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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 4


  “No,” he said, “but there’s a bathroom in the station.” He looked at me again. “Where’re you going?”

  I told him that I was going home. But the pressure on my bladder made it hard for me to speak. The train looked like it was never going to stop.

  “And where’s home?”

  I told him. This time he did not laugh.

  “Do you know where you are?”

  I shook my head. At that moment the train came into the station and after several hours it rolled to a stop. After a slightly longer time than that, the jammed doors opened and the man led me to the bathroom. I ran in, and I hurried because I was afraid he would disappear. But I was glad he had not come in with me.

  When I came out, he stood waiting for me. “Now,” he said, “you in Brooklyn—you ever hear of Brooklyn? What you doing out here by yourself?”

  “I got lost,” I said.

  “I know you got lost. What I want to know is how come you got lost? Where’s your mama? Where’s your daddy?”

  I almost said that I didn’t have any because I liked his face and his voice and was half hoping to hear him say that he didn’t have any little boy and would just as soon take a chance on me. But I told him that my mama and daddy were at home.

  “And do they know where you are?”

  I said No. There was a pause.

  “Well, I know they going to make your tail hot when they see you.” He took my hand. “Come on.”

  And he led me along the platform and then down some steps and along a narrow passage and then up some steps onto the opposite platform. I was very impressed by this maneuver, for, in order to accomplish the same purpose, I had always left the subway station and gone up into the streets. Now that the emergency was over (and I knew that I would not be late getting home) I was in no great hurry to leave my savior; but I didn’t know how to say this, the more particularly as he seemed to be alternating between amusement and irritation. I asked him if he had a little boy.

  “Yes,” he said, “and if you was my little boy, I’d paddle your behind so you couldn’t sit down for a week.”

  I asked him how old was his little boy and what was his name and if his little boy was at home?

  “He better be at home!” He looked at me and laughed. “His name is Jonathan. He ain’t but five years old.” His gaze refocused, sharpened. “How old are you?”

  I told him that I was ten, going on eleven.

  “You a pretty bad little fellow,” he said, then.

  I tried to look repentant, but I would not have dreamed of denying it.

  “Now, look here,” he said, “this here’s the uptown side—can you read or don’t you never go to school?” I assured him that I could read. “Now, to get where you going, you got to change trains.” He told me where. “Here, I’ll write it down for you.” He found some paper in his pockets, but no pencil. We heard the train coming. He looked about him in helpless annoyance, looked at his watch, looked at me. “It’s all right. I’ll tell the conductor.”

  But the conductor, standing between the two cars, had rather a mean pink face and my savior looked at him dubiously. “He might be all right. But we better not take no chances.” He pushed me ahead of him into the train. “You know you right lucky that I got a little boy? If I didn’t, I swear I’d just let you go on and be lost. You don’t know the kind of trouble you going to get me in at home. My wife ain’t never going to believe this story.”

  I told him to give me his name and address and that I would write a letter to his wife and to his little boy, too. This caused him to laugh harder than ever. “You only say that because you know I ain’t got no pencil. You are one hell of a shrewd little boy.”

  I told him that then maybe we should get off the train and that I would go back home with him. This made him grave.

  “What does your father do?” This question made me uneasy. I stared at him for a long time before I answered. “He works in a”—I could not pronounce the word—“he has a job.”

  He nodded. “I see. Is he home now?”

  I really did not know and I said I did not know.

  “And what does your mother do?”

  “She stays home. But she goes out to work—sometimes.”

  Again he nodded. “You got any brothers or sisters?”

  I told him No.

  “I see. What’s your name?”

  “Leo.”

  “Leo what?”

  “Leo Proudhammer.”

  He saw something in my face.

  “What do you want to be when you grow up, Leo?”

  “I want to be”—and I had never said this before—“I want to be a—a movie actor. I want to be a—actor.”

  “You pretty skinny for that,” he said.

  But I certainly had, now, all of his attention.

  “That’s all right,” I told him. “Caleb’s going to teach me to swim. That’s how you get big.”

  “Who’s Caleb?”

  I opened my mouth, I stared at him, I started to speak, I checked myself—as the train roared into a station. He glanced out of the window, but did not move. “He swims,” I said.

  “Oh,” he said, after a very long pause, during which the doors slammed and the train began to move. “Is he a good swimmer?”

  I said that Caleb was the best swimmer in the world.

  “Okay,” my savior said, “okay,” and put his hand on my head again, and smiled at me. I asked him what his name was. “Charles,” he said, “Charles Williams. But you better call me Uncle Charles, you little devil, because you have certainly ruined my Saturday night.”

  I told him (for I knew it) that it was still early.

  “It ain’t going to be early,” he said, “by the time I get back home.” The train came into the station. “Here’s where we change,” he said.

  We got out of the train and crossed the platform and waited.

  “Now,” he said, “this train stops exactly where you going. Tell me where you going.”

  I stared at him.

  “I want you,” he said, “to tell me exactly where you going. I can’t be fooling with you all night.”

  I told him.

  “You sure that’s right?”

  I told him I was sure.

  “I got a very good memory,” he said. “Give me your address. Just say it, I’ll remember it.”

  So I said it, staring into his face as the train came roaring in.

  “If you don’t go straight home,” he said, “I’m going to come and see your daddy and when we find you, you’ll be mighty sorry.” He pushed me into the train and put one shoulder against the door. “Go on, now,” he said, loud enough for all the car to hear, “your mama’ll meet you at the station where I told you to get off.” He repeated my subway stop, pushed the angry door with his shoulder, and then said gently, “Sit down, Leo.” And he remained in the door until I sat down. “So long, Leo,” he said, then, and stepped backward, out. The doors closed. He grinned at me and waved and the train began to move. I waved back. Then he was gone, the station was gone, and I was on my way back home.

  I never saw that man again but I made up stories in my head about him, I dreamed about him, I even wrote a letter to him and his wife and his little boy, but I never mailed it. I had a feeling that he would not like my father and that my father would not like him. And since Caleb never liked anyone I liked, I never mentioned him to Caleb.

  But I never told Caleb anything about my solitary expeditions. I don’t know why. I think that he might have liked to know about them; or perhaps I am only reacting to his own, later, guilty feeling that he should have known about them; but, I suppose, finally, at bottom, I said nothing because my expeditions belonged to me. It scarcely seems possible that I could have been as silent and solitary and dangerously self-contained as the melancholy evidence indicates me to have been. For certainly I cried and howled and stormed. Certainly I must have chattered, as children do. Such playmates as I had, in spite of my size and strangeness,
my helpless ambiguity, I eventually dominated—without quite knowing how this had come about; I was able to do it, that was all, and, therefore, condemned to do it. I know that, as I grew older, I became tyrannical. I had no choice, my life was in the balance. Whoever went under, it was not going to be me—and I seem to have been very clear about this from the very beginning of my life. To run meant to turn my back—on lions; to run meant the flying tackle which would bring me down; and, anyway, run where? Certainly not to my father and mother, certainly not to Caleb. Therefore, I had to stand. To stand meant that I had to be insane. People who imagine themselves to be, as they put it, in their “right” minds, have no desire to tangle with the insane. They stay far from them, or they ingratiate them. It took me almost no time to realize this. I used what I knew. I knew that what was sport for others was life or death for me. Therefore, I had to make it a matter of life or death for them. Not many are prepared to go so far, at least not without the sanction of a uniform. But this absolutely single-minded and terrified ruthlessness was masked by my obvious vulnerability, my paradoxical and very real helplessness, and it covered my terrible need to lie down, to breathe deep, to weep long and loud, to be held in human arms, almost any human arms, to hide my face in any human breast, to tell it all, to let it out, to be brought into the world, and, out of human affection, to be born again. What a dream: is it a dream? I don’t know. I know only what happened—if, indeed, I can claim to know that. My pride became my affliction. I found myself imprisoned in the stronghold I had built. The day came when I wished to break my silence and found that I could not speak: the actor could no longer be distinguished from his role.

  Another time, it was raining and it was still too early for me to go home. I felt very, very low that day. It was one of the times that my tongue and my body refused to obey me—this happened often; when I was prey to my fantasies, or overwhelmed by my real condition; and I had not been able to work up the courage to ask anyone to take me into the show. I stood there, watching people go in, watching people come out. Every once in a while, when the doors opened, I caught a glimpse of the screen —huge, black and silver, moving all the time. The ticket-taker was watching me, or so I thought, with a hostile suspicion, as though he were thinking, You just try to get somebody to take you in, I dare you! It’ll be your ass. Actually, it’s very unlikely he was thinking at all, and certainly not of me. But I walked away from the show because I could no longer bear his eyes, or anybody’s eyes.

  I walked the long block east from the moviehouse. The street was empty, black, and glittering. The globes of the streetlamps, with the water slanting both behind them and before, told me how hard the rain was falling. The water soaked through my coat at the shoulders and water dripped down my neck from my cap. I began to be afraid. I could not stay out here in the rain because then my father and mother would know I had been wandering the streets. I would get a beating, and, though Caleb was too old to get a beating, he and my father would have a terrible fight and Caleb would blame it all on me and would not speak to me for days. I began to hate Caleb. I wondered where he was. If I had known where to find him, I would have gone to where he was and forced him, by screaming and crying even, to take me home or to take me wherever he was going. And I wouldn’t have cared if he hit me, or even if he called me a sissy. Then it occurred to me that he might be in the same trouble as myself, since if I couldn’t go home without him, he, even more surely, couldn’t go home without me. Perhaps he was also wandering around in the rain. If he was, then, I thought, it served him right; it would serve him right if he caught pneumonia and died; and I dwelt pleasantly on this possibility for the length of the block. But at the end of the block I realized that he was probably not wandering around in the rain—I was; and I, too, might catch pneumonia and die. I started in the direction of our house only because I did not know what else to do. Perhaps Caleb would be waiting for me on the stoop.

  The avenue, too, was very long and silent. Somehow, it seemed old, like a picture in a book. It stretched straight before me, endless, and the streetlights did not so much illuminate it as prove how dark it was. The familiar buildings were now merely dark, silent shapes, great masses of wet rock; men stood against the walls or on the stoops, made faceless by the light in the hallway behind them. The rain was falling harder. Cars sloshed by, sending up sheets of water and bobbing like boats; from the bars I heard music faintly, and many voices. Straight ahead of me a woman walked, very fast, head down, carrying a shopping bag. I reached my corner and crossed the wide avenue. There was no one on my stoop.

  Now, I was not even certain what time it was; and everything was so abnormally, wretchedly still that there was no way of guessing. But I knew it wasn’t time yet for the show to be over. I walked into my hallway and wrung out my cap. I was sorry that I had not made someone take me into the show because now I did not know what to do. I could go upstairs and say that we had not liked the movie and had left early and that Caleb was with some boys on the stoop. But this would sound strange—I had never been known to dislike a movie; and if our father was home, he might come downstairs to look for Caleb; who would not know what story I had told and who would, therefore, in any case, be greatly handicapped when he arrived. As far as Caleb knew, I was safely in the movies. That was our bargain, from which not even the rain released me. My nerve had failed me, but Caleb had no way of knowing that. I could not stay in my hallway because my father might not be at home and might come in. I could not go into the hallway of another building because if any of the kids who lived in the building found me they would have the right to beat me up. I could not go back out into the rain. I stood next to the big, cold radiator and I began to cry. But crying wasn’t going to do me any good, either, especially as there was no one to hear me.

  So I stepped out on my stoop again and looked carefully up and down the block. There was not a soul to be seen. Even the Holy Roller church across the street was silent. The rain fell as hard as ever, with a whispering sound—like monstrous old gossips whispering together. The sky could not be seen. It was black. I stood there for a long time, wondering what to do. Then I thought of a condemned house, around the corner from us. We played there sometimes, though we were not supposed to, and it was very dangerous. The front door had been boarded up but the boards had been pried loose; and the basement windows had been broken and boys congregated in the basement and wandered through the rotting house. What possessed me to go there now I don’t know, except that I could not think of another dry place in the whole world. I thought that I would just sit there, out of the rain, until I figured it was safe to come home. And I started running east, down our block. I turned two corners and I came to the house, with its black window sockets and garbage piled high around it and the rain moaning and whistling, clanging against the metal and drumming on the glass. The house stood by itself, for the house next to it had already been torn down. The house was completely dark. I had forgotten how afraid I was of the dark, but the rain was drenching me. I ran down the cellar steps and clambered into the house. I squatted there in a still, dry dread, in misery, not daring to look into the house but staring outward at the bright black area railing and the tempest beyond. I was holding my breath. I heard an endless scurrying in the darkness, a perpetual busy-ness, and I thought of rats, of their teeth and ferocity and fearful size and I began to cry again. If someone had come up then to murder me, I don’t believe I could have moved or made any other sound.