The Slabtown Rumba
The traditional dress of his forefathers was itchy and heavy and could only be dry-cleaned, not hand-washed. This aspect of the coat resulted in a smell similar to the smell of the inside of an oven which had never been cleaned.
Samuel breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with the putrid, burned-foody smell of his coat, the coat of his father, the coat of his grandfather, and so on and so forth back to the ancient West African tribes of the Sahara: tribes of naked, charcoal people who roamed the sands, their red-clay skin unscarred by the raging sun of Africa.
On the bus there was a blonde girl wearing spandex shorts and no underwear, reading the Upanishads, the Norton Classics edition with commentary, over 3,000 footnotes, and critical essays.
Hinduism never came to West Africa.
Nothing came to West Africa.
Except slave ships and elephants.
With the elephants, Samuel’s ancestors made huge, hairy coats that could not be hand-washed, only dry-cleaned.
With the slave ships Samuel’s ancestors made themselves into cargo, corpses, and cattle.
Samuels’ ancestors were willed to other people’s ancestors in legal documents.
The blonde girl with the Hindu text got off the bus. She dug at the spandex gathering in her crotch and waddled away, still reading the Upanishads.
When Samuel’s ancestors arrived with the elephant hair coat on the sandy shores of Connecticut, the healthy ones were sold to a blonde woman wearing a dress made out of the skin of a whale. Some of the sea-sick ones and most of the dead ones were ground up into pancake batter and baked into large, buttery flapjacks for the healthy ones to eat – which they did.
The blonde woman in the whale skin dress oversaw this process, accompanied by her four pet alligators, Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, and Kaushitaki, who chewed on the hem of her whale skin dress when she was not looking.
Soon Samuel arrived at his destination, the Northern Connecticut Memorial Cemetery and Rest Stop. The bus let him off in front of a square building with a neon pink sign proclaiming FREE COFFEE.
Samuel was one of two people in attendance at the funeral. The other person was wearing a bumblebee suit. Samuel did not know the bee person, but that did not bother him.
Not wanting to be rude, Samuel nodded at the bee person in a solemn way as the priest said: “Seedhey jaaey. Phir dānyae mudiye” to the small wooden coffin before them.
Samuel felt anxious.
His elephant hair coat was itchy and uncomfortable, but he wanted desperately to speak to the bee person. He wanted to know who this small coffin belonged to, and why he had been invited here.
Samuel was not accustomed to being invited to funerals for people he did not know.
A few minutes later, the funeral ended.
The bee person turned without a word and strode across the lawn of the North Connecticut Memorial Cemetery.
The elephant hair coat was smelling worse and worse. Samuel sweat profusely in the hot August sun. He could feel the individual hairs of the elephant hair coat prodding their coarse little fibers into his fragile, papery skin.
He wanted nothing more than to run home and take off the elephant hair coat. It was an absurd article of clothing.
Wearing the elephant hair coat, in the time of Samuel’s ancestors, had been a test of will. Elders of the tribes wore the elephant hair coat to appear huge and hairy to enemies, but also as a sign of their tremendous patience and strength. The ability to wear the elephant hair coat was attained only through much practice.
Samuel was cheating. He wore a turtleneck beneath the elephant hair coat.
He wanted to ask the stranger in the bumblebee outfit about this funeral. He wanted to know if he too had received a small invitation printed on cotton paper with two vellum inserts requesting the honor of his presence at the funeral of a man he did not know with driving directions and a note reading: “In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Conservative Party in the name of the deceased.”
Samuel set out across the lawn of the North Connecticut Memorial Cemetery, after the bumblebee man. He took long strides to catch up but after several minutes he didn’t appear to be making any progress. Huffing and sweating in the elephant hair coat, Samuel began to jog across the cemetery lawn.
The bee seemed to be walking briskly but Samuel still was not getting any closer to catching up with him.
So Samuel ran.
Feet pounding on marble slabs in the ground, the tails of the elephant hair coat windmilling behind him, he wheezed and ran, kicking over flowers and small plastic flags.
The elephant hair coat felt like a hundred million needles piercing his skin through the turtleneck.
The bodies of Samuel’s ancestors were constructed to run. They ran across the sand, they ran to things and from things, they ran away from lions and sometimes they chased lions, they liked to light patches of brush on fire to flush out animals. When the animals emerged from the brush burning and scared, running out into the hot August sun, Samuel’s ancestors would run after them, herding them through the open sand-scape until they converged on the animals and skewered them with long poles.
The elders in the elephant hair coats would take the skewered bodies of the small animals and drain the blood of their bodies onto the elephant hair coats.
Then the bloodless animals would come back to life and dance for Samuel’s ancestors. They would dance modern dances, they would dance spiritual dances, but the dance that they most often danced was the Slabtown Rumba.
It was important for Samuel’s ancestors to be able to run very fast so that they could kill the animals that danced the Slabtown Rumba for them.
But a lot of time had passed since the perfect, toned charcoal bodies of Samuel’s ancestors raced around burning scrub brush to see the Slabtown Rumba. The only place Samuel had ever seen the Slabtown Rumba had been in his father’s kitchen when a skirt steak whirled on the countertop. Samuel’s father threw the steak into a pan, embarrassed, and hid the elephant hair coat in the back of the closet.
Samuel wheezed, but he was finally nearing the bumblebee.
“Wait!” he called.
But just as he spoke, the bee whirled around and Samuel stumbled into a large hole in the earth.
At first it didn’t appear to be a very large hole.
In North Connecticut they don’t dig graves very deep because there are other graves underneath them.
But when Samuel hit the bottom, he continued to fall down, down, clutching at roots and clumps of dirt that came away from the walls of the hole in his hands.
Samuel did not fall onto another bottom. He simply slowed down until he wasn’t falling, but hanging onto the side of the wall, lying on the side of the wall, on the floor of a tunnel.
Samuel stood and looked around.
This wasn’t where he had expected to end up when he stepped out of his apartment that morning to attend a funeral for a person he did not know.
Where he had expected to end up was back at his apartment, not wearing the elephant hair coat, which was still itchy.
The poetry of Kirsten Gwin has been published by Rivets Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and Ellipsis Magazine of Literature and Art. She lives in Seattle with a big brown dog.