This has been excerpted from Divine Days, to be published by Northwestern University Press in 2023, and may not include all of the final corrections. The Northwestern University Press reissue will include alterations the author made for the edition published by W. W. Norton, numerous additional alterations the author had intended to make, and minor editorial corrections. Text of Divine Days copyright © 1992, 1993, 2023 by Leon Forrest. Originally published by Another Chicago Press, 1992. Published 2023 by Seminary Co-op Offsets / Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.
Read the foreword to the issue 28 Literature section here.
First of all Viola Hill and Gracie Rae Gooden were arguing over how do you raise a dead man up from the dead, so loudly that I had to slide the shutter window open in the office where I was trying to do the books, in order to get a clearer hearing and a closer view of what exactly and precisely was going on, which I couldn’t of course because of McGovern McNabb’s ponderous, greasy globe of a yellow head and Gracie Rae’s hand waving a butcher knife.
I had just checked Viola Hill out and Gracie Rae had started her shift, with the normal overlap of tab collecting and cleaning of glasses; so that I had left two barmaids behind the bar when I departed for the office with the day’s receipts. Now I came storming out of the office and hurried to the front; I thought the girls were talking about the raising up of the dead in terms of Lazarus, because Viola was waving the Holy Bible at Gracie Rae, who was running from around the side of the package goods counter and brandishing a butcher knife. Somebody was raising hell, and that monumental, yellow-greasy and railroaded McGovern McNabb (a former chef on the Santa Fe) was ambling towards the front door, shifting from side to side, like he was still carrying a food tray upon a shaking train, but acting like he didn’t know if he was coming or going, or that he was a chef and not a waiter.
From the rear McGovern McNabb looked like a man caught making careless love. His blazing red shirttail drooped down out of his pants, and he was trying to hitch up his baggy, strawberry-colored britches (with his left hand), which despite his great girth were always threatening to come tumbling down, despite the huge money belt he wore, and the powerhouse-size, plum-colored suspenders. With the other hand he was trying to zip up his fly. But by the time I got to the front he had taken a detour into the Lounge.
I was afraid-to-dread because of that butcher knife Gracie Rae had raised and because of her firebrand temper, which she claimed had its genesis in the hot-blood facts of her bloodline, “part squaw, part nigger, and part spic.” I heard the voice of dread echo in the form of a screeching streak, which emerged from McGovern McNabb’s outraged soul and circulated out of my gut feeling because it’s Saturday and we’ve got a bar full of people and anything can happen… and Gracie Rae’s on the warpath. If I was wondering about McNabb zipping up his fly, I was also troubled over where did he leave his hat (that Texas Ten Gallon hat is so big you could get the heads of Lyndon Baines Johnson and John Connelly under it), and where did she plan to drive that knife.
McGovern McNabb had a huge dome of a hairless scalp (Lord don’t let me forget how he could smell worse than a billy-goat!), and when he was finally in quiet repose, in one of his famous Tower of Pisa positions, he broke all laws of gravity. But this time, he fell, he hit the deck. Well, he had collapsed before, in that very same place, but I wondered at the capacity of the floor to hold up such a man.
His whole countenance looked like that of a polished mummy in a wax museum; his eyes were heavy-lidded amid the Asiatic cast of his face. McNabb was as yellow in complexion as rancid butter running. He was bigger than Memphis Raven-Snow, the undertaker. I just knew he looked ready to be taken to Snow’s funeral home. He was nearly six foot six inches tall, and he weighed over 400 pounds, I guess.
Yes, because you see they actually attempted to weigh him while I was away back in the office to get some first aid equipment and smelling salts; then the damn phone rang for a delivery. I had to tell the lady she’d have to wait an hour, because… I couldn’t think of what to tell her. That we had a dying man on our hands? Or a dying fool—dying to become an actor? A frustrated boxer who was now embracing the fate observers knew awaited him when he fought professionally. By the time I came back out front, fifteen customers were trying to lift MAC MAC’s body, had it about three feet off of the floor, and suddenly they collapsed as his calamity came down upon the improvised platform of the recently invented weighing scales.
The butcher’s assistant, Adam Smith—at the insistence of Flint—had rolled the huge meat scale across the street, high atop a huge (though defunct) bathtub, once used in a gin house during Prohibition by the butcher’s father; one of those tubs with huge football player legs beneath, and cast upon a set of rollers, as Gracie Rae explained to me, much later, with her gift for parable. They drooped a sheet over the whole effect, as if they were trying to protect something precious beneath.
They stopped traffic, as if to make way for the funeral motorcade of a celebrity. Flint was still out there in the middle of the street, with his fury red bebop hat cocked off the left side of his head, and acting like a power-drunk traffic cop.
“Ain’t nobody’s mother going to fuck with Flint,” said Fat in that shrill voice. Fat, who was “stoned out of his last lapping brain cells,” Gracie Rae said, was slated to keep watch, with his binoculars down the length of 79th Street, in case the cops showed up. They pulled the job in forty-five seconds. But Flint had so fallen in love with his cop act that it took a few minutes to bring him back to reality (a Mack truck almost accomplished this). Now he was back across the street. Hell, I thought, I’d better apply these smelling salts to my nose, as I viewed the body of McNabb, and the smashed up parts of the weighing scale.
Meantime, MAC MAC was copping himself all kinds of handsome, vulgar, righteous and unrighteous, groaning, grunting, fuming, farting, foaming and snoring and even cooing, but not quite death-surrendering ZZZZ’s. I’m telling you it took fifteen of the twenty customers to raise that Negro up to the platform of the meat scale (up upon a platform accustomed to whole hogs, and cow slabs, and rear portions). Then they all fell over backwards, head over heels from the sheer exertion. As McNabb’s body collapsed upon the platform, “Mr. Fineberger’s self-invented weighing scale expired”—that was the way Galloway Wheeler explained the demise of the scale. Expired, hell, I thought out loud, what wouldn’t cease and desist, when hit by a Mack truck loaded down with hog meat.
First, a siren-like bell at an amusement park went off. The kind you hear when you take your best gal off to Riverview Park, or Coney Island, and you try with all of your heart, soul, biceps, and triceps to ring that damn bell with the heavy hammer to impress her with your newfound muscles (implying those muscles you just know you have when you wake up in the morning with your hammer hanging). And lo and behold if you only slam down and send up the ringer to the measure of “Puny” or “School-Boy” or “Scabology” or “Mother’s Milk” or “Bouncing-Baby-Boy” or “Nutless Wonder” or “Duck Butter” or “Thumb Sucker” or “Mama’s baby, Daddy’s Maybe”; and you just want to dig a hole in a cave, or learn the life of a ground hog. Yeah, that kind of bell you haven’t heard ring until your worst enemy, Mr. Double-Jointed, comes along and rings those bells and you fear he will be ringing your young lady’s bells around the midnight hour—that kind of tolling bell. Meantime the hundreds of parts from the scale are scattered about; and many of them are going off too, with tinkle-bell sounds.
Even Galloway Wheeler was down on his knees, saying after the failed lifting up, “You know, Mr. Joubert Jones, this Negro, Mr. McNabb, has given new and perhaps even definitive meaning to the term omnivorous combustion.”
With all these bells ringing, I laughed. The former prize fighter must really be long gone, if those sounds don’t make him get up and come out slugging through his suds.
There they all were down on their hands and knees, trying to pick themselves up. I was applying salts to McNabb’s nose in furious waves, back and forth; but this haircutting fool kept talking a lot of nonsense.
“I would further call Mr. McNabb not just simply obese but rather I would raise the question whether a whole whale slab would be sufficient appetizer for his evening portion.”
Down on his knees, Mr. Wheeler bent over and whispered into the languishing man’s yellowed and hairy, triumphantly shaped, wax-sealed left ear, “Mr. McNabb, sir, thy mother’s name was Gluttony,” amid the irreducible reality of these broken down parts, still tinkling and ringing.
Down there on the floor, still waving the smelling salts beneath McNabb’s nose, I now found myself doubling over with laughter. Hell, I thought, this shit is so bad it’s driven Mr. Wheeler to playing the dozens in his Shakespearean stage voice, into the ear of a damn near dead man.
With unnameable parts, screws, and washers rolling about and tinkling and trembling over the floor and McNabb snoring smack-dab in the middle of it all with greater celebrity and even ceremony now (the power of the smelling salts adding delight to his slumber), I wondered for a time where in the world of his unconscious had drifted the chef? For now he was masticating and gobbling amid his jabbering, but upon what? Portions of cooked pig’s ears, no doubt (ah, that delicacy in preparation for the whole hog, as Galloway Wheeler, with the echo of a Shakespearean actor gonging off in the fell man’s soul, whispered an erudite version of the dozens to the chef). Not even a dying man, I thought to myself, could ask for anything more; to hear Shakespearean echoes and chew away upon pig’s ears. No wonder the smelling salts hadn’t awakened McNabb, only slipped him away deeper into sonorous ecstasy. And with those bells chiming, surely McGovern McNabb thought he had died and gone to heaven: the smelling salts at his nostrils, transformed into the balmy breath of a lovely lady angel’s kiss.
But the image soon enough curdled upon my soul, as those bells commenced sounding like the tinkling of scores of whiskey glasses to be cleaned, and people tolling away at me to serve them yet another drink, as I howled: “Last call for alcohol.”
Lord have mercy on my poor soul, said Saint Ray Charles, pray for me. I thought, starting to get up from the floor (and wondering about my strained stomach muscles now; after all, I had serious sexual exercise plotted for this very night, hopefully with my contortionist), the things King Henry the VIII could have learned from this man, Chef McNabb, about living out gluttony and about expressing this crapulency from one Galloway Wheeler, Esquire. Damn, if he didn’t have me talking like him now.
Anyway, they were all now rising from the floor and worried about finding Adam Smith, the butcher’s assistant, a new job, because Mr. Fineberger (who was away on a holiday) was sure as shit going to fire him when he discovered what had become of the invented scale.
And that was when Flint said, “Who is that Jew to fire a Negro in a black neighborhood?” And Viola Hill shot back:
“Well, Mr. Fineberger belonged to the NAACP in the beginning of its history in Forest County1 when most of you Negroes couldn’t find your way out of an outhouse down there in Sugar-Ditch, or Forrest, Mississippi.”
And that started an argument about whites having stores in Negro neighborhoods. Then Fly was spieling the argument as to whether Jews were whites. Then Fat (coming out of his sauce) was countering that actually “Jews are Negro-blooded, and a Semitic tribe—there’s a whole faction of ’em living off Dr. Carver’s peanuts over on 64th and Stonewall.” And then Fly said: “The tribe of the twelve, or the twelve tribes were all black as the aces of spades.” And when he said “black” that prompted Gracie Rae Gooden (down on both of her knees, applying cold towels to McGovern McNabb that Viola Hill handed her) to say:
“I’m glad you said that black business, because nobody should use the term Negro anymore. Down there in Sugar-Ditch, or Forrest, or Blackball, or Oxford, Mississippi, when they used to call us Negroes, they really pronounced it Nigras, which sounds like Nigger. I mean the nicest, sweetness, best-hearted of the honkies—all three of ’em—that’s what they sounded like they meant to say when they named our race. So let’s get back to black, but not African black, because I ain’t no African. You see, I’m Irish and Passomoquody on my father’s side and black and blue on my mother’s side… I mean black and British.” Everybody cracked up.
Flint declared: “That just goes to show you all how fucked-up-off-the-wall-of-creation we are.”
“Yeah, look at chairman McNabb down there soaking in yellow cream—looking like Mao’s grandpappy,” Viola Hill screamed.
But Flint continued: “We don’t even know what to call our race. We don’t even know if we’ve got a race. Hell, I’m designing me a flag, personally. It’s to be called the Terribleness Tops’ flag. No mutha fouller can stand underneath it, lest he or she gets clearance from me, or Fly or Fat, and that’s final. I’m calling it a UNITY flag.”
And that’s when I screamed into the ongoing dialogue, which had been going on for ten minutes, “Drinks are on me after we clean up this disaster. What are we going to do about this man on the floor, down there on my Aunt Eloise’s floor? What are we going to do about him?” Gracie Rae shouted: “Look, Brer-Bear, you ain’t no cub. You the main-man who lifted this sucker off the floor with your shoulder into the action, by the numbers, so we been told. So this is your baptism by fire, on the occasion of your return. You were so bad: let’s see how good you are, now.” But what good would it do to whisper something about Drucilla to McNabb, I thought. After all, she’s not going to return from a nunnery to awaken this uncle of hers. Gracie Rae’s cold towels weren’t working; my smelling salts had failed, beautifully. I was getting a little more than simply nervous.
Meantime the clean-up man was putting broom to floor and preparing to sweep up the parts of this elaborate contraption of a scale. Galloway Wheeler came at him with a cautioning hand. But Viola Hill howled out:
“Oh hell no. I’m not going to let anybody wave no broom over the body of a man who might be fading—you’ll bring down his death. Put that dam broom up ’fore it starts shedding shit, and that’ll be the last straw.”
And that’s when the argument (this time, I guess) started about how to raise up a dead man. And when it got to that, naturally enough the barmaids took over, because I couldn’t plainly keep up with them while they were serving the customers at my behest and fussing and cussing each other, because I’m down there on the floor again. So, as it turns out, Estella is there early; she came in on Saturday nights and worked from 9:30 to closing at 2:00 to help with the package goods, relieving me. I asked her to come and work the lounge bar—with her romantic ass she might fall in love with the piteous character felled upon the lounge floor—even though it’s only about 7:30. She accommodates of course; but with all this crazy action going on, who wants a drink? Who needs a drink?—is another question.
Instead of being worked up over McNabb’s condition, Galloway Wheeler is more concerned over the intricacies of the weighing scale crisis, telling me, as I knelt next to the huge heaving body of McNabb, that there was “certitude and a probability about reassembling the parts of this scale if only we count the pieces first in the precise manner in which they fell and then work backwards from that existing count and…” And then he started up about how to raise all the parts into the middle of the air (“something like a magician does by holding an assortment of elements upon a cloth then lifting them up from the table without spilling a bell”), and then Mr. Wheeler started to make a diagram of his intentions on one of the bar napkins; plotting out math problems, because he felt there was some “rule of thumb around the laws and by-laws of probability that the way the parts fell—all related… and they play together, as they lay next to the lay of Mister McNabb’s laid-out body…”
Flint spat down at Mr. Wheeler something about “Galloway, you shit-brain bird, who’s talking about laying pussy. MAC MAC can’t keep his britches up, without a hand job. Now you keep a-shaking all that snake skin shit, I’m gonna unass you with a spear; and if that don’t do it, I’ll try a chain saw,” he howled.
To hell with the wheel within a wheel probability problem and Adam Smith, who was cussing out Flint under his breath, and asking Estella to serve him ale and bitters, as if he was nursing a hangover. I asked Gracie Rae to stop bathing McNabb’s head with cold towels and think of something original. Estella was waiting on the customers. Gracie Rae said, “Oh, let the fool sleep it off. We’ll just walk around his body for a while.”
“Be a good exercise for drunks. To walk it off, backwards,” said Viola.
“Sleep what off?” I said.
“Death!” she howled.
“Death? His death? Ah come on now.”
“We’ve got to get him up,” I pined.
“Looks like down to me. Hell, Joubert, we’ll think of something. Viola and I are quite creative when it comes to helping a man rise up in this world. This ain’t the end of the world, Brer-Bear. I’ll think of some way to wake this funky sucker. Then you can take your buns off and lay up with your contortionist lady.” I noticed the ever sentimental Estella was crying over the state of affairs and McNabb’s condition.
“Well make it fast. I sure wouldn’t want Aunt Eloise to come back here with McNabb stretched on that damn floor looking like he was waiting for his roll-a-bed to Memphis Raven-Snow’s.”
Now the two barmaids seemed to be in some kind of compact, born out of a mysterious female alliance.
However, it wasn’t that easy, for even these substantial ladies were arguing again about the nature of McNabb’s falling-out fits; then his nature; the nature of all men; and finally how to make a dead man rise.
In mock merriment, as if directed at me, Viola was suggesting that McNabb was out dead as a doorknob. Amid all of this, somebody was playing a lovely version of “Poinciana” on the jukebox, which had nothing to do with our situation.
Would McNabb soon arise himself and join the girls on his own, with one of his own drinking songs, like a professor I knew at the university, who often fell out dead drunk only to rise again and recite Yeats in Irish bars over in the mayor’s neighborhood where none of those customers knew a line of Yeats? Because he had an Italian last name, he’d always introduce himself—over there—as McBride. He was something—“a pink-skull-bald-head half-breed”—but when he started to reciting Molly Bloom’s speech at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses, somebody suggested that perhaps he’d better join the Finnies Club for Gay Men. A truck driver for Budweiser, Larry O’Faolain, had told me all about it. O’Faolain delivered in our neighborhood and to the mayor’s; he lived not far from the ball park; and he made all of the local bars. We always used to strike up a conversation when he’d come in and he was particularly interested to find out that I was a Catholic; he had never met a Negro Catholic. Knowing that I attended the same university where the alcoholic professor taught, this Irishman asked me, “Do you know a professor out there by the name of Scarpia?”
“Well, I’ve heard tell of himself, all right. He’s the one who believes Jews shouldn’t write about Joyce.”
“He dropped his wallet in Mulligan’s one night. I guess you know he’s Scarpia by day and plays McBride by night.”
But just as I was coming back around the bar (from where McNabb was cooing like a baby elephant and Mr. Wheeler was now into his thirteenth bar napkin of probability sketches) who should come in the front door, ever so slowly—wearing her dyed orange-brown wig, cellophane spats and carrying a blood-red purse—but my nemesis Daisy Dawes. I received a heart spasm when I saw that off-centered dyed orange-brown wig of hers, and Lord what didn’t she have in that purse this evening? She almost stumbled over McNabb’s body. Immediately her pity came tumbling down for the giant upon the floor. Soon Daisy Dawes was kneeling on the other side of Mr. Wheeler, waving a church fan over McNabb’s huge Asian, samurian countenance, with the delicate, limp-wrist motion of an eccentric schoolmarm softly encouraging sweet breezes with a flimsy hankie on a desert hot day, with snowflake gentleness flowing from her eyes. I’m getting out of this joint if it’s the last thing I do, I thought to myself. Well, at least she didn’t have Tosca with her. All I had to do now would be to look up and see Sugar-Groove himself returning to the living flesh. Then I’d know I was stone-crazy and having a true nightmare.
McGovern McNabb looked like a decked boxer, reflecting the last days of his pugilistic career. His nostalgia for the ring was another story. He did look like a boxer who had just received a death-blow from Joe Louis. McNabb, or MAC MAC as he was promoted, believed he had fought the Brown Bomber in a title fight. Actually he had been a sparring partner for Louis.
Just now Gracie Rae, Viola Hill, and I hovered over McNabb; Gracie Rae looked down on him with a scientific detachment that was sharp as a razor. Daisy Dawes was still fanning him.
All of our customers turned their attention to the barmaids, except Fly. He seemed to be getting quite angry. But was it over the broken-down scales or McNabb’s condition? I looked at the butcher knife on the bar and shuddered. Fly informed me the argument had started off when McGovern McNabb made a vulgar crack about Gracie Rae and she told Viola Hill, “How you going to raise his dead ass up, when I slice his head off?” Then she ran into the clothes closet to get the butcher knife. Viola Hill ran and got the Bible and said she was going to give it to McNabb to defend himself, for surely “this wild woman wouldn’t slice up a Bible to revenge herself over a lying man’s switch-blade of a tongue.”
Standing astride of McGovern McNabb, Gracie Rae now suggested a series of plotted instructions, which sounded at first like the beginning instructions for conducting a short-arm inspection.
“Open the mother-fouller’s pants. No, wait a minute. Unzip his pants, down slowly. Get you about twelve cubes of ice. None of them slivers; no shitty shavings. Bona fide ice cubes, do you hear me, Joubert Jones? Fly, you stop rolling your eyes at me. And then, if you can stand the odor—Lawd today—pull back the top of his Fruit of the Loom shorts like a sling-shot.”
Except for Mr. Wheeler, Daisy Dawes, and Fly—everybody at the bar was beginning to laugh. Talcum Tommie rushed ahead, “And Joubert, don’t get no ice cubes with holes in ’em, either, ’cause they signifies a frigid wife.”
Mr. Wheeler was still looking at everything from a viewpoint of probability and sketching out yet another mathematical plot upon his twenty-first paper napkin, as the night watchman continued to warm up by moving his broom in the motion of sweeping. Daisy Dawes was just too too delicate for this fleshy-foul-talk and she had brought her index fingers up to her ears, like a little girl sealing off her hearing from the bad bad words waxing from the lips of those nasty, nasty girls. No longer would McNabb have the benefit of her fanning motion.
“Lady,” I beseeched. “Do you remember all the hell you gave me about…” It was useless, for she did not hear me.
Gracie Rae Gooden was completing her instructions: “And deposit about twelve cubes of ice around McNabb’s privates, and if this funky mutha futha doesn’t shoot up like a streak of lightning, then Joubert you’d better call Rayner’s or Raven-Snow, or some bona fide undertaker, because the mutha’s long gone.”
Heading for the door, Fly screamed, “You bitches trying to detonate the dude’s Johnson. I’m getting the hell out of this trap and clue Fat on the depths of youalls’ shit.”
“Fly, go fuck yourself, backwards,” fumed Viola, as she now picked up her version of the instructions, for me to follow.
“We trying to raise this mammy-jammer to his natural height. Hell, his privates ain’t gonna never come to attention and salute no more. We just happy he’ll live to pass piss out his privates. Ain’t trying to behead the ole fart.” Gracie Rae was just playing—I think.
“Now, Joubert, I tell you what. You go get you some hot ice—put that in his drawers. And Gracie Rae, for your information, McNabb don’t wear no Fruit of the Loom drawers. He’s the Salvage’s best customer.”
Daisy Dawes had both hands buried in her face, weeping with great sadness. Tears were rolling down through her fingers and onto her cellophane spats.
“I have a plentitude of data now,” said Galloway Wheeler.
Viola Hill continued: “Then when that sonofabitch rises up, he’ll think he’s smoking. And McNabb’ll burn up like hell even though he just rose up from a dead-to-life condition. And Lord when that fool starts to running down the street, cops gonna arrest his gross ass—take a posse from Shakespeare Station to U-Haul him in for having hot goods in his drawers and for creating a fuming, smoking public disturbance. ’Cause when hot ice breathes on all that funky…”
Gracie Rae belched, then bellowed: “Yeah, so that’s how come we best stick to ice cubes. You put hot ice in his drawers it’ll be the first time anything approaching body heat happened to that sucker’s privates since Halley’s comet, early in this century, was cited. McNabb was about forty then.”
I thought I saw McGovern McNabb open one blood-shot eye, wink, then blink, and let the lid skin back into place, like one sliding a shutter back into place after seeing too much. Found the scene incomprehensible to mortals and decided to idle in on the pursuit and hunt for eternal rest, behind those closed, golden gates.
Suddenly it occurred to me—why not try to save whatever was left of McNabb’s dignity before the girls lowered the ice boom?
“Wait a minute, ladies,” I cried, placing an old bar towel over my left arm.
I hurried over to McNabb, knelt down and went into his pockets to find his identification—his address or telephone number, some card that would reveal his niece’s number. Then we could call her, and perhaps she could… if she was at home… It was a long shot. But at least it would be a way of protecting our asses (and our assets) if, heaven forbid, something happened. Had she abandoned the nunnery in a moment of true revelation?
In McNabb’s left pocket? What’s this? Delicacies? Three heart-shaped chocolates. Right pocket? Gristle from gnawed-upon bones (now bare). Snacking between bar hops, I mused. I wiped my fingers on the edges of the old, raggedy bar towel and placed the gristle and heart-shaped chocolates in the center of the rag. I needed to say something to keep the barmaids busy.
“Viola, too bad this isn’t Monday. We’d swim a cup of chili in front of McNabb’s nose. That would get him up.” I recalled how one McGovern McNabb once consumed thirteen cups of chili on a dreary blue Monday, in July.
“Only add to old gunsmoke’s belching and farting,” she said. “’Cause he can imagine he’s eating in his sleep. Hell he’s chewing on something right now. Maybe chewing over something, too.”
Not to be outdone, Gracie Rae chimed in: “Probably be the only man ever keep on chewing when death creeps up from his feet to his forehead. Keep right on chewing when death shrouds up to his neck, his mouth, his nose. Even though he ain’t got a solitary offering between his gums and his teeth, not even a pickled toothpick.”
The business about death drove icy fears up and down my spine. I hurried along now.
His wallet. I was able to pinch it out of McNabb’s back pocket, because of the way his body had situated itself upon the floor. I flipped through the cards. No identification of its bearer except five pictures of gourmet spreads, and a new, handwritten recipe for pigs’ ears called McNabb’s Tender Mercy. Finally, a photo of a pretty young girl—I imagined this to be Drucilla—ah, the miracle of the gene pool. But there was nothing bearing the address of one McGovern McNabb. The billfold slot? Nothing but sawdust; then hidden inside, a pinched-back, tightly folded five-dollar bill, bound over by an aged rubber band. But something was on the inside. I unstrapped the wad of legal tender only to discover a tablet of Milk of Magnesia.
“It’s good the sin of gluttony isn’t paid for by the noose. For where in this world is there nautical rope sufficiently sturdy to string up this Terrible Tonnage?” cried Galloway Wheeler.
I was all hung up again about what to do. And from Galloway Wheeler’s last remark, I could see that he was about to preach a sermon on sin. I decided to call the barmaids’ bluff, Gracie Rae’s especially; and McNabb’s, if he was truly listening, way off in space. Something would have to be done to remove McNabb from off of this floor.
I whisked my smelling salts underneath his nose several final times—thinking, too, that his days as a boxer who was often in trouble in the ring would resound in his head, memories when his trainer had to whisk smelling salts back and forth before his nose in order to get the heavyweight pugilist, McGovern “Slaughterhouse” McNabb, off of his stool between rounds and back out into the center of the ring. But my attempt to rekindle his memories, sharpen his senses, and wake the fool up seemed only to make his repose more restful and blissful. To hell with this. I went back behind the bar and scooped up an ice shovel full of glistening ice cubes. I poured the frosty-looking cubes into an old wooden ice bucket and brought it around to the girls.
“Now you’re both so innovating spieling, let’s see how bad you really are. I’m not calling for a short-arm inspection, ladies. I just want McNabb’s ass up and out of here, by whatever sane means necessary.”
Now some of the men in the Night Light Lounge were getting as shamefaced as Daisy Dawes earlier, and others even angry.
Gracie Rae was loosening McNabb’s belt and unzipping his pants ever so slowly. Viola was pulling back his dirty-looking drawers, looking up at me and screaming with that cockeye, as if looking at the star in the back of the room, hanging from the wall:
“I swear before God, Joubert, I ain’t going to look. Don’t get embarrassed, gentlemens. And Miss Daisy Dawes, you worry wart, I’s a good girl. Just trying to wake this man up from the dead before he dies on himself without saying his prayers, and Miss Eloise loses her license, and Joubert have to find himself a decent gig.”
“You better come on back here with that fan Miss Daisy Dawes and keep that fellow palpitating breezes ’cause this is sure ’nough some kind of funky-butt operation,” Viola Hill declared.
Gracie Rae took up a few ice cubes from the wooden bucket. She placed four into the ice tong and said, “That’s right. We wouldn’t hurt a hair about his head or on his balls, because McNabb ain’t got nothing on his head, in it either.”
“Yeah, and we ain’t trying to ring his chimes. So don’t you men folks get up a head of steam, and get pissed off; we ain’t hardly gonna hurt his Universal Joint; ain’t looking to do him damage,” broke in Viola Hill.
Gracie Rae agreed: “No that’s right. We ain’t even thinking about his urinating tool.”
Outside Fly was banging on the window pane with a cane and pointing fiercely at the barmaids. “Gracie Rae, girl, I wouldn’t even let a gnat see McNabb’s rusty plumbing,” piped in Viola Hill.
“Just trying to insure free passageway to one and to all, so we won’t have to insult Mr. McNabb by walking over him, in disrespect. And if you don’t put that broom up, Hollins, I’m gonna sweep you up,” Viola Hill commanded.
I was surprised to hear Mr. Galloway Wheeler now say, from his position down upon his knees, “Why you vagrant witches could be rebuffed and arrested for trespassing upon the private preserves of one man’s family. You ladies may not be trying to vanquish the gentleman in question, but I swear and believe upon a stack of Shakespeare’s Collected Works, that you are trying to vamp Mr. McNutt,” and then he returned with satisfaction to his completed mathematical equations, oblivious to the sweeper, and to the name of the man upon the floor.
Gracie Rae held her nose with one hand—howled at Daisy Dawes, “Now fan, baby, fan”—and pulled the band of McNabb’s shorts outward. Operation Creation, as I was to call it later, was born. Viola Hill employed her eyebrow tweezers to pluck up each cube from the ice tong, and placed each of the twelve cubes, strategically. Some customers started gushing toward the door. Now this operation by the barmaids only took about forty-five seconds; yet the reaction of McNabb’s body was longer than one would have expected. When all of a sudden, the mighty mountain called McGovern McNabb commenced to vault and erupt like a volcano. He roared like a lion, deep within the forest. His body arose terribly, only to go up and down, there upon the floor, like the tides gone mad in winter out on Lake Michigan. And that was when Daisy Dawes (ever on the side of what she perceived to be the underdog) declared: “Rise Peter, slay and eat!” (In a voice of incantation, three times.)
Now the body of McNabb, once dead to life, was actually doing a kind of vamped upwards dance, touched by an electrical voltage through some unseen conductor. And I became troubled, then horrified (not whether the death of McNabb would bring on the loss of my aunt’s liquor license) but that the unconscious wrath of McNabb’s body would bring down the whole flooring, flora, fauna, tropical plants, chairs, walls, bottles of liquor from the shelves. It reminded me of attending scores of wrestling matches as a kid, and noticing these body-slamming wrestlers banging bodies down upon that same mat, week in and week out, and thinking surely one of them is going to drive his foe through the mat—that is, until I woke up to the fact that matches were set up fakes. But this was real, what McNabb was doing to my aunt’s floor.
McNabb was body-slamming himself delightfully dizzy, as he attempted to do in some invisible foes—probably all who had participated in placing those goddamn ice cubes about his privates and those who had done nothing to prevent this act. The way those body slams were occurring, you’d think he was going up against Lou Thez, Ruffy Silverstein, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, and Hans Schnabel, all rolled into one. (Meantime, everybody in the bar had headed for cover, expecting shelling and bombings any second.)
And yet there was art here to behold. For McNabb’s body was going up and down with something approaching élan. He was going up and down like a gradually strung out, suspended, and snapped back yo-yo. McNabb’s body actually stayed in the air—about three feet off of the floor—for several seconds; collapsed to the floor and then bounced up again, no not bounced, but nipped up, yes nipped up with an art, an élan, despite his “terrible tonnage,” as Galloway Wheeler referred to McNabb’s weight.
This artful wreckage goes on for I don’t know how long. A half an hour? I’m observing it all from an excellent vantage point, down on the floor and behind one of the bar stools near Irene Mays (who’s kneeling in a booth with her dress halfway up). She’s got the finest pair of legs God ever hung on a female and she is possessed by a wolf man’s mask for a face, which I momentarily could not see. So God gives to all, even in moments of horror, a few delights of nature to wonder at, to gaze upon—to behold, if not to hold.
Each time McNabb’s body came down with earth-quaking power, I thought, well, this is it—there goes the floor, the roof, the tavern, and the people. He’s slamming the hell out of those tormenting sonofabitches who tried to wake him up from the land of the dead by detonating his plumbing back to the ice age. Perhaps the electrified Fly wasn’t so off the wall, after all. But I’d have to take my place in the line-up as an accomplice to the crime. Just then seven fifths of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch smashed upon the floor.
When McNabb’s complete tonnage nipped back up into space, I prayed he would stay there. We could invite people in for a sideshow, featuring MAC MAC, the Maniac. Then I could repay Aunt Eloise for all of the damage McNabb’s done, and is still doing. Every animate and inanimate object in the place jarred with his body slams. I’m developing a lot of sympathy for all the animals great and small who lived out in the earthquake-prone territory called California.
Are there any seismographs for recording earthquakes in Forest County this evening? Well, I’d have to turn on CBS later, if I lived through this madness to see all about the invisible miracle on 79th Street—hell, don’t tell me about it in forty-five seconds, I lived through it, Mr. Jacobson, that is if I did. Or will. Or shall. Maybe these earthquake slams of McNabb might help the people who study these things to cite Sugar-Groove off somewhere in space—surely set to return to us all, as a UFO.
Another fifth falls from the shelf, or a bar stool keels over, or one of the customers cries out in pain of disbelief, each time McNabb’s body slams. And I’m thinking if only McNabb would fall through the floor and the body of ALL SOULS2 could come back to life. Hell, if McNabb’s spirit could come back to soar through his body from the zestful “combustion” of a homemade ice pack, then perhaps ALL SOULS’s spirit (which was still down in that basement, I believed, just circling about for the proper calling) could take bodily form and consume McNabb’s body. Nice feast for some prehistoric monster like ALL SOULS, kind of funky though.
Well, me and my big-mouthed imagination. For lo and behold, after about half an hour, damn if the lights didn’t start to flicker and then dim throughout the bar. I wondered if the complete life of Forest County wasn’t under an air-raid alarm. And as they say in Williemain’s barbershop, when one is caught up in a deadly breach—man, I was up to my asshole in alligators, and Tonto, atop Silver, was crying “Heigh ho, Silver” in the distance.
I had a sense that night was descending fast all over the world. All spawned—this power flickering and failing—by dint of those body blows to the very foundation and construction of this establishment and to the power system in the basement.
Now as I crawled back around behind the bar to where the trap door was located, I heard Gracie Rae’s giggling about something and clearing her throat, in order to start up one of her pronouncements. (Her magic ice packs had worked all too well, damn it.) I opened one of the drawers beneath the cash register and secured the flashlight. I couldn’t make out what she was saying for my concern and fear of ALL SOULS’s haunting presence, especially now in the growing darkness, as I opened the trap door and steeled myself for the steps below, even with the aid of the flashlight. As fortune would have it, the flashlight had a weak charge, and cast a most dim light.
Amid the lights dimming and quaking to candlelight power and McNabb’s continual body slams, I heard Gracie Rae’s voice plain, now, and pitched towards me in fun-filled mockery: “And Baby-Bear, don’t you worry about a dog-gone thing. McNabb? He’s just getting his nuts off with them ups and downs, those rises and falls and comings and goings. And Lord doesn’t he love those floats and flops! Can’t you hear that sucker grunting and gasping when he’s suspended in mid-air, praying like shit he’ll fall again, so he can rise some more.”
And Viola Hill joined in: “Why ole MAC MAC is having more of a ball than he’s had in seventy-five years of Saturday nights. Hell, we done this muthaless wonder an all-day-sucker favor. He may never wake up completely now, do you realize this, Gracie Rae?”
“Girl, what you taking about wake up? I thought you knew something. This sonofabiscuit cutter has found him a home in hypnosis. You hip to that? Bastard’s gone hypnotized himself on self-nutting, into a rebounding trance. Talk about going to nut city playing the nut role.”
At least the star was still there upon the back wall to throw a taper’s brief light. Then unable to take it any longer, I closed the trap door, or I should say let it fall above my head and descended on cat’s feet down the shaky rungs of the ladder. I wouldn’t have to hear ALL SOULS’s big mouth, but knowing my imagination, I might see it and remember his voice.
From above, voices floated to me like well-accented tremblings upon the water.
“All them blows to his head.”
“You mean all them head blows.”
“Talk about rocks on the rocks.”
“Hey, youall stop talking dirty.”
“Yeah, but I ain’t singin’ ’bout no rocks in my bed.”
“Old MAC MAC sure could set a kettle of chitlins alive.”
“But what that sorry fucker doing to his own intestines with those body slams is off the wall. Oh, there goes another.”
“There goes the wall, next.”
“Thank God for that goddamn star, or we’d be pitched into blackness.”
“What? Pitched darkness, you mean? You mean to say.”
“I wonder Ford got anything up his ghost sleeve, hounding Miz Eloise Night Light in long woollies.”
“Flinging futha mutha freak, coming home to haunt. Ford!”
“If only McNabb’s wit measured the circumference of his belly, as does his forlorn and strapped money belt, we’d all be the richer for his bite, all around the Globe.”
Leave it to Galloway Wheeler to have the last word, I thought as I touched down on the last rung of the ladder in the basement, which also meant that momentarily their precise words were cut off from my hearing; although I could still hear their voices. Then there was a blood-curdling scream, without a pinch of sardonic laughter. Had some white folks entered the front door by mistake, received a bolt of shock from the darkness within the blackness of the Night Light Lounge and cried out in black and blue bloody murder?
I could hear the voices of our customers now in low, disgruntled tones. I had to hurry and bring some light to their darkness, if possible, I thought, as I tripped over a beer box. And at this moment I suddenly heard Ford’s voice from a long-ago encounter:
“But why are you trembling so my young friend? ALL SOULS here would not harm a hair upon your curly head. His indebtedness to me is beyond this life. As long as you stand high in my regard, no ill fortune from his fangs shall enter your flesh.” Thank you Jesus, I almost exclaimed. And then Ford went on with the tale of ALL SOULS. It seems as if ALL SOULS was frozen in a space pocket—leaping light years back in time. Ford had discovered the bestial body in a huge ice drift, while on a mission “to awaken our sleepy-eyed, Indian-looking Eskimo brethren.” And he had discovered ALL SOULS while he was “mounting a spiritual enterprise” with the aid of twelve huskies, dashing about from igloo to igloo. Ford had cracked the ice pocket with “my prick-song, ice-prong, an earlier version of the Cornucopia (for your notes, my young friend).” The ice pocket was twelve feet high and twelve feet wide.
“And then my young friend, I cracked the code of immortality and placed ALL SOULS—who at this point in time was surely not the beloved ALL SOULS you see before you now, but just plain monster-masher-sleeping-canine-hang-dog suspended in time. Stripped up three sleeping bags to hold him and wrapped the frozen creature up—call him Bird’s Eye Beast, at this point, and placed the bounded up, ice-dripping wonder into the egg-shaped oval coffin, sculpted of rarest pearl—thusly rare radiance… And so our dear sleeping friend here stayed for forty days and forty nights. Then I opened it, only to discover a breathing body heart—pumping stronger and stronger by the second and louder and louder by the hour. Now the huskies were getting edgy as they too viewed this specimen. Breathing hard but still sleeping, there in the egg-shaped oval coffin. But soon enough it awoke and by now the sensible Eskimos have vanished in space, almost running as fast as the huskies, who saw the beast before them as the transformation of some ancient foe in time, before the world was said to be… Vanishing in time, in space but soon no longer would it be referred to as monster, but not yet ALL SOULS—not until I transformed him by waving my magical emerald halo red, white, and blue over his head (which was created via the soldering iron on a lightning charge; oh but you know that story, my young friend; stop me if I repeat myself)…
“Transformed him by waving my magical emerald halo of red, white, and blue down the length of his body. Then he arose. He rose up, I should say. (I do hope that you are correcting my syntax in the book you are doing.) Out of his slumber. Shall I go on with the rest of the enterprise? So you see now how ALL SOULS is indebted to me for the life he knows now—although he gets a bit unruly from time to time, as long as you stand with me who can harm… But you are looking rather bored, my young friend.”
“No,” I said. “Not bored but in a state of animated suspension, close to shock.” This new knowledge was a killer.
Then somebody drew up the trap door and I heard a rowdy voice coming tumbling down the stairs:
“McNabb wears slabs of West Virginia bacon for suspenders.”
“Man, what you talking ’bout? Shiiit, it’ll take pulleys pitched to scaffolds for skyscrapers to elevate his bountiful butt off this lady’s floor,” a mellow tenor voice declared.
“Why when he was a mere babe, he was nicknamed ‘lockjaw,’” Bull-Frog Buckhalter said.
“Well, he’s a bitch’s baby now for beef, buffalo, bacon and beans,” retorted the voice of Flint.
Then the first voice said, “If only we had us a crank to jack him off this floor.”
And Flint said, “Who’s talking about going to Hedy’s kinda of doings? This is a proper kind of place. Need a crack of light down there Joubert to find your way? Folk getting mighty froggy up in heah, being this long in the dark.” I didn’t answer, for the light beamed down the steps to me hardly possessed the strength of a candle. I couldn’t help but hear their voices at the edge of the trap door; some were familiar to me, others weren’t. But essentially they formed a trio of varied voices. Being nosey, I couldn’t help but listen and yes, on occasion, laugh, as I looked for the fuses. Just then I heard another McGovern body slam.
“Any you studs know that downstairs bar called Whore’s Head? McGovern McNabb lost his crown—and his head—there once.”
“How can it be crowned that? Must be a nickname. Oh, Boar’s Head? ’Round corner from the police? I used to deliver Bud there.”
“Naw man, it’s Hogshead. Hedy’s Hogshead.”
“Wait a god damn, nut-making minute. How can a mindless whore have a head? Or even be heady?”
“Lest she’s taking her old John to head him off at the pass before he pisses his wad away and passes out—”
“She can give it if he can take it before she gives it up and passes out. Or if she’s a bored broad—”
“Hope McGovern didn’t snore the whore to sleep.”
“If she’s a heady broad she wouldn’t be a bored whore. Know how to keep her head high. Tail covered.”
“Man, I’m telling you this queen’s a hog for head.”
“If she was heady whore she wouldn’t be a bored broad. That’s what you oughta being saying.”
“Hedy? Hell, I only knows Queenie. She owns the joint.”
“Flint, give me a little that taste youall’s swirling ’round my nose. Hey Joubert down there—man you best step on it like you doing one them Auto-Lite commercials and you want to hurry and get on back to ‘The Shadow.’ Folks getting restless as a motherless.”
Yes, apparently they were getting restless all right and none more vocal than the trio of voices I heard pitched down to me from the deep hole about the trap door. They were drinking my Aunt Eloise’s Southern Comfort no doubt, which she kept stashed beneath the cash register. What was going on? A bit of commedia dell’arte. Ah, but I knew about Hedy’s. But that was another story.
“You guys lay off that liquor. Public stock private stock,” I howled; but my warnings fell upon deaf ears. I did recognize two of their number. Flint and Foney Fletcher.
“I’m telling you Queenie ain’t giving you nothing. Queenie’s in charge. Put my brand on her. Crowned her brown derby top fashion. Howled like a quartered pig. Dying for more on the killing ground.”
“Man, I’m telling you, Hedy queen of all what’s going down behind that Shakespeare Station. Down in the cellar. Hoe’s a headless rider, fool. Vamp to ready. Spin all night long. Breathe fire into the head of a dying man. Talking about what I know. What I done seed with these eyes. McGovern McNabb took me there; then lost his crown. I was drunk; night was bad and boss; I lost my own way getting home. Had to go back on a mission of mercy to cop his greasy lid for him three days later when we both sobered up.”
“Hogwash Foney. Ain’t no ’spectable whore going drop her draws or her head for McGovern. You have to hog-tie a street-walker to give that bald-headed fucker some trim.”
I finally found the fuses, but the first ones I tried didn’t work.
“This Hedy, she the one what drives a bad hog and a mean-ass bargain?”
“Turns men into whining stewball swines.”
“Hell naw, you lousy sonofabitch. That’s my Queenie! And if you confused splibs don’t get her out of your motherless mouths, then ’fore I walks knee deep in your shit, I’m gonna wash your mouths out with Drano. I’m the HNIC who brought that Caddy for Queenie; and I’m the natural stud-horse what keeps her liquor license current. Now stop the fuck putting your tongues round her name, ’fore I sails both your asses out into expressway traffic when it’s thundering and lightning, and if I’m lying, I’m flying.”
They were all silent for a moment, meantime I couldn’t stop laughing, I knew Queenie’s Castle rather well. Let it suffice to say that it was not Trader Vic’s. But some folks still called the tavern site in question Boar’s Head; for originally, it was set up by some early Puritans under that name, and before Forest County was incorporated in 1837. The original Boar’s Head was burned down in the 1870s after a tremendous fire, which almost destroyed Forest County.
“All I know is what McGovern McNabb asked me to do was go down in the cellar, over there behind the Shakespeare Station and to this place. I dead-head over there. Forgot the name till just now—but down in the basement, to get his lid. McNabb told the magic words to say; gave me the proper amount of coins to palm off, so that wall door would slide away and I’d go down the steps to Hedy’s.”
And Hedy’s Hogshead Cellar-Killer? I had used my shoeshine money in trade for three wigheads who were willing, on different occasions, to initiate a boy of fourteen—for the lark of it for them, no doubt, and for half-price for me. I didn’t lose my head over it; but I did feel pretty sporty. First time I had shot my wad. I was swaggering about for days, and trying to play it cool without laying dead. I ducked my head behind my lid and strutted peacock bad. With my hands sweating so now, I worried if I might not shock myself into eternal darkness, as I attempted to infuse some light into the darkness upstairs.
“I’m telling you studs, McNabb said some Detroit Negroes he ran on the railroad with told him, ‘Brother Chops, don’t ever let nobody cop your crown. Take your main lid crown, don’t let it happen. And if you lose it. You lost without it. Lose it and you lose who you are. You lost without it… till you reclaim your crown.’”
“Yeah and it took you all evening long to cop it. Mission of mercy all night long.” Now I heard a somewhat weaker McNabb body slam.
All three started howling and passing the bottle; I could hear them gulping and gasping for breath. Finally, Flint said after yet another, almighty gulp: “That fine little niece of his, Prucilla, or Drucilla, whatsoever her name. Why she.”
“Wait a minute, Flint, I ain’t through… ’Cause man, when you think ’bout it, hard for McNabb to find him a crown to fit that head of his. I’m telling you them school kids all the time suffering with the shorts for classroom supplies could use McNabb’s bald head for a globe of the world.”
“The world? Shit, that big-headed sonofabitch. The universe, you mean.”
“And just paste on all the nation states of the world and still have plenty of head left over to know it’s a human skull they working with; so when they do their biology, they won’t have to go into the closet to get the skeleton out.”
“Be the first time McNabb put his mindless head to serving since he got railroaded. He ain’t give Williemain no trade in thirty-five years. And Wildroot’s trade done parched up.”
“Man, who you telling? That fucker was born bald.”
“Listen heah, Foney. The mammy’s mammy of old blubber-butt was born bald. They ain’t no hair on their heads for three generations.”
“Still they got the living nerve to grease down his bald head with fat meat. All old prime rib can’t polish off in his mouth, that is.”
“What I discovers down there in the cellar when I got to retrieve MAC MAC’s crown was this: old bare bones done fell head over heels in love in the Hogshead whorehouse of Hedy. Inmates claim he’s their most remarkable trade. They got his nose stone-wide open as church door at Ecstacy, or least as wide as the diameter of his crown!”
“With anyone of ’em special? Who Hedy? Or Three-Times-Three? Man that he could outride Arcaro on Whirlaway. And Lord don’t get her into the stretch.”
“Hell naw, ain’t you heard? Man, that hoe, Three-Times-Three, done join them Black Muslims. They done saved her from the land of the dead. Last time I saw her she looked so dead and woebegone, her head looked like a cat-fish on a platter… Not just Hedy alone, and more than three. Just about all of ’em. Near about the whole cadre of whores.”
“You sampled all the wares on your mercy mission, fine friend?”
“But I was about to say that fine niece of McNabb’s would buy her broad-butt uncle a crown anytime his glowing bald head needs comforting.”
“Problem is, how many men’s stores carry his head size? That’s how come he used to love to run to Galveston.”
“Now you talking and spieling in the same way those hoes was laughing and feeling. How many men’s carry his size?”
And then behind their howls of laughter I heard, to my great surprise, the voice of the reporter, Lightboddie: “Drucilla saved that starveling from scratching his flea-flaked ass to a fury, after he sobbed his slow-dying sister to one long sorry grave and damn near slid off this earth, fully clothed himself, down into the hole with her casket.”
How in the world did Lightboddie get in on the conversation? I had not noticed him enter the front door before I descended the trap door. Either the front door was open, or somebody had opened up the back door and was probably slipping liquor out—setting up their own trade—through a break in the screen. I’d better hurry and find a fuse that works, I thought. But Foney was onto something else about McNabb now. (Just then his body hit the floor with another enormous body slam.)
“Everything’s bold about old Ribcage except his Adam’s apple, which has gone on to glorify his sliver of a tongue, which has climbed up into his head, in the kingdom of nod, so invisible in fat-gone-to-waste has the sucker become. Invisible as an armpit in the sleeve of a sports jacket.”
Not to be outdone, Flint said: “He’s so become the stomach of his intestines, that fat fuck of fortune would belch up a fart… echo chamber of a preferred turd.”
“Hell naw, man, McNabb’s tongue is the length of his lower intestine, but instead of curling ’bout it’s done took on the spirit of a tapeworm; route of jay-walking clown; tickling him to death in his sleep; meanwhile he’s gumming his way to a slobbering, snoring grave.”
And that was when Lightboddie spoke up and declared: “Man, I ever tell you sorry studs about that time McNabb collapsed on the Super Chief? I’m thinking about writing a column on it. Satan arrived on the back of a mountain goat, in the white coat and shape of a doctor, with his medicine bag in hand. Thought he had him a live one! Took one look at McNabb, belched ‘Oink! Oink!,’ got back on his mountain goat, this time backwards (so’s he could turn every now and then to re-see what he done seed), and headed the hell for the hills, crying ‘Heigh ho, Silver.’ Mountain goat outflew the Super Chief even after that damn train got up a heady steam of smoke.”
Apparently McGovern McNabb was now sounding off in his slumber, as if he’d found himself a home on the floor of the Night Light Lounge. He was firing away heavy-duty equipment and sending up free-floating, gaseous farts in sublime sailing slumber of righteousness, in tune with his enormous snoring and his body slams-cum-picnic.
“Gas masks for sale. Gas masks for sale,” I heard the soprano voice of Lyman Whytehurst quail, he who was always peddling a range of hot merchandise to the lowest bidder.
Just then the earth-shaking body slams suddenly ceased—like the drop cloth of death, prefiguring the dusty collapse of a stage prop. Now my heart beat faster than ever.
I was afraid that McNabb had totally collapsed, lost all connections with consciousness, forevermore. Hell, I was afraid that he had kicked off. Then the sputtering eyebeam of my flashlight went out, casting me into total darkness.
At this time I was still smoking cigars. I rummaged around and found some matches in my back pocket. As I lit one and commenced to screw in the new fuses, I thought of ALL SOULS. Thinking of ALL SOULS still made me tremble—and if this confession makes the reader blush, despite my earlier descriptions of that monster, then damn it I’m so sorry, because my memories are riveted in reality. My truth of ALL SOULS is deeper than yours will ever be unless you believe in me. Anyway, I ain’t Ulysses and I wasn’t so brave as Sugar-Groove to even imagine that I struck a match upon ALL SOULS’s fangs in the darkness and lit my vision to change fuses—even though the image of meat-hounding ALL SOULS slobbering at the mouth was as vivid as the foam dripping and trickling then sliding down the sides of a pilsner; as a man touching up his appetite with a brew for a rare steak, then I thought of my contortionist, with her miraculous catharsis, Lawd, today. Richard Wright, you ain’t never loved till you been loved by a high-brown: Blake.
And as now the new fuses made the lights go on and return the power, I heard the burst of Ray Charles’s voice vault from the jukebox: “GOING TO KANSAS CITY / KANSAS CITY HERE I COME… THEY GOT SOME CRAZY LITTLE WOMEN, THERE… AND I’M GONNA GET ME ONE!”
When I returned upstairs, Wheeler was back on the floor, kneeling, trying to reassemble the scale, using his thirty-third bar napkin for his math plottings and calculations, and not having a lot of success.
Viola Hill was packing up to leave and Gracie was waiting on her customers, with her usual speed and good service. A couple was dancing to the Ray Charles record. About half the people had left while the lights were out. But as I came from the bar counter I discovered that the body of McGovern McNabb was no more.
“Oh hell no,” I screamed. “Somebody’s got to explain what happened to McNabb?” I don’t mean he was dead, he had disappeared! Had some body snatchers, desperate for business, pulled off the physical heist of the century by stealing McNabb’s body away? But no, that was physically imposs—
Gracie Rae said in her voice full of nonchalance and whiskey:
“Simple. He just arose on out of here on the down beat of one real mean slam. One body slam too many carried that sucker on out of here.”
“What the hell?” I said trying to keep my balance and my cool.
“How, Gracie Rae? The roof at least still looks intact.”
Estella, the night watchman, and Daisy Dawes were trying to clean up the debris. Then I saw Hollins go off with the broom and McNabb’s hat, which he deployed as a refuse container to sweep up something in the back of the Lounge.
Gracie Rae shrugged her shoulders:
“Just kept going up up up and out, I guess.”
“I guess hell, there’s got to be some logical explanation for what happened to the sonofabitch’s body,” I bellowed.
Fly said: “School boy! He vanished, plain and simple.”
“See, Fly, Joubert here, is a nice, sometimes intelligent young man, and he don’t believe in the… See, he’s an intellectual and you know how they don’t believe in the afterlife. Now me, I’m just the opposite. I don’t believe in nothing I sees in this life. I’m prepared to see anything and leave, split. Mens, especially. Joubert, he don’t believe in nothing he can’t see. I don’t believe what I do see, ’cause I always know that in life—you are listening to me, Joubert, and particularly Mr. Galloway Wheeler down there on the floor, making one complete circle damn fool of yourself?—it’s a case of now you see it, now you don’t,” declared Gracie Rae.
I just backed off and shook my head. At that moment Viola Hill motioned me over to her side where she was putting on her coat in order to leave. She whispered to me in a most confidential voice (as if to say, “Look, I’ve got the answers; these others are damn fools; I know what went down”).
“Between you and me, Joubert, it must’ve happened during the time when the lights was off and between then and when they came back on that McNabb’s body disappeared.” And as I walked Viola Hill out to hail a cab for her, I became keenly aware of a wonderful perfume at the door, that certainly had not been there earlier before I descended into the basement. But to whom did it belong?
When I returned, Galloway Wheeler looked up from frustration and said to me: “Now I see why I continually fail in my calculations on probability fallout, with regard to my attempt to reassemble this scale. I absolutely must use the Bard’s word as a divining rod. What I must do is ponder the probable fallout distance of the heroes and villains in the four major tragedies; the positions where their bodies fell out and compute this in terms of whose personality and weight in the tragedies comes nearest to that of Mr. McGovern McNabb. This will give me a fifth dimension for reflection and sound speculation. And don’t give me your off-the-wall, off-his-rocker side-angle side-look, Mr. Joubert Jones. Mr. McNabb fell out in place, and so did the parts of the devices. ‘Oh what a falling off that was…’ You see, the Bard knew everything. Take, for example, birds, if you want to know anything about birds, read Shakespeare.”
And that’s when I started shaking my head in total bafflement and I heard drop from my lips, Hamlet’s words:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
seem to me all the uses of this world!
This drove Galloway Wheeler away from his miscalculations momentarily and he stood up, saluted me, and shook my hand, as if to congratulate me for graduating from college.
I had heard tell of Houdini cracking out of a large block of ice, or out of a buried coffin and reappearing alive on the other side of the stage, moments later. And I remember Sugar-Groove telling of the famous black magician of the nineteenth century, Merlin Spottswood: feet roped off backwards, head placed into a stock, locked up in a steel coffin with an iron bolt and pitched off into the middle of the Mississippi River from off the side of those steamboats going down the river, by three pleasure-loving members of the sky-high audience. Boat arrives in New Orleans. What do they see at the dock but the stevedores helping this Spottswood lift up the discarded steel coffin out the river, the iron bolt about his neck, “as a ribbon and a badge for the first prize,” Sugar-Groove said, in “some endurance contest.” Williemain said: “Well, God help us if any these preachers get hold of that story—they’d turn the Mississippi into the River Jordan.” No, I had heard many stories of Spottswood but this story before my very own eyes (and yet not revealed before my eyes either, because I was in the basement when he vanished) was something else again. And I could not help but wonder if the spirit of W.A.D. Ford had not reappeared from behind the star and made it wink; thereby mingling his energy with that of McGovern McNabb’s fading energies and not so much lifted him up and out, but made the “terrible tonnage” rise and vanish bodily. For although I didn’t believe in Ford-as-faith-Fatha, I had not yet totally shed my faith in him as trickster turned into magician, and back again, in the sense that his presence still infected my imagination.
Just then Gracie Rae Gooden said:
“Some youall get that Cornucopia from Bettye Burnside—if you can—and touch it to them parts of the scale. Like as not the sucker’ll make them pieces rise back to they proper respects and save Adam’s ass with the Jew.”
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” I said. “It took something greater than the Cornucopia to make McNabb rise. But everybody wants to accept it as a miracle without an explanation, except me.”
Art credit: Romare Bearden. Young Students (1964). © 2022 Romare Bearden Foundation, licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation.