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Chapter Four

It’s the morning following Sage’s disappearance and I’ve already driven first to Club Flowology and then aimlessly around the east side with my friends Turk and Sugar Boy hoping to catch sight of Kodiac, the Boy of Fleece, or the waif of an orphaned clue drifting through the streets with its arms outstretched, innocently offering itself for adoption.

Turk is 26 years old and his distinguishing physical characteristic is his weight, swarming the scales like bats overflowing the mouth of a burning cave at close to 400 pounds. Even as a baby, emerging from his mother’s womb smeared in the jelly of new birth Turk’s body was a source of both terror and incredulity for the nurses, who had never seen so corpulent a newborn. New records were set that day for birth weigh at Milwaukee Metropolitan Memorial Hospital which, as far as I know, have not yet been broken.

Turk as a baby probably contributed to many a nurse’s stereotyping proclivities, nurtured as they may have been on Hollywood movies depicting a preponderance of overweight African-American women in the antebellum South. Except that Turk is a male and not a female, which must have injected the stereotyping proclivity with the stupefying heroin of gender confusion. Maybe they tried to put a dress on baby Turk.

“Doesn’t this fat little baby look absolutely marvelous in this dress?” the nurse might have said to Turk’s bedridden confounded mother, dangling Turk in the air for mom to see.”

“That’s not a good name for a girl,” Turk’s mom would have replied.

Another nurse would enter the room. “Say, I’d like to offer a suggestion: Turkeen.”

“Turkeen!” would be the unanimous uproar in the room. Even Mr. Mitchell, Turk’s father, would have to join in, succumbing to the contagion of enthusiasm.

Kenneth “Sugar Boy” Remmington – one of the few people I know with an antipathy for sugar – is my other dear childhood friend. When Sugar Boy was seven his mother had bought from a door-to-door salesman an old set of Compton Encyclopedias in leather-bound covers that were, like the randomly selected year 1953, faded and shyly sepia. Later Sugar Boy learned by reading the encyclopedias from A to Z that just about everything could be taken apart or put together, and did so in a frenzy of inspiration that extended to the manufacture of a glass eye that Turk, at the age of ten, thought would impart a heathen piratical glister to his face, if only he could devise a way to force the glass eye into the socket occupied by his real eye, a problem he devoted much of his time and energy to, with the result that his organic eye often blazed with a fiery sunset of burst capillaries and had a swollen sorrowful look.

On a day so listless with heat that all motion everywhere seemed to cease, the salesman had simply appeared in the neighborhood in a black fashionably chromed and shark-like Buick. His method for hawking his wares soon established itself as both memorable and unique. He would pull up to the curb, step out of the car lugging his abdominally bloated demo briefcase, walk up to a house, ring the doorbell, and eventually return to his car.

He would then floor the accelerator, tires smoking, to leave a burnt chewed-up steak of speed on the rubber-frying skillet of the hot summer street, the car slicing violently forward approximately five feet. Yelping the car to a stop, he would kill the ignition, get out, and limp a short distance to the next house.

The salesman repeated this ritual of quick-seared distances up and down the block, stabbing the car forward in five-foot increments and parking it, until the car had served itself up in tiny bites of traversal to the houses on both sides of the street.

Mr. Remmington, the salesman, had legs that sang when he walked, the right one slightly shorter than the left, right leg a soprano scat, lively and filled with arpeggio, left one a baritone drag, slow and used to effect difficult strategies of pivot, scrape and swing. Motion for him was a strange aria of aborted rhythms, full of missed beats, surge and ritardado. Three months later sad sweet Mr. Remmington, with his legs like melancholy metronomes, married Sugar Boy’s mother, who had been recently divorced.

In addition to encyclopedias Mr. Remmington moved all kinds of merchandise – costume jewelry, exotic birds, vacuum cleaners, ukuleles, Goodyear Snow Tires, history textbooks – but his eyes would virtually pinwheel with pride when he displayed his own modest invention, called “Colored Cards.” These were ordinary playing cards that had been painted white and bore the hand-drawn faces of “colored” inventors, with a few rows of biographical data typed along the bottom border.

Essentially an uneducated man, Mr. Remmington relied on the history books of the day as his resource, the same ones he sold, and therefore had only two cards to shuffle in his rudimentary deck of inventors. The first was George Washington Carver, in honor of the almost obsessional cornucopia of uses he devised for peanuts, and the second was Charles Drew, for his discovery of methods of preserving and storing plasma. Mr. Remmington called the brilliant doctor “Charles BB Drew” as though he had known the man personally. BB, he explained, stood for blood bank.

At around the time that Mr. Remmington was selling – or giving away – his Colored Cards, my mom yanked me out of the second grade at Robert Fulton Public School as though I were the yoyo of her righteous indignation, to send me spinning into St. Gall’s, a Catholic school. Robert Fulton, where I mainly engaged in evasive skulking to avoid handing over my lunch money to schoolmates displaying an alarmingly adult-like adeptness in the art and practice of extortion, was Mr. Remmington’s top customer, bulk-buying the history books from which my own bifurcated Carver/Drew knowledge of African-American inventors was drawn.

According to my parents, at St. Gall’s I would be exposed to the sort of rich and varied curriculum I was denied at Robert Fulton. They had no way of knowing that St. Gall’s was also a customer of Mr. Remmington’s. But when they would ask me to expound on something new I had learned, and I would repeat the story of Charles Drew or George Washington Carver year after year, they must have wondered whether the money they were paying for the rich and varied curriculum was well spent. I had to learn on my own that African-Americans wrestled with the skeleton of creation, gripped the sterile white bones in their hands to whirl in a waltz that kicked up clouds of dust, then with stitch of sweat and grit, grafted a wrap of sinew like banded steel where flesh to bone would finally knit and grow. I think that’s what Granville T. Woods did, when he came up with something he called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a now-silly-sounding device that quite seriously married technology of telegraph to telephone, bolting messages to recipients at unheard of lightening speeds, allowing train engineers to be warned of trains in front and back that posed a threat with their rolling iron walls. I wish I could tell Mr. Remmington this, how Granville sold the invention to Alexander Graham Bell, but not before Thomas Edison sued Granville, claiming to have invented it first, a suit that Edison lost in the same courts that passed the laws forbidding Granville and those related to him by complexion from checking out books from Ohio libraries that stood looking blankly into the distance, like loved ones withholding requitement with their eyes.

The good intentions that fueled Mr. Remmington’s creation of Colored Cards were cast into a doubtful light, like a CIA agent flashing a Xeroxed ID, by his employment as a sales rep with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

At the start of his sales career, before he met Sugar Boy’s mother, when his legs were still accurate rulers measuring his steps straight and strong, he had sold insurance policies for Metropolitan, a company that is now, many years after Mr. Remmington worked for them, in the process of making payments on a settlement for a class-action lawsuit initiated by Karl Thompson and Lucile Ellis, “on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated,” according to the Legal Notice By Order of the Court. It seems the company sold policies in the quaint door-to-door style of the day, the reps doffing a friendly hat after ringing the doorbell, overcharging African-Americans and collecting their premiums in handfuls of nickels and dimes pulled hesitantly from narrow pockets once a month.

Before I knew for certain that Mr. Remmington was not aware of what Metropolitan was doing, his legs, lingering like broken harp strings in my memory, made me hope for his innocence. I loved to watch Mr. Remmington walk. It was amazing and oddly graceful and his legs sang to me.

Sugar Boy told me the story of his stepfather’s singing legs because his car had broken down and I volunteered to pick him up where he worked as a proofreader at Latham and Latham’s Law Offices and drive him home. I also wanted him to ride with me as I scoured the dingy streets with my Brillo Pad eyes, looking for traces of Sage. He thought that I might be able to use the story to meet my quota of delinquent pages, though how he offered it to me was, “You might be able to use the story to get Sage back and put an end to this madness.”

“Okay, tell it to me,” I said, driving, seeking Sage at every intersection, every corner I turned, every street stockpiling its useless inventory in the rear view mirror.

Turk also came along because he had argued with his girlfriend and decided that the best course of action in light of this rueful circumstance was to go to some place far away where time and space would not shape itself into a locket holding the likeness of her face.

Turk put it this way: “At this point, the sight of my girlfriend’s face would have a catastrophic effect on me.”

Any catastrophic effect involving Turk would be potentially catastrophic for all because of the danger of Turk, in a fit of abandon and emotional subsidence, flinging his arms like a La Brea Tar Pit of gravity about your neck for consolation, sinking and churning upon you until he could recover and steady the heaving brontosaurus of his bearing and face the prospect of apologizing for the ugly things he had said to Shayna.

“Here’s the thing about my stepfather, Carl Remmington,” Sugar Boy began.

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