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[5 of 5] Invisible Man, Chapter 21 to Epilogue, by Ralph Ellison (1947)

Author: Ralph Ellison

“Chapter 21 to Epilogue.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

Chapter 21

When I got back to the district a small group of youth members stopped their joking to welcome me, but I couldn’t break the news. I went through to the office with only a nod, shutting the door upon their voices and sat staring out through the trees. The once fresh green of the trees was dark and drying now and somewhere down below a clothesline peddler clanged his bell and called. Then, as I fought against it, the scene came back — not of the death, but of the dolls. Why had I lost my head and spat upon the doll, I wondered. What had Clifton felt when he saw me? He must have hated me behind his spiel, yet he’d ignored me. Yes, and been amused by my political stupidity. I had blown up and acted personally instead of denouncing the significance of the dolls, him, the obscene idea, and seizing the opportunity to educate the crowd. We lost no opportunity to educate, and I had failed. All I’d done was to make them laugh all the louder . . . I had aided and abetted social backwardness . . . The scene changed — he lay in the sun and this time I saw a trail of smoke left by a sky-writing plane lingering in the sky, a large woman in a kelly-green dress stood near me saying, “Oh, Oh!” . . .

I turned and faced the map, removing the doll from my pocket and tossing it upon the desk. My stomach surged. To die for such a thing! I picked it up with an unclean feeling, looked at the frilled paper. The joined cardboard feet hung down, pulling the paper legs in elastic folds, a construction of tissue, cardboard and glue. And yet I felt a hatred as for something alive. What had made it seem to dance? Its cardboard hands were doubled into fists, the fingers outlined in orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the disk of cardboard, and both grinning. Clifton’s voice came to me as he spieled his directions for making it dance, and I held it by the feet and stretched its neck, seeing it crumple and slide forward. I tried again, turning its other face around. It gave a tired bounce, shook itself and fell in a heap.

“Go on, entertain me,” I said, giving it a stretch. “You entertained the crowd.” I turned it around. One face grinned as broadly as the other. It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death. It had still grinned when I played the tool and spat upon it, and it was still grinning when Clifton ignored me. Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the trilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton had been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible.

Why didn’t you hit him? I asked myself; try to break his jaw? Why didn’t you hurt him and save him? You might have started a fight and both of you would have been arrested with no shooting . . . But why had he resisted the cop anyway? He’d been arrested before; he knew how far to go with a cop. What had the cop said to make him angry enough to lose his head? And suddenly it occurred to me that he might have been angry before he resisted, before he’d even seen the cop. My breath became short; I felt myself go weak. What if he believed I’d sold out? It was a sickening thought. I sat holding myself as though I might break. For a moment I weighed the idea, but it was too big for me. I could only accept responsibility for the living, not for the dead. My mind backed away from the notion. The incident was political. I looked at the doll, thinking, The political equivalent of such entertainment is death. But that’s too broad a definition. Its economic meaning? That the lite of a man is worth the sale of a two-bit paper doll . . . But that didn’t kill the idea that my anger helped speed him on to death. And still my mind fought against it. For what had I to do with the crisis that had broken his integrity? What had I to do with his selling the dolls in the first place? And finally I had to give that up too. I was no detective, and, politically, individuals were without meaning. The shooting was all that was left of him now, Clifton had chosen to plunge out of history and, except for the picture it made in my mind’s eye, only the plunge was recorded, and that was the only important thing.

I sat rigid, as though waiting to hear the explosions again, fighting against the weight that seemed to pull me down. I heard the clothesline peddler’s bell . . . What would I tell the committee when the newspaper accounts were out? To hell with them. How would I explain the dolls? But why should I say anything? What could we do to fight back. That was my worry. The bell tolled again in the yard below. I looked at the doll. I could think of no justification for Clifton’s having sold the dolls, but there was justification enough for giving him a public funeral, and I seized upon the idea now as though it would save my life. Even though I wanted to turn away from it as I’d wanted to turn from Clifton’s crumpled body on the walk. But the odds against us were too great for such weakness. We had to use every politically effective weapon against them; Clifton understood that. He had to be buried and I knew of no relatives; someone had to see that he was placed in the ground. Yes, the dolls were obscene and his act a betrayal. But he was only a salesman, not the inventor, and it was necessary that we make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or the object that caused it. Both as a means of avenging him and of preventing other such deaths . . . yes, and of attracting lost members back into the ranks. It would be ruthless, but a ruthlessness in the interest of Brotherhood, for we had only our minds and bodies, as against the other side’s vast power. We had to make the most of what we had. For they had the power to use a paper doll, first to destroy his integrity and then as an excuse for killing him. All right, so we’ll use his funeral to put his integrity together again . . . For that’s all that he had had or wanted. And now I could see the doll only vaguely and drops of moisture were thudding down upon its absorbent paper . . .

I was bent over, staring, when the knock came at the door and I jumped as at a shot, sweeping the doll into my pocket, and hastily wiping my eyes.

“Come in,” I said.

The door opened slowly. A group of youth members crowded forward, their faces a question. The girls were crying.

“Is it true?” they said.

“That he is dead? Yes,” I said, looking among them. “Yes.” “But why . . . ?”

“It was a case of provocation and murder!” I said, my emotions beginning to turn to anger.

They stood there, their faces questioning me.

“He’s dead,” a girl said, her voice without conviction. “Dead.”

“But what do they mean about his selling dolls?” a tall youth said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I only know that he was shot down. Unarmed. I know how you feel, I saw him fall.”

“Take me home,” a girl screamed. “Take me home!”

I stepped forward and caught her, a little brown thing in bobby socks, holding her against me. “No, we can’t go home,” I said, “none of us. We’ve got to fight. I’d like to get out into the air and forget it, if I ever could. What we want is not tears but anger. We must remember now that we are fighters, and in such incidents we must see the meaning of our struggle. We must strike back. I want each of you to round up all the members you can. We’ve got to make our reply.”

One of the girls was still crying piteously when they went out, but they were moving quickly.

“Come on, Shirley,” they said, taking the girl from my shoulder.

I tried to get in touch with headquarters, but again I was unable to reach anyone. I called the Chthonian but there was no answer. So I called a committee of the district’s leading members and we moved slowly ahead on our own. I tried to find the youth who was with Clifton, but he had disappeared. Members were set on the streets with cans to solicit funds for his burial. A committee of three old women went to the morgue to claim his body. We distributed black-bordered leaflets, denouncing the police commissioner. Preachers were notified to have their congregations send letters of protest to the mayor. The story spread. A photograph of Clifton was sent

to the Negro papers and published. People were stirred and angry. Street meetings were organized. And, released (by the action) from my indecision, I threw everything I had into organizing the funeral, though moving in a kind of numb suspension. I didn’t go to bed for two days and nights, but caught catnaps at my desk. I ate very little.

The funeral was arranged to attract the largest number. Instead of holding it in a church or chapel, we selected Mount Morris Park, and an appeal went out for all former members to join the funeral march.

It took place on a Saturday, in the heat of the afternoon. There was a thin overcast of clouds, and hundreds of people formed for the procession. I went around giving orders and encouragement in a feverish daze, and yet seeming to observe it all from off to one side. Brothers and sisters turned up whom I hadn’t seen since my return. And members from downtown and outlying districts. I watched them with surprise as they gathered and wondered at the depths of their sorrow as the lines began to form.

There were half-draped flags and black banners. There were black-bordered signs that read:


There was a hired drum corps with crape-draped drums. There was a band of thirty pieces. There were no cars and very few flowers.

It was a slow procession and the band played sad, romantic, military marches. And when the band was silent the drum corps beat the time on drums with muffled heads. It was hot and explosive, and delivery men avoided the district and the police details were increased in number. And up and down the streets people looked out of their apartment windows and men and boys stood on the roofs in the thin-veiled sun. I marched at the head with the old community leaders. It was a slow march and as I looked back from time to time I could see young zoot-suiters, hep cats, and men in overalls and pool-hall gamblers stepping into the procession. Men came out of barber shops with lathered faces, their neckcloths hanging, to watch and comment in hushed voices. And I wondered, Are they all Clifton’s friends, or is it just for the spectacle, the slow-paced music? A hot wind blew from behind me, bringing the sick sweetish odor, like the smell of some female dogs in season.

I looked back. The sun shone down on a mass of unbared heads, and above flags and banners and shining horns I could see the cheap gray coffin moving high upon the shoulders of Clifton’s tallest companions, who from time to time shifted it smoothly on to others. They bore him high and they bore him proudly and there was an angry sadness in their eyes. The coffin floated like a heavily loaded ship in a channel, winding its way slowly above the bowed and submerged heads. I could hear the steady rolling of the drums with muffled snares, and all other sounds were suspended in silence. Behind, the tramp of feet; ahead, the crowds lining the curbs for blocks. There were tears and muffled sobs and many hard, red eyes. We moved ahead.

We wound through the poorest streets at first, a black image of sorrow, then turned into Seventh Avenue and down and over to Lenox. Then I hurried with the leading brothers to the park in a cab. A brother in the Park Department had opened the lookout tower, and a crude platform of planks and ranked saw horses had been erected beneath the black iron bell, and when the procession started into the park we were standing high above, waiting. At our signal he struck the bell, and I could feel my eardrums throbbing with the old, hollow, gut-vibrant Doom-Dong-Doom.

Looking down, I could see them winding upward in a mass to the muffled sound of the drums. Children stopped their playing on the grass to stare, and nurses at the nearby hospital came out on the roof to watch, their white uniforms glowing in the now unveiled sun like lilies. And crowds approached the park from all directions. The muffled drums now beating, now steadily rolling, spread a dead silence upon the air, a prayer tor the unknown soldier. And looking down I felt a lostness. Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction? Was either explanation adequate in itself? Did it signify love or politicalized hate? And could politics ever be an expression of love?

Over the park the silence spread from the slow muffled rolling of the drums, the crunching of footsteps on the walks. Then somewhere in the procession an old, plaintive, masculine voice arose in a song, wavering, stumbling in the silence at first alone, until in the band a euphonium horn fumbled for the key and took up the air, one catching and rising above the other and the other pursuing, two black pigeons rising above a skull-white barn to tumble and rise through still, blue air. And for a few bars the pure sweet tone of the horn and the old man’s husky baritone sang a duet in the hot heavy silence. “There’s Many a Thousand Gone.” And standing high up over the park something fought in my throat. It was a song from the past, the past of the campus and the still earlier past of home. And now some of the older ones in the mass were joining in. I hadn’t thought of it as a march before, but now they were marching to its slow-paced rhythm, up the hill. I looked for the euphonium player and saw a slender black man with his face turned toward the sun, singing through the upturned bells of the horn. And several yards behind, marching beside the young men floating the coffin upward, I looked into the face of the old man who had aroused the song and felt a twinge of envy. It was a worn, old, yellow face and his eyes were closed and I could see a knife welt around his upturned neck as his throat threw out the song. He sang with his whole body, phrasing each verse as naturally as he walked, his voice rising above all the others, blending with that of the lucid horn. I watched him now, wet-eyed, the sun hot upon my head, and I felt a wonder at the singing mass. It was as though the song had been there all the time and he knew it and aroused it; and I knew that I had known it too and had failed to release it out of a vague, nameless shame or fear. But he had known and aroused it. Even white brothers and sisters were joining in. I looked into that face, trying to plumb its secret, but it told me nothing. I looked at the coffin and the marchers, listening to them, and yet realizing that I was listening to something within myself, and for a second I heard the shattering stroke of my heart. Something deep had shaken the crowd, and the old man and the man with the horn had done it. They had touched upon something deeper than protest, or religion; though now images of all the church meetings of my life welled up within me with much suppressed and forgotten anger. But that was past, and too many of those now reaching the top of the mountain and spreading massed together had never shared it, and some had been born in other lands. And yet all were touched; the song had aroused us all. It was not the words, for they were all the same old slave-borne words; it was as though he’d changed the emotion beneath the words while yet the old longing, resigned, transcendent emotion still sounded above, now deepened by that something for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name. I stood there trying to contain it as they brought Tod Clifton’s coffin into the tower and slowly up the spiral stairs. They set it down upon the platform and I looked at the shape of the cheap gray coffin and all I could remember was the sound of his name.

The song had ended. Now the top of the little mountain bristled with banners, horns and uplifted faces. I could look straight down Fifth Avenue to 125th Street, where policemen were lined behind an array ot hot-dog wagons and Good Humor carts; and among the carts I saw a peanut vendor standing beneath a street lamp upon which pigeons were gathered, and now I saw him stretch out his arms with his palms turned upward, and suddenly he was covered, head, shoulders and outflung arms, with fluttering, feasting birds.

Someone nudged me and I started. It was time for final words. But I had no words and I’d never been to a Brotherhood funeral and had no idea of a ritual. But they were waiting. I stood there alone; there was no microphone to support me, only the coffin before me upon the backs of its wobbly carpenter’s horses.

I looked down into their sun-swept faces, digging for the words, and feeling a futility about it all and an anger. For this they gathered by thousands. What were they waiting to hear? Why had they come? For what reason that was different from that which had made the red-cheeked boy thrill at Clifton’s falling to the earth? What did they want and what could they do? Why hadn’t they come when they could have stopped it all?

“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp on the windless air. “What good will it do? What if I say that this isn’t a funeral, that it’s a holiday celebration, that if you stick around the band will end up playing ‘Damit-the-Hell the Fun’s All Over’? Or do you expect to see some magic, the dead rise up and walk again? Go home, he’s as dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. There’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him. He’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you.” I paused. They were whispering and looking upward.

“I’ve told you to go home,” I shouted, “but you keep standing there. Don’t you know it’s hot out here in the sun? So what if you wait for what little I can tell you? Can I say in twenty minutes what was building twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds? What are you waiting for, when all I can tell you is his name? And when I tell you, what will you know that you didn’t know already, except perhaps, his name?”

They were listening intently, and as though looking not at me, but at the pattern of my voice upon the air.

“All right, you do the listening in the sun and I’ll try to tell you in the sun. Then you go home and forget it. Forget it. His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome. And though he didn’t belilve it, I think he was. His name was Clifton and his face was black and his hair was thick with tight-rolled curls — or call them naps or kinks. He’s dead, uninterested, and, except to a few young girls, it doesn’t matter . . . Have you got it? Can you see him? Think of your brother or your cousin John. His lips were thick with an upward curve at the corners. He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart. He thought about things and he felt deeply. I won’t call him noble because what’s such a word to do with one of us? His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute. His name was Clifton and for a while he lived among us and aroused a few hopes in the young manhood of man, and we who knew him loved him and he died. So why are you waiting? You’ve heard it all. Why wait for more, when all I can do is repeat it?”

They stood; they listened. They gave no sign.

“Very well, so I’ll tell you. His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock and when he stretched forward he seemed not as tall as when he stood. So he died; and we who loved him are gathered here to mourn him. It’s as simple as that and as short as that. His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? Isn’t that enough to appease your thirst for drama and send you home to sleep it off? Go take a drink and forget it. Or read it in The Daily News. His name was Clifton and they shot him, and I was there to see him fall. So I know it as I know it.

“Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He tell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; red as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and birds and trees, or your face if you’d looked into its dulling mirror — and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That’s all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after awhile, became dull then dusty, then dried. That’s the story and that’s how it ended. It’s an old story and there’s been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it’s only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren’t you tired of such stories? Aren’t you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don’t you go? It’s hot out here. There’s the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there’ll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There’s not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There’s nothing here to pity, no one to break down and shout. Nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road.

“All right, all right,” I called out, feeling desperate. It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, it wasn’t political. Brother Jack probably wouldn’t approve of it at all, but I had to keep going as I could go.

“Listen to me standing up on this so-called mountain!” I shouted. “Let me tell it as it truly was! His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to

be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. Look at what he made, look inside you and feel his awful power. It was perfectly natural. The blood ran like blood in a comic-book killing, on a comic-book street in a comic-book town on a comic-book day in a comic-book world.

“Tod Clifton’s one with the ages. But what’s that to do with you in this heat under this veiled sun? Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His Race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon, of gunshot wounds received from three bullets, fired at three paces, one bullet entering the right ventricle of the heart, and lodging there, the other severing the spinal ganglia traveling downward to lodge in the pelvis, the other breaking through the back and traveling God knows where.

“Such was the short bitter life of Brother Tod Clifton. Now he’s in this box with the bolts tightened down. He’s in the box and we’re in there with him, and when I’ve told you this you can go. It’s dark in this box and it’s crowded. It has a cracked ceiling and a clogged-up toilet in the hall. It has rats and roaches, and it’s far, far too expensive a dwelling. The air is bad and it’ll be cold this winter. Tod Clifton is crowded and he needs the room. ‘Tell them to get out of the box,’ that’s what he would say if you could hear him. ‘Tell them to get out of the box and go teach the cops to forget that rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you nigger to make a rhyme with trigger it makes the gun backfire.’

“So there you have it. In a few hours Tod Clifton will be cold bones in the ground. And don’t be fooled, for these bones shall not rise again. You and I will still be in the box. I don’t know if Tod Clifton had a soul. I only

know the ache that I feel in my heart, my sense of loss. I don’t know if you have a soul. I only know you are men of flesh and blood; and that blood will spill and flesh grow cold. I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers. And I know too how we are labeled. So in the name of Brother Clifton beware of the triggers; go home, keep cool, stay safe away from the sun. Forget him. When he was alive he was our hope, but why worry over a hope that’s dead? So there’s only one thing left to tell and I’ve already told it. His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died.”

I couldn’t go on. Below, they were waiting, hands and handkerchiefs shading their eyes. A preacher stepped up and read something out of his Bible, and I stood looking at the crowd with a sense of failure. I had let it get away from me, had been unable to bring in the political issues. And they stood there sun-beaten and sweat-bathed, listening to me repeat what was known. Now the preacher had finished, and someone signaled the bandmaster and there was solemn music as the pallbearers carried the coffin down the spiraling stairs. The crowd stood still as we walked slowly through. I could feel the bigness of it and the unknownness of it and a pent-up tension –whether of tears or anger, I couldn’t tell. But as we walked through and down the hill to the hearse, I could feel it. The crowd sweated and throbbed, and though it was silent, there were many things directed toward me through its eyes. At the curb were the hearse and a few cars, and in a few minutes they were loaded and the crowd was still standing, looking on as we carried Tod Clifton away. And as I took one last look I saw not a crowd but the set faces of individual men and women.

We drove away and when the cars stopped moving there was a grave and we placed him in it. The gravediggers sweated heavily and knew their business and their brogue was Irish. They filled the grave quickly and we left. Tod Clifton was underground.

I returned through the streets as tired as though I’d dug the grave myself alone. I felt confused and listless moving through the crowds that seemed to boil along in a kind of mist, as though the thin humid clouds had thickened and settled directly above our heads. I wanted to go somewhere, to some cool place to rest without thinking, but there was still too much to be done; plans had to be made; the crowd’s emotion had to be organized. I

crept along, walking a southern walk in southern weather, closing my eyes from time to time against the dazzling reds, yellows and greens of cheap sport shirts and summer dresses. The crowd boiled, sweated, heaved; women with shopping bags, men with highly polished shoes. Even down South they’d always shined their shoes. “Shined shoes, shoed shines,” it rang in my head. On Eighth Avenue, the market carts were parked hub to hub along the curb, improvised canopies shading the withering fruits and vegetables. I could smell the stench of decaying cabbage. A watermelon huckster stood in the shade beside his truck, holding up a long slice of orange-mealed melon, crying his wares with hoarse appeals to nostalgia, memories of childhood, green shade and summer coolness. Oranges, cocoanuts and alligator pears lay in neat piles on little tables. I passed, winding my way through the slowly moving crowd. Stale and wilted flowers, rejected downtown, blazed feverishly on a cart, like glamorous rags festering beneath a futile spray from a punctured fruit juice can. The crowd were boiling figures seen through steaming glass from inside a washing machine; and in the streets the mounted police detail stood looking on, their eyes noncommittal beneath the short polished visors of their caps, their bodies slanting forward, reins slackly alert, men and horses of flesh imitating men and horses of stone. Tod Clifton’s Tod, I thought. The hucksters cried above the traffic sounds and I seemed to hear them from a distance, unsure of what they said. In a side street children with warped tricycles were parading along the walk carrying one of the signs, BROTHER TOD CLIFTON, OUR HOPE SHOT DOWN.

And through the haze I again felt the tension. There was no denying it; it was there and something had to be done before it simmered away in the heat.

Chapter 22

When I saw them sitting in their shirtsleeves, leaning forward, gripping their crossed knees with their hands, I wasn’t surprised. I’m glad it’s you, I thought, this will be business without tears. It was as though I had expected to find them there, just as in those dreams in which I encountered my grandfather looking at me from across the dimensionless space of a dream-room. I looked back without surprise or emotion, although I knew even in the dream that surprise was the normal reaction and that the lack of it was to be distrusted, a warning.

I stood just inside the room, watching them as I slipped off my jacket, seeing them grouped around a small table upon which there rested a pitcher of water, a glass and a couple of smoking ash trays. One half of the room was dark and only one light burned, directly above the table. They regarded me silently, Brother Jack with a smile that went no deeper than his lips, his head cocked to one side, studying me with his penetrating eyes; the others blank-faced, looking out of eyes that were meant to reveal nothing and to stir profound uncertainty. The smoke rose in spirals from their cigarettes as they sat perfectly contained, waiting. So you came, after all, I thought, going over and dropping into one of the chairs. I rested my arm on the table, noticing its coolness.

“Well, how did it go?” Brother Jack said, extending his clasped hands across the table and looking at me with his head to one side.

“You saw the crowd,” I said. “We finally got them out.” “No, we did not see the crowd. How was it?”

“They were moved,” I said, “a great number of them. But beyond that I don’t know. They were with us, but how far I don’t know . . .” And for a moment I could hear my own voice in the quiet of the high-ceilinged hall.

“Sooo! Is that all the great tactician has to tell us?” Brother Tobitt said. “In what direction were they moved?”

I looked at him, aware of the numbness of my emotions; they had flowed in one channel too long and too deeply.

“That’s for the committee to decide. They were aroused, that was all we could do. We tried again and again to reach the committee for guidance but we couldn’t.”


“So we went ahead on my personal responsibility.”

Brother Jack’s eyes narrowed. “What was that?” he said. “Your what?”

“My personal responsibility,” I said.

“His personal responsibility,” Brother Jack said. “Did you hear that, Brothers? Did I hear him correctly. Where did you get it, Brother?” he said. “This is astounding, where did you get it?”

“From your ma –” I started and caught myself in time. “From the committee,” I said.

There was a pause. I looked at him, his face reddening, as I tried to get my bearings. A nerve trembled in the center of my stomach.

“Everyone came out,” I said, trying to fill it in. “We saw the opportunity and the community agreed with us. It’s too bad you missed it . . .”

“You see, he’s sorry we missed it,” Brother Jack said. He held up his hand. I could see the deeply etched lines in his palm. “The great tactician of personal responsibility regrets our absence . . .”

Doesn’t he see how I feel, I thought, can’t he see why I did it? What’s he trying to do? Tobitt’s a fool, but why is he taking it up?

“You could have taken the next step,” I said, forcing the words. “We went as far as we could . . .”

“On your personal re-spon-si-bility,” Brother Jack said, bowing his head in time with the words.

I looked at him steadily now. “I was told to win back our following, so I tried. The only way I knew how. What’s your criticism? What’s wrong?”

“So now,” he said, rubbing his eye with a delicate circular movement of his fist, “the great tactician asks what’s wrong. Is it possible that something could be wrong? Do you hear him, Brothers?”

There was a cough. Someone poured a glass of water and I could hear it fill up very fast, then the rapid rill-like trickle of the final drops dripping from the pitcher-lip into the glass. I looked at him, my mind trying to bring things into focus.

“You mean he admits the possibility of being incorrect?” Tobitt said. “Sheer modesty, Brother. The sheerest modesty. We have here an

extraordinary tactician, a Napoleon of strategy and personal responsibility. ‘Strike while the iron is hot’ is his motto. ‘Seize the instance by its throat,’ ‘Shoot at the whites of their eyes,’ ‘Give ’em the ax, the ax, the ax,’ and so forth.”

I stood up. “I don’t know what this is all about, Brother. What are you trying to say?”

“Now there is a good question, Brothers. Sit down, please, it’s hot. He wants to know what we’re trying to say. We have here not only an extraordinary tactician, but one who has an appreciation for subtleties of expression.”

“Yes, and for sarcasm, when it’s good,” I said. “And for discipline? Sit down, please, it’s hot . . .”

“And for discipline. And for orders and consultation when it’s possible to have them,” I said.

Brother Jack grinned. “Sit down, sit down — And for patience?” “When I’m not sleepy and exhausted,” I said, “and not overheated as

I am just now.”

“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”

“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”

“Brother,” he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning — Please sit down.”

“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us these days. We could use this time more profitably.”

“And I could tell you that politicians are not personal persons,” Brother Jack said, “but I won’t. How could we use it more profitably?”

“By organizing their anger.”

“So again our great tactician has relieved himself. Today he’s a busy man. First an oration over the body of Brutus, and now a lecture on the patience of the Negro people.”

Tobitt was enjoying himself. I could see his cigarette tremble in his lips as he struck a match to light it.

“I move we issue his remarks in a pamphlet,” he said, running his finger over his chin. “They should create a natural phenomenon . . .”

This had better stop right here, I thought. My head was getting lighter and my chest felt tight.

“Look,” I said, “an unarmed man was killed. A brother, a leading member shot down by a policeman. We had lost our prestige in the community. I saw the chance to rally the people, so I acted. If that was incorrect, then I did wrong, so say it straight without this crap. It’ll take more than sarcasm to deal with that crowd out there.”

Brother Jack reddened; the others exchanged glances. “He hasn’t read the newspapers,” someone said.

“You forget,” Brother Jack said, “it wasn’t necessary; he was there.” “Yes, I was there,” I said. “If you’re referring to the killing.” “There, you see,” Brother Jack said. “He was on the scene.”

Brother Tobitt pushed the table edge with his palms. “And still you organized that side show of a funeral!”

My nose twitched. I turned toward him deliberately, forcing a grin. “How could there be a side show without you as the star attraction,

who’d draw the two bits admission, Brother Twobits? What was wrong with the funeral?”

“Now we’re making progress,” Brother Jack said, straddling his chair. “The strategist has raised a very interesting question. What’s wrong, he asks. All right, I’ll answer. Under your leadership, a traitorous merchant of vile instruments of anti-Negro, anti-minority racist bigotry has received the funeral of a hero. Do you still ask what’s wrong?”

“But nothing was done about a traitor,” I said.

He half-stood, gripping the back of his chair. “We all heard you admit it.”

“We dramatized the shooting down of an unarmed black man.”

He threw up his hands. To hell with you, I thought. To hell with you. He was a man!

“That black man, as you call him, was a traitor,” Brother Jack said. “A traitor!”

“What is a traitor, Brother?” I asked, feeling an angry amusement as I counted on my fingers. “He was a man and a Negro; a man and a brother; a man and a traitor, as you say; then he was a dead man, and alive or dead he was jam-full of contradictions. So full that he attracted half of Harlem to come out and stand in the sun in answer to our call. So what is a traitor?”

“So now he retreats,” Brother Jack said. “Observe him, Brothers.

After putting the movement in the position of forcing a traitor down the throats of the Negroes he asks what a traitor is.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, and, as you say, it’s a fair question, Brother. Some folks call me traitor because I’ve been working downtown; some would call me a traitor if I was in Civil Service and others if I simply sat in my corner and kept quiet. Sure, I considered what Clifton did –“

“And you defend him!”

“Not for that. I was as disgusted as you. But hell, isn’t the shooting of an unarmed man of more importance politically than the fact that he sold obscene dolls?”

“So you exercised your personal responsibility,” Jack said.

“That’s all I had to go on. I wasn’t called to the strategy meeting, remember.”

“Didn’t you see what you were playing with?” Tobitt said. “Have you no respect for your people?”

“It was a dangerous mistake to give you the opportunity,” one of the others said.

I looked across at him. “The committee can take it away, if it wishes. But meantime, why is everyone so upset? If even one-tenth of the people looked at the dolls as we do, our work would be a lot easier. The dolls are nothing.”

“Nothing,” Jack said. “That nothing that might explode in our face.”

I sighed. “Your faces are safe, Brother,” I said. “Can’t you see that they don’t think in such abstract terms? If they did, perhaps the new program wouldn’t have flopped. The Brotherhood isn’t the Negro people; no organization is. All you see in Clifton’s death is that it might harm the prestige of the Brotherhood. You see him only as a traitor. But Harlem doesn’t react that way.”

“Now he’s lecturing us on the conditioned reflexes of the Negro people,” Tobitt said.

I looked at him. I was very tired. “And what is the source of your great contributions to the movement, Brother? A career in burlesque? And of your profound knowledge of Negroes? Are you from an old plantation-owning family? Does your black mammy shuffle nightly through your dreams?”

He opened his mouth and closed it like a fish. “I’ll have you know

that I’m married to a fine, intelligent Negro girl,” he said.

So that’s what makes you so cocky, I thought, seeing now how the light struck him at an angle and made a wedge-shaped shadow beneath his nose. So that’s it . . . and how did I guess there was a woman in it?

“Brother, I apologize,” I said. “I misjudged you. You have our number. In fact, you must be practically a Negro yourself. Was it by immersion or injection?”

“Now see here,” he said, pushing back his chair.

Come on, I thought, just make a move. Just another little move. “Brothers,” Jack said, his eyes on me. “Let’s stick to the discussion.

I’m intrigued. You were saying?”

I watched Tobitt. He glared. I grinned.

“I was saying that up here we know that the policemen didn’t care about Clifton’s ideas. He was shot because he was black and because he resisted. Mainly because he was black.”

Brother Jack frowned. “You’re riding ‘race’ again. But how do they feel about the dolls?”

“I’m riding the race I’m forced to ride,” I said. “And as for the dolls, they know that as far as the cops were concerned Clifton could have been selling song sheets. Bibles, matzos. If he’d been white, he’d be alive. Or if he’d accepted being pushed around . . .”

“Black and white, white and black,” Tobitt said. “Must we listen to this racist nonsense?”

“You don’t, Brother Negro,” I said. “You get your own information straight from the source. Is it a mulatto source, Brother? Don’t answer — the only thing wrong is that your source is too narrow. You don’t really think that crowd turned out today because Clifton was a member of the Brotherhood?”

“And why did they turn out?” Jack said, getting set as if to pounce forward.

“Because we gave them the opportunity to express their feelings, to affirm themselves.”

Brother Jack rubbed his eye. “Do you know that you have become quite a theoretician?” he said. “You astound me.”

“I doubt that, Brother, but there’s nothing like isolating a man to

make him think,” I said.

“Yes, that’s true; some of our best ideas have been thought in prison. Only you haven’t been in prison, Brother, and you were not hired to think. Had you forgotten that? If so, listen to me: You were not hired to think.” He was speaking very deliberately and I thought, So . . . So here it is, naked and old and rotten. So now it’s out in the open . . .

“So now I know where I am,” I said, “and with whom –“

“Don’t twist my meaning. For all of us, the committee does the thinking. For all of us. And you were hired to talk.”

“That’s right, I was hired. Things have been so brotherly I had forgotten my place. But what if I wish to express an idea?”

“We furnish all ideas. We have some acute ones. Ideas are part of our apparatus. Only the correct ideas for the correct occasion.”

“And suppose you misjudge the occasion?” “Should that ever happen, you keep quiet.” “Even though I am correct?”

“You say nothing unless it is passed by the committee. Otherwise I suggest you keep saying the last thing you were told.”

“And when my people demand that I speak?” “The committee will have an answer!”

I looked at him. The room was hot, quiet, smoky. The others looked at me strangely. I heard the nervous sound of someone mashing out a cigarette in a glass ash tray. I pushed back my chair, breathing deeply, controlled. I was on a dangerous road and I thought of Clifton and tried to get off of it. I said nothing.

Suddenly Jack smiled and slipped back into his fatherly role.

“Let us handle the theory and the business of strategy,” he said. “We are experienced. We’re graduates and while you are a smart beginner you skipped several grades. But they were important grades, especially for gaining strategical knowledge. For such it is necessary to see the overall picture. More is involved than meets the eye. With the long view and the short view and the overall view mastered, perhaps you won’t slander the political consciousness of the people of Harlem.”

Can’t he see I’m trying to tell them what’s real, I thought. Does my membership stop me from feeling Harlem?

“All right,” I said. “Have it your way, Brother; only the political consciousness of Harlem is exactly a thing I know something about. That’s one class they wouldn’t let me skip. I’m describing a part of reality which I know.”

“And that is the most questionable statement of all,” Tobitt said.

“I know,” I said, running my thumb along the edge of the table, “your private source tells you differently. History’s made at night, eh, Brother?”

“I’ve warned you,” Tobitt said.

“Brother to brother, Brother,” I said, “try getting around more. You might learn that today was the first time that they’ve listened to our appeals in weeks. And I’ll tell you something else: If we don’t follow through on what was done today, this might be the last . . .”

“So, he’s finally gotten around to predicting the future,” Brother Jack said.

“It’s possible . . . though I hope not.”

“He’s in touch with God,” Tobitt said. “The black God.”

I looked at him and grinned. He had gray eyes and his irises were very wide, the muscles ridged out on his jaws. I had his guard down and he was swinging wild.

“Not with God, nor with your wife, Brother,” I told him. “I’ve never met either. But I’ve worked among the people up here. Ask your wife to take you around to the gin mills and the barber shops and the juke joints and the churches, Brother. Yes, and the beauty parlors on Saturdays when they’re frying hair. A whole unrecorded history is spoken then, Brother. You wouldn’t believe it but it’s true. Tell her to take you to stand in the areaway of a cheap tenement at night and listen to what is said. Put her out on the corner, let her tell you what’s being put down. You’ll learn that a lot of people are angry because we failed to lead them in action. I’ll stand on that as I stand on what I see and feel and on what I’ve heard, and what I know.”

“No,” Brother Jack said, getting to his feet, “you’ll stand on the decision of the committee. We’ve had enough of this. The committee makes your decisions and it is not its practice to give undue importance to the mistaken notions of the people. What’s happened to your discipline?”

“I’m not arguing against discipline. I’m trying to be useful. I’m trying

to point out a part of reality which the committee seems to have missed. With just one demonstration we could –“

“The committee has decided against such demonstrations,” Brother Jack said. “Such methods are no longer effective.”

Something seemed to move out from under me, and out of the corner of my eye I was suddenly aware of objects on the dark side of the hall. “But didn’t anyone see what happened today?” I said. “What was that, a dream? What was ineffective about that crowd?”

“Such crowds are only our raw materials, one of the raw materials to be shaped to our program.”

I looked around the table and shook my head. “No wonder they insult me and accuse us of betraying them . . .”

There was a sudden movement.

“Repeat that,” Brother Jack shouted, stepping forward.

“It’s true, I’ll repeat it. Until this afternoon they’ve been saying that the Brotherhood betrayed them. I’m telling you what’s been said to me, and that it why Brother Clifton disappeared.”

“That’s an indefensible lie,” Brother Jack said.

And I looked at him slowly now, thinking, If this is it, this is it . . . “Don’t call me that,” I said softly. “Don’t ever call me that, none of you. I’ve told you what I’ve heard.” My hand was in my pocket now, Brother Tarp’s leg chain around my knuckles. I looked at each of them individually, trying to hold myself back and yet feeling it getting away from me. My head was whirling as though I were riding a supersonic merry-go-round. Jack looked at me, a new interest behind his eyes, leaned forward.

“So you’ve heard it,” he said. “Very well, so now hear this: We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”

“You’ve said that,” I said, “and that’s one thing you can tell them yourself. Who are you, anyway, the great white father?”

“Not their father, their leader. And .your leader. And don’t forget it.” “My leader sure, but what’s your exact relationship to them?”

His red head bristled. “The leader. As leader of the Brotherhood, I am their leader.”

“But are you sure you aren’t their great white father?” I said,

watching him closely, aware of the hot silence and feeling tension race from my toes to my legs as I drew my feet quickly beneath me. “Wouldn’t it be better if they called you Marse Jack?”

“Now see here,” he began, leaping to his feet to lean across the table, and I spun my chair half around on its hind legs as he came between me and the light, gripping the edge of the table, spluttering and lapsing into a foreign language, choking and coughing and shaking his head as I balanced on my toes now, set to propel myself forward; seeing him above me and the others behind him as suddenly something seemed to erupt out of his face. You’re seeing things, I thought, hearing it strike sharply against the table and roll as his arm shot out and snatched an object the size of a large marble and dropped it, plop! into his glass, and I could see the water shooting up in a ragged, light-breaking pattern to spring in swift droplets across the oiled table top. The room seemed to flatten. I shot to a high plateau above them and down, feeling the jolt on the end of my spine as the chair legs struck the floor. The merry-go-round had speeded up, I heard his voice but no longer listened. I stared at the glass, seeing how the light shone through, throwing a transparent, precisely fluted shadow against the dark grain of the table, and there on the bottom of the glass lay an eye. A glass eye. A buttermilk white eye distorted by the light rays. An eye staring fixedly at me as from the dark waters of a well. Then I was looking at him standing above me, outlined by the light against the darkened half of the hall.

“. . . You must accept discipline. Either you accept decisions or you get out . . .”

I stared into his face, feeling a sense of outrage. His left eye had collapsed, a line of raw redness showing where the lid refused to close, and his gaze had lost its command. I looked from his face to the glass, thinking, he’s disemboweled himself just in order to confound me . . . And the others had known it all along. They aren’t even surprised. I stared at the eye, aware of Jack pacing up and down, shouting.

“Brother, are you following me?” He stopped, squinting at me with Cyclopean irritation. “What is the matter?”

I stared up at him, unable to answer.

Then he understood and approached the table, smiling maliciously. “So that’s it. So it makes you uncomfortable, does it? You’re a sentimentalist,” he said, sweeping up the glass and causing the eye to turn over in the water so that now it seemed to peer down at me from the ringed bottom of the glass. He smiled, holding the tumbler level with his empty socket, swirling the glass. “You didn’t know about this?”

“No, and I didn’t want to know.” Someone laughed.

“See, that demonstrates how long you’ve been with us.” He lowered the glass. “I lost my eye in the line of duty. What do you think of that?” he said with a pride that made me all the angrier.

“I don’t give a damn how you lost it as long as you keep it hidden.” “That is because you don’t appreciate the meaning of sacrifice. I was

ordered to carry through an objective and I carried it through. Understand? Even though I had to lose my eye to do it . . .”

He was gloating now, holding up the eye in the glass as though it were a medal of merit.

“Not much like that traitor Clifton, is it?” Tobitt said. The others were amused.

“All right,” I said. “All right! It was a heroic act. It saved the world, now hide the bleeding wound!”

“Don’t overevaluate it,” Jack said, quieter now. “The heroes are those who die. This was nothing — after it happened. A minor lesson in discipline. And do you know what discipline is, Brother Personal Responsibility? It’s sacrifice, sacrifice, SACRIFICE!”

He slammed the glass upon the table, splashing the water on the back of my hand. I shook like a leaf. So that is the meaning of discipline, I thought, sacrifice . . . yes, and blindness; he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t even see me. Am I about to strangle him? I do not know. He cannot possibly. I still do not know. See! Discipline is sacrifice. Yes, and blindness. Yes. And me sitting here while he tries to intimidate me. That’s it, with his goddam blind glass eye . . . Should you show him you get it? Shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t he know it? Hurry! Shouldn’t you? Look at it there, a good job, an almost perfect imitation that seemed alive . . . Should you, shouldn’t you? Maybe he got it where he learned that language he lapsed into. Shouldn’t you? Make him speak the unknown tongue, the language of the future. What’s mattering with you? Discipline. Is learning, didn’t he say? Is it? I stand? You’re sitting here, ain’t I? You’re holding on, ain’t I? He said you’d learn so you’re learning, so he saw it all the time. He’s a riddler, shouldn’t we show him? So sit still is the way, and learn, never mind the eye, it’s dead . . . All right now, look at him, see him turning now, left, right, coming short-legged toward you. See him, hep, hep! the one-eyed beacon. All right, all right . . . Hep, hep! The short-legged deacon. All right! Nail him! The short-changing dialectical deacon . . . All right. There, so now you’re learning . . . Get it under control . . . Patience . . . Yes . . .

I looked at him again as for the first time, seeing a little bantam rooster of a man with a high-domed forehead and a raw eye-socket that wouldn’t quite accept its lid. I looked at him carefully now with some of the red spots fading and with the feeling that I was just awakening from a dream. I had boomeranged around.

“I realize how you feel,” he said, becoming an actor who’d just finished a part in a play and was speaking again in his natural voice. “I remember the first time I saw myself this way and it wasn’t pleasant. And don’t think I wouldn’t rather have my old one back.” He felt in the water for his eye now, and I could see its smooth half-spherical, half-amorphous form slip between his two fingers and spurt around the glass as though looking for a way to break out. Then he had it, shaking off the water and breathing upon it as he walked across to the dark side of the room.

“But who knows, Brothers,” he said, with his back turned, “perhaps if we do our work successfully the new society will provide me with a living eye. Such a thing is not at all fantastic, although I’ve been without mine for quite a while . . . What time is it, by the way?”

But what kind of society will make him see me, I thought, hearing Tobitt answer, “Six-fifteen.”

“Then we’d better leave immediately, we’ve got a long way to travel,” he said, coming across the floor. He had his eye in place now and he was smiling. “How’s that?” he asked me.

I nodded, I was very tired. I simply nodded.

“Good,” he said. “I sincerely hope it never happens to you. Sincerely.” “If it should, maybe you’ll recommend me to your oculist,” I said,

“then I may not-see myself as others see-me-not.”

He looked at me oddly then laughed. “See, Brothers, he’s joking. He

feels brotherly again. But just the same, I hope you’ll never need one of these. Meanwhile go and see Hambro. He’ll outline the program and give you the instructions. As for today, just let things float. It is a development that is important only if we make it so. Otherwise it will be forgotten,” he said, getting into his jacket. “And you’ll see that it’s best. The Brotherhood must act as a co-ordinated unit.”

I looked at him. I was becoming aware of smells again and I needed a bath. The others were standing now and moving toward the door. I stood up, feeling the shirt sticking to my back.

“One last thing,” Jack said, placing his hand on my shoulder and speaking quietly. “Watch that temper, that’s discipline, too. Learn to demolish your brotherly opponents with ideas, with polemic skill. The other is for our enemies. Save it for them. And go get some rest.”

I was beginning to tremble. His face seemed to advance and recede, recede and advance. He shook his head and smiled grimly.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “And it’s too bad all that effort was for nothing. But that in itself is a kind of discipline. I speak to you of what I have learned and I’m a great deal older than you. Good night.”

I looked at his eye. So he knows how I feel. Which eye is really the blind one? “Good night,” I said.

“Good night, Brother,” they all except Tobitt said.

It’ll be night, but it won’t be good, I thought, calling a final “Good night.”

They left and I took my jacket and went and sat at my desk. I heard them passing down the stairs and the closing of the door below. I felt as though I’d been watching a bad comedy. Only it was real and I was living it and it was the only historically meaningful life that I could live. If I left it, I’d be nowhere. As dead and as meaningless as Clifton. I felt for the doll in the shadow and dropped it on the desk. He was dead all right, and nothing would come of his death now. He was useless even for a scavenger action. He had waited too long, the directives had changed on him. He’d barely gotten by with a funeral. And that was all. It was only a matter of a few days, but he had missed and there was nothing I could do. But at least he was dead and out of it.

I sat there a while, growing wilder and fighting against it. I couldn’t leave and I had to keep contact in order to fight. But I would never be the same. Never. After tonight I wouldn’t ever look the same, or feel the same. Just what I’d be, I didn’t know; I couldn’t go back to what I was — which wasn’t much — but I’d lost too much to be what I was. Some of me, too, had died with Tod Clifton. So I would see Hambro, for whatever it was worth. I got up and went out into the hall. The glass was still on the table and I swept it across the room, hearing it rumble and roll in the dark. Then I went downstairs.

Chapter 23

The bar downstairs was hot and crowded and there was a heated argument in progress over Clifton’s shooting. I stood near the door and ordered a bourbon. Then someone noticed me, and they tried to draw me in.

“Please, not tonight,” I said. “He was one of my best friends.” “Oh, sure,” they said, and I had another bourbon and left.

When I reached 125th Street, I was approached by a group of civil-liberties workers circulating a petition demanding the dismissal of the guilty policeman, and a block further on even the familiar woman street preacher was shouting a sermon about the slaughter of the innocents. A much broader group was stirred up over the shooting than I had imagined. Good, I thought, perhaps it won’t die down after all. Maybe I’d better see Hambro tonight.

Little groups were all along the street, and I moved with increasing speed until suddenly I had reached Seventh Avenue, and there beneath a street lamp with the largest crowd around him was Ras the Exhorter — the last man in the world I wanted to see. And I had just turned back when I saw him lean down between his flags, shouting, “Look, look, Black ladies and gentlemahn! There goes the representative of the Brotherhood. Does Ras see correctly? Is that gentlemahn trying to pass us unnoticed? Ask him about it. What are you people waiting for, sir? What are you doing about our black youth shot down beca’se of your deceitful organization?”

They turned, looking at me, closing in. Some came up behind me and tried to push me further into the crowd. The Exhorter leaned down, pointing at me, beneath the green traffic light.

“Ask him what they are doing about it, ladies and gentlemahn. Are they afraid — or are the white folks and their black stooges sticking together to betray us?”

“Get your hands off me,” I shouted as someone reached around and seized my arm.

I heard a voice cursing me softly.

“Give the brother a chance to answer!” someone said.

Their faces pressed in upon me. I wanted to laugh, for suddenly I realized that I didn’t know whether I had been part of a sellout or not. But they were in no mood for laughter.

“Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters,” I said, “I disdain to answer such an attack. Since you all know me and my work, I don’t think it’s necessary. But it seems highly dishonorable to use the unfortunate death of one of our most promising young men as an excuse for attacking an organization that has worked to bring an end to such outrages. Who was the first organization to act against this killing? The Brotherhood! Who was the first to arouse the people? The Brotherhood! Who will always be the first to advance the cause of the people? Again the Brotherhood!

“We acted and we shall always act, I assure you. But in our own disciplined way. And we’ll act positively. We refuse to waste our energies and yours in premature and ill-considered actions. We are Americans, all of us, whether black or white, regardless of what the man on the ladder there tells you, Americans. And we leave it to the gentleman up there to abuse the name of the dead. The Brotherhood grieves and feels deeply the loss of its brother. And we are determined that his death shall be the beginning of profound and lasting changes. It’s easy enough to wait around for the minute a man is safely buried and then stand on a ladder and smear the memory of everything he believed in. But to create something lasting of his death takes time and careful planning –“

“Gentlemahn,” Ras shouted, “stick to the issue. You are not answering my question. What are you doing about the shooting?”

I moved toward the edge of the crowd. If this went any further, it could be disastrous.

“Stop abusing the dead for your own selfish ends,” I said. “Let him rest in peace. Quit mangling his corpse!”

I pushed away as he raged, hearing shouts of, “Tell him about it!” “Grave robber!”

The Exhorter waved his arms and pointed, shouting, “That mahn is a paid stooge of the white enslaver! Wheere has he been for the last few months when our black babies and women have been suffering –“

“Let the dead rest in peace,” I shouted, hearing someone call “Aw man, go back to Africa. Everybody knows the brother.”

Good, I thought, good. Then there was a scuffle behind me and I whirled to see two men stop short. They were Ras’s men.

“Listen, mister,” I said up to him, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll call off your goons. Two of them seem to want to follow me.”

“And that is a dahm lie!” he shouted.

“There are witnesses if anything should happen to me. A man who’ll dig up the dead hardly before he’s buried will try anything, but I warn you –“

There were angry shouts from some of the crowd and I saw the men continue past me with hate in their eyes, leaving the crowd to disappear around the corner. Ras was attacking the Brotherhood now and others were answering him from the audience, and I went on, moving back toward Lenox, moving past a movie house when they grabbed me and started punching. But this time they’d picked the wrong spot, and the movie doorman intervened and they ran back toward Ras’s street meeting. I thanked the doorman and went on. I had been lucky; they hadn’t hurt me, but Ras was becoming bold again. On a less crowded street they might have done some damage.

Reaching the Avenue I stepped to the curb and signaled a cab, seeing it sail by. An ambulance went past, then another cab with its flag down. I looked back. I felt that they were watching me from somewhere up the street but I couldn’t see them. Why didn’t a taxi come! Then three men in natty cream-colored summer suits came to stand near me at the curb, and something about them struck me like a hammer. They were all wearing dark glasses. I had seen it thousands of times, but suddenly what I had considered an empty imitation of a Hollywood fad was flooded with personal significance. Why not, I thought, why not, and shot across the street and into the air-conditioned chill of a drugstore.

I saw them on a case strewn with sun visors, hair nets, rubber gloves, a card of false eyelashes, and seized the darkest lenses I could find. They were of a green glass so dark that it appeared black, and I put them on immediately, plunging into blackness and moving outside.

I could barely see; it was almost dark now, and the streets swarmed in a green vagueness. I moved slowly across to stand near the subway and wait for my eyes to adjust. A strange wave of excitement boiled within me as I peered out at the sinister light. And now through the hot gusts from the underground people were emerging and I could feel the trains vibrating the walk. A cab rolled up to discharge a passenger and I was about to take it when the woman came up the stairs and stopped before me, smiling. Now what, I thought, seeing her standing there, smiling in her tight-fitting summer dress; a large young woman who reeked with Christmas Night perfume who now came close.

“Rinehart, baby, is that you?” she said.

Rinehart, I thought. So it works. She had her hand on my arm and faster than I thought I heard myself answer, “Is that you, baby?” and waited with tense breath.

“Well, for once you’re on time,” she said. “But what you doing bareheaded, where’s your new hat I bought you?”

I wanted to laugh. The scent of Christmas Night was enfolding me now and I saw her face draw closer, her eyes widening.

“Say, you ain’t Rinehart, man. What you trying to do? You don’t even talk like Rine. What’s your story?”

I laughed, backing away. “I guess we were both mistaken,” I said. She stepped backward clutching her bag, watching me, confused.

“I really meant no harm,” I said. “I’m sorry. Who was it you mistook me for?”

“Rinehart, and you’d better not let him catch you pretending to be him.”

“No,” I said. “But you seemed so pleased to see him that I couldn’t resist it. He’s really a lucky man.”

“And I could have sworn you was — Man, you git away from here before you get me in trouble,” she said, moving aside, and I left.

It was very strange. But that about the hat was a good idea, I thought, hurrying along now and looking out for Ras’s men. I was wasting time. At the first hat shop I went in and bought the widest hat in stock and put it on. With this, I thought, I should be seen even in a snowstorm — only they’d think I was someone else.

Then I was back in the street and moving toward the subway. My eyes adjusted quickly; the world took on a dark-green intensity, the lights of cars glowed like stars, faces were a mysterious blur; the garish signs of movie houses muted down to a soft sinister glowing. I headed back for Ras’s meeting with a bold swagger. This was the real test, if it worked I would go on to Hambro’s without further trouble. In the angry period to come I would be able to move about.

A couple of men approached, eating up the walk with long jaunty strides that caused their heavy silk sport shirts to flounce rhythmically upon their bodies. They too wore dark glasses, their hats were set high upon their heads, the brims turned down. A couple of hipsters, I thought, just as they spoke.

“What you sayin’, daddy-o,” they said.

“Rinehart, poppa, tell us what you putting down,” they said.

Oh, hell, they’re probably his friends, I thought, waving and moving on.

“We know what you’re doing, Rinehart,” one of them called. “Play it cool, ole man, play it cool!”

I waved again as though in on the joke. They laughed behind me. I was nearing the end of the block now, wet with sweat. Who was this Rinehart and what was he putting down? I’d have to learn more about him to avoid further misidentifications . . .

A car passed with its radio blaring. Ahead I could hear the Exhorter barking harshly to the crowd. Then I was moving close, and coming to a stop conspicuously in the space left for pedestrians to pass through the crowd. To the rear they were lined up two deep before the store windows. Before me the listeners merged in a green-tinted gloom. The Exhorter gestured violently, blasting the Brotherhood.

“The time for ahction is here. We mahst chase them out of Harlem,” he cried. And for a second I thought he had caught me in the sweep of his eyes, and tensed.

“Ras said chase them! It is time Ras the Exhorter become Ras the DESTROYER!”

Shouts of agreement arose and I looked behind me, seeing the men who had followed me and thinking, What did he mean, destroyer?

“I repeat, black ladies and gentlemahn, the time has come for ahction! I, Ras the Destroyer, repeat, the time has come!”

I trembled with excitement; they hadn’t recognized me. It works, I thought. They see the hat, not me. There is a magic in it. It hides me right in front of their eyes . . . But suddenly I wasn’t sure. With Ras calling for the destruction of everything white in Harlem, who could notice me? I needed a better test. If I was to carry out my plan . . . What plan? Hell, I don’t know, come on . . .

I weaved out of the crowd and left, heading for Hambro’s.

A group of zoot-suiters greeted me in passing. “Hey now, daddy-o,” they called. “Hey now!”

“Hey now!” I said.

It was as though by dressing and walking in a certain way I had enlisted in a fraternity in which I was recognized at a glance — not by features, but by clothes, by uniform, by gait. But this gave rise to another uncertainty. I was not a zoot-suiter, but a kind of politician. Or was I? What would happen in a real test? What about the fellows who’d been so insulting at the Jolly Dollar? I was halfway across Eighth Avenue at the thought and retraced my steps, running for an uptown bus.

There were many of the regular customers draped around the bar. The room was crowded and Barrelhouse was on duty. I could feel the frame of the glasses cutting into the ridge of my nose as I tilted my hat and squeezed up to the bar. Barrelhouse looked at me roughly, his lips pushed out.

“What brand you drinking tonight, Poppa-stopper?” he said. “Make it Ballantine’s,” I said in my natural voice.

I watched his eyes as he set the beer before me and slapped the bar with his enormous hand for his money. Then, my heart beating faster, I

made my old gesture of payment, spinning the coin upon the bar and waited. The coin disappeared into his fist.

“Thanks, pops,” he said, moving on and leaving me puzzled. For there had been recognition of a kind in his voice but not for me. He never called me “pops” or “poppa-stopper.” It’s working, I thought, perhaps it’s working very well.

Certainly something was working on me, and profoundly. Still I was relieved. It was hot. Perhaps that was it. I drank the cold beer, looking back to the rear of the room to the booths. A crowd of men and women moiled like nightmare figures in the smoke-green haze. The juke box was dinning and it was like looking into the depths of a murky cave. And now someone moved aside and looking down along the curve of the bar past the bobbing heads and shoulders I saw the juke box, lit up like a bad dream of the Fiery Furnace, shouting:

Jelly Jelly,
All night long.

And yet, I thought, watching a numbers runner paying off a bet, this is one place that the Brotherhood definitely penetrated. Let Hambro explain that, too, along with all the rest he’d have to explain.

I drained the glass and turned to leave, when there across at the lunch counter I saw Brother Maceo. I moved impulsively, forgetting my disguise until almost upon him, then checked myself and put my disguise once more to a test. Reaching roughly across his shoulder I picked up a greasy menu that rested between the sugar shaker and the hot-sauce bottle and pretended to read it through my dark lenses.

“How’re the ribs, pops?” I said. “Fine, least these here I’m eatin’ is.”

“Yeah? How much you know about ribs?”

He raised his head slowly, looking across at the spitted chickens revolving before the low blue rotisserie flames. “I reckon I know as much about ’em as you,” he said, “and probably more, since I probably been eatin’ ’em a few years longer than you, and in a few more places. What makes you think you kin come in here messing with me anyhow?”

He turned, looking straight into my face now, challenging me. He was very game and I wanted to laugh.

“Oh, take it easy,” I growled. “A man can ask a question, can’t he?” “You got your answer,” he said, turning completely around on the stool. “So now I guess you ready to pull your knife.”

“Knife?” I said, wanting to laugh. “Who said anything about a knife?” “That’s what you thinking about. Somebody say something you don’t

like and you kinda fellows pull your switch blades. So all right, go ahead and pull it. I’m as ready to die as I’m gon’ ever be. Let’s see you, go ahead!”

He reached for the sugar shaker now, and I stood there feeling suddenly that the old man before me was not Brother Maceo at all, but someone else disguised to confuse me. The glasses were working too well. He’s a game old brother, I thought, but this’ll never do.

I pointed toward his plate. “I asked you about the ribs,” I said, “not your ribs. Who said anything about a knife?”

“Never mind that, just go on and pull it,” he said.

“Let’s see you. Or is you waiting for me to turn my back. All right, here it is, here’s my back,” he said, turning swiftly on the stool and around again, his arm set to throw the shaker.

Customers were turning to look, were moving clear. “What’s the matter, Maceo?” someone said.

“Nothing I caint handle; this confidencing sonofabitch come in here bluffing –“

“You take it easy, old man,” I said. “Don’t let your mouth get your head in trouble,” thinking, Why am I talking like this?

“You don’t have to worry about that, sonofabitch, pull your switch blade!”

“Give it to him, Maceo, coolcrack the motherfouler!”

I marked the position of the voice by ear now, turning so that I could see Maceo, the agitator, and the customers blocking the door. Even the juke box had stopped and I could feel the danger mounting so swiftly that I moved without thinking, bounding over quickly and sweeping up a beer bottle, my body trembling.

“All right,” I said, “if that’s the way you want it, all right! The next

one who talks out of turn gets this!”

Maceo moved and I feinted with the bottle, seeing him dodge, his arm set to throw and held only because I was crowding him; a dark old man in overalls and a gray long-billed cloth cap, who looked dreamlike through the green glasses.

“Throw it,” I said. “Go on,” overcome with the madness of the thing. Here I’d set out to test a disguise on a friend and now I was ready to beat him to his knees — not because I wanted to but because of place and circumstance. Okay, okay, it was absurd and yet real and dangerous and if he moved, I’d let him have it as brutally as possible. To protect myself I’d have to, or the drunks would gang me. Maceo was set, looking at me coldly, and suddenly I heard a voice boom out, “Ain’t going to be no fighting in my joint!” It was Barrelhouse. “Put them things down y’all, they cost money.”

“Hell, Barrelhouse, let ’em fight!”

“They can fight in the streets, not in here — Hey, y’all,” he called “look over here . . .”

I saw him now, leaning forward with a pistol in his huge fist, resting it steady upon the bar.

“Now put ’em down y’all,” he said mournfully. “I done ask you to put my property down.”

Brother Maceo looked from me to Barrelhouse.

“Put it down, old man,” I said, thinking, Why am I acting from pride when this is not really me?

“You put yourn down,” he said.

“Both of y’all put ’em down; and you, Rinehart,” Barrelhouse said, gesturing at me with his pistol, “you get out of my joint and stay out. We don’t need your money in here.”

I started to protest, but he held up his palm.

“Now you all right with me, Rinehart, don’t get me wrong. But I just can’t stand trouble,” Barrelhouse said.

Brother Maceo had replaced the shaker now and I put my bottle down and backed to the door.

“And Rine,” Barrelhouse said, “don’t go try to pull no pistol neither, ’cause this here one is loaded and I got a permit.”

I backed to the door, my scalp prickling, watching them both.

“Next time don’t ask no questions you don’t want answered,” Maceo called. “An’ if you ever want to finish this argument I be right here.”

I felt the outside air explode around me and I stood just beyond the door laughing with the sudden relief of the joke restored, looking back at the defiant old man in his long-billed cap and the confounded eyes of the crowd. Rinehart, Rinehart, I thought, what kind of man is Rinehart?

I was still chuckling when, in the next block, I waited for the traffic lights near a group of men who stood on the corner passing a bottle of cheap wine between them as they discussed Clifton’s murder.

“What we need is some guns,” one of them said. “An eye for an eye.”

“Hell yes, machine guns. Pass me the sneakypete, Muckleroy.”

“Wasn’t for that Sullivan Law this here New York wouldn’t be nothing but a shooting gallery,” another man said.

“Here’s the sneakypete, and don’t try to find no home in that bottle.” “It’s the only home I got, Muckleroy. You want to take that away from me?”

“Man, drink up and pass the damn bottle.”

I started around them, hearing one of them say, “What you saying, Mr. Rinehart, how’s your hammer hanging?”

Even up here, I thought, beginning to hurry. “Heavy, man,” I said, knowing the answer to that one, “very heavy.” They laughed.

“Well, it’ll be lighter by morning.”

“Say, look ahere, Mr. Rinehart, how about giving me a job?” one of them said, approaching me, and I waved and crossed the street, walking rapidly down Eighth toward the next bus stop.

The shops and groceries were dark now, and children were running and yelling along the walks, dodging in and out among the adults. I walked, struck by the merging fluidity of forms seen through the lenses. Could this be the way the world appeared to Rinehart? All the dark-glass boys? “For now we see as through a glass darkly but then — but then –” I couldn’t remember the rest.

She was carrying a shopping bag and moved gingerly on her feet. Until she touched my arm I thought that she was talking to herself.

“I say, pardon me, son, look like you trying to pass on by me

tonight. What’s the final figger?” “Figure? What figure?”

“Now you know what I mean,” she said, her voice rising as she put her hands on her hips and looked forward. “I mean today’s last number. Ain’t you Rine the runner?”

“Rine the runner?”

“Yas, Rinehart the number man. Who you trying to fool?”

“But that’s not my name, madame,” I said, speaking as precisely as I could and stepping away from her. “You’ve made a mistake.”

Her mouth fell wide. “You ain’t? Well, why you look so much like him?” she said with hot doubt in her voice. “Now, ain’t this here something. Let me get on home; if my dream come out, I’m-a have to go look that rascal up. And here I needs that money too.”

“I hope you won,” I said, straining to see her clearly, “and I hope he pays off.”

“Thanks, son, but he’ll pay off all right. I can see you ain’t Rinehart now though. I’m sorry for stopping you.”

“It’s all right,” I said.

“If I’d looked at your shoes I woulda known –” “Why?”

” ‘Cause Rine the runner is known for them knobtoed kind.”

I watched her limp away, rocking like the Old Ship of Zion. No wonder everyone knows him, I thought, in that racket you have to get around. I was aware of my black-and-white shoes for the first time since the day of Clifton’s shooting.

When the squad car veered close to the curb and rolled along slowly beside me I knew what was coming before the cop opened his mouth.

“That you, Rinehart, my man?” the cop who was not driving said. He was white. I could see the shield gleaming on his cap but the number was vague.

“Not this time, officer,” I said.

“The hell you say; what’re you trying to pull? Is this a holdout?” “You’re making a mistake,” I said. “I’m not Rinehart.”

The car stopped, a flashlight beamed in my green-lensed eyes. He spat into the street. “Well, you better be by morning,” he said, “and you

better have our cut in the regular place. Who the hell you think you are?” he called as the car speeded up and away.

And before I could turn a crowd of men ran up from the corner pool hall. One of them carried an automatic in his hand.

“What were those sonsabitches trying to do to you, daddy?” he said. “It was nothing, they thought I was someone else.”

“Who’d they take you for?”

I looked at them — were they criminals or simply men who were worked up over the shooting?

“Some guy named Rinehart,” I said.

“Rinehart — Hey, y’all hear that?” snorted the fellow with the gun. “Rinehart! Them paddies must be going stone blind. Anybody can see you ain’t Rinehart.”

“But he do look like Rine,” another man said, staring at me with his hands in his trousers pockets.

“Like hell he does.”

“Hell, man, Rinehart would be driving that Cadillac this time of night. What the hell you talking about?”

“Listen, Jack,” the fellow with the gun said, “don’t let nobody make you act like Rinehart. You got to have a smooth tongue, a heartless heart and be ready to do anything. But if them paddies bother you agin, just let us know. We aim to stop some of this head-whupping they been doing.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Rinehart,” he said again. “Ain’t that a bitch?”

They turned and went arguing back to the pool hall and I hurried out of the neighborhood. Having forgotten Hambro for the moment I walked east instead of west. I wanted to remove the glasses but decided against it. Ras’s men might still be on the prowl.

It was quieter now. No one paid me any special attention, although the street was alive with pedestrians, all moiling along in the mysterious tint of green. Perhaps I’m out of his territory at last, I thought and began trying to place Rinehart in the scheme of things. He’s been around all the while, but I have been looking in another direction. He was around and others like him, but I had looked past him until Clifton’s death (or was it Ras?) had made me aware. What on earth was hiding behind the face of things? If dark glasses and a white hat could blot out my identity so quickly, who actually was who?

The perfume was exotic and seemed to roll up the walk behind me as I became aware of a woman strolling casually behind me.

“I’ve been waiting for you to recognize me, daddy,” a voice said. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time.”

It was a pleasant voice with a slightly husky edge and plenty of sleep in it.

“Don’t you hear me, daddy?” she said. And I started to look around, hearing, “No, daddy, don’t look back; my old man might be cold trailing me. Just walk along beside me while I tell you where to meet me. I swear I thought you’d never come. Will you be able to see me tonight?”

She had moved close to me now and suddenly I felt a hand fumbling at my jacket pocket.

“All right, daddy, you don’t have to jump evil on me, here it is; now will you see me?”

I stopped dead, grabbing her hand and looking at her, an exotic girl even through the green glasses, looking at me with a smile that suddenly broke. “Rinehart, daddy, what’s the matter?”

So here it goes again, I thought, holding her tightly.

“I’m not Rinehart, Miss,” I said. “And for the first time tonight I’m truly sorry.”

“But Bliss, daddy — Rinehart! You’re not trying to put your baby down — Daddy, what did I do?”

She seized my arm and we were poised face to face in the middle of the walk. And suddenly she screamed, “Oooooooh! You really aren’t! And me trying to give you his money. Get away from me, you dumb John. Get away from me!”

I backed off. Her face was distorted as she stamped her high heels and screamed. Behind me I heard someone say, “Hey, what was that?” followed by the sound of running feet as I shot off and around the corner away from her screams. That lovely girl, I thought, that lovely girl.

Several blocks away I stopped, out of breath. And both pleased and angry. How stupid could people be? Was everyone suddenly nuts? I looked about me. It was a bright street, the walks full of people. I stood at the curb trying to breathe. Up the street a sign with a cross glowed above the walk:


The letters glowed dark green and I wondered if it were from the lenses or the actual color of the neon tubes. A couple of drunks stumbled past. I headed for Hambro’s, passing a man sitting on the curb with his head bent over his knees. Cars passed. I went on. Two solemn-faced children came passing out handbills which first I refused, then went back and took. After all, I had to know what was going on in the community. I took the bill and stepped close to the street light, reading.

Behold the Invisible
Thy will be done O Lord!
I See all, Know all. Tell all, Cure all.
You shall see the unknown wonders.
Spiritual Technologist.

The old is ever new
Way Stations in New Orleans, the home of mystery,
Birmingham, New York, Chicago, Detroit and L. A.

No Problem too Hard for God.

Come to the Way Station.

Attend our services, prayer meetings Thrice weekly



I dropped the leaflet into the gutter and moved on. I walked slowly, my breath still coming hard. Could it be? Soon I reached the sign. It hung above a store that had been converted into a church, and I stepped into the shallow lobby and wiped my face with a handkerchief. Behind me I heard the rise and fall of an old-fashioned prayer such as I hadn’t heard since leaving the campus; and then only when visiting country preachers were asked to pray. The voice rose and fell in a rhythmical, dreamlike recital-part enumeration of earthly trials undergone by the congregation, part rapt display of vocal virtuosity, part appeal to God. I was still wiping my face and squinting at crude Biblical scenes painted on the windows when two old ladies came up to me.

“Even’, Rever’n Rinehart,” one of them said. “How’s our dear pastor this warm evening?”

Oh, no, I thought, but perhaps agreeing will cause less trouble than denying, and I said, “Good evening, sisters,” muffling my voice with my handkerchief and catching the odor of the girl’s perfume from my hand.

“This here’s Sister Harris, Rever’n. She come to join our little band.” “God bless you, Sister Harris,” I said, taking her extended hand.

“You know, Rever’n, I once heard you preach years ago. You was just a lil’ ole twelve-year-old boy, back in Virginia. And here I come North and find you, praise God, still preaching the gospel, doing the Lord’s work. Still preaching the ole time religion here in this wicked city –“

“Er, Sister Harris,” the other sister said, “we better get on in and find our seats. Besides, the pastor’s kind of got things to do. Though you are here a little early, aren’t you, Rever’n?”

“Yes,” I said, dabbing my mouth with my handkerchief. They were motherly old women of the southern type and I suddenly felt a nameless despair. I wanted to tell them that Rinehart was a fraud, but now there came a shout from inside the church and I heard a burst of music.

“Just lissen to it, Sister Harris. That’s the new kind of guitar music I told you Rever’n Rinehart got for us. Ain’t it heavenly?”

“Praise God,” Sister Harris said. “Praise God!”

“Excuse us, Rever’n, I have to see Sister Judkins about the money she collected for the building fund. And, Rever’n, last night I sold ten recordings of your inspiring sermon. Even sold one to the white lady I work for.”

“Bless you,” I found myself saying in a voice heavy with despair, “bless you, bless you.”

Then the door opened and I looked past their heads into a small crowded room of men and women sitting in folding chairs, to the front where a slender woman in a rusty black robe played passionate boogie-woogie on an upright piano along with a young man wearing a skull cap who struck righteous riffs from an electric guitar which was connected to an amplifier that hung from the ceiling above a gleaming white and gold pulpit. A man in an elegant red cardinal’s robe and a high lace collar stood resting against an enormous Bible and now began to lead a hard-driving hymn which the congregation shouted in the unknown tongue. And back and high on the wall above him there arched the words in letters of gold:


The whole scene quivered vague and mysterious in the green light, then the door closed and the sound muted down.

It was too much for me. I removed my glasses and tucked the white hat carefully beneath my arm and walked away. Can it be, I thought, can it actually be? And I knew that it was. I had heard of it before but I’d never come so close. Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie.

Perhaps, I thought, the whole thing should roll off me like drops of water rolling off Jack’s glass eye. I should search out the proper political classification, label Rinehart and his situation and quickly forget it. I hurried away from the church so swiftly that I found myself back at the office before I remembered that I was going to Hambro’s.

I was both depressed and fascinated. I wanted to know Rinehart and yet, I thought, I’m upset because I know I don’t have to know him, that simply becoming aware of his existence, being mistaken for him, is enough to convince me that Rinehart is real. It couldn’t be, but it is. And it can be, is, simply because it’s unknown. Jack wouldn’t dream of such a possibility, nor Tobitt, who thinks he’s so close. Too little was known, too much was in the dark. I thought of Clifton and of Jack himself; how much was really known about either of them? How much was known about me? Who from my old life had challenged me? And after all this time I had just discovered Jack’s missing eye.

My entire body started to itch, as though I had just been removed from a plaster cast and was unused to the new freedom of movement. In the South everyone knew you, but coming North was a jump into the unknown. How many days could you walk the streets of the big city without encountering anyone who knew you, and how many nights? You could actually make yourself anew. The notion was frightening, for now the world seemed to flow before my eyes. All boundaries down, freedom was not only the recognition of necessity, it was the recognition of possibility. And sitting there trembling I caught a brief glimpse of the possibilities posed by Rinehart’s multiple personalities and turned away. It was too vast and confusing to contemplate. Then I looked at the polished lenses of the glasses and laughed. I had been trying simply to turn them into a disguise but they had become a political instrument instead; for if Rinehart could use them in his work, no doubt I could use them in mine. It was too simple, and yet they had already opened up a new section of reality for me. What would the committee say about that? What did their theory tell them of such a world? I recalled a report of a shoeshine boy who had encountered the best treatment in the South simply by wearing a white turban instead of his usual Dobbs or Stetson, and I fell into a fit of laughing. Jack would be outraged at the very suggestion of such a state of things. And yet there was truth in it; this was the real chaos which he thought he was describing — so long ago it seemed now . . . Outside the Brotherhood we were outside history; but inside of it they didn’t see us. It was a hell of a state of affairs, we were nowhere. I wanted to back away from it, but still I wanted to discuss it, to consult someone who’d tell me it was only a brief, emotional illusion. I wanted the props put back beneath the world. So now I had a real need to see Hambro.

Getting up to go, I looked at the wall map and laughed at Columbus. What an India he’d found! I was almost across the hall when I remembered and came back and put on the hat and glasses. I’d need them to carry me through the streets.

I took a cab. Hambro lived in the West Eighties, and once in the vestibule I tucked the hat under my arm and put the glasses in my pocket along with Brother Tarp’s leg chain and Clifton’s doll. My pocket was getting overloaded.

I was shown into a small, book-lined study by Hambro himself. From another part of the apartment came a child’s voice singing Humpty Dumpty, awakening humiliating memories of my first Easter program during which I had stood before the church audience and forgotten the words . . .

“My kid,” Hambro said, “filibustering against going to bed. A real sea lawyer, that kid.”

The child was singing Hickory Dickory Dock, very fast, as Hambro shut the door. He was saying something about the child and I looked at him with sudden irritation. With Rinehart on my mind, why had I come here?

Hambro was so tall that when he crossed his legs both feet touched the floor. He had been my teacher during my period of indoctrination and now I realized that I shouldn’t have come. Hambro’s lawyer’s mind was too narrowly logical. He’d see Rinehart simply as a criminal, my obsession as a fall into pure mysticism . . . You’d better hope that is the way he’ll see it, I thought. Then I decided to ask him about conditions uptown and leave . . .

“Look, Brother Hambro,” I said, “what’s to be done about my district?”

He looked at me with a dry smile. “Have I become one of those bores who talk too much about their children?”

“Oh, no, it’s not that,” I said. “I’ve had a hard day. I’m nervous. With Clifton’s death and things in the district so bad, I guess . . .”

“Of course,” he said, still smiling, “but why are you worried about

the district?”

“Because things are getting out of hand. Ras’s men tried to rough me up tonight and our strength is steadily going to hell.”

“That’s regrettable,” he said, “but there’s nothing to be done about it that wouldn’t upset the larger plan. It’s unfortunate, Brother, but your members will have to be sacrificed.”

The distant child had stopped singing now, and it was dead quiet. I looked at the angular composure ot his face searching for the sincerity in his words. I could feel some deep change. It was as though my discovery of Rinehart had opened a gulf between us over which, though we sat within touching distance, our voices barely carried and then fell flat, without an echo. I tried to shake it away, but still the distance, so great that neither could grasp the emotional tone of the other, remained.

“Sacrifice?” my voice said. “You say that very easily.”

“Just the same, though, all who leave must be considered expendable. The new directives must be followed rigidly.”

It sounded unreal, an antiphonal game. “But why?” I said. “Why must the directives be changed in my district when the old methods are needed — especially now?” Somehow I couldn’t get the needed urgency into my words, and beneath it all something about Rinehart bothered me, darted just beneath the surface of my mind; something that had to do with me intimately.

“It’s simple, Brother,” Hambro was saying. “We are making temporary alliances with other political groups and the interests of one group of brothers must be sacrificed to that ot the whole.”

“Why wasn’t I told of this?” I said.

“You will be, in time, by the committee — Sacrifice is necessary now –“

“But shouldn’t sacrifice be made willingly by those who know what they are doing? My people don’t understand why they’re being sacrificed. They don’t even know they’re being sacrificed — at least not by us . . .” But what, my mind went on, if they’re as willing to be duped by the Brotherhood as by Rinehart?

I sat up at the thought and there must have been an odd expression on my face, for Hambro, who was resting his elbows upon the arms of his chair and touching his fingertips together, raised his eyebrows as though expecting me to continue. Then he said, “The disciplined members will understand.”

I pulled Tarp’s leg chain from my pocket and slipped it over my knuckles. He didn’t notice. “Don’t you realize that we have only a handful of disciplined members left? Today the funeral brought out hundreds who’ll drop away as soon as they see we’re not following through. And now we’re being attacked on the streets. Can’t you understand? Other groups are circulating petitions, Ras is calling for violence. The committee is mistaken if they think this is going to die down.”

He shrugged. “It’s a risk which we must take. All of us must sacrifice for the good of the whole. Change is achieved through sacrifice. We follow the laws of reality, so we make sacrifices.”

“But the community is demanding equality of sacrifice,” I said. “We’ve never asked for special treatment.”

“It isn’t that simple, Brother,” he said. “We have to protect our gains. It’s inevitable that some must make greater sacrifices than others . . .”

“That ‘some’ being my people . . .” “In this instance, yes.”

“So the weak must sacrifice for the strong? Is that it, Brother?”

“No, a part of the whole is sacrificed — and will continue to be until a new society is formed.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “I just don’t get it. We work our hearts out trying to get the people to follow us and just when they do, just when they see their relationship to events, we drop them. I don’t see it.”

Hambro smiled remotely. “We don’t have to worry about the aggressiveness of the Negroes. Not during the new period or any other. In fact, we now have to slow them down for their own good. It’s a scientific necessity.”

I looked at him, at the long, bony, almost Lincolnesque face. I might have liked him, I thought, he seems to be a really kind and sincere man and yet he can say this to me . . .

“So you really believe that,” I said quietly. “With all my integrity,” he said.

For a second I thought I’d laugh. Or let fly with Tarp’s link.

Integrity! He talks to me of integrity! I described a circle in the air. I’d tried to build my integrity upon the role of Brotherhood and now it had changed to water, air. What was integrity? What did it have to do with a world in which Rinehart was possible and successful?

“But what’s changed?” I said. “Wasn’t I brought in to arouse their aggressiveness?” My voice fell sad, hopeless.

“For that particular period,” Hambro said, leaning a little forward. “Only for that period.”

“And what will happen now?” I said.

He blew a smoke ring, the blue-gray circle rising up boiling within its own jetting form, hovering for an instant then disintegrating into a weaving strand.

“Cheer up!” he said. “We shall progress. Only now they must be brought along more slowly . . .”

How would he look through the green lenses? I thought, saying, “Are you sure you’re not saying that they must be held back?”

He chuckled. “Now, listen,” he said. “Don’t stretch me on a rack of dialectic. I’m a brother.”

“You mean the brakes must be put on the old wheel of history,” I said. “Or is it the little wheels within the wheel?”

His face sobered. “I mean only that they must be brought along more slowly. They can’t be allowed to upset the tempo of the master plan. Timing is all important. Besides, you still have a job to do, only now it will be more educational.”

“And what about the shooting?”

“Those who are dissatisfied will drop away and those who remain you’ll teach . . .”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Why? It’s just as important.”

“Because they are against us; besides, I’d feel like Rinehart . . .” It slipped out and he looked at me.

“Like who?”

“Like a charlatan,” I said.

Hambro laughed. “I thought you had learned about that, Brother.” I looted at him quickly. “Learned what?”

“That it’s impossible not to take advantage of the people.” “That’s Rinehartism — cynicism . . .”

“What?” “Cynicism,” I said.

“Not cynicism — realism. The trick is to take advantage of them in their own best interest.”

I sat forward in my chair, suddenly conscious of the unreality of the conversation. “But who is to judge? Jack? The committee?”

“We judge through cultivating scientific objectivity,” he said with a voice that had a smile in it, and suddenly I saw the hospital machine, felt as though locked in again.

“Don’t kid yourself,” I said. “The only scientific objectivity is a machine.”

“Discipline, not machinery,” he said. “We’re scientists. We must take the risks of our science and our will to achieve. Would you like to resurrect God to take responsibility?” He shook his head. “No, Brother, we have to make such decisions ourselves. Even if we must sometimes appear as charlatans.”

“You’re in for some surprises,” I said.

“Maybe so and maybe not,” he said. “At any rate, through our very position in the vanguard we must do and say the things necessary to get the greatest number of the people to move toward what is for their own good.”

Suddenly I couldn’t stand it.

“Look at me! Look at me!” I said. “Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my good — only they were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop? Is this the new true definition, is Brotherhood a matter of sacrificing the weak? If so, at what point do we stop?”

Hambro looked as though I were not there. “At the proper moment science will stop us. And of course we as individuals must sympathetically debunk ourselves. Even though it does only a little good. But then,” he shrugged, “if you go too far in that direction you can’t pretend to lead. You’ll lose your confidence. You won’t believe enough in your own correctness to lead others. You must therefore have confidence in those who lead you — in the collective wisdom of Brotherhood.”

I left in a worse state than that in which I’d come. Several buildings away I heard him call behind me, watched him approach through the dark.

“You left your hat,” he said, handing it to me along with the mimeographed sheets of instructions outlining the new program. I looked at the hat and at him, thinking of Rinehart and invisibility, but knew that for him it would have no reality. I told him good night and went through the hot street to Central Park West, starting toward Harlem.

Sacrifice and leadership, I thought. For him it was simple. For them it was simple. But hell, I was both. Both sacrificer and victim. I couldn’t get away from that, and Hambro didn’t have to deal with it. That was reality too, my reality. He didn’t have to put the knife blade to his own throat. What would he say if he were the victim?

I walked along the park in the dark. Cars passed. From time to time the sound of voices, squealing laughter, arose from beyond the trees and hedges. I could smell the sun-singed grass. The sky against which an airplane beacon played was still overcast. I thought of Jack, the people at the funeral, Rinehart. They’d asked us for bread and the best I could give was a glass eye — not so much as an electric guitar.

I stopped and dropped to a bench. I should leave, I thought. That would be the honest thing to do. Otherwise I could only tell them to have hope and try to hold on to those who’d listen. Was that also what Rinehart was, a principle of hope for which they gladly paid? Otherwise there was nothing but betrayal, and that meant going back to serve Bledsoe, and Emerson, jumping from the pot of absurdity to the fire of the ridiculous. And either was a self-betrayal. But I couldn’t leave; I had to settle with Jack and Tobitt. I owed it to Clifton and Tarp and the others. I had to hold on … and then I had an idea that shook me profoundly: You don’t have to worry about the people. If they tolerate Rinehart, then they will forget it and even with them you are invisible. It lasted only the fraction of a second and I rejected it immediately; still it had flashed across the dark sky of my mind. It was just like that. It didn’t matter because they didn’t realize just what had happened, neither my hope nor my failure. My ambition and integrity were nothing to them and my failure was as meaningless as Clifton’s. It had been that way all along. Only in the Brotherhood had there seemed a chance for such as us, the mere glimmer of a light, but behind the polished and humane

fa?de of Jack’s eye I’d found an amorphous form and a harsh red rawness. And even that was without meaning except for me.

Well, I was and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen. It was frightening and as I sat there I sensed another frightening world of possibilities. For now I saw that I could agree with Jack without agreeing. And I could tell Harlem to have hope when there was no hope. Perhaps I could tell them to hope until I found the basis of something real, some firm ground for action that would lead them onto the plane of history. But until then I would have to move them without myself being moved . . . I’d have to do a Rinehart.

I leaned against a stone wall along the park, thinking of Jack and Hambro and of the day’s events and shook with rage. It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle! They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many, worked on certain jobs, offered so many votes, and provided so many marchers for some protest parade of theirs! I leaned there, aching to humiliate them, to refute them. And now all past humiliations became precious parts of my experience, and for the first time, leaning against that stone wall in the sweltering night, I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I’d learned suddenly to look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me. I was my experiences and my experiences were me, and no blind men, no matter how powerful they became, even if they conquered the world, could take that, or change one single itch, taunt, laugh, cry, scar, ache, rage or pain of it. They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves and I’d help them. I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men . . . For all they were concerned, we were so many names scribbled on fake ballots, to be used at their convenience and when not needed to be filed away. It was a joke, an absurd joke. And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emerson merge into one single white figure. They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me. I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. I had switched from the arrogant absurdity of Norton and Emerson to that of Jack and the Brotherhood, and it all came out the same — except I now recognized my invisibility.

So I’d accept it, I’d explore it, rine and heart. I’d plunge into it with both feet and they’d gag. Oh, but wouldn’t they gag. I didn’t know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I’d overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I’d let them swallow me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them choke on it. That was one risk they hadn’t calculated. That was a risk they had never dreamt of in their philosophy. Nor did they know that they could discipline themselves to destruction, that saying “yes” could destroy them. Oh, I’d yes them, but wouldn’t I yes them! I’d yes them till they puked and rolled in it. All they wanted of me was one belch of affirmation and I’d bellow it out loud. Yesl Yes! YES! That was all anyone wanted of us, that we should be heard and not seen, and then heard only in one big optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh! All right, I’d yea, yea and oui, oui and si, si and see, see them too; and I’d walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots. Even those super-big shots whom I’d never seen at committee meetings. They wanted a machine? Very well, I’d become a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions, and just to hold their confidence I’d try to be right part of the time. Oh, I’d serve them well and I’d make invisibility felt if not seen, and they’d learn that it could be as polluting as a decaying body, or a piece of bad meat in a stew. And if I got hurt? Very well again. Besides, didn’t they believe in sacrifice? They were the subtle thinkers — would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? Could they recognize choice in that which wasn’t seen . . . ?

The more I thought of it the more I fell into a kind of morbid fascination with the possibility. Why hadn’t I discovered it sooner? How different my life might have been! How terribly different! Why hadn’t I seen the possibilities? If a sharecropper could attend college by working during the summers as a waiter and factory hand or as a musician and then graduate to become a doctor, why couldn’t all those things be done at one and the same time? And wasn’t that old slave a scientist — or at least called one,

recognized as one — even when he stood with hat in hand, bowing and scraping in senile and obscene servility? My God, what possibilities existed! And that spiral business, that progress goo! Who knew all the secrets; hadn’t I changed my name and never been challenged even once? And that lie that success was a rising upward. What a crummy lie they kept us dominated by. Not only could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downward as well; up and down, in retreat as well as in advance, crabways and crossways and around in a circle, meeting your old selves coming and going and perhaps all at the same time. How could I have missed it for so long? Hadn’t I grown up around gambler-politicians, bootlegger-judges and sheriffs who were burglars; yes, and Klansmen who were preachers and members of humanitarian societies? Hell, and hadn’t Bledsoe tried to tell me what it was all about? I felt more dead than alive. It had been quite a day; one that could not have been more shattering even if I had learned that the man whom I’d always called father was actually of no relation to me.

I went to the apartment and fell across the bed in my clothes. It was hot and the fan did little more than stir the heat in heavy leaden waves, beneath which I lay twirling the dark glasses and watching the hypnotic flickering of the lenses as I tried to make plans. I would hide my anger and lull them to sleep; assure them that the community was in full agreement with their program. And as proof I would falsify the attendance records by filling out membership cards with fictitious names — all unemployed, of course, so as to avoid any question of dues. Yes, and I would move about the community by night and during times of danger by wearing the white hat and the dark glasses. It was a dreary prospect but a means of destroying them, at least in Harlem. I saw no possibility of organizing a splinter movement, for what would be the next step? Where would we go? There were no allies with whom we could join as equals; nor were there time or theorists available to work out an over-all program of our own — although I felt that somewhere between Rinehart and invisibility there were great potentialities. But we had no money, no intelligence apparatus, either in government, business or labor unions; and no communications with our own people except through unsympathetic newspapers, a few Pullman porters who brought provincial news from distant cities and a group of domestics who reported the fairly uninteresting private lives of their employers. If only we had some true

friends, some who saw us as more than convenient tools for shaping their own desires! But to hell with that, I thought, I would remain and become a well-disciplined optimist, and help them to go merrily to hell. If I couldn’t help them to see the reality of our lives I would help them to ignore it until it exploded in their faces.

Only one thing bothered me: Since I now knew that their real objectives were never revealed at committee meetings I needed some channel of intelligence through which I could learn what actually guided their operations. But how? If only I had resisted being shifted downtown I would now have enough support in the community to insist that they reveal themselves. Yes, but if I hadn’t been shifted, I would still be living in a world of illusion. But now that I had found the thread of reality, how could I hold on? They seemed to have me blocked at every turn, forcing me to fight them in the dark. Finally I tossed the glasses across the bed and dropped into a fitful nap during which I relived the events of the last few days; except that instead ot Clifton being lost it was myself, and I awoke stale, sweaty and aware of perfume.

I lay on my stomach, my head resting upon the back of my hand thinking, where is it coming from? And just as I caught sight ot the glasses I remembered grasping Rinehart’s girl’s hand. I lay there unmoving, and she seemed to perch on the bed, a bright-eyed bird with her glossy head and ripe breasts, and I was in a wood afraid to frighten the bird away. Then I was fully awake and the bird gone and the girl’s image in my mind. What would have happened if I had led her on, how far could I have gone? A desirable girl like that mixed up with Rinehart. And now I sat breathless, asking myself how Rinehart would have solved the problem of information and it came instantly clear: It called for a woman. A wife, a girl friend, or secretary of one ot the leaders, who would be willing to talk freely to me. My mind swept back to early experiences in the movement. Little incidents sprang to memory, bringing images of the smiles and gestures of certain women met after rallies and at parties: Dancing with Emma at the Chthonian; she close, soft against me and the hot swift focusing of my desire and my embarrassment as I caught sight of Jack holding forth in a corner, and Emma holding me tight, her bound breasts pressing against me, looking with that teasing light in her eyes saying, “Ah, temptation,” and my desperate grab for a sophisticated reply

and managing only, “Oh, but there’s always temptation,” surprising myself nevertheless and hearing her laughing, “Touche! Touche! You should come up and fence with me some afternoon.” That had been during the early days when I had felt strong restrictions and resented Emma’s boldness and her opinion that I should have been blacker to play my role of Harlem leader. Well, there were no restrictions left, the committee had seen to that. She was fair game and perhaps she’d find me black enough, after all. A committee meeting was set for tomorrow, and since it was Jack’s birthday, a party at the Chthonian would follow. Thus I would launch my two-pronged attack under the most favorable circumstance. They were forcing me to Rinehart methods, so bring on the scientists!

Chapter 24

I started yessing them the next day and it began beautifully. The community was still going apart at the seams. Crowds formed at the slightest incidents. Store windows were smashed and several clashes erupted during the morning between bus drivers and their passengers. The papers listed similar incidents that had exploded during the night. The mirrored fa?de of one store on 125th Street was smashed and I passed to see a group of boys watching their distorted images as they danced before the jagged glass. A group of adults looked on, refusing to move at the policemen’s command, and muttering about Clifton. I didn’t like the look of things, for all my wish to see the committee confounded.

When I reached the office, members were there with reports of clashes in other parts of the district. I didn’t like it at all; the violence was pointless and, helped along by Ras, was actually being directed against the community itself. Yet in spite of my sense of violated responsibility I was pleased by the developments and went ahead with my plan. I sent out members to mingle with crowds and try to discourage any further violence and sent an open letter to all the press denouncing them for “distorting” and inflating minor incidents.

Late that afternoon at headquarters I reported that things were quieting down and that we were getting a large part of the community interested in a clean-up campaign, which would clear all backyards, areaways, and vacant lots of garbage and trash and take Harlem’s mind off Clifton. It was such a bareface maneuver that I almost lost the confidence of my invisibility even as I stood before them. But they loved it, and when I handed in my fake list of new members they responded with enthusiasm. They were vindicated; the program was correct, events were progressing in their predetermined direction, history was on their side, and Harlem loved them. I sat there smiling inwardly as I listened to the remarks that followed. I could see the role which I was to play as plainly as I saw Jack’s red hair. Incidents of my past, both recognized and ignored, sprang together in my mind in an ironic leap of consciousness that was like looking around a corner. I was to be a justifier, my task would be to deny the unpredictable human element of all Harlem so that they could ignore it when it in any way interfered with their plans. I was to keep ever before them the picture of a bright, passive, good-humored, receptive mass ever willing to accept their every scheme. When situations arose in which others would respond with righteous anger I would say that we were calm and unruffled (if it suited them to have us angry, then it was simple enough to create anger for us by stating it in their propaganda; the facts were unimportant, unreal); and if other people were confused by their maneuvering I was to reassure them that we pierced to the truth with x-ray insight. If other groups were interested in becoming wealthy, I was to assure the Brothers and the doubting members of other districts, that we rejected wealth as corrupt and intrinsically degrading; if other minorities loved the country despite their grievances, I would assure the committee that we, immune to such absurdly human and mixed reactions, hated it absolutely; and, greatest contradiction of all, when they denounced the American scene as corrupt and degenerate, I was to say that we, though snarled inextricably within its veins and sinews, were miraculously healthy. Yessuh, yessuh! Though invisible I would be their assuring voice of denial; I’d out-Tobitt Tobitt, and as for that outhouse Wrestrum — well. As I sat there one of them was inflating my faked memberships into meanings of national significance. An illusion was creating a counter-illusion. Where would it end? Did they believe their own propaganda?

Afterwards at the Chthonian it was like old times. Jack’s birthday was an occasion for champagne and the hot, dog-day evening was even more volatile than usual. I felt highly confident, but here my plan went slightly wrong. Emma was quite gay and responsive, but something about her hard, handsome face warned me to lay off. I sensed that while she might willingly surrender herself (in order to satisfy herself) she was far too sophisticated and skilled in intrigue to compromise her position as Jack’s mistress by revealing anything important to me. So as I danced and sparred with Emma I looked over the party for a second choice.

We were thrown together at the bar. Her name was Sybil and she was one of those who assumed that my lectures on the woman question were based upon a more intimate knowledge than the merely political and had indicated several times a willingness to know me better. I had always pretended not to understand, for not only had my first such experience taught me to avoid such situations, but at the Chthonian she was usually slightly tipsy and wistful — just the type of misunderstood married woman whom, even if I had been interested, I would have avoided like the plague. But now her unhappiness and the fact that she was one of the big shot’s wives made her a perfect choice. She was very lonely and it went very smoothly. In the noisy birthday party — which was to be followed by a public celebration the next evening — we weren’t noticed, and when she left fairly early in the evening I saw her home. She felt neglected and he was always busy, and when I left her I had arranged a rendezvous at my apartment for the following evening. George, the husband, would be at the birthday celebration and she wouldn’t be missed.

It was a hot dry August night. Lightning flashed across the eastern sky and a breathless tension was in the humid air. I had spent the afternoon preparing, leaving the office on a pretense of illness to avoid having to attend the celebration. I had neither itch nor etchings, but there was a vase of Chinese lilies in the living room, and another of American Beauty roses on the table near the bed; and I had put in a supply of wine, whiskey and liqueur, extra ice cubes, and assortments of fruit, cheese, nuts, candy and other delicacies from the Vendome. In short, I tried to manage things as I imagined Rinehart would have done.

But I bungled it from the beginning. I made the drinks too strong –which she liked too well; and I brought up politics — which she all but hated — too early in the evening. For all her exposure to ideology she had no interest in politics and no idea of the schemes that occupied her husband night and day. She was more interested in the drinks, in which I had to join her glass for glass, and in little dramas which she had dreamed up around the figures of Joe Louis and Paul Robeson. And, although I had neither the stature nor the temperament for either role, I was expected either to sing “Old Man River” and just keep rolling along, or to do fancy tricks with my muscles. I was confounded and amused and it became quite a contest, with me trying to keep the two of us in touch with reality and with her casting me in fantasies in which I was Brother Taboo-with-whom-all-things-are-possible.

Now it was late and as I came into the room with another round of drinks she had let down her hair and was beckoning to me with a gold hairpin in her teeth, saying, “Come to mamma, beautiful,” from where she sat on the bed.

“Your drink, madame,” I said, handing her a glass and hoping the fresh drink would discourage any new ideas.

“Come on, dear,” she said coyly. “I want to ask you something.” “What is it?” I said.

“I have to whisper it, beautiful.”

I sat and her lips came close to my ear. And suddenly she had drained the starch out of me. I pulled away. There was something almost prim about the way she sat there, and yet she had just made a modest proposal that I join her in a very revolting ritual.

“What was that!” I said, and she repeated it. Had life suddenly become a crazy Thurber cartoon?

“Please, you’ll do that for me, won’t you, beautiful?” “You really mean it?”

“Yes,” she said, “yes!”

There was a pristine incorruptibility about her face now that upset me all the more, for she was neither kidding nor trying to insult me; and I

could not tell if it were horror speaking to me ont of innocence, or innocence emerging unscathed from the obscene scheme of the evening. I only knew that the whole affair was a mistake. She had no information and I decided to get her out of the apartment before I had to deal definitely with either the horror or the innocence, while I could still deal with it as a joke. What would Rinehart do about this, I thought, and knowing, determined not to let her provoke me to violence.

“But, Sybil, you can see I’m not like that. You make me feel a tender, protective passion — Look, it’s like an oven in here, why don’t we get dressed and go for a walk in Central Park?”

“But I need it,” she said, uncrossing her thighs and sitting up eagerly. “You can do it, it’ll be easy for you, beautiful. Threaten to kill me if I don’t give in. You know, talk rough to me, beautiful. A friend of mine said the fellow said, ‘Drop your drawers’ . . . and –“

“He said what!” I said. “He really did,” she said.

I looked at her. She was blushing, her cheeks, even her freckled bosom, were bright red.

“Go on,” I said, as she lay back again. “Then what happened?”

“Well . . . he called her a filthy name,” she said, hesitating coyly. She was a leathery old girl with chestnut hair of fine natural wave which was now fanned out over the pillow. She was blushing quite deeply. Was this meant to excite me, or was it an unconscious expression of revulsion?

“A really filthy name,” she said. “Oh, he was a brute, huge, with white teeth, what they call a ‘buck.’ And he said, ‘Bitch, drop your drawers,’ and then he did it. She’s such a lovely girl, too, really delicate with a complexion like strawberries and cream. You can’t imagine anyone calling her a name like that.”

She sat up now, her elbows denting the pillow as she looked into my face.

“But what happened, did they catch him?” I said.

“Oh, of course not, beautiful, she only told two of us girls. She couldn’t afford to let her husband hear of it. He . . . well, it’s too long a story.”

“It’s terrible,” I said. “Don’t you think we should go . . . ?”

“Isn’t it, though? She was in a state for months . . .” her expression flickered, became indeterminate.

“What is it?” I said, afraid she might cry.

“Oh, I was just wondering how she really felt. I really do.” Suddenly she looked at me mysteriously. “Can I trust you with a deep secret?”

I sat up. “Don’t tell me that it was you.”

She smiled, “Oh, no, that was a dear friend of mine. But do you know what, beautiful,” she said leaning forward confidentially, “I think I’m a nymphomaniac.”

“You? Noooo!”

“Uh huh. Sometimes I have such thoughts and dreams. I never give into them though, but I really think I am. A woman like me has to develop an iron discipline.”

I laughed inwardly. She would soon be a biddy, stout, with a little double chin and a three-ply girdle. A thin gold chain showed around a thickening ankle. And yet I was becoming aware of something warmly, infuriatingly feminine about her. I reached out, stroking her hand. “Why do you have such ideas about yourself?” I said, seeing her raise up and pluck at the corner of the pillow, drawing out a speckled feather and stripping the down from its shaft.

“Repression,” she said with great sophistication. “Men have repressed us too much. We’re expected to pass up too many human things. But do you know another secret?”

I bowed my head.

“You don’t mind my going on, do you, beautiful?” “No, Sybil.”

“Well, ever since I first heard about it, even when I was a very little girl, I’ve wanted it to happen to me.”

“You mean what happened to your friend?” “Uh huh.”

“Good Lord, Sybil, did you ever tell that to anyone else?” “Of course not, I wouldn’t’ve dared. Are you shocked?” “Some. But Sybil, why do you tell me?”

“Oh, I know that I can trust you. I just knew you’d understand; you’re not like other men. We’re kind of alike.”

She was smiling now and reached out and pushed me gently, and I thought, here it goes again.

“Lie back and let me look at you against that white sheet. You’re beautiful, I’ve always thought so. Like warm ebony against pure snow — see what you do, you make me talk poetry. ‘Warm ebony against pure snow,’ isn’t that poetic?”

“I’m the sensitive type, you musn’t make fun of me.”

“But really you are, and I feel so free with you. You’ve no idea.”

I looked at the red imprint left by the straps of her bra, thinking, Who’s taking revenge on whom? But why be surprised, when that’s what they hear all their lives. When it’s made into a great power and they’re taught to worship all types of power? With all the warnings against it, some are bound to want to try it out for themselves. The conquerors conquered. Maybe a great number secretly want it; maybe that’s why they scream when it’s farthest from possibility —

“That’s it,” she said tightly. “Look at me like that; just like you want to tear me apart. I love for you to look at me like that!”

I laughed and touched her chin. She had me on the ropes; I felt punch drunk, I couldn’t deliver and I couldn’t be angry either. I thought of lecturing her on the respect due one’s bedmate in our society, but I no longer deluded myself that I either knew the society or where I fitted into it. Besides, I thought, she thinks you’re an entertainer. That’s something else they’re taught.

I raised my glass and she joined me in a drink, moving close.

“You will, won’t you, beautiful?” she said, her lips, raw-looking now without makeup, pouting babyishly. So why not entertain her, be a gentleman, or whatever it is she thinks you are — What does she think you are? A domesticated rapist, obviously, an expert on the woman question. Maybe that’s what you are, house-broken and with a convenient verbal push-button arrangement for the ladies’ pleasure. Well, so I had set this trap for myself.

“Take this,” I said, shoving another glass into her hand. “It’ll be better after you’ve had a drink, more realistic.”

“Oh, yes, that’ll be wonderful.” She took a drink and looked up thoughtfully. “I get so tired of living the way I do, beautiful. Soon I’ll be old and nothing will’ve happened to me. Do you know what that means? George

talks a lot about women’s rights, but what does he know about what a woman needs? Him with his forty minutes of brag and ten of bustle. Oh, you have no idea what you’re doing for me.”

“Nor you for me, Sybil dear,” I said, filling the glass again. At last my drinks were beginning to work.

She shook her long hair out over her shoulders and crossed her knees, watching me. Her head had begun to weave.

“Don’t drink too much, beautiful,” she said. “It always takes the pep out of George.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I rapes real good when I’m drunk.”

She looked startled. “Ooooh, then pour me another,” she said, giving herself a bounce. She was as delighted as a child, holding out her glass eagerly.

“What’s happening here,” I said, “a new birth of a nation?” “What’d you say, beautiful?”

“Nothing, a bad joke. Forget it.”

“That’s what I like about you, beautiful. You haven’t told me a single one of those vulgar jokes. Come on, beautiful,” she said, “pour.”

I poured her another and another; in fact, I poured us both quite a few. I was far away; it wasn’t happening to me or to her and I felt a certain confused pity which I didn’t wish to feel. Then she looked at me, her eyes bright behind narrowed lids and raised up and struck me where it hurt.

“Come on, beat me, daddy — you — you big black bruiser. What’s taking you so long?” she said. “Hurry up, knock me down! Don’t you want me?”

I was annoyed enough to slap her. She lay aggressively receptive, flushed, her navel no goblet but a pit in an earth-quaking land, flexing taut and expansive. Then she said, “Come on, come on!” and I said, “Sure, sure,” looking around wildly and starting to pour the drink upon her and was stopped, my emotions locked, as I saw her lipstick lying on the table and grabbed it, saying, “Yes, yes,” as I bent to write furiously across her belly in drunken inspiration:



and paused there, trembling above her, my knees on the bed as she waited with unsteady expectancy. It was a purplish metallic shade of lipstick and as she panted with anticipation the letters stretched and quivered, up hill and down dale, and she was lit up like a luminescent sign.

“Hurry, boo’ful, hurry,” she said.

I looked at her, thinking, Just wait until George sees that — if George ever gets around to seeing that. He’ll read a lecture on an aspect of the woman question he’s never thought about. She lay anonymous beneath my eyes until I saw her face, shaped by her emotion which I could not fulfill, and I thought, Poor Sybil, she picked a boy for a man’s job and nothing was as it was supposed to be. Even the black bruiser fell down on the job. She’d lost control of her liquor now and suddenly I bent and kissed her upon the lips.

“Shhh, be quiet,” I said, “that’s no way to act when you’re being –” and she raised her lips for more and I kissed her again and calmed her and she dozed off and I decided again to end the farce. Such games were for Rinehart, not me. I stumbled out and got a damp towel and began rubbing out the evidence of my crime. It was as tenacious as sin and it took some time. Water wouldn’t do it, whiskey would have smelled and finally I had to find benzine. Fortunately she didn’t arouse until I was almost finished.

“D’you do it, boo’ful?” she said.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Isn’t that what you wanted?” “Yes, but I don’t seem t’remember . . .”

I looked at her and wanted to laugh. She was trying to see me but her eyes wouldn’t focus am aer head kept swinging to one side, yet she was making a real effort, and suddenly I felt lighthearted.

“By the way,” I said, trying to do something with her hair, “what’s your name, lady?”

“It’s Sybil,” she said indignantly, almost tearfully. “Boo’ful, you know I’m Sybil.”

“Not when I grabbed you, I didn’t.”

Her eyes widened and a smile wobbled across her face.

“That’s right, you couldn’t, could you? You never saw me before.” She was delighted, I could almost see the idea take form in her mind.

“That’s right,” I said. “I leaped straight out of the wall. I overpowered you in the empty lobby — remember? I smothered your terrified screams.”

” ‘N’ did I put up a good fight?”

“Like a lioness defending her young . . .”

“But you were such a strong big brute you made me give in. I didn’t want to, did I now, boo’ful? You forced me ‘gainst m’ will.”

“Sure,” I said, picking up some silken piece of clothing. “You brought out the beast in me. I overpowered you. But what could I do?”

She studied that a while and for a second her face worked again as though she would cry. But it was another smile that bloomed there.

“And wasn’t I a good nymphomaniac?” she said, watching me closely. “Really and truly?”

“You have no idea,” I said. “George had better keep an eye on you.” She twisted herself from side to side with irritation. “Oh, nuts! That

ole Georgie porgie wouldn’t know a nymphomaniac if she got right into bed with him!”

“You’re wonderful,” I said. “Tell me about George. Tell me about that great master mind of social change.”

She steadied her gaze, frowning. “Who, Georgie?” she said, looking at me out of one bleary eye. “Georgie’s blind ‘sa mole in a hole ‘n doesn’t know a thing about it. ‘D you ever hear of such a thing, fifteen years! Say, what’re you laughing at, boo’ful?”

“Me,” I said, beginning to roar, “just me . . .”

“I’ve never seen anyone laugh like you, boo’ful. It’s wonderful!”

I was slipping her dress over her head now and her voice came muffled through the shantung cloth. Then I had it down around her hips and her flushed face wavered through the collar, her hair down in disorder again.

“Boo’ful,” she said, blowing the word, “will you do it again sometimes?”

I stepped away and looked at her. “What?”

“Please, pretty boo’ful, please,” she said with a wobbly smile. I began to laugh, “Sure,” I said, “sure . . .”

“When, boo’ful, when?”

“Any time,” I said. “How about every Thursday at nine?”

“Oooooh, boo’ful,” she said, giving me an old-fashioned hug. “I’ve never seen anyone like you.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Really, I haven’t, boo’ful . . . Honor bright . . . believe me?”

“Sure, it’s good to be seen, but we’ve got to go now,” I said seeing her about to sag to the bed.

She pouted. “I need a lil nightcap, boo’ful,” she said. “You’ve had enough,” I said.

“Ah, boo’ful, jus’ one . . .” “Okay, just one.”

We had another drink and I looked at her and felt the pity and self-disgust returning and was depressed.

She looked at me gravely, her head to one side.

“Boo’ful,” she said, “you know what lil ole Sybil thinks? She thinks you’re trying to get rid of her.”

I looked at her out of a deep emptiness and refilled her glass and mine. What had I done to her, allowed her to do? Had all of it filtered down to me? My action . . . my — the painful word formed as disconnectedly as her wobbly smile — my responsibility? All of it? I’m invisible. “Here,” I said, “drink.”

“You too, boo’ful,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. She moved into my arms.

I MUST have dozed. There came the tinkling of ice in a glass, the shrill of bells. I felt profoundly sad, as though winter had fallen during the hour. She lay, her chestnut hair let down, watching through heavy-lidded, blue, eye-shadowed eyes. From far away a new sound arose.

“Don’t answer, boo’ful,” she said, her voice coming through suddenly, out of time with the working of her mouth.

“What?” I said.

“Don’t answer, let’er ring,” she said, reaching her red-nailed fingers forth.

I took it from her hands, understanding now. “Don’t, boo’ful,” she said.

It rang again in my hand now and for no reason at all the words of a childhood prayer spilled through my mind like swift water. Then: “Hello,” I said.

It was a frantic, unrecognizable voice from the district. “Brother, you better get up here right away –” it said.

“I’m ill,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s trouble, Brother, and you’re the only one who can –” “What kind of trouble?”

“Bad trouble, Brother; they trying to –“

Then the harsh sound of breaking glass, distant, brittle and fine, followed by a crash, and the line went dead.

“Hello,” I said, seeing Sybil wavering before me, her lips saying, “Boo’ful.”

I tried to dial now, hearing the busy signal throbbing back at me: Amen-Amen-Amen Ah man; and I sat there a while. Was it a trick? Did they know she was with me? I put it down. Her eyes were looking at me from out of their blue shadow. “Boo –“

And now I stood and pulled her arm. “Let’s go, Sybil. They need me uptown” — realizing only then that I would go.

‘”No,” she said. s'”But yes. Come.”

She fell back upon the bed defying me. I released her arms and looked around, my head unclear. What kind of trouble at this hour? Why should I go? She watched me, her eyes brightly awash in blue shadow. My heart felt low and deeply sad.

“Come back, boo’ful,” she said. “No, let’s get some air,” I said.

And now, avoiding the red, oily nails I gripped her wrists and pulled her up, toward the door. We tottered, her lips brushing mine as we wavered there. She clung to me and, for an instant, I to her with a feeling immeasurably sad. Then she hiccupped and I looked vacantly back into the room. The light caught in the amber liquid of our glasses.

“Boo’ful,” she said, “life could be so diff’rent –“

“But it never is,” I said. She said, “Boo’ful.”

The fan whirred. And in a corner, my brief case, covered with specks of dust like memories — the night of the battle royal. I felt her breathing hot against me and pushed her gently away, steadying her against the door frame, then went over as impulsively as the remembered prayer, and got the brief case, brushing the dust against my leg and feeling the unexpected weight as I hugged it beneath my arm. Something clinked inside.

She watched me still, her eyes alight as I took her arm. “How’re you doing, Syb?” I said.

“Don’t go, boo’ful,” she said. “Let Georgie do it. No speeches tonight.” “Come on,” I said, taking her arm quite firmly, pulling her along as she sighed, her wistful face turned toward me.

We went down smoothly into the street. My head was still badly fuzzed from the drink, and when I looked down the huge emptiness of the dark I felt like tears . . . What was happening uptown? Why should I worry over bureaucrats, blind men? I am invisible. I stared down the quiet street, feeling her stumbling beside me, humming a little tune; something fresh, na?e and carefree. Sybil, my too-late-too-early love . . . Ah! My throat throbbed. The heat of the street clung close. I looked for a taxi but none was passing. She hummed beside me, her perfume unreal in the night. We moved into the next block and still no taxis. Her high heels unsteadily scrunched the walk. I stopped her.

“Poor boo’ful,” she said. “Don’t know his name . . .” I turned as though struck. “What?”

“Anonymous brute ‘n boo’ful buck,” she said, her mouth a bleary smile.

I looked at her, skittering about on high heels, scrunch, scrunch on the walk.

“Sybil,” I said, more to myself than to her, “where will it end?” Something told me to go.

“Aaaah,” she laughed, “in bed. Don’t go up, boo’ful, Sybil’ll tuck you in.”

I shook my head. The stars were there, high, high, revolving. Then I closed my eyes and they sailed red behind my lids; then somewhat steadied I took her arm.

“Look, Sybil,” I said, “stand here a minute while I go over to Fifth for a taxi. Stand right here, dear, and hold on.”

We tottered before an ancient-looking building, its windows dark. Huge Greek medallions showed in spots of light upon its fa?de, above a dark labyrinthine pattern in the stone, and I propped her against the stoop with its carved stone monster. She leaned there, her hair wild, looking at me in the street light, smiling. Her face kept swinging to one side, her right eye desperately closed.

“Sure, boo’ful, sure,” she said.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, backing away. “Boo’ful,” she called, “My boo’ful.”

Hear the true affection, I thought, the adoration of the Boogie Bear, moving away. Was she calling me beautiful or boogieful, beautiful or sublime . . . What’d either mean? I am invisible . . .

I went on through the late street quiet, hoping that a cab would pass before I had gone all the way. Up ahead at Fifth the lights were bright, a few cars shooting across the gaping mouth of the street and above and beyond, the trees — great, dark, tall. What was going on, I pondered. Why call for me so late — and who?

I hurried ahead, my feet unsteady.

“Booo’ful,” she called behind me, “boooooo’ful!”

I waved without looking back. Never again, no more, no more. I went on.

At Fifth a cab passed and I tried to hail it, only to hear someone’s voice arise, the sound floating gaily by. I looked up the lighted avenue for another, hearing suddenly the screech of brakes and turning to see the cab stop and a white arm beckoning. The cab reversed, rolled close, settling with a bounce. I laughed. It was Sybil. I stumbled forward, came to the door. She smiled out at me, her head, framed in the window, still pulling to one side, her hair waving down.

“Get in, boo’ful, ‘n take me to Harlem . . .”

I shook my head, feeling it heavy and sad. “No,” I said, “I’ve got work to do, Sybil. You’d better go home . . .”

“No, boo’ful, take me with you.”

I turned to the driver, my hand upon the door. He was small, dark-haired and disapproving, a glint of red from the traffic light coloring the tip of his nose.

“Look,” I said, “take her home.”

I gave him the address and my last five-dollar bill. He took it, glumly disapproving.

“No, boo’ful,” she said, “I want to go to Harlem, be with you!” “Good night,” I said, stepping back from the curb.

We were in the middle of the block and I saw them pull away.

“No,” she said, “no, boo’ful. Don’t leave . . .” Her face, wild-eyed and white, showed in the door. I stood there, watching him plunge swiftly and contemptuously out of sight, his tail light as red as his nose.

I walked with eyes closed, seeming to float and trying to clear my head, then opened them and crossed to the park side, along the cobbles. High above, the cars sailed round and round the drive, their headlights stabbing. All the taxies were hired, all going downtown. Center of gravity. I plodded on, my head awhirl.

Then near 110th Street I saw her again. She was waiting beneath a street lamp, waving. I wasn’t surprised; I had become fatalistic. I came up slowly, hearing her laugh. She was ahead of me and beginning to run, barefoot, loosely, as in a dream. Running. Unsteadily but swift and me surprised and unable to catch up, lead-legged, seeing her ahead and calling, “Sybil, Sybil!” running lead-legged along the park side.

“Come on, boo’ful,” she called, looking back and stumbling. “Catch Sybil . . . Sybil,” running barefoot and girdleless along the park.

I ran, the brief case heavy beneath my arm. Something told me I had to get to the office . . . “Sybil, wait!” I called.

She ran, the colors of her dress flaring flamelike in the bright places of the dark. A rustling motion, legs working awkwardly beneath her and white heels flashing, her skirts held high. Let her go, I thought. But now she was crossing the street and running wildly only to go down at the curb and standing and going down again, with a bumped backside, completely unsteady, now that her momentum was gone.

“Boo’ful,” she said as I came up. “Damn, boo’ful, you push me?”

“Get up,” I said without anger. “Get up,” taking her soft arm. She

stood, her arms flung wide for an embrace.

“No,” I said, “this isn’t Thursday. I’ve got to get there . . . What do they plan for me, Sybil?”

“Who, boo’ful?”

“Jack and George . . . Tobitt and all?”

“You ran me down, boo’ful,” she said. “Forget them . . . bunch of dead-heads . . . unhipped, y’know. We didn’t make this stinking world, boo’ful. Forget –“

I saw the taxi just in time, approaching swiftly from the corner, a double-decker bus looming two blocks behind. The cabbie looked over, his head out of the window, sitting high at the wheel as he made a swift U-turn and came alongside. His face was shocked, disbelieving.

“Come now, Sybil,” I said, “and no tricks.”

“Pardon me, old man,” the driver said, his voice concerned, “but you’re not taking her up in Harlem are you?”

“No, the lady’s going downtown,” I said. “Get in Sybil.”

“Boo’ful’s ‘n ole dictator,” she said to the driver, who looked at me silently, as though I were mad.

“A game stud,” he muttered, “a most game stud!” But she got in.

“Just ‘n ole dictator, boo’ful.”

“Look,” I told him, “take her straight home and don’t let her get out of the cab. I don’t want her running around Harlem. She’s precious, a great lady –“

“Sure, man, I don’t blame you,” he said. “Things is popping up there.”

The cab was already rolling as I yelled, “What’s going on?”

“They’re taking the joint apart,” he called above the shifting of the gears. I watched them go and made for the bus stop. This time I’ll make sure, I thought, stepping out and flagging the bus and getting on. If she comes back, she’ll find me gone. And I knew stronger than ever that I should hurry but was still too foggy in my mind, couldn’t get myself together.

I sat gripping my brief case, my eyes closed, feeling the bus sailing swift beneath me. Soon it would turn up Seventh Avenue. Sybil, forgive me, I thought. The bus rolled.

But when I opened my eyes we were turning into Riverside Drive. This too I accepted calmly, the whole night was out of joint. I’d had too many drinks. Time ran fluid, invisible, sad. Looking out I could see a ship moving upstream, its running lights bright points in the night. The cool sea smell came through to me, constant and thick in the swiftly unfolding blur of anchored boats, dark water and lights pouring past. Across the river was Jersey and I remembered my entry into Harlem. Long past, I thought, long past. I was as if drowned in the river.

To my right and ahead the church spire towered high, crowned with a red light of warning. And now we were passing the hero’s tomb and I recalled a visit there. You went up the steps and inside and you looked far below to find him, at rest, draped flags . . .

One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street came quickly. I stumbled off, hearing the bus pull away as I faced the water. There was a light breeze, but now with the motion gone the heat returned, clinging. Far ahead in the dark I saw the monumental bridge, ropes of lights across the dark river; and closer, high above the shoreline, the Palisades, their revolutionary agony lost in the riotous lights of roller coasters. “The Time Is Now . . .” the sign across the river began, but with history stomping upon me with hobnailed boots, I thought with a laugh, why worry about time? I crossed the street to the drinking fountain, feeling the water cooling, going down, then dampened a handkerchief and swabbed my face, eyes. The water flashed, gurgled, sprayed. I pressed forward my face, feeling wet cool, hearing the infant joy of fountains. Then heard the other sound. It was not the river nor the curving cars that flashed through the dark, but pitched like a distant crowd or a swift river at floodtide.

I moved forward, found the steps and started down. Below the bridge lay the hard stone river of the street, and for a second I looked at the waves of cobblestones as though I expected water, as though the fountain above had drawn from them. Still I would enter and go across to Harlem. Below the steps the trolley rails gleamed steely. I hurried, the sound drawing closer, myriad-voiced, humming, enfolding me, numbing the air, as I started beneath the ramp. It came, a twitter, a coo, a subdued roar that seemed trying to tell me something, give me some message. I stopped, looking around me; the girders marched off rhythmically into the dark, over the cobblestones the red lights shone. Then I was beneath the bridge and it was as though they had been waiting for me and no one but me — dedicated and set aside for me –for an eternity. And I looked above toward the sound, my mind forming an image of wings, as something struck my face and streaked, and I could smell the foul air now, and see the encrusted barrage, feeling it streak my jacket and raising my brief case above my head and running, hearing it splattering around, falling like rain. I ran the gantlet, thinking, even the birds; even the pigeons and the sparrows and the goddam gulls! I ran blindly, boiling with outrage and despair and harsh laughter. Running from the birds to what, I didn’t know. I ran. Why was I here at all?

I ran through the night, ran within myself. Ran.

Chapter 25

When I reached Morningside the shooting sounded like a distant celebration of the Fourth of July, and I hurried forward. At St. Nicholas the street lights were out. A thunderous sound arose and I saw four men running toward me pushing something that jarred the walk. It was a safe.

“Say,” I began.

“Get the hell out the way!”

I leaped aside, into the street, and there was a sudden and brilliant suspension of time, like the interval between the last ax stroke and the felling of a tall tree, in which there had been a loud noise followed by a loud silence. Then I was aware of figures crouching in doorways and along the curb; then time burst and I was down in the street, conscious but unable to rise, struggling against the street and seeing the flashes as the guns went off back at the corner of the avenue, aware to my left of the men still speeding the rumbling safe along the walk as back up the street, behind me, two policemen, almost invisible in black shirts, thrust flaming pistols before them. One of the safe rollers pitched forward, and farther away, past the corner, a bullet struck an auto tire, the released air shrieking like a huge animal in agony. I rolled, flopping around, willing myself to crawl closer to the curb but unable, feeling a sudden wet warmth upon my face and seeing the safe shooting wildly into the intersection and the men rounding the corner into the dark, pounding, gone; gone now, as the skittering safe bounded off at a tangent, shot into the intersection and lodged in the third rail and sent up a curtain of sparks that lit up the block like a blue dream; a dream I was dreaming and through which I could see the cops braced as on a target range, feet forward, free arms akimbo, firing with deliberate aim.

“Get hold of Emergency!” one of them called, and I saw them turn and disappear where the dull glint of trolley rails faded off into the dark.

Suddenly the block leaped alive. Men who seemed to rise up out of the sidewalks were rushing into the store fronts above me, their voices rising excitedly. And now the blood was in my face and I could move, getting to my knees as someone out of the crowd was helping me to stand.

“You hurt, daddy?”

“Some — I don’t know –” I couldn’t quite see them. “Damn! He’s got a hole in his head!” a voice said.

A light flashed in my face, came close. I felt a hard hand upon my skull and moved away.

“Hell, it’s just a nick,” a voice said. “One them forty-fives hit your little finger you got to go down!”

“Well, this one over here is gone down for the last time,” someone called from the walk. “They got him clean.”

I wiped my face, my head ringing. Something was missing. “Here, buddy, this yours?”

It was my brief case, extended to me by its handles. I seized it with sudden panic, as though something infinitely precious had almost been lost to me.

“Thanks,” I said, peering into their dim, blue-tinted features. I looked at the dead man. He lay face forward, the crowd working around him. I realized suddenly that it might have been me huddled there, feeling too that I had seen him there before, in the bright light of noon, long ago . . . how long? Knew his name, I thought, and suddenly my knees flowed forward. I sat there, my fist that gripped the brief case bruising against the street, my head slumped forward. They were going around me.

“Get off my foot, man,” I heard. “Quit shoving. There’s plenty for everybody.”

There was something I had to do and I knew that my forgetfulness wasn’t real, as one knows that the forgotten details of certain dreams are not truly forgotten but evaded. I knew, and in my mind I was trying to reach through the gray veil that now seemed to hang behind my eyes as opaquely as the blue curtain that screened the street beyond the safe. The dizziness left and I managed to stand, holding onto my brief case, pressing a handkerchief to my head. Up the street there sounded the crashing of huge sheets of glass and through the blue mysteriousness of the dark the walks shimmered like shattered mirrors. All the street’s signs were dead, all the day sounds had lost their stable meaning. Somewhere a burglar alarm went off, a meaningless blangy sound, followed by the joyful shouts of looters.

“Come on,” someone called nearby.

“Let’s go, buddy,” the man who had helped me said. He took my arm, a thin man who carried a large cloth bag slung over his shoulder.

“The shape you in wouldn’t do to leave you round here,” he said. “You act like you drunk.”

“Go where?” I said.

“Where? Hell, man. Everywhere. We git to moving, no telling where we might go — Hey, Dupre!” he called.

“Say, man — Goddam! Don’t be calling my name so loud,” a voice answered. “Here, I am over here, gitting me some work shirts.”

“Git some for me, Du,” he said.

“All right, but don’t think I’m your papa,” the answer came.

I looked at the thin man, feeling a surge of friendship. He didn’t know me, his help was disinterested . . .

“Hey, Du,” he called, “we go’n do it?” “Hell yes, soon as I git me these shirts.”

The crowd was working in and out of the stores like ants around spilled sugar. From time to time there came the crash of glass, shots; fire trucks in distant streets.

“How you feel?” the man said. “Still fuzzy,” I said, “and weak.”

“Le’s see if it’s stopped bleeding. Yeah, you’ll be all right.”

I saw him vaguely though his voice came clear. “Sure,” I said.

“Man, you lucky you ain’t dead. These sonsabitches is really shooting now,” he said. “Over on Lenox they was aiming up in the air. If I could find me a rifle, I’d show ’em! Here, take you a drink of this good Scotch,” he said, taking a quart bottle from a hip pocket. “I got me a whole case stashed what I got from a liquor store over there. Over there all you got to do is breathe, and you drunk, man. Drunk! Hundred proof bonded whiskey flowing all in the gutters.”

I took a drink, shuddering as the whiskey went down but thankful for the shock it gave me. There was a bursting, tearing movement of people around me, dark figures in a blue glow.

“Look at them take it away,” he said, looking into the dark action of the crowd. “Me, I’m tired. Was you over on Lenox?”

“No,” I said, seeing a woman moving slowly past with a row of about a dozen dressed chickens suspended by their necks from the handle of a new straw broom . . .

“Hell, you ought to see it, man. Everything is tore up. By now the womens is picking it clean. I saw one ole woman with a whole side of a cow on her back. Man, she was ’bout bent bowlegged trying to make it home –Here come Dupre now,” he said, breaking off.

I saw a little hard man come out of the crowd carrying several boxes. He wore three hats upon his head, and several pairs of suspenders flopped about his shoulders, and now as he came toward us I saw that he wore a pair of gleaming new rubber hip boots. His pockets bulged and over his shoulder he carried a cloth sack that swung heavily behind him.

“Damn, Dupre,” my friend said, pointing to his head, “you got one of them for me? What kind is they?”

Dupre stopped and looked at him. “With all them hats in there and I’m going to come out with anything but a Dobbs? Man, are you mad? All them new, pretty-colored Dobbs? Come on, let’s get going before the cops git back. Damn, look at that thing blaze!”

I looked toward the curtain of blue fire, through which vague figures toiled. Dupre called out and several men left the crowd and joined us in the street. We moved off, my friend (Scofield, the others called him) leading me

along. My head throbbed, still bled.

“Looks like you got you some loot too,” he said, pointing to my brief case.

“Not much,” I said, thinking, loot? Loot? And suddenly I knew why it was heavy, remembering Mary’s broken bank and the coins; and now I found myself opening the brief case and dropping all my papers — my Brotherhood identification, the anonymous letter, along with Clifton’s doll –into it.

“Fill it up, man. Don’t you be bashful. You wait till we tackle one of these pawnshops. That Du’s got him a cotton-picking sack fulla stuff. He could go into business.”

“Well, I’ll be damn,” a man on the other side of me said. “I thought that was a cotton sack. Where’d he get that thing?”

“He brought it with him when he come North,” Scofield said. “Du swears that when he goes back he’ll have it full of ten-dollar bills. Hell, after tonight he’ll need him a warehouse for all the stuff he’s got. You fill that brief case, buddy. Get yourself something!”

“No,” I said, “I’ve enough in it already.” And now I remembered very clearly where I’d started out for but could not leave them.

“Maybe you right,” Scofield said. “How I know, you might have it full of diamonds or something. A man oughtn’t to be greedy. Though it’s time something like this happened.”

We moved along. Should I leave, get on to the district? Where were they, at the birthday celebration?

“How did all this get started?” I said.

Scofield seemed surprised. “Damn if I know, man. A cop shot a woman or something.”

Another man moved close to us as somewhere a piece of heavy steel rang down.

“Hell, that wasn’t what started it,” he said. “It was that fellow, what’s his name . . . ?”

“Who?” I said. “What’s his name?” “That young guy!”

“You know, everybody’s mad about it . . .”

Clifton, I thought. It’s for Clifton. A night for Clifton.

“Aw man, don’t tell me,” Scofield said. “Didn’t I see it with my own eyes? About eight o’clock down on Lenox and 123rd this paddy slapped a kid for grabbing a Baby Ruth and the kid’s mama took it up and then the paddy slapped her and that’s when hell broke loose.”

“You were there?” I said.

“Same’s I’m here. Some fellow said the kid made the paddy mad by grabbing a candy named after a white woman.”

“Damn if that’s the way I heard it,” another man said. “When I come up they said a white woman set it oft by trying to take a black gal’s man.”

“Damn who started it,” Dupre said. “All I want is for it to last a while.”

“It was a white gal, all right, but that wasn’t the way it was. She was drunk –” another voice said.

But it couldn’t have been Sybil, I thought; it had already started. “You wahn know who started it?” a man holding a pair of binoculars

called from the window of a pawnshop. “You wahn really to know?” “Sure,” I said.

“Well, you don’t need to go no further. It was started by that great leader, Ras the Destroyer!”

“That monkey-chaser?” someone said. “Listen, bahstard!”

“Don’t nobody know how it started,” Dupre said. “Somebody has to know,” I said.

Scofield held his whiskey toward me. I refused it.

“Hell, man, it just exploded. These is dog days,” he said. “Dog days?”

“Sho, this hot weather.”

“I tell you they mad over what happen to that young fellow, what’s-his-name . . .”

We were passing a building now and I heard a voice calling frantically, “Colored store! Colored store!”

“Then put up a sign, motherfouler,” a voice said. “You probably rotten as the others.”

“Listen at the bastard. For one time in his life he’s glad to be colored,” Scofield said.

“Colored store,” the voice went on automatically. “Hey! You sho you ain’t got some white blood?” “No, sir!” the voice said.

“Should I bust him, man?”

“For what? He ain’t got a damn thing. Let the motherfouler alone.”

A few doors away we came to a hardware store. “This is the first stop, men,” Dupre said.

“What happens now?” I said.

“Who you?” he said, cocking his thrice-hatted head. “Nobody, just one of the boys –” I began.

“You sho you ain’t somebody I know?” “I’m pretty sure,” I said.

“He’s all right, Du,” said Scofield. “Them cops shot him.”

Dupre looked at me and kicked something — a pound of butter, sending it smearing across the hot street. “We fixing to do something what needs to be done,” he said. “First we gets a flashlight for everybody . . . And let’s have some organization, y’all. Don’t everybody be running over everybody else. Come on!”

“Come on in, buddy,” Scofield said.

I felt no need to lead or leave them; was glad to follow; was gripped by a need to see where and to what they would lead. And all the time the thought that I should go to the district was with me. We went inside the store, into the dark glinting with metal. They moved carefully, and I could hear them searching, sweeping objects to the floor. The cash register rang.

“Here some flashlights over here,” someone called. “How many?” Dupre said.

“Plenty, man.”

“Okay, pass out one to everybody. They got batteries?” “Naw, but there’s plenty them too, ’bout a dozen boxes.”

“Okay, give me one with batteries so I can find the buckets. Then every man get him a light.”

“Here some buckets over here,” Scofield said.

“Then all we got to find is where he keeps the oil.” “Oil?” I said.

“Coal oil, man. And hey, y’all,” he called, ‘”don’t nobody be smoking

in here.”

I stood beside Scofield listening to the noise as he took a stack of zinc buckets and passed them out. Now the store leaped alive with flashing lights and flickering shadows.

“Keep them lights down on the floor,” Dupre called. “No use letting folks see who we are. Now when you get your buckets line up and let me fill ’em.”

“Listen to ole Du lay it down — he’s a bitch, ain’t he, buddy? He always liked to lead things. And always leading me into trouble.”

“What are we getting ready to do?” I said.

“You’ll see,” Dupre said. “Hey, you over there. Come on from behind that counter and take this bucket. Don’t you see ain’t nothing in that cash register, that if it was I’d have it myself?”

Suddenly the banging of buckets ceased. We moved into the back room. By the light of a flash I could see a row of fuel drums mounted on racks. Dupre stood before them in his new hip boots and filled each bucket with oil. We moved in slow order. Our buckets filled, we filed out into the street. I stood there in the dark feeling a rising excitement as their voices played around me. What was the meaning of it all? What should I think of it, do about it?

“With this stuff,” Dupre said, “we better walk in the middle of the street. It’s just down around the corner.”

Then as we moved off a group of boys ran among us and the men started using their lights, revealing darting figures in blonde wigs, the tails of their stolen dress coats flying. Behind them in hot pursuit came a gang armed with dummy rifles taken from an Army & Navy Store. I laughed with the others, thinking: A holy holiday for Clifton.

“Put out them lights!” Dupre commanded.

Behind us came the sound of screams, laughter; ahead the footfalls of the running boys, distant fire trucks, shooting, and in the quiet intervals, the steady filtering of shattered glass. I could smell the kerosene as it sloshed from the buckets and slapped against the street.

Suddenly Scofield grabbed my arm. “Good God, look-a-yonder!”

And I saw a crowd of men running up pulling a Borden’s milk wagon, on top of which, surrounded by a row of railroad flares, a huge woman in a gingham pinafore sat drinking beer from a barrel which sat before her. The men would run furiously a few paces and stop, resting between the shafts, run a few paces and rest, shouting and laughing and drinking from a jug, as she on top threw back her head and shouted passionately in a full-throated voice of blues singer’s timbre:

If it hadn’t been for the referee,
Joe Louis woulda killed
Jim Jefferie
Free beer!!

— sloshing the dipper of beer around.

We stepped aside, amazed, as she bowed graciously from side to side like a tipsy fat lady in a circus parade, the dipper like a gravy spoon in her enormous hand. Then she laughed and drank deeply while reaching over nonchalantly with her free hand to send quart after quart ot milk crashing into the street. And all the time the men running with the wagon over the debris. Around me there were shouts of laughter and disapproval.

“Somebody better stop them fools,” Scofield said in outrage. “That’s what I call taking things too far. Goddam, how the hell they going to get her down from there after she gits fulla beer? Somebody answer me that. How they going to get her down? ‘Round here throwing away all that good milk!”

The big woman left me unnerved. Milk and beer — I felt sad, watching the wagon careen dangerously as they went around a corner. We went on, avoiding the broken bottles as now the spilling kerosene splashed into the pale spilt milk. How much has happened? Why was I torn? We moved around a corner. My head still ached.

Scofield touched my arm. “Here we is,” he said. We had come to a huge tenement building. “Where are we?” I said.

“This the place where most of us live,” he said. “Come on.”

So that was it, the meaning of the kerosene. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe they had the nerve. All the windows seemed empty. They’d blacked it out themselves. I saw now only by flash or flame.

“Where will you live?” I said, looking up, up.

“You call this living?” Scofield said. “It’s the only way to git rid of it, man . . .”

I looked for hesitation in their vague forms. They stood looking at the building rising above us, the liquid dark of the oil simmering dully in the stray flecks of light that struck their pails, bent forward, their shoulders bowed. None said “no,” by word or stance. And in the dark windows and on the roofs above I could now discern the forms of women and children.

Dupre moved toward the building.

“Now look ahere, y’all,” he said, his triple-hatted head showing grotesquely atop the stoop. “I wants all the women and chillun and the old and the sick folks brought out. And when you takes your buckets up the stairs I wants you to go clean to the top. I mean the top! And when you git there I want you to start using your flashlights in every room to make sure nobody gits left behind, then when you git ’em out start splashing coal oil. Then when you git it splashed I’m going to holler, and when I holler three times I want you to light them matches and git. After that it’s every tub on its own black bottom!”

It didn’t occur to me to interfere, or to question . . . They had a plan. Already I could see the women and children coming down the steps. A child was crying. And suddenly everyone paused, turning, looking off into the dark. Somewhere nearby an incongruous sound shook the dark, an air hammer pounding like a machine gun. They paused with the sensitivity of grazing deer, then returned to their work, the women and children once more moving.

“That’s right, y’all. You ladies move on up the street to the folks you going to stay with,” Dupre said. “And keep holt them kids!”

Someone pounded my back and I swung around, seeing a woman push past me and climb up to catch Dupre’s arm, their two figures seeming to blend as her voice arose, thin, vibrant and desperate.

“Please, Dupre,” she said, “please. You know my time’s almost here . . . you know it is. If you do it now, where am I going to go?”

Dupre pulled away and rose to a higher step. He looked down at her, shaking his thrice-hatted head. “Now git on out the way, Lottie,” he said patiently. “Why you have to start this now? We done been all over it and you know I ain’t go’n change. And lissen here, the resta y’all,” he said,

reaching into the top of his hip boot and producing a nickel-plated revolver and waving it around, “don’t think they’s going to be any mind-changing either. And I don’t aim for no arguments neither.”

“You goddam right, Dupre. We wid you!”

“My kid died from the t-bees in that deathtrap, but I bet a man ain’t no more go’n be born in there,” he said. “So now, Lottie, you go on up the street and let us mens git going.”

She stood back, crying. I looked at her, in house shoes, her breasts turgid, her belly heavy and high. In the crowd, women’s hands took her away, her large liquid eyes turned for a second toward the man in the rubber boots.

What type of man is he, what would Jack say of him? Jack. Jack! And where was he in this?

“Let’s go, buddy,” Scofield said, nudging me. I followed him, filled with a sense of Jack’s outrageous unreality. We went in, up the stairs, flashing our lights. Ahead I saw Dupre moving. He was a type of man nothing in my life had taught me to see, to understand, or respect, a man outside the scheme till now. We entered rooms littered with the signs of swift emptying. It was hot, close.

“This here’s my own apartment,” Scofield said. “And ain’t the bedbugs going to get a surprise!”

We slopped the kerosene about, upon an old mattress, along the floor; then moved into the hall, using the flashlights. From all through the building came the sounds of footsteps, of splashing oil, the occasional prayerful protest of some old one being forced to leave. The men worked in silence now, like moles deep in the earth. Time seemed to hold. No one laughed. Then from below came Dupre’s’ voice.

“Okay, mens. We got everybody out. Now starting with the top floor I want you to start striking matches. Be careful and don’t set yourself on fire . . .”

There was still some kerosene left in Scofield’s bucket and I saw him pick up a rag and drop it in; then came the sputtering of a match and I saw the room leap to flame. The heat flared up and I backed away. He stood there silhouetted against the red flare, looking into the flames, shouting.

“Goddam you rotten sonsabitches. You didn’t think I’d do it but there

it is. You wouldn’t fix it up. Now see how you like it.” “Let’s go,” I said.

Below us, men shot downstairs five and six steps at a time, moving in the weird light of flash and flame in long, dream-bounds. On each floor as I passed, smoke and flame arose. And now I was seized with a fierce sense of exaltation. They’ve done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it through alone; the decision their own and their own action. Capable of their own action . . .

There came a thunder of footfalls above me, someone calling, “Keep going man, it’s hell upstairs. Somebody done opened the door to the roof and them flames is leaping.”

“Come on,” Scofield said.

I moved, feeling something slip and was halfway down the next flight before realizing that my brief case was gone. For a second I hesitated, but I’d had it too long to leave it now.

“Come on, buddy,” Scofield called, “we caint be fooling around.” “In a second,” I said.

Men were shooting past. I bent over, holding on to the handrail and shouldered my way back up the stairs, using my flash along each step, back slowly, finding it, an oily footstep embedded with crushed pieces of plaster showing upon its leather side; getting it now and turning to bound down again. The oil won’t come off easily, I thought with a pang. But this was it, what I had known was coming around the dark corner of my mind, had known and tried to tell the committee and which they had ignored. I plunged down, shaking with fierce excitement.

At the landing I saw a bucket half full of kerosene and seized it, flinging it impulsively into a burning room. A huge puff of smoke-fringed flame filled the doorway, licking outward toward me. I ran, choking and coughing as I plunged. They did it themselves, I thought, holding my breath — planned it, organized it, applied the flame.

I burst into the air and the exploding sounds of the night, and I did not know if the voice was that of a man, woman or child, but for a moment I stood on the stoop with the red doorway behind me and heard the voice call me by my Brotherhood name.

It was as though I had been aroused from sleep and for an instant I

stood there looking, listening to the voice almost lost in the clamour of shouts, screams, burglar alarms and sirens.

“Brother, ain’t it wonderful,” it called. “You said you would lead us, you really said it . . .”

I went down into the street, going slowly but filled with a feverish inner need to be away from that voice. Where had Scofield gone?

Most of their eyes, white in the flame-flushed dark, looked toward the building.

But now I heard someone say, “Woman, who you say that is?” And she proudly repeated my name.

“Where he go? Get him, mahn, Ras wahnt him!”

I went into the crowd, walking slowly, smoothly into the dark crowd, the whole surface of my skin alert, my back chilled, looking, listening to those moving with a heaving and sweating and a burr of talk around me and aware that now that I wanted to see them, needed to see them, I could not; feeling them, a dark mass in motion on a dark night, a black river ripping through a black land; and Ras or Tarp could move beside me and I wouldn’t know. I was one with the mass, moving down the littered street over the puddles of oil and milk, my personality blasted. Then I was in the next block, dodging in and out, hearing them somewhere in the crowd behind me; moving on through the sound of sirens and burglar alarms to be swept into a swifter crowd and pushed along, half-running, half-walking, trying to see behind me and wondering where the others had gone. There was shooting back there now, and on either side of me they were throwing garbage cans, bricks and pieces of metal into plate glass windows. I moved, feeling as though a huge force was on the point of bursting. Shouldering my way to the side I stood in a doorway and watched them move, feeling a certain vindication as now I thought of the message that had brought me here. Who had called, one of the district members or someone from Jack’s birthday celebration? Who wanted me at the district after it was too late? Very well, I’d go there now. I’d see what the master minds thought now. Where were they anyway, and what profound conclusions were they drawing? What ex post facto lessons of history? And that crash over the telephone, had that been the beginning, or had Jack simply dropped his eye? I laughed drunkenly, the eruption paining my head.

Suddenly the shooting ceased and in the silence there was the sound of voices, footfalls, labor.

“Hey, buddy,” somebody said beside me, “where you going?” It was Scofield.

“It’s either run or get knocked down,” I said. “I thought you were still back there.”

“I cut out, man. A building two doors away started to burn and they had to git the fire department . . . Damn! wasn’t for this noise I’d swear those bullets was mosquitoes.”

“Watch out!” I warned, pulling him away from where a man lay propped against a post, tightening a tourniquet around his gashed arm.

Scofield flashed his light and for a second I saw the black man, his face gray with shock, watching the jetting pulsing of his blood spurting into the street. Then, compelled, I reached down and twisted the tourniquet, feeling the blood warm upon my hand, seeing the pulsing cease.

“You done stopped it,” a young man said, looking down. “Here,” I said, “you take it, hold it tight. Get him to a doctor.” “Ain’t you a doctor?”

“Me?” I said. “Me? Are you crazy? If you want him to live, get him away from here.”

“Albert done gone for one,” the boy said. “But I thought you was one. You –“

“No,” I said, looking at my bloody hands, “no, not me. You hold it tight until the doctor comes. I couldn’t cure a headache.”

I stood wiping my hands against the brief case, looking down at the big man, his back resting against the post with his eyes closed, the boy holding desperately to the tourniquet made of what had been a bright new tie.

“Come on,” I said.

“Say,” Scofield said when we were past, “wasn’t that you that woman was calling brother back yonder?”

“Brother? No, it must have been some other guy.”

“You know, man, I think I seen you before somewhere. You ever was in Memphis . . . ? Say, look what’s coming,” he said, pointing, and I looked through the dark to see a squad of white-helmeted policemen charge forward and break for shelter as a rain of bricks showered down from the building tops. Some of the white helmets, racing for the doorways, turned to fire, and I heard Scofield grunt and go down and I dropped beside him, seeing the red burst of fire and hearing the shrill scream, like an arching dive, curving from above to end in a crunching thud in the street. It was as though it landed in my stomach, sickening me, and I crouched, looking down past Scofield, who lay just ahead of me, to see the dark crushed form from the roof; and farther away, the body of a cop, his helmet making a small white luminous mound in the dark.

I moved now to see whether Scofield was hit, just as he squirmed around and cursed at the cops who were trying to rescue the one who was down, his voice furious, as he stretched full length firing away with a nickel-plated pistol like that Dupre had waved.

“Git the hell down, man,” he yelled over his shoulder. “I been wanting to blast ’em a long time.”

“No, not with that thing,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.” “Hell, man, I can shoot this thing,” he said.

I rolled behind a pile of baskets filled with rotting chickens now, and to my left, upon the littered curb, a woman and man crouched behind an upturned delivery cart.

“Dehart,” she said, “let’s get up on the hill, Dehart. Up with the respectable people!”

“Hill, hell! We stay right here,” the man said. “This thing’s just starting. If it becomes a sho ‘nough race riot I want to be here where there’ll be some fighting back.”

The words struck like bullets fired close range, blasting my satisfaction to earth. It was as though the uttered word had given meaning to the night, almost as though it had created it, brought it into being in the instant his breath vibrated small against the loud, riotous air. And in defining, in giving organization to the fury, it seemed to spin me around, and in my mind I was looking backward over the days since Clifton’s death . . . Could this be the answer, could this be what the committee had planned, the answer to why they’d surrendered our influence to Ras? Suddenly I heard the hoarse explosion of a shotgun, and looked past Scofield’s glinting pistol to the huddled form from the roof. It was suicide, without guns it was suicide, and not even the pawnshops here had guns for sale; and yet I knew with a shattering dread that the uproar which for the moment marked primarily the crash of men against things — against stores, markets — could swiftly become the crash of men against men and with most of the guns and numbers on the other side. I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude. It was not suicide, but murder. The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool. A tool just at the very moment I had thought myself free. By pretending to agree I had indeed agreed, had made myself responsible for that huddled form lighted by flame and gunfire in the street, and all the others whom now the night was making ripe for death.

The brief case swung heavy against my leg as I ran, going away, leaving Scofield cursing his lack of bullets behind me, running wildly and swinging the brief case hard against the head of a dog that leaped at me out of the crowd, sending him yelping away. To my right lay a quiet residential street with trees, and I entered it, going toward Seventh Avenue, toward the district, filled now with horror and hatred. They’ll pay, they’ll pay, I thought. They’ll pay!

The street lay dead quiet in the light of the lately risen moon, the gunfire thin and for a moment, distant. The rioting seemed in another world. For a moment I paused beneath a low, thickly leaved tree, looking down the well-kept doily-shadowed walks past the silent houses. It was as though the tenants had vanished, leaving the houses silent with all windows shaded, refugees from a rising flood. Then I heard the single footfalls coming doggedly toward me in the night, an eerie slapping sound followed by a precise and hallucinated cry —

“Time’s flying
Souls dying
The coming of the Lord
Draweth niiiiigh!”

— as though he had run for days, for years. He trotted past where I stood beneath the tree, his bare feet slapping the walk in the silence, going for a few feet and then the high, hallucinated cry beginning again.

I ran into the avenue where in the light of a flaming liquor store I saw three old women scurrying toward me with raised skirts loaded with canned goods.

“I can’t stop it just yet, but have mercy, Lord,” one of them said. “Do, Jesus, do, sweet Jesus . . .”

I moved ahead, the fumes of alcohol and burning tar in my nostrils. Down the avenue to my left a single street lamp still glowed where the long block was intersected on my right by a street, and I could see a crowd rushing a store that faced the intersection, moving in, and a fusillade of canned goods, salami, liverwurst, hogsheads and chitterlings belching out to those outside and a bag of flour bursting white upon them; as now out of the dark of the intersecting street two mounted policemen came at a gallop, heaving huge and heavy-hooved, charging straight into the swarming mass. And I could see the great forward lunge of the horses and the crowd breaking and rolling back like a wave, back, and screaming and cursing, and some laughing — back and around and out into the avenue, stumbling and pushing, as the horses, heads high and bits froth-flecked, went over the curb to land stiff-legged and slide over the cleared walk as upon ice skates and past, carried by the force of the charge, sideways now, legs stiff, sparks flying, to where another crowd looted another store. And my heart tightened as the first crowd swung imperturbably back to their looting with derisive cries, like sandpipers swinging around to glean the shore after a furious wave’s recession.

Cursing Jack and the Brotherhood I moved around a steel grill torn from the front of a pawnshop, seeing the troopers galloping back and the riders lifting the horses to charge again, grim and skillful in white steel helmets, and the charge beginning. This time a man went down and I saw a woman swinging a gleaming frying pan hard against the horse’s rump and the horse neighing and beginning to plunge. They’ll pay, I thought, they’ll pay. They came toward me as I ran, a crowd of men and women carrying cases of beer, cheese, chains of linked sausage, watermelons, sacks of sugar, hams, cornmeal, fuel lamps. If only it could stop right here, here; here before the others came with their guns. I ran.

There was no firing. But when, I thought, how long before it starts? “Git a side of bacon, Joe,” a woman called. “Git a side of bacon, Joe, git Wilson’s.”

“Lord, Lord, Lord,” a dark voice called from the dark.

I went on, plunged in a sense of painful isolation as I reached 125th Street and started east. A squad of mounted police galloped past. Men with sub-machine guns were guarding a bank and a large jewelry store. I moved out to the center of the street, running down the trolley rails.

The moon was high now and before me the shattered glass glittered in the street like the water of a flooded river upon the surface of which I ran as in a dream, avoiding by fate alone the distorted objects washed away by the flood. Then suddenly I seemed to sink, sucked under: Ahead of me the body hung, white, naked, and horribly feminine from a lamppost. I felt myself spin around with horror and it was as though I had turned some nightmarish somersault. I whirled, still moving by reflex, back-tracking and stopped and now there was another and another, seven-all hanging before a gutted storefront. I stumbled, hearing the cracking of bones underfoot and saw a physician’s skeleton shattered on the street, the skull rolling away from the backbone, as I steadied long enough to notice the unnatural stiffness of those hanging above me. They were mannequins — “Dummies!” I said aloud. Hairless, bald and sterilely feminine. And I recalled the boys in the blonde wigs, expecting the relief of laughter, but suddenly was more devastated by the humor than by the horror. But are they unreal, I thought; are they? What if one, even one is real — is . . . Sybil? I hugged my brief case, backing away, and ran . . .

They moved in a tight-knit order, carrying sticks and clubs, shotguns and rifles, led by Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer upon a great black horse. A new Ras of a haughty, vulgar dignity, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain; a fur cap upon his head, his arm bearing a shield, a cape made of the skin of some wild animal around his shoulders. A figure more out of a dream than out of Harlem, than out of even this Harlem night, yet real, alive, alarming.

“Come away from that stupid looting,” he called to a group before a store. “Come jine with us to burst in the armory and get guns and ammunition!”

And hearing his voice I opened my brief case and searched for my dark glasses, my Rineharts, drawing them out only to see the crushed lenses fall to the street. Rinehart, I thought, Rinehart! I turned. The police were back there behind me; if shooting started I’d be caught in the crossfire. I felt in my brief case, feeling papers, shattered iron, coins, my fingers closing over Tarp’s leg chain, and I slipped it over my knuckles, trying to think. I closed the flap, locking it. A new mood was settling over me as they came on, a larger crowd than Ras had ever drawn. I went calmly forward, holding the heavy case but moving with a certain new sense of self, and with it a feeling almost of relief, almost of a sigh. I knew suddenly what I had to do, knew it even before it shaped itself completely in my mind.

Someone called, “Look!” and Ras bent down from the horse, saw me and flung, of all things, a spear, and I fell forward at the movement of his arm, catching myself upon my hands as a tumbler would, and heard the shock of it piercing one of the hanging dummies. I stood, my brief case coming with me.

“Betrayer!” Ras shouted.

“It’s the brother,” someone said. They moved up around the horse excited and not quite decided, and I faced him, knowing I was no worse than he, nor any better, and that all the months of illusion and the night of chaos required but a few simple words, a mild, even a meek, muted action to clear the air. To awaken them and me.

“I am no longer their brother,” I shouted. “They want a race riot and I am against it. The more of us who are killed, the better they like –“

“Ignore his lying tongue,” Ras shouted. “Hang him up to teach the black people a lesson, and theer be no more traitors. No more Uncle Toms. Hang him up theer with them blahsted dummies!”

“But anyone can see it,” I shouted. “It’s true, I was betrayed by those who I thought were our friends — but they counted on this man, too. They needed this destroyer to do their work. They deserted you so that in your despair you’d follow this man to your destruction. Can’t you see it? They want you guilty of your own murder, your own sacrifice!”

“Grab him!” Ras shouted.

Three men stepped forward and I reached up without thinking, actually a desperate oratorical gesture of disagreement and defiance, as I shouted, “No!” But my hand struck the spear and I wrenched it free, gripping it mid-shaft, point forward. “They want this to happen,” I said. “They planned it. They want the mobs to come uptown with machine guns and rifles. They want the streets to flow with blood; your blood, black blood and white blood, so that they can turn your death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda. It’s simple, you’ve known it a long time. It goes, ‘Use a nigger to catch a nigger.’ Well, they used me to catch you and now they’re using Ras to do away with me and to prepare your sacrifice. Don’t you see it? Isn’t it clear . . . ?”

“Hang the lying traitor,” Ras shouted. “What are you waiting for?” I saw a group of men start forward.

“Wait,” I said. “Then kill me for myself, for my own mistake, then leave it there. Don’t kill me for those who are downtown laughing at the trick they played –“

But even as I spoke I knew it was no good. I had no words and no eloquence, and when Ras thundered, “Hang him!” I stood there facing them, and it seemed unreal. I faced them knowing that the madman in a foreign costume was real and yet unreal, knowing that he wanted my life, that he held me responsible for all the nights and days and all the suffering and for all that which I was incapable of controlling, and I no hero, but short and dark with only a certain eloquence and a bottomless capacity for being a fool to mark me from the rest; saw them, recognized them at last as those whom I had failed and of whom I was now, just now, a leader, though leading them, running ahead of them, only in the stripping away of my illusionment.

I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine. I stood there, knowing that by dying, that by being hanged by Ras on this street in this destructive night I would perhaps move them one fraction of a bloody step closer to a definition of who they were and of what I was and had been. But the definition would have been too narrow; I was invisible, and hanging would not bring me to visibility, even to their eyes, since they wanted my death not for myself alone but for the chase I’d been on all my life; because of the way I’d run, been run, chased, operated, purged — although to a great extent I could have done nothing else, given their blindness (didn’t they tolerate both Rinehart and Bledsoe?) and my invisibility. And that I, a little black man with an assumed name should die because a big black man in his hatred and confusion over the nature of a reality that seemed controlled solely by white men whom I knew to be as blind as he, was just too much, too outrageously absurd. And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s.

So when Ras yelled, “Hang him!” I let fly the spear and it was as though for a moment I had surrendered my life and begun to live again, watching it catch him as he turned his head to shout, ripping through both cheeks, and saw the surprised pause of the crowd as Ras wrestled with the spear that locked his jaws. Some of the men raised their guns, but they were too close to shoot and I hit the first with Tarp’s leg chain and the other in the middle with my brief case, then ran through a looted store, hearing the blanging of the burglar alarm as I scrambled over scattered shoes, upturned showcases, chairs — back to where I saw the moonlight through the rear door ahead. They came behind me like a draft of flames and I led them through and around to the avenue, and if they’d fired they could have had me, but it was important to them that they hang me, lynch me even, since that was the way they ran, had been taught to run. I should die by hanging alone, as though only hanging would settle things, even the score. So I ran expecting death between the shoulder blades or through the back of my head, and as I ran I was trying to get to Mary’s. It was not a decision of thought but something I realized suddenly while running over puddles of milk in the black street, stopping to swing the heavy brief case and the leg chain, slipping and sliding out of their hands.

If only I could turn around and drop my arms and say, “Look, men, give me a break, we’re all black folks together . . . Nobody cares.” Though now I knew we cared, they at last cared enough to act — so I thought. If only I could say, “Look, they’ve played a trick on us, the same old trick with new variations — let’s stop running and respect and love one another . . .” If only — I thought, running into another crowd now and thinking I’d gotten away, only to catch a punch on my jaw as one closed in shouting, and feeling the leg chain bounce as I caught his head and spurted forward, turning out of the avenue only to be struck by a spray of water that seemed to descend from above. It was a main that had burst, throwing a fierce curtain of spray into the night. I was going for Mary’s but I was moving downtown through the dripping street rather than up, and, as I started through, a mounted policeman charged through the spray, the horse black and dripping, charging through and looming huge and unreal, neighing and clopping across the pavement upon me now as I slipped to my knees and saw the huge pulsing bulk floating down upon and over me, the sound of hooves and screams and a rush of water coming through distantly as though I sat remote in a padded room, then over, almost past, the hair of the tail a fiery lash across my eyes. I stumbled about in circles, blindly swinging the brief case, the image of a fiery comet’s tail burning my smarting lids; turning and swinging blindly with brief case and leg chain and hearing the gallop begin as I floundered helplessly; and now moving straight into the full, naked force of the water, feeling its power like a blow, wet and thudding and cold, then through it and able partly to see just as another horse dashed up and through, a hunter taking a barrier, the rider slanting backward, the horse rising, then hit and swallowed by the rising spray. I stumbled down the street, the comet tail in my eyes, seeing a little better now and looking back to see the water spraying like a mad geyser in the moonlight. To Mary, I thought, to Mary.

There were rows of iron fences backed by low hedges before the houses and I stumbled behind them and lay panting to rest from the crushing force of the water. But hardly had I settled down, the dry, dog-day smell of the hedge in my nose, when they stopped before the house, leaning upon the fence. They were passing a bottle around and their voices sounded spent of strong emotion.

“This is some night,” one of them said. “Ain’t this some night?” “It’s ’bout like the rest.”

“Why you say that?”

” ‘Cause it’s fulla fucking and fighting and drinking and lying –gimme that bottle.”

“Yeah, but tonight I seen some things I never seen before.”

“You think you seen something? Hell, you ought to been over on Lenox about two hours ago. You know that stud Ras the Destroyer? Well, man, he was spitting blood.”

“That crazy guy?”

“Hell, yes, man, he had him a big black hoss and a fur cap and some kind of old lion skin or something over his shoulders and he was raising hell. Goddam if he wasn’t a sight, riding up and down on this ole hoss, you know, one of the kind that pulls vegetable wagons, and he got him a cowboy saddle and some big spurs.”

“Aw naw, man!”

“Hell, yes! Riding up and down the block yelling, ‘Destroy ’em! Drive ’em out! Burn ’em out! I, Ras, commands you.’ You get that, man,” he said, ” ‘I, Ras, commands you — to destroy them to the last piece of rotten fish!’ And ’bout that time some joker with a big ole Georgia voice sticks his head out the window and yells, ‘Ride ’em, cowboy. Give ’em hell and bananas.’ And man, that crazy sonofabitch up there on that hoss looking like death eating a sandwich, he reaches down and comes up with a forty-five and starts blazing up at that window — And man, talk about cutting out! In a second wasn’t nobody left but ole Ras up there on that hoss with that lion skin stretched straight out behind him. Crazy, man. Everybody else trying to git some loot and him and his boys out for blood!”

I lay like a man rescued from drowning, listening, still not sure I was alive.

“I was over there,” another voice said. “You see him when the mounted police got after his ass?”

“Hell, naw . . . Here, take a li’l taste.”

“Well that’s when you shoulda seen him. When he seen them cops riding up he reached back of his saddle and come up with some kind of old shield.”

“A shield?”

“Hell, yes! One with a spike in the middle of it. And that ain’t all; when he sees the cops he calls to one of his goddam henchmens to hand him up a spear, and a little short guy run out into the street and give him one. You know, one of the kind you see them African guys carrying in the moving pictures . . .”

“Where the hell was you, man?”

“Me? I’m over on the side where some stud done broke in a store and is selling cold beer out the window — Done gone into business, man,” the voice laughed. “I was drinking me some Budweiser and digging the doings — when here comes the cops up the street, riding like cowboys, man; and when ole Ras-the-what’s-his-name sees ’em he lets out a roar like a lion and rears way back and starts shooting spurs into that boss’s ass fast as nickels falling in the subway at going-home time — and gaawd-dam! that’s when you ought to seen him! Say, gimme a taste there, fella.

“Thanks. Here he comes bookety-bookety with that spear stuck out in front of him and that shield on his arm, charging, man. And he’s yelling something in African or West Indian or something and he’s got his head down low like he knew about that shit too, man; riding like Earle Sande in the fifth at Jamaica. That ole black hoss let out a whinny and got his head down — I don’t know where he got that sonofabitch — but, gentlemens, I swear! When he felt that steel in his high behind he came on like Man o’ War going to get his ashes hauled! Before the cops knowed what hit ’em Ras is right in the middle of ’em and one cop grabbed for that spear, and ole Ras swung ’round and bust him across the head and the cop goes down and his hoss rears up, and ole Ras tries his and tries to spear him another cop, and the other hosses is plunging around and ole Ras tries to spear him still another cop, only he’s too close and the hoss is pooling and snorting and pissing and shitting, and they swings around and the cop is swinging his pistol and every time he swings ole Ras throws up his shield with one arm and chops at him with the spear with the other, and man, you could hear that gun striking that ole shield like somebody dropping tire irons out a twelve-story window. And you know what, when ole Ras saw he was too close to spear him a cop he wheeled that hoss around and rode off a bit and did him a quick round-about face and charged ’em again — out for blood, man! Only this time the cops got tired of that bullshit and one of ’em started shooting. And that was the lick! Ole Ras didn’t have time to git his gun so he let fly with that spear and you could hear him grunt and say something ’bout that cop’s kin-folks and then him and that hoss shot up the street leaping like Heigho, the goddam Silver!”

“Man, where’d you come from?”

“It’s the truth, man, here’s my right hand.”

They were laughing outside the hedge and leaving and I lay in a cramp, wanting to laugh and yet knowing that Ras was not funny, or not only funny, but dangerous as well, wrong but justified, crazy and yet coldly sane . . . Why did they make it seem funny, only funny? I thought. And yet knowing that it was. It was funny and dangerous and sad. Jack had seen it, or had stumbled upon it and used it to prepare a sacrifice. And I had been used as a tool. My grandfather had been wrong about yessing them to death and destruction or else things had changed too much since his day.

There was only one way to destroy them. I got up from behind the hedge in the waning moon, wet and shaken in the hot air and started out looking for Jack, still turned around in my direction. I moved into the street, listening to the distant sounds of the riot and seeing in my mind the image of two eyes in the bottom of a shattered glass.

I kept to the darker side of streets and to the silent areas, thinking that if he wished really to hide his strategy he’d appear in the district, with a sound truck perhaps, playing the friendly adviser with Wrestrum and Tobitt beside him.

They were in civilian clothes, and I thought, Cops — until I saw the baseball bat and started to turn, hearing, “Hey, you!”

I hesitated.

“What’s in that brief case?” they said, and if they’d asked me anything else I might have stood still. But at the question a wave of shame and outrage shook me and I ran, still heading for Jack. But I was in strange territory now and someone, for some reason, had removed the manhole cover and I felt myself plunge down, down; a long drop that ended upon a load of coal that sent up a cloud of dust, and I lay in the black dark upon the black coal no longer running, hiding or concerned, hearing the shifting of the coal, as from somewhere above their voices came floating down.

“You see the way he went down, zoom! I was just fixing to slug the bastard.”

“You hit him?” “I don’t know.”

“Say, Joe, you think the bastard’s dead?”

“Maybe. He sure is in the dark though. You can’t even see his eyes.” “Nigger in the coal pile, eh, Joe?”

Someone hollered down the hole, “Hey, black boy. Come on out. We want to see what’s in that brief case.”

“Come down and get me,” I said. “What’s in that brief case?”

“You,” I said, suddenly laughing. “What do you think of that?” “Me?”

“All of you,” I said. “You’re crazy,” he said.

“But I still have you in this brief case!” “What’d you steal?”

“Can’t you see?” I said. “Light a match.” “What the hell’s he talking about, Joe?” “Strike a match, the boogy’s nuts.”

High above I saw the small flame sputter into light. They stood heads down, as in prayer, unable to see me back in the coal.

“Come on down,” I said. “Hal Ha! I’ve had you in my brief case all the time and you didn’t know me then and can’t see me now.”

“You sonofabitch!” one of them called, outraged. Then the match went out and I heard something fall softly upon the coal near by. They were talking above.

“You goddam black nigger sonofabitch,” someone called, “see how you like this,” and I heard the cover settle over the manhole with a dull clang. Fine bits of dirt showered down as they stamped upon the lid and for a moment I sent coal sliding in wild surprise, looking up, up through black space to where for a second the dim light of a match sank through a circle of holes in the steel. Then I thought, This is the way it’s always been, only now I know it — and rested back, calm now, placing the brief case beneath my head. I could open it in the morning, push off the lid. Now I was tired, too tired; my mind retreating, the image of the two glass eyes running together like blobs of melting lead. Here it was as though the riot was gone and I felt the tug of sleep, seemed to move out upon black water.

It’s a kind of death without hanging, I thought, a death alive. In the morning I’ll remove the lid . . . Mary, I should have gone to Mary’s. I would

go now to Mary’s in the only way that I could . . . I moved off over the black water, floating, sighing . . . sleeping invisibly.

But I was never to reach Mary’s, and I was over-optimistic about removing the steel cap in the morning. Great invisible waves of time flowed over me, but that morning never came. There was no morning nor light of any kind to awaken me and I slept on and on until finally I was aroused by hunger. Then I was up in the dark and blundering around, feeling rough walls and the coal giving way beneath each step like treacherous sand. I tried to reach above me but found only space, unbroken and impenetrable. Then I tried to find the usual ladder that leads out of such holes, but there was none. I had to have a light, and now on hands and knees, holding tight to my brief case, I searched the coal until I found the folder of matches the men had dropped — how long ago had that been? — but there were only three and to save them I started searching for paper to make a torch, feeling about slowly over the coal pile. I needed just one piece of paper to light my way out of the hole, but there was nothing. Next I searched my pockets, finding not even a bill, or an advertising folder, or a Brotherhood leaflet. Why had I destroyed Rinehart’s throwaway? Well, there was only one thing to do if I was to make a torch. I’d have to open my brief case. In it were the only papers I had.

I started with my high-school diploma, applying one precious match with a feeling of remote irony, even smiling as I saw the swift but feeble light push back the gloom. I was in a deep basement, full of shapeless objects that extended farther than I could see, and I realized that to light my way out I would have to burn every paper in the brief case. I moved slowly off, toward the darker blackness, lighting my way by these feeble torches. The next to go was Clifton’s doll, but it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else. Then by the light of the smoke-sputtering doll I opened a folded page. It was the anonymous letter, which burned so quickly that as it flamed I hurriedly unfolded another: It was that slip upon which Jack had written my Brotherhood name. I could still smell Emma’s perfume even in the dampness of the cellar. And now seeing the handwriting of the two in the consuming flames I burned my hand and slipped to my knees, staring. The handwriting was the same. I knelt there, stunned, watching the flames consume them. That he, or anyone at that late date, could have named me and set me running with one and the same stroke of the pen was too much. Suddenly I began to scream, getting up in the darkness and plunging wildly about, bumping against walls, scattering coal, and in my anger extinguishing my feeble light.

But still whirling on in the blackness, knocking against the rough walls of a narrow passage, banging my head and cursing, I stumbled down and plunged against some kind of partition and sailed headlong, coughing and sneezing, into another dimensionless room, where I continued to roll about the floor in my outrage. How long this kept up, I do not know. It might have been days, weeks; I lost all sense of time. And everytime I paused to rest, the outrage revived and I went off again. Then, finally, when I could barely move, something seemed to say, “That’s enough, don’t kill yourself. You’ve run enough, you’re through with them at last,” and I collapsed, face forward and lay there beyond the point of exhaustion, too tired to close my eyes. It was a state neither of dreaming nor of waking, but somewhere in between, in which I was caught like Trueblood’s jaybird that yellow jackets had paralyzed in every part but his eyes.

But somehow the floor had now turned to sand and the darkness to light, and I lay the prisoner of a group consisting of Jack and old Emerson and Bledsoe and Norton and Ras and the school superintendent and a number of others whom I failed to recognize, but all of whom had run me, who now pressed around me as I lay beside a river of black water, near where an armored bridge arched sharply away to where I could not see. And I was protesting their holding me and they were demanding that I return to them and were annoyed with my refusal.

“No,” I said. “I’m through with all your illusions and lies, I’m through running.”

“Not quite,” Jack said above the others’ angry demands, “but you soon will be, unless you return. Refuse and we’ll free you of your illusions all right.”

“No, thank you; I’ll free myself,” I said, struggling to rise from the cutting sand.

But now they came forward with a knife, holding me; and I felt the bright red pain and they took the two bloody blobs and cast them over the bridge, and out of my anguish I saw them curve up and catch beneath the apex of the curving arch of the bridge, to hang there, dripping down through the sunlight into the dark red water. And while the others laughed, before my pain-sharpened eyes the whole world was slowly turning red.

“Now you’re free of illusions,” Jack said, pointing to my seed wasting upon the air. “How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions?”

And I looked up through a pain so intense now that the air seemed to roar with the clanging of metal, hearing, HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE FREE OF ILLUSION . . .

And now I answered, “Painful and empty,” as I saw a glittering butterfly circle three times around my blood-red parts, up there beneath the bridge’s high arch. “But look,” I said pointing. And they looked and laughed, and suddenly seeing their satisfied faces and understanding, I gave a Bledsoe laugh, startling them. And Jack came forward, curious.

“Why do you laugh?” he said.

“Because at a price I now see that which I couldn’t see,” I said. “What does he think he sees?” they said.

And Jack came closer, threatening, and I laughed. “I’m not afraid now,” I said. “But if you’ll look, you’ll see . . . It’s not invisible . . .”

“See what?” they said.

“That there hang not only my generations wasting upon the water –” And now the pain welled up and I could no longer see them.

“But what? Go on,” they said. “But your sun . . .”


“And your moon . . .” “He’s crazy!”

“Your world . . .”

“I knew he was a mystic idealist!” Tobitt said.

“Still,” I said, “there’s your universe, and that drip-drop upon the water you hear is all the history you’ve made, all you’re going to make. Now laugh, you scientists. Let’s hear you laugh!”

And high above me now the bridge seemed to move off to where I could not see, striding like a robot, an iron man, whose iron legs clanged doomfully as it moved. And then I struggled up, full of sorrow and pain, shouting, “No, no, we must stop him!”

And I awoke in the blackness.

Fully awake now, I simply lay there as though paralyzed. I could think of nothing else to do. Later I would try to find my way out, but now I could only lie on the floor, reliving the dream. All their faces were so vivid that they seemed to stand before me beneath a spotlight. They were all up there somewhere, making a mess of the world. Well, let them. I was through and, in spite of the dream, I was whole.

And now I realized that I couldn’t return to Mary’s, or to any part of my old life. I could approach it only from the outside, and I had been as invisible to Mary as I had been to the Brotherhood. No, I couldn’t return to Mary’s, or to the campus, or to the Brotherhood, or home. I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out. Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.


So there you have all of it that’s important. Or at least you almost have it. I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole — or showed me the hole I was in, if you will — and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint. Perhaps that’s the way it had to be; I don’t know. Nor do I know whether accepting the lesson has placed me in the rear or in the avant-garde. That, perhaps, is a lesson for history, and I’ll leave such decisions to Jack and his ilk while I try belatedly to study the lesson of my own life.

Let me be honest with you — a feat which, by the way, I find of the utmost difficulty. When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time. Well, now I’ve been trying to look through myself, and there’s a risk in it. I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied — not even I. On the other hand, I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to “justify” and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs; or when I’ve tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear. In my presence they could talk and agree with themselves, the world was nailed down, and they loved it. They received a feeling of security. But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh, yes, it made them happy and it made me sick. So I became ill of affirmation, of saying “yes” against the nay-saying of my stomach — not to mention my brain.

There is, by the way, an area in which a man’s feelings are more rational than his mind, and it is precisely in that area that his will is pulled in several directions at the same time. You might sneer at this, but I know now. I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged a long way from the point in society toward which I originally aspired.

So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind, the mind. It wouldn’t let me rest. Gin, jazz and dreams were not enough. Books were not enough. My belated appreciation of the crude joke that had kept me running, was not enough. And my mind revolved again and again back to my grandfather. And, despite the farce that ended my attempt to say “yes” to the Brotherhood, I’m still plagued by his deathbed advice . . . Perhaps he hid his meaning deeper than I thought, perhaps his anger threw me off — I can’t decide. Could he have meant –hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence. Did he mean say “yes” because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he mean to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds? Or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs? Not for the power or for vindication, but because we, with the given circumstance of our origin, could only thus find transcendence? Was it that we of all, we, most of all, had to affirm the principle, the plan in whose name we had been brutalized and sacrificed — not because we would always be weak nor because we were afraid or opportunistic, but because we were older than they, in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others and because they had exhausted in us, some — not much, but some — of the human greed and smallness, yes, and the fear and superstition that had kept them running. (Oh, yes, they’re running too, running all over themselves.) Or was it, did he mean that we should affirm the principle because we, through no fault of our own, were linked to all the others in the loud, clamoring semi-visible world, that world seen only as a fertile field for exploitation by Jack and his kind, and with condescension by Norton and his, who were tired of being the mere pawns in the futile game of “making history”? Had he seen that for these too we had to say “yes” to the principle, lest they turn upon us to destroy both it and us?

“Agree ’em to death and destruction,” grandfather had advised. Hell, weren’t they their own death and their own destruction except as the principle lived in them and in us? And here’s the cream of the joke: Weren’t we part of them as well as apart from them and subject to die when they died? I can’t figure it out; it escapes me. But what do I really want, I’ve asked myself. Certainly not the freedom of a Rinehart or the power of a Jack, nor simply the freedom not to run. No, but the next step I couldn’t make, so I’ve remained in the hole.

I’m not blaming anyone for this state of affairs, mind you; nor merely crying mea culpa. The fact is that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man. I carried my sickness and though for a long time I tried to place it in the outside world, the attempt to write it down shows me that at least half of it lay within me. It came upon me slowly, like that strange disease that affects those black men whom you see turning slowly from black to albino, their pigment disappearing as under the radiation of some cruel, invisible ray. You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you’re as transparent as air. At first you tell yourself that it’s all a dirty joke, or that it’s due to the “political situation.” But deep down you come to suspect that you’re yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly. That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the trip to the chamber with the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean — only it’s worse because you continue stupidly to live. But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflicting phase.

Yes, but what is the next phase? How often have I tried to find it! Over and over again I’ve gone up above to seek it out. For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being “for” society and then “against” it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase — still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility. Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos — ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it — or imagination. That too I’ve learned in the cellar, and not by deadening my sense of perception; I’m invisible, not blind.

No indeed, the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me. I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health. Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? — diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.

Which reminds me of something that occurred the other day in the subway. At first I saw only an old gentleman who for the moment was lost. I knew he was lost, for as I looked down the platform I saw him approach several people and turn away without speaking. He’s lost, I thought, and he’ll keep coming until he sees me, then he’ll ask his direction. Maybe there’s an embarrassment in it if he admits he’s lost to a strange white man. Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought — to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

But then he was only a few feet away and I recognized him; it was Mr. Norton. The old gentleman was thinner and wrinkled now but as dapper as ever. And seeing him made all the old life live in me for an instant, and I smiled with tear-stinging eyes. Then it was over, dead, and when he asked me how to get to Centre Street, I regarded him with mixed feelings.

“Don’t you know me?” I said. “Should I?” he said.

“You see me?” I said, watching him tensely.

“Why, of course — Sir, do you know the way to Centre Street?”

“So. Last time it was the Golden Day, now it’s Centre Street. You’ve retrenched, sir. But don’t you know who I am?”

“Young man, I’m in a hurry,” he said, cupping a hand to his ear. “Why should I know you?”

“Because I’m your destiny.”

“My destiny, did you say?” He gave me a puzzled stare, backing away. “Young man, are you well? Which train did you say I should take?”

“I didn’t say,” I said, shaking my head. “Now, aren’t you ashamed?” “Ashamed? ASHAMED!” he said indignantly.

I laughed, suddenly taken by the idea. “Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

“But I’m your destiny, I made you. Why shouldn’t I know you?” I said, walking closer and seeing him back against a pillar. He looked around like a cornered animal. He thought I was mad.

“Don’t be afraid, Mr. Norton,” I said. “There’s a guard down the platform there. You’re safe. Take any train; they all go to the Golden D –“

But now an express had rolled up and the old man was disappearing quite spryly inside one of its doors. I stood there laughing hysterically. I laughed all the way back to my hole.

But after I had laughed I was thrown back on my thoughts — how had it all happened? And I asked myself if it were only a joke and I couldn’t answer. Since then I’ve sometimes been overcome with a passion to return into that “heart of darkness” across the Mason-Dixon line, but then I remind myself that the true darkness lies within my own mind, and the idea loses itself in the gloom. Still the passion persists. Sometimes I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for all of it is part of me. Till now, however, this is as far as I’ve ever gotten, for all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd.

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside — yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I’ve set out to throw my anger into the world’s face, but now that I’ve tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I’m drawn upward again. So that even before I finish I’ve failed (maybe my anger is too heavy; perhaps, being a talker, I’ve used too many words). But I’ve failed. The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that now I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man –but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.

Perhaps that makes me a little bit as human as my grandfather. Once I thought my grandfather incapable of thoughts about humanity, but I was wrong. Why should an old slave use such a phrase as, “This and this or this has made me more human,” as I did in my arena speech? Hell, he never had any doubts about his humanity — that was left to his “free” offspring. He accepted his humanity just as he accepted the principle. It was his, and the principle lives on in all its human and absurd diversity. So now having tried to put it down I have disarmed myself in the process. You won’t believe in my invisibility and you’ll fail to see how any principle that applies to you could apply to me. You’ll fail to see it even though death waits for both of us if you don’t. Nevertheless, the very disarmament has brought me to a decision. The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring — I hope of spring. But don’t let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught my nose to classify the stenches of death.

In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals. Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. And there’s still a conflict within me: With Louis Armstrong one half of me says, “Open the window and let the foul air out,” while the other says, “It was good green corn before the harvest.” Of course Louis was kidding, he wouldn’t have thrown old Bad Air out, because it would have broken up the music and the dance, when it was the good music that came from the bell of old Bad Air’s horn that counted. Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I’ll be up and around with mine. And, as I said before, a decision has been made. I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

“Ah,” I can hear you say, “so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!” But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

DMU Timestamp: November 12, 2020 20:50