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"Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."
from .....Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was late at night, and I was driving through south Memphis, somewhere near Latham Street, on my way home after having finished the three-to-eleven shift at the truck docks on South Parkway. It was 1969, and Dr. Martin Luther King had already been assassinated in Memphis the previous year. I was a white boy. South Memphis was a black community. A large black community. I had to drive through it to get to work each afternoon, and had to drive through it to get home each night. Most of the guys I worked with were black men. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King had seared normal relations between blacks and whites in Memphis.
This night was Friday night, payday night. I had already cashed my paycheck at the liquor store across the street from where I worked. I had money in my wallet and a young wife at home in east Memphis who would be expecting me and that money.
Stopping at a red light, I was the first car in my lane at the intersection. From the corner on my left came a man out into the street, directly at my window. His head was on his left shoulder, leaning there tightly, trapping the wide collar of his full length overcoat. There was extreme urgency in his fast stride to my car door. I cracked the window to see what he wanted. I was young.
"Mayne, Nigga done cut my throat, mayne!" the black dude blurted through obvious pain and shock. "Can you get me to da hospital?"
"Sure, Dude! Hop in!" I said as I leaned across my front seat and unlocked the passenger-side door. He made a hasty bee-line around the front of my car and slid in. I checked the traffic light overhead, which had now turned green. My mind raced. I'd need to turn right and head over toward South Third Street for the quickest shot at the University Of Tennessee Medical Center Emergency room. I looked back at the Dude as I accelerated and began my turn. Miracle of miracles, his throat wound had instantly healed and his attitude had changed. I could tell these things easily because his head had straightened up and his face had turned to mine and his right hand had pushed a long-bladed knife rather uncomfortably into my ribs below my right arm, which was busy making the turn.
"Ah'm gonna hafta rob yo' honky ass, sucka!" the Dude said.
My foot came off the clutch all the way, and the car lurched a bit. I had the presence of mind to keep it in the lane as I completed the turn. But that was all the presence of mind I had. I had been home from the War just a year or so, and was still in very good shape physically, and somewhat sharp mentally in high-pressure situations. But the knife point which was threatening to push through my clothing and into my ribs at any instant was a new scenario. I had experience with fighting, with guns and such, but I had never encountered a robbery attempt with a drawn knife. Driving compounded my problem. My mind was a blur and so was my heart. All I could come up with was to talk to the dude, buy some time to plan a counter attack.
"Can you back off that blade just a little bit? It's about to stick me, and that could make me wreck the car?"
"Wreck dis bitch an' yo's a dead muthafucka! Now shut yo mou' 'n' gimme yo money!"
"Okay! Okay! Just go easy with that blade, awright?" I was raising up to get my wallet from my hip pocket. His knife was in the way. "Look, dude, you gotta move that blade so I can reach my wallet. Just don't cut me, man. You can have my money!"
The Dude was beginning to gain confidence. He could tell that I would be easy to rob now that he had the drop on me. And he was smart enough to know not to remove that blade from my ribs. "Shut yo ass up, muthafucka, fo' I let yo air all outta ya! Jes raise up off yo ass and I'll get it mysef!"
So I did that. The Dude gets my wallet out of my pocket and, without moving the knife, tells me to keep my eyes straight ahead and don't try to look at him while he's inspecting the wallet's contents. He punctuated that with a little push of the knife against my side, making me know that even a bump in the street could get me stabbed.
"Okay, Dude! Okay! I'm lookin' straight ahead. I'm cooperating, so just stay calm. You can have the money. I ain't gonna fight you with that blade stuck in my side like that.
Now my mind was racing. The gravity of this was beginning to show some weight. What to do, and how to do. Options. Ever try to pick a thought from a whirlwind? I have, and usually the whirlwind itself picks me for it's stomping grounds, and thinking becomes a useless fantasy.
But I didn't have to think long anyway. While my mind was racing, so, it seems, was the Dude's mind racing. Seeing several hundred dollars in the wallet, he accelerated in his thinking right away.
"Awright, moufou, yo ass is driving my ass to South Florida Street."
"What part of Florida Street?"
"Nevah mind, mothafucka! Just drive. I'll tell you where to turn. Don' make no moves now, moufou, or I'll cut your goddam dick off!"
"Okay, okay!" I said. The talking was crude, but it was talking. I began to get an idea. I might could rely on a resource I've always had. Bull shit. For all the years of being cursed with bull shit, being only able to say bull shit, to only think bull shit, to live a life of bull shit, now, finally, in a moment of life and death portent, how ironic if it were bull shit which came to my rescue? Something in my insides liked the feel of the idea.
I turned slightly and looked at him. A thin dude with smooth features. He had a desperado look to him. His overcoat and hat looked foreign on him. They were almost vintage in their cuts, and he was the future. A desperate future. I looked at his big knife for the first time, glanced at it while driving. The blade was black, so it did not give a gleam. The teeth on the front top of the blade looked just like the teeth on a K-bar. That's a Marine Corps issue combat knife, one of the best fighting-man's knives in the world. I knew it well.
"Hey", I said, "that looks like a K-bar!"
"How'd you know what it is, Honky?"
"Got one myself. Got it in the War."
"Yah, an' now I guess you gonna tell me you was in the Corps, right?"
"C Battery, Second LAAM Battalion."
"No shit! Honky! You was in the Crotch?"
"Well kiss my muthafuckin' ass!"
"Well fuck your motherfucking ass!, uh, one Marine to another." I tried to force a weak smile at him.
"Well dat changes evahthang! I'm gonna buy you a beer before I kills yo ass!"
Another block went by. Things were working. I wasn't particularly pleased with the "before I kills yo ass!" part of the Dude's last statement, but the part about buying me a beer sounded like a window. Until I saw where he wanted to buy me that beer.
"What's yo name, muthafucka?"
"They call me Alias."
"Well ah'm Iceberg Slim. You heard of me?"
"Don't think so, not `til now."
"Well yo ain't gon' evah forget my ass, `cause I'm the cat that's gonna send yo ass to heaven. That IS where dead white boys go, ain't it?"
"Iceberg Slim. That's a hell of a name. So now you got all my money and you want to kill me anyway. Why do you want to kill another Marine?"
"Cuz you got my description. When somebody meets Iceberg Slim, they write they own death certificate."
"Well, maybe you wasn't really in the Corps. How'd I be able to know?"
"Evah heah of the Village Burners, mothafucka?"
"Yep. One Five. First Battalion of the Fifth Marines. Been in their camp a time or two. Were you in One Five?"
"Bet yo honky ass I was."
"`66 and a little of `67."
"No shit! `66 and `67 for me too! So you know who An Tan Annie was?"
"What? Were you at Chu Lai too?"
"Well, Muthafucka! I'm really gonna buy you a beer now. One round for the Crotch!"
That was better. A beer without the "kill yo ass!" part. But things were about to pick up.
"Turn right here. Slow down. Pull in theah."
`Theah' was one of the sleaziest bars on South Florida in Memphis. I would have imagined that there hadn't been a white dude in that bar in it's entire history. Definitely a neighborhood bar, and nobody in that neighborhood had been white for two generations or more. The impending nearness of my death looked bigger all of a sudden. I mean, if Iceberg Slim didn't kill me, any number of other patrons inside that bar would. It's no secret what South Memphis thought of white people in the late sixties. Anyway anyone looked at it, if I went inside that bar I would be a trespasser, and the law would make a report about it later, probably after my corpse was identified by my family down at the morgue. I wasn't stupid. I could see these things looming.
"Hey, man, like, I can't go into that bar!"
"What the fuck yo tryin' ta do? I be tellin' yo what we doin', so you just shut yo fuckin' face and slide out this side after me."
"Inside was awful. The place was packed with a cultured late Friday night crowd. There was a jazz/blues band which was jumping. The smoky air was charged with edginess as my presence was noticed by several tables of older men. Iceberg Slim kept the knife in my back through his overcoat pocket. It looked like he was guiding me to a table. I was braced for anything. I already knew I could take his knife while it was in his pocket like that, but it would have to wait until we left. I would absolutely not be able to do anything inside this bar but try to survive. We sat at a small round table for two. He ordered a pitcher, for which he tipped generously. The waitress noticed the wad of money in his hand and her face told me the obvious, that he was not usually seen there with a handful of money. She smiled at him and me, having no idea of what was going down between us, but knowing that something had to be happening.
I tried to focus on the band. I remember there was a clarinet player who was as smooth as any reed man you'd ever hear. There was a trombone and a tenor sax, a fully-equipped drummer, and the guitars. At times the trombonist would pick up a muted trumpet. The band was tight. And loose. This would have been their third set that night, and they were grooving. Most of the place was grooving with them, except the several tables of older men who maintained an interest in what the fuck Iceberg Slim was doing with some Honky dude from East Memphis in their bar. They sensed trouble. I sensed trouble. Iceberg Slim was trouble. I was very deliberate about my face, my posture, everything. This was no time for the slightest mistake. Iceberg Slim poured each of us a round and pushed a glass at me.
"To the Great Green Crotch, Muthafucka!" he said and raised a glass. I reached to do the same. "Eat th' apple and fuck the Corps!"
"Fuckin' A!" I rejoined.
"Now don't yo be worry'n yo ass off. Ain't no niggas in hea gonna fuck with you while you's drinking with Iceberg Slim. Sheiit, ah owns dis place!"
I understood that he meant that he was in his element, in saying that he owned the place. Apparently he was well known here. I was praying he was. Oddly, the very dude who was going to kill me later was the only hope of not being killed now, in the bar. And all I had to do was drink a glass of draft beer.
We bantered back and forth a little. I noticed Iceberg Slim kept looking around a lot, like he thought he'd avoid any trouble from the other dudes in the bar if he just looked at them first. It seemed a strange style of dominance, but then my host was definitely not a normal person. It made me uncomfortable. As if I wasn't already.
Halfway through my glass of beer, I tried the "I gotta pee" thing. He decided I didn't. He was drinking faster than I was, and already had refilled his glass. I was noticing that I had been in there over ten minutes already, and was still alive. I still had some kind of hope, if it was a vague hope at best. A Marine improvises. And a Marine never dies without permission. Iceberg Slim was beginning to enjoy his ownership of the moment. I saw it in his bearing. I went easily along with that, letting him lead the conversation. Despite the gulf between our two worlds, many things we had both endured in Viet Nam were expandable topics which kept him drinking and talking, kept our conversation alive. And truly, this night, conversation was my salvation.
Now I'm gonna keep it short here. Nobody approached our table with any trouble or picking. The waitress brought another pitcher, from which Iceberg Slim poured me a fresh glass. He was having a good time now. And it was all paid for by a honky who he had well in his hand. The beer had a quick effect on him. We ended up drinking three pitchers before he was so drunk that I could see him catching his head as it nodded. I knew I had to leave with him. It would be fatal to leave without him. I'd never get out of the parking lot, even if I got that far.
So when he got completely zonked, I got up and went around the table and picked him up. Drawing an arm across my shoulders, I helped him walk out the front door. He livened up a bit `til we got to the car. I opened the door for him, slid him into the front seat, then went around and got in on the driver's side. Iceberg Slim woke up enough to tell me to take us to the Harlem House, a twenty-four hour breakfast kitchen several blocks down the street. I did, and helped him walk inside. We fell into a booth, and I ordered scrambled eggs and toast for both of us. With grits, bacon, and coffee.
Iceberg Slim's head was really drooping by the time our food arrived. It came too late to help him regain control. As I started to eat, his face finally fell forward onto the scrambled eggs. I got up and went to his side of the booth. The cook and waitress were the only ones who noticed, and since I was obviously trying to take care of the dude, they quickly resumed their prior interests. I reached into his coat pocket and withdrew my wad of cash and the K-bar. The K-bar went nicely under my jacket, and the money went to my jacket pocket, all the while my left hand was acting like it was looking for a napkin to start cleaning his face. Finally, holding his head with my right hand and moving the plate with my left hand, I arranged a better place for his face and laid it there.
I then turned to the cook and said, "We parked a couple of blocks down the street. I'll just go get the car and bring it to the door. If one of you can, when I get back, I'll need some help getting him into the car." With that I walked out the door, went around the corner to my car, got in and drove in a daze to my home.
Just to show that everything is relative, consider this. I had thought I was in trouble all night. But when I got home I found out what trouble really is.
It looked like this. Young husband comes home at five in the morning. He stinks of beer and smoke. He is hours late. He hasn't called. He is short the money from his paycheck which Iceberg Slim had used to get us drunk and fed, while making great friends with the waitress at the bar. His story is that he was robbed, but that, miraculously, he got most of the money back. That it took hours to get it back. That he had to drink beer to get the money back. That he had actually feared that he could get killed. That he made his escape from a restaurant, after eating breakfast with the dude who had robbed him.
Would your wife believe that? Trouble? My troubles were just beginning....
© Elias Alias ™ 1999, 2008
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