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Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 41


  Barbara knew something had happened to me, knew it at once, knew it before she met Christopher. I did not tell her, but I knew she knew. I did not tell her because I was ashamed—not of my liaison; but, in beginning to thaw, I had to see how I had frozen myself; and, in freezing myself, had frozen Barbara. If I had merely been having an affair, I might have told her, without even thinking about it; for there would really have been nothing to tell. But now—oh, yes, something had happened to me, and now, for the very first time, really, Barbara was threatened, and Barbara knew it.

  Christopher sometimes picked me up after the show. Sometimes he met me at home, sometimes he arrived the next day, sometimes he’d merely telephone. I didn’t know much about his life then, except that most of it took place in the streets, or in lofts, or in basements, or on rooftops. I did not want to know. I gathered that I had an interesting reputation in the streets. Some people considered me a fagot, for some I was a hero, for some I was a whore, for some I was a devious cocks-man, for some I was an Uncle Tom. My eminence hurt me sometimes, but I tried not to think too much about it. I certainly couldn’t blame the people if they didn’t trust me—why should they? They had no way of knowing whether or not I gave a shit about them, and all I could do to make them feel it—maybe—was to do what I could, and do my work.

  Every once in a while, some of Christopher’s friends came by the house. All of his friends were black. Sometimes, some of my friends might be there, and many of my friends were white. I knew that this made me suspect, but, then, everything about me was suspect, and always had been, and it was late in the day to start nursing an ulcer about it. I liked Christopher’s friends very much, young, bright, eager, raggedy-assed, taking no shit from anyone; I had the feeling, hard to explain, that they found me very strange indeed; I had the feeling that the very strangest thing about me, for them, was that they rather liked me, too, but hadn’t expected to and didn’t trust the feeling. They were younger than they thought they were, much: they might arrive in their Castro berets, their Castro beards, their parkas and hoods and sweaters and thin jeans or corduroys and heavy boots, and with their beautiful black kinky hair spinning around their heads like fire and prophecy—this hair putting me in mind, somehow, of the extravagant beauty of rain-forests—and with Camus or Fanon or Mao on their person, or with Muhammad Speaks under their arms, but they were goggle-eyed just the same, and so far from being incapable of trusting, they had perpetually to fight the impulse to trust, overwhelmed, like all kids, by meeting a Great Man, and awkward like all kids, and, however they tried to dissemble it, shy. They were proud of Christopher for knowing me, and delighted by me for knowing Christopher. Christopher lived partly with me, partly with a sister I had yet to meet. He had his own key, he had the run of the house. I admit that, at first, I was a little frightened, but I don’t really, anyway, have very much to steal, and I’ve just never managed to get very hung-up on possessions. I tend not to give a shit. This is a trait in me of which Christopher entirely disapproved, and I very shortly realized that with Christopher in the house, every tie, tie-clasp, cufflink, spoon, every plaque, trophy, ring, shoe, shirt, sock, watch, coat, was as safe as, if not indeed considerably safer than, the gold rumored to be in Fort Knox.

  I usually left Christopher and his friends alone. I didn’t want to bug them. They had to be a part of my concern, for I was their elder; but there was no real reason for me to be a part of their concern. I’d go to my study, and read, or do nothing, look out of my window at the Manhattan streets, wonder what had happened to me, and begin—slowly, slowly—to be glad that it had happened. What I was going to do with it, or what it was going to do to me, I didn’t know. I was happy watching Christopher’s bright, black face, happy to know that I had helped to make it so bright. He felt safe, he had a friend, he was valued. He could say what he liked, he could be what he was. It was, I must say, very beautiful, and it made up for a lot: Christopher, lying flat on his belly, reading all the long afternoon, Christopher keeping me awake all night with his sweeping statements and halting questions, Christopher ruthlessly dominating his friends, instructing them in everything from terrorism to sex, or Christopher and his friends, boys and girls, dancing to the hi-fi set. They were teaching me a great deal; made me wonder where I’d been so long; made me wonder what it would have been like to have had children. I often eavesdropped on their funny, earnest, quite terrifying conversations. They knew that they were slated for slaughter, at the hands of their countrymen, willfully. Beneath everything they said lay the question of how to prevent or outwit or face that day. “We are not going to walk to the gas ovens,” Christopher said, “and we are not going to march to the concentration camps. We have to make the mothers know that.”

  I suppose that if their nominal representatives in Washington, that virtuous band of men, could have heard them—those brave descendants of cowboys, robbers, rapists, pirates, and whores—everyone in the barbed-wire business would have made a tremendous killing. I liked them. If they had ever been represented, loved, by the people who had kidnapped and used them, they would not have had to spend so much of their youth evolving dubious strategies for self-defense. When the shit hit the fan, I wanted to be at the wire with them—not, being black like them, that I flattered myself about having any choice.

  Barbara met Christopher one night in my dressing room. I was a little nervous about the encounter; but it was brief, because Barbara had a date. She looked quite marvelous that evening, and I could see that Christopher was very taken with her. Christopher was sitting in a corner. I had just finished dressing, and we were about to leave the theater. Christopher and I were merely going to grab a bite at Downey’s, and then go home. “Why don’t you grab a bite with us?”

  “Thank you. I’d like to, but I can’t. I have a family night. My mother and father and brother and sister-in-law are in town and they’ve always wanted to see ‘21’ and so I’ve reserved a table there, like the dutiful daughter I am. They haven’t yet been to see the play, you’ll note, but they’re coming next week—they didn’t think that they could do it justice tonight, since they’ve only just got in. And you’ve never met my family and so I thought I’d corral you—they’re dying to meet you.” We both laughed. “That’s progress,” she said, “don’t knock it.” She looked at Christopher. “Hello. My name is Barbara King.”

  “I know,” said Christopher. He rose, grinning, and held out his hand. “My name is Christopher Hall.”

  They shook hands. “Wouldn’t you like to come to ‘21’?”

  “I’d love it,” said Christopher, “but it’s up to Big Daddy here.”

  He put his hand on my back, briefly, and something flickered between them for a second.

  Barbara looked at me with great, mocking amusement. “Well, Big Daddy?”

  “We’re not really dressed for it, Barbara. I think it would be too much of a hassle.”

  We left the dressing room, and started for the steps. “How long are they going to be in town?”

  “Oh, another four or five days, I expect. I don’t know.”

  We said good-night to the doorman, and we were in the streets.

  “Well—is tomorrow Sunday? We can have brunch at my house tomorrow.”

  “Oh. That’s even better. It makes a great story to tell in Kentucky.” We laughed again. But, for the first time in my life, or, at least, the first time that I could remember it happening in this way, I wanted to get rid of her.

  “Are you from Kentucky?” Christopher asked.

  “Yes, Christopher,” she said, “I’m from Kentucky. But I left it just as soon as I could. All right?”

  He smiled, embarrassed. “You’re certainly all right with me,” he said.

  “Any friend of Big Daddy’s.” She turned to me. “Do you want me to drop you? Or are you kids going to walk?”

  “I think we’ll walk. It’s just a couple of blocks.”

  “Okay. See you tomorrow. Good-night, Christopher.”

  “Good-n
ight. I’m glad to have met you.”

  “Likewise,” she said, and she got into her car, blowing us a kiss. She leaned back, and was whirled away. I felt a little awkward.

  “She seems nice,” said Christopher. “Especially for a broad from Kentucky.”

  “She is very nice. She’s probably my best friend.”

  “You’ve known each other a long time?”

  “About half my life, I guess. Since I was younger than you are now.”

  He seemed to think about this as we walked, watching the people.

  “How come you two never got married?”

  “Our families objected,” I said, and I laughed. Then, “No, that’s not the reason. It would just have been a terrible marriage.”

  “Because she’s white?”

  “Partly. I don’t mean that it’s her fault.”

  “Oh,” he said, slyly, “I know you would never mean that.”

  “You think we should have got married?”

  “No. You too much of a Puritan. That would have fucked up my scene altogether, and a whole lot of other folks, too.” He turned me into Downey’s. “Now, you just remember who you come with, you hear? I don’t want to have to start no shit.”

  We stayed out very late that Saturday night, and I had completely forgotten about the brunch. But suddenly I heard Christopher turn and curse and jump out of bed.

  “What’s the matter with you?”

  “Move your ass, Leo, them people going to be here in about a hour.”

  Then I remembered. “Oh, Christ.”

  “Go get in the shower, I’ll go to the store. Move your ass now, Leo, I swear I don’t know how the fuck you managed all these years without me.” He got into his dungarees, ran into the bathroom, peed, and splashed his face in the sink, hurled himself into an old shirt, got into his sneakers, pulled the covers off me, pulled me to my feet, pushed me into the bathroom, grabbed my wallet, and dashed out the door. Bam. I felt shaky and short of breath, but I was more or less together by the time he got back. He put the groceries away—we had had almost nothing in the house—and went to take his shower and I started straightening up the place. The telephone rang. It was Barbara.

  “I thought I ought to warn you that we’re on our way. Are you up to it?”

  “Oh, yeah, we’re ready. Thanks to Christopher. He woke me up. I think I have a hangover, but I’m not conscious enough yet to be sure. How many are you again?”

  “Mama and Daddy and brother Ken and his wife, and a friend of theirs, and me. I’m afraid it’s not going to be the most exciting brunch you’ve ever had, but what the hell. You know. We pass this way but once, et cetera.”

  “Et cetera. Okay. We’re ready. Maybe I can persuade Christopher to do his soft-shoe routine.”

  “Please don’t—he’ll be there?”

  “Oh, yes. He’ll be here.”

  “Here we come then. Later.”

  “Ciao.”

  Christopher went to the door when the bell rang—he didn’t feel that I should answer my door; to please him, I stood in the living room, waiting. To be meeting Barbara’s family, after all these years, suddenly seemed hilarious. It also seemed sad. I wondered what Barbara was thinking. I wondered what Christopher was thinking. I heard a confused, nervous gaggle of voices, and I walked into the foyer.

  I was on.

  “Hello. I’m Leo Proudhammer. I guess you’ve met Christopher—Mr. Christopher Hall. Hi, Barbara.” We usually kissed each other, lightly, when we met, but we didn’t this time. “Come on in the house.” I led the way into the living room. Christopher, indescribably, impeccably sardonic, brought up the rear. We seemed, as we entered the living room, to be taking up battle positions. “You must be Mrs. King,” I said, and took her hand in mine, as boyish and open and charming as I knew I could be, and she smiled dazedly up at me from behind her flashing spectacles, dazzled and floundering. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for years,” I said. I turned to the father. “And you, too, sir,” I said, and held out my hand. He took it, briefly, staring at me with a face as blank and as helpless and as treacherous as water. I could not resist dropping into this pond a hard, sharp pebble. “Barbara’s told me so much about you,” I said. “It’s a pity we couldn’t meet sooner.”

  “This is my brother. Ken,” said Barbara, and we shook hands. He was older than Barbara, with a friendly face, a softening body, and thinning hair. “And his wife, Elena.” Elena was dark, and rather pretty, very chunky. There was down on her upper lip. We shook hands. “And their friend,” said Barbara, “Tyrone Bennett,” and I turned to shake hands with a heavy-set, pale-eyed, albino-looking man, in his middle forties, perhaps, with loose, nervous lips. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, “please, let’s all sit down. Make yourselves comfortable.” Mrs. King sat down on the sofa, still smiling, her gaze seeming to be helplessly riveted on me, and Mr. King sat beside her. Elena and Ken sat down, and Bennett strolled to the window and lit a cigarette. Christopher leaned on the bar, and Barbara went over to him.

  “My,” said Barbara’s mother, “it’s so nice of you to have us.” She laughed, like a girl. I was worried about the effect of her accent on Christopher’s nerves. I looked over at him. Barbara was talking, he was listening, with this same sardonic smile. “Why, I just can’t get over it. Sitting in the house of a real famous movie star.”

  “Oh, stop it, Mrs. King. Your daughter’s a famous movie star. You should be used to it by now.”

  “Oh, but that’s different. Barbie’s not a movie star for me. She’s my own flesh and blood. Of course, we’re proud of her, and all—but you—you’re real special. It just makes me feel so good that a boy like you could make so much of himself. It really does. Why, I could cry.” I kept smiling. Barbara and Christopher were still in conference at the bar. “Your mother must be real proud of you.”

  “Well, I hope my father is,” I said, “but my mother’s been dead for awhile.”

  “Oh! That is too bad. But your father? I hope he’s enjoying good health?”

  “Oh, yes”—and I almost said, “ma’am.” I felt myself being strangled by her sincerity, and I felt abandoned by Christopher and Barbara, who were still leaning on the bar. “We see each other all the time. He’s tough, my father. He was built to last at least a hundred years.”

  “Are you from New York?” Ken asked me. He had taken out his pipe, and was playing with it the way pipe smokers do.

  “Yes. Born and bred.”

  “You an only child?”

  “Oh, no. I have an older brother.”

  “He in show business too?”

  “Oh, no.” I paused. “He’s a preacher.”

  “That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?” said Bennett, turning and looking at me, “to have a preacher and an actor in the same family?” He chuckled. “Y’all get along?”

  “Oh, I think it happens very often,” said Elena, “especially—well, it’s very common, anyway.” She turned to her husband. “Who was it we saw, last time we was up here—that singer? The one I was so crazy about? Oh, you know who I mean! A beautiful girl.”

  “She has all kinds of enthusiasms,” Ken said to me, smiling. “I don’t know how she expects me to keep up with them.” He turned back to Elena. “Lena Horne?”

  “Oh! She is beautiful. And she is such a lady, don’t care what she’s doing, it just stands out all over her. I just adore her, don’t you?”

  “I do indeed,” I said. “I really do.”

  “But she wasn’t the one. No, this was another one—a whole lot darker than Lena Horne.”

  “You’re thinking of Pearl Bailey,” Barbara said.

  “Yes. That is the one. With those hands, and all. She is a scream. Now, she’s got a brother who’s a preacher, at least that’s what we was told.”

  “Yes, she does,” I said. “You’re right, it is common. Most of us come out of the church, one way or another.”

  “Why is that?” asked Barbara’s father. A slight flush on his face to
ld me that he had almost said “boy.”

  “Well, that’s a very loaded question,” I said. “It could keep us here for several days—”

  “Christopher and I are being bartenders,” Barbara said. “There are lots of Bloody Marys and there’s just about anything else you want. Now, who wants what?”

  “The reason that so many of us come out of the church,” said Christopher, “is that the church is the only thing we had—the only thing the white man let us have.”

  They all stared at him. “I’ll have a Bloody Mary,” said Barbara’s mother.

  “Me, too,” said Ken.

  “Hell, might as well make it Bloody Marys all around,” said Bennett. He watched Christopher. “Why do you say that?”

  “I say it,” said Christopher, “because it’s true.” He looked up at Bennett, then continued dropping ice in glasses. Barbara was putting the glasses on a tray. Her hair was down, she was wearing slacks and low heels and she was as silent as the waitress which she once had been. Christopher began to pour.

  Bennett looked at me, but I said nothing. Christopher winked broadly at me, and I suppose they all saw it, but they didn’t—nor did I—know how to react. Barbara began passing around the drinks. Ken looked at Barbara for a moment, shrewdly. Barbara brought a drink to me.