My uncle was a terrible man. It's a statement I won't take back. He has seen and been through some things, you know. Any effort I would take to paint Tiberius Theoda Rex as a nice guy would be a lie. His name elicits fear, actions too, but I favored him, and hung out with him as often as I could. He exuded this kind of morbid charm and had a booming bluesman voice even when it whispered. I couldn't help but copy him, including his masculinity, for it epitomized the necessary strength, toughness, and smarts it took to survive being black in Chicago.
So what's so bad about him? First of all, Tiberius was a leatherneck and survivor of the Korean War. I mean, ground combat had really affected him. I, myself, couldn't fathom shooting, bayoneting, and hand-fighting another man to the death. But he did, he had to. To know the next day wasn't a given required something other than faith, it required luck. It was under those bloody conditions that he learned, up close, a whole lot about native-style wrestling and martial arts. Both methods nearly killed him. Now, he used them on his fellow Chicagoans.
Perhaps being built like a silverback helped. His entire body moved angrily. Even his manner of walking, almost predatory, to warn all to be careful when around him. Although a man of average height, those broad shoulders and long arms of his were abnormally strong. And as a stout man, he was surprisingly light on his feet and could spring into action real fast. Such speed was likely a byproduct of being an amateur boxer before Uncle Sam drafted and sent him overseas to dodge bullets and death.
If all of that didn't intimidate, his face surely would. It was obsidian color and square-shaped, beneath a salt and pepper buzz cut, that had a pair of malevolent hazel eyes that shined. But he hid them purposely behind shades, especially indoors, knowing full well they made people uneasy. His fierce eyes forced a lot of lookaways. Sometimes his stare was detectable through those dark sunglasses. So let's just say, Tiberius had a serious look that burned hot without trying.
Still though, having such an ominous presence drew attention. So Tiberius did all kinds of tough guy work. Nightclub door man, bouncer, and bodyguard. Nothing nine to five and mostly short term. At some point he saved up to buy this cool-looking, navy blue, four door, International pickup truck, with a matching enclosed trailer in tow. It fit him and his personality. Having such a ride enabled him to earn lots of money. You see, Tiberius began excelling at his true vocation of being a freelance Gorilla. That trailer of his rarely went empty. He would load it up with the dispossessions of Chicagoans unable to repay their debts, but it was also used for supplementing his income. Tiberius fenced goods and robbed affluent homes, warehouses, truck hijackings, and railcars.
Occasionally, he would collect debts for this Italian loan shark in Chicago Heights. I remember going with him to this used car dealership on the Southside. The owner owed a substantial sum, but was slow in making payments, claiming low sales; moreover, he chose to insult Tiberius. Believing stupidily if the Italians had been really serious they wouldn't've sent a Nigger. My uncle let him speak his mind and just listened, shockingly kept his cool, then we left, went and returned before closing time with a borrowed car hauler.
Upon entering, the owner misjudged Tiberius until the lethality began. My uncle punched him with such force it broke his jaw and knocked him cold. He turned out his pockets and his place, then proceeded to stand over him, placed his size thirteen on his wrist, and blew off a finger to wake him up. Tiberius hauled that screaming idiot to the repair shop. There, the owner was bound, stuffed, and thrown into a car trunk, and then the car was lifted skyward. I was so afraid and had never been so close to such carefree violence, but my fears soon subsided. My uncle's smokey voice did it; he ordered that I get all the car keys so he could pick and choose five sedans to load up and deliver. Moreover, I was told I should pocket all the cash on hand and think of it as a usury fee.
After that event, I should’ve ran. But I didn't. Just the opposite, I orbited the danger whenever I could, like light meeting at the event horizon. Sure, some collections weren't as brutal as others. Simple intimidation sufficed. Either way, the debt was paid. The ones I hated most involved women. Tiberius never hit or raped them, but threatened it. He would give an ultimatum. Go broke or get housebroken. Give up everything and be indebted to him, or get hogtied to the bed, to be sold and left there naked for any dick to visit. Quite often, all it took was the removal of his shades and picking up the telephone. Man, I was so glad when broke was chosen more often over being housebroken. Otherwise, I would walk out when he subdued the brave.
Neither a misogynist, nor a womanizer, Tiberius was simply cutthroat. It lessened a bit after a late night of raiding some boxcars left on Wood Street, near Jewel Food Store, and Hermitage Park. Instead of finding high-end apparel or electronics, he found alcohol. Pallets of imported Asian Rice Wine. I considered the take worthless, but not him. He had a buyer in mind, so I help load up as many boxes as his enclosed trailer could hold, and then drove it all to Chinatown the following day. There we entered Tong's Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant. Tiberius met the owner to offer his entire load at a price.
And that's when he saw this fine-looking Vietnamese waitress, his future wife, and mother of his children, Ngo Thi Phang -- a woman of almost thirty. She had an innocent oval face, butter skin tone, a pear-shaped, shoulder length haircut and she was much shorter than him. However, there was a slight problem. When he inquired about her, he soon learned that she belonged to the Chinatown Merchant Association. Ngo had been recently smuggled into the States under the pretense of becoming a bride, but instead became enslaved, and her labor hadn't been fully exploited yet to offset that cost. Right then and there, without forethought, my uncle offered a trade. Ngo for all the rice wine and a one-time favor. Mr. Tong laughed at first, then surrendered, following serious negotiations, but it came with a caveat, that his business partners must agree to it.
I hadn't seen Tiberius for almost a week when the doorbell rang. On my front porch stood them both, dressed in black silk. From head to toe, my uncle personified a fancy Grim Reaper. While Ngo contrasted him with her sexy traditional Asian dress. She hung on his arm, aglow, jocund, speaking Korean, and looking directly into those bright eyes of his. They came to say hello and goodbye. Tiberius and Ngo were moving to Skokie, Illinois where he had a triplex brownstone. He hadn't done anything with it. Now he had a reason. As a parting gift, I was given a large carry out bag along with a private number and magic word. They both soon departed. I watched him escort, open the passenger door, help her climb up and into the seat, before shutting it. He was in love, her too, no doubt about it. I thought it a miracle.
To think, that man right there had it in him and acted as my role model and guidepost. I would miss him. Even after he had softened a bit, which wasn't much. Because, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't toss aside that cold and ruthless nature of his. Ngo accepted him as so; and, like myself, she was drawn to it. It had its benefits. In spite of it all, the pain he inflicted, and newfound love, I figured I would hold onto all of what I learned from him just the same. I retreated into my basement bedroom. As soon as I sat down, I reached for my food and pulled out two large egg rolls, a takeout box of shrimp lo mein, chopsticks, fortune cookies, and at the bottom was four money knots wrapped in napkins. Twenty-three thousand I counted while I ate and watched television.
The nine o'clock news began broadcasting another homicide: the murder of a black man. In this case, he fit the description of a criminal responsible for a rash of fast food robberies, including the Tong's Noodle Kitchen on the Southside near 69th and Western. His body had been discovered in K-Town. Found in a dumpster, his black belt bow-tied around his neck, twice shot, ribs and skull fractured. The police labeled it as gang related. Good thing not much attention was given to the greasy food receipt that had fallen out of his mouth. For it blended in with the rest of the trash. Korean calligraphy was written on it, which translated: one favor, paid. I didn't follow Tiberius Rex around that day, so I missed it, and probably for the best. Even so, I could visualize how it likely went down. And like I said, he was one terrifying man. It's a statement I won't take back.