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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 28


  “So long, Jerry.”

  I watched him walk into the house and watched the door close behind him. I sat in the car. I lit a cigarette. Automatically, I turned the car around, to go back to the Workshop. Then I thought, Fuck it, and I turned the car around again, and drove out of town and hit the highway for New York.

  BOOK THREE

  BLACK CHRISTOPHER

  Mother, take your daughter, father, take your son!

  You better run to the city of refuge, you better run!

  —TRADITIONAL

  THE BOY sat on the bed, watching me. Everything seemed tilted, he and the bed, as though about to slide off a cliff; this was because of my weariness and the angle at which I lay in the bed and the fact that it was so early in the morning.

  I was a little frightened for a moment: but the boy smiled.

  “Do you always get up so early?—what time is it?”

  He laughed. “No. But I got some people to see today. It’s about seven.”

  He was staring at me, making up his mind about something.

  “Do you want me to make you some coffee?”

  “No. No, stay in bed. You’ve really had it.” He watched me. “You were pretty drunk last night.”

  “I know.”

  “You remember everything?”

  “Well—I think I do. Why? Did I do something terrible?”

  He laughed again. “No. You were fine. You danced a lot and you laughed a lot. I think you were happy.”

  “I think I was. Were you?”

  He looked away, still smiling a little. “Oh, yeah,” he said.

  I wanted to get back to sleep, but he was beginning to intrigue me, to wake me up. It was his smile. It made his face like a light. And his voice was rough, like a country boy’s voice, and he was big, and his manner was rough. But his smile was very shy and gentle.

  “I’ve got to go now. Can I come to see you later?”

  “I’ll be home all day—until it’s time to go to the theater.”

  “Well. I’ll call you later.” He stood up. “If I don’t make it back before you go, you want me to pick you up after the show?”

  “Yes. That’ll be good.”

  “All right. See you.” He leaned down and kissed me quickly on the forehead. He started for the bedroom door.

  “You got enough money?”

  “I’m all right.” He smiled again, and disappeared. I heard the front door close behind him.

  I wondered what I had got myself into.

  I am at last about to leave the hospital. Pete has brought me my clothes. I do not want to see Caleb, but Caleb will be meeting the plane in New York—in spite of everything, or perhaps because of everything, I am still his little brother, and besides I am famous. Barbara cannot come East with me because the show is still running—though not doing very well—and she will be along presently to take me off to her suite, where I will spend what is left of this day and where I will spend the night. In the morning, I fly away.

  Presently, some of the cast will be here with champagne; also, some of the press. But Barbara will be here before them. Pete is here already. I am dressed, and standing in the office with Dr. Evin. And since I am dressed and my hair has been cut and I am wearing my clothes and standing in my own skin, I feel—in a way—absolutely in control, delivered again to the land of the living. It is not yet and not now that Leo Proudhammer gives up the ghost! Not yet. Not now. Leo is a very tough little mother.

  I am ready: dark-blue suit, blue tie, impeccable handkerchief, white shirt, Brazilian cufflinks, black pumps. I am a star again. I look it and I feel it. It is as though I had never been ill.

  But Dr. Evin does not agree with me.

  “You have been very ill. I counsel you not to forget that fact.” He looks at me very hard. “If you do not remember how ill you have been, you may very well become ill again. I tried to warn you at the beginning—do you remember?”

  “Yes. Of course, I remember.”

  He smiles. “I am not absolutely persuaded that you do—but I will not scold you any more. After all, I was very pleased, like the selfish man I am, to make your acquaintance. And I have more respect now than I did for the—stamina—of your tribe. I am not being racist.” We both laugh. “I mean the tribe of show business people.” Then, his face changed, he stood up. “Ah! Here is Miss King. Miss King, we deliver him back to you—very slightly damaged, but, with care, he should last”—he looks at me speculatively, smiling; I realized that he really had grown to like me—“oh, twenty, thirty years. If you do not try to drive him up the steep slopes.”

  “I,” said Barbara, “will do anything you say, doctor. But you know, by now, what a stubborn child Leo is.” She kissed me. “Look at him! Where do you suppose he thinks he’s going, Dr. Evin? He’s dressed for an opening night. Darling,” she said, “you are merely going to walk to an elevator which is just down the hall and then be gently handed into a car which will drive you straight to my house, where you will immediately take off all those clothes and lie about in state.”

  “I thought,” I said, “that I should look my best, in case of the newspapers. So all my fans will know that I’m recovered.”

  “Oh” said Barbara, and looked at Dr. Evin, “I see. You certainly got him well, doctor, and all his fans are grateful.” She smiled, very happy, looking like a little girl. “Some of the cast have come by, and they’ve brought some champagne. Come, join us, doctor—then you can go home and have a nice, quiet heart attack.”

  She laughed and took us both by the arm and we walked down the corridor to my old room.

  There they were, the people with whom I’d been in the play so long. Perhaps, for others, it was only a play, but it was more than that for us, it was a part of our lives and this meant that we were now a part of each other. There really is a kind of fellowship among people in the theater and I’ve never seen it anywhere else, except among jazz musicians. Our relationships are not peaceful and they certainly are not static, but, in a curious way, they’re steady. I think it may be partly because we’re forced, in spite of the preposterous airs we very often give ourselves, to level with each other. Everybody knows what’s going on in the business, everybody has to know and so some lies cannot be told. One’s disasters are as public as one’s triumphs, and far more numerous; and everybody knows how it feels. And I think it’s also because we’re forced to depend on each other more than other people are. I shouldn’t think, for example, that trapeze artists are in the habit of having bitter fights with each other just before they climb the high ladder, and start somersaulting about in space. If the bar or the hand isn’t there when it’s supposed to be, well, then, without a net, that’s it. And in the theater, one’s always operating without a net. Of course, the theater is full of people whom no one can stand, and careers the mere existence of which fill one with wonder; but one becomes philosophical about this, for not even the most outrageous or destructive theatrical career can begin to rival some of the careers taking place in the world. Here was Andy, an Italian character actor who was playing a featured part in the play—we hadn’t worked together for years, but when we met again it was as though we’d never parted; and Amy, blonde, young, wispy, from the Bronx, with whom I’d never worked before, but whom I liked very much; and Sylvia, a fine, tough, mannish Negro character actress, whose age would now never be known, because her hometown courthouse had been burned to the ground—by Sylvia, some people said, and it wasn’t hard to see her doing it; and my adored, my steady and steadying Pete; and the chief electrician, Sando; and the doorman, John, and his wife; and my understudy, Alvin, whom I’d never liked very much, but liked today—he seemed to like me, too, and it wasn’t only because he knew I wasn’t coming back to the show; and some others. The room was crowded, very beautifully crowded. There were flowers and records and boxes of candy. Amy, her face very bright beneath a stylish velvet toque, came over to me with an envelope and an oddly shaped package. First, she kissed me ceremoniously, on both side
s of my face.

  “Everybody couldn’t come,” she said. “You know—some people take jobs on radio and television and stuff like that—and those peasants”—now she held the envelope very distastefully with her thumb and one finger—“have asked me to give you this.” I took the envelope from her, and opened it. It was a big card, with a caricature of me on the front as the skinniest boxer you ever saw, with the biggest, most frightened eyes, and the most awkward stance. On the outside, it said—because I’d scored a great triumph when I’d played this part in Cabin in the Sky—LITTLE JOE! And on the inside, it said, “We Glad You Win!” It was signed by every member of the crew and company. It was very nice. We were all laughing. My little nurse came in, with a tray of glasses.

  “And now,” said Amy gravely, “you must open this. This is from all of us.”

  I took the package, which was surprisingly heavy. I wondered how Amy had managed to carry it. I sat down on the bed, to open it. They were all watching me.

  I finally got the package open. Inside, there were two bronze lions, replicas of the lions in Trafalgar Square. The card said, “For Leo, the lion. Long may he wail.”

  “You can use them as bookends. Or paperweights,” said Amy.

  “Or in order to get a taxi,” said Barbara.

  We all broke out laughing, and that saved me from crying. I grabbed Amy and kissed her and I kissed Sylvia and Barbara and I hugged all the men and Pete said, “Here goes,” and he opened the champagne. “A toast,” said Pete, and he raised his glass and looked at me.

  Some moments in a life, and they needn’t be very long or seem very important, can make up for so much in that life; can redeem, justify, that pain, that bewilderment, with which one lives, and invest one with the courage not only to endure it, but to profit from it; some moments teach one the price of the human connection: if one can live with one’s own pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain. Something like this message I seemed to read in Pete’s eyes as he raised his glass and looked at me. His eyes held my journey, and his own. His eyes held the years of terror, trembling, hatred, scorn, inhuman isolation; the YMCA, the Mills Hotel, the winter streets, the subways, the rooftops, the public baths, the public toilets, the filthy socks, the nights one wept alone on some vermin-infested bed; the faithless loves, the lost loves, the hope of love; the many deaths, and the fear of death; in all of this, some style evolving, some music endlessly being played, ringing inexorable changes on the meaning of the blues. His look was shrewd, ironic, loving. He knew how frightened I had been. He knew how frightened he had been.

  “A toast,” he said, “to our baby, little Leo—we’re glad you came back to us, baby, and don’t you be making no more journeys like that in a hurry, do you hear?”

  We laughed again. We had to laugh, perhaps I most of all. I said, “May I propose a toast? Let me propose a toast.”

  “Hear, hear!” said Barbara.

  And then, for a moment, I did not know what to say; and I looked at them and they looked at me. I met the eyes of Alvin, my understudy. Alvin was a very good-looking black, or, rather, colored cat, a little bit older than I, and bigger than I; and I am not good-looking. I abruptly understood, as though I had just come back from the dead—which was, after all, nearly the literal truth; and a tremor went through me; I saw Barbara’s face, and I was incredibly aware of the sun coming through the curtains—that I had been wrong in supposing that Alvin did not like me. It wasn’t that. It was just that I fucked up his sense of reality. He did not know why what, as he supposed, had happened to me had not happened to him. According to the order which had created him and in which, for all his stridency, he yet absolutely believed, he had been dealt a much better hand than mine. This meant, for me, that Alvin did not know the ruthless rules of the game, and since he really did not know what had happened to me, did not know what had happened to him. As long as he did not know this, no one and nothing could help him. He would spend his life envying the blood in the shoes of others. I remembered myself trying to say this to Christopher. And I dropped my eyes from Alvin’s, thinking of Christopher’s response, and thinking of Caleb. I had supposed that Alvin disliked me because I am a better actor than he. And I am a better actor. But in that fact, precisely, lies hidden the unspeakable question, the unendurable truth.

  “It is not important,” I said, “to be an actor. The world is full of actors—most of them don’t know that they are acting. And it’s not important to be a star—most stars can’t act.” I stopped. They were still watching me. I had struck a more somber note than I had meant to strike. I looked for Barbara’s face, and Pete’s face. Their faces reassured me. They knew their boy. It had cost them something: and they would never let me see the bill. “Well,” I said, “if those things are not important, let me say that it is important—it is beautiful—to know, when you stand on your feet again, that so many people are glad to see you standing. I’m glad to be back.” I raised my glass. “But if you hadn’t wanted me back, I might very well not be here. Let me drink to you,” I said, “and let me thank you for holding on to me. I’ll never forget it.” I had no more words, and I drained my champagne glass. They stomped their feet lightly on the floor, for their hands were not free. Barbara drained her glass as I drained mine, and set it down and clapped her hands. It was—somehow—the most extraordinary sound.

  “We’ve got to send the prince home in a few minutes,” Pete said. “Who wants more champagne? We got one more bottle.”

  Then, I sat on the bed and I looked at my records, the records they had bought for me: Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles and Miles Davis and Nina Simone and Joe Williams and Joe Tex and Lena Horne; and I thought what a comfort they would be to me, what a ball I would have with them in the south of France, where I would now be going, to sit in a borrowed villa and think over my life and recover my health and eventually read the script and sign the contract which would bring me back to work again. I realized that I was frightened. This would be the first time in more than twenty years that I had not, in one way or another, been working. When a worker is not working, what does a worker do? I knew that I was chilled by the fear of what I might find in myself with all my harness off, my obligations canceled, no lawyers, no agents, no producers, no television appearances, no civil-rights speeches, no reason to be here or there, no lunches at the Plaza, no dinners at Sardi’s, no opening nights, no gossip columnists, no predatory reporters, no Life and Loves of Leo Proudhammer (in six installments, beginning in this issue!), no need to smile when I did not want to smile, no need, indeed, to do anything but be myself. But who was this self? Had he left forever the house of my endeavor and my fame? Or was he merely having a hard time breathing beneath the rags and the rubble of the closets I had not opened in so long?

  Amy sat down on the bed beside me. She said, “I suppose you’ve heard the rumors?”

  “I never listen to rumors,” I said, “and if you want to stay alive in this business, you won’t, either.”

  She laughed. She was a very, very attractive girl—not pretty exactly, but, then, I don’t like pretty girls; but attractive, really attractive. Her teeth were a little big, and her face was a little too thin—she was very thin altogether, no hips at all, or, rather, the kind of hips that don’t exist until you hold them. My body had been functioning all those weeks I’d been in bed, and, abruptly, seriously, I was terribly horny. I shifted a little bit away from her, more astonished than embarrassed. This particular aspect of Lazarus’ return had not before occurred to me: but it certainly made sense. To come up from the place where one thought one was dead means that one becomes greedy for life, and life is many things, but it is, above all, the touch of another. The touch of another: no matter how transient, at no matter what price.

  Then I remembered that I was nearly forty, and this frenzy, so I had been told, occurred in men of my age. I looked at Amy again. We had one very short, but very crucial scene
in the play. We had been face to face for months, but I had never looked at her before. It scarcely seemed possible. I thought, You’ll never work again, old buddy, you’ve had it, you’ve gone completely to pieces. I was looking at her face, but I was thinking of her cunt, of what it would be like to go down on this skinny little girl, how it would feel to hold her, to go inside her, how we should move together, and how she would be when she came.

  She did not seem to know what I was thinking. She said, “Well. The rumor is that they’re going to halt production on Big Deal—they were just about ready to go, you know—until you’re well enough to play the reporter.”

  “That’s quite a rumor,” I said. But I was pleased. A kind of chill made me cough. Barbara looked sharply in my direction, and so did Pete. Pete drained his glass, and Barbara picked up her mink. Alvin came over and sat down on the bed.

  “I’m glad you’re going to be all right, fellow,” he said. And he really meant it. He meant it as much as he could mean it.

  “Thank you,” I said. But I was suddenly very tired. I thought, You’ve been ill and you’re not well yet. I thought, Maybe you’ll never really get well again.

  “We got to clear this joint now, folks!” Pete cried. “We got to take the patient home!”

  “Isn’t it a nice rumor?” Amy asked. “Especially—you know—to take away with you?”

  “What rumor?” asked Alvin.

  I put my fist under Amy’s chin, and smiled at her. “Rumors, rumors. It’s sweet of you to tell me. But I’m afraid it’ll be a long time before I’m ready to work again.” I looked at Alvin. “I’m going to go away,” I said. “I’m going to go back to the Mediterranean and sit there dressed in nothing but those loincloths we used to wear in Africa before the goddamn missionaries got there, and look at the sea and have some sweet girl take care of me and think about my life and walk up and down the beach and read some of the books I’ve been saying I was going to read and roll in that sea and get burned in that sun and eat and eat”—Lord, how quickly I had got drunk!—“and maybe weep a little and pull myself together. But it won’t be the same self. I guarantee you that.” I stood up because I didn’t want Barbara to be embarrassed by suggesting that I stand up. “After that,” I said suddenly, for Barbara’s sake, sober again, and smiling, “I might go back to work. Or I might join the church. Except there isn’t any church.” I was not sober. I was very melancholy.