NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 16.2: Fall 2016 - Page 16

William Demby and James Demby play with a crane in 1958 .
“‘ Anyway ,’ Tillman continued , ‘ why he did it , jumped off a riverboat into the Mississippi River in the middle of the night , to my way of thinking has always seemed less important than that he actually did it , and many a night I ’ ve spent imagining how it felt and what it must have been like taking a leap like that into total darkness , the unknown —
“ And since the bandmaster was no fool and had good reason not to trust a riverboat musician further than he could spit , and having already observed the way that buxom free-thinking Lutheran niece of his had been devouring his handsome Negro trumpet player with her big blue eyes , he made a beeline to the saloon cabin where — so one version of the story goes , the one strikes me as being the most plausible and the version I ’ m telling you now — he found the two young people on the bed in dulcet communion , if you know what I mean —
“ So shrieking ‘ schwarzerschwein !’ or words to that effect , which to King Comus ’ ears must have sounded like a savage war cry , the bandmaster pulled out the German luger he always carried in his pocket to defend himself from ‘ river pirates ,’ and then held it to King Comus ’ head — and was actually marching King Comus off to the brig — when suddenly King Comus made a break for it , started streaking off down that carpeted passageway to the door leading to a lifeboat station , which he kicked open and then swan-dived over the rail —
“ At least that ’ s the version the men of the family used to tell at family reunions after the bourbon started to flow and King Comus ’ name would be brought up so as to start all the drinking and fun in good company —
“ Another version , the version the womenfolk favored — you know how women like to nobilify the family name , just like it really pissed them off when all the men would gather in a corner smoking cigars and drinking good bourbon and would slowly slowly start working their way to the annual discussion of King Comus ’ leap into the Mississippi — their version , the womenfolk ’ s version , had it that King Comus was a petty thief caught stealing a silk shirt and a pair of gold cufflinks from the bandmeister ’ s cabin where he ’ d been in bed with the bandmeister ’ s niece who was on her way to Chicago to get married to the son of a big manufacturer , and that when the bandmeister caught him in the act , King Comus made his famous dive into the Mississippi to avoid being locked up in some smalltime jail and sold down the river as a slave —
“ In fact my great-grandmother , late in her life ( like King Comus she was over a hundred years old when she died ) and after she ’ d gotten a little dotty and started having visions of flaming chariots and angels carrying swords — one day after school she called me into her bedroom , and even though I was only six or seven-years old , she warned me about ‘ trifling with a young lady ’ s affections and said I should always keep my ‘ thang ’ to myself until I was properly married , otherwise I ’ d end up like King Comus , who , so she claimed , had escaped being lynched by the skin of his teeth —
“ I mean , shit , you can imagine yourself how it must have been when he hit the stinking muddy water on a winter night , sinking into that slimy darkness , legs pumping , eyes focused inside his head toward the impenetrable foggy darkness of his lungs about to explode , praying for light but instead having to fight a battle royal with his fear of being sucked down forever down , down , down into that beckoning , suffocating , stinking nothingness that wants you to give up the ghost and bring your suffering to an end , while at the same time he ’ s twisting around and around like a spinning top , round and around in that crazy eddying current until suddenly , while you keep on sinking deeper and deeper into the darkness and silence of death , suddenly , like an answer to your prayers , you bump into something hard , round and slippery , something enormously and playfully alive like ( and you think ) a whale or an angel , but which , in reality , is only a floating barrel around which , nevertheless , you throw your arms like it is your mammy , and you thank God for answering your prayers — ‘ Thank you , Jesus , thank you , My Saviour !’
“ But then the moment your head pops out of the filthy mess and you find yourself now spinning like a top , bobbing up and down like you ’ ve got an enormous fish on the line , suddenly you look around you across the violent cross currents of the Mississippi , and what do you see ? — you see far in the distance the Memphis Vanguard disappearing around a bend , that ’ s what you see —