The sky above the Bay Bridge was a gunmetal gray, and in the distance I could hear the low rumble of freight trains that ran along the Eastshore Highway. I loved the sound, and hadn't realized how much I missed it until it echoed down the early morning streets. The wheels on the tracks, the whistle of the train, the foghorns on the Bay were all part of the soundtrack of my life in Oakland; sounds, like smells, that gave me definition.
It wasn't just the streets and people that claimed me, but the city itself. As I took it all in I realized just how much I was stamped by the place that I'd fled after Billy's murder in 1989. I was only hours back-a newborn-having rolled in with the mist off the Bay, quiet, and under the cover of night. I hadn't planned to come back, but an ominous phone call triggered my speedy return. During my travels I found that the open road suited me so I stayed away as long as I could. I grew accustomed to living a nomad's existence, and I found kinship rather than family with men and women who were not at all interested in who I claimed to be.
I liked being a person without a name; I relished the blank looks I got when I introduced myself as Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield. At home any one of those names would have elicited some sort of response, but on the road it hadn't meant shit. Not a single thing. So I convinced myself that the disinterest translated into freedom.
The delusion worked until a single phone call from my aunt Cissy shattered the fragile sense of peace I'd built for myself. The plea on the other end of the phone line was riddled with urgency-Holly's in trouble, Maceo-and it meant my days of wandering were done.
It was time to make amends.
After two years of drifting I finally knew there was only one place that could offer me a shot at peace, and that was my hometown. The city was my crossroads, the crooked man with the slanted grin, my temptation, and I wanted to beat it. I wanted to win, and yet I still had expectations, because when the Oakland skyline came into focus, a part of me expected to see grave dust hanging above the city, or a mourner's shroud of black clouds, to acknowledge all that had been lost with Billy's death.
Yet the world hadn't stopped, neither had I, and I'd learned the truest, if not the hardest, lesson of my friend's murder.
Life goes on.
The wind was high as the sun broke over the bay, bending trees and fences and moving the chilly fog of early January out into
the Bay. Nature had conspired to give her wayward son a fitting welcome-home party, and the theatrics matched my dark mood.
Looking for a reprieve I turned up the heater in my car, then scanned the boulevard until my eyes landed on a Flight Athletic billboard towering over the intersection. During my travels from South Texas through New Mexico and finally California, my way had been shadowed by billboards that featured Cotton, and now a new one loomed above me, barely visible in the mist that blanketed San Pablo Avenue. It featured a bare-chested Cotton, hawking his gray-and-white basketball shoes with his full name-
Cornelius Knox-written above his head. His matching Anaheim Vanguards shorts were pulled down low enough to reveal the elastic band of his underwear and the stitching that read: let me fly. The shoes were christened Fort Knox in his honor, with the famous taglines guard 'em with your life and worth their weight in gold scattered along the edge.
He looked like a king, and I wasn't the only one who thought so. In pure Oakland style, a fan had climbed the scaffolding to add what they thought was missing from the picture. The tagger had used black spray paint to draw a crown above Cotton's head, then red to give him a long, flowing robe. Beneath the additions in bold, block letters the piece was finished with the rallying cry from Scarface: the world is mine.
I had to smile. It made me proud. I understood the fan worship and I knew where it came from. Cotton was a warrior-king to the brigade of lost boys who littered the Oakland streets. The raw aggression he used on the court was an emotion they recognized, and they loved him for that. Loved him because he hadn't been spit-shined into respectability or polished to the point of forgetting who he was, and more important, forgetting who they were.
The friends of his youth remained his friends, and Vanguard games were often filled with guests of the superstar who had rap sheets longer than his stats for college and pro combined. He'd said more than once that he didn't consider the other players to be a part of his family. His teammates were coworkers. The only family he had was in Oakland.
The management's frustration with Cotton's stance was obvious in their vaguely coded public comments about "synergy" and "team dynamics," but they couldn't fault his play. He might not smile and clown for the camera or refer to his coach as a "second father," but he delivered on the court by averaging twenty-nine points a game and making the All-Star team three years in a row. At the end of the day it didn't matter that he was quick with his fists or barely contained his contempt for authority, because he filled seats, which filled the pockets of the people in the front office. The phrase role model was never used to describe him, but he was featured in three different commercials promoting a soft drink, his athletic shoes, and a sporting-goods chain.
I was proud of Cotton's triumphs, and I cheered his success from the sidelines, but I also knew that the campaign was a façade, and now, because of recent events, so did the rest of the world. While the advertisement celebrated all that was golden in the ballplayer's life, the discarded USA Today on my car seat exposed the darker side to his tale. The newspaper also filled in the details Cissy left out, and more simply, it clarified the reasons for my return.
Shooting Guard Questioned
in Murder Investigation
San Francisco (AP)-Jan. 14, 1992-
A woman was found bludgeoned to death in a San Francisco hotel room registered to Anaheim Vanguard star Cornelius "Cotton" Knox. The former Oakland resident missed Tuesday's game against the Sacramento Kings in Anaheim after he was detained by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office for questioning. Police are seeking information about an unidentified man seen fleeing the hotel room on the night of the
A dead body.
An unidentified man.
The words flashed at me like Morse code.
Since the first year Cotton had entered the league, he'd spent every NBA All-Pro weekend with his boys from Oakland, a gangsta's ball in whichever city hosted the game; Houston, Philly, Denver, and finally Oakland in 1992. Sometimes his guest list for the All-Pro included as many as twenty people, expanding and deflating from year to year to allow for arrests, marriages, illnesses, and murders. But no matter how many people came and went, there was always one name that never changed.
As I sat in my car contemplating my best friend's involvement in the murder, I lit a second cigarette and threw the newspaper behind my car seat. The usually soothing smell of sulfur from the struck match did nothing to calm my nerves, but I inhaled the smoke anyway. In addition to the cigarette jones I'd picked up on the road, I'd acquired two other things while traveling: a scar that ran from the corner of my right eye down into the crease of my mouth, and a three-year-old jet-black 125-pound Cane Corso named Kiros, who sat beside me in the car. I'd heard once in a psych class at UC Berkeley that pets often represented their owner's inner psyche, but I couldn't figure out what the big, slobbering dog said about me.
Outside the car the storefronts along San Pablo Avenue were dark. It was just after seven o'clock in the morning, and the sidewalks were nearly empty, but I'd come back to the area with one destination in mind: Crowning Glory. The barbershop was the site of three separate gangland shootings, and a place Holly considered to be the birthplace of bad luck, but it was also the first outpost on Oakland's bush telegraph. Cutty, the barber, was a compatriot of my grandfather's from his days in Louisiana, and a man steeped in local happenings. He always had the sort of information that never made the newspapers, the bits and pieces that were closest to the truth.
I cut the engine and jumped out of the car. As I approached the shop, I noticed that even though it was mid-January, the window was still covered in fake snow from the holidays and the cheerless direction to have a merry christmas and a happy new year.
Inside, the barbershop was furnished with discarded church pews-an attempt by Cutty to stave off a string of bad luck-and when I entered I saw him sitting in the last row with his back
to the door. He was talking with a tall man who looked to be in his twenties. The stranger wore a white smock with the barbershop's signature gold scissors and an elaborate crowning glory stitched on the sleeve. Cutty had stressed for years that he would never hire anyone under fifty to work his chairs so I was surprised to see the young recruit.
I closed the door with force and the bells nailed above the doorjamb crashed to the floor. I smiled when Cutty turned around to investigate the noise.
"What the hell?" At first he looked startled when he saw me, then a wild smile broke out on his face.
"Hey there, old man," I said.
"Hot damn! Maceo, is that you?" He moved quickly across the room to grab me in a bear hug. "Gotdamn, boy, what you doing sneaking up on people? I thought I was seeing a ghost up in here!"
"It's just me."
I slipped from his grasp and looked to the walls above the mirror. It was an old habit. The space was filled with photographs of local sports figures, and for years had included a Little League photo of me, Holly, and Billy. It broke my heart to see that it was missing, but I didn't ask about it. I didn't care to know the reasons why the three of us were no longer relevant.
"Don't you owe me a haircut?" I said instead. The last time I'd seen Cutty, the news of Billy's death had driven me from his shop before I'd even made it into his chair.
"I just might, Youngblood, I just might. What you need?"
"Clean it up."
"Be glad to. You know I been trying to get you to wear a bald head for years." He motioned toward the two old men reading papers in the corner. "You remember Lester and Greavy."
I didn't but I said hello anyway.
He grabbed a towel to wrap around my neck, and pulled a folded white drape from a box on the floor. "When you get back?"
"Just got here."
"You come all the way back just to get a haircut? Or to show me you got a little taller?" He gave me a weak smile. At twenty-five I was still only five feet five inches tall and my height, or lack of it, had been a source of ridicule my entire life.
"Two years ago, you were, what, maybe three feet high?" The insult was mild, devoid of the usual venom that classified Cutty's communication style, which showed me just how much I was missed.
"Just the same old me."
"Naw, boy, something's different. Something's changed."
He was right. There were changes, the most obvious registered in the newfound bulk of my arms, legs, and chest. I'd always been in top shape, even when my baseball career started to fade, but the muscles of the last two years were earned the blue-collar way of construction: heavy lifting and hauling, an occasional fight, or the grueling exercise of looking off into the distance of my own regret.
"What you need, Maceo?" This time Cutty's question was not about my hair.
"I need to find Holly. You heard anything?"
"I heard the police are looking at him for this murder, and that's killing your granddaddy."
I snickered, and the pointed sound chased away the easy, back-and-forth banter of my homecoming. "If I remember right, Daddy Al didn't want anything to do with Holly when I left." Or me, but I kept that thought to myself.
"You think he meant that, after the smoke settled and all his sons were gone? He was mad, and he had every right to be mad, but he still loves both of you." He caught my skeptical look in the mirror and frowned. "I guess part of being young is being hardheaded, huh? Your granddaddy missed you, that's all you need to believe. You been gone too long, boy."
It was the second time he'd called me that in less than five minutes. I wanted to laugh, not at the sentiment, because I knew he meant it, but at the nickname. Boy? Had I ever been that? I was convinced my soul had been recycled, handed to me already injured and used.
"If you hadn't left, you would know that. If you'd stayed and talked to your granddaddy . . ."
"There wasn't anything to say."
"There was plenty to say. You and Holly fucked up, you made some bad choices, but Albert loves you both."
"Bad choices? That's one way to put it."
"Well, what would you call it, then? You must've spent the past two years coming up with something. If you didn't you woulda blew your brains out by now."
Cutty wasn't one to mince words so I took a minute to answer him with the same clarity. I ran over all the conversations I'd had with myself on the road, all the taunts I'd heard from my father, and it kept coming back, stalling on the same thing. Oakland. To me the city was a way station for lost souls, a holding station for the damaged hordes of lost boys roaming the city. I said as much to Cutty.
"Maceo," he cut me off, "you don't believe that shit, do you?"
"What you mean?"
"I can tell that you halfway believe what you're saying, but I know you ain't that stupid."
My temper flared. "When did you ever lead a perfect life?"
"The twelfth of never, but I own what I've done. Nowadays everybody got a dramatic reason for why they act a fool."
"Well, sometimes the reasons get complicated."
Cutty plugged the clippers into the wall and tightened the drape around my neck. "You can lie to me if you want to, Maceo, long as you tell yourself the truth."
"What's the truth?"
"The truth is that you boys killed this city, and each other, because you were greedy and lazy."
"Knowing Cotton, knowing Holly, knowing me, you believe that?"
"Knowing your granddaddy I believe every word. Ya'll took the easy way out and now you want to cry foul after trapping yourselves in bullshit."
He spun my chair around and I faced the intense gazes of Lester and Greavy. The two old men obviously agreed with his assessment.
Cutty's hand came down on my shoulder, maybe to straighten me in the chair, possibly to take the sting out of his words. "But I'm glad you're back either way."
Excerpted from The Last King by Nichelle D. Tramble. Copyright © 2004 by Nichelle D. Tramble. Excerpted by permission of One World/Strivers Row, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.