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Authors: Mat Johnson

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Hunting in Harlem

BOOK: Hunting in Harlem
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HUNTING IN HARLEM

HUNTING IN
HARLEM

A NOVEL

MAT JOHNSON

BLOOMSBURY

For Meera

Copyright © 2003 by Mat Johnson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from
the Publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
For information address Bloomsbury, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010

Published by Bloomsbury, New York and London
Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Johnson, Mat.
Hunting in Harlem : a novel/Mat Johnson. - 1st U.S. ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-59691-817-7
1. Harlem (New York, N.Y.) - Fiction. 2. African American neighborhoods - Fiction. 3. Real estate business - Fiction 4. Real
estate agents - Fiction. 5 Gentrification - Fiction 6. Ex-convicts - Fiction. 7. Journalists - Fiction. I. Title.

PS3560.038167H86 2003
813'.6-dc21
2003041880

First published in hardcover by Bloomsbury in 2003
This paperback edition published in 2004

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Typeset by Hewer Text Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed in the United States of America by RR Donnelley & Sons, Harrisonburg

ORIENTATION

THREE EX-CONS CAME to Harlem looking to become something more.

Bobby Finley drove up in a rented truck from New Carrollton, Maryland, his boxes of books stacked to the ceiling in the back,
what few other possessions he had riding in the passenger seat next to him. Cedric Snowden took the train north from Philadelphia
with just a backpack and a boom box, figuring if this turned out to be a scam he could grab both and just as quickly head
back toward the Schuylkill. Horus Manley was going to take the plane from Chicago but then realized he could pocket the majority
of his travel allowance
and
bring his guns if he took the bus instead.

These were the men recruited by Horizon Realty for their Second Chance Program, selected for the opportunity to rebuild their
lives in a neighborhood trying to do the same. Regardless of mode of travel or point of origin, all three new interns soon
found themselves in the same basement classroom in the city they would be asked to call home, identical orientation packets
on their child-sized desks and looks of confusion as they tried to make sense of the man standing behind the podium before
them.

"You have yet to realize the creative brilliance of this path Horizon's founder Congressman Cyrus Marks has blazed for you,"
their host informed them. "You know this is an internship program, that you'll be provided with real estate training and opportunities
for advancement, but gentlemen, you don't yet know the
majesty
of this venture. The Second Chance Program isn't simply about acquiring job skills; this isn't the Learning Annex. This is
about you receiving your destiny!"

The man speaking was Horizon's manager of operations, Lester Baines, a name and tide the three recruits recognized from their
correspondence. It was everything else about the man they found decidedly alien: the lunar pockmarks of his face, the greased
tidal wave breaking perpetually inches above his brow, that there was such a thing as pink corduroy, and that a sane man would
actually wear a three-piece suit of the fabric. They were expecting Cyrus Marks, the owner, the man Lester insisted everyone
refer to as "the congressman" even though it had been years since he'd left the office.

At Lester's feet, an odd, off-breed dog barked its approval. The mutt's jaw was heavy and wide and clashed with its long dachshund
body, giving the impression that some sadist god had grabbed its head in one hand and ass in the other and yanked the beast
like taffy.

"The congressman, he contains multitudes," Lester continued. "You may have wondered why your applications had to come through
parole officers. The congressman was once a PO. He was mine, actually. Oh yes, this was quite a long time ago, but he molded
me into a man, as he will you," he told them, glancing at each member of his audience individually in search of appreciation
for this proposed manipulation.

"I assure you, there will also be other, more material benefits awaiting you. As you know from our promotional materials,
the person who most impresses us during this inaugural year will be chosen to oversee the Second Chance Program for the years
to follow, promoted to the public as the symbol of Harlem's phoenixlike spirit, and of course get a brownstone townhouse of
his very own as a bonus. Know, however, that you will all be transformed by this experience. The congressman will see to that."

Lester leaned forward across the podium like he had a secret and was going to tell it. "Our greatest ambitions, our loftiest
goals that's just where the congressman
begins.
I'm sure you know about his glorious tenure representing the Fifteenth District, of course, most do, but then to start over
as a businessman and in a mere twelve years create this empire? Last year, I had a dark time, I lost someone I loved. I thought
life was over, I really did, but he gave me an even higher purpose. That's part of why you're here. I ask you, how do you
not bow to such a man?"

Firm the muscles in your lower back and remain vertical
Snowden thought, but grumbled monosyllabic declarations of awe with the rest of them. Looking to his side for sympathetic
cynicism, Snowden examined his fellow intern Bobby Finley, the long, emaciated man whose limbs shined black and thin like
licorice. Bobby was actually squinting at the front of the room like there was something to see, had already filled one long
page on his yellow notepad as if there was something specific being said to remember.

For these first days before their formal initiation into the Horizon fold, the three recruits of the Second Chance Program's
sole assignment would be to walk every street of Harlem twice, one time for each side of the street. Special attention was
to be paid to the Mount Morris Historic District, which they were in, as this would be the center of Horizon's activities.
To this end, the three men were handed maps, along with the caveat that it was unwise to be seen using them on the street,
particularly in areas marked in red, such as the Polo Grounds.

After this week of casing out the neighborhood, the recruits of the Second Chance Program would start their internship as
moving men for the company's relocation service, helping new buyers move in to their new homes. It was not simply manual labor,
it was a chance to begin learning the business from its most basic vantage. The recruits of the Second Chance Program would
proudly wear the neon yellow workmen's coveralls with Horizon's logo on the back while on duty, a conspicuous symbol to all
that a new day for Harlem had arrived. The recruits of the Second Chance Program would have to get over the fact that their
uniforms looked just like the ones they wore in prison.

"Hold on there, let me get this straight," the recruit introduced as Horus Manley interrupted. Horus's thick, muscle-swelled
body leaned back so far in the little elementary school chair that he was nearly horizontal. He sat in the row behind the
other two contestants, one foot sprawled out under each of their seats. Horus Manley reminded Snowden of a guard dog, the
kind whose grizzled snout poked out of junkyard fences or who barked unseen from ghetto basements, beasts bred for irrational
violence and fed hot sauce and cayenne pepper until they instilled fear even in the brutes who owned them.

"You say we ain't going to meet the boss man himself or get started till the end of the week?" Horus questioned with disbelief.
"I'm saying, how you going to let a resource like me go to waste all that time? My man, I could be out there hustling for
you now. Come on. Don't you got some houses for me to sell? Or maybe you got something heavy you need lifting." The man seemed
genuinely confused when Lester told him his services were not yet needed.

"Excuse me." Bobby Finley waved his notepad to attract Lester's stare, the ink-scarred pages crinkling over his head. "In
honor of our generous benefactor, I've composed a salutary poem focusing on this neighborhood the congressman has selected
us to serve. Just a little memento, if you would be so kind to give this to him for me. It's a ceremonial piece, really, with
references to great Harlem artists, as well as a salute to the bright flit - "

When Snowden first heard the sound, saw the movement as Bobby Finley went crashing to the linoleum, he thought the man's chair
had simply broken. Then he noticed that Horus Manley's foot was still tangled in the chair's wire undercarriage, and that
the instigator was smiling.

"My bad. You all right, chief? Good." Horus answered himself before waiting for one. As Bobby attempted to get off the floor,
Horus chuckled, shook his head from side to side. "Y'all got to admit that shit was a little funny."

Snowden rose from his seat, went over to help Bobby untangle himself. Back on his feet, Bobby turned for a second to say something
to his attacker, but on getting a better look at Horus Manley turned quickly away again. Approaching the front of the room
instead, Bobby pulled an orange envelope from his shirt pocket and placed it into Lester's hands. "A gesture of gratitude
is all," Bobby said lightly, sitting down once more.

"Oh isn't that wonderful?" Lester asked, holding it up to look at it. Snowden thought the question was directed at him since
he was the only one not taking part in the conversation, but then saw Lester repeat it staring down at the dog. "Wendell,
isn't that just a lovely act of respect?" In response to this direct question, the wiener mutt pulled his jaws from his behind,
slapped his tail to the concrete floor in a code Lester could apparently understand.

"The congressman is a great lover of art." Lester looked back up at the humans to explain. "Congressman Marks is a board member
of several prominent Black Arts organizations. He is, you must understand, a man of grace, and as such has the ability to
empathize with grace in all of its forms. So are there any last questions, comments, or offerings before we break? One more?"
Lester rose a gold-circled finger to the room.

"I'm sorry," Snowden prefaced, "I couldn't find the answer in any of the handouts we've been given. But if we win, how long
do we have to keep working for Horizon before we can sell the house and go back home?"

Snowden turned at the sound of Bobby gasping at the crassness of the inquiry, met the joyous grin on Horus's face past him
at the misstep of openly expressing greed. Lester, for his part, seemed merely amused by the naiveté of the query.

"Mr. Snowden, listen to me. This isn't about cashing in on a boom market, it's about making something. Horizon does welfare-to-work
training, offers all kinds of loan assistance, provides schooling for local children. In Harlem, the congressman spreads love
like it was peanut butter. Horizon is his dream. Once you understand his vision, you won't want to leave. So trust me, the
question is moot. He'll make you a believer too."

Snowden was not a believer. Snowden didn't believe in anything at all. This of course was an exaggeration; there were some
heartfelt views that were integral to Snowden's understanding of reality: that the Los Angeles Clippers would never win a
title, that most people in this world were not to be trusted, that he would sooner die than let himself be locked behind bars
one night more. These tenets, however, Snowden invested in with such certainty that he saw no faith involved. To be a believer,
in Snowden's mind, was to agree to be blind, to see only what you wanted to and ignore what contradicted it. It was to be
a fool, or even worse to be like his father, a man who wasted his life raising banners no one wanted to read, following his
conscience wherever it led him - even though that was usually jail.

Snowden's earliest memories of his dad were from the day of his father's first release from prison: the bullhorned speeches
in Fair-mount Park and the crowd that yelled in response to them, so much food that casserole bowls sat on seats while people
stood balancing paper plates in their hands. By his last release from a federal penitentiary twelve years later, the reception
had been reduced to a bucket of drive-through chicken and Snowden's uncle in the front seat saying, "It's 1983 and nobody
gives a damn about that shit no more, so just shut up and stop hogging all the white meat." The movement had moved on, without
leaving a forwarding address behind. The only things Snowden Sr. could point to for all his sacrifice were the parts of him
that were clearly missing. A bitter, drunken husk of a man whose life ended the moment his son finally had enough of his taunting
and punched him as hard as he was asking for it. By the time Snowden made the mistake of swinging on his father, knocking
him to the floor and into the coma that would eventually take him, there really wasn't much left of the man that hadn't already
died anyway.

Having read the Horizon literature, Snowden understood that they were looking for someone a bit more evangelical and, to keep
his bid competitive, he was willing to accommodate them - within reason. Snowden was willing to let faith guide him, as long
as it didn't walk too far ahead. Searching within himself in the days after his orientation meeting, he found that there were
several things he was agreeable to believing in. That he could win this Second Chance contest, for instance; that he could
beat out the brute and the beanpole if he applied himself and stayed out of trouble; that if he won, he would take that promotion
for just long enough to show his gratitude and then cash in and sell that one single-family brownstone for enough to buy a
whole apartment building back in Philly, a big one. Snowden believed that in his Philly building he could live in poor man's
luxury, survive off the rents into retirement, his only duties being to call the plumber and carry the trash to the side of
the road.

The night after his initial Horizon orientation, spurred on by these first visions, Snowden vowed to rise early the following
morning, grab his map of Harlem and set forth walking around this neighborhood to see the world it would be his job to champion,
to do what he could to make his hopes a reality. Drifting to sleep when exhaustion finally overcame the excitement of it all,
Snowden saw himself treading sidewalk in the days to follow, converting the unknown to the familiar one blister at a time,
and loved the image of it all.

Oversleeping that following morning, Snowden rose with all his intentions in place. Walking down his building's stairs he
saw Jifar, the little boy from the apartment directly below. The kid reminded him of his own youth, his own canned innocence,
and Snowden chose that as a good omen. He felt good for a moment, descending those last few flights, then he walked out his
front door only to have to make it through the handful of men who had decided his building's stoop was their new living room.
It was eleven A.M. and they already had beer in hand, brown paper bags covering their forty bottles like condoms. The building
door opened and they stopped talking and looked at Snowden like he insulted them just by leaving his home, like he should
have climbed out his window and down the fire escape, jumped the ten feet from the metal to the pavement out of politeness.
Snowden looked at their faces, looked quickly away again. There were blocks in Philly where you could get shot for meeting
a hood's eyes. There were other blocks in Philly you could get just as dead if you didn't.

BOOK: Hunting in Harlem
6.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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