Settings

Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 25


  For something had happened; that was why she was in my room. I started to get out of bed, but then realized I was naked, and I pulled the sheet around me, and sat up. “Barbara!”

  “I hurt Jerry. I hurt him very much.” She was trying not to cry. It hurt to watch; I wished she would cry. I sipped my coffee and lit a cigarette. She came to the bed, and took the cigarette, and I lit another one. She walked up and down my room, between the window and me, between the light and me; on and off went the light, on and off. A skinny, pale girl, in a big bathrobe, and her hair piled on the top of her head, and falling over her forehead. “I had planned to do it differently, or do it later—I had hoped not to do it at all. But now I have. And he drove away. I hope he comes back. At least to say good-bye. Because I love him, too. Jesus.”

  “What did you do, Barbara?”

  “I told him”—she stopped—“I told him how much I love you.”

  “But,” I said, frightened, sitting straight up, “Jerry knows that! What did you tell him that for?”

  “Because,” she said—my God, she was steady, standing there in the morning light—“it’s true.” Then, she sipped her coffee; and remained standing in the light.

  I watched the blue smoke from our cigarettes.

  “Barbara,” I said.

  I don’t know what I was going to say. Barbara suddenly crumpled to the floor, spilling her coffee, and ruining her cigarette, and I jumped out of bed, naked as I was, and grabbed her. I had endured female tears before, God knows, young as I was then, but I knew that these tears had nothing to do with blackmail. But if Barbara had been capable of blackmail, then the terms of our love would have had a precedent and would not have been so hard. We were alone, she in that robe, and I in my skin, under the morning light, and with the spilt coffee all over the whitewashed floor.

  “Leo. I’m sorry. Oh, Leo. I’m sorry.”

  “Get up. Get up. This is no time to be sorry.”

  I pulled her to her feet. But, naked as I was, and holding her against me, I realized that I did not really feel for her what I had felt for Madeleine, whom I knew I did not love, several hours before. I felt a terrible constriction. It felt, I think, like death. I loved Barbara. I knew it then, and I really know it now; but what, I asked myself, was I to do with her? Love, honor, and protect. But these were not among my possibilities. And, since they were not, I felt myself, bitterly, and most unwillingly, holding myself outside her sorrow; holding myself, in fact, outside her love; holding myself beyond the reach of my blasted possibilities. One cannot dwell on these things, these echoes of what might, in some other age, and in some other body, have been; one must attempt to deal with what is, or else go under, or go mad. And yet—to deal with what is! Who can do it? I know that I could not. And yet I knew that I had to try. For there was something in it, after all, and I heard it in her sorrow, and I heard it in my heart, and in spite of our hideous condition, which I had to accept, to which I could not say, No. I carried her to the bed.

  “Leo. Leo. Leo.”

  “Barbara.”

  Perhaps it could only have happened as it happened. I don’t know. I had, then, to suspend judgment, and I suspend judgment now. We had no choice. We really had no choice. I had to warm my girl, my freezing girl. I covered her with my body, and I took off her robe. I covered her, I covered her, she held me, and I entered her. And we rejoiced. Sorrow, what have we not known of sorrow! But, that morning, we rejoiced. And yet, it must be said, there was a shrinking in me when it was over. Love, honor, and protect.

  “Leo,” Barbara said. She was running her fingers along my unshaven chin. I was rather too conscious of my unbrushed teeth.

  “Yes?”

  “I love you.”

  “Oh. Well. You have, you know, had better ideas.”

  “I know. But I don’t care.”

  “I’ve had better ideas, too,” I said, after a moment.

  “I know,” she said. “I really do know.”

  I lit two cigarettes, and I put one between her lips.

  “Leo?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Don’t worry about me. I know the score. I accept the terms.”

  I watched her very closely. “You mean, you know it’s impossible—that I’m impossible?”

  “I don’t know if you are—no more than I am, anyway. But I know that it is—at least, right now. I’ve thought about it a lot, up here. And I realized something kind of funny. I mean, it’s lucky I’m an actress. I mean—nothing comes before that, and I know that. And that helps me, somehow. Do you know what I mean?”

  “I think so. I’m not sure. But I think so.”

  “It means,” she said, with the gravity of a child, “that we must be great. That’s all we’ll have. That’s the only way we won’t lose each other.”

  “A person can’t just decide to be great, Barbara.”

  “Some persons can. Some persons must.”

  “You think I’m one of those persons?”

  “I know you are. I’ve always known it.” She paused. “That’s how I know, you see—that you don’t belong to me.” She smiled. “But let’s be to each other what we can.”

  “While we can,” I said, watching her.

  “Yes. While we can.” Then, “But if we do it right, you see, we can stretch out our while a very long while and we can make each other better. You see. I know. I’ve thought about it.”

  I moved from the bed to the window. “What about Jerry?”

  “Well, I thought I was being very clever with Jerry. I thought neither of us would get hurt. He was just a very nice boy, and he liked me very much, and I liked him very much. And I was a little afraid—well, I wanted, partly, not to get involved with you. I was afraid it would spoil everything, because we got along so well. I was afraid to startle you. I know you don’t like to be startled. Then you run. But—Jerry—got more and more serious. And I realized I wasn’t going to be able to handle it at all. So—I thought I’d make everything as clear as I could.”

  “How did he take it?”

  After a moment, she said, “He tried to take it well. He tried very hard. But—I wish—oh, how I wish I’d left him alone! He’s far too nice a boy for me.”

  “Is he coming back?”

  “Yes. He’s coming back.”

  I turned and looked at her. “Barbara. Do you know what you’re doing? We can’t play around with people’s lives this way.”

  “I know that. That’s why I tried to make it clear. Before I hurt him too much. Before it went too far.” She put out her cigarette. “Before I told myself too many lies. And before—before you went too far away from me.”

  “But you’re not much better off now, are you? With me, I mean. I’m spinning like a feather, Barbara. I don’t know where I’ll land.”

  “I’m better off,” she said, “because at least I’m not lying now.”

  I sat down on the bed. “Barbara,” I said, “there may be a lot you don’t know about me.”

  “There may be,” she said, “but I don’t think so.”

  I laughed. “Well. There’s a whole lot I don’t know about myself.” I watched her. “Do you know I’m bisexual?”

  “Yes. At least, I supposed it.”

  “Why? Does it show?”

  She laughed. “I don’t know. I guess it shows to some people. It just seemed logical to me.” She laughed again. “Normal.” She sobered. “You’re very gentle. I always wondered, in fact, if you were having an affair with Charlie.”

  “Charlie? No.”

  “I think he wanted you to.”

  “It doesn’t bother you?”

  She looked at me. “Why should it bother me, Leo? I’m not in your body. I can’t live your life. I only want to share your life.” She sat up, and pulled the robe around her. “Anyway—what difference would it make if I did mind? It wouldn’t change anything. It would just make you not trust me—I’m glad you know you’re bisexual. Many men don’t.”

  “How do you know that?


  “The blue grass of Kentucky,” she said, “is great for finding out the facts of life. Especially if neither you nor anyone around you has anything else to do. When I went to parties, I used to pretend I was Jane Austen.” She laughed again, and grabbed me and kissed me. “In fact, I thought of being a writer before I thought of being an actress.” Then she looked at me very soberly. “Well. I hope you like having a sister—a white, incestuous sister. Doesn’t that sound like part of the American dream?”

  “Well—like Adam said to the Lord, when all this shit was starting—I guess I’ll get the hang of it, all right.” I put my head on her breast. “But I am a little frightened.”

  She held me. “I know. But what is it that one’s frightened of?”

  “I wonder. I don’t know. It’s just—so many things have happened to me—”

  “But not all bad?”

  “Oh, no. I don’t mean that. I’m not as mad as that.” She was playing with my hair, knotting it knottier than it was already, then pulling it—so to speak—straight, then knotting it again. “But good and bad, that’s all tied up together. I mean, like, it’s bad to be thirsty but it’s good to drink—of course,” I added, “you get thirsty enough, you drink anything.” She was silent. “You see what I mean?”

  “I guess it’s very bad,” she said slowly, “when the taste of some of what you’ve drunk comes up and fills your mouth again.”

  “Yes,” I said, “that’s very bad.”

  “Has that happened to you?”

  “Yes. That’s happened to me.”

  She was silent for a long time. I began to be worried about Jerry coming back. But we were peaceful; we might not be so peaceful for a long time again; and I didn’t want to break it.

  “I suppose,” she said, “that people invent gods and saints and martyrs and all—well, one of the reasons, anyway—in order to prevent themselves from drinking—well—a lot of what they’re offered to drink. It doesn’t seem to work out very well—I mean, then, they just seem to poison themselves and never, even, get nauseous—but I’m sure that’s one of the reasons.” I couldn’t see her face, but I felt her chin bob up and down in a kind of mockery of decision. “I’ve thought about it, you see,” she said. “People need a means of being reproached.”

  “Reproached? I,” I said, leaning up a little, “I been ’buked and I been scorned. Did I need it?”

  “I don’t mean that. I don’t mean—that. I mean—gods and saints and martyrs don’t work for me. They just don’t. But I don’t want to be wicked. People have to find ways of not allowing themselves to become wicked.”

  “And what’s the way?”

  “Well, for me,” she said, “in a way—you are. I wouldn’t like you to be ashamed of me.”

  I sat up, and looked at her.

  “I hope you wouldn’t like me to be ashamed of you, either,” she said. “I’d like—to be the way for you.” She watched my face, and she smiled. “I think you think I’m being blasphemous. Or maybe you think I’m insane.”

  “No. No. I’m just fascinated. I’m trying to follow you.”

  “Well, look—you’ll see that I have thought about it. I’ve never thought about anything so hard in my life. Look. I know this situation is impossible. I even know, in a way, that I’m being impossible. And everyone I grew up with would think so, and many people think so who will never dare admit it. I don’t care about those people. I care about whether or not I know what I am doing. You’re black. I’m white. Now, that doesn’t mean shit, really, and yet it means everything. We’re both very young, and you, after all, really are penniless, and I’m really not. I’m really very rich. Maybe I don’t use it now, but I know I can always call on it, they’re sure that when I come to my senses, I’ll come home. It’s all there for me and, anyway, after all, they’re going to die one day. So.” She shivered a little, and paused, and looked away, out of my window, toward the distant mountain. “If we were different people, and very, very lucky, we might beat the first hurdle, the black-white thing. If we weren’t who we are, we could always just leave this—unfriendly—country, and go somewhere else. But we’re as we are. I knew, when I thought about it, that we couldn’t beat the two of them together. I don’t think you’d care much that your wife was white—but a wife who was both white and rich! It would be horrible. We’d soon stop loving each other. And, furthermore—” She stopped. “Would you light me a cigarette, please?”

  “Coming, princess.” I lit two cigarettes, and gave one to her. She blew smoke in my face, and smiled.

  “And, furthermore—well, look at the way I was raised. You’re forbidden fruit. Oh, we’ll talk about that another day. But, believe me”—she laughed, it was a very melancholy sound—“by the time a Southern girl has had her first period, she’s already in trouble. Everybody’s always told you that the old black man who mows the lawn and rakes the leaves and chops the kindling and takes care of the fires—you know, well, he’s old, and he’s nice to you, and you like that old man and everybody likes him. And, naturally, you don’t know any better, you like anybody that old man likes and, naturally, you like his son. Or you’d like to like his son. And his son looks like—the old man. He smells like him. He’s nice, like he is. And he’s just about your age. But there’s something wrong with his son. There’s something wrong with him, you can’t be friends with the son of the nice old man. He’s not nice, like his father, and he’s not like other men at all. No. He’s a rapist. And not only is he a rapist, but he only rapes white women. And not only that, but he’s got something in his underwear big and black and always hard and it will change you forever if it ever touches you. You won’t even be white any more. You’ll just belong to him. Well, you know, everybody wants to be changed. Especially if you’re not loved. If looking like a zebra means somebody might love you, well, okay, I’ll look like a zebra and you can go on looking white. Have a ball.” She smiled, and subsided. “Anyway, you know, that’s the way I saw you the first time I saw you. I even thought, My God, maybe that’s the real reason I left home. To find out. But I didn’t think I’d better experiment with you. I knew you’d make me pay if I did. And so then I began to think that you mustn’t experiment with anybody. So, I tried to get to be your friend. And—here we are.”

  “Let me kiss you,” I said, “like a brother,” and I kissed her on the forehead.

  Then she kissed me, first like a sister and then on the mouth, and we lay still together for awhile.

  “What time are we due at Saul’s?” I asked her.

  “Yes,” she said soberly, “I’d better get downstairs and get dressed.” She sat up, and put her feet on the floor. She wasn’t wearing any slippers. “We’re due at Saul’s at ten. It must be about nine now.”

  “How’re we going to get there?”

  She looked at me. “I’m feared we’ll have to walk. Leo.”

  I laughed and pulled her to her feet and put my knee in her behind. “Okay. Go on and get dressed. I’ll hurry down.”

  She went to the door. “I think Jerry’s already mowing a lawn somewhere by now.” She stood at the door, as though she hated to walk out of it. “Can I please have another cigarette?”

  I lit one, and carried it to her.

  “Thanks. I’ll yell up the time. Do you feel ready for Saul?”

  “No. But, as you said, we have to be great.”

  She smiled, and walked down the stairs.

  It turned out to be eight forty-five. Jerry made no appearance. Presently, we were walking the road to town. She was wearing a light, brown, summer dress, or “frock,” as she called it, cut below her shoulder blades in the back, and with a wide skirt—this was for the moment in our scene when she pirouettes before me. She wore her hair down over her shoulders; her idea, I think, of the disheveled proletariat, though I myself would have read her for Alice in Wonderland. She wore flat shoes, both for the road, and for the scene. We held hands. The road was long, and there was no one and nothing on it, and so we skipp
ed. We laughed a lot, for no particular reason. I picked a red flower, and I put it in Barbara’s hair. The sun was bright, it was going to be a hot day. The road was dry and dusty. When we approached The Green Barn, we made sign language to each other to be very circumspect indeed, and we stopped holding hands. Barbara put her flower between her teeth. I took off my shirt and put it on my head, and then I put her book and my book on my head, and I walked respectfully, wearily, and proudly behind her. But, there being no one to witness this epiphany, we soon walked together again, hand in hand.

  But, as we neared the town, when we saw the proud signs announcing it, heard a train, heard the river, and saw the diner, which stood a little by itself; do what we would, we felt the human heat of the town rush out to meet us, we waited for the eyes, we waited for the silence, we waited for we knew not what. It was vivid to both of us, suddenly, that we had never before appeared in this town without Jerry. We had not thought of it that way, but Jerry had been proof, at least insofar as this white girl and this white town were concerned, of my impotence. But now! and Barbara carefully replaced the red flower in her hair, I put my shirt on. The grass roots of America was waiting for us, spoiling for us, all the good white people, just beyond this small hill and this small bridge which spanned a narrow creek. I realized abruptly, as we were on the bridge, that the car in which Jerry had driven away—driven where?—was not his property and not my property, but the property of the Workshop. Technically, anyway, Jerry was driving a stolen car. And the car was my responsibility. And there would certainly be many things for me to do this afternoon, for Arms and the Man was opening tonight. I looked, as we passed, to see if the car was parked before the diner, but it wasn’t. I didn’t see any point in saying anything to Barbara about it. The shit would hit the fan soon enough. I was carrying both our books, and I was wondering how these could be used as weapons. For, now, we were concentrating on how to walk just a few blocks through a hostile, staring, gathering town.

  It is not an easy thing to do. One’s presence is an incitement, and therefore, one must do all in one’s power not to increase this incitement. But, by the time one has become an incitement, not very much is left in one’s power. It is not a matter merely of walking straight, eyes straight ahead. No, one’s eyes must be everywhere at once—without seeming to be, without seeming to move; one must be ready for the rock, the fist, the sudden movement; one must see every face, and yet make it impossible for one’s eye to be caught, even for a second, by any other eye. One must move swiftly, and yet not hurry: one must, in fact, give the crowd no opening, either by seeming to be too proud or by seeming to be too humble. All such crowds are combustible, and they always will be. Their buried, insupportable lives have brought them together and on the only terms they can come together: their unspeakable despair concerning their lives. These lives are like old, old rags in the closet of a very old house. The merest whisper will set them aflame. All such crowds contain, and they will forever, one man, one woman, who—if only for the moment it takes to hurl the stone, to leap the barrier, to prepare and spew the spittle, to grab the throat—if only for the moment, without ever having acted before, and never to act again—is the collective despair of the crowd, is their collective will. Then, the fire rages, not to spend itself until yet another man done gone.