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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 18


  We were there for a long time, and we got quite drunk. Barbara and Jerry danced. Barbara and Matthew danced. Fowler danced with Madeleine. I was afraid to dance. This realization came as a shock, for I had never been afraid to dance before. But I had never danced with a white woman. In that youth, so swiftly receding, vanishing behind me, I had only danced with black girls; and we danced among the dancers and we had, in effect, no audience. But now there was an audience, a black audience watching a black boy dancing with a white woman; and they would know, from the dance, whether the woman was really his or not. I had no woman, I had only had adventures—though I must confess that I have never, in the sexual context, arrived at an understanding of the meaning of this word. They were not adventures at all, at least not if one supposes that adventure suggests risks joyfully taken: they were dry, predictable, and joyless, as laconic as a thermometer. I was very, very frightened, and because I was frightened, I forced myself to stand up and dance with Barbara. I knew that I could never dance with Madeleine. “Bravo,” said Matthew. And I led Barbara onto the floor. It was a slow dance, for I did not feel exuberant.

  She was very soft and small in my arms. I felt very strange—quite peaceful in one way; quite disturbed in another. Barbara’s hand was very light on my back, her hand in mine was warm and dry, she held me with an unexpected, a surprising intensity. I don’t know anything about the way we are put together, how long, in what secrecy, a moment prepares itself, or according to what law it suddenly comes into the light, so that one is standing, abruptly, trembling, face to face with the unimaginable. I don’t think that I had been particularly aware of Barbara’s body before, but I was now, and I felt that she was aware of mine. I thought, at once, guiltily, of Jerry; perhaps Barbara had also been thinking of Jerry; and I had a sudden, bewildering sense of Barbara as being trapped. I turned my mind away from this too bleak confusion. I became dreadfully uncomfortable, thinking of Jerry and Matthew and all the black people watching: it was almost as though we were making love in public. And yet—how can I explain this?—this profound discomfort did not really disturb my peace. I knew I could not move out of Barbara’s arms. Then I was horrified to remember that I was wearing no underwear, and my member, with no warning, with uncontrollable speed, raged and thickened against the cloth of my jeans. Barbara had to feel it, but her face gave no sign; and I—poor me!—had no choice but to keep the rude witness hidden against her body. It was horrible. I thought of all the people watching. Involuntarily, without realizing I was doing so, I pressed Barbara closer. Sweat broke out on my forehead, at the hairline. I wanted the dance never to end. I wanted the dance to end at once. How would I ever be able to get across the dance floor? I tried to move as little as possible, but this made matters worse. I cursed myself. Then I maneuvered us closer to our table, and thanked God that the lights were dim. Yet, beneath it all, I felt a curious peace. At last the record ended. In a grave and decorous silence we walked back to our table and I slipped quickly into my seat. We were silent. Something of the greatest importance had happened to us.

  Everyone seemed perfectly at ease. Matthew was involved in a joking flirtation with a rather pretty girl at the next table, who was sitting with two couples. He was quite drunk now, but very cheerful, and it seemed to me that he had certainly scored with the pretty girl, who was clearly much taken with him. Fowler was watching him with a kind of amused and lofty affection. Barbara sat down next to Jerry, her face still and closed; I thought there was a certain fear in her face. She said, “Jerry, I really think it’s time we started home.”

  I didn’t want to go home to my empty room, with the two of them together downstairs. I grabbed Madeleine’s hand again.

  “Any time you ready,” Fowler said, “I’ll be happy to drive you back to your car.”

  “I think we might as well be going now,” Jerry said.

  “You folks thinking of leaving now?” Matthew asked. “The evening’s just getting started.”

  “It’s just getting started for you,” said Jerry.

  Barbara rose. “It’s been a fine night. Thanks for bringing us here.”

  “Well, it sure was my pleasure,” Matthew said, “and we have to do it again sometime.”

  He rose, and we all shook hands.

  “You fixing to stay here?” Fowler asked.

  “I’ll stay here till you bring the car back, Fowler. You know I can’t just tear myself away from this charming young lady just like that.” He grinned and winked at me. “Look here,” he said, “I’m going to give you a call up at your theater in a couple of days. We’ll have us a couple of drinks together before I cut out of here.”

  “Good luck on the North Atlantic,” Madeleine said.

  “Thank you—Madeleine. You see, I remembered that time.” And we laughed.

  “Be good,” I told him.

  “You too. Bye-bye now.”

  We walked slowly to the door. “Bye-bye,” shouted Miss Lucy. “Don’t you all be no strangers now, you hear?”

  We told her that we wouldn’t be strangers, and we stepped outside. We piled into Fowler’s car. Madeleine and I sat in the back, and I put my arm around her. And, looking at her very hard, emboldened perhaps by the whiskey and the fear of my white-washed room, I asked her, “Can I come up and have a nightcap at your place?”

  She paused for a moment. She said, “All right. That might be nice.”

  I asked Fowler to make a slight detour, so we could let Madeleine off before going back to our car. When we reached Madeleine’s house, Madeleine and I stepped out and I gave Jerry the car keys.

  “I’m going to have a drink with Madeleine,” I said. “I’ll see you all later. Bye-bye, Fowler, and thank you. I’ll see you soon. Good-night, Barbara.”

  She looked slightly stunned, but she smiled and said, “Good-night, Leo. Good-night, Madeleine.”

  “Good-night, kids. See you all tomorrow.”

  “I’ll fix a night for supper,” Fowler said. “One night at my house. Before Matthew goes.”

  “Okay. Good-night.”

  “Good-night.”

  And they drove off down the dark street, leaving everything empty. Now, I was really frightened, though, now it was too late. What would people say if they saw me coming out of Madeleine’s house in the morning? We were crazy, both of us. But Madeleine already had keys out, there was no one, anyone, to see us go in. I took the keys and opened the door and we climbed in silence to the third floor. Still in silence we entered Madeleine’s apartment and she turned on the light.

  “Well!” said Madeleine. She was smiling.

  “Do you think we shocked anybody?”

  “I think we shocked Fowler.”

  “Do you think it matters?”

  “No. I don’t think it matters.”

  We walked into the living room.

  “But we may,” she said, “have shocked Barbara even more than we shocked Fowler.”

  “Oh, no,” I said. “Barbara’s not like that.” I turned from her and walked about the room. “You’ve got a very nice place here.” It was pleasant enough. She had big, curtained windows, the bedroom was on the right, and the john and the kitchen were behind me.

  “Oh, it’s all right,” she said. “But those windows just open on that awful street—but from the kitchen you can see a little bit of the river. Isn’t that silly?”

  “All these towns have their ass in the river,” I said.

  “Come look.”

  I walked into the kitchen and we stood beside the window. And it was true—through the interstices formed by other buildings and mighty poles and wires and the dull gleam of the railroad tracks, one made out the river. It caught the light differently; or it threw back another light. And if one held one’s breath, as now, indeed, we did, one could hear it, faint and steady, rolling along.

  For a second, I listened to Madeleine’s breathing, which was faint, but not very steady. I didn’t know what role she wanted me to play with her, and for the moment I was just
stalling, being a kind of bebop kid.

  “Put something on the record player,” she said, “and I’ll make that drink.”

  “Right.” I walked back into the living room. “What do you want to hear?”

  “Anything you want to hear. But keep it very low.”

  “That’s right. We certainly don’t want the neighbors barging in here tonight.”

  She laughed. “No. I don’t want to be sent back to the convent.”

  I couldn’t guess what she wanted to hear, she didn’t have anything I particularly wanted to hear, and so I put on something very easy, maybe it was Rhapsody in Blue, very low. I still felt very sure of myself, probably because I was not alone in my room. I sat down on the sofa. On the table next to the sofa, under the lamp, was a picture of a little girl with long hair, standing near a white fence. Her head was up, and she was laughing.

  “That’s my daughter,” Madeleine said. She came in with the drinks and sat down on the sofa beside me. She put the drinks, with coasters and napkins, on the coffee table. “She was only six then.”

  “She looks like a nice little girl.” I put the picture down. “How old is she now?”

  “Eight.”

  “What’s her name?”

  “Audrey. She’s my pride and joy. She makes my life worth living.”

  I looked at her. “Good for you.” I picked up my drink. “Here’s to a life worth living.”

  “That’s a good toast.” We laughed and drank and listened to the music. I put my glass down. I pulled her blond head onto my shoulder.

  “You’re not drinking,” she said, after a moment.

  Some instinct made me do exactly what she wanted me to do. I looked at her, I changed my position, and I put my head in her lap. She looked down at me, smiling. Her breasts seemed very big. I put my hand on one of them, really rather like a kid playing doctor, but also aware that a strange and mighty storm was rising in me. I was aware that the storm had really nothing to do with Madeleine, except that she was in the path.

  “You’re a strange boy,” she said.

  “Why? Why am I a strange boy?”

  She took, very deliberately, a sip of her drink. My hand stroked one breast. Part of me felt, Leo, you’re nothing but a goddamn sex-fiend and you’ll never get out of this house, let alone this town, alive. If this broad could read your mind and know what a freak you are, your ass would be in the river, your head would be on a pike, and your cock and balls would be nailed to the courthouse door. And I thought, Fuck it. I want to see how much of a freak she is. She’s come this far, let’s see how far she’ll go. I began fumbling with the buttons of her blouse. She put her drink down, and, as she leaned over to do this, I put one hand inside her blouse.

  “Tell me. Why am I a funny boy? What’s funny about me?” She was silent. I said, “Maybe you better tell me later.”

  Then—we fooled around. I worked with my lips and my tongue and my fingers, she wasn’t working much yet, but she would; we fooled around. I can’t say what was driving me. Perhaps I had to know—to know—if my body could be despised, how much it could be despised; perhaps I had to know how much was demanded of my body to make the shameful sentence valid; or to invalidate the sentence. I got her nearly naked on that sofa, shoes and stockings off, dress half on, half off, panties and bra on the floor. I was striding through a meadow, and it certainly felt like mine. She shook and whimpered and caressed me and I did not recognize her anymore. I wondered if she recognized me, if we mattered now at all to each other. A terrible bafflement began in me. The bafflement, causing a drop in my ferocity, raised the level of my need. I did not want to watch her anymore, I was afraid of what I would see; I was afraid of what I had wanted, and still wanted, to see. I did not want to watch myself anymore either. I wanted to be held and cleansed and emptied. I stroked her face and her body, I felt lost and I wanted to cry. And though she was still now, and I was in the dark, our touch had more meaning—at least, our touch was more friendly. Then I opened my eyes and looked at her, her clothes half off, and all the white flesh waiting, and I wondered if she, while I had been trampling through a meadow, had been crawling through a jungle, dreading the hot breath and awaiting the great stroke of King Kong. She was nearly naked, but I was still dressed. I pulled my shirt over my head. She opened her eyes.

  “Let’s take off these clothes,” I said, “and go to bed—like civilized people.”

  She smiled, “Are we civilized?”

  “Hell, no. But come on and take me to your big brass bed.” I watched her. “And give me some head.”

  She struggled up on one elbow. “Help me get this silly dress off.”

  I undid some clips and buttons and she stood up and stepped out of her dress. Then she looked at me, quite helplessly, with a smile. I took her hand and led her to the bedroom. She pulled down the covers. I took off my jeans. She said, “Just a moment—I’ll be right back.” I pulled her into my arms and kissed her. She pressed against me, then she pulled away. “Just a minute,” she said, pleading, and she went into the john. I fell into bed and lay on my back, frightened and evil, patiently waiting, immense and heavy and curdled with love.

  I woke up suddenly, out of a sleep like drowning. In my sleep, I had traveled back to Harlem, and I was curled up against Caleb, in our narrow bed. Caleb’s chest was hot and heavy, I was soaking with his sweat and choking with his odor. Our mother’s voice rang over us like the thunder of a church bell: Boy, do you know what time it is? I struggled against Caleb’s weight. I turned and struggled, turned and struggled. I woke up.

  I could not have been sleeping long, for there was no light in the sky. Madeleine’s head was on my chest. She snored very lightly, and drooled a little bit. Her weight was intolerable, and I hated it. I was terribly, terribly afraid. I knew that something awful was going to happen. And there was nothing I could do and there was no place to run. Here I was, in this white cunt’s bed; here I was, ready for the slaughter; here I was, I, Judas, with a stiffening prick and a windy heart, lost, doomed, terrified, alone. The air whispered, or I whispered, my brother’s name. But nothing, now, forever, could rescue my brother, or me.

  I moved from beneath Madeleine’s weight as gently as I could, and went into the bathroom and took a piss, and then stepped under the shower. I turned on the water as hard as I could. The needles of the water hit me like Saint Sebastian’s arrows. I wrapped myself up in one of Madeleine’s enormous towels, found a cigarette and lit it, and recovered my stale drink and sat down before the kitchen window. Leo. You are more than nineteen years old. What the fuck do you think you’re doing, with your life?

  I listened to the river; but I saw my mother’s face. I sipped my drink. My abandoned mother. My abandoned father. Their lost sons. This was Saturday night. They would be asleep now on the top floor of the tenement, in their bedroom, which was their only room. The rest of their apartment was rented out. The room which would have been Caleb’s was occupied by a junkie and his girl-friend. The room which would have been mine was filled with all that was left of an old elevator operator, he, too, abandoned by all his kith and kin. They all shared the kitchen and the bathroom and the living room—and that was all there was to the apartment, which was like Miss Mildred’s apartment, except that it was smaller. We moved there while Caleb was away. Caleb had never lived there; and I did not live there long.

  My father would have been drunk, but quietly drunk; his rages were ended; he lived only to sleep. His lips were narrower, his face was thinner, the big eyes were dulled with the heat of his life, but all the fire was gone. My father was a porter in the garment center. My mother spent all day sewing in the same neighborhood, but not for the same firm. In any case, their hours were different. My mother left work before my father did, and hurried home to cook for him. To do this, she had, first, every day, to conquer the filth of the kitchen—for a kitchen used by strangers is always filthy—and do what she could to disguise the disorder of the other rooms. She was always weary, and her
hair was almost always knotted on the top of her head. But, sometimes, on Saturday nights, she accompanied my father to a bar in the neighborhood and they laughed and gossiped with the people there. This was to prevent my father from becoming melancholy mad: he drowned in his sorrow when he drank alone. And when she went out with him, she always took care to look her best, and she wore her dangling earrings. But she was wondering, as he was wondering, Lord, where can my children be tonight? They were wondering how it had happened that their lives had come to a full stop so soon. They were close to death, and yet it was as though they had never lived.

  “It would have been better if you’d never lived,” said Caleb, “because then I wouldn’t be here, neither. I didn’t want this life, this hell, this hell! Why did you give it to me?”

  He was just a little past twenty-one. I was just a little past fourteen. He had been home a week. We were all standing in the kitchen; and Caleb was very drunk. He and our father had got drunk together. But our father was not drunk now. We had all been, like a family, to a Saturday night function at the Renaissance, on Seventh Avenue. And Caleb and our father had spent more and more time at the bar, talking together. Caleb had begun to weep. And then we left.

  He was thinner, much thinner, but harder and tougher. He was beautiful, with a very dangerous, cruel, and ruthless beauty. He had been home a week, but he and I had found it hard to talk—he did not want to tell me what his time away had been like. But I knew what it had been like from the way he flinched whenever my breath touched the open wound, from the distance between us, as though he were saying, Don’t come near me. I’ve got the plague.

  “Caleb,” said our mother—she was still in her green evening gown; her earrings caught the light; there were combs in her splendid hair—“don’t try to hurt your father. We did the best we could. We love you.”