I arrived an hour early. The place had a long bar at one end, and a wall of book shelves on the other. Everyone but me was black. I drove to a more integrated part of town to kill time and practice.
When I returned, there was one other white person there, a woman who played dulcimer in the six-piece band. I paid my five dollars to the lady at the door and she wrote my name down on the list.
She asked me what I was going to read and I said, "My book," showing it off for her. She looked it over, one eyebrow cocked, handed it back to me, and smiled a smile that seemed to say, "You're socially inept, but God bless you anyhow."
I ordered a fake beer and took a seat. One after another local literati stepped up to the microphone and belted out impassioned poems about life on the streets, the revolution, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. One woman with very broad hips delivered a long poem about how deeply she wanted to be made love to ("I want you to reach a new area code").
I flipped through my book, fretting about what part I should read. At first I thought I'd read the part where I had a change of consciousness, but I decided it was too straightforward about race. Then I thought maybe the part where Ebony discovered Paulo Freire, but I thought that might be to egg-headed. Finally I decided to read a part about Antoine:
The bus turned west on the highway, careened through the downtown loop and across the rail yards that separated Kansas and Missouri. Antoine stared hard at the limestone bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, the tufts of trees that broke up the urban sprawl. He and his mother often fantasized about living in a more bucolic place, and these small aberrations of nature that dot Kansas City's landscape sometimes gave him a sense of what such a life might be like. He had only left the Kansas City metro area twice in his 16 years, both times to St. Louis.
Antoine knew his mother saw debate as an opportunity for him to find the freedom she wanted. She described the program to me once, and him often, as a "lotus flower, like something beautiful growing out of the muck." And maybe she was right, Antoine thought as the bus rumbled westward. All along, Rinehart had been promising chances to travel, and here they were, cruising across the state line. Never mind that it was to a state he was born and raised in. He had never seen the border’s wooded hillocks on this particular day, under the sunlight of this unique moment.
In many ways, he was already a traveler. In his mind, he'd taken the first step of a journey by freeing himself from the conformity of his school and neighborhood. His imagination took him places. Half the time he was at school he’d tune out the teachers' lessons to conjure an epic fantasy novel he planned to write. Set on a distant planet named "Mira," or, he told me, "some weird mystical sounding name I haven't set yet." Mira has one sun and two moons, and the trees and grass are a purplish blue, and some plants glow at night. It’s inhabited by various species of people. "You got your weird lizardy alien type people," he explained. "Your cliché alien looking people. And the weird humanoid, closest to what we look like."
The book's main character would be from a species of warriors. These beings start life with pale skin of slightly warm hue and blue eyes. Their lives wouldn't be gauged by years or earthly notions of aging, but rather like that of a video game, where there’s a set quantity of life force that depletes with each injury in battle. With each hit, their skin grows redder, darker. Their eyes shift from blue to auburn then deep black. The darker these beings become, the more respect they enjoy⎯though they’re also visibly closer to death. "By the end they’d be a deep mahogany color," Antoine told me. "When they get down to a certain point, instead of dying, they cease to be. They're gone. They get blacker and blacker, and then disappear."
As midnight approached I became more and more convinced that I was making a huge mistake. Finally, I decided to leave.
But just then, the MC called my name.
I tried to adjust the mic stand and the microphone popped out and drooped by its chord, making an awkward amplified thud. I said I was nervous and a few in the audience shouted, "You alright." So I dove in.
I read quickly, and the band started in with a driving melody. Before I knew it I was done and the audience clapped politely. As I walked back to my seat a few nodded and smiled at me.
Then a man took the stage and read a poem about eating a woman out.
As I left no one said anything to me. I drove home kicking myself for not reading the part about Freire.