Native Son (1940)
by Richard Wright
Even today is my complaint rebellious,
Book One: "Fear"
An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out impatiently:
"Bigger, shut that thing off!"
A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.
"Turn on the light, Bigger."
"Awright," came a sleepy mumble.
Light flooded the room and revealed a black boy standing in a narrow space between two iron beds, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. From a bed to his right the woman spoke again:
"Buddy, get up from there! I got a big washing on my hands today and I want you-all out of here."
Another black boy rolled from bed and stood up. The woman also rose and stood in her nightgown.
"Turn your heads so I can dress," she said.
The two boys averted their eyes and gazed into a far corner of the room. The woman rushed out of her nightgown and put on a pair of step-ins. She turned to the bed from which she had risen and called:
"Vera! Get up from there!"
"What time is it, Ma?" asked a muffled, adolescent voice from beneath a quilt.
"Get up from there, I say!"
A brown-skinned girl in a cotton gown got up and stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Sleepily, she sat on a chair and fumbled with her stockings. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed. Abruptly, they all paused, holding their clothes in their hands, their attention caught by a light tapping in the thinly plastered walls of the room. They forgot their conspiracy against shame and their eyes strayed apprehensively over the floor.
"There he is again, Bigger!" the woman screamed, and the tiny, one-room apartment galvanized into violent action. A chair toppled as the woman, half-dressed and in her stocking feet, scram bled breathlessly upon the bed. Her two sons, barefoot, stood tense and motionless, their eyes searching anxiously under the bed and chairs. The girl ran into a corner, half-stooped and gathered the hem of her slip into both of her hands and held it tightly over her knees.
"Oh! Oh!" she wailed. "There he goes!"
The woman pointed a shaking finger. Her eyes were round with fascinated horror.
"I don't see 'im!"
"Bigger, he's behind the trunk!" the girl whimpered.
"Vera!" the woman screamed. "Get up here on the bed! Don't let that thing bite you!"
Frantically, Vera climbed upon the bed and the woman caught hold of her. With their arms entwined about each other, the black mother and the brown daughter gazed open-mouthed at the trunk in the corner.
Bigger looked round the room wildly, then darted to a curtain and swept it aside and grabbed two heavy iron skillets from a wall above a gas stove. He whirled and called softly to his brother, his eyes glued to the trunk.
"Here; take this skillet."
"Now, get over by the door!"
Buddy crouched by the door and held the iron skillet by its handle, his arm flexed and poised. Save for the quick, deep breathing of the four people, the room was quiet. Bigger crept on tiptoe toward the trunk with the skillet clutched stiffly in his hand, his eyes dancing and watching every inch of the wooden floor in front of him. He paused and, without moving an eye or muscle, called:
"Put that box in front of the hole so he can't get out!"
Buddy ran to a wooden box and shoved it quickly in front of a gaping hole in the molding and then backed again to the door, holding the skillet ready. Bigger eased to the trunk and peered behind it cautiously. He saw nothing. Carefully, he stuck out his bare foot and pushed the trunk a few inches.
"There he is!" the mother screamed again.
A huge black rat squealed and leaped at Bigger's trouser-leg and snagged it in his teeth, hanging on.
"Goddamn'" Bigger whispered fiercely, whirling and kicking out his leg with all the strength of his body. The force of his movement shook the rat loose and it sailed through the air and struck a wall. Instantly, it rolled over and leaped again. Bigger dodged and the rat landed against a table leg. With clenched teeth, Bigger held the skillet; he was afraid to hurl it, fearing that he might miss. The rat squeaked and turned and ran in a narrow circle, looking for a place to hide; it leaped again past Bigger and scurried on dry rasping feet to one side of the box and then to the other, searching for the hole. Then it turned and reared upon its hind legs.
"Hit 'im, Bigger!" Buddy shouted. "Kill 'im!" the woman screamed.
The rat's belly pulsed with fear. Bigger advanced a step and the rat emitted a long thin song of defiance, its black beady eyes glittering, its tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly. Bigger swung the skillet; it skidded over the floor, missing the rat, and clattered to a stop against a wall.
The rat leaped. Bigger sprang to one side. The rat stopped under a chair and let out a furious screak.
Bigger moved slowly backward toward the door.
"Gimme that skillet, Buddy," he asked quietly, not taking his eyes from the rat.
Buddy extended his hand. Bigger caught the skillet and lifted it high in the air. The rat scuttled across the floor and stopped again at the box and searched quickly for the hole; then it reared once more and bared long yellow fangs, piping shrilly, belly quivering.
Bigger aimed and let the skillet fly with a heavy grunt. There was a shattering of wood as the box caved in. The woman screamed and hid her face in her hands. Bigger tiptoed forward and peered.
"I got 'im," he muttered, his clenched teeth bared in a smile. "By God, Igot 'im."
He kicked the splintered box out of the way and the flat black body of the rat lay exposed, its two long yellow tusks showing distinctly. Bigger took a shoe and pounded the rat's head, crushing it, cursing hysterically:
"You sonofabitch !"
The woman on the bed sank to her knees and buried her face in the quilts and sobbed:
"Lord, Lord, have mercy. . . ."
"Aw, Mama," Vera whimpered, bending to her. "Don't cry. It's dead now."
The two brothers stood over the dead rat and spoke in tones of awed admiration.
"Gee, but he's a big bastard."
"That sonofabitch could cut your throat."
"He's over a foot long."
"How in hell do they get so big?"
"Eating garbage and anything else they can get."
"Look, Bigger, there's a three-inch rip in your pant leg."
"Yeah; he was after me, all right."
"Please, Bigger, take 'im out," Vera begged.
"Aw, don't be so scary," Buddy said.
The woman on the bed continued to sob. Bigger took a piece of newspaper and gingerly lifted the rat by its tail and held it out at arm's length.
"Bigger, take 'im out," Vera begged again.
Bigger laughed and approached the bed with the dangling rat, swinging it to and fro like a pendulum, enjoying his sister's fear.
"Bigger!" Vera gasped convulsively; she screamed and swayed and closed her eyes and fell headlong across her mother and rolled limply from the bed to the floor.
"Bigger, for God's sake!" the mother sobbed, rising and bending over Vera. "Don't do that! Throw that rat out!"
He laid the rat down and started to dress.
"Bigger, help me lift Vera to the bed," the mother said.
He paused and turned round.
"What's the matter?" he asked, feigning ignorance.
"Do what I asked you, will you, boy?"
He went to the bed and helped his mother lift Vera. Vera's eyes were closed. He turned away and finished dressing. He wrapped the rat in a newspaper and went out of the door and down the stairs and put it into a garbage can at the corner of an alley. When he returned to the room his mother was still bent over Vera, placing a wet towel upon her head. She straightened and faced him, her cheeks and eyes wet with tears and her lips tight with anger.
"Boy, sometimes I wonder what makes you act like you do."
"What I do now?" he demanded belligerently.
"Sometimes you act the biggest fool I ever saw."
"What you talking about?"
"You scared your sister with that rat and she fainted! Ain't you got no sense at all?"
"Aw, I didn't know she was that scary."
"Buddy!" the mother called.
"Take a newspaper and spread it over that spot."
Buddy opened out a newspaper and covered the smear of blood on the floor where the rat had been crushed. Bigger went to the window and stood looking out abstractedly into the street. His mother glared at his back.
"Bigger, sometimes I wonder why I birthed you," she said bitterly.
Bigger looked at her and turned away.
"Maybe you oughtn't've. Maybe you ought to left me where Iwas."
"You shut your sassy mouth!"
"Aw, for Chrissakes!" Bigger said, lighting a cigarette.
"Buddy, pick up them skillets and put 'em in the sink," the mother said.
Bigger walked across the floor and sat on the bed. His mother's eyes followed him.
"We wouldn't have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you," she said.
"Aw, don't start that again."
"How you feel, Vera " the mother asked.
Vera raised her head and looked about the room as though expecting to see another rat.
"You poor thing!"
"I couldn't help it. Bigger scared me."
"Did you hurt yourself?"
"I bumped my head."
"Here; take it easy. You'll be all right."
"How come Bigger acts that way?" Vera asked, crying again.
"He's just crazy," the mother said. "Just plain dumb
"I'll be late for my sewing class at the Y.W.C.A.," Vera said.
"Here; stretch out on the bed. You'll feel better in a little while," the mother said.
She left Vera on the bed and turned a pair of cold eyes upon Bigger.
"Suppose you wake up some morning and find your sister dead? What would you think then?" she asked. "Suppose those rats cut our veins at night when we sleep? Naw! Nothing like that ever bothers you! All you care about is your own pleasure! Even when the relief offers you a job you won't take it till they threaten to cut off your food and starve you! Bigger, honest, you the most no-countest man I ever seen in all my life!"
"You done told me that a thousand times," he said, not looking round.
"Well, I'm telling you agin! And mark my word, some of these days you going to set down and cry. Some of these days you going to wish you had made something out of yourself, instead of just a tramp. But it'll be too late then."
"Stop prophesying about me," he said.
"I prophesy much as I please! And if you don't like it, you can get out. We can get along without you. We can live in one room just like we living now, even with you gone," she said.
"Aw, for Chrissakes!" he said, his voice filled with nervous irritation.
"You'll regret how you living some day," she went on. "If you don't stop running with that gang of yours and do right you'll end up where you never thought you would. You think I don't know what you boys is doing, but I do. And the gallows is at the end of the road you traveling, boy. Just remember that." She turned and looked at Buddy. "Throw that box outside, Buddy."
There was silence. Buddy took the box out. The mother went behind the curtain to the gas stove. Vera sat up in bed and swung her feet to the floor.
"Lay back down, Vera," the mother said.
"I feel all right now, Ma. I got to go to my sewing class."
"Well, if you feel like it, set the table," the mother said, going behind the curtain again. "Lord, I get so tired of this I don't know what to do," her voice floated plaintively from behind the curtain.
"All I ever do is try to make a home for you children and you don't care."
"Aw, Ma," Vera protested. "Don't say that.''
"Vera, sometimes I just want to lay down and quit."
"Ma, please don't say that."
"I can't last many more years, living like this."
"I'll be old enough to work soon, Ma."
"I reckon I'll be dead then. I reckon God'll call me home."
Vera went behind the curtain and Bigger heard her trying to comfort his mother. He shut their voices out of his mind. He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them. He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fulness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair. So he held toward them an attitude of iron reserve; he lived with them, but behind a wall, a curtain. And toward himself he was even more exacting. He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough.
He got up and crushed his cigarette upon the window sill. Vera came into the room and placed knives and forks upon the table.
"Get ready to eat, you-all," the mother called.
He sat at the table. The odor of frying bacon and boiling coffee drifted to him from behind the curtain. His mother's voice floated to him in song.
Life is like a
The song irked him and he was glad when she stopped and came into the room with a pot of coffee and a plate of crinkled bacon. Vera brought the bread in and they sat down. His mother closed her eyes and lowered her head and mumbled,
"Lord, we thank Thee for the food You done placed before us for the nourishment of our bodies. Amen." She lifted her eyes and without changing her tone of voice, said, "You going to have to learn to get up earlier than this, Bigger, to hold a job."
He did not answer or look up.
"You want me to pour you some coffee?" Vera asked.
"You going to take the job, ain't you, Bigger?" his mother asked.
He laid down his fork and stared at her.
"I told you last night I was going to take it. How many times you want to ask me?"
"Well, don't bite her head off," Vera said. "She only asked you a question."
"Pass the bread and stop being smart."
"You know you have to see Mr. Dalton at five-thirty," his mother said.
"You done said that ten times."
"I don't want you to forget, son."
"And you know how you can forget," Vera said.
"Aw, lay off Bigger," Buddy said. "He told you he was going to take the job."
"Don't tell 'em nothing," Bigger said.
"You shut your mouth, Buddy, or get up from this table," the mother said. "I'm not going to take any stinking sass from you. One fool in the family's enough."
"Lay off, Ma," Buddy said.
"Bigger's setting here like he ain't glad to get a job," she said.
"What you want me to do? Shout?" Bigger asked.
"Oh, Bigger!" his sister said.
"I wish you'd keep your big mouth out of this!" he told his sister.
"If you get that job," his mother said in a low, kind tone of voice, busy slicing a loaf of bread, "I can fix up a nice place for you children. You could be comfortable and not have to live like pigs."
"Bigger ain't decent enough to think of nothing like that," Vera said.
"God, I wish you-all would let me eat," Bigger said.
His mother talked on as though she had not heard him and he stopped listening.
"Ma's talking to you, Bigger," Vera said.
"So what "
"Don't be that way, Bigger!"
He laid down his fork and his strong black fingers gripped the edge of the table; there was silence save for the tinkling of his brother's fork against a plate. He kept staring at his sister till her eyes fell.
"I wish you'd let me eat," he said again.
As he ate he felt that they were thinking of the job he was to get that evening and it made him angry; he felt that they had tricked him into a cheap surrender.
"I need some carfare," he said.
"Here's all I got," his mother said, pushing a quarter to the side of his plate.
He put the quarter in his pocket and drained his cup of coffee in one long swallow. He got his coat and cap and went to the door.
"You know, Bigger," his mother said, "if you don't take that job the relief'II cut us off. We won't have any food."
"I told you I'd take it!" he shouted and slammed the door.
He went down the steps into the vestibule and stood looking out into
the street through the plate glass of the front door. Now and then a street
car rattled past over steel tracks. He was sick of his life at home. Day in
and day out there was nothing but shouts and bickering. But what could he do?
Each time he asked himself that question his mind hit a blank wall and he
stopped thinking. Across the street directly in front of him, he saw a truck
pull to a stop at the curb and two white men in overalls got out with pails
and brushes. Yes, he could take the job at Dalton's and be miserable, or he
could refuse it and starve. It maddened him to think that he did not have a
wider choice of action. Well, he could not stand
here all day like this. What was he to do with himself? He tried to decide if he wanted to buy a ten-cent magazine, or go to a movie, or go to the poolroom and talk with the gang, or just loaf around. With his hands deep in his pockets, another cigarette slanting across his chin, he brooded and watched the men at work across the street. They were pasting a huge colored poster to a signboard. The poster showed a white face.
"That's Buckley!" He spoke softly to himself. "He's running for State's Attorney again." The men were slapping the poster with wet brushes. He looked at the round florid face and wagged his head. "I bet that sonofabitch rakes off a million bucks in graft a year. Boy, if I was in his shoes for just one day I'd never have to worry again."
When the men were through they gathered up their pails and brushes and got into the truck and drove off. He looked at the poster: the white face was fleshy but stern; one hand was uplifted and its index finger pointed straight out into the street at each passer-by. The poster showed one of those faces that looked straight at you when you looked at it and all the while you were walking and turning your head to look at it, it kept looking unblinkingly back at you until you got so far from it you had to take your eyes- away, and then it stopped, like a movie blackout. Above the top of the poster were tall red letters:
YOU CAN'T WIN!
He snuffed his cigarette and laughed silently. "You crook," he mumbled, shaking his head. "You let whoever pays you off win!" He opened the door and met the morning air. He went along the sidewalk with his head down, fingering the quarter in his pocket. He stopped and searched all of his pockets; in his vest pocket he found a lone copper cent. That made a total of twenty-six cents, fourteen cents of which would have to be saved for carfare to Mr. Dalton's; that is, if he decided to take the job. In order to buy a magazine and go to the movies he would have to have at least twenty cents more.
"Goddammit, I'm always broke!" he mumbled. He stood on the corner in the sunshine, watching cars and people pass. He needed more money; if he did not get more than he had now he would not know what to do with himself for the rest of the day. He wanted to see a movie; his senses hungered for it. In a movie he could dream without effort; all he had to do was lean back in a seat and keep his eyes open.
He thought of Gus and G,H, and Jack, Should he go to the poolroom and talk with them? But there was no use in his going unless they were ready to do what they had been long planning to do. If they could, it would mean some sure and quick money. From three o'clock to four o'clock in the afternoon there was no policeman on duty in the block where Blum's Delicatessen was and it would be safe. One of them could hold a gun on Blum and keep him from yelling; one could watch the front door; one could watch the back; and one could get the money from the box under the counter. Then all four of them could lock Blum in the store and run out through the back and duck down the alley and meet an hour later, either at Doc's poolroom or at the South Side Boys' Club, and split the money.
Holding up Blum ought not take more than two minutes, at the most. And it would be their last job. But it would be the toughest one that they had ever pulled. All the other times they had raided newsstands, fruit stands, and apartments. And, too, they had never held up a white man before. They had always robbed Negroes. They felt that it was much easier and safer to rob their own people, for they knew that white policemen never really searched diligently for Negroes who committed crimes against other Negroes. For months they had talked of robbing Blum's, but had not been able to bring themselves to do it. They had the feeling that the robbing of Blum's would be a violation of ultimate taboo; it would be a trespassing into territory where the full wrath of an alien white world would be turned loose upon them; in short, it would be a symbolic challenge of the white world's rule over them; a challenge which they yearned to make, but were afraid to. Yes; if they could rob Blum's, it would be a real hold-up, in more senses than one. In comparison, all of their other jobs had been play.
He looked up and saw Vera passing with a sewing kit dangling from her arm. She paused at the corner and came back to him.
"Now, what you want?"
"Bigger, please . . . . You're getting a good job now. Why don't you stay away from Jack and Gus and G.H. and keep out of trouble?"
"You keep your big mouth out of my business!"
"Go on to school, will you!"
She turned abruptly and walked on. He knew that his mother had been talking to Vera and Buddy about him, telling them that if he got into any more trouble he would be sent to prison and not just to the reform school, where they sent him last time. He did not mind what his mother said to Buddy about him. Buddy was all right. Tough, plenty. But Vera was a sappy girl; she did not have any more sense than to believe everything she was told.
He walked toward the poolroom. When he got to the door he saw Gus half a block away, coming toward him. He stopped and waited. It was Gus who had first thought of robbing Blum's.
"What you saying, Gus?"
"Nothing. Seen G.H. or Jack yet?"
"Naw. Say, got a cigarette?"
Bigger took out his pack and gave Gus a cigarette; he lit his and held the match for Gus. They leaned their backs against the red brick wall of a building, smoking, their cigarettes slanting white across their black chins. To the east Bigger saw the sun burning a dazzling yellow. In the sky above him a few big white clouds drifted. He puffed silently, relaxed, his mind pleasantly vacant of purpose. Every slight movement in the street evoked a casual curiosity in him. Automatically, his eyes followed each car as it whirred over the smooth black asphalt. A woman came by and he watched the gentle sway of her body until she disappeared into a doorway. He sighed, scratched his chin and mumbled,
"Kinda warm today." "Yeah," Gus said.
"You get more heat from this sun than from them old radiators at home."
''Yeah, them old whlte landlords sure don't give much heat."
"And they always knocking at your door for money."
"I'll be glad when summer comes."
"Me too," Bigger said.
He stretched his arms above his head and yawned; his eyes moistened. The sharp precision of the world of steel and stone dissolved into blurred waves. He blinked and the world grew hard again, mechanical, distinct. A weaving motion in the sky made him turn his eyes upward; he saw a slender streak of billowing white blooming against the deep blue. A plane was writing high up in the
"That plane writing up there," Bigger said, pointing.
They squinted at a tiny ribbon of unfolding vapor that spelled out the word: USE . . . . The plane was so far away that at times the strong glare of the sun blanked it from sight.
"You can hardly see it," Gus said.
"Looks like a little bird," Bigger breathed with childlike wonder.
"Them white boys sure can fly," Gus said.
"Yeah," Bigger said, wistfully. "They get a chance to do everything….”
Noiselessly, the tiny plane looped and veered, vanishing and appearing, leaving behind it a long trail of white plumage, like coils of fluffy paste being squeezed from a tube; a plume-coil that grew and swelled and slowly began to fade into the air at the edges. The plane wrote another word: SPEED. . . .
"How high you reckon he is?" Bigger asked.
"I don't know. Maybe a hundred miles; maybe a thousand."
"I could fly one of them things if I had a chance," Bigger mumbled reflectively, as though talking to himself.
Gus pulled down the corners of his lips, stepped out from the wall, squared his shoulders, doffed his cap, bowed low and spoke with mock deference:
"You go to hell," Bigger said, smiling.
"Yessuh," Gus said again.
"I could fly a plane if I had a chance," Bigger said.
"If you wasn't black and if you had some money and if they'd let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane," Gus said.
For a moment Bigger contemplated all the "ifs" that Gus had mentioned. Then both boys broke into hard laughter, looking at each other through squinted eyes. When their laughter subsided, Bigger said in a voice that was half-question and half-statement:
"It's funny how the white folks treat us, ain't it?"
"It better be funny," Gus said.
"Maybe they right in not wanting us to fly," Bigger said. "Cause if I took a plane up I'd take a couple of bombs along and drop 'em as sure as hell. . . ."
They laughed again, still looking upward. The plane sailed and dipped and spread another word against the sky: GASOLINE . . . .
"Use Speed Gasoline," Bigger mused, rolling the words slowly from his lips. "God, I'd like to fly up there in that sky."
"God'll let you fly when He gives you your wings up in heaven," Gus said.
They laughed again, reclining against the wall, smoking, the lids of their eyes drooped softly against the sun. Cars whizzed past on rubber tires. Bigger's face was metallically black in the strong sunlight. There was in his eyes a pensive, brooding amusement, as of a man who had been long confronted and tantalized by a riddle whose answer seemed always just on the verge of escaping him, but prodding him irresistibly on to seek its solution. The silence irked Bigger; he was anxious to do something to evade looking so squarely at this problem.
"I don't feel like it," Gus said.
"General!" Bigger pronounced in a sonorous tone, looking at Gus expectantly.
"Aw, hell! I don't want to play," Gus whined.
"You'll be court-martialed," Bigger said, snapping out his words with military precision.
"Nigger, you nuts!" Gus laughed.
"General!'' Bigger tried again, determinedly.
Gus looked wearily at Bigger, then straightened, saluted and answered:
"Send your men over the river at dawn and attack the enemy's left flank,'' Bigger ordered.
"Send the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Regiments," Bigger said, frowning. "And attack with tanks, gas, planes, and infantry."
"Yessuh!" Gus said again, saluting and clicking his heels.
For a moment they were silent, facing each other, their shoulders thrown back, their lips compressed to hold down the mounting impulse to laugh. Then they guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled and towered in the sun before them.
"Say, what's a 'left flank'?" Gus asked.
"I don't know," Bigger said. "I heard it in the movies."
They laughed again. After a bit they relaxed and leaned against the wall, smoking. Bigger saw Gus cup his left hand to his ear, as though holding a telephone receiver; and cup his right hand to his mouth, as though talking into a transmitter.
"Hello," Gus said.
"Hello," Bigger said. "Who's this?"
"This is Mr. J. P. Morgan speaking," Gus said.
"Yessuh, Mr. Morgan," Bigger said; his eyes filled with mock adulation and respect.
"I want you to sell twenty thousand shares of U.S. Steel in the market this morning," Gus said.
"At what price, suh?" Bigger asked.
"Aw, just dump 'em at any price," Gus said with casual irritation. ''We're holding too much."
"Yessuh," Bigger said.
"And call me at my club at two this afternoon and tell me if the President telephoned," Gus said.
"Yessuh, Mr. Morgan," Bigger said.
Both of them made gestures signifying that they were hanging up telephone receivers; then they bent double, laughing.
"I bet that's just the way they talk," Gus said.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Bigger said.
They were silent ]again. Presently, Bigger cupped his hand to his mouth and spoke through an imaginary telephone transmitter.
"Hello," Gus answered. "Who's this?"
"This is the President of the United States speaking," Bigger said.
"Oh, yessuh, Mr. President," Gus said.
"I'm calling a cabinet meeting this afternoon at four o'clock and you, as Secretary of State, must be there."
''Well, now, Mr. President," Gus said, "I'm pretty busy. They raising sand over there in Germany and I got to send 'em a note. . . ."
"But this is important," Bigger said.
"What you going to take up at this cabinet meeting?" Gus asked.
''Well, you see, the niggers is raising sand all over the country," Bigger said, struggling to keep back his laughter. "We've got to do something with these black folks. . . ."
"Oh, if it's about the niggers, I'll be right there, Mr. President," Gus said.
They hung up imaginary receivers and leaned against the wall and laughed. A street car rattled by. Bigger sighed and swore.
"What's the matter?"
"They don't let us do nothing."
"The white folks."
"Naw. But I just can't get used to it," Bigger said. "I swear to God I can't. I know I oughtn't think about it, but I can't help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody's poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't. It's just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I'm on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot hole in the fence. . . ."
"Aw, ain't no use feeling that way about it. It don't help none," Gus said.
"You know one thing?" Bigger said. "What?"
"Sometimes I feel like something awful's going to happen to me," Bigger spoke with a tinge of bitter pride in his voice.
"What you mean?" Gus asked, looking at him quickly. There was fear in Gus's eyes.
"I don't know. I just feel that way. Every time I get to thinking about me being black and they being white, me being here and they being there, I feel like something awful's going to happen to me. . . ."
"Aw, for Chrissakes! There ain't nothing you can do about it. How come you want to worry yourself? You black and they make the laws. . . ."
"Why they make us live in one corner of the city? Why don't they let us fly planes and run ships. . . ."
Gus hunched Bigger with his elbow and mumbled good-naturedly, "Aw, nigger, quit thinking about it. You'll go nuts."
The plane was gone from the sky and the white plumes of floating smoke were thinly spread, vanishing. Because he was restless and had time on his hands, Bigger yawned again and hoisted his arms high above his head.
"Nothing ever happens," he complained. "What you want to happen?"
"Anything," Bigger said with a wide sweep of his dingy palm, a sweep that included all the possible activities of the world.
Then their eyes were riveted; a slate-colored pigeon swooped down to the middle of the steel car tracks and began strutting to and fro with ruffled feathers, its fat neck bobbing with regal pride. A street car rumbled forward and the pigeon rose swiftly through the air on wings stretched so taut and sheer that Bigger could see the gold of the sun through their translucent tips. He tilted his head and watched the slate-colored bird flap and wheel out of sight over the edge of a high roof.
"Now, if I could only do that," Bigger said.
"Nigger, you nuts."
"I reckon we the only things in this city that can't go where we want to go and do what we want to do."
"Don't think about it," Gus said.
"I can't help it."
"That's why you feeling like something awful's going to happen to you," Gus said. "You think too much."
"What in hell can a man do?" Bigger asked, turning to Gus.
"Get drunk and sleep it off."
"I can't. I'm broke."
Bigger crushed his cigarette and took out another one and offered the package to Gus. They continued smoking. A huge truck swept past, lifting scraps of white paper into the sunshine; the bits settled down slowly.
"You know where the white folks live?"
"Yeah," Gus said, pointing eastward. "Over across the 'line'; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue."
"Naw, they don't," Bigger said.
"What you mean?" Gus asked, puzzled. "Then, where do they live?"
Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.
"Right down here in my stomach," he said.
Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.
"Yeah; I know what you mean," he whispered.
"Every time I think of 'em, I feel 'em," Bigger said.
"Yeah; and in your chest and throat, too," Gus said.
"It's like fire."
"And sometimes you can't hardly breathe . . . ."
Bigger's eyes were wide and placid, gazing into space.
"That's when I feel like something awful's going to happen to me. . . ." Bigger paused, narrowed his eyes. "Naw; it ain't like something going to happen to me. It's. . . . It's like I was going to do something I can't help. . . ."
"Yeah!" Gus said with uneasy eagerness. His eyes were full of a look compounded of feat and admiration for Bigger. "Yeah; I know what you mean. It's like you going to fall and don't know where you going to land. . . ."
Gus's voice trailed off. The sun slid behind a big white cloud and the street was plunged in cool shadow; quickly the sun edged forth again and it was bright and warm once more. A long sleek black cat, its fenders glinting like glass in the sun, shot past them at high speed and turned a corner a few blocks away. Bigger pursed his lips and sang:
"They got everything," Gus said.
"They own the world," Bigger said.
"Aw, what the hell," Gus said. "Let's go in the poolroom."
"Say, you taking that job you told us about?" Gus asked.
"I don't know."
"You talk like you don't want it."
"Oh, hell, yes! I want the job," Bigger said.
They looked at each other and laughed. They went inside. The poolroom was empty, save for a fat, black man who held a half smoked, unlit cigar in his mouth and leaned on the front counter. To the rear burned a single green-shaded bulb.
"Hi, Doc," Bigger said.
"You boys kinda early this morning," Doc said.
"Jack or G.H. around yet?" Bigger asked.
"Naw," Doc said.
"Let's shoot a game," Gus said.
"I'm broke," Bigger said.
"I got some money."
"Switch on the light. The balls are racked," Doc said.
Bigger turned on the light. They lagged for first shot. Bigger won. They started playing. Bigger's shots were poor; he was thinking of Blum's, fascinated with the idea of the robbery, and a little afraid of it.
"Remember what we talked about so much?" Bigger asked in a flat, neutral tone.
"Oh," Gus said. "We ain't talked about that for a month. How come you think of it all of a sudden?"
"Let's clean the place out."
"I don't know."
"It was your plan from the start," Bigger said.
Gus straightened and stated at Bigger, then at Doc who was looking out of the front window.
"You going to tell Doc? Can't you never learn to talk low?"
"Aw, I was just asking you, do you want to try it?"
"How come? You scared 'cause he's a white man?"
"Naw. But Blum keeps a gun. Suppose he beats us to it?"
"Aw, you scared; that's all. He's a white man and you scared."
"The hell I'm scared," Gus, hurt and stung, defended himself. Bigger went to Gus and placed an arm about his shoulders.
"Listen, you won't have to go in. You just stand at the door and keep watch, see? Me and Jack and G.H.'ll go in. If anybody comes along, you whistle and we'll go out the back way. That's all."
The front door opened; they stopped talking and turned their heads.
"Here comes Jack and G.H. now," Bigger said.
Jack and G.H. walked to the rear of the poolroom.
"What you guys doing?" Jack asked.
"Shooting a game. Wanna play?" Bigger asked.
"You asking 'em to play and I'm paying for the game," Gus said.
They all laughed and Bigger laughed with them but stopped quickly. He felt that the joke was on him and he took a seat along side the wall and propped his feet upon the rungs of a chair, as though he had not heard. Gus and G.H. kept on laughing.
"You niggers is crazy," Bigger said. "You laugh like monkeys and you ain't got nerve enough to do nothing but talk."
"'What you mean?" G.H. asked.
"I got a haul all figured out," Bigger said.
There was silence. Jack lit a cigarette. Gus looked away, avoiding the conversation.
"If old Blum was a black man, you-all would be itching to go. 'Cause he's white, everybody's scared."
"I ain't scared," Jack said. "I'm with you."
"You say you got it all figured out?" G.H. asked.
Bigger took a deep breath and looked from face to face. It seemed to him that he should not have to explain.
"Look, it'll be easy. There ain't nothing to be scared of Between three and four ain't nobody in the store but the old man. The cop is way down at the other end of the block. One of us'll stay outside and watch. Three of us'll go in, see? One of us'll throw a gun on old Blum; one of us'll make for the cash box under the counter; one of us'll make for the back door and have it open so we can make a quick get-away down the back alley. . . . That's all. It won't take three minutes."
"I thought we said we wasn't never going to use a gun," G.H. said. "And we ain't bothered no white folks before."
"Can't you see? This is something big," Bigger said.
He waited for more objections. When none were forthcoming, he talked again.
"We can do it, if you niggers ain't scared."
Save for the sound of Doc's whistling up front, there was silence. Bigger watched Jack closely; he knew that the situation was one in which Jack's word would be decisive. Bigger was afraid of Gus, because he knew that Gus would not hold out if Jack said yes. Gus stood at the table, toying with a cue stick, his eyes straying lazily over the billiard balls scattered about the table in the array of an unfinished game. Bigger rose and sent the balls whirling with a sweep of his hand, then looked straight at Gus as the gleaming balls kissed and rebounded from the rubber cushions, zig-zagging across the table's green cloth. Even though Bigger had asked Gus to be with him in the robbery, the fear that Gus would really go made the muscles of Rigger's stomach tighten; he was hot all over. He felt as if he wanted to sneeze and could not; only it was more nervous than wanting to sneeze. He grew hotter, tighter; his nerves were taut and his teeth were on edge. He felt that something would soon snap within him.
"Goddammit! Say something, somebody!"
"I'm in," Jack said again.
"I'll go if the rest goes," G.H. said.
Gus stood without speaking and Bigger felt a curious sensation- half-sensual, half-thoughtful. He was divided and pulled against himself. He had handled things just right so far; all but Gus had consented. The way things stood now there were three against Gus, and that was just as he had wanted it to be. Bigger was afraid of robbing a white man and he knew that Gus was afraid, too. Blum's store was small and Blum was alone, but Bigger could not think of robbing him without being flanked by his three pals. But even with his pals he was afraid. He had argued all of his pals but one into consenting to the robbery, and toward the lone man who held out he felt a hot hate and fear; he had transferred his fear of the whites to Gus. He hated Gus because he knew that Gus was afraid, as even he was; and he feared Gus because he felt that Gus would consent and then he would be compelled to go through with the robbery. Like a man about to shoot himself and dreading to shoot and yet knowing that he has to shoot and feeling it all at once and powerfully, he watched Gus and waited for him to say yes.
But Gus did not speak. Bigger's teeth clamped so tight that his jaws ached. He edged toward Gus, not looking at Gus, but feeling the presence of Gus over all his body, through him, in and out of him, and hating himself and Gus because he felt it. Then he could not stand it any longer. The hysterical tensity of his nerves urged him to speak, to free himself. He faced Gus, his eyes red with anger and fear, his fists clenched and held stiffly to his sides.
"You black sonofabitch," he said in a voice that did not vary in tone, "You scared 'cause he's a white man."
"Don't cuss me, Bigger," Gus said quietly.
"I am cussing you!"
"You don't have to cuss me," Gus said.
"Then why don't you use that black tongue of yours?" Bigger asked. ""Why don't you say what you going to do?"
"I don't have to use my tongue unless I want to!"
"You bastard! You scared bastard!"
"You ain't my boss," Gus said.
"You yellow!" Bigger said. "You scared to rob a white man."
"Aw, Bigger. Don't say that," G.H. said. "Leave 'im alone."
"He's yellow," Bigger said. "He won't go with us."
"I didn't say I wouldn't go," Gus said.
"Then, for Chrissakes, say what you going to do," Bigger said.
Gus leaned on his cue stick and gazed at Bigger and Bigger's stomach tightened as though he were expecting a blow and were getting ready for it. His fists clenched harder. In a split second he felt how his fist and arm and body would feel if he hit Gus squarely in the mouth, drawing blood; Gus would fall and he would walk out and the whole thing would be over and the robbery would not take place. And his thinking and feeling in this way made the choking tightness rising from the pit of his stomach to his throat slacken a little.
"You see, Bigger," began Gus in a tone that was a compromise between kindness and pride. "You see, Bigger, you the cause of all the trouble we ever have. It's your hot temper. Now, how come you want to cuss me? Ain't I got a right to make up my mind? Naw; that ain't your way. You start cussing. You say I'm scared. It's you who's scared. You scared I'm going to say yes and you'll have to go through with the job . . . ."
"Say that again' Say that again and I'll take one of these balls and sink it in your Goddamn mouth," Bigger said, his pride wounded to the quick.
"Aw, for Chrissakes," Jack said.
"You see how he is," Gus said.
"Why don't you say what you going to do?" Bigger demanded.
"Aw, I'm going with you-all," Gus said in a nervous tone that sought to hide itself; a tone that hurried on to other things. "I'm going, but Bigger don't have to act like that. He don't have to cuss
"Why didn't you say that at first?" Bigger asked; his anger amounted almost to frenzy. "You make a man want to sock you!"
". . . I'll help on the haul," Gus continued, as though Bigger had not spoken. "I'll help just like I always help. But I'll be Goddamn if I'm taking orders from you, Bigger! You just a scared coward! You calling me scared so nobody'll see how scared you is!"
Bigger leaped at him, but Jack ran between them. G.H. caught Gus's arm and led him aside.
"Who's asking you to take orders?" Bigger said. "I never want to give orders to a piss-sop like you!"
"You boys cut out that racket back there!" Doc called.
They stood silently about the pool table. Bigger's eyes followed Gus as Gus put his cue stick in the rack and brushed chalk dust from his trousers and walked a little distance away. Bigger's stomach burned and a hazy black cloud hovered a moment before his eyes, and left. Mixed images of violence ran like sand through his mind, dry and fast, vanishing. He could stab Gus with his knife; he could slap him; he could kick him; he could trip him up and send him sprawling on his face. He could do a lot of things to Gus for making him feel this way.
"Come on, G.H.," Gus said. "Where we going?"
"What we gonna do?" Jack asked.
"Meet here at three?"
"Sure," Bigger said. "Didn't we just decide?"
"I'll be here," Gus said, with his back turned.
When Gus and G.H. had gone Bigger sat down and felt cold sweat on his skin. It was planned now and he would have to go through with it. His teeth gritted and the last image he had seen of Gus going through the door lingered in his mind. He could have taken one of the cue sticks and gripped it hard and swung it at the back of Gus's head, feeling the impact of the hard wood cracking against the bottom of the skull. The tight feeling was still in him and he knew that it would remain until they were actually doing the job, until they were in the store taking the money.
"You and Gus sure don't get along none," Jack said, shaking his head.
Bigger turned and looked at Jack; he had forgotten that Jack was still there.
"Aw, that yellow black bastard," Bigger said.
"He's all right," Jack said.
"He's scared," Bigger said. "To make him ready for a job, you have to make him scared two ways. You have to make him more scared of what'll happen to him if he don't do the job than of what'll happen to him if he pulls the job."
"If we going to Blum's today, we oughtn't fuss like this," Jack said. "We got a job on our hands, a real job."
"Sure. Sure, I know," Bigger said.
Bigger felt an urgent need to hide his growing and deepening feeling of hysteria; he had to get rid of it or else he would succumb to it. He longed for a stimulus powerful enough to focus his attention and drain off his energies. He wanted to run. Or listen to some swing music. Or laugh or joke. Or read a Real Detective Story Magazine. Or go to a movie. Or visit Bessie. All that morning he had lurked behind his curtain of indifference and looked at things, snapping and glaring at whatever had tried to make him come out into the open. But now he was out; the thought of the job at Blum's and the tilt he had had with Gus had snared him into things and his self-trust was gone. Confidence could only
come again now through action so violent that it would make him forget. These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger-- like water ebbing and flowing from the tug of a far-away, invisible force. Being this way was a need of his as deep as eating. He was like a strange plant blooming in the day and wilting at night; but the sun that made it bloom and the cold darkness that made it wilt were never seen. It was his own sun and darkness, a private and personal sun and darkness. He was bitterly proud of his swiftly changing moods and boasted when he had to suffer the results of them. It was the way he was, he would say; he could not help it, he would say, and his head would wag. And it was his sullen stare and the violent action that followed that made Gus and Jack and G.H. hate and fear him as much as he hated and feared himself.
"Where you want to go?" Jack asked. "I'm tired of setting."
''Let's walk," Bigger said.
They went to the front door. Bigger paused and looked round the poolroom with a wild and exasperated expression, his lips tightening with resolution.
"Goin'?" Doc asked, not moving his head.
"Yeah," Bigger said.
"See you later," Jack said.
They walked along the street in the morning sunshine. They waited leisurely at corners for cars to pass; it was not that they feared cars, but they had plenty of time. They reached South Parkway smoking freshly lit cigarettes.
"Trader Horn's running again at the Regal. They're bringing a lot of old pictures back."
"How much is it?"
"O.K. Let's see it."
They walked six blocks in silence. It was eleven-thirty when they reached Forty-seventh Street and South Parkway and the Regal was just opening. They bought tickets and walked into the darkened
movie and took seats. The picture had not yet started and they sat listening to the pipe organ playing low and soft. Bigger moved restlessly and his breath quickened; he looked round in the shadows to see if any attendant was near, then slouched far down in his seat. He glanced at Jack and saw that Jack was watching him out of the corners of his eyes. They both laughed.
"You at it again?" Jack asked.
"I'm polishing my nightstick," Bigger said. They giggled.
"I'll beat you," Jack said.
"Go to hell."
The organ played for a long moment on a single note, then died away.
"I'll bet you ain't even hard yet," Jack whispered.
"I'm getting hard."
"Mine's like a rod," Jack said with intense pride.
"I wished I had Bessie here now," Bigger said.
"I could make old Clara moan now."
"I believe that woman who passed saw us."
"If she comes back I'll throw it in her."
"You a killer."
"If she saw it she'd faint."
"Or grab it, maybe."
Bigger saw Jack lean forward and stretch out his legs, rigidly.
"Yee-eeah. . . ."
"You pull off fast. . . ."
Again they were silent. Then Bigger leaned forward, breathing hard.
"I'm gone . . . . God. . . . damn. . . ."
They sat still for five minutes, slumped down in their seats. Finally, they straightened.
"I don't know where to put my feet now," Bigger said, laughing. "Let's take another seat."
They moved to other seats. The organ still played. Now and then they glanced back up to the projector's room high in the rear of the theatre. They were impatient for the picture to start. When they spoke again their voices were throaty, drawling, tinged with uneasiness.
"You reckon it'll go all right?" Bigger asked.
"I'd just as soon go to jail as take that relief job."
"Don't say that."
"I don't give a damn."
"Let's think about how we'll do it, not about how we'll get caught."
They listened to the pipe organ. It was humming so low that it could scarcely be heard. There were times when it seemed to stop altogether; then it would surge forth again, mellow, nostalgic, sweet.
"We better take our guns this time," Bigger said.
"O.K. But we gotta be careful. We don't wanna kill nobody."
"Yeah, but I'll feel safer with a gun this time."
"Gee, I wished it was there now. I wished it was over."
The organ stopped and the screen flashed with the rhythm of moving shadows. Bigger sat looking at the first picture; it was a newsreel. As the scenes unfolded his interest was caught and he leaned forward. He saw images of smiling, dark-haired white girls lolling on the gleaming sands of a beach. The background was a stretch of sparkling water. Palm trees stood near and far. The voice of the commentator ran with the movement of the film: Here are the daughters of the rich taking sunbaths in the sands of Florida ! This little collection of debutantes represents over four billion dollars of America's wealth and over fifty of America's leading families . . . .
"Some babies," Jack said.
"I'd like to be there."
"You can," Bigger said. "But you'd be hanging from a tree like a bunch of bananas . . . ."
They laughed softly and easily, listening to the commentator's voice. The scene shifted to and fro over the glittering sands. Then Bigger saw in close-up the picture of a slight, smiling white girl whose waist was encircled by the arms of a man. He heard the commentator's voice: Mary Dalton, daughter of Chicago's Henry Dalton, 4605 Drexel Boulevard, shocks society by spurning the boys of La Salle Street and the Gold Coast and accepting the attentions of a well-known radical while on her recent winter vacation in Florida . . . . The close-up showed the smiling girl kissing the man, who lifted her up and swung her round from the camera.
"That gal. . . . That gal there in that guy's arms. . . . That's the daughter of the guy I'm going to work for. They live at 4605 Drexel. . . . That's where I'm going tonight to see about that job . . . ."
The close-up faded and the next scene showed only the girl's legs running over the sparkling sands; they were followed by the legs of the man running in pursuit. The words droned on: Ha! He's after her! There! He's got her! Oh, boy, don't you wish you were down here in Florida? The close-up faded and another came, showing two pairs of legs standing close together. Oh, boy! said the voice. Slowly, the girl's legs strained upward until only the tips of her toes touched the sand. Ah, the naughty rich! There was a slow fade-out, while the commentator's voice ran on: Shortly after a scene like this) shocked Mama and Papa Dalton summoned Mary home by wire from her winter vacation and denounced her Communist friend.
"What's a Communist?"
"Damn if I know. It's a race of people who live in Russia, ain't it?"
"That guy who was kissing old man Dalton's daughter was a Communist and her folks didn't like it."
"Rich people don't like Communists."
"She was a hot-looking number, all right."
"Sure," said Jack. "When you start working there you gotta learn to stand in with her. Then you can get everything you want, see? These rich folks do their dirt on the sly. I bet the reason the old man was so mad about that Communist was 'cause his gal was too open about it. . . ."
"Yeah; maybe so," said Bigger.
"Shucks, my ma use to work for rich white folks and you ought to hear the tales she used to tell . . . ."
"What kind of tales?" Bigger asked eagerly.
"Ah, them rich white women'll go to bed with anybody, from a poodle on up. They even have their chauffeurs. Say," Jack said, punching Bigger in the ribs, "if you run across anything too much for you to handle at that place, let me know."
They laughed. Bigger turned his eyes to the screen, but he did not look. He was filled with a sense of excitement about his new job. Was what he had heard about rich white people really true? Was he going to work for people like you saw in the movies? If he were, then he'd see a lot of things from the inside; he'd get the dope, the low-down. He looked at Trader Horn unfold and saw pictures of naked black men and women whirling in wild dances and heard drums beating and then gradually the African scene changed and was replaced by images in his own mind of white men and women dressed in black and white clothes, laughing, talking, drinking and dancing. Those were smart people; they knew how to get hold of money, millions of it. Maybe if he were working for them something would happen and he would get some of it. He would see just how they did it. Sure, it was all a game and white people knew how to play it. And rich white people were not so hard on Negroes; it was the poor whites who hated
Negroes. They hated Negroes because they didn't have their share of the money. His mother had always told him that rich white people liked Negroes better than they did poor whites. He felt that if he were a poor white and did not get his share of the money, then he would deserve to be kicked. Poor white people were stupid. It was the rich white people who were smart and knew how to treat people. He remembered hearing somebody tell a story of a Negro chauffeur who had married a rich white girl and the girl's family had shipped the couple out of the country and had supplied them with money.
Yes, his going to work for the Daltons was something big. Mr. Dalton was a millionaire. Maybe Mary Dalton was a hot kind of girl; maybe she spent lots of money; maybe she'd like to come to the South Side and see the sights sometimes. Or maybe she had a secret sweetheart and only he would know about it because he would have to drive her around; maybe she would give him money not to tell.
He was a fool for wanting to rob Blum's just when he was about to get a good job. Why hadn't he thought of that before? Why take a fool's chance when other things, big things, could happen? If something slipped up this afternoon he would be out of a job and in jail, maybe. And he wasn't so hot about robbing Blum's, anyway. He frowned in the darkened movie, hearing the roll of tom-toms and the screams of black men and women dancing free and wild, men and women who were adjusted to their soil and at home in their world, secure from fear and hysteria.
"Come on, Bigger," Jack said. "We gotta go."
"It's twenty to three."
He rose and walked down the dark aisle over the soft, invisible carpet. He had seen practically nothing of the picture, but he did not care. As he walked into the lobby his insides tightened again with the thought of Gus and Blum's.
"Swell, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, it was a killer," Bigger said.
He walked alongside Jack briskly until they came to Thirty ninth Street.
"We better get our guns," Bigger said.
"We got about fifteen minutes."
He walked home with a mounting feeling of fear. When he reached his doorway, he hesitated about going up. He didn't want to rob Blum's; he was scared. But he had to go through with it now. Noiselessly, he went up the steps and inserted his key in the lock; the door swung in silently and he heard his mother singing behind the curtain.
Lord, I want to
be a Christian,
Lord, I want to
be a Christian,
He tiptoed into the room and lifted the top mattress of his bed and pulled forth the gun and slipped it inside of his shirt. Just as he was about to open the door his mother paused in her singing.
"That you, Bigger?"
He stepped quickly into the outer hallway and slammed the door and bounded headlong down the stairs. He went to the vestibule and swung through the door into the street, feeling that ball of hot tightness growing larger and heavier in his stomach and chest. He opened his mouth to breathe. He headed for Doc's and came to the door and looked inside. Jack and G.H. were shooting pool at a rear table. Gus was not there. He felt a slight lessening of nervous tension and swallowed. He looked up and down the street; very few people were out and the cop was not in sight. A clock in a window across the street told him that it was twelve minutes to three. Well, this was it; he had to go in. He lifted his left hand and wiped sweat from his forehead in a long slow gesture. He hesitated a moment longer at the door, then went in, walking with firm steps to the rear table. He did not speak to Jack or G.H., nor they
to him. He lit a cigarette with shaking fingers and watched the spinning billiard balls roll and gleam and clack over the green stretch of cloth, dropping into holes after bounding to and fro from the rubber cushions. He felt impelled to say something to ease the swelling in his chest. Hurriedly, he flicked his cigarette into a spittoon and, with twin eddies of blue smoke jutting from his black nostrils, shouted hoarsely,
"Jack, I betcha two bits you can't make it!"
Jack did not answer; the ball shot straight across the table and vanished into a side pocket.
"You would've lost," Jack said.
"Too late now," Bigger said. "You wouldn't bet, so you lost.''
He spoke without looking. His entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting and violent to relieve the tautness. It was now ten minutes to three and Gus had not come. If Gus stayed away much longer, it would be too late. And Gus knew that. If they were going to do anything, it certainly ought to be done before folks started coming into the streets to buy their food for supper, and while the cop was down at the other end of the block.
"That bastard!" Bigger said. "I knew it!"
"Oh, he'll be along," Jack said.
"Sometimes I'd like to cut his yellow heart out," Bigger said, fingering the knife in his pocket.
"Maybe he's hanging around some meat," G.H. said.
"He's just scared," Bigger said. "Scared to rob a white man."
The billiard balls clacked. Jack chalked his cue stick and the metallic noise made Bigger grit his teeth until they ached. He didn't like that noise; it made him feel like cutting something with his knife.
"If he makes us miss this job, I'll fix 'im, so help me," Bigger said. "He oughtn't be late. Every time somebody's late, things go wrong. Look at the big guys. You don't ever hear of them being late, do you? Naw! They work like clocks!"
"Ain't none of us got more guts'n Gus," G.H. said. "He's been with us every time."
"Aw, shut your trap," Bigger said.
"There you go again, Bigger," G.H. said. "Gus was just talking about how you act this morning. You get too nervous when some thing's coming off. . . ."
"Don't tell me I'm nervous,' Bigger said.
"If we don't do it today, we can do it tomorrow," Jack said.
"Tomorrow's Sunday, fool!"
"Bigger, for Chrissakes! Don't holler!" Jack said tensely.
Bigger looked at Jack hard and long, then turned away with a grimace.
"Don't tell the world what we're trying to do," Jack whispered in a mollifying tone.
Bigger walked to the front of the store and stood looking out of the plate glass window. Then, suddenly, he felt sick. He saw Gus coming along the street. And his muscles stiffened. He was going to do something to Gus; just what, he did not know. As Gus neared he heard him whistling: "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down…." The door swung in.
"Hi, Bigger," Gus said.
Bigger did not answer. Gus passed him and started toward the rear tables. Bigger whirled and kicked him hard. Gus flopped on his face with a single movement of his body. With a look that showed that he was looking at Gus on the floor and at Jack and G.H. at the rear table and at Doc-- looking at them all at once in a kind of smiling, roving, turning-slowly glance-- Bigger laughed, softly at first, then harder, louder, hysterically; feeling something like hot water bubbling inside of him and trying to come out. Gus got up and stood, quiet, his mouth open and his eyes dead-black with hate.
"Take it easy, boys," Doc said, looking up from behind his counter, and then bending over again.
"What you kick me for?" Gus asked. '
"Cause I wanted to," Bigger said.
Gus looked at Bigger with lowered eyes. G.H. and Jack leaned on their cue sticks and watched silently.
"I'm going to fix you one of these days," Gus threatened.
"Say that again," Bigger said.
Doc laughed, straightening and looking at Bigger.
"Lay off the boy, Bigger."
Gus turned and walked toward the rear tables. Bigger, with an amazing bound, grabbed him in the back of his collar.
"I asked you to say that again!"
"Quit, Bigger!" Gus spluttered, choking, sinking to his knees.
"Don't tell me to quit!"
The muscles of his body gave a tightening lunge and he saw his fist come down on the side of Gus's head; he had struck him really before he was conscious of doing so.
"Don't hurt 'im," Jack said.
"I'll kill 'im," Bigger said through shut teeth, tightening his hold on Gus's collar, choking him harder.
"T-turn m-m-m-me l-l-loose," Gus gurgled, struggling.
"Make me!" Bigger said, drawing his fingers tighter.
Gus was very still, resting on his knees. Then, like a taut bow finding release, he sprang to his feet, shaking loose from Bigger and turning to get away. Bigger staggered back against the wall, breathless for a moment. Bigger's hand moved so swiftly that nobody saw it; a gleaming blade flashed. He made a long step, as graceful as an animal leaping, threw out his left foot and tripped Gus to the floor. Gus turned over to rise, but Bigger was on top of him, with the knife open and ready.
"Get up! Get up and I'll slice your tonsils!" Gus lay still.
"That's all right, Bigger," Gus said in surrender. "Lemme up."
"You trying to make a fool out of me, ain't you?"
"Naw," Gus said, his lips scarcely moving.
"You Goddamn right you ain't," Bigger said.
His face softened a bit and the hard glint in his bloodshot eyes died. But he still knelt with the open knife. Then he stood.
"Get up!" he said. "Please, Bigger!"
"You want me to slice you?"
He stooped again and placed the knife at Gus's throat. Gus did not move and his large black eyes looked pleadingly. Bigger was not satisfied; he felt his muscles tightening again.
"Get up! I ain't going to ask you no more!"
Slowly, Gus stood. Bigger held the open blade an inch from Gus's lips.
"Lick it," Bigger said, his body tingling with elation. Gus's eyes filled with tears.
"Lick it, I said! You think I'm playing?"
Gus looked round the room without moving his head, just rolling his eyes in a mute appeal for help. But no one moved. Bigger's left fist was slowly lifting to strike. Gus's lips moved toward the knife; he stuck out his tongue and touched the blade. Gus's lips quivered and tears streamed down his cheeks.
"Hahahaha!" Doc laughed.
"Aw, leave 'im alone," Jack called.
Bigger watched Gus with lips twisted in a crooked smile.
"Say, Bigger, ain't you scared 'im enough?" Doc asked.
Bigger did not answer. His eyes gleamed hard again, pregnant with another idea.
"Put your hands up, way up!" he said.
Gus swallowed and stretched his hands high along the wall.
"Leave 'im alone, Bigger," G.H. called weakly.
"I'm doing this," Bigger said.
He put the tip of the blade into Gus's shirt and then made an arc with his arm, as though cutting a circle.
"How would you like me to cut your belly button out?"
Gus did not answer. Sweat trickled down his temples. His lips hung wide, loose.
"Shut them liver lips of yours!"
Gus did not move a muscle. Bigger pushed the knife harder into Gus's stomach.
"Bigger!" Gus said in a tense whisper.
"Shut your mouth!"
Gus shut his mouth. Doc laughed. Jack and G.H. laughed.
Then Bigger stepped back and looked at Gus with a smile.
"You clown," he said. "Put your hands down and set on that chair." He watched Gus sit. "That ought to teach you not to be late next time, see?"
"We ain't late, Bigger. We still got time. . . ."
"Shut up! It is late!" Bigger insisted commandingly.
Bigger turned aside; then, hearing a sharp scrape on the floor, stiffened. Gus sprang from the chair and grabbed a billiard ball from the table and threw it with a half-sob and half-curse. Bigger flung his hands upward to shield his face and the impact of the ball struck his wrist. He had shut his eyes when he had glimpsed the ball sailing through the air toward him and when he opened his eyes Gus was flying through the rear door and at the same time he heard the ball hit the floor and roll away. A hard pain throbbed in his hand. He sprang forward, cursing.
He slipped on a cue stick lying in the middle of the floor and tumbled forward.
"That's enough now, Bigger," Doc said, laughing.
Jack and G.H. also laughed. Bigger rose and faced them, holding his hurt hand. His eyes were red and he stared with speechless hate.
"Just keep laughing," he said.
"Behave yourself, boy," Doc said.
"Just keep laughing,'' Bigger said again, taking out his knife.
"Watch what you're doing now," Doc cautioned.
"Aw, Bigger," Jack said, backing away toward the rear door. "You done spoiled things now," G.H. said. "I reckon that was what you wanted. . . ."
"You go to hell!" Bigger shouted, drowning out G.H.'s voice.
Doc bent down behind the counter and when he stood up he had something in his hand which he did not show. He stood there laughing. White spittle showed at the corners of Bigger's lips. He walked to the billiard table, his eyes on Doc. Then he began to cut the green cloth on the table with long sweeping strokes of his arm. He never took his eyes from Doc's face.
"Why, you sonofabitch!" Doc said. "I ought to shoot you, so help me God! Get out, before I call a cop!”
Bigger walked slowly past Doc, looking at him, not hurrying, and holding the open knife in his hand. He paused in the doorway and looked back. Jack and G.H. were gone.
"Don't you like it?" Bigger asked.
"Get out before I shoot you!" Doc said. "And don't you ever set your black feet inside here again!"
Doc was angry and Bigger was afraid. He shut the knife and slipped it in his pocket and swung through the door to the street. He blinked his eyes from the bright sunshine; his nerves were so taut that he had difficulty in breathing. Halfway down the block he passed Blum's store; he looked out of the corners of his eyes through the plate glass window and saw that Blum was alone and the store was empty of customers. Yes; they would have had time to rob the store; in fact, they still had time. He had lied to Gus and G.H. and Jack. He walked on; there was not a policeman in sight. Yes; they could have robbed the store and could have gotten away. He hoped the fight he had had with Gus covered up what he was trying to hide. At least the fight made him feel the equal of them. And he felt the equal of Doc, too; had he not slashed his table and dared him to use his gun?
He had an overwhelming desire to be alone; he walked to the middle of the next block and turned into an alley. He began to laugh, softly, tensely; he stopped still in his tracks and felt some thing warm roll down his cheek and he brushed it away. "Jesus," he breathed. "I laughed so hard I cried." Carefully, he dried his face on his coat sleeve, then stood for two whole minutes staring at the shadow of a telephone pole on the alley pavement. Suddenly he straightened and walked on with a single expulsion of breath. "What the hell I " He stumbled violently over a tiny crack in the pavement. "Goddamn!" he said. When he reached the end of the alley, he turned into a street, walking slowly in the sunshine, his hands jammed deep into his pockets, his head down, depressed.
He went home and sat in a chair by the window, looking out dreamily.
"That you, Bigger?" his mother called from behind the curtain.
"Yeah," he said.
"What you run in here and run out for, a little while ago?"
"Don't you go and get into no trouble, now, boy."
"Aw, Ma! Leave me alone."
He listened awhile to her rubbing clothes on the metal washboard, then he gazed abstractedly into the street, thinking of how he had felt when he fought Gus in Doc's poolroom. He was relieved and glad that in an hour he was going to see about that job at the Dalton place. He was disgusted with the gang; he knew that what had happened today put an end to his being with them in any more jobs. Like a man staring regretfully but hopelessly at the stump of a cut-off arm or leg, he knew that the fear of robbing a white man had had hold of him when he started that fight with Gus; but he knew it in a way that kept it from coming to his mind in the form of a hard and sharp idea. His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness. He had fought Gus because Gus was late; that was the reason his emotions accepted and he did not try to justify himself in his own eyes, or in the eyes of the gang. He did not think enough of them to feel that he had to; he did not consider himself as being responsible to them for what he did, even though they had been involved as deeply as he in the planned robbery. He felt that same way toward everyone. As long as he could remember, he had never been responsible to anyone. The moment a situation became so that it exacted something of him, he rebelled. That was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify powerful impulses in a world he feared.
Outside his window he saw the sun dying over the roof-tops in the western sky and watched the first shade of dusk fall. Now and then a street car ran past. The rusty radiator hissed at the far end of the room. All day long it had been spring-like; but now dark clouds were slowly swallowing the sun. All at once the street lamps came on and the sky was black and close to the house-tops.
Inside his shirt he felt the cold metal of the gun resting against his naked skin; he ought to put it back between the mattresses. No! He would keep it. He would take it with him to the Dalton place. He felt that he would be safer if he took it. He was not planning to use it and there was nothing in particular that he was afraid of, but there was in him an uneasiness and distrust that made him feel that he ought to have it along. He was going among white people, so he would take his knife and his gun; it would make him feel that he was the equal of them, give him a sense of completeness. Then he thought of a good reason why he should take it; in order to get to the Dalton place, he had to go through a white neighborhood. He had not heard of any Negroes being molested recently, but he felt that it was always possible.
Far away a clock boomed five times. He sighed and got up and yawned and stretched his arms high above his head to loosen the muscles of his body. He got his overcoat, for it was growing cold outdoors; then got his cap. He tiptoed to the door, wanting to slip out without his mother hearing him. Just as he was about to open it, she called,
He stopped and frowned.
"You going to see about that job?"
"Ain't you going to eat?"
"I ain't got time now."
She came to the door, wiping her soapy hands upon an apron.
"Here; take this quarter and buy you something."
"And be careful, son."
He went out and walked south to Forty-sixth Street, then east ward. Well, he would see in a few moments if the Daltons for whom he was to work were the ones he had seen and heard about in the movie. But while walking through this quiet and spacious white neighborhood, he did not feel the pull
and mystery of the thing as strongly as he had in the movie. The houses he passed were huge; lights glowed softly in windows. The streets were empty, save for an occasional car that zoomed past on swift rubber tires. This was a cold and distant world; a world of white secrets carefully guarded. He could feel a pride, a certainty, and a confidence in these streets and houses. He came to Drexel Boulevard and began to look for 4605. When he came to it, he stopped and stood before a high, black, iron picket fence, feeling constricted inside. All he had felt in the movie was gone; only fear and emptiness filled him now.
Would they expect him to come in the front way or back? It was queer that he had not thought of that. Goddamn! He walked the length of the picket fence in front of the house, seeking for a walk leading to the rear. But there was none. Other than the front gate, there was only a driveway, the entrance to which was securely locked. Suppose a police saw him wandering in a white neighborhood like this? It would be thought that he was trying to rob or rape somebody. He grew angry. Why had he come to take this god damn job? He could have stayed among his own people and escaped feeling this fear and hate. This was not his world; he had been foolish in thinking that he would have liked it. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk with his jaws clamped tight; he wanted to strike something with his fist. Well. . . . Goddamn! There was nothing to do but go in the front way. If he were doing wrong, they could not kill him, at least; all they could do was to tell him that he could not get the job.
Timidly, he lifted the latch on the gate and walked to the steps. He paused, waiting for someone to challenge him. Nothing happened. Maybe nobody was home? He went to the door and saw a dim light burning in a shaded niche above a doorbell. He pushed it and was startled to hear a soft gong sound within. Maybe he had pushed it too hard? Aw, what the hell! He had to do better than this; he relaxed his taut muscles and stood at ease, waiting. The doorknob turned. The door opened. He saw a white face. It was a woman.
"Yessum," he said.
"You want to see somebody?"
"Er. . . . Er. . . .Iwant to see Mr. Dalton."
"Are you the Thomas boy "
He edged through the door slowly, then stopped halfway. The woman was so close to him that he could see a tiny mole at the corner of her mouth. He held his breath. It seemed that there was not room enough for him to pass without actually touching her.
"Come on in," the woman said.
"Yessum," he whispered.
He squeezed through and stood uncertainly in a softly lighted hallway.
"Follow me," she said.
With cap in hand and shoulders sloped, he followed, walking into a dimly lit room.
He sat and looked up at the woman; she was staring at him and he looked away in confusion. He was glad when she left. That old bastard! What's so damn funny about me? I'm just like she is. . . . He felt that the position in which he was sitting was too awkward and found that he was on the very edge of the chair. He rose slightly to sit farther back; but when he sat he sank down so suddenly and deeply that he thought the chair had collapsed under him. He bounded halfway up, in fear; then, realizing what had happened, he sank distrustfully down again. He looked round the room; it was lit by dim lights glowing from a hidden source. He tried to find them by roving his eyes, but could not. He had not expected anything like this; he had not thought that this world would be so utterly different from his own that it would intimidate him. On the smooth walls were several paintings whose nature he tried to make out, but failed. He would have liked to examine them, but dared not. Then he listened; a faint sound of
piano music floated to him from somewhere. He was sitting in a white home; dim lights burned round him; strange objects challenged him; and he was feeling angry and uncomfortable.
He started at the sound of a man's voice.
"Come this way."
Misjudging how far back he was sitting in the chair, his first attempt to rise failed and he slipped back, resting on his side. Grabbing the arms of the chair, he pulled himself upright and found a tall, lean, white-haired man holding a piece of paper in his hand. The man was gazing at him with an amused smile that made him conscious of every square inch of skin on his black body.
"Thomas?" the man asked. "Bigger Thomas?"
"Yessuh," he whispered; not speaking, really; but hearing his words roll involuntarily from his lips.
"Come this way."
He followed the man out of the room and down a hall. The man stopped abruptly. Bigger paused, bewildered; then he saw coming slowly toward him a tall, thin, white woman, walking silently, her hands lifted delicately in the air and touching the walls to either side of her. Bigger stepped back to let her pass. Her face and hair were completely white; she seemed to him like a ghost. The man took her arm gently and held her for a moment. Bigger saw that she was old and her grey eyes looked stony.
"Are you all right?" the man asked.
"Yes," she answered.
"She's preparing dinner. I'm quite all right, Henry."
The man let go of the woman and she walked on slowly, the long white fingers of her hands just barely touching the walls. Behind the woman, following at the hem of her dress, was a big white cat, pacing without sound. She's blind! Bigger thought in amazement.
"Come on; this way," the man said.
He wondered if the man had seen him staring at the woman. He would have to be careful here. There were so many strange things. He followed the man into a room.
"Yessuh," he said, sitting.
"That was Mrs. Dalton," the man said. "She's blind."
"She has a very deep interest in colored people."
''Yessuh," Bigger whispered. He was conscious of the effort to breathe; he licked his lips and fumbled nervously with his cap.
"Well, I'm Mr. Dalton."
"Do you think you'd like driving a car?"
"Did you bring the paper?"
He had completely forgotten about the paper. He stood to reach into his vest pocket and, in doing so, dropped his cap. For a moment his impulses were deadlocked; he did not know if he should pick up his cap and then find the paper, or find the paper and then pick up his cap. He decided to pick up his cap.
"Put your cap here," said Mr. Dalton, indicating a place on his desk.
Then he was stone-still; the white cat bounded past him and leaped upon the desk; it sat looking at him with large placid eyes and mewed plaintively.
"What's the matter, Kate?" Mr. Dalton asked, stroking the cat's fur and smiling. Mr. Dalton turned back to Bigger. "Did you find it?"
"Nawsuh. But I got it here, somewhere."
He hated himself at that moment. Why was he acting and feeling this way? He wanted to wave his hand and blot out the white man who was making him feel this. If not that, he wanted to blot himself
out. He had not raised his eyes to the level of Mr. Dalton's face once since he had been in the house. He stood with his knees slightly bent, his lips partly open, his shoulders stooped; and his eyes held a look that went only to the surface of things. There was an organic conviction in him that this was the way white folks wanted him to be when in their presence; none had ever told him that in so many words, but their manner had made him feel that they did. He laid the cap down, noticing that Mr. Dalton was watching him closely. Maybe he was not acting right? Goddamn! Clumsily, he searched for the paper. He could not find it at first and he felt called upon to say something for taking so long.
"I had it right here in my vest pocket," he mumbled.
"Take your time."
"Oh, here it is."
He drew the paper forth. It was crumpled and soiled. Nervously, he straightened it out and handed it to Mr. Dalton, holding it by its very tip end.
"All right, now," said Mr. Dalton. "Let's see what you've got here. You live at 3721 Indiana Avenue?"
Mr. Dalton paused, frowned, and looked up at the ceiling. "What kind of a building is that over there?"
"You mean where I live, suh?"
"Oh, it's just an old building."
"Where do you pay rent?"
"Down on Thirty-first Street."
"To the South Side Real Estate Company?"
Bigger wondered what all these questions could mean; he had heard that Mr. Dalton owned the South Side Real Estate Company, but he was not sure.
"How much rent do you pay?"
"Eight dollars a week."
"For how many rooms?"
"We just got one, suh."
"I see. . . . Now, Bigger, tell me, how old are you?"
"I'm twenty, suh."
"Sit down. You needn't stand. And I won't be long."
He sat. The white cat still contemplated him with large, moist eyes.
"Now, you have a mother, a brother, and a sister?"
"There are four of you?"
"Yessuh, there's four of us," he stammered, trying to show that he was not as stupid as he might appear. He felt a need to speak more, for he felt that maybe Mr. Dalton expected it. And he suddenly remembered the many times his mother had told him not to look at the floor when talking with white folks or asking for a job. He lifted his eyes and saw Mr. Dalton watching him closely. He dropped his eyes again.
"They call you Bigger?"
"Now, Bigger, I'd like to talk with you a little . . . ."
Yes, Goddammit! He knew what was coming. He would be asked about that time he had been accused of stealing auto tires and had been sent to the reform school. He felt guilty, condemned. He should not have come here.
"The relief people said some funny things about you. I'd like to talk to you about them. Now, you needn't feel ashamed with me," said Mr. Dalton, smiling. "I was a boy myself once and I think I know how things are. So just be yourself. . . ." Mr. Dalton pulled out a package of cigarettes. "Here; have one."
"Nawsuh; thank you, suh."
"You don't smoke?"
"Yessuh. But I just don't want one now."
"Now, Bigger, the relief people said you were a very good worker when you were interested in what you were doing. Is that true?"
"Well, I do my work, suh."
"But they said you were always in trouble. How do you explain that?"
"I don't know, suh."
"Why did they send you to the reform school?" His eyes glared at the floor.
"They said I was stealing!" he blurted defensively. "But I wasn't."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, how did you get mixed up in it?"
"I was with some boys and the police picked us up."
Mr. Dalton said nothing. Bigger heard a clock ticking some where behind him and he had a foolish impulse to look at it. But he restrained himself.
"Well, Bigger, how do you feel about it now?"
"Suh? 'Bout what?"
"If you had a job, would you steal now?"
"Oh, nawsuh. I don't steal."
"Well," said Mr. Dalton, “they say you can drive a car and I'm going to give you a job."
He said nothing.
"You think you can handle it?"
"The pay calls for $20 a week; but I'm going to give you $25. The extra $5 is for yourself, for you to spend as you like. You will get the clothes you need and your meals. You're to sleep in the back room, above the kitchen. You can give the $20 to your mother to keep your brother and sister in school. How does that sound?"
"It sounds all right. Yessuh."
"I think we'll get along."
"I don’’t think we'll have any trouble."
"Now, Bigger," said Mr. Dalton, "since that's settled, let's see what you'll have to do every day. I leave
every morning for my office at nine. It's a twenty-minute drive. You are to be back at ten and take Miss Dalton to school. At twelve, you call for Miss Dalton at the University. From then until night you are more or less free. If either Miss Dalton or I go out at night, of course, you do the driving. You work every day, but we don't get up till noon on Sundays. So you will have Sunday mornings to yourself, unless something unexpected happens. You get one full day off every two weeks."
"You think you can handle that?"
"And any time you're bothered about anything, come and see me. Let's talk it over."
"Yes, Mary," said Mr. Dalton.
Bigger turned and saw a white girl walk into the room. She was very slender.
"Oh, I didn't know you were busy."
"That's all right, Mary. What is it?"
Bigger saw that the girl was looking at him. Yes; she was the same girl he had seen in the movie.
"Is this the new chauffeur, Father?"
"What do you want, Mary?"
"Will you get the tickets for the Thursday concert?"
"At Orchestra Hall?"
"Yes. I'll get them."
"Is this the new chauffeur?"
"Yes," said Mr. Dalton. "This is Bigger Thomas."
"Hello, Bigger," the girl said.
Bigger swallowed. He looked at Mr. Dalton, then felt that he should not have looked.
"Good evening, mam."
The girl came close to him and stopped just opposite his chair.
"Bigger, do you belong to a union?" she asked.
"Now, Mary!" said Mr. Dalton, frowning.
"Well, Father, he should," the girl said, turning to him, then back to Bigger. "Do you?"
"Mary. . . ." said Mr. Dalton.
"I'm just asking him a question, Father!"
Bigger hesitated. He hated the girl then. Why did she have to do this when he was trying to get a job?
"No'm," he mumbled, his head down and his eyes glowering.
"And why not?" the girl asked.
Bigger heard Mr. Dalton mumble something. He wished Mr. Dalton would speak and end this thing. He looked up and saw Mr. Dalton staring at the girl. She's making me lose my job! he thought. Goddamn! He knew nothing about unions, except that they were considered bad. And what did she mean by talking to him this way in front of Mr. Dalton, who, surely, didn't like unions?
"We can settle about the union later, Mary," said Mr. Dalton.
"But you wouldn't mind belonging to a union, would you?" the girl asked.
"I don't know, mam," Bigger said.
"Now, Mary, you can see that the boy is new," said Mr. Dalton. "Leave him alone."
The girl turned and poked out a red tongue at him.
"All right, Mr. Capitalist!" She turned again to Bigger. "Isn't he a capitalist, Bigger?"
Bigger looked at the floor and did not answer. He did not know what a capitalist was.
The girl started to leave, but stopped.
"Oh, Father, if he hasn't anything else to do, let him drive me to my lecture at the University tonight."
"I'm talking to him now, Mary. He'll be through in a moment."
The girl picked up the cat and walked from the room. There was a short interval of silence. Bigger wished the girl had not said anything about unions. Maybe he would not be hired now? Or, if hired, maybe he would be fired soon if she kept acting like that. He had never seen anyone like her before. She was not a bit the way he had imagined she would be.
"Oh, Mary!" Mr. Dalton called.
"Yes, Father," Bigger heard her answer from the hallway.
Mr. Dalton rose and left the room. He sat still, listening. Once or twice he thought he heard the girl laugh, but he was not sure. The best thing he could do was to leave that crazy girl alone. No wonder they called her a Communist in the movies. She was crazy, all right. He had heard about unions; in his mind unions and Communists were linked. He relaxed a little, then stiffened when he heard Mr. Dalton walk back into the room. Wordlessly, the white man sat behind the desk and picked up the paper and looked at it in a long silence. Bigger watched him with lowered eyes; he knew that Mr. Dalton was thinking of something other than that paper. In his heart he cursed the crazy girl. Maybe Mr. Dalton was deciding not to hire him? Goddamn! Maybe he would not get the extra five dollars a week now? Goddamn that woman! She spoiled everything! Maybe Mr. Dalton would feel that he could not trust him.
"Oh, Bigger," said Mr. Dalton.
"I want you to know why I'm hiring you."
"You see, Bigger, I'm a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Did you ever hear of that organization?"
"Well, it doesn't matter," said Mr. Dalton. "Have you had your dinner?"
"Well, I think you'll do."
"Yes, Mr. Dalton."
"Peggy, this is Bigger. He's going to drive for us. Give him something to eat, and show him where he's to sleep and where the car is."
"Yes, Mr. Dalton."
"And, Bigger, at eight-thirty, drive Miss Dalton out to the University and wait for her," said Mr. Dalton.
"That's all now."
"Come with me," Peggy said.
Bigger rose and got his cap and followed the woman through the house to the kitchen. The air was full of the scent of food cooking and pots bubbled on the stove.
"Sit here," Peggy said, clearing a place for him at a white topped table. He sat and rested his cap on his knees. He felt a little better now that he was out of the front part of the house, but still not quite comfortable.
"Dinner isn't quite ready yet," Peggy said. "You like bacon and eggs?"
He sat looking at the white walls of the kitchen and heard the woman stir about behind him.
"Did Mr. Dalton tell you about the furnace?"
"Well, he must have forgotten it. You're supposed to attend to that, too. I'll show you where it is before you go."
"You mean I got to keep the fire going, mam?"
"Yes. But it's easy. Did you ever fire before?"
"You can learn. There's nothing to it."
Peggy seemed kind enough, but maybe she was being kind in order to shove her part of the work on him. Well, he would wait and see. If she got nasty, he would talk to Mr. Dalton about her. He smelt the odor of frying bacon and realized that he was very hungry. He had forgotten to buy a sandwich with the quarter his mother had given him, and he had not eaten since morning.
Peggy placed a plate, knife, fork, spoon, sugar, cream, and bread before him; then she dished up the bacon and eggs.
"You can get more if you want it."
The food was good. This was not going to be a bad job. The only thing bad so far was that crazy girl. He chewed his bacon and eggs while some remote part of his mind considered in amazement how different the girl had seemed in the movie. On the screen she was not dangerous and his mind could do with her as it liked. But here in her home she walked over everything, put herself in the way. He had quite forgotten that Peggy was in the kitchen and when his plate was empty he took a soft piece of bread and began to sop it clean, carrying the bread to his mouth in huge chunks.
"You want some more?"
He stopped chewing and laid the bread aside. He had not wanted to let her see him do that; he did that only at home.
"No'm," he said. "I got a plenty."
"You reckon you'll like it here?" Peggy asked.
"Yessum. I hope so."
"This is a swell place," Peggy said. "About as good as you'll find anywhere. The last colored man who worked for us stayed ten years."
Bigger wondered why she said "us." She must stand in with the old man and old woman pretty good, he thought.
"Ten years?" he said.
"Yes; ten years. His name was Green. He was a good man, too."
"How come he to leave?"
"Oh, he was smart, that Green was. He took a job with the government. Mrs. Dalton made him go to night school. Mrs. Dalton's always trying to help somebody."
Yes, Bigger knew that. But he was not going to any night school. He looked at Peggy; she was bent over the sink, washing dishes. Her words had challenged him and he felt he had to say something.
"Yessum, he was smart," he said. "And ten years is a long time."
"Oh, it wasn't so long," Peggy said. "I've been here twenty years myself. I always was one for sticking to a job. I always say when you get a good place, then stick there. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and it's true."
Bigger said nothing.
"Everything's simple and nice around here," Peggy said. "They've got millions, but they live like human beings. They don't put on airs and strut. Mrs. Dalton believes that people should be that way."
"They're Christian people and believe in everybody working hard. And living a clean life. Some people think we ought to have more servants than we do, but we get along. It's just like one big family."
"Mr. Dalton's a fine man," Peggy said.
"Oh, yessum. He is."
"You know, he does a lot for your people."
"My people?" asked Bigger, puzzled.
"Yes, the colored people. He gave over five million dollars to colored schools."
"But Mrs. Dalton's the one who's really nice. If it wasn't for her, he would not be doing what he does. She made him rich. She had millions when he married her. Of course, he made a lot of money himself afterwards out of real estate. But most of the money's hers. She's blind, poor thing. She lost her sight ten years ago. Did you see her yet?"
"Was she alone?"
"Poor thing! Mrs. Patterson, who takes care of her, is away for the week-end and she's all alone. Isn't it too bad, about her?"
"Oh, yessum," he said, trying to get into his voice some of the pity for Mrs. Dalton that he thought Peggy expected him to feel.
"It's really more than a job you've got here," Peggy went on.
"It's just like home. I'm always telling Mrs. Dalton that this is the only home I'll ever know. I wasn't in this country but two years before I started working here. . . ."
"Oh," said Bigger, looking at her.
"I'm Irish, you know," she said. "My folks in the old country feel about England like the colored folks feel about this country. So I know something about colored people. Oh, these are fine people, fine as silk. Even the girl. Did you meet her yet?"
Peggy turned and looked at him sharply.
"She's a sweet thing," she said. "I've known her since she was two years old. But she's kind of wild, she is. Always in hot water. Keeps her folks worried. The Lord only knows where she got her wild ways. But she's got 'em. If you stay around here long, you'll get to know her."
Bigger wanted to ask about the girl, but thought that he had better not do that now.
"If you're through, I'll show you the furnace and the car, and where your room is," she said and turned the fire low under the pots on the stove.
He rose and followed her out of the kitchen, down a narrow stairway at the end of which was the basement. It was dark; Bigger heard a sharp click and the light came on.
"This way. . . . What did you say your name was?"
He smelt the scent of coal and ashes and heard fire roaring. He saw a red bed of embers glowing in the furnace.
"This is the furnace," she said.
"Every morning you'll find the garbage here; you burn it and put the bucket on the dumb-waiter."
"You never have to use a shovel for coal. It's a self-feeder. Look, see?"
Peggy pulled a lever and there came a loud rattle of fine lumps of coal sliding down a metal chute. Bigger stooped and saw, through the cracks of the furnace, the coal spreading out fanwise over the red bed of fire.
"That's fine," he mumbled in admiration.
"And you don't have to worry about water, either. It fills itself."
Bigger liked that; it was easy; it would be fun, almost.
"Your biggest trouble will be taking out the ashes and sweeping. And keep track of how the coal runs; when it's low, tell me or Mr. Dalton and we'll order some more."
"Yessum. I can handle it.
"Now, to get to your room all you have to do is go up these back stairs. Come on."
He followed up a stretch of stairs. She opened a door and switched on a light and Bigger saw a large room whose walls were covered with pictures of girls' faces and prize fighters.
"This was Green's room. He was always one for pictures. But he kept things neat and nice. It's plenty warm here. Oh, yes; before I forget. Here are the keys to the room and the garage and the car. Now, I'll show you the garage. You have to get to it from the outside."
He followed her down the steps and outside into the driveway.
It was much warmer.
"Looks like snow," Peggy said.
"This is the garage," she said, unlocking and pushing open a door which, as it swung in, made lights come on automatically. "You always bring the car out and wait at the side door for the folks. Let's see. You say you're driving Miss Dalton tonight?"
"Well, she leaves at eight- thirty. So you're free until then. You can look over your room if you want to."
"Yessum. I reckon I will."
Bigger went behind Peggy down the stairs and back into the basement. She went to the kitchen and he went to his room. He stood in the middle of the floor, looking at the walls. There were pictures of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Armstrong; there were others of Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, and Janet Gaynor. The room was large and had two radiators. He felt the bed; it was soft. Gee! He would bring Bessie here some night. Not right at once; he would wait until he had learned the ropes of the place. A room all to himself! He could bring a pint of liquor up here and drink it in peace. He would not have to slip around anymore. He would not have to sleep with Buddy and stand Buddy's kicking all night long. He lit a cigarette and stretched himself full length upon the bed. Ohhhh. . . . This was not going to be bad at all. He looked at his dollar watch; it was seven. In a little while he would go down and examine the car. And he would buy himself another watch, too. A dollar watch was not good enough for a job like this; he would buy a gold one. There were a lot of new things he would get. Oh, boy! This would be an easy life. Everything was all right, except that girl. She worried him. She might cause him to lose his job if she kept talking about unions. She was a funny girl, all right. Never in his life had he met anyone like her. She puzzled him. She was rich, but she didn't act like she was rich. She acted like . . . . Well, he didn't know exactly what she did act like. In all of the white women he had met, mostly on jobs and at relief stations, there was always a certain coldness and reserve; they stood their distance and spoke to him from afar. But this girl waded right in and hit him between the eyes with her words and ways. Aw, hell! What good was there in thinking about her like this! Maybe she was all right. Maybe he would just have to get used to her; that was all. I bet she spends a plenty of dough, he thought. And the old man had given five million dollars to colored people. If a man could give five million dollars away, then millions must be as common to him as nickels. He rose up and sat on the edge of the bed.
What make of car was he to drive? He had not thought to look when Peggy had opened the garage door. He hoped it would be a Packard, or a Lincoln, or a Rolls Royce. Boy! Would he drive! Just wait! Of course, he would be careful when he was driving Miss or Mr. Dalton. But when he was alone he would burn up the pavement; he would make those tires smoke!
He licked his lips; he was thirsty. He looked at his watch; it was ten past eight. He would go to the kitchen and get a drink of water and then drive the car out of the garage. He went down the steps, through the basement to the stairs leading to the kitchen door. Though he did not know it, he walked on tiptoe. He eased the door open and peeped in. What he saw made him suck his breath in; Mrs. Dalton in flowing white clothes was standing stone-still in the middle of the kitchen floor. There was silence, save for the slow ticking of a large clock on a white wall. For a moment he did not know if he should go in or go back down the steps; his thirst was gone. Mrs. Dalton's face was held in an attitude of intense listening and her hands were hanging loosely at her sides. To Bigger her face seemed to be capable of hearing in every pore of the skin and listening always to some low voice speaking. Sitting quietly on the floor beside her was the white cat, its large black eyes fastened upon him. It made him uneasy just to look at her and that white cat; he was about to close the door and tiptoe softly back down the stairs when she spoke.
"Are you the new boy!"
"Did you want something?"
"I didn't mean to disturb you, mam. I-I. . . .I just wanted a drink of water."
"Well, come on in. I think you'll find a glass somewhere."
He went to the sink, watching her as he walked, feeling that she could see him even though he knew that she was blind. His skin tingled. He took a glass from a narrow shelf and filled it from a faucet. As he drank he stole a glance at her over the rim of the glass. Her face was still, tilted, waiting. It reminded him of a dead man's face he had once seen. Then he realized that Mrs. Dalton had turned and listened to the sound of his feet as he had walked. She knows exactly where I'm standing, he thought.
"You like your room?" she asked; and as she spoke he realized that she had been standing there waiting to hear the sound of his glass as it had clinked on the sink.
"I hope you're a careful driver."
"Oh, yessum. I'll be careful."
"Did you ever drive before?"
"Yessum. But it Was a grocery truck."
He had the feeling that talking to a blind person was like talking to someone whom he himself could scarcely see.
"How far did you go in school, Bigger?"
"To the eighth grade, mam."
"Do you ever think of going back?"
"Well, I gotta work now, mam."
"Suppose you had the chance to go back?"
"Well, I don't know, mam."
"The last man who worked here went to night school and got an education."
"What would you want to be if you had an education?"
"I don't know, mam."
"Did you ever think about it?"
"You would rather work?"
"I reckon I would, mam."
"Well, we'll talk about that some other time. I think you'd better get the car for Miss Dalton now."
He left her standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, exactly as he had found her. He did not know just how to take her; she made him feel that she would judge all he did harshly but kindly. He had a feeling toward her that was akin to that which he held toward his mother. The difference in his feelings toward Mrs. Dalton and his mother was that he felt that his mother wanted him to do the things she wanted him to do, and he felt that Mrs. Dalton wanted him to do the things she felt that
he should have wanted to do. But he did not want to go to night school. Night school was all right; but he had other plans. Well, he didn't know just what they were right now, but he was working them out.
The night air had grown warmer. A wind had risen. He lit a cigarette and unlocked the garage; the door swung in and again he was surprised and pleased to see the lights spring on automatically. These people's got everything, he mused. He examined the car; it was a dark blue Buick, with steel spoke wheels and of a new make. He stepped back from it and looked it over; then he opened the door and looked at the dashboard. He was a little disappointed that the car was not so expensive as he had hoped, but what it lacked in price was more than made up for in color and style. "It's all right," he said half-aloud. He got in and backed it into the driveway and turned it round and pulled it up to the side door.
"Is that you, Bigger?"
The girl stood on the steps.
He got out and held the rear door open for her.
He touched his cap and wondered if it were the right thing to do.
"Is it that university-school out there on the Midway, mam?"
Through the rear mirror above him he saw her hesitate before answering.
"Yes; that's the one."
He pulled the car into the street and headed south, driving about thirty-five miles an hour. He handled the car expertly, picking up speed at the beginning of each block and slowing slightly as he approached each street intersection.
"You drive well," she said.
"Yessum," he said proudly.
He watched her through the rear mirror as he drove; she was kind of pretty, but very little. She looked like a doll in a show window: black eyes, white face, red lips. And she was not acting at all now as she had acted when he first saw her. In fact, she had a remote look in her eyes. He stopped the car at Forty-seventh Street for a red light; he did not have to stop again until he reached Fifty-
first Street where a long line of cars formed in front of him and a long line in back. He held the steering wheel lightly, waiting for the line to move forward. He had a keen sense of power when driving; the feel of a car added something to him. He loved to press his foot against a pedal and sail along, watching others stand still, seeing the asphalt road unwind under him. The lights flashed from red to green and he nosed the car forward.
"Turn at this corner and pull up on a side street."
Now, what on earth did this mean? He pulled the car off Cottage Grove Avenue and drew to a curb. He turned to look at her and was startled to see that she was sitting on the sheer edge of the back seat, her face some six inches from his.
"I scare you?" she asked softly, smiling.
"Oh, no'm," he mumbled, bewildered.
He watched her through the mirror. Her tiny white hands dangled over the back of the front seat and her eyes looked out vacantly.
"l don't know how to say what I'm going to say," she said.
He said nothing. There was a long silence. What in all hell did this girl want? A street car rumbled by. Behind him, reflected in the rear mirror, he saw the traffic lights flash from green to red, and back again. Well, whatever she was going to say, he wished she would say it and get it over. This girl was strange. She did the unexpected every minute. He waited for her to speak. She took her hands from the back of the front seat and fumbled in her purse.
He dug a match from his vest pocket.
"Strike it," she said.
He blinked. He struck the match and held the flame for her.
She smoked awhile in silence.
"You're not a tattle-tale, are you?" she asked with a smile.
He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came. What she had asked and the tone of voice in which she had asked it made him feel that he ought to have answered in some way; but what?
"I'm not going to the University," she said at last. "But you can forget that. I want you to drive me to the Loop. But if anyone should ask you, then I went to the University, see, Bigger?"
"Yessum; it's all right with me," he mumbled.
"I think I can trust you."
"After all, I'm on your side."
Now, what did that mean? She was on his side. What side was he on? Did she mean that she liked colored people? Well, he had heard that about her whole family. Was she really crazy? How much did her folks know of how she acted? But if she were really crazy, why did Mr. Dalton let him drive her out?
"I'm going to meet a friend of mine who's also a friend of yours," she said.
"Friend of mine!" he could not help exclaiming.
"Oh, you don't know him yet," she said, laughing.
"Go to the Outer Drive and then to 16 Lake Street."
Maybe she was talking about the Reds? That was it! But none of his friends were Reds. What was
all this? If Mr. Dalton should ask him if he had taken her to the University,
he would have to say yes and depend upon her to back him up. But suppose Mr.
Dalton had someone watching, someone who would tell where he had really taken
her? He had heard that many rich people had detectives working for them. If
only he knew what this was all about he would feel much better. And she had
said that she was going to meet someone who was a friend of his. He didn't
want to meet any Communists. They didn't have any money. He felt that it was
all right for a man to go to jail for robbery, but to go to jail for
fooling around with Reds was bunk. Well, he would drive her; that was what he had been hired for. But he was going to watch his step in this business. The only thing he hoped was that she would not make him lose his job. He pulled the car off the Outer Drive at Seventh Street, drove north on Michigan Boulevard to Lake Street, then headed west for two blocks, looking for number 16.
"It's right here, Bigger."
He pulled to a stop in front of a dark building.
"Wait," she said, getting out of the car.
He saw her smiling broadly at him, almost laughing. He felt that she knew every feeling and thought he had at that moment and he turned his head away in confusion. Goddamn that woman!
"I won't be long," she said.
She started off, then turned back.
"Take it easy, Bigger. You'll understand it better bye and bye."
"Yessum,” he said, trying to smile; but couldn't.
"Isn't there a song like that, a song your people sing?"
"Like what, mam?"
"We'll understand it better bye and bye?"
She was an odd girl, all right. He felt something in her over and above the fear she inspired in him. She responded to him as if he were human, as if he lived in the same world as she. And he had never felt that before in a white person. But why? Was this some kind of game? The guarded feeling of freedom he had while listening to her was tangled with the hard fact that she was white and rich, a part of the world of people who told him what he could and could not do.
He looked at the building into which she had gone; it was old and unpainted; there were no lights in the windows or doorway. Maybe she was meeting her sweetheart? If that was all, then things would straighten out. But if she had gone to meet those Communists? And what were Communists like, anyway? Was she one? What made people Communists? He remembered seeing many cartoons of Communists in newspapers and always they had flaming torches in their hands and wore beards and
were trying to commit murder or set things on fire. People who acted that way were crazy. All he could recall having heard about Communists was associated in his mind with darkness, old houses, people speaking in whispers, and trade unions on strike. And this was something like it.
He stiffened; the door into which she had gone opened. She came out, followed by a young white man. They walked to the car; but, instead of getting into the back seat, they came to the side of the car and stood, facing him. At once Bigger recognized the man as the one he had seen in the newsreel in the movie.
Jan smiled broadly, then extended an open palm toward him.
Bigger's entire body tightened with suspense and dread.
"How are you, Bigger "
Bigger's right hand gripped the steering wheel and he wondered if he ought to shake hands with this white man.
"I'm fine," he mumbled.
Jan's hand was still extended. Bigger's right hand raised itself about three inches, then stopped in mid-air.
"Come on arid shake," Jan said.
Bigger extended a limp palm, his mouth open in astonishment. He felt Jan's fingers tighten about his own. He tried to pull his hand away, ever so gently, but Jan held on, firmly, smiling.
"We may as well get to know each other," Jan said. "I'm a friend of Mary's."
"Yessuh," he mumbled.
"First of all," Jan continued, putting his foot upon the running board, "don't say sir to me. I'll call you Bigger and you'll call me Jan. That's the way it'll be between us. How's that?"
Bigger did not answer. Mary was smiling. Jan still gripped his hand and Bigger held his head at an oblique angle, so that he could, by merely shifting his eyes, look at Jan and then out into the street whenever he did not wish to meet Jan's gaze. He heard Mary laughing softly.
"It's all right, Bigger," she said. "Jan means it."
He flushed warm with anger. Goddamn her soul to hell! Was she laughing at him? Were they making fun of him? What was it that they wanted? Why didn't they leave him alone? He was not bothering them. Yes, anything could happen with people like these. His entire mind and body were painfully concentrated into a single sharp point of attention. He was trying desperately to understand. He felt foolish sitting behind the steering wheel like this and letting a white man hold his hand. What would people passing along the street think? He was very conscious of his black skin and there was in him a prodding conviction that Jan and men like him had made it so that he would be conscious of that black skin. Did not white people despise a black skin? Then why was Jan doing this? Why was Mary standing there so eagerly, with shining eyes? What could they I get out of this? Maybe they did not despise him? But they made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin. It was a shadowy region, a No Man's Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon. He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused. At that moment he felt toward Mary and Jan a dumb, cold, and inarticulate hate.
"Let me drive awhile," Jan said, letting go of his hand and opening the door.
Bigger looked at Mary. She came forward and touched his arm.
"It's all right, Bigger," she said.
He turned in the seat to get out, but Jan stopped him.
"No; stay in and move over."
He slid over and Jan took his place at the wheel. He was still feeling his hand strangely; it seemed that the pressure of Jan's fingers had left an indelible imprint. Mary was getting into the front seat, too.
"Move over, Bigger," she said.
He moved closer to Jan. Mary pushed herself in, wedging tightly between him and the outer door of the car. There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls. Never in his life had he been so close to a white woman. He smelt the odor of her hair and felt the soft pressure of her thigh against his own. Jan headed the car back to the Outer Drive, weaving in and out of the line of traffic. Soon they were speeding along the lake front, past a huge flat sheet of dully gleaming water. The sky was heavy with snow clouds and the wind was blowing strong.
"Isn't it glorious tonight?" she asked.
"God, yes!" Jan said.
Bigger listened to the tone of their voices, to their strange accents, to the exuberant phrases that flowed so freely from their lips.
"And that water!"
"It's so beautiful it makes you ache just to look at it," said Mary.
"This is a beautiful world, Bigger," Jan said, turning to him.
"Look at that skyline!"
Bigger looked without turning his head; he just rolled his eyes. Stretching to one side of him was a vast sweep of tall buildings flecked with tiny squares of yellow light.
"We'll own all that someday, Bigger!” Jan said with a wave of his hand. "After the revolution it'll be ours. But we'll have to fight for it. What a world to win, Bigger! And when that day comes, things'll be different. There'll be no white and no black; there'll be no rich and no poor."
Bigger said nothing. The car whirred along.
"We seem strange to you, don't we, Bigger?" Mary asked.
"Oh, no'm," he breathed softly, knowing that she did not believe him, but finding it impossible to answer her in any other way.
His arms and legs were aching from being cramped into so small a space, but he dared not move. He knew that they would not have cared if he had made himself more comfortable, but his moving would have called attention to himself and his black body. And he did not want that. These people
made him feel things he did not want to feel. If he were white, if he were like them, it would have been different. But he was black. So he sat still, his arms and legs aching.
"Say, Bigger," asked Jan, "where can we get a good meal on the South Side?"
"Well," Bigger said, reflectively.
"We want to go to a real place," Mary said, turning to him gaily.
"You want to go to a night club?" Bigger asked in a tone that indicated that he was simply mentioning names and not recommending places to go.
"No; we want to eat."
"Look, Bigger. We want one of those places where colored people eat, not one of those show places."
What did these people want? When he answered his voice was neutral and toneless.
"Well, there's Ernie's Kitchen Shack .…"
"That sounds good!"
"Let's go there, Jan," Mary said.
"O.K.," Jan said. "Where is it?"
"It's at Forty-seventh Street and Indiana," Bigger told them.
Jan swung the car off the Outer Drive at Thirty-first Street and drove westward to Indiana Avenue. Bigger wanted Jan to drive faster, so that they could reach Ernie's Kitchen Shack in the shortest possible time. That would allow him a chance to sit in the car and stretch out his cramped and aching legs while they ate. Jan turned onto Indiana Avenue and headed south. Bigger wondered what Jack and Gus and G.H. would say if they saw him sitting between two white people in a car like this. They would tease him about such a thing as long as they could remember it. He felt Mary turn in her seat. She placed her hand on his arm.
"You know, Bigger, I've long wanted to go into these houses," she said, pointing to the tall, dark apartment buildings looming to either side of them, "and just see how your people live. You know what I mean? I've been to England, France and Mexico, but I don't know how people live ten blocks
from me. We know so little about each other. I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They're human. . . . There are twelve million of them . . . . They live in our country. . . . In the same city with us. . . ." her voice trailed off wistfully.
There was silence. The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life. Bigger knew that they were thinking of his life and the life of his people. Suddenly he wanted to seize some heavy object in his hand and grip it with all the strength of his body and in some strange way rise up and stand in naked space above the speeding car and with one final blow blot it out-- with himself and them in it. His heart was beating fast and he struggled to control his breath. This thing was getting the better of him; he felt that he should not give way to his feelings like this. But he could not help it. Why didn't they leave him alone? What had he done to them? What good could they get out of sitting here making him feel so miserable?
Bigger looked out and saw that they were at Forty-sixth Street.
"It's at the end of the next block, suh."
"Can I park along here somewhere?"
"Bigger, please ! Don't say sir to me. . . . I don't like it. You're a man just like I am; I'm no better than you. Maybe other white men like it . But I don't. Look, Bigger. . . ."
"Yes. . . ." Bigger paused, swallowed, and looked down at his black hands. "O.K.," he mumbled, hoping that they did not hear the choke in his voice.
"You see, Bigger. . . ." Jan began.
Mary reached her hand round back of Bigger and touched Jan's shoulder.
"Let's get out," she said hurriedly.
Jan pulled the car to the curb and opened the door and stepped out. Bigger slipped behind the steering wheel again, glad to have room at last for his arms and legs. Mary got out of the other door.
Now, he could get some rest. So intensely taken up was he with his own immediate sensations, that he did not look up until he felt something strange in the long silence. When he did look he saw, in a split second of time, Mary turn her eyes away from his face. She was looking at Jan and Jan was looking at her. There was no mistaking the meaning of the look in their eyes. To Bigger it was plainly a bewildered and questioning look, a look that asked: What on earth is wrong with him? Bigger's teeth clamped tight and he stared straight before him.
"Aren't you coming with us, Bigger?" Mary asked in a sweet tone that made him want to leap at her.
The people in Ernie's Kitchen Shack knew him and he did not want them to see him with these white people. He knew that if he went in they would ask one another: Who're them white folks Bigger's hanging around with?
"I-I. . . . I don't want to go in. . . ." he whispered breathlessly.
"Aren't you hungry?" Jan asked.
"Naw; I ain't hungry."
Jan and Mary came close to the car.
"Come and sit with us anyhow," Jan said.
"I. . . . I. . . ." Bigger stammered.
"It'll be all right," Mary said.
"I can stay here. Somebody has to watch the car," he said.
"Oh, to hell with the car!" Mary said. "Come on in."
"I don't want to eat," Bigger said stubbornly.
"Well," Jan sighed. "If that's the way you feel about it, we won't go in."
Bigger felt trapped. Oh, Goddamn! He saw in a flash that he could have made all of this very easy if he had simply acted from the beginning as if they were doing nothing unusual. But he did not understand them; he distrusted them, really hated them. He was puzzled as to why they were treating him this way. But, after all, this was his job and it was just as painful to sit here and let them stare at him as it was to go in.
"O.K.," he mumbled angrily.
He got out and slammed the door. Mary came close to him and caught his arm. He stared at her in a long silence; it was the first time he had ever looked directly at her, and he was able to do so only because he was angry.
"Bigger," she said, "you don't have to come in unless you really want to. Please, don't think . . . . Oh, Bigger. . . . We're not trying to make you feel badly. . . ."
Her voice stopped. In the dim light of the street lamp Bigger saw her eyes cloud and her lips tremble. She swayed against the car. He stepped backward, as though she were contaminated with an invisible contagion. Jan slipped his arm about her waist, supporting her. Bigger heard her sob softly. Good God! He had a wild impulse to turn around and walk away. He felt ensnared in a tangle of deep shadows, shadows as black as the night that stretched above his head. The way he had acted had made her cry, and yet the way she had acted had made him feel that he had to act as he had toward her. In his relations with her he felt that he was riding a seesaw; never were they on a common level; either he or she was up in the air. Mary dried her eyes and Jan whispered something to her. Bigger wondered what he could say to his mother, or the relief, or Mr. Dalton, if he left them. They would be sure to ask why he had walked off his job, and he would not be able to tell.
"I'm all right, now, Jan," he heard Mary say. "I'm sorry. I'm just a fool, I suppose. . . . I acted a ninny." She lifted her eyes to Bigger. "Don't mind me, Bigger. I'm just silly, I guess. . . ."
He said nothing.
"Come on, Bigger," Jan said in a voice that sought to cover up everything. "Let's eat."
Jan caught his arm and tried to pull him forward, but Bigger hung back. Jan and Mary walked toward the entrance of the cafe and Bigger followed, confused and resentful. Jan went to a small table near a wall.
Bigger sat. Jan and Mary sat in front of him. "You like fried chicken?" Jan asked.
"Yessuh," he whispered.
He scratched his head. How on earth could he learn not to say yessuh and yessum to white people in one night when he had been saying it all his life long! He looked before him in such a way that his eyes would not meet theirs. The waitress came and Jan ordered three beers and three portions of fried chicken.
He turned and saw Jack waving at him, but staring at Jan and Mary. He waved a stiff palm in return. Goddamn! Jack walked away hurriedly. Cautiously, Bigger looked round; the waitresses and several people at other tables were staring at him. They all knew him and he knew that they were wondering as he would have wondered if he had been in their places. Mary touched his arm.
"Have you ever been here before, Bigger?"
He groped for neutral words, words that would convey information but not indicate any shade of his own feelings.
"A few times."
"It's very nice," Mary said.
Somebody put a nickel in an automatic phonograph and they listened to the music. Then Bigger felt a hand grab his shoulder.
"Hi, Bigger! Where you been?"
He looked up and saw Bessie laughing in his face.
"Hi," he said gruffly.
"Oh, 'scuse me. I didn't know you had company," she said, walking away with her eyes upon Jan and Mary.
"Tell her to come over, Bigger," Mary said.
Bessie had gone to a far table and was sitting with another girl.
"She's over there now," Bigger said.
The waitress brought the beer and chicken.
"This is simply grand!" Mary exclaimed.
"You got something there," Jan said, looking at Bigger. "Did I say that right, Bigger?"
"That's the way they say it," he spoke flatly.
Jan and Mary were eating. Bigger picked up a piece of chicken and bit it. When he tried to chew he found his mouth dry. It seemed that the very organic functions of his body had altered; and
when he realized why, when he understood the cause, he could not chew the food. After two or three bites, he stopped and sipped his beer.
"Eat your chicken," Mary said. "It's good!"
"I ain't hungry," he mumbled.
"Want some more beer?" Jan asked after a long silence.
Maybe if he got a little drunk it would help him.
"I don't mind," he said.
Jan ordered another round.
"Do they keep anything stronger than beer here?" Jan asked. "They got anything you want," Bigger said.
Jan ordered a fifth of rum and poured a round. Bigger felt the liquor warming him. After a second drink Jan began to talk.
"Where were you born, Bigger?"
"In the South."
"How far did you go in school?"
"To the eighth grade."
"Why did you stop?"
"Did you go to school in the North or South?"
"Mostly in the South. I went two years up here."
"How long have you been in Chicago?"
"Oh, about five years."
"You like it here?"
"You live with your people?"
"My mother, brother, and sister."
"Where's your father?"
"How long ago was that?"
"He got killed in a riot when I was a kid-in the South."
There was silence. The rum was helping Bigger.
"And what was done about it?" Jan asked.
"Nothing, far as I know."
"How do you feel about it?"
"I don't know."
"Listen, Bigger, that's what we want to stop. That's what we Communists are fighting. We want to stop people from treating others that way. I'm a member of the Party. Mary sympathizes. Don't you think if we got together we could stop things like that?"
"I don't know," Bigger said; he was feeling the rum rising to his head. "There's a lot of white people in the world."
"You've read about the Scottsboro boys?"
''I heard about 'em."
"Don't you think we did a good job in helping to keep 'em from killing those boys?"
"It was all right."
"You know, Bigger," said Mary, "we'd like to be friends of yours."
He said nothing. He drained his glass and Jan poured another round. He was getting drunk enough to look straight at them now. Mary was smiling at him.
"You'll get used to us," she said.
Jan stoppered the bottle of rum. "We'd better go," he said.
"Yes," Mary said. "Oh, Bigger, I'm going to Detroit at nine in the morning and I want you to take my small trunk down to the station. Tell father and he'll let you make up your time. You better come for the trunk at eight-thirty."
"I'll take it down."
Jan paid the bill and they went back to the car. Bigger got behind the steering wheel. He was feeling good. Jan and Mary got into the back seat. As Bigger drove he saw her resting in Jan's arms.
"Drive around in the park awhile, will you, Bigger?"
He turned into Washington Park and pulled the car slowly round and round the long gradual curves. Now and then he watched Jan kiss Mary in the reflection of the rear mirror above his head.
"You got a girl, Bigger?" Mary asked.
"I got a girl," he said.
"I'd like to meet her some time."
He did not answer. Mary's eyes stared dreamily before her, as if she were planning future things to do. Then she turned to Jan and laid her hand tenderly upon his arm.
"How was the demonstration?"
"Pretty good. But the cops arrested three comrades."
"Who were they?"
"A Y. C. L.-er and two Negro women. Oh, by the way, Mary. We need money for bail badly."
"I'll mail you a check."
"Did you work hard today?"
"Yeah. I was at a meeting until three this morning. Max and I've been trying to raise bail money all day today."
"Max is a darling, isn't he?"
"He's one of the best lawyers we've got."
Bigger listened; he knew that they were talking Communism and he tried to understand. But he couldn't.
"I'm coming out of school this spring and I'm going to join the Party."
"Gee, you're a brick!"
"But I'll have to be careful."
"Say, how's about your working with me, in the office?"
"No, I want to work among Negroes. That's where people are needed. It seems as though they've been pushed out of every thing."
"When I see what they've done to those people, it makes me so mad . . . ."
"Yes; it's awful."
"And I feel so helpless and useless. I want to do something."
"I knew all along you'd come through."
"Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some."
"I don't know any very well. But you'll meet them when you're in the Party."
"They have so much emotion' What a people! If we could ever get them going. . . ."
"We can't have a revolution "Without 'em," Jan said. "They've got to be organized. They've got spirit. They'll give the Party something it needs."
"And their songs-- the spirituals! Aren't they marvelous?" Bigger saw her turn to him. "Say, Bigger, can you sing? "
"I can't sing," he said.
"Aw, Bigger," she said, pouting. She tilted her head, closed her eyes and opened her mouth.
Swing low, sweet
Jan joined in and Bigger smiled derisively. Hell, that ain't the tune, he thought.
"Come on, Bigger, and help us sing it," Jan said.
"I can't sing," he said again.
They were silent. The car purred along. Then he heard Jan speaking in low tones.
"I want a sip."
"I'll take one, too, honey."
"Going heavy tonight, ain't you?"
"About as heavy as you."
They laughed. Bigger drove in silence. He heard the faint, musical gurgle of liquor.
"That was a big sip!"
"Here; you get even."
Through the rear mirror he saw her tilt the bottle and drink. "Maybe Bigger wants another one, Jan. Ask him."
"Oh, say, Bigger! Here; take a swig!"
He slowed the car and reached back for the bottle; he tilted it twice, taking two huge swallows.
"Woooow!" Mary laughed.
"You took a swig, all right," Jan said.
Bigger wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and continued driving slowly through the dark park. Now and then he heard the half-empty bottle of rum gurgling. They getting plastered, he thought, feeling the effect of the rum creeping outward to his fingers and upward to his lips. Presently, he heard Mary giggle. Hell, she's plastered already! The car rolled slowly round and round the sloping curves. The rum's soft heat was spreading fanwise out from his stomach, engulfing his whole body. He was not driving; he was simply sitting and floating along smoothly through darkness. His hands rested lightly on the steering wheel and his body slouched lazily down in the seat. He looked at the mirror; Mary was lying flat on her back in the rear seat and Jan was bent over her. He saw a faint sweep of white thigh. They plastered, all right, he thought. He pulled the car softly round the curves, looking at the road before him one second and up at the mirror the next. He heard Jan whispering; then he heard them both sigh. Filled with a sense of them, his muscles grew gradually taut. He sighed and sat up straight, fighting off the stiffening feeling in his loins. But soon he was slouched again. His lips were numb. I'm almost drunk, he thought. His sense of the city and park fell away; he was floating in the car and Jan and Mary were in back, kissing, spooning. A long time passed. Jan sat up and pulled Mary with him.
"It's one o'clock, honey," Mary said. "I better go in."
"O.K But let's drive a little more. It's great here."
"Father says I'm a bad girl."
"I'm sorry, darling."
"I'll call you in the morning before I go."
"Sure. What time?"
"Gee, but I hate to see you go to Detroit."
"I hate to go too. But I got to. You see, honey, I got to make up for being bad with you down in Florida. I got to do what Mother and Father say for a while."
"I hate to see you go just the same."
"I'll be back in a couple of days."
"A couple of days is a long time."
"You're silly, but you're sweet," she said, laughing and kissing him.
"You better drive on, Bigger," Jan called.
He swung the car out of the park and headed for Forty-sixth Street.
"I'll get out here, Bigger!"
He stopped the car. Bigger heard them speak in whispers.
"I'll call you tomorrow?"
Jan stood at the front door of the car and held out his palm.
Bigger shook timidly.
"It's been great meeting you, Bigger," Jan said.
"O.K ,'' Bigger mumbled.
"I'm damn glad I know you. Look. Have another drink." Bigger took a big swallow.
"You better give me one, too, Jan. It'll make me sleep," Mary said.
"You're sure you haven't had enough "
"Aw, come on, honey."
She got out of the car and stood on the curb. Jan gave her the bottle and she tilted it.
"Whoa!" Jan said.
“What's the matter?"
"I don't want you to pass out."
"I can hold it."
Jan tilted the bottle and emptied it, then laid it in the gutter. He fumbled clumsily in his pockets for something. He swayed; he was drunk.
"You lose something, honey?" Mary lisped; she, too, was drunk.
"Naw; I got some stuff here I want Bigger to read. Listen, Bigger, I got some pamphlets here. I want you to read 'em, see?''
Bigger held out his hand and received a small batch of booklets.
"I really want you to read 'em, now. We'll have a talk 'bout 'em in a coupla days. . . ." His speech was thick.
"I'll read 'em," Bigger said, stifling a yawn and stuffing the booklets into his pocket.
"I'll see that he reads 'em," Mary said.
Jan kissed her again. Bigger heard a Loop-bound car rumbling far down the avenue.
"Well, good-bye," he said.
She got into the front seat. The street car clanged to a stop. Jan swung onto it and it started north. Bigger drove toward Drexel Boulevard. Mary slumped down in the seat and sighed. Her legs sprawled wide apart. The car rolled along. Bigger's head was spin rung.
"You're very nice, Bigger," she said.
He looked at her. Her face was pasty white. Her eyes were glassy. She was very drunk.
"I don't know," he said.
"My! But you say the funniest things,'' she giggled.
"Maybe," he said.
She leaned her head on his shoulder.
"You don't mind, do you?"
"I don't mind."
"You know, for three hours you haven't said yes or no."
She doubled up with laughter. He tightened with hate. Again she was looking inside of him and he did not like it. She sat up and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. He kept his eyes straight in front of him and swung the car into the driveway and brought it to a stop. He got out and opened the door. She did not move. Her eyes were closed.
"We're here," he said.
She tried to get up and slipped back into the seat.
She's drunk, really drunk, Bigger thought. She stretched out her hand.
"Here; gimme a lift. I'm wobbly. . . ."
She was resting on the small of her back and her dress was pulled up so far that he could see where her stockings ended on her thighs. He stood looking at her for a moment; she raised her eyes and looked at him. She laughed.
"Help me, Bigger. I'm stuck."
He helped her and his hands felt the softness of her body as she stepped to the ground. Her dark eyes looked at him feverishly from deep sockets. Her hair was in his face, filling him with its scent. He gritted his teeth, feeling a little dizzy.
"Where's my hat? I dropped it somewhere . . . ."
She swayed as she spoke and he tightened his arms about her, holding her up. He looked round; her hat was lying on the running board.
"Here it is," he said.
As he picked it up he wondered what a white man would think seeing him here with her like this. Suppose old man Dalton saw him now? Apprehensively, he looked up at the big house. It was dark and silent.
"Well," Mary sighed. "I suppose I better go to bed. . . ."
He turned her loose, but had to catch her again to keep her off the pavement. He led her to the steps.
"Can you make it?"
She looked at him as though she had been challenged
"Sure. Turn me loose . . . ."
He took his arm from her and she mounted the steps firmly and then stumbled loudly on the wooden porch. Bigger made a move toward her, but stopped, his hands outstretched, frozen with fear. Good God, she'll wake up everybody! She was half-bent over, resting on one knee and one hand, looking back at him in amused astonishment. That girl's crazy! She pulled up and walked slowly back down the steps, holding onto the railing. She swayed before him, smiling.
"I sure am drunk. . . ."
He watched her with a mingled feeling of helplessness, admiration, and hate. If her father saw him here with her now, his job would be over. But she was beautiful, slender, with an air that made him feel that she did not hate him with the hate of other white people. But, for all of that, she was white and he hated her. She closed her eyes slowly, then opened them; she was trying desperately to take hold of herself. Since she was not able to get to her room alone, ought he to call Mr. Dalton or Peggy? Naw. . . . That would betray her. And, too, in spite of his hate for her, he was excited standing here watching her like this. Her eyes closed again and she swayed toward him. He caught her.
"I'd better help you," he said.
"Let's go the back way, Bigger. I'll stumble sure as hell . . . and wake up everybody . . . if we go up the front. . . ."
Her feet dragged on the concrete as he led her to the basement. He switched on the light, supporting her with his free hand.
"I didn't know I was sho drunk," she mumbled.
He led her slowly up the narrow stairs to the kitchen door, his hand circling her waist and the tips of his fingers feeling the soft swelling of her breasts. Each second she was leaning more heavily against him.
"Try to stand up," he whispered fiercely as they reached the kitchen door.
He was thinking that perhaps Mrs. Dalton was standing in flowing white and staring with stony blind eyes in the middle of the floor, as she had been when he had come for the glass of water. He eased the door back and looked. The kitchen was empty and dark, save for a faint blue hazy light that seeped through a window from the winter sky.
She pulled heavily on him, her arm about his neck. He pushed the door in and took a step inside and stopped, waiting, listening. He felt her hair brush his lips. His skin glowed warm and his muscles flexed; he looked at her face in the dim light, his senses drunk with the odor of her hair and skin. He stood for a moment, then whispered in excitement and fear:
"Come on; you got to get to your room."
He led her out of the kitchen into the hallway; be had to walk her a step at a time. The hall was empty and dark; slowly be half walked and half-dragged her to the back stairs. Again he hated her; be shook her.
"Come on; wake up!"
She did not move or open her eyes; finally she mumbled some thing and swayed limply. His fingers felt the soft curves of her body and he was still, looking at her, enveloped in a sense of physical elation. This little bitch! he thought. Her face was touching his. He turned her round and began to mount the steps, one by one. He heard a slight creaking and stopped. He looked, straining his eyes in the gloom. But there was no one. When he got to the top of the steps she was completely limp and was still trying to mumble some thing. Goddamn! He could move her only by lifting her bodily. He caught her in his arms and carried her down the hall, then paused. Which was her door? Goddamn!
"Where's your room?" he whispered.
She did not answer. Was she completely out? He could not leave her here; if he took his hands from her she would sink to the floor and lie there all night. He shook her hard, speaking as loudly as he dared.
"Where's your room?"
Momentarily, she roused herself and looked at him with blank eyes.
"Where's your room?" he asked again.
She rolled her eyes toward a door. He got her as far as the door and stopped. Was this really her room? Was she too drunk to know? Suppose he opened the door to Mr. and Mrs. Dalton's room? Well, all they could do was fire him. It wasn't his fault that she was drunk. He felt strange, possessed, or as if he were acting upon a stage in front of a crowd of people. Carefully, he freed one hand and turned the knob of the door. He waited; nothing happened. He pushed the door in quietly; the room was dark and silent. He felt along the wall with his fingers for the electric switch and could not find it. He stood, holding her in his arms, fearful, in doubt. His eyes were growing used to the darkness and a little light seeped into the room from the winter sky through a window. At the far end of the room he made out the shadowy form of a white bed. He lifted her and brought her into the room and closed the door softly.
"Here; wake up, now."
He tried to stand her on her feet and found her weak as jelly. He held her in his arms again, listening in the darkness. His senses reeled from the scent of her hair and skin. She was much smaller than Bessie, his girl, but much softer. Her face was buried in his shoulder; his arms tightened about her. Her face turned slowly and he held his face still, waiting for her face to come round, in front of his. Then her head leaned backward, slowly, gently; it was as though she had given up. Her lips, faintly moist in the hazy blue light, were parted and he saw the furtive glints of her white teeth. Her eyes were closed. He stared at her dim face, the forehead capped with curly black hair. He eased his hand, the fingers spread wide, up the center of her back and her face came toward him and her lips touched his, like something he had imagined. He stood her on her feet and she swayed against him. He tightened his arms as his lips pressed tightly against hers and he felt her body moving strongly. The thought and conviction that Jan had had her a lot flashed through his mind. He kissed her again and felt the sharp bones of her hips move in a hard and veritable grind. Her mouth was open and her breath came slow and deep.
He lifted her and laid her on the bed. Something urged him to leave at once, but he leaned over her, excited, looking at her face in the dim light, not wanting to take his hands from her breasts. She tossed and mumbled sleepily. He tightened his fingers on her breasts, kissing her again, feeling her move toward him. He was aware only of her body now; his lips trembled. Then he stiffened. The door behind him had creaked.
He turned and a hysterical terror seized him, as though he were falling from a great height in a dream. A white blur was standing by the door, silent, ghostlike, It filled his eyes and gripped his body. It was Mrs. Dalton. He wanted to knock her out of his way and bolt from the room.
"Mary!" she spoke softly, questioningly.
Bigger held his breath. Mary mumbled again; he bent over her, his fists clenched in fear. He knew that Mrs. Dalton could not see him; but he knew that if Mary spoke she would come to the side of the bed and discover him, touch him. He waited tensely, afraid to move for fear of bumping into something in the dark and betraying his presence.
He felt Mary trying to rise and quickly he pushed her head back to the pillow.
"She must be asleep," Mrs. Dalton mumbled.
He wanted to move from the bed, but was afraid he would stumble over something and Mrs. Dalton would hear him, would know that someone besides Mary was in the room. Frenzy dominated him. He held his hand over her mouth and his head was cocked at an angle that enabled him to see Mary and Mrs. Dalton by merely shifting his eyes. Mary mumbled and tried to rise again. Frantically, he caught a corner of the pillow and brought it to her lips. He had to stop her from mumbling, or he would be caught. Mrs. Dalton was moving slowly toward him and he grew tight and full, as though about to explode. Mary's fingernails tore at his hands and he caught the pillow and covered her entire face with it, firmly. Mary's body surged upward and he pushed downward upon the pillow with all of his weight, determined that she must not move or make any sound that would betray him. His eyes were filled with the white blur moving toward him in the shadows of the room. Again Mary's body heaved and he held the pillow in a grip that took all of his strength. For a long time he felt the sharp pain of her fingernails biting into his wrists. The white blur was still.
"Mary? Is that you?"
He clenched his teeth and held his breath, intimidated to the core by the awesome white blur floating toward him. His muscles flexed taut as steel and he pressed the pillow, feeling the bed give slowly, evenly, but silently. Then suddenly her fingernails did not bite into his wrists. Mary's fingers loosened. He did not feel her surging and heaving against him. Her body was still.
"Mary! Is that you?"
He could see Mrs. Dalton plainly now. As he took his hands from the pillow he heard a long slow sigh go up from the bed into the air of the darkened room, a sigh which afterwards, when he remembered it, seemed final, irrevocable.
"Mary! Are you ill?"
He stood up. With each of her movements toward the bed his body made a movement to match hers, away from her, his feet not lifting themselves from the floor, but sliding softly and silently over the smooth deep rug, his muscles flexed so taut they ached. Mrs. Dalton now stood over the bed. Her hands reached out and touched Mary.
"Mary! Are you asleep? I heard you moving about. . . ."
Mrs. Dalton straightened suddenly and took a quick step back.
"You're dead drunk! You stink with whiskey!"
She stood silently in the hazy blue light, then she knelt at the side of the bed. Bigger heard her whispering. She's praying, he thought in amazement and the words echoed in his mind as though someone had spoken them aloud. Finally, Mrs. Dalton stood lip and her face tilted to that upward angle at which she always held it. He waited, his teeth clamped, his fists clenched. She moved slowly toward the door; he could scarcely see her now. The door creaked; then silence.
He relaxed and sank to the floor, his breath going in a long gasp. He was weak and wet with sweat. He stayed crouched and bent, hearing the sound of his breathing filling the darkness.
Gradually, the intensity of his sensations subsided and he was aware of the room. He felt that he had been in the grip of a weird spell and was now free. The fingertips of his right hand were pressed deeply into the soft fibers of the rug and his whole body vibrated from the wild pounding of his heart. He had to get out of the room, and quickly. Suppose that had been Mr. Dalton? His escape had been narrow enough, as it was.
He stood and listened. Mrs. Dalton might be out there in the hallway. How could he get out of the room? He all but shuddered with the intensity of his loathing for this house and all it had made him feel since he had first come into it. He reached his hand behind him and touched the wall; he was glad to have something solid at his back. He looked at the shadowy bed and remembered Mary as some person he had not seen in a long time. She was still there. Had he hurt her? He went to the bed and stood over her; her face lay side ways on the pillow. His hand moved toward her, but stopped in mid-air. He blinked his eyes and stared at Mary's face; it was darker than when he had first bent over her. Her mouth was open and her eyes bulged glassily. Her bosom, her bosom, her-her bosom was not moving! He could not hear her breath coming and going now as he had when he had first brought her into the room! He bent and moved her head with his hand and found that she was relaxed and limp. He snatched his hand away. Thought and feeling were balked in him; there was something he was trying to tell himself, desperately, but could not. Then, convulsively, he sucked his breath in and huge words formed slowly, ringing in his ears: She's dead. . . .
The reality of the room fell from him; the vast city of white people that sprawled outside took its place. She was dead and he had killed her. He was a murderer, a Negro murderer, a black murderer. He had killed a white woman. He had to get away from here. Mrs. Dalton had been in the room while he was there, but she had not known it. But, had she? No! Yes! Maybe she had gone for help? No. If she had known she would have screamed. She didn't know. He had to slip out of the house. Yes. He could go home to bed and tomorrow he could tell them that he had driven Mary home and had left her at the side door.
In the darkness his fear made live in him an element which he reckoned with as "them." He had to construct a case for "them." But, Jan! Oh. . . . Jan would give him away. When it was found that she was dead Jan would say that he had left them together in the car at Forty-sixth Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. But he would tell them that that was not true. And, after all, was not Jan a Red? Was not his word as good as Jan's? He would say that Jan had come home with them. No one must know that he was the last per son who had been with her.
Fingerprints! He had read about them in magazines. His finger prints would give him away, surely! They could prove that he had been inside of her room! But suppose he told them that he had come to get the trunk? That was it! The trunk! His fingerprints had a right to be here. He looked round and saw her trunk on the other side of the bed, open, the top standing up. He could take the trunk to the basement and put the car into the garage and then go home. No! There was a better way. He would not put the car into the garage! He would say that Jan had come to the house and he had left Jan outside in the car. But there was still a better way! Make them think that Jan did it. Reds'd do anything. Didn't the papers say so? He would tell them that he had brought Jan and Mary home in the car and Mary had asked him to go with her to her room to get the trunk-and Jan was with them!--and he had got the trunk and had taken it to the basement and when he had gone he had left Mary and Jan-- who had come back down-sitting in the car, kissing. . . . That's it!
He heard a clock ticking and searched for it with his eyes; it was at the head of Mary's bed, its white dial glowing in the blue dark ness. It was five minutes past three. Jan had left them at Forty-sixth Street and Cottage Grove. Jan didn't leave at Forty-sixth Street; he rode with us. . . .
He went to the trunk and eased the top down and dragged it over the rug to the middle of the floor. He lifted the top and felt inside; it was half-empty.
Then he was still, barely breathing, filled with another idea. Hadn't Mr. Dalton said that they did not get up early on Sunday mornings? Hadn't Mary said that she was going to Detroit? If Mary were
missing when they got up, would they not think that she had already gone to Detroit? He. . . . Yes! He could, he could put her in the trunk! She was small. Yes; put her in the trunk. She had said that she would be gone for three days. For three days, then, maybe no one would know. He would have three days of time. She was a crazy girl anyhow. She was always running around with Reds, wasn't she? Anything could happen to her. People would think that she was up to some of her crazy ways when they missed her. Yes, Reds'd do anything. Didn't the papers say so?
He went to the bed; he would have to lift her into the trunk. He did not want to touch her, but he knew he had to. He bent over. His hands were outstretched, trembling in mid-air. He had to touch her and lift her and put her in the trunk. He tried to move his hands and could not. It was as though he expected her to scream when he touched her. Goddamn! It all seemed foolish! He wanted to laugh. It was unreal. Like a nightmare. He had to lift a dead woman and was afraid. He felt that he had been dreaming of something like this for a long time, and then, suddenly, it was true. He heard the clock ticking. Time was passing. It would soon be morning. He had to act. He could not stand here all night like this; he might go to the electric chair. He shuddered and something cold crawled over his skin. Goddamn!
He pushed his hand gently under her body and lifted it. He stood with her in his arms; she was limp. He took her to the trunk and involuntarily jerked his head round and saw a white blur standing at the door and his body was instantly wrapped in a sheet of blazing terror and a hard ache seized his head and then the white blur went away. I thought that was her. . . . His heart pounded.
He stood with her body in his arms in the silent room and cold facts battered him like waves sweeping in from the sea: she was dead; she was white; she was a woman; he had killed her; he was black; he might be caught; he did not want to be caught; if he were they would kill him.
He stooped to put her in the trunk. Could he get her in? He looked again toward the door, expecting to see the white blur; but nothing was there. He turned her on her side in his arms; he was
breathing hard and his body trembled. He eased her down, listening to the soft rustle of her clothes. He pushed her head into a corner, but her legs were too long and would not go in.
He thought he heard a noise and straightened; it seemed to him that his breathing was as loud as wind in a storm. He listened and heard nothing. He had to get her legs in! Bend her legs at the knees, he thought. Yes, almost. A little more. . . . He bent them some more. Sweat dripped from his chin onto his hands. He doubled her knees and pushed her completely into the trunk. That
much was done. He eased the top down and fumbled in the darkness for the latch and heard it click loudly.
He stood up and caught hold of one of the handles of the trunk and pulled. The trunk would not move. He was weak and his hands were slippery with sweat. He gritted his teeth and caught the trunk with both hands and pulled it to the door. He opened the door and looked into the hall; it was empty and silent. He stood the trunk on end and carried his right hand over his left shoulder and stooped and caught the strap and lifted the trunk to his back. Now, he would have to stand up. He strained; the muscles of his shoulders and legs quivered with effort. He rose, swaying, biting his lips.
Putting one foot carefully before the other, he went down the hall, down the stairs, then through another hall to the kitchen and paused. His back ached and the strap cut into his palm like fire. The trunk seemed to weigh a ton. He expected the white blur to step before him at any moment and hold out its hand and touch the trunk and demand to know what was in it. He wanted to put the trunk down and rest; but he was afraid that he would not be able to lift it again. He walked across the kitchen floor, down the steps, leaving the kitchen door open behind him. He stood in the darkened basement with the trunk upon his back and listened to the roaring draft of the furnace and saw the coals burning red through the cracks. He stooped, waiting to hear the bottom of the trunk touch the concrete floor. He bent more and rested on one knee. Goddamn! His hand, seared with fire, slipped from the strap and the trunk hit the floor with a loud clatter. He bent forward and squeezed his right hand in his left to still the fiery pain.
He stared at the furnace. He trembled with another idea. He he could, he-- he could put her, he could put her in the furnace. He would burn her! That was the safest thing of all to do. He went to the furnace and opened the door. A huge red bed of coals blazed and quivered with molten fury.
He opened the trunk. She was as he had put her: her head buried in one corner and her knees bent and doubled toward her stomach. He would have to lift her again. He stooped and caught her shoulders and lifted her in his arms. He went to the door of the furnace and paused. The fire seethed. Ought he to put her in head or feet first? Because he was tired and scared, and because her feet were nearer, he pushed her in, feet first. The heat blasted his hands. He had all but her shoulders in. He looked into the furnace; her clothes were ablaze and smoke was filling the interior so that he could scarcely see. The draft roared upward, droning in his ears. He gripped her shoulders and pushed hard, but the body would not go any farther. He tried again, but her head still remained out. Now. . . . Goddamn! He wanted to strike something with his fist. What could he do? He stepped back and looked.
A noise made him whirl; two green burning pools-- pools of accusation and guilt-stared at him from a white blur that sat perched upon the edge of the trunk. His mouth opened in a silent scream and his body became hotly paralyzed. It was the white cat and its round green eyes gazed past him at the white face hanging limply from the fiery furnace door. God! He closed his mouth and swallowed. Should he catch the cat and kill it and put it in the furnace, too? He made a move. The cat stood up; its white fur bristled; its back arched. He tried to grab it and it bounded past him with a long wail of fear and scampered up the steps and through the door and out of sight. Oh! He had left the kitchen door open. That was it. He closed the door and stood again before the furnace, thinking, Cats can't talk. . . .
He got his knife from his pocket and opened it and stood by the furnace, looking at Mary's white throat. Could he do it? He had to. Would there be blood? Oh, Lord! He looked round with a haunted
and pleading look in his eyes. He saw a pile of old newspapers stacked carefully in a corner. He got a thick wad of them and held them under the head. He touched the sharp blade to the throat, just touched it, as if expecting the knife to cut the white flesh of itself, as if he did not have to put pressure behind it. Wistfully, he gazed at the edge of the blade resting on the white skin; the gleaming metal reflected the tremulous fury of the coals. Yes; he had to. Gently, he sawed the blade into the flesh and struck a bone. He gritted his teeth and cut harder. As yet there was no blood anywhere but on the knife. But the bone made it difficult. Sweat crawled down his back. Then blood crept outward in widening circles of pink on the newspapers, spreading quickly now. He whacked at the bone with the knife. The head hung limply on the newspapers, the curly black hair dragging about in blood. He whacked harder, but the head would not come off.
He paused, hysterical. He wanted to run from the basement and go as far as possible from the sight of this bloody throat. But he could not. He must not. He had to burn this girl. With eyes glazed, with nerves tingling with excitement, he looked about the basement. He saw a hatchet. Yes! That would do it. He spread a neat layer of newspapers beneath the head, so that the blood would not drip on the floor. He got the hatchet, held the head at a slanting angle with his left hand and, after pausing in an attitude of prayer, sent the blade of the hatchet into the bone of the throat with all the strength of his body. The head rolled off.
He was not crying, but his lips were trembling and his chest was heaving. He wanted to lie down upon the floor and sleep off the horror of this thing. But he had to get out of here. Quickly, he wrapped the head in the newspapers and used the wad to push the bloody trunk of the body deeper into the furnace. Then he shoved the head in. The hatchet went next.
Would there be coal enough to burn the body? No one would come down here before ten o'clock in the morning, maybe. He looked at his watch. It was four o'clock. He got another piece of paper and wiped his knife with it. He put the paper into the furnace and the knife into his pocket. He pulled the lever and coal rattled against the sides of the tin chute and he saw the whole furnace
blaze and the draft roared still louder. When the body was covered with coal, he pushed the lever back. Now!
He shut the trunk and pushed it into a corner. In the morning he would take it to the station. He looked around to see if he had left anything that would betray him; he saw nothing.
He went out of the back door; a few fine flakes of snow were floating down. It had grown colder. The car was still in the driveway. Yes; he would leave it there.
Jan and Mary were sitting in the car, kissing. They said, Good night, Bigger. . . . And he said, Good night. . . . And he touched his hand to his cap. . . .
As he passed the car he saw that the door was still open. Mary's purse was on the floor. He took it and closed the door. Naw! Leave it open; he opened it and went on down the driveway.
The streets were empty and silent. The wind chilled his wet body. He tucked the purse under his arm and walked. What would happen now? Ought he to run away? He stopped at a street corner and looked into the purse. There was a thick roll of bills; tens and twenties . . . . Good! He would wait until morning to decide what to do. He was tired and sleepy.
He hurried home and ran up the steps and went on tiptoe into the room. His mother and brother and sister breathed regularly in sleep. He began to undress, thinking, I'll tell 'em I left her with Jan in the car after I took the trunk down in the basement. In the morning I'll take the trunk to the station, like she told me. . . .
He felt something heavy sagging in his shirt; it was the gun. He took it out; it was warm and wet. He shoved it under the pillow. They can't say I did it. If they do, they can't prove it.
He eased the covers of the bed back and slipped beneath them and stretched out beside Buddy; in five minutes he was sound asleep.