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If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (part 4)

Author: James Baldwin

And the baby starts kicking, waking me up at night. Now that Mama is in Puerto Rico, it is Er­nestine and Joseph who keep watch over me. I am afraid to quit my job, because I know we need the money. This means that I very often miss the six o’clock visit.

It seems to me that if I quit my job, I’ll be making the six o’clock visit forever. I explain this to Fonny, and he says he understands, and, in fact, he does. But understanding doesn’t help him at six o’clock. No matter what you understand, you can’t help waiting: for your name to be called, to be taken from your cell and led downstairs. If you have visitors, or even if you have only one visi­tor, but that visitor is constant, it means that someone outside cares about you. And this can get you through the night, into the day. No matter what you may understand, and really understand, and no matter what you may tell yourself, if no one comes to see you, you are in very bad trouble. And trouble, here, means danger.

Joseph puts it to me very squarely, one Sunday morning. I have been more than usually sick that morning, and Joseph has had to tend to me because Ernestine has a rush job at the home of the ac­tress. I cannot imagine what this thing inside of me is doing, but it appears to have acquired feet. Sometimes it is still, for days on end, sleeping perhaps, but more probably plotting – plotting its escape. Then, it turns, beating the water, churning, obviously becoming unspeakably bored in this element, and wanting out. We are beginning to have a somewhat acrid dialogue, this thing and I – it kicks, and I smash an egg on the floor, it kicks, and suddenly the coffeepot is upside down on the table, it kicks, and the perfume on the back of my hand brings salt to the roof of my mouth, and my free hand weighs on the heavy glass counter, with enough force to crack it in two. God­dammit. Be patient. I’m doing the best I can – and it kicks again, delighted to have elicited so fu­rious a response. Please. Be still. And then, exhausted, or, as I suspect, merely cunning, it is still, having covered my forehead with sweat, and having caused me to vomit up my breakfast, and go to the bathroom – uselessly – about four or five times. But it really is very cunning, it intends to live: it never moves while I am riding the subway, or when I am crossing a crowded street. But it grows heavier and heavier, its claims become more absolute with every hour. It is, in fact, staking its claim. The message is that it does not so much belong to me – though there is another, gentler kick, usually at night, signifying that it has no objection to belonging to me, that we may even grow to be fond of each other – as I belong to it. And then it hauls off again, like Muhammad Ali, and I am on the ropes.

I do not recognize my body at all, it is becoming absolutely misshapen. I try not to look at it, be­cause I simply do not recognize it. Furthermore, I sometimes take something off in the evening, and have difficulty getting back into it in the morning. I can no longer wear high heels, they distort my sense of balance as profoundly as one’s vision is distorted if one is blind in one eye. I have nev­er had breasts, or a behind, but I am beginning to have them now. It seems to me that I am gaining weight at the rate of about three hundred pounds an hour, and I do not dare speculate on what I wilt probably look like by the time this thing inside of me finally kicks itself out. Lord. And yet, we are beginning to know each other, this thing, this creature, and I, and sometimes we are very, very friendly. It has something to say to me, and I must learn to listen – otherwise, I will not know what to say when it gets here. And Fonny would never forgive me for that. After all, it was I who wanted this baby, more than he. And, at a depth beneath and beyond all our troubes, I am very happy. I can scarcely smoke at all anymore, it has seen to that. I have acquired a passion for cocoa, and doughnuts, and brandy is the only alcohol which has any taste at all. So, Ernestine casually brings over a few bottles from the actress’s house. “She’ll never miss them, baby. The way they drink?”

On this Sunday morning, Joseph serves me my third cup of cocoa, the previous two having been kicked right back up, and sits down at the table before me, very stern.

“Do you want to bring this baby here, or not?”

The way he looks at me, and the way he sounds, scares me half to depth.

“Yes,” I say, “I do.”

“And you love Fonny?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Then, I’m sorry, but you going to have to quit your job.”

I watch him.

“I know you worried about the money. But you let me worry about that. I got more experience. Anyway, you ain’t making no damn money. All you doing is wearing yourself out, and driving Fonny crazy. You keep on like you going, you going to lose that baby. You lose that baby, and Fonny won’t want to live no more, and you’ll be lost and then I’ll be lost, everything is lost.”

He stands up and walks to the window, his back to me. Then, he faces me again. “I’m serious, Tish.”

I say, “I know you are.”

Joseph smiles. “Listen, little girl. We got to take care of each other in this world, right? Now: there are some things I can do that you can’t do. That’s all. There’s things I can do that you can’t do

– and things you can do that I can’t do, just like I can’t have your baby for you. I would if I could. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you – you know that?” And he watches me, still smiling.

“Yes. I know that.”

“And there are things you can do for Fonny that I can’t do – right?”

Joseph walks up and down the kitchen. “Young folks hate to hear this -1 did, when I was young

– but you are young. Child, I wouldn’t lose neither one of you for all the goddamn coffee in Brazil

– but you young. Fonny ain’t hardly much more than a boy. And he’s in trouble no boy should be in. And you all he’s got, Tish. You are all he’s got. I’m a man, and I know what I’m talking about. You understand me?”

“Yes.”

He sits down before me again. “You got to see him every day, Tish. Every day. You take care of Fonny. We’ll take care of the rest. All right?”

“All right.”

He kisses my tears.

“Get that baby here, safe and sound. We’ll get Fonny out of jail. I promise. Do you promise?”

I smile, and I say, “Yes. I promise.”

The next morning, I am, anyway, far too ill to be able to go to work and Ernestine calls the store to tell them so. She says that she, or I, will be coming in to collect my paycheck in the next few days.

So, that is that, and here we go. There is a level on which, if I’m to be honest, I must say that I ab­solutely hated it-: having nothing to do. But this forced me to recognize, finally, that I had clung to my job in order to avoid my trouble. Now, I was alone, with Fonny, my baby, and me.

But Joseph was right, and Fonny is radiant. On the days I do not see Hayward, I see Fonny twice a day. I am always there for the six o’clock visit. And Fonny knows that I will be there. It is very strange, and I now begin to leam a very strange thing. My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing. Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him – and God knows I do, more and more, deeper and deeper, with every hour. But it isn’t only that. It means that others love him, too, love him so much that they have set me free to be there. He is not alone; we are not alone. And if I am somewhat terrified by the fact that I no longer have anything which can be called a waistline, he is delighted. “Here she come! Big as two houses! You sure it ain’t twins? or triplets? Shit, we might make history.”

Throwing back his head, holding on to the telephone, looking me in the eye, laughing.

And I understand that the growth of the baby is connected with his determination to be free. So. I don’t care if I get to be as big as two houses. The baby wants out. Fonny wants out. And we are going to make it: in time.

Jaime is prompt, and Sharon is in the favella by nine thirty. Jaime knows the location, roughly, of the particular dwelling, but he does not know the lady – at least, he is not sure that he does. He is still thinking about it when Sharon steps out of the taxi.

Hayward had tried to warn Sharon by telling her that he had never been able to describe a favella and that he very much doubted, if, after her visit, she would wish to try. It is bitter. The blue sky above, and the bright sun; the blue sea, here, the garbage dump, there. It takes a moment to realize that the garbage dump is the favella. Houses are built on it – dwellings; some on stilts, as though attempting to rise above the dung heap. Some have corrugated metal roofs. Some have windows. All have children.

Jaime walks beside Sharon, proud to be her protector, uneasy about the errand. The smell is fan­tastic – but the children, sliding up and down their mountain, making the air ring, dark, half naked, with their brilliant eyes, their laughter, splashing into and out of the sea, do not seem to care.

“This ought to be the place,” Jaime says, and Sharon steps through an archway into a crumbling courtyard. The house which faces her must have been, at some point in time, an extremely impor­tant private dwelling. It is not private now. Generations of paint flake off the walls, and the sun­light, which reveals every stain and crack, does not deign to enter the rooms: some of which are shuttered, to the extent, that is, that the shutters hold. It is louder than an untrained orchestra in rehearsal and the sound of infants and children is the theme: tremendously developed, in extraor­dinary harmonies, in the voices of the elders. There seem to be doors everywhere – low, dark, and square.

“I think it might be here,” Jaime says, nervously, and he points to one of the doors. “On the third floor. I think. You say she is blond?”

Sharon looks at him. He is absolutely miserable: he does not want her to go upstairs alone.

She touches his face, and smiles: he suddenly reminds her of Fonny, brings back to her why she is here.

“Wait for me,” she says. “Don’t worry. I won’t be long.”

And she walks through the door and climbs the steps as though she knows exactly where she is going. There are four doors on the third floor. There are no names on any of them. One of them is a little open, and she knocks on it – opening it a little further as she knocks.

“Mrs. Rogers-?”

A very thin girl, with immense dark eyes in a dark face, wearing a flowered housedress, bare­foot, steps into the middle of the room. Her curly hair is a muddy blond: high cheekbones, thin lips, vide mouth: a gentle, vulnerable, friendly face. A gold crucifix bums against her throat.

She says, “Senora-?” and then stands still, staring at Sharon with her great eyes, frightened.

“Senora-?”

For Sharon has said nothing, merely stands in the doorway, watching her.

The girl’s tongue moistens her lips. She says, again,

“Senora-?”

She does not look her age. She looks like a little girl. Then she moves and the light strikes her dif­ferently and Sharon recognizes her.

Sharon leans against the open door, really afraid for a moment that she will fall.

“Mrs. Rogers-?”

The girl’s eyes narrow, her lips curl.

“No, Senora. You are mistaken. I am Sanchez.”

They watch each other. Sharon is still leaning against the door.

The girl makes a movement toward the door, as though to close it. But she does not wish to push Sharon. She does not want to touch her. She takes one step, she stops; she touches the crucifix at her throat, staring at Sharon. Sharon cannot read the girl’s face. There is concern in it, not unlike Jaime’s concern. There is terror in it, too, and a certain covered terrified sympathy.

Sharon, still not absolutely certain that she can move, yet senses that whether she can move or not, it is better not to change her position against the open door. It gives her some kind of advan­tage.

“Excuse me, Senora, but I have work to do – if you please? I don’t know any Mrs. Rogers. Maybe in one of the other places around here-?” She smiles faindy and looks toward the open window. “But there are so many. You will be looking for a long time.”

She looks at Sharon, with bitterness. Sharon straightens and they are, abruptly, looking each other in the eye – each held, now, by the other.

“I have a photograph of you,” says Sharon.

The girl says nothing. She attempts to look amused. Sharon takes out the photograph and holds it up. The girl walks toward the door. As she advances, Sharon moves from the door, into the room.

“Senora-! I have told you that I have my work to do.” She looks Sharon up and down. “I am not a North American lady.”

“I am not a lady. I am Mrs. Rivers.”

“And I am Mrs. Sanchez. What do you want with me? I do not know you.”

“I know you don’t know me. Maybe you never even heard of me.” Something happens in the girl’s face, she tightens her lips, rummages in the pocket of her housecoat for her cigarettes, blow­ing the smoke insolently toward Sharon. Yet, “Will you have a cigarette, Senora?” and she extends the package toward Sharon.

There is a plea in the girl’s eyes, and Sharon, with a shaking hand, takes the cigarette and the girl lights it for her. She puts the package back into the pocket of her housecoat.

“I know you don’t know me. But I think you must have heard of me.”

The girl looks briefly at the photograph in Sharon’s hand; looks at Sharon; and says nothing.

“I met Pietro last night.”

“Ah! And did he give you the photograph?”

She had meant this as sarcasm; realizes that she made a mistake; still – her defiant eyes seem to say, staring into Sharon’s – there are so many Pietros!

“No. I got it from the lawyer for Alonzo Hunt – the man you say raped you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I think you do.”

“Look. I ain’t got nothing against nobody. But I got to ask you to get out of here.”

She is trembling, and close to tears. She holds both dark hands clenched tightly before her, as though to prevent herself from touching Sharon.

“I’m here to try to get a man out of prison. That man is going to marry my daughter. And he did not rape you.”

She takes out the photograph of me and Fonny.

“Look at it.”

The girl turns away, again toward the window; sits down on the unmade bed, still staring out of the window.

Sharon approaches her.

“Look at it. Please. The girl is my daughter. The man with her is Alonzo Hunt. Is this the man who raped you?”

The girl will not look at the photograph, or at Sharon.

“Is this the man who raped you?”

“One thing I can tell, lady – you ain’t never been raped.” She looks down at the photograph, briefly, then up at Sharon, briefly. “It looks like him. But he wasn’t laughing.”

After a moment, Sharon asks, “May I sit down?”

The girl says nothing, only sighs and folds her arms. Sharon sits beside her, on the bed.

There must be two thousand transistor radios playing all around them, and all of them are play­ing B.B. King. Actually, Sharon cannot tell what the radios are playing, but she recognizes the beat: it has never sounded louder, more insistent, more plaintive. It has never before sounded so deter­mined and dangerous. This beat is echoed in the many human voices, and corroborated by the sea – which shines and shines beyond the garbage heap of thefavella.

Sharon sits and listens, listens like she never has before. The girl’s face is fumed toward the win­dow. Sharon wonders what she is hearing, what she is seeing. Perhaps she is not seeing or hearing anything. She sits with a stubborn, still helplessness, her thin hands limp between her knees, like one who has been caught in traps before.

Sharon watches her fragile back. The girl’s curly hair is beginning to dry out, and is dark at the roots. The beat of the music rises higher, becoming almost unbearable, beginning to sound inside Sharon’s head, and causing her to feel that her mind is about to crack.

She is very close to tears now, she cannot tell herself why. She rises from the bed, and walks to­ward the music. She looks at the children, and watches the sea. In the distance there is an archway, not unlike the archway through which she has walked, abandoned by the Moors. She turns and looks at the girl. The girl is looking down at the floor.

“Were you born here?” Sharon asks her.

“Look, lady, before you go any further, just let me tell you, you can’t do nothing to me, I ain’t alone and helpless here, I got friends, just let me tell you!”

And she flashes up at Sharon a furious, frightened, doubting look. But she does not move.

“I’m not trying to do anything to you. I’m just trying to get a man out of jail.”

The girl turns on the bed, putting her back to Sharon.

“An innocent man,” Sharon adds.

“Lady, I think you in the wrong place, I really do. Ain’t no reason to talk to me. Ain’t nothing I can do!”

Sharon begins searching:

“How long were you in New York?”

The girl flicks her cigarette out of the window. “Too long.”

‘Did you leave your children there?”

“Listen. Leave my children out of this.”

It is getting hot in the room, and Sharon takes off her light cloth jacket and sits down again on the bed.

“I,” she says, carefully, “am a mother, too.”

The girl looks at her, attempting a scornful distance. But, though she and envy are familiars, scorn is unknown to her.

“Why did you come back here?” Sharon asks her.

This is not the question which the girl had expected. In fact, it is not the question which Sharon had intended to ask.

And they look at each other, the question shimmering between them the way the light changes on the sea.

“You said you’re a mother,” the girl says, finally, and rises and walks again to the window.

This time, Sharon follows her, and they stare out at the sea together. In a way, with the girl’s sul­len answer, Sharon’s mind begins to clear. In the girl’s answer she reads a plea: she begins to speak to her differently.

“Daughter. In this world, terrible things happen to you, and we can all do some terrible things.” She is carefully looking out of the window; she is watching the girl. “I was a women before you got to be a women.Remember that. But” – and she turns to Victoria, she pulls the girl toward her, the thin wrists, the bony hands, the folded arms, touching her, lightly: she tries to speak as though she were speaking to me – “you pay for the lies you tell.” She stares at the girl. The girl stares at her. “You’ve put a man in jail, daughter, a man you’ve never seen. He’s twenty-two years old, daughter, he wants to marry my daughter – and-” Victoria’s eyes meet hers again – “he’s black.” She lets the girl go, and turns back to the window. “Like us.”

“I did see him.”

“You saw him in the police lineup. That’s the//rsf time you saw him. And the only time.”

‘What makes you so sure?”

“Because I’ve known him all his life.”

“Hah!” says Victoria, and tries to move away. Tears rise in the dark, defeated eyes. “If you knew how many women I’ve heard say that. They didn’t see him – when I saw him – when he came to mel They never see that. Respectable women – like you! – they never see that.” The tears begin to roll down her face. “You might have known a nice little boy, and he might be a nice man – with youl But you don’t know the man who did – who did – what he did to me!”

“But, are you,” Sharon asks, “sure that you know him?”

“Yes, I’m sure. They took me down there and they asked me to pick him out and I picked him out. That’s all.”

“But you were – it happened – in the dark. You saw Alonzo Hunt – in the lights.”

“There’s lights in the hallway. I saw enough.”

Sharon grabs her again, and touches the crucifix.

“Daughter, daughter. In the name of God.”

Victoria looks down at the hand on the cross, and screams: a sound like no sound Sharon has ever heard before. She breaks away from Sharon, and runs to the door, which has remained open all this time. She is screaming and crying, “Get out of here! Get out of here!”

Doors open. People begin to appear. Sharon hears the taxi horn. One: two: one: two: one: two: three: one: two: three. Victoria is nov screaming in Spanish. One of the older women in the hall comes to the door, and takes Victoria in her arms. Victoria collapses, weeping, into this woman’s breasts; and the women, without a look at Sharon, leads her away. But everyone else, gathering, is staring at Sharon and now the lonely sound Sharon hears is the horn of Jaime’s taxi.

They are staring at her, at her clothes; there is nothing she can say to them; she moves into the halfway, toward them. Her light summer jacket is over her arm, she is holding her handbag, she has the photograph of Fonny and me in one hand. She gets past them slowly, and, slowly, gets down the staring stairs. There are people on every landing. She gets out of the courtyard, into the street. Jaime opens the taxi door for her.She gets in, he slams the door, and, without a word, he drives her away.

In the evening, she goes to the club. But, the doorman informs her, Senor Alvarez will not be there this evening, that there are no tables for single women, and that, anyway, the club is full.

The mind is like an object that picks up dust. The object doesn’t know, any more than the mind does, why what clings to it clings. But once whatever it is lights on you, it doesn’t go away; and so, after that afternoon at the vegetable stand, I saw Bell everywhere, and all the time.

I did not know his name then. I discovered his name on the night I asked him for it. I had al­ready memorized his badge number.

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had red hair and blue eyes. He was somewhere in his thirties. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pinheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you doexist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, clut­tering up the view. Presently, die black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all.Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. No, you won’t, said Fonny’s eyes. I’m going to get my shit together and haul ass out of here.

I was frightened because, in the streets of the Village, I realized that we were entirely alone. No­body cared about us except us; or, whoever loved us was not there.

Bell spoke to me once. I was making it to Fonny’s, late, from work. I was surprised to see him because I had got off the subway at Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue, and he was usually in the neighborhood of Bleecker and MacDougal. I was huffing and puffing down the avenue, carry­ing a package of odds and ends I had lifted from the Jew, when I saw him walking slowly up the avenue, toward me. For a minute, I was frightened because my package – which had things like glue and staples and watercolors and paper and tacks and nails and pens – was hot. But he couldn’t know that, and I already hated him too much to care. I walked toward him, he walked toward me. It was beginning to be dark, around seven, seven thirty. The streets were full, home­ward men, leaning drunkards, fleeing women, Puerto Rican kids, junkies: here came Bell.

“Can I carry that for you?”

I almost dropped it. In fact, I almost peed on myself. I looked into his eyes.

“No,” I said, “thanks very much,” and I tried to keep moving, but he was standing in my way.

I looked into his eyes again. This may have been the very first time I ever really looked into a white man’s eyes. It stopped me, I stood still. It was not like looking into a man’s eyes. It was like nothing I knew, and – therefore – it was very powerful. It was seduction which contained the promise of rape. It was rape which promised debasement and revenge: on both sides. I wanted to get close to him, to enter into him, to open up that face and change it and destroy it, descend into the slime with him. Then, we would both be free: I could almost hear the singing.

“Well,” he said, in a very low voice, “you ain’t got far to go. Sure wish I could carry it for you, though.”

I can still see us on that hurrying, crowded, twilight avenue, me with my package and my hand­bag, staring at him, he staring at me. I was suddenly his: a desolation entered me which I had nev­er felt before. I watched his eyes, his moist, boyish, despairing lips, and felt his sex stiffening against me.

“I ain’t a bad guy,” he said. “Tell your friend. You ain’t got to be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid,” I said. “I’ll tell him. Thanks.”

“Good-night,” he said.

“Good-night,” I answered, and I hurried on my way.

I never told Fonny about it. I couldn’t. I blotted it out of my mind. I don’t know if Bell ever spoke to Fonny -1 doubt it.

On the night that Fonny was arrested, Daniel was at the house. He was a little drunk. He was crying. He was talking, again, about his time in prison. He had seen nine men rape one boy: and he had been raped. He would never, never, never again be the Daniel he had been. Fonny held him, held him up just before he fell. I went to make the coffee.

And then they came knocking at the door.

TWO

Zion

Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not there.

His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But he does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weep­ing. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.

He picks up a chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.

He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.

“You cunt,” says Fonny.

He picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel.begins to move. Fonny begins.And wakes up.

He is in a cell by himself, at the top of the prison. This is provisional. Soon, he will be sent down­stairs, to a larger cell, with other men. There is a toilet in the comer of the cell. It stinks.

And Fonny stinks.

He yawns, throwing his arms behind his head, and turns, furiously, on the narrow cot. He lis­tens. He cannot tell what time it is, but it does not matter. The hours are all the same, the days are all the same. He looks at his shoes, which have no laces, on the floor beside the cot. He tries to give himself some reason for being here, some reason to move, or not to move. He knows that he must do something to keep himself from drowning in this place, and every day he tries. But he does not succeed. He can neither retreat into himself nor step out of himself. He is righteously suspended, he is still. He is still with fear. He rises, and walks to the corner, and pees. The toilet does not work very well, soon it will overflow. He does not know what he can do about it. He is afraid, up here, alone. But he is also afraid of the moment when he will be moved downstairs, with the others, whom he sees at mealtimes, who see him. He knows who they are, he has seen them all before, were they to encounter each other outside he would know what to say to them. Here, he knows nothing, he is dumb, he is absolutely terrified. Here, he is at everyone’s mercy, and he is also at the mercy of this stone and steel. Outside, he is not young. Here, he realizes that he is young, very young, too young. And – will he grow old here?

He stares through the small opening in the cell door into what he can see of the corridor. Every­thing is still and silent. It must be very early. He wonders if today is the day he will be taken to the showers. But he does not know what day it is, he cannot remember how long ago it was that he was taken to the showers. I’ll ask somebody today, he thinks, and then I’ll remember. I’ve got to make myself remember. I can’t let myself go like this. He tries to remember everything he has ever read about life in prison. He can remember nothing. His wind is as empty as a shell; rings, like a shell, with a meaningless sound, no questions, no answers, nothing. And he stinks. He yawns again, he scratches himself, he shivers, with a mighty eifort he stifles a scream, grabs the bars of the high window and looks up into what he can see of the sky. The touch of the steel calms him a little; the cool, rough stone against his skin comforts him a little. He thinks of Frank, his father. He thinks of me. He wonders what we are doing now, at this very moment. He wonders what the whole world, his world, is doing without him, why he has been left alone here, perhaps to die. The sky is the color of the steel; the heavy tears drip down Fonny’s face, causing the stubble on his face to itch. He cannot muster his defenses because he can give himself no reason for being here.

He lies back down on the cot. He has five cigarettes left. He knows that I will bring him ciga­rettes this evening. He lights a cigarette, staring up at the pipes on the ceiling. He shakes. He tries to put his mind at ease.Just one more day. Don’t sweat it. Be cool.

He drags on the cigarette. His prick hardens. Absently, he strokes it, thoough his shorts; it is his only friend. He clenches his teeth, and resists, but he is young and he is lonely, he is alone. He strokes himself gently, as though in prayer, closing his eyes. His rigid sex responds, burning, and Fonny sighs, dragging on the cigarette again. He pauses, but his hand will not be still – cannot be still. He catches his lower lip in his teeth, wishing – but the hand will not be still. He lifts himself out of his shorts and pulls the blanket up to his chin. The hand will not be still, it tightens, it tigh­tens, moving faster, and Fonny sinks and rises. Oh. He tries to think of no one, he tries not to think of me, he does not wish me to have any connection with this cell, or with this act. Oh. And he turns, rising, writhing, his belly beginning to shake. Oh: and great tears gather behind his eyes. He does not want it to end. It must end. Oh. Oh; Oh. He drops his cigarette on the stone floor, he sur­renders totally, he pretends that human arms are holding him, he moans, he nearly screams, his thickening, burning sex causes him to arch his back, and his limbs stiffen. Oh. He does not want it to end. It must end. He moans. It is unbelievable. His sex trickles, spurts, explodes, all over his hand and his belly and his balls, he sighs; after a long moment he opens his eyes and the cell comes crashing down on him, steel and stone, making him know he is alone.

He is brought down to see me at six o’dock.

He remembers to pick up the phone.

“Hey!” And he grins. “How you doing, baby? Tell me something.”

“You know I ain’t got nothing to tell. How you?”

He kisses the glass. I kiss the glass.

But he does not look well.

“Hayward’s coming to see you tomorrow morning. He thinks he’s got a date fixed for the trial.”

“For when?”

“Soon. Very soon.”

‘What do you mean by soon? Tomorrow? Next month? Next year?”

“Would I tell you, Fonny, if I didn’t know it was soon? Would I? And Hayward told me I could tell you.”

“Before the baby gets here?”

“Oh, yes, before the baby gets here.”

“When is it due?”

Soon.

His face changes then, and he laughs. He makes a mock menacing gesture with one fist.

“How is it? the baby.”

“Alive and kicking. Believe me.”

“Whipping your ass, huh?” He laughs again. “Old Tish.”

And again his face changes, another light comes into it, he is very beautiful.

“You seen Frank?”

“Yes. He’s been doing a lot of overtime. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

“He coming with you?”

“No. He’s coming with Hayward, in the morning.”

“How is he?”

“He’s fine, baby.”

“And my two funky sisters?”

“They’re like they’ve always been.”

“Not married yet?”

“No, Fonny. Not yet.”

I wait for the next question:

“And my Mama?”

“I haven’t seen her. Naturally. But she seems to be all right”

“Her weak heart ain’t done her in yet, huh? Your Mama back from Puerto Rico?”

“Not yet. But we expect her any minute.”

His face changes again.

“But – if that chick still says I raped her – I’m going to be here for a while.”

I light a cigarette, and I put it out. The baby moves, as though it is trying to get a glimpse of Fonny.

“Mama thinks that Hayward can destroy her testimony. She seems to be a kind of hysterical woman. She’s a part-time whore, anyway – that doesn’t help her case. And – you were the blackest thing in the lineup that morning. There were some white cats and a Puerto Rican and a couple of light brown brothers – but you were the only black man.”

“I don’t know how much that’s going to mean.”

“Well, one thing it can mean is that the case can be thrown out of court. She says she was raped by a black man, and so they put one black man in a lineup with a whole lot of pale dudes. And so, naturally, she says it was you. If she was looking for a black cat, she knows it can’t be none of the others.”

“What about Bell?”

“Well, he’s already killed one black kid, just like I told you. And Hayward will make sure that the jury knows that.”

“Shit. If the jury knows that, they’ll probably want to give him a medal. He’s keeping the streets safe.”

“Fonny, don’t think like that. Baby. We agreed when this shit started, that we’d just have to move it from day to day and not blow our cool and not try to think too far ahead. I know exactly what you mean, sweetheart, but there’s no point in thinking about it like that-“

“Do you miss me?”

“Oh, God, yes. That’s why you can’t blow your cool. I’m waiting for you, the baby’s waiting for you!”

“I’m sorry, Tish. I’m sorry. I’ll get it together. I really will. But, sometimes it’s hard, because I ain’t got no business here – you know? And things are happening inside me that I don’t really under­stand, like I’m beginning to see things I never saw before. I don’t have any words for those things, and I’m scared. I’m not as tough as I thought I was. I’m younger than I thought I was. But I’ll get it together. I promise you. I promise. Tish. I’ll be better when I come out than I was when I came in. I promise. I know it. Tish. Maybe there’s something I had to see, and – I couldn’t have seen it with­out coming in here. Maybe. Maybe that’s it Oh, Tish – do you love me?”

“I love you. I love you. You have to know I love you, just like you know that nappy hair is grow­ing on your head.”

“Do I look awful?”

“Well, I wish I could get my hands on you. But you’re beautiful to me.”

“I wish I could get my hands on you, too.”

A silence falls, and we look at each other. We are looking at each other when the door opens be­hind Fonny, and the man appears. This is always the most awful moment, when Fonny has to rise and turn, I have to rise and turn. But Fonny is cool. He stands, and raises his fist. He smiles, and stands there for a moment, looking me dead in the eye. Something travels from him, to me, it is love and courage. Yes. Yes. We are going to make it, somehow. Somehow. I stand, and smile, and raise my fist. He turns into the inferno. I walk toward the Sahara.

The miscalculations of this world are vast. The D.A.’s office, the prosecution, the state – The People versus Alonzo Hunt! – has managed to immobilize, isolate, or intimidate, every witness for Alonzo Hunt. But it has fucked itself up, too, as a thinned Sharon informs us on the night that Er­nestine borrows the actress’s car, and chauffeur, to bring Mama home from Kennedy Airport:

“I waited for another two days. I thought, it can’t go down like that. The deal can not go down like that. Jaime said that it could, it would go down like that. By this time, the story was all over the island. Everybody knew it. Jaime knew more about it than I knew myself. He said that I was being followed everywhere, that we were being followed everywhere, and, one night, in the taxi, he proved it. I’ll tell you about that another day.”

Mama’s face: she, too, is seeing something she never saw before.

“I couldn’t go around anymore. For the last two days, Jaime got to be my spy, really. They knew his taxi better than they knew him, if you see what I mean. People always know the outside better than they know the inside. If they saw Jaime’s taxi coming, well, that was Jaime. They didn’t look inside.”

Sharon’s face: and Joseph’s face.

“So, he borrowed somebody else’s car. That way, they didn’t see him coming. By the time they did see him, it didn’t make any difference, since he wasn’t with me. He was part of the landscape, like the sea, like the garbage heap, he was something they had known all their lives. They didn’t have to look at him. I had never seen it like that before. Maybe they didn’t dare look at him, like they don’t look at the garbage dump. Like they don’t look at themselves – like we don’t look. I had never seen it like that before. Never. I don’t speak no Spanish and they don’t speak no English. But we on the same garbage dump. For the same reason.”

She looks at me.

“For the same reason. I had never thought about it like that before. Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die.”

She looks at me again.

“You get that baby here, you hear me?” And she smiles. She smiles. She is very close to me. And she is very far away. “We ain’t going to let nobody put chains on that baby. That’s all.”

She rises, and paces the kitchen. We watch her: she has lost weight. She holds a gin and orange juice in her hand. I know that she has not yet unpacked. I realize, because I watch her fighting her tears, that she is, really, after all, young.

“Anyway. He was there, Jaime was there, when they carried the chick away. She was screaming. She was having a miscarriage. Pietro carried her down the steps, in his arms. She had already started to bleed.”

She sips her drink. She stands at our window, very much alone.

“She was carried to the mountains, someplace called Barranguitas. You got to know where it is, to get there. Jaime says that she will never be seen again.”

There goes the trial, the prosecution having fucked itself out of its principal witness. We have a slim hope, still, in Daniel, but not one of us can see him, even if we knew where he could be found. He has been transferred to a prison upstate: Hayward is checking it out, Hayward is on the case.

The prosecution will ask for time. We will ask that the charge be dropped, and the case dis­missed: but must be prepared to settle for bail: if the state will concede it: if we can raise it.

“All right,” says Joseph, stands, walks to the window, stands next to Sharon, but does not touch her. They watch their island.

“You okay?” asks Joseph, and lights a cigarette, and hands it to her.

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

“Then, let’s go on in. You tired. And you been gone a while.”

“Good-night,” says Ernestine, firmly, and Sharon and Joseph, their arms around each other, walk down the hall, to their room. In a way, we are their elders now. And the baby kicks again. Time.

But the effect of all this on Frank is cataclysmic, is absolutely disastrous, and it is Joseph who has to bring him the news. Their hours are, furthermore, now so erratic that he has to bring the news to the house.

Without a word, he has managed to forbid both Ernestine and myself from saying a word to the Hunts. It is about midnight.

Mrs. Hunt is in bed. Adrienne and Sheila have just come in, and, standing in the kitchen, in their nightgowns, are giggling and sipping Ovaltine. Adrienne’s behind is spreading, but there is no hope for Sheila at all.Sheila has been told that she resembles a nothing actress, Merle Oberon, whom she has encountered on the Late Late Show, and so she has clipped her eyebrows with the same intention, but not to the same effect. The Oberon chick was paid, at least, for her disquieting resemblance to an egg.

Joseph must be on the docks in the early morning, and so he has no time to waste. Neither does Frank, who must also be downtown, early.

Frank puts a beer before Joseph, pours a little wine for himself. Joseph takes a sip of his beer. Frank sips his wine. They watch each other for a rather awful moment, aware of the girls’ laughter in the kitchen. Frank wants to make the laughter stop, but he cannot take his eyes from Joseph’s

eyes.

“Well-?” says Frank.

“Brace yourself. I’m going to hit you hard. The trial’s been postponed because the Puerto Rican chick, dig, has lost her baby and look like she’s flipped her wig, too, lost her mind, man, anyway she in the hills of Puerto Rico someplace and she can’t be moved and can’t nobody see her, she can’t come to New York now, no way and so the City wants the trial postponed – until she can.” Frank says nothing. Joseph says, “You understand what I’m saying?”

Frank sips his wine, and says, quiedy, “Yeah. I understand.”

They hear the girls’ low voices in the kitchen: this sound is about to drive both men insane.

Frank says, “You telling me that they going to keep Fonny in jail until this chick comes to her senses.” He sips his wine again, looks at Joseph. “Is that right?”

Something in Frank’s aspect is beginning to terrify Joseph, but he does not know what it is. “Well – that’s what they want to do. But we might be able to get him out, on bail.”

Frank says nothing. The girls giggle, in the kitchen.

“How much bail?”

“We don’t know. It ain’t been set yet.” He sips his beer, more and more frightened, obscurely, but profoundly.

“When is it going to be set?”

“Tomorrow. The day after.” He has to say it: “If-“

If what?’

“If they accept our plea, man. They ain’t got to let us have no bail.” There is something else he has to say. “And – I don’t think this will happen, but it’s better to look at it from the worst side – they might try to make the charge against Fonny heavier because the chick’s lost her baby, and seems to have flipped her wig.”

Silence: the girlish laughter from the kitchen.

Joseph scratches one armpit, watching Frank. Joseph is more and more uneasy.

“So,” says Frank, finally, with an icy tranquility, “we’re fucked.”

“What makes you say that, man? It’s rough, I agree, but it ain’t yet over.”

“Oh, yes,” says Frank, “it’s over. They got him. They ain’t going to let him go till they get ready. And they ain’t ready yet. And ain’t nothing we can do about it.”

Joseph shouts, out of his fear, “We got to do something about it!” He hears his voice, banging against the walls, against the girlish laughter from the kitchen. “What can we do about it?”

“If they give us bail, get the change together-“

“How?”

“Man, I don’t know how! I just know we have to do it!”

“And if they don’t give us bail?”

“We get him outl I don’t care what we have to do to get him out!”

“I don’t, neither! But what can we do?”

“Get him out. That’s what we have to do. We both know he ain’t got no business in there. Them lying motherfuckers, they know it, too.” He stands. He is trembling. The kitchen is silent. “Look. I know what you’re saying. You’re saying they got us by the balls. Okay. But that’s our flesh and blood, baby: ourfflesh and hlood. I don’t know how we going to do it. I just know we have to do it. I know you ain’t scared for you, and God knows I ain’t scared for me. That boy is got to come out of there. That’s all. And we got to get him out. That’s all. And the first thing we got to do, man, is just not to lose our nerve. We can’t let these runt-faced white-assed motherfuckers get away with this shit no longer.” He subsides, he sips his beer. “They been killing our children long enough.”

Frank looks toward the open kitchen door, where his two daughters stand.

“Is everything all right?” Adrienne asks.

Frank hurls his glass of wine onto the floor, it rings and shatters. ‘You two dizzy off-white cunts, get the fuck out of my face, you hear? Get the fuck out of my face. If you was any kind of women you’d be peddling pussy on the block to get your brother out of jail instead of giving it away for free to all them half-assed faggots who come sniffing around you with a book under their arm. Go to bed! Get out ofmyfacel”

Joseph watches the daughters. He sees something very strange, something he had never thought of: he sees that Adrienne loves her father with a really desperate love. She knows he is in pain. She would soothe it if she could, she does not know how. She would give anything to know how. She does not know that she reminds Frank of her mother.

Without a word, she drops her eyes and turns away, and Sheila follows her.

The silence is enormous – it spreads and spreads. Frank puts his head in his hands. Then, Joseph sees that Frank loves his daughters.

Frank says nothing. Tears drop onto the table, trickling down from the palms with which he has covered his face. Joseph watches: the tears drip from the palm, onto the wristbone, to splash – with a light, light, intolerable sound – on the table. Joseph does not know what to say – yet:

‘This ain’t no time for crying, man,” he says. He finishes his beer. He watches Frank. “You all right?”

Frank says, finally, “Yeah. I’m all right”

Joseph says, “Get some sleep. We got to move it early in the morning. I’ll talk to you end of the day. You got it?”

“Yeah,” says Frank. “I got it.”

When Fonny learns that the trial has been postponed, and learns why, and what effect Victoria’s disaster may have on his own – it is I who tell him – something quite strange, altogether wonder­ful, happens in him. It is not that he gives up hope, but that he ceases clinging to it.

“Okay,” is all he says.

I seem to see his high cheekbones for the first time, and perhaps this is really true, he has lost so much weight. He looks straight at me, into me. His eyes are enormous, deep and dark, I am both relieved and frightened. He has moved – not away from me: but he has moved. He is standing in a place where I am not.

And he asks me, staring at me with those charged, enormous eyes,

“You all right?”

“Yes. I’m all right.”

“The baby all right?”

“Yes. The baby’s fine.”

He grins. It is, somehow, a shock. I will always see the space where the missing tooth has been.

“Well. I’m all right, too. Don’t you worry. I’m coming home. I’m coming home, to you. I want you in my arms. I want your arms around me. I’ve got to hold our baby in my arms. It’s got to be. You keep the faith.”

He grins again, and everything inside me moves. Oh, love. Love.

“Don’t you worry. I’ll be home.”

He grins again, and stands, and salutes me. He looks at me, hard, with a look I have never seen on any face before. He touches himself, briefly, he bends to kiss the glass, I kiss the glass.

Now, Fonny knows why he is here – why he is where he is; now, he dares to look around him. He is not here for anything he has done. He has always known that, but now he knows it with a difference. At meals, in the showers, up and down the stairs, in the evening just before everyone is locked in again, he looks at the others, he listens: what have they done? Not much. To do much is to have the power to place these people where they are, and keep them where they are. These cap­tive men are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must be able to locate the damned. To do much is to have the power and the necessity to dictate to the damned. But that, thinks Fonny, works both ways. You ‘re in or you ‘re out. Okay. I see. Motherfuckers. You won’t hang me.

I bring him books, and he reads. We manage to get him paper, and he sketches. Now that he knows where he is, he begins to talk to the men, making himself, so to speak, at home. He knows that anything may happen to him here. But, since he knows it, he can no longer turn his back: he has to face it, even taunt it, play with it, dare.

He is placed in solitary for refusing to be raped. He loses a tooth, again, and almost loses an eye. Something hardens in him, something changes forever, his tears freeze in his belly. But he has leaped from the promontory of despair. He is fighting for his life. He sees his baby’s face before him, he has an appointment he must keep, and he will be here, he swears it, sitting in the shit, sweating and stinking, when the baby gets here.

Hayward arranges the possibility of bail for Fonny. But it is high. And here comes the summer: time.

On a day that I will never forget, Pedrocito drove me home from the Spanish restaurant, and, heavy, heavy, heavy, I got to my chair and I sat down.

The baby was restless, and I was scared. It was almost time. I was so tired, I almost wanted to die. For a long time, because he was in solitary, I had not been able to see Fonny. I had seen him on this day. He was so skinny; he was so bruised: I almost cried out. To whom, where? I saw this question in Fonny’s enormous, slanted black eyes – eyes that burned, now, like the eyes of a prophet. Yet, when he grinned, I saw, all over again, my lover, as though for the first time.

“We got to get some meat on your bones,” I said. “Lord, have mercy.”

“Speak up. He can’t hear you.” But he said it with a smile.

“We almost got the money to bail you out.”

“I figured you would.”

We sat, and we just looked at each other. We were making love to each other through all that glass and stone and steel.

“Listen, I’ll soon be out. I’m coming home because I’m glad I came, can you dig that?”

I watched his eyes.

“Yes,” I said.

“Now. I’m an artisan,” he said. “Like a cat who makes – tables. I don’t like the word artist. Maybe I never did. I sure the fuck don’t know what it means. I’m a cat who works from his balls, with his hand. I know what it’s about now. I think I really do. Even if I go under. But I don’t think I will. Now.”

He is very far from me. He is with me, but he is very far away. And now he always will be.

“Where you lead me,” I said, “I’ll follow.”

He laughed. “Baby. Baby. Baby. I love you. And I’m going to build us a table and a whole lot of folks going to be eating off it for a long, long time to come.”

From my chair, I looked out my window, over these dreadful streets.

The baby asked,

Is there not one righteous among them?

And kicked, but with a tremendous difference, and I knew that my time was almost on me. I remember that I looked at my watch: it was twenty to eight. I was alone, but I knew that someone, soon, would be coming through the door. The baby kicked again, and I caught my breath, and I almost cried, and the phone rang.

I crossed the room, heavy, heavy, heavy, and I picked it up.

“Hello-?”

“Hello – Tish? This is Adrienne.”

“How are you, Adrienne?”

“Tish – have you seen my father? Is Frank there?”

Her voice almost knocked me down. I had never heard such terror.

“No. Why?”

“When did you see him last?”

“Why -1 haven’t seen him. I know he’s seen Joseph. But I haven’t seen him.”

Adrienne was weeping. It sounded horrible over the phone.

“Adrienne! What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”

And I remember that at that moment everything stood still. The sun didn’t move and the earth didn’t move, the sky stared down, waiting, and I put my hand on my heart to make it start beating again.

“Adrienne! Adrienne!”

“Tish – my Daddy was fired from his job, two days ago – they said he was stealing, and they threatened to put him in jail – and he was all upset, because of Fonny and all, and he was drunk when he came home and he cursed everybody out and then he went out the door and ain’t nobody seen him since – Tish – don’t you know where my father is?”

“Adrienne, baby, I don’t. I swear to God, I don’t. I haven’t seen him.”

“Tish, I know you don’t like me-“

“Adrienne, you and me, we had a little fight, but that’s all right. That’s normal. That don’t mean I don’t like you. I would surely never do anything to hurt you. You’re Fonny’s sister. And if I love him, I got to love you.Adrienne-?”

“If you see him – will you call me?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes, of course.”

“Please. Please. Please. I’m scared,” said Adrienne, in a low, different altogether tone of voice, and she hung up.

I put down the phone and the key turned in the lock and Mama came in.

“Tish, what’s the matter with you?”

I got back to my chair and I sat down in it.

“That was Adrienne. She’s looking for Frank. She said that he was fired from his job, and that he was real upset. And Adrienne – that poor child sounds like she’s gone to pieces. Mama” – and we stared at each other; my mother’s face was as still as the sky – “has Daddy seen him?”

“I don’t know. But Frank ain’t been by here.”

She put her bag down on top of the TV set and came over and put her hand on my brow.

“How you feeling?”

“Tired. Funny.”

“You want me to get you a little brandy?”

“Yes. Thank you, Mama. That might be a good idea. It might help to settle my stomach.”

She went into the kitchen and came back with the brandy and put it in my hand.

“Your stomach upset?”

“A little. It’ll go away.”

I sipped the brandy, and I watched the sky. She watched me for a moment, then she went away again. I watched the sky. It was as though it had something to say to me. I was in some strange place, alone.Everything was still. Even the baby was still.

Sharon came back.

“You see Fonny today?”

“Yes.”

“And how was he?”

“He’s beautiful. They beat him up, but they didn’t beat him – if you see what I mean. He’s beauti­ful.”

But I was so tired, I remember that I could hardly speak. Something was about to happen to me. That was what I felt, sitting in that chair, watching the sky – and I couldn’t move. All I could do was wait.

Until my change comes.

“I think Ernestine’s got the rest of the money,” Sharon said, and smiled. “From her actress.”

Before I could say anything, the doorbell rang, and Sharon went to the door. Something in her voice, at the door, made me stand straight up and I dropped the brandy glass on the floor. I still remember Sharon’s face, she was standing behind my father, and I remember my father’s face.

Frank had been found, he told us, way, way, way up the river, in the woods, sitting in his car, with the doors locked, and the motor running.

I sat down in my chair.

“Does Fonny know?”

“I don’t think so. Not yet. He won’t know till morning.”

“I’ve got to tell him.”

“You can’t get there till morning, daughter.”

Joseph sat down.

Sharon asked me, sharply, “How you feeling, Tish?”

I opened my mouth to say – I don’t know what. When I opened my mouth, I couldn’t catch my breath. Everything disappeared, except my mother’s eyes. An incredible intelligence charged the air between us. Then, all I could see was Fonny. And then I screamed, and my time had come.

Fonny is working on the wood, on the stone, whistling, smiling. And, from far away, but coming nearer, the baby cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries and cries, cries like it means to wake the dead.

[Columbus Day] Oct. 12,1973 St. Paul de Vence

DMU Timestamp: February 06, 2019 23:03