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Boykin / Benjamin Drevlow

Boykin’s the only black kid I knew growing up. His family the only black family in our redneck boony school of 150 students in northernass Wisconsin.

Boykin’s out on the basketball court shooting hoops at recess, steals the ball from me and won’t give it back and when I try to grab it from him, he says, Back up, whiteboy and holds up his fist and tells me the story of his sister, in seventh grade, beating Devon Trubiczek over the head with a metal baseball bat and putting him in the hospital.

All because he’d called her the n-word.

And that’s my sister, he says.

This is the first time I think about black versus white and Boykin being black versus me being white and the whole school being white except for Boykin and his sister Melody and his other older sister Crystal who weighs 300 pounds and who will eat me if I ever fuck with her or him or any of them in their family.

Or ever even consider thinking about them and the n-word in the same sentence.

This is what Boykin’s told me. He’s only sometimes joking.

My mother, who teaches Home Ec, and has Crystal in class, says, Oh for pete’s sake she’s not that big and she’s very very nice and she’s always talking about how it’s so nice that you and Matthew play basketball together because he doesn’t have any other friends.

In sixth grade, our country-kid school gets shut down for black mold and for the ceiling leaking and they start growing mushrooms out of it, and we get sent fifteen miles away to a townie school that has 300 students in a town of 1400 people.

Boykin gets held back and we’re in the same class and Boykin beats me one-on-one at recess for the second time all year and then he’s in reading class before the bell rings and he’s telling Katie and Quinn and Kim and Tim Knutson that he always kicks my ass and makes me cry.

He’s supposed to be in math class, but he hates math because Mr. Nemic is racist and hates him because he’s black and so Boykin tries to fuck with the old racist anytime he can.

According to Boykin, anyway.

I walk in and he’s sitting on top of my desk and they’re all surrounding my desk because Tim sits behind me and hates me because I’m the new country kid and he says he’s better at basketball than me and I keep challenging him to one-on-one and he won’t play me.

The whole school already knows Boykin because he’s the only black kid in the school besides his two sisters and they know how much he hates most teachers because—small town or out in the boonies—in northernass Wisconsin they’re all racist.

Hey Boykin, why’d old Nemic give you detention again? Cuz he’s a racist ass old cracker.

Hey Boykin, Why’d you get held back? Cuz I’m black and y’all are whack.

I tap Boykin on the shoulder from behind and say that’s my seat. And: Aren’t you supposed to be in math right now?

He says, Ah poor whiteboy get his ass whooped by the black kid and now it’s get to the back of the bus?

No, I say. It’s whiteboy lets the black kid win to feel better about flunking sixth grade.

You little… he says and jumps off the desk and punches me in the face.

He may have two older sisters, one of whom uses a bat, but I have two older brothers who have both hit me in the face with bats and shovels and regularly take turns torturing me to their own delights.

I smile and say, That all you got, flunky?

He punches me again.

I smile and say, Ooh, flunky hits like a girl.

The bell rings and I say, It’s time for class, Boykin, you don’t want to flunk again. Then I shove him, not hard, but he’s back against a desk and he falls all the way over and Kim and Quinn and Katie and even Tim start laughing and I’m waiting for Boykin to come back and beat the shit out of me, but the second bell rings and Mrs. Tibbets comes in and asks: Matthew aren’t you supposed to be in math right now? And Boykin says, oh, yeah, and runs out.

We never fight.

We play one-on-one and I win the first game and Boykin wins the second game and then I win the third game and then the bell rings and Boykin tells everyone I cheated and I’m a hacker-ass scrub-honky redneck.

In seventh grade, my oldest brother kills himself.

Boykin comes to the wake. He’s the only one from my class who shows up.

I sit in a back room with juice and cookies and try not to cry and Boykin distracts by telling a couple of other older kids about the time he almost kicked my ass.

I punched him and I punched him and this whiteass honky just sits there and smiles at me with this big goofy smile.

Don’t you have math class, flunky? Boykin says in a nasal whiteboy voice. You honkyass motherfucker, he says.

Eventually, he gets up to leave, but before he does, he says, Man, shit’s fucked up and pats me on the back.

In eighth grade, a new kid moves to town and he is six-two and plays basketball and immediately everybody who plays basketball hates him for being six-two in seventh grade.

He wears a bowl cut and has bad acne and immediately we all start calling him penis.

His real name is Keith and he’s not really a dick but he does have hairy legs and can even grow a mustache so nobody really feels bad over calling him penis.

Until Tim Anderson decides one day that he hates me more than Keith and turns pretty much the whole class against me for calling Keith penis.

Boykin isn’t on the basketball team. He can’t make the grades. And he doesn’t really hang out with us anyway because he’s a year older and we get to play basketball and he doesn’t.

But then Tim tells him about me calling Keith penis and how I think I’m the best basketball player in the grade and how they should teach me a lesson.

Tim challenges me to one-on-one at the youth center one night but as soon as we start playing he starts shoving me every time I make a move. He kicks out my legs from behind when I go by him. He elbows me in the kidneys when I shoot.

When it’s his ball, he puts his head down and tries to run me over while also elbowing me in the face.

Boykin is there too and he’s laughing his ass off.

Kick his honky ass, Boykin yells. Tim is redheaded and pale as mayonnaise.

Keith is there too laughing awkwardly like the kid at the party who doesn’t really get the joke.

C’mon motherfucker, Tim says and whips the ball at my head. Let’s settle this outside.

I refuse. I say, six-two me. I say check the ball. Inside I’m ready to cry and my stomach feels rotten.

I’m not thinking about Boykin punching me in the face and then me pushing him over a desk.

I’m thinking about how I’m going to show them that I’m the best basketball player in the class.

At some point, Homer Moore comes in and says he called my mom and she’s coming. Homer Moore who is in my grade after flunking eighth grade twice and has taken my mom’s foods class three times.

A month later, at basketball tryouts, Boykin tells me how Tim had gotten a metal pipe and a steal chain from the alley to fuck me up big time. Boykin says, You’re one lucky ass honky. All you ever want to do is play one-on-one.

This is Boykin’s way of saying no hard feelings. Fuck Tim and Penis. Let’s run this shit on them.

Boykin makes the team, but then gets kicked off for grades.

By our senior year, Boykin finally makes the team and keeps his grades up long enough to keep playing.

He smokes a pack a day and smokes weed most nights and doesn’t play defense so he’s relegated to scrub team. With me.

I have severe anxiety and every time I try to shoot in an actual game I choke.

But in practice we’re the dynamic duo of the scrub team.

I play defense and dish dimes and Boykin shoots and together we make the first team run so many suicides they hate us even more than Tim and Keith and the rest of them already hated us.

Tim and Keith like to joke with Boykin about how much he smokes and how high he is half the time and sometimes Boykin’ll joke about how he’s the only n-word in this backwardass townie school and he can’t even crack the starting five.

N-word like me, I ain’t play that honky bullshit. I ain’t down for no zone defense. I ain’t about to run the plays. Just get this n-word the ball and let me run yo’ ass.

Sometimes he talks shit to Tim and Keith and the first-stringers when we’re whipping their asses. Calls us Thunder and Lightning. Chocolate Thunder and White Lightning about to bring the pain.

Sometimes Tim gets so caught up in the shit-talking he’ll tell Boykin under his breath, You dumbass n-word. You ain’t never gonna see the floor.

You shifty little n-word. You think coach is ever gonna put your black ass in the game?

Mostly, Boykin lets him get away with it and just acts like it’s part of the game. This shit-talking.

I often wonder if it should be my job as the scrapper, the point guard, the scrub-team leader, to knock Tim’s ass in the bleachers. Maybe catch him upside the chin with my elbow when he tries to take it to the hole.

I don’t. I scrap. I try to get in Tim’s face and be annoying. I imagine him getting so pissed off at me that he hauls off and decks me and I just smile at him and then look at Boykin and we share a knowing laugh about it all.

But mostly I just try to outplay him for both of me and Boykin’s sake.

Then one day it’s senior night and Boykin and I actually get into the game and I turn the ball over and shoot an air ball and Boykin shoots an air ball from about five feet behind the three line and the guy he’s guarding gets eight points on him in about a minute.

In the huddle coach is ripping our asses a new one as if we matter and aren’t senior-year scrub team lame ducks who’ll never see the floor again.

From behind the huddle, Tim whispers in Boykin’s ear, You hear that? Coach ain’t about that n-word ball.

It’s Boykin who turns to haul off on Tim. We’re up twenty points. The crowd is quiet. All anybody’s watching now is Boykin trying to punch Tim and me holding him back and saying it ain’t worth it and the other players holding Tim back and saying he ain’t worth it.

And coach telling me to get Boykin the fuck out of here.

And me pulling Boykin away and hugging Boykin the way guys like us only feel comfortable hugging other guys—when it’s under the threat of violence.

Me hugging Boykin all the way back to the locker room, the whole time him yelling: Get off me, bitch. Get the fuck off me.

Obviously Boykin gets kicked off. Nothing happens to Tim.

We have two games left and then playoffs.

I don’t ever say shit to Coach or to Tim.

We lose in the first round and I never see the floor.

Boykin stops showing up to school for good after that, the final nail in his academic coffin.

I don’t know if Boykin ever graduated. Maybe he got a GED, maybe he didn’t.

It’s not like we ever had a moment. It’s not like we ever had an understanding. It’s not like we were ever even friends.

I never said shit about Tim calling Boykin the n-word or about how blatantly racist everybody was to Boykin, even if Boykin always tried to joke it away.

In my head I thought it would’ve going soft on him. It’d be like me throwing a game of one-on-one to him. Like if I’d pretended that he’d hurt me back then, the time he punched me. Let him save face in front of all the condescending white girls who’d never date him. White girls and white Tim and white me. And the white reading teacher.

All just to make Boykin feel like he had at least one thing up on all the rest of us. As if he’d ever needed anything from a scrubbyass honky like me.


BENJAMIN DREVLOW is the author of Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father, which won the 2006 Many Voices Project from New Rivers Press, and the author of Ina-Baby: A Love Story in Reverse, which was released by Cowboy Jamboree Books in 2019. His latest story collection is A Good Ram Is Hard to Find, released in 2021 by Cowboy Jamboree Books. His novel The Book of Rusty was released in October 2022, also by CJB.

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