There Are Signs Everywhere

  • 1.

What is not detailed by the myriad sources of information about Kalil Franklin is easy enough to deduce, extrapolate or imagine. The information is in part a matter of public record and includes data culled from testimonies, interviews, psychiatric evaluations, tabloid articles, internet bulletin boards and news groups, special reports, anecdotal urban legend, the official declarations of law enforcement spokespersons, and documentaries casting light on the tormented inner lives of psychosexual killers. A free-associative observation: the tormented inner lives of psychosexual killers superficially resemble, in many ways, the tormented subjectivity of artists depicted in those epic docu-dramas so beloved by PBS, a state of being steeped in darkness, corrosive insights, and madness that the public, rightly or wrongly, associates with aesthetic genius, the creation of numinous works of art. On the other hand, the drab pedestrian garment of my sister’s life has been hung out to dry on the clothesline of public scrutiny and flaps pitifully as though in some breeze created by the sweep of rudely curious and assessing eyes. She is reduced rather than aggrandized by a swarm of mundane facts and the significance of her life must be mined from biographical minutia scattered throughout columns of newspaper print in articles devoted to someone else.

  • 2.

Kalil is standing in line at McDonald’s, thinking that his father did not even have the banal decency to be a man cut down in his prime by the scythe of gratuitous tragedy, or one who had fled the suffocating responsibilities of domestic life to perhaps discover his potential – an act of male dereliction likely to be characterized by just such a forgiving or at least neutral catch phrase, except where the father in question is black, as presumably Kalil’s was, and the whole business in the end is made to support some sociologist’s shrewd puppetry with statistics regarding the disproportionately high number of African-American families deserted by black fathers. But that, Kalil knows, is a counterproductive thing to think and causes the bird of thought as though struck by an arrow to veer wildly and fall from its line of flight, which is that his father had at no time been a flesh and blood presence, his identity unknown to Kalil, a fact that left unanswered the most fundamental speculations regarding who, what, when, where, why. A man not even the simulacra of a father, on whom Kalil could not even contrive to hang some threadbare and tattered garment of lurid biography: the debased life of a crack addict, perhaps, or the life of a high ranking member in a street gang, slain in one of those pyrotechnical shoot-outs involving the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, or any number of convenient fictions with which to fill the vacuum of fatherlessness. Because vacuum it was, or had been, for a time, with all the attendant problems. For the longest time he had been the snot-nosed butter-hued kid bullied by marauding boys on the block who had formed a loose coterie they called, with an oil-and-water mixture of pride and self-denigration, Club Negro, a fraternity where the requirement for membership was a complexion at least as dark as the inky skins of blackberries. Even at the age of seven or eight, inundated by a sea of televised white faces that washed over his own darker world, Kalil understood that Club Negro was a defensive gesture, the stacking of psychological sandbags in an attempt to build a barrier against which the waves of a color-obsessed society could hurl themselves, dissipating into harmless foam. And he did not blame those boys, who took the blackness they had been told was tainted, the mark of savagery, and burnished it to a militant gleam, made it a symbol of legitimacy and inclusion. No, as they drove their knees into his stomach and scraped his face in ghetto dirt to darken it, he didn’t blame them, knowing what he and they would be up against. But he did long for the strong arms of a father to lift him from the folds of his pain, like an accordion pulled wide and filled with melodious air, some man who would straighten him out and set him on his feet and teach him to become a shield before stones, a coat of armor against blows, a thesaurus deflecting their insults and returning them in refined form, a superior fictionist in the face of lies crudely fashioned and executed. Because there was no father to explain the peculiar ways of the world or to apply the bandage of wisdom to his wounds, Kalil was left to his own devices and that, he is now sure, has been the source of his inability to see clearly all the signs by which others so effortlessly seem to navigate their course through life.

“You want to know about your father? I’ll tell you this much. He wasn’t a husband. He was simply a sperm delivery system – a way for me to get to you. A means to an end. The two of us had an agreement. Nothing more, nothing less. You’ll understand later. Or maybe you won’t. At any rate, it’s just you and me, kiddo,” was his mother’s answer when Kalil, at four or five, asked who and where his father was.

The glaring mistake of his boyhood – which he now calls Major Fuck Up #1 – had been the black fingerpaint he smeared all over his face as he stood before the bathroom mirror, massaging the cool smooth pigment deep into every pore, covering every inch of his skin, including ears lips neck hands, until it seemed as though the night itself had invaded his body, taken on human features and form and propelled him against his will to the playground where the boys of Club Negro gathered to play basketball. Wearing this minstrel-mask of seamless and ancient black he approached them, spreading his arms wide as if to embrace them all, offering himself as a candidate for membership, saying “Check this out, am I black enough now?” and rotating a flamboyant 360 degrees to display himself with the same air of casual triumph projected by models who glide down the catwalk, reach the end, then twirl. He was nine. His desire to be a member of their club had driven him to delirious extremities of poor judgment. They looked at him with mouths agape for a few moments and then swept down on him like an avalanche. “Daddy, daddy,” he cried out, but of course there was no answer.

When Kalil reaches for his bag containing his Big Mac and fries, the cashier stares at his arm. “Cool tattoos” observes the youth who had taken his order with a sullen reluctance that Kalil at first had thought inexplicable and then, reflecting briefly, revising, concluded was completely understandable.

  • 3.

He pulls into the Arco station. A coherent mass of McDonald’s French fry containers and 7-Up cans slides with a junky rustle from right to left on the dashboard as the car coasts to a stop in front of the gas pump. A single piece of yellow legal paper has been taped to the pump with a handwritten message in a kindergarten scrawl SORRY NO SUPER UNLEADED. The note explains everything with a succinct finality that allows no room for negotiation or compromise. In this way, the clerk or the manager here conveniently avoids culpability, will not have to mumble apologies or detail extenuating circumstances to exasperated customers. He thinks about it and concludes that this approach could have widespread application in a number of irksome everyday circumstances. He considers as an alternative to tattoos visiting a copying center, perhaps Kinkos, and placing an order for set of 500 business cards with his name, Kalil Franklin, printed in the lower right-hand corner. In the middle of the card in bold boxy letters would be the words I’M SORRY, followed by three ellipses to indicate that there is more to the message, that the holder of the card is expected to exert effort, enter the spirit of things, expend energy, turn the card over, participate – all actions that he himself would be disinclined to perform. In fact he would readily admit, if asked, to being action-averse in a general sense, in relation to the countless minute efforts required to successfully move from one day to the next. No one asks, nor is it likely that anyone will ever ask. But yes, it would be necessary to turn the card over to read the balance of the message and therefore this humble and lowly business card would have in common with the latest cutting-edge technologies the element of interactivity. On the back of the card, another set of ellipses would dribble into any number of possible phrases: I’M SORRY … FOR MY ANGER AT NOTHING AND EVERYTHING – BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME, HOW ARE YOU? Or perhaps, I’M SORRY … FOR BEING BLACK IN AMERICA AND NOT KNOWING HOW TO DEFINE “BLACK.” Or even, I’M SORRY TO BOTHER YOU … BUT ARE YOU MY FATHER? Comparing tattoos and business cards as methods – though unorthodox, to be sure – of communication, it seems clear that while business cards might offer a cost-effectiveness advantage, they would to a large extent disallow the expression of the aesthetic impulse that Kalil finds so attractive in the bold colors of the sound bites tattooed on his body.

The heat is a skittish transparency stirred now and again into exhausted motion by a humid gasp of August wind. He gets out of the car, peeved by fingers of fabric digging insistently into the cleft of his buttocks. Adjusts his wrinkled khaki shorts and walks, splay-legged, to the bathroom. The greasy doorknob refuses to budge or jiggle in his grip. Key For Customers Only At Counter, a sign says. Yet another sign, another ring buoy tossed out into the swaying sea for those on the verge of drowning. Signs to instruct, edify, prescribe behavior, map out proper courses of action. They are everywhere, for eyes that are trained to see them. Kalil now unzips his pants and darkens the door nonchalantly with an S of urine. No one is looking, it seems. But if someone were looking, it would not matter. Should it? The angel says yes.

  • 4.

As a child Kalil watched cartoons every Saturday morning, sprawled on the floor before the television, burrowed into a putty of pillows, eating gummy spoonfuls of Captain Crunch and anticipating the sugary broth he would slurp from the bowl when the cereal was gone. On the TV a talking dog unable to decide on a particular course of action was surprised by a miniature haloed angel and a pitchfork-wielding devil wearing a chintzy crimson cape materializing with a carbonated pop in the air, each furiously whispering advice in the conflicted animal’s ears. Although Kalil no longer remembers whose advice the dog ultimately decided to follow, those trivial but surprisingly potent polar images of good and evil proved themselves to be ore mined from the deep caverns of his imagination, an excavation of crude archetypes, and they stayed with him all his life, appearing randomly but often when the weight of decisions he had to make threatened him with immobility. As he zips his pants up, the angel hovering over his right shoulder tells him that yes, it should matter, the possibility of someone observing him urinate on the door should indeed matter. But the devil too appears, his breath robust with sulphur, and he makes it clear that Kalil should no longer care about maintaining cosmetic facades of civility. In fact, he should ardently hope that the next time something like this takes place someone will just happen to be watching, because once Kalil’s lack of concern is observed by another it will be, in a sense, shared, and thus he will not be alone with it, diminished by it, as a man who stands next to the gigantic bronze monument of some heroic figure is diminished and obscured by the shadow it projects.

  • 5.

While working at the corner of Lindley and St. Crane Street with a crew of two other municipal employees responsible for replacing, maintaining and installing traffic and road signs for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Kalil sees a middle-aged black man standing next to a Mercedes, one of the more jaunty recent descendents of SL lineage, opening the door on the driver’s side. The car inhabits its elegant silver sheen in the same way that a woman’s slender hand inhabits an elegantly tailored glove. His burnished beige complexion seems a flawless envelopment, an embrace of Armani sleekness. The man and everything related to him suggest neat and flawless containment, an infinite regression of boxes within boxes. At a certain level the boxes would become microscopic, invisible to the naked eye, requiring the use of highly sophisticated scientific instrumentation capable of the quantification of phenomena on the quantum level. At some juncture in this infinite diminution, the matter composing the human body would finally reveal an inverted landscape of nothingness.

Kalil inhales deeply, checking the air for traces of sulphur.

It seems to him that a long time ago – though an imaginary observer occupying some privileged vantage point from which to view reality might assess a period of six months as not so very long ago – some time ago, then, he was majoring in physics at Cal Tech and at some point during his advanced studies began to see the solid objects of the physical world as phosphorescent subatomic particles. That is, he began to see the very building blocks of matter itself in their ghostly hip-hop dance, saw everything with the same X-ray vision with which Superman, arms akimbo, penetrated surfaces and beheld the rickety skeleton upon which reality was grafted.

As his two coworkers load a toolbox and ladder into the back of a utility truck, Kalil crosses the street, approaching the man. Wealth reduces him to a heightened awareness of his own ineffectuality at playing The Game. You would think that someone like Kalil, with his spidery dreadlocks, his oversized T-shirts emblazoned with abrasive epigrams, his tattoos, someone speaking a nouveau-millennial hip patois of techno-jargon, street slang, and academic argot, someone with a Nike-propelled bounce in his stride as though a diving board dipped and rose ever so slightly beneath the balls of his feet, you would think that someone like 27-year-old Kalil with his knowledge that all the players and the props shifted and dissolved and morphed at methamphetamine speeds – you would think such a person would have attained mastery of The Game. (Just as recovery is possible for the addict only if he or she admits the existence of the addiction, The Game cannot be mastered if you aren’t aware it is a game. “Play The Game as though it is not a game, believe that it matters,” coaxes the angel from time to time. “Play The Game as though it’s less than a game,” counters the devil, coolly.) Instead he is inclined, even in the face of the most transparently contemptible displays of material success, to feel that he is a failure. My sister B. has told him on more than one occasion that he is conflicted, rising and falling on a seesaw of validation, up for outer, down for inner. But the truth is, winning this particular game, The Money Game, continues to elude him.

“Excuse me, sir.” The impeccably dressed man turns smoothly toward Kalil, as though ball bearings facilitate the motion. “I’d like to ask you a question, if I could. What’s the secret?”

“The secret?”

“You got the faucet turned on. The universe is an ocean of abundance. In this world you are what you make, you are what you spend.”

“The secret?” He glances up and down the street furtively as he scoots in behind the wheel. “Money is indifferent to who spends it or whose hands it falls into. When somebody leaves the door to their Mercedes unlocked and the key dangling in the ignition, carpe diem.”

The car speeds off down the block.

Lesson: Appearances when not established or mediated by signs are without exception deceptive.

  • 6.

Kalil is trying to listen to a coworker, but either the devil or the angel is whispering to him. Their voices have lately been braiding together, making positive identification more difficult than ever, but he is certain of the message: it is time to obtain another tattoo.

The young coworker everyone calls Jomo walks with Kalil into a small room on the 7th floor of the municipal building designated as an employee break room and furnished with a Sparklett’s water dispenser, a vending machine for beverages, another for candy and gum and chips, a bulletin board where workers post personal items for sale (as a joke someone has posted best bargain used condoms X-tremely cheap call your mother for more info), a sink and a General Electric microwave with a radiation-leaking hairline fissure at the bottom of its plastic window. Curiously, there are no chairs or tables. Jomo is asking Kalil about his tattoos.

“I mean, I’m not one to get all up in a brother’s business, but what you’ve got going is pretty unusual. You’ve got the tattoo on the back of your right hand that looks exactly like one of those traffic signs and says yield, a tattoo on the back of the other one says slippery when wet. Then, ” Jomo says, selecting B17 for a bag of peanut M&Ms, “farther up your arm you got a sign says road ahead narrows, and on the other you got danger curves. Then on your neck you got reduce speed. I mean, that’s the same shit we post at corners and shit all day long. You got to admit it’s unusual, right?”

Kalil uses the scissors of words to snip little perforated cutouts and prefabricated designs that offer easy one-dimensional explanations Jomo will understand. “There have been times in my life when I didn’t travel down the right road, times where the right direction to take didn’t reveal itself. In my confusion I stepped off the straight and narrow into strange landscapes. And I always thought, if only there was someone or something to make you hesitate for a few minutes before you were about to commit some giga fuck up, something to make you just stop and think about what you were about to do. How many fewer mistakes might be made, how much less pain might be caused, how many personal tragedies averted? Follow?”

Jomo munches his M&Ms, nodding cautiously.

“What we need is to be reminded that what we’re about to do will result in this or that consequence. We need signs to direct us on our journey. What better way to accomplish this than road signs? Road signs are perfect metaphors for the journey through life. These tattoos are more than just a way for me to remind myself to look for direction when I’m about to lose the trail. They’re like monuments to specific incidents that happened to me in the past. If I had only yielded that time, I never would have been arrested. Now, when I find myself in a similar situation, I look at that tattoo, and I’m hope to be reminded to yield.”

“These signs you’re talking about to get direction. Bro, ain’t that the same as listening to your conscience?”

“Conscience? Now there’s a concept that would definitely cause titters of laughter among enlightened psychotherapeutic practitioners with postmodern theoretical leanings.” Kalil, leaning against the sink, ankles crossed in an X, peers at Jomo with skeptical intensity, as though his coworker were a twenty-dollar bill balled up in the middle of the pavement. “You have to be convinced it’s your conscience, otherwise there’s the possibility they’re just voices in your head. Do you know what happens when you listen to voices in your head?”

Jomo appears to think about this. Kalil is perhaps the pool he would dive into, if only he could find the courage. Sometimes at the end of a high diving board, looking down into the flat unruffled azure, the determination to leap disappears, an unreasonable fear softens the resolve in the knees, and the only thing left to do is to turn around and go back. He shrugs and looks away. “No, man. And I don’t want to know, neither.”

  • 7.

The facts suggest that my sister B. led a life that in most ways seems to conform to the cookie-cutter patterns and configurations stamped into the raw dough of the American experience by tradition, societal norms, parental expectations, peer pressure and so on. Even her deviations from these larger patterns of normalcy fit into a kind of well-established subpattern of predictable confusion, angst, disenchantment, nonconformity – in short, all those symptoms associated with the anguished and often misguided quest for identity and individuation common to so many young men and women belonging to her chronological, socioeconomic and perhaps even racial stratum, though the significance of race may be dwarfed by the weight and magnitude of more universal and purely human factors regarding identity – if indeed it is true that there is a sort of platonic distillation of humanness that stands apart from the particulars that make up the concrete expression of that distillate. In the socioeconomic sphere, the fact that she is black in some ways significantly alters the shapes stamped in the dough, and in other ways merely tweaks the contours a bit without substantially changing anything, just as bread dough may be shaped to resemble, say, a knife rather than a loaf, but still tastes like bread when consumed.

This became public knowledge: B., 26, graduated with honors from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and what little free time she had was devoted to community volunteer work with hearing-impaired inner city children. The following was withheld from public knowledge, for who other than I would know? When she was six her mother’s lungs were rampantly entangled in creeping black vines of cancer and B. watched her succumb to the disease. The effect the mother’s death had on B. could be compared to the disappearance of a mountain against which desperate shouts aimed across an abyss had once unfailingly ricocheted, returning as an echo to the ears of one attempting to locate her own position in space and time. That is to say my sister had no sense of direction. Her father’s impact on her life was negligible. Her father, my father: negligible.

B.’s artistic propensities blossomed in an otherwise fallow childhood. Her six-year-old hands waved wands of crayons, colored chalk, pencils, and felt-tip markers that, uncapped, sliced the air with a dagger of vinegary odor and paper, walls, floors were transformed, in my ensorcelled five-year-old eyes, into something magical. After tying my shoes for me while I perched obediently on the edge of my bed she would use my fleshy chipmunk cheeks as a canvas, painting red and yellow and green swirls and swatches on them, ringing my eyes in monocles of white watercolor. These spontaneous creative acts made a deep impression on me. Some part of me that equated the external world with a pair of unseen twitching hostile hands jerking the strings from which I dangled understood that a scalpel fashioned of will but more importantly imagination could shape and sculpt that same hostile world.

When I was thrown like a scoop of ice cream into the hot skillet of the inner city public school system my sister waited for me after class to walk me home. How ironic that a child wearing his quiet withdrawn personality like a tattered too-small coat, a child with a fear of everything except books would attract the belligerent curiosity of his schoolmates, as if he were yelling at the top of his lungs when he was only walking home as quickly as possible with eyes firmly fastened to his feet. The boys like bees from a hive swarmed about me, angrily demanding to know why I thought I had the right to be different. My sister and I had inherited my mother’s almost lemony complexion and not I but my sister had hair that hung like straight heavy black rain from her head. The first time it happened they accused me of trying to “act white” and I was beaten. There was no second time because my sister, ten years old, met me after school the next day and when those same three boys approached she acted as my protector. She fought them boldly fiercely while I stood by and plunged my head into my ostrich-hole of cowardice and fear and when it seemed that she was defeated, her eyes wildly grazed a brick by a nearby fire hydrant and she seized and swung it fiercely boldly striking on the side of the head the biggest boy, the group’s loud lanky leader. From then on her reputation soared and we walked home each day unmolested. She filled the void in her motherless world by becoming a mother to me. I’m unable to say what I became for her.

  • 8.

Kalil does not really need anything or anyone. This he believes is his strongest and most admirable personality trait. An defeated army of people seems to straggle in single file through his embattled days and nights and some are looking for a place to pitch the flimsy sagging tent of their lives, as though Kalil’s own life were nothing more than a zone of encampment roped off for their convenience. Many if not most of the people who attempt to do so are women. They want an area where they can lay out their utensils and little ornamental boxes and envelopes and medicine bottles and hair products and magazines. They are everywhere, there are so very many of them, young women disgorged by traumatic childhoods and single-parent homes, young women who have been raped or molested, young women who have struggled through substance abuse or poverty or clinical depression or some devastation that has pushed them to the brink of emotional enervation – all of them with their useless MBAs and liberal arts degrees, weary with an intelligence to which the label precocious had perhaps been attached when they were children, a precociousness that in adulthood became a baffling encumbrance, a burned-out intellectual cynicism.

There was a young woman who had tried to force her way into his life when he was still taking classes. She had been in Kalil’s conceptual physics class and against his better judgment he had agreed to meet with her twice a week in the campus library for intensive study sessions. He should have known better and in fact he did know better, but he had listened to the angel. He sat on the toilet in the bathroom one Saturday morning, not using it but just sitting there, his elbows resting on his thighs and his forehead buried in his hands, like some sculpture that a Rodin suffering from bi-polar affect might have created and called The Suicidal Thinker. Hunched with thought, his spine curved with strenuous thought, the tremulous walls of his studio apartment absorbing each sharp-edged thought as a rock absorbs the methodical blows of a pick ax, Kalil was told not to pour the Liquid Drano standing at his feet out of its container and down his throat. The angel ordered him to pour the Liquid Drano down the toilet and to meet Denyce Battler at the library and to connect with her as a fellow student, a fellow human being, a member of the opposite sex – to talk with her, share ideas with her, open up to her, establish intimacy. Oddly, the devil had not materialized at all.

He did try. In retrospect obviously not hard enough but he did try. They studied together and afterward went to the student union and then Denyce Battler suggested that they go to a movie. After the movie Denyce asked Kalil up to her lonely cramped apartment for a glass of white wine and after a time she began to touch him, first casually as she sat with her knees angled toward him on the sofa, then more demonstratively whenever she leaned forward or rather collapsed gracefully, tossing pastel butterflies of lacy feminine laugher into the air. She touched his hand his arm his shoulder and the spots where she touched greedily sucked the warmth from her flesh, desperate for some residue of rare tactile intimacy. He could feel the blood pulsing in her fingertips. All these were signs, inclement signs, because he suddenly understood that if he allowed this intimacy into his life he would lose what little power he had gained struggling through the difficult years of his childhood without a father. Those years had forced him to sharpen his aloneness like a blade and use it to cut a space for himself in the fabric of life in order to survive emotionally and no no no he couldn’t forfeit those gains. It was pure foresight and distrust of the angel that had made him put the Drano in his backpack instead of pouring it down the toilet at home and now he removed the bottle and placed it on the table. She looked at him and said “That’s a freaky thing to have in a backpack isn’t it?” and he said “Yes it is and I’m sorry for the freakiness of it but I want you to drink it” and she said “What did you say?” because she genuinely hadn’t heard and he thought how much easier it would be if he kissed her and so leaned forward and kissed her and she reclined slowly and he was on top of her and her eyes were closed, her mouth was open, and the kiss was a vortex pulling him in. He was swirling in a clockwise no counterclockwise constellation of crimson down that vortex and barely had time to reach behind him with one arm and grab the bottle and then hold her mouth open and pour a large quantity down her throat GLUG GLUG GLUG before her eyes burst open in terror grasping at sight, choking and sputtering and almost vomiting, then screaming or rather crying and bent double sliding off the couch onto the floor with her knees jackknifing up into her stomach and he didn’t want to hear her pasty gurgling of phlegm so he plugged his ears with his fingers and sang loudly “LA DAH LA LA LA LAH DAH” until she lost consciousness, her consciousness shrinking in the way that an object or a person who might well be someone’s father rapidly becomes a dot and then disappears in the rearview mirror of a streaking red Ferrari. This experience caused him the next day to visit the tattoo parlor called Skin Deep. He had already gotten six or seven or maybe eight tattoos there. He knew there would now be an internecine and protracted battle between the angel and the devil because this qualified as Major Fuck Up #2 or rather if he rearranged the ranking in a manner reflecting gravity rather than chronology it would qualify as Major Fuck Up #1. While the battle raged he would need some tangible reminder of what he had done in order to avoid doing it again. Therefore the tattoo would be in the shape of a stop sign. The young woman who designed the tattoo, the proprietor of the shop, said to him, “A stop sign this time? Cool,” and she laughed. The tiny silver flash of a barbell stud piercing her tongue was what he saw before her laughter died like butterflies withering in the air and she closed her mouth.

  • 9.

In the Metro section of The Los Angeles Times was an article minutely detailing the circumstances of the crimes, the dramatic apprehension of the criminal (he had placed a phone call to the police and waited for them to arrive), the unusual legal complications drawing the trial out over an agonizing eight-month period. The article included a psychological profile and analysis that seemed for all its conjectural depth and glossy pedantry to be no more than a recycling of clichés regarding his “loner” status in the community and at work. Also described at length were his myriad misguided involvements and doomed endeavors, his ruined finances (bankruptcy), his abortive absurd attempt to breed brine shrimp and sell them to commercial hatcheries and aquarium owners across the country via the Internet, all the twists and turns of a life littered with weird initiatives and haunting failures and disastrous in every way but one – he had, after all, managed to survive. As a result of this fleshing out process something like a story managed to take shape, so that in spite of the horrendous and incomprehensible things he had done people began to understand that the monstrous larger-than-life cinematic persona assembled from the detritus of Kalil Franklin’s actions was inhabited by a flesh and blood human being who was made to represent, in almost imperceptibly canted media presentations, a man who was emblematic of every man’s susceptibility to insanity and evil, as though only by luck or the mysterious grace of God could any given individual escape Kalil’s journey into darkness. This implication was all the more startling considering the fact that he is black. What is atypical is media coverage which number one suggests even inadvertently that some universal aspect of human nature might possibly emanate from the actions of a solitary black man and number two avoids intimations that criminal behavior, violence, and their requisite Neanderthal intelligence are inborn racial propensities – but that is an counterproductive line of thought leading down a descending spiral staircase of similar thoughts.

Near the end of the article there was this information about B.: She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1973. In her sophomore year in college she was active in The Actor’s Circle, a drama club that twice a year produced the works of local playwrights and staged them on campus. She graduated from the UCLA in 1997. She worked with hearing-impaired children in South Central Los Angeles … hearing-impaired children with listening eyes … but … this … has been stated already elsewhere and is redundant. Does this repetition suggest that very little biographical information exists apart from that already revealed to the public, does it suggest the life she lived was not rich or variegated enough to provide more than a few sketchy superficialities? If anything let it invoke poverty of the imagination or failure of memory or lack of spiritual clarity on the part of the writer, whose name you will presumably find somewhere below the title of this piece, my name, the brother, the brother here struggling to explain his sister’s life without wishing to appear to be struggling. Bear with me. Just please bear with me although if I were you, it’s true I might begin to fidget now in my seat, I might stop turning pages and instead glide across the floor and through the door of whatever room I sat reading in to experience the enveloping tilt and spin and twirl of life, life, which is there waiting with outstretched arms, is always waiting there on the other side of the door like a well-dressed smiling-eyed stranger with welcoming arms, though there is no guarantee that once you step through it, the door, you will ever be able to come back to the place you left. Ever.

  • 10.

When my sister was a child she feared thunderstorms. Great black bowling balls of thunder rolling sluggishly down long lanes of black sky, rumbling and striking a set of enormous hollow pins somewhere in the distance, and night’s featureless face pressing tightly against the bedroom window looking in, and the anorexic branches of the tall diseased juniper tree in the front yard clawing at the same bedroom window as raindrops heavy as the bellies of pregnant women gave birth to small splattering cries against the glass. My sister would crawl into my bed but she would say it was to sooth me because she knew I was frightened. Trembling all over like guitar strings strummed and plucked in a melancholy ballad she would pull me to her under the covers, tell me not to be afraid, explain that it was only science. “It’s only science happening in the sky so don’t be afraid, D.,” she would tell me but I wasn’t the one. To admit fear was worse than fear itself and that is something I never succeeded in learning from her.

  • 11.

When my sister was 18 she had an abortion. She had always loved to paint and her work was scattered everywhere throughout our house. But after the abortion stacks of sketch pads leaned like women brazenly drunk against the walls in the bathroom, the living room, the kitchen. So much paper, so many trees sacrificed to her inner exigencies, a whole small forest’s worth of paper floating through the rooms of that house, and on those pieces of paper were signs and symbols limned in a secret language, the runes of decisions and consequences that I could not read. There were pictures as well of unborn babies floating helplessly in dark claustrophobic ambiances, creatures that appeared to be clinging to their safe havens while seeking escape at the same time. Then she abandoned the paper altogether and her body became her canvas and she began to vivify her skin with tattoos. There was a connection between the two things, between the abortion and the tattoos, but I did not know what it was. Then she opened a tattoo parlor. She obtained the money by cracking the whip of her resourcefulness and making government functionaries jump. The functionaries who were in charge of dispensing grants to minorities to women to nightmare-eyed Vietnam vets to alcoholic white men. She was formidably efficient, street-smart acquisitive, knowing how to ferret out information from many hard-to-access and little known sources and draw it to the coordinating hub of her brain and then process it there and redirect it back out into the world again in the form of results. She knew how to get things done, she knew how to make things happen. She opened a tattoo parlor with the money and called it Skin Deep.

  • 12.

The unruly child of the Santa Ana wind runs through Los Angeles stomping its dirty boots on everything, and on various dust-swirled grime-whirled corners in Linwood, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Kalil hands out his business cards. “Have a bidniz card, sir?” he offers, knees bent slightly as he bounces with a sort of mock simian enthusiasm or the impatience displayed by a junkie waiting on a cold-night corner for his shadow-swathed dealer, his lips parted slackly, lazily, his pronunciation of the word business parodically ghettoized. Stereotypes after all make people comfortable. His requirements for the cards were minimal and as a result he was able to purchase a set of 500 at a ridiculously low cost at Kinkos. (What aneurysm of genius erupted in the brain of the man or woman who conceived that name, which hints at sexual deviancy in its vague echoing of the word “kinky” – street parlance for acceptable perversion? Give admiration freely when deserved is Kalil’s philosophy.) What he wants to convey to the public or rather to the occasional emboldened passerby who plucks a card from his fluttering outstretched tattooed hand is so difficult to explain. And so he makes no attempt to explain to those who, having taken the blank white card, look from it to his eyes and back to the card again, turning it over and finding no words, no graphics, nothing at all but a wordless white rectangle whose nudity and boxed shape symbolize Kalil’s own on an emotional and spiritual level, then repeating the card-to-eyes sequence one last time before moving swiftly away.

  • 13.

“A stop sign this time? Cool. I’ve never had anyone ask me to do a stop sign before. But on your forehead?” B. says, laughing, then walks into the back room. “I don’t want to be responsible for your regrets, and I can tell you right now, this is going to be something you’re going to regret.”

It is 11:00 pm and Skin Deep is closed to the public. The pavement fronting the popular tattoo parlor located in the city’s renovated downtown district is no longer awash with mellow lavender, citrus pink, and pale aqua slabs of neon pulsing through the storefront windows.

B. let Kalil in even though the store is closed because he has been coming to Skin Deep for over a year and she knows him. He sits in a chair with a headrest resembling those used by barbers or dentists for customers or patients and waits for B. to return to the room. The blackness behind his closed eyelids soothes him although it is sandpapery and burns like the spices used in Thai food. He is sleeping in a Thai-spiced sleep. But no actually he is sleeping and awake at the same time, a state of consciousness that he would describe as being somehow quintessentially American if anyone were to ask him. No one asks, nor does anyone ever think to ask him such questions.

“Hey Kalil,” B. shouts, “come on back.”

There is a door in the rear of the store that leads to a large storeroom the size of a master bedroom. In defiance of local zoning laws B. has converted it into her living quarters to save money for a down payment on a condo in the near future. The room contains a bed, end tables covered with scattered knick-knacks, a home entertainment center, a computer, bookshelves, a midget refrigerator and a microwave.

Kalil hovers in the doorway, looking in at B., who is scraping forkfuls of chow mein onto a paper plate from a wilted white carton welted with grease. “I’m absolutely starved. You don’t mind if I grab a bite before we do it, right?”

“Oh not at all,” Kalil says.

“Hungry? There’s plenty.”

“No thanks.”

“Sure?” She puts the plate into the microwave then turns to face him, leaning against the bookcase.

“Go ahead. You should eat. You’re very thin.”

“One of the not-too-frequently touted benefits of poverty. You don’t have to stand there, Kalil. Come on in, sit for a few.”

Kalil hesitates. The force of the hesitation is a giant hand pressing against his chest, preventing easy forward motion and entry. Furtively lifting his own hand up to his chest he pries away the fingers of hesitation.

B. does not see him do this, though she is looking at him. She is looking at his long bulky curtain of dreadlocks. They give him a biblical, acetic look. She is looking at his faraway eyes, which look the way she would imagine pastures and plains on other planets would look. B. thinks now and has always thought that he is very intelligent and that his intelligence encircles him like an island and is the cause of his isolation from others. All the times he has come to Skin Deep she has sensed his isolation and been drawn to it. But Kalil Franklin has always been oblivious to the perfumed handkerchief of innuendo she has dropped on the floor behind her. Dropping it there, waiting for some old fashioned chivalrous gesture of acknowledgement from him. Not the type to care about such gestures, she nevertheless likes the image – the dropped handkerchief, Kalil Franklin bending down to pick it up and return it to her, bowing deeply. Je prie votre pardon, mais je crois que vous l'avez laissé tomber … momentarily wandering into the sort of Eurocentric-tainted fairy tale scenario she is typically on guard against. But she has always been old fashioned in that way, waiting for men to make the first move despite the aggressiveness she maneuvers like a sleek red sports car through all other areas of her life, finding all the short fast reckless routes because, except for her dear brother D., whose heavy drinking worries her more and more and whom she loves dearly but does not see or talk to often, she is completely alone in a world that sees her as a young 20-something black woman woefully handicapped in some irredeemable fashion by her race and largely incapable of reaching her destination.

Kalil sits in the chair next to her bed while she removes the chow mein from the microwave, sits on the edge of the bed, begins to eat. “So why on your forehead?”

“The head is the fountain of thought. All of our behaviors are preceded by thought. Stop the thought, and you stop the behavior. Not now, but in the future.”

Now B. chews slowly, looking at him. Immediately the food goes strange in her mouth.

“Too late for now, but there’s always hope for the future.” Kalil’s backpack is on his lap and he opens it. “Are you thirsty? MSG in Chinese food can create a prodigious thirst.” He removes a can from the backpack. “I have something here that will quench your deepest thirst.”

He stands like spongy grass trampled underfoot that quickly springs upright again. And flowing as tall grass seems to flow beneath waves of wind he is suddenly next to her, holding the Liquid Drano. As if her neck were a tree trunk and his fingertips the beaks of angry foraging birds his left hand is on her throat and she drops the plate of food.

The sight of the stringy mass on the floor disgusts him.

  • 14.

I have taken my position from among many positions available for observation in her converted storeroom near the ceiling, in the corner, out of harm’s way, a tiny speck hovering behind a spider’s web dotted with the dried brittle husks of dead insects.

  • 15.

The kick boxing classes that B. took at Bodies In Motion prove useless against an actual body in motion, though precise methods of execution reliably flash through her brain and faster than she would have believed possible she is acting on them. She springs up from her seated position on the bed’s edge and drives her heel into the top of his foot, but his thick hiking boots are protective and the response she hopes for is not forthcoming. He does stumble sideways but refuses to relax his grip on her throat. Her flailing arm finds a palm-sized Sony cassette recorder on a book shelf and she grabs it and aims for his face, slicing in an upward arc. The corner strikes the side of his nose and his hands flutter bird-like to nest on his face. Suddenly his skin like a candle melting seems to dissolve in rivulets of blood running between and down the fingers of his hands now cupped over his mouth and nose while the Liquid Drano rolls lopsidedly across the floor.

It seems as though the flame of that wild bold spirit that flared in her that day many years ago when she successfully defended me against my attackers is burning once again and while he is tearing at the veil of blood before his eyes she grabs the present I gave her for her birthday last year, a Casio keyboard with built-in rhythm section leaning against the wall, swinging it like a bat, her stance solidly planted and her entire upper torso twisted by the ferocious velocity of the swing, again aiming for his head but this time missing because he manages to lean back. The keyboard is a toothy smile torn from some macabre face and it seems to laugh as it sails across the room, smashing into the wall. From its now-cracked speaker dribbles a series of repeated automated beats in a tinny malevolent loop, a battery-driven disco rhythm. She darts for the door and he actually leaps with arms and legs spread as though he were some species of flying squirrel thinly spread on the air and gliding on buoyant currents, collapsing around her neck and draping her neck and back with the cape of his body. She struggles forward but the cape of his weight pulls her down.

  • 16.

The devil and angel psycho-aberrational archetypes have also been fighting, mirroring the ongoing larger (or, who knows, perhaps smaller) battle between Kalil Franklin and my sister, so that Kalil feels as he wrestles with her on the ground that he is a pendulum swinging wildly between the nodes of two battles alternating for prominence in his consciousness. No matter what anyone says about the world we live in – the Buddhists, the mystics, the New Age proponents of unity consciousness, all those who maintain that we suffer from and are limited by an illusive perspective rooted in duality and that things are never simply black or white – in the end it is true that either good has been done or evil has been done, that a monument to one or the other has been created by each and every thought and the progeny of actions those thoughts give birth to, and Kalil knows this – tragically, he knows this.

The outcome of the battle between the devil and angel: the angel slays the devil with a mighty blow that resonates beyond the walls of this room and out into the cosmos. I hear it, I hear the rainbowed note of triumph shake the tympanum of the universe and I’m led to hope against hope – though I know better – that possibly all will be well. In an unexpected reversal of some kind however the angel, hovering victoriously over the slain devil, sodomizes the corpse of his fallen enemy.

  • 17.

Once again my sister is on her feet. Things are thrown or heaved, the things that are nearest, the things that can be blindly clutched, a hatha yoga book, a hand-held Revlon hair dryer that is so loud her ears ring after she uses it, a stapler speaker clock nightstand, a red tin can originally filled with Christmas cookies now containing a heavy sludge of pennies, oh the air is alive with the turbulent weather of objects raining down, a variety of jazz and hip hop CDs, Essence magazines, bottles of perfume and coconut scented hair conditioner for that hair of hers so much like straight black rain, as it turns out it’s a good thing my sister and I never had a mother to berate us on the inadvisability of hoarding every little thing, perhaps that’s the silver lining in that dark cloud, and as though invisible seams have burst, the air is animate with toppling, stumbling, streaking, rolling, colliding, tilting, crashing.

  • 18.

She continues to struggle fiercely boldly but his weight again pins her down, down. He has the Drano. And eventually time erodes her strength so that it virtually melts away as a lozenge is eroded by the tongue. His heavy crucifix of weight atop her erodes her strength. His forearm driving into her throat as a bolt fastens across a latch erodes her strength. And certain thoughts floating in calliope fashion oddly colorfully through her mind erode her strength, diverting it into dissipating channels and robbing her of the ability to disentangle herself from the knot of Kalil Franklin. These thoughts in bizarre contrast to the surreal horror of the immediate moment are a frothy waltz, effervesced now in that kaleidoscopic atmosphere where linear thinking in the face of catastrophic forces nears its terminus. Her thoughts have been released and freed as though by the opening of the lid of some delicate music box of accelerated and compressed memory. One of them is of the time that she convinced our father not to punish me for an entire month as he was drunkenly inclined to do when at the age of nine I was caught stealing a pack of triple A Duracell batteries from Walgreen’s. He held the belt in his upraised hand while I waited with my pants pulled down and she actually on her knees implored his mercy on my behalf, embracing his ankles.

  • 19.

The searing breath of a thousand Drano dragons sighs through her veins as he pulls down her jeans her underpants then bends forward, shaking his head back and forth so that his dreadlocks dangle and dance vigorously on her vagina. He sits up and then with his fist punches her vagina in anger in confusion as a writer desperate for inspiration punches hard at the keyboard, each fingertip a fist. Then he rapes B.

  • 20.

He rapes my sister. He sodomizes my sister. He climaxes quickly, his body shuddering to a halt in the middle of the final raging thrust, the clammy cement of his semen a hardening straightjacket on his dwindling frightened penis.

  • 21.

My sister experiences a seismic emotional and physical implosion, caving in as do the roof and walls of a house in an earthquake. My sister cannot move her body any longer to fight, yet she resists. My sister’s resistance is completely internal now. And thus because of this tiny spark of resistance perhaps it might even be said my sister lays unraped, unsodomized. For a time my sister clings to the floor like a ripe tear clinging to the outer edge of God’s eye. Then, then the droplet falls.

  • 22.

Kalil Franklin sees the flickering of that spark. His eyes blink spastically as if jabbed by shards of that shattered light. He does not leave Skin Deep. Finding the tattoo gun behind the counter in the other room and standing at soldierly attention before a mirror he watches his forehead scream to life under the biting needles inoculating him with black dye. Crudely he fashions something resembling a stop sign on his forehead with a hand firm and steady. He turns off the lights and sits in the chair with his eyes closed. The intensity of his stillness resembles the one-pointed state of focused awareness known as samadhi, deep meditation blossoming out of absolute silence and cleansed of the goal of attainment.

It occurs to him that once his handiwork has been observed by another it will be, in a sense, shared, and thus he will not be alone with it, diminished by it, as a man who stands next to the gigantic bronze monument of some heroic figure is diminished and obscured by the shadow it projects. He calls the police.

  • 23.

I have a fantasy not now but some time later in which I visit Kalil Franklin in prison. I sit in a visiting room with a fingerprint-smudged pane of glass between us and look into the same eyes my sister looked into during her last moments. I do not try to find her there. I do not visit him with the intention of forgiving him. I look into his eyes and do not see remnants of my sister there. Neither of us speak, holding the phones to our ears, separated by the glass. I will always have that fantasy.

  • 24.

Perhaps my sister would think what I have done is a heartfelt tribute to her, though perhaps she would have wanted the scene depicting her fierce struggle to escape to be longer in order to more fully convey her indomitable spirit. Or maybe she would think I went on too long with it and that I’m nothing but a pimp exploiting her life and her death, searching for the right words to prostitute the way a john gazes with feline yellow nocturnal eyes through his windshield for the flashiest hooker in the bunch, always searching for the right word the right phrase the unique metaphor to keep the Reader interested, to keep the Reader going, keep the Reader entertained, to get the Reader to avalanche forward and say yes. Perhaps she would wonder why the material I wrote about him seemed to be so much more interesting than what I wrote about her, maybe she would wonder what I could possibly have had to gain by juxtaposing her story alongside his diseased perspective, or why I would make the effort to understand or present his point of view, why I would seem to coyly hint at my own sympathetic alignment with his experience of being black in America, why I would squander my imaginative resources telling his story. More than likely she would laugh roundly at my assertion that in the depths of her being she had transcended rape and sodomy and reject it as so much bombastic rhetorical trash, pointing to her torn and bleeding rectum. More than likely she would point out that I could have rendered the value of her life with more depth and honesty had I not been so eager to find an original and engaging point of departure, had I not succumbed to the temptation to sensationalize her story while at the same time ranting in my oh so polished way against others who did the same. More than likely she would wonder why for once I couldn’t be there to protect her as she had always been there to protect me, always been there for me not just as a beacon in the lighthouse of the imagination to illuminate my suffering but standing as a flesh and blood presence in the middle of my tribulations and danger. Probably she would say to me how dare you do what you have done, is this the best you could do, I hope it was worth it D., I hope everyone is so very touched by your fucking story D., and then she would slap my face hard to brand it forever with the stinging hand print of her disappointment and go on to say more, so much more that might be true that I can no longer bear to imagine what other words she might possibly have in store for me.

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