Djembe

Bill has been on the block since Vietnam, and has seen it go from White to Brown. He grew up across town, in a one-bedroom with his mother, when Bergenline was still Italian. He saw the first wave of Cubans come in the late 60’s, and felt right away this meant trouble. He watched as the Marielitas turned the town Brown in the 80’s, while the Italian exodus moved west to the burbs along route 3, where it was still White. But Bill refused to leave. He was a Veteran and the only thing he knew how to do was to stay and fight for what was his. At least that’s what he likes to tell people.

The truth is, in Vietnam, he never saw any real combat; never stepped on Vietnamese soil, never got to smell the stench of burning flesh, or hear the screech of mothers crying for their young, he never saw the red stain of crimson splattered across his victims faces, or feel the heat of fire warming his insides, because as a petty officer on the Enterprise, all he saw was ocean and leagues of men and sorties returning from their raids on Charlie. He was a miserable cook, not a fighter.

Bill hates his flat feet because they kept him out the Army, but tells everyone about the Tet Offensive and how he only got a scratch from a bullet scrape on his neck, and that’s why he never runs from a fight, because to him, the Latino immigrants moving in were like an invading foreign army he needed to repel. The Italians, however, abandoned ship, and now Union City has a darker skin.

Bill doesn’t talk about his discharge in 1969, after an Admiral, on a routine inspection, caught Bill on his hands and knees behind a meat rack, moving his head back and forth, back and forth. He claimed his superior forced him to, but the Navy was smarter then he thought, so he got an undesirable discharge, while his superior was forced to resign.

Today, he’s carrying two brown bags of groceries home from Pathmark. He steps into the street. A police car screeches at his side. Bill startles and drops his bags. “Hey, you wanna give me a damn heart attack?” he yells at the cops.

Dante, jumps out the passenger’s side to help Bill recover his goods. “Sorry sir. So sorry. We didn’t see you come from behind that van.” Dante picks up an apple, two oranges, a pack of Marlboro and an enema, and hands the items to Bill. Bill is upset, not so much from the scare or because his groceries fell to the ground, but because now two people, besides himself, know he’s constipated; the cashier and the cop. He snatches the enema and hurries across the street into his building.

Dante never imagined he’d end up a cop. During his sophomore year at William Paterson, his mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer and didn’t have much longer. He dropped out the Sociology program and took a full time job to care for his dying mama. Afterwards, he never went back to school, and instead, joined the force. He figured he could do some good as a cop, but the job quickly showed him the system was different then what he imagined.

“What a fucking douche bag,” his partner Mike snarls as Dante hops in the cruiser. “He was just scared,” Dante replies. “I should’ve hit his ass hard and saved the taxpayers some Medicare,” Mike says as he races off, blasting sirens and blaring lights, with no emergency in sight.

Dante knows Mike has a short fuse, so he just lets him be. What he doesn’t know is that last night, Mike followed his wife Mariah to a motel on route 1&9 and found her with a towering thuggish brother who looked like a bigger version of Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the 90’s. When Mike confronted them in the lot, he gave Mariah a quick black eye and smacked ODB with an open-hand bitch slap, and when Dirty Bastard came at him, Mike quickly pulled his glock and cocked it.

He knew she was cheating, but never imagined the dude was Black. Mariah has wanted a divorce over a year now, but he wouldn’t let her make that decision, because, of course, he is the man. But since he caught her in it, he’s gonna drop her like a wet rag and throw all her shit out and feel better because now it’s his decision.

He wanted to file for divorce this very morning, but he has no more sick days and is late on the mortgage, so he couldn’t afford a day off, and now he’s driving around town with the thought of a big black guy on top of his wife. Mike’s been impotent for two years and not even Yoga, or Viagra, have helped.

Bill enters his building, and he hears the thump and rumble of drums and knows right away that Kwame, his upstairs neighbor, is at it again. But a drum fest was not part of Bill’s agenda. All he wanted was to come home, flush with the enema, do his business on the toilet, masturbate to some boy-boy online teen porn, shower, shave, grab his bottle of Jim Beam and sit on his torn recliner with a Marlboro between his lips to watch clips of Archie Bunker on youtube. He wasn’t counting on Kwame’s Djembe pounding and rattling his apartment about.

He snatches the phone. 9-1-1.

“Yes. I want to make a noise complaint. Some African jungle monkey is beating his drums, disturbing my peace.” The operator responds, “Excuse me sir. Did you say a monkey?” Bill is annoyed. “Yeah. A nigger. He’s playing these drums and it’s too damn loud. Send someone over.” The operator responds, “We can take care of this sir, but please refrain from using derogatory terms.”

“Look missy, I know the mayor” Bill shoots back. “Either you send someone over or I’m gonna go up there and handle this myself and it ain’t gonna be pretty. I’m a Vietnam vet.”

A car is on its way.

On Sundays, Kwame usually chills at the drum circle in Central Park, where they spend hours playing Afro-Brazilian beats, while tourists watch in awe and dance and snap pictures and shoot videos for youtube and facebook, and sometimes they give the drummers a few bucks, but not always. This is Kwame’s typical Sunday hustle. But today, the heat is like sub-Sahara in July. Kwame knows better then to drum in this heat, so instead, he bums it in the house, grooving with a blunt of haze, sitting naked in his living room, while he plays his Djembe. He makes this drum talk and chant like few people can. Two window fans work overtime trying to suck the hot air out his apartment, but they’re not doing so well. His Djembe rumbles on and his dreads spray sweat down his naked body.

A rude banging disturbs the Djembe’s pattern. “What the fuck was that?” Kwame thinks, not sure if the weed got him bugging out or if he just train-wrecked it.

“Open up!” The knocking continues. “Open the door. It’s the police,” he hears them say. “Oh fuck. What the fuck?” Kwame whispers as he scrambles to put out the blunt. He creeps to the door and slowly peers out the peephole to see Dante and Mike, standing at his door. “Open the door!” Dante yells. Mike smacks the door with his baton.

Kwame, in his anxious Swahili accent, hollers back, “Ok. Hold up. Let me get some clothes on.” He scuttles across the living room, waving a lit Champa to try and mask the weed smell. He hides the half blunt, brings the fans inside to air out the room, but the cops are knocking and losing their patience. Kwame wraps a white towel around his waist and hurries to the door.

He only opens it a few inches, but apparently, that’s enough for Mike to get a whiff of the haze. “What’s that smell?” he asks, knowing damn well he knows exactly what that is since only last week he was hanging out with some of his buddy’s watching the Yankees at a BBQ and they were all taking hits from a bong. If his job didn’t do random drug tests, Mike told his boy Joey, “I would’ve been smoking that shit right along with ya buddy.” But cops do get tested.

“Oh. That’s the incense,” Kwame replies, but doesn’t make eye contact with Mike. “Bullshit!” Mike hits back. “I know pot when I smell it.” He pushes the door open. Kwame tries to stop him. “Hey you can’t just come in my house like that. I got rights.”

“Not anymore brother man. I smell drugs and that gives me reasonable suspicion to enter these premises. I gotta see if there’s any illegal activity taking place here.”

Kwame looks to Dante for help. “He’s right,” Dante tells him as the two cops enter the apartment. “We got a noise complaint from one of your neighbors. Says you been playing drums all day and having a loud party up here,” Mike tells him.

“I ain’t having no party,” Kwame quickly responds. “I was just practicing for my band. But I can stop. It’s no problem.”

“Too late,” Mike is quick to respond. “Now we gotta investigate this odor, right partner?” Mike asks Dante, with his Jim Carrey smirk. “Yup.”

Mike enters the living room, which is filled with plants of all sizes, Ghanaese traditional hand-carved masks covering the walls, Moroccan curtains on the windows, and a leopard-print love seat on a grassy green area rug. To Mike, this looks like an African voodoo jungle, but to Kwame, it’s home.

Kwame suddenly remembers he forgot to dump a few small roaches he half smoked, that are now sitting inside his Lebanese Shisha (Mike calls it a bong, Dante a Hookah). But Mike is very efficient at his job. He quickly spies Kwame’s anxiety and peeps the ashtray.

“Well looky looky. What we got here?” he asks rhetorically. “Hey partner. Looks like we got us a bad guy here.”

Dante goes to check. “You got anymore?” he asks Kwame.

“Nah. That’s it. That’s all I got,” he confesses in his most humble tone.

“Stop lying. Nigger’s always shucking and jiving. I know when you people telling lies,” Mike growls. Kwame doesn’t like the word nigger, but under the circumstances, there isn’t much protesting he could do. “Where’s the rest? Go get it,” Mike yells.

“I’m telling you that’s all I got,” Kwame shoots back with raised voice. But Mike doesn’t like his tone. He breathes his coffee breath in Kwame’s face, “You better go get your stash before I execute a search warrant and you’ll have ten officers turning your place into Katrina.”

“But I don’t got nothing,” Kwame insists.

“Come on Mike. Back off a little,” Dante pleads.

“This piece of shit is holding out,” Mike says. “He’s probably got Kilos under his fucking bed. You got kilos under your bed Kunta Kinte?”

Kwame’s had enough. “My name ain’t no Kunta Kinte. You better listen to your partner and back off.” “Or what? Back off or what?” Mike edges so close to his face, he might as well slip Kwame a tongue. Kwame nudges him back.

“Oh, you just assaulted a police officer!” Mike screams as he turns Kwame around to cuff him. Kwame resists and Mike puts him in a chokehold. The two men struggle, but Kwame is stronger, so Dante jumps in to help his partner. They knock over the Shisha and the roaches scatter on the floor. In the scuffle, Kwame’s towel falls off his waist and now he’s naked, wrestling two cops on his living room floor.

Kwame’s member hangs just above his knees, a real big papa, and of course Mike takes notice when this thing swinging about smacks him on his arm, forcing him to confront the unthinkable thought of a big black man, riding his wife in a motel room.

Bill hears the commotion from his apartment below as he paces back and forth, squeezing between piles of hoarded clutter, smiling and rubbing his hands like Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits. “He he he he he”

It’s not easy. But the cops finally get Kwame down. Dante’s baton is wrapped around his neck. Kwame is faced down on the floor with the weight of two cops on top of him. Mike is winded and reaches for his baton.

“You wanna assault police officers you muli motherfucker? You wanna fuck with me? Wanna fuck with me? Nobody fucks with me. Here you go you charcoal fuck. Take this!” he yells as he thrusts his dry baton inside Kwame and gives him a little of the old in out, in out. Kwame lets out a high-pitched scream that echoes through the building.

Bill hears that horrid scream and his smile slowly fades to blank, cause he knows something just went wrong. Kwame’s shriek reminds him too much of his own little hollers that no one ever heard back when he was a child, and uncle Pauly took him to baseball games and touched him in places he thought things only went out of, not in. He told his dad he didn’t like baseball, but dad called him a sissy boy and forced Billy to go every weekend.

Dante can’t believe what’s happening. This all reminds him of Isabela, who he and his boys ran a train on during a hooky party in High School, while she lay flat on her stomach, drunk and passed out on Ruffies. At the time, Dante convinced himself she really wanted it, and years later, when he tried to do right by her, it was too late, because word got out in school that Isabela was a dirty puta, so she dropped out and now has six kids on welfare. “Stop this shit! What the fuck is you doing?” He yells at Mike.

But Mike only stops when blood squirts out Kwame’s back.

The two cops release Kwame and tower above a broken and crumbled man, in fetal, on the floor.

Mike’s baton drips blood on his cop shoes. He’s no stranger to blood, but Kwame’s blood sends an eerie chill up his spine as his mind spirals back to that night when he was only a week on the force, still ripe, and he held that fourteen year old black kid in his arms, who had just been shot three times for his shoes. Mike sat on the ground and straddled the child, trying to keep him awake until the ambulance came, putting pressure on the wounds, which were dripping like leaky faucets. The child died in his arms and that image has haunted him since.

“What the fuck did I just do?” he asks himself.

Kwame squirms on the floor and thinks back to when he was nine years old and was kidnapped and forced to serve as a child soldier in the Lords Resistance Army, and remembers when the older soldiers initiated him by taking turns inside, to teach him about manhood and how to deal with pain, cause only strong soldiers survive the bush in Kony’s army. And he remembers when they raided a government village and his AK-47 jammed as a man protecting his home was about to pounce, but little Kwame was quick with his Machete and hacked the man to pieces, then blacked out as he entered the man’s home; and by the time he came to, the family’s body parts were scattered about the house, and the head of a child, who’s eyes reminded him of the little sister he remembered before his kidnapping, rested at his feet.

This is what’s on Kwame’s mind. He’s not thinking about the fact that even here, in America, history has a unique way of repeating itself.

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About Wilson Santos

Wilson Santos is a writer, filmmaker, music producer, DJ, spoken word artist, graphic designer, entrepreneur and college professor. And he makes a hell of a Mojito too.

Posted on November 20, 2012, in Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Amazing story. Not afraid to look at the real.

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