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  • The Captive
  • Jonathan Fink (bio)

Who was I, at seventeen, who sat unmoving, silent, hands in lap, the one white athlete on a bus of thirty runners, some asleep and some awake, as three young men (two sprinters and a shot put thrower)

nodded at each other once, then moved in unison to settle just across the aisle from me, the sprinters facing backward in a seat, the thrower by the student manager who sat alone, the sun descending on the fallow cotton fields,

the long horizon only broken by a farmhouse every other mile. The sprinter named Elijah reached across the seat and took the book from which the manager was reading. On Elijah's right, Vermaine, the other sprinter, cocked

his head as if he entertained a message only he could hear, then made a tsk, tsk sound, his tongue against his teeth, and slapped the boy across the cheek. The thrower did not speak, although he placed his arm across the shoulders

of the manager and squeezed—not comforting, but firm, the way I'd seen a country vet bear down on animals to keep them motionless as an assistant flicked a needle just before inserting it into a creature's flank.

Beside me on the bus the other distance runner, Rodney, looked at me as if to say, I told you so. Each afternoon both he and I were sent on longer runs and though we didn't always run where we were told (sometimes we walked

the railroad tracks that ran from east to west and cut the town in half, or hid in the abandoned house we'd found where warped and swollen floorboards crumbled underneath our feet and wallpaper unrolled in long, elaborate sheets) [End Page 42]

we never came back early to the track where coaches (every one of them was white) all barked instructions into megaphones and fleets of runners sprinted intervals, a straggler sometimes stepping from the track to vomit

in the grass. A week before, when Rodney said to me, You'll never understand because you're white, the two of us were three miles out along a farm-to-market road so flat and barren that a screen door snapping closed was heard

one hundred yards away. I had not asked him why he thought the runners turned so quickly on the manager (sometimes they waited for him in the locker room, the runners snapping towels at him, and once—as rumor had it—trapped him

in a locker just before they urinated through the metal cage). I'd simply asked why Rodney thought that no one said a word to coaches, parents, anyone at all, to intervene. The manager's real name was Timothy, though only teachers

called him that. The runners (most of them were also football players) hooted Hollywood at him, a name they trilled like chorus girls while blowing kisses at him from the hall. Sometimes one athlete dropped his books

and, cackling, bent at waist to pick them up, while, miming thrusting motions from behind, another athlete pointed through the doorway of a class (beyond the teacher's line of sight) at Timothy, pretending not to see, the muscles

in his neck drawn tight. While other students disappeared midday to work on roofing houses, fixing cars, both Timothy and I (along with thirty other honors students) spent our hours dissecting fetal pigs (a fetal pig is almost like a human fetus, [End Page 43]

we were told—the size and organs, weight and skin) or solving proofs and theorems—problems and philosophies remote enough from us that we believed they had no bearing on our lives. The only truth I'd learned by seventeen was that the will

of nature (human, animal, divine) was not to coalesce, but to divide. The railroad tracks that separated north from south, the lines chalked back and forth across a football field, the high school parking lot where student soldiers twirled their wooden rifles

carved from two-by-fours and painted white, the weather sirens perched five miles from town to split the air by shrieking out each time a funnel cloud descended from the sky, seemed...


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