Author’s Note: Please bear in mind this story is fiction based on fact.
By the way… I’m not racist. And all of life itself is ludicrously sexist. Our Baptist Church was colored only, and we worked very hard for civil rights during those times, but hardly at all for women’s rights. This story is partly about that silent and much neglected fact.
When the Negro menfolk in front of the fateful scene at the colored hotel got together for the photo of the murder of Dr. Kane, they pointed their arms wildly in circles, more or less in the direction of the sniper. Shocked utmost, they couldn’t think or point straight. They had been the great black man’s protective entourage. Lots of people would have died to have taken those bullets, and those young men were no exception. But it was too late; Dr. Kane was dead of several gunshot wounds in his hotel room.
So the men were quite put out, completely frightened witless, as they gesticulated like waving palm fronds in a house fire. Screaming loudly, appearing to be forever lost, they were nonetheless an equivocal bloblike group of all male togetherness. I stood there, trying to get to the hotel room, unable to push past their bunched up moving group.
I was the maid. I had to go inside, into Dr. Kane’s hotel room. I had the equipment around the corner. I was waiting – because I was stark staring terrified the sniper would shoot me. He was right around the corner on the opposite side of the tracks, only about a hundred feet away. And he had a gun with an excellent sight. Pausing momentarily, I was standing there realizing something, and then I hated myself completely. I had been told by our hotel management to go mop up the room.
I had to get at the hotel room’s towels first. I would be cleaning up some excess blood, slightly. And of course, in the popular and famous colored hotel we were working at, the towels ran short sometimes. I was stuck taking the blame for that, and they were constantly threatening to fire me from my job for breathing. In spite of them, I liked the man who had been kindly staying at our hotel – for being what he wasn’t: a fat comic.
Dying in public was such a martyr thing to do. Martin the Martyr – what a name, what a fate. He was a serious victim like me, a social pawn. I was in love with the guy for breathing, even though he wasn’t. I still wanted to. Anyway, I was stuck standing there, idiotically wondering if James Earl Ray, the assassin as it turned out, liked to shoot hotel maids.
I finally let out a dry chuckle. Both of those young men, famous and infamous, would have to face a terrible final reckoning. Life was totally unjust and unfair. I had no real man in my life to take care of me. Also, I had no unearthly paradise known as Heaven, especially anymore. Now that Dr. Kane was dead, who knew what was going to happen next?
Trembling with both fear and rage, I had a feeling the murderer was going to shoot me. Meanwhile, I had to plan something to get in there to mop up the room, if I wanted to keep my job. Coughing into my fist, I thought I’d rather be shot dead than to undergo such ridiculous indignity.
Then Joshua Jackson ran into the room. I thought, the guy is going to check on the “amazing grace character” in there, namely a Baptist fountain of blood. Y’see, our church worshipped such strange stuff as “fountains of blood of Jesus.” They hated it, but we Baptists were supposed to go be Jesus more so than we ever seemed to. It was somehow important culturally. So I wondered if he went in there to mourn, or worship.
Suddenly, it hit me that someone else was going to see it all. Childish curiosity almost got hold of my so-called “soul.” I wanted to see what was happening briefly, but felt screamingly depressed. Not because I wasn’t bathing in a fountain of Jesus’ amazing blood, like our church was always singing about, but because I had to hold my amazing job. The streets are not a pretty thing to do, especially when you’re colored in the Deep South. Mostly I had to go in and do my job, or I’d be fired.
Anyway, I waited a long time for Mr. Jackson. I thought I heard mumbling sounds and some thrashing. I waited until it settled down, figuring that while I harrumphed to myself, the amazing toy man – at least, people treated him like he was one – was getting dead in the usual way. Previous to my maid job, I had been a nurse at a county hospital. I had seen people die. I would miss the amazing toy man to myself, but I was getting impatient, and I had to get back to my house at five o’clock or five thirty and fix dinner for my abusive husband, or he might beat me – or even kill me. That’s why I didn’t suffer much over the death of Dr. Kane., aside from worrying over whether the assassin would shoot me too.
Why bother? If my death didn’t matter, why mourn someone else’s?
Coughing, I wondered if Dr. Kane abused his wife Coletta. I was a bold Coletta fan to myself in my own Hitchcockian Star Trek Twilight Zone. Fairer skinned than her husband, she was a much learned lady and his intellectual equal. I was also part white, kind of Semitic, having to hide myself from strangers, sometimes. Because I wasn’t really Jewish, but I came from those roots and looked medium toned racially impure. The hotel the great man had been killed at was one of the few places that would hire me, as back in those days places didn’t often hire colored folk, along with the white people geriatric hospital – at which I had been a bed pan orderly.
At the hospital, when someone died, we had to vacate the bed rather quickly. You don’t leave dead people lying around for very long. You get them down to the morgue and they then get shipped out by car to the funeral home. Standing around outside the hotel room was getting to be rather obtuse; I couldn’t keep the people downstairs waiting any longer. I’d have to get in there, sniper or no sniper, even if I died doing it.
So after a long time of feeling like cowering, I finally breathed a big sigh of relief and shouted, “So are you still over there yet?” I screamed really loud, but got no response. Gathering myself, I waltzed the ten million light years around my maid cart. Death was actually real. I had to leave the hotel cart behind – because it could barely fit around the wall’s corner. I thought as I left that I was to blame for not getting around it. I paused. I went back and tried to pull the cart around, and managed to get it in front of the room.
Then it dawned on me what a nice hotel this had been for a fat man who was now in Paradise. It had housed many of the greats of jazz and black culture in its time, including comedians. But Dr. Kane was not truly a fat comic, as he’d been dead serious about everything he’d ever said, which involved getting human rights for colored people and getting rid of racial segregation. I was in favor of that, but not very grateful, being an abused wife with a small daughter at home. I was not in Paradise myself, not yet, but I briefly had to wonder where “He” had gone.
He was so cool, I smiled to myself. But then, clutching my throat, I realized he was so – dead. And he was inconveniently leaving a mess for me to clean up. I frowned summarily, and froze up. But I thought, well, it’s really only some blood, nothing special I haven’t seen before. Any diseases didn’t really matter to me, as I’d been exposed to them when I’d worked in the hospital. And Mr. Jackson had raced right in as I had read he had done in the papers. The man had done his track at college.
I finally got the cart into the room by jerking and pulling it around the tight corner. I was standing behind the cart in the room with the dead great man. I was solid there for two seconds, hoping that all “great men” would die someday. One of them was coming home to me. I wondered briefly about the relationships between suns, moons and stars, and life on Venus and Mars. “Fly me to the moon,” I muttered to myself under my breath.
Meanwhile, I understood that any second now, unimportant I was possibly going to be executed. Briefly, I had seemed to see the assassin’s face by looking over yonder. Gazing down at the dead man’s corpse, I stared for a moment into an unequivocal “maybe.” I would join him by jerking around like a demented puppet, or not. My heart sunk as I realized that such a death would not have anywhere near the honor of Dr. Kane’s death. His had been an assassination; mine would be an accident. I was merely the hotel room maid – and was being made fun of by impertinent people.
Would the gunman shoot me? And for that matter, did I really care? At least we’d go down in history together, although I could only picture the brief newspaper story reading, “Maid dies after Dr. Kane.” I had been involved in civil rights protests, but only as a minor participant. I was a nobody.
Gazing off into the far distance, I twisted my narrow lips into a thin smile, daydreaming that one of these overgrown boys had summarily died for me. I was about to make up for the debt through my chosen husband if I didn’t get home in time, and I was immobilized by the thing called death that was behind me. What if the crazy sniper so much as saw another human back? Would I find a proper towel in time? What about the fat man’s lacy white kerchief? Would they arrest me if they thought I had stolen that? And that thing on the floor was no longer human; it was a motionless death trap. In the shadows, it loomed large – as the Specter of Death.
Not to worry, I told myself. I smiled the Black Cat, an African grin that means you’re not afraid, and began the search for towels. Sooner or later, they would come to collect the body. I wrangled with myself, and then I “got it up” – already – and went to the Spartan little bathroom, did my business, and flushed it, but shakily. It was like the room was spinning all around me, a kid’s ride in an obscene amusement park, waiting to die.
I successfully wiped, washed my hands and got out, but then I remembered I needed to get some towels. I had to go back and collect them – while facing the awful cataclysm in the room behind me. The dead great man’s body was in outer space for a moment, but I was definitely in my own disembodied living body, breathing for a space of time longer.
I received the anointment of the towels in a white shaggy pile against my chest, and stalked slowly out to the room. The great man’s sad corpse was still bunched up, lying there. He was partly turned onto his right side, wearing a dark grey business suit and oozing puddles of blood.
I looked behind me to see if anyone was watching, and gave the corpse a medium kick to see if anything was going on. Nothing was, so I began the mop up with the towels. I poked him gently, and then I looked closely at his beautiful, handsome black face, so Negro and with a fine mustache.
It was extremely destroyed. It had been there, but it was not there. It was a cave with no smile, peeled back and sunken in. As it was dark in the room, I didn’t feel like throwing up, though I almost did. Throwing my head to one side, I could see out the glass window. The sniper was still over across from me, disassembling the gun. He was visibly shaken. I began to realize once again that I could see him, and so did he. What should I do?
What if I acted like I was friendly? Would he buy it, coming from a colored lady who might have loved the dead man for trying to win human rights for our people? Or would he think perhaps an underprivileged woman would not have respect for him, as his speeches had oft mentioned men and children, but not women, usually speaking of “the brotherhood of man?”
My hands trembled as I bent partway over, but I knew that I had to hurry and get home. My husband was always trying to make me come home by five or five thirty, or he’d threaten me. I glanced at my watch. Then the loudest, most obnoxious sound occurred, filling the air around my head with its sad smelliness – a final, ceremonial and gratis fart.
I breathed in an elegant, funky sigh, which was at least partly a painful sob, bending over to mop at the sunken body some more with a small face towel. I suddenly saw the larger hand towel I was looking for, scrunched up against me; it was so thick, white and fluffy, and I dabbed at my tears. I cursed myself for showing my pained feelings in front of the sniper.
Rubbing at my dripping nose, I let the towel drop from my heaving chest. I soaked up some of the major blood, waving it at the still visible sniper, and stuffed it briefly into my green apron’s pocket – while thinking something about what a great man this dead guy might be. In a world of sexism where wife abuse was common, was it possible to be great, even if you were dead – or especially if you were dead? Briefly, I wondered, and gulped.
I stuffed the red stained hand towel all the way clear down into my pocket. And I used a face towel to wipe off my right hand with the other wedding ring on it, deciding to keep only the hand towel. Sniffling, I determined to keep myself from crying – or feeling anything further. I was only soaking a towel in blood to sell it later, not mourning the dead, and this man was not a relative of mine, or anyone who could help me any further.
I left the corpse behind, and then I looked at the door that wasn’t exactly being pounded on. I heard noise, but nothing coming near the room. Well, I went out on the balcony and waved the towel at whoever was still across the way, and saw the man who had killed Dr. Kane. I waved my towel at him, smiling the Black Cat to let him know “all was well.” I was taking my chances. He was at the end of dismantling his gun, and he seemed to look down – as if his faith in humanity had greatly died.
Much relieved, I knew now he wasn’t going to shoot me. I memorized his ugly features, but figured they would find him, so I wasn’t too worried. The great man’s entourage had seen him earlier, and had probably summoned the cops. I heard later they chased him all the way to England.
I figured it was for the best. If my own husband ever murdered me, I didn’t think anything real would be done about it, so I didn’t care whether or not they caught Dr. Kane’s murderer. It didn’t bring him back to life or undo anything that had already happened. It’s not that I was ungrateful when it came to the wonderful things Dr. Kane had done. I merely needed the money. I had a young daughter to raise, and might have to leave my husband. Surely the amazing towel would make me a fortune, once I found the right collection-minded buyer.
Most importantly, I now held the amazing, blood-soaked hotel towel. The martyr-born sacred object was finally in my cold fingered grasp. I knew that it would sell someday as prime memorabilia. It had no special scent of justice on it. I walked away from my job in the room. I was going home at last. I had the most expensive towel I had ever collected in my life. I smiled. I was going to make My Favorite Martyr appear in human history later, all by myself. I had established a collector’s item – in my own greedy mind. All I had to do was wait a couple years, after the hubbub had died down.
Here came the reporters. I stepped back against the outside floor’s metal railing, and one of them brushed a certain body part as they all shoved their way into the room. I was jerking like a puppet, my heart was pounding, and I had been there and in on it, all the way. I had both an incredible story – and the hotel towel. The one from the room he’d died in, the very room!
As the flashlights popped, I turned to race down the stairs. Uneducated me was holding a small fortune in her blood-reddened apron. I collected my amazing “character,” as money-oriented as it may be, and knew I was going to be late home. If so, my husband might beat me up, or even kill me. But I had a chance at life nestled in my apron pocket.
“I hate men, all men,” I chanted to myself as I descended the first flight of stairs. “I’m doing this for my daughter and me. You can’t stop us!”
Dead men take vengeance, I suppose, from a time and a distance away. Banging into the stairs railing, I was looking down far onto the ground below. It seemed to zoom upwards, as my stomach did flips, and I lurched. Pulling away, I was diving around the stair’s corner in a lost little world that I was only too glad to throw away. The railing was there, hard, tempting me to throw myself off. Trembling, I did not jump over the edge.
“There’s no such thing as justice; I’m not evil.” I thought perhaps I lied, but while thinking I might be right. After all, when was my life ever fair? “Don’t judge my by the color of my skin; judge me by how much money I’ve got,” I breathed to myself, glancing down at the metal steps below. Their peeling paint attested to my poverty stricken life, which would surely change.
Sighing, I collected myself and “established justice” by waltzing down the stairs. It was wonderful of me to judge a man – not by his skin color – but by my amazing towel. The dead Dr. Kane had helped someone else out again. I thought to myself, surely he would approve – if he knew about it. And if not, so what? He’d be another hard headed, hard hearted man. I didn’t believe he was like that, and hoped for his blessing. Still, I felt a little guilt ridden, taking a hotel towel soaked in his dying, martyred blood, only to sell it.
I was headed home in a big fat hairy hurry with a gift from God himself in my green hotel maid apron’s pocket. I was going to keep that amazing towel for several decades, until it was worth some big bucks in the Heaven which I would surely never obtain, as it didn’t exist.
Years later, I sold the amazing “Elvis Presley” souvenir towel. I could find no one who wanted to buy the one from Dr. Kane. For you see, I told everyone that it contained the blood of the amazing “Elvis Presley.” And so I sold the towel to the one “true believer” in Elvis the Pelvis – who had tried to come on to me after I got the Black Eye from my abusive husband. The divorce had settled – and I’d gotten custody of my daughter. She had talked me out of selling the towel as Dr. Kane’s, saying that it was in poor taste to sell an American Negro martyr’s blood.
“Just say it’s Elvis Presley’s blood,” she said, “Nobody cares about him; he was only a white Indian who sang really well, not an important martyred political figure responsible for the lives of millions of people.”
I still went to my church sometimes, but it was filling up with other colored people with angry characters, so I left. I was hiding like sixty, but at least I had someone well convinced about the nature of the amazing “Elvis Presley” towel. I finally sold it on eBay, where we traded pictures, and he really went for the Elvis routine. He himself was rather handsome, and we dated – for awhile. He threw me over for some blonde chick with a limp. He kept telling me he had to take care of her.
In my dreams, in my sleep, I was “burninhellvalkery” – my eBay username – who had sold her soul to the Devil. But I received only $500 in cash for said amazing towel. It helped put my daughter through school, and she excelled at most of her subjects. But she was killed by a drunk driver last August. She had been nice, but she tended to blame me for taking the towel of a fat – but macho – martyred Negro comic…
…away. Take it away, whoever you are. Take it away. And play jazz on it forever.
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