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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 36


  His coffee cup was empty. He stared into it. “And she could make me moan. She really made me moan. Over and over and over. It was—it was mighty. I never shook like that. I wanted us to have a baby so bad. I knew it would be beautiful, it would have to be, it was so beautiful with us. And I really thought I could stay in Italy. I didn’t see how I could ever leave. But I knew it was going to be hard for us to get married as long as I was in the service. They didn’t like it, and they could make it mighty rough. So I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. I guess I thought I’d wait until I got discharged. I guess I thought I’d do that and then maybe open up a club or a restaurant, you know, then it could have been done, a lot of guys did it. Well, I was just happy for awhile, I guess, putting it off. But I certainly didn’t see how I could live without Pia. I used to wonder sometimes how come I had to come all the way to Italy. I used to pinch myself. It didn’t seem possible. And sometimes I’d catch myself laughing, Leo, just like a kid.”

  He rose from the table and walked back to the fireplace. I heard his song again. Won’t somebody write my mother and tell her the shape I’m in.

  “I didn’t—think—that Frederick Hopkins had any reason to be upset. We had been buddies, tight buddies. I never thought of him at all. I’d see him, naturally, and everything certainly seemed to be all right. If he seemed a little strange sometimes, well, that didn’t bother me, white people are always a little strange. He was always talking about his women. I never talked about mine. I never have talked about women, I don’t believe in that. But he knew I had this girl, because I’d told him. The other guys knew, too, naturally, that I had this girl somewhere, but they didn’t mess with me because I had, you know, a bad reputation. They thought I was crazy, and that was just fine with me.

  “One night I come in this bar where we used to go sometimes, late, and I found Frederick there, all alone, crying. So I tried to find out what the matter was—you know. And he told me this sad story about how some girl he was going with had put him down, and what I realized, right quick, was that all his women put him down and I could see why, he wasn’t nothing but a baby, really, and all that talk of his was just talk. Well, you know, if you got to talk it all the time, you can’t be doing much. I didn’t say any of that, what I was thinking, to him, naturally, but I tried, diplomatically, I think, to show him where he might be going wrong and to make him look at it in another light. I tried to cheer him up, you know, even though I had just suddenly realized that I didn’t have no respect for this man. He was just a poor, sick, homesick baby, no wonder the women put him down. And he looked at me, I remember, with this funny look in his eyes, and he said, You don’t have no troubles, do you? And I said, Sure, I have troubles. Everybody has troubles. He said, You don’t have no troubles with women, and I don’t know what I said, I turned it off, somehow, it was just too silly, and I wasn’t about to start talking about me and my women and you know I wasn’t going to start talking about me and Pia. He might be a child, but I wasn’t. So we went on in, and I forgot all about it. The next day, when I was fixing to go, he asked me if he could come with me and like a chump I said Okay, because I was sorry for him, you know, and, bam, he met Pia, and, bam, baby, my troubles started. That boy, my buddy, a man I’d tried to help, and we’d looked on death together, he took one look at Pia and he decided to take her from me. To his mind, it was real simple. This poor, ignorant Italian girl—but she was much better educated than him, he didn’t know that—was running with me because she didn’t know any better. But she certainly wouldn’t want to be bothered with me, once she realized what he had to offer. And what he had to offer was his house and his cars and his money, back in Boston. What he had to offer was his family’s social position, and the fine future waiting for him, in Boston. And he hammered away at it. And it wasn’t, you know, that he cared about the girl, or had any intention of marrying her. He just wanted to get her away from me. He was determined to give her a taste of what life would be like if she stayed with me, and so he caused her to start being harassed in all kinds of ways, like one time they wanted to make her register as a whore, things like that. Oh. I can’t tell you. Or we’d go out someplace, we’d be walking down the street, and somebody would insult her and I’d get into a fight and my liberty would be canceled. And then he would go to see her. Stuff like that. And then she and I would fight about me getting into fights, and what was happening, though we didn’t realize it right away, was that all the pressure was getting to us, and we weren’t the same with each other. She didn’t believe Frederick, but, just the same, he had planted a seed, I could see the doubt begin, I could see it in her eyes when she looked at me, I could see the fear begin, I could see her wondering if she could really make it, if anybody could ever love anybody enough to take what she was going to have to take. And I lay on my bunk one night—I was different then, I’ve changed, I’ve changed—and I hadn’t seen her for two weeks because I hadn’t had no liberty, and I thought, This is really something. I’m five thousand miles from home, in this man’s uniform, protecting him, and he brings his poison all the way over here with him to spoil my girl and ruin my life. I lay on my bunk and I cried worse than Frederick had ever cried. But I cried because I was mad. I had whipped too many people, I was tired of whipping people, and it hadn’t done me no good, here I was, lying on this bunk, and I might as well have been in chains.

  “The next time I saw Frederick it was in a bar, I was by myself, he come in, and he was whistling. He didn’t see me right away. He came along, slow, whistling, with his cap on the back of his head, and, I don’t know, I never decided to kill him, just as he came closer that was all that was in my mind, and I knew I was going to kill him. I knew it. I had never noticed before how, when a guy whistles, there’s a funny little trembling high up in his neck. I noticed it now. His neck wasn’t going to be trembling long, he was whistling one of his last songs. I noticed the space between his eyebrows, that kind of little no-man’s-land between the hairs, there’s bone there when you touch it and if a bullet goes in there, you’re dead. I watched his whole body as he moved toward me, and I saw him lying flat and still, on his back, forever. It takes less than a second to kill a man. I wanted him to look surprised, like I’d seen so many look.

  “And I knew exactly how I was going to do it, and I would never be caught. I knew we were going to be moving out of Rome soon, going north. And I was just going to stay real close to him, like white on rice. I knew, we all knew, the fighting was going to be heavy, where we was going. And one night or one morning just as soon as I saw my opportunity, I was going to pull that trigger and blow his head off. I didn’t have any reason to be fighting the people I was fighting. But I had every reason in the world to kill him. And I knew I was going to do it.

  “He looked surprised when he saw me. He stopped whistling. He started to say something, and then he didn’t. I just looked at him. I didn’t say a word. He sat down at the bar. Then, he just suddenly got up and left.

  “Well, we moved on out. I only saw Pia once before we left Rome, and she was as beautiful as ever, but it wasn’t like before. It wasn’t like before in me. And then I stuck close to Frederick, I kept him in sight. It happened one morning, very early, not like I’d planned. He was all alone, he was near a tree. We was away from the others, nobody could see us, and the valley where we were was full of snipers. I started running up on him and I called his name because I wanted him to know it was me who killed him. And he turned around. He looked surprised, all right. He raised his hands in front of him, like a baby, and he was trying to say something, and while he had his mouth open, his mouth opened wider, all of a sudden, and another look came over his face, another surprise, an awful agony, Leo, I’ll never forget it, and he pitched forward on his face. I knew I hadn’t yet pulled the trigger. I hadn’t heard a sound. I just stood there. Leo, I started to tremble. He lay there with his arms stretched out in front of him on the ground. I looked down at him and I looked around. I could hear shouting
and running and all; but it all seemed like in a dream. I turned him over. He wasn’t dead, but he was dying, and he didn’t look surprised anymore. He looked at me, just for a minute, right in my eyes, and he said, I don’t blame you. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it. Then he died. In my arms. Like that, he sort of hiccuped and then he was still, with his eyes wide open. All of a sudden, he was mighty heavy. He’d gone into eternity believing I’d killed him. I just sat there. There was noise and flame all around me. Guys were running and crying and ducking. Some guy pulled on me and pulled and he was shouting something and just then the earth blew up right at my feet and Frederick rolled out of my arms. And I was on my face like he had been, and then I started crawling and then I started running. We was all running in the same direction, we must have been running to some kind of shelter, but I didn’t know what I was doing, my legs was just carrying me, carrying me with the others, wherever they were going. I kept thinking how I should go back and close his eyes. I fell, and I heard somebody right nearby scream. It sounded like Frederick, but I knew it couldn’t be him, he was back there where I’d left him, he was dead. When I fell, I didn’t get up, I just hugged the ground. I listened to the screaming and tried to figure out where it was coming from and I tried to inch my way in that direction but I couldn’t see ahead of me and the earth was shaking and turning over. I wanted to help whoever it was, because I thought that might make up for Frederick, but then, the screaming stopped, and I knew. No. No life can be given back. And that was the moment of my repentance, Leo. It was a pain I had never felt before, a heartbreak I had never felt before. I saw my whole life stretching ahead of me forever like this, in lust and hatred and darkness, and to end like this, face down, hugging the earth, and you feel your bowels moving for fear, Leo, and to be like that until the earth covers you. I struggled up to my knees. I knew, I knew for the first time that there was a God somewhere. I knew that only God could save me, save us, not from death but from that other death, that darkness and death of the spirit which had created this hell. Which had sent men here to die. I cried out, I cried out something, I remember I was thinking, Lord, send the angel down, and then I was struck. It didn’t hurt. It knocked me flat on my back, it knocked me out of my body, and I remember I thought of Frederick’s eyes and I thought, Well, now, I can tell him I didn’t pull the trigger. And it seemed to me God’s great mercy that I hadn’t, and I praised Him for His mercy, that He’d held me back from mortal sin, and was taking me home now, washed of my sins, forgiven. I thought I was dying, but I wasn’t afraid. I understood for the first time the power and beauty of the love of God.”

  A silence fell when Caleb ceased speaking such as I had never known before, and have not known since. It was a silence loud enough to wake the dead. It was the silence that Jesus had in mind when he told the Pharisees that if his disciples held their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. It was a silence in which one seemed to hear the bloodstream move. One wondered at its cargo. In the awful light—the awful light—and in this silence, we now watched each other. How terrible it is to overhear a confession! He was more than ever my brother now, forever—and he was more than ever a stranger, forever and forever: because I had seen him for the first time. We listened to the sounds coming in from the streets. It was three o’clock in the morning.

  I did not say anything. I rose and went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of rum. I came back with it, and sat down at the table again.

  He walked over to me, and put his hand on my shoulder.

  “When you’ve been down in that valley, Leo,” he said, “when you been wrestling with the angel, it changes you. It changes you. Everybody hits that valley, Leo, but don’t everyone come up. Love lifted me. And I’m free at last.”

  Free at last, free at last, praise God Almighty, I’m free at last! These words rang in my mind. I sipped my rum. His hand was very heavy on my shoulder. I felt his weariness, and smelled his sweat—fleeting, like my memory of our past, and indescribable, inaccessible, like that. What did I feel? I cannot tell. I will never know. I felt, for the first time, and it must be rare, another human being occupying my flesh, walking up and down in me. And that is why I cannot tell, that is why I cannot remember. Oh. I remember the candle before me, burning low; I thought, I must put it out. I remember that I thought that the police would soon walk by, checking the lights. They might come in. I remember thinking, I promised Caleb that I would come home soon, to see my father and my mother. I remember the way the restaurant looked at that moment, the tables not cleared, coffee cups and dessert plates everywhere, and some tables needed new candles. I remember all that, and his hand on my shoulder, and the silence.

  I was nineteen then, and Caleb was twenty-six. Years and years later, I grabbed Barbara back from her Sutton Place window ledge, eight stories up. Let us pretend that I was a man by that time. I remember that moment very well. I remember that Barbara and I had had what we both then considered to be our deadliest, irrevocable fight. I remember that I took my gray topcoat off her sofa, and put it on, and walked out of her living room, walked the long corridor to the door. I had left her on the floor, in her nightgown, crying. I walked out of the apartment, slamming the door, and buzzed for the elevator. I watched the indicator as the car moved up to eight. Eight. Somehow, that number began to scream in my mind. The indicator struck six, and, without knowing that I was going to do it, I turned away from the elevator, and took out my keys and opened Barbara’s door and walked back into the apartment. It was silent. I slammed the door behind me—or, rather, the door slammed behind me, and, far off, I heard another door slam, the door to Barbara’s bedroom. But both doors had been slammed by the wind. I ran to the bedroom, and opened the door—what guided me?—and saw Barbara, with her back to me, sitting on the window ledge, swinging her feet like a child, and about to drop. I pulled her back by the hair. I remember that moment, I remember it well, and I know that I have since used it in my work. But I have never consciously used that moment in the restaurant with Caleb. I remember it only in flashes, hot and cold. It may be that, by the time I dragged Barbara back from the ledge, I knew enough to know that she might be sitting there. But I did not know, when Caleb walked into The Island on that far-off night, how many ways there were to die, and how few to live.

  “You’ll see it, too, one day,” he said—very carefully, very softly—“the light. I know you will. I know it. You don’t know how hard I pray for you.”

  Well. I remember that he helped me wash the dishes. We talked of other things, and we laughed a lot. We were almost friends again. I remember that, at one point, he picked up my forgotten, unfinished glass of rum and poured it into the sink. “Soon, you won’t be needing that, little brother.” I remember the way the rum and the soapy water smelled. I remember how it looked—and we both laughed as it vanished down the drain, white soap and black sugar. We left the kitchen spotless. He helped me set up my tables. I turned out all the lights and locked up the joint and I walked him to his subway. I watched him run down the steps and he turned, one last time, at the bottom of the steps, to smile and wave. I realized again how glad I’d been to see him. Then, he disappeared. The morning light was rising now, as I walked home, walked toward the river, walked toward Barbara.

  I kept my promise to go home on that Thursday, but of course that didn’t really help. I had made—I had made it without knowing that I had—some enormous and unshakable resolution. I had arrived at an awful cunning, which was to be protected by silence. I knew that Caleb would never see the case as I saw it—no one would ever see my case, and so I would not waste breath presenting it. But I knew what I was going to do. I was alone all right; for God had taken my brother away from me; and I was never going to forgive Him for that. As far as the salvation of my own soul was concerned, Caleb was God’s least promising missionary. God was not going to do to me what He had done to Caleb. Never. Not to me.

  I walked home, that morning, as I say, and I stood over Barbara for a long time, and
watched her sleeping in our bed. I remember the way she looked that morning, her hair curling over the pillow, one thin hand clutching the blanket, as though she sensed departure. She worked very hard, my poor little girl, at some bleakly piss-elegant establishment, like Longchamps. I sat at the window, and lit a cigarette. Our room faced what had once been a courtyard; directly facing me was the opposite wing of this decrepit complex. In some windows, the shades were down—those hideous kinds of paper shades, which leap out of your hand and curl round and round themselves and are as hard to reach, then, as a treed cat. In other windows, the shades were up. No one in Paradise Alley could really have anything to hide. The people slept. Everything was still. I can’t stay here, I thought. And I looked back at Barbara. I closed the window and I pulled down the shade and I got undressed.

  The proud and desperate years began. That winter ended, and the summer came again. Barbara got a job in summer stock, but I didn’t. I didn’t go away with the Workshop, though they wanted me to come and play Crooks again and drive that goddamn car again. I stayed with The Island, and I found a voice teacher, and I studied that guitar. A few of the show business people who came in were nice to me, and they invited me here and there. I began to be seen around. It was accepted that I was talented—this came as something of a surprise, but it was a nice surprise. I sang at The Island almost every night, and more and more people came to hear me—so many that Hilda had to hire a helper for me; and we had trouble with the cops, which eventually ended those sessions. Hilda gave an Island ball at a big hall in Harlem, and she had got some very big show business names to perform, and I was on the bill, too. That was the very first time I ever saw my name on a poster and I carried it to my mother and father and they came to the ball—but Caleb didn’t; now, he was in the world, but not of it—and my mother and father were very proud of me, and we had a very nice time that night. And, like all kids, with their first taste of the deeply desired approbation, I saw myself on the heights already. But, in fact, I wasn’t being hired, and it was a very long time before I was.