I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
My daughters Giselle and Elise went to a wacky private school in Pasadena. It seemed a weird fit given the number of black kids; there couldn’t have been more than a couple of dozen at a school of 250 or so. I liked it at first, before my daughters came of age and realized that racism was part of the deal. Jesus, it took forever for the school to actually have black or brown elves on the Wishing Well wall. The Wishing Well was the cute little looking store where you could buy cute but crazy expensive fairy dolls or expensive pencils or other knickknacks
To be honest I was dismissive of my daughter’s complaints, though Giselle seemed to have had a better time than Elise, her younger sister. Giselle seemed to have made life-long friends there, but Elise just wanted to get the hell out of that weird ass school. Their mother and I were getting divorced and I had an Ancient-Mariner compulsive need to discuss the ending of a nineteen-year-marriage with anyone who would listen. I was on the bleachers waiting for Giselle to finish her volleyball practice and I found myself sitting near easily the most talented actor I’ve ever met — not to say I actually knew that many actors and I can’t say I was that interested in actors because I assumed that they were always acting. But I was going through a divorce and I didn’t give a shit about sincerity. I just needed to share my grief with anyone who would listen. As the volleyball game was going on, Roger Guenveur Smith sat fairly close to me. I had seen him at the school a few times but I never tried to make conversation with him. He gave off this gangster vibe by saying as few words as possible, and if he said anything at all it was cryptic. See, I had juxtaposed Roger with my brother’s true gangster friends and all true gangsters had to have a gun in the glove compartment and a shotgun in the trunk or an Uzi. And like a true keeping-it-real gangster, they had to have a good-looking white girl, not a fat one, riding next to them.
Roger had all that kind of vibe going on without ever showing me his gun, if he had a gun. Plus, I had recently seen his Huey Newton one-man show and it was the most staggeringly brilliant one-man show I’ve ever seen — though I had been to few one-man shows. I usually avoid that sort of thing, but I had blundered into Roger’s performance while watching PBS or something and I was stunned.
Roger’s Huey Newton was brilliant and almost unbearable to watch as he presented an amazing mind self-immolating. I should have been bugging him about how he did what he did but instead I spilled my guts about my future divorce, looking for something, some word of encouragement to get me through those difficult days. Roger turned and looked at me as though I wasn’t there. He seemed to see past me into the future or something beyond my understanding.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m getting left for a nitwit with a jerri curl,” I said with earnest desperation.
He laughed then.
“She left you for a guy with a jerri curl. Damn, that’s … just …”
He never finished the sentence as again he looked off into the distance as though he was being called from afar by his muses. It was a long awkward pause until Giselle finally finished with volleyball practice and we left to get pizza. Being in the presence of genius can be exhausting and can only be cured by really great pizza.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.