Wesley Brown’s Tragic Magic was originally published in 1978 and championed by Toni Morrison during her tenure as an editor at Random House. It will be reissued in 2021 by McSweeney’s as the first book in their Of the Diaspora series. An excerpt from the novel appeared in MQR‘s Fall 2020 Issue on Persecution. A portion of the excerpt is available below.
Once I was out in the general population, my laughing strategy turned to silence. I was given a job assignment in the laundry room and spent most of my non-working hours in the library reading or in the dorm writing letters. When I wrote to family and friends I tried to maintain the fiction that everything was copacetic. But my handwriting told a different story as the words shivered uncontrollably across the page like the last dash of a chicken whose neck has been wrung.
I avoided any recreation that pitted me against anyone other than myself. I had witnessed too many situations where a physical contest became a matter of life and death. So I chose jogging: an exercise where I could use my breath without the fear that I might lose it on a jive tip . . .
And from the get-go I had no wind at all: my legs blown out after just one lap. But a stack of laps buffered my early fatigue. Soon jogging and doing time shacked up in my sweat. And there was just enough salt in my perspiration for me to get a taste of being down as my body wagged toward a raise from a fall.
Except for Hardknocks, I had very little to say to anyone. I tried to carry myself in such a way that if anyone fucked with me, they had to be wrong. However, my high-flown moral stance wasn’t necessarily a deterrent if someone decided to get down mean and wrong with me for lack of anything better to do.
“Hey, Ellington, come on down to the gym and run a few games. We need a third man,” a dude said.
“No, I don’t feel like it.”
“Come on, man, you ain’t doin nuthin.”
“Yes, I am. I’m reading.”
“You can do that later.”
“But I’m doing it now.”
His jaws loaded up with rocks until his face was only a stone’s throw away from Mount Rushmore.
“Don’t ever need anything around me, Ellington,” he said.
“Hey, man, I just don’t want to play.”
“Sooner or later you’ll have to. And the longer you wait, the more you’ll have to pay. And I ain’t talkin about basketball.”
It was like I was back at day one, trying to figure out the basic prescription for survival. Before I wasn’t enough. Now I was too much.
“You getting too jailwise,” Hardknocks warned me.
“What do you mean?”
“You too self-reliant. You should a played ball with those cats.”
“I thought you said it’s better to stand alone.”
“Not all the time. They were just trying to let you know that you all right with them. Dudes don’t extend themselves too often. But when they do, they don’t dig feeling they been chumped off.”
“How come I’m the only one that’s got to be careful about hurting people’s feelings? What about my feelings?”
“What you feel don’t fit into the scheme of this place. And if anybody’s gotta make an adjustment, it’ll have to be you.”
I started hanging out a little bit more. Playing a game of Ping-Pong now and then or watching television. I still kept pretty much to myself, except when I talked to Hardknocks and two other dudes named Cadillac and Shoobbee Doobbee.
Cadillac probably got his name because everything was a big thing with him, especially when he was involved. He had a well-stocked torso with arms and legs for days. When he walked he was a V.I.P. brougham limousine bogarting its way into two lanes. When negotiating a corner he would slink into a Cleveland lowride going into a wide-ass turn while grinning like the grill on a Fleetwood.
“What you reading?” he asked one day while double-parked next to my bunk.
“War and Peace.”
“What’s it about?”
“Just about everything.”
“Who wrote it?”
“He got anything on the ball?”
“A whole lot.”
“What did he do with it?”
“He wrote more books.”
“He was one sad muthafucka then. What about you? Is that what you wanna do, too?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Then you just as sad as he was . . . You know what happens to cats like that who don’t want no more out a life than understanding? They get an ass-whipping every day of their lives cause that’s where their smarts is at . . .That’s the sad part cause most people don’t have no understanding at all . . .
“You know what the trouble with most niggers is? They wanna own a Cadillac instead a bein one! But I want what the Caddy stands for. That’s why I’m in the joint now . . . I bet with all your understanding, you don’t even know what you want.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But I’d like to find out without being forced into something I don’t want.”
“What’s there to find out? There’s only two kinds of people in the world. Those who do the telling. And those who get told. All you got to do is decide which one you wanna be. And with what you in here for, I figure you should a made up your mind by now. If you don’t speed on people, you the one gonna end up getting peed on.”
“Don’t pay him no mind,” Hardknocks said.
“He’d do better payin me some mind than you with your fair-play bullshit.”
“You run a Coupe de Ville game, Cadillac, but your mind is strictly Pinto material.”
“If that’s true, you can bet your shit ain’t been mistaken for meatloaf.
You may’ve been named for them hard knocks you’ve taken but that don’t call for no celebration. They ain’t even givin up watches for takin shit no more. But I’m a put in a good word for you, cause with all the time you got in they ought a give you Big Ben.”
My nerves had gotten raggedy at the root from listening to them run off at the mouth about what was best for me. They didn’t even notice when I left. As usual when the dorm began to get to me, I hightailed it for the music room, where Shoobbee Doobbee would be playing records. I’d first met Shoobbee Doobbee coming out of the projection room after a movie. The room doubled as the place that beamed music to every dormitory and cellblock in the prison. I’d heard other inmates talk about this cat with a heavy jazz jones who supported his habit by shaking his head, tapping his feet, and tampering with the origins of famous jazz standards. The day I met him he was wearing a sun visor, a string of reed mouthpieces around his neck, and a drumstick strapped to his waist. When he spotted me, he came over and said, “Do you know what Miles once said to Coltrane after a recording session?”
“No, I don’t.”
“He said, ‘Man, how come you play so long?’ And Trane said, ‘It took that long for me to get it all out.’ I used to keep it all in and wound up knockkneed in a jive humble . . . Thanks to jazz my toes don’t knock no more. I cold-turkeyed to Bird doin ‘Now’s the Time,’ and hucklebucked out a the spell of heroin. So now I’m stone slewfooted, and I plan on keeping my feet turned out at ten to two and never let them turn back in to twenty after eight.”
When I walked into the projection room, Shoobbee Doobbee was leaning back in a swivel chair, deep in thought. A spotlight from the ceiling made a cone shape against the wall. Hundreds of album jackets checkered the walls. The side on the record player sounded like a Thelonious Monk tune.
“What’s happening, Shoob?”
“Is that Straight, No Chaser?”
“All day . . . Listen to that statement . . . Bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah . . . Clear as a glass a water . . . What’s wrong, Ellington? You look like you got some botheration on you.”
“I’m all right. I just thought I’d come over here and get a change of pace from all the rap in the dorm.”
“I hear you! It’s a drag cause most folks never change channels . . . You ever notice that musicians never do much rappin? Like Miles. He never gets up off too much talk. Everybody and their mama got the ass when Miles started turnin back to audiences durin performances. The lames didn’t understand he was payin em a compliment by turnin his back. Miles was sayin, ‘You cool with me.’ Most a the time Miles never trusted nobody enough to give his back to nuthin but the wall.
“On the other hand, the dude whose name you got talks more shit than a little bit. But he ain’t never turned state’s evidence on his damnself. Once somebody asked the Duke how he got that scar on his cheek, and he said he got it umpirin a duel between a pink baboon and a three-legged giraffe in the back of a Japanese supermarket in Eastern Turkey.”
“You play an instrument, Shoobbee?”
“What the fuck you think I was just doin! Bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah, bwah bwah dee daah . . .”
After listening to Shoobbee Doobbee trade licks with records for a couple of hours, I went back to the dorm. On the way I ran into Chilly. We hadn’t spoken to each other since our run-in.
“You may think it’s over but it ain’t,” he said. “You may not have submitted to the draft but you’ll submit to a skin graft from a shank. One way or another you gonna spread your cheeks. And I’m hip to your shit, so you can forget that laughing act. You can act crazy all you want. But I am crazy!”
“Why do you keep fucking with me, Chilly?”
“Cause you need fuckin with and I need to be the one doin the fuckin. And Hardknocks ain’t no different. He’s a little slower than me but he’s sure as shit on the same case.”
I walked into the dorm like a staggered boxer, knee-buckling down queer street, and was about to take a mandatory eight-count when someone touched my shoulder. I was stunned. It was the first time anyone had touched me like that since the day Chilly had when I first arrived.
“What’s wrong?” Hardknocks asked.
“I just ran into Chilly. The hunt’s still on.”
“He’s bullshitting. He’s just tryin to see how you’ll react.”
“Oh, he is, hunh? Well, does that mean no matter what anybody says in this place the opposite is true?”
“It depends on who it is.”
“Well, how the fuck am I supposed to tell who’s who? You can’t be around all the time to pull my coat. That’s unless you’ve decided to take Chilly’s old job.”
“Look, Ellington, I know what you going through but don’t get an attitude with me. Chilly’s the one who threatened you, not me.”
“That’s right, he did. But like you told me, some people are the opposite from the way they appear.”
“Oh, so that’s it. Sounds like Chilly put more than one buzz in your ear. I’m sorry you feel that way, Ellington, but if after all this time you believe I ain’t no different from Chilly, there ain’t nuthin I can do about it.”
“Yes, there is. If you can take time hipping me to Chilly, you can hip me to you.”
“You remember when I first talked to you, I said I usually don’t say anything to anyone unless I feel it’s worth my while. Well, I figured you knew without my having to tell you where I was at. I guess we both misjudged you.”
“Maybe, but right now the only thing I’m sure of is that there ain’t nothing I can be sure of.”
“What is it about me that you ain’t sure of?”
“What you want.”
“I probably want the same things Cadillac talks about and at times the same things Chilly threatened you about. The only difference between them and me is there are limits to what I will do. And that brings us to what you want, Ellington, which is protection.”
“That’s not true!”
“Oh, it’s true enough, especially since you didn’t say it was a lie. And there’s nuthin wrong with that. Some cats join the Muslims. Others lift weights. But most, like you, find a road dog they can talk and walk with. Don’t think I ain’t been using you, too. I got a lot a time to do, and since you been here I been doing it off you. And when you leave I’ll find someone else to do it off of. So don’t feel bad about showing some signs a weakness. Every man in here got some cauliflower in their heart. And don’t let nobody fool you. The cats that got the most are those that claim to be something more than just a man.”
There was no way I could follow that. And I didn’t even want to. It was the kind of solo work that reminded me of Gene Ammons playing “Willow Weep for Me,” without ever making it sound like he’s copping a plea.
Being around Hardknocks was like listening to the Count Basie Band doing “April in Paris.” No matter how many times you heard the tune, you just had to hear them do it “one more time.”
Chilly never got the chance to stick it to me. He was sent back to court on a writ in another case he was involved in. When he didn’t return, the rumor circulated that he went into court with a paper bag over his head and testified against his co-defendants as part of a deal with the district attorney. After the trial he was shipped to Sandstone, a joint in Minnesota where snitchers are sent. A few months later, the word was that Chilly had been stabbed to death in his sleep.
When I had completed half my sentence, I went up before the parole board. I took some advice from Hardknocks along with me on the varieties of truth that will and won’t set you free.
“Well, Melvin, your record shows that you’ve done quite well since you’ve been here. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment of your conduct?”
“If it means I’ve adjusted to being here, that’s true.”
“Do you think the time you’ve spent here has been helpful?”
“I think so.”
“In what way?”
“Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think and I realize now the government was correct in sending me here.”
“So your views have changed since you’ve been here.”
“Yes, they have.”
“Are you saying that you no longer believe the things you said about the government? That if you had it to do over again you’d serve your country?”
“You aren’t just saying that to get paroled, are you?”
“Of course not.”
“All right, Ellington, that’s all!”
To read the rest of this excerpt from Tragic Magic you can purchase a Fall 2020 issue.