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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 3
If it was summer, then, we bought a watermelon, which either Caleb or our father carried, fighting with each other for this privilege. And it was marvelous to see them fighting this way, the one accusing the other of being too old, and the ancient of days insisting that if his son carried a watermelon for another block that way all the girls in the neighborhood would live to regret it. “For the sake of the family name, man,” he said, “so the family name won’t die out, let me carry that melon, Caleb. You going to bust your string.” “Little Leo’ll see to it that we carry on,” Caleb said, sometimes; sometimes he hinted broadly that he was carrying on the blood even if he wasn’t yet in a position to carry on the name. This sometimes led to a short footrace between them to the steps of our tenement. Our father usually won it, since Caleb was usually handicapped by the weight and the shape of the melon. They both looked very much like each other on those days—both big, both black, both laughing. Caleb always looked absolutely helpless when he laughed. He laughed with all his body, perhaps touching his shoulder against yours, or putting his head on your chest for a moment, and then careening off you, halfway across the room, or down the block. I will always hear his laughter. He was always happy on such days, too. If our father needed his son, Caleb certainly needed his father. Such days, however, were rare—one of the reasons, probably, that I remember them now. And our father’s laugh was like Caleb’s laugh, except that he stood still, and watched. Eventually, we all climbed the stairs into that hovel which, at such moments, was our castle. One very nearly felt the drawbridge rising behind us as our father locked the door.
The bathtub could not yet be filled with cold water and the melon placed in the tub because this was Saturday, and, come evening, we all had to bathe. The melon was covered with a blanket and placed on the fire escape. Then we unloaded what we had bought, rather impressed by our opulence, though our father was always, by this time, appalled by the money we had spent and the quality of what we had bought. I was always sadly aware that there would be nothing left of all this once tomorrow had come and gone and that most of it, after all, was not for us, but for others. How come we could do all this for others and not for ourselves? But I knew better than to give tongue to this question. Our mother was calculating the pennies she would need all week—carfare for our father and for Caleb, who went to a high school out of our neighborhood, downtown; money for the life insurance, money for milk for me at school, money for cod-liver oil, money for light and gas, money put away—if possible—toward the rent. She knew just about what our father had left in his pockets and was counting on him to give me the money I would shortly be demanding to go to the movies. Caleb had a part-time job after school and already had his movie money. Anyway, unless he was in a very good mood, or needed me for something, he would not be anxious to go to the movies with me.
Our mother never insisted that Caleb tell her where he was going, nor did she question him as to how he spent what money he made. She was afraid of hearing him lie and she did not want to risk forcing him to lie. She was operating on the assumption that he was sensible and had been raised to be honorable and that he, now more than ever, needed his privacy. But she was very firm with him, nevertheless.
“I do not want to see you rolling in here at three in the morning, Caleb. I want you here in time to eat and you know you got to take your bath.”
“Yes, indeed, ma’am. Why can’t I take my bath in the morning?”
“Don’t you start being funny. You know you ain’t going to get up in time to take no bath in the morning.”
“Don’t nobody want you messing around in that bathroom all morning long, man,” said our father. “You just get your butt back in the house like your mama’s telling you.”
“Besides,” I said, “you never wash out the tub.”
Caleb looked at me in mock surprise and from a great height, allowing his chin and his lids simultaneously to drop and swiveling his head away from me. “I see,” he said, “that everyone in this family is ganging up on me. All right, Leo. I was planning to take you to the show with me, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
This suggestion always had exactly the effect he desired. Our parents were relieved, not only because, as they supposed, I would now operate as a check on Caleb and not only because Caleb would be protection for me—this dulling the uneasy, incipient guilt they felt about my being in the streets at all; they were above all relieved that they might now, without worrying, be truly alone for a little while, friendly and vertical, in the broad daylight. I was repentant and overjoyed.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, “I take it back.”
“You take what back?”
“What I said—about you not washing out the tub.”
“Ain’t no need to take it back,” our father said stubbornly, “it’s true. A man don’t take back nothing that’s true.”
“So you say,” said Caleb lightly, quickly, with a hint of a sneer. But before anyone could possibly react to this, he picked me up, scowling into my face, which he held just above his own. “You take it back?”
“Leo ain’t going to take it back,” our father said.
Now I was in trouble. Caleb watched me, a small grin on his face. “You take it back?”
“Stop teasing that child and put him down,” said our mother. “The trouble ain’t that Caleb don’t wash out the tub—he just don’t wash it out very clean.”
“I never knew him to wash it out,” said our father, “unless I was standing behind him.”
“Well, ain’t neither one of you much good around the house,” said our mother with finality, “and that’s the truth.”
Caleb laughed and set me down. “You didn’t take it back,” he said.
I said nothing.
“I guess I’m just going to have to go on without you.”
Still, I said nothing.
“You going to have that child to crying in a minute,” our mother said. “If you going to take him, go on and take him. Don’t do him like that.”
Caleb laughed again. “I’m going to take him. The way he got them eyes all ready to water, I’d better take him somewhere.” We walked toward the door. “But you got to make up your mind,” he said to me, “to say what you think is right.”
“What movie,” asked our father, “you fixing to take him to see?”
“I don’t know,” said Caleb. “We’ll see what’s playing at the Lincoln.”
“I don’t want his mind all messed up—you know that.”
“He ain’t going to get his mind messed up—not by going to the movies.”
“You don’t know the Jew like I know him.”
“Let them go on,” said our mother, “so they can get back here in time for supper.”
“It’s the Jew makes them movies, man, in order to mess up our minds. That’s why I don’t never go to see them.”
“You don’t never go to see them,” said our mother, “because you too lazy and too old. And can’t nobody tear you away from that rum. Let these children go on—”
“You’ll see,” he said, grimly, “you’re going to see one of these days just what I’m talking about. And you ain’t going to like what you see at all.”
“Hush,” she said, “I ain’t afraid of what I’m going to see. I know what I’ve seen already.”
I grabbed Caleb’s hand, the signal for the descent of the drawbridge. She watched us cheerfully as we walked out, he watched us balefully. Yet, there was a certain humor in his face, too, and a kind of pride. “Dig you later,” Caleb said, and the door closed behind us.
The hall was dark, smelling of cooking, of boiling diapers, of men and boys pissing there late at night, of stale wine, of rotting garbage. The walls were full of an information which I could scarcely read and did not know how to use. We dropped down the stairs, Caleb going two at a time, pausing at each landing, briefly, to glance back up at me. I dropped down behind him as fast as I could. Sometimes Caleb was in a bad mood and then everything I did was wron
g. But when Caleb was in a good mood, it didn’t matter that everything I did was wrong. When I reached the street level, Caleb was already on the stoop, joking with some of his friends, who were standing in the doorway—who seemed always to be in the doorway, no matter what hour one passed through. I didn’t like Caleb’s friends because I was afraid of them. I knew the only reason they didn’t try to make life hell for me the way they made life hell for a lot of the other kids was because they were afraid of Caleb. I came through the door, passing between my brother and his friends, down to the sidewalk, feeling, as they looked briefly at me and then continued joking with Caleb, what they felt: that here was Caleb’s round-eyed, frail and useless sissy of a little brother. They pitied Caleb for having to take me out. On the other hand, they also wanted to go to the show, but didn’t have the money. Therefore, in silence, I could crow over them even as they despised me. But this was always a terribly risky, touch-and-go business, for Caleb might always, at any moment, and with no warning, change his mind and drive me away, and, effectively, take their side against me. I always stood, those Saturday afternoons, in fear and trembling, holding on to the small shield of my bravado, while waiting for Caleb to come down the steps of the stoop, to come down the steps, away from his friends, to me. I prepared myself, always, for the moment when he would turn to me, saying, “Okay, kid. You run along. I’ll see you later.”
This meant that I would have to go to the movies by myself and hang around in front of the box office, waiting for some grown-up to take me in. I could not go back upstairs, for this would be informing my mother and father that Caleb had gone off somewhere—after promising to take me to the movies. Neither could I simply hang around the block, playing with the kids on the block. For one thing, my demeanor, as I came out of the house, those Saturdays, very clearly indicated that I had better things to do than play with them; for another, they were not terribly anxious to play with me; and, finally, my remaining on the block would have had exactly the same effect as my going upstairs. Someone would surely inform my father and mother, or they might simply look out of the window, or one of them would come downstairs to buy something they had forgotten while shopping, or my father would pass down the block on his way to the bar. In short, to remain on the block after Caleb’s dismissal was to put myself at the mercy of the block and to put Caleb at the mercy of our parents.
So I prepared myself, those Saturdays, to respond with a cool, “Okay. See you later,” and prepared myself then to turn indifferently away, and walk. This was surely the most terrible moment. The moment I turned away I was committed, I was trapped, and I then had miles to walk, so it seemed to me, before I would be out of sight, before the block ended and I could turn onto the avenue. I wanted to run out of that block, but I never did. I never looked back. I forced myself to walk very slowly, looking neither right nor left, trying to look neither up nor down—striving to seem at once distracted and offhand; concentrating on the cracks in the sidewalk, and stumbling over them, trying to whistle, feeling every muscle in my body, from my pigeon toes to my jiggling behind, to my burning neck; feeling that all the block was watching me, and feeling—which was odd—that I deserved it. And then I reached the avenue, and turned, still not looking back, and was released from those eyes at least, but now faced other eyes, eyes coming toward me. These eyes were the eyes of children stronger than me, who would steal my movie money; these eyes were the eyes of white cops, whom I feared, whom I hated with a literally murderous hatred; these eyes were the eyes of old folks who also thought I was a sissy and who might wonder what I was doing on this avenue by myself. And these eyes were the eyes of men and women going in and out of bars, or standing on the corners, who certainly had no eyes for me, but who occupied the center of my bewildered attention because they seemed, at once, so abject and so free.
And then I got to the show. Sometimes, someone would take me in right away and sometimes I would have to wait. I looked at the posters which seemed magical indeed to me in those days. I was very struck, not altogether agreeably, by the colors. The faces of the movie stars were in red, in green, in blue, in purple, not at all like the colors of real faces and yet they looked more real than real. Or, rather, they looked like faces far from me, faces which I would never be able to decipher, faces which could be seen but never changed or touched, faces which existed only behind these doors. I don’t know what I thought. Some great assault, certainly, was being made on my imagination, on my sense of reality. Caleb could draw, he was teaching me to draw, and I wondered if he could teach me to draw faces like these. I looked at the stills from the show, seeing people in attitudes of danger, in attitudes of love, in attitudes of sorrow and loss. They were not like any people I had ever seen and this made them, irrevocably, better. With one part of my mind, of course, I knew that here was James Cagney—holding his gun like a prize; and here was Clark Gable, all dimples, teeth, and eyes, the eyes filled with a smoky, taunting recollection of his invincible virility; here was Joan Crawford, gleaming with astonishment, and here was proud, quivering Katharine Hepburn, who could never be astonished, and here was poor, downtrodden Sylvia Sidney, weeping in the clutches of yet another gangster. But only the faces and the attitudes were real, more real than the lives we led, more real than our days and nights, and the names were merely brand-names, like Campbell’s Baked Beans or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. We went to see James Cagney because we had grown accustomed to that taste, we knew that we would like it.
But, then, I would have to turn my attention from the faces and the stills and watch the faces coming to the box office. And this was not easy, since I didn’t, after all, want everyone in the neighborhood to know that I was loitering outside the moviehouse waiting for someone to take me in, exactly like an orphan. If it came to our father’s attention, he would kill both Caleb and me. Eventually, I would see a face which looked susceptible and which I did not know. I would rush up beside him or her—but it was usually a man, for they were less likely to be disapproving—and whisper, “Take me in,” and give him my dime. Sometimes the man simply took the dime and disappeared into the movies, sometimes he gave my dime back to me and took me in, anyway. Sometimes I ended up wandering around the streets—but I couldn’t wander into a strange neighborhood because I would be beaten up if I did—until I figured the show was out. It was dangerous to get home too early and, of course, it was practically lethal to arrive too late. If all went well, I could cover for Caleb, saying that I had left him with some boys on the stoop. Then, if he came in too late and got a dressing down for it, it could not be considered my fault.
But if wandering around this way was not without its dangers, neither was it without its discoveries and delights. I discovered subways—I discovered, that is, that I could ride on subways by myself, and, furthermore, that I could usually ride for nothing. Sometimes, when I ducked under the turnstile, I was caught and cuffed and turned back, and sometimes great black ladies seized on me as a pretext for long, very loud, ineffably moral lectures about wayward children breaking their parents’ hearts; as to this, however, the ladies very often and very loudly disagreed among themselves, insisting that wayward children were produced by wayward parents, and calling down on the heads of my parents the most vivid penalties that heaven could devise. And heaven would have had to go some to have surpassed their imaginations. Sometimes, doing everything in my power not to attract their attention, I endeavored to look as though I were the charge of a respectable-looking man or woman, entering the subway in their shadow, and sitting very still beside them. It was best to try to sit between two such people, for, then, each would automatically assume that I was with the other. There I would sit, then, in a precarious anonymity, watching the people, listening to the roar, watching the lights and the cables and the lights of other stations flash by. It seemed to me that nothing was faster than a subway train and I loved the speed because the speed was dangerous. For a time, during these expeditions, I simply sat and watched the people. Lots of people would be d
ressed up, for this was Saturday night. The women’s hair would be all straightened and curled and the lipstick on their full lips looked purple and make-believe against the dark skins of their faces. They wore very fancy capes or coats, in wonderful colors, and long dresses, and sometimes they had jewels in their hair and sometimes they wore flowers on their dresses. They were almost as beautiful as movie stars. And so the men with them seemed to think. The hair of the men was slick and wavy, brushed up into pompadours; or they wore very sharp hats, brim flicked down dangerously over one eye, with perhaps one flower in the lapel of their many-colored suits and a tie-pin shining in the center of their bright ties. Their hands were large and very clean, with rings on their heavy fingers, and their nails glowed. They laughed and talked with their girls, but quietly, for there were white people in the car. The white people would scarcely ever be dressed up, and never as brilliantly as the colored people. They wore just ordinary suits and hats and coats and did not speak to each other at all—only read their papers and stared at the advertisements. But they fascinated me more than the colored people did because I knew nothing at all about them and could not imagine what they were like. Their faces were as strange to me as the faces on the movie posters and the stills, but far less attractive, because, mysteriously, menacing, and, under the ruthless subway light, they were revealed literally, in their true colors, which were not green, red, blue, or purple, but a mere, steady, unnerving, pinkish reddish yellow. I wondered why people called them white—they certainly were not white. Black people were not black either—my father was wrong. Underground, I received my first apprehension of New York neighborhoods, and, underground, first felt what may be called a civic terror. I very soon realized that after the train had passed a certain point, going uptown or downtown, all the colored people disappeared. The first time I realized this, I panicked and got lost. I rushed off the train, terrified of what these white people might do to me with no colored person around to protect me—even to scold me, even to beat me, at least their touch was familiar, and I knew that they did not, after all, intend to kill me; and got on another train only because I saw a black man on it. But almost everyone else was white. The train did not stop at any of the stops I remembered. I became more and more frightened, frightened of getting off the train and frightened of staying on it, frightened of saying anything to the man and frightened that he would get off the train before I could say anything to him. He was my salvation and he stood there in the unapproachable and frightening form that salvation so often takes. At each stop, I watched him with despair. To make matters worse, I suddenly realized that I had to pee. Once I realized it, this need became a torment; the horror of wetting my pants in front of all these people made the torment greater. Finally, I tugged at the man’s sleeve. He looked down at me with a gruff, amused concern—he had been staring out of the dark window, far away with his own thoughts; then, reacting, no doubt, to the desperation in my face, he bent closer. I asked him if there was a bathroom on the train. He laughed.