This week, the book Black Boy Joy will be published by Delacorte Press. This book is aimed at intermediate or Young Adult readers and contains seventeen short stories that “celebrate Black boyhood.” The book has various authors but is edited by New York Times bestselling author Kwame Mbalia. As a dad, Mbalia clearly gets what makes boys tick.
Fatherly is proud to present an excerpt from the book, a story called “There’s Going to Be a Fight in the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman,” by Lamar Giles.
In the story, a boy struggles with an ever-changing list of action figures and wonders whether or not the movie Kazaam is worth watching. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, and very real. Enjoy the short story in its entirety right here and be sure to buy the book wherever books are sold.
The school bus squealed to a stop at the corner by Cornell’s house. Other kids from the neighborhood got off, but he was too busy rereading that stupid list to notice. Black Panther gone. Superman gone. The Hulk—
“Cornell!” Mr. Jeffries shouted from the driver’s seat. “You ain’t about to have me doubling back because you missed your stop again. Pay attention!”
“Sorry. Sorry.” Cornell scooted from his seat and brushed past his laughing schoolmates, including Amaya Arnold. Amaya was more giggling than laughing, and Cornell could tell she wasn’t being mean. Actually, her giggle was kind of pretty. Almost as pretty as her.
But he wasn’t brave enough to look her way too long, so his eyes wandered . . . to Tobin Pitts. Who was staring at him. Hard.
Tobin swiped his red bangs away from his eyes and freckled forehead. “Hope you’re ready.”
Cornell shook his head and exited the bus with that stupid list taking up space in his head he’d rather reserve for Amaya. But, unless she got superpowers before lunch tomorrow, she wasn’t going to be much help.
The cars in the driveway told Cornell everyone was home except Mom, who was still on the West Coast for her business trip. He weaved between Carter’s beat-up burgundy Chevy “starter car,” Dad’s might-be-time-for- an-upgrade-if-he-can-convince-Mom black Audi, and Pop-Pop’s classics-are-the-way-to-go baby blue Cadillac until he reached the side door. He removed the lanyard from his neck where his single silver key dangled and jiggled it in the knob.
Before she left, Mom had told them all, “Don’t think because I’m away it’s supposed to be Bruhs Gone Wild. I want this house looking like humans live here when I get back.”
Inside, the funky-ripe smell of the overfull kitchen trash can suggested they had work to do.
First things first, though. “Carter! Hey, Carter! I need your help.”
Cornell’s brother wasn’t in the kitchen, and the house wasn’t shaking from rap bass, so he probably wasn’t in his bedroom. Cornell rushed through the dining room, scooted by Mom’s home office, cut through the foyer, kicked his shoes off before stepping into the living room no one ever sat in, and came to a skidding stop at the den, where he found his brother on the wraparound couch with a guest.
“Hi,” Cornell said, surprised.
The girl gushed. “Oh, you must be Carter’s brother!” She had dark brown skin, supercool red-framed glasses, and an Afro puff on each side of her head. She reminded Cornell of Amaya. Her jean jacket had a bunch of buttons pinned to the collar and pockets. Cornell leaned forward, trying to read some—black lives matter; love is love—when Carter reminded them he was in the room. “Whatchu need, Lil’ Man?”
Cornell’s chin jerked up. Carter never called him “Lil’ Man” before. Also, “Why’s your voice sound like that?” Carter coughed and cleared his throat. The weird deepness became his normal little-bit-whiny voice.
The girl told Carter, “Hey, I want you to introduce
me to this little cutie.”
Cornell smiled. “Thank you!”
Mom taught him how to take a compliment.
Carter . . . was not smiling. “Raven, that’s Cornell.
Cornell, Raven. What. Do. You. Want?”
“Oh, right!” Cornell fished the list from his back pocket and hopped over the back of the couch. It was a nimble leap. He landed right between the study buddies. Raven clapped like Cornell had done some YouTube- level parkour. Carter stared, his face twitching in a super weird way. He was probably just focusing real hard so he
could be as helpful as possible, Cornell figured. “There’s this thing that happens in the cafeteria on
Fridays,” Cornell said, “where everyone gathers around and argues about which superheroes can do what. Sometimes it’s just about who’s better, and sometimes it’s about who would beat who in a fight. It’s a big thing. Anyway, my name got pulled out the hat again, so I have to go tomorrow, except I can’t use any of the characters on this list because—”
Carter stood up. Oh.
Maybe he thought better on his feet. “Come with me.” Carter left the room.
Cornell hopped off the couch and waved bye to Raven. He found Carter in the kitchen, leaning on the fridge, his face tight. “Do you see what’s happening out there?”
“Yeah, you’re studying with Raven.”
Carter’s chest heaved. He snatched the paper from Cornell’s hand. “Gimme that list.”
His eyebrows rose. “Batman’s perma-banned?” “Yep. Everyone thinks he’s overrated. Plus, it’s not
cool how he practices his karate on, like, his neighbors.” “True. Don’t even get me started on him fighting Superman. I mean, an orbital blast of Heat Vision beats a stupid bat-shaped boomerang any day of the week.” “That’s what I said.”
Carter’s mouth screwed up. He rubbed the back of his head with one hand. “You need a super who’s not on this list?”
“No!” Cornell got to the really alarming part he was trying to explain on the couch. “I need three. Tomor- row’s category is Battle Royale Trios.”
“Y’all have categories? That is weirdly precise.” He seemed impressed.
“It’s the last debate before school’s out and I always lose. Help. Me.”
“Okay, okay.” Carter cracked the fridge, grabbed three ginger ales in the glass bottles that Dad liked while he contemplated the list.
Cornell plucked the magnetized bottle opener from the fridge door and popped the caps off. He liked the clinking noise they made when they hit the granite counter.
“Can’t use Black Panther?” Carter said. “Naw.”
Cornell pointed to the back of the sheet. Luke Cage had already been used in a previous battle, too.
“Black Green Lantern?”
Cornell chewed his lip. “Someone used a white Green Lantern before, so since they’re both Green Lantern, it might not work.”
“That’s trash,” Carter said, but moved on. “You really gotta know your stuff to work these rules. Okay, seems to me you need a pretty versatile team to be safe. Someone techy. Someone magic. Maybe some kind of wild card. Like a telepath, or a teleporter.”
“If Shuri or Riri Williams isn’t on the list, you’ve still
got good techy options.” Raven stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the den, obviously catching all of their conversation even though they’d tried to be quiet. Carter straightened, then sort of leaned diagonal on the counter like someone was about to take his picture. “Bae, didn’t know you were into this.”
He was also back to his funky not-normal voice. What was wrong with him?
Raven joined them at the counter. “May I see your list, Cornell?”
“Yep.” He passed it to her.
Raven smoothed the paper on the countertop, reviewed it, then flipped it over. “Can I have a pen, please?” Cornell looked to Carter. Carter looked confused but retrieved a pen from the junk drawer. Raven began quick scribbling on the list. Then: “Here.”
Cornell didn’t know what to say. This was genius. “Pro tip,” Raven said, “don’t sleep on the ladies.
Now you have options.”Carter gawked like he’d just met a real-life super- hero.
“Who are you?”
“Fan Girl,” Raven said. “Now we probably should do a little studying.”
“Absolutely.” Carter grabbed two ginger ales and led Raven away.
Cornell went over the list again; Raven poked her head back in the room.
She said, “I don’t know the rules for your debates, but in case your friends say you can’t swap She-Hulk for Hulk or something, you might want some backups.”
She was right. Of course. “Thanks, Raven. I’m glad you can tolerate Carter enough to be here.”
Carter yelled, “Go. Away!”
But Cornell was already gone. Darting to the rec room for Dad’s advice.
Hopefully he was as good as Raven.
“. . . All right, you Workout Warriors! Keep the High- Intensity Interval Training blast-off going! Twenty- eight, twenty-nine, thirty . . .”
One of the really energetic but a little bit scary trainers from Dad’s workout app screamed instructions Cornell heard before he entered the rec room. He burst in, found Dad on the couch sweaty and gasping. Dad spotted Cornell and leapt up, rejoining the workout streaming on their big TV with an out-of-sync burpee.
“Thirty-two,” he said, “thirty-three, thirty . . . hey, son. Let me pause this real quick.”
Dad’s hand shook when he exited out of the workout video instead of pausing it, then closed the app al- together.
“Whew! Good workout.” He heavy-gasped three times, then dropped to one knee like he needed to tie his shoe even though both sneakers were double-knotted. “Never stop moving, son. Never. Stop. Moving.”
Cornell was concerned about his father’s hard breathing. “Do you want to lie back on the couch, Dad?”
“After . . . that? No way. That was light work.” He squeezed one eye shut against the sweat pouring off his forehead. “You need something?”
Dad looked like Carter (and, I guess, me, Cornell thought) just wider, with less hair on his head, but more (gray!) hair on his face. He liked cool bands like the Roots and really good singers like Mary J. Blige, and insisted they were better than Carter’s and Cornell’s music—sometimes, maybe, they were. Dad loved funny Eddie Murphy movies, and serious TV like CNN and Divorce Court, and often wanted the whole family in the rec room on Saturday nights to play Monopoly or UNO. Since the superhero battles were kind of like a game, he might be into it. Cornell showed him the updated list and explained what he was looking for.
“I see,” Dad said. “Does it have to be strictly comics?” “Naw. Someone said John Wick once and everyone was okay with it. Then the John Wick kid tried to say John Wick could use Kryptonite bullets. We all knew that was wrong, though.”
“Uh-huh.” Dad was still gasping, but less.
“Raven, Carter’s friend, gave me a good techy option with Riri Williams. Carter said it might not hurt to have a magic user.”
Dad perked. “That’s easy, then. Kazaam’s your guy.” “Shazam?” Cornell flipped the list, almost certain
that hero had been used, too.
Dad said, “Not SHA-zam. KA-zaam. The genie basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal played in the best movie of 1996.”
“Let me show you.” Dad opened the movie app on the TV and scrolled through the family library to the Ks.
“We own Kazaam?”
“Boy, I’ve owned Kazaam on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray— had to buy that one international because apparently, the United States dropped the ball there—and now on digital.”
“Why?” The thumbnail photo of the basketball giant in golden genie clothes and the floppy-haired kid star of the film looked ridiculous.
Dad’s breathing was normal again—thank goodness— and he shambled to the couch, patting the cushion next to him. Cornell took a seat.
“This movie came out when I was about your broth- er’s age. To be honest, I got excited whenever I saw Black guys like us on the big screen. Pop-Pop would take me and your grandma to see any movie that Black folks were a part of, and I loved them all, even if they some- times seemed silly.”
Dad worked the remote, scrolling through other movies in their digital library that Cornell never noticed. “There’s The Meteor Man. Blankman. Steel—another Shaq classic. Spawn. Blade. Those last two we might watch when you’re a little older. If you want, I mean.”
“How come you never showed me these before?” They watched movies together all the time, but never these.
“I tried with Carter when you were very young, but he wasn’t into it. Your generation have a lot of different— and better—things than me and your mom had. I get it. I still keep all this because I love it, and . . .” He wrung his hands in a way that made Cornell feel a little sad. “I like having something for y’all from when I was young. Even if you don’t need it.”
Cornell took his list back, pressed it onto his thigh so he could write. He scribbled down his new additions.
Cornell hopped off the couch. “Dad, I don’t know about those Shaquille O’Neal movies, but could we maybe watch Meteor Man this weekend? His costume’s cool.”
Dad beamed! And looked way less like he needed to go to the hospital. “Of course. Just catch me after I’m done working out Saturday. Gotta keep my six-pack tight.” He rubbed his round belly and cackled.
“Love you, Dad,” Cornell said on his way out. “Love you too.”
“Hey, you said Pop-Pop took you to see those movies?” “Every last one.”
Cornell jogged up the stairs, bypassing his bedroom for the one at the far end of the hall. Pop-Pop’s.
Time they had a little chat about his taste in film. Cornell knocked, a three-part rhythm. Ta-da-thump!
Pop-Pop called from the other side, “Who dat?”
Pop-Pop knew full well who it was because that Ta-da-thump was Cornell’s knock, but this was part of the game they’d played since he was little-little. “It’s Cornell Curry, your grandson, Pop-Pop.”
“Are you sure you’re Cornell and not some sneak thief coming for my gold?”
“The only gold you have is your tooth.”
“Well, I definitely ain’t letting you in, then. Because if you a sneak thief, how I’m supposed to chew?”
It was silly, and didn’t make a lot of sense, but they’d been doing it since Cornell was four years old, and it still felt a little funny. Cornell knew it wasn’t something they’d do forever. But it was fine for now, and that was okay.
Cornell turned the knob, stepped inside, and im- mediately began coughing. His eyes burned. What was happening?
“Close that there door for me, Nelly.”
Cornell cupped his hand over his nose and mouth. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Need your opinion on something.”
Sealing them in, Cornell adjusted to the weird scent his brain identified as spicy lemon juice ocean water.
Pop-Pop said, “I got Bible study tonight and Miss Felicia down at the church sent me one of them text messagings with a winky face saying she liked the cologne I had on the other Sunday. Thing is I switch it up every Sunday because you got to be unpredictable.” He motioned to a silver tray on his dresser that was jam-packed with half-drained cologne bottles. “Remember that, Cornell. Never let ’em see you comin’!”
“So Miss Felicia missed a couple of Sundays ’cause she was visiting her grandkids down in Florida. And I’m so unpredictable, I done went and fooled myself. I don’t remember exactly which one I was wearing last time I saw her.”
Pop-Pop held two fancy colognes for Cornell to see.
One in murky blue glass shaped like a seashell. The other in a smoke gray bottle that looked like a test tube. Pop-Pop spritzed both nozzles at the same time and Cornell flinched away like bugs do when you shoot them with bug spray.
“Which one you like best?” Cornell gagged. “Neither.”
“Boy! This ain’t no time to be joking around.”
“I just started wearing deodorant last month, Pop- Pop.”
Pop-Pop narrowed his eyes, nodding. “I s’pose you have a point. You don’t know what you don’t know. I’mma get you started with a Tommy Bahama gift set from down at the CVS for your birthday, though. Every man needs a supply of Smell Goods. You hear me?”
“I hear you, Pop-Pop. Can I ask you about something?” “Always.”
“Okay . . .” Cornell recapped what he was facing in his superhero fight tomorrow, what he and Carter discussed, and how the discussion with Raven—who was very smart and pretty, the more Cornell thought about it—was better than the discussion with Carter, then what he and Dad discussed about Pop-Pop taking him and Grandma to see movies about Black heroes when Dad was a kid. Cornell finished with, “I wanna know who you think the best heroes are.”
“Well,” Pop-Pop said, leaning back in his chair, really thinking it over, “the ultimate superhero is the Lord.”
Pop-Pop scratched at his beard. “S’pose that wouldn’t be a fair fight, now would it? Hmmm. Explain this here debate to me again.”
“I’ve got two potential picks—one from Raven, one from Dad. I need a third.”
“I’ve always been partial to John Shaft.” “Never heard of him.”
“He’s a complicated man. No one understands him like his woman!”
The way Pop-Pop said it, Cornell figured it was supposed to mean something more than what it sounded like. Maybe?
Pop-Pop huffed. “You kids today, I swear. That line is from Shaft’s theme song. The man had his own song, Nelly.”
“That sounds cool.”
“It was. Coolest thing ever. Look. When I was growing up you didn’t see a lot of us in the pictures. Then, in the 1970s, Black filmmakers decided enough of that, we gon’ be the stars of our own movies, and they made a bunch where we were detectives, and kung fu masters, and even vampires!”
“Vampires?” That sounded even cooler.
“Now, some of them movies were better than others, but people who name stuff named them all ‘blaxploitation’ films. And, for my money, Shaft was king of the blaxploitation bunch. Way better than them Captain Spider-Hulks y’all mess with. Such a shame you never really got to know your grandma. On our first date she picked the movie. Shaft in Africa.”
Cornell perked. “He’s a king from Africa? Like Black
“We all are!”
Cornell got his list out, added to it.
Pop-Pop said, “Back in the day, the best cologne was a brand known as Hai Karate. I bet that’s what John Shaft wore. They stopped making it about forty years ago, but I’ve saved the last little bit I had for a special occasion.”
He rummaged through his dozens of cologne bottles and retrieved one that was green and glowing like the plutonium stick on The Simpsons. “Wanna smell it?”
Cornell had already flung Pop-Pop’s door open and
was halfway down the hall. “Maybe later. Gotta put my team together.”
A daring escape. Made in just the nick of time.
That evening, when Mom called for family FaceTime, Raven had gone home, Dad had showered, and Pop-Pop had just a few minutes before he had to leave for Bible study. All four of the Curry men gathered around Dad’s iPad for a view of Mom’s face as it filled the screen.
“All my fellas. Hey there!” she said.
They sounded off. All glad to see her. Cornell hadn’t talked to the others much about it, but he missed her a bunch when she went out of town.
“How’s the shoot going?” Dad asked.
“Fantastic,” Mom said. “Might be the best adaptation of my work yet.”
Mom’s job was writing mystery books. So far, Holly- wood had made three movies based on them. She was visiting the set of the fourth. She asked, “What have y’all been up to?”
Everyone told a messy, pieced-together version of helping Cornell with his superhero team.
Mom nodded through the explanation. “Okay. Cornell, have you settled on your heroes?”
The truth was he’d wanted to ask Mom first. She had the best imagination in the house, knew all kinds of stuff about comics, books, movies, songs, history, science . . . everything. Dad always said Cornell and Carter were lucky because they got half their genes from a genius, and the other half from him. Cornell hadn’t wanted to bother her on her movie set, though.
But since she’d asked . . .
“I’m close,” Cornell said. “Do you have any ideas?” “Sort of. Why don’t you make up your own heroes?” “I—” The thought stunned him. “I think that’s
against the rules.”
“I used to think that too, sweetie. Then I did it anyway.”
Someone on Mom’s side of the call yelled, “Janice, you got a moment? Mr. Peele wants to discuss some script changes with you.”
Mom spoke over her shoulder. “Be right there.” Then, to her fellas, she said, “I gotta run. I’ll call back if it’s not too late. Love y’all.”
“We love you too,” they said together like they’d rehearsed. Dad’s iPad reverted to the Washington Wizards home screen and the call crowd dispersed.
Carter got a text from Raven and ran upstairs goofy- grinning. Dad heard the guest bathroom toilet run- ning and went to investigate because he might have to hit Home Depot. Pop-Pop rolled out because he didn’t want to keep Miss Felicia waiting.
Cornell remained alone at the counter with his list.
Thinking. About what he might do anyway.
The next day Cornell boarded his bus, ignoring Tobin’s taunting “I hope you’re ready.”
Cornell felt good about it. He had his team picked, plus some extras.
Amaya, with her hair in ribbons, smiled when he passed. He took the seat behind her and said, “Hey.”
She twisted so they were eye to eye, looking somewhat surprised. “Hey.”
“I wanna show you something.” Cornell unfolded a sheet of paper for her to see. Not the list— he was kinda over that —but a drawing. He was a decent artist, and after talking to Mom, he thought about what a cool hero of his own design might look like.
Amaya gawked, then snatched the paper. “Oh my goodness.”
It was a hero named Fan Girl, who wore Amaya’s favorite color— red, Cornell had noticed—and had her same long hair, with a matching mask and cape.
“She looks like me,” Amaya said, amazed.
Cornell grinned the grin he’d seen Carter practicing, laughed like his father, trusted that the single spritz of Pop-Pop’s cologne (not Hai Karate) was just enough, and let her in on the secret his mom told him. “Apparently, that’s a thing we can do. I thought you should know!”
As the bus pulled away from the curb, Cornell Curry felt like a winner. And the day was only going to get better.
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