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Ken Craven

Paying Attention

Rhonda come back, I think first. Naw. Bitch just left, all puffed up. But they a warm, slow hand on my shoulder, patting me three times, serious. Something jump around inside me-

"How ya doooooinn?" Big round eye-and-tooth smile come goofing round.

Shit. I thought the boy out in the yard with the spaz from the no-mind trailer.

He come on my left side, Isaac. Fooling on me. Making up on me after all that yelling. So I say doing fine, Ikey, and wipe his peanut butter mouth.

Telling you now, I one hundred sure it somebody grown, maybe T-4-2 already come back with the coolers and it haunt me, you know, that warm hand shooting right down in my bones.

Been a lot of things like that. Like when I go to sleep in the heat now, four or five a.m., ok, when I drift off, bang, there it come, a hand touching my cheek. Or a face of this mean short shitty foreign guy, his head wrapped like a enchilada, looming up fish-eyed on channel 29. I feel the heat of the street he standing on and his fingers closing hot on mine. Some real hot country, must be, smell the tar from the street. Or somebody, just like that, like Ikey, reach out and feel on me so deep warm it shake me. Just a flash like that, but it come so real and I feel so hooked up I jump up and can't sleep and I sit up sweating and shitless. Things cross my mind about how this minute real and the whole world asleep and don't know who I am. And now the VCR spooked and the electric off, I got to sit out under the street light and read some moldy old People magazine Rhonda dragged over here from her holy mother's magic crystal mission. Feel sorry for myself all night and listening to bugs crisping on the electrocutes, zzzzttttt, zzzzttttt, zzzzttttt. Then I hear that big old transformer moaning up there and it come to me, we niggers go zzzzttttt like that in the prisons, crispy fritters.

(They been sitting there looking at me from behind the cards like they worried about me getting wild again but now they all giggle and snort.)

Don't be laughing at me, Ketchup, you gone be eating my short end, I say, eating it big, but I can see their eyes, like the dumb jimbos in the old flicks, looking real significant, something bad coming down on you.

Then you know what transpired next, as they say. Fair Rhonda comes back soon to rescue Ike from the evildoers before the SS come by with the restraining paper and she standing out there with her blouse all ripped up real dramatic and dirt on her face and her hair pulled down into tragic. She must mess herself up behind the Dairy Mart when she went up to call.

Nobody got anything here but me, lay em down, I'm knight of this night. I'm fine. I am the finest.

So I tell all the boys at TooLoose's tin box last night, after all the fussing the night before and the police. Like as per usual I say more than I mean to, suck up the coolers and spray myself around the room like a spaz. But it's been on me lately, these crazy hot touches. I got to talk it out.

All yesterday like a nuclear-free zone, nobody come around.

Then here this morning the holy woman come to say she sorry. Right. Her pukey husband drive that sick, white, go-down-on-me Crystal Power of New Jesus wagon right up to the yard where I'm sitting wearing my dumb nigger face and she say, sorry, Floyd, it have to turn out this way. Like she the most important person in the whole thing. Like Rhonda and me get together, have a kid, go through all this bullcrap and thing, just so she can play first nurse and holy roller. Man, I don't think some people ever feel anybody else's hurt.

The minute I see her coming I know my gang is back. Stoom, just like that. They standing round a brass rail looking down in the pit of my mind.

I feel like I wake up and the world making sense again.

She sway back and forth the way she do, her hands in her jean hip pockets and her silver cross and big crystal jangling around between her boobs.

Look like she eating an old mouthful of cold mush, Lug say out of the blue. It Lug's voice, I know, sound deep like a swamp frog.

Her Righteous One out there in the van look like Herman Munster holding a high enema. It's Lean Bean talking.

I say, Hey, where you juveniles been? They just giggle low like they been there all this while and me not paying attention. I poll the ranks like old times.

I ask Lean Bean, What you see here.

Like to oil her scissors, he say, even if she wore down .

I ask Person, What you see here.

Look like a toadstool with teats.

I ask Terence Bee.

Saddest story I ever saw, her all elbows and knees gawking around.

And Lug Nut.

Lady been to mall heaven and come back to share with the poor you always has with you if you not smart enough to leave em at home.

Last, I ask Samurai.

Ever thing a target to this lady's eye, the whole world her flat bull's-eye.

She hums and haws and rocks around on her heels and looks at the ground and say, Floyd, I really really wanted this to work out.

I just don't know, she says. I just don't know. I guess Rhonda and you haven't learned how to communicate your feelings, she goes on.

Hot damn, Lug Nut says. The woman is too good, Person says.

I say I guess not and how soon do I have to have my stuff out of her husband's trailer. I can see him sitting over there, his hands high up on the wheel like he's flying a plane this minute, and everything that crawls eating at his ass.

The, ummmm, excessive, ummmmm drinking doesn't help, Floyd. We say it clouds the spirit and gives the demons cover. But I guess you know that, huh, without my telling you, huh? And she gives me that humbler-than-God grin.

I want to say your long holy nose up my black ass don't help neither.

She starts. I can see that hand coming up from her hip and reaching out, wobbling a little.

If I can just lay the Lord's hand on you and say a little spirit prayer, it might help.

Help who, Lean Bean says.

No'm, I say in my best Negro voice, I think it's too late for help.

Good one, Floyd boy. Do a little jig, too, Person says.

It's never too late for God to heal us, she says, but we have to clear the channels for his grace.

Give me my channel surfer, Lord God, Lug Nut says.

But I just ask again about when I sposed to move (she love it when you use words like sposed) and they confab on it over at the van and say maybe a week more and I say thank you, ma'am.

Well Floyd, she says.

Well, I say, and look bug-eyed paralyzed like I'm waiting for Tarzan to show up and handle the big stuff.

Terence say, I am not amused, Floyd Patterson Dell, at your cowardly ways. Tell the bitch to fuck off by twos .

She leaning over the flowers Rhonda put in the half-boiler in the yard and fiddling around her front finger in the ruins. I know, she says with that silly laugh she got, you haven't had time to water plants.

She slugs back to the holy wagon like she carrying the whole problem to Jerusalem by her own self, leaving me really standing there shook up and merrified to know the gang back in my head like when I lived in Louisville. Things going on.

It a lead pipe, the foster worker swear, only time mama touched was to hit me with something and this time it was a lead pipe she banged up aside my head so many times I forgot how to talk for a while. The story I got-

Foster worker lady come in and find me sitting in the floor all red and black, the red is lipstick I painting weird designs over my face and the black is dried blood all over me and the dress I got on, going clear down sticky into my high heels. I sitting in front of a mirror on the door and singing crazy words. Lady say I look like an Indian warrior in woman's clothes after a big battle, sitting there singing a song for the dead. I was eleven then and they took me to the hospital and I was in there for a month googooing at the nurses and staying half the time in straps. I was big at eleven, heavy and tall.

That's when the gang come into my head, when we living in Louisville and I still in the hospital.

Person show up in my head wearing a jumpsuit like for a parachute and say, Well now Floyd, we hope you learned your lesson well. You can't take many more like that.

What that be, I say.

The lesson of life for niggers and other poor boys, say Lean Bean. He fine, wearing a green and yellow camouflage vest.

Which is, you only got to ride inside this body until it dead, Samurai say.

I look up from my straps and I see all five of them in a ring around a hole in the bottom of a plane, looking down at me.

Open you mouth and make a word. Say hungry, goes Lean Bean.

Hun-gry, I say slowly. A nurse look at me and run out like I going to eat her.

Good, Terence says. The word inside goes outside and does what you want it to do. You're in here with us, just for the ride. You send words out, you watch what happens, you keep back and get down and you don't believe what's happening to the carcass, this big black boy lying in the bed, is happening to you. It ain't.

So what do you do, I say.

We ride in here with you, Lug Nut says. Help you eat this food she brought. Help you look and listen to what's going down out there.

And undertake all kind of secret missions, say Terence.

It the only way to fly, Lean Bean say.

Later this day here he come, her real father (so say Rhonda).

You got it, him all sorry too. Sorry so bad his dried old nuts dragging the ground. Last time he come up here he had a mindful of her stuff-beating her up, slapping her round, scaring Ikey, not letting her go to the A&A, not looking for work, sitting around drinking and doping all day.

I will not tolerate this level of behavior with my daughter, he say that time. That time was Easter and he stand out there all mournful with a basket of eggs and rabbits for Ikey. I did my best routine that day. Oh, Mr. Man, how I thought you respected me. I walked up and down and threw some sweat and my best words. Responsible. Dignity. Understanding. The usual, and I got in the struggle. I saw it all in his goggle eyes, here he's been a good white boy marched in the civil rights voted right and believed and now here his own daughter marries one and what, look, she fucking a black man in the name of justice and he whops her up side the head and lays up drunk and playing cards like whose worst bad dream.

Now you know me, Floyd, who I am. He have a book under his arm, like he needs something to hold on. To explain things.

I believe I do, Mr. Hopkins.

You so grand, says Samurai. Speak from hidden strength with humble tongue.

Rhonda's dad stand there all pitiful like a man drowning in heavy rain, speaking high up as if I can't hear him, all this guilt and sin and fault coming down cats and dogs around his ass. All this old stuff like movies Rhonda will sit up and watch in black and white, all the flubby words sound like they come through a Novocain lip. It come down to this, gang, he wants me to forgive him for everything so he'll feel better the rest of the day.

This getting old, say Lean Bean. All these holy feelie ones coming up here to stand around hangdog, praying, crying, mooning for they ownselves. All you got is a week to get out and a court order saying you got to stay away from Rhonda since you a wild bad black man.

They don't put the No Touch the White Woman sign soon as they used to but they get it up if you get it up-Terence. He the thinker, always.

Lug Nut-You always knowed it was let him get his ass in the door and sit down in the chair, then tell him where he really sit.

What I didn't know was I also got to handle all these white people walking around wondering how they supposed to act, what they supposed to do. Rhonda sit up watch that Martin Luther King (the blondes still go for that randy old Tom) speech ten times and then go see the Malcolm X three times and then come down hard on me, where are you, you got to lead, find your roots, take a stand, no booze, no weed, no pig meat, support the child.

It could have been a wonderful statement for all of us, you and Rhonda, her dad say, him about rained out now and looking like the foster swat team that come to take you away again after you blew up their latest perfect home.

Do it, Lug Nut says. Look mean and dark and mournful. That's what he want now. The bad bad nigger he made through his own sins.

So I look like a bad boxer, my mouth full of plastic. Rhonda have to do her part too, Mr. Hopkins. I can't carry the whole load by myself.

That's what he want! Good aim, Samurai says, a Saddam! Right down the chimney to the place he love to hurt.

He goes away happy as he can get. He does this little thing at the car door, does like half a turn, taps that little book on his palm and says I'm here for you Floyd if you need me.

I try to stand still. My legs jerking like a washer off its feet, the whole gang running around that rail up there singing Thorazine, don't be mean, I'll be clean, fuck the queen, Thorazine.

Just don't hug me man, I whisper, and my boys cheer.

Well you know what is next, has to be, all the players got to trot in and say their piece. The tearful farewell scene with music. I run it by-

Fair Rhonda wait till the sun start going down and then comes dragging up like last year's meat. Lucene her sponsor from the A&A lets her out at the corner and then sits there in her old Buick with the door open and the motor running looking guardful, like I might try something. Ikey runs up and does a double flip after he stubs his toe and then starts bawling.

Well pick him up Floyd. Rhonda have the words looping through the air before the little sucker hit the ground.

I'm holding him and she lights one of the goddamn weeds I always tell her not to smoke around Ikey.

I guess you can smoke now any old time and place, I say. I look. She putting on a little married fat, yes, but has that sweet face when it's not up in yours, lying and shucking.

We're goddamn outside Floyd. I don't know how you can be so concerned over his lungs when you don't give a goddamn about the ecology or anything else.

She props her elbow up on her hip and sticks that leg out so I can see through her dress.

Ecology be fine, they also protect unemployed black-assed job-hunters, I say.

I walk over and sit on the porch. I already got some cardboard boxes out there and Ikey start peeling off the tops and pushing the pieces in between the cracks.

So tell me this, Rhonda, how can I stay away from you like the police paper says if you coming up here and ringing my bell? Tell me that, goddamnit.

Tell you what?

What I said, you heard me. I say, you heard me. Now hear me clear, Fairest of All.

And then it goes on for a while like that the way you expect it will, you toting up one thing after another and cussing and walking up and down and going over it again, word rapping each other's shins, each of you trying to get a version of what happened that will let you tuck it in and get off. I walk up and down and hammer my fist on the trailer and then dance back up to her face and she says, go ahead, hit me again, right out here. Sticking her pout out. Ikey start up like a fire horn.

Rhonda, that Lucene whines, we got to goooo. I don't like her watching me, she one of those recovering ones, holy and good. I know a few brothers call her Wal-Mart; been in all her aisles.

So you're taking my son away from me, my own flesh and blood, what kind of love is that, Rhonda?

I run on that tired old one for a while but when Rhonda starts her windup answer, I'm starting to think I want something to drink over at TooLoose's. Like Ketchup say, white woman fine until she whine. It's like we already done all these scenes we saw on the box so many times we just winding down. But it feels so fine sometimes to stand there and wave your arms and know your lines, you know what's coming and you know all the stooges in the tin boxes can hear you, you outside loud and to-hell-with-it and you want them to hear how bad you can talk.

I ask her why she's here and she says she's just so sad inside and hurting.

Yeah, you and your whole goddamned family.

Floyd, you put a butcher knife to my throat last night.

She point at her throat, there's a little red point where I prick her, I was mad and she wouldn't give me money for a cooler.

Rhonda. I playing, bitch. You know I playing. You run tell your stupid friend on the phone and next thing, I got a cop in my house.

I get mad, I play it up. That's my way. I just want to show what it could be in the next step. Rhonda do it too, scaring up the whole place with these A&A horror stories. There's the tune-that A&A song. They all run every day like chickens scratching up something new to get upset about, calling around, what's the next step, what we gone to have a tragedy about this minute? When I play the same identical game, I the baddest heavy in town.

Rhonda turn around and look the last one on planet Earth before she get in the Buick. Ikey crying and holding his hands out for me. Lucene smacking gum and gunning the motor like a fool. Flatass next door standing hosing his pickup. Me standing still and feeling like something turning my insides around like when a doctor turn a breech baby to get it pointed right, which is down. Top of my head getting warm and wet and I look up on the inside. They all sitting round under that rail and big tears rolling down on me, I can't believe it, salty waterfalls coming down from those con jobbies. I feel it start, me crying too from deep inside, it coming out like a roar as I run at the car and get a slap in on the side as it grinds out.

The Buick swayfish around the turn, need new shocks flash on my red screen.

Boo-hoo, Person say mocking, like he Ikey learning a new word. Boo-hoo.

I look up and they all grinning like fools.

I feel a warm hand on my back and this time it be T-4-2 for real but it still scare me, like his hand went inside and touch me where I live. Like things are going deeper all the time, one right after another.

Then his hand in my hand, folding in a Jefferson. Go get some cooler, Floyd, and come back to TooLoose, we smoke some green ganja and play some hard cards.

Life go on, man, he say, a whole lot of trash going down you know.

I start walking down to the Dairy Teat all sweaty from the heat but a chill running up my back. Cars going by, goofy faces looking at me like my pants down. Before I hit the used car lot, I turn and look back. TooLoose back there, and Ketchup, and T-4-2, standing under the street light, a big cloud of moths over their heads, checking me. Thinking old Floyd get him a white blonde woman, can't keep her. His boy Ikey gone, they saying, be raised a white knight. Bitch got the law on him in his own house, now her holy mama take the house away too.

You going to be by yourself again, Captain Ali, that's the real ice down your neck.

So you better be paying attention who your real friends are or you be cold a long time, cooler or no cooler.

Or be in the cooler, she have her way, and her holy ones all coming to see the sweetest part of their dream, a nigger jailbird your own flesh and blood. They wear a path to the jail just to shit on themselves.

Lug Nut, Person, Terence Bee, they rattling at me. Lean Bean sitting up there on my case doing mean things on a steel drum. I start hitting the hoods of the cars on the lot, bang, every word comes up I smash it down. He hit, I hit.

There's our old Captain Lip like back in Louisville, Lug say. Warrior man, say Samurai.

I don't say nothing, let em run on, I got my man eyes facing ahead now. Clearing out the junk from my mind, like the X say.

They there, parked in the Dairy Barn. Rhonda taking him in for a slush ball. They look yellow in the lights, and Lucene's car look lizard green. I go past Lucene gumming in her car with one leg hung out the window like the slut she is.

Rhonda at the Twinkie shelves with Ikey running around on the floor and when she turn round, I already got him in my arms googooing on my shirt. You could give me a minute of your time, I say, if that's not too much. She standing there, her mouth open, she have stupid orange freckles all over her face and her cat eyes spin full of lies. Lucene comes up behind me and asks, loud, Rhonda, she need any help.

Dell, she say, what do you think you are doing?

It always funs me when people say that. I think I'm doing what I'm doing, that's what. I tell her that and add a few things, like I'm taking my son away from two white whores who think they can steal him the way white people take everything else. The gang goes crazy, running around the rail up there, Lean Bean doing slam dunks. I can hear their feet drumming around my ears.

Ok, I say. I start saying ok, Rhonda, over and over, and I can't stop. The toad at the front look back at me like I'm stealing Ikey from the store. Ok, Rhonda, OK, step one, step two, step three, I say out loud-see, I'm working the steps. I don't know why but I'm holding the kid up in the air in front of my face like I'm showing him to everybody and marching fast out the front door and he giggling and trying to get my Suns cap off.

Some kind of dumb Harley cowboy in a ponytail and flat red eyes start to brush past me.

Look at the dot, Samurai say. Look at the dot. You going to kill that dot, boy, pull all your spiritual energy and stuff into one little point like a laser gun and zoop, his face gone.

"How ya doooing?" Ikey say down to the cowboy but he keep coming. It's like I'm in his fucking way and I hold Ikey with one hand, still up in the air, and straight heel the shit pile so fast he fly into the stand by the door, magazines and newspapers flying all over.

Eat shit time, I yell back, and I march past the big window, Ikey hollering now and an old woman helping Rhonda and Lucene scream.

Take this boy and hold him, Terence say. He be you.

Let him go, Rhonda screaming. She in front of me pulling Ikey when the cowboy smash my steel rims in my face, turn me blind a second as the boy comes loose from my arms like sleeves and I go down. I wobble up and step on my glasses, then see Rhonda and Lucene looking blurry out the store window at the flashing lights gliding up at my back. They watching, like a video. Ikey crying and looking at me, holding out his hands, his eyes flashing pink red from the lights, like a monster child on the TV. Four SS slapping around long dongs come up crouched, one of them tell me to hit the ground. I swoon around and start to raise my hand. Look Floyd I say, it dripping wet running down from your eyes on your neck and chest and sopping in your socks. Down, the man shout, down.

My hand still floats up, I smile through the salty blood in my eyes and mouth and stretch out my arm toward the nearest cop. He lay his hand on my shoulder and I feel it through the soaked T-shirt, hot and sure, and he grins. Then the dick stick come around and the light go electric blue behind my lids and I let out a big breath like all done, all done. The hand still fastened on my shoulder, like someone kind and taking me through this, and I feel sweet thanks for the warm touch while the sticks crack down in a shower and I try to explain the whole thing from the start, from way back.

You be ok now, Lug say, you just be ok standing here sloshing in your own tomato juice, they give you a nice ride soon .

It all a ride on the inside, say Terence.

This more like the case, Person say.

This be a relief, you know, say Lean Bean.

This wise, say Samurai.

In addition to teaching at several universities, including Kuwait University, Ken Craven has worked as a social worker, therapist, editor, cab driver, and 7-Eleven night clerk. Some of his short-shorts and poems have appeared in Night Season, Crow Moon/Rain Moon and Bombay Literary Review.

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