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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 19
“We didn’t ask to come here, neither,” our father said.
“We hoped it would be better,” said our mother, “for you, than it was for us.”
“You were wrong,” said Caleb. “It’s worse.” But then he relented; he had to relent; tears stood in his eyes. “I wasn’t trying to hurt my father.” He looked down. “I love my father.”
“Then tell him so,” said our mother.
Caleb looked at our father. “I’m telling you so,” he said.
“Don’t you love your mother, too?” she asked, smiling.
“Yes. I love my mother.”
“And your brother?”
He looked at me and his face changed. He smiled again, and he pulled me to him. “Yes. Oh, yes. I love my brother.” Then: “But I haven’t been able to help him much.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I’ll love you all my life. And I’ll help you. I swear it. You’ll see.”
“Old man,” said Caleb, holding me by the neck, “let’s have a drink—a loving cup.” He looked at our mother. “All right?” Then he looked down at me. “Give us a kiss,” he said.
I kissed him.
“That’s better,” said our mother. “You all sit down and I’ll pour the drinks.”
And she glittered, jangled, swept, out of the room. Caleb, our father, and I uneasily sat down. Caleb put his hand on my neck again. He said, “Daddy, I know it’s not your fault. But you don’t know what they do to you, baby, once they got you.”
“Man,” said our father, “they doing it to me.”
Caleb looked down at me. “And they doing it to little Leo. Ain’t that the truth, Leo?” He stared at me. He turned away. He took his hand away. “Don’t tell me. I know.”
“They’re not,” I said, “doing anything to me that I can’t take. So, don’t worry about me.” Then I said, “I hate them. I hate them. I hate them.”
“Yeah,” said Caleb wearily, “they’re doing it to you, all right.” Then I was sorry I had spoken. But what I had said was true; and, anyway, whether or not I had said it, Caleb and my father already knew it. They saw, as I could not, of course, what time had done to me. Whatever they had wanted for me was now locked in the country of dreams. It was now never going to happen. No one knew what was going to happen, and no one could control it. In a way, it can be said that I was the ruin of all their hopes. They had not been able to save me—my life would be like theirs. The streets had claimed me because my challenges were there, and everything now depended on what I could learn in the school which was to prepare me for my life. I was very nearly lost because my elders, through no fault of their own, had betrayed me. Perhaps I loved my father, but I did not want to live his life. I did not want to become like him, he was the living example of defeat. He could not correct me. None of my elders could correct me because I was appalled by their lives. I was old enough to understand how their lives had happened, but rage and pity are not love, and the determination to outwit one’s situation means that one has no models, only object lessons. I was no longer Caleb’s little brother: I was part of Caleb’s heavy load. And this was because he realized that he had become a part of mine, forever.
For even Caleb had become, for me, an object lesson. Furtively, I watched him. Covertly, against my will, God knows, I judged him. My brother. My brother. Big, black, beautiful, he should have been a king. But his girl, Dolores, had turned into a barmaid whore. Miss Mildred was bigger and more aimless than ever; the treacherous Arthur was always stoned. And now there was something in Caleb lonely and sad, shrinking and hysterical. It broke my heart to watch him. He had been beaten too hard. I hated the people who had beaten him; by the time I was fourteen, I was certainly ready to kill; there was no reason not to kill—I mean, no moral reason. But there were too many—too many; they were everywhere one turned, the bland, white, happy, stupid faces. I walked the streets, I went to school, I watched them, and I loathed them. My brother. But it is also hard to love the beaten. It means accepting their condition; whereas, precisely, one is asking oneself, What shall I do to be saved?
My encounters with Caleb when he came home the first time are blurred. Some moments are very sharply in focus, others are dim, very nearly advancing into the light, then receding into darkness. Other moments are irrecoverable, and I know it, and I have lately begun to know why. I do not subscribe to the superstition that one’s understanding of an event alters the event. No, it is the event which does the altering, and the question one faces is how to live with time’s brutal alterations.
This evening, however, when our mother reentered the room with the whiskey Caleb had stolen from the dance-hall bar, he endeavored to be cheerful, and we tried, too. After all, it was good to see him. It had been good to see him, before he and our father became lachrymose at the bar, dancing with the girls and jiving them and making them helpless before his grace and charm. But even the girls, I noticed, with that really awful increase of awareness which I owed entirely to Caleb, did not take him seriously: a boy with an unspeakable past was a man with an unendurable future. He was good to look at, good to dance with, probably good to sleep with: but he was no longer good for love. And certainly Caleb felt this, for in his dealings with the girls there was a note of brutality which I had never felt in him before. He was not really teasing, charming, seducing them: he was taunting them. He was saying, I’ve got what you want, all right, but I’m not about to give it up to none of you black bitches.
Our mother returned and she poured the drinks. I wasn’t really permitted to drink, and, luckily, in those days, I didn’t like to drink; but this prohibition, like all of my parents’ prohibitions, was rendered a dead letter by the fact that my parents knew very well that I did whatever I wished, outside. Now, my mother said, “I’m making yours real weak, Leo,” and handed me a glass of ginger ale only very faintly colored by whiskey. “That’s just so you can feel part of the family,” she said, and handed drinks to my father and Caleb and sat down. Caleb and our father looked at each other, but neither of them smiled. I drank my ginger ale. I thought of a girl I knew. I tried to think of everything but the room I was in, and the people I was with.
“Little Leo sure ain’t grown much,” Caleb said. “What you been feeding him?”
“Exactly what we fed you,” said our mother. “Red beans and rice and cornbread and pork chops and ham hocks and ribs and greens.”
“What did they feed you down the way?” our father asked.
“They fed us on what the pigs didn’t want,” said Caleb. “One thing I’ll never eat no more in life is hominy grits nor beans nor molasses.” He paused. “They just fed us so we could work, you know—like you feed a mule. And they beat us like that, too.” He looked at me. “Yeah,” he said, and sipped his drink.
“What you figure on doing now?” our father asked carefully, “now that you out?”
“Do?” asked Caleb, gently. “Do? What do I figure on doing? Is that what you asked me? Why—I might find me a rich white lady and take a trip to Palm Beach with her—as her chauffeur, you understand, a lot of them white ladies suffer from black fever—or I might get a job in a bank—or I might take over a life insurance company—or, let me see now, there’s a lot of money in real estate, there’s a whole lot of money in that, I might take over a few blocks of houses—or, then, again, I might become an aviator, I’ve always liked to fly. That’s what I’ll do,” he said decisively, “I’ll fly.”
“You’ve got to walk,” said our mother, “before you can fly. What do you intend to do while you’re walking?”
He looked at her. “Walk,” he said. “Just walk.”
“You’ve got to eat,” she said, “while you’re walking.”
“I can steal,” he said. “I can steal. And I’ll be stealing a long time before I get back half of what they stole from me.”
“Well, if you can’t,” she said, “steal it back, it don’t look like to me there’s much point in stealing.”
He was silent. And our fa
ther was silent.
“You young, Caleb,” our mother said. “Don’t let this stop you. You just make up your mind that you can do anything you want to do.”
“Can I?” he asked. “Is that the truth?”
She refused to falter. “If you make up your mind to it.”
“I see.” He stared at the ceiling. He rose. “And you think that’s true for other black boys, too?”
“When we make up our minds,” said our father.
“When we make up our minds,” Caleb shouted, “to what?”
“When we make up our minds,” said our mother, “that we just as good as they is. Just as good, just as good, just as good!”
Caleb laughed. He mimicked her. “Just as good! Just as good as who—them people who beat my ass and called me nigger and made me eat shit and wallow in the dirt like a dog? Just as good as them? Is that what you want for me? I’d like to see every single one of them in their graves—in their graves, Mama, that’s right. And I wouldn’t be a white man for all the coals in hell.” He sat down. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve got to figure it out. Don’t worry about me. I won’t be a burden on you for long.”
“I ain’t worried about you being a burden,” said our mother, “and you know it, so don’t you talk to me that way.”
Caleb smiled, and looked at our father. Our father looked into his glass. “I know,” said Caleb, after a very long moment. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sleepy,” I said. “I’m going to go to bed now. Good-night.”
They watched me as I walked out of the room. “I guess,” I heard my mother say, “that that is a good idea.”
“Leo’s got good sense,” said Caleb grimly.
I crawled into the bed. I didn’t want to cry. I listened to them. They talked for awhile. Then my father went to the bathroom. He was in the bathroom a long time. I began to be afraid that he was sick. Then I heard water flushing, heard water running, heard him come out. My mother went into the kitchen. Our father and Caleb said good-night and then Caleb went into the bathroom. Our mother finished in the kitchen and turned out the kitchen lights and the lights in the living room. Then she joined our father and I heard their door close. Caleb was running water for a bath. I fell asleep.
I woke to the sound of weeping. Somebody was weeping, all alone, holding his breath, shaking the bed. I listened, extended, so to speak, in a terror unlike any terror I had known. How he wept! How he wept. And it was as though I were weeping; but it was much worse than that. I knew I could not bear it. I turned and I touched his wet face and I whispered, “Caleb. Please, Caleb. Please don’t cry. Tell me what’s the matter. Please tell me what’s the matter.”
But his chest continued to shake and the tears fell and fell. I did not know what to do. I put my arms around him. I kissed his tears. “Caleb. Please, Caleb”—but I might as well have spoken to a storm.
“Oh, what they did to me. Oh, what they did to me.”
I held him as tightly as I could.
“What did they do to you?”
“Oh. Oh. Oh. Little Leo. Go to sleep.”
“You go to sleep. Then I’ll go to sleep.”
He put his arms around me; it was strange to feel that I was his big brother now. And he held me so tightly, or, rather, with such an intensity, that I knew, without knowing that I knew it, how empty his arms had been.
“Go to sleep.”
“All right, little brother. You all right?”
The face against my shoulder was still wet; slowly, it dried. His breathing slowly became calmer—the storm began to pass. The storm began to pass, that is, out of him; and into me. I could not really see his face in the darkness, but I studied his face in the darkness of my mind. The eyes, the mouth, the nose, the chin, the forehead, the bright, woolly hair; he was much better-looking than I was, he was beautiful; and the world had taken my brother, for no reason at all, and squeezed him like a lemon, taken out his insides and filled him with sawdust, kicked him about as though he were a dirty rag! Never, never, never, I swore it, with Caleb’s breath in my face, his tears drying on my neck, my arms around him, would I ever forgive this world. Never. Never. Never. I would find some way to make them pay. I would do something one day to at least one bland, stupid, happy white face which would change that face forever. If they thought that Caleb was black, and if they thought that I was black, I would show them, yes, I would, one day, exactly what blackness was! I swore it. I swore it. I whispered it to Caleb’s kinky hair. I cursed God from the bottom of my heart, the very bottom of my balls. I called Him the greatest coward in the universe because He did not dare to show Himself and fight me like a man. I fell into a stormy sleep, and awoke to find myself, like Jacob with the angel, struggling with a very different god, and one yet more tyrannical, the god of the flesh. My brother held me close, and he was terribly excited; his excitement excited me. I was briefly surprised, I was briefly afraid. But there was really nothing very surprising in such an event, and if there was any reason to be afraid, well, then, I hoped that God was watching. He probably was. He never did anything else. I knew, I knew, what my brother wanted, what my brother needed, and I was not at all afraid—more than I could say for God, who took all and gave nothing: and who paid for nothing, though all His creatures paid. I held my brother very close, I kissed him and caressed him and I felt a pain and wonder I had never felt before. My brother’s heart was broken; I knew it from his touch. In all the great, vast, dirty world, he trusted the love of one person only, his brother, his brother, who was in his arms. And I thought, Yes. Yes. Yes. I’ll love you, Caleb, I’ll love you forever, and in the sight of the Father and the Son and the fucking Holy Ghost and all their filthy hosts, and in the sight of all the world, and I’ll sing hallelujahs to my love for you in hell. I stripped both of us naked. He held me and he kissed me and he murmured my name. I was full of attention, I was full of wonder. My brother had never, for me, had a body before. And, in truth, I had never had a body before, either, though I carried it about with me and occasionally experimented with it. We were doing nothing very adventurous, really, we were only using our hands and, of course, I had already done this by myself and I had done it with other boys: but it had not been like this because there had been no agony in it, I had not been trying to give, I had not even been trying to take, and I had not felt myself, as I did now, to be present in the body of the other person, had not felt his breath as mine, his sighs and moans, his quivering and shaking as mine, his journey as mine. More than anything on earth, that night, I wanted Caleb’s joy. His joy was mine. When his breathing changed and his tremors began, I trembled, too, with joy, with joy, with joy and pride, and we came together. Caleb held me for a long time. Then he whispered, against my ear, “You all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m all right. Are you?”
“Yes. Yes.” Then, “You still love me? You not mad at me?”
“Why should I be mad at you?” Then I said, “Yes, I love you, Caleb, more than anybody in the whole wide world. You believe me?”
After a moment, he said, “Yes. I believe you.”
“Give us a kiss,” I said.
He kissed me.
“Now, go to sleep.”
He kissed me again. “Good-night, little Leo. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“But you haven’t got to do without me,” I said, “that’s just what I just told you. Good-night.”
And we fell asleep.
I suppose we were both utterly worn out, drained dry, for we did not wake up until the early afternoon. I peeked out of the window, which faced the wall of the house next door. It was both sunny and cold. It looked like a nice day, and it felt like a nice day. The radios were going, a church service here, a jazz band there, and the irrepressible voices, and the sound and smell of cooking. It was familiar, it was safe, and both Caleb and I were reluctant to move.<
“It’s cold out,” I said.
“And how you know that?”
“I looked,” I said. “You’ll know it, too, you put your butt out of this bed.”
“What you want to do today?”
“I don’t know. Anything you want to do.”
We listened to the voices of our parents in the living room.
“I just feel lazy,” Caleb said. He lit a cigarette. “I just feel like turning over and going back to sleep.”
“Then you won’t be able to sleep tonight. But suit yourself. Can I have a puff off your cigarette?”
He made a brief, astonished movement, then handed me the cigarette, watching me. “You smoking?”
I gave him back the cigarette. “Just sometimes. With the other guys.”
“No wonder you don’t grow,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever grow very big. But if you don’t want me to smoke, I’ll stop.”
“Well, I don’t think smoking will do you any good.”
Caleb smoked in silence for awhile. I watched his profile and I watched the smoke. I put my head, so to speak, under his wing, and he held me. Then he put out his cigarette, and moved, slapping me on the behind. “Come on. Let’s get up. I’ll take you to the show.” And he found his shorts, and mine, and put his on, and walked into the bathroom. When he came out, he pulled the covers off me and we fought over the covers, holding our breath, and laughing. We wrestled each other around the room, and our mother yelled, “Are you two finally getting out of bed? You ought to be ashamed of your big, black, lazy selves!”
“Big, black, lazy selves,” laughed Caleb to himself; I laughed, too. Caleb yelled, “It ain’t me, Mama. It’s Leo. I’m up. I been up!”
“I’ll bet. You two just better make yourselves presentable and come on out here, if you want to eat today.”
Since Caleb was tickling me with one hand and sparring with the other, I was forced to my feet, and spun out of the door and down the hall. “He’s out of bed, Mama,” Caleb cried jubilantly. “I don’t know if he’s hungry, but I am.”