The office of Dr. Kenneth Kingsblood was on Chippewa Avenue, only a block from the Second National, in the Professional and Arts Building, known as the P. & A.
The lobby was so crowded with men on crutches, men with bandaged arms, blank-faced mothers with babies in their arms, that he had to wait for a third elevator. The elevator girl was pretty. She flirted with a young man in a white coat, but she smiled at Neil and said “Fifth floor — YOUR floor,” caressingly. He marveled that she probably did not know what was awaiting him on that floor, a few feet from her cage.
It was shocking to go into the neat triviality of Dr. Kenneth’s waiting-room — the two ruddy maple chairs with tartan cushions, the maple table with a stack of picture-magazines and the always-lighted electric lamp with a shade picturing a frigate in full sail — and to see, on the maple couch with the tartan cushions, his father lying dead. His stilled head was in the shadow of the table, on which lay his engagement book, open to this morning, with a name neatly set down for half an hour from now. On the book rested his old spectacles, idle. The righthand ear-piece of the spectacles was mended with adhesive tape grown gray now, and Neil remembered that, looking gaily at him through those streaky lenses, his father had promised to step down the hall in the P. & A. and have the frame mended.
The girl assistant was looking down at the lax thin body and crying, her face red with amazement and loss.
As Neil turned to Dr. Kamber for the comfort of the medicine man, Brother Robert bumbled in, with, “Good thing you caught me at the bank, Doc. I was just going to leave for the bakery and maybe I wouldn’t of been able to get here for a long time and — Oh, Pop, Pop! I can’t believe it, Pop! That you won’t be with us now!”
He turned on Neil: “And you killed him! Your crazy lies were too much for him. You’re responsible for his death, and I won’t forget it!”
Dr. Kamber ordered, “Chuck it, Bob. Your dad apparently died of a coronary. Neil had nothing to do with it. Your dad was probably proud of Neil’s courage.”
Dr. Roy Drover, president of the Federal Club, and Dr. Cortez Kelly, duck-hunting neighbor of Neil, who both had their offices in the P. & A., seemed to have crowded into that small room now, and Drover, after a good strong look of dislike at Neil, commented to Kamber, “Well, you can’t tell now, Doctor. The way Neil was cutting up may have had a had effect on the old man. How can we be sure?”
Dr. Kelly protested, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, quit it, Roy. Neil is a fool, and I hope to see him driven out of my neighborhood, like any other nigger, but he didn’t kill the old man. Come on, Roy, let’s scram.”
The two medical gentlemen argued off down the hall, and Neil and Robert and Dr. Kamber and the shaky girl assistant silently gazed down at the unnatural silence of the man on the couch.
Neil thought of his father happily raking the leaves, last October, and prosing, “The fall is the best time of the year. It’s so peaceful. I’ve always been a busy man, even if collections are so bad, and I look forward to a lot of peace and enjoyment in the autumn of my life. I like it when I can be peaceful.”
But not peaceful like this, lying in a waiting-room, nervous hands rigid.
— Am I his murderer? He’ll never know about the Catherine of Aragon line now, and maybe it was true. Did I kill that for him, too?
Dr. Kamber’s hand was on his shoulder, but Neil wished that Vestal were here. . . . And Sophie. And Mary Woolcape.
Robert was blubbering. Oldest of Dr. Kenneth’s children, he was yet the most childish and most likely to run to his father with troubles, even after he had himself become a father. He was an overgrown farm-boy, awed and afraid now, and Neil realized what his announcement of Negro kinship must have done to this simple, loving and mercenary family-man.
Then Robert Hearth, the undertaker, arrived, and from that second till the coffin sank in the January earth, the two Roberts took charge of everything. They were so much alike: equally solemn, equally efficient in the superb accomplishment of utterly childish ends, equally sure that it must be a comfort to Dr. Kenneth in the coffin to have a little, clean soft pillow under his head.
And equally certain that Neil had killed him.
The once lean and hearty face of his father at the funeral had been painted to a horrible semblance of a waxwork pretty-boy. Neil edgily wondered if the dainty padding of the coffin, displayed through the open trapdoor at the top, thriftily stopped there, and he hated the whole sparkling business of death without annoyance to friends & family; hated the two whispering Roberts, whose stately manner said, “Grieve not — see how bravely WE take it — costs surprisingly low — 24 hr. service.”
They both managed to make Neil feel like a stranger, here in his father’s house.
His mother was only a wisp of fog, she was quiet, she did not sob, she would not take advantage of her one great day and show off. She humbly did whatever the two Roberts told her. They were so manly with her, and so obliging in their butterfingered offers to take from her a burden of sorrow that neither of them could understand.
What most flattered the two Roberts was the attendance of both Mayor Fleeron and Ex–Mayor Bill Stopple, hats in hands, looking politically at Neil with an unworded leering promise that they would let him off for today.
And the coffin lay in the center of the parlor, and there were strangers all around, people who, Neil could have sworn, had never seen Dr. Kenneth before, and the frescoed figure in the coffin seemed waiting, and they all seemed waiting, sitting around on hired chairs, and there was a stink of improbable massed flowers, and over Dr. Kenneth’s crayon portrait hung a black pall hastily cut out of an old air-raid curtain. But the two Roberts had failed to put away Dr. Kenneth’s corncob pipe, which still rested on top of the piano, the only thing there that was honest and not waiting.
Robert Hearth pontifically raised his hand, and Robert Kingsblood raised his hand, and turned to his mother, who now first sobbed. The pall-bearers looked self-conscious as they moved in like automata. Among them were Cedric Staubermeyer and W. S. Vander, the neighbors who most hated the reborn Neil.
At no time did any of the attendants speak to him, and they only bowed to the blank, polite Vestal and the interested Biddy.
The coffin, sloping as it passed down the front steps, slowly moved out of the house. Then Neil first understood how final was death. This was the last time when his father would ever use these steps, up and down which he had trotted, so fussily, so happily, for so many years; and on this last passage, he could not go by himself. He had to be carried, and he could not look back at the house one last time.
Hearth ushered them to their proper places in the funeral cars, in a complicated order of court precedence as though Death were a monarch touchy and demanding of propriety. There were words between Alice Whittick Kingsblood and Kitty Kingsblood Sayward as to which of them ought to sit with Mother. Robert Hearth solved it soothingly, with a brisk bland piety that said, This too shall pass away and you will be surprised and gratified by the reasonableness of my bill.
The cars, when they started, all had their lights on, to indicate that this was a funeral. It was by state law an offense punishable by fine to cross the line of the procession, lest Dr. Kenneth’s feelings be hurt.
Then the coffin was swaying up the steps into the Sylvan Park Baptist Church, and Dr. Shelley Buncer, in Geneva gown, was waiting as though he had never played rummy, but always in shadowy cloisters had meditated upon the resurrection. His sermon was consoling, and he promised all of them that they would soon see their friend again, but he did not seem excited about it.
Neil wondered again at the strangers who had come to mourn his father. Who were they all? Patients? Perhaps some of them knew his father better than he did now. He felt lonely, and suddenly Vestal’s intelligent hand was reassuring him.
He realized how many were staring at him rather than at the pastor; he remembered that to half of them he was a masquerading black man who had been caught and was going to be driven out of town. Then he noticed two unexpected guests whose eyes, as they sat in the back row, tried to tell him their enduring friendship — Evan Brewster, and Dr. Emerson Woolcape, a fellow-dentist to whom Dr. Kenneth had never spoken.
It was cold at the grave, out at Forest Lawn Cemetery on Ottawa Heights, and over the shivering few who had stayed, Dr. Buncer’s brave words seemed to hang and tremble like gray snowflakes.
Then they all turned away and left his father there alone.
When they were home, the Vestal who had been so patient became sharp.
“Oh, quit being sentimental about your father. There’s nothing you can do for him now. But it occurs to me that there’s a lot of things you can do for me and our child. Do you ever stop and think that she is very much your child, too, and so like you in her thoughtlessness? Now that your notorious love of truth and justice has inspired you to turn us into Negroes, just what are your plans for us outcasts? I wasn’t consulted about your public exhibit of yourself, and now I’m waiting to be told what to do!”
“Why, Ves, when you were so wonderful at the funeral —”
“Maybe I’ve been too wonderful. Just what do you intend to do, if that old horsehair sofa, Prutt, turns you out of the bank?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you think you better begin to know?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57