I knew Kirby and Landis, two of the other Marshalls, because they were in my gym classes. We lined up beside each other when Coach read the roll, and sometimes Landis would pick me for a team when I was left over. Otherwise, we seldom encountered each other. He was black, and I was white. In La Marque, that meant nearly everything.
Still some strange surname solidarity must have moved him to choose me. I wasn’t tall or coordinated or strong, so I wasn’t always wanted. Seldom, really. The one athletic ability I did have was speed. My genetics or running from my angry brothers made me fast, and, even if I couldn’t snag a spiral or hit with a racket or kick a rolling ball, I could almost always catch someone or—more usefully—flee.
Once in eighth grade, during the track and field unit, we were making relay teams, and Landis urged one of his black friends to pick me for their team.
He leaned toward his friend. “Honky’s fast,” he whispered, loud enough for me to hear.
But his friend wasn’t as generous as Landis and passed me over. Landis ran the first leg and put his team well in the lead. My team, though they weren’t as good, were game, and, by the time I received the baton on the last leg, we were only twenty yards behind. The boy who’d rejected me was ahead, and, when I saw that, a familiar surge went through me.
Back then, the strangest element of running was knowing. Sometimes I saw someone in front of me and just knew where I’d end up. When I felt that unaccountable certainly, I ran faster. Races often fulfilled a script my mind wrote, with little or no doubt. I wish that were still true now.
It took me nearly the entire lap, but by the time I reached the final turn, I was even with Landis’ friend. On the home stretch I pulled away and won. Over the last twenty or thirty yards of the race—when the outcome was truly known—I heard Landis in the infield laughing and shouting at his teammate. “I told you, man! I told you, man! You can’t beat no Marshalls. You can’t!”
If this event were an afterschool special, Landis and I would become best friends, but I only remember handing the baton to Coach and going inside, dreading the shower he’d make me take. Landis and I must have been on teams together after that—if I had a chance to pick him, I’m sure I was smart and did—but I can’t remember a single conversation between us.
My family left La Marque after my sophomore year in high school when my father took a new job in North Carolina. I didn’t fuss because, then, La Marque was a small place you might know nearly everyone. We all attended school together from the beginning of time and, if you wanted the salt from the next table, you found the name to ask… even if you hadn’t uttered it since fourth grade. So leaving and dropping into a world of new names seemed exciting.
Those last, odd couple of months, my younger brother and I ran summer track, and one of our sporadic teammates was Kirby Marshall. My brother may know if Kirby and Landis were related, but I didn’t. And didn’t ask. Yet I begged our coach to put us on a relay together because I thought it would be funny to go Marshall to Marshall to Marshall to… I suppose I had some fantasy that Landis might join us.
I didn’t know Landis outside my imagination, wouldn’t know how to find him, wouldn’t know how he might react to being found.
Yet, in my head, we talked. He explained his living wherever I dreamed he did, and I talked about my neighborhood and all its odd characters. I told him about my dad, my family, the inadequacy I felt living amid expectations, and the absence of any true friend. He understood.
He was imaginary and had no other choice.
When we left town, he stood among the ghosts I’d miss most. I’d never really known him in any meaningful way at all.
I think sometimes of people and picture them at this, very, moment. In another world, Landis and I might lament our divided lives and wonder how much we lost through disconnection. In that separate dimension, we might be real friends.