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Deacon King Kong (23. Last Octobers)

On his third day in the hospital, Deems awoke with his arm in a cast and the familiar painful buzzing in his ears that made his blood tingle and rush to his head. His hospital bed was tilted at a slight angle, which prevented him from rolling onto his left shoulder and further aggravating the injury. Not that he would. Every time he leaned in that direction the pain across his back and down his spine was so powerful he felt like throwing up, so lying on his right side was obligatory. But it meant he couldn’t turn away from any visitors that came. Not that many did other than the cops and Sister Gee and a couple of assorted “sisters” from Five Ends. He’d said nothing to them. Even Potts, the old-time cop he remembered who used to come by to watch him pitch baseball games from his squad car. He’d said nothing to Potts. Potts was okay, but at the end of the day, Potts was just a cop. Deems’s problem was bigger than cops and stupid Five Ends people. He’d been betrayed by somebody—probably Lightbulb, he guessed—and Beanie was dead.

He shifted slightly to lie on his back, moving slowly, then reached for the cup of water that the nurses kept beside his bed.

Instead of a cup, a hand caught his, and he glanced up and saw the wrinkled face of Sportcoat standing above him.

He almost didn’t recognize him for a moment. The old fool wasn’t wearing his usual ragged, ugly sport coat from some era gone past. The plaid green-and-white one—the one that the old drunk wore for special occasions and church—used to bring howls of laughter from Deems and his friends every time they saw Sportcoat proudly strut out of Building 9 wearing it. The plaid sport coat looked like a walking flag draped around the old fart. Instead, the old man wore the blue pants and blue shirt of a Housing Authority worker and a porkpie hat. Clutched in his right hand was a homemade doll of some kind, a hideous-looking thing the size of a small pillow, brown with knitting material for hair and buttons stitched across the fabric to create a face. In his other hand was a small paper bag.

Deems nodded at the doll. “What’s that for?”

“It’s for you,” Sportcoat said proudly. “Remember Dominic, the Haitian Sensation? He lives in our building. Old Dominic makes these. He says they’re magic. They bring good luck. Or bad luck. Or whatever he wants ’em to. This here’s a get-well one. He made it special for you. And this here”—he reached into the paper bag, squirming his hand inside the bag, and produced a pink ball—“I got for you myself.” He held the ball out. “It’s an exercise ball. Squeeze that,” he said. “It’ll make your pitching hand stronger.”

Deems frowned. “What the fuck you doing here, man?”

“Son, you ain’t got to use that filthy language. I come a long way to see you.”

“You seen me. Now git.”

“That ain’t no way to talk to a friend.”

“You want me to say thank you, Sport? Okay, thank you. Now get lost.”

“I ain’t come here for that.”

“Well don’t ask me my business. The cops been doing that for two days.”

Sportcoat smiled, then placed the doll pillow at the edge of the bed. “I don’t care none about your business,” he said. “I care about mine.”

Deems rolled his eyes. What was it about this old man that made him tolerant of his stupid bullshit? “What kind of business you got in this hospital, Sport? They make your grape here? Your King Kong? You and your drink. Deacon King Kong,” he snickered. “That’s what they call you.”

Sportcoat ignored the insult. “Them names can’t hurt me. I got friends in this world,” he said proudly. “Two of ’em’s in this hospital. They put Hot Sausage in here, too, you know that? Right on the same floor. Can you believe it? I don’t know why they done that. I just come from him. He was digging at me the minute I walked in his room. Saying, ‘If you wasn’t chunking at me so bad, Sport, I’da never gone out there dressed like an umpire to bother Deems about that dumb ball game.’ I said, ‘Sausage, you can’t deny the boy got a future in base—’”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Deems said.

“Huh?”

“Shut your talking hole, you stupid motherfucker!”

“What?”

“Who wants to hear about you, you drunk bastard? You’s a fuckup, man. You fucked up everything. Don’t you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk? Deacon King Kong!”

Sportcoat blinked, feeling slightly cowed. “I already told you, your words can’t hurt me, boy, for I ain’t never done nothing wrong to ya. Other than care for you, a little bit.”

“You shot me, ya dumb nigger.”

“I don’t recall none of it, son.”

“Don’t ‘son’ me, you shitface bitch! You fucked around and shot me. The only reason I didn’t smoke your ass was because of my grandfather. That was my first mistake. Now Beanie’s dead because of you—and Sausage, that lazy, stupid chickenshit plumber’s-helper bitch. Two dumbass, old-time, donkey-ass idiots.”

Sportcoat was silent. He looked down at his hands, holding the pink Spaldeen ball. “Ain’t no cause for you to use them kind of words ’round me, son.”

“Don’t call me ‘son,’ you cockeyed, hundred-proof bitch bastard!”

Sportcoat looked at him oddly. Deems noted that the old drunk’s face was unusually clear. Sportcoat’s eyes, normally bloodshot, his eyelids, normally drooping and half-closed, were wide open. He was sweating, and his hands were shaking slightly. Deems also noticed, for the first time, that beneath the old drunk’s Housing Authority shirt, Sportcoat, even as an old man, was thickly built around the chest and arms. He had never noticed that before.

“Has I wronged you, son?” Sportcoat said softly. “In all them times we played baseball and all. Me giving encouragement and all . . . in Sunday school, teaching you the good word.”

“Get the fuck outta here, man. Get gone!”

Sportcoat puffed out his cheeks and released a long, drawn-out sigh. “All right,” he said. “Just one more thing. Then I’ll leave.”

The old man shuffled to the door, stuck his head into the hallway, looked both ways, then closed the door tightly. He shuffled back to Deems’s bed and leaned over him, to whisper something in his ear.

Deems snapped, “Get the fuck away—”

And then Sportcoat was on him. The old man lifted his knee quickly, pinned Deems’s usable right arm to his body with it, and with his right hand, picked up the doll pillow on Deems’s bed and rammed it onto Deems’s upturned face.

Deems, pinned, couldn’t move. He felt his air supply suddenly choke off. His head was pressed as in a vise. Sportcoat held firm, pressing down as Deems struggled, frantically gasping for air. Sportcoat spoke, slowly and calmly:

“When I was but a wee boy, my daddy did this to me. Said this would make me grow big and tough. He was an ignorant man, my daddy was. Mean as the devil. But he was chickenhearted when it come to the white man. He bought a mule once from a white man. That mule was sick when my daddy bought him. But the white told him that the mule couldn’t die because he, a white man, had ordered it to live. Know what happened?”

Deems struggled, panicked, straining for air. There was none.

“My daddy believed him. He took that mule home. And sure as we setting here, that mule died. I told him not to do it, but he didn’t listen to me.”

Sportcoat felt Deems’s struggles strengthen for a moment, then pressed the pillow down harder and continued speaking, his voice quiet, insistent, and frighteningly calm.

“See, my daddy thought I was too smart. He believed my mind was my enemy. So he pushed that pillow on my head to crush my mind. He wanted to make sure he was in control of my mind and my body. He was just like every white man I ever knowed who wanted power.”

He tightened the pillow against Deems’s face and felt Deems’s strains grow desperate now; he arched his back off the bed, struggling to live. But Sportcoat didn’t let up, pressing the pillow down even harder than ever; he continued talking:

“But then again, I can’t rightly say that if a colored man was in a position of power, he wouldn’t be the same.”

He felt Deems’s struggles grow wildly desperate now, the murmurs from beneath the doll pillow sounding like cat mewing, long ga-ga sounds, like the muffled bleating of a goat, then Deems’s frantic antics slowed and the sounds grew weaker, but Sportcoat kept pressing down and continued speaking calmly:

“See, Deems, in them days, everything had been decided for you. You had to go along. You didn’t even know that you were going along. You didn’t know there was anything else to do. You never wondered about anything else. You was locked into a kind of thinking. It never occurred to you to do anything but what you was told. I never asked why I was doing something or why I wasn’t doing something. I just did whatever I was told. So when my daddy did this to me, I didn’t feel no wrong in it. It was just another natural thing in the world.”

Deems’s struggles ceased now. He’d quit fighting.

Sportcoat released the pillow, and the suction of Deems pulling air into his lungs sounded like the starting of a car, a long, loud whirring noise, followed by several choking gasps. Barely conscious, Deems tried to turn away but could not, as Sportcoat still had his head pinned under one powerful hand, the other hand still holding the pillow doll high.

Then the spell was released, and Sportcoat casually tossed the doll pillow onto the floor and, rising, removed his knee from Deems’s right arm. “You understand?” he said.

But Deems didn’t understand. He was still gasping for breath and struggling to stay conscious. He wanted to reach for the nurse call button, but his good arm, his right one, felt frozen from where Sportcoat had smashed it. His broken left arm was roaring in pain. The noise in his ears sounded like a screeching buzz. With a great effort, he reached with his right hand for the nurse call button, but Sportcoat slapped the hand away and suddenly grabbed Deems by the hospital gown with hands that were firm and veined from seven decades of pulling weeds, digging trenches, planting trees, opening bottles, yanking out toilets, tightening pliers, hauling steel beams, and driving mules. The hands wrenched him to a nearly sitting position with a firm, tight snatch that felt like steel claws, yanking Deems so hard that the force of the pulling caused Deems to squeal, and Deems saw Sportcoat inches away from his face. And from there, so close, he saw in the old man’s face what he had felt down in the darkness of the harbor when the old man had yanked him to safety: the strength, the love, the resilience, the peace, the patience, and this time, something new, something he’d never seen in all the years he’d known old Sportcoat, the happy-go-lucky drunk of the Cause Houses: absolute, indestructible rage.

“Now I know why I tried to kill you,” Sportcoat said. “For the life of goodness is not one that your people has chosen for you. I don’t want that you should end up like me, or my Hettie, dead of sorrow in the harbor. I’m in the last Octobers of life, boy. I ain’t got many more Aprils left. It’s a right end for an old drunk like me, and a right end for you too that you die as a good boy, strong and handsome and smart, like I remembers you. Best pitcher in the world. Boy who could pitch his way outta the shithole we all has to live in. Better to remember you that way than as the sewer you has become. That’s a good dream. That’s a dream an old drunk like me deserves at the end of his days. For I done wasted every penny I had in the ways of goodness so long ago, I can’t remember ’em no more.”

He released Deems and flung him back against the bed so hard Deems’s head hit the headboard and he nearly passed out again.

“Don’t ever come near me again,” Sportcoat said. “If you do, I’ll deaden you where you stand.”

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