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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 30


  “But if Christopher’s on that plane,” said Barbara, “the autograph-hunting housewives from Des Moines will stay far away, believe me.”

  “They’ll think Christopher was sent by the Mau Mau,” Pete said.

  “He certainly looks it—hell,” I said, “I think he was,” and we laughed.

  “And you see,” said Barbara, “that will give Mr. and Mrs. Ass-kisser such a thrill that your box office will climb astronomically. One must think of these things.”

  I laughed. “You’re very persuasive.” I leaned back in the cushions—what is it about a fire which makes one feel so safe? “And you might be right. Let me think about it.”

  “Well,” said Pete, “if your brother’s meeting you tomorrow, you ain’t got too long to be thinking—we have to let him know.”

  “And let Christopher know,” said Barbara.

  I had no practical arguments. Anyway, I was too tired to argue. I didn’t want to leave this fire, or this room, but I wanted to get out of the country. I had had it among all these deadly and dangerous people, who made their own lives, and all the lives they touched, so flat and stale and joyless. Once, I had thought a day would come when I would be able to get along with them—and indeed the day had come: I got along with them by keeping them far from me. I didn’t have anything against them, particularly; or I had so much against them that the bill could now never be tallied, and so had become irrelevant. My countrymen impressed me, simply, as being, on the whole, the emptiest and most unattractive people in the world. It seemed a great waste of one’s only lifetime to be condemned to their chattering, vicious, pathetic, hysterically dishonest company. There were other things to do, other people to see, there was another way to live! I had seen it, after all, and I knew. But I also knew that what I had seen, I had seen from a distance, a distance determined by my history. I was part of these people, no matter how bitterly I judged them. I would never be able to leave this country. I could only leave it briefly, like a drowning man coming up for air. I had the choice of perishing with these doomed people, or of fleeing them, denying them, and, in that effort, perishing. It was a very cunning trap, and a very bitter joke. For these people would not change, they could not, they had no energy for change: the very word caused their eyes to unfocus, their lips to loosen or to tighten, and sent them scurrying into their various bomb-shelters. And, therefore, I was really rather reluctant to see Christopher, whose destiny was as tied to this desolation as my own, but who felt that his options and his possibilities were different. Indeed, they were, they had to be: but what they were was not to be deciphered by staring into America’s great stone face. I was nearly twenty years older than Christopher, and it made me ashamed, very often, listening to him, watching him, understanding the terrible round of his days, that not all of my endeavor, not all of the endeavor of so many for so long, had lessened his danger in any degree, or in any way at all sweetened the bitter cup. And, since I was so much older than Christopher, I knew far better than Christopher could how little warrant I had for agreeing that his options and possibilities were different. I had to agree because I loved him and valued him. I had to agree because it is criminal to counsel despair. I had to agree because it is always possible that if one man can be saved, a multitude can be saved. But, in fact, it seemed to me that Christopher’s options and possibilities could change only when the actual framework changed: and the metamorphosis of the framework into which we had been born would almost certainly be so violent as to blow Christopher, and me, and all of us, away. And then—how does the Bible put it? Caleb would know—perhaps God would raise up a people who could understand. But, God’s batting average failing to inspire confidence, I committed myself to Christopher’s possibilities. Perhaps God would join us later, when He was convinced that we were on the winning side. Then, heaven would pass a civil-rights bill and all of the angels would be equal and all God’s children have shoes.

  I knew that I was being coy, a little dishonest, more than a little frightened: “Are you sure,” I asked, “that Christopher would want to come all the way out here—just for a couple of days?”

  “Shoot,” said Pete, sucking his teeth authoritatively, “he’d have been here already, if he’d had any bread.”

  Barbara nodded, and sipped her drink, watching me. I wondered if I was worried about seeing Barbara and Christopher together again—life can be a bitch sometimes. She knew, I think, that I was wondering this. She waited, and I said, finally, “Well, all right, if you think that’s best—you’ve sort of got me over a barrel.”

  But I couldn’t help smiling as I said it, and Pete and Barbara smiled and bowed to each other and raised their glasses in triumph. Then Barbara came over, and kissed me.

  “Now, tell the truth. That wasn’t hard, was it? And aren’t you—just a little bit—relieved?”

  “Maybe,” I said. “Just a little bit. But your triumph’s going to cost you something, princess. I want another drink.”

  She took my glass. “All right. But, then, you will take your bath, won’t you? Because I’ve ordered dinner to be sent up in about an hour or so—a nice dinner, all the things you like, and it’d be a pity to eat it cold.” She went to the bar, and poured my drink.

  “You see, Barbara,” Pete said. “I told you we should just have gone ahead and sent for the cat.”

  “Oh, but this way, we’re sure to have Leo around for at least a couple more days. After all, how do we know how long it will take Christopher to get here?” She winked at Pete, and laughed, and came back and put my drink in my hand.

  “I wonder if I could have a cigarette?” I asked.

  “You can have one cigarette now,” said Barbara, “and one cigarette after dinner and that’s all. That’s serious. And when you go away from here, you really must make an effort about that—you’re going to have to watch your drinking, you know that, but cigarettes are really worse.” She watched me, both worried and stern. “Really.” She lit a cigarette and put it between my lips. “There. Don’t say I never give you nothing.”

  I inhaled the cigarette, which tasted strange, almost as strange as cigarettes had tasted when I was a kid, just learning to smoke. I looked at it, and gave it back to Barbara.

  I said, “Maybe I’ll try it again after dinner.” I sipped my drink, then I put it on the table. I stared into the fire.

  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to them. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. I wanted to talk, I had much to say. But, whereas they might have known what I was going to say, I didn’t: and so I stared into the fire. They talked to each other, unconsciously dropping their voices a little: and I stared into the fire. They were talking backstage shoptalk and gossip for awhile, laughing a lot. I was aware of Pete’s rather brown teeth in his brown and Oriental face, and of Barbara’s very clear laughter sounding the way running water looks, over stones. It was nice to hear them. It made me feel safe. I knew they didn’t care whether I talked or not. They were glad—they were proud, even—that I could stare into the fire, that I was free to stare into the fire.

  And what did the fire say? Now that I knew that I was going to live, at least for awhile, the fire seemed warmer than it ever had before. I sipped my drink, watching that crumbling, shaking, brilliant universe. The fire towered high, rising straight up, like a tree or tower—a tower made of air, lifting itself ever higher, vain even in its fall, and glorious. Not for two seconds together did the fire remain the same. It could not be content until everything had come under its dominion, had served its lust, and become a part of itself. I thought of martyrs, saints, and witches perishing in the fire, while multitudes looked on and felt that they were, thus, purified by flame. The man who stole the fire had bequeathed us the instrument of our salvation; and we, like the fire, were never the same for two seconds together, and, like the fire, we had never changed. How had they felt, those who had been destined to make our purity inviolate, when brought chained to the place and tied to the stake or the ladder, watching the face
s of their brothers as they piled the fire higher, watching those faces until the smoke and the fire and the anguish intervened, until the sinful flesh had paid its penalty and the multitude were once again redeemed? What a tremendous decision had been made, what a mighty law had been passed, so long ago, and with the roar of universal relief and approval: that only the destruction of another could bring peace to the soul and guarantee the order of the universe! The fire said, in Caleb’s voice, Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of? I wondered why it was a virtue, often presented as the highest, to despise oneself and everybody else. What a slimy gang of creeps and cowards those old church fathers must have been; and remained; and what was my brother doing in that company? Where else should a man’s breath be, Caleb, I asked, but in his nostrils? Have you forgotten, have you forgotten, the flesh of our fathers which burned in that fire, the bones of our men broken by that wrath, the privacy of our women made foul by that conquest, and our children turned into orphans, into less than dogs, by that universal righteousness? Oh, yes, yes, yes, forgive them, let them rot, let them live or die; but how can you stand in the company of our murderers, how can you kiss that monstrous cross, how can you kiss them with the kiss of love? How can you? I asked of Caleb, who moaned and thundered at me from the fire. I had not talked to Caleb for years, for many years had cultivated an inability to think of him. But, soon I would be seeing him and his wife and his children. Me, but lately ensnared by death, I returned to my brother, I longed for him. I needed him: but the fire raged between us.

  I heard Barbara saying, from a long way off, “Well, of course, part of Amy’s trouble is that she’s really a quite decent little actress—really, one of the best young actresses I’ve ever worked with. But Bob can’t direct her—you know, he never really did direct her. So, of course she’s never really felt secure and that can make everyone else very nervous. But I don’t think Amy’s the one to blame. Sylvia’s wrong about that.”

  “Oh, well. Sylvia. She’s just afraid that the child messes up that one kind of shitty sentimental scene they have together.”

  “Amy isn’t good in that scene, that’s true. But it’s because she’s afraid of Sylvia. And that’s because Bob was afraid of Sylvia. He was so afraid she’d curse him out that he just let her have her way. And so what else can poor Amy do but just sort of stand there, plotting to get out of that corner where nobody can see her or hear her, where Sylvia always traps her?”

  Pete laughed. “Well, Sylvia’s been playing maids and clowns for about forty-five years, yukking and shucking and bowing mighty low. Now, at least, she’s out of the kitchen—so you know she’s going to make the most of it.”

  “She doesn’t, though. The scene would go much better if she’d get up off of Amy, and let her work. And if the scene went the way it should go, then Sylvia would show to much better advantage, too.”

  “Well—you tell that to our black prima donna.”

  “Oh, no. Not I. She’d never listen to anything coming from me. I’ve tried to give Amy a few pointers, but it hasn’t helped much. Anyway, thank God, the tour’s almost over.” She looked over at me. “Are you ready for your bath?”

  “Aren’t you two going to the theater?”

  “We’re dark tonight. We wouldn’t arrange to take you out of the hospital on a night when we’re working.”

  That made sense, and I would certainly have thought of it if I hadn’t been off schedule so long and so forgotten what the schedule was.

  “Pete,” I said, “when I got sick, did my brother start to come out here?”

  “Well,” Pete said—he looked uncomfortable—“I don’t know if I did right, but this is what I did. I knew the wire services had picked it up right away, and so I called New York—luckily, Barbara had his home phone number. So I called his house and I got his wife. He wasn’t there, he was at the church. So I told her you was resting easy and out of danger but you had to rest for awhile and we was taking the best possible care of you we could and I told her not to worry. She sounded relieved and she thanked me and she gave me the number of the church and I called the church.” He paused.

  “Did you talk to him?”

  “Yeah. I talked to him. He was busy running some kind of Youth Drive, I never did figure out what he meant by that, but he sounded worried about you and I told him you would be all right. And then he wanted to know if you wanted him to come out here. He had to let me know that it would be a real sacrifice for him and for the church, but he’d do it for you because you were his brother. Well”—Pete grimaced—“I didn’t really go for that sacrifice shit too much, and I didn’t think you would, either. But you were in no condition for me to be asking you questions and so I told him, No, not now, and I’d be in touch with him and that was that.”

  The silence in the room was a little loud. Pete watched me with a smile, Barbara poked the fire. “I just realized,” I said, “that he hasn’t written to me at all. I haven’t heard a word from him.” I finished my drink, and stood up. “How come he’s meeting me at the plane?”

  “He called up and asked when you were coming and we thought we had to tell him and then he said he’d meet you at the plane.” He watched me, wry, mocking, with a deep, distant sympathy. “That’s it, old buddy. Now you know as much as I do.”

  I looked from Pete to Barbara. “I doubt that,” I said.

  “He did say,” said Pete maliciously, “that he was leaving you in the hands of the Lord.”

  So that’s where he left me, I thought. I laughed. “None of you mothers could have done as much. I hope you thanked him.”

  “I said I was sure you’d be glad to know we heard from him.” He grinned. “And that we was waiting on the Lord.”

  I laughed again. “Well. I must go wash.” Whiter than snow! I thought, and I walked into the bathroom. The bath was full of bubbles, big and blue. I lowered myself into the water. It licked up around me, as hungry as fire, around my private parts, my belly, my nipples, my chest. I leaned back, I put my head under, I came back up. I put my hands to my soaked, woolly head, like a savage newly baptized. Whiter than snow. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. My Jesus is a rock in a weary land, and all my sins are taken away.

  “Get away, Jordan. I’ve got to cross over to see my Lord.”

  They sang that song at my mother’s funeral. That funeral was a great revelation. She died when I was twenty-six. By that time, I had worked professionally as an actor and whenever I was working as an actor, I was an actor. But at the time she died, I was a cook in a barbecue joint. She died, worried about me, I knew. I wasn’t getting along with the family, and I wasn’t getting on in the world. She had met Barbara two or three times; once, when I took her to see Barbara backstage; once, when I brought Barbara to the house; one other time, not long after the Paradise Alley days. I had thought that she would like Barbara, that Barbara would somehow prove to her the helpless depth of my ambition. But, whereas my father, without particularly liking or disliking Barbara, worried about the griefs and dangers she could bring me to, and Caleb kept her carefully quarantined in the limbo of unregenerate harlots—unregenerate because she was white, harlot because she was a woman, in limbo because she was both—my mother hated Barbara, hated her helplessly, depthlessly, felt for Barbara a revulsion so deep that she could scarcely bear to look at her. And she attempted to cover this with a New Orleans gentility which we, her family, had never known her to use before, and which was far more devastating than cursing or spittle or a blow. What made it unbearable was that it revealed a fear I had never noticed in my mother before. “Now, you know,” she said to me darkly, once, “that is not what I raised you for. That was no part of my calculations, young man, and you might as well know it front as back.”

  “What are you talking about, Mama?” I knew what she was talking about. She could almost never bring herself to mention Barbara by name, but the tone was unmistakable.

  “I mean, I am not going to have no f
air-haired, blue-eyed baby crawling around here and calling me Grandmama. That’s what I mean. You know damn well what I mean.”

  I sighed. We were sitting alone in the house. Maybe it was a Saturday. I said, “Mama, what are you getting yourself upset about? Have I said I was going to marry the girl?”

  “You might. You might—you just that foolish. And then what’s going to happen to you I don’t know—with a common little thing like that?” She laughed, a coarse, sad, unpleasant sound. “Ha! I sure didn’t raise you for that.”

  I knew, as I said it, that I was making a mistake. “Mama, what makes you call her common? She comes from a very rich Kentucky family, and she’s their only child.”

  She laughed again. “Is that so? And what does she do with her money? Spend it on you?” She looked me cruelly up and down. I certainly didn’t look as though anybody spent money on me. “Yeah. I reckon that’s where you got all them fine clothes you’re wearing, from Bonwit Teller’s.”

  She had hurt me. People can, mothers can. I said, “All right, Mama. Have it your way. Barbara’s a whore and I’m her pimp.”

  “Well, at least,” she shouted, then—for now I had hurt her—“That would make some kind of sense. At least she’d be some use to you! And you wouldn’t be walking around here in the wintertime, skinny as Job’s mule and with that little piece of rag you got the nerve to call a coat and wearing sneakers—in the wintertime! What’s going to happen to you, you fool? Is that girl addled your brains for fair?” I turned away, and she continued in another tone, a tone harder to bear: “I thought you was going to make something of yourself. We all thought so, Caleb thought so—we used to be so proud of you! And look at you. Just look at you.”