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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 38


  Connie used a lot of music in the play, and I had a solo, unseen. Before the curtain rose, I was to sing, accompanied by my guitar, an old mining song, “Dark As a Dungeon.” On the lines,

  There’s many a man I’ve known in my day,

  Who lived just to labor his poor life away.

  Like a fiend for his dope, a drunkard his wine,

  A man will have lust for the low, rugged mine …

  I always thought of my father, and I sang the song for him. But I hadn’t been home. And I hadn’t really told anyone very much about the play, for by now I knew a whole lot about the best-laid plans of mice and men and I didn’t want to risk having to explain that everything had fallen through. The guys at the barbecue joint knew, of course, and they’d all been very nice. If they hadn’t been, it would have been very hard on me, because I didn’t want to quit my job and then be on my ass again, after seven days. And they were all going to come down and see me, with their wives or their girl-friends or whatever, on different nights. But, though I worked in Harlem, so close to home, I hadn’t been home. I said to myself that it was because of my hours. We often rehearsed from ten to ten, and then I worked in the barbecue joint till dawn. Then, I grabbed a little sleep and went back to the theater. It was a schedule which I probably couldn’t hope to survive today, but then it was nothing unusual. And I’d done it before, by this time I’d done it many times. Just because it’s so impossible a schedule, one crams, without ever being able to recount how, a great many things into it. So, I could have gone to see my mother, whom I knew to be ailing. I had managed, on tighter schedules, to do less important things. My parents had no phone, but there was a phone at The New Dispensation House of God and I could have called Caleb. Or, I could simply have explained it to the guys at the barbecue joint, and they would have understood and would never have given me a hard time about it. They were very nice guys and they liked me very much and they did very much hope I’d make it, even if it meant that I’d change and never talk to them again. So, there was really no reason for my not going home. Any psychiatrist will be glad to give you the reasons, of course, but I have always very keenly felt, in the psychiatric account, the absence of the two most important people, one of them being the psychiatrist and the other being me. Anyway: I didn’t go home. Ten o’clock in the evening was too late, I said, and six in the morning was too early. And so, one night, after a particularly hard and rewarding day, I walked into the barbecue joint and found Caleb sitting at the counter, drinking a cup of coffee and waiting for me.

  Now, the cats in the barbecue joint, unlike the people downtown at The Island, so many years ago, knew all about Caleb and me. He was Reverend Proudhammer: they all knew that. They treated him with that species of respect which masks despair. He was in his bag, as we now say; had found his niche, as the English say; nothing more could be expected from him and they expected nothing. Really, he was for them exactly what I might be in a few years, or a few months, a few weeks, a few days: beyond them, and useless. He had made his way—all right. They had not made theirs—all right. The fact that he was a Reverend and I was trying to become an actor made no difference at all, no difference whatever. They knew, without knowing that they knew it, simply by having watched it, by having paid for it, what nearly no one can afford to remember: that the theater began in the church. We were both performers, that was how they saw us, brothers, and at war. They may have expected more from me than they did from him simply because my pulpit was so much harder to reach, and they hadn’t, after all, yet heard my sermon.

  They knew it was going to be a bad night for me. I came in, breathless, carrying my book, bareheaded, and wiped the rain off my face and hair as I hurried through the restaurant. Red, my boss, signified something to me but I was full of the play and anxious about being late, and so I simply didn’t react. I hung up my coat and ran into the bathroom. Red came in behind me.

  “Your brother’s out there,” he said. “He’s been here for more than an hour.”

  I was peeing and it suddenly splashed all over my hand and all over the floor.

  “My brother?”

  “Reverend Proudhammer,” he said, “your brother.”

  I washed my hands, and dried them. I said, “Oh, shit.”

  “Well,” he said, “he’s here.” He watched me in the mirror. “It might be some kind of trouble in your family, I reckon, so”—he watched me; he was a pale Negro, with a reddish skin, freckles all over his face; I liked Red very much, and he liked me—“if it is, you just go on with him and don’t worry about nothing.” He started out the door. “How’s it going downtown?”

  “It’s going pretty well,” I said. I turned and looked at him. He could see it in my face. He could hear it in my voice. He smiled—a smile I’ve seen only on the faces of black Americans. “Red. It’s going very well.” I couldn’t help it. I said, “Red, you know, I’m going to be very good! You’re going to be very proud of me.”

  He smiled again—that smile. “Well, all right,” he said, and left me.

  I combed my hair and stared at my face, my God, my so improbable face, where did you get those eyes? and walked out to meet Caleb. He was sitting at the counter, as I’ve said, and I sat down beside him.

  He was stern, as always, beautiful, as always. I said, “Hello, Caleb.”

  He was drinking coffee. I had the feeling that he’d drunk quite a lot of coffee. He was pretty well dressed, with a hat and everything—certainly someone, somewhere, someday, should do a study of the American male’s hat!—and I wasn’t. It was winter, and I was wearing a turtleneck sweater and some old corduroys. I hadn’t had a haircut and I hadn’t shaved. He looked at me and that was what he saw. I knew it. I can’t say I didn’t care. I cared. But I knew that there was no longer anything I could do about what Caleb saw. And I knew this because there was no longer anything I could do about what I saw.

  “Your mother wants to see you,” he said, after he had completed his scrutiny. “She’s sick and she wants to see you and she thought I could find you and that’s why I’m here. Do you think you can take time off and come home and see your mother?”

  We looked at each other. I didn’t say anything. I walked to the coat rack and picked up my coat. I looked briefly at Red, and Red nodded. I walked back to Caleb. “I’m ready,” I said.

  Caleb stood up and put some money on the counter, but Red shoved it back at him. “You’re part of the family, Reverend Proudhammer,” he said, and Caleb smiled, a stiff, lordly smile, and we walked out. The other cats had not said anything. They knew that there was nothing to say.

  The rain was falling pretty hard. I had my book under my arm and my shoulders hunched and we walked down the avenue. I realized that we were going to have to pass The New Dispensation House of God, and this made me want to laugh. Laugh may not be the most exact word. I asked, “How’s Louise? And the baby?”

  “They’re fine,” he said. “I keep telling the kid that he’s got an uncle, but he doesn’t seem to believe me anymore.”

  I didn’t like this. It smacked of a certain kind of blackmail. And I didn’t like Louise very much, I thought she was a dumb, pretentious, black bitch. But, on the other hand: “I’ve been busy, Caleb,” I said.

  “How can a man get so busy,” cried Caleb, “that he don’t have time for his own flesh and blood!” I knew the tone. It fell on me like the rain fell on me. There was nothing I could do about it. We passed the church and heard the singing and I saw Caleb’s name on the black-white board. “Don’t tell me you’ve been busy. You ain’t been as busy as I’ve been and I’ve been to see Mama every day. Every day. And every day she asks me if I’ve seen you.”

  Then, we walked in silence. Just before we turned off the avenue, we passed a bar and someone I knew was going in and he hailed me. Then he saw who I was with, and he just kept on, into the bar.

  “You got some fine friends,” Caleb said.

  “Yes,” I said deliberately, “I do.”

  “Do yo
u realize you’re going to be thirty pretty soon?” Caleb asked. “Now, what do you think is going to happen to you?”

  “I know I’ll soon be thirty. And whatever’s going to happen to me is none of your goddamn business.”

  He stopped and turned and looked at me. We stood stock still in the rain. “I’m a man now, Caleb,” I said, “you leave me the fuck alone, you hear?” and he slapped me, slapped me so hard that my book fell from beneath my arm, and I had to scramble like a child to rescue it from the torrent. All my notes were in it. I hoped they weren’t all ruined. We were opening in a week. I stared at Caleb. “You bastard,” I said. “You bastard. You no-good, black Holy Roller bastard.” And he slapped me again, and we stood there.

  “Once, I wanted to be like you,” I said. “I would have given anything in the world to be like you.” I was crying. I hoped he couldn’t see it, because of the rain. “Now I’d rather die than be like you. I wouldn’t be like you and tell all these lies to all these ignorant people, all these unhappy people, for anything in the world, Caleb, anything in the world! That God you talk about, that miserable white cock-sucker—look at His handiwork, look!” And I looked around the avenue, but he didn’t. He looked at me. “I curse your God, Caleb, I curse Him, from the bottom of my heart I curse Him. And now let Him strike me down. Like you just tried to do.” And I walked away and left him.

  I ran up the stairs to our house. I wiped my face and hair as best I could, and I knocked on the door. My father opened it.

  Perhaps it was the play. Perhaps it was the fight. Perhaps it was his face. I’ll never know. I was not stunned to see that my father was old. I knew that he was old. I was not stunned by the fact that he was drunk. I knew that he was usually drunk—though Caleb still insisted that he would soon give up his sinful ways and come to the Lord. Bring your burdens to the Lord and leave them there! I thought, and I stared into the crater of my father’s face. What had fallen on that face, to sink it so? What had happened to the eyes? the eyes of an animal peering out from a cave. I heard Caleb’s footsteps, far below me, slow and certain, like the wrath of God. It took a second before my father recognized me. Then, he smiled, my God, how his face changed, what a light came into it, and he pulled me into the house with one hand and turned, crying, “Old lady, look who’s here! Now, I know you going to be all right.”

  He pulled me into the living room, where my mother sat in the easy chair, covered with blankets. She was very still. Her hands were in her lap, and she had been looking into the streets. Now, at his voice, she turned. Her face was as yellow as a yolk, and her eyes were like two raisins. Her hair was piled on the top of her head, held with a comb, as dry as stone, and as dull. And she smiled and held out her arms. She said, “My gracious, boy, I just been sitting here, thinking about you. Now, where’ve you been?”

  I heard Caleb’s footsteps in the outside hall, and I walked over to my mother and kissed her. She smelled old. She held me tight, and I was uneasy. I was able, at last, to look up into her face and I smiled into her face, just as Caleb came into the room. Whatever I had ever felt for my mother, my beautiful, almost white mother, came down on me, and I said, “Mama, sweetheart, why do you want to get everybody all worried and upset this way? Don’t you know we love you?” And Caleb sat down on the sofa. I didn’t look at him but I knew he’d leaned back and pushed his hat to the back of his head.

  “Ain’t nothing wrong with me, Leo,” she said, “except age and weariness. But I sure have missed seeing you. Now, what have you been doing with yourself?”

  I had to say it. I hoped she would understand me. My father stood behind me, and Caleb was watching. I said, “Mama, I’m doing a play.” I watched her. “A very good play, Mama, I think I’m going to be very good and make all of you very proud of me.” I said, “Mama, I’ve been rehearsing all day, every day, from ten in the morning until ten at night, and then I work all night in this barbecue joint where I cook, you know, and serve the people, and that’s why I haven’t been to see you.” I watched her. She didn’t say anything for awhile. She smiled at me. It was a very secret smile, it was not meant for the other two men in the room at all, and I knew it. She said, “Leo, how old are you now?”

  I said, “Mama, I’m just about to be twenty-six. Now, you ought to know that,” and, after a moment, she laughed and I laughed and my father laughed.

  “Twenty-six,” she said, and looked at my father a moment and then looked out of the window, “it seems like a dream.” I watched her face, which was bonier now, and very very handsome. Her eyes looked over the streets, as though she was waiting for someone. She looked at me again, and laughed like a girl. “When can I come and see this play, Leo?”

  “We open—the play opens”—I picked up my book from the floor and took out my rain-soaked notes, looking for the handbill advertising the play, I was suddenly very proud of it, my name was on it—I found it, it wasn’t too ruined, and handed it to her—“you see, Mama? We open in a week.”

  She looked at it and my father came to read it over her shoulder. She giggled again, and handed it to him. “Read it,” she said, “your eyes is better than mine. Read it out loud, so Caleb can hear it.”

  And so my father read, The Clay House Players present Miss Bunny Nash—“why I’ve heard of her,” cried my mother, “you working with her?”—in The Corn Is Green, a play by Emlyn Williams, directed by Konstantine Rafaeleto, with so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so, and co-starring, all by itself at the bottom, in block print, Leo Proudhammer, as Morgan Evans. My father and my mother looked at me. “You see, Mama?” I said. “You see?”

  My father folded the handbill. “You reckon we can make it down there, old lady?” He was smiling. I hadn’t considered how much he loved my mother.

  She sucked her teeth. “Make it down there? You know we going to make it down there.” And she looked out of the window again.

  “How about you, Caleb?” our father asked. “It is your brother. I don’t think God can find no fault with that.”

  And I realized at that moment, though my father would never say it to me, and certainly never to Caleb, that he was very disappointed in my brother. And I knew my brother knew it. Caleb and I stared at each other. Caleb pushed his hat further back on his head, and he said, “Daddy, you know I don’t go to the theater, and that’s all there is to that. I’ve made my choice and Leo’s made his choice. Now, I’ve got to be getting on home.” And he stood up. My mother was watching him.

  “But you haven’t got to go right yet,” she said.

  He smiled. “Mama, I got to go to work in the morning and I got to preach tomorrow night. Now, you know I need a little rest. You need a little rest, too.”

  “Oh, I’m all right,” she said, and shifted under the blankets, away from him, “I’m just tired. Ain’t nothing wrong with me.”

  He watched her. Then he grinned, looking like Caleb again—just for a moment. He put his hat on his head properly. “Well, all right. But I got to go. See you tomorrow.” He patted me on the head. “Good-night, little brother. I’ll always love you and I’ll always pray for you.”

  I said, “Good-night, Caleb.”

  And he left. I stayed and had a couple of drinks with my father and mother. We had a rather nice time, but I didn’t stay too long because I could see that my mother really needed rest, and my father had to get up to go to work in the morning. My mother held me very close, and kissed me. My father kissed me, too. I didn’t go back to the barbecue joint, but went straight home and fell into bed. The alarm clock rang and I ran to the theater.

  Konstantine’s experiment, as it was known all over town, was causing something of a stir. People were very curious about it; curious about Bunny Nash, whom no one had seen for ages; curious about me, who had virtually never been seen—and my billing was Connie’s idea; and curious about the future of Konstantine Rafaeleto, who would certainly, any day now, be hauled before The House Un-American Activities Committee. Connie was very calm—as calm as anyone can pos
sibly be as an opening night approaches. We worked. Bunny Nash was also worried, because she might also be called. No one knew what was going to happen, we might indeed be closed before we opened, and so all we could do was work.

  The morning of the day which will end in the opening night is a very strange moment. One wakes in a tremendous silence, the judgment morning silence. Something has gone terribly wrong somewhere in the world; one racks one’s brains to remember what it is. And one doesn’t wish to get up, because that will, somehow, compound whatever the disaster has been. One lies in bed very straight and still, and listens with great attention to the morning. I listened to my neighbors. They were apparently playing cards. Someone was joking with someone at the street door. I had a terrible melancholy hard-on, and I wanted to pee or jerk myself off, but didn’t have the energy for either. I didn’t want to get up. It was in this bed I had slept with Sally, and then with Steve. And this room had witnessed both departures. I looked at the clock. It was just nine. What was I to do until this evening? This evening: and I immediately ran to the bathroom. I was cold and shaking and sweating. But I couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever; and what was I to do until this evening? All my other days, my whole life, it now seemed, had been spent at the theater. But there was no rehearsal today. Tonight was it.