh blood on his knife, whistlin’ Dixie. So, it makes sense that my mind could be playing tricks on me. For standing in the middle of the hot tub, I swear, is the aforementioned, vajayjay grabbing archetype of which I spoke.
Perhaps it is the combination of sun and skylights, but his loose, tumbling down skin looks as if it has been lightly dusted with turmeric. So does his hair. Which, incidentally, remains stiff as cement despite the steamy humidity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wonder how that is even possible. But I don’t take it any further because next I see his hands. And I’ll be damned if they aren’t the teeniest tiniest little things I’ve ever seen. He uses them, in a way that seems familiar, to accessorize his pompous bloviation.
I have entered a strange new world where truth and make-believe are one in the same. It has created a hot tub predicament. And I’m not quite sure what to do.
For years mainstream media has bombarded me with stereotypical images about myself. Yeah, I know it’s propaganda. Still, sometimes I get confused. For instance, whenever I wear hoodies, I find myself suspicious of my right hand, wondering if it might steal money from my left pocket. With that in mind, who knows what stereotype could be triggered if Tiny Hands starts using foul-mouthed locker room talk? I am pretty sure it won’t be Sambo, Coon or good ole’ Stepin Fetchit, who was television’s favorite Negro, back when America was Great. Lately, I’ve noticed Nat Turner, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X rumbling in my bones. Philando Castile’s murder did it. I’ve finally had enough.
You better head back to campus before there’s trouble. I sigh, shake my head and shuffle toward the door.
However, before I reach the Natatorium’s exit, a voice speaks to me: “You’ve got four years of this B.S. in your future, big fella. You may as well get some practice in controlling the savage, pistol totin’, thugged-out Negro you are programmed to be.”
I listen and decide to take a chance.
* * *
Tiny Hands stands in the middle of the hot tub swaddled in pure white steam bubbling off the surface. He blocks the path to my favorite jet, a strong one on the end that massages real good. I step in, navigate right past him, apparently unnoticed. And I’m not being sneaky or anything like that. He just can’t see me.
As soon as I sit down, exhale a long, relaxing breath, Tiny Hands says with a confident grin, “I just finished my book. I talked it over with a guy in publishing last night. He thinks I’m on to something big—gonna sell millions of copies.”
Well, well, well, I thought, perking up. Isn’t this a pleasant turn of events?
Tiny Hands is talking to a big, hard-bellied Russian I’ve seen around the gym before. The Russian, I’ve always suspected, is one Bad Hombre. Some kind of Hollywood mob king, slash internet pirate. I know because I’ve seen him and two other guys speaking Russian. Whispering, looking over their shoulders and whatnot. And everybody knows Russia never sends us their best. But that’s not the point. The point is the Russian smells a deal and is listening carefully. But now so am I—sheepishly ear hustlin’ the conversation while chastising myself for being so goddamn judgmental.
“You are disgraceful,” that ubiquitous, docile, Negro voice says to me; the one I hate who’s always singin’ about the sweet bye-and-bye. “Tiny Hands is a good writer. You wish you were a good writer. Give the man a chance. I’ll bet he’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet. Shameful, you are very shameful. Sad.”
You should know that I love, love, love words. Merriam-Webster’s Word of The Day podcast is like pecan pie with thick crust and vanilla ice cream. Words like cavalcade and vicissitude and crepuscular give me a rollercoaster thrill. And man, words strung together by masters like Dickens, Jay-Z, Hemingway, Kendrick Lamar, or Walter Mosley are just like, wow! With that brand of love, I open my heart to Tiny Hands’ story.
He rakes my nerves talking about how smart he is. “Just brilliant,” he says. “Everybody tells me my ideas are sensational.”
Bad Hombre nods then cuts a glance at me. By then I have slid myself along the hot tub’s great wall, and they are positioned right in front of me in steamy waist high water. It is obvious I am listening. Obvious I am yearning to talk story. But Tiny Hands does not appear to see me. I am an Invisible Man.
“I’ve built a massive company, okay. Incredibly massive,” he continues. “Now I’m going to use my business smarts to make lots of money selling books. It’s hard to believe as brilliant as I am that I never thought of this before.” He grins high and mighty. “It’s the most incredible idea ever. Revolutionary.”
“Oh my God,” I mutter. “These idiots have scripts.”
I think he’s heard me because he pauses. Looking my direction, though, he gazes over my head, pondering, staring off into the future. After a beat, he turns to Bad Hombre with a rising grin, says “You know, I’m thinking this could be the biggest return on investment in the history of business. It only took me a month to write the book!”
Total sacrilege, I think. Nobody writes a book in a month.
Bad Hombre seems to hear me think. He glances at me and sees my eyes have narrowed and I am frowning.
Then Tiny Hands confuses us both. “I’m looking for a Chinese translator,” he says. “Know anybody?”
This time Bad Hombre holds my eyes. His thick Russian brow is heavy with questions. But hell, I don’t know what to say. I shrug, turn my palms up and mouth, “Chinese translator?”
“There are what, a couple billion Chinese?” Tiny Hands says flippantly. “After I translate the book I’m going to self-publish, put it on Amazon for two, maybe three, maybe even six bucks. I’m going to make a fortune.”
Bad Hombre asks, “Your book… tell me what is it saying?”
Tiny Hands scoffs, says “It doesn’t matter. What matters is the deal. The money.”
I snap. Off the wall, I fly with my fists raised.
I have stood by before, watching as they occupied Wall Street, watching as they protested the Dakota Access Pipeline; always watching. Not this time, though. I think, profoundly, First they came for the words, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the paragraphs, and I did not speak out. Then they came for the books, and I did not speak out. Then they came for writers, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Guessing by the terror in his wide eyes, Tiny Hands has finally seen me. An angry Negro sprung from the shadows (like he’d been warned) to harm his innocent white body. As we stand there, our eyeballs locked together, I sense another goddamn predicament.
If I touch him, I am going prison. Probably for a long, long time. But when the world finds out why, I’ll be recognized as a literary martyr. And that seems like a good thing. I envision millions of book-loving Americans marching on my behalf—chanting that I should be free. And in a profound historical moment, broadcast live on mainstream media, I will stand before the court shackled and collared like my ancestors. My last words before being converted into a widget in the Prison Industrial Complex will be those of Dr. Charles Johnson. I will say, “The health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. So am I wrong, then, for busting Tiny Hands’ lip?” A hush would fall over the courtroom. And then—
Eh, it sounds like fun.
But I have a workshop starting in an hour.
And everybody knows traffic in Los Angeles is no joke.
Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. He writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. His work has never been published though he hopes that one day it will (wink).