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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 21


  “Yes,” I said. “I will. You wait and see.”

  “Little Leo,” said Caleb, “on the great white way.”

  “It won’t be so white,” I said, “when I get through with it.”

  Caleb threw back his head and laughed. People turned to look at us: but I made my eyes very big as I looked up at Caleb, and carefully not at them, and they saw what I had wanted them to see. Some of them smiled, too, happy that we were enjoying the fair. “All right, little brother. What movie you want us to see? And I will bow to your judgment, man, because I see you are becoming an expert.”

  Well, in fact, I realized, as I scanned the procession of marquees, there wasn’t anything playing that I was really dying to see. I had outgrown my taste for some movies without having acquired any real taste for others. But, of course, I did not know how to say this. I had begun to be interested in foreign movies, mostly Russian and French, but I didn’t think that Caleb would especially like seeing a foreign movie. So I said, “Well, let’s look. If you see something you like before I see something I like, why, we’ll go and see that; and if I see something I like before you see something you like, why, we’ll go and see that. Okay?”

  “Okay,” he said, amused—seeming, also, to be impressed by my sense of fair play.

  And so we wandered through the holiday crowds, stopping now beneath this marquee and now that, examining the merchandise so carefully that we might have been expecting to buy it and take it home and live with it for the rest of our lives and hand it down to our children. We walked carefully down one side of the avenue, stopping and choosing, rather enjoying ourselves now, all the way to 42nd Street; and then up the other side of the avenue, slowly, although it was getting late; but it didn’t much matter what time we got home tonight as long as we got home together, and we weren’t planning to separate. We forgot about the other people. We began to talk to each other as we hadn’t talked since Caleb had come home—as we had never talked before, in fact, for it was only now that Caleb could talk to me without remembering that he was talking to a child. I was determined to make him know that I was no longer a child. I didn’t understand everything he was saying, and yet, in another way, I did. I was concentrating on not being a disappointment to him: I wanted him to know that he could lean on me.

  Because Caleb liked Ann Sheridan, we ended up in King’s Row. I didn’t like Ann Sheridan, I thought she looked like a dumpling, and I didn’t like Robert Cummings, who looked like two or three, and I couldn’t stand Ronald Reagan, who looked like a pitchfork and had teeth like a ferret; but I did like Charles Coburn and Claude Rains and Judith Anderson, and I especially liked Betty Field because she had a niggerish mouth, a mouth like mine. So, Caleb paid for the tickets, and we went on in. We entered, first, into a kind of cathedral—an impression of tapestries, of banging gold, a vaulted height, a slinging, descending, mightily carpeted floor, great doors before us, Roman couches on either side, on one of which sat a lone young woman, wearing a green cloth hat and holding a thin umbrella, and smoking a cigarette. A bored male attendant, two bored usherettes, who looked sharply at Caleb and me.

  “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Caleb said, and vanished behind the door marked MEN.

  I waited. I looked at the photographs of the movie stars on the walls. They were white and cheerful and dramatic. I was already arrogant enough to feel that they couldn’t, mainly, act their way out of a sieve, but lights and makeup and an innocence as brutal as it was despairing did marvelous things for these sons and daughters of the one and only God, and very nearly reconciled me to Ronald Reagan’s teeth. Caleb came back. We left the cathedral and entered the cave.

  Dark, dark indeed, sloping, hushed. We were in the balcony, so that Caleb could smoke, and from other worshipers here and there a taper glowed. The movie had been running for some time, it may indeed have been a revival that we saw, I don’t remember, and so, although it was a Saturday night, the house was far from full. Caleb and I sat down somewhere in the middle of the balcony, at an angle as steeply tilted as that of a bucking horse or a dying boat, and Caleb lit a cigarette. We had entered during a newsreel.

  There was trouble in the world. We saw Roosevelt, we saw Churchill, we saw Stalin: “I hope they all kill each other,” Caleb said. We saw our great Marines in the Pacific, destroying the yellow-bellied Japs. And we saw Old Glory. “Well,” said Caleb, “I’ll be damned.” Some people in the audience applauded. Caleb lit another cigarette. Then the cartoon came on. Woody Woodpecker or Mickey Mouse or Little Red Riding Hood or Bugs Bunny or some fucking body got beaten with hammers, strangled with chains, crushed under a tractor, thrown over a cliff, gored by a cornice, and disemboweled, it appeared, by a monstrous, malevolent thorn; and we, along with all the other worshipers, cracked up with laughter. Then the lights came on. We sat, silently, watching the people.

  Strange people, sitting, mainly, all alone. There were one or two couples, very, very young; the boy’s hair still bright from the water, the girl’s hair still bright from the heat; they sat very close together, and as to popcorn, chewing gum, and candy, the boys were attentive indeed, climbing the tilted steps from time to time to call on the usherettes. I was between fourteen and fifteen then, and the boys and girls could not have been much older. But they impressed me as being children, children forever, children not as a biological fact, but as a perpetual condition. I am sure that I was a very disagreeable boy in those days, for I really despised them for their blank, pimpled faces and their bright, haunted eyes. It had not occurred to me—partly, no doubt, indeed, because it had not occurred to them—that they had to shit, like I did, and they jerked off sometimes, like I did, and were just as frightened as I. It had not yet occurred to me that the mask of my bravado was very much like theirs, concealed though it was, and most effectively, by the mask of my color, and by the reflexes which this mask occasioned in them and in me. No: I simply despised them because they were not as I was, and because I thought it might have been better for me if I had been like them. The lights went down, and a majestic music was heard. The curtains slowly parted, and the screen was filled with the immense shield saying WB, WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS. Brothers. I thought of my own brother, and I think I hated the movie before the movie began.

  The names of the actors. The music. The makeup man, the light man, the sound man, the decorators, the set designers, James Wong Howe on camera, the composer of the overwhelming music, the director. A town somewhere in the United States.

  I am afraid that my memory of this movie is hopelessly distorted by the fact that it cracked Caleb up completely. I very much doubt that a major masterpiece by Charlie Chaplin or W. C. Fields could have caused him to laugh harder. When we finally picked up the story line—so to speak; it was by no means an easy matter—Caleb whispered, “Shit. They acting just like niggers. Only, they ain’t got as much sense about it as we got.” I rather liked Cassandra, who was played by Betty Field, but Caleb thought that she was a living freak, and wondered why no one had ever told her to tie up her hair. When it developed, coyly enough indeed, and with tremendous laments from the mighty music, that her father had been interfering with her, had lain between her thighs, had, in short, been screwing her, thus causing her to become mentally unbalanced—which we both felt, then, was a somewhat curious result—and we watched Robert Cummings’ plum-pudding reactions, Caleb hid his face in his hands, which was thoughtful of him, for we would otherwise have been thrown out of the theater. Of course, he adored Ann Sheridan, winsome Irish colleen, and I found her somewhat more probable than I had ever found her to be before; but when Ronald Reagan lost his legs—“both of them!”—Caleb cracked up again, and tears were streaming down his face by the time Robert Cummings delivered Invictus. “So that’s why,” he gasped, as we walked up the aisle, out of the cave, “they make us come in the back door. I’ll be damned.” And he was off again, halfway across the cathedral floor, before I could catch up with him.

  Into the streets again, dark now, with
a light rain falling, and the incredible people everywhere.

  Much later, that night, Caleb had a dream so awful that he shook and cried and moaned aloud, and I shook him and shook him to wake him up. He fought me and he continued to fight me even after his eyes were open, and he seemed to be awake; and I got frightened because my brother was very strong, and I started, helplessly, to cry. The terror went out of his face then—his face had been blank and brutal with terror; and his eyes cleared, with a great astonishment, and a terrible sorrow. “Oh, don’t cry. Don’t cry, Leo. I didn’t mean to hurt you, man. I swear I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His hands were trying to wipe away my tears. “Hit me. Hit me back. I swear I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

  “You didn’t hurt me. You scared me.”

  He took his hand away. He was silent. “I guess so,” he said. “Sometimes I scare myself.” He lay back on the pillow, looking up at the ceiling. “Oh. I wonder what’s going to happen to me.”

  “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

  He smiled. “The farm I was on, down yonder. They used to beat me. With whips. With rifle butts. It made them feel good to beat us; I can see their faces now. There would always be two or three of them, big mother-fuckers. The ring-leader had red hair, his name was Martin Howell. Big, dumb Irishman, sometimes he used to make the colored guys beat each other. And he’d stand there, watching, with his lips dropping, his lips wet, laughing, until the poor guy dropped to the ground. And he’d say, That’s just so you all won’t forget that you is niggers and niggers ain’t worth a shit. And he’d make the colored guys say it. He’d say, You ain’t worth shit, are you? And they’d say, No, Mr. Howell, we ain’t worth shit. The first time I heard it, saw it, I vomited. But he made me say it, too. It took awhile, but I said it, too, he made me say it, too. That hurt me, hurt me more than his whip, more than his rifle butt, more than his fists. Oh. That hurt me.”

  Silence, and darkness, and Caleb’s breath—they are with me still, they will be with me when I am carried to my grave. And, from the grave, I swear it, my rotting flesh, my useless bones, will yet cry out: I will never forgive this world. Oh, that a day of judgment should come, oh, that it should come, and I could rise from my grave and make my testimony heard! Yes. Everyone who pierced him.

  “The first time I saw this red-haired mother-fucker, I was in the field, working. He was on a horse. He come riding up, and stopped, watching me. But I just kept on working. Then he yells out, Hey, Sam! but I just kept on doing what I was doing. He yells out, Don’t you hear me calling you? and then I stopped and put down my fork and I said: My name ain’t Sam.

  “He rode in a little closer, then, and looked down at me. I looked up at him. He said, Who the fuck do you think you are? and I said, My name is Caleb Proudhammer, mister, and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get on with my work. He laughed. He actually laughed, like it was the best joke he’d heard in a long time. He said, Nigger, if my balls was on your chin, where would my prick be? And I didn’t understand him at first, I just looked at him. Then, when I understood it, I don’t know why, I picked up the pitchfork. I didn’t do nothing, I just picked up the fork. But the horse kind of jumped. And this red-haired mother-fucker, he looked surprised, and he looked scared, and he was having a little trouble holding on to his horse. I knew he didn’t want me to see that. I knew it. He knew I knew it. And he rode off across the field, mainly because he didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t know what to do with his horse, and he yelled, All right, Sam! I’ll be seeing you, you hear me? I will be seeing you!

  “And, you know, it’s funny, I realized right then and there, while I was watching him ride off, it wasn’t, you know, exactly like what he’d said. I mean, shit, you know. I’m a big boy and I know the score. Shit. You know. If it came down on me like that, well, all right, I’d suck a cock, I know it, shit, if I loved the cat, why the fuck not, and whose business is it? Like, shit. You know. Ain’t nobody’s business. You know, like, man, I’d do anything in the world for you because you’re my brother and because you’re my baby and I love you and I believe you’d do anything in the world for me. I know you would. So, you know, it ain’t that shit that bothered me. No. He made me feel like I was my grandmother in the fields somewhere and this white mother-fucker rides over and decides to throw her down in the fields. Well, shit. You know. I ain’t my grandmother. I’m a man. And a man can do anything he wants to do, but can’t nobody make him do it. I ain’t about to be raped. Shit. But I knew this mother-fucker had it in for me. I knew, like he said, I was going to be seeing him.

  “And, baby, believe me, I saw this mother, oh, yes, I did. The week wasn’t out before I saw him. He was going to break my back. I knew it. He was going to make me kneel down. He was going to make me act out his question. I wasn’t going to do it. He knew it. And I knew it. And there we were.”

  Caleb’s voice, his breath: darkness and silence.

  “They had a place there where they put you when they was displeased. It was a kind of cellar. We was already in jail, you understand, but they had a jail inside the jail. But, at least, you know, if they wasn’t displeased with you, if you could kiss enough ass, or if they just plain didn’t notice you, well, you was in the open air, and, you know, you could talk to your buddies—we was only put there, like they said, for our own good. They was making us useful members of society. But that cellar, baby, I won’t never forget that cellar. You ain’t never smelled nothing like that cellar—phew! baby, I thought I’d never get that stink out of me. Never. I was dreaming about it just now. That’s what I was dreaming about. Me, and Martin Howell, and he had his whip. Oh, Leo. Wow. I didn’t know people could treat each other so. And I don’t want you to think that it was just him. It wasn’t just him. It was all of them, really, and the black guys, too, them that was called the trusties. Shit, baby, they loved whipping ass and the blacker they was, the harder they hit. But, old Martin, he was ring-leader. Everybody was scared of him. I don’t know why. And he had it in for me. And—you know. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I don’t think that I was scared of him, exactly. I believe I could of beat him, had it come to a fair fight. But I was scared. The other guys knew he had it in for me, and they was scared, too, and they moved away from me. And all I’d said to the fire-haired cock-sucker was that my name wasn’t Sam!

  “Your brother was a very lonely man, because I knew wasn’t nobody going to help me. Not even if they wanted to. And I thought of you, you know that—my big-eyed little brother? But I was glad you wasn’t there. I was mighty glad you wasn’t there.

  “First, he made it so that I got took off my job. I worked in the fields, I piled the hay and took care of the grass and all that shit. I liked it, you know, because, you know, fuck it, there I was, and I knew I couldn’t get out, and although I knew I didn’t have no business there, I mean I knew I should never have been sent there, I hadn’t done nothing to be sent there, but I couldn’t afford to think about that too much and so I thought, well, all right, I’ll make me some muscles. But he got me taken off that and they put me in the kitchen. I didn’t like the kitchen, but he was going with the head cook, a big old white German lady named Mrs. Waldo. I believe her husband was dead, I don’t know. But, anyway—they had me—between them, they had me. They could do anything they wanted to do and couldn’t nobody do nothing about it. Baby. That woman worked me like I was somebody’s mule. Or maybe nobody’s mule. Or her mule, but a mule she knew she couldn’t never sell and so she might as well work him till he dropped. I had to be there at six in the morning and I had to scrub that kitchen and I washed all the dishcloths and hung them out on the line and then I had to chop wood for the fires. Then I washed the dishes and the pots and pans, they kind of threw them at me, you know, and, shit, it was a big farm and I didn’t have but one helper and he didn’t help me because Mrs. Waldo didn’t want him to and she always had him out of the kitchen, doing something else. She had a funny way with her. She used always to talk about my mother. She used
to say, I bet your mama’s mighty sad whenever she thinks of you. She’d say, Where’s your father? Your father home? Has he been home lately? You ever seen your father? And, Leo, I just did not know how to handle it. I tried not to say anything, but then she’d get mad and most likely hit me on the head with whatever she happened to have in her hand. And, I tell you the truth, I was scared to death of that woman. I was even more scared of her than I was of him because she had me all day. You know. And he’d come into the kitchen, Lord, Lord, Lord, and sit there like a king and she’d feed him and he’d go on about me and my mama and daddy and my big tool which he wanted me to show him, so he could cut it off. Well, you know, Leo, flesh and blood can’t stand but so much. And, one day, I’ll never forget it, it was after lunch and I hadn’t had my lunch yet, there was just them and me in the kitchen and I could hear the boys outside leaving the dining hall, and it was the kind of day that it was today, cold, you know, and it looked a little like rain, and he said something about my mama and my daddy and he come up to me and touched me on the behind—I was at the sink—and when he said whatever he said and touched me, I picked up the big black heavy pot I was washing and I threw the water all over him and I beat him over the head with that pot. As hard as I could. As hard as I could. Oh, we wrestled in that kitchen, baby, I mean we had us a waltz. You ain’t never seen such waltzing. I was trying to kill him. I mean, I knew I was trying to kill him and he knew it, too. And she was screaming. She came at me with a knife and I knocked the knife out of her hand and I knocked her down. Then, they all ganged up on me and some of them held me while he beat me. Then, they threw me in that cellar.