M. L. K.

1

“Any idea what’s for lunch?”

Rod sat at our desk flipping through a Dick Blick catalog.

“I don’t know,” I said, cringing.

“Well, ” he said turning a page, “seeing as it’s Nigger’s Day, they’ll probably feed us fried chicken and watermelon.”

H was right, despite his malice. We did indeed have fried chicken for lunch–fried chicken and waffles–but with carrot cake, not watermelon, for dessert. Had we lived in the North, the meal might have been construed as a racist gag, but in Mississippi, serving fried chicken on Martin Luther King Day is simply an appeal to the regional palette.

I asked South what he thought of the meal.

“They just be trying to please everyone. Gotta give the niggers their chicken and the whites their carrot cake.”

“Do white people like carrot cake?” I asked, surprised. I thought everyone liked carrot cake.

“Shit. No black person gonna put no carrot in no cake.”

2

CO Smith has been the source of many complaints for her abuses in the kitchen–yelling and harassing inmates, serving spoiled food, and on one occasion I witnessed her throw a food tray at a dish washer. I myself incurred her wrath once when I made the mistake of reaching out for a bag of chips to avoid having it tossed on my tray and into my food. “Git yo damn hand down!” I looked at her, confused. “Don’t gimme dat look! Git you muh-fuh gay face off my line!”

Smith committed her latest offense this past week when a Hispanic inmate declined the chicken noodle casserole in favor of the heart-healthy alternative. Slamming a scoop of cottage cheese on his tray, Smith, an African American, told the inmate, a Mexican American, that if he didn’t like the food here he should go back to his own damn country.

3

“‘Anthony has an odd-shaped plot of grass that he would like to border with a hedge.’” I point to the figure below the problem. “‘How many feet long is the border of the plot rounded to the nearest foot?’”

Dannis sets to work scribbling and pecking at a sheet of scratch paper, his fingers flexing to a numerical tune inside his head. I notice he has the same rash on his hands as me–a splatter of red freckles, like little ant bites. The culprit is a dysfunctional laundry system in which clothes come back dirty and wet and smelling of mildew. I assume his rash, like mine, also extends to the backs of the legs and beneath the arms and around the waist and ankles and to other places where clothing tends to cling and rub.

“I have a question,” Dannis says looking up from his work. “Do I have to convert my answer from feet to foots?”

I close the textbook and suggest we switch to reading.

Surprisingly, math is Dannis’s strength, but this morning, and for the better part of the last month, his focus and determination have waned. When asked to calculate perimeter, he erroneously calculates area; when presented with an exponent, he multiplies the base by its power. Even the fundamentals–carrying when adding, regrouping when subtracting–slip through his grasp. He’s failed the GED twice now.

Thumbing through a booklet, I ask Dannis if he’s been keeping up with his reading. As with most of the Hispanics I tutor, it’s his weakest and least favorite subject. He shuts his eyes and crops his head to his chest, feigning death.

“You need to read, Dannis. You can’t improve your reading if you don’t read.”

“I do read–I read the Word.”

“That’s not enough.”

This small blasphemy satisfies me. Earlier he had the gall to tell me that it was God’s will that my transfer back home to Texas be denied; his own transfer was granted. “We can’t argue with God’s plan,” he said. He leaves for Georgia in a week.

“Here.” I pass him the booklet. “Read about the Boston Tea Party. And I want you answers in complete sentences. Don’t look at me like that. You need to practice your writing.”

“Why>’ he scoffs. “When will I ever have to write anything?”

“Are you serious> How are you going to get a job out there if you can’t write? How are you going to fill out job applications and write a résumé?”

Dannis laughs. “My people don’t work with pens and paper; we work with paintbrushes and ladders.”

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