A cloud of noise from the far corner of Golders Park, a jangle of plaint and controversy. The vivid disturbance swelled as it swept the grass on abundant legs broadcasting the many-headed din of a thing so dirty-furred and spittle-spraying. It approached with all chains ringing and swooped its thirty four tails with snaggle-toothed grins proclaiming the man and his muttpack after all this time returned. The loudest runty ones fanned ahead like scouts yapping cocky and proud and the big ones and the old ones loped and trotted and limped behind with the prophet himself striding the rearmost calling out names and banging the pan he’d make breakfast in with the cup from which he’d drink dinner.
Theodore! Wolf! Ezekiel! Marcus! Albert! Ramses! Bartholomew! Neville! Loki! Moses! Basie! Melville! Constantine! Rudolph! Heinrich! Frederick! Leonardo! Ezra! Cherokee! Euclid! Rufus! Edgar! Cassius! Sambo! Hawthorne! Jean-Paul! Algernon! Gustave! Enrico! Tintin! Abner! Petey! Melville! Hugo! Euclid! Israel! Wolf…!
Lights went on in homes ringing the park. Lights went on against such serrated blue darkness as continued to hover low around sugar maple, phlox, Royal azalea and fussy rhododendron as the dawn lavished radiant syrups down the sides of the inverted bowl of the night. Lights went on like doors in the black, flung wide, to herald old Juba’s return. Lights went on and silhouettes appeared, cardboard cutouts of bourgeois Negro archetypes: the housewife, the grocery store clerk, the postal worker, the grammar school teacher and the owner of the bar-b-cue establishment plus all the rest. Each window an illuminated tarot card and every silhouette… from the curler-headed housewife to the bill-capped deliveryman in charge of the green paneled truck, with his finger looped through the handle of a cup of coffee that was literally good to its last drop… alert to the threat of foolishness.
He’d come to set things right. Back from out West in this Nth iteration of an archetypal life.
Draped in tattered damask and natty serge and diaphanous time-worn silks, trailing funk and traces of mown lawn and slept-on flowerbeds, the prophet was mad-hattered in an amputated pant-leg like a corduroy wig, the circumference of his head a tight fit for the pant-leg that had been a tight fit to his calf before he’d lost the girth of his wherewithal, walking the roads of the South, the hat hanging down his back and decorated on its wider cuff with found buttons and lost pins and shoplifted dime store stickpin broaches of brilliant incarnadine glass. Voluminous in his robes he hid himself skinny in tree-dark nudity and moved with a thin man’s speed, a thin man’s large-yet-bony head on a thin man’s stalk of a neck, the head tilted back on the neck’s old spring of sinew, the eyes larger in darkness, a low chant piling out of his mouth to the banging on the pan he kept time with.
A chant about Snakeville and Dogtown and Old Fort, Kentucky; how the fireflies glow blue on the Delta yet yellow on the plains and how a Sunday pie purloined still cooling from a fat cracker’s paint-peeling sill tastes best in the woods with the dogs looking on greedy and sidelong chewing bones and cracking bones and licking at marrow from bones of the same cracker’s garbage. A chant about skunk weed, chokeweed, poison Ivy and rocksalt blasts from the griddle-hot shotgun of the toothless grandson of a soldier of the Confederacy. A chant about ghostly antebellum forms seen crossing a field in a straggler’s march from the distance of the road near historical sites with the dogs whimpering let’s hurry from out of this hatred-haunted parish, Juba! A chant about shoes worn through to a cool gravel streambed and dogs acquired and others perished, two by car, one by natural decree, the one named Knut just dropping to his poor gray knees like a sheep in the manger of the supposed birth of the supposedly lily-white son of the deity of the Germans called Gott. A chant about his name which was newly Juba, which he sang out striding in double time just banging that pot and waking the dead chanting Juba, Juba, Juba, Juba, Juba Lee in the morning…
A veritable Napoleon with his army of dogs. Written out of the story.
She heard the commotion with her dream ears and fashioned it into a dream party. A distorted gathering of very old actors and actresses from the glory days of Negro cinema clustered around a poet’s rich voice from a record player, soothing like Robeson’s, until the voice sucked inside-out into a lynching’s death-howl ecstasy and the actors turned out, on closer inspection, to be burned to a crisp, black not so much like Africa but like carbon, stacked against the wall. Bernadette gasped and woke blinking at a ceiling patterned in the gentle refractions of raindrop-scattered headlights through her venetian blinds as a car rolled by her house in the cool dark hour. A patrol car of groggy police. Pronounced po-leeze.
And Juba saw the morning star through parted clouds over the softball diamond at Golders Park and wept…
She sat up in bed and cocked her head at the fuss and clatter making its way towards the far end of the park. The spectral clockface by the bed showed the poignant figure of the infant hour and her immediate reaction was a short-lived move towards jumping out of bed, a throwing off of the covers, as if she’d be late if she didn’t hurry, only to remember that she didn’t need to be at any particular place at any particular time for any particular reason. Not anymore. She could fall back and sleep until sunset if she chose to, and felt that special blend of relief and despair she’d been waking every morning with, for two terrible months now, like dreaming of cancer and waking up entirely healthy to continue serving a long, long sentence in prison. No hope of parole. She stuck her head under her pillow, an early riser all her life.
Her mother, Ethel, the leather-knee’d saint, a long-term part-time domestic in three imposing houses at various corners of Chicago, always in bed by eight and up at four to shower and listen over a tin-percolated coffee to radio news, would wake Bernadette, the third daughter and oldest of the children still living in the house, under a still-black sky, to help with breakfast… and for her first four or five years Bernadette had assumed her mother was a man, or a kind of man, her father’s older brother, maybe, a mysterious uncle who didn’t talk much and slept in the same bed with her father and even wore her father’s work gloves when she was weeding the yard or clearing the rain gutters or helping to chop wood.
A little brown bouillon cube of a man in a flowered house dress and a powder-blue bonnet on Sundays. Bernadette came late to gender knowledge, raised as she was in a unisex, uni-age household. A strict division between the rights, rules and affectations of the sexes, she later came to understand, was a middle class white American luxury, tied to the middle class life-cycle, the closely-observed gradations of the ages of man: from infant to tot to toddler to tyke to child to kid to little miss or little master, to princess or rascal… to young master or debutante…
Built to a shape that would have fit snugly in the crypt of their emptied refrigerator (which would have been a much better coffin than the too-narrow, too-long, too-costly box they buried her in), Bernadette’s mother had had cold rough hands and a man’s way of downplaying childish suffering. The few times Bernadette could remember crying in front of her mother she remembered chiefly for the mystic expression the act had conjured on her mother’s face, a nascent frown that implied the faintest whiff of a stranger’s barn burning. A look that meant elsewhere.
Did Ethel Murcheson have shapely breasts, a pleasing rump or a pretty little tufted vagina to catch semen with? Her fully-clothed contours indicated no, but all those brothers and sisters had come from somewhere. Bernadette had emerged from an opening in something; she’d read enough, and heard enough, to know that. It was easier for Bernadette at seven to conjure intercourse by stacking her old alphabet blocks than to picture her parents Ethel and Benny Sr. doing what her schoolmates called The Stinky. Breakfast had to be ready at 7 as father, the other girls (the four sisters known, collectively, as “the twins”) and Benny Jr. staggered like bears out of hibernation and into the kitchen, guided by the fingers of the vapors from the pancakes and coffee, as in the matinee cartoons of the era.
Bernadette found her eyes tearing up. The dark room and its plain furniture and framed prints of European paintings swimming.
She thought how Ethel would set all the syncopated chewing in motion and back out the screen door into the first surge of daylight, clutching her neat brown bag of lunch. Her frugal repast of two boiled eggs, an apple, half a dozen peanut butter-and-saltine crackers, even on Sundays. Although the destination on Sundays was not some dour white mansion needing a black lady’s grudgingly-good scrubbing but a preacher’s half-painted woodframe church on a rubble-strewn lot, where her mutters would be added in prayer. The woodframe church headed by the bat-black preacher who was, long after Mrs. Murcheson’s irrefutable extinction, still eating, still breathing, still extracting his parishioner’s breaths in the choir. Bernadette had gazed upon a round grey, strangely-deflated face under the rim of the favorite blue Sunday bonnet in a casket more expensive than anything the family had purchased in life, at that point, thinking how, finally, there her mother was. Sleeping late.
The bed’s gravity grew stronger in ticking increments. But she got up with much effort and crossed to a window and peered through the blinds. What is all that noise out there?
Every day’s shower was trial number two. Her body slumped and scrunched and jiggled and bunched, foaming at the mouths. Her body had become an African science experiment. Belly bloating, ass bulging, breasts beginning to melt. Was she or was she not an incipient bouillon cube? She lathered her breasts and hugged them together and briefly, sadly, they looked like they were supposed to again. No such trick for her ass or squirrel-cheeked thighs or the navel-nippled tit of her stomach…
Three loud bangs on the bathroom wall.
Bernadette shut the water off and yodeled back, though she hated it, hated yelling through the walls. Though she was used to it. Though she hated it.
“Yes, Ricky? Is everything okay?”
“Can I go over to Juanita’s for breakfast?”
“I thought we discussed this?”
“What conclusion did we come to when we discussed this?”
“Was our discussion in vain?”
“Will you honor my wishes?”
“No root beer, no pop tarts, remember to be extremely polite with Mrs. Goins and no cartoons afterward, do you hear me? You have homework to do.”
The afternoon before they had shared a rare and upsetting experience, an argument, an argument in which Bernadette raised her voice at Ricky and ended up leaving the room as though she couldn’t bear to face Ricky’s existence, which never could be true. Bernadette had been paging through an old copy of Life magazine (she kept them in neat bundles in the basement, carefully ordered, Life magazine and National Geographics and Time magazines with inspirational figures on their covers) and wanted to call Ricky’s attention to a full color, full-page reproduction of a painting by Jackson Pollock with dynamic red dribbles across it. Ricky was Bernadette’s experiment in raising and educating a genius and Bernadette was sure that Ricky would appreciate everything modern and significant in the image but when she got Ricky down from her room to look at the image spread out on the kitchen table the girl sucked her teeth and rolled her eyes and said something dismissive about the white man’s mind-games… got us so brainwashed they tell us up is down and white is black and we say yes, massa, no massa, you reckon so, massa? But all I see in this picture is a nasty joke and a bald-headed white man and some squiggles and the white man doing his dance… and on it went and Richardina would not back down and Bernadette realized that her intellectual hold over Richardina was broken. And it was the hormones that probably broke it.
“Love you!” called Richardina and she was out the door.
Love you, too. As much as I hate myself.
The year was 1974 and it was that year quite fashionable for folk-psychologists to claim that one couldn’t love another until one first learned to love one’s self. At which notion Bernadette snorted in the shower with contempt, for Ricky was surely the beneficiary of all that love that Bernadette had no other use for.
She didn’t hear the officers’ guns go off ten minutes later but Ricky was the sole human witness of the injustice.
Ahmed Ackermann, of the Nubian Gnus, a mimeographed “community info organ”, came by a week later to interview Ricky about what she’d heard and seen.
Ackermann, the son of a Jewish jazz guitarist and an Afro American psychic, kept his kinky red hair cropped close and favored paisley vests and Gandhi glasses and walked with the stoop of the skinny-tall man, the hunched posture of the trumpet player that Ahmed wished he were. No talent for music, though. Budding talent with words: yes. A driven partisan of The Truth in any case. Ackermann started the Nubian Gnus with a grant from his father who was flush, when he offered the grant, from a cruise-ship gig with half of the remnants of Earl Hines’ band. The Nubian Gnus was owned, written, edited, published (ie mimeographed) and distributed by Ahmed Reinhard Ackermann. Weekly. Serving the greater Golders Park area. Copies appeared mysterious and free in neighborhood mailboxes Tuesday mornings and Ahmed’s next big dream was to feature discount coupons from local businesses, soon.
“You can call me Ricky. I’m only sixteen!”
“Sixteen and the best looking sister in Golders Park, if you don’t mind…”
“You better not let Bernadette hear you say that!” Ricky laughed and got up from the kitchen table and crossed the old check-board linoleum to the refrigerator. “You want some strawberry Kool-Aid?”
“I would not say no to that. Your mother’s volunteering at the library, isn’t she?”
“For the next three hours. Short day on Saturday.”
Ahmed saw his eager, grinning face reflected in the ruby depths of the Kool-Aid as Ricky handed him the glass. He was glad he’d trimmed his goatee this morning and trimmed his eyebrows and chosen the blue satin bow tie instead of the red, black and green one. Hell, I’d kiss me, he thought.
Ricky had been on her way to the toilet when Ahmed rang the doorbell and she was feeling mounting regrets about the decision to answer the door before emptying her bladder. Why not let him wait? She still hadn’t learned.
“How old are you, Mr. Ackermann?”
“Just turned twenty two days ago.”
“Well happy birthday!”
“Thank you, ma’am! I’m sorry that we have to meet under such tragic…”
“I wished I hadn’t seen what I saw is all I can say. And I agree. I’ve seen you around and always wondered what you were like. I would think, is he always serious like that?”
“Can I be honest?”
“You ain’t got a choice.”
“I’m terribly nervous, Sister.”
“Do you know I actually got in a fight over you once?”
“Oh yes indeed. I was interviewing some brothers over at the softball diamond at Golders Park. Doing a story about the Golders Park Lions… the little league team. And you walked by with your mother, Ms. Murcheson. I think y’all had been to the beach that day. It was a real hot day. And one of the brothers, who is an acquaintance of mine, he made a disrepectful comment about your figure. I mean, it was an appreciative comment, I’ll give him that. But I didn’t care for the language he used and I told him so.”
“What he say?”
“Say? He kicked my butt.”
“Lord! You were injured defending my honor!”
“He didn’t kick it too bad because we were friends. Sure enough broke my glasses, though. That’s a fact.”
Ricky reached across the table and touched Ahmed’s arm. “You like some pie?”
“I wouldn’t say no.”
“Bernadette can’t really bake so I was kind of forced to develop the ability. You deserve a slice of lemon meringue pie if you’re going to go around getting your behind kicked defending me, don’t you agree?”
“What do I get if I tell you that that wasn’t even the first time I got my behind kicked over you?”
“Don’t press your luck, now, Sugar!”
They laughed and Ricky got Ahmed a fat slice of pie.
Ahmed made appreciative sounds while eating and Ricky smiled and nodded but the unromantic Truth was that she really had to urinate. It was becoming an issue. An emergency. But, being young, she couldn’t manage the diplomatic finesse required to excuse herself, gracefully, to relieve herself without shame. Also, the toilet door was right there, directly across from the kitchen table, and she would be damned if she was going to go in that little room and shoot a stream of pressurized fluid into a bowl full of water while this interesting man sat listening at the table with a slice of the pie she’d made the previous evening. She couldn’t help squirming while they talked.
Ahmed dabbed at his chin unnecessarily with a napkin and took a swig of strawberry Kool-Aid and said, “Did the old fellow do anything threatening before the cops opened fire?”
Ricky shook her head. “All I seen him do was swing his walking stick, but not like he was going to hit anybody, more like he was casting a spell or acting in a play, playing a king.”
Ahmed had produced a little notebook and two ball point pens, one red and one black. He was scribbling away with one and then the other. Ricky noticed he wrote in black ink with one hand and red ink with the other: the first ambidextrous character she’d ever met, years after learning the word.
“Was he saying anything?”
“Sounded like gibberish to me. To be honest, I started laughing. Until…”
“Must have been awful, sister.”
“The dogs went crazy and they started shooting the dogs, too. It was a massacre. But I closed my eyes and put my hands over my ears. I wasn’t even sure it was for real. You know? I expected Bernadette to wake me up and tell me I was late for school… I was crying like a baby but I couldn’t move… it was just like one of those bad dreams where you are paralyzed…”
“I bet you’ll be surprised to know that old fellow was a wealthy man when he died. He was rich.”
“Made his money with a book he wrote a long time back. Still in print. In fact, I own a copy you can borrow, if you like. He spent most of his fortune in the last couple years of his life wandering around the country with those crazy dogs, giving strangers money. Got written up in newspapers from time to time. See, I think he came to the conclusion that material possessions are not the meaning of life and he was searching for something higher. But he still had a chunk left when they shot him. And there’s another surprise, a bigger one, but I’m gonna save that one up, if you don’t mind…”
“Well you certainly have some facts at your disposal, don’t you?”
“I’m a one-man, Afro American FBI, Sister. Trained by Brother Sherman himself.”
Ricky realised it would be easier to empty her bladder in that embarrassing room behind the door directly opposite the kitchen table if she gave brother Ahmed Ackermann a little kiss first. Because why not? And because then he would no longer be a stranger she was peeing in front of and, anyway, hell, fuck it. Richardina didn’t need an excuse. Life is short.
Ricky stood up and walked over and pecked Ahmed a glancing blow on the side of his open mouth while he was still just gabbing away and he shut up. He grabbed her hand and kissed it and she curtseyed and got the hand back and headed for the bathroom.
“Back in a flash,” she said.
It was a robust pee and a profound relief and Ahmed listened to the unabashed physical reality of it with great interest. Richardina’s sigh of pleasure as the stream petered out was a bonus and the first phase of Ahmed Ackerman’s introduction to Richardina Fortneaux was punctuated with a dainty flush.
Richardina had chosen Juanita because Juanita’s family didn’t have a telephone. And they lived at enough of a distance to make Richardina’s long absences, while supposedly visiting Juanita, plausible. Yes and Bernadette was unlikely to cross paths with Juanita’s alcoholic, one-legged father. Richardina hadn’t spoken a word to that smelly, nose-picking Juanita Goins since eighth grade, obviously, but Juanita made the ideal decoy to cover Richardina’s afternoons and mornings in the company of the love of Richardina’s life, who went by the name of Salter Douglas.
The bus ride to “The Reservation”, from Golders Park, was a long one, involving two different bus lines, one private and one municipal. The long grim ride back “home” to the slum Richardina had spent a dark chunk of her childhood hiding in before being unofficially adopted by Bernadette after the death of Richardina’s grandmother. And here was Richardina on the second leg of the journey back to that place, watching the cityscape grow both greyer and wilder through a back window on that municipal bus.
Thanks to Bernadette’s love of knowledge for its own sake, Richardina knew that the word “municipal” had, at its heart, a Latin word that meant “citizen with privileges” and that Richardina’s even knowing that was an expression of Richardina’s privilege, as a citizen, a privilege any white person within a hundred square miles of Richardina would have been shocked to realize Richardina had so boldly claimed. She’d walk around downtown or near the lake, where white people, well-dressed white people, could be found bustling and she’d carry her explosive secret with her, smirking among them, all the words she knew and the knowledge she had that they couldn’t have guessed were in her possession; knowledge they didn’t even have themselves. Bernadette had formed Richardina (with Ricky’s jaw-dropping IQ) in her own image but what Richardina had that Bernadette had not was youth, beauty, sexual and psychological freedom and the immense power the pulsating intersection of these primal vectors entailed. Richardina had read her Wilhelm Reich. Richardina had read her de Beauvoir and her Fanon. Richardina was a walking, talking, Afro-combing Revolution but it wasn’t just whites or men or capitalism she planned on overthrowing. Though overthrowing whites, men and capitalism was surely a good place to start.
Existence is either Bliss or it is Horror and the only difference between the two is Love.
She had such big news for her man Salter, this time around, that Ricky could barely stand the legal pace of the bus as it winded its way toward the last stop where Salter would be waiting for her, as he always was. She could feel her soul straining to will the bus faster. What she had now was news that heralded the changing of everything and all of their dreams to come true, very possibly and with the help of her new friend Ahmed Ackermann, whom she had magnetized definitively with her sexual radiance, she hoped to make it all hers and Salter’s.
Ahmed, of course, knew nothing about Salter. Would she tell Salter about Ahmed? Could she trust Salter to see enough of the big picture to ignore the temporary sting of another man’s hands on her? Because that was how you got things done in this world. She wanted to change that or be a part of the force behind changing it, one day, but as things stood now, if a woman wanted to make things happen, in this simple-minded world, she had to do it, one way or another, from behind the symbol of a dick. And Ahmed Ackermann’s circumcized dick was as useful a symbol as she had access to in Golders Park. Ahmed’s daddy was a nervy, Jazz-loving Jew and that was useful. And Ahmed had access to a whole world of facts and that was useful, too. Ahmed hung out, every week, in the courts with another nervy Jew, who was in a wheelchair, Ahmed’s mentor, a friend of Ahmed’s father, a guy Ahmed called Brother Sherman, and Brother Sherman’s extensive knowledge of the Cook County court system and his familiarity with key people within it would come in handy very soon.
Ricky’s guardian Bernadette, Ahmed had informed her (after a kiss or two), was the next of kin of a man who had died rich and unlawfully at the hands of the Cook County Sheriff’s police: a double jackpot. And Ricky, as Bernadette’s common law daughter, might have some purchase on that money, those two pots of gold. The court case might take… would take… years. But Richardina was sixteen years old and she could wait. So Richardina and Salter would be rich one day and live abroad and foment a cultural revolution in exile and bring down the racist American power structure with the mighty black fist of a population they would help to detoxify, enlighten and focus. She’d had operatic, torch-lit dreams of that nature since before she could speak proper English and upon the soil that is now called America would rise a New Africa and Richardina would return to it, per these dreams, one day, as its Queen. She didn’t have all the details worked out but, again. Richardina had time. And the enemy (personified in her mind by Chicago’s then-Mayor, Richard J. Daley) was fat, sloppy, old, tired, corrupt and very weak.
She’d watched two men with guns gradually whittle a man down by blowing chunks out of him until he was a muddy heap, moving only in the sense that a puddle moved. The looks on their faces. As though the man was a disease or a demon that had been torturing these men, or their loved ones, for all their lives. And now they were rid of him. Of It. And they had to shoot a lot of the dogs too, the ones that hadn’t run away. They looked relieved and exhausted when they finally holstered their guns. As though it had taken hours. But court records established later that the whole thing was over in less than three minutes. Which is the bureaucratic advantage in summarily executing people on the spot.
Detoxify, Enlighten and Focus.
Salter watched the vintage yellow and green bus with its WW2 design pull up to the last stop in its endurance-contest of a route (serving second-class citizens since 1944) and tried to look cool but couldn’t help letting a grin break out across his handsome face. He was a man (at 15) and felt it but there was a boyishness he couldn’t seem to tame and it shamed him at the worst moments, forcing him to grin too frequently and, worse (much worse) from time to time bringing him to tears when he’d have preferred to have been grinning with rage, as when niggers were testing him. He was big and strong as a tree so they mostly just teased him, from across the street or from car windows or on their bikes but one day somebody would try to do Salter bodily harm, out here on The Reservation, and he wanted to be able to face that challenge without crying like a little schoolboy or a total pussy.
The last stop was at the front left corner of Tubman Gardens, near where the sign saying “Tubman Gardens” was, a sign like a long tombstone with a brass plate, facing the highway, where its formerly famous gardens could be seen at a safe speed and distance by whites driving to and from nearby Gary, Indiana. The gardens were no longer kept with the care and budget they’d received even ten years before but there was still a long thin burst of tulips and lilies and miscellaneous blooms to see from where Salter stood near the metal pole that had once supported the little white sign that marked the bus stop. The “garden” was the part of the Reservation its inmates looked at or stood near the least. Staring at that one thin hypocritical affectation of genteel living was enough to make you want to burn the whole place down, with its mounds of trash and shattered glass and skittering lakes of rats and burnt out cars and winos and whatnot. Salter turned away from the flowers and stared at the people pouring out of the bus with their pathetic shopping bags from Roseland and their butter-stained boxes of matinee popcorn and their speechless children. Back to Reality.
Richardina finally stepped off the bottom step of the rear exit of the antique bus, as the crowd evaporated, with the unhurried pomp of the star of the movie she was. Why weren’t there photographers there to capture the moment her dainty foot, in a cork-heeled platform, touched the curb? In her big round sunglasses and her star-sized Afro and her low-cut red satin blouse with the Chinese motif of dragons. The prettiest girl in Chicago loved him.
After a hungry kiss that made the bus driver want to kill himself, Richardina pulled back, licking her lips, with Salter’s big hands around her waist and she said, as Salter’s handsome face smiled big and green in her Foster Grant shades,
“I guess that long-ass bus ride was worth it.”
“I been training you for three, four years now,” said Richardina, looming over Salter, where he knelt looking up at her, on his mother’s brand new bedspread, Richardina’s shoulders back against the cinderblock wall, her legs spread out and feet planted in a riding stance, her face largely eclipsed, from Salter’s angle, so only the serrated corona of that Afro rose visible above the king-size jut of her breasts. She peered down over a chewy nipple at him. “What have you learned?”
“The end justifies the means.”
“That’s a good boy.” She arched out from the wall and pushed a little nappy-wet fuzz toward Salter’s mouth but stopped short when his red tongue reached for it.
“Not so fast. Freeze. I do believe you need a haircut.”
She clutched fistfuls of his inky hair and held him fast and moved hard in a grinding dance, using his face as a texture, as a surface, a device. Salter’s head moved where she pulled it and he groaned. Salter’s dick was achingly close to vertical against his hard belly where he knelt and it was ready to pop and bleed with that cinnamon pie so hungry in his face. He couldn’t breathe and he didn’t care. Her pie was growing like a magic trick. It became everything, it was all of her flat belly and shining thighs and still growing in circumference to include the room. He knew he could enter face-first and swim up into her and stay there, happy. He clutched at her ass and pulled her tougher against him to scrape his features off. He wanted to beg her for something but he didn’t know what. The opposite of mercy. There were goldfoil spatters of sun arranged in an artful pattern on the wall above her and she reached straight up the first time she came and caught a bright spatter in each palm and was breathless.
“Are you a girl?” she panted. “You need a haircut, boy-girl. You’re too pretty. Lay back.”
He did as he was told. He was gasping, too, as if he could have died. His face was a slick mess and she wiped it with her breasts.
“You ain’t fifteen,” she whispered, laughing. “No fifteen-year-old in the history of the history had something like this,” and she squeezed him thick and tough as hard rubber at the base and stretched it and eased Salter, step by step, up into her. Salter hated himself for crying a little over the perfect joy of it but he had no control. His tears couldn’t hide and she licked them as they came and said,
“See, that’s your goodness coming out, ” but it sounded like she was apologizing for him.
Those tears really touched her but…
“Fifteen,” she marveled, again, right after everything, tracing words on his chest with a glistening finger. The sun was gone from the wall and from the window and they could hear crickets in the marsh and lonely white traffic on the highway. They could hear niggers boasting as they walked directly under the bedroom window and a helicopter far away in the twilight. “What am I writing? Guess.”
“Kilroy was here.”
She laughed. “When are we going to get married?”
“Soon as I’m legal.”
“We don’t need the white man’s paper to tell us what we are to each other.”
“Right on. What would you suggest?”
She waited and thought and said,
“We are going to be rich, Baby.”
“An old man died and left me money.”
“First thing we gotta do is get that badass Eldorado Cadillac I been thinking about. Then we gotta get me those driving lessons and some fly threads. Can you see me in a hat?”
There was a long pause during which Richardina tried to hide her disappointment but Salter was a very young fifteen, wasn’t he? Mentioning the money had been a mistake. She’d play it off as a joke later. Things just made more sense with Ahmed.
Ricky sucked Salter’s dick again because she didn’t know what else to do.
As Richardina came closer to inhabiting a fully-realized articulation of Revolutionary praxis, she began seeing Salter less (Salter was just a child) and Ahmed more (Ahmed was almost a man) but she added, very briefly, another to her necessary collection of lovers, an older brother called Cal, Brother Cal, 44 years old, a mongrel like Ahmed but with even fewer particles of Black in him, from his looks, with his light skin and freckled European nose and neatly-trimmed Jesus beard; that neat haircut of straight, soft, black-cherry-red hair. What part of Brother Cal was actually Black beyond his collection of jazz records? Cal was bronze at his darkest. What was it with Ricky and Mulattoes? Some kind of paradox? Ricky had some kind of weakness for mutts and Cal was the most mature in Ricky’s stable of mutts. Cal in his colorful Dashikis, chunky sandals and that mojo he wore around his neck that looked more like an Hawaiian tiki than anything Ricky thought of as African. The way he pronounced “European” with the emphasis on the second syllable! The way he claimed Europeans were actually from Europa, a moon of Jupiter! Brother Cal was a trip.
Cal said “The tree of knowledge is really a vine of connections” and he was busy trying to organize a revolutionary underground of artists and thinkers in the wake of Fred Hampton’s assassination in 1969. Ricky was eleven years old when Hampton was executed on a dirty mattress in the early winter hours by a dozen Chicago cops and she was pre-revolutionary then, pre-revolutionary and pre-English, listening to her little red transistor radio from within the rubbery bubble of the patois she’d been raised speaking by her grandmother. She had no clue what was going on at the time. All she knew was that she loved the music of The Fifth Dimension. Cal was already thirty-nine or forty then and Ricky couldn’t, at the age of eleven, have imagined that such a man would soon seem every bit as sexy to her as Billy Davis Jr, The Fifth Dimension’s lead singer and Cal’s near-opposite.
Cal said “Knowledge ain’t necessarily power but knowledge withheld often is,” which meant, basically, to learn to keep your big mouth shut. The FBI thrived on niggers sinking ships with their loose-assed lips. Delegate the slightest responsibility to a revolutionary who’s never, before, experienced the deep warm glow of the respect of the world and his peers and the next thing you know he’s bragging about the responsibility just to get laid. The hypothetical psychological underpinnings of a successful revolution required study. How to prevent or detect infiltration? Ricky had done enough reading and been in enough conversations with enough Old Heads (who could barely follow a train of thought to a major junction for side-eyeing the outline of her magnificent bosom in a white blouse with a ruffled collar) that if the FBI wasn’t busy trying to infiltrate a genuine organization, it was founding and funding pseudo-revolutionary organizations with infiltration woven directly into their DNA. Gangs and assoCIAtions such as “The People’s Revolutionary Organization” and “Power to the People” and “People Own the Streets” (if it had the word “people” in it, it was probably an FBI or CIA front) had begun to proliferate across the Southside from the minute after Hampton pumped out his last quart of blood, probably to capitalize on the unthinking rage his death was calculated to inspire. That last one, “People Own the Streets,” even offered a sharp-looking uniform like a black satin Karate-Gi. Gratis.
The Man is a worthy opponent, thought Richardina, I’ll give him that.
She’d first met Brother Cal in the foyer of the Afro Arts Theater one Saturday, waiting to see Phil Cohran and the Pharaohs, an acquired taste that Ahmed was pressuring her to acquire (she personally preferred bourgeois lite-R&B like the Chi-Lites, who could sing “I found love on a two-way street/ and lost it on a lonely highway” like they meant it). Brother Cal was Phil’s friend and wannabe manager and he was a Korean War vet and a painter of nudes and he asked Richardina to model for him.
One afternoon she bussed over to his place in Hyde Park, an integrated part of town that was basically Chicago’s Greenwich Village (every tenth couple was interracial, still a startling sight to Ricky in 1974), carrying a grocery bag with her lunch in it. Her tuna sandwich and some peaches and a bottle of Grape Nehi. Plus one of Bernadette’s many red terry cloth bathrobes, the one she’d miss the least because the color was fading and the belt was missing.
Brother Cal’s apartment/studio featured two balconies and it was full of cool sunlight and jazz records. Up there on the top floor, the sunlight filtered through a genteel canopy of the neighborhood’s oldest trees. The main odors were turpentine and patchouli and the coconut oil on Brother Cal’s skin, which was nearly bronze from his elbows to his knuckles and a shade of buttermilk on his belly, a hairless wedge of which she could see through his silk, Kimono-like bathrobe when he answered the door.
“I brought my bathrobe, too,” she said, holding up her Jewel’s grocery bag and slightly breathless from the long walk up the stairs. Claustrophobia kept her out of elevators.
“Why don’t you go change into it, Sister? Right down that hall there to the left.”
The living room, which was an octagonal space that opened on to both balconies, each facing a different street, was set up as Cal’s painting studio. There was a sofa covered with a drop cloth along one wall and one stool and a bare mattress in the middle of the room with a colored spotlights aimed at it and everything else was easels and canvases and little folding tables covered with rags and tubes of paint. The speakers mounted on the wall, under the ceiling, were attached by long cables to a turntable in Brother Cal’s bedroom at the opposite end of the apartment, down the hall Richardina had travelled to find the bathroom. Before finding the bathroom door she had opened the bedroom and peeked in, where it was dark and cool and Brother Cal’s surprisingly-bourgeois, four-poster bed winked at her with its zodiac-patterned, red satin sheets and pillows. Facing the bed, over the chest of drawers that the record player and amplifier were stacked on, was a very large, ornately framed canvas featuring a nude that could almost be Richardina, a blacker, bigger-lipped, square-jawed Richardina on her knees, her Afro festooned with gold coins, cradling a rather abstract-looking, electric-orange cat, with crazy green eyes, to her stupendous black bosom, shiny as a Bakelite appliance.
When Ricky changed out of her street clothes and slipped into her red terrycloth bathrobe and headed back down the hall in her bare feet, she met Brother Cal as he was headed to the bedroom to turn up the music in the living room, which, at that moment, was John Coltrane about midway through the fourteen-minute title track of the My Favorite Things album. Ricky followed Brother Cal right back into the bedroom and watched as he placed another LP (A Night at Birdland Vol. 1) on the stack of vinyl waiting on the spindle over the album playing. Ricky thought, at first, Well at least it isn’t mood music to screw by, he must be serious about painting me… but then she remembered that every man’s notion of music to screw by was unique. Ahmed loved to screw her from behind to Mahalia Jackson. Tambourines and all.
“Brother Cal, who is that?” Asked Ricky, tapping Cal on his silk shoulder and gesturing at the painting over the record player with a flourish of great appreciation. The painting grabbed her and she wanted something like that of her. She wanted an image equal to the myth of herself she was building. She wanted to be immortalized at her sixteen-year-old peak, proud and fierce, a warrior Queen. She also wanted a painting that would make men cum by looking at it, like the secret Old Masters they kept locked in the vaults of the Art Institute. For the eyes of rich old white men only. Ahmed had told her all about it.
“Her? Precious? A very old and beautiful soul,” said Brother Cal, in the amazed tone of a man who has been very expertly seduced and even more expertly dumped, “But she’s out West now. Earns her money dancing for The Man in Vegas.” He looked down, folding his beard against his chest and fiddling with the silver knobs on the amplifier and added, “The love of this brother’s life I supposed you could say.”
Up ’til now, thought Ricky. You won’t even be able to remember your Mama’s first name when I’m done with you.
“We’re gonna turn this music up a little loud because all my neighbors work square jobs during the day and, except for the deaf old couple who live on the ground floor, we’ve got the building to ourselves, Sister.” Cal winked. “But that doesn’t mean you’re free to take advantage of me.”
Ricky then followed Brother Cal into his living room again and sat cross-legged, Yoga-style, on the mattress, under the bronze and gold and copper blasts of Coltrane, seeing, close-up, that the mattress was streaked with paint that was dry and hard to the touch and a pleasure to scrape or peel off with her nails. She kept the bathrobe tied tight, sensing that Brother Cal needed to feel the mountain-climber’s sense of accomplishment in talking her out of it. “Precious” had burned her brand permanently into Brother Cal’s legend, probably, by playing very, very hard to get. Then splitting before Eden became Normal. And now she was out West, performing the same magic, presumably, on White Men with Power and Money. Good for her.
“How did you learn to paint, Brother Cal?” shouted Ricky, over Mr. Coltrane’s sax.
“GI Bill!” shouted Cal. “Got out of the Korean War with a barely-honorable discharge and Uncle Sam was good enough to pay for Art School in New Jersey! I considered that Reparations enough!”
“Why was it barely-honorable!?”
“Barely-honorable! You said your discharge…!”
“Oh, that!” Cal chuckled. “My superiors called me a Crazy Nigger because I refused to shoot at my Yellow Brothers! I was surprised I didn’t end up in the stockade and then court-martialed! Technically, I could have ended up in front of a firing squad!”
With a gold lighter, Cal lit a cone of Jasmine incense in the hollowed belly of a black Buddha on a little shelf on the wall near his easel and turned and gave Ricky a distracted smile of calculation as he estimated the amount of talk there’d have to be before she opened that robe and finally removed it and revealed those heart-stopping titties and the delta of her temple. Brother Cal was older and patient and prepared to wait a week if need be. Hell, he’d wait a year. There were other, easier models to sleep with while he worked on the problem. One cannot rush Nirvana.
Brother Cal said, at the soft end of loud, over a quiet passage in the music, one of McCoy Tyner’s breaks,
“Would you prefer a portrait in the bathrobe!?”
“It’s been my mother’s bathrobe for years!”
“The color is beautiful against your skin, Sister!”
“A ripe-cherry red against rich Mahogany! We’ll offset it with some green… the Ficus on my balcony! Something homey and nice you wouldn’t mind showing to your mother!”
Ah, a master, thought Ricky. So good… so calming… to be gently manipulated by a Man. Boys just don’t have that. As Brother Cal stood under the sheets of music cascading from the speakers fixed under the ceiling, Ricky tried to imagine Brother Cal as a younger man and then as a child, mixing paints on the old palette hooked by his thumb, through a hole, to his left hand with a child’s unselfconscious smile, calculating his next move and nodding along to the Jazz lecture. By banishing all but the “purest” from his family, and banishing so many to the glorious perdition of Negritude, the White Man had succeeded in making Blacks into the most jaw-droppingly rich, diverse and unpredictable family on Earth. Just as he had inadvertently accomplished, in North America, after four centuries of the North Atlantic Slave Trade, what Adolf Hitler could afterward only dream of: the breeding of a Super Race. Which is why The Man had to come down so very hard on Niggers now, with the full brunt of their toxic junkfoods and their brainwashing and their bargain basement narcotics. If the Sisters and Brothers ever managed to realise what they were, individually and as a group, the Revolutionary Year Zero would commence.
Richardina Fortneaux was going to make that happen with some help from people like Cal.
She could imagine the bright yellow of Cal’s sun-shy belly and groin and the yellow blending into the protruding cherry popsicle of his hardon and she thought, suddenly, of the defect of pasty white skin, skin you can’t even take out in the midday sun, skin that looks like a blotchy disease in winter; skin that ages, already, as they’re hitting their thirties and late twenties, even: the awkward racial defect that is the white man and woman’s equivalent of kinky hair, an inconvenient trait from the other extreme of the racial spectrum, their cross to bear that is rather worse than the pointless curse of our kinks, Ricky thought: there’s not an awful lot you can do with either. White skin is defective. And my Afro looks spectacular, to be motherfucking sure, she smiled, but I’m stuck with it. I either wear it huge and round or shave it off smooth or try the same old silly shit inbetween. It would be nice to have the kind of options that go nicely with a Sari. I’d love to have that kind of hair to play with. You think I’d ever cut it? I’d grow it down to my ass. I knew a sister like that: lucky draw of the genes. Maybe she had a Cherokee great-granny. Black skin and hair down to her ass… with my face and my body and hair like that my likeness would be on the thousand-dollar bill before I turned 20! But I’ll be damned if I straighten what I have and walk around like a fool in a greasy-ass wig, fearing the rain! Each race got its weaknesses and consolations in the neutral luck of the draw. What a badass race, though, to have blackity-black skin and straight black hair and dress up all in leather? Or tight asymmetrical bobs, gleaming like vinyl. Like Salter had worn his hair as a child, sexier than any girl. A little Black Prince Valiant. Sexier than our natural naps but that’s okay. These are trivial matters. Can we stop being hung up on the trivial matters?
Being frank with yourself, and with your own kind, like this, thought Ricky: this is the first Revolutionary Principle. You can’t hide shit from yourself and change the world. Hair texture is that thing that we have magnified, with the lens of a nation-wide, brainwashed neurosis, into the kind of crippling self-hatred even Hitler couldn’t manage to seed in the Jews. Of course, he only had, what, about ten years to work with? Ten years ain’t shit. Most Jews rightly blamed Hitler for their predicament, not themselves; they hated Hitler and the Hitler Youth, not their own children! What a difference 400 years can make.
Brother Cal shouted, as the music crescendo’d, “Sister, I believe I have an interesting idea…!”
But the doorbell rang. It was the kind of doorbell you could hear over loud music, it sounded like the bell at a loading dock. It wasn’t the kind of genteel chime that chimed once with every push of the button, like Richardina’s at home. Whoever was at the door laid on the bell in irritating bursts of three and Brother Cal went and positioned himself about a foot from the door and shouted,
“I’m busy! This important?”
“Assam Alaikam, brother! Got a heavy package for you! You gotta sign for it, brother!”
Richardina remembers thinking that, even against the loud music, even over Coltrane’s solo, the voice sounded to her like a white man trying to sound Black. It sounded like a joke voice. It sounded like a white man trying to sound like Franklin Ajaye talking jive.
“A package?” shouted Brother Cal, and he leaned forward to put his long, fluttering eyelashes to the bright light beckoning through the peephole, wondrous as an angel’s manifestation. Ricky jumped when a shotgun blew the door and the flying half-flap of Brother Cal’s face and his long straight hair, in a blinding shower of red splinters, across the opposite wall like a Pollock.