JAMES BALDWIN by Claudette Bakhtiar

illustration by John Dermot Woods


James Baldwin, born August 2, 1924, sleeps squeezing a plastic frog. There are ghosts chained to the wall. A potentate cousin, twenty-eight times removed. "The boy likes to sleep," his mother says, marking his last bowel movement on a paper napkin. In the next room, someone coughs in a tubercular way.

Arw. Arw. Arw. Arrow.

The boy dips a toy truck in the ocean and walks up the beach, sucking salt from its grill. The fishermen don't see him; they are slitting throats.

In church, the young man stands for a few seconds longer after everyone sits. This he will do from then on in any group, except when it is better to run, which, over time, begins to feel more natural, except for death, which will happen, too, or so he's been told. Everyone wears a beautiful hat. There is a gift among them they wait for it. Down below, in the cellar, a locked pantry where mice are eating through the sack of hosts.

James Baldwin. Jade Swan Limb. Bedlam Jaw Sin. Bald Jam Wines. Able Jaws Mind. Damsel Jaw Bin. Damn Jaws Bile. Jail Swam Bend. A Jab Mind Slew. A Jamb Lewd Sin. Mandible Jaws. Bald Jaw Elm Sin...

Paris market. Bread. A handful of spinach. He presses his finger into a brick of butter. The beets look alive. He stops to watch the river the water moves like oil. Beside him, an artist sketches the hanging breasts of an old woman. Later, at the apothecary, an Algerian gives him a scorpion in a jar for the cold in his hands.

November 30, 1987. His death, one of many.


Claudette Bakhtiar recently completed a MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She received a NYFA Fellowship in Fiction in 2004 and served on the fiction judging panel in 2008. Her writing has appeared in The L Magazine, Literary New York and Time Out NY.
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