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Her voice rose from the kitchen. "As bad as having a child. He wanted to come and now he's here, he don't like it."
He had not wanted to come.
"Pretended he didn't but I could tell. I said if you don't want to come I can't make you. If you don't want to live like decent people there's nothing I can do about it."
"As for me," her higher voice said, "when I die that ain't the time I'm going to start getting choosey. They can lay me in the nearest spot. When I pa.s.s from this world I'll be considerate of them that stay in it. I won't be thinking of just myself."
"Certainly not," the other voice said, "You never been that selfish.
You're the kind that looks out for other people."
"Well I try," she said, "I try."
He laid his head on the back of the chair for a moment and the hat tilted down over his eyes. He had raised three boys and her.The three boys were gone, two in the war and one to the devil and there was n.o.body left who felt a duty toward him but her, married and childless, in New York City like Mrs. Big; and ready when she came back and found him living the way he was to take him back with her. She had put her face in the door of the shack and had stared, expressionless, for a second. Then all at once she had screamed and jumped back.
"What's that on the floor?"
"Coleman," he said.
The old Negro was curled up on a pallet asleep at the foot of Tanner's bed, a stinking skin full of bones, arranged in what seemed vaguely human form. When Coleman was young, he had looked like a bear; now that he was old he looked like a monkey.With Tanner it was the opposite; when he was young he had looked like a monkey but when he got old. he looked like a bear.The daughter stepped back onto the porch. There were the bottoms of two cane chairs tilted against the clapboard but she declined to take a seat. She stepped out about ten feet from the house as if it took that much s.p.a.ce to clear the odor. Then she had spoken her piece.
"If you don't have any pride I have and I know my duty and I was raised to do it. My mother raised me to do it if you didn't. She was from plain people but not the kind that likes to settle in with n.i.g.g.e.rs."
At that point the old Negro roused up and slid out the door, a doubled-up shadow which Tanner just caught sight of gliding away.
She had shamed him. He shouted so they both could hear. "Who you think cooks? Who you think cuts my firewood and empties my slops? He's paroled to me. That no-good scoundrel has been on my hands for thirty years. He ain't a bad n.i.g.g.e.r."
She was unimpressed. "Whose shack is this anyway?" she had asked. "Yours or his?"
"Him and me built it," he said. "You go on back up there. I wouldn't come with you for no million dollars or no sack of salt."
"It looks like him and you built it. Whose land is it on?"
"Some people that live in Florida," he said evasively. He had known then that it was land up for sale but he thought it was too sorry for anyone to buy. That same afternoon he had found out different. He had found out in time to go back with her. If he had found out a day later, he might still be there, squatting on the doctor's land.
When he saw the brown porpoise-shaped figure striding across the field that afternoon, he had known at once what had happened; no one had to tell him. If that n.i.g.g.e.r had owned the whole world except for one runty rutted peafield and he acquired it, he would walk across it that way, beating the weeds aside, his thick neck swelled, his stomach a throne for his gold watch and chain. Doctor Foley. He was only part black. The rest was Indian and white.
He was everything to the n.i.g.g.e.rs-druggist and undertaker and general counsel and real estate man and sometimes he got the evil eye off them and sometimes he put it on. Be prepared, he said to himself, watching him approach, to take something off him, n.i.g.g.e.r though he be. Be prepared, because you ain't got a thing to hold up to him but the skin you come in, and that's no more use to you now than what a snake would shed. You don't have a chance with the government against you.
He was sitting on the porch in the piece of straight chair tilted against the shack. "Good evening, Foley," he said and nodded as the doctor came up and stopped short at the edge of the clearing, as if he had only just that minute seen him though it was plain he had sighted him as he crossed the field.
"I be out here to look at my property," the doctor said. "Good evening." His voice was quick and high.
Ain't been your property long, he said to himself. "I seen you coming," he said.
"I acquired this here recently," the doctor said and proceeded without looking at him again to walk around to one side of the shack. In a moment he came back and stopped in front of him. Then he stepped boldly to the door of the shack and put his head in.Coleman was in there that time too, asleep. He looked for a moment and then turned aside. "I know that n.i.g.g.e.r," he said. "Coleman Parrum-how long does it take him to sleep off that stump liquor you all make?"
Tanner took hold of the k.n.o.bs on the chair bottom and held them hard. "This shack ain't in your property. Only on it, by my mistake," he said.
The doctor removed his cigar momentarily from his mouth. "It ain't my mis-take," he said and smiled.
He had only sat there, looking ahead.
"It don't pay to make this kind of mis-take," the doctor said.
"I never found nothing that paid yet," he muttered.
"Everything pays," the Negro said, "if you knows how to make it," and he remained there smiling, looking the squatter up and down. Then he turned and went around the other side of the shack.There was a silence. He was looking for the still.
Then would have been the time to kill him. There was a gun inside the shack and he could have done it as easy as not, but, from childhood, he had been weakened for that kind of violence by the fear of h.e.l.l. He had never killed one, he had always handled them with his wits and with luck. He was known to have a way with n.i.g.g.e.rs. There was an art to handling them. The secret of handling a n.i.g.g.e.r was to show him his brains didn't have a chance against yours; then he would jump on your back and know he had a good thing there for life. He had had Coleman on his back for thirty years.
Tanner had first seen Coleman when he was working six of them at a saw mill in the middle of a pine forest fifteen miles from nowhere. They were as sorry a crew as he had worked, the kind that on Monday they didn't show up. What was in the air had reached them. They thought there was a new Lincoln elected who was going to abolish work. He managed them with a very sharp penknife. He had had something wrong with his kidney then that made his hands shake and he had taken to whittling to force that waste motion out of sight. He did not intend them to see that his hands shook of their own accord and he did not intend to see it himself or to Countenance it. The knife had moved constantly, violently, in his quaking hands and here and there small crude figures-that he never looked at again and could not have said what they were if he had-dropped to the ground. The Negroes picked them up and took them home; there was not much time between them and darkest Africa. The knife glittered constantly in his hands. More than once he had stopped short and said in an off-hand voice to some half-reclining, head-averted Negro, "n.i.g.g.e.r, this knife is in my hand now but if you don't quit wasting my time and money, it'll be in your gut shortly." And the Negro would begin to rise-slowly, but he would be in the act-before the sentence was completed.
A large black loose-jointed Negro, twice his own size, had begun hanging around the edge of the saw mill, watching the others work and when he was not watching, sleeping, in full view of them, sprawled like a gigantic bear on his back. "Who is that?" he had asked. "If he wants to work, tell him to come here. If he don't, tell him to go. No idlers are going to hang around here."
None of them knew who he was. They knew he didn't want to work. They knew nothing else, not where he had come from, nor why, though he was probably brother to one, cousin to all of them.He had ignored him for a day; against the six of them he was one yellow-faced scrawny white man with shaky hands. He was willing to wait for trouble, but not forever. The next day the stranger came again. After the six Tanner worked had seen the idler there for half the morning, they quit and began to eat, a full thirty minutes before noon. He had not risked ordering them up. He had gone to the source of the trouble.
The stranger was leaning against a tree on the edge of the clearing, watching with half-closed eyes. The insolence on his face barely covered the wariness behind it. His look said, this ain't much of a white man so why he come on so big, what he fixing to do?
He had meant to say, "n.i.g.g.e.r, this knife is in my hand now but if you ain't out of my sight..." but as he drew closer he changed his mind. The Negro's eyes were small and bloodshot. Tanner supposed there was a knife on him somewhere that he would as soon use as not. His own penknife moved, directed solely by some intruding intelligence that worked in his hands. He had no idea what he was carving, but when he reached the Negro, he had already made two holes the size of half dollars in the piece of bark.
The Negro's gaze fell on his hands and was held. His jaw slackened. His eyes did not move from the knife tearing recklessly around the bark. He watched as if he saw an invisible power working on the wood.
He looked himself then and, astonished, saw the connected rims of a pair of spectacles.
He held them away from him and looked through the holes past a pile of shavings and on into the woods to the edge of the pen where they kept their mules.
"You can't see so good, can you, boy?" he said and began sc.r.a.ping the ground with his foot to turn up a piece of wire. He picked up a small piece of haywire; in a minute he found another, shorter piece and picked that up. He began to attach these to the bark. He was in no hurry now that he knew what he was doing. When the spectacles were finished, he handed them to the Negro. "Put these on," he said. "I hate to see anybody can't see good."
There was an instant when the Negro might have done one thing or another, might have taken the gla.s.ses and crushed them in his hand or grabbed the knife and turned it on him. He saw the exact instant in the muddy liquor-swollen eyes when the pleasure of having a knife in this white man's gut was balanced against something else, he could not tell what.
The Negro reached for the gla.s.ses. He attached the bows carefully behind his ears and looked forth. He peered this way and that with exaggerated solemnity. And then he looked directly at Tanner and grinned, or grimaced, Tanner could not tell which, but he had an instant's sensation of seeing before him a negative image of himself, as if clownishness and captivity had been their common lot. The vision failed him before he could decipher it.
"Preacher," he said, "what you hanging around here for?" He picked up another piece of bark and began, without looking at it, to carve again. "This ain't Sunday."
"This here ain't Sunday?" the Negro said.
"This is Friday," he said. "That's the way it is with you preachers-drunk all week so you don't know when Sunday is. What you see through those gla.s.ses?"
"See a man."
"What kind of a man?"
"See the man make theseyer gla.s.ses."
"Is he white or black?"
"He white!" the Negro said as if only at that moment was his vision sufficiently improved to detect it. "Yessuh. he white!" he said.
"Well, you treat him like he was white," Tanner said. "What's your name?"
"Name Coleman," the Negro said.
And he had not got rid of Coleman since. You make a monkey out of one of them and he jumps on your back; and stays there for life, but let one make a monkey out of you and ail you can do is kill him or disappear. And he was not going to h.e.l.l for killing a n.i.g.g.e.r. Behind the shack he heard the doctor kick over a bucket.He sat and waited.
In a moment the doctor appeared again, beating his way around the other side of the house, whacking at scarred clumps of Johnson gra.s.s with his cane. He stopped in the middle of the yard, about where that morning the daughter had delivered her ultimatum.
"You don't belong here," he began. "I could have you prosecuted."
Tanner remained there, dumb, staring across the field.
"Where's your still?" the doctor asked.
"If it's a still around here, it don't belong to me,' he said and shut his mouth tight.
The Negro laughed softly. "Down on your luck, ain't you?" he murmured. "Didn't you used to own a little piece of land over acrost the river and lost it?"
He had continued to study the woods ahead.
"If you want to run the still for me, that's one thing," the doctor said. "If you don't, you might as well had be packing up."
"I don't have to work for you," he said. "The governmint ain't got around yet to forcing the white folks to work for the colored."
The doctor polished the stone in his ring with the ball of his thumb. "I don't like the governmint no bettern you," he said."Where you going instead? You going to the city and get you a soot of rooms at the Biltmo' Hotel?"
Tanner said nothing.
"The day coming," the doctor said, "when the white folks IS going to be working for the colored and you mights well to git ahead of the crowd."
"That day ain't coming for me," Tanner said shortly.
"Done come for you," the doctor said. "Ain't come for the rest of them."
Tanner's gaze drove on past the farthest blue edge of the tree line into the pale empty afternoon sky. "I got a daughter in the north," he said. "I don't have to work for you."
The doctor took his watch from his watch pocket and looked at it and put it back. He gazed for a moment at the back of his hands. He appeared to have measured and to know secretly the time it would take everything to change finally upside down. "She don't want no old daddy like you," he said. "Maybe she say she do, but that ain't likely. Even if you rich," he said, "they don't want you. They got they own ideas. The black ones they rares and they pitches. I made mine," he said, "and I ain't done none of that." He looked again at Tanner. "I be back here next week," he said, "and if you still here, I know you going to work for me." He remained there a moment, rocking on his heels, waiting for some answer.Finally he turned and started beating his way back through the overgrown path.
Tanner had continued to look across the field as if his spirit had been sucked out of him into the woods and nothing was left on the chair but a sh.e.l.l. If he had known it was a question of this-sitting here looking out of this window all day in this no-place, or just running a still for a n.i.g.g.e.r, he would have run the still for the n.i.g.g.e.r. He would have been a n.i.g.g.e.r's white n.i.g.g.e.r any day.Behind him he heard the daughter come in from the kitchen. His heart accelerated but after a second he heard her plump herself down on the sofa. She was not yet ready to go. He did not turn and look at her.
She sat there silently a few moments. Then she began. "The trouble with you is," she said, "you sit in front of that window all the time where there's nothing to look out at. You need some inspiration and an out-let. If you would let me pull your chair around to look at the TV, you would quit thinking about morbid stuff, death and h.e.l.l and judgement. My Lord."
"The Judgement is coming," he muttered. "The sheep'll be separated from the goats. Them that kept their promises from them that didn't. Them that did the best they could with what they had from them that didn't. Them that honored their father and their mother from them that cursed them. Them that..."
She heaved a mammoth sigh that all but drowned him out."What's the use in me wasting my good breath?" she asked. She rose and went back in the kitchen and began knocking things about.
She was so high and mighty! At home he had been living in a shack but there was at least air around it. He could put his feet on the ground. Here she didn't even live in a house. She lived in a pigeon-hutch of a building, with all stripes of foreigner, all of them twisted in the tongue. It was no place for a sane man. The first morning here she had taken him sightseeing and he had seen in fifteen minutes exactly how it was. He had not been out of the apartment since. He never wanted to set foot again on the underground railroad or the steps that moved under you while you stood still or any elevator to the thirty-fourth floor. When he was safely back in the apartment again, he had imagined going over it with Coleman. He had to turn his head even few seconds to make sure Coleman was behind him. Keep to the inside or these people'I knock you down, keep right behind me or you 'II get left, keep your hat on, you d.a.m.n idiot, he had said, and Coleman had come on with his bent running shamble, panting and muttering, What we doing here? Where you get this fool idea coming here?
I come to show you it was no kind of place. Now you know you were well off where you were.
I knowed it before, Coleman said. Was you didn't know it.
When he had been here a week, he had got a postcard from Coleman that had been written for him by Hooten at the railroad station. It was written in green ink and said, "This is Coleman-X-how you boss." Under it Hooten had written from himself, "Quit frequenting all those nitespots and come on home, you scoundrel, yours truly. W. P. Hooten." He had sent Coleman a card in return, care of Hooten, that said, "This place is alrite if you like it. Yours truly, W. T. Tanner." Since the daughter had to mail the card, he had not put on it that he was returning as soon as his pension check came. He had not intended to tell her but to leave her a note.When the check came, he would hire himself a taxi to the bus station and be on his way. And it would have nude her as happy as it made him. She had found his company dour and her duty irksome. If he had sneaked out, she would have had the pleasure of having tried to do it and to top that off, the pleasure of his ingrat.i.tude.
As for him, he would have returned to squat on the doctor's land and to take his orders from a n.i.g.g.e.r who chewed tencent cigars.And to think less about it than formerly. Instead he had been done in by a n.i.g.g.e.r actor, or one who called himself an actor. He didn't believe the n.i.g.g.e.r was any actor.
There were two apartments on each floor of the building, He had been with the daughter three weeks when the people in the next hutch moved out. He had stood in the hall and watched the movingout and the next day he had watched a moving-In. The hall was narrow and dark and he stood in the corner out of the way, offering only a suggestion every now and then to the mover s that would have made their work easier for them if they had paid any attention.The furniture was new and cheap so he decided the people moving in might be a newly married couple and he would just wait around until they came and wish them well. After a while a large Negro in a light blue suit came lunging up the stairs, carrying two canvas suitcases, his head lowered against the strain. Behind him stepped a young tan-skinned woman with bright coppercolored hair. The Negro dropped the suitcases with a thud in front of the door of the next apartment.
"Be careful, Sweetie," the woman said. "My make-up is in there."
It broke upon him then just what was happening.
The Negro was grinning. He took a swipe at one of her hips.
"Quit it," she said, "there's an old guy watching."
They both turned and looked at him.
"Had-do," he said and nodded. Then he turned quickly into his own door.
His daughter was in the kitchen. "Who you think's rented that apartment over there?" he asked, his face alight.
She looked at him suspiciously. "Who?" she muttered.
"A n.i.g.g.e.rl" he said in a gleeful voice. "A South Alabama n.i.g.g.e.r if I ever saw one. And got him this high-yeller, high-stepping woman with red hair and they two are going to live next door to you!" He slapped his knee. "Yes siree!" he said. "d.a.m.n if they ain't!" It was the first time since coming up here that he had had occasion to laugh.
Her face squared up instantly. "All right now you listen to me," she said. "You keep away from them. Don't you go over there trying to get friendly with him. They ain't the same around here and I don't want any trouble with n.i.g.g.e.rs, you hear me? If you have to live next to them, just you mind your business and they'll mind theirs. That's the way people were meant to get along in this world. Everybody can get along if they just mind their business.Live and let live." She began to wrinkle her nose like a rabbit, a stupid way she had. "Up here everybody minds their own business and everybody gets along. That's all you have to do."
"I was getting along with n.i.g.g.e.rs before you were born," he said. He went back out into the hall and waited. He was willing to bet the n.i.g.g.e.r would like to talk to someone who understood him.Twice while he waited, he forgot and in his excitement, spit his tobacco juice against the baseboard. In about twenty minutes, the door of the apartment opened again and the Negro came out. He had put on a tie and a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and Tanner noticed for the first time that he had a small almost invisible goatee.A real swell. He came on without appearing to see there was anyone else in the hall.
"Haddy, John," Tanner said and nodded, but the Negro brushed past without hearing and went rattling rapidly down the stairs.
Could be deaf and dumb, Tanner thought. He went back into the apartment and sat down but each time he heard a noise in the hall, he got up and went to the door and stuck his head out to see if it might be the Negro. Once in the middle of the afternoon, he caught the Negro's eye just as he was rounding the bend of the stairs again but before he could get out a word, the man was in his own apartment and had slammed the door. He had never known one to move that fast unless the police were after him.
He was standing in the hall early the next morning when the woman came out of her door alone, walking on high gold-painted heels. He wished to bid her good morning or simply to nod but instinct told him to beware. She didn't look like any kind of woman, black or white, he had ever seen before and he remained pressed against the wall, frightened more than anything else, and feigning invisibility.
The woman gave him a flat stare, then turned her head away and stepped wide of him as if she were skirting an open garbage can. He held his breath until she was out of sight. Then he waited patiently for the man.
The Negro came out about eight o'clock.
This time Tanner advanced squarely in his path. "Good morning, Preacher," he said. It had been his experience that if a Negro tended to be sullen, this t.i.tle usually cleared up his expression.
The Negro stopped abruptly.
"I seen you move in," Tanner said. "I ain't been up here long myself.
It ain't much of a place if you ask me. I reckon you wish you were back in South Alabama."
The Negro did not take a step or answer. His eyes began to move.They moved from the top of the black hat, down to the collarless blue shirt, neatly b.u.t.toned at the neck, down the faded galluses to the gray trousers and the hightop shoes and up again, very slowly, while some unfathomable dead-cold rage seemed to stiffen and shrink him.