On a day like this the big toe of Zivanias had failed him. Zivanias named for the moonshine his grandfather cooked, best white lightning on the island. Cudjoe had listened to the story of the name many times. Was slightly envious. He would like to be named for something his father or grandfather had done well. A name celebrating a deed. A name to stamp him, guide him. They’d shared a meal once. Zivanias crunching fried fish like Rice Krispies. Laughing at Cudjoe. Pointing to Cudjoe’s heap of cast-off crust and bones, his own clean platter. Zivanias had lived up to his name. Deserted a flock of goats, a wife and three sons up in the hills, scavenged work on the waterfront till he talked himself onto one of the launches jitneying tourists around the island. A captain soon. Then captain of captains. Best pilot, lover, drinker, dancer, storyteller of them all. He said so. No one said different. On a day like this when nobody else dared leave port, he drove a boatload of bootleg whiskey to the bottom of the ocean. Never a trace. Not a bottle or bone.
Cudjoe watches the sea cut up, refusing to stay still in its bowl. Sloshing like the overfilled cup of coffee he’d transported this unsteady morning from marble-topped counter to a table outdoors on the cobblestone esplanade. Coffee cooled in a minute by the chill wind buffeting the island. Rushes of wind and light play with rows of houses like they are skirts. Lift the whitewashed walls from their moorings, billow them as strobe bursts of sunshine bounce and shudder, daisy chains of houses whipping and snapping as wind reaches into the folds of narrow streets, twisting tunnels and funnels of stucco walls, a labyrinth of shaky alleyways with no roof but the Day-Glo blue-and-gray crisscrossed Greek sky hanging over like heavy, heavy what hangs over in the game they’d played back home in the streets of West Philly.
Zivanias would hold his boat on course with his foot. Leaning on a rail, prehensile toes snagged in the steering wheel, his goatskin vest unbuttoned to display hairy chest, eyes half shut, humming an island ballad, he was sailor-king of the sea, a photo opportunity his passengers could not resist. Solitary females on holiday from northern peninsulas of ice and snow, secretaries, nurses, schoolteachers, clerks, students, the druggies who’d sold dope and sold themselves to get this far, this last fling at island sun and sea and fun, old Zivanias would hook them on his horny big toe and reel them in. Plying his sea taxi from bare-ass to barer-ass to barest-ass beach, his stations, his ports of call along the coast.
But not today. No putt-putting around the edges of Mykonos, no island hopping. Suicide on a day like this to attempt a crossing to Delos, the island sacred to Apollo where once no one was allowed to die or be born. No sailing today even with both hands on the wheel and all ten toes gripping the briny deck. Chop, chop sea would eat you up. Swallow your little boat. Spew it up far from home. Zivanias should have known better. Maybe he did. Maybe he couldn’t resist the power in his name summoning him, Zivanias, Zivanias. Moonshine. Doomshine. Scattered on the water.
Cudjoe winces. A column of feathers and stinging grit rises from the cobblestones and sluices past him. Wind is steady moan and groan, a constant weight in his face, but it also bucks and roils and sucks and swirls madly, sudden stop and start, gust and dust devil and dervishes ripping the world apart. Clouds scoot as if they’re being chased. Behind him the café window rattles in its frame. Yesterday at this same dockside table he’d watched the sunset. Baskets of live chickens unloaded. Colors spilled on the sea last evening were chicken broth and chicken blood and the yellow, wrinkled skin of plucked chickens. Leftover feathers geyser, incongruous snowflakes above stacks of empty baskets. The island exiled today. Jailed by its necklace of churning sea. No one could reach Mykonos. No one could leave. Dead sailorman Zivanias out there sea-changed, feeding the fish. Cudjoe’s flight home disappearing like the patches of blue sky. Sea pitches and shivers and bellows in its chains. Green and dying. Green and dying. Who wrote that poem. Cudjoe says the words again, green and dying, can’t remember the rest, the rest is these words repeating themselves, all the rest contained in them, swollen to bursting, but they won’t give up the rest. Somebody keeps switching a light on and off. Gray clouds thicken. White clouds pull apart, bleed into the green sea. A seamless curtain of water and sky draws tighter and tighter. The island is sinking. Sea and wind wash over its shadow, close the wound.
Take that morning or one like it and set it down here in this city of brotherly love, seven thousand miles away, in a crystal ball, so it hums and gyrates under its glass dome. When you turn it upside-down, a thousand weightless flakes of something hover in the magic jar. It plays a tune if you wind it, better watch out, better not cry. Cudjoe cups his hands, fondles the toy, transfixed by the simplicity of illusion, how snow falls and music tinkles again and again if you choose to play a trick on yourself. You could stare forever and the past goes on doing its thing. He dreams his last morning on Mykonos once more. If you shake the ball the flakes shiver over the scene. Tiny white chicken feathers. Nothing outside the sealed ball touches what’s inside. Hermetic. Unreachable. Locked in and the key thrown away. Once again he’ll meet a dark-haired woman in the café that morning. Wind will calm itself, sky clear. The last plane shuttles him to the mainland. Before that wobbly flight he’ll spend part of his last day with her on the beach. There will be a flash of fear when she rises naked from the sea and runs toward him, crowned by a bonnet of black snakes, arms and legs splashing showers of spray, sun spots and sun darts tearing away great chunks of her so he doesn’t know what she is. They’ll lie together on the sand. She will teach him the Greek for her body parts. Hair is… eyes are… nose is… the Greek words escaping him even as he hears them. But he learns the heat of her shoulders, curve of bone beneath the skin. No language she speaks is his. She doubles his confusion. He forgets how to talk. When she tests him, pointing to his eyes, he traces with a fingertip the pit of bone containing hers. He closes his eyes. He is blind. Words are empty sounds. Saying them does not bring her back. He’d tasted salt when he’d matched his word for lips with hers.
Cudjoe is remembering the toy from his grandmother’s cupboard. A winter scene under glass. Lift it by its black plastic base, turn it upside-down, shake it a little, shake it, don’t break it, and set the globe down again watch the street fill up with snow the little horse laugh to see such a sight and the dish run away with the spoon. He wonders what happened to his grandmother’s souvenir from Niagara Falls. When did she buy it? Why did he always want to pry it open and find the music and snow wherever they were hiding when the glass ball sat still and silent? He wanted to know but understood how precious the trinket was to his grandmother. She would die if he broke it. She lay in bed, thinner every day the summer after the winter his grandfather died. She was melting away. Turning to water which he mopped from her brow, from her body parts when he lifted the sheets. Could he have saved her if he’d known the Greek for arms and legs? His grandmother’s sweaty smell will meet him when he returns to the house on Finance and walks up the front-hall stairs and enters the tiny space where he cared for her that summer she melted in the heat of grief. Her husband of forty years dead, her flesh turning to water. Sweat is what gives you life. He figured that out as life drained from her. Her dry bones never rose from the bed. You could lift her and arrange her in the rocking chair but life was gone. He’d wiped it from her brow, her neck. Dried the shiny rivers in her scalp. Leg is… arm is… He learned the parts of a woman’s body caring for her, the language of sweat and smell they spoke. He had been frightened. He knew everything and nothing. Why was he supposed to look away from her nakedness when his aunts bathed her? He loved her. Shared her secrets. If he sat in the rocker keeping watch while she slept, she would not die.
The crystal ball long gone. He can’t recall the first time he missed it. Nothing rests in the empty cup of his hands. Not the illusion of a chilly winter day, not snowfall or a dark-haired woman’s face, her skin brown and warm as bread just out the oven. Ladybug, Ladybug. Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children burning. He is turning pages. Perhaps asleep with a book spread-eagled on his lap, the book he wishes he was writing, the story he crossed an ocean to find. Story of a fire and a lost boy that brought him home.
He had taped what she said. She is Margaret Jones now, Margaret Jones again. Her other names are smoke curling from smashed windowpanes of the house on Osage. A rainbow swirl of head kerchief hides her hair, emphasizes the formal arrangement of eyes, nose, lips embedded in blemishless yellow-brown skin. No frills, no distractions, you see the face for what it is, severe, symmetrical, eyes distant but ready to pounce, flared bulk of nose, lips thick and strong enough to keep the eyes in check.
She thinks she knows people who might know where the lost child could be. And she is as close to the boy as he’s come after weeks of questions, hanging around, false leads and no leads, his growing awareness of getting what he deserved as he was frowned at and turned away time after time. The boy who is the only survivor of the holocaust on Osage Avenue, the child who is brother, son, a lost limb haunting him since he read about the fire in a magazine. He must find the child to be whole again. Cudjoe can’t account for the force drawing him to the story nor why he indulges a fantasy of identification with the boy who escaped the massacre. He knows he must find him. He knows the ache of absence, the phantom presence of pain that tricks him into reaching down again and again to stroke the emptiness. He’s stopped asking why. His identification with the boy persists like a discredited rumor. Like Hitler’s escape from the bunker. Like the Second Coming.
What Cudjoe has discovered is that the boy was last seen naked skin melting, melting, they go do-do-do-do-do-do-do like that, skin melting Stop kids coming out stop stop kids coming out skin melting do-do-do-do-do-do like going off—like bullets were going after each other do-do-do-do fleeing down an alley between burning rows of houses. Only one witness. A sharpshooter on a roof who caught the boy’s body in his telescopic sight just long enough to know he’d be doomed if he pulled the trigger, doomed if he didn’t. In that terrible light pulsing from the inferno of fire-gutted houses the boy flutters, a dark moth shape for an instant, wheeling, then fixed forever in the crosshairs of the infrared sniperscoped night-visioned weapon trained on the alley. At the same instant an avalanche of bullets hammers what could be other figures, other children back into boiling clouds of smoke and flame. The last sighting reports the boy alone, stumbling, then upright. Then gone again as quickly as he appeared.
Cudjoe hears screaming stop stop kids coming out kids coming out as the cop sights down the blazing alley. Who’s screaming? Who’s adding that detail? Could a cop on a roof two hundred feet away from a ghost hear what’s coming from its mouth? Over crackling flames? Over volleys of automatic-weapons fire thudding into the front of the house, over the drum thump of heart, roar of his pulse when something alive dances like a spot of grease on a hot griddle there in the molten path between burning row houses? The SWAT-team rifleman can’t hear, barely sees what is quivering in the cross hairs. Is it one of his stinging eyelashes? He squints and the vision disappears. Did he pull the trigger? Only later as he’s interrogated and must account for rounds fired and unfired does it become clear to him that what he saw was a naked boy, a forked stick with a dick. No. No, I didn’t shoot then. Others shot. Lots of shooting when the suspects tried to break out of the house. But I didn’t shoot. Not then. Because what I seen was just a kid, with no clothes on screaming. I let him go.
Cudjoe reminds himself he was not there and has no right to add details. No sound effects. Attribute no motives nor lack of motive. He’s not the cop, not the boy.
Tape is rewinding on his new machine. The woman with the bright African cloth tied round her head had not liked him. Yet she was willing to talk, to be taped. She’d agreed to meet him again, this time in the park instead of the apartment of the mutual friend who’d introduced them. You know. Clark Park, Forty-third and Baltimore. He’d nodded, smiled, ready after an hour of listening and recording to say something about the park, about himself, but she’d turned away, out of her chair already, already out the door of Rasheed’s apartment, though her body lagged behind a little saying good-bye to him, hollering good-bye over her shoulder to Rasheed. She’d watched the tape wind from spool to spool as she’d talked. Rasheed had waited in another room for them to finish. Cudjoe might as well have been in there, too. He spoke only once or twice while she talked. Margaret Jones didn’t need him, care for him. She was permitting him to overhear what she told the machine. Polite, accommodating to a degree, she also maintained her distance. Five thousand miles of it, plus or minus an inch. The precise space between Cudjoe’s island and West Philly. Somehow she knew he’d been away, exactly how long, exactly how far, and that distance bothered her, she held it against him, served it back to him in her cool reserve, seemed unable ever to forgive it.
How did she know so much about him, not only her but all her sisters, how, after the briefest of conversations, did they know his history, that he’d married a white woman and fathered half-white kids? How did they know he’d failed his wife and failed those kids, that his betrayal was double, about blackness and about being a man? How could they express so clearly, with nothing more than their eyes, that they knew his secret, that he was someone, a half-black someone, a half man who couldn’t be depended upon?
He peels a spotty banana down to the end he holds. Bites off a hunk. Rewraps the fruit in its floppy skin and rests it on a paper towel beside the tape recorder. Spoons a lump of coffee-flavored Dannon yogurt into his mouth. The tastes clash. One too sweet. One too tart. The cloying overripe odor of unzipped banana takes over. In an hour he should be in the park. Will Ms. Jones show up? If he admits to her he doesn’t know why he’s driven to do whatever it is he’s trying to do, would she like him better? Should he tell her his dream of a good life, a happy life on a happy island? Would she believe him? Fine lines everywhere to negotiate. He knows it won’t be easy. Does she think he’s stealing from the dead? Is he sure he isn’t? Tape’s ready. He pushes the button.
… Because he was so sure of hisself, bossy, you know. The big boss knowing everything and in charge of everything and could preach like an angel, they called him Reverend King behind his back. Had to call him something to get his attention, you know. James didn’t sound right. He wasn’t a Jimmy or Jim. Mr. Brown wouldn’t cut it. Mr. Anything no good. Reverend King slipped out a couple times and then it got to be just King. King a name he answered to. Us new ones in the family had to call him something so we called him King because that’s what we heard from the others. Didn’t realize it kind of started as a joke. Didn’t realize by calling him something we was making him something. He was different. You acted different around him so he’d know you knew he was different. Then we was different.
He taught us about the holy Tree of Life. How we all born part of it. How we all one family. Showed us how the rotten system of this society is about chopping down the Tree. Society hates health. Society don’t want strong people. It wants people weak and sick so it can use them up. No room for the Life Tree. Society’s about stealing your life juices and making you sick so the Tree dies.
He taught us to love and respect ourselves. Respect Life in ourselves. Life is good, so we’re good. He said that every day. We must protect Life and pass it on so the Tree never dies. Society’s system killing everything. Babies. Air. Water. Earth. People’s bodies and minds. He taught us we are the seeds. We got to carry forward the Life in us. When society dies from the poison in its guts, we’ll be there and the Tree will grow bigger and bigger till the whole wide earth a peaceful garden under its branches. He taught us to praise Life and be Life.
We loved him because he was the voice of Life. And our love made him greater than he was. Made him believe he could do anything. All the pains we took. The way we were so careful around him, let him do whatever he wanted, let him order us around like we was slaves. Now when I look back I guess that’s what we was. His slaves. And he was king because we was slaves and we made him our master.
He was the dirtiest man I ever seen. Smell him a mile off. First time I really seen him I was on my way home from work and he was just sitting there on the stone wall in front of their house. Wasn’t really stone. Cinder blocks to hold in yard dirt. Stacked four or five high and a rusty kind of broken-down pipe fence running across the top of the blocks. Well, that’s where he was sitting, dangling his bare legs and bare toes, sprawled back like he ain’t got a care in the world. Smelled him long before I seen him. Matter of fact when I stepped down off the bus something nasty in the air. My nose curls and I wonder what stinks, what’s dead and where’s it hiding, but I don’t like the smell so I push it to the back of my mind cause nothing I can do about it. No more than I can stop the stink rolling in when the wind blows cross from Jersey. Got too much else to worry about at 5:30 in the evening. I’m hoping Billy and Karen where they supposed to be. Mrs. Johnson keep them till 5:00, then they supposed to come straight home. Weather turning warm. Stuffy inside the house already so I say OK youall can sit out on the stoop but don’t you go a step further till I’m home. Catch you gallivanting over the neighborhood it’s inside the house, don’t care if it’s a oven in there. Billy and Karen mind most the time, good kids, you know what I mean, but all it takes is one time not minding. You know the kinda trouble kids can get into around here. Deep trouble. Bad, bad trouble. One these fools hang around here give them pills. One these jitterbugs put his hands on Karen. I’m worried about that sort of mess and got dinner to fix and beat from work, too beat for any of it. My feet ache and that’s strange because I work at a desk and I’m remembering my mama keeping house for white folks. Her feet always killing her and here I am with my little piece of degree, sitting on my behind all day and my feet sore like hers. Maybe what it is is working for them damned peckerwoods any kind of way. Taking their shit. Bitterness got to settle somewhere don’t it? Naturally it run down to your feet. Anyway, I’m tired and hassled. Ain’t ready for no more nonsense. Can’t wait till Billy and Karen fed and quiet for the night, safe for the night, the kitchen clean, my office clothes hung up, me in my robe and slippers. Glass of wine maybe. One my programs on TV. Nothing but my own self to worry about.
When I step off the bus stink hits me square between the eyeballs. No sense wrinkling up my nose. Body got to breathe and thinking about what you breathing just make it worse so I starts towards home which is three and a half blocks from where I get off the Number 62. Almost home when I see a trifling dreadlocked man draped back wriggling his bare toes. Little closer to him and I know what’s dead, what’s walking the air like it ain’t had a bath since Skippy was a pup. Like I can see this oily kind of smoke seeping up between the man’s toes. He’s smiling behind all that hair, all that beard. Proud of his high self working toejam. I know it ain’t just him stinking up the whole neighborhood. It’s the house behind him, the tribe of crazy people in it and crazy dogs and loudspeakers and dirty naked kids and the backyard where they dump their business, but sitting the way he is on the cinder blocks, cocked back and pleased with hisself, smiling through that orangutan hair like a jungle all over his face, it’s like he’s telling anybody care to listen, this funk is mine. I’m the funk king sitting here on my throne and you can run but you can’t hide.
See, it’s personal then. Me and him. To get home I have to pass by him. His wall, his house, his yard. Either pass by or go way round out my way. Got my route home I’ve been walking twelve years. Bet you find my footprints in the pavement I been walking home from work that way so long. So I ain’t about to change just cause some nasty man sitting there like he’s God Almighty. Huh. Uh. This street mine much as it’s anybody’s. I ain’t detouring one inch out my way for nothing that wears britches and breathes. He ain’t nothing to me no matter how bad he smell, no matter if he blow up in a puff of black smoke cause he can’t stand his own self. Tired as my feet be at the end of the day I ain’t subjecting them to one extra step around this nasty man or his nasty house.
So I just trots on by like he ain’t there, like ain’t none of it there. Wall. Pipe he’s got his greasy arms draped over. House behind him and the nuts in it. You know. Wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. What I do do is stop breathing. Hold my breath till I’m past him, hold it in so long when I let it out on the next corner, I’m dizzy. But I’m past him and don’t give him the satisfaction. Tell the truth, I almost fainted before I made it up on the curb. And wouldn’t that have been a sight. Me keeling over in the street. He woulda had him a good laugh at that. Woulda told all them savages live with him. They could all have a good laugh together. The hounds. But what I care? Didn’t happen, did it? Strutted right past him like he wasn’t there. Didn’t even cross to the other side of Osage like I knew he was sitting there betting I would. Hoping I would so he could tell his tribe and they could all grin and hee-haw and put me on their loudspeakers.
No. No. Walked home the way I always walk home. Didn’t draw one breath for a whole block. Almost knocked myself out, but be damned if I’d give him the satisfaction.
Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Because the day I’m telling you about, the first time I seen him eyeball to eyeball, wasn’t much more than a year ago. Three months from that day I was part of his family. One his slaves that quick. Still am in a way. Even though his head’s tore off his body and his body burned to ash. See because even though he did it wrong, he was right. What I mean is his ideas were right, the thoughts behind the actions righteous as rain. He be rapping and he’d stop all the sudden, look over to one the sisters been a real strong church woman her whole life and say: Bet your sweet paddy boy Jesus amen that, wouldn’t he now? Teasing sort of, but serious too. He be preaching what Jesus preached except it’s King saying the words. Bible words only they issuing from King’s big lips. And you know he means them and you understand them better cause he says them black, black like him, black like you, so how the sister gon deny King? Tell that white fella Jesus stop pestering you. Tell him go on back to the desert and them caves where he belong.
Got to her Christian mind. Got to my tired feet. Who I been all the days of my life? A poor fool climb on a bus in the morning, climb down at night. What I got to show for it but sore feet, feet bad as my mama’s when, God bless her weary soul, we laid her to rest after fifty years cleaning up white folks’ mess. My life wasn’t much different from my mama’s or hers from her mama’s on back far as you want to carry it back. Out in the field at dawn, pick cotton the whole damned day, shuffle back to the cabin to eat and sleep so’s you ready when the conch horn blows next morning. Sheeet. Things spozed to get better, ain’t they? Somewhere down the line, it ought to get better or what’s the point scuffling like we do? Don’t have to squat in the weeds and wipe my behind with a leaf. Running water inside my house and in the supermarket I can buy thirty kinds of soda pop, twelve different colors of toilet paper. But that ain’t what I call progress. Do you? King knew it wasn’t. King just told the truth.
My Billy and Karen in school. Getting what they call an education. But what those children learn. Ask them where they come from, they give you the address of a house on Osage Avenue. Ask them what’s on their minds, they mumble something they heard on the TV. Ask them what color they are, they don’t even know that. Look them in the eye you know what they really thinking. Only thing they ever expect to be is you. Working like you for some white man or black man don’t make no difference cause all they pay you is nigger wages, enough to keep you guessing, keep you hungry, keep you scared, keep you coming back. Piece a job so you don’t never learn nothing, just keep you busy and too tired to think. But your feet think. They tell you every day God sends, stop this foolishness. Stop wearing me down to the nubs.
Wasn’t like King told me something new. Wasn’t like I had a lot to learn. Looked round myself plenty times and said, Got to be more to it than this. Got to be. King said out loud what I been knowing all along. Newspapers said King brainwashing and mind control and drugs and kidnapping people turn them to zombies. Bullshit. Because I been standing on the bank for years. Decided one day to cross over and there he was, the King take my hand and say, Welcome, come right in, we been waiting. Held my breath walking past him and wasn’t more than a couple months later I’m holding my breath and praying I can get past the stink when he’s raising the covers off his mattress and telling me lie down with him. By then stink wasn’t really stink no more. Just confusion. A confused idea. An idea from outside the family, outside the teachings causing me to turn my nose up at my own natural self. Felt real ashamed when I realized all of me wasn’t inside the family yet. I damned the outside part. Left it standing in the dark and crawled up under the covers with King cause he’s right even if he did things wrong sometimes, he’s still right cause ain’t nothing, nowhere any better.
Cudjoe stops the tape. Was Margaret Jones still in love with her King, in love with the better self she believed she could become? He’d winced when she described King lifting the blanket off his bed. Then Cudjoe had leaned closer, tried to sneak a whiff of her. Scent of the sacred residue. Was a portion of her body unwashed since the holy coupling? She had looked upon the King’s face and survived. Cudjoe sees a rat-gnawed, bug-infested mattress spotted with the blood of insects, of humans. Her master’s face a mask of masks. No matter how many you peel, another rises, like the skins of water. Loving him is like trying to solve a riddle whose answer is yes and no. No or yes. You will always be right and wrong.
Not nice to nose under someone’s clothes. Cudjoe knows better. He had cheated, sniffing this witness like some kind of evil bloodhound.
The spools spin:
My kids wouldn’t have nothing to do with King. When I moved into his house they ran away. I think Karen might have moved with me but Billy, thank goodness, wouldn’t let her. Went to my sister’s in Detroit. Then Detroit drove to Philly to rescue me. A real circus. I’m grateful to God nobody was hurt. King said, You nebby, bleached negroes come round here hassling us again I’ll bust you up. He was just woofing. But he sounds like he means every word and I’m standing in the doorway behind him amening what he’s saying. My own sister and brother-in-law, mind you. Carl worked at Ford. My sister Anita a schoolteacher. Doing real good in Detroit and they drove all the way here to help me but I didn’t want no help. Thought all I needed was King. They came out of love but I hated them for mixing in my business. Hated them for taking care of Karen and Billy. See, I believed they were part of the system, part of the lie standing in the way of King’s truth. The enemy. The ones trying to kill us. Up there in their dicty Detroit suburb living the so-called good life.
Cudjoe fast-forwards her story. Would she tell more about the boy this time? Or would the tape keep saying what it had said last time he listened.
… Had the good sense not to sell my house when I moved out. Rented it. Gave the rent money to King. If I’d sold it, would’ve give all the money to him. Wouldn’t have nothing now. No place for Billy and Karen to come back to, if they coming back. Don’t want them here yet. City spozed to clean up and rebuild but you see the condition things in. My place still standing. Smoke and water tore it up inside but at least it’s still standing. Next block after mine looks like pictures I seen of war. Look like the atom bomb hit. Don’t want Karen and Billy have to deal with what the bombs and fire and water did. They see the neighborhood burned down like this, they just might blame me. Because like I said, I was one of them. King’s family. Rented my house and moved in with them. Yes. But for the grace of God coulda been me and my kids trapped in the basement, bar-b-qued to ash.
I still can’t believe it. Eleven people murdered. Babies, women, didn’t make no nevermind to the cops. Eleven human beings dead for what? Tell me for what. Why did they have to kill my brothers and sisters? Burn them up like you burn garbage? What King and them be doing that give anybody the right to kill them? Wasn’t any trouble till people started coming at us. Then King start to woofing to keep folks off our case. Just woofing. Just talk. You ask anybody around here, the ones still here or the ones burnt out, if you can find them. Ask them if King or his people ever laid a hand on anybody. You find one soul say he been hurt by one of us he’s a lying sack of shit.
King had his ways. We all had our ways. If you didn’t like it, you could pass on by. That’s all anybody had to do, pass us by. Hold your nose, your breath if you got to, but pass on by and leave us alone, then we leave you alone and everybody happy as they spozed to be.
Cudjoe is startled by his voice on the tape, asking the question he’s thinking now. Echo of his thought before he speaks it.
Little Simmie. Simmie’s what we called him. Short for Simba Muntu. Lion man. That’s what Clara named him when she joined King’s people. Called herself Nkisa. She was like a sister to me. We talked many a night when I first went there to live. Little Simmie her son. So afterwhile I was kind of his aunt. All of us family, really. Simmie’s an orphan now. His mama some of those cinders they scraped out the basement of the house on Osage and stuffed in rubber bags. I was behind the barricade the whole time. Watched it all happening. Almost lost my mind. Just couldn’t believe it. I saw it happening and couldn’t believe my eyes.
Those dogs carried out my brothers and sisters in bags. And got the nerve to strap those bags on stretchers. Woman next to me screamed and fainted when the cops start parading out with them bags strapped on stretchers. Almost fell out my ownself watching them stack the stretchers in ambulances. Then I got mad. Lights on top the ambulances spinning like they in a hurry. Hurry for what? Those pitiful ashes ain’t going nowhere. Nkisa and Rhoberto and Sunshine and Teetsie. They all gone now, so what’s the hurry? Why they treating ash like people now? Carrying it on stretchers. Cops wearing gloves and long faces like they respect my brothers and sisters now. Where was respect when they was shooting and burning and flooding water on the house? Why’d they have to kill them two times, three times, four times? Bullets, bombs, water, fire. Shot, blowed up, burnt, drowned. Nothing in those sacks but ash and guilty conscience.
What they carried out was board ash and wall ash and roof ash and hallway-step ash and mattress ash and the ash of blankets and pillows, ashes of the little precious things you sneaked in with you when you went to live with King because he said, Give it up, give up that other life and come unto me naked as the day you were born. He meant it too. Never forget being buck naked and walking down the rows of my brothers and sisters each one touch me on my forehead. Shivering. Goose bumps where I forgot you could get goose bumps. Thinking how big and soft I was in the behind and how my titties must look tired hanging down bare. But happy. Oh so happy. Happy it finally come down to this. Nothing to hide no more. Come unto me and leave the world behind. Like a newborn child.
My brothers and sisters and the babies long gone and wasn’t much else in the house to make ash, so it’s walls and floors in those bags, the pitiful house itself they carting away in ambulances.
His mother died in the fire.
All dead. All of them dead.
But he escaped.
She pushed him and two the other kids out the basement window. Simmie said he was scared, didn’t want to go. Nkisa had to shove him out the window. He said she threw him and then he doesn’t remember a thing till he wakes up in the alley behind the house. Must of hit his head on something. He said he was dreaming he was on fire and took off running and now he doesn’t know when he woke up or when he was dreaming or if the nightmare’s ever gon stop. Poor Simmie an orphan now. Like my Karen and Billy till I got myself thinking straight again. Till I knew I couldn’t put nobody, not even King, before my kids. They brought me back to the world. And it’s as sorry-assed today as it was when I walked away. Except it’s worse now. Look round you at the neighborhood. Where’s the houses, the old people on their stoops, the children playing in the street? Nobody cares. The whole city seen the flames, smelled the smoke, counted the body bags. Whole world knows children murdered here. But it’s quiet as a grave, ain’t it? Not a mumbling word. People gone back to making a living. Making some rich man richer. Losing the only thing they got worth a good goddamn, the children the Lord gives them for free, and they ain’t got the good sense to keep.
You’ve talked to Simmie?
Talked to people talked to him.
Do you know where he is?
I know where to find somebody who might know where he is. Why do you want to know?
I need to hear his story. I’m writing a book.
About the fire. What caused it. Who was responsible. What it means.
Don’t need a book. Anybody wants to know what it means, bring them through here. Tell them these bombed streets used to be full of people’s homes. Tell them babies’ bones mixed up in this ash they smell.
I want to do something about the silence.
A book, huh. A book people have to buy. You want Simmie’s story so you can sell it. You going to pay him if he talks to you?
It’s not about money.
Then why you doing it?
The truth is, I’m not really sure.
You mean you’ll do your thing and forget Simmie. Write your book and gone. Just like the social workers and those busybodies from the University. They been studying us for years. Reports on top of reports. A whole basement full of files in the building where I work. We’re famous.
Why don’t you leave poor Simmie alone, mister? He’s suffered enough. And still suffering. Nightmares. Wetting the bed. Poor child’s trying to learn what it’s like to live with people ain’t King’s people.
Will you help me find him?
I don’t think so.
Can we meet again at least? Talk some more?
Saturday maybe. That will give me time to ask around. Not here. In Clark Park. I don’t like being in here with that machine sucking up all the air.
I’ll meet you anywhere. Anytime. Tape or no tape.
Saturday morning. Clark Park.
What time, Saturday?
I’ll be there.
I bet you will. Tell you a secret, though, my feelings won’t be hurt if you ain’t.
Clark Park. Forty-third and Osage. Saturday early. I’ll be there.
One more thing… is that damned machine still running?
If the city is a man, a giant sprawled for miles on his back, rough contours of his body smothering the rolling landscape, the rivers and woods, hills and valleys, bumps and gullies, crushing with his weight, his shadow, all the life beneath him, a derelict in a terminal stupor, too exhausted, too wasted to move, rotting in the sun, then Cudjoe is deep within the giant’s stomach, in a subway-surface car shuddering through stinking loops of gut, tunnels carved out of decaying flesh, a prisoner of rumbling innards that scream when trolleys pass over rails embedded in flesh. Cudjoe remembers a drawing of Gulliver strapped down in Lilliput just so. Ropes staked over his limbs like hundreds of tiny tents, pyramids pinning the giant to the earth. If the city is a man sprawled unconscious drunk in an alley, kids might find him, drench him with lighter fluid and drop a match on his chest. He’d flame up like a heap of all the unhappy monks in Asia. Puff the magic dragon. A little bald man topples over, spins as flames spiral up his saffron robe. In the streets of Hue and Saigon it had happened daily. You watched priests on TV burst into fireballs, roll as they combusted, a shadow flapping inside the flaming pyre. You thought of a bird in there trying to get out. You wondered if the bird was a part of the monk refusing to go along with the program. A protest within the monk’s protest. Hey. I don’t want nothing to do with this crazy shit. Wings get me out of here. Screeching and writhing as hot gets hotter, a scarecrow in the flame’s eye.
Same filthy-windowed PTC trolley car carries you above and below ground, in and out of flesh, like a needle suturing a wound. You hear an echo of wind and sea, smell it. As you ride beneath city streets there are distant explosions, muffled artillery roar and crackle of automatic weapons, sounds of war you don’t notice in the daylight world above. Down here no doubt the invisible warfare is real. You are rattling closer to it. It sets the windows of the trolley vibrating. Around the next blind curve the firefight waits to engulf you.
Above the beach at Torremolinos was another city of tunnels and burrows. Like a termite mound. Once, instead of following the shore path, he’d taken the vertical shortcut from beach to town. Haphazard steps hacked from rock, worn smooth by a million bare feet. You couldn’t see very far ahead or behind as you climbed up the cliff. Quickly the tourists baking like logs on the beach disappeared as you picked your way through a warren of dugout houses, the front stoops of some being the stations that formed a pathway from beach back up to hotels, shops and restaurants. Children sat at the mouths of caves and you planted your bare feet over, under and around their bare bodies, afraid of contamination, embarrassed by proximity, trespass. Bony gypsy children. Eyes dark as mirrors draped with black cloth. Eyes that should flash and play, be full of curiosity or mischief, but stare past you, through you. Riding these trains sunken in the earth, the sound of the sea waits in ambush. Near and far. Turn a corner and there sits one of these world hunger poster children silently begging to be something other than an image of disaster. Fingers of rib bone grasp the swollen belly like it’s a spoiled toy.
He recalls the sound of waves lapping the pilings, breaking and shimmying slow motion against a golden slice of beach three hundred yards below the outcropping of stone where he had paused. He’s naked except for bikini briefs, a gaudy towel slung like a bandolier over his shoulder. He’s ashamed of his skin, its sleekness, its color, the push of his balls against the flimsy pouch of black nylon. No pockets to empty, no language to confess his shame. He couldn’t make things right for the hollow-eyed, big-bellied children even if he had a thousand pockets and dumped silver from every one and the coins sparked and scintillated like the flat sea when a breath of wind passes over it, sequins, a suit of lights rippling to the horizon. From where he’d stood on the steep cliffside, eyes stinging from shame at having everything and nothing to give, the sea reached him as whisper, the same insinuating murmur that can seep from under his bed at night in this city thousands of miles away, that can squeeze from behind a picture frame on a wall, that hums in this subway tunnel miles beneath the earth.
He’ll tell Margaret Jones we’re all in this together. That he was lost but now he’s found.
I could smell the smoke five thousand miles away. Hear kids screaming. We are all trapped in the terrible jaws of something shaking the life out of us. Is that what he’d tell her? Is that why he’s back? Runagate, runagate, fly away home / Your house’s on fire and your children’s burning.
Should he admit to her he’d looked into the eyes of those gypsy children and shrugged, turned his hands inside out? The pale emptiness of his palms flashed like a minstrel’s white gloves, a silent-movie charade so he could pick his way in peace past stick legs and stick arms, the long feet that looked outsize because they sprouted first then nothing else grew. Big heads, big feet. Everything in between wasted away, siphoned into the brutal swell of their bellies. Skin the color of his, the color those tourists down on the beach dreamed of turning.
The subway takes you under ground, under the sea. When the train slows down for a station you can see greenish mold, sponge-like algae, yellow and red speckling the dark stones. Sometimes you hear the rush of water behind you flooding the tunnel, chasing your lighted bubble, rushing closer and closer each time the train halts. Damp, slimy walls the evidence of other floods, other cleansings, guts of the giant flushed clear of debris. He groans, troubled in his sleep as his bowels contract and shudder from the sudden passage of icy water.
When Cudjoe’s aboveground, heading toward Clark Park, the sidewalk’s unsteady under his feet. Should he be swimming or flying or crawling.
He will explain to Margaret Jones that he must always write about many places at once. No choice. The splitting apart is inevitable. First step is always out of time, away from responsibility, toward the word or sound or image that is everywhere at once, that connects and destroys.
Many places at once. Tromping along the sidewalk. In the air. Underground. Astride a spark coughed up by the fire. Waterborne. Climbing stone steps. To reach the woman in the turban, the boy, he must travel through those other places. Always moving. He must, at the risk of turning to stone, look back at his own lost children, their mother standing on a train platform, wreathed in steam, in smoke. An old-fashioned locomotive wheezes and lurches into motion. His wife waves a handkerchief wet with tears. One boy grasps the backs of her legs. The other sucks his thumb with a fold of her skirt that shows off her body’s sweet curves. His sons began in that smooth emptiness between her legs. They hide and sniffle, clutch handfuls of her silky clothes. It hurts him to look, hurts him to look away. Antique station he’s only seen in movies. A new career for his wife and sons. Wherever they are, he keeps them coming back to star in this scene. Waving. Clinging. But it’s the wrong movie. He’s not the one leaving. All aboard, all aboard. Faces pressed to the cold glass. Caroline had never owned a silk handkerchief, let alone a long silky skirt.
A trolley begins its ascent of Woodland Avenue, the steep curve along the cemetery where rails are bedded in cobblestones older than anything around them. A fence of black spears seven feet tall guards the neat, green city of the dead. When you choose to live in a city, you also are choosing a city to die in. A huge rat sidles over the cobbles, scoots across steel tracks, messenger from one domain to the other, the dead and living consorting in slouched rat belly.
Teresa, the barmaid once upon a time in Torremolinos, would listen to anything you had to say, as long as you bought drinks while you said it. Beautiful and untouchable, she liked to shoot rats at night after work, in the wee hours neither light nor dark over on the wrong side of town, in garbage dumps, the pits dug for foundations of luxury hotels, aborted high rises never rising any higher than stacks of debris rimming the edges of black holes. She’d hide in the shadows and wait for them to slink into exposed areas. Furry, moonlit bodies, sitting up like squirrels, a hunk of something in their forepaws, gnawing, quivering, profiled just long enough for her to draw a bead between their beady eyes. She never missed.
She was English. Or had lived in England long enough to acquire a British accent, a taste for reggae. Teresa never took Cudjoe seriously. He could amuse her, tease out her smile, but she never encouraged him to go further. She knew his habits—endless shots of Felipe II, determined assaults on each new batch of female tourists—and he knew she shot rats in the old quarter gypsies had inhabited before they were urban-removed.
He’d daydream of leaving the bar with Teresa, her alabaster skin luminous in the fading moonlight. They were survivors. No one else in the streets, the only sound their footfalls over wooden sidewalks, then padding through dusty alleys as they entered the ghetto. He’d watch her do her Annie Oakley thing. Her unerring aim. Her face pinched into a mask of concentration as she sights down the barrel. When she tires of killing, when she leans her rifle against a broken wall and huddles in her own skinny, pale arms, he’ll create himself out of the shadows, wrap her in his warmth, the heat of his body he’s been hoarding while she shot. He loves this moment when she’s weak and exhausted, the pallor of her skin, the cold in her bones, the starry distance of all those nights at the bar when he made her smile but could trick nothing more from those sad eyes. Yes. Take her in the stillborn shell of a building that is also the grave of a gypsy hovel, abandoned when the urban gypsies fled to join their brethren in caves above the sea. Make love to her in the ruins that had never been a city, ruins that were once a wish for a city, a mile-high oasis of steel and glass and rich visitors. Surprise her and take her there, loving her to pieces while rats scuttle from the darkness to eat their dead.
Yes. Clark Park. He knew the location of Clark Park. He’d nodded at Margaret Jones. Yes, I know Clark Park. He’d beaten up his body many a day on the basketball court there. Drank wine and smoked reefer with the hoop junkies many a night after playing himself into a stupor. Clear now what he’d been trying to do. Purge himself. Force the aching need for Caroline and his sons out of his body. Running till his body was gone, his mind whipped. Till he forgot his life was coming apart. Keep score of the game, let the rest go. The park a place to come early and stay late, punish the humpty-dumpty pieces of himself till they’d never want to be whole again.
Clark Park where he’d see a face like Teresa’s. A woman sat in the grass, on a slope below the asphalt path circling the park, in a bright patch of early-morning sunshine. She was staring at the hollow’s floor, a field tamped hard and brown by countless ball games. This woman who could be Teresa, who would be Teresa until Cudjoe satisfied himself otherwise, rested her chin on her drawn-up knees. No kids playing in the hollow, no dog walkers strolling on the path, just the two of us, Cudjoe had thought as he stopped and ambled down the green slope, lower than she was, so he could check out her face. He’ll smile, one early bird greeting another. Pass on if she’s a stranger.
Under her skimpy paisley dress, the woman was naked. She hugged her legs to her chest. Goose bumps prickled her bare loins. At the center of her a dark crease, a spray of curly hairs, soft pinch of buttocks. Cudjoe expected her to raise her chin off her knees, snap her legs straight, but she remained motionless, staring at the hollow. It could be Teresa’s face perched on the woman’s bare knees, a perfect match even though the body bearing it no way Teresa’s. But still it could be Teresa’s face. Right head, wrong body, like a sphinx. The eyes are dreamy, express a vulnerability Teresa never exposed. Teresa’s eyes were mirrors. You saw yourself, your unhappy secrets in them. Nothing in Teresa’s gaze suggested you could change her or change yourself. This woman, girl in Clark Park whose face was Teresa’s, whose body was compact, generously fleshed where Teresa was lithe and taut, this woman who let him see under her dress, had finally smiled down at him over her knees, a smile saying no more or less than this gift of sun feels good and I’m content to share it.
Then she had leaned backward catching her weight on her arms, knees steepled, eyes closing as she tilted her forehead into the light filtering through the trees. Cudjoe’s throat had tightened; he was afraid to swallow, to move an inch. He stared at the dark hinge between her legs. Though she seemed unconcerned by his presence, she wasn’t ignoring him. She was stretching, yawning, welcoming, returning to him after centuries of sleep. She’d chosen her spot and he was part of it, so nothing was foreign, nothing could disturb this moment of communion when what she was was boundless, new, Eve to his Adam, Cudjoe had told himself, half-believing, as he peered into the crack between her legs, the delicate pinks, soft fleece. Born again.
Her green-and-white minidress clearly an afterthought. Didn’t matter to her if it was off or on. She rolled slowly onto her side. From where Cudjoe stood the dress disappeared except for a green edging along the top of one bare flank. Neat roundness of her buttocks, graceful drape of thighs glowed in soft morning light. He couldn’t see a face now. Teresa disintegrates in the smoky shafts of sunlight painting the bank. Above him the remnant of a statue, a woman perfectly formed from marble.
He’d been stuck. Like a fly in honey. He couldn’t look away. Couldn’t go on about his business. What was he looking for then, now as he remembers her, remembers her wisp of dress and the sun, his throat dry, loins filling up, growing so heavy he believed he was sinking into the ground, remembering how she was Teresa, then she wasn’t, then she was, and the loud clanking of trolleys up Woodland, down Baltimore, cables popping, laughing at himself, believing none of it was real? At some point she’d risen, awkward, stiff from sitting too long. A flash of red-dimpled white cheek before she smooths down the flowered hem of her dress. How long had he stood there like a dummy, gazing into the empty stripe of sunlight?
On Mykonos scuffing his way through hot sand he’d seen naked bodies every size, shape and color stretched for acres between green sea and rocks spilled at the base of cliffs, bodies so casual, blasé, he ignored them, preferred them at night, clothed, in the restaurants and discos. Funny how quickly he’d gotten used to nakedness. Hair, skin, bones. What was different, what was the same about all the bodies. Blond, dark, lean, stubby, every nation represented, all shapes of male and female displayed in any angle he could imagine. What was he looking for in women’s bodies? Surely he’d have tripped over it trudging up and back those golden beaches on Mykonos. But no. The mystery persisted. His woman in the park. A daydream till she brushes bits of straw from the seat of her paisley dress. Runs away.
Rules posted in the park, but the signs, blasted by spray paint, unreadable. No rules, no signs when he’d lived here a decade ago. He’d remembered a green oasis. Forgotten those seasons, months when the park was the color of the neighborhood surrounding it. No color. Grays and browns of dead leaves. July now. Trees should be full, the grass green. He’d been hoping for green. Hoping the park sat green and waiting between Woodland and Baltimore avenues, that it had not been an invention, one more lie he’d told himself about this land to which he was returning.
A statue of Charles Dickens. Only one in the world at last count. Little Nell at his knee stares imploringly up at the great man’s distant face. They are separated and locked together by her gaze. Both figures larger than life, greener than the brittle grass. Both blind. In a notebook somewhere Cudjoe had recorded the inscription carved into the pedestal. For his story about people who frequent the park. A black boy who climbs on Dickens’s knee and daydreams. A crazy red-haired guy muttering and singing nonsense songs to himself. A blind man who shoots baskets at night. A boy-girl vignette about a baby the girl’s carrying, how the couple strolls round and round the path, kids on a carousel, teaching themselves the news of another, unexpected life.
Twenty blocks west the fire had burned. If the wind right, smoke would have drifted here, settled on leaves, grass, bushes. Things that eat leaves and buds must have tasted smoke. Dark clouds drifting this way carried the ashy taste of incinerated children’s flesh. Could you still smell it? Was the taste still part of what grew in the park? Would it ever go away?
Cudjoe watches a runty little boy terrorize other children in a play area off to his right. The kid’s a devil. He screams and stomps his feet, laying claim to a domain invisible to the other kids till they encroach. Then he goes wild, patrolling his turf ferociously with shoves, screeches, the threat of his tiny fist wagged in somebody’s face. He’s everywhere at once, defending, shooting, hollering. Tough little bastard, Cudjoe thinks. All the other kids are buffaloed. Till one boy goes after the tyrant with a gun from outer space that squeals like a lost soul. The bully loses it. Screams and trucks away as fast as his stubby legs and miniature Adidas will carry him to a group of women sitting on a wall. Little guy’s so shook up, he crashes into the wrong lap, hiding his face till another woman, who must be his mother, snatches him up, fusses at him and plops him down beside her.
The moral, Cudjoe says to himself, is everybody’s afraid of something. Or everybody, sooner or later, meets their match. Or any port in a storm. Or if he hadn’t been thinking of pussy a few minutes before, he wouldn’t have glanced over at the young women perched on the wall around the play area and he’d have missed the whole show. And the moral of that was…
Circling the park, he passes benches set in concrete just off the main path. Built to last forever, they weren’t going to make it. Somebody had expended enormous energy attacking them. Not casual violence but premeditated murder. You’d need heavy-duty weapons to inflict this damage. Sledgehammers. Crowbars. Why kill these benches whose sole purpose was offering people a place to rest their asses and enjoy the park? Why would anybody need to go declare war on a bench? Whose life was that fucked up? One or two benches survived, hacked, splintered. When would they get theirs? At night or in broad daylight? When all the benches were gone, what part of the park would be wasted next? Cudjoe hears the hobnailed boot tramp of soldier ants, the metallic grinding of their jaws as the column chews its way through a sleeping city.
He checks his watch. No guarantee she’d show up. Why should she trust him? He’d been surprised when she agreed to talk into the tape machine. Surprised when she said she’d meet him in the park. Clark Park between Baltimore and Woodland, around Forty-third. Yes, he knew the place. Yes, he’d be there. Would she?
Three blocks away the basketball court, the hollow. Nothing shaking as far as he can tell. A few people that from this distance, at this hour of the morning are silhouettes, dull shadows until they step beyond the border of trees and then their edges catch fire, bristle in the shimmer of sunshine bathing the far end of the park. One of those figures, wiggling in its nimbus of light, could be hers. Difficult from where he stands to be sure. No chance he’ll miss her if she wants him to find her.
He crosses Chester Avenue, takes the lower dip of the path toward the court. Benches here, above the hollow, spray-painted and carved but intact. Cyclone fencing encloses three sides of the basketball court. All those new courts erected in the sixties had four high metal sides. People said they were part of the final solution. Lots more had sprung up in the ghetto since he’d been away. It ain’t over yet, Cudjoe reminds himself.
This rusty fence seems higher, the court smaller. He can’t remember the asphalt rectangle ever looking as forlorn, abandoned. In the old days when he’d arrive early to shoot around, the court might be deserted, but he’d never felt alone. Only a matter of time before other players would bop in. He wishes he’d brought a ball today so he could pat it, make it boom in the stillness. Glory hanging on every shot. He surveys the backboards, the crooked, netless rims. No clue anybody will play here today, tomorrow, ever. Was the court dead or just sleeping?
Best action migrated all over the city. Years ago Cudjoe knew where they’d be playing any night of the week, they being the bad dudes, the cookers, superstars. If your stuff wasn’t ready better not bring it out there. They’d put a hurt on you. Send you home with your feelings hurt. Don’t care what college you play for. On the neighborhood courts no coaches, no referees, no scholarships, nothing but you and what you can do and a whole lot of bad brothers who could play some ball. Some Sunday afternoons the action came to Clark. Court up at Sixty-ninth and Haverford packed and people cruise by Clark, get it on here instead of lining up for winners at Sixty-ninth. Knuckleheads tore down one rim at Forty-seventh and Kingsessing, couldn’t run full court there, so Clark be it. The Big Time. Joint rocking. They all be out here.
Nothing like it. Cudjoe can’t help smiling as he thinks of himself in the thick of the action. Pushing past the point of breaking but you don’t break, a sweet second wind gets you over and it’s easy then, past breaking or not breaking. Doing your thing and nothing can touch you. Past turning back. You’re out there. Doing it. Legs and heart and mind and breath working hard together. You forget everything you know and play. The wall you can’t move, that stops you and makes you cry when you beat your head against it, is suddenly full of holes. A velvet-stepped ladder tames the air. You can rise over the wall or glide through it. Do both at once. Unveil moves you didn’t know you owned. You don’t remember the wall till you’re past it, over on the other side and a guy runs up to you and sticks out his palm and you slap skin low, high, higher, and the winos, junkies, bullshitters and signifiers jamming the sidelines holler amen like they just seen Black Jesus.
Cudjoe watches bodies flash past. A sound track explodes with crowd noise. The court’s full, then just as abruptly empty again. Seconds pass quietly as the camera pans splitting wooden backboards. Droopy rims. Asphalt cracked with dry riverbeds and tributaries. A view of the empty court shot through interlocking squares of chain-link fencing to suggest how things might look from the steel-meshed window of a prison cell. Inside looking out or outside looking in. Then the court’s full again. Music blasting. Players grunting, panting, squeak of sneakers, cheers from the sidelines, thud of strong bodies every shade of black and brown and ivory colliding, tangling, flying. Cudjoe inserts himself into his film, a solitary figure, narrow shoulders framed by the emptiness of the court that is quiet again. A man caught up in reverie, shuttling at warp speed between times and places, a then and a now. Cudjoe is an actor embarrassed by the cliché shot, a director who can’t resist filming it this way. Camera whirs behind his back, inside his skull. Court full, then empty. Sooty clouds, right on time, roll in from the west.
He senses Margaret Jones behind him, moving closer. Coming the long way round, under the canopy of trees, then into a band of light where her body blurs, disintegrates, her steps slower as warmth drops on her shoulders. Her eyes are fixed on his back, sure now it’s him. Measuring, assessing the pose he’s held too long now, but won’t alter because he wants her to find him this way, wants her to shorten the distance between them, do some of the work to bring them together. He hopes she’s wondering what he’s thinking, that she’ll realize she doesn’t know everything about him. She reaches the trail worn through the grass alongside the far wing of the three-sided fence. He must not turn around too soon. He’ll break the spell, she’ll disappear. She’s wearing an intricately wrapped turban, a robe with swirls of bold color. A few more paces will free her image from the disciplined strands of wire. He pivots abruptly and finds no one there. His timing’s off. He’s scared her away. Would she have been there if he’d held out just an instant longer? Too late now, charm’s broken. Back across Chester Avenue a woman sitting apart from the others smokes a cigarette on the stone wall enclosing monkey bars and slides.
Nkisa used to bring Simba here. I brought my kids, Billy and Karen, when they were little ones. Wasn’t nothing so great about the park. This dinky playground stuff been here forever and half of it been busted forever but I liked the walk down from Fifty-ninth and liked getting out the house. Somebody different to talk to. Other women stuck at home like me with little babies. So once in a while I’d truck all the way down here to Clark with one in the stroller and one holding my hand.
Ten years or so ago.
Well, I might have seen you then. I lived on Osage. Spent half my life in the park. Played a lot of ball here.
They still play. Or call themselves playing. More drinking and snorting and smoking reefer than ball playing. A rowdy bunch now.
Used to be good hoop.
I wouldn’t know anything about that, but I’d skin Billy or Karen alive if I caught them hanging around here. Pimpmobiles and dopemobiles. Sell you anything you big enough to ask for. And if I know what they’re doing, the cops got to know. You think the police do anything about it? Hell no. Not till one these little white chicks slinking around here. ODs and turns up dead, then they’ll come down on that corner like gangbusters.
So the park’s not what it used to be.
What is? Tell me if you know what is.
You might have run into my wife and boys here.
You have children?
Yes. Two boys. Probably about the age of your kids. They live with their mother now.
She stares at him as if none of this is news.
Thanks for meeting me this morning.
We been through all that once, ain’t we? Started off with that polite, nicey-nice do. Don’t need to go back to that again. I’m here. You’re here. Got my reasons. I’m sure you have yours. You might want to take back some of that thank-you when you hear what I have to say. The boy’s gone.
Gone? Gone where?
Nobody knows. Just disappeared.
Are you sure?
Sure as I’m sitting here.
Like a turkey through the corn. My friends haven’t seen him for a week. Finally got him to where he’d play with other kids. Had him a few little buddies come by every day and seemed like he was getting better. Simba even talked some with the kids. Grown-ups thought he’d forgot how. Said they saw him smile for the first time too, when he was around other kids. My friends who were keeping him said they’d let Simba go off and play with his gang because he was improving. Being around other kids doing him a world of good. He learned to ride a bike. Buddies taught him and one day he rode off nobody ain’t seen him since.
Have they tried to find him?
What do you think, mister? They was taking care of the child. They nursed him, put up with his craziness. A little wild animal for weeks after the fire. They loved him back from craziness and now they scared to death somebody’s done something else to hurt him. Trying every way they know how to find him. But nobody knows nothing. Had a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood check downtown. If the cops know something, they’re not talking. Seems like that poor boy rode his bike right off the end of the earth.
That’s what I say. This whole ugly business keeps getting worse. People murdered and burnt up is bad enough, but it won’t stop there. Can’t stop it seems. Worked so hard to make Simba better and now he disappears. Don’t make sense. Something going on that’s deep-down bad. Something nasty and ugly that’s bound to get worse.
Will your friends talk to me?
Best for you to stay away from my friends. I sic you on them they won’t be my friends anymore. They’re upset. And got a right to be. Ain’t hardly a time for strangers to come around asking questions. Too many questions already. People want answers.
If somebody doesn’t keep asking questions, how will the boy be found?
Don’t you worry about that. Folks don’t need any interference right now in what they’re trying to do. What I’m saying is leave it be. Butt out. Whatever’s going on, people around here can handle it. They got to. No choice. This where they live. We’re not looking for help from you or nobody else. Help is what started this mess. Somebody called himself helping is the one lit the fire.
What starts the action, two young bloods shooting around. Gradually six or seven others saunter onto the court. If you’re listening for it, drumming of the ball on asphalt carries for blocks. The game’s one on one on one. Every man for himself. You keep the pill as long as you can score. Make a shot from the field with somebody guarding you then make three free ones from behind the key then you try and score from the field again, with somebody checking you and so on till you miss. Whoever rebounds the miss is next up. Anybody can guard the one with the ball, but the last one who missed has to check him. Keep track of your own points. Call out your score each time you hit a shot. When you close in on twenty-one the whole mob comes chasing you. No out of bounds, no fouls. Point is you got to get the ball. Show what you can do with it when you got it.
A way of loosening up. A way of seeing who can play. No passing, no teamwork, no slowdown or fast break. Everybody up against it. One on one on one.
Even after enough bodies to run full court, no game starts because older players begin to straggle in. Some sit on the sidelines. One or two join in the one-on-one game, wolfing, joshing, schooling the young guys. Clearly stronger, more experienced, able to dominate and talk trash and have it their way.
A box is set up and begins blasting. Players synchronize their dribbling, head fakes, spins and stutter steps with the tunes. Music’s inside the game. If you can’t hear it, you can see it. Somebody always getting off, doing his step in the middle of the action. On time. Younger players drift off to a single basket behind the fence where they mess around during the whole court run. People shoot for teams. Everybody takes a turn on the foul line till ten make it or the first two choose squads. Somebody calls winners. Somebody shouts, Got next after you. First out’s decided by another shot from the top of the key, make-it-take-it, and the run’s on.
That’s how it was supposed to start. And it did. They got that part right.
Been awhile, Cudjoe is thinking, and that’s why he missed. On line but not enough arch. He’d returned to the park to find a game and now he was trying to guide the ball rather than shoot it. Shooting’s all in the mind. You must believe the ball’s going in. Confidence and the amen wrist flick of follow-through. You reach for the sky, launch the ball so it rotates off your fingertips and let it drop through the rim. When you hold on too long, when you don’t relax and extend your arm and let nature take its course, you shoot short. Because you don’t believe. Because you’re trying too hard to maintain control, you choke the ball and it comes up short.
First go-round only six made it so a second chance for everybody who blew. This time Cudjoe’s too strong. Ball boomerangs off the back of the iron. He sits out the first run. Takes winners with two other guys who missed their free throws.
Game was rag ass. Too much like one on one. A neighborhood run. No surprises. Too much assumed and conceded. A few good players who weren’t half as good as they thought they were, sloppily doing more or less what they felt like doing. A few possessed one outstanding skill or talent and slipped it into the game when they could, often when they shouldn’t. Defense nonexistent. Everybody going for steals or blocks instead of hanging tight with their man. Chump city. More action cooking around the court than on it. Block long Eldorado drop top docked at the curb. Deals going down. Basketball game like a TV set playing in a crowded room and nobody watching.
There’s a spot for you, O.T.
My man wants to run, too.
He’s five then. You, your man, that dude over there talking to Peewee, this brother and me.
My name’s Cudjoe.
This Mike. They call me O.T. What’s the score?
Just started, man.
Ain’t much out there.
Early. This the first run.
Cudjoe. My oldest brother used to play with a dude name Cudjoe.
What’s your brother’s name?
And you’re Skeets?
When I was little I was Skeets.
He’s in the slam, man. Five years now.
Dope, man. Into the dope shit, you know.
Yeah. Surprised everybody. My big brother always a together dude. Never in no trouble. He looked out for me. More like a daddy to me, you know. Then dope, man. He just couldn’t handle. Stealing and shit.
Damn. I’m sorry. Ran with Darnell many a day. Right here. Darnell could bust the jumper.
He was tough. Used to watch his every move and wanna be like him some day. I remember you now. Cudjoe. Kind of a different name, you know. Remember the name. Now I’m remembering seeing you play with my brother. You had a nice game. You still busting?
Up next with you.
Can you still do it?
I’m in shape. I can run. But it’s been awhile since I’ve played. Not much ball where I was.
Ain’t nothing out there on the court. We’ll win a few and you be cooking like the old days.
Skeets grown up.
Been a long time since they call me Skeets.
You in school?
Was, man. I’m working now, you know, so I can go back.
Did you play ball?
First semester. Then the books. I fucked up. Lost my free ride. Had to drop out. I’m going back, though. Working now so I can pay my way. Coach say, you know, if I make the team, he’ll go to bat for me. See if he can, you know, get me some money.
Good luck with it.
Yeah. I’ma get myself together. Make something of myself, man. It’s been nice talking to you.
Sorry about your brother.
That’s the way it goes.
Cudjoe watches O.T. move off. Darnell Thompson all over again. Big, black, graceful. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, short, bouncy, almost delicate steps. Darnell’s soft, easy manner. Eagerness in his voice as he leans into a conversation. Enjoying what he’s saying, what you have to say. Taller by inches than his brother. O.T. had grown a body to fit Darnell’s enormous hands. Ten years. Did anything get better instead of worse? Why couldn’t he believe Darnell’s brother? Why did he hear ice cracking as O.T. spoke of his plans? Why did he see Darnell’s rusty hard hand wrapped around his brother’s dragging him down?
One guy on their squad a leaper. About Cudjoe’s height, six one or six two, only leaner, younger. Not much of a shot, but he’d go after everything that missed. Quick as a frog off his feet, a hustler, battler who loved running the court, banging underneath. Then a short dude, runty and arrogant, who pushed the pill downcourt helter-skelter, advantage or no, constantly jamming himself up. Favored behind-the-back, through-the-legs, over-the-backboard passes. Disappeared when the ball not in his hands. When it was in his hands, he forgot about the other four people playing with him, dribbled himself into trouble so he could dribble out again, feeling taller and slicker each time he escaped a trap he’d created for himself. O.T.’s friend Mike was solid, skilled, understood the game; he was dependable, fun to play with. O.T. a monster, operating a foot or so above everybody else. Took what he wanted. Changed gears when he wanted to. Let the other team stay close enough to believe they had a chance. Then blew them away—steals, slams, blocked shots.
Cudjoe did his bit. Hit a lay-up and a couple jumpers from the wing. Fed the free man. Dealt the ball away from the dribble-happy dude. His legs gave out in game three. Downhill from there. A question of holding his own then, not being a liability, not making dumb mistakes, playing tough D.
No wheels. Knew what I wanted to do but my wheels just wouldn’t turn.
His team retired undefeated. Only one serious challenge all evening. A squad had loaded up for them. The best of the rest and Dribble King had decided it was show time, doing his roadrunner act, and they were down three hoops, 6–9, in the twelve-basket game. Finally O.T. glared at Mr. Pat-Pat and brought him back to reality. The little guy sulked but stayed out the way long enough for the others to get it done. Pulling that game out was the best moment. Many high fives and a good, deep-down sense of pushing to the limit and bringing something back. After the winning basket they gathered under the hoop still shuddering from Sky’s humongous dunk. Their eyes met, their fists met for a second in the core of a circle, then just as quickly broke apart, each going his own way.
If you keep playing, the failing light is no problem. Your eyes adjust and the streetlamps come on and they help some. People pass by think you’re crazy playing basketball in the dark, but if you stay in the game you can see enough. Ball springs at you quicker from the shadows. Pill surprises you and zips by you unless you know it’s coming. Part of being in the game is anticipating, knowing who’s on the court with you and what they’re likely to do. It’s darker. Not everything works now that works in daylight. Trick is knowing what does. And staying within that range. You could be blind and play if the game’s being played right so you stay out past the point people really seeing. You just know what’s supposed to be happening. Dark changes things but you can manage much better than anyone not in the game would believe. Still there comes a point you’ll get hurt if you don’t give it up. Not the other team you’re fighting then, but the dark, and it always wins, you know it’s going to win so what you’re doing doesn’t make sense, it’s silly and you persist in the silliness a minute or two, a pass pops you in your chest, a ball rises and comes down in the middle of three players and nobody even close to catching it. You laugh and go with the silliness. Can’t see a damn thing anymore. Whether a shot’s in or out. Hey, O.T., man. Show some teeth so I can see you, motherfucker. Somebody trudges off the court. Youall can have it. I can’t see shit. The rest laugh and give it up, too. You fade to the sidelines. It’s been dark a long time at the court’s edges. People’s faces gloomed in deep shadow. A cigarette glows. Night sure enough now. Cross a line and on the other side it’s been dark for days.
Mellow reggae thumps from the open door of a car. A light crowd of hangers-on in groups by the curb, against the chain-link fence, around a bench on the court, huddled at another bench farther away where the hollow drops off from the path. Riffs of reefer, wine, beer. You smell yourself if you’ve been playing. Cudjoe’s in the cluster of men lounging around the bench in the middle of the court’s open side. Night dries his skin. He feels darker, the color of a deep, purple bruise. He won’t be able to walk tomorrow. Mostly players around the bench, men who’ve just finished the last game of the evening, each one relaxing in his own funk, cooling out, talking the game, beginning to turn it into stories. Cudjoe knows the action will flash back later, game films on an invisible screen above his bed. All those years of playing and it still happens. While his stiff muscles unknot, too tired to sleep, the game movie will play in his head whether he wants to watch or not.
If he told his story to the other men, if he wasn’t a newcomer content to listen to the others, if he wasn’t too tired and beat to say his own name three times in a row, his story would be about night dropping on the city, how deep and how quietly it settles over the park. Nothing the same now. Trick about night is it changes things but you can’t see exactly how. You know the park is different, you feel it in your bones. Night air cools your skin, contours of the ground rise and fall in unfamiliar rhythms, spaces open which haven’t been there before, the hollow loses its bottom, a black lap you’d sink into forever. Night can shrink things. The players beside him are smaller, parts of them lost, stolen by shadow, their voices husky, pitched to the night’s quiet, movements slowed as if night’s a medium like water and they must conspire with its flow. When night’s closing down it shuts things in on themselves and that’s why you are on a ship with these other men thousands of miles from everywhere else, floating through darkness, and you can’t help sensing the isolation, the smallness because night cuts you off drastically as a knife. But since you can’t see clearly, you can’t really tell. Night expands some things. Trees explode silently, giant black puffs hovering like clouds against the sky. You know night’s different and you guess at why. Can’t help guessing, wondering, even though you understand you’ll never understand because night is about hiding things. About things changing. And Cudjoe knows it would make a good story. They’d all be in it. Would the players testify, help him tell his story as they cool out after the game?
The other fact about night—it doesn’t last. Night’s temporary. But you can’t really be sure about that, either.
My poor, aching wheels.
I can dig it, bro.
My mind’s right there. Tells me just what to do. But my legs ain’t with it. In their own world. I send the message and by the time they move, it’s too late.
Like the mayor.
That cat missing more than wheels.
You can say that again.
He’s not stepping down, is he? You watch. He’ll run again. Probably win again if the party’s behind him.
Why you think they wouldn’t be behind him? All he did was torch a few crazy niggers. That’s why he’s up in office in the first place. Keep youall ghetto bunnies in line. Sure, he goofed. But things so fucked in this city whoever’s in the mayor’s chair bound to fuck up. Mayor don’t run the city, city runs him. Them slick dudes own the mayor are grinning from ear to ear cause if it had been a white boy dropped the bomb, bloods would have took to the street and the whole city nothing but a cinder now.
Tell the truth.
Leave the mayor alone, youall. Cat’s doing his best. Hate to hear people bad-mouthing him. Specially black people. Finally voted in a black man, and now nothing he does good enough for you.
Ain’t about black.
Bull-shit. You think they’d let him burn down white people’s houses? Sheeit. He be hanging by his balls from some lamppost. Mayor’s not in office to whip on white folks. Nigger control. That’s what he’s about.
New houses they building up on Osage spozed to be pretty nice.
No stoops, man. How you spozed to have a neighborhood with no stoops?
Check it out. What’s up there mostly holes in the ground.
Where the people living lost their homes?
Not in City Hall. Not in the mayor’s neighborhood.
At least they’re living.
Don’t care what nobody says. It was murder, man. Murder one and some of those lying suckers ought to pay.
They appointed a commission.
Hey, bro. Commissioners all members of the same club. Thick as thieves. Downtown chumps all eating out the same bowl. They come in where I work. Smiling and grinning and falling over each other to pay when I bring the check. You think they going to hang one their own? Watch. Commission will claim some poor blood lit the match.
Papers been spreading that lie already. Like the brothers poured gasoline on the roof and locked theyselves in the basement and set fire to the house. Who’s spozed to believe that shit?
Have they found the little boy?
The one survived?
They say he survived. If he did, hope he’s a million miles away from here. They’ll fuck with him if they find him.
If he ain’t dead already. Papers say eleven dead. Means at least eleven. Lie about the numbers like they lie about everything else. If they admit eleven it means that’s how many bodies they caught red-handed with. Don’t know how many dead in those ashes in the basement. Papers say a boy escaped. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t.
Anything left in that bottle, man?
Here, dude. You got the rest.
Cudjoe decides not to ask about the boy again. Cheating in a way when he asked the first time. This mood, this time belongs to nobody. Each man free as long as they relax here letting night close over them. If a city lurks beyond the borders of the park, it’s no more real than the ball games they play again as they talk. They are together in this. No agendas, interviews or interviewees. Are the streetlamps dimmer or has the city slipped into a deeper fold of night? Faces around him are masks. Would he recognize any of these guys if he saw them in clothes on the street tomorrow? Music doo-wops in thick pure phrases from the car on Forty-third behind the chain-link fence. Music reigns supreme and there is nothing not listening. Cudjoe holds his breath. Doesn’t need breath as a high sweet tenor and voices trilling behind it shine like silver, shine like gold.
Could you bring down a city with trumpets? Could a song lay waste skyscrapers? Scour the hills, cleanse the rivers, wipe the sky? Everything in creation had been listening to the music. Now sirens and jets and horns and trolleys, dogs howling, babies screaming had started up again. Thump of Cudjoe’s heart again. That shield of filth the city flings up at the sky in place again. Stars spatter against it like rain on a tin roof trying to get in. Hushed for a moment but now a river of noise again and the tune from a tape deck is a twig drifting along with everything else caught in the current. Waters above and waters below the firmament, and earth a wafer in those wet lips that are light-years thick. He tastes earth as he drains a can of beer. O.T. smoking a cigarette. Darnell sucking on a joint. Or was it the other way round? Too dark to tell. If the lips opened to sing, to kiss, to tell a story. If they opened, and the earth wafer slipped out. Wouldn’t there be a long time when nobody’d know what was happening? Centuries out of kilter, askew, but no one understanding the problem. Just this queasiness, this uneasiness. This tilt and slow falling. You are in a city. You look up and can’t see the stars and that doesn’t bother you as much as it should. You don’t know what’s wrong but maybe more’s wrong than you want to know.
Cudjoe doesn’t know why he piled into the car going to Papa Joe’s. Why he drank six more drafts with the fellas when the first one cooled him out. Doesn’t know why he’s decided to walk back to West Philly when his legs already wobbly and stupid. He’s at the top of many broad steps, near the entrance of the art museum, whose stones on a good day are golden in the sun. A neat ingot enthroned on a hill. He is sighting down a line of lighted fountains that guide his eye to City Hall. This is how the city was meant to be viewed. Broad avenues bright spokes of a wheel radiating from a glowing center. No buildings higher than Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall. Scale and pattern fixed forever. Clarity, balance, a perfect understanding between the parts. Night air thick and bad but he’s standing where he should and the city hums this dream of itself into his ear and he doesn’t believe it for an instant but wonders how he managed to stay away so long.
I belong to you, the city says. This is what I was meant to be. You can grasp the pattern. Make sense of me. Connect the dots. I was constructed for you. Like a field of stars I need you to bring me to life. My names, my gods poised on the tip of your tongue. All you have to do is speak and you reveal me, complete me.
The city could fool you easy. And he wonders if that’s why he is back. To be caught up in the old trick bag again. Love you. Love you not. Who’s zooming who? Is someone in charge? From this vantage point in the museum’s deep shadow in the greater darkness of night it seems an iron will has imposed itself on the shape of the city. If you could climb high enough, higher than the hill on which the museum perches, would you believe in the magic pinwheel of lights, straight lines, exact proportions, symmetry of spheres within spheres, gears meshing, turning, spinning to the perpetual music of their motion? Cudjoe fine-tunes for a moment the possibility that someone, somehow, had conceived the city that way. A miraculous design. A prodigy that was comprehensible. He can see a hand drawing the city. An architect’s tilted drafting board, instruments for measuring, for inscribing right angles, arcs, circles. The city is a faint tracery of blue, barely visible blood lines in a newborn’s skull. No one has used the city yet. No one has pushed a button to start the heart pumping.
He can tell thought had gone into the design. And a person must have stood here, on this hill, imagining this perspective. Dreaming the vast emptiness into the shape of a city. In the beginning it hadn’t just happened, pell-mell. People had planned to live and prosper here. Wear the city like robe and crown.
The founders were dead now. Buried in their wigs, waistcoats, swallowtail coats, silk hose clinging to their plump calves. A foolish old man flying a kite in a storm.
Cudjoe decides he will think of himself as a reporter covering a story in a foreign country. Stay on his toes, take nothing for granted. Not the customs nor the language. What he sees is not what the natives see. The movie has been running for years, long before he was born, and will sputter on about its business long after he is dead and gone. At best he can write the story of someone in his shoes passing through.
He is not alone. At this late hour museum busy as an anthill. Steady traffic of cars up and down driveways curving around its flanks. If you swept the night visitors together they’d form a crowd, but the museum’s spacious grounds—terraced, grottoed, thickly planted with trees and shrubs—offer privacy to anyone who wishes it. Most of the young people wish it, play hide-and-seek in couples or small groups. Here comes some fool bounding up the hundred stairs from Logan Circle. Rocky Balboa, arms raised in triumph, claiming the city.
Patrol cars take leisurely passes up and down the circular drive. No one pays attention. The mood is mellow, cops and kids ignoring each other. As long as everybody follows the rules, there wouldn’t seem to be any rules. Music and dope in moderation. Little tidbits of sound, of hashish smoke reach Cudjoe. These white kids had been granted a zone. Everybody had zones. Addicts, prostitutes, porn merchants, derelicts. Even people who were black and poor had a zone. Everybody granted the right to lie in the bed they’d made for themselves. As long as they didn’t contaminate good citizens who disapproved. As long as the beds available to good citizens who wished to profit or climb in occasionally. As long as everybody knew they had to give up their zone, scurry down off this hill, no questions asked, when the cops blow the whistle.
Maybe this is a detective story, Cudjoe says to himself. Out there the fabled city of hard knocks and exciting possibilities. You could get wasted out there and lots did. His job sleaze control. Bright lights, beautiful people, intrigue, romance. The city couldn’t offer those rushes without toilets, sewers, head busters and garbage dumps. Needed folks on the other side of the fast track and needed a tough cookie to keep them scared and keep them where they belong. The fast movers would pay well for that service. Let you sample the goodies once in a while. Just enough to spoil you. Not enough to dull the edge you required to do their spadework, to get down where it was down and dirty.
Limousines out there. And sleek women in dresses slit up to their assholes. Everything bought and sold. You could buy day or buy night. This circus of lights enticing him could be turned off or on at someone’s command.
He remembers waterfalls framing the broad museum stairs. At night the pumps rested but during summer days twin stair-stepped cascades of water turned the wells at the end of each landing into swimming holes. City kids in their underwear played in the pools. Colonies of little brown monkeys splashing and squealing and sliding down green sheets of water. Beating the heat. Shirts and shorts discarded where they were peeled off sweaty bodies. Shoes were what got to him. Piles of sneakers all colors, shapes, low-rent versions of adult styles, beat to shit the way kids’ shoes always are, but these, scattered around on the wet steps, these were worse, gaping holes in the bottoms, shredded uppers, laces missing, shoes taped, patched, lined with cardboard. Cheapest concoctions of glue and foam and canvas that money could buy.
Cudjoe constructs a room to match the shoes, fills it with sleeping bodies, many funky pairs of sneakers set out overnight to dry. Constructs a row house to hold the room, matches it with house after house till there is a street, then a neighborhood matching the sorry-assed shoes he’s ready to lace now and thinks of miles of streets he must negotiate to reach the fountain, how pebbles and grains of glass punch through the thin soles, how after a while with his brothers and sisters in tow, it’s like walking barefoot on burning coals, you don’t stop and wait for a light to change, you charge through intersections, daring cars to hit you. Constructs a city to hold the neighborhood, to match the rags on their feet, broad boulevards to carry traffic to the art museum, monumental buildings to hold treasure. As the boy probes inside his shoe, rubbing lumps, loose fibers, fingering holes that caused yesterday’s calluses and blisters, Cudjoe hollers, Stop. Don’t stick that rotten thing back on your foot. Hollering as if the boy could hear him, as if the boy could fling down the shoe and everything would be different, as if the shoe isn’t already here on the stone steps, the boy’s fresh cuts bleeding somewhere in sheets of green water.
Kids played rough and loud in the pools below the fountain. No adults in sight. Kind of place Cudjoe had only seen from a distance when he was growing up. Not nice. Not safe. White bodies rare. Lines were drawn in his family. Poor as his family was, certain distinctions were important, clarified early. He wasn’t allowed to play in fountains, in roachy public pools because he wasn’t like those children running loose who did. Not a matter of pretending he was a white child, just that he wasn’t that kind of black one. Scraped from the streets. Rag-muffin from God-knows-where, infected with God-knows-what, and you’d catch it no doubt about it playing in the water they play in. Nobody’s children trekking here for a few hot summer days, then gone, back to wherever they came from, wherever they’re going. You stay right here in your own backyard, boy. Be grateful somebody’s keeping an eye on you.
The pitiful shoes and how happy the kids seemed. Both those things get to him. He thinks of all those hours on his back steps staring into the alley. Could you lose track of how to be happy. If you learned to wait too early, would the waiting ever end? Didn’t take very much to have fun. Splish-splash half naked in the city’s water on the steps of this monument. Wasn’t that as good as it ever was going to get? What sense did it make to wait? Wait for what? Already time for some of the girls to keep their undershirts on. Breast buds poking through wet cotton pasted to their skin. One year. Two years. How long before the journey here seems silly, not worth the trouble? Tired of being teased, embarrassed by the tricks of a body growing too fast. You bring your little brothers and sisters but hang back because of the bra, hairs under your arms, between your legs. Boys won’t leave you alone but some are sweet and you listen and suck on a piece of hard candy and sing to yourself the song you daydream the sweetest one could sing to you if he cut those other pestering, lame dudes loose, if you didn’t have to keep an eye on all those babies paddling in the water. Over your shoulder you scope a twin of your old self, no hips, no titties, wild and stronger than the boys, hollering because nobody can catch you as you slither and leap over the falls. Brown and slick as a seal. She’s you all over again. She catches your eye and you’re both places at once, free as a bird, stuck in the honey these boys churn swarming round you.
Piles of shoes, a mountain of discarded clothes. A shower bath on the museum steps.
Then smoke rising in the west. The city cringes and holds its nose and points a finger. Nothing is lost. In the blink of an eye a new crop playing on the steps, in the fountains flowing down the hill when summer days turn long and hot again.
He’s imagined more than he wanted to. The boy. The girl. The fire consuming their few belongings. All the evidence up in smoke. No warehouses of shoes and eyeglasses and clothing left behind to convict the guilty. The dead were dead. What they possessed gone with them. On Osage Avenue bulldozers and cranes comb the ashes, sift, crush, spread them neat as a carpet over vacant lots. Cudjoe’s business concerns survivors. If any had survived. Simba Muntu lost, found, and lost again.
Some city lights like planets, others like stars. Some burn steady, others twinkle and bend. Lights pulsate, crackle, hum, lights blink off and on like insects Cudjoe used to hunt in the evening, on the bushes in his backyard. He can blot out great chunks of city by positioning his hand in front of his eyes. With his hands over his ears he can quiet sirens, the babble of traffic. Maybe he’s missed the city. Or maybe he’s home to remind himself how much he hates the whole stinking mess, the funky air, the slow belly rub of everybody’s nerves on everybody’s nerves till some poor soul can’t take it and lights a match and burns the gig down around his head.
Cudjoe sits on a hard bench. The first shall also be last. The basketball court’s empty. During the walk west he was sure he’d never make it back. Then he’d found himself collapsing on this bench. Need a crane to lift him now. He’s bolted to the wood slats. His muscles locked in a sitting position and that’s how they’ll discover him in the morning, frozen solid like one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men, God’s hostages who must thaw a thousand years after they’ve done their turn of suffering on earth. The court, the whole park empty. No one’s passed since he’d sunken into the bench. Crickets and dull roar of the city all he hears behind him. Trolleys farther and farther apart. One must be due soon, clattering up Baltimore or Chester. Traffic diminished to a few madmen racing cars around the dark streets.
At first he believes he’s hallucinating, the night chill getting to his brain as well as his muscles. He’d probably nodded off and the voices a dream he can shake off now he’s awake. He blinks. Rubs his eyes. The sound, barely louder than the sawing crickets, won’t go away. Rising from the hollow, from the bottomless black pit daybreak will change back to the hollow, are sure enough voices, a muted conversation growing more real the more intently he listens. Voices. Voices teasingly close to intelligible. He recognizes speech rhythms, single words, familiar silences between exchanges. Sounds like several different speakers though he can’t distinguish what any says. An oddness on top of the oddness of hearing voices in Clark Park in the dead middle of the night, a quality he can’t put his finger on as he strains to pick out phrases. Is the language foreign? Are these spirit voices? Little folk who emerge from their hiding places at midnight and rule the park. Is he slipping in and out of a dream? He listens. It’s not elves or extraterrestrials. It’s kids. He realizes he’s been holding his breath and exhales. Kids talking in the hollow in the middle of the night. Up past their bedtime. Like he was up past his. Maybe he should walk over. Hey, youall. It’s late. Time to go home. Where are their mothers and fathers? Where are his kids?
Ten minutes. Fifteen. One voice dominates, rapping, scatting till they complete their business. Was it them after a silence of a minute or so, briefly outlined a block and a half away in the snowy glow of a streetlamp? They barely rumpled the curtain of darkness as they emerged from the hollow and scooted through. Cudjoe tracks cones of light under hooded posts for their bobbing silhouettes.
Like calling roll he coaxes his body parts to attention. Necessary to address each by name, remind each of its function and duty. A first step impossible. Then it’s accomplished. And the next is worse. He’s the rusty tin woodsman clanking after Dorothy. Wasted, but he’s not ready to go home to bed yet. He can’t read his watch. Just enough illumination from a streetlight to obscure its glow-in-the-dark hands. If he had a ball, he’d drag his sorry ass onto the court and shoot around. Force his joints to loosen up. He’d be OK after a few minutes. Smooth. Perfect rainbow arc as the ball spins off his fingertips. You hear it sing as it leaves your hands. You reach for the sky. Know it’s in the hoop when you let it go. A ball pounding the asphalt would be like a drum summoning the kids. They’d share their secrets with him as they played through the night.
If when you die no heaven no place to go where do you go when you die? You be burnt up and the ashes swept away. A broom makes ashes dust and dust flies up in the sky. Where does it go? Ashes make dust and more dust and the sky’s too heavy where do you go?
Dust in the sky. All falls down. You snort dust in your nose. Boogers of it in your eyes. You eat dust when you open your mouth. Sky falls on your head and where do you go if there’s no place to go? No heaven. No place but this one where you tramp along beside them. They march beside you. In front and behind. Many of them, many, many. Too much dust for the sky to hold. It falls on your head. We hurry along. We lean forward to catch the weight of the sky on our backs. We are strong. We keep it up. One long step then you hippy-dip your shoulder like something in your way you got to lean and dip your shoulder and knock the thing always in your way night and day out your way. Do not open your mouth or eyes or ears. The others carry you along. Dust will drown you. No place to go it fills all your holes and you die inside a body bag sewed tight as a turkey’s butt Thanksgiving. You walk your hippy-hop walk on this street and if you opened your eyes you’d see the tracks where the trolleys slide, the wires, the birds. You can see the park without opening your eyes. You wanted to climb the trees. You are too little to reach the first branches so you can’t climb up. When you’re taller you’ll grab the ladder of branches: climb all the way up into the green belly of the tree. Up, up into its insides you could march till green hairs too skinny to hold you. You’d be a squirrel living at the very top. Where it bends and shakes and almost breaks but you hippy-hop, fly like a bird from one place to another. You never fall. You cool at the top. When the sky falls it won’t get you. You’re too high. High. High. Squirrels with their rat paws scratch from the bottom where the branches start. Little rat paws get them up. Scratching. Hurry up, hurry up across the floor at night. You throw a shoe and they don’t come for a while. Then you play dead here they come again scratching. If you could hold on you could shimmy to the first branches, climb to the top. A tree is a dress. You stand under it and look up. Your mama’s dress and squirrels play trapeze under there. You dig but your fingers won’t stick. The squirrels scratch trolley tracks straight up. The tree is rough. They bite its skin. You touched it, rubbed it. Skin is what covers you and covers your mama. You touch hers. Rub her arm. Warm and smooth. She lets me touch it. Skin over her blood and bones. Tito wears a handkerchief over his mouth. A outlaw. His eyes are big. He’s burnt. His skin is tree skin. It’s falling. The house is burning. My mama pushes me. Roof falling in. Bombs. Bombs. Do do do do do. She screams, Children coming out. Children coming out. Tito’s skin like tree skin. Tito busting open. Everything needs something to hold it in. Hold it together. They hurry me along. They are my skin. I know this street. No need to look. Sparks on the wires. Birds. Dark is skin over us. No one sees us. We must hurry. We must hide. We must stick together. Inside of night skin so we don’t die. So our blood runs warm and safe inside because there is no place to go after you die.
They are discussing the price of oil and laughing. Miniature sheikhs, then the players from the court then the kids in the hollow, each one wearing a hooded, milk-white robe that merges obscurely with the darkness. The hollow’s steep black sides rise miles above their heads. You can’t see the rim. Shrill voices pipe. Laughter, squeaky, giggling, about to pee their pants because they’re laughing so hard. Faces under conical hoods are splashed and flecked and sprayed rainbow colors. Mr. Tambo inquires of Mr. Bones: How many cars can you name that start with P? Mr. Bones rubs his nappy Yankee Doodle bearded chin, stutters, P P P P Pontiac, Packard, P P P Plymouth, Por Por Porsche. As he speaks the kids scamper up the slopes, triangles of white scattering, an explosion of moths, blinking off and on in the beams of a car’s headlights. They’re still cracking up. Whatever was funny is funnier now. Cudjoe watches one of the kids—it’s Technicolor high noon, a busy intersection downtown, stylish shops and shoppers, expensive cars lining the street—raise the hem of his garment and P P P piss into the gas tank of a Mercedes. The kid winks at him, waves at the mob of scandalized citizens. Want me check the oil too?
And part of that comic strip simply Cudjoe’s bladder making its point any way it can. He crawls out of bed. Manages to remain numb all the way to the bathroom, where he plants his feet and goes back to sleep. Takes hours to finish and he doesn’t move for days afterward, staring into the bowl, enjoying silence after the noisy rush of his waters. He needs sleep. Much more sleep. His body clock refuses to adjust to this new hemisphere. Perhaps he lost it on the flight over. Dropped thirty thousand feet from the 747, the hands spin, bells chatter, then it raises a salty geyser in the gray ocean. Nodding on his feet, weary as a whipped dog. For better or worse he is up for the day. Barely day. Barely up. Too late to turn back. Rest is what he wants, what he isn’t going to get. Why couldn’t he sleep more than a few hours a night since he’d been back?
Mind attached to body. And who is in charge? Which is Roy Rogers and which one the Gabby Hayes sidekick? His body begging for rest. His mind jerking it out of bed, forcing it to sleepwalk. Or did a message from the bladder snatch the ghost awake?
Mind and body. Body and mind. Was he actually someplace else, in a dimension where the stink of this stale cabinet didn’t exist? Just the idea of it? Was he sealed hermetically within glass walls manipulating a robot arm? When the titanium fingers touched an object, what did he feel? Could body know mind? Or vice versa? He’d always wondered about other animals. What went on in their heads? If you stared into the eyes of a dog long enough, would it speak, mind to mind, bear doggy witness, give up its doggy secrets? Was the animal his mind rode, the animal staring back at him from mirrors, any more likely to speak than a dog?
He pushes open a blistered rectangle of glass above the toilet. His window on the world. Across an alley no sane person would consider entering after dark, a block of apartments extends to the corner, a row of four-story units, each defined by the zigzag iron railing of fire escape. A window in the building twin to his across the narrow alleyway is a cat’s eye in the gloom. Even on the brightest days, sunlight doesn’t grope into this valley of the shadow. Why was he up before dawn staring into this black pit? Was someone awake over there? A restless, beat-up, insomniac, lost soul, horny motherfucker prowling his apartment, peering through a porthole above his toilet, counting lighted windows?
Didn’t you need a million windows opening, framing views of the city every morning in order for a city to come to life? Wasn’t a city millions of eyes that are windows opening on scenes invisible till the eyes construct them, till the eyes remember and set out in meticulous detail the city that was there before they closed for sleep? Wasn’t the city one vast window covered by a million mini-blinds and every morning every blind snaps open, quickly, like you peel a dressing from a wound? The city appears because this vast window is unshuttered a square at a time. Visible because it’s remembered. Coming to life in the blink of an eye, the billion blinks of a billion eyes. Wasn’t he performing his civic duty, doing his sleepy-eyed bit. What if he said no to the tacky little postcard in his peephole above the toilet? And if he’s seeing, doesn’t that mean someone in one of those windows across the way must be seeing him, peeping at him between the slats of a blind in one of the dark apartments, a voyeur returning the favor Cudjoe bestows when he spies on his neighbors and makes their lives real? Weren’t countless pairs of eyes, eyes like his, needed to create the cityscape? Were they the mind animating the city’s body? Or was the city dreaming them, gathering sticks and stones to make its bones.
She’s not up yet. His anonymous foxy friend in the second-floor flat catty-corner to his. Thirty yards maybe, separating them. Would she catch one end of a measuring tape if he tossed it across the column of air. If a sturdy bridge connected his window to hers, he wouldn’t cross it. She was close enough. Untouchable, unreachable, and that’s what he liked those hours he watched her going about her business. No name. No history. She was the body of woman. No beginning, middle, end to her life. All women. Any woman.
Dark hair, slim, compact, but generously rounded in butt and breast. Like the woman in the park. Like the woman he’d married. Perfectly formed and proportioned the way only small women can be. When his neighbor walked naked through the rooms of her apartment, he could almost hear Caroline’s bare feet thumping. Caroline walked too loud for a person her size, thumping, punishing floorboards with each determined stride. He’d tease her. Wall Shaker, Earth Quaker, Heartbreaker, Thunder Maker. What you grinning at, gal? With the heel of his hand thudding on his desk he’d echo her footsteps. Bram. Bram. Here comes Thumper, the lead rabbit. He’d loved the sound. Her bony ankles and child’s feet, the exact harmonies of her figure. He’d memorized certain characteristic postures she’d assume, learned how grace and elegance could be endlessly permutated in her simple gestures, walking up stairs, turning the page of a book, standing at a door, curling up on a sofa. The woman in the window could bring Caroline back, the hurt back, so it was necessary she be other women too. All women. She could bless him with glimpses of a woman’s privacy. She could draw the shades and treat him as if he didn’t exist. Feast and famine. Like those extremes that were the predictable beat of his life with Caroline, extremes substituting for dependable, easy, common ground they’d never been able to establish. What had they desired from each other? Was there so much anger, so much pain because they always came so close to making it, or because five years, two kids, countless defections and reconciliations never drew them one inch nearer?
Cudjoe knows some answers are easy. All the soft shoulders he’d sneaked away to cry on. The lies afterward. He smirks at the clown face in the smidgen of bathroom mirror. His beastly burden. His beast of burden. The woman across the alley’s not awake to keep him company. Windows are blind eyes reflecting each other, seeing nothing.
He closes the porthole, shakes and tucks himself away. Too tired to pull off his sweatpants last night. Too exhausted to shower. Nobody sharing his bed so he’d just plopped down, in all his stinking gear, even the damp, binding jock. He’d promised himself one game, two at most. For old times’ sake. One game would be more than enough for the first time in months on a court. Just one game. Give me the strength to play one game and I’ll be satisfied. Plant my ass on the bench after one. Let me finish one game and I’m history. I promise.
Then you win and slouch to the sideline and this guy on your team, he says, One more, bro. And you say, I’m beat, bro. No way, bro. And he says, C’mon, dude. Run this last one. And you say, Last one. Last one, he says.
Then it always gets to be the morning after. And you have to pay. Why did I do it? Why’d I go too far? Her face is contorted by grief. Things are past explaining. Hurt can’t be undone. She’s sobbing. Her head ducked into her shoulder; you can’t see her face, just the witchy storm of hair. Why doesn’t she comb it? Why is she letting herself fall apart? A ball of misery huddled on the couch. A lead rabbit you couldn’t lift to save your soul. Dark hair spilling in deep folds. You don’t want to see the circles under her eyes. Her flesh slackens when she’s unhappy. When she’s hurt by one of your lies she ages years in minutes. Red welts, puffiness. The flesh sags. Heavy blood pulls down the mask of her face. It droops, wrinkles. Sobs rise off her body like bubbles bursting, blood bubbles, blue and bruised.
You hated the power you had to hurt her. Hated her hurt hurting you back.
You’re awake now and she’s on your mind. And that’s the way it’s going to be. Back on the edge of his bed he realizes he’s stuck with her this morning, wants her this morning and for better or worse she won’t let him go. She’s sitting on the toilet. Sizzles like bacon frying. He can smell the coffee she’s started. He sniffs his fingertips for the buttery scent of her. Rule was no lovemaking until he showered after ball. Infection. Germs. Her vulnerable urinary tract. The woman in the window possessed no insides. No periods. No illnesses, no female disorders. Wouldn’t age or die. Home from her job the woman will undress, shower, spend hours in her apartment doing what she did, bare-ass as Eve. So near and yet so far. Didn’t Little Anthony and the Imperials sing that? Near and far. Far and near. When he sat reading with Caroline in the quiet of an evening, sharing the couch, his back against one threadbare armrest, hers against the other, why did she always close her robe or shut her knees if she noticed his eyes straying from his book, peering between her naked legs?
The weekend they’d driven to the island, her reluctance had been on his mind. What are you hiding? What don’t you want me to see? Both kids bawling in the backseat. His nerves unhinged two seconds after the drive began. He trots out complaint after complaint as they plot a path through the map he believes he’s memorized and she holds on her lap.
Hiding? What in the world are you talking about?
So they argue over choices the map appears to offer. Alternative routes. Distance versus traffic. Red lines or green. Venture unshakable opinions about roads neither’s ever seen. Opportunities for sarcasm, disagreement, nastiness are legion. He decides his elder son is responsible for the war in the backseat. He stops the car to threaten him with mayhem, with abandonment on the highway if he doesn’t stop teasing his brother. He’s surprised how good it feels to lean over the seat and shout at the top of his voice. A grown-up screaming at a child. Does he actually derive pleasure from scaring a four-year-old? The car rolls along. A three-hour drive stretches close to four. Something is drastically wrong. He’s been humping way over posted limits. Must be the directions they’d been given. The map. His wife’s command at an intersection.
Why does that marker say West 202? Aren’t we going east? The ferry’s east.
You said east was left. I said turn right but you insisted on turning left. So we’re probably headed away from where we want to go.
You insisted on going left.
I said east. Always south and east. All along I said east. The goddamned map you’re holding says east if you don’t believe me.
You turned left. You’re driving and you turned left. You ignored me. Don’t try and blame me now.
You have the map right in front of you. You’re supposed to be giving me directions.
I tried. I said east but you turned left and that’s west.
Then we’ve been going the wrong way. Shit. How far back was the fucking junction. You were just going to sit there, weren’t you? Till we ran off the end of the known world. You don’t give a damn, do you? Just so you wind up being right.
Right was right. I said right ten times. You said east was left so you went left. Right was right.
Right was right. Right was right. Do you think that’s cute? It’s not. None of this bullshit’s funny. All you had to do was read the map and keep the kids quiet.
They are quiet.
Yeah. Because I made a fool of myself.
You insisted on a left turn.
Fuck the turn. Left. Right. What’s the fucking difference?
They’re quiet because they’re listening to you talk the way you’re talking to me.
Thank you, Emily Post. Tell me, dear. How come you’re better than everybody else? That’s your problem. Holier than everybody. Criticize, criticize, but you, you don’t make mistakes, do you? Your way’s the right way and the only way. Goddammit. I ask you to do a simple thing—my way for a change—and what kind of answer do I get: Let’s just sit and read. Let’s just relax together. One of the boys might wake up and wander out here.
What are you talking about?
You know, dammit. Don’t pretend you don’t.
He’s remembering the drive but he’s not remembering it accurately. The conversation back and forth continues too long without interruptions. He needs to back it up, add a sound track of unearthly squeals, squalls, cries of pain and brays of triumph from the kiddies in their car seats. Traffic noise. Rattle of the loose spare tire cover. The thumping of his heart. A silent scream boiling in his throat. The wall she slapped together stone by cold stone between them. The arctic wind in her voice. Ice cracking beneath the hurtling station wagon.
He couldn’t wait to escape the car. He’d make her suffer for this.
Theirs the last car permitted on the ferry. Tension didn’t let up until the final instant when a grizzled, one-armed sailor waved them aboard. They’d been wedged somewhere in the late middle of an endless line of vehicles queuing at dockside. No doubt in Cudjoe’s mind the carnival-striped van in front of them would be the last one allowed on board. Perfect ending to a perfect day. A battered, hand-painted VW with a menagerie of young, seminude passengers. Bodies shuttled in and out of the van nonstop. He couldn’t keep track of how many. All tanned, long-haired, scruffy. Beads, headbands, cutoffs, bare tops, bare legs, spacey blue eyes. Probably fucking in the funky oven of van this very moment. A squirmy mound of bare asses white as snow, sucking and fucking and blowing dope and they’d be delivered to the island stoned, happy as clams, ferried across the neck of water to pitch their tents while he’d be stranded with wife and kids in this nowhere place, acres of concrete, Cyclone fencing, warehouses, stuck in some cruddy, overpriced motel. Whole family crammed in one room. No hanky-panky. She’d pat his hand when he reached under the sheet and laid it on her bare thigh, pat it and slide it off. Whisper in his ear: You know we can’t do anything in here. No privacy. No trespassing on her side of the bed. The room’s stuffy, hot, in spite of an air conditioner louder than all these vehicles revving up for a charge at the ferry. One car at a time through the needle’s eye. The line inches forward in heart-teasing, heart-stopping little snippets. He’s ready to ram the van. Torch it and roast every blond, bronzed hippie occupant if he can just move up one notch.
He’d see the crazy van again on the island, parked above a secluded cove when he’d driven with Sam to buy liquor and visit the dump. Both station wagon and VW had crossed on the last boat of the evening. Red, white and blue curtains across the van’s back window. A peace symbol covered the whole front door. Sam would notice him looking over the dunes at the van and point beyond it toward the ocean where the land dropped out of sight. They swim without their drawers down there. Then he’d helped Sam unload plastic sacks of garbage. Sam didn’t heave far enough and one split, scattering eggshells, coffee grounds, lemon peels, an empty vodka bottle in the clear space at the foot of a mound of garbage bags.
Losing it, me bucko. Old Sam’s losing it. A little boy’s face, guilty, ashamed.
Metal rims of Sam’s glasses erupted. Tongues of light flicked at the sun. This old man still counting, still worried about measuring up. His eyes are invisible behind thick lenses. Moon focals. A basset hound’s droopy dewlaps. Why was Sam still so hard on himself? Cudjoe felt sorry for him. Then sorry for himself. Sam was a great man. A successful writer, editor. He’d learned so much from Sam. Learned because he’d been afraid. Why wasn’t there a stop between fear and pity? A long easy pause, space where they could both unbend. Throwing a garbage bag fifteen feet. What did it matter? Who was keeping score? Sam’s embarrassment unsettled Cudjoe. They were tossing garbage bags onto a heap of other garbage bags. One fell short, bounced off the pile, tumbled, burst, disgorged its contents on the clear space in front of the mound. Had Sam known he was dying? In less than two years paramedics would find him on the parquet floor of his kitchen, unconscious. They’d breathe in his mouth and attempt to beat life back into his chest, but he awakens only long enough to say two words, Teach me, in the rear of an ambulance. Rachel had told Cudjoe the story, related to her by one of the paramedics. Teach me. Bolting up for a second Teach me. Breaking death’s bonds. Sitting up startled that he’d escaped so easily, amazed that death’s hold was light, light as feathers, as a spider’s web, he popped up, stopped only by a strap securing him to the stretcher. Life, what other people had done to him, the final barrier after all. He’d snapped death’s bonds. Was on his way up, back, when the leather safety restraint stopped him, whiplashed his breath away. Teach me. Like a sigh. An exhalation. But clear and distinct. I heard him say those words, ma’am. No doubt about it. Just as plain as I’m telling you now. Teach me is what he said. Sure of it. Thought you might want to know, ma’am.
Gulls floated over the dump. Gull cries, the lazy circling of gulls. Gulls had followed the ferry across the sound. A second wake in the air. Gray and white like the plowed sea. Gulls hovering in the squat-bottomed boat’s slipstream, patiently sailing, scanning the water for bilge. He’d read that sharks trailed the stench of slave ships all the way across the Atlantic, feasting on corpses thrown overboard. Gulls screech and glide above the refuse of the islanders. Cudjoe tried not to breathe as he helped unpack a week’s trash from the trunk and backseat of Sam’s blue Dodge Dart. Sun was a bitch. A minute in the open and you were soaked. You could only hold your breath so long, then you had to inhale stink. Just a couple trips each, back and forth. Heave ho. Hurl a plastic sack. The mounds grow tall as a house, a pine tree. Body bags stacked a mile high rotting in the sun. Bad meat. Dead boys coming home from Vietnam were Cudjoe’s age, Cudjoe’s color, his high-school classmates. You couldn’t see color through the thick, green bags. You could smell corpses, but all of them—red white black brown yellow—stink the same. Sam is careless. The bag bursts, vomits up its guts. He apologizes. His eyes accuse Cudjoe of being younger, stronger, of having many more years to live. Cudjoe is guilty. Others crossed an ocean and died for him. Guilty because he didn’t fight, didn’t die. Cudjoe thinks of Sam as a sad, failing old man. Can’t imagine why he was once afraid of him. Why he’d packed his wife and kids in a station wagon and driven two hundred miserable miles, hat in hand, to pass Sam a manuscript. So scared he turned the trip to Sam’s island into a nightmare, found ways to positively, personally put a hurt on his sons and the woman he loves.
That first night on the island he couldn’t sleep. Wondering if Sam was reading the manuscript. Mad as hell because they’d whipped through two bottles of wine and most of a quart of vodka, only four of them drinking hard, Cassy, Sam’s daughter, might have finished a goblet of wine, maybe two, so it’s four of them doing the damage, two really, Cudjoe and Sam, unholy together, bringing out the best and worst in each other, doing most of the damage, especially if you added an ice-cold bottle of Mateus they’d guzzled like soda pop on the ride home from the dump. Couldn’t sleep because Sam might be somewhere in the house, spectacles perched on the wings of his nose, in slippers and a robe, glass of brandy near at hand, reading the script so long in coming, reading it and liking it or disliking it. The terrible power in his old, spotted hands again. Would he know what the fuck he was reading? Had his bald head lolled back into the notch of the easy chair in his study, is his mouth open calling hogs, his breath turning the room into a distillery? Had Cudjoe’s story put him to sleep? Would they talk in the morning? Would there be anything to talk about? Sam wouldn’t dare give the script only a cursory, drunken reading. Of course he’d be his meticulous, conscientious self. Another read-through tomorrow. Up at dawn, crisp, sober as morning, as the sea breeze that worried the front porch swing. Its creaking chains are what woke Cudjoe in the first place. Trying to make sense of that rasping, rhythmic tick in his sleep. The loose, thin sleep of far too much drink. Worried awake by a sound he can’t place, can’t will away. He eased himself out of the tall four-poster bed, careful not to wake Caroline. He was ashamed now of the way he’d acted on the drive down. She’d hit the bed like a rock, her back to him, motionless in an instant, slamming the door on any possibility of nighttime, bedtime reconciliation. He’d boozed himself into feeling better about everything. Flirted with Sam’s wife and daughter, and their smiling approval, the teasing back and forth had reaffirmed for him the charm he believed he exercised over womankind. Trying to piece the evening together, the dinner, drinks before, after and during, he realized he’d made absolutely no contact with Caroline. He’d begun having fun so he’d assumed everyone was enjoying themselves. Now as he searched his memory for one sign, one touch or smile or word that said she’d forgiven him, that her mood had changed, that the bitter ride to the island was forgotten, he was forced to admit he not only hadn’t seen positive signs, he’d ignored Caroline’s presence entirely.
Like a thief then, he tiptoed across the room. Figures out the noise that had been summoning him. Carried his shorts into the tiny guest room down the hall, next to where the boys were asleep. Shut the door quietly behind himself, slipped into his drawers. He shivers. Why didn’t he bring a shirt? More like a walk-in closet than a room. Barely large enough to fit a bed. One oval window with a crack in the glass. This room’s on the side of the house away from the sea, faces scrubby pinewoods that are part of a forest belt Sam had said bisects the island. Plenty of moonlight. Cudjoe can see clearly down the back lawn to a black wall of trees. This must be a corner room. To his right the main wing of the house looms perpendicular. The entrance, with its columns and wraparound porch, would be on the far side of this wing. Half a house away, the swing with its cargo of ghosts sways, invisible from where Cudjoe stands, its chains creaking monotonously, tirelessly as potbellied buoys rocking and tolling in the harbor.
Other sounds break through the soughing wind, the protest of the swing’s rusty chains. A splash, then the sighing drone of water through pipes. Below him in the moonlight a white body hugs itself, twisting slowly, tentatively into spray from an outdoor shower sheltered in this nook of the house. Cassandra must have been swimming in the ocean and now she’s warming herself, rinsing salt and sand from her body before she goes to bed. Her long hair shrinks to a cap of seaweed tight on her skull. She peels off a swimsuit and steps deeper into the gushing water. Her skin’s luminous in moonglow. Wet hair glistens darkly as blood. The water’s invisible except for a nimbus of white froth at the nozzle and needle slants highlighted momentarily. If you couldn’t hear the water, if you ignored the chunk of soap she’d plucked from its hiding place, what you’d see was a young woman dancing slow motion in a cascade of silvery moonlight. Her arms carve space from the darkness, her feet buried in shadow are never still, turning, sliding, little mincing steps, rising on her tiptoes. Her fingers caress her breasts, rub the black patch of groin, preparing them, offering them to the same god at whom she stares, rapt, when she arches her neck, leans her head back on her shoulders. She welcomes him, drinks him into every pore of her body, her skin the thousand-eyed gate of a great city thrown open to receive him.
At any second from the black margin of woods, satyrs will hobble out to claim her. Sam’s lawn is full of naked hippies, bronze skins flayed so they’re white as marble. They’re blowing flutes, passing jugs of wine, wicker baskets of fruit, dancing in rollicking daisy chains. Everybody in the house snatched from sleep by the racket, scrambling from their beds to join the romp.
Cudjoe hears himself trying to explain to his dead friend why he’s spying on his daughter. Bullshit about her being everywoman and no woman won’t go down. She is Cassandra, Sam’s and Rachel’s only child, eighteen years old, born on a day her family once celebrated, then mourned. Sam had changed her diapers. Rachel sat up with her through nights of fever. Cassy had been fed, sheltered, cherished. Her loving parents in spite of themselves had conspired to drive her a little mad. Cassy’s behavior often erratic, but just as often charmingly, excruciatingly perfect. She was becoming who she must be by whatever devious paths her imagination could invent, circumventing one Cassy, their Cassy, to be another. Hence solitary midnight swims in the ocean. Long walks alone in cities at night. Dropping out of high school. A shower while normal people are trying to sleep. Cudjoe knows the history of her troubles. The rescue missions, and kiss-and-make-ups. Rachel’s and Sam’s constant fear she’d go too far and they’d lose her altogether. He understands he’s wrong to be stealing from her. Violating her privacy. Poaching the bloom of her young woman’s body while she’s offering it to the spirits of night. He shouldn’t be at this window staring down at her, a hard-on extending his shorts in spite of the slew of classical allusions he rehearses to himself. Unable to be still, staying and leaving, as she plays in water warm as a bed.
No excuses. Sam’s no saint. He should understand. No harm intended. How many young editorial assistants had he banged over the years? No harm. Sam, Apollonian light of reason and intellect, knew what happened on full-moon nights when horny maidens cruised down from the hills. So look, Sam. I’m sorry. She’s your daughter and I have no right, but… He starts some lame apology, not because he intends to cease what he’s doing but because Sam is dead, and the dead have power. Sam may be hovering, waiting to avenge this violation of his daughter. The dead on their powdery thrones, looking down, weary, disappointed. He must answer to Sam because Sam’s his twin, his cut buddy and drinking pardner, voice of his conscience, stage manager of his art, Sam in the wings silently paring his fingernails. Didn’t Sam teach him how to be capable of anything? Technique, technique, my bucko, is truth.
Cassy was special. Sam loved her to distraction. Cassy was another chance. Sam could lavish on her what he’d never been able to grant to Rachel. A great passion replayed, only this time he wouldn’t fuck over his woman. No lies. No cheating. A better Sam, reborn penitent, wiser for having sinned grievously. Capable of unconditional love. He’s screaming at Cudjoe. Leave her alone. Leave her alone. She’s my last goddamned chance.
Cudjoe watches entranced. Cassandra will be dead in nine months, a fiery crash in Mexico. The van she’s riding in with her lover careens off a cliff, burns beside the ocean. He’s spying on her because there’s not much time, never enough time. He must learn her secrets, save her. Sam should understand. He’d be here at the window sucking up his daughter’s beauty, every ounce from every angle, a sad feast always because never enough, she’ll be gone tomorrow, he’ll follow her a year later. So Cudjoe tells himself, Drink her in. Make love to her any way you know that won’t hurt her or rob her precious time. If Sam had known how little time they could look forward to, together, alive, wouldn’t Sam have been there, beside him, greedily taking it all in? His heart in his throat like Cudjoe’s. His old pecker nudging his shorts like Cudjoe’s.
No. Not that way. Cudjoe’s getting confused, his stories mixed up. The striped van spins through the air, preternaturally slow, bands of color distinct as they turn, you can read the peace sign on the door, then it’s gone, then the lumpish shape rotates again and you read again, Peace. Spinning through thin, hot air so slowly you can focus beyond the van, note the scenery, rugged jut of golden mountains shaded with midnight blue. Sharp peaks with crystal blue of sky as backdrop. You marvel. Range succeeds range, a breathtaking panorama spread across the horizon. Lower, there are buttes, desert plateaus, painted in delicate pastels, a patchwork of pinks, turquoises, rose, magenta, aquamarine. The colors inside a vagina. You’re able to observe this while the van falls toward the dark maw of sea. No sound. No hint of horrendous impact, buckling metal, pulverized glass, the crackle of a gasoline-fueled inferno incinerating the vehicle when it lands, rendering it into a blackened skeleton on a rocky ledge thirty yards from the foaming surf. The story is Cassy first, then Sam. The story is, Cudjoe knew nothing of their imminent deaths that night in the little room in Sam’s house when he’d watched Cassy showering. The story is, Cassy’s with her lover in a van Cudjoe cannot picture because he’s never heard it described. Never had the heart to ask for one more detail than he’d been given by her dumbstruck parents. This out-of-sync van that plummets forever against a tourist-bureau poster of mountainous Mexican scenery would be full of hippies, boiling, squealing like gulls.
Cassy naked in the moonlight on his first trip to the island. She’s gone second time around. He’s remembering correctly now because on his second visit, alone, two summers later, he’d imagined telling Sam about that night, what he’d seen. A crazy urge to confess, share his vision, as if the story might have pleased Sam, as if it would be a consolation to hear firsthand Cudjoe’s witness to the sexual power of his daughter, how perfectly she’d grown into a woman’s flesh, how she’d treated it, enjoyed the fullness thereof, dancing, gilded. A foolish idea. Sam was dead the second time Cudjoe visited the island. And if alive old Sam would have been outraged. Probably try to kick Cudjoe’s ass. Old liver-spotted fists flailing. Battering Cudjoe’s hard brown skin. Wings of an angry butterfly till Cudjoe seizes the bony wrists, pins them under one of his hands and talks Sam down from his anger, soothes him like he would a child, patting the bald crown of his head. No harm, old buddy. No harm done. No evil intent. You would have done just what I did if you were there. If you’d found yourself in my shoes. My bare feet, really. Because up on your second floor where you’d stashed us, I tiptoed naked away from my wife and bed. Sleepwalking sort of, and the rest just happened. Believe me. You couldn’t have turned away either. You’d have watched and been better for it. That dream of Cassy filed away with the rest. That much more of her inside you, to console you. Haunting you, killing you, sustaining you, for the little time you had left.
Did it for you, my friend. Cudjoe’s lying again. He had returned to bed, masturbated, careful not to wake Caroline, his back inches from hers, miles from her in a place with different weather, his face turned up to drink warm rain.
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Pretty soppy stuff but Cudjoe had recited it and wept on the anniversary of Sam’s death, that cloudy day Rachel had cast Sam’s ashes into the wind. Sam retained a soft spot for Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, those melancholy English decadents, their tears-in-a-teapot version of the blues. Sam the tough new critical priest of the text speaking for itself knew everything about the lives of the late Victorian Romantics and found them simpatico he said, boon coons later when he’d grown comfortable with that phrase he’d pinched from Cudjoe’s writing. A gray mottled sky, heavy as iron. Rolling hills, profiles thinly one dimensional, dominoes stretched one behind the other till the last one collapses, melding into the bluish haze of distance. They are not long. The survivors drifted away after the ceremony. No one spoke. After Rachel had sprinkled his ashes where Sam had instructed and the sprightly wind, gray as the sky, had lifted them and threshed them, a final separation bit from bit, speaking into that silence would have been like farting in public. The mourners moved off to be alone, to be with one or two others. Cudjoe had observed in their strained, somber faces the panicked helplessness of a person stuck in a crowd needing to pee with no bathroom in sight.
Rachel took him by the hand, led him to the barn. Jesus Christ. They’re all gone now. The whole family. Cassy. Sam. Rachel. The whole family. Wiped out. Invisible. As if they never existed. He hasn’t thought of any of them for years. He wasn’t really thinking of them now. He’s dealing with the presence of Caroline this morning. Remembering how he lost her. Remembering a trip to Sam’s island when they were together, when their lives had begun to unravel. Cudjoe is exploring the connection. Missing his wife and now he finds himself missing the others. Sam and Rachel and Cassy. Our path emerging for a while. Crying for them. Spying on them. Waiting for the lights of the city to come on.
Rachel led him by the hand up to a ladder at one end of the barn. She mounted first. Tail of her pleated skirt bobs as she climbs. Rachel’s short legged. She’s wearing no stockings. Sturdy calf muscles jump like animals foraging under her skin. A spidery delta of blue veins on the back of one thigh. He looks away as he climbs after her. She wants to show him a picture she’s painted of the island. A surprise intended for Sam, her way of saying thank you for the gift of island he’d presented to her. After thirty years of homes and separations, this house on the island their last stand. Sam sold or mortgaged everything then borrowed more to build a place where they could retire. Though he’d dropped his memoirs, a play, books he’d taken on as editor emeritus, Sam had exhausted himself completing the house project. My grand obsession. Sam’s Folly, he called it. And after Cassy was killed, it seemed he had nothing left. Pharaoh content to be buried in the monument he’d constructed because that’s what he’d settled into doing, dying by inches. He mopes around all day in his robe and slippers. Won’t dress. Barely eats no matter what I cook for him. It’s driving me crazy. I lost Cassy and now I’m losing him. Rachel fought back, patient, giving as she’d been all through the marriage, and as Sam gradually returned to her, she’d started painting again. She was hoping to finish her portrait of the island and surprise him with it on the anniversary of their new beginning.
Cudjoe has no trouble recalling the barn’s smell in his funky bathroom this morning. An astringent, ammoniac odor of urine dominates here. A lake of aging piss percolating somewhere under the apartment house, seeping up through the toilet neck. Sam and Rachel’s barn also a cave of smells. Piss, shit, sweat. Cows and horses long gone but the scent of them was rubbed into the barn wood, their dung stamped into the earthen floor, air weighted with their steamy breath. Sounds of animals rustling in their stalls, chewing cud, pawing the ground had left their echo in the air, turned it brown and warm. The barn was an animal, old, lopsided, walleyed. It swallowed them both as Cudjoe followed Rachel up the ladder to the loft. A bereaved animal, its innards the color Rachel must have been inside as she let Sam go one last time. Ashes. Ashes in the wind.
Swaybacked floorboards buckle under Cudjoe’s steps. If Caroline thumped across the loft, she’d punch right through. He didn’t have that to worry about. No more. Not here. Not anywhere. Between Cudjoe’s visits to the island she’d left him. The book that was to be dedicated to her, his payback for what it cost them both, had been, like Rachel’s painting, orphaned. Time was and time wasn’t. Cudjoe a big boy now, but still a city boy, with a city boy’s fears. The gloomy interior of the barn, its smells, ghostly animals ruminating, bumping around below the loft bothered him. Large, moist-breathed beasts had inhabited this space. Their blood was on his hands, in his belly. Their presence like a hood settling over him. He could feel the texture of their rough hides. He was wearing them. He was inside the steady churning of their guts. He tasted liver, heart, lungs, the sour, salty mash they’d brew into piss.
Between trips to the island Caroline had said she’d had it. Called his bluff. Cashed in her chips. His sons were growing up like exotic plants on a faraway island he’d never visited. He knew them not at all. They spoke another language. They had another father, a man who was finding it easy or difficult to live with their mother, a man who felt better or worse than Cudjoe between her legs.
He’d removed himself absolutely from their lives. All or nothing is how he explained it to himself, to her. Left it on her to explain to the kids. A bastard. He proved himself a cold fish of a bastard. She said she’d known it all along. She said she’d never understand why she tried to hold on. When she knew all along the kind of cold bastard he was. It proved you got what you deserved, she said. Got what you asked for. She knew she was asking for trouble, wanting him. She hated him for the lies, the betrayals. He’d disgraced them both. That’s what he couldn’t face. The mirror in her eyes. The hurt. The truth. Run. Run. Never look back. A cry from the deepest recess of him, the part nurtured in forest gloom when he dangled from a tree by a three-toed claw. An adrenaline rush as the command formed in his gut. Run. From the nighthawk, the bear, the slithering lizard, the coiled snake. Run. Run. Run.
Not that he ever really escaped. Rachel leaves him and strides to the opposite end of the loft. Tugging on a length of hairy rope depending from the rafters she opens a sliding window set in the steeply pitched upper story of the barn. Light floods the platform. Easels, canvases in various stages of finish, mounted, propped, lying flat, stacked, suddenly pop into view. Cudjoe expected to see Caroline revealed, eyeing him disapprovingly from a corner where the rapid thump thump of her steps had stranded her. No. Nothing. She was ancient history, like the lives of the animals who’d inhabited this barn. Cow dooky, horse dooky, a woman’s footsteps exploding old wood, light blazing through slits in the boards, the mewling, murmuring ocean of brown bodies he’d drown in if this rickety floor collapsed. A woman’s bare flank flashing through the saffron square of a window, the creaking arrangement, groaning like a swing in its chains, sea in its bowl, of pulley, tackle and rope draws open the loft window, horse dooky, cow dooky, smell of moon trapped in her blood once a month.
Finished now, I think. I need to show someone. You’re the first.
Smoky light shivers in the rectangular opening. They used to pitch hay through there to store for winter. Standing on top of a wagon on top of a hay pile you could reach the opening without breaking your back. Heave ho. Light splashes into the loft like a giant pitchforkful of hay.
Do you think Sam would have liked it?
I’m sure he would.
Do you really think so?
The island’s in your painting. I can see it. Sam would see more. Much more. Of course he’d love it. It’s beautiful.
Thank you. It was important to finish it. Even after. The island started me painting again. Living again.
I’m so sorry about you and Caroline. You’ll try again, won’t you? Such lovely boys.
He could almost reach up and touch the rafters. Shadows up there not so deep now. Not so forbidding. Another world. Cobwebs, dust, filaments strung by spiders. Crawling things, gnawing things up there where the sloping sides of the barn roof joined in a point. The narrow end of a funnel. Tiny creatures in the shadows that are complement and terror of giant beasts below.
Yes. He’d thought that. Not in those exact words. Perhaps it’s better to say he felt it. Order. Chaos. Felt himself suddenly exposed by light smoldering in the hay door. A superfluous creature. Not heavy like a cow, no wings or skittering banks of needle legs so he can scurry light and fast. In between. Alone beside another like him, but both alone, marked by aloneness as other creatures are known by their flavor, their bite. She grieved for her lost ones. He grieved for his. Grief was mooing, hooves shuffling aimlessly in a stew of dung, dried grass and pee. No room in the stall for another creature and therefore, no need, no point yearning for one. Grief was being confounded by darting, whirring licks from things that have no bodies, airy impossible things even when you catch one and squash it under your thumb. He’s feeling miserable and exposed because he’s neither of earth nor of air. He’s smoke nodding at this canvas she’s tried to fashion into earth, light, wind, water.
I’ll come see you again. (He won’t.)
Let’s keep in touch. (They are already out of touch.)
Your painting is beautiful. (So it is and it changes nothing. He’ll hear of the cancer and be afraid to call. He’ll forget then be reminded when he hears the cancer has removed her. To the other side. From one place to the other. Out of the goddamned middle.)
She’s up and busy. Flitting from room to room, naked as the day she was born. He listens across thirty yards for the thud of heels registering like drumbeats upon whatever it is that covers the floor of her apartment.
He surprises himself and turns away after a thick, choked-up minute. She is who she is and he is who he is. He crossed oceans to find a boy named Lion. He’d like to think finding him is his fate. He slides back the shower curtain. Daffodils, daisies, grimy yellows and greens. If not fate, then duty. A job. Finding him. He examines scratches on the back of his hand, checks for a bump on his sore shin where a knee had slammed him. He’ll survive to play another day. His stomach is hard but bulges if he doesn’t stand up straight, pull his shoulders back. Body pride. The little volleyball on his tummy will deflate if he plays regularly. A better Cudjoe inside this whipped flesh. Lean, fierce, a fighter, someone who could help the lost boy.
With the pointed end of one of the metal loops that hold the shower curtain on the rod, and squeeze open like safety pins, he pokes holes in the plastic. He’s tired of a sopping floor every time he showers. Daffodils, daisies, yellows, greens. He threads curtain through three loops and refastens them. Three new holes, three new connections hike the curtain so it barely hangs past the tub’s lip. Plastic’s stiff with age. Scratches Cudjoe’s skin as he brushes it aside, steps into the tub.
Trick is to finish washing before hot water runs out, or if the hot water’s flowing free and strong, to finish before bilgy scum crawls past his ankles. Water pressure problems. Drainage trouble. You get fucked coming and going when you share ancient, inefficient plumbing with four floors of tenants. Cudjoe imagines showering in the condo he imagines Timbo owns. Timbo had class, if class means expensive tastes, the cunning and luck to satisfy them, Timbo surely one class dude. Cultural attaché to the mayor. Did the mayor know how to spell attaché? Was the accent over the final e acute or grave? When did Timbo learn to spell it, when had any of them learned the foreign words and foreign ways, how to pronounce, to spell, to feign an easy familiarity with places where such words were spoken? Mayor a country boy, he’d been told. Mississippi mud. Timbo too, born on a farm a long ways inland from the New Orleans he liked to claim when questions about a birthplace were really questions about family, about pedigree and pretensions to civilization. Who the fuck are you? And who’s your mama? Your daddy? Timbo had a rap for that species of question just as he possessed answers, slick and convincing, to questions most folks meeting him didn’t know they intended to ask, till Timbo drills them with the answers.
Would Tims be different now? How would he have changed? Spray on Cudjoe’s back boiled an instant then cooled lower than body temp. He cringed and scooted away from the scalding he was about to receive, skidding, regaining his balance just in time for a rush of chill needles on his backside. Too early in the morning for hot water to be gone. Sky not cracked yet. Still a solid sheet of slate. Who else in his building is up and about showering at dawn? Pipes must be busted again. Somebody’s ceiling leaking, plaster bulging, dropping in wet lumps on somebody’s kitchen table. He hoped the landlord would at least warn his tenants before he torched this block of decaying flats. Upkeep rising past what rents produce, what else is a good businessman spozed to do, either stuff in more families, a physical impossibility in this case, or burn down the building and collect fire insurance. Water sputters, teasingly hot then cold then a little of each. Cudjoe wipes away the last gobs of soap from his body with a washcloth, steering clear of the spray, cursing it and the landlord’s mammy.
Timbo, you son of a bitch. I bet you’re soaking your black ass in a Jacuzzi. Sauna and steam bath and geishas massaging your rusty legs every morning before the limo fetches you. A shower in your office. So you can go home to your old lady smelling sweet after a hard day humping your secretary on that buttery Corinthian leather couch beside your desk.
G’wan, man. This is serious bizness. Your man Timbo gots righteous responsibilities. Spons-bilities. Yeah. You like that. G’wan smile, nigger. You know you just as crazy as me. And just as sponsible.
Cudjoe had arrived late. Timbo later. The restaurant Timbo’s choice. His treat. On the mayor, you unnerstand. After all, my friend, you are a writer, ain’t you? Distinguished Negro Intellectual. Sure. Shit yeah. We gots a budget for that. Ain’t that many of youall. We can afford it.
Cudjoe had showered, then flopped across the bed for a few minutes to catch his breath, soothe his pounding head, sneak up on the long morning. Body hung over from hoop, beer, trudging cross half the city, no sleep. Weary to his bones. But his mind wouldn’t stay still. Caroline. Sam. Rachel. Cassy. Shit. He had closed his eyes, exhausted. The nap lasted three hours. Sleep at last. Sleep at last. He bolts up. Checks his watch. Time, but none to spare. He figured Timbo for at least a half hour late. Turned out to be more like forty-five minutes so Cudjoe has time to check out the joint. No way he’s going to pay this tab. Three flunkies already had performed little flunky services just getting him inside the door good. Price of the ticket would include all that. Waiters, cocktail waitress, busboy, dessert tray still to come. A steep ticket. Don’t let Timbo jive his way out of paying.
My man. Cudjoe, my man. How long’s it been, brother? How long? Too long. Don’t shake my hand, nigger. Come round here and hug me. Men’s is lowed to hug and squeeze each other these days. Mmmmm. Yessir. Huggin’s hip as Perrier and white wine. Gimme some skin now. Cudjoe, you scarce mothafucker.
You’re looking good, Timbo.
Was you expecting otherwise, bro?
Timbo, elegant, skinny, strikes a pose, lead tenor of the Dells Why do you have to go, arms to the sides, away from his body, palms faced outward to the audience, shoulder cocked, front knee slightly bent, a curtsy almost, but too much held back, too much power in reserve, he’s offering an emblem of himself held just so, sleek lines of his outfit displayed to advantage, a gray, double-breasted, laser-striped suit you don’t buy off a rack, tailored so it appears comfortable as a T-shirt, the bad motherfucker he could be reined in, stylized, anticipated and satirized by this little halfway playful bow. He’s really not giving a damn thing away, but yeah, he knows the game, he can do them little dances, them soft-shoe forms exchanged before you get down to business, so you can get down to business.
I appreciate you meeting me on short notice, man.
Anything for a brother. We go back, way back, don’t we, brother man? Damn. To those thrilling days of yesteryear and shit.
Lemme say this up-front before we even sit down. I understand your official position. What you say to me doesn’t go any further than me without your permission.
Whoa. You ain’t the National Enquirer is you? Sit down, man. Here we are together after all these years. I know who you are. And you know Timbo. I’ma get to the fire, man. Know that’s what you want to rap about and we’ll get to it by and by. But relax, bro. Tell me bout you. Is the novel finished? Heard about you breaking up with your old lady. But that was long ago, wasn’t it? If she swung wit you, she musta been fine. Always cruised with a fox on your arm. You’re the baddest. Bet you still are, you devil. Needs to catch up with you, bro. Ain’t too many niggers like us left in the world.
Not changed. Not one bit.
Mr. Maurice. Like you to meet my main man here. Mr. Maurice owns this joint. We, the mayor, myself and our very special guests, dine here regularly. Mr. Maurice knows how to set a table. Anything you fancy. Anythang. Mr. Maurice can see to it.
Pleased to meet you, sir.
Cudjoe. Just call me Cudjoe.
My man’s a democrat, Maurice. One the people. Not like some these uppity niggers come in here.
Mr. Cudjoe. Welcome to my humble establishment.
Pumps hand. Avoids eyes. He’s busy panning the huge room, missing nothing. Lots of Liberace hair, shining, every strand in place.
Humble, my ass. Pulls in a fortune daily. Each and every day. More on weekends. This dago like rust. He don’t never sleep. If he ain’t racking it in, he’s counting it, investing it. Ain’t that right, Mr. Maurice. But the man’s good. Serves nothing but the best to the best. Day in, day out.
You’re too kind, Mr. Timbo, too kind.
Cudjoe doesn’t know what to make of the exchange. Who’s zooming who. A new language. New license. Niggers and dagos. Cityspeak. No secrets, no history, what you see is what you say. Things have changed since he’s been away. Never used to be more than a few black faces in a five-star restaurant like this. Now every third chair occupied by a brother or sister dressed back. Make their white companions look like poor relatives from the country. Clearly the place to be at lunchtime. Even the help swaggers. In his K mart blazer and chinos Cudjoe is one of the country cousins. Timbo at home in these waters as a shark. Things change. Not Timbo though, not blessed Timbo.
Two Absoluts on the rocks. Doubles, babe. You still drink vodka, don’t you, home?
Cudjoe orders crab cocktail. Timbo a sampler of pâtés. Gets better from there. Timbo urging him try this, try that. C’mon have some this good life. Election’s coming. Goodies might all be gone tomorrow. Get it while it’s hot.
The old days. Sure I remember them. And some of them were good. None of us had a dime but we was living good, better than we knew at the time. Academic welfare. Way I look at it now they was testing us. Put a handful of niggers in this test tube and shook it up and watched it bubble. Was we gon blow up or blow up the school or die or was some weird green shit gon start to foaming in the tube? Or maybe the whole idea was to see if we’d come out white. Nobody really knew the answers so they decided to experiment. We were guinea pigs. How many of us in our class at the University? No more than nine, ten total. Set us down in the middle of a place Negroes never been before, wasn’t ever spozed to be. Then shook up the tube.
Trouble was they couldn’t keep things straight. What was experiment and what was real life. And if they couldn’t keep it straight, how the fuck was we spozed to? I’d think I was walking down the street with this cute little white coed, thinking we’re minding our business, strolling to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, and blam. Run right dead into the glass wall. Wait a minute, boy. This pussy you trying to scheme up on is real. It ain’t part of the goddamned experiment. You still in the tube, nigger, and don’t you forget it. Oh yeah. Those was good old days. Sometimes. But the bad days tore up a whole lot of sisters and brothers. Beaucoup casualties. Bump into some of them downtown every day. Walking round like ghosts of they own goddamned selves.
So what’s different now? Maybe nothing, Cudjoe. I wonder why we ever believed it was spozed to get better. Who fed us that lie? Why’d we swallow it? What’s different? Something ought to be, shouldn’t it? Well, to begin with, take the two of us, here, today. We survived. We’re eating higher off the hog. That ain’t all bad, is it? Food tastes pretty good, don’t it? I ain’t real sure after that. This city gon be Camelot, right? Our black Camelot. We’re in the driver’s seat, watch us go, world. Ain’t a black city cause whites still outnumber us, and ain’t a dead city cause still plenty money here, so wasn’t like some these other burgs where they stick in a black mayor cause nobody else want the job. Different situation here. Possibilities here. This an old city with old money. Seemed like we might have half a chance to do our thing here, do it our way. Show everybody. A showcase city. Everybody grinning, shaking hands, making money. But shit, man. I been on the inside two years and you know what I think? I think they experimenting again.
All this area in through here. Remember what it looked like?
Timbo drives like he dresses. The black sedan with the mayor’s seal on the door graces the streets, the route it follows synchronized to Timbo’s voice-over as they zip along, changing lanes, pace, direction, pausing, whipping through superfluous terrain as if the cityscape had been tailored to accommodate this quick sketch Timbo is drawing.
This used to be stone slum. Raggedy row houses and vacant lots. Stone ghetto, baby. Now every square foot is solid gold. City underwrote the project. Bought up those tobacco-road shacks for next to nothing. Leased the land to private developers and they put up dorms, apartments, town houses, condos. Hard to believe it’s the same place, ain’t it? I mean if you was a roach and been away on vacation and come back to the old hood, you’d say, Shit. This ain’t home. Where my brother roach and cousin rat? Somebody done messed up my good thing.
See, down here, paralleling the railroad tracks we’re laying a new street. Direct access off and on the expressway. All this mess around in here, warehouses, garages, shanties, all these eyesores got to go. When redevelopment’s finished, a nice, uncluttered view of the art museum. That’s the idea. Open up the view. With universities just a hop skip down the way what we’re trying to create here is our little version of Athens, you dig? Museum’s the Acropolis up on the hill. Cross by way of bridges and tunnels to the brainpower and computer power of the universities. Modern urban living in the midst of certified culture. College boys and girls running around on the set looking good and smart and prosperous like ain’t nothing wrong with the world. It’s gonna work, too. You wouldn’t believe the price of real estate. People standing in line to buy. Fortunes being made, brother. And this time round there’s some black fingers in the till. Not too black, you dig, don’t want to smudge the cookie jar. Gon be some big-time bucks generated by this action.
The folks used to live here. Yeah. Well, you know the answer before you asked that one. S.O.S. Same ole shit. Some went north. A lot got pushed west. Landlords getting fat off that end too. Shortage of housing so they cramming three, four families in one-family houses. Hell. If I owned a house in West Philly I’d rent it and move down here. A damned good investment. Figure it out. Borrow the down payment. Three families each paying to rent your old crib so you can meet your condo note and your loan note. Maybe have change. Nobody would have to burn old Timbo out. I’da been right here, man. In my shiny new pad. Right here where it’s happening.
It ain’t all a bed of roses, though. Parts of the city, like this, man, are cooking. A new day. The right ingredients in place. Big money making bigger money. They love the mayor here. Black and white. Call him Sambo behind his back but they be grinning in his face. On the other hand, let’s just say he ain’t universally loved. We still got sections of this great metropolis where nobody don’t love nobody. Too ugly. Too mean. No time for love. Niggers scuffling and scheming twenty-four hours a day to survive. That shit ain’t changed. In fact since dope been king it’s worse. Much worse. Some of us, a few really, are doing better, moving up. A handful doing damned well. But them that ain’t got and never had, they worse off than ever. S.O.S., man. Rich richer and poor poorer. Some these pitiful bloods off the map, bro. And they know it. And they ain’t too pleased about it. That’s the rub cause you know who they blame. Bloods voted for the mayor and he won but they ain’t won shit. Same ole. So the natives is restless. Mayor’s trying to keep a lid on but, tell the truth, it’s driving the cat crazy. Doing everything he can to make the city a better place to live and you can see progress, real progress. Area like this University City wasn’t nothing but a gleam in a planner’s eye a few years ago. Look at it now. Look at what it’s gonna be. Can’t argue with progress. At the same time over in the north and in the west where people from here forced to move, what’s growing is garbage dumps.
Like in the Third World, man. I was down in Rio for Carnival, dig? Having me a natural ball. This dude down there, does business with the city, he invited me out to his villa. Stone fairy-tale palace out in the boonies. Swimming pools. Stables. A disco. More servants than I got cousins. On the way the limousine had to pass through this slum. Miles of it. Talk bout tent city. These folks lucky if they got a rag to pull over they heads. Most of them just plain-ass living on the ground. The ground, man. Stinks like bad meat. Don’t matter all the car windows closed. Stink sneaks in. You feel dirty, like stink’s painting you a nasty color. Acres and acres of it, man. A garbage dump. A people dump.
I’m thinking to myself, this is poor. Back in the good ole U.S. of A., we ain’t got real poor people. This is poor. Living in boxes and holes. Hard ground and evil sky. When the sun’s hot you bake. If it rains, you rained on. People jammed up so tight they shitting and pissing on top one another. Kids playing in open sewers. Couldn’t believe it, man, and I seen some bad shit in my day.
I say to myself, Never. Couldn’t never get this bad back home in the land of opportunity and the bitch wit the torch. Not so sure now. Already people in this city live off garbage. And I’m not talking about just bums. I’m talking about families, about gangs of kids roving the streets, sleeping outdoors. And plenty people sleeping indoors in rattraps bad as the streets. Everyday people sinking deeper in the hole. Losing people every day. Enough of them go down the tube they gon start climbing back out. Walk up each other’s backs and climb out the hole. What we gon say then? What’s the mayor gon do when the city starts to cracking and pieces break off the edges and disappear. It’s thin ice, man. Damn thin ice and we all dancing on it. We all gon fall through if the shit starts to go.
So what’s the mayor intend to do?
Do? What a mayor always does. Grin and lie and shake hands and cut ribbons on new shopping centers. What else he spozed to do? This mess been here long before he was elected and he’ll be dead and in his grave before it changes. If it ever changes. You and me. We happened to come along at a time when it seemed things might change. We thought we was big and bad enough to make the world different. That’s our problem, believing things spozed to change for the better. Mayor’s not like that. He’s older, wiser. Not dewy-eyed like we was, but not bent down like our daddies, neither. He’s in between. Korea’s his war. A police action. He’s realistic about power and politics and deals and compromise and doing his jig inside the system. He ain’t about change. He’s about hanging on long enough so some who ain’t never tasted pie can have a bite before the whole shebang turns rotten. A simple, devious, practical man. A nice guy. Hey. He’s my boss. Love the nigger. Treats me better than any white boy would.
If the city’s coming apart at the seams, nobody’s going to be eating cake very long.
Right. But that ain’t the mayor’s fault. No more than it’s my fault or yours, Mr. Cudjoe. Where you been hiding all this time? Could have used a few more good shoulders at the wheel. You copped the education and ran, man. Maybe you know something none the rest of us bureaucrats know. Maybe you holding some answers. The mayor will listen. Maybe you should have stayed home. You could have told the mayor what to do with the King and his bunch of loonies.
Why did anyone have to do anything with them?
They were embarrassing, man. Embarrassing. Trying to turn back the clock. Didn’t want no kind of city, no kind of government. Wanted to live like people live in the woods. Now how’s that sound? A Garden of Eden up in West Philly. Mayor breaking his butt to haul the city into the twenty-first century and them fools on Osage want their block to the jungle. How the mayor spozed to stand up and talk to white folks when he can’t control his own people? The press ate it up. Nonsense in the papers every day. King’s people demanding this and demanding that. Letting their kids run around naked, sassing the police and getting their heads busted, cussing out the neighborhood on loudspeakers, dumping shit in their backyard, demanding the release of their so-called brothers and sisters from the slam. Sooner or later those nuts had to go. Mayor got tired of them mocking everything he was promising. Talk about a thorn in his side. King and them were a natural thorn halfway up his behind. A whole brier patch growing up in the mayor’s chest. Sooner or later, one way or another, them and their dreadlocks had to go.
Timbo cuts the engine. They’ve parked at the edge of new construction. Beyond a barrier of striped sawhorses dead-ending the street, oatmeal-colored guts of the city have been exposed. Huge chunks of asphalt are stacked, waiting to be hauled away. Heavy equipment. Humming generators. Rows of man-high cement cylinders, coiled snakes of plastic tubing. Cudjoe thinks of veins, arteries, nerves, organs, high-tech replacements for old, worn-out parts. To the east, windows of tall buildings are bronzed by late-afternoon sun. The skyline hovers pale, indistinct through heat haze. Early summer but already heat has begun to reshape the city. By August the city would be a sure-enough patient laid out on a table. Hot sand scalds his bare feet. He steps from shadow to shadow when he can find one, following a path that twists forever up the side of the cliff dividing town from beach. Dark caves. Rotten teeth. Skinny kids stare through him as he passes, a faraway look dulls their eyes. He’s a fly on the other side of the glass.
Timbo. Why did we believe we could turn this country around?
Cause we wanted more than we had and that seemed the way.
I’m writing about the fire.
About the fire, but about us too. About believing we could take over. Build a better world.
We did take over, didn’t we? I mean, shit. We had the whole world in our hands and we blew it. Dropped it like a hot potato. Whew. I don’t want it you can have it. Tossed it back to Daddy and exited for goddamn parts unknown. Kathmandu. Wyoming. You know what I mean.
We had them on their knees, man. Begging and pulling out their hair. Tried everything to put us down but we were strong. We were righteous. Couldn’t nothing stop us. But our own damn selves. They let us strut around like we owned the Johnson. We was superbad. On the tube. In the movies. They just let us be for a while. Let us boogie around till we got bored with our ownselves and wasn’t nothing to do but creep in the back door and tiptoe up the stairs into our old rooms and give up the keys. Please let us back in the house. Youall grown-ups go on and take care the grown-up business. We just want to play and have a good time. They said OK. You can come back. And here’s some shit to play with. Here’s a war in Asia. You can take your music and dope and go fight it. Take the niggers with you. And here’s some more dope for when you get back. You can fuck each other’s brains out. Fuck till your crotches rot. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? A party. Share a little of the goodies with the niggers. Keep them out our hair. We got business to tend to. Grown-up business of running the world.
They snatched back the car keys, the house keys. We got slogans and T-shirts and funny haircuts. And AIDS. Make love not war. Grateful Dead. Woodstock. Black Power. Sheeit.
Cudjoe is tired. He’s been sitting too long in the restaurant, the car. His muscles are stiff. Timbo rapping nonstop about something else now: South Africa, the PLO. Vietnam War, civil rights, marches and protests, he’d dealt with that time of their lives in five minutes. How could Cudjoe have thought it would fill novels?
Cudjoe closes his eyes, listens to Timbo the way he listens to music. Timbo’s voice could bring back the feeling of those years they were in school together. A particular succession of notes created a tune. Certain notes started it, you recognized them but the music immediately carried you someplace else, behind the notes, between them. The meaning of the notes was where they took you and how it felt to be there, behind them, feeling again what you felt another time when you heard the notes played. A fast, jumpy tune makes you sad. A slow song thumps you between the shoulder blades and you remember the wings folded back there and they open and fly you away.
Greed’s got the deepest pocket, cause see Greed scheming full-time to keep that pocket full. When you want something you go to Greed’s pocket. It stinks, it’s pukey down in there. Dead babies and disease and children starving with flies and maggots in the pus draining out their sores and assholes. You know Greed got to dig down deep in the shit to give you what you asking for, but you need it and where else you gon get it? Yes. I’ll take it. Thank you kindly.
You hate to watch Old Greed stirring around down in his ugly pocket and you damned sure avoid looking at his fingers when he draws out the little piece of change you’re begging for. You know good and well the nasty place it’s coming from but you ain’t hardly refusing what he holds out, blood, vomit, shit, piss, pus and all.
Answer’s always yes. Yes, I’ll take the money. Don’t care how much blood’s on it. Don’t care if it’s my blood. Yours. I wasn’t the one responsible. I’d prefer clean money but till clean drops down from heaven this will do. Yes. I’ll take it. Somebody will take it. Mize well be me. Money’s money. None of it’s clean.
See, to me, man, that’s the bottom line. No matter how you cut it, human nature gets down to a simple fact. You want yours and I want mine, don’t matter whose blood on the money, yes, we’ll take it. World operates the way it does because that’s the bottom line. Survival’s the bottom line. Looking out for number one.
How you gon convince somebody democracy’s good or socialism or communism or King and his nouveau Rousseau or whatever the fuckism, how you gon preach the morality of one system over another system when all anybody concerned about is the goodies the system delivers to their door? Everybody wants a piece of the rock. What’s it matter whose bones broken hacking the rock out the earth, who’s dying pushing the rock up the hill, who’s ground up underneath it?
Timbo off mankind now, ranking on particular friends and acquaintances. Whatever happened to thus and so? Whichamacallit? What’s his name? You know who I mean. The guy. The chick. C’mon. You know who I’m talking about. What’s the cat’s name? A shooting gallery of faces as Timbo ticks off their signs: bad breath, big tits, the stuttering, dickhead motherfucker. Mr. Prim and Proper, Miss Fine Ass, Woody Woodpecker square-headed no dancing turkey. The Crab Lady. The Dog Man. Finger-painted in the air, pantomimed, noises in his throat, a giggle, finger pops, silences, bat of his eyelashes, face after face flickers across the screen of Timbo’s rap. Cudjoe thinks up a god so prodigal it can’t help creating everything it thinks. Runaway creation, people spilling from its orifices as it laughs and farts and slaps its thigh and marvels at the perversity, the fecundity of its mind, the permutations and combinations it can spin off the basic human clay. One leg, three legs, no legs at all. Legs where arms should be. A phantom leg after the real one blown off by a land mine. Legs tangled, twisted, one shorter than the other, legs like flippers, perfect deadly legs, legs undersized and elephantized, suppurating and skin flaking away, black ones on red people, green ones on white, and as fast as the god dreams them, here they come pouring from a cornucopia, flooding the earth, a rickety, crooked, misshapen pair, a joke, a whim, the only set of legs some sorrowful motherfucker will own all the days of his life.
You remember people, Timbo. I have places, almost like stage sets, in my mind. I’ve been trying to find them since I’ve been back but they’re gone. Buildings, streets, trees. Stores I used to shop, bars where we partied. The Carousel. I can picture it perfectly. But there’s no Carousel anymore.
Been gone for days, bro. Guess you have been away for a while. Lemme see. It was the Carousel when we were in school, then the Sunset Grill, then the Hi Hat Lounge, then it didn’t have a name. Just a trifling little corner joint. Back part where we boogied torn down. By then most the shit around it torn down, too. They were building those high-rise dorms across on Chestnut and everything north was being urban-removed. Driving down to City Hall and I pass this busted sign, two or three tubes of neon kinda sputtering, red, bright red cause it was a crisp, winter night and nothing else around in there so these squiggle-squaggles of red caught my attention spelling out a message looked like Arabic or Chinese characters, didn’t make any sense, then I noticed where I was, between Fortieth and Thirty-ninth on Market so I thought to myself, Yeah. That must have been the Carousel—whatever name it went by then—still holding out on that lonely-ass corner. Thought of you, old buddy, and the rest of the crew used to always be hanging out in there. The good ole days. That sign with the blood barely squeaking through its veins was sure enough pitiful and I was long gone on my way downtown but I could picture the joint jumping again. Ray Charles on the Box. What D’ye Say. Folks wall to wall Saturday night and I just got paid. Hey. Timbo rolling along in his big car courtesy of the City, pocketful of money, the mayor’s boy, the city cocking up her big legs for him. Timbo on top the world, but man, I can tell you, and you’ll understand. I’d have given it all up in a minute for them old days. Timbo missing the Carousel. Timbo shedding a big, sloppy tear for them golden olden days and all us fools carousing at the Carousel.
Let’s go cop us a taste, brother Cudjoe. I want to hear about your life.
I lived on an island. Learned another language. Almost like a new life. Born again before born again was big business. When Caroline and I split up, she took the kids and moved in with her parents. She eventually married again, lives in Haiti. After we broke up, nothing made sense to me. I knew I’d fucked up. Felt dirty, contaminated. And contagious. Yeah. I didn’t want to have anything to do with other people. Afraid I’d give them what I had. Or that they’d know on sight how sick I was and shun me. That was an even greater fear. Being found out. Being punished. The man who’d been encouraging me to write died. But not before saying, No, not yet, twice to the book I was struggling with. Nothing here for me so I crossed the ocean. Bummed around a year. South of France, Spain, North Africa. Then I found my island. Mykonos. Wound up staying away ten years.
Ten years. That’s a lot of years.
One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten. Ten dead Indians. Count em.
What’d you do?
The island was beautiful. I stayed because it was beautiful and I wasn’t required to do a goddamn thing. Cool out. Day after day of nothing and nobody gave a fuck. I became an institution. Only splib in the permanent colony of foreigners. Worked at a bar. You could find me there regular as rain. Black face behind the bar at Spiros. A fixture. Part of the island. Like naked beaches and caves and cliffs. Everybody loved me. Then forgot me. Invisible man. Bartending my day job, and sometimes at night I wrote.
Living the life of the expatriate, huh. Beachcomber and pussyhound and artiste. Sounds good to me, homeboy.
I was lonely lots of the time, Timbo. But shit, I was lonely living with a wife and two kids in a goddamn matchbox apartment you can’t turn around in. Missed music and playing ball and the funny stuff you Negroes over here got into, sitting in, occupying buildings, Mau-Mauing the Man. Missed it and missed my family. For a while didn’t care if I lived or died. Played it day by day. Minute at a time. I’d read about what was happening over here. Seemed like the whole world was going to explode. Then nothing happened. Don’t know today if that made me feel better or worse but I survived. Mad plenty of days. Mad weeks at a stretch. Did lots of drinking and hiding and running. Wrote a lot of bullshit poems and unfinished essays. Letters to Caroline and the boys I never sent. A boring life really. Like a spectator from a distance watching my country kill itself. Watching and waiting for my old life to disappear. And take me with it. Some things never change, I guess.
Hey. Some things do. Ten years is ten years. We grown-ups, good buddy. Middle-age motherfuckers. Wish I’d stole me five or ten years to do nothing.
Never finished the novel about us.
But I can tell you something about it. You were one of the stars.
Would have been some book, then.
Maybe what I’m writing about the fire will make up for the other one. You’re in it, too.
Oh yeah. You ain’t intending to get me fired, are you? Or strung up?
I need help. The boy who survived is the key. I have to find him.
Write your sixties novel. Make old Timbo a literary hero. Let me play the part in the movies. Forget the fire. Play with fire you know what happens. You’ll get burnt like the rest of us. Tell the story about trying to change the world. Fire ain’t going nowhere. Be right here when you get back from Hollywood.
Kids Krusade. Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps. Cudjoe saw the graffiti everywhere. Triple K’s. MPT. Double K’s. Money Power Things. Anywhere and everywhere. Man-high letters. The words spelled entire. Where did all the spray paint come from? Who was splashing every wall in Philadelphia with these messages? Like a new season. Instead of last-ditch autumn brightness or summer green or gray-white winter this was a season of garish primary colors dashed and slooshed and spilled over the city, rainbow signs signifying things were changing, a new day on its way, breaking out, taking over, a rash of MPTs and K’s transforming the city like the stigmata of a galloping disease.
And like a natural season, these messages blasting from every surface struck him as inevitable, not new, just not remembered, the way a blinding snowstorm and freezing temperature are unreal when you’re sweating through a T-shirt on a muggy August day. Heat rises up at you from the asphalt and you can’t believe the hawk ruled here, just yesterday, his chilled wings flapping through these canyons, his icy talons lifting your shivering ass clean off the ground as you scurry cross Market, humping for the steaming subway entrance. The spray-painted messages defaced or decorated the city, depending on your point of view. Vandalism or tribal art or handwriting on the wall. Whatever the signs meant, they were a transforming presence. For a while, as long as they reigned in plain view, it was their season, and their season was different.
War paint, Cudjoe thought. Gearing up for battle. Kids priming the city with a war face. MPT. KK. A ritual mask summoning power; a dream, a revelation as the features of the city change before our eyes. Does anyone besides him recognize what’s happening? Did it happen too quickly? Nobody paying attention to walls, billboards, sidewalks, fences and then one morning, boom, the signs had appeared. Second nature instantly. Blending into the cityscape nobody ever sees. Kids Krusade. Money Power Things. Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps. Unnoticed. Like dead trees, dead rivers, poisonous air, dying blocks of stone.
He knew. He saw. He was afraid.
In the restaurant he had asked Timbo if Timbo knew what to make of the signs. Of course Timbo had an answer.
Kids today are a bitch. Worst problem used to be gang warring. Maiming and killing each other like flies cause they didn’t have nothing better to do. Now they kill anybody. Anything. Cold-blooded little devils. You wouldn’t believe juvenile court. Not no lightweight run away from home and stealing candy bars and cars shit. Huh uh. Dope dealing and contract killing and robbing and beating people in the neighborhood for drug money and full-scale turf wars with weapons like in Nam. Gangsters, man. Ice water in their veins. And ain’t this high yet, ain’t twelve years old yet.
I’ll send you copies of some stuff the undercover dudes from the Civil Disobedience Unit been collecting. Check it out. You won’t believe it. Kids is crazy these days. And cold. Mean and cold. Smart too. Capable of any damned thing. We looking at a cockeyed kiddie insurrection brewing.
They want to take over, man. Little runty-assed no-hair-on-their-dicks neophytes want to run the city. Yeah. Money Power Things. MPT. What you see on the signs is saying they want their share. Claim the only difference between them and grown-ups is grown-ups hold the money, power and things. Funny, ain’t it? Same shit we wanted back in the sixties. Only these kids bolder than us. They don’t want to be something else. They don’t want to be white or shareholders or grown-up. They want it all, everything adults have, the MPT. Then they’ll run the world their way. Run it better than we do. So they say. And I halfway believe they could. Know what I mean, Cudjoe? Be hard to fuck up worse than we’re fucking up. You know what I mean. They got a point there.
Bottom line is this, though. Get this. When the kids in control of MPT, they gon ship old motherfuckers like you and me away. Old Islands, bro. Ship us off to these elephant graveyards where we spozed to die. See, getting old is getting greedy and useless. So everybody over twenty-one got to hat up. Live in adult concentration camps is what it comes down to. It’s written down in their pamphlets and posters. We’ll be sent off to work and grow old and die. Shut away so we don’t crowd their space. Everything for the young. Shit end of the stick for the old. It’s fair, they say, because everybody’s young once. And nobody has to grow old if they don’t want to. Hint. Hint. You dig? They say it’s just birth control in reverse. Fairer, they say. Cause at least the olds have their chance to be young.
One more piece of this madness we’ve learned about. Fixers. Fixers are these goddamned cute-little-kid-next-door death squads. Free of charge they’ll take out troublesome adults. You know, abusers, pimps, dealers, derelicts, unreasonable teachers and parents. Fix up problems for other kiddies. Half-pint assassins. Fixers. And these juvenile delinquents think they’re going to change the world.
Who writes the pamphlets?
Pamphlets, leaflets, posters. Some are like comic books. Pictures tell the story for kids who can’t read. Recruiting brochures are what they are. That and inflammatory propaganda. Spreading the word. You know. A battle for the hearts and minds of kids. Of course that rapping music’s in it. And the stuff on the walls part of it too. A big part. Putting out the message every way they can.
But who’s the they? Kids doing it all?
There’s one long pamphlet. Can’t see a kid writing it. It’s a manifesto, carefully thought out, cleverly worded, organized. Wish I had somebody in my office who could turn out copy like that. Possibly an older kid could have written it. But it’s not kid style. Reads like the prose we used to hammer out in those all-night emergency meetings. Our demands, our grievances, all the bullshit we wasn’t gon accept from the Man no more. What I believe is someone’s using the kids.
What you grinning at? I know what you’re thinking but sometimes it’s true. Outsiders come in, stir up trouble. A fact. Don’t care how dry the straw is and how high it’s heaped in the barn, you still need a match.
To light the fire.
Light the fire.
Timbo. Has anyone downtown heard anything about the boy who was saved?
We always talking about the fire, ain’t we? No matter what I think we talking about, it comes down to the fire. Well, the answer’s no. When you read what I send you, though, you’re going to get a shock. The fire’s in it. In a list of atrocities that prove adults don’t give a fuck about kids. The lousy school system, abortion, lack of legal rights, child abuse, kiddie porn, kids’ bodies used to sell shit on TV, kids on death row, high infant mortality. In that list as one of the latest signs. Cause the fire burned up mostly kids. And also because a kid managed to survive. Survived bullets and flames and flood and bombs. Superkid, dig. City used everything in its arsenal but the little mothafucker got away. Simba, right? He’s a symbol of kid power. He’s a hero, magic, they say. Went through hell to show the others they can do it. Do anything.
Olds are Vampires. They suck youngs’ blood.
Schools teach you the 3 Ds. Kids are Dirty, Dumb, Dependent. Schools treat you like beasts who must be tamed. The truth is we are perfect. Our bodies are perfect and clean. Our thoughts make perfect sense. We have a perfect right to Money, Power, and Things.
Being born is good. Growing old is bad.
Play not work.
This truth can set you free.
I don’t know, man. Don’t know how seriously to take any of this. But something’s out there. And it ain’t pretty. You ready for a long walk off a short pier, Cudjoe? You ready to be fixed? You ready to slave in a salt mine on an Old Island so some little jitterbug can party?
Cudjoe remembers Timbo’s answer. He remembers a waiter clearing the table. Mr. Maurice cruising by one last time to stroke and be stroked. Recalls thoughts that rose in him. All this ceremony, this help, squads of saucers, plates, glasses, cups and silverware, the dirty pots and pans back in the kitchen that had cooked what they’d eaten. How many hands, how much time and trouble required to fill the stomachs of two black men who probably weren’t that hungry in the first place? A wave of shame and humiliation. Where are his children? Caroline? What would any of the people living and dead whose opinions he values think of this lunchtime debacle? What could he say to a starving person about this meal, this restaurant, this possibility of excess made real by the city? Why did he sit still for it? Accumulating. Bloating. Smiling and chattering while piles of bones, hunks of fat, discarded gristle and cores, skins and decorative greens and sculpted peels, corks, cans, bottles, grease, soiled linen, soggy napkins, crumbs on the floor, shells, what was unconsumed and unconsumable, waste and rot and persiflage heaped up, the garbage outweighing him, taller than he was, usurping his place. Eaten by refuse faster than he can cram it down his throat. He’d lunched with his old pal Timbo and whatever it was destroying the city gorged itself upon them and shit them out even as ice cubes dinged in crystal goblets and silver coffee spoons chimed against the edges of bone-china cups. Not so much a thought as a sensation. The experience of being swallowed. Used and abused. Slipping and sliding down into a stinking, slithy darkness. Lost, lost and almost enjoying the ride, the plunge, but sickened too, helpless and pitiful and exhausted. Finally expelled.
What would he say to Simba if he ever found him?
Timbo. I had a dream.
Gimme a break. Listen a minute before you laugh.
What’s your dream, brother?
I wake up in a park. Right down the street from the fire. Clark Park at Forty-third and Osage. Or dream I wake up. Then I hear a bunch of kids singing. The words are unintelligible. Another language. But the singing gets to me anyway, right away. I can feel what they’re singing about. Doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a word. It’s a freedom song. A fighting song. Righteous as those movement anthems. Ain’t gon let nothing turn me round, turn me round. Remember? Remember the tears coming to your eyes. Remember how full and scared and strong the singing made us feel? That’s what I awakened to. Those feelings. That music. Only different. Another language. Another country. And kids doing the singing, kids I couldn’t see because it’s pitch-black middle of the night and there’s a hollow in the park and that’s where the singing seems to be coming from. I stand up. Start to walk toward where I hear the sound. Then I’m lost. Dream time turns me all around because suddenly it’s daylight. Or it’s been day all along and I’ve just been walking around with my eyes closed. A grimy, grainy Philadelphia gray morning. Only stark silent. No city babble. Quiet as a grave. I’m still walking toward the hollow and when I pass the basketball court I fall down flat on the ground. I go down fast and heavy and wonder why it doesn’t hurt because I fall fast and hard like being chopped off at the knees. Like suddenly my limbs below the knees are gone and I crumple. Then I’m scared. I scream. But it ain’t myself I’m screaming at. Dream time, you know. Because I’m chopped on the ground, rolling around with half my legs gone but I’m also a witness, upright, floating, somehow staring down at the basketball court, screaming because a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. It’s me and every black boy I’ve ever seen running up and down playing ball and I’m screaming for help and frozen in my tracks and can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s dangling there and the dumb thing I’m also thinking in this dream or whatever it is, is if they’d just waited a little longer his legs would have grown, his feet would have reached the ground and he’d be OK.
I don’t know. I don’t know how long I’m there. I don’t know how I remember it is just a nightmare and cut him down. There’s a memory of his weight in my arms. Catching him when the others sawed through the rope. I seem to be relieved. Grateful almost to realize he’s just a child. That his body is small and I can bear the weight of it as I back down the ladder.
A basket’s ten feet high. We needed ladders.
Then there’s more to the dream. You’re talking miniseries, man. Child murders. Ladders. Cops. KKK.
I’m not sure if there’s more. Certain things had to have happened for any of it to make sense. What I’m left with, what I’m certain of is not very much at all. But indelible. Real. The singing. The broken neck and slumped body. The weight.
Simba? The lost boy?
It could be.
Who killed him?
It was a dream.
Well make up something, then. Wake up and make up. You got my attention. Don’t leave me hanging.
Damn you, Timbo.
I ain’t trying to be funny. But it ain’t fair to start telling me a story then just stop in the middle.
The dream stops there. Everything surrounding it’s gone. I want to know the rest, too. Thought telling you might help. But it doesn’t. I feel myself beginning to invent. Filling in the blanks but the blanks are real. Part of the dream.