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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 34


  By and by, around about midnight, the room would be under control, the last couples sipping their coffee. The room would be rather nice then. The candles made the room seem warmer, and the people looked gentler than they were. I ate my own meals at no particular time, it depended on the traffic and on my own mood, and it didn’t matter, since I always closed the joint. Many times, I ate my supper at about two in the morning, sitting in the locked restaurant alone. Around midnight, Hilda would come out of the kitchen and sit down at her table, near the fireplace. She always brought knitting with her, I remember her hands as always busy—I think it was because she wanted most of the people who came in there to stay far away from her. Sometimes, Barbara came to pick me up, or other friends might be there. Steve spent a lot of his time there for awhile, and so did Sally—I still remember some moments, still remember Sally and Hilda, sitting at that corner table, laughing. Sally and Hilda liked each other very much, and Hilda was very disappointed when I failed to marry Sally. She felt that Sally had real class, and that I very much needed Sally’s stability. I still remember Steve, rawboned, curly-haired, slouching in, his eyes coming always directly to rest on me. It’s painful, sometimes, to look back on a life and wonder if anything you did could have made any difference. So much is lost; and what’s lost is lost forever. Was it destined to be lost, or could we have saved it? People rather made fun of Steve in those days, and I was more sensitive about this than I should have been. He was certainly exceedingly forthright, and I found this awkward as well as frightening. I must say for Sally that, later on, when she realized that Steve and I had been lovers, and might become lovers again, she did everything she could to understand it, and to understand him. But he frightened her. He frightened her in much the same way I did, for, though Sally was bright and beautiful, she was, at bottom, thoroughly respectable. That was really the trouble between us, though we may not have realized it then, and I was far too young to realize that a lone, black girl, operating in the Village then, had to be respectable or risk being destroyed.

  Anyway, some nights around midnight, if the atmosphere seemed right, I would take down my guitar from where it hung above the fireplace and sit down on the high stool near Hilda’s table, and strum the guitar awhile. And the room would grow quiet and then I would sing a few songs. And the people liked it and they told their friends and sent their friends down. Hell, they should have liked it, it was all for free, and of course Hilda liked it because I was good for business. I don’t suppose that the cops liked it, but Hilda and the cops appeared to have a working arrangement and they hardly ever gave us any trouble. One night, quite late, there were only about four or five people there, I was sitting on my stool, singing, and Caleb walked in. And when he walked in, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” I did, too. He was in the joint practically before I knew it. I saw this big, black man stooping through the doorway, and I thought, Shit, I wonder where he comes from, fuck it, I am not serving anybody else tonight, and then, so to speak, my vision cleared, and I found myself staring at Caleb.

  Well, he looked wonderful—big and black and shining; safe and proud. I hadn’t seen him for the longest while. I forced myself to finish my song, while he stared at me, smiling. Hilda looked at me, and I finished my song and I said to Hilda, “That’s my brother. Caleb.” And I walked over to him. I was really very glad to see him. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be so glad.

  He stood up, and he hugged me.

  “Hello, little brother. You are a long way from home.”

  “Hello, yourself. What brings you down here?”

  “Well, if you won’t come to me, I have to come to you.”

  “How is everybody?”

  “Everybody’s fine. Only, they’d feel a whole lot better if they knew how you were. Yeah. Their faces would get bright, and they’d really perk up.”

  “You want a cup of coffee or something? Oh. Caleb, this is Hilda, my boss. She’s the cook here, and she’s very good. You hungry? Let me fix you something to eat.”

  “Now, don’t you go to no trouble for me. You take care of your customers. Or keep on singing, it’s a long time since I heard you sing. How do you do, ma’am. I’m glad to make your acquaintance.”

  He and Hilda shook hands. Hilda said, “Here I been thinking you was all alone in the world, and you got this fine-looking brother.”

  I said, “He got all the looks in the family, all right.”

  “Is that why you don’t want people to see us together?” He laughed as he said this. I hung up my guitar.

  “No kidding, you hungry? Come on, I bet you’re hungry, you’re always hungry.”

  He smiled at Hilda and she smiled at him. He is, it’s true, a very nice-looking man.

  “Well, all right. What have you got?”

  “I made some cornbread tonight,” said Hilda. “If you anything like your brother, I know you like cornbread.”

  “You must have known I was coming.” And he laughed.

  “Come on in the kitchen and tell me what you want. We got chicken and ribs, you know, a whole lot of stuff.”

  “Then, how come you stay so skinny? Don’t you eat here, too?”

  “That’s right,” said Hilda, “you get after him. I’m glad he’s got somebody cares enough about him. Because I am not starving your brother. He does not take care of himself.”

  I looked at Caleb, who was watching me with a wry, amused affection. “Waiting on tables kind of takes your appetite away,” I said. “You get to hate just about the entire human race, just because it eats. But I’ll eat with you, now.”

  “You just about through? I don’t want to be no trouble.”

  “Don’t talk like that. What kind of trouble—how can you be trouble? I’m just about finished, anyway.”

  I remember, that night, I was very glad Barbara wasn’t there, that no one who meant anything to me was there. Hilda was very nice. She took over my duties, and even went about talking to a couple of the customers, and giving them their bills, while I loaded up Caleb’s plate, and mine. I so wanted to ask Caleb to have a drink with me, but I knew he wouldn’t drink. Then I wondered if I dared. But I’m grown now, I told myself, and I poured some ginger ale for him, and tumbler of Chianti for me.

  We sat down.

  “So,” he said, “tell me about yourself.”

  “There’s nothing to tell. I’ve just been working—you know—and studying.”

  “How’s it going?” But this was a polite question. It wasn’t the way he would have asked some time ago. He didn’t believe that my studying meant anything. He was just being polite to his kid brother, waiting for the kid to come to his senses.

  And you can’t really answer a polite question, because actually no question has been asked. I felt myself squirming and I sipped my wine and I said, “It goes all right.” But I wanted to say, I think I may be making some progress, but it’s rough and I know it’s going to get rougher, and I’m very lonely.

  “You still living over on the east side?”

  “Yeah.”

  He didn’t mention Barbara, and I didn’t either.

  “What’s happening with you? How are things uptown?”

  “Well, between my boss”—Caleb worked as a chauffeur for some broker who lived on Long Island—“that unhappy creature, and my work in the church, I keep pretty busy. You look tired, Leo. Aren’t you taking care of yourself?”

  “Sure. But I’ve been kind of busy, too, between this job and trying to study.”

  He looked at my wine glass. “You’re not drinking too much, are you? The grape has ruined many a fine man.”

  I was furious, wishing that I’d poured myself a double whiskey, and abjectly glad that I hadn’t. “No.”

  He still knew my moods and tones. “Don’t jump salty. I only ask because you’re my brother, and I love you. You can’t get mad at me for that.”

  “I’m not mad at you. I’m glad to see you.”

  “Wel
l, if you’re so glad to see me, why is it that you never do see me? You lose my address?” He paused. “You think it’s right to have Mama and Daddy worrying about you the way they do?”

  “There’s nothing to worry about. I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself.”

  “You’re a very young boy, Leo, in a terrible world. We’re older than you are, and we know that. We have to worry about you, you’re our flesh and blood, the youngest boy in the family. We love you. You think it’s right to make us suffer?” He paused again. “Our mother and father won’t be with us forever. You ought to try to be nice to them while they’re still around. After all, they were pretty nice to you. Weren’t they?”

  By now, my food was tasteless, and my wine was sour.

  “Caleb, I don’t know if I can make you understand—”

  “Try. I know you think I’m just an old-fashioned goody-goody, but try. What makes you treat your family like you do? You think it doesn’t hurt us, you think we don’t have any feelings?”

  I certainly couldn’t doubt, watching him, listening to him, that he had feelings. Try. Try to wake the dead, try to hold back the sea, try to talk to your brother. Try.

  “Caleb, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. I’m just trying to live my life. But you all don’t—you don’t like my life.”

  “We don’t want to see you destroying yourself, if that’s what you mean. What’s so unnatural about that?”

  “I’m not destroying myself. I’m working and studying. What do you want from me?”

  Naturally, at this point, a particularly ruined-looking girl came over to the table to say good-night, and to get a closer look at Caleb. She didn’t know what Caleb was thinking as she stood there, smiling and simpering and trying to make an impression on him. She made an impression, all right. I watched Caleb’s smile stiffen. His eyes filmed over with pity and scorn; he looked briefly at me. At last, she was gone.

  “She’s a friend of yours?”

  “She’s just a customer. She comes in sometimes. She’s a nice girl,” I said, and then wished I hadn’t said it.

  “She is a very sad, lost girl. You spend much of your time with them kind of people?”

  “Look. Let’s not talk about it. We’ll just get into a fight.”

  “You won’t get into a fight with me,” he said, “because it takes two to quarrel, and I will never fight you. But I have to keep on at you. It’s a charge I have to keep. You’re young, and the world has got you so confused you don’t know if you’re coming or going. You’re a very unhappy boy, Leo, it sticks out all over you, and it hurts me to see it. But you haven’t got to be unhappy and the light’s going to come to you one day, just like it came to me. You’re going to see that you, and all your friends, are going to have to be unhappy just as long as you fight the love of God.”

  I suppose any real conviction brings with it a species of beauty, and, as Caleb spoke, a stern and mighty beauty entered his face. I had no weapons against him.

  “You’re fighting now. I know. I know how I fought. You’re going to have to learn how not to fight, not to insist on your will but to surrender your will and find yourself in the great will, the universal will, the will of God, which created the heavens and earth and everything that is, and”—he leaned forward and tapped me on the brow—“created you.” He smiled. “That’s right, little brother. You.”

  He smiled, and he made me smile. I didn’t have any great objections to being God’s handiwork. But I felt that He might possibly have supplied us with a manual which would have given us some idea of how we worked.

  “I’m not like you, Caleb.”

  He threw back his head, and laughed. “I know you’re not like me! Why should you be like me? You think that’s what I’m talking about?” He looked at me very affectionately, still smiling. “Oh, no, Leo. I want you to be like you. That’s why God made you you. But I want you to be more like you than you are now. I want you to conquer the kingdom of the spirit. Then, you’ll be you.”

  The last customers were leaving, and Hilda snuffed out their candles. We sat in the light of our candles, and the faint light that came from the kitchen, behind us. Hilda went into the bathroom.

  I looked down, away from his blazing eyes, and I said, “You want some more to eat? You have enough?”

  “I’m fine, thanks. But you sure didn’t eat very much.”

  “I don’t have much appetite these days.”

  “You’ve got too much on your mind.” He looked at me gravely; it was not a question.

  “What made you come by here, Caleb—so late, tonight? You’re usually in bed by this time. Aren’t you?”

  “They kept me late on the job. They’re having some kind of trouble—rich white people have more trouble than anybody else in the world. Then, when I got on the subway, something told me to make a run by here and see how you were. And I’m off tomorrow.”

  Hilda came out of the bathroom, and picked up her bags and things. She had put on her turban and her earrings, and was ready to go.

  “I’m going to put these bones to bed,” she said. “I didn’t leave you too much to do in the kitchen, Leo. Just put the food away, and we’ll clean up tomorrow.” She put out her hand, and Caleb took it. “You better listen to your brother,” she said, “he’s got better sense than you got. A burnt child dreads the fire.”

  “That’s true,” said Caleb, and laughed. “Good-night, ma’am.”

  “Okay, Hilda,” I said. “Good-night. Sleep well.”

  “Good-night.”

  She left, closing the door behind her, and we sat in silence for awhile. I was aware of the streets outside, of how much Caleb distrusted these streets, of all that had happened to him on these streets, and all that had happened to me. I watched his face, sculptured and melancholy in the candlelight, sculptured and proud, like a mask created at our beginning. It was an unspeaking face, obsessed forever by the fire which had formed it. Only in my own memory was it my brother’s face. When others saw Caleb, they saw a closed, proud, distant man, a man who would never reach out to them, and whom they could never reach. And the other Caleb, the raging, laughing, seeking Caleb, the Caleb who moaned and wept, the Caleb who could be lonely—that other Caleb, my brother, had been put to death and would never be seen again. I wondered if he ever thought, now, of the Caleb he had been. I wondered if he missed him at all. I missed him and was still hoping to hear from him again. But Caleb had put away childish things—why couldn’t I?

  That was a useless question, but it was a real one all the same. The last time I had seen Caleb had not been so very long ago; he had not seen me. It had not been the first time I had peeked in, so to speak, on his life. I couldn’t but wonder if he hadn’t found some mighty secret, a secret which I needed. For he seemed not to despise himself anymore. Terrible things would not happen to him anymore, and he would no longer do terrible things. But I could not risk saying this to him. I could not risk seeing him. The last time I had seen him had been the day I drove the Workshop car from the town to the city. I wandered around the city. I was hungry, but I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t force myself to mingle with the people for that long. Watching Caleb’s face, watching Caleb watching his little brother, I remembered that I ducked into one of the movies on 42nd Street and sat in the top row and I let a white boy grope me and stroke me and finally I forced his blond head down on me and I made him give me a blow job. Then I felt sicker than I had felt before and I felt like murdering the poor white fagot who, with my white hot sperm still in him, crept quietly down the stairs, away. I couldn’t watch the movie, couldn’t stand the voices, didn’t know what they were saying, didn’t care, couldn’t stand the stink of people. I left the movie. I stopped and bought a hot dog and a soda. I watched the people. I walked back to the car, and I drove down to the Village. I went to a bar I knew and had a couple of beers. It was just about the cocktail hour, but no one I knew came in. I let another fagot pick me up and feed me. I asked him for money, too, and he gave me three dolla
rs. I got away from him by about ten o’clock, and I drove uptown to Harlem. I wanted to see my mother and father; but I didn’t want them to see me. So, I drove through our block and I looked at our house. Their lights were on.

  I stopped, finally, as I had known all along, really, that I would, in front of a great stone building which, in Harlem’s heyday, had been a theater. It was now The New Dispensation House of God. It seemed very lively, especially for a Monday night.

  I walked inside and walked upstairs to the balcony. I was nearly all alone there, though, on Sunday nights, it was packed. A few idle men, a few lonely and bewildered women; but, downstairs, the faithful were rejoicing. Caleb could not see me, I sat far to the side, in the shadows, but I could see Caleb. He sat just below the pulpit. That meant that, tonight, he was in charge of the testimony service.

  He still looked like my brother—big and black—the transforming power of the Holy Ghost leaves some elements untouched. There was a light in his face which I envied and despised: Caleb was at peace. He had told me so. He had told me so. Caleb was found, but I was lost.

  Caleb had had the tambourine. A plain black girl was at the piano. Somebody was beating the drum. They were singing:

  Down on my knees,

  When trouble rides!

  I talk to Jesus,

  He satisfies!

  He promised me

  He’d hear my plea,

  If I would serve Him,

  Down on my knees!

  I had sat in the darkness, cursing and crying, my tears falling like a curtain between my brother and myself. My head was bowed and I could scarcely see them, but I could hear:

  If I would serve Him,

  Down on my knees!

  I watched his face now, wondering if he had ever spied on my life as I had spied on his.

  “When are you coming up to the house?”

  “Let’s see—what’s today? Caleb, I don’t see how I can come until my day off. That’s Thursday.”