The King of Love is Dead
The morning after the strangers had shot into the house they were staying in, Perry joined Monica and David at the card table they had pushed into the space protected by the stairs. They’d started eating meals there after the shoot-out.
He was gone for a minute, returned and threw the newspaper on the table.
“Martin’s back in Memphis. We’ll find out today if the injunction is lifted. Then Lawson can give us the go ahead to monitor the march. Let’s go talk to the Invaders. They’re staying on the floor above Martin at the Lorraine Motel. There’s a guy named Marion who’s with them. I want to talk to him too. Drives them around in a little blue Volkswagen bug. My grandfather wouldn’t be caught dead in a car that small.”
“Your grandfather only drives Fords,” David said. “ Loyal to Henry, his boss.” He was eating rapidly as if he were hungry.
“Finish those damn eggs, would you, David?” said Perry. “We need to get going.”
“Let me come,” Monica said. She didn’t want to be left alone in the house. The others had gone out to buy Carolina a bus ticket back to Ann Arbor.
“Bad idea,” Perry said. “They have a hard enough time with David. I can’t bring two white people to their meetings.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Monica insisted.
David said, “Wait for us at that barbeque place. If it’s closed, go down the street to the next open place. We’ll come get you.”
The barbeque place was closed. The closest place to it , Jim’s Bar and Grill, was seedy and dark and smelled of alcohol. Monica found a seat inside, took out her notebook and wrote the date: April 4th, 1968. She had a mixture of feelings to sort through. Sleeping with David every night made her feel drugged. Little penetrated her daze of sexual satisfaction. Yet she knew she needed to stay alert. Shooters might be lurking in the bushes or waiting for them when they came out of the house. And Perry perplexed her. His emotions were volatile, his political positions in flux. The night she and David first made love, he’d said to her,
“There’s more to Perry than we realized.” What had he meant? She wished they could get this march over with, go back to Ann Arbor. She looked up, saw Perry at the door and waved him over.
“You slumming?” Perry asked, “Why in god’s name did you pick this flop house?”
“David said come to the next place that was open,” Monica said. “I didn’t see anything else.”
“Don’t get defensive,” Perry said. “We’re here now.” He looked around the room. “This joint is full of rednecks, but at least they’re half asleep.” Many customers were old unshaven white men. They were staring into their coffee cups like they were coming off a bad hangover. Monica agreed they looked like the living dead.
“How did the meeting go?”
“Whenever people make things crazy, I smell a rat. These guys won’t agree to nothing.”
“He’s trying to talk sense into them,” Perry said. “He should give it up. They won’t listen to a brother like me, they sure as hell aren’t going to listen to a Hymie. Guess how much they’re asking for now? One hundred thousand dollars! For their so called programs.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Can you believe it? Last week Martin said those young men love him. He believes they love him." Perry shook his head. “They love what they think they can get from him.”
A shapely black woman with a name tag reading Betty approached them. She smiled at Perry. “What y’all be havin’ for breakfast?” Her languid voice made every syllable seductive.
Perry looked up at her, whistled under his breath. “Well, Betty, ain’t you something!”
Betty smiled demurely.
“I’ll have coffee–cream au lait, like you, baby,” said Perry, sitting up straighter.
“And for you, sweetheart?” Betty turned to Monica.
“Nothing for me,” sighed Monica. She wasn’t amused by Perry’s flirtations, not this morning.
Betty smiled as she walked away, her hips moving slightly from side to side. Monica felt tired. If the march wasn’t happening, she wanted to get back to Ann Arbor.
The place had begun filling up. A black man sat down at a table nearby, with several white men. Other customers were coming, going, in a hurry, shouting out greetings to a tall white man in a dirty apron standing in the back.
Betty brought Perry his coffee. Now she looked worried.
“What’s on your mind, baby?” Perry asked her. He was confident he could redirect the attention of any woman back to himself , no matter what else was on her mind.
“That man in back, that’s the owner, Lloyd. I don’t have time to chat with you now, brother. It would upset him. He’s yelling at everyone.”
“He must be okay with blacks in his place,” Perry said. “He hired you. I see another brother over there. What’s up, is the owner your old man?”
“He’s sweet on me. But he’s married. He don’t like it when men pay too much attention to me–isn’t that something? He’s on edge today.”
She looked at Perry with a knowing smile. “Most times I can calm him down, but I’m busy this morning. I got to keep moving.” She looked around, then turned back to them, shrugged, and walked away with the same seductive sway of her hips.
“Isn’t that a bitch,” Perry said to Monica. “White man got that sister so mind fucked she can’t take the time to talk to a good-looking brother like me? I hate these crackers.”
He jerked his head toward the table beside them. “See that black man at the table over there? That’s Marion – one of the Invaders. Sitting there with a couple of white men. Wonder who they are?”
Monica looked. At a table to their left, a little closer to the windows, three large white men were talking to a short black man. The four were talking intently. One man moved away from the table, laughing. The others joined in.
The place made Monica nervous. Perry too seemed on edge. Perry could start a fight with the owner over the waitress Betty, or even with this Marion person, whom he didn’t seem to trust. During the shoot-out, it had taken both David and Ezekiel to keep Perry from running out the door after the shooters. Why had she come into this miserable hole in the wall? She should have kept on walking.
“Let’s go, Perry. I don’t like it here.”
“We’ll go pick David up at the Lorraine,” Perry said. “Andrew Young is in court right now, trying to get the injunction lifted. Let’s take the trolley down to the Mississippi while we wait.
At that moment David walked into the grill. They waved him over.
“Good news and bad,” he said. “The good news is the injunction’s been lifted. The march can go on. The bad news is that the Invaders aren’t going along with anything. Let’s get out of here. We’ll make our own plans to keep the march nonviolent.”
“Was that guy Marion with them earlier today ?” Perry asked.
“Marion was there. Never says much, why?” David asked.
“Marion’s here now,” Perry said. “See him sitting over there? Why would a man who calls himself an Invader be hanging out with white dudes? I don’t like this mother fucking grill. Let’s get out of here.”
Perry want ed to talk to Lawson immediately. David said he needed a break. He said he’d walk Monica back to the house and wait for Perry there. David put his arm around her. She leaned into him. They matched their steps as they walked. Once back at the place they went upstairs into Perry’s and David’s assigned bedroom and lay down on David’s bed. She put her head on David’s shoulder. They meant to rest for a few minutes. But they dozed off, falling asleep in each other’s arms.
Perry felt about to burst. He was a little buzzed. He’d smoked a joint with those stupid Invaders, had a few beers at a bar. Usually he went out to his car to smoke weed so the others wouldn’t smell it, but the Invaders smoked openly, so he’d joined in. They had some good stuff, from Thailand by way of Nam. The weed had taken some of his edge off. Not enough. He wanted to go to Lawson’s office, in part because he hoped to see that cute Sherry. Damned if David would be the only one to get laid. Perry could tell David was getting it on with Monica. He often awoke to find David’s cot empty in the middle of the night. David said he’d been downstairs chewing the fat with Ezekiel, or doing house patrol, but Perry wasn’t fooled. The guy was getting his. Hey, Monica was fine, and she was kind. He didn’t begrudge her and David their chance to hump. His Pop liked to say, there wasn’t but two of us down here. Men and women. They were meant to get together.
But damned if he would be left out. He didn’t sing Otis Redding’s song “ I’m a lover!” for nothing.
At Lawson’s office, Sherry had gone home. Lawson said the government hated Martin now because of his insistence on the March on Washington. Lawson told him even a lot of black people weren’t down with that, especially the preachers. Perry didn’t know about that. Only a fool would trust the government about anything. He certainly understood its power. Did the government care about a march of rag tag people on Washington? Perry believed they hated Martin for coming out against the Vietnam War. Though maybe it was both things.
He realized that he was close to the Lorraine Motel. The Invaders might have some more of that grass. On the other hand, he was ready to go mano a mano with some of those punks. The thought of a good fight with them made him feel better. A toke together might not be bad either. They had one sister running with them. Not pretty like Sherry but she might be okay. He wanted to get another feel for that Marion guy. He’d been laughing with the white men in the Jim’s Grill when they left. Odd that a militant Invader with a big Afro would talk so intently with those official-looking white boys. It was going on 5:30 pm now. Perry went down to the Invaders’ rooms, on the ground floor, directly beneath Martin’s, and knocked on the door.
Charles answered. He looked harried, as if he expected Perry to bring bad news. On the beds knapsacks were open and people were tossing things inside.
“Hosea is throwing us out of here,” Charles said to Perry. “Says we’re running up a bill for too many people in the kitchen. You’d think Martin could spare us some food.”
“Yeah,” John Burl said, from the corner. He had finished packing a small suitcase, which he closed now with a snap. “Can’t believe they’re nickel-and-diming us for a few extra people, the way Martin lives it up. Wine, women, and catfish.”
Since all possibility of free grass was gone, Perry decided to show his natural antipathy to these motherfuckers.
“You wanted $200,000 from Martin. You told him to accept your violence and give you temporary positions on his staff. He doesn’t owe you a god damn thing.”
“They going to nickel-and-dime us right out of their fucking movement,” Charles said, “Cause we are heading out this minute. We aren’t going to monitor their stinking march.”
“Good,” Perry said. “We can do better without you.”
They realized then that he was messing with them. But they didn’t have the time nor the will to kick his ass. Just as well, since there were more of them.
John Burl brushed past him, carrying his small suitcase out the door. He looked ludicrous, the tough so-called militant Vietnam Vet with that pickie Annie suitcase. Perry brushed against Smith’s shoulder as Smith passed him.
“We’re out of here right now, lucky for you,” Smith growled as he headed out to the balcony. “I’d whip your ass in a minute, but we’re gone.” The others with their rucksacks and backpacks pushed past Perry, hurrying to follow Smith. A sorry group, thought Perry.
“Lucky for you, more likely,” Perry taunted. He put his hand to his jacket pocket where he kept his Glock. They thought he was unarmed like the other MLK folk. But he was no fool. He watched them head to the parking lot, followed them out the door and into the driveway. He saw that Marion had driven up in his car with two more ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three were clowning around. There were laughing and joking, then came a sound like a car backfiring. Perry the sniper knew that was no car. That was a rifle shot.
Perry headed toward the sound of the shot. He should get the hell out of there, but instinct drew him toward the place where he’d heard the shot emerge. He knew it came from the bushes across the street. As he ran toward those bushes a white man leapt off the wall behind them and began running up a side street.
“Hey!” Perry shouted. “Stop!” The man kept running, disappearing into the distance. Perry began to chase him. Then it hit him. The area was crawling with police. Hell, one day after the first march, someone had shot up their house. These Memphis police weren’t on the side of out-of-state volunteers marching with Martin. Hell, no. A black man running from a gunshot–he’d be picked up and taken in a second. If he wasn’t shot first. Hell, he himself was armed. He forced himself to slow down to a walk, and headed back in the direction of the Clayborn Temple. With that many cops around, they should be able to catch the shooter.
Not until he reached the steps of the Clayborn Temple and heard the agonized wailing of the black women did he realize. The shot had been for Martin. It had reached its mark.
He wheeled around. He needed to get back to the house to tell Ezekiel and David and Monica. He felt a hand on his arm and spun back around, jerking his arm away. It was Seth.
“You heard?” Seth looked stricken and disheveled.” I was in my room. I heard the news and ran over here. Where are David and Monica?”
“I was at the Lorraine–I heard the shot,” Perry said,” It came from the bushes. I saw a white man running away–heading right into a mess of cops. They’ll get him. Let’s get back to the house. We’ve got to tell them. After that I don’t care what’s happening–curfew, National Guards, the devil himself could be out on these streets. I’m going to be here too.”
“I’ll be with you,” Seth said,” Taking photographs.”
They hurried back to the house. Monica and David were dozing in the upstairs bedroom David shared with Perry. Perry thought to himself, let them sleep. Give them a few more minutes before they learn their world has changed forever. But Monica was stirring, rubbing her eyes. Then she sat upright, taking one look at Perry and Seth.
“No!” she shouted.
“Martin’s been shot,” Perry said.
David sat up, suddenly wide, “Where?”
“Head,” Seth answered. There was a terrible silence.
Perry forced himself to shatter it. “Turn on the television,” he shouted. “Turn it on! It will be on the news.” They ran downstairs to the living room.
He was hoping the news would contradict what they had heard, tell them Martin had survived. Seth fiddled with the dials of the TV. There was static, then a local news station came on,
“Martin Luther King was shot at 6:01 pm this evening and has been pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Memphis.”
Perry felt like he’d been slammed against the wall.
“No ! ” he shouted. He grabbed a book sitting on an end table . He wanted so badly to throw it at the television, smash that announcer’s face into a million pieces. Instead he turned and threw it at the fireplace. Then, automatically, his training took over. David had fallen back on the couch, slumped backwards as if he had fainted. Monica was crying next to him. Perry had to get them functioning.
“David, get your coat and your inhaler. Monica, get a sweater . Seth, help Monica get ready. C’mon, all hell is going to break lose. Let’s get over to Mason Temple.”
They walked the blocks to the Mason Temple, blocks which they had sometimes walked or driven but now seemed to take forever. In the distance they could hear sirens. Small groups of people were gathering on street corners. Other streets were totally silent. Once they finally trudged up to the Mason Temple, hundreds of people, more blacks than whites, were pouring into the church. Many were wailing and moaning. It sounded like the day of Judgement.
A murmur passed through the crowd that someone from the church would be speaking. Maybe James Lawson.
“Will the Invaders be here to keep the violence in check?” Monica asked Perry.
“Girl, they promote violence, “ Perry answered, “Anyway, Those motherfuckers raced off just before Martin was shot.”
His eyes darted around the church. He stamped his feet on the floorboards as if he wanted to break them. Monica was looking at him as if she feared what he might do next. “Wonder if those Memphis cops got the shooter yet? He was running right into a nest of them,” Perry said.
“They’re looking for a white Mustang,” said Seth. “Perry, you were at the Lorraine tonight?”
“I headed over around 5:30 to talk to Charles. They were on their way out. I saw Marion driving back with those black ministers. I heard a shot and headed over here. Now I’m going out into the streets. I ain’t listening to anyone tell us to turn the other cheek tonight.”
“Dangerous,” Seth said, “There’s a curfew.”
“I don’t think we can stop him,” David said to Seth. “ After Lawson speaks can you take Monica home?”
“I’ll bring Monica back. Then I’ll meet back up with you. Where will you be?“
David said, “Beale and Mulberry.”
Perry was running. He didn’t know sure where he was going. Back to Beale Street, to hurl rocks and bricks with the others. Maybe loot some stores, what the hell, grab some liquor, get wasted. Rage was flowing through him. He was beyond caring, crazy angry, crazy sure he’d ride this wave and kill any motherfucker stupid enough to cross his path. He was packing. He’d find that god dammed son of a bitch who had shot Martin. He would love to get that crazy cracker’s neck between his two hands and choke the shit out of him.
Behind him he heard David shouting at him to stop, Seth’s voice chiming in. He slowed down. Their voices were calling him back to another part of himself. A corner of his life where he acted different. Played by the rules or at least pretended to. He slowed, saw David loping toward him, struggling for breath. Saw Seth with his camera. Some of the madness slid out of his brain.
Seth would record what Perry was seeing. Up Beale Street, scattered groups of young black men were throwing bricks and bottles at boarded-up windows. Three blocks down the National Guard, bayonets drawn, was lining up in formation. He was close to Mulberry Street now, and David was at his side, still struggling for breath, his hand on Perry’s right arm.
“C’mon,” he said. “Lawson wants us to keep the kids calm. Perry, we can talk to them.”
Perry stared at David. Was this motherfucker for real? David was going to tell these young guys to calm down and go home? Be nonviolent, now, when the man who had talked nonviolence had just been shot?
He stared at David. David had been crying. The guy could barely talk. Seth was running up and down the street, shooting photos of the cops and the National Guard, Those cops could charge Seth any moment.
Christ. What insanity these white boys were part of, day after fuckin’ day. White people just didn’t believe what could happen to them. They lived in a bubble. Even after that shoot out into the house, these two white guys were out on these streets with him, in the middle of a riot. Another kind of insanity. They were okay, David and Seth. No one better. Even among his tightest buddies in Nam.
“You are one crazy Jew,” Perry said to David. “Expect me to talk down some young men who have had it with nonviolence.”
“Lawson wants us to,” David urged. “Martin would too. Perry, look at that line of National Guards. Look at those cops. It will be a massacre. We got to stop these kids.”
“Don’t know why I hang out with you,” Perry said. But he began walking toward the young men gathered around the stores, cupping his hands around his mouth, making a bullhorn of his hands, shouting at them to go home.
“Hey! Don’t run from the guards or the police. They’ll shoot. Turn around and back away slowly. Go home.”
A cop with a gas mask pointed at him. “Get him! He’s their leader!”
The line of National Guardsmen advanced toward Perry. David was beside him again, shouting,” Don’t shoot!” He was pulling Perry backwards into a nearby alley. They turned once inside and ran down the alley to an adjoining lane. As they turned the corner Perry looked back and saw that the cops, weighed down by their gas masks, sticks and guns, were lumbering after them, unable to round the first corner. The alley Perry and David had run down was short and led to another alley. They turned into it. This one was lined with garbage cans, overflowing with trash unemptied since the strike. Two rats crouched under a bin, nibbling on a box of French fries. Perry realized this alley must lie behind Main Street with its restaurants and bars.
“C’mon,” Perry said. “Down here’s another alley. It leads up to Main Street.”
They were catching their breath and slowed to a walk. They couldn’t see or hear anyone chasing them now. Behind the drawn blinds of the ground floor apartments they saw the glow of television sets. Other than that, there was an eerie silence where usually there would have been conversation and canned laugh tracks.
Perry was taking deep breaths, filling his lungs in case they needed to sprint. He felt a wild elation at having outrun the cops. He wiped the sweat off his forehead. Those cops could have killed him. The first day of the march, the cops had shot a teenager, a member of the Invaders, with less provocation. No one had been prosecuted for the death of that 16 year old . No one ever would be. What had he thought he was doing, packing a gun?
“Where’s Seth?” he asked.
“Seth was taking pictures of the cops,” David said. He too was breathing deeply. “At least he has a press pass. He’s better off without us.”
Perry knew cops didn’t want to be photographed. But Seth knew that too. They had come to Main Street now. It was quiet, the shops closed, many boarded up. Only a few people on the street. No signs of looters. Because it was Main Street, the cops could drive up and down at any moment. It would be best to head home.
“We’re close to Clayborn Temple,” Perry said. “You go back there, David. I’ll head over to Sherry’s place, she lives around the corner.”
“We should stick together,” David said.
But Perry took off at a trot, calling back, “It’s okay, David, I’ll be fine. You go back. I’ll meet you tomorrow at the house.”
When Perry got to Sherry’s home, her brothers told him she had left for her mother’s. He went with them to Fourth and Georgia. A door to a grocery store had been knocked in. People were looting the store, and someone had started a fire. When Perry got there, flames were climbing the building, smoke escaping in to the sky. The wail of the ambulance, the climbing licks of flame, the hoses hissing steam into that burning building, reminded him of the burning huts in Kam Sanh. The hell he had thought he’d escaped when he left Vietnam. He was back there, upcountry, in the small village with the funny name, the sky a flash of bombs and flares, the children and the women screaming. He could not bear that sound. His white officer was telling them to shoot, shoot, shoot at any moving target. It was an enemy village, the officer said. They had harbored the Vietcong, shoot them all.
He thought he’d left Vietnam. You didn’t ever leave Vietnam, a buddy told him. Everywhere in this U. S. of A., were men like him, wounded first by being black, wounded again in Nam. Scarred for life, by what they’d seen there.
Sherry’s brothers called to him. He shook away his memories. The cops and the National Guard had arrived. Time to go back. Sherry’s brothers would help them find their way on back streets . Perry grabbed a couple bottles from another liquor store along the way. They got back to Sherry’s house. He drank from his looted liquor and from the bottles Sherry’s brothers had liberated. He smoked and shot the shit with them until the early morning hours, then fell asleep on the couch, still hearing the wails of ambulances and the overhead drone of helicopters. He kept drinking so he wouldn’t dream of Vietnam.
In the morning, walking home through dirty and burned down streets, hung over, head aching, he saw that his rage would get him killed. His mother had always called him the cat with nine lives. He’d used up most of them. In Vietnam, in Detroit and Inkster, and now in Memphis. No point dying in Vietnam, for the white boys. No need dying in Detroit or Inkster, because another brother was insane. And no need dying in Memphis, behind some racists. It was time to make his dying count.
He felt like he could see straight through the rest of his life. He would call Heidi and say good bye. She had really cared about him. Say good bye to his son in Ann Arbor. He was heading to California. He would take any volunteers from Memphis who needed a ride. Go to his cousin in Oakland, and join the Black Panthers. If he was going to get killed, let it be with them.