“Black Gentry” By Kyle Partman

“History, culture, and an autonomous democratic way of life, while ideal for the focused, ends here.”

“Those who have been held with the tightest bonds are the most radical, profound, and desperate.”

 

I look at the ambience of the darkness of the night and stare through the glass pane of the car that I am in. Outside of the church I disdain these gatherings and right now I wish I was the rain outside, hammering the car as I am driven through the neighborhood. Quiet, rhythmic, and passive, it keeps on going and going and going. To a certain extent it was relaxing me as I approached what I called the slaughterhouse of my lonesome pride. Every member of my pride was on that list: My strength, my individuality, my knowledge, my fortitude; all of them were going to be swept away. It also felt like my pride was going to be extinguished, even if that wasn’t the intent. I felt castrated sitting in the car.

“You’ll be fine. Just do your best” my Grandmother said to me from the driver’s seat.

“This is like the fifth one he’s been to, it needs to work” my Aunt replied behind me.

Thinking back I could only hear my mother’s warnings. “You need to do this or else you’ll end up jealous, struggling, and unloved like me! Do you want that for yourself?” I felt unloved and powerless when all of these women would enforce their wills upon me, and even more irritated when they claimed this was for my own good. “You are so smart; and yet it’s so odd that this can’t work out for you…” she continued her diatribe, prodding the subject of my achievements, scores, and my uniform pressed and pinned with awards, ribbons, and medals. I got disgusted after she questioned my private motives. It was inappropriate to say the least. At least my Grandmother defended me and shouted “Don’t talk to him like that! Let him find out on his own.” I can remember trying to retort, “You can’t just rush it. It’s impossible to spontaneously decide you are devoted to someone.” The tone in my voice reminded me so much of who wasn’t going to be there but they didn’t hear me. They rarely, if ever, heard me.

This ebony horse, this metallic chariot of the greatest quality, powered through the rain and road still. It was a beast with wheels, headlights, and a prime logo perched above its intimidating face. It crept along this shadowy road and weaved its way into the entrance of a grand estate. It passed the security gate and into the maw of a golden lion’s mouth leading to a massive parking garage teeming with pricey vehicles. The lion captivated me. It was absent of eyes, only drawing attention to its giant, detailed mane. Still, I couldn’t remove myself from its reach-less gaze, its hollow eyes as inviting and alluring as the eyes of the devil himself.

A valet took us to the intersection. He ordered me to go toward the granite aisle while the vehicles were parked and my Grandmother and Aunt would take a different pathway. After taking the granite aisle to the entrance of the ballroom I tried so hard to ignore the whispers and coos of other boys and girls who were actually eager and excited by this event. “I wonder who I’ll get” I heard some other guy say. As I kept walking I passed a group of girls who were huddled together, saying “This is our last one, we have to make it work or we’re done for!” I tried to drown out the cluttered conversations by shuffling my feet harder, my freshly shined shoes making a sharp, distinct clack as I trod down the hallway.

For at least 15 minutes I sat in the waiting aisle, leering through the icy glass door, paned with a gold baked in caramel-colored greed. I was leering past the glass and into the dining hall that I was going to enter shortly. I took a deep breath, drawing in a false sense of pride and joy that I was expected to carry. A girl in a pink dress walked past me who already had a false flower on her wrist patted me on the shoulder and said “Good luck tonight” and simply walked away. That killed any sense of comfort I had been trying to muster since I woke up. How could everyone around me be so damn jolly about this? I didn’t want anything to do with this, and I definitely didn’t want any so-called luck. I sighed and accepted the fact that I was here and nothing was going to change that.

“At least I already know what’s going to happen” I assured myself before standing up and taking my place at the back of the line. I could hear the emcee for the banquet call out and say “And now our young ladies and young men will be proceeding through these doors and join us for the evening.” I already knew that we were expected to enter while he was talking, so I had to shove a few boys in front of me and get them to move. Immediately that set something off. The same boy who was wondering who he’d get was definitely unhappy.

“Watch where you’re going, you fool” he grunted at me, still stumbling. I coldly replied, “Don’t get too upset or you won’t get who you want, loser.” He was thrown out of his element and angrily turned around to say something else but couldn’t get so much as a breath out before I pushed him again, this time he fell out of the line and spat a curse at me, his face red. “That’s enough, Barnett” someone shouted at him. After that I knew this was going to end in my favor, but it’s a shame that he didn’t know that I was trying to save him.

I sat with my splintered family. My Grandmother and Aunt were the only ones I was allowed to sit by during the beginning; my Mother had to sit on the other side of hall. My Aunt’s husband was there, but he wasn’t with us. He had to stand near the wall, outside of the light. Just before I sat down I went over there; he adjusted his tie and patted the shoulders and arms of my jacket. “You look great, man. Just do your best.” I didn’t know what to think about that. I felt as if he wanted me to successfully go through this; it would to an extent make him look good. Even so, he never spoke a word about the fact that I have “failed” this 4 times now. Nobody wants their child to fail so many times; it would be a social burden and a dishonor unparalleled if they reached the age of 18 and never succeeded. It was even worse that I had gone through this 4 times from the age of 15. My first meeting with the Gentry was the day of my 15th birthday. I had 2 in the year of my 16th birthday and the one before this meeting was in the month of my 17th birthday.

“And now we will commence the second Gentry Generational Gathering of the semester!” That was the signal for applause. “You may now take your seats as we go back in time and review the history and culture of our union and tradition…” and once again I immediately blanked out. I heard this exact sermon so many times that it felt like I along with everyone else was programmed at birth to know what this means. The hosts, Dr. and Mrs. Baldwin, descendants of the first wealthy class to seize this community, follow in the footsteps of their ancestors in their lifelong mission to preserve their fraternity of the rich and wealthy. Sir Baldwin I believed that he and his cohorts were the elite, and that their money and wealth should grow throughout time.

To that end, Sir Baldwin I offered his 3 children to another wealthy family, the Collettes. The oldest son took Anna Collette to be his wife on the spot, and the ceremony was grand to say the least. Even though Anna Collette hated being forced to marry a self-centered narcissist like Baldwin II, she choked on her pride to preserve her family’s wealth and assets, combining it with that of the Baldwin family. Within 20 years Anna Collette-Baldwin became a shadow of who she had been before. She suffocated on her broken dreams of marrying someone else, and died of a broken heart. I don’t know which was worse for her: dying of a broken heart, or dying from the years of abuse she endured under that pompous parasite known as Sir Nolan Baldwin II. The presentation lead by the Gentry members gracefully glazed over those facts, but instead focused on the history of the Gentry. At the wedding of Anna Collette and Sir Nolan Baldwin II, there were many drunken Gentry members who insisted that it was a good idea to make a tradition of this. Sending their children to be married to what were otherwise perfect strangers in order to preserve their precious names, only to grow their estates and gorge on lavishness while their sons and daughters suffered in passionless and even abusive farces of marriage.

These houses, this mansion, this estate, the cars, the jewels, the statues, all of them are just pillars of greed. I sat in my chair, shaking in pain and disgust. For a moment I thought of that lion with the absence of eyes but a presence of a large gaping mouth. I kept thinking about it, staring at it in the pictures posted all over this mansion. I could see the tears of Anna Collette-Baldwin falling from its eyes, and I could feel the bruises and gashes of their children and their children’s children on that lion’s mane, and in its teeth I could see their beautiful corpses draped in ceremonial dresses and suits. It was when I first learned of this story and when I presented it in class one day as an English assignment that I vowed to never be like them. What more power did I have, a prospective young man with aspirations to enter the military, to strike against this tower of babel? But still, I could not bear to be the only child of an already splintered and broken family who has worked from the filth of the farms, from the ashes and shadows to even grace the presence of those Gentry who turn their backs to what they started from, regard them as if they are less than existence. I was the only one who could be their gateway into the high echelons of the Gentry. I had no brothers or sisters, and I even had to separate myself from my Mother and Father in order to be accepted by this class. The Gentry are very particular about the people they choose to enter their estates. People like my Mother, they try to snuff out. It pains me to see that she believes that she is unloved and unworthy, when all she has done was work and work and work in order to build a better life for me. But the Gentry don’t like women that haven’t been married to someone in their quarters. They don’t like women who don’t know what it’s like to be rich like them.

I’m surprised that someone from the Gentry chose me. Apparently working in the ministry of what I thought was a small out-of-the-way church in my spare time after school caught someone’s attention and they thought that with me going into the military would also bring great credit and clout if I was a part of their circle. My Aunt saw that as me being ripe for the picking and immediately pressed for me to go forth with their programs. So of course she is pressing for me to get married. If you ask me, now is the worst time for that. I haven’t even started my life yet, but since birth people have told me that I should aspire to start a family of my own. I felt like I was in the car, accelerating through life, only gaining speed until something stops me in a catastrophic fashion.

“Now let your young boys and girls gather for the wonderful tradition indeed” the emcee said and then it began again. The night’s events would be an elegant dinner followed by a presentation of all of the Gentry Generationals. That was us. That was me, the Barnett boy, the girl with the false flower, and everyone else in this slaughterhouse. After that there would be a fancy dessert, then a dance, then the Send-Off. I ate with my family and the food tasted too sweet. It was good, but I felt poisoned by what it meant to be here, to eat what they served, to consume their rhetoric. This wasn’t aided by my Aunt being paranoid about my looks and performance. She told me to put my jacket back on but I refused, and she was worried that I wouldn’t look good and fail again. Here, every little detail of your character, your poise, and whatever they can judge you on, matters a great deal.

I didn’t feel like getting up and socializing at this dinner. The most I did was sit by the musicians and absorb the beautiful sounds. The Barnett boy and multiple other boys were trying their damnedest to court the rich girls. They bribed their families with gifts and offered their best jokes, stories, and appearances. They all but offered their very souls to try to be pawned off by their families. I felt bad for them. Some of them had failed once, and many of them were there for the first time. I’m very sure that all of them were given the same threat, that if they failed their families that they would be scorned to never be part of the Gentry, and that would essentially land them in a socioeconomic standstill for at least another generation. The shame would take a lifetime to wear off, and it is near impossible to get into their good graces like that. I would know, since I was told that getting their attention was quote, “better than hitting the lottery.”

 

The presentation was one of my least favorite parts. Each and every person had a bio written about them that was presented by the emcee, and they were brought on a large stage with great spotlights on them. The Generationals were held up there to be seen as a feast for the eyes. Every time I went up there before I felt naked. Intimate details of my life were spread out for consumption, judgment, and criticism. I didn’t even like it when my accomplishments and accolades were brought up. I did think it was very funny to see some of the boys with drink stains and occasionally a bruise or two up there. Sometimes people get a bit too aggressive with their competition. The boys often try to sabotage each-other by messing up their appearance. Personally I was guilty of shoving the Barnett boy, but I was definitely better than the boy who threw punch all over his shirt and claimed it was an accident before striking him in the face when Barnett passionately insisted that he was being dishonest.

At the very least I could say the dessert was good. The only shameful thing was to have it in a ballroom like this. I never was a fan of these fancy formals, and I’m still not. Something about this all seems false, like the people here are compensating for something. I usually don’t like to think negatively about others, but after being in their company for so long it’s very hard not to. The dance was just as awful. For the boys it’s a mother-son dance, and for the girls it’s a father-daughter dance. Every single time my mother would speak through clenched teeth at me about how terrible I’m doing, and she’d try to squeeze my hand in a discreet fashion to further enforce her point. One time I walked off of the stage in the middle of the event. I tried to be discreet about it by shuffling off to the side but it didn’t work. She was so livid that she stomped and swore at the attendants. She was then reprimanded for her behavior and in turn I was lashed and berated that night. This time was not as bad as that one, but I still hated every second of this. Behind me I could hear people sneering and saying things about my mother. I hated hearing their smarm, but I hated the fact that I felt as if it was my place to do something even more. It was not my job to defend her. The mindset here was almost as incestuous and revolting as this damn dance. By the end of the song I felt like my feet were bleeding.

Then I heard champagne glasses clinking to signify the start of the Send-Off. “Now the Generationals present may take their positions for the Send-Off and return promptly for their final report.” I already knew where to go, nobody had to say anything. I put my jacket back on before going back into the lobby to retrieve an envelope with my name on it. Inside of the envelope would be a card with my name, the person I was matched up with, and a location. This time I had someone named Jade Bethesda. Nobody I had ever seen before, but I already had an idea of what to do. Normally I had been honest about my opinion of this whole event; it would fry the poor girl’s brains. One time I said to a girl that it would be a crime for her parents to send her off to be married to a complete stranger, and she broke down in tears and ran away, never to be seen again. Apparently that was all she had lived for, and considering that I learned that she was an only child, I almost felt bad for making her leave. She obviously failed and it’s way worse for a girl to fail than a boy. I don’t know where she is now.

 

The Scarlet Room on the 3rd floor of the Northeast Hall is where I had to meet this person. One thing I appreciated was the color-coding of these rooms; I thought it was quaint to say the least. I’ve been in the Green Room, the Gold Room, and once the Black Room. I didn’t notice a trend, so I could not attest to what this was going to be, but I was ready for anything. The only thing I knew going into it was the brief history of the Bethesda family. Their pride was a history of several famous politicians throughout the past 100 years or so. I expected her to be all over this whole procedure, enveloped and enthralled by all of this stuff.

When I reached the room she was sitting down, a very stoic and straightforward look on her face. “A military man, huh? That’s a first.” I cocked my head to the side a bit, because I’d never seen her before, what did she mean by “That’s a first?” Did she fail one of these? “I guess this is us,” I nodded and pointed the hand with the envelope in it at the door. I deftly stood her up by her hand, as expected, opened the door for her, and stood in awe at what was presented. The Scarlet Room wasn’t Scarlet at all. There was a white theme to the master room. Everything was white, the bed, the carpet, the linen. The kitchen had an auburn theme, and the other room was split between pink and blue. Jade gasped sharply when she saw that and stepped back, bumping into the wall. “Are you okay,” I asked with a bit of fear in my voice. She could only nod and drop her hand from her face. On the dining table between the white room and the auburn kitchen there were glasses and a note for Jade. I walked into the adjacent bathroom while she went into another room, the theme was dark grey, and I was actually impressed. The counter was divided; on the left were my favorite colognes, on the right were her favorite perfumes and cosmetics. I scoffed and walked out, back near the kitchen and took my jacket off, setting it on the chair of the dining table. I heard a shrill yelp and a door slam in the other room before Jade bolted out of there, slamming the door behind her.

After regaining herself Jade read the note that was leaning on two small tumblers next to three large bottles. From left to right, wine, whiskey, and scotch. They really went all out this time; I had never been served alcohol by the Gentry. Jade had crumpled the note in her fist and sighed, “I have something to say.” I nodded and sat in the chair before replying, “As do I.”

Simultaneously and instantaneously, we stated, “Don’t take it personally, but I hate this place, I don’t want to be here, and I think this is wrong.” I was caught off guard to be in the presence of someone who thought like me. I wanted to start figuring out what her game was.

“What did the note say” I asked.

“It means nothing” she snapped back to me.

“That’s very convincing, let’s unpack that” I offered while taking a glass in my hand and inspecting it.

Then she did something I would never expect. She reached down and pulled out items from a band strapped to her upper thigh before slamming them on the table vigorously. Cigarettes and a lighter–contraband in the eyes of the Gentry. It wasn’t helped by the fact that people like us having such paraphernalia was illegal. So was serving us alcohol, but that’s not the point.

“Let’s unpack it then” I heard her say while going to the kitchen and searching the cabinets. I was sitting there frozen as I saw her deftly find more alcohol stashed away. She turned to me and smiled. “It’s so funny how these people think that their children are such little angels who would never do anything of this caliber. They’re so naïve.” With a cough I replied, “I agree.” I discreetly took the crumpled up note that she left on the table and held it in my lap as I read it.

Jade,

We have spoken about this several times before and at this point the words have to reach you. You cannot fail again. Whatever you think you are going through, put it aside, and focus on who you get. Remember to present yourself properly, and under no circumstances may you mention your sisters. We will talk about negotiations afterward, and you may not—

I couldn’t get to the last part before she snatched it out of my hand and threw it in the trash. “I told you it means nothing.”

A white room, a pink and blue dichotomy in the other, the flowers in the vase on the counter, and I could faintly read the titles of some books that were on the counter. Symbols of purity and fertility everywhere for her, I could see that she was trapped in a cage made by other people’s expectations for her.

“If they want us to get drunk, we might as well” she huffed. With that, she poured us both about two fingers of whiskey and lit herself a cigarette.

“You’ve failed before, haven’t you? Now this is your last chance, and if you don’t stick this one the Gentry will turn you back forever.” She nodded.

“There’s way more than that.” She got up, looked out of the window at the rain and sat back down. “I hate this so much. They said the only way I can make this work is if I do something crazy like sucker someone into being ready to not only get married, but have a child right here and right now.”

I choked as she said that. It took me a second to regain myself before telling her my plight. “Me, I’ve failed 4 times, and this is my last chance to get into the upper echelon of the Gentry. If I don’t, my family—my mother specifically, will see me as a burden that can’t help them get into the upper class.”

“And they say they do this in the name of love” she shook her head and drank. I took a cigarette from her and indulged before pouring myself another glass.

“Love doesn’t mean anything anymore. It never has, not in this community. You know the story of the Baldwin marriage, right?”

“I know! It was such a tragedy, and if I don’t keep my family in the Gentry, my sisters and I will have no chance of holding onto the wealth we have now.”

Leaning back into my chair I looked at the ceiling and listened to the rain. “We’ve got like 3 hours left to do make something work.” I blinked and poured myself another glass.

“The very least we could do is get to know each-other” she said before pouring herself a glass and clinking it against mine. “To what do we toast?”

I smirked and sarcastically said, “To love and money.”

In those next 2 hours and several drinks I felt like I had made the best friend I ever met. We were very much alike but at the same time very different. We both liked art, but viewed it very differently. We both liked music, but didn’t agree on how it has progressed. We had very differing views on technology and literature and religion.

“To love and money, he says” she cackled, overcome by alcohol. She was referring to my half-baked toast.

“Hey, that’s just what they want you to think, y’know? You know what I think this place is…” I was ready to tell her what I thought of earlier.

“What wonderful saying do you have for us now” she said, vaguely interested.

“I call it the castle of greed. Everything in here is money, money, money. The love of money is the root of all evil!” She thought about it and agreed.

“I can rock with that. And they say my love is evil but look at what they’ve got us doing to keep their hands on their money.”

“What’s that supposed to mean,” I chuckled.

A bit more sober now she shook her head, “Nothing, it’s not important.”

“Sounds like you’ve got someone waiting for you on the other side” I pointed my finger at her in jest. Her face dropped and she stared at me with an intense look. The silence got a hold of me.

She got up and looked out at the rain again, “How did you know?”

I gulped and stood up behind her, “What do you mean?”

Jade Bethesda’s reflection spoke to me. “We were planning to escape this place tonight. About 25 minutes from now I was supposed to find some way to prevent you from stopping me before I put this note on the table and climb down the side of this estate into the Southern parking lot. A car would take us out of this estate and to the train station. Given the time, if I make it out before the guards catch me I will make the train with almost 10 minutes to spare.”

“You were going to risk your life climbing down the side of this giant house get out of here” I gasped.

“Yes. And I know it can work. All three of my older sisters have been through this; they didn’t escape successfully, but based on what they’ve told me I know that I will.”

I was amazed by the resolve she had and how serious she was about this plan. “Do you think you can pull it off?” She nodded.

“Would you be willing to help? If you were going to stop me, I planned to knock you out with a glass” she chuckled.

I immediately agreed and offered to use the bedsheets as a long rope allowing her to descend instead of trying to get down there using whatever means she had already in mind.

Even in the pouring rain we managed to successfully tie a firm knot around the balcony rail before hoisting Jade’s figure over the edge. She gripped onto the sheets that became firm and rigid due to the rain soaking them up.

“Whoever is waiting for you on the other side must be worth it” I said before she started her descent.

“Yes, she certainly is” Jade smiled before climbing down and I lost her figure to the rain and depths below.

For the next half hour I tried to dry my jacket as quickly as possible while reading the note Jade talked about. It looked like a makeshift suicide note.

“My family’s history, culture, and an autonomous democratic way of life, while ideal for the focused, ends here.”

All at once I knew what it took to propel her towards what she was doing. Even with all of the disregard and disdain I had for this entire construct I never thought to do what she was doing. To think of all of the courage, or fear, that it took for her to even dare of escaping made me feel hollow inside. I looked behind the door that she closed and I saw a room decorated with some dangling symbols that even disgusted me. To think that her parents did this to her petrified me.

Jade Bethesda was dead. Her presence faded from the world, her soul was crushed beyond belief, just like the shoes she left behind. Her will wanted nothing to do with this world. I knew what was left for me to do. I grabbed the last of her paraphernalia before cleaning up the rest of the room and heading back to the ballroom. Nobody saw the raindrops in my hair or the ones that stuck on my jacket, not for the first few minutes. I shook my head when my mother asked me “So how did it go?” Her face dropped and I knew what was coming. During the reception of the Send-Off I remained silent until a guard came up on the stage and whispered to the emcee that Jade was missing.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we have a missing Generational. Please stay calm and wait here until the search party retrieves her.” It didn’t take long for someone to come up to me and ask where Jade went. They figured that since I was paired with her I had to know. I was shoved up to the stage and asked by a guard where she went. Dr. Baldwin himself came up to me and waited for me to answer. He had a wine glass in his hand and a rather disgruntled look on his face. “Where’s the girl, chap?” It felt like an eternity for me to even muster up the courage to answer. I thought about what exactly to say, how to say it, and what would happen after I said it. “I wish I knew, sir.” He walked up to me and I saw the anger on his face, “Really? Is that true?” I got close to him and whispered in his ear, “You know that’s not true, but I’m sure you want to save face so I’ll let them know for you.” I knew he wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me in front of everyone, so he merely stood to the side as I approached the microphone and recited this:

“History, culture, and an autonomous democratic way of life, while ideal for the focused, ends here.”

When I said that everyone gasped and I swear I heard a few glasses break, but before I left I wanted to add something to Jade’s comment. I stared into the merciless void of the crowd and stated:

“And those who have been held with the tightest bonds are the most radical, profound, and desperate.”

Just like that I descended from the stage and walked away, the crowd parted before me. I was uncontested until my very own mother blocked my passage from the door. “I’m leaving, Mother. I’m leaving now.” Her head was low and I could tell she was angry. A single tear dropped from her face and she whispered “You have ruined everything.” It hurt me to hear her say that, but it hurt me even more when she struck me across the face with all of her might. I recoiled, but I didn’t fall over. I stood there silent with my cheek still stinging and waited for what happened next. She charged at me again, grabbing me by the collar and kept hitting me. This continued until 3 men pulled her away from me. She was too angry to even scream in protest. I grabbed my grandmother’s keys and said, “I’m going home.” They were speechless.

I made my way from the ballroom to the underground parking lot to out exit the gaping maw of that dreadful lion statue again. The rain kept pouring and pouring and pouring. It didn’t sound like it did before. It didn’t feel like it did before. I could feel tears falling down my face. I could hear Jade’s voice urging me to go forward. As I revved the engine harder and barreled out into the night everything went silent. With the lights passing by me I could then hear Jade panting as her footsteps crushed against the concrete road she barreled down. I could hear the barking and snapping of the dogs that were used to find her. I could hear her shout as she struck at a guard chasing her. I could hear the sounds of struggle as she was tackled to the ground. The last thing I could hear from her was her wailing out into the rain, shouting for me to keep going. She was captured while I was free. I felt the hand of what was left of her lingering will creep up to mine on the steering wheel, and before I sped away, never to be seen by the Gentry again, I saw the pained look on her lover’s face, waiting for her heroine that would never return. There was only one thing left for me to do. I had no home with the Gentry or anyone touched by their greed. The only refuge I had left was my father, and to his house I fled.