Rails under My Back

Rails under My Back

by Jeffery Renard Allen, Cynthia Cannell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156014151
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/28/2001
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 6.15(w) x 9.02(h) x 1.44(d)

About the Author

Jeffery Renard Allen was born in Chicago in 1962 and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He has taught at Queens College since 1992.

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Chapter One

Long before Jesus entered the world, blades of southern grass sliced up the soles of his grandmother's feet. Her blood leaped from the danger, drew back into the farthest reaches of her heart, and the roots of her soul pulled away from the sharp earth which had nurtured her. But nothing escapes the laws of gravity. We martyr to motion. In step with the flowing sweep of her garments, an undercurrent of rhythm, she cut the final strings of attachment, her children, and on a rich spring day cut a red path to New Mexico—what business had a nigger there; New Mexicans had yet to invent the word—for a man eternally bound to a rakish fedora, his sweet face like a mask beneath it, pinstripe suit, diamond horseshoe tiepin, and two-toned patent-leather shoes. Drawn by the power of nostalgia—Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour—she swept back two years later without a word about her lover, the father of R.L., her oldest child. A decade later he would be thrown through the windshield of his sparkling green (red?) Edsel (Eldorado?)—the squeal before the thud, the skid after—his decapitated body slipping the surly bonds of earth, sailing kitelike over a California highway, arcing over and beyond a thicket of treetops, to touch the face of God. Jesus was convinced that her exodus had strangled any impulse her surviving children—his mother and aunt—had to get close to her, and had ripped open his life, for an eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow. The years only deepened the sorrow his family had in common. Even a hatred like hot icecould not halt destiny.

    Jesus thought he could never recover from his grandmother's betrayal. While his mother and aunt had long purged their thoughts and feelings of the act—it escaping through the back of their heads, into space—it continued to haunt him, a wallet photograph that he carried everywhere. He moved with a sort of amazement in the world, anger fueling the furnace of his heart. With ceremonial rigidity, each day he wore red, symbol of his unflagging fury.

    He leaned over and spit. The saliva held and gleamed, suspended, rust-flecked, then curved down to the pavement. Crashed, sizzled, and cooled. A red coin. He leaned over to pick it up, but the coin refused his touch. Sirens sailed into the sky, a spiral of red sound. He drew himself erect. A strip of white asphalt stretched hot before him. He walked. Only his brain moved. Tall earth-rooted wrought-iron fences hovered before a cluster of houses. And beyond the fences, black and green rhythm of trees. Trees full of birds, plentiful as leaves. The vapor-kissed spires and steeples of North Park. The sky in fanning torches and soaring flames. And heavy white clouds hovering, flying saucers. The street opened into a broader one, the space between two massive rows of skyscrapers black with a continuous throng, two busy streams of ants. He walked with long scissors stride for Lawrence Street, where he would catch the train to South Lincoln. The cradle of the week, the sunny street filled with competitive radios, anxious engines, car horns, hawking of wares, footsteps, and conversation—disembodied voices—a kiss blown from the lips of the square, floating, rising, and hanging above it. The sidewalk steamed with city sprinklers pulsing wet rhythm. Jesus sang:

Shine went below deck, eating his peas
Til the water come up to his knees.

    He felt air currents from the movement of cars, shoes, skirts. Rumble and rustle tingling the blood in his rubber-soled feet. Suits and ties and skirts and heels were beginning to change color in the spring heat. A constant weight in their faces, the suits and ties lugged briefcases, newspapers tucked under the left arm. The skirts and heels sported ankle socks and gym shoes—tennis shoes, his grandmother called them—as if they gon shoot some b-ball in the office, arc crumpled bills (fives, tens, twenties) into steel wastebaskets. Cut a V for the express train into Central, slowed somewhat by purses bulging with thick paperback novels. A flyer curved around a lamppost: MOTHERFUCK THE WAR! A hang-tailed hound jogged out of an alley—Jesus hoped he would stray within range—and past a knot of beggars hunched over in a corner doorway, rained-on ghosts.

    Kind sir, could you—

    Hell nawl. Jesus did not pause in his walking. Get a job.

    Go to hell and take yo mamma wit you, just for company.

    Jesus kept walking.

    Cheap nigga.

    Jesus kept walking.

    Goofy-looking motherfucka.

    Bitch, Jesus said, stopping, turning at the beggar, facing the spit-thickened beard. Wash the fart out yo draws. He continued on.

    He hadn't gone far when stench stopped him. Eighth and Lawrence, the subway entrance—A blind man could find it. Follow your nose—a funky mouth, with worn, broken, and dirty stairs like neglected teeth, descending to a dark throat. The subway breathed him in. He tugged at his ear, his fingers rough against the diamond there. He knew all about the purse and chain snatchers who rode the trains. Rough niggas versed in all tricks of the trade, killin, stealin, and gankin to get paid. Once, he saw a thief hack off a woman's earlobes with a straight razor to loot her diamond earrings. The thief wiped the blood from his razor onto her blouse, slowly and smoothly, as if buttering a bread slice, and Jesus wondered if the woman screamed from the sight of blood, from the pain, or from the sensation of reaching for her lobes to discover they were no longer there.

    He had heart, a lot of it—fires could not burn it, water could not drown it, winds could not bend it—and would sport his jewelry. He thought: Cutthroats. Praise them. Got to have heart to cut mine out. But ain't nobody gon fuck wit me. Jesus Jones. They are clay. I am stone.

    Two rails of level steel, the only clean things in the subway, ran from the darkness at one end of the tunnel into the darkness at the other end, ran over the piles of filth that filtered down from the street two levels above. Two rails that glittered like silver needles in the darkness, awaiting the shiny thimble of train.

    A dark pulse at a distance. Jesus could feel it under his feet. He saw pale light, then deep shadow, then glistening train, train that came boring out of the tunnel, bellowing in the distance. Carrying distance to him. The doors opened quick and noisy like a switchblade. Jesus slipped inside the silver sleeve. Muscled a window seat, the window black, nothing to see, metal brightness around him. Suits and ties rested their briefcases across their laps. Skirts and heels parked with their legs crossed. Then, fresh motion. The train moved over greased tracks, a steady rumbling beneath the floor, the car shaking from side to side. The black subway tunnel was a hollow subterranean string stretching under Tar Lake and joining North Park and Central. And the car, an aquarium with passengers for fish. Better yet, a reverse aquarium, with the fish kept in and the water out.

    Jesus curled up in his seat, jacket draped across his shoulders, neck, and chest, baby-snug. The car was cold, cutting to the bone. Lucky he had worn his thick socks. Still, the cold bit through; he shivered, a pinned butterfly. The train swept along the curve of a blind river (one of the city's twelve). Long after the curve had passed from vision, it boomeranged back, remained imprinted on his inner eyes, two spinning black half-moons. He liked double-decker trains and wished this were one. Kind sticks to kind. But you almost never saw them in the city anymore. Only in the suburbs. Every summer, the family—you, your cousin Hatch, and your aunt Sheila—used to board a silver double-decker for West Memphis, where Lula Mae live, riding high above the rails, your thermos heavy with cold soda pop, and fried chicken stuffed in a greasy shoebox, the aroma strong enough to haunt future passengers for years to come, odors of food and rhythm of rails. Eat that chicken, then lie back fat in your seat, gazing out the window. High hills rolled all the way to the horizon. Scraggly trees like squirrel tails. Cows still as stones. Each rail tie demands attention. The conductor would shout out a litany of stops. And you and Hatch would get happy.

    Stop all that jumpin like monkeys in the jungle, Sheila said. You know better. Show some home training. Do that again and I'll beat the living daylights outa you right here on this train.

    Lula Mae would be waiting at the station, accompanied by a redcap. A woman thick in the waist, taking up space. Tall, commanding vision from a toadstool of height. A creature of no color, so pale many believed her an albino. You were afraid of her white skin, the smell, the touch. Feared her black snakelike veins. And the figured scars on her calves. Ole cotton patch. Crazy Junebug giggled giggled at her calves. Ole cotton patch. Tar baby. Tar baby.

    She saw you and kindled instantly. Over here! Waving. Go get their bags.

    Yes'm. The redcap rushed forward. Loaded the suitcases onto his cart.

    Give yo granny a hug. The thorny hairs on her bosom snatched you before you could comply or decline.

    Lula Mae?


    Why you don't shave them hairs?

    Meanness rooted up in the black veins of her neck. Cause they only gon grow back longer.

    Come switching time, she would make you go out to the yard and strip your own branch of leaves. Whip the hard branch soft against your hardheaded behind. Whip your butt and legs with the ease of a conducter waving his baton. After a thorough switching, sweat greased the creases of her face. But if she had no energy to switch, if exhaustion had sunk into her bones, she settled for a quick open hand slap across your chops. Water would dam at the back of your tongue, a multitude of days threatening to spill out. You ran out the house and escaped to the red gravel road. Found there, frogs hard and flat as soda pop cans in the desiccating sun. So you would kick them—metal sound, scraping across the sunbaked road—or, if your fingers had heart, pick them up and fling them, Frisbee fashion, bouncing and skipping like a pebble on water.

But John gave it to me. For my birthday.

    Yeah. His daddy gave it to him. My Uncle John gave it.

    I turn seven.

    I don't care if Jehovah himself give it to you, Lula Mae said. Take that scorpion outa here.

    He ain't no scorpion, Hatch said. He a chameleon, a lizard.

    Houston got scorpions look jus like lizards.

    This ain't Houston.

    Lula Mae drew back her hand. I don't stand for no back talk. Sheila might, but I don't. Now take that scorpion outa here.

    You and Hatch carried Dogma the chameleon out to the red gravel road.

    He get crushed, you said.

    No he won't. He a chameleon.


    He can change color. Red. The color of the road.

    You laughed. What good that gon do him?

    He be invisible. Cars can't see him.

Stop that chunkin! Lula Mae screamed.

    Damn! Can't have no fun!

    Yeah. No fun.

    Lula Mae was tight on you, shoes. Watchin you hard and hateful from her brick porch. You could see her eyes, looming, though the road was several hundred feet away. Preacher eyes trying to burn the devil out of you. The sun looks through your western window. Carries the record of human deeds to the Lord each night. Legs might escape her body—run to the yellow field across the road, high grass tall and safe, or so you thought—but nothing could escape her eyes. Even when you climbed high in a tree—a yolk sun cooking the sky, burning and blinding you, with cool air singing in the branches—her high-flying eyes would find you. Hurtful eyes that followed you everywhere, rocks in your shoe.

    Stop all that runnin! Yall catch heatstroke. Her skin was transparent under the sun, revealing a red tracery of veins. She snapped open her umbrella. Held back the day with her body, scraps of sky peering in past her arms and trickles of light at her feet. She started into the road, red gravel crunching underfoot. You and Hatch followed behind her.

    Why yall walkin behind me! Gon up there where I can keep an eye on you.

    Small houses, kin to Lula Mae's, lined both sides of the road and Lula Mae greeted the occupants one and the same.

    How you duce?


    Alright. How you duce?



    Entered the barbershop, a bare floor, dust and splinters, a single white cloth apron draped across a single red leather chair, and a black plastic comb submerged — pickled — in a container of green alcohol, causing you to recall Lula Mae's false teeth at the bottom of a water-filled mason jar.

    These here my grandsons. Cut them nice. Start wit the red one first.

    The barber positioned you in the chair, pinned the apron behind your neck, and set to work. You sat there under the buzzing weight of the clippers, eyes peeling motion, a circle of red hair at the circular base of the barber's chair, skin from an apple. Then the barber resuscitated the drowned comb. Grabbed a fistful of grease. Set to work. There, he said.

    Look nice, Lula Mae said. Real nice.

    You fidgeted in the chair to chance a glance in the mirror. Your red hair: high and crenellated, a rooster's comb.

The doors cracked open like bones. Federal Station. First stop in Central. The car emptied. Jesus sneezed, coughed, Lula Mae's suffocating odor on his skin. Her rhythm inside him, is what he is. Ill will persisted in his blood. Someday—the promise stagnating, unstirred—he would pay her a little visit, yes, surprise her. Surely, she would stop in the middle of whatever she was doing, caught in his thick, molten rage. What would she say? Do? Invite him to her bosom, that valley of thorns? What would he say? Say anything at all, other than to pronounce sentence? What would he do? What could satisfy him, right the ancient wrongs? A white smothering pillow? A knife clean between the ribs? A shower of stones? A quick spray of gunfire and hot bullets bubbling the flesh? Or something slow? The body straining against a thick pony-tail length of rope, the pulley creaking, and the feet and legs lowering into a leech-filled well? Today might be the day. Board a train for West Memphis. Better yet, fly down there swift as thought and serve a death sentence.

    Doors shut, closing the world out. He exhaled, expelling the rage, eased back in his seat, and tried to relax. He still had a long ride ahead. A long ride. All the way to South Lincoln. Red Hook. Two hundred blocks. Four hundred. Who could say? But nothing better to do today. Might as well chill with No Face the Thief. Puff live. He even toyed with the idea of taking No Face under his wing and schooling him. Thinking this with last night in mind.

You came all the way from Red Hook to find me? Jesus tightened his one-handed grip on the steering wheel, strangling a snake to bring it under control, let it know who's boss.

    You the man, No Face said from the back seat.

    The words, like the vibration of a silver wire, sent a glow of light into Jesus's heart. Oh yeah?

    Yeah. No Face pressed his face close to the back of Jesus's shoulder, close enough to kiss him. Jesus could smell his sewer breath and hear his heavy elastic breathing, which came and snapped back, came and snapped back. That's what they say.

    No Face pinched the Buddha's unlit end and offered it to Jesus. Jesus took the hot end between thumb and forefinger and watched No Face in the rearview mirror. The dark magnified every detail. Jesus didn't look anything like No Face the Thief and was proud of it. No Face resembled a baited fish someone had snatched from the line and thrown back into the water. Short dreads like dynamite fuses. Face a ravaged landscape of dark hollows, craters and caves where the flesh had collapsed in on the bone. A checker-thick black eye patch. Word, nigga poured acid into his eye to win a bet. A nappy mustache, round nose boogers. Uneven brown teeth deep in his gums, ancient ruins. He tried to move near you when he spoke. You'd move and he'd move closer. You'd move again and so would he. Jesus trained his eyes back on the road. Hungry feelers, headlights searched the night. He took a long and slow suck on the Buddha; red warmth spread through his body; the streetlights brightened, then gleamed in full glory.

    That's what they say.

    Why they say that? Jesus looked at No Face, so clear a moment ago, now a small black oval on the rearview mirror. He turned his eyes back to the road. Aimed the unlit end of the Buddha at No Face's voice. No Face took it. Jesus smelled the seashells of No Face's armpits. Considered lowering the window to let the night in. But a frail yellow moon stuck to the windows and sealed them.

    You know. No Face took a long toke, a deep sea diver sucking at the mouth of his Aqua-Lung.

    Motion hummed a wave through Jesus. He and No Face floated in white space. Floated. He lowered his head, ducking danger—the car's angled hood.

    That's what they say.

    From what they say, Jesus said, you the man. Everybody knew No Face the Thief. Knew his rep. Bandit. Robbin folks wit his finger stuck inside a dirty paper bag.

    Me? I'm jus a young brother strugglin in stride. No Face watched Jesus with his one bright headlight of an eye.

    Where's the Buddha? The wheel was easy in Jesus's hands. He barely had to touch it. The bobbing headlight beams curved, pulled the car around a corner, and hit another car in the distance.

    Ain't no mo.

    Jesus heard the ashtray click open, then close.

    You want me to fire up another one?

    Nawl. I'm straight.

    Got plenty.

    You the man.

    I work hard.

    The curb curved the car in. Eighth and Lawrence. Like to see a brother tryin to do sumpin fo himself, Jesus said. Not like these knuckleheads hangin on the corner. He pointed to one or two of them, hardly motioning, his hand still on the steering wheel.

    I work hard.

    I bet you do. Yo, I'll holler at you.

    Want some more of this good blow. Check me anytime. We'll have a session.



    Stonewall? He didn't have to ask.

    No Face laughed a spiral up Jesus's spine. You don't know me from Adam. I'm from Red Hook. I represent. Red Hook. First building. Seven-oh-seven.


    No Face extended his hand over the seat cushion. Jesus shook it without turning around. Where I say?

    I remember.

    Can you Find it?

    Jesus laughed. I can find anything. The engine ignited. Sparks fired from twig to branch and made the car glow.

    Jesus spoke to himself. Hope he don't start geekin. I probably shouldn front this nigga, but you always need some sucka willin to work cheap.

The flash caused a new flow, waves of people crashing through the doors. Union Station. Subway, not the distance-seeking trains stories above. Downtown. The Loop. Now, the Loop-jammed train would follow Central River, the spine up Central's back. He heard voices. Laughter. Halfway there. Halfway. 707. The first building. The first from where? He didn't let it worry him. Can't be too hard to find. He stretched his legs, exhaling to drag out what dragged inside, and smelled the sweet burn of pain. The residue of urban moonshine bit his stomach and pumped acid through his body. With the pain came a warmth, a shimmer, a pulse, a new brightness, haze. His sight blew a hole in itself. Shut down his eyes. Darkness.

    He loved darkness. Shapes moved across the interior screens of his lids. Funny how the shut eye could fill with dark water, a well, where shadows and shapes swam, and empty circles floated like life rafts. He couldn't quite get the effect now. So he opened his eyes to the stares of the other commuters. Gave them his hardest look. As a child (seven, he figured), he saw a motion picture about a group of blond children who channeled destructive power through their stares. (Their eyes were probably blue, but that was before Gracie and John owned a color TV, or perhaps the movie was in black and white.) For weeks, he'd stood before the mirror trying to get that glow. And now, ten years later, he still had not mastered it, but he mustered enough power to send the eyes of the other passengers running for cover. He extended his long legs and put his kicks on the seat in front of him. Darkness made deep mirrors of the windows. His reflection stared back at him. Shaved head sparkled with sun, even the veins at his temples radiant as cables. He liked it that way, bullet-smooth, streamlined, straight and accurate. Shaved it every day with a straight razor. (Looking down on the very crown of his head, one would see faint black lines, like a claw print. He wore his scars proudly.) A slit of mouth. A thin pipe of neck. Clay-colored skin. Red freckles like dried blood. The naked razors of his long thin lips. The sharp angles of his jawline. The tentative touches of a red beard. Ears that stuck out antennae-like. And the big eyes, visionary and alert.

    The train broke out of the darkness, rose at the sky. Jesus saw it with his body. Through the window, sunlight struck a glancing blow against his cheek. He followed the sun into himself. The car shook from side to side as if trying to rouse him awake. He opened the suction caves of his eyes. A constant stream of images rushed past the window: the cuts and valleys of the river (another one of the city's twelve), angles of sail jutting from water into sky, row upon row of three-story buildings—yes, he let his sight multiply—cluster upon cluster of projects, and an occasional house. A small bathtub toy of a boat puffed gray bubbles of smoke as it angled through Tar Lake—still today, motionless—pushing water before it and tugging a huge ship behind. He laid his head back on the dusty seat and felt the sun getting hot on his shoulders and neck.

    A red roar. The train spit him onto the elevated platform a mile from Red Hook, the closest it could take him. With a dull gleam of clanking metal, it pulled away from the station, the wooden planks under his feet humming and vibrating. He stood on his perch and watched and waited. Double distance. Sight took solid shape reaching to his brain. The city hung enduring. Central and South Lincoln and a river stringing them together. He sought an exit. No silk thread of elevator to lower him through the web of scaffolding down to the street below. Instead, a twine of stairs, unraveling strands of metal that spiraled up from the street. He piloted these stairs, three flights.

    In patient black lines and arrows, a bus sign mapped his journey. Yes, the bus could deliver him to Red Hook. But he wanted—needed—to complete the final leg of the journey on foot. It's about heart. He walked.

    Streets gaping and torn with road work. Birds still as shadows. Swift-moving clouds. A haze of sunlight. He rubbed his eyes, which burned from being closed, and cleaned dry ash from his throat. One-eyed beer bottles poked front grass, watching him. Heat radiated in a circular fashion throughout his body. He moved carefully under the shocked eye of the sun, a calf trying out new legs. Engines erupted, rousing dogs in an alley, barking in the shadows, then the sun snuck into the alley and a dog bursted bright, chasing a light-winged pigeon. Scoped Jesus with ears erect, a TV antenna. Jesus hoped the dog would stray into distance. It did not. Jesus kicked a pop can and sent it clattering. At the end of the block, a wino lay curled up in a doorway, vomit rolling like lava down his lips.

    Long time since Jesus had seen vomit like that. Long time. (How many years ago? Count them.) Decatur. Great-aunt Beulah, Lula Mae's sister, was bedridden after a heart attack. Her wasted frame barely made a ripple in the sharp-white hospital sheets (not remembered mounds of yellow flesh propped against her home pillows), plastic tubes following the lines of her throat, moving toward the curve of her slow-breathing chest, then trailing off. And John—this man he knew as his father, wild in the face, sensing the stuff in Jesus and Hatch, their young blood purring, gurgling, lifted high, struggling to be heard—John snuck Jesus and Hatch from under the hopeful eves of the family into the morning, the sun's bare ribs poking through the clouds, Jesus and Hatch perched in the back seat of John's gold Park Avenue, a huge ship of a car. They went burning up the straight lines and smooth planes of the highway, John driving with perfect ease, one hand on the steering wheel, or no hands at all, using his knees (didn't need no guardrail to keep the car on track with John squeezing the steering wheel between his knees, narrowing the highway, making it skinny) or chest (man and machine leaning as one toward Kankakee); he and Dave (his main man, running buddy, kin by marriage, adopted blood) would hold contests, one steering while blindfolded, then the other steering with his nose, teeth, or chin, or toes; and one eye on the rearview mirror, yes the rearview mirror where Jesus's baby boots once dangled white—somebody had stolen them, along with John's radio and the whitewall tires—and kicked to the motion and speed, dancing; and the highway unraveling like a bandage, a narrow road darkened by trees and underbrush, the car rushing and bouncing, and him swaying to the motion—the two of you stuck your hands out of the open window, feeling the air rush past—his stomach sucking in against itself. John would wheel the car off the road and into every bare field, free of cornstalks, bearing down fast on hip-hopping hares, trying to run them out onto the road, but no luck, since rabbits were spasm-quick, breaking from one clump of brush to another, running for the high grass, thickets, the trees, just escaping by the skin of their buck teeth, and John tiring of the hunt; and thirsty, charting a course—the Kankakee River following and flowing beside the road, the river in his memory flowing brown, heavy, and slow (slow cause John never speeded inside city limits), always there, always working, never tiring, like Lucifer, my uncle, so-claimed—to a liquor store, over in Kankakee cause Decatur was a dry county then, and John bought bottles and bottles of gin, bottles and bottles of tonic water, John mixing drinks for the three of them, potent drinks in plastic cups, and they drank in the dense shadows of the pear trees—fourteen trees, count em, where they felled fruit with broom handles to satisfy hunger and adventure—in Beulah's backyard, leaves like thin fingers of cloud, a wandering smell of wetness, drinking through the afternoon and into the night, he and Hatch playing musical chairs but without music, without chairs, until Hatch babbled something about blacks in Africa being short on corn bread, and he, short on ham hocks; then it came, someone pulled the chairs from under their stomachs, it came, pink, flowing, stinking, he and Hatch taking turns, their stomachs rebelling, John laughing all the while, carrying them to the car, black John invisible in the night, diamond ring sparkling on the steering wheel. They couldn't have been more than thirteen.

    He and Hatch were close then, the very name Hatch as familiar and comforting as his own. They were related by blood, and though they differed in shade—he as yellow as sunlight on an open field, and Hatch, evening shadow—he could see in his cousin some trace of his grandmother's appearance. Kin in will and act. Cutting the fool with John. John, bet you can't catch us! John chased them round and round the courtyard, them running on three-, four-, five-, six-year-old legs, their screams lifting from the mouth of the copper-filled fountain. You boys scream like girls! John said, chasing them, but actually restraining himself, moving slow, cause his short bulldog legs contained a terrible momentum, the blurred speed of hot pistons. Close then. Double-teaming John on the basketball court. (John always won.) Cutting the fool in church, propelling their farts with paper fans. Or pitching and batting in the living room with a broom handle and a rolled-up pair of socks. And basketball with a bath sponge and lampshades for hoops. Standing tall in the swings, the chains tight in the tunnels of their hands, pumping their legs and knees, carrying the swings in arcs above the ground, slanting into the sky, the chains shaking and creaking. Pedaling their bikes with slim strong ankles, pedaling, fast eggbeaters, guiding the bikes zigzag through the streets, wind whistling past the ears, drawing back on the handlebars, like cowboys pulling back on reins, balancing their bikes, and the front wheel rising for the wheelie, a cobra raised and ready to strike, and the two of you rode the snake for a half block or more. And in quieter moments, doctoring the broken wings of dragonflies with Band-Aids or cutting the lights from fireflies with a Popsicle stick and saving the sparkling treasure in a mason jar. Driving down to Decatur, the speed of flight, fields of cornstalks bent like singers over microphones, the sun sinking into the fields like spilled wine, and the headlights stabbing through the darkness, and scattered trailers like discarded metal cartridges, where John bought Buddha—weed, he called it—from white trash.

    Your seventh birthday John stormed out the front door, you and Hatch two in kind, seated in a high-backed chair, clutching the armrests, Dogma the chameleon—confused about color—caged in plastic across your shared laps, and Gracie—the woman you know as mother, the woman who grunted you into this world—holding her massive Bible at her side, weight that anchored her, kept her from being swept away.

    Every hair on your head is counted, she said. Each strand has a name.

    Well, John said. You ain't got to worry. I ain't coming back. He let the door close.

    Without hesitation Gracie turned from the shut door and slipped into the spell of habit. Bathe, put on her perfumed gown, rub Vaseline under her nose, grease the skin above her upper lip, lotion her body for the motions of love, cook John's favorite meal, salmon or trout, place the food beneath two glowing steel dishes for warmth, then retire—her small hesitant walk, steps of a little bird—to her bedroom rocking chair before an open window overlooking Tar Lake, her Bible open on her lap, and patient as a fisherman, waiting for her John to arrive with his Cadillac ways. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. Rocking robin, rocking robin, beak-hungry for the spermal worm. Come moonlight, John bounds through the door, and a burning awakens her, wine color brightens her black berry face. John leaves quiet as dew the next morning, and she returns to her rocking chair.

Jesus heard a sound, corn popping over an open fire. Hooded niggas circled a corner, drinking from a swollen paper bag.

    What up, homes?

    What up. He measured his words. He didn't look into the cave of the hood.

    Want some? A hand extended the paper bag out to him.

    No, thanks.

    Yo, g. You kinda tall, ain't you?

    You shoot hoop?

    Yo, black. Kinda red, ain't you?

    Funny-lookin muddafudda.


    Three quick full steps took him beyond the voices' range. A can rolled down the gutter, its source of locomotion invisible. Red Hook shoved his head back—as if tilted for a barber's razor, straining the neck. Red Hook. Twelve buildings, each twenty-six stories high, a red path of brick thrusting skyward, poking the clouds, bleeding them. Each building a planet in configuration with the next, a galaxy of colors. Sharp structural edges challenged anyone who entered. Word, heard stories about project niggas throwing bikes on unsuspecting passersby. And sure-eyed snipers who could catch you in the open chances of their sight. Can't miss me. A tall nigga like me stand out. And red too.

    Jesus spit, saw the thought rise and fall. Above him, birds cried. He lifted his face to the sky—black specks of birds high above the buildings, their cries changing in pitch as they shifted in direction—and let it crush him. The sun was almost blinding. Thick clouds of black smoke, a ship's smokestack puffing up from the buildings. Word, used to be able to drop yo garbage in the incinerator. Every floor had one. Til people started stuffing their babies clown wit the garbage. The shiny brick more like tile. A scorched dog black-snarled from the wall. In a rainbow of colors, weighted words screamed. Too much of it, lines and colors running together, a mess of messages. Inside a sickle, a half-moon, letters darkened and deformed, scrawled in a giant's hand: BIRDLEG WE REMEMBER.

    Birdleg? Jesus inhaled the word into his lungs. Fact? Fable? Ghost? Memory was so deep as to silence his footsteps. Somewhere here was an honoring presence. Jesus felt it at his back. Shit, Red Hook! The jets! You can get caught in the middle of something. Rival crews. But he refused to allow this possibility to slow him. If it's gon happen, it's gon happen. His shadow swooped high and huge above him.

    He entered a vestibule the size of a bathroom. Felt it, more than saw it. A cramped doghouse of shadows. Every vestibule inch quilted with more rainbow-strands of words. Bare shattered floors. Long rows of metallic mailboxes, most broken and open like teeth in serious need of dental work. And bottled-up summer heat. A metal stairwell rigged up and out of sight. Metal stairs? A broken escalator? Word, stairwells often carried fire throughout an entire building. Jesus knew. Stairwells are chimneys. Up ahead, the elevator caved. Word, in the jets, elevator motors were mounted on each building's outside, victim to vandals and weather. What if the elevator stopped between floors, caught in midair, like a defective yo-yo? What if flame climbed the yo-yo string? Are elevators chimneys too? Jesus entered. A hard aroma of piss. He pushed the button for seven.

Doors shut. Pulleys groan into motion. Cables whine. Tug at the muscles of his legs and belly. Rust metal walls compress on him. He extends his arms scarecrow fashion, the walls in-moving as the car rises, and water rising inside him, cold, making him swell. He shuts his eyes.

    Black weight drops like an anchor and knocks him flat.

    Just relax.

    Put your head down.

    Iron fingers mine for the diamond in his ear. Hey, he warns. Be careful. That diamond cost me ... Iron fingers squeeze his throat and crush the words. He chokes. Voices spin above him. He feels caressing fingers on his back—whose?—strokes of bird feather. Easy, boy. Calm down. His hands move rakelike in Gracie's plush living-room carpet. I said calm down. The anchor lowers. Two steel loops snap click and lock around his wrists. (He hears them, he feels them, but does not see.) Spikelike leaves rise high above him from the coffee table (ancient, he has always known it)-supported by four squat curved legs, wooden ice-cream swirls—above but close enough for him to make out small red-and-green buds. Wait, he says. I'm money. The two cops work on the pulleys of his arms—he is heavy with Porsha's cooking and the coin of life—drawing them, lifting him high above the carpet, table legs, table, plant pot (glossy green paper), the spiked leaves—bright red on the front side, but colorless on the reverse; veined and tissue-thin, lizard skin (Dogma the chameleon) — and small red-and-green buds, small planets from his height, small planets dissolving in distance. In his fury, he melts into his deep essential life, hard and heavy, a red stone, a fossilized apple. Gravity. The cops raise their nightsticks like black trees. Don't give us any trouble. He fights the anger shooting through his stomach. The door flies (or hands shove it) open. The two cops, Jack and Jill, thunder down three nightmare hills of stairs. A blast of winter wind, a cold wind whipped up by Tar Lake. His tongue covers, blankets his teeth against the chill.

    Jack looks him in the face.

    He smiles. Can't break me. Smiles. Gravity. Or frowns. His face is so cold he isn't sure. His red eyes shove two fossilized apples into Jack's teeth. Jack yanks down on the cuffs. Get in. He ducks his head under the siren roof and squeezes into the low ride. The engine squeals into life like a slaughtered pig. A thin rapid shimmer of exhaust and the cool wind of motion. Sweat cools out of him. His wrists itch raw with the rub of the handcuffs. He gazes through the wedges of mesh partition that separates him from Jack and Jill. Studies the back of their two capped heads. Then he sees a face in the rearview mirror. Bitten by sin, Gracie said. Bitten by sin. Two wild eyes burning in the darkness. Yet, man is born into trouble, as the sparks fly upward. The car takes a heavy curve. He shuts his eyes. Circular momentum.

    He flutters up through the roof into the domed siren, red light spiraling through his veins. Springs out into wet darkness. Flares, flame to sky. Shines. Settles.

    A particle of light enters his cell. Spreads like spilled ink on paper. He feels a flutter in his spine, his back, his shoulder blades. Peels away from the floor and starts to rise. White. Cold. Weightless.

    Distance steadily shortens between himself and the light's point of origin. He discovers that he is actually part of the light, caught, a red worm on a bright line.


Table of Contents

Part Two CHOSEN49
Part Three SOUTH425
Part Four CITY DREAM483

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