Klaatu Barada Nikto! was originally published in the August, 2008, issue of Urbanite magazine, which featured short fiction intended, I suppose, as beach reading material. With a similar purpose in mind, I’m posting it on the blog this first week of August, 2009, but in three installments. Each part runs just a bit over 1,000 words, so it’s an easy read. Part 2 will post this Wednesday and part three posts on Friday.
I watched as dried sweat made white lines on the colored men’s skin, which was not just brown but had purple and blue in it, even some green, especially in the shadow parts. Their muscles bulged from the stuff they moved: lumber, vegetables, crates of oysters. New sweat washed away old and changed the line patterns on their chests and backs like a crazy Picasso couldn’t make up his mind. The men did a song I couldn’t make out, but the tune kept perfect time with how they moved on the gangplank. When they went from the bright sunlight into the shadows they got to be invisible, but their song kept on, lower, and mixed in with the clang noises from the shipyard, the bells and horns and whistles off the ships. Wave sounds came up from the pier pilings and brought the oily water smell to my nose, a sharp chemical odor, soft at the edges. A white bay steamer waited for sunset to sail. Rows of skipjacks with furled sails the color of old ivory, cleaned of oysters, fish, crabs, corn, and melons from across Chesapeake Bay, rocked in the tide.
Later, at Wilson’s Light Street newsstand, under the restaurant awning next to Cross Street Market, I asked him about shadows in movies. Big mistake. I expected he’d preach about movies that had important messages for U.S. citizens, but instead he went off on his own subject.
“Indulge me on this, Andy,” he said. “Popcorn has two flavors. Ever notice that? On top popcorn tastes one way, but on the bottom of the bag it’s different.”
I knew that, but it never came in my brain to mention it. I decided to play him some. “Why is that, I wonder?”
“Gravity,” he said. “Because it’s heavier, butter sinks to the bottom.” Wilson smiled. “Go ’head, tell me I’m wrong.”
I just nodded. Sometimes Wilson tried to shame me with his words, the strangest talk of any person I knew, white or colored. Right then a girl strutted up the sidewalk across the street. Wilson saw her and hollered, “Hey, Shirley!”
She stopped, looked over. “Yeah, Fool, what you want?”
“How you doin’, babe?”
“I’m all right.”
“Good! Good!” Wilson gave her his one-hundred-watt smile. “Doin’ all kinds of shit myself just to avoid other shit.” He paused dramatic, then, “Where you goin’ at?”
“Store.” Then Shirley got prissy fast, hands on her hips. “Why?”
“You got a dollar?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“On your way back, Sweetness, bring me a pair of socks.”
Shirley looked at Wilson like he was crazy — slowly shook her head — smiled and went on. Wilson started to sing, mostly to himself:
Blow it, preach it, Say a taste tonight.
Make it talk tonight.
Blow that shit, man — Work it on out.
Then he turned my way. “Don’t mind me, Andy — I lost what little sense I had three girlfriends ago.” He pointed at Shirley, halfway down the block. “Pay attention,” he said. “See what I did there?”
Was that supposed to be funny?”
“Gals like it when you tweak ’em.” Wilson put his arm around my neck like he was my buddy. “The other thing you should know is this: The Beacon has the best popcorn of any theater in Baltimore.” Wilson laughed big again. “Look and learn kid,” he said. “Look and learn.”
Wilson was this colored kind of guy who looked like Satchmo but not fat. I figured he was 13 or 14. Maybe 16. Hard to say with colored people because they looked younger than they really were. And for a long time I couldn’t tell them apart, either, but later I figured that was dumb. Colored people are as different as you and me. If you can’t see that you don’t have eyes. But all that off to one side, Wilson drove me nuts with his wise-ass ways — expert on everything, crazy stuff. Like he claimed white people couldn’t dance, said they just “vacillate” to the music. Is that even a real word? When I called him on it, Wilson backed off and said he’d agree that white people were born with the same rhythm as colored people, but they were scared of it. Scared of it? Right there I did him like he did me and just changed subjects.
“Well,” I said, “Bob Hope is great on the radio.”
“Hope does the same material every week,” Wilson said, “only the names change.”
“Jack Benny’s good.”
“Who’s he think he’s kidding with all those stupid hair jokes?”
“Burns and Allen?”
“They still on?”
“You like anything, Wilson?”
“Only radio joker with half a brain is Fred Allen,” he said. “Allen’s smart and funny.”
“I don’t get that guy.”
Wilson smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t, Andy.”
Now what did he mean by that tone of voice — some kind of disrespect? I just let it go. Anyways, my secret job was to learn all I could about the newspaper business. I watched how Wilson kidded people and made change and such. He didn’t seem to mind that I hung around, but he didn’t volunteer information, either. The wind shifted and rain started. We moved his stacks of papers to the other end of the awning to keep dry. He took a News Post and opened it to the movie listings. After five minutes of no talk Wilson finally said, “Andy, you seen Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance?”
“Yeah,” I said, and right there I thought I had him. “Palance plays the bad guy, see — name of Blackie. This doctor chases him ’cause —
” Wilson looked surprised. “A doctor chased him?”
“Thought you seen it.” “Didn’t say I saw the damn thing, wanted to know if you did.”
“Yep, caught it at the Echo on Fort Avenue. See, Widmark plays this health doctor and he’s gotta find Palance ’cause Palance has the plague and . . .”
“Shut up!” Wilson hollered. “Shut yo’ fat white mouth!” He laughed. “Don’t ruin it for me, Andy — Christ!”
“I didn’t tell the plague details. That’s the real story.”
Wilson just put his finger on his lips.
“You gotta see Palance,” I said. “Face like Frankenstein. There oughta be a law against that much ugly in public.”
Wilson sort of smiled. “Sounds good” was all he said.
I had won! For once I shut Wilson down cold.
Part 2 of Klaatu Barada Nikto! will post this Wednesday.