At the beginning of the 1960s, Elwood Curtis, a thirteen-year-old boy, was the fourth generation of his family, who was supposed to work in service at the Richmond hotel in Tallahassee, Florida. But he had bigger plans: he wished to go to college to ensure his future.
Elwood was thirteen when Vincent, the tobacco shop’s longtime stock boy, signed up for the army. Vincent hadn’t been the most attentive employee, but he was prompt and well-groomed, two qualities that Mr. Marconi valued in others if not in himself. On Vincent’s last day, Elwood dawdled at the comics rack, as he did most afternoons. He had a curious habit where he read every comic front to back before he bought it, and he bought every one he touched. Mr. Marconi asked why go through all that if he was going to buy them whether they were good or not, and Elwood said, “Just making sure.” The shopkeeper asked him if he needed a job. Elwood closed the copy of Journey into Mystery and said he’d have to ask his grandmother.
Harriet had a long list of rules for what was acceptable and what was not, and sometimes the only way for Elwood to know how it all worked was to make a mistake. [...]
She let Elwood work at the store after school and on weekends, taking half his paycheck at the end of the week for the household and half for college. He’d mentioned going to college the summer prior, casually, with no inkling of the momentousness of his words. Brown v. Board of Education was an unlikely turn, but one of Harriet’s family aspiring to higher education was an actual miracle. Any misgivings over the tobacco shop collapsed before such a notion.
Elwood tidied the newspapers and comic books in the wire racks, wiped dust off the less popular sweets, and made sure that the cigar boxes were arranged according to Marconi’s theories about packaging and how it excited “the happy part of the human brain.” He still hung around the comics, reading them gingerly as if handling dynamite, but the news magazines exerted a gravity. He fell under the luxurious sway of Life magazine. [...]
He knew Frenchtown’s piece of the Negro’s struggle, where his neighborhood ended and white law took over. Life’s photo essays conveyed him to the front lines, to bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, to counter sit-ins in Greensboro, where young people not much older than him took up the movement. They were beaten with metal bars, blasted by fire hoses, spat on by white housewives with angry faces, and frozen by the camera in tableaus of noble resistance. The tiny details were a wonder: how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence, how the curves of the young women’s perfect hairdos floated against the squares of their protest signs. Glamorous somehow, even when the blood flowed down their faces. Young knights taking the fight to dragons. Elwood was slight-shouldered, skinny as a pigeon, and he worried about the safety of his glasses, which were expensive and in dreams broken in two by nightsticks, tire irons, or baseball bats, but he wanted to enlist. He had no choice.
Flipping pages during lulls. Elwood’s shifts at Marconi’s provided models for the man he wished to become and separated him from the type of Frenchtown boy he was not. His grandmother had long steered him from hanging out with the local kids, whom she regarded as shiftless, clambering into rambunction. The tobacco shop, like the hotel kitchen, was a safe preserve. Harriet raised him strict, everyone knew, and the other parents on their stretch of Brevard Street helped keep Elwood apart by holding him up as an example.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, 2019.
Excerpt(s) from THE NICKEL BOYS: A NOVEL by Colson Whitehead, copyright © 2019 by
Used by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday
Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
All rights reserved.