Michelle Boisseau Prize Finalist
after Claudia Rankine
you meet a 73-year-old white man in key west while there for a writing residency. you’re sitting outside of a dive bar composing poems for strangers on a manual typewriter when he takes a picture of you without asking. he asks if he can send it to you on facebook. you say sure.
a few days later, he sends you the picture & tells you it went viral in a key west facebook group that has not accepted you, even though you applied for entry days ago. it will be anytime now, he tells you.
he asks if you are going to see the new editor of a premiere literary magazine’s craft talk and reading at the college outside of town. you have planned to go for weeks now, so you say yes. he asks if you need a ride there. you are hesitant – but you do need a ride. the campus is too far to reach on your bike. he says, if you want, you can go to the readings together and he will treat you to dinner. for some reason you can’t pinpoint, you feel uneasy but still say okay.
days later, you both go to the craft talk. everything seems fine. afterwards, you and the old white man go meet the editor for dinner and drinks before his reading starts. there is not much time, only about an hour before he is scheduled to read his poetry onstage. you and the editor are the only two black people at the table of five. you try to make the most of the time and fill the air with congratulations and small talk. the old white man speaks about affirmative action and how key west was never part of the confederacy. you wonder why he needs to speak of these things right now, in this moment. the editor leaves to prepare for his reading. all is well.
the old white man pays the tab and suddenly you are on the back of his scooter, passing by warm blue waves of water and an abandoned boat called “freedom” once manned by a group of cubans escaping to america.
the old white man breaks the silence. wow, he says. that guy was so nice. i say, yes! he is amazing. he was just named the first black editor of a top tier literary magazine. in their long history, they’ve never had a black editor. oh, that’s nice, the old white man says, but he’s not black black.
you feel like you’ve been hit in the stomach as your long thick twists whip around you in the breeze. excuse me, you say, tightening your grip on his shoulders and steadying yourself on the scooter, what is that supposed to mean? well, he says, clearing his throat and speaking as casually as though he were commenting on the weather, his diction is very good and he seems quite worldly.
you don’t even know where to begin with this. so you say, he grew up in the netherlands. with a pit deepening in your stomach, you tell this white man that the editor has lived all over the world. nice, the old white man says again.
you are lost in your thoughts when you realize he is turning the scooter around. you are no longer headed to the reading – now you are going to some other place. you feel like the blonde teenager in that joyce carol oates story – don’t know where you’re going, don’t know where you’ve been.
he stops the scooter by the boat you passed minutes ago, the one with “freedom” scrawled in white on the side. the sun is setting into the water. it is getting dark. you wonder what’s next. you wonder what’s happened & why you cannot speak. i’d like to take a picture of you next to the boat, he says motioning towards it. he never asks your permission.
you can’t swallow. but you hand him your phone. you stand next to the boat called “freedom,” the wooden pieces of the hull jutting out into the soft sand. he does not ask if you’re ready. he takes the picture. he takes several pictures. you do not smile. you are holding back something inside you. you want to say things but you cannot say things.
suddenly, you are back on the scooter, though you do not remember climbing on it. the old white man takes a deep long breath. he tells you that he loves your perfume. that you smell so good. in your head you say, it’s called libre. to him, you say nothing. the word sinks inside you, anchored to some other dark, cold place.
Skye Jackson was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Electric Literature, Green Mountains Review, RATTLE and elsewhere. Her chapbook A Faster Grave won the 2019 Antenna Prize. Her work has been a finalist for the RATTLE Prize, the RHINO Founders' Prize, and in 2021 she received the AWP Intro Journals Award and was twice nominated for Best New Poets. Skye's work was selected by Billy Collins for inclusion in the Library of Congress Poetry 180 Project. In 2022, she won the KGB Open Mic Contest in New York City, and served as the Writer-In-Residence at the Key West Literary Seminar in Florida.