At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”
“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”
My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?
“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”
“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”
“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”
The other guy said, “Down on it!”
“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”
They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”
Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”
“Costello is the fat one, right?”
Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”
“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”
“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”
“Boy with what?”
“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”
The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.
After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.
“Now how did he know which way?” I said.
Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”
That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.
The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.
Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.
“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”
“Tell me what it means.”
“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”
“From outer space.”
“Just do it, goddammit!”
I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.
The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.