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If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (part 2)

Author: James Baldwin

When the doorbell rang, it was Ernestine who went to the door, and Mrs. Hunt who entered first. She was dressed in something which looked very stylish until you looked at it. It was brown, it was shiny, it made one think of satin; and it had somehow white lace fringes at the knees, I think, and the elbows, and – I think – at the waist; and she was wearing a kind of scoop hat, an up­side down coal scuttle, which hardened her hard brow.

She was wearing heels, she was gaining weight. She was fighting it, not successfully. She was frightened: in spite of the power of the Holy Ghost. She entered smiling, not quite knowing at what, or at whom, being juggled, so to speak, between the scrutiny of the Holy Ghost and her un­steady recollection of her mirror. And something in the way that she walked in and held out her hand, something in that smile of hers, which begged for mercy at the same time that it could not give it, made her quite wonderful for me. She was a woman I had never seen before. Fonny had been in her belly. She had carried him.

Behind her, were the sisters, who were quite another matter. Ernestine, very hearty and upbeat at the door (“Only way to get to see you people is to call an emergency summit meeting! Now, don’t you know that ain’t right? Come on in this house!”) had shuttled Mrs. Hunt past her, into Sharon’s orbit: and Sharon, full of grace, delivered her, not quite, to Joseph, who had his arm around me. Something in the way my father held me and something in his smile frightened Mrs. Hunt. But I began to see that she had always been frightened.

Though the sisters were Fonny’s sisters, I had never thought of them as his sisters. Well. That’s not true. If they had not been Fonny’s sisters, I would never have noticed them at all. Because they were his sisters, and I knew that they didn’t really like Fonny, I hated them. They didn’t hate me. They didn’t hate anybody, and that was what was wrong with them. They smiled at an invisible host of stricken lovers as they entered our living room, and Adrienne, the oldest, who was twenty- seven, and Sheila, who was twenty-four, went out of their way to be very sweet with raggedy- assed me, just like the missionaries had told them. All they really saw was that big black hand of my father’s which held them at the waist – of course, my Daddy was really holding me at the waist, but it was somehow like it was them. They did not know whether they disapproved of its color, its position, or its shape: but they certainly disapproved of its power of touch. Adrienne was too old for what she was wearing, and Sheila was too young. Behind them, here came Frank, and my fa­ther loosened his hold on me a little. We clattered and chattered into the living room.

Mr. Hunt looked very tired, but he still had that smile. He sat down on the sofa, near Adrienne, and he said, “So you saw my big-headed boy today, did you?”

“Yes. He’s fine. He sends his love.”

“They ain’t giving him too hard a time? – I just ask you like that because, you know, he might say things to you he wouldn’t say to me.”

“Lovers’ secrets,” said Adrienne, and crossed her legs, and smiled.

I didn’t see any reason at all to deal with Adrienne, at least not yet; neither did Mr. Hunt, who kept watching me.

I said, “Well. He hates it, you can see that. And he should. But he’s very strong. And he’s doing a lot of reading and studying.” I looked at Adrienne. “He’ll be all right. But we have to get him out of there.”

Frank was about to say something when Sheila said, sharply, “If he’d done his reading and stud­ying when he should have, he wouldn’t be in there.”

I started to say something, but Joseph said, quickly, “You bring that six-pack, man? Or, I got some gin and we got whiskey and we got some brandy.” He grinned. “Ain’t got no Thunderbird, though.” He turned to Mrs. Hunt. “I’m sure you ladies won’t mind-?”

Mrs. Hunt smiled. “Mind? Frank does not care if we mind. He will go right on and do what pleases him. He ain’t never thought about nobody else.”

“Mrs. Hunt,” said Sharon, “what can I get you, sugar? I can offer you some tea, or coffee – and we got ice cream – and Coca-Cola.”

“-and Seven-Up,” said Ernestine. “I can make you a kind of ice-cream soda. Come on, Sheila, you want to help me? Sit down, Mama. We’ll get it together.”

She dragged Sheila into the kitchen. Mama sat down next to Mrs. Hunt.

“Lord,” she said, “the time sure flies. We ain’t hardly seen each other since this trouble started.”

“Don’t say a word. I have been running myself sick, all up and down the Bronx, trying to get the very best legal advice I can find – from some of the people I used to work for, you know – one of them is a dty councilman and he knows just everybody and he can pull some strings – people just got to listen to him, you know. But it’s been taking up all of my time and the doctor says I must be care­ful, he says I’m putting an awful strain on my heart. He says, Mrs. Hunt, you got to remember, don’t care how much that boy wants his freedom, he wants his mother, too. But, look like, it don’t matter to me. I ain’t worried about me. The Lord holds me up. I just pray and pray and pray that the Lord will bring my boy to the light. That’s all I pray for, every day and every night. And then, sometimes I think that maybe this is the Lord’s way of making my boy think on his sins and sur­render his soul to Jesus-“

“You might be right,” said Sharon. “The Lord sure works in mysterious ways.”

“Oh, yes!” said Mrs. Hunt. “Now, He may try you. But He ain’t never left none of His children alone.”

“What you think,” Sharon asked, “of the lawyer, Mr. Hayward, that Ernestine found?”

“I havent seen him yet. I just have not had time to get downtown. But I know Frank saw him-“

“What do you think, Frank?” Sharon asked.

Frank shrugged. “It’s a white boy who’s been to a law school and he got them degrees. Well, you know. I ain’t got to tell you what that means: it don’t mean shit.”

“Frank, you’re talking to a woman,” said Mrs. Hunt.

“I’m hip, and it’s a mighty welcome change – like I was saying, it don’t mean shit and I ain’t sure we’re going to stay with him. On the other hand, as white boys go, he’s not so bad. He’s not as full of shit now, because he’s hungry, as he may be later, when he’s full. Man,” he said to Joseph, “you know I don’t want my boys life in the hands of these white, ball-less motherfuckers. I swear to

Christ, I’d rather be boiled alive. That’s my only son, man my only son. But we all in the hands of white men and I know some very hincty black cats I wouldn’t trust, neither.”

“But I keep trying to tell you, I keep trying to tell you,” cried Mrs. Hunt, “that it’s that negative at­titude which is so dangerous! You’re so full of hate! If you give people hatred, they will give it back to you! Every time I hear you talk this way, my heart breaks and I tremble for my son, sitting in a dungeon which only the love of God can bring him out of – Frank, if you love your son, give up this hatred, give it up. It will fall on your son’s head, it will kill him.”

“Frank’s not talking hatred, Mrs. Hunt,” Sharon said. “He’s just telling the truth about life in this country, and it’s only natural for him to be upset.”

“I trust in God,” said Mrs. Hunt. “I know He cares for me.”

“I don’t know,” Frank said, “how God expects a man to act when his son is in trouble. Your God crucified His son and was probably glad to get rid of him, but I ain’t like that. I ain’t hardly going out in the street and kiss the first white cop I see. But I’ll be a very loving motherfucker the day my son walks out of that hellhole, free. I’ll be a loving motherfucker when I hold my son’s head be­tween my hands again, and look into his eyes. Oh! I’ll be full of love, that day!” He rose from the sofa, and walked over to his wife. “And if it don’t go down like that, you can bet I’m going to blow some heads off. And if you say a word to me about that Jesus you been making it with all these years, I’ll blow your head off first.You was making it with that white Jew bastard when you should have been with your son.”

Mrs. Hunt put her head in her hands, and Frank slowly crossed the room again, and sat down.

Adrienne looked at him and she started to speak, but she didn’t. I was sitting on the hassock, near my father. Adrienne said, “Mr. Rivers, exactly what is the purpose of this meeting? You have­n’t called us all the way over here just to watch my father insult my mother?”

“Why not?” I said. “It’s Saturday night. You can’t tell what people won’t do, if they get bored enough. Maybe we just invited you over to liven things up.”

“I can believe,” she said, “that you’re that malicious. But I can’t believe you’re that stupid.”

“I haven’t seen you twice since your brother went to jail,” I said, “and I ain’t never seen you down at the Tombs. Fonny told me he saw you once, and you was in a hurry then. And you ain’t said a word about it on your job, I bet – have you? And you ain’t said a word about it to none of them white-collars ex-antipoverty-program pimps and hustlers and faggots you run with, have you? And you sitting on that sofa right now, thinking you finer than Elizabeth Taylor, and all upset be­cause you got some half-honky chump waiting for you somewhere and you done had to take time out to find out something about your brother.” Mrs. Hunt was staring at me with terrible eyes. A cold bitter smile played on Frank’s lips: he looked down. Adrienne looked at me from a great dis­tance, adding one more tremendous black mark against her brother’s name, and, finally, as I had known all along she wished to do, lit a cigarette. She blew the smoke carefully and delicately into the air, and seemed to be resolving, in silence, that she would never again, for any reason, allow herself to be trapped among people so unspeakably inferior to herself.

Sheila and Ernestine reentered, Sheila looking rather frightened, Ernestine looked grimly pleased. She served Mrs. Hunt her ice cream, set down a Coke near Adrienne, gave Joseph a beer, gave Frank a Seven-Up, with gin, gave Sheila a Coke, gave Sharon a Seven-Up, with gin, gave me a brandy, and took a highball for herself. “Happy landings,” she said cheerfully, and she sat down and everybody else sat down.

There was, then, this funny silence: and everyone was staring at me. I felt Mrs. Hunt’s eyes, more malevolent, more frightened, than ever. She was leaning forward, one hand tight on the spoon buried in her ice cream. Sheila looked terrified. Adrienne’s lips curled in a contemptuous smile, and she leaned forward to speak, but her father’s hand, hostile, menacing, rose to check her. She leaned back. Frank leaned forward.

My news was, after all, for him. And, looking at him, I said, “I called this summit meeting. I had Daddy ask you all to come over so I could tell you what I had to tell Fonny this afternoon. Fonny’s going to be a father. We’re going to have a baby.”

Frank’s eyes left mine, to search my father’s. Both men then went away from us, sitting perfectly still, on the chair, on the sofa: they went away together, and they made a strange journey. Frank’s face, on this journey, was awful, in the Biblical sense. He was picking up stones and putting them down, his sight forced itself to stretch itself, beyond horizons he had never dreamed of. When he returned, still in company with my father, his face was very peaceful. “You and me going to go out and get drunk,” he told Joseph. Then he grinned, looking, almost, just like Fonny, and he said, “I’m glad, Tish. I’m mighty glad.”

“And who,” asked Mis. Hunt, “is going to be responsible for this baby?”

“The father and the mother,” I said.

Mrs. Hunt stared at me.

“You can bet,” Frank said, “that it won’t be the Holy Ghost.”

Mrs. Hunt stared at Frank, then rose, and started walking toward me; walking very slowly, and seeming to hold her breath. I stood up, and moved to the center of the room, holding mine.

“I guess you call your lustful action love,” she said. “I don’t. I always knew that you would be the destruction of my son. You have a demon in you -1 always knew it. My God caused me to know it many a year ago. The Holy Ghost will cause that child to shrivel in your womb. But my son will be forgiven. My prayers will save him.”

She was ridiculous and majestic; she was testifying. But Frank laughed and walked over to her, and, with the back of his hand, knocked her down. Yes. She was on the floor, her hat way on the back of her head and her dress up above her knees and Frank stood over her. She did not make a sound, nor did he.

“Her heart!” murmured Sharon; and Frank laughed again.

He said, “I think you’ll find it’s still pumping. But I wouldn’t call it a heart.” He turned to my fa­ther. “Joe, let the women take care of her, and come with me.” And, as my father hesitated, “Please. Please, Joe. Come on.”

“Go on with him,” Sharon said. “Go on.”

Sheila knelt beside her mother. Adrienne stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray, and stood up. Ernestine came out of the bathroom with rubbing alcohol and knelt beside Sheila. She poured the alcohol onto the cotton and rubbed Mrs. Hunt’s temples and forehead, carefully taking the hat completely off and handing it to Sheila.

“Go on, Joe,” said Sharon. “We don’t need you here.”

The two men walked out, the door closed behind them, and now these were these six women who had to deal with each other, if only for a moment. Mrs. Hunt slowly stood up and moved to her chair and sat down. And before she could say anything, I said, “That was a terrible thing you said to me. It was the most terrible thing I’ve heard in all my life.”

“My father didn’t have to slap her,” said Adrienne. “She does have a weak heart.”

“She got a weak head,” said Sharon. She said to Mrs. Hunt, “The Holy Ghost done softened your brain, child. Did you forget it was Frank’s grandchild you was cursing? And of course it’s my grandchild, too. I know some men and some women would have cut that weak heart out of your body and gladly gone to hell to pay for it. You want some tea, or something? You really ought to have some brandy, but I reckon you too holy for that.”

“I don’t think you have the right to sneer at my mother’s faith,” said Sheila.

“Oh, don’t give me that bullshit,” Ernestine said. “You so shamed you got a Holy Roller for a mother, you don’t know what to do. You don’t sneer. You just say it shows she’s got ‘soul,’ so other people won’t think it’s catching – and also so they’ll see what a bright, bright girl you are. You make me sick.”

“You make me sick,” said Adrienne. “Maybe my mother didn’t say it exactly like she should have said it – after all, she’s very upset! And she does have soul! And what do you funky niggers think you’ve got? She only asked one question, really-” She put up one hand to keep Ernestine from inter­rupting her-“She said, Who’s going to raise this baby? And who is? Tish ain’t got no education and God knows she ain’t got nothing else and Fonny ain’t never been worth a damn. You know that yourself. Now. Who is going to take care of this baby?”

“I am,” I said, “you dried up yellow cunt, and you keep on talking, I’m going to take mighty good care of you.”

She put her hands on her hips, the fool, and Ernestine moved between us, and said, very sweet­ly, “Adrienne? Baby? May I tell you something, lumps? Sweetie? Sweetie-pie?” She put one hand very lightly against Adrienne’s cheek. Adrienne quivered but did not move. Ernestine let her hand rest and play for a moment. “Oh, sugar. From the very first day I laid eyes on your fine person, I got hung up on your Adam’s apple. I been dreaming about it. You know what I mean-? When you get hung up on something? You ain’t never really been hung up on anything or anybody, have you? You ain’t never watched your Adam’s apple move, have you? I have. I’m watching it right now. Oh. It’s delicious. I just can’t tell, Sweetie, if I want to tear it out with my fingers or my teeth – ooh! – or carve it out, the way you carve a stone from a peach. It is a thing of beauty. Can you dig where I’m coming from, sugar? – But if you touch my sister, I’m going to have to make up my mind pretty quick. So” – she moved away from Adrienne – “touch her. Go on, please. Take these chains from my heart and set me free.”

“I knew we shouldn’t have come,” Sheila said. “I knew it.”

Ernestine stared at Sheila until Sheila was forced to raise her eyes. Then, Ernestine laughed, and said, “My. I must have a dirty mind, Sheila. I didn’t know that you could even say that word.”

Then real hatred choked off the air. Something bottomless occurred which had nothing to do with what seemed to be occurring in the room. I suddenly felt sorry for the sisters – but Ernestine didn’t. She stood where she stood, one hand on her waist, one hand hanging free, moving only her eyes. She was wearing gray slacks and an old blouse and her hair was untidy on her head and she wore no makeup. She was smiling. Sheila looked as though she could hardly breathe or stand, as though she wanted to run to her mother, who had not moved from her chair. Adrienne, whose hips were wide, wore a white blouse and a black, flaring, pleated skirt and a short, tight, black jacket and low heels. Her hair was parted in the middle and tied with a white ribbon at the nape of her neck. Her hands were no longer on her hips. Her skin, which was just a shade too dark to be high yellow, had darkened and mottled. Her forehead seemed covered with oil. Her eyes had dar­kened with her skin and the skin was rejecting the makeup by denying it any moisture. One saw that she was not really very pretty, that the face and the body would coarsen and thicken with time.

“Come,” she said to Sheila, “away from these foul-mouthed people,” and she had a certain digni­ty as she said it.

They both walked to their mother, who was, I could suddenly see, the witness to, and guardian of their chastity.

Mrs. Hunt rose, then, oddly peaceful.

“I sure hope,” she said, “that you’re pleased with the way you raised your daughters, Mrs. Riv­ers.”

Sharon was peaceful, too, but there was a kind of startled wonder in it: she stared at Mrs. Hunt and said nothing. And Mrs. Hunt added, “These girls won’t be bringing me no bastards to feed, I can guarantee you that.”

“But the child that’s coming,” said Sharon, after a moment, “is your grandchild. I don’t under­stand you. It’s your grandchild. What difference does it make how it gets here? The child ain’t got nothing to do with that – don’t none of us have nothing to do with that!”

“That child,” said Mrs. Hunt, and she looked at me for a moment, then started for the door, Sha­ron watching her all the while, “that child-“

I let her get to the door. My mother moved, but as though in a dream, to swing the locks; but I got there before her; I put my back against the door. Adrienne and Sheila were behind their moth­er.

Sharon and Ernestine did not move.

“That child,” I said, “is in my belly. Now, you raise your knee and kick it out – or with them high heel shoes. You don’t want this child? Come on and kill it now. I dare you.” I looked her in the eyes. “It won’t be the first child you tried to kill.” I touched her upside down coal scuttle hat. I looked at Adrienne and Sheila. “You did pretty well with the first two-” and then I opened the door, but I didn’t move – “okay, you try it again, with Fortny. I dare you.”

“May we,” asked Adrienne, with what she hoped was ice in her voice, “leave now?”

Tish,” said Sharon; but she did not move. Ernestine moved past me, moving me away from the door and delivering me to Sharon. “Ladies,” she said, and moved to the elevator and pressed the button. She was past a certain fury now. When the elevator arrived and the door opened, she merely said, ushering them in, but holding the door open with one shoulder, “Don’t worry. We’ll never tell the baby about you. There’s no way to tell a baby how obscene human beings can be!” And, in another tone of voice, a tone I’d never heard before, she said, to Mrs. Hunt, “Blessed be the next fruit of thy womb. I hope it turns out to be uterine cancer. And I mean that.” And, to the sis­ters, “If you come anywhere near this house again in life, I will kill you. This child is not your child – you have just said so. If I hear that you have so much as crossed a playground and seen the child, you won’t live to get any kind of cancer. Now. I am not my sister. Remember that. My sister’s nice. I’m not. My father and my mother are nice. I’m not. I can tell you why Adrienne can’t get fucked – you want to hear it? I could tell you about Sheila, too, and all those cats she jerks off in their hand­kerchiefs, in cars and movies – now, you want to hear that?” Sheila began to cry and Mrs. Hunt moved to close the elevator door. Ernestine laughed, and, with one shoulder, held it open and her voice changed again. “You just cursed the child in my sister’s womb. Don’t you never let me see you again, you broken down half-white bride of Christ!” And she spat in Mrs. Hunt’s face, and then let the elevator door close. And she yelled down the shaft, “That’s your flesh and blood you were cursing, you sick, filthy dried-up cunt! And you carry that message to the Holy Ghost and if He don’t like it you tell Him I said He’s a faggot and He better not come nowhere near me.”

And she came back into the house, with tears running down her face, and walked to the table and poured herself a drink. She lit a cigarette; she was trembling.

Sharon, in all this, had said nothing. Ernestine had delivered me to her, but Sharon had not, in fact, touched me. She had done something far more tremendous; which was, mightily, to hold me and keep me still; without touching me.

“Well,” she said, “the men are going to be out for a while. And Tish needs her rest. So let’s go on to sleep.”

But I knew that they were sending me to bed so that they could sit up for a while, without me, without the men, without anybody, to look squarely in the face the fact that Fonny’s family didn’t give a shit about him and were not going to do a thing to help him. We were his family now, the only family he had: and now everything was up to us.

I walked into my bedroom very slowly and I sat down on the bed for a minute. I was too tired to cry. I was too tired to feel anything. In a way, Sis Ernestine had taken it all on herself, everything, because she wanted the child to make its journey safely and get here well: and that meant that I had to sleep.

So I undressed and curled up on the bed. I turned the way I’d always turned toward Fonny, when we were in bed together. I crawled into his arms and he held me. And he was so present for me that, again, I could not cry. My tears would have hurt him too much. So he held me and I whispered his name, while I watched the streetlights playing on the ceiling. Dimly, I could hear Mama and Sis in the kitchen, making believe that they were playing gin rummy.

That night, in the room on Bank Street, Fonny took the Mexican shawl off the pallet he had on the floor and draped it over my head and shoulders. He grinned and stepped back. “I be damned,” he said, “there is a rose in Spanish Harlem.” He grinned again. “Next week, I’m going to get you a rose for your hair.” Then, he stopped grinning and a kind of stinging silence filled the room and filled my ears. It was like nothing was happening in the world but us. I was not afraid. It was dee­per than fear. I could not take my eyes away from his. I could not move. If it was deeper than fear, it was not yet joy. It was wonder.

He said, not moving, “We’re grown up now, you know?”

I nodded.

He said, “And you’re always been – mine – no?”

I nodded again.

“And you know,” he said, still not moving, holding me with those eyes, “that I’ve always been yours, right?”

I said, “I never thought about it that way.”

He said, “Think about it now, Tish.”

“I just know that I love you,” I said, and I started to cry. The shawl seemed very heavy and hot and I wanted to take it off, but I couldn’t.

Then he moved, his face changed, he came to me and took the shawl away and flung it into a corner. He took me in his arms and he kissed my tears and then he kissed me and then we both knew something which we had not known before.

“I love you, too,” he said, “but I try not to cry about it.” He laughed and he made me laugh and then he kissed me again, harder, and he stopped laughing. “I want you to marry me,” he said. I must have looked surprised, for he said, “That’s right. I’m yours and you’re mine and that’s it, ba­by. But I’ve got to try to explain something to you.”

He took me by the hand and led me to his worktable.

“This is where my life is,” he said, “my real life.” He picked up a small piece of wood, it was about the size of two fists. There was the hope of an eye gouged into it, the suggestion of a nose – the rest was simply a lump of somehow breathing wood. “This might turn out all right one day,” he said, and laid it gently down. “But I think I might already have fucked it up.” He picked up another piece, the size of a man’s thigh. A woman’s torso was trapped in it. “I don’t know a thing about her yet,” he said, and put it down, again very gently. Though he held me by one shoulder and was very close to me, he was yet very far away. He looked at me with his little smile. “Now, listen,” he said, “I ain’t the kind of joker going to give you a hard time running around after other chicks and shit like that. I smoke a little pot but I ain’t never popped no needles and I’m really very square. But-” he stopped and looked at me, very quiet, very hard: there was a hardness in him I had barely sensed before. Within this hardness moved his love, moved as a torrent or as a fire moves, above reason, beyond argument, not to be modified in any degree by anything life might do. I was his, and he was mine – I suddenly realized that I would be a very unlucky and perhaps a dead girl should I ever attempt to challenge this decree.

“But,” he continued – and he moved away from me; his heavy hands seemed to be aftempting to shape the air – “I live with wood and stone. I got stone in the basement and I’m working up here all the time and I’m looking for a loft where I can really work. So, all I’m trying to tell you, Tish, is I ain’t offering you much. I ain’t got no money and I work at odd jobs – just for bread, because I ain’t about to go for none of their jive-ass okey-doke – and that means that you going to have to work, too, and when you come home most likely I’ll just grunt and keep on with my chisels and shit and maybe sometimes you’ll think I don’t even know you’re there. But don’t ever think that, ever. You’re with me all the time, all the time, without you I don’t know if I could make it at all, baby, and when I put down the chisel, I’ll always come to you. I’ll always come to you. I need you. I love you.” He smiled. “Is that all right, Tish?”

“Of course it’s all right with me,” I said. I had more to say, but my throat wouldn’t open.

He took me by the hand, then, and he led me to the pallet on the floor. He sat down beside me, and he pulled me down so that my face was just beneath his, my head was in his lap. I sensed a certain terror in him. He knew that I could feel his sex stiffening and beginning to rage against the cloth of his pants and against my jawbone; he wanted me to feel it, and yet he was afraid. He kissed my face all over, and my neck, and he uncovered my breasts and put his teeth and tongue there and his hands were all over my body. I knew what he was doing, and I didn’t know. I was in his hands, he called me by the thunder at my ear. I was in his hands: I was being changed; all that I could do was cling to him. I did not realize, until I realized it, that I was also kissing him, that eve­rything was breaking and changing and turning in me and moving toward him. If his arms had not held me, I would have fallen straight downward, backward, to my death. My life was holding me. My life was claiming me. I heard, I felt his breath, as for the first time: but it was as though his breath were rising up out of me. He opened my legs, or I opened them, and he kissed the inside of my thighs. He took off all my clothes, he covered my whole body with kisses, and then he covered me with the shawl and then he went away.

The shawl scratched. I was cold and hot. I heard him in the bathroom. I heard him pull the chain. When he came back, he was naked. He got under the shawl, with me, and stretched his long body on top of mine, and I felt his long black heavy sex throbbing against my navel.

He took my face in his hands, and held it, and he kissed me.

“Now, don’t be scared,” he whispered. “Don’t be scared. Just remember that I belong to you. Just remember that I wouldn’t hurt you for nothing in this world. You just going to have to get used to me. And we got all the time in the world.”

It was getting to be between two and three: he read my mind. “Your Mama and Daddy know you’re with me,” he said, “and they know I won’t let nothing happen to you.” Then, he moved down and his sex moved against my opening. “Don’t be scared,” he said again. “Hold on to me.”

I held on to him, in an agony; there was nothing else in the world to hold on to; I held him by his nappy hair. I could not tell if he moaned or if I moaned. It hurt, it hurt, it didn’t hurt. Ir was a strange weight, a presence coming into me – into a me I had not known was there. I almost screamed, I started to cry: it hurt. It didn’t hurt. Something began, unknown.His tongue, his teeth on my breasts, hurt. I wanted to throw him off, I held him tighter and still he moved and moved and moved. I had not known there was so much of him. I screamed and cried against his shoulder.

He paused. He put both hands beneath my hips. He moved back, but not quite out, I hung no­where for a moment, then he pulled me against him and thrust in with all his might and some­thing broke in me. Something broke and a scream rose up in me but he covered my lips with his lips, he strangled my scream with his tongue. His breath was in my nostrils, I was breathing with his breath and moving with his body. And now I was open and helpless and I felt him every­where. A singing began in me and his body became sacred – his buttocks, as they quivered and rose and fell, and his thighs between my thighs and the weight of his chest on mine and that stiff­ness of his which stiffened and grew and throbbed and brought me to another place. I wanted to laugh and cry. Then, something absolutely new began, I laughed and I cried and I called his name. I held him closer and closer and I strained to receive it all, all, all of him. He paused and he kissed me and kissed me. His head moved all over my neck and my breasts. We could hardly breathe: if we did not breathe again soon, I knew we would die. Fonny moved again, at first very slowly, and then faster and faster. I felt it coming, felt myself coming, going over the edge, everything in me flowing down to him, and I called his name over and over while he growled my name in his throat, thrusting now with no mercy – caught his breath sharply, let it out with a rush and a sob and then pulled out of me, holding me tight, shooting a boiling liquid all over my belly and my chest and my chin.

Then we lay still, glued together, for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” he said, finally, shyly, into the long silence, “to have made such a mess. But I guess you don’t want to have no baby right away and I didn’t have no protection on me.”

“I think I made a mess, too,” I said. “It was the first time. Isn’t there supposed to be blood?”

We were whispering. He laughed a little. “I had a hemorrhage. Shall we look?”

“I like lying here like this, with you.”

“I do too.” Then, “Do you like me, Tish?” He sounded like a little boy. “I mean – when I make love to you – do you like it?”

I said, “Oh, come on. You just want to hear me say it.”

“That’s true. So-?”

“So what?”

“So why don’t you go ahead and say it?” And he kissed me.

I said, “It was a little bit like being hit by a truck” – he laughed again – ‘but it was the most beau­tiful thing that ever happened to me.”

“For me, too,” he said. He said it in a very wondering way, almost as though he were speaking of someone else. “No one ever loved me like that before.”

“Have you had a lot of girls?”

“Not so many. And nobody for you to worry about.”

“Do I know any of them?”

He laughed. “You want me to walk you down the street and point them out to you? Now, you know that wouldn’t be nice. And, now that I’ve got to know you just a little better, I don’t believe it would be safe.” He snuggled up to me and put his hand on my breast. ‘You got a wildcat in you, girl. Even if I had the time to go running after other foxes, I sure wouldn’t have the energy. I’m re­ally going to have to start taking my vitamins.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re disgusting.”

“Why am I disgusting? I’m only talking about my health. Don’t you care nothing about my health? And they’re chocolate covered – vitamins, I mean.”

“You’re crazy.”

‘Well,” he conceded cheerfully, “I’m crazy about you. You want we should check the damage be­fore this stuff hardens into cement?”

He turned on the light and we looked down at ourselves and our bed.

Well, we were something of a sight. There was blood, quite a lot of it – or it seemed like a lot to me, but it didn’t frighten me at all, I felt proud and happy – on him and on the bed and on me; his sperm and my blood were slowly creeping down my body, and his sperm was on him and on me; and, in the dim light and against our dark bodies, the effect was as of some strange anointing. Or, we might have just completed a tribal rite. And Fonny’s body was a total mystery to me – the body of one’s lover always is, no matter how well one gets to know it: it is the changing envelope which contains the gravest mystery of one’s life. I stared at his heavy chest, his flat belly, the belly button, the spinning black hair, the heavy limp sex: he had never been drcumdzed. I touched his slim body and I kissed him on the chest. It tasted of salt and some pungent, unknown bitter spice – clearly, as others might put it, it would become an acquired taste. One hand on my hand, ome hand on my shoulder, he held me very close. Then he said, “We’ve got to go. I better get you home before dawn.”

It was half past four.

“I guess so,” I said, and we got up and walked into the shower. I washed his body and he washed mine and we laughed a lot, like children, and he warned me if I didn’t take my hands off him we might never get uptown and then my Daddy might jump salty and, after all, Fonny said, he had a lot to talk to my Daddy about and he had to talk to him right away.

Fonny got me home at seven. He held me in his arms in the almost empty subway all the way uptown. It was Sunday morning. We walked our streets together, hand in hand; not even the church people were up yet; and the people who were still up, the few people, didn’t have eyes for us, didn’t have eyes for anybody, or anything.

We got to my stoop and I thought Fonny would leave me there and I turned to kiss him away, but he took me by the hand and said, “Come on,” and we walked up the stairs. Fonny knocked on the door.

Sis opened it, her hair tied up, wegring an old green bathrobe. She looked as evil as she could be. She looked from me to Fonny and back again. She didn’t exactly want to, but she smiled.

“You’re just in time for coffee,” she said, and moved back from the door, to let us in.

“We-” I started to say; but Fonny said, “Good-morning, Miss Rivers” – and something in his tone made Sis look at him sharply and come full awake – “I’m sorry we coming in so late. Can I speak to Mr. Rivers, please? It’s important!’

He still held me by the hand.

“It might be easier to see him,” Sis said, “if you come inside, out of the hall.”

“We-” I started again, intending to make up God knows what excuse.

“Want to get married,” Fonny said.

“Then you’d really better have some coffee,” Sis said, and closed the door behind us.

Sharon now came into the kitchen, and she was somewhat more together than Sis – that is, she was wearing slacks, and a sweater, and she had knotted her hair in one braid and skewered it to the top of her skull.

“Now, where have you two been,” she began, “till this hour of the morning? Don’t you know bet­ter than to be behaving like that? I declare. We was just about to start calling the police.”

But I could see, too, that she was relieved that Fonny was sitting in the kitchen, beside me. That meant something very important, and she knew it. It would have been a very different scene, and she would have been in very different trouble if I had come upstairs alone.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Rivers,” Fonny said. “It’s all my fault. I hadn’t seen Tish for a few weeks and we had a lot to talk about -1 had a lot to talk about – and-” he gestured-“I kept her out.”

“Talking?” Sharon asked.

He did not quite flinch; he did not drop his eyes. “We want to get married,” he said. “That’s how come I kept her out so late.” They watched each other. “I love Tish,” he said. “That’s why I stayed away so long. I even-” he looked briefly at me-“went to see other girls – and – I did all kind of things, to kind of get it out of my mind.” He looked at me again. He looked down. “But I could see I was just fooling myself. I didn’t love nobody else but her. And then I got scared that maybe she’d go away or somebody else would come along and take her away and so I came back.” He tried to grin. “I came running back. And I don’t want to have to go away again.” Then, “She’s always been my girl, you know that. And – I am not a bad boy. You know that. And – you’re the only family I’ve ever had.”

“That,” Sharon grumbled, “is why I can’t figure out why you calling me Mrs. Rivers, all of a sud­den.” She looked at me. “Yeah. I hope you realize, Miss, that you ain’t but eighteen years old.”

“That argument,” said Sis, “and a subway token, will get you from here to the comer. If that far!” She poured the coffee. “Actually, it’s the older sister who is expected to marry first. But we have never stood on ceremony in this house.”

“What do you think about all this?” Sharon asked her.

“Me? I’m delighted to be rid of the little brat. I never could stand her. I could never see what all the rest of you saw in her, I swear.” She sat down at the table and grinned. “Take some sugar, Fon­ny. You are going to need it, believe me, if you intend to tie yourself up with my sweet, sweet little sister.”

Sharon went to the kitchen door, and yelled, “Joe! Come on out here! Lightning’s done struck the poorhouse! Come on, now, I mean it.”

Fonny took my hand.

Joseph came into the kitchen, in slippers, old corduroy pants, and a T-shirt. I began to realize that no one in this house had really been to sleep. Joseph saw me first. He really did not see any­one else. And, since he was both furious and relieved, his tone was very measured. “I’d like you to tell me exactly what you mean, young lady, by walking in here this hour of the morning. If you want to leave home, then you leave home, you hear? But, as long as you in my house, you got to respect it. You hear me?”

Then he saw Fonny, and Fonny let go my hand, and stood up.

He said, “Mr. Rivers, please don’t scold Tish. It’s all my fault, sir. I kept her out. I had to talk to her. Please. Mr. Rivers. Please. I asked her to marry me. That’s what we were doing out so long. We want to get married. That’s why I’m here. You’re her father. You love her. And so I know you know – you have to know – that I love her. I’ve loved her all my life.You know that. And if I didn’t love her, I wouldn’t be standing in this room now – would I? I could have left her on the stoop and run away again. I know you might want to beat me up. But I love her. That’s all I can tell you.”

Joseph looked at him.

“How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-one, sir.”

“You think that’s old enough to get married?”

“I don’t know, sir. But it’s old enough to know who you love.”

“You think so?”

Fonny straightened. “I know so.”

“How you going to feed her?”

“How did you?”

We, the women, were out of it now, and we knew it. Ernestine poured Joseph a cup of coffee and pushed it in his direction.

“You got a job?”

“I load moving vans in the daytime and I sculpt at night. I’m a sculptor. We know it won’t be easy. But I’m a real artist. And I’m going to be a very good artist – maybe, even, a great one.” And they stared at each other again.

Joseph picked up his coffee, without looking at it, and sipped it without tasting it.

“Now, let me get this straight. You asked my little girl to marry you, and she said-“

“Yes,” said Fonny.

“And you come here to tell me or to ask my permission?”

“Both, sir,” said Fonny.

“And you ain’t got no kind of-“

“Future,” Fonny said.

Both men, again, then measured each other. Joseph put his coffee down. Fonny had not touched his.

“What would you do in my place?” Joseph asked.

I could feel Fonny trembling. He could not help it – his hand touched my shoulder lightly, then moved away. “I’d ask my daughter. If she tells you she don’t love me, I’ll go away and I won’t nev­er bother you no more.”

Joseph looked hard at Fonny – a long look, in which one watched skepticism surrender to a cer­tain resigned tenderness, a self-recognition. He looked as though he wanted to knock Fonny down; he looked as though he wanted to take him in his arms.

Then Joseph looked at me.

“Do you love him? You want to marry him?”

“Yes.” I had not known my voice could sound so strange. “Yes. Yes.” Then, I said, “I’m very much your daughter, you know, and very much my mother’s daughter. So, you ought to know that I mean no when I say no and I mean yes when I say yes. And Formy came here to ask for your per­mission, and I love him for that. I very much want your permission because I love you. But I am not going to marry you. I am going to marry Fonny.”

Joseph sat down.

“When?”

“As soon as we get the bread together,” Fonny said.

Joseph said, ‘You and me, son, we better go into the other room.”

And so they went away. We did not say anything.

There was nothing for us to say. Only, Mama said, after a moment, “You sure you love him, Tish? You’re sure?”

“Mama,” I said, “why do you ask me that?”

“Because she’s been secretly hoping that you’d marry Governor Rockefeller,” Ernestine said.

For a moment Mama looked at her, hard; then she laughed. Ernestine, without knowing it, or meaning to, had come very close to the truth – not the literal truth, but the truth: for the dream of safety dies hard. I said, “You know that dried-up cracker ass-hole is much too old for me.”

Sharon laughed again. “That is not,” she said, “the way he sees himself. But I guess I just would not be able to swallow the way he would see you. So. We can close the subject. You going to marry Fonny. All right. When I really think about it” – and now she paused, and, in a way, she was no longer Sharon, my mother, but someone else; but that someone else was, precisely, my mother, Sharon – “I guess I’m real pleased.” She leaned back, arms folded, looking away, thinking ahead. “Yeah. He’s real. He’s a man.”

“He’s not a man yet,” said Ernestine, “but he’s going to become a man – that’s why you sitting there, fighting them tears. Because that means that your youngest daughter is about to become a woman.”

“Oh, shut up,” Sharon said. “Wish to God you’d get married to somebody, then I’d be able to bug you half to death, instead of the other way around.”

“You’d miss me, too,” said Ernestine, very quietly, “but I don’t think I’m ever going to marry. Some people do, you know – Mama? – and some people don’t.” She stood up and kind of circled the room and sat down again. We could hear Fonny’s voice and Joseph’s voice, in the other room, but we couldn’t hear what they were saying – also, we were trying very hard not to hear. Men are men, and sometimes they must be left alone. Especially if you have the sense to realize that if they’re locked in a room together, where they may not especially want to be, they are locked in be­cause of their responsibility for the women outside.

‘Well I can understand that,” said Sharon – very steadily, and without moving.

“The only trouble,” Ernestine said, “is that sometimes you would like to belong to somebody.”

“But,” I said – I had not known I was going to say it – “it’s very frightening to belong to some­body.”

And perhaps until the moment I heard myself say this, I had not realized that this is true.

“Six in one,” said Ernestine, and smiled, “half dozen in the other.”

Joseph and Fonny came back from the other room.

“Both of you are crazy,” Joseph said, “but there’s nothing I can do about that.” He watched Fon­ny. He smiled – a smile both sweet and reluctant. Then, he looked at me. “But – Fonny’s right – somebody was bound to come along some day and take you away. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon. But – like Fonny says, and it’s true – you’ve always been together, from childhood on. And you ain’t children no more.” He took Fonny by the hand and led Fonny to me, and he took me by the hand and he pulled me to my feet. He put my hand in Fonny’s hand. “Take care of each other,” he said. “You going to find out that it’s more than a notion.”

Tears were standing in Fonny’s eyes. He kissed my father. He let go my hand. He moved to the door. “I’ve got to get home,” he said, “and tell my Daddy.” His face changed, he looked at me, he kissed me across the space dividing us. “He’ll be mighty happy,” he said. He opened the door. He said to Joseph, “We be back here around six this evening, okay?”

“Okay,” said Joseph, and now he was smiling all over his face.

Fonny went on out the door. Two or three days later, Tuesday or Wednesday, we went down­town together again and started seriously looking around for our loft. And that was going to turn out to be a trip and a half.

Mr. Hayward was in his office on the Monday, just as he had said he would be. I got there about seven fifteen, and Mama was with me.

Mr. Hayward is about thirty-seven, I would guess, with gentle brown eyes and thinning brown hair. He’s very, very tall, and he’s big; and he’s nice enough, or he seems nice enough, but I’m just not comfortable with him. I don’t know if it’s fair to blame him for this. I’m not really comfortable with anybody these days, and I guess I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with a lawyer.

He stood up as we came in, and put Mama in the big chair and me in the smaller one and sat down again behind his desk.

“How are you ladies today? Mrs. Rivers? And how are you, Tish? Did you see Fonny?”

“Yes. At six o’clock.”

“And how is he?”

That always seemed a foolish question to me. How is a man if he’s fighting to get out of prison? But then, too, I had to force myself to see, from another point of view, that it was an important question. For one thing, it was the question I was living with; and, for another, knowing “how” Fonny was might make a very important difference for Mr. Hayward, and help him with his case. But I also resented having to tell Mr. Hayward anything at all about Fonny. There was so much that I felt he should already have known. But maybe I’m being unfair about that, too.

“Well, let’s put it this way, Mr. Hayward. He hates being in there, but he’s trying not to let it break him.”

“When we going to get him out?” asked Mama.

Mr. Hayward looked from Mama to me, and smiled – a painful smile, as though he had just been kicked in the balls. He said, “Well, as you ladies know, this is a very difficult case.”

“That’s why my sister hired you,” I said.

“And you are beginning to feel now that her confidence was misplaced?” He was still smiling. He lit a cigar.

“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t say that.”

I wouldn’t have dared to say that – not yet, anyway – because I was afraid of having to look for another lawyer, who might easily be worse.

“We liked having Fonny around,” Mama said, “and we just kind of miss him.”

“I can certainly understand that,” he said, “and I’m doing all I can to get him back to you, just as fast as I can. But, as you ladies know, the very greatest difficulty has been caused by the refusal of Mrs. Rogers to reconsider her testimony. And now she has disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” I shouted, “how can she just disappear?”

“Tish,” he said, “this is a very big city, a very big country – even, for that matter, a very big world. People do disappear. I don’t think that she has gone very far – they certainly do not have the means for a long journey. But her family may have returned her to Puerto Rico. In any case, in or­der to find her, I will need special investigators, and-“

“That means money,” Mama said.

“Alas,” said Mr. Hayward. He stared at me from behind his cigar, an odd, expectant, surprising­ly sorrowful look.

I had stood up; now I sat down. “That filthy bitch,” I said, “that filthy bitch.”

“How much money?” Mama asked.

“I am trying to keep it as low as possible,” said Mr. Hayward, with a shy, boyish smile, “but spe­cial investigators are – special, I’m afraid, and they know it. If we’re lucky, we’ll locate Mrs. Rogers in a matter of days, or weeks. If not” – he shrugged – “well, for the moment, let’s just assume we’ll be lucky.” And he smiled again.

“Puerto Rico,” Mama said heavily.

“We don’t know that she has returned there,” Mr. Hayward said, “but it is a very vivid possibility. Anyway, she and her husband disappeared some days ago from the apartment on Orchard Street, leaving no forwarding address. We have not been able to contact the other relatives, the aunts and uncles, who, anyway, as you know, have never been very cooperative.”

“But doesn’t it make it look bad for her story,” I asked, “to just disappear like that? She’s the key witness in this case.”

“Yes. But she is a distraught, ignorant, Puerto Rican woman, suffering from the aftereffects of rape. So her behavior is not incomprehensible. You see what I mean?” He looked at me hard, and his voice changed. “And she is only one of the key witnesses in this case. You have forgotten the testimony of Officer Bell – his was the really authoritative identification of the rapist. It is Bell who swears that he saw Fonny running away from the scene of the crime. And I have always been of the opinion – you will remember that we discussed this – that it is his testimony which Mrs. Rogers continually repeats-“

“If he saw Fonny at the scene of the crime, then why did he have to wait and come and get him out of the house?’

“Tish,” Mama said. “Tish.” Then, “You mean – let me get you straight now – that it’s that Officer Bell who tells her what to say? You mean that?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Hayward.

I looked at Hayward. I looked around the room. We were way downtown, near Broadway, not far from Trinity Church. The office was of dark wood, very smooth and polished. The desk was wide, with two telephones, a button kept flashing. Hayward ignored it, watching me. There were trophies and diplomas on the walls, and a large photograph of Hayward, Senior. On the desk, framed, were two photographs, one of his wife, smiling, and one of his two small boys. There was no connection between this room, and me.

Yet, here I was.

“You’re saying,” I said, “that there’s no way of getting at the truth in this case?”

“No. I am not saying that.” He re-lit his cigar. “The truth of a case doesn’t matter. What matters is – who wins.”

Cigar smoke filled the room. “I don’t mean,” he said, carefully, “that I doubt the truth. If I didn’t believe in Fonny’s innocence, I would never have taken the case. I know something about Officer Bell, who is a racist and a liar – I have told him that to his face, so you can feel perfectly free to quote me, to anyone, at any time you wish – and I know something about the D.A. in charge of this case, who is worse. Now. You and Fonny insist that you were together, in the room on Bank Street, along with an old friend, Daniel Carty. Your testimony, as you can imagine, counts for nothing, and Daniel Carty has just been arrested by the D.A.’s office and is being held incommuni­cado. I have not been allowed to see him.” Now, he rose and paced to the window. “What they are doing is really against the law – but – Daniel has a record, as you know. They, obviously, intend to make him change his testimony. And – I do not know this, but I am willing to bet – that that is how and why Mrs. Rogers has disappeared.” He paced back to his desk, and sat down. “So. You see.” He looked up at me. “I will make it as easy as I can. But it will still be very hard.”

“How soon do you need the money?” Mama asked.

“I have begun the operation already,” he said, “of tracing the lady. I will need the money as soon as you can get it. I will also force the D.A.’s office to allow me to see Daniel Carty, but they will throw every conceivable obstacle in my way-“

“So we’re trying,” Mama said, “to buy time.”

“Yes,” he said.

Time: the word tolled like the bells of a church. Fonny was doing: time. In six months time, our baby would be here. Somewhere, in time, Fonny and I had met: somewhere, in time, we had loved; somewhere, no longer in time, but, now, totally, at time’s mercy, we loved.

Somewhere in time, Fonny paced a prison cell, his hair growing – nappier and nappier. Some­where, in time, he stroked his chin, itching for a shave, somewhere, in time, he scratched his arm­pits, aching for a bath. Somewhere in time he looked about him, knowing that he was being lied to, in time, with the connivance of time. In another time, he had feared life: now, he feared death – somewhere in time. He awoke every morning with Tish on his eyelids and fell asleep every night with Tish tormenting his navel. He lived, now, in time, with the roar and the stink and the beauty and horror of innumerable men: and he had been dropped into this inferno in the twinkling of an eye.

Time could not be bought. The only coin time accepted was life. Sitting on the leather arm of Mr. Hayward’s chair, I looked through the vast window, way down, on Broadway, and I began to cry.

“Tish,” said Hayward, helplessly.

Mamam came and took me in her arms.

“Don’t do us like that,” she said. “Don’t do us like that.”

But I couldn’t stop. It just seemed that we would never find Mrs. Rogers; that Bell wouldn’t ever change his testimony; that Daniel would be beaten until he changed his. And Fonny would rot in prison, Fonny would die there – and I -1 could not live without Fonny.

“Tish,” Mama siad, “you a woman now. You got to be a woman. We are in a rough situation – but, if you really want to think about it, ain’t nothing new about that. That’s just exactly, daughter, when you do not give up. You can’t give up. We got to get Fonny out of there. I don’t care what we have to do to do it – you understand me, daughter? This shit has been going on long enough. Now. You start thinking about it any other way, you just going to make yourself sick. You can’t get sick now – you know that – I’d rather for the state to kill him than for you to kill him. So, come on, now – we going to get him out.”

She moved away from me. I dried my eyes. She turned back to Hayward.

“You don’t have an address for that child in Puerto Rico, do you?”

“Yes.” He wrote it out on a piece of paper, and handed it to her. ‘We’re sending somebody down there this week.”

Mama folded the piece of paper, and put it in her purse.

“How soon do you think you’ll be able to see Daniel?”

“I intend,” he said, “to see him tomorrow, but I’m going to have to raise all kinds of hell to do it “

“Well,” Mama said, “just as long as you do it.”

She came back to me.

“We’ll put our heads together, at home, Mr. Hayward, and start working it on out, and I’ll have Ernestine call you early tomorrow morning. All right?”

“That’s fine. Please give Ernestine my regards.” He put down his cigar, and came and put one clumsy hand on my shoulder. “My dear Tish,” he said. “Please hold on. Please hold on. I swear to you that we will win, that Fonny will have his freedom. No, it will not be easy. But neither will it be as insurmountable as it seems to you today.”

‘Tell her,” Mama said.

“Now – when I go to see Fonny, the first question he always asks is always about you. And I al­ways say, Tish? she’s fine. But he watches my face, to make sure I’m not lying. And I’m a very bad liar. I’m going to see him tomorrow. What shall I tell him?”

I said, “Tell him I’m fine.”

“Do you think you can manage to give us a little smile? – to go with the message. I could carry it with me. He’d like that.”

I smiled, and he smiled, and something really human happened between us, for the first time. He released my shoulder, and walked over to Mama. “Could you have Ernestine call me around ten? or even earlier, if possible. Otherwise, she may not be able to get me before six.”

“Will do. And thank you very much, Mr. Hayward.”

“You know something-? I wish you’d drop the mister.”

“Well – okay. Hayward. Call me Sharon.”

“That I will do. And I hope that we become friends, out of all this.”

“I’m sure we will,” Mama said. “Thank you again. ‘Bye now.”

“Dood-bye. Don’t forget what I said, Tish.”

“I won’t. I promise. Tell Fonny I’m fine.”

“That’s my girl. Or, rather” – and he looked more boyish than ever – “Fonny’s girl.” And he smiled. He opened the door for us. He said, “Good-bye.”

We said, “Good-bye.”

Fonny had been walking down Seventh Avenue, on a Saturday afternoon, when he ran into Da­niel again. They had not seen each other since their days in school.

Time had not improved Daniel. He was still big, black, and loud; at the age of twenty-three – he is a little older than Fonny – he was already running out of familiar faces. So, they grabbed each other on the avenue – after a moment of genuine shock and delight – howling with laughter, beat­ing each other around the head and shoulders, children again, and, though Fonny doesn’t like bars, sat themselves down at the nearest one, and ordered two beers.

“Wow! What’s happening?” I don’t know which of them asked the question, or which of them asked it first: but I can see their faces.

“Why you asking me, man?”

“Because, like the man says about Mt. Everest, you’re there.”

“Where?”

“No kidding, man – how you making it?”

“I gotta slave for the Jew in the garment center, pushing a hand truck, man, riding up and down in them elevators.”

“How your folks?”

“Oh, my Daddy passed, man, while ago. I’m still at the same place, with my Mama. Her varicose veins come down on her, though. So” – and Daniel looked down into his beer.

“What you doing -1 mean, now?”

“You mean, this minute?”

“I mean, you any plans, man, you hung up, or can you come on and hang out with me? I mean, right now-?”

“I ain’t doing nothing.”

Fonny swallowed his beer, and paid the man. “Come on. We got some beer at the pad. Come on. You remember Tish?”

“Tish?-

“Yeah, Tish. Skinny little Tish. My girl.”

“Skinny little Tish?”

“Yeah. She’s still my girl. We going to get married, man. Come on, and let me show you the pad. And she’ll fix us something to eat – come on, I told you we got beer at the house.”

And, though he certainly shouldn’t be spending the money, he pushes Daniel into a cab and they roll on down to Bank Street: where I am not expecting them. But Fonny is big and cheerful, overjoyed; and the truth is that I recognize Daniel by the light in Fonny’s eyes. For, it is not so much that time has not improved him: I can see to what extent he has been beaten. This is not be­cause I am perceptive, but because I am in love with Fonny. Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind. And I could not be indifferent to Daniel because I realized, from Fonny’s face, how marvelous it was for him to have scooped up, miraculously, from the swamp waters of his past, a friend.

But it means that I must go out, shopping, and so out I go, leaving them alone. We have a record player. As I go out, Fonny is putting on “Compared To What,” and Daniel is squatting on the floor, drinking beer.

“So, you really going to get married?” Daniel asks – both wistful and mocking.

“Well, yeah, we looking for a place to live – we looking for a loft because that don’t cost no whole lot of bread, you know, and that way I can work without Tish being bugged to death. This room ain’t big enough for one, ain’t no question about its being big enough for two, and I got all my work here, and in the basement.” He is rolling a cigarette as he says this, for him and for Da­niel, squatting opposite him. “They got lofts standing empty all over the East Side, man, and don’t nobody want to rent them, except freaks like me. And they all fire traps and some of them ain’t even got no toilets. So, you figure like finding a loft ain’t going to be no sweat.” He lights the ciga­rette, takes a drag, and hands it to Daniel. “But, man – this country really do not like niggers. They do not like niggers so bad, man, they will rent to a leper first. I swear.” Daniel drags on the ciga­rette, hands it back to Fonny – Tired old ladies kissing dogs! cries the record player – who drags on it, takes a sip of his beer and hands it back. “Sometimes Tish and I go together, sometimes she goes alone, sometimes I go alone. But it’s always the same story, man.” He stands up. “And now I can’t let Tish go alone no more because, dig, last week we thought we had us a loft, the cat had prom­ised it to her. But he had not seen me. And he figures a black chick by herself, way downtown, look ing for a loft, well, he know he going to make it withher. He thinks she’s propositioning him, that’s what he really thinks. And Tish comes to tell me, just so proud and happy” – he sits down again – “and we go on over there. And when the cat sees me, he says there’s been some great misunders­tanding, he can’t rent the loft because he’s got all these relatives coming in from Rumania like in half an hour and he got to give it to them. Shit. And I told him he was full of shit and he threatened to call the cops on my ass.” He takes the cigarette from Daniel. “I’m really going to have to try to figure out some way of getting some bread together and getting out of this fucking country.”

“How you going to do that?”

“I don’t know yet,” says Fonny. “Tish can’t swim.” He gives the cigarette back to Daniel, and they whoop and rock with laughter.

“Maybe you could go first,” says Daniel, soberly.

The cigarette and the record are finished.

“No,” says Fonny, “I don’t think I want to do that.” Daniel watches him. “I’d be too scared.”

“Scared of what?” asks Daniel – though he really knows the answer to this question.

“Just scared,” says Fonny – after a long silence.

“Scared of what might happen to Tish?” Daniel asks. There is another long silence. Fonny is star­ing out the window. Daniel is staring at Fonny’s back.

“Yes,” Fonny says, finally. Then, “Scared of what might happen to both of us – without each oth­er. Like Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man – she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swing­ing that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.” And silence falls again, Daniel watching him, and Fonny says, “I know I might seem to be a weird kind of cat. But I got two things in my life, man – I got my wood and stone and I got Tish. If I lose them, I’m lost. I know that. You know” – and now he turns to face Daniel – “whatever’s in me I didn’t put there. And I can’t take it out.”

Daniel moves to the pallet, leans against the wall. “I don’t know if you so weird. I know you lucky. I ain’t got nothing like that. Can I have another beer, man?”

“Sure,” Fonny says, and goes to open two more cans. He hands one to Daniel and Daniel takes a long swallow before he says, “I just come out the slammer, baby. Two years.”

Fonny says nothing – just turns and looks.

Daniel says nothing; swallows a little more beer.

“They said – they still say – stole a car. Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my law­yer – but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city – prove that, but he didn’t. And, anyway, I wasn’t in no car when they picked me up. But I had a little grass on me. I was on my stoop. And so they come and picked me up, like that, you know, it was about midnight, and they locked me up and then the next morning they put me in the lineup and somebody said it was me stole the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. And so – you know – since I had that weed on me, they had me anyhow and so they said if I would plead guilty they’d give me a lighter sentence. If I didn’t plead guilty, they’d throw me the book.Well” – he sips his beer again – “I was alone, baby, wasn’t nobody, and so I entered the guilty plea. Two years!” He leans forward, staring at Fonny. “But, then, it sounded a whole lot better than the marijuana charge.” He leans back and laughs and sips his beer and looks up at Fonny. “It wasn’t I let them fuck over me because I was scared and dumb and I’m sorry now.” He is silent. Then, “Two years!”

“By the balls,” says Fonny.

“Yes,” says Daniel – after the loudest and longest silence either of them has ever known.

When I come back in, they are both sitting there, a little high, and I say nothing and I move about in the tiny space of the kitchenette as quietly as I can. Fonny comes in for a moment and rubs up against me from behind and hugs me and kisses the nape of my neck. Then, he returns to Daniel.

“How long you been out?”

“About three months.” He leaves the pallet, walks to the window. “Man, it was bad. Very bad. And it’s bad now. Maybe I’d feel different if I had done something and got caught. But I didn’t do nothing. They were just playing with me, man, because they could. And I’m lucky it was only two years, you dig? Because they can do with you whatever they want.Whatever they want. And they dogs, man. I really found out, in the slammer, what Malcolm and them cats was talking about. The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I save, baby, I’ll be dream­ing about until the day I die.”

Fonny puts one hand on Daniel’s neck. Daniel shudders. Tears stream down his face.

“I know,” Fonny says, gently, “but try not to let it get to you too tough. You out now, it’s over, you young.”

“Man, I know what you’re saying. And I appreciate it. But you don’t know – the worst thing, man, the worst thing – is that they can make you so fucking scared. Scared, man. Scared.”

Fonny says nothing, simply stands there, with his hand on Daniel’s neck.

I yell, from the kitchen, “You cats hungry?”

“Yeah,” Fonny yells back, “we starving. Move it!”

Daniel dries his eyes and comes to the door of the kitchenette and smiles at me.

“It’s nice to see you, Tish. You sure ain’t gained no weight, have you?”

“You hush. I’m skinny because I’m poor.”

‘Well, I sure don’t know why you didn’t pick yourself a rich husband. You ain’t never going to gain no weight now.”

“Well, if you skinny, Daniel, you can move faster and when you in a tight place, you got a better chance of getting out of it. You see what I mean.”

“You sound like you got it figured. You learn all that from Fonny?”

“I learned some things from Fonny. But I also have a swift, natural intelligence – haven’t you been struck by it?”

“Tish, I been struck by so many things that I really have not had time to do you justice.”

“You’re not the only one. And I can’t really blame you. I’m so remarkable, I sometimes have to pinch myself.”

Daniel laughs. “Td like to see that. Where?”

Fonny mutters, “She’s so remarkable, I sometimes have to go up side her head.”

“He beats you, too?”

“Ah! what can I do-? All my life is just despair, but I don’t care-“

Suddenly we are singing,

When he takes me in his arms,

The world is bright, all right.

What’s the difference it I say I’ll go away

When I know I’ll come back On my knees someday For, whatever my man is I am his,

Forevermore!

Then, we are laughing. Daniel sobers, looking within, suddenly very far away. “Poor Billie,” he says, “they beat the living crap out of her, too.”

“Man,” Fonny says, “we just have to move it from day to day. If you think too much about it, you really are fucked, can’t move at all.”

“Let’s eat,” I say. “Come on.”

I have prepared what I know Fonny likes: ribs and combread and rice, with gravy, and green peas. Fonny puts on the record player, low: Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.”

“Maybe Tish can’t gain no weight,” says Daniel, after a moment, “but you sure will. You folks mind if I drop by more often – say, around this time?”

“Feel free,” says Fonny, cheerfully, and winks at me. “Tish ain’t very good looking, but she can sure get the pots together.”

“I’m happy to know I have some human use,” I tell him, and he winks at me again, and starts chewing on a rib.

Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something won­derful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feel­ing.

Daniel stays with us till midnight. He’s a little afraid to leave, afraid, in fact, to hit those streets, and Fonny realizes this and walks him to the subway. Daniel, who cannot abandon his mother, yet longs to be free to confront his life; is terrified at the same time of what that life may bring, is terri­fied of freedom; and is struggling in a trap. And Fonny, who is younger, struggles now to be older, in order to help his friend toward his deliverance. Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?

The song is old, the question unanswered.

On their walk that night, and many nights thereafter, Daniel tried to tell Fonny something about what had happened to him, in prison. Sometimes he was at the house, and so I heard it, too; some­times, he and Fonny were alone. Sometimes, when Daniel spoke, he cried – sometimes, Fonny held him. Sometimes, I did. Daniel brought it out, or forced it out, or tore it out of himself as though it were torn, twisted, chilling metal, bringing with it his flesh and his blood – he tore it out of himself like a man trying to be cured:

“You don’t know what’s happening to you, at first. No way to know it. They come and got me off my stoop and they searched me. When I thought about it later, I realized that I didn’t really know why. I was always on that stoop, me and the other cats, and they was always passing by, and, while I wasn’t never on no shit, they knew some of the other cats has to be – you know they knew it. And they could see the dudes scratching and nodding. I think they dug that. When I thought about it later, I thought to myself, the motherfuckers really dig that shit. They go on into headquarters and report, Everything’s cool, sir. We escorted the French connection while he made his rounds and the shit’s been delivered and the niggers is out of it. But this night I was by myself, about to go on in, and they stopped the car and yelled at me and pushed me into the hallway and searched me. You know how they do it.”

I don’t know. But Fonny nods, his face still, his eyes very dark.

“And I had just picked up this grass, it was in my ass-pocket. And so they pulled it out, man, do they love to pat your ass, and one of them give it to the other and one of them handcuffed me and pushed me into the car. And I hadn’t known it was going to come to that, maybe I was a little high, maybe I hadn’t had time to think, but, baby, when that man put his handcuffs on me and pushed me down the steps and on into the car and then that car started moving, I wanted to scream for my Mama. And then I started getting scared, because she can’t hardly do nothing for herself, and she’d start to worrying about me, and wouldn’t nobody know where I was! They took me down to the precinct and they booked me on a narcotics charge and they took everything I had off of me and I started to ask, Can I make a phone call? and then I realized that I didn’t really have nobody to call, except my Mama, and who she going to call this hour of night? I just hoped she was sleeping, you know, like she had just figured that I was out late, and, by time she woke up in the morning and realized I wasn’t there that maybe I’d have figured out – something. They put me in this little cell with about four or five other cats, they was just nodding and farting, and I sat there and I tried to get my mind together. Because what the fuck am I going to do? I ain’t got nobody to call – I really don’t, except maybe that Jew I work for; he a nice enough dude, but, man, he ain’t hardly going to dig it. What I’m really trying to figure is how I can get somebody else to call my Mama, somebody who’s cool, who can cool her, somebody who can do something. But I can’t think of nobody.

“Morning came and they put us in the wagon. There’s this old white motherfucker they picked up off the Bowery – I guess – he done vomited all over himself and he’s looking down at the floor and he’s singing. He can’t sing, but he sure is stinking. And, man, I’m sure grateful I ain’t on no shit because now one of the brothers is started to moan, he got his arms wrapped around himself, and sweat is starting to pour off that cat, like water down a scrubbing board. I ain’t much older than he is, and I sure wish I could help him but I know I can’t do nothing. And I think to myself, Now, the cops who put him in this wagon know that this dude is sick. I know they know it. He ain’t supposed to be in here – and him not hardly much more than a kid. But the mothers who put him in this wagon, man, they was coming in their pants while they did it. I don’t believe there’s a white man in this country, baby, who can even get his dick hard, without he hear some nigger moan.

“Well, we get on down there. And I still ain’t thought of nobody to call. I want to shit and I want to die, but I know I can’t do neither. I figure they’ll let me shit when they get ready, in the mean­time I just got to hold it best I can, and it just pure foolishness for me to think of wanting to die be­cause they can kill me any time they want to and maybe I’ll die today.Before I shit. And then I think of my Mama again. I know she worried by now.”

Sometimes Fonny held him, sometimes I did. Sometimes, he stood at the window, with his back to us.

“I can’t really tell you much more about it – maybe there’s a whole lot of shit that I won’t never be able to tell nobody. T’hey had me on the grass, and so they nailed me on the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. I guess they just happened to need a car thief that day. Sure wish I knew whose car it was. I hope it wasn’t no black dude’s car, though.”

Then, sometimes, Daniel would grin, sometimes he would dry his eyes. We would eat and drink together. Daniel was trying very hard to get past something, something unnamable: he was trying as hard as a man can try. And sometimes I held him, sometimes Fonny: we were all he had.

DMU Timestamp: February 06, 2019 23:03