Reginald Eldridge Jr.
Issue No. 6 - Winter 2018-19.
“What if the thing whose meaning or value has never been found finds things, founds things? What if the thing will have founded something against the very possibility of foundation and against all anti- or post-foundational impossibilities?”
-Fred Moten, from “The Case For Blackness”
I met Job Wilson at Tell Yo Truth, a storytelling event on the Southside, one Thursday evening last February. He walked up to me after the show was over and thanked me for my story about the time in college I thought I’d gotten my girlfriend pregnant (it turned out to be a false alarm; her period came a week later. We went to get checkups and at mine I found out I was impotent). “That made me feel something,” he said.
It was one of those brutal winter nights where wind cuts through every layer you got on and snow sits hard on the sidewalk. There were only like twelve people there. Job had been sitting with his partner, Vera James, who’d invited him on a date night. Vera and Marisol Oliva, the host, were old high school friends.
Marisol started Tell Yo Truth a few years back, in the wake of an ill-advised relationship with a man who’d once kicked in her door and threatened to kidnap her family. Of course, she didn’t know he was crazy when she met him. But then nobody listened to her when it was happening, and folks acted all surprised when he got arrested for tearing up a corner store. In her monologues, she says she started Tell Yo Truth because she wanted “a place to air all our grievances, strangenesses and struggles without fear or worry.” No censors, no judgment, just real folks telling the real facts of their lives to other real folks. Exorcizing their demons, as she sometimes puts it, and though she probably means it as a joke, she often refers to the days before she founded the show as possessed.
“Welcome to Tell Yo Truth,” her spiel begins, “where we tell—” and the audience is supposed to respond: “The truth! The whole truth! And nothing but the truth!”
She holds it in the back of this boutique called The Crawl Space, which happens to be three blocks from where I stay. The first time I went was pure serendipity. I was on my way home from work when I saw that the lights in the boutique were still on, even though it closes at seven. When I peeked in, I saw people gathered in the back and heard a dude’s voice booming through the PA system. As I approached, I saw that they were gathered in a semicircle around a short man who paced back and forth, gripping a corded mic like a standup comedian. He had long hair, a sparse beard and sad, goat eyes. I’ll never forget it.
He was talking about growing up in Logan Square, getting chased by some gang members. Just when they were about to get him, some cops showed up. It was strangely loose and sincere, his story, and that’s probably why it hooked me.
“That made me feel something,” Job Wilson said to me at the end of the night. Dark skinned, bald with a few grays in his beard, a little taller than I am, Job looked at me with the bloodshot eyes of a man who’d worked a couple double shifts in a row. When he smiled, the corners of his eyes and mouth wrinkled. Still, I couldn’t tell how old he was. His skin was otherwise clear and smooth, like it had just been ironed. I was swimming in relief to have let something go; but I’d had half a fifth of Jameson earlier that night so I couldn’t be sure of exactly what that something was.
“Thanks a lot,” I told him. “What’s your name?”
He extended his hand. “I’m Job.”
“Like in the bible?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Yeah, man, like in the bible. I sure hope you plan to come back next month. Would love to hear another one of your stories.”
I told him I’d think about it, that I mainly go to listen and that I only tell stories if I really feel like it. I’m not one of those folks who frequently attend these kinds of things; Marisol’s is the only one I’ve ever been to twice, and that’s mainly because we have history. I never plan to go there. It just seems to happen that every few months I end up there, in the back of The Crawl Space, listening with the others.
Walking home that night, I was glad to have met Job, whose enthusiasm stuck with me for reasons I couldn’t at the time isolate. Thinking back on it now, it probably had something to do with how he looked at me when he said that made me feel something. Longing and kinship in his eyes reminded me of this time when as a favor to an old girlfriend I chaperoned her little cousin’s prom party. It was exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of overdressed, over-fragrant teenagers giggling and dancing to catchy, incoherent music. I was standing on the wall by the DJ booth, counting down the hours till it was over, feeling old as hell, when I noticed two boys slick studying me from across the room. I couldn’t get a read on what they were looking at. I figured I’d go over and strike up a conversation. When I introduced myself, to my surprise, they lit up. We must have talked for ten or fifteen minutes before one of the boys (his name was Rodney or Robert or something) asked me out of nowhere how I dealt with “the pressures of being a teen.” I told him the thing I remember most about being a teenager is how fast it was over and how much life came after it. I said something like, “Don’t sweat it. Be present.” You would’ve thought I was a standup comedian the way both of these boys started cracking up. Goofy laughter. When they finally calmed down, we kept talking. I noticed as we did that something different showed up in their eyes. It’s hard to explain. It was like they were leaving the doors unlocked.
Though in him it seemed warmer, sadder and older, warped, maybe, by that low-lit, sparse room, Job’s eyes displayed a similar penetrability that night. That made me feel something, he’d said—significant words. By the time I arrived at my front door, though, their spell was all but broken. What remained was a vague impression which the cold rendered untrustworthy and on which my exhaustion wouldn’t let me focus.
That’s kinda how it went with Marisol and me. We’d met at a bar, messed around that night, dallied for a few weeks. Then one day, for no reason clear to me, we just stopped. I guess the flame just burned out. There were no hard feelings. We hadn’t talked in months when I discovered the show that first time. I was shocked to see her take the mic after that goat-eyed man. But if she was surprised to see me, she sure didn’t let on. She smiled in my general direction as she took the stage. Her hair had grown—she wore it in deep brown, cascading waves. Her skin glowed and her eyes were framed in bluebird-blue eyeshadow. She stood self-assured in a green dress with a dark, shiny trim and guided us through the night. After the show ended, I approached her. As she would any newcomer, she asked me what I thought of it. I told her I loved it, that I wished I’d known it was something she was putting together. She told me Tell Yo Truth was a project she held close to her heart, that she wanted to keep a separation between men she hooked up with and this, which she truly loved. So we moved on, transposing ourselves in the matrix of relationships that structure our community. Black and brown creative professionals: we who once dreamed vaguely of art careers but because we were too early, too mentally dispersed, too unmotivated or better consumers than producers—and weren’t born rich and white—we stumbled slow-motion into adulthood, found tolerable salaries and called ourselves settling down.
I, for instance, am a junior claims adjuster at a middle-grade health insurance agency. My job, basically, is to find ways for my corporate employer not to pay sick and injured people (or more accurately, their representatives) the money they erroneously believed they’d have access to when they signed a contract with us. I work long, tedious hours, in return for which I get to eat, pay rent in a nice neighborhood and spin my wheels a little bit longer. I’m not bad at it; my ratings currently stand at a strong three point eight out of five. My manager gives good feedback, and I’m on track for a raise by next summer. It’s not possible that this is anyone’s dream, but it is still somehow responsible, and that’s a fair enough compromise between some vague dream I misplaced years ago and the very real world, which, after all, is always threatening to misplace me.
So when I got home that night, I left Job’s words in the ether where I’d found them. I prepped for bills and the responsible workdays that would get me through the winter.