A young man, his head full of easy, random thoughts, cycled to his friend’s house. He rang the doorbell and heard the muffled tones of Winchester Cathedral resounding within. No answer. Pat – pat – pat. Drops of rain began to speckle the concrete stairs and his T-shirt. He leaned back and squinted skywards. The low elephantine clouds threatened a major dump. He peered inside, looking for movement on the other side of the lace curtains. Damn, Bo had said to come right over.
He pulled out his phone and saw Bo’s text: “Getting nacho stuff. On my way.” He jiggled the door handle – locked. He looked under the jute mat – no key. The sprinkle turned to steady rain.
DeShawn hopped on his bike and rode to the glass hut of the bus stop, barely twenty yards away, which offered better shelter than the Peterssons’ front step. A minute later the heavens opened up. He stood there, feeling like a fork inside a dishwasher set to Super Clean. Lightning flashed across the sky like a villain’s knife. The air filled with the booming of kettle drums pounded by giants.
* * *
DeShawn had been Bo’s best friend since middle school, when they’d created the world’s most awesome volcano from chicken-wire and papier mâché. They’d collaborated on other projects – a popsicle-stick bridge and a rubber-band-powered car. Whether it was tacos or technology, burgers or basketball, everything they did together turned out better than anything done apart. In high school, they suffered the same irate band-class conductor and impressed the same stodgy chemistry teacher. But it was Mr. Conway, the Grade 11 Social Studies teacher, who lit a double fuse in the boys. Conway, who had the imperturbable look of a small bear, neither cute nor fearsome, just resolute, believed that teaching was the way to touch the future. He had brought to class a 2009 article about the phenomenon known as “whitening the résumé.”
“Researchers found that a résumé with a typically WASP name was more likely to get called in for an interview than a typically ‘ethnic’ or ‘black’ name,” Conway told the class. As a final project, Bo and DeShawn chose to conduct their own study, applying to ads for entry-level positions by sending out “Mike Brown” and “DeShawn Brown” as the names on top of the exact same résumé. They found that Mikes were called in for an interview twice as often as DeShawns. They did such a thorough, nuanced report they received an A+ and, even better, Marci Hunter, the sharp-tongued elfin-faced editor of the high school newspaper, ran a story about it.
* * *
Lightning flashed while DeShawn watched the rivulets of rain snake down the glass wall. His T-shirt was clammy and cold. He and Bo had graduated high school, and on Monday they would begin work as landscaping assistants before starting college in September. But first, they just wanted to hang out and have a little fun.
College almost hadn’t happened for him.
DeShawn’s mother, a cafeteria worker with eight years of education, was determined her son would go to college but had little idea how to make it so. At the start of DeShawn’s final year, she went to see Mr. Conway, and afterwards, he cornered DeShawn between classes. “I told her not to worry, you’re a great student,” Conway said. “But then she showed me this.” He stabbed at DeShawn’s first quiz results. “What’s up with this?”
Conway glared in his myopic bearish way and DeShawn looked away.
“Your mom says no-one else in your family has ever gone the college route, izzat right?”
DeShawn felt himself grow hot with embarrassment. Could Conway sniff out tomorrow’s homework, crumpled in his backpack, wilting from neglect? What was the point of chasing a ghost-like diploma? He was tired of the noise of his sister’s jabber and his uncle’s TSN and his brother’s video games. Tired of the brush-off from Bo, who had a giggly new girlfriend. Tired of no space in the dingy apartment to spread out his textbook and study papers.
“Self doubt. Don’t let it get to you, DeShawn,” Conway said. He sighed. “I had to fight it myself.”
DeShawn frowned in perplexity.
“‘Conway’ was originally Konovaloff,” Conway said. My family is Russian, hated by many Americans during the Cold War. I was also the first of my family to go to college.”
“Whatever.” DeShawn hid his surprise.
“Listen to your mother. College is where you belong.” The school bell rang and Conway hastily added, “We need bright minds like yours.”
That night as DeShawn lay in bed, Conway’s words came back to him: We need bright minds like yours. He remembered what was in the backpack. With a groan, he dug it out and scribbled in a few answers. Might as well humor the old bear.
* * *
Shhhh-hhhh-hhh. A city bus gave a long rippling splash as it pulled alongside the glass hut. The driver swung open the door and yelled, “Hey! Boy!” His words were scarcely audible over the cacophony of rain. “Don’t take all day!”
“Just waitin’ out the storm,” DeShawn yelled back and waved him on. Except for the bighead uniform, the driver looked not that much different from him. Did a uniform confer a right to say “boy” to a man? Some nerve, that guy.
The bus roared off and DeShawn relaxed again. Except he didn’t relax, not really. With some effort, he’d wound up a good year, had even made the honor list. He would attend the local college this fall. A different anxiety grew in him: What did a degree involve? What would he specialize in? He wished he had the clear-cut path like Bo, who was planning to be an architect, like his dad. Mother was hinting for a brain surgeon. No chance of that; blood made him puke. Conway had suggested, “Why not take a smorgasbord of courses, and see what fires you up the most?” DeShawn imagined himself in mortarboard and gown, crossing the stage, his family and friends clapping as madly as fans at the NBA championship, when his name was announced.
DeShawn had a love-hate relationship with his name, ever since the school project on résumés. He noticed some guys changed their names a little. Like Barack used to be known as Barry. Maybe he could go as Shawn instead of DeShawn. Last summer at the parish picnic he’d experimented, had printed DAVID on the name badge. It was weird but fun impersonating a David, who was (he imagined) someone sturdy and brave, a good aim with a slingshot.
Mother, when she picked him up and saw the name tag, filled the car with silence, as eerily calm as the silence before a tornado. When they got home, she said, “DeShawn is my brother’s name. Died serving his country. Such courage… such honor. On his grave I promised to name my first-born son –” and then she’d become too choked up to continue.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” DeShawn mumbled. “I never knew.” She seemed too alone in her grief to welcome a hug.
So now he felt an added weight to his name. Courage and honor. Oh well, better than what Bo had been teased over – “Bo Peep” and “Bo Diddley” and “Bo – ner.”
* * *
Shhhh-hhhh-hhh. A long splash emanated from a police cruiser pulling alongside the glass hut. It stopped.
DeShawn took four deep breaths. His heart was racing. He remembered a long-ago family drive to a pick-your-own apple farm. How nervous his uncle had been when their car was pulled over. They sat, waiting, unsure what to do next. Uncle Mark said to Mother, “I wasn’t going too fast. I updated the plates. I signalled when I merged – blood of Jesus, what do they want from me?” The kids had looked at each other, saucer-eyed. Uncle Mark never took the name of the Lord in vain. Then Mother had spoken as cool and smooth as melting ice: “It’s simply routine. That’s all. A routine check.” And she was right; there had been no reason to panic. But the memory of Uncle Mark getting upset stayed with him.
And now, the officer was lowering the cruiser window and was speaking loudly to DeShawn through the rain, “Quite the storm.”
The cop wore tinted glasses and DeShawn felt uneasy, not being able to see his eyes. “Yes,” DeShawn said. “Quite the storm.” Oh shit. In his panic he had switched to an English accent.
When DeShawn was little, he used to listen to Speaking Books: Best Loved Bible Stories over and over. He could imitate the narrator’s solemn English perfectly, and often used it when playing Bey Blades. “You evil wretch, I shall errrradicate you!” On occasion he ordered pizza using the English accent – and once he got detention from a teacher who’d accused him of mocking her. Would this cop misinterpret him, too?
“Do you live around here?” the cop asked. Suspicious. Maybe trying to place the accent.
“No sir,” DeShawn said. To smooth out the abruptness, he volunteered information. “Just waiting for a friend.”
“Your friend coming on the bus?”
“No sir.” DeShawn heard his ring-tone, a garish snippet of Looney Tunes. He had an urge to pull out his phone – but in a split second he realized a sudden movement – to fetch the phone in his pocket – could be deadly. Deadly. He had heard about such encounters. A whooshing noise filled his head. He watched the cop, who was saying something, or at least his lips seemed to be moving.
“What?” DeShawn yelled. “I mean, I beg your pardon? I can’t hear you – ”
“What’s that noise?”
At first DeShawn thought the cop had heard his head whooshing. Then he realized: Looney Tunes. “Oh. Ah. My cell phone. Likely my friend.”
Shhhh-hhhh-hhh. A long splash drowned out the last sentence. The Peterssons’ grey Nissan swerved around the police cruiser and parked. A car door slammed, and Bo got out, high-stepping through the puddles, his shopping bag swinging, calling “DeShawn, yo, my man!”
“Hey,” DeShawn said.
Bo looked at DeShawn, then at the cop, then back at DeShawn. His grin faded. Silence fell. The cruiser took off and the two young men ran through the steady rain into the Peterssons’ house.
Bo kicked off his sandals and leaned into a side room. “Here,” he said, handing his friend a towel.
“Thanks.” DeShawn was shaking with cold and, he surmised, adrenaline. He crouched in the front hall, unlacing his shoes, the towel draped on his shoulder. “Man, that was surreal.”
“What was?” Bo’s wet blonde hair stood up like a cowlick.
“The cop,” DeShawn said. “I haven’t met such suspicion… since I was five years old and Mother found an empty marshmallow bag.” He tried but found it hard to maintain a light, faintly amused tone of voice.
“I don’t get it.” Bo stopped unpacking the grocery bag and looked at his friend’s damp face.
“He wanted to know what I was doing here,” DeShawn said, “in this neighborhood.” He took a seat at the island in the large modern kitchen.
“Planting a bomb, obviously.”
“Shut up.” DeShawn chuckled until his tone turned rueful. “Thing is, you can’t kid around with guys like that.”
“Oh, I dunno,” Bo said. “I’m sure he had a barrel of monkeys in that back cage.” He arranged the chips, jalapenos, sauce, and grated cheese on the pan and slid it under the broiler. He turned to DeShawn and said suddenly, “It stinks. I hate him making you feel like you don’t belong.”
“Yeah, I wondered if he’d been watching me all along,” DeShawn said. “I tried the door handle, looked under the mat….” He rubbed his hands. “Maybe he thought I was casing the joint.”
Bo said, “That douchebag was likely ready to call the SWAT team.”
“No,” DeShawn said. “This guy was more subtle. Gaslighting. Just a mind game—”
The smoke alarm screamed.
DeShawn jumped, his face in terror. Then he relaxed – it was just a cooking smell. Bo’s cooking.
Bo leapt to rescue the nachos from the broiler. He turned on the stove-top fume hood and DeShawn fanned the smoke away by hand.
A few minutes and several cuss-words later, they were sitting in the rec room, salvaging crispy bits from charred bits in the pan while the TV prattled in the background.
DeShawn chewed morosely, still feeling the sting of being suspected as an intruder. He looked around the Peterssons’ rec room – big-screen TV, original artwork, video game consoles. All the things a thief might steal. The college would contain loads of valuable stuff, too. Could he ever explain to his friend how it felt – this sickening feeling of always having to justify your presence? Bo sat on the other side of the sofa, licking his fingers, eyes on the screen, feet on the coffee table.
DeShawn recalled so many things they’d done together – the volcano, the bridge, the rubber-band car. That résumé project. Marci Hunter had begged them to do “more community stuff like that” but they’d shied away; it hadn’t seemed cool. Although now, an idea itched at his brain. If he wrote out what had happened this afternoon – the sudden storm, the “loitering” while waiting on a friend, the suspicious cop, the gaslighting, the “rescue” by a white friend who validated his presence – and his feeling of being fed up…
Dammit, he should try to write something. Marci had graduated a year ahead of them and gone to study Journalism. Whatever college, she might know of places that wanted the inside perspective. He decided to title his new article “Waiting out the rain while black.”
“Earth to DeShawn…,” Bo said. “Look.” Bo pointed the remote at the screen and turned up the volume. A TV reporter under an umbrella was talking excitedly while noisy protesters, gathered under a large tent, chanted behind him: “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”
Bo turned to DeShawn. “It’s happening downtown. I think we should go.”
“Yep.” DeShawn flung off the towel. “Enough already.” He looked outside. It was forecast to be unsettled for a good long time.