Home Consulting Games Writing Personal Links

Can a White Boy Sing the Blues?

by Greg Costikyan

Originally published in the Summer, 1993 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction.

The train moved silently through darkness, levitating above its rail. Inside, soft yellow light illuminated tired faces. Outside were boarded up windows and crumbling buildings, a South Bronx curiously unchanged in a changing world. Marissa was three places at once: Her body sat on a bench in the train, hot air from beneath the seat making her sleepy. Her mind was elsewhere, funnelled through the glowing screen of her laptop, the modem in the laptop, the local-area radiophone network, a Motorola satellite in low-earth orbit, back to a ground station somewhere in New Jersey, a packet-switching network on the ground, and, somewhere, irrelevant to anyone but an expert in Net topography, into a computer, a file server reading Paterculus. But in spirit, she was located somewhere near the Forum, some time in the First Century A.D., lips moving slightly over the resonant Latin.

The subway slowed. Marissa looked up, blinked, then quickly shut down the laptop and gathered her books. 168th Street and home.

She stalked down the street toward the river, one hand in her pocket, holding the can of mace. Marissa was always relieved when the front door buzzed and she gained the sanctuary of the foyer. Climbing the stairs, she could hear the locks in the apartment door clicking; Dad met her on the landing and took her books. "You all right, girl?" he asked.

He looked tired, she thought; bags under his eyes, his hair getting whiter every day. "Yes, Dad," she said. "I'm sorry I'm late; I was studying...."

He smiled and patted her on the back. "No problem," he said. "I kept dinner warm."

She shucked her jacket and hung it in the closet, next to Dad's gunbelt. "I've decided to apply to Dartmouth," she said.

Dad was inside the kitchenette, clanging pans. "Dartmouth?" he said. "What's a girl like you gonna do snowed in all winter in New Hampshire?"

"Mr. Tinton says they have a good history department," she said, sitting down at the tiny dining table.

Dad appeared with pots and hot pads. "Long way away," he grumbled.

"And they have a good scholarship program," she said.

"Like the sound of that," he said, smiling. "Eat up." He sat down with her, but didn't eat; he'd already done so. "Have to be going soon," he said.

"I know," she said. "Today okay?"

He grunted. "No worse than any other," he said. "My feet are killing me. Somebody held up Amsterdam Liquors. Got away before I got there. Lady complained that the junkies over by Columbia Presbyterian were hassling her; I gave 'em a lecture. Don't know why they gotta beg; public assistance takes care of 'em."

"Until they die," she said.

"Yeah," he said. "Well, better than the old days."

Marissa nodded, her mouth full. She hadn't lived during Prohibition, but the statistics said violent crime was way down since repeal. She swallowed. "Are you going to put in more overtime this weekend?" she said.

He sighed. "Much as they let me," he said, rubbing his eyes wearily. She put a hand on his.

A cop's pension was based on his final years' earnings -- overtime included. Cops usually did as much overtime as they could in their final year on the force. Twenty years and out; a hell of a job, but the pay wasn't bad, and you were fully vested in twenty. Damn few stuck around for twenty-one.

He patted her hand. "Your mom would have been proud," he said, his own pride in his voice. "A daughter in college."

"I haven't gotten in yet, dad," she said, half-embarrassed.

"You will," he said, and rose. "Gotta get dressed." He went into the bedroom to prepare for his night job. She kissed him before he left, and locked both locks behind him, sliding the police bar into place.

After he'd gone, she sat and toyed with her salad; and promised herself, not for the first time, that someday he wouldn't have to work -- not two jobs and overtime, anyway.

She knew she'd make it. She was smart. She worked hard. A history degree; then law school; then one of the big firms downtown. Partner by thirty.

She had it all planned.

She stood up and carried the dishes into the kitchen.

Back to the 'burbs. Donoi jumped from the train as it glided to a silent stop, ignoring the conductor's outstretched hand, then hustled down the stairs. His bike was still chained where he had left it; he unlocked it and, crouched over the bars, whistled through the night. He passed a line of cars, electric engines noiseless as they waited for the light to change. Checking that no one was coming, he rode through a red light. Someone honked behind him; he flipped them the bird.

Barney met him at the door, tie off and shirt open, a scotch in one hand. "Where you been?" he asked.

"Around," Donoi said. "Where's Mary?"

"God knows where your mother is," Barney muttered, sliding his free hand through what was left of his hair. "Another goddamn meeting, I expect."

"Yeh," said Donoi, sidling around his father and heading for the stairs.

"You done your homework yet?" Barney yelled after him, but Donoi ignored the sally. Well, no, but that's what the commute up to school in the Bronx is for.

Squirt was watching TV in the den; some idiot commercial wafted up the stairs after Donoi, "...gengineer your eyes the color you always wanted! Call 1-800...". Donoi slammed the door to his room, threw the ball into the hoop a couple of times, then slouched on his bed and grabbed the phone. He punched for voice-only and dialed Marissa's number -- she didn't have a vidphone.

Thumb over the button (no way was he going to talk to her Dad the cop), Donoi listened to the phone ring. "Hello?" said a voice; not her Dad.

"Hi, Marissa," he said.

"Donoi," she said. "Where were you today?"

"I cut school," he said indifferently.

"Obviously," she said. "You know, you're going to fail Latin."

"Maybe," said Donoi. "I always do okay on the tests."

"They have this silly notion that you have to be physically present in class to pass," Marissa said.

"Yeah, yeah," said Donoi. "What are you, my mom?"

There was silence for a moment. Then, Marissa said, "I'm sorry, Donoi. Why did you call?"

"Uh -- are you doing anything Saturday?"

"No -- not really. What have you got in mind?"

"They're having a New Music festival in Brooklyn," Donoi said. "Near Coney Island."

"That sounds like fun," she said.

"Meet you at the Port Authority bus station?" he said. "'Bout eleven?"


After he hung up, Donoi lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling for a while. God, she was gorgeous. Little square, maybe, but awfully smart. He really liked her.

Abruptly, he rolled over, then jacked into the Net. He only had a few days to finish his game. Monday, Sixtysix would yea or nay.

Marissa and Donoi walked down a street in Sheepshead Bay. She wore bobby socks and a plaid skirt, very preppy; he was in black-on-black, black pants, black shirt, black tie, black porkpie hat. They burbled at one another, talking about the festival.

The street was what passed for commercial, hereabouts: Jack's Odd-Lot, Hansen Floor Coverings, Joey's Lunch. On the corner, near Joey's Lunch, lounged six guys, jeans and T-shirt, a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of one arm. They stared at Marissa and Donoi with hostility.

A race thing? A class thing? Marissa looked a little preppy. Donoi looked like a punk; poor, but poor by choice, not by education and lack of skills. A punk: contemptible foe, to reject what a joe from Sheepshead Bay could not aspire to.

They made kissy-face sucking sounds.

Donoi broke off talking.

"Ignore them," said Marissa, trying to hustle him toward the monorail station.

"Shit," said Donoi, doing his best not to look at the six.

"Hey, hey, chickie," said one. "You like white cock?"

Donoi stumbled in rage.

"Yeh," chuckled another. "Ditch the punk, babe. We got all the white cock you can handle." General laughter.

One of them walked in front of Donoi.

"You hear me, pal?" he said.

"No--," Marissa said, but she was too late. Donoi lunged at the boy, drove a fist into stomach. His hand didn't sink very far; a solid slab of muscle, there.

Five guys pushed off from the side of the building. Donoi slammed into the sidewalk, face scraping against cement. A heavy workboot headed for his balls; he twisted aside in time to take it on the hip.

Out came Marissa's mace. Psst.

One guy screamed and pawed at his eyes.

Another tried to grab her arm. She shoved three fingers into his Adam's apple, thinking, 'Just like daddy told me to do.' Another Psst. The others backed away.

The street was suddenly empty. She helped Donoi get to his feet. "Shitshitshitshit," he said under his breath.

"The maglev station's two blocks," she said. "Let's get out of here before they come back."

"Yeah," he said.

On the train back to the city, he could barely sit still, twitching and clenching his fists in rage and humiliation, revenge fantasies running through his head. He shoves a car aeriel into a wind-pipe; he breaks an arm on his knee; he... he knew it was fantasy. He was a wimp. He was a jerk.

Marissa slumped like the dead, tucking her head into Donoi's arm. She, too, was filled with rage; rage and self-doubt. Who was she kidding? All her life, she'd face the same damn thing; even in the most liberal, sophisticated place, the color of her skin would never not be noticed, for good or ill. It would be a struggle, a struggle....

The image she saw before her eyes was not of violence; it was of her brother, her brother in some damn alley somewhere, a needle in his arm, fingers swollen with the dope, eyes vague with purple haze, living the bliss of fools. Her brother, of whom her dad never spoke. Her brother, who believed that the world was against you, that prejudice bespoke despair, that the struggle was not worth the effort because at its end lay a broken heart, and a broken heart was more easily achieved without struggle.

The hell with him. The hell with the world. The hell with the hopeless faces and tired eyes on the streets of home. College. Law school. A big firm midtown. Partner by thirty.

She would not fail. She would not...

It's an ofay world, whispered the voice of her brother. You ain't going no where. They gonna let a nigger girl make partner by thirty? Who're you kidding.

...not fail.

The train whispered into the 34th Street station. "Your stop," she told Donoi. He could change here for the PATH to Jersey.

He put an arm around her. "I'm taking you home," he said with determination.

"All right," she said, forebearing to point out that it was she who had protected him, and not the reverse.

Still, she worried a little bit. It would be dark by the time they got to Harlem. And he would have to walk back to the monorail station alone, a white boy at night on 168th.

Barney's study: Victoria would have been comfortable in it. There were heavy oak tables, shelves of expensive leather-clad books (unread), and deep, leather chairs. Hidden behind the couch were dozens of Readman disks -- mysteries and thrillers, Barney's actual reading of choice.

The envelope from Columbia lay on the table, next to a copy of Institutional Investor that Barney had now forgotten.

"You listen to me, young man," he shouted, face dangerously red. "You think life is going to -- going to come crawling to you on a platter?"


"You're going to college!"

"No," said Donoi, becoming more certain as he spoke. "No, I'm not."

"And what the Sam hell are you going to do? Futz around with your goddamn games?"

"Yeah," said Donoi.

"You think you're going to become a fucking star, is that it? Net contract, groupies, fame and fortune? You know what the odds are? Living in a fucking fantasy."

"It's not... I'm good... I...."

"You think all this materializes out of fresh air?" said Barney, waving a hand and meaning the six bedroom house in a Bergen County 'burb. "How're you going to live? You've had it easy all your life. You don't have any idea of the cost...."

"Yeah, yeah," said Donoi, bored.

Barney became redder. "Fine, you little prick," he said dangerously. "Fine. Work my ass off for twenty years so you can go to college, and you want to go starve someplace in a slum. Be my guest."

"I'm seventeen," said Donoi defiantly. "I can do what I want...."

"Get the fuck out of here!" Barney screamed, heaving a marble pipe rest in Donoi's general direction.

Donoi scuttled out the door, plunged up the stairs, and slammed the door to his room.

Fingers shaking, he picked through his disks. Miles Davis, classic jazz, cool down, cool down, boy.

Seventeen, he told himself. Age of consent. Legal adult, these days, good libertarian law. Leave me the fuck alone.

Robert is biking along the mountain highway, lungs laboring in the thin air; air so thin that the sky is a purple, and stars shine through even in broad daylight. They materialize by the side of the road.

Five of them. Clad in scruffy cast-offs, packs on their backs, ammunition belts across their chests. Automatic weapons in their arms.

'Shit,' thinks Robert. 'The government said this road was clear.' He brakes desperately. By the time he comes to a stop, three weapons are pointed at his head.

"Get him away from the bike," says Consuela. "You, gringo. What is your name?"

"Robert Marguiles," Robert says, dazed and frightened as the guerillas search through his possessions. So much for his pleasant biking holiday.

"Listen to me, Robert," says Consuela. "You are now a prisoner of the Revolution...."

"...Then you know nothing of this," Diego says doubtfully. Robert, clamped to the chair, swallows, hoping they will believe him.

Consuela takes a drag on her cigarette, smoke curling from her nostrils around the angles of her face, around her close-cropped hair. Her shirt, a cast-off like the clothing of all of them, is tight, tight and wet with sweat in the steamy heat. Robert tries to avoid noticing the visibility of her nipples.

"I will get him to talk," says Juan dangerously.

"No, no," says Marquez calmly. "Those are not the methods of the revolution...."

"...They call you communists," Robert says.

Marquez snorts. "No," he says, "we believe in property."

"But you wish to nationalize the great estates...."

"Have you not read your Mill?" says Marquez. "The owner of land is the one who mixes his labor with the soil. Who owns the estates? The peons who work them. The land was stolen from them at the time of the Conquista. We seek only to restore it to its rightful owners...."

...It is hot in the little hut. Marquez and Diego stand by the windows, weapons at the ready, peering into the twilight. There is the buzz of insect life.

The middle-aged man in the short-sleeved shirt is sweating badly, from fear as much as heat. "My principal will pay thirty thousand ecu if you destroy the power line," he says.

"That will cripple the harvest on the Attrepez estate," says Rodrigo.

"Striking a blow for... for the Revolution," says the middle-aged man.

Juan snorts. "For your friend," he says, "who no doubt is a competitor of Attrepez."

"Thirty-thousand ecu buys a lot of ammunition," says Consuela.

"Can you trust him?" says Robert. "It could be a set-up."

They stare at him. "Why should you care?" asks Juan belligerently.

Robert shrugs helplessly. Consuela gives him a smile....

...The sky afire with rockets and searching choppers, Consuela runs toward him, blood seeping from a wound in her arm, her weapon still clutched in her hand. Juan and Marquez follow after, Marquez hauling the heavy machinegun.

"You were right," Consuela gasps to Robert. "The soldiers...."

"The swamp," grunts Juan. "It is our best chance."

Robert blanches, thinking of leeches and malaria. His quinine is long gone....

...In the tangle of sheets in the Quonset hut, he runs his fingers down her leg once more, feeling hard muscle under satin skin.

"You will tell them in America?" Consuela breathes.

He can only nod his head and hug her closely. Outside, the engine of the little Beechcraft that will carry him north sputters to life....

Donoi unjacked and sat up, rubbing his neck. He was a little stiff from lying on the couch.

Sixtysix was slower; he lay there for a long moment, aging black flesh slumping in repose. Then he too sat up, unjacking, rubbing his eyes. The whites of those eyes were yellow, flecks of red in them; too many late nights, too much booze, too many bad drugs. The occupational hazards of the game designer. Sixtysix sighed.

'What do you think?' Donoi wanted to blurt, but he didn't. Sixtysix would tell him; wasn't that why he'd played? And Donoi was too much in awe of the man to put the question that baldly.

Sixtysix turned to the grey-bearded man -- Callahan, Donoi remembered. "What do you say, Jimmy?"

"Good emotion," Callahan said, "but I felt a little limited, playing Juan."

Sixtysix nodded. "You're thinking novel, television, movie script," he rumbled to Donoi. "One main character, audience identification. But you don't got an audience, boy. You got players. Six of 'em, in this module. You gotta give everyone a heavy role; no one should feel like a spear carrier."

Donoi drank it in, nodding; it was obvious once pointed out.

"But," said Sixtysix, "Jimmy is right. Good emotion. A lotta greenies freeze on that. You want the players to feel like it's real, like it means something to them; you got that. Coming up, my first thought was: pretty good, for a white boy."

Donoi flushed with pride. He knew it was pretty good. He knew it.

Sixtysix pulled himself off the couch with the slowness of a man who knows he's going to feel pain. "I'll take you on, if you really want," he said. "But why you should want, I'm damned if I know; it's a dog's life."

"You think you can sell it?"

"This game?" said the black man, looking toward the bar. "Maybe, maybe not. You're good enough, though; if not this one, the next one. Come by my office tomorrow, we'll look over an agency contract. You got a lawyer?"

Donoi nodded his head; if Dad wouldn't find him one, Mary would.

"Good," rumbled Sixtysix. "I'll buy you a drink."

Donoi wandered down the street. He was a little drunk; a little drunk with ambition, with exuberance, with Cuba Libres. Seventeen, age of consent, he could damn well drink if he wanted to.

He smiled at every girl and looked in the window of every store. Even the big brass espresso machine in the window of Cafe Laguna seemed somehow fascinating, tonight, tonight of all nights.

There was the flatscreen display above the gengineering parlor, running animated ads for the wonders they had for sale -- and every ad ending in the pitch:

We Can Make You
Than You Were Before!

Donoi stared at it, considered it, then, drunk with possibility, pushed open the door.

"You understand how the process works?" said the technician.

"Uh... vaguely," said Donoi.

"You're injected with a virus," said the technician. "All viruses hijack a part of your cells' operations. This one is specially designed to go in, edit your DNA to give you the required characteristic, reproduce, and keep on going. It dies off once all -- well, 99% -- of your cells have been transformed."

"No chance of infecting anyone else?" says Donoi.

"It's never happened," said the technician. "The virus you've chosen will activate melanin production in your skin cells. You should see a change in a week or so, but the change will be gradual. You won't be really black for at least six months. Also, remember, nothing else is changing; your hair will be straight, you'll have none of the secondary racial characteristics."

"Cool," said Donoi with a grin.

"You are seventeen?" said the technician.

"Sure," said Donoi, reaching for his ID.

Mary, Barney, and the Squirt were all in the kitchen when Donoi dragged himself out of bed. Barney scowled, and said, "Where were you last night?"

So Donoi told them.

"My son the Negro," said Mary, trying the phrase out for size.

Barney's mouth worked but nothing came out.

"Wow!" said Squirt, eyes huge.

"Are you crazy?" Mary asked. "Why would you want...."

"You're doing this to hurt us, aren't you," said Barney, practically spitting.

"No, I...."

Barney turned to Mary. "This is your fault!" he screamed. "No discipline! None! Every time I try to talk sense to the boy, it's 'Don't be so hard on him.' What did you think...."

"My fault?" sad Mary, in a low tone. "Don't talk to me about my fault, Mr. 'Honey, I Have to Work Late'. You are, you're...."

Donoi got himself a Diet Coke from the fridge. "By, mom. By, dad," he said. "See you later. Got a hot date."

"You come back here!" shouted Barney, but Donoi was gone.

Donoi had the keys to the studio in his pocket. The renter was a friend, a friend conveniently away for the weekend.

Donoi and Marissa sat in the back of the PATH train, the place that offered the most privacy. Even so, the other passengers chuckled from time to time.

They hung on each other all the way from the PATH station, a ten minute walk through frigid air that took them twenty.

Up the stoop of the converted brownstone. Donoi fumbled with the keys until Marissa took them and expertly undid the locks.

There was the bed, but... 'Down, boy,' Donoi thought, and pulled her onto the couch for long moments of spooning.

There was a full moon out there, or near enough, shining through the high branches of a tree in the courtyard, branches bare in the winter night.

There was only the sound of their own breathing, and a little wind, a little whistle through the window.

He lay behind her, happy, loose, satiated, one arm about her, one finger tracing along the black satin of her skin. Should he tell her? Could he tell her? What would she...

"Donoi?" she said.


"I have something to tell you."


"Umm -- I'm not sure how to say this. But...."

So she sat up, pulled the sheets around herself, and told him.

"But... why would you... you're so beautiful," he said, stunned. "Why would you want to be white?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she said, a little bitter. "What's the advantage in being black?"

"Advantage?" repeated Donoi, in blank incomprehension.

So he told her.

She looked at him in shock. "But that's crazy," she said.

"That's what my mother said," said Donoi, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

"She's right," said Marissa firmly.

"I don't know if I can deal with this," said Donoi. "You becoming white. I don't understand it."

"What's your problem?" said Marissa, a little belligerently. "You only like black girls?"

Donoi stared at her, aghast. "No!" he said. "That's not it! But why would you turn white?"

"Are you blind?" she said. "Do you think it's helpful to be black in this society?"

"Well -- good Christ!" said Donoi. "Isn't that a reason to be black?"

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Not," she said, "if you intend to succeed."

"Now," said Donoi, "you sound like my father. Have you told your dad?"

"Oh, God," said Marissa, burying her head in her knees. "Not yet. He's not going to like it."

"Damn right," said Donoi.

Marissa was irritated by his self-righteous tone. "I was hoping you'd understand," she said. "No one else is going to."

Emotions churning, Donoi could only shake his head.

"I think I'd better go," he said.

"Once of us ought to," she said. "I can't see another six hours of this."

"Yeah," said Donoi, fumbling for his pants. "Yeah. Damn."

He looked up and caught her eye. They stared for a moment. Then, he leaned over, and kissed her softly.

"I'll leave you the keys," he said, looking away. "Lock up when you go, and put them in the mailbox."

"Okay," she said, eyes hooded.

Donoi finished dressing.

Donoi sidled down the Jersey City street, black pants, black shirt, black tie -- black man, he thought to himself sardonically. Victorian rowhouses hung above him, the blank windows of a boarded-up warehouse, grass gray in the nighttime peeping up between slate flags. He was half sad, half glad; God knew what would happen to him, but he was good, he knew he was. He was going somewhere, if only to hell, but somewhere, somewhere his parents could never dream of. And maybe, just maybe, the bright lights would be his: a million dollar contract, Net distribution, fame and fortune.

Marissa, he thought shaking his head. He'd always known she wanted to be a lawyer, an ambition he could not understand. How dull; discovery proceedings, motions and countermotions, billable hours. Not, he told himself, a life for a dog.

Just as well, he told himself with the callousness of youth; she'd be going off somewhere to college, and he'd be staying in the city. The relationship would not have lasted another year.

But then, a lump came up in his throat as he remembered her in Brooklyn, can of mace in one hand, and those bastards...

Damn, he thought.

The moon shone forth a thin, wavering light as if it were drunk; somewhere, a cat yowled its lust into the night.

Saxophone, thought Donoi. There ought to be a saxophone, street like this, night like this. In his head, he heard Rhapsody in Blue.

Back to Writing page.

Home Consulting Games Writing Personal Links

Copyright © 1993 by Greg Costikyan.