[a short story from GERMANTOWN, a novel made of linked short stories following the intertwined histories of two families, from the early 1900s until the early 2000s]
A human being (who also happened to be property), born more than two hundred years before Benny Murcheson walked this earth, wrote:
One morning, when I got upon deck, I saw it covered all over with the snow that fell over-night: as I had never seen any thing of the kind before, I thought it was salt; so I immediately ran down to the mate, and desired him, as well as I could, to come and see how somebody in the night had thrown salt all over the deck. He, knowing what it was, desired me to bring some of it down to him: accordingly I took up a handful of it, which I found very cold indeed; and when I brought it to him he desired me to taste it. I did so, and I was surprised beyond measure. I then asked him what it was? he told me it was snow: but I could not in any wise understand him. He asked me if we had no such thing in my country? and I told him, No. I then asked him the use of it, and who made it; he told me a great man in the heavens, called God: but here again I was to all intents and purposes at a loss to understand him; and the more so, when a little after I saw the air filled with it, in a heavy shower, which fell down on the same day.
Deep in a dream as real snow fell, Benny managed to read this passage from a book that he had no acquaintance with in waking life; likewise, he would have had difficulties understanding the language of this dreambook, reading it with his ordinary eyes, whereas his sleep-swathed self enjoyed access to the totality of its meaning. The dream book, as his dream hands handled it, was a new object, freshly printed and bound, with none of the tragic ugliness and fragility of an historical item. This book, first published in 1789 in London as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself, was brand new when Benny dreamed he was reading it. Books, along with knives (each an archetypal invention that hasn’t seen or required essential improvement in centuries), have double lives… as comfortable and pertinent in dreams as in reality; in the past as well as the future, in the hands of the rich as well as the poor, protecting and threatening, creating and destroying: books and knives. Only one other invention surpasses either books or knives for primacy in all the many realms and that’s because it’s the one of all three the Gods invented first: fire.
Benny, solemnly naked and erect as a brass coat hook, is handed the book by a torchlit priestess who, in all of her flickering Amazon splendor, looks suspiciously like Benny himself but with nice tits, rounded hips and the discreet little Dizzy Gillespie goatee of a carefully trimmed pussy between her legs. They seem to be standing, Benny and this twin priestess, in a cathedral-like grotto of natural formation through which runs a subterranean river, perhaps the Lethe. The ripe Hierophant hands to the erect initiate the handsome volume and she entreats him to read of it. He rifles with great anticipation its smooth cool pages…
The phone is ringing. The year is 1974 again. It’s Han Grenade.
“Muchson. You secure the, uh, perimeter as of zero hundred hours?”
“Over and out.” Click.
The truth is, last time Benny checked, at about 9 p.m., it was spit-freezing cold and snowing like hell. That was a little more than three hours ago. The snow was coming horizontally, wind chill something like twenty bellow. What the? Go out there in that blizzard in his sneakers and his skimpy security jacket with nothing but a flashlight to circumnavigate a structure as long as a city block? For two bucks eighty five an hour? What the? He’d already done that once tonight, trudge through ankle-deep snow (by now it was probably knee-deep) to check the back of the building, then trudge around front and jiggle the security gate on the Kroger’s grocery store and jiggle the security gate on Pop’s Appliances and jiggle the security gate on the Kwikleen dry cleaner as well as jiggle the security gate on Soul-O record store and shine his heavy flashlight a few seconds through each shop window and monitor the parking lot for suspicious activity.
Which is fair enough in the summer but the only suspicious activity to be noted at the Golders Park Shopping Center in the middle of a blizzard would have to be Benny’s own if anyone were to see him out there, poking around. The command center of Benny’s one-man security force is a windowless room at the back of the building, about twice the size of the janitor’s storage closet (faucet, sink, and a grimly lidless toilet) next door. Benny checks his Timex: thirty minutes to go.
There is a battered old attaché case beside the desk upon which the black and white television sits (looking frantically, mutely; with all those faces and gestures: insane) and Benny fetches the case up to his lap and pops the latches. Han Grenade had handed Benny that secondhand case when he first gave Benny the job, saying, with a perfectly straight face (indicating, in Benny’s opinion, either a very dry wit or a serious mental problem):
“For the transport of, uh, sensitive documents you might find yourself, uh, entrusted with in the line of , uh, duty.” Doo-teh.
Han Grenade, otherwise known as Mendel Stinson, is a light-skinned, balding, tall thin native of Parts Unknown who relocated to Chicago in the late ‘50s and started SUPERIOR SECURITY with a G.I. loan he was eligible for as result of his unwilling participation in the Korean War. Stinson has two whole fingers on his right hand. Two whole fingers and a stub. A bushy corona of reddish hair highlights the bald spot blazing a path backwards down to his forehead. He has a total of ten employees, manning posts at various corners of the Southside of Chicago, and of these, Benny is the least likely to put his training to use (this here ain’t just a flashlight for, uh, seeing under conditions of darkness, boy, it also, uh, function as a… considerable deterrent).
Three years ago, however, one of Han Grenade’s oldest employees, whose take home pay was fifty four dollars and fifty cents a week, was shot in the face over a case of Spaghetti-O’s. But that was over there, where the real Negroes dwell, on The Reservation. From his attaché case Benny gingerly extracts a lavishly illustrated edition of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and opens the book at its middle to the mournful accompaniment of a train whistle.
Behind the shopping center, beyond the lipped skirt of its oblong asphalt island, cutting a diagonal through a field of untouched snowdrifts so thick they look like vanilla cream, on the far side of which can be seen the evocative lights of the backside of the upscale district called Beverly, are two old sets of railroad tracks, new when Benny’s grandmother was a girl. When the hundred-car freighters come chugging through in the dead of night, Benny hears the choir of milk bottles rattling in the stock room of Kroger’s a beat or two after the whistle moans up from the near distance and the tons grind though at the crossing of 111th street at the northern edge of the lot like a steel earthquake with business in Gary, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and so on. One night Benny watched his boss Mendel shooting at the hoppers of one such monster and laughing his fool head off.
Mendel “Han Grenade” Stinson, the founder and C.E.O. of Superior Security, was known to have amassed rather a serious arsenal in his basement, the basement he’d converted into a metal-working shop, and to those he considered himself close to (or to girls he wanted to impress), he said this about the sixty six odd firearms he had in various padlocked cabinets and trunks, or even displayed on hand-tooled mounts along the basement wall: “I ain’t a gonna be, uh, caught… nappin’… when the, uh, slaughter begin…”
Soon after hiring Benny, he invited the personably solemn youth to a Sunday afternoon of target practice in his back yard…and proceeded to scare the hell out of him by preaching the inevitability of what he saw as the coming Race War, citing facts and figures of dubious provenance and framing these within the context of everything from Confucianism to Christian Science to the writings of Marcus Garvey. Stinson’s yard was full of dead trees. In fact, the toenail of a late-afternoon moon nailed to the sky over his house looked a bit pockmarked itself that day.
“Muchson, forgive me if what I’m ’bout to tell you come as a shock…” and he punctuated the sentence with the sonic semi-colon of three .38 caliber bullets fired from a distance of seventy five meters into an overstuffed chair against the back wall of his yard which was, of a necessity, constructed of concrete blocks, pCHOWNG pCHOWNG pCHOWNG, “but the white man despises you… he finds your physical proximity,” pro-SIM-tay, “repulsive.”
The smile Stinson displayed during the act of reloading put Benny in mind of a man who was about to walk ten leisurely paces in order to unload the whole clip into the writhing supine body of the man who killed Santa Claus. “You know what capitalism is? Well, it, uh, pretend to be the economic system of free choice. Yes? But what it is is the, uh… doctrine of one of, uh, everything. One kinda car,”
“One kinda music,”
“And one kinda… Race.”
pCHOWNG pCHOWNG pCHOWNG
“Mr. Muchson, see, capitalism’s methodology ensures that, uh, there’s only…winners and losers in this world, and there ain’t no room for the, uh, losers. Now, when a product is the loser, the manufacturer,” man-uh-FAC-cha, “he just discontinue it. You gonna wait…”
“…til they come and, uh, discontinue… you and your kin? I hope not. You know what I am, Mr. Muchson?”
Stinson raised his chin and Benny, who’d been keeping track of the shots fired, was relieved to calculate that the gun was empty when Stinson started gesturing expansively with it like a cigar. “I’m what you, uh, call a Black Supremacist. You know what that is?”
Short young brown Benny stood beside tall old yellow Han Grenade and stroked his chin to convey a sense of serious contemplation, but what he really wanted on that day was to go home, do his chores, and hop the CTA to visit his girlfriend before it got too late. Stinson’s house was about an hour’s drive from Benny’s, so Benny, having not even a car, was a captive audience and deeply regretted having accepted Stinson’s invitation in the first place. Benny’s father called Stinson a Trouble-makin’ rascal. He often opined that a “certain kind of feller wants to kick the whole shit house down, pardon my French, just because he hate waitin’ in line to use it.”
“What’s a black supremacist, Mr. Stinson? Well, I think I know…”
“You think you know or you know you know, or you think you know you know?” Stinson tapped him on the stomach with the hot muzzle of his gun.
“Don’t think. Feel. What does the word feel like it mean?”
Benny shrugged and they crossed Stinson’s bumpy brown bullet-casing-littered back yard in Socratic attitudes of reflection. With its agonized dead trees and glinting gutted earth, Stinson’s back yard looked like an historical battle site of the Civil War. A drifting blue haze of gun powder seemed, on the other hand, to indicate that the battle had been all too recent. Stinson touched the exposed springs of the charred heart of the fired-upon chair and whistled. Benny stood by, hands folded behind his back and head cocked. He saw that a word had once been painted in white across what had been the black chair’s bulls’ eye. All that was left of the word now was its terminal “y”. He said, with the sudden excitement of a precocious student, “Whitey?” and Stinson chuckled while fingering the hole and he spit and corrected him.
He put a hand on Benny’s shoulder and Benny swallowed. Yes, he’d heard the rumors: that there had been a Mrs. Stinson once. He believes it was Jackie-Anne who told him this, because she was with a house-cleaning service that had among its clientele Mendel Stinson’s brother-in-law. Very cautiously, Benny said, “Did your wife…”
“My wife? Ain’t never had need of one of those, Mr. Muchson, and if you take my, uh, tutelage serious, you’ll come to the same, uh, conclusion. What a wise man got for a female but a hard dick and bubblegum, anyway? And it’s safer to toss ‘em the bubble gum and keep the hard dick for yourself! My mama taught me… through what she taught my daddy… about that.”
Stinson held up his good left hand as if to demonstrate the miraculous properties of a good left hand. His hand, like the rest of him, was the color of buckwheat pancake batter. “See, my daddy was blacker than you, boy. And so was she.” He spat again and unfastened the pistol from the leather grip on his right hand and started back towards the house. “Any questions?”
Where am I?
Benny glances at his watch… fifteen minutes late… and slips The Time Machine back in his attaché case, and the attaché case under the desk and switches off the television. The gang would mock him for reading Mysterious Island or The Time Machine, rather than, say, Soul on Ice or ManTan in Lily Land, despite the fact that Benny can remember when almost all of them enjoyed science fiction just as much as he does… so his literary activities have become a shared but unmentionable open secret in the manner of homosexuality in Victorian England.
Rap rap rap rap rap rap rap !
He leans against the tin-plated security door of his command center and in a housewifely Caucasian falsetto sings, “Whoooo’s there?”
“Stop playin’ and let us in, nigger! It’s motherfucking freezing out here! My dick gonna snap off!”
The door swings open in a confetti belch of snow and five large fellows with frosted Afros, bundled in duct-tape-patched parkas and high-top sneakers, squeeze into the little room. Benny exchanges complicated handshakes (which are not the standard black power handshakes of the day but their own variation on it, involving an intricate choreography of the left hands as well) with each of the five, ending with Pancho, the fat one in Foster Grant sunglasses and a handlebar mustache, who gives Benny a cold wet hug and says “The hawk is biting tonight, ‘Coz!”
Benny kicks the door shut behind them and wiggles into his jacket. “Yo, man, y’all remember to bring my white girlfriend?”
“Yeah, we brought her, man. Bitch in the trunk. Open up the store first and you’ll get her.”
“Yo.” Benny looks at his Timex. “Remember, now, we got exactly three hours.”
“That’s why you should get your ass out there opening up that Kroger’s as soon as motherfucking possible rather than wasting time telling us not to waste time, brother.”
They all laugh and exchange high fives.
“Damn, I knew you were the wisest old guy in the Universe, Stewie … I just forget sometimes!”
“Consider your ass reminded, Youngblood. Vamanos, Muchachos!”
The snow is waist-high in spots and still blowing like a hundred polar Coltranes and Pancho has parked his converted white ’56 Caddy hearse in the remotest back corner of the lot, where it is nicely hidden from the main road, but which means that everyone has to trudge an extra fifty yards from the car to the ice-slick loading dock of the Kroger’s. Once inside Kroger’s, after several trips to the car, Benny uses his flashlight to make his way to the circuit breakers and gets one light on in the produce aisle, a rear corner of the store not visible from the long, road-facing display window which is plastered with photos of canned ham and frozen vegetables and Nehi, etc. From blizzard-blitzed 111th Street, the tiny degree to which the darkened store is that much lighter is not, without prolonged investigation on a Saturday in the dead of night, detectable.
Pancho squirms on his stool, getting comfortable; adjusting the kick pedal, tuning the snare. “So? Is your white bitch happy, Coz?” Stewie and Bryce and the others are busy with cables.
Benny straps on his heavy white Fender Stratocaster. “I don’t know, man. She feels happy.” He strums a sour, awkward, gloriously amplified chord. “Depends on if I can tune her.”
Stewie shouted, with a giggle, “What the nigger wanna tune that motherfucker for? Nigger should learn how to play it, first, don’t you agree?” And then he did a blistering finger-popping run on his bass.
This was April of 1974, the month that Elton John miraculously hit the number one spot not only in the pop charts but in the R&B charts, as well, with his bubble-gum anthem “Bennie and the Jets.” He even appeared on the nationally syndicated urban dance show “Soul Train” to promote it. Mr. John hitting the top spot of the black charts over such contenders as The Three Degrees and The Stylistics and The Spinners and Eddie Kendricks (of The Temptations) and even Al Green drove ten thousand young black musicians across America to the very limit of injustice-bedeviled self-immolating insanity, and those who didn’t end up in prison or the psycho ward as a result of the blow either forswore popular media forever… or channeled the trauma creatively. Of the latter a large number went out and formed the freakiest, dirtiest, most anti-social and commercially nonviable funk bands possible. It was either that or large-scale arson.
In all fairness, one could see how some out-of-it white duffer of a record exec might feel that “Bennie and the Jets” could reasonably pass for R&B (the falsetto interludes; the heavy beat)… who could fault the honkie for trying? But… number one on the R&B charts? Either this miracle was achieved through monstrously cynical record-business skullduggery of a type not entirely unheard of (yet notable in this case for the sheer bravado of the crime)… or black taste at that moment was so out of whack that a hundred years of musical credibility had been squandered in one week’s ill-advised rush to record stores all across the ‘hood; it almost didn’t matter which. The sheer wrongness of it all was scalding. This was worse than Pat Boone doing Tutti Frutti and Elvis ripping off Otis Blackwell combined. What was next… Glenn Campbell on the cover of Ebony magazine? Nation-of-Islam Bean Pies by Sarah Lee?
Stewie had been watching when Elton made his Soul Train appearance… he watched all those denim-clad, fringe-vested and stupendously-afro’d brothers and sisters try to find a solid two and four in the beat of a tune too slow to really style to but too stompy to slow-dance it like a ballad… he watched their grinning foolish agony and at first he laughed. At first he was cracking up; he gamboled and capered in front of the TV, slapping his thighs and going Damn! and whooping it up like what he was seeing was the funniest shit since The Big Bang introduced the Beginning of Time itself.
He had shouted, “Mamma! Yo, Mamma, you got to see this!” until he remembered that his mother was away all day at a church bake sale. And then he had done two self-immolating things: he’d put his cowboy boot with a kung-fu kick through the screen of the leased television, and immediately after phoned The Peppermint Lounge where he had a good steady nice-paying gig as the bass player in the house band and quit. Without even providing a replacement.
“Naw, Mr. Evers, I ain’t callin’ in sick. I told you I ain’t sick. I mean, yeah, I’m sick of everything, but I ain’t sick. I just quit, that’s all. I quit.”
Soon after, at the grandfatherly age of thirty two, Stewie started recruiting for his new band. A band, as he put it, born in pain.