This blog was featured on 05/11/2019
The Atlas of Reds and Blues: An Excerpt
Written by
She Writes
May 2019
Written by
She Writes
May 2019

This excerpt was provided by this month's guest editor Devi S. Laskar from her book The Atlas of Reds and Blues

Perhaps the first time the Real Thing tries to fill out census data for the federal Department of Education. Coincidentally, it is the last week of school before the summer break and she knows many of the teachers will not be returning to teach in the fall, she had heard whispers, but no one has confirmed who is leaving and who is staying.

At the start of the exercise, the physical education teacher Mr. King did not want to hand her the same questionnaire as her peers, saying, “Well, I’m not sure you’re supposed to get this form. It’s only for Americans.” He looks over the Real Thing’s mother-approved kurti top and matching pants and asks, “Were you born here?”

The Real Thing says yes but doesn’t add how she hopes he returns to Kentucky or Tennessee or wherever he’s from, as soon as the school year is over.

The fifth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Heath, standing in the doorway of the classroom, clears her throat. “Everyone gets the same form, David,” she calls out.

Mr. King reluctantly hands her the form.

The questions appear easy enough, but there are not enough answers to go around. All of the other kids in the combined fourth- and fifth-grade language arts classroom have boxes to check. Even Henry.

There are four boxed answers: White, Black, Hispanic, American Indian. There are several similar questions about citizenship asked in different ways. The Real Thing hears the roar of a plane overhead but sees nothing as she looks out the window, past the brick wall and up to the cloudless sky.

She stands up and approaches Mr. King at the head of the classroom. He smiles and points to the last box. “That’s where you make a check mark,” he says.

“I’m Indian American, not American Indian,” she says. Mr. Hill scratches his muttonchop sideburns and readjusts his glasses. “Oh.”

Mrs. Heath marches into the room, clipboard in hand. “I can take it from here, David.”

The Real Thing trots back to her desk.

Mrs. Heath claps her hand against the clipboard. “May I have your attention, please?” Everyone suspends his or her No. 2 pencil in midair and watches Mrs. Heath turn her back to the class. She writes the word AMERICAN with blue chalk on the muted green chalkboard. She takes the red chalk from the aluminum sill and underlines the word. She turns around and asks all of the students to turn to the bottom of the next page.

There is a box marked Other. And there are a few lines of space for Explanation.

The Real Thing and Mrs. Heath lock eyes.

“You are not obligated, ever, to answer these questions,” Mrs. Heath says. “You have a second option: You can check Other on the second page and write the word I wrote on the board next to Explanation, and we can move on with our day.”

The Real Thing looks away first, before Mrs. Heath notices there are tears starting to form at the corners of her eyes.

All the kids but Mary-Margaret Anne and two fourth- grade boys sitting behind her hurriedly check the box, write in the word, and rush to the front, where Mrs. Heath waits with a large envelope.

The Real Thing waits in line to turn in her form, blinking furiously.

“I won’t always be here,” Mrs. Heath says to the class as she accepts the Real Thing’s paper. “But I hope you’ll remember today.”

And her stomach begins to ache. Not an ache of hunger. But an ache of loneliness.

Mrs. Williams, Henry’s mother Mrs. Williams, doesn’t like to come inside the front doors of the school. She is not like Noland’s mother Mrs. Williams. Noland who has hair the color of organic carrots. Noland who picks his nose and cries when Mrs. Heath scolds him for his messy penmanship. Henry’s mother Mrs. Williams prefers to stand on the sidewalk, and wait for Sister Joan or Sister Grace to finish their tasks inside the principal’s office and speak with her. Henry with the perfect scores, Henry who never says a word, Henry who remains the only Black boy in the school. And she, the Real Thing, is the only girl with brown skin today. Baby Sister wouldn’t matriculate to this campus for another four months.

Still Mrs. Williams gets the phone calls from the office; and Mrs. Williams shows up, standing in a black print skirt and sandals, on a sidewalk bleached white by the sun. The school’s front doors swing open and shut as the other students stream past Mrs. Williams and Sister Grace that Wednesday morning. She knows it’s a Wednesday because it’s the day they have indoor PE followed by choir rehearsal. As if the stinky gym could be transformed by taking a white sheet off the mahogany-colored piano on the small wooden stage. The Real Thing is waiting to see what the charge is this day. She was absent the day before, with a cold. She has heard that Henry had finished his geography test, placed it facedown on his desk. And then gone to the globe, to look at Africa gleaming gold on the sphere on Mr. Hill’s desk. Mr. Hill tore the paper in two unequal pieces and sent Henry to the office.

The door opens and Mary-Margaret Anne and her friend Ellen scoot by and she sees Mrs. Williams hold up both pieces. “He wasn’t cheating . . .” Mrs. Williams says.

The Real Thing knows that tone of voice. It’s the one her own mother uses when the grocer tries to shortchange her after she buys a bitter gourd from the Hillsborough produce market.

“Come inside, Deborah,” Sister Joan calls out from the threshold of the front office.

Her name isn’t Deborah but Sister Joan refuses to learn her real name.

Sister Joan says the Real Thing should just answer to Deborah.

It would be easier. For everyone.

The Real Thing ignores Sister Joan. She watches Mrs. Williams mouth the words please and my son.

To no avail.

Henry is suspended.

A note placed on his permanent record, branding him a cheat.

She lies on the carpet of concrete on her driveway. For a single clear moment, she hears the boredom of the policeman as he grapples with her full name from her driver’s license and, in amateur fashion, butchers it. “Sweet Jesus,” he says into his microphone. “What the hell were her parents thinking?” The dispatcher’s mic squawks, and there is laughter.

“Just spell it.

The Real Thing is young enough that she doesn’t hear the cars on the overpass. Of course she sees them, queued up during rush hour, waiting for the light to change. She is in the backseat of the car, in a time when seat belts were definitely optional and motorists followed the speed limit. The Real Thing peeks through the space between the driver’s and shotgun seat and admires the shiny chrome of the sports car in front of their dad’s mint-green Nova. Their dad at the wheel. How many things she thought are muted but are actually in full force, their dad cursing in Bangla at the man in the station wagon cutting him off, their mother cautioning him to slow down, to stop swearing regardless of which language he chose, the radio playing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which their one friend from school liked and sang during recess, the car horns blaring when the driver in the turn lane doesn’t bolt at the first sighting of the green turn arrow, the Baby Sister’s mouth open, breathing in nap sleep, her nose full and whistling with every exhalation.

She lies on the concrete, wanting to laugh but can’t, but the corners of her mouth turn upward. Gift from God echoes inside her. Her name means “Gift from God.”

Groaning machines exhale steam behind him, hot fog lapping the countertop where canvas bags of dirty laundry wait to be dry-cleaned and made anew. Mr. Patel rakes his thin hands through his thinning hair. They look around the rest of the shop, broken glass underfoot and glistening in the midday sun. September 12. Despite the floor-to-ceiling American flag broadly displayed in the now destroyed plate- glass window. Despite the banner proclaiming “God Bless America” for all to see, they will never pass for American. A broad white man parks his German convertible in the loading-and-unloading-only zone, stomps in, sporting a keg-sized gut and aviator sunglasses.

Without hesitation, Mr. Patel greets his customer. “Mr. Jackson, thank you for coming.” A smile begins its long journey from the lips to the cheeks.

Mr. Jackson grunts. “My wife said to leave it alone, but I told Missy I had to be ready the next time I got called into work.”

Mr. Patel turns his back and walks into the fog, disappears.

Mr. Jackson stares straight ahead, his right hand jangling his car keys. It sounds like a dinner bell, but it is only noon. He will not look at Mother’s face, he will not acknowledge Mother’s very pregnant body.

Mr. Patel reemerging, with three starched button-down shirts, Oxford blue, and two pairs of khaki trousers, pressed sharply as if cut with a knife. All wrapped in plastic. The reflection from the American flag casting a red-and-white-striped sheen over the plastic and everyone’s faces.

“Here you go, sir,” he says, his voice calm amid the broken glass.

“I’ll come back later,” Mr. Jackson says in lieu of thank you, snatching the hangers from Mr. Patel’s hand. “Missy’s got the checkbook. Like she’s going to be able to buy any- thing today.”

“The grocery store in Marietta is open until two o’clock,” Mother finds herself saying aloud.

Mr. Jackson turns toward her. “Where are you from?” She opens her mouth.

But Mr. Jackson rushes in to answer his own question. “It doesn’t matter. You need to get on home, girl.”

Mother puts her hand on her distended stomach, the baby kicking. The due date is weeks away, and the airports are shut down. She must remain calm and free of labor be- fore Grandmother can fly down to help. She cannot have a baby today. She looks over at Mr. Patel, God Bless America reflecting in his watery eyes. She digs the fingers of her free hand into the bundle of keys on the counter, and uses the other hand to smooth her pink maternity blouse over her stomach. “I am home,” she says as softly as she can.

Mr. Patel’s head barely shakes a frightened no.

Mr. Jackson grunts and walks back to his car, unlocks the trunk using his remote. He lays the plastic-enclosed clothes down carefully.

Mr. Patel reaches below the counter and places a couple of cheap American flag stickers on the counter, near her hand. “You need this,” he says, pushing it toward her. “It’ll help.”

Mr. Jackson closes the trunk and quickly enters his car, presses the gas, and squeals away from the curb, exhaust smoke curling in the air.

She pushes them back toward him. “Not at my house,” she says.

“Please take it,” Mr. Patel says. “Just one for you, then.”

Mother goes home and finds her hero perched on the arm of the couch, unable to stay seated for long, unable to stand for long, his eyes never leaving the screen, the towers in an endless cycle of crumbling and then standing upright as an airplane flies into one of them, and then crumbling again.

“Mr. Patel says we should put flag stickers on our cars.” She takes the sticker out of her handbag.

“We’re American,” her hero says, waving her sentence away as if it were a mosquito.

She holds it out to him. “No one can tell when I’m driving.”

He stops, sits, stands up. “I am not going to,” he says. “You don’t have to,” she whispers, tucks the sticker back in her bag, and points at his dirty blond hair turning gray. “But I have to.”

He punches the throw pillow, blue with tiny red flowers embroidered at the edges, with his tight fist. “You shouldn’t have to prove anything,” her hero says. “This is not the America I know, this is not the America I recognize.”

The baby kicks. She looks at the screen, after the towers have crumbled, survivors covered in white ash and dust walking away, and she touches her stomach.

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