NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 13

Tillman was back in my life , but even in those first few minutes of our reunion , I could tell that the tragic sinking of the troop ship and the sudden vision of wartime death hadn ’ t changed him one bit —
Which was why , some days later , after irritated and sleepy voices had begun to complain about Tillman ’ s outrageous and , by now , futile efforts to draw attention to himself and his miraculous survival , I gently suggested he and I go out on the fantail of the ship , which this time of night was deserted and where we could spend the rest of the night until dawn reminiscing and catching up on old times —
And it was then in the dazzling moonlight of the Gulf Stream and with our legs dangling over the side and our backs resting comfortably against a stack of life rafts , and after I had given Tillman a sanitized and censored account of my Thanksgiving Day visit with his Aunt Harriet and the girls ( but then had gone on to tell him what Mr . Peebles had said to me in the taxi on the way back to camp that I should take care of Tillman because Tillman was the last one in the family with King Comus ’ blood in his veins ) that Tillman finally got around to telling me who this mysterious King Comus was and why he had become not only a family legend but the Tillman family ’ s founding myth , one of the strangest , most disturbing stories I have ever heard in my life —
“ You ’ re not listening , D . —,” he began , when I wondered aloud how King Comus had gotten such an odd name , “ I said Comus was his slave name , he added King to it , when he was already a handsome young man and an accomplished musician , and his master had begun to hire him out to the Mississippi River steamboat companies as a band musician , which is another thing the family always mentioned about him — that because his master was himself an accomplished musician from Europe who had taught his slave to be a first-rate professional musician like himself , King Comus never developed what you might call a ‘ slave mentality ’ but in his heart and mind had always been free and intended to stay that way no matter what happened to him , not that he thought himself better than everybody else , but like it was as if he operated on a higher plane , as if the mere fact of his having been able to play so many musical instruments — play them like a pro — and read music like other people read detective stories and the Bible , and at such an early age , made him special the same way people who know how to read and speak Latin , even if they never have to speak it except at Sunday mass consider themselves special , as if being a trained musician had somehow given him all the prerogatives of royalty and not necessarily African royalty but royalty along the lines of Prince Albert on the bright red pipe tobacco can , royalty with a top hat and cane and a long Chesterfield coat , that kind of royalty —
“ And in fact that ’ s the way he was talked about in the family , like some kind of royal presence that still existed , as if he hadn ’ t been dead for over a century or so but was somewhere in exile and any moment might show up at a family reunion to dispense kingly wisdom to one and all and autograph the Family Bible —
“ When my great-grandfather died in Oklahoma — I ’ m talking about King Comus ’ only child , the one he had with the Indian woman and who was almost a hundred years old when he died ( I forget what year it was exactly but it was during the Depression , that much I remember ), they came and got me out of school and took me to the big house some call a mansion overlooking the Yellow River , the same house where you had Thanksgiving dinner , and on the night table in the piss and magnolia-smelling death room where great-granddaddy was laid out waiting for the undertaker to come , propped up on the bed table between a glass of pink denture water with his false teeth floating in it and a bowl of soggy cornflakes , which I guess had been his last meal before he died , there was this faded tintype of King Comus , the dead man ’ s father , a haughty skinny-lookin ’ Negro dressed
in the uniform of an eighteen-fifty-ish u . s . Army bandmaster with sleepy
kinda eyes and a soft dreamy way of contemplating the world —