That Neil was going to be a bank-president, but with a salary ten times that of Mr. Prutt, was too obvious for Vestal to talk about it. What interested her was the house that would then dignify their position. Neil was amused by her ambition to buy half of The Hill from Berthold Eisenherz and build the perfect house that every woman wants.
Could he, Neil teased, interest her in a “modern type” house, all windows and plaster, such as he had seen when — oh, well, he’d seen one some place.
He could not! She would patronize nothing so cold and queer. She had decided on a stone Norman manor house, only with sleeping-porches, a pine-paneled Rumpus Room with a built-in bar, and a doll’s-house for Biddy which should have — or am I too crazy? Vestal wanted to know — a doll’s-bathroom with real running water!
“Is that important for her?” Neil asked.
“Nothing could be more important, because she’ll be a little girl only once, you know.”
They had gone so far toward the assemblage of this Norman dungeon as to have planned to buy a new gas-stove.
The war with Japan had ended, and while Vestal was properly glad that their friends would be coming home from the South Pacific, she confessed to an equal delight that now the manufacturers would turn from arms to unimaginable domestic treasures: plastic dressing-tables and crystal coffee-pots and automatic dish-washers. She was already thinking of the wardrobe, in fabrics still uninvented, which she would prepare for Biddy when she went to Bryn Mawr, a dozen years from now.
At breakfast she suggested to Neil, “I’ll come downtown today, and you buy me a lunch and we’ll look at the gas-stove that I’ve set my girlish heart on. It’s a jewel of a stove, a rose, an eagle, a Bedlington of a stove, a stone, a leaf, a door, and I love it more than I do virtue — at least, it’s more practical.”
When he saw it, the stove did possess most of the splendors that Vestal had advertised, and she gloated, “That’ll make even our present dump of a kitchen look like the manorhouse of our destiny.”
He sighed, “But you still do like our house, don’t you?”
“Oh, Neil, no matter how I rave about future palaces, I love our little shack violently — our own place, that not even a crazy, wild-haired Democrat government can take away from us. Comes the depression, we’ll retire there and grow onions in the bathrooms and be happy as grigs — how happy is an average-size grig, do you suppose? Oh.” She nodded toward the arm-folded and wearily back-tilted salesman. “I think you can jew him down five dollars on the price. Try it.”
— I wonder if a Jew likes that phrase, “jew him down,” any better than my people like “sweating like a nigger”? Oh, quit it! You’re the possessor of a beautiful wife, a beautiful gas-stove, and you were going to forget all this race-hysteria.
It was on that same afternoon that Ash Davis came to sit by his desk and say formally, lest anyone be listening, “Mr. Kingsblood, may I disturb you for a minute?”
“Nobody around, Ash.”
“Neil, again I’m here begging. Bad news. Several colored returned soldiers arrested in South Carolina for a murder they couldn’t have committed. Sophie and I are raising a fund for lawyers. I want all the money you can spare. And I warn you that if you’re so simple as to give me one cent, it will be only the beginning of the leech’s daughters yelling, ‘Give, give!’”
Neil decided what he could afford, and made out a check for slightly more than that. He was longing for the cool, humorous, devastating talk of Ash and Clem and Sophie.
“When can I sit in with all of you again?” he urged.
“Clem won’t be back in town for weeks. But would you like to have dinner with Martha and me at my place — maybe Sophie, if I can get her? What about tonight?”
His lie to Vestal was almost automatic, this time. But he felt pitifully that he would not again be able to glow with her over her beloved gas-stove. She was a great lady in her assumptions; she was a poor child in her trusting heart.
When he sat with the Davises and Sophie at the table which had popped out from beneath a bookcase and turned all that end of the severe room into a dining-room, he had nothing to say. They belonged to a world that was closed to Our Mr. Kingsblood of the Second National; and the more taboo Sophie was, the more tempting were her soft, seal-brown hands, moving surely as a cabinetmaker’s or lying in peace.
He played with his food (which was plain hamburger steak, after excellent mushroom soup), and he demanded, “What are you three arguing about? Who is ‘the Turk’ and why is he a stinker?”
Sophie said, rather wearily, “He’s a colored fellow named Vanderbilt Litch — a usurer — the only suspected colored Quisling in town. But you wouldn’t be interested.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“How could you take any interest in the fussing of us local busybodies? Our sign is ‘For colored only,’ and that lets you out, Captain.”
— Don’t say it! Don’t tell her you’re colored! Shut up! Don’t say ANYTHING! You’ve already told Ash and the Woolcapes — too many. Wait now, wait!
And with that he babbled, “That lets me in, Sophie, because I’ve discovered, here recently, that I’m part colored.”
Her mouth stayed open, her fingers, like brown reeds, stayed motionless in air, holding a cigarette, her breast pulsed, and then her astonishment deepened into a look of tragic commiseration for him. The nurse who had been a small-town-neighborhood girl was tenderly concerned for him, but it was the Broadway singer who spoke:
He heard himself discussed, genially but firmly.
“Why, you smart little devil,” crowed Sophie, “to think that you passed and got away with it, and I never guessed!”
“But I didn’t know till just recently, I tell you!”
“Really he didn’t,” said Ash, like a schoolmaster.
“Come off it!” Sophie gloated. “How could you help feeling that rhythm, little Neil? Why, I tell you, when you’re black, you’re in the groove, you’re in the grove, you got reet, you got meat, you got feet, you can feel that ole mumbo-jum right out of Africa zizzing right through you!”
“That’s enough, Sophie!” from Ash.
“Well, you get the idea, anyway. Maybe I was trying to strut a little Harlem stuff, but honest to God, I don’t see how anybody could have Congo genes in him and think he belonged to those hot-fisted, cold-hearted freaks that call themselves the white race! Anyway, congratulations, pal!”
“Stop it!” said Ash. “Neil, her jungle blood is pure fake, and so is her aversion to the whites — a heterogeneous group with many virtues. Sophie is a conscientious uplifter and record-keeper. But —”
There was a “But” in everything Ash and Sophie said — not in what Martha said, because Martha didn’t say anything. The nearer Neil came to them, the more complex they seemed in their dual attitude toward him as a friend to be protected and as a convert to be exploited as publicity for the race. Without much reference to his feelings, they speculated whether “Even though it might be hard — just a little hard — just at first — might it not be a good thing if you did come out frankly as a Negro?”
But they thought they might let him off for a while.
It had not occurred to him that the news that he was a Negro, with its public branding or crowning, could come from anyone save himself. He realized that the words had gone out of his mouth, swift and unrecapturable, and that it depended only on the whim of these three and of the Woolcapes — any Woolcape — whether he should be betrayed. But if he was slightly in fear, he was also relaxed in accepting Sophie and Ash and Martha as his own people. When Sophie rose, he said, “I’ll trot out to your car with you.”
He sat with her in her shaky coupe and held her hand, warmer than any hand he had ever known, with the curious warmth that has nothing to do with the thermometer, that is cool and smooth while it is hot and seamed.
But the Sophie who had just been advertising the unrestrained joys of the jungle was reluctant. When he urged, “If I do get known all over as a Negro, can I count on you to make up for the people I’ll lose?” she burst into shrill scolding:
“Damn it, you won’t lose anybody that’s worth keeping! Man, don’t expect us brownskins to be SORRY for a person who’s lucky enough to become a brownskin!” She relented: “There, there, mother’s baby!” It was too exactly the wifely tone of Vestal. “Didums get crestfallen — crest shot to pieces? Mother make it well!”
She kissed him. He had not known a kiss like that, the closeness of it and the softness and the frankness of what it said. But she hastily drew back.
“Sorry! I don’t kiss white men, and even if your heart is good and black, your poor brains are still white, like a baby’s. Good night!”
He looked after her car as it rattled off.
— I can’t do this to Vestal — so excited about her little gas-stove! I’ve got to get out of this African world. It’s too complex for country-folks like Vestal and me. Prutt, I’m coming home!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57