The Rise of the Colored Empires by Ryan Black

Those graves and our boulevard divide the morning light, and steer
            the new grass, the nimblewill and weed angling for life. Bereft of grief,
they mock maintenance with their stubborn shoots, a job I applied for, once,

            and didn’t get. Instead, I was relieved of my boredom with a free pair
of Asics, three polo shirts, and the title “court attendant” at the US Open.
            It was the summer the Williams sisters first flashed their brilliance

and an unseeded Russian was in love with the best hockey player
            on the planet. I was in love with no one. I read Gatsby for the first time,
and was alone in a way I’d never be again. From May until August, I worked

            the grounds crew, planting flowerbeds and spreading mulch beneath
a canopy of pine trees, preparing the park for CEOs, for two weeks
            of European money. It was easy work, and I was glad for it. At night,

I fell asleep with the light on, a book lying open, and, in the morning,
            rode the bus to Flushing Meadows, still wondering what Fitzgerald meant
by the consoling proximity of millionaires. I never found out. It didn’t matter,

            really—I was out of high school, older than Venus, the same age
Serena would be when she’d raise her first singles title above her head,
            beating Amélie Mauresmo, the future world number one, in a third set

tiebreaker at the Open Gaz de France—but when I came to the scene
            where Tom Buchanan, through The Rise of the Colored Empires, lays
bare the natavist’s science, an anxiety Fitzgerald certainly shared, I thought

            of my parents, and my parents’ friends; I thought of their Friday night
card games, how my mother would extend the dining table with a leaf,
            and fill the refrigerator with cans of Budweiser, Baileys Irish Cream,

white wine, vodka, and cranberry juice. Then, she’d slice a fistful of celery,
            send me to the store for cigarettes. I loved the purpose. I loved the feel
of those bills in my hand, and the promise of enough change to buy

            a quarter drink, orange or red. I’d pierce the top with a pin, sit quiet
on the landing as smoke filled the dining room, and the parents,
            all of them parents, would sit like sentinels in their chairs, griping

over fewer jobs, reduced hours, bad backs and bum knees. Neighborhood’s
            changed. Tell me about it.
And I can see, now, the shape of habit taking
hold, so I’d like to stop here, to intervene on behalf of this moment

            before it hardens into verse, and is made grotesque. It’s June, again;
the cherry blossoms burst beneath my window, a late blooming.
            At the French Open, Serena Williams is one match from winning

her sixteenth Grand Slam. She’s favored, of course, but it’s her power
            that’s still praised, her brute strength, as if the game’s impossible math
were divisible by broad shoulders and a snarl. She’s set to face Sharapova.

            The city’s split. It is what it is, Serena admitted. At the French Open,
the crowd boos, but they’re young, they’re kids,
she added, thinking back
            to California, to 2001 at Indian Wells, where the sold-out crowd,

retirees and baby boomers, serenaded the sisters with worse than insult.
            Venus had withdrawn minutes before her semifinal match against Serena.
Two days later, at the finals, walking down with Venus to the players’ box,

            Richard Williams turned to face the heckling crowd, nearly delighted
by the scene, grinned, and raised his left fist in the air like a wild John Carlos.
            Serena publicly thanked him. She’s never returned to defend her title.

But Roland Garros is somewhere else; Paris a second home. Serena lives
            several months out of the year in a two-bedroom apartment off the Champs
de Mars. She bicycles the city, shops the open-air markets, her bookshelves

            lined with leather-bounds haggled over beside the Seine. Last summer,
she told John Jeremiah Sullivan that she comes here to be around nobody,
            to live alone, a part of the Old World. It gave me the sense that she was

hiding there, Sullivan would write, hiding [...] from a country that couldn’t decide
            if she was a goddess or a threat. And from her father,
he added,
who years earlier promoted the girls as coming Straight Outta Compton,

            a mythology sprung from the American century, because the work
of representation is the history it maps, rhetoric carried like torches
            through the dark. Gatsby, for one, is never made to appear. He moves

through the narrative, a fragment of lost words, elusive, fading along
            what Barbara Hill calls the horizon of significance. But it is only after
the obscene word, scrawled [...] with a piece of brick, is wiped clear

            in the novel’s final pages, a word Fitzgerald consciously omits: kike,
or queer, or something worse, a symbolic order of the hen-hearted and
            dispossessed... it is only after Nick Carraway draws his shoe raspingly

along the stone, erasing the offense, that Gatsby can become a stand-in
           for us all. And those card games, how there is no word for a displaced
fear, for disappointment still to come; how several of the players,

            including my father, will not survive to contest this, so they sit here, mute
as the furniture, forever eyeing their no good hands, delaying the inevitable,
            caught in the instant before they can place their cards face down on the table,

and head to the kitchen for another drink.


Ryan Black has published previously or has work forthcoming in AGNI, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He was a Norma Millay Ellis Foundation Fellow at The Millay Colony for the Arts. He directs the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Queens College/CUNY.