First posted on chainlessway.ca, August 23, 2016. Typo correction August 26, 2016.
JOHN BART GERALD
with illustrations by
1984 / 2016
First published by
author & artist
J.B.Gerald & J.Maas
Moody / New York, 1984
Copyright © 1984, by John Bart Gerald
Illustrations Copyright © 1984, by Julie Maas
Online edition, 2016, all rights reserved.
Cerise was his chemistry laboratory partner. Able was very interested in chemistry, but formulas and instructions confused him. Whenever he sensed an unstable molecular structure or chemical compound capable of producing an explosion, he became forgetful. He was not sure whether this was because he was interested, or just forgetful. Cerise had light eyes and wore glossy black high heeled shoes to chem lab. Her blond hair wrapped a soft halo about her temples. Her eyes were gentle. She was quick as a doe. When Able first saw her all the random pain of his childhood fused into a bright burning orange.
“Aren’t you going to do your experiment, Able?” she asked.
Chem labs lasted all afternoon. Afterward Able and Cerise would hang their white lab smocks , pack their green bookbags, and emerging from the laboratory building, find themselves walking hand in hand down the avenue under the last leaves of Fall.
Able began to perform very poorly in chemistry. Cerise did very well. “You aren’t very bright,” she teased him. He was not thinking about chemistry. He was waiting for that moment at the door of her dormitory when she would turn toward him and he would look into her eyes, opening her coat, opening his jacket, holding her along him.
One day she said,”Don’t you ever want to take me back to your room?”
“My roommate’s in.”
“Doesn’t he ever go out?”
“Well he’s never in on Saturday afternoon.”
“Okay,” she said.
“But I’m not either,” said Able. “He plays football, and I usually watch the games. He’d be really upset if I didn’t.”
“Forget it,” she said.
“So I’ll see you Saturday,” he said.
Saturday afternoon, Able is walking down the brick streets with his arm around Cerise. The town is empty. Everyone is at the football game, except paid employees. Cerise is nervous, very bright, laughing and hidden. He shelters her under his arm as her breast nudges his chest.
“Very brave of you to take me to your room,” she says.
“Don’t say , ‘what now,’” she says, sitting on the couch in her white sweater with her knees together.
“I forgot to buy any whiskey.”
“Do you have some wine?”
“I’ll look,” he says.”No.”
“Me,” he says. “All I have is me.” He is standing there in the middle of the living room with all of his roommate Henry’s sports trophies on the mantelpiece and taking up the bookshelf space, and it is hard to tell them apart from eachother of the chess trophies which are also Henry’s. Cerise is sitting nervously on the edge of the couch.
She is looking at him. After hours and hours of little talk in their walks together there is nothing to say. He understands her and does not at all. All the facts about her do not explain why he stands there, helpless. Something about her hurts him so deeply that he is aware. He wants her to be complete. Finding her so pretty, he shuts his eyes. She is smiling when he opens them.
“Aren’t you going to make love to me?” she says.
“Let’s go into the other room.”
So she stands up and follows him into his bedroom and Able grabs her and kisses her and loses his head. “Not like that,” she says, calming him. She takes off his shirt, and then her sweater. She is pleased with her breasts. She continues to undress him. When he has undressed her she climbs under the covers and he climbs in after her.
“How much time do we have?”she says.
“I don’t know.”
“What are you scared of?” she says.
“You never slept with a woman,” she says. “That’s okay... I’ve never been... all the way. Honest. I picked you... Don’t you want to know why? Because I know. I know that you love me. Easy.”
“Love you,” he says.
“That’s right,” she says. “I know. Help me, Able... I can’t stand it. Now. I love you.”
Able still pulled his D in chemistry, Cerise an A. They met for lunch and coffee and dinner, and walked the streets together, and Able, increasingly forgetful, abstracted, was in agony whenever he wasn’t with her, and was handsome and radiant when he was. Cerise in love became brighter, more practical, and triumphant.
“Do you think you could study at the library tonight?” Able asked Henry.
“Why?” said Henry.
“Wanted to bring Cerise up,” said Able.
“Okay,” said Henry.
When Cerise met Henry she stopped absolutely still and nodded hello. Afterwards she said, “He certainly is mean looking !”
“He looks like that at everybody.”
“Does he really? He’s awfully big.”
When Henry and the jocks announced they were having a pig party, they invited Able.
“Why don’t you bring Cerise?” said Henry.
“Come on,” said Able. “She’s my girl.”
“We’re all inviting our girls,” said Henry.
It was a beer blast in a suite at one of the modern dormitories and there were a lot of women there. Able introduced Cerise to Henry’s team members and then she did not seem scared of Henry any more, but smiled and took a drink when she was offered one. Able started talking to one of the girls in his Latin class and the crowd pushed and pulled at them . When he looked for Cerise she was laughing with Henry. When he looked again she was gone. Able was cornered by Henry’s right tackle for some help in fixing the stereo set, and after another beer Able set out in search of Cerise.
The heart of the party was in an adjoining suite. There were many girls he didn’t know there, all dressed up and getting loaded. It seemed the entire football team was at the party. Able hated football. Cerise was not in the suite. Able went on to the next suite where a large blond girl took an interest in him and wanted to go somewhere quiet. He looked about helplessly for Cerise.
“But not here,” said the girl. “The rooms are all taken.”
“How do you know?” said Able.
“Well,” she said, opening a door where there was a crowd inside who slammed it shut again. “See?”
Able was nervous with suddenly opened doors and had his face turned away. “We could sit in the corner,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
Able and the woman sat on the rug and drank. She said she didn’t go to college, never wanted to go to college, no one in her family ever went to college, and why should she. “The only thing college ever taught anyone,”she said, “is how to be a crook.” She smoothed her hand on his leg. He said he would be right back.
Through all the rooms of the party once again Able went looking for Cerise. At the centre suite a woman had taken off her blouse and people were pouring beer over her shoulders. She was not Cerise. Several guys were drunk and about to topple. Cerise was nowhere to be seen and neither was Henry. When Able found his way back to the girl on the floor she was talking to one of the players who was very loaded and had his arm around her shoulder. Able, replaced again, turned to leave.
“Wait !” She was up and after him . “I’m leaving !”
So she left with him and Able walked her home.
“It’s only a little way,” she said.
But it was a long way.
“Want to come in?” she said.
He was sad.
“I see. You don’t want to,” she said. “I can do without you, you know. That’s for sure.”
“I like you,” said Able.
Inside, her roommate was asleep. She gave him a drink of whiskey in her room and took him to bed.
When Able reached home he was crying. Cerise’s dormitory phone would not be open until morning. His rooms were dark. Henry’s door was open and Henry was snoring peacefully. Able readied for bed. Brushing his teeth he noticed a lipstick on the sink. He picked it up. It looked like Cerise’s lipstick, but that was unlikely and it was hard to be sure. When he closed the cabinet door there on the mirror it was written in lipstick, “I loved you.”
“What’s the matter with you !” said Henry. “She’s a pig.”
“She’s mine,” said Able.
“Not anymore. Take it easy. You made out allright, I hear.”
“She’s mine,” said Able, hurt.
Henry laughed. “So what are you going to do? You want to fight?”
“No,” said Able. Henry was much bigger and stronger than Able was.
“Then buzz off.”
Able saw Cerise on the day of his chemistry lab. She had her white coat on and was already into the day’s lab assignment. Her hair was wreathed about her head, golden. She looked up at him. Then her eyes filled with water.
“Are you allright?” she said after a while.
Able put down his flask and pipette and turned off the bunson burner. He had forgotten something. He walked out of the laboratory, went back to his room, packed a bag and took a train to somewhere else. He found a hotel room. It was night. He was alone again, and in some quiet way alone again for the rest of his life.
After about a month someone discovered where he was. The phone rang. “Is that you Able?”
“Yes it is,” said Able.
“What are you doing?”
“Watching television. Why? Who are you?”
“Well praise be. This is Professor Cain. We thought you might be dead.”
“No way,” said Able.
“What happened?” said Professor Cain.
“My girl left me.”
“You are still crying about it?”
“Yes I am.”
“Do you know how much it has cost the university to find out where you are?” And Professor Cain did his best to persuade Able to return to college.
“I forgot to tell my parents,” said Able.
“Listen,” said Professor Cain. The college makes its money for the term whether you study or float to hell. Now you come back here or you will have a black mark on your academic record for the rest of your life.”
“That really is something to think about,” said Able. “Okay, I’ll come back. But I don’t want to room with that football player.”
“That is your problem, kid,” said the professor.
Able packed his suitcase and returned to college. He lived at a rooming house for transients until the university gave him permission to life off campus. Able looked around for a room and finally found a small apartment within his depleted means, deeper in the city, on a street where everyone was black or brown or simply poor. He began to study again.
“Hi,” said Able.
“Oh ! You surprised me !” said Cerise. “Where have you been? I thought you left me forever.”
“Thinking,” said Able.
“I’m glad you came back...”
“Oh Able, you missed so many experiments.”
“May I borrow your notes?” he said.
“Sure. Right. Able. Do you notice anything different about me?”
“You sure look nice,” he mumbled.
“I’m pregnant. I’ve been so scared and worried. Then you left. I was so scared to tell you. I knew before we went to that party. I was sure you would leave me anyway. I couldn’t tell you. You would have left me. That’s why I went off with Henry. I wanted you to have a way out. But I didn’t think you would really take it. Able, what am I going to do?” She stood there in her white coat with her hands shaking and everyone oohing and ahhing around them as the flasks foamed at one sink then another, and the critical stage of the experiment was successfully attained. But she was not experimenting.
“Before the party?” said Able.
She nodded, biting her lip.
“I wouldn’t have left you,” said Able.
“I went to a doctor about a week before. The lab report was positive. I didn’t know how to tell you. I wasn’t even getting sick then. I thought there was plenty of time. I didn’t want you to be hurt. But I was so alone. I know you loved me. We’re so young, Able.”
“Is it mine?” he said.
“Of course, you idiot,” she said, tearing and furious.
“And you still have the baby?” he said opening his eyes.
“Right you are,” she said.
“It’s my baby !” said Able.
She took a deep breath and her hands steadied. “So you begin to get the picture,” said Cerise.
“Cerise !” Able grabbed her and hugged her and started to dance with her down the row of sinks.
“Stop,” said Cerise. He was kissing and kissing her face, her wet eyes, her mouth, her neck.
“I love you !” said Able.
“Will both of you please get out of the lab?” said the section man.
“Able,” she said, over a cup of coffee.”What are we going to do?”
I am not so pissed at you now. It is not your fault entirely, Of course you are too mean. You should be more careful of people’s hearts. I found a pad in the city so I guess we won’t be roommates anymore. But from a safe distance I remain your buddy and hope you score big in the game of your life.
Dear Able Fellah,
It was too my fault. Did the best I could. I’d do it again, too. Now don’t you go off and marry that girl. I know you are a sucker. And what are your buddies for if they don’t fight for your freedom?
“How am I ever going to understand women?” said Able.
“You don’t have to understand them,” said Professor Cain. “You only have to move them. Women are like the sea.”
“But you can’t understand the sea. It keeps changing.”
“So it does,” said the professor. He looked at Able brightly as though he might understand.
Able shook his head. “I don’t want to navigate them. I want to understand them.”
“Well, the only way you will understand a woman, Able, is to love her.”
“What’s so bad about being in love, Pops?” said Cerise over coffee.
“I miss you when we aren’t together. And you don’t care about me as much. And you don’t want to sleep with me as much, now.”
Your sex is too important to you. What good is your maleness if I don’t feel like sleeping with you in the middle of the day?”
“You’re changing, Cerise,” said Able.
“I’m teasing you, okay?”
“And look,” he said.”Why didn’t you tell me your pa was in the police?”
“Well it isn’t exactly the police. It’s just like any government bureau. It has a head, and an awful lot of people who work for it. All over the place. And you aren’t supposed to know who they are. I mean they’re all over the place.”
Able wasn’t going to take Christmas vacation. He did not need to. Instead he was going to catch up on the schoolwork he had missed, and he asked Cerise to Christmas with him in his apartment.
“Oh I can’t,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“My parents wouldn’t let me. They’re expecting me home for Christmas, with my brother and sister. I miss them all a lot.”
“But we’re going to have a baby,” he said, dumbfounded.
“Not until summer. You’ll be okay. It’s only for a little while.”
“No I won’t,” he said. “I can take care of you. It’s our baby. Your parents will take you away from me. I want you to be with me. We can get married on New Year’s. You could move in with me.”
“Sweetheart,” she said, laughing.
“I’m serious,” he said.
“A baby is just a baby. Look, I want to be somebody, not simply a mother. Mother says it’s hard to be a mother anymore unless you are more.”
“My mother was a mother. Your mother was a mother.”
“But what if they were nothing else? I want to be great at something. When I’m old enough , when I’m forty , I want my face to be like a mirror to anyone who sees me, so people will read their hopes and passions in my face, and I will touch what is holy in them.”
When they made love he kept pleading with her to stay.
“You said ‘yes’,” he said afterward.
“I’ll buy the Christmas tree.”
“Oh I didn’t mean that. I have to go home this Christmas. There are a lot of Christmases, Able.”
“But what does ‘yes’ mean?”
“It means you’re my man.”
Able drove as slowly as he could. Still they arrived at the airport early. All the night lights of the airport were on – the great window spaces of the airlines and bright colors of letters announcing their names, and then all the blued lights of the runways stretching out into the night and wee houses under the faint stars. She opened her coat for him and he opened his jacket and held her against him, wanting her, feeling the slightest firm curve of her belly , her lips on his neck tenderly plucking the beginning of that desperate ache of loneliness which was beginning to crash onto him.
“It’s only twelve days,” she said.
“I’ll be back a day early. Then we can make plans,” she said.
“Oh Able, a girl asked me if I was pregnant at the dormitory and I was so embarrassed !” she said.
“Promise you’ll finish your social science paper,” she said.
“That’s my flight,” she said.
“Oh Able, don’t let me go !” she said. “I love you !” But then she was gone, and she was walking out toward that dully glittering plane and up the steps. She did not turn and wave. When she had disappeared he stood around for a few moments . What did it matter where she was going. She was not with him. He drove back to the college to return the car, grabbed a roast beef with russian at a feeding place, and took the subway home to the stillness of his apartment.
Funny, those stretches alone, on a little street near the monument with its needle to the sky,. Without Cerise there was only the emptiness of his pad, the long narrow floorboards with chipping gray paint, the large closed windows which the winter seeped through and the wind rattled, the kerosene space heater, his bed, desk and chair, the kitchen. At night the windows would ice over, and thaw in the day with the heater on full. You could put a pan of water on top which stayed just this side of boiling. He read, Catullus, Horace, Lucretius, Virgil’s Eclogues, with the pleasure of reading an orderly language, a language made for conquest through force, for warfare, for practical architecture, turning for moments to inarticulate perceptions of love like surprises, before it was freed into French, English, Spanish and Italian.
So Able studied.
Professor Cain, in his first floor apartment of a brownstone, kept his Christmas tree in the window. Able, courageous, rapped on the door. The professor appeared in his shirt sleeves and tie.
“Scoundrel !” Said the professor.
“Hi,” said Able. “Merry Christmas, Professor.”
“You’re early,” said his Latin teacher. “Christmas happens once a year. Tomorrow.”
“May I come in?” said Able.
“Sure. Of course. Why not?”
Able put his present under the tree and took off his overcoat. He sat down. Professor Cain pushed aside the stack of papers on his desk and slumped into an easy chair.
“Just thought to say hello,”said Able.
“Did you? I’ll bet you were lonely.”
“Say, that’s right,” said Able.
They sat in silence. Professor Cain was not in a talkative mood. Able found he did not have much to say to the professor. You have to be awfully smart to amuse a professor. Professor Cain was slightly uneasy.
“Have a drink,” said the professor.
“Okay,” said Able.
The professor poured them both whiskeys, added ice from the bucket, and water from a pitcher. It was as though Professor Cain was expecting him.
“So you miss your girlfriend,” said Professor Cain.
“I want to marry her, “ said Able.
“Oh you do? Well ho hum.” The professor coughed on his swallow and set down his glass. “You are not twenty yet !” “Age isn’t so important.”
Professor Cain groaned. “I love to see kids in love,” he said. “Even when they don’t know nuthin from nuthin. You’re lucky. Even with your papers you stumble over things which make good sense. But you haven’t had to pay for them. I guess that’s what worries me.”
“You have to pay for wisdom? Able asked.
“I certainly did.”
“That’s just an excuse for tuition.”
“Hah ! “said the professor. “It’s what you can’t pay for in dollars and cents that costs the most.”
“Well,” said Able,” the price of wisdom is probably too steep for me.”
“Each of us pays, whether we like it or not. Innocents pay more suddenly, I suspect you’ll find understanding is painful at first. I would hope not. But I’m afraid it will be.”
“Thanks for calling me up when I was left,” said Able. “I was very down. No one else called.”
“Oh that’s what takes the place of business in my life.”
“The wisdom business,” said Able.
Able wanted to ask the professor what price he had payed for his own wisdom, or why the professor was grading papers on Christmas eve, but at that moment there was a knock on the door and Professor Cain went to open and became a very cheerful man. A woman came in and hugged him, and slipping out of her red rubber boots taking her shoes with them, waved at Able like a ray of light striking a prism, and working her way out of her coat padded up to him in stockings and silk dress with pearls and were they diamonds at her ears? “How do you do,” she said.
“Oh I’m fine,” said Able. “I am.” She was a very attractive woman and her red dress held close to her body. Able tried not to look at her too closely. It was as if someone had delivered her as a present to the professor for Christmas.
“This is my wife,” said Professor Cain.
“I didn’t know you were married.” said Able, shaking hands, studying the carpet.
“I live in the West, Honey,” said Mrs. Cain.
“Why don’t you...,” Able was going to say, live together, but he stopped. She was a very young woman, at least compared to Professor Cain who was busily pouring her a drink and grinning delightedly, and trying to make his wife sit down but she wouldn’t so he tried to make Able sit down instead. Mrs. Cain was only a few years older than Able.
“I guess I better leave,” said Able.
“You don’t have to,” said Mrs. Cain.
Professor Cain was grinning like a mad man, and handed Able another drink. “Oh now that you’re here.”
Able sat on the couch next to Mrs. Cain and sipped while she teased the professor and stretched out her legs, pointing her stockinged toes.
Professor Cain was walking and laughing about one friend and another, and remember this, and remember that, and when he could make Mrs. Cain laugh, her sound was like crystal bells, and Able couldn’t take his eyes from her. Her mouth and eyes seemed only to smile. Then she would break out laughing, and Able began to grin. They did not include him in their conversation so after a while Able looked down in embarrassment, and then at the Christmas tree which he had not exactly noticed – there were no baubles or lights on it, or tinsel chains. There were only the long thin needles and little figures of painted wooden angels, delicately carved. Their wings held them in flight , and their faces in rapture or agony held still forever in the moment of their apprehension. On Professor Cain’s Christmas tree were all the secret moments of Able’s own joys and sadness.
“Don’t go !” said the professor.
“You can come to dinner with us, Honey,” said Mrs. Cain.
“Merry Christmas !” said Able, and he waved to them both, slipped into his overcoat and through the door fast as a cat, with one look back at the two of them standing together, she smiling like a Christmas star and reaching for the professor’s hand while Able stumbled out into the darkness.
In the subways people were bundled, scarved, carrying presents and children, smiling, as though some of that light which shone suddenly in Professor Cain’s living room, spread through their lives. Able did not want to return to his pad. There were no presents there. The sky was full of snow. It would not let go. The bar at the foot of his street was filled with dark people and they were having a good time, so Able went in.
“Here come South Africa !” said a man at the door.
“Merry Christmas, George Wallace !” said another.
“Say, you the guy who lives up by the mon-u-ment?”
“The rock has rolled away !”
“Tha’s Easter, no-brain.”
“Hello,” answered Able. It was the first time anyone in his neighborhood had talked to him. “My name’s –“
”We know who you are,” said a man. “What you want?”
“I’ll go,” said Able.
“Let him stay. What harm’s he going to do?”
Able ordered, unsteadily, a drink. After the first moments of his entering no one seemed to notice him at all. People drank and met friends, and laughed, and played the juke box. Occasionally one of the Santa Clauses came in from working the street, all red suited with floppy caps and white whiskers. There were men in leather jackets who held their shoulders still and chins back. There were laughing men in fraid overcoats. There were women with very white moments at their eyes and bodies like maple syrup. There were sequins on dresses, low cut dresses, thin coats and raincoats, greens and pinks together, lipstick as red as blood, and there was not a person in the place who looked quite as white as Able.
“That’s okay,” said a man, thwopping him on the shoulders.
“What is?” said Able.
“You can be white .”
“Yeah, Merry Christmas, Pig.”
“I’m not a pig,” said Able, confused.
“What are you then?”
“Oh ho ho ho !”
Able worked on his drink. He missed Cerise. She was cradled up close to him in some quiet place in his life, breathing into his neck, her belly just a little taut. Able, a father to be, discovering Christmas eve.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m a white star alone in the Christmas sky.”
“You drunk, Baby. Why you speak so funny?”
“I don’t speak funny,” he said.
“Oh yes you do !” she laughed.
“I’m leading the wise men to the birth of Christ.”
“No you aint.”
“Oh,” said Able. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t you want to know what mine is?”
“I know. My family live across the street.”
“Was. My baby and me live with my mummy and daddy now.”
“Me, I’m about to get married,” he said.
“That skinny girl who comes to visit you?”
“Well she’s not that skinny. Nosiree, not that skinny, not that skinny at all.”
“Oh she’s all pretty-pretty. Dress so nice.”
Toward the back of the bar people began to sing Christmas carols. It was carols versus juke box until someone pulled the plug. Then everyone was singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and still ordering drinks. Some people started to dance with eachother.
“What’s the matter, don’t you sing?” said Lucy.
“I feel left out.”
“I’m Jewish?” said Able.
Lucy laughed. “You is not. And if you is you about to be convertibled. Come on. Sing.”
“I don’t feel quite right about it,” said Able.
“That’s because you white,” she said.
It was unlike any “Joy to the World,” he ever heard before. “Joy,” clap clap, ”to,” clap, “the woe” clap clap, “ruled.”
“That’s better,” she said.
“I can waltz okay,” he said.
“It’s just not enough,” she said, moving her body acutely, ”to waltz.”
Much later, two of Lucy’s men friends half carried Able up the street and up his stairs with Lucy telling them exactly what to do with the body. She took the keys from Able’s benumbed fingers and let them in. They let Able fall to the bed. Lucy covered him with blankets, checked the space heater, and they went out.
“Merry Christmas,” the two men said to Lucy.
“You know everyone’s asleep,” she said, and hugged and kissed them both good-night. Then she went upstairs to her parents’ place and her baby. Some Christmas eve.
The day after Christmas Able was himself again. He ordered a mess of food at the grocery and had it delivered to Lucy. But with the holiday passed, no one was speaking to him again. He studied. He waited for Cerise to come home to him, and stayed in, cooking up grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches on the stove.
Finally the day came when Cerise was supposed to return. They would have a day before college opened again. And another day before either of them had a class. Able cleaned up his apartment.
Thinking of Cerise he read half of Bleak House for his literature course. He decided she was not coming. He should have phoned her. She had told him not to call her. She did not want her father to know who he was. “For your sake, Able,” she had said. And then his Christmas present, she probably didn’t like his present. Able had wrapped up the lucky gold piece of his childhood, tied a pink ribbon around the white tissue paper, with a card, “Cerise from Able,” and tucked it into her pocketbook. Maybe she didn’t understand it was his lucky piece.
Every time a car drove by with the headlights reflecting from the snow up to his windows, he thought it was her taxi. Maybe the weather...the plane. Maybe that was his life, waiting for her. But what did I do wrong, he thought? After the first few hundred pages, Bleak House is very interesting. He was going to be a father. Pleased, he put the book down, turned up the heater, and pressed his nose against the cold window glass, staring up at the night sky.
About one-thirty when there were not any other sounds out in the night, a car drove up. He heard the door slam, went to the window and looked down. A taxi. Across the street a light was on and a woman stood in the window holding her baby. Able rushed down the stairs in his bare feet and out the door. The street was empty.
He waited all that night. In the morning he slept. When college started again he asked about her and learned that she had not returned. She was not coming back. He waited to hear from her. There was nothing in his mailbox but bills. Finally in desperation he found out her home number and called. Her father answered. Cerise would not ever be returning to college. No, she was not available. And who was this calling? Able told him who was calling. He was not to call again. Ever. Good-by.
Of course he wrote. And wrote. His letters went unanswered.
Able and Professor Cain were walking together down the street. The professor had to buy groceries. Able was furious and sad, so he acted as if nothing was wrong.
“Was that really your wife at Christmas?” Able said.
“I’m afraid it was.”
“She’s very attractive.”
“Indeed she is.”
“Is she still with you?”
“No, she went back west.”
“Don’t you miss her?” said Able.
“Of course I miss her, terribly.”
“Then why don’t you live together?”
“You are making me sad now, Able. I’m much better on the Eclogues.”
“But why don’t you, if you love eachother?”
“It’s none of your business. What’s the matter now, Able, are you still broken up over that girl?”
“She didn’t even come back to school !” said Able.
“You seem to already know just about anything I have to tell you.”
Professor Cain slowed his pace and patted Able on the back. “Able my lad,” he said, “You’ll be allright.”
“No,” said Able. “I won’t. I’m real angry.”
“But didn’t you know what would happen?”
“No,” said Able.
“That is convenient, isn’t it? Then you have no blame. Certainly anything disastrous which happened wasn’t your fault, was it?”
“I’d rather have known and fought it,” said Able.
“Better not to.”
“Better not to what !”
“Not to fight it, Able,” said the professor.”People like ourselves, we’re not so different from slaves. Since ancient Greece, and even at the great universities, the teachers were slaves. You will probably be a teacher, Able. We last longer, acceding. Times have not changed so much. This may be the most helpful lesson I can give you.”
“That’s a funny thing to say,” said Able.
Able had a hard time letting go of Cerise. It hurt to think about her. One night he bought a bottle of vodka, and alone in his apartment , drank as much of it as he could with orange juice. He waited for the hurt to go away. It was still there, deep, close to his heart. Wandering around in his underpants he found his razor and began to cut at his chest as though that would let her out of his heart. The blood was flowing. He put on a white t-shirt to cover it and stop the bleeding. He watched his shirt turn red and fell asleep.
Able is alone in the jungle where he was left by the missionary council. He does not know how to build a church and told them so, which amused the entire Geneva office of the Society of Protestant Church Builders.
“If you want instructions, go work for the Catholics.”
“If you have to know everything try the Episcopalians.”
“If you don’t want to come back, ask the Presbyterians”
“Why don’t you work for an American mission?”
“You could ask the CIA.”
But I want to know God, Able said silently. So the professional religious people consulted their books and asked him questions in an attempt to figure out what to do with this American boy.
“Let us pray,” said the chief, who began to pray when they all bowed their heads. Afterward, they decided to put him “There !” said the chief, sticking a red knobbed pin into a map of the world.
“Okay, I’ll go,” said Able. So he is standing in the thoroughfare of a small village in the heart of the jungle , amid squawking chickens which are pecking and fighting for the grains of rice he scatters at his feet.
Nearby, Able’s hut contains a pallet covered by mats of palm fronds which separate him from little creatures, a leather suitcase which is already a fungal green, a Foreign Legion standard issue portable radio communications station which Able is not sure how to operate since the instruction manual is printed in German, forty pounds of Portuguese sardine tins, eight-four bars of Swiss chocolate which have melted together into a large block of congealed paper and chocolate, his container of nivaquine tablets which would last him a year, a water purifier, a penknife, his Bible which is printed in English but does not conform to any other Bible he has ever read, bags of flour, coffee, sugar, salt, salt tablets, vitamins, a medical pack, a Playboy calendar, a case of vodka left off by the only whites who have passed through the village for three months, a music box from his mother which plays “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” several shovels, fifty Gospels of St. John in native dialect, and a battery pack electrocardiagraph which he had refused but was pressed on him by a research team of heart specialists.
Also in Able’s hut is a wasps’ nest, and between that door and window a playing field, blank white, for large black spiders, each the size of his fist. From time to time a track of black ants goes up one wall and down another in its route to an unknown destination. Their early trails across his dirt floor were interrupted at the cost of hundreds of ant bites. When he began to leave pieces of food along their route, they in turn, for no apparent reason switched their trail to the thatch lianed rafters overhead, dropping off occasionally into his tin cup of coffee. There is a table and chair.
He is feeding chickens in the midday sun. The chickens at Able’s floppy sandalled feet are very scrawny, sparsely feathered chickens, and they have to be boiled a long time to negotiate as a meal, and then only when the gamey taste is gentled by adding a multitude of peanuts to the stew, or confounded by the mixing in of peppers so hot that Able can taste nothing else for days.
His hut was purchased by the S.P.C.B. man who left Able there with his truckload of supplies, from a native for the price of one goat. Then the truck disappeared with its tinny motor puttering, subsiding into the deep overlap of jungle, along that grassy two run road which led toward the river. Able sat there by the door on his crates, smiling at the impassive residents of that town where he was to build a church. No one spoke to him. They looked. He knew they spoke some French, so he tried to talk to them in French. They looked at him.
After several weeks, still no one would talk to him. Children who were caught smiling at him were scolded . Able was miserable. How could he build a church or spread the word of the gospels without making friends first? For a while, whenever he went to the village well the villagers would all cluster around it and he was afraid to try and push through them. He would say “Water,” in French. They would point to the north where the river lay at some distance even by truck. He went without water for the mornings and put his bucket out for the late afternoon downpours. When they saw he could catch his own water they did not block him at the well. After three weeks of being ignored in other respects, and feeling unwanted by the world, Able sat down on his pallet and wept until he fell asleep. He did not get up in the morning. He did not get up the next. A native who came to stand in the doorway saw that he was alive, and left. Able would not eat. When the water in his bucket was gone, he got up and went to the well. Then he lay down again and did not get up. In this manner of fasting he grew very weak but learned much about the habits of the wasps who traversed open spaces of that wall and found amid the holes through the whitewash and mud coating, occasional openings which enticed them to enter. Able could not figure out which hole a wasp would enter or emerge from. At points he prayed. When it was dark through the village he listened to the drums which sounded from the centre of the village as the people sang their slightly guttural complaint of a song. The sounds frightened him with their completeness. During the days the sun rose and the air did not move, and amid the occasional chicken noises and bits of conversation in their own tongue as people walked by his hut, the heat of the day overtook him. Sweat poured off his body. He drank more water but would not take the salt tablets or nivaquine for malaria, and then he didn’t bother to distill his water from the well, but lay there and waited, losing consciousness to the fever, and waking into moments of clarity.
He stood up and with his trousers loose around his hips wandered out into the midday sun. The villagers began to gather around him in a circle and watched him standing there, tall and unsteady, as though they were waiting to see what he would do. What he wanted was to make clear to them that he was there for them. He wavered. Sun shimmered on the open spaces of the dust, hot under his feet, burning into his sudden paleness. He was forgetting something. A young woman was standing in front of him, unafraid of him or the others, but curious. She was not looking at his face but touching the scars on his chest, touching him like moments of icicles in the heat as the others pressed around him talking in their dialect with their flashes of white teeth.
Able looked at her round cheeks and then the evenly placed cuts in her deep skin which have healed into beauty scars.
He remembered the sound of the water swirling along the thin wood of the pirogue while the sun glittered like diamonds up through the palm fronds which covered him, and the blackness of the night and the river around them and the cold of the damp water by his head, the tremblings of sickness and the cold pinches of water from their paddle splashes and the sleep taking over him like the flow of the river itself.
He was lifted out of the pirogue and onto a stone landing where there were white people speaking French, and he was carried up the hillside where the trees and clouds of orange spiked flowers were like a garden.
So all the chickens are fed and the box is empty, and Able does not ever again want to have to paddle that far against the current to return home, so he enters his hut for a can of sardines, his pills and a long drink of water which he has mixed with some kool-ade. He is now very healthy, though skinny. He is teaching the village children French every morning, and the villagers are helping him build what will be a church and schoolroom. Able, with the dream of every church builder, dreams that when he is finished God will show up and enter His house. He confesses this to the chief of construction, a young man his age. The next day the building goes more slowly. His friend has disappeared and alone, Able does not tell the other workers what to do because when they say “Oui Boss,” it means, sort of, and they drop one or more of the mud bricks which break very easily. By the next day work on the church has stopped completely.
In the afternoon Able is at the church, building alone. The bricks which are made up as needed and baked in the sun, fit into place one on another. He has to carry the bricks and water from the well by himself, and he is not as adept at laying bricks as the workers. Able is slightly mad in the heat of the afternoon sun and has peculiar ideas while working. Each brick for him, is like an objection overcome, so he places and mortars and places, remembering their complaints.
“We don’t need a church.” “We don’t want to raise objections.” And the work would bore a saint.
“Come down from there,” says Ngoto.”I want to negotiate.”
His friend has returned ! “Where is everybody?” says Able.
“They are on vacation.”
“No one told me,” says Able.
“You did not ask. Now what is the problem is this. You want us to build a church. But it is like telling a secret. Everyone will know.”
“But we already agreed,” says Able.
“And when it is done,” says Ngoto, “whose God will appear at the door, yours or mine?”
“Well it’s all the same isn’t it?”
“You are still a baby.” Ngoto laughs . “What if our God comes for his church and terrifies you? What will you do then, call the French army?”
“Come on,” says Able. “God doesn’t have anything to do with the army of anybody.”
“And the army of God?”
“That’s us,” says Able.
“Then you promise you won’t call in the French army if God appears?”
“It’s a promise,” says Able. “Anyway, I’m not sure that is how it works, God just walking up to a church door and saying is this the place?”
“That is what worries us,” says Ngoto.
A number of things worry Able. On the long paddle up river, Ngoto and his village brother spoke only in dialect for the first day. Only after an administrator’s launch with a conspicuously white man drinking beer in the stern, took them in tow, did Ngoto admit even the least knowledge of French.
“If you studied at the mission school you must be a Christian,” Able observed.
“I am when I speak French ,” said Ngoto.
“Are the other villagers Christians?”
“Always when they speak to missionaries.” Ngoto laughed because he had made a joke which Able did not understand until his return to the village, which was just as he had left it and had been for several thousand years at least. And still no one spoke to him. It occurred to Able that the people might not be Christians at all.
“Did you expect a welcoming committee?” said Ngoto.
“Wasn’t there ever another missionary who passed through here?”
“One. He lived in your hut.”
A surprise. “Why did no one tell me?”
“It is a sad story.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went home.”
“And why did he go home?” said Able.
“He went home because he could not see anymore.” But neither Ngoto nor anyone else in the village would explain to Able why the other man could not see anymore. The S.P.C.B. had not told him. Able imagined a man who looked like him but without eyes. He imagined the face of Christ, bound to a tree where the ants would find him. He wondered why it was that every village seemed to have its own Christ, and even in this remote village the man without eyes had preceded him. Able was very fond of his own eyes and glad to have them.
When two of the walls were completed the church roof was constructed. All the women of the village went into the jungle one morning and cut low palm branches of many tendrilled leaves, with machetes, and bore the bundles back to the village on their shoulders. Gatherings of palm fronds were lashed securely to the roof rafters which were simply thin poles. The work went quickly. A soft mountain of thick fronded green rose toward the sky. It was cool underneath, with the air moving through the open ends of the church, and immediately the women of the village brought in their wooden tubs to wash their clothes. There were more women than Able expected, and they were all extremely pleased with their new laundry room. Able could not see anything wrong with that.. The men stood at the open ends or crowded the large window spaces, while the women washed clothing and brought water from the well, laughing and singing as though it was a festival, splashing water on their children’s heads and answering the taunts of the men.
“It seems that the women have arrived before God,” Ngoto had said.
“Still, the church isn’t finished.”
“Maybe that is why the women owe God. If they come before God, they owe men.”
“What if women live closer to the truth?” Able had answered.
Everyone was pleased with the church so far, and the villagers sent to his hut that evening a black cooking pot filled with unattractive but delicious stew, the first of many dinners. He did not have to cook up his own supper again. If there was any success which gained him some access to the villagers’ affections, it was that laundromat, a place of ritual cleansing which was to last after the church was completed, by simply stacking the wooden benches along the walls and bringing in the tubs.
“What is that?” says Anjant. Anjant is the woman who first noticed Able’s scars and touched and prodded them when he presented himself to the village. It is she who appears with his dinner, once again, followed by a small crowd of young and old, who like to laugh and like to look at Able. Discovering that Able still does not have the understanding of what to eat amid the offerings of the black cooking pot, she finds an aluminum dish amidst his boyscout dinnerware and then leaves to return with a wooden spoon and stick of manioc. She shows him what to eat, a task which she has taken on herself to do now every evening. Able is somehow less hungry when she is near. Sometimes she stands beside him and points at his food so that he will eat instead of dumbly looking at her. Able nods and begins to eat. Her apparently limited French has allowed him to learn her name but little else. He has introduced himself. He hungers for conversation. The other natives observe him as he eats, and talk to eachother all the time but in their language. Anjant rarely speaks to anyone. At these dinners Able feels like he is living in the display window of a department store.
On this particular evening Able has grown interested in the wireless and has decided that the battery pack is too weak which is why the radio simply will not make any noise when it is turned on, so he has decided to boost the battery current with batteries from the electrocardiagraph machine, and has the battery terminals on relays with some heavy wire he has clipped from the innards of the electrocardiagraph. The radio and batteries and infernal machine and screws and pieces of wire and very important parts which cover coils and nests of soldered connections and tubes, are scattered over the table, where he is to eat. Anjant is very annoyed with Able.
“What is that?” She asks again.
Able realizes that she is annoyed because it is dinner time and he is exploring wires and smacking the wireless lightly in hopes that it will suddenly come to life and play “Nina and Frederick singing “Listen to the Ocean,” over Radio Brazzaville.
“It is a key to the modern world,” says Able, pleased that she is talking to him. He looks up at her wondering if she can understand.
“It is a broken key,” she remarks.
“Well yes it is,” Able says. “But I am trying to change that.”
“She puts her pot at the edge of the table and calls in dialect to one of the other natives in that usual evening cluster at his doorway and an old man with only ragged shorts and what look like worn bedroom slippers enters, whom she introduces as Mebe, her uncle, a former radio operator for the Free French under General DeGaulle, who apparently speaks no French at all but looks at the radio and power packs and pronounces one word to Able in English, which quite surprises him.
“Dead,” says Mebe.
“Maybe so,” says Able.
“So,” says Mebe, and with a sudden stream of words, none of which Able understands in any language, Mebe exhorts the crowd of natives who enter the hut and descend on the table picking up the miscellaneous pieces of machinery down to every last screw, and disappear through the door. With the table cleared, Anjant places out his dinner before him and pronounces “Happy food,” and with the suppleness of bending grass slips out of the hut.
Each night at dinner Able hears a new chapter in the tale of “The Resurrection of the Wireless.” Mebe is working on it. Able has no hope of ever seeing it again. Mebe comes and searches for a piece which must be missing. Anjant says that Mebe is excited. A spark of life ! Anjant says that Mebe was mistaken, no excitement. Then one evening Able returns from work and there on the table is the wireless with all the screws in, looking like an item on a Sears Roebuck shelf. The batteries from the electrocardiagraph machine are not connected at all, and Able decides Mebe gave up. When Able flips the switch there is the sharp crackling of the open band and the contraption works ! Little voices break the silence at several points in the short wave band. He listens to a portion of the district chief’s report to headquarters on the coast. Then he opens the transmitting key and in English announces his message on the airwaves of the jungle, “I love you world !”
Anjant does not try to interrupt him with supper, but picks pieces of stringy meat out of the pot with her slender fingers, and munching thoughtfully, points to the machine and says, “Ho-sannah.”
“It is easy to resurrect machines,” she says to him later that evening, he sitting in the door jamb, she squatting in the shadows beside him while his kerosene lamp flickers from the door and window on the faces of the onlookers. “But it is not so simple with men.”
“I guess not,” says Able, deep in thought. Her way of sayng words is one of the pleasures of his day. He has not questioned her increasing facility with French. His thoughts instead roam the savannahs of philosophy. Theological questions such as the meaning of resurrection flee before him on their swift antelope feet, and he pursues.
“It is very much to ask,” she prods.
“I guess,” says Able.
“Is that all you have to say?” she laughs , and speaks several words to her friends and they all laugh.
“I just don’t know,” says Able. “I believe that anything beyond even our most wonderful imaginings can happen if we do right by the Lord. I believe the resurrection was real. I believe that Mohammet as well rose to the heavens, living, riding the back of his steed like the sun itself. I believe that men and women have been saved as angels of the Lord, and that the spirit of every man, woman and child, contains a handful of the sun. I believe the words and life of Christ can save us. Anjant,” he says,”if I could sing what rests in my heart sometimes, I would make a song so beautiful that you might understand me, and I would show you so well that God is real, that then I would be a part of you and all your people, and the Lord would be moved to heal us past all difference.” and Able, stopping because he remembers himself, finds her smiling and her friends smiling back at him as if for a moment they really did understand him. But of course, Able thought, no one would understand him, which is why he is sitting in the door jamb in the midst of the bush with his bare feet squinching the street dust between his toes. They seem to be waiting patiently for him to go to sleep, so Able says goodnight to her friends and then to Anjant , enters, turns the wick down until it sputters and the light disappears. He sleeps.
“Why is it, Ngoto, that there are no lepers in this village?” Able asks one day. They are working on the ends of the church and Able sits high on the south wall where he hands bricks up to Ngoto who places them well. From their vantage and because the village is on a low rise amid hills, he can look past the thatch roof for some distance over the jungle.
“Perhaps they go to other villages,” says Ngoto.
It is true that there are lepers in the other villages. But the villagers in Able’s village seem to have no need for either his own medical pack or the hospital at some days’ journey. “No,” says Able, slowly.I don’t think so. I think your village is different.”
Able has to reach way down for the bricks and climb several steps on the wall which is very narrow, to hand each brick to Ngoto, who had risen to a higher tier of the wall where he sits, straddling with his legs dangling.
“Alysum,” Able says the name of the village as he hands Ngoto a brick. “That is a funny name.”
Ngoto laughs, looking at him carefully. Able is so close that Ngoto could easily tip him off the wall past the row of workers in their niches passing up the bricks, to the dirt below. So Ngoto laughs.
Able, guilty of awareness, washes in his bucket. The village is all at a harvest dance and the tambours are very loud. Every night he can hear the drums of other villages and the answering drums of their own. They are restless drums, though it is a good season. Radio Brazzaville is full of palavers. Patrice Lumumba is a great hero. He is leading the Congo Belge into independence. The big companies are reluctant to let go.
Soon the Moyen congo will claim its section of French Equatorial Africa. The country of Gabon will become independent and the French administrators will go home. To the north, French Cameroun becomes Cameroun while many of the administrators and missionaries at isolated posts have been...well, ponders Able, they have been murdered. In Rio Muni on the sea there is a slow civil war. Politics. The cruelty of white South Africa continues. Kenya will be free and some day, Rhodesia. In folk tales of mid Africa there are men and women hunted like animals because they have refused to live as slaves. The Moyen Congo will become the Republic of Congo, a Communist country. The Congo Belge will lose the name of her river, succumbing to the treachery of those who betrayed Lumumba, and will be called Zaire.
Able, unclaimed by any major power, helps build a church. He happens to be American, but there are no Americans with him. No English is spoken on the radio bands. It does not matter what he thinks, but he thinks. The village life and the villagers’ way of sharing with eachother and even through families with other villages, is very pure communism or christianity, but without doctrine. Christianity, communism and capitalism did not originate in Africa, which has survived with constancy for the greatest length of history. The village of Alysum does not need him. The work on the church is nearly completed, and he is there because he wants to be there.
“Why do you look like a father?” says Anjant, noting his sadness one evening.
“And what does a father look like?” says Able.
“Like someone who is left out.”
“Oh. Because the church is almost complete?”
“It might fall down,” she says.
“It better not !”
“But then you could build it again,” she says to comfort him.
“You do not like the church,” he says, hurt.
“I like what we have . But I do not want Christ to ride me into Jerusalem. We will have to explain why there is a church here.”
“Nothing is going to happen because you have a church,” Able says.
She smiles at him.
“Aw Anjant,” he says. “That’s not fair !”
“Where will you be?”
“Well if I’m not here, there will be someone else,” he says.
“But I may not want someone else to defend,” she says, angry as a girl, changeable.
“None of that is up to us,” says Able, suddenly awake.
The next day no one is speaking to him again. The children are waiting for their lessons in the shade of the church but their parents have nothing to say to him. In the afternoon, work on the church continues slowly.
“Ngoto, what’s going on?”
“We are almost at Independence,” says Ngoto.
“Hurrah !” says Able.
“We will call the church, Independence, then,” says Ngoto.
“It will be whole soon,” says Able.
Ngoto has nothing more to say that afternoon.
Able begins his dinner and stops. Anjant is at the cooking fire in back, boiling water for coffee. He walks around the hut and standing at the corner looks at her, with her hands on hips, the smoke drifting away from the embers at her feet and the night falling down on the jungle wall. He wonders if she wears the dress because of him. She draws a picture by the fire with her toes. She does not see him. He does not want to frighten her. She turns toward him and smiles as if she knew. Even the way she stands lets him know the pain of what he does not have, or understand, and needs. He walks up to her and takes her hand. She insists on the weight of hers in his and bumps him with her shoulder. He stands beside her, bodies touching, and they sway together.
“I didn’t want to eat without you,” he says.
“Wait.” She moves away from him and takes up the water with its happy fury.
Inside she sits with him at the table, with her hands around her cheeks and elbows planted on the wood, picking at the chicken he has placed in his dish, and watching him, until Able just sits there and swallows and looks at her as if he is staring into a fire.
“Goodnight,” she says in English. Then she is gone. He thinks she might come back, and he lights his lantern and clears up, washes out his socks in the bucket, reads some St. Luke, and after a while flips the wireless switch and scanning the channels listens to the static and curiously empty bands, while the drums of the village start up their evening patter amid the others talking along the valleys.
After thinking about it rationally, able decides that “goodnight,” is a fairly common word anywhere in the world, though she says it so clearly, and sometimes she says words in French which he does not understand at all. Maybe she is trying to please him. Able is grinning at the radio dials when he finds words and tunes in to a European woman’s voice, speaking quickly, urgently in French, giving her location which is somewhere south of Leopoldville in the Congo, requesting pickup. Her station is far away. Her voice fades out then reappears very clearly. It is strange to hear the finely articulated french again, and he is slow to understand just what she is saying or why she sounds desperate, but the more he strains to understand, the more difficult it is, until it becomes clear to him that she is a Belgian, a Catholic sister, and she is trying to report to someone who cannot hear her. Her co-workers are dead. Sisters. She gives their names. There is fighting in the area. The whites are not spared. Sometimes when her voice fades out Able thinks she simply has started cryng, but then her voice comes in again, articulate, calm, clear, calling again for response, waiting, calling again and repeating her message, asking for pickup and saying that her co-workers are dead.
Able’s set is not meant for long range transmission, but he tries to send, to fill the empty spaces where she waits for response, to say that there is someone there, that he is receiving, that he would help her, but she does not hear and simply keeps repeating her call for help. Able tries to raise the district chief but it is late; it is too late, and the only time he ever hears the district chief is before supper. Able tries the emergency band, speaks, and no one answers. He gives the Sister’s name and location and request for pickup. He asks for confirmation that the message has been received but no one answers. Able listens to the Sister calling all night long. He tries again to relay the message, and again and again. Early in the morning she prays and asks for a blessing of her order and all men and women and children, and finally she cries, and then goes off the air. Outside, the sun is smacking the dust with full morning and there are some bird songs from the jungle edge, just as though nothing has happened.
Able waits to hear her again , and he prays for her, and listens, and tries his emergency channel, transmitting her location and request. He dozes. He waits for her to send again, but she never does, and he will never know if she is saved or not.
Because it is an emergency the bands are silent from then on, except for the calls for help, although Radio Brazza continues sending its music and news of fighting, as though the soft green jungle of day to day life remained unmoved by the harms men wreak upon eachother and others.
Able would sleep for several hours and then listen to the pleas and relay the requests over the emergency channel without knowing if anyone could hear him. He does not know if there is anyone out there who can relay the messages on out of the darkness to someone with the power to save those who are about to die. He does not know if there is anyone else who cares and knows of those calls for help out there in the thousand on thousand miles of living green, where he is suddenly lost amid the fear and pain of others.
Anjant would come in the evenings and sit with him at the table. Able, looking at her dully, is not able to rreach out for her in that awake dream of the victims’ calls and what they say but do not describe so that he understands what is happening at first by imagination, praying for them to continue sending so there will be a chance for them beyond him , if only to put off that final moment of static where there are no answers. When she says goodnight, Anjant holds him, patting his shoulders, trying to warm his coldness next to her warmth, as though that could heal him and that coldness past being a man with her. He is silent. For days he is silent, until finally he begins to understand her silence with him.
There is, not far from alysum, a prison which Able has heard of but never seen. He is sure it is there because whenever it is mentioned the children grow frightened and hide their eyes. He does not know whether it is a prison of walls or simply a compound. Ngoto refers to it as a prison camp so that is probably what it is, isolated in the jungle and rarely mentioned. Able who hopes to raise the administrator on his wifeless, thinks there must be something there at least with surely a landing strip and vehicles - there must be someone who can help. But if they hear him they do not answer him. Able wonders if his sending on the emergency band is against some law. He imagines that the guards, both black and white, are hovering over their guns, waiting uneasily for independence here, while the massacres break loose to the south.
Radio Brazza says that Dag Hammarskjold himself will fly to the former Congo Belge to make peace. The whites are all leaving by any means they can, streaming down the Congo river in groups, on the steamers and company boats, often reaching Stanleyville of the sea where the airlines fly them out. And Able can hear the planes pass overhead, fifteen and twenty a day, not so high yet. They are commercial airline planes which puzzles him because he expected military planes. He realizes that no one is going to do anything about the massacres.
History will show that Patrice Lumumba won the Congo in popular elections. A hero of the people, he finds Soviet backing and enemies in the European and American corporations.
Lumumba appoints Kasavubu, his opponent, to join his government. Then Tschombe with the backing of white business interests, and Belgian, South African, and Rhodesian mercenary troops, causes a mutiny of troops against Lumumba. This results in the widespread killing of missionaries and people who did not know any better than to be doctoring or teaching in the jungle. The U.N. finally sends troops in to keep order. Lumumba’s general Mobutu, schooled in Belgium, deposes Lumumba who is then imprisoned and murdered. For a while Kasavubu fronts him as head of the government. Dag Hammarskjold on his way to a peace conference with Tschombe, falls out of the sky and his plane crashes in northern Rhodesia. General Mobutu takes over the government. Tschombe fights on. Tschombe flees. The U.N. is sent home. With the U.N. out of the way, U.S. and Belgian interests back Mobutu who regains Tschombe’s turf, and who allows considerable Western investment. It will appear to curious students that if there is a Soviet camp and a Western camp, the Western camp took vengeance. It took vengeance on Patrice Lumumba and his people who simply wanted to be free, and it took vengeance on those who trusted him. The will of the people was again suppressed, and Zaire came to serve the new colonialism of corporate economics, for a while.
The banker sitting at his desk in Brussels or New York, the lawyers at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the bishop of that Congo diocese, the entire copper industry and all the companies pulling high profits out of Katanga, must have known. Tschombe could not have called for mutinies without his Western white backing.
Able realizes only that somewhere between his walks with Cerise from the chemistry lab to the front steps of her dormitory, and that Geneva address of the society of Protestant Church builders where the pastor stuck a red pin into a map of the wold, are a great number of people who do not care whether Able or anyone like him, lives or dies. And in spite of all that he is trained and educated to believe, feel and think, he is beginning to want to live , very much , as he realizes his truest kin, though he is not yet sure why, was that Sister on the wireless, blessing him along with the rest of humanity in those moments before her final over and out, because whether God ultimately saved her or not, she was betrayed and utterly deserted by mankind.
This is Able’s pain. Amid the rape and murder of nuns, the killing of missionaries or merchants who were left behind by those who knew better, amid those who pleaded to be saved, hopelessly, if they were lucky enough to have radio communications and then be heard, were the innocents of that entire vast machinery of colonialism formed through the years. And at its last moment, when it was meant to be overthrown, it was those who trusted and loved who were left to be murdered in place of their bosses and directors, and left to bear the rage of soldiers. It was those who cared most for humanity who were sacrificed, those who tried to heal and educate, those who did not leave because they had not harmed anyone and could not yet believe in hatred, those who had faith, and some who dared struggle for justice. The clever men and those who worked for money alone, were sitting at their desks in Europe and the U.S., running their companies and churches and banks in offices all through the world, having withdrawn as many investment as possible before Independence to minimalize their losses in the event of a catastrophe.
But why, Able asks in his prayers, as though these too are like lonely radio transmissions in that vast stretch of green which lasts for over half a continent, have you forsaken those who love you, God? Hearing no answer , he would rise from his pallet next to the dirt floor and wander out into the thoroughfare of Alysum, where chickens squawk and children play tag in their pieces of clothing, and seeing him, hang on to his knees and hold so he cannot move, until he laughs and then they let him go. Anjant smiles at him from the shadows of her face, in those evenings when he does not dare believe she might love him, when he does not understand yet her people care.
Ngoto said to him, even before Able heard the first radio call, “You are losing your brothers and sisters to the south.”
Able, thinking Ngoto meant only the exodus of whites which accompanied Congolese Independence, said “I know,” since it was clear most whites were no longer wanted there.
You see Lord, Able says in his continuing prayer, placing bricks on the high wall of the church and glad in a way that there will not be a spire above to interrupt the sky and soft regularity of the thatch turned yellow from green, maybe their fault is that they have not loved enough. But that is not right because there were lone workers from the leprosariums and others who gave their deaths as well. There must be something in our lives as whites that does not teach us well enough how to love, to love so strongly that even the racists and political leaders might not find a fault worthy of death. Maybe it is simply that the arrogance of one generation blinds the next, so their children are left like sacrificial lambs. But then they are yours, Lord, Able affirms, and why have you forsaken them?
The church is almost complete. Still, there is always something to do. The Society of Protestant Church Builders has promised wood for the church benches, and the pastor who made his rounds twice yearly arrives one day in the mids of the Congo fighting, unexpected, riding the open seat of a lumber mill truck. He is a Frenchman of considerable size and friendliness. He and Able look for an instant into eachother’s eyes and then talk about everything else. Along with the wood the pastor has brought several packets of money to be divided among those workers who want it, for it the building of a church is in the service of God, one should not have to be overly deprived because of it. And there is nothing really to say about the fighting to the south. The pastor winces and shrugs. Certainly among French Protestants persecutions by madmen, no matter what their skin color or persuasions of faith, are not a new or original phenomenon. In the emptiness of that nearly finished church, amidst the workmen and some of the women and Able, the pastor prays aloud in french, asking mercy for the innocents and guilty alike , blessing the souls of the departed, and asking comfort for those who survived them. He takes tea with Able in his hut, is amused by Able’s casualness and coincidence with the natives’ customs, compliments him on the work he has already done, and keeps saying, “Cheer up ! Cheer up !”
When the pastor has departed with the driver of the lumber mill truck, Able feels once again like a thoroughly civilized creation of western culture.
When he offers money to the workers they do not want it.
“But you have no money !” he says to Ngoto.
“And do not need it,” says Ngoto.
Able thinks about that. Finally he adds his own portion to the packets and turns them over to the village chief, who speaks no French at all. It is a considerable amount of money for a remote jungle village. It is not mentioned again, but it is apparently used without delay to bribe prison guards for the release of prisoners, and soon a steady trickle of very skinny men with shaved heads begins to pass through the village, sleeping at night in the church, fed by the villagers, and leaving at dawn down the jungle two rut path toward the river.
“Who are those men?” Able asks one day.
“Prisoners,” says Ngoto. “It is Independence soon, and they are needed at home.”
“It is better not to see them.”
“So you would have me blind as the man before me?”
“Ngoto laughs. “Some of them are thought to be very bad men. We do not want them to be taken away when the French leave. But it is better not to get too close to them.”
“Won’t they be caught?” says Able, who knows that the constabulary patrols the river.
“It is hard if they are caught,” says Ngoto, thoughtfully, “for all together we have bought their freedom.”
In the evening Radio Brazzaville says that United nations troops have arrived so the killing will stop. On recording Patrice Lumumba sounds strong and intelligent as he speaks for the people. Then so does Mr. Kasavubu. Then so does Mr. Tschombe. So does the white Belgian who says it is all DeGaulle’s fault who should have followed the thirty year plan, the French should have, right next door in the French Congo. By then the natives would be civilized. When DeGaulle encouraged the freedom and Independence of countries in Equatorial Africa, what did they think would happen next door? Able listens to the Belgian who has lost a nation and does not yet understand why.
Afterward, in the silence, Able looks at Anjant and says, “I do not see the point of it.”
Anjant says nothing and raises a piece of meat to her lips without taking her eyes from him. It is very hot. Her face glistens in the kerosene light. Sweat trickles down Able’s bare sides into his pants. The U.N. is in the Congo and his radio will sit unused now on the crates. The village drums are busy as always these nights, and the villagers are avoiding him except for Anjant who is always with him after dusk for those few hours which are the life of his day, before she leaves into the darkness, when he will read his Bible and fall asleep. They are not comfortable together now because she has held him next to her. Able, embarrassed, tries to pretend that she has not, that she is only a villager who is looking after him because he is trying to serve God by serving them well. But during the long hours with the children in the morning and the mud-shelling of the church those afternoons, when she is not with him and yet is, he misses her so strongly that he is not at ease. And then finally with her, as in being awakened, it is only worse.
He tries to help her make the cooking fire and food. She moves about him silently, or stands and watches him, smiling. Her way is faster. Her hands make no mistakes. Her body which is so sure in grace and once seemed so alien, so unlikely to him, moves through his sleep like a psalm on the page of his open Bible which suddenly he understands. It is as though an ancient prayer is his own prayer. But it is not like that at all because she is sinmply a young woman who always wears the same dress the color of her skin, and it holds to her in the heat as she looks at him from across the table like a distance of centuries and thousands of miles, waiting for them both to be just people.
“I am no longer sure why I am here,” he continues, while she looks at him as though she is waiting for him to finish his talking but he never does.
“What will happen if God comes to our church?” Able says. He does not know why he wants to hold her away, and why he wants to hide. He is not sure why he is desperate with her. She is just sitting across the table without moving, looking at him. Unless he is scared the Congo will happen here. But the people of one country are not those of another. He is not right to be frightened, and such things are never the fault of villagers. He offers her his chair instead of the crate she is sitting on. She nods no and smiles.
“What God came to the church of the Congo?” he says.
She is suddenly restless. “Goodnight, Able,” she says, calling him by name, and then she is gone.
“You must have faith,” she says, holding his shoulders and pushing him against the mat of palm leaves. It is in the night and Able is talking and almost dreaming. His words make no sense. He is calling for help. His voice is hoarse. He does not want anyone to die in his dreams. He is trembling . Her hands seem cool. The kerosene lamp is on and she is agitated, urging him to be calm. Again she presses him back against the mat of leaves. Able feels the frond weave against his chest and her cheek slick against his. Her scars touch his memory. He gives over to his hunger for her lips and mouth and the points of her breasts under her dress. She stands away from him and takes off her dress and waits until he is naked, and she sits beside him tracing the marks of his chest once again with the tips of her fingers to his neck, touching his face like she is putting fire through him and knows that, while he does not know where her fire comes from of who she is or why the smoothness of her breasts are like home, and even their first frantic joining a welcoming as though she is close to him now forever.
In the lull with their bodies entwined and wet against eachother, she begins to talk to him in her own language, laughing, saying things about his mouth and nose and ears by touching them, and Able says, “I do not understand,” but she laughs and goes right on talking and whispering to him, and he is not frightened anymore and is not trrembling but rests his head between her breasts so she will not make fun of the way he looks, and when he is about to doze he finds her rocking him gently and that fire beginning to creep through his body again, and at each place he is touching her it is as though there, that fire is within her as well, and she trembles then, pulling his head and mouth to hers and wrapping him with her body, fights him with her constancy, overcomes, and leads him out of the world of words.
“I understand,” she says in French. “You will understand.”
“I do not want to understand anything,” says Able, complete against her.
“I do not get the point,” she says, mocking him.
She is leaning over him, on her elbow, teasing him.
“Wake up, Able,” she says.
And later she says, “You are afraid of me?”
For Able it is the garden before mankind. Everywhere he finds her is a darkness more brilliant than sunlight , as though their entire lives touch in that moment of rightness in a deeper healing blindness than sight. It is a binding of eachother more strong than either of them apart.
“Able,” she says, and makes him look toward the flickering light of their lamp, but it is not the lamp he sees because at the door and window are people of the village. Able, who wants to cover Anjant’s and his own nakedness, has no way to hide. He covers her with his body. She soothes him with her hands. She is not frightened. The people are not angry with them, and seeing Able’s sheltering of her they leave the hut. Anjant relaxes. “It’s allright,” she says. “We are together.”
The days that follow are like a dream. He teaches and works on finishing the church. The other workers smile at him, amused. The old women bring eggs wrapped in palm leaves to their door. The younger women are shy of him. Ngoto admits that as for humself, he is married with four children. He has not mentioned this before. Day passes into day with the steadiness of the sun’s course across the sky, and the chickens pecking at their grains, and the ants’ swarm on anything left by the fire. Those evenings Able returns home which is more like home than most of the rest of his life because Anjant is there and his life is there with her. And he no longer is afraid of touching her or standing holding her against him, and even when they go to gather wood she turns to him every once in a while and presses against him so he will hold her. They do not talk much. Sometimes Able wants to sing or finds himself humming hymns without the words which would come between them, in spite of when she says, “I understand,” when he tries to say how he feels when even he does not understand. It is a good time without any hunger or sickness, for him, her, or elsewhere in that village, and the church is almost completed.
“Independence is almost upon us,” says Ngoto.
“Will it let me be free as well as you?” says Able.
“Ah maybe so ! If you are only able to see it,” Ngoto says, as though there is some event which Able has already witnessed but without understanding.
It is that night Anjant tells him so that he can understand what he already knows. “I will have a baby,” she says.
They walk together to the well. When he brings cools water up from the well it sparkles in the sunlight. He is happy and the sunlight is playing fire in him. She laughs and hugs him. And finally , though she was telling him all along, he understands that she wants him.
There is, not far from where the road from the ferry landing leads up river and then back into the bush to that village where Able keeps hjis faith, a gendarmerie, which patrols the river for several hundred miles in each direction, buy pirogues with outboard motor, and launch. Occasionally the gendarmerie sends teams of native policemen back into the bush villages. Since Alysum is not interested in the gendarmerie, the gendarmerie is not interested in the village. But before independence, native gendarmes are sent throughout the villages of the region to see that the transition to Independence will be peaceful, without palavers, or contesting of the elections held under the French administration. The departing French chief of the gendarmerie insists. He does not wish any open rebellion in his area during the natural festivities which might attend the birth of a new nation.
One night when the drums are pattering their messages from village to village, Anjant tells Able that the gendarmes will be passing through in three or four days. She suggests that he might want to visit her sister’s family a day’s journey to the west, so that he will not have to answer questions from anyone but his God and the villagers whom he serves. She does not say it this way, but that is what she means. She is crying and says, “I do not want to lose you,” and tells him of the visit, and that Ngoto will go with him to her sister’s.
“You won’t lose me ,” says Able.I’ll be allright.”
The night before their arrival she cries and cries and begs him to leave before sunrise. He does not want her to cry so before the sun is up he follows Ngoto down the path through the jungle.
Ngoto and Able are not far down the two-rutted path towards the river. The sun has risen and points of light pierce the mat of leaves far overhead. Alongside the path the foliage is dense and the open way is grassy from lack of use. A landrover wheels around a turn and almost strikes them, stops. Able and Ngoto did not hear the landrover as it coasted down the hill toward them. So Able and Ngoto meet the gendarmes where the gendarmes are not yet supposed to be, The two native policemen speak French and are very polite to Able but ask Ngoto where his village is and how can they be sure he is not an escaped prisoner? Ngoto explains that they are both buillders of a church and are making a journey to visit friends,. Able says that this is true.
One gendarme begins speaking to Ngoto in their tribal dialect, so Able cannot understand, while the other gendarme looks embarrassed and down not meet Able’s eyes. Ngoto becomes upset, annoyed, gesturing , humble fierce, jovial, outraged, proud. The palaver continues. The policeman who does not move his features when he talks, asks short angry questions and then turns his back on them both.
Thinking the interview is over, Able greets the two policemen once again by wishing them a good day, and starts up the trail with Ngoto. As they pass the landrover the gendarmes politely order them to stand still, and then to sit in the vehicle. So Able and Ngoto are driven back to the village where the chickens squawk as the tires nip their feathers on the thoroughfare, and the people come out to watch the landrover pass through the town raising a great funnel of dust, and turning at the other end of town drive back through the village and dust haze at some speed with more dust billowing behind them. Able is looking among his friends’ stunned faces for Anjant and then sees her where he expects to, standing in the door of his hut with her hands stretched out toward him and her face in grief.
Able stays at the gendarmerie for three days. On the second, Ngoto is told to go back to his village. Ngoto wants to go but not without Able. Able, in his white stucco visitor’s room with grillwork over the window, hears Ngoto asking the guard who stands in the full sun outside the door, if he can see the guess. The guard is not supposed to speak, apparently, because Able does not hear an answer, but when he goes to the door and opens it the guard is standing between him and Ngoto who is now haranguing the man in dialect. The French administrator comes out into the sun and tells Ngoto to go. Then he tells him again, and Ngoto runs down the road toward the compound gates which open and allow him to pass through. Outside, he turns and waves to Able who waves back, and then Ngoto is running toward the edge of the jungle. The administrator offers Able some iced tea with his Mrs. and the guard on the veranda.
“I would like to go back to the village,” says Able.
“We have sent men for your passport and belongings.”
“But it is Independence !”
“In barely a week,” says the Frenchman, handing him a glass. “So what is it like to live with the natives?”
“I was building a church.”
“The Bishop was by a week ago. He didn’t mention you.”
“Protestant,” says Able, pointing to himself.
The Frenchman smiles and jiggles his ice cubes. “Christian,” he corrects.
“I work hard here,” says Able slowly. “The S.P.C.B. sent me here. And now I have a stake here. I have friends. I can’t leave them. I want to go back to the village. I don’t want to leave now.”
“But we are pulling out !” says the Frenchman, “We can’t guarantee your safety any longer.”
“It’s okay,” says Able.
“Well it is now,” says the Frenchman.
The third morning Able’s belongings arrive. There are questions about his passport. The visa, granted in Switzerland, has expired. The ink of his signature is smudged and faded. The photograph is of a much different man. Able’s face now is lean. And with a beard, who can be sure? Has he visited the prison? It is less than a day away on foot. A quick drive. And such an instructive tour. A visit should be arranged. In fact the nearest airstrip is at the prison, quite close. If Able leaves early enough. A flight will stop over this afternoon. Has he heard about the Congo? Ah yes, the wireless, but of so little power. Who else is there to talk to in the midst of the bush? The loneliness. Of course ! He was the young man with such terrible French, still young enough to weep. Mon Brave. We can all weep. International policy. An American. He must leave. His ticket of return? Why a full year has not passed. What incredible good fortune!
When Able is prepared to leave for the airstrip, the Frenchman takes him aside from the native gendarmes and puts his arm around Able’s shoulders. About to speak, the Frenchman bites his lip.
“Ah well,” he says. “It is hard to leave, is it?” There is a glisten in the Frenchman’s pale blue eyes and Able follows his gaze to the river flowing down through the jungle.
“I don’t want to,” says Able.
“Do you understand,” says the Frenchman, what it is like to lose a country?”
Monsieur Le Docteur H is a French military doctor who lives with his family several hundred kilometers up a tributary of that great river from the gendarmerie. He is a red bearded man. His wife is blond. They are very light people. The doctor’s children are six and eight, and learned their first words in French but already speak the native dialect. Their mother teaches them French and the courses of primary school through an international correspondence school in Paris. They are very proper children. The girl’s dresses are steam ironed. Their clothes are always clean. When they are not with their mother they play with the children of that river village, in the street and around the corners of the huts. They do not play near the river bank because the current is swift. Not far from the village there is a place along the river bank where alligators have built their burrows, each a great hollow of air and water. You can see these sometimes after the rain season when the swollen river subsides and parts of the bank fall away into the stream. Sometimes the children just stand by the door of the medical station and watch their father work. He works all the hours of the light, mostly alone, sometimes with a native aide who helps the patients who are too weak to move themselves. The patients’ families wait outside the station, squatting by the door. There are a great many flies there. There is nothing to do about the flies. Sometimes Le Docteur H. refers patients to the hospital, and the family will take their relative the many day journey down river. Outside of the region almost no one has ever heard of Le Docteur H.. There are rarely any other whites, aside from the family of Le Docteur H., at that riverbank village. Some of his patients are lepers who return and return for medication. Sometimes Le Docteur H. will have to dig a stone out of a leper’s foot or wash their sores because the numbness makes them forgetful. His is the only medical station for the region. With Independence the white administrators will return to France, and the army will pull out its garrisons. But Monsieur Le Docteur H. will stay simply because there is no one else to care for the sick. It is not a matter of the military, or his rank or his pension. His family will stay with him. And once a year, perhaps, a priest will pass through the village and give them communion. The medical supplies will continue to arrive by launch every few weeks because they always have, and if not from the military then from the new government. And on the day of Independence, Le Docteur H. of a family of farmers in western France, rises and dresses, brews his coffee into a bitter dark brown, lights his first black tobacco cigarette of the day, and without breakfast which he will have at about ten, walks to that hut where he lives his life whether there is Independence today or simply the natural course of the hottest sun man knows across the equatorial sky. And if you could ask him why, he would shrug and say,”Don’t know,” and mean it. But if you really pushed him, and wanted to be rude about it, or with the tools of a behavioral scientist tricked him into revealing himself, Monsieur Le Docteur H. would either say – or more likely he would just smile quickly back at you as he returned to the work that guides his life, and hold his answer, which is only “Because I am civilized.”
When Able came to his senses he was living in a cheap hotel room in Paris. In his room there was a bed, armoire, and window. The bureaucracy was holding his passport. He had little money. He was not accustomed to needing any money. He missed Anjant. His bed was lonely at night. He worried constantly about money. He ate street sausages, mustard, bread and oranges. He drank some wine. Everywhere he turned he needed money. Another thing. The people. There was something about them he was unaccustomed to seeing. They were for the most part pink or white, as he was. You are back, Able thought. You have returned to civilization.
Able plumbed his pocket. It was as though money were desire, the small change of little pleasures. Passion was the property of madmen. The sight of edibles in store windows whetted his curiosity . These sights were like playing mumbledy-peg with an exquisitely sharp knife. The sunlight on his dusty window panes in that room where he hid to escape the temptations of wanting, had the dull true glow of Corot’s lakes. The irregular angles of rooftops created a hundred little massacres against the natural ordering of his senses. Paris, where even the streets were expensive. The walking of the women cut into his well defended perceptions with a pain of white flashing legs. Able, humbled. Looked down. The regularity of cobblestones opened to the difference of each. The stink of fish sparkling amid their diamonds of ice, the shining glass windows, the sprays of flowers in buckets by the flower shop, the auto exhaust, the multiplicity and individuality of people proliferating with all the ornaments of garments from the shops – civilization, he thought, how you murder us with our own hungers. He was left alone to argue with himself.
Why did you come back, Able?
Well I didn’t have much choice.
And how are you going to cut it?
I shall trust in the Lord, who is more ancient than any of our lines, and still hidden from our discoveries.
Able bought a pack of cigarettes instead of lunch, a foolish choice.
He was about to turn himself in to the American embassy when a letter arrived from his parents. It contained a bank check and a kind note saying they were very glad he was alive . Would he be coming home?
The next morning Able was banging on the door of an African embassy. The draperies were being taken down, and blinds installed instead. Able explained to a well dressed African that he was concerned for a woman who would bear his child, and that he would like to offer them the opportunity of living with him.
Who was she? What was her name? Where? Thank you. He was to come back the next day.
Able returned dressed as well as he knew how to dress, in a blue suit with new shoes, a silk tie and shirt, and wallet filled with substantial remainder of the bank check which he had negotiated. He was introduced to a diplomat and asked to sit down.
So Able sat down while the carpenters attacked the century old panelling and workmen rolled up the rugs and carried out sideboards and huge antique chests and desks and leather chairs, as a new shift brought in one tone carpeting and sleek steel functional desks. Danish chairs, and fluorescent lighting to replace stand up lamps, and the world changed its tune around them as Able and the embassy official sat on two wooden boxes of files, Able telling his story at length to the other man.
“You mustn’t weep ,” said the official when it was over. “It is not a sad story.”
“Your Independence is also the story of my loss,” said Able.
“Only in one respect ,” said the official. “Our Independence also set you free.”
“But what of her?” said Able. “What of the child?”
“That is whom I think of. Life would not be easy for them in France, or in America. You do not have work here. To be poor in Europe is not to be free. We have made a new country, to be proud in. Would you take them into a world of Europeans?”
“But I love her !” said Able.
“Hmmm” said the diplomat, gloomily. “I tell you what I will do. I will find out what I can. Come back next week.”
When Able returned that next week he learned that Anjant was fine, but would reveal to no one the identiity of the father of the child she was carrying. She admitted to knowing the white church builder, and wished to send a message of her deep fondness which he would understand, but she had no desire to leave her village, particularly in her present condition. The lady in question sent the young man much love and recommended a nice restaurant in Paris where it was said they made peanut soup just as they did at home. End of message. The diplomat wished to assure Able that any further thoughts on his part, of trying to remove the young woman with child from her country, were unthinkable. One did not forget that history presented unfortunate precedent . Then he pressed upon Able the address of the restaurant.
Able did not know what to say. He sensed that in some way he was less wise than she , which did not bother him as much as the disappointment of not being able to reach out to Anjant and hold her. He wanted to carry her and the child with him into the future. The embassy official stood, and Able, standing, looked for a quick instant into the other man’s eyes and saw a smarting of compassion, or was it his own confusion?
“I’m sorry,” said the man. “Each of us is part of the history of all our people.”
“That’s okay,” said Able. And when he was calm he shook hands and thanked the embassy official and walked out into the street and all the glories of the modern world both behind him and before.
“How do you like being back?” said Professor Cain.
“Just fine,” said Able. “I have my old apartment. The lady who took it used to live across the street with her parents. See,. She’s moving back with them and I’m moving in. She said it was too expensive for her and her kid without a man, so I said sure. It’s kind of like home.”
“Able,” said the kid at the candy store where Able bought his morning newspaper. “Why did God make people so many different shapes and colors, even funny looking people?”
“He was trying to please us.”
“This your idea of a Saturday night?” said Lucy. She and Able were drinking coffee in the automat. Able’s elbows were on the table bending the large wet lapels of his raincoat as he hunkered down and around the chipped porcelain white cut and saucer. Lucy’s coat was imitation leather with rabbit fur on the collar. Her large eyes looked from one of is to the other.
“I didn’t think you would have time for more than a cup of coffee,” he said.
“Honey, if I get out on a Saturday night, then I’m out.”
“We could get tickets for the symphony.”
“That’s better,” she said. “Your mummy and daddy live in this town?”
“Oh I don’t see my family much anymore.”
“Your daddy isn’t named Adam, is he?”
“Noah? He ought to be named Adam, like in the Bible.”
“Well my old man is named Noah. Mother calls him No-way, because he doesn’t take chances. I guess he thought Able was a good name for an only son.”
“Well I don;’t have a brother Cain, see.”
“The Lord provide,” said Lucy and she laughed. “It must be real lonely not having any brothers and all. What happen to that skinny girl you used to see. She have a place of her own?”
“She went home. Somebody said she became an actress.”
“What’s funny about that?”
“My husband was some actor !”
“What happened?” said Able.
“He found someone else. I sure did think he loved me.”
“Huh,” said Able. “Oops. Say. We talked too long.”
“You think so?”
“No, I mean the symphony already started.”
“How come you went to see your old professor last Saturday, instead of seeing me?” said Lucy.
“You never leave your old professor sitting under a tree,” said Able, “even if you are fleeing Moscow and all the armies of Napoleon are in pursuit, especially if it is cold or if the professor is wounded or too tired to walk. Older people often are. You never leave your old professor sitting under a tree because it is not kind, and it’s unwise. Because maybe that old professor has the keys to unlock you in the lock-up of mortality.”
“That’s too funny,” said Lucy.
“Well it sound funny. And who ever left an old professor sitting under a tree?” Lucy was annoyed.
“Tolstoi” said Able. “In War and Peace, Pierre leaves his professor there to die.”
“Pierre dies, huh?”
“No, the professor does.”
“That’s mean !” said Lucy. “Who told that story?”
“That’s some name. Well he was so mean, maybe that’s why he was hiding.”
“What do you mean, hiding? I didn’t say anything about anyone hiding, Lucy .”
“With a name like “Tole-his-story,” anybody ask who wrote that mean story, and they say “Tole-his-story” done it, why it could be anybody.”
“It sounds like a mistake to me,” said Lucy.
“A man named Noah calling his son, Able, instead of something fitting.”
“I don’t see why.”
“Everyone knows Abel and Cain belong to Adam and Eve. A little boy named Abels gets lost, aint nobody going to take him home to Noah’s house.”
Able shrugged. “Come on Lucy. There must have been people named Able before the Bible was written. Life is like God writing his own Bible.”
“Huh,” said Lucy. “Well maybe Abel, he would have had a better chance with Noah as a daddy than Adam. Adam and Eve didn’t do so good in the Bible or the Lord wouldn’t have had to evict them.”
“I’ll bet Adam and Eve had a pretty good time for a while,” said Able.
“No changing diapers and all. Must have been rich white folks. At least once they was out.”
“Oh I see,” said Able. “They walk out of the garden and suddenly turn white?”
Lucy laughed and hid her face with her hands. Then she said, “Well maybe they lost paradise when they lost their color,” and she was looking at him, sullen.
“You aren’t a whole lot happier than I am,” said Able.
“Well that’s true,” said Lucy, smiling again.
Of knowing many things there is no end. This was not an original thought, but Able discovered it in his own way.
For a while Able wondered if his permanent match and partner in life would be someone who looked like him. So during his course of studies, when he met Marla who looked more like him than anyone he had ever met before, except for the fact that she was very surely a woman, he began to share his dinners with her.
Once, sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to Marla, cutting his toenails which had grown long enough to make small holes in his socks where his toes rubbed against his boots, he wondered how it was that he and Marla should look so much alike and still have such entirely different interests. For one thing, she was a mathematician. His mathematics was worse than his chemistry. Both were such pragmatic fields. And what was the use of studying Latin? What he had learned was that men of a different age had felt and thought and preserved moments of life, as an act of life for their fellow man and the future. He was sure women had as well, though with a few exceptions, their work had less often survived the furies of history. The old texts oppened a door for him to their worlds. He found that same means of entry could be found in the literatures of all languages, and as many points of entry existed as there were men and women through the ages who could shape abnd express realities. All the reader had to do was submit. It was not unlike submitting to Marla again, who had fairly definite ideas of what she liked. The act of pleasing her and forgetting himself was a catching of fire. But it was a fire he could forget about as soon as he did something else. Cerise, like the poetry of Catullus, he could not forget. But with Anjant, the fire he learned with her, when he was happy, it was all around him, a fire which words could touch, or borrow from, but not replace.
He stood up and was drawn to the book of poetry on his desk. Life was superior to art, except for those strange moments of his reading where a writer could reach out and move him.
Or was that only because the writer reminded him of what moved him so strongly?
“Do turn out the light and come back to bed,” Marla said.
“Just a second,” said Able, turning the page.
“Tonight won’t last forever,” she reminded him. Marla was like an orchard moving under the thin blanket.
“I guess not,” he said. She taught advanced mathematics . He amused her. Sometimes, Able looking at her was tempted to wrap himself in her being so completely that her logics might replace his.
“And stop looking for an answer to everything in other people’s work,” she said.
It’s the questions,” muttered Able, snagged in a line of poetry. He was reading “Two Trees,” by William Butler Yeats, which was not Latin at all, but protestant Anglo-Irish English. He only read Yeats when he was not supposed to. “Listen,” he said, and read to her:
“Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there....”
He hoped that for a moment , past the world of statistics, unemployment statistics, population statistics, even the statistics of her bust and waist and hips, beyond the calculus he had never mastered, beyond even the mathematics of nuclear theory, that he might find a moment with her beyond their bodies which they could share.
Perhaps she understood, or maybe not. She said gently , “You have to make your own song Able. We all do. That’s what our lives are. Now come to bed.”
Lucy said, “Able, what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing. My cold’s gone. I feel fine. Why?”
“You spend all your time reading things in that dead language.”
“Oh it’s not dead at all.”
“No one around here speaks it. I don’t think anyone speaks it unless they is made to.”
“Yes, well, there are other interesting things about it.”
“What are you going to do with that when you graduate?”
“Maybe teach it.”
“You not going to make a fortune.”
“I don’t know. Not many people study Latin anymore. There are all these endowed chairs at universities all through the world for Latin scholars.” “A chair in college man talk sounds like the hotseat to me.”
“They’re permanent jobs . They last a lifetime.”
“Uh-huh, so do jobs with the sanitation department.”
“Well I appreciate your interest, Lucy,” said Able. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“You could do something to make some money. Then we wouldn’t have to eat goulash when you ask me out to dinner.”
“Lucy. How come you never want to sleep with me?” said Able one night, when she was waiting for him by the entrance to the subway, and walked beside him leisurely up through the streets toward their apartments.
“Who said something?”
“I’m serious,” said Able. “We’ve been seeing eachother about six months and any time I get close to you, you turn into a stone.”
“I do not !” she said. “Anyway, you see other ladies.”
“And I’m older than you. And I have a house full of people to worry about. And a couple of fellahs who are real interested in me. And what makes you think I want to sleep with you?”
“Well certainly nothing you ever did !” said Able.
“What do you mean by that? I been plenty nice to you, Boy.”
“But I am not a boy,” he said.
“Are too. Now stop being silly. You ask me up for dinner. I’ll cook you up a nice dinner, instead of the asparagus soup you been eating.”
Lucy was acclimatizing herself to the apartment again which she had kept a little different when Able was in Africa and the place was hers. A piece of liver was sizzling slowly in the grying pan, butter. Some beets, greens and all, were in the pot. She was no fancy cook but dinner was underway.
“What’s this, Honey?” she said, picking up a little bottle of perfume from the dresser top.
It is a three month old reminder of Marla’s most recent visit. “It belongs to a mathematics teacher,” he said.
“Now that’s a practical profession,” said Lucy.
“Yes it is. With just a little mathematics you can make lots of awful things.”
“You don’t like mathematics?” said Lucy.
“I can’t stand it.”
“You like her allright, though.”
“You like everybody, don’t you,” said Lucy.
Lucy was standing there alone in the center of his front room. She was very restless and full breasted in her blue dress, and full thighed with a slender waist. Her black high heeled shoes were scuffed badly and there was a dark run in her light brown stockings. Able was, for an instant, afraid to look into her face – it was her hands which caught his attention, because they were slender and usually moving, because the backs were so dark and her palms so light, and because when she touched something the tight curls of her hair, her neck, the knap of her dress and softness where she folded her arms, he knew that she felt what she touched. He shoved his hands in his pockets and wondered why he was suddenly scared. A memory. Or maybe it was the wedding band on her finger like the gold glint at the back of her smile, chin up, her head to the side as the smile left and her eyes were suddenly holding his and troubled, feline, uneasy, and she straightened her dress touching its collar at her throat with her fingers while Able blushed.
“What’s the matter, I don’t look right?” she said.
“No no. You look good,” said Able.
“Then what you staring at?”
“Well I miss not seeing you when I don’t,” said Able.
Lucy had a fairly good idea just where Able is at and she walks over to him easily and puts her arms up over his shoulders and her hands behind his neck. “Is that all you’re thinking about , Able?” she said, looking up at him.
Able was about to answer her but it was a very old question and he did not know what the answer was. When he held her close to him he tried to hide his face in her neck, and suddenly she was clinging to him and searching for his mouth.
“Come on, chicken,” she said.
Able tried to answer her but he was kissing her and she was very strong. He was hungry for her but his teeth and mouth and words and clothes got in the way and he could barely stand up but she was melting into him. Then Able was standing there separate with his eyes open very wide, shaking. She stood in front of him breathing, with her eyes half closed, almost smiling again.
“Do you want to eat?” she said.
“I want to be with you,” he said.
“That’s just like you, Able,” she said, walking past him into the kitchen. “You don’t know how you going to eat in this world. What you want to mess with me for?”
“I see you standing at the window,” he said.
“Your big eyes.”
“When you’re alone, then I’m alone. When you’re taking care of your kid then I know you’re allright, but I –“
”Aw shut up, Able. Oooo-ee ! Looks like this liver’s already been burnt.”
“I’m not hungry anyway,” said Able, sitting down. Then he stood up again and sat down, and opened a bottle of wine which Lucy frowned at, and he lit the candles and by that time Lucy had the dinner on the table and slipped into the chair next to him.
“Don’t you like your dinner?” she said, leaning on her elbows and looking at him.
“It was awful,” said Able.
“That’s nothing,” she said. “I’ve made dinners so awful even my mom and dad would rather go out. I does the best I can. Guess I’m just a terrible cook.”
“You don’t do it on purpose?” said Able, reaching out for her hand on the table.
“I have to be coaxed into making a good dinner.”
“How long does that take?”
“Well, I’ll keep coaxing.”
“Don’t you ever get mad?” she said.
“Yes. When someone gets hurt I get mad.”
“Would you get mad for me?”
“I’m already mad for you !”
“Not like that,” she laughed.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“No rush,” she said. “I’ve got you good.”
“You do not.”
nbsp; She took his other hand and stood up, and walking backwards took him to his bed. “What good are you going to be for me?” she said, pulling him with her, to sit. “Why do you think you can come into my life and get what you want?” she was undoing his shirt. “What makes you think I would want you? How you going to help me?”
“What do you need?” said Able. “Lucy...,” he was kissing her. She was full and completeness and empty and wanting, and he wanted in, bad.
“What do I need?” she said, taking his hands from her, and standing, pulling up and off her dress over her head. “I need a life. That’s what I need. I need a man to settle with. I need a job and someone to care for my kid the way I do. I need a place for my mom and dad. Or another place for me and the kid and a way to pay the rent. I need to get what I want.”
Able was knocked out just looking at her. He sat up and took off his pants, and waited for her to come to bed but she was too mad, and turned her back and kicked off her shoes hard, whap; one hit the wall, and then the other, and she took off her stockings and the rest like annoyances and went over to his desk and lit a cigarette.
Able, sitting there naked on the edge of his bed, looked down at his body and felt kind of poor. She was standing there looking at him and he guessed that was what she was thinking, but she looked beautiful no matter what she was thinking.
“Listen,” he said slowly, “you don’t have to mess with me. I know I’m not such a tremendous deal.”
“Hah !” she laughed. “So you admit it ! It’s a little late for that.”
“Not as long as you stay over on the other side of the room.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said, putting out the cigarette, then looking down at her bare toes as she lifted them and settled them on the dusty boards.
“How come?” said Able.
“Cause I love you now,” she said.
“Jesus,” said Able.
“Is that all you can say? You think I like it? You think I like walking down to the subway every night and waiting just to walk with you home? You think everyone doesn’t know, say there goes that silly Lucy to see her white boy? And the fellahs saying you getting so free and all, why don’t you give a little to your own?” And she walked across the floor toward him and Able tried to cover his nakedness but there was just no place to hide. He was looking up at the fullness of her before him and she put her hands on his shoulders and pulled him to her belly and legs, and then she was on him, and Able lying back on his bed found her everywhere. With one hand he tried to protect himself and with the other he reached for her breasts.
“So if you think I’m going to let you go now, Able, you wrong, Honey. And if you think I’m happy about it, you think again,” and she moaned, and she did not sound happy, but all Able could do was try to nod his head and say her name because she was the only thing on his mind and about him.
“What do you know about love, Honey,” she said.
“Able,” she said, sudden, somewhere in the night. “Don’t lose me.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can love you.”
“Do you remember that story of Abel and Cain at the start of the Bible, Able?” asked Professor Cain.
“Sure. I’ve thought about it a lot because of my name. And yours, so I guess you have too.”
“Has it ever occurred to you why the Lord let one destroy the other?”
“Yes it has. Not why so much, as why he didn’t stop it.”
“Perhaps they were the same people.”
“But they were brothers,” said Able.
“Or was it simply a way of showing two sides of one’s own character, where Abel in innocence has no need of the Lord, and Cain with his wisdom needs the Lord he has lost?”
“I never thought about it that way,” said Able.
“With all knowledge comes the loss of some innocence,” said the professor. “With my own knowledge, I find that something within, dies, and terrified of that – both the knowledge and the dying, I seek either ignorance..., or redemption from the Lord.”
“But I don’t agree with that at all !” said Able. “Knowledge frees !”
“Who pays the price of your freedom?”
“You?” said Able.
“Perhaps you,” said the professor.
Graduation day has taken a long time to arrive. The sky is clear. The morning sun is gentle with the line of students in their black robes and flat boarded tasselled hats, shifting from one foot to another, waiting for the professors and corporate executives to get it together for the procession. There amid theothers is Able, with a silly smile, wearing sneakers and peering at the corwd of parents and students who are choosing their seats among the thousands of chairs in their tacky rows between the library steps and the great brick flank of the church, where on a raised dias of earth the speakers stand is set with more chairs. Able among the lions. The sparrows, unfrightened, play in the June leafage of trees. The sun mounts. The great professors with slashes of color in their robes start their ponderous walk, arms folded, moving as one in the rocking gait of an elephant. When his turn comes as the students follow, Able, pleased with the world and excited, falls in step with the ages.
Later, when he is alone in prison, he will remember that day when he was caught only by the early summer and that moment of sameness with his graduating class on the long rows seated about him. He will not remember the graduation speaker, or speech, for in it nothing was said to break the champagne high of college commencement. There was no mention of war or the betrayal of a generation, and no place on that early summer day for words like, “nerve agents,” “chemical warfare,” “biological warfare,” “radiation exposure,” “assassination,” or “death.” Who among the robed or the well dressed men and women in attendance, was not pleased and smiling? Able did not know that he was about to enter war, or that among those similar looking men in their robes and spectacles were those who charted and advised a course which would openly mar or kill at least half a million young Americans alone, his age, without proper explanation. Some were respectable men. Some laughed correctly. Trustworthy, they all did the best they could. They did not always agree with eachother, or with the politics of the administration. But in fact they received their portion and rewards. And with each irrepressible moment of laughter and agreement which rose from them all that day like the momentary passing of a soul into a better life, they claimed Able as their own with each of the others, and released him into what they considered the beginning of his life as a man.
Up on the bare steps of the library, under the heavy columns and cornices, there was a woman who was standing with a little boy. She was pretty and nicely dressed, though she was wearing a red hat. She was a very dark woman and the child beside her was very dark, and amid that multitude of white people seated before her with their backs to her, and the few rows of mostly men on the dias who were facing her and wondering in fact why she was standing there alone, or was she on her way home from work, or did she wander in from the avenue, were very few people who were not white. But the woman stood there without moving, smiling, as though she was pleased that everyone was happy with the weather. And when the ceremony was over and all the people rose and talked and greeted and laughed and began to leave, she nodded to the little boy, picked him up, and carrying him like a part of herself, started down the long steps otherwise alone, and seeing no one that she knew amid the visitors to that great occasion, made her way through the crowd to the avenue and slipped away among the passers-by.
Able with his ma and pa and sister’s husband and sister, all in Sunday best, made a bee-line for the college dormitory which hosted Able even though he lived off-campus, to undergo lunch and the remaining festivities. They discovered that Able graduated with high honors, but for some reason his picture was not included in the yearbook.
“Well why is that, Dear?” asked his mother.
“I guess they forgot,” said Able.
“But you have a very nice face !” said his mother. “Certainly it belongs there with the other boys.”
“Looks like you’ve lost face, Able,” said his sister. “Yukyuk.”
“It certainly isn’t as bad as losing your good name” said her husband with an amiable laugh.
They were all very cheerful with him. The banquet was all sliced ham and full plates, parker house rolls, ironed white napkins. The lawn suffered the tread of several hundred pairs of feet. The professors lived through that final departure one more time, meeting the other p[arts of their students’ lives, brushing tentatively against what others called “the real world,” and found that their farewells and genuine hopes for a new generation to deal with things at least a little better than theirs had, were said better by Shakespeare. The sun was past mid-day.
Professor Cain was saying how glad he was to meet Noah who means all the world to his son.
“You’d never know it, “ said Noah, who was slow to enter the spirit of the occasion.
“He is proud of you allright,” said Professor Cain. “But he has a mind of his own now. A year or two away from school life will do him good. I think he has made a wise choice.”
“If I don’t get drafted !” said Able, brightly.
Able with his diploma in one hand and faceless yearbook in the other, returned to the hotel with his parents and sister and brother-in-law, where they continued their victory celebration with several bottles of champagne and then a huge dinner with roast duckling. It was very nice for Able to know that he really had made the mark – that he was the best Latin scholar the department had produced for two and some of the professors said three years. He had taken his honors in stride. He managed to find again, if just for those moments, his family, and he had pleased them. His mother stood off and looked at him hard and then nodded. “You are young, Able Dear. You’re handsome. The world and life is before you. You’ve made us very proud.”
“Thanks Ma !” said Able.
After dinner Able was overcome by everything in his life which was missing, which was not there at all. They tried to persuade him to stay.
“How can you go back to some little apartment? Do have some coffee.”
“No. I’ve got to go. It’s late.”
“Good luck to you, Son,” said Noah.
“Good luck to you, Pa,” said Able. “And thank-you.”
Lucy was sitting there at the kitchen table, very delicately picking the meat out of a chicken back. She was wearing a sateen slip with nothing else but a red hat with the hatpin holding it secure. Her son was asleep on his bed near the refrigerator.
“I’m still speaking to you,” she said. “We’re real proud of you. We went and stood up on the steps and watched the whole thing. Didn’t need any seats. All those fancy men talking about good things. Mad. Solving all the problems of the world with their stomachs full. Still I was proud of you. You looked so fine. I could see you right away amid all those other boys,” she said with some sarcasm.
“Well that will be the last time,” said Able. “I’m on my own now. No more classes but no more checks.”
“You like my hat?” she said. “I got it so you wouldn’t be embarrassed, just in case you ran into me.”
“No I don’t like your hat. And you should have told me you wanted to come. This way you’re just going to hate me for the rest of –"
“You don’t like my hat ! Listen, you Stupid. You go to a fancy college all this time and don’t invite me to the climax? You’re not so smart, Able. Still I’m proud of you. My mom and dad are too. Here, they sent you over this to celebrate with.”
“Hey !” said Able. Why’d they do that? They shouldn’t have. Super !” He was uncorking the bottle of champagne so Lucy got up and brought over two glasses.
“How much money we have in the bank,” she said.
“To love,” said Able.
“I’ll drink to that.”
“About three months’ worth,” he said.
“I’m looking for work, teaching. I ought to know in a few weeks. What‘s the matter, Lucy? You don’t have to cry.”
“I thought you were going.”
“Going where?” “Away. With your ma and pa. I thought you were going to leave with them as soon as you got your degree and never see me or Hank Junior again.”
“You kidding,” said Able, but he saw she was not. She was crying.
I don’t forget nothing,” she said. “You’d just as soon run off with that perfume bottle lady, or that girl who calls asking for your lecture notes. They even sound rich. Just like you.”
“Wish I was,” said Able. “You’re my lady now,” said Able. “Don’t you want me?”
“Why don’t you go back to Africa, you Primitive, and take care of your own child.”
Then after a while she said, “Come on, Able Honey. I don’t mean it.” And then she said, “I don’t want to lose you, Honey.” And then, “Oooo-ooh ! I done caught myself a real college man.”
Able’s arms were around her and his face in the warmth of her neck. “People who look like me aren’t too popular over in Africa,” he said.
She put her arms around his shoulders and hugged him, and rocked him slowly back and forth for a long time.
“You happy?” she said to him.
“Yes,” he said. “I am happy.”
“Congratulations,” she said.
When Able was a child, there was in his own room a window and door with his bed between, and if both window and door were open, a steady, barely perceptible current of air flowed from open window through open door right across his bed, and this would give him a head cold. So his father would shut his door at night, saying, “You don’t want to sleep in the draft, Son.”
When Able was twenty-one and graduated from college, his college deferment disappeared. There was a system of military conscription in those days, in which all young men whether they were fit or not, had to turn themselves in to the draft boards at age eighteen, and then at the discretion of the draft board could be forced to join a branch of the great military tree which grew in the midst of the north american continent with such luxurious strength that it cast a long shadow over almost every other kind of tree available. There was a draft whether there was war, or not, just so people wouldn’t be disappointed if a real war came along. Excepted from this forced service were policemen, men who volunteered for it in hopes of a better deal, men who had children, those sole surviving sons of dependent mothers, those needed on the farm, those who were physically or mentally unfit for service to the point of extremes and then some, those who could prove they were criminals, those who did not believe in fighting wars and could afford lawyers to fight about it, some ministers, as well as those engaged in professions necessary for the national security or defense, or in teaching, and those who were ardent advocates of Communism – which was not always a sure way out. There were men who received military deferments during their studies and simply attended universities for years and years until they were past the age of conscription. None of this interested Able at all. He refused to build his entire life in fear.
“What you going to do when Uncle Sam comes knocking at the door?” said Lucy.
Able shrugged. “I have a deferment through college,” he said. Then it was gone.
At his first job interview a beedy eyed and friendly gentleman at one of the many schools nestled into the hills of the countryside, said, “My, it really is remarkable. Everyone in your generation seems to be going into to teaching ! How terribly idealistic !”
“Oh,” said Able. “You mean you have a Latin teacher.”
“We have two, and dozens on file who would like to be.”
“Not many of them love Latin as much as I,” said Able.
“To teach at all is to love life,” observed the beedy eyed man, truthfully.
Able went to have a talk with his old professor.
“Glad to see you, Able,” said Professor Cain. “Enjoying the summer of your youth?”
“Looking for work,” said Able.
“Kind of difficult.”
“It usually is. I think that’s why a number of people become university professors. It’s very secure... You could try something simple.”
“Well then I’ll probably be drafted.”
“Oh do you think there will be a war?” said the professor.
“I don’t know,” said Able. “But I sure would like to find work teaching. Maybe I should have stayed in school.”
“You’re a young man and much too down to earth to be spending your youth in a musty old library as I do !”
“Say. How’s your wife?” said Able.
“Oh,” said Professor Cain. “She found another husband.” The professor looked very sad and vulnerable.
“A friend of yours?” said Able.
“Why do you say that?” said the professor, startled.
“Well, you looked upset.”
“Not really a friend. Someone I met once. But just a kid. I have so many former students, Able. Why he isn’t much older than you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Able.
“I don’t see why,” said Professor Cain. “She’s going to have a child soon and she’s quite happy. I probably won’t even notice she’s missing. Until Christmas.”
“Yes Christmas,” said Able. “I guess you saw it coming.”
The professor laughed. “Oh don’t look so gloomy, Able. You have your own woman problems by now. Variable et mutabile semper femina.”
“Woman is a variable and changeable being,” mused Able, ineptly. “Why I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe women are more constant than we are !” But Professor Cain was already showing him to the door.
In August, without a teaching job for the Fall, Able went to work in a library.
“Just until a job comes through,” he said to Lucy.
“Long as it pays the rent,” said Lucy. “You want to get married up?”
“It might get me out of the draft,” he said.
“One kid isn’t enough. Hank Junior’s daddy already used him.”
“Maybe I should go back to Africa,” said Able.
“They’ll chop you up and makes you into hamburger, Able !”
Able was very unhappy. “Well if you marry me you’ll have two kids, sort of,” he said.
So they decided on a November wedding. When it was real decided and Able sat there temporarily solid at his own kitchen table, grinning, Lucy called in her son and feeding him since Hank Junior still preferred his mother to any of the edible delicacies Able could rustle up out in the big wide world, she announced that she and Able were going to get married. The next morning she went down to the lawyer’s office to see about a divorce from Hank Senior.
“It’s going to take months and months,” she said. “Nobody know where he is.”
“Well we ought to have his okay at least,” said Able.
“Old Hank, he’ll be pleased enough to have me off his hands. But it’s got to be okay with the judge. He’s no dummy, Hank Senior,” Lucy mused.
“I guess I’ll have to wait for you,” said Able.
“It’s going to be too late, Honey,” said Lucy sadly.
When Able’s sister came to visit, Able introduced Lucy as his fiancee. When his sister went home she told her husband who hit the ceiling. There were telephone calls, and one of the kids from the street would run up the stairs and bang on the door. “Telephone call for Mr. Able, Mister,” and Able would run down the stairs and out to the pay phone, and while the kids floated paper boats in the gutter water from the open hydrant, and their older brothers claimed the lids on garbage cans for shields in their broomstick and chair leg fights , while the neighborhood mothers sat on their stoops and watched one more summer afternoon pass with occasional whoops of admonition for some child to move out of the way of a car, as the playground of life just beyond his understanding proved all possible varieties of its ambulance interrupt amusements, Able would pick up the dangling receiver.
“Able, this is me again,” said his brother-in-law.
When it was not his brother-in-law, it was his father, and when it was not either, it was his mother, and they were all saying the same thing.
“Wouldn’t you like to take a vacation someplace quiet?”
“Are you sure you’re feeling well?”
“Have you been to see the doctor?”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Didn’t you ever, ever, love us?”
“Sure I love you !” said Able. But it did not do any good.
And then the calls stopped completely. It was like being in the jungle. Lucy and Able were left to themselves and Hank Junior. Able went to work each morning at the library, and after work he joined Lucy and the kids in the mark. He taught Han Junior how to catch a ball. He lay back in the sparse grass and let the youngster jump up and down on his stomach or sleep in the shelter of his arm, or he would lean up against Lucy and talk with friends who would sit with them for a while.
“They’ll come around,” said Able.
“My family. They’re a little slow but they have good hearts.”
“Nothing wrong with being slow,” said Lucy. “Long as we’re left alive.”
Then in October, Able received his draft notice.
Able, as a lamb among sheep, moved from table to table in his nakedness. His fellows stumbled about him, blear-eyed, limping, coughing, bopping, listening to unsung melodies, dropping their specimen bottles, sweating, silent, crying inside, furious, holding on to their genitals, marching forward into the unknown prepared for the worst as if they were already in uniform. Some were brave. Some laughed. It was the pre-induction phuysical. Able among his fellows looked into the faces of others caught in the same trap of anonymity and oblivion, and recognized himself. He knew that in each of them there was a man who screamed “I do not belong here !” and stepped to the next table. He was in the grip of some more powerful force than himself, or Lucy, or college or anything he knew of except God who seemed to have left all of them in their nakedness. In that line of bodies he was no longer Able, but a number. “Why me?” he asked with each of them.
“How was it, Honey?” Lucy asked.
“Not so bad.”
After a while Lucy said, “You pass your examination?”
“They had an argument about that. Three of them. They decided if I was that bad why that’s just where I belonged. In the army.”
“So when you going in?” she moaned.
“Why that’s Christmas Eve ! They wouldn’t do that.”
“They will if I don’t disappear.”
“That’s too mean !”
“Looks like they’re getting ready for a war,” said Able.
November was a nasty month. The kid was upset and marched up and down the apartment chanting, “Able Able go away, me and Momma gonna stay.” Lucy kept spilling things and weeping.
“Why are you crying again?” demanded Able.
“I don’t know,” said Lucy , and wept.
Hank Junior then learned to strike matches and went through a box of safety matches by the stove. He was discovered under the kitchen table working through the cigarette matches. “Stop it !” screamed Lucy. Able had to pick the boy up in his arms and pat him on the back to calm him. Hank Junior always lost his cool when his mother did. Still Able kept finding the kid with matches. Finally Able hid all the matchbooks in the apartment and went out to the grocery and bought a box of candy bars for Hank Junior.
“Here,” said Able. “Try these.”
Then Lucy’s parents, figuring that Able had after all at least proposed to their daughter, and even better was going off to join the army and serve his country, finally agreed to come over for dinner.
“I hates to think of you in boot camp Christmas day !” said her father.
“It will be like old times being just family again,” said her mother. “Of course you’re family too, Able.”
“Looks like it,” said Able, trying to persuade Hank Junior into eating his applesauce.
“Momma !” wailed the boy.
In the middle of their ham Lucy put down her fork and knife, covered her eyes and began to cry.
“There there,” said her father, patting her shoulder and looking at Able with a wild-eyed ill-suppressed rage. “There there, nothing to get upset about.”
“You see what you done to our daughter !” said her father.
Able shrugged. “She keeps crying. I don’t know what to do.” He went over to her and put his cheek against hers and whispered in her ear until she calmed down some.
“Robot,” said her father.
“I love her,” said Able.
“That’s no excuse,” said her father.
It was a miserable meal. Every time Able and Lucy’s father started to disagree, Lucy’s mother said,”Now you mustn’t give my husband a heart attack.” So Able sat there with his jaws clenched, serving up seconds and thirds while everyone tried to talk about the cooler weather and what to buy Hank Junior for Christmas. When her parents had left for across the street, her father saying “I hope I’ll be allright until I’m in my own house again !” Lucy was exhausted. She sat amid the vacant borrowed chairs like a parked car with missing wheels.
“It’s allright, Honey,” Able said to her. “Don’t be sad. Why are you so sad?”
“I guess they’re just getting old,” she said.
At the library, Able’s boss was riding him. It was do this do that and inside you don’t wear a hat.
“It’s a cap,” said Able.
“Not in our offices you don’t, young man.”
“Well take off your hat then. Didn’t anyone ever teach you any manners?”
“Mrs. Gladstone,” said Able. “I’ve been wearing this cap to work all day long for two months at least, and it never bothered you before.”
“You are going to like it in the army, young man.”
Reaching home, Able was half way up the stairs when he realized he had left his cap at the office.
Mid-November, Lucy stopped making love with him.
“How can you do this to me !” said Able.
“I aint doing nothing ,” said Lucy.
“What did I do wrong !” said Able.
“You’re going away, that’s what.”
“But I haven’t left yet !”
“What you waiting for?”
“Look, I don’t want to go. Maybe I won’t.”
“You’re going to be just like Hank Senior,” and Lucy began to cry again.
Able gathered her up in his arms and held her and kissed her and after a long while he said, “There must be some way we can still get along. Why don’t we see a marriage counselor?”
“A marriage counselor.”
Lucy opened her eyes at him and smiled. “A marriage counselor,” she said. And then she laughed. “You are one crazy man.” she said. “Who going to marriage counsel us, a Chinaman? We aren’t even married !” Lucy laughed, “You know Able, they just going to put you in the army so as they can find someone to shoot at you.” She laughed and Able laughed, and they they stopped and looked at eachother. Then Lucy grabbed him. When they made love it was like when they first would make love but now it hurt them both to feel.
If you take an apple. Holding it in one hand, and a small sharp knife in the other, and place the blade against the slightly resilient apple skin and begin to turn the apple slowly so that the skin unwinds from the apple top to bottom in a long dangle of sweet apple skin curl, then when the apple is freshly white, moist and bared, it is pared. Whatever nourishment Able derived from the occasional apples of his life, he was aware of one constant which did not change from one apple to another which in fact was their final similarity. Soon after the apple was pared it was either eaten , or prepared in applesauce. Paring was the next step to finality.
“There is nothing specially final about pairing,” Marla the mathematician once told him. “It is simply a function of some greater cause.”
Able, who thought she meant “paring,” agreed. He spent much of his spare time in those last few weeks at home thinking of the simplicity that one and one make two. Of “pairing” and “paring,” perhaps the meaning of the two words was not so different. The differences of and between each led Able to a consideration of his father’s name and Noah of the Bible.
If anything was known of the biblical Noah, it was his inclination to survive and save. That was what he understood of the Lord’s message. Noah’s manner of saving was to admit the living creatures two by two of each kind to his ark and safety. He did not make any declared attempt to see that the animals he chose loved eachother. It seemed that he was more interested in finding animals which simply looked alike and were capable of reproducing their species. He was not fussy and didn’t subject the animals to all manner of tests and examinations on those rainy days before the floor. He was not very interested in the needs of the individual creatures., either, as long as they paired up okay. Somebody on Noah’s ark and maybe it was Noah himself, and some appreciation of mischief because there were at least three doves, and possibly other living creatures tried to smuggle aboard their friends, on that paired journey to a better world.
Able felt a lot like the animals, for as Noah was to them, so a greater savior was to humankind. No? It was as though the Bible story was simply a key to understanding purposes beyond our individual lives. When Able grew up he realized that aside from the paired animals on board, there were of course, Noah’s children, and Mrs. Noah, and of course Noah’s mother-in-law. What could Noah say to his mother-in-law? “I’m sorry, there’s a great flood coming, and I’m going to build an ark to save my family annd all the animals but not you?” How could he have survived a long sea voyage with his wife’s anger and complaining, if he left his mother-in-law behind? So pairing was not everything. It was only that at the beginning, amidst the isolation of the universe within each of us, when one joined to one to make that first two, and in subsequent joinings and couplings, there were some variables. If animals had to look alike to pass two by two into the ark, people did not have to. That was one thing that made people different from animals. Able believed that the people were probably dark and light, with straight hair and tight curly hair, tall and short, fat and thin, or many ages and with enough different sexual tastes to assure the survival of the species and then some.
So what? But this was important to Able who found himself in love or joined deeply with someone who did not look at all like him. As though if he could find some support in the foundations of religion, society or his childhood, then Lucy and he might sail unhampered and unharmed through the seas of life. He was struggling for all who loved, whether they looked the same or not. One thing was sure. They would not make it as animals, easily. Not in America. Noah would say, for instance, “But you don’t look alike !”
“But male and female peacocks don’t either,” Able would answer, flattering himself.
“Now don’t get tricky with me, Son.”
The only way Lucy and Able would find entry into that ark was with the people. And what chance was there of that when the entire system wanted to turn him into an animal?
Meanwhile, as Able at his desk on a Sunday afternoon, tried to find his way into a more just and loving care from the father of everyone, not just Noah, Hank Junior was sitting on a throw rug near Able’s feet. The child, entirely bundled in one of Able’s sweaters, was nimbly building a log house with wooden matches.
“How are you doing?” said Able, waking up.
“Good,” said the kid. “Wanna see me light a match?”
Hank Junior struck a match and held it up in the air toward Able, who looked at it and smiled, and then saw, and took the match and shook it out. “Okay,” said Able. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thanks.”
“Looks like war,” said Able at supper.
“Uh-huh,” said Lucy.
“I mean it looks awful. One day they say one thing. Another day another.”
“It looks like,” said Able, “it might even be our fault.”
“Uh-huh. We been messing over there a good long time,” said Lucy.
“But they want to send thousands of us over there ! They want a real, big, war.”
“Honey, they don’t go drafting young men for years in peacetime, if they isn’t planning something big.”
“Jesus,” said Able. “They are going to crucify us.”
“Gonna crucify some of them little people too. Gonna be an awful lot of young men knocking on the doors of Heaven.”
“What am I going to do?”
“You are going to do what you got to do.”
“What’s that?” said Able.
“I’m your woman, not your conscience.”
“Yes,” said Able, and he thought for a while. Then he said, “When I was little it used to upset my parents. I used to hug and kiss everyone I could.”
“You still an affectionate child.”
“Well they said it annoyed the postman.”
“Say,” said Lucy. How come you don’t always hug and kiss Hank Junior?”
“When he’s nice I’m real good with him. But sometimes he treats me like an admiral.”
“You know. An admiral. My father had a friend who was an admiral, and he came to visit us once in his full dress uniform. My parents were very impressed. I was sitting on the living room floor and my ma was sitting beside him on the sofa. He leaned over and patted my head and said what a nice little doggie I was.I took hold of his leg and bit him right through the trousers.”
Lucy laughed. “Hank Junior’s much too smart to do that to an admiral.”
“I don’t like uniforms,” said Able.
“If you don’t fight one way , you fight another, Honey.”
“Maybe some people don’t fight at all,” said Able.
“Well then, they must be mighty rich. I mean if they already has what they needs, then they say, ‘Peace, peace brothers and sisters, peace.’”
“But you have to be piggy to want to fight people, at least with guns. Or any way, unless somebody attacks you, planning on mahem. Even then if you don’t hurt someone it gives you strength.“
”Strength to get creamed,” said Lucy. “You about to go in the army, Boy !”
“Maybe you have to try very hard not to fight. anybody.”
“You wouldn’t protect me?”
“Sure I would. But that wouldn’t be a fight. That would be protecting you. It certainly wouldn’t help to start a fight about it. Also, it would be right to protect you. But it wouldn’t be so smart for me to protect someone else’s old lady, and certainly not from her old man...”
“I don’t know,” said Lucy. “I mean if Hank Senior came in here and tried to take Hank Junior away, or if my poppa started whupping my momma, or the other way around, you wouldn’t just stand there.”
"But I wouldn’t hurt them. I’d just try to stop anyone from hurting someone else.”
“You’d rather hurt me by making me love you,” said Lucy.
Happy New Year ! Bet your Christmas was better than mine. Do you know what it’s like to be without you? My whole life is a series of being taken away from what I want. I miss you. In the moments alone, in that darkness before I sleep, it’s almost like you are with me for a while, far away from here, and I wake up sometimes saying I love you.
I haven’t received any letter from you for these five months. Did you receive any of mine? Did you see a lawyer? The judge advocate’s office says no civilian lawyer is interested in my case but there is a clerk from their division who comes by once a week with a Pepsi and some cigarettes. He says there’s not too much hope. I say hope of what? Of getting out, he says.
Everything here is done according to time. Like time is god. It’s like living inside a clock. Doors open and close, exercise, eating, sleeping. Only the guys don’t know what time it is. It is like being turned into a machine. Everyone jumps up when the screw takes his breath to say attention. You have to be fast. Some of the guys who have been here for a while just stop talking and don’t seem to be alive until the screw comes around and gives his orders. Those guys don’t miss a beat. When the screw leaves it’s like their life leaves. I think well at least they aren’t turning me into an animal. Maybe that would be better than some kind of machine, all keyed up and waiting to spring to attention. Some of the guys are pretty good at not being made machines. They fight it every instant in every move they make but it sure is sad when they break. When I think of you8 see, it’s like the warmth comes back into my body and I feel human again. So it’s okay if you don’t love me anymore, and don’t want to write me. That is hard to think but what I mean is that I still love you, and because there is nothing else, that helps me. I think about moments we spent together and wish I could write them all down so I wouldn’t forget them. Uh-oh, got to go.
So you ever think of me?
I miss you. Does Hank Junior think about me or ask? What are you going to tell him?
Still don’t have a lawyer.
I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s like everything that happens is pre-arranged. Even out in the compound. The clock keeps running, as if they make us keep it running.ike we are part of it. Like we make it happen. Like we are dead, and living in spite of it. Why do they do that to us? I still tell them I refuse to kill.
Writing you helps a little. Maybe that is what the writers of two thousand years ago were trying to do, break out of the prisons of their day. Maybe it has always been like this but on the outside you don’t notice it as much, because there is so much else going on, with lots of room for mistakes . People don’t know what they’re living in. Why should we fight other people for our lives instead of building our lives together?
They want to know if I’m ready to fight yet.
I writes you every week. Hank Junior, he says he want to learn how just so he can too. We miss you too much. I been trying to find another man to take care of us, but my heart not in it. The money you left in the bank is way down. That nice man, Professor Cain from the college sent over one of the dining hall attendants to see if we was doing okay. It was real hard to get him out of the place. I thought Hank Junior was going to have to bite his leg ! We talked to the lawyer again this week but he say anything to do with the army is real expensive, unless you are a big case like a spy or war criminal or communist. I finally told him you was a white boy and he said that might help a little. You know, I don’t like to think that we all live in a prison. In prison you can’t even hold hands. But I don’t blame you for thinking . I mean what else can you do if they don’t give you anything to do but think? I wish you wasn’t in. I wish to God you was free. Sometime I cry all night because of you and say Lucy girl, did you say anything that would make Able be true? Cause if you did, you ought to had kept your big mouth shut. Honey, get out of there any way you can. I know you will still be you. Let me be the one who say the truth. I’m true. I don’t mean man and woman true so much. I’m not so perfect like that but I try. I mean for what you love and believe in. I’ll be true to that stronger than you ever suspect. You can like a little, like I knew you wouldn’t. Tell them what they wants to hear. How you can fight off all them screaming enemies or whatever they calls who it is they is scared of, shooting and bombing all the women and babies too. Then when you gets free a little, you can walk with Hank Senior . Least that give me some chance to see you again, too. Thinking of you makes me so sad. My darling Able.
There was once a young man who wanted to live forever. Not that he wanted to live longer than anyone else, but he enjoyed the trees rustling , the flowers bending in the high grass, a child’s bucket held tilted on an uncut lawn, the path his mind followed when he did not have to do anything. As though the early years of his life were lived in a maze which led around the lower slopes of a mountain, then gradually up through the stones and past the timber line, until he realized he had jumped the wall of the maze. Around him was ice and evergreen. The great masses of clouds talked back and forth to eachother in the sky. It was as thought the privilege of life for men and women was to find their way up past the timber line, and on the upper slopes find eachother and live, almost without words, with the conversation of their bodies, their moods and desires, understandings and joys, complementing eachother like a symphony, not composed by man or played, but lived, where men and women awakened to the music within them. It was as though the maze itself and the life each had lived was meant as a way to the upper reaches of the mountain, as a way to purify and distill what was essential in each of them, what gave life to others and what could move with the wind in the trees, through the grass, across the sky where the clouds didn’t have to fight, on the sea where the roll of waves could only be broken for a moment’s passing of a ship. Through that heavy mesh grill which kept him apart from everything in life which he imagined, a part of his spirit could reach out to the bending of a tree amidst its own leaves, and hold with it and stay there without loss, so some day another could pass by the same place and seeing the tree bending amidst its foliage, make the same discovery he had made, finding a gift there in the bark and reaching out of the wood. It was as though each tree in its changing through the seasons had its own mystery and was there with a thousand others to nourish his spirit, and it was the trees on the landscape, outside, which he could share with others. He longed to walk through the trees. From afar the rippling of the leaves spoke to him. When his questioning was pure their speech in answer released him to the movement of the air, the clouds, bees and gnats, the mosquitoes, and even the ants free to come and go. The wind sprang through those trees like grace or water when he thirsted, and the need for water and water given was a language deeper than words or signs , which he called love. It was the language which kept him a live , as though people were waiting to realize their lives, or find eachother, until some act of grace, some gift there was no apparent reason for let them live again, let him find his language again, walking up through those trees with the wind strong and the way clear and the maze of his prison left behind.
Able was going to be free. It was not a journey he could rush and he was sure by the time he reached the upper slopes that he was not alone, sure that he had been there before, lived there on the open reaches of the mountain, sure that the symphony, always changing, had been lived and would be lived again and again, that he knew it and it was part of him, that memory which was discovery, as surely as his skin felt the cool breeze after sweat, as sure as his eyes smarted at someone else’s loss. He was going to be free, which may be why he returned when he went too far out alone on the open reaches of the mountain, to what was best in himself, to what let him find beauty in the movings of a tree, to the messages he thought were left by others who had also looked too long at trees, to find the language of the earth and skies whose life was made flesh in other people like himself, waiting for recognitions, suggesting, teaching eachother the little they knew , not always knowing they were teaching, waiting for someone and all of them to find their way out of the trees together and awake, so a moment of grace would be as continual as the motion of the sun, so the young man who wanted to live forever would live forever or as long as the wind moved through the far trees or the waves moved on the oceans or the stars drifted on their courses in clusters and sprays in the glory of the night skies. He was part of them. Life was the rhythms, patterns, wonder of the world with all its exceptions , shared , and no man or woman or institution could take it away completely.
Able had plenty of time to consider. There were some trees out there he liked to look at.
"That’s right,” Lucy had once said with her customary sarcasm. “You go right on reflecting. How you going to help me with reflections? The only reflection I want to see from you is you. I tell you, there are enough reflections in this world. Most of them are white. Some don’t count for beans. Maybe back in the beginning before Adam and Eve and all those prophets writing up testaments out in the desert, there was just a poor black man who walked into a hall of mirrors. Some of the mirrors were lit up and others were in the dark. That’s how come we have so many reflections these days.”
Once Able was walking down the avenue toward the United Nations Building. Of course he was in New York. Other cities did not have a United Nations Building. It was raining slowly and tediously. Able walked and walked and finally the avenue opened up to give some space to the sky and then sight of the river and far buildings and that encircling arm of protection which the amphitheater wing of the U.N. building offers. The lights were on in the business building because the sky was gray. A thousand diplomats drank their morning cups of coffee and tea. People translated and emptied wastebaskets full of shredded memorandums, and checked identifications and answered phone calls from remote regions and made decisions, and necked or cuddled or petted or really made love, and hoped. In front, the flags were not up on the poles because it was raining . Across the street from that monument to lovers’ aspirations, was a small band iof American Indians and a few of their friends. They were holding a vigil in the rain. They had walked across much of the country to make their statements where they nmight be heard. Their homeland was being appropriated for mining. A wase of radioactive mill tailings littlered their reservations, causing cancer, birth defects, spontaneous abortions, and lowered resistance to disease. Their women had been deprived of the right to give birth, in large numbers. As many as sixty to seventy thousand Indian women had been sterilized without their informed consent. This was what the American Indians were saying. They frightened the consciences of those who came later to the land, and so they were treated criminally.
Able stood there with the groups of denim clad men and the few women. There were also street people with their easy dress and patchwork, and some Buddhist monks who had shared the ordeal of walking. They did not mind Able standing there near them. Able bored fast, and then noticed. He was standing with his back to a brightly colored banner beside a police barricade, and facing him are ten pleasant looking Irish Americans and Italian American cops in their rain slickers with wet mustaches. To the right of him, those in the rain soaked groups stood amid a few umbrellas. Some men offered passers-by leaflets. Drums beat slowly. The chanting was familiar. Able watched the rain drops fall from the sheltering rim of his black umbrella. There was a man standing in front of him. He had long hair and broad features and was Indian without choice of culture or the disguises of generations. The man was without umbrella or raincoat, but wore a faded denim jacket and jeans, and boots. He stood in the awkward symmetry of neither youth nor age with his back to Able, not in offense because they had stood this way and that together, sharing the space for some time, but because the Indian was talking to a young man and women.
The rain was coming down. Able watched the droplets. But the Indian was not wet. At his boots where water had splashed, his cuffs were dark with water. But the rest of his denims were dry. The man’s hair, the man’s face as he turned his head, were not wet. He was Able’s age. But he was not wet. Yet the rain kept coming down as the water ran off Able's umbrella.
Able waited for the Indian to get wet. After a while he saw that the Indian was just not going to get wet, even if he stood there while the cars sloshed through the streets and rivulets ran down policemen’s cheeks, and everyone up in the big office building drank their cups of coffee and tea and tried to solve all the problems of the world the entire afternoon.
It occurred to Able that the American Indian might just be a reflection, an apparition. But the girl was patting the Indian’s arm, and the three of them were laughing, and Able realized that in a popular vote of that gathering, if anyone was going to be accused of being only an apparition, it was Able. “Why do you deny me Lord?” he thought. But then as if in answer, he understood. If the Indian had been harmed greatly and stood before the greatest gathering of governments on earth, still without justice, the Lord had then favored that man before all others.