Life ain’t sweet grandson. At my age all my senses betray me. Acting as seers to memories, of a lived me and a fist full of decisions. Sound and sight were once my trusted accomplices, confirming instinct and action. But now, the sound of a Bud can cracking sends my mind echoing back. Shortly after it’s the hiss of the can, whispering me to be true.
If not with my first grandson, who else can I tell my triumphs? Dem all tired of me lived life, and the niggas I was wit back then — well they, they don lived it enough. So who else who, but ayh-him, a lion himself, would sweeten my growl and hear me as it was intended. As true, a true “lived man’s” story. A story of two men lying on the railroad.
It used to cost a lot more to lie back in the day. Even a white lie cost ya more than an arm and a leg. On my first day at the quarry the Forman told all the rail workers, just how much it cost them anytime a worker got drunk on the job, and explain’d to me, in my face, that my body had a cost. When he said worker around me he’d hold that “r” in that way, ya know. The Forman wasn’t much of a man beyond his height. How he would passed over me, never givin me eyes, let me know he barely thought me a man. I was new to rail work, not workin, so it ain’t bother me at first.
Back then, hell and even now a man ain’t a man without a job. “Ain’t I a Man, grandson” well I was one much faster than you boys today. We did man’s work with small hands back then. Back then in summer honeysuckle made the air sweet during the heat, and if you could make a lick back then, sweet or otherwise, well then among kin and friends you were a man. My dad, you great grand, was a man, a sweet man who was born during the harvest moon and raised me for as long as he could. Being a recently freed man He taught me the land. The veteran in’m made him steadfast. When he passed he left me rich in lessons like, “don’t be too loud”. It would take me several years before I realized I was a freeman too and could make my own rules. You see grandson, his lessons were meant for men who were measured and who labored as beast of burden. Yes exactly, like a mull. Speakin of, grand boys, go go go get me that vodka bottle, and tell ya ma to spin up a drink for me.
Ahhhhh, ginger beer, haha boy the money I could have made with this back then… what now, you say you want to hear more about the railroads?
Railwork then was good money, and at 15 I fed up with picking peanuts. I had lied on my papers, trading a few jugs of my maple fire water for forgeries. A cheap lie, cost me nothin compared to the unlucky nigga found with his wallet still attached to him. His body was found under a pear tree. It was the only part of him left untouched. I saw the picture of him him in the news paper, bout two weeks before I got his ID papers. His neck more attached to the noose than his husk, had shown signs of a man in struggle. But the news said a suicide. The lynching, as I saw it, barely registered as an event worthy of the white man’s attention or the cost of making postcards of the image like they do from time to time. I had ripped the picture out the paper and folded that picture up like one of those postcards, a thin hollowed body printed in my pocket next to other white papers, flat pieces of lies stacked together to make a life. Cheap lies I guessed at the time.
The Forman liked to lie too, I could tell, he wanted to scare us into workin clean. He-say,“You lose an arm you lose a days work!” “You lose a leg to the rail, we all lose a days work!” “You lose your life, then the rest of y’all get a raise”, he stopped pacing, facing perpendicular to me, and I knew that last one was true, just not for me. Back then, white lies about murder had gave me a lie of my own to live and I made somethin wit it. Back then a lie gave me a job. Back then. A job was the price. Back then taking another mans life was cheap.
RELEASE DATE FOR PART 2 is Wednesday 4th.
Rail work ain’t for the sweet. The labor is cheap, and the conversations usually burn my ears more than the August sun.
I wasn’t much of a talker. My daddy taught me before passin, “white folk don’t care for you, and they don’t want your words to be too much loud.” He’d always point at his left jaw after saying this, carving a line with his point’n finger from his cheek to where his ear—-would be, or should be.
He’d do this every time, like a ritual or prayer. I never liked that, he knew it, still these were the second-to-last words he told me before he passed. He’d sweetin my heart with his jig-saw smile, right cheek, a sharp-scythe-like Onyx curve of a smile, the left side a lived man’s receipt of triumph over a nation willing to cut him down to 3/5th of the whole. I never liked that. He’d smile with the whole of his face, and I swear when he passed, after sayin his last piece, his face, well it glowed, like the church glass windows at sunset! A jumbled mix of skin and scars, all bright and glistenin. That was ok, I didn’t like it, but it was pretty enough that I smiled too. He’d lived a life.
That day, on the rail, carrying another man’s life in my pocket, I smiled thinkin of how he lived.
“You must like this work, huh nigger?!?” “Why else you showing yo teeth, oh what you a dog?!!”, he jeered on like that for most of the mornings work well into the day.
See the men still drank, they just waited for the Forman to go inside as we cleared path, and laid rail from 4 am to 2 am.
I guess there’s no need to lie with you grandson, I gave them the liquid-lighting, the first brew was sweet pear and maple. The pears came from the orchard a bout a mile down the road. I knew the risk of gettin them drunk was high, but I figured these men, bigger and stronger than me, would be more sweet if I kept’em drunk. I was still young, and pickin fruits from the land ain’t the same as pounding iron into it.
My instincts said to out work’Em, move down the trail and get out early, keep my job, and keep livin. His voice was the first of many shots. What dat‘man said between swigs of my copper colored concoction gave me more than a ear full to consider.
“Hheeeyyy pup, fill my cup quick, before I get too thirsty” he belched. It was sundown and I’d ignored his first round of volleys. They were surface level, I imagined inspired by my whiskey’s whisperings. I couldn’t see his face, had I, I would have known his intent.
Cheap men like us don’t get paid to talk, but white men know they lies be worth more than a niggas life. That was something the Forman made clear. So when that Drunk said what he said next, I knew he wasn’t sweet like the other boys. It was late evening now and most all the men but us two had gone home. We’d worked down the path and only had the light of the full moon to guide our hammers and nails. Alone, with a stranger I kept workin. I guess he found something to not like about that.
“You know I oughta line you up again, like the other night” he spat. “Yup-“, he growled. Then trailed off, “this time, you fittin to die for good.” Of course had there been other men around to hear this they’d call it a bit of drunken musing. You kids call it “venting”, right? Dat what one would assume I guess.
Through all the acting as a dead man, responding to another niggas name, and being smooth wit the hooch I had failed to give a face to any of the voices. So when this man pounced on me, or at least promised a pouncing it felt more like a haunt than a threat. And like most spooked folks I laughed out a reply.
“Sir, you still thirsty I see,” my hands grandson never shock, but my voice rattled, “I got a bottle behind that old dogwood tree,” he flinched to look at the tree. And in the moonlight I saw a cursed smile curling up his cheek. Grandson, I’m sure you can guess, I didn’t like that.
PART THREE WILL BE released Thursday.
Now now grandbaby, don’t forget what I told ya. Life ain’t sweet, unless you make it so. Some men never learn how to work it. They can’t see how the salt in their sweat is an offerin to a land that hold us upright. Men who curse the sweat in their eye feel the land and all it’s young’uns owe’m somethin. White men above all others, well they’re ignorant to what they sow and but reap all the same.Grandson what I say next ain’t for ya ma to hear, ya heard?! You may be new to this, but I see it in ya, you true to it; you den-seen it before, huh? You’ve heard it for real? How they track you with their sights, and tag your ears with that word. Nigger. It’s a spell, I swear it. It tethers you to them. I swear it’s a summoning spell. Like the way my corn wine exposes and exercises truths and spirits. Well that word, revives something in me. It peaks a dormant seed, planted by my father in me, and by his Mau mau ancestors in him years before I was a thought in his loins and his face was scarred. Now my ears ain’t sweet, I’ve known words more sour than dogwood berries. But that one, it ain’t a pet name; not then or today, ya hear grandson? It’s a fraternal call. It’s what, them think, makes their lies and lives special, pricesless. Or more so, it’s like calling black folk Nigger make us somehow different but also more familiar. For them I think it’s a call for what they believe is the natural order. Like God came down and named them the New Adam, and naming us Nigger is their holy charge. For them, it’s a righteous burden, that they must anoint us with a name. That burden, like all manifested destinies, comes with a cost. A cost they ain’t used to payin. So when he summoned me with it, demanding more hooch I felt myself trip in place, recover artlessly, and settle into my role. He laughed, he could feel me in conflict. With the full moon to his back I could barely size him up. That laugh, I can still feel it’s resin dripping in my ears. A laugh like that sticks and ignites other memories of laughs made of the same timber. I could hear in the the gruff of his giggles, a bit of nervous anger. Even with my back to him, pouring shine into a tin cup that laugh, it sparked something in me, that laugh it was illuminating. This man had a price he wanted me to pay. The price of a name. A name he and his God intended for me and all my kin. It was gonna cost me more than hooch. “Yooouu think you smart!?!” he dragged. I could hear the gravel tumbling down the side of the rail-path as he edged towards me. “Hey Nigger, that’s a question?” “No sir, mostly happy to have a job and pour you this here lightin,” I chirped and as the words left me, so did my fear of what was to happen next. “I ain’t never seen a nigger smart enough to die and come back a few weeks later, new neck an all.” he snipped at me, seeming indignant. “In fact, my god told me one one man can rise from the dead,” he stated before performing a hiccup that seemed to posses him and stop his approach towards me in its tracks. “I heard the Forman call you, him,” this he said in a steady tone. He meant that dead negro I was carrying in my pocket. In that moment I could only see speckles of his ivory skin, even as he faced me, towering over me underneath the tree. I had been tracking him mostly by his hammer swings and sly comments.I could tell he was a modestly strong man who knew how to swing a hammer, but only now, in my crouched position, was I able to take in his full presence. Under the trees shadows we were both blacker than God intended, but he appeared to have doubled in size under the moonlight. He floated toward me. I stood up. And with that we were eye to eye with a about soapbox worth of air between us. I bridged the gap with a hand full of lighting. This time I could see his full face smile. As he smiled and sipped, head tilted back drowning himself in the last of my lighting, I brought down the thunder. Revealing a rock in my back pocket I had picked up while pouring, I swung. The sound of his jaw cracking reminded me of the sound the glass from the church windows made as they shattered after the last Klan bombing. Second came the tin cup, rattling down to the ground, last came his final hiss. In the end everyone got paid on time, and the men with lives lived them. That man lay under the rails and his cut was given to all the men but me. Forman claimed he could smell the hooch on my breath and docked my pay according to his sense of justice. What did he say? Grandson, he said nothing worth your ears to hear. But I’ll say this, as I poured his cup and looked up at his hateful face, I heard my father’s final words, which he said with stoic resignation. And you know what he said, the words that stilled my hands? He said, “You have to live with the choices you make in life.” And you know grandson, I do like that one. Now sip some more with me, it’s the least you owe me for the sweet life you live.