Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and Finalist for the National Book Award
Brilliant but troubled historian John Washington has left Philadelphia, where he is employed by a major university, to return to his hometown of Chaneysville, just north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He is there to care for Old Jack, one of the men who helped raise him when he was growing up on the Hill, an old black neighborhood in the little Pennsylvania town—but he also wants to learn more about the death of his father.
What he discovers is that his father, Moses Washington, who was supposedly illiterate, left behind extensive notes on a mystery he was researching: why thirteen escaped slaves reached freedom in Chaneysville only to die there, for reasons forgotten or never known at all.
A story of personal discovery and historical revelation, The Chaneysville Incident explores the power of our pasts. Based in part on actual events, this extraordinary novel was described by the Los Angeles Times as “perhaps the most significant work by a new black male author since James Baldwin dazzled in the early ’60s with his fine fury,” and placed David Bradley in the front ranks of contemporary American authors.
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The Chaneysville Incident
By David Bradley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 David H. Bradley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Sometimes you can hear the wire, hear it reaching out across the miles; whining with its own weight, crying from the cold, panting at the distance, humming with the phantom sounds of someone else's conversation. You cannot always hear it—only sometimes; when the night is deep and the room is dark and the sound of the phone's ringing has come slicing through uneasy sleep; when you are lying there, shivering, with the cold plastic of the receiver pressed tight against your ear. Then, as the rasping of your breathing fades and the hammering of your heartbeat slows, you can hear the wire: whining, crying, panting, humming, moaning like a live thing.
"John?" she said. She had said it before, just after she had finished giving me the message, but then I had said nothing, had not even grunted in response, so now her voice had a little bite in it: "John, did you hear me?"
"I heard you," I said. I let it go at that, and lay there, listening to the wire.
"Well," she said finally. She wouldn't say any more than that; I knew that.
"If he's all that sick, he ought to be in the hospital."
"Then you come take him. The man is asking for you, John; are you coming or not?" I listened to the wire.
"John." A real bite in it this time.
"Tell him I'll be there in the morning," I said.
"You can tell him yourself," she said. "I'm not going over there."
"Who's seen him, then?" I said, but she had already hung up.
But I did not hang up. Not right away. Instead I lay there, shivering, and listened to the wire.
Judith woke while I was making coffee. She had slept through the noise I had made showering and shaving and packing—she would sleep through Doomsday unless Gabriel's trumpet were accompanied by the smell of brewing coffee. She came into the kitchen rubbing sleep out of her eyes with both fists. Her robe hung open, exposing a flannel nightgown worn and ragged enough to reveal a flash of breast. She pushed a chair away from the table with a petulant thrust of hip, sat down in it, and dropped her hands, pulling her robe closed with one, reaching for the mug of coffee I had poured for her with the other. She gulped the coffee straight and hot. I sat down across from her, creamed my own coffee, sipped it. I had made it strong, to keep me awake. I hated the taste of it.
"Phone," Judith said. That's how she talks when she is not quite awake: one-word sentences, and God help you if you can't figure out what she means.
"The telephone is popularly believed to have been invented by Alexander Graham Bell, a Scotsman who had emigrated to Canada. Actually there is some doubt about the priority of invention—several people were experimenting with similar devices. Bell first managed to transmit an identifiable sound, the twanging of a clock spring, sometime during 1876, and first transmitted a complete sentence on March 10, 1876. He registered patents in 1876 and 1877."
Judith took another gulp of her coffee and looked at me, squinting slightly.
"The development of the telephone system in both the United States and Great Britain was delayed because of the number of competing companies which set up systems that were both limited and incompatible. This situation was resolved in England by the gradual nationalization of the system, and in America by the licensing of a monopoly, which operates under close government scrutiny. This indicates a difference in patterns of economic thought in the two countries, which still obtains."
She just looked at me.
"The development of the telephone system was greatly speeded by the invention of the electromechanical selector switch, by Almon B. Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker, in 1899."
"John," she said.
"I didn't mean to wake you up."
"If you didn't want to wake me up you would have made instant."
I sighed. "Jack's sick. Should be in the hospital, won't go. Wants me." I realized suddenly I was talking like Judith when she is not quite awake.
"Jack?" she said. "The old man with the stories?"
"The old man with the stories."
"So he's really there."
I looked at her. "Of course he's there. Where did you think he was—in Florida for the winter?"
"I thought he was somebody you made up."
"I don't make things up," I said.
"Relax, John," she said. "It's just that the way you talked about him, he was sort of a legend. I would have thought he was indestructible. Or a lie."
"Yeah," I said, "that's him: an old, indestructible lie. Who won't go to the hospital." I started to take another sip of my coffee, but I remembered the rest room on the bus, and thought better of it.
"John?" she said.
"Do you have to go?"
"He asked for me," I said.
She looked at me steadily and didn't say a word.
"Yes," I said. "I have to go."
I got up then, and went into the living room and opened up the cabinet where we keep the liquor. There wasn't much in there: a bottle of Dry Sack and a bottle of brandy that Judith insisted we keep for company even though Judith didn't drink and we never entertained. Once there would have been a solid supply of bourbon, 101 proof Wild Turkey, but the stockpile was down to a single bottle that had been there so long it was dusty. I took the bottle out and wiped the dust away.
I heard her moving, leaving the kitchen and coming up behind me. She didn't say anything.
I reached into the back of the cabinet and felt around until I found the flask, a lovely thing of antique pewter, a gift to me from myself. It was dusty too.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she said.
"What's there to talk about?" I said. I filled the flask.
"Well," she said, "I just thought there might be something on your mind."
"What would make you think that?" I said.
"You want me to be a bitch," she said. "You want me to say something about starting to drink again...."
"I never stopped," I said.
"Not officially. But you haven't been doing as much of it. And you want me to say something nasty about you starting again. But I won't."
"I thought you just did," I said.
She didn't say anything.
"It gets cold out there in those mountains," I said. I turned around and looked at her. "You don't understand how cold it gets."
She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it. I put the flask in my hip pocket.
"We could talk about it," she said. "About whatever it is that's bothering you."
"There's nothing bothering me," I said, "except being up at midnight with no bed in sight." I looked at my watch. "And it's time to go, anyway." I turned away from her and went to the closet to get my coat. She followed me.
"Someday," she said, "you're going to talk to me. And when you do I'm going to listen to you. I'm going to listen to you so Goddamn hard it's going to hurt."
I didn't say anything; I just got out my heavy coat and made sure I had my fleece-lined gloves and a woolen scarf and a knitted wool watch cap stuffed into the pockets.
"John?" she said.
"Would you like me to come with you?"
"What about the hospital?" I said.
"I'll get somebody to cover for me. God knows, there are enough people who owe me. I'll come tomorrow after—"
"No," I said.
She didn't say anything.
I turned around and looked at her. "You don't understand," I said. "It's not just like visiting friends.... I can't explain."
"Forget it," she said.
"Look," I said. "If you want to help, just call the department for me. Tell them...tell them it's a family illness. They can get anybody to do the Colonial History lecture—it's not until Wednesday. The Civil War seminar can take care of itself."
"All right," she said. "How long...I guess you don't know." Suddenly there was a lot of concern in her voice, which told me I must be looking and acting pretty bad. Judith is a psychiatrist; she's seen a lot of troubled people, and she never wastes undue concern on cases that aren't critical.
I smiled at her. It was a good smile, full of teeth; it would have fooled most people. "Now, dear," I said, "I'm just takin' a little run up the country, seein' a sick friend. Now, as every student of marital infidelity knows, a sick friend is just a tired euphemism for a willing wench. Seeing as we're not what you call legally espoused, it isn't precisely adultery, but—"
Judith said something highly unprintable and spun me around and wrapped her arms around me. I felt the shape of her body fitting the shape of mine like a template. Her hand moved over my clothes, finding the space between my shirt buttons and sliding through until it found the place at the base of my belly that somehow never seemed to get enough warmth. I let her hand rest there for a moment, and then I stepped away from her and turned and held her as tightly as I could, my nose buried in her hair, my hands feeling out the shape of her back. Then my hands stopped moving and we just stood there, very still, so still that I could feel her heart beating, slowly, rhythmically, steadily. And then I felt my own heartbeat steady. I pulled my face from her hair and kissed her. She stepped back and, with her head down, fastened the zipper of my coat.
"Stay warm," she said.
The key to the understanding of any society lies in the observation and analysis of the insignificant and the mundane. For one of the primary functions of societal institutions is to conceal the basic nature of the society, so that the individuals that make up the power structure can pursue the business of consolidating and increasing their power untroubled by the minor carpings of a dissatisfied peasantry. Societal institutions act as fig leaves for each other's nakedness—the Church justifies the actions of the State, the State the teachings of the School, the School the principles of the Economy, the Economy the pronouncements of the Church. Truly efficient societies conceal the true nature of the operations, motivations, and goals of all but the most minor institutions, some even managing to control the appearances of the local parish, courthouse, board of education, and chamber of commerce. But even the most efficient society loses control at some point; no society, for example, is so efficient that it can disguise the nature of its sanitary facilities. And so, when seeking to understand the culture or the history of a people, do not look at the precepts of the religion, the form of the government, the curricula of the schools, or the operations of businesses; flush the johns.
America is a classed society, regardless of the naive beliefs of deluded egalitarians, the frenzied efforts of misguided liberals, the grand pronouncements of brain-damaged politicians. If you doubt it, consider the sanitary facilities employed in America's three modes of public long-distance transportation: airplanes, trains, and buses.
America's airports are built of plastic and aluminum. They gleam in the sun at noon, glow, at night, with fluorescent illumination. They are reached most conveniently by private autos, taxicabs, and "limousines." In the airport there are many facilities for the convenience of the traveler; for example, there are usually several bars which serve good bourbon. The planes themselves are well maintained, and are staffed by highly paid professional people, pilots ("captains") chosen for their experience and reliability, hostesses chosen for their pleasantness and attractiveness. There are usually two classes of accommodation; in one both food and liquor are free, in the other the food is complimentary and alcohol can be obtained at a reasonable cost. The companies that operate airplanes are known by names that reek of cosmopolitan concerns: American, National, United, Trans World, Pan American. The average domestic fare is on the close order of two hundred dollars, and the preferred mode of payment is via "prestige" credit card—American Express, Diners Club, in a pinch Carte Blanche. The sanitary accommodations, both in the airport and on board the plane, are almost invariably clean. Soap, towels, and toilet paper are freely available; on board the plane, the complimentary offerings often extend to aftershave lotion and feminine protection. Most significantly, the faucets turn. The sinks drain. The johns flush. And if they do not, they are speedily repaired.
America's train stations are built of granite and brick, smoked and corroded from the pollution in city air. Their dim, cavernous hallways sigh of bygone splendor. They straddle that ancient boundary of social class—the legendary "tracks." They are reached with equal convenience by private auto and public transport. There is rarely more than the minimum number of facilities for the traveler; rarely, for example, more than one bar, and that one oriented towards the commuter trade—the bar bourbon is of the cheaper sort. The trains are frequently ill-maintained. The operator ("engineer") wears a flannel or work shirt, in contrast to the airline pilot's quasi-military uniform, and the attendants, who take tickets rather than provide service, are most often elderly gentlemen; the overall aesthetic effect is somewhat less pleasing than that presented by an airline hostess. There is class-differentiated accommodation, but the actual difference is somewhat questionable; meals and liquor, when available at all, must be purchased in both classes. There is now only one passenger train company, really a gray government agency with a name dreamed up by some bureaucrat's child, too young or too stupid to know the proper spelling of the word "track." Before the government took over the passenger trains the names of the companies sang of regionalism; instead of a United or a National there was a New York Central and a Pennsylvania, and in lieu of a Trans World or a Pan American there was a Southern and a Baltimore & Ohio. The average railroad fare is on the close order of sixty dollars, and payment is often made in cash. When credit cards are used they are often bank cards (which allow time payments) as opposed to prestige cards (which do not). The sanitary accommodations associated with rail travel are somewhat less civilized than those associated with travel by air. In the station there is usually only one central rest room for each sex, that one poorly attended. The items freely provided for use are the bare essentials in theory and often less than that in fact—the wise traveler checks for towels before he wets his hands. Perhaps fifty percent of the johns are operable at any one time; the others are clogged with excrement and cigarette butts. Repairs are delayed more often than expedited. Recent environmental concerns have favorably altered the conditions in the on-board sanitary accommodations; the newer trains have flush toilets modeled after those on planes. Still, until quite recently—within the last decade in fact— the accepted mode of getting rid of human waste was to eject it through a pipe at the bottom of the car, where it fell to the ground and lay exposed until natural decomposition could eliminate it.
America's bus stations tend to lurk in the section of town in which pornographic materials are most easily obtained. Like airports, they are built of plastic, but it is plastic of a decidedly flimsier sort. They are reached most easily by public transportation or "gypsy" cab; except in largest cities and smallest towns, ordinary taxis shun them. The facilities for traveler convenience are virtually nonexistent; in lieu of a bar there is a lunch counter, which (if one can attract the wandering attention of the attendant, who is usually of the gender of an airline hostess and the appearance of a train conductor) will offer up a buffet of hot dog au grease and sugar-water on the rocks. The buses are at times in good repair, at times not, but always uncomfortable. The drivers look like retired sparring partners of heavyweights who never have been and never will be ranked contenders. There is a single class of accommodation—fourth. Nothing is served on board; a sign in the on-board rest room cautions against drinking the water. The names of the bus companies sing of locality (White River, Hudson Valley), private ownership (Martz, Bollman), and dogs. The average fare is on the close order of twenty-five dollars; the maximum one-way fare to the most distant portion of the United States is only eighty dollars. The preferred mode of payment is cash; if, as with the larger bus lines, credit cards are acceptable, they are bank cards, never prestige cards. The sanitary accommodations are much in keeping with the rest of the scene. Inside the station, the rest rooms are of a most doubtful nature; usually they are wholly or partially closed for repairs that are so long delayed and so temporary in effect that they seem mythical. The on-board accommodation is hardly better. The john, which is not even supposed to flush, is merely a seat atop a square metal holding tank; below it the curious—or perhaps "sick" is a better adjective—traveler may observe the wastes of previous users swimming blissfully about like so many tropical fish.
Excerpted from The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley. Copyright © 1981 David H. Bradley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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