I had been dapping Kirby for four hours straight, and now all I wanted to do was just slap him in his bug-eyed face. My hand was tired and on the verge of cramping up like an arthritic crustacean claw.
“One more time, man,” he said, massaging the palm of his dapping hand with his other hand.
I shook my own hand, flexing it and wriggling my fingers. “Okay, but just one more time. I don’t think I have anything left.”
“A’ight. Go all in this time.”
“Kirb, I’ve been goin’ all in the entire time. You just handle your business. You were a little sloppy on those last few moves.”
Kirby grimaced. “Yeah, I know, man. My fingers are sticking a little on the end.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I offered. “The competition is in two days. Just get a hand massage tomorrow morning and don’t do anything until the competition. So no spanking the monkey or any of your other hobbies. This thing is no joke.”
Kirby laughed, but he knew I was telling the truth. This dude really needed to learn to be a bit more ambidextrous in his extracurricular activities, because he was starting to look like that kid from M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, all diesel on one side and scrawny on the other.
I counted us off and we went into the handshake for the umpteenth time.
The judges would be evaluating us on originality, intricacy of movements, dexterity, enthusiasm, and smoothness. Each of the categories clearly had a subjective component to it, but a few minutes of watching past winners on YouTube gave us all an idea of what the standard was. In fact, if you still had plans to compete after seeing some of the dudes on those videos, then maybe you really were cut out for it. Most people just gave up and threw in the towel, Sonny Liston bailing out on the corner stool.
Kirby was slightly better the last time, but we still weren’t on a Jedi-level with our moves yet. There were a few levels of stank we could still throw on our moves, but we could save those for the actual competition, I figured.
“This is gonna be our year,” Kirby said. “People been blowing up my Vine account all week nut-cruising the sample I posted on Monday.”
“I told you about posting our stuff on the Net. People’ll jack your stuff if you put it out there.”
“I only put like seven seconds for the loop.”
I shook my head. “How much you wanna bet some wack team is gonna use that in their routine, though?”
“But we got two minutes of material. Seven seconds ain’t gonna kill us.”
“It better not,” I said.
That was Kirby’s problem: feeling the need to post everything online. He couldn’t eat a spoonful of cornflakes without feeling the need to report it to his legion of followers. Still, I couldn’t get too angry with him; after all it was his incessant posting that got us noticed and invited to the Dap Invitational in the first place. In fact, the buzz on social media was that we were among the favorites to take the Big Grip Award this year, the Dap Invitational’s version of the Best Picture Oscar.
I told Kirby we’d connect the next afternoon and head on over to Memphis and check into our hotel. He nodded. I nodded.
It was a peace out without the dap. We had to save that for the competition.
That night I had a dream my hand was stuck in a silkworm web, and I kept trying to get it free, but the more I moved it, the more my fingers got tangled in it. Finally, I just started shaking my wrist trying to break free, but my hand was wrapped in white strands like the countrified version of a Michael Jackson glove.
I woke up in the middle of the night swatting my hand back and forth, still feeling the tickle of mummy-like threads sweeping across my skin. It was official: my nerves were a mess.
The Dap Invitational was the major leagues, and for small town Mississippi boys like Kirby and me, this was what we needed to put ourselves on the map. If we won this thing, we could get in music videos and maybe a few commercials. Two years earlier a fast-food chain signed a contract with the winners—which is how most of us got exposed to the competitive level of dapping in the first place.
I remember the first time I saw competitive dapping. The first thing I thought was that I could do it blindfolded with a hand tied to an ankle behind my back. It was the most basic greeting used by black people the world over, so there was hardly anything special about it. The only people completely mystified by the art of dapping were white people who tended to vacillate between standard handshakes and enthusiastic high fives.
Of course my first assessment was a bit oversimplified. Sure, most black people coded daps into their greetings on the regular, but very few people took the time to choreograph intricate hand maneuvers that lasted for more than a few seconds. The average competitive dapper had routines around two minutes, which was actually a part of the guidelines issued by The Dap Invitational. After a little research I discovered that they had to implement the time limit five years ago after a team from Decatur, Georgia, cycled out a “looper” handshake for almost an hour. A looper was when a handshake repeated over and over after a certain number of movements. This was banned by The Dap Invitational, alongside encrypted gang handshakes, which were immediate grounds for disqualification.
Kirby had become my partner, mainly because he was the smoothest dapper I knew in my immediate circle. He could make some of the trickiest moves seem like they were effortless. Kirby was to dapping as Michael Jackson was to moonwalking. And he took it seriously, too, which appealed to me, since I wanted to team up with someone who had a hunger on par with my own.
When we first started practicing, he would have his hands moisturized to high heaven with some dermatologist-recommended collagen-based cream that made his hands sticky and clammy. I had to shut that down immediately. For hands to move efficiently, there needed to be some sense of friction present, and his heavily hydrated hands, while full of dexterity, were freakish in nature when you had to interact with them for longer than two seconds. It felt like his hands had been sweating. But he later took to covering his hands in talcum powder before practice, his compromise with me, since he had no plan to stop greasing himself up. I, on the other hand, would hit my hands with a little Purell ahead of time, so by the time I got to practice, my skin had dried a little to give me a little ash, which was always good for friction.
After a half hour, I lay back down and closed my tired eyes. No silkworms, I thought, moving my fingers rhythmically against the sheets. No silkworms. Please.
Memphis was not the Promised Land, but it was a step towards it.
I imagined Kirby and myself one day on the largest, grandest stage, elevated before the world, our brand of Negro Exoticism the flavor du jour, the toast of Parisians and Amsterdamians alike. We would be analogous to the South Korean b-boys who routinely whipped the world’s collective ass in international break dance competitions.
As we drove up I-55 North listening to Big K.R.I.T. (our theme music for getting ourselves hype), I noticed Kirby in the passenger seat of my hatchback, his hands covered in gloves like Rogue from The X-Men. The way he held them to his chest was as if he were preparing for surgery. I could picture him saying, “We need 50 cc’s of saline. She’s crashing!”
“How are your hands feeling?” I asked.
“They feel real good, man. We’re gonna kill it. Trust me.”
“That’s what I wanna hear.”
I moved my fingers in rhythm across the steering wheel. My hands felt loose and easy. I had almost decided against getting my hands massaged earlier that morning, but it proved to be a good move after all. I figured I was as good to go as I would ever be. It was just too bad that we had to wait one more day to show our stuff.
“You know what’s funny about The Dap Invitational?” Kirby asked.
“It’s, like, the last bastion of blackness left for us. Everything else has been taken over by other ethnic groups. When the Belgians won the Spades Open Tournament or when the Vietnamese took us to the bank in dominoes, or even the Chinese sealing the deal at the Cee-lo Tournament, black people have been losing out on stuff we used to dominate. It’s like there’s an Eminem or Yao Ming in every black game the world over.”
“Well, the name Cee-lo actually comes from the Chinese.”
“Man, how do you know all this miscellaneous stuff?” Kirby said, shaking his head. “You know what I mean, though. Hell, if there was a big dick contest, someone not black would take that, too.”
I laughed. “You remember that video of the tribal dude wrapping his johnson around a pole and lifting boulders and stuff with it?”
“No way! I don’t think I could handle that. There’re just some things that shouldn’t be attempted.”
While we laughed, I could understand what Kirby was getting at. Still, it seemed inevitable that someone from a different ethnic group would eventually win even The Dap Invitational. It had yet to happen, but that only meant that the sport was primed for a “first.”
“Well, if we’re the best,” I said, “then we shouldn’t have anything to worry about, right?”
We drove on to the hotel, each of us imagining ourselves standing on the first place platform waiving the giant $50,000 check before the news cameras.
It was our time—and we knew it.
We were perfect.
Every finger in sync.
Our arms were fluid extensions of hands that were married in movement like mating eagles falling from the heavens.
It was like we invented dapping, like we were the true originators of the art.
That’s what made our loss so confounding.
To add salt to the wound, the Big Grip Award winners of The Dap Invitational were a group of countrified white boys from Kentucky. Those guys actually showed up with sleeveless white t-shirts featuring the Confederate flag, their pants sagging off their asses, revealing boxers with more Confederate bars and stars. They looked part Klan, part thug—and I’m not trying to say they weren’t good, but they weren’t great either.
Kirby claimed we had been robbed, that the judges were determined to let the one white team win. “What is this? Reverse affirmative action or something?” he yelled as we walked back to the car.
“Is that a thing?”
“Well, if white people can claim reverse racism, why can’t we claim reverse affirmative action?”
“They did a Macklemore/Kendrick Lamar on us, dude. Textbook okie doke.”
We drove back across the Mississippi state line in complete silence, the radio off. I didn’t know what to think of what happened. Were they really better than us? I tried to flip everything in my mind and see it the way the judges, a primarily black panel, would have seen it. Was it impressive that they were white and hanging in there? There had been white teams in the past, and this one—at least to me—didn’t seem any more impressive than the others. These dudes had even ended their dap with the stereotypical high five.
Were they signifying with their handshake?
Could white people really signify?
Could black people continue to ignore the fact that we didn’t really own anything anymore?
I still believed we were the better team. But I was biased, I knew.
With the blackness of the night washing through the car, blocking out our ability to see anything other than the highway centerline in front of us, I looked over at Kirby.
His gloves were balled up and pushed into the corner of the windshield, his hands elbow-deep in a bag of fried pork skins, his bug-eyed face black and blank.
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