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[2 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapters 6 - 10, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Chapters 6-10.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

Chapter 6

Down the sloping lawn below me the male students moved toward their dormitories, seeming far away from me now, remote, and each shadowy form vastly superior to me, who had by some shortcoming cast myself into the darkness away from all that was worthwhile and inspiring. I listened to one group harmonize quietly as they passed. The smell of fresh bread being prepared in the bakery drifted to me. The good white bread of breakfast; the rolls dripping with yellow butter that I had slipped into my pocket so often to be munched later in my room with wild blackberry jam from home.

Lights began to appear in the girls’ dormitories, like the bursting of luminous seeds flung broadside by an invisible hand. Several cars rolled by. I saw a group of old women who lived in the town approaching. One used a cane which from time to time she tapped hollowly upon the walk like a blind man. Snatches of their conversation fluttered to me as they discussed Barbee’s talk with enthusiasm, recalled the times of the Founder, their quavering voices weaving and embroidering his story. Then down the long avenue of trees I saw the familiar Cadillac approaching and started inside the building, suddenly filled with panic. I hadn’t gone two steps before I turned and hurried out into the night again. I couldn’t stand to face Dr. Bledsoe immediately. I was fairly shivering as I fell in behind a group of boys going up the drive. They were arguing some point heatedly, but I was too agitated to listen and simply followed in their shadows, noticing the dull gleam of their polished shoe-leather in the rays of the street lamps. I kept trying to formulate what I would say to Dr. Bledsoe, and the boys must have turned into their building, for suddenly finding myself outside the gates of the campus and heading down the highway, I turned and ran back to the building.

When I went in he was wiping his neck with a blue-bordered handkerchief. The shaded lamp catching the lenses of his glasses left half of his broad face in shadow as his clenched fists stretched full forth in the light before him. I stood, hesitating in the door, aware suddenly of the old heavy furnishings, the relics from the times of the Founder, the framed portrait photographs and relief plaques of presidents and industrialists, men of power-fixed like trophies or heraldic emblems upon the walls.

“Come in,” he said from the half-shadow; then I saw him move and his head coming forward, his eyes burning.

He began mildly, as if quietly joking, throwing me off balance.

“Boy,” he said, “I understand that you not only carried Mr. Norton out to the Quarters but that you wound up at that sinkhole, that Golden Day.”

It was a statement, not a question. I said nothing and he looked at me with the same mild gaze. Had Barbee helped Mr. Norton soften him?

“No,” he said, “it wasn’t enough to take him to the Quarters, you had to make the complete tour, to give him the full treatment. Was that it?”

“No, sir . . . I mean that he was ill, sir,” I said. “He had to have some whiskey . . .”

“And that was the only place you knew to go,” he said. “So you went there because you were taking care of him . . .”

“Yes, sir . . .”

“And not only that,” he said in a voice that both mocked and marveled, “you took him out and sat him down on the gallery, veranda — piazza — whatever they call it now’days — and introduced him to the quality!”

“Quality?” I frowned. “Oh — but he insisted that I stop, sir. There was nothing I could do . . .”

“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”

“He was interested in the cabins, sir. He was surprised that there were any left.”

“So naturally you stopped,” he said, bowing his head again.

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, and I suppose the cabin opened up and told him its life history and all the choice gossip?” I started to explain.

“Boy!” he exploded. “Are you serious? Why were you out on that road in the first place? Weren’t you behind the wheel?”

“Yes, sir . . .”

“Then haven’t we bowed and scraped and begged and lied enough decent homes and drives for you to show him? Did you think that white man had to come a thousand miles — all the way from New York and Boston and Philadelphia just for you to show him a slum? Don’t just stand there, say something!”

“But I was only driving him, sir. I only stopped there after he ordered me to . . .”

“Ordered you?” he said. “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness — smallpox — or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My God, boy! You’re black and living in the South — did you forget how to lie?”

“Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?”

He shook his head with a kind of anguish. “And me thinking I’d picked a boy with brain,” he said. “Didn’t you know you were endangering the school?”

“But I was only trying to please him . . .”

“Please him? And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here? Who really told you to take him out there?” he said.

“He did, sir. No one else.”

“Don’t lie to me!”

“That’s the truth, sir.”

“I warn you now, who suggested it?”

“I swear, sir. No one told me.”

“Nigger, this isn’t the time to lie. I’m no white man. Tell me the truth!”

It was as though he’d struck me. I stared across the desk thinking,

He called me that . . . “Answer me, boy!”

That, I thought, noticing the throbbing of a vein that rose between his eyes, thinking, He called me that.

“I wouldn’t lie, sir,” I said.

“Then who was that patient you were talking with?”

“I never saw him before, sir.”” What was he saying?”

“I can’t recall it all,” I muttered. “The man was raving.”

“Speak up. What did he say?”

“He thinks that he lived in France and that he’s a great doctor . . .” “Continue.”

“He said that I believed that white was right,” I said.

“What?” Suddenly his face twitched and cracked like the surface of dark water. “And you do, don’t you?” Dr. Bledsoe said, suppressing a nasty laugh.

“Well, don’t you?”

I did not answer, thinking, You, you . . .

“Who was he, did you ever see him before?”

“No, sir, I hadn’t.”

“Was he northern or southern?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

He struck his desk. “College for Negroes! Boy, what do you know other than how to ruin an institution in half an hour that it took over half a hundred years to build? Did he talk northern or southern?”

“He talked like a white man,” I said, “except that his voice sounded southern, like one of ours . . .”

“I’ll have to investigate him,” he said. “A Negro like that should be under lock and key.”

Across the campus a clock struck the quarter hour and something inside me seemed to muffle its sound. I turned to him desperately. “Dr. Bledsoe, I’m awfully sorry. I had no intention of going there but things just got out of hand. Mr. Norton understands how it happened . . .”

“Listen to me, boy,” he said loudly. “Norton is one man and I’m another, and while he might think he’s satisfied, I know that he isn’t! Your poor judgment has caused this school incalculable damage. Instead of uplifting the race, you’ve torn it down.”

He looked at me as though I had committed the worst crime imaginable. “Don’t you know we can’t tolerate such a thing? I gave you an opportunity to serve one of our best white friends, a man who could make your fortune. But in return you dragged the entire race into the slime!” Suddenly he reached for something beneath a pile of papers, an old leg shackle from slavery which he proudly called a “symbol of our progress.”

“You’ve got to be disciplined, boy,” he said. “There’s no ifs and ands about it.”

“But you gave Mr. Norton your word . . .”

“Don’t stand there and tell me what I already know. Regardless of what I said, as the leader of this institution I can’t possibly let this pass. Boy, I’m getting rid of you!” It must have happened when the metal struck the desk, for suddenly I was leaning toward him, shouting with outrage.

“I’ll tell him,” I said. “I’ll go to Mr. Norton and tell him. You’ve lied to both of us . . .”

“What!” he said. “You have the nerve to threaten me . . . in my own office?”

“I’ll tell him,” I screamed. “I’ll tell everybody. I’ll fight you. I swear it, I’ll fight!”

“Well,” he said, sitting back, “well, I’ll be damned!” For a moment he looked me up and down and I saw his head go back into the shadow, hearing a high, thin sound like a cry of rage; then his face came forward and I saw his laughter. For an instant I stared; then I wheeled and started for the door, hearing him sputter, “Wait, wait,” behind me.

I turned. He gasped for breath, propping his huge head up with his hands as tears streamed down his face.

“Come on, come,” he said, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. “Come on, son,” his voice amused and conciliatory. It was as though I were being put through a fraternity initiation and found myself going back. He looked at me, still laughing with agony. My eyes burned.

“Boy, you are a fool,” he said. “Your white folk didn’t teach you

anything and your mother-wit has left you cold. What has happened to you young Negroes? I thought you had caught on to how things are done down here. But you don’t even know the difference between the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be. My God,” he gasped, “what is the race coming to? Why, boy, you can tell anyone you like — sit down there . . . Sit down, sir, I say!”

Reluctantly I sat, torn between anger and fascination, hating myself for obeying.

“Tell anyone you like,” he said. “I don’t care. I wouldn’t raise my little finger to stop you. Because I don’t owe anyone a thing, son. Who, Negroes? Negroes don’t control this school or much of anything else — haven’t you learned even that? No, sir, they don’t control this school, nor white folk either. True they support it, but I control it. I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burr-head when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. I don’t care how much it appears otherwise. Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it. Let the Negroes snicker and the crackers laugh! Those are the facts, son. The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls. You think about that. When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power, rich white folk’s power, the nation’s power — which means government power!”

He paused to let it sink in and I waited, feeling a numb, violent outrage.

“And I’ll tell you something your sociology teachers are afraid to tell you,” he said. “If there weren’t men like me running schools like this, there’d be no South. Nor North, either. No, and there’d be no country — not as it is today. You think about that, son.” He laughed. “With all your speechmaking and studying I thought you understood something. But you . . . All right, go ahead. See Norton. You’ll find that he wants you disciplined; he might not know it, but he does. Because he knows that I know what is best for his interests. You’re a black educated fool, son. These white folk have newspapers,

magazines, radios, spokesmen to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth; and if I tell them that you’re lying, they’ll tell the world even if you prove you’re telling the truth. Because it’s the kind of lie they want to hear . . .”

I heard the high thin laugh again. “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist — can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think — except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. Shocks you, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the way it is. It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. But you listen to me: I didn’t make it, and I know that I can’t change it. But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.”

He was looking me in the eye now, his voice charged and sincere, as though uttering a confession, a fantastic revelation which I could neither believe nor deny. Cold drops of sweat moved at a glacier’s pace down my spine . . .

“I mean it, son,” he said. “I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around . . . Yes, I had to act the nigger!” he said, adding another fiery, “Yes!

“I don’t even insist that it was worth it, but now I’m here and I mean to stay — after you win the game, you take the prize and you keep it, protect it; there’s nothing else to do.” He shrugged. “A man gets old winning his place, son. So you go ahead, go tell your story; match your truth against my truth, because what I’ve said is truth, the broader truth. Test it, try it out . . . When I started out I was a young fellow . . .”

But I no longer listened, nor saw more than the play of light upon the metallic disks of his glasses, which now seemed to float within the disgusting sea of his words. Truth, truth, what was truth? Nobody I knew, not even my own mother, would believe me if I tried to tell them. Nor would I tomorrow, I thought, nor would I . . . I gazed helplessly at the grain of the desk, then past his head to the case of loving cups behind his chair. Above the case a portrait of the Founder looked noncommittally down.

“Hee, hee!” Bledsoe laughed. “Your arms are too short to box with me, son. And I haven’t had to really clip a young Negro in years. No,” he said getting up, “they haven’t been so cocky as they used to.”

This time I could barely move, my stomach was knotted and my kidneys ached. My legs were rubbery. For three years I had thought of myself as a man and here with a few words he’d made me as helpless as an infant. I pulled myself up . . .

“Wait, hold on a second,” he said, looking at me like a man about to flip a coin. “I like your spirit, son. You’re a fighter, and I like that; you just lack judgment, though lack of judgment can ruin you. That’s why I have to penalize you, son. I know how you feel, too. You don’t want to go home to be humiliated, I understand that, because you have some vague notions about dignity. In spite of me, such notions seep in along with the gimcrack teachers and northern-trained idealists. Yes, and you have some white folk backing you and you don’t want to face them because nothing is worse for a black man than to be humiliated by white folk. I know all about that too; ole doc’s been ‘buked and scorned and all of that. I don’t just sing about it in chapel, I know about it. But you’ll get over it; it’s foolish and expensive and a lot of dead weight. You let the white folk worry about pride and dignity — you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people — then stay in the dark and use it!”

How long will I stand here and let him laugh at me, I thought, holding on to the back of the chair, how long?

“You’re a nervy little fighter, son,” he said, “and the race needs good, smart, disillusioned fighters. Therefore I’m going to give you a hand — maybe you’ll feel that I’m giving you my left hand after I’ve struck you with my right — if you think I’m the kind of man who’d lead with his right, which I’m most certainly not. But that’s all right too, take it or leave it. I want you to go to New York for the summer and save your pride — and your money. You go there and earn your next year’s fees, understand?”

I nodded, unable to speak, whirling about furiously within myself, trying to deal with him, to fit what he was saying to what he had said . . .

“I’ll give you letters to some of the school’s friends to see that you get work,” he said. “But this time, use your judgment, keep your eyes open, get in the swing of things! Then, if you make good, perhaps . . . well, perhaps . . . It’s up to you.”

His voice stopped as he stood, tall and black and disk-eyed, huge. “That’s all, young man,” he said, his tone abrupt, official. “You have

two days in which to close your affairs.” “Two days?”

“Two days!” he said.

I went down the steps and up the walk in the dark, making it out of the building just before it bent me double beneath the wisteria that hung from the trees on rope-like vines. Almost a total disembowelment and when it paused I looked up through the trees arched high and cool above me to see a whirling, double-imaged moon. My eyes were out of focus. I started toward my room, covering one eye with my hand to avoid crashing into trees and lampposts projected into my path. I went on, tasting bile and thankful that it was night with no one to witness my condition. My stomach felt raw. From somewhere across the quiet of the campus the sound of an old guitar-blues plucked from an out-of-tune piano drifted toward me like a lazy, shimmering wave, like the echoed whistle of a lonely train, and my head went over again, against a tree this time, and I could hear it splattering the flowering vines.

When I could move, my head started to whirl in a circle. The day’s events flowed past. Trueblood, Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe and the Golden Day swept around my mind in a mad surreal whirl. I stood in the path holding my eye and trying to push back the day, but each time I floundered upon Dr. Bledsoe’s decision. It still echoed in my mind and it was real and it was final. Whatever my responsibility was for what had occurred, I knew that I would pay for it, knew that I would be expelled, and the very idea stabbed my insides again. I stood there on the moonlit walk, trying to think ahead to its effects, imagining the satisfaction of those who envied my success, the shame and disappointment of my parents. I would never live down my disgrace. My white friends would be disgusted and I recalled the fear that hung over all those who had no protection from powerful whites.

How had I come to this? I had kept unswervingly to the path placed before me, had tried to be exactly what I was expected to be, had done exactly what I was expected to do — yet, instead of winning the expected reward, here I was stumbling along, holding on desperately to one of my eyes in order to keep from bursting out my brain against some familiar object swerved into my path by my distorted vision. And now to drive me wild I felt suddenly that my grandfather was hovering over me, grinning triumphantly out of the dark. I simply could not endure it. For, despite my

anguish and anger, I knew of no other way of living, nor other forms of success available to such as me. I was so completely a part of that existence that in the end I had to make my peace. It was either that or admit that my grandfather had made sense. Which was impossible, for though I still believed myself innocent, I saw that the only alternative to permanently facing the world of Trueblood and the Golden Day was to accept the responsibility for what had happened. Somehow, I convinced myself, I had violated the code and thus would have to submit to punishment. Dr. Bledsoe is right, I told myself, he’s right; the school and what it stands for have to be protected. There was no other way, and no matter how much I suffered I would pay my debt as quickly as possible and return to building my career . . .

Back in my room I counted my savings, some fifty dollars, and decided to get to New York as quickly as possible. If Dr. Bledsoe didn’t change his mind about helping me get a job, it would be enough to pay my room and board at Men’s House, about which I had learned from fellows who lived there during their summer vacations. I would leave in the morning.

So while my roommate grinned and mumbled unaware in his sleep I packed my bags.

NEXT morning I was up before the bugle sounded and already on a bench in Dr. Bledsoe’s outer office when he appeared. The jacket of his blue serge suit was open, revealing a heavy gold chain linked between his vest pockets as he moved toward me with a noiseless tread. He passed without seeming to see me. Then as he reached his office door he said, “I haven’t changed my mind about you, boy. And I don’t intend to!”

“Oh, I didn’t come for that, sir,” I said, seeing him turn quickly, looking down upon me, his eyes quizzical.

“Very well, as long as you understand that. Come in and state your business. I have work to do.”

I waited before the desk, watching him place his homburg on an old brass hall-tree. Then he sat before me, making a cage of his fingers and nodding for me to begin.

My eyes burned and my voice sounded unreal. “I’d like to leave this morning, sir,” I said.

His eyes retreated. “Why this morning?” he said. “I gave you until tomorrow. Why the hurry?”

“It isn’t hurry, sir. But since I have to leave I’d like to get going. Staying until tomorrow won’t change matters . . .”

“No, it won’t,” he said. “That’s good sense and you have my permission. And what else?”

“That’s all, sir, except that I want to say that I’m sorry for what I did and that I hold no hard feelings. What I did was unintentional, but I’m in agreement with my punishment.”

He touched his fingertips together, the thick fingers meeting delicately, his face without expression. “That’s the proper attitude,” he said. “In other words, you don’t intend to become bitter, is that it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, I can see that you’re beginning to learn. That’s good. Two things our people must do is accept responsibility for their acts and avoid becoming bitter.” His voice rose with the conviction of his chapel speeches. “Son, if you don’t become bitter, nothing can stop you from success. Remember that.”

“I shall, sir,” I said. Then my throat thickened and I hoped he would bring up the matter of a job himself.

Instead, he looked at me impatiently and said, “Well? I have work to do. My permission is granted.”

“Well, sir, I’d like to ask a favor of you . . .”

“Favor,” he said shrewdly. “Now that’s another matter. What kind of favor?”

“It isn’t much, sir. You suggested that you would put me in touch with some of the trustees who would give me a job. I’m willing to do anything.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “yes, of course.” .

He seemed to think for a moment, his eyes studying the objects on his desk. Then touching the shackle gently with his index finger, he said, “Very well. When do you intend to leave?”

“By the first bus, if possible, sir.” “Are you packed?”
“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. Go get your bags and return here in thirty minutes. My secretary will give you some letters addressed to several friends of the school. One of them will do something for you.”

“Thanks, sir. Thank you very much,” I said as he stood.

“That’s all right,” he said. “The school tries to look out for its own. Only one thing more. These letters will be sealed; don’t open them if you want help. White folk are strict about such things. The letters will introduce you and request them to help you with a job. I’ll do my best for you and it isn’t necessary for you to open them, understand?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t think of opening them, sir,” I said.

“Very well, the young lady will have them for you when you return. What about your parents, have you informed them?”

“No, sir, it might make them feel too bad if I told them I was expelled, so I plan to write them after I get there and get a job . . .”

“I see. Perhaps that is best.”

“Well, good-bye, sir,” I said, extending my hand.

“Good-bye,” he said. His hand was large and strangely limp. He pressed a buzzer as I turned to leave. His secretary brushed past me as I went through the door.

The letters were waiting when I returned, seven of them, addressed to men with impressive names. I looked for Mr. Norton’s but his was not among them. Placing them carefully in my inside pocket, I grabbed my bags and hurried for the bus.

Chapter 7

The station was empty, but the ticket window was open and a porter in a gray uniform was pushing a broom. I bought my ticket and climbed into the bus. There were only two passengers seated at the rear of the red and nickel interior, and I suddenly felt that I was dreaming. It was the vet, who gave me a smile of recognition; an attendant sat beside him.

“Welcome, young man,” he called. “Imagine, Mr. Crenshaw,” he said to the attendant, “we have a traveling companion!”

“Morning,” I said reluctantly. I looked around for a seat away from them, but although the bus was almost empty, only the rear was reserved for us and there was nothing to do but move back with them. I didn’t like it; the vet was too much a part of an experience which I was already trying to blot out of my consciousness. His way of talking to Mr. Norton had been a foreshadowing of my misfortune — just as I had sensed that it would be. Now having accepted my punishment, I wanted to remember nothing connected with Trueblood or the Golden Day.

Crenshaw, a much smaller man than Supercargo, said nothing. He was not the type usually sent out to accompany violent cases and I was glad until I remembered that the only violent thing about the vet was his tongue. His mouth had already gotten me into trouble and now I hoped he wouldn’t turn it upon the white driver — that was apt to get us killed. What was he doing on the bus anyway? God, how had Dr. Bledsoe worked that fast? I stared at the fat man.

“How did your friend Mr. Norton make out?” he asked. “He’s okay,” I said.

“No more fainting spells?”


“Did he bawl you out for what happened?”

“He didn’t blame me,” I said.

“Good. I think I shocked him more than anything else he saw at the

Golden Day. I hoped I hadn’t caused you trouble. School isn’t out so soon, is it?”

“Not quite,” I said lightly. “I’m leaving early in order to take a job.” “Wonderful! At home?”

“No, I thought I might make more money in New York.”

“New York!” he said. “That’s not a place, it’s a dream. When I was your age it was Chicago. Now all the little black boys run away to New York. Out of the fire into the melting pot. I can see you after you’ve lived in Harlem for three months. Your speech will change, you’ll talk a lot about ‘college,’ you’ll attend lectures at the Men’s House . . . you might even meet a few white folks. And listen,” he said, leaning close to whisper, “you might even dance with a white girl!”

“I’m going to New York to work,” I said, looking around me. “I won’t have time for that.”

“You will though,” he teased. “Deep down you’re thinking about the freedom you’ve heard about up North, and you’ll try it once, just to see if what you’ve heard is true.”

“There’s other kinds of freedom beside some ole white trash women,” Crenshaw said. “He might want to see him some shows and eat in some of them big restaurants.”

The vet grinned. “Why, of course, but remember, Crenshaw, he’s only going to be there a few months. Most of the time he’ll be working, and so much of his freedom will have to be symbolic. And what will be his or any man’s most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he’ll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time. He’ll see.”

I tried to change the subject. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To Washington, D. C.,” he said.

“Then you’re cured?”

“Cured? There is no cure –“

“He’s being transferred,” said Crenshaw.

“Yes, I’m headed for St. Elizabeth’s,” the vet said. “The ways of authority are indeed mysterious. For a year I’ve tried to get transferred, then this morning I’m suddenly told to pack. I can’t but wonder if our little conversation with your friend Mr. Norton had something to do with it.”

“How could he have anything to do with it?” I said, remembering Dr. Bledsoe’s threat.

“How could he have anything to do with your being on this bus?” he said.

He winked. His eyes twinkled. “All right, forget what I’ve said. But for God’s sake, learn to look beneath the surface,” he said.

“Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don’t believe in it — that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way — part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate – I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. We’re an ass-backward people, though. You might even beat the game. It’s really a very crude affair. Really Pre-Renaissance — and that game has been analyzed, put down in books. But down here they’ve forgotten to take care of the books and that’s your opportunity. You’re hidden right out in the open — that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything, since they believe they’ve taken care of that . . .”

“Man, who’s this they you talking so much about?” said Crenshaw.

The vet looked annoyed. “They?” he said. “They? Why, the same they we always mean, the white folks, authority, the gods, fate, circumstances — the force that pulls your strings until you refuse to be pulled any more. The big man who’s never there, where you think he is.”

Crenshaw grimaced. “You talk too damn much, man,” he said. “You talk and you don’t say nothing.”

“Oh, I have a lot to say, Crenshaw. I put into words things which most men feel, if only slightly. Sure, I’m a compulsive talker of a kind, but I’m really more clown than fool. But, Crenshaw,” he said, rolling a wand of the newspaper which lay across his knees, “you don’t realize what’s happening. Our young friend is going North for the first time! It is for the first time, isn’t it?”

“You’re right,” I said.

“Of course. Were you ever North before, Crenshaw?”

“I been all over the country,” Crenshaw said. “I know how they do it, wherever they do it. And I know how to act too. Besides, you ain’t going North, not the real North. You going to Washington. It’s just another southern town.”

“Yes, I know,” the vet said, “but think of what this means for the young fellow. He’s going free, in the broad daylight and alone. I can remember when young fellows like him had first to commit a crime, or be accused of one, before they tried such a thing. Instead of leaving in the light of morning, they went in the dark of night. And no bus was fast enough — isn’t that so, Crenshaw?”

Crenshaw stopped unwrapping a candy bar and looked at him sharply, his eyes narrowed. “How the hell I know?” he said.

“I’m sorry, Crenshaw,” the vet said. “I thought that as a man of experience . . .”

“Well, I ain’t had that experience. I went North of my own free will.” “But haven’t you heard of such cases?”

“Hearing ain’t ‘speriencing,” Crenshaw said.

No, it isn’t. But since there’s always an element of crime in freedom–“

“I ain’t committed no crime!”

“I didn’t mean that you had,” the vet said. “I apologize. Forget it.” Crenshaw took an angry bite from his candy bar, mumbling, “I wish you’d hurry up and git depressive, maybe then you won’t talk so damn much.”

“Yes, doctor,” the vet said mockingly. “I’ll be depressive soon enough, but while you eat your candy just allow me to chew the rag; there’s a kind of substance in it.”

“Aw, quit trying to show off your education,” Crenshaw said. “You riding back here in the Jim Crow just like me. Besides, you’re a nut.”

The vet winked at me, continuing his flow of words as the bus got under way. We were going at last and I took a last longing look as the bus shot around the highway which circled the school. I turned and watched it recede from the rear window; the sun caught its treetops, bathed its low-set buildings and ordered grounds. Then it was gone. In less than five minutes the spot of earth which I identified with the best of all possible worlds was gone, lost within the wild uncultivated countryside. A flash of movement drew my eye to the side of the highway now, and I saw a moccasin wiggle swiftly along the gray concrete, vanishing into a length of iron pipe that lay beside the road. I watched the flashing past of cotton fields and cabins, feeling that I was moving into the unknown.

The vet and Crenshaw prepared to change busses at the next stop, and upon leaving, the vet placed his hand upon my shoulder and looked at me with kindness, and, as always, he smiled.

“Now is the time for offering fatherly advice,” he said, “but I’ll have to spare you that — since I guess I’m nobody’s father except my own. Perhaps that’s the advice to give you: Be your own father, young man. And remember, the world is possibility if only you’ll discover it. Last of all, leave the Mr. Nortons alone, and if you don’t know what I mean, think about it. Farewell.”

I watched him following Crenshaw through the group of passengers waiting to get on, a short, comical figure turning to wave, then disappearing through the door of the red brick terminal. I sat back with a sigh of relief, yet once the passengers were aboard and the bus under way again, I felt sad and utterly alone.

Not until we were sailing through the Jersey countryside did my spirits begin to rise. Then my old confidence and optimism revived, and I tried to plan my time in the North. I would work hard and serve my employer so well that he would shower Dr. Bledsoe with favorable reports. And I would save my money and return in the fall full of New York culture. I’d be indisputably the leading campus figure. Perhaps I would attend Town Meeting, which I had heard over the radio. I’d learn the platform tricks of the leading speakers. And I would make the best of my contacts. When I met the big men to whom my letters were addressed I would put on my best manner. I would speak softly, in my most polished tones, smile agreeably and be most polite; and I would remember that if he (“he” meant any of the important gentlemen) should begin a topic of conversation (I would never begin a subject of my own) which I found unfamiliar, I would smile and agree. My shoes would be polished, my suit pressed, my hair dressed (not too much grease) and parted on the right side; my nails would be clean and my armpits well deodorized — you had to watch the last item. You couldn’t allow them to think all of us smelled bad. The very thought of my contacts gave me a feeling of sophistication, of worldliness, which, as I fingered the seven important letters in my pocket, made me feel light and expansive.

I dreamed with my eyes gazing blankly upon the landscape until I looked up to see a Red Cap frowning down. “Buddy, are you getting off here?” he said. “If so, you better get started.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, beginning to move. “Sure, but how do you get to Harlem?”

“That’s easy,” he said. “You just keep heading north.”

And while I got down my bags and my prize brief case, still as shiny as the night of the battle royal, he instructed me how to take the subway, then I struggled through the crowd.

Moving into the subway I was pushed along by the milling salt-and-pepper mob, seized in the back by a burly, blue-uniformed attendant about the size of Supercargo, and crammed, bags and all, into a train that was so crowded that everyone seemed to stand with his head back and his eyes bulging, like chickens frozen at the sound of danger. Then the door banged behind me and I was crushed against a huge woman in black who shook her head and smiled while I stared with horror at a large mole that arose out of the oily whiteness of her skin like a black mountain sweeping out of a rainwet plain. And all the while I could feel the rubbery softness of her flesh against the length of my body. I could neither turn sideways nor back away, nor set down my bags. I was trapped, so close that simply by nodding my head, I might have brushed her lips with mine. I wanted desperately to raise my hands to show her that it was against my will. I kept expecting her to scream, until finally the car lurched and I was able to free my left arm. I closed my eyes, holding desperately to my lapel. The car roared and swayed, pressing me hard against her, but when I took a furtive glance around no one was paying me the slightest attention. And even she seemed lost in her own thoughts. The train seemed to plunge downhill now, only to lunge to a stop that shot me out upon a platform feeling like something regurgitated from the belly of a frantic whale. Wrestling with my bags, I swept along with the crowd, up the stairs into the hot street. I didn’t care where I was, I would walk the rest of the way.

For a moment I stood before a shop window staring at my own reflection in the glass, trying to recover from the ride against the woman. I was limp, my clothing wet. “But you’re up North now,” I told myself, “up North.” Yes, but suppose she had screamed . . . The next time I used the subway I’d always be sure to enter with my hands grasping my lapels and I’d keep them there until I left the train. Why, my God, they must have riots on those things all the time. Why hadn’t I read about them?

I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic — not even on trips I had made with the debating team to New Orleans, Dallas or Birmingham. They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight. There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic — and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem, and now all the stories which I had heard of the city-within-a-city leaped alive in my mind. The vet had been right: For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought of my life as being confined to the South. And now as I struggled through the lines of people a new world of possibility suggested itself to me faintly, like a small voice that was barely audible in the roar of city sounds. I moved wide-eyed, trying to take the bombardment of impressions. Then I stopped still.

It was ahead of me, angry and shrill, and upon hearing it I had a sensation of shock and fear such as I had felt as a child when surprised by my father’s voice. An emptiness widened in my stomach. Before me a gathering of people were almost blocking the walk, while above them a short squat man shouted angrily from a ladder to which were attached a collection of small American flags.

“We gine chase ’em out,” the man cried. “Out!”

“Tell ’em about it, Ras, mahn,” a voice called.

And I saw the squat man shake his fist angrily over the uplifted faces, yelling something in a staccato West Indian accent, at which the crowd yelled threateningly. It was as though a riot would break any minute, against whom I didn’t know. I was puzzled, both by the effect of his voice upon me and by the obvious anger of the crowd. I had never seen so many black men angry in public before, and yet others passed the gathering by without even a glance. And as I came alongside, I saw two white policemen talking quietly with one another, their backs turned as they laughed at some joke. Even when the shirt-sleeved crowd cried out in angry affirmation of some remark of the speaker, they paid no attention. I was stunned. I stood gaping at the policemen, my bags settling upon the middle of the walk, until one of them happened to see me and nudged the other, who chewed lazily upon a wad of gum.

“What can we do for you, bud?” he said.

“I was just wondering . . .” I said, before I caught myself.


“I was just wondering how to get to Men’s House, sir,” I said.

“Is that all?”

“Yes, sir,” I stammered.

“You sure?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s a stranger,” the other said. “Just coming to town, bud?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “I just got off the subway.”

“You did, huh? Well, you want to be careful.”

“Oh, I will, sir.”

“That’s the idea. Keep it clean,” he said, and directed me to Men’s House.

I thanked them and hurried on. The speaker had become more violent than before and his remarks were about the government. The clash between the calm of the rest of the street and the passion of the voice gave the scene a strange out-of-joint quality, and I was careful not to look back lest I see a riot flare.

I reached Men’s House in a sweat, registered, and went immediately to my room. I would have to take Harlem a little at a time.

Chapter 8

It was a clean little room with a dark orange bedspread. The chair and dresser were maple and there was a Gideon Bible lying upon a small table. I dropped my bags and sat on the bed. From the street below came the sound of traffic, the larger sound of the subway, the smaller, more varied sounds of voices. Alone in the room, I could hardly believe that I was so far away from home, yet there was nothing familiar in my surroundings. Except the Bible; I picked it up and sat back on the bed, allowing its blood-red-edged pages to ripple beneath my thumb. I remembered how Dr. Bledsoe could quote from the Book during his speeches to the student body on Sunday nights. I turned to the book of Genesis, but could not read. I thought of home and the attempts my father had made to institute family prayer, the gathering around the stove at mealtime and kneeling with heads bowed over the seats of our chairs, his voice quavering and full of church-house rhetoric and verbal humility. But this made me homesick and I put the Bible aside. This was New York. I had to get a job and earn money.

I took off my coat and hat and took my packet of letters and lay back upon the bed, drawing a feeling of importance from reading the important names. What was inside, and how could I open them undetected? They were tightly sealed. I had read that letters were sometimes steamed open, but I had no steam. I gave it up, I really didn’t need to know their contents and it would not be honorable or safe to tamper with Dr. Bledsoe. I knew already that they concerned me and were addressed to some of the most important men in the whole country. That was enough. I caught myself wishing for someone to show the letters to, someone who could give me a proper reflection of my importance. Finally, I went to the mirror and gave myself an admiring smile as I spread the letters upon the dresser like a hand of high trump cards.

Then I began to map my campaign for the next day. First, I would have a shower, then get breakfast. All this very early. I’d have to move fast. With important men like that you had to be on time. If you made an appointment with one of them, you couldn’t bring them any slow c.p. (colored people’s) time. Yes, and I would have to get a watch. I would do everything to schedule. I recalled the heavy gold chain that hung between Dr. Bledsoe’s vest pockets and the air with which he snapped his watch open to consult the time, his lips pursed, chin pulled in so that it multiplied, his forehead wrinkled. Then he’d clear his throat and give a deeply intoned order, as though each syllable were pregnant with nuances of profoundly important meaning. I recalled my expulsion, feeling quick anger and attempting to suppress it immediately; but now I was not quite successful, my resentment stuck out at the edges, making me uncomfortable. Maybe it was best, I thought hastily. Maybe if it hadn’t happened I would never have received an opportunity to meet such important men face to face. In my mind’s eye I continued to see him gazing into his watch, but now he was joined by another figure; a younger figure, myself; become shrewd, suave and dressed not in somber garments (like his old-fashioned ones) but in a dapper suit of rich material, cut fashionably, like those of the men you saw in magazine ads, the junior executive types in Esquire. I imagined myself making a speech and caught in striking poses by flashing cameras, snapped at the end of some period of dazzling eloquence. A younger version of the doctor, less crude, indeed polished. I would hardly ever speak above a whisper and I would always be — yes, there was no other word, I would be charming. Like Ronald Colman. What a voice! Of course you couldn’t speak that way in the South, the white folks wouldn’t like it, and the Negroes would say that you were “putting on.” But here in the North I would slough off my southern ways of speech. Indeed, I would have one way of speaking in the North and another in the South. Give them what they wanted down South, that was the way. If Dr. Bledsoe could do it, so could I. Before going to bed that night I wiped off my brief case with a clean towel and placed the letters carefully inside.

The next morning I took an early subway into the Wall Street district, selecting an address that carried me almost to the end of the island. It was dark with the tallness of the buildings and the narrow streets. Armored cars with alert guards went past as I looked for the number. The streets were full of hurrying people who walked as though they had been wound up and were directed by some unseen control. Many of the men carried dispatch cases and brief cases and I gripped mine with a sense of importance. And here and there I saw Negroes who hurried along with leather pouches strapped to their wrists. They reminded me fleetingly of prisoners carrying their leg irons as they escaped from a chain gang. Yet they seemed aware of some self-importance, and I wished to stop one and ask him why he was chained to his pouch. Maybe they got paid well for this, maybe they were chained to money. Perhaps the man with rundown heels ahead of me was chained to a million dollars!

I looked to see if there were policemen or detectives with drawn guns following, but there was no one. Or if so, they were hidden in the hurrying crowd. I wanted to follow one of the men to see where he was going. Why did they trust him with all that money? And what would happen if he should disappear with it? But of course no one would be that foolish. This was Wall Street. Perhaps it was guarded, as I had been told post offices were guarded, by men who looked down at you through peepholes in the ceiling and walls, watching you constantly, silently waiting for a wrong move. Perhaps even now an eye had picked me up and watched my every movement. Maybe the face of that clock set in the gray building across the street hid a pair of searching eyes. I hurried to my address and was challenged by the sheer height of the white stone with its sculptured bronze fa?de. Men and women hurried inside, and after staring for a moment I followed, taking the elevator and being pushed to the back of the car. It rose like a rocket, creating a sensation in my crotch as though an important part of myself had been left below in the lobby.

At the last stop I left the car and went down a stretch of marble hallway until I found the door marked with the trustee’s name. But starting to enter I lost my nerve and backed away. I looked down the hall. It was empty. White folks were funny; Mr. Bates might not wish to see a Negro the first thing in the morning. I turned and walked down the hall and looked out of the window. I would wait awhile.

Below me lay South Ferry, and a ship and two barges were passing out into the river, and far out and to the right I could make out the Statue of Liberty, her torch almost lost in the fog. Back along the shore, gulls soared through the mist above the docks, and down, so far below that it made me dizzy, crowds were moving. I looked back to a ferry passing the Statue of Liberty now, its backwash a curving line upon the bay and three gulls swooping down behind it.

Behind me the elevator was letting off passengers, and I heard the cheery voices of women going chattering down the hall. Soon I would have to go in. My uncertainty grew. My appearance worried me. Mr. Bates might not like my suit, or the cut of my hair, and my chance of a job would be lost. I looked at his name typed neatly across the envelope and wondered how he earned his money. He was a millionaire, I knew. Maybe he had always been; maybe he was born a millionaire. Never before had I been so curious about money as now that I believed I was surrounded by it. Perhaps I would get a job here and after a few years would be sent up and down the streets with millions strapped to my arms, a trusted messenger. Then I’d be sent South again to head the college — just as the mayor’s cook had been made principal of the school after she’d become too lame to stand before her stove. Only I wouldn’t stay North that long; they’d need me before that . . . But now for the interview.

Entering the office I found myself face to face with a young woman who looked up from her desk as I glanced swiftly over the large light room, over the comfortable chairs, the ceiling-high bookcases with gold and leather bindings, past a series of portraits and back again, to meet her questioning eyes. She was alone and I thought, Well, at least I’m not too early . . .

“Good morning,” she said, betraying none of the antagonism I had expected.

“Good morning,” I said, advancing. How should I begin?


“Is this Mr. Bates’ office?” I said.

“Why, yes, it is,” she said. “Have you an appointment?”

“No, ma’m,” I said, and quickly hated myself for saying “ma’m” to so young a white woman, and in the North too. I removed the letter from my brief case, but before I could explain, she said,

“May I see it, please?”

I hesitated. I did not wish to surrender the letter except to Mr. Bates, but there was a command in the extended hand, and I obeyed. I surrendered it, expecting her to open it, but instead, after looking at the envelope she rose and disappeared behind a paneled door without a word.

Back across the expanse of carpet to the door which I had entered I noticed several chairs but was undecided to go there. I stood, my hat in my hand, looking around me. One wall caught my eyes. It was hung with three portraits of dignified old gentlemen in winged collars who looked down from their frames with an assurance and arrogance that I had never seen in any except white men and a few bad, razor-scarred Negroes. Not even Dr. Bledsoe, who had but to look around him without speaking to set the teachers to trembling, had such assurance. So these were the kind of men who stood behind him. How did they fit in with the southern white folks, with the men who gave me my scholarship? I was still staring, caught in the spell of power and mystery, when the secretary returned.

She looked at me oddly and smiled. “I’m very sorry,” she said, “but Mr. Bates is just too busy to see you this morning and asks that you leave your name and address. You’ll hear from him by mail.”

I stood silent with disappointment. “Write it here,” she said, giving me a card.

“I’m sorry,” she said again as I scribbled my address and prepared to leave.

“I can be reached here at any time,” I said.

“Very good,” she said. “You should hear very soon.”

She seemed very kind and interested, and I left in good spirits. My fears were groundless, there was nothing to it. This was New York.

I succeeded in reaching several trustees’ secretaries during the days that followed, and all were friendly and encouraging. Some looked at me strangely, but I dismissed it since it didn’t appear to be antagonism. Perhaps they’re surprised to see someone like me with introductions to such important men, I thought. Well, there were unseen lines that ran from North to South, and Mr. Norton had called me his destiny . . . I swung my brief case with confidence.

With things going so well I distributed my letters in the mornings, and saw the city during the afternoons. Walking about the streets, sitting on subways beside whites, eating with them in the same cafeterias (although I avoided their tables) gave me the eerie, out-of-focus sensation of a dream. My clothes felt ill-fitting; and for all my letters to men of power, I was unsure of how I should act. For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn’t worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business. It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable . . .

But my main concern was seeing the trustees and after more than a week of seeing the city and being vaguely encouraged by secretaries, I became impatient. I had distributed all but the letter to a Mr. Emerson, who I knew from the papers was away from the city. Several times I started down to see what had happened but changed my mind. I did not wish to seem too impatient. But time was becoming short. Unless I found work soon I would never earn enough to enter school by fall. I had already written home that I was working for a member of the trustee board, and the only letter I had received so far was one telling me how wonderful they thought it was and warning me against the ways of the wicked city. Now I couldn’t write them for money without revealing that I had been lying about the job.

Finally I tried to reach the important men by telephone, only to receive polite refusals by their secretaries. But fortunately I still had the letter to Mr. Emerson. I decided to use it, but instead of handing it over to a secretary, I wrote a letter explaining that I had a message from Dr. Bledsoe and requesting an appointment. Maybe I’ve been wrong about the secretaries, I thought; maybe they destroyed the letters. I should have been more careful.

I thought of Mr. Norton. If only the last letter had been addressed to him. If only he lived in New York so that I could make a personal appeal! Somehow I felt closer to Mr. Norton, and felt that if he should see me, he would remember that it was I whom he connected so closely to his fate. Now it seemed ages ago and in a different season and a distant land. Actually, it was less than a month. I became energetic and wrote him a letter, expressing my belief that my future would be immeasurably different if only I could work for him; that he would be benefited as well as I. I was especially careful to allow some indication of my ability to come through the appeal. I spent several hours on the typing, destroying copy after copy until I had completed one that was immaculate, carefully phrased and most respectful. I hurried down and posted it before the final mail collection, suddenly seized with the dizzy conviction that it would bring results. I remained about the building for three days awaiting an answer. But the letter brought no reply. Nor, any more than a prayer unanswered by God, was it returned.

My doubts grew. Perhaps all was not well. I remained in my room all the next day. I grew conscious that I was afraid; more afraid here in my room than I had ever been in the South. And all the more, because here there was nothing concrete to lay it to. All the secretaries had been encouraging. In the evening I went out to a movie, a picture of frontier life with heroic Indian fighting and struggles against flood, storm and forest fire, with the out-numbered settlers winning each engagement; an epic of wagon trains rolling ever westward. I forgot myself (although there was no one like me taking part in the adventures) and left the dark room in a lighter mood. But that night I dreamed of my grandfather and awoke depressed. I walked out of the building with a queer feeling that I was playing a part in some scheme which I did not understand. Somehow I felt that Bledsoe and Norton were behind it, and all day I was inhibited in both speech and conduct, for fear that I might say or do something scandalous. But this was all fantastic, I told myself. I was being too impatient. I could wait for the trustees to make a move. Perhaps I was being subjected to a test of some kind. They hadn’t told me the rules, I knew, but the feeling persisted. Perhaps my exile would end suddenly and I would be given a scholarship to return to the campus. But when? How long?

Something had to happen soon. I would have to find a job to tide me over. My money was almost gone and anything might happen. I had been so confident that I had failed to put aside the price of train fare home. I was miserable and I dared not talk to anyone about my problems; not even the officials at Men’s House, for since they had learned that I was to be assigned to an important job, they treated me with a certain deference; therefore I was careful to hide my growing doubts. After all, I thought, I might have to ask for credit and I’ll have to appear a good risk. No, the thing to do was to keep faith. I’d start out once more in the morning. Something was certain to happen tomorrow. And it did. I received a letter from Mr. Emerson.

Chapter 9

It was a clear, bright day when I went out, and the sun burned warm upon my eyes. Only a few flecks of snowy cloud hung high in the morning-blue sky, and already a woman was hanging wash on a roof. I felt better walking along. A feeling of confidence grew. Far down the island the skyscrapers rose tall and mysterious in the thin, pastel haze. A milk truck went past. I thought of the school. What were they doing now on the campus? Had the moon sunk low and the sun climbed clear? Had the breakfast bugle blown? Did the bellow of the big seed bull awaken the girls in the dorms this morning as on most spring mornings when I was there — sounding clear and full above bells and bugles and early workaday sounds? I hurried along, encouraged by the memories, and suddenly I was seized with a certainty that today was the day. Something would happen. I patted my brief case, thinking of the letter inside. The last had been first — a good sign.

Close to the curb ahead I saw a man pushing a cart piled high with rolls of blue paper and heard him singing in a clear ringing voice. It was a blues, and I walked along behind him remembering the times that I had heard such singing at home. It seemed that here some memories slipped around my life at the campus and went far back to things I had long ago shut out of my mind. There was no escaping such reminders.

“She’s got feet like a monkey Legs like a frog — Lawd, Lawd! But when she starts to loving me I holler Whoooo, God-dog!
Cause I loves my baabay, Better than I do myself . . .”

And as I drew alongside I was startled to hear him call to me: “Looka-year, buddy . . .”

“Yes,” I said, pausing to look into his reddish eyes.

“Tell me just one thing this very fine morning — Hey! Wait a minute, daddy-o, I’m going your way!” “What is it?” I said.

“What I want to know is,” he said, “is you got the dog?”

“Dog? What dog?”

“Sho,” he said, stopping his cart and resting it on its support. “That’s it. Who –” he halted to crouch with one foot on the curb like a country preacher about to pound his Bible — “got . . . the . . . dog,” his head snapping with each word like an angry rooster’s.

I laughed nervously and stepped back. He watched me out of shrewd eyes. “Oh, goddog, daddy-o,” he said with a sudden bluster, “who got the damn dog? Now I know you from down home, how come you trying to act like you never heard that before! Hell, ain’t nobody out here this morning but us colored — Why you trying to deny me?”

Suddenly I was embarrassed and angry. “Deny you? What do you mean?”

“Just answer the question. Is you got him, or ain’t you?”

“A dog?”

“Yeah, the dog.”

I was exasperated. “No, not this morning,” I said and saw a grin spread over his face.

“Wait a minute, daddy. Now don’t go get mad. Damn, man! I thought sho you had him,” he said, pretending to disbelieve me. I started away and he pushed the cart beside me. And suddenly I felt uncomfortable. Somehow he was like one of the vets from the Golden Day . . .

“Well, maybe it’s the other way round,” he said. “Maybe he got holt to you.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“If he is, you lucky it’s just a dog — ’cause, man, I tell you I believe it’s a bear that’s got holt to me.”

“A bear?”

“Hell, yes! The bear. Caint you see these patches where he’s been clawing at my behind?”

Pulling the seat of his Charlie Chaplin pants to the side, he broke into deep laughter.

“Man, this Harlem ain’t nothing but a bear’s den. But I tell you one thing,” he said with swiftly sobering face, “it’s the best place in the world for you and me, and if times don’t get better soon I’m going to grab that bear and turn him every way but loose!”

“Don’t let him get you down,” I said.

“No, daddy-o, I’m going to start with one my own size!”

I tried to think of some saying about bears to reply, but remembered only Jack the Rabbit, Jack the Bear . . . who were both long forgotten and now brought a wave of homesickness. I wanted to leave him, and yet I found a certain comfort in walking along beside him, as though we’d walked this way before through other mornings, in other places . . .

“What is all that you have there?” I said, pointing to the rolls of blue paper stacked in the cart.

“Blueprints, man. Here I got ’bout a hundred pounds of blueprints and I couldn’t build nothing!”

“What are they blueprints for?” I said.

“Damn if I know — everything. Cities, towns, country clubs. Some just buildings and houses. I got damn near enough to build me a house if I could live in a paper house like they do in Japan. I guess somebody done changed their plans,” he added with a laugh. “I asked the man why they getting rid of all this stuff and he said they get in the way so every once in a while they have to throw ’em out to make place for the new plans. Plenty of these ain’t never been used, you know.”

“You have quite a lot,” I said.

“Yeah, this ain’t all neither. I got a coupla loads. There’s a day’s work right here in this stuff. Folks is always making plans and changing ’em.” “Yes, that’s right,” I said, thinking of my letters, “but that’s a mistake. You have to stick to the plan.”

He looked at me, suddenly grave. “You kinda young, daddy-o,” he said.

I did not answer. We came to a corner at the top of a hill.

“Well, daddy-o, it’s been good talking with a youngster from the old country but I got to leave you now. This here’s one of them good ole downhill streets. I can coast a while and won’t be worn out at the end of the day. Damn if I’m-a let ’em run me into my grave. I be seeing you again sometime — And you know something?”

“What’s that?”

“I thought you was trying to deny me at first, but now I be pretty glad to see you . . .”

“I hope so,” I said. “And you take it easy.”

“Oh, I’ll do that. All it takes to get along in this here man’s town is a little shit, grit and mother-wit. And man, I was bawn with all three. In fact, I’m as even the son of a seventh son bawn with acau lover both eyes and raised on black cat–bones high john the conqueror and greasy greens –” he spieled with twinkling eyes, his lips working rapidly. “You dig me, daddy?”

“You’re going too fast,” I said, beginning to laugh.

“Okay, I’m slowing down. I’ll verse you but I won’t curse you — My name is Peter Wheatstraw, I’m the Devil’s only son-in-law, so roll ’em! You a southern boy, ain’t you?” he said, his head to one side like a bear’s.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, git with it! My name’s Blue and I’m coming at you with a pitchfork. Fe Fi Fo Fum. Who wants to shoot the Devil one, Lord God Stingeroy!”

He had me grinning despite myself. I liked his words though I didn’t know the answer. I’d known the stuff from childhood, but had forgotten it; had learned it back of school . . .

“You digging me, daddy?” he laughed. “Haw, but look me up sometimes, I’m a piano player and a rounder, a whiskey drinker and a pavement pounder. I’ll teach you some good bad habits. You’ll need ’em. Good luck,” he said.

“So long,” I said and watched him going. I watched him push around the corner to the top of the hill leaning sharp against the cart handle, and heard his voice arise, muffled now, as he started down.

She’s got feet like a monkeeee Legs Legs, Legs like a maaad Bulldog . . .

What does it mean, I thought. I’d heard it all my life but suddenly the strangeness of it came through to me. Was it about a woman or about some strange sphinxlike animal? Certainly his woman, no woman, fitted that description. And why describe anyone in such contradictory words? Was it a sphinx? Did old Chaplin-pants, old dusty-butt, love her or hate her; or was he merely singing? What kind of woman could love a dirty fellow like that, anyway? And how could even he love her if she were as repulsive as the song described? I moved ahead. Perhaps everyone loved someone; I didn’t know. I couldn’t give much thought to love; in order to travel far you had to be detached, and I had the long road back to the campus before me. I strode along, hearing the cartman’s song become a lonesome, broad-toned whistle now that flowered at the end of each phrase into a tremulous, blue-toned chord. And in its flutter and swoop I heard the sound of a railroad train highballing it, lonely across the lonely night. He was the Devil’s son-in-law, all right, and he was a man who could whistle a three-toned chord . . . God damn, I thought, they’re a hell of a people! And I didn’t know whether it was pride or disgust that suddenly flashed over me.

At the corner I turned into a drugstore and took a seat at the counter. Several men were bent over plates of food. Glass globes of coffee simmered above blue flames. I could feel the odor of frying bacon reach deep into my stomach as I watched the counterman open the doors of the grill and turn the lean strips over and bang the doors shut again. Above, facing the counter, a blonde, sun-burned college girl smiled down, inviting all and sundry to drink a coke. The counterman came over.

“I’ve got something good for you,” he said, placing a glass of water before me. “How about the special?”

“What’s the special?”

“Pork chops, grits, one egg, hot biscuits and coffee!” He leaned over the counter with a look that seemed to say, There, that ought to excite you, boy. Could everyone see that I was southern?

“I’ll have orange juice, toast and coffee,” I said coldly.

He shook his head, “You fooled me,” he said, slamming two pieces of bread into the toaster. “I would have sworn you were a pork chop man. Is that juice large or small?”

“Make it large,” I said.

I looked silently at the back of his head as he sliced an orange, thinking, I should order the special and get up and walk out. Who does he think he is?

A seed floated in the thick layer of pulp that formed at the top of the glass. I fished it out with a spoon and then downed the acid drink, proud to have resisted the pork chops and grits. It was an act of discipline, a sign of the change that was coming over me and which would return me to college a more experienced man. I would be basically the same, I thought, stirring my coffee, yet so subtly changed as to intrigue those who had never been North. It always helped at the college to be a little different, especially if you wished to play a leading role. It made the folks talk about you, try to figure you out. I had to be careful though, not to speak too much like a northern Negro; they wouldn’t like that. The thing to do, I thought with a smile, was to give them hints that whatever you did or said was weighted with broad and mysterious meanings that lay just beneath the surface. They’d love that. And the vaguer you told things, the better. You had to keep them guessing — just as they guessed about Dr. Bledsoe: Did Dr. Bledsoe stop at an expensive white hotel when he visited New York? Did he go on parties with the trustees? And how did he act?

“Man, I bet he has him a fine time. They tell me when Ole Doc gets to New York he don’t stop for the red lights. Say he drinks his good red whiskey and smokes his good black cigars and forgets all about you ole know-nothing-Negroes down here on the campus. Say when he gets up North he makes everybody call him Mister Doctor Bledsoe.”

I smiled as the conversation came back to my mind. I felt good. Perhaps it was all to the best that I had been sent away. I had learned more. Heretofore all the campus gossip had seemed merely malicious and disrespectful; now I could see the advantage for Dr. Bledsoe. Whether we liked him or not, he was never out of our minds. That was a secret of leadership. Strange I should think of it now, for although I’d never given it any thought before, I seemed to have known it all along. Only here the distance from the campus seemed to make it clear and hard, and I thought it without fear. Here it came to hand just as easily as the coin which I now placed on the counter for my breakfast. It was fifteen cents and as I felt for a nickel I took out another dime, thinking, Is it an insult when one of us tips one of them?

I looked for the counterman, seeing him serving a plate of pork chops and grits to a man with a pale blond mustache, and stared; then I slapped the dime on the counter and left, annoyed that the dime did not ring as loud as a fifty-cent piece.

When I reached the door of Mr. Emerson’s office it occurred to me that perhaps I should have waited until the business of the day was under way, but I disregarded the idea and went ahead. My being early would be, I hoped, an indication of both how badly I wanted work, and how promptly I would perform any assignment given me. Besides, wasn’t there a saying that

the first person of the day to enter a business would get a bargain? Or was that said only of Jewish business? I removed the letter from my brief case. Was Emerson a Christian or a Jewish name?

Beyond the door it was like a museum. I had entered a large reception room decorated with cool tropical colors. One wall was almost covered by a huge colored map, from which narrow red silk ribbons stretched tautly from each division of the map to a series of ebony pedestals, upon which sat glass specimen jars containing natural products of the various countries. It was an importing firm. I looked around the room, amazed. There were paintings, bronzes, tapestries, all beautifully arranged. I was dazzled and so taken aback that I almost dropped my brief case when I heard a voice say, “And what would your business be?”

I saw the figure out of a collar ad: ruddy face with blond hair faultlessly in place, a tropical weave suit draped handsomely from his broad shoulders, his eyes gray and nervous behind clear-framed glasses.

I explained my appointment. “Oh, yes,” he said. “May I see the letter, please?”

I handed it over, noticing the gold links in the soft white cuffs as he extended his hand. Glancing at the envelope he looked back at me with a strange interest in his eyes and said, “Have a seat, please. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

I watched him leave noiselessly, moving with a long hip-swinging stride that caused me to frown. I went over and took a teakwood chair with cushions of emerald-green silk, sitting stiffly with my brief case across my knees. He must have been sitting there when I came in, for on a table that held a beautiful dwarf tree I saw smoke rising from a cigarette in a jade ash tray. An open book, something called Totem and Taboo, lay beside it. I looked across to a lighted case of Chinese design which held delicate-looking statues of horses and birds, small vases and bowls, each set upon a carved wooden base. The room was quiet as a tomb — until suddenly there was a savage beating of wings and I looked toward the window to see an eruption of color, as though a gale had whipped up a bundle of brightly colored rags. It was an aviary of tropical birds set near one of the broad windows, through which, as the clapping of wings settled down, I could see two ships plying far out upon the greenish bay below. A large bird began a song, drawing my eyes to the throbbing of its bright blue, red and yellow throat. It was startling and I watched the surge and flutter of the birds as their colors flared for an instant like an unfurled oriental fan. I wanted to go and stand near the cage for a better view, but decided against it. It might seem unbusinesslike. I observed the room from the chair.

These folks are the Kings of the Earth! I thought, hearing the bird make an ugly noise. There was nothing like this at the college museum — or anywhere else that I had ever been. I recalled only a few cracked relics from slavery times: an iron pot, an ancient bell, a set of ankle-irons and links of chain, a primitive loom, a spinning wheel, a gourd for drinking, an ugly ebony African god that seemed to sneer (presented to the school by some traveling millionaire), a leather whip with copper brads, a branding iron with the double letter MM. Though I had seen them very seldom, they were vivid in my mind. They had not been pleasant and whenever I had visited the room I avoided the glass case in which they rested, preferring instead to look at photographs of the early days after the Civil War, the times close to those blind Barbee had described. And I had not looked even at these too often.

I tried to relax; the chair was beautiful but hard. Where had the man gone? Had he shown any antagonism when he saw me? I was annoyed that I had failed to see him first. One had to watch such details. Suddenly there came a harsh cry from the cage, and once more I saw a mad flashing as though the birds had burst into spontaneous flame, fluttering and beating their wings maliciously against the bamboo bars, only to settle down just as suddenly when the door opened and the blond man stood beckoning, his hand upon the knob. I went over, tense inside me. Had I been accepted or rejected?

There was a question in his eyes. “Come in, please,” he said.

Thank you,” I said, waiting to follow him.

“Please,” he said with a slight smile.

I moved ahead of him, sounding the tone of his words for a sign.

“I want to ask you a few questions,” he said, waving my letter at two chairs.

“Yes, sir?” I said.

“Tell me, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish?” he said.

“I want a job, sir, so that I can earn enough money to return to college in the fall.”

“To your old school?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I see.” For a moment he studied me silently. “When do you expect to graduate?”

“Next year, sir. I’ve completed my junior classes . . .”

“Oh, you have? That’s very good. And how old are you?”

“Almost twenty, sir.”

“A junior at nineteen? You are a good student.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, beginning to enjoy the interview.

“Were you an athlete?” he asked.

“No, sir . . .”

“You have the build,” he said, looking me up and down. “You’d probably make an excellent runner, a sprinter.” “I’ve never tried, sir.”

“And I suppose it’s silly even to ask what you think of your Alma Mater?” he said.

“I think it’s one of the best in the world,” I said, hearing my voice surge with deep feeling.

“I know, I know,” he said, with a swift displeasure that surprised me.

I became alert again as he mumbled something incomprehensible about “nostalgia for Harvard yard.”

“But what if you were offered an opportunity to finish your work at some other college,” he said, his eyes widening behind his glasses. His smile had returned.

“Another college?” I asked, my mind beginning to whirl.

“Why, yes, say some school in New England . . .”

I looked at him speechlessly. Did he mean Harvard? Was this good or bad. Where was it leading? “I don’t know, sir,” I said cautiously. “I’ve never thought about it. I’ve only a year more, and, well, I know everyone at my old school and they know me . . .”

I came to a confused halt, seeing him look at me with a sigh of resignation. What was on his mind? Perhaps I had been too frank about returning to the college, maybe he was against our having a higher education . . . But hell, he’s only a secretary . . . Or is he?

“I understand,” he said calmly. “It was presumptuous of me to even suggest another school. I guess one’s college is really a kind of mother and father . . . a sacred matter.”

“Yes, sir. That’s it,” I said in hurried agreement.

His eyes narrowed. “But now I must ask you an embarrassing question. Do you mind?”

“Why, no, sir,” I said nervously.

“I don’t like to ask this, but it’s quite necessary . . .” He leaned forward with a pained frown. “Tell me, did you read the letter which you brought to Mr. Emerson? This,” he said, taking the letter from the table.

“Why, no, sir! It wasn’t addressed to me, so naturally I wouldn’t think of opening it . . .”

“Of course not, I know you wouldn’t,” he said, fluttering his hand and sitting erect. “I’m sorry and you must dismiss it, like one of those annoying personal questions you find so often nowadays on supposedly impersonal forms.”

I didn’t believe him. “But was it opened, sir? Someone might have gone into my things . . .”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. Please forget the question . . . And tell me, please, what are your plans after graduation?” teacher. . .”

“I’m not sure, sir. I’d like to be asked to remain at the college as a or as a member of the administrative staff. And . . . Well . . .”

“Yes? And what else?”

“Well — er, I guess I’d really like to become Dr. Bledsoe’s assistant .

“Oh, I see,” he said, sitting back and forming his mouth into a thin-lipped circle. “You’re very ambitious.”

“I guess I am, sir. But I’m willing to work hard.”

“Ambition is a wonderful force,” he said, “but sometimes it can be blinding . . . On the other hand, it can make you successful — like my father . . .” A new edge came into his voice and he frowned and looked down at his hands, which were trembling. “The only trouble with ambition is that it sometimes blinds one to realities . . . Tell me, how many of these letters do you have?”

“I had about seven, sir,” I replied, confused by his new turn. “They’re– “

“Seven!” He was suddenly angry.

“Yes, sir, that was all he gave me . . .”

“And how many of these gentlemen have you succeeded in seeing, may I ask?”

A sinking feeling came over me. “I haven’t seen any of them personally, sir.”

“And this is your last letter?”

“Yes, sir, it is, but I expect to hear from the others . . . They said–“

“Of course you will, and from all seven. They’re all loyal Americans.”

There was unmistakable irony in his voice now, and I didn’t know what to say.

“Seven,” he repeated mysteriously. “Oh, don’t let me upset you,” he said with an elegant gesture of self-disgust. “I had a difficult session with my analyst last evening and the slightest thing is apt to set me off. Like an alarm clock without control — Say!” he said, slapping his palm against his thighs. “What on earth does that mean?” Suddenly he was in a state. One side of his face had begun to twitch and swell.

I watched him light a cigarette, thinking, What on earth is this all about?

“Some things are just too unjust for words,” he said, expelling a plume of smoke, “and too ambiguous for either speech or ideas. By the way, have you ever been to the Club Calamus?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it, sir,” I said.

“You haven’t? It’s very well known. Many of my Harlem friends go there. It’s a rendezvous for writers, artists and all kinds of celebrities. There’s nothing like it in the city, and by some strange twist it has a truly continental flavor.”

“I’ve never been to a night club, sir. I’ll have to go there to see what it’s like after I’ve started earning some money,” I said, hoping to bring the conversation back to the problem of jobs.

He looked at me with a jerk of his head, his face beginning to twitch again.

“I suppose I’ve been evading the issue again — as always. Look,” he burst out impulsively. “Do you believe that two people, two strangers who have never seen one another before can speak with utter frankness and sincerity?”


“Oh, damn! What I mean is, do you believe it possible for us, the two of us, to throw off the mask of custom and manners that insulate man from man, and converse in naked honesty and frankness?”

“I don’t know what you mean exactly, sir.” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“I . . .”

“Of course, of course. If I could only speak plainly! I’m confusing you. Such frankness just isn’t possible because all our motives are impure. Forget what I just said. I’ll try to put it this way — and remember this, please . . .”

My head spun. He was addressing me, leaning forward confidentially, as though he’d known me for years, and I remembered something my grandfather had said long ago: Don’t let no white man tell you his business, ’cause after he tells you he’s liable to git shame he tole it to you and then he’ll hate you. Fact is, he was hating you all the time. . .

“. . . I want to try to reveal a part of reality that is most important to you — but I warn you, it’s going to hurt. No, let me finish,” he said, touching my knee lightly and quickly removing his hand as I shifted my position.

“What I want to do is done very seldom, and, to be honest, it wouldn’t happen now if I hadn’t sustained a series of impossible frustrations. You see — well, I’m thwarted . . . Oh, damn, there I go again, thinking only of myself . . . We’re both frustrated, understand? Both of us, and I want to help you . . .”

“You mean you’ll let me see Mr. Emerson?”

He frowned. “Please don’t seem so happy about it, and don’t leap to conclusions. I want to help, but there is a tyranny involved . . .”

“A tyranny?” My lungs tightened.

“Yes. That’s a way of putting it. Because to help you I must disillusion you . . .”

“Oh, I don’t think I mind, sir. Once I see Mr. Emerson, it’ll be up to me. All I want to do is speak to him.”

“Speak to him,” he said, getting quickly to his feet and mashing his cigarette into the tray with shaking fingers. “No one speaks to him. He does the speaking –” Suddenly he broke off. “On second thought, perhaps you’d better leave me your address and I’ll mail you Mr. Emerson’s reply in the morning. He’s really a very busy man.”

His whole manner had changed.

“But you said . . .” I stood up, completely confused. Was he having fun with me? “Couldn’t you let me talk to him for just five minutes?” I pleaded. “I’m sure I can convince him that I’m worthy of a job. And if there’s someone who has tampered with my letter, I’ll prove my identity . . . Dr. Bledsoe would –“

“Identity! My God! Who has any identity any more anyway? It isn’t so perfectly simple. Look,” he said with an anguished gesture.

“Will you trust me?”

“Why, yes, sir, I trust you.”

He leaned forward. “Look,” he said, his face working violently, “I was trying to tell you that I know many things about you — not you personally, but fellows like you. Not much, either, but still more than the average. With us it’s still Jim and Huck Finn. A number of my friends are jazz musicians, and I’ve been around. I know the conditions under which you live — Why go back, fellow? There is so much you could do here where there is more freedom. You won’t find what you’re looking for when you return anyway; because so much is involved that you can’t possibly know. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t say all this to impress you. Or to give myself some kind of sadistic catharsis. Truly, I don’t. But I do know this world you’re trying to contact — all its virtues and all its unspeakables — Ha, yes, unspeakables. I’m afraid my father considers me one of the unspeakables . . . I’m Huckleberry, you see . . .”

He laughed drily as I tried to make sense of his ramblings. Huckleberry? Why did he keep talking about that kid’s story? I was puzzled and annoyed that he could talk to me this way because he stood between me and a job, the campus . . .

“But I only want a job, sir,” I said. “I only want to make enough money to return to my studies.”

“Of course, but surely you suspect there is more to it than that. Aren’t you curious about what lies behind the face of things?”

“Yes, sir, but I’m mainly interested in a job.”

“Of course,” he said, “but life isn’t that simple . . .”

“But I’m not bothered about all the other things, whatever they are, sir. They’re not for me to interfere with and I’ll be satisfied to go back to college and remain there as long as they’ll allow me to.”

“But I want to help you do what is best,” he said. “What’s best, mind you. Do you wish to do what’s best for yourself?”

“Why, yes, sir. I suppose I do . . .”

“Then forget about returning to the college. Go somewhere else . . .” “You mean leave?”

“Yes, forget it . . .”

“But you said that you would help me!”

“I did and I am –“

“But what about seeing Mr. Emerson?”

“Oh, God! Don’t you see that it’s best that you do not see him?” Suddenly I could not breathe. Then I was standing, gripping my brief case. “What have you got against me?” I blurted. “What did I ever do to you? You never intended to let me see him. Even though I presented my letter of introduction. Why? Why? I’d never endanger your job –“

“No, no, no! Of course not,” he cried, getting to his feet. “You’ve misunderstood me. You mustn’t do that! God, there’s too much misunderstanding. Please don’t think I’m trying to prevent you from seeing my — from seeing Mr. Emerson out of prejudice . . .”

“Yes, sir, I do,” I said angrily. “I was sent here by a friend of his. You read the letter, but still you refuse to let me see him, and now you’re trying to get me to leave college. What kind of man are you, anyway? What have you got against me? You, a northern white man!”

He looked pained. “I’ve done it badly,” he said, “but you must believe that I am trying to advise you what is best for you.” He snatched off his glasses.

“But I know what’s best for me,” I said. “Or at least Dr. Bledsoe does, and if I can’t see Mr. Emerson today, just tell me when I can and I’ll be here . . .”

He bit his lips and shut his eyes, shaking his head from side to side as though fighting back a scream. “I’m sorry, really sorry that I started all of this,” he said, suddenly calm. “It was foolish of me to try to advise you, but please, you mustn’t believe that I’m against you . . . or your race. I’m your friend. Some of the finest people I know are Neg — Well, you see, Mr. Emerson is my father.”

“Your father!”

“My father, yes, though I would have preferred it otherwise. But he is, and I could arrange for you to see him. But to be utterly frank, I’m incapable of such cynicism. It would do you no good.”

“But I’d like to take my chances, Mr. Emerson, sir . . . This is very important to me. My whole career depends upon it.”

“But you have no chance,” he said.

“But Dr. Bledsoe sent me here,” I said, growing more excited. “I must have a chance . . .”

“Dr. Bledsoe,” he said with distaste. “He’s like my . . . he ought to be horsewhipped! Here,” he said, sweeping up the letter and thrusting it crackling toward me. I took it, looking into his eyes that burned back at me.

“Go on, read it,” he cried excitedly. “Go on!”

“But I wasn’t asking for this,” I said.

“Read it!”

My dear Mr. Emerson:

The bearer of this letter is a former student of ours (I say former because he shall never, under any circumstances, be enrolled as a student here again) who has been expelled for a most serious defection from our strictest rules of deportment.

Due, however, to circumstances the nature of which I shall explain to you in person on the occasion of the next meeting of the board, it is to the best interests of the college that this young man have no knowledge of the finality of his expulsion. For it is indeed his hope to return here to his classes in the fall. However, it is to the best interests of the great work which we are dedicated to perform, that he continue undisturbed in these vain hopes while remaining as far as possible from our midst.

This case represents, my dear Mr. Emerson, one of the rare, delicate instances in which one for whom we held great expectations has gone grievously astray, and who in his fall threatens to upset certain delicate relationships between certain interested individuals and the school. Thus, while the bearer is no longer a member of our scholastic family, it is highly important that his severance with the college be executed as painlessly as possible. I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler.

Respectfully, I am your humble servant, A. Herbert Bledsoe

I raised my head. Twenty-five years seemed to have lapsed between his handing me the letter and my grasping its message. I could not believe it, tried to read it again. I could not believe it, yet I had a feeling that it all had happened before. I rubbed my eyes, and they felt sandy as though all the fluids had suddenly dried.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry.”

“What did I do? I always tried to do the right thing

“That you must tell me,” he said. “To what does he refer?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know . . .”

“But you must have done something.”

“I took a man for a drive, showed him into the Golden Day to help him when he became ill … I don’t know

I told him falteringly of the visit to Trueblood’s and the trip to Golden Day and of my expulsion, watching his mobile face reflecting his reaction to each detail.

“It’s little enough,” he said when I had finished. “I don’t understand the man. He is very complicated.”

“I only wanted to return and help,” I said.

“You’ll never return. You can’t return now,” he said. “Don’t you see? I’m terribly sorry and yet I’m glad that I gave in to the impulse to speak to you. Forget it; though that’s advice which I’ve been unable to accept myself, it’s still good advice. There is no point in blinding yourself to the truth. Don’t blind yourself . . .”

I got up, dazed, and started toward the door. He came behind me into the reception room where the birds flamed in the cage, their squawks like screams in a nightmare.

He stammered guiltily, “Please, I must ask you never to mention this conversation to anyone.”

“No,” I said.

“I wouldn’t mind, but my father would consider my revelation the most extreme treason . . . You’re free of him now. I’m still his prisoner. You have been freed, don’t you understand? I’ve still my battle.” He seemed near tears.

“I won’t,” I said. “No one would believe me. I can’t myself. There must be some mistake. There must be . . .”

I opened the door.

“Look, fellow,” he said. “This evening I’m having a party at the Calamus. Would you like to join my guests? It might help you –“

“No, thank you, sir. I’ll be all right.”

“Perhaps you’d like to be my valet?”

I looked at him. “No, thank you, sir,” I said.

“Please,” he said. “I really want to help. Look, I happen to know of a possible job at Liberty Paints. My father has sent several fellows there . . . You should try –“

I shut the door.

The elevator dropped me like a shot and I went out and walked along the street. The sun was very bright now and the people along the walk seemed far away. I stopped before a gray wall where high above me the headstones of a church graveyard arose like the tops of buildings. Across the street in the shade of an awning a shoeshine boy was dancing for pennies. I went on to the corner and got on a bus and went automatically to the rear. In the seat in front of me a dark man in a panama hat kept whistling a tune between his teeth. My mind, flew in circles, to Bledsoe, Emerson and back again. There was no sense to be made of it. It was a joke. Hell, it couldn’t be a joke. Yes, it is a joke . . . Suddenly the bus jerked to a stop and I heard myself humming the same tune that the man ahead was whistling, and the words came back:

O well they picked poor Robin clean
O well they picked poor Robin clean
Well they tied poor Robin to a stump
Lawd, they picked all the feathers round from Robin’s rump Well they picked poor Robin clean.

Then I was on my feet, hurrying to the door, hearing the thin, tissue-paper-against-the-teeth-of-a-comb whistle following me outside at the next stop. I stood trembling at the curb, watching and half expecting to see the man leap from the door to follow me, whistling the old forgotten jingle about a bare-rumped robin. My mind seized upon the tune. I took the subway and it still droned through my mind after I had reached my room at Men’s House and lay across the bed. What was the who-what-when-why-where of poor old Robin? What had he done and who had tied him and why had they plucked him and why had we sung of his fate? It was for a laugh, for a laugh, all the kids had laughed and laughed, and the droll tuba player of the old Elk’s band had rendered it solo on his helical horn; with comical flourishes and doleful phrasing, “Boo boo boo booooo, Poor Robin clean” — a mock funeral dirge . . . But who was Robin and for what had he been hurt and humiliated?

Suddenly I lay shaking with anger. It was no good. I thought of young Emerson. What if he’d lied out of some ulterior motive of his own? Everyone seemed to have some plan for me, and beneath that some more secret plan. What was young Emerson’s plan — and why should it have included me? Who was I anyway? I tossed fitfully. Perhaps it was a test of my good will and faith — But that’s a lie, I thought. It’s a lie and you know it’s a lie. I had seen the letter and it had practically ordered me killed. By slow degrees . . .

“My dear Mr. Emerson,” I said aloud. “The Robin bearing this letter is a former student. Please hope him to death, and keep him running. Your most humble and obedient servant, A. H. Bledsoe . . .”

Sure, that’s the way it was, I thought, a short, concise verbal coup de grace, straight to the nape of the neck. And Emerson would write in reply? Sure: “Dear Bled, have met Robin and shaved tail. Signed, Emerson.”

I sat on the bed and laughed. They’d sent me to the rookery, all right. I laughed and felt numb and weak, knowing that soon the pain would come and that no matter what happened to me I’d never be the same. I felt numb and I was laughing. When I stopped, gasping for breath, I decided that I would go back and kill Bledsoe. Yes, I thought, I owe it to the race and to myself. I’ll kill him.

And the boldness of the idea and the anger behind it made me move with decision. I had to have a job and I took what I hoped was the quickest means. I called the plant young Emerson had mentioned, and it worked. I was told to report the following morning. It happened so quickly and with such ease that for a moment I felt turned around. Had they planned it this way? But no, they wouldn’t catch me again. This time I had made the move.

I could hardly get to sleep for dreaming of revenge.

Chapter 10

The plant was in Long Island, and I crossed a bridge in the fog to get there and came down in a stream of workers. Ahead of me a huge electric sign announced its message through the drifting strands of fog:


Flags were fluttering in the breeze from each of a maze of buildings below the sign, and for a moment it was like watching some vast patriotic ceremony from a distance. But no shots were fired and no bugles sounded. I hurried ahead with the others through the fog.

I was worried, since I had used Emerson’s name without his permission, but when I found my way to the personnel office it worked like magic. I was interviewed by a little droopy-eyed man named Mr. MacDuffy and sent to work for a Mr. Kimbro. An office boy came along to direct me.

“If Kimbro needs him,” MacDuffy told the boy, “come back and have his name entered on the shipping department’s payroll.”

“It’s tremendous,” I said as we left the building. “It looks like a small city.”

“It’s big all right,” he said. “We’re one of the biggest outfits in the business. Make a lot of paint for the government.”

We entered one of the buildings now and started down a pure white hall.

“You better leave your things in the locker room,” he said, opening a door through which I saw a room with low wooden benches and rows of green lockers. There were keys in several of the locks, and he selected one for me. “Put your stuff in there and take the key,” he said. Dressing, I felt nervous. He sprawled with one foot on a bench, watching me closely as he chewed on a match stem. Did he suspect that Emerson hadn’t sent me?

“They have a new racket around here,” he said, twirling the match between his finger and thumb. There was a note of insinuation in his voice, and I looked up from tying my shoe, breathing with conscious evenness.

“What kind of racket?” I said.

“Oh, you know. The wise guys firing the regular guys and putting on you colored college boys. Pretty smart,” he said. “That way they don’t have to pay union wages.”

“How did you know I went to college?” I said.

“Oh, there’re about six of you guys out here already. Some up in the testing lab. Everybody knows about that.”

“But I had no idea that was why I was hired,” I said.

“Forget it, Mac,” he said. “It’s not your fault. You new guys don’t know the score. Just like the union says, it’s the wise guys in the office. They’re the ones who make scabs out of you — Hey! we better hurry.”

We entered a long, shed-like room in which I saw a series of overhead doors along one side and a row of small offices on the other. I followed the boy down an aisle between endless cans, buckets and drums labeled with the company’s trademark, a screaming eagle. The paint was stacked in neatly pyramided lots along the concrete floor. Then, starting into one of the offices, the boy stopped short and grinned.

“Listen to that!”

Someone inside the office was swearing violently over a telephone. “Who’s that?” I asked.

He grinned. “Your boss, the terrible Mr. Kimbro. We call him

‘Colonel,’ but don’t let him catch you.” I didn’t like it. The voice was raving about some failure of the laboratory and I felt a swift uneasiness. I didn’t like the idea of starting to work for a man who was in such a nasty mood. Perhaps he was angry at one of the men from the school, and that wouldn’t make him feel too friendly toward me.

“Let’s go in,” the boy said. “I’ve got to get back.”

As we entered, the man slammed down the phone and picked up some papers.

“Mr. MacDuffy wants to know if you can use this new man,” the boy said.

“You damn right I can use him and . . .” the voice trailed off, the eyes above the stiff military mustache going hard.

“Well, can you use him?” the boy said. “I got to go make out his card.”

“Okay,” the man said finally. “I can use him. I gotta. What’s his name?”

The boy read my name off a card.

“All right,” he said, “you go right to work. And you,” he said to the boy, “get the hell out of here before I give you a chance to earn some of the money wasted on you every payday!”

“Aw, gwan, you slave driver,” the boy said, dashing from the room. Reddening, Kimbro turned to me, “Come along, let’s get going.” I followed him into the long room where the lots of paint were stacked along the floor beneath numbered markers that hung from the ceiling. Toward the rear I could see two men unloading heavy buckets from a truck, stacking them neatly on a low loading platform.

“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffly. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to be doing things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you.

You got that?”

I nodded, noting that his voice became louder when the men across the floor stopped to listen.

“All right,” he said, picking up several tools. “Now come over here.”

“He’s Kimbro,” one of the men said.

I watched him kneel and open one of the buckets, stirring a milky brown substance. A nauseating stench arose. I wanted to step away. But he stirred it vigorously until it became glossy white, holding the spatula like a delicate instrument and studying the paint as it laced off the blade, back into the bucket. Kimbro frowned.

“Damn those laboratory blubberheads to hell! There’s got to be dope put in every single sonofabitching bucket. And that’s what you’re going to do, and it’s got to be put in so it can be trucked out of here before 11:30.” He handed me a white enamel graduate and what looked like a battery hydrometer.

“The idea is to open each bucket and put in ten drops of this stuff,” he said. “Then you stir it ’til it disappears. After it’s mixed you take this brush and paint out a sample on one of these.” He produced a number of small rectangular boards and a small brush from his jacket pocket. “You understand?”

“Yes, sir.” But when I looked into the white graduate I hesitated; the liquid inside was dead black. Was he trying to kid me?

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, sir . . . I mean. Well, I don’t want to start by asking a lot of stupid questions, but do you know what’s in this graduate?”

His eyes snapped. “You damn right I know,” he said. “You just do what you’re told!”

“I just wanted to make sure, sir,” I said.

“Look,” he said, drawing in his breath with an exaggerated show of patience. “Take the dropper and fill it full . . . Go on, do it!”

I filled it.

“Now measure ten drops into the paint . . . There, that’s it, not too goddam fast. Now. You want no more than ten, and no less.”

Slowly, I measured the glistening black drops, seeing them settle upon the surface and become blacker still, spreading suddenly out to the edges.

“That’s it. That’s all you have to do,” he said. “Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it. When you’ve done five or six buckets, come back and see if the samples are dry . . . And hurry, we’ve got to get this batch back off to Washington by 11:30 . . .”

I worked fast but carefully. With a man like this Kimbro the least thing done incorrectly would cause trouble. So I wasn’t supposed to think! To hell with him. Just a flunkey, a northern redneck, a Yankee cracker! I mixed the paint thoroughly, then brushed it smoothly on one of the pieces of board, careful that the brush strokes were uniform.

Struggling to remove an especially difficult cover, I wondered if the same Liberty paint was used on the campus, or if this “Optic White” was something made exclusively for the government. Perhaps it was of a better quality, a special mix. And in my mind I could see the brightly trimmed and freshly decorated campus buildings as they appeared on spring mornings — after the fall painting and the light winter snows, with a cloud riding over and a darting bird above — framed by the trees and encircling vines. The buildings had always seemed more impressive because they were the only buildings to receive regular paintings; usually, the nearby houses and cabins were left untouched to become the dull grained gray of weathered wood. And I remembered how the splinters in some of the boards were raised from the grain by the wind, the sun and the rain until the clapboards shone with a satiny, silvery, silver-fish sheen. Like Trueblood’s cabin, or the Golden Day . . . The Golden Day had once been painted white; now its paint was flaking away with the years, the scratch of a finger being enough to send it showering down. Damn that Golden Day! But it was strange how life connected up; because I had carried Mr. Norton to the old rundown building with rotting paint, I was here. If, I thought, one could slow down his heartbeats and memory to the tempo of the black drops falling so slowly into the bucket yet reacting so swiftly, it would seem like a sequence in a feverish dream . . . I was so deep in reverie that I failed to hear Kimbro approach.

“How’s it coming?” he said, standing with hands on hips.

“All right, sir.”

“Let’s see,” he said, selecting a sample and running his thumb across the board. “That’s it, as white as George Washington’s Sunday-go-to-meetin’ wig and as sound as the all-mighty dollar! That’s paint!” he said proudly. “That’s paint that’ll cover just about anything!”

He looked as though I had expressed a doubt and I hurried to say, “It’s certainly white all right.”

“White! It’s the purest white that can be found. Nobody makes a paint any whiter. This batch right here is heading for a national monument!”

“I see,” I said, quite impressed.

He looked at his watch. “Just keep it up,” he said. “If I don’t hurry I’ll be late for that production conference! Say, you’re nearly out of dope: you’d better go in the tank room and refill it . . . And don’t waste any time! I’ve got to go.”

He shot away without telling me where the tank room was. It was easy to find, but I wasn’t prepared for so many tanks. There were seven; each with a puzzling code stenciled on it. It’s just like Kimbro not to tell me, I thought. You can’t trust any of them. Well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll pick the tank from the contents of the drip cans hanging from the spigots.

But while the first five tanks contained clear liquids that smelled like turpentine, the last two both contained something black like the dope, but with different codes. So I had to make a choice. Selecting the tank with the drip can that smelled most like the dope, I filled the graduate, congratulating myself for not having to waste time until Kimbro returned.

The work went faster now, the mixing easier. The pigment and heavy oils came free of the bottom much quicker, and when Kimbro returned I was going at top speed. “How many have you finished?” he asked.

“About seventy-five, I think, sir. I lost count.”

“That’s pretty good, but not fast enough. They’ve been putting pressure on me to get the stuff out. Here, I’ll give you a hand.”

They must have given him hell, I thought, as he got grunting to his knees and began removing covers from the buckets. But he had hardly started when he was called away.

When he left I took a look at the last bunch of samples and got a shock: Instead of the smooth, hard surface of the first, they were covered with a sticky goo through which I could see the grain of the wood. What on earth had happened? The paint was not as white and glossy as before; it had a gray tinge. I stirred it vigorously, then grabbed a rag, wiping each of the boards clean, then made a new sample of each bucket. I grew panicky lest Kimbro return before I finished. Working feverishly, I made it, but since the paint required a few minutes to dry I picked up two finished buckets and started lugging them over to the loading platform. I dropped them with a thump as the voice rang out behind me. It was Kimbro.

“What the hell!” he yelled, smearing his finger over one of the samples. “This stuff’s still wet!”

I didn’t know what to say. He snatched up several of the later samples, smearing them, and letting out a groan. “Of all the things to happen to me. First they take all my good men and then they send me you. What’d you do to it?”

“Nothing, sir. I followed your directions,” I said defensively.

I watched him peer into the graduate, lifting the dropper and sniffing it, his face glowing with exasperation.

“Who the hell gave you this?”

“No one . . .”

“Then where’d you get it?”

“From the tank room.”

Suddenly he dashed for the tank room, sloshing the liquid as he ran.

I thought, Oh, hell, and before I could follow, he burst out of the door in a frenzy.

“You took the wrong tank,” he shouted. “What the hell, you trying to sabotage the company? That stuff wouldn’t work in a million years. It’s remover, concentrated remover! Don’t you know the difference?”

“No, sir, I don’t. It looked the same to me. I didn’t know what I was using and you didn’t tell me. I was trying to save time and took what I thought was right.”

“But why this one?”

“Because it smelled the same –” I began.

“Smelted!” he roared. “Goddamit, don’t you know you can’t smell shit around all those fumes? Come on to my office!”

I was torn between protesting and pleading for fairness. It was not all my fault and I didn’t want the blame, but I did wish to finish out the day. Throbbing with anger I followed, listening as he called personnel.

“Hello? Mac? Mac, this is Kimbro. It’s about this fellow you sent me this morning. I’m sending him in to pick up his pay . . . What did he do? He doesn’t satisfy me, that’s what. I don’t like his work . . . So the old man has to have a report, so what? Make him one. Tell him goddamit this fellow ruined a batch of government stuff — Hey! No, don’t tell him that . . . Listen, Mac, you got anyone else out there? . . . Okay, forget it.”

He crashed down the phone and swung toward me. “I swear I don’t know why they hire you fellows. You just don’t belong in a paint plant. Come on.”

Bewildered, I followed him into the tank room, yearning to quit and tell him to go to hell. But I needed the money, and even though this was the North I wasn’t ready to fight unless I had to. Here I’d be one against how many?

I watched him empty the graduate back into the tank and noted carefully when he went to another marked SKA-3-69-T-Y and refilled it. Next time I would know.

“Now, for God’s sake,” he said, handing me the graduate, “be careful and try to do the job right. And if you don’t know what to do, ask somebody. I’ll be in my office.”

I returned to the buckets, my emotions whirling. Kimbro had forgotten to say what was to be done with the spoiled paint. Seeing it there I was suddenly seized by an angry impulse, and, filling the dropper with fresh dope, I stirred ten drops into each bucket and pressed home the covers. Let the government worry about that, I thought, and started to work on the unopened buckets. I stirred until my arm ached and painted the samples as smoothly as I could, becoming more skillful as I went along.

When Kimbro came down the floor and watched I glanced up silently and continued stirring.

“How is it?” he said, frowning.

“I don’t know,” I said, picking up a sample and hesitating.


“It’s nothing . . . a speck of dirt,” I said, standing and holding out the sample, a tightness growing within me.

Holding it close to his face, he ran his fingers over the surface and squinted at the texture. “That’s more like it,” he said. “That’s the way it oughta be.”

I watched with a sense of unbelief as he rubbed his thumb over the sample, handed it back and left without a further word.

I looked at the painted slab. It appeared the same: a gray tinge glowed through the whiteness, and Kimbro had failed to detect it. I stared for about a minute, wondering if I were seeing things, inspected another and another. All were the same, a brilliant white diffused with gray, I closed my eyes for a moment and looked again and still no change. Well, I thought, as long as he’s satisfied . . .

But I had a feeling that something had gone wrong, something far more important than the paint; that either I had played a trick on Kimbro or he, like the trustees and Bledsoe, was playing one on me . . .

When the truck backed up to the platform I was pressing the cover on the last bucket — and there stood Kimbro above me. climbed.”

“Let’s see your samples,” he said.

I reached, trying to select the whitest, as the blue-shirted truckmen through the loading door.

“How about it, Kimbro,” one of them said, “can we get started?”

“Just a minute, now,” he said, studying the sample, “just a minute . .

I watched him nervously, waiting for him to throw a fit over the gray tinge and hating myself for feeling nervous and afraid. What would I say? But now he was turning to the truckmen.

“All right, boys, get the hell out of here.

“And you,” he said to me, “go see MacDuffy; you’re through.”

I stood there, staring at the back of his head, at the pink neck beneath the cloth cap and the iron-gray hair. So he’d let me stay only to finish the mixing. I turned away, there was nothing that I could do. I cursed him all the way to the personnel office. Should I write the owners about what had happened? Perhaps they didn’t know that Kimbro was having so much to do with the quality of the paint. But upon reaching the office I changed my mind. Perhaps that is how things are done here, I thought, perhaps the real quality of the paint is always determined by the man who ships it rather than by those who mix it. To hell with the whole thing . . . I’ll find another job.

But I wasn’t fired. MacDuffy sent me to the basement of Building No. 2 on a new assignment.

“When you get down there just tell Brockway that Mr. Sparland insists that he have an assistant. You do whatever he tells you.”

“What is that name again, sir?” I said. “Lucius Brockway,” he said. “He’s in charge.”

IT WAS a deep basement. Three levels underground I pushed upon a heavy metal door marked “Danger” and descended into a noisy, dimly lit room. There was something familiar about the fumes that filled the air and I had just thought pine, when a high-pitched Negro voice rang out above the machine sounds.

“Who you looking for down here?”

“I’m looking for the man in charge,” I called, straining to locate the voice.

“You talkin’ to him. What you want?”

The man who moved out of the shadow and looked at me sullenly was small, wiry and very natty in his dirty overalls. And as I approached him I saw his drawn face and the cottony white hair showing beneath his tight, striped engineer’s cap. His manner puzzled me. I couldn’t tell whether he felt guilty about something himself, or thought I had committed some crime. I came closer, staring. He was barely five feet tall, his overalls looking now as though he had been dipped in pitch.

“All right,” he said. “I’m a busy man. What you want?”

“I’m looking for Lucius,” I said.

He frowned. “That’s me — and don’t come calling me by my first name. To you and all like you I’m Mister Brockway . . .”

“You . . . ?” I began.

“Yeah, me! Who sent you down here anyway?”

“The personnel office,” I said. “I was told to tell you that Mr. Sparland said for you to be given an assistant.”

“Assistant!” he said. “I don’t need no damn assistant! Old Man Sparland must think I’m getting old as him. Here I been running things by myself all these years and now they keep trying to send me some assistant.

You get on back up there and tell ’em that when I want an assistant I’ll ask for one!”

I was so disgusted to find such a man in charge that I turned without a word and started back up the stairs. First Kimbro, I thought, and now this old . . .

“Hey! wait a minute!”

I turned, seeing him beckon.

“Come on back here a minute,” he called, his voice cutting sharply through the roar of the furnaces.

I went back, seeing him remove a white cloth from his hip pocket and wipe the glass face of a pressure gauge, then bend close to squint at the position of the needle.

“Here,” he said, straightening and handing me the cloth, “you can stay ’til I can get in touch with the Old Man. These here have to be kept clean so’s I can see how much pressure I’m getting.”

I took the cloth without a word and began rubbing the glasses. He watched me critically.

“What’s your name?” he said.

I told him, shouting it in the roar of the furnaces.

“Wait a minute,” he called, going over and turning a valve in an intricate hysterical pitch, somehow making it possible to hear without yelling, our voices moving blurrily underneath.

Returning, he looked at me sharply, his withered face an animated black walnut with shrewd, reddish eyes.

“This here’s the first time they ever sent me anybody like you,” he said as though puzzled. “That’s how come I called you back. Usually they sends down some young white fellow who thinks he’s going to watch me a few days and ask me a heap of questions and then take over. Some folks is too damn simple to even talk about,” he said, grimacing and waving his hand in a violent gesture of dismissal. “You an engineer?” he said, looking quickly at me.

“An engineer?”

“Yeah, that’s what I asked you,” he said challengingly.

“Why, no, sir, I’m no engineer.”

“Wait a minute,” he called, going over and turning a valve in an intricate

“You sho?”

“Of course I’m sure. Why shouldn’t I be?”

He seemed to relax. “That’s all right then. I have to watch them personnel fellows. One of them thinks he’s going to git me out of here, when he ought to know by now he’s wasting his time. Lucius Brockway not only intends to protect hisself, he knows how to do it! Everybody knows I been here ever since there’s been a here — even helped dig the first foundation. The Old Man hired me, nobody else; and, by God, it’ll take the Old Man to fire me!”

I rubbed away at the gauges, wondering what had brought on this outburst, and was somewhat relieved that he seemed to hold nothing against me personally.

“Where you go to school?” he said.

I told him.

“Is that so? What you learning down there?”

“Just general subjects, a regular college course,” I said.


“Oh no, nothing like that, just a liberal arts course. No trades.”

“Is that so?” he said doubtfully. Then suddenly, “How much pressure

I got on that gauge right there?” “Which?”

“You see it,” he pointed. “That one right there!”

I looked, calling off, “Forty-three and two-tenths pounds.”

“Uh huh, uh huh, that’s right.” He squinted at the gauge and back at me. “Where you learn to read a gauge so good?”

“In my high-school physics class. It’s like reading a clock.”

“They teach you that in high school?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, that’s going to be one of your jobs. These here gauges have to be checked every fifteen minutes. You ought to be able to do that.” “I think I can,” I said.

“Some kin, some caint. By the way, who hired you?” “Mr. MacDuffy,” I said, wondering why all the questions. “Yeah, then where you been all morning?”

“I was working over in Building No. 1.”

“That there’s a heap of building. Where ’bouts?”

“For Mr. Kimbro.”

“I see, I see. I knowed they oughtn’t to be hiring anybody this late in the day. What Kimbro have you doing?”
“Putting dope in some paint that went bad,” I said wearily, annoyed with all the questions.

His lips shot out belligerently. “What paint went bad?”

“I think it was some for the government . . .”

He cocked his head. “I wonder how come nobody said nothing to me about it,” he said thoughtfully. “Was it in buckets or them little biddy cans?” “Buckets.”

“Oh, that ain’t so bad, them little ones is a heap of work.” He gave me a high dry laugh. “How you hear about this job?” he snapped suddenly, as though trying to catch me off guard.

“Look,” I said slowly, “a man I know told me about the job; MacDuffy hired me; I worked this morning for Mr. Kimbro; and I was sent to you by Mr. MacDuffy.”

His face tightened. “You friends to one of those colored fellows?” “Who?”

“Up in the lab?”

“No,” I said. “Anything else you want to know?”

He gave me a long, suspicious look and spat upon a hot pipe, causing it to steam furiously. I watched him remove a heavy engineer’s watch from his breast pocket and squint at the dial importantly, then turn to check it with an electric clock that glowed from the wall. “You keep on wiping them gauges,” he said. “I got to look at my soup. And look here.” He pointed to one of the gauges. “I wants you to keep a ‘specially sharp eye on this here sonofabitch. The last couple of days he’s ‘veloped a habit of building up too fast. Causes me a heap of trouble. You see him gitting past 75, you yell, and yell loud!”

He went back into the shadows and I saw a shaft of brightness mark the opening of a door.

Running the rag over a gauge I wondered how an apparently uneducated old man could gain such a responsible job. He certainly didn’t sound like an engineer; yet he alone was on duty. And you could never be sure, for at home an old man employed as a janitor at the Water Works was the only one who knew the location of all of the water mains. He had been employed at the beginning, before any records were kept, and actually functioned as an engineer though he drew a janitor’s pay. Perhaps this old Brockway was protecting himself from something. After all, there was antagonism to our being employed. Maybe he was dissimulating, like some of the teachers at the college, who, to avoid trouble when driving through the small surrounding towns, wore chauffeur caps and pretended that their cars belonged to white men. But why was he pretending with me? And what was his job?

I looked around me. It was not just an engine room; I knew, for I had been in several, the last at college. It was something more. For one thing, the furnaces were made differently and the flames that flared through the cracks of the fire chambers were too intense and too blue. And there were the odors. No, he was making something down here, something that had to do with paint, and probably something too filthy and dangerous for white men to be willing to do even for money. It was not paint because I had been told that the paint was made on the floors above, where, passing through, I had seen men in splattered aprons working over large vats filled with whirling pigment. One thing was certain: I had to be careful with this crazy Brockway; he didn’t like my being here . . . And there he was, entering the room now from the stairs.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“All right,” I said. “Only it seems to have gotten louder.”

“Oh, it gets pretty loud down here, all right; this here’s the uproar department and I’m in charge . . . Did she go over the mark?” “No, it’s holding steady,” I said.

“That’s good. I been having plenty trouble with it lately. Haveta bust it down and give it a good going over soon as I can get the tank clear.”

Perhaps he is the engineer, I thought, watching him inspect the gauges and go to another part of the room to adjust a series of valves. Then he went and said a few words into a wall phone and called me, pointing to the valves.

“I’m fixing to shoot it to ’em upstairs,” he said gravely. “When I give you the signal I want you to turn ’em wide open. ‘N when I give you the second signal I want you to close ’em up again. Start with this here red one and work right straight across . . .”

I took my position and waited, as he took a stand near the gauge.

“Let her go,” he called. I opened the valves, hearing the sound of liquids rushing through the huge pipes. At the sound of a buzzer I looked up …

“Start closing,” he yelled. “What you looking at? Close them valves! “What’s wrong with you?” he asked when the last valve was closed.

“I expected you to call.”

“I said I’d signal you. Caint you tell the difference between a signal and a call? Hell, I buzzed you. You don’t want to do that no more. When I buzz you I want you to do something and do it quick!”

“You’re the boss,” I said sarcastically.

“You mighty right, I’m the boss, and don’t forgit it. Now come on back here, we got work to do.”

We came to a strange-looking machine consisting of a huge set of gears connecting a series of drum-like rollers. Brockway took a shovel and scooped up a load of brown crystals from a pile on the floor, pitching them skillfully into a receptacle on top of the machine.

“Grab a scoop and let’s git going,” he ordered briskly. “You ever done this before?” he asked as I scooped into the pile.

“It’s been a long time,” I said. “What is this material?”

He stopped shoveling and gave me a long, black stare, then returned to the pile, his scoop ringing on the floor. You’ll have to remember not to ask this suspicious old bastard any questions, I thought, scooping into the brown pile.

Soon I was perspiring freely. My hands were sore and I began to tire. Brockway watched me out of the corner of his eye, snickering noiselessly.

“You don’t want to overwork yourself, young feller,” he said blandly. “I’ll get used to it,” I said, scooping up a heavy load.
“Oh, sho, sho,” he said. “Sho. But you better take a rest when you git tired.”

I didn’t stop. I piled on the material until he said, “That there’s the scoop we been trying to find. That’s what we want. You better stand back a little, ’cause I’m fixing to start her up.”

I backed away, watching him go over and push a switch. Shuddering into motion, the machine gave a sudden scream like a circular saw, and sent a tattoo of sharp crystals against my face. I moved clumsily away, seeing Brockway grin like a dried prune. Then with the dying hum of the furiously whirling drums, I heard the grains sifting lazily in the sudden stillness, sliding sand-like down the chute into the pot underneath.

I watched him go over and open a valve. A sharp new smell of oil arose.

“Now she’s all set to cook down; all we got to do is put the fire to her,” he said, pressing a button on something that looked like the burner of an oil furnace. There was an angry hum, followed by a slight explosion that caused something to rattle, and I could hear a low roaring begin.

“Know what that’s going to be when it’s cooked?”

“No, sir,” I said. . .

“Well that’s going to be the guts, what they call the vee-hicle of the paint. Least it will be by time I git through putting other stuff with it.”

“But I thought the paint was made upstairs . . .”

“Naw, they just mixes in the color, make it look pretty. Right down here is where the real paint is made. Without what I do they couldn’t do nothing, they be making bricks without straw. An’ not only do I make up the base, I fixes the varnishes and lots of the oils too . . .”

“So that’s it,” I said. “I was wondering what you did down here.”

“A whole lots of folks wonders about that without gitting anywhere. But as I was saying, caint a single doggone drop of paint move out of the factory lessen it comes through Lucius Brockway’s hands.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know what I’m doing,” he said. “And I learned it without all that education that them what’s been sent down here is suppose to have. I learned it by doing it. Them personnel fellows don’t want to face the facts, but Liberty Paints wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel if they didn’t have me here to see that it got a good strong base. Old Man Sparland know it though. I caint stop laughing over the time when I was down with a touch of pneumonia and they put one of them so-called engineers to pooling around down here. Why, they started to having so much paint go bad they didn’t know what to do. Paint was bleeding and wrinkling, wouldn’t cover or nothing — you know, a man could make hisself all kinds of money if he found out what makes paint bleed. Anyway, everything was going bad. Then word got to me that they done put that fellow in my place and when I got well I wouldn’t come back. Here I been with ’em so long and loyal and everything. Shucks, I just sent ’em word that Lucius Brockway was retiring!

“Next thing you know here come the Old Man. He so old hisself his chauffeur has to help him up them steep stairs at my place. Come in a-puffing and a-blowing, says, ‘Lucius, what’s this I hear ’bout you retiring?’

” ‘Well, sir, Mr. Sparland, sir,’ I says, ‘I been pretty sick, as you well know, and I’m gitting kinder along in my years, as you well know, and I hear that this here Italian fellow you got in my place is doing so good I thought I’d might as well take it easy round the house.’

“Why, you’d a-thought I’d done cursed him or something. ‘What kind of talk is that from you, Lucius Brockway,’ he said, ‘taking it easy round the house when we need you out to the plant? Don’t you know the quickest way to die is to retire? Why, that fellow out at the plant don’t know a thing about those furnaces. I’m so worried about what he’s going to do, that he’s liable to blow up the plant or something that I took out some extra insurance. He can’t do your job,’ he said. ‘He don’t have the touch. We haven’t put out a first-class batch of paint since you been gone.’ Now that was the Old Man hisself!” Lucius Brockway said.

“So what happened?” I said.

“What you mean, what happened?” he said, looking as though it were the most unreasonable question in the world. “Shucks, a few days later the Old Man had me back down here in full control. That engineer got so mad when he found out he had to take orders from me he quit the next day.”

He spat on the floor and laughed. “Heh, heh, heh, he was a fool, that’s what. A fool! He wanted to boss me and I know more about this basement than anybody, boilers and everything. I helped lay the pipes and everything, and what I mean is I knows the location of each and every pipe and switch and cable and wire and everything else — both in the floors and in the walls and out in the yard. Yes, sir! And what’s more, I got it in my head so good I can trace it out on paper down to the last nut and bolt; and ain’t never been to nobody’s engineering school neither, ain’t even passed by one, as far as I know. Now what you think about that?”

“I think it’s remarkable,” I said, thinking, I don’t like this old man.

“Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,” he said. “It’s just that I been round here so long. I been studying this machinery for over twenty-five years. Sho, and that fellow thinking ’cause he been to some school and learned how to read a blueprint and how to fire a boiler he knows more ’bout this plant than Lucius Brockway. That fool couldn’t make no engineer ’cause he can’t see what’s staring him straight in the face . . . Say, you forgittin’ to watch them gauges.”

I hurried over, finding all the needles steady.

“They’re okay,” I called.

“All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ’em. You caint forgit down here, ’cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we are the machines inside the machine.

“You know the best selling paint we got, the one that made this here business?” he asked as I helped him fill a vat with a smelly substance.

“No, I don’t.”

“Our white, Optic White.”

“Why the white rather than the others?”

” ‘Cause we started stressing it from the first. We make the best white paint in the world, I don’t give a damn what nobody says. Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through!”

His eyes glinted with humorless conviction and I had to drop my head to hide my grin.

“You notice that sign on top of the building?”

“Oh, you can’t miss that,” I said.

“You read the slogan?”

“I don’t remember, I was in such a hurry.”

“Well, you might not believe it, but I helped the Old Man make up that slogan. ‘If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,’ ” he quoted with an upraised finger, like a preacher quoting holy writ. “I got me a three-hundred-dollar bonus for helping to think that up. These newfangled advertising folks is been tryin’ to work up something about the other colors, talking about rainbows or something, but hell, they caint get nowhere.”

” ‘If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,'” I repeated and suddenly had to repress a laugh as a childhood jingle rang through my mind:

” ‘If you’re white, you’re right,’ ” I said.

“That’s it,” he said. “And that’s another reason why the Old Man ain’t goin’ to let nobody come down here messing with me. He knows what a lot of them new fellers don’t; he knows that the reason our paint is so good is because of the way Lucius Brockway puts the pressure on them oils and resins before they even leaves the tanks.” He laughed maliciously. “They thinks ’cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it! Them machines just do the cooking, these here hands right here do the sweeting. Yes, sir! Lucius Brockway hit it square on the head! I dips my fingers in and sweets it! Come on, let’s eat . . .”

“But what about the gauges?” I said, seeing him go over and take a thermos bottle from a shelf near one of the furnaces.

“Oh, we’ll be here close enough to keep an eye on ’em. Don’t you worry ’bout that.”

“But I left my lunch in the locker room over at Building No. 1.”

“Go on and git it and come back here and eat. Down here we have to always be on the job. A man don’t need no more’n fifteen minutes to eat no-how; then I say let him git on back on the job.”

Upon opening the door I thought I had made a mistake. Men dressed in splattered painters’ caps and overalls sat about on benches, listening to a thin tubercular-looking man who was addressing them in a nasal voice. Everyone looked at me and I was starting out when the thin man called, “There’s plenty of seats for late comers. Come in, brother . . .”

Brother? Even after my weeks in the North this was surprising. “I was looking for the locker room,” I spluttered.

“You’re in it, brother. Weren’t you told about the meeting?”

“Meeting? Why, no, sir, I wasn’t.”

The chairman frowned. “You see, the bosses are not co-operating,” he said to the others. “Brother, who’s your foreman?”

“Mr. Brockway, sir,” I said.

Suddenly the men began scraping their feet and cursing. I looked about me. What was wrong? Were they objecting to my referring to Brockway as Mister?

“Quiet, brothers,” the chairman said, leaning across his table, his hand cupped to his ear. “Now what was that, brother; who is your foreman?”

“Lucius Brockway, sir,” I said, dropping the Mister.

But this seemed only to make them more hostile. “Get him the hell out of here,” they shouted. I turned. A group on the far side of the room kicked over a bench, yelling, “Throw him out! Throw him out!”

I inched backwards, hearing the little man bang on the table for order. “Men, brothers! Give the brother a chance . . .”

“He looks like a dirty fink to me. A first-class enameled fink!”

The hoarsely voiced word grated my ears like “nigger” in an angry southern mouth . . .

“Brothers, please!” The chairman was waving his hands as I reached out behind me for the door and touched an arm, feeling it snatch violently away. I dropped my hand.

“Who sent this fink into the meeting, brother chairman? Ask him that!” a man demanded.

“No, wait,” the chairman said. “Don’t ride that word too hard . . .” “Ask him, brother chairman!” another man said.
“Okay, but don’t label a man a fink until you know for sure.” The chairman turned to me. “How’d you happen in here, brother?” The men quieted, listening.

“I left my lunch in my locker,” I said, my mouth dry. “You weren’t sent into the meeting?”

“No, sir, I didn’t know about any meeting.”

“The hell he says. None of these finks ever knows!” “Throw the lousy bastard out!”

“Now, wait,” I said.

They became louder, threatening.

“Respect the chair!” the chairman shouted. “We’re a democratic union here, following democratic –“

“Never mind, git rid of the fink!”

“. . . procedures. It’s our task to make friends with all the workers. And I mean all. That’s how we build the union strong. Now let’s hear what the brother’s got to say. No more of that beefing and interrupting!”

I broke into a cold sweat, my eyes seeming to have become extremely sharp, causing each face to stand out vivid in its hostility.

I heard, “When were you hired, friend?”

“This morning,” I said.

“See, brothers, he’s a new man. We don’t want to make the mistake of judging the worker by his foreman. Some of you also work for sonsabitches, remember?”

Suddenly the men began to laugh and curse. “Here’s one right here,” one of them yelled.

“Mine wants to marry the boss’s daughter — a frigging eight-day wonder!”

This sudden change made me puzzled and angry, as though they were making me the butt of a joke.

“Order, brothers! Perhaps the brother would like to join the union. How about it, brother?”

“Sir . . . ?” I didn’t know what to say. I knew very little about unions — but most of these men seemed hostile . . . And before I could answer a fat man with shaggy gray hair leaped to his feet, shouting angrily, “I’m against it! Brothers, this fellow could be a fink, even if he was hired right this minute! Not that I aim to be unfair to anybody, either. Maybe he ain’t a fink,” he cried passionately, “but brothers, I want to remind you that nobody knows it; and it seems to me that anybody that would work under that sonofabitching, double-crossing Brockway for more than fifteen minutes is just as apt as not to be naturally fink-minded! Please, brothers!” he cried, waving his arms for quiet. “As some of you brothers have learned, to the sorrow of your wives and babies, a fink don’t have to know about trade unionism to be a fink! Finkism? Hell, I’ve made a study of finkism! Finkism is born into some guys. It’s born into some guys, just like a good eye for color is born into other guys. That’s right, that’s the honest, scientific truth! A fink don’t even have to have heard of a union before,” he cried in a frenzy of words. “All you have to do is bring him around the neighborhood of a union and next thing you know, why, zip! he’s finking his finking ass off!”

He was drowned out by shouts of approval. Men turned violently to look at me. I felt choked. I wanted to drop my head but faced them as though facing them was itself a denial of his statements. Another voice ripped out of the shouts of approval, spilling with great urgency from the lips of a little fellow with glasses who spoke with the index finger of one hand upraised and the thumb of the other crooked in the suspender of his overalls:

“I want to put this brother’s remarks in the form of a motion: I move that we determine through a thorough investigation whether the new worker is a fink or no; and if he is a fink, let us discover who he’s finking for! And this, brother members, would give the worker time, if he ain’t a fink, to become acquainted with the work of the union and its aims. After all, brothers, we don’t want to forget that workers like him aren’t so highly developed as some of us who’ve been in the labor movement for a long time. So I says, let’s give him time to see what we’ve done to improve the condition of the workers, and then, if he ain’t a fink, we can decide in a democratic way whether we want to accept this brother into the union. Brother union members, I thank you!” He sat down with a bump.

The room roared. Biting anger grew inside me. So I was not so highly developed as they! What did he mean? Were they all Ph.D.’s? I couldn’t move; too much was happening to me. It was as though by entering the room I had automatically applied for membership — even though I had no idea that a union existed, and had come up simply to get a cold pork chop sandwich. I stood trembling, afraid that they would ask me to join but angry that so many rejected me on sight. And worst of all, I knew they were forcing me to accept things on their own terms, and I was unable to leave.

“All right, brothers. We’ll take a vote,” the chairman shouted. “All in favor of the motion, signify by saying ‘Aye’ . . .”

The ayes drowned him out.

“The ayes carried it,” the chairman announced as several men turned to stare at me. At last I could move. I started out, forgetting why I had come.

“Come in, brother,” the chairman called. “You can get your lunch now. Let him through, you brothers around the door!”

My face stung as though it had been slapped. They had made their decision without giving me a chance to speak for myself. I felt that every man present looked upon me with hostility; and though I had lived with hostility all my life, now for the first time it seemed to reach me, as though I had expected more of these men than of others — even though I had not known of their existence. Here in this room my defenses were negated, stripped away, checked at the door as the weapons, the knives and razors and owlhead pistols of the country boys were checked on Saturday night at the Golden Day. I kept my eyes lowered, mumbling “Pardon me, pardon me,” all the way to the drab green locker, where I removed the sandwich, for which I no longer had an appetite, and stood fumbling with the bag, dreading to face the men on my way out. Then still hating myself for the apologies made coming over, I brushed past silently as I went back.

When I reached the door the chairman called, “Just a minute, brother, we want you to understand that this is nothing against you personally. What you see here is the results of certain conditions here at the plant. We want you to know that we are only trying to protect ourselves. Some day we hope to have you as a member in good standing.”

From here and there came a half-hearted applause that quickly died. I swallowed and stared unseeing, the words spurting to me from a red, misty distance.

“Okay, brothers,” the voice said, “let him pass.”

I stumbled through the bright sunlight of the yard, past the office workers chatting on the grass, back to Building No. 2, to the basement. I stood on the stairs, feeling as though my bowels had been flooded with acid.

Why hadn’t I simply left, I thought with anguish. And since I had remained, why hadn’t I said something, defended myself? Suddenly I snatched the wrapper off a sandwich and tore it violently with my teeth, hardly tasting the dry lumps that squeezed past my constricted throat when I swallowed. Dropping the remainder back into the bag, I held onto the handrail, my legs shaking as though I had just escaped a great danger. Finally, it went away and I pushed open the metal door.

“What kept you so long?” Brockway snapped from where he sat on a wheelbarrow. He had been drinking from a white mug now cupped in his grimy hands.

I looked at him abstractedly, seeing how the light caught on his wrinkled forehead, his snowy hair. “I said, what kept you so long!” What had he to do with it, I thought, looking at him through a kind of mist, knowing that I disliked him and that I was very tired.

“I say . . .” he began, and I heard my voice come quiet from my tensed throat as I noticed by the clock that I had been gone only twenty minutes. “I ran into a union meeting –“

“Union!” I heard his white cup shatter against the floor as he uncrossed his legs, rising. “I knowed you belonged to that bunch of troublemaking foreigners! I knowed it! Git out!” he screamed. “Git out of my basement!”

He started toward me as in a dream, trembling like the needle of one of the gauges as he pointed toward the stairs, his voice shrieking. I stared; something seemed to have gone wrong, my reflexes were jammed.

“But what’s the matter?” I stammered, my voice low and my mind understanding and yet failing exactly to understand. “What’s wrong?”

“You heard me. Git out!”

“But I don’t understand . . .”

“Shut up and git!”

“But, Mr. Brockway,” I cried, fighting to hold something that was giving way.

“You two-bit, trouble-making union louse!”

“Look, man,” I cried, urgently now, “I don’t belong to any union.”

“If you don’t git outta here, you low-down skunk,” he said, looking wildly about the floor, “I’m liable to kill you. The Lord being my witness, I’LL KILL YOU!”

It was incredible, things were speeding up. “You’ll do what?” I stammered.


He had said it again and something fell away from me, and I seemed to be telling myself in a rush: You were trained to accept the foolishness of such old men as this, even when you thought them clowns and fools; you were trained to pretend that you respected them and acknowledged in them the same quality of authority and power in your world as the whites

before whom they bowed and scraped and feared and loved and imitated, and you were even trained to accept it when, angered or spiteful, or drunk with power, they came at you with a stick or strap or cane and you made no effort to strike back, but only to escape unmarked. But this was too much . . . he was not grandfather or uncle or father, nor preacher or teacher. Something uncoiled in my stomach and I was moving toward him, shouting, more at a black blur that irritated my eyes than at a clearly denned human face, “YOU’LL KILL WHO?”


“Listen here, you old fool, don’t talk about killing me! Give me a chance to explain. I don’t belong to anything — Go on, pick it up! Go on!” I yelled, seeing his eyes fasten upon a twisted iron bar. “You’re old enough to be my grandfather, but if you touch that bar, I swear I’ll make you eat it!”

“I done tole you, GIT OUTTA MY BASEMENT! You impudent son’bitch,” he screamed.

I moved forward, seeing him stoop and reach aside for the bar; and I was throwing myself forward, feeling him go over with a grunt, hard against the floor, rolling beneath the force of my lunge. It was as though I had landed upon a wiry rat. He scrambled beneath me, making angry sounds and striking my face as he tried to use the bar. I twisted it from his grasp, feeling a sharp pain stab through my shoulder. He’s using a knife flashed through my mind and I slashed out with my elbow, sharp against his face, feeling it land solid and seeing his head fly backwards and up and back again as I struck again, hearing something fly free and skitter across the floor, thinking, It’s gone, the knife is gone . . . and struck again as he tried to choke me, jabbing at his bobbing head, feeling the bar come free and bringing it down at his head, missing, the metal clinking against the floor, and bringing it up for a second try and him yelling, “No, no! You the best, you the best!”

“I’m going to beat your brains out!” I said, my throat dry, “stabbing me . . .”

“No,” he panted. “I got enough. Ain’t you heard me say I got enough?”

“So when you can’t win you want to stop! Damn you, if you’ve cut me bad, I’ll tear your head off!”

Watching him warily, I got to my feet. I dropped the bar, as a flash of heat swept over me: His face was caved in.

“What’s wrong with you, old man?” I yelled nervously. “Don’t you know better than to attack a man a third your age?”

He blanched at being called old, and I repeated it, adding insults I’d heard my grandfather use. “Why, you old-fashioned, slavery-time, mammy-made, handkerchief-headed bastard, you should know better! What made you think you could threaten my life? You meant nothing to me, I came down here because I was sent. I didn’t know anything about you or the union either. Why’d you start riding me the minute I came in? Are you people crazy? Does this paint go to your head? Are you drinking it?”

He glared, panting tiredly. Great tucks showed in his overalls where the folds were stuck together by the goo with which he was covered, and I thought, Tar Baby, and wanted to blot him out of my sight. But now my anger was flowing fast from action to words.

“I go to get my lunch and they ask me who I work for and when I tell them, they call me a fink. A fink! You people must be out of your minds. No sooner do I get back down here than you start yelling that you’re going to kill me! What’s going on? What have you got against me? What did I do?”

He glowered at me silently, then pointed to the floor.

“Reach and draw back a nub,” I warned.

“Caint a man even git his teeth?” he mumbled, his voice strange. “TEETH?”

With a shamed frown, he opened his mouth. I saw a blue flash of shrunken gums. The thing that had skittered across the floor was not a knife, but a plate of false teeth. For a fraction of a second I was desperate, feeling some of my justification for wanting to kill him slipping away. My fingers leaped to my shoulder, finding wet cloth but no blood. The old fool had bitten me. A wild flash of laughter struggled to rise from beneath my anger. He had bitten me! I looked on the floor, seeing the smashed mug and the teeth glinting dully across the room.

“Get them,” I said, growing ashamed. Without his teeth, some of the hatefulness seemed to have gone out of him. But I stayed close as he got his teeth and went over to the tap and held them beneath a stream of water. A tooth fell away beneath the pressure of his thumb, and I heard him grumbling as he placed the plate in his mouth. Then, wiggling his chin, he became himself again.

“You was really trying to kill me,” he said. He seemed unable to believe it.

“You started the killing. I don’t go around fighting,” I said. “Why didn’t you let me explain? Is it against the law to belong to the union?”

“That damn union,” he cried, almost in tears. “That damn union! They after my job! I know they after my job! For one of us to join one of them damn unions is like we was to bite the hand of the man who teached us to bathe in a bathtub! I hates it, and I mean to keep on doing all I can to chase it outta the plant. They after my job, the chickenshit bastards!”

Spittle formed at the corners of his mouth; he seemed to boil with hatred.

“But what have I to do with that?” I said, feeling suddenly the older.

” ‘Cause them young colored fellers up in the lab is trying to join that outfit, that’s what! Here the white man done give ’em jobs,” he wheezed as though pleading a case. “He done give ’em good jobs too, and they so ungrateful they goes and joins up with that backbiting union! I never seen such a no-good ungrateful bunch. All they doing is making things bad for the rest of us!”

“Well, I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know about all that. I came here to take a temporary job and I certainly didn’t intend to get mixed up in any quarrels. But as for us, I’m ready to forget our disagreement — if you are . . .” I held out my hand, causing my shoulder to pain.

He gave me a gruff look. “You ought to have more self-respect than to fight an old man,” he said. “I got grown boys older than you.”

“I thought you were trying to kill me,” I said, my hand still extended. “I thought you had stabbed me.”

“Well, I don’t like a lot of bickering and confusion myself,” he said, avoiding my eyes. And it was as though the closing of his sticky hand over mine was a signal. I heard a shrill hissing from the boilers behind me and turned, hearing Brockway yell, “I tole you to watch them gauges. Git over to the big valves, quick!”

I dashed for where a series of valve wheels projected from the wall near the crusher, seeing Brockway scrambling away in the other direction, thinking, Where’s he going? as I reached the valves, and hearing him yell, “Turn it! Turn it!”

“Which?” I yelled, reaching. “The white one, fool, the white one!”

I jumped, catching it and pulling down with all my weight, feeling it give. But this only increased the noise and I seemed to hear Brockway laugh as I looked around to see him scrambling for the stairs, his hands clasping the back of his head, and his neck pulled in close, like a small boy who has thrown a brick into the air.

“Hey you! Hey you!” I yelled. “Hey!” But it was too late. All my movements seemed too slow, ran together. I felt the wheel resisting and tried vainly to reverse it and tried to let go, and it sticking to my palms and my fingers stiff and sticky, and I turned, running now, seeing the needle on one of the gauges swinging madly, like a beacon gone out of control, and trying to think clearly, my eyes darting here and there through the room of tanks and machines and up the stairs so far away and hearing the clear new note arising while I seemed to run swiftly up an incline and shot forward with sudden acceleration into a wet blast of black emptiness that was somehow a bath of whiteness.

It was a fall into space that seemed not a fall but a suspension. Then a great weight landed upon me and I seemed to sprawl in an interval of clarity beneath a pile of broken machinery, my head pressed back against a huge wheel, my body splattered with a stinking goo. Somewhere an engine ground in furious futility, grating loudly until a pain shot around the curve of my head and bounced me off into blackness for a distance, only to strike another pain that lobbed me back. And in that clear instant of consciousness I opened my eyes to a blinding flash.

Holding on grimly, I could hear the sound of someone wading, sloshing, nearby, and an old man’s garrulous voice saying, “I tole ’em these here young Nineteen-Hundred boys ain’t no good for the job. They ain’t got the nerves. Naw, sir, they just ain’t got the nerves.”

I tried to speak, to answer, but something heavy moved again, and I was understanding something fully and trying again to answer but seemed to sink to the center of a lake of heavy water and pause, transfixed and numb with the sense that I had lost irrevocably an important victory.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50