Alone in the white man’s basement, Delly sat on his stool and plucked his Sears bass. It had no soul; he had no soul. He sang, I’m a Black Samaritan, and I love you… He stopped and stared at the brick wall. He felt it’d been stopping him for years. Not this wall, per se, but some kind of wall. Delly liked to use per se. Heard Isaac Hayes say it once on stage. Had to ask somebody what it meant. Alright.
The wind picked up and it rattled the high rectangular windows that looked out flush onto Lou’s back drive. Delly knew what he wanted to do, but he couldn’t do it. He let the long tan neck of the cheap cherry-burst guitar dip almost to the concrete floor. Paper scraps littered the space about his stool and he knew what each and every one said. He knew from their shapes, sizes, curled up edges and color of ink. They were lyrics, beauties, illusions, little things he wrote down when he felt ripped off, empty. Which was now every day since.
One yellow piece of paper off a legal pad he took from the kitchen drawer was shaped like a triangle and Delano Roosevelt Turner in a fit of an identity crisis remembered he wrote De La Roo on it. Delly toyed with the idea of changing his name to this, but he didn’t know if it was a good idea or a cool name or not. He liked how it somehow created a different version of himself. But then again, he wasn’t sure.
The paper next to the yellow one he remembered, too. He wrote Black Samaritan on it, and for some reason he put the two words together and said Blackmaritan aloud. He liked it. It was new. Two old things, now one new one. The come-down from five to four syllables might be good. He said it and sang it a half dozen new ways with a different emphasis each time. He ended by saying it low, spoken-word style, as if over a slow-funk beat. A lead-in. To something. He pulled up the neck and considered the fat steel strings and he thumped the same chords and sang, I’m a Blackmaritan, and I will stop right here on the road, and love you till… It didn’t work. But the story was there.
The intercom on the wall at the foot of the wood stairs blasted its hideous squawk and Lou’s voice came loud and said, You down there?
Delly got off his stool and walked to the intercom and turned the knob. Yeah, I’m here, he said into the plastic panel with little holes.
What you doing?
Working on some lyrics.
Working on some lyrics?
That’s right, boss.
Alright, said Delly, and he walked back to his stool and sat. He looked at the little light on his amp and it was red, a little red dot that would please a child. It pleased him. He pulled up his guitar and was about to play it when a light rain tinked on the windows. He stopped and looked. Then fat lonely drops pelted the panes and then came the soothing steady drone of a good hard rain. And he wanted to believe that this was the sound of everybody on earth being loved. Delly cherished, clung to the rain, but it pained him where it took him. 1968.
He’d been wary of King and he didn’t like the initials. MLK. Sounded like a candy bar. Milk chocolate, with coco-nuts, maybe. Delly didn’t like that MLK liked using his initials like that. Sounded like the Reverend was trying to keep up with JFK and RFK. LBJ. Trying to act white, maybe. Or be white. But he wasn’t sure.
This was Delly’s problem with the whole black-white deal: King could preach better treatment, but he couldn’t make people understand and that was the thing. People understanding. This happens, that happens, and that causes this and that, and then it goes on to result in further consequences, any of which could be different if only one of those little or big things was different in any way, and it just seemed to Delly to be far too complicated, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, well then you’re asking for it. And that was what he thought King was doing. And that would bring out the dogs. 1968.
Violent winds came to the hopeful little scenes in the tall stained-glass windows. The windows shook. Provoked. The wind wanted in, and what it carried, the dogs maybe, once inside, might never leave. He feared this, and he thought the people feared this. But they did not. King had come to support a strike. Three black garbage men had got sucked into and crushed to death by their faulty city truck. And that was that. Nothing happened. No trucks were checked or fixed. No union was formed. No protections were extended. Money was not offered. Respect was not paid. Nothing. Not a god damn thing. The mayor called it bad luck, and the Memphis blacks called it time to quit the mayor’s luck. King agreed. He came to guide them. Together. They could do it. But Delly didn’t know what it was.
He stood leery with his brand new girl under the balcony in the back of the Mason Temple on April 3rd, 1968. He was jumpy in the electric air. Wild air. It had things in it. Dogs. His soul scratched and crawled the walls of his chest, a prisoner in escape, nails bent back, then ripped out. Get out. Being at the Temple was unwise. Illegal, maybe. Black in ’68.
Thank you very kindly, my friends…. close friend say something good about you… in spite of a storm warm warning… determined to go on…
Delly shifted his weight back and forth, antsy, angry, foot to foot, because each one hurt worse than the other. Been on them all day long over in the Hurt Village, fixing pipes in the falling down ceiling of a dirty shitty bathroom. Projects.
Like his father did his whole life. Plumbers know things. We get in there, he’d always tell little Delano. We got access. Got the inside look. Want to know who a man really is, spend time in the loins of his house. Delly believed him because he didn’t really know any better, and King’s proud words boomed through the Temple. Words of the world, education, big things. Spoke of Greece, Rome, Egypt, a Renaissance. A living questioning god. A questioning god? Delly couldn’t follow a lot of the talk since he was god damned smart enough to know that to know things you had to know other things, earlier things, previous history-like things, and he knew he didn’t know too much from anything before and this always made him feel foolish and double-dog mad.
He closed his eyes to shake it, but it pounded in his brain harder, now since he got with his new girl and all her constant Brown’s board for education and Emmit and Meredith and Stokely’s turn to power, so Delly shut out the King’s words because he bristled at her yet again and all her demands to be like her, be like us, be with the rest of us, because she got a degree, she think better than me? She know better than me?
I can remember when negroes were just going around, scratching where they didn’t itch, laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is over! We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in…
Delly took sharp notice of these serious words. Itching negroes tickling. This wasn’t what he expected because he understood these words and their place in the world, his world, and so it was in these words and phrases, true facts strung together like phone wire between poles, across the city, his city, that he started to see the stories, stories, stories of people, sad, hurt and dead people and that proved to him he could one day know of a better way of being and becoming, one on a new path, and the electric quivers scurrying around inside his chest only made worse the anger-joyful-buzz that bubbled up quick under his thick black skin and it all tingled, tingled just like a snowy Christmas morning with lots of good hot food.
King had started slow but it got a little juiced up now, and Delly wanted more and he wanted to be it and he knew he was and he knew exactly what his girl’d been relating and communicating all these days, because when he looked over the crowd of ladies in big hats and men is shiny suits and beautiful children in their clean best, they were all one and he was of them, and he looked down to her and that sweet ass and he wanted children on the spot and his warm unplumbed heart swelled and ached for all black folks everywhere and his fear and anger drove each other away, out of him, escaped, and he believed this was true and growth, and true growth can only keep growing and this was when he felt the droplet of water on his arm and he looked up…
And Bull Conner would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come, but we just went before the dogs singing, ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round…!’
And Delly the now prouder plumber who was his father’s son and who was glad he came here to this temple looked up to the flat black bottom of the balcony and saw no pipes and no joints, but there it was, clear and round, a water stain, and he watched the slow forming next bubble grow, and he waited, and then it released and fell from the bottom of the balcony and his cells and blood and mind opened up and exploded with hope and love and he waited for and then received the water drop and this was a sure sign for sure…
And Bull Conner didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain type of fire that no water could put out…
And Delly he himself flamed with fire because his passion of change now burned with more fire and grit and strength and knowledge and even unearned knowledge because it didn’t matter as the lord gave him this fire to explode, he now gave him water to grow…
And one day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life…
And Delly knew to struggle to try to put himself into King’s story and King’s story into his story and the drips of water above kept coming down and demanding him to be one with all, be one with, take the fire and water and forge them into a new kind of man, a new kind of man, not the old angry man, and then she looked over and her eyes were see-through as they saw through his and he wanted her to kill her to keep her forever…
A certain man who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him, and finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy…
And the raging love and union and fire and bliss he felt with and to and for and because of his girl drove through his blood cells and soul on charging chariots and he had never so felt so pure and spirited, engulfed, but… Delly had never heard the word proxy, and this caused a bit of a… lull… in the rampaging… uh, emotion gush, and deciding in a fit of educated guessing that the word King meant to say must have been e-poxy, as in to hold, join up, combine the spirit and the man and the world and love together, of course, and he easily pictured the old curled blue tube of the thick white gunk in the back of his brown Buick, and on the floor at his feet of every plumbing job he’d ever done, and so he decided with even more strength, heart and brain power, that he was the man to fix the leak and, yes, it all made sense now…
But with him, administering first aid and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was a good man, this was the great pipe because he had the capacity to project the I into the Thou and to be concerned about his brother pipe…
Yes, she had brought him here to this temple, and his skills as a man with his epoxy and crusted trowel and bad boots, and all this was how god planned this stormy night of harmless, toothless dogs, and big, strong Delly, proud fro and sharp tan suit, knew then that the broken-up, leaky-pipe world required him to be more of himself, utilize his new skills and power and see the Temple, be the Temple, because his life was a leaky pipe that must be fixed in order to help the world, help the world understand what it is to be black in Memphis and not let the garbage men die like dogs at the paws of racist dogs…
And the Levite asked ‘If I stop and help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop and help this pipe joint brotha, what will happen to us…?’
And Delly rejoiced in the providential hellfire burn of righteousness and truth, and he was the power and the glory, but he lost his focus somewhere around his being either the pipe or the plumber, and he didn’t like this little mix up, but it didn’t matter because he was now again back out of his skull and kneeling at The Throne of The God damn God of It All, and he spread his arms wide and leaned his head back and shouted, Epoxy, I say goddamn!
Silence. A little wind. Some rain. Perfume. Like fake flowers. The exact middle of his kneecap hurt. He opened his eyes and looked to her. She looked at him, took a step away and then vanished into the crowd like a thief with a full purse not her own.
The rain let up but the line of water came in the basement window and ran down the wall like clear blood from a wound that would be reopened every time the Memphis sky so much as drizzled. For the rest of his life.
And all Delly the ex-plumber could do was wish her the best because he knew god had given him his one angel and he lost her there that stormy night and all there was to do after her was heal his heart, but he really didn’t know how. So he wrote a song. For her. But he couldn’t finish. Nine years.
Lou appeared at the top of the wood stairs, backlit like a stump of a god holding a glass of questionable nectar and said, It’s Wednesday, and we got to do this soon. I got a meeting tomorrow night. So be ready. Ten thousand bonus. Put it in your checking account today.
Lou walked away and the light was bright in the rectangle at the top of the stairs, and then it went dark. Damn dogs.