The Free-Lance Pallbearers

BOOK: The Free-Lance Pallbearers
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“A madly exuberant fantasy about a benevolent despot … suggests a psychedelic light show, fountains of words and images and hip argot. There is some Hieronymus Bosch brilliance in this free-wheeling prose.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Reed's feints are brilliant and his punches swift.”


“A lot of people are going to be angry … and a lot of people are going to laugh, but it is the least a great book has to pay in a society which mesmerizes ideas into products.”

East Village Other

“This bitter, caustic, bawdy novel rips the American establishment to pieces.… It is strong and imaginative, with a real shock value and a dazzling play on words.”

Publishers Weekly

“A great writer.”

—James Baldwin



Writin' Is Fightin'

God Made Alaska for the Indians

Shrovetide in Old New Orleans

Airing Dirty Laundry


Japanese by Spring

The Terrible Threes

Reckless Eyeballing

The Terrible Twos

Flight to Canada

The Last Days of Louisiana Red

Mumbo Jumbo

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

The Free-Lance Pallbearers


New and Collected Poems

A Secretary to the Spirits



Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church


Mother Hubbard,
Hell Hath No Fury

The Ace Boons

Savage Wilds

Hubba City


The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology

The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology


19 Necromancers from Now

Multi-America: Essays on Cultural War and Cultural Peace

THE Free-Lance Pallbearers
Ishmael Reed

Copyright © 1967 by Ishmael Reed
First Dalkey Archive edition, 1999
All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

Reed, Ishmael, 1938-
      The free-lance pallbearers / Ishmael Reed.—1st Dalkey Archive ed.
      p. cm.
      ISBN: 978-1-56478-225-0
      1. Blacks—Fiction. I. Title.
      PS3568.E365 F7 1999


This publication is partially supported by grants from the Lannan Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Dalkey Archive Press
Illinois State University
Campus Box 4241
Normal, IL 61790-4241

visit our website at:

Dedicated to My Daughter


The excrement, which is what remains of all this, is loaded with our whole blood guilt. By it we know what we have murdered. It is the compressed sum of all evidence against us. It is our daily and continuing sin and as such, it stinks and cries to heaven. It is remarkable how we isolate ourselves with it. In special rooms, set aside for the purpose we get rid of it; our most private moment is when we withdraw there; we are alone only with our excrement. It is clear that we are ashamed of it. It is the age-old seal of that power-process of digestion which is enacted in darkness and which, without this, would remain hidden forever.

—Elias Canetti,
Crowds and Power

We felt so dirty after seeing it that we felt compelled to eat at Senor Picos, a popular Mexican restaurant. We ordered the spiciest food they had just to burn ourselves out, inside.

—Shirley Temple, after seeing
Night Games

Da Hoodoo Is Put on Bukka Doopeyduk

I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.

The John is located within an immense motel which stands on Sam's Island just off HARRY SAM.

A self-made Pole and former used-car salesman, SAM's father was busted for injecting hypos into the underbellies of bantam roosters. The ol man rigged many an underground cockfight.

SAM's mother was a low-down, filthy hobo infected with hoof-and-mouth disease. A five-o'clock-shadowed junkie who died of diphtheria and an overdose of pheno-barb. Laid out dead in an abandoned alley in thirty-degree-below snow. An evil lean snake with blue, blue lips and white tonsils. Dead as a doornail she died, mean and hard; cussing out her connection until the last yellow flame wisped from her wretched mouth.

But SAM's mother taught him everything he knows.

“Looka heah, SAM,” his mother said before they lifted her into the basket and pulled the sheet over her empty pupils. “It's a cruel, cruel world and you gots to be swift. Your father is a big fat stupid kabalsa who is doin' one to five in Sing Sing for foolin' around with them blasted chickens. That is definitely not what's happening. If it hadn't been for those little pills, I would have gone out of my rat mind a long time ago. I have paid a lot of dues, son, and now I'm gonna pop off. But before I croak, I want to give you a little advice.

“Always be at the top of the heap. If you can't whup um with your fists, keek um. If you can't keek um, butt um. If you can't butt um, bite um and if you can't bite um, then gum the mothafukas to death. And one more thing, son,” this purple-tongued gypsy said, taking a last swig of sterno and wiping her lips with a ragged sleeve. “Think twice before you speak 'cause the graveyard is full of peoples what talks too much.”

SAM never forgot the advice of this woman whose face looked like five miles of unpaved road. He became top dog in the Harry Sam Motel and master of HIMSELF which he sees through binoculars each day across the bay. Visitors to his sprawling motel whisper of long twisting corridors and passageways descending to the very bowels of the earth.

High-pitched screams and cries going up-tempo are heard in the night. Going on until the wee wee hours of the morning when everything is OUT-OF-SIGHT. Going on until dirty-oranged dawn when the bootlegged roosters crow. Helicopters spin above the motel like clattering bugs as they inspect the constant stream of limousines moving to and fro, moving on up to the top of the mountain and discharging judges, generals, the Chiefs of Screws, and Nazarene Bishops. (The Nazarene Bishops are a bunch of drop-dead egalitarians crying into their billfolds, “We must love one another or die.”)

These luminaries are followed by muscle-bound and swaggering attendants carrying hand-shaped bottles of colognes, mouthwash and enema solutions—hooded men with slits for eyes moving their shoulders in a seesaw fashion as they carry trays and towels and boxes of pink tissues—evil-smelling bodyguards who stagger and sway behind the celebrated waddle of penguins in their evening clothes.

At the foot of this anfractuous path which leads to the summit of Sam's Island lies the incredible Black Bay. Couched in the embankment are four statues of RUTHERFORD BIRCHARD HAYES. White papers, busted microphones and other wastes leak from the lips of this bearded bedrock and end up in the bay fouling it so that no swimmer has ever emerged from its waters alive. Beneath the surface of this dreadful pool is a subterranean side show replete with freakish fish, clutchy and extrasensory plants. (And believe you me, dem plants is hongry. Eat anything dey kin wrap dey stems around!!)

On the banks of HARRY SAM is a park. There the old men ball their fists and say paradoxes. They blow their noses with flags and kiss dead newsreels. Legend has it that when the fateful swimmer makes it from Sam's Island to HARRY SAM, these same old men will sneeze, swoop up their skiffles and rickety sticks, then lickety-split to rooms of widow executioners in black sneakers. It is at this time that the Free-Lance Pallbearers will take SAM.


I stood outside my dean's office at the Harry Sam College. I had flunked just about everything and had decided to call it quits and marry a chick I'd been shackin' up with for a few years. I would provide for her from earnings received from working at a hospital as an orderly and where I had been promoted frequently. (“Make-um-shit Doopeyduk,” the admiring orderlies had nicknamed me.) U
Polyglot, the dean, had been very nice to me so that I couldn't conceive of leaving the hallowed halls of Harry Sam without saying good-bye to him. Just as I opened the door to his office, a sharp object struck me in dead center of the forehead. It was a paper airplane which received its doom at the tip of my toes.

“O, forgive me,” U
said. “Are you hurt? Have a Bromo Seltzer,” the dumpy redheaded man in clumsy tweeds and thick glasses fizzed.

“It's all right, U
Polyglot. I just stopped by to tell you that I was leaving school.”

“Leaving school? Why how can that be, Bukka?” (My name is Bukka Doopeyduk.) “You're one of the best Nazarene apprentices here. Why, you're on your way to becoming the first bacteriological warfare expert of the colored race.”

“I know that and I appreciate everything you've done for me but I am flunking just about everything and plus I'm kinda restless. I want to get married and see what's out in the world. Got to go, Polyglot.”

“Well, on the other hand, maybe dropping out and tuning in will turn you on, Bukka. Who knows? But whatever you decide, I wish you a lot of luck and I'm sure that we'll be running into each other from time to time.”

and I shook hands and I left him to a paper he was preparing for an English literary quarterly, entitled: “The Egyptian Dung Beetle in Kafka's ‘Metamorphosis.'” He had dropped to his knees and begun to push a light ball of excrement about the room by the tip of his nose. He wanted to add an element of experience to his paper. You know, give it a little zip.


That night I called Fannie Mae's home to find out if she had made the final preparations for the wedding which would take place in the parish office of Rev. Eclair Porkchop, head of the Church of the Holy Mouth. A shrill tales-of-the-crypt voice answered the phone.

“May I speak to Fannie Mae?”

“She not home.”

“What time will she be in?”

“No tellin' what time she be in. Is dis you, Bukka Doopeyduk, the boy what's gone marry my granchile?”

“That's me.”

“Well, I don't have to tell you how fast dese youngins is today. She probably out whipping dope needles into her mouf or somethin' lak dat.”

“When she returns, would you tell her that the wedding ceremony will take place tomorrow afternoon and shortly before I must present my application to the Harry Sam Housing Projects and—”

“Hold on, Dippydick. Dis ain't no IBM factory. I'm scribbling with a chewed-up pencil and considering the fact dat I'm a spindly ol woman with two bricks for breasts, it's awful admirable dat I'm even able to take my conjur lessons through the mail under the Mojo Retraining Act. So take it from the top and go real slow.”

I repeated the instructions.

“Okay. I'll tell her Daffydink Dankeydim Doopeydank …”


“Whatever your name is, listen here. If you don't take good care of my granchile, I'm gonna put da hoodoo on you, and another thing …”

“What's that, ma'm?”

“Don't choo evah be callin' here at twelve o'clock when I'm puttin' da wolfbane on da do.”

(CLICKI) She shut the phone down so hard my ears were seared. Well, that's show biz, Bukka Doopeyduk, I sighed, cakewalking my way back to the limbo of a furnished room.


We Would Need a Bigger Place


I picked up the booklet from the table in the housing project office. Above the table hung an oil portrait of SAM in a characteristic pose: zipping up the fly of butterfly-embroidered B.V.D.'s and wiping chili pepper sauce from his lips.

Next to the painting hung some employment ads:

“Passive sleep-in maid wanted.”

“Apple-pickers 50
an hour. Must like discipline.”

The cover of the booklet showed the housing manager holding the keys to an apartment. Color them gold. He smiles as he points to the Harry Sam Projects with the pose of an angel showing some looneybeard the paradise. On the next page, the typical family scene. Dad reading the papers, pipe in mouth. The little child seated on the floor busily derailing choo-choo trains, while with goo-goo eyes and smiles shaped like half-moons, the appliances operate these five rooms of enveloping bliss. And after a long list of regulations a picture of the park area. All the little children having a ball. Fountains, baby carriages and waxen men tipping their hats to waxen women.

I sat in the section where the applicants were biding their time until a woman with a sweater draped over her shoulders called their names. They were interviewed by a roly-poly man in 90 per cent rayon Sears and Roebuck pants, mod tie and nineteen-cent ball-point pen sticking from the pocket of his short-sleeve shirt, and hush puppy shoes. (No shit. Da kat must have been pushing forty and he wore hush puppy shoes and a polka-dot mod tie. Why da man looked ridiculous!)

Some of the women had electronic devices plugged into their ears. They listened to the hunchbacked housewives phone in their hernias to the bugged benzedrined eyes who negotiated toy talk for a living.

Typical: “Hello Frank? Dis Frank? Been trying to get ya ever since you come on da air. Geez kids, it's Frank. Come and say hello to ya Uncle Frank. Hiya Frank. We sure like to hear toy talk out here in Queens and Brooklyn, which brings me to the point about what I wrung ya up. You see we tink dey got too much already, running around in da streets like monkies. Why can't dey behave demselves like da res of us 'mericans. And as far as bussing wit um goes—we don't tink it'ul 'mount to much for da very simple reason dat we don't tink it's too good. Dey should help demselves like we did when we come over on da manure dumps. Take my ol man for an instant. Worked hisself up and now he is a Screw. Killed fourteen hoods last week what was comin' at um wit a knife. And my son jess shipped overseas to put down dem Yam riots what's gettin' ready to break loose. As you can see we are all doin' our part. Why can't

But occasionally this informative chitchat would be interrupted by a bulletin from radio UH-O:





“Bukka Doopeyduk,” the social worker announced through his Rudy Vallee megaphone. Sitting down he officiously pinched his hooked nose.

On the desk were two round faces. One larger than the other. Smiling. Wife and girl child. In a box a row of half-chewed maraschino cherries resting in their wrappers. Gold trimmings on a get-well card which read: “We all miss you in unit X”—followed by a list of stingy signatures. The Nazarene priest lifted his chubby face from the sheaf of papers he held in his hands. Rubbing his palms together he talked.

“Sorry I kept you waitin' so long, chum, but me and da missus were up late last night. Caught dat Sammy out at Forest Hills. Boy dat Sammy sure can blow the licoric stick and tickle da ivory. He was better 'n da time we caught him at da Eleanor Roosevelt birthday celebration. He was twirling his cane and kicking up wit da spats when suddenly a miracle happened. A helicopter landed right on da stage and out came da savior and hope of da world. He put his arm around Sammy and said, ‘Sammy is my ace boon koon so you guys treatum real good. Unnerstand?' Well, after dat somethin' happened dat'll just get you in da girth, I mean gird you in da pith, I mean dere was a dearth of boos and nothin' but stormy applause after an especially pithy ditty SAM done about how hard it was when he was back in rat pack p.s. Why pennies run outta da sky. You shoulda seenum. And den da dook come on. Dat dook. His band raised da roof beams off da joint.”

“If you don't mind, your honor,” I said, “I'm getting married this afternoon so if it's all right with you, I'd like to get on with the interview.”

“Gettin' married! How wondaful. Here, have a piece of candy,” he said, pressing the chocolate into my hand.

“I don't know what to say, sir. Gee, not only are you Nazarene priests in the Civil Service kind, but the candy melts in your mouth and not on your hands.”

“Tink nothin' of it dere, Doopeyduk. Your name is Doopeyduk, ain't it? Where dat name come from, kiddo, da Bible or somethin'?”

“No, sir. It came from a second cousin of my mother who did time for strangling a social worker with custom-made voodoo gloves.”

“I see. What do you do for a living, Mr. Doopeyduk?”

“I am a psychiatric technician.”

“What precisely does that involve?”

“I empty utensils and move some of our senior citizens into a room where prongs are attached to their heads and they bounce up and down on a cart and giggle.”

BOOK: The Free-Lance Pallbearers
6.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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