IN THE town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.
Every morning the two friends walked silently together until they reached the main street of the town. Then when they came to a certain fruit and candy store they paused for a moment on the sidewalk outside. The Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos, worked for his cousin, who owned this fruit store. His job was to make candies and sweets, uncrate the fruits, and to keep the place clean. The thin mute, John Singer, nearly always put his hand on his friend’s arm and looked for a second into his face before leaving him. Then after this good-bye Singer crossed the street and walked on alone to the jewelry store where he worked as a silverware engraver.
In the late afternoon the friends would meet again. Singer came back to the fruit store and waited until Antonapoulos was ready to go home. The Greek would be lazily unpacking a case of peaches or melons, or perhaps looking at the funny paper in the kitchen behind the store where he cooked. Before their departure Antonapoulos always opened a paper sack he kept hidden during the day on one of the kitchen shelves. Inside were stored various bits of food he had collected—a piece of fruit, samples of candy, or the butt-end of a liverwurst. Usually before leaving Antonapoulos waddled gently to the glassed case in the front of the store where some meats and cheeses were kept. He glided open the back of the case and his fat hand groped lovingly for some particular dainty inside which he had wanted. Sometimes his cousin who owned the place did not see him. But if he noticed he stared at his cousin with a warning in his tight, pale face. Sadly Antonapoulos would shuffle the morsel from one corner of the case to the other. During these times Singer stood very straight with his hands in his pockets and looked in another direction. He did not like to watch this little scene between the two Greeks. For, excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in the world.
In the dusk the two mutes walked slowly home together. At home Singer was always talking to Antonapoulos. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonapoulos all that had happened during the day.
Antonapoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all—and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus,’ or ‘God,’ or ‘Darling Mary.’ These were the only words Antonapoulos ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.
They shared the upstairs of a small house near the business section of the town. There were two rooms. On the oil stove in the kitchen Antonapoulos cooked all of their meals. There were straight, plain kitchen chairs for Singer and an overstuffed sofa for Antonapoulos. The bedroom was furnished mainly with a large double bed covered with an eiderdown comforter for the big Greek and a narrow iron cot for Singer.
Dinner always took a long time, because Antonapoulos loved food and he was very slow. After they had eaten, the big Greek would lie back on his sofa and slowly lick over each one of his teeth with his tongue, either from a certain delicacy or because he did not wish to lose the savor of the meal—while Singer washed the dishes.
Sometimes in the evening the mutes would play chess. Singer had always greatly enjoyed this game, and years before he had tried to teach it to Antonapoulos. At first his friend could not be interested in the reasons for moving the various pieces about on the board. Then Singer began to keep a bottle of something good under the table to be taken out after each lesson. The Greek never got on to the erratic movements of the knights and the sweeping mobility of the queens, but he learned to make a few set, opening moves. He preferred the white pieces and would not play if the black men were given him. After the first moves Singer worked out the game by himself while his friend looked on drowsily. If Singer made brilliant attacks on his own men so that in the end the black king was killed, Antonapoulos was always very proud and pleased.
The two mutes had no other friends, and except when they worked they were alone together. Each day was very much like any other day, because they were alone so much that nothing ever disturbed them. Once a week they would go to the library for Singer to withdraw a mystery book and on Friday night they attended a movie. Then on payday they always went to the ten-cent photograph shop above the Army and Navy Store so that Antonapoulos could have his picture taken. These were the only places where they made customary visits. There were many parts in the town that they had never even seen.
The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness.
But the two mutes were not lonely at all. At home they were content to eat and drink, and Singer would talk with his hands eagerly to his friend about all that was in his mind. So the years passed in this quiet way until Singer reached the age of thirty-two and had been in the town with Antonapoulos for ten years.
Then one day the Greek became ill. He sat up in bed with his hands on his fat stomach and big, oily tears rolled down his cheeks. Singer went to see his friend’s cousin who owned the fruit store, and also he arranged for leave from his own work. The doctor made out a diet for Antonapoulos and said that he could drink no more wine. Singer rigidly enforced the doctor’s orders. All day he sat by his friend’s bed and did what he could to make the time pass quickly, but Antonapoulos only looked at him angrily from the corners of his eyes and would not be amused.
The Greek was very fretful, and kept finding fault with the fruit drinks and food that Singer prepared for him. Constantly he made his friend help him out of bed so that he could pray. His huge buttocks would sag down over his plump little feet when he kneeled. He fumbled with his hands to say ‘Darling Mary’ and then held to the small brass cross tied to his neck with a dirty string. His big eyes would wall up to the ceiling with a look of fear in them, and afterward he was very sulky and would not let his friend speak to him.
Singer was patient and did all that he could. He drew little pictures, and once he made a sketch of his friend to amuse him. This picture hurt the big Greek’s feelings, and he refused to be reconciled until Singer had made his face very young and handsome and colored his hair bright yellow and his eyes china blue. And then he tried not to show his pleasure.
Singer nursed his friend so carefully that after a week Antonapoulos was able to return to his work. But from that time on there was a difference in their way of life. Trouble came to the two friends.
Antonapoulos was not ill any more, but a change had come in him. He was irritable and no longer content to spend the evenings quietly in their home. When he would wish to go out Singer followed along close behind him. Antonapoulos would go into a restaurant, and while they sat at the table he slyly put lumps of sugar, or a peppershaker, or pieces of silverware in his pocket. Singer always paid for what he took and there was no disturbance. At home he scolded Antonapoulos, but the big Greek only looked at him with a bland smile.
The months went on and these habits of Antonapoulos grew worse. One day at noon he walked calmly out of the fruit store of his cousin and urinated in public against the wall of the First National Bank Building across the street. At times he would meet people on the sidewalk whose faces did not please him, and he would bump into these persons and push at them with his elbows and stomach. He walked into a store one day and hauled out a floor lamp without paying for it, and another time he tried to take an electric train he had seen in a showcase.
For Singer this was a time of great distress. He was continually marching Antonapoulos down to the courthouse during lunch hour to settle these infringements of the law. Singer became very familiar with the procedure of the courts and he was in a constant state of agitation. The money he had saved in the bank was spent for bail and fines. All of his efforts and money were used to keep his friend out of jail because of such charges as theft, committing public indecencies, and assault and battery.
The Greek cousin for whom Antonapoulos worked did not enter into these troubles at all. Charles Parker (for that was the name this cousin had taken) let Antonapoulos stay on at the store, but he watched him always with his pale, tight face and he made no effort to help him. Singer had a strange feeling about Charles Parker. He began to dislike him.
Singer lived in continual turmoil and worry. But Antonapoulos was always bland, and no matter what happened the gentle, flaccid smile was still on his face. In all the years before it had seemed to Singer that there was something very subtle and wise in this smile of his friend. He had never known just how much Antonapoulos understood and what he was thinking. Now in the big Greek’s expression Singer thought that he could detect something sly and joking. He would shake his friend by the shoulders until he was very tired and explain things over and over with his hands. But nothing did any good.
All of Singer’s money was gone and he had to borrow from the jeweler for whom he worked. On one occasion he was unable to pay bail for his friend and Antonapoulos spent the night in jail. When Singer came to get him out the next day he was very sulky. He did not want to leave. He had enjoyed his dinner of sowbelly and cornbread with syrup poured over it. And the new sleeping arrangements and his cellmates pleased him.
They had lived so much alone that Singer had no one to help him in his distress. Antonapoulos let nothing disturb him or cure him of his habits. At home he sometimes cooked the new dish he had eaten in the jail, and on the streets there was never any knowing just what he would do.
And then the final trouble came to Singer.
One afternoon he had come to meet Antonapoulos at the fruit store when Charles Parker handed him a letter. The letter explained that Charles Parker had made arrangements for his cousin to be taken to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Charles Parker had used his influence in the town and the details were already settled. Antonapoulos was to leave and to be admitted into the asylum the next week.
Singer read the letter several times, and for a while he could not think. Charles Parker was talking to him across the counter, but he did not even try to read his lips and understand. At last Singer wrote on the little pad he always carried in his pocket:
You cannot do this. Antonapoulos must stay with me.
Charles Parker shook his head excitedly. He did not know much American. ‘None of your business,’ he kept saying over and over.
Singer knew that everything was finished. The Greek was afraid that some day he might be responsible for his cousin. Charles Parker did not know much about the American language—but he understood the American dollar very well, and he had used his money and influence to admit his cousin to the asylum without delay.
There was nothing Singer could do.
The next week was full of feverish activity. He talked and talked. And although his hands never paused to rest he could not tell all that he had to say. He wanted to talk to Antonapoulos of all the thoughts that had ever been in his mind and heart, but there was not time. His gray eyes glittered and his quick, intelligent face expressed great strain. Antonapoulos watched him drowsily, and his friend did not know just what he really understood.
Then came the day when Antonapoulos must leave. Singer brought out his own suitcase and very carefully packed the best of their joint possessions. Antonapoulos made himself a lunch to eat during the journey. In the late afternoon they walked arm in arm down the street for the last time together. It was a chilly afternoon in late November, and little huffs of breath showed in the air before them.
Charles Parker was to travel with his cousin, but he stood apart from them at the station. Antonapoulos crowded into the bus and settled himself with elaborate preparations on one of the front seats. Singer watched him from the window and his hands began desperately to talk for the last time with his friend. But Antonapoulos was so busy checking over the various items in his lunch box that for a while he paid no attention. Just before the bus pulled away from the curb he turned to Singer and his smile was very bland and remote—as though already they were many miles apart.
The weeks that followed didn’t seem real at all. All day Singer worked over his bench in the back of the jewelry store, and then at night he returned to the house alone. More than anything he wanted to sleep. As soon as he came home from work he would lie on his cot and try to doze awhile. Dreams came to him when he lay there half-asleep. And in all of them Antonapoulos was there. His hands would jerk nervously, for in his dreams he was talking to his friend and Antonapoulos was watching him.
Singer tried to think of the time before he had ever known his friend. He tried to recount to himself certain things that had happened when he was young. But none of these things he tried to remember seemed real.
There was one particular fact that he remembered, but it was not at all important to him. Singer recalled that, although he had been deaf since he was an infant, he had not always been a real mute. He was left an orphan very young and placed in an institution for the deaf. He had learned to talk with his hands and to read. Before he was nine years old he could talk with one hand in the American way—and also could employ both of his hands after the method of Europeans. He had learned to follow the movements of people’s lips and to understand what they said. Then finally he had been taught to speak.
At the school he was thought very intelligent. He learned the lessons before the rest of the pupils. But he could never become used to speaking with his lips. It was not natural to him, and his tongue felt like a whale in his mouth. From the blank expression on people’s faces to whom he talked in this way he felt that his voice must be like the sound of some animal or that there was something disgusting in his speech. It was painful for him to try to talk with his mouth, but his hands were always ready to shape the words he wished to say. When he was twenty-two he had come south to this town from Chicago and he met Antonapoulos immediately. Since that time he had never spoken with his mouth again, because with his friend there was no need for this.
Nothing seemed real except the ten years with Antonapoulos. In his half-dreams he saw his friend very vividly, and when he awakened a great aching loneliness would be in him. Occasionally he would pack up a box for Antonapoulos, but he never received any reply. And so the months passed in this empty, dreaming way.
In the spring a change came over Singer. He could not sleep and his body was very restless. At evening he would walk monotonously around the room, unable to work off a new feeling of energy. If he rested at all it was only during a few hours before dawn—then he would drop bluntly into a sleep that lasted until the morning light struck suddenly beneath his opening eyelids like a scimitar.
He began spending his evenings walking around the town. He could no longer stand the rooms where Antonapoulos had lived, and he rented a place in a shambling boardinghouse not far from the center of the town.
He ate his meals at a restaurant only two blocks away. This restaurant was at the very end of the long main street and the name of the place was the New York Café. The first day he glanced over the menu quickly and wrote a short note and handed it to the proprietor.
|Each morning for breakfast I want an egg, toast, and coffee—||$0.15|
|For lunch I want soup (any kind), a meat sandwich, and milk—||$0.25|
|Please bring me at dinner three vegetables (any kind but cabbage), fish or meat, and a glass of beer—||$0.35|
The proprietor read the note and gave him an alert, tactful glance. He was a hard man of middle height, with a beard so dark and heavy that the lower part of his face looked as though it were molded of iron. He usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arms folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him. Singer came to know this man’s face very well, for he ate at one of his tables three times a day.
Each evening the mute walked alone for hours in the street. Sometimes the nights were cold with the sharp, wet winds of March and it would be raining heavily. But to him this did not matter. His gait was agitated and he always kept his hands stuffed tight into the pockets of his trousers. Then as the weeks passed the days grew warm and languorous. His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.
ON A black, sultry night in early summer Biff Brannon stood behind the cash register of the New York Café. It was twelve o’clock. Outside the street lights had already been turned off, so that the light from the café made a sharp, yellow rectangle on the sidewalk. The street was deserted, but inside the café there were half a dozen customers drinking beer or Santa Lucia wine or whiskey. Biff waited stolidly, his elbow resting on the counter and his thumb mashing the tip of his long nose. His eyes were intent. He watched especially a short, squat man in overalls who had become drunk and boisterous. Now and then his gaze passed on to the mute who sat by himself at one of the middle tables, or to others of the customers before the counter. But he always turned back to the drunk in overalls. The hour grew later and Biff continued to wait silently behind the counter. Then at last he gave the restaurant a final survey and went toward the door at the back which led upstairs.
Quietly he entered the room at the top of the stairs. It was dark inside and he walked with caution. After he had gone a few paces his toe struck something hard and he reached down and felt for the handle of a suitcase on the floor. He had only been in the room a few seconds and was about to leave when the light was turned on.
Alice sat up in the rumpled bed and looked at him. ‘What you doing with that suitcase?’ she asked. ‘Can’t you get rid of that lunatic without giving him back what he’s already drunk up?’
‘Wake up and go down yourself. Call the cop and let him get soused on the chain gang with cornbread and peas. Go to it, Misses Brannon.’
‘I will all right if he’s down there tomorrow. But you leave that bag alone. It don’t belong to that sponger any more.’
‘I know spongers, and Blount’s not one,’ Biff said. ‘Myself—I don’t know so well. But I’m not that kind of a thief.’
Calmly Biff put down the suitcase on the steps outside. The air was not so stale and sultry in the room as it was downstairs. He decided to stay for a short while and douse his face with cold water before going back.
‘I told you already what I’ll do if you don’t get rid of that fellow for good tonight. In the daytime he takes them naps at the back, and then at night you feed him dinners and beer. For a week now he hasn’t paid one cent. And all his wild talking and carrying-on will ruin any decent trade.’
‘You don’t know people and you don’t know real business,’ Biff said. ‘The fellow in question first came in here twelve days ago and he was a stranger in the town. The first week he gave us twenty dollars’ worth of trade. Twenty at the minimum.’
‘And since then on credit,’ Alice said. ‘Five days on credit, and so drunk it’s a disgrace to the business. And besides, he’s nothing but a bum and a freak.’
‘I like freaks,’ Biff said.
‘I reckon you do! I just reckon you certainly ought to, Mister Brannon—being as you’re one yourself.’
He rubbed his bluish chin and paid her no attention. For the first fifteen years of their married life they had called each other just plain Biff and Alice. Then in one of their quarrels they had begun calling each other Mister and Misses, and since then they had never made it up enough to change it.
‘I’m just warning you he’d better not be there when I come down tomorrow.’
Biff went into the bathroom, and after he had bathed his face he decided that he would have time for a shave. His beard was black and heavy as though it had grown for three days. He stood before the mirror and rubbed his cheek meditatively. He was sorry he had talked to Alice. With her, silence was better. Being around that woman always made him different from his real self. It made him tough and small and common as she was. Biff’s eyes were cold and staring, half-concealed by the cynical droop of his eyelids. On the fifth finger of his calloused hand there was a woman’s wedding ring. The door was open behind him, and in the mirror he could see Alice lying in the bed.
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘The trouble with you is that you don’t have any real kindness. Not but one woman I’ve ever known had this real kindness I’m talking about.’
‘Well, I’ve known you to do things no man in this world would be proud of. I’ve known you to—’
‘Or maybe it’s curiosity I mean. You don’t ever see or notice anything important that goes on. You never watch and think and try to figure anything out. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between you and me, after all.’
Alice was almost asleep again, and through the mirror he watched her with detachment. There was no distinctive point about her on which he could fasten his attention, and his gaze glided from her pale brown hair to the stumpy outline of her feet beneath the cover. The soft curves of her face led to the roundness of her hips and thighs. When he was away from her there was no one feature that stood out in his mind and he remembered her as a complete, unbroken figure.
‘The enjoyment of a spectacle is something you have never known,’ he said.
Her voice was tired. ‘That fellow downstairs is a spectacle, all right, and a circus too. But I’m through putting up with him.’
‘Hell, the man don’t mean anything to me. He’s no relative or buddy of mine. But you don’t know what it is to store up a whole lot of details and then come upon something real.’ He turned on the hot water and quickly began to shave.
It was the morning of May 15, yes, that Jake Blount had come in. He had noticed him immediately and watched. The man was short, with heavy shoulders like beams. He had a small, ragged mustache, and beneath this his lower lip looked as though it had been stung by a wasp. There were many things about the fellow that seemed contrary. His head was very large and well-shaped, but his neck was soft and slender as a boy’s. The mustache looked false, as if it had been stuck on for a costume party and would fall off if he talked too fast. It made him seem almost middle-aged, although his face with its high, smooth forehead and wide-open eyes was young. His hands were huge, stained, and calloused, and he was dressed in a cheap white-linen suit. There was something very funny about the man, yet at the same time another feeling would not let you laugh.
He ordered a pint of liquor and drank it straight in half an hour. Then he sat at one of the booths and ate a big chicken dinner. Later he read a book and drank beer. That was the beginning. And although Biff had noticed Blount carefully he would never have guessed about the crazy things that happened later. Never had he seen a man change so many times in twelve days. Never had he seen a fellow drink so much, stay drunk so long.
Biff pushed up the end of his nose with his thumb and shaved his upper lip. He was finished and his face seemed cooler. Alice was asleep when he went through the bedroom on the way downstairs.
The suitcase was heavy. He carried it to the front of the restaurant, behind the cash register, where he usually stood each evening. Methodically he glanced around the place. A few customers had left and the room was not so crowded, but the setup was the same. The deaf-mute still drank coffee by himself at one of the middle tables. The drunk had not stopped talking. He was not addressing anyone around him in particular, nor was anyone listening. When he had come into the place that evening he wore those blue overalls instead of the filthy linen suit he had been wearing the twelve days. His socks were gone and his ankles were scratched and caked with mud.
Alertly Biff picked up fragments of his monologue. The fellow seemed to be talking some queer kind of politics again. Last night he had been talking about places he had been—about Texas and Oklahoma and the Carolinas. Once he had got on the subject of cat-houses, and afterward his jokes got so raw he had to be hushed up with beer. But most of the time nobody was sure just what he was saying. Talk—talk—talk. The words came out of his throat like a cataract. And the thing was that the accent he used was always changing, the kinds of words he used. Sometimes he talked like a linthead and sometimes like a professor. He would use words a foot long and then slip up on his grammar. It was hard to tell what kind of folks he had or what part of the country he was from. He was always changing. Thoughtfully Biff fondled the tip of his nose. There was no connection. Yet connection usually went with brains. This man had a good mind, all right, but he went from one thing to another without any reason behind it at all. He was like a man thrown off his track by something.
Biff leaned his weight on the counter and began to peruse the evening newspaper. The headlines told of a decision by the Board of Aldermen, after four months’ deliberation, that the local budget could not afford traffic lights at certain dangerous intersections of the town. The left column reported on the war in the Orient. Biff read them both with equal attention. As his eyes followed the print the rest of his senses were on the alert to the various commotions that went on around him. When he had finished the articles he still stared down at the newspaper with his eyes half-closed. He felt nervous. The fellow was a problem, and before morning he would have to make some sort of settlement with him. Also, he felt without knowing why that something of importance would happen tonight. The fellow could not keep on forever.
Biff sensed that someone was standing in the entrance and he raised his eyes quickly. A gangling, towheaded youngster, a girl of about twelve, stood looking in the doorway. She was dressed in khaki shorts, a blue shirt, and tennis shoes—so that at first glance she was like a very young boy. Biff pushed aside the paper when he saw her, and smiled when she came up to him.
‘Hello, Mick. Been to the Girl Scouts?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t belong to them.’
From the corner of his eye he noticed that the drunk slammed his fist down on a table and turned away from the men to whom he had been talking. Biff’s voice roughened as he spoke to the youngster before him.
‘Your folks know you’re out after midnight?’
‘It’s O.K. There’s a gang of kids playing out late on our block tonight.’
He had never seen her come into the place with anyone her own age. Several years ago she had always tagged behind her older brother. The Kellys were a good-sized family in numbers. Later she would come in pulling a couple of snotty babies in a wagon. But if she wasn’t nursing or trying to keep up with the bigger ones, she was by herself. Now the kid stood there seeming not to be able to make up her mind what she wanted. She kept pushing back her damp, whitish hair with the palm of her hand.
‘I’d like a pack of cigarettes, please. The cheapest kind.’
Biff started to speak, hesitated, and then reached his hand inside the counter. Mick brought out a handkerchief and began untying the knot in the corner where she kept her money. As she gave the knot a jerk the change clattered to the floor and rolled toward Blount, who stood muttering to himself. For a moment he stared in a daze at the coins, but before the kid could go after them he squatted down with concentration and picked up the money. He walked heavily to the counter and stood jiggling the two pennies, the nickel, and the dime in his palm.
‘Seventeen cents for cigarettes now?’
Biff waited, and Mick looked from one of them to the other. The drunk stacked the money into a little pile on the counter, still protecting it with his big, dirty hand. Slowly he picked up one penny and flipped it down.
‘Five mills for the crackers who grew the weed and five for the dupes who rolled it,’ he said. ‘A cent for you, Biff.’ Then he tried to focus his eyes so that he could read the mottoes on the nickel and dime. He kept fingering the two coins and moving them around in a circle. At last he pushed them away. ‘And that’s a humble homage to liberty. To democracy and tyranny. To freedom and piracy.’
Calmly Biff picked up the money and rang it into the till. Mick looked as though she wanted to hang around awhile. She took in the drunk with one long gaze, and then she turned her eyes to the middle of the room where the mute sat at his table alone. After a moment Blount also glanced now and then in the same direction. The mute sat silently over his glass of beer, idly drawing on the table with the end of a burnt matchstick.
Jake Blount was the first to speak. ‘It’s funny, but I been seeing that fellow in my sleep for the past three or four nights. He won’t leave me alone. If you ever noticed, he never seems to say anything.’
It was seldom that Biff ever discussed one customer with another. ‘No, he don’t,’ he answered noncommittally.
Mick shifted her weight from one foot to the other and fitted the package of cigarettes into the pocket of her shorts. ‘It’s not funny if you know anything about him,’ she said. ‘Mister Singer lives with us. He rooms in our house.’
‘Is that so?’ Biff asked. ‘I declare—I didn’t know that.’
Mick walked toward the door and answered him without looking around. ‘Sure. He’s been with us three months now.’
Biff unrolled his shirt-sleeves, and then folded them up carefully again. He did not take his eyes from Mick as she left the restaurant. And even after she had been gone several minutes he still fumbled with his shirt-sleeves and stared at the empty doorway. Then he locked his arms across his chest and turned back to the drunk again.
Blount leaned heavily on the counter. His brown eyes were wet-looking and wide open with a dazed expression. He needed a bath so badly that he stank like a goat. There were dirt beads on his sweaty neck and an oil stain on his face. His lips were thick and red and his brown hair was matted on his forehead. His overalls were too short in the body and he kept pulling at the crotch of them.
‘Man, you ought to know better,’ Biff said finally. ‘You can’t go around like this. Why, I’m surprised you haven’t been picked up for vagrancy. You ought to sober up. You need washing and your hair needs cutting. Motherogod! You’re not fit to walk around amongst people.’
Blount scowled and bit his lower lip.
‘Now, don’t take offense and get your dander up. Do what I tell you. Go back in the kitchen and tell the colored boy to give you a big pan of hot water. Tell Willie to give you a towel and plenty of soap and wash yourself good. Then eat you some milk toast and open up your suitcase and put you on a clean shirt and a pair of britches that fit you. Then tomorrow you can start doing whatever you’re going to do and working wherever you mean to work and get straightened out.’
‘You know what you can do,’ Blount said drunkenly. ‘You can just—’
‘All right,’ Biff said very quietly. ‘No, I can’t. Now you just behave yourself.’
Biff went to the end of the counter and returned with two glasses of draught beer. The drunk picked up his glass so clumsily that beer slopped down on his hands and messed the counter. Biff sipped his portion with careful relish. He regarded Blount steadily with half-closed eyes. Blount was not a freak, although when you first saw him he gave you that impression. It was like something was deformed about him—but when you looked at him closely each part of him was normal and as it ought to be. Therefore if this difference was not in the body it was probably in the mind. He was like a man who had served a term in prison or had been to Harvard College or had lived for a long time with foreigners in South America. He was like a person who had been somewhere that other people are not likely to go or had done something that others are not apt to do.
Biff cocked his head to one side and said, ‘Where are you from?’
‘Now, you have to be born somewhere. North Carolina—Tennessee—Alabama—some place.’
Blount’s eyes were dreamy and unfocused. ‘Carolina,’ he said.
‘I can tell you’ve been around,’ Biff hinted delicately.
But the drunk was not listening. He had turned from the counter and was staring out at the dark, empty street. After a moment he walked to the door with loose, uncertain steps.
‘Adios,’ he called back.
Biff was alone again and he gave the restaurant one of his quick, thorough surveys. It was past one in the morning, and there were only four or five customers in the room. The mute still sat by himself at the middle table. Biff stared at him idly and shook the few remaining drops of beer around in the bottom of his glass. Then he finished his drink in one slow swallow and went back to the newspaper spread out on the counter.
This time he could not keep his mind on the words before him. He remembered Mick. He wondered if he should have sold her the pack of cigarettes and if it were really harmful for kids to smoke. He thought of the way Mick narrowed her eyes and pushed back the bangs of her hair with the palm of her hand. He thought of her hoarse, boyish voice and of her habit of hitching up her khaki shorts and swaggering like a cowboy in the picture show. A feeling of tenderness came in him. He was uneasy.
Restlessly Biff turned his attention to Singer. The mute sat with his hands in his pockets and the half-finished glass of beer before him had become warm and stagnant. He would offer to treat Singer to a slug of whiskey before he left. What he had said to Alice was true—he did like freaks. He had a special feeling for sick people and cripples. Whenever somebody with a harelip or T.B. came into the place he would set him up to beer. Or if the customer were a hunchback or a bad cripple, then it would be whiskey on the house. There was one fellow who had had his peter and his left leg blown off in a boiler explosion, and whenever he came to town there was a free pint waiting for him. And if Singer were a drinking kind of man he could get liquor at half price any time he wanted it. Biff nodded to himself. Then neatly he folded his newspaper and put it under the counter along with several others. At the end of the week he would take them all back to the storeroom behind the kitchen, where he kept a complete file of the evening newspapers that dated back without a break for twenty-one years.
At two o’clock Blount entered the restaurant again. He brought in with him a tall Negro man carrying a black bag. The drunk tried to bring him up to the counter for a drink, but the Negro left as soon as he realized why he had been led inside. Biff recognized him as a Negro doctor who had practiced in the town ever since he could remember. He was related in some way to young Willie back in the kitchen. Before he left Biff saw him turn on Blount with a look of quivering hatred.
The drunk just stood there.
‘Don’t you know you can’t bring no nigger in a place where white men drink?’ someone asked him.
Biff watched this happening from a distance. Blount was very angry, and now it could easily be seen how drunk he was.
‘I’m part nigger myself,’ he called out as a challenge.
Biff watched him alertly and the place was quiet. With his thick nostrils and the rolling whites of his eyes it looked a little as though he might be telling the truth.
‘I’m part nigger and wop and bohunk and chink. All of those.’
There was laughter.
‘And I’m Dutch and Turkish and Japanese and American.’ He walked in zigzags around the table where the mute drank his coffee. His voice was loud and cracked. ‘I’m one who knows. I’m a stranger in a strange land.’
‘Quiet down,’ Biff said to him.
Blount paid no attention to anyone in the place except the mute. They were both looking at each other. The mute’s eyes were cold and gentle as a cat’s and all his body seemed to listen. The drunk man was in a frenzy.
‘You’re the only one in this town who catches what I mean,’ Blount said. ‘For two days now I been talking to you in my mind because I know you understand the things I want to mean.’
Some people in a booth were laughing because without knowing it the drunk had picked out a deaf-mute to try to talk with. Biff watched the two men with little darting glances and listened attentively.
Blount sat down to the table and leaned over close to Singer. ‘There are those who know and those who don’t know. And for every ten thousand who don’t know there’s only one who knows. That’s the miracle of all time—the fact that these millions know so much but don’t know this. It’s like in the fifteenth century when everybody believed the world was flat and only Columbus and a few other fellows knew the truth. But it’s different in that it took talent to figure that the earth is round. While this truth is so obvious it’s a miracle of all history that people don’t know. You savvy.’
Biff rested his elbows on the counter and looked at Blount with curiosity. ‘Know what?’ he asked.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ Blount said. ‘Don’t mind that flat-footed, blue-jowled, nosy bastard. For you see, when us people who know run into each other that’s an event. It almost never happens. Sometimes we meet each other and neither guesses that the other is one who knows. That’s a bad thing. It’s happened to me a lot of times. But you see there are so few of us.’
‘Masons?’ Biff asked.
‘Shut up, you! Else I’ll snatch your arm off and beat you black with it,’ Blount bawled. He hunched over close to the mute and his voice dropped to a drunken whisper. ‘And how come? Why has this miracle of ignorance endured? Because of one thing. A conspiracy. A vast and insidious conspiracy. Obscurantism.’
The men in the booth were still laughing at the drunk who was trying to hold a conversation with the mute. Only Biff was serious. He wanted to ascertain if the mute really understood what was said to him. The fellow nodded frequently and his face seemed contemplative. He was only slow—that was all. Blount began to crack a few jokes along with this talk about knowing. The mute never smiled until several seconds after the funny remark had been made; then when the talk was gloomy again the smile still hung on his face a little too long. The fellow was downright uncanny. People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.
Jake Blount leaned across the table and the words came out as though a dam inside him had broken. Biff could not understand him any more. Blount’s tongue was so heavy with drink and he talked at such a violent pace that the sounds were all shaken up together. Biff wondered where he would go when Alice turned him out of the place. And in the morning she would do it, too—like she said.
Biff yawned wanly, patting his open mouth with his fingertips until his jaw had relaxed. It was almost three o’clock, the most stagnant hour in the day or night.
The mute was patient. He had been listening to Blount for almost an hour. Now he began to look at the clock occasionally. Blount did not notice this and went on without a pause. At last he stopped to roll a cigarette, and then the mute nodded his head in the direction of the clock, smiled in that hidden way of his, and got up from the table. His hands stayed stuffed in his pockets as always. He went out quickly.
Blount was so drunk that he did not know what had happened. He had never even caught on to the fact that the mute made no answers. He began to look around the place with his mouth open and his eyes rolling and fuddled. A red vein stood out on his forehead and he began to hit the table angrily with his fists. His bout could not last much longer now.
‘Come on over,’ Biff said kindly. ‘Your friend has gone.’
The fellow was still hunting for Singer. He had never seemed really drunk like that before. He had an ugly look.
‘I have something for you over here and I want to speak with you a minute,’ Biff coaxed.
Blount pulled himself up from the table and walked with big, loose steps toward the street again.
Biff leaned against the wall. In and out—in and out. After all, it was none of his business. The room was very empty and quiet. The minutes lingered. Wearily he let his head sag forward. All motion seemed slowly to be leaving the room. The counter, faces, the booths and tables, the radio in the corner, whirring fans on the ceiling—all seemed to become very faint and still.
He must have dozed. A hand was shaking his elbow. His wits came back to him slowly and he looked up to see what was wanted. Willie, the colored boy in the kitchen, stood before him dressed in his cap and his long white apron. Willie stammered because he was excited about whatever he was trying to say.
‘And so he were l-l-lamming his fist against this here brick w-w-wall.’
‘Right down one of them alleys two d-d-doors away.’
Biff straightened his slumped shoulders and arranged his tie. ‘What?’
‘And they means to bring him in here and they liable to pile in any minute—’
‘Willie,’ Biff said patiently. ‘Start at the beginning and let me get this straight.’
‘It this here short white man with the m-m-mustache.’
‘Mr. Blount. Yes.’
‘Well—I didn’t see how it commenced. I were standing in the back door when I heard this here commotion. Sound like a big fight in the alley. So I r-r-run to see. And this here white man had just gone hog wild. He were butting his head against the side of this brick wall and hitting with his fists. He were cussing and fighting like I never seen a white man fight before. With just this here wall. He liable to broken his own head the way he were carrying on. Then two white mens who had heard the commotion come up and stand around and look—’
‘So what happened?’
‘Well—you know this here dumb gentleman—hands in pockets—this here—’
‘And he come along and just stood looking around to see what it were all about. And Mr. B-B-Blount seen him and commenced to talk and holler. And then all of a sudden he fallen down on the ground. Maybe he done really busted his head open. A p-p-p-police come up and somebody done told him Mr. Blount been staying here.’
Biff bowed his head and organized the story he had just heard into a neat pattern. He rubbed his nose and thought for a minute.
‘They liable to pile in here any minute.’ Willie went to the door and looked down the street. ‘Here they all come now. They having to drag him.’
A dozen onlookers and a policeman all tried to crowd into the restaurant. Outside a couple of whores stood looking in through the front window. It was always funny how many people could crowd in from nowhere when anything out of the ordinary happened.
‘No use creating any more disturbance than necessary,’ Biff said. He looked at the policeman who supported the drunk. ‘The rest of them might as well clear out.’
The policeman put the drunk in a chair and hustled the little crowd into the street again. Then he turned to Biff: ‘Somebody said he was staying here with you.’
‘No. But he might as well be,’ Biff said.
‘Want me to take him with me?’
Biff considered. ‘He won’t get into any more trouble tonight. Of course I can’t be responsible—but I think this will calm him down.’
‘O.K. I’ll drop back in again before I knock off.’
Biff, Singer, and Jake Blount were left alone. For the first time since he had been brought in, Biff turned his attention to the drunk man. It seemed that Blount had hurt his jaw very badly. He was slumped down on the table with his big hand over his mouth, swaying backward and forward. There was a gash in his head and the blood ran from his temple. His knuckles were skinned raw, and he was so filthy that he looked as if he had been pulled by the scruff of the neck from a sewer. All the juice had spurted out of him and he was completely collapsed. The mute sat at the table across from him, taking it all in with his gray eyes.
Then Biff saw that Blount had not hurt his jaw, but he was holding his hand over his mouth because his lips were trembling. The tears began to roll down his grimy face. Now and then he glanced sideways at Biff and Singer, angry that they should see him cry. It was embarrassing. Biff shrugged his shoulders at the mute and raised his eyebrows with a what-to-do? expression. Singer cocked his head on one side.
Biff was in a quandary. Musingly he wondered just how he should manage the situation. He was still trying to decide when the mute turned over the menu and began to write.
If you cannot think of any place for him to go he can go home with me. First some soup and coffee would be good for him.
With relief Biff nodded vigorously.
On the table he placed three special plates of the last evening meal, two bowls of soup, coffee, and dessert. But Blount would not eat. He would not take his hand away from his mouth, and it was as though his lips were some very secret part of himself which was being exposed. His breath came in ragged sobs and his big shoulders jerked nervously. Singer pointed to one dish after the other, but Blount just sat with his hand over his mouth and shook his head.
Biff enunciated slowly so that the mute could see. ‘The jitters—’ he said conversationally.
The steam from the soup kept floating up into Blount’s face, and after a little while he reached shakily for his spoon. He drank the soup and ate part of his dessert. His thick, heavy lips still trembled and he bowed his head far down over his plate.
Biff noted this. He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. With the mute his hands. The kid Mick picked at the front of her blouse to keep the cloth from rubbing the new, tender nipples beginning to come out on her breast. With Alice it was her hair; she used never to let him sleep with her when he rubbed oil in his scalp. And with himself?
Lingeringly Biff turned the ring on his little finger. Anyway he knew what it was not. Not. Any more. A sharp line cut into his forehead. His hand in his pocket moved nervously toward his genitals. He began whistling a song and got up from the table. Funny to spot it in other people, though.
They helped Blount to his feet. He teetered weakly. He was not crying any more, but he seemed to be brooding on something shameful and sullen. He walked in the direction he was led. Biff brought out the suitcase from behind the counter and explained to the mute about it. Singer looked as though he could not be surprised at anything.
Biff went with them to the entrance. ‘Buck up and keep your nose clean,’ he said to Blount.
The black night sky was beginning to lighten and turn a deep blue with the new morning. There were but a few weak, silvery stars. The street was empty, silent, almost cool. Singer carried the suitcase with his left hand, and with his free hand he supported Blount. He nodded good-bye to Biff and they started off together down the sidewalk. Biff stood watching them. After they had gone half a block away only their black forms showed in the blue darkness—the mute straight and firm and the broad-shouldered, stumbling Blount holding on to him. When he could see them no longer, Biff waited for a moment and examined the sky. The vast depth of it fascinated and oppressed him. He rubbed his forehead and went back into the sharply lighted restaurant.
He stood behind the cash register, and his face contracted and hardened as he tried to recall the things that had happened during the night. He had the feeling that he wanted to explain something to himself. He recalled the incidents in tedious detail and was still puzzled.
The door opened and closed several times as a sudden spurt of customers began to come in. The night was over. Willie stacked some of the chairs up on the tables and mopped at the floor. He was ready to go home and was singing. Willie was lazy. In the kitchen he was always stopping to play for a while on the harmonica he carried around with him. Now he mopped the floor with sleepy strokes and hummed his lonesome Negro music steadily.
The place was still not crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everyone a feeling of estrangement.
The bank building across the street was very pale in the dawn. Then gradually its white brick walls grew more distinct. When at last the first shafts of the rising sun began to brighten the street, Biff gave the place one last survey and went upstairs.
Noisily he rattled the doorknob as he entered so that Alice would be disturbed. ‘Motherogod!’ he said. ‘What a night!’
Alice awoke with caution. She lay on the rumpled bed like a sulky cat and stretched herself. The room was drab in the fresh, hot morning sun, and a pair of silk stockings hung limp and withered from the cord of the windowshade.
‘Is that drunk fool still hanging around downstairs?’ she demanded.
Biff took off his shirt and examined the collar to see if it were clean enough to be worn again. ‘Go down and see for yourself. I told you nobody will hinder you from kicking him out.’
Sleepily Alice reached down and picked up a Bible, the blank side of a menu, and a Sunday-School book from the floor beside the bed. She rustled through the tissue pages of the Bible until she reached a certain passage and began reading, pronouncing the words aloud with painful concentration. It was Sunday, and she was preparing the weekly lesson for her clan of boys in the Junior Department of her church. ‘Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.’
Biff went into the bathroom to wash himself. The silky murmuring continued as Alice studied aloud. He listened. ‘. . . and in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed. And Simon and they that were with Him followed after Him. And when they had found Him, they said unto Him, “All men seek for Thee.”’
She had finished. Biff let the words revolve again gently inside him. He tried to separate the actual words from the sound of Alice’s voice as she had spoken them. He wanted to remember the passage as his mother used to read it when he was a boy. With nostalgia he glanced down at the wedding ring on his fifth finger that had once been hers. He wondered again how she would have felt about his giving up church and religion.
‘The lesson for today is about the gathering of the disciples,’ Alice said to herself in preparation. ‘And the text is, “All men seek for Thee.”’
Abruptly Biff roused himself from meditation and turned on the water spigot at full force. He stripped off his undervest and began to wash himself. Always he was scrupulously clean from the belt upward. Every morning he soaped his chest and arms and neck and feet—and about twice during the season he got into the bathtub and cleaned all of his parts.
Biff stood by the bed, waiting impatiently for Alice to get up. From the window he saw that the day would be windless and burning hot. Alice had finished reading the lesson. She still lay lazily across the bed, although she knew that he was waiting. A calm, sullen anger rose in him. He chuckled ironically. Then he said with bitterness: ‘If you like I can sit and read the paper awhile. But I wish you would let me sleep now.’
Alice began dressing herself and Biff made up the bed. Deftly he reversed the sheets in all possible ways, putting the top one on the bottom, and turning them over and upside down. When the bed was smoothly made he waited until Alice had left the room before he slipped off his trousers and crawled inside. His feet jutted out from beneath the cover and his wiry-haired chest was very dark against the pillow. He was glad he had not told Alice about what had happened to the drunk. He had wanted to talk to somebody about it, because maybe if he told all the facts out loud he could put his finger on the thing that puzzled him. The poor son-of-a-bitch talking and talking and not ever getting anybody to understand what he meant. Not knowing himself, most likely. And the way he gravitated around the deaf-mute and picked him out and tried to make him a free present of everything in him.
Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons—throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to. In some men it is in them—The text is ‘All men seek for Thee.’ Maybe that was why—maybe—He was a Chinaman, the fellow had said. And a nigger and a wop and a Jew. And if he believed it hard enough maybe it was so. Every person and every thing he said he was—
Biff stretched both of his arms outward and crossed his naked feet. His face was older in the morning light, with the closed, shrunken eyelids and the heavy, iron-like beard on his cheeks and jaw. Gradually his mouth softened and relaxed. The hard, yellow rays of the sun came in through the window so that the room was hot and bright. Biff turned wearily and covered his eyes with his hands. And he was nobody but—Bartholomew—old Biff with two fists and a quick tongue—Mister Brannon—by himself.
THE SUN woke Mick early, although she had stayed out mighty late the night before. It was too hot even to drink coffee for breakfast, so she had ice water with syrup in it and cold biscuits. She messed around the kitchen for a while and then went out on the front porch to read the funnies. She had thought maybe Mister Singer would be reading the paper on the porch like he did most Sunday mornings. But Mister Singer was not there, and later on her Dad said he came in very late the night before and had company in his room. She waited for Mister Singer a long time. All the other boarders came down except him. Finally she went back in the kitchen and took Ralph out of his highchair and put a clean dress on him and wiped off his face. Then when Bubber got home from Sunday School she was ready to take the kids out. She let Bubber ride in the wagon with Ralph because he was barefooted and the hot sidewalk burned his feet. She pulled the wagon for about eight blocks until they came to the big, new house that was being built. The ladder was still propped against the edge of the roof, and she screwed up nerve and began to climb.
‘You mind Ralph,’ she called back to Bubber. ‘Mind the gnats don’t sit on his eyelids.’
Five minutes later Mick stood up and held herself very straight. She spread out her arms like wings. This was the place where everybody wanted to stand. The very top. But not many kids could do it. Most of them were scared, for if you lost your grip and rolled off the edge it would kill you. All around were the roofs of other houses and the green tops of trees. On the other side of town were the church steeples and the smokestacks from the mills. The sky was bright blue and hot as fire. The sun made everything on the ground either dizzy white or black.
She wanted to sing. All the songs she knew pushed up toward her throat, but there was no sound. One big boy who had got to the highest part of the roof last week let out a yell and then started hollering out a speech he had learned at high school—‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears!’ There was something about getting to the very top that gave you a wild feeling and made you want to yell or sing or raise up your arms and fly.
She felt the soles of her tennis shoes slipping, and eased herself down so that she straddled the peak of the roof. The house was almost finished. It would be one of the largest buildings in the neighborhood—two stories, with very high ceilings and the steepest roof of any house she had ever seen. But soon the work would all be finished. The carpenters would leave and the kids would have to find another place to play.
She was by herself. No one was around and it was quiet and she could think for a while. She took from the pocket of her shorts the package of cigarettes she had bought the night before. She breathed in the smoke slowly. The cigarette gave her a drunk feeling so that her head seemed heavy and loose on her shoulders, but she had to finish it.
M.K.—That was what she would have written on everything when she was seventeen years old and very famous. She would ride back home in a red-and-white Packard automobile with her initials on the doors. She would have M.K. written in red on her handkerchiefs and underclothes. Maybe she would be a great inventor. She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned.
When Mick had finished half of the cigarette she smashed it dead and flipped the butt down the slant of the roof. Then she leaned forward so that her head rested on her arms and began to hum to herself.
It was a funny thing—but nearly all the time there was some kind of piano piece or other music going on in the back of her mind. No matter what she was doing or thinking it was nearly always there. Miss Brown, who boarded with them, had a radio in her room, and all last winter she would sit on the steps every Sunday afternoon and listen in on the programs. Those were probably classical pieces, but they were the ones she remembered best. There was one special fellow’s music that made her heart shrink up every time she heard it. Sometimes this fellow’s music was like little colored pieces of crystal candy, and other times it was the softest, saddest thing she had ever imagined about.
There was the sudden sound of crying. Mick sat up straight and listened. The wind ruffled the fringe of hair on her forehead and the bright sun made her face white and damp. The whimpering continued, and Mick moved slowly along the sharp-pointed roof on her hands and knees. When she reached the end she leaned forward and lay on her stomach so that her head jutted over the edge and she could see the ground below.
The kids were where she had left them. Bubber was squatting over something on the ground and beside him was a little black, dwarf shadow. Ralph was still tied in the wagon. He was just old enough to sit up, and he held on to the sides of the wagon, with his cap crooked on his head, crying.
‘Bubber!’ Mick called down. ‘Find out what that Ralph wants and give it to him.’
Bubber stood up and looked hard into the baby’s face. ‘He don’t want nothing.’
‘Well, give him a good shake, then.’
Mick climbed back to the place where she had been sitting before. She wanted to think for a long time about two or three certain people, to sing to herself, and to make plans. But that Ralph was still hollering and there wouldn’t be any peace for her at all.
Boldly she began to climb down toward the ladder propped against the edge of the roof. The slant was very steep and there were only a few blocks of wood nailed down, very far apart from each other, that the workmen used for footholds. She was dizzy, and her heart beat so hard it made her tremble. Commandingly she talked out loud to herself: ‘Hold on here with your hands tight and then slide down until your right toe gets a grip there and then stay close and wiggle over to the left. Nerve, Mick, you’ve got to keep nerve.’
Coming down was the hardest part of any climbing. It took her a long time to reach the ladder and to feel safe again. When she stood on the ground at last she seemed much shorter and smaller and her legs felt for a minute like they would crumple up with her. She hitched her shorts and jerked the belt a notch tighter. Ralph was still crying, but she paid the sound no attention and went into the new, empty house.
Last month they had put a sign out in front saying that no children were allowed on the lot. A gang of kids had been scuffling around inside the rooms one night, and a girl who couldn’t see in the dark had run into a room that hadn’t been floored and fallen through and broken her leg. She was still at the hospital in a plaster parish cast. Also, another time some tough boys wee-weed all over one of the walls and wrote some pretty bad words. But no matter how many Keep Out signs were put up, they couldn’t run kids away until the house had been painted and finished and people had moved in.
The rooms smelled of new wood, and when she walked the soles of her tennis shoes made a flopping sound that echoed through all the house. The air was hot and quiet. She stood still in the middle of the front room for a while, and then she suddenly thought of something. She fished in her pocket and brought out two stubs of chalk—one green and the other red.
Mick drew the big block letters very slowly. At the top she wrote EDISON, and under that she drew the names of DICK TRACY and MUSSOLINI. Then in each corner with the largest letters of all, made with green and outlined in red, she wrote her initials—M.K. When that was done she crossed over to the opposite wall and wrote a very bad word—PUSSY, and beneath that she put her initials, too.
She stood in the middle of the empty room and stared at what she had done. The chalk was still in her hands and she did not feel really satisfied. She was trying to think of the name of this fellow who had written this music she heard over the radio last winter. She had asked a girl at school who owned a piano and took music lessons about him, and the girl asked her teacher. It seemed this fellow was just a kid who had lived in some country in Europe a good while ago. But even if he was just a young kid he had made up all these beautiful pieces for the piano and for the violin and for a band or orchestra too. In her mind she could remember about six different tunes from the pieces of his she had heard. A few of them were kind of quick and tinkling, and another was like that smell in the springtime after a rain. But they all made her somehow sad and excited at the same time.
She hummed one of the tunes, and after a while in the hot, empty house by herself she felt the tears come in her eyes. Her throat got tight and rough and she couldn’t sing any more. Quickly she wrote the fellow’s name at the very top of the list—MOTSART.
Ralph was tied in the wagon just as she had left him. He sat up quiet and still and his fat little hands held on to the sides. Ralph looked like a little Chinese baby with his square black bangs and his black eyes. The sun was in his face, and that was why he had been hollering. Bubber was nowhere around. When Ralph saw her coming he began tuning up to cry again. She pulled the wagon into the shade by the side of the new house and took from her shirt pocket a blue-colored jelly bean. She stuck the candy in the baby’s warm, soft mouth.
‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it,’ she said to him. In a way it was a waste, because Ralph was still too little to get the real good flavor out of candy. A clean rock would be about the same to him, only the little fool would swallow it. He didn’t understand any more about taste than he did about talking. When you said you were so sick and tired of dragging him around you had a good mind to throw him in the river, it was the same to him as if you had been loving him. Nothing much made any difference to him. That was why it was such an awful bore to haul him around.
Mick cupped her hands, clamped them tight together, and blew through the crack between her thumbs. Her cheeks puffed out and at first there was only the sound of air rushing through her fists. Then a high, shrill whistle sounded, and after a few seconds Bubber came out from around the corner of the house.
She rumpled the sawdust out of Bubber’s hair and straightened Ralph’s cap. This cap was the finest thing Ralph had. It was made out of lace and all embroidered. The ribbon under his chin was blue on one side and white on the other, and over each ear there were big rosettes. His head had got too big for the cap and the embroidery scratched, but she always put it on him when she took him out. Ralph didn’t have any real baby carriage like most folks’ babies did, or any summer bootees. He had to be dragged around in a tacky old wagon she had got for Christmas three years before. But the fine cap gave him face.
There was nobody on the street, for it was late Sunday morning and very hot. The wagon screeched and rattled. Bubber was barefooted and the sidewalk was so hot it burned his feet. The green oak trees made cool-looking black shadows on the ground, but that was not shade enough.
‘Get up in the wagon,’ she told Bubber. And let Ralph sit in your lap.’
‘I can walk all right.’
The long summer-time always gave Bubber the colic. He didn’t have on a shirt and his ribs were sharp and white. The sun made him pale instead of brown, and his little titties were like blue raisins on his chest.
‘I don’t mind pulling you,’ Mick said. ‘Get on in.’
Mick dragged the wagon slowly because she was not in any hurry to get home. She began talking to the kids. But it was really more like saying things to herself than words said to them.
‘This is a funny thing—the dreams I’ve been having lately. It’s like I’m swimming. But instead of water I’m pushing out my arms and swimming through great big crowds of people. The crowd is a hundred times bigger than in Kresses’ store on Saturday afternoon. The biggest crowd in the world. And sometimes I’m yelling and swimming through people, knocking them all down wherever I go—and other times I’m on the ground and people are trompling all over me and my insides are oozing out on the sidewalk. I guess it’s more a nightmare than a plain dream—’
On Sundays the house was always full of folks because the boarders had visitors. Newspapers rustled and there was cigar smoke, and footsteps always on the stairs.
‘Some things you just naturally want to keep private. Not because they are bad, but because you just want them secret. There are two or three I wouldn’t want even you to know about.’
Bubber got out when they came to the corner and helped her lift the wagon down the curb and get it up on the next sidewalk.
‘But there’s one thing I would give anything for. And that’s a piano. If we had a piano I’d practice every single night and learn every piece in the world. That’s the thing I want more than anything else.’
They had come to their own home block now. Their house was only a few doors away. It was one of the biggest houses on the whole north side of town—three stories high. But then there were fourteen people in the family. There weren’t that many in the real, blood Kelly family—but they ate there and slept there at five dollars a head and you might as well count them on in. Mr. Singer wasn’t counted in that because he only rented a room and kept it straightened up himself.
The house was narrow and had not been painted for many years. It did not seem to be built strong enough for its three stories of height. It sagged on one side.
Mick untied Ralph and lifted him from the wagon. She darted quickly through the hall, and from the corner of her eye she saw that the living-room was full of boarders. Her Dad was there, too. Her Mama would be in the kitchen. They were all hanging around waiting for dinner-time.
She went into the first of the three rooms that the family kept for themselves. She put Ralph down on the bed where her Dad and Mama slept and gave him a string of beads to play with. From behind the closed door of the next room she could hear the sound of voices, and she decided to go inside.
Hazel and Etta stopped talking when they saw her. Etta was sitting in the chair by the window, painting her toenails with the red polish. Her hair was done up in steel rollers and there was a white dab of face cream on a little place under her chin where a pimple had come out. Hazel was flopped out lazy on the bed as usual.
‘What were you all jawing about?’
‘It’s none of your nosy business,’ Etta said. ‘Just you hush up and leave us alone.’
‘It’s my room just as much as it is either one of yours. I have as good a right in here as you do.’ Mick strutted from one corner to the other until she had covered all the floor space. ‘But then I don’t care anything about picking any fight. All I want are my own rights.’
Mick brushed back her shaggy bangs with the palm of her hand. She had done this so often that there was a little row of cowlicks above her forehead. She quivered her nose and made faces at herself in the mirror. Then she began walking around the room again.
Hazel and Etta were O.K. as far as sisters went. But Etta was like she was full of worms. All she thought about was movie stars and getting in the movies. Once she had written to Jeanette MacDonald and had got a typewritten letter back saying that if ever she came out to Hollywood she could come by and swim in her swimming pool. And ever since that swimming pool had been preying on Etta’s mind. All she thought about was going to Hollywood when she could scrape up the bus fare and getting a job as a secretary and being buddies with Jeanette MacDonald and getting in the movies herself.
She primped all the day long. And that was the bad part. Etta wasn’t naturally pretty like Hazel. The main thing was she didn’t have any chin. She would pull at her jaw and go through a lot of chin exercises she had read in a movie book. She was always looking at her side profile in the mirror and trying to keep her mouth set in a certain way. But it didn’t do any good. Sometimes Etta would hold her face with her hands and cry in the night about it.
Hazel was plain lazy. She was good-looking but thick in the head. She was eighteen years old, and next to Bill she was the oldest of all the kids in the family. Maybe that was the trouble. She got the first and biggest share of everything—the first whack at the new clothes and the biggest part of any special treat. Hazel never had to grab for anything and she was soft.
‘Are you just going to tramp around the room all day? It makes me sick to see you in those silly boy’s clothes. Somebody ought to clamp down on you, Mick Kelly, and make you behave,’ Etta said.
‘Shut up,’ said Mick. ‘I wear shorts because I don’t want to wear your old hand-me-downs. I don’t want to be like either of you and I don’t want to look like either of you. And I won’t. That’s why I wear shorts. I’d rather be a boy any day, and I wish I could move in with Bill.’
Mick scrambled under the bed and brought out a large hat-box. As she carried it to the door both of them called after her, ‘Good riddance!’
Bill had the nicest room of anybody in the family. Like a den—and he had it all to himself—except for Bubber. Bill had pictures cut out from magazines tacked on the walls, mostly faces of beautiful ladies, and in another corner were some pictures Mick had painted last year herself at the free art class. There was only a bed and a desk in the room.
Bill was sitting hunched over the desk, reading Popular Mechanics. She went up behind him and put her arms around his shoulders. ‘Hey, you old son-of-a gun.’
He did not begin tussling with her like he used to do. ‘Hey,’ he said, and shook his shoulders a little.
‘Will it bother you if I stay in here a little while?’
‘Sure—I don’t mind if you want to stay.’
Mick knelt on the floor and untied the string on the big hat-box. Her hands hovered over the edge of the lid, but for some reason she could not make up her mind to open it.
‘I been thinking about what I’ve done on this already,’ she said. ‘And it may work and it may not.’
Bill went on reading. She still knelt over the box, but did not open it. Her eyes wandered over to Bill as he sat with his back to her. One of his big feet kept stepping on the other as he read. His shoes were scuffed. Once their Dad had said that all Bill’s dinners went to his feet and his breakfast to one ear and his supper to the other ear. That was a sort of mean thing to say and Bill had been sour over it for a month, but it was funny. His ears flared out and were very red, and though he was just out of high school he wore a size thirteen shoe. He tried to hide his feet by scraping one foot behind the other when he stood up, but that only made it worse.
Mick opened the box a few inches and then shut it again. She felt too excited to look into it now. She got up and walked around the room until she could calm down a little. After a few minutes she stopped before the picture she had painted at the free government art class for school kids last winter. There was a picture of a storm on the ocean and a sea gull being dashed through the air by the wind. It was called ‘Sea Gull with Back Broken in Storm.’ The teacher had described the ocean during the first two or three lessons, and that was what nearly everybody started with. Most of the kids were like her, though, and they had never really seen the ocean with their own eyes.
That was the first picture she had done and Bill had tacked it on his wall. All the rest of her pictures were full of people. She had done some more ocean storms at first—one with an airplane crashing down and people jumping out to save themselves, and another with a trans-Atlantic liner going down and all the people trying to push and crowd into one little lifeboat.
Mick went into the closet of Bill’s room and brought out some other pictures she had done in the class—some pencil drawings, some water-colors, and one canvas with oils. They were all full of people. She had imagined a big fire on Broad Street and painted how she thought it would be. The flames were bright green and orange and Mr. Brannon’s restaurant and the First National Bank were about the only buildings left. People were lying dead in the streets and others were running for their lives. One man was in his nightshirt and a lady was trying to carry a bunch of bananas with her. Another picture was called ‘Boiler Busts in Factory,’ and men were jumping out of windows and running while a knot of kids in overalls stood scrouged together, holding the buckets of dinner they had brought to their Daddies. The oil painting was a picture of the whole town fighting on Broad Street. She never knew why she had painted this one and she couldn’t think of the right name for it. There wasn’t any fire or storm or reason you could see in the picture why all this battle was happening. But there were more people and more moving around than in any other picture. This was the best one, and it was too bad that she couldn’t think up the real name. In the back of her mind somewhere she knew what it was.
Mick put the picture back on the closet shelf. None of them were any good much. The people didn’t have fingers and some of the arms were longer than the legs. The class had been fun, though. But she had just drawn whatever came into her head without reason—and in her heart it didn’t give her near the same feeling that music did. Nothing was really as good as music.
Mick knelt down on the floor and quickly lifted the top of the big hatbox. Inside was a cracked ukulele strung with two violin strings, a guitar string, and a banjo string. The crack on the back of the ukulele had been neatly mended with sticking plaster and the round hole in the middle was covered by a piece of wood. The bridge of a violin held up the strings at the end and some sound-holes had been carved on either side. Mick was making herself a violin. She held the violin in her lap. She had the feeling she had never really looked at it before. Some time ago she made Bubber a little play mandolin out of a cigar box with rubber bands, and that put the idea into her head. Since that she had hunted all over everywhere for the different parts and added a little to the job every day. It seemed to her she had done everything except use her head.
‘Bill, this don’t look like any real violin I ever saw.’
He was still reading—‘Yeah—?’
‘It just don’t look right. It just don’t—’
She had planned to tune the fiddle that day by screwing the pegs. But since she had suddenly realized how all the work had turned out she didn’t want to look at it. Slowly she plucked one string after another. They all made the same little hollow-sounding ping.
‘How anyway will I ever get a bow? Are you sure they have to be made out of just horses’ hair?’
‘Yeah,’ said Bill impatiently.
‘Nothing like thin wire or human hair strung on a limber stick would do?’
Bill rubbed his feet against each other and didn’t answer.
Anger made beads of sweat come out on her forehead. Her voice was hoarse. ‘It’s not even a bad violin. It’s only a cross between a mandolin and a ukulele. And I hate them. I hate them—’
Bill turned around.
‘It’s all turned out wrong. It won’t do. It’s no good.’
‘Pipe down,’ said Bill. ‘Are you just carrying on about that old broken ukulele you’ve been fooling with? I could have told you at first it was crazy to think you could make any violin. That’s one thing you don’t sit down and make—you got to buy them. I thought anybody would know a thing like that. But I figured it wouldn’t hurt you if you found out for yourself.’
Sometimes she hated Bill more than anyone else in the world. He was different entirely from what he used to be. She started to slam the violin down on the floor and stomp on it, but instead she put it back roughly into the hatbox. The tears were hot in her eyes as fire. She gave the box a kick and ran from the room without looking at Bill.
As she was dodging through the hall to get to the back yard she ran into her Mama.
‘What’s the matter with you? What have you been into now?’
Mick tried to jerk loose, but her Mama held on to her arm. Sullenly she wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. Her Mama had been in the kitchen and she wore her apron and house-shoes. As usual she looked as though she had a lot on her mind and didn’t have time to ask her any more questions.
‘Mr. Jackson has brought his two sisters to dinner and there won’t be but just enough chairs, so today you’re to eat in the kitchen with Bubber.’
‘That’s hunky-dory with me,’ Mick said.
Her Mama let her go and went to take off her apron. From the dining-room there came the sound of the dinner bell and a sudden glad outbreak of talking. She could hear her Dad saying how much he had lost by not keeping up his accident insurance until the time he broke his hip. That was one thing her Dad could never get off his mind—ways he could have made money and didn’t. There was a clatter of dishes, and after a while the talking stopped.
Mick leaned on the banisters of the stairs. The sudden crying had started her with the hiccups. It seemed to her as she thought back over the last month that she had never really believed in her mind that the violin would work. But in her heart she had kept making herself believe. And even now it was hard not to believe a little. She was tired out. Bill wasn’t ever a help with anything now. She used to think Bill was the grandest person in the world. She used to follow after him every place he went—out fishing in the woods, to the clubhouses he built with other boys, to the slot machine in the back of Mr. Brannon’s restaurant—everywhere. Maybe he hadn’t meant to let her down like this. But anyway they could never be good buddies again.
In the hall there was the smell of cigarettes and Sunday dinner. Mick took a deep breath and walked back toward the kitchen. The dinner began to smell good and she was hungry. She could hear Portia’s voice as she talked to Bubber, and it was like she was half-singing something or telling him a story.
‘And that is the various reason why I’m a whole lot more fortunate than most colored girls,’ Portia said as she opened the door.
‘Why?’ asked Mick.
Portia and Bubber were sitting at the kitchen table eating their dinner. Portia’s green print dress was cool-looking against her dark brown skin. She had on green earrings and her hair was combed very tight and neat.
‘You all time pounce in on the very tail of what somebody say and then want to know all about it,’ Portia said. She got up and stood over the hot stove, putting dinner on Mick’s plate. ‘Bubber and me was just talking about my Grandpapa’s home out on the Old Sardis Road. I was telling Bubber how he and my uncles owns the whole place themself. Fifteen and a half acre. They always plants four of them in cotton, some years swapping back to peas to keep the dirt rich, and one acre on a hill is just for peaches. They haves a mule and a breed sow and all the time from twenty to twenty-five laying hens and fryers. They haves a vegetable patch and two pecan trees and plenty figs and plums and berries. This here is the truth. Not many white farms has done with their land good as my Grandpapa.’
Mick put her elbows on the table and leaned over her plate. Portia had always rather talk about the farm than anything else, except about her husband and brother. To hear her tell it you would think that colored farm was the very White House itself.
‘The home started with just one little room. And through the years they done built on until there’s space for my Grandpapa, his four sons and their wives and childrens, and my brother Hamilton. In the parlor they haves a real organ and a gramophone. And on the wall they haves a large picture of my Grandpapa taken in his lodge uniform. They cans all the fruit and vegetables and no matter how cold and rainy the winter turns they pretty near always haves plenty to eat.’
‘How come you don’t go live with them, then?’ Mick asked.
Portia stopped peeling her potatoes and her long, brown fingers tapped on the table in time to her words. ‘This here the way it is. See—each person done built on his room for his fambly. They all done worked hard during all these years. And of course times is hard for everbody now. But see—I lived with my Grandpapa when I were a little girl. But I haven’t never done any work out there since. Any time, though, if me and Willie and Highboy gets in bad trouble us can always go back.’
‘Didn’t your Father build on a room?’
Portia stopped chewing. ‘Whose Father? You mean my Father?’
‘Sure,’ said Mick.
‘You know good and well my Father is a colored doctor right here in town.’
Mick had heard Portia say that before, but she had thought it was a tale. How could a colored man be a doctor?
‘This here the way it is. Before the time my Mama married my Father she had never known anything but real kindness. My Grandpa is Mister Kind hisself. But my Father is different from him as day is from night.’
‘Mean?’ asked Mick.
‘No, he not a mean man,’ Portia said slowly. ‘It just that something is the matter. My Father not like other colored mens. This here is hard to explain. My Father all the time studying by hisself. And a long time ago he taken up all these notions about how a fambly ought to be. He bossed over ever little thing in the house and at night he tried to teach us children lessons.’
‘That don’t sound so bad to me,’ said Mick.
‘Listen here. You see most of the time he were very quiet. But then some nights he would break out in a kind of fit. He could get madder than any man I ever seen. Everbody who know my Father say that he was a sure enough crazy man. He done wild, crazy things and our Mama quit him. I were ten years old at the time. Our Mama taken us children with her to Grandpapa’s farm and us were raised out there. Our Father all the time wanted us to come back. But even when our Mama died us children never did go home to live. And now my Father stay all by hisself.’
Mick went to the stove and filled her plate a second time. Portia’s voice was going up and down like a song, and nothing could stop her now.
‘I doesn’t see my Father much—maybe once a week—but I done a lot of thinking about him. I feels sorrier for him than anybody I knows. I expect he done read more books than any white man in this town. He done read more books and he done worried about more things. He full of books and worrying. He done lost God and turned his back to religion. All his troubles come down just to that.’
Portia was excited. Whenever she got to talking about God—or Willie, her brother, or Highboy, her husband—she got excited.
‘Now, I not a big shouter. I belongs to the Presbyterian Church and us don’t hold with all this rolling on the floor and talking in tongues. Us don’t get sanctified ever week and wallow around together. In our church we sings and lets the preacher do the preaching. And tell you the truth I don’t think a little singing and a little preaching would hurt you, Mick. You ought to take your little brother to the Sunday School and also you plenty big enough to sit in church. From the biggity way you been acting lately it seem to me like you already got one toe in the pit.’
‘Nuts,’ Mick said.
‘Now Highboy he were Holiness boy before us were married. He loved to get the spirit ever Sunday and shout and sanctify hisself. But after us were married I got him to join with me, and although it kind of hard to keep him quiet sometime I think he doing right well.’
‘I don’t believe in God any more than I do Santa Claus,’ Mick said.
‘You wait a minute! That’s why it sometime seem to me you favor my Father more than any person I ever knowed.’
‘Me? You say I favor him?’
‘I don’t mean in the face or in any kind of looks. I was speaking about the shape and color of your souls.’
Bubber sat looking from one to the other. His napkin was tied around his neck and in his hand he still held his empty spoon. ‘What all does God eat?’ he asked.
Mick got up from the table and stood in the doorway, ready to leave. Sometimes it was fun to devil Portia. She started on the same tune and said the same thing over and over—like that was all she knew.
‘Folks like you and my Father who don’t attend the church can’t never have nair peace at all. Now take me here—I believe and I haves peace. And Bubber, he haves his peace too. And my Highboy and my Willie likewise. And it seem to me just from looking at him this here Mr. Singer haves peace too. I done felt that the first time I seen him.’
‘Have it your own way,’ Mick said. ‘You’re crazier than any father of yours could ever be.’
‘But you haven’t never loved God nor even nair person. You hard and tough as cowhide. But just the same I knows you. This afternoon you going to roam all over the place without never being satisfied. You going to traipse all around like you haves to find something lost. You going to work yourself up with excitement. Your heart going to beat hard enough to kill you because you don’t love and don’t have peace. And then some day you going to bust loose and be ruined. Won’t nothing help you then.’
‘What, Portia?’ Bubber asked. ‘What kind of things does He eat?’
Mick laughed and stamped out of the room.
She did roam around the house during the afternoon because she could not get settled. Some days were just like that. For one thing the thought of the violin kept worrying her. She could never have made it like a real one—and after all those weeks of planning the very thought of it made her sick. But how could she have been so sure the idea would work? So dumb? Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.
Mick did not want to go back into the rooms where the family stayed. And she did not want to have to talk to any of the boarders. No place was left but the street—and there the sun was too burning hot. She wandered aimlessly up and down the hall and kept pushing back her rumpled hair with the palm of her hand. ‘Hell,’ she said aloud to herself. ‘Next to a real piano I sure would rather have some place to myself than anything I know.’
That Portia had a certain kind of niggery craziness, but she was O.K. She never would do anything mean to Bubber or Ralph on the sly like some colored girls. But Portia had said that she never loved anybody. Mick stopped walking and stood very still, rubbing her fist on the top of her head. What would Portia think if she really knew? Just what would she think?
She had always kept things to herself. That was one sure truth.
Mick went slowly up the stairs. She passed the first landing and went on to the second. Some of the doors were open to make a draught and there were many sounds in the house. Mick stopped on the last flight of stairs and sat down. If Miss Brown turned on her radio she could hear the music. Maybe some good program would come on.
She put her head on her knees and tied knots in the strings of her tennis shoes. What would Portia say if she knew that always there had been one person after another? And every time it was like some part of her would bust in a hundred pieces.
But she had always kept it to herself and no person had ever known.
Mick sat on the steps a long time. Miss Brown did not turn on her radio and there was nothing but the noises that people made. She thought a long time and kept hitting her thighs with her fists. Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want—I want—I want—was all that she could think about—but just what this real want was she did not know.
After about an hour there was the sound of a doorknob being turned on the landing above. Mick looked up quickly and it was Mister Singer. He stood in the hall for a few minutes and his face was sad and calm. Then he went across to the bathroom. His company did not come out with him. From where she was sitting she could see part of the room, and the company was asleep on the bed with a sheet pulled over him. She waited for Mister Singer to come out of the bathroom. Her cheeks were very hot and she felt them with her hands. Maybe it was true that she came up on these top steps sometimes so she could see Mister Singer while she was listening to Miss Brown’s radio on the floor below. She wondered what kind of music he heard in his mind that his ears couldn’t hear. Nobody knew. And what kind of things he would say if he could talk. Nobody knew that either.
Mick waited, and after a while he came out into the hall again. She hoped he would look down and smile at her. And then when he got to his door he did glance down and nod his head. Mick’s grin was wide and trembling. He went into his room and shut the door. It might have been he meant to invite her in to see him. Mick wanted suddenly to go into his room. Sometime soon when he didn’t have company she would really go in and see Mister Singer. She really would do that.
The hot afternoon passed slowly and Mick still sat on the steps by herself. The fellow Motsart’s music was in her mind again. It was funny, but Mister Singer reminded her of this music. She wished there was some place where she could go to hum it out loud. Some kind of music was too private to sing in a house cram full of people. It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house. Mick tried to think of some good private place where she could go and be by herself and study about this music. But though she thought about this a long time she knew in the beginning that there was no good place.
LATE IN the afternoon Jake Blount awoke with the feeling that he had slept enough. The room in which he lay was small and neat, furnished with a bureau, a table, a bed, and a few chairs. On the bureau an electric fan turned its face slowly from one wall to another, and as the breeze from it passed Jake’s face he thought of cool water. By the window a man sat before the table and stared down at a chess game laid out before him. In the daylight the room was not familiar to Jake, but he recognized the man’s face instantly and it was as though he had known him a very long time.
Many memories were confused in Jake’s mind. He lay motionless with his eyes open and his hands turned palm upward. His hands were huge and very brown against the white sheet. When he held them up to his face he saw that they were scratched and bruised—and the veins were swollen as though he had been grasping hard at something for a long time. His face looked tired and unkempt. His brown hair fell down over his forehead and his mustache was awry. Even his wing-shaped eyebrows were rough and tousled. As he lay there his lips moved once or twice and his mustache jerked with a nervous quiver.
After a while he sat up and gave himself a thump on the side of his head with one of his big fists to straighten himself out. When he moved, the man playing chess looked up quickly and smiled at him.
‘God, I’m thirsty,’ Jake said. ‘I feel like the whole Russian army marched through my mouth in its stocking feet.’
The man looked at him, still smiling, and then suddenly he reached down on the other side of the table and brought up a frosted pitcher of ice water and a glass. Jake drank in great panting gulps—standing half-naked in the middle of the room, his head thrown back and one of his hands closed in a tense fist. He finished four glasses before he took a deep breath and relaxed a little.
Instantly certain recollections came to him. He couldn’t remember coming home with this man, but things that had happened later were clearer now. He had waked up soaking in a tub of cold water, and afterward they drank coffee and talked. He had got a lot of things off his chest and the man had listened. He had talked himself hoarse, but he could remember the expressions on the man’s face better than anything that was said. They had gone to bed in the morning with the shade pulled down so no light could come in. At first he would keep waking up with nightmares and have to turn the light on to get himself clear again. The light would wake this fellow also, but he hadn’t complained at all.
‘How come you didn’t kick me out last night?’
The man only smiled again. Jake wondered why he was so quiet. He looked around for his clothes and saw that his suitcase was on the floor by the bed. He couldn’t remember how he had got it back from the restaurant where he owed for the drinks. His books, a white suit, and some shirts were all there as he had packed them. Quickly he began to dress himself.
An electric coffee-pot was perking on the table by the time he had his clothes on. The man reached into the pocket of the vest that hung over the back of a chair. He brought out a card and Jake took it questioningly. The man’s name—John Singer—was engraved in the center, and beneath this, written in ink with the same elaborate precision as the engraving, there was a brief message.
I am a deaf-mute, but I read the lips and understand what is said to me. Please do not shout.
The shock made Jake feel light and vacant. He and John Singer just looked at each other.
‘I wonder how long it would have taken me to find that out,’ he said.
Singer looked very carefully at his lips when he spoke—he had noticed that before. But a dummy!
They sat at the table and drank hot coffee out of blue cups. The room was cool and the half-drawn shades softened the hard glare from the windows. Singer brought from his closet a tin box that contained a loaf of bread, some oranges, and cheese. He did not eat much, but sat leaning back in his chair with one hand in his pocket. Jake ate hungrily. He would have to leave the place immediately and think things over. As long as he was stranded he ought to scout around for some sort of job in a hurry. The quiet room was too peaceful and comfortable to worry in—he would get out and walk by himself for a while.
‘Are there any other deaf-mute people here?’ he asked. ‘You have many friends?’
Singer was still smiling. He did not catch on to the words at first, and Jake had to repeat them. Singer raised his sharp, dark eyebrows and shook his head.
‘Find it lonesome?’
The man shook his head in a way that might have meant either yes or no. They sat silently for a little while and then Jake got up to leave. He thanked Singer several times for the night’s lodging, moving his lips carefully so that he was sure to be understood. The mute only smiled again and shrugged his shoulders. When Jake asked if he could leave his suitcase under the bed for a few days the mute nodded that he could.
Then Singer took his hands from his pockets and wrote carefully on a pad of paper with a silver pencil. He shoved the pad over toward Jake.
I can put a mattress on the floor and you can stay here until you find a place. I am out most of the day. It will not be any trouble.
Jake felt his lips tremble with a sudden feeling of gratefulness. But he couldn’t accept. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I already got a place.’
As he was leaving the mute handed him a pair of blue overalls, rolled into a tight bundle, and seventy-five cents. The overalls were filthy and as Jake recognized them they aroused in him a whirl of sudden memories from the past week. The money, Singer made him understand, had been in his pockets.
‘Adios,’ Jake said. ‘I’ll be back sometime soon.’
He left the mute standing in the doorway with his hands still in his pockets and the half-smile on his face. When he had gone down several steps of the stairs he turned and waved. The mute waved back to him and closed his door.
Outside the glare was sudden and sharp against his eyes. He stood on the sidewalk before the house, too dazzled at first by the sunlight to see very clearly. A youngun was sitting on the banisters of the house. He had seen her somewhere before. He remembered the boy’s shorts she was wearing and the way she squinted her eyes.
He held up the dirty roll of overalls. ‘I want to throw these away. Know where I can find a garbage can?’
The kid jumped down from the banisters. ‘It’s in the back yard. I’ll show you.’
He followed her through the narrow, dampish alley at the side of the house. When they came to the back yard Jake saw that two Negro men were sitting on the back steps. They were both dressed in white suits and white shoes. One of the Negroes was very tall and his tie and socks were brilliant green. The other was a light mulatto of average height. He rubbed a tin harmonica across his knee. In contrast with his tall companion his socks and tie were a hot red.
The kid pointed to the garbage can by the back fence and then turned to the kitchen window. ‘Portia!’ she called. ‘Highboy and Willie here waiting for you.’
A soft voice answered from the kitchen. ‘You neen holler so loud. I know they is. I putting on my hat right now.’
Jake unrolled the overalls before throwing them away. They were stiff with mud. One leg was torn and a few drops of blood stained the front. He dropped them in the can. A Negro girl came out of the house and joined the white-suited boys on the steps. Jake saw that the youngun in shorts was looking at him very closely. She changed her weight from one foot to the other and seemed excited.
‘Are you kin to Mister Singer?’ she asked.
‘Not a bit.’
‘Good enough to spend the night with him.’
‘I just wondered—’
‘Which direction is Main Street?’
She pointed to the right. ‘Two blocks down this way.’
Jake combed his mustache with his fingers and started off. He jingled the seventy-five cents in his hand and bit his lower lip until it was mottled and scarlet. The three Negroes were walking slowly ahead of him, talking among themselves. Because he felt lonely in the unfamiliar town he kept close behind them and listened. The girl held both of them by the arm. She wore a green dress with a red hat and shoes. The boys walked very close to her.
‘What we got planned for this evening?’ she asked.
‘It depend entirely upon you, Honey,’ the tall boy said. ‘Willie and me don’t have no special plans.’
She looked from one to the other. ‘You all got to decide.’
‘Well—’ said the shorter boy in the red socks. ‘Highboy and me thought m-maybe us three go to church.’
The girl sang her answer in three different tones. ‘O—K—And after church I got a notion I ought to go and set with Father for a while—just a short while.’ They turned at the first corner, and Jake stood watching them a moment before walking on.
The main street was quiet and hot, almost deserted. He had not realized until now that it was Sunday—and the thought of this depressed him. The awnings over the closed stores were raised and the buildings had a bare look in the bright sun. He passed the New York Café. The door was open, but the place looked empty and dark. He had not found any socks to wear that morning, and the hot pavement burned through the thin soles of his shoes. The sun felt like a hot piece of iron pressing down on his head. The town seemed more lonesome than any place he had ever known. The stillness of the street gave him a strange feeling. When he had been drunk the place had seemed violent and riotous. And now it was as though everything had come to a sudden, static halt.
He went into a fruit and candy store to buy a paper. The Help-Wanted column was very short. There were several calls for young men between twenty-five and forty with automobiles to sell various products on commission. These he skipped over quickly. An advertisement for a truck-driver held his attention for a few minutes. But the notice at the bottom interested him most. It read:
Wanted—Experienced Mechanic. Sunny Dixie Show. Apply Corner Weavers Lane & 15th Street.
Without knowing it he had walked back to the door of the restaurant where he had spent his time during the past two weeks. This was the only place on the block besides the fruit store which was not closed. Jake decided suddenly to drop in and see Biff Brannon.
The café was very dark after the brightness outside. Everything looked dingier and quieter than he had remembered it. Brannon stood behind the cash register as usual, his arms folded over his chest. His good-looking plump wife sat filing her fingernails at the other end of the counter. Jake noticed that they glanced at each other as he came in.
‘Afternoon,’ said Brannon.
Jake felt something in the air. Maybe the fellow was laughing because he remembered things that had happened when he was drunk. Jake stood wooden and resentful. ‘Package of Target, please.’ As Brannon reached beneath the counter for the tobacco Jake decided that he was not laughing. In the daytime the fellow’s face was not as hard-looking as it was at night. He was pale as though he had not slept, and his eyes had the look of a weary buzzard’s.
‘Speak up,’ Jake said. ‘How much do I owe you?’
Brannon opened a drawer and put on the counter a public-school tablet. Slowly he turned over the pages and Jake watched him. The tablet looked more like a private notebook than the place where he kept his regular accounts. There were long lines of figures, added, divided, and subtracted, and little drawings. He stopped at a certain page and Jake saw his last name written at the corner. On the page there were no figures—only small checks and crosses. At random across the page were drawn little round, seated cats with long curved lines for tails. Jake stared. The faces of the little cats were human and female. The faces of the little cats were Mrs. Brannon.
‘I have checks here for the beers,’ Brannon said. ‘And crosses for dinners and straight lines for the whiskey. Let me see—’ Brannon rubbed his nose and his eyelids drooped down. Then he shut the tablet. ‘Approximately twenty dollars.’
‘It’ll take me a long time,’ Jake said. ‘But maybe you’ll get it.’
‘There’s no big hurry.’
Jake leaned against the counter. ‘Say, what kind of a place is this town?’
‘Ordinary,’ Brannon said. ‘About like any other place the same size.’
‘Around thirty thousand.’
Jake opened the package of tobacco and rolled himself a cigarette. His hands were shaking. ‘Mostly mills?’
‘That’s right. Four big cotton mills—those are the main ones. A hosiery factory. Some gins and sawmills.’
‘What kind of wages?’
‘I’d say around ten or eleven a week on the average—but then of course they get laid off now and then. What makes you ask all this? You mean to try to get a job in a mill?’
Jake dug his fist into his eye and rubbed it sleepily. ‘Don’t know. I might and I might not.’ He laid the newspaper on the counter and pointed out the advertisement he had just read. ‘I think I’ll go around and look into this.’
Brannon read and considered. ‘Yeah,’ he said finally. ‘I’ve seen that show. It’s not much—just a couple of contraptions such as a flying-jinny and swings. It corrals the colored people and mill hands and kids. They move around to different vacant lots in town.’
‘Show me how to get there.’
Brannon went with him to the door and pointed out the direction. ‘Did you go on home with Singer this morning?’
‘What do you think of him?’
Jake bit his lips. The mute’s face was in his mind very clearly. It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time. He had been thinking of the man ever since he had left his room. ‘I didn’t even know he was a dummy,’ he said finally.
He began walking again down the hot, deserted street. He did not walk as a stranger in a strange town. He seemed to be looking for someone. Soon he entered one of the mill districts bordering the river. The streets became narrow and unpaved and they were not empty any longer. Groups of dingy, hungry-looking children called to each other and played games. The two-room shacks, each one like the other, were rotten and unpainted. The stink of food and sewage mingled with the dust in the air. The falls up the river made a faint rushing sound. People stood silently in doorways or lounged on steps. They looked at Jake with yellow, expressionless faces. He stared back at them with wide, brown eyes. He walked jerkily, and now and then he wiped his mouth with the hairy back of his hand.
At the end of Weavers Lane there was a vacant block. It had once been used as a junk yard for old automobiles. Rusted pieces of machinery and torn inner tubes still littered the ground. A trailer was parked in one corner of the lot, and nearby was a flying-jinny partly covered with canvas.
Jake approached slowly. Two little younguns in overalls stood before the flying-jinny. Near them, seated on a box, a Negro man drowsed in the late sunshine, his knees collapsed against each other. In one hand he held a sack of melted chocolate. Jake watched him stick his fingers in the miry candy and then lick them slowly.
‘Who’s the manager of this outfit?’
The Negro thrust his two sweet fingers between his lips and rolled over them with his tongue. ‘He a red-headed man,’ he said when he had finished. ‘That all I know, Cap’n.’
‘Where’s he now?’
‘He over there behind that largest wagon.’
Jake slipped off his tie as he walked across the grass and stuffed it into his pocket. The sun was beginning to set in the west. Above the black line of housetops the sky was warm crimson. The owner of the show stood smoking a cigarette by himself. His red hair sprang up like a sponge on the top of his head and he stared at Jake with gray, flabby eyes.
‘You the manager?’
‘Uh-huh. Patterson’s my name.’
‘I come about the job in this morning’s paper.’
‘Yeah. I don’t want no greenhorn. I need a experienced mechanic.’
‘I got plenty of experience,’ Jake said. ‘What you ever done?’
‘I’ve worked as a weaver and loom-fixer. I’ve worked in garages and an automobile assembly shop. All sorts of different things.’
Patterson guided him toward the partly covered flying-jinny. The motionless wooden horses were fantastic in the late afternoon sun. They pranced up statically, pierced by their dull gilt bars. The horse nearest Jake had a splintery wooden crack in its dingy rump and the eyes walled blind and frantic, shreds of paint peeled from the sockets. The motionless merry-go-round seemed to Jake like something in a liquor dream.
‘I want a experienced mechanic to run this and keep the works in good shape,’ Patterson said.
‘I can do that all right.’
‘It’s a two-handed job,’ Patterson explained. ‘You’re in charge of the whole attraction. Besides looking after the machinery you got to keep the crowd in order. You got to be sure that everybody gets on has a ticket. You got to be sure that the tickets are O.K. and not some old dance-hall ticket. Everybody wants to ride them horses, and you’d be surprised what niggers will try to put over on you when they don’t have no money. You got to keep three eyes open all the time.’
Patterson led him to the machinery inside the circle of horses and pointed out the various parts. He adjusted a lever and the thin jangle of mechanical music began. The wooden cavalcade around them seemed to cut them off from the rest of the world. When the horses stopped, Jake asked a few questions and operated the mechanism himself.
‘The fellow I had quit on me,’ Patterson said when they had come out again into the lot. ‘I always hate to break in a new man.’
‘When do I start?’
‘Tomorrow afternoon. We run six days and nights a week—beginning at four and shutting up at twelve. You’re to come about three and help get things going. And it takes about a hour after the show to fold up for the night.’
‘What about pay?’
Jake nodded, and Patterson held out a dead-white, boneless hand with dirty fingernails.
It was late when he left the vacant lot. The hard, blue sky had blanched and in the east there was a white moon. Dusk softened the outline of the houses along the street. Jake did not return immediately through Weavers Lane, but wandered in the neighborhoods near-by. Certain smells, certain voices heard from a distance, made him stop short now and then by the side of the dusty street. He walked erratically, jerking from one direction to another for no purpose. His head felt very light, as though it were made of thin glass. A chemical change was taking place in him. The beers and whiskey he had stored so continuously in his system set in a reaction. He was sideswiped by drunkenness. The streets which had seemed so dead before were quick with life. There was a ragged strip of grass bordering the street, and as Jake walked along the ground seemed to rise nearer to his face. He sat down on the border of grass and leaned against a telephone pole. He settled himself comfortably, crossing his legs Turkish fashion and smoothing down the ends of his mustache. Words came to him and dreamily he spoke them aloud to himself.
‘Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty. Yeah.’
It was good to talk. The sound of his voice gave him pleasure. The tones seemed to echo and hang on the air so that each word sounded twice. He swallowed and moistened his mouth to speak again. He wanted suddenly to return to the mute’s quiet room and tell him of the thoughts that were in his mind. It was a queer thing to want to talk with a deaf-mute. But he was lonesome.
The street before him dimmed with the coming evening. Occasionally men passed along the narrow street very close to him, talking in monotones to each other, a cloud of dust rising around their feet with each step. Or girls passed by together, or a mother with a child across her shoulder. Jake sat numbly for some time, and at last he got to his feet and walked on.
Weavers Lane was dark. Oil lamps made yellow, trembling patches of light in the doorways and windows. Some of the houses were entirely dark and the families sat on their front steps with only the reflections from a neighboring house to see by. A woman leaned out of a window and splashed a pail of dirty water into the street. A few drops of it splashed on Jake’s face. High, angry voices could be heard from the backs of some of the houses. From others there was the peaceful sound of a chair slowly rocking.
Jake stopped before a house where three men sat together on the front steps. A pale yellow light from inside the house shone on them. Two of the men wore overalls but no shirts and were barefooted. One of these was tall and loose-jointed. The other was small and he had a running sore on the corner of his mouth. The third man was dressed in shirt and trousers. He held a straw hat on his knee.
‘Hey,’ Jake said.
The three men stared at him with mill-sallow, dead-pan faces. They murmured but did not change their positions. Jake pulled the package of Target from his pocket and passed it around. He sat down on the bottom step and took off his shoes. The cool, damp ground felt good to his feet.
‘Yeah,’ said the man with the straw hat. ‘Most of the time.’
Jake picked between his toes. ‘I got the Gospel in me,’ he said. ‘I want to tell it to somebody.’
The men smiled. From across the narrow street there was the sound of a woman singing. The smoke from their cigarettes hung close around them in the still air. A little youngun passing along the street stopped and opened his fly to make water.
‘There’s a tent around the corner and it’s Sunday,’ the small man said finally. ‘You can go there and tell all the Gospel you want.’
‘It’s not that kind. It’s better. It’s the truth.’
Jake sucked his mustache and did not answer. After a while he said, ‘You ever have any strikes here?’
‘Once,’ said the tall man. ‘They had one of these here strikes around six years ago.’
The man with the sore on his mouth shuffled his feet and dropped the stub of his cigarette to the ground. ‘Well—they just quit work because they wanted twenty cents a hour. There was about three hundred did it. They just hung around the streets all day. So the mill sent out trucks, and in a week the whole town was swarming with folks come here to get a job.’
Jake turned so that he was facing them. The men sat two steps above him so that he had to raise his head to look into their eyes. ‘Don’t it make you mad?’ he asked.
‘How do you mean—mad?’
The vein in Jake’s forehead was swollen and scarlet. ‘Christamighty, man! I mean mad—m-a-d—mad.’ He scowled up into their puzzled, sallow faces. Behind them, through the open front door he could see the inside of the house. In the front room there were three beds and a washstand. In the back room a barefooted woman sat sleeping in a chair. From one of the dark porches nearby there was the sound of a guitar.
‘I was one of them come in on the trucks,’ the tall man said.
‘That makes no difference. What I’m trying to tell you is plain and simple. The bastards who own these mills are millionaires. While the doffers and carders and all the people behind the machines who spin and weave the cloth can’t hardly make enough to keep their guts quiet. See? So when you walk around the streets and think about it and see hungry, worn-out people and ricket-legged younguns, don’t it make you mad? Don’t it?’
Jake’s face was flushed and dark and his lips trembled. The three men looked at him warily. Then the man in the straw hat began to laugh.
‘Go on and snicker. Sit there and bust your sides open.’
The men laughed in the slow and easy way that three men laugh at one. Jake brushed the dirt from the soles of his feet and put on his shoes. His fists were closed tight and his mouth was contorted with an angry sneer. ‘Laugh—that’s all you’re good for. I hope you sit there and snicker ’til you rot!’ As he walked stiffly down the street, the sound of their laughter and catcalls still followed him.
The main street was brightly lighted. Jake loitered on a corner, fondling the change in his pocket. His head throbbed, and although the night was hot a chill passed through his body. He thought of the mute and he wanted urgently to go back and sit with him awhile. In the fruit and candy store where he had bought the newspaper that afternoon he selected a basket of fruit wrapped in cellophane. The Greek behind the counter said the price was sixty cents, so that when he had paid he was left with only a nickel. As soon as he had come out of the store the present seemed a funny one to take a healthy man. A few grapes hung down below the cellophane, and he picked them off hungrily.
Singer was at home when he arrived. He sat by the window with the chess game laid out before him on the table. The room was just as Jake had left it, with the fan turned on and the pitcher of ice water beside the table. There was a panama hat on the bed and a paper parcel, so it seemed that the mute had just come in. He jerked his head toward the chair across from him at the table and pushed the chessboard to one side. He leaned back with his hands in his pockets, and his face seemed to question Jake about what had happened since he had left.
Jake put the fruit on the table. ‘For this afternoon,’ he said. ‘The motto has been: Go out and find an octopus and put socks on it.’
The mute smiled, but Jake could not tell if he had caught what he had said. The mute looked at the fruit with surprise and then undid the cellophane wrappings. As he handled the fruits there was something very peculiar in the fellow’s face. Jake tried to understand this look and was stumped. Then Singer smiled brightly.
‘I got a job this afternoon with a sort of show. I’m to run the flying-jinny.’
The mute seemed not at all surprised. He went into the closet and brought out a bottle of wine and two glasses. They drank in silence. Jake felt that he had never been in such a quiet room. The light above his head made a queer reflection of himself in the glowing wineglass he held before him—the same caricature of himself he had noticed many times before on the curved surfaces of pitchers or tin mugs—with his face egg-shaped and dumpy and his mustache straggling almost up to his ears. Across from him the mute held his glass in both hands. The wine began to hum through Jake’s veins and he felt himself entering again the kaleidoscope of drunkenness. Excitement made his mustache tremble jerkily. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and fastened a wide, searching gaze on Singer.
‘I bet I’m the only man in this town that’s been mad—I’m talking about really mean mad—for ten solid long years. I damn near got in a fight just a little while ago. Sometimes it seems to me like I might even be crazy. I just don’t know.’
Singer pushed the wine toward his guest. Jake drank from the bottle and rubbed the top of his head.
‘You see, it’s like I’m two people. One of me is an educated man. I been in some of the biggest libraries in the country. I read. I read all the time. I read books that tell the pure honest truth. Over there in my suitcase I have books by Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen and such writers as them. I read them over and over, and the more I study the madder I get. I know every word printed on every page. To begin with I like words. Dialectic materialism—Jesuitical prevarication’—Jake rolled the syllables in his mouth with loving solemnity—‘teleological propensity.’
The mute wiped his forehead with a neatly folded handkerchief.
‘But what I’m getting at is this. When a person knows and can’t make the others understand, what does he do?’
Singer reached for a wineglass, filled it to the brim, and put it firmly into Jake’s bruised hand. ‘Get drunk, huh?’ Jake said with a jerk of his arm that spilled drops of wine on his white trousers. ‘But listen! Wherever you look there’s meanness and corruption. This room, this bottle of grape wine, these fruits in the basket, are all products of profit and loss. A fellow can’t live without giving his passive acceptance to meanness. Somebody wears his tail to a frazzle for every mouthful we eat and every stitch we wear—and nobody seems to know. Everybody is blind, dumb, and blunt-headed—stupid and mean.’
Jake pressed his fists to his temples. His thoughts had careened in several directions and he could not get control of them. He wanted to go berserk. He wanted to get out and fight violently with someone in a crowded street.
Still looking at him with patient interest, the mute took out his silver pencil. He wrote very carefully on a slip of paper, Are you Democrat or Republican? and passed the paper across the table. Jake crumpled it in his hand. The room had began to turn around him again and he could not even read.
He kept his eyes on the mute’s face to steady himself. Singer’s eyes were the only things in the room that did not seem to move. They were varied in color, flecked with amber, gray, and a soft brown. He stared at them so long that he almost hypnotized himself. He lost the urge to be riotous and felt calm again. The eyes seemed to understand all that he had meant to say and to hold some message for him. After a while the room was steady again.
‘You get it,’ he said in a blurred voice. ‘You know what I mean.’
From afar off there was the soft, silver ring of church bells.
The moonlight was white on the roof next door and the sky was a gentle summer blue. It was agreed without words that Jake would stay with Singer a few days until he found a room. When the wine was finished the mute put a mattress on the floor beside the bed. Without removing any of his clothes Jake lay down and was instantly asleep.
FAR FROM the main street, in one of the Negro sections of the town, Doctor Benedict Mady Copeland sat in his dark kitchen alone. It was past nine o’clock and the Sunday bells were silent now. Although the night was very hot, there was a small fire in the round-bellied wood stove. Doctor Copeland sat close to it, leaning forward in a straight-backed kitchen chair with his head cupped in his long, slender hands. The red glow from the chinks of the stove shone on his face—in this light his heavy lips looked almost purple against his black skin, and his gray hair, tight against his skull like a cap of lamb’s wool, took on a bluish color also. He sat motionless in this position for a long time. Even his eyes, which stared from behind the silver rims of his spectacles, did not change their fixed, somber gaze. Then he cleared his throat harshly, and picked up a book from the floor beside his chair. All around him the room was very dark, and he had to hold the book close to the stove to make out the print. Tonight he read Spinoza. He did not wholly understand the intricate play of ideas and the complex phrases, but as he read he sensed a strong, true purpose behind the words and he felt that he almost understood.
Often at night the sharp jangle of the doorbell would rouse him from his silence, and in the front room he would find a patient with a broken bone or with a razor wound. But this evening he was not disturbed. And after the solitary hours spent sitting in the dark kitchen it happened that he began swaying slowly from side to side and from his throat there came a sound like a kind of singing moan. He was making this sound when Portia came.
Doctor Copeland knew of her arrival in advance. From the street outside he caught the sound of a harmonica playing a blues song and he knew that the music was played by William, his son. Without turning on the light he went through the hall and opened the front door. He did not step out on the porch, but stood in the dark behind the screen. The moonlight was bright and the shadows of Portia and William and Highboy lay black and solid on the dusty street. The houses in the neighborhood had a miserable look. Doctor Copeland’s house was different from any other building near-by. It was built solidly of brick and stucco. Around the small front yard there was a picket fence. Portia said good-bye to her husband and brother at the gate and knocked on the screen door.
‘How come you sit here in the dark like this?’
They went together through the dark hall back to the kitchen.
‘You haves grand electric lights. It don’t seem natural why you all the time sitting in the dark like this.’
Doctor Copeland twisted the bulb suspended over the table and the room was suddenly very bright. ‘The dark suits me,’ he said.
The room was clean and bare. On one side of the kitchen table there were books and an inkstand—on the other side a fork, spoon, and plate. Doctor Copeland held himself bolt upright with his long legs crossed and at first Portia sat stiffly, too. The father and daughter had a strong resemblance to each other—both of them had the same broad, flat noses, the same mouths and foreheads. But Portia’s skin was very light when compared to her Father’s.
‘It sure is roasting in here,’ she said. ‘Seems to me you would let this here fire die down except when you cooking.’
‘If you prefer we can go up to my office,’ Doctor Copeland said.
‘I be all right, I guess. I don’t prefer.’
Doctor Copeland adjusted his silver-rimmed glasses and then folded his hands in his lap. ‘How have you been since we were last together? You and your husband—and your brother?’
Portia relaxed and slipped her feet out of her pumps. ‘Highboy and Willie and me gets along just fine.’
‘William still boards with you?’
‘Sure he do,’ Portia said. ‘You see—us haves our own way of living and our own plan. Highboy—he pay the rent. I buys all the food out of my money. And Willie—he tends to all of our church dues, insurance, lodge dues, and Saturday Night. Us three haves our own plan and each one of us does our parts.’
Doctor Copeland sat with his head bowed, pulling at his long fingers until he had cracked all of his joints. The clean cuffs of his sleeves hung down past his wrists—below them his thin hands seemed lighter in color than the rest of his body and the palms were soft yellow. His hands had always an immaculate, shrunken look, as though they had been scrubbed with a brush and soaked for a long time in a pan of water.
‘Here, I almost forgot what I brought,’ Portia said. ‘Haves you had your supper yet?’
Doctor Copeland always spoke so carefully that each syllable seemed to be filtered through his sullen, heavy lips. ‘No, I have not eaten.’
Portia opened a paper sack she had placed on the kitchen table. ‘I done brought a nice mess of collard greens and I thought maybe we have supper together. I done brought a piece of side meat, too. These here greens need to be seasoned with that. You don’t care if the collards is just cooked in meat, do you?’
‘It does not matter.’
‘You still don’t eat nair meat?’
‘No. For purely private reasons I am a vegetarian, but it does not matter if you wish to cook the collards with a piece of meat.’
Without putting on her shoes Portia stood at the table and carefully began to pick over the greens. ‘This here floor sure do feel good to my feets. You mind if I just walk around like this without putting back on them tight, hurting pumps?’
‘No,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘That will be all right.’
‘Then—us’ll have these nice collards and some hoecake and coffee. And I going to cut me off a few slices of this here white meat and fry it for myself.’
Doctor Copeland followed Portia with his eyes. She moved slowly around the room in her stockinged feet, taking down the scrubbed pans from the wall, building up the fire, washing the grit from the collards. He opened his mouth to speak once and then composed his lips again.
‘So you and your husband and your brother have your own co-operative plan,’ he said finally.
Doctor Copeland jerked at his fingers and tried to pop the joints again. ‘Do you intend to plan for children?’
Portia did not look at her father. Angrily she sloshed the water from the pan of collards. ‘There be some things,’ she said, ‘that seem to me to depend entirely upon God.’
They did not say anything else. Portia left the supper to cook on the stove and sat silently with her long hands dropping down limp between her knees. Doctor Copeland’s head rested on his chest as though he slept. But he was not sleeping; now and then a nervous tremor would pass over his face. Then he would breathe deeply and compose his face again. Smells of the supper began to fill the stifling room. In the quietness the clock on top of the cupboard sounded very loud, and because of what they had just said to each other the monotonous ticking was like the word ‘chil-dren, chil-dren,’ said over and over.
He was always meeting one of them—crawling naked on a floor or engaged in a game of marbles or even on a dark street with his arms around a girl. Benedict Copeland, the boys were all called. But for the girls there were such names as Benny Mae or Madyben or Benedine Madine. He had counted one day, and there were more than a dozen named for him.
But all his life he had told and explained and exhorted. You cannot do this, he would say. There are all reasons why this sixth or fifth or ninth child cannot be, he would tell them. It is not more children we need but more chances for the ones already on the earth. Eugenic Parenthood for the Negro Race was what he would exhort them to. He would tell them in simple words, always the same way, and with the years it came to be a sort of angry poem which he had always known by heart.
He studied and knew the development of any new theory. And from his own pocket he would distribute the devices to his patients himself. He was by far the first doctor in the town to even think of such. And he would give and explain and give and tell them. And then deliver maybe two score times a week. Madyben and Benny Mae.
That was only one point. Only one.
All of his life he knew that there was a reason for his working. He always knew that he was meant to teach his people. All day he would go with his bag from house to house and on all things he would talk to them.
After the long day a heavy tiredness would come in him. But in the evening when he opened the front gate the tiredness would go away. There were Hamilton and Karl Marx and Portia and little William. There was Daisy, too.
Portia took the lid from the pan on the stove and stirred the collards with a fork. ‘Father—’ she said after a while.
Doctor Copeland cleared his throat and spat into a handkerchief. His voice was bitter and rough. ‘Yes?’
‘Less us quit this here quarreling with each other.’
‘We were not quarreling,’ said Doctor Copeland.
‘It don’t take words to make a quarrel,’ Portia said. ‘It look to me like us is always arguing even when we sitting perfectly quiet like this. It just this here feeling I haves. I tell you the truth—ever time I come to see you it mighty near wears me out. So less us try not to quarrel in any way no more.’
‘It is certainly not my wish to quarrel. I am sorry if you have that feeling, Daughter.’
She poured out coffee and handed one cup unsweetened to her father. In her own portion she put several spoons of sugar. ‘I getting hungry and this will taste good to us. Drink your coffee while I tell you something which happened to us a piece back. Now that it all over it seem a little bit funny, but we got plenty reason not to laugh too hard.’
‘Go ahead,’ said Doctor Copeland.
‘Well—sometime back a real fine-looking, dressed-up colored man come in town here. He called hisself Mr. B. F. Mason and said he come from Washington, D.C. Ever day he would walk up and down the street with a walking-cane and a pretty colored shirt on. Then at night he would go to the Society Café. He eaten finer than any man in this town. Ever night he would order hisself a bottle of gin and two pork chops for his supper. He always had a smile for everbody and was always bowing around to the girls and holding a door open for you to come in or go out. For about a week he made hisself mighty pleasant wherever he were. Peoples begun to ask questions and wonder about this rich Mr. B. F. Mason. Then pretty soon, after he acquaints hisself, he begun to settle down to business.’
Portia spread out her lips and blew into her saucer of coffee. ‘I suppose you done read in the paper about this Government Pincher business for old folks?’
Doctor Copeland nodded. ‘Pension,’ he said.
‘Well—he were connected with that. He were from the government. He had to come down from the President in Washington, D.C., to join everbody up for the Government Pinchers. He went around from one door to the next explaining how you pay one dollar down to join and after that twenty-five cents a week—and how when you were forty-five year old the government would pay you fifty dollars ever month of your life. All the peoples I know were very excited about this. He give ever-body that joined a free picture of the President with his name signed under it. He told how at the end of six months there were going to be free uniforms for ever member. The club was called the Grand League of Pincheners for Colored Peoples—and at the end of two months everbody was going to get a orange ribbon with a G.L.P.C.P. on it to stand for the name. You know, like all these other letter things in the government. He come around from house to house with this little book and everbody commenced to join. He wrote their names down and took the money. Ever Saturday he would collect. In three weeks this Mr. B. F. Mason had joined up so many peoples he couldn’t get all the way around on Saturday. He have to pay somebody to take up the collections in each three four blocks. I collected early ever Saturday for near where we live and got that quarter. Course Willie had joined at the beginning for him and Highboy and me.’
‘I have come across many pictures of the President in various houses near where you live and I remember hearing the name Mason mentioned,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘He was a thief?’
‘He were,’ said Portia. ‘Somebody begun to find out about this Mr. B. F. Mason and he were arrested. They find out he were from just plain Atlanta and hadn’t never smelled no Washington, D.C., or no President. All the money were hid or spent. Willie had just throwed away seven dollars and fifty cents.’
Doctor Copeland was excited. ‘That is what I mean by—’
‘In the hereafter,’ Portia said, ‘that man sure going to wake up with a hot pitchfork in his gut. But now that it all over it do seem a little bit funny, but of course we got plenty reason not to laugh too hard.’
‘The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross on every Friday,’ said Doctor Copeland.
Portia’s hands shook and coffee trickled down from the saucer she was holding. She licked it from her arm. ‘What you mean?’
‘I mean that I am always looking. I mean that if I could just find ten Negroes—ten of my own people—with spine and brains and courage who are willing to give all that they have—’
Portia put down the coffee. ‘Us was not talking about anything like that.’
‘Only four Negroes,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘Only the sum of Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and you. Only four Negroes with these real true qualities and backbone—’
‘Willie and Highboy and me have backbone,’ said Portia angrily. ‘This here is a hard world and it seem to me us three struggles along pretty well.’
For a minute they were silent. Doctor Copeland laid his spectacles on the table and pressed his shrunken fingers to his eyeballs.
‘You all the time using that word—Negro,’ said Portia. And that word haves a way of hurting people’s feelings. Even old plain nigger is better than that word. But polite peoples—no matter what shade they is—always says colored.’
Doctor Copeland did not answer.
‘Take Willie and me. Us aren’t all the way colored. Our Mama was real light and both of us haves a good deal of white folks’ blood in us. And Highboy—he Indian. He got a good part Indian in him. None of us is pure colored and the word you all the time using haves a way of hurting people’s feelings.’
‘I am not interested in subterfuges,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘I am interested only in real truths.’
‘Well, this here is a truth. Everybody is scared of you. It sure would take a whole lot of gin to get Hamilton or Buddy or Willie or my Highboy to come in this house and sit with you like I does. Willie say he remember you when he were only a little boy and he were afraid of his own father then.’
Doctor Copeland coughed harshly and cleared his throat.
‘Everbody haves feelings—no matter who they is—and nobody is going to walk in no house where they certain their feelings will be hurt. You the same way. I seen your feelings injured too many times by white peoples not to know that.’
‘No,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘You have not seen my feelings injured.’
‘Course I realize that Willie or my Highboy or me—that none of us is scholars. But Highboy and Willie is both good as gold. There just is a difference between them and you.’
‘Yes’ said Doctor Copeland.
‘Hamilton or Buddy or Willie or me—none of us ever cares to talk like you. Us talk like our own Mama and her peoples and their peoples before them. You think out everthing in your brain. While us rather talk from something in our hearts that has been there for a long time. That’s one of them differences.’
‘Yes,’ said Doctor Copeland.
‘A person can’t pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be. Whether it hurt them or not. Whether it right or wrong. You done tried that hard as any man could try. And now I the only one of us that would come in this here house and sit with you like this.’
The light was very bright in Doctor Copeland’s eyes and her voice was loud and hard. He coughed and his whole face trembled. He tried to pick up the cup of cold coffee, but his hand would not hold it steadily. The tears came up to his eyes and he reached for his glasses to try to hide them.
Portia saw and went up to him quickly. She put her arms around his head and pressed her cheek to his forehead. ‘I done hurt my Father’s feelings,’ she said softly.
His voice was hard. ‘No. It is foolish and primitive to keep repeating this about hurt feelings.’
The tears went slowly down his cheek and the fire made them take on the colors of blue and green and red. ‘I be really and truly sorry,’ said Portia.
Doctor Copeland wiped his face with his cotton handkerchief. ‘It is all right.’
‘Less us not ever quarrel no more. I can’t stand this here fighting between us. It seem to me that something real bad come up in us ever time we be together. Less us never quarrel like this no more.’
‘No,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘Let us not quarrel.’
Portia sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. For a few minutes she stood with her arms around her father’s head. Then after a while she wiped her face for a final time and went over to the pot of greens on the stove.
‘It mighty nigh time for these to be tender,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Now I think I’ll start making some of them good little hoecakes to go along with them.’
Portia moved slowly around the kitchen in her stockinged feet and her father followed her with his eyes. For a while again they were silent.
With his eyes wet, so that the edges of things were blurred, Portia was truly like her mother. Years ago Daisy had walked like that around the kitchen, silent and occupied. Daisy was not black as he was—her skin had been like the beautiful color of dark honey. She was always very quiet and gentle. But beneath that soft gentleness there was something stubborn in her, and no matter how conscientiously he studied it all out, he could not understand the gentle stubbornness in his wife.
He would exhort her and he would tell her all that was in his heart and still she was gentle. And still she would not listen to him but would go on her own way.
Then later there were Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and Portia. And this feeling of real true purpose for them was so strong that he knew exactly how each thing should be with them. Hamilton would be a great scientist and Karl Marx a teacher of the Negro race and William a lawyer to fight against injustice and Portia a doctor for women and children.
And when they were even babies he would tell them of the yoke they must thrust from their shoulders—the yoke of submission and slothfulness. And when they were a little older he would impress upon them that there was no God, but that their lives were holy and for each one of them there was this real true purpose. He would tell it to them over and over, and they would sit together far away from him and look with their big Negro-children eyes at their mother. And Daisy would sit without listening, gentle and stubborn.
Because of the true purpose for Hamilton, Karl Marx, William, and Portia, he knew how every detail should be. In the autumn of each year he took them all into town and bought for them good black shoes and black stockings. For Portia he bought black woolen material for dresses and white linen for collars and cuffs. For the boys there was black wool for trousers and fine white linen for shirts. He did not want them to wear bright-colored, flimsy clothes. But when they went to school those were the ones they wished to wear, and Daisy said that they were embarrassed and that he was a hard father. He knew how the house should be. There could be no fanciness—no gaudy calendars or lace pillows or knickknacks—but everything in the house must be plain and dark and indicative of work and the real true purpose.
Then one night he found that Daisy had pierced holes in little Portia’s ears for earrings. And another time a kewpie doll with feather skirts was on the mantelpiece when he came home, and Daisy was gentle and hard and would not put it away. He knew, too, that Daisy was teaching the children the cult of meekness. She told them about hell and heaven. Also she convinced them of ghosts and of haunted places. Daisy went to church every Sunday and she talked sorrowfully to the preacher of her own husband. And with her stubbornness she always took the children to the church, too, and they listened.
The whole Negro race was sick, and he was busy all the day and sometimes half the night. After the long day a great weariness would come in him, but when he opened the front gate of his home the weariness would go away. Yet when he went into the house William would be playing music on a comb wrapped in toilet paper, Hamilton and Karl Marx would be shooting craps for their lunch money, Portia would be laughing with her mother.
He would start all over with them, but in a different way. He would bring out their lessons and talk with them. They would sit close together and look at their mother. He would talk and talk, but none of them wanted to understand.
The feeling that would come on him was a black, terrible Negro feeling. He would try to sit in his office and read and meditate until he could be calm and start again. He would pull down the shades of the room so that there would be only the bright light and the books and the feeling of meditation. But sometimes this calmness would not come. He was young, and the terrible feeling would not go away with study.
Hamilton, Karl Marx, William, and Portia would be afraid of him and look at their mother—and sometimes when he realized this the black feeling would conquer him and he knew not what he did.
He could not stop those terrible things, and afterward he could never understand.
‘This here supper sure smells good to me,’ said Portia. ‘I expect us better eat now because Highboy and Willie liable to come trooping in any minute.’
Doctor Copeland settled his spectacles and pulled his chair up to the table. ‘Where have your husband and William been spending the evening?’
‘They been throwing horseshoes. This here Raymond Jones haves a horseshoe place in his back yard. This Raymond and his sister, Love Jones, plays ever night. Love is such a ugly girl I don’t mind about Highboy or Willie going around to their house any time they wishes. But they said they would come back for me at quarter to ten and I expecting them now any minute.’
‘Before I forget,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘I suppose you hear frequently from Hamilton and Karl Marx.’
‘I does from Hamilton. He practically taken over all the work on our Grandpapa’s place. But Buddy, he in Mobile—and you know he were never a big hand at writing letters. However, Buddy always haves such a sweet way with peoples that I don’t ever worry concerning him. He the kind to always get along right well.’
They sat silently at the table before the supper. Portia kept looking up at the clock on the cupboard because it was time for Highboy and Willie to come. Doctor Copeland bent his head over the plate. He held the fork in his hand as though it were heavy, and his fingers trembled. He only tasted the food and with each mouthful he swallowed hard. There was a feeling of strain, and it seemed as though both of them wanted to keep up some conversation.
Doctor Copeland did not know how to begin. Sometimes he thought that he had talked so much in the years before to his children and they had understood so little that now there was nothing at all to say. After a while he wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and spoke in an uncertain voice.
‘You have hardly mentioned yourself. Tell me about your job and what you have been doing lately.’
‘Course I still with the Kellys,’ said Portia. ‘But I tells you, Father, I don’t know how long I going to be able to keep on with them. The work is hard and it always take me a long time to get through. However, that don’t bother me none. It about the pay I worries about. I suppose to get three dollars a week—but sometimes Mrs. Kelly lacks a dollar or fifty cents of paying me the full amount. Course she always catches up on it soon as she able. But it haves a way of leaving me in a pinch.’
‘That is not right,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘Why do you stand for it?’
‘It ain’t her fault. She can’t help it,’ said Portia. ‘Half the folks in that house don’t pay the rent, and it a big expense to keep everthing up. I tell you the truth—the Kellys is just barely keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. They having a mighty hard time.’
‘There ought to be some other job you can get.’
‘I know. But the Kellys is really grand white peoples to work for. I really fond of them as I can be. Them three little children is just like some of my own kinfolks. I feel like I done really raised Bubber and the baby. And although Mick and me is always getting into some kind of quarrel together, I haves a real close fondness for her, too.’
‘But you must think of yourself,’ said Doctor Copeland.
‘Mick, now—’ said Portia. ‘She a real case. Not a soul know how to manage that child. She just as biggity and headstrong as she can be. Something going on in her all the time. I haves a funny feeling about that child. It seem to me that one of these days she going to really surprise somebody. But whether that going to be a good surprise or a bad surprise I just don’t know. Mick puzzle me sometimes. But still I really fond of her.’
‘You must look out for your own livelihood first.’
‘As I say, it ain’t Mrs. Kelly’s fault. It cost so much to run that big old house and the rent just don’t be paid. Ain’t but one person in the house who pay a decent amount for his room and pay on the dot without fail. And that man only been living there a short while. He one of these here deaf-and-dumb folks. He the first one of them I ever seen close up—but he a mighty fine white man.’
‘Tall, thin, with gray and green eyes?’ asked Doctor Copeland suddenly. ‘And always polite to everyone and very well dressed? Not like someone from this town—more like a Northerner or maybe a Jew?’
‘That him,’ said Portia.
Eagerness came into Doctor Copeland’s face. He crumbled his hoecake into the collard juice in his plate and began to eat with a new appetite. ‘I have a deaf-mute patient,’ he said.
‘How come you acquainted with Mr. Singer?’ asked Portia.
Doctor Copeland coughed and covered his mouth with his handkerchief. ‘I have just seen him several times.’
‘I better clean up now,’ said Portia. ‘It sure enough time for Willie and my Highboy. But with this here real sink and grand running water these little dishes won’t take me two winks.’
The quiet insolence of the white race was one thing he had tried to keep out of his mind for years. When the resentment would come to him he would cogitate and study. In the streets and around white people he would keep the dignity on his face and always be silent. When he was younger it was ‘Boy’—but now it was ‘Uncle.’ ‘Uncle, run down to that filling station on the corner and send me a mechanic.’ A white man in a car had called out those words to him not long ago. ‘Boy, give me a hand with this.’—‘Uncle, do that.’ And he would not listen, but would walk on with the dignity in him and be silent.
A few nights ago a drunken white man had come up to him and begun pulling him along the street. He had his bag with him and he was sure someone was hurt. But the drunkard had pulled him into a white man’s restaurant and the white men at the counter had begun hollering out with their insolence. He knew that the drunkard was making fun of him. Even then he had kept the dignity in him.
But with this tall, thin white man with the gray-green eyes something had happened that had never happened to him with any white man before.
It came about on a dark, rainy night several weeks ago. He had just come from a maternity case and was standing in the rain on a corner. He had tried to light a cigarette and one by one the matches in his box fizzled out. He had been standing with the unlighted cigarette in his mouth when the white man stepped up and held for him a lighted match. In the dark with the flame between them they could see each other’s faces. The white man smiled at him and lighted for him his cigarette. He did not know what to say, for nothing like that had ever happened to him before.
They had stood for a few minutes on the street corner together, and then the white man had handed him his card. He wanted to talk to the white man and ask him some questions, but he did not know for sure if he could really understand. Because of the insolence of all the white race he was afraid to lose his dignity in friendliness.
But the white man had lighted his cigarette and smiled and seemed to want to be with him. Since then he had thought this over many times.
‘I have a deaf-mute patient,’ said Doctor Copeland to Portia. ‘The patient is a boy five years of age. And somehow I cannot get over the feeling that I am to blame for his handicap. I delivered him, and after two post-delivery visits of course I forgot about him. He developed ear trouble, but the mother paid no attention to the discharges from his ears and did not bring him to me. When it was finally brought to my attention it was too late. Of course he hears nothing and of course he therefore cannot speak. But I have watched him carefully, and it seems to me that if he were normal he would be a very intelligent child.’
‘You always had a great interest in little children,’ said Portia. ‘You care a heap more about them than about grown peoples, don’t you?’
‘There is more hope in the young child,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘But this deaf boy—I have been meaning to make inquiries and find if there is some institution that would take him.’
‘Mr. Singer would tell you. He a truly kind white man and he not a bit biggity.’
‘I do not know—’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘I have thought once or twice about writing him a note and seeing if he could give me information.’
‘Sure I would if I was you. You a grand letter-writer and I would give it to Mr. Singer for you,’ said Portia. ‘He come down in the kitchen two-three weeks ago with a few shirts he wanted me to rinch out for him. Them shirts were no more dirty than if Saint John the Baptist hisself had been wearing them. All I had to do were dip them in warm water and give the collars a small rub and press them. But that night when I taken them five clean shirts up to his room you know how much he give me?’
‘He smile like he always do and hand over to me a dollar. A whole dollar just for them little shirts. He one really kind and pleasant white man and I wouldn’t be afraid to ask him any question. I wouldn’t even mind writing that nice white man a letter myself. You go right ahead and do it, Father, if you wants to.’
‘Perhaps I will,’ said Doctor Copeland.
Portia sat up suddenly and began arranging her tight, oily hair. There was the faint sound of a harmonica and then gradually the music grew louder. ‘Here come Willie and Highboy,’ Portia said. ‘I got to go out now and meet them. You take care of yourself now, and send me a word if you needs me for anything. I did enjoy the supper with you and the talking very much.’
The music from the harmonica was very clear now, and they could tell that Willie was playing while he waited at the front gate.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘I have only seen your husband with you about two times and I believe we have never really met each other. And it has been three years since William has visited his father. Why not tell them to drop in for a little while?’
Portia stood in the doorway, fingering her hair and her earrings.
‘Last time Willie come in here you hurted his feelings. You see you don’t understand just how—’
‘Very well,’ said Doctor Copeland. ‘It was only a suggestion.’
‘Wait,’ said Portia. ‘I going to call them. I going to invite them in right now.’
Doctor Copeland lighted a cigarette and walked up and down the room. He could not straighten his glasses to just the right position and his fingers kept trembling. From the front yard there was the sound of low voices. Then heavy footsteps were in the hall and Portia, William, and Highboy entered the kitchen.
‘Here we is,’ said Portia. ‘Highboy, I don’t believe you and my Father has ever truly been introduced to each other. But you knows who each other is.’
Doctor Copeland shook hands with both of them. Willie hung back shyly against the wall, but Highboy stepped forward and bowed formally. ‘I has always heard so much about you,’ he said. ‘I be very pleased to make your acquaintance.’
Portia and Doctor Copeland brought in chairs from the hall and the four of them sat around the stove. They were silent and uneasy. Willie gazed nervously around the room—at the books on the kitchen table, the sink, the cot against the wall, and at his father. Highboy grinned and picked at his tie. Doctor Copeland seemed about to speak, and then he wet his lips and was still silent.
‘Willie, you were going pretty good with your harp,’ said Portia finally. ‘Look to me like you and Highboy must of got into somebody’s gin bottle.’
‘No, ma’am,’ said Highboy very politely. ‘Us haven’t had anything since Saturday. Us have just been enjoying our horseshoe game.’
Doctor Copeland still did not speak, and they all kept glancing at him and waiting. The room was close and the quietness made everyone nervous.
‘I do haves the hardest time with them boys’ clothes,’ Portia said. ‘I washes both of them white suits ever Saturday and I presses them twice a week. And look at them now. Course they don’t wear them except when they gets home from work. But after two days they seems to be potty black. I ironed them pants just last night and now there not a crease left.’
Still Doctor Copeland was silent. He kept his eyes on his son’s face, but when Willie noticed this he bit his rough, blunt fingers and stared at his feet. Doctor Copeland felt his pulse hammering at his wrists and temples. He coughed and held his fist to his chest. He wanted to speak to his son, but he could think of nothing to say. The old bitterness came up in him and he did not have time to cogitate and push it down. His pulse hammered in him and he was confused. But they all looked at him, and the silence was so strong that he had to speak.
His voice was high and it did not sound as though it came from himself. ‘William, I wonder how much of all the things I have said to you when you were a child have stayed in your mind.’
‘I don’t know what you m-m-means,’ Willie said.
The words came before Doctor Copeland knew what he would say. ‘I mean that to you and Hamilton and Karl Marx I gave all that was in me. And I put all of my trust and hope in you. And all I get is blank misunderstanding and idleness and indifference. Of all I have put in nothing has remained. All has been taken away from me. All that I have tried to do—’
‘Hush,’ said Portia. ‘Father, you promised me that us would not quarrel. This here is crazy. Us can’t afford to quarrel.’
Portia got up and started toward the front door. Willie and Highboy followed quickly. Doctor Copeland was the last to come.
They stood in the dark before the front door. Doctor Copeland tried to speak, but his voice seemed lost somewhere deep inside him. Willie and Portia and Highboy stood in a group together.
With one arm Portia held to her husband and brother and with the other she reached out to Doctor Copeland. ‘Less us all make up now before us goes. I can’t stand this here fighting between us. Less us not ever quarrel no more.’
In silence Doctor Copeland shook hands again with each of them. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.
‘It quite all right with me,’ said Highboy politely.
‘It quite all right with me too,’ Willie mumbled.
Portia held all of their hands together. ‘Us just can’t afford to quarrel.’
They said good-bye, and Doctor Copeland watched them from the dark front porch as they went together up the street. Their footsteps as they walked away had a lonesome sound and he felt weak and tired. When they were a block away William began playing his harmonica again. The music was sad and empty. He stayed on the front porch until he could neither see nor hear them any longer.
Doctor Copeland turned off the lights in his house and sat in the dark before the stove. But peace would not come to him. He wanted to remove Hamilton and Karl Marx and William from his mind. Each word that Portia had said to him came back in a loud, hard way to his memory. He got up suddenly and turned on the light. He settled himself at the table with his books by Spinoza and William Shakespeare and Karl Marx. When he read the Spinoza aloud to himself the words had a rich, dark sound.
He thought of the white man of whom they had spoken. It would be good if the white man could help him with Augustus Benedict Mady Lewis, the deaf patient. It would be good to write to the white man even if he did not have this reason and these questions to ask. Doctor Copeland held his head in his hands and from his throat there came the strange sound like a kind of singing moan. He remembered the white man’s face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that rainy night—and peace was in him.
BY MIDSUMMER Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closet where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.
Mick loved to go up to Mister Singer’s room. Even if he was a deaf-and-dumb mute he understood every word she said to him. Talking with him was like a game. Only there was a whole lot more to it than any game. It was like finding out new things about music. She would tell him some of her plans that she would not tell anybody else. He let her meddle with his cute little chess men. Once when she was excited and caught her shirttail in the electric fan he acted in such a kindly way that she was not embarrassed at all. Except for her Dad, Mister Singer was the nicest man she knew.
When Doctor Copeland wrote the note to John Singer about Augustus Benedict Mady Lewis there was a polite reply and an invitation for him to make a call when he found the opportunity. Doctor Copeland went to the back of the house and sat with Portia awhile in the kitchen. Then he climbed the stairs to the white man’s room. There was truly none of the quiet insolence about this man. They had a lemonade together and the mute wrote down the answer to the questions he wished to know. This man was different from any person of the white race whom Doctor Copeland had ever encountered. Afterward he pondered about this white man a long time. Then later, inasmuch as he had been invited in a cordial manner to return, he made another visit.
Jake Blount came every week. When he walked up to Singer’s room the whole stairway shook. Usually he carried a paper sack of beers. Often his voice would come out loud and angry from the room. But before he left his voice gradually quieted. When he descended the stairs he did not carry the sack of beers any longer, and he walked away thoughtfully without seeming to notice where he was going.
Even Biff Brannon came to the mute’s room one night. But as he could never stay away from the restaurant for long, he left in a half-hour.
Singer was always the same to everyone. He sat in a straight chair by the window with his hands stuffed tight into his pockets, and nodded or smiled to show his guests that he understood.
If he did not have a visitor in the evening, Singer went to a late movie. He liked to sit back and watch the actors talking and walking about on the screen. He never looked at the title of a picture before going into a movie, and no matter what was showing he watched each scene with equal interest.
Then, one day in July, Singer suddenly went away without warning. He left the door of his room open, and on the table in an envelope addressed to Mrs. Kelly there were four dollars for the past week’s rent. His few simple possessions were gone and the room was very clean and bare. When his visitors came and saw this empty room they went away with hurt surprise. No one could imagine why he had left like this.
Singer spent all of his summer vacation in the town where Antonapoulos was being kept in the asylum. For months he had planned this trip and imagined about each moment they would have together. Two weeks beforehand his hotel reservation had been made and for a long time he had carried his railroad ticket in an envelope in his pocket.
Antonapoulos was not changed at all. When Singer came into his room he ambled placidly to meet his friend. He was even fatter than before, but the dreamy smile on his face was just the same. Singer had some packages in his arms and the big Greek gave them his first attention. His presents were a scarlet dressing-gown, soft bedroom slippers, and two monogrammed nightshirts. Antonapoulos looked beneath all the tissue papers in the boxes very carefully. When he saw that nothing good to eat had been concealed there, he dumped the gifts disdainfully on his bed and did not bother with them any more.
The room was large and sunny. Several beds were spaced in a row together. Three old men played a game of slapjack in a corner. They did not notice Singer or Antonapoulos, and the two friends sat alone on the other side of the room.
It seemed to Singer that years had passed since they had been together. There was so much to say that his hands could not shape the signs with speed enough. His green eyes burned and sweat glittered on his forehead. The old feeling of gaiety and bliss was so quick in him again that he could not control himself.
Antonapoulos kept his dark, oily eyes on his friend and did not move. His hands fumbled languidly with the crotch of his trousers. Singer told him, among other things, about the visitors who had been coming to see him. He told his friend that they helped take his mind away from his lonesomeness. He told Antonapoulos that they were strange people and always talking—but that he liked to have them come. He drew quick sketches of Jake Blount and Mick and Doctor Copeland. Then as soon as he saw that Antonapoulos was not interested Singer crumpled the sketches and forgot about them. When the attendant came in to say that their time was up, Singer had not finished half of the things he wanted to say. But he left the room very tired and happy.
The patients could receive their friends only on Thursday and Sunday. On the days when he could not be with Antonapoulos, Singer walked up and down in his room at the hotel.
His second visit to his friend was like the first, except that the old men in the room watched them listlessly and did not play slapjack.
After much trouble Singer obtained permission to take Antonapoulos out with him for a few hours. He planned each detail of the little excursion in advance. They drove out into the country in a taxi, and then at four-thirty they went to the dining-room at the hotel. Antonapoulos greatly enjoyed his extra meal. He ordered half the dishes on the menu and ate very greedily. But when he had finished he would not leave. He held to the table. Singer coaxed him and the cab driver wanted to use force. Antonapoulos sat stolidly and made obscene gestures when they came too close to him. At last Singer bought a bottle of whiskey from the hotel manager and lured him into the taxi again. When Singer threw the unopened bottle out of the window Antonapoulos wept with disappointment and offense. The end of their little excursion made Singer very sad.
His next visit was the last one, for his two weeks’ vacation was almost over. Antonapoulos had forgotten what had happened before. They sat in their same corner of the room. The minutes slipped by quickly. Singer’s hands talked desperately and his narrow face was very pale. At last it was time for him to go. He held his friend by the arm and looked into his face in the way that he used to do when they parted each day before work. Antonapoulos stared at him drowsily and did not move. Singer left the room with his hands stuffed hard into his pockets.
Soon after Singer returned to his room at the boarding-house, Mick and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland began to come again. Each one of them wanted to know where he had been and why he had not let them know about his plans. But Singer pretended that he did not understand their questions, and his smile was inscrutable.
One by one they would come to Singer’s room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and composed. His many-tinted gentle eyes were grave as a sorcerer’s. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room—for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that.