This distinguished first novel, a disturbing drama of the South first published in 1956 by J.P. Lippincott, depicts a father-son conflict intensified by racial inequality and clashing standards of heritage and justice.
"This book is the best document I know for doing away with [racial inequality] as it exists today...In the world it will have a real impact."
"A skilled performance...the book sways with affirmations as ancient as the Old Testament."
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CALEB, MY SONA Novel
By LUCY DANIELS
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Lucy Daniels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAsa was at work at the time of the accident; it was three o'clock in the afternoon. He had just finished washing the car—a black Buick—which was parked just outside the garage in the widest part of the gravel driveway so that the sun brought out its highlights. As yet, however, the finish was not very shiny; Asa had only begun to apply the wax. He was up on the old kitchen stool, smearing it over the top when the girl, Lola, came for him.
She was a plump, black little girl from the other side of town. She had only been working for the Lawrences since Ellen had quit to have her baby, and, though that was nearly two years ago now, Asa still did not know her very well. He did not know her because he did not care to know her; he did not care to know anyone from the other side of town. He remembered, as he watched her scuffle towards the car through the cloud of dust raised by her dirty sandals, that that was where all the trouble came from—the other side of town. His lips protruded with discontent. Besides it annoyed him to be interrupted.
"Asa ..." she whined. "Asa?"
"Miss 'Liz'beth say to tell you telephone."
"Huhl" He stopped rubbing and leaned over to get a better glimpse of her face.
"Telephone.... Somebody want you on de telephone."
Then he was really angry. He climbed down, slapped his rag against the hood of the car, and started out across the sun-white gravel to the back porch. The screen door slammed behind him, and old fat Martha looked up from the dough she was kneading. "What's eatin' you, man?" she asked. But Asa did not answer. The very knowledge that she expected one made him tired, and besides he was too busy trying to think of a good way to tell May off. He could hear her voice even before he got to the phone— "Papa, please couldn' you pick me up t'night? ... I had t' spend the bus money Mama give me. I had t' have that movie magazine.... An', Papa ... I'm so tihad; I'm plumb wo' out. They jest workin' me t' death."
Prickles of perspiration popped out all over Asa's face. He would really give it to her this time; he would really let her have it. At eighteen she was plenty old enough to learn a little self-reliance. He would just say, "Walk home then. If you ain't got the money, walk home." And after last night too! The anger put a sour taste in his mouth. After he had laid down the law about them phoning him at work all the time. Maybe Miss 'Liz'beth and Mr. Charles didn't ever say anything, but it still wasn't proper. He had told them they must never do it again except in the case of an emergency. He picked up the receiver and listened for a moment to be sure no one was on the phone upstairs. "Hello," he snapped. "Well, wha' d' you want?"
But it was not May who answered; it was Effie. Her soft, usually impassive voice seemed to tremble over the wire. "Asa, I'm sorry t' call you theah.... I ... But ... Asa can you come home?"
"Wha'sa mattah, Effie? ... You sick?" But he knew before he asked that she was not. Effie would never have called him for that reason. As his wife, she considered it just as much her duty to obey him as to love him; sometimes she carried that obedience to extremes. Had she considered herself sick enough to call, she would not have been able to hold the receiver.
"No, I'm not sick.... They's been an accident down t' that house they buildin'. The whole top fell in, an' Ellen's Joe—he were up theah. They didn' even get 'im t' the hospital.... Couldn' y' come home, Asa? I'm scahed. You should see Ellen—an' only two months t' go."
By the sound of her voice, Asa knew her soft puffy face must be all pinched in with its effort to keep back the tears. "Yeah," he said. "I'll be home. I'll ask Miss 'Liz'beth right now. Wheah you goin'? Home o' to Ellen's?"
"Okay, I'll be right theah." He put the receiver back into place, hesitated for a moment beside the phone, and then went to look for Miss 'Liz'beth.
She was upstairs in the room Mr. Charles used for a study. She was seated at the small table beneath the window, sorting through a shoe box of cards. She turned in her chair when he stopped in the doorway.
"'Scuse me, Miss 'Liz'beth," he began. He looked down at his feet as he always did when her eyes were on him. "But is it all right if I leave soon's I finish the car? We got a little trouble t' home."
He looked up at her then to see if she was annoyed. But her round, calm face did not move a muscle; her transparent blue eyes betrayed no emotion whatsoever. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "Is somebody ill?" Her voice, as always, was cool and charming. Even to me, Asa thought, a perfect lady. And kind too, always kind, he reminded himself. He had been a fool to think she might be angry.
"No'm, not sick.... But Joe—my Ellen's husband—he was killed at work t'day. An', you know, Ma'm, Ellen's 'spectin' a baby."
Her face still showed nothing, and her finger did not stray from the place it was holding in the shoe box of cards. But her voice was soft and sympathetic. "Oh, how very sad!" she sighed. "You go home right now, Asa. Don't bother with the car; leave it for Henry—unless you need him home too."
"No'm, jest me.... Effie needs me."
"Well, go right ahead then.... With Mr. Charles away, it's not so necessary for you to be here anyhow. But I hope you'll be back by Saturday. You know, we're having that dinner party Saturday night."
He assured her that he would be back long before Saturday —probably the very next day. Then he hurried down the stairs and out through the kitchen again. Martha stopped him there. Though a good woman, Martha always had to have a story. When she didn't have one, she invented one; she made it her business to know everything about everybody. She lived only three blocks from the large, white frame house where Effie and Asa and five of the young Blakes lived. Therefore, in order to have even the least bit of privacy, Asa had long ago learned to talk to her about nothing except the weather. Now she asked, "Where you goin', Asa? Can't be t' work, not that fast."
"Home? This time o' day? Ain't mo' than two-thirty, an' that car all smeared wid wax. You tell Miss 'Liz'beth?"
"Yeah, I tol' her."
"Wha'sa mattah? ... Somebody sick?"
"No, they was a accident ovah t' that house they buildin' on Martin Street. Whole top fell in. An' Joe ... Ellen's Joe ... he was up theah."
Martha put down the jelly glass with which she had been cutting biscuits; she put both floury hands on her hips. "How bad he hurt?" She pushed him further, though the answer was obvious even before she asked.
"He was killed."
"Lawd! Lawd!" she gasped in the stricken tone she used for all disasters large or small. "Po' li'l Ellen! Her time 'most up too. An' that otha li'l one allus undah foot." She rolled her big black eyes. "Anybody else hurt?"
That was what she really wanted to know—all the bloody details—but Asa did not wait to tell her. Before the words were well out of her mouth, the screen door had banged shut and he was behind the wheel of the old Ford Mr. Charles had given him.
The car started violently and crunched over the gravel. But at the foot of the hill Asa slowed it to a stop. He wanted to tell Henry the news before Martha did; besides he wanted to tell him about polishing the car. Henry looked up when he heard the tires on the gravel. He saw his father open the front door, and so, putting down his hoe, he went to meet him.
Henry was not tall, and his small frame was a little too sparsely covered with flesh. His face—open and unemotional —revealed his whole personality. Henry had an older brother, Caleb, who was tall and handsome; whose face was quick and eager; who incited great love—and great hatred—in others. Caleb was the image of all his father's hopes and dreams. But still he lacked Henry's placid stability; and Asa valued that highly. He found a great comfort in Henry. He was a boy to be depended upon, one who would follow —unquestioning—in his father's footsteps and who possessed, despite his stature, the great strength of endurance.
He did not call out now, but came within a few yards of his father before he spoke. "What is it, Pa?"
"Miss 'Liz'beth wants you t' come finish waxin' the car. I'm goin' home."
"No.... That's what I come t' tell ye.... Joe was kilt. The roof o' that house they buildin' on Martin Street fell in."
"Lawd!" The boy's eyeballs rolled almost completely out of sight, and his face grew thinner than ever.
"I'm goin' home t' see— You won' fo'git the car," his father continued, changing to a more businesslike tone.
Asa hurried back to the Ford.
Cameron Street seemed morbidly silent in the early afternoon sun. The only visible sign of life was the wash hung out to dry. And even that did not seem very much alive. For there was no breeze to set it flopping; the sheets, the shirts, the faded overalls sagged like the dank ghosts of a forgotten race of men. The old tar road had grown gray in spots, and any car driving over it—especially Asa's rickety one—shook violently in protest against the bumps and dents.
Asa rarely thought about the road or even about the tired, grimy appearance of the neighborhood. That was because he rarely came home at two-thirty in the afternoon. Normally it was at least six o'clock and sometimes after eight before he got there. Then children were running up and down, calling one another, playing hide and seek or crack the whip. Their fathers came trudging slowly homeward in ragged overalls and with rusty metal lunch boxes clanging under their arms. The smell of roasting pork and boiling greens filled the air. And usually Effie—as soon as she heard the car in the street—hurried out to meet him.
This afternoon, however, the street was dead. The children were either taking naps or still in school. The women were inside, cooking or washing or stealing a snooze. Even the trees in yards here and there—chestnuts, sycamores, his own prize pecan—seemed forlorn under the gaudy glare of the afternoon sun. And though, thanks to the rain of the night before, some of the dusty, gray dryness had disappeared, the muddy red ruts in most of the yards were even more depressing.
Asa pulled the car up to the curb and got out. He stopped for a moment, hands in pockets, and scanned the "lawn" in front of his well-kept but ancient white frame house. He wondered if after all the work he and the boys had put into it they would at last be able to grow grass in this stubborn clay. He doubted that; it would have been completely against the usual course of things. He reminded himself also that he must check the cost if they were to paint the house that summer.
But these thoughts were only momentary. Before even one of his curious neighbors had reached her front door at the sound of a car at this hour of the day, Asa had gone up the jagged cement path to the door. Usually if Effie did not meet him at the curb, he called her name when he got inside. This day he did not. He shut the screen door carefully behind him and tiptoed from one dark room to another. He remembered doing the same thing as a boy the summer his mother and her new baby died of diphtheria, and even after all those years the memory brought a kind of panic.
Effie, having heard the car, met him in the doorway of the kitchen. Though not tall, she was a heavy woman. Her body through years of black-eyed peas and fat back had become wide and shapeless. Yet the impression she made was not that of a fat person; most people—especially those closest to her—saw only a bundle of sweet, comfortable curves. This afternoon her black eyes were dilated with anxiety. But aside from that and the way her whispered words jerked out, she seemed perfectly calm. Effie was always like that, Asa reminded himself—even that Sunday when the church had burned right next door.
"Asa," she began, grasping one of his large hard hands. "She scares me, Asa. She ain't cried one single tear.... Evah since I brung 'er home—all afternoon she jest sets theah sewin' on that dress fo' the li'l girl.... Asa, it ain't right fo' a girl not t' cry."
He squeezed the helpless pudgy hands. "No, Effie, it ain't. I'll speak to 'er.... Wheah's the chile?"
"Dora? I put 'er t' bed fo' a nap.... You speak t' Ellen, Asa. She always close t' you." Effie walked past him toward the rickety white staircase. She was trying, Asa knew, to leave him alone with Ellen; he obediently went into the kitchen.
Ellen was seated in the back doorway, hemming a light blue dress. Her hair was pulled back severely into a knot at the nape of her neck. Below it five little knobs of vertebrae formed stepping stones to the scoop neck of her dress. Her thin brown hands moved nimbly in the flickering sunlight.
"Ellen, honey," Asa began softly. At the sound of his voice, tiny hard cords formed in her back, extending outward from the little knobs. Though her eyes remained intently fixed on the work in her lap, her fingers ceased to move.
Asa put his hand on her head as he had done often when she was a little girl, when there were crinkly little pigtails on it instead of this sleekness like a horse's mane. He hated to see his children hurt. It happened time and time again, but he had not yet learned that he could not save them. He still longed to bear their pain; it would have been easier that way.
Now, faced with the grief of his oldest daughter, he could only try to say the most comforting thing. "Don' worry, Ellen chile," he whispered. "Mama an' I take care o' you an' the Chile.... You know, Ellen, mebbe it's bettah you cry."
But he knew as the words left his mouth that it was foolish. Ellen never cried unless she was angry. It was her way just as the other children had their ways—just as Liza, solemn as she was, could sparkle with humor; just as May was forever either laughing or crying; just as Saul liked to sit on the front steps and stare into space. This was Ellen's way. He remembered the time her puppy ran out in front of a car. They had all cried—he and the children on the street. But Ellen had not shed a tear. She had just carefully wrapped the mutilated little body in an old towel and dug a hole for it in the back yard.
Ellen looked up at him now with a thin face as smooth as her mother's except for the little pucker between her sparse eyebrows. "I know, Pa. I know," she said. "But sometimes you jest cain't cry." She folded her work impatiently and stood up. Asa was surprised to see how full her body had become; this evidence of growing life within her brought warm moisture to his eyes.
As if reading his mind, she placed one hand on her bulging stomach. "But I ain't sorry 'bout the baby," she said. "Maybe it'll be a boy.... Maybe it'll be a boy an' I kin call 'im Joseph." After that Asa could not speak at all. He watched in silence as she walked slowly up and down the room and finally sat down again to continue her sewing. Once again he was forced to accept his helplessness.
Chapter TwoTHE boss man at Wilson Builders Inc. was tall and heavy. He had a red face, and when he talked too much he ran out of breath. His thin white hair was combed carefully over his bald spots. His suit was a double-breasted one of light gray material. He looked comfortable and very prosperous behind his desk in the air-conditioned office.
It was three-thirty the same afternoon, and Asa had come to tend to Ellen's money matters. He hated doing it; he looked tensely down at his shoes when the secretary showed him in. Still it was his duty, and he knew the longer he waited the harder it would be.
The boss man—Mr. Cronin—motioned to a chair before the desk, and Asa sat down. "Well, Blake," the red-faced man began. "I understand you're the father-in-law of Joe Marsh.... His death was tragic—especially since, they tell me, his wife is expecting a second child."
Excerpted from CALEB, MY SON by LUCY DANIELS Copyright © 2001 by Lucy Daniels. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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