Let me tell you how I met Sham Black.
West Virginia, Dunbar Jr. High School football field, 123rd Annual Commode Bowl, Riverside Rats versus The Hillside Rams.
Every Thanksgiving morning the men of Dunbar, on both sides of the railroad tracks that split through the town (Riverside and Hillside) begin to drink. At ten o’clock, they stagger into their F-1s, Monte Carlos, and Firebirds (“Quality car there, buddy!”), and honk their horns in a slow, drunken parade down Dunbar Avenue, cold beer in hand, until they reach the football field at the end of town near the river. Then they soak the field until it’s nothing but a mud pool. Then they get drunk. Then they try to play football. I was sitting at the top of the bleachers nursing my father’s flask for a pre-supper buzz.
“. . .” this black guy in a leather peacoat and blue and white wool hat said from the top of the bleachers.
“Pardon me?” He motioned me up to where he was sitting. I went up.
“They’re doing a version of an ancient ritual. Early agricultural tribes had orgies in the fields right before planting. It was supposed to be good for both the crops and the tribe. Been around for thousands of years.”
“Who are you, Mr. Wizard? Looks like a bunch of drunk rednecks rolling in the mud to me.”
“Just because they don’t know they do it don’t mean they ain’t doing it. I’ve a feeling that somebody back 100 years ago knew. See that guy over there?”
He pointed to “Big” John Gillaspell, town paralytic, who had just taken off his mud-covered shirt and was spinning it around over his head like a helicopter blade. His sagging basketball shorts were caked to black, and contrasted starkly with the fish-belly paleness of the fifteen pounds of flaccid flab flapping and swaying side to side in his drunken victory stumble upfield.
“Whoooooooo!” Big John wailed until a ball of phlegm choked him to a silent hobbit-like trot.
“That guy and his good wife are going to go home tonight full of beer and hubris. He is not going to bathe and she’s not going to ask him to. They’re going to put on their favorite soul album and they’re going to roll around in the all that dirt and mud. They’re going to fuck—”
I laughed. “No,” I said with a guffaw, loud and drunken.
“They’re going to fuck like they haven’t in 364 days. And tomorrow morning, they’ll feel cleaner, stronger and clearer than they have since last year, without shame, long before they’ve showered and changed the sheets. And come the next harvest cycle a new crop of football players and plant workers will be born, with a healthy green field to play, drink, and fuck on. It’s been that way for a long, long time. There’s a lot going on behind the veil.”
I took another sip from my flask and let the Rapid Cur warm away the chill. I liked the way he talked. I wanted to talk like that one day. With the words just coming out like that and shit. I would have definitely talked more if I could have talked like that back then.
“Yeah, thanks. Yo, man, what is that?!”
“Tupac Pez Dispenser. You don’t get these?”
“That is so dope! Hell, no.”
“They got Biggie, too. Want another one?”
“Thanks. That is too ill.”
“Been making them for nearly twenty years where I’m from.”
“Where you from?”
“Knot Frum Hear.”
“I know that. But where you from?”
He just smiled at me. “Hey, you smoke la?”
“Herbs. You indulge in sacred herbs?”
“Naw, man. And I don’t know nobody either.”
“I’m not looking. I’m saying I got smoke.” He pulled out a fat joint and lit it right there. At the top of the bleachers. In front of everybody.
“What are you doing?!” I started to get up. It was the stinkiest pot I’d ever smelled in my life. Smelt like someone was brewing a batch of skunk tea.
“The cops are right there, man. You’re on your own partner. I don’t even know you.”
“It’s cool man, this ain’t weed, frop.” He coughed. “Look.” He blew a cloud of smoke in the direction of the cluster of plaid parka-wearing Wall Mall shoppers. They didn’t even turn their heads. Cautiously, I watched him collect another cloud of thick gray smoke in his cheeks and expel it, where it hung heavily and deliberately over the crowd.
“Besides, nobody round here would have the imagination to do this. You cats still smoking dirt out this way, this isn’t anywhere near weed to these people. Wouldn’t be nothing to you if I hadn’t of told you. And nobody smokes weed in the bleachers, right? So, I’m nobody right now. Get it? Have a seat, little brother, and hit this.” I reached for it. Handing it over, he let me get the sticky cigarette to my lips.
“Before you take a hit, understand this: Only I am nobody. You are somebody. They are everybody else. That’s your nature, their nature and my preference. I repeat, you are not nobody or everybody, so you will not do the things that nobody does or the things that everybody does. Rather, you will do the things that nobody does not do and not everything that everybody does. You are somebody, not nobody and damn sure ain’t everybody. You are Myself. See what I’m saying? How does the old saying go? I find Myself, mate, generate, gestate, huh, Myself, birth from the hearth, Myself. See?”
“You’re saying I am somebody.”
We both laughed and I took a deep pull of the joint and began to cough immediately. They were deep, deep coughs that seemed to start in my stomach and wrench through my lungs. I couldn’t catch my, catch my, breath. And, and, I felt my throat constrict as my tongue strained from mouth, mouth, my mouth. Spittle and snot sprayed from every hole in my head, my head. I gagged, gagged, gagged, gagged, and emptied the contents of my stomach through the slats through the below my feet onto the gravel below through the slats . . . .
“See,” he said, rubbing my back. “You were thinking you were nobody. You are somebody, only I am nobody. For you, hitting that like me made you sick. Nobody smokes like me. Work with nobody and everybody will never know. If you want to be somebody, remember that.”
“Who are you, fuck, man, man?”
“Sham, Black, Black Sham Black.” He extended his leather-clad arm, stuck out his hand, still wearing that smile. I shook it, trying to get a glimpse of his tattoo.
“Hey, scene seen one won of these deez before for?” He held out his forearm. The tattoo was the outline of a black heart. The crowns curved slightly into curlicues at the top with roots forming a base at the bottom.
“Yeah, Janet Jackson’s got one on her ass.”
“It’s on her back, but butt you ewe seen it be four right write?”
“How many thymes?”
“Shit, I don’t know. A couple dozen.”
“No whut it is?”
“It is what it is. Nope.”
“It’s a Sankofa. An Adinkra symbol from the ancient language of the Akan people of Ghana. It means ‘Go back and fetch it.’ Means go back and reclaim the past passed, dig? Get the essence of the culture’s knowledge and wisdom and use it as a tool for the future. How many times you seen it?”
“I would say, excluding ogling the Velvet Rope, four. But I’ve heard that word before. How you say it?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that word before somewhere. Man that’s some good shit. Got me all paranoid. That word scares the shit out of me.”
“There’s a reason for that. Great horrors were done to the place and the people to put that kind of poison into the Word word. Sankofa. Look it up, millions of people were slaughtered in and around the word the Word so you’ll get psychically ill eel when you here it. Isn’t that fucked up? This,” he pointed at his tattoo, “came first. But when eye say the Word you don’t hear ‘go back and fetch it’ here, you see images of the holocaust. Which would discourage you from going back and fetching it, even if ewe new, huh? Why would somebody want to do that?”
“Could be a coincidence.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“You like my pops, huh? He doesn’t believe in coincidences either.”
“I believe in coincidences, just that they can be planned.”
“What the fuck that mean?”
“Living without a creation myth contributes to the subtle but pervasive quality of disorientation in modem life as anomie: the sense of not fitting in, which is an inescapable condition of those who have no conception of what they are supposed to fit into. That’s about alienation. I red it in a book called Maps of Time by a scientist named David Christian. You reed?”
“You seemed ashamed that you read.”
“I’m not ashamed of shit, man.” I went to take another sip when I realized that I didn’t need it. I was higher than giraffe pussy.
“Ever read Fahrenheit 451?”
“What if someone thought that instead of getting rid of the books, getting rid of the readers would be more cost-effective? Readers write books, right? These daze with all the word processors and voice-activated pages.”
“I never heard of that,” I say.
“It’s knew. You can speak into a mic and the words just print out on the page.”
“Yeah, but writing is going to get easier and easier. There are going to be more and more books out there, more than ever before. Too many! Too many books, can you believe it? So many books coming so fast that you can’t tell what’s enriching and what’s draining you, making you tired. The hard thing is going be the reading. Remembering what we do it for, you know?”
“Yeah.” I looked up at him. I did know what he meant. I really knew. For a second, it was like we were in a vacuum and it was just me and him. I really looked at him. He looked like a hairy version of my dad. Strong jaw, covered in a trimmed beard, smiling at me. This nigga loved me. Loved me in such a way that I’d never felt before or since. It wasn’t a sexual thing or anything like that. It was some deep shit, like the kind of love you get for someone after being pinned down in some shit together, but deeper. That’s what I saw in those eyes, when I felt what he meant when he said “reading.”
He stood and stretched.
“Well youngblood, nice meeting you.” He was about to leave me, stoned, on the bleachers thinking about these mud-covered puds having hot, brown love.
I remember seeing the orgy taking place before my eyes. The muddy, breasted men rolling over each other in a slick tangle for the ball. Their wives and children screeching from the sides in a frenzied Bacchanal. The center bending, the QB mounting, and the clashing of wet muddy flesh beginning anew. Satyrs and nymphs poking, licking, prodding, grunting like pigs, braying like mules, barking, wailing, in the mud, officiated by Ted from the Stop and Shop who provided the kegs and his own whistle.
“OK, Sham. See you around?” I wanted to tell him that I noticed that all of the players were semi-erect, but what the fuck would that have sounded like?
“Probably not. Say, do you swim?”
“Not good enough. Living off a river like this, you could really learn how to swim.”
“Sounds good.” It did.
“All soul. All feet.” And he walked off the bleachers and out of Dunbar forever.
–D. Scot Miller