Deacon King Kong (2. A Dead Man)

Of course the folks in the Cause Houses had predicted Sportcoat’s death for years. Every year in the spring, when the project residents would emerge from their apartments like burrowed groundhogs to walk along the plaza and sample whatever good air was left in the Causeway—much of it polluted from the nearby wastewater-treatment plant—some resident would spy Sportcoat staggering through the plaza after a night of bingeing on King Kong rotgut at Rufus’s or playing bid whist at Silky’s Bar over on Van Marl Street and say, “He’s done.” When he caught the flu back in ’58, which floored half of Building 9 and gave Deacon Erskine of Mighty Hand Gospel Tabernacle his Final Wings, Sister Bum-Bum declared, “He’s going up yonder.” When the ambulance came to get him after his third stroke in ’62, Ginny Rodriguez of Building 19 grumbled, “He’s finished.” That was the same year that Miss Izi of the Puerto Rican Statehood Society won raffle tickets to see the New York Mets at the Polo Grounds. She predicted the Mets, who had lost 120 games that year, would win and they did, which encouraged her to announce Sportcoat’s death two weeks later, explaining that Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Sensation, had just arrived back from Port-au-Prince after visiting his mother, and she actually saw Sportcoat drop in his tracks, right in front of his apartment on the fourth floor, from the strange virus Dominic brought back that year. “He went ‘fatty boom bang’!” she exclaimed. Gone. Quit. Outta here. She even pointed to the black van from the city morgue that showed up that night and hauled out a body as proof, only to recant the whole bit the next morning when it turned out the body they’d claimed belonged to the Haitian Sensation’s brother El Haji, who had converted to Islam and broken his mother’s heart, then collapsed of a heart attack after his first day on the job driving a city bus—after trying to get on at Transit for three years, too, imagine that.

Still, Sportcoat seemed earmarked for death. In fact, even the cheerful souls at Five Ends Baptist—where Sportcoat served as a deacon and president of the Five Ends chapter of the Grand Brotherhood of the Brooklyn Elks Lodge #47, which for the grand sum of $16.75 (paid annually, money order only please) had a standing guarantee from the head honchos at Five Ends Baptist to “funeralize any and all Brooklyn Elks Lodge members who need final servicing, at cost of course,” with Sportcoat serving as honorary pallbearer—had predicted his death. “Sportcoat,” Sister Veronica Gee of Five Ends said soberly, “is a sick man.”

She was right. At seventy-one, Sportcoat had contracted almost every disease known to man. He had gout. He had the piles. He had rheumatoid arthritis, which crippled his back so bad he limped like a hunchback on overcast days. He had a cyst on his left arm the size of a lemon, and a hernia in his groin the size of an orange. When the hernia grew to the size of a grapefruit, doctors recommended surgery. Sportcoat ignored them, so a kind social worker at the local health clinic signed him up for every alternative therapy known to man: acupuncture, magnet therapy, herbal remedies, holistic healing, applying leeches, gait analysis, and plant remedies with genetic variations. None of them worked.

With each failure his health declined further and the death predictions grew more frequent and ominous. But not one of them came true. The fact is, unbeknownst to the residents of the Cause, the death of Cuffy Jasper Lambkin—which was Sportcoat’s real name—had been predicted long before he arrived at the Cause Houses. When he was slapped to life back in Possum Point, South Carolina, seventy-one years before, the midwife who delivered him watched in horror as a bird flew through an open window and fluttered over the baby’s head, then flew out again, a bad sign. She announced, “He’s gonna be an idiot,” handed him to his mother, and vanished, moving to Washington, DC, where she married a plumber and never delivered another baby again.

Bad luck seemed to follow the baby wherever he went. Baby Cuffy got colic, typhoid fever, the measles, the mumps, and scarlet fever. At age two, he swallowed everything: marbles, rocks, dirt, spoons, and once got a kitchen ladle caught in his ear, which had to be extracted by a doctor over at the university hospital in Columbia. At age three, when a young local pastor came by to bless the baby, the child barfed green matter all over the pastor’s clean white shirt. The pastor announced, “He’s got the devil’s understanding,” and departed for Chicago, where he quit the gospel and became a blues singer named Tampa Red and recorded the monster hit song “Devil’s Understanding,” before dying in anonymity flat broke and crawling into history, immortalized in music studies and rock-and-roll college courses the world over, idolized by white writers and music intellectuals for his classic blues hit that was the bedrock of the forty-million-dollar Gospel Stam Music Publishing empire, from which neither he nor Sportcoat ever received a dime.

At age five, Baby Sportcoat crawled to a mirror and spit at his reflection, a call sign to the devil, and as a result didn’t grow back teeth until he was nine. His mother tried everything to make his back teeth grow. She dug up a mole, cut off its feet, and hung the feet on a necklace around the baby’s neck. She rubbed fresh rabbit brains on his gums. She stuffed snake rattles, hog tails, and finally alligator teeth in his pockets, to no avail. She let a dog tread on him, a sure remedy, but the dog bit him and ran off. Finally she called an old medicine woman from the Sea Islands who cut a sprig of green bush, talked Cuffy’s real name to it, and hung the bag upside down in the corner of the room. When she departed she said, “Don’t say his true name again for eight months.” The mother complied, calling him “Sportcoat,” a term she’d overheard while pulling cotton at the farm of J. C. Yancy of Barnwell County, where she worked shares, one of her white bosses uttering it to refer to his shiny new green-and-white-plaid sport coat, which he proudly wore the very afternoon he bought it, cutting a dazzling figure atop his horse in the harsh Southern sun, his shotgun across his lap, dozing up on his mount at the end of the cotton row while the colored workers laughed up their sleeves and the other overseers snickered. Eight months later she woke up and found the mouth of ten-year-old Sportcoat full of back teeth. She sought out the medicine woman excitedly, who came over, examined Cuffy’s mouth, and said, “He’s gonna have more teeth than an alligator,” whereupon the mother happily patted the boy on the head, lay down for a nap, and expired.

The boy never recovered from his mother’s death. The ache in his heart grew to the size of a watermelon. But the medicine woman was right. He grew enough teeth for two people. They sprouted like wildflowers. Bicuspids, molars, liners, fat long double chompers, wide teeth in the front, narrow teeth in the back. But there were too many of them, and they crowded his gums and had to be pulled out, the extractions dutifully done by delighted white dental students at the University of South Carolina, who desperately needed patients to work on to obtain their degrees and thus held Sportcoat dear, extracting his teeth and giving him sweet muffins and little bottles of whiskey as payment, for he’d discovered the magic of alcohol by then, in part to celebrate his father’s marriage to his stepmother, who often recommended he go play at Sassafras Mountain, 258 miles distant, and jump off the top naked. At age fourteen, he was a drunk and a dental student’s dream. By age fifteen, the medical school had discovered him, as the first of many ailments gathered forces to attack him. At eighteen, blood poisoning blew up his lymph nodes to the size of marbles. Measles reappeared, along with a number of other diseases, which smelled the red meat of a sucker marked for death and dropped by his body for a go-round: scarlet fever, hematoid illness, acute viral infection, pulmonary embolism. At twenty, lupus had a throw and quit. When he was twenty-nine, a mule kicked him and broke his right eye socket, which sent him stumbling around for months. At thirty-one, a crosscut saw cut his left thumb off. The delighted medical students at the university sewed it back on with seventy-four stitches, chipped in, and bought him a used chain saw as a gift, which he used to cut off his right big toe. They reattached that with thirty-seven stitches, and as a result two of the students won major medical internships at hospitals in the Northeast, and they sent him enough money to buy a second mule and a hunting knife, which he used to slice into his aorta by accident while skinning a rabbit. He fell unconscious that time and nearly died, but he was rushed to the hospital, where he lay dead on the operating table for three minutes but came back again after a surgeon intern stuck a probe in his big toe, which sent him sitting up, cursing and swearing. At fifty-one, measles came back for one last fling and quit. And thereupon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin, rechristened “Sportcoat” by his mother and loved and admired by all whom he knew in Possum Point save the two people responsible for his well-being in the world, his stepmother and father, left the entreaties of the grateful medical students of the state of South Carolina and ventured to New York City to join his wife, Hettie Purvis, his childhood sweetheart who had moved there and set things up nicely for him, having gotten a job as a domestic for a good white family in Brooklyn.

He arrived at the Cause Houses in 1949 spitting blood, coughing gruesome black phlegm, and drinking homemade Everclear, later switching to Rufus’s beloved King Kong, which preserved him nicely until his sixties, at which point the operations began. Doctors removed him piece by piece. First a lung. Then a toe, then a second toe, followed by the usual tonsils, bladder, spleen, and two kidney operations. All the while he drank till his balls hurt and he worked like a slave, for Sportcoat was a handyman. He could fix anything that walked or moved or grew. There was not a furnace, a TV, a window, or a car that he could not fix. What’s more, Sportcoat, a child of the country, had the greatest green thumb of anyone in the Cause Houses. He was friends with anything that grew: tomatoes, herbs, butter beans, dandelions, beggar’s-lice, wild spur, bracken, wild geranium. There was not a plant that he could not coax out of its hiding place, nor a seed he could not force to the sun, nor an animal he could not summon or sic into action with an easy smile and affable strong hands. Sportcoat was a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle, and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen, in addition to serving as coach and founder of the All-Cause Boys Baseball Team. He was a wondrous handyman to the residents of the Cause Houses, the guy you called when your cat took a dump and left a little piece of poop hooked in his duff, because Sportcoat was an old country man and nothing would turn him away from God’s good purpose. Similarly, if your visiting preacher had diabetes and weighed 450 pounds and gorged himself with too much fatback and chicken thighs at the church repast and your congregation needed a man strong enough to help that tractor-trailer-sized wide-body off the toilet seat and out onto the bus back to the Bronx so somebody could lock up the dang church and go home—why, Sportcoat was your man. There was no job too small, no miracle too wondrous, no smell too noxious. Thus the sight of him staggering through the plaza each afternoon drunk, headed to some odd job, caused the residents to murmur to one another, “That fool’s a wonder,” while secretly saying to themselves, “All’s right in the world.”

But all that, everyone agreed, changed the day he shot Deems Clemens.

Clemens was the New Breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn’t some poor colored boy from down south or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream. He wasn’t humbled by a life of slinging cotton in North Carolina, or hauling sugarcane in San Juan. He didn’t arrive in New York City from some poor place where kids ran around with no shoes and ate chicken bones and turtle soup, limping to New York with a dime in their pockets, overjoyed at the prospect of coming to New York to clean houses and empty toilets and dump garbage, hoping for a warm city job or maybe even an education care of good white people. Deems didn’t give a shit about white people, or education, or sugarcane, or cotton, or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of Cause, young, smart, and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.

Sportcoat, all agreed, had finally run out of luck. He was, truly, a dead man.