|About Phil Taylor|
Phil Taylor entered the Palo Alto Weekly's short story contest mostly by default.
"My daughter, Emily, who is 9 and also is a writer, sometimes gets discouraged about finishing a story," he said. "I really only wrote the story to set an example for her. I told her that if she started and finished a story for the contest, I would too."
In fact, Taylor hasn't written fiction for at least eight or nine years. He writes for Sports Illustrated.
He said writing as a journalist helped him in writing "Junkanoo" because the same principles that apply to sports writing apply to fiction writing.
"You need to have an eye for detail, to notice the small things," he said. "And you need to have an ear for dialogue, to not just hear what people say, but listen to how they say it. It's equally important."
Taylor found writing fiction a refreshing change from journalism. "I really felt I had a lot more freedom (in the structure) to move around," he said. "It was a real departure for me. It was fun to take it and let my imagination go."
The opening scene takes place in an African-American barber shop. Taylor says he has always been intrigued by the idea of using the barber shop as a setting. "In no other place will you find black men speaking so candidly about absolutely everything," he said. "You'd be amazed. I really just scratched the surface of the barber shop."
African American assimilation into a predominately white culture has always been a topic of interest to Taylor. The minor character Curtis represents "someone who really feels comfortable in his own skin, which, in some ways, I envy," he said.
The narrator and main character of the story is someone for whom assimilation is something of a struggle, and someone "who is more concerned than he's willing to admit to himself."
Junkanooby Phil Taylor
The smartest thing Curtis Bethune ever did was sit down in that barber's chair at Nubian Cuts, over on Harriman Avenue, and say, "Clean it." That's what I always thought, anyway. The barber took out his electric shears and went to work on Curtis' head like it was a front lawn, mowing it in neat rows and sending strips of his hair falling softly to the floor like curly black snow. When it was done, Curtis' gleaming brown scalp was a beautiful sight. I don't usually like to talk about other brothers in terms of beauty, but there was no other way to describe how he looked. He had a smooth skull that looked almost golden when the light hit it just right. It was so perfectly shaped that it seemed a crime to have hidden it all those years. Every time I looked at it I thought about ice cream--French silk chocolate on a sugar cone. Drake, the barber, was still working on Curtis' back and shoulders with a little whisk brush when he looked over at me. I was sitting in one of the red vinyl chairs that lined the wall, beneath an autographed photo of Joe Louis that had a cracked frame. Drake's mother and Louis's mother had been first cousins once removed, but I had my doubts about whether Louis had really signed the picture. "To Little Drake, Best Wishes, The Brown Bomber," it read. I always thought The Brown Bomber was the kind of nickname you let other people call you, not the kind you called yourself. "C'mon, KB," Drake said to me, giving his scissors a quick click-click-click. "Let me make you beautiful." I stepped up into the chair, remembering how big it had seemed when I first came to the shop as a five-year-old, when Drake would have to lay a cushioned plank across the arms of the chair for me to sit on. I was 14 now, and the chair, like the rest of the shop, was starting to feel small. "Same as Curtis?" Drake asked as he draped a sheet over me and fastened it at the back of my neck. "Nah, man, just fade it for me. Take it down close on the sides and leave a little more on top," I said.
"You sure? You'd look slick if you go clean."
"Up to you," Drake said. Then he took my head in his hands. "But if you don't mind my saying, you need to simplify up here."
Curtis and I rode our bikes home. It was early September, and the late afternoon breeze was beginning to get a little bite to it. It was the time of year when the white kids who would take shortcuts through our neighborhood on their bicycles would have red cheeks from the wind. The air carried a scent, not quite like rain exactly, but it smelled like something was coming. I looked at Curtis. He had a beret on his head, turned backwards the way Michael Jordan wears it sometimes, and he was coasting with his eyes close as we went down a slight incline. He didn't look like he smelled anything coming. I had to get home because I was going to the mall with my parents before dinner. They were taking me to this department store where we were going to buy the blue blazer I would need at St. Luke's Academy. All summer long they had been telling their friends that going to St. Luke's was my idea, that I used to come home and tell them I wasn't being challenged at Charles Drew, the public junior high in our neighborhood. I don't know why they felt the need to say that to people. In the first place, even though the work at Drew was easy, I never complained about it, and if I did, I'd never say something like, "I'm not being challenged." I don't know what people must have thought of me for talking like that.
But I didn't mind starting high school at St. Luke's. I'd been around white kids before. Every now and then a few of them would come over to the basketball courts at Kennedy Park looking for a game, and the best ones would even come back a time or two. When I was nine, I got invited to the birthday party of a white kid I went to YMCA day camp with. One of the other boys at the party asked if he could put his hand in my hair, and when I let him, he pulled it back as soon as it touched me, like he'd gotten an electric shock. But other than that, the party was OK.
"You gonna be all right at that school, KB?" Curtis asked me. His eyes were open now and he was staring at me, as if he trusted my expression more than my words. "Because if you have any trouble, me and the crew can roll by there and straighten some things out." I told Curtis I wasn't going to need anything like that. I wanted to tell him I was looking forward to it in a way, but I decided to hold back, the way I had all summer. I didn't want him thinking the wrong thing about me, like all my parents' friends probably did. We rode on, and after a while I glanced over at Curtis, who was still looking at me. I wondered if he'd been staring at me the whole time.
My parents were waiting for me when I got home. My mom was dressed up, not quite like Sunday morning, but nicer than usual. She wore billowy blue slacks with a cream colored silk blouse and a light blue beaded necklace, and she was pulling a brush through her hair when I walked in the door. My dad had on khaki pants, a dungaree shirt and a black sports coat. He was standing in the living room, in front of the glass case that held his Junkanoo costume. Junkanoo is a holiday like Mardi Gras that they have in the Bahamas, where my father grew up. He told me it was started in the 16th century, when the slaves in Nassau were given a day off to celebrate the Christmas holidays with traditional African dance, music and costumes. The day after Christmas every year there is a parade through town, with the men's groups wearing the wild, brightly colored costumes they have worked on all year. The groups have names like Valley Boys, Fancy Dancers and Z-Bandits, and each year there is a best-costume competition. My dad's group was the Saxons, and one year, before he moved to the States and met my mom, the Saxons had won the competition. The costume that hung in my dad's case was the one he had worn that year. It had a silk headdress with rows of yellow, red and green, and streamers made of colored paper hung from the sides. The headdress also had a red and black mask that came down and covered the eyes, like Batman's. The mask was my favorite part. My dad had let me put the whole thing on once, and when I looked in the mirror, I could hardly even tell it was me under the mask.
My mom put down her brush and began picking the small hairs left by the barber off my shoulders. "They did a nice job on your hair," she said. "Now go put on your shoes, honey. They're in your room."
"My shoes? What's wrong with my sneakers? I've already got them on, and they're clean."
"Kevin," my dad said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Go get your shoes, buddy."
I cleaned up and got dressed and we left for the mall. The department store, Towers, was not the kind of place we usually shopped for clothes. There was a piano player on the first floor, playing that tune from the Charlie Brown cartoons, and there were a lot of women in sun visors and tennis skirts walking around. I wondered what my mom would look like in a tennis skirt. A sales clerk approached us almost as soon as we reached the men's sportswear section. He had olive skin and an accent I couldn't place. He also had the most perfect-looking hands I had ever seen. His nails were perfectly trimmed and so shiny that I tried to get close enough to tell if I could see myself. His fingers were long and smooth, like 10 brand new number two pencils.
He smiled warmly. Perfect teeth, too. "Do you folks need some help today?" he asked. My dad told him we were looking for a St. Luke's blazer. "St. Luke's, what a spectacular school," the clerk said, turning to me. "Freshman, correct?" I nodded. "You are on the verge of something very special, young man. Something that will change your life. Students graduate from St. Luke's and they are--what am I looking for?--together. Do you know what I mean?" I didn't answer. I wasn't bothering to look at him anymore. My mom quickly said something to him, hoping to cover up my rudeness.
I sat in the very back of the van on the way home. With an empty row in between us, my parents seemed far away sitting up front. The plastic that covered my new blazer whipped in the wind as we went by. "I've been thinking about getting my head shaved," I yelled to them. "You know Drake down at the barber shop? He says I'd look slick." "What do you want to shave your head for?" my father asked. "You wanna scare somebody?"
"Just want to check out the look," I said.
"There's nothing wrong with the way you look," my mother said.
"You saying I can't do it?"
"We're asking why you'd want to do it," she said.
No one spoke again for the rest of the ride. I reached under the plastic, slipped the blazer off its hanger and put it on. It was getting dark enough outside for me to see my reflection in the window. I tried to look at myself and decide whether the jacket really fit as well as it seemed to in the store. But the van was moving too fast, going over bumps and potholes, and I couldn't focus. After a while, I looked past my own image and concentrated on the cars and buildings as they flashed by.
Touching, tender and slightly troubling, "Junkanoo" deals with the issues of growing up and fitting in with deftness and grace. I loved KB's bittersweet take on his changing world, and the restrained elegance of phrases like "you need to simplify" and "he didn't look like he smelled anything coming," to suggest the arena that KB was about to enter.
"Junkanoo" is noteworthy in both its sense of unity as a short story and its clean, precise prose. It is not often that a "new" writer is able to demonstrate so elegantly the sensibility that a more seasoned writer relies on intuitively to shape and guide his narrative. I especially admired the deft touch-down of its understated ending.
"Wry but exact depictions of slight shifts in mood make this eloquent story about self-discovery vivid, unique. With grace and superb freshness, the author presents the intriguing idea that even loving friends and family can befuddle self-recognition. I'm so impressed with the author's delicate control of a likable, troubled character poised to enter manhood.