INTRODUCTION BY JEFF PARKER
I am a sucker for sound on the page. I don’t mean just voice. I mean, snap, crackle, pop. I mean, Coltrane, Mozart, Slayer. I mean, Bubbly, Nugget, Claude.
Yes, Gabriel Bump’s debut novel Everywhere You Don’t Belong is a dialogical novel of the moment tracking several of the major fault lines of racial conflict in the US. Yes, it’s an instant classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era. Yes, the vast cast of unforgettable characters, many introduced in this very excerpt, you’ll instantly love and cheer for and wince at and wince with. Yes, there is gut-busting humor. Yes, there is a surprising and inevitable end.
Now, listen to the novel’s complex repetitions and variations and riffs and refrains. How-to-write books talk all the time about writing using the senses, often forgetting that the very stuff of prose, language itself, is sensory. And what magic it is to hear those squiggles on the page played by a stylist like Bump in the speaker drum of your skull.
Everywhere You Don’t Belong centers on Claude McKay Love, who is raised on Chicago’s South Side by his grandma, a Civil Rights-era activist, and the unconventional, tell-it-like-it-is Paul. In an effort to escape the racial strife that engulfs his neighborhood after a police shooting, Claude heads to college in—wait for it!—Missouri. But in this chapter Claude is still in Chicago middle school, trying to figure out life, love, and death. His classmates, the unflappable Bubbly and eraser-sucking, bologna-loving Nugget, are the brightest stars in his universe.
While the chapter begins with the kids worrying about their teacher’s suicidal tendencies, the suicide of Teeth (repetition with variation), Paul’s lover and the brother of another kid in class, is the engine of the story here. It makes the other schoolyard concerns seem, well, schoolyard. (The whole book is like this: young people can’t focus on the things they should be focusing on because the horrors of the real world keep intruding.)
Early on, Claude, social misfit, can’t stop cursing and his crush on Bubbly is dumbfounding him. At one point, Claude proposes to Bubbly. This is handled in slant with reported speech, producing a discordant tone:
“I asked Bubbly if she wanted to marry me.
“‘I want to bury you?’” she asked.
Needless to say, Bubbly’s response is more refutation than genuine clarification, and the proposal never recovers.
During one of Claude’s tête-à-têtes with grandma, Paul, who acts at times like the novel’s chorus, eavesdrops:
“You never listen, Claude,” [grandma] said again. I always listened. Paul leaned against my door jamb, arms and legs crossed. I thought about pushing him over.
“He does listen,” Paul said.
Everywhere You Don’t Belong is, in some ways, about the fact that Claude is listening and has been listening; he just doesn’t know for some time what to do with what everyone is saying. Even Paul knows that.
In Gabriel Bump’s novel, the rhythm of first-person narration, that ticker-tape from the subconscious, tells the story. Crank it.
– Jeff Parker
Author of Ovenman
I’m Supposed to Talk to You About Death for Homework
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“Bubbly and Nugget” from Everywhere You Don’t Belong
by Gabriel Bump
Ms. Bev asked if our parents loved us. She was crying again. We always said yes when she cried. When the divorce started she brought three lunches to class, eating them throughout the day.
“That’s good,” she said. “Love is good.”
She put her head on the table and bid us to leave. We were nine. We didn’t have anywhere to go. There was a foot of snow outside.
Bubbly leaned over and whispered to me. “I think she’s going to kill herself.”
“How do you kill yourself?” I asked. I loved Bubbly.
She stuck a finger up her nose and ate what she found.
“My parents think she’s going to kill herself,” she said.
Nugget smiled, showed us an eraser in his mouth.
“She’s just sad,” Nugget said over the eraser, spit coming down his chin. “Haven’t you guys ever been sad?”
Bubbly raised a fist at Nugget. Fear confused Nugget. Back then, he couldn’t tell fear from sadness. When he got older he found out. He jumped out of a plane. His parachute didn’t open. It was on the news.
He took the eraser out of his mouth and rolled it between his palms.
“Nugget,” Bubbly said, “you smell like bologna.”
“Thank you,” he said, and turned around. Nugget loved bologna.
“You’re nice,” I said to Bubbly.
I was going to ask Bubbly to marry me, but Principal Big Ass walked in. His real name was Gene Longley IV.
“Mrs. Beverley,” Principal Big Ass said. “May I speak with you in the hall?”
“It’s Ms. Bev,” Nugget said.
“What was that, Jeffrey?” Principal Big Ass asked.
“It’s Nugget,” Bubbly said.
“What, Tiffany?” he asked.
“It’s Bubbly,” I said.
“Claude?” His face turned purple.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Nugget said. Everybody laughed. Nugget put the eraser back in his mouth.
I didn’t want a nickname; Nugget and Bubbly didn’t like their normal selves. Once, earlier in the year, I spilled an apple juice carton on Ms. Bev’s rug, underneath the upside-down world map, with Africa and South America twice as large as America and Europe. After that, Nugget and Bubbly wanted to call me Nigerian Juiceman. That name was too long to catch on. And it wasn’t me.
Ms. Bev followed Principal Big Ass into the hall. She looked at us over her shoulder before closing the door.
“See, Nugget,” Bubbly said. “That’s fear.”
“I think I’m always afraid,” Nugget said.
“I know, Nugget.” Bubbly patted his back. “I know.”
Grandma thought Ms. Bev should go down the river.
“For a swim?” I asked.
“The river, Claude,” she said. “Listen.”
I was listening. She sat on the faded White Sox carpet next to my bed and rubbed my feet.
“You never listen, Claude,” she said again. I always listened. Paul leaned against my doorjamb, arms and legs crossed. I thought about pushing him over.
“He does listen,” Paul said.
“She really shouldn’t put you kids through her shit,” she said. Grandma covered her mouth, apologized through her fingers. She wasn’t supposed to swear around me. Through her fingers, she swore again.
I called Bubbly my bitch one day at recess. Principal Big Ass heard and called Grandma. Grandma wanted to know what the context was. Principal Big Ass told her. She was ambivalent about it. He wasn’t. We had to change: no more swearing.
Paul told me to call Bubbly my sunshine.
“You kids aren’t learning anything.” She brought my foot up to her lips. Her lipstick felt like chalk. She had a date.
“Nugget loves bologna,” I said.
“Nugget is an idiot,” Paul said.
“Nugget’s my friend,” I said.
“And that Tiffany,” Grandma said, picking at my big toenail. “That Tiffany is fast.”
I shouldn’t have told Grandma that Bubbly and I kissed. She called Bubbly a skank.
“I’m going to marry her,” I said.
“Let’s pick out a ring tonight,” Paul said.
“Then you’re going to marry a fast woman that will break your heart,” she said. I pulled my knees to my chest.
“You’re fast,” I said.
Paul whistled and left. Grandma palmed my face. She left too. Her long purple dress got caught in my door. I heard a rip, her running down the steps, the front door slam. That was 8:00 p.m.
Later, Paul opened my door with an empty beer in hand.
“Let’s go get that ring,” he said.
Paul didn’t shovel our walk, even when the snow got deep. He carried me to the salted sidewalk by my armpits. Rainbow Bar was three blocks away. Wind tossed me around. Paul dragged me along. I slipped on ice. He said sorry. The Temptations were playing over the speaker when we arrived. We both nodded at the bartender and went to the back room.
“I love babysitting,” Paul said.
Teeth was there, waiting, patient.
“I hear you want to fuck someone, Claude.” Teeth stood up and kissed Paul.
“We’re not swearing anymore,” Paul said, an arm around Teeth’s waist.
“Is that what Claude wants to do?” Teeth asked. “Do you want to fuck someone?”
“No,” I said. “I just want to marry her.”
“What are you going to do when you’re married?” Teeth asked me.
“Go on adventures,” I said.
“What are we going to do when we get married?” Teeth asked Paul.
“Go to the moon,” Paul said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d go to the moon with Bubbly.”
“Why does love always start with the moon?” Teeth asked.
“Bubbly is my sunshine,” I said.
Teeth crouched in front of me.
Paul didn’t speak about Teeth much at home. Grandma didn’t approve. She thought Teeth was a bad influence and a layabout. Grandma wanted Paul to date a nice man, for once; someone out and proud and successful. What I first knew about true love and happy relationships, I learned from Teeth and Paul in Rainbow Bar’s backroom.
“What will you do for your sunshine?” Teeth asked. “Will you protect your sunshine from this cruel world? Will you guide your sunshine through any perils? Will you pay the bills? Will you walk the dogs? Will you take out the trash? Will you hold your sunshine when there’s thunder outside? Will you rock the baby to sleep? Will you drive the kids to school? Will you bury your sunshine in the most expensive coffin?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
“Leave him alone,” Paul said to Teeth.
“Is that what you do for Paul?” I asked Teeth.
“For Paul,” Teeth said, “I do anything.”
Teeth’s sister was in our class also. She sat three rows behind Nugget. Teeth refused to understand the law. Paul and Teeth had dated for six months. It was our secret. Most people knew. Still—Teeth was twenty years younger than Paul. He used to play professional tennis. He was tall and had a spider tattooed on his cheek.
Teeth picked me up.
Teeth spent five years in Cook County for repeated and aggressive gun possession.
Teeth put me down. Paul pushed me toward a foldout chair facing a wall. I sat like I always did and pretended not to listen.
“If you love me, Timothy,” Paul said, “you’ll move away.”
“I can’t right now,” Teeth said.
“Then when?” Paul asked.
“Why do we have to leave?” Teeth asked.
“This place isn’t good for us,” Paul said.
This place isn’t good for anybody,” Teeth said.
“Let’s go to Italy,” Paul said.
“I can’t,” Teeth said.
“Why not?” Paul asked.
“I just can’t,” Teeth said. “Do you understand? I just can’t leave this place. What am I going to do? What place would take me? There’s nothing I can do.”
“We can love each other,” Paul said.
“We can love each other anywhere,” Teeth said. “I’ll love you always.”
“We can love each other in Florida,” Paul said.
“I’ll love you between heaven and hell,” Teeth said. “I’ll love you into other dimensions, into other lives.”
They went on about love and leaving and staying and possibilities. Real love, I learned that night, is compromise. Teeth agreed to consider a life in Florida. Paul agreed to give Teeth some time to think about it. Teeth kissed Paul goodbye.
Teeth crouched in front of me. “When you have your sunshine,” Teeth said, “don’t let your sunshine take you to Florida.”
Teeth stood up and kissed Paul one more time. We left him standing at the bar.
Snow started falling when we left Rainbow Bar.
Paul got a call in the morning. Teeth. Metra tracks. Flattened. A fatal accident. According to news reports, Teeth shot himself before falling down.
Paul sat at the edge of my bed until Grandma called for breakfast. He filled his glass with white wine and told me it was juice.
“Life isn’t like this,” Grandma said, with her hand on Paul’s. “Everybody doesn’t leave you.”
Paul took his pancakes and wine up to his room.
Grandma pulled me to school, through the snow, in her slim wake.
Ms. Bev told us Teeth’s little sister was taking time off from school. She told us to take out our math notebooks. We worked on fractions while Ms. Bev ate chicken marsala.
“Did you hear what happened?” I asked Bubbly.
“Yeah,” she said. “I heard the sirens. My parents had to go to work.”
Bubbly’s parents wrote for the Defender.
“What happened?” Nugget turned around.
“Don’t you live next to the Metra, Nugget?” Bubbly asked.
“Something bad, Nugget,” I said.
“I’m a heavy sleeper,” Nugget said. “My mom has to shake me in the morning.”
We told him. His eraser dropped out of his mouth. It bounced off the tile.
“That’s going to give me nightmares,” he said. “I’m sad.”
“You’re scared,” I told him.
“Thanks.” He turned around and forgot his eraser.
I asked Bubbly if she wanted to marry me.
“I want to bury you?’” she asked.
My hands got slick with sweat. “No,” I said. “Marry me.”
Principal Big Ass walked in.
“Claude,” he said. “That’s enough.”
He stood at the front of the room. His ass blocked Ms. Bev.
“I’m sure Mrs. Beverley told you about what happened to Tanya’s older brother,” he said.
“It’s Ms. Bev,” Nugget said. “He exploded on the train tracks.”
“Jeffrey,” he said. “Do you want to spend lunch in my office?”
Nugget put his head on his desk.
“I know a lot of you are close with Tanya,” Principal Big Ass continued. “We arranged for the city to send a counselor. He’ll be here tomorrow. I want you to go home, talk with your parents, and come prepared to discuss. That’s your homework.”
“My parents think a police officer tied him to the tracks because Teeth wouldn’t fuck him.”
“Tiffany,” Principal Big Ass said, in his disappointed voice. “My office. Now.”
Bubbly packed her backpack and stomped out the door without saying goodbye. I wanted to tie Principal Big Ass to the tracks.
“Fuck, shit, fuck, shit,” I said.
“Very funny, Claude,” he said. “Mr. Funny is getting close to detention.”
He left before I could close the deal. Nugget moved to Bubbly’s desk so I could help him find common denominators.
Grandma had a date in the Gold Coast with some professor; I zipped up her midnight blue dress.
“What happened to Grandpa?” I asked.
“Bad moonshine,” Grandma said.
“What’s moonshine?” I asked.
“Like Proud Mary in a draught,” Grandma said.
“What?” I asked.
“Wildfire,” Grandma said.
Paul, when he got sad, hid under Grandma’s bed. From down there, he laughed.
“Where did you meet Paul?” I asked.
“Paul was an accident,” Grandma said. She reached under the bed and rubbed Paul’s head.
“We met in New York,” she said. “After your Grandpa died.”
“And fell in love?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “He stole fifty dollars from me.”
“Seventy,” Paul said.
“Seventy,” Grandma said. “He promised me seventy dollars for a photo shoot and didn’t pay me.”
“Grandma was hot,” Paul said.
“Grandma’s still hot, baby.” Grandma patted her backside, patted my head, patted wrinkles around her mouth, patted her gray hair.
“I had your mom and needed a place to stay,” Grandma said. “Paul let me stay at his place.”
“Then Grandma made a movie and took me along for the ride.” Paul slid his head back under the bed. I saw the movie once. It was horrible, black and white without direction. Grandma was beautiful; she played a queen.
“Now we’re here,” Grandma said. “In Chicago. Surrounded by fast little harlots.”
“You’re fast,” I said.
She put her knee in my back and left.
I sat on her faded orange carpet and looked at the top of Paul’s head. He was staring at the bottom of Grandma’s box spring.
“I’m supposed to talk to you about death,” I said. “For homework.”
He tilted his head back and looked at me upside down.
“We should’ve sent you to private school,” he said.
“Principal Big Ass said we have to talk about death,” I said.
“Principal Big Ass likes women to pour hot wax on his nipples and call him kitty cat.” Paul crawled out and stood above me.
“What?” I asked.
“Your parents abandoned you, right?” He headed for the door.
“Right,” I said.
“One day Grandma and I are going to abandon you also.” He had his back turned to me. “And Tiffany.”
“Bubbly,” I said.
“Bubbly and Nugget,” he said. “And you’re going to be alone.”
He told me to go to sleep as he walked down the stairs. I stared at my ceiling until Grandma came home. I listened to them through my floor. Paul couldn’t stop crying.
Ms. Bev introduced the person from the city. He looked like he came straight from a funeral. Principal Big Ass sat behind Ms. Bev.
“Class,” Ms. Bev said over her pizza. “This is Mr. Something.”
“Mr. Smithing,” he said.
“Mr. Smith.” She picked up her pizza and left the room.
“I am Mr. Smithing,” he said again, “but you can call me Chuck.”
“I’m Nugget,” Nugget said.
“That’s nice,” Mr. Smithing said.
Bubbly wasn’t there.
“Do you guys know why I’m here?” Mr. Smithing asked.
“Because death,” someone shouted from the back row.
“Because we’re too young to die,” another voice said.
“My mom says people like you get off on violence and despair.”
“I’m here to help you,” Mr. Smithing said. “Let’s play a game.”
Mr. Smithing handed out notecards and colored pens and asked us to describe our greatest fear. After five minutes, he clapped his hands.
“Let’s start here.” Mr. Smithing pointed at Nugget. “What’s your biggest fear?”
“I’m afraid I’ll wake up and no one will be there,” Nugget said.
“That does sound scary,” Mr. Smithing said. “What about that scares you?”
“My mom says I have too much love in my heart,” Nugget said. “She says I cry when I’m alone because my heart is too big for one person.”
“Do you think your heart is too big?” Mr. Smithing asked.
“I think my heart is just the right size,” Nugget said.
“I think so too,” Mr. Smithing said.
Mr. Smithing focused on me.
“What are you afraid of?” Mr. Smithing asked me.
“The person I love dying,” I said.
“That is scary,” Mr. Smithing said.
“I know,” I said.
“What is scary about that?” Mr. Smithing asked.
“I don’t want to stay up all night crying,” I said.
“Are you staying up all night now?” Mr. Smithing asked.
“Paul is,” I said.
“Who’s Paul?” Mr. Smithing asked.
“Paul was fucking Teeth,” I said.
“Claude McKay Love,” Principal Big Ass said. “Do you want me to call your grandmother?”
“They were in love,” I said.
“They were fucking,” Nugget said.
“I’m calling both of your parents,” Principal Big Ass said. “My office.”
We packed our bags and stomped out. Nugget rubbed his too-large heart.
Nugget played with his bologna sandwich. He ripped at the crust, took it apart, smeared the mustard, licked his lips, inhaled deep. Principal Big Ass sat in his office and tried to call our families. Every couple minutes, he’d appear to let us know that he was trying again, and we were in a lot of trouble.
“Why did you swear?” I asked Nugget.
“I didn’t want you to get in trouble alone,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Where’s Bubbly?” He sucked on a bologna slice rolled into a cigar.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I want to marry her,” he said.
Grandma came in wearing a bathrobe and knee-high boots. She drove a knuckle into my skull. She grabbed my neck and pulled me into Principal Big Ass’s office. Nugget seemed not to notice. He smiled, lips stained with mustard.
“Ms. Trueheart.” Principal Big Ass tried not to stare. “Please have a seat.”
“Was he swearing again?” She forced me into a chair. “We haven’t been swearing.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s much worse than that.” Grandma wasn’t wearing makeup. The bags under her eyes throbbed.
“Was he kissing that little girl?” She twisted my kneecap.
“Ms. Trueheart,” Principal Big Ass said, in his caring voice, “I think Claude’s depressed.”
Grandma’s grip relaxed. Her wrinkles and bags loosened.
“Didn’t his parents leave in winter? Wasn’t it snowing?”
“No, fall,” Grandma said, “and I should kick your fucking ass. Making me think my grandson is acting like some delinquent.”
“Well, he is,” Principal Big Ass said. “But that’s not the point.”
Principal Big Ass thought the point was loneliness and isolation. He thought I shouldn’t talk with Nugget; on that count, Grandma agreed. Principal Big Ass thought Bubbly was a bad influence; on that count, Grandma agreed. He thought if things didn’t change for me—he’s seen countless kids like me fall through the cracks and end up dead like Teeth.
“There isn’t a crack big enough to swallow him,” Grandma said. “My grandson will spend his life conquering people like you.”
She dragged me out. I waved at Nugget. He didn’t notice. He was licking his fingers and wiping mustard off his nose.
We passed Ms. Bev outside. I waved at her. She was taking big gulps out of her soup thermos. She looked at me but didn’t wave. She crammed a fistful of oyster crackers in her mouth and took another gulp.
A barrier of tightly packed, black, crystallized snow blocked us from the street. It was a bad winter. I tried to keep up with Grandma. We reached our house. She cupped my armpits and carried me to the front door. Paul nursed a hangover in the living room. He asked what was up? Grandma spanked me to my room. I sat alone on my carpet. I listened to them argue about my direction.
I spent the rest of the week helping Paul build a Lego castle. Grandma found a man she could spend more than one night with. He worked in insurance, or bail bonds. Paul stopped leaving the house. Snow mountains narrowed the sidewalks. Grandma was a part-time secretary downtown. Paul freelanced for local newspapers, photographed parades and graduations. Most times, neither worked.
After that year, Bubbly’s parents decided to homeschool her, and Grandma and Paul sent me to a Catholic school across the tracks.
I had to wear a mud-brown shirt and coffee-beige pants to school. The white nuns shook their heads, sucked their teeth at my wrong answers. On a Wednesday, in the bathroom, between classes, the other boys threw liquid soap at me, said my shoes were busted, said they’d kick my ass if I used the bathroom again. In the stalls, they puffed cheap weed from lunchroom apples. I was a pointless new kid: bad at sports, no jokes, no rich parents, no excellent homework to steal and copy. Grandma and Paul walked with me in the morning, tried to hold my hand, tried to kiss my cheeks, waved goodbye for too long, called my name when I didn’t wave back. They did this in pajamas, hair all crazy. A few months in, one sad-eyed classmate pulled me aside at lunch. He knew how it was, having parents like that, looking messed up, smoking dope in the house, forgetting to buy groceries, forgetting to shower, smoking dope in the street. Tears filled his sad eyes. He patted my shoulder, went back to eat with his friends, left me alone, didn’t speak with me again. I didn’t have a chance to correct him.
I’d pass Bubbly’s house on the walk back home. I’d look up at the sky if I saw her on the porch with her mother. I’d wave if she was on the porch by herself. Sometimes she’d wave back. Sometimes she’d look away and wouldn’t see me. I’d try again on the walk back.
She was playing catch with her dad the last time I saw her. There was a moving truck in her driveway. I waved. Her dad looked at me, whispered something to Bubbly, and went inside. Bubbly picked up the football and bounced over.
“We’re moving to Oak Park,” Bubbly said. “Mom and dad got new jobs.”
“I want to marry you,” I said.
“I know,” Bubbly said. “But your breath stinks.”
“They bully me at school,” I said, “because they think Paul and Grandma are scary.”
“They are,” Bubbly said. “And you’re a baby.”
I tried to kick the football but slipped and fell on the grass. Bubbly stood over me.
“My dad said Ms. Bev swam out into Lake Michigan,” she said. “He said she sank to the bottom. That’s why they can’t find her.”
Ms. Bev didn’t deserve that, if that’s what happened. I haven’t searched for the true story. I like to imagine her on a white beach somewhere hot, drinking iced drinks, eating fresh fruit, lounging with a tanned younger man with a large heart, sleeping through the night.
I tried to stand, slipped again.
Bubbly laughed. Her dad called from the screen door. And that was it. I sat there for a moment. I got to school late. The nun made me stand facing the wall. The kids laughed at my wet butt.
A few months later, Grandma and the nuns had it out. Grandma thought abstinence was a pipe dream; the nuns thought Grandma was immoral, maybe evil. The nuns thought the students were too young for such improper thoughts and temptations. Grandma told the nuns to shove it.
I transferred to Crispus Attucks Middle School. Nugget went to a magnet school up north, one of those schools with a middle school and high school in a big building with big windows. He graduated valedictorian. He went to Northwestern for history, Yale for law. He moved to New York. He blogged about urban decline and America’s moral decay. He organized rallies whenever the police shot an unarmed black kid. He flew back to Chicago for civil rights summits, conversations about violence and economic development. There are pictures of him online laughing with Obama. His parachute didn’t open on his fortieth birthday. I went to his funeral. I couldn’t find a seat.
When Nugget crosses my mind, he’s blurred and brilliant, busted and smiling. I see him sucking on an eraser; I see him scared, confused. There’s a lesson floating, I think, somewhere inside Nugget’s everlasting spirit. When I see him, sometimes, in my dreams, it makes sense. I see him ecstatic. I see him lathering mustard on bologna. I see him small, like we remained young.
Bubbly married an accountant.
Ms. Bev is still missing.