Monday, January 28, 2013


Colors have a smell for me. Maybe they do for most people only they don’t say so. Yellow is one of grandma’s Sunday breakfasts that comes to you in your sleep and shakes you awake in time for church. Blue smells like one of those jazz joints on the bad little side of town, stale booze, and cigarettes with maybe a little musty scent of peeling parched leather. Green is the scent of spring, especially right after rain, clean and hopeful. And then there’s red, that one’s hard to explain.

My grandma Cee always called Texas, West Hades. She had lived in West Hades until she was thirteen years old when she found her way out and as far north as Missouri. She met grandpa Cee and married him when she was only fourteen and he took her back home with him to Alabama. So Alabama was East Hades for me.

My mother died from “complications” when I was one day old. By “complications” what they meant was that the closest hospital would not admit her even though she was an eleven year old who’d been raped by a white man. Grandma Cee named me Thorn for reasons she felt were obvious enough she never shared them with anyone.

Grandma raised me without anybody, not even Grandpa Cee. She taught me everything from the basics to the Bible to history. Actually, history was Grandma Cee’s Bible. She told me she didn’t have a lot of use for Jesus because Jesus disappoints but history can teach you how the world turns. So I learned that Africans had the first civilizations and that they had faded into the jungle by the time the European civilizations rose up. So when the white man found my ancestors in the jungles they mistook them for a kind of monkey. She said that’s how slavery got started; our people were just another domesticated animal to the ignorant white men. That was grandma’s way of being charitable to white folk.

She was obsessed about my education. She even took books in lieu of pay for her cleaning services sometimes. She made friends with the city librarian who would check out books for her so she could teach me at home. At fourteen, I swear I was the most educated boy in Montgomery, black or white, a fact that was going to prove to be difficult. They started to call me an “uppity nigger” and not just the white folks. People resent educated kids especially in poor regions where education is scarce as hen’s teeth.

So I did my studies at night and held a job during the day, just a loading dock job stacking boxes mostly. One February morning, as I walked to work around 4 am, I was praying to Jesus to send me a new coat. The wet cold wind in Alabama feels like it’s flaying the hide off your arms and legs and my old coat was never good enough to turn the cold even when it was new to me. Grandma taught me that Jesus disappoints but somehow I had to believe in him anyway, fool or not. Then I saw my reward, a heavy black topcoat lying folded on someone’s back stoop.

The town had the downtown for white folks, the black section for us, and the factory section where I worked. But jutting between my grandma’s house and the place I had to go for work was the section we called, The Island. The poor white trash section of town in addition to being hemmed in by the factories and the blacks also had the distinction of containing the main city dump. Black folks had an understanding with the people of the island that we could take one route through their territory and only during daylight hours, before or after that, we were fair game.

Because I had to be at the dock by four o’clock in the morning, I always threaded my way across the island by keeping to the alley ways, being ready to run hard at the first sign of trouble. I was in one of these smelly, trashy back alleys when I spotted my reward although the quality of the coat and the fact that it was obviously new made it clear to anyone who could see that this was the property of a white man. History had taught me though that if you’re cold enough or hungry enough, you’ll take some pretty large gambles. I was cold enough.

The fellows on the dock were surprised when I came striding up in my brand new coat. Most of them congratulated on my good luck but of course some where sour and said I was a fool that was going to get my ass kicked. I didn’t care. I was happy and grateful. I was a little surprised when I spotted the stains on the right sleeve though. I hadn’t seen them in the dark. Splashes of blood up and down the sleeve along with something like axel grease. I was worried then but still happy with my coat. I found a safe spot and tucked it away then went to work.

At the dinner break, I went over the edge of the dock to have my sandwich. Charlie, the old man of the dock slipped in beside me so he could whisper in my ear. He said, “Trust me, boy, you turn that coat wrong side before you go walking home. Leave it wrong side until you can get another too. They won’t much notice it probably. If you let your pride talk you into wearing it right side then I’m guessing you won’t get home.” He slipped away quietly again and left me to think it over.

Of course, I knew Charlie was right. It was the obvious and intelligent thing to do. I thought it over all the rest of the afternoon while I was stacking boxes, weighing the thing in my mind, my pride against my hide. When two o’clock came, the sun had warmed the day so nicely that I knew it was too warm to even wear that new coat. But I had already made up my mind to wear it anyway. Well, Charlie would have said pride had made up my mind and he would have been right again. I was just putting on my coat when the foreman shouted my name.

I never knew the guy’s right name. He was just Boss. Boss said I had messed up and stacked a whole group of boxes sideways. I knew he was wrong and it didn’t matter at all. He did this all the time just to show us why we called him Boss. He never stopped to think how he was wasting the company’s money and no one ever corrected him. I put the coat away again and went to work once more.

It took two hours to restack all of those boxes including a little break I took for myself so that the sun was heading down again. When I was resting at the edge of the dock, someone in a car had his radio on loud enough that I could hear it very well. It was a news bulletin. They’d found a young girl’s body behind some trashcans in an alleyway. She’d been beaten to death. They were looking for a black man leaving the scene but there were no details.

I thought about the sleeve of my new coat. I thought about Charlie’s advice. I turned the coat wrong side and slipped it on.

The weather had turned even colder and there was a light icy rain that pricked at my face and ears until I was happy to shuffle along with my head bowed down. I took my route through the alleys, jumping slightly when a cat disturbed some pile of trash or a dog growled but when I heard some men cursing and laughing in the darkness ahead, I quickly changed course. I found myself in a part of the island I’d never seen before and it was much too brightly lit.

I tried to move stealthily from shadowed doorways to side streets but my heart was beating so hard that I couldn’t hear much of anything over the drumming. I was in a flat out panic and the more I tried to make it stop the more afraid I became. I kept thinking the Klan was after me or soon would be. I kept thinking of Grandma Cee and how she’d never know what had become of me until I was miserable as well as scared. I was crying then, just like a lost little kid stumbling and shuffling along with my head bowed and my eyes full of tears so that I was half blind as well as deaf.

A fiery scent almost like my idea of brimstone caught hold of my nose. I jerked my chin upward to see where I found myself, rubbing my eyes on my sleeve. For a minute, I was mighty relieved to see the hellish domain of the city dump. I was almost home after all. Then an ugly voice called to me, “Boy! What’s the matter with you, boy? Are you some kind of crazy nigger?” Gradually my vision came back although there was thick smoke clinging to the spot as if wind could never move it. I thought to back away or to run but I had used up my will on the journey. I simply stood like a beaten man awaiting worse.

As he approached, I realized what had first appeared to be a monstrous shadow behind him was a monstrous boy. The one doing all the talking was maybe half a foot shorter than me. He had a shock of that unfortunate carrot red hair that brands a person as “po’ white trash”. He was wearing filthy overalls and an equally dirty Crimson Tide sweat shirt. The big one had a “slow” sad face with heavy features. He looked as though he were always at least ten steps behind and used to abuse because of it. Despite my situation, I felt sorry for the poor brute.

The little one was holding the twisted remains of a tire iron and kept slapping it into one hand like a riding crop. He made me think of Napoleon. That thought brought a smile to my lips. “Napoleon d’ Dump” that was the nickname I’d already given him and it made me chuckle very slightly and into my collar. Napoleon noticed. He told me I needed to know that the angel of death was on my shoulder so I should serious up. I replied that I was past caring and suddenly I was too. Wasn’t as though caring would change what was about to happen so I might just as well not mind it too much. The icy iron fell across my right cheek. The blow made me reel but I kept my feet somehow. Napoleon demanded that I remove “that stolen coat”. I slipped it of without the slightest protest and tossed it to the ground. He gave my right arm a whack and then the left. He was just warming up but I heard a bone snap.

Funny thing I learned about a savage beating that night, if it’s savage enough then you don’t feel a thing. It’s as though the mind spares you. That’s why I didn’t notice how many times he hit me before the monster spoke, “Red, you can’t ought to do that no more!”

My eyes were blinded with the swelling and the blood but I could see that little Napoleon turn and menace the monster. He spoke with the bloodlust on him, “Ham, have you gone nigger lover? Do I need to tell my daddy about you so they can take care of you? Or are you just too retarded to live anymore?” He went on in like manner for a bit until I think he tired himself out with the release of emotion and needed a few breaths. Ham replied, “No, Red, but look a there. See that blood on him there? It’s like ourn. So ain’t that a sign?”

The little one nearly fell over laughing at the lummox. “Ham, ain’t you ever seen a hog butchered or a chicken? What color is their blood?” Ham answered slowly, drawling so much you could barely pick out the word, “Red”.

“So you reckon animals is the same as white men too?” The small one was regaining his ferocity, ready to strike the big guy if he dared to come up with the wrong answer. But Ham just slumped his shoulders and turned away in shame. Napoleon turned to face me again but as he did so he threw a parting shot, “God damned retard, they should put you in a fuckin’ home!” I braced for death. I heard the blow fall, heavy, crushing, and final.

Somehow I was still breathing. I forced my eyes open just a slit and could see Red’s surprised dead face about four feet away. Looming over him, Ham stood holding the rusty remains of a truck bumper in his right hand like a sword. I studied his face, looking for any sign of hatred or mercy but the only expression I saw was perhaps confusion. I rose slowly, grasping at the pile of fabric at my feet. Ham nodded to me as if to say I could leave.

I tossed the coat into the nearest pile of burning garbage and went on my way, coatless but grateful. For me, the color red will always smell like the smoke and brimstone of East Hades.