It’s hard to see Unc in the shade, with his being the same shade as the shade, but you can always depend to watch his mouth, to track that gold tooth, a glinting last to last extravagance. “It’s position, not possession,” Unc says. “Not possession, but position,” he says, and swanks into view.
Unc throws contemplative eyes to the sky. They’re the familial bug eyes, impressive eyes, so big he might see the future, or maybe even another dimension.
The man motions me closer, flaunting the only ring he wears—probably his only ring left to wear—a pinky joint set with an ambit of murky diamonds, and warns we can’t let this highgrade reach the wrong ears. Then he pauses for what’s likely the sake of suspense, pauses and says, “You’ve got to have tools G O T D A M N Y O U M E, meaning your rides, your crib, your clothes, your gold, you’ve got to, but all you got’s a molehill without a mouthpiece.” He points at his cracked lips, opened with a sliver of space between them, a pipe-smoker’s lips, forever scorched. “And those gorilla moves,” he says, “I S W E A R F O G O D try em and see don’t they get you nothin less than more of what you never wanted. That gorilla ain’t bout nothin,” he says. “A smart one comes from here,” he says, and touches his temple, “never from here,” he says. Unc assumes a southpaw’s stance, shakes miniature fists with abnormally big un-bruised knuckles, then switches to orthodox and whispers G O T D A M N Y O U M E again for God only knows.
Okay, now is as good a time as any to ask, good people, if you’d please, please, preempt the hatetrocity. He’s my Unc, all right. My real blood relative.
“Say, Nephew,” Unc says. “This how you play it. Soon as you knock one, you keep your head down and palm up. Head down. Palm up,” he says again, assuming the pose. He stands a while after, a Buddhist maybe, lanky limbs hanging, lank neck sprouting out of his weathered silk shirt, double-creased slacks, second-hand gators spraddled, big-knuckled babyish hands unfurled to show nails long enough to dredge coke, sharp enough to cut steak.
To be true, Unc is sympathetic almost with what the years have done to him, with what he’s done to himself over the years, though with the way he yearns he might make more years than us all, be the only one alive the next coming, which is unsuspecting as shit, considering advice you’d call unholy. Or might couldn’t. “Don’t turn down nothin but your collar,” he advises, which helped him become the first and penultimate around our way to hustle a plane, though he now borrows hubcaps forever, hawks scrap-metal for rent, and sends the mother of his youngest to a strip where the going rate is less than you’d drop on prime sirloin.
Unc says I S W E A R F O G O D again for who knows why.
And people, you can say or think what you will, but my Unc might not be, matterfact most likely isn’t, one of those old heads you can pay no nevermind without it costing.
“Your rides,” say Unc. “Hellified mouthpiece or not, just you try to knock one in a bucket. Just you try to knock one worth a damn without a coupla rides from the year of and at least one Americanmade manufactured when times was good.”
Unc says his bottom leaving tripped a weak run. “But that’s how it goes,” he says. “One minute you’re up and the next—well, you know.” He pitches his formidable bug eyes at me, eyes that can’t anymore see past his past. He hops on a bench, plants a second-hand gator on the seat and leaves another hovering. He rubs his puny hands over a head of semi-receding stubble, and says that normally the highgrade is sold not told, but since I’m family and all, he’ll accept an I.O.U. and a pack of menthols. He laughs and frisks the capacious pockets of his double-creased slacks, pockets once laden with down- payment enough for anything, but now most often filled with less than, with atoms, straight zeroth!
“Position not possession,” he says again, and warns never capitulate in so many words. My bad, I mean in so many words, the man says it.
My girl’s so bad, so bad, that to lay sight on her is as if accepting a wound. In here, among these strobes and kaleidoscopes of color the early evening crowd can see what I see and I see them willfully, achingly, damn near greedily receiving hurt from her. Unc asks me to point her out and when I show him he says, “Now that, that I S W E A R F O G O D, is a goldmine!” I say, in so many words, that I don’t have the heart to ask, much less convince her. I tell him about what I feel and so on and he says that not all of them is meant, but the ones that is you can’t keep from sending themselves. “Nephew,” Unc says, “it’s either in they nature or it ain’t.”
My girl’s a spectacle up there, syncopating and twirling and shimmying and stomping in heels tall enough to fall from and die, a semaphore for the sound. We sit tables away—how could I do anything but sit tables away?—while my girl dances a song, a song, a song. I watch her step down and hear the deejay ask us to give her a hand, calling her by the name she’s named herself for here.
The crowd claps, then stops all abrupt-like. The deejay tells us to hold tight for a quick intermission, and meantime my girl sends me that smile of hers that’s a constellation of white and leads one of the harmed to a section reserved for special attention.
What I don’t tell Unc is I’ve accepted so many wounds from her I might be experiencing an afterlife. Then again, who’s to say I’m marred enough for a rebirth.
As I was saying, my bad, I mean as I was about to say, my Unc is vivid under the lights. The man’s silk shirt is iridescent in HD! And you should see the grays glowing in his coveted stubble. I buy the man a double-shot of top-shelf and watch him sip with a snort-length pinky awry.
Says Unc,“Yougottohaveaname,GOTDAMNYOUME.Youmust.” He offers up choices, Broadway or Bootleg or America or Famous or Slick. He says that he knew someone successful named Social. Tells me that I can name myself Super anything except Man. “And be careful with those Pretty’s too,” he says. “Pretty Tony, Pretty Ricky. It’s been enough already with niggas named Pretty.” Unc warns when I’m ready, really ready, I’ve got to choose. Choose maybe Maverick or Sir or Hero or Hype or Juice or Slim or Quick or Charm. He says if I want to go for color I’ve got Black or Red. “But don’t forget you brownskinned,” he says, “choose wise.”
Unc waves his dinged-up diminutive fists—fists so small they might be the antichrist—back and forth and makes exclamations out what’s borderline unmentionable.
Those hands of his about the size mine were when Unc was bullet-proof, faster than you name it. Before in ways that matter most to me, he couldn’t measure up—or wouldn’t, previous to it being hard for me to trust a man who talks with that much flourish.
“You listenin?” he says.
“Maybe,” I say.
“So I guess now you some kind of motherfuckin comedian,” he says. “Say, all jokes aside Nephew, scratch those gangster names too.” He says Jynx and Pistol and Stitches and Killer are all absolutely out of the question. He says to me for me to be leery of naming myself little anything, and that’s ditto for small animals. “And somethin else,” the man says, gesturing again with those timid-ass fists, “a good name ain’t never ironic.”
“Sounds good,” I say, “but tell me, Unc, what’s the what forreal?”
“What’s what is what’s at stake, Nephew,” he says. “I B U L L S H I T Y O U N O T, it’s always bout what’s at stake.”
“And that is?”
“The question is just what ain’t?” Unc says. “What the hell ain’t of import?”
Unc serves more choices, Ten Toes or Dollar or Fly Guy or Champ. He sweeps his collar for God knows why and reminds me that without a name I ain’t certified. “But when you claim one,” he says, and downs the last of his top-shelf, “the world knows you ain’t to be fucked with.”
My girl dazzles over and sits herself near us and swipes at strands of silky weave stuck to her face from sweat. I watch Unc eye her and see he isn’t accepting any wounds but he also isn’t compelled to look away. I touch her wrist—about the most I ever do in this place—and she leaves it still. “This my uncle,” I say, and ask how her night’s going.
“It’s goin,” she says, fixes her top, exhales what could be her soul. She says to Unc that she’s heard so much, which, O N E V E R Y T H I N G I L O V E, isn’t the least bit a lie.
“How you diggin it here?” says Unc to my girl.
“I got a feelin,” she says, “That this place is not to be dug.”
“Believe, baby girl,” Unc says, “if it’s anybody know that, it’s me.”
Unc makes his remarkable front tooth something to behold and prospects around before visiting a gaze on my sweet thing.
The two of them carry on until the music makes it impossible to be heard without screaming. My girl gets up, kisses my cheek—more than she usually does in this place— and virtually levitates towards the exit. She comes to rest right before she reaches the threshold and gifts me a smile with just those eyes.
“She ain’t one to send,” Unc says. “Not when she looks at you like that.”
I want to ask Unc if he’s absolutely, positively, undoubtedly, irrevocably sure, but all I manage is a predictable silly-ass pause.
“Say, Nephew,” he says, “Trust and believe I won’t never hype you on no half-ass truths. What I tell you bout this here is the best of what’s best.”
Another girl comes on. Astonishing as mine? Yeah, fuckin right. This girl, she’s thin-thin with a worn face and mottled legs and stutters around in a sequined two-piece with her unpolished toes pitched over the ledge of low-heeled sandals. Unc glides his chair out from the table, says about her before we leave that even an old pro such as hisself would be hardpressed. “Be lucky to check a tank of gas outta that one,” he says, blows on his diamond-spec ring real dramatic, and buffs it on his wrinkled slacks.
Next thing, we’re in Unc’s ride from a year other than the year of, from the past that’s kept him captive, a joint he keeps spotless, fragrant with evergreen, with its leather seats and dashboard glazed.
No lies, when he fires the engine, it sounds like breath. “Ready?” he says.
“For what?” I say.
He crafts an eyebrow into a half moon and says remember the rules, position, palms, collar.
I tell him in my own way that I’m not so sure if I got what it takes, if I’ve been blessed or cursed with heart, and so on.
Unc says, “Listen G O T D A M N Y O U M E, you got to be aggressive bout this bread and meat.”
“But?” I say.
“But me-ass, Nephew,” he says. “We’re born, not made. Me and you, we are born. We ain’t nothin like these squares.”
We listen to tunes while real laidback-like Unc finger-steers his ride from the year of decades ago to a street that’s always featured on the news for something uncouth. He parks blocks back from a busy intersection, unbuckles himself, gets out, and throws on, with the utmost suavity, a suit coat of innumerable buttons. Unc tells me to come on, assures me all I got to do this time is keep my mouth shut and watch.
Next thing, the man angle-foot struts up to the only live body for a block in any which way. Nearer, I see she’s semi-alive, see she’s pale, almost martyrly thin, and needs to comb the tangles out her hyper-colored shrub of synthetic curls.
“What it look like?” Unc says, looking every which way.
“Slow,” says Unc’s throwback broad.
He offers his palm and she spectates it a moment before excavating a meek-ass wad from the plunge of a fossilized lint-bulleted lycra number. “Who this?” she asks.
“He’s a small part of your business,” Unc says, “till I make him more.”
“Humph,” says, Unc’s throwback minute moneymaker. I watch her jerk her neck and tug the end of her high-ass hem. She even has the gall to totter off proudly.
“See, it ain’t nothin to it, Nephew,” Unc says. “When it’s in them, all you got to do is nurture.”
He folds her meager salary and, as urbane as ever, slides it into his sport coat’s inside pocket.
Morning, my sweet thing smells of last night’s smoke and something unsacred. I can’t explain it. For a time, I’m content to watch her sleep—I do this sometimes, more times than I’d admit—to count the perfect knobs of her spine where the blanket is strewn, to watch the tiny heave of her slender shoulders. Can’t help sometimes but wonder how far she’s gone. How far they’ve gone, or tried. Hard to touch her the nights I’ve seen her with others, so work nights most nights I don’t. We sleep with a healthy space between us, or maybe, just maybe, this space is sick. Either way, don’t bust me down about it— please. This practice isn’t to be indicted, only conceded as the way of things. And if she’s accepted it, then why can’t you?
The traffic outside translates to no more than a low hum. The rain’s metronomic against the gutters. The early light is a big-ass universe in our room, as is this stack of bills—all hers—on the nightstand. To be true, what she brings home confirms I’m indefensibly less than. And since what I can’t shake is the sense that I should be slapped or slap my-damn-self for even, however brief, considering my sweet thing, I sit against the headboard and wait, bracing for a righteous blow or lightening to strike. Who knows how long it takes before she stirs, before my woman rolls over and touches me the way only she can.
“You up?” I say. “I mean awake, awake? “Close,” she says.
“So, I been thinking.” I say.
“Thinking about what?” she says.
“My Unc,” I say. “He’s been rappin to me about business.”
She says my name as if she wants the whole world to hear—God too, and sits up, bare-chested, with those eyes of hers ringed with half moons of day-old mascara.
“You can’t be serious,” she says. “Don’t you see that man’s a has-been?”
“Maybe so,” I say. “Probably so,” I say. “But that man’s my kin,” I say. “And what’s worse, a has-been or a never-was?”
Nights later, under a gauzy starless sky, listening to more slow tunes, me and Unc cruise, or not so much cruise as patrol, slick streets that seem empty as ever. Unc mutes the music at a stoplight and swoops around to me. He does it real cinematic-like too. My Unc stays on his theatrics. “Say, Nephew, you can wait on a life or take a life,” he says, “but once you’re in the life—well, there it is.”
What I’m thinking is now, right here, this is the perfect time to speak on it, opportune to mention what I feel. But guess what, I couldn’t ever admit to Unc that it isn’t the starting, but not knowing where and how and if it ends. That what’s enough to make me a punk-ass bronze statue, is the chance of what could be my life becoming the only life it could have been.
Does that make sense?
Whether it does or doesn’t, it’s no way at all I could summon what I’d need to confide; okay, it’s a slim chance at best, with what Unc knows, with what we know— shit, with what the world knows, of how the man stepped in and stepped up.
And answer me this, peoples: what’s that worth? Or more important, what ain’t it worth?
We bend more corners, reach another part of the city, a block where the traffic crawls and every other streetlight is either quivering or flamed out. Unc parks his aged ride where it’s easier to see than be seen. “Ready?” he says.
“I guess so,” I say.
He says, “You see her over there? Go get it,” he says. “Go get all of it.”
“Just like that?” I say.
“Just like that,” he says. “Any problems, tell her I sent you.”
Not until I get closer do I see who he’s sent me to. She swivels and right away it feels to me as though there are no words between us for as long as I’ve been alive.
“Oh. My. God!” she says. “What’re you doin here?”
I look every which way, including past her, and I am careful not to look into her. “Unc sent me,” I say.
“That black bastard did what!” she says.
She shakes a golden weave around. “Get away from here,” she says. “Leave!” she says, and resists a step.
My uncle vaunts out of the dark, dark as the dark, his miraculously extravagant tooth glinting, a lit menthol in his scrawny sacrilegious hands, the taps audible on his double-vintage gators, his infinity-buttoned sport coat buttoned at his nexus. He calls her by a name I’ve never heard.
“What seems to be the problem?” Unc says, and flares his menthol.
“How could you?” she says.
“How could I not?” he says.
Unc saunters closer, takes an exaggerated drag, blows out a stream of perfect O’s. “He’s got it by blood,” Unc says, “And it look to me like in more ways than one.” Unc proceeds to stab his earth-sized eyes at me, eyes that make me wonder what in the world he sees. “Nephew,” he says, “we can’t stop no one’s nature. Me nor you can, no matter what, stop it.”
I put my head down and reach out my hand, palm up.
My fucking word, I reach it out hoping in the shadows neither of them can see the tsunami in it.
And I leave it out murmuring, “Head down, palm up. Head down. Palm up,” as if it’s an incantation.
“To me,” she says. “Of all people, me,” she says. She calls me by the name she named me.
“No! It’s Champ,” I say. “Call me Champ,” I say, and pronounce it stern, like I mean it, like it was for me. Like it was in me all along—or should’ve been.
The tsunami shakes up my arm and floods my chest and an eon passes or more before I feel a few crumbled bills alight, not many, but oh so heavy. With the mass of them clutched, I leave my eyes shut for how long who could know, and when I open them, I see her down aways and stumbling, see her stop and peer and turn away from us, see her farther, farther slaughtered by shadow.
Then it’s me and Unc under a frail spastic light. The man drops his menthol and murders it under his shoe. This Unc of mine, he annuls the little space between us and throws an arm over my shoulder. He pulls me closer than he ever has, closer than I think he might ever again, and just like that he whispers something I don’t hear for how hard my heart is pounding. Unc but for God knows, for me and him might never know why, stops and turns us face-to-face, laying his hand—gigantic, colossal, massive, immaculate—on me. “It’s where you are in relationship to, not who you claim ownership of,” he says, swings us eye-to-eye, and makes a comment that to my mind means never capitulate.
Only Unc would never say a word like that.
And me neither.
Until now that, damn, I did. I mean till now that—shit, shit—I just have. And please, pleeeeease dead the undisputed heavyweight hatetrocity on my kinfolk, cause say or think what you will, the man could’ve killed me. Instead of only leaving me wounded.
Really wounded. Afflicted for all time, but alive.
Which is all—B E L I E V E Y O U M E, R I G H T H A N D R A I S E D, T R U T H B E T O L D, O N E V E R Y T H I N G I L O V E, O N E V E R Y T H I N G G O D L O V E S—my uncle, yes, my uncle, has done.
And do you know where I’d be, who I’d be, minus this man’s compassion?
As a matter of fact, you couldn’t.
Me and my uncle me swagger almost in tandem to the spot where he’s parked his ride. He swings his door open, steps halfway in, and flashes that expensive grin of his across the hood.
“Now, neph” he says. You ready?”
“Ready for anything,” says me, the man’s nephew, this man’s flesh and blood.
Mitchell S. Jackson
Mitchell S. Jacksonwww.mitchellsjackson.com
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years received wide critical praise. Jackson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, a Whiting Award, and the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. Jackson’s honors include fellowships, grants, and awards from Creative Capital, the NYPL’s Cullman Center, the Lannan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, PEN America, and TED. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Time, The New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review…View Bio