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Lasso by Essie J. Chambers


Writing effectively in a child’s voice, as Essie J. Chambers has done in “Lasso,” is exceedingly difficult. Add in the urgency and limitations of a flash fiction word count, and the choice of first person POV and present tense in a specific, historic time and place, and you have an exceptional story.

Please do not miss the Author’s Note accompanying this piece, in which Chambers reveals such care for this young narrator, and the delicate and intricate way the themes and context that are woven into this story are enhanced by the tension and interplay of a child narrator and an adult reader. This story will take you on a journey of emotions. Follow Chambers’s embodied little girl as she grabs her Huffy and takes off around the block, trying to understand the mysteries of racism and injustice.  —CRAFT


 

It’s the summer before third grade, and I’m not allowed to play in the front yard anymore. Mamma says it’s because of the heat, but I know it’s about the police cars that circle our house like sharks.

The cruisers slow-crawl down our street a few times a week at first, then twice a day after Daddy loses his job at the mill; soon it becomes as regular as my TV shows. I press my face to the window during commercial breaks from Gilligan’s Island, hoping to catch a peek of a white, meaty arm dangling on a car door, a dark uniform—neck bulging over the collar like a big belly.

Some things I need to know: is it the same car and the same two cops going round and round, or do they take turns with other cops? Do they take a break to talk about the clues they’ve found to whatever mystery we’re part of? When will they stop?

One day when Mamma is at work and Daddy is in his room, I decide to follow the cops on my Huffy. I wait by the door until I hear radio static and the pop pop of tires chewing gravel. I don’t show off my new peddling-no-handed skills, because they are driving very slowly—I have to stay far enough behind to not look suspicious. Together, we’re a slow parade of mystery chasers.

The street is twisty and shaded by tall trees; they stand straight like soldiers on both sides, the wind bending them down for me as I pass. I pretend the shadows they make on the ground keep me hidden; I can only be seen in sunny patches. The seed fuzz in the air joins us, swirling around my head like a cocoon. My heart thumps so hard I can feel it in my whole body. I am a heartbeat.

At the end of each street, the cop car makes a left turn; soon we are on the other end of my block, where the sprinkling of trees on one side becomes thick woods, where long driveways lead to hidden houses with no lawn chairs or broken toys in yards. I think of our old neighborhood in Chicago, where the buildings were squeezed in next to each other with no space in between; one long row of boxes like teeth across the mouth of the block. I miss it—feeling more hugged than crushed—so much that I forget myself and go limp. My swerving Huffy slaps me back up to tight and straight again.

The car stops in the middle of the road at the end of the street and the engine cuts off; these are the kind of police who don’t need to pull over to the side. I realize I have also stopped in the middle of the street, in a sunny patch, so I turn around and ride straight into the woods like that’s what I meant to do all along.

I ditch my bike and crouch down behind trees nearest the car, where I’m hidden by tall weeds and curling ferns. The cops are smoking now, laughing loudly as they wait for something. The radio spits out loud, fuzzy voices; I can’t understand what’s being said. The lights flash and the siren whoops loudly, just once, like a scream. It scares me so badly I pee myself. I won’t cry.

“Where’d the little black girl go?” One of them gets out of the car and looks into the woods, right at the ferns that cover me. He’s fat and grey-skinned; his no-lip mouth draws a straight line across his face.

“Come on, don’t mess with her,” the one still in the car calls out through the open window.

“You following us, girlie?” no-lip says, ignoring him.

The seed fuzz is everywhere now, a whirl of summertime snow helping to distract. The cop swats it away from his head.

I squeeze a cottony puff tight in my hand.

“It’s against the law to hide from an officer when you’re called.”

He reaches into his pocket and tosses a coin into the brush behind me.

“If I have to come and find you, I’m not gonna be happy about it.”

“Here I am!” I say, popping up from the weeds like we’re all just playing hide and seek.

Standing in front of him, I use my bike to hide the pee spot on my shorts. I haven’t wet my pants—not even at night—since I was five. I feel hot all over, except where the damp cloth touches my skin, cool like something to calm a fever.

“That your bike?”

“Yes.”

“You sure you don’t have sticky fingers like your daddy?”

“Oh for Chrissakes, quit it,” the one in the car says.

“Well, yes I do, sir,” I say, looking at the sticky seed puff smushed in my hand.

They both laugh.

“Who gave you that bike?” no-lip asks.

“My Grandma Sylvia.”

“Your daddy can’t afford to buy you a bike?”

I know he’s saying something mean. It lands somewhere in my body and digs a hole.

“Why are you driving in circles around my house?” I ask. I am a detective. The wind bends the trees for me. I belong to my father.

Seed fuzz swirls around his head, making him sneeze, over and over.

“Ask your dad,” he says, wiping his nose on a sleeve before getting back in the car. “He knows.”

I start to go home, back to my seat at the window, but instead—I ride around the cop car once, twice, three times; a human lasso. It works; they just sit there and watch. On the end of the last loop, I skid out, just as I’ve seen the neighborhood boys do. My tires spray street dust and gravel.

“Eat my dirt,” I yell, and peel out before the cops can arrest me.

I race to get back to the house before Daddy knows I’m gone.

 


ESSIE J. CHAMBERS is a Brooklyn-based writer, producer and consultant. Essie has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Vermont Studio Center. She previously held senior executive positions at Nickelodeon and BET Networks, and was a producer on the critically acclaimed PBS documentary, The New Public. She is currently completing her debut novel, Fishbelly.

Author’s Note

The first image that came to me, before I knew what this story would be, was that of my narrator’s face pressed up against the window in her living room as she tried to figure out why police cars drove by her house every day. It was this image of my girl that allowed me to tap into a very specific kind of kid fear and intuition, where a constellation of cues give way to the wobbly sense that adult-world happenings aren’t what they seem.

I felt this most intensely as a child when race first came into focus. I hadn’t yet experienced overt racism, but the subtler forms—a snub, a confusing dig, being stared at like I was on fire, being invisible—were far more insidious. In this story, I wanted to capture that sense of deep unease that comes from absorbing invisible blows; from watching the adults around you wrestle with something crushing that’s just out of view.

I’d originally been thinking of this as the foundation for a scene in my novel, which is about multiple generations of a family of color living in an all-white, rural New England town. But I decided this tension would lend itself to a shorter piece, where what an adult reader already understands about the fraught relationship between police and black and brown folks could be an engine beneath the action. With this built-in momentum, the story could take its time with the details, hanging out in every moment the way that kids experience the world. I also hoped to avoid the pitfalls in trying to tell a depressingly familiar story about anti-black police violence by using that story more as subtext.

I think these are the challenges for anyone trying to write adult fiction driven by an authentic kid voice: how to mine the tension between adult reader wisdom and a more limited kid perspective; how to weave those two levels of story together without demeaning your narrator or rendering them passive observer of complex grown-up stuff they can’t understand (there are similar challenges with other kinds of unreliable narrators); and (most obviously) how to express complicated emotions while keeping them firmly rooted in a kid’s POV.

As a little girl, I lived on my bike; my neighborhood was my whole world. I knew where the sidewalk buckled and made for good jumps, which backyard hedges had gaps big enough to cut through to the other side of the block, how many minutes it would take to get back through when I heard my mother call for me. I decided that the frame for the story would be exactly this: one ride around the block. By setting my girl off on her bike and on a mission to solve the mystery of the circling cops, I could give her agency in a situation that would typically render her powerless; I could give her story closure without total resolve. Most importantly I could set her up, in the course of this ride, as outsider in a world (her hood) that should have felt safe and nourishing.

Kids are beautifully literal and direct in the way that they express themselves. My girl didn’t solve her mystery; it is unsolvable. But her final act before completing that lap around the block was her simple, literal defense and reclamation of her home, her dignity.

 


ESSIE J. CHAMBERS is a Brooklyn-based writer, producer and consultant. Essie has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Vermont Studio Center. She previously held senior executive positions at Nickelodeon and BET Networks, and was a producer on the critically acclaimed PBS documentary, The New Public. She is currently completing her debut novel, Fishbelly.