Read an Excerpt
A Story of Life after Life
By Walter Mosley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Walter Mosley
All rights reserved.
Nigger tried to tell me he wasn't into something back there behind Willie's house on a Wednesday, noon. Me and Tyler and Beckwith Smith kicked holy shit outta that coon. Left him so beat that he'll never walk inta no white man's yard ever again—that is if he can walk at all.
* * *
I never meant to do it. Never meant to betray our vows. But then Winston came over to me across the living room. He pressed his body up against mine and I felt his, felt his manhood, and it was like everything went red. All the things I refused Ralph came up and out of me. I was another woman ... another woman.
And God help me ... I felt free.
* * *
Mama, am I gonna die? Mama? Mama? That boy who was in the next bed last night, they took him away this morning. His arms and legs were all stiff, and he only had one eye open. I heard them talking about me when my eyes were closed and they thought I was sleep. No, I wasn't foolin'; I was just restin' my eyes like Papa does. But they said that I was gettin' worse. One nurse said that they'd have to cut off my leg if it didn't look any better by today. Am I gonna die, Mama? Can they put a leg back on?
* * *
Bobo? Bobo, you there? Don't you worry, man. It's wrong what they doin'. It's wrong for the state to kill a man no matter what that man done done. It's wrong, and if they kill you, you ain't no more a murderer but a victim, and God will take that into account when they bring you up to Judgment. God will lay you down and wash away the poison they slaughtered you with. He will sang to you and raise you up. He will forgive your sins just like he did for Mackie, and Jojo, and even that crazy white boy kilt all them women. Just like he will forgive me for killin' that young couple for no reason. He will see that the people who kilt us is also the people who drove us crazy and even though they strap you to that gurney and inject poison into your veins it's not you, Bobo. It's not you at all.
* * *
Those voices and a myriad of others cried out in the darkness of my sleep. I wanted to wake up, but it seemed like every soul needed to say something, to apologize or explain, to regret or exult in their actions.
Pieces of personalities combined with the unbearable intimacies of men, women, and children. Some of them spoke in other languages, but I understood every word and nuance. All different races and religions, sexes and sexual persuasions ... and perversions. And the things they knew: the terrible secrets and hopeless tragedies, the facts and figures, skills and abilities. Knowledge swirled through the dream like a jewel-skinned snake moving through high grass in moonlight, catching glimpses of visions and recollections—a jewel-skinned viper hungry to devour every memory.
It wasn't me dreaming, not exactly—it was more like the dream dreaming me, making something out of all those disparate exultations, fears, and complaints.
A lower caste genius from Goa plotting a reign of terror against the Brahmin caste.
An eighty-six-year-old white woman shut-in dreaming of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—but never of the adults they'd become.
Every one of them as real as I, lost in sleep and struggling for consciousness, as real as I but not like me. I was ... becoming something, something necessary and different. I was eroding and resurrecting the characters and memories, the knowledge, the hopes and hopelessness of those speakers in the darkness of the dream becoming me.
After what seemed like a month of fitful slumber, I opened my eyes.
The room I found myself in was large and antiseptic, a hotel room rendered in washed-out blues and bland tans, furnished with a bed and bureau, a blue door (leading to the hallway, I supposed) and a glass door that opened onto a small terrace looking down four floors onto a concrete plaza with a fountain spraying recycled water on marble statues of frolicking, naked nymphs.
In the distance was the twilit Strip of Las Vegas.
My memories of the Strip were varied. I saw a man's reflection in a glass. He was me and had a razor-thin mustache, the pit boss of a major casino floor. I was what they called a leggy blonde dancing naked in front of leering men, sweat running down my spine and thighs. I was an old man sitting at a bus stop at dawn waiting for someone, I forget who, to pick me up after night guard duty. I was a fat woman with powerful black hands feeding nickels into a slot machine, happily losing, confidently expecting that one day I'd hit the million-dollar nickel pot—it was inevitable.
The physical me, the man who had just awakened in the hotel room, had hands that were masculine and Caucasian except for the Negroid ring finger on the left hand and a tapered, feminine baby finger on the right. There were micro-thin lines zigzagging across my forearms, legs, and chest. These might have been stitches from surgery except they were too fine for any suture made by needle and thread.
The full-length mirror in the bathroom revealed a patchwork of pink, pale, and tan flesh and a face that was maybe not quite forty. I had a square jaw, one blue eye and the other brown. My hair was a wiry auburn, closer to chestnut than red. I had black hair on the upper portion of my chest. One nipple was rugged and reddish where the other one was smooth and ocher in hue.
I was tall but not like a basketball player. And I was strong—very, very strong.
The penis amazed and surprised me. I lifted it gently, remembering being another sex. It came to me that it wasn't so different being man or woman. We all slept and woke up, felt heat and cold, got hungry and aged over time. Our senses approximated each other's, and memory offered up images that had more meaning than anything real, today. But the penis and vagina—they tilted in different directions, blindly headed for summits of very different emotional climes.
I was a man in a man's body and a woman, too.
Upon the bench at the foot of the king-size hotel bed lay my shirt and pants, jacket, and Stetson hat. My driver's license said that I was Jack Strong, born in 1976, in June, and my eye color was multi. I had $986 in various denominations.
Handling the money, I thought about my face and greater amounts of cash. There was a place ... The Steadman. The Steadman Casino. It was off the Strip but not far off. I remembered the Steadman. It was a place I'd spent a good deal of time. I was a ... a manager there ... something like that.
My memory was fuddled, staggery like a man who had drunk too much trying to remember where he'd parked the car.
I put on the clothes and found shoes and socks in a suitcase in the closet.
My mind sparked with fragmented memories at everything I saw and touched. The wall was a chance to hang a recently acquired Monet; it also represented a prison and a sounding board that broadcast secrets from the other side. The dying light from the window was the night before an execution, the time to go out and stalk another victim, an invitation to open another bottle and forget the day before.
Dressing in the sanitized room, I felt like a frail immortal, a god in a world of his creation, a world that remembered but no longer believed in him.
"Mr. Strong," a man hailed as I strode toward the glass doors of the hotel lobby.
It was the desk clerk, a young black man with long processed hair that was combed back artlessly. Seeing his coif, I felt the burning of chemical straighteners on my neck and ears.
"You want me to call Albert to bring your car?"
"Sure." Changing direction, I walked up to the desk. I had a slight limp but felt no pain in my joints. It was almost as if I were an infant learning the balance of perambulation. "What's your name again?"
"Tony," the desk clerk said. "You look a lot better."
"Oh?" I said. I wanted to grab him and shake the secrets of my history out.
"Yeah. When your nurse and Mr. Grog brought you in, you was just sittin' in that wheelchair and mumbling."
"Where are they?"
"Mr. Grog and ... and ... and the nurse."
"They left this morning. He told me that you'd be down later today. Said that you were fine after the operation ... something like that."
"How much do I owe you?"
"Paid up to the end of the month," he said.
I wanted to ask what month it was and how close to the end we were but decided to hold off on that. All I had to do was look at a newspaper or tune in a radio program.
I had once been a disc jockey for a country station in Wyoming ... no ... no ... Colorado. But I had lived in Wyoming. I used to ride horses for days at a time.
A chubby, young Latino man brought my car, a bright red, restored 1967 Mustang, to the front of the hotel. I gave him two dollars, which he accepted without scowl or smile.
Fifteen minutes later, I was pulling up in front of the Steadman Casino. I knew the direction without thinking about it; I knew many things.
A valet in a blue uniform ran out to take my keys. I handed them to him expecting to receive a ticket, but instead he was transfixed, staring at me. I looked past his head at a black van with tinted windows that was pulling up to the curb across the street. In my time, I had spied on people from vehicles like that, been spied upon, too.
"You," the valet said. "What the fuck are you doin' here, Lance?"
"You got me wrong, man. My name is Jack, Jack Strong."
The valet's face carried a lot of extra skin and was the color of an uncooked piecrust.
"Your hair is different and your voice sounds funny," the valet, who was a head shorter than I, said. "But it's you. I can tell by the scar under your lip. I remember when Arnie Vane give you that."
"Keep the car where I can get it quickly," I said. "I might not be here long."
I turned my back on the thuggish doorman and walked into the plush Steadman Casino.
A wide scarlet ramp led down to the floor of slot machines, roulette, and blackjack tables. The Steadman was classy. The girls offering drinks were all beautiful and well looked after. Even the clientele was a cut above the run-of-the-mill tourists and gambling addicts.
After a few steps, my mind settled on the personality that had inhabited this casino. His name was Lance Richards, and he didn't have a very compelling moral compass. He looked for opportunities and took advantage whenever he could. He was the kind of guy who would have stolen insulin from a type 2 diabetic, but I didn't mind. It felt good to be ruthless, maybe even amoral. I could move through the world without all the guilt and neuroses that worried my waking and sleeping mind.
Here and there at the edges of the gambling aisles men with intent eyes were watching me. Tall and short, obese and gaunt they were dogging me, but I didn't mind. I had been away, obviously sick, and now I had returned—of course, they were suspicious.
I came to a set of emerald double doors. The guardian of this portal was a broad, and quite powerful looking, Samoan. His name, I remembered, was Sammy. I wondered, not for the first time, if that was his real name.
"I think I'd like to go on in and play a few hands of blackjack," I said easily.
"You crazy, man?"
"That ain't even the half of it, brother," someone from deep inside me intoned.
The six-foot Samoan shrugged his bowling-ball shoulders and stepped to the side. The doors were opened by unseen hands, and I walked through ecstatic that I was, for the most part, just one man instead of the many.
The doorwomen were naked, one white and the other black, very beautiful, and somewhat worried to see me. I kept walking down a green hall toward a large room maybe a hundred feet away.
With each step, I experienced a growing trepidation. There was a reason that I shouldn't have been there. There had been a break between the Steadman and Lance Richards.
I kept on walking, but never made it to the end of that green hall.
When I'd gotten halfway to my destination, invisible doors on either side slid open and two brutal-looking men lurched out.
Seeing their awkward movements, I realized that I had been walking just fine once I'd donned the identity of Lance Richards. This thought was cut short when a pair of powerful arms embraced me from behind. That was Sammy; I was sure.
The other two men were white and ugly. Their faces had enlarged over the years to contain all the evil they exuded. One had ruddy skin and a big nose that had been broken quite a few times. The other was pale with tiny ears that stood out like clamshells.
"Hello, Trapas," I said to the man with the tiny ears.
Trapas jerked his head to the right, and I allowed Sammy to muscle me through one of the secret doors. The other two followed.
It was a small room with dirty yellow walls and no furniture. There were a few rolls of green wallpaper piled in a corner.
Kraut, the reddish white man with the broken nose, produced a jagged-looking knife.
"Mr. P says you got one chance," the ex-boxer proclaimed. "Either you tell us where the cash is, or you die right here in this room."
What happened next was not normal. A gray patch appeared inside of my mind. It was like a psychic workspace designed for clarity, integration, and survival. I was not a man but an agglomeration of potentials on one side and personalities on the other. From outside this space came a presence that was single-minded and confident in the task at hand. Reluctantly, Lance Richards submitted to this presence and the gray space abruptly ceased.
I was still standing there, Jack Strong, the frame of the many, but the person in control was Sergeant William Tamashanter Mortman. He/I jerked our shoulders to the left, and Sammy the Samoan tumbled to the floor. He grunted in surprise, but Tamashanter didn't stop to gloat. He grabbed Kraut's knife hand at the wrist, breaking the bone while crushing the ex-boxer's throat with his other hand. Executing a perfect Shotokan sidekick, he broke Trapas's neck at the side. Then, with balletic grace, he swooped down, picked up the knife that Kraut had dropped, made a fast and deadly arc that ended with the blade sunk deep in Sammy's left eye socket as he was rising up from the floor.
We froze there for a moment—Tamashanter, Lance, and I—struggling over not only what to do but also who to be.
Finally, Lance took ascendance because he knew the place and we did not.
I struck a depression in the wall with my black-fingered hand, the sliding door came open again. I stopped, took a .38 automatic from a holster at the back of dead Trapas's belt, and strode out into the green hall.
The doorwomen were gone. There was no guard outside the emerald doors.
The men who had been stalking me were still there, but they seemed confused. I wasn't supposed to be coming out that way.
I wasn't supposed to be coming out at all.
There was a red-and-white Checker cab in front of the hotel. The thuggish valet was standing maybe fifteen feet away, but I didn't trust him to get my car so I dove into the backseat of the cab and said, "Take me to the Bellagio."
Looking out the back window, I saw the black van pull away from the curb.
I got out at the main entrance of the hotel and went directly to a side exit, where I knew taxis waited to be called up for clients. I got into an aqua-colored cab driven by a man named Manuel Lupa, at least that's what his limousine identity plate said. I gave Lupa the address of my extended-stay hotel and sat back wondering what I had done to make my friends at the Steadman so angry.
The killings didn't seem to bother me or, at least, they didn't affect Lance, who was in the driver's seat—so to speak.
Manuel let me out in front of the glass doors to my hotel.
The black van was already there, parked across the street. They hadn't tried to kill me yet so I ignored them as I went in and up to my fourth-floor room.
Lying down on the hard mattress on top of the rough blue-and-tan bedspread, I gave in to the voices.
It was a juridical gathering, a meeting of the many after the trauma of such violence. Under the roof of my awareness, they argued for a very long time.
Some had never killed before. Others were ecstatic at the bloodshed and battle. There were calls for suicide and for going to the police. One powerful voice, that of a Spanish priest, said, "God will not forgive an unrepentant sinner."
"God?" I said from the rafters of my mind. "How can you talk about God when you are where you are?"
"All deeds are divine," Father Clemente replied in the same mental idiom. "He has placed me here to succor those lost and sundered souls."
For a moment, I saw and felt what that Catholic minion believed. His sense of the Deity was so intense that I could not help but defer. I felt myself fading inside my own mind. Other voices gained ascendance calling out for confession and absolution. These voices were of all religions, and some were simply devout believers. They wanted to be freed from the prison they found themselves in. The husk of my mind was for them, at that moment, an unbearable limbo.
"No!" It was a man's voice that cut through the moaning and wailing of religious piety and confusion.
Excerpted from Jack Strong by Walter Mosley. Copyright © 2014 Walter Mosley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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