“Smith” by Rob Franklin

The ink had bled to the point of abstraction. Well, almost. One could make out, if vaguely, an image—eighty, maybe ninety years old—torn from The West Memphis Gazebo Gazette​, a long defunct Arkansas paper whose microfiche was evidently available at the Chicago Public Library. In it, a family of ten was rendered, by the inattention to nuance that greyscale provides, almost entirely black. The single face spared from the image’s shadow hovered at its precise center, starkly white amid that unintelligible sea of brown and black, children whose expressions seemed to convey either the melancholy of the times or of their particular experience.

A Dixie Puzzler​, the headline promised, and below, in font so faint it gave the impression of an eye exam: Now and then, down here in Arkansas cotton country, a stranger will excitably tell of seeing a white man, with his Negro wife and eight children, living on a small farm not far from West Memphis. Quoted was a witless local, easily cast in one’s mind as a cartoon hillbilly, his stomach distended and a single sprig of hay protruding from his toothless mouth: “He was as white as I am and there I was ‘mistering’ him, when up comes a whole litter of colored kids calling him Daddy.”

The Dixie Puzzler​​, then, was just this: a man named Finneas Smith who “claim[ed] to be a Negro” ​ despite his whitemannish appearance, a then-common phenomenon, but in reverse. Whichever he​ was, his passing was only newsworthy given evidence that, in 1921, he’d broken the “color barrier” by​ walking on ​as a right fielder for the Chicago White Sox.​

* * *

In the dim car of a descending elevator, Smith splayed his pointer finger and thumb to zoom in on an iPhone screen. Every few seconds, a chipper beep announced the opening of the doors and the ensuant arrival of two to three more passengers, for whom those existing shuffled to accommodate until, by the third stop, they’d become so tightly packed that the repetition took on a slapstick humor. Each subsequent beep drew a collective sigh from the elevator’s patrons, who rolled their eyes at one another, fidgeted,​ then, as the doors opened, made themselves more menacing to ensure that no one else would squeeze.

Still, often they did, seemingly oblivious to the scowls of their sardined neighbors.

Smith hardly noticed. Scanning the opening paragraphs quickly, he returned to the image above and eyed one of its subjects—a slack-jawed boy no older than seven in a hand-me-down peacoat that hung like a gown on his frame. He was a stranger. Would have been, were it not for the text that accompanied the email: “Pop Pop, front row, bottom left.” Smith examined the face, attempting to match it to that of his grandfather, who, in the years before he died of stroke, had come to resemble the Mr. Planters peanut man for both his high-yellow complexion and raisinesque pucker.

The doors opened, and as the others emptied into the marble lobby, Smith screenshot the image. You seen this, ​he texted his sister. From his and other office buildings, workers streamed onto Broadway as schools of fish to sea, dispersing from their colleague clusters to flow in one of two directions but at infinitely many speeds. Smith sped ahead, his long lean frame like a broadbill as he glided toward Canal. Past Afro-Caribbeans shilling Bucci ​​bags from the backs of trucks and Chinese vendors manning marquees of identical tourist trash. Fuck you you fucking fuck, ​​read one t-shirt, displayed boldly above the rest. I <3 NY ​was evidently out of vogue. Now it was, Fuck you you fucking fuck. ​Smith smirked, picturing the petite brunette in lopsided aviators returning to her midwestern suburb in that t-shirt. ​How was NewYork, ​her book club would ask; fuck you you fucking fuck​, she’d reply.

As was his custom, Smith was running late. By the time he’d arrived at Spring St, taken the 6 to 77th, then walked the several blocks to the dinner party at which he was expected, he’d be at least an hour behind. ​Oh, ​​and he needed to stop, he remembered, tucking into Dean & Deluca in search of the few items he required. A soft cheese, a baguette, a bottle of rosé: these were entirely symbolic gestures, offerings to the gods of uptown dinners. They would remain unopened, uneaten but would do the work of evidencing good breeding and serve as reminders of the lovely company he’d been long after the dishes dried. The door sighed open.

Inside, as outside, they swarmed with the slightly feverish verve known to all New Yorkers on the cusp of summer. Faces pink and clothes only loosely worn, they shuffled between grocery aisles then out to the streets, to restaurants and apartments and parties, grateful to have survived another winter and eager for the few months for which they, year-after-year, remained in New York. Orders from the coffee bar on the left-hand side were shouted at full volume between the cashiers and the white-hatted workers, who attended their Italian machines as modern Michelangelos, embellishing evening lattes with foam hearts or flowers, art that would go unnoticed by patrons, who would instead slurp them down as they marched toward evening plans. No one needed sleep tonight.

Past buckets of vegetables and perfectly browned baguettes, past shelves of esoteric items in queer-looking brines, all punitively priced and beautifully packaged, Smith arrived at the cheeses. A short ​ line. Peering through the glass partition, a bald man with a trimmed red beard conferred loudly with​ the ​specialist on a soft cheese he’d recently enjoyed at a party. He described it in colorfully vague terms​ that ​weren’t much help to anyone. When she asked, “was it more buttery or creamy,” he replied that the​ experience of eating it had been akin to hearing “a chorus of angels.” She repeated her question, and he revised his reply: “it was like eating sunshine.” Smith sighed and checked his phone, finding a two-message reply from his sister.

too small 

Can’t read. 

Smith scowled. “Not Camembert,” the red-beard reassured the woman, pronouncing it CAM-N-BERT, ​like the names of a country duo.

In a string of texts, sent quickly and punctuated with quotes from the clipping, Smith outlined the high points of the family drama: that there had been a man named Finneas Smith who’d been born to a cook, herself only Black on a technicality, and the “prominent white planter” to whom she was concubine. That this man had grown up a “Negro” but, on the encouragement of friends, had taken his few belongings​ ​and moved to Chicago, where he’d passed across an invisible membrane into the “white man’s world.”​ ​There he’d played professional baseball for two years before retiring to Iowa, engaging, then leaving a​ ​white woman in favor of his childhood sweatheart, a “very dark—and very beautiful—Negro girl:” a​ ​marriage which would cost him his job, his home, and the life that was not-quite his. That this man’s son,​ ​the morose little boy in the photograph, was their grandfather.

N​one of this was a complete surprise. Smith knew, of course, that people had passed through history, when one-drop laws had made words like ​quadroon ​and ​mustefino ​prudent. He knew also that the side of the family from which he’d inherited his surname and forehead had that look, particular to people with meddled-in bloodlines, each a coffee of weak and weaker vigor.

What struck him rather, as he recounted the story, was the bit about Iowa: the fiancé Finney had left to return South, back to Tippah County, to ​Dixieland​, where he’d let love make him Black again. His siblings, the article mentioned in the third paragraph, had carried on passing in an “Eastern City,” where they’d presumably married white and produced white children, rewritten their lie in blood.

Imagine​:​ ​the coin toss of it.

Smith nodded in to find the line still stalled. “Could I taste that Morbier again,” the ginger-beard gargled. Smith abandoned the line and, turning around, nearly ran headfirst into a woman. Her blonde hair was pulled tight into a ponytail, which gave her skin a taut, worked-on look. She smiled meekly as she pivoted, dropping a box of rosemary biscotti into her basket where it joined a clutch of kale and a carton​ of grape tomatoes, items that struck Smith as far too utilitarian to justify the mark-up. My long lost cousin Katie​, he joked silently, snickering despite himself.

Somewhere in the bread aisle, between Ciabatta and Walnut Cob, his phone buzzed with his ​ sister’s response.​

you would feel cute about being part white lmao 

Her message stung in precisely the way intended. She had a tendency toward this, declaring herself blacker-than-thou ​​in dismissive and demoralizing ways, a pathology attributable in part to her skin-tone. Unlike Smith, who was easily recognizable as Black from a city block’s distance, Nia’s color betrayed the genetic realities to which the clipping alluded, and thus demanded a realness to negate them.​ This psychology manifested in many ways on the Smith side of the family: the uncle who’d found the newspaper clipping for instance had, in the late ‘90s and amid a collegiate wave of pan-Africanism, changed his legal name from the Biblical David to the Ghanian Kweku, a christening he paired often with Hausa prints that had little or nothing to do with his actual ancestry.

Smith brushed off the joke and set down the loaf he’d initially selected in favor of one half its price, thinking to himself ​the nerve of some people. 

* * *

The train ran local and seemed to stop with a punishing frequency between Spring Street and Grand Central. Its kept air was dense, smelled of summer and a slight musk, as everyone sweat clean through their work clothes. This was New York at its best—before the novelty of the warm, blue nights had yet worn, when even the rich stayed in town on the weekends. Nights for rooftop parties and bad dates, for fighting loudly outside of dive bars, the constant thrill of traffic, dinners where only white wine would be served.

At Union Square, a group of Black boys spilled in, bringing with them the chaos of 14th Street. These were vrai ​​New Yorkers, homegrown Harlem boys who moved with an easy swagger and seemed to make themselves at home anywhere they desired. The train’s other passengers might not have existed for how little mind these boys paid them as they spread out to fill the space between closing doors.

One, shirtless, a sweater tied around his glistening torso in a diagonal sash like a pageant beauty; the other two in the sort of fitted, ribbed tank tops for which we, as a society, have failed to find a better word than “wife beater”—all of them managed bright smiles that could be seen at a distance. The train lurched on, and two of the boys resumed their game, circling one another with all the formality and sportsmanship of a Western duel. As the train pulled into 22nd St, one finally made his move. He lunged forward and swung his open hand toward the other’s bare chest, just missing by an inch.

Catch these hands,” ​the other said, taking his friend’s lost balance as an opportunity to strike him hard against his back. The slap was a harsh, satisfying sound—a belt on skin—and the hurt boy wailed with impossible glee, thrilled by what their game inflicted.

Elsewhere, on the train, most minded their business as the city had taught them. They stared dumbly at the opening lines of novels, or diverted their gaze to subway advertisements—hair loss gummies and millennialized healthcare, for which one could pay $120 a month to ensure that, if hit by a downtown bus, they’d be allowed an emergency room visit that wouldn’t deepen their already insolvent debt.

But Smith looked directly at them, and noticed another girl doing the same. In a Burberry bandeau and waist length braids, she might’ve been his kin, but her mouth-agape expression implied a​ delight at the spectacle that Smith did not share. The first boy took a second turn, attempting a retaliatory slap, but again his hands were slow, and his friend fell back against the closed door behind him, crying, “​Nah nigga, you finna get wopped you don’t stand down, my nigga.” 

“​Bet, nigga,” ​the first boy retorted.

The word, each time it was spoken, plinked like a taut string bridging the ends of an otherwise silent car, causing everyone to look up briefly and acknowledge what they’d been trying to ignore.​ ​Smith felt nauseous. Observed. He pictured walking up to the boys, tapping one on the shoulder​ ​to say, gentlemen, we have company​.​ ​Not himself as he was but an older, greyed version: a hunched,​ ​avuncular figure in the mold of Cornel West. Or better yet, his father. He cringed away the impulse.​ ​Indeed, the respectability politics in which he’d been schooled were already passé—gone the way of the​ ​Cosbys and Nightline specials devoted to saggy pants. The Obama years were done. Which meant they’d​ ​won, or lost, and it didn’t matter which anymore. Yet here were these boys, so blithely unaware of the​ ​space they took.

At 59th Street, the Burberry girl stood and, passing between the teens, snapped her approval at their performance before disappearing into the station. The doors closed. The train loomed quiet. Smith recalled an essay he’d once read, though he couldn’t remember where, on the demography of the uptown train. Its thesis: that as one passed into higher-numbered streets, the train’s shifting ethnography would be met by a shifting ethic. White folks would flee along the park, then a procession of black faces easing into Harlem, brown ones into Washington Heights, revealing that the social norms thought to be held by all N​ew Yorkers were an illusion, imposed by those who fled at 110th, leaving looser rhythms. It occurred to Smith that this theory was also outdated: the dueling phenomena of gentrification and what was sometimes called ​racial progress ​muddied old logic, making it harder to guess who lived where, ate where, wore what, fucked and loved whom. Watching the boys in their easy violence, he managed to forget himself and float backstroke through the black lake of time, into memories that seemed suddenly his.

He saw the man whom he supposed he could call his ​great-grandfather​—fair-skinned, square-jawed—strolling into an open MLB tryout as if it were the most natural thing in the world. High on the presumption that talent would be enough to grant him success. How profoundly, inconceivably American he must have looked. Finney would’ve been his height, Smith imagined—tall, as the men of his family were—but with fair skin that belied years beneath Southern sun. Slicked black hair, combed and bound to his scalp with oil, sweat, and the kind of gel that loosens curls into one contiguous wave.

Light on luggage, Finney stepped out of Union Station and immediately into the excess for which the twenties were known. Chicago, 1921: ​Capone Town​. A city where there was always a good party behind a false wall into which a young man might stumble, dance himself blind and spill on his one good suit, drunk on illegal booze and the intoxicating promise of what life had to offer.​ ​Then, Old Comiskey Park: a Louiseville Slugger propped on one shoulder as he eyed the farmost​ ​seat in the nosebleeds—aimed his bat in dedication. He gathered every bit of momentum his lithe, lean​ ​frame could muster, taut from years shucking bales of corn in West Memphis. And, one after one, sent​ b​alls flying to the cheap seats and beyond, so far they caught wind and flew off of their own accord like​ ​doves, unbound by the insistence of gravity.

* * *

Smith emerged from the train as a swan from a sewer grate, his elegant stride in lock step with the j​azz that filled the platform, which swayed necks and tapped fingers gently against metal. He leapt steps​ ​to street level and found the Upper East Side lit blue.

The avenues—Lexington and Madison and Park—still pulsed with color. These were the veins b​y which the city’s lifeblood flowed: cabs and civilian cars headed somewhere, honking intrusively into the night. But off them, on side streets, a few cafes and bistros stayed open—those bastions of uptown culture, hangouts for the gallerists of appointment-only second locations, stiffer and more Ivy League than their Chelsea counterparts, nightcapping bankers with toddlers at home. On residential streets a quiet calm prevailed. The stone, the brick, the concrete: these materials stored not just heat but sound, then diffused it back as an ambient evening mist, inoffensively distant in that way that sweetens real estate deals and legitimates the ever-mounting costs of living.

Past 76th, 75th, and 74th he strolled, turning at 73rd toward his destination, the childhood home of a boy named Joshua Goodwin, who was lent use of it for the several months each year that his parents decamped to Long Island and, with sporadic use of email, carried on convening remotely with their affairs in the city. Smith knew Josh from a former job, his first after college, at a consulting firm known for taking top candidates from top schools and training them up in the perennial art of corporate client services. The work itself was thankless and mostly uninteresting, but the pay was more than any twenty-two-year-old really deserved. Plus, he’d made a few friends with whom he still kept up, Josh being the best among them.

Smith eyed the townhouses. Through quiet windows, he could see families living out their separate lives on separate floors, tables being set for dinner, televisions with the evening news. Smith tried to imagine himself in one, a turreted French affair with lion statuettes at its stoop, but it seemed as inconceivable as living at Versailles. Anxiously, he re-read Josh’s text about what to do on arrival.

Door’s open, come to roof! 

The house into which he let himself was the breathtaking sort, impossible to enter without the gnawing whisper of eat the rich​. ​An atrium of white marble, gleaming defiantly into the night, drew one’s​ eyes up the walls to twenty-foot ceilings and, on the right-hand side, a spiral staircase that led visitors to upstairs bedrooms, bathrooms, salons, a small cinema and eventually the roof, on which the couple dozen dinner guests would be seated in their arranged disorder, producing the only distinctly human noise for several blocks in any direction. That people could live like this in the same city as the entire creative class seemed to share one dank, dark walk-up off the last stop of the J seemed almost inconceivable, a thought Smith quickly quieted in favor of a more agreeable disposition. He called the elevator and rode it to the sixth floor, where, past an unused gym and through French doors, he emerged onto the stone terrace.

A long table spanned the length of it, seating twenty. Of them, maybe twelve were members of a friend group to which Smith was occasional visitor, boys with indistinguishable biographies. They had grown up, all of them, in the immediately surrounding blocks and had voyaged together from K through 12 at Horace Mann, then dispersed briefly to the various tentacles of the Ivy League before returning to take up jobs in consulting or venture capital which would afford the excess to which they were accustomed. They were all sharp, all brown-haired, all varying degrees of the same kind of handsome,​ ​and were known also around town as a distinctly amusing bunch, having perfected over their​ ​quarter-lifetimes the ideal rhythms of mocking one another for sport. They were the Manhattanite​ ​equivalent of the Southern frat boys with whom he’d gone to high school, the sort who took their Range​ ​Rovers off-roading during free periods and believed roundly in the creationist myth yet had difficulty​ ​conceiving of someone like Smith—Black but well off, comfortably queer. Smith felt equally alien in his​ p​resent company, but found that in the intervening years and geographies, his difference had transformed​ ​from liability to asset—that he was here and now not only tolerated but embraced, and thus in him​ b​loomed an affinity for a type that some would call ​douche. 

Smith’s arrival, now sixty-seven minutes late, was met with modest fan-fare: the noise of conversation swelled along with collective body heat as guests turned to greet him, several standing to embrace him fully with an excitement that was testament to the cocktail hour he’d missed. “Smitty, Smitman, Smithereens,” cooed Josh as he approached, engulfing him in a great tackle of a hug that smelled of a house with only clean rooms. “We’ve been waiting for you, buddy.”

“My bad,” Smith offered coolly, pulling free. “I got caught downtown.”

Forgiven, Smith was pointed to his seat at the end of the long table, which looked out over lesser brownstones onto the mossy carpet of Central Park. The table was messily set, clearly by Joshua with the​ help of one or two of his friends: paper plates and takeout containers juxtaposed elegant stemware in unholy matrimony—Big Macs for the Queen—but the atmosphere was warm. Votives clutched in glass offered a flickering view of everyone’s faces, which seemed to bob up through the light, then recede like buoys into dark water.​

Smith took his seat across from a boy named Layton, who greeted him brightly and then introduced his girlfriend Anna, the shimmering incarnation of a face he’d seen on Instagram. To his left was another familiar face: Noel Something-or-other, whom he knew to be heir to a department store fortune and who possessed the sort of snide and tedious personality that Smith could forgive only on the understanding that it provided cover for his unacknowledged sexuality (the very pink​​est of elephants). Smith greeted him and received a small nod in return, as Noel continued outlining the investment thesis behind a direct-to-consumer shampoo brand whose fundraising round he’d recently led for his family​ office. “You realize that scalp psoriasis affects twenty to thirty percent of the population,” he claimed.

“No way that’s true,” Anna reasoned, summoning a search on her phone to confirm that he was either mistaken or had exaggerated his figure by an order of ten.​

“Still,” he remarked, completely unshaken. “It’s pretty fucking common.”

Smith turned his attention to Layton, radiant with charm as he poured a generous sum of rosé into Smith’s glass. He spoke at length about the party he was planning for the 4th of July, a “crawfish boil” to which Smith was invited along with a narrow swathe of Manhattan. He’d seen pictures of last year’s: a pyramid of Veuve Clicquot boxes, each packed to the brim with pink crustaceans, as if an entire river had b​een dredged to fill them. Smith asked where one even purchased crawfish in New York, to which Layton responded, as if queried on the wetness of rain, “well​, they’ll be flown in.”

Smith cringed to think what his sister would make of his present company. It was a running joke that Smith sought out rich, glamorous, implicitly ​white ​friends—people whose liberal politics she considered nullified by what they represented symbolically. Curious, really. She’d been raised in the same​ ​house, attended the same schools, and yet would have felt utterly out of place at this table, unblessed or​ ​cursed by the chamelonic quality that allowed Smith to present whichever version of himself seemed, at​ ​any moment, most appropriate. He knew, or at least believed then, that the self was not a static concept​ but a series of states to be passed through, a philosophy which was not without complications. Being the​ ​only one ​demanded the question—well, ​why?—a question on which he’d then meditate, amid yet​ ​another ​conversation over vodka sauce pasta about Gucci Mane or the playwright Jeremy O’Harris. What​ ​appeal did he hold for these people? Was he not some kind of urban novelty?

The thought unclasped in smoke as Smith realized he’d been asked a question. ​Excuse me?

“I asked, what is it that you do,” Anna repeated.

“Oh, well, I’m,” he faltered. “I work for a tech company.”

Layton shook his head in disagreement. “Smith’s really an artist,” he explained, clearly parroting a line he’d been fed by Joshua. “You want to paint, right?”

“I do.” Smith smiled, pleased to not have had to say it himself. If the first step to becoming an artist was proclaiming oneself so, Smith was stalled at zero. His quiet aspirations were alternately a source of pride and immense shame. How pitiful to ​want to paint ​when there was a war in Syria.

Smith returned the question, and Anna answered that she worked for a startup that curated “live experiences” for its users. “We just closed our series-A.”

Live experiences,​​” Smith questioned.

“Discount tasting menus at Michelin-star restaurants, standing room at shows, that sort of thing,” she explained. “We’re actually partnering with a few galleries for private tours and artist talks, if that’s your vibe,” she added. Smith asked which exhibitions, and she answered that the next week they’d host a private walkthrough and talk by the artist PJ Katz, whose forthcoming solo show had been described, by​ Art Buzz America​, as “a potent blend of pop sensibility and searing racial critique.”

“I’m obsessed with him,” Smith admitted, when she asked if he was familiar. “He’s so brilliant. So witty, and almost meta, how he skewers white liberalism and then manages to package and sell it back to white liberals. I actually wrote this paper in college that—”

“But Katz’s work isn’t about that,” Noel announced, cutting him off. “It’s about the image of the ​Black male body in popular culture.”

Smith paused to consider. “Well, those things are one and the same, no? It’s about who’s creating the images and who’s consuming—”​

“Have you even seen the show?”

“Not yet,” Smith conceded.

Noel made an “ahah” sound that implied any further observation would be disqualified on this​ basis alone, then continued to explain that having ​seen the show​​, he was now certain of what he’d already suspected—that Katz was an “overhyped Instagram phenom” whose “bloated market” needed to be “brought back to Earth.” Smith narrowly suppressed the urge to say something snide about being unsurprised he felt that way, given his family’s penchant for profiting off coerced Black labor, and instead ​ volleyed back to Anna, who insisted he join them at the next week’s talk. If she or Layton had​ found Noel’s interruptions rude, they hadn’t let on. Smith guessed it was the usual cadence of​ conversations​ ​with him, who clearly considered himself the smartest person in any room, capable of offering a needed​ perspective even and especially on topics which had nothing to do with him.

As the meal progressed, more bottles of wine were opened, then emptied. Conversations split into shifting twos, then back together in an endless ballroom waltz, but took a grander hue as the night whirled on and the boys fell into their usual one-upmanship: the fields on which they played—careers, relationships, hairlines—would be spanned with spirit as long as the Serafina held out. James’s promotion was upstaged by Tyler’s company launch, which was overshadowed spiritually by his recent dumping at the hands of a modelesque Oxford-grad, whom the table universally agreed had been too good for him. In this way each was kept on his toes, their dinner less a communion than a cruel theater, a ring​ ​of bruised egos. Smith stayed quiet and sipped his wine.

This masculine pageantry mounted and finally came to its head when Layton, in response to Will’s​ ​claim that he’d recently evaded a breathalyzer by invoking asthma, stood red-faced to deliver a screed​ ​against the Southampton police department. “That’s nothing,” he insisted, then recounted the half dozen​ ​tickets he’d received the summer prior for various moving violations, all of which he claimed to have​ ​ripped up in their faces ​as protest. “It’s predatory,” he pronounced, cheeks falling from the smile they​ ​usually kept, how they targeted weekending New Yorkers whom they knew were more likely to pay a fine​ ​than return mid-week for their day in court; the perverse incentive set—to rack up enough profit during the three summer months to bloat the municipal budget for the remaining nine. “And that’s why

I’ve​ ​decided,” Layton continued in a graver tone, “that I’m running for mayor.”

The table, having hushed when he stood, now pealed into riotous laughter. Anna caught Smith’s expression and, with supportive-girlfriend smile intact, arched her eyebrows to indicate that she too found Layton’s outburst absurd, something he said often while drunk but would remember in the morning with the approximate clarity that he recalled the name of the Uber driver he would later ask what it was ​like ​in Cote D’Ivoire. But Smith didn’t find it absurd. On the contrary, it seemed to him entirely reasonable that this was how things were decided—that Layton would run, would win, would commute each week from Noho to Watermill, halving his hours at ​Invisible Ventures ​​to accommodate mayoral duties.

In any case, their laughter was a reset, and did the necessary work of returning conversation to a civil cadence. Summer plans were discussed: the lapis coasts of Europe and New England’s summertowns, concerts and parties they’d attend mid-week in the city. By the time the conversation finally arrived at baseball, the next week’s Sox game (for which Layton’s corporate seats would go unused as Anna considered it “a good tan ruined”) Smith realized he’d been waiting all night for the subject to arrive—not just quietly hopeful, but steering it ever-subtly with his questions. The answer to what home games are coming up ​would normally have bored him senseless, but tonight, he knew he had something to say. Something not only interesting but entirely his, unlikely to be one-upped or yes-and​​ed by his dinner party companions. ​Which Sox​​, he asked, and when Noel answered Red, Smith pressed on undeterred. “Fun fact,” he offered brusquely. “I found out today that my great-grandfather played for the White Sox.”

The very moment he’d said it, he regretted doing so. Like that, he’d claimed their attention. Three sets of eyes now fixed upon him, three mouths startled shut. In Noel’s expression, he registered interest tinged with faint incredulity. But he had his attention, and so, would have to tell the story. And he did. The newspaper clipping with the inky photograph, its somber children, blurring back in time to the concubine mother, the backcountry childhood. Then forward, to Chicago, where Finney had arrived with so little: just a bit of talent, a face and a manner that would allow him to slip imperceptibly into a second self​ which, like a caught-zipper, stuck. Neighboring conversations quieted as their participants sensed the story’s pull. Down the table, it spread like a whisper.

The story passing through him was an odd sensation. A blood-letting, the whisper of helium that escapes a balloon, a feeling of falling too slowly to note. He could hear, in his own voice, the story losing buoyancy. He attempted to breathe back into it vital, vivid detail, summoning the vision of the​ pine-colored man stepping up to home plate, lobbing Spaldings beyond the cheap seats. But it occurred to​ Smith then that this man had nothing whatsoever to do with him. The balls came to ash upon contact. The face went hazy, nondescript.

Smith kept talking for fear of what would be said when he was done. Doubt he couldn’t stomach, as it would confirm the implausibility of this story that, despite its factuality, was so self-evidently untrue. He could not be a thing that he wasn’t, and his trying ​to be—how sad, how unbearably unfashionable. Affirmation would be equally gutting. Even curiosity would be an offense, would confirm that his simultaneous proximity and immutable distance from the rest at the table was precisely what made him interesting to them, why he’d been invited, greeted as an old friend.

The story was ending, was suddenly done. May’s hot wind swept the terrace and gathered the leftover scents and sounds of their dinner to carry to other roofs, other parties. The candlelight flickered once, then recast more boldly its harsh glow on their wading faces. And in them, what did Smith see?

Yes.​​ ​Yes. ​There it was.

Rob Franklin is a writer and organizer living in New York. A finalist for the 2019 Sewanee Review Fiction and Poetry prize, his work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Fields Magazine, and The Levinthal Anthology, among others. Currently, he’s an MFA candidate in Fiction at New York University, where he’s working on his first novel.


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