Excerpt: Black Jesus and Other Superheroes

The following excerpt comes from Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories by Venita Blackburn (September 2017).

 

The Immolator

In protest of unyielding circumstances, monks have been known to walk into public squares and quietly set themselves on fire. I prefer to make noise. I bake bread now and die a little every day in flour and yeast. He says pumpernickel over my shoulder, and I want to vomit. That is my husband, and he is the kind of happy that makes you dizzy just to be around. His joy is my paint thinner and will probably kill me. He still has those big, bulging eyes like something cold-blooded and scaly, but he really is pretty and nothing but ordinary. When we dated decades ago, I told him I could do something special. I could get really, really hot. Of course, the guys loved that line right up until I turned a clod of sand to glass in my palm. Most tried to seem unimpressed, but it is intimidating. So most didn’t call again. Eventually I met someone not afraid; we all do. As a young woman I lived. At least I can say it, even in the past tense. It used to be fun, before, looking for trouble. I’m slew-footed with narrow shoulders—from far away a victim through and through. I wandered the world alone at night just to see what might happen, just to dare someone to come closer. Will is a terrible thing. The night is full of people who want things and have no will to resist the yearning. It climbs on the brain and makes wicked roots that wind down to prick every tender muscle that needs nothing but rest. I only maimed only a few scumbags by happenchance. Lots just pulled up in their cars and wanted service by the half hour. I soldered their doors shut with a finger and lectured them on the symptoms of chlamydia. Then they sped off. I learned all of the different words for vagina back then. That was high school. I lost my appetite for scumbags in my twenties and thirties. Although I almost joined one of those teams. They all have embarrassing names with animals or adjectives (Elkman, The Cicada, or Mr. Indelible), but I call them dash men because they dash. They dash off buildings to save the suicidal or the clumsy. They dash out of cars to stop hungry editorial assistants from mugging their neighbors. They dash between school buses and train cars and between disinterested parents and ungrateful children. They dash in between the sheets of cute, vapid twenty-somethings who wonder what it’s like to blow a superhero. Each dash man is unique as the dash symbol (–), a placeholder, anything more exciting at a glance than an ordinary man. The dash men and their teams of extraordinary people aim to avenge injustice or some shit and always try to recruit me.

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Everyone goes through a charitable stage. That kind of selfless giving certainly must be good for us—to build houses in the third world, pass out blankets and water to victims of natural disasters, collect toys for children at Christmas. It was my husband’s idea to join. He went to the first meeting with me at the YMCA. They had two fliers, a strong old lady, and a little girl that moved too fast to see. The girl kept untying people’s shoes. One of the fliers in jeans and a blazer glided over the group with a plate of sugar cookies and offered us a couple. He said this was the only group for nonordinary citizens within two hundred miles. They stayed involved in the community and went on “missions.” The team’s latest mission resulted in an animal shelter evacuation from a carbon monoxide leak. The inside giggles were hard to suppress. You could help, he said. The flier was right, but I didn’t commit because their cookies lacked salt. When we were finally back outside, I laughed harder than I had in years. “At least they don’t wear costumes.” My husband stopped in the street and looked at me with his incredulous gecko face. “I thought you would love it. To know you’re not alone.” I suddenly wanted to know how his eyeballs tasted. I wanted to lick his eyeballs, and I shuddered. “You don’t know what I want!” I screamed and fled into the nearest dark alley. I had an affair with the flier off and on for twelve years. My husband never knew, or he knew enough to know I would never leave him permanently for those saltless cookies. The flier used to tell me I was wasting away at the bakery. He told me to embrace my true self. I told him people like us aren’t made to be worshipped, to be martyrs, because that is for the soft-skinned, righteous, and desperate. He told me I liked to say things that didn’t make any sense to sound deeper than I really am. After that I set the bed on fire. Then the bathroom. And his passport. He flew above me in circles of rage that only engorged the flames . . . he dared to use the V word. The fire went out of me like a sad song. I exited through the window and sat alone in the dark, trying to justify the connection between the martyrs (the soft skin, the silence, and the pain) and the life I knew (the lies and the butter). The metaphorical links failed in my head. I knew the location of every ingredient in the bakery better than I did the lies I told to keep me out of it. I always went back, maybe that was the silence. I still don’t know. I texted him in the morning while at breakfast with my husband. He texted back one of those clever words for vagina, for villain, and my husband declared me in a good mood. We went on like that. We go on like that. Every day wet dough is put in my hands. The skin on my knuckles dries and thins year after year, and I feel the hot energy in the yeast as it wakes.