I break my first leg when I’m eleven. It belongs to Pil Hinkley, the druggist’s boy. A white boy. That’s what Pa says as he smacks me, you don’t break no white man’s leg. Ain’t no man, I say. Pil was just fourteen and he deserved it. Don’t matter, Pa says, you don’t break no white boy’s leg. Don’t matter if you can, you can’t.
Takes me four years to do it again. I’m walking with Tamika to the colored school. Tamika I am half in love with. She has big brown eyes with lights in them and skirts that tickle the top of her knees, leaving the rest to peek at me. I walk with her every day, hoping she’ll let me kiss her. I’m looking at her and hoping so hard I don’t know we’re in a bad place in town. A white place.
Some skinny master finds us. Hey, boy, he says, why’d you bring that ugly bitch here? We don’t like black bitches; ugly as dogs. Tamika stares at nothing and walks. She’s heard it before; so’ve I. But Tamika ain’t ugly, so I tackle him. I twist his arm until it goes limp and hangs all backward, and the master screams and cries. We run.
At home Pa beats me bad. Hits and screams, knuckles and burned crosses, knuckles and Momma raped, knuckles and black boys swinging from trees. He stops screaming when he gets tired, but he don’t stop hitting. Hurts so bad I don’t feel it no more, just feel hot and tight as the world swims red. I grab his hand and we stare; I know I can break it. He walks away and I think he’s afraid. My lip’s dribbling and I smile.
I don’t walk Tamika to school no more. I’m dangerous.
Pa comes home in the bottle, blaming for his life, naming names. Used be our fault, me and Ma’s, our fault for everything, until I got big. Now it’s her fault. He shouts and swigs and shouts. I want to hide but don’t fit nowhere. No place to hide no more. His hand lands flat on her cheek; skin glows red and a whip cracks. Then I’m on him, knees and fists and screaming, I’m going to kill you! Touch her again, I will!
He cowers and screams, Get out! Good thing, ’cause he ever touches her again I’ll come back. I don’t never want to come back.
I trip on Duncan’s Circus in the rain. Can’t tell in the downpour what color’s real and what’s just me starving. Voice is real though, and it’s saying, Five Dollars! Survive The Mighty Atlas And Win Five Dollars! I don’t know what Atlas is but for five dollars, I don’t care. Ends up a bald white fellow bending bars and lifting ladies overhead on stage. They say if I wrestle him five minutes without getting dead I get the money. Five minutes later they’re taking down the Mighty Atlas sign and the guy I whipped is gone, dissolved in the rain.
Soon my sign’s up instead. They name me John Henry Jr. Some marks believe it. Smarts call me Nickel. I get fifty cents a day and a skim of bets, less five bucks if I lose. I never lose. We hit Tulsa, then Lawrence, then Lincoln, and keep on hitting, always north. I never lose. Here, I’m the real John Henry. They call me gen-you-ine.
I barely remember before Johnny Nickel when we circle back down to Jonesboro. Pa’s dead. I hear it from his friend, Will Dansley himself. Don’t ask how. Ma’s gone too and don’t no one know where. Just slipped out in the rain one night, like I did. Good for her. Losing the world works fine. Tamika’s fat and old and has nine kids. She cheers like crazy when I pin her beau and make him quit. I ain’t sorry when Duncan decides to move on.
Thirty years as John Henry and I ain’t never been beat. Thirty years the Man. Don’t matter at all in Mississippi. Jim Wipple’s my barker now, Ten Bucks To Any Brave Soul Can Withstand John Henry!, and a skinny white fellow steps onto the stage. He’s lean and sodden as a summer-shrunk bean, and I know the fight he wants.
You think you gonna wrestle me, boy, he says. Don’t no darkie ever whip a Mississippi man; don’t no darkie ever dare. Now, you give me that ten richer and I won’t have you run outta town. He snickers and holds out his hand. Simmer low, Jim warns. You know when a play’s gone bad. Damn right I do; not gone bad, bad from the beginning, rotten to the core.
I throw down that old Mississippi boy and twist his ankle backward. Then they’re on me, maybe four, maybe eight, and the rope hugging my throat. I snap bones blind until Jim’s shot thumps the air and we run, right out of the state less three burnt wagons, and me a scarf of torn skin at my neck, and Jim down dead in the mud.
John Henry didn’t never lose. Just disappeared, bleached away.
Now I’m just Johnny Nickel, cleans the lion and bear cages, shoveling shit for odd food and a bed. Still watch the stage, though. Still see me there, and see me in the black boy who watches the new world’s strongest man — a white man — hug a pale brother red in his arms. Can’t I never do that, the boy says with eyes wide as plates. His voice is my Pa’s, a voice I forgot.
I may not be John Henry no more, but I’m still me. Old and bent, worn by a life breaking bones and smelling of the cages, I take him by the shoulder.
Don’t matter if you can’t, I say. Don’t matter if you can’t, you can.
I’m still strong enough for that.
Clint Johnson is a writer and educator. In addition to publishing both long and short fiction, he teaches writing at Salt Lake Community College and writes for ESPN’s Truehoop network Utah Jazz affiliate, Salt City Hoops.
NOTE: You can read the more challenging version of this story (which includes explicit and racially-charged language) here.