Original Fiction: Excerpt from “Sitting On The Knees of Gods”
“We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we’ve made some kind of evolutionary step forward.”
-Gloria Anzaldúa “La Conciencia de la Mestiza”
“‘New York!” he said. “That’s not a place, it’s a dream.”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Peach Grove, Alabama
Bright lights streamed through the seams of the wall, illuminating the newspapers that had been plastered to them with cheap glue and pond water. Clarence sat up, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His older brother, Abe, was standing next to the bed, pulling his pants on. Clarence rolled onto the floor and started to do the same. Someone was banging on the front door. Abe slipped on his Army issued boots, tying the laces tight. Their mother had already come out of the bedroom and was standing in the middle of the kitchen. Father was a step behind her. Abe walked over to them as he slung a suspender over his shoulder. “I got this.”
Father grabbed Abe’s arm. “Just give ‘em what they came for.”
Abe snapped on the other suspender over his undershirt as he walked towards the door. His walk was still a little shaky from the Spanish influenza that’d gotten him home early from the War. Clarence ran over to the window to watch. His brother stepped onto the porch and raised a hand to shield to his eyes from the headlights of two pick-up trucks idling in the front yard. Clarence’s dog, Julius, was nowhere to be found. A white man stood at the bottom of the steps flipping a wooden axe handle like a child would a stick. Clarence could see the outline of the Deputy’s ten-gallon hat as he leaned against the front of his squad car. Abe moved towards the porch stairs. “Awful late to be pounding down doors, Luke.”
Luke grinned. “You woulda thought they taught you respect in the Army.” Luke turned and looked over his shoulder at the Deputy. “What you think this nigger did when he was wearing them Army khakis?” The Deputy shrugged. Luke turned around. “I’ll tell you what he did. Nigga was a couple legs short of a pack mule.” Luke smiled and pointed the axe handle in Abe’s direction. “You ain’t no war hero, boy.” He laughed.
Abe clenched his fists. “This what you come here for?”
The Deputy stepped towards Luke. “I gotta get back to the station, Luke.”
Luke pointed the handle at him. “Shut the hell up, Barnes!” He looked back at Abe. “I’m here for what you owe my father.”
Abe squinted at him. “Since when do ya’ll do midnight collections?” Luke smacked the palm of his hand with the axe handle. Abe walked down the steps and into the yard. “You know this ain’t right, Mr. Luke, sir.”
Luke sauntered up to Abe and looked him up and down. “What you trying to say, boy?”
Able released his fists in an attempt to stay calm. “I’m saying your Pa cooked them books. We don’t owe you a goddam penny.” Abe looked over his shoulder at the house to see if they had heard him swear. When he turned around, Luke was already in mid swing. The axe handle cracked his jaw like the bats at the Birmingham Barons games, dropping him down to one knee. Mama screamed. Deputy Barnes ran to the porch steps and drew his Colt .45. He waved it in the direction of the house, glancing back at the fight in the yard.
Luke circled Abe, like a wolf, kicking the farm dust into his face. Abe coughed and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. Blood dripped into black pools in the dirt beneath him. Abe groaned as he tried to push himself onto all fours. Luke struck him in the middle of the back with the axe handle. Abe flopped to the ground. Blood flowed freely down the side of his face from a deep gash over his cheekbone. Luke poked him in the ribs with the handle.
“That all you got, war hero?”
Abe swayed as he struggled to his feet. Luke swung low and hit Abe behind the knee cap. Abe sank to the ground, falling forward into the dirt. Luke rained down blows. He hit him so hard that he split the wooden handle. Luke threw the splintered pieces to the side and straddled Abe’s body. Luke’s hands were black with blood as he pummeled Abe’s face. Deputy Barnes holstered his weapon and inched towards the fray. “Luke.” Luke continued the barrage of punches. “Luke!” Deputy Barnes ran up and tackled the man off of Abe. The two landed in the dirt, throwing up a cloud of dust. Luke pushed Barnes off of him.
“The hell you think you’re doing?!”
Barnes stood up and pointed at Abe’s still body. “You’re gonna kill him, dammit!”
Luke got up, dusting off his pants. He stared at Barnes, before spitting a brown stream into the dirt. “Let’s go.”
Barnes looked around at the darkened farm. “You even gonna get what you came here for?”
Luke flung his hand up indifferently as he walked towards his truck. He pulled open the driver’s side door and jumped in. He threw it in reverse and peeled out past the Laurent’s chicken coop, onto the main road. Deputy Barnes picked his hat up out of the dirt and slapped it against his legs. He looked towards the house for a moment before walking to his truck. He put it in reverse and headed down the road towards town. Mama stumbled out the door and down the stairs. She fell into the dirt next to Abe’s body. For thirteen year old Clarence, time was moving at half speed, the moon turning everything it touched to silver.
Harlem, New York City
The sun was setting and the alley I had walked down was already darker than the street behind me. I made my way towards the faint shaft of light shooting out from under the door on the left side of the alley and used my rucksack to push it open. The ballroom of the club was dark, save for candles set in the middle of all the tables. Black girls were putting out silverware and the bartender was drying out glasses with a white towel. Fellas wearing white dress shirts and black slacks were spreading out large tablecloths over round tables. A black man with his back to me, sat at one of the already dressed tables, leaning forward to read something in the dim light of the candle. He flipped the page of what sounded like a newspaper. The smoke from his cigarette created a silver haze around him. I cleared my throat. He turned and squinted. “Who’s there?”
“Clarence Laurent, sir.”
The man squinted. “You walk all the way to Central Park and back?”
“Actually, sir, I thought you were off 133rd and 8th. I had to walk back down from where my ride left me off. I bummed a ride from a wagon picking up-” The man waved off my explanation as he stood and walked over. He wore his black hair straight and slicked back.
“How’d you get here?”
“All the way from Birmingham?”
I shrugged. “I hitched when I could.”
He looked me up and down. “This all you brought?”
I held up my rucksack. “It’s all I’ve got.”
The man smile flashing the whitest row of teeth I’d ever seen in another black man. “Guess it’s all you need then, ain’t it?” He pulled a gold-chained watch out of his vest pocket. “The other boys will be here soon,” he said as he patted me on the back. “Let’s get you to the green room.”
We made our way through the sea of tables and past the bar. I followed him through a part in a burgundy curtain. He pointed to his right, down the hall. “Mr. O’dell’s office is up those stairs there.”
“I thought you were…”
He chuckled as he pointed at himself. “Freddie ain’t got the berries to run a joint like this.”
We walked down the hall towards the green room. Freddie unlocked the door. He walked in and pulled a chain under one of the vanities. A row of light bulbs over the mirror lit up. The room was small. I stood in the doorway as Freddie turned on the rest of the lights.
Freddie nodded and motioned towards one of the vanities. “This’ll be your spot for the night. Put your stuff in the drawer.” He looked me up and down. “Got any other clothes?”
I shook my head. “Why?”
“You look like you walked here in a thunderstorm.”
I looked down at my sweat soaked shirt. “It’s the only one I’ve got.”
Freddie shrugged his shoulders. “Guess you’ll have to make do.”
I set my bag down on the lowboy and slumped into the chair. Freddie walked over and stood behind me. He placed his hands on my shoulders. “No ones gonna care about what you’re wearin’.” He checked his watch. “Take some time to get yourself situated. I’ll be back in ten.”
I took my trumpet out and riffled through the valves. I pulled a jar of lard out of my rucksack and placed it on the floor next to my chair. I unscrewed the valves and laid them on the lowboy. There was a knock at the door. “You presentable, Clarence?” Before I could answer, the door swung open and Freddie was standing there grinning. “Let me introduce you to the boys.” He stepped to the side and they began to walk in. Freddie called their names out as they made their way to their vanities. “This here’s Righteous Pete.” Pete nodded as he walked in. A large man was making his way towards me. “The big fella sitting down next to you is Fat Nuts McGee.” A rounder man, with a bowler hat was walking towards the center vanity. “Making his way towards the seat of honor is Barry “Sugar Fingers” DuBois. No relation.” He motioned towards me. “This here’s Clarence Laurent from Birmingham.”
“Peach Grove,” I said.
“Right.” Freddie grinned. “Peach Grove.”
Righteous Pete looked over his shoulder and sniffed the air. “Who ordered the Rueben Special?” He got up and walked over to my vanity. He bent down and grabbed the jar before I could shove it under my chair with my foot. He sniffed it and shook his head. “This ain’t no backwoods chicken shack, Rueben. We’re gonna have to get you some real horn oil.” The rest of the band started to laugh. Freddie got between the two of us.
“Give the kid a break, Pete. He ain’t as country as he seems.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “He’s using pig grease on his horn valves!”
I slid the jar back into my bag and screwed the valves back into my trumpet. Freddie crossed his arms. “Tell them how long you been playing, Rube.”
I looked over at him. “Six years, give or take.”
“How big’s your book?” Freddie asked.
Pete looked over his shoulder from his lowboy. “You know O’dell can smell a fake a mile away.”
Freddie looked over at me. “I heard him play at the Silver Spoon in Birmingham.”
Pete smiled. “This ain’t no country shine box, Freddie.”
Barry stood up and walked to the middle of the room. “Pete. Lay off the newborn.” He turned to Freddie. “You. Get the hell outta my green room.”
Freddie bowed. “Au revoir, gentlemen.” He smiled as he closed the door. Barry walked over and knelt down by my chair.
“I know we a small outfit, but you gotta understand something. This is a business, Rueben. Mr. O’dell only cares about the greenbacks. He’s made this one of the most popular black and tan resorts in the entire Jungle.” He turned around and began stretching out his fingers. “You mess with his operation, and you’re done.”
I blew some air into the mouthpiece of my trumpet. There was a knock on the door. Barry opened it. Freddie walked in and pulled out his watch.
“Showtime!” He looked over at me. “Play like you did at the Silver Spoon and you’ll be right as rain.” He closed the door.
Barry walked to the middle of the room and lowered his head. “We come before you tonight and ask that you fill our mouths and fingers with that glorious thing called jazz. We come to you now because we know that it’s only at the foot of your throne that true music exists. We ask that you send us down a strand of that melody, an echo of that heavenly tune. Without you, we know we are nothing but clanging bells and clashing cymbals. In your precious Son’s name we pray; Amen.” Fat Nuts crossed himself. Barry rubbed his hands together. “Ya’ll know we’re only as good as our last show. Ain’t no space for mistakes. Keep your shit tight.” Barry looked at all of us in turn. “Sky’s the limit, gentlemen. See you in the clouds.” He turned and walked out the door. We followed him down the hall and through the burgundy curtain.
In the dining room, blacks were sitting next to whites. Beautiful women and handsome men talking, drinking, smiling at each other. Exotic perfumes mingled with the sweet caress of cured tobacco smoke. The candles cast haunting glows on the tables and the parties that encircled them. Lacquered wood, divided in straight panels by thin strips of stainless steel, lined the walls that surrounded the dining room. Carved portraits of mythical maidens lounging with fawns and deer glowed in the light of the candles. We made our way past the parquet dance floor and onto the stage. Fat Nuts slid behind the drums, Righteous picked up the stand up bass and Barry took his place at the piano. I took up a spot on the left side of the stage. The noise and talking simmered down to a hush. The heat of the room combined with the cigar and cigarette smoke to create a blue haze that sunk down into the dark spaces between the tables. I blew some air through my trumpet. Beads of sweat were already rolling down my neck and forehead. Pete looked at me. “You better smoke that trumpet, Rube.” I turned and looked at Barry. Fat Nuts positioned his sticks over the snare and hi-hat. Barry held three fingers up in the air.
“Ah one, and a two, and ah one, two, three, four…”
I turned towards the darkness and raised the trumpet to my lips.
I grabbed my bag, and pulled the chain for the vanity lights. Freddie was waiting in the hall. I shut the door behind me. He pulled a cigarette out of a silver case and extended the case towards me. “Smoke?” I shook my head. He extended them further with a grin. “You sure?”
He shrugged and slid the case back into his jacket pocket. We walked down the hall. “You played well, tonight.”
I looked over at him. “You think so?”
He smiled. “I know so.”
He grinned. “Don’t get all teary eyed on me now.”
I smiled. He bypassed the curtain and walked towards the stairs. “Let’s get you up to meet the boss before you leave.”
Freddie closed the door behind us as we left Mr. O’dell’s office. My new boss was not what I had expected. Freddie led the way down the hall.
“Swell cat once you get to know him.”
“Half black, you know.”
I looked over at Freddie with raised eyebrows. “No kidding?”
“Dad’s black and his mom’s Irish.” He paused. “She’s dead. Caught the Spanish Flu a few years back.”
“My brother had that.”
“Scary shit, my man. He make it out ok?”
I nodded. “So Mr. O’dell passes for white pretty easily.” We walked down the stairs and through the burgundy curtain into the now empty dining room. The waitresses were clearing off the tables. Freddie tipped his hat to them as we walked by. One of them smiled at me.
“Nice job up there.”
“Thanks,” I replied over my shoulder as we made our way to the door. We got outside and strolled down the alley into the street. The sky was the navy blue of early morning. Freddie flicked his cigarette into a gutter. He looked over at me.
“Where you gonna stay?”
“The Y off 135th.”
“I’ll walk you there.” Freddie nodded at musicians as they made their way out of the other nightclubs. We made a right on 7th. It seemed that while half the city was waking up, the other half was going to sleep. I took a deep breath of the warm summer air. I loved how organized Harlem was. The sidewalks were straight, with trees that grew out of perfect, grated squares that popped up every couple feet. The buildings were two, three stories tall, with gilded plaster lining the windows and doors. Places like this were built for white folks. We made a right on 135th. The Y was the tallest building on the street. We stopped in front of the stone steps. Freddie looked up at the tower. “Wasn’t too long ago I was staying here myself.”
He nodded. “Stayed here till I got my place over at the 267.” I looked at the ground. Freddie patted me on the back. “You need any help with any of that?” He motioned towards my rucksack. “I wouldn’t mind coming up and giving you a hand.”
The sun was beginning to peek its head over the tops of the buildings. My eyelids felt like they had lead weights hanging from them. “I think I’m alright. I appreciate the offer, though.”
Freddie smiled. “No worries. See you tomorrow?”
I nodded. “Sure.” We shook hands and Freddie started to walk back down 135th. I turned around, walked inside the lobby and made my way up to the front desk. An old man was reading a book. He looked up at me as I approached the desk. He closed the book and stood. “Can I help you, son?”
I set my rucksack down. “You have any rooms available?”
He chuckled and pulled out a large brown book. “Going rate’s five dollars and thirty four cents a night.”
I smiled. “Suits me fine.”
“What’s your name?”
He wrote my name slowly with a pen. “Happy to have your patronage, Clarence.” He pulled a key off the wall behind him. “Room 37. Toilet’s at the end of the hall, and there’s a sink in the bathroom. If it’s not water, don’t pour it down. No lady friends in the rooms. Fresh sheets will come around every two weeks. You’ll pay when you leave.” I nodded. He handed me the key. “I’ll be here if you need me.”
I took the key and picked up my rucksack. “I didn’t catch your name.”
He smiled. “I didn’t offer it.”
I smiled and made my way up the stairs to my room on the third floor. I unlocked the door. It only took five steps to get to the window that looked out on the street. I set my bag down on the bureau, flopped onto the bed and sank into a dreamless sleep.
Part II can be found here.
Justin Campbell is the winner of the 2013 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for African American Writers for an excerpt from his novella, Sitting On The Knees of Gods. He is currently a Graduate Teaching Fellow studying Creative Writing and Literature at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Ca. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in 34th Parallel Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, and others. He lives with his wife and son in Whittier, CA.
©2013 Justin Campbell. All rights reserved.
Campbell, Justin. “Excerpt from “Sitting On The Knees of Gods.” Weblog post. The Two Cities. The Two Cities, 13 Sept. 2013. Web.
*NOTE: The following fictional text contains language and situations that may not be suitable for young readers. Please be advised.
 an unsophisticated country bumpkin; also, “rube”