Clay looked up. The sky was a slate panel crossed by branches tapping rhythmically against the glass. He sat up reluctantly. The wood floor was cold against the soles of his feet. Beyond the window he heard motorcars passing in the street and the laughter of young men on their way to classes. After dashing water on his face from the brass bowl atop the bureau he felt for stubble, dressed, checked to make sure his collar was clean, and knotted his threadbare tie. He started toward the door but turned, picked up the folded letter, put it in his pants pocket, and after glancing at his pocketwatch left the room.
In the hallway he stopped at the sound of forks and knives against plates and doors shutting. He startled when a doorway down the hall closed. Wilkins, a medical student who'd boarded there for five years, stood in his undershirt with his shoes in hand. He looked at Clay and smiled.
"You won't make it, but I'll wish you luck anyway."
Clay scowled and crossed to the head of the stairwell.
"I'll make it."
At the bottom of the stairs he could see squares of light reflected on the Persian carpet from the windows beside the front door. He heard voices from the dining room and he knew that he would have to move fast if he wanted to get out unnoticed. He bolted down the stairs and got halfway across the front hallway when Mrs. Lawton's voice stopped him.
"Were you going to leave without having breakfast?"
She stood in front of him. She smelled like rosewater.
"I have to meet Professor Johnson. I'm a little late."
Behind her in the dining room Swanson and Phelps looked up from their plates and spied on him. Mrs. Lawton grasped his forearm.
"Well, I'll let you go this morning, but you must promise to come back later this afternoon for tea. Do you promise?"
Behind her Swanson put his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers at him.
"Yes, Mrs. Lawton."
"Good. Then I'll see you later."
May in Cambridge. It was an oddly cold, wet day. Even in early morning dense shadows danced on the streets and the hoods of parked cars. Sodden bright green leaves littered the sidewalk and the lawns of the quiet houses. Clay, his head still half-filled with sleep, set off toward Harvard Yard.
When he reached the river, he took a long-striding leap onto the curb and walked up the sloping bridge. Halfway across, his eye caught the glinting reflection of light off the water. The remnants of a thin nocturnal mist lay along both riverbanks, and he edged toward the low bridge wall. He knew he'd be late, but the light on the water looked like fire. He stopped and leaned over the bridge wall to watch the play of light on the river. He'd heard that a Harvard man, some Southern boy, had jumped from one of the bridges a few years before, but he had never been able to figure out which bridge it was. Had he been lonely, too? The world too different from this waking dream?
In the distance two shells slid on the thin flame of sunlight like slender water beetles. They came from the further bend in the river and the rowers bent and pulled, bent and pulled, as they propelled toward him in metronomic bursts of speed. He could see the boathouses at the river bend, and tall oaks stood lushly green along both banks. As the shells neared he heard the coxswains' rhythmic chanting as they called through cardboard horns, and then were suddenly under him and vanished into the shadow of the bridge below.
In the yard young men leapt from doorways and ran to class. His feet felt heavy, and though he was late he couldn't bring himself to run, the cold day made colder yet by his father's voice, as powerful as if it were just beyond a door, regardless of the nearly two years since they'd seen each other. Clay walked to Emerson and slowly trod the stairway up. Others taking steps by twos and threes bolted by him, a flurry of sound, chaotic movement.
Later, in Professor Johnson's office, light slanted through the windows in dust-filled shafts. He heard sounds from outside. Footfalls on pavement and voices as if from the further end of a hall.
"Cronos castrated him. Did you know that?"
"He was given dominion over the earth."
Professor Johnson got up from his chair and walked across the room to the massive wall of bookshelves. They had been talking about myths, Johnson's current obsession. One of his legs was shorter than the other. He wore eccentric crimson spats.
"Yes here. It was with a scythe."
Clay glanced again toward the window. He could hear the pages quickly flapping, the same sound as pigeons lighting, as Johnson searched through some dusty volume.
"The blood from the wound gave birth to the maenads."
Professor Johnson walked back to his desk carrying an open book bound in wine-colored leather and sat. Clay glimpsed the edge of the latest copy of the Conflict peeking out from under a stack of books.
"It's too bad this country's so young. We have no myths, no gods."
He smiled and paused and looked at Clay.
"I must say, though, wars help."
His pale blue eyes looked massive behind thick lenses.
"Why are you going to the war, Clay?"
Clay had expected the question, but it still surprised him. He sat straight.
"Because I have to, sir." He pointed to the Conflict on the desk. "It's all in there."
Professor Johnson pulled the copy out from under the books and blinked at it.
"Yes, yes. Fredericks brought my attention to it yesterday. 'The Spirit of the Age.' Quite compelling, what you've written. But are these your ideas? Or is it Powers' talk? Of the responsibility of the negro? It won't change anything your going there. You're of better use here."
Johnson set the newspaper down and looked at him. The sounds beyond the window seemed to have stopped as if on cue, like a stage direction. America's philosopher, they called him. His older brother, self-exiled to Rome, was the country's most influential novelist. When Clay had first met Professor Johnson his freshman year, he'd been initimidated by his stature. But for some strange reason Professor Johnson had taken him into his confidence, and eventually Clay had come to see him as an ally in this place where he lived but could never call home.
"Maybe?" Johnson peered over the tops of his spectacles. "You don't sound absolutely sure."
"I don't mean to press you. It's just that your article made me think of the manifesto of a man headed for a sacrificial altar. Please remember that there are men who will use other men to fulfill their own sense of destiny. Such men become the subjects of history and biographies. The men they use become dust."
"Do you think that's what Dr. Powers is doing?"
Johnson scowled and looked away. It was as if a jet of heat hitting Clay's face had been suddenly turned off, and he slumped in his seat again.
"I didn't say that. I used no names. I find it simply saddening that figures of--of stature within your own race would be willing to sacrifice, to risk sacrificing, their best and brightest out of crude demagoguery."
"But things have to change." Johnson turned and looked again at Clay. The old professor's eyes.
"Yes. Yes, they do, don't they? But, will you be careful, Clay? Will you come back to Harvard?"
"I don't know. Sometimes--I don't feel like I belong here."
"I understand. It's been difficult for you. I want you to know, Clay, that you have a place here if--when you come back."
A voice, a woman's laughter, through the window. Resumed sound beyond the room like a sound that interrupts sleep.
"I appreciate that, sir. You've been very kind to me. I'll never forget how kind you've been to me."
"You'll thank me by coming back. You'll thank me by learning the skills to be the scholar you were meant to be. I only wish circumstances were different. All of this--"
He waved his arm, extended toward the window, his lips pursed in contempt. The world, he means.
"It's a distraction. There's real work to be done, and you should be about the work of doing it. You are a fine thinker, a fine thinker, and you should be about the business of scholarship."
At the door, as Clay put out his hand to shake Professor Johnson's, he was afraid the sweat of his palm would betray his nervousness and anxiety. He was surprised when, pushing his hand aside, the old professor wrapped his arms around him and enfolded him in as fatherly and as awkward an embrace as any he had ever received.
It was warmer when he left Memorial Hall, and the early morning rush of students in the yard had subsided to a few late stragglers darting to their classes. He walked along the path slowly. Leaves lazed on the grass and fluttered along the paths. The red brick buildings of the yard sat silent, undaunted and eternal. He would never know their interiors. He would never know the wood and paint and doorways of rooms from which voices and laughter vaulted through windows into the yard. Only white students were allowed to live in them. There, in Aiden, in Illinois, you knew where you stood and who you were, the boundaries. They would call you a nigger to your face, spit at you, but you never doubted. Here it was an altogether different game. They would give you the crust but not the bread. They could let you into the college, but deny you the right to sleep in its dormitories. Let you sit in their lectures, but ignore your questions. They would smile at you here while denying you everything. Offer you the world while secretly laying siege to your hopes, your expectations, until, exhausted by constant vigilance and paranoia, you became half-human, as they suspected, and you felt your soul giving way until leaving seemed the only choice, for it was better to war than to be warred upon--wasn't it? A surge of anger rose up in his chest and he felt untethered, as if the earth were falling away from under his feet. He looked up. Wadsworth House shone brightly yellow behind dark green leaves. Would he ever cross this yard again?
He walked under the arch and crossed Massachusetts. The silence of the yard gave way to sound and movement as Cambridge woke from sleep. Destiny, Professor Johnson had called it. There were so many people, so many. Human destinies, vibrant and unpredictable, moved like a pageant along the sidewalks. And what's my destiny? He thought. Tomorrow? Or next year? He knew that less than two years could stretch the distance between a small town in Illinois and Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a seeming eternity. A world away his destiny had taken him. He looked around him--faces, the sound of footfalls, encountered eyes. An aproned man in a tobacconist's window pressed his palms to the glass and looked skyward. A pale man in workman's clothes glanced at the coming traffic with furtive eyes before dashing across the street. The sights of things careened through Clay's eyes and cast his mind into a frenzy. He crossed to Mount Auburn Street, toward the river.
He turned. Pete Hornbee, as skinny as the cigarette that dangled from his lower lip, walked toward him. Smoke billowed from his nostrils.
"You headed back?"
"No," said Clay. "I gotta go meet Dr. Powers."
Hornbee pulled the cigarette from his mouth.
"You gonna be there tonight?" asked Hornbee.
"So they caught you, too?"
"Yeah." Clay grinned and shook his head.
"Hey," said Hornbee as he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a folded copy of the Conflict. He looked up and winked, and Clay put up his hand.
"Don't say a word," said Clay.
"Don't say anything."
Hornbee shook his head.
"Don't think this is done with, Light."
"I know it. I'll see you later," said Clay as he turned to cross the street.
"See ya later."
Past South Street a white banner with a black fringe hung gently billowing from the second-floor window of a handsome brownstone. The red letters that warped and ebbed with the spring breeze stated simply A BLACK MAN WAS LYNCHED TODAY. Clay climbed the steps and Mrs. Hayes looked up when he walked in. She stood and rushed toward him, her arms extended.
"Hello, Mrs. Hayes."
She hugged him close.
"We're so proud of you. Do you know how proud you've made us? Your father must be so proud of you."
The letter was wedged in his pocket. He tried not to think about it. His father's pride. His father's fear. His mother had died and left them both, and now he was doing this to his father. He'd left his father behind in Aiden and hadn't seen him for nearly two years, and now he was abandoning his father and everything his mother and father had worked for and given him. He tried to smile.
She stepped back and smiled at him. She was a pretty woman at fifty, and her editorials in the paper were as keen as anything Dr. Powers wrote. Clay nearly believed the rumor that said she and Dr. Powers--both married to other people--were lovers.
"John's been waiting for you. He'll be happy to see you. Go in. Go in."
Dr. Powers sat reading in his shadowed office. His feet were up on his desk, and the worn ovals in the bottoms of his shoes looked like owl eyes perched on top of a stack of yellowed back-issues of the Conflict.
The newspaper that hid his face came down.
Dr. Powers held up the paper.
"I like your essay. I like it a lot."
"Thank you, sir."
"I sent copies to Chester and Albion this morning. They might republish it in the New York Dispatch. I also sent a copy to the Globe."
"That would be--wonderful, sir."
Dr. Powers pulled his feet off the desk and set the paper down.
"I don't have much time. I'm headed to Philadelphia this afternoon. Shall we go for a quick walk?"
Dr. Powers was brilliant and sartorial; a daemon of bookish knowledge and insight burned bright and fierce in his eyes. They made him, these powers and abundant energies, impatient. Clay scrambled to keep up as they walked along Quincy Street.
"Have you read the Santayana yet? The 'Beauty'? The one I loaned you?"
"Yes, yes, I have."
"And what did you think? What did it make you think?"
Clay shuddered. He'd been in such a hurry he forgot to put on an undershirt.
"It was brilliant."
He hadn't even opened it. Other books, novels, some poems by Traherne, Baudelaire, some Spenser, these engaged him. The Santayana sat on the edge of his desk at the boarding house untouched. He had looked at it once, knowing he would be asked but bored by academic prose, by theory and inaction, and all the books he had to read beside the books he wanted to read.
"No, not just brilliant," said Powers. "It's a work of art in itself. You can learn a lot from Santayana. He's a man of great focus."
His and Dr. Powers' footfalls on the sidewalk were loud and vaguely hollow in the caverns of the cobbled street. Clay thought of the Traherne, its patterns devotional, aspirant, reaching toward God, toward His paradise--Long time before I in my mother's womb was born--my mother's womb. My mother's room. He thought back. Can I remember? No. Only faces and sounds, impressions. His cheek cradled in her palm, a cradle of warmth, or was it just imagined? An imagined sanctuary? The sense of memory but not the thing? Clay fell behind two paces and almost had to run to keep up.
"So you're definitely going?"
"Excellent, excellent. I for one, as you well know, believe this country is worth dying for. Things as they are--well, that can change. The America of the white man will not recognize the America of the negro, our place in it, until we prove that we're willing to die for it. We've proven it before, but each time the call to arms is given we must answer it with greater passion than others. I like the title of your essay, 'The Spirit of the Age.' Yes, the spirit of the age is freedom. We mustn't wait for it. We have to act. We have to fight for it."
There were times when Clay wondered if Dr. Powers wrote out the things he said before he spoke them. Willing to die. Willing to be killed. Willing to kill. The end of breath, of poetry. It was all an abstraction veiled behind a thick gauze of the unimaginable. The closest he'd come to piercing it was when he'd sensed the desperation in his father's letter. Suddenly Dr. Powers stopped. He turned and grasped Clay's shoulders and looked at him.
"Do you know what it means? Your going?"
"I think so, sir."
A gentle smile bent Powers' lips.
"It means you're helping to carve a place for the negro in this country they call a democracy. It means you can help create this country's destiny."
Powers spoke deliberately, as if to a scolded child. There was bitterness in it, anger. Destiny. Two times in as many hours the word had sprung up to challenge Clay like a snake in tall grass. Destiny, he thought--this country's, mine. What's our part? What's my part? Clay looked at his old friend. Dr. Powers' beard was trimmed neatly, an angular concision that advertised the personality of the man who bore it. It seemed as though he'd aged in the period of their friendship. Making the Conflict into one of America's leading negro newspapers had drained a little of the light from his eyes. He'd fallen gravely ill the summer before, and Clay had been among two or three besides his wife and daughter who'd sat vigil in the hall outside his bedroom door. It seemed as if suddenly gray hairs had sprouted from the ridges of his ears, and he'd grown forgetful of little things like papers or his spectacles. Professor Johnson once said of Powers that he despised the man his arrogance but loved his mind. Clay understood. His brilliance could seem icy. But he'd taken Clay into a doting confidence, and the early awe that Clay had felt in his presence had thawed to something more and less a filial affection, forgiving of the older man's vanity and pedantry. Powers' profile was handsome, almost Roman in its linearity, penetrating, impassive. A thinker's face. Only a man with eyes like that could give serious thought to the future of an entire race and know with a messianic vision his own place in it.
"When are you leaving?"
"From here, sir?"
"For the war."
"In June or July, I think."
"And until then?"
"They're setting up training camps for negro students, a students' training corps. I'm headed to Pennsylvania, to Lincoln University."
They strayed off the street and walked to the river's edge. The grass in the late morning sunlight shimmered, and the Charles River's gentle waves lapped against the rocky shore. The unsubmerged halves of the smooth stones at the water's edge--covered with patches of dark moss--looked like the tonsured heads of drowned monks.
"That you're prepared to die--"
Dr. Powers' voice trailed. Clay turned and saw tears well up in his eyes. Dying, fighting, killing, getting killed. Dying. No. I'm not ready to die, he thought. Dr. Powers wiped his eyes with slender fingers.
"It moves me."
They stood and watched the water. After a while, they parted under the oaks along the riverbank with an embrace and then a handshake, like two businessmen--Clay's life, his future, agreed to, compacted.
Later that afternoon, after he'd run all his errands, Clay walked back to the boarding house. He felt melancholy, unmoored. He had hoped to go upstairs to his room and rest awhile, but Mrs. Lawton caught him before he reached the stairs.
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. The world inside felt warm and smelled good. She took his arm.
"Come in. I was afraid you'd forgotten. We were just talking about you."
She pulled him down the hallway lined with framed photos and old daguerreotypes. Black faces stared with shocked expressions from rich walnut frames. He caught a glimpse of two young women--one obviously a younger Mrs. Lawton with the same generous smile--the other a thinner, prettier version of the same familial face, both wasp-waisted in corseted dresses. A picture of Mr. Lawton hung beside it. He was a mythical figure in black Boston. Herman Lawton, the paragon of a self-made man, he'd been the first negro bank owner in the history of the state. A midas they said, who sprinted from dawn to nightfall like a dynamo from Edison's laboratory--unstoppable. They also whispered of an appetite for whores and death by syphilis. Further along a young man in a Union soldier's uniform stared boldly down at him. Clay had set his eyes on the portrait maybe a thousand times, but somehow he'd never really noticed it before. The man was one of Mrs. Lawton's cousins. He was a young Boston prince bred to lead but blasted to bits by Confederates at Battery Wagner in 1863.
Conrad, Phelps, and Pete Hornbee were waiting in the parlor. They sat, stiffbacked and as comfortable-looking as if they had guns pointed at their heads. Since opening the door Mrs. Lawton hadn't stopped talking. Clay heard her from an inattentive middle distance while nodding attentively.
"And here they are. Gentlemen."
The three condemned looked up from uneasy perches. Hornbee sat in a high-backed chair and Phelps and Conrad were half-submerged in a deep plush sofa. Both men, seated at opposite ends, gripped the carved wooden arms as tightly as sailors gripping the rigging of a sinking boat. They murmured hellos. Clay turned, but Mrs. Lawton had vanished in a flurry of words about "hungry young men" and "refreshments." The room was quiet. Clay eyed Hornbee and Conrad. The two, their necks cinched tight in starched white collars, looked at him warily, like officers of a board of parole. He took the chair facing Hornbee.
"We been talking about you, Light."
He looked at Conrad.
"So I hear."
Phelps strained at his collar with a bent forefinger.
"You gonna reconsider this war thing?"
"No. I'm going."
Conrad looked at the doorway, then at Clay.
"I read that article of yours. What're you trying to do? Start a riot? It's not our war. It's not ours to fight."
Hornbee leaned forward.
"Hey, hey, take it easy. I'm sure he's got his reasons."
Conrad looked naked and distracted without a cigarette in his hand. He looked away and shook his head. Clay had anticipated this. Yes, he believed in the war, believed that it could do what Dr. Powers thought it could, could make things--maybe--better. But by doing this, by going to the war, he'd broken a promise, a strong, unspoken pact, and he knew it. He was a young black man at Harvard. How many young black men could claim that privilege? And although he hadn't grown up in a mansion in Harlem as Conrad had, although he hadn't grown up in New York or Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, as most of them had, although he wasn't as privileged, or as polished, as most of these few young black men at Harvard, he was one of them nonetheless. And maybe, especially because Dr. Powers had tapped him, taken him in confidence his first year, he'd been deemed special--a young man found in a reed basket at the riverbank. Even he had started to consider himself among them and of them. And now he was leaving them, as abruptly as that. And so he realized their skepticism was only natural, their suspicions well-founded. He was lighting from a perch of extraordinary privilege. Going of his own free will to fight alongside rabble--both black and white--for some quixotic goal. Dwelling on it, as he sat under their collective gaze, he felt skeptical himself, and his courage tumbled in his chest like a leaf on an autumn breeze.
They sat in silence. The tall clock beside the parlor entrance ticked away each second of their transcendent torpor. Phelps, who was constantly burdened with work for medical school, looked as if he'd fallen asleep with his eyes open. The sound of heavy silverware and delicate china leapt from the next room. Clay listened to the women's voices and wondered that there could be so many voices in a random day. How to keep up with all the voices, the advisements, assertions, the beseeching voice of a father a world away. Don't do it. Don't do it. He could see his father standing by the river watching his only son, his only child glide away. He heard footsteps, Mrs. Lawton's voice, the promise of a dull night. Conrad glared at the ceiling and hissed.
"Goddamn. Why do we let her do this?"
Mrs. Lawton walked in followed by Anna, the maid, and the new girl Sarah. Anna held a tea service and Sarah bore a tray with a small mound of sandwiches from which the crusts had been delicately cut. They set the platters on the table between the four men, but less attention was paid the food than to the pretty, shyly smiling young women who bore them in. Mrs. Lawton sat in her customary chair. Anna poured tea and Sarah set out napkins.
"So, Clay. When do you leave?" asked Mrs. Lawton.
"Thursday morning, ma'am."
The cup in her hand stopped at her lips.
"Thursday? But then we have no time for a proper farewell. How can that be?"
"It's all right, ma'am. I wouldn't want anyone to make a fuss about it."
"But it's not a fuss. Oh, how will we say goodbye?"
Mrs. Lawton's teacup swung back and forth, and Clay was afraid she might spill it. Her eyes were fixed, and her face, a soft ball of gentle curves around those youthful eyes, curled into a smile. She put her teacup on the table, turned in her chair, and took his hands in hers.
"You've made me so sad. But I know you'll be back soon enough, won't you? A few months maybe?"
She smiled. Her hands were warm and held his gently.
It was nine o'clock when the four men were let out of the parlor. Mrs. Lawton, her enthusiasm ironclad even in the company of four stupefied young men, had gone on endlessly about her daughter Caitlin's countless suitors, her success at finishing school in New York, how she'd met Marcus Garvey at a special salon in Harlem the month before, and so on and so forth, until the evening stretched out into a miasmic, brain-deadening drone.
By the time she was done the men looked embalmed. Phelps went up to bed, his words slurred with sleep and his eyes barely open as he turned and loped slowly up the stairs. Despite Mrs. Lawton's mild protestations, Clay, Conrad, and Hornbee stepped out into the drizzling May night and stood like errant schoolboys on the lamplit street in front of the house. Conrad looked at Clay and Hornbee and smiled.
"You boys want somethin' to drink?"
Hornbee lit a cigarette and lit one for Conrad.
"Sounds good to me."
The silver smoke that gusted from his mouth shrouded his face.
"How about you, Light? You up for a drink?"
They walked in silence. Streetlamps cast their path in pools of bright white light. Clay walked beside Von Guy, and Clarke followed close behind.
"So you're really going then?"
"Yeah, I'm going."
He turned, but he couldn't see Conrad's eyes. They walked across the bridge toward Roxbury and there were a few others too along the bridge and the far embankment, young men and women, men alone. When they got to the other side, Clay peered along the serpentine curve of the river, the black water below rippled by the reflected light.
"I wanted to go."
Clay looked up. Since Wilson's declaration of war in April he hadn't heard Conard say anything about joining up.
"Why don't you?"
"I thought about it. Especially after all this Powers's been writing about our responsibility this and our responsibility that. But I figured it out. It's not our place to go."
"What is our place then?"
"What I mean is, I don't think we owe anyone anything."
"I don't think so either. But they don't respect us."
"And you think they will? After you go over there and kill some Germans or get killed you think they'll respect you?"
"Maybe," said Clay.
"Maybe? You're willing to stake your life on maybe?"
"Yes, I am. I don't expect you to understand that. What do you know about what most black folk go through? What most black folk can expect?"
Conrad frowned and shook his head.
"What do you know about, Light? You come here, from some hick town, and maybe you think you came from nothing. But that's not true. Your future's set, if you want it. And you're willing to throw it all away just "cause Dr. Powers is writing this stuff about how negroes fighting will make things better. That's crap."
Clay looked at the black silhouettes of the trees along the sidewalk. He looked at them to keep from betraying himself, to keep Conrad and Hornbee from seeing the anger and uncertainty in his eyes. He felt relieved when they finally reached Sammy's joint. They went down the stairs and Hornbee slammed his fist against the big oak door.
"Sam? Sam? It's Pete."
The door opened. Sam, who was darker than the darkness around him, peered out and smiled. His eyes were big behind thick spectacles.
"Pete, Clay. C'mon in, c'mon in. Hey, Conrad."
It was hot inside and Clay heard rising laughter and voices and piano keys dancing as they walked down the hall. The main room of Sammy's joint was a dilapidated parlor furnished with old restaurant tables covered with soiled tablecloths. The room smelled of tobacco and mildew and sawdust, and a massive cracked mirror hung the length of one whole side. Under it, Sammy had set up a makeshift bar from behind which a bent old man named Tyler, who looked like an undertaker, served bootleg liquor. Young men and women lounged in shadows on ruined sofas that lined the walls or huddled around the half-broken tables that circled the dance floor where a dozen or more couples swayed to the music wrought by the piano player Gordon, who sat like a prophet at his keyboard, foretelling the future not with Tarot cards or bones or tea leaves, but with yellowed ivory and chipped ebony in new and visceral and captivating tones. They found a sofa near the bar. Clay didn't want to talk about the future anymore. Tyler came bearing a tray of bootleg whiskey and gin and poured them drinks in squat glass tumblers stained with unwashed fingerprints. Hornbee put his hand up when Conrad lifted his glass to his lips.
"Hold onnow, hold on. I've got a toast for the hero here."
He looked at Clay and lifted his glass. They all held up their glasses.
"To our Illinois brother, prince of strivers, our historian, our poet--"
Hornbee reached for his overcoat and pulled the latest issue of the Conflict from an inside pocket.
"Our radical pamphleteer."
Conrad howled and nearly spilled his whiskey. Hornbee winked at Clay.
"I'm just havin' a little fun now. You know it."
"Yeah, I know it."
Hornbee unfolded the paper. When he found what he was looking for he stood straight and tried hard to keep from laughing.
"'And is it not the time? Is it not the hour? The spirit of the age has shown itself. The spirit of the age is justice!'"
Hornbee went on in a high stentorian voice, but Clay couldn't hear him above Conrad's laughter, which sounded like a goose being murdered. When Hornbee was done reading the essay, he folded the paper and he and Conrad lifted their glasses.
"The best of luck, Light. You come back soon."
Conrad wiped the tears from his eyes and lifted his glass high.
Their glasses rang against each other and they drink. The whiskey was hard and burned when it went down. Conrad coughed.
"It's all in fun. You know that?"
Clay nodded and sipped at his whiskey. Hornbee slapped his thigh.
"Damn, boy, you thinking of Caitlin when you write that stuff? You don't have to write her poetry. My cousin Thomas down at Columbia says you give that girl jewelry she'll do just about anything."
Hornbee drank and frowned at his whiskey glass.
"Where the fuck does he get this poison?"
Clay loosened his tie, tugged at his collar, and rested his head against the back of the sofa. Hornbee handed him a cigarette and lit it for him. Clay had wondered about that. He'd wondered if the blank emptiness he felt when he imagined fighting in a war was courage or lack of imagination. He shrugged.
"You scared at all."
"Seems like if you don't know then you're probably not scared."
A girl he'd never seen before walked up to them.
"Any of you boys like to dance?"
Her eyes were very pretty and she wore a blue dress. Conrad squinted at her warily.
"How old are you?"
"Old enough to dance." She smiled. She had a willowy, girlish body and sleepy eyes.
Conrad set his glass down.
"Sounds good to me. What's your name?"
"Delia, I'm Conrad. These here are my brothers Clay and Pete."
"Brothers? You all don't look like brothers."
"Well, don't tell anyone, but we all have different mamas."
The girl frowned like she was trying to solve a puzzle, as Conrad led her to the center of the room.
Gordon had hit a mellow mood, and the dancers on the floor swayed gracefully back and forth like people underwater. Hornbee laughed and Clay looked at him.
"What? What are you laughing about?"
"I was just thinking about that night when I met you."
Clay coughed up the smoke he'd just inhaled as he remembered.
"How'd you ever get her past Mother Lawton anyway?"
"Don't remember. Picked her up here, but I was drunk as hell. Damn was she ugly."
Clay leaned back and looked around the room. The whiskey was working its way into him and he felt good. Tyler stood next to the bar tapping his foot to the music. When Conrad and Delia were finished dancing they came back.
"She's all yours, brother," said Conrad.
"Naw, naw. I can't dance."
"The hell you can't. Now get on up and shuffle."
Clay stood up. The floor arced and swayed. Delia took his hand and led him to where the others danced. Gordon's spirits rose. The notes played higher and faster--a melodic rag--and sweat covered Delia's pretty face. She smiled. There was mystery there, wisdom beyond her age.
"Your friend tells me you're goin' off to fight."
Clay swayed. His legs were stiff and he was already drunk, but it felt good to move. She held his hands in hers extended and danced between his outstretched arms.
"I asked him why he wasn't goin', too."
"Yeah?" said Clay. "What'd he say?"
Her eyes were bright and young, and she smelled of some sweet perfume like springtime flowers.
"He said he ain't no hero. He say you're the bravest man he ever knew."
Clay turned. Hornbee and Conrad sat sprawled across the sofa. They watched him, and he could see them smiling at him through the smoke. Delia let go of his hands and sidled close to him. He could feel her breath against his face, and her teeth when she smiled startled him. When she kissed him and then kissed him again, he held her tight. At some point he looked up from the warm cove of her neck and saw that Hornbee and Conrad were dancing close by with other girls. The room was dark and most of the dancers had left the floor, but the sofas and tables were full. He didn't know how he stayed on his feet, but he danced on.
On the morning he left, Mrs. Lawton and Anna waited for him at the bottom of the stairs, and they sat with him while he ate his eggs and ham, toast and coffee. They watched him wordlessly and with such proprietary tenderness that he felt overwhelmed and could only stare at his plate. When he was done, Mrs. Lawton pushed a gift-wrapped box across the table.
"Please, Mrs. Lawton--"
"I wanted to."
He opened it. It was a small gold pocketwatch with a chain, and it was much finer than the scarred half-dollar watch he'd bought with money his father had given him for that very purpose in a train station in Pittsburgh on his way to Harvard two years before. Inscribed on its back were his initials. He looked at her.
"Thank you, Mrs. Lawton."
"You're welcome, dear. Oh--"
She rose and rushed into the hall and came back with an envelope.
"This came. A telegram," she said, faltering breathless at the dining table. "It came early this morning and I put it in an envelope and almost forgot."
He took it and glanced at it but it was getting near time if he didn't want to miss the morning train, so he folded the envelope and put it in his pocket. The women hugged him at the door and he promised to write. Then he walked fast down the street and didn't look back.
As he walked up Broadway he watched the city and the shimmering dome of the statehouse eastward and he moved on. He took a trolley car to South Station. So early in the morning, the station echoed hollowly and he sat on a bench for an hour and watched the people walk by. Every ten or fifteen minutes a walleyed newspaper boy in frayed suspenders bolted, hollering from one end of the station to the other.
"Pershing named commander of U.S. Expeditionary Force! Pershing named commander of U.S. Expeditionary Force!"
Clay wondered what would happen. Destiny had taken him this far, half the country away from where he was born. A world away. Could he go farther? What lay ahead? He was afraid but he also felt something like anticipation, anticipation that he might do something that could change the future, that could touch all their lives. And papa? he thought. Half a dozen times Clay had sat in the silence of his room and tried to write a letter in response to his father's last. And half a dozen times he'd failed to write anything but the date and "Dear Papa." Dear Papa. He'd write a letter and he wouldn't explain anything in it. He'd simply say that he was going, that he was setting off for officer training. He would write it all in a letter to his father.
When it was time Clay climbed into the train car, found a seat, and set his suitcase down beside him. He checked his pocket for a pen and found the envelope Mrs. Lawton had given him. He opened it and found a Western Union telegram inside, sent early that morning from Philadelphia. It read simply: SEE TODAYS GLOBE. FAREWELL CLAY. POWERS. Clay bolted from the train car and into the station. When he found the walleyed newsboy, he gave him a nickel for the paper and ran back to the tracks. The train shuddered and started to move just as he leapt on the steps. He found his seat and unfolded the paper. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he knew it when he saw it. An editorial, his own, under big bold letters: The Spirit of the Age. He smiled and looked out the window. As the train left the station, his reflection in the glass gave way to the sunlit railyard. He saw an old man, thin as a skeleton n tattered clothes, walking along the adjacent tracks, and beyond the old man, he watched Boston far-off, receding. Vanishing.
Patrick Lohiar was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1969. He grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1992. Currently, he lives in Toronto with his wife, documentary filmmaker Sree Nallamothu.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Short Story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
|Previous Article:||"Papa Legba, ouvrier barriere por moi passer": Esu in Their Eyes & Zora Neale Hurston's Diasporic Modernism.|
|Next Article:||Domestic violence in the Harlem Renaissance: remaking the record in Nella Larsen's Passing and Toni Morrison's Jazz.|
|Come on Seabiscuit! (Sports & Recreation).|