Settings

Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 6


  It was colder in the streets than it had been before and there were not many people.

  Caleb took Dolores’ arm. “Let’s get you to your subway,” he said. We started walking up the wide, dark avenue. We reached the brightly lit kiosk which came up out of the sidewalk like some unbelievably malevolent awning or the suction apparatus of a monstrous vacuum cleaner. “Bye-bye,” said Caleb, and kissed Dolores on the nose, “I got to run. See you Monday, after school.”

  “Bye-bye,” said Dolores. She bent down and kissed me quickly on the cheek. “Bye-bye, Leo. Be good.” She hurried down the steps.

  Caleb and I began walking very fast, down the avenue, toward our block. The subway station was near the moviehouse and the moviehouse was dark. But we knew we were late—we did not think that we were very late.

  “It was a very long show,” Caleb said, “wasn’t it?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  “What did we see?”

  I told him.

  “What were they about? Tell me about both pictures. Just in case.”

  I told him as well and as fully as I could as we hurried down the avenue. He held me by the hand and he was walking much too fast for me and so my breath was short. But Caleb had great powers of concentration and could figure out enough from what I said to know what to say if the necessity arose. But our troubles, that night, came from a very different source than our parents. I had just reached the point in my breathless narration where the good girl is murdered by the Indians and the hero vows revenge, we were hurrying down the long block which led east to our house, when we heard the brakes of a car and were blinded by bright lights and were pushed up against a wall.

  “Turn around,” said a voice. “And keep your hands in the air.”

  It may seem funny, I don’t know, but I felt, at once, as though Caleb and I had conjured up a movie; that if I had not been describing a movie to him, we would not have suddenly found ourselves in the middle of one. Or was it the end? For I had never been so frightened in my life before.

  We did as we were told. I felt the grainy brick beneath my fingers. A hand patted me all over my body, front and back, every touch humiliating, every touch obscene. Beside me, I heard Caleb catch his breath.

  “Turn around,” the voices said.

  The great lights of the police car had gone out; I could see the car at the curb, the doors open. I thought I could see, across the street, a colored man, in the shadows, staring, but I could not be sure. I did not dare to look at Caleb, for I felt that this would, somehow, be used against us. I stared at the two policemen, young, white, tight-lipped, and self-important. They turned a flashlight first on Caleb, then on me.

  “Where you boys going?”

  “Home,” Caleb said. I could hear his breathing. “We live in the next block,” and he gave the address.

  The flashlight had gone out and I could see their faces. I memorized their faces.

  “Where’ve you been?”

  I trembled. I did not know of whom the question had been asked. I did not know what to answer.

  Now I heard the effort Caleb was making not to surrender either to rage or panic. “We just took my girl to the subway station. We were at the movies.” And then, forced out of him, weary, dry, and bitter, “This here’s my brother. I got to get him home. He ain’t but ten years old.”

  “What movie did you see?”

  And Caleb told them. I marveled at his memory. But I also knew that the show had let out about an hour or so before. I feared that the policemen might also know this. But they didn’t, of course, know: such knowledge is beneath them.

  “You got any identification?”

  “My brother doesn’t. I do.”

  “Let’s see it.”

  Caleb took out his wallet and handed it over. I could see that his hands were trembling. I watched the white faces. I memorized each mole, scar, pimple, nostril hair; I memorized the eyes, the contemptuous eyes. I wished that I were God. And then I hated God.

  They looked at his wallet, looked at us, handed it back. “Get on home,” one of them said, the one with the mole. They got into their car and drove off.

  “Thanks,” Caleb said. “Thanks, you white cock-sucking dog-shit miserable white mother-fuckers. Thanks, all you scum-bag Christians.” His accent was now as irredeemably of the islands as was the accent of our father. I had never heard this sound in his voice before. He raised his face to the sky. “Thanks, good Jesus Christ. Thanks for letting us go home. I mean, I know you didn’t have to do it. You could have let us just get our brains beat out. Remind me, O lord, to put a extra large nickel in the plate next Sunday.” And then, suddenly, he looked down at me and laughed and hugged me. “Come on, let’s get home before the bastard changes his mind. Little Leo. Were you scared?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Were you?”

  “Damn right, I was scared. But—goddamn!—they must have seen that you weren’t but ten years old.”

  “You didn’t act scared,” I said.

  And this was the truth. But I also felt, I don’t know how, nor do I really know why, that I couldn’t let him feel, even for a moment, that I did not adore him, that I did not respect him, love him and admire him.

  We were in our own block, approaching our stoop. “Well. We certainly have a good excuse for being late,” he said. He grinned. Then he said, “Leo, I’ll tell you something. I’m glad this happened. It had to happen one day and I’m glad it happened now. I’m glad it happened while I was with you—of course, I’m glad you were with me, too, dig, because if it hadn’t been for you, they’d have pulled my ass in and given me a licking just as sure as shit—”

  “What for?”

  “Because I’m black,” Caleb said. “That’s what for. Because I’m black and they paid to beat on black asses. But, with a kid your size, they just might get into trouble. So they let us go. They knew you weren’t nothing but a kid. They knew it. But they didn’t care. All black people are shit to them. You remember that. You black like me and they going to hate you as long as you live just because you’re black. There’s something wrong with them. They got some kind of disease. I hope to God it kills them soon.” We started up the steps to our house. “But it’s liable to kill us before it kills them.”

  I said nothing. I said nothing because what he said was true, and I knew it. It seemed, now, that I had always known it, though I had never been able to say it. But I did not understand it. I was filled with an awful wonder, it hurt my chest and paralyzed my tongue. Because you’re black. I tried to think, but I couldn’t. I only saw the policemen, those murderous eyes again, those hands, with a touch like the touch of vermin. Were they people?

  “Caleb,” I asked, “are white people people?”

  “What are you talking about, Leo?”

  “I mean—are white people—people? People like us?”

  He looked down at me. His face was very strange and sad. It was a face I had never seen before. We climbed a few more stairs, very slowly. Then, “All I can tell you, Leo, is—well, they don’t think they are.”

  I thought of Mr. Rabinowitz and Mr. Shapiro. Then I thought of my schoolteacher, a lady named Mrs. Nelson. I liked her very much. I thought she was very pretty. She had long, yellow hair, like someone I had seen in the movies, and a nice laugh, and we all liked her, all the kids I knew. The kids who were not in her class wished they were. I liked to write compositions for her because she seemed really interested and always asked questions. But she was white. Would she hate me all my life because I was black? It didn’t seem possible. She didn’t hate me now; I was pretty sure of that. And yet, what Caleb had said was true.

  “Caleb,” I asked, “are all white people the same?”

  “What do you mean, the same?”

  “I mean—you know—are they all the same?”

  And Caleb said, “I never met a good one.”

  I asked, “Not even when you were little? in school?”

  Caleb said, “Maybe. I don’t remember
.” He smiled at me. “I never met a good one, Leo. But that’s not saying that you won’t. Don’t look so frightened.”

  We were in front of our door. Caleb raised his hand to knock. I held his hand.

  “Caleb,” I whispered, “what about Mama?”

  “What do you mean, what about Mama?”

  “Well, Mama”—I stared at him; he watched me very gravely. “Mama—Mama’s almost white—”

  “Almost don’t get it,” Caleb said.

  I stared at him.

  “Our mama is almost white,” Caleb said, “but that don’t make her white. You got to be all white to be white.” He laughed; inside, we heard our father cough. “Poor Leo. Don’t feel bad. I know you don’t understand it now. I’ll try to explain it to you, little by little.” He paused. “But our mama is a colored woman. You can tell she’s a colored woman because she’s married to a colored man, and she’s got two colored children. Now, you know ain’t no white lady going to do a thing like that.” He watched me, smiling. “You understand that?” I nodded. “Well, you going to keep me here all night with your questions or can we go on in the house now?”

  I told him to knock, and he did, and our mother opened the door.

  “About time,” she said dryly—she was chewing on a porkchop bone, and had her hair piled in a knot on the top of her head. I liked her hair that way. “You must have sat through that movie four or five times. You’re going to ruin your eyes and that’ll just be too bad for you because you know we ain’t got no money to be buying you no glasses. Leo, you go on inside and get ready to take your bath.”

  “Let him come over here a minute,” said our father. He was sitting in the one easy chair, near the window. He was drunk, but not as drunk as I had seen him, and this was a good mood drunk. In this mood, he would not talk about his job, or the white workers on the job, or his foreman, or about white people, or about African kings. In this mood, he talked about the islands, his mother and father and kinfolk and friends, the feast days, the singing, the dancing, and the sea.

  I approached him, and he pulled me to him, smiling, and held me between his thighs. “How’s my big man?” he asked, smiling, and rubbing his hand gently, and with wonder, over my hair. “Did you have a good time tonight?”

  Caleb sat on a straight chair near him, leaning forward. “Let Leo tell you why we so late. Tell them what happened, Leo.”

  “We were coming down the block,” I began—and I watched my father’s face. Suddenly, I did not want to tell him. Something in Caleb’s tone had alerted him, and he watched me with a stern and frightened apprehension. My mother came and stood beside him, one hand on his shoulder. I looked at Caleb. “Maybe you could tell it better,” I said.

  “Go on, start. I’ll fill in.”

  “We were coming down the block,” I said—and I told him which block—“coming from the movies”—I looked at Caleb.

  “It’s not the way we usually come,” said Caleb.

  My father and I stared at each other. There was, suddenly, between us an overwhelming sorrow. It had come from nowhere. “We got stopped by the cops,” I said. Then I could not continue. I looked helplessly at Caleb and Caleb told the story. As Caleb spoke, I watched my father’s face. I don’t know how to describe what I saw. I felt the one arm he had around me tighten, tighten; his lips became bitter and his eyes grew dull. It was as though, after indescribable, nearly mortal effort, after grim years of fasting and prayer, after the loss of all he had, and after having been promised by the Almighty that he had paid the price and no more would be demanded of his soul, which was harbored now; it was as though in the midst of his joyful feasting and dancing, crowned and robed, a messenger arrived to tell him that a great error had been made, and that it was all to be done again. Before his eyes, then, the banquet and the banquet wines and the banquet guests departed, the robe and crown were lifted, and he was alone then, frozen out of his dream, with all that before him which he had thought was behind him. My father looked as stunned and still and as close to madness as that, and his encircling arm began to hurt me, but I did not complain. I put my hand on his face, and he turned to me, his face changed, he smiled—he was very beautiful then!—and he put his great hand on top of mine. He turned to Caleb.

  “That’s all that happened? You didn’t say nothing?”

  “What could I say? It might have been different, had I been by myself. But I had Leo with me, and I was afraid of what they might do to Leo. You know those bastards. You can’t get no lower than those bastards until they lower you six feet under.”

  “No, you did right, man, I got no fault to find. You didn’t take their badge number?”

  Caleb snickered. “What for? You know a friendly judge? We got money for a lawyer? Somebody they going to listen to? You know as well as me they beating on black ass all the time, all the time, man, they get us in that precinct house and make us confess to all kinds of things and sometimes even kill us and don’t nobody give a damn. Don’t nobody care what happens to a black man. If they didn’t need us for work, they’d have killed us all off a long time ago. They did it to the Indians.”

  “That’s the truth,” said our mother. “I wish I could say different, but it’s the truth.” She stroked our father’s shoulder. “We just thank the Lord it wasn’t no worse.”

  “You can thank the Lord,” said our father. “I ain’t got nothing to thank him for. I wish he was a man like me!”

  “Well, you right,” said our mother. “It was just an expression. But let’s don’t sit here brooding about it. We just got to say: well, the boys got home safe tonight. Because that’s the way it is.”

  I asked, “Daddy, how come they do us like they do?”

  My father looked at me for a long time. Finally, he said, “Leo, if I could tell you that, maybe I’d be able to make them stop. But don’t let them make you afraid. You hear?”

  I said, “Yes sir.” But I knew that I was already afraid.

  “Let’s not talk about it no more,” our mother said. “No more tonight. If you two is hungry, I got some pork-chops back there.”

  Caleb grinned at me. “Little Leo might be hungry. He stuffs himself like a pig. But I ain’t hungry. Hey, old man”—he nudged my father’s shoulder; nothing would be refused us tonight—“why don’t we have a taste of your rum? All right?”

  Our mother laughed. “I’ll go get it,” she said. She started out of the room.

  “Reckon we can give Leo a little bit, too?” our father asked. He pulled me onto his lap.

  “In a big glass of water,” said our mother, laughing. She took one last look at us before she went into the kitchen. “My!” she said, “I sure am surrounded by some pretty men! My, my, my!”

  I awoke suddenly, rising up abruptly from darkness, and flowers faced me on a table far away, great, blatant, triumphal blooms, reminding me of Barbara’s dressing room on opening nights. The table was placed before a large, high window, hung with yellow drapes. The drapes were slightly parted, and I could see the sun outside. The rest of the room was white—white walls, a white closed door. My blue dressing gown hung against the wall nearest my bed. I tried to raise myself up to see the rest of the room and then discovered that I had no strength at all. I felt as light and as hollow and as dry as a bleached bone in the sand. My skin seemed flaking. The hair on my head felt like an affliction. A woolly trap, it felt so heavy that I might have been in the grave for days. Then I wondered what day it was, and how long I had been here. All was silent—silent and white. I tried to guess from the sun what time it would be, and I decided it would probably be about eleven. But nothing mattered—except my heavy load of hair; I didn’t care if the silence never ended; I didn’t care if the room remained empty of people forever. I stretched my legs. They did not feel like mine, they had no weight at all. I felt a great peacefulness—such as I had never felt before. I turned my shell of a body into the white sheets and closed my eyes.

  In no time, it seemed, I opened them, but now the su
n was in another place and I supposed it must be about four. The nurse was in the room. “Hi, there, sleepy-head!” she cried cheerfully—with that really unnerving cheerfulness of nurses; one dare not speculate on what awful knowledge the cheerfulness hides—“You certainly got a good rest. How do you feel?”

  She was young, very pretty, with a clean, scrubbed face, and with short red hair under her starched cap.

  “I feel pretty exhausted,” I said. I did. And I suddenly felt very depressed.

  “That’s only natural,” she said. “Please—may I?” And she extended the thermometer toward me.

  “How long have I been here?”

  “Just a day and a night—well, a night and a day and a night. Does it feel longer?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “It feels like my hair’s been growing for a month.”

  She laughed. “Well, I think we can fix that,” she said, “in a couple of days.” She extended the thermometer again, purposefully, and stuck it under my tongue. She looked at my chart, she pulled the curtains, she watered the flowers. She worked in silence, with short, childish movements. I watched her pleasing rump and her round arms and her aggressive, and at the same time helpless, breasts. I had the feeling that she hadn’t long since lost her baby fat. She opened the door and came back with an enormous basket of fruit, which she placed on the table next to the bed. “Some of your friends wanted to send over a case of champagne,” she said, “but we didn’t think we could allow that. Much as I wanted to. Oh! and aren’t some of the girls just sick with jealousy! Of me! Because I’m nursing Leo Proudhammer! They can hardly eat their lunch for asking me questions. I just tell them, Well, he’s sleeping. There’s not much difference between one man and another when they’re asleep.”

  “Well,” I said, as she took the thermometer from my mouth and stared at it gravely, “now you can tell them that I’m awake. And I’m still not different.”

  “Oh, but you are,” she said. “Yes, you are.” She carefully noted my temperature on my chart, and replaced the thermometer in its glass jar. “The doctor will be in to see you later,” she said. “We’re going to be running some tests on you. But right now,” she said firmly, “I will require a urine specimen, please.” She handed me the medieval jar, which was covered with a towel, and placed the screen in front of my bed. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and I heard the door close behind her.