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Eminent Domain

By
April 5, 2007

That night, I was waiting for Shani under the town bandstand as planned. Crouched down in the shadows, I watched her bouncy stride coming through the streetlight. As she got closer, I saw that her hands were empty.

“Where it is?” I asked, running up to her, looking all around her.

“I have it, Boy. I said I would.”

She turned and lifted her windbreaker in back to show me the 14-inch, priceless George Washington bayonet, stolen out of the history lab and notched down the back of her jeans, the dagger-like tip wedged down the crack of her butt.

“Jesus,” I said, grinning, “You carried it like that?”

“What, you jealous?”

Up the eight-tenths-of-a-mile path we ran, one behind the other, Shani carrying the bayonet in her fist like a track-and-field baton, me carrying my father’s collapsible turf spade. Dodging streetlights, we crossed through the poor black town of Bolivar on the backstreets, and then plunged into the dark weeds of the LeMaster’s orchard.

“Slow down,” I hissed ahead at her.

“You hurry up, whiteboy!”

Half a mile on, breathing hard, we reached the chain-link fence around Sunrise Hills Private Community on the far side, in deep shadows. Shani went first, jumping and clinging to the rattling wall of steel wires like a ninja, the fence bowing and jingling in waves, sprinkling down droplets of early morning dew. After muscling the short-handled spade high over the fence, I went next—the diamond pattern of wires cut into my fingers, the toes of my sneaks slipped on the damp metal. I landed hard on the other side, the spade nearby on the grass.

Without a word, we counted off twenty paces from the only telephone pole on this side as a way of remembering the spot. I then stabbed the spade down and began cutting out a patch of grass. Shani tossed the bayonet at my feet. It clanked dully against the ground.

Quickly, I dug a hole a foot deep, piling the black earth on the piece of plastic tarp I’d carried balled up in my pocket. Once finished, I held the shiny old bayonet over the hole, stabbing end down.

“For Bolivar,” I said.

“For Bolivar. Listen to you.”

I looked up.

“What?”

She stood with her arms folded, looking around at the twinkling lights of the gated community.

“And we just ruin this place?” she said. “Just like that?”

“Hope so.”

“You hope so?” I watched a bizarre anger come over her face.

“And this is right, Jed?”

“Dang, Shani, what’s up with you, Girl?”

“Stop talking all black! You sound stupid, Boy.”

I stood.

“Okay,” I said, “Your problem is you think all white people are just as rich?”

I brushed past her and pointed the stabbing end of the bayonet at the parking lot filled with brand-new cars, at the dozens of fancy blue condos with perfect little streetlights in front, at the tennis courts bathed in a glow for nighttime playing. There were no black people in here, I told her, no plastic rosaries dangling from car mirrors, no KFC boxes on front seats, no rusted bikes in dirt yards. These Audis and million-dollar condos were spotless, perfect, exclusive.

“Yeah, I hope we ruin this place!” I said. “Eminent domain, remember?”

I could see it now—the whole National Park Service camped out here in a week or less: ranger jeeps, white station wagons with “Department of Interior” on the door, and official-looking green vans everywhere. I could see a big archeological dig under way in the middle of this grassy area—fresh holes dug everywhere in the precious grass, trees marked with blue spray-paint, chainsaws cutting up the peace and quiet, yellow tape from tree to tree, dirt-caked objects laid out on tables covered with white cloths, men shoveling, rangers stationed at sawhorses, others in suits standing around. All the newspapers would be speculating that George Washington’s bones had been found, and until it could all be sorted out through lawyers, these rich people would be forced into the smelly, old, cobweb-filled Super 8 Motel out on the county road.

She stood, shaking her head at me. “Jed, you too angry.”

I popped out a laugh.

“We all angry. Remember, Shani?”

“You need a white girl.”

“Please. White girl? What, like Carly?”

“No, like Nansea—and this is wrong,” she said, stomping her feet down.

“Nansea Upton? That freak?”

I walked back to the hole and unceremoniously tossed the bayonet in—as unceremoniously, it made no sound against the soft earth. Then, rolling the tarp into a funnel, I poured the black earth in on top of it, careful not to spill any, not to leave any sign that the ground had been disturbed. Finally, I capped the hole with the grass patch, patted it down like a hairpiece, and even used my hands to brush out any seams. It was cosmetic landscaping art.

I stood, the artifact planted. If the National Park Service found this bayonet—and I would make sure they did—it would be the end of the private community. “Eminent domain” would destroy this place. I pointed in one direction. “Visitors Center over there,” I said. I pointed in another. “Souvenir shops—lots of souvenir shops.” I pointed in yet another. “Exhibit markers, wood-chip trail, restrooms.”

The National Park Service, I told Shani, would do to Sunrise Hills what it had done to lower Harpers Ferry and my home—turn it into a tacky Little Williamsburg. Only, hopefully, it wouldn’t take as long.

She got in my face. “Okay, you say we changin’ history by changin’ the future, right?”

I went on packing down the ground.

“Well,” she said, “even God can’t do that.”

I looked at her.

“God?”

By the light of the private community, I could see tears starting in her eyes.

“Yeah, you know, God,” she said. “G-O-D—God! Don’t you know about Him, Dummy?” Her tears got bigger. “That old white fool letting my mama die?”

I watched her turn and flounce off. When I finally caught up with her on the grass, she was standing looking at the lights of the private community. Funny, as we stood together for the longest time, it seemed we were sightseeing some special faraway place together, like the White House or Lincoln Memorial.

Then she spun around and burst out laughing right in my face. She crossed her arms and cocked her hips.

“You a trip, Boy. You just wanna get laid.”

I pushed her. Big mistake. She pushed back. So, I grabbed her hand and yanked. Another mistake. She yanked back much harder. When I fell on her, my body landing solidly on top of hers, she started acting all violated. She even raised her hand to hit me and would have, if I hadn’t caught it. I could feel the muscles in her arm trembling.

We ended up wrestling on the grass—and not playfully at all. She was mean and dirty, biting and kicking. It took all I had to pin her flat against the ground, arms behind her head. I thought she would spit in my face for sure.

“Stop pushing your thing into me,” she said, squirming under me.

“You wouldn’t be so lucky.”

Her eyes went wide, and she flattened out against the grass and started laughing. I laughed a little myself. I was proud of that line.

“Remember—hold still!—when we went to the fair, when you started singing to all those little kids?”

“Yeah, so?” she said, still twisting and wiggling and panting.

“When all the parents were looking at you and smiling?”

Her body came to a stop.

“Yeah?”

The fight went out of her, and she lay looking up at me with the stillest, most sparkling eyes. But, it was all a trick on her part. Suddenly, she put a jackknife maneuver on me that flipped me off like a rag doll. Then, she rolled up and shoved me flat against the ground, my head hitting it hard. Almost as hard, her lips came down against mine. Our first kiss nearly loosened my front teeth.

“Why ain’t you kissing back, Boy?” she said, rising up.

When I started kissing back, she was still all attitude.

“Why ain’t you feeling me?”

I brought my hand up and touched one of her breasts through her tee shirt. More like poked at it.

“Damn, Boy, you scared?”

Yes, I was scared. And, I felt ridiculous, being so manhandled. She sat up, no more patience with a boy who didn’t know how to get it on.

“You ain’t playing point guard or nothing, Boy!” she said, looking over at me. “You just stick your face together and starting grooving.”

By the lights of the private community, I saw more tears. When I reached for her shoulder, she jerked away.

“Shani, what is it?”

She fell over on her side and curled up like a child. As suddenly, she rolled up and threw her arms around me. It was a strong, beautiful hug that squeezed my shoulder blades so hard, my arms popped out straight. Then, she let go and sat looking off in the opposite direction, her arms draped over her knees, rocking herself back and forth.

“My mother, you fool!” she said.

Her little brothers didn’t know about the cancer, she said, sniffing. No one at her church knew either. Her mother only told her because she was the oldest. She didn’t know what stage it was either. Her mother was being secretive.

Then, with no warning, she turned to me, glassy-eyed.

“You kind and sweet sometimes, Josh, but—”

We were face to face.

“But what?”

“I don’t know. Like if you spoke French or something, you’d have—style.”

“Style?”

“Yeah, style.”

She pointed back in the direction we had come from.

“Your brother’s got style.”

Then, she looked over at me.

“He’s got a sense of humor. I can tell.”

My brother had three inches on me and my mother’s worship.

“Girls like him,” she said.

Now, she was making me angry, but my anger never fazed her. She just came at me harder.

“You never laugh, Jed.”

She was crazy. What was there to laugh about? Life was like fingerpainting a hopeless mess of gruesome colors, and death was like, I don’t know, her mother.

I watched as she hopped up and sprinted away. If I had known what she was about to do, I would have gone after her immediately. Before I could reach her and stop her, she had dug up the bayonet, flinging dirt all over the place, pushed me aside, and hauled herself back up the high chain-link fence.

“As soon as you know where to stick this thing,” she yelled out, straddling the high fence, my bayonet in her hand, “I’ll let you bury it there!”

I watched as she dropped like a ninja and dashed off into the night.

John Michael Cummings’ short stories have appeared in more than 75 literary journals, including North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Sou’wester, Louisiana Literature, Rosebud, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Iowa Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. He has fiction forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review and The Kenyon Review. His novella, The House of My Father, was a finalist in the 2006 Miami University Novella Contest. Other awards include semi-finalist in the Winnow Press 2004 First Book Award for Fiction.

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