Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 3, 2009

Part One

Urb-4Klaatu 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.


Baltimore Harbor, 1951

December 31, 2008

harbor4

The twelve-year-old boy says goodbye to his mother and leaves their rented South Baltimore row house, at 807 William Street, by the side door. He passes through the covered areaway (or “sallie port”) which separates his house from the one next door, emerges onto the sidewalk and turns right, toward the harbor. The water begins one block from his front stoop and runs along Key Highway for a mile or two, and from there it goes on to Antwerp, Bombay, Darkar, Jeddah, Keelung, Liverpool, Malta, Port Sudan, Rangoon, and Zanzibar, and ends—for all the boy knows—in some dark jungle pond where jaguars come to drink.

The boy walks on rectangular Belgian blocks paving the surface of Key Highway. The stones once served as ballast in the holds of clipper ships which, two centuries before, sailed regularly from Europe and the Far East bringing tools, dry goods and foodstuffs to the colonies. The street reverberates with a cacophony of cart and truck wheels on rough pavement. The life of the city huddles close to the water’s edge. The workers’ homes—small shoulder-to-shoulder structures with low, slanted roofs, combine with the narrow streets to create an intricate pattern of late afternoon light and shadow. Sailboat spars gracefully dissect rooftops; the lines of a five-masted sailboat, lovely, etches itself against the background of a coal pier. Sunlight tints the oil-slick harbor water and illuminates two bright white excursion steamers—the Bay Belle and the City of Richmond—waiting for dusk and sailing time. Nearby, banana boats are unloaded at the United Fruit Company pier.

Huge cranes, black against the sky, tend ocean-going ships. The boy notes the origin of each vessel; There is a clean Norwegian loaded with tractor parts bound for Cape Town; a rusty Frenchman packed with wheat for Rotterdam; a Panamanian tanker gurgling rich back oil below-decks; a Russian, the name illegible on her dirty bow, holding only the residue of iron ore; and a British tramp freighter, emptied of a cargo of firecrackers from Hong-Kong, chests of tea from Shanghai, rubber from the Malacca Straits, glass from Genoa and seeds and ochre from Marseilles. Swarms of tiny welders work in the hull-rigging of each ship, making hot repairs to steel bellies, their torches creating a fireworks display of sparks. The harbor is smoky and dirty and filled with the clangor of steel on steel. Smoke stacks, grain elevators, factories, freight terminals and ramshackle wooden buildings line the innumerable wharves. Piers separate and define every twist and turn of the water’s edge. There is salt in the air, the odor of fish and clams, the scent of Oriental spices, the acrid smell of chemical fumes. From the shadowy depths of the low pier buildings the boy hears a musical chant. Black men in greasy overalls, their singsong blending with the noise of labor, rush from boat to truck and back again in ceaseless procession, dragging their livelihood out of ships’ holds. Lumber, sand and gravel, oysters, fish and crabs, cantaloupes and watermelons, tomatoes and potatoes; the men handle ponderous boxes and barrels and crates. Backs bend and straighten. Muscles expand and contract. Sweat glistens and salt collects in white lines on dark skin. The men are power made visible—made human—and as they stretch and lift, their graceful movements achieve the effect of great dancers.

The sun dips toward the western horizon and the mood of the harbor changes with the light. Smoke no longer clouds from the stacks, but spreads in an even, violet haze. The boy is aware of an unaccountable mystery that takes possession of the place. Monsters—towering chimneys and grain elevators, huge buildings of steel and concrete—are no longer black or red or harsh yellow, but are alike draped in a blue-gray mantle, infinitely soft, dusky, dreamy. Outlines soften into shadows. It is impossible now to distinguish the ugliness of the garbage scows and the lumber barges. At the steel mill, away in the distance, flames lick the twilight. Suddenly, three shrill blasts on a ship’s whistle startle the boy. He hears the sound of a gangplank scraping a pier, the scratch of heavy mooring lines being lifted from dock stanchions, tossed overboard and drawn through the water by thin ropes. Officers shout orders to seamen on the after deck. Fussy tugboats close in on the enormous sea-stained hull, nudging, pushing. From the bridge the captain watches. The engines are given full-forward power and the ship slides past a bulkhead, swings out into the channel stream and heads for open water. The boy feels—or imagines he feels—the deck shift and pitch under his feet. He waves . . .

Baltimore Harbor, 1951 was originally published in a slightly different form and under a very different title in the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1979 or the early 1980s. I’m usually pretty good when it comes to dating clippings—especially my own—but in this case, as Jon Stewart might say, not so much. My idea for this rather poetical mood piece was to attempt to convey the romance of the harbor as viewed by a young boy who very recently moved to the city from a small town in Virginia.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.