“Ninety-Nine” by Clemonce Heard

Clemonce Heard


years later, I’m lying
in bed with a woman I would’ve been
killed for, 

could still end up killed for.
My temple is pressed against her 
stomach like a boy’s face 

against a window
as his mother drives through the night.
His father left 

behind, stillborn,
in a puddle of blood. 
Ninety-nine is the right number

if you don’t want to cross the redline. 
Ninety-nine doesn’t feel like 
quite a dollar,

feels quieter 
than four quarters that shout
with aha fingers

raised like bludgeons.
My friend Bud says one
hunid when we get off the phone.

It looks like humid but sounds like hunted.
Ninety-nine years ago, in Tulsa, telegraph
lines were cut

like umbilicals.
Strewn across the streets
the white mobs strolled casually. 

No you hang up. 
My eyes closed. My neck slack. 
I am listening to a heartbeat 

in a stomach. This is different than seeing
a screen with an embryo 
curled like a single quote. 

The gel was cold 
when they slathered my chest. 
I could die in my sleep & never know.

I could die reaching 
inside someone, the euphoria 
too hot to handle. 

I got ninety-nine 
word problems, but the one word 
my lover doesn’t like is…

I don’t say it as an example. 
I don’t say it 
the way my sister calls her friends. 

A term of endearment. 
A turn of indictment. 
HOV, allegedly, has a child somewhere

in Maryland. Marry Land. 
This makes sense if you listen
to “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” 

the eponymous single 
parent. Perhaps all parents are single. 
My father used to say I spit y’all out:

ptooey, ptooey. I never heard
him use the word,
but I know he thought it. 

How old is the word? 
How old was Sarah Page 
when she got married? 

Dick Rowland 
was never caught with a blond
strand on him. Something that glistens

in the light it’s colored by. Last night, 
the news read: the protests 
turned to riots. 

I made an o of my mouth
over grits, blew & became a griot. 
In Madison, po/lice swept

civilians away from the capital. In Tulsa, 
a pickup truck 
plowed into a crowd of protestors. 

The news failed
to say that one of the injured
was paralyzed. 

Supremacy gassed 
my friend six feet away. 
In “99 Problems” the po/lice

officer is subservient.
The drug offenders should be free
because dealing is the predicament 

they put ’em in. 
If I were a trafficker, I’d have a tip
built in like a wiretap. 

Even if it was a cent, dollar, year. 
The used car
sticker price doesn’t always end 

in ninety-nine. ’99 Certified.
Like New. 
Today’s Special.

As Advertised. 
No one would expect 
me of dealing anything but cards. 

Even those are hard 
to shuffle. Tulsa was dealt
a joker on Juneteenth. 

A holiday since 1980. 
You see where I’m going?
He rounded it to the twentieth. 

Meaning the BOK Center
that seats 19,199 moved it. 
We gon be okay. We gon be alright. 

Senator Kamala Harris said 
This isn’t just a wink to white
supremacists—he’s throwing 

them a welcome home party. 
Beno Hall as in Be No Hall, 
as in Be No Nigger, Be No Jew, Be

No Catholic, Be No Immigrant
could fit up to 3,000
constituents. By then, we’ll be free-

floating in space. By then the black
holes will have closed their eyes.
My lover told me

when I can’t sleep
to count down from one hundred,
but I don’t count 

the hundred miles & running. 
I start with ninety-nine, 
then work my way down. 

I start with ninety-nine,
& see how far I need to climb
before I’m close enough to jump 

without hurting myself. 
I’m always doing something
wrong let the po/lice tell it. 

They want to exterminate us. 
They won an extra term & ate us.
I’m always firing 

off at the mouth. 
Forcing them to bring em out, bring em,
out their firing squads. 

themselves down. All this firing going on,
but nothing

stays aflame for long. 
’Cept California. ’Cept Amazon. 
Bezos for trillionaire. 

The trills in air
like a fire alarm.
The sparkling sprinklers of deforestation.

Musk for Tulsa tough. 
What imbeciles painted 
the Golden Driller in his image?

Even the police 
cruiser gets relief, eventually. 
Even the odds, the piece of Greenwood

not burned. Every block was hot
but one. They fussed: Yonder is a nigger
church, why ain’t they burning it?

They replied:
It’s in a white district.
Maybe there only need be one church.  

Whoever’s not on time, as in camping out,
will have to attend
stained glass where the sun is magnified

into the magma of an incinerator,
atop a ladder or with one foot
pushing off

the palms of another brother or sister,
if not the palms of a tree. 
The palmetto leaves

my grandmother keeps
next to her bed, next to her rosary. 
There ain’t many of us she tells me. 

My homie said Hov 
there ain’t many of us. I tell him less
is more nigger there’s plenty of us. 

I mean Gurleys. 
I mean we might be related to Ottawa. 
If we were, I’d dub him Uncle O-Dub. 

 Her dreamland is our family living
in a mansion,
but I think she’d settle 

for a boarding house were it ours. 
Reparations have lolled 
for ninety-nine years now. 

Reap the rations. Repair the Oshuns. 
The Oceans. 
Oshner’s where she’s shuttled

whenever she’s having a tough time
breathing. When we can’t
understand our heartbeats

or why the voltage spikes.
The gel is smeared. 
The doctor says

it was inherited. 
Could be what they fed her with
before she was she, before that even. 

Could be what I still eat today. 
Some days the work is so much 
I have to wring out my intestines

like a towel. 
A rag alighting a bootblack’s shoulder
like a smoldered parrot. 

The fire
time after time again. I read 
Dick Rowland knew Sarah Page. 

I read, to know, in the Bible, 
meant to be physical. 
Today, to get physical can mean coitus

& cudgel. Let’s get physical po/lice say 
in their heads. Let’s get a physical. 
Let’s cuddle, civilians say

in their fantasies. 
To have authority is to author. 
The poet who lies in their diary

knows someone is reading it. 
The officer who lies 
in their report hopes nobody will. 

Handcuffs are not always kinky. 
We put our hands up 
like Ys cause we want to be free. 

Both vowel & consonant. 
Why’s to all the answers 
given without proper consent

or consignment. 
I got ninety-nine unread text messages. 
The one from my Nigerian brother reads:

I have not been able to think
beyond death & how it could reach me
doing the most 

mundane thing as be on the street.
Perhaps to be African
& American is to know

a split screen terror. Double fearfulness. 
Beware the Ides of March an error. 
After I’d marched 

to the courthouse & let the chants 
of hippies fill me 
awkwardly & off key,

I drunk Arizona Green Tea
w/ginseng. Watched one Gen Z
teach another 

Gen Z how to skateboard,
holding hands. Another Gen Z lilted 
beside wearing a shirt of expletives:

like duct tape where her wings
couldn’t fit. 

Jewelry store broken in
by out-of-towners. Bling. Bling. 
Every time I come around your city. 

What’s a vigil to a vigilante?
Draw my face realism. Say his name. 
Listen first, then say it. 

My brother from Broken Arrow says 
white people need to get 
the fuck out the way. He says excuse me  

& the lake parts to form an isthmus. 
In high school, riding shotgun, 
he found a rope around his neck. 

DJ Trauma. Ad-lib your own life. 
Add lips to the microphone. 
Go home, po/lice say, but we’ve gone

& grown deaf. 
It’s hard to listen to someone talking
at you. Talk to me

not at me my mother would entreat. 
It’s hard to make love
when the tunnel leads to nine months

of uncertainty. 
I can’t see the light at the end
of November. 

Do you remember, September
is the ninth month. 
By the time July is here I’ll have grown

my own mask. 
My nose hair, my mustache, my beard
will have knotted in solidarity. 

My lover wears 
my briefs when she sleeps by me. 
My father wants a grandson,

but forgets he has one. 
She likes the teal ones. 
My waistband ripples. Rip Van Winkle. 

RIP brothers & sisters. The sun leaks 
through the blackout
curtains that darken my bedroom 

so my eyes
barely need to adjust to see my beloved
falling through the last hundred

or so feet to her own rousing,
if not the yawning branches. 
The moon is not a hammock. 

Her body puts me
in more danger. If she could 
hover above the bed, 

if moles were the jewels of the body
there would be more mining. 

is penultimate to Billboard’s
top 100. Ninety-nine
problems peaked at thirty,

the age my brothers hope to reach. 
You see where I’m going?
You can’t knock the bustle. 

You can’t knock 
before you shoot? Neither me nor my blue 
faces can breathe. I slide a Benjamin

 through the partition to pay 
for my sins. They peel me
from the counter. Hold me to the light. 

from Rattle #72, Summer 2021


Clemonce Heard: “In ‘Ninety-Nine,’ I wanted to explore how not even the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre’s impending centennial celebration will equate to an absolute healing of Greenwood, of North Tulsa, of the city. That the inherited trauma and repression will take institutions of integrity to intercede, and how without it, the effects of the massacre have the potential to carry on for another 99 years, if not more.” (web)

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