Art by Fritz Lang
This piece, selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the 2021 O. Henry Prize, originally appeared in McSweeney’s 55. To get stories like this on your doorstep four times a year, subscribe to the Quarterly today.
The streets of the town could in no way be described as lively during the day, but at night they were even more deserted; the neat brick streets and ornate Victorians resembled the outcome of a pristine little purge. Rumor was that the students occasionally slipped into town after dark, calling at a certain ramshackle house to secure pills or powders too specialized to be found on campus. She almost never saw them.
Magna sped as she approached her apartment building, on Main Street, which was as desolate as it had been when she’d set out earlier that night. Suddenly a brown-and-white blur reared up in front of her. Meaning to hit the brake, she stamped on the accelerator. There was a violent, wet crunching sound and a scream caught in her throat.
With the helpless terror she’d felt at the top of roller coasters, she did not stop.
It had become a habit for Magna—watching television, drinking wine, and then going for a drive. She and Jamal had ritually drunk wine while watching television every night, despite the fact that back then everyone in academia could be heard saying, “Oh, I never watch TV.” Since no one in academia ever said, “Oh, I never drink wine,” she wondered if they perhaps preferred to sip staring into the abyss. But eventually Jamal swore off TV, saying he wasn’t getting enough done on his dissertation. Then he gave up drinking. Then he left her.
That was when Magna added the drives. It felt healthy to go out into the sharp air after the solo slide into the musty depths of the couch. Tonight she had given herself a quick assessment and decided she was okay to drive. She worried a bit about the fact that she had begun crying unexpectedly at the episode in season one when Wallace gets killed. She had not cried the first time she’d seen it. But poor Wallace! He had tried so hard to take care of the neighborhood kids, even though he was just a kid himself. Magna sobbed, remembering when the actor had been a hopeful teenager readying for the prom on All My Children. Nevertheless, grabbing her keys off the nail by the door, she concluded that she was not drunk, just sad. It was a sad time, on this show and in her life.
The apartment building, a wide colonial, was quiet except for the blare of Mr. Oakley’s TV set, which ran constantly, game shows during the day, weather and shopping channels at night. Mr. Oakley was a very nice, stooped old man, the type who looks like a baby, with an open smile. His loud TV and the large NRA bumper sticker on his car were the only problems with him as a neighbor. Magna never saw or heard anybody else in the building. She often wondered if she and Mr. Oakley were actually just roommates. The landlord was an upbeat, platinum-haired woman who lived elsewhere and suggested that Magna use “old-fashioned elbow grease” on the thick coatings of bird shit that had covered her back window and porch since before she’d moved in that summer.
Once outside, Magna inhaled the night. The stars looked crowded and close. “God’s own country,” she had always said to Jamal when they saw something pretty in this new town, which was often. She felt grateful to him for accompanying her to this hellhole, and was anxious to highlight its meager charms. And it was true that even the dump had a pastoral allure. “God’s own country,” she’d said among the soiled mattresses and splintered wood, where they’d come to bring a broken IKEA shelf that she shouldn’t have packed in the first place. He’d laughed that time, holding his nose. After a couple of weeks she’d known it was becoming annoying, but she couldn’t stop saying it.
“That’s becoming a tic,” he’d said.
“You say that about everything that gets on your nerves,” she’d said.
“Or maybe you have a lot of tics.”
Before he left, she and Jamal had sat on the second-floor back porch amid the bird shit and he had declared that the night sky was the only thing he would really miss. Oh, and her, of course; of course he’d miss her. Then he’d actually attempted a kiss. This was just after he’d announced that he was going back to California, where they’d been graduate students, because he felt like there was something special with Ananda, and he just had to figure everything out. He clarified that he wasn’t breaking up with Magna at all, just putting things on pause. Instead of meeting his lips, Magna had put up an elbow, which he didn’t see because his eyes were closed. She hurt his face and was not sorry.
Sometimes it was hard to remember why she had been with Jamal. Mostly he was the prototype of the bad boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie. But then she would remember—he was handsome, smart, black, and well lotioned, the most undeniable man Magna had ever dated (like the bad boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie). He had been several cuts above the other men in her graduate program. They were head cases: this one pretending to be gay to get closer to straight women; this one who’d written all of his coursework essays about feces; this one wearing an undershirt to class, approaching undergrads in Payne Hall, saying, “Can I holler at you for a minute?” Jamal, on the other hand, was beloved by everyone, and lived on secret fellowships that only the secretary and the department chair, and eventually Magna, knew about.
For the first few years in the program, he and Magna had been friends while he was on and off with a chalky black art history student who looked like a Goya painting. When that woman got a job in Texas off of one dissertation chapter and Magna found herself in bed with Jamal, she couldn’t believe it. She got high off the look on people’s faces when they walked into a room together.
Before him, she’d never wanted children, but even with how unhappy they had begun to make each other, even after he left, she still ached to one day parade the streets with his baby in a stroller. It was a fantasy so familiar that it had become memory, painful to recall.
As she drove down the dark street, past the quaint stores selling mugs and Lilly Pulitzer dresses, the Confederate junk shop and the one good restaurant, Magna knew she was trying escape from what had happened that afternoon, her meeting with the university president. He was trim, silver-haired, with burnished but not shiny shoes and the sharp facial planes of a film actor, but a Bill Clinton nose, a red medicine dropper there at the tip. She’d had to meet with him because she’d made the mistake of telling her most sympathetic colleague, the most liberal person in the English Department, about a slightly menacing incident, and the colleague had been upset enough to contact the president. “I hope it’s okay,” she’d said, only after she’d set up the meeting. Magna had said it was okay, feeling a sense of excited doom.
In the president’s office Magna had found it hard to explain herself. She imagined that he’d postponed something more significant to take this meeting—a fund-raising call, a preliminary interview for an even fancier job, two fingers of whiskey. Was her story even a story? Two days earlier, she had been standing on the street near her apartment building when a car drove by and a male voice yelled, “Hey, girl!” in a voice like one of the Negro crows in Dumbo. She had heard laughter and saw a flash of white boy, clearly students at the school—they had a university bumper sticker. It was meant to be an imitation of her, Magna—how she would say “Hey, girl,” because she was black.
“Hey, girl,” she cawed to the thick burgundy carpet, the beautiful stone fireplace, and the portraits of landed gentry. She did not mention the crows in Dumbo to him, but the president nodded with some understanding. Magna had the absurd thought that she wished the boys in the car had instead called her a name, a historically certified epithet, which would have made for a better narrative. That had happened once back in her hometown, Philadelphia, a heavily black city that was also home to a lot of hateful white people. She’d been standing on a corner near her high school, headed to her therapist’s office, and a girl’s voice had screeched out of a passing car: “Nigger!”
“There is a need,” the president said, after Magna’s plotless yarn about the boys in the car, “for more dialogue about these issues.” Here he paused as if someone were taking notes and needed to catch up. “I hope you always feel comfortable speaking about these things. And I hope that we can stay in touch.” When his eyes drifted toward the door, she smoothed her skirt to stand.
As she saw herself out, Magna recalled the thin, quivering lip of her white colleague. She wasn’t the only one who became distressed when Magna told her what it was like to be in the town and in the school; it was as if the well-meaning white people who’d been here for years, expatriates who had all gone just a tiny bit native, were meeting reality anew through her eyes.
“You can leave the door open,” she heard the president say but she had already gently closed it.
There were other things Magna would have told him if he had wanted to know about her life here at Lashington & Wiis. About how she was regularly mistaken for a student and told (with some stiffness) that this mistake was a compliment. About correcting the word colored in student essays. About the roiling sea of Bush-Cheney stickers on shiny SUVs in the parking lot (though who knew where the political sympathies of the university president lay?).
She could have told the president about how Benton Anders, a freshman from South Carolina in her Narratives class, had responded to Magna’s “fun” assignment, a three-page imitation of June Jordan’s memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood. Benton Anders had attempted to imitate the deliberately childlike tone of Jordan’s prose to rhapsodize about a woman named Delandria, his nanny from “baby all the way to eighteen.” (He was currently eighteen). Delandria was described by Anders as “cocoa brown” and “pillowy.” He had apparently missed the venomous irony of Jordan’s child-voice, which describes the violence, abuse, and insanity of her childhood; his piece culminated in a particularly cherished memory of riding a carousel at age sixteen while Delandria stood on the side, waving in the hot sunshine. “When I think of family, I think of my Deli,” he had written. It didn’t help matters any that Benton Anders called Magna “ma’am” instead of “professor,” and that she had been too alarmed to correct him at the beginning and that then it had become too late.
“You must think it’s cute,” Jamal had said. Magna didn’t think it was cute, not really, but Benton Anders was cute. That was undeniably true. He was over six feet tall with curly dark hair and light blue eyes. But he was less cute looming over her in her office in his pajamas, smelling beery and chemical, that time he’d overslept, missed class, and come running in five hours later to turn in his second paper. It said right there on the syllabus, “NO LATE PAPERS,” and it seemed to Magna that, as a new black female professor barely out of her twenties, there were two ways to play this. She’d chosen the way in which they’d call her “professor” (even as her colleagues were “Lisa” and “Charley”) and she’d point to the line that said “NO LATE PAPERS.”
“So that’s a zero?” he said. “But it’s worth 5 percent of my grade!”
“There will be plenty of opportunities—”
There had been an exciting sequence of expressions and colors in the face of Benton Anders, as he had gone from slouching to erect and out of her office. He returned to her office fifteen minutes later, the flannel-shirted department chair in tow. With a hand on the shoulder of Benton Anders, Charley had backed Magna in a paternal I-wouldn’t-do-it-like-this-they’re-just-kids-but-I-get-it way, but she barely heard what he was saying for the shock: the child had run straight upstairs to the department chair to tattle on her. She tried to imagine herself, over a decade ago, a freshman back at the University of Pennsylvania, going to the department chair because of something a professor had done.
Even as the campus sat still and dark, she could feel it radiating malevolence toward her passing car. There in the grand Greek houses, the white students stayed up late to haze and rape each other; the black students crowded into dorms, testifying angrily and creating escapist personal dramas; the gay students hid under their beds, praying over transfer applications. Over it all, in the center of town, in front of the campus gates, there was the statue of General Lashington and his horse, Colonel Wiis, keeping faithful watch. Magna stifled the impulse to hold her breath while passing it.
As the town gave way to country, and the roads become more poorly lit, she could still see the rebel flags affixed to the houses. Her childhood was whatever the opposite of a rebel flag is; there was an invented Swahili grace, counterintuitive black supremacist narratives of world history, the spelling of Afrika with a k, and Amerikkka with three. But she’d had to take this job; she could no longer hide in graduate school. Her father had died of a heart attack that they had all seen coming but could not swerve to avoid, and her mother was comforting herself in an expensive apartment near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hoping to die before her money ran out. Any day now, Magna’s corporate attorney brother-in-law was going to be indicted on fraud charges, and Magna’s sister would have to move back to the city with her two small children. The job Magna had been offered was in this place—not the place in Southern California whose English department had so many black professors that she’d gotten hairstyling ideas on the campus visit. They had given that job to someone with more interesting scholarship and better hair.
Magna arrived at the spot where you could really begin to see the mountain across a meadow. She had driven farther than she usually did at night; this was a spot she’d previously been to only during daylight hours. Shortly after Jamal had left, which was around the two-year anniversary of her father’s death, she’d come here to look at the autumn leaves. It had not cheered her up, because even when no one died or left you, and even though she knew Jamal would eventually drop Ananda, too, fall was incontestably fucking sad.
She had picked up the phone three times tonight to call Jamal, to tell him about the university president. But it was not a reason to break their silence, just as the story she’d told the president was not quite a story, but an ugly little nothing.
Magna looked at the dark shapes of trees and the mountain looming ahead. She thought of the many horror movies she’d seen that included a version of this sequence, a clueless person alone in the woods. Not for the first time, she imagined running from slave catchers, and lamented that she had no notion of the direction of the North Star. After walking a few brisk paces in no particular direction, she decided to head back to what was home.
Had she maimed a person? Had she killed him? Fear squeezed her chest as she drove away from the accident, in the opposite direction she’d driven earlier—away from the woods and toward the towns that were worse than this one. Her heart thudded erratically and she cursed rhythmically to try to calm herself. Along this road there were no antiques shops or heralded berry pie and peanut soup (the slaves invented that!). These towns had no tourist offices bearing pamphlets about the General, his noble fight for family and the land worked by God-given slaves. In this direction were fly-specked diners, a massive Goodwill complex, hand-lettered signs, and abandoned gas stations. But just as it is purportedly darkest before dawn, she mused that if she drove all night through the worst of towns, she might greet the sunrise in Washington, DC. Perhaps someone would hide her in a garret and help get her to New York. Maybe NYU had a job in her field this year? Soaked in sweat, she lowered the window, which brought on violent shivering. She rolled it back up.
In her mind she saw the prosecution reading off her privileges as the small-town Southern jury weighed her fate. (A subliminal flash of the yellow cover of To Kill a Mockingbird.)
“The defense will say that this woman was slowly driven crazy by so-called racism as if dying by one thousand cuts. But this woman was no slave! Slavery ended over one hundred years ago! And if attending good schools and being raised by a loving family and earning a PhD unharassed and a teaching position at one of the most elite schools in the country is slavery, then shackle me up, ladies and gentlemen, because slavery is the best deal in town!”
Magna felt herself swerving into the U-turn.
Back on Main Street, she parked the car with some deliberateness and walked over to the boy’s long, twisted body, which he’d managed to drag out of the road and close to the curb. Though it was late November and near the mountains, he wore no jacket, just a pink, rumpled Oxford shirt and thin pants, no socks. “Help,” he whispered. She knew that in his mind he was yelling; she knew because they were sharing a nightmare. He didn’t seem to recognize her, though they saw each other twice weekly, every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:15 to 2:30 p.m., excepting his two absences (so far).
“There’s been an accident,” she said, clamping her cell phone to her damp cheek with her shoulder as she used her hands to drape her sweatshirt over him. “Someone was hit.”
She had called the police only once before, and it had been in this town. Not 911, but the other number, the one you call in a more leisurely manner, about nuisances. She and Jamal had been in bed listening to something she had not heard before or since—a party at a house nearby. Earlier that evening, while they had been watching television, arguing about their future during the commercials, the party had been background noise. But eventually they had lain awake, their argument unresolved, and the party had continued insistently. The town’s usual silence had felt aggressive; Magna had been surprised to find this was worse.
At 2:30 a.m. people yelled, “Whoooooooo!!!!!”
“I’m calling the police,” she said.
“Don’t,” murmured Jamal. “That’s bullshit. You’re gonna call Boss Hogg?”
“It’s not like those kids are black.”
“Yeah, but you are. You can’t get involved with the police here, Magna.”
“Sometimes I really hate it when you use my name,” she said.
Even with the pillow over her head, she heard the strains of a song she had loved lifetimes ago at college parties in West Philadelphia. Back then it had seemed that Ice Cube’s defection from the West Coast to the Bomb Squad could unite all of black America—but now a white-girl voice started proudly yelling along:
Fuck you, Ice Cube!
Yeah, ha ha! It’s the nigga you love to hate!
Magna snapped on her bedside lamp and looked at Jamal. Even without sitting up, he nodded. Release the hounds.
“Do you want to leave your name?” the operator had asked.
“I’d rather not,” Magna had said.
As she hung up, she wondered if not leaving her name meant that the complaint wouldn’t be registered, but a few minutes later, she and Jamal heard the approach of the cruiser beneath the hooting students, then the click of police shoes on gravel. Instinctively, Magna shut off the light again. Those kids sure had been surprised, listening again to “The Nigga You Love to Hate.” She and Jamal had clung together, that night’s argument now over, in her last, best memory of him. They used each other’s bodies to stifle their laughter, though of course no one would have heard them. In the morning they awoke and laughed some more.
It didn’t sound like anyone was arrested that night, hauled off from the party to the small Southern police station. Magna imagined she would be going there now. This had been a long time coming, maybe her whole life.
“Do you want to leave your name?” the operator asked now.
“Oh, I’ll be here.”
Against the advice she’d always heard (advice she’d never imagined being useful to her, like “Stop, drop and roll” or “Never let them take you to a second location”), Magna moved the accident victim, shifting him so that his head was now on her thigh. Using his name, she told him he would be okay. His eyes began to flutter, which alarmed her. Gently, she ordered him to stay awake. She could see him struggling with his eyelids; his gaze became glassy, then it focused on her with otherworldly calm. The calm of a sated baby, or, Magna supposed, someone giving in to death.
Back when Jamal was with her there in the town, Magna had made judicious use of the campus gym, climbing, pedaling furiously, and running nowhere. So the thigh was not quite a pillow, but was frankly headed there, full of human warmth between the boy’s sweat-soaked, dark, curly head and the cold, hard street.
ASALI SOLOMON is the author of Disgruntled and the story collection Get Down. She lives in the city of Philadelphia, where she is currently working on another novel about Philadelphia.