Read Reckless Eyeballing Online

Authors: Ishmael Reed

Reckless Eyeballing (5 page)

“What?” Even Brashford's jaw dropped, he who let nothing excite him.

“Sure. In fact, she even tried to push me and Jim out of the Mountbatten so's she could put the play about Eva Braun in there.”

“See. I told you these feminists, or whatever they're calling themselves, had lost their minds. What's the difference between them and the right wing? You see them down there on Times Square picketing against the pornographers. What's wrong with those women showing some tits and ass? And then they beatin' up on poor Mose 'cause he ain't got no job no pride no power no nothin', cannon fodder for their wars, scapegoat for their failures, a two-legged insurance policy and safety valve for America. I knew that it wouldn't be long before they'd be romanticizing some Nazi. You see, it's logic like Becky's that makes me and some of the other guys say that the women can't handle reason and ought to be put back in the kitchen.”

“How's the new play coming?” It came out before he could catch himself. He merely wanted to change the subject, but knew that this would begin another misogynist tirade.

“Yeah. Well, you're not the only one asking me that. Directors. Producers. All callin' me for twenty-four years, ever since
The Man…
asking me where's the new play. Well, I'll tell you why I haven't finished the play. It's because the Jews have stolen all of the black material, so there's nothing for me to write about. Every time you turn on the TV or go to the movies or read a new play or novel, there's some Jewish writer, director, or producer who thinks that he knows more about niggers than they know about themselves, and who's cashing in on the need of Americans to consume the black style without having anything to do with niggers. Ralph Ellison was right. We're just a natural resource to them. Something that they can rip off. Their views of us haven't changed since the days of slavery.”

“So if the Jews have stolen all of the black material, what are you going to write about?” Brashford looked at his watch.

“Armenians. I'm going to write about Armenians. I'm going to create characters with depth and nuance.” He rose, went to the full-length mirror, and put on a tie. He went to the other end of the spacious room and removed a jacket from a closet. It was velvet. Brashford wore suits and sports jackets, his shoes were always shined, and his hair trimmed. It was rumored that he'd had a drinking problem, but had been cured. (In the 1950s he'd gone around saying that in order to write like O'Neill, one had to live like O'Neill.) “I'm doing my research and I've been taking notes for about three years. I'm going to ask for complete control over this play, because you know some of these directors and producers and people will probably get upset about me writing about Armenians. Joyce can write about Jews, Updike, Malamud, and Wolfe can write about blacks, but when we try to write about something outside of the black experience, as they used to call it, we're accused of, well, like the title of your play,
Reckless Eyeballing
.” Brashford pulled out his wallet and inspected his cash and cards. He spent a lot of time buying clothes and eating in fancy restaurants.

“I'm glad you liked something about my play,” Ball said. Brashford walked over and touched Ian's shoulders.

“Look, Ian, I wouldn't have gotten you those fellowships and grants if I didn't think you had talent. You remember after the then incipient feminist movement got their contacts among the patrons to stop you, it was my contacts that kept you going. That
Suzanna
was a disaster, but I got them to give you that award.”

“Sure came in handy.”

“You see there. I mean I would have helped some of your other friends if they weren't so pushy. Said all of those mean things about me. That Randy Shank. Called me those names. Hear he's in bad shape. Cleaning restrooms or something. You can't get help from the people in this town with a hostile attitude.” He was combing his hair as he said hostile. He had white hair and a white beard. He looked most distinguished.

“Look, I got to go,” he said, looking at his watch. “Some German scholar is writing a book about my plays.”
Plays?
Ball thought. “He and his wife are taking me to the opera. I think it's Wagner. Did you know that they used Wagner's music in the soundtrack of
The Birth of a Nation
, and that the Americans commissioned Wagner to write the music for the American Centennial? Man, these American and German Nazis were together even way back then in 1876. Anyway, I hope that it's not a whole lot of fat white people jumping up and down screaming and hollering at the top of their lungs.” They laughed as they started out of the building. The white doorman greeted Brashford, but ignored Ian. He looked him up and down again. The doorman blew his whistle to get the attention of a cab driver.

“How are you going to bring it off? I mean, reading about Armenians is one thing, but writing about them—I don't know.”

“I'll do it. You watch. The play is about a conflict between a broken-down alcoholic Armenian actor, his hophead wife, and their two loser sons.”

“You talk about the Jews all the time. Why don't you write something about them?”

“Are you kiddin'? Did you see what they did to Chester Himes and Langston Hughes? By the time they finished with Zora Neale she was mopping floors. No. No. I'm not writing about no Jews. I'll stick to Armenians.” A cab pulled up and the doorman opened the door for Brashford. He climbed into the backseat. Ian was standing at the curb.

“Good luck with the play. With that Jim Minsk directing the work it's bound to be a hit. He's a great director.” The car pulled away before Ian could respond. He wanted to ask Brashford why he would praise Jim so when he knew that Jim was Jewish. How could Brashford have it both ways, put down Jews for an hour or so and then praise one? Brashford's stack of white hair showed above the taxi's backseat as the car disappeared into traffic.

7

Flying a plane these days was like playing Russian roulette; you never knew which one would have a pilot flying in bad weather just to make his schedule, or a pilot who was addicted to alcohol or drugs. Every time the plane Jim was aboard passed through dark clouds he felt as though he were riding a bucking horse. Finally he saw some lights below, and the fasten-your-seat-belt come on. The commuter plane landed.

The airport was small. Instead of a gate, the stairs for the passengers to descend upon were wheeled up. As he entered the terminal, he came upon a man with a gaunt, nearly skeletal face holding a sign: “Welcome, Jim Minsk.” The man was lemon-colored and grinning.

“Mr. Minsk,” he said, “it's an honor,” extending his hand. Jim shook his hand and returned a smile.

“I'm glad to be on the ground. It was bumpy up there,” Jim said.

“We've had some bad weather these last few days. Do you have any more bags?”

“Just a carry-on,” Jim said, pointing to a black nylon garment bag. Inside the terminal there were pinball machines and video games lined up against the walls. Two commuter airlines shared the terminal's single counter. He walked over to the newsstand, Professor Michael Steepes, as the man had introduced himself, following. A man was brewing coffee. There were sandwiches for sale. Minsk approached the magazine rack. He noticed some cheap pulp magazine with articles about the Nazis. In fact, there were so many books, television shows, and movies about the Nazis, he was sure that it was difficult for the younger generation, who saw the swastika as some kind of toy, to determine who had really won the war. Roosevelt's name had become synonymous with welfarism; Winston Churchill's best speech had been adopted by a fast food commercial; Stalin had been de-Stalinized. Only Hitler fascinated the 1980s as much as he did the 1930s and 1940s. He must have been a charmer for Gertrude Stein to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize and for even Walter Lippmann to say nice things about him. One magazine carried a photo of Eva and Hitler talking. They both held their hands behind their backs. He was wearing a three-piece suit including knickers and a Tyrolean hat, and she was dressed in a style that might be called Aryan peasant. The headlines on the cover said:
TEETH FOUND IN BUNKER NOT EVA'S
.

He bought a copy of
The New York Pillar
, and some Life Savers. While waiting for his change he glanced at the leading news story. The Flower Phantom had struck again. This time his victim was a feminist revisionist who had written that all of the black men in the South who had been accused of rape were actually guilty, and had deserved to be lynched. The same M.O. had been used. The man had tied the woman and then began to recite her alleged crimes against black men. He left her a chrysanthemum. Sick.

“How far is Mary Phegan?” Minsk asked as he and his escort, the lanky Professor Steepes, walked out of the terminal.

“We should be there in an hour.” They got into Professor Steepes' small station wagon and headed toward the highway. They passed miles of farmland on which grew pecan trees, apple trees, cotton, and soybeans, and occasionally he noticed some tobacco. About thirty miles from their destination, the full moon appeared. Down here it wasn't umbraged by manmade lights, and it gave the landscape an eerie and primitive slant. Steepes hadn't changed his expression. His grin seemed frozen. There was something about him that gave Jim the creeps.

“I'm looking forward to the play.” He had been invited to Mary Phegan to be the celebrity spectator at an annual play that had been performed by the Mary Phegan drama department since 1912.

“We're looking forward to your seeing it,” Steepes said, turning toward Minsk and grinning even wider. Minsk felt uneasy, and reached inside his trench coat for a cigarette. “Smoke?” he asked, turning to Steepes.

“No,” Steepes said. Steepes turned on the radio. Static came blasting forth. “In local news, the F.B.I. was involved in a shoot-out with the members of Nebuchadnezzar Legions, a vigilante hate group that has declared war on what they describe as the Zionist Administration in Washington. A search of their trailer turned up antitank weapons, hand grenades, and machine guns. As they entered the courtroom, the shackled prisoners began shouting, ‘Black Death Is Back,' and ‘Crucify the Jews.'” Minsk felt Steepes edging a look at him out of the corner of his eye. Steepes turned to another station. They heard a frenetic voice. “Ah Sinful Nation!!! People laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! That's not your preacher talking but the word of the Lord, brothers and sisters, the word of Gawwwwd. The Jews are the lost sheep of Israel, brothers and sisters. Bending down to No-Gods. The No-Gods of communism, atheism, marxism. The Jews and the blacks are the children of Satan, ladies and gentlemen, descendants of Cain.” The preacher's comments were accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of a-men, and hallelujahs. “It was this nation of harlots, the Jews, who killed Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters. Killed him, because the Lord was on to these idolators. They hanged him and pierced his side.”

“Would you turn that thing off,” Jim finally requested. Jim Minsk decided that he didn't like Michael Steepes. Finally, Minsk saw the campus of Mary Phegan looming on a mountain in the distance.

“Well, we're here,” Steepes said. “Hope that we can make it as exciting for you as New York. We'll try. The last excitement we had around these parts was in 1912. A lynching. I'm sure that you heard about it,” Steepes said with a nasty chuckle. It was wasted because Minsk had fallen asleep.

8

Professor Steepes and Jim Minsk walked from the parking lot toward the campus's main building. The architectural style was of the Paranoid School of the late 1880s, an austere fortress-styled building made of brick and equipped with a tower that one finds in parts of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There were two men standing at the top of the gray wooden steps. As they came closer to where the men stood, Jim saw the pair begin to smile. One man, wearing a three-piece suit and striped tie like Professor Steepes, stood with his hands behind his back. He had the slitted eyes and long, oval face of John Carradine. The other man was younger. He had red hair and a red beard, and eyes like a goat's. Outside of these two and Michael Steepes, who was carrying his bags, there were no other people around. Professor Steepes introduced them as James Watson, the tall man, and Thomas Rhodes, the medium-sized man with the red hair. Watson was the president, and Rhodes was the provost.

“I can't tell you how honored we are to have you here. I trust your trip down was satisfactory,” Watson said, as they walked into the building. The two men were on either side of him; Steepes had gone to place his bags in the guest cottage the school reserved for visitors. The wooden floors were shiny and there was an old, elaborate staircase made of wrought iron that led to the other floors. Inside the president's office, Watson offered Minsk a drink. Mr. Rhodes went into another room to mix Minsk a martini. He brought the president some George Dickel sour mash whiskey, and Rhodes had a glass of the same for himself.

“Here's to your good health.” The three raised their glasses in a toast. Minsk thought he noticed some ironic eye exchange between the two men when Watson said “good health.” Rhodes noticed Minsk glancing at the portrait of Jesus Christ on the wall. The portrait painter had given Christ a sinister smile.

“We may be a Christian school, but we do enjoy some earthly vices from time to time. Not as strict as some of these other southern fundamentalists down here. Why, we have seminars on Tillich, Barth, and Heidegger,” he said, taking a sip of whiskey.

“I heard one of the local preachers on the radio on the way here. The most hateful junk you've ever heard. A raving anti-Semite.” The two men stared at each other for a few seconds, following Minsk's complaint.

“Throwbacks,” Rhodes finally said. “They're still against the teaching of evolution.” The three men laughed. “There are people down here who believe that the earth is flat and that if you fly too high you'll punch a hole in the sky. We're sort of an oasis of civilization within this cultural wasteland.”

“The people in this neck of the woods have a yearning for the old populist values. William Jennings Bryan is still a big hero to them. You know what Mencken said about him,” Watson said. The other men shook their heads.

“He said that people down here used his hair to cure gallstones.” The three laughed. What urbane and civilized men these were, Minsk thought. He glanced at the bookshelves, which were stacked with books on philosophy, science, and religion. There were even some up-to-date novels.

“You're doing a play by Ian Ball, I hear,” Rhodes said. “I like his stuff. He's quiet. Not like those mau maus who used to write that junk threatening white people. They've all disappeared. We have one here that we keep around for our amusement, though I will admit that some of his essays on the English Romantics are not bad, considering—”

“He's talking 'bout Steepes, Mr. Minsk,” Watson said. “He's our resident mau mau. Capable fellow, but from time to time he wanders off into these cumbersome monologues about his blackness.”

“Steepes, he's—”

“He's black, as they're calling themselves these days,” Rhodes said.

“But, I thought—”

“You're not the first one to think that Steepes is white. We have a lot of blacks down here who have blond hair and blue eyes. We Southerners can detect them, though.”

“He's a good man. Popular with the students. And he doesn't give us half the trouble of the blacks here in the States. Every time you turn around they're up in arms about something. Steepes is from Jamaica. The British somehow found a way to civilize them.”

“So that explains the British accent,” Minsk said.

“His most cherished possession is a photo of him bowing down to the queen,” Rhodes said.

“Hear him tell it you'd think that he was Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey combined, but actually he's as harmless as a pail of milk,” Watson said.

“He's always talking about the black community when the nearest black is about thirty miles from here.” Watson and Rhodes laughed. Minsk was becoming annoyed at the direction their humor was taking, and when Watson got serious Minsk was relieved.

“Well, Mr. Minsk, I hope you'll have an enjoyable stay. Your presence will provide a needed shot in the arm to our fledgling drama program. Every year since 1912, the college has been performing this show. It's kind of lik e a tradition.” The window slammed shut. The impact startled the three men. Rhodes got up and raised the window.

“What's the play about?” Minsk asked.

“Oh, it's hardly connected, just a series of scenes and sight gags. I guess it's our own brand of avant-garde theater, Mr. Minsk.” Watson and Rhodes laughed, and once again exchanged telling glances.

“Yes, we've always tried to be up-to-date,” Rhodes said. “Mr. Minsk, have you had dinner?”

“I had a meal on the plane,” Minsk said. “It wasn't exactly the Chez Panisse.” Watson looked at his watch.

“We'll have Mr. Rhodes escort you to your cottage. You have about an hour to relax and clean up. I'll come and get you after that.” The three men rose.

“Mr. Minsk, you really don't know how grateful we are to have you down here. If there's anything I can do to make you comfortable, just say so.” Minsk thanked Watson and followed Rhodes out of the room.

Rhodes and Minsk walked down a tree-lined path toward the guest cottage. The campus was quiet except for the chirping of crickets and the incessant warbling of night birds. It was cool. Minsk was glad to get out of New York, which was hot and muggy. Finally Rhodes, the man waddling alongside him, who probably took out after the carbohydrates between breakfast and lunch and dinner, said: “What's Ball's play all about?”

“It's about the lynching of a black lad down here for staring at a white woman. Only Ball has introduced a twist. He has the woman the kid allegedly stared at demand that his body be exhumed so that the corpse can be tried. She wants to erase any doubts in the public's mind that she was not the cause of the eyeballing she got.” Both men laughed.

“That Ball is hilarious. He has a fantastic range.”

“We thought that it was a fantasy at first, and then Ball produced an article that appeared in
Ebony
magazine regarding a Mississippi man who was actually arrested for what was called ‘reckless eyeballing.'”

“We've changed since those times, Mr. Minsk. This is ‘the New South.' The races get along fine down here. We don't lynch Negroes anymore.” Minsk thought that the stress Rhodes placed on
Negroes
was peculiar. He glanced at the man's flat, vacuous face and decided that there was no malicious intent. He read everything but the man's goat eyes, which were difficult to examine; one couldn't determine whether they were staring at you or away from you. Rhodes left Minsk at the door of the small guest cottage. He told Minsk to call him at home if he had any difficulty. Minsk walked to the inside of the cottage. It was cozy. There was a fireplace and a couple of straight-back chairs with cane seats and a rocking chair. In the bedroom was a brass bed covered with an ancient quilt. Hanging over the bed was a picture of Jesus of Nazareth. He remembered what his crotchety father had said about Jesus when he was growing up. He called the rabbi from Galilee a magician and sorcerer.

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