“Michael Jackson, Slave Days, and Magic Skin” by Marie Manilla

Lamar sat in his prized sedan in the back lot facing our office building where, an hour earlier, he’d been fired. He’d backed into the slot at the start of the work day. Now, we could clearly see him in the driver’s seat. This was the eighties, before cellphones were widely affordable, so he wasn’t texting or talking. Just sitting there, hands gripping the steering wheel as if determining his next move.

“What do you think he’s up to?” one of my co-workers said.

Revving his engine and barreling his car into our building came to mind.

“Should we call security?” said another.

We were the second-floor graphics department for an oil company. Several of us had lined up along the windows to look down at Lamar. We ducked into shadows whenever his chin lifted. We didn’t want him to see the fear he’d instilled. He finally had a little power, this one-hundred-twenty-pound black man with a Jheri curl and a red, leather jacket.

He’d been with us a couple years, a blatantly token hire. There were few black people in our satellite office, a northern outpost to our parent company in downtown Houston—where there were also few black employees.

I’d moved from West Virginia after college for the job, and it was a welcome introduction to diversity. My co-workers were from Poland, Russia, Vietnam, Puerto Rico. No one from Senegal or Cameroon. And there was Lamar, our office manager, a twenty-two-year-old who’d escaped Alabama in search of big-city thrills. I could only imagine what folks back in Tuscaloosa made of him. He kept us stocked with coffee and art supplies. He also impressed us with his fab wardrobe and the Michael Jackson whoop he’d perfected. He could moonwalk, too, and do this weird thing with his skin. Lamar would roll up his sleeve, pinch together a few inches of flesh, then voila! A half-inch-high raised welt would appear along the drag line, an undulating snake beneath the surface. We’d watch in awe as it swelled and finally retracted. It was a marvel more stunning than the fact that he’d slipped through the crackers and been hired.

From Lamar’s first day, our boss looked for ways to fire him. He didn’t have to scratch the surface very hard. Lamar played fast-and-loose with credit cards. Transferred balances, galloped from apartment to apartment one step ahead of collectors. It’s the only way he could afford the clothes and hair and nice car. I don’t know if he was gay or straight, if he lavished gifts on his lovers, too.

I saw few black people in this section of town, the north 610 Loop. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment that was beige and boring, but within walking distance to work and a shopping mall. As a newcomer, I didn’t yet know where the cool neighborhoods were.

One Saturday I went to the mall record store. I carried Tom Petty home in the heat and fell in step with a young, black man also hoofing it. His name was Jody. I’d always had a thing for overbites, and Jody’s was a thing of beauty. We started talking about music, about Houston—he was a recent immigrant too—as were most folks I met during my seven years there.

From behind came the rumble of an engine. A battered truck pulled up beside us, the cab crammed with white boys.

“Leave that white girl alone!” one of them shouted.

I was appalled. Not that I hadn’t witnessed racism back in West Virginia. In a moment of nerve, and stupidity, I shouted: “He’s my husband!”

The boys looked me up and down, disgusted grimaces forming, and sped off. I now understand that remark could have gotten Jody killed. Not long before, a gang of teens had beaten a boy to death in a field a quarter mile from my apartment. They just wanted to know how it felt to kill someone. There was no other reason. My white-privilege bravado had given the boys in that truck a reason: something about proprietary goods. It was a weird intersection of the commodification of both race and gender.

It wasn’t the first time those qualifiers had overlapped.

In 1976, when America was decorated with bicentennial flags, the senior girls in my nearly all-white high school were being sold to the highest bidder based on our legs. It was a fundraiser that had us lined up behind sheets draped across the gym. Only our gams were visible from mid-thigh down. I don’t even think we wore shoes. The rest of the student body huddled in the bleachers calling out bids, girl by girl. “One dollar! Two-fifty!” The “owners” would get to order their “slaves” around for a day. Make us wash their cars, do their homework, clean out their lockers. The nuns stood by the door monitoring the proceedings. I don’t think this was their idea, but they sanctioned it. We must have really needed new basketball uniforms or Bunsen burners. No boys were being sold.

I had been on the block for less than a minute. Bidding was good, and I imagined scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush. Sudden commotion by the doors had us peeking under the sheet as the principal, Father Wanstreet, blustered in and shut the auction down. I couldn’t believe this hadn’t been cleared by him. The nuns looked repentant, but the student organizers were riled up the way imminent graduates can be. They somehow coerced Father into letting the final sale go through—they must have really needed those Bunsen burners. Suddenly I was swapped out for a more popular girl who would surely garner more cash. The bidding continued; Patty was sold. Thank God I would be nobody’s slave.

We should have known better. This was thirteen years after the sit-ins at the White Pantry Restaurant downtown to denounce Jim Crow. Long after “whites only” signs disappeared and swimming pools were integrated. At least I think they were. Did I ever see a black person at the Olympic or Dreamland? I wish I’d paid more attention to Snooky, the only black girl in our class. Was she behind the sheet (God, there’s a packed phrase)? Maybe she skipped school that day. I hope she did. I hope Denny did too, the only black boy. He’d finally quit the basketball team because the coach never played him. I don’t know if Denny was any good.

There was so much wrong with that mock slave day. Callousness, inexcusable ignorance, with the added degradation of the commodification of women. And this was at the height of the second Feminist wave. We were still being reduced to body parts. A good pair of legs brought a good price. A white pair even more, another perversion.

It wasn’t the last time my body had been assessed. On my first day at the Texas job I stood in my boss’s office to get the welcome-aboard speech. He was in his fifties and wore cowboy boots. His phone rang, and he explained to the man named Bill that he was orienting the new female hire. A pause and my boss eyed me up and down, his gaze not even stuttering when he bypassed my chest. Finally, he spoke into the mouthpiece: “Thirty-two.”

It was days before I understood he was measuring my chest.

Worse still, the men in my department referred to women hires as new meat. Our office complex included two buildings with a parking lot between them. A call of “New meat!” would have them running to the windows to ogle a recent hire making her way to the front door. Women lined up too, I’m ashamed to confess, to scrutinize and rank.

It didn’t take long to realize I wanted the hell out of that planet-ravaging industry with no real advancement opportunities for women. I learned that the day my boss explained the reason I didn’t get the promotion. He feared I would get upset during a staff meeting and cry. Still, I had rent and student loans and wings to strengthen, so I stayed put to vest my nest egg, all the while plotting my escape. My college degree would help, as would my skin color, if not gender—unless I wanted to put it to a different use. I once worked in the graphics department at a newspaper where a young saleswoman in classifieds routinely wore red or black bikini underwear beneath sheer, white dresses. She’d spend the day flirting with car dealers and mattress warehouse supervisors. She always made her monthly sales quota.

Flirting wasn’t an option for Lamar, and I don’t think he had a college degree either. I don’t know what that Houston job paid him, but it was probably decent. This was back when interest rates were high and benefit packages meaningful.

But Lamar screwed up. He’d left a forged letter in the Xerox machine where it was discovered and turned in. The letter claimed to be from our boss to a bank assuring them that Lamar was indeed getting that big bonus, so go ahead and extend him credit. I saw the letter. The forged signature was impressive. I had also read the look on my boss’s face when he finally had his ammunition. See? You can’t trust black people. Lamar had to represent his entire race. Plenty of whites were stealing art supplies and falsifying overtime cards, but our boss wasn’t keeping dossiers on us.

For two hours after he was fired, Lamar sat in his car in the parking lot facing our building. I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Tabulating everything he would lose: the car, the new stereo system he’d been bragging about, the furniture, maybe even the Michael Jackson leather jacket.

Possibly he was imagining what his parents would say when he showed up in Tuscaloosa by Greyhound. Or perhaps he was plotting routes on an imaginary road map. Then I knew it was true when he started his car, revved the engine, and peeled out leaving tread marks on the concrete. Maybe he was just going home, but I’d like to think he was headed to Dallas, Las Vegas, New Orleans. But with his employment record, who would hire him? Hotel housekeeping. Deliveryman. Fast food. I hated picturing him serving up fries in a McDonald’s uniform. He likely wouldn’t have time to regale his coworkers with whoops and Moon Walks and magic skin.

But Lamar’s skin wasn’t magic, even if he was the favored gender, and that was the biggest roadblock of all. Or maybe it wasn’t. Twenty-five years later, a black man I voted for twice would elbow his way into the White House. Women, however, black or white, are still waiting for our magic to kick in.

West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, won the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in Word Riot, Cossack Review, Still, and other venues.