Pimp My Airship (Excerpt)
by Maurice Broaddus
A Change Is Gonna ComeVox Dei Data Files: If decent citizens wish to go slumming for their entertainment, the Two-Johns Theater caters to mostly laborers and local residents. Originally opened as the Little Doo in 1909, by two owners both named John, the Two-Johns Theater officially launched in 1911. Easily among the most clever of the colored performers featured there, Miss L. Tish Lee made her initial appearance at the theater. The theater hosts a variety of entertainers to this day.
Sleepy was a dreamer. He closed his eyes and imagined wide-open spaces, the feel of grass beneath his feet, and a small place to call his home. He dreamed of a short walk to an ocean beach, not that he’d ever even left the city, but he’d seen pictures and guessed at the smell of salt air, which would fill his nostrils. A cool drink in one hand, he’d watch pretty women stroll by in all manner of bikinis (he’d heard tell of the immodest fashions of Albion, especially along the French Riviera). Most of all, he dreamed of the sun. A bright, incandescent ball he couldn’t quite focus on, set against the clearest of blue skies, in whose warm light he’d soak in every bit.
Too bad he had to open his eyes.
A sharp jerk of the train sent bodies pressing in on him from all sides. The train rattled and clanged, the tough grind of gears jostling the cabin of bodies as it rumbled along the tracks. The cabin space had been designed for maximum occupancy, not comfort. Folks still had to get to work. A protrusion of elbows encroached on either side of the slight berth Sleepy managed to call his own. Despite this, he counted himself lucky to find a seat on the underground railway. The only reason there were any benches in it at all was due to a lawsuit after a pregnant mother was trampled to death when she doubled over in labor pain. The lawsuit was dismissed, after all, she was still only a dweller, but the Parliament pressured the train manufacturer to add a row of seats to the cabins as a gesture of good will and common decency.
“One seat per passenger.” A white man stared down his wire-rimmed, round spectacles at him. His rumpled business suit and crushed bowler marked him as little better than a dweller, but his eyes scored Sleepy with the expectation of deference. The man eyed the spot on the bench and clearly assumed Sleepy would give up his spot, or at least accommodate him. This was the usual dance of polite society.
“Excuse me?” Sleepy rolled his eyes slowly to him, not in the mood to put up with anyone’s foolishness.
“The law says one seat per passenger.”
“Do you mean to suggest that I’m … a lawbreaker?” Sleepy smiled a crocodile grin, cold and predatory. Shifting his wide girth, he spread his massive legs just a little further.
“I mean to suggest …” the man continued with the measured pause of consideration.
“Choose your next words carefully, like your life depends on it. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding.” Sleepy didn’t let his smile falter. In fact, he parted his lips wider, presenting rows of bright, pianoforte key-white teeth. They were his pride, tended to each night with exacting care. Unlike the orthodontic nightmare that seemed to be the height of fashion in capital Albion. No hint of a glower nor of menace presented itself. Except, maybe, in his eyes.
“I merely suggest that a portly gentleman such as yourself …” The man’s composure began to falter.
“Portly.” With his forefinger, Sleepy nudged his thick, black-rimmed glasses higher along his nose.
“… may need to bear additional consideration …”
“Consideration.” Without breaking their gaze, Sleepy popped the knuckles of each hand, then bridged his fingers in front of him.
“… when it comes to his fellow passengers.”
“A … portly … gentleman, such as myself, may indeed require his own measure of consideration after a day’s work managing your waste. Allow me to suggest that you kindly shut the fuck up and enjoy your ride.”
Shocked by the affront, the gentleman broke his glare long enough to give Sleepy a fuller inspection. Stepping aside, he allowed him more space. The crowd around Sleepy stared with a mix of disdain and pity, undergirded by the presumption that he had been abandoned as a ward of the state from birth and was just another pickaninny fulfilling his destiny. That he grew up with flash mobs of urchins on the streets, pick-pocketing the hapless innocent citizens of the overcity, only to graduate to organized gangs before being shipped off to the criminal finishing school, the Allisonville Correctional Facility, a place colloquially known as The Ave. He’d probably be more offended if society didn’t seem so hellbent on ensuring that all of his class shared similar stories.
The reality was that most days he might have given his seat up to the man simply to maintain the peace of things. Sleepy valued quiet and order, content to drift through life without confrontation or undue attention. He’d left his unipod at sixteen and was lucky enough to immediately find work at the White River lift station, though as a sewage scraper.
The city experimented with privatizing some of the public works. Commonwealth Waterworks was one of the better ones. The company was steady pay and Commonwealth provided a measure of benefits to their employees. Being a steam engineer, he processed water for the heart of the Indianapolis undercity, the area the residents had nicknamed Freetown Village. Twelve hours of shoveling coal and tending to the machine works. A maze of tunnels and pipes formed the ironworks of the plant processing engine. Fans funneled gas out. Torrents of waste, gravity filtered and captured in basins left the gray water directed to the steamworks. The mildew veneer of the constant sheen of sweat. A heavy, dull scent of hot, moist funk clung to the air like lavishly applied perfume to a prostitute. He reeked of industrial lubricant, coal, and sweat, all congealing into the sweet tang of fermented grime. With its white stone walls and ornate columns, it was like a temple of waste. And he was its minister.
His uncle worked there before him and continually reminded Sleepy that fortune favored him not only to have a job but to be brought into the plant at so young an age. If his providence bore out, he could retire from the plant. His life was set. Sleepy never—well, rarely—complained. Though he’d worked there only a few years, the many similarly empty, sweat-filled days ahead of him made him wonder if there as more to life than shuffling through a sunup-to-sundown workday six days a week. Earning just enough credits to scrape by, teetering on the edge of financial ruin should he ever miss a paycheck. Needing to fill the settling ennui between work shifts simply because the expanses of idle nothing left plenty of time to remind him of his utter worthlessness to the greater scheme of things.
This was exactly why he couldn’t wait to get high.
The gleaming thundering worm rumbled along the raised rail, winding through the intestines of the undercity. Exposed pipes lined the top of the car. Steam coursed through them like blood through constricted capillaries. The heat produced by them added to the swelling temperatures and casual discomfort. Most people chafed within the scratchy material of their clothes, which neared the texture of burlap, given the heat. The air grew heavy with re-breathed effluvia. Sleepy ignored the forest of buttocks crammed into his eyeline. Snatches of the city could be spied from their vantage point as they ringed the city along sub-system 465. The airship docking station. The Indianapolis Aeromotor Speedway, home to the largest airship race, and fastest racing autocarriages, in the world. The heart of downtown, a glistening dream in the distance. The spires of the Indianapolis overcity loomed. Their waning shadows in the sunset plunged the undercity into deeper darkness. The bustle and jolting of the train faded into comforting white noise.
“Don’t mind him, brother.” One of the eye level asses turned to the side. “Despite the fact that he finds himself riding the same train as us, he believes he’s entitled to more. Too many of us never speak to the truth of the matter. Too many of us have forgotten who we are.”
“Uh huh.” Sleepy watched the first gentleman inch away from the two of them, scooting out of earshot to pretend that they weren’t talking about him.
Turning to the window to study the shadows of the undercity, rather than have a conversation with the profile of someone’s trousers, Sleepy focused on his checklist for the night. He performed tonight, and nothing was going to spoil it. “No worries, man. We good.”
Encouraged, the set of trousers angled toward him. “I’m only saying that a hardworking man like yourself deserves a moment of respite.”
“All I need is a glass of a little sipping something, a smoke, and a pork chop. Life don’t need to be no harder than you make it.”
“Pork leads to trichinosis of the mind.”
“No pork leads to …” Sleepy ran out of clever retort once he raised his eyes to meet the man, rather than talk to his crotch. The man’s red-tinted hair sprouted into a series of twists, like gnarled fingers protruding from his skull. A beard and mustache framed his mouth. His stylized sunglasses rotated like the blades of a hand fan unfurling, shading studious eyes, reducing his face to glowering slits of eyes that tracked everything with a mix of anger and suspicion. His nose, broad and flared, seemed to snort air rather than inhale it. His thick, white cravat tucked into his burgundy vest. One hand looped through the leather handhold of the train, the other clutched a cane. He shifted his weight, failing to mask a slight limp. Sleepy waved the man off with a sharp flip of his wrist. He didn’t have time to waste on all these folks attempting to crowd into his zone.
“You getting ready for something?” the man continued.
“A little something,” Sleepy said. “Down at Two-Johns.”
“You on tonight?” The man’s voice raised with knowing excitement, the way a fan of his might.
At the possibility that the man might indeed be a fan, Sleepy issued him a measure of grace. “Someone’s got to hold the mic down.”
“All right, brother. I’m in.”
I don’t recall inviting you along, Sleepy thought. Then again, no need to be rude to a potential audience member since all performers split a percentage of the gate.
The train ground to a halt. Sleepy huffed, pulling himself out of his seat to get off at his stop. The man tipped his hat and parted way for Sleepy.
The train deposited Sleepy at the way station closest to his home at the 38th Street juncture. Two government-issued steammen attended the unloading platform. Their design inelegant, to be charitable, little more than lumbering metal boxes. Twin fans mounted on one of their backs, their air channeled through their body cavity and out the hose attachment on their arms to blow trash into the runoff bin for the other one to collect. The station was less crowded than usual. Sleepy pushed through the sparse queue of milling passengers.
The Eagle Town Homes nestled along the 38th Street corridor. A series of one room, two-story apartments, with a bedroom over a bathroom/kitchenette, they looked like upturned shotgun houses. The rows of townhomes occupied little space. The four-feet space from the sidewalk to the front stoop served as the yard. With the rows lined back-to-back, the city could cram nearly one hundred residences into a city block. Sleepy’s neighborhood regulars already huddled about, someone bound to drink too much or get offended at some imagined slight to justify getting into a fight simply to break up the monotony of their day.
Sleepy kicked off his shoes once he crossed his door’s threshold. Gaslit lamps lit up the small, gray box of a room. He opened a window to deal with the heat of his lights. With a somnambulant stagger, he stepped around the electro-transmitter equipment, which took up much of the room. A glass-fronted cabinet with spires to boost a signal, custom-built speakers, twin phonograms. With his portable broadcast unit, he had grand designs to broadcast his poems backed by music tracks. He even saved credits with the dream to one day fashion a studio in which to play and record his music.
Streaked with steam-driven coal mixed with oil, he peeled off his outerwear before he wandered into his bathroom. The same mixture coated him from head-to-toe, finding its way into places he didn’t want to think about. The water shuddered through the pipes before pouring down on him in a lukewarm piddle. Hands pressed against the stall wall like he assumed a position to be frisked by the water spray, he suspected that if he spent the next week under its tepid stream, he wouldn’t be able to fully remove the stain of his labor.
After twenty minutes, Sleepy wrapped a towel around his waist and staggered out of the bathroom. He paused in front of his floor length mirror, clutched the folds of his belly, and jiggled it. He never excused his shape with word games about how greater girth made for a greater man. He simply was who he was, and he was content with that.
Sleepy opened the armoire and selected his most elegant formal wear. Throwing on his black-stripe coulter shirt over his undergarments, he primped in the mirror. With the solemnity of donning armor, he fixed his black Y-back braces to his pinstriped pants and buttoned his red vest. With each new piece of clothing, he transformed from city worker to stage performer. Sleepy fussed with his silk cravat, adjusting it several times because it didn’t quite look right to his exacting eye. Now was one of those moments he missed his brother. He’d always fastened his ties for him.
By the time he slipped on his formal tailcoat, gray gloves, and gray-felt top hat, Sleepy had transformed into a new man.
Vox Dei Data Files: “Indianapolis—the hope of Albion.” Though the sun never set on the Albion Empire, ruling the empire was not without its travails. Indianapolis was the kind of city the United Kingdom of Albion held up as a shining beacon. Only a dozen or so cities in the American colony were larger. Many discounted it entirely, only knowing it was a city somewhere in the middle of the United States. But to Albion, Indianapolis was what every city in the American colony should aspire to. A large city with a small-town feel, Indianapolis was quiet. It knew its place.
There were certain sounds which became part of a familiar cacophony for those who lived in Freetown Village. Pistons pounded out the power to run the overcity. Steam hissed as it escaped pipes and billowed through the manhole covers along the streets. Sleepy shuddered when he walked passed a sewage truck, wanting to banish any reminders of his day job from his mind. Daguerreotypes of the civil rights provocateur, known as the Star Child, plastered every telephone pole in the neighborhood. His sepia shadowed image highlighted by his green eyes. A street artist painted the words “I am the change” across his forehead. News of his capture swept through the community, a near tangible ripple of anger, resentment, and frustration. Sleepy heard him speak at a rally once. The man’s words had a way of carving into a person’s heart. Shaking him from the inside. Stirring him. With eloquence, the Star Child detailed the excesses of the policing force and instilling a sense of pride into each of his words. Of course, the powers had to silence him. Sleepy’s heart ached. Heavy with the dull reminder of where he stood in the greater schemes of Albion. He imagined it would be the same for his fellow poets and make for a tough crowd. Still, he needed to get into character.
Slats of metal lined the twin, six-paned doors of the Two-Johns Theater. Security on the doors amounted to a coal-complected former fighter, whose size suggested that he may have swallowed a small truck. Beyond those doors was an open set of wood-framed glass doors. A lesson in restored opulence, eight faux-wood pillars lined the lobby. Ceramic tiles on the floor created a mosaic. Two massive chandeliers barely lit either side of the pavilion. The main hallway led directly into a small ballroom, candles illuminating each table. With a hiss of steam, like a fussy iron, a steamman took Sleepy’s coat. Only older models, little better than government issued ones, were employed on their side of town. Not like the automatons of the overcity, with their porcelain parts and silent running.
Even as Sleepy attempted to find his bearings, a familiar figure of hair twists and sunglasses bobbed toward him.
“I can’t stand places like this,” he said.
“Who are you?” Sleepy nodded, before pretending to catch someone’s eye and made off toward the stage.
Determined not to be left behind, the man followed. Not rushing, his nonchalant stride easily kept pace with Sleepy. “Today’s mathematics is knowledge. Ten numbers constitute the language of mathematics. Ten. I am the sum of the cypher. (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah.”
The words hung in the air between them like the pronouncement was supposed to bring all action to a halt. But the world kept moving, as did Sleepy. Knowing he wasn’t about to call him that mouthful of syllables every time, he debated between calling him One or Knowledge Allah before settling on the latter. “Well, Knowledge Allah, this is the home of true revolutionaries.”
“What do you know about true revolutionaries?” Knowledge Allah half-huffed, his limp becoming more noticeable as he kept pace.
“Submerged in song and poetry and stories, we bring the message, the fight, to the people. We awaken their minds.” Sleepy recited the refrain the poets often bandied about. While high.
“Is that so?” Knowledge Allah made a point of craning his neck about. “Filled with self-important, neo-soul types. Look at them. An audience of nouveau Negro bohemians.”
“Is there anyone you won’t complain about?” Sleepy asked.
“I uproot the mind state. I’m not satisfied with anyone. We can all do better.”
Pausing at the side of the stage, Sleepy held up his hand without touching Knowledge Allah. A nearby sign read “Performers Only.” The man stopped short as if checked by an invisible force field. “Hold up. We about to start.”
“Bring the funk, Sleepy.” Knowledge Allah limped off into the curtain shadows.
Waiting until he made sure he was alone, Sleepy closed his eyes while he got into his mental place. He waited for the announcer to bring him out.
“‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’” The announcer spoke, low and breathy, into the mic, a seducing minister of the word. “The time for games is over. The mission is clear. We fight to survive. We struggle to stay alive. You’re either with us or against us. The Cause is a state of mind. Some of us struggle with our past. Some of us struggle with our future. Some of us struggle with ourselves. We struggle against oppression. This is the good fight. Welcome with me a man who brings the fire. Who brings the soul. The government knows him as Hubert Nixon, but we know him by another name. He’s our brother. He’s our friend. Set it off for us, Sleepy.”
Sleepy bumped shoulders with the announcer when they clasped hands. Stepping to center stage, the spotlight glared at him and the house lights dimmed. A gleam in his eyes, he inhaled and held his breath. He was in his moment, deep in his muse. When he opened his mouth, the words poured out from a different place.
“I’d like to do a new piece for you. This is the first time even I’m hearing it out loud. It’s called ‘Let it Flow.’”
The crowd applauded with encouragement then settled down to allow Sleepy a moment to gather himself.
“Too many thoughts crowding in my brain
I’m just so angry, so frustrated, I don’t know where to begin
To unknot this cord inside my head.
I just need to sit back, relax, and let the chiba flow.
You see, my girl done left and I say I don’t pay that no mind
The first time in a while I let myself relax
Been too long between girls. I got that charm. I got that smile.
I got them words that burrow into your soul.
I’m a mirror. Maybe they don’t like what they see.
Or maybe it’s just me.
I just need to sit back, relax, and let the chiba flow.
I got me a job and I got no right to complain.
Gonna work the same line, dawn til dark, all sweat and grime
In the end, I don’t do nothing, don’t amount to nothing
Ain’t changed nothing. Day in, day out, just another cog
In a machine that grinds you up in its gears.
And would never know that I was here.
I just need to sit back, relax, and let the chiba flow.
I wake up in the morning with nothing but the craving
The need to chill out and let my thoughts rise high.
Just wanting to escape. Alone, not wanting to be alone, resigned to loneliness.
Looking all around me, my soul cries out for more.
I just need to sit back, relax, and let the chiba flow.
Every time I share my story, I create a new history.
Stuck with a ghost spell truth: builders build.
I’m wandering in the desert of our U-N-I-verse trying to overstand.
Didn’t know my father. Couldn’t save my mother. Couldn’t save my brother.
I need to get out so that I can at least save me.
I just need to sit back, relax, and let the chiba flow.
Where can a brother get a light?”
The pause when he finished was always the longest, most unbearable stretch of seconds. The held breath of the audience deciding if his piece was to be received well. But the roar of finger snaps and a series of all right, nows greeted him. Sleepy basked in their approval for several heartbeats before he tipped his hat. He returned the nod of the announcer, who prepared to bring up another poet. A few patrons passed behind him and clapped him on the back for his poem. Another poet took the stage, talking about the tragedies of her family.
Knowledge Allah remained locked in an animated conversation with a man not dressed in a too dissimilar manner from him. The man’s long suit jacket, black tinted glasses, and bow tie gave him the intimidating appearance of a classic gangster. He carried himself with grim seriousness.
“Peace, sun. I heard you took on a new name.”
“Peace, sun. One is Knowledge. Zero is a Cipher. Completion,” Knowledge Allah said. “(120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah.”
“The tricknology of living mathematics.” The man stepped back a bit, taking a fuller appraisal of him. “Two is Wisdom. One plus two equals three. Three is Understanding. Seven is the divine influence in the physical realm.”
“Seven is wholeness,” Knowledge Allah said.
“Seven plus seven plus seven equals twenty-one. Two plus one equals three. Three is holy because seven is God.”
“G was the seventh letter made.” When Knowledge Allah spied Sleepy, he crossed his hands to wave off the man mid-sentence and limped away from him. “You dropped some deep science there, Sleepy. It was like you were aiming your words right at me.”
“I spit for me.” Sleepy dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. His pre-performance jitters kept him from eating, but after his success, both his appetite and thirst returned with a keen fury.
“You put words to something real right there. A hurt. It was like you knew.”
“I think you’re ready.”
“Ready for what?” Withdrawing a small pouch from his jacket pocket, Sleepy tamped out a measure of chiba leaves into a pipe. He couldn’t wait to let loose a long, thick exhalation of smoke to issue up and about him in a languid curl. The glow of his struck match lit up Knowledge Allah’s face, distorting his features. His face drew, dark and ugly. Knowledge Allah waved him off from lighting it and ushered them to a table near the rear of the room.
“I need you clear-headed for what I want to talk to you about.”
“People underestimate you, Sleepy.”
“Go on.” Checking his pocket watch, Sleepy decided the man had three minutes to keep him from his smoke.
“I need you. We do. And part of you knows it.” Knowledge Allah swept the room with cautious eyes before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “The Cause you all talk about in your poems is more than rhetoric for hipsters and bohemians. It’s a very real movement. With very real and committed people.”
“I don’t understand.” Sleepy wrote for himself. His passion for words provided release. Like there was an anger in him he rarely admitted to, but when he put pen to paper, it bubbled out from a well he couldn’t control. So much anger to go around. Himself, for settling in life. The system, for cutting him off at every turn until he threw his arms up and settled. His wasn’t exactly a unique story. This was the dissonant chords of the measure of his life. Their life.
“The Cause actively moves to thwart our oppressors. The forces of Albion in its American colony. We move in secret. In cells, so that no one person could reveal too much if compromised.”
“I’ve been charged with forming a new cell. We work in threes. Three is the Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a she. Three is a trimester. Three plus three plus three equals nine. Nine is the ninth letter. There are nine months of pregnancy.”
“I don’t know which of us is supposed to be high right now.” Sleepy raised his hand to light his pipe again, anxious to let the smoke wash over him. With his head up, even Knowledge Allah’s nonsense amused him.
“Welcome to The Cause.” Knowledge Allah reached out again to hold his arm, keeping him from lighting it. “The chance to do more than just tickle the ears of a few. This is an invitation to do something real.”
“Why me?” Sleepy asked a little too loudly.
“Your discretion for a start.” Knowledge Allah rapped his cane against the floor as if calling a meeting to order. “Besides, that’s the wrong question. The real question is why not you?”
Sleepy hadn’t made up his mind whether he much liked Knowledge Allah. Admittedly, despite the air of crazy, Knowledge Allah had a charisma about him, a gravity that made one pay attention. He reminded Sleepy of his mother. She was a woman of dreams and ideas. And causes. “Life ought to be lived outside of yourself,” she often preached. Drumming his fingers against the table, Sleepy tapped percussive melodies, losing himself in the rhythms of his thoughts.
“Am I boring you?” Knowledge Allah asked.
“Nah, just trying to get my head around what you’re saying. And I’m waiting to hear the deal, you know, figure out what you want from me.”
“Simple, we want your effort. We want your voice.”
“I don’t know, Knowledge Allah. I …”
The front door rattled under a large boom as if it had been struck by a tree during a tornado. The Two-Johns Theater patrons froze in their seats, heads turned toward the source of the disturbance. The doors were slammed again, buckling under a sudden weight, and then broke free of their hinges with the third heavy thud.
A sea of blue uniforms trimmed with black streamed in. City Ordained Pinkertons took positions blocking the exits. Many slapped their batons into their empty hands, ready for action.
“Everyone, stay where you are,” the lead officer yelled. “You are in violation of the Gang Congregation Act. Get your national registration cards ready but stay where you are. You are all under arrest.”
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