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The Angry Ones
By John A. Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 John A. Williams
All rights reserved.
It was hot in Philadelphia where Andy had let me off. I had called a cab and now I stood waiting for it on the curb in front of the dirty little Christian Street "Y."
Talk about a helluva trip. Andy, another guy beaten by the Coast, was returning to Washington where he would go back to hacking, pimping and playing soprano sax in a combo. I'd met him in the Pigalle in Los Angeles — not so sunny L.A., as far as we were concerned. Andy used to sit in a corner when he wasn't playing; he sat and looked and smoked. We got along because I didn't have much to say either. Anyway, when he decided to make it back East, I was ready, especially since it was going to be an inexpensive trip.
I had gone west to visit my folks in Honolulu. They'd hit the numbers big after years of scuffling and saving, and had left the States. They never said why, but in my way I found out. When I left them I stopped in L.A. to visit my brother, Dave. He was four years younger than I. A good looking guy, he was, and his cheeks still had a youthful fat to them, so that they ran to dimples when he smiled. He had nice eyes, clear, warm and kind they looked sturdy and confident in that vibrant brown face. Dave stood a little under six feet, but he seemed smaller because he was a solid mass of muscle. You saw, when he walked, moving his shoulders easily, that he was trying to minimize the impression he gave of having great power. Sometimes, when I saw him coming up the walk where I shared his apartment, I could only think of him in comparison to the sad-faced kid left years back in a cart, and I would think in awe, Damn!
Dave went to school nights and worked days, making up for the time he'd lost in Korea. He was lucky; Grant, our brother, had not been so lucky. He was with the goddam Marines when they got their asses shot off, also in Korea.
Dave helped me through some rough spots. California, I found, could be as bad as Mississippi if you were black and looking for work in publicity — my field. At one point I took a job as a butler in Beverly Hills. I also collected bills, or tried to, and I got sucked in on a puff-sheet advertising racket, but fortunately only the publisher was picked up by the Fuzz. Things got even worse and I went more than 200 days without employment — I counted every damned one of them — and the day I did, I went for the Seconol, but I woke up anyway, hung as hell, but alive.
So I left Dave, the kid brother, feeling pretty ashamed of the times I'd beat his head in and sent him home when we were kids. And more than that feeling badly — too late of course — about not being with Dave more when we were all young. Dad, then, was out a lot of the time, making his money where and how he could. Grant got by on my father's affection for him and Dave was loved very much as the baby, but it was always me he wanted to be with.
You remember this when you stand on the same plateau, having arrived there only heaven knows how. And on that plateau you talk about jazz, women, the folks and The Problem. As I was saying good-bye to Dave, in the threatening heat of the night, I knew that I should have given more. But it was done; I could only be — as I was — sorry.
Andy and I left then, swung easily into the purple night beyond Pasadena, and before long edged into the packed heat of the desert. Just for kicks we got one of those canvas water bags to dangle from the radiator. They're like overseas campaign ribbons. When you see a car with one you know it has come a long, long way. We had a taste of bourbon with us; we nipped it as we tore along. I didn't drink too much of the stuff — it makes me feel like God when I'm driving. Two shifts and we hit Arizona in the morning. Later in the day it was Flagstaff, where they wouldn't serve us beer. We had to go across the tracks where the Indians and Negroes drank together in sullen silence. We left Flagstaff in a hurry.
Then we hit Tucumcari, almost without knowing it, and shot across the Panhandle in the middle of the night. It was hot and on either side of the car tall grasses trembled at the rush of hot metal. Occasionally a hulking jack rabbit, yellow eyes gleaming, darted across the road and vanished. The Ford hummed along on the black ribbons of road at eighty.
You remember a lot of things about a trip across America. You remember the sandstone rocks reared above red and brown plains, the twisted, fiercely shaped arroyos. You remember the way the Ford thrusts you back in your seat when you kick it in for passing, and you recall the squat and stately way the Cadillac moves even at 100 m.p.h. And the monstrous trucks you remember, sweeping from behind you with a rush and rattle, pulling around in and front, taillights growing dimmer, dimmer, and gone. And the Ozarks, they were beautiful.
Jefferson City was our first overnight stop and we put up at a loathsome, crawling Negro hotel, just at the foot of Lincoln University. We woke exhausted the next morning; we'd been fighting crawling and flying things all night.
Then we tried to get breakfast in a white restaurant, but they wouldn't serve us. We almost didn't leave Jefferson City because Andy, shouting something about a quarter of a pound of lead in his ass from the war, started over the counter and I had to pull him back. When we got to Wichita, we hunted until we found the Negro neighborhood and wound up at an elderly woman's home for fried chicken, bacon, eggs and a smattering of the Gospel according to St. John.
Finally, Andy and I grinned with relief across the table in a Massilon, Ohio, diner where we ate well for only the second time in two thousand miles of traveling. Then we were on the chain of thruways, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On the Pennsy, we kept pace with a car in which two girls sat nude. They were very friendly, but they didn't stop. They only waved and smiled and taunted us by slowing, if they got ahead, or speeding up if we caught them. We got off on the Philadelphia approaches and Andy dropped me at the "Y." He went on to Washington.
So I stood on the curb sweating. It was damned hot. The shower I'd taken fifteen minutes before wasn't going to be effective for long. The cab came and I lugged my stuff into it. We shot through Philly making it for the uptown bus station. The bus drove up as I got out of the cab and I ran inside to get a ticket. The clerk saw me and yelled over the loudspeaker to the driver, "One for New York — hold it!"
I ran back outside. The typewriter case came open as I climbed into the bus and I said a prayer: "God damn it!" I closed the case and stumbled up the aisle and took a seat. The bus started. After I caught my breath in the stifling heat, I hoisted the bag up on the rack and placed the typewriter in my lap. I opened my window, then looked around at the passengers.
There was a pleasant-faced salesman who looked ready to break into a pink, confident smile. A student, neat in his chinos and fresh shirt, was reading Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon; I could see this by the cover of his book. A stylishly dressed, middle-aged woman announced to her companion that she was tired of traveling by train and plane, and thought a bus trip would be nice for a change. A young woman tried to silence her loudly questioning child while a has-been sharpie wearing an outdated, wide-brimmed hat looked indulgently on. There were two soldiers and a sailor who got together and talked their particular language of barracks, leaves, liberties, sergeants, officers, women and ports of call. They drank while they talked.
A couple of carefully made up young women were figuring the best way to get from the 34th Street Station up to Times Square, and an expert driver, I gathered from his conversation, sat right behind the driver and talked about traffic and speed and the most gruesome accidents he'd seen on the road.
I shut out the sound of the voices and began to think of myself. One more hour and I'd be back in it, the peculiar American rat race, plus. I had that flash of fear which comes when I think of what I might be in another ten years. I wondered how many of the years gone by I'd wasted; I'd always been conscious of time and how fast it could go. It seemed I'd done everything I should have, but I was still running, feeling that oblique hunger for a thing I didn't even know.
I had had it all planned. My dreams, the things I'd been working for, were to pay off in another five years. They were not elaborate dreams; I'd have a job I liked, and I'd grow in it, have security in it and be able to do other things when I had time. It was in essence quite a simple dream. There are in America many people for whom work they desire is achieved as a matter of course. They don't have to dream about it. But I had some doubts my dreams would come off. Still, dreams can be either the best or worst things in the world to have. You're walking around dead if you don't dream.
I shifted in my seat. As the sports announcers say when the score is tied, "It's a new ball game," and it was. Starting time: twenty minutes. Twenty minutes — and if I didn't get a job in New York? I tried not to think of it. Don't think JOB, don't think it. Avoid it as an evil omen. Say it! I turned to look out the window. Say it! my mind shouted, JOB, J-O-B, Job. All right, Job. I'll get a job. Funny, other questions didn't bother me once I handled that one.
My family. My parents. There was a long line of us Hollands and Hills. If you wanted to, you could trace us from the Ivory Coast Baule to the Onondaga in upper New York. You could chart our course two ways from Africa — the early stage across the East, over the Aleutians, across the plains and mountains of the American West to New York. The late stage is easy — the sixteen-twenties, courtesy of the British, French, Portuguese, Danish or American slave ships to Jamestown or Charleston and down to Mississippi. And in all those years and through all that misery, adventure, life and death, I was the first to receive the skin with the college stamp on it. There are reasons, of course, why it had not happened in our family before. That is not my point. What is, is that it happened to me after generations of hoping and praying and working and groveling; it came to me for all of us. Yes, for even the first, whose captain, caught in the approaching winter storms, unceremoniously dumped his black cargo at Charlestown since he could not make New York port.
So my parents and each of those bearing a relationship to the family expected a great deal from me, for had we not been taught that education would make us free? And because of that belief, my parents, especially, tolerated what I thought they considered odd behavior: my drinking, which though moderate, was to them excessive because they didn't really drink; and the women, up until Grace and then after her.
I would cut my tongue off before I would tell them the sheepskins they wanted in their family were not worth a damn. Not for any of us; not for me, because it was only playing at a game allowing us to have it. But to give my parents due credit, I believe they were aware that conditions had changed — that getting a good slice of education these days in no way assured a life of comparative ease. But if they failed to believe what they had taught us — Grant, Dave, and myself — what could they believe? Like many of us, they clung to truth turned not to lie incarnate, but to untruth. I think too, in their slow, methodical reasoning, each clutched a bundle to the heart, for they had wanted so much for me, which was them, in a time when hoping had not a clear relationship to reality.
But they were for me one hundred per cent. In the long run of averages, I suppose, guys like me always have good people, and in the end it doesn't matter that they don't believe with you if they believe in you. You come home drunk or sullen or raging with your frustrations, ready to tear the place up, collapse in it, and somehow they know you're mixed up and they're kind to you at the right times, strong with you at the right times. They do almost everything right with you, even expressing a clumsy kind of faith for you when you've run all out of it. And with all this behind you, unspoken but as present as the oxygen you breath, you have, quite simply, another fardel to haul.
I had thought when they hit the numbers, packed and got the hell out of the States, some of the pressure would be off, but it wasn't. They never said it, not once, but I knew I couldn't let them down nor myself. I remember the afternoon my father picked up the numbers money and came home. He never had much to say, but when he did, people moved. We were at dinner, the money in crisp new fifties neatly stacked beside his plate. We all looked at the money, of course, but said nothing. Finally he said to my mother, "Let's get the hell out of here."
It was the only time in my life I'd heard him curse. He didn't apologize; she said yes, and Grant, Dave and myself were busy peeking for the first time at his newly disclosed hatred of America.
So the ball was left with me, the Number One son. I couldn't let them down. I'd let them down once. I never told them. Even if I knew how, I wouldn't have. It was during the war, that crazy, useless war in Italy where the brass had sent a couple of million men as a compromise to Churchill's "Soft Underbelly of Europe" invasion plan. I'd always wanted to be as big a man as my father. He'd been in the 369th in France during World War I. He got a chestful of medals from the French and a very bad time from old Uncle Sam.
I was on the line Christmas Day, 1944, with the 92nd Division or what passed for it. You know the 92nd — it was one of the two all-Negro combat divisions in the war. We had had some things on the way up and I was beginning to feel like a real infantryman, but on Christmas Day, when the Germans came out of those holes, ripped off the sky and dropped it, hot, smoking and screaming at us, then launched a heavy breakthrough, I bugged out. I wasn't alone, but I bugged, and that was something I couldn't tell the folks; there aren't any cowards in our family.
The heat in the bus made me sleepy and I dozed off. I came back to life as the Empire State Building hove into view above Jersey marshland. We drove into the tunnel and when we came up we were in the sweltering city and my twenty minutes were up.
Getting off the bus, I walked to the 34th Street side of the station and got a cab. We drove to a hotel on 42nd Street. When we got there, a young bellboy hopped over to take my bag. It almost pulled his shoulder blades out. He gave me a sheepish grin and went for a hand cart. Up in the room, I tipped him and mumbled something about a drink. He told me I had to wear a tie in the lounge, so I slipped one on and went down.
The Yankees were playing the White Sox at the Stadium, and everyone in the room, their faces uplifted as wilting white mums seeking sun, watched the television set above the bar. It was a stupid scene, that, but I had nothing better to do and I joined them, sipping the drink I'd ordered. Yogi Berra belted one into the stands and, ridding himself of his surprised look, began to jog around the bases as the bar filled with Mel Allen's "It's in there! Now, how about that!"
The images on the screen grew bright, then fuzzy. I was tired, and the drink and the trip had all but put me away. I went upstairs, took a shower, opened the windows and lay down. I started to read a magazine, but I put it down for a moment remembering.
Once, while Grace and I were engaged, we were in New York for a week end, and now — crazy! I could fantasy her in the room, smiling her lovely smile, sitting with her legs crossed or moving like shadow-clouds across a sun-filled summer field. I sat up suddenly and shoved the bed away from its corner. I got down on my hands and knees and lighted a match so I could see. It was there, scratched in with a nail file, Steve and Grace.
Very gently I placed the bed back. I climbed upon it with a certain tenderness. Then I looked at the phone. For a long, long time I thought about calling Grant's widow because way down, somewhere, I was still in love with her. But I didn't call. I told myself I wouldn't be worth a damn for my appointment at NBC in the morning, the one I'd made on the Coast, if I didn't get some sleep.
Excerpted from The Angry Ones by John A. Williams. Copyright © 1960 John A. Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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