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Deacon King Kong (12. Mojo)

Sportcoat sat on a crate inside Sausage’s boiler room clasping a bottle of King Kong. He was in no hurry now. The disappointment of chasing the bottle of brandy around the plaza before it was destroyed by Soup that morning was softened by this pit stop at Sausage’s headquarters. Sausage was nowhere to be found and that was fine. Sportcoat had spent the rest of morning there, cooling his heels with some Kong. He felt better now. Evened out. Noooooo hurry, he thought happily, clasping the bottle. He thought he might get up to look at the clock to check the time, but by the tilt of sunlight in the tiny basement window he got the general idea. Afternoon. He stretched and yawned. He was supposed to be at work at the old lady’s garden on Silver Street at least two hours ago. He tried for a moment to remember her name, but couldn’t. It didn’t matter. It was Italian and ended with an “i” and she paid cash, that’s what was important. She didn’t mind too much if he was late—he always stayed late if he arrived late—but she had seemed a bit unsteady on her feet in the past few weeks. Getting old, he thought wryly. You got to be strong to get old. He was about to put the Kong away and head out when Hettie suddenly appeared.

“If you gonna come at me hanking about what happened at Soup’s party today, don’t bother,” he said.

She chortled bitterly. “I don’t care what you done,” she said. “Fact is, when you walk about being spit on, it don’t much matter what else you think you done.”

“Who spit on me? Nobody spit on me.”

“You spit on yourself.”

“Get gone with that foolishness. I’m going to work.”

“Well git on then.”

“If it pleases me to stop for a bracer while I ruminates on getting my baseball game going again, that’s my business.”

“That game don’t mean nothing to these children around here,” she said soberly.

“How would you know? You didn’t see a game I umped in ten years.”

“You didn’t invite me in ten years,” she said.

That stumped him. Like most things he did most of his adult life, he couldn’t remember exactly what happened, largely because he was drunk at the time, so he said, “I was the best umpire the Cause Houses ever seen. I gived joy to everyone.”

“Except your own wife.”

“Oh hush.”

“I was lonely in my marriage,” she said.

“Stop complaining, woman! Food on the table. Roof over our heads. What else you want? Where’s the damn church money, by the way? I’m in a heap of trouble on account of it!”

He lifted the Kong to his lips and gulped down a long swallow. She watched him silently, then after a moment said, “Some of it’s not your fault.”

“Sure ain’t. You the one hid that money.”

“I ain’t talking about that,” she said, almost pensively. “I’m talking about the old days when you was a child. Everything ever said to you or done to you back then was at the expense of your own dignity. You never complained. I loved that about you.”

“Oh, woman, leave my people out of it. They long dead.”

She watched him thoughtfully. “And now here you are,” she said sadly, “an old man funning around a ball field, making folks laugh. Even the boys don’t follow you no more.”

“They’ll follow me plenty when I get ’em back on the field. But I got to get off the hook ’bout them Christmas Club chips first. You kept the money in a little green box, I remember that. Where’s the box?”

“The church got plenty money.”

“You mean the box in the church?”

“No, honey. It’s in God’s hands. In the palm of His hand, actually.”

“Where’s it at, woman?!”

“You ought to trade your ears in for some bananas,” she said, irritated now.

“Stop talking in circles, dammit! Pastor declares the church got three thousand dollars in claims for that money. We got liars falling out of the trees now. There’s more folks at Five Ends on Sunday mornings hankering about that money than you’d see in a month of Easter Sundays. Every one of ’em’s got eyes for that box. Digs Weatherspoon says he got four hundred dollars in there, and that fool ain’t had two nickels to rub together since Methuselah got married. What I’mma do about that?”

She sighed. “When you love somebody, their words oughta be important enough for you to listen.”

“Stop lumping on about nothing!”

“I’m telling you what you wanna hear, fool.”

Then she was gone.

He sat in a huff for several minutes. There was no money in the church. He and Hot Sausage had searched the small building a dozen times. He felt thirsty and turned the bottle of Kong, only to discover it was dry. But there were other joy juice hiding places in that basement. He rose, dropped to one knee, and ran his hand under a nearby cupboard, finding it bare, then heard, over his shoulder, the sound of the door opening and saw the back of Hot Sausage’s head as Sausage walked in and strode out of sight behind a large generator on the other side of the room. He said, “Sausage?”

There was no answer. He could hear Sausage grunt and the clattering of tools being moved around. So he said, “You ain’t got to hide from me. There was three bottles of Kong down here to my recollection.”

As if in answer, there was a sparking sound and the huge generator fired up with a roar, the sound filling the room. Sportcoat rose and shuffled around to the side of the generator to find Hot Sausage nearly prone on the floor, stretched out with his head inside the motor of the same model of ancient roaring electric generator that befuddled Rufus in the Watch Houses boiler room. Sausage stretched out on his hip sideways, offered a quick sullen glance, then turned his attention back to the generator, which sputtered unhappily.

Sportcoat grabbed a crate and slid next to him. Sausage had removed his porkpie hat. His blue Housing Authority uniform was ragged and grease stained. He glanced at Sportcoat again, then back to the roaring engine. He didn’t say a word.

Sportcoat yelled over the din. “I’m sorry, Sausage. I’ll go to the police myself to straighten it out. I’ll explain it all and ask ’em to tell me how long I have to leave town.”

Sausage, peering into the roaring engine, chuckled. “You a doggone fool.”

“I didn’t mean in no way, shape, or form to get you mixed up in no nonsense, Sausage.”

Sausage lightened and pulled a long hand out of the machine to shake.

Instead of shaking it, Sportcoat stared at the hand, frowning. “I done apologized. So why the left hand? You know that’s bad luck.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Hot Sausage hurriedly pulled his right hand out of the generator and extended it. Satisfied, Sportcoat shook it and sat on a nearby crate. “Where’s the Kong?” he shouted over the din.

Sausage reached under a nearby tool bench and produced a quart-sized glass jug full of clear fluid, carefully sliding it over to Sportcoat, then he turned his attention back to the generator, peering inside. “This thing quits every week,” he said.

“Rufus got the same problem over at the Watch Houses,” Sportcoat yelled. “These projects was built the same year. Same apartments, toilets, generators, everything. Bad junk, these generators.”

“But I takes care of my generators.”

“Rufus says it ain’t the generators. It’s bad spirits.”

Sausage sucked his teeth, made a few adjustments, and the machine’s decibel level lowered to a bearable volume. “It ain’t no damn spirits.”

“Rats? Ants maybe?”

“Not this time of year. Even ants ain’t stupid enough to climb inside this thing. It’s cockeyed wiring is what it is. Old as Methuselah. Been fiddled with a lot too. Whoever done it was pulling his privates with one hand and fiddling at the wires with the other.”

Sportcoat sipped from the whiskey jug again and held it out to Sausage, who took a generous gulp, handed it back to Sportcoat, then peered back into the guts of the old machine. “Dumbest thing in the world,” he said. “There’s thirty-two units in this building. This thing runs electric to only four of ’em. It’s wired to the other one over there.” He nodded toward a second large generator on the wall on the far side of the room, separated from the first by a sea of junk that cluttered the basement: old sinks, bricks, brooms, refuse, pieces of bicycles, mops, toilet parts, and Sausage’s old wooden pendulum clock. “Whoever built this place was drunk, I reckon, to set ’em apart that way, instead of making ’em just one.”

Sausage sipped again, placed the bottle on the floor next to the generator, stuck his long hands into the machine, and tied two wires together. The generator sputtered, coughed a moment, then chugged onward.

“I got to replace the church’s Christmas Club money somehow, Sausage.”

“That’s the least of your problems.”

“Oh, cut that nonsense. This is real money here we talking. Hettie never told me how much was in that Christmas box. Or where she hid it. Or who put what in. Now Pastor Gee says there’s three thousand dollars in claims on it. Everybody and their brother’s swearing they got money in it.”

“That don’t include the fourteen hundred dollars I throwed in,” Sausage said.

“Very funny.”

“No wonder you seeing Hettie’s ghost, Sport. I’d be chickenhearted too with that kind of money floating north of me. You got trouble all ’round. You did lock that door behind you coming in, didn’t you? Deems ain’t got nothing against me, but outside of a child in pain, the worst sound in the world is an old man begging for his life while he’s at work. What’s to stop him from coming in here blasting?”

“Stop fussing about nothing,” Sportcoat said. “Ain’t nobody following me. And I ain’t talking to Hettie’s ghost. It’s a nag that’s bothering me, Sausage. What I’m talking to is a nag. A nag ain’t a ghost. It’s a mojo. A witch. Playing tricks. It looks like a person, but it ain’t. It’s just a witch. The old folks talked about that back home all the time. A witch can take any form she wants. That’s why I know it ain’t my dear Hettie talking. She never talked that way, calling me an idiot and carrying on. That’s a witch.”

Sausage chuckled. “That’s why I never got married. My uncle Gus married a girl like that. He met a girl down in Tuscaloosa and got into a hank with her daddy. One of his cows ate some of her daddy’s corn. Her daddy wanted forty cents for that corn. Uncle Gus didn’t pay it. His wife hollered at him but he wouldn’t, and then she died and put a wangature on him. Baddest mojo I ever seen. His chest bone growed out like a chicken’s breast. The hair on the sides of his head smoothed out. The top of his hair stayed kinky. That was a weird-looking nigger. He looked like a rooster till he died.”

“Whyn’t he just pay her daddy back?” Sportcoat said.

“Too late then,” Hot Sausage said. “Forty cents ain’t gonna stop no mojo. Four hundred cents would stop it, once it gets going. His wife put a nag on him, see, like Hettie done to you.”

“How you know Hettie done it?”

“It don’t matter who done it. You got to break it. Uncle Gus broke his by taking a churchyard snail and soaking it in vinegar for seven days. You could try that.”

“That’s the Alabama way of breaking mojos,” Sportcoat said. “That’s old. In South Carolina, you put a fork under your pillow and some buckets of water around your kitchen. That’ll drive any witch off.”

“Naw,” Sausage said. “Roll a hound’s tooth in cornmeal and wear it about your neck.”

“Naw. Walk up a hill with your hands behind your head.”

“Stick your hand in a jar of maple syrup.”

“Sprinkle seed corn and butter bean hulls outside the door.”

“Step backward over a pole ten times.”

“Swallow three pebbles . . .”

They were off like that for several minutes, each topping the other with his list of ways to keep witches out, talking mojo as the modern life of the world’s greatest metropolis bustled about them. Brooklyn traffic roared aboveground. In Borough Hall, twenty blocks away, the Brooklyn borough president was welcoming Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. In Flushing, Queens, the New York Mets, the former dogs of baseball and now the toast of the town, were warming up for a game at Shea Stadium under TV lights with fifty-six thousand people in the stands. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Bella Abzug, the flamboyant Jewish congresswoman, was meeting with fund-raisers to consider a run for president. Meanwhile, the two old men sitting in the basement sipping moonshine were having a mojo contest:

“Never turn your head to the side while a horse is passing . . .”

“Drop a dead mouse on a red rag.”

“Give your sweetheart an umbrella on a Thursday.”

“Blow on a mirror and walk it around a tree ten times . . .”

They had reached the remedy of putting a gas lamp in every window of every second house on the fourth Thursday of every month when the generator, as if on its own, roared up wildly, sputtered miserably, coughed, and died.

The basement went nearly dark, the lights dimming low, and they would have gone almost completely black but for the second generator, which sputtered onward, powering a single bulb in a far corner of the basement. It shone brightly, as did the exit light over the hallway door through which Sportcoat had entered and which he had tightly closed upon entering.

“Now you done it,” Sausage grumbled in the near dark. “Coming down here carrying on about witches and all, you put a spell on the damn thing.”

He knelt, groped inside the generator, and made a few adjustments. The generator coughed miserably, sputtered, and grumbled back up. The lights in the room came up full again.

Sportcoat glared at the generator, puzzled. It seemed louder than ever, roaring at a speed that was unusual, powering along with a shake-rattle so loud that Hot Sausage had to shout over it at the top of his lungs.

“I think it’s got a short,” he shouted over the roar.

Sportcoat nodded. “But if it’s connected to four apartments upstairs,” he yelled, “why’s the lights going out down here?”

“What?”

“Forget it,” he yelled. “I got to get to work. Where’s my umpire uniform?”

“What?”

Sportcoat pointed to the roaring generator. Sausage knelt and adjusted the machine, and the roar kicked back a decibel. From his crouch he repeated, “What?”

“I’m getting the baseball game going again,” Sportcoat said. “I need my umpire uniform, remember? I know it’s down here someplace.”

“What you need that for? We ain’t got no pitching. Our star pitcher ain’t got no ear. And he’s gunning for you.”

Sportcoat, irritated again, took another sip of King Kong. “Just git it.”

“It’s right where you put it last,” Sausage said, taking the bottle and nodding at a closet in a far corner. Sportcoat gazed at the pile of refuse that stood between them and the closet. He looked down at his plaid sport coat. “I’mma mess up my jacket digging through that.”

Sausage sucked his teeth, handed the bottle to Sportcoat, and disappeared into the cacophony of junk. After several clangs, grunts, kicks, and shoves, he reappeared moments later with a black plastic bag, which he tossed on the floor.

At that moment, the generator emitted a horrible burst, coughed, sputtered, sparked, and died again. A moment later, the second generator quit as well.

The room went completely dark this time, save the exit sign over the door. The door, which neither noticed, now stood slightly ajar.

“Goddamn,” Sausage said in the silence. “This one here musta shorted out the other one. Gimme a flashlight, Sport.”

“That ain’t something I normally carries about, Sausage.”

“Stay here. I’mma check the generator on the other side.”

There was more clattering as Sausage scrambled to the other side of the room. Sportcoat sipped his Kong nonchalantly, felt for the crate with his feet, found it, and sat down.

Neither of them noticed the tall figure in the leather jacket who had slipped into the room through the door underneath the exit sign.

“Do this happen all the time?” Sportcoat said in the silence.

“Never like this,” Sausage said from across the room. “Course when you calling on witches and so forth . . .” Sportcoat heard him curse and grunt, then heard a noise near the door and glanced at it. In the light of the exit sign he saw—or thought he saw—a shadow move past it.

“Sausage, I think there’s somebo—”

“I got it!” Sausage called. “Okay. There’s a switch box behind that generator where you’re at. Go back behind it and throw it when I tell you. That’ll bring the lights up.”

“Throw what?”

“The switch. Behind the generator where you’re standing. Feel ’round that generator and throw that switch there,” Hot Sausage said. “That’ll fire ’em both.”

“I don’t know nothing about no switches.”

“Hurry up, Sport. There’s thirty-two apartments upstairs. Them Negroes is cooking collards and scrambled eggs and gotta get to work. Ain’t nothing to it, Sport. Just go ’round back of the generator. Stick your hand behind it and feel a thick wire coming out. Follow that wire to the wall with your hand. You’ll feel a box there. Open that box and throw the switch in there backward and forward one time.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather cook what little brains I got left with whiskey,” Sportcoat called out. “I can’t see nothing. Plus there’s somebo—”

“Git up and do it before them fools upstairs come down here raising hell!”

“I don’t know nothing about no boxes.”

“You can’t get electrocuted back there,” Sausage snapped, trying not to sound impatient. “It’s all grounded. That generator there’s two hundred forty volts. This one here’s two hundred twenty.” He paused, then said, “Or is it the other way around?”

“Make up your mind now.”

“Just go throw that danged switch in the box, please. You got nothing to worry about, Sport. This is the circuit breaker here. The juice is here. It ain’t over there where you at.”

“If it’s over there, whyn’t you throw the switch over there?”

“Stop being light-headed, nigger! Hurry up before them Negroes upstairs git here hollering—or even worse, call up Housing.”

“All right,” Sportcoat said, irritated. He groped his way through the dark, found the generator, ran his hand along the wall behind it until his fingers found a thick wire. He groped the wire, following it to the wall, turned to address Sausage, and saw again the shadow of a man cross the exit light and move toward the middle of the room. This time he was sure of it.

“Sausage?”

“Throw the switch.”

“There’s somebo—”

“Will you throw it already?”

“All right. What about this wire?”

“Forget the wire now. You don’t need it. Throw the switch.”

“I don’t need this wire? This loose one?”

There was a long silence from Sausage. “Did I forget to tie that thing off?” he muttered.

“Tie off what?”

“The wire.”

“There’s two.”

“Wires or boxes?”

“Both.”

“Well don’t worry about that,” Sausage called, more impatient now. “Just find a box. Any box. Throw the switch in any box you touch and make sure the wire don’t touch the generator. I’m holding the panel to this generator box open. I can’t hold it much longer, Sport. It’s heavy. There’s a spring on it.”

“But the wire—”

“Forget the wire. It’s all grounded, I tell you.”

“What’s grounded mean?”

“Nigger, you want math and a marching band too? Just throw the goddamn switch! I’ll fix everything when we get the lights going. Hurry up before the whole building riots on us down here!”

Sportcoat chose the box nearer to him. He opened it and felt inside. There were two switches in it. Not knowing what to do, he placed the bare wire on the generator and threw both switches. There was a flickering spark, a grunt, and the squealing howl of a human. As the roar of the generator fired and the lights came back up, he caught sight of two boots flying upward in the air.

From the other side of the room, Sausage angrily approached, clattering over the piles of benches, cinder blocks, sinks, and bicycle parts, jawing as he came. “What’s the matter with you, Sport? How hard can it be to throw a switch?”

Then he stopped, silent, and stared wide-eyed at something in the middle of the floor. From his side of the room, Sportcoat clambered over the junk and the two of them stood over Earl, Bunch’s triggerman. He lay on his back, out cold, his black leather jacket scorched from where the electricity had coursed through him. A shiny watch protruded from his wrist, its crystal broken, and a revolver was squeezed tight in his hand.

“Good God,” Sausage said. “That’s the feller from Soup’s party. How’d he get back so fast? I thought they carried his ass off.”

Sportcoat stared at him. “Is he dead?”

Hot Sausage knelt, feeling Earl’s neck for a pulse. “He’s yet living,” he said.

“He’da been ramped up good if they let him drink that brandy rather than letting Soup waste it by busting it on his head. You wanna call the police?”

“Hell no, Sport. Housing’ll blame me.”

“You ain’t done nothing wrong.”

“Don’t matter. However the cut comes or goes, if the police show up at Housing it means they got to write a report. That means they got to do something down there other than take naps and sip coffee. Anyone who disturbs them from doing that gets walking papers. I’ll be outta my job.”

He looked down at Earl. “He got to go, Sport. Let’s put him out.”

“I ain’t touching him.”

“What you think he come here for? To teach you letters? He crawling ’round here with a pistol. He’s somebody Deems put on you.”

“Deems is a boy, Hot Sausage. This here’s a man. Plus little Deems ain’t got no money to hire nobody to do nothing.”

“Little Deems got a Firebird car.”

“He do? Glory. That boy’s running a big mill, ain’t he!”

“Goddammit, Sport, I’ll take my baseball bat and send you hooting and hollering out that damn door! You brung trouble to my job! Now he got to go! And you got to help!”

“All right. You ain’t got to get all tied up in a knot about it.”

But Sausage was already moving. He yanked a four-wheel dolly from the junk pile in the middle of the floor, wheeled it over to Earl, then, kneeling over him, checked his pulse again. “I been shocked by that generator before,” he said. “It’s gonna take him awhile to come to hisself, but he’ll be all right. In the meantime, let the devil have him.”

They set to work.

Twenty minutes later, Earl woke up in the alley behind Building 17. He was lying on his back. His burned leather jacket smelled like scorched hair. His arms ached so bad he was afraid he’d broken both. His head, knotted with a lump from where the bottle had knocked him cold, felt as if a jackhammer were banging away at it. He raised his right arm, a movement that sent pain roaring down his shoulder, and checked his watch. The crystal was broken. The watch was dead. His moved his left arm, found it alive, and pulled his gun out of his left pocket. He noted the bullets had been emptied from it. He shoved it back into his pocket and sat up. His feet were wet. So were his legs. He’d wet himself. He looked up at the sky and the windows above him. He saw no faces peering at him but could tell by the sun’s position in the sky that it was afternoon. He was late. He was supposed to collect yesterday’s take from Bunch’s Bed-Stuy street dealers by noon.

He got to his feet slowly, every muscle in his body protesting, and staggered toward the nearby Silver Street subway, leaning on the wall as he went. He felt like he was falling to pieces, but moved faster as he got his wind, keeping one eye out for the giant who had escorted him there that morning. He had to make it to Bed-Stuy to pick up Bunch’s cash before heading back to the boss’s house. The least he could do was to show up with Bunch’s rocks. It might keep the boss from killing him.

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