John and Saint Vincent were standing in line at the grocery store. It was 7:30 on a Thursday, but apparently that was prime time for people getting cheese and ice cream. In front of them was a black man with great cologne, about 50, and in front of him was a father and young son, also black. The father drifted off into an aisle to get something, and John mentally expended his usual ire for those who join the grocery line before they are fully groceried.
The line moved, but the boy, waiting on his father, did not advance his cart. There was at least a cart and a half, maybe two carts worth of distance to be traveled, and while John knew that in reality his place in line and the time he would spend in it in no way depended on, where he stood, he still ached for the boy to advance, so that he could prove to the world he wasn’t as far behind as they thought he was.
I could ask this boy to move his cart forward, he thought, if I hadn’t recently read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. John in fact had read the book in public as often as he had the chance to, and while he would deny that he did so to use it as a kind of talisman–“I am liberal; don’t mug me”–he also would not deny that he wouldn’t mind such an effect, should it happen.
In case you are not woke and have not read this book, know that there is a section where Coates describes his anger at a white woman who pushes his young son forward in line while exiting a movie theater.
I will not be this white woman, John thought, no matter how much I can tell Saint Vincent is staring at me and judging me.
Luckily, the black man in front of them said something kind to the boy, who with large eyes then pushed the cart forward.
Meanwhile, a white guy came toward the line from the opposite direction, and nudged his way through the line to enter the wine section. When we say nudge, we mean that there was not enough room for a body to pass through, but he just sort of started and expected that those in line would make way for them. Which they did. A white man. And not even a handsome one.
“If that was you, you wouldn’t have nudged, would you?” Saint Vincent asked quietly.
“You would have gone around. You would have gone around the whole end of the line just to not bother anybody.”
“That’s because you are a taint.”
“I’m a taint?”
“I won’t insult the pussy, a fine organ, by associating it with you. You’re a tiny no man’s land, praying that you can keep your precious square inches and not get crowded out by the balls or sucked into your own asshole.”
John thought, I don’t remember the grocery store always being this complicated.
“There are two forces in this world, John. Forces that push things in, and forces that push things out. And you, you are not a force. You are a canvas of flesh onto which these two things expel their perspiration. You are the evidence of force. Nothing more.”
In the truck–Saint Vincent had made John trade in his Honda–on the way back, John carefully balanced two dozen eggs on his lap while driving. He resisted the urge to scratch his stabbed hand. He took his mind off it by thinking about what he had learned at private school that day, but he can’t tell you about any of that.
“I’m not a possum.”
John had just driven over a possum, twice.
“Oh my god.”
“How are the eggs?”
“The eggs are–” John stopped the car. Kept it running. “Fine. The eggs are fine.”
“How do you feel, John?”
“It’s an opossum. Not a possum.”
“Opossums are in Australia, John. Here we have possums.”
“You have it backwards.”
John looked at him. “I couldn’t tell the kid in front of us to move his cart because I’m trying to be woke.”
“You’re trying to be what?”
“Woke. I’m trying to be woke.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means I’m awake to the struggle. I also have been listening to Kendrick Lamar. Some of it’s too intense for me but some of it I really like.”
“Because you’re woke.”
“I’m trying to be.”
“Well that opossum’s unwoke as a doornail, John. Get out of the car. Go see what you’ve done.”
John went and stood by the opossum. Its eyes were open. He crouched down to see if it was smiling. Saint Vincent slid over to the driver seat. He revved the engine.
“Joan of Arc is dead,” Saint Vincent shouted at the window, over the engine. “And so is everyone who ever saw her. What if someone ran you over right now, John? What if that?”
John stood back up. Saint Vincent’s daughter had been run over by her own car. Or pinned, and coma’d, and killed. John had never quite been sure how it worked, just mechanically. The girl had been home for vacation from college. She was starting the drive back to campus. She realized she’d forgotten to tell her parents she loved them. She put the car in neutral, or was it reverse, and she–
“Do you think you’re the only person in this world trying to get some eggs?”
“No, I don’t think that.”
“You think you’re the only person ever got home and found the eggs cracked?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Even when you checked them at the store?”
“You think you’re the only person ever had to make an omelet that cut your gums to pieces?”
“Fyodor Dostoevsky, John.”
“He was dragged out to his execution pit. Blindfolded. With the other Russian dipshits in his little literary circle. And the guns were raised. And just before “FIRE!” the message came that saved their lives. And then he went and wrote the greatest novels of all time.”
“I’m saying. Are you the possum, or are you the great Russian novelist?”
John looked down at the opossum. It wasn’t smiling. That was clear. You could see that from here. No stooping required.
“You woke yet, John?”
John shivered. That’s when his house exploded in flames.