Kings of B'more
- Pages: 416 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Kokila
- ISBN: 9780593326190
An Excerpt From
Kings of B'more
“Now, this is living,” Linus said, standing in the middle of the empty cemetery.
Harrison ignored him.
Linus swooped into Harrison’s eyeline. His height made his animated face unavoidable even though Harrison had developed a sudden intense interest in a cloud. Harrison stared back as if to say You’re really trying it.
Linus wiggled his eyebrows. Do you get it?
Yeah, Harrison got it. Hilarious. Gets more hilarious every time we visit.
“Now, this is living!” Linus repeated, this time calling out triumphantly into the endless June sky. His voice carried over sprawling green hills and into the city beneath them, startling a couple of nearby crows into flight.
Baltimore Cemetery was a huge, old-timey hillside burial ground packed to bursting with elaborate historical grave markers and, tucked among them, two sixteen-year-olds pretending to be annoyed with each other. Their trip, as always, was Linus’s idea. The main purpose of the space aside, Linus’s affinity for this cemetery wasn’t morbid. They always came in daylight, and Linus was primarily interested in the space between the dates on each marker and what had happened within it. To Harrison’s mind, the thing that kept them coming back was the fact that it didn’t feel creepy or forbidding, but rather that it was one of the most wide-open, awe-inspiring spaces they’d ever encountered. Here amongst the stone and the crows and those who belonged only to history, they felt like they’d stumbled into a dazzling new perspective on a city they’d always called home.
Now, this was living.
“There’s no place like this,” Harrison conceded, still refusing to acknowledge that he was in the presence of a comedy genius. Linus thrust his arms out now and spun in a slow circle. Very Sound of Music, except these hills were not alive. If the hills were alive, he and his friend would be in some trouble, and the next bus wasn’t coming for another twenty-five minutes. Linus plopped himself down onto a patch of grass and gazed up at a twelve-foot blue-gray angel standing on top of a gravestone. Harrison stepped over Linus’s legs, wandered around the base of the gravestone, and made his way to the asphalt driveway. He cast a look back; Linus was the one staring up at the clouds now, not a care in the world, it seemed.
“You going somewhere?” Linus called.
“Just—Nowhere. I’m still here.” He couldn’t stop moving, fidgeting, futzing with his glasses. He didn’t know why. He wasn’t going anywhere, but he sure was in a hurry to get there.
Harrison turned and faced the horizon. The cemetery rose up at the end of flat North Avenue like it was built upon the back of a poorly disguised dragon. From the top, you could see all the way downtown to the Harbor south of them, all the way to the tall, narrow houses of West Baltimore, where Linus lived, north to the slightly nearer neighborhood with the wider, shorter homes, where Harrison lived, and out to the docks and highways in the East, through which the city dribbled out into the water in rivulets. If it weren’t, you know, a final resting place, Harrison would have thought it rather serene, like a statue garden. Or maybe that was why it was serene. He didn’t know. It unnerved him, but the fact that it didn’t unnerve Linus gave him license to see it in a different way.
No shade to all the souls gathered there, but they did have a favorite amongst all the statuelike gravestones. It was the one against which Linus was leaning—a tall angel atop a grave from 1860. She had a bowed head, and from one raised hand she pointed her index finger skyward. The first time they’d seen it, Harrison had said, “She looks like she’s at a party, going, ‘Yes! They’re playing my song!’” Linus had laughed so hard, he fell over. They dubbed her “DJ, Turn It Up!”
Though the cemetery was open to the public, that summer it felt like it belonged only to them. An old station wagon sat by the gate most days, and initially the boys held their breath, waiting to be chased away, as if their mere presence were evidence of a crime. But no one ever came. A rarity, a respite. And so they would take the bus from the middle of the city to trek up the hill more and more frequently. They came to wander and to talk and to gaze into the horizon from the only place where they could find it in every direction.
Now Harrison gnawed on the corner of his thumb as he leaned over to look at the name carved on a squat rectangular stone. It seemed everyone in the past had a fanciful name, like something out of a folktale. He wondered when names got so boring. He wanted to live in a world that was just a bit more eccentric. Not the past, he’d correct himself quickly. The past was not exactly ideal for two Black queer boys. But a version of the present that had a bit more magical potential.
This particular stone left a little something to be desired in the name department. It was just a block that bore the word father. Simply father. Father to us all. Next to it was a block of the same size and shape that readmother. So, that’s the family. Linus came over and sat next to father. Family meeting. Harrison forced himself to sit down, too. They were surrounded on all sides by statues—many ten or twelve feet high—columns, and figures, and vases, and plinths carved to look like they were shrouded in cloth. Some stones had become discolored—brown, black, gray, with a splash of mustard-yellow moss on a few. Often the graves were slightly tilted, leaning forward or to the side, as if the dragon had stirred in its sleep ages ago. Harrison looked over at Linus and decided that he was uncharacteristically quiet today. Or maybe it was just that Harrison was full of internal chatter. There were times, Harrison thought, that they were totally in sync, like when they communicated without bothering to use words. But there were still times when Harrison wondered about the mystery of his friend and the mystery of himself. Linus always had a lot to say—more questions, more ideas, more grand plans, more jokes. This was the way Harrison preferred it. Most of the time in life, Harrison felt like he could never find the right words despite everything going on inside. He realized that the moving, the fidgeting, was the same feeling he got right before going onstage in a play at school—like there was a motor sputtering somewhere between his chest and his stomach. Like there was more energy inside than scientists recommend. Like, well, like he was anxious. More than usual. He stopped gnawing on his thumb. That was it—Harrison was anxious, and if there was ever a person not to be anxious around, it was Linus.
Harrison’s strategy for avoiding being anxious mostly consisted of declining to have outside thoughts, only inside thoughts. During rehearsal at school once, it had been explained to him that the reason there are songs in musicals is because when characters can’t find the words to express themselves, they sing. The songs aren’t happening in real life. They’re the interior life, the better life, the bigger self. That was Harrison. He was a song, he thought. He would never say as much, of course. Or sing it, as it were. Judging by the parts in which he was cast, his musical talents were something of an open question. But it was a fact he carried inside himself, like the fact of his and Linus’s friendship, that had finally felt cemented that summer.
“I’ve been thinking about it, and I have an idea,” Harrison said, at last giving voice to the thing he’d been hemming and hawing and gnawing about all day. The motor in his chest was still rumbling. This is what happens, he reminded himself, when you move inside thoughts outside. “What would you think about us going to the same college?”
They were entering the eleventh grade and were on the precipice of, well, everything. The horizon of standardized testing and college and, beyond that, adulthood was filled with terrifying unknowns and looming pressures, and every time they talked about it, they got overwhelmed. The future wanted to eat them alive. Which is why they had to face it together.
“I’ve been thinking about it, too,” Linus replied.
Now the motor in Harrison’s chest revved to life. He felt a burst of energy, like the times he went buck wild and had a soda at lunch. “Oh, good! My mother sent me a website where you fill out a survey and it tells you what colleges you might want to go to, so I’ve been filling one out for me and also one for you, and then I’m going to compare the lists and we can pick,” Harrison continued.
“What are you filling out for me?” Linus asked.
To be honest, the whole survey had been a real pickle right from the start. Harrison had gone in with the idea that he’d study musical theater, but then he started thinking about the process of auditioning (not a strength) and also the whole singing and dancing of it all (a challenge) and he’d gotten stressed out. Could you go to college for musical theater enthusiasm alone? The survey was inconclusive. Then when he’d filled it out for Linus, he’d checked off premed even though that was clearly a lie to everyone but Linus’s father.
“Obviously, your dad is only going to pay for a premed program,” Harrison said, “but you can do whatever you want.”
“Boy, my dad isn’t paying for a thing,” Linus said.
This was news. “Then what’s your plan?”
“Scholarships. Where you been? There was never one question in my mind about that. I have a whole spreadsheet.”
Of course he had a spreadsheet. “Well, yeah, I need to get scholarships, too,” Harrison said, pretending that he had in any way thought this through. “But our parents have to help. It’s not like we’re geniuses.”
Linus arched an eyebrow. Speak for yourself. Then aloud, he said, “My dad is going to do what my dad is going to do.” He flicked at a fuzzy dandelion head. The motor inside Harrison started to sputter.
“Well, we’ll figure out the whole college part of college. Not important. The point is that we should have a plan. Together.” Linus didn’t respond. “Eleventh grade isn’t too early.” Still nothing from Linus. Harrison tried a joke. “So far in the plan, I have: Step one—decide where to go to college. Step two—money???” Linus laughed. “Step three—literally forget about the existence of everyone we’ve ever met.” Linus laughed again.
“Oh, you’re doing the Corrine plan,” Linus said.
“Yeah. My sister went to school and was like ‘Harrison who?’ ‘Baltimore where?’”
Linus was still chuckling, but Harrison felt himself getting anxious again. What was the problem?
“Anyway,” Harrison said, “that’s what I’ve been thinking.”
Linus lay back on the grass next to father. He had features that, in some lights, looked like one of the stone statues that dotted the hill. His nose, broad and strong, an expressive brow, full lips that were always talking or smirking or curled up in thought. It’s a shame statues only come in white, Harrison thought. Linus’s dark skin wouldn’t fit in at the cemetery, but everything about his look, even the way his purposefully oversized clothes seemed to hang off his wiry frame, seemed like art.
Harrison tried a different tactic. “If you were going to go for premed, what kind of doctor would you be?”
“I don’t want to be a doctor.”
“Okay, but if you had to. Like, if it was required by law.”
Linus hitched himself up. There’s no law, his side-eye said. He lay back down. “Podiatrist.”
This made sense. Sister Dale was the richest Black person at their church—well, at what used to be their church—and she was a podiatrist. Linus and his father didn’t go to church anymore. It was unclear if the church kept being theirs even if they weren’t in the building. In any case, Sister Dale went to Iceland every summer and had a big house, where she’d just hosted a Juneteenth party, so what other evidence did you need?
“You really want to look at feet all day?” Harrison asked. He wriggled his foot out of his sandal and poked Linus in the side with it.
“Boy, if you don’t get your grody hoof out of my face!”
“This is the medical school entrance interview.”
“If they come at me with some bare feet, I’m out.” Linus only wore low, flat, old-school tennis shoes. Every day, all year.
“I’m on the interview committee. You have to take this seriously.”
“You’re a doctor now?”
“Well, they asked me to help out.”
“Who all is on this committee with you?”
“It’s . . .” Harrison struggled to think of any doctor. “Dr. Okeke.” (His pediatrician.) “Sister Dale.” (Her house has four bathrooms.) “Dr. Frank-N-Furter.” (From Rocky Horror; Linus hadn’t been allowed to go.) “And Dr. Jill Biden.”
Linus laughed. “Not Dr. Biden! She’s an education doctor. She’s the only one I’m trying to talk to, actually.”
“Well, you have to go through the foot.”
“You’re gross and I hate you.”
“That’s fine. Hate me while we make a plan. Your idea that we should get the same job this summer was, like, in the top-ten best ideas ever. We’ll keep working together when school starts, we’ll go to the same college, then I’ll go to Broadway, and if you don’t become a doctor, you’ll become a . . . wait, what do you do with a history degree?”
“Now you sound like my dad.” Linus looked at him askance. “The point is: What you start out doing doesn’t need to be what you end up doing. Mr. Mirepoix went to college for gender studies.”
Oh, Mr. Mirepoix, Mr. Mirepoix. In ninth grade, Linus had taken AP World History with Mr. Mirepoix, and it was all he wanted to talk about for months. Linus went to Harper, a public magnet school, and Harrison went to Plowshares, a private school out in Baltimore County. Prior to Mr. Mirepoix, Linus and Harrison’s regular afternoon phone calls had mostly consisted of Harrison filling Linus in on the drama from the Plowshares drama department. But with the advent of AP World History, suddenly Linus had urgent daily updates. It was clear that Linus idolized Mr. Mirepoix. He said that when Mr. Mirepoix talked about world events, all the trivia and little-known facts and ideas in Linus’s head organized themselves in a way that felt revelatory.
After class one day, Linus had told Mr. Mirepoix about how he’d recently become obsessed with the Titanic. How he wanted to find everything out about the ship and the sinking, and the second ship, the Britannic, that had also sunk. “There’s just so many stories from the past,” Linus had said, “and I’m like, is everyone just walking around knowing this?”
Mr. Mirepoix had offered that there was a point when he was young when the Titanic was literally all anyone talked about. Linus was agog. “Everybody saw the movie multiple times, of course,” Mr. Mirepoix said. “And that song! Well, you know I’m a Celine Dion–head anyway.” Mr. Mirepoix found the oddest ways of working stories about the many times he’d seen Celine Dion in concert into his lessons. One minute you’re learning about rebuilding Europe after World War II, and the next minute Mr. Mirepoix is casually dropping an anecdote about the merchandise counter at London’s O2 Arena. It was so much. The next week, Mr. Mirepoix had brought in a souvenir book about the movie Titanic and lent it to Linus. Linus was annoyed it was about a movie and not, like, real life, but it did have incredible research.
“You can go to college to be like Mr. Mirepoix,” Harrison offered, hitching himself up next tofather. “You can do whatever you want. All I know is that everybody is going to have an opinion about what we need to be doing, and I feel like eleventh grade was when Corrine started making her plans, and it just seems like the best idea if we do . . . whatever it is we need to do, together.” Corrine was Harrison’s older sister. She’d blasted off from high school, a rocket of promise, and then, midway through her sophomore year of college, came plummeting back to their parents’ house, a strange and surly version of herself. Whatever transformation she’d undergone was a mystery that hovered ghostlike in their home, a warning to Harrison.
Things would be different for him, though, because he would not be doing it alone.
Linus pulled himself up slowly from the grass around the grave, like a vampire starting their day. The sun sketched shallow shadows on the sides of his features. And for just a moment, Harrison released his thoughts from judgment. The thought in question, one that had never occurred to him before but which now seemed as natural and long-standing as if it were part of his molecular structure, was simple. He observed Linus, a few short locks falling across his face, his eyes searching the air above him for answers about the future, and the thought presented itself to Harrison: He is beautiful. It showed up like a fact. The color-of-the-sky kind of fact. And for a moment, Harrison let his thought be true and untroubled and free.
Was it unusual to think one’s friend was beautiful? Uh, maybe. Depends on who your friend is, Harrison surmised. But didn’t knowing a friend, really knowing them, mean that you got to hang out in the light of the best parts of them? Maybe no one else had friendships like this. Maybe Harrison and Linus had wandered into some new way of being friends. That was fine, too.
The slight breeze wrapped them in June’s warmth. The day, like his friend and their friendship, was beautiful.
Did Harrison feel the same way about himself? Well, physically, the two boys had different looks. Linus was partial to boxy shirts and long-sleeved tees and thrifted finds that he dubbed “dadcore” (father would approve, Harrison guessed). Harrison didn’t put much thought into his “look.” He wore what fit, sometimes perplexed by his rounder face, his spiky twists that refused to grow, his softer frame, the different way that he moved through the world. Today he’d chosen a plain T-shirt plucked from a pile on the floor, a pair of jean shorts, and sliders, all in the interest of staying as cool as possible. What was his look? “Lukewarmcore.”
Harrison pulled out his phone to take a picture. Linus waved him off. “You look cool! Pose!” Harrison insisted. Linus sucked his teeth and flashed a begrudging V-sign with two fingers.
“Okay, model!” Harrison said.
Linus shook his head. “You’re corny.”
Yeah, Harrison’s eye roll said. I’m the corny one. Okay.
Harrison slipped his phone back into his pocket, lay back on the grass, and lost himself in the sky, so vivid that the cloudless blue seemed to take on dimension. It went on forever, a space he could inhabit.
“I have something to tell you,” Linus said at last. His voice floated over Harrison.
The motor inside Harrison started up again. He hoped it was something about college, something about their plan, something good. Or nothing, which would be even better. But he got the feeling he should sit up for what would come next. He searched Linus’s face for clues, but for once his face had nothing to say.
Harrison tried his words. “Yeah?”
“So the thing is . . . I’m moving away.”
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