It should be noted that Kibwe came to live with Derrick on the filthy, fifth floor walk-up, (let’s be honest here, slum) only once he asked, begged, pleaded with her to move in. He declared his love, then recited a poem or some romantic nonsense he had picked up in the old country and Kibwe was a goner.
They lived together through the hot summer and into the fall. The cool weather was slow to arrive and the fever that gripped the neighborhood continued to percolate.
They did not get married because it was against the law. They stayed together because they could, because neither had an older brother, sister or parent nearby to disapprove of their union. Each had suffered loneliness to get here, but each also had tasted the crazy joy that comes with fearlessly claiming your life.
They met this way: he was about to steal onto a boat when he spotted her lurking around the docks. Kibwe knew only a handful of English words. Derrick showed her the ropes. Not that he knew the actual ins and outs of how to stow aboard, but growing up near the water, he had a feel for the boatyard’s rhythm.
Just prior to their eventual break-up, Derrick was teaching Kibwe her ABC’s. Always. Be. Carrying. By that he meant that after Kibwe traveled down the five flights of stairs to get to the outhouse and waited her turn, she should always carry back a pail of drinking water. Always. Be. Carrying. Don’t travel upstairs empty-handed.
But Kibwe forgot. Or she didn’t want to get her shoes wet. Or. Or. Or. And Derrick, annoyed, saddled by a disposition that was easily bored, asked Kibwe to leave.
Once she was gone, he missed her singing to him. Just as he begged her to move in with him, now he begged her in vain to come back. But Kibwe was now with a certain Mr. Summer who had long beautiful hair.
Maybe it was the return of demon loneliness or that he was cooked, stewed, woozy, but, on this one fateful night, as he opened the door to his building, he heard a peculiar thump, thump coming from the behind the door of the tailor’s shop. It was after hours. The store was dark, but sounds of laughter emanated from inside. He pressed his face against the dark glass and peered into the empty shop. He heard was a party with this strange music (if you could call it that) playing. He heard the words Hot Stuff repeated, sung as if it were a tribal cry. But what he saw, faintly illuminated in the weak light, was an mannequin standing silent, draped in a half completed tailored jacket of worsted wool.
It made no sense to him. Maybe Kibwe had cursed him.
He waited for Kibwe outside the factory. He sang her the song. Amused, she sang it back to him, declaring that this song was special, one she would never forget. She was all sweetness and light and kissed him solemnly goodbye.
Wherever he went, Derrick would sing a few bars of the song. No one, not his new acquaintances or even the Postman had heard it before.
Towards the end, after he lost interest in life, Derrick lay his head down on his bed in the nursing home and refused all food. His family gathered round to say their goodbyes when he heard that unmistakable thump thump. Faced with the greatest mystery of all, Derrick clung tight and tried to get his mouth to ask the question. His wife leaned in close and thought she heard him asking What is Hot Stuff?
(Installation: Bill Franzen)