Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A HANDSOME BLACK MAN WALKS INTO A BAR... (pt. 3)


             One day I’m just walkin’ the streets o’ Harlem, livin’, like I always done. Next thing, I’m walkin’ that tunnel o’ light like they say. I still don’t know how I died – if a car hit me or a block o’ cement fell on my head. But when I get to that light, I see this musta-been African at this little desk and he’s writin’ in some book I can’t read. He looks up at me, got these big round eyes narrowed to slits between sleepy-lookin’ eyelids, adjusts his spectacles and he says I gotta go before General Concensus. I ask him, who’s this General and what’s he got to do with me and what’s rank matter in the Beyond and a whole lot o’ other questions. But the African don’t say nothin’. Just waves me on. So I walk away – or maybe float, I dunno – and I start headin’ toward this cliff, which I don’t know how I know that’s where I’m supposed to go. But I do and go to the edge of this cliff overlookin’… Zion, I guess. I dunno, but it was this real Eden-like place just stretchin’ everywhere with the sun in a blue sky, no clouds, shinin’ down on everythin’. Then all the sudden I’m face-to-face with this… I don’t what it was. It was a person and they was black but… but that’s it. They go, “I am General Concensus.” But I don’t see the lips move ‘cause I can’t tell what they look like. Everythin’ kept movin’ and changin’. The nose was wide and flat, then, the next second, thin and turned up. Eyes went from brown to green to brown to blue. The build was a skinny girl’s then a fat man’s and everythin’ in between. Even the skin. It was always black, but sometime lighter and sometime darker. And the voice was never just one voice, but a whole bunch o’ voices bouncin’ through a metal hallway and whichever caught your ear first was luck. And each voice called me one name or another: “Everyman. Drunk. Intellectual. Philanderer. Rebel. Faggot. Pioneer. Uncle Tom.” It kept up ‘til this ghostly silence hit me like a batterin’ ram, like all the air got sucked out all at once. Then the General goes, “NOT BLACK ENOUGH!” Lifts his arms, turns into a giant bat, and flies right at my face. Next thing, I’m here, just as old and run down as you see, but stuck in a time I’d left behind long ago, waitin’ for the General Concensus to agree on me.

            Handsome sat looking at Tex. He had been spoken down to before; by teachers, coaches, employers, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, the police. But no one had succeeded in making Handsome feel as wholly ignorant as this old black cowboy. “There are so many things wrong with that story, I don’t know where to start!” he barked as he sprung to his feet. “And I’m not going to bother trying.”
            “Every word was bible truth,” Tex calmly asserted.
            “Okay. Enough.”
            “Boy, don’t you…”
            “And don’t call me, ‘Boy,’ old man!”
            “Did y’even get the moral o’ the story?”
            “What moral? There is no moral. It’s a story about nothing.”
            “It’s about your life, boy!”
            “Oh yeah? I thought it was about what happens when I die.”
            Handsome watched the old man’s face assume the reverberant calm at the center of a terrible hurricane. Tex’s eyes narrowed and the warmth seeped out of them instantaneously as he shook his head with the slow foreboding swing of a pendulum. “Think you’re so smart,” he intoned. “You’re pitiable, boy, lookin’ down at the ignorant field nigga.”
            Handsome pointed a finger at Tex. “I didn’t say that.”
            “Ya don’t got to!” Tex cried and slapped away Handsome’s hand. He clambered off his stool and stood on his thin rickety legs eyeball-to-eyeball with Handsome. The young man was back on his heels, ready for whatever the coot was about to try. “Ya think I just swallowed that monster outright? Ya wanna know what I said?”

            I said, “Ya expect me to believe y’all are dead and conversin’ with me?”
            “No,” said Mudbone, “but we tellin’ ya anyhow.”
            I gotta admit, now they had me real curious. “Y’all don’t want money. I call horse hockey on your story. So what ya tellin’ me for?”
            Simple stepped forward and said, “ ‘Cause you, son, are our ticket outta here.”
            “I am?”
            “You the future. The future judges the Negro of old. Every battle the Negro waged is one less you gotta fight. Every step he took toward Zion, that’s one less step you and your future gotta take.
            “But like all men, a black man’s got his agenda and it might not jibe with his brother’s. Ya know how folks are, self-interest and all. I challenge your ideas, I gotta go. Your generating see Pops and his teethy grinnin’, they see him coonin’ for the white man. No place for that in the future. And it don’t matter how easier he made it for you. Don’t matter if me and Mudbone tamped down the path for black folks to show the white man we real people ‘cause I’m queer and Mudbone’s a womanizin’, blasphemin’, whore-born junkie.”
            Mudbone said, “But I ain’t queer.”
            Simple continued, “History’s a story, son, and every story needs a storyteller. Else it’s just motes o’ dust carried by the wind forever. White folks got lots o’ storytellers so they got lot o’ history. How much we got? Our history’s all spoken, passed word-o’-mouth and all. And we lost it when our ancestors got stolen from home. The storytellers we got now wanna ignore some stories. Why ya think only white folks talk about Africans sellin’ their own to the slavers?”
            “Racism?” I guessed.
            “True. But why don’t black folks talk about it? Maybe it don’t agree with what our storytellers think our stories should be. But it’s part o’ our story. We are all a part o’ our story. And we need someone to tell our side of it.”

            “‘And one day,’” Tex finished, “‘you may need someone to tell yours.’”

            Handsome walked down the half-forgotten side street, away from the quaint old coffee shop, out to Center Avenue. He stood at the corner breathing deeply, trying to compose himself. The weird old codger had not just riled him. He had prompted Handsome to tap into a deep reservoir of hatred he was less than proud of. But Handsome was angrier with himself than at Tex. He was infuriated that he had even for a nanosecond entertained the notion that he was oblivious to the sacrifices made by African-Americans past for his benefit. He was educated and knew that those African-Americans had done much more with far less than he ever would. Handsome’s blood again began to churn with tectonic aggravation, when he heard the vague exclamation of a young male voice to his left.
            He turned and saw three black teenaged boys huddled on the front stoop of a convenience store. They were ensconced in name-brand clothes two sizes too large. The diamonds piercing their ear lobes wrestled for the attention of strangers. Two of the boys wore baseball hats cocked at Dutch angles. The third boy sported a loose Afro replete with six differently colored picks. Handsome couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was a pidgin hodgepodge of English and slang he had never heard before. They spoke over one another, increasingly fast, increasingly loud, and increasingly garbled. Handsome shook his head, a grimace slapped across his face.
            Handsome silently mouthed to himself, niggers.
            And suddenly, realizing what he had just thought, Handsome froze. His immediate impulse was to turn and run back to the coffee shop, to speak to Tex, to tell the old cowboy that he understood now. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to turn around to find the coffee shop to have disappeared. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A HANDSOME BLACK MAN WALKS INTO A BAR... (pt. 2)

            “Who this here?” asked Simple.
            “He’s our three. Who you think he is?”
            “Goin’ off the class of three you rope in, I thought he might be another fool don’t know Jim Crow from Jim Brown.”
            “Just shut up. He’ll do fine.”
            “Wait,” I said. “I ain’t familiar with pool with three people.”
            “Mudbone here didn’t bother tellin’ ya the game, huh?” Simple said.
            Mudbone said, “Ain’t my job to name the game.”
            “How long it been since you had any job?”
            “Last week and your momma pays well. How long for you?”
            Right about that time I started thinkin’ this might be some kinda hustle. But when I asked how much we was wagerin’, Mudbone said, “No money. We just playin’.”
            Well, that just ain’t right, I thought. How ya gonna play a game without stakes? But here’s the thing: Sure ‘nough soon as we started the game, I was havin’ fun. More fun than I ever had at dice or dominoes or cards or pool before. And not only was there no money changin’ hands, there was no rules. Ya shot ‘til ya missed, then the next brother shot. And Mudbone and Simple, they were some cutups. Simple started talkin’ ‘bout this girl he knew up in Harlem from back a ways and Mudbone starts castin’ aspersions.
            “The bitch got a triangle asshole,” he told Simple. “And you suck on her titties and glue come out!”
            Well, Simple wasn’t havin’ none o’ that. Told him right out, “I ain’t about to let my woman go slandered by some whore-bred bastard associatin’ with peanut-head reprobates and other assorted ne’er-do-well Negroes.”
            But  Mudbone came back at him, “Like you some prize, ya broke-ass Elmer’s imbibin’ muthafucka!”
            Now, I was havin’ fun, see. And even though I figured this was just Mudbone and Simple playin’ the dozens like they been for a mean spell, I didn’t wanna take a chance and let ‘em get all wrapped up in the back-and-forth and one o’ ‘em cross a line. ‘Cause ol’ as they was, those two looked the type who kept their fangs in their heads to the bitter end. So I said, “How long you two been here?”
            “Longer ‘an either o’ us care to remember,” said Simple.
            “Ya said your woman was up in Harlem,” I said. “That where ya from?”
            “Mmm. Not original. Lived on 125th and Amsterdam for years. But I’m here now.”
            “How ‘bout you, Mudbone?” I asked him.
            “I was born in either Peoria, Illinois or Tupelo, Mississippi.”
            “Huh?”
            “Depends when you ask my father.”
            That struck me as off. Mudbone was ol’ himself so I figured his father wasn’t likely still livin’. So I ask him real delicate, “I ain’t tryin’ for insensitive, but I’d assume your father left the quick by now.”
            “No,” Mudbone said. “He’s alive.”
            “Mine too, though he gettin’ up there in years,” added Simple.
            That hit me like a switch on the backside and I started feelin’ like I did at the counter, like all the sudden I wasn’t me but the me I was was strange and off-puttin’. “How ol’ are ya two?” I asked ‘em.
            They looked at each other and this slier-than-a-fox smile come across their faces and Simple said, “Age don’t count for nuthin’ where we been and you goin’.” They both laughed like they was joshin’ me and just waitin’ to spring the trap.
            But the not-me feelin’ kept buildin’ up like a train engine people keep tossin’ coal in. This wasn’t no prank, I knew. That know ya have when ya sense somethin’ big comin’ ‘round the corner and ya can’t tell what it is, but it don’t matter ‘cause it’s so big and fearsome it could be Death himself and ya wouldn’t be surprised. “What y’all want with me?”
            That’s when Simple stepped forward. “Tex, boy,” he said, “we got no designs on you. I swear it. You gonna leave this place alive and you gonna live as long as you was gonna live if you never met us. But what you gotta understand…”
            “Muthafucka, we dead!” cried Mudbone.
            Simple turned to Mudbone and got loud. “Goddamn you! What do you think you’re doin’?”
            “Whatchu doin’, draggin’ it out and all? Kill the suspense already.”
            I put my hands up. “Whoa! Whoa! What do y’all mean, you’re dead?”           
            “Just that. We dead,” repeated Mudbone. “I ain’t smart ‘nough to dumb it down no more.”
            “You just shut your mouth,” Simple told his friend. Then he started walkin’ toward me. “S’true, son. We cast off the mortal coil some time ago. We been here since.”
            I started gettin’ angry and slammed my stick down on the table. “What’s the hustle?” I asked ‘em.
            “No hustle, boy,” Mudbone said.
            “Mmmhmm.”
            “Hand to God.”
            “Ya gotta do better than that,” I said.
            “What? Y’ain’t got room in ya for faith?”
            “I got faith in Jesus Christ – not two ol’ niggas with a ruse.”
            That’s when Simple put his hand to my face. SMACK!
            I was starin’ at him, holdin’ my face, nonplussed, when he said, “That, boy, is what we’re here for.”

            “That’s when he told me.”
            Handsome stared back at Tex with an incredulously furrowed brow. “Told you what?” he asked.
            “What happens to black folk when they die.”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A HANDSOME BLACK MAN WALKS INTO A BAR... (pt. 1)


            The coffee shop was hidden halfway down a side street off Center Avenue. A quaint anachronism amidst a concrete jungle of modernity, the coffee shop’s neon was dead and the canvas awning was frayed and sagged under its own weight. The Fifties hadn’t died. They’d merely retired to this unimposing dive tucked away within a future that had forgotten to decide their fate.
            Handsome, his stomach knotted in righteous hunger, noticed none of it as he marched through the door. He made straight for the counter, fell ass-first onto the closest empty stool and announced, “Shrimp basket and a Herschel’s.”
            The waitress behind the counter, a frumpy white woman with many strenuous years behind her and too many still ahead, topped a milkshake with a cherry and walked away. As famished as he was, Handsome was willing to exercise patience. He knew waiting tables was hard, thankless work and he was determined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
            After fifteen minutes in the nearly empty coffee shop, Handsome’s benefit of the doubt morphed into the undeniable fact that the wait staff – the white wait staff – was ignoring him.
            He had a hard time reconciling such pronounced unapologetic racism with the fact that he was its recipient. Here he was: Harvard law grad, magna cum laude, four months with the most prestigious law firm in Madsen, New Jersey. He was the first person in his family to graduate college and he would soon be the first to own his own home. His suit was clean, pressed and obviously expensive. Anyone should be able to take the most cursory look at him and find no reason to judge him to be anything other than an upwardly mobile contributor to the community.
            Save for one glaring trait.
            “They know ya not gonna tip,” said a voice with a pronounced twang. Handsome looked to his right and saw its source two seats down.
            He was a tall lithe black man with a checkered shirt and bolo tie underneath a fringed leather jacket. White tufts of hair at his temples and the back of his head sprung from underneath the bill of his Stetson. His head sat proudly atop his shoulders. Dignity ran through the folds of his grizzled features and bloomed from his gray handlebar mustache. “S’why they ain’t servin’ us,” he continued.
            “That’s stupid,” countered Handsome. “They don’t know that. I always tip at least twenty percent, even if the waitress doesn’t deserve it.”
            “But ya do see why they’d think so?”
            Handsome furrowed his brow suspiciously. “Look,” he said, “no offense, but you’re not one of those old Ruckus white-man-can-do-no-wrong brothers, are you?”
            The old cowboy shook his head as he moved the stool next to Handsome. “No. No, I ain’t that. But ya oughtn’t be so quick to cast a stone. Those boys just doin’ what they gotta to survive, ya know?”
            Now Handsome shook his head. “Abandoning and castigating your own race isn’t a matter of survival.”
            “Ya think the Romans threw every Christian to the lions? Don’ ya think some ‘em renounced and saved their skins?”
            Handsome sighed and wearily rubbed his eyes with heels of his palms.
            The cowboy slapped him playfully on the back. “Lord, this here’s got ya dander up but fierce, boy,” he said.
            “I can’t understand how you’re able to take it in stride like you are.”
            “Why’sat puzzlin’?”
            “Because it’s the twenty-first century. I’m not na├»ve enough to think racism should be dead by now. But this?” he asked in a raised voice, waving his arm around the circumference of the coffee shop. “This is like what you must’ve dealt with when you were my age.”
            “Oh, I dealt with much worse ‘an this here.”
            “Like what?”
            “Aaah, I ain’t gettin’ into it. Unpleasant memories and all, ya know?”
            Handsome nodded sheepishly. “Sure. Sorry.”
            “S’quite awright. What’s ya name, son?”
            “Handsome.” He extended his hand.
            The old cowboy clasped and shook it. “Tex.”
            Handsome couldn’t help but expel a single chortle. “C’mon! ‘Tex?’”
            “S’right.”
            “You from Texas?”
            “Small Knuckles, Arkansas.”
            “Then why are you called, ‘Tex?’”
            “Loooooong story. And not an interestin’ one.”
            Handsome paused and regarded Tex for a silent moment. He let out another sigh, more bemused than annoyed. “I’m sorry,” he started. “But you seem to have a lot to say for someone who doesn’t want to talk about himself.”
            Tex held up a single finger of correction. “Now, I ain’t shy. But y’all goin’ off two stories with no wisdom to impart. Ya want me to learn ya a thing?”
            “No disrespect, Tex, but I’m a graduate of Harvard Law and…”
            “What I got to teach ya,” Tex interrupted, “ya can’t learn in no college.”
            “Well, I don’t really have much need for street smarts. I’m employed with Chotchki & Casino and I’m…”
            “Ya wanna know what happens to black folk when they die?”
            Handsome stared back at Tex, gobsmacked, stunned by the temerity of the claim that such knowledge could be possessed. “What?” he spit out.
            “I’m gonna tell ya a story ‘bout myself. I was near ‘round your age, truck drivin’. I was haulin’ a load of hockey pucks up to Toronto. That’s in Canada…

            One afternoon I stopped at this diner a couple miles south o’ Akron. It looked real ol’ and at first I was thinkin’ it was goin’ wind up bein’ closed down. But I walked in the door and there was this waitress, genteel little dear from St. Louis, makin’ coffee, jukebox playin’, everything up and up and up.
            I sat down at the counter, just as unassumin’ as I’m sittin’ here, ordered some chicken. Few minutes later, she brought out this succulent breast, pipin’ hot and crispy and all, and I sank my teeth in and, like lightnin’ outta clear blue sky, I knew like I’d known my whole life, I didn’t like chicken. Never had.
            Now, I know that’s a nuthin’ thing, chicken. But after a life raised on chicken, never questionin’ it, to just know it all the sudden like? Strange. Like I didn’t know myself no more. It’s a scary feelin’ to not know yaself.
            I pushed the plate aside and I don’t know how long I was just starin’ at the counter, tryin’ to puzzle out what the meanin’ was. Then I felt this tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it’s this old black man, bent over and gnarled like an ol’ tree. “Say there, boy,” he said, “seein’s ya just ogglin’ the formica, you feel up to shootin’ some pool?”
            At this point I was beside myself. So I figured lemme just put my mind on sumptin’ else. And right at that point, gettin’ in a game sounded right about right.
            He lead me over to this ol’ ratty pool table at the back o’ the room where there’s his friend, jus’ as ol’, jus’ as black, but walkin’ upright more. “Name’s Tex,” I said.
            Ol’ gnarled tree said, “This here’s my friend Simple, and my name is Mudbone.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

DEATH OF LIFE (LitBits #5)

           A pulsar throbbed through the miasmic void, launched him past long dead orbs. He watched the cosmos furl into itself and cry to its birth. Sands fell skyward. Grains of stardust imploded. Wisps of the elements flagged into darkness. He passed a cradle wreathed in breath, ensconced in blue and green. He watched it die backward and careened onward to everything and nothing.