Beyond by Jim Courter

Although he doesn’t know it, Beyond is about to have his cover blown. He is outside Garman Hall, home to Prairie State University’s Theater Department, talking to Clarence Morgan Sr., a large, endomorphic African American campus groundskeeper dressed in navy blue Dickies. Clarence Morgan Sr. is holding a garden rake upright in one hand; he is a member of a crew at work on the lawn and the flower beds next to the building. Another is on a riding mower near where Beyond and the groundskeeper are standing. What Beyond knows that no one else does—at least he hopes—is that Clarence Morgan Sr. is his father. What he doesn’t know is that J’Amaze is watching and listening through the open window of his second-story office. The conversation is animated—the groundskeeper perturbed, Beyond uncomfortable—and J’Amaze is intrigued to see the two in what appears to be familiar conversation.

The mower makes eavesdropping difficult, but the groundskeeper is raising his voice in anger, and J’Amaze thinks he hears, “Where you get this Beyond shit?” and  “Clarence, same as mine,” and  “a good name, a name to be proud of.”

Beyond casts his gaze about; he seems concerned with being seen and overheard. J’Amaze steps back from the window to avoid detection. After a moment he returns to find them still there. The mower has stopped, but J’Amaze is satisfied that he has heard enough. Standing to the side of the window, he reaches over and slams it shut, loud enough, he hopes, for Beyond to hear. J’Amaze has always dismissed Beyond as a talentless pretender and has never taken him seriously or paid him much attention. Now he senses that Beyond, insignificant character that he is, may have something to lose after all.

 

Beyond stands just out of striking range from Clarence Morgan Sr., and not quite squared off to face him; one foot is back and at an angle, as if he is poised for escape, or to show that he is engaged in this conversation against his will. To be seen talking with Clarence Morgan Sr. is potentially embarrassing and compromising to his new identity.

“Your mom’s bad sick, Clarence,” the older man says. “You might show some concern and come by the house.”

“It’s not a house, it’s a trailer. And my name’s not Clarence, it’s Beyond.”

Clarence Morgan Sr. winces and gives a ponderous shake of his large head. “Where you get this Beyond shit? What kinda name is that? Your name Clarence, same as mine. It’s a good name, a name to be proud of.”

Beyond doesn’t reply. He stands with a stolid, stubborn look on his face to show his intransigence on the subject.

As the conversation continues, Beyond never quite faces his father square, but he can’t bring himself to walk away either, not wanting to provoke some dramatic response that would attract the attention of the few people about on foot nearby. He has worked hard to make a clean break from his family; from his father’s violence; from that awful trailer court; from that ridiculous church, the members of which seemed to believe they could shout their way into heaven. Now this—his mother “bad sick” and his father’s using that to try to draw him back. He is determined not to let that happen. His father is still speaking, but Beyond is distracted; he has heard a window shut and wonders if someone has been listening.

 

If Clarence Morgan Jr. had been as dumb as he looked, he might have grown up happier. As it was, he had just enough insight to give him a reasonably clear view of his limited prospects, but not enough imagination to provide a glimpse of any way to transcend them.

Clarence had his white mother’s gray eyes, his African American father’s oversized head and a nose that wasn’t so much too large or misshapen as simply wrong. Instead of coffee-with-cream skin that one of his bi-racial parentage might have inherited, Clarence’s was sallow, almost suggesting jaundice, cratered by the acute acne of his early teens and painted with large splotches of freckle. He had misshapen and misaligned teeth and a tendency to show them when he gaped and stared, which was the default set of his countenance. Below the neck he was doughy, lumpy, and shapeless, like both his parents. Most people, if shown a photo gallery of Clarence and his peers and asked to pick the one who had been chosen by God or Nature or cruel Chance to be the least likely to succeed for being so homely and obtuse, would point to Clarence’s unfortunate mug and say, or at least think, “Without a doubt, that miserable-looking bastard there.” He was also entirely lacking in athletic, artistic or any other kind of talent, except perhaps a talent for dogged persistence.

His only gift was that modicum of acuity, more curse than blessing because it revealed to him that his inchoate ambition to become something else, something different, something better and more interesting was contingent on his escaping the gravitational pull of his genetic inheritance and his socio-economic circumstances, and that the odds of that were virtually nil. Not that Clarence thought of his plight in those terms; what it mostly came down to for him was standing in front of a mirror, his mouth hanging open, and experiencing dull dismay at what he saw.

Clarence had grown up in a college town, and yet the life at the university was as far from his daily reality as if it had been on the other side of the world; it was merely where his father labored in work clothes, never a place of possibility. Without realizing it, he carried with him the unexamined assumption that his natural station in life was in the labor force, living in the trailer court he had been raised in or one like it, married to a woman more or less like his mother. But as he progressed through high school, he heard stories, most of them from classmates with college-age siblings, about student life on campus, stories suggesting, among other things, that even a guy like Clarence could find release through abandonment in riotous, bacchanalian revelries. Those stories fired his imagination with the hope that an avenue of escape might be available after all, and right across town.

His below-average grades, even in this age of grade inflation, would have kept him out of most schools, but his counselor let him know that Prairie State University accepted students that  other schools wouldn’t. Merit scholarships were out of the question, but he might qualify for some aid set aside for minorities, and his father’s job on campus entitled him to a discount in tuition, room and board. Thus it was that Clarence Morgan Jr., most definitely not college material, and counter to the expectations of everyone who knew him, moved into a residence hall on campus and went off, such as it was, to college.

Clarence didn’t declare a major because he had never given thought to what he wanted to do or be. In the first semester he took a hodgepodge of classes, none of which provided him with a sense of direction. When casting about for a class with which to fill out his schedule during registration for second semester, he signed up for the Theater Department’s Introduction to Acting course. It was here that Clarence thought that he finally found what, without realizing it, he had been looking for.

His classmates, all Theater majors, affected a mercurial spontaneity in virtually every phase of their existence. In the halls outside of class, going about campus or town, the world was their stage. The males declaimed in stentorian tones; the females seemed to want to turn every moment into a moment of high, hysterical drama; they all struck poses and conducted even their most mundane affairs with exaggerated histrionics. Most appealing to Clarence was their mockery of squares—students and faculty and whoever happened their way that were stodgy or uncool or otherwise not with it. Having got used to being on the wrong end of that kind of mockery, Clarence found it liberating to immerse himself in a crowd that was dishing it out. A few weeks into the semester, he chose Theater as a major. What better place to reinvent himself than where new roles, the donning and doffing of personalities, was daily fare?

At some point during this time, Clarence came across the idea of going by only one name. He had noted the trend among certain entertainers and Brazilian soccer players, and a prominent graduate student in the department was known simply as Rodrigo (although it was no great secret that his true name was Ed Rencher), and Clarence seized on the notion as a key element in his self-transformation. But what to call himself?

Certainly not Clarence. He wanted a name that suggested the exotic, or the flamboyant spontaneity he had come to admire in the theater crowd, or perhaps one that spoke of his yearning for transcendence. Then one day, waiting in the hall for class to start, he found it.

He was standing near a bulletin board to which were attached a variety of announcements, personal ads, pitches for credit cards, grad schools and study-abroad programs. Of that last category, one bore the headline, GO BEYOND. Clarence stepped closer and pondered it as if it had called to him. Five minutes later, he walked into class certain of his new name. Five months later, now a sophomore, his hair grown to his shoulders in dreadlocks, a patchy attempt at a beard on his face, sporting a beret and sunglasses, he was not only Beyond, but had all but forgotten ever having been Clarence Morgan Jr. At a shop downtown popular with students, he got a tattoo, the first of several, on his upper right arm—BEYOND in a multi-colored arc, above it a bird in flight. By then he had broken off all communication with his family, and when he heard nothing from them, he hoped that his father had perhaps caught a glimpse of him around campus and written him off for good. When summer came he supported himself with a job in the department’s scene shop, which kept busy with Summer Music Theater productions, and moved into a rental house with some other Theater majors, with whom he lived cheaply and more or less communally.

After a while, his new name caught on. When Rodrigo left, Beyond was the only one remaining in the department, as far as he knew the only one on campus, who went by one name. That ended when J’Amaze arrived on the scene.

A producer and director with experience on both coasts, J’Amaze came on a short-term contract as part of the Department’s preparations for its upcoming accreditation process. With a goatee and flashing black eyes and an aura of artistic Bohemianism, he projected a kind of caprine, Mephistophelian insouciance. He was talented, charismatic, rakish, and a magnet for the best-looking girls. No one quite knew J’Amaze’s origins or ethnicity, but his coloring and lilting patois suggest Caribbean, mixed-race roots.

Beyond, who had finally begun to feel free and ascendant, felt diminished at J’Amaze’s coming. He at first tried assuming an easy familiarity with J’Amaze, as if with an equal, but J’Amaze would have none of it. He wrote Beyond off as a lightweight and a pretender, out of his class intellectually and artistically, and for the most part simply ignored him; when he had to deal with him for some reason or other, he did so with dismissive condescension.

But when J’Amaze surmised from his eavesdropping that this less gifted fellow had something to lose after all, he decided that it might be fine sport to help him lose it.

 

After shutting the window on the conversation between Beyond and the groundskeeper, J’Amaze consults the campus directory. In the Faculty and Staff pages, Building and Grounds has a long list of names. With no last name to go by, he starts at the top, sliding a bookmark down line by line, looking for “Clarence.” About midway down he finds a Clarence Morgan. The remainder of the list has no other Clarences. Under the M’s in the student section, as he suspected he might, he finds another Clarence Morgan.

J’Amaze next looks up Clarence Morgan’s phone number and address in the town directory. He lives on Lincoln Avenue, the main street leading east from the square, lined with residences, service and retail businesses, fast food franchises, and, farther out, a Super Wal-Mart.

J’Amaze uses his office phone to call Clarence Morgan’s number. After a few rings someone picks up on the other end. “’Lo.” J’Amaze guesses that it’s a female, but he can’t be sure. The voice cracks and has a rattly-husky quality, the kind that might come from years of cigarette smoking, or from lung or throat cancer, and J’Amaze remembers the groundskeeper telling Beyond, “Your mom’s bad sick.”

“H’lo,” she says, this time with impatience. J’Amaze hears a television in the background, talk accompanied by melodramatic music. It sounds like a soap opera—the time of day is right—and he imagines her watching it from a dilapidated couch or a recliner while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from a bottle or can.

“Is Clarence there?” J’Amaze says.

“Clarence is at work, out to the campus.”

J’Amaze doesn’t reply.

“You wanna leave Clarence a message?”

J’Amaze plays a hunch. “I mean young Clarence.”

The woman emits a wheezy, exasperated huff  that leads to a raspy cough. When it’s finished, she says, “He don’t live here no more. Whatta ya want with him?”

“Sorry, wrong number,” J’Amaze says. Before hanging up he hears, “Whatta mean wrong number? You asked for Clarence, dinchoo?”

Satisfied that he has the pieces in place, J’Amaze returns to work on the short film he is producing for the university’s Office of Anti-Discriminatory Practices. After a while, Beyond passes by in the hall, and J’Amaze calls out to him. Beyond comes back and stands uncertainly in his doorway.

“Beyond, come,” J’Amaze says with a welcoming gesture.

Beyond has always felt diffident and insecure around J’Amaze. The discrepancy in their talents and experience is obvious, and J’Amaze has never disguised his disdain for him. He wonders what this summons into J’Amaze’s office and this welcoming air can possibly mean.

“I’m producing a film for OADP,” J’Amaze says, “and you’re just the guy I need for a certain part.”

Beyond doesn’t know what OADP  means, but J’Amaze makes it sound important,

Sensing Beyond’s hesitance, J’Amaze says, “It’s a series of vignettes on sexual harassment. OADP wants it for classes and staff training on campus. Can I count on you?”

Beyond would like to know more, but this sign of acceptance and validation from J’Amaze is almost more than he can believe, and he doesn’t want to risk spoiling the moment, or his chances, by asking questions. “You bet!” he says.

“The script ought to be ready in a few days. When it is I’ll get you a copy.”

Beyond resumes his walk down the hall. The conversation with his father had been a depressing reminder of the black hole he escaped from and fears being sucked back into. Now, only moments later, exhilarated after this exchange with J’Amaze, he feels like he is walking about two inches off the floor.

Alone in his office, J’Amaze smiles. “This,” he says out loud to himself, “is going to be fun.”

 

Wanting to see firsthand the reality behind Beyond’s façade, J’Amaze sets out in his car. On Lincoln Avenue, he checks the numbers on buildings as he drives east. He passes Midas Muffler; Kentucky Fried Chicken; McDonald’s, one of two in town; Auto Zone; a variety of other non-franchise businesses. Then come some houses. One has a number lower but close to the one he is looking for. He slows. The number on the next one is higher, but a narrow lane leads south off the highway between the two. A sign in faded block letters on the side of the higher numbered house says SERENITY VILLAGE MOBILE HOME PARK, with an arrow pointing down the lane. He turns in.

As he passes the house with the sign, he sees some lettering on the window of the front door that indicates that it’s the main office for SERENITY VILLAGE. Behind it, he finds himself at the entrance to a small trailer court, with no more that a couple of dozen units. The crumbling, weedy asphalt lane goes off in two directions at the head of a long oval.

J’Amaze goes right and drives slowly. Most of the trailers are on the outer perimeter; they are old and undersized by modern standards, weathered and dented and in need of fresh paint. Each has a rural-style mailbox—dented and weathered too, they look like miniatures of the trailers—sitting atop a pole at the head of a gravel parking pad. Some have names and unit numbers, some only one or the other. J’Amaze feels as if he has entered the surreal realm of the lower working class, and can hardly credit that this place and the university exist in the same town.

After rounding the curve at the far end and coming about halfway up the other side, J’Amaze sees a green mailbox ahead with the worn but legible name Morgan in hand-painted lettering.

On the inside of the oval is a small utility shed. J’Amaze parks in a space next to it. He waits and watches. After a while, a mail truck pulls into the trailer court and begins making its way around. Soon after the driver deposits mail in the Morgans’ mail box, a woman comes out.

She is white. Rolls of fat bulge and bounce under sweat pants and top as she walks. She has stringy, mouse-gray hair that hangs straight to her shoulders and looks as if it needs washing. J’Amaze guesses that she is in her upper forties, but imagines that she has looked that way for at least twenty years. She waddles out to the mailbox, hands flapping at her side as if paddling through water. Before she opens the mailbox she coughs—a prolonged, deep, hacking cough. She peers into the mailbox and removes the contents. She stands there a moment, rifling through the three or four envelopes with a look of disgust on her face—“Bills!” J’Amaze imagines her thinking—a then goes back into the trailer.

J’Amaze has seen enough. He drives off and goes to the town library on the square. A librarian accompanies him to the archives section and shows him copies of high school yearbooks. Guessing at the year, he looks at a handful until he finds a senior picture for Clarence Morgan Jr.  in the one from three years previous—younger, but unmistakably Beyond. J’Amaze wonders if the photographer who took it, instead of saying “Smile,” said “Try to look as stupid as you can.”

 

Beyond is disappointed when he sees the script J’Amaze sent him. He is in two scenes. In the first, he is one of a group of young guys in a class that targets an attractive female student for verbal sexual harassment. Beyond’s only lines are “Oh, baby,” accompanied by a lascivious facial expression, and “Hey, girl, how about some action?” In both cases, his voice is joined simultaneously with others, each of whom expresses his desires in his own terms. She complains first to her professor, then to the department chair. When they brush her off, she goes to someone in OADP,  where she finally gets a proper hearing. In the second scene, again as part of an ensemble, Beyond and the others express vigorous, indignant denial when the OADP officer approaches the offending male students with the charge that the girl has brought to her.

But the more Beyond thinks about it, the more he takes encouragement. He remembers J’Amaze’s warm, welcoming manner toward him in his office, almost the first sign that J’Amaze even knows he exists. And it was a film, not a live play, which meant that it would be viewed over and over by lots of people for years to come. During the filming, Beyond put his whole self into his part.

When Beyond thinks the piece is finished, J’Amaze recruits him for one more scene. It is outdoors, where the female victim and a friend have gone to discuss her plight in privacy. J’Amaze says he needs to fill in some ordinary elements into the background for the sake of realism, and asks Beyond to be a groundskeeper. Beyond’s hackles raise, especially when J’Amaze produces a rake for him to use and a set of navy blue Dickies to change into. But again, encouraged that J’Amaze sees fit to call on him and wanting to contribute in any way he can, he goes along.

The shooting finally over, J’Amaze announces to cast and crew that a screening will take place in about a week, after editing.

The screening is held in a specially equipped electronic classroom in Garman Hall. The cast and J’Amaze are all there, as well as some people from OADP. J’Amaze darkens the room and puts in the DVD. The title appears—SEXUAL HARRASSMENT ON CAMPUS, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT—but no credits. Beyond fidgets with anticipation.

The half-hour drama unfolds. When it comes to the scene in class in which the girl is sexually harassed, Beyond doesn’t recognize it. The group of offending males is a different mix. He bends forward and looks hard. He isn’t there. It appears to be an alternative version, filmed he knows not when. Then comes the second scene; it too is different, and again he is missing.

Beyond is confused. He wonders what’s going on, but feels he doesn’t dare interrupt the showing.

Then comes the outdoor scene, and there is Beyond in the background, raking leaves as the two females talk. He is facing away from the camera, out of focus and almost off the edge of the screen.

And that was it. The rest plays out to the end, and, finally, credits roll. Beyond peers intently. He surmises that J’Amaze must have filmed alternative versions of his scenes and for whatever reasons, technical or otherwise, chose the ones that didn’t include him. He holds out hope that he still might be credited for his work.

The names of main characters appear one by one, then the minor ones. Among the latter, at the end, Beyond finally sees

Groundskeeper . . . Clarence Morgan Jr.

The screen goes blank. The lights go on. Still sitting, Beyond watches as the others gravitate to J’Amaze, then as they exit the room as one, intending, it seems, to gather at some local watering hole to celebrate.

How, Beyond wonders, did J’Amaze learn of his connection to his father and of his true identity? And why would J’Amaze want to use that information to hurt him? How to account for such gratuitous malevolence? Beyond feels strangled frustration and rage. He wants to curse aloud, and not only at J’Amaze. He wants to curse his father, fate, God.

 

Days later, still in a funk, Beyond is sitting on some steps outside the back of Garman Hall, his head in his hands. He has been missing classes. Whatever appealed to him in the Theater Department no longer does; it has ceased to be a place of magic and transformation. He realizes that his name change hasn’t accomplished what he hoped it would, and that no amount of tattooing or outlandish garb or sunglasses or dreadlocking of hair or affected spontaneity has materially altered who and what he is or how some people insist on responding to him. He doesn’t know what to do or which way to turn. He only knows that he can’t bear to go back to where he came from. He wants somehow to go beyond being Beyond, to something . . .

Before he can conjure the word that represents his yearning, he hears his father, who has approached quietly from the side of the building. “A wayward son is an abomination to the Lord, a stench in his nostrils.”

It sounds to Beyond like something from the Bible, but his father has a way of making anything sound Biblical by assuming the commanding voice and persona of an Old Testament patriarch. Beyond looks up to see his father standing in front of him, over him, only a couple of feet away.

The moment reminds him of the first time he saw his father in the pulpit. The church they attended had no permanent pastor; instead, the men shared the preaching on a rotating basis. He was very young and, from the front row, looking up at his father declaiming with such vehemence and authority, he actually wondered if he was God—or Jehovah as some in the congregation called him. He even remembers his father’s words: “To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”

Beyond never understood how someone with nothing could have something taken away, but now he thinks he does. But what he didn’t understand then and doesn’t understand now are the cruel, arbitrary ways of this Jehovah, if he even exists. Why would he do that to someone with nothing? Why make the miserable more miserable?

“I know you better than you know yourself, Clarence,” his father says. “You not meant for this place. I axed out to the physical plant and learnt they got openings. You could get on. We could work together, son.”

Beyond sees his father’s vision of his future: navy blue Dickies, that trailer court, a wife like his mother who will bear him children like himself, that church.

“Look to the Prodigal, Clarence. Come home to your own. Your ma ain’t got long to live, between the diabetes and the cancer. She your mother, boy.”

Beyond stands. “I don’t think the Lord has nostrils,” he says.

He begins to walk away. As he passes in front of his father, he steels himself for the blow that he is sure will come. But it doesn’t.

“Clarence,” he hears his father say. Then, in a pleading voice, “Beyond.”

Slowing but not stopping, he says over his shoulder, “My name is Extreme, and I don’t know you.”

_________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Jim Courter is a writer and emeritus writing instructor (Western Illinois University), a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a winner of an Illinois Arts Council award for short fiction. His short stories have appeared in Aethlon, Downstate Story, Eureka Literary Magazine, Mississippi Valley Review, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, and the online journals Big Pulp and Eastown Fiction, among other places. His essays have appeared in Byline, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smithsonian, Punchnel’s and on the op-ed pages of the Chicago Tribune andThe Wall Street Journal.