Everything That Rises Must
HER DOCTOR had
told Julian's mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of
her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown
on the bus for a reducing class at the Y. The reducing class was de-signed
for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds. His
mother was one of the slimmer ones, but she said ladies did not tell
their age or weight. She would not ride the buses by herself at night
since they had been integrated, and because the reducing class was
one of her few pleasures, necessary for her health, and free, she said
Julian could at least put himself out to take her, considering all
she did for him. Julian did not like to consider all she did for him,
but every Wednesday night he braced himself and took her.
She was almost ready to go, standing
before the hall mirror, putting on her hat, while he, his hands behind him,
appeared pinned to the door frame, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows
to begin piercing him. The hat was new and had cost her seven dollars and a
half. She kept saying, “Maybe I shouldn't have paid that for it. No,
I shouldn't have. I'll take it off and return it tomorrow. I shouldn't have
Julian raised his eyes to heaven. “Yes,
you should have bought it,” he said. “Put it on and let's go.” It
was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood
up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the
stuffing out. He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic. Everything
that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.
She lifted the hat one more time
and set it down slowly on top of her head. Two wings of gray hair protruded
on either side of her florid face, but her eyes, sky-blue, were as innocent
and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten. Were it
not that she was a widow who had struggled fiercely to feed and clothe and
put him through school and who was supporting him still, “until he got
on his feet,” she might have been a little girl that he had to take to
town. “It's all right, it's all right,” he said. “Let's go.” He
opened the door himself and started down the walk to get her going. The sky
was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored
monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike. Since this had
been a fashionable neighborhood forty years ago, his mother persisted in thinking
they did well to have an apartment in it. Each house had a narrow collar of
dirt around it in which sat, usually, a grubby child. Julian walked with his
hands in his pockets, his head down and thrust forward and his eyes glazed
with the determination to make himself completely numb during the time he would
be sacrificed to her pleasure.
The door closed and he turned
to find the dumpy figure, surmounted by the atrocious hat, coming toward him. “Well,” she
said, “you only live once and paying a little more for it, I at least
won't meet myself coming and going.”
“Some day I'll start making money,” Julian
said gloomily—he knew he never would—“and you can have one of those
jokes whenever you take the fit.” But first they would move. He
visualized a place where the nearest neighbors would be three miles away on
“I think you're doing fine,” she
said, drawing on her gloves. “You've only been out of school a year.
Rome wasn't built in a day.”
She was one of the few members of the
Y reducing class who arrived in hat and gloves and who had a son who had been
to college. “It takes time,” she said, “and the world is
in such a mess. This hat looked better on me than any of the others, though
when she brought it out I said, ‘Take that thing back. I wouldn't have
it on my head,’ and she said, ‘Now wait till you see it on,’ and
when she put it on me, I said, ‘We-ull,’ and she said, ‘If
you ask me, that hat does something for you and you do something for the hat,
and besides,’ she said, ‘with that hat, you won't meet yourself
coming and going.’”
Julian thought he could have stood
his lot better if she had been selfish, if she had been an old hag who drank
and screamed at him. He walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the
midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith. Catching sight of his long,
hopeless, irritated face, she stopped suddenly with a grief-stricken look,
and pulled back on his arm. “Wait on me,” she said. “I'm
going back to the house and take this thing off and tomorrow I'm going to return
it. I was out of my head. I can pay the gas bill with that seven-fifty.”
He caught her arm in a vicious
grip. “You are not going to take it back,” he said. “I like
“Well,” she said, “I
don't think I ought. . .”“Shut up and enjoy it,” he muttered,
more depressed than ever.
“With the world in the mess
it's in,” she said, “it's a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell
you, the bottom rail is on the top.”
“Of course,” she said, “if
you know who you are, you can go anywhere.” She said this every time
he took her to the reducing class. “Most of them in it are not our kind
of people,” she said, “but I can be gracious to anybody. I know
who I am.”
“They don't give a damn for your
graciousness,” Julian said savagely. “Knowing who you are is good
for one generation only. You haven't the foggiest idea where you stand now
or who you are.”
She stopped and allowed her eyes
to flash at him. “I most certainly do know who I am,” she said, “and
if you don't know who you are, I'm ashamed of you.”
“Oh hell,” Julian said.
“Your great-grandfather was a former
governor of this state,” she said. “Your grandfather was a prosperous
land-owner. Your grandmother was a Godhigh.”
“Will you look around you,” he
said tensely, “and see where you are now?” and he swept his arm
jerkily out to indicate the neighborhood, which the growing darkness at least
made less dingy.
“You remain what you are,” she
said. “Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves.”
“There are no more slaves,” he
“They were better off when they
were,” she said. He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She
rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every
stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at
which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station: “It's
ridiculous. It's simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their
own side of the fence.”
“Let's skip it,” Julian
“The ones I feel sorry for,” she
said, “are the ones that are half white. They're tragic.”
“Will you skip it?”
“Suppose we were half white.
We would certainly have mixed feelings.”
“I have mixed feelings now,” he
“Well let's talk about something
pleasant,” she said. “I remember going to Grandpa's when I was
a little girl. Then the house had double stairways that went up to what was
really the second floor—all the cooking was done on the first. I used to
like to stay down in the kitchen on account of the way the walls smelled. I
would sit with my nose pressed against the plaster and take deep breaths. Actually
the place belonged to the Godhighs but your grandfather Chestny paid the mortgage
and saved it for them. They were in reduced circumstances,” she said, “but
reduced or not, they never forgot who they were.”
“Doubtless that decayed mansion
reminded them,” Julian muttered. He never spoke of it without contempt
or thought of it without longing. He had seen it once when he was a child before
it had been sold. The double stairways had rotted and been torn down. Negroes
were living in it. But it remained in his mind as his mother had known it.
It appeared in his dreams regularly. He would stand on the wide porch, listening
to the rustle of oak leaves, then wander through the high-ceilinged hall into
the parlor that opened onto it and gaze at the worn rugs and faded draperies.
It occurred to him that it was he, not she, who could have appreciated it.
He preferred its threadbare elegance to anything he could name and it was because
of it that all the neighborhoods they had lived in had been a torment to him
- whereas she had hardly known the difference. She called her insensitivity “being
“And I remember the old
darky who was my nurse, Caroline. There was no better person in the world.
I've always had a great respect for my colored friends,” she said. “I’d
do anything in the world for them and they'd. . .”
“Will you for God's sake get off
that subject?” Julian said. When he got on a bus by himself, he made
it a point to sit down beside a Negro, in reparation as it were for his mother's
“You're mighty touchy tonight,” she
said. “Do you feel all right?”
“Yes I feel all right” he
said. “Now lay off.”
She pursed her lips. “Well,
you certainly are in a vile humor,” she observed. “I just won't
speak to you at all.”
They had reached the bus stop.
There was no bus in sight and Julian, his hands still jammed in his pockets
and his head thrust forward, scowled down the empty street. The frustration
of having to wait on the bus as well as ride on it began to creep up his neck
like a hot hand. The presence of his mother was borne in upon him as she gave
a pained sigh. He looked at her bleakly. She was holding herself very erect
under the preposterous hat wearing it like a banner of her imaginary dignity.
There was in him an evil urge to break her spirit. He suddenly unloosened his
tie and pulled it off and put it in his pocket
She stiffened. “Why must
you look like that when you take me to town?” she said. “Why must
you deliberately embarrass me?”
“If you'll never learn where
you are,” he said, “you can at least learn where I am.”
“You look like a thug,” she
“Then I must be one” he
“I'll just go home” she said. “I
will not bother you. If you can’t do a little thing’ like that
for me . . .”
Rolling his eyes upward, he put
his tie back on. “Restored to my class,” he muttered. He thrust
his face toward her and hissed, “True culture is in the mind, the mind,” he
said, and tapped his head, “the mind.”
“It's in the heart,” she
said, “and in how you do things and how you do things is because of who
“Nobody in the damn bus
cares who you are.”
“I care who I am” she said
The lighted bus appeared on top
of the next hill and as it approached, they moved out into the street to meet
it. He put his hand under her elbow and hoisted her up on the creaking step.
She entered with a little smile, as if she were going into a drawing room where
everyone had been waiting for her. While he put in the tokens, she sat down
on one of the broad front seats for three which faced the aisle. A thin woman
with protruding teeth and long yellow hair was sitting on the end of it. His
mother moved up beside her and left room for Julian beside herself. He sat
down and looked at the floor across the aisle where a pair of thin feet in
red and white canvas sandals were planted.
His mother immediately began a general
conversation meant to attract anyone who felt like talking. “Can it get
any hotter?” she said and removed from her purse a folding fan, black
with a Japanese scene on it, which she began to flutter before her.
“I reckon it might could,” the
woman with the protruding teeth said, “but I know for a fact my apartment
couldn’t get no hotter.”
“It must get the afternoon
sun, " his mother said. She sat forward and looked up and down the bus. It
was half filled. Everybody was white. “I see we have the bus to ourselves,” she
said. Julian cringed.
“For a change,” said the woman
across the aisle, the owner of the red and white canvas sandals. “I come
on one the other day and they were thick as fleas —up front and all through.”
“The world is in a mess everywhere,” his
mother said. “I don't know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”
“What gets my goat is all those
boys from good families stealing automobile tires,” the woman with the
protruding teeth said. “I told my boy, I said you may not be rich but
you been raised right and if I ever catch you in any such mess, they can send
you on to the reformatory. Be exactly where you belong.”
“Training tells,” his mother
said. “Is your boy in high school?”
“Ninth grade,” the woman said.
“My son just finished college
last year. He wants to write but he’s selling typewriters until he gets
started,” his mother said.
The woman leaned forward and peered at
Julian. He threw her such a malevolent look that she subsided against the seat. On
the floor across the aisle there was an abandoned newspaper. He got up and
got it and opened it out in front of him. His mother discreetly continued the
conversation in a lower tone but the woman across the aisle said in a loud
voice, “Well that’s nice. Selling typewriters is close to writing.
He can go right from one to the other.”
“I tell him,” his mother said, “that
Rome wasn't built in a day.”
Behind the newspaper Julian was
withdrawing into the inner compartment of his mind where he spent most of his
time. This was a kind of mental bubble in which he established himself when
he could not bear to be a part of what was going on around him. From it he
could see out and judge but in it he was safe from any kind of penetration
from without. It was the only place where he felt free of the general idiocy
of his fellows. His mother had never entered it but from it he could see her
with absolute clarity.
The old lady was clever enough and he
thought that if she had started from any of the right premises, more might
have been expected of her. She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy
world outside of which he had never seen her set foot. The law of it was to
sacrifice herself for him after she had first created the necessity to do so
by making a mess of things. If he had permitted her sacrifices, it was only
because her lack of foresight had made them necessary. All of her life had
been a struggle to act like a Chestny and to give him everything she thought
a Chestny ought to have without the goods a Chestny ought to have; but
since, said she, it was fun to struggle, why complain? And when you had won,
as she had won, what fun to look back on the hard times! He could not forgive
her that she had enjoyed the struggle and that she thought she had won.
What she meant when she said she had won
was that she had brought him up successfully and had sent him to college and
that he had turned out so well—good looking (her teeth had gone unfilled
so that his could be straightened), intelligent (he realized he was too intelligent
to be a success), and with a future ahead of him (there was of course no future
ahead of him). She excused his gloominess on the grounds that he was still
growing up and his radical ideas on his lack of practical experience. She said
he didn’t yet know a thing about “life,” that he hadn’t
even entered the real world—when already he was as disenchanted with it as
a man of fifty.
The further irony of all this
was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to only
a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate
education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up
with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice
and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded
by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of
her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his
The bus stopped with a sudden
jerk and shook him from his meditation. A woman from the back lurched forward
with little steps and barely escaped falling in his newspaper as she righted
herself. She got off and a large Negro got on. Julian kept his paper lowered
to watch. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation.
It confirmed his view that with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing
within a radius of three hundred miles. The Negro was well dressed and carried
a briefcase. He looked around and then sat down on the other end of the seat
where the woman with the red and white canvas sandals was sitting. He immediately
unfolded a newspaper and obscured himself behind it. Julian's mother's
elbow at once prodded insistently into his ribs. “Now you see why I won't
ride on these buses by myself,” she whispered.
The woman with the red and white canvas
sandals had risen at the same time the Negro sat down and had gone farther
back in the bus and taken the seat of the woman who had got off his mother
leaned forward and cast her an approving look.
Julian rose, crossed the aisle, and sat
down in the place of the woman with the canvas sandals. From this position,
he looked serenely across at his mother. Her face had turned an angry red.
He stared at her, making his eyes the eyes of a stranger. He felt his tension
suddenly lift as if he had openly declared war on her.
He would have liked to get in conversation
with the Negro and to talk with him about art or politics or any subject that
would be above the comprehension of those around them, but the man remained
entrenched behind his paper. He was either ignoring the change of seating or
had never noticed it. There was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.
His mother kept her eyes fixed
reproachfully on his face. The woman with the protruding teeth was looking
at him avidly as if he were a type of monster new to her.
“Do you have a light?” he
asked the Negro.
Without looking away from his paper, the
man reached in his pocket and handed him a packet of matches.
“Thanks,” Julian said. For
a moment he held the matches foolishly. A NO SMOKING sign looked down
upon him from over the door. This alone would not have deterred him; he had
no cigarettes. He had quit smoking some months before because he could not
afford it. “Sorry,” he muttered and handed back the matches. The
Negro lowered the paper and gave him an annoyed look. He took the matches and
raised the paper again.
His mother continued to gaze at
him but she did not take advantage of his momentary discomfort. Her eyes retained
their battered look. Her face seemed to be unnaturally red, as if her blood
pressure had risen. Julian allowed no glimmer of sympathy to show on his face.
Having got the advantage, he wanted desperately to keep it and carry it through.
He would have liked to teach her a lesson that would last her a while, but
there seemed no way to continue the point. The Negro refused to come out from
behind his paper.
Julian folded his arms and looked
stolidly before him, facing her but as if he did not see her, as if he had
ceased to recognize her existence. He visualized a scene in which, the bus
having reached their stop, he would remain in his seat and when she said, “Aren’t
you going to get off?” he would look at her as at a stranger who had
rashly addressed him. The corner they got off on was usually deserted, but
it was well lighted and it would not hurt her to walk by herself the four blocks
to the Y. He decided to wait until the time came and then decide whether or
not he would let her get off by herself. He would have to be at the Y at ten
to bring her back, but he could leave her wondering if he was going to show
up. There was no reason for her to think she could always depend on him.
He retired again into the high-ceilinged
room sparsely settled with large pieces of antique furniture. His soul expanded
momentarily but then he became aware of his mother across from him and the
vision shriveled. He studied her coldly. Her feet in little pumps dangled like
a child’s and did not quite reach the floor. She was training on him
an exaggerated look of reproach. He felt completely detached from her. At that
moment he could with pleasure have slapped her as he would have slapped a particularly
obnoxious child in his charge.
He began to imagine various unlikely ways
by which he could teach her a lesson. He might make friends with some distinguished
Negro professor or lawyer and bring him home to spend the evening. He would
be entirely justified but her blood pressure would rise to 300. He could not
push her to the extent of making her have a stroke, and moreover, he had never
been successful at making any Negro friends. He had tried to strike up an acquaintance
on the bus with some of the better types, with ones that looked like professors
or ministers or lawyers. One morning he had sat down next to a distinguished-looking
dark brown man who had answered his questions with a sonorous solemnity but
who had turned out to be an undertaker. Another day he had sat down beside
a cigar-smoking Negro with a diamond ring on his finger, but after a few stilted
pleasantries, the Negro had rung the buzzer and risen, slipping two lottery
tickets into Julian's hand as he climbed over him to leave.
He imagined his mother lying desperately
ill and his being able to secure only a Negro doctor for her. He toyed with
that idea for a few minutes and then dropped it for a momentary vision of
himself participating as a sympathizer in a sit-in demonstration. This was
possible but he did not linger with it. Instead, he approached the ultimate
horror. He brought home a beautiful suspiciously Negroid woman. Prepare yourself,
he said. There is nothing you can do about it. This is the woman I've chosen.
She’s intelligent, dignified, even good, and she’s suffered and
she hasn’t thought it fun. Now persecute us, go ahead and persecute us.
Drive her out of here, but remember, you’re driving me too. His eyes
were narrowed and through the indignation he had generated, he saw his mother
across the aisle, purple-faced, shrunken to the dwarf-like proportions of her
moral nature, sitting like a mummy beneath the ridiculous banner of her hat.
He was tilted out of his fantasy
again as the bus stopped. The door opened with a sucking hiss and out of the
dark a large, gaily dressed, sullen-looking colored woman got on with a little
boy. The child, who might have been four, had on a short plaid suit and a Tyrolean
hat with a blue feather in it. Julian hoped that he would sit down beside him
and that the woman would push in beside his mother. He could think of no better
As she waited for her tokens,
the woman was surveying the seating possibilities—he hoped with the idea
of sitting where she was least wanted. There was something familiar-looking
about her but Julian could not place what it was. She was a giant of a woman.
Her face was set not only to meet opposition but to seek it out. The downward
tilt of her large lower lip was like a warning sign: DON’T TAMPER WITH
ME. Her bulging figure was encased in a green crepe dress and her feet overflowed
in red shoes. She had on a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one
side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like
a cushion with the stuffing out. She carried a mammoth red pocketbook that
bulged throughout as if it were stuffed with rocks.
To Julian's disappointment, the
little boy climbed up on the empty seat beside his mother. His mother lumped
all children, black and white, into the common category, “cute,” and
she thought little Negroes were on the whole cuter than little white children.
She smiled at the little boy as he climbed on the seat.
Meanwhile the woman was bearing down upon
the empty seat beside Julian. To his annoyance, she squeezed herself into it.
He saw his mother's face change as the woman settled herself next to him and
he realized with satisfaction that this was more objectionable to her than
it was to him. Her face seemed almost gray and there was a look of dull recognition
in her eyes, as if suddenly she had sickened at some awful confrontation. Julian
saw that it was because she and the woman had, in a sense, swapped sons. Though
his mother would not realize the symbolic significance of this, she would feel
it. His amusement showed plainly on his face.
The woman next to him muttered something
unintelligible to herself. He was conscious of a kind of bristling next to
him, a muted growling like that of an angry cat. He could not see anything but
the red pocketbook upright on the bulging green thighs. He visualized the woman
as she had stood waiting for her tokens-the ponderous figure, rising from the
red shoes upward over the solid hips, the mammoth bosom, the haughty face,
to the green and purple hat.
His eyes widened.
The vision of the two hats, identical,
broke upon him with the radiance of a brilliant sunrise. His face was suddenly
lit with joy. He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such
a lesson. He gave a loud chuckle so that she would look at him and see that
he saw. She turned her eyes on him slowly. The blue in them seemed to have
turned a bruised purple. For a moment he had an uncomfortable sense of her
innocence, but it lasted only a second before principle rescued him. Justice
entitled him to laugh. His grin hardened until it said to her as plainly as
if he were saying aloud: Your punishment exactly fits your pettiness. This
should teach you a permanent lesson.
Her eyes shifted to the woman. She seemed
unable to bear looking at him and to find the woman preferable. He became conscious
again of the bristling presence at his side. The woman was rumbling like a
volcano about to become active. His mother's mouth began to twitch slightly
at one corner. With a sinking heart, he saw incipient signs of recovery on
her face and realized that this was going to strike her suddenly as funny and
was going to be no lesson at all. She kept her eyes on the woman and an amused
smile came over her face as if the woman were a monkey that had stolen her
hat. The little Negro was looking up at her with large fascinated eyes. He
had been trying to attract her attention for some time.
“Carver!” the woman said suddenly. “Come
When he saw that the spotlight
was on him at last, Carver drew his feet up and turned himself toward Julian's
mother and giggled.
“Carver!” the woman said. “You
heah me? Come heah!”
Carver slid down from the seat
but remained squatting with his back against the base of it, his head turned
slyly around toward Julian's mother, who was smiling at him. The woman reached
a hand across the aisle and snatched him to her. He righted himself and hung
backwards on her knees, grinning at Julian's mother. “Isn’t he
cute?” Julian's mother said to the woman with the protruding teeth.
“I reckon he is,” the
woman said without conviction.
The Negress yanked him upright
but he eased out of her grip and shot across the aisle and scrambled, giggling
wildly, onto the seat beside his love.
“I think he likes me,” Julian's
mother said, and smiled at the woman. It was the smile she used when she was
being particularly gracious to an inferior. Julian saw everything lost. The
lesson had rolled off her like rain on a roof.
The woman stood up and yanked the little
boy off the seat as if she were snatching him from contagion. Julian could
feel the rage in her at having no weapon like his mother's smile. She gave
the child a sharp slap across his leg. He howled once and then thrust his head
into her stomach and kicked his fret against her shins. “Behave,” she
The bus stopped and the Negro
who had been reading the newspaper got off. The woman moved over and set the
little boy down with a thump between herself and Julian. She held him firmly
by the knee. In a moment he put his hands in front of his face and peeped at
Julian's mother through his fingers.
“I see yoooooooo !” she said
and put her hand in front of her face and peeped at him.
The woman slapped his hand down. “Quit
yo’ foolishness,” she said, “before I knock the living Jesus
out of you!”
Julian was thankful that the next
stop was theirs. He reached up and pulled the cord. The woman reached up and
pulled it at the same time. Oh my God, he thought. He had the terrible intuition
that when they got off the bus together, his mother would open her purse and
give the little boy a nickel. The gesture would be as natural to her as breathing.
The bus stopped and the woman got up and lunged to the front, dragging the
child, who wished to stay on, after her. Julian and his mother got up and followed.
As they neared the door, Julian tried to relieve her of her pocketbook.
“No,” she murmured, “I
want to give the little boy a nickel.”
“No!” Julian hissed. “No!”
She smiled down at the child and
opened her bag. The bus door opened and the woman picked him up by the arm
and descended with him, hanging at her hip. Once in the street she set him
down and shook him.
Julian's mother had to close her
purse while she got down the bus step but as soon as her feet were on the ground,
she opened it again and began to rummage inside. “I can’t find
but a penny,” she whispered, “but it looks like a new one.”
“Don’t do it!” Julian
said fiercely between his teeth. There was a streetlight on the corner and
she hurried to get under it so that she could better see into her pocketbook.
The woman was heading off rapidly down the street with the child still hanging
backward on her hand.
“Oh little boy!” Julian's
mother called and took a few quick steps and caught up with them just beyond
the lamppost. “Here’s a bright new penny for you,” and she
held out the coin, which shone bronze in the dim light.
The huge woman turned and for a moment
stood, her shoulders lifted and her face frozen with frustrated rage, and stared
at Julian's mother. Then all at once she seemed to explode like a piece
of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw
the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed
as he heard the woman shout, “He don't take nobody’s pennies!” When
he opened his eyes, the woman was disappearing down the street with the little
boy staring wide-eyed over her shoulder. Julian's mother was sitting
on the sidewalk.
“I told you not to do that,” Julian
said angrily. “I told you not to do that!”
He stood over her for a minute, gritting
his teeth. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her hat was on her
lap. He squatted down and looked her in the face. It was totally expressionless. “You
got exactly what you deserved,” he said. “Now get up.”
He picked up her pocketbook and put what
had fallen out back in it. He picked the hat up off her lap. The penny caught
his eye on the sidewalk and he picked that up and let it drop before her eyes
into the purse. Then he stood up and leaned over and held his hands out to
pull her up. She remained immobile. He sighed. Rising above them on either
side were black apartment buildings, marked with irregular rectangles of light.
At the end of the block a man came out of a door and walked off in the opposite
direction. “All right,” he said, “suppose somebody happens
by and wants to know why you’re sitting on the sidewalk?”
She took the hand and, breathing hard,
pulled heavily up on it and then stood for a moment, swaying slightly as if
the spots of light in the darkness were circling around her. Her eyes, shadowed
and confused, finally settled on his face. He did not try to conceal his irritation. “I
hope this teaches you a lesson,” he said. She leaned forward and her
eyes raked his face. She seemed trying to determine his identity. Then, as
if she found nothing familiar about him, she started off with a headlong movement
in the wrong direction.
“Aren’t you going
on to the Y?” he asked.
“Home,” she muttered.
“Well, are we walking?”
For answer she kept going. Julian followed
along, his hands behind him. He saw no reason to let the lesson she had had
go without backing it up with an explanation of its meaning. She might as well
be made to understand what had happened to her. “Don’t think that
was just an uppity Negro woman,” he said. “That was the whole colored
race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black
double. She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure,” he added gratuitously
(because he thought it was funny), “it looked better on her than it did
on you. What all this means,” he said, “is that the old world is
gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” He
thought bitterly of the house that had been lost for him. “You aren’t
who you think you are,” he said.
She continued to plow ahead, paying
no attention to him. Her hair had come undone on one side. She dropped her
pocketbook and took no notice. He stooped and picked it up and handed it to
her but she did not take it.
”You needn’t act as if the
world had come to an end,” he said, “because it hasn’t. From
now on you’ve got to live in a new world and face a few realities for
a change. Buck up,” he said, “it won't kill you.”
She was breathing fast.
“Let's wait on the bus,” he
“Home,” she said thickly.
“I hate to see you behave
like this,” he said. “Just like a child. I should be able to expect
more of you.” He decided to stop where he was and make her stop and wait
for a bus. “I'm not going any farther,” he said, stopping. “We’re
going on the bus.”
She continued to go on as if she
had not heard him. He took a few steps and caught her arm and stopped her.
He looked into her face and caught his breath. He was looking into a face he
had never seen before. “Tell Grandpa to come get me,” she said.
He stared, stricken.
“Tell Caroline to come get
me,” she said.
Stunned, he let her go and she
lurched forward again, walking as if one leg were shorter than the other. A
tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping her from him. “Mother!” he
cried. “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” Crumpling, she fell to the
pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying, “Mamma, Mamma!” He
turned her over. Her face was fiercely distorted. One eye, large and staring,
moved slightly to the left as if it had become unmoored. The other remained
fixed on him, raked his face again, found nothing and closed.
“Wait here, wait here!” he
cried and jumped up and began to run for help toward a cluster of lights he
saw in the distance ahead of him. “Help, help!” he shouted, but
his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther
away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere.
The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment
to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.