It was late, but he did not go down to dinner at the Swanson–Grand Coffee Shop. He could not endure sitting there and wondering whether he was being stared at. He had already discovered that the Negroes do not stay by themselves so much because they love the other Negroes as because they cannot stand the sheep-faced whites and their sheep-like gawking.
In a stilled panic he rode out to Excelsior and to the decent bungalow of Grampa Edgar Saxinar. As he came in, the old gentleman, in a voice like the squeak of his patent rocker, greeted him, “Welcome, young man! ‘Tain’t often we get a chance to see your cheerful face twice in one season!”
It was Gramma Julie who demanded, “What’s matter, boy?”
Standing rigid and large in the center of the room, which smelled of pine-needle cushions, Neil said earnestly, “Gramma, are you sure that your forbears, going back to Pic, were just French and Chippewa?”
“I told you not to talk about Pic!” Grampa Edgar wailed.
She looked drawn into herself. She knew!
Neil pressed it, “Are you sure we haven’t a little Negro blood, too?”
She screamed, “What do you mean, you young scamp? I never heard such a thing in my life!” But her wrath was too facile, and too facile was Grampa Edgar’s fury. He was no longer a comic old griper sitting by the fire. His face was terrible, the unsparing and murderous face of a lyncher. Neil had once seen a German captive look like that, and once, a drunken American military policeman. Edgar raged, “Just exactly what do you think you’re hinting at, heh? Mean to say you’ve got some crazy idea your gramma’s folks had nigger blood? Or are you stinking drunk? Are you trying to make me out the father of part-nigger kids — make your Uncle Emery and your own mother into niggers?”
Neil had always been chatty and tender with his grandfather, as he was with all pleasant old people, but there was no chat nor tenderness in him now. “I hope not, but I’d like a little truth, for once. What is the truth?”
Grandpa Edgar looked pitifully old, and his passion drained out in futility. “Don’t you ever pay the least bit of attention to stories and dirty lies like that, Neil. It ain’t true, not a word of it, but even if it was, there’d be no need for anybody but us to know it. For God’s sake, boy, let’s never mention it again.”
Gramma Julie was very shrill. “Absolute lie, Neilly. Some folks in Hiawatha got it up because they was jealous of how well Ed and I done.”
It was intolerable to watch the two ancient and withered householders strip themselves naked, and Neil retreated, but with a brusqueness he could not avoid. “All right, all right, forget it. Well, got to be getting back. Night.”
On the train into Minneapolis he was irritable.
— I’m sick of all this Gone With the Wind and Thomas Nelson Page stuff! massa on de ole plantation — massa in de cold, cold counting-house — swords and roses, and lick the damn nigger. If I’m a Negro — all right, I’ll be one.
— I never needed a drink as bad as I do now.
But in the bar at the Hotel Swanson–Grand, he had orangeade, and dared not take so much as one highball. He wondered if he would ever drink another one, though highballs and he had been good friends. He looked at his many fellow-drinkers and thought of how they would turn into wolves and foxes and hyenas if his tongue were oiled enough to say what he could say.
All the way home, on the Borup, he resented the attentions of Mac. He wanted to growl, “Oh, chuck it. I belong with you.” He was exasperated by Mac’s obsequious laughter at the not-very-good jokes of Orlo Vay of Grand Republic, who was a lovely man when he stuck to fitting eye-glasses, but only then.
Neil wanted to demand of Mac, “How can you stand listening to that white flannel-mouth? Our people must have dignity.”
Not till he had almost reached home did it occur to him that his twenty-eight hours as a Negro was possibly too brief a training for him to take over all of his people’s manners.
Vestal usually saw through his blundering efforts to look cheerful when things had gone wrong, but when he came booming into the house with “Your husband has just bought all the banks in the Twin Cities!” when he kissed her and tousled Biddy’s hair in the best manner of the hearty young husband, she was not suspicious, and she said only, “Glad you had a nice trip. Isn’t it glorious about the end of the war! Can you stand a giddy round of bridge at Curtiss Havock’s tonight?”
Curtiss, son of Boone, would be the first to yelp at him.
He could decide nothing at all, since he could not decide the one dominant question: was he going to tell the world, would he even tell Vestal?
If he kept silence, it was likely that no one would know, aside from Gramma Julie and Edgar, who most vigorously would say nothing. Dr. Werweiss would have no reason to trace Pic and the Payzolds to the Kingsbloods.
He had no accuser except himself. But that lone accuser was so persistent that sometimes he fancied himself blurting, “Certainly I’m part Negro. Do you think I’m the kind of Judas who would deny the race of his mother?”
But whenever he had agreed to do something bold and immediate, a more cynical self always jeered:
— Listen to the brave captain! Going to be defiant, is he, the little man! Going to put yourself in the clutches of a bunch of Southern deputies, with their fishy eyes and their red fists, when you don’t have to, when it wouldn’t do any good, when nobody’s asking you to? You armchair martyr!
It was this slice of hell that Neil was carrying in his pocket as he supervised the arrangement of the Veterans’ Center booth at the bank. Mr. John William Prutt coughed his way up to him, having in tow Mrs. John William Prutt, who had an astringent face but what would have been a voluptuous bosom if it had not also been a thoroughly Christian bosom.
The lady gurgled, “It seems to me that Mr. Prutt and you are making a mistake in having this booth so severe in color. As you know, I never intrude on banking business — I know how many marriages have been ruined by the wife’s doing that, even with the best intentions — but I do feel I have a real instinct for Decoration — I know how many women claim to have that, with their silly chatter about ‘curtains picking up the mauve of the couch,’ but I feel I really do have it — and after all, so many of the veterans will be coming in here with their sweethearts or brides or whatnot, and you can appeal to them by a deft dash of color — say, a lovely cushion of crocus-yellow on the bench — so spring-like and appealing. I think that might be very important, don’t you — one of these things that’s often neglected, but is really important!”
Then Mr. Prutt, in his more jovial mood, rich joviality with just a splash of vinegar: “Now Neil, you don’t have to agree with my good lady, you know. Are you really sold on the idea that it’s important?”
“I’m not sure that I know what is important, sir,” said Neil.
— What would they say if I told them?
And “What would they say if I told them?” frightened him and depressed him and devilishly tempted him to speak up whenever he met Wilbur Feathering, that Southerner who was now reconciled to Northern cash-registers and who sang “Bringing in the Sheaves” to the tune of “Dixie.” Or whenever, at the Sylvan Park Tennis Club, he listened to W. S. Vander, the lumberman, Cedric Staubermeyer, dealer in rugs and anti-Semitism, and Orlo Vay, the political optician, who agreed, between sets, that our American liberties, including the rights to chew tobacco and to charge customers whatever you damn well pleased, were threatened.
They were all good neighbors, ready to lend Neil the lawnmower or a bottle of gin, all good customers at the bank, speaking well of his courtesy and steadiness, and they were all lynchers, of the Northern or inoperative variety, who had “built up good businesses by their own unaided industry and efforts, and didn’t for one by God second intend to let any sentimental love for the lazy bums of workers stand in the way of their holding onto what they got.”
With them, there was no question of what they would say if he told.
Vestal had gone up to bed. He was alone on the sun-porch, that bland May midnight, restless in his chintz-and-wicker armchair, trying to read an article on “The Use of Bills of Lading in International Credit under Temporary Post–War Financial Structures.” It was very bright and well written, and it had a picture of the Paris Bourse for illustration, but he laid it down, he laid it down firmly, and heard the suburban quiet flow over him.
He looked about the airy room, at the ivy on the indoor trellis, the glass-and-nickel-cocktail shaker on the little green bar. He thought of Vestal’s face serene on her pillow, and Biddy curled in a golden ball. Next month, Biddy would have her fifth birthday, and she wanted to know why she couldn’t be of age to vote then. She stated that she wished to vote for her father for President, and she would not be put off by her mother’s frivolous reason, “Oh, no, dear; your father is much too good-looking to be President.”
All this simple happiness —
He would say something that would betray him; some Wilbur Feathering would pick it up; he would be disgraced, lose their modest security, this true home that was his love and Vestal’s made visible. He pictured the ruthless second-hand-furniture dealers and grinning neighbors crowding in here to buy this furniture — cheap — while Vestal and Biddy stood weeping like a Mid–Victorian widow and orphan with shawl.
“No! I’ll preserve our home with my life!”
— Sounds like old-fashioned melodrama. Well, I feel like melodrama!
It came to him, slyly, shockingly, that he could best preserve that home by his death. From the cold tombs he could say nothing that would give him away. As a Sylvan Park business man would, he carried large life insurance. There must be some way of committing suicide so that it would not be found out — something about a car running off an embankment and burning?
That day in the bank had been hard and fussy with Pruttery and he was tired in a way that he had not known he could be, drained-out by the vision of what might happen to him. If he could quietly pass out, secure Biddy’s future —
Then he laughed.
— I seem to be learning a lot of new possibilities. I despise the rich investors who jumped out of windows during the last depression — poor white leeches who couldn’t take it unless they had two chauffeurs to bleed. We Negroes don’t do that.
He laughed again, not affectedly, not for any audience, not even for his own audience.
Randy Spruce, Executive Secretary of the Grand Republic Chamber of Commerce, was a chum of Wilbur Feathering who, though born in Stote, Mississippi, on a red clay hill, was now a citizen of Minnesota and a patron of skiing, a sport which he gave the impression of having invented, though he did not actually practise it. Mr. Feathering was founder and president of “The Hot on the Spot Home Food Supply Company — hot meals in your own dinette — everything from a sandwich to a banquich — linen & silver if desired — run, rite, or fone.”
That was Wilbur Feathering. The meals were not bad, the profits were enormous, and he was popular throughout Grand Republic except among people who did not like race-hatred or noises of the mouth.
He had been useful in giving ideas to the Chamber of Commerce, and Randy Spruce often said, “I often say a man in my position as a professional booster of all forward-looking enterprises and the American Way of Life has ideas as his chief stock in trade. I make a practice of not merely reading the magazines and listening to all the round-tables on the radio, but I am not above taking suggestions from the humblest — as I often say, like a Polack or a union member.”
Randy was glad to have from one of the Featherings of Stote the Real Lowdown on the Negro Problem.
The benefit of this Lowdown was felt second-hand by Neil, when Randy and he served on a committee of nine to arrange a citywide welcome to the returning veterans.
Randy was fretting, “Of course there’s quite a few nigger G.I.‘s, and we got fix it so they don’t horn in on the parade of our white heroes.”
“Couldn’t the black veterans be heroes, too?” suggested Dr. Norman Kamber.
“Hell, no!” Randy explained. “As I often say, all the nigger troops were insubordinate and afraid of cold steel. The high command just handed out a few decorations to ’em to keep ’em from mutiny, so we wouldn’t have to shoot the whole bunch. A colonel told me that. But Wilbur Feathering has a fine suggestion. We’ll cook up a separate homecoming for the zigaboos, on Mayo Street; parade and fireworks and banners and some portion of a horse like Congressman Oberg to make an oration. We’ll tell ’em that we didn’t want to have ’em get lost in the white shuffle, so we’re honoring ’em special. Those niggers are so dumb they’ll believe it.”
“Are all Negroes dumb?” Neil wanted to know.
“All of ’em!”
“What about the ones that are just part Negro?”
“My boy, as I often say, if a man has one drop of nigger blood, he’s a phony. Uncreative, that’s the idee. You don’t think a circus dog is intelligent because his owner has trained him to ride a bicycle and act drunk like a scholar, do you? That’s why no nigger can hold down a responsible position. Doc, you can call me a liar if you can show me one nigger that could be a United States Senator.”
“Hiram Revels or B. K. Bruce,” said Dr. Kamber.
“Who? What makes you think those niggers could be Senators?”
“Oh, I get you. Wasn’t that in Reconstruction days? Feathering explains that. It was because those niggers were just out of slavery, where they’d been trained in industry and obedience. But since then, with all this loose freedom, the colored folks have simply gone to hell in a hack intellectually, to say nothing of their immorality, and today there isn’t one of them that’s fit to hold down any appointment higher than cityhall janitor.”
Neil was brooding:
— What’s the use? I shall never tell anybody. That’s settled! It was as simple as that.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52