Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 2

  “Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”

  He smiled. “Anytime. I’ll be proud to wash your face any old time.” He held my shoulder a moment. “Don’t panic. You’ll be all right. But we’ve got to get you out of here, so the man can lock up his theater.”

  He stood up. The two men in white brought the stretcher next to the bed. Pete, probably in order to remain where I could see him, held me from the waist down, the doctor from the waist up, and they moved me to the stretcher. I was covered with a blanket. The pain in my chest increased. I almost cried out. We began to move. I kept sinking down and rising up, blacking out and coming back. I felt the cold air. For a moment, I saw the stars. Then I felt myself being lifted into a dark place. Then I saw nothing but Barbara’s face and the doctor’s face. I heard the siren and felt lights flashing, felt the wheels beneath me begin to turn, realized that we were descending a steep hill at a dangerous speed, felt the ambulance braking, felt the turn—and Barbara caught my hand and held it—and knew that we were rushing through the streets of San Francisco because no one could be certain that the life of Leo Proudhammer, actor, might not now be measured by the second-hand on the clock.

  And something strange happened to me, deep in me. I thought of Africa. I remembered that Africans believed that death was a return to one’s ancestors, a reunion with those one loved. They had hurled themselves off slave ships, grateful to the enveloping water and even grateful to the teeth of sharks for making the journey home so swift. And I thought of a very great and very beautiful man whom I had known and loved, a black man shot down within hearing of his wife and children in the streets of a miserable Deep South town. There are deaths and deaths: there are deaths for which it is impossible and even ignoble to forgive the world, there are deaths to which one never becomes reconciled. But, now, for a moment, I was reconciled, for I thought, Well, I’ll see him. And we’ll sit around and bullshit about everything and get drunk, like we planned. And this thought made me fantastically, inexpressibly happy. I saw my friend’s face and felt his smile and heard his voice. Then I thought, But I won’t see Caleb, and all my pain came back, my chest felt as though all the weight of the pyramids lay on it, and the sound of my breathing roared and resounded through the narrow car.

  Caleb was seventeen when I was ten. In that year he went to prison. We were very good friends. In fact, he was my best friend and for a very long time, my only friend.

  I do not mean to say that he was always nice to me. I got on his nerves a lot and he resented having to carry me around with him and being responsible for me when there were so many other things he wanted to be doing. Therefore, his hand was often up against the side of my head, and my tears caused him to be punished many times. But I knew, somehow, anyway, that when he was being punished for my tears he was not being punished for anything he had done to me; he was being punished because that was the way we lived; and his punishment, oddly, helped to unite us. More oddly still, even as his great hand caused my head to stammer and dropped a flame-colored curtain before my eyes, I understood that he was not striking me. His hand leaped out because he could not help it and I received the blow because I was there. And it happened, sometimes, before I could even catch my breath to howl, that the hand which had struck me grabbed me and held me, and it was difficult indeed to know which of us was weeping. He was striking, striking out, striking out, striking out; the hand asked me to forgive him. I felt his bewilderment through the membrane of my own. I also felt that he was trying to teach me something. And I had, God knows, no other teachers.

  For our father—how shall I describe our father?—was a ruined Barbados peasant, exiled in a Harlem which he loathed, where he never saw the sun or the sky he remembered, where life took place neither indoors nor without, and where there was no joy. By which I mean, no joy that he remembered. Had it been otherwise, had he been able to bring with him into the prison where he perished any of the joy he had felt on that far-off island, then the air of the sea and the impulse to dancing would sometimes have transfigured our dreadful rooms. Our lives might have been very different. But, no, he brought with him from Barbados only black rum and a blacker pride, and magic incantations which neither healed nor saved. He did not understand the people among whom he found himself, for him they had no coherence, no stature and no pride. He came from a race which had been flourishing at the very dawn of the world—a race greater and nobler than Rome or Judea, mightier than Egypt—he came from a race of kings, kings who had never been taken in battle, kings who had never been slaves. He spoke to us of tribes and empires, battles, victories, and monarchs of whom we had never heard—they were not mentioned in our schoolbooks—and invested us with glories in which we felt more awkward than in the secondhand shoes we wore. In the stifling room of his pretensions and expectations, we stumbled wretchedly about, stubbing our toes, as it were, on rubies, scraping our shins on golden caskets, bringing down, with a childish cry, the splendid purple tapestry on which, in pounding gold and scarlet, our destinies and our inheritance were figured. It could scarcely have been otherwise, since a child’s major attention has to be concentrated on how to fit into a world which, with every passing hour, reveals itself as merciless. If our father was of royal blood and we were royal children, our father was certainly the only person in the world who knew it. The landlord did not know it and we observed that our father never mentioned royal blood to him. Not at all. When we were late with our rent, which was often, the landlord threatened, in terms no commoner had ever used before a king, to put us in the streets. He complained that our shiftlessness, which he did not hesitate to consider an attribute of the race, had forced him, himself, an old man with a weak heart, to climb all these stairs to plead with us to give him the money that we owed him. And this was the last time—he wanted to make sure that we understood that this was the last time. The next time our ass would be on the sidewalk. Our father was younger than Mr. Rabinowitz, leaner, stronger, and bigger. With one blow into that monstrous gut, he could have turned Rabinowitz purple, brought him to his knees, he could have hurled him down the stairs. And we knew how much he hated Rabinowitz. For days on end, in the wintertime, we huddled around the gas stove in the kitchen because Rabinowitz gave us no heat; and when the gas was turned off, we sat around the kerosene stove. When windows were broken, Rabinowitz took his time about fixing them; the wind made the cardboard we stuffed in the window rattle all night long, and when snow came the weight of the snow forced the cardboard inward and onto the floor. Neither Rabinowitz nor the city was alert about collecting garbage or shoveling away snow; whenever the apartment received a fresh coat of paint, we bought the paint and painted the apartment ourselves; we caught and killed the rats; a great chunk of the kitchen ceiling fell one winter, narrowly missing our mother. We all hated Rabinowitz with a perfectly exquisite hatred; great, gross, abject liar of a Jew—and this word in our father’s mouth was terrible, as dripping with venom as a mango is with juice—and we would have been happy to see our proud father kill him. We would have been glad to help. But our father did nothing of the sort. He stood before Rabinowitz, scarcely looking at him, swaying before the spittle and the tirade, sweating—looking unutterably weary. He made excuses. He apologized. He swore that it would never happen again. (We knew that it would happen again.) He begged for time. Rabinowitz would finally go down the steps, letting us, and all the neighbors, know how good-hearted he was being, and our father would walk into the kitchen and pour himself a glass of rum. But we knew that our father would never have allowed any black man to speak to him as Rabinowitz did, as policemen did, as storekeepers and pawnbrokers and welfare workers did. No, not for a moment—he would have thrown them out of the house; he would certainly have made a black man know that he was not the descendant of slaves! He had made them know it so often that he had almost no friends among them, and if we had followed his impossible lead, we would have had no friends, either. It was scarcely worth-while being the descendant of kings if the kings were black and no
one had ever heard of them, and especially, furthermore, if royal status could not fill the empty stomach and could not prevent Rabinowitz from putting, as he eventually did, our collective ass, and all our belongings, on the city streets. It was then, and I don’t remember how, that we moved into the tenement from which Caleb was arrested.

  And it was because of our father, perhaps, that Caleb and I clung to each other, in spite of the great difference in our ages; or, in another way, it may have been precisely the difference in our ages which made the clinging possible. I don’t know. It is really not the kind of thing which anyone can ever know. I think it may be easier to love the really helpless younger brother because he cannot enter into competition with one on one’s own ground, or on any ground at all, and can never question one’s role, or jeopardize one’s authority. In my own case, certainly, it did not occur to me—or did not occur to me until much later—to compete with Caleb and I could not have questioned his role or his authority because I needed both. He was my touchstone, my model, and my only guide. But there is always, on the other hand, something in the younger brother which eventually comes to resent this. The day comes when he is willing to destroy his older brother simply because he has depended on him so long. The day comes when he recognizes what a combination of helplessness and hard-hearted calculation go into the creation of a role, and to what extent authority is a delicate, difficult, deadly game of chance.

  Anyway, our father, dreaming bitterly of Barbados, betrayed by Garvey, who did not succeed in getting us back to Africa, despised and mocked by his neighbors and all but ignored by his sons, held down his unspeakable factory job, spread his black gospel in bars on the weekends, and drank his rum. I do not know if he loved our mother. I think he did. They had had five children—only Caleb and I, the first and the last, were left. We were both dark, like our father, but two of the three dead girls had been fair, like our mother. She came from New Orleans. Her hair was not like ours. It was black, but softer and finer and very long. The color of her skin reminded me of the color of bananas. Her skin was as bright as that, and contained that kind of promise and she had tiny freckles around her nose and a small black mole just above her upper lip. It was the mole, I don’t know why, which made her beautiful. Without it, her face might have been merely sweet, merely pretty. But the mole was funny. It had the effect of making one realize that our mother liked funny things, liked to laugh. The mole made one look at her eyes—large, extraordinary, dark eyes, eyes which seemed always to be amused by something, eyes which looked straight out, seeming to see everything, seeming to be afraid of nothing. She was a soft, round, plump woman. She liked nice clothes and dangling jewelry, which she mostly didn’t have, and she liked to cook for large numbers of people, and she loved our father. She knew him—knew him through and through. I am not being coy or colloquial, but bluntly and sadly matter of fact when I say that I will now never know what she saw in him. What she saw was certainly not for many eyes; what she saw got him through his working week and his Sunday rest; what she saw saved him. She saw that he was a man. For her, perhaps, he was a great man. I think, though, that, for our mother, any man was great who aspired to become a man: this meant that our father was very rare and precious. I used to wonder how she took it, how she bore it—his rages, his tears, his cowardice. On Saturday nights he was almost always evil, drunk, and maudlin. He would have come home from work in the early afternoon and given our mother some money. It was never enough—of course; but he always kept enough to go out and get drunk; she never protested, at least not as far as I know. Then she would go out shopping. I would usually go with her, for Caleb would almost always be out somewhere and our mother didn’t like the idea of leaving me alone in the house. She was afraid the house would burn down while she was out—fires were common enough in our neighborhood, God knows. So, while our father stood sternly and gloomily in a bar not far away, getting drunk on rum, and Caleb and his friends were in somebody’s cellar, getting drunk off cheap wine, we took on the Harlem streets. And this was probably, after all, the best possible arrangement. People who disliked our father were sure (for that very reason) to like our mother; and people who felt that Caleb was growing to be too much like his father could feel that I, after all, might turn out like my mother. Besides, it is not, as a general rule, easy to hate a small child. One runs the risk of looking ridiculous, especially if the child is with his mother.

  And especially if that mother is Mrs. Proudhammer. Mrs. Proudhammer knew very well what people thought of Mr. Proudhammer. She knew, too, exactly how much she owed in each store she entered, how much she was going to be able to pay, and what she had to buy. She entered with a smile, ready—she attacked:

  “Evening, Mr. Shapiro. Let me have some of them red beans there.”

  “Evening. You know, you folks been running up quite a little bill here.”

  “I’m going to give you something on it right now. I need some cornmeal and flour and some rice.”

  “You know, I got my bills to meet, too, Mrs. Proudhammer.”

  “Didn’t I just tell you I was going to pay? I don’t know why you don’t listen, you must be getting old. I want some cornflakes, too, and some milk.”

  Such merchandise as she could reach she had already placed on the counter. Sad Mr. Shapiro looked at me and sighed.

  “When do you think you’re going to be able to pay this bill? All of it, I mean.”

  “Mr. Shapiro, you been knowing me for years. You know I’m going to pay it just as soon as I can. It won’t be long. I ain’t going to move.”

  Sometimes, when she said this, she had the dispossess notice in her pocketbook. Mr. Shapiro looked into my face from time to time as though my face would reveal my mother’s secrets. (But it never did.) Sometimes he looked at my mother as though he were wondering how such a handsome, almost white woman had got herself trapped in such a place.

  “How much does it all come to? Give me that end you got there of that chocolate cake.”

  The chocolate cake was for Caleb and me.

  “Well, now you put this against the bill.” Imperiously, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, she put two or three dollars on the counter.

  “You’re lucky I’m soft-hearted, Mrs. Proudhammer.”

  “Things sure don’t cost this much downtown—you think I don’t know it? Here.” And she paid him for what she had bought. “Thank you, Mr. Shapiro. You been mighty kind.”

  And we left the store. I often felt that in order to help her, I should have filled my pockets with merchandise while she was talking to the storekeeper. But I never did, not only because the store was often crowded or because I was afraid of being caught by the storekeeper but because I was afraid of humiliating her. When I began to steal, not very much later, I stole in stores which were not in our neighborhood, where we were not known.

  Not all the storekeepers were as easy to get around as sad Mr. Shapiro. The butcher, for example, was a very different man, not sad at all, and he appeared to detest all children; still, our mother managed him most of the time, though with an effort considerably more acrid and explicit. But there were times when she did not feel up to it and then we would not even pass his store. We would cut off the avenue at 133rd Street and walk the long blocks west to Eighth Avenue and then walk down to the big butcher shop on 125th Street. Because this shop was so much bigger it could sometimes be a little bit cheaper and yet we did not break our necks to go there because most of the people who served you were so unpleasant. There was something intolerable about being robbed and insulted at the same time, and yet, I suppose, our mother reconciled herself, while stonily and silently making her purchases, by remembering that it was only, after all, a matter of degree.

  When we had to do “heavy” shopping, we went shopping under the bridge at Park Avenue, Caleb, our mother, and I; and sometimes, but rarely, our father came with us. The most usual reason for heavy shopping was that some relatives of our mother’s, or old friends of both our mot
her and our father were coming to visit. We were certainly not going to let them go away hungry—not even if it meant, as it often did mean, spending more than we had. Caleb and I loved to hear that visitors were coming, for it meant that there was going to be a banquet at our house. There were always visitors, of course, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, visitors bringing their hams and chickens and pies to add to ours; but people also showed up for birthdays and anniversaries or for no reason at all, simply because the spirit had so moved them. In spite of what I have been suggesting about our father’s temperament, and no matter how difficult he may sometimes have been with us, he was much too proud to have any desire to offend any guest of his. On the contrary, his impulse was to make them feel that his home was theirs; and besides, he was lonely, lonely for his past, lonely for those faces which had borne witness to that past. Therefore, he would sometimes pretend that our mother did not know how to shop and he would come with us, under the bridge, in order to teach her. There he would be, then, uncharacteristically, in shirt-sleeves, which made him look rather boyish; and, as our mother showed no desire to take shopping lessons from him, he turned his attention to Caleb and me. “Look at that woman,” he would say, pointing out a woman who was having something weighed, “can’t, she see that that Jew’s hand is all over that scale? You see that?” We agreed that we had seen it, whether we had or not. He said bleakly, “You got to watch them all the time. But our people ain’t never going to learn. I don’t know what’s wrong with our people. We need a prophet to straighten out our minds and lead us out of this hell.” He would pick up a fish, opening the gills and holding it close to his nose. “You see that? That fish looks fresh, don’t it? Well, that fish ain’t as fresh as I am, and I been out of the water. They done doctored that fish. Come on.” And we would walk away, leaving the fish-stand owner staring; a little embarrassed, but, on the whole, rather pleased that our father was so smart. Meantime, our mother was getting the marketing done. She was very happy on days like this because our father was happy. He was happy, odd as his expression of it may sound, to be out with his wife and his two sons. If we had been on the island which had been witness to his birth instead of the unspeakable island of Manhattan, he felt, and I also eventually began to feel, that it would not have been so hard for us all to trust and love each other. He sensed, and I think he was right, that on that other, never to be recovered island, his sons would have looked on him very differently and he would have looked very differently on his sons. Life would have been hard there, too—he knew that—which was why he had left and also why he felt so betrayed, so self-betrayed; we would have fought there, too, and more or less blindly suffered and more or less blindly died. But we would not have been (or so it was to seem to all of us forever) so wickedly menaced by the mere fact of our relationship, would not have been so frightened of entering into the central, most beautiful and valuable facts of our lives. We would have been laughing and cursing and tussling in the water instead of stammering under the bridge: we would have known less about vanished African kingdoms and more about each other. Or, not at all impossibly, more about both.