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Sunday, May 29, 1921
Joe Samuels had decided to quit dreaming. Decided to stop dreaming of leaving Tulsa, of discovering new horizons streaked with magic. Yet here he was lying by the tracks, his head to the ground, listening to the rumblings of the 9:45 preparing to leave, trailing Pullman cars and flat cars loaded with cotton and crude.
Weary, disoriented, Joe needed sleep. He wanted to ride the rails over the Rockies to the Pacific in a sleeper car, cozy, dreamless in an upper bunk. He didn't want to dream of dying. Three nights in a row, he'd had the same dream. A dream that he sensed was something more than a dreama haunting, a premonition, an evil worked by the Devil.
The train whistle squealed: two short bursts, one long. The conductor called, "All aboard." Joe fought the urge to dash forward, jump aboard, and settle in the converted boxcar for Negroes. He'd be thrown off without a ticket. He could hide wedged between animals or crates. But without cash, he'd starve wherever he ended. He'd be forced to wire his father. Forced to admit he couldn't make it on his own.
Joe felt the ground vibrating beneath his fingertips. Steam hissed. The train lurched, picking up speedits headlight glaring, glinting against the steel railsmoving, groaning, journeying on. Then gone. Leaving no trace, no murmur. Only stillness, quiet rails, and humid heat.
Despair washed over him. Joe did and didn't want to be in Tulsa.
He loved Deep Greenwood, the Negro section of Tulsa. Church women testified how Greenwood had risen miraculously out of the dust, how ex-slaves had built a town of telephone poles, electric lights,and a Booker T. Washington High School.
"In America, there's no better place than Greenwood to be a Negro," his father always said. "No better place to be a Samuels." Property and wealth. Joe, the youngest son. Born a bit too brown for his mother's taste; too lazy for his father's. But always, in Greenwood, he was the banker's son.
In Tulsa, he was just another nigger. A two-bit shoeshine.
Joe imagined himself riding the rails to the ocean. Then he'd leap, manacled, off the Golden Gate Bridge, just like Houdini had. He'd surface, hands freed, to champagne and cheering.
In a year of shining shoes, Joe had saved two hundred dollars. Another year, he'd have four hundred. Another year, his father might understand why he wanted to go. Might even wish him well. In another year, Joe might be able to say good-bye to his sister Hildy. To Lying Man. His brother's grave. He might understand why, in a place he loved so much, he felt like he was dying.
He was afraid of going home to bed, of being haunted by his nightmare. He'd give up all his imaginings, his longing to leave Tulsa, if only his nightmare would stop. He'd vow never to dream again. He'd be grateful for living in Tulsa.
Lifting his head, Joe thought he heard Lying Man's harmonica:
How long the train's been gone?
Baby, how long? How long?
Reluctant, Joe stood, humming the tune. Negro curfew was ten o'clock. He passed the ticket window. The clerk hollered, "Best hurry home, boy. Else you'll catch it."
"Boy!" the ruddy man leaned out the window. Joe held his breath. The clerk's bald head caught the light. "Do that trick again."
"Yes, mister." Retracing his steps, Joe pulled a coin from his pocket. It flipped in and out between his knuckles, picking up speed, a thin ribbon of silver diving, weaving in and out across his dark fingers, until it disappeared.
"I'll be damned."
The station clock read 9:55.
Joe murmured, "Got to hurry, mister," and turned onto First Street. Glancing in the windows of the Pig's Ear Diner, he saw deputies still drinking coffee. He ought to make it.
A crowd was leaving the Opera House: women draped in silk and fox stoles; men, in top hats and tails. Joe avoided them, studying the pavement's crackshe was still in Tulsa, not Greenwood.
Walking briskly, Joe turned into Courthouse Square. It was faster cutting across the park. Bluegrass cushioned his feet; oaks arched overhead. On the left was the Ambrose Building, where he worked, and the Henly Hotel. On the right was the Courthouse and the city's pridea seven-story, steel and brick "inescapable" jail. Joe bet it couldn't hold Houdini. They could handcuff Houdini, lock and chain him in a darkened cell, and he'd still escape.
He headed northeast for another mile. Greenwood and Archer divided Tulsa like a cross. Bawdy houses, juke joints, and gambling dens flourished in back alleys.
Joe stepped onto the northeast curb; he was safe. Home. In Deep Greenwood. But he didn't feel any ease. He turned onto Elgin where, in daylight, children tossed balls, skinned their knees, and climbed trees. Atop the hill, in front of him, he could see Mt. Zion's steeple outlined against the sky. Street lamps cast gnarled shadows. Joe hesitated, feeling dread as he remembered his nightmare. His home, the entire street bursting into flames.
"Evening, Joe," voices called from the enclosed porches. Shrill and bass voices blended with evening sounds: trilling crickets, a hiccuping baby, frenzied moths batting at screens. Joe couldn't see faces. He didn't need to, for he knew everyone, who lived where.
"Yes, Mrs. Jackson."
"A bit late, aren't you, Joe?" asked Abe, a sweeper at McNulty's Baseball Park.
"Visiting a girl?" asked Miss Wright, his third-grade teacher, now blind as a newborn.
"No, Miss Wright."
Joe exhaled, feeling his spirits lift. Deep Greenwood. Tulsa's darker cousin. A black small town within the white city.
What was it that salesman had said? Joe had been buffing the final polish when the freckle-faced man, pleased with his day's sales of aluminum pots, dish rags, and lye, crowed to his companion, "I'd live in Greenwood myself, if there weren't so many niggers."
Joe slipped through the back door of his house, tiptoed through the parlor.
He wouldn't dream. "Everything is a matter of will," Houdini had said. He'd read it in a magazine. Staring at Houdini's eyes, brows arched, pinpricks of light trapped in his irises, Joe had felt magic stir inside him. He could be more than Tulsa's nigger, more than the banker's son.
A light was on in the kitchen. Hildy was probably reading her Bible and making biscuits. He climbed the stairs to his attic bedroom, stripped his clothes, and crawled into bed.
Handcuffs held him. Not regulation cuffs but metal of some private design with double bolts and a strange inflexible spring. Joe could feel fear tricking him, causing his heart to contract, telling him it couldn't be donethat he couldn't escape.
"Who do you think you are?"
Joe bit the thin skin inside his mouth, tasting blood, feeling pain rush behind his eyes. It was all a matter of will. Pain lessened fear. All he had to do was let himself relax, detach himself from the panic of feeling cold metal twisting his arms back in their sockets. The trick was to feel the steel's special grace. Not to be afraid of stillness, of wrists trapped in polished bands. He stretched his fingers, long and dark, arcing them as though he were about to sound a chord on ivory keys. Then, he sighed, clasping his palms (fingers alternating) in a gentle embrace.
"Who do you think you are?"
His street was deserted. Shutters closed; screen doors locked. No one could save him.
The sun scorched his neck as he tried to force back sweat running from beneath his arms, along his bare waist, and down to his penis, which hung limp, as shriveled as the bulls' balls hauled from the slaughter.
It was all in how you relaxed. Just as he tried to relax nowto detach himself from the band of white-robed ghosts circling him, humming disjointed campfire tunes, sparking high-pitched laughter while drinking from bottles of rye. Joe noted how their pointed leather boots kicked up dust, dirtying the edges of their gowns. Cowboys still, every one.
"Nigger, who do you think you are?"
Joe blinked. He was as bare and vulnerable as the day he was born.
"Who do you think you are?"
Joseph Samuels born of Douglass and Ruth. An uncherished son.
A hood covered the man's face. When a breeze lifted the cotton, Joe could see blunted roots from the man's morning shave. He smelled a licorice-scented pomade. But it was the eyesHarry Houdini eyeswide, focused, and gray, staring deep into his soul that unnerved him.
"Who do you think you are, boy?"
Joe longed to disappear magically, to confound everyone and have them pay due reverence. He was extraordinary, special. But, today, he'd settle for a simple escape from metal.