Table of Contents

Chapter Fourteen

We’re driving through a section of the north side that could be used as the raw template for all American ghettos. People do not inhabit this area but are inhabited by it. Young African-American men straggle through the darkening streets like the dead in search of mourners or eulogies. It’s that time of evening when they might have been returning from jobs, but many have concluded that income subject to taxation is not the answer. Maybe they’ve seen their fathers or mothers in bewilderment counting money that reflects the tax levied on melonin, the conversion rate here in Milwaukee paying about 65 black cents to the white dollar: 23 cents below the national black-to-white dollar average, which is about 70 black cents to the white dollar. So it seems that there’s no place in the United States where they could go to earn a black dollar that equals a white one. No place I could go.

Still, Milwaukee is just bad enough to make all the other nation’s cities bereft of parity seem paradisiacal in comparison. If they bothered to read, they would know, as I do, that the U.S. Bureau of the Census recently issued a report comparing segregation in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas using measures of dissimilarity, exposure, isolation, centralization and spatial proximity, and that when all five measures are taken together, Milwaukee ranks as the country’s most segregated metropolitan region.

If they read, they would know that here, in this community that is the failing heart in the roughly in the streets we’re driving through– this community is where the city tells them they most belong. In all fairness, to generously represent parity in opinion, it should be noted that some bureaucrats in this city, which has a statistical research budget commensurate with a population of 2 million, question the validity of the methodological tools, and ultimately the findings, of the U.S. Bureau of Census, which has a statistic research budget commensurate with a population of approximately 290 million.

Many Milwaukeeans are damned sick and tired of this overblown debate. This holocaust never happened.

If the young men in search of mourners and eulogies bothered to read, they would stumble upon a cold slap-in-the-face irony: As the most segregated city in the United States, Milwaukee, located in a state virtually as far north as this continent’s sprawl allows, takes a back seat to that southernmost of places, if not geographically then in spirit, Alabama. North being the direction that Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad ran in, shuttling freedom fighters to the promised land.

Therefore, here is one for the suggestion box: It may actually be a good thing the illiteracy rate here is so high. For knowledge breeds discontent – or as some poet contended, knowledge increases unreality. Perhaps the Board of Education in the strenuously segregated school system in Milwaukee should consider gathering the sarcophagi of outdated books entombing the curriculum in northside schools and burning them in a celebratory bonfire, accelerants to quicken the bliss of ignorance, the mummy in flames. Included among those books would be the one I have not written. I think these things because my choices for idle contemplation are limited to the view outside my window.

“What am I doing here? What are we doing here?” Sage once asked me this as we walked hand-in-hand down Wisconsin Avenue and polished citizens who earned a dollar worth its full 100 cents, hurrying in and out of apparel and specialty stores, movie theaters and (ironically) ethnic-themed restaurants, staring openly at us, as though we rode camels outfitted in chators and colorful daishikis. We might have been less of a spectacle had my skin been much darker and Sage’s features much less “foreign,” allowing observers to see us prominently cameoed against the old gemeled taboo of black-and-white that would have disturbed them more deeply but at least been more familiar, affording them the peace of mind that all easily categorizable phenomena extend.

I remember laughing. “Specifically, this place? Just a slippery little stepping stone.” This was before we thought we had a reason to stay, before I’d met Kodiac.

“Rah mehran mesleh inkea zendeghi ba inha shoro shodeh ve tamom meshodeh,” Sage said.

Rough translation: They walk around as though life begins and ends with them.

Rougher translation: Walking around like they think civilization began and ends here.

Something like that.

She wasn’t angry when she said it, just amazed. Ever the conservationist, energy-conscious Sage always wisely reserved her anger for things that mattered – not to others, but to herself. Somehow she had managed the difficult trick of extricating herself from the web of opinion woven by others.

And so I’m actually relieved when Larry clears his throat to speak, his parodied squeak now a welcome diversion. “What old Sigh here would tell you, if he could. But he can’t, or chooses not to, so I’m the wall with ears. You probably think we’re crazy. Right?”

I turn away from the blighted urbanscape and stand at the end of Larry’s long wooden-plank stare.

“What up with the look?” Larry wants to know.

I open up, turning the valve of frustration on full force, spraying the car’s interior with sting like a cold shower. “You’ve got to cut me a little slack because this, this is weird for me, Larry. You’re not real. You’re not made of flesh and blood and here am I, hoping you’ll give me information. I rent a room in a place and I hear these scales every day coming from a room down the hall. The scales are flawlessly executed. I’m not especially musical but from what I can hear, it’s virtuoso playing. Scales, nothing else. I’m curious so I drop by a couple of times and Sigh tolerates it because we went to the same high school. There’s a guy sitting at the piano who barely opens his mouth to say anything to me, with a dummy who does all the talking. The room is full of orange peels. An old woman – ”

My dreadlocks swing, 100 astigmatic batters incurring third strike.

“ – Sophiala – ” Larry inserts helpfully.

“ – Sophiala, the grandmother, she’s got this whole southern herbs and roots mystical persona thing going, she knows my wife’s missing and …”

Larry talks me in from the ledge I’m standing on, or maybe he’s urging me to just get it over with and plunge several stories below into one of those rubber circles you see columned by firefighters in movies. “Point’s well taken. Just calm down, now. I feel you, though.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose as though it were Sage’s thigh, but without the racy innuendo.

“You watch TV?” he asks.

I decide to get it over with. I step off the ledge and fall, my fatigue flashing by in vertical blur like a building’s blinking windows. The firefighters with the rubber circle move three feet to the right of where the bottom rises to greet me. “No, Larry, I do not watch much TV.”

“But you’ve watched the news from time to time. You sat there and listened like it’s real, but the newscasters are just a bunch of waves filtered through a cathode tube.”

“You win,” I concede.

“I’m real, all right.”

“What you’re saying is, who can define real. You’re absolutely right, Larry.”

“Don’t even get me started on the content of the news itself. You understand I’m real?”

“You’re real.”

“Good. Because my opinion of you is that you’re real.”

I pinch myself for dramatic effect. “Ouch.”

Larry likes that. He yells, “Pinch me, Sigh.” Sigh takes his hand off the steering wheel and pinches Larry in the area where his navel would be, if he had one. The car drives on by itself, the steering wheel radared to the road by the grasping paw of my panic. “Ouch. Once more, with feeling. Again, Sigh, but lower this time, down where it counts, if you get my drift. Ho ho, just kidding.”

“I think trust has been established,” I suggest.

Sigh nods, looking harried.

“You’re a writer, Sophiala tells us. Sort of like Sigh here, you have a little trouble getting the good stuff out. Wait. Sigh, turn at the corner. Go east, young man. Take us to where people walk with a little less lead in their step. Last call for crack cocaine!”

Sigh turns left and begins to drive faster.

“Music – making it up, singing it, dancing it – innovative use of the spoken word, fashion, sports, pop culture in general, some of the intellectual stuff out there nowadays, black folks have always been in the forefront,” Larry declaims, “but not on this, this whole drug thing. Still ten years behind the times. ‘Crack it up, crack it up!’ Funky little 10-dollar vials. We’re driving into the stronghold of the future tonight, yo? Designer drugs. Molecules twisted and tweaked so fast they can’t make laws quick enough to keep em illegal.”

“I thought this had something to do with Sage. I thought that’s where we were going.”

Larry’s head shoots up on the stalk of his neck, is then tugged down into a turtle’s collar of retreat. “That is where we’re going. If Sophiala’s right. But the business on the agenda is Sigh here. The story about to be told, that needs to be told, based on your trust. Your willingness to bear witness. What up with Sigh? That’s what I’d be wondering if I were you. People didn’t like Sigh too much cause he didn’t have the personality to prop up all the flash they expected to see from someone with a gi-tar in his hand. He didn’t stand in the accepted stance – wide-legged, bobbing front to back leg, white-boy style. Didn’t jump around on stage. He must have thought he was Miles Davis, standing there with his back to the audience. They didn’t like Sigh so much as tolerated him, but they sure did love his music.”

At the corner, a stop sign on a leaning pole steps off the curb and wanders into the intersection. Sigh yoyos the brakes, reeling the car in on a yelping string of smoky slide. The car, so old that it transcends make and model, sheds rusty speed like epidermal disease. Then it wobbles forward again, wearing high heels with broken stems. It takes an eternity to crest 40 mph, but then the car winds around the curve of North Avenue, uses the long bridge without stoplights as a slingshot to sail into Lake Shore Drive. We’re headed deep east now and the scenery changes like a winter of attention deficit disorder spasming into spring.

“What Sigh did,” Larry continues, “that made his style of guitar so unique? He played it like the piano. He voiced guitar chords using piano voicings. Weird clustery chords. Who gets a second chance at anything, other than a keep-coming-back AA addict? Sigh did. He blew it once when he was almost famous with the champagne and French poodle set but backed down. Why bother to go into his reasons? But here he was again, back on the threshold. What would you rather do, put your autograph on a programme for some 100-year-old babe looking for the next needy foundation or gallop off somewhere with a groupie? There were a couple of those but Sigh was too shy. That’s another story. Back to this one.”

I look at Larry, at Sigh. Even though he’s driving with left hand making a series of small but effective chiropractic adjustments to the wheel’s stiff spine, even though his right hand flexes Larry into animation, Sigh sits with an immobility so complete he seems a stalemate of wooden complexities, the tree from which Larry was hewn. Larry is the one who waxes organic, vivacious, pulsing, charged with ductile exertions. The only thing that reveals Sigh’s human origins is the sweat that now tinsels his brow. Sigh’s sweating seems, to me, a less than auspicious sign but Larry seems to enjoy the effect his words draw from Sigh’s pores.

“Why doesn’t this seat have seatbelts?” This question is directed to either of them, though I realize the smart money, at this point, is on Larry.

“Sophiala thinks they’re death traps. Made us remove ‘em. So. Second-chance Sigh and his band, Dead Prodigy. One night they play this popular dive, ‘O Reilly’s. You been there? Don’t answer that. They play a set on a weeknight, a Wednesday night that shall forever live in infamy, right Sigh? It’s after midnight. The place more or less empties out cause some people have real jobs and have to pretend to work the next day. Jim Keds on bass, Darcey Smart on drums, Sigh. There’s a guy sitting at a table close to the stage. He’s dressed all in white like Colonel Sanders, like he’s got buckets of contraband chicken in the trunk of his car outside. The little devil’s beard, glasses, pale as bone, the whole commercial. Been there all night, more or less quiet, but every once in a while calls out a request. Every time he yells out a request, it’s for BB King. He wants to hear The Trill Is Gone. Why? Don’t worry, he’ll explain. Sigh ignores him, plays what he almost feels like playing. The other guys had learned to follow so it sounded like pure improvisation. Nothing’s pure though, is it? It’s almost one now and the joint is emptied out. You can see the bartender’s Irish shamrock tattoo on his bicep as he leans on the bar, half asleep, dreaming about how he might go to Belfast before summer’s over and visit some friends of his in the IRA having a good time blowing shit up. Is this ‘O Reilly himself? Who knows. Set’s over. Band unplugs. ‘I’d like to hear the Thrill Is Gone,’ Sanders requests for the umpteenth time. ‘Why?’ Darcey says, a smart ass like his name indicates. ‘We’re done. You got what you paid for.’ And Sander’s says, ‘The Trill Is Gone is what I believe I paid to hear.’ Smart is starting to enjoy this whole thing. He’s just a kid, Sanders’ an adult, but the kid’s in control.‘For me, personally, the trill is gone. Show’s over. Don’t you have a chicken ranch or something to go home to?’ An unfortunate thing to say. Sanders reaches in his pocket and pulls out a .38, lays it on the table, Old-West slow. Maybe he thought he was playing poker and the band had aces stuffed up their sleeves. ‘That song is very personal for me,’ Sanders says. ‘It’s meaningful. And that makes you all the focus of my desire for the meaning that can be delivered onto me through that song.’ Not delivered to me, but delivered onto me. This is what, Colonel Sanders meets Abraham? Suddenly God’s on this guy’s side?”

Sigh takes his hand off the wheel again, presses a button on the side of the little keyboard Larry’s hands hover over, forever frozen, icicles of melody in permanent pre-melt. There must be a speaker in it somewhere because a recorded song loops over and over in double dutch ropes of rhythm. My ears stand on the sidelines, trying to find a place to jump in. Finally I recognize it as a tinny too-fast version of the song, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Larry resumes, “The bartender pulls up out of his nod and says, ‘You missed last call for alcohol 30 minutes ago. ‘O Reilly’s Orrish Inn appreciates your patronage and bids you a fond goodnight.’ I’ll cover this on the short and sweet tip: Sanders stands, walks over to the guy, shoots him in the neck. Just like that. Returns to his seat and puts the gun back down, spends a little time arranging it in the center of the table. It takes a while, but finally the bartender tips over and falls. He’s a beer mug with a head of lead foam. ‘The song is The Thrill Is Gone by BB King. I’d love for you boys to play it. If it’s not in your repertoire, it should be.’ Keds says, ‘Somebody should call an ambulance,’ but nobody moves. So Keds plugs in and starts to play. Smart starts playing too, brushes on the snare. Everybody’s waiting for Sigh. Twelve bars of intro slide by like an Amtrak with no passengers. Still no Sigh. Why? Everything that had led to Sigh standing there at that exact moment in time, everything Sophiala’d done, like she’d created him almost, like he wasn’t real but was just her puppet, all the crazy blood in his veins – Sophiala never told him much but he knew the stories from some relatives of his in Kentucky too stupid to keep their mouths shut – all the music he couldn’t stop hearing in his head, his fucked up hands he figured was some kind of cosmic backlash … all that shit just caved in. Sigh heard The Thrill Is Gone but couldn’t play. His hands were stuck, they were ice picks jabbed in a flypaper block of ice. This time Sanders doesn’t get up. He doesn’t even really aim. But there’s another flat crack and Smart falls all over the drum set. The cymbals crash down on top of him. Keds screams but keeps playing. ‘Sigh, man, play it, play the song!’

Sigh is in tight knotted concentration, driving, straight and stiff even though he’s tightly coiled. He’s a mountain with denial weighing him down, a season’s worth of winter snowcap pressing on the peak. I unzip my AlphaSmart, begin to type. The characters on the keys become the alphabet of the story’s misery, my fingers and thumbs ten miserable puppets learning the language of fraying strings. Something tells me to stop typing and just listen, that same something tells me to type remorselessly on. Isn’t this what Sigh wants, what Sigh-Larry wants? At any rate, this is the asphalt of my thought, paving the road to smooth parasitic appropriation. If I were a photographer, wouldn’t I have the right to take Sigh’s picture once he stepped from his home into a public domain open as a gaping wound, that territory of exposed pain where every act by virtue of venturing outside the door becomes the knifed scrutiny for those, like me, who understand that information is bloodied air and belongs to us all? Maybe if you really want privacy, drop a quarter in the machine at a pornographic palace, pull the booth’s splotched purple curtain, drop your skirt or pants, and plunge your loins with masturbatory abandon into the pumping collage of images you’ve paid for.

This is not my fault, is nothing I have caused. Shall I say that I’m a witness? Am I Sophiala’s witness, Larry’s, Sigh’s? And what about Sage? But the signature I plan to put at page’s end makes me a part of this, blurs the lines of responsibility, makes me as guilty or innocent as Sigh or Sophiala. For this reason, I need to know and record the end of the story, no matter how it turns out.

Because then, as I mallet paper that’s white as a colonial judge’s wig, the verdict will be rendered, guilt or innocence will ring out, shape itself in accordance with what I leave in or decide is not essential, and I’ll know then whether I deserve to stand like a quill in guilt’s inkwell or fly away from what has been spilled, the blameless quail from which the quill was quarried.

Once I decide like God not to worry about the contours that creation can assume, the patterns established by consequences, the meaning or rightness of the conjure, I begin to type with a firework of fingers.

Larry smiles as he speaks, polishing his gold tooth with a shoeshine rag of throat-thrown sounds passing for speech. Select words crack, shoeshine rag pyrotechnics, as though he hopes he’ll be tipped when the job is finished. Larry is malevolent in a mild way, like a brooding mood walking up to you in expensive sneakers. He resents his proxy status, makes up for it whenever he can. “What’d you say, Sigh? Datcher doesn’t need to hear all this? Too late. I was where? Without the drummer, the sound’s bound to be thin, but any sound’s what they need at this point. Sigh’s still standing there in a trance, but Keds is thumping out the line. Finally Sigh says, ‘I can’t play.’ Didn’t bother to explain why. Would it have helped? What do you think?”

The question hangs, then falls from orbit like flaming reentry. On the floor of the car it will continue to burn until I stamp it out with my feet. “Who knows if it would have helped,” I answer. “The guy was crazy.”

“But it couldn’t have hurt, right?”

I know something about why Sigh couldn’t play. The reasons are different but they stare sidelong at me, showing me new Janus angles of my own unseen face. I find myself defending Sigh, defending myself. “It’s a useless question. For everything that happens there’s an equal and opposite should-have-happened.”

“People don’t make mistakes? That if they hadn’t made it, maybe something wouldn’t have happened?”

“People make mistakes, but mistakes are part of the whole thing.”

“Tell that to the judge,” Larry says. “You know what happened next?”


“Keds. He joins Darcey on the floor when the gun pops again. Keds, Darcey, good kids, talented. Not as talented as Sigh here, but they would have gone places, places Sigh probably couldn’t have gone. Not as high, but far. Worst thing they ever did was hook up with Sigh. So Sigh, he still can’t play. Maybe by this point, he’ll make up for not playing by not playing some more. Captain going down with the ship. Sanders shakes his head now. Stands. Walks over to Sigh, gets real close. His breath’s chicken-wingish. ‘What I asked of you wasn’t impossible, and now look at all this,’ he says. ‘You’re wrong,’ Sigh says, waiting.

I can almost see Sigh in ready genuflection, going down on his knees. Sigh must have been blessedly prepared, more prepared than he had ever been for anything before.

“Sigh,” says Larry, “felt the barrel crawling along his left ear. It tickled. Sigh laughed. Sanders thought it was for him, his white suit, the corny string tie, the big white hat. He pulled the trigger. Know what happened? Nothing. A click.”

The click Sigh heard: forever, pizzicatoed. The violin of eternity.

“Tell me, Datcher, that gun, clicking? Another mistake? Don’t answer that. Sanders curses in disgust. He shakes the gun, puts it to his ear to listen, looks down the barrel. Disgust keeps growing. He tests it out by pulling the trigger again, but forgets where he’s aiming. Bullet rushes to remember what a forehead feels like. Boom. Sanders slaps the deck. Chicken feathers fly.”

I speak in straight lines to Sigh. Fuck the barricade of the dummy. “Sigh. What are you doing? None of that, not what Sophiala did, not Sanders, how could any of that be your fault? None of that’s your fault.”

Larry turns his head unhurried and I ride his concave of slow quarter-rotation. “Yeah, a whole lot of none-of-that.”

Cheap speakers cheese out the song’s last bar, a small wedge of moldy cheddar last-half-inched green through a grater. The car stops. I could find the way home but I can’t remember how I got here. We must have driven past Lake Michigan, the meat-cleaver waves chopping toward another city’s flank, sinewed in lengths of far-distanced buildings, skyline veined with lights. This area, skeletals of industrial dusting to desertion, fades from familiar, like your own face when you close your eyes to paint a self-portrait.

We’re in a blackboard parking lot timed by cars like multiplication X’s, cars at least ten times ten. Young people mill, splitting off amoebically into smaller groups of young people milling, shifting the balance from multiplication to long division.

A warehouse-sized brick building clings to scaffolding for support like a septuagenarian clutching 20 stroke-carved canes.

Night’s rolling pin rounds moon flour and a Pillsbury doughboy of glow falls, splats dull white on the parking lot’s face. If face, then the broad jaw’s stubbled with a five-o-clock shadow of 4-wheel drive, BMW, sports coupe, SUV.

A stopped clock the size of a cyclops’ eye stares out from the building’s brown square bigness.

Sophiala’s Big Ben.

Larry laughs. “Ho ho, big brothers, we’re here.

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