Read an Excerpt
The Man Who Cried I Am
By John A. Williams
The Overlook PressCopyright © 1967 John A. Williams
All rights reserved.
It was a late afternoon in the middle of May and Max Reddick was sitting in an outdoor cafe on the Leidseplein toying with a Pernod. The factories and shops were closing and traffic streamed from Leidsestraat onto the Plein. There were many bicycle riders. Through eyes that had been half glazed over for several days with alcohol, Librium and morphine, Max looked appreciatively at the female cyclists. The men were so average. He quickly dismissed them. The girls were something else again, big-legged and big-buttocked. (Very much like African women, Max thought.) They pedaled past, their chins held high, their knees promising for fractions of seconds only, a flash of white above the stockingtops and then, the view imminent, the knees rushed up and obscured all view. Once in a while Max would see a girl pedaling saucily, not caring if her knees blocked out the sights above or not. Max would think: Go, baby!
The cafe was empty. That was a good sign. It meant that the people Max used to know in Amsterdam, the painters, writers and sculptors, the composers and song-and-dance men who were the year-round Black Peters for the Dutch, the jazzmen, were working well. They would be out later and drink Genever or beer until they became high, wanted to talk about their work or go make love. Maybe they would go up to the Kring, if they were members or honored guests, and play four-ball billiards while eating fresh herring. It was time for the fresh herring, the green herring.
Max glanced at the sky. God! he thought. It was like a clear high-noon sky in New York. No night would appear here until nine, but daybreak would come galloping up at close to three in the morning. He finished his Pernod and twisted to find the waiter, raising his hand at the same time. He felt something squish as he moved, and the meaning of the feeling caught at his voice. "Ober," he said, then more loudly, "Ober." The waiter, clad in a red jacket, black tie and black pants looked up with a smile. This was a new face, a new American. A little older than many others, and a sick look about him at that! Painter, writer, sculptor, jazz musician, dancer ...?
"Pernod," Max said. The waiter nodded and retreated to the bar. Max felt a sharp, gouging pain and he gripped his glass tightly. Water came to his eyes and he felt sweat pop out on his forehead. "Goddamn," he whispered. When the pain subsided, he rose and went to the men's room inside the cafe.
When he came out he noticed that the fresh Pernod was already on his table and he said "Dank U" to the waiter. That phrase he remembered, as he remembered others in French, German, Spanish, Italian, but he could barely put a sentence together in them. He sat down again, glancing at his watch. Where was she?
She had told him in their exchange of polite letters that she had returned to the gallery. If that was so, she should be passing the cafe at any moment, passing with that long, springy stride, so strange because she was small and not thin, passing with her hair billowing back over her shoulders. He had seen her pass many, many times. Before. Before, when he had sat deep inside the cafe watching, and would only call to her when she was almost out of sight. "Lost your cool then, man," he now whispered to himself. "You ba-lew it!" He always thought of the canals when he thought of her. Now they would be reflecting with aching clarity the marvelous painter's sky. The barges and boats would be on the way in, and soon the ducks and swans would be tucking their necks in to sleep. He had to sleep soon, too; it might prolong his life. A few days more.
Ah yes, he thought, you Dutch motherfuckers. I've returned. "A Dutch man o' warre that sold us twenty negars," John Rolfe wrote, Well, you-all, I bring myself. Free! Three hundred and forty-five years after Jamestown. Now ... how's that for the circle come full?
He did not really care about the Dutch except that she was Dutch. She was thirty-five now, fourteen years younger than he. Would she still be as blond? (How he had hated that robust blondness at first after the malnourished black of Africa. The blondness had been so much like that of the Swedish blondes, jazz freaks who lived on jazz concerts, who saw the black musicians in their staged cool postures; but how he had been attracted to it as well!) Did he love her still — billowing blond hair; sturdy swimmer's legs; long, sinewy stride on such a small body and all? (And all? What was all? A memory. Nineteen years old.) He supposed he did love her, transposed, a bit bleached out, in a clinical way, the way you'd discuss it in an analyst's office. Anal, he thought, list. Shit list. Man, am I on that! But he did want to tell her he was sorry; tell her why it hadn't worked. He was glad he was still on his feet and able to move about. If he had stayed in the hospital in New York, it would have happened, his dying, and somehow she would have learned about it. No. Stand on two feet and tell her you had her mixed up with someone who happened nineteen years ago.
No pity. Didn't want that. Perhaps by that time, back in New York, he would have had it, and taken to the winds to watch her and try to comfort her when she cried. She would cry. He would have — you are drunk, he told himself, signaling for another drink.
The first time in his life he had ever had Pernod was in a bedbug-ridden flat in the East Village between Christmas and New Year's. The East Village was just the East Side then. He had drunk it straight and had crossed the street to a party where a painter with a penchant for teen-agers was displaying portraits of rhinoceroses with the words MAU MAU stitched between their legs. As far as Max knew, the painter was still doing rhinoceroses, marrying young girls or knocking them up and leaving them. When last heard from he was doing a trumpet solo in an Athens nightclub — "Saints" — which was the only number he knew, and the Greeks loved him because he was black, because he skipped and danced when he blew, and because he always reminded them of the spring festival when they put on blackface and roamed the streets drunk. There was no more screwing atop the hills in celebration of Oestra. Now the Greeks did it in bed, just like everybody else, nearly. Maybe Max hated that painter so much for so long, not because he was a phony, but because, when he went home that night from the East Village, he felt as though he had a steel-jacketed slug between his eyes. After some time at home, his phone had rung. It was the girl who had sent him fleeing into the streets to get drunk. But everything was all right, after that call. Pernod. What could he associate Scotch with? Bourbon? Gin? Cognac? Beer? There was always something.
Where is she? He would hate to go to her house, but he would if he had to. Maybe he shouldn't have come. Maybe he should have gone right back out to Orly and returned to the hospital in New York. Comfort at least. But he was here and he hadn't been any drunker than usual when he decided to come by train. There were only three places to go after Harry Ames dropped dead — another section of Paris, New York or Amsterdam. Hell, he planned to go to Amsterdam anyway. Who was he shucking, himself, now? It really hurt to think of old Harry going like that. He should have been drunk and stroking and grinding and talking trash in some broad's ear. He always said he wanted to go like that.
Then he thought he saw her and he came half out of his chair, but it was someone else. He sat down slowly. How would it go anyway? She would be walking with that stride that made her seem even smaller, it was so long. He would call out. She would stop, for his voice would be the most familiar of all voices. Unbelievingly she would come near the table. He would not rise, merely sit there and motion to a chair with a smile on his face. (Haw! Haw! Surprise, surprise!) He would have a drink in his hand, perhaps even the one he was holding.
The stride was not the same: he fitted it into the one he remembered watching in Holland, Spain, France, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Manhattan, East Hampton, Vermont, Mexico ... There was something sad about her stride now. The heels of her shoes still rapped sharply on the pavement and the face, that small face with the cheekbones riding high along the sides, was still ready for the smile, the bright, lyrical "Daaag!" And that wise body, curving with motion. Her hair was darker, yes, like gold left too long in the open.
"Margrit! [Lillian!] Margrit! [Lillian!] Margrit! [Lillian!]," he shouted, coming out of his chair like a shot, the pain grabbing deeply at his rectum, and he was halfway across the street, all the while fighting the urge to grab himself, tear himself inside out.
And she stopped. Her mouth sprang open. Her dark blue eyes went bulging. With the deepest part of the eye he saw her start impulsively toward him, but she caught herself and stood waving as a leaf in some slight, capricious wind. He stopped too, out of pain and uncertainty; he had blown his lines again. But when he stopped she moved forward. On she came, the bright face ready to brighten even more, the stride now full, heel-rapping, confident. He stood waving, surprised at his own lack of cool, aghast at the waterfall of love he had thought dammed.
"Mox, Mox, it is you?" she said.
That goddamn broad A, he thought, but he said, "Yes." His arms trembled at his sides. Should he open them and put them around her? Should he simply stand and wait, then wilt when she placed hers around him? Signals. As she approached, her right hand darted out before her, thumb extended ludicrously in the air. Resigned, he took it, shook it gently and placed his left hand over hers. He led her to the table. "Please sit." It pained him to look at her figure. She wore a blue sweater which, no matter how loose it might have been, would have shown her breasts to tender and exciting advantage; they were always so white and fragile, so vulnerable. Her hips were fuller now. Time does do its work. And her swimmer's legs, big-calved and just short of being too heavily ankled, still made him itch to stroke them from top to —
He looked into Margrit's clear blue eyes. He moved his hand up her arm. Quite suddenly his eyes grew wet with remembering and even as he turned his head to fake a cough, he knew that the Pernod had helped to bring the tears on. "Whiskey," Max said to the waiter, who was watching them. Give her something quick, Max thought, before she starts remembering and runs away. Remembers the bad things.
But she was remembering some things already. She looked at him directly, head on, unblinking, without fear or remorse or pity — without, goddamn it, he thought, anything. But hell, he had never been able to decipher her looks, not once except when she cried. God, make me sober — no drunker. "... and another Pernod," he called, fingering with surprise the half-full glass already in his hand. He took a deep breath and fought down a rising pain. "How are you?" he said.
"Okay, Mox. You? Hi."
"Fine. Okay. Hi yourself."
"When did you come?"
"Today. About three hours ago."
"Are you well?"
"I — never better." He patted her hand.
"You look sick." She smiled her thanks at the waiter who placed the drinks before them.
"No. Just tired. Took the train from Paris."
"Paris? Harry died, didn't he? It was in De Arbeiderspers and Het Parool and some other papers. Were you there?"
Max smiled. The Europeans. The goddamn Europeans with their Black Peters and Black Madonnas and blackface celebrations. Five hundred years of guilt transposed into something like vague concern for anyone with a black skin. But Harry was loved more in Europe — and hated too — but not more than back home. There was some kind of balance here that the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times and the "Skibbidum Times" could never have when it came to Harry Ames. He spoke: "I was just a bit too late. We were to have drinks that day —"
"Oh, Mox, it must have been awful for you."
He felt angry. "Hell, it was all right! Harry was my friend, like a brother. But he had to go. We all have to go. He went quick. Didn't hurt at all. I'm all right. You know me."
Margrit bent her head and studied her Scotch. It was a very expensive alcohol. Genever would have been all right for her, even though in New York she had come to like Scotch. Yes, she knew. Harry's death had hurt Max. There was a time when he never admitted anything, but then, she thought, there was another time when he did. She stole a look at him. Yes, he was still handsome. He was graying evenly through his hair and moustache, but the lines in his square face had deepened, as if cut by a tired sculptor creating a hardness to offset the wide, soft eyes. But the eyes (how that soft look had deceived her!) were red, the almost amber-colored pupils diffused as though in the process of melting. He isn't well! she thought with a shock. "How long are you here?"
Max drank from the unfinished Pernod and then sipped from the other. "Not long. I wanted to tell you something, Margrit. Margrit, baby, I have news for you!"
His voice had risen and gone spinning loudly into space. She looked at him with cautious eyes. She knew the waiter and bartender and the customers who were coming in now were used to Neger uitbundigheid, Negro exuberance; they smiled at it. It was the image they had.
"What is your news, Mox?" Margrit was suddenly irritated. She and Max had spent so much time talking about images. "Is it good news? You have come all this way to tell me?" She smiled thinly. "Are you to be married?"
He rose and touched her shoulder. Automatically she lent support to his unsteady fingers. "Will you wait until I return? I have to pee." He giggled. She smiled. But as soon as he had left her, she turned to watch him. Something was the matter.
Max wavered to the men's room again. A vicious cycle. If he didn't drink, he wouldn't have to urinate. To urinate was to suffer the most intense pain. But, if he didn't drink he would have to take either the pills or the morphine tucked into the pouch of the jock strap he was wearing. He had thrown the cup away. The morphine got the pain right by the balls he thought, with a weak chuckle, but it didn't let him operate the way he had to during the day. But then the pain was growing every day. It gripped him at the most inopportune moments and left him breathless, weak, and with his eyes watering. Jesus Christ! he moaned, leaning against a wall which for a few seconds seemed to have vanished altogether. Did Herod ever have it so bad? He pushed himself away from the wall and went into one of the stalls. Clean. At least the Dutch wouldn't give him as many germs as the French. He took out the cotton and looked at it. It was soaked through with dark red blood. Almost came through that time, he thought, and pulled a roll of fresh cotton from his pocket and tore off a piece. This he pushed gently into place. While sitting, he pulled at the jock strap and looked at the plastic five-cc syringe and at the morphine itself. He felt his breast pocket to see if the needle was still there. Not now, later. The pain subsided.
He returned to the table and without looking at her said, "Margrit, I'm sorry. Easy to say. Said it before, but believe me, I am sorry. Late, I know. Don't want anything. I can't want anything, not even you again. I just wanted to see you and say that."
"Well ..." She wanted to say that it was all right, but she knew it wasn't and he knew it too. Then she wanted to reach across the table and slap him as hard as she could. Sorry! But the black Americans were all the same: they walked away from things mumbling, "Sorry." Sorry! After a moment, the bitterness ebbed. "But you look tired. Maybe you should get some rest. If you like, we can talk later [more sorry!]. Where are you staying?"
Come full circle on the Dutch, he was thinking as she spoke. He knew he was giving her answers. ("Yes, a little tired. Don't know where I'll be staying. Maybe the American. Do it up right. Last trip, Ducks, ho?")
"One more drink," he said aloud. "Then I'll get my bag and go to the hotel. If you have dinner with me. In that corner. You know." He rushed on, not wanting her to decline. "You know where we sat for four hours just watching people pass ..."
Margrit thought, Yes, I know, I remember, I remember, and the waiters trying to rush us, and it seemed as if the sun would never come down.
"... and maybe after dinner we can find Roger and some of the other guys. How are they doing? Do you see them often?" He paused. He didn't give a damn about Roger or the others. It was too late. "Will you, will you have dinner?"
"No more drinks then," she said.
"All right." He breathed deeply in relief.
"I will get your bag," she said.
"No you won't," he said. Then with sudden vehemence he said, "Will you stop doing things for me!"
Excerpted from The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams. Copyright © 1967 John A. Williams. Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
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