Every night when the blues around a last quarter are stirring up another death rain and the white lady from the government is through giving away generic cheeses, some black boy with Mezz's roll fingers a nickel-bag of funk and the few dirty quarters he has in his pockets and recycles that same ol' dark rage-shit in the ghetto; with his other hand, the bastard squeezes his nine, shouting "Pop" as his gang walks through a crowd full of negritude. Photographed by a hustling street vendor looking to make money with a Polaroid Captiva, he travels the Tube, the New York City subway, on an unusually warm day in the winter and later marches through the Central Park area sportin' a Starter jacket and an X hat turned backwards with the words "Back the Fuck Up" on the flipside. Only nine years old and already drinking shit, Clay "Yummy" Sandifer is the youth that residents peeking through the drapes call "Satan." "Wherever he goes, there is a trail of blood," they say.
His crimeys, the Central Park muggers, hover around female joggers and trash cans in Central Park like vultures. "I'd sell out my best friend," Clay, the young-blood, says to the other five gangbangers that he considers his home slices. He smokes a Kool as they pound a red, white, and blue basketball down the long walks where the graffiti is sidewalk talk that is always thick, Ebonic, and violent.
The oldest members of the gang, Jorge and Nat, Jr., ages 20 and 21, respectively, school Clay about being down with the family; he's their little star. "We shared hoop dreams before we turned to playing each other in park-ball, drinking 40-ounce bottles of Old E, fighting over bricks, and shooting," they tell Clay. "But in the barrio retaliation must come swift," they add, nasty spit coming out of their mouths. "You got to be down for yo' nation," they insist, their body language signifying they're out of it, though they make gestures with their fingers. "We're Waywest 125th Street Bloodstones. This sign means crip-killers and chicken-killers. You know what we're saying?"
Clay, born a trick baby, pays them no attention and instead concentrates on imagining himself doing a triple-master blaster; he sees himself sharing freaky love with a raunchy ho, sucking on a glass dick while the woman oprahs him, then blows. His honeys have told him all about it. Greedily eating an Almond Joy, Jorge and Nat (the tallest boys) crack up, slapping and touching Clay's bald head with their nut-chocolate hands, leaving terrible stains on him. They continue to stroll with a cock-of-the-walk stride. All six take the subway away from Rumsey Playfield, traveling underground like black slaves, and come up on 125th Street, all ready, checking their backs for possible drive-bys as they cross the street.
An old nut-brown, dusty fat lady with sooty black hair watches them pass and whispers, "Oh, Lady Be Good," in a musical tone. Quietly but full of Verve, she sings the best of the song books, the ballads. The two oldest members of the group pick up the pace, stepping wildly as if part of a college fraternity. Like split ends playing a game, three other boys break off their route and dash for the sidewalk escaping the housing.
"Don't run away - let go," says the fat lady, sitting on the stoop of an empty brownstone in the Harlem projects and by a red light on the corner with her legs open, her business in the street. "Show me love," Clay says, trying to strut bad at less than five feet tall, always looking for a way to further prove himself. His crimeys think that Clay is speaking to them (the way he did when they jumped him into the gang), but Clay is actually connecting the fat lady's make-up to his own mother, who for three years had encouraged him to sleep in her queensize bed while the gangbangers (Folks etc.) fought for blood money and territory outside. Lying in her underwear in the heat of the night, his mother would caress him gently with a floor fan going to keep him cool, blowing him no-good. "It's okay," she would say. "It's okay." But even her eye shadow would be dark and running as if it were afraid.
Unlike his mother, the fat lady on the stoop doesn't attempt to move herself closer. She simply chuckles at him. She sings a ballad for the very tired and very sad lotus eaters.
The blues people of the horrible/whorable ghetto fuck and cuss like cymbals crashing during a protesting march of the all-black 369th Regiment leaving Harlem. The noises mix themselves, then fade in and out in a remix, while Zu-Zu Girl, a starving 1990s welfare momma hooked on serious drug culture, listens to the voice of Nelson Mandela on television and an old eight-track tape of Billie Holiday and cooks her own blood in the small kitchen of a three-room apartment, number 6A. She waits until the copper bottom of the saucepan turns red, then sits down on the tile floor and reinjects the blood into her right arm for a high, afterwards lifting herself up by any means necessary to see whether or not the gravy will make her any stronger.
"She uses mad drugs," a female tenant wearing a clear plastic bag over her jheri curl tips off to her landlord downstairs. She sneezes, gesturing something about the smell. "The bitch is definitely not safe," the woman says. "She thinks she's an alchemist or something playing around with those substances."
His jaws tight, the landlord tells the woman not to bother him again. "Do I look like Columbo to you?" he asks, smokes on his breath. Just before slamming his door, he adds: "This girl ain't shit compared to the rest of them."
In 1928, it was her black great-grandmomma, a melancholy woman who crawled several miles to Memorial Hospital to rid herself of a severe toxemia, that created the madness; screaming, but with no regrets, she pushed it out of her upset, nauseated stomach while down on her back on top of a rolling cart and, as a mean-spirited Garveyite, rebelliously gave it to Whitey before she passed. Two doctors dressed in white sheets promptly announced a birth defect and destroyed the premature baby, later justifying their actions by arguing that Downs Syndrome would have killed it anyway. What subsequently followed were race riots and 17 recorded lynchings, including several unpublicized ones done with strings of 1928 costume jewelry (many of the dark victims were hung with rings around their necks) that were rumored to have played telling music with the wind; just two of these recordings ended up being faded boogies.
A young white boy named John Cage went off and started hitting things in a 4-minute-and-32-second protest, developing a scary twisted music of ethnic noise and percussion, when he saw the great-grandmomma's body skirt past his waistline on a cart in the hospital alley/corridor; the old woman had remained hard with rigor mortis as the whites dumped her straight in a ditch after that evening's sun was down, and a death rain began to fall like a plague from almighty God, brewing an endless spell of stormy weather where blues begat blues.
Caressing an ivory bead necklace - postmodern voodoo strung down her skin and hanging recklessly beyond her high collar bone - Zu-Zu hurriedly drops the needle on the right eye, scratching it into something ugly-looking. She staggers into the bedroom and opens a family diary that is saved under the plastic nightstand. She wants to ignore the footsteps and chatter and giggles outside her door, but glances out of her open window and sees several boys strolling down below on the street trash-talking and passing around a basketball, the metal hoops dangling from her ears trying to withstand the swish of an unexpectant high-arching shot of hot air that had almost snatched her sheer dress.
Two daughters came from Zu-Zu's great-grandmomma when she was quite young, when she didn't even have breasts. The first, Josephine Baker, excited Paris's all-male white crowds as La Negresse tap dancing, playing Madame Butterfly, and performing "Moaning Blues." She died in 1948 at the age of 35 from syphilis that "a man" named Sonny Liston, a 15-something-year-old who was also sleeping with the mob, carried around and passed to her on a one-night-stand. Police found her lying by the medicine cabinet in her brownstone, gripping a needle, small doses of heroin by her side.
The second, Mrs. Troy Hardaway, married only by common law, was a bad mulatto singer for Ed Small's nightclub and a member of the notorious Harlem Blue Vein Circle for light-skinned coloreds. When Mrs. Hardaway began acting hincty and seddity at an early age and passing for white, her own momma threw her out into the street and told her that she was an unwanted pregnancy, the result of a rape by a rich Dutch master that paid her chump change to clean house.
With cocks and roosters crowing on the early morning of her 18th birthday, "Mrs. Hardaway, obviously somewhat disturbed, shot the 64-year-old senior citizen husband/daddy in front of their own two-year-old daughter after he apparently had been molesting the child," according to a stuttering, overweight coroner, pursing his lips, sweat darkening his cotton shirt. In a private report to the police, the white man added that it was "too bad" he "wasn't into necrophilia" because "she" was "certainly healthy" before "she shot herself in the mouth" in a successful effort to liberate herself. A girlfriend described the abusive husband as "a yellow man, a snake who had always hated the frog in her throat." However, in the papers, the girlfriend later admitted that she was shocked when she entered Mrs. Hardaway's rented flat and found her girl sitting sadly on the floor with her mouth open and dozens of flies married to the walls and lining of her mouth. Much later, but also for a knot, an unnamed close friend of the family was quoted as saying that "the man Mrs. Hardaway killed was her own daddy. She was determined to put an end to the cycle."
"Unfortunately, blues walk," she had told her landlord once, when things were better and she was feeling extremely high but paranoid about kin out to get her for revenge.
"Any moment can come back from the past, and from the dead, like a haint," Zu-Zu Girl whispers to herself.
Spooked, she waits until she hears the footsteps go away before moving again.
Stirred by the crossover dribble of an outdoor, simulated-leather basketball, the brutal warning of dirty blues arresting a black suit by a stop sign, the glare of coppers firing up cigarettes, a Billy performing a fast, quick reading of the Miranda Rights, Zu-Zu Girl gently lies back on a twin-size bed. The diary is shut, tight, no longer able to speak.
On a moony, listless night with the tube right in front of her, Girl begins exploring herself. She feels deeply for her tilted/jilted uterus. She imagines her black skin as the braille of a stretched narrative, a horror story; she reads her body as text. She sees the bad blood in her body as an extended metaphor constructing a fever that makes her progressively weak and lethargic as if she had African sleeping sickness, the thing perhaps taking the edge off, numbing the painful feelings like an epidural. To Girl, the seeds of labor - the burdens and abortions that come from being young, gifted, and black - pour out of the hot, open pores of her skin. They appear angry, each seed very vocal like a curse word. With the frame supporting her depression, she is laid back, looking at her arms, then staring at the seeds as they fall to the bed and wait to grow. She thinks, "Strange Fruit."
As that familiar defensive voice in her subconscious slowly returns and once again begins repeating, "Hush now, don't explain," the tube mumbles on. "Every night Winnie Mandela . . ."
By a gun that has slept with her in her room like a man, Girl thinks, "Every goodbye ain't gone," and prays for rebirth, the midnight-finish of the Saturday night special continually talking to her, the world passing by her window, the edges of her head and ashy black face lowered into the suffocating softness of her mattress, her sheets like moistened white tissue (or healing lotion) wiping the crying, the bed acting as a conjuring table, her sandals neatly placed together by her side, her mouth doing incantations that are blanketed, rushes of air now blowing her gently and changing her chants into whispers as though they were nothing, a few stray spooks on the street tipping in the wind to eavesdrop. Zu-Zu performs a hoodoo ritual, a kind of call-and-response uttered in tongues or tongue-in-cheek, while the homeless croon "Love Changes" outside, which she interprets as "Love Changes Outside."
Always confused but trying to heal her wounds, Zu-Zu stares at the primitive nigger-flicker that, six years ago, she found in her lover's belly; like a ruthless pimp, the knife was kickin' it until she interfered. Now whenever Zu-Zu looks at the rough, broken tip of the rusty metal that she had pulled out of her lover's guts as he squirmed in the grass, she cries, the Big Apple continually tempting her to perform the unforgivable sin, the roughest parts of the city muting her voice with its rotten core.
"No justice, no peace," Zu-Zu says softly, the language striking a chord inside of her, perhaps something building into a romance. She carefully places the nigger-flicker under her pillow. Her tears flow like the East River running wildly toward West Hell, like a waterfall whoring by throwing itself on the rocks, like blue eyes/speckles of Cascade trying to baptize her and wash the earth away.
Struggling to lean over the ledge by the window, Girl feels it, the letting go of her soul, the war water getting away from her, drowning the flowers on the Main Drag of Many Tears. Looking out of the window and down to the main stem, she smells Spike Lee's joint and her skin scented with White Diamonds that a married man from the village had bought her after sex. For Girl, Love is Mr. Do-Right, her own pusher, Prince as a symbol. Looking down, she feels herself falling.
She imagines herself in a deep hole. She sees the very first deep sugar that started her movement toward a deep six. She sees the first mouth that demanded hers to stay silent. She sees the 18-minute version of the French kiss during a wild escapade at a huge block party that had left her dancing and spinning.
Dancing and spinning and turning tricks have become ZuZu's life. Through the distraction of Anita Ward's song "Ring My Bell" going on in her head, Zu-Zu listens to the blues talking back and shooting crap, screaming and shouting, as if toasting with a mike amplified through a loud speaker. "I put a spell on you!" the black suit yells to a cop. "Yeah, yeah, you and everybody else," the cop replies, bending the black arm into a chicken wing.
As the fat lady sings outside on a familiar stoop, Zu-Zu flings her unrelaxed hair farther out and continues to gaze downward, greasy flakes of dandruff falling like wet snow while she stares down the crowd. She looks for the crescent of the blue moon to catch herself in case she is unable to fly. Searching the space behind her big head, the police lights fade in and out of her seamy room, but the gun on the bed manages to stay eclipsed by her slim body. Defiantly widening her shoulders so the crowd below can see her dangling, Girl feels the wind beneath her wings, the moist air smacking her O-shaped mouth, her two lips painted the color of love, her tulips painted the color of love. In her mind, Billie Holiday is singing "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." In reality, Billie Holiday is no longer singing. Looking like a gargoyle in the jet-stream, Girl rapidly and involuntarily blinks.
Taking a dim view of the city.
She leans even farther out there, pressuring her tired toes, and listens to a small crowd of folks vibin', the sounds of bass/base traveling through the street on the way to nearby block parties where there are plenty of red lights. "Dere go dat hooker," one of the taller boys says, trying to conceal the basketball under his arm. Zu-Zu witnesses a short crippled dealer wheeling himself around and pushing candy to a bald-headed Michael or Montell Jordan look-alike on the comer, other people kicking it clean to the curb, the scraped pavement white with sugar and covered with broken rock, Funfetti, and veiny/vainy sidewalk talk. Everyone else in the street appears to be shaking and torn up by scarifications. "Later, niggas," say the cops or somebody. Spacing out, Zu-Zu hears only the voices now. As the fat lady sings, ZuZu imagines another failing star goin' home.
Her gangster girlfriends drive by in a black man's wheels and fire mad-shit through the open window. "It's all good," they shout. Before they burn rubber, one of them climbs back into the backseat of the cherry ride and asks Zu-Zu what was wrong with "old school lovin'."
Girl hangs out over the ledge, way past cool, and peeps the sound of the poor community airing dirty laundry, wooden clothespins snapping like brown people. With the breeze now blowing her gently, Girl blinks more slowly; the blackouts grow longer. She doesn't know the story of Dennis Brutus; he is merely a metaphor of struggle and unrest to her until news correspondent Ted Koppel brings the story to her late. But what is not publicly known is that, after taping the interview, Koppel's producer ordered the production crew to graphically alter the bright Brutus in order to make him "look like a gorilla," like Marcus Garvey on his way to being deported. Talking out of the side of his neck and staring into the dusty screen at the raw sight of Zu-Zu, Koppel says that Brutus was shot in the back trying to escape black South African life under apartheid. It is February, Black Emphasis Month, so, indeed, ABC Television's Nightline shows Brutus looking dark.
"When we come back," says Koppel, sipping coffee he diluted with cream and sugar, "we'll meet a Pan-Africanist who argues that blacks are demanding special treatment."
Koppel fades out, and suddenly the tube reverts to dirt-black in a surreal moment before a public service announcement on high blood pressure.
"I got her fucking Bronco," the landlord says aloud to himself in lA. He is sitting erect on a sofa and reading The National Enquirer that says Nicole Brown Simpson liked freebasing and threesomes. He puts the paper down, and one of his ashy hands crushes an empty Colt 45 Malt Liquor can in front of a black-and-white television with the volume quite loud. Outside his door, Jorge and Nat sneak further down the hallway to 1D and catch the nosy tenant by the leg before she can slam her door. The landlord hears somebody knocking on wood, but decides that it just ain't worth it to get involved with someone's else business. Picking up a J from a tray on his end table, he casually smokes and squeezes his penis, trying hard to remember when Girl's rent is due, the bitter ashes dropping in his lap.
Meanwhile, Zu-Zu pulls herself out of the window, sits on the bed, and channel checks with remote control, working her program, working her nerves.
But the blackouts she cannot control.
Every faint sound seems to foreshadow a scene in a vaudeville blackout skit.
Somebody creates a disturbance downstairs. Usually, ZuZu spies a street fight that ends up in someone getting stabbed or shot, with the victim crawling into her apartment building and crying for help, and the nosy tenant with the terrifying drip-curl would be hollering for the police and scaring them away at the same time. However, not this time: Zu-Zu hears only the tube and a lot of quiet, low-key mumbo jumbo.
Clay, Nat, and Jorge are leaning up against the wall in the hallway, breathing wildly and perspiring.
"What you do in apartment 1D?" Clay asks, chewing Bubbalicious and thinking that it wasn't really right to leave him behind in order to go after a woman.
"Why you sweating us?" Nat asks, putting a butter knife in the hip pocket of his jeans like it's a holster. Then he blows on his fingers to cool them.
"My bad," says Clay, holding his gun sideways as if it already has a body on it. Jorge rubs his hands on his striped pants, which are floodin', and presses the tenant's stinky, clear plastic bag against Clay's mouth. "Shut up, Yummy. This is how we do it."
"Where are we supposed to be going to?" Nat asks Clay. "Let's speed this thang up. Zeke and Rasheed can't stay lookout forever, and that nigga you call 'Quick' has already gone to the crib."
"Follow me," says Clay, tripping a bit as they head straight up.
Stepping behind Clay, Jorge unexpectedly stops on the stairs. Nat follows him. "This skeezer's yours," Jorge tells Clay. "Go do her. She's got yo' daddy's nigger-flicker, don't forget. If you really want to be an OG, that is, the man straight from the set, you betta' not bring yo' black ass back without it."
"Go ahead and book it," says Clay. With bad intentions - thoughts of sticking his trigger-finger up Zu-Zu's black ass - he climbs the rest of the stairs, then softly steps over to Zu-Zu's door and lightly knocks on the wood, his eyes avoiding the peephole.
Zu-Zu's bruised prayer-bones rest on the bed. The skeletons in her closet beg to get out. Her teeth chatter from a feverish chill as she picks up a skinny bomb and lights it, her big lips sucking and puffing, sucking and puffing, then waiting to exhale. A previously standing black Ashanti doll slumps into a corner of the room, its big head full of serious lines across the forehead. Out on the street, pimps and pushers smell her on dope and react as if a prostitute on drugs is free booty; they shout about getting some. "A customer," Girl thinks. "A John."
So she finally raises herself up, closes the window, and pulls down the shade, dope in one hand, a hush-hush in the other, a glass of day-old black cherry Kool-Aid sitting inside the straps of her sandal where her soul/sole was on ice the night before.
"Be there in a minute," Zu-Zu says, loud enough for Clay to hear. Like a writer from the lost generation experimenting with being super high, Zu-Zu quickly places the joint on a saucer, sets the drink on the floor, and scribbles an earlier meditation into her diary: "One hand washes the other/there is always justice to satisfy/there is always one hand justice washes to satisfy the other/justice washes to satisfy the other/doesn't have to be poetic or artistic like Janet Jackson or Maya Angelou/justice washes/sh - /amen."
Then, with sex seemingly her whole life's story, Zu-Zu strolls over to the door, undoes seven locks, and opens up, her dress lightly bouncing up and down like intercourse is something it is used to. "What do you want?" Zu-Zu asks, checking out Clay, a little surprise(d).
Clay sticks his speaker in her face, forcing her to once again involuntarily blink in anticipation. "I think you know what I want," Clay says, his nine-millimeter seemingly playing around as the bullets line up and wait to shoot her.
"Are you serious?" Zu-Zu asks, stepping back to the bed. "What if I was your mother?"
"Motherfucker, do her!" Jorge yells. "Your name is my name!" From 12 or 13 feet away at the doorway, Jorge fires the red, white, and blue ball and strikes Zu-Zu in the face with it. Then, without hesitation, he dashes over and tackles Zu-Zu, pushing her through the window.
For a single moment, Girl tries to hold on to the ledge, the wind repeatedly smacking her, her eyes turning red, her dress thrown into panic anxiety and now moving about in a useless frenzy, her every limb doped up . . . the blackouts she cannot control.
"Close your eyes, motherfucker!" shouts Clay. He aims the gun at Jorge's spine and squeezes his shit.
With a great deal of fragmentation, Girl thinks, "Now I lay me down to sleep," and sees herself floating toward an intersection, intercourse her whole life's story.
Clay murders Jorge, execution-style, scurrying to the body to make sure he is dead. Then he races out of the apartment, dragging Jorge's body down the stairs and into a laundry room on the first floor, a trail of blood leading all the way up to the washing machine that asks him if he has four quarters.
Zu-Zu falls wickedly, landing with her neck in the street, her ivory beads breaking loose from her necklace and getting kicked to the curb while they roll around like all of her marbles or postmodern voodoo on the surface.
"I am the victim - tell them who I am," she imagines herself saying before a final blackout.
Someone has the nerve to ask ZuZu if she's all right.
"Using a gentle cycle, I can rinse away yo' blood if you hype me wit' four quarters," the machine says, squatting beside Clay like a toad, murmuring a stew of slanguage and the Nommo of evil seduction. Begging the washer to be quiet, Clay continues to hunch low in a corner by the trash and closes his eyes.
Zu-Zu Girl's face is turned down until it slaps the street, blood easing its way out of the busted vessels and hiding on the concrete underneath the body, the see-through dress now still but revealing her extremely flat breasts, a bird chest, to a curious crowd. The fat lady in the audience sings the ballad for the very sad and very tired lotus eaters as several hoochie mommas rip the rest of the jewelry off her body and fly in the direction of some weed.
Like a blind man feeling the stains on his own body, Clay rubs one hand over the other and hears the footsteps of someone coming closer. "I should never have left a trail of blood for Nat to follow," Clay thinks, imagining millions of gnats all around. He violently shakes on his knees, his moving sneakers squeaking on the squares of the floor, while the machine spits down on his big head before dumping a load of washcloths onto his dark sole/soul. Now, the waters are troubled, and the Tide is turning.
Novelist Ricardo Cortez Cruz is the author of Five Days of Bleeding (1995) and Straight Outta Compton, winner of the 1992 Nilon Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction, judged by Clarence Majo. Cruz teaches English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has written a third body of (s)language, Premature Autopsis.
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|Title Annotation:||Short story|
|Author:||Cruz, Ricardo Cortez|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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