Elmo is hungry and all he has to get food with is some loose change in one hand and a Saturday night special in the other. He just stole both from the jaked-out cat sprawled in the dark alley at his feet, the old white man so homeless drunk he doesn’t even know he’s been ripped off. Elmo looks down at him as he stuffs the pistol in the pocket of his Army field jacket, disgusted by the white devil’s sloth.
All white people are devils in Elmo’s eyes because that’s what his new god Jah told him. In person.
He turns and hustles up the alley toward the street, pushing rain-soaked dreadlocks from his eyes and counting coins.
“Seventy-six cents, shit, barely enough to buy a bag of pork rinds.”
He reaches the head of the alley and pockets the coins and pulls out the pistol to eyeball it under a streetlight. A small automatic, what he calls a belly gun, the chrome plating all beat up, a chunk of the plastic handle chipped off at the bottom corner. And he can tell from the heft of it that the damn thing’s loaded, too.
Elmo thinks hard, deciding whether to throw it away or to sell it. Guns make him jumpy because they cause him trouble with the androids that work for The Coalition, the ones that drive around disguised as police. After the last run-in with them he figured out They have radars installed in their heads that triggers alarms when he has a gun or a knife, then They track him down and throw him in jail and put him in a hospital where they shoot him up with this stuff they call medicine.
It’s not really medicine, though. It’s chemicals The Coalition invented to foul the electronics Jah implanted in Elmo’s head to record the white man’s evil deeds here on Earth. Recordings He will use to damn the motherfuckin’ Man on the Day of Judgment.
His stomach growls and cramps, folds in on itself and makes electronic static crackle and pop in his head, causes other noises he’s not heard before. He ignores the new noises and listens to old voices that tell him he has no choice but to risk another rumble with The Coalition. You can always get money for a gun and he needs food and drink to get his electronics back in good running order. He sets his jaw and fits the pistol between his belt and pants. Zips his field jacket and hangs a right on Jefferson Street toward 8th Avenue. Pauses before a billboard with a malt liquor ad on it that says BRACE YOURSELF and he braces himself and moves out, on high alert for Coalition soldiers and scanning the streets for someone who looks able to buy a gun.
A nimble little man, he clings to shadows as much as he can, scurrying like a park squirrel under awnings and in and out of doorways to block the view of surveillance satellites. The streets are slicked black by rain but the weather has cleared and stars are out. Lots of people out, too, mostly street people but there are also the ones who hurt street people—the ones who sell crack and meth and those who want it, the ones who sell street pussy and those who want that.
Prostitution, meth, crack, all tools the white devil uses to keep the black race enslaved.
There, on the next corner at 11th, a freckly redheaded devil and a brother huddled with a black whore Elmo’s seen shaggin’ ass in that neighborhood before. Their faces are flush with sexual desire and they’re all smoking cigarettes, then they’re laughing loud and large-mouthed and double-action furnace doors are bolted to their faces that are opening and clanking shut . . . opening and clanking shut . . . smoke and sparks of brimstone shooting out between sooty teeth.
Elmo blinks and shakes his head, like he’s clearing the screen of that Etch-O-Sketch toy he had as a kid.
The beings become normal again.
Elmo’s suspicious of their transformation so he ducks behind a parked car to size them up. He concludes they’re probably human, and it looks like the devil’s in charge—like they always are—and is negotiating some ass for him and the brother, a package deal. Elmo creeps along the shadowy side of an old department store building to get as close to this Abomination as possible before activating his electronics. He’ll have to record them quickly because they’ll go somewhere else soon, all three getting bare-assed and doing each other in a slippery white-brown pile of slithering arms and legs, their juices squirting all over the walls and making puddles on the floor and—
The devil somehow senses Elmo behind him and whips around. “Hey, what the— Dang, man, you scared me.”
The whore jumps a little but gets a quick grip on herself. “Oh, don’t be scared, Miles. That’s just Elmo.” She grins and says, “He’s a Rastafarian prophet,” and giggles.
The brother grins, too, tosses his smoke on the ground and grinds it out with the toe of his boot. “I’ll be. Rasta man here’s awful young for a prophet.” He looks Elmo over and stops grinning, moves in front of the whore as if to protect her. “Hey, I recognize you. Some cop came by the mission yesterday, showin’ your picture around. You escaped from, what, jail or something?”
Elmo notices a wooden cross hanging from the brother’s neck. A cross dangles from the woman’s neck, too, and Elmo considers whether she’s really a whore or somebody else he’s seen around and then it dawns on him. All their eyes start glowing like the vacuum tubes inside his father’s old Motorola TV, and he knows they’re scanning him with laser beams and he panics and runs like hell.
They’re all screaming at him to stop, to come back and talk, and he’s thinking, They the ones that disguise themselves like mission workers!
The Coalition is some slick motherfuckers, real slick.
Their sirens wail from a distance. He sprints faster down the sidewalk, takes a hard left at the intersection at 18th Street but sees a sign on a post that says WRONG WAY so he skids to a stop and sprints back in the opposite direction.
He darts back across the intersection and over the curb and sideswipes a loaded-down grocery cart after he dodges the bag lady pushing it, crashes into a bank of garbage cans and rolls in the gutter. The bag lady stands over him, and she’s white but her face is streaked black with dirt and she looks the way Mahalia Jackson would’ve looked if Mahalia Jackson had been a fat ‘n filthy white woman. She leans into his face and starts belting out the old Negro Spiritual Steal Away to Jesus in a revved-up, fervent contralto, her face stretching like rubber and her mouth opening as wide as the bell of a trumpet when she splays her arms and sings to the heavens as if performing at Carnegie Hall.
Moved by the song yet horrified by the sheer volume of the woman’s voice, by the pipe organ whining madly in the background, he jumps up running again. He makes it to the other side of the street and runs two long blocks before he sees a sign that says NO EXIT. The sign portends bad events so he dashes down the alley on the other side of the street and collapses behind a dumpster in a wheezy heap, his mind racing so fast it seems somebody’s jacked a fat fiber-optic cable into his ear and is pumping a river of corrupted data into his brain. He swipes at either side of his head to make sure that’s not happening then pulls a crinkly and worn length of aluminum foil from his coat pocket and wraps it around his head once, twice, three times to contain his electronic signals so The Coalition can’t detect him. Coils up fetus-like and floats in the ectoplasm of the black night.
His breathing echoes and rattles about inside his cocoon and the foil makes the air taste tinny. Serenity engulfs him. Elmo always finds solace in the nocturnal phase of this World. Feels as untouchable as an angel while alone in the darkness, immune from the persecutions of those threatened by his spiritual aptitude: Like those high school teachers who dragged him from the pep rally after he’d grabbed the microphone and told everyone they’d burn in hell for worshipping the school mascot (a false idol if there ever was one); like that MP who booted him out of the recruiting office—actually used the sole of his boot—when he tried to expose those demons who were there disguised as recruits to infiltrate the Government; like his old man—an ordained minister of the Free Brethren Evangelical Church—who beat him senseless then disowned him after he stood in service and testified that Jesus appeared before him in the graveyard and directed that he join the Rastafarian movement. . . .
Then, just a couple weeks ago, that Coalition soldier disguised as a redneck bible salesman that pulled a knife when Elmo came up to it late of night and asked for a contribution to further Jah’s work. Called Elmo a stinkin’ bum and a nigger pagan and went at him with the knife and wouldn’t back off even when Elmo tried to run. Yelped and whimpered like a bitch dog, though, when Elmo poked his finger in its eye socket then swiped its knife and jammed it in the back of its neck, its head going all lopsided when he yanked it out.
Turns out it wasn’t worth the trouble. That knife drew other Androids to him and they triangulated his coordinates and kicked his ass and threw him in a Coalition jail before transporting him to that place they call a hospital. Jah intervened a couple days ago when he instructed a Rastafarian staff member to leave a gate unlocked for Elmo in the exercise yard.
Elmo relives the grandeur of his escape while all curled up in the alley then his belly rumbles loudly and uncomfortably. He rubs it. On the upstroke of his right hand he feels the hard outline of the pistol in his belt and the cold thought seizes him that he might die tonight. His last imprisonment was awful beyond belief. They shot him up with those special chemicals that made him sleep at night and be wakeful at day, made him feel like a vampire working day shift, and They installed gadgets in his head that almost obliterated his theology.
That’s what the Coalition does to you. It makes you go flat fuckin’ crazy.
They had caught him then because of that knife and They will catch him now because of this gun if he doesn’t get rid of it real soon. He decides then-and-there he won’t get caught tonight because he’ll fight harder than he ever has and will die if it comes to that. No, he will not go back there. He just won’t.
He visualizes his impending death in magnificent detail and rejoices in the glory of it. Revels in his destiny and murmurs tearful prayers and joyous exhortations. Sings hymns from his childhood and what little Bob Marley he’s learned. Then he receives messages. Not words, but communications nonetheless. Feelings and impressions ripe with implications. All in a form clearer than language that pours into his head the way fresh oxygen does when you surface from being underwater too long.
Jah, in His own way, urging Elmo to stand and walk right, to get on with His Work.
Jah, ordering Elmo to unwrap the foil from his head before he suffocates.
Elmo uncurls his body and sits. He’s so lightheaded that pinpoints of light are flashing and pricking at his brain. The inside of the foil is slick with sweat, tears and slobber, and he peels away a piece of it to peek out to see if anyone is there.
Still dark outside. Still cool and damp. No sirens. Quiet.
All giggly with pride that he has tricked Them again, he unwraps the foil from his head and catches his breath.
Then there is the dry mouth.
Then there are the hunger pangs.
He stands. To steady himself he grabs the lip of the dumpster and his hand slips on the goo that has formed there from rainwater mixed with dirt and rotting food. Gets a firmer purchase and pulls himself up to stand tiptoed so as to see inside the dumpster. Too dark to see anything clearly but the odor and busy flies tell him from experience that anything he eats from in there will do him more harm than good.
He turns and shuffles toward the street, sniffling and wiping his slimy hands on the hem of his jacket. He takes a right and skulks down the street, nothing familiar to him. He becomes certain he’s never been in this part of town when after a block or so he sees a bright purple building on the next corner, an old renovated filling station. Metal bars protect the windows and doors and the service bays are walled up and painted purple with big yellow letters on them that shout SWAG’S PAWN SHOP and PAY DAY LOANS and DISCOUNT JEWLERY. Elmo usually avoids places like this but the marquee promises WE WILL TREAT YOU RIGHT and he believes they will. He pats the pistol in his belt then jogs across the street hump-backed to get as low to the ground as possible.
A buzzer goes off when he walks through the door. The fluorescent lighting makes it hard for him to see, makes him squint and blink and rub his eyes. His nose works, though. A spicy, fatty aroma fills his nostrils and activates parts of his brain he’s forgotten he has. Kicks his electronics into ultra fast-forward so that the images he sees herky-jerk before his eyes.
His eyes adjust to the light and he sees two brothers standing before him. One is behind a counter flanked by two walls of glass and the center glass section is rolled up so he can talk freely to the man on the other side. Resting on the counter between them is a big yellow bucket of Popeye’s fried chicken, bones piled on a napkin beside it. Next to the bone pile is a six-pack of Budweiser tall boys with two cans missing.
“You hear me, boy? I said we’re closed.” It’s the man behind the counter again, and he’s throwing off a fiery-eyed look that burns Elmo’s stomach.
Elmo’s practically stoned from the smell of chicken, and he presses his palms together and bows repeatedly while he gives all he has to the traditional Rastafarian greeting: “Respect . . . respect . . . respect.”
His mouth waters uncontrollably and his body shivers head-to-toe.
The brother leaning on the counter across from Counter Man—a big light-skinned dude who’s wearing tinted glasses and a leather jacket—looks Elmo over and lifts an eyebrow in a way that signifies recognition but Elmo’s sure they’ve never met. “Don’t mind Swag here, little man. C’mon in. You hungry?”
“What? You crazy, Johnson? This ain’t no fuckin’ soup kitchen.”
The big dude called Johnson shushes the man he called Swag, whispers a few sentences to him then turns to Elmo. “Swag’s alright with you bein’ here, l’il bro’. Come over here and get yourself some chicken.” He reaches behind the counter and comes out with a plastic bottle of something that Elmo thinks might be dishwashing liquid. “But use this first. It’s hand sanitizer. Hold out your hands for me. Just rub it in. You don’t need water with it.”
Johnson squirts a big dollop of the stuff in Elmo’s hands and gives him a roll of paper towels then extends the bucket. “Take a big piece, more if you want it. We got plenty. Have a beer, too.”
Oh, man. “Thank you, brother. Thank you very much.”
Elmo hasn’t mouthed food like this in weeks. He switch-blades his eyes at Swag, cuffs saliva from his lips then reaches into the bucket for that plump breast calling to him right on top there. He bites off a big chunk so rapaciously that juice squirts on his brow and drips down his nose like it’s raining chicken grease. Takes a second bite before he’s barely chewed the first and washes it all down with gulps from the tallboy Bud that Johnson hands him.
Johnson talks while Elmo eats, saying the usual things people say to him in situations as these: You got somewhere to stay? There are people that will help you, you know. Give you a place to sleep, eat, take a shower. I can drive you there, if you want . . .
Focusing more on his chicken and beer, between bites and gulps and sighs and gasps Elmo explains that I’m a follower of Ras Tafari Makonnen, later known as Emperor Haille Selassie, King of Ethiopia and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the earthly manifestation of Jah and the black messiah, the climax of Jah’s revelation as described in the New Testament. So, no, I won’t go to any of those places to eat or sleep because they’re all controlled by white men. All us black people are Israelites reincarnated and have been persecuted by the white man in divine punishment for our sins. Now, though, it’s our turn to get back at him and free ourselves from the Babylon he’s enslaved us in here on Earth. On Judgment Day I will sit on the right hand of Jah and provide proof of the white man’s evil deeds, and He shall condemn the Man to burn in hell forever. I won’t be in the debt of no fuckin’ white man. I hate ‘em all.
Johnson waits for Elmo to take another piece of chicken, shakes his head at the floor then looks up at Elmo. “Don’t want to make light of your religious beliefs, l’il bro, but white people are all right. My momma’s white.”
Elmo stares cautiously at Johnson and reaches into the bucket for another leg and a thigh and stuffs them into his coat pocket. Backs out of Johnson’s reach. He chews his chicken and thinks about trying an apology on the man—as insincere as it would be—when he notices a void behind the counter that makes little needles of panic jab at his insides. He looks to his left then to his right. “Where’d that man behind the counter sneak off to?”
Johnson shrugs, smiles a smile that’s a little too big. “Swag? Oh, uh, he probably went to the bathroom. You’re all right, now, calm down. Need another beer?”
Elmo sees an open door in the corner behind the counter to his right that exposes a toilet and sink. Nobody is in there. The panic hits him full force now, is all consuming, and the masticated chicken swells in his mouth and loses its taste, like a gelatinous glob of spoiled sinew. He spits it on the floor and starts backing toward the door.
“Hey, hey, l’il bro. What’s the problem?”
“I wanna know what that man’s doin’.”
Johnson pivots to look behind the counter, seeming to notice the open bathroom door, and makes a soothing gesture at Elmo with his hands. “It’s okay, man, really. He’ll be right back.”
Elmo backs further toward the door and activates his audio electronics, hears Swag murmuring in urgent and precise tones like he’s talking to somebody official on the phone.
Johnson’s eyes blink on like car taillights and his voice flattens. “Stay where you are. I’m a cop.” He peels back his jacket to show Elmo the badge clipped to his belt. “The people with the mission reported that—hey, stop!”
Elmo blasts through the door and down the sidewalk like he’s been shot from that gun in his belt. He hears footsteps behind him and turns to see the robocop in pursuit, gaining on him and emitting the usual electronically recorded demands: Police! You’re under arrest! Halt or I’ll shoot! . . .
As he runs Elmo pulls out his gun and pleads to Jah for strength to outrun this Coalition robot before the others get there. He runs so fast he’s ready to lift off into the air like a superhero, all the while grabbing at garbage cans and throwing them behind him as obstacles. He sees a sign that says SPEED LIMIT 35 and he fears he might be exceeding that. He doesn’t make it a half block before the machine overtakes him and tackles him, its cogs and sprockets whirring and cranking something awful like they always do.
Face down on the pavement now, Elmo feels the Thing clamp steel-cold handcuffs on his left wrist. He spins around, jams the gun into where its vital components are located and jerks off one, two, three quick shots.
The contraption rolls off him and its recorded voice is jumping off loop and emitting electronic gibberish, its red eye-lights are flickering out of sync and its lubricants are spilling from its crankcase all over the walk. Then it quits flopping around and goes dead silent.
Elmo gets to his knees and sees Swag standing before him, a sawed-off pump shotgun in his hands. The man’s face is flush and contorted, his eyes flashing thunderbolts, and he’s inching toward Elmo. “Johnson fed your pitiful ass and you go and shoot him.” He shoulders the shotgun, thumbs off the safety and takes aim, the barrel within a yard of Elmo’s mouth now. “Drop that gun, motherfucker, or I’ll blow your gotdamn head off. And I mean now.”
Elmo knows he’s done for. A squad of Coalition soldiers will be there any minute and they’re going to lock him down and jack him up with those chemicals that will erase all thoughts of Jah, will heathenize him and belittle him in Jah’s eyes. They’ll pump him full of that shit and will keep him in prison forever.
Bolted to the brick wall to his left, at the entrance to an alley, he sees a sign; it’s illuminated by a streetlight bright as day, and it says DEAD END.
Still on his knees, Elmo turns back to Swag, a quick prayer running through his head. He stares into the shotgun barrel, into its void, then closes his eyes and jerks up the pistol and hollers so loud he doesn’t hear the blast: “Jaaahh—