The Black [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

 

Berlin (1237)

 

   Berlin (Reuters)-Police in re-unified Germany’s capitol announced today that a serial rapist targeting elderly women has been active in the Charlottenburg, Mitte and Moabit neighborhoods of that city. The suspect is described as a tall, well-built, extremely handsome dark-skinned black male of approximately thirty-five years of age who speaks English with an American accent and wears a dark blue woolen cap. The six reported victims of the alleged rapist are said to be between the ages of seventy two and seventy eight years of age and of a uniformly tall, handsome, aristocratic appearance. At least three of the alleged victims are of “blue blood” by birth, and the others by marriage, sporting the tell-tale “von” prefix in their surnames. Police are as of now unwilling to speculate on a possible motive, but have confirmed that the alleged victims display few signs of physical trauma as a consequence of the so-called attacks, and forensic experts have been unable to establish evidence of forcible entry at the purported crime scenes. Women who fit the victim profile are strongly cautioned to exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of individuals matching the description of the alleged perpetrator.

There is a secondhand English language book store around the corner. A basement shop. The Black feels like a man who has made a resolution to get in better shape and so takes the next opportunity to walk right up to… and then actually into… a Health Food Store, or a sports equipment shop, sucking in his gut and reading with great care the labels on year-supply tubs of vitamin E and Brewer’s Yeast and then hefting chrome barbells with a thought towards investing. But it’s his brain not his body he needs to improve and therefore a bookstore not a health shop he dutifully enters. He has to watch his head as he descends the steep concrete stairs into the sick fluorescent lighting. The dark wood floor is warped and paint-spattered and there are fat pipes (the color of the ceiling; the color of the spatters on the floor) racing across the ceiling and around a corner into the back room.

The not-entirely unattractive woman behind the glass counter, with unconvincingly jet black hair and not much chin, gives The Black the tolerant smile with which she means to put him at ease on the matter of whether she’ll hold against him his inevitable decision to circumambulate the store once and then leave without buying a single thing, never to return. Little does she know that The Black actually feels compelled to buy, and not only by her reassuring smile. He is on a self-improvement kick and hopes to walk out of this place with an armload of second-hand books because there’s no time like the present to start.

The Black read a few books in High School. There is a case to be made that Isaac Asimov is every bit the genius that Vladimir Nabokov is but even The Black suspects the case would be ridiculous. Where’s the literature he can lose himself in? Where is the book that isn’t merely a careerist tactic or an extension of the writer’s adolescent libido, rotten with clichés or sub-Joycean experiments in narrative and typography that invariably go dud? Where is the living, breathing and engagingly sincere literature? The stuff he can apply towards Life? The Truth Telling?

The Black picks up a handsome old volume with a photo of what looks like a sinister Edwardian chickenhawk on the cover and rifles the pages and puts it with vague reverence back. The Black hasn’t the slightest idea who Gertrude Stein is (although the name rings some kind of bell) and he has certainly never read Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha, the second story from Getrude Stein’s much-discussed Three Lives, so how could The Black possibly be aware of Richard Wright’s oleaginously positive assessment of Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of the Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein?

“The first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the Unites States,” is how the Negro writer Richard Wright praises Gertrude Stein’s Melanctha in this handsome old edition of Gertrude Stein.

“Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress,” writes Gertrude Stein about the character Rose Johnson in the Richard Wright-lauded Gertrude Stein story Melanctha. “Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose,” explains Gertrude Stein, “had the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the black people.”

Richard Wright noted: “I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers… into a [Southside of Chicago] basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters.”

Later in this edition of Gertrude Stein’s Selected Writings, sui generis Gertrude Stein displays her mastery (a mastery which clearly vindicates what might seem simple and racist in such writings of hers as Melanctha) in a piece inspired by travel, with her mousy factotum, to Spain: It can no sail to key pap change and put has can we see call bet. Show leave I cup the fanned best same so that if then sad sole is more, more not, and after shown so papered with that in instep lasting pheasant. Pheasant enough. Call africa, call african cod liver, loading a bag with news and little pipes restlessly so that with in between chance white cases are muddy and show a little tint…(sic)

What The Black doesn’t like is the feeling (imaginary?) that the shop girl’s eyes are trying to steer him towards the colorful rack of celebrity biographies to the immediate right of the door, or the LARGE TYPE sports “literature” that stands in the rack to the left of it, forming a lowbrow gateway The Black had to pass through before discovering the musty nest of middlebrow paperback fiction lining a water-stained wall.

These same books are always waiting to be rescued from places like this, and they are as unappealingly poignant as mustached Romanian orphans. The kind of books that not only infest and depress second-hand book stores all over the English-speaking world but infest and depress junk shops, too. Something about these books emits an aerosol of salt peter for the literary boner. Something about the cover designs, the typography, and even the stylistic content… everything… turns The Black off to the extent that he suddenly wants to circumambulate the shop and leave without buying a single thing, never to return, despite his avowed intent to purchase an armload of brain-improving literature.

“I am liking your shoes.”

The Black looks up at the shop girl. She’s smiling at him over the top of a tabloid newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung or BZ. The headline on the cover page in 72pt bold screams SCHWARTZE RAUBTIER!?!

“Thanks.”

“They are pretty… nearly the woman’s shoe. You have small feet to be so big.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“That’s a good one.” She nods towards the book that The Black is just then pushing back in its place on the shelf, making him feel obligated to pull it out again and pretend for a moment to re-consider it. One of Anais Nin’s old things.

The shop girl sighs and says, “She was so free!” The Black stares at the self-absorbed face on the cover of the book, examines the back cover with equal intensity and slips it, finally, into its slot again.

“She didn’t care what the world is thinking. That’s the best way, I think.”

“Yes, I agree.”

Without warning, the shop girl erupts into theatrical laughter, covering her mouth and apologizing. The Black picks up another book and rifles the pages and says “What?” without looking at her.

“I’m sorry, but I look at you and I think: he has many girlfriends.”

“No.”

“What sort of book are you looking for?”

“A good one.”

“They are all good. Every book was once somebody’s hopeless dream…that’s what I say.”

“It’s a nice thing to say.”

“Thank you.”

The Black smiles back at her and gestures awkwardly that he’s about to retreat into the back room to check out a bit more of the inventory. “Enjoy,” she says, and pretends to go back to reading her tabloid. But she looks up again as he turns his strong broad back.

Is it him?

The back room is a catacomb. The 70s saw a fecundity blip of middlebrow paperback production and the output (from huge pipes at key points around the globe?) seems to have papered the planet three or four times over in self-regarding, clunky, sexually summer-campish fiction, for The Black has been seeing exactly these books on the Lit shelves of second hand establishments for thirty years now, across twenty American states and four European countries, though some of the books are surely by now eighth, ninth, tenth hand…with penciled-in prices erased and re-written and erased again on the fly-leaf in layers of embossed pentimenti. Interesting thing, in the books where the successive prices are crossed-out rather than erased, is how the values first show a steady decline until bottoming out well below a dollar (or Deutschmark), but then a weird bounce-back, post-Internet, as books more and more became the spinster’s luxury item…decorative artifacts for the shut-in’s night stand. This Gravity’s Rainbow, for example: the penciled-in asking price is €8, far more than its original cost (in 1972) of $2.98, though it cannot be considered a collector’s item… the cosmic joke being that no way did any of the chain of seven people who once owned and then re-circulated this fat gold tome ever read it.

Shockingly, a paperback of a non-70s vintage has found its way in the tight slot between Irving and Mailer and The Black digs it out. Yellowed pages and a dark blue cover sporting a grid of four headshots of the heroes of another era titled FOUR GREAT MINDS: A QUARTET OF MEN WHO SHAPED THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Then, possessed of a sudden inspiration, The Black seeks the piously cloistered “ethnic, gender, disability” section to the far left (as much as he hates to) and finds one miraculous copy of a book he hasn’t much thought of in almost forty years: MANTAN in LILY LAND by Napoleon Fanon. He digs it out with trembling hands and experiences an instant erection. The book is like Viagra for him. He taps Fanon’s name on the cover.

Despite the considerable embarrassment of obviousness he must endure (a black man buying a book about black issues by a black writer; why not a Frenchman in a striped shirt and black beret in line to buy a baguette?), The Black marches right up to the shop girl and plunks down the money for this 1968 first edition paperback of ManTan in Lily Land (with its lurid, racist cover). The shop girl waves goodbye. Her heart is beating so hard that she can barely catch her breath.

Once he is home, the light on everything else around him in the room seems to dim as the book emits the melancholy glow of erotic nostalgia. Dusty, perched on the windowsill, closes her eyes when he catches her watching him caressing it. The laminated cover of the paperback, though yellowing and cracked, gleams with the image of a black giant’s gaudily be-ringed, kong-like hand as it grasps a creamy doll-sized nude blonde. Her pubes and nipples are tastefully hidden behind giant black fingers and the expression on her face is compellingly ambiguous. Her mouth is open. Her eyes are half shut. Terror? Rapture? Her hair is done in the big blonde aeronautical style of the late ‘60s, a platinum nose cone. ManTan in Lily Land. As a blurb has it, the shocking narrative of an urban pilgrim’s progress from stuttering Negro to bold Revolutionary

The Black’s bedroom is high-ceilinged (the ceiling ringed with the 30s-era ornamental plaster-work called Stück), with tall windows, white walls, and a hardwood floor. The floorboards are separated by quarter-inch gaps where some kind of putty used to be, and down between the boards, in these deep dark grooves, is the shoe-deposited stratified compote of twentieth century Berlin (dried cum and blood, dog shit and dandruff) along with a sprinkling of the desiccated essence of the 19th and the 21st centuries, too. This is an old old building, as rooted in the brittle block of Kant Strasse as a stone molar. Still, no unfamiliar ghosts have bothered to trouble him here, despite the various moans and howls and gasps these bedroom walls have absorbed during his tenacious occupancy.

He did, however, one Sunday morning, glancing up from a crossword, get an adrenalized glimpse of a hawk with a wingspan the length of a man’s body taking lunch in the linden outside that window… so close that The Black could’ve swung the window open and leaned on the sill and dared to tickle the bird’s wingtip with his finger… so close that The Black could see the baked dirt on the pale scruff of the creature’s wide neck where no contortion of beak was possible to preen it. With one talon the hawk clutched the headless body of a pigeon (an old unraveling sock), tearing off red bits and shuttering its big black Pentax of an eye at The Black… there was something of Herbert Von Karajan in the hawk’s profile as it took him in through the double-glazed window… and it did seem to give The Black a glance of disdain before lifting back off into the merciless grandeur of its natural element… but the ghosts he expected to haunt him in Deutschland… livid Aryans and mournful Jews and plaster-dusted, eyeless waifs… they never did materialize.

Though someone once put to The Black the chilling proposition that a certain percentage of the pale, poorly dressed and dour creatures one comes across in Berlin every day… on the streets and in the U-Bahn, in the bakeries and grocery stores… are, in fact, corporeal ghosts from the War. A casual removal of their dingy jackets or stained skirts would reveal the noose burns or perforations of ancient machine-gun fire. Why were these spectral scowlers still hanging around? They had nowhere else to go, rejected by the afterlife itself, having made the bizarrely stupid error of persecuting the Jews in a Universe run by the father of a world-famous rabbinical student.

The sun is setting. The sun has set.

Dusty is staring out the bedroom window with an unreadable expression as twilight suffuses the sky with dark blood and the courtyard lights click on, casting unvarying shadows in the high-walled courtyard. The black imploring shadow hands of three old leafless trees stretch across the grass and red brick tiles and stand up on the dirty stone wall under The Black’s windows like a creepy etching by Otto Dix. Across the courtyard, visible through gaps in the high foliage, life of a sort is evident in random windows, bright or dim, under the pearly folds of Europa’s view of the Milky Way.

A too-tall blonde in an evening gown is ironing pillow cases. A pacing man with vivid black hair is lecturing (with broad gestures) a white-haired straight-backed couple seated on opposite sides of a kitchen table, making his passionate case for Euthanasia, perhaps. Two white-capped guys in overalls are painting an empty room, under a bare bulb…a portable television is placed atop the third step-ladder. The movie on the portable television is full of explosions and the screen blossoms repeatedly with orange blooms of fire and digital debris intercut with close-ups of a small-eyed, blank-faced starlet and her swollen, parted lips.

Near-naked in his dark bedroom, spying on the well-ordered mystery of German existence through a wind-shifted scrim of moon-blue leaves, what The Black misses most at this moment is… cricket song. Cricket song, and the smoke from the incense they bought as kids for two a penny and called punk and burned to ward off mosquitoes. Cricket song, punk, lightning bugs and talcum powder. Oh, and adolescent armpits. And autumn leaves, burning in damp piles, and Doctor Pepper, or Wint-o-Green Life Savers, on a pretty girl’s breath. Laundry flapping on the line, both the sound and the smell of it. Hose-water hitting hot sidewalks.

And the ruckus of a two-blocks-distant, contentious game of twilight stickball and the hiss of traffic on a Sunday morning after a light rain and the bright orange taste of a Dreamsicle and the deep smell of Vaseline on his anus as the rectal thermometer slid in… he was sickly as a child and that rectal thermometer was always sliding in. Burnt pancakes… don’t forget burnt pancakes. Don’t forget the menacing odorous glow of RCA tubes through the grille in the back of an old timer’s radio. And the clank and roar of a coal-burning furnace and the pagan dance of the flames as his grandmother snatched the grate open with a hooked poker to shovel more in. A grass-covered gasoline-smelly lawn mower parked in a damp hot garage on a puddle of oil on the garage’s cracked floor. A box of stale coconut macaroons, too. Garden-fresh tomatoes and green beans in two dirty buckets. The pulse of windshield wipers versus the throb of tires across the steel matrix of a drawbridge and their doze-disturbing properties. The crackle of ozone from the loosely connected tracks of an electric train set. A brassiere from the dirty clothes hamper. The sharp black reek of a chicken coop. The electrifying odor of a brand new Schwinn bicycle, freshly stolen from the shop. Wet cardboard. Wet bandages. Wet dog. Paper-thin cicada song above a vacant lot. The smell of cornpone baking…

The Black caresses the cover of ManTan in Lily Land

With two flicks through the pages of the thick-as-a-porterhouse paperback, the pages red-edged as rare steak, he comes right to the most familiar passage of the book, as though the copy he holds in his hand is the one he read from originally, in the library, Chicago, 1968, Harriet Tubman Elementary…

“What do you want with me?” she demanded, her eyes aflame with hatred. No Negro had ever so much as made eye contact with this proud daughter of America’s Anglo Saxon ruling class, this much was clear. That I dared not only to stare her down with an equal hatred, while seizing her wrist in a grip whose strength had been forged in everything from the Memphis workhouse to the brutal stockyards of Chicago, but also to address her in a tone that the Master reserves for his servant, was beyond the pale.

I twisted that fragile white wrist until she was down on one knee, and, truth be told, the expression I showed her then would have frightened even me, had I seen it, for it meant only one thing, and both of us knew it. Still grasping her wrist with the one hand, I back-handed her with the other, and she sprawled at the foot of the king sized bed in her parent’s master bedroom, overlooked by a framed, crocheted American flag. The symbolism was striking. She touched a finger to her bleeding lip and wept softly as I unbuckled my belt.

“For centuries,” I growled, in a voice devoid of emotion,”what’s about to happen to you has happened to innocent Negro women at the hands of your rapacious forefathers…”

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