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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 26


  It is easier to walk such a gauntlet alone. It is very hard for two, especially if they care about each other, especially if one is black and one is white, especially if one is male and one is female. One’s own body has a front and a back, has a left and a right. Hopefully, one can maneuver this body in such a way as to prevent its being destroyed. But, with two, one’s reflexes are off, for one is trying to calculate danger from too many angles, and one is also attempting a desperate mental telepathy. The people were silent. There were not, I thought to myself, very many. Two or three came out of the diner and stood, leering; three men, not young, I had seen them before. They moved in order to keep us in sight, laughing among themselves. Then, they were joined by another man, and they began to walk behind us, but at a considerable distance. Two men and a woman came out of a house on the left, another man stood behind them on the porch. Then, on the right, first one house, then another, they came out and stood on their lawn. My right was across the street, my left was Barbara’s left. On my left, an old woman came rushing to her gate and her face was filled with fury, she was staring toward us, we were coming closer. A very young man joined her, then a young woman, then a child. They were closer to Barbara than they were to me. A car stopped on the other side of the street, there were three men in it. Then, a car stopped on my side of the street, with a young boy in it. He said, “Nigger”—his voice was melodious—“you are a dead man. We going to get you. And your white whore, too.” The old woman and the young woman and the young man and the child were coming closer. I did not dare put a hand on Barbara. I whispered, “Come closer to me,” and I stepped nearer the curb, and she moved with me, just as we passed the old woman, who shouted, “You hussy! You nigger-lover! You low-down, common, low-class, poor white slut!” A great, mocking cheer went up behind us. I dared not take Barbara’s hand, or even look at her. Three white men were coming toward us, on my side of the sidewalk. I was astounded to realize that neither Barbara nor I, who, after all, were not without experience, had given a thought to our walking into town together, and on this morning, until it was too late, until we were already on the bridge. And, even then, we had not thought of this. I cursed Jerry for having taken the car, I cursed Barbara for her romantic folly—look what was happening to us, look!—and I cursed myself. The three young men were coming closer. Once we got past them, we had to bear right, into a short, tree-lined street, and, in the middle of this street, on the left, was the San-Marquand driveway. But the driveway was steep. It was relatively hidden—which might be good, or bad. I held both books, but I wasn’t going to be able to do much with them, and nothing at all for Barbara. I hoped she would have the sense to run. The sense to run. But it is always a mistake to run; unless, of course, you can really run away; which, in no way whatever, could be considered the case here. I stared into the puppy-dog face, the flecked eyes, registered the hanging hair, the pug nose, the crooked teeth. His buddies were on my left. They were abreast of Barbara. He said, “I want your girl-friend to give me and my friends a blow job. Do she cost much? Or do she only suck big, black nigger cocks?” His buddies were whispering to Barbara. I kept moving. Barbara touched the flower in her hair: I knew she was wishing it were a rose, and she could rake the thorns across their faces. We passed them. The three young men laughed, the street rocked. Just kids, thank you, Jesus, and the daring obscenity was the entire point. We bore right, and crossed the street. We walked in the shade of the trees, and, like soldiers, in perfect unison, turned left, and began toiling up the driveway. They hadn’t followed us—only their voices: “Down with niggers! Down with Jews!”

  The sun was very hot in the driveway. We didn’t speak until we reached the fairly level ground at the top, and were walking toward the house. Then, Barbara looked at me. I looked at her. She was sweating, and she was pale. Her eyes were full of tears. They spilled over, and ran down her face. I brushed them away with my hand.

  “Sister Barbara. Sister Barbara.”

  She tried to smile. She didn’t have a handbag, and so she didn’t have a handkerchief. I handed her mine.

  “It’s dirty,” I said. Then, “Blow your nose.”

  She blew her nose in my dirty handkerchief, and handed it back to me.

  “Brother Leo.”

  “You can go straight to the John. Saul won’t notice a thing.”

  “No,” she said. “I’m sure of that.”

  We walked very slowly toward the house, like two reluctant children.

  “Let’s not talk about it now,” I said suddenly. “Let’s not talk about it, ever.”

  “Oh, we’ll talk about it sometime. I think we’ll have to. But not now.”

  We both dreaded entering that house. We knew we had to; but we dreaded it.

  “Where’s Jerry? Goddammit, he knows I need the car. Where the fuck is he?”

  “He’ll be back.”

  “He’ll be back when? I got a whole lot of shit to do, this afternoon, just as soon as this class is over—this class! Why has he got to be such a fucking baby? And what am I going to tell Saul, when he asks me where the car is? Shit. Do you know Jerry’s driving a stolen car? He’s got no papers for that car.”

  “Neither do you. And you drive it all the time.”

  “I’m supposed to drive it. And everybody knows it’s the Workshop car. And I only drive it in town.” We were at the door now, and I put my finger on the buzzer. “Shit. I just wish some people would fucking grow up, that’s all I fucking want.” The maid, the Negro maid, came to the door, looking as though she were letting us into a funeral chapel. She put her fingers to her lips, and we walked in. Barbara took her book from me, and ran up the stairs.

  The maid and I had seen each other before, but we hadn’t particularly liked each other, and we certainly didn’t like each other now. She gestured me toward the living room, and so I walked over there, and sat down in one of the camp chairs, way in the back.

  Saul had a really enormous living room. I guess it just about took up all of the ground floor of his house, and, at one end, there was a raised, curtainless alcove, where students performed, or exposed themselves, ordinarily, and where celebrities, at parties, did likewise—not that the celebrities needed the height. Saul sat alone in the center of this vast, high room, and the students sat around him and behind him. I had never watched a class before, and, in spite of everything, I was immensely curious. In spite of everything, I was anxious to know what would happen to me when I found myself in that curtainless alcove. Someone handed me a mimeographed program, and I saw that Barbara King and Leo Proudhammer were doing a scene from Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. There were three scenes being done this morning. We were the third, and last.

  The alcove was currently occupied by a swarthy youth, built big in the head and the belly and the buttocks. He was wearing sandals, and a kind of loose garment; and, at the moment he captured my attention, he was leaning forward, toward us, in great pain. His pain was so great that he could neither speak, nor do anything with his arms—which he held on either side of him, like broken plywood wings. He stumbled about in such despair that I supposed I was expected to believe that he had just been blinded, and the sandals made me think of Oedipus. But, as I couldn’t hear him—yet—I wasn’t sure.

  “Nothing,” he said, and straightened to his full height, making a tremendous effort at the same time to do something with those arms, “extenuate.” He paused, and looked at all of us—for quite some time. “Nor,” he added quickly, as though it had just occurred to him, “set down aught in malice.” He had by now succeeded in getting his arms somewhere near his torso, and now one hand held his elbow, while the other gently admonished us: “Then must you speak of one that lov’d not wisely—but too well.” He paused again. He opened both arms wide. “Of one not easily jealous, but”—now he began to pace—“being wrought”—and once again he fixed us with his eye—“perplexed. In the extreme.” He shook his massive head. “Of one whose hand”—he raised his head and his voice and threw
the voice to heaven, or to us—“like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe!” The arms now encircled his girth, his head was down, and he was silent for awhile. Not a soul stirred, including me. He pulled himself together, or, rather, he let his arms go again, and faced us. Barbara came and sat down beside me. She looked all right. I handed her the program; this was Othello, and we were next.

  “Of one,” he said, one hand caressing his chin, the other at his waist, “whose subdu’d eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees their med’cinable gum. Set you down this,” he said, both arms reaching toward us now, “and say besides—the intensity dropped, he began to pace again—“that in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turban’d Turk beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state”—he paused, and let us have those eyes again—“I”—now he moved toward us, as tall as he could be, one hand at his waist and one hand stretched toward us—“took by th’ throat”—the hand stretched toward us violently closed—“the circumcised dog!”—how he glared; and then he paused awhile; he looked us all over, all of us—“And”—the throat hand rose into the air, the waist hand produced a dagger, both hands now grabbed it—“smote him—thus!” The dagger entered the entrails. The swarthy youth choked for awhile—quite a long while—unable to get his hands away from the dagger. And at last he fell, hands buried beneath him, and his backside somewhat higher than his head. The class applauded. There were about twelve or fifteen people there, some of them visitors. I did not look at Barbara, who did not look at me. The swarthy youth rose, someone brought him a chair, and he sat there in the alcove, waiting.

  I did not know what he was waiting for. If what I had just seen was acting, well then, clearly, I had stumbled into the wrong joint. But I wasn’t sure. No one seemed to share the embarrassment I felt for the swarthy boy. Everyone seemed very cheerful, and there was a brief buzz of cheerful conversation. Then, Saul cleared his throat. And, with this sound, which was not tentative, but peremptory, silence fell.

  “Mr. Parker,” Saul said, “can you tell us what you were working on in this scene—what you were working for?”

  “Well,” said the boy—he blushed and smiled; he was very earnest—“I was trying to make Othello’s grief—physical. Grief, for me, always goes to my stomach. And I thought if I could make you feel Othello’s physical anguish, then you’d feel his—his other grief—his, well, his grief.” He smiled. “I don’t know any other way to say it, sir.”

  “I think you’ve made yourself quite clear,” Saul said. He looked around the room. “Have we all understood Mr. Parker?”

  Everyone had understood Mr. Parker.

  “Very good.” He had apparently been taking notes during the boy’s exposure. He glanced at them now. “We feel,” he said, “that you have made very nice progress since you have been with us. Your freedom is becoming much—ah—much greater. You are less afraid than you were of letting us see your insides, so to say.” The boy smiled, pleased, and there was an appreciative hum from the students and the visitors. “Yet—we feel that you are not ready for the classics. We admire your courage in preparing this scene, but it was, perhaps—but understandably—slightly overambitious. But there is nothing wrong, let us say, with aiming too high. We are here, not to suggest that you aim lower, but to make your aim more accurate. I hope you understand what we are saying?”

  “Yes, sir,” said the boy. He seemed very pleased indeed.

  “Well, then. Since you have brought us, not your interpretation of, but rather, so to say, your reaction to, Othello, we will try to discuss this baffling character for a moment. You mentioned that you wanted to convey Othello’s grief. You hoped to make us feel his grief by means of his physical anguish. Why is he in grief, Mr. Parker?”

  “Well,” said Parker, “he just killed his wife—Desdemona—the only girl who ever mattered to him. I mean, he loved her and now he’s killed her, she’s dead, and now he knows that he did wrong—I mean, that he was tricked, Iago tricked him into killing her.” He paused. “So, now, he’s all alone. In a way, he’s killed himself.”

  “Do you think that his grief would be different if, in fact, he knew Desdemona to have been guilty?”

  “Well, yes, sir, I think so. I mean, he’d still be alone, but at least he’d feel that the honorable thing had been done—that he’s done the honorable thing. This way, he just feels tricked. And by his buddy.”

  “Iago—his buddy—is white. Othello is black—is a Moor. Do you think that this affects Othello’s reaction?”

  “How so, sir?” Parker asked quickly. He seemed uneasy; he looked quickly in my direction. Then, “No, sir. I don’t see any reason why it should.”

  “Then, Othello is in pain only because of the crime he has committed?”

  “I think so, sir. I don’t think he would be thinking of Iago now at all—anyway, it’s his fault for believing Iago.”

  “But we usually believe our friends,” Saul said.

  “Do we?” said Parker. “I don’t.” And everybody laughed. Saul laughed, too.

  “Why did you feel it necessary, or advisable, to make Othello’s pain physical? In some theatrical circles, that might seem—a little strange?”

  “Well, Othello’s a great play, I guess, but a lot of it seems a little silly—all that handkerchief stuff, and everything. I mean”—he was floundering—“if you think about what Othello’s doing, well maybe, you’ll just think he’s dumb. But if you feel it—like a stomach ache—well, then, maybe you’ll understand him.” And he looked hopefully, expectantly, at Saul.

  “Well,” said Saul, after a long pause, “you certainly seem to have thought about your problems. We do not feel that you have resolved them, but, as we said before, we are not here to make you lower your aim, but to help you hit the target—on the bull’s eye, so to say. We admire the directness of your approach to your problem—the idea of Othello with, so to say, a bellyache, we do not reject, as others might, no, we find it a very interesting idea. We feel that if your perceptions lead you into these areas, well and good. We wish to help you to explore; we are not afraid of any discovery; we are dedicated to discovery. We only insist that these discoveries be subjected to the proper theatrical discipline so that these discoveries can take their proper place in the vocabulary of the living theater. We are like, oh, Henry Ford, so to say—the theater is like that—we want the use of your inventions so that we can stay in business.” The class laughed. “Thank you, Mr. Parker. Your progress is most gratifying.”

  Mr. Parker left the alcove. “Take ten,” said the student who was acting as Saul’s assistant that morning, and the maid brought out a pot of coffee, cups, saucers, milk, sugar, and cookies, and set them on the sideboard.

  “Do you need any props?” Saul’s assistant now asked Barbara.

  “A sofa,” I said. “Or a chair.”

  He had turned away; he turned back. “Well, which is it?”

  “A sofa would be better,” Barbara said. “Oh. And you know where the phonograph and the record are.”

  “Right,” he said, and he went away. Barbara and I walked over to the coffee table, where the others were.

  “Are you scared?” one of the girls asked me, smiling.

  I grinned. “Yes,” I said. And I suddenly realized that I was. I poured coffee for Barbara. “We didn’t really need a sofa. I play the whole scene standing up.”

  “Well, but I can use a sofa, don’t you see?” Barbara looked at me, and then she laughed. “You can just do more sitting on a sofa than you can sitting on a chair.”

  The assistant, passing, heard this, and he winked. “I can just see who’s going to steal this scene,” he said. I looked toward the alcove. The sofa and the phonograph were there.

  I drank my coffee, and I listened to the chatter. When the coffee hit my stomach, I realized I was sick, and I put the coffee down, and barely made it to the bathroom. My whole body was covered with a cold, light sweat, and I was nauseous—perhaps Ot
hello with a bellyache was not such a bad idea. I had never felt this way before. I was sexually excited, too, but in an eerie way; it was a tension which contained no possibility of release. I came back to the coffee table to find that people were sitting down. Barbara was already in the alcove, and was talking to the assistant. She seemed quite calm. What the hell, I told myself, it’s going to be over in less than ten minutes. And it doesn’t matter what these people think. But I wished we had decided to do some other scene, any other scene. I no longer believed in this one. Barbara had my book with her, in the alcove. It was on the sofa. I rushed up, and opened it, because I suddenly couldn’t remember my first lines.

  My first line was, Hello, Florrie. I couldn’t use my book. I put it back down on the sofa. I hoped I knew the scene well enough just to be able to go with it. The assistant picked up my book, and opened it. He stood there, waiting. I looked at him. Then I realized that he was going to read the short scene which precedes my entrance, between Florrie and her brother, Irv, who doesn’t want Florrie to marry me.