I am napping the day my college letters start arriving, so I donít know
until after everyone else. They read my mail now, Mama and Amy. I am on the back
porch, trying not to dream in my sleep. I stopped dreaming basketball since I
quit the team to do homework full time. Now all I dream is homework. Uncle
Charles tells me, says, this be November. You got till January nineteenth to get
a grade point make you enough scholarship you can go to college. Three point
five good but is it good enough? Then he says what he always says: times is
tight. Canít be no fourth-place negro. Donít got to be the best to go up and
stand on the stand. Just canít be no fourth-place negro. Are you applying
yourself, he says?
Myself?, I say, yes! Applying myself all the damn time.
I dream anyway, dreaming of something else, and when I wake up I go on
dreaming although the house is noisy and Ratcat is standing with his tail in my
face. I push him out and close my eyes. This is a dream I dreamt before, parts:
this time, though, I am down in the Winn Dixie getting something to bring home.
It is when I get to the milk fridge, in the place behind it where the drinking
fountain used to be, that I find Benjamin Franklin all bent over and sort of
wet, like heís come back from dead or outer space or whatever.
"Famed Inventor and Publisher Benjamin Franklin!" I say, like the
plaque at school where we put our gum, and I stand Benjamin Franklin up. He has
on the britches that they wore, and a shirt thatís all Victoria Secret around
the edge, and a gold chain and gold glasses. He is taller than me, about six
feet. And for a few minutes he doesnít say anything at all, because he just
In the dream I am his discoverer. It is like "E.T.," I guess. It is
like "Terminator" except that he is only Ben Franklin. So I point out
that thatís where the water fountain used to be, and thatís maybe how he got
wetóflying in through time two hundred and how many years, he slid in through
the middle of someoneís drink.
But I got to finish up shopping or else, so we go around the store, where itís
all food that Benjamin Franklin has not seen before. He knows the potatoes and
corn and onions, all that Thanksgiving stuff, and he knows sweet potatoes and
peaches and yams and greens because he and all his friends had some slaves back
there, you know it. But the rest stumps him, hah! Because he knows green peppers
but not yellow or red, nothing genetic, and no jalapenos, which are
Mexican, because Ben Franklin never went to no Mexico, and he didnít have to
take no World Social Studies in eleventh grade either. The truth of it is, USA
and Mexico were not even next to each other when Ben Franklin was going on. Then
Iím like, if Benjamin Franklin likes this produce section, wait till I get him
to the freezer aisle. So I lay it out to Ben Franklin, who, being a
scientist, wants to know all this and that. This is canned hamóthereís ham
inside it, I tell him. This is Ragu. This is Prego. I show him where the bakery
is and he doesnít know what bagels are but he knows which bread is from
France. We go on through the checkout and I show him Snickers, thatís got
peanuts in it, Mounds, Hershey, all that. A Negro invented peanuts, I tell him,
didnít see that coming did you, hah! I show him what an M&M is because
there are some that opened up and got on the floor. Ben Franklin is polite,
because he hasnít seen nothing for the last two hundred years and he wants to
see it all. So I show how the cashier, who isnít Cinda or Roberta or anyone I
know, punches the price off the tag, and on to how at Publix they got scanners,
thatís radar, speed of light, thatís physics, canít be no
fourth-place negro so I donít even try to explain that. I pull out some bills
and show him the picture of George Washington on there, your old buddy, hah! Too
bad I donít have the money with him on itówhat is it Benjamin Franklin is
on? The fifty? The hundred? The hundred? The fifty?
When we got out of the store I expect Ben Franklin to go hang out on the
bench with those old harmonica guys, since he an old white guy too. But then
comes the nice thing, best thing in the dream. Heís coming along. Itís like
he belongs to me. Itís like I got Benjamin Franklin for a dog.
But not exactly. In the back of my dream I know that Benjamin Franklin is
major. I know he is a famed inventor and publisher, and, like in "E.T.,"
somebody else is going to want to have a look at him. That he is remembered as a
great solver of problems. That he is going to want to meet Bill Clinton and
Jesse and Boutros Boutros-Ghali and some new inventors. Maybe get a job. Doctors
wanting to look at him and poke him and say Did you come back from the past? Did
you come from outer space? What is the last thing you remember? Invent anything
lately? Wearing those lights on their heads. Look into my eyes, Benjamin
Franklin, they will say. Benjamin Franklin, I am a psychologist.
# # #
Get up, says Amy, youíre behind time. Mom says you better get up now or I
can kick your butt. She is standing on the back porch waving her face at me. She
is mighty quick on passing instructions but not so worried about following them
herself. At night when it is time for me to finish my physics and she is
watching TV, she writes equations from the times tables into my calc book, with
lipsticks. I get to a page and it says, seven times seven is forty-nine. Big
pink letters. Says it backwards on the facing page too. She is twenty years old.
The college letters are from Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Spelman, in Atlanta.
We have received your application materials, they say. We will notify you when
your applications packages are complete. Uncle Charles wants Emory, which is in
Atlanta too. If I get a scholarship, Uncle Charles says, we can drive up in June
so Iíll see the place where I get to go.
Mama hugs me. ThenósurpriseóAmy hugs me too. Sleepy-ass motherfucker, she
says. Amy, says Mama, that language.
Mama says to put the laundry away. So I am in my room putting the shirts up
on hangers, folding the pants in the dresser, dropping the socks in the box
underneath the bed. "These are my socks, Benjamin Franklin," I say,
"this is my bed. These are Charles Barkley sheets." I bet right now I
could kick any presidentís ass at ball that ever lived.
It is like Benjamin Franklin is my dog, because where I go, he has to
come with. I am the one who found him, and now he wonít go away. And the
President and Boutros wait their turn, cause Benjamin Franklin is my dog, and
this is my room. I am applying myself to the job of showing Benjamin Franklin
the world. "Benjamin Franklin, this is the sink," I say. "This is
a water cup made of plastic. You gotta get your own. Plastic is oil. You donít
even know what oil is? Oil makes cars go. You wait until we ride in a car. This
is a Nintendo. Or was," I say. I point at the walls. "Thatís
wallpaper," I say. "Benjamin Franklin, this is a light bulb."
# # #
I hear her breathe whoops when I turn around to show Benjamin Franklin
the light switch and she has been standing there the whole time, listening to
me. She goes running down to the kitchen where Mama is. I can hear her telling
it down there. For a minute the pans stop sawing away on the burners.
My backpack is already on my desk and I pull my English book out and begin my
homework for the night. It is sonnets this time. Is this one Elizabethan? Yes it
is. Is this one Petrarchan? I donít know. Flip back. No itís not. I donít
know what this sonnet is. Is it Elizabethan?
It is not a difficult job, matching up sonnets. They give you the answers.
All you have to do is sound them out.
Next up, Spanish. I am in first year. I had to change because they cut German
after I was three years in. The German teacher got shot and they couldnít get
a new one, so thatís all. He is alive. He came and visited the Spanish class.
He told us, be careful when you go to an ATM. We used to like him and acted all
polite and sorry. But when we left, we said, stupid. Everyone know donít fuck
around at no ATM.
When Mama and Uncle Charles ask the school psychiatrist what it is and he
talks to me and then to them, I think that they arenít supposed to tell me
what he says. But they do, all the way home. Mama tells me, He says itís like
a dream. He says something in your brain maybe make you a little more, what,
creative than the rest. That all it is.
What is concentration? the school psychiatrist says. Did you ever think of
what we mean when we say weíre concentrating?
We are walking down the middle of the sidewalk, leaves blowing up sideways,
swimming in my eyes like the grain of wood in a desk. No one else is on the
street. Everyone else is eating dinner, or inside wishing they were. Waiting for
it. Uncle Charles adjusts the collars of his coats around his neck. There is
nothing wrong with this boy, he declares, although thereís no one there to
talk to but Mama and me.
My paper goes dark. Before I know it, the light is gone and I canít read.
When I remember to turn the lamp on, the yellow paper shines, and the words come
Donít go blind in there, Mama says. Boy, donít go blind.
# # #
When I get called to table, Mamaís voice is high. It is already second
call. I go and the three of them are already sitting down, holding their forks
up. I sit and spread my napkin and glance up to make sure they started, but all
three are looking at me. They look away. There is a problem.
So what else did you show Benjamin Franklin? Amy says finally. It takes her
so long before she starts in that I am almost glad when she does. Did you show
him whatís in your pants? Is that what took you so long?
Thatís enough, says Uncle Charles.
Amy takes the rice and spoons it out. You ainít going to get to run around
with Benjamin Franklin for long, she says. They donít play that in college. Coll-ege,
she says. You teaching him all the time and he ainít teaching you nothing. I
donít see what he got that you donít.
Amy, Mama says, Quiet down or leave.
Uncle Charles is looking now like he looks when he is walking: straight ahead
at the end of the block, each of us in our lanes. There is nothing wrong with
this boy, he says now.
Oh, says, Amy, nothing wrong with Benjamin Franklin, this is a light bulb.
Give me that scholarship, she says. He invented the damn thing, what he
need you telling him for?
Thereís a moment of fumbling around the table. Amy corrects herself at the
same time I do: Edison.
It was Edison invented the light bulb, declares Uncle Charles. Mama nods. We
are all happy when we get our great men right. I grab the green beans and spoon
out my share, weighing them as they steam.
Wooden teeth, I tell Amy, I wouldnít mind learning about wooden teeth from
Benjamin Franklin. Thatís one thing he got that I donít.
No, says Mama, spilling water over the side of her glass. That was
Washington. It was Washington had wooden teeth!
Uncle Charles barks, you knew that, didnít you? Eyebrows all cocked up, heís
almost on top of me now.
Oh yeah, I tell him. We begin eating again. This is dinner with my family, I
imagine saying silently, like it was my job to teach Ben Franklin everything
now. Benjamin Franklin, meet my sister Amy. Here you go. Take some beans. Not
too manyóyou been dead a long time.