2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

[3 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapters 11 - 15, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Chapters 11-15.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

Chapter 11

I was sitting in a cold, white rigid chair and a man was looking at me out of a bright third eye that glowed from the center of his forehead. He reached out, touching my skull gingerly, and said something encouraging, as though I were a child. His fingers went away.

“Take this,” he said. “It’s good for you.” I swallowed. Suddenly my skin itched, all over. I had on new overalls, strange white ones. The taste ran bitter through my mouth. My fingers trembled.

A thin voice with a mirror on the end of it said, “How is he?” “I don’t think it’s anything serious. Merely stunned.”

“Should he be sent home now?”

“No, just to be certain we’ll keep him here a few days. Want to keep him under observation. Then he may leave.”

Now I was lying on a cot, the bright eye still burning into mine, although the man was gone. It was quiet and I was numb. I closed my eyes only to be awakened.

“What is your name?” a voice said. “My head . . .” I said.

“Yes, but your name. Address?”

“My head — that burning eye . . .” I said. “Eye?”

“Inside,” I said.

“Shoot him up for an X-ray,” another voice said. “My head . . .”


Somewhere a machine began to hum and I distrusted the man and woman above me.

They were holding me firm and it was fiery and above it all I kept hearing the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth — three short and one long buzz, repeated again and again in varying volume, and I was struggling and breaking through, rising up, to find myself lying on my back with two pink-faced men laughing down.

“Be quiet now,” one of them said firmly. “You’ll be all right.” I raised my eyes, seeing two indefinite young women in white, looking down at me. A third, a desert of heat waves away, sat at a panel arrayed with coils and dials. Where was I? From far below me a barber-chair thumping began and I felt myself rise on the tip of the sound from the floor. A face was now level with mine, looking closely and saying something without meaning. A whirring began that snapped and cracked with static, and suddenly I seemed to be crushed between the floor and ceiling. Two forces tore savagely at my stomach and back. A flash of cold-edged heat enclosed me. I was pounded between crushing electrical pressures; pumped between live electrodes like an accordion between a player’s hands. My lungs were compressed like a bellows and each time my breath returned I yelled, punctuating the rhythmical action of the nodes.

“Hush, goddamit,” one of the faces ordered. “We’re trying to get you started again. Now shut up!”

The voice throbbed with icy authority and I quieted and tried to contain the pain. I discovered now that my head was encircled by a piece of cold metal like the iron cap worn by the occupant of an electric chair. I tried unsuccessfully to struggle, to cry out. But the people were so remote, the pain so immediate. A faced moved in and out of the circle of lights, peering for a moment, then disappeared. A freckled, red-haired woman with gold nose-glasses appeared; then a man with a circular mirror attached to his forehead — a doctor. Yes, he was a doctor and the women were nurses; it was coming clear. I was in a hospital. They would care for me. It was all geared toward the easing of pain. I felt thankful.

I tried to remember how I’d gotten here, but nothing came. My mind was blank, as though I had just begun to live. When the next face appeared I saw the eyes behind the thick glasses blinking as though noticing me for the first time.

“You’re all right, boy. You’re okay. You just be patient,” said the voice, hollow with profound detachment.

I seemed to go away; the lights receded like a tail-light racing down a dark country road. I couldn’t follow. A sharp pain stabbed my shoulder. I twisted about on my back, fighting something I couldn’t see. Then after a while my vision cleared.

Now a man sitting with his back to me, manipulating dials on a panel. I wanted to call him, but the Fifth Symphony rhythm racked me, and he seemed too serene and too far away. Bright metal bars were between us and when I strained my neck around I discovered that I was not lying on an operating table but in a kind of glass and nickel box, the lid of which was propped open. Why was I here?

“Doctor! Doctor!” I called.

No answer. Perhaps he hadn’t heard, I thought, calling again and feeling the stabbing pulses of the machine again and feeling myself going under and fighting against it and coming up to hear voices carrying on a conversation behind my head. The static sounds became a quiet drone. Strains of music, a Sunday air, drifted from a distance. With closed eyes, barely breathing I warded off the pain. The voices droned harmoniously. Was it a radio I heard — a phonograph? The vox humana of a hidden organ? If so, what organ and where? I felt warm. Green hedges, dazzling with red wild roses appeared behind my eyes, stretching with a gentle curving to an infinity empty of objects, a limpid blue space. Scenes of a shaded lawn in summer drifted past; I saw a uniformed military band arrayed decorously in concert, each musician with well-oiled hair, heard a sweet-voiced trumpet rendering “The Holy City” as from an echoing distance, buoyed by a choir of muted horns; and above, the mocking obbligato of a mocking bird. I felt giddy. The air seemed to grow thick with fine white gnats, filling my eyes, boiling so thickly that the dark trumpeter breathed them in and expelled them through the bell of his golden horn, a live white cloud mixing with the tones upon the torpid air.

I came back. The voices still droned above me and I disliked them. Why didn’t they go away? Smug ones. Oh, doctor, I thought drowsily, did you ever wade in a brook before breakfast? Ever chew on sugar cane? You know, doc, the same fall day I first saw the hounds chasing black men in stripes and chains my grandmother sat with me and sang with twinkling eyes:

“Godamighty made a monkey

Godamighty made a whale

And Godamighty made a ‘gator With hickeys all over his tail . . .”

Or you, nurse, did you know that when you strolled in pink organdy and picture hat between the rows of cape jasmine, cooing to your beau in a drawl as thick as sorghum, we little black boys hidden snug in the bushes called out so loud that you daren’t hear:

“Did you ever see Miss Margaret boil water? Man, she hisses a wonderful stream, Seventeen miles and a quarter,

Man, and you can’t see her pot for the steam . . .”

But now the music became a distinct wail of female pain. I opened my eyes. Glass and metal floated above me.

“How are you feeling, boy?” a voice said.

A pair of eyes peered down through lenses as thick as the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle, eyes protruding, luminous and veined, like an old biology specimen preserved in alcohol.

“I don’t have enough room,” I said angrily. “Oh, that’s a necessary part of the treatment.”

“But I need more room,” I insisted. “I’m cramped.”

“Don’t worry about it, boy. You’ll get used to it after a while. How is your stomach and head?”


“Yes, and your head?”

“I don’t know,” I said, realizing that I could feel nothing beyond the pressure around my head and the tender surface of my body. Yet my senses seemed to focus sharply.

“I don’t feel it,” I cried, alarmed.

“Aha! You see! My little gadget will solve everything!” he exploded.

“I don’t know,” another voice said. “I think I still prefer surgery. And in this case especially, with this, uh . . . background, I’m not so sure that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of simple prayer.”

“Nonsense, from now on do your praying to my little machine. I’ll deliver the cure.”

“I don’t know, but I believe it a mistake to assume that solutions –cures, that is — that apply in, uh . . . primitive instances, are, uh . . . equally effective when more advanced conditions are in question. Suppose it were a New Englander with a Harvard background?”

“Now you’re arguing politics,” the first voice said banteringly. “Oh, no, but it is a problem.”

I listened with growing uneasiness to the conversation fuzzing away to a whisper. Their simplest words seemed to refer to something else, as did many of the notions that unfurled through my head. I wasn’t sure whether they were talking about me or someone else. Some of it sounded like a discussion of history . . .

“The machine will produce the results of a prefrontal lobotomy without the negative effects of the knife,” the voice said. “You see, instead of severing the prefrontal lobe, a single lobe, that is, we apply pressure in the proper degrees to the major centers of nerve control — our concept is Gestalt — and the result is as complete a change of personality as you’ll find in your famous fairy-tale cases of criminals transformed into amiable fellows after all that bloody business of a brain operation. And what’s more,” the voice went on triumphantly, “the patient is both physically and neurally whole.”

“But what of his psychology?”

“Absolutely of no importance!” the voice said. “The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no traumata on his account.”

There was a pause. A pen scratched upon paper. Then, “Why not castration, doctor?” a voice asked waggishly, causing me to start, a pain tearing through me.

“There goes your love of blood again,” the first voice laughed. “What’s that definition of a surgeon, ‘A butcher with a bad conscience’?”

They laughed.

“It’s not so funny. It would be more scientific to try to define the case. It has been developing some three hundred years –“

“Define? Hell, man, we know all that.”

“Then why don’t you try more current?” “You suggest it?”

“I do, why not?”

“But isn’t there a danger . . . ?” the voice trailed off.

I heard them move away; a chair scraped. The machine droned, and I knew definitely that they were discussing me and steeled myself for the shocks, but was blasted nevertheless. The pulse came swift and staccato, increasing gradually until I fairly danced between the nodes. My teeth chattered. I closed my eyes and bit my lips to smother my screams. Warm blood filled my mouth. Between my lids I saw a circle of hands and faces, dazzling with light. Some were scribbling upon charts.

“Look, he’s dancing,” someone called. “No, really?”

An oily face looked in. “They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh.

And suddenly my bewilderment suspended and I wanted to be angry, murderously angry. But somehow the pulse of current smashing through my body prevented me. Something had been disconnected. For though I had seldom used my capacities for anger and indignation, I had no doubt that I possessed them; and, like a man who knows that he must fight, whether angry or not, when called a son of a bitch, I tried to imagine myself angry –only to discover a deeper sense of remoteness. I was beyond anger. I was only bewildered. And those above seemed to sense it. There was no avoiding the shock and I rolled with the agitated tide, out into the blackness.

When I emerged, the lights were still there. I lay beneath the slab of glass, feeling deflated. All my limbs seemed amputated. It was very warm. A dim white ceiling stretched far above me. My eyes were swimming with tears. Why, I didn’t know. It worried me. I wanted to knock on the glass to attract attention, but I couldn’t move. The slightest effort, hardly more than desire, tired me. I lay experiencing the vague processes of my body. I seemed to have lost all sense of proportion. Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin? Thoughts evaded me, hiding in the vast stretch of clinical whiteness to which I seemed connected only by a scale of receding grays. No sounds beyond the sluggish inner roar of the blood. I couldn’t open my eyes. I seemed to exist in some other dimension, utterly alone; until after a while a nurse bent down and forced a warm fluid between my lips. I gagged, swallowed, feeling the fluid course slowly to my vague middle. A huge iridescent bubble seemed to enfold me. Gentle hands moved over me, bringing vague impressions of memory. I was laved with warm liquids, felt gentle hands move through the indefinite limits of my flesh. The sterile and weightless texture of a sheet enfolded me. I felt myself bounce, sail off like a ball thrown over the roof into mist, striking a hidden wall beyond a pile of broken machinery and sailing back. How long it took, I didn’t know. But now above the movement of the hands I heard a friendly voice, uttering familiar words to which I could assign no meaning. I listened intensely, aware of the form and movement of sentences and grasping the now subtle rhythmical differences between progressions of sound that questioned and those that made a statement. But still their meanings were lost in the vast whiteness in which I myself was lost.

Other voices emerged. Faces hovered above me like inscrutable fish peering myopically through a glass aquarium wall. I saw them suspended motionless above me, then two floating off, first their heads, then the tips of their finlike fingers, moving dreamily from the top of the case. A thoroughly mysterious coming and going, like the surging of torpid tides. I watched the two make furious movements with their mouths. I didn’t understand. They tried again, the meaning still escaping me. I felt uneasy. I saw a scribbled card, held over me. All a jumble of alphabets. They consulted heatedly. Somehow I felt responsible. A terrible sense of loneliness came over me; they seemed to enact a mysterious pantomime. And seeing them from this angle was disturbing. They appeared utterly stupid and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t right. I could see smut in one doctor’s nose; a nurse had two flabby chins. Other faces came up, their mouths working with soundless fury. But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.

A man dressed in black appeared, a long-haired fellow, whose piercing eyes looked down upon me out of an intense and friendly face. The others hovered about him, their eyes anxious as he alternately peered at me and consulted my chart. Then he scribbled something on a large card and thrust it before my eyes:


A tremor shook me; it was as though he had suddenly given a name to, had organized the vagueness that drifted through my head, and I was overcome with swift shame. I realized that I no longer knew my own name. I shut my eyes and shook my head with sorrow. Here was the first warm attempt to communicate with me and I was failing. I tried again, plunging into the blackness of my mind. It was no use; I found nothing but pain. I saw the card again and he pointed slowly to each word:

WHAT . . . IS . . . YOUR . . . NAME?

I tried desperately, diving below the blackness until I was limp with fatigue. It was as though a vein had been opened and my energy syphoned away; I could only stare back mutely. But with an irritating burst of activity he gestured for another card and wrote:

WHO . . . ARE . . . YOU?

Something inside me turned with a sluggish excitement. This phrasing of the question seemed to set off a series of weak and distant lights where the other had thrown a spark that failed. Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body. Maybe I was just this blackness and bewilderment and pain, but that seemed less like a suitable answer than something I’d read somewhere.

The card was back again:


Mother, who was my mother? Mother, the one who screams when you suffer — but who? This was stupid, you always knew your mother’s name. Who was it that screamed? Mother? But the scream came from the machine. A machine my mother? . . . Clearly, I was out of my head.

He shot questions at me: Where were you born? Try to think of your name.

I tried, thinking vainly of many names, but none seemed to fit, and yet it was as though I was somehow a part of all of them, had become submerged within them and lost.

You must remember, the placard read. But it was useless. Each time I found myself back in the clinging white mist and my name just beyond my fingertips. I shook my head and watched him disappear for a moment and return with a companion, a short, scholarly looking man who stared at me with a blank expression. I watched him produce a child’s slate and a piece of chalk, writing upon it:


I looked at him, feeling a quick dislike and thinking, half in amusement, I don’t play the dozens. And how’s your old lady today?


I stared, seeing him frown and write a long time. The slate was filled with meaningless names.

I smiled, seeing his eyes blaze with annoyance. Old Friendly Face said something. The new man wrote a question at which I stared in wide-eyed amazement:


I was filled with turmoil. Why should he think of that? He pointed to the question, word by word. I laughed, deep, deep inside me, giddy with the delight of self-discovery and the desire to hide it. Somehow I was Buckeye the Rabbit . . . or had been, when as children we danced and sang barefoot in the dusty streets:

Buckeye the Rabbit Shake it, shake it Buckeye the Rabbit Break it, break it . . .

Yet, I could not bring myself to admit it, it was too ridiculous — and somehow too dangerous. It was annoying that he had hit upon an old identity and I shook my head, seeing him purse his lips and eye me sharply.


He was your mother’s back-door man, I thought. Anyone knew they were one and the same: “Buckeye” when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; “Brer,” when you were older. But why was he playing around with these childish names? Did they think I was a child? Why didn’t they leave me alone? I would remember soon enough when they let me out of the machine . . . A palm smacked sharply upon the glass, but I was tired of them. Yet as my eyes focused upon Old Friendly Face he seemed pleased. I couldn’t understand it, but there he was, smiling and leaving witrr the new assistant.

Left alone, I lay fretting over my identity. I suspected that I was really playing a game with myself and that they were taking part. A kind of combat. Actually they knew as well as I, and I for some reason preferred not to face it. It was irritating, and it made me feel sly and alert. I would solve the mystery the next instant. I imagined myself whirling about in my mind like an old man attempting to catch a small boy in some mischief, thinking, Who am I? It was no good. I felt like a clown. Nor was I up to being both criminal and detective — though why criminal I didn’t know.

I fell to plotting ways of short-circuiting the machine. Perhaps if I shifted my body about so that the two nodes would come together — No, not only was there no room but it might electrocute me. I shuddered. Whoever else I was, I was no Samson. I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what the scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw –myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.

It was as though my thoughts of escape had alerted them. I looked up to see two agitated physicians and a nurse, and thought, It’s too late now,

and lay in a veil of sweat watching them manipulate the controls. I was braced for the usual shock, but nothing happened. Instead I saw their hands at the lid, loosening the bolts, and before I could react they had opened the lid and pulled me erect.

“What’s happened?” I began, seeing the nurse pause to look at me. “Well?” she said.

My mouth worked soundlessly. “Come on, get it out,” she said. “What hospital is this?” I said.

“It’s the factory hospital,” she said. “Now be quiet.”

They were around me now, inspecting my body, and I watched with growing bewilderment, thinking, what is a factory hospital?

I felt a tug at my belly and looked down to see one of the physicians pull the cord which was attached to the stomach node, jerking me forward.

“What is this?” I said. “Get the shears,” he said.

“Sure,” the other said. “Let’s not waste time.”

I recoiled inwardly as though the cord were part of me. Then they had it free and the nurse clipped through the belly band and removed the heavy node. I opened my mouth to speak but one of the physicians shook his head. They worked swiftly. The nodes off, the nurse went over me with rubbing alcohol. Then I was told to climb out of the case. I looked from face to face, overcome with indecision. For now that it appeared that I was being freed, I dared not believe it. What if they were transferring me to some even more painful machine? I sat there, refusing to move. Should I struggle against them?

“Take his arm,” one of them said.

“I can do it,” I said, climbing fearfully out.

I was told to stand while they went over my body with the stethoscope.

“How’s the articulation?” the one with the chart said as the other examined my shoulder.

“Perfect,” he said.

I could feel a tightness there but no pain.

“I’d say he’s surprisingly strong, considering,” the other said.

“Shall we call in Drexel? It seems rather unusual for him to be so strong.”

“No, just note it on the chart.”

“All right, nurse, give him his clothes.”

“What are you going to do with me?” I said. She handed me clean underclothing and a pair of white overalls.

“No questions,” she said. “Just dress as quickly as possible.”

The air outside the machine seemed extremenly rare. When I bent over to tie my shoes I thought I would faint, but fought it off. I stood shakily and they looked me up and down.

“Well, boy, it looks as though you’re cured,” one of them said. “You’re a new man. You came through fine. Come with us,” he said.

We went slowly out of the room and down a long white corridor into an elevator, then swiftly down three floors to a reception room with rows of chairs. At the front were a number of private offices with frosted glass doors and walls.

“Sit down there,” they said. “The director will see you shortly.”

I sat, seeing them disappear inside one of the offices for a second and emerge, passing me without a word. I trembled like a leaf. Were they really freeing me? My head spun. I looked at my white overalls. The nurse said that this was the factory hospital . . . Why couldn’t I remember what kind of factory it was? And why a factory hospital? Yes . . . I did remember some vague factory; perhaps I was being sent back there. Yes, and he’d spoken of the director instead of the head doctor; could they be one and the same? Perhaps I was in the factory already. I listened but could hear no machinery.

ACROSS the room a newspaper lay on a chair, but I was too concerned to get it. Somewhere a fan droned. Then one of the doors with frosted glass was opened and I saw a tall austere-looking man in a white coat, beckoning to me with a chart.

“Come,” he said.

I got up and went past him into a large simply furnished office,

thinking, Now, I’ll know. Now. “Sit down,” he said.

I eased myself into the chair beside his desk. He watched me with a calm, scientific gaze.

“What is your name? Oh here, I have it,” he said, studying the chart. And it was as though someone inside of me tried to tell him to be silent, but already he had called my name and I heard myself say, “Oh!” as a pain stabbed through my head and I shot to my feet and looked wildly around me and sat down and got up and down again very fast, remembering. I don’t know why I did it, but suddenly I saw him looking at me intently, and I stayed down this time.

He began asking questions and I could hear myself replying fluently, though inside I was reeling with swiftly changing emotional images that shrilled and chattered, like a sound-track reversed at high speed.

“Well, my boy,” he said, “you’re cured. We are going to release you. How does that strike you?”

Suddenly I didn’t know. I noticed a company calendar beside a stethoscope and a miniature silver paint brush. Did he mean from the hospital or from the job? . . .

“Sir?” I said.

“I said, how does that strike you?”

“All right, sir,” I said in an unreal voice. “I’ll be glad to get back to work.”

He looked at the chart, frowning. “You’ll be released, but I’m afraid that you’ll be disappointed about the work,” he said.

“What do you mean, sir?”

“You’ve been through a severe experience,” he said. “You aren’t ready for the rigors of industry. Now I want you to rest, undertake a period of convalescence. You need to become readjusted and get your strength back.”

“But, sir –“

“You mustn’t try to go too fast. You’re glad to be released, are you not?”

“Oh, yes. But how shall I live?”

“Live?” his eyebrows raised and lowered. “Take another job,” he said. “Something easier, quieter. Something for which you’re better prepared.”

“Prepared?” I looked at him, thinking, Is he in on it too? “I’ll take anything, sir,” I said.

“That isn’t the problem, my boy. You just aren’t prepared for work under our industrial conditions. Later, perhaps, but not now. And remember, you’ll be adequately compensated for your experience.”

“Compensated, sir?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “We follow a policy of enlightened humanitarianism; all our employees are automatically insured. You have only to sign a few papers.”

“What kind of papers, sir?”

“We require an affidavit releasing the company of responsibility,” he said. “Yours was a difficult case, and a number of specialists had to be called in. But, after all, any new occupation has its hazards. They are part of growing up, of becoming adjusted, as it were. One takes a chance and while some are prepared, others are not.”

I looked at his lined face. Was he doctor, factory official, or both? I couldn’t get it; and now he seemed to move back and forth across my field of vision, although he sat perfectly calm in his chair.

It came out of itself: “Do you know Mr. Norton, sir?” I said. “Norton?” His brows knitted. “What Norton is this?”

Then it was as though I hadn’t asked him; the name sounded strange. I ran my hand over my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It occurred to me that you might. He was just a man I used to know.”

“I see. Well” — he picked up some papers — “so that’s the way it is, my boy. A little later perhaps we’ll be able to do something. You may take the papers along if you wish. Just mail them to us. Your check will be sent upon their return. Meanwhile, take as much time as you like. You’ll find that we are perfectly fair.”

I took the folded papers and looked at him for what seemed to be too long a time. He seemed to waver. Then I heard myself say, “Do you know him?” my voice rising.


“Mr. Norton,” I said. “Mr. Norton!” “Oh, why, no.”

“No,” I said, “no one knows anybody and it was too long a time ago.”

He frowned and I laughed. “They picked poor Robin clean,” I said. “Do you happen to know Bled?”

He looked at me, his head to one side. “Are these people friends of yours?”

“Friends? Oh, yes,” I said, “we’re all good friends. Buddies from way back. But I don’t suppose we get around in the same circles.”

His eyes widened. “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose we do. However, good friends are valuable to have.”

I felt light-headed and started to laugh and he seemed to waver again and I thought of asking him about Emerson, but now he was clearing his throat and indicating that he was finished.

I put the folded papers in my overalls and started out. The door beyond the rows of chairs seemed far away.

“Take care of yourself,” he said.

“And you,” I said, thinking, it’s time, it’s past time.

Turning abruptly, I went weakly back to the desk, seeing him looking up at me with his steady scientific gaze. I was overcome with ceremonial feelings but unable to remember the proper formula. So as I deliberately extended my hand I fought down laughter with a cough.

“It’s been quite pleasant, our little palaver, sir,” I said. I listened to myself and to his answer.

“Yes, indeed,” he said.

He shook my hand gravely, without surprise or distaste. I looked down, he was there somewhere behind the lined face and outstretched hand.

“And now our palaver is finished,” I said. “Good-bye.”

He raised his hand. “Good-bye,” he said, his voice noncommittal. Leaving him and going out into the paint-fuming air I had the

feeling that I had been talking beyond myself, had used words and expressed attitudes not my own, that I was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me. Like the servant about whom I’d read in psychology class who, during a trance, had recited pages of Greek philosophy which she had overheard one day while she worked. It was as though I were acting out a scene from some crazy movie. Or perhaps I was catching up with myself and

had put into words feelings which I had hitherto suppressed. Or was it, I thought, starting up the walk, that I was no longer afraid? I stopped, looking at the buildings down the bright street slanting with sun and shade. I was no longer afraid. Not of important men, not of trustees and such; for knowing now that there was nothing which I could expect from them, there was no reason to be afraid. Was that it? I felt light-headed, my ears were ringing. I went on.

Along the walk the buildings rose, uniform and close together. It was day’s end now and on top of every building the flags were fluttering and diving down, collapsing. And I felt that I would fall, had fallen, moved now as against a current sweeping swiftly against me. Out of the grounds and up the street I found the bridge by which I’d come, but the stairs leading back to the car that crossed the top were too dizzily steep to climb, swim or fly, and I found a subway instead.

Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him — my mind and I — were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blonde nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem.

Chapter 12

When I came out of the subway, Lenox Avenue seemed to careen away from me at a drunken angle, and I focused upon the teetering scene with wild, infant’s eyes, my head throbbing. Two huge women with spoiled-cream complexions seemed to struggle with their massive bodies as they came past, their flowered hips trembling like threatening flames. Out across the walk before me they moved, and a bright orange slant of sun seemed to boil up and I saw myself going down, my legs watery beneath me, but my head clear, too clear, recording the crowd swerving around me: legs, feet, eyes, hands, bent knees, scuffed shoes, teethy-eyed excitement; and some moving on unhalting.

And the big dark woman saying, Boy, is you all right, what’s wrong? in a husky-voiced contralto. And me saying, I’m all right, just weak, and trying to stand, and her saying, Why don’t y’all stand back and let the man breathe? Stand back there y’all, and now echoed by an official tone, Keep moving, break it up. And she on one side and a man on the other, helping me to stand and the policeman saying, Are you all right? and me answering, Yes, I just felt weak, must have fainted but all right now, and him ordering the crowd to move on and the others moving on except the man and woman and him saying, You sure you okay, daddy, and me nodding yes, and her saying, Where you live son, somewhere around here? And me telling her Men’s House and her looking at me shaking her head saying, Men’s House, Men’s House, shucks that ain’t no place for nobody in your condition what’s weak and needs a woman to keep an eye on you awhile. And me saying, But I’ll be all right now, and her, Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. I live just up the street and round the corner, you better come on round and rest till you feel stronger. I’ll phone Men’s House and tell ’em where you at. And me too tired to resist and already she had one arm and was instructing the fellow to take the other and we went, me between them, inwardly rejecting and yet accepting her bossing, hearing, You take it easy, I’ll take care of you like I done a heap of others, my name’s Mary Rambo, everybody knows me round this part of Harlem, you heard of me, ain’t you? And the fellow saying, Sure, I’m Jenny Jackson’s boy, you know I know you, Miss Mary. And her saying, Jenny Jackson, why, I should say you do know me and I know you, you Ralston, and your mama got two more children, boy named Flint and gal named Laurajean, I should say I know you — me and your mama and your papa useta — And me saying, I’m all right now, really all right. And her saying, And looking like that, you must be worse off even than you look, and pulling me now saying, Here’s my house right here, hep me git him up the steps and inside, you needn’t worry, son, I ain’t never laid eyes on you before and it ain’t my business and I don’t care what you think about me but you weak and caint hardly walk and all and you look what’s more like you hungry, so just come on and let me do something for you like I hope you’d do something for ole Mary in case she needed it, it ain’t costing you a penny and I don’t want to git in your business, I just want you to lay down till you rested and then you can go. And the fellow taking it up, saying, You in good hands, daddy, Miss Mary always helping somebody and you need some help ’cause here you black as me and white as a sheet, as the ofays would say –watch these steps. And going up some steps and then some more, growing weaker, and the two warm around me on each side of me, and then inside a cool dark room, hearing, Here, here’s the bed, lie him down there, there, there now, that’s it, Ralston, now put his legs up — never mind the cover –there, that’s it, now go out there in the kitchen and pour him a glass of water, you’ll find a bottle in the ice-box. And him going and her placing another pillow beneath my head, saying, Now you’ll be better and when you git all right you’ll know how bad a shape you been in, here, now taka sip of this water, and me drinking and seeing her worn brown fingers holding the bright glass and a feeling of old, almost forgotten relief coming over me and thinking in echo of her words, If I don’t think I’m sinking, look what a hole I’m in, and then the soft cool splash of sleep.

I saw her across the room when I awoke, reading a newspaper, her glasses low across the bridge of her nose as she stared at the page intently. Then I realized that though the glasses still slanted down, the eyes were no longer focused on the page, but on my face and lighting with a slow smile.

“How you feel now?” she said. “Much better.”

“I thought you would be. And you be even better after you have a cup of soup I got for you in the kitchen. You slept a good long time.”

“Did I?” I said. “What time is it?”

“It’s about ten o’clock, and from the way you slept I suspects all you needed was some rest . . . No, don’t git up yet. You got to drink your soup, then you can go,” she said, leaving.

She returned with a bowl in a plate. “This here’ll fix you up,” she said. “You don’t get this kind of service up there at Men’s House, do you? Now, you just sit there and take your time. I ain’t got nothing to do but read the paper. And I like company. You have to make time in the morning?”

“No, I’ve been sick,” I said. “But I have to look for a job.”

“I knowed you wasn’t well. Why you try to hide it?” “I didn’t want to be trouble to anyone,” I said.

“Everybody has to be trouble to somebody. And you just come from the hospital too.”

I looked up. She sat in the rocking chair bent forward, her arms folded at ease across her aproned lap. Had she searched my pockets?

“How did you know that?” I said.

“There you go getting suspicious,” she said sternly. “That’s what’s wrong with the world today, don’t nobody trust nobody. I can smell that hospital smell on you, son. You got enough ether in those clothes to put to sleep a dog!”

“I couldn’t remember telling you that I had been in the hospital.” “No, and you didn’t have to. I smelled that out. You got people here in the city?”

“No, ma’m,” I said. “They’re down South. I came up here to work so I could go to school, and I got sick.”

“Now ain’t that too bad! But you’ll make out all right. What you plan to make out of yourself?”

“I don’t know now; I came here wanting to be an educator. Now I don’t know.”

“So what’s wrong with being an educator?”

I thought about it while sipping the good hot soup. “Nothing, I suppose, I just think I’d like to do something else.”

“Well, whatever it is, I hope it’s something that’s a credit to the race.”

“I hope so,” I said.

“Don’t hope, make it that way.”

I looked at her thinking of what I’d tried to do and of where it had gotten me, seeing her heavy, composed figure before me.

“It’s you young folks what’s going to make the changes,” she said. “Y’all’s the ones. You got to lead and you got to fight and move us all on up a little higher. And I tell you something else, it’s the one’s from the South that’s got to do it, them what knows the fire and ain’t forgot how it burns. Up here too many forgits. They finds a place for theyselves and forgits the ones on the bottom. Oh, heap of them talks about doing things, but they done really forgot. No, it’s you young ones what has to remember and take the lead.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you have to take care of yourself, son. Don’t let this Harlem git you. I’m in New York but New York ain’t in me, understand what I mean? Don’t git corrupted.”

“I won’t. I’ll be too busy.”

“All right now, you looks to me like you might make something out of yourself, so you be careful.”

I got up to go, watching her raise herself out of her chair and come with me to the door.

“You ever decide you want a room somewhere beside Men’s House, try me,” she said. “The rent’s reasonable.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said.

I was to remember sooner than I had thought. The moment I entered the bright, buzzing lobby of Men’s House I was overcome by a sense of alienation and hostility. My overalls were causing stares and I knew that I could live there no longer, that that phase of my life was past. The lobby was the meeting place for various groups still caught up in the illusions that had just been boomeranged out of my head: college boys working to return to school down South; older advocates of racial progress with Utopian schemes for building black business empires; preachers ordained by no authority except their own, without church or congregation, without bread or wine, body or blood; the community “leaders” without followers; old men of sixty or more still caught up in post-Civil-War dreams of freedom within segregation; the pathetic ones who possessed nothing beyond their dreams of being gentlemen, who held small jobs or drew small pensions, and all pretending to be engaged in some vast, though obscure, enterprise, who affected the pseudo-courtly manners of certain southern congressmen and bowed and nodded as they passed like senile old roosters in a barnyard; the younger crowd for whom I now felt a contempt such as only a disillusioned dreamer feels for those still unaware that they dream — the business students from southern colleges, for whom business was a vague, abstract game with rules as obsolete as Noah’s Ark but who yet were drunk on finance. Yes, and that older group with similar aspirations, the “fundamentalists,” the “actors” who sought to achieve the status of brokers through imagination alone, a group of janitors and messengers who spent most of their wages on clothing such as was fashionable among Wall Street brokers, with their Brooks Brothers suits and bowler hats, English umbrellas, black calfskin shoes and yellow gloves; with their orthodox and passionate argument as to what was the correct tie to wear with what shirt, what shade of gray was correct for spats and what would the Prince of Wales wear at a certain seasonal event; should field glasses be slung from the right or from the left shoulder; who never read the financial pages though they purchased the Wall Street Journal religiously and carried it beneath the left elbow, pressed firm against the body and grasped in the left hand — always manicured and gloved, fair weather or foul — with an easy precision (Oh, they had style) while the other hand whipped a tightly rolled umbrella back and forth at a calculated angle; with their homburgs and Chesterfields, their polo coats and Tyrolean hats worn strictly as fashion demanded.

I could feel their eyes, saw them all and saw too the time when they would know that my prospects were ended and saw already the contempt they’d feel for me, a college man who had lost his prospects and pride. I could see it all and I knew that even the officials and the older men would despise me as though, somehow, in losing my place in Bledsoe’s world I had betrayed them . . . I saw it as they looked at my overalls.

I had started toward the elevator when I heard the voice raised in laughter and turned to see him holding forth to a group in the lobby chairs and the rolls of fat behind the wrinkled, high-domed, close-cut head, and I was certain that it was he and stooped without thought and lifted it shining, full and foul, and moved forward two long steps, dumping its great brown, transparent splash upon the head warned too late by someone across the room. And too late for me to see that it was not Bledsoe but a preacher, a prominent Baptist, who shot up wide-eyed with disbelief and outrage, and I shot around and out of the lobby before anyone could think to stop me.

No one followed me and I wandered the streets amazed at my own action. Later it began to rain and I sneaked back near Men’s House and persuaded an amused porter to slip my things out to me. I learned that I had been barred from the building for “ninety-nine years and a day.”

“You might not can come back, man,” the porter said, “but after what you did, I swear, they never will stop talking about you. You really baptized ole Rev!”

So that same night I went back to Mary’s, where I lived in a small but comfortable room until the ice came.

It was a period of quietness. I paid my way with my compensation money and found living with her pleasant except for her constant talk about leadership and responsibility. And even this was not too bad as long as I could pay my way. It was, however, a small compensation, and when after several months my money ran out and I was looking again for a job, I found her exceedingly irritating to listen to. Still, she never dunned me and was as generous with her servings of food during mealtime as ever. “It’s just hard times you going through,” she’d say. “Everybody worth his salt has his hard times, and when you git to be somebody you’ll see these here very same hard times helped you a heap.”

I didn’t see it that way. I had lost my sense of direction. I spent my time, when not looking for work, in my room, where I read countless books from the library. Sometimes, when there was still money, or when I had earned a few dollars waiting table, I’d eat out and wander the streets until late at night. Other than Mary I had no friends and desired none. Nor did I think of Mary as a “friend”; she was something more — a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face. It was a most painful position, for at the same time, Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement; and I was torn between resenting her for it and loving her for the nebulous hope she kept alive.

I had no doubt that I could do something, but what, and how? I had no contacts and I believed in nothing. And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left the campus; but now a new, painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere, perhaps back at Emerson’s or that night in Bledsoe’s office, and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit. But that bit, that fraction, was irrevocable. Coming to New York had perhaps been an unconscious attempt to keep the old freezing unit going, but it hadn’t worked; hot water had gotten into its coils. Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge. One moment I believed, I was dedicated, willing to lie on the blazing coals, do anything to attain a position on the campus — then snap! It was done with, finished, through. Now there was only the problem of forgetting it. If only all the contradictory voices shouting inside my head would calm down and sing a song in unison, whatever it was I wouldn’t care as long as they sang without dissonance; yes, and avoided the uncertain extremes of the scale. But there was no relief. I was wild with resentment but too much under “self-control,” that frozen virtue, that freezing vice. And the more resentful I became, the more my old urge to make speeches returned. While walking along the streets words would spill from my lips in a mumble over which I had little control. I became afraid of what I might do. All things were indeed awash in my mind. I longed for home.

And while the ice was melting to form a flood in which I threatened to drown I awoke one afternoon to find that my first northern winter had set.

Chapter 13

At first I had turned away from the window and tried to read but my mind kept wandering back to my old problems and, unable to endure it any longer, I rushed from the house, extremely agitated but determined to get away from my hot thoughts into the chill air.

At the entrance I bumped against a woman who called me a filthy name, only causing me to increase my speed. In a few minutes I was several blocks away, having moved to the next avenue and downtown. The streets were covered with ice and soot-flecked snow and from above a feeble sun filtered through the haze. I walked with my head down, feeling the biting air. And yet I was hot, burning with an inner fever. I barely raised my eyes until a car, passing with a thudding of skid chains whirled completely around on the ice, then turned cautiously and thudded off again.

I walked slowly on, blinking my eyes in the chill air, my mind a blur with the hot inner argument continuing. The whole of Harlem seemed to fall apart in the swirl of snow. I imagined I was lost and for a moment there was an eerie quiet. I imagined I heard the fall of snow upon snow. What did it mean? I walked, my eyes focused into the endless succession of barber shops, beauty parlors, confectioneries, luncheonettes, fish houses, and hog maw joints, walking close to the windows, the snowflakes lacing swift between, simultaneously forming a curtain, a veil, and stripping it aside. A flash of red and gold from a window filled with religious articles caught my eye. And behind the film of frost etching the glass I saw two brashly painted plaster images of Mary and Jesus surrounded by dream books, love powders, God-Is-Love signs, money-drawing oil and plastic dice. A black statue of a nude Nubian slave grinned out at me from beneath a turban of gold. I passed on to a window decorated with switches of wiry false hair, ointments guaranteed to produce the miracle of whitening black skin. “You too can be truly beautiful,” a sign proclaimed. “Win greater happiness with whiter complexion. Be outstanding in your social set.”

I hurried on, suppressing a savage urge to push my fist through the pane. A wind was rising, the snow thinning. Where would I go? To a movie? Could I sleep there? I ignored the windows now and walked along, becoming aware that I was muttering to myself again. Then far down at the corner I saw an old man warming his hands against the sides of an odd-looking wagon, from which a stovepipe reeled off a thin spiral of smoke that drifted the odor of baking yams slowly to me, bringing a stab of swift nostalgia. I stopped as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back, back. At home we’d bake them in the hot coals of the fireplace, had carried them cold to school for lunch, munched them secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid from the teacher behind the largest book, the World’s Geography. Yes, and we’d loved them candied, or baked in a cobbler, deep-fat fried in a pocket of dough, or roasted with pork and glazed with the well-browned fat; had chewed them raw — yams and years ago. More yams than years ago though the time seemed endlessly expanded, stretched thin as the spiraling smoke beyond all recall.

I moved again. “Get yo’ hot, baked Car’lina yam,” he called. At the corner the old man, wrapped in an army overcoat, his feet covered with gunny sacks, his head in a knitted cap, was puttering with a stack of paper bags. I saw a crude sign on the side of the wagon proclaiming YAMS, as I walked flush into the warmth thrown by the coals that glowed in a grate underneath.

“How much are your yams?” I said, suddenly hungry.

“They ten cents and they sweet,” he said, his voice quavering with age. “These ain’t none of them binding ones neither. These here is real, sweet, yaller yams. How many?”

“One,” I said. “If they’re that good, one should be enough.”

He gave me a searching glance. There was a tear in the corner of his eye. He chuckled and opened the door of the improvised oven, reaching gingerly with his gloved hand. The yams, some bubbling with syrup, lay on a wire rack above glowing coals that leaped to low blue flame when struck by the draft of air. The flash of warmth set my face aglow as he removed one of the yams and shut the door.

“Here you are, suh,” he said, starting to put the yam into a bag. “Never mind the bag, I’m going to eat it. Here . . .”

“Thanks.” He took the dime. “If that ain’t a sweet one, I’ll give you another one free of charge.”

I knew that it was sweet before I broke it; bubbles of brown syrup had burst the skin.

“Go ahead and break it,” the old man said. “Break it and I’ll give you some butter since you gon’ eat it right here. Lots of folks takes ’em home. They got their own butter at home.”

I broke it, seeing the sugary pulp steaming in the cold. “Hold it over here,” he said. He took a crock from a rack on the side of the wagon. “Right here.”

I held it, watching him pour a spoonful of melted butter over the yam and the butter seeping in. “Thanks.”

“You welcome. And I’ll tell you something.” “What’s that?” I said.

“If that ain’t the best eating you had in a long time, I give you your money back.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” I said. “I can look at it and see it’s good.”

“You right, but everything what looks good ain’t necessarily good,” he said. “But these is.”

I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom — simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper. To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought. If only someone who had known me at school or at home would come along and see me now. How shocked they’d be! I’d push them into a side street and smear their faces with the peel. What a group of people we were, I thought. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked. Not all of us, but so many. Simply by walking up and shaking a set of chitterlings or a well-boiled hog maw at them during the clear light of day! What consternation it would cause! And I saw myself advancing upon Bledsoe, standing bare of his false humility in the crowded lobby of Men’s House, and seeing him there and him seeing me and ignoring me and me enraged and suddenly whipping out a foot or two of chitterlings, raw, uncleaned and dripping sticky circles on the floor as I shake them in his face, shouting:

“Bledsoe, you’re a shameless chitterling eater! I accuse you of relishing how bowels! Ha! And not only do you eat them, you sneak and eat them in private when you think you’re unobserved! You’re a sneaking chitterling lover! I accuse you of indulging in a filthy habit, Bledsoe! Lug them out of there, Bledsoe! Lug them out so we can see! I accuse you before the eyes of the world!” And he lugs them out, yards of them, with mustard greens, and racks of pigs’ ears, and pork chops and black-eyed peas with dull accusing eyes.

I let out a wild laugh, almost choking over the yam as the scene spun before me. Why, with others present, it would be worse than if I had accused him of raping an old woman of ninety-nine years, weighing ninety pounds. . . blind in one eye and lame in the hip! Bledsoe would disintegrate, disinflate! With a profound sigh he’d drop his head in shame. He’d lose caste. The weekly newspapers would attack him. The captions over his picture: Prominent Educator Reverts to Field Niggerism! His rivals would denounce him as a bad example for the South. Editorials would demand that he either recant or retire from public life. In the South his white folks would desert him; he would be discussed far and wide, and all of the trustees’ money couldn’t prop up his sagging prestige. He’d end up an exile washing dishes at the Automat. For down South he’d be unable to get a job on the honey wagon.

This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man and handed him twenty cents, “Give me two more,” I said.

“Sho, all you want, long as I got ’em. I can see you a serious yam eater, young fellow. You eating them right away?”

“As soon as you give them to me,” I said. “You want ’em buttered?”


“Sho, that way you can get the most out of ’em. Yessuh,” he said, handing over the yams, “I can see you one of these old-fashioned yam eaters.”

“They’re my birthmark,” I said. “I yam what I am!”

“Then you must be from South Car’lina,” he said with a grin. “South Carolina nothing, where I come from we really go for yams.”

“Come back tonight or tomorrow if you can eat some more,” he called after me. “My old lady’ll be out here with some hot sweet potato fried pies.”

Hot fried pies, I thought sadly, moving away. I would probably have indigestion if I ate one — now that I no longer felt ashamed of the things I had always loved, I probably could no longer digest very many of them. What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste! But what of those things which you actually didn’t like, not because you were not supposed to like them, not because to dislike them was considered a mark of refinement and education — but because you actually found them distasteful? The very idea annoyed me. How could you know? It involved a problem of choice. I would have to weigh many things carefully before deciding and there would be some things that would cause quite a bit of trouble, simply because I had never formed a personal attitude toward so much. I had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple . . .

But not yams, I had no problem concerning them and I would eat them whenever and wherever I took the notion. Continue on the yam level and life would be sweet — though somewhat yellowish. Yet the freedom to eat yams on the street was far less than I had expected upon coming to the city. An unpleasant taste bloomed in my mouth now as I bit the end of the yam and threw it into the street; it had been frost-bitten.

The wind drove me into a side street where a group of boys had set a packing box afire. The gray smoke hung low and seemed to thicken as I walked with my head down and eyes closed, trying to avoid the fumes. My lungs began to pain; then emerging, wiping my eyes and coughing, I almost stumbled over it: It was piled in a jumble along the walk and over the curb into the street, like a lot of junk waiting to be hauled away. Then I saw the sullen-faced crowd, looking at a building where two white men were toting out a chair in which an old woman sat; who, as I watched, struck at them feebly with her fists. A motherly-looking old woman with her head tied in a handkerchief, wearing a man’s shoes and a man’s heavy blue sweater. It was startling: The crowd watching silently, the two white men lugging the chair and trying to dodge the blows and the old woman’s face streaming with angry tears as she thrashed at them with her fists. I couldn’t believe it. Something, a sense of foreboding, filled me, a quick sense of uncleanliness.

“Leave us alone,” she cried, “leave us alone!” as the men pulled their heads out of range and sat her down abruptly at the curb, hurrying back into the building.

What on earth, I thought, looking about me. What on earth? The old woman sobbed, pointing to the stuff piled along the curb. “Just look what they doing to us. Just look,” looking straight at me. And I realized that what I’d taken for junk was actually worn household furnishings.

“Just look at what they doing,” she said, her teary eyes upon my face.

I looked away embarrassed, staring into the rapidly growing crowd. Faces were peering sullenly from the windows above. And now as the two men reappeared at the top of the steps carrying a battered chest of drawers, I saw a third man come out and stand behind them, pulling at his ear as he looked out over the crowd.

“Shake it up, you fellows,” he said, “shake it up. We don’t have all day.”

Then the men came down with the chest and I saw the crowd give way sullenly, the men trudging through, grunting and putting the chest at the curb, then returning into the building without a glance to left or right.

“Look at that,” a slender man near me said. “We ought to beat the hell out of those paddies!”

I looked silently into his face, taut and ashy in the cold, his eyes trained upon the men going up the steps.

“Sho, we ought to stop ’em,” another man said, “but ain’t that much nerve in the whole bunch.”

“There’s plenty nerve,” the slender man said. “All they need is someone to set it off. All they need is a leader. You mean you don’t have the nerve.”

“Who me?” the man said. “Who me?” “Yes, you.”

“Just look,” the old woman said, “just look,” her face still turned toward mine. I turned away, edging closer to the two men.

“Who are those men?” I said, edging closer.

“Marshals or something. I don’t give a damn who they is.”

“Marshals, hell,” another man said. “Those guys doing all the toting

ain’t nothing but trusties. Soon as they get through they’ll lock ’em up again.” “I don’t care who they are, they got no business putting these old

folks out on the sidewalk.”

“You mean they’re putting them out of their apartment?” I said. “They can do that up here?”

“Man, where you from?” he said, swinging toward me.

“What does it look like they puttin’ them out of, a Pullman car? They being evicted!”

I was embarrassed; others were turning to stare. I had never seen an eviction. Someone snickered.

“Where did he come from?”

A flash of heat went over me and J turned. “Look, friends,” I said, hearing a hot edge coming into my voice. “I asked a civil question. If you don’t care to answer, don’t, but don’t try to make me look ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous? Hell, all scobos is ridiculous. Who the hell is you?” “Never mind, I am who I am. Just don’t beat up your gums at me,”

I said, throwing him a newly acquired phrase.

Just then one of the men came down the steps with an armful of articles, and I saw the old woman reach up, yelling, “Take your hands off my Bible!” And the crowd surged forward.

The white man’s hot eyes swept the crowd. “Where, lady?” he said. “I don’t see any Bible.”

And I saw her snatch the Book from his arms, clutching it fiercely and sending forth a shriek. “They can come in your home and do what they want to you,” she said. “Just come stomping in and jerk your life up by the roots! But this here’s the last straw. They ain’t going to bother with my Bible!”

The white man eyed the crowd. “Look, lady,” he said, more to the rest of us than to her, “I don’t want to do this, I have to do it. They sent me up here to do it. If it was left to me, you could stay here till hell freezes over . . .”

“These white folks, Lord. These white folks,” she moaned, her eyes turned toward the sky, as an old man pushed past me and went to her.

“Hon, Hon,” he said, placing his hand on her shoulder. “It’s the agent, not these gentlemen. He’s the one; He says it’s the bank, but you

know he’s the one. We’ve done business with him for over twenty years.” “Don’t tell me,” she said. “It’s all the white folks, not just one. They

all against us. Every stinking low-down one of them.”

“She’s right!” a hoarse voice said. “She’s right! They all is!”

Something had been working fiercely inside me, and for a moment I had forgotten the rest of the crowd. Now I recognized a selfconsciousness about them, as though they, we, were ashamed to witness the eviction, as though we were all unwilling intruders upon some shameful event; and thus we were careful not to touch or stare too hard at the effects that lined the curb; for we were witnesses of what we did not wish to see, though curious, fascinated, despite our shame, and through it all the old female, mind-plunging crying.

I looked at the old people, feeling my eyes burn, my throat tighten. The old woman’s sobbing was having a strange effect upon me-as when a child, seeing the tears of its parents, is moved by both fear and sympathy to cry. I turned away, feeling myself being drawn to the old couple by a warm, dark, rising whirpool of emotion which I feared. I was wary of what the sight of them crying there on the sidewalk was making me begin to feel. I wanted to leave, but was too ashamed to leave, was rapidly becoming too much a part of it to leave.

I turned aside and looked at the clutter of household objects which the two men continued to pile on the walk. And as the crowd pushed me I looked down to see looking out of an oval frame a portrait of the old couple when young, seeing the sad, stiff dignity of the faces there; feeling strange memories awakening that began an echoing in my head like that of a hysterical voice stuttering in a dark street. Seeing them look back at me as though even then in that nineteenth-century day they had expected little, and this with a grim, unillusioned pride that suddenly seemed to me both a reproach and a warning. My eyes fell upon a pair of crudely carved and polished bones, “knocking bones,” used to accompany music at country dances, used in black-face minstrels; the flat ribs of a cow, a steer or sheep, flat bones that gave off a sound, when struck, like heavy castanets (had he been a minstrel?) or the wooden block of a set of drums. Pots and pots of green plants were lined in the dirty snow, certain to die of the cold; ivy, canna, a tomato plant. And in a basket I saw a straightening comb, switches of false hair, a curling iron, a card with silvery letters against a background of dark red velvet, reading “God Bless Our Home”; and scattered across the top of a chiffonier were nuggets of High John the Conqueror, the lucky stone; and as I watched the white men put down a basket in which I saw a whiskey bottle filled with rock candy and camphor, a small Ethiopian flag, a faded tintype of Abraham Lincoln, and the smiling image of a Hollywood star torn from a magazine. And on a pillow several badly cracked pieces of delicate china, a commemorative plate celebrating the St. Louis World Fair . . . I stood in a kind of daze, looking at an old folded lace fan studded with jet and mother-of-pearl.

The crowd surged as the white men came back, knocking over a drawer that spilled its contents in the snow at my feet. I stooped and starting replacing the articles: a bent Masonic emblem, a set of tarnished cuff links, three brass rings, a dime pierced with a nail hole so as to be worn about the ankle on a string for luck, an ornate greeting card with the message “Grandma, I love you” in childish scrawl; another card with a picture of what looked like a white man in black-face seated in the door of a cabin strumming a banjo beneath a bar of music and the lyric “Going back to my old cabin home”; a useless inhalant, a string of bright glass beads with a tarnished clasp, a rabbit foot, a celluloid baseball scoring card shaped like a catcher’s mitt, registering a game won or lost years ago; an old breast pump with rubber bulb yellowed with age, a worn baby shoe and a dusty lock of infant hair tied with a faded and crumpled blue ribbon. I felt nauseated. In my hand I held three lapsed life insurance policies with perforated seals stamped “Void”; a yellowing newspaper portrait of a huge black man with the caption: MARCUS GARVEY DEPORTED.

I turned away, bending and searching the dirty snow for anything missed by my eyes, and my fingers closed upon something resting in a frozen footstep: a fragile paper, coming apart with age, written in black ink grown yellow. I read: FREE PAPERS. Be it known to all men that my negro, Primus Provo, has been freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed: John Samuels Macon . . . I folded it quickly, blotting out the single drop of melted snow which glistened on the yellowed page, and dropped it back into the drawer. My hands were trembling, my breath rasping as if I had run a long distance or come upon a coiled snake in a busy street. It has been longer than that, further removed in time, I told myself, and yet I knew that it hadn’t been. I replaced the drawer in the chest and pushed drunkenly to the curb.

But it wouldn’t come up, only a bitter spurt of gall filled my mouth and splattered the old folk’s possessions. I turned and stared again at the jumble, no longer looking at what was before my eyes, but inwardly-outwardly, around a corner into the dark, far-away-and-long-ago, not so much of my own memory as of remembered words, of linked verbal echoes, images, heard even when not listening at home. And it was as though I myself was being dispossessed of some painful yet precious thing which I could not bear to lose; something confounding, like a rotted tooth that one would rather suffer indefinitely than endure the short, violent eruption of pain that would mark its removal. And with this sense of dispossession came a pang of vague recognition: this junk, these shabby chairs, these heavy, old-fashioned pressing irons, zinc wash tubs with dented bottoms — all throbbed within me with more meaning than there should have been: And why did I, standing in the crowd, see like a vision my mother hanging wash on a cold windy day, so cold that the warm clothes froze even before the vapor thinned and hung stiff on the line, and her hands white and raw in the skirt-swirling wind and her gray head bare to the darkened sky — why were they causing me discomfort so far beyond their intrinsic meaning as objects? And why did I see them now as behind a veil that threatened to lift, stirred by the cold wind in the narrow street?

A scream, “I’m going in!” spun me around. The old couple were on the steps now, the old man holding her arm, the white men leaning forward above, and the crowd pressing me closer to the steps.

“You can’t go in, lady,” the man said. “I want to pray!” she said.

“I can’t help it, lady. You’ll have to do your praying out here.” “I’m go’n in!”

“Not in here!”

“All we want to do is go in and pray,” she said, clutching her Bible. “It ain’t right to pray in the street like this.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Aw, let the woman go in to pray,” a voice called from the crowd.

“You got all their stuff out here on the walk — what more do you want, blood?”

“Sure, let them old folks pray.”

“That’s what’s wrong with us now, all this damn praying,” another voice called.

“You don’t go back, see,” the white man said. “You were legally evicted.”

“But all we want to do is go in an’ kneel on the floor,” the old man said. “We been living right here for over twenty years. I don’t see why you can’t let us go just for a few minutes . . .”

“Look, I’ve told you,” the man said. “I’ve got my orders. You’re wasting my time.”

“We’re go’n in!” the woman said.

It happened so suddenly that I could barely keep up with it: I saw the old woman clutching her Bible and rushing up the steps, her husband behind her and the white man stepping in front of them and stretching out his arm. “I’ll jug you,” he yelled, “by God, I’ll jug you!”

“Take your hands off that woman!” someone called from the crowd. Then at the top of the stairs they were pushing against the man and

I saw the old woman fall backwards, and the crowd exploded. “Get that paddie sonofabitch!”

“He struck her!” a West Indian woman screamed into my ear. “The filthy brute, he struck her!”

“Stand back or I’ll shoot,” the man called, his eyes wild as he drew a gun and backed into the doorway where the two trusties stood bewildered, their arms full of articles. “I swear I’ll shoot! You don’t know what you’re doing, but I’ll shoot!”

They hesitated. “Ain’t but six bullets in that thing,” a little fellow called. “Then what you going to do?”

“Yeah, you damn sho caint hide.”

“I advise you to stay out of this,” the marshal called.

“Think you can come up here and hit one of our women, you a fool.”

“To hell with all this talk, let’s rush that bastard!” “You better think twice,” the white man called.

I saw them start up the steps and felt suddenly as though my head would split. I knew that they were about to attack the man and I was both afraid and angry, repelled and fascinated. I both wanted it and feared the consequences, was outraged and angered at what I saw and yet surged with fear; not for the man or of the consequences of an attack, but of what the sight of violence might release in me. And beneath it all there boiled up all the shock-absorbing phrases that I had learned all my life. I seemed to totter on the edge of a great dark hole.

“No, no,” I heard myself yelling. “Black men! Brothers! Black Brothers! That’s not the way. We’re law-abiding. We’re a law-abiding people and a slow-to-anger people.”

Forcing my way quickly through the crowd, I stood on the steps facing those in front, talking rapidly without thought but out of my clashing emotions. “We’re a law-abiding people and a slow-to-anger people . . .” They stopped, listening. Even the white man was startled.

“Yeah, but we mad now,” a voice called out.

“Yes, you’re right,” I called back. “We’re angry, but let us be wise. Let us, I mean let us not . . . Let us learn from that great leader whose wise action was reported in the newspaper the other day . . .”

“What, mahn? Who?” a West Indian voice shouted.

“Come on! To hell with this guy, let’s get that paddie before they send him some help . . .”

“No, wait,” I yelled. “Let’s follow a leader, let’s organize. Organize. We need someone like that wise leader, you read about him, down in Alabama. He was strong enough to choose to do the wise thing in spite of what he felt himself . . .”

“Who, mahn? Who?”

This was it, I thought, they’re listening, eager to listen.

Nobody laughed. If they laugh, I’ll die! I tensed my diaphragm.

“That wise man,” I said, “you read about him, who when that fugitive escaped from the mob and ran to his school for protection, that wise man who was strong enough to do the legal thing, the law-abiding thing, to turn him over to the forces of law and order . . .”

“Yeah,” a voice rang out, “yeah, so they could lynch his ass.”

Oh, God, this wasn’t it at all. Poor technique and not at all what I intended.

“He was a wise leader,” I yelled. “He was within the law. Now wasn’t that the wise thing to do?”

“Yeah, he was wise all right,” the man laughed angrily. “Now get out of the way so we can jump this paddie.”

The crowd yelled and I laughed in response as though hypnotized. “But wasn’t that the human thing to do? After all, he had to protect himself because –“

“He was a handkerchief-headed rat!” a woman screamed, her voice boiling with contempt.

“Yes, you’re right. He was wise and cowardly, but what about us? What are we to do?” I yelled, suddenly thrilled by the response. “Look at him,” I cried.

“Yes, just look at him!” an old fellow in a derby called out as though answering a preacher in church.

“And look at that old couple . . .”

“Yeah, what about Sister and Brother Provo?” he said. “It’s an ungodly shame!”

“And look at their possessions all strewn there on the sidewalk. Just look at their possessions in the snow. How old are you, sir?” I yelled.

“I’m eighty-seven,” the old man said, his voice low and bewildered. “How’s that? Yell so our slow-to-anger brethren can hear you.” “I’m eighty-seven years old!”

“Did you hear him? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk! Should two old folks live in such junk, cooped up in a filthy room? It’s a great danger, a fire hazard! Old cracked dishes and broken-down chairs. Yes, yes, yes! Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe. We call them ‘Big Mama’ and they spoil us and — you know, you remember . . . Look at her quilts and broken-down shoes. I know she’s somebody’s mother because I saw an old breast pump fall into the snow, and she’s somebody’s grandmother, because I saw a card that read ‘Dear Grandma’ . . . But we’re law-abiding . . . I looked into a basket and I saw some bones, not neckbones, but rib bones, knocking bones . . . This old couple used to dance . . . I saw — What kind of work do you do, Father?” I called.

“I’m a day laborer . . .”

“. . . A day laborer, you heard him, but look at his stuff strewn like chitterlings in the snow . . . Where has all his labor gone? Is he lying?”

“Hell, no, he ain’t lying.” “Naw, suh!”

“Then where did his labor go? Look at his old blues records and her pots of plants, they’re down-home folks, and everything tossed out like junk whirled eighty-seven years in a cyclone. Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a windstorm. Look at them, they look like my mama and papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with his forty-five. Look at him, standing with his blue steel pistol and his blue serge suit. Look at him! You don’t see just one man dressed in one blue serge suit, or one forty-five, you see ten for every one of us, ten guns and ten warm suits and ten fat bellies and ten million laws. Laws, that’s what we call them down South! Laws! And we’re wise, and law-abiding. And look at this old woman with her dog-eared Bible. What’s she trying to bring off here? She’s let her religion go to her head, but we all know that religion is for the heart, not for the head. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ it says. Nothing about the poor in head. What’s she trying to do? What about the clear of head? And the clear of eye, the ice-water-visioned who see too clear to miss a lie? Look out there at her cabinet with its gaping drawers. Eighty-seven years to fill them, and full of brick and brack, a bric-a-brac, and she wants to break the law . . . What’s happened to them? They’re our people, your people and mine, your parents and mine. What’s happened to ’em?”

“I’ll tell you!” a heavyweight yelled, pushing out of the crowd, his face angry. “Hell, they been dispossessed, you crazy sonofabitch, get out the way!”

“Dispossessed?” I cried, holding up my hand and allowing the word

to whistle from my throat. “That’s a good word, ‘Dispossessed’! ‘Dispossessed,’ eighty-seven years and dispossessed of what? They ain’t got nothing, they caint get nothing, they never had nothing. So who was dispossessed?” I growled. “We’re law-abiding. So who’s being dispossessed? Can it be us? These old ones are out in the snow, but we’re here with them. Look at their stuff, not a pit to hiss in, nor a window to shout the news and us right with them. Look at them, not a shack to pray in or an alley to sing the blues! They’re facing a gun and we’re facing it with them. They don’t want the world, but only Jesus. They only want Jesus, just fifteen minutes of Jesus on the rug-bare floor . . . How about it, Mr. Law? Do we get our fifteen minutes worth of Jesus? You got the world, can we have our Jesus?”

“I got my orders, Mac,” the man called, waving the pistol with a sneer. “You’re doing all right, tell ’em to keep out of this. This is legal and I’ll shoot if I have to . . .”

“But what about the prayer?” “They don’t go back!”

“Are you positive?”

“You could bet your life,” he said.

“Look at him,” I called to the angry crowd. “With his blue steel pistol and his blue serge suit. You heard him, he’s the law. He says he’ll shoot us down because we’re a law-abiding people. So we’ve been dispossessed, and what’s more, he thinks he’s God. Look up there backed against the post with a criminal on either side of him. Can’t you feel the cold wind, can’t you hear it asking, ‘What did you do with your heavy labor? What did you do?’ When you look at all you haven’t got in eighty-seven years you feel ashamed –“

“Tell ’em about it, brother,” an old man interrupted. “It makes you feel you ain’t a man.”

“Yes, these old folks had a dream book, but the pages went blank and it failed to give them the number. It was called the Seeing Eye, The Great Constitutional Dream Book, The Secrets of Africa, The Wisdom of Egypt — but the eye was blind, it lost its luster. It’s all cataracted like a cross-eyed carpenter and it doesn’t saw straight. All we have is the Bible and this Law here rules that out. So where do we go? Where do we go from here, without a pot –“

“We going after that paddie,” the heavyweight called, rushing up the steps.

Someone pushed me. “No, wait,” I called. “Get out the way now.”

There was a rush against me and I fell, hearing a single explosion, backward into a whirl of milling legs, overshoes, the trampled snow cold on my hands. Another shot sounded above like a bursting bag. Managing to stand, I saw atop the steps the fist with the gun being forced into the air above the crowd’s bobbing heads and the next instant they were dragging him down into the snow; punching him left and right, uttering a low tense swelling sound of desperate effort; a grunt that exploded into a thousand softly spat, hate-sizzling curses. I saw a woman striking with the pointed heel of her shoe, her face a blank mask with hollow black eyes as she aimed and struck, aimed and struck, bringing spurts of blood, running along beside the man who was dragged to his feet now as they punched him gauntlet-wise between them. Suddenly I saw a pair of handcuffs arc gleaming into the air and sail across the street. A boy broke out of the crowd, the marshal’s snappy hat on his head. The marshal was spun this way and that, then a swift tattoo of blows started him down the street. I was beside myself with excitement. The crowd surged after him, milling like a huge man trying to turn in a cubbyhole — some of them laughing, some cursing, some intently silent.

“The brute struck that gentle woman, poor thing!” the West Indian woman chanted. “Black men, did you ever see such a brute? Is he a gentleman, I ask you? The brute! Give it back to him, black men. Repay the brute a thousandfold! Give it back to him unto the third and fourth generations. Strike him, our fine black men. Protect your black women! Repay the arrogant creature to the third and fourth generations!”

“We’re dispossessed,” I sang at the top of my voice, “dispossessed and we want to pray. Let’s go in and pray. Let’s have a big prayer meeting. But we’ll need some chairs to sit in . . . rest upon as we kneel. We’ll need some chairs!”

“Here’s some chairs down here,” a woman called from the walk. “How ’bout taking in some chairs?”

“Sure,” I called, “take everything. Take it all, hide that junk! Put it

back where it came from. It’s blocking the street and the sidewalk, and that’s against the law. We’re law-abiding, so clear the street of the debris. Put it out of sight! Hide it, hide their shame! Hide our shame!

“Come on, men,” I yelled, dashing down the steps and seizing a chair and starting back, no longer struggling against or thinking about the nature of my action. The others followed, picking up pieces of furniture and lugging them back into the building.

“We ought to done this long ago,” a man said. “We damn sho should.”

“I feel so good,” a woman said, “I feel so good!”

“Black men, I’m proud of you,” the West Indian woman shrilled. “Proud!”

We rushed into the dark little apartment that smelled of stale cabbage and put the pieces down and returned for more. Men, women and children seized articles and dashed inside shouting, laughing. I looked for the two trusties, but they seemed to have disappeared. Then, coming down into the street, I thought I saw one. He was carrying a chair back inside.

“So you’re law-abiding too,” I called only to become aware that it was someone else. A white man but someone else altogether.

The man laughed at me and continued inside. And when I reached the street there were several of them, men and women, standing about, cheering whenever another piece of furniture was returned. It was like a holiday. I didn’t want it to stop.

“Who are those people?” I called from the steps. “What people?” someone called back.

“Those,” I said, pointing. “You mean those ofays?” “Yes, what do they want?”

“We’re friends of the people,” one of the white men called.

“Friends of what people?” I called, prepared to jump down upon him if he answered, “You people.”

“We’re friends of all the common people,” he shouted. “We came up to help.”

“We believe in brotherhood,” another called.

“Well, pick up that sofa and come on,” I called. I was uneasy about

their presence and disappointed when they all joined the crowd and started lugging the evicted articles back inside. Where had I heard of them?

“Why don’t we stage a march?” one of the white men called, going past.

“Why don’t we march!” I yelled out to the sidewalk before I had time to think.

They took it up immediately. “Let’s march . . .”

“It’s a good idea.”

“Let’s have a demonstration . . .” “Let’s parade!”

I heard the siren and saw the scout cars swing into the block in the same instant. It was the police! I looked into the crowd, trying to focus upon their faces, hearing someone yell, “Here come the cops,” and others answering, “Let ’em come!”

Where is all this leading? I thought, seeing a white man run inside the building as the policemen dashed from their cars and came running up.

“What’s going on here?” a gold-shield officer called up the steps. It had become silent. No one answered.

“I said, what’s going on here,” he repeated. “You,” he called, pointing straight at me.

“We’ve . . . we’ve been clearing the sidewalk of a lot of junk,” I called, tense inside.

“What’s that?” he said.

“It’s a clean-up campaign,” I called, wanting to laugh. “These old folks had all their stuff cluttering up the sidewalk and we cleared the street . . .”

“You mean you’re interfering with an eviction,” he called, starting through the crowd.

“He ain’t doing nothing,” a woman called from behind me.

I looked around, the steps behind were filled with those who had been inside.

“We’re all together,” someone called, as the crowd closed in. “Clear the streets,” the officer ordered.

“That’s what we were doing,” someone called from back in the crowd.

“Mahoney!” he bellowed to another policeman, “send in a riot call!” “What riot?” one of the white men called to him. “There’s no riot.” “If I say there’s a riot, there’s a riot,” the officer said. “And what are you white people doing up here in Harlem?” “We’re citizens. We go anywhere we like.”

“Listen! Here come some more cops!” someone called. “Let them come!”

“Let the Commissioner come!”

It became too much for me. The whole thing had gotten out of hand. What had I said to bring on all this? I edged to the back of the crowd on the steps and backed into the hallway. Where would I go? I hurried up to the old couple’s apartment. But I can’t hide here, I thought, heading back for the stairs.

“No. You can’t go that way,” a voice said.

I whirled. It was a white girl standing in the door.

“What are you doing in here?” I shouted, my fear turning to feverish anger.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “Brother, that was quite a speech you made. I heard just the end of it, but you certainly moved them to action . . .”

“Action,” I said, “action –“

“Don’t be modest, brother,” she said, “I heard you.”

“Look, Miss, we’d better get out of here,” I said, finally controlling the throbbing in my throat. “There are a lot of policemen downstairs and more coming.”

“Oh, yes. You’d better go over the roof,” she said. “Otherwise, someone is sure to point you out.”

“Over the roof?”

“It’s easy. Just go up to the roof of the building and keep crossing until you reach the house at the end of the block. Then open the door and walk down as though you’ve been visiting. You’d better hurry. The longer you remain unknown to the police, the longer you’ll be effective.”

Effective? I thought. What did she mean? And what was this “brother” business?

“Thanks,” I said, and hurried for the stairs.

“Good-bye,” her voice rose fluidly behind me. I turned, glimpsing her white face in the dim light of the darkened doorway.

I took the flight in a bound and cautiously opened the door, and suddenly the sun flared on the roof and it was windy cold. Before me the low, snow-caked walls dividing the buildings stretched hurdle-like the long length of the block to the corner, and before me empty clotheslines trembled in the wind. I made my way through the wind-carved snow to the next roof and then to the next, going with swift caution. Planes were rising over an airfield far to the southeast, and I was running now and seeing all the church steeples rising and falling and stacks with smoke leaning sharp against the sky, and below in the street the sound of sirens and shouting. I hurried. Then, climbing over a wall I looked back, seeing a man hurrying after me, slipping, sliding, going over the low dividing walls of the roofs with puffing, bustling effort. I turned and ran, trying to put the rows of chimneys between us, wondering why he didn’t yell “Halt!” or shout, or shoot. I ran, dodging behind an elevator housing, then dashing to the next roof, going down, the snow cold to my hands, knees striking, toes gripping, and up and running and looking back, seeing the short figure in black still running after. The corner seemed a mile away. I tried to count the number of roofs that bounced before me yet to be crossed. Getting to seven, I ran, hearing shouts, more sirens, and looking back and him still behind me, running in a short-legged scramble, still behind me as I tried to open the door of a building to go down and finding it stuck and running once more, trying to zig-zag in the snow and feeling the crunch of gravel underneath, and behind me still, as I swung over a partition and went brushing past a huge cote and arousing a flight of frantic white birds, suddenly as large as buzzards as they beat furiously against my eyes, dazzling the sun as they fluttered up and away and around in a furious glide and me running again and looking back and for a split second thinking him gone and once more seeing him bobbing after. Why doesn’t he shoot? Why? If only it were like at home where I knew someone in all the houses, knew them by sight and by name, by blood and by background, by shame and pride, and by religion.

It was a carpeted hall and I moved down with pounding heart as a dog set up a terrific din within the top apartment. Then I moved quickly, my body like glass inside as I skipped downward off the edges of the stairs.

Looking down the stairwell I saw pale light filtering through the door glass, far below. But what had happened to the girl, had she put the man on my trail? What was she doing there? I bounded down, no one challenging me, and I stopped in the vestibule, breathing deeply and listening for his hand upon the door above and brushing my clothing into order. Then I stepped into the street with a nonchalance copied from characters I had seen in the movies. No sound from above, not even the malicious note of the barking dog.

It was a long block and I had come down into a building that faced not the street but the avenue. A squad of mounted policemen lashed themselves around the corner and galloped past, the horseshoes thudding dully through the snow, the men rising high in their saddles, shouting. I picked up speed, careful not to run, heading away. This was awful. What on earth had I said to have brought on all this? How would it end? Someone might be killed. Heads would be pistol-whipped. I stopped at the corner, looking for the pursuing man, the detective, and for a bus. The long white stretch of street was empty, the aroused pigeons still circling overhead. I scanned the roofs, expecting to see him peering down. The sound of shouting continued to rise, then another green and white patrol car was whining around the corner and speeding past me, heading for the block. I cut through a block in which there were close to a dozen funeral parlors, each decked out with neon signs, all set up in old brownstone buildings. Elaborate funeral cars stood along the curb, one a dull black with windows shaped like Gothic arches, through which I saw funeral flowers piled upon a casket. I hurried on.

I could see the girl’s face still, below the short flight of stairs. But who was the figure that had crossed the roof behind me? Chased me? Why had he been so silent, and why was there only one? Yes, and why hadn’t they sent a patrol car to pick me up? I hurried out of the block of funeral parlors into the bright sun that swept the snow of the avenue, slowing to a leisurely walk now, trying to give the impression of a complete lack of haste. I longed to look stupid, utterly incapable of thought or speech, and tried to shuffle my feet over the walk, but quit with distaste after stealing a glance behind me. Just ahead I saw a car pull up and a man leap out with a physician’s bag.

“Hurry, Doctor,” a man called from the stoop, “she’s already in


“Good,” the doctor called. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t start when we expected it.”

I watched them disappear inside the hall. What a hell of a time to be born, I thought. At the corner I joined several people waiting for the lights to change. I had just about convinced myself that I had escaped successfully when a quiet, penetrating voice beside me said, “That was a masterful bit of persuasion, brother.”

Suddenly wound tight as a tensioned spring I turned almost lethargically. A short insignificant-looking bushy-eyebrowed man, with a quiet smile on his face stood beside me, looking not at all like a policeman.

“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice lazy, distant. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “I’m a friend.”

“I’ve got nothing to be alarmed about, and you’re no friend of mine.” “Then say that I’m an admirer,” he said pleasantly.

“Admirer of what?”

“Of your speech,” he said. “I was listening.” “What speech? I made no speech,” I said.

He smiled knowingly. “I can see that you have been well trained. Come, it isn’t good for you to be seen with me in the street. Let’s go somewhere for a cup of coffee.”

Something told me to refuse, but I was intrigued and, underneath it all, was probably flattered. Besides, if I refused to go, it would be taken as an admission of guilt. And he didn’t look like a policeman or a detective. I went silently beside him to a cafeteria down near the end of the block, seeing him peer inside through the window before we entered.

“You get the table, brother. Over there near the wall where we can talk in peace. I’ll get the coffee.”

I watched him going across the floor with a bouncy, rolling step, then found a table and sat watching him. It was warm in the cafeteria. It was late afternoon now only a few customers were scattered at the tables. I watched the man going familiarly to the food counter and ordering. His movements, as he peered through the brightly lighted shelves of pastry, were those of a lively small animal, a fyce, interested in detecting only the target cut of cake. So he’s heard my speech; well, I’ll hear what he has to say, I thought, seeing him start toward me with his rapid, rolling, bouncy, heel-and-toey step. It was as though he had taught himself to walk that way and I had a feeling that somehow he was acting a part; that something about him wasn’t exactly real — an idea which I dismissed immediately, since there was a quality of unreality over the whole afternoon. He came straight to the table without having to look about for me, as though he had expected me to take that particular table and no other — although many tables were vacant. He was balancing a plate of cake on top of each cup, setting them down deftly and shoving one toward me as he took his chair.

“I thought you might like a piece of cheese cake,” he said. “Cheese cake?” I said. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s nice. Sugar?” “Go ahead,” I said.

“No, after you, brother.”

I looked at him, then poured three spoonfuls and shoved the shaker toward him. I was tense again.

“Thanks,” I said, repressing an impulse to call him down about the “brother” business.

He smiled, cutting into his cheese cake with a fork and shoving far too large a piece into his mouth. His manners are extremely crude, I thought, trying to put him at a disadvantage in my own mind by pointedly taking a small piece of the cheesy stuff and placing it neatly into my mouth.

“You know,” he said, taking a gulp of coffee, “I haven’t heard such an effective piece of eloquence since the days when I was in — well, in a long time. You aroused them so quickly to action. I don’t understand how you managed it. If only some of our speakers could have listened! With a few words you had them involved in action! Others would have still been wasting time with empty verbiage. I want to thank you for a most instructive experience!”

I drank my coffee silently. Not only did I distrust him, I didn’t know how much I could safely say.

“The cheese cake here is good,” he said before I could answer. “It’s really very good. By the way, where did you learn to speak?”

“Nowhere,” I said, much too quickly.

“Then you’re very talented. You are a natural. It’s hard to believe.”

“I was simply angry,” I said, deciding to admit this much in order to see what he would reveal.

“Then your anger was skillfully controlled. It had eloquence. Why was that?”

“Why? I suppose I felt sorry — I don’t know. Maybe I just felt like making a speech. There was the crowd waiting, so I said a few words. You might not believe it, but I didn’t know what I was going to say . . .”

“Please,” he said, with a knowing smile. “What do you mean?” I said.

“You try to sound cynical, but I see through you. I know, I listened very carefully to what you had to say. You were enormously moved. Your emotions were touched.”

“I guess so,” I said. “Maybe seeing them reminded me of something.” He leaned forward, watching me intensely now, the smile still on his lips.

“Did it remind you of people you know?” “I guess it did,” I said.

“I think I understand. You were watching a death –“

I dropped my fork. “No one was killed,” I said tensely. “What are you trying to do?”

“A Death on the City Pavements — that’s the title of a detective story or something I read somewhere . . .” He laughed. “I only mean meta-phor-ically speaking. They’re living, but dead. Dead-in-living . . . a unity of opposites.”

“Oh,” I said. What kind of double talk was this?

“The old ones, they’re agrarian types, you know. Being ground up by industrial conditions. Thrown on the dump heaps and cast aside. You pointed it out very well. ‘Eighty-seven years and nothing to show for it,’ you said. You were absolutely correct.”

“I suppose that seeing them like that made me feel pretty bad,” I said.

“Yes, of course. And you made an effective speech. But you musn’t waste your emotions on individuals, they don’t count.”

“Who doesn’t count?” I said.

“Those old ones,” he said grimly. “It’s sad, yes. But they’re already dead, defunct. History has passed them by. Unfortunate, but there’s nothing to do about them. They’re like dead limbs that must be pruned away so that the tree may bear young fruit or the storms of history will blow them down anyway. Better the storm should hit them –“

“But look –“

“No, let me continue. These people are old. Men grow old and types of men grow old. And these are very old. All they have left is their religion. That’s all they can think about. So they’ll be cast aside. They’re dead, you see, because they’re incapable of rising to the necessity of the historical situation.”

“But I like them,” I said. “I like them, they reminded me of folks I know down South. It’s taken me a long time to feel it, but they’re folks just like me, except that I’ve been to school a few years.”

He wagged his round red head. “Oh, no, brother; you’re mistaken and you’re sentimental. You’re not like them. Perhaps you were, but you’re not any longer. Otherwise you’d never have made that speech. Perhaps you were, but that’s all past, dead. You might not recognize it just now, but that part of you is dead! You have not completely shed that self, that old agrarian self, but it’s dead and you will throw it off completely and emerge something new. History has been born in your brain.”

“Look,” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never lived on a farm and I didn’t study agriculture, but I do know why I made that speech.”

“Then why?”

“Because I was upset over seeing those old folks put out in the street, that’s why. I don’t care what you call it, I was angry.”

He shrugged. “Let’s not argue about it,” he said. “I’ve a notion you could do it again. Perhaps you would be interested in working for us.”

“For whom?” I asked, suddenly excited. What was he trying to do? “With our organization. We need a good speaker for this district.

Someone who can articulate the grievances of the people,” he said.

“But nobody cares about their grievances,” I said. “Suppose they were articulated, who would listen or care?”

“They exist,” he said with his knowing smile. “They exist, and when

the cry of protest is sounded, there are those who will hear it and act.”

There was something mysterious and smug in the way he spoke, as though he had everything figured out — whatever he was talking about. Look at this very most certain white man, I thought. He didn’t even realize that I was afraid and yet he speaks so confidently. I got to my feet, “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have a job and I’m not interested in anyone’s grievances but my own . . .”

“But you were concerned with that old couple,” he said with narrowed eyes. “Are they relatives of yours?”

“Sure, we’re all black,” I said, beginning to laugh. He smiled, his eyes intense upon my face. “Seriously, are they your relatives?”

“Sure, we were burned in the same oven,” I said.

The effect was electric. “Why do you fellows always talk in terms of race!” he snapped, his eyes blazing.

“What other terms do you know?” I said, puzzled. “You think I would have been around there if they had been white?”

He threw up his hands and laughed. “Let’s not argue that now,” he said. “You were very effective in helping them. I can’t believe that you’re such an individualist as you pretend. You appeared to be a man who knew his duty toward the people and performed it well. Whatever you think about it personally, you were a spokesman for your people and you have a duty to work in their interest.”

He was too complicated for me. “Look, my friend, thanks for the coffee and cake. I have no more interest in those old folks than in your job. I wanted to make a speech. I like to make speeches. What happened afterwards is a mystery to me. You picked the wrong man. You should have stopped one of those fellows who started yelling at the policemen . . .” I stood up.

“Wait a second,” he said, producing a piece of envelope and scribbling something. “You might change your mind. As for those others, I know them already.”

I looked at the white paper in his extended hand.

“You are wise to distrust me,” he said. “You don’t know who I am and you don’t trust me. That’s as it should be. But I don’t give up hope,

because some day you will look me up on your own accord and it will be different, for then you’ll be ready. Just call this number and ask for Brother Jack. You needn’t give me your name, just mention our conversation. Should you decide tonight, give me a ring about eight.”

“Okay,” I said, taking the paper. “I doubt if I’ll ever need it, but who knows?”

“Well, you think about it, brother. Times are grave and you seem very indignant.”

“I only wanted to make a speech,” I said again.

“But you were indignant. And sometimes the difference between individual and organized indignation is the difference between criminal and political action,” he said.

I laughed, “So what? I’m neither a criminal nor a politician, brother. So you picked the wrong man. But thanks again for the coffee and cheese cake — brother.”

I left him sitting with a quiet smile on his face. When I had crossed the avenue I looked through the glass, seeing him still there, and it occurred to me that he was the same man who had followed me over the roof. He hadn’t been chasing me at all but only going in the same direction. I hadn’t understood much of what he had said, only that he had spoken with great confidence. Anyway, I had been the better runner. Perhaps it was a trick of some kind. He gave the impression that he understood much and spoke out of a knowledge far deeper than appeared on the surface of his words. Perhaps it was only the knowledge that he had escaped by the same route as I. But what had he to fear? I had made the speech, not he. That girl in the apartment had said that the longer I remained unseen the longer I’d be effective, which didn’t make much sense either. But perhaps that was why he had run. He wanted to remain unseen and effective. Effective at what? No doubt he was laughing at me. I must have looked silly hurtling across the roofs, and like a black-face comedian shrinking from a ghost when the white pigeons shot up around me. To hell with him. He needn’t be so smug, I knew of some things he didn’t know. Let him find someone else. He only wanted to use me for something. Everybody wanted to use you for some purpose. Why should he want me as a speaker? Let him make his own speeches. I headed for home, feeling a growing satisfaction that I had dismissed him so completely.

It was turning dark now, and much colder. Colder than I had ever known. What on earth was it, I mused, bending my head to the wind, that made us leave the warm, mild weather of home for all this cold, and never to return, if not something worth hoping for, freezing for, even being evicted for? I felt sad. An old woman passed, bent down with two shopping bags, her eyes upon the slushy walk, and I thought of the old couple at the eviction. How had it ended and where were they now? What an awful emotion. What had he called it — a death on the city pavements? How often did such things occur? And what would he say of Mary? She was far from dead, or of being ground to bits by New York. Hell, she knew very well how to live here, much better than I with my college training — training! Bledsoing, that was the term. And I was the one being ground up, not Mary. Thinking of her made me feel better. I couldn’t imagine Mary being as helpless as the old woman at the eviction, and by the time I reached the apartment I had begun to lose my depression.

Chapter 14

The odor of Mary’s cabbage changed my mind. Standing engulfed in the fumes filling the hall, it struck me that I couldn’t realistically reject the job. Cabbage was always a depressing reminder of the leaner years of my childhood and I suffered silently whenever she served it, but this was the third time within the week and it dawned on me that Mary must be short of money.

And here I’ve been congratulating myself for refusing a job, I thought, when I don’t even know how much money I owe her. I felt a quick sickness grow within me. How could I face her? I went quietly to my room and lay upon the bed, brooding. There were other roomers, who had jobs, and I knew she received help from relatives; still there was no mistake, Mary loved a variety of food and this concentration upon cabbage was no accident.

Why hadn’t I noticed? She’d been too kind, never dunning me, and I lay there hearing her, “Don’t come bothering me with your little troubles, boy. You’ll git something bye and bye” — when I would try to apologize for not paying my rent and board. Perhaps another roomer had moved, or lost his job. What were Mary’s problems anyway; who “articulated her grievances,” as the redheaded man had put it? She had kept me going for months, yet I had no idea. What kind of man was I becoming? I had taken her so much for granted that I hadn’t even thought of my debt when I refused the job. Nor had I considered the embarrassment I might have caused her should the police come to her home to arrest me for making that wild speech. Suddenly I felt an urge to go look at her, perhaps I had really never seen her. I had been acting like a child, not a man.

Taking out the crumpled paper, I looked at the telephone number. He had mentioned an organization. What was it called? I hadn’t inquired. What a fool! At least I should have learned what I was turning down, although I distrusted the red-headed man. Had I refused out of fear as well as from resentment? Why didn’t he just tell me what it was all about instead of trying to impress me with his knowledge?

Then from down the hall I could hear Mary singing, her voice clear and untroubled, though she sang a troubled song. It was the “Back Water Blues.” I lay listening as the sound flowed to and around me, bringing me a calm sense of my indebtedness. When it faded I got up and put on my coat. Perhaps it was not too late. I would find a telephone and call him; then he could tell me exactly what he wanted and I could make a sensible decision.

Mary heard me this time. “Boy, when you come home?” she said, sticking her head out of the kitchen. “I didn’t even hear you.”

“I came in a short while ago,” I said. “You were busy so I didn’t bother you.”

“Then where you going so soon, ain’t you going to eat supper?”

“Yes, Mary,” I said, “but I’ve got to go out now. I forgot to take care of some business.”

“Shucks! What kind of business you got on a cold night like this?” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know, I might have a surprise for you.”

“Won’t nothing surprise me,” she said. “And you hurry on back here and git something hot in your stomach.”

Going through the cold seeking a telephone booth I realized that I had committed myself to bring her some kind of surprise, and as I walked I became mildly enthusiastic. It was, after all, a job that promised to exercise my talent for public speaking, and if the pay was anything at all it would be more than I had now. At least I could pay Mary something of what I owed her. And she might receive some satisfaction that her prediction had proved correct.

I seemed to be haunted by cabbage fumes; the little luncheonette in which I found the telephone was reeking.

Brother Jack didn’t sound at all surprised upon receiving my call. “I’d like some information about –“

“Get here as quickly as you can, we’re leaving shortly,” he said, giving me a Lenox Avenue address and hanging up before I could finish my request.

I went out into the cold, annoyed both by his lack of surprise and by the short, clipped manner in which he’d spoken, but I started out, taking my own time. It wasn’t far, and just as I reached the corner of Lenox a car pulled up and I saw several men inside, Jack among them, smiling.

“Get in,” he said. “We can talk where we’re going. It’s a party; you might like it.”

“But I’m not dressed,” I said. “I’ll call you tomorrow –” “Dressed?” he chuckled. “You’re all right, get in.”

I got in beside him and the driver, noticing that there were three men in the back. Then the car moved off.

No one spoke. Brother Jack seemed to sink immediately into deep thought. The others looked out into the night. It was as though we were mere chance passengers in a subway car. I felt uneasy, wondering where we were going, but decided to say nothing. The car shot swiftly over the slush.

Looking out at the passing night I wondered what kind of men they were. Certainly they didn’t act as though they were heading for a very sociable evening. I was hungry and I wouldn’t get back in time for supper. Well, maybe it would be worth it, both to Mary and to me. At least I wouldn’t have to eat that cabbage!

For a moment the car paused for the traffic light, then we were

circling swiftly through long stretches of snow-covered landscape lighted here and there by street lamps and the nervously stabbing beams of passing cars: We were flashing through Central Park, now completely transformed by the snow. It was as though we had plunged suddenly into mid-country peace, yet I knew that here, somewhere close by in the night, there was a zoo with its dangerous animals. The lions and tigers in heated cages, the bears asleep, the snakes coiled tightly underground. And there was also the reservoir of dark water, all covered by snow and by night, by snow-fall and by night-fall, buried beneath black and white, gray mist and gray silence. Then past the driver’s head I could see a wall of buildings looming beyond the windshield. The car nosed slowly into traffic, dropped swiftly down a hill.

We stopped before an expensive-looking building in a strange part of the city. I could see the word Chthonian on the storm awning stretched above the walk as I got out with the others and went swiftly toward a lobby lighted by dim bulbs set behind frosted glass, going past the uniformed doorman with an uncanny sense of familiarity; feeling now, as we entered a soundproof elevator and shot away at a mile a minute, that I had been through it all before. Then we were stopping with a gentle bounce and I was uncertain whether we had gone up or down. Brother Jack guided me down the hall to a door on which I saw a bronze door-knocker in the shape of a large-eyed owl. Now he hesitated a moment, his head thrust forward as though listening, then his hand covered the owl from view, producing instead of the knock which I expected, an icy peal of clear chimes. Shortly the door swung partly open, revealing a smartly dressed woman, whose hard, handsome face broke into smiles.

“Come in, Brothers,” she said, her exotic perfume filling the foyer.

I noticed a clip of blazing diamonds on her dress as I tried to stand aside for the others, but Brother Jack pushed me ahead.

“Excuse me,” I said, but she held her ground, and I was pressing tensely against her perfumed softness, seeing her smile as though there were only she and I. Then I was past, disturbed not so much by the close contact, as by the sense that I had somehow been through it all before. I couldn’t decide if it were from watching some similar scene in the movies, from books I’d read, or from some recurrent but deeply buried dream. Whatsoever, it was like entering a scene which, because of some devious circumstance, I had hitherto watched only from a distance. How could they have such an expensive place, I wondered.

“Put your things in the study,” the woman said. “I’ll go see about drinks.”

We entered a room lined with books and decorated with old musical instruments: An Irish harp, a hunter’s horn, a clarinet and a wooden flute were suspended by the neck from the wall on pink and blue ribbons. There were a leather divan and a number of easy chairs.

“Throw your coat on the divan,” Brother Jack said.

I slid out of my overcoat and looked around. The dial of the radio built into a section of the natural mahogany bookshelf was lighted, but I couldn’t hear any sound; and there was an ample desk on which rested silver and crystal writing things, and, as one of the men came to stand gazing at the bookcase, I was struck by the contrast between the richness of the room and their rather poor clothing.

“Now we’ll go into the other room,” Brother Jack said, taking me by the arm.

We entered a large room in which one entire wall was hung with Italian-red draperies that fell in rich folds from the ceiling. A number of well-dressed men and women were gathered in groups, some beside a grand piano, the others lounging in the pale beige upholstery of the blond wood chairs. Here and there I saw several attractive young women but carefully avoided giving them more than a glance. I felt extremely uncomfortable, although after brief glances no one paid me any special attention. It was as though they hadn’t seen me, as though I were here, and yet not here. The others were moving away to join the various groups now, and Brother Jack took my arm.

“Come, let’s get a drink,” he said, guiding me toward the end of the room.

The woman who’d let us in was mixing drinks behind a handsome free-form bar which was large enough to have graced a night club.

“How about a drink for us, Emma?” Brother Jack said.

“Well, now, I’ll have to think about it,” she said, tilting her severely drawn head and smiling.

“Don’t think, act,” he said. “We’re very thirsty men. This young man pushed history ahead twenty years today.”

“Oh,” she said, her eyes becoming intent. “You must tell me about him.”

“Just read the morning papers, Emma. Things have begun to move. Yes, leap ahead.” He laughed deeply.

“What would you like, Brother?” she said, her eyes brushing slowly over my face.

“Bourbon,” I said, a little too loudly, as I remembered the best the South had to offer. My face was warm, but I returned her glance as steadily as I dared. It was not the harsh uninterested-in-you-as-a-human-being stare that I’d known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect; it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin . . . Somewhere in my leg a muscle twitched violently.

“Emma, the bourbon! Two bourbons,” Brother Jack said. “You know,” she said, picking up a decanter, “I’m intrigued.”

“Naturally. Always,” he said. “Intrigued and intriguing. But we’re dying of thirst.”

“Only of impatience,” she said, pouring the drinks. “I mean you are. Tell me, where did you find this young hero of the people?”

“I didn’t,” Brother Jack said. “He simply arose out of a crowd. The people always throw up their leaders, you know . . .”

“Throw them up,” she said. “Nonsense, they chew them up and spit them out. Their leaders are made, not born. Then they’re destroyed. You’ve always said that. Here you are, Brother.”

He looked at her steadily. I took the heavy crystal glass and raised it to my lips, glad for an excuse to turn from her eyes. A haze of cigarette smoke drifted through the room. I heard a series of rich arpeggios sound on the piano behind me and turned to look, hearing the woman Emma say not quite softly enough, “But don’t you think he should be a little blacker?”

“Shhh, don’t be a damn fool,” Brother Jack said sharply. “We’re not interested in his looks but in his voice. And I suggest, Emma, that you make it your interest too . . .”

Suddenly hot and breathless, I saw a window across the room and went over and stood looking out. We were up very high; street lamps and

traffic cut patterns in the night below. So she doesn’t think I’m black enough. What does she want, a black-face comedian? Who is she, anyway, Brother Jack’s wife, his girl friend? Maybe she wants to see me sweat coal tar, ink, shoe polish, graphite. What was I, a man or a natural resource?

The window was so high that I could barely hear the sound of traffic below . . . This was a bad beginning, but hell, I was being hired by Brother Jack, if he still wanted me, not this Emma woman. I’d like to show her how really black I am, I thought, taking a big drink of the bourbon. It was smooth, cold. I’d have to be careful with the stuff. Anything might happen if I had too much. With these people I’ll have to be careful. Always careful. With all people I’ll have to be careful . . .

“It’s a pleasant view, isn’t it?” a voice said, and I whirled to see a tall dark man. “But now would you mind joining us in the library?” he said.

Brother Jack, the men who had come along in the car, and two others whom I hadn’t seen before were waiting.

“Come in, Brother,” Jack said. “Business before pleasure is always a good rule, whoever you are. Some day the rule shall be business with pleasure, for the joy of labor shall have been restored. Sit down.”

I took the chair directly before him, wondering what this speech was all about.

“You know, Brother,” he said, “we don’t ordinarily interrupt our social gatherings with business, but with you it’s necessary.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “I should have called you earlier.”

“Sorry? Why, we’re only too glad to do so. We’ve been waiting for you for months. Or for someone who could do what you’ve done.”

“But what . . . ?” I said.

“What are we doing? What is our mission? It’s simple; we are working for a better world for all people. It’s that simple. Too many have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded together in brotherhood so as to do something about it. What do you think of that?”

“Why, I think it’s fine,” I said, trying to take in the full meaning of his words. “I think it’s excellent. But how?”

“By moving them to action just as you did this morning. . . Brothers, I was there,” he said to the others, “and he was magnificent. With a few words he set off an effective demonstration against evictions!”

“I was present too,” another said. “It was amazing.”

“Tell us something of your background,” Brother Jack said, his voice and manner demanding truthful answers. And I explained briefly that I had come up looking for work to pay my way through college and had failed.

“Do you still plan to return?”

“Not now,” I said. “I’m all done with that.”

“It’s just as well,” Brother Jack said. “You have little to learn down there. However, college training is not a bad thing — although you’ll have to forget most of it. Did you study economics?”

“Some.” “Sociology?” “Yes.”

“Well, let me advise you to forget it. You’ll be given books to read along with some material that explains our program in detail. But we’re moving too fast. Perhaps you aren’t interested in working for the Brotherhood.”

“But you haven’t told me what I’m supposed to do,” I said.

He looked at me fixedly, picking up his glass slowly and taking a long swallow.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “How would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?”

“What!” I looked into his bland eyes for laughter, seeing his red head turned slightly to the side. “Please, now,” I said.

“Oh, yes, I’m serious.”

“Then I don’t understand you.” Was I drunk? I looked at him; he seemed sober.

“What do you think of the idea? Or better still, what do you think of Booker T. Washington?”

“Why, naturally, I think he was an important figure. At least most people say so.”


“Well,” I was at a loss for words. He was going too fast again. The whole idea was insane and yet the others were looking at me calmly; one of them was lighting up an underslung pipe. The match sputtered, caught fire.

“What is it?” Brother Jack insisted.

“Well, I guess I don’t think he was as great as the Founder.” “Oh? And why not?”

“Well, in the first place, the Founder came before him and did practically everything Booker T. Washington did and a lot more. And more people believed in him. You hear a lot of arguments about Booker T. Washington, but few would argue about the Founder . . .”

“No, but perhaps that is because the Founder lies outside history, while Washington is still a living force. However, the new Washington shall work for the poor . . .”

I looked into my crystal glass of bourbon. It was unbelievable, yet strangely exciting and I had the sense of being present at the creation of important events, as though a curtain had been parted and I was being allowed to glimpse how the country operated. And yet none of these men was well known, or at least I’d never seen their faces in the newspapers.

“During these times of indecision when all the old answers are proven false, the people look back to the dead to give them a clue,” he went on. “They call first upon one and then upon another of those who have acted in the past.”

“If you please, Brother,” the man with the pipe interrupted, “I think you should speak more concretely.”

“Please don’t interrupt,” Brother Jack said icily.

“I wish only to point out that a scientific terminology exists,” the man said, emphasizing his words with his pipe. “After all, we call ourselves scientists here. Let us speak as scientists.”

“In due time,” Brother Jack said. “In due time . . . You see, Brother,” he said, turning to me, “the trouble is that there is little the dead can do; otherwise they wouldn’t be the dead. No! But on the other hand, it would be a great mistake to assume that the dead are absolutely powerless. They are powerless only to give the full answer to the new questions posed for the living by history. But they try! Whenever they hear the imperious cries of the people in a crisis, the dead respond. Right now in this country, with its many national groups, all the old heroes are being called back to life — Jefferson, Jackson, Pulaski, Garibaldi, Booker T. Washington, Sun Yat-sen, Danny O’Connell, Abraham Lincoln and countless others are being asked to step once again upon the stage of history. I can’t say too emphatically that

we stand at a terminal point in history, at a moment of supreme world crisis. Destruction lies ahead unless things are changed. And things must be changed. And changed by the people. Because, Brother, the enemies of man are dispossessing the world! Do you understand?”

“I’m beginning to,” I said, greatly impressed.

“There are other terms, other more accurate ways of saying all this, but we haven’t time for that right now. We speak now in terms that are easy to understand. As you spoke to the crowd this morning.”

“I see,” I said, feeling uncomfortable under his stare.

“So it isn’t a matter of whether you wish to be the new Booker T. Washington, my friend. Booker Washington was resurrected today at a certain eviction in Harlem. He came out from the anonymity of the crowd and spoke to the people. So you see, I don’t joke with you. Or play with words either. There is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon — as our learned brother has graciously reminded me — you’ll learn it in time, but whatever you call it the reality of the world crisis is a fact. We are all realists here, and materialists. It is a question of who shall determine the direction of events. That is why we’ve brought you into this room. This morning you answered the people’s appeal and we want you to be the true interpreter of the people. You shall be the new Booker T. Washington, but even greater than he.”

There was silence. I could hear the wet cracking of the pipe.

“Perhaps we should allow the Brother to express himself as to how he feels about all this,” the man with the pipe said.

“Well, Brother?” Brother Jack said. I looked into their waiting faces.

“It’s all so new to me that I don’t know exactly what I do think,” I said. “Do you really think you have the right man?”

“You mustn’t let that worry you,” Brother Jack said. “You will rise to the task; it is only necessary that you work hard and follow instructions.”

They stood up now. I looked at them, fighting a sense of unreality. They stared at me as the fellows had done when I was being initiated into my college fraternity. Only this was real and now was the time for me to decide or to say I thought they were crazy and go back to Mary’s. But what is there to lose? I thought. At least they’ve invited me, one of us, in at the beginning of something big; and besides, if I refused to join them, where would I goto a job as porter at the railroad station? At least here was a chance to speak.

“When shall I start?” I said.

“Tomorrow, we must waste no time. By the way, where are you living?”

“I rent a room from a woman in Harlem,” I said. “A housewife?”

“She’s a widow,” I said. “She rents rooms.” “What is her educational background?” “She’s had very little.”

“More or less like the old couple that was evicted?”

“Somewhat, but better able to take care of herself. She’s tough,” I said with a laugh.

“Does she ask a lot of questions? Are you friendly with her?”

“She’s been very nice to me,” I said. “She allowed me to stay on after I was unable to pay my rent.”

He shook his head. “No.” “What is it?” I said.

“It is best that you move,” he said. “We’ll find you a place further downtown so that you’ll be within easy call . . .”

“But I have no money, and she’s entirely trustworthy.”

“That will be taken care of,” he said, waving his hand. “You must realize immediately that much of our work is opposed. Our discipline demands therefore that we talk to no one and that we avoid situations in which information might be given away unwittingly. So you must put aside your past. Do you have a family?”


“Are you in touch with them?”

“Of course. I write home now and then,” I said, beginning to resent his method of questioning. His voice had become cold, searching.

“Then it’s best that you cease for a while,” he said. “Anyway, you’ll be too busy. Here.” He fished into his vest pocket for something and got suddenly to his feet.

“What is it?” someone asked.

“Nothing, excuse me,” he said, rolling to the door and beckoning. In a moment I saw the woman appear.

“Emma, the slip of paper I gave you. Give it to the new Brother,” he said as she stepped inside and closed the door.

“Oh, so it’s you,” she said with a meaningful smile.

I watched her reach into the bosom of her taffeta hostess gown and remove a white envelope.

“This is your new identity,” Brother Jack said. “Open it.” Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper.

“That is your new name,” Brother Jack said. “Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that even if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand?”

“I’ll try,” I said.

“Don’t forget his living quarters,” the tall man said.

“No,” Brother Jack said with a frown. “Emma, please, some funds.” “How much, Jack?” she said.

He turned to me. “Do you owe much rent?” “Too much,” I said.

“Make it three hundred, Emma,” he said.

“Never mind,” he said as I showed my surprise at the sum. “This will pay your debts and buy you clothing. Call me in the morning and I’ll have selected your living quarters. For a start your salary will be sixty dollars a week.”

Sixty a week! There was nothing I could say. The woman had crossed the room to the desk and returned with the money, placing it in my hand.

“You’d better put it away,” she said expansively.

“Well, Brothers, I believe that’s all,” he said. “Emma, how about a drink?”

“Of course, of course,” she said, going to a cabinet and removing a decanter and a set of glasses in which she poured about an inch of clear liquid.

“Here you are, Brothers,” she said.

Taking his, Brother Jack raised it to his nose, inhaling deeply. “To the Brotherhood of Man . . . to History and to Change,” he said, touching my glass.

“To History,” we all said.

The stuff burned, causing me to lower my head to hide the tears that popped from my eyes.

“Aaaah!” someone said with deep satisfaction. “Come along,” Emma said. “Let’s join the others.”

“Now for some pleasure,” Brother Jack said. “And remember your new identity.”

I wanted to think but they gave me no time. I was swept into the large room and introduced by my new name. Everyone smiled and seemed eager to meet me, as though they all knew the role I was to play. All grasped me warmly by the hand.

“What is your opinion of the state of women’s rights, Brother?” I was asked by a plain woman in a large black velvet tarn. But before I could open my mouth, Brother Jack had pushed me along to a group of men, one of whom seemed to know all about the eviction. Nearby, a group around the piano were singing folk songs with more volume than melody. We moved from group to group, Brother Jack very authoritative, the others always respectful. He must be a powerful man, I thought, not a clown at all. But to hell with this Booker T. Washington business. I would do the work but I would be no one except myself — whoever I was, I would pattern my life on that of the Founder. They might think I was acting like Booker T. Washington; let them. But what I thought of myself I would keep to myself. Yes, and I’d have to hide the fact that I had actually been afraid when I made my speech. Suddenly I felt laughter bubbling inside me. I’d have to catch up with this science of history business.

We had come to stand near the piano now, where an intense young man questioned me about various leaders of the Harlem community. I knew them only by name, but pretended that I knew them all.

“Good,” he said, “good, we have to work with all these forces during the coming period.”

“Yes, you’re quite right,” I said, giving my glass a tinkling twirl. A short broad man saw me and waved the others to a halt. “Say, Brother,” he

called. “Hold the music, boys, hold it!” “Yes, uh . . . Brother,” I said.

“You’re just who we need. We been looking for you.” “Oh,” I said.

“How about a spiritual, Brother? Or one of those real good ole Negro work songs? Like this: Ah went to Atlanta — nevah been there befo’,” he sang, his arms held out from his body like a penguin’s wings, glass in one hand, cigar in the other. “White man sleep in a feather bed, Nigguh sleep on the flo’ . . . Ha! Ha! How about it, Brother?”

“The Brother does not sing!” Brother Jack roared staccato. “Nonsense, all colored people sing.”

“This is an outrageous example of unconscious racial chauvinism!” Jack said.

“Nonsense, I like their singing,” the broad man said doggedly.

“The Brother does not sing!” Brother Jack cried, his face turning a deep purple.

The broad man regarded him stubbornly. “Why don’t you let him say whether he can sing or not . . . ? Come on, Brother, git hot! Go Down, Moses,” he bellowed in a ragged baritone, putting down his cigar and snapping his fingers. “Way down in Egypt’s land. Tell dat ole Pharaoh to let ma colored folks sing! I’m for the rights of the colored brother to sing!” he shouted belligerently.

Brother Jack looked as if he would choke; he raised his hand, signaling. I saw two men shoot from across the room and lead the short man roughly away. Brother Jack followed them as they disappeared beyond the door, leaving an enormous silence.

For a moment I stood there, my eyes riveted upon the door, then I turned, the glass hot in my hand, my face feeling as though it would explode. Why was everyone staring at me as though I were responsible? Why the hell were they staring at me? Suddenly I yelled, “What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you ever seen a drunk –” when somewhere off the foyer the broad man’s voice staggered drunkenly to us, “St. Louis mammieeeee — with her diamond riiiings . . .” and was clipped off by a slamming door, leaving a roomful of bewildered faces. And suddenly I was laughing hysterically.

“He hit me in the face,” I wheezed. “He hit me in the face with a yard of chitterlings!” — bending double, roaring, the whole room seeming to dance up and down with each rapid eruption of laughter.

“He threw a hog maw,” I cried, but no one seemed to understand. My eyes filled, I could barely see. “He’s high as a Georgia pine,” I laughed, turning to the group nearest me. “He’s abso-lutely drunk . . . off music!”

“Yes. Sure,” a man said nervously. “Ha, ha . . .”

“Three sheets in the wind,” I laughed, getting my breath now, and discovering that the silent tension of the others was ebbing into a ripple of laughter that sounded throughout the room, growing swiftly to a roar, a laugh of all dimensions, intensities and intonations. Everyone was joining in. The room fairly bounced.

“And did you see Brother Jack’s face,” a man shouted, shaking his head.

“It was murder!” “Go down Moses!”

“I tell you it was murder!”

Across the room they were pounding someone on the back to keep him from choking. Handkerchiefs appeared, there was much honking of noses, wiping of eyes. A glass crashed to the floor, a chair was overturned. I fought against the painful laughter, and as I calmed I saw them looking at me with a sort of embarrassed gratitude. It was sobering and yet they seemed bent upon pretending that nothing unusual had happened. They smiled. Several seemed about to come over and pound my back, shake my hand. It was as though I had told them something which they’d wished very much to hear, had rendered them an important service which I couldn’t understand. But there it was, working in their faces. My stomach ached. I wanted to leave, to get their eyes off me. Then a thin little woman came over and grasped my hand.

“I’m so sorry that this had to happen,” she said in a slow Yankee voice, “really and truly sorry. Some of our Brothers aren’t so highly developed, you know. Although they mean very well. You must allow me to apologize for him . . .”

“Oh, he was only tipsy,” I said, looking into her thin, New England face.

“Yes, I know, and revealingly so. I would never ask our colored

brothers to sing, even though I love to hear them. Because I know that it would be a very backward thing. You are here to fight along with us, not to entertain. I think you understand me, don’t you, Brother?”

I gave her a silent smile.

“Of course you do. I must go now, good-bye,” she said, extending her little white-gloved hand and leaving.

I was puzzled. Just what did she mean? Was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn’t there be some way for us to be asked to sing? Shouldn’t the short man have the right to make a mistake without his motives being considered consciously or unconsciously malicious? After all, he was singing, or trying to. What if I asked him to sing? I watched the little woman, dressed in black like a missionary, winding her way through the crowd. What on earth was she doing here? What part did she play? Well, whatever she meant, she’s nice and I like her.

Just then Emma came up and challenged me to dance and I led her toward the floor as the piano played, thinking of the vet’s prediction and drawing her to me as though I danced with such as her every evening. For having committed myself, I felt that I could never allow myself to show surprise or upset — even when confronted with situations furthest from my experience. Otherwise I might be considered undependable, or unworthy. I felt that somehow they expected me to perform even those tasks for which nothing in my experience — except perhaps my imagination — had prepared me. Still it was nothing new, white folks seemed always to expect you to know those things which they’d done everything they could think of to prevent you from knowing. The thing to do was to be prepared — as my grandfather had been when it was demanded that he quote the entire United States Constitution as a test of his fitness to vote. He had confounded them all by passing the test, although they still refused him the ballot . . . Anyway, these were different.

It was close to five A.M., many dances and many bourbons later, when I reached Mary’s. Somehow, I felt surprised that the room was still the same — except that Mary had changed the bed linen. Good old Mary. I felt sadly sobered. And as I undressed I saw my outworn clothes and realized

that I’d have to shed them. Certainly it was time. Even my hat would go; its green was sun-faded and brown, like a leaf struck by the winter’s snows. I would require a new one for my new name. A black broad-brimmed one; perhaps a homburg . . . humbug? I laughed. Well, I could leave packing for tomorrow — I had very little, which was perhaps all to the good. I would travel light, far and fast. They were fast people, all right. What a vast difference between Mary and those for whom I was leaving her. And why should it be this way, that the very job which might make it possible for me to do some of the things which she expected of me required that I leave her? What kind of room would Brother Jack select for me and why wasn’t I left to select my own? It didn’t seem right that in order to become a Harlem Leader I should live elsewhere. Yet nothing seemed right and I would have to rely upon their judgment. They seemed expert in such matters.

But how far could I trust them, and in what way were they different from the trustees? Whatever, I was committed; I’d learn in the process of working with them, I thought, remembering the money. The bills were crisp and fresh and I tried to imagine Mary’s surprise when I paid her all my back rent and board. She’d think that I was kidding. But money could never repay her generosity. She would never understand my wanting to move so quickly after getting a job. And if I had any kind of success at all, it would seem the height of ingratitude. How would I face her? She had asked for nothing in return. Or hardly anything, except that I make something of myself that she called a “race leader.” I shivered in the cold. Telling her that I was moving would be a hard proposition. I didn’t like to think of it, but one couldn’t be sentimental. As Brother Jack had said, History makes harsh demands of us all. But they were demands that had to be met if men were to be the masters and not the victims of their times. Did I believe that? Perhaps I had already begun to pay. Besides, I might as well admit right now, I thought, that there are many things about people like Mary that I dislike. For one thing, they seldom know where their personalities end and yours begins; they usually think in terms of “we” while I have always tended to think in terms of “me” — and that has caused some friction, even with my own family. Brother Jack and the others talked in terms of “we,” but it was a different, bigger “we.”

Well, I had a new name and new problems. I had best leave the old

behind. Perhaps it would be best not to see Mary at all, just place the money in an envelope and leave it on the kitchen table where she’d be sure to find it. It would be better that way, I thought drowsily; then there’d be no need to stand before her and stumble over emotions and words that were at best all snarled up and undifferentiated . . . One thing about the people at the Chthonian, they all seemed able to say just what they felt and meant in hard, clear terms. That too, I’d have to learn . . . I stretched out beneath the covers, hearing the springs groan beneath me. The room was cold. I listened to the night sounds of the house. The clock ticked with empty urgency, as though trying to catch up with the time. In the street a siren howled.

Chapter 15

Then I was awake and not awake, sitting bolt upright in bed and trying to peer through the sick gray light as I sought the meaning of the brash, nerve-jangling sound. Pushing the blanket aside I clasped my hands to my ears. Someone was pounding the steam line, and I stared helplessly for what seemed minutes. My ears throbbed. My side began itching violently and I tore open my pajamas to scratch, and suddenly the pain seemed to leap from my ears to my side and I saw gray marks appearing where the old skin was flaking away beneath my digging nails. And as I watched I saw thin lines of blood well up in the scratches, bringing pain and joining time and place again, and I thought, The room has lost its heat on my last day at Mary’s, and suddenly I was sick at heart.

The clock, its alarm lost in the larger sound, said seven-thirty, and I got out of bed. I’d have to hurry. There was shopping to do before I called Brother Jack for my instructions and I had to get the money to Mary — Why didn’t they stop that noise? I reached for my shoes, flinching as the knocking seemed to sound an inch above my head. Why don’t they stop, I thought. And why do I feel so let down? The bourbon? My nerves going bad?

Suddenly I was across the room in a bound, pounding the pipe

furiously with my shoe heel.

“Stop it, you ignorant fool!”

My head was splitting. Beside myself, I struck pieces of silver from the pipe, exposing the black and rusted iron. He was using a piece of metal now, his blows ringing with a ragged edge.

If only I knew who it was, I thought, looking for something heavy with which to strike back. If only I knew!

Then near the door I saw something which I’d never noticed there before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. For a second I stopped, feeling hate charging within me, then dashed over and grabbed it, suddenly as enraged by the tolerance or lack of discrimination, or whatever, that allowed Mary to keep such a self-mocking image around, as by the knocking.

In my hand its expression seemed more of a strangulation than a grin. It was choking, filled to the throat with coins.

How the hell did it get here, I wondered, dashing over and striking the pipe a blow with the kinky iron head. “Shut up!” I screamed, which seemed only to enrage the hidden knocker. The din was deafening. Tenants up and down the entire line of apartments joined in. I hammered back with the iron naps, seeing the silver fly, striking like driven sand against my face. The pipe fairly hummed with the blows. Windows were going up. Voices yelled obscenities down the airshaft.

Who started all this, I wondered, who’s responsible?

“Why don’t you act like responsible people living in the twentieth century?” I yelled, aiming a blow at the pipe. “Get rid of your cottonpatch ways! Act civilized!”

Then came a crash of sound and I felt the iron head crumble and fly apart in my hand. Coins flew over the room like crickets, ringing, rattling against the floor, rolling. I stopped dead.

“Just listen to ’em! Just listen to ’em!” Mary called from the hall. “Enough noise to wake the dead! They know when the heat don’t come up

that the super’s drunk or done walked off the job looking for his woman, or something. Why don’t folks act according to what they know?”

She was at my door now, knocking stroke for stroke with the blows landing on the pipe, calling, “Son! Ain’t some of that knocking coming from in there?”

I turned from side to side in indecision, looking at the pieces of broken head, the small coins of all denominations that were scattered about.

“You hear me, boy?” she called.

“What is it?” I called, dropping to the floor and reaching frantically for the broken pieces, thinking, If she opens the door, I’m lost . . .

“I said is any of that racket coming from in there?”

“Yes, it is, Mary,” I called, “but I’m all right . . . I’m already awake.” I saw the knob move and froze, hearing, “Sounded to me like a heap

of it was coming from in there. You got your clothes on?”

“No,” I cried. “I’m just dressing. I’ll have them on in a minute.” “Come on out to the kitchen,” she said. “It’s warm out there. And

there’s some hot water on the stove to wash your face in . . . and some coffee. Lawd, just listen at the racket!”

I stood as though frozen, until she moved away from the door. I’d have to hurry. I kneeled, picking up a piece of the bank, a part of the red-shirted chest, reading the legend, FEED ME in a curve of white iron letters, like the team name on an athlete’s shirt. The figure had gone to pieces like a grenade, scattering jagged fragments of painted iron among the coins. I looked at my hand; a small trickle of blood showed. I wiped it away, thinking, I’ll have to hide this mess! I can’t take her this and the news that I’m moving at the same time. Taking a newspaper from the chair I folded it stiffly and swept the coins and broken metal into a pile. Where would I hide it, I wondered, looking with profound distaste at the iron kinks, the dull red of a piece of grinning lip. Why, I thought with anguish, would Mary have something like this around anyway? Just why? I looked under the bed. It was dustless there, no place to hide anything. She was too good a housekeeper. Besides, what of the coins? Hell! Maybe the thing was left by the former roomer. Anyway, whose ever it was, it had to be hidden. There was the closet, but she’d find it there too. After I was gone a few days she’d clean out my things and there it’d be. The knocking had gone beyond mere protest over heatlessness now, they had fallen into a ragged rumba rhythm:



vibrating the very floor.

“Just a few minutes more, you bastards,” I said aloud, “and I’ll be gone! No respect for the individual. Why don’t you think about those who might wish to sleep? What if someone is near a nervous breakdown . . . ?”

But there was still the package. There was nothing to do but get rid of it along the way downtown. Making a tight bundle, I placed it in my overcoat pocket. I’d simply have to give Mary enough money to cover the coins. I’d give her as much as I could spare, half of what I had, if necessary. That should make up for some of it. She should appreciate that. And now I realized with a feeling of dread that I had to meet her face to face. There was no way out. Why can’t I just tell her that I’m leaving and pay her and go on off? She was a landlady, I was a tenant — No, there was more to it and I wasn’t hard enough, scientific enough, even to tell her that I was leaving. I’ll tell her I have a job, anything, but it has to be now.

She was sitting at the table drinking coffee when I went in, the kettle hissing away on the stove, sending up jets of steam.

“Gee, but you slow this morning,” she said. “Take some of that water in the kettle and go wash your face. Though sleepy as you look, maybe you ought to just use cold water.”

“This’ll do,” I said flatly, feeling the steam drifting upon my face, growing swiftly damp and cold. The clock above the stove was slower than mine.

In the bathroom I put in the plug and poured some of the hot water and cooled it from the spigot. I kept the tear-warm water upon my face a long time, then dried and returned to the kitchen.

“Run it full again,” she said when I returned. “How you feel?” “So-so,” I said.

She sat with her elbows upon the enameled table top, her cup held in both hands, one work-worn little finger delicately curved. I went to the sink and turned the spigot, feeling the cold rush of water upon my hand, thinking of what I had to do . . .

“That’s enough there, boy,” Mary said, startling me. “Wake up!” “I guess I’m not all here,” I said. “My mind was wandering.”

“Well, call it back and come get you some coffee. Soon’s I’ve had mine, I’ll see what kind of breakfast I can whip together. I guess after last night you can eat this morning. You didn’t come back for supper.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Coffee will be enough for me.”

“Boy, you better start eating again,” she warned, pouring me a full cup of coffee.

I took the cup and sipped it, black. It was bitter. She glanced from me to the sugar bowl and back again but remained silent, then swirled her cup, looking into it.

“Guess I’ll have to get some better filters,” she mused. “These I got lets through the grounds along with the coffee, the good with the bad. I don’t know though, even with the best of filters you apt to find a ground or two at the bottom of your cup.”

I blew upon the steaming liquid, avoiding Mary’s eyes. The knocking was becoming unbearable again. I’d have to get away. I looked at the hot metallic surface of the coffee, noticing on oily, opalescent swirl.

“Look, Mary,” I said, plunging in, “I want to talk to you about something.”

“Now see here, boy,” she said gruffly, “I don’t want you worrying me about your rent this morning. I’m not worried ’cause when you get it I know you’ll pay me. Meanwhile you forget it. Nobody in this house is going to starve. You having any luck lining up a job?”

“No — I mean not exactly,” I stammered, seizing the opportunity. “But I’ve got an appointment to see about one this morning . . .”

Her face brightened. “Oh, that’s fine. You’ll get something yet. I know it.”

“But about my debt,” I began again.

“Don’t worry about it. How about some hotcakes?” she asked, rising and going to look into the cabinet. “They’ll stick with you in this cold weather.”

“I won’t have time,” I said. “But I’ve got something for you . . .” “What’s that?” she said, her voice coming muffled as she peered

inside the cabinet.

“Here,” I said hurriedly reaching into my pocket for the money. “What? — Let’s see if I got some syrup . . .”

“But look,” I said eagerly, removing a hundred-dollar bill. “Must be on a higher shelf,” she said, her back still turned.

I sighed as she dragged a step ladder from beside the cabinet and mounted it, holding onto the doors and peering upon an upper shelf. I’d never get it said. . .

“But I’m trying to give you something,” I said.

“Why don’t you quit bothering me, boy? You trying to give me what?” she said looking over her shoulder.

I held up the bill. “This,” I said.

She craned her head around. “Boy, what you got there?” “It’s money.”

“Money? Good God, boy!” she said, almost losing her balance as she turned completely around. “Where’d you get all that much money? You been playing the numbers?”

“That’s it. My number came up,” I said thankfully — thinking, What’ll I say if she asks what the number was? I didn’t know. I had never played.

“But how come you didn’t tell me? I’d have at least put a nickel on it.”

“I didn’t think it would do anything,” I said.

“Well, I declare. And I bet it was your first time too.” “It was.”

“See there, I knowed you was a lucky one. Here I been playing for years and the first drop of the bucket you hits for that kinda money. I’m sho glad for you, son. I really am. But I don’t want your money. You wait ’til you get a job.”

“But I’m not giving you all of it,” I said hastily. “This is just on account.”

“But that’s a hundred-dollar bill. I take that an’ try to change it and the white folks’ll want to know my whole life’s history.” She snorted. “They want to know where I was born, where I work, and where I been for the last six months, and when I tell ’em they still gonna think I stole it. Ain’t you got nothing smaller?”

“That’s the smallest. Take it,” I pleaded. “I’ll have enough left.” She looked at me shrewdly. “You sho?”

“It’s the truth,” I said.

“Well, I de-clare — Let me get down from up here before I fall and break my neck! Son,” she said, coming down off the ladder, “I sho do appreciate it. But I tell you, I’m just going to keep part of it for myself and the rest I’m going to save for you. You get hard up just come to Mary.”

“I think I’ll be all right now,” I said, watching her fold the money carefully, placing it in the leather bag that always hung on the back of her chair.

“I’m really glad, ’cause now I can take care of that bill they been bothering me about. It’ll do me so much good to go in there and plop down some money and tell them folks to quit bothering me. Son, I believe your luck done changed. You dream that number?”

I glanced at her eager face. “Yes,” I said, “but it was a mixed-up dream.”

“What was the figger — Jesus! What’s this!” she cried, getting up and pointing at the linoleum near the steam line.

I saw a small drove of roaches trooping frantically down the steam line from the floor above, plummeting to the floor as the vibration of the pipe shook them off.

“Get the broom!” Mary yelled. “Out of the closet there!”

Stepping around the chair I snatched the broom and joined her, splattering the scattering roaches with both broom and feet, hearing the pop and snap as I brought the pressure down upon them vehemently.

“The filthy, stinking things,” Mary cried. “Git that one under the table! Yon’ he goes, don’t let him git away! The nasty rascal!”

I swung the broom, battering and sweeping the squashed insects into piles. Breathing excitedly Mary got the dust pan and handed it to me.

“Some folks just live in filth,” she said disgustedly. “Just let a little

knocking start and here it comes crawling out. All you have to do is shake things up a bit.”

I looked at the damp spots on the linoleum, then shakily replaced the pan and broom and started out of the room.

“Aren’t you going to eat no breakfast?” she said. “Soon’s I wipe up this mess I’m going to start.”

“I don’t have time,” I said, my hand on the knob. “My appointment is early and I have a few things to do beforehand.”

“Then you better stop and have you something hot soon as you can. Don’t do to go around in this cold weather without something in your belly. And don’t think you goin’ start eating out just ’cause you got some money!”

“I don’t. I’ll take care of it,” I said to her back as she washed her hands.

“Well, good luck, son,” she called. “You really give me a pleasant surprise this morning — and if that’s a lie, I hope something big’ll bite me!”

She laughed gaily and I went down the hall to my room and closed the door. Pulling on my overcoat I got down my prized brief case from the closet. It was still as new as the night of the battle royal, and sagged now as I placed the smashed bank and coins inside and locked the flap. Then I closed the closet door and left.

The knocking didn’t bother me so much now. Mary was singing something sad and serene as I went down the hall, and still singing as I opened the door and stepped into the outside hall. Then I remembered, and there beneath the dim hall light I took the faintly perfumed paper from my wallet and carefully unfolded it. A tremor passed over me; the hall was cold. Then it was gone and I squinted and took a long, hard look at my new Brotherhood name.

The night’s snowfall was already being churned to muck by the passing cars, and it was warmer. Joining the pedestrians along the walk, I could feel the brief case swinging against my leg from the weight of the package, and I determined to get rid of the coins and broken iron at the first ash can. I needed nothing like this to remind me of my last morning at Mary’s.

I made for a row of crushed garbage cans lined before a row of old private houses, coming alongside and tossing the package casually into one of

them and moving on — only to hear a door open behind me and a voice ring out,

“Oh, no you don’t, oh, no you don’t! Just come right back here and get it!”

Turning, I saw a little woman standing on the stoop with a green coat covering her head and shoulders, its sleeves hanging limp like extra atrophied arms.

“I mean you,” she called. “Come on back an’ get your trash. An’ don’t ever put your trash in my can again!”

She was a short yellow woman with a pince-nez on a chain, her hair pinned up in knots.

“We keep our place clean and respectable and we don’t want you field niggers coming up here from the South and ruining things,” she shouted with blazing hate.

People were stopping to look. A super from a building down the block came out and stood in the middle of the walk, pounding his fist against his palm with a dry, smacking sound. I hesitated, embarrassed and annoyed. Was this woman crazy?

“I mean it! Yes, you! I’m talking to you! Just take it right out! Rosalie,” she called to someone inside the house, “call the police, Rosalie!”

I can’t afford that, I thought, and walked back to the can. “What does it matter, Miss?” I called up to her. “When the collectors come, garbage is garbage. I just didn’t want to throw it into the street. I didn’t know that some kinds of garbage were better than others.”

“Never mind your impertinence,” she said. “I’m sick and tired of having you southern Negroes mess up things for the rest of us!”

“All right,” I said, “I’ll get it out.”

I reached into the half-filled can, feeling for the package, as the fumes of rotting swill entered my nostrils. It felt unhealthy to my hand, and the heavy package had sunk far down. Cursing, I pushed back my sleeve with my clean hand and probed until I found it. Then I wiped off my arm with a handkerchief and started away, aware of the people who paused to grin at me.

“It serves you right,” the little woman called from the stoop.

And I turned and started upward. “That’s enough out of you, you

piece of yellow gone-to-waste. Unless you still want to call the police.” My voice had taken on a new shrill pitch. “I’ve done what you wanted me to do; another word and I’ll do what I want to do –“

She looked at me with widening eyes. “I believe you would,” she said, opening the door. “I believe you would.”

“I not only would, I’d love it,” I said.

“I can see that you’re no gentleman,” she called, slamming the door, At the next row of cans I wiped off my wrist and hands with a piece of newspaper, then wrapped the rest around the package. Next time I’d throw it into the street.

Two blocks further along my anger had ebbed, but I felt strangely lonely. Even the people who stood around me at the intersection seemed isolated, each lost in his own thoughts. And now just as the lights changed I let the package fall into the trampled snow and hurried across, thinking, There, it’s done.

I had covered two blocks when someone called behind me, “Say, buddy! Hey, there! You, Mister . . . Wait a second!” and I could hear the hurried crunching of footsteps upon the snow. Then he was beside me, a squat man in worn clothes, the strands of his breath showing white in the cold as he smiled at me, panting.

“You was moving so fast I thought I wasn’t going to be able to stop you,” he said. “Didn’t you lose something back there a piece?”

Oh, hell, a friend in need, I thought, deciding to deny it. “Lose something?” I said. “Why, no.”

“You sure?” he said, frowning.

“Yes,” I said, seeing his forehead wrinkle with uncertainty, a hot charge of fear leaping to his eyes as he searched my face.

“But I seen you — Say, buddy,” he said, looking swiftly back up the street, “what you trying to do?”

“Do? What do you mean?”

“I mean talking ’bout you didn’t lose nothing. You working a con game or something?” He backed away, looking hurriedly at the pedestrians back up the street from where he’d come.

“What on earth are you talking about now?” I said. “I tell you I didn’t lose anything.”

“Man, don’t tell me! I seen you. What the hell you mean?” he said, furtively removing the package from his pocket. “This here feels like money or a gun or something and I know damn well I seen you drop it.”

“Oh, that,” I said. “That isn’t anything — I thought you –“

“That’s right, ‘Oh.’ So you remember now, don’t you? I think I’m doing you a favor and you play me for a fool. You some kind of confidence man or dope peddler or something? You trying to work one of those pigeon drops on me?”

“Pigeon drop?” I said. “You’re making a mistake –“

“Mistake, hell! Take this damn stuff,” he said, thrusting the package in my hands as though it were a bomb with a lighted fuse. “I got a family, man. I try to do you a favor and here you trying to get me into trouble –You running from a detective or somebody?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re letting your imagination run away; this is nothing but garbage –“

“Don’t try to hand me that simple-minded crap,” he wheezed. “I know what kind of garbage it is. You young New York Negroes is a blip! I swear you is! I hope they catch you and put your ass under the jail!”

He shot away as though I had smallpox. I looked at the package. He thinks it’s a gun or stolen goods, I thought, watching him go. A few steps farther along I was about to toss it boldly into the street when upon looking back I saw him, joined by another man now, gesturing toward me indignantly. I hurried away. Give him time and the fool’ll call a policeman. I dropped the package back into the brief case. I’d wait until I got downtown.

On the subway people around me were reading their morning papers, pressing forward their unpleasant faces. I rode with my eyes shut, trying to make my mind blank to thoughts of Mary. Then turning, I saw the item Violent Protest Over Harlem Eviction, just as the man lowered his paper and moved out of the breaking doors. I could hardly wait until I reached 42nd Street, where I found the story carried on the front page of a tabloid, and I read it eagerly. I was referred to only as an unknown “rabble rouser” who had disappeared in the excitement, but that it referred to me was unmistakable. It had lasted for two hours, the crowd refusing to vacate the premises. I entered the clothing store with a new sense of self-importance.

I selected a more expensive suit than I’d intended, and while it was

being altered I picked up a hat, shorts, shoes, underwear and socks, then hurried to call Brother Jack, who snapped his orders like a general. I was to go to a number on the upper East Side where I’d find a room, and I was to read over some of the Brotherhood’s literature which had been left there for me, with the idea of my making a speech at a Harlem rally to be held that evening.

The address was that of an undistinguished building in a mixed Spanish-Irish neighborhood, and there were boys throwing snowballs across the street when I rang the super’s bell. The door was opened by a small pleasant-faced woman who smiled.

“Good morning, Brother,” she said. “The apartment is all ready for you. He said you’d come about this time and I’ve just this minute come down. My, just look at that snow.”

I followed her up the three flights of stairs, wondering what on earth I’d do with a whole apartment.

“This is it,” she said, removing a chain of keys from her pocket and opening a door at the front of the hall. I went into a small comfortably furnished room that was bright with the winter sun. “This is the living room,” she said proudly, “and over here is your bedroom.”

It was much larger than I needed, with a chest of drawers, two upholstered chairs, two closets, a bookshelf and a desk on which was stacked the literature to which he’d referred. A bathroom lay off the bedroom, and there was a small kitchen.

“I hope you like it, Brother,” she said, as she left. “If there’s anything you need, please ring my bell.”

The apartment was clean and neat and I liked it — especially the bathroom with its tub and shower. And as quickly as I could I drew a bath and soaked myself. Then feeling clean and exhilarated I went out to puzzle over the Brotherhood books and pamphlets. My brief case with the broken image lay on the table. I would get rid of the package later; right now I had to think about tonight’s rally.

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50