Review: The In-Betweens by Davon Loeb

(Sefton Park, Australia: Everytime Press)

She had inky black skin with matching pupils that seemed to take up her entire eye. Her voice – like the devil. Her walk – unbalanced. Like her body it felt foreign. Clearly, to Davon Loeb and his brother, the landlord was a voodoo witch.

And what does a voodoo witch do when she finds that the children of some tenants have broken into her home? How does she prove that she isn’t evil, that Loeb and his brother’s fear is just the fear of children, unfounded and rooted in nothing that resembles reality?

Well, she doesn’t sweep a pair of scissors beneath a locked door to try and stab their feet, and she doesn’t dig a series of graves in the backyard.

“… (W)e focused our eyes to see what seemed to be five empty plots lined and ready – and there was even a little grave that was dug for me,” Loeb writes in his memoir, The In-Betweens.

Loeb tells this story of the innocence of a kid and his brother breaking into the landlord’s apartment because they are curious and scared in the chapter “Don’t Open the Door.” The memoir’s chapters are brief, digestible chunks, giving the reader the sense of dipping into meaningful moments of Loeb’s life. Each reads as its own brief story, ranging in length from less than a page to 18. The structure gives the memoir a dreamlike quality: The reader simply wakes up one moment on Loeb’s grandparents’ driveway, stuck inside Loeb, a small, bruised boy with glasses who is consistently the butt of his cousins’ jokes and punches. His grandfather, by comparison, “had earned some eternal confidence – a swagger and bravado about him that said – I don’t take shit from nobody.”

Then, in the next chapter, the reader-as-Loeb can’t understand why playing with his cousin’s dolls is any different from playing with his own action figures. Why is his uncle calling him names? He doesn’t even know what that three-letter F-word means, just that it’s not anything good.

Through this collection of memories, the reader grows up with Loeb, from a boy who can’t throw a football but loves to draw, imagine, and write to a teen desperate to mold himself into a certain kind of man: Despite his mother’s insistence that Loeb spend his free time helping at home, babysitting his younger siblings, he gets a job with a friend, doing manual labor around a farm and gutting a rotten church that’s completely infested with bats. By college, Loeb has become obsessed with forming his body into one that is strong and tough – and nothing like that of the boy whose cousins and uncle so tormented him in childhood.

The story opens before Loeb is born, before he is even conceived, when his Black mother met his white father, a much older man. She worked as his dental assistant, and their affair produced Loeb. He grew up with his mother and an older half-brother, Troy, whom he constantly followed, trying to keep up, hoping to be accepted; and he idolized his other half-brother, Alex, even addressing him in the chapter “For a Brother”: “I had one photo of you … You reminded me of one of those guys I saw on television – the Sitcom Studs with impeccably styled hair, and imperviously fitted jeans, and smiles as wide as bridges and teeth as white as cotton … I’d hold the photo, like you were a celebrity, and proudly think – how could you be my brother?

The irony is that Loeb’s stature and interests match most with Alex, the brother he did not grow up with, from the father he did not grow up with. “My mother always told me you were so much like me – kindred souls, she said … All the characteristics that make me who I am … is of that same stuff that coursed through your veins … My mother would say that I didn’t get it from her side of the family – that isn’t it funny how genetics work? Everything that I am is everything that you are. And regardless if all the stories my mother told me about you were true, it was beautiful myth-making …”

Loeb’s writing most sings when he writes about his father’s side of the family, this half he knows so little about. In “History Class Field Trip to Washington, D.C.,” Loeb remembers visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and how determined he was to keep his Jewish side a secret; it was hard enough being one of two Black kids in the school – he didn’t want to be the Black Jew, too. So when a presenter asked the class if anyone was Jewish, he kept his hand down. But in the presenters, two women who survived the Holocaust, Loeb sees his grandmother.

“And she had that same fragility about her, like the stem of a leaf. And the same white skin that was like looking into a cell – and the mass of sun spots, and blue stringy veins … It was as if being thrown into someone else’s memory – a projection of a dream – taking on its sadness, its loss, its some kind of death.”

The experience makes Loeb excited to call his grandmother, to learn more about that side of his history. But what he finds is par for the course in a story of a boy searching for where he belongs:

“So, I called her. My cell phone dialed. And I waited, and waited – listening to the dial tone anticipatorily. And then she answered, and I said – Hi Grandma, it’s me, Davon

“Who – she said.

Davon, Harry’s other son.”

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Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer from Fort Wayne, Indiana. She writes fiction and poetry, and she will have a piece in the August 2020 edition of Narrow Road. Her work has also been chosen by the Wick Poetry Center as a Traveling Stanza selection.