The True Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

 My mother never explicitly told me I was special, and the truth is I was too young to interpret any implications on the matter. I never wanted to change the world; my only concern was progressing myself. Maybe it was a selfish stance but how else do children think? The only dreams in my head were those of freedom. I wanted change for myself, I never thought about change for a nation. I grew up watching my mother get abused. She was beaten, raped and treated like a dog. I’m not so fond of that saying, “like a dog.” No man treats a dog like that. I was born into slavery after my mother’s master, a white man named Captain Anthony, raped her. It wasn’t uncommon for the time. There were quite a few slaves coming up who were partly white. White masters loved to dip their fingers in the pie of the dirty black woman. It makes you wonder, why, if they’re so dirty? Are their proper white wives not giving them the proper satisfaction? Whatever the reason, I was born from a black woman and a white man. If you read my first narrative, then you already know that. It’s the real tale of the American Dream. If you’re thinking I’m talking about the stale and regurgitated Dusty Rhodes fat plumber, white man, rising to wealth, think again. I’m talking about a black individual ascending to a level of freedom no one ever expected. That’s the real American Dream. Some people say there is no American Dream, and I suppose that is where the problem persists. My American Dream isn’t real. What you’ve read about me is not the reality. Before you go ahead and get twisted up about it and spit your tobacco all over the floor, let me explain. What you know about me is a story; a great tale. The first narrative is simply that: the first narrative. For reasons you might later understand, I didn’t tell the whole novel of my life. I told what people wanted to hear. More importantly, I told what people needed to hear. You were never given the conclusion. The information simply ceased flowing at my death.

    There are so many popular idioms and phrases with which I take issue. It’s not as though I’m offended that people use them, I genuinely don’t understand them. They don’t make sense. I get rustled about it because they’ll come to mind in certain situations, much like this one, and I’ll want to use them but they never seem to fit the mold. Damn. One is, “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” or something of the sort. The phrase pops into your head and you want to roll with it, but it’s not accurate. Rumors of my death were not exaggerated. They were authentic. Frederick Douglass died that February night in 1895. Hell, he probably even went to Heaven. But I don’t know where I’m going. Before he was Frederick Douglass he was someone else, and when Frederick Douglass died he became me.

    I don’t mean to be incredibly cryptic but it’s hard to explain in a topical fashion, consequently I’ll describe it chronologically and start from a suitable point in time that will cover what I feel is required of my objective and revealing narrative, and fix omitted points from my original. Believe it or not, (well then, that one actually worked) it all starts with Nikola Tesla. A brash young Serbian fellow, few people know we go way back. He was one of the most important friends I had in my time, and he had a piercing intellect. When you looked at him, you didn’t see much of a stand up kind-of-guy, but he did give you chills. The trouble was he wasn’t someone you could read by looking at.  All around, basically explained, you didn’t want to fuck with this man. He was scary.  In terms of powerful duos, there wasn’t a historical team out there that had more dynamism than Frederick Douglass and Nikola Tesla. The accomplishments and adventures we had in our time could fill the history books, but that’s for another time. For the purpose of my chosen revelations there’s only one undertaking you need to hear.

    I married a beautiful white feminist named Helen Pitts in 1884. I was living in Washington D.C. at the time. In fact, that’s where I met her. But Helen was from New York, and as is proper we went there after the wedding to spend time with her family. We would have gone to see mine as well, but the issue with that was I had no family. This proved to be a bad idea which we will get to in just a moment. You see, it wasn’t proper at the time for a black man to lay with a white woman, let alone marry one. The white man wouldn’t stand for it, but I didn’t care much for what the white man thought because I was sick of the unfounded oppression, a feeling my wife thoroughly shared. As a feminist, she had a similar distrust and uneasiness toward white men. Women were a suffocated group of the time. Helen was a pioneer, and she took risks that few women in history ever did. Her courage helped change the world and my life. Detractors have said that the only reason we married was to get back at the white man. That it’s a form of revenge. It’s an extremely narrow view that I don’t accept because it’s not the truth. As if I set out to marry a white woman to create controversy and draw negative attention to myself. Now, I’m not a robot. I’m a human and humans come with sinful thoughts. Did I get satisfaction out of the fact that I knew my marriage upset the people who enslaved me? Absolutely. Was I little more aggressive in the bedroom because of it? Certainly. There’s an element of that. But that’s not why I married her. I was in love. In all seriousness, is it so hard to believe I simply wanted a fine looking white woman? I’m a man and she had an ass that would make Moses come down from the mountain. That was much more motivating than any petty vengeful racial retaliation. Any man, white or black, would have jumped at the opportunity I had with Helen. But I’m getting ahead of myself (here we go again). I should say, I’m getting behind myself.

    We arrived at Helen’s parent’s apartment at around 8:00pm. Upon entering the home we didn’t receive the friendliest greeting. To this day I’m not sure if Helen didn’t inform her parents that she had a married a black man or what, but it wouldn’t surprise me. That would be in typical feminist fashion. I don’t mean to insinuate negatives about feminism, it’s a worthwhile cause and all peoples deserve equality. But you know that snarky attitude these types of movements come with, she might have been trying to pull one over on her old disapproving mother. She could have at least informed me. None the less, it was not a welcoming environment. I believe the conversation began with her mother asking, “Darling, why has your driver come in the home with you? Where’s your husband Frederick? We’re dying to meet him.” and of course my pride took over.

    “I’m no driver. I’ve never rode a horse in my life. I’m the man with whom your daughter lays in the evening. I’m the husband. I’m Frederick Douglass and I’m here to eat the dinner you prepared for me.”

    Her mother, a pampered white woman, never before had a black man to speak to her in a such a manner. The feeling of equality seared against the shell of her white ego. She screamed in fear and disgust, and Helen’s father ripped off his suit jacket.

    “How dare you speak to my wife that way, ya dirty nigger! Hyaa!” he said, and pulled a knife out of his pocket and sliced it across the air. Then he lunged at me.

    I backed away out of the doorway. I didn’t want to escalate the situation, and I didn’t want to hurt Helen’s father. Had I decided to, I could have put on a hurting on the old man, he didn’t know about my two hour brawl with my old slave master. Helen stepped in between us to defuse the tensity.

    “Daddy, no! This my husband Frederick and I love him. Can’t you see? Get it through your thick male skull. Accept it,” she said, “Mother, you too. Stop being a puppet to a man. You’re a woman. A strong woman.”

    “What kind of radical heresy are you speaking, Helen?” Said her father, “This just ain’t Christian. Jesus would be sick. Sick I tell you! Now get your three-fifths of a person husband out of here, and don’t ever come back. I hope you pray to God for forgiveness, because you’ll find none with this family!”

    Was all of that exactly what was said, verbatim? Most likely. Those are the only words I remember from that encounter. As you can imagine, Helen and I were in poor spirits leaving her home. To top it all off, we were still hungry. We hadn’t eaten dinner like we planned, and we decided to go to a local restaurant. That was all fine with me; I wanted a tasty steak, and when have you ever met a white woman who can cook, anyway? I dodged a bullet on that one. I don’t recall the name of the place but it was a little upscale. When we first entered there weren’t any problems. The usual glares followed us across the room but the waiter didn’t say anything when seating us. Two tables away was a group of loud white folks, going on about their hard day in the office. Three tables away from us sat a young employee of Thomas Edison named Nikola Tesla. He was alone and staring at a single piece of plain toast on his plate, but he wasn’t eating it. He was examining it, looking at it from different angles. If there wasn’t a black man sitting with a white woman in the room, Tesla might have been the focus of the place. I had recognized him from a visit of Edison’s factory I conducted earlier in the week. I briefly saw him working on a light bulb and remember his quirky examination of the thing. It was in a similar fashion to how he was examining the toast of the restaurant. I had taken note of it. He was one of those funky science types. That was certain. The night progressed but the amount of toast on the plate of Tesla stayed the same. I ordered a steak and my wife ordered the spinach soup. A reasonable amount of time passed and the waiter delivered my wife’s food. After a few minutes it became apparent that my food wasn’t coming. The second time I tried to motion to our waiter, the group of rowdy white men got up from their table and approached me.

    “What are you doing in this place? Huh?” One of them said to me.

    “Hey you pretty young thing, let me get you away from this freak,” one said to my wife.

    “I’m here to eat my steak dinner, and I’d appreciate if you didn’t speak to my wife in that fashion.” I said.

    “Wife? Is this guy serious?” He asked his pals, “Steak? You think you’re gonna get food here,” his voice became louder, “the only thing you’re gonna get here is a lesson in respect!”

    “Excuse me,” said a soft voice.

    The group of men turned around as I did to see Tesla calmly sitting at his table.

    “What is it? Don’t worry about it, we’re taking care of this guy,” said one of the men.

    “Excuse me,” Tesla said, “please go back to your seats. You’re disturbing my meal.”
    “This has to be some sort of comedy theater. Are you defending this colored negro man? He doesn’t belong here. This is a disgrace. We’re just getting him out of here, then we’ll be back to our seats and you don’t have to worry.”

    “Your quarrels are of no concern to me, and I’m going to ask again for you to leave those people alone and go back to your seats. You’re disturbing my meal.”

    “Ah, okay. I see how it is now. You’re defending him. You’re a negro lover. Well you can get out, too. You’re not a real American. You scum! You disgust me!”

    Tesla quietly rose from his seat and faced the group of rambunctious white men. He folded his napkin and placed it on the table. The waiter walked out of the back with a steak entree in his hands.

    “I’m Serbian,” he said.

    He whipped out a death ray and incinerated the group of them in one blast. A red laser beam had shot out from his weapon. It was the most outlandish thing I’d seen in all of my years. There was nothing left of the white men but four large piles of dust on the ground. Helen jumped back in her seat. I was uncharacteristically frozen, but I think anyone would have been. The waiter, still carrying the entree, quickly turned back around and went back through the kitchen door. Tesla put his death ray away inside a bag he carried. He came to our table and looked at me.

    “My name is Nikola Tesla. I’m working on some interesting things if you’d like to come by and check them out. Here’s my address.”

    He handed me a piece of paper with his address written on it and left the restaurant. I stared at my wife in awe, she returned my gaze. We held the silence for a while until I broke it.

    “I can’t put this shit in the narrative,” I said.

    Tesla and I were like long lost pals. We struck up a mighty friendship after that night. It took some easing into but after a little while we had one solid foundation. Ten years passed and we saw each other when we could, but it wasn’t often. When we did get together, we did things that I couldn’t possibly get into right now. Tales that could stand the test of time. I was nearing the end of my life and I knew it. I didn’t know how much time I had left but I knew it wasn’t long. I decided to visit Tesla in New York in 1895 to see him a final time. He had left Edison’s company years ago because of some kind of money squabble. I don’t know what it was, I’ll never understand white men and their monetary obsession. X-rays were what the cutting edge of the scientific community was exploring at the time. Tesla was hard at work, as always, trying to perfect a way to take a picture of a human skeleton. When I went to visit him for the last time, he was explaining his work to me. There was a whole lot of talk about magnetics and light and things I couldn’t fully comprehend. He emphasized the risks of radiation. The one thing he specifically noted was how his X-ray experiments were different than that of the other scientists. He was using a different breed of technology.

    “Do you and Helen still have sex?” he said.

    “Sweet Lord, Tesla. It’s been years and you still have no sense of social awareness or appropriateness.” I said.

    “Ah,” Tesla giggled, “I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”

    “Oh, shut up,” I said, “it’s not as though she’s exactly kept her figure.”

    “I don’t know. Love can be a powerful thing, but you are getting pretty old too. I know that’s why you’re here. How long do you have?”

    “I don’t know. I’m not exactly sick. I’m just old, and I don’t come out here often. I feel like I’ve done everything I set out to accomplish. Black people are in a much better position than they were when I was born, and I can say that I tried to help with that. But I don’t feel like I’ve done everything I need to accomplish.”

    “Destiny, you say?” Tesla giggled, “my friend, you have just articulated the human tragedy. The tragedy of mortality. Humans are selfish, and we always want more. Even if it is to do more of what we perceive to be good. Why do you think the wealthy are so obsessed with spreading their seed? We can not do everything we want to do in a lifetime. It is a fact. It makes one think about man’s fear of death. It is rather arrogant, after all, is it not? The idea that we are so important that we do not deserve to die. To go away? Is that not what it is rooted in?”

    “I don’t know what it’s rooted in, Tesla, but I can’t shake the feeling.”

    “I do not share that sentiment. Nobody knows this, but I sleep in a trash bag in my bed every night. I sleep in a trash bag in my bed every night so if I die in my sleep they can just tie the bag and toss me in the disposal.”

    Tesla had a morbid sense of humor but he could always get me to laugh.

   “I have accepted my position,” he said, “I have accepted what is. I am here for an amount of time. I do not know exactly how long, and I can not say that I care. I enjoy engineering and discovering this universe that I have somehow been born into, and I will do that until this stops, because that is all there is to do.”

    “Man, you’re quick to put a damper on things.” I said.

    Tesla laughed.

    “But is this not what you are here for? It is nowhere near a negative thing. Late at night you get the same feeling as I do. The feeling of finality. The funny part is it’s comforting.They call it a sweet release for a reason.”

    “I’m not the greatest fan of phrases like those.”

    “Come on, let’s take some x-rays of you. It will be fun, and you do not need to worry about the risks, you are going to be dead soon anyway.”

    “Tell me, honestly now. These tonal inconsistencies are intentional, right? I can’t get a grip on what is going on with you.”

    “I like to hope they are. Who knows, really? Sometimes I think I lose my motivation easily. It comes in spikes. Up and down.”

    “Just X-ray me. Let’s see what you’ve been working on, you crazy nut.”

    Tesla brought me into his lab and showed me all of the equipment. I had been there several times before but it was always an intriguing place to explore. He hooked me up to more wires than should be connected with a human. He hadn’t used this new technology on a human yet. I was his first test subject. It was typical for a man as eccentric as Tesla. I saw the death ray he had used all those years ago in the restaurant and asked him if I could take a look at it while he conducted his x-rays. It looked a bit different than a normal pistol. Its barrel was about half of a foot in diameter.

    “Be careful with that,” I remember him saying, “it’s the only one I have.”

    He pulled a giant lever to turn on the machine I was attached to and the ground started vibrating. A light illuminated from my chest and began to grow.

    “Oh no.” He said.

    “Damn it, Tesla. What the hell is going on?” I said.

    The light was slowly engulfing me.

    “You are going to hate me.” He said.

    “What are you talking about?”

    “I crossed some wires and…well…your body is in the process of rematerializing in the future.”

    “The future! What does that mean?”

    “You are going into the future. Oh dear. I can not get too close or I will get sucked in too.”

    “What? What the hell. Get me out of here.”

    “It is definitely too late now. If they have time machines there just come back and tell me how it is. I have to burn this place to the ground. No one can know about this. Come find me!”

    That was the last the world saw of Frederick Douglass. In 1895 Nikola Tesla’s laboratory burned down. It was deemed an accident. The same year is said to be the year Frederick Douglass died. When asked about the fire in his lab, Tesla is quoted as saying “I am in too much grief to talk. What can I say?” Guess what? He wasn’t talking about his lab. He was talking about his friend Frederick Douglass, and I was flattered when I heard.

    Like I said, Frederick Douglass died that night. But he was reborn, and he became me. I said I never wanted to change the world, but I could never escape change, and it was in my future. Tesla said we keep going until we don’t. For whatever reason, I’ve gotten to go for a while. My body rematerialized back in Chicago, along with the death-ray. I wasn’t sure just how far into the future I had went, so I checked the local newspaper. It was the year 2006. I didn’t know how, but my body was around twenty years younger than it had been when I was in Tesla’s lab. Must have been some kind of crazy science time warp type of thing. Whenever I asked about it everyone told me to go see Christopher Nolan. They said he’s great at that stuff. I knew I could no longer be Frederick Douglass. I had to reinvent myself. I had to become someone else. Never could I have been a powerful politician in my own time period, but I couldn’t imagine the possible progress in the current future. Know that this isn’t the end. This is only one piece of pie.

    I was lucky I was already wearing my good suit. I fixed my tie began my walk.

    “Obama.” I said to myself.

    “Barack Obama. Pleased to meet you.”

Hard as a Walnut

     Jacob stared at himself in the mirror. The faucet was running water but he kept his hands by his sides. Shirt off and resting on the sink, his suspenders dangled from the coat hanger on the bathroom door behind him. Running his hand across his cheek, he felt the gray stubble that reminded him of the dust. A bald, strong man with a large mustache walked behind him, twirled his mustache in the mirror, and left the room. Looking into his own eyes, Jacob softened his forehead and lowered his eyebrows. He reached into the sink and splashed water onto his face. He put his sweating, dripping head down into the sink and said a prayer. As he was mumbling, he threw up in the sink. He quickly and aggressively wiped his forearm across his mouth and a massive hand slapped his back.

    “Try to loosen up,” a large and hairy gender-neutral looking individual appeared behind Jacob in the mirror.

    “That’s what my father always used to tell me,” said Jacob.

    “Well, that’s a wise man, your father.”

    “That’s one way to put it.”

    “All I’m sayin’, Jacob, is it’s not so bad after you get a few shows under your belt. Besides, you’re an expert.”

    Except Jacob wasn’t an expert. It was Tuesday, and over the weekend he had been hired by the southern territory’s premier traveling circus. The hiring process went pleasantly well. It exceeded all of his expectations. He found the flyer on Friday, had his interview on Saturday and was hired on Sunday. It was, much to his surprise, easier than even getting a job at the local grocery. He had applied there over seven times just that month and heard nothing back. As if it would have killed Peggy from the down the lane to just put in a good word for him. He knew her father managed the grocery, and the decent thing would have been at least to get Jacob a call back. Money was a growing concern for him. His old job at the shoe shining service was cut short, much like his father’s life, on account of his father’s death. Marty Jam was the owner of Missouri’s own “Father and Son Shoe Shine,” which he started shortly after the birth of his son, Jacob, in 1895. A real tough as nails hooker, Marty practiced catch-as-catch-can wrestling from his teenage years and stayed strong and healthy as an ox through his whole life. Jacob would see his father wake up every morning at exactly six and run for five miles. One story Jacob always told his friends was about the time his dad and old crusty Dudley from across the dirt got into a scuffle. Every morning during Marty’s runs, he would pass crusty old Dudley’s house. Well, Dudley sat on his porch chewing tobacco every morning. The problem of the matter was every time Marty would run past Dudley, he would spit the tobacco off the porch. Now, nobody knows if it was intentional or not, but Marty thought Dudley was spitting right at him. Marty took it as a sign of disrespect. So one day Marty ran by and right on queue Dudley spit some tobacco off the porch. Marty stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Dudley you crusty old prune. I swear on the good lord above if you don’t stop spittin’ your devil juice down at my feet I’m gonna learn ya a thing or two.”

    Well, the next day Marty ran by Dudley’s house and sure enough he spit that tobacco down with such force it could kill a june bug. That’s when Marty said “That’s it. I’m gonna give ya a toe hold harder than a walnut,” and he put such a whippin’ on Dudley that he was never seen on his porch again.

    In recent years many business had taken a hard hit. In 1929, the stock market dropped like a bag of potatoes and sent a shockwave through America, and eventually the rest of the world. Jacob and Marty saw the businesses around them falter and fail. But Marty was a smart southern cookie, and kept his business afloat using sly tactics. He made sure they were the only shoe shine business in town. They were doing better than just about everyone else, but they still were only scraping by. Unfortunately, in the midst of those turbulent times, a kind of time when a son needs his father most, Marty was killed. Coming home from the grocery one day in 1934, Marty was carrying a delicious satchel of apples and got caught in a dustbowl. He was dead. Legends claim his only remains were the ragged skins of a granny smith. Without his father’s business wits, Jacob’s shoe shine stand went out of business. Lacking the warmth of a woman and the money needed to survive, he needed to do something to save himself.

    One day he saw a flyer advertising The Circus, and it also said “Have a special talent? Think you got what it takes to be in The Circus? Come talk to Ted Mustard.” Ted Mustard was the promoter for The Circus. Jacob knew the circus performers, although Godless freaks of nature, made a lot of money. He was a good Christian, but he also knew the value of a dollar, so he put his plan into action. Down at The Circus, he had some casual chat with the horse poop collectors. He heard from them that The Circus was looking for someone to do a program with their African Tigers. Then he set up his fateful meeting with Ted Mustard.

   It was six in the afternoon, an hour before the Saturday night show started and Ted Mustard sat stone faced across from Jacob Jam.

    “Listen, pal. We provide a safe work environment. But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for yourself and we are not liable for any injuries or fatalities that may occur during our presentations,” Ted tilted his head sideways and looked at Jacob, “now, that being said. You seem to know what you’re doing in the animal department. Is that correct?”

    “You hit the nail on the head, Mustard,” Jacob snapped his fingers, “I been training Tigers since I was but five years old. Used to pet ‘em, wash ‘em, clip ‘em, shine ‘em, ride ‘em. You name it. I did it.”

    “Alright, fantastic. Fantastic! You’re gonna work a nice program in between the Strong Man and the Armless Man. We’re gonna get you set up with a uniform and a giant Tiger taming whip. The same one our old Tiger master, Brenton, used to use.”

    “Oh, what happened to him?”

    Ted broke eye contact with Jacob and looked at the floor, “He moved on. But you know what they say, to fly with the eagles sometimes you gotta live with the chipmunks.”

    “Ah ha. Just like my daddy used to say, you can drink the pee but don’t eat the poop.”

    Ted nodded.

    It was Tuesday, and Jacob’s program was starting in twenty minutes. He stood above the vomit in the sink and questioned his recent professional decisions. He wasn’t an expert. It was only then that he really understood he was going to be out in front of thousands of people and trapped with two hungry tigers. Still, he needed the money. After all, it wouldn’t be too hard for him to tame a savage beast. He was the son of Marty “hard as a walnut” Jam. Besides, maybe he would do a great job. The possibilities sprinkled through his head. He could be a star. A famous showman. A smile lifted his drooping face and he firmly grabbed the suspenders off the hanger and got dressed. He put powder to his hands. He smacked them together again and again. He was unaware that there was no use for powder on his hands. Seeing weightlifters do it at the circus made him think it was a standard practice for all carnies. He didn’t share the same intelligence as his late father. Still, he didn’t know, so his confidence was gaining momentum. That night Jacob Jam walked out of the curtains and into the spotlight a determined man. An expert. He was pronounced dead ten minutes later. The doctors at the time suspected he probably died several minutes earlier, but it was hard to tell because the corpse was stuck in the Tiger’s mouth. His remaining body parts were glued back together and used as a regular display for The Circus.

    That was the end of the Jam family. No one really knew Jacob. No one except Marty. Marty was taken by the dust and Jacob was savaged by the tigers. In a way, both were taken by nature. Although the Jam family is gone, they will live on in legend through the stories of Marty’s famous feud with Crusty Old Dudley, and Marty’s fabled and glorious shoe shines. They used to say when he shined your shoe, you could outrun a cheetah.