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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 23


  “All right, sugar. That’s a good boy.”

  I turned my head into the pillows. “Oh, shit. Whatever I am, God knows I’m not a good boy.”

  “Oh, well. What God knows and what I know seem never to coincide.”

  “Get on to your rehearsal.”

  “Aren’t you going to kiss me? Just for luck?”

  She leaned down; I leaned up; I kissed her. “Break a leg.”

  “Thanks, sugar. See you later.” And she left, being very careful and quiet with the door. So there I was. And I went back to sleep.

  When I finally persuaded myself to get up, and had showered, it was past six o’clock. I decided that I had better go and see what was happening out on Bull Dog Road. I was just about to pick up the phone and call Madeleine, when the phone rang. I jumped. It sounded very strange and even ominous in the empty place. Then, I wondered if I should answer it. But Madeleine hadn’t said anything about not answering it; I was pretty sure she didn’t have any boyfriends in town. I decided to take a chance—she might be calling me.

  “Hello?” It was Lola’s voice.

  “Hello.”

  “Hello? What number is this, please?”

  I told her.

  “Well—is Miss Madeleine Overstreet there?”

  “No. She’s at the theater.”

  “To whom am I speaking, may I ask?”

  “To whom am I speaking?—may I ask?”

  “Lola San-Marquand is my name.”

  “Oh. Why didn’t you say so? My name is Leo Proudhammer.”

  “Leo? Leo! What are you doing at Madeleine’s house?”

  “I’m cleaning up the joint. A boy’s got to make a living.”

  There was a silence, a calculating silence.

  “When I came in,” said I carefully, “just before she left, she said she was rushing to rehearsal.”

  “We broke early. Will you leave a message for Madeleine? The call has been changed. We are to work in the theater tonight, on the Green Barn stage, from eight-thirty until twelve. She is not to come to my home, but to go directly to the theater.”

  “Okay. I got it. Eight-thirty.”

  “Will you write that down?”

  “How do you spell theater?”

  “Oh! Leo, you can be excessively exasperating. Have you seen Barbara King today?”

  “No.”

  “Well, she will inform you of the exact hour tomorrow morning when Saul will watch your scene.”

  “Oh? Is he watching us tomorrow?”

  “He has been watching you for weeks. You simply haven’t realized it.”

  “What happens if I can’t find Barbara?”

  “Then you will simply have to call Saul. I know nothing of these matters. Saul keeps the details of the teaching side of his life far from me. I only see the results. Write down the message for Madeleine. I hope she’s coming home. You wouldn’t—would you—know where Madeleine would be likely to go in the event that she does not come home?”

  “I just work here, lady.”

  “I see. Thank you. Good-bye.”

  “Good-bye.”

  I put down the receiver. I felt an unwilling and uneasy excitement. So, he was going to watch us; and that was something. But why the fuck should I care what the old fart thought of me? And that was something else. But I had to get home, so Barbara and I could work tonight. I wrote out the note for Madeleine, saying that I would see her, or call her, after my class—my first class!—tomorrow. The note sounded, perhaps, a bit too jubilant, but I thought, Fuck it, and I left it in the middle of the table, weighted down with a clock.

  Madeleine’s door faced the steps, and an elderly man and his wife were mounting these steps as I jubilantly bounced out of Madeleine’s door, and locked it behind me. They stared at me as though I were a ghost, and they really seemed, for a moment, unable to move. Perhaps their terror, for an instant, terrified me, I don’t know; anyway, for less than a second, snake to rabbit, we stood immobilized by each other. Then, I said gently, “You can keep coming up the stairs, you know. I don’t bite.”

  This broke the charm, and they came briskly to the landing. He had now found his voice, and he asked me sternly, “What are you doing in this building, boy?”

  “I was looking for a file, so I could sharpen my teeth. Suh. But I couldn’t find none.” I grinned. “See?” I shrugged. “Some days are like that.” Then I crooned, “Oh, dat old man ribber, he sure do keep rolling along! Ain’t it de truf! Laws-a-massy, hush my mouf, he he he and yuk yuk yuk!” and I tapdanced down the stairs. At least they now knew that I wasn’t a ghost, but it didn’t seem to reassure them.

  I went straight home, in a taxi, but there was no one there. I looked upstairs and downstairs for a note, but there wasn’t any. I supposed that Jerry and Barbara had gone to town again, which seemed a little strange, but, as I had no way of getting to town and no more money, even if I did get there, I scrambled myself some eggs and started reading the scene from Waiting for Lefty. I hadn’t got far, when I heard a car coming. But it wasn’t our car, though it stopped in front of the house, and the powerful lights fell over the line I was reading: Sid: The answer is no—a big electric sign looking down on Broadway! I put down my book, and I walked to the porch, which was bathed in light, as I was trapped in light.

  “What’s the matter? What do you want?” Some reflex, or perhaps some whisper from my ancestors, helped to keep my mortal terror out of my voice. I sounded angry, and I immediately realized that this was, for the moment, anyway, the only tone I could take. “Get that light out of my eyes! What the hell do you want?”

  “We want you to put up your hands,” said a drawling voice, “and then we’ll put out the light.”

  I put up my hands. There they were, of course, in blue, two of them, of course, white, of course. One stood by the car, while the other came up to me, and frisked me. Cops love frisking black boys, they want to find out if what they’ve heard is true.

  “All right. You’re coming down to the station with us.”

  People become frightened in very different ways—the ways in which they become frightened may sometimes determine how long they live. Here I was, in the country, and on a country road, alone, facing two armed white men who had legal sanction to kill me; and if killing me should prove to be an error, it would not matter very much, it would not, for them, be a serious error. It would not cost them their badges or their pensions, for the only people who would care about my death could certainly never reach them. I knew this. It was more vivid to me than the policeman’s hands, his breath, his holster. I knew that I was frightened, and I knew how frightened I was. But I remembered, vaguely, reading somewhere that animals can smell fear, and that when they do, they leap and they devour. I was determined that these animals should not smell my fear, and this determination deflected, so to speak, my terror from them to myself: my life was in my hands. I had not yet guessed why they had come for me, and I did not know what was going to happen. But I was going to scheme as long as I had breath, and outwit them if I could.

  So I did not whimper, What for? I ain’t done nothing, but asked, as deliberately as I could, and as mockingly as I could, “What is it that you imagine me to have done?”

  I was gambling on their reflexes. They were accustomed to black boys whimpering, or, on the other hand, defiant, and it was easy, in either case, for them to know exactly what to do—to amuse themselves with the whimper or the defiance, and beat the shit out of the boy, and sometimes to beat the boy to death. I had to walk a tightrope between groveling and shouting, and had to hope that a faintly mocking amusement would be sufficiently unexpected to confound their reflexes and immobilize their impulses, at least until I got to the station, where I would have to begin to calculate again. Central to my calculations was the terror of finding myself begging for mercy: I hoped I would be able to see that moment coming, and nullify that moment by causing it to come too late.

  There I was, in the car, handcuffed, in the back. We mo
ved along the road, fast; it was, I carefully noted, the road to town. So, I dared, “May I ask you—again—what it is you’re arresting me for?”

  Neither of them said anything, from which I concluded that they either did not know what to say, or were undecided as to what tone to take. I thought, They came to my house, so even they must know that I’m a stranger in this town, and am working with people sufficiently celebrated to get them into trouble. But then I thought, If they were really worried about that, then they wouldn’t have come at all. I thought, Saul and Lola and Rags don’t really care much about me; I can’t depend on them. The two or three movie stars who had been drifting in and out of our ken all summer didn’t know me from any other shoeshine boy—though I was determined, if I had to, to use their names as a threat. Barbara and Jerry cared, but where were they? And Madeleine cared. Madeleine. She gets to the theater at eight-thirty, but maybe they’ll let me call her house, and then I thought, Madeleine. Then I remembered the elderly man and his wife. Solid citizens, they had done their duty and called the police. It was unbelievably funny. If I had not been handcuffed, I think I might have laughed.

  But it was not a laughing matter. We arrived at the station, which looked ominous indeed, and ostentatiously crossed the sidewalk, while people stared at us, and nudged other people, and came up behind us, and began gathering, staring, on the steps. We walked into the station. A colored boy. They arrested a colored boy. I became faint, and hot and cold with terror. It was in vain that I told myself, Leo, this isn’t the South. I knew better than to place any hope in the accidents of North American geography. This was America, America, America, and those people out there, my countrymen, had been tearing me limb from limb, like dogs, for centuries. I would not be the first. In the bloody event, I would not be the last. I thought, I wonder if Madeleine has charged me with rape? But, no, I thought, don’t you have to be caught in the act? Then I thought, No. They just need Miss Ann’s word.

  But I knew if I allowed myself to think this way, I would lose my nerve completely. The man was behind the desk, and I forced myself to look him in the eye; and I forced myself, nearly fainting, to attack: “Why have I been arrested?”

  He looked at me with a curiously impersonal loathing. He was fat, red-faced, Irish, a true believer, a regular fellow. “It’s just routine, boy. We’ll satisfy your curiosity when we get around to it.”

  “I’m sorry. But I think the law compels you to tell me what the charges are against me. You have no right to hold me without charges.”

  His face got redder, and he seemed to swell, and his eyes got darker. We stared at each other—if I had allowed myself to drop my eyes, I would have fallen to the floor.

  “Are you trying to tell me my business, boy?”

  “I’m only telling you what my rights are, as a citizen of this country.”

  He and his buddies laughed. I realized that I had made a tactical error. “What’s the matter with you, boy? You some kind of nut? Are you a Red?”

  I said nothing, only looked at him. Again, he darkened and swelled. He did not know how frightened I was. He was, Allah be praised, far too dense for that: but he knew that I hated him, and would have been happy to see him dead. And this baffled him and angered him—which increased my danger—for he, after all, did not hate me. I was not real enough for that. I was not as real for him as he, unspeakably, was for me. But I could not drop my eyes. I told myself that there was nothing I could do, now, to minimize the danger. All that I could do was control my fear.

  I was not booked, I was not fingerprinted. I was taken into another room, and left alone there for awhile—to meditate, I supposed, on my sins, or else to count over my blues. I knew that this probably meant that they were not yet certain to what extent they were to be allowed to vent themselves on me. I took this as a good sign, though I also knew that this might merely mean that I was being saved for their more accomplished sadists. I knew that it was best not to think, not to undermine myself with visions of what was before me. For the moment, there was nothing I could do. There was no way to tell what would happen, who would enter, when the door opened again. And, not altogether consciously, I began to evolve a trick which was to help me, later, in the theater: Leo, I said, you can’t know what’s going to happen, and, until it happens, you can’t know what to do. You’re going to be surprised—so be surprised. That’s the only way you’ll be ready.

  But when the door opened—so much for the most impeccable theories!—I was not surprised. Two plainclothesmen stood there, with the elderly man and his wife. I stood up, and we looked at each other. How can I explain this? I still thought that they were funny.

  “Is that the boy?” one of the detectives asked.

  “Yes,” said the man; and “That’s him,” said his wife. They stood as though they were in a jungle, protected by their hunters, but poised to scream and run at the leap of the jungle cat.

  “This gentleman,” said one of the plainclothesmen, “says he saw you coming out of an apartment a little while ago, where you had no business to be.” He raised his eyebrows at me.

  Well, they might beat me up when the couple left the room, but they weren’t going to beat me while the couple were still in it; and I didn’t care, abruptly. I was tired of this vicious comedy, and ashamed of myself for playing any role whatever in it; something turned in me, in an instant, cold and hard—it might have been the abject posture of the old man and his wife.

  I said, “The gentleman is a nervous old lady. He doesn’t know whether I have any business in the apartment or not.” I felt myself beginning to be angry, and I forced myself to take a breath. “The apartment is rented by Miss Madeleine Overstreet. She is an actress, and she is working here in The Green Barn Theater, and I am an actor, and we are friends.” I was damned if I was going to cop a plea, and say that I was working for Madeleine, and I was cleaning up her joint. Fuck the mother-fuckers. “I believe the gentleman will tell you that when he saw me, I was locking the door of the apartment and had the keys in my hand. The gentleman will certainly tell you that, if his eyesight is not failing, and if he is in the habit of telling the truth. Which,” I could not resist adding, though I knew it to be foolish, “on both counts, I doubt.”

  “Do you have the keys on you now?” the plainclothesman asked.

  “I refuse to answer any questions until I have been allowed to make a phone call, which is my right by law, or unless my lawyer is present.”

  Well, it was funny, all right. I saw what they saw—a funky, little black boy, talking about his lawyer. And I didn’t give a shit. All you can do is beat my ass. I knew they were too dumb and too scared to know whether I was bluffing or not. So, fuck you, miserable white mother-fuckers. Fuck you. I stared at the detective who was asking the questions, and I charged my eyes to say, Baby, if my prick was a broomstick, I’d sure make your tonsils know that you had an ass-hole. Believe me. Oh, yes. Now, come on, you fagot, and beat my ass.

  But—I had frightened them. They did not know what to make of it. I don’t mean at all to suggest that they believed me. They didn’t believe me. They thought that I was mad. But they had not intended to tangle with a lunatic: they had merely been ordered to pick up a black boy.

  Well, here I was: black, certainly, and not much more than a boy. And there they were. Now, I was dangerous to them. They did not know what might happen—if I were not a lunatic, then my story might be true. And if my story were true—well, then, yes, they might be in trouble, and they might lose their pensions. If I could happen, then anything could happen. I could see this in their eyes.

  “What’s your name?”

  “I have told you that I will not answer any more questions until I am allowed to make a phone call, or until I am advised by my lawyer. You have not booked me, you have not charged me—it is you who are acting against the law!”

  One of them moved toward me then, but the other one checked him. Thank God, the couple were still in the room. Or thank my ancestors.

 
“You say you’re an actor?” one of them asked, in a friendly, conciliatory tone.

  I sat down on my bench, and folded my arms.

  “Young man,” said the elderly gentleman—at another moment, I might have been sorry for him—“I just thought—I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble—”

  “You haven’t,” I said, “caused me any trouble at all. But I can make a whole lot of trouble for you.”

  The plainclothesmen and I looked at each other—for what seemed a long time. Then, they all left the room. And I was alone again, a long time, while my anger subsided and my fear returned.

  Someone now entered whom I had not seen before, bluff, hearty, red-faced, who called me by my name and slapped me on the back. “So, you’re an actor! Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place, Leo? You can’t blame us for a little misunderstanding. Mistakes will happen, won’t they?”

  I stared at him, and I said nothing. I really did not know what to say.

  “I used to have a brother in show business.” He choked a little on his monstrous cigar; he sat down next to me. I decided he was probably from Texas. “Of course, that was a long time ago, before you were born.” He chuckled, wrapped in the veils of memory. “Yes, he used to do a routine with the great George M. Cohan himself—now, there was a trouper! And a prince. A prince among men, Leo, I assure you.”

  I was very young then. I watched him with an amazement which steadily filled with loathing. I really could not move.

  “But it’s a rough life, show business. Very rough. I know you realize that, Leo, you look like a very intelligent boy.” He chuckled again, and nudged me. “But it’s got its good side, too, eh, Leo—just between us men? The best broads. I bet the girls love you, don’t they, Leo?” He leaned confidentially toward me, and winked. “You know, there’s a saying, Big man, little tool, little man, all tool! Ha-ha-ha!” He pinched my shoulder, and it hurt. “Oh, you don’t want to say it, but I can see it in your eyes. You’ve been around a little, young as you are—how old are you, Leo?” He looked at me. I looked at him. I said nothing. There was a choked, ugly pause. “All right. Let me guess. It’s hard to tell with your people. Let’s see. Seventeen? Twenty-two?”