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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 31


  “I guess you think Caleb’s made something of himself,” I said, “and you want me to be like my big brother.”

  “Caleb is a respected man. A very respected man. I used to worry about Caleb—I used to worry about Caleb more than I worried about you. But, yes, Caleb has made something of himself, and he made it out of nothing and you know it was hard for him, it was hard! But look at what he’s done—now it won’t be too long before he owns his own home—”

  “Yeah. With all those nickels and dimes he steals from all these ignorant niggers! You’re proud of that? You raised me for that?”

  “Don’t you talk about your brother that way! You’ve got no right to talk! What have you got? Tell me that. Huh? You ain’t got a goddamn pot to piss in. And where do you live, huh? Tell me that. And where do you steal your money? Huh? You want to tell me that?” She watched me. “Don’t you come around here, being all self-righteous and haughty. Your brother’s made a man of himself. But don’t nobody know what you is yet.”

  I picked up the rag I called a coat. “All right. I’m not a man. I’ll never be a man. Forget it. I’m getting out of here.”

  “Now, where you think you going? You just got here. Your daddy’ll be home in a few minutes—”

  “Yeah. And my big brother and his big-assed wife and their two-headed baby. Tell them little Leo’s been here and gone.”

  “Leo! You come back here!”

  “I will not come back here! I’m going to see my whore!”

  “Leo! Oh, Leo. What’s happened to you? Why can’t you be the Leo you used to be?”

  “I will not ever again,” I shouted, “be the Leo I used to be! Fuck the Leo I used to be. That boy is dead. Dead.” And out of the door and down the steps I went.

  What a pity. What a waste. I knew, when my mother went on like that, when my mother hurt me, that she was not trying to hurt me. I knew that. And yet—I was hurt. I was frightened—perhaps because I then considered that I was too old to be hurt, especially by my mother. I did not know—then—what nerve was unbearably struck in my mother by the conjunction of Barbara and myself. I wish I had known. But one of the reasons I was so vulnerable—in those days, in those ways—was my unspoken and unspeakable shame and fury concerning my career. I had, indeed, appeared on the professional stage, oh, four or five times, and worked with little theaters all up and down the goddamn country. I still choke on the dust of those halls, will never really recover from the stink and chill of those rooms. And, my God, the roles I played! Roles—roles is much to say. I made my first professional stage appearance, inevitably, carrying a tray. I was on for about a minute, and I had to carry the tray over to some fucked-up, broken-down British fagot, who was one of the great lights of the theater. I had to serve this zombie his breakfast about five hundred fucking times, and every single time I went upstage to uncover his eggs and pour his coffee, Britannia came up behind me and lovingly stroked my balls. Nobody could see it, because he had this wide velvet robe stretched out behind him; but if he had done it in sight of the entire audience, I don’t think anybody would have noticed it, or cared; people won’t see what they can’t afford to see. Well, I took it as long as I could—the point is, I took it too long: and I did it, as I kept saying to myself, because I was being exposed—indeed, I was—and it was a Broadway show, and it would look good in my résumé. The end between me and Britannia—and the show—came during a matinée when I reached behind me a second before he reached and pulled on his balls like I was Quasimodo ringing the bells of Notre Dame. The mother couldn’t make a move and he was supposed to be downstage to greet Lady Cunt-face who had just fluttered in; and by the time I let him go, and he stumbled downstage, he looked like a teakettle about to whistle. Well. It went on like that, and it got worse, and I don’t think I’d have minded if I could have found a role which had some relation to the life I lived, the life I knew, some role which did not traduce entirely my own sense of life, of my own life. But I played waiters, butlers, porters, clowns; since they had never existed in life, there was no conceivable way to play them. And one learned, therefore, and long before one had learned anything else, the most abject reliance on the most shameful tricks, one learned before one learned anything else that contempt for the audience which is death to art. One was imitating an artifact, one might as well have been an icon, and one’s performance depended not at all on what one saw—still less, God forbid, on what one felt—but on what the audience had come to see, had been trained to see. In the most sinister possible way, and, at the same time, the most fearful, they needed to know that you were happy in order to be sure that they were happy. The hidden, hopeful weight in the balance could be one thing only, one’s charm. By that I do not at all mean the ability to be ingratiating, but the far more difficult ability—or necessity—of somehow thinking oneself and the audience beyond the confines of the expected. One had to change the beat: one had to find a rhythm which arrested the rhythm. And the price for this was a certain ruthless good humor, for the audience had, after all, placed themselves in your hands by lacking the courage to imagine about you what you knew too well about them. The people saw you showing your teeth: it escaped their notice that they were also showing theirs—and showing them, furthermore, on the cue delivered by their Fool.

  But if porters, clowns, and butlers were a big fat drag, those more sympathetic efforts made by the American theater were infinitely more demoralizing. I actually did play, for example, In Abraham’s Bosom, once, in one of those little church theaters, it may have been in Denver, but it could have been Brooklyn or Birmingham. I was far too young for it, and nothing could have made me either right or ready. I gave an awful performance, and I knew it. I couldn’t find my way into the character at all, I didn’t believe in his sorrows and I didn’t believe in his joys and I found absolutely no way to play the scene in which the hero, having struck down a white man, loudly and sincerely repents. He sounded as though he had struck down the son of God. The white man had beaten him with a whip: why was the nigger supposed to moan because he reacted—and, at that, belatedly—as the dueling codes of Europe assume a man should act? Playing this role, for this was a role, was harder than carrying the tray. It was the tray transformed into a boulder, and the play was the mountain up which I had to roll it—escaping narrowly indeed with my dignity when the curtain fell. The play was put on as part of an educational drive: was this what we were supposed to learn? Father forgive them, Caleb would have said, for they know not what they do. Well, Father could forgive them till times got better. It was too bad they didn’t know what they were doing—I knew what they were doing, and as long as they were doing it to me, I was going to do my best to give them a bloody instruction. But this made my life very hard, for after all, I had no power, and it destroyed in me forever much that wished to remain warm and sweet and open.

  By and by, in little experimental theaters here and there, I played some roles written for white men. And this was a curious kind of revelation, too, and it was very unnerving. I knew, in the first place, after all, that no matter how well I played, say, Tom in The Glass Menagerie, or Mio in Winterset, I was never going to be hired to play these parts. To do them at all was very forcefully to be made to realize the nature of the vacuum in which, helplessly, one was spinning. It was very hard to persist in learning what would almost certainly prove to be a useless language. And yet one had to learn, one had to; for how shameful to be judged unready should the great day of one’s opportunity arrive! I liked playing Mio, and I think I was good—after all, I too had a father cruelly wronged—and yet I always felt that there was something in the character that eluded me. I was very young when I played Mio, but playing him made me feel old. It’s hard to explain this. I liked the play very much—liked it more then than I do today—and the role was a beautiful challenge. And yet—I always felt that there was something terribly callow about the boy. It was hard for me not to judge him as being something of a whining boy. He seemed surprised by what had happened; h
e seemed to feel the heavens should have helped him. I envied him his surprise, I wondered at it, but I myself no longer felt it. The heavens he addressed were blind and cold, no healing there and well I knew it, the fate that overtook him, overtook him, as it were, without even noticing him. The wheel rolled and struck him down and plowed him under—that was all. And, as the years went on, I was to be more and more struck by this numb passivity on the part of characters who, after all, were part of the most active and optimistic nation in the world. They were helpless, they were stricken, from the moment the curtain rose. They seemed unable utterly to suspect any connection between their personal fortunes and the fortunes of the state of which they were a part, and rarely indeed was their heroism anything more than physical. It was not pleasant to be forced to reflect that they operated in a vacuum even greater than mine, and knew even less about themselves than I. I was trying to learn how to work in the theater: it was chilling to suspect that there wasn’t any. Most of the roles played by white people could only be played by means of tricks, tricks which would never help one to come closer to life, and all of which one would have to discard in order to play even one scene from, say, Ibsen.

  I was discovering what some American blacks must discover: that the people who destroyed my history had also destroyed their own.

  But all of this was long ago. I could not have said any of this then. I was merely in the process of testing my own sensibilities against the given. I knew something about the life I lived. It was not reflected, it was not respected, anywhere. And, therefore, my early years were perhaps more solitary than most, and certainly more embattled, and I was considered by nearly everyone to be a very difficult person.

  Nearly everyone: who did I know in those days? Well, Barbara, of course, above all, Barbara. She was certainly having her troubles. She worked more steadily than I. She was then trapped in precocious teenage roles, which she hated, but she was doggedly learning, as she put it, how to walk. We both remained members of the Workshop, having learned, with no little difficulty, how to use it for our own purposes. We conducted, from time to time, our own experiments, and reacted with less intensity to Saul’s judgments; but Barbara, on the whole, saw much more of Saul and Lola than I. Oh, there was a boy named Steve. There was a colored girl, named Sally. She was studying at NYU, and we were very close for awhile. But, at the point at which, in the ordinary way, we should have married, we parted; for I knew I could not marry. I was in a bizarre situation in those days, for there were not a great many Negroes in the world in which I moved—I hadn’t planned it that way, God knows, and I didn’t want it that way, but that’s the way it was—and there were virtually no Negro girls at all. So, I was lonely, in a very particular and a very dangerous way. I might have been different—those years might have been different—if I had not been estranged from my family. But I was, and this was mainly because of Caleb.

  For some reason, my first memory of Caleb, after the war was over, connects with another memory, of Barbara and myself; and I find it impossible to tell the one without first telling the other. I don’t know why. I did not refuse to join the Army, but outwitted it by a particular species of ruthless cunning. I was—I say now—prepared to go to jail. The Japanese had already been interned. I was not going to fight for the people who had interned them, who had also destroyed the Indians, who were in the process of destroying everyone I loved: I was not going to defend my murderers. Yet, when my moment came, I did not say any of that. I arrived at the Harlem draft-board with several books under my arm. I deliberately arrived a little late. I pretended that I had just come from the library. I said that I was the only support of my aging parents, and, in fact, I had had the foresight to be working in a shipyard, foresight or luck, it’s hard to say now, I’ve held so many jobs for so many reasons. Anyway, I think I gave a great performance before my draft-board. It was composed, as I knew it would be, of round, brown, respectable old men who had long ago given up any hope of being surprised. Round, brown, respectable old men, whose only real desire, insofar as they still dared desire, was to be white. I knew that, and with my books under my arm, with one brother already in the Army, with two aging people at home, with my impeccable shipyard job, with my flaming youth, and what I could not then have named as a deadly single-mindedness—and using precisely the fact that I was physically improbable—persuaded these round, brown, respectable old men that my potential value to my race—to them; my very improbability contained their hope of power, and I knew that—was infinitely more important than my, after all, trivial value to my country. And they deferred me. I had known that they would: that if I pressed the right buttons, they would have no choice but to defer me. And they checked up on me from time to time, but they never bothered me. I had surprised them, and they were grateful, although some of them grew to hate me later, when they suspected how they had goofed. But then it was too late: I was on my height, in my dungeon, had entered, as we say, my bag.

  Anyway: during the Workshop summer, just after Jerry went away, Barbara and I took it into our heads to climb the mountain which overlooked Bull Dog Road. We decided to climb it, and spend the night there. One of the reasons, though we didn’t say it, was that we were having a hard time in that house, now that Jerry had left it. We hadn’t yet begun to have a terrible time with each other, merely—that was to come; with Jerry gone, we were a scandal. Our dirty secret was out. For years to come, Barbara and I were to encounter people who spoke with the most chilling authority concerning our three-way, black-white arrangement on Bull Dog Road. Jerry was considered, of course, to be the victim of our cruel and deliberate perversity, though Jerry himself never said anything of the kind, and I am sure he never felt that. Dealing with the townspeople was very, very hard, and we avoided them as much as possible. Barbara did most of our shopping, for example, usually alone—though sometimes with a couple of the Workshop kids—enduring the muttering, the jibes, the lewd chuckles, the sly nudges, the outright insults. I continued to pose for my ladies, but no other odd jobs were ever offered me, once Jerry had left, and we were having a hard time making ends meet. Some guys jumped me one night when I was coming home from the theater, blacking both eyes, and bloodying my nose. We sometimes sat in our house in the evening as though we were waiting for the mob to come and carry us away. Some nights, the entire town was in the house with us, and we tried to ignore them and concentrate on each other.

  I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, that we could not succeed. Of all the fears there are, perhaps the fear of physical pain and destruction is the most devastating. For I had to admit to myself that I was simply, ignobly, and abjectly afraid. I didn’t like the taste of my own blood. I didn’t want all my teeth knocked out, didn’t want my nose smashed, my eyes blinded, didn’t want my skull caved in. To drive to town, to walk about, to get through a single day, demanded at least as much energy as would have been demanded for a fifteen-round fight. More: for a fifteen-round fight supposed a winner and a loser, supposed a resolution, and, hence, a release. But there was no release for me, and especially not where it should most certainly have been found, in Barbara’s arms, in bed. Fear and love cannot long remain in the same bed together. And how many nights I lay there, while Barbara slept, filled with an indescribable bewilderment; feeling that all that held me to life was being gnawed away, and feeling myself sink, like a weighted corpse, deeper and deeper in the sea of uncertainty. It’s hard, after all, for a boy to find out who he is, or what he wants, if he is always afraid and always acting, and especially when this fear invades his most private life. Barbara and I were marooned, alone with our love, and we were discovering that love was not enough—alone, we were doomed. We had only each other, and this fact menaced our relation to each other. We had no relief, we had no one to talk to—far behind us were the days when we had played at being lovers, and laughed at how easily the world was shocked. We were not playing now, and neither was the world. Even in the pizza joint they now reacted to us nervously, and we stopped goi
ng there. Matthew had left town, we never saw Fowler again; I did not go to the Negro part of town anymore. Some of the Workshop kids were nice, but bafflement on their part and pride on mine kept a great distance between us. And the Workshop brass were cold. Apart from Rags and Madeleine, they simply ignored our relationship, ignored it with a condescending charity, treating us as though we had contracted some loathsome disease, which we couldn’t help. As for Rags, she once volunteered some motherly advice concerning Barbara’s destructiveness, and offered to send me to a psychiatrist. Madeleine was hurt and jealous, tried hard to understand, but couldn’t avoid realizing that she had been badly used—and she had been. She did not exactly stop speaking to us, but discovered that she had nothing to say, and, after the fiasco of To Quito and Back, returned to New York. And I was a little sorry to see her go. I liked her, and we had had fun together. And, while I knew that having fun wasn’t enough, I resented Barbara a little for having forced my hand so soon.

  We started out a little late the day we climbed the mountain, and the sun began going down when we were a little more than halfway up. I was pushing us hard, not only because of the sun, but because I was terribly afraid that people might realize that we intended to spend the night on the mountain and follow us up and kill us. We hadn’t driven through town, but had taken the long back road which led to the foot of the mountain. I had parked the car there, off the road, in a clump of trees. No one had seen us, as far as I could tell, except a couple of the ladies in the old ladies’ home. This old ladies’ home sat in the clearing at the foot of the mountain, and the old ladies sat on the deeply shaded veranda, flashing their silver spectacles and their silver hair. Two of them had watched Barbara and me, as we disappeared up the trail. But everyone else, hopefully, would suppose us to be at home.