Frailty and flab didn’t keep neighborhood elders from demanding respect. They upheld social order on sagging shoulders and corrected trifling, ungrateful slobs with threats of old school punishment. Grizzly, retired men threatened to rap knuckles and slash switches across backs. Mean, goat-bearded women promised to slap lying tongues into the stratosphere. I was afraid of walking passed their porches with nappy hair and wrinkled jeans. Their anvil-headed judgment squashed ignorant-ass punks like me.
Neighborhood elders claimed to practice tough love, but they held a special, unforgiving contempt for dope dealers. They had seen crack ravage generations. Hot pipes split lips, chemical clouds suffocated kin, rocks avalanched, crushed sons and daughters.
When a dope dealer got shot, nobody sang praises at his funeral. When he got out of prison, nobody baked him peach cobbler, welcomed him home. When his mind turned on itself, nobody counseled him. They watched as paranoia and guilt turned feral, grew wing and talon, savaged skull and breast. When a dope dealer’s family withered, neighborhood elders grunted and said that’s what them lousy motherfuckers get.
So you have to understand my dread when I found a pickle jar full of crack hidden in my dead uncle’s closet. I feared his death wasn’t enough to clear the karmic debt he had charged to our bloodline. I imagined elders chewing iron nails, banging hammers, erecting crosses of shame to crucify me and my folks.
Mom never talked about her brother, as if the mention of him would beg hellfire to fry our sorry asses. If I asked her anything about him, she’d stomp and cuss me bald. If I told her I had touched That Shit, she’d chop off my hand, boil it, feed fingers to pigeons. Nobody would discuss Grown Folks Business with me except for Teeth.
Old dude was a defunct dope dealer and prison mystic who rocked gold fangs. He claimed that my uncle had burned out whole blocks beside him back in the day. After coming home from a long prison stint, Teeth tried to revive his drug game. But that shit didn’t work. He came out dusty and broke. Young thundercats feared that his failure would infect them, rot the gold around their necks, raise lesions on their limited-editions sneakers. They avoided him, and neighborhood elders mocked him, told him White Castles is always hiring. They love shitbirds. They sho’ll do. So Teeth switched up his grind and earned bread by selling junk and tall tales to chumps. For real.
He’d post up at Fairground Park, raise a busted pair of clippers, holler I know this don’t look like much, but this thing right here sheared Samson’s hair, made him bald as a baby’s backside, weak as a kitten, ripe for the butcher—you hear me? He sold bus passes that never expired, sardine tins that multiplied overnight, boom boxes that blasted God’s voice.
Most folks laughed at him or cussed him out—but the folks who spent money—they listened for a hot minute and walked away with a dazzled look in their eyes, as if they had stumbled out of a crypt and couldn’t adjust to that new light.
Baby Keith from around the corner got conned into buying a pair of cheetah print sunglasses for $20. The fool said those sunglasses let him see bad news before it hit. A grizzly, retired man snatched the sunglasses off his face, crushed them in a fist, and said a blind man can see trouble coming, if he know where to look.
Now I didn’t believe Teeth’s bullshit, but after hiding that pickle jar full of crack in a crawl space, and having stress dreams where neighborhood elders circled me, stripped me naked, and clobbered me with red bricks, I slanged that shit in my backpack and searched for him that very next day, hoping I could snatch raw, bloody answers from between his fangs.
I couldn’t find Teeth fast enough. That pickle jar full of crack felt like a boulder in my backpack. Anxiety squeezed air out of my lungs as I entertained grim visions of neighborhood elders leaping off their porches to serve me reckoning. I thought Mr. Simons, the master landscaper and botanist, might’ve dropped his garden shears and grinded my bones under his riding mower; I thought Miss Jacqueline, the caterer and historic food scholar, might’ve drop-kicked me into a bubbling vat of hot canola oil.
I biked to Fairground Park without trouble, but I didn’t find Teeth by that track where middle-aged women powerwalked and curled jugs of water. I didn’t find him near the cement rink where roller skate kings and queens busted disco moves and cut neat curlicues. I didn’t find him by the abandoned pool where a race riot once broke out (Mean, goat-bearded old women told stories of square-headed white boys brandishing crow bars and baseball bats, cracking heads, cracking backs. Once it was over, those women carried their sons, cousins, and brothers back home, rubbed frozen peas on swollen faces, soothed bruises with cool hands and soft voices).
I found Teeth smoking a cigarette by the lake, near the medieval-looking stone bridge. He sat on a worn leather trunk and bobbed his head to the static rasp of a beat-up little radio set between his feet. He snapped out of his mellow vibe and burned through me with a glare.
I propped my bike up against a tree, shifted my backpack, approached him. He studied my frown, cut off his radio, tapped ashes in his palm. He told me, “Boy, you been waiting on me? Yes you was. You been waiting on me your whole life. Don’t hide your face now. Don’t holler. Don’t run.”
Teeth laid his game on me before I could even ask him about my uncle or that pickle jar full of dope. He told me, “Young man, burdens trouble your heart—that’s plain for everybody to see, but I’ll get your mind right. Sho’ll will. All I ask is that you listen—can you do that much? Just listen, and I’ll make those burdens lighter than a feather. You’ll fly high, once we through. You’ll see. You’ll fly high, but don’t block out my light.”
He licked his thumb, pinched the cherry off his cigarette, tucked the butt behind his ear. That hard shine on his gold fangs made me think of him in a past life, raiding pyramids and shucking bracelets off bleached bone.
”Now when you jammed up for ten, fifteen years, there ain’t much to do but lift weights and read. You sho’ll can get your hands dirty if you want to, but even a chump like me know better. I seen them cats swindling and killing each other like they ain’t had enough nonsense out in streets.
”So I’d lay up on my cot and watch them cats bust heads and slash throats over soda-pops and candy bars, and I say to myself na’ll. I don’t want no part of that. I’m too damn old. Too damn beat. Na’ll. Lemme me just go’n head here and read this damn book. And that’s all I did. Read and read and read.
“I set down and read the bible ‘bout a hundred times—sho’ll did—and more than that, I read stories from all over the world, picked the brains of poets and prophets from China, India, Africa, and they all had one thing in common to say: you don’t ever come back home empty handed. I took that to heart and trained my eye to spot treasures men forget. Now I’ma’ show you one not everybody gets to see.”
Teeth hopped up and snapped open the brass buckles on his trunk. He rummaged through the junk, and I was expecting a hot deal on Cleopatra’s comb or a panther’s eye—I expected him to pull out anything except an ornamental hunting knife. Red fur covered the bone-handle. Bright sunlight banked off the blade’s tip.
“Bad, ain’t it? You might think you need a nasty son-of-a-bitch like this. Keep them wild niggas up off you—but that ain’t my point. You go running ‘round swinging this motherfucker at just anybody, and it’ll end up in your own damn back, sooner or later.” He ran his nail along the knife’s edge. It sang an eerie note.
“Oh yeah—I ain’t lying. This motherfucker is guaranteed to take 1,000 lives once it tastes blood—and you know what the bitch is? The last death will be yours. Now shut up and lemme tell you something about it.”
But first, I gotta tell you ‘bout these folks who mastered all creation. They had the game licked. Bees brought honey to the lips of our people. Animals bowed beneath blades. The sky wept at songs, soaked the earth in that good, good rain. Yams and wild flowers came popping clean out the dirt. Common rocks yielded gold and jewels. Men stood tall, brawny backed and strong in the trunk. The women were so damn beautiful, you’d turn to pudding trying to look them in the eye—boy, I ain’t lying! They was honey-dipped and thick.
Now whenever you on top, there always gon’ be somebody’s hating-ass waiting ‘round the corner to knock you down. So don’t act surprised when I say a tribe of giants became jealous of how the Masters of Creation were blessed. They waged war, stripped power from our people, and left them in the cold and dark. You can master creation, but that don’t mean you can’t get that ass whooped.
Quicker than I can snap my fingers, life became hard. Bees coveted honey and stung lips. Animals grew wild, broke blades under claw and hoof. The sky ignored the songs of our people. The earth dried up and cracked. Homes buckled and collapsed. Men lost faith and became weak. Women withered under all that sorrow. Charms broke. Our good people suffered God’s wrath.
And you best believe that cold took a tighter hold, settled damp in lungs and bones. Brothers killed brothers. Men whored they wives. Women shamed they children—and more than that. The ancestors jumped up out they graves, wandered that wasteland, and questioned each and every descendant.
What the Hell is wrong with ya’ll? How in the Hell ya’ll let this mess happen? After everything we been through. After everything we done did for ya’ll. Shit. After everything we done. Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn . . .
So the elders put they hands together and prayed for heroes. Folks say a star flashed bright in the sky that same night—and soon after—five virgins found themselves with child. Three days later, each woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy. They fed them boys milk and stew—and in just one night—they all grew into full grown men, big and strong, long wooly hair, hot coals in they eyes, all that. You already know they was blessed with sacred powers and hunting skills.
Zabari had a hide of iron. He could bust boulders with his fist and wrestle tigers to a stalemate. Tuma could hurl his club over the horizon and call yams out the ground with a slow, sweet song. Cayman could bust through three shields with his spear, whistle, and change the course of rivers. Khari could stitch wounds with the life lines from his palm and hit a ant’s eye with his arrow. Akachi could snatch humming birds out the sky with his net and turn gristle into good meat. Goat, chicken, jack rabbit—whatever you want.
So them elders gathered them young bloods and told them about a mighty, gold bull that lived in the Badlands. If those boys could hunt the gold bull and take his meat, hide, and bones, they could bring a new age of plenty. Zabari, Tuma, Cayman, Khari, and Akachi thumped chests and accepted that challenge. They was cocky as could be—you hear? Dead cocky.
But the wisest elder warned them boys and said we know you bad as they come, but we ain’t never seen you struggle a day in your life. Not a goddamn day in your life. What do ya’ll think you can do for us without knowing pain and the seduction of death?
I die when they shear my hair. I die when they cut me with a look. I die when they call me out my name. I die when the groceries is high. I die when the lights cut out. I die when they spit on my brother, turn a cold shoulder to my plight. If you love me like you say you do, you’ll suffer. Child, you’ll suffer with me and not say a damn word.
Zabari, Tuma, Cayman, Khari, and Akachi tracked that gold bull to the Badlands—and I ain’t got to say it. You already know bad news was coming ‘round the corner. Now that bull was no ordinary beast. He was ornery, strong, and cunning as I don’t know what. He juked and jived, led those boys to death, one by one.
That gold bull juked and jived Akachi, led him into a cave full of sharp rocks and spiders. That boy got lost and never saw the light of day again. That gold bull led Khari into brambles, growing thicker and meaner with every step, ripping flesh clean off that boy’s bones ‘til he was nothing but string and gristle. That gold bull outmatched Cayman, blunted that boy’s spear tip with his invulnerable hide. When that boy went to the river to drink and summon his strength, a great lizard bit him, dragged him down into that deep, dark water. That bull made Tuma eat mud until he couldn’t breathe no more. Now finally, that gold bull went toe-to-toe with Zabari—but he couldn’t best that boy—Hell na’ll!
Zabari grappled the bull, took him by his horns, lifted him high in the air. That boy body slammed him—BAM! Knocked the piss out that motherfucker! Dropped him so hard the earth shook. That gold bull lay defeated, but like I said, he was no ordinary beast. So before Zabari could break his neck and avenge his brothers, that bull spoke, talked all that shit.
That bull snorted and told him boy, you may eat of my flesh, drink of my blood and gain incredible willpower. You may use my bones to build homes that cannot be demolished by nature or man. you may use my hide and craft charms that protect you from vengeful gods. You may take the fire from my heart and light the dark. You may break my ribs, fashion a knife, and reign as king.
You might do all that, but some day, after you think the battle’s won, and there’s no enemy in sight, folks will come to fear your power. Power will change you—don’t think it won’t. You will turn your knife on your brothers. They will call you arrogant and ruthless. The men you rely on will stab you in the back, take power for themselves. They will beat their drums with your bones, drink broth from your skull, pull scriptures from your tongue, burn them. They will do evil until they too are struck down. Knowing all that, you still want to break my damn neck?
Teeth told me, “That’s all I know. I can’t say if the boy was successful or not, but I do know that this same story gets told in a lot of different ways. In some stories it’s not a gold bull that them boys chase, but it’s a fox, a bird, or a shooting star—though that ain’t the point.” He laid the Dagger of 1,000 Deaths on his thigh, relit his cigarette, and took a long drag. “Na’ll, that ain’t the point.”
I folded my arms and told him, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. You can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, and plus, what do you mean you don’t know what he did? How else would you have that dagger if he didn’t kill the bull?”
“What do you want me to tell you?”
“Zabari or whoever put up with a lot bullshit for a little bit of power he couldn’t use.”
“That’s what I been saying. But at least he had a choice.”
“Right, and they both sucked.”
“You ever heard the saying ‘act like a motherfucking fool, and I’ma’ treat you like a motherfucking fool’?”
“See, boy, that’s your problem. You think you smart, but you don’t know shit.” Teeth finished his cigarette, picked up the dagger off his thigh, and pointed it at me. “Now is you gon’ buy this knife or not?”
“Man, please. Do I look like I have money?”
Teeth laughed. “Na’ll—boy you look raggedy as fuck, like you just fell off the back of a pumpkin truck, with your country, baloney eating-ass—but that ain’t my problem.” He picked his fingernails with the dagger and glared at me. “You can’t be wasting my time. I ain’t got shit else. You need to buck up, beg, borrow, steal, and pay tribute. Knowledge ain’t free. Niggas died for this shit”
Teeth kept pushing me, and so I gave him the only thing of value I had. I unzipped my backpack and tossed him that pickle jar full of crack. He caught it. His eyes bugged out as if I had thrown a troll’s head in his lap. He held it up to the light. The rocks shone dingy white and jagged, like the splintered teeth of rodents.
Teeth asked me, “What the fuck you want me to do with this?”
I shrugged and told him, “You know better than me.”
Teeth searched his pockets for another cigarette, but he couldn’t find one. He lowered his head, looked up at me with a furrowed brow, and said, “Boy, let me tell you something. You know I was walking down the street the other day, and Miss Annette—you know Miss Anette—the sweet thing who be selling candy apples and sno-cones? She seen me the other day, and you know what she did? She spat dead in my motherfucking face. Dead in my face. Snot and everything.
Her cousin smoked up his job, his house, his car—and guess who she blames? Like I can break anybody’s back by my lonesome. But the bitch is, when you, handing out loans, paying tuition, feeding folks, everybody loves you. But then you fall flat on your ass, where they at? You just a oldhead then. You just the scum of the motherfucking earth. Now tell me—am I right or wrong?”
I shrugged. “I really don’t know.”
Hurt broke Teeth’s face as he jabbed a finger at me. “Now you been standing here for ‘bout an hour, staring me dead in my face, nodding your head on some unh-hunh, unh-hunh shit, and you ain’t heard a goddamn word I said, lil’ brother. Not a goddamn word. I said I’m through. I already told you—I’m through.”
He stood, thrust the pickle jar of crack in my face, and said. “This shit right here, it ain’t nothing. It ain’t what folks think it is. But this shit—it ain’t nothing at all.” He chucked That Shit high and far. We both watched as it turned in the air and hit the lake’s surface with an explosive, depth-charge splash.
Teeth turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder, leaned his weight on me and said, “Lil’ brother, don’t play games with me. Listen when I say this—I said I’m through.”
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