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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cheeseburger Sample

Selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the 1987 PEN/Discovery Prize
Also Published in the Ontario Review (Winter Fall 1988)






I mean, I know Cheeseburger and Polo Mack, they some bad boys. Cause that’s what my Mama say they is. She call them “Northern Rats” ‘cause they hang around here in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the corner of 30th Avenue and Jefferson Street, where I live. “Come down here to thaw out in the sun,” Mama say. They draw ugly things on my Mama ‘s white picket fence. They and some more boys call themself the “Folks.” They draw moons and stars and pitchforks all over her fence. She don’t say nothin’ to them. She just give them her hot eyes as she slaps fresh paint over their drawins on her fence. But she yells at me ever’ time they come around.
“They ain’t never said nothin’ to me, Mama. And I ain’t never said nothin’ to them,” I plead with her.
“They hang around here ‘cause you a gal,” my Mama say.
  Even when I walk quickly by them with my head down in my shoulders like a broke-neck chicken, my Mama don’t be no happier. She says if I was a son instead of a daughter, I would run them wild nigguhs away from her picket fence.
But there is somethin’ else too. I don’t know if Mama knows it or not, but I am in love with Cheeseburger. He is tall and skinny and the color of Mama’s mahogany dinin’ room table. He’s got a long thin neck that I want to hug. His eyes make me cry ‘cause they so sad and dreamy lookin’ . I want him to be dreamin’ about me. My Cheeseburger’s got a short square haircut like my boy cousin who’s in the army. Cheeseburger wears a small diamond earring. He reminds me of my best girlfriend, Thelma, who’s willowy like a black weed. Sometimes I don’t know why I love Cheeseburger. One day I love his eyes. Next week it’s his chest. Then later, the sight of his thighs sends me to heaven. I wonder if my Mama knows how much I love Cheeseburger. Wish she would say, “That boy make you a good husband, Della.” But then I probably wouldn’t want him no more.
Here’s what I really wish. I wish he wouldn’t hang around with that dude called “Polo Mack.” That dude is sloppy and ugly. He wears an old goofy red cap that he sets way back on his head. He got a big ugly nose like a dog. And he’s black as burnt toast. Polo Mack grabs girls by their arms and calls them bitches. He grabbed me by my arm. My Cheeseburger looked the other way. I was mad at Cheeseburger for a whole week ‘cause he didn’t take up for me. Then I saw Cheeseburger in some new red shorts and a half of a blue Mickey Mouse sweatshirt that showed off his stomach, and I fell in love with him all over.
The week that I wasn’t in love with Cheeseburger ‘ called him and them other boys dogs, and Mama seemed happy with me. We talked about what a shame it was them thugs from up north were comin’ down south, bringin’ that dope with ‘em, and breakin’ into people’s houses. Everybody on the block was gettin’ burglar bars and bad dogs. Hattiesburg was hirin’ more police. It was just a shame, me and Mama agreed.
Then I saw Cheeseburger’s navel and fell back in love with him. And Mama started fussin’ at me ‘cause I was a girl and not a boy. She said I was drawin’ them nigguhs to her fence like shit draws flies. My Mama said that to me. And no matter how much I looked like I was ignorin’ those boys (I really was ignorin’ ol’ Polo Mack), she fussed more. Even when they didn’t paint the moon and stars on her fence, she fussed.
So I say to myself, if my Mama don’t love me, I know Cheeseburger do. Cheeseburger, who never look in my direction, even when I wear tight jeans, purple jelly sandals, and my own Mickey Mouse T-shirt cut off at the navel, even when I wear this outfit with my hair swept back from my face, back to my shoulders--Cheeseburger never say nothin’ to me. But I still imagine he love me. I dream about him kissin’ me. I dream he touched my titties, like those so-called “good boys” Mama was always tryin’ to get me hooked on. But Cheeseburger touch me so much better, like he know what he’s doin’. Like he know I ain’t gonna slap his hand away.
I ain’t never did it with nobody. My skinny girlfriend Thelma have. She say it hurt. I tell her my Cheeseburger don’t hurt me. She say all boys hurt you. I say not Cheeseburger. She say Cheeseburger is ugly and he’s a punk. I tell her Cheeseburger ain’t no punk. I tell her this lie: I tell her I was out one night in the backyard throwin’ away some garbage. It was real dark. I heard somebody leap over the fence and whisper my name.
“Della. Della, baby.” The voice was like a soft wind lickin’ my neck. I wasn’t scared ‘cause I knew it was Cheeseburger.
Thelma interrupts my lie. “How you know it was Cheeseburger? You ain’t never heard his voice. It might have been ol’ Polo Mack.”
“You think I’m a fool, Girl,” I say. “I know it was Cheeseburger ‘cause I heard him talkin’ to some other boys one day. He talked real cool, like a northern boy, like that Leroy boy on Fame. And besides that, I found out it really was Cheeseburger ‘cause he kissed me.”
Thelma goes back to swoonin’ over Prince’s picture on the cover of People. Thelma thinks Prince is her little angel. Any light-skinned boy is Thelma’s angel. One tine Thelma tol’ me she liked me ‘cause I look like Prince. She said she wish I was a boy. She said she just love yellow people. I tol’ her, I said, “Woman, you crazy.”
There must be somethin’ to being light-skinned. Mama said I could be like Vanessa Williams. That was before them pictures came out in that magazine. Now Mama just shakes her head whenever anybody talks about Vanessa. Me, I like brown people. Especially brown boys. I like the way the sun makes them glow. My Cheeseburger glows.
Anyway, I go back to tellin’ Thelma my lie about me and Cheeseburger. I tell her about how he carried me behind Mama’s big ol’ palmetto plant, how he kissed me, and how he pulled off my bra and played with me. We both stood behind that plant in the dark with our clothes off, and he put his hands on my behind, and I had my hands on him, and we did it three times, and now I’m goin’ to have Cheeseburger’s baby.
 “Stop lyin’!” Thelma yelled. “Boys don’t do it but once!
I tell her again, my Cheeseburger did it three times. Thelma calls me a liar again. I call her a bitch, and tell her to get out of my house, and leave my magazine. Thelma turns around on the porch and tells me, she says, “If you gonna have a baby, I’ll bet it’s Polo Mack’s.” I slam the door. Open it and slam it again. I slam it until the wood frame cracks.
###
End of Sample



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