Mannah never seems to notice the uneasy stares as he saunters barefoot across the street from the In & Out Mart off 56. The gas pumpers and the mail-checking neighbors never got used to seeing the young man walking with nothin’ but a pair of jeans cut off mid-thigh. He showed too much knee for a man of color. It didn’t help that he ran a lot in his earlier youth. Chasing dragonflies around the Miller pond gave him legs like an insect. His grandpa called him Grasshopper because of it. Told him, “If we judged by ‘pearances, we’d sing tale of you jumpin’ over Gabriel’s Moon.”
“Gabriel’s Moon” is a fable generations spread like butter on cornbread. The angel Gabriel had a bet with his brother, Jeffrey. Jeffrey swore that he could do a backflip over the moon if Gabriel’d just give him a hand-boost. Gabriel laughed at his lie but agreed to boost him anyway. The time came when the moon was low and hung like a witch’s smile. Lo! And Behold! Jeffrey careened up into the night sky and cleared the moon with a clumsy backflip! Gabriel boosted him but Jeffrey never quite got his footing. His left foot caught up on the last corner of the moon and that off-kilter backflip landed him square on his back. Crushed his wings all to canyon dust. He won the bet but his wings didn’t take him to heaven after that. He could only get as high as the moon when its just above the tree tops and the family always calls it Gabriel’s Moon.
Mannah, or Grasshopper when grandpa calls him, was built to clear that moon without a boost from Gabriel. All from trying to catch dragonflies on the edge of Miller’s pond. The people looked on as Mannah’s shoulder blades reflected the sun like a new penny. His skin always looked like a pre-winter leaf with the sun smiling behind it. June always called him “Pond Water” because he was just brown enough to require a bit of sunlight to see the sparse hair keen on his legs and arms and chest. Not to mention the patch, like down on a baby duck, just below the back of his neck. Save for that hair and his proud eyebrows, Mannah was bald.
He kept on heading down the path toward the old brick church. Dirt and rocks almost parting for his barefeet, like some country Moses. Humming a poem he read when he was a teenybopper, the whispers and puzzled faces becoming the baseline for his song. He felt it to his bones, but never acknowledged a thing. He never did lend an eye to those things people didn’t want him to see. Mannah didn’t wonder about the whispers covered by hands. Didn’t cast a thought to why Banjo tripped over a string whenever he came around the bend. Must not be important. If it was, someone would say something to him directly. Since no one ever did, it wasn’t a matter of life and death. When it’s a matter of life and death even dragonflies speak.
“Banjo, I swear. I put it on everything. The dragonfly spoke.” insisted Mannah.
“Grasshopper,” Banjo knew his friends grandpa, “that damn dragonfly didn’t say shit to you. Stop lying for once!”
“Did to. I was chasing him, a pretty one too. His wings were like black cobwebs carrying him around that pond. Flitting away as soon as I could get close enough to see how his backside was bluer than ol’ Ms. Carnegie’s eyes.” Mannah sat beside Banjo like a frog, hands on the tops of his feet. Banjo theorized that if Mannah used all the strength in his legs he’d probably leap over Pond-Lake County.
“That sounds like a dragonfly alright. But it don’t sound like a talking dragonfly. Did you see his mouth?” Banjo started tinkering with his guitar, a hand-me-down from his favorite uncle.
“Well if you shut up a minute I’ll tell you again. I was chasing him, like I said, and he went to the back part of Miller’s pond…where the bog is,” Mannah hopped on tiptoe in front of his companion, “but I was a kid then. I didn’t know any better.”
“You sound like you don’t know any better now; talkin ’bout a talking bug.” Banjo eyed Mannah as he leapt around. He wondered why the man never seemed to have dirt on the bottoms of his feet or sweat runnin’ down his back. He was swimmin’ stark naked in his own skin due to the southern sun. He couldn’t fathom setting a socked foot in that ground, nevermind his bare foot.
Mannah leaned against the brick wall and continued, “To get that dragonfly I started to run right into the bog and that’s when it happened. That dragonfly turned around and said, ‘Gwon now! Get!’ and I froze midstep. He sounded like Big Pa when he said it.” Mannah finally made eye contact with Banjo.
“Nigga, if you don’t get the fuck outta here. It probably was Mr. Washington yelling from the house.” Banjo’s borrowed guitar lay on the ground. Its keeper couldn’t focus on one cord when in Mannah’s presence. Quiet as its kept, Banjo just couldn’t think and play at the same time. Why Mannah made him think so hard remains a mystery.
“No, Big Pa was at this church. I know what I saw…and heard.” Mannah somehow slid down the old brick wall, without smearing his skin along its weathered surface, to sit wide-legged on the sparse grass and ample dirt. Banjo inexplicably noticed his companion’s cut-off jeans shifting, baring more skin.
“Man, I ain’t foolin with you today,” Banjo muttered in annoyance while wiping the dirt from his guitar. “I’m going to go practice some more. See if Ms. June wants a private show.”
“Ms. June is old enough to be both our grandmother’s.” Mannah didn’t move from his spot on the wall.
“I know. That’s what sweetens the tea, Grasshopper. That’s what sweetens the tea,” he winked and said, “See ya.” Banjo hurried away– glancing back once while shaking his head as Mannah rolled on his stomach. You’d think he was laying on a sleep number bed, Banjo remarked to himself. As he turned his head back towards his destination, Banjo observed that there was not a particle of dust dulling the soles of Mannah’s feet or his exposed back. Mannah’s skin was somehow untouched by the complimentary coating of dust that assaulted everything else, even clothes.
Puzzled, Banjo shook his head again. He spent more time than he’d admit to himself dwelling on that peculiar sight. He spent no time at all questioning why he noticed in the first place. Finally, Banjo stared at the path to Ms. June’s; his head was still shaking when the sun blew out.