“I wouldn’t know about you millionaires, but I’m a working woman and I have to go home,” said Sophie Concord.
— I’ve heard Vestal say that!
Martha Davis was to drive Sophie home. Ash suggested, “I’ll walk over and put Mr. Kingsblood on a bus. . . . Just as well not to wander around here alone, after one in the morning. Some bad actors — not all colored. I’ll promise to keep off the race-talk, though there is no complete cure for it. The other day, in the bathroom, I read a label ‘facial tissues’ as ‘racial issues.’”
To Mary Woolcape, Neil said privately, “This evening has been exciting but I still don’t know that I can tell even our friends here that I am a Negro.”
“I’m not even sure you ought to, not sure at all. Why risk the humiliations we’ve been talking about tonight?”
There were late-burning lights behind dark curtains along Mayo Street, and from the rooms over a store came a high cackle of laughter. The alleys were filled with shadows — they may have been men lurking and they may have been barrels, but in neither case did Neil like them. Ash had nothing to say, and Neil saw how attentively he watched every sliding alley cat, every dusky loafer squatted on his heels on a grating.
Neil insisted on their walking from the bus stop up to Canoe Heights, and Ash’s house.
It was a small house and low-roofed, but Neil saw from its great window, which made one whole corner a cage of glass, that this was what was called a “modern house,” in revolt from all the Cape Cod and Tudor of Sylvan Park. He had heard Mr. Prutt condemn such structures as anarchistic, but he had never been inside one.
Ash murmured, “You must come in for a drink,” and Neil entered a room that repelled him and fascinated him by its conscious bareness, its freedom from all silver-boxery. It had two centers: the huge corner window, through which he could see a net of pale lights far down below them in the Five Points, and a severe fireplace, of polished stone, without a mantel. The few chairs, covered with rough-woven material, were of unconventional shapes, more attentive to the human form than to Chippendale; and on the wall, which was lined with something that seemed at once to be wallpaper and metal, there was just one picture, an orgy of reeling triangles. On the small piano was a lump of awkward black sculpture.
“Well — so this is a Modern House,” Neil marveled, as Ash mixed a highball at a competent closet-bar.
“So they call it.”
“Who was your architect?”
“Me, so far as there was one. This was a kind of shed, and Martha and I made it over. But you know, I think this house is the symbol of my shame. I’m afraid I really did it to spite Lucian Firelock, and keeping up with the highbrows is worse than keeping up with the Joneses. You know Firelock?”
“Advertising manager at Wargate’s — Southern guy? Yes, a little.”
“He’s a Southern Liberal — Vanderbilt University — the kind that wants both to keep us evil darkies in our place and get credit for being very tolerant — wants us to study the same things as a white man, but do it under the table. Firelock lives two doors from here in a dreadful old Noah’s Ark with trimmings like fungus — only place he could get, in the war shortage, poor gentleman!
“He was agitated when he found I was a neighbor. He’s used to having ‘darkies’ in the neighborhood, only they’re supposed to remain poor and humble and grateful. He looked down his nose at me when he first saw me. Then his kids got to playing with my Nora, and we got half acquainted, and the worst of it is, the poor devil likes me better than anybody else around here, and he can’t admit it.
“When I made over this place, I didn’t realize at first that I was going out for this Modern Style, which is, of course, a Freudian form of Puritanism, just in order to impress Firelock. The worst of it is, I succeeded, and every time I see him go by, he’s looking envious. Can you beat that for a low human motive on my part? And this room is so blasted chaste that I long for a golden-oak rocker under a picture of the old church by moonlight. I’m a Rotarian in professor’s clothing.
“No, that’s not true. (God, I am talking so much tonight! That’s because almost every evening I stay home.) I’m not in the least either an affable businessman or a heated race-agitator.
“I’d like to live in an ivory tower, play Bach, read Yeats and Melville, be an authority on the history of chemistry and alchemy instead of a plodding laboratory hack. But the white scholars won’t accept me, so I try to become an ardent race-crusader. But it’s a role, and I’m not a good actor.
“I have an affection for our friends tonight, but I find Clem too emphatic, Ryan too ridden by Communist Jesuitism, Sophie too imitative of the white Talking Women, and John and Mary, whom I honestly love, too smug. My notion of an agreeable evening would be to sit by the fireplace with George Moore, saying nothing. Oh, it’s not easy for me to bellow for our ‘rights’— even though I do emphatically believe that they ARE our rights.
“I think I’m telling you this so that you may know that neither we nor our propaganda are as simple as we seem. Nor are you!
“I think you have some quite special interest in the race. You certainly are not a philanthropic dabbler. What is it?”
— Here’s the man that really might have something to tell me, that might become the friend I need. I don’t want to go on blabbing this, but —
“Ash, I think possibly I have some Negro blood myself, way back.”
There was no sympathy from Ash nor surprise but only a quiet, “Oh. Well, perhaps it’s something to be proud of. Perhaps you’re in a better war now.”
“But I’m scared of being found out — and by people for whose opinions I don’t really care a damn.”
“If you need a refuge, at least verbal, Mr. Kingsblood, I shall be glad if you’ll come here.”
“I certainly shall. Good night, Ash.”
Dr. Davis distinctly hesitated before he said, “Good night — Neil.”
As he tramped on home, a good-looking but stolid-looking youngish man, through streets where clerks and foremen lived, streets like the aisles between boxes in a dark warehouse, there was more hope than apprehension in him. If he was still nervous about a conceivable future as a Negro, he no longer hated anything in it; in spirit he was on the side of the bars with Ash and Sophie and Ryan and Clem.
When he came dubiously into the bedroom, Vestal woke only to jeer, affectionately, “Some evening you vets must have had!” and went back to sleep.
It was astonishing, he thought, that his beloved wife did not instantly perceive that this evening had been the most critical in his history. Would Sophie have seen it?
Vestal and Neil were off for their two-weeks summer vacation in a rented cottage on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Before they went, Mr. S. Ashiel Denver, cashier of the Second National, gave them a dinner at the Pineland Hotel, to celebrate the glory and profitableness of the Veterans’ Center. In the pink glow from the rose-shaped wall-brackets against the Pompeian frescoes of the Fiesole Room, they were ushered to their table, handsome with silver and roses, by the senatorial Drexel Greenshaw, with his dark-brown dome, his clipped white mustache.
As they toyed with sardines lying exhausted on little couches of cold toast, Vestal looked after Mr. Greenshaw’s majestic back, and admired, “He’s quite the old-fashioned darky, isn’t he! I bet he loves pork chops and watermelon and shooting craps.”
Mr. Denver agreed, “Yes, he’s a fine old fellow. Never gets fresh or tries to act like he was white. He knows his place and does just what he’s told and says ‘Thank you,’ instead of trying to make you think he owned the hotel, like some of these flip young niggers would.”
But Mrs. Denver was not quite sure that she could grant Drexel a license to live. “He gets a little TOO friendly, for my taste. I do think one has to keep up standards in these critical days, with the breakdown of morale and all, and I can’t say I enjoy seeing a colored waiter acting like he belonged to the family. I don’t see why they don’t get rid of all the nigger help, in a place that claims to be so highclass, and hire some nice waitresses — but American ones, not all these thick Scandinavians.”
“Oh, I think all these darky waiters mean well. Only thing that bothers me about them is, I simply can’t tell them apart,” Vestal said broadmindedly, looking at the three waiters now in sight, one squat and black, one slim and coffee-colored, one very tall, very pale, and spectacled. “Can you, Neil?”
“Oh, yes, they seem like individuals to me.”
Mrs. Denver wheezed on — there was always a sound of corsets in her voice —“But Neil, even if you can tell ’em apart, you don’t like that old fussbudget of a headwaiter, do you?”
“Yes, I do. I think he’s a fine old gentleman.”
“Gentleman? My, what a funny word to use about a darky!”
After the festal dinner, they drove to the Denver abode, just back of Neil’s house, and in came a spate of neighbors: Don and Rose Pennloss, and Cedric Staubermeyer, the much-traveled dealer in paints, wallpaper, linoleum, and other objects of art, with wife. There was pleasant but intellectual conversation, and Neil was able to compare the prosperous white man’s range of cultural interests with the primitive outlook of the Negroes to whom he had listened, three evenings before, at the house of a colored janitor:
“I think it’s getting quite a bit warmer.”
“Yes, but June was awfully cold.”
“Oh, did you think so? I didn’t think it was colder than usual. Not especially, I mean.”
“Wasn’t it? Well, I felt like it was colder.”
Flashes like that, thrown off without effort.
But Mrs. Cedric Staubermeyer was more studied and, it might be said, educational:
“My, my, doesn’t seem like ten years ago, just seems like yesterday we were in Rome. We saw the Eternal City through and through, and the ruins, very ancient, and the Vatican and the airfield, and the lady at the English teashop, she was English, and she said my! we seemed like old inhabitants to her, and of course we had a great advantage, not staying at a hotel but at a pension where we met the native Italians, we met several, and they explained everything to us, and such an interesting Frenchman, my! he spoke the most beautiful English, just like Cedric’s and mine, and imagine! he told us he had a cousin living right here in Grand Republic!”
But Mr. Staubermeyer put in a sour note:
“We never looked his cousin up when we got back here, because I suspect this French guy was a Jew, and you know what I think of Jews, and so would you, if you had to do business with them, and so I said to my wife, ‘Oh, the hell with him! I can stand foreigners in foreign parts,’ I said, ‘and I like the natives all right, except for the way they live and do business, but let’s just keep ’em abroad, where they belong.’”
Their range of interests was by no means limited to travel. They went thoroughly into the prospects for pheasant-hunting this coming fall, the crookedness of their congressman — for whom, however, they would continue to vote, lest a Farmer–Labor-Democrat get in, and the facts that Mr. Jones was buying the house of Mr. Brown and Mr. Brown was drinking too much. They skillfully compared the prices for women’s stockings in Tarr’s Emporium, the Beaux Arts, and the shops in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul, until Mrs. Denver cried, “My gracious, we’ve been chatting away so that I never realized it was so late, but you don’t mean to say that you’re going home, Neil?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52