Read Dancing in the Dark Online

Authors: Caryl Phillips

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Dancing in the Dark (10 page)

Strangely enough, the first night that he actually slept in the house on Seventh Avenue, he was sure that he was in Africa. He dreamt of natives with bare feet and painted faces who leapt wildly in frenzied dances. Of oppressive heat, and strange bloodcurdling cries, of jabbering tongues and gatherings of crazed and perspiring people, all of whom seemed intent upon doing his person harm. This was his dream of Africa. There were no gentlemen in fine tailcoats, or wily businessmen, or property deals to be made. No kings, no queens, no princes, no aristocracy, just savages determined to punish him, and he abruptly opened his eyes and realized that he was covered in a heavy sweat. For a moment he had no idea of where he was, and he was unable to break clear of the terror of the dream. Mother was asleep, the moon spilling onto her face through a small gap in the floral drapes, but where was he? And then slowly his mind began to clear, and he heard traffic clipping by on the thoroughfare beneath the window. Seventh Avenue just above 135th Street. Harlem. As close to Africa as one can be in the United States of America, but his dreams were an embarrassment that he knew he must never admit to carrying in his head. He lay in bed in his home, his first real home outside his parents’ house, and he understood that he was now a part of his wife’s world. She, whose kisses tasted like cherries, had now taken control of a large part of his life, but he still possessed freedom in his work, and in his dreams, and
although he felt affection for her he knew that Mother had already accepted that some things between this husband and wife would always remain a neatly executed step or two beyond her authority.

And then later, after the special gala performance of
In Dahomey
, and with the boisterous applause of the audience still buzzing in his head, and the syncopated frenzy of the orchestra still ringing in his ears, he sits alone in his dressing room and begins to remove the face. With each circular movement of the coarse towel more of the character falls away, revealing the true man underneath. He waits until he hears his fellow cast members tumble out of the theater in a state of high excitement and then he savors the silence. Soon heavy footsteps begin to echo along the corridor outside his dressing room, and there is a light knocking at his door. The stage manager enters without waiting for a reply, and he is surprised to find Bert still present and sitting all alone, naked without makeup. Bert observes a flicker of uncertainty register on the man’s face, and he notices that the befuddled stage manager is suddenly unsure how to address the dignified star of the show. However, Mr. Williams makes it clear that there is no need for the man to say anything, for he raises a hand and smiles and lets him know that he will be leaving momentarily. After the stage manager departs, Bert continues to sit for a while, and then he stands and slowly opens the dressing room door. He edges his way past the props that line the narrow corridor before stepping out onto the noisy commotion of Forty-fifth Street. There is nobody by the stage door. His fellow players have not waited for him, but why would they? He feels sure that Mother would have reminded them that impromptu cast parties and such foolishness are not to Mr. Williams’s liking, and so he begins the slow walk up Broadway, away from the lights, his feet hurting after the
excesses of cakewalking, and shuffling around, and generally playing the fool with George. He walks slowly, with head erect and with an evenness of pace, through this most surprising of cities, which, even at this late hour, is still humming with traffic and noise and seemingly reluctant to either sleep or settle down. At the corner of Fifty-third Street he briefly stops and wonders whether he ought to at least show his face at Marshall’s, but he understands that an appearance would probably bemuse, rather than please, his colleagues, and so he decides to walk four or five more blocks and then hail a ride and encourage the driver to trip through the park so that he might keep nature close by himself.

The corner of 135th and Seventh Avenue is his crossroads. The gentility of the neighborhood remains intact in the architecture, but the spirit of quiet contemplation that is suggested by the graceful curves and stately pillars is being slowly undermined by the energy of the new people. He pays the man, and overtips him a little, for it is late and he is always grateful to a driver who will come so far north when it is unlikely that he will be fortunate enough to find a fare to accompany him back south. He can see number 2309 with its short steep flight of steps leading up to the door. The narrow four-storey property is pinned between identical others, and is distinguishable only by the quality of the drapes that hang in the windows. This short row suggests something not quite grand, but something that is clearly beyond the ordinary, but he will not enter just yet, for his wife will still be at Marshall’s, and he has yet to acquaint himself with the procedure of how to walk comfortably into an empty house. He stands and looks at number 2309, and then decides that rather than aimlessly wander the streets on his aching feet he will take a drink in Metheney’s and have himself a little private contemplation. Mother will understand why her dispirited “Jonah Man” is reluctant to enter
the house in its gloomy state, especially as he has just left a dark theater, and she will have no objections to his slipping inside Metheney’s and making himself at home.

A silk-tongued George suggests to Ada that she looks tired and perhaps she ought to leave Marshall’s and go home. Ada turns and smiles, and she announces to those in earshot that she has a headache and that it is probably time for her to leave, but she has a tight feeling in her chest that her colleagues suspect this to be untrue. Number 107 West 132nd Street is a handsome row house just off Sixth Avenue that is divided into apartments, with a tasteful flight of steps that lead to an elegant wooden door. Ada fishes carefully in her bag for her key, and even though she is far beyond people’s eyes she tries to maintain a ladylike dignity. But her George has humiliated her again, although he always does so with the utmost charm. Before she left Marshall’s he whispered to her that he had a chill and she should set a fire and warm up the apartment. He then informed her that when the drinking and carousing had died down a little he still had some business to conduct with Mr. Jesse Shipp and with the composers, Will Cook and Paul Dunbar, for there were a few numbers that needed touching up ahead of tomorrow night’s show, and with rehearsal time being severely limited they would need to get their work started now. She had smiled at George, and having said good-bye to everybody she reassured her husband that she would have no trouble getting back by herself. “You take your time,” were her final words. Lottie had begged Ada to let her accompany her on the journey back north, but Ada was a proud woman. She told Lottie to go back inside and enjoy herself. Everything would be fine. Once Ada found the key to the apartment, and opened the door and passed inside, she lit a fire and watched in silent fascination as the flames rose. She listened to the wood snapping and
breaking loudly under the pressure of the heat. Then Ada looked up and peered out the window and into the empty street, and she caught herself reflected in the glass in this foolish repose and laughed out loud at her stupidity for she understood that once again she was unconsciously hoarding these slights like cards to be dealt on some future occasion, but she already understood that in order for her marriage to work she would have to ignore the pain of her husband’s indiscretions and move on. Ada returned her gaze to the blazing fire, each flame describing a singular dance.

Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan stand by the bar and watch the
In Dahomey
company making their noise and swilling their drinks. Although the two colored veterans have not as yet seen the show, they
have
heard a good portion of what Cook and Dunbar have composed, for the two men tried out their new songs in Marshall’s Lounge. As for the “business” part of the play, well everybody knows that these things are pretty much standard. A little verbal play, some spectacle, plenty of dance, a dash of disharmony, some vestige of tension, and that more or less covers everything. There have been Negro musical comedies before and so, the enviable Broadway location aside, what could be new? However, Cole and Hogan worry, for a success for one does not mean a success for all. The New York theatrical producers are notoriously fickle in their tastes, and they generally like to
pocket
just one colored man at a time, a man who they believe they can safely rely upon and promote, and George Walker is besporting himself as though he believes that he is that man, running his mouth off to Mr. Jesse Shipp and driving home his points with an erect forefinger. The small dark dandy from Kansas seems to have grown six inches as the evening has progressed, and Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan stand by the bar and order another drink without turning their
heads to face the barman. They look straight ahead at the revelry, each man fully understanding what the other is thinking.

Leaving the Rockies behind at dawn, and setting out now across the vast expanse of the plains. He looks at the sun rising in the east and wonders if he should try to find some sleep. All night he has sat bolt upright and awake while his wife has slept peacefully on the noisy train, but his attention is now seized by the dazzling morning display of golden sunlight beginning to flood the prairie, while far off on the horizon there is a sudden flash of color, like a bird turning wing. It seems a whole lifetime ago that he left Florida and cut a swath across this continent from east to west on a ship with his wife and eleven-year-old son. Now here he is charging back across a land that is wild with large animals and dangerous men, but he feels safe on this train, watching the shifting landscapes of the huge country unfold before his eyes. How different from the small, economically impoverished island that he once called home. Riverside, California, has provided him with a roof and the possibility of making a decent living, but now he is reluctantly quarrying his way to the east coast to see the son that he has not seen in nearly ten years. His wife keeps their boy’s few letters safely tucked away in a heavy book, and she often consults the yellowing sheets, running her finger along the words as she reads and rereads, trying to memorize the sentences as though they are the comforting words to a vaguely familiar song. However, it disappoints them both that as yet their secretive son has failed to send them an up-to-date portrait of either himself or his bride, their daughter-in-law, and they both worry that the gap that has grown up between them during this past decade may yet prove to be as wide and unbridgeable as the country that they are now traveling across.

I’M A JONAH MAN

 

(Lyrics and Music by Alex. Rogers)

 

My hard luck started when I was born, leas’ so the old folks say.
Dat same hard luck been my bes’ fren’ up to dis very day.
When I was young my mamma’s fren’s to find a name they tried.
They named me after Papa and the same day Papa died.
For I’m a Jonah,
I’m an unlucky man.

My family for many years would look on me and then shed tears.
Why am I dis Jonah I sho’ can’t understand,
But I’m a good substantial full-fledged real first-class Jonah man.
A fren’ of mine gave me a six-month meal ticket one day.
He said, “It won’t do me no good, I’ve got to go away.”
I thanked him as my heart wid joy and gratitude did bound.
But when I reach’d the restaurant the place had just burn’d down.
For I’m a Jonah,
I’m an unlucky man.

It sounds just like that old, old tale,
But sometimes I feel like a whale.
Why am I dis Jonah I sho’ can’t understand,
But I’m a good substantial full-fledged real first-class Jonah man.
My brother once walk’d down the street and fell into a coal hole.
He sued the man that owned the place and got ten thousand cold.
I figured this was easy so I jump’d in the same coal hole.
Broke both my legs and the judge gave me one year for stealin’ coal.
For I’m a Jonah,
I’m an unlucky man.

If it rain’d down soup from morn till dark,
Instead of a spoon I’d have a fork.
Why am I dis Jonah I sho’ can’t understand,
But I’m a good substantial full-fledged real first-class Jonah man.

At the darkest point of the night he wakes suddenly with a dry throat and a vague tapping in his head. A shaft of moonlight stripes the bed and for a moment he studies the interplay of light and shadow before deciding what to do. He knows that it will take him some time before he becomes accustomed to living uptown, above the park in Harlem, but he understands that the woman next to him has made the right decision. Slowly he peels back the sheet and eases himself out of the bed and down onto the bare floorboards. The new carpet has yet to arrive. He stretches and then pushes his aching feet into a pair of slippers that have been deliberately placed beside the bed for this very purpose. Once he reaches the kitchen he nimbly swallows the first glass of water, then he takes his time with the second. He leaves the kitchen and wanders into the drawing room and sits on the sofa. From here he can look out at Seventh Avenue and relish the solitude of a windy night whose peace is broken only by the odd carriage that clips by, or a passing stranger hurrying his way home after an illicit assignation. He draws his feet up and lies back, glass still in hand, and then he reaches over and gingerly places the glass down on the floor beside him. It is light when he opens his eyes, and daylight is streaming through the window and laying a dappled map on the floor. Somebody has placed a blanket over him.

.   .   .

She stands over him and clutches the blanket to her chest. She has never really spoken to her sleeping husband about Florence, but she has expressed regret that her three nieces are growing up with neither a mother nor a father, their only relative being an aunt who they don’t know. And he has listened to her, and encouraged her to bring the girls from East St. Louis to New York City, where they might have something akin to family life, but she knows that despite his protestations this is not what her husband really desires, for family life would be a distraction from his work. She carefully places the blanket over him and then she turns and leaves the drawing room. She had long ago convinced herself that to be touched was not that important, and she had imagined, as was the case with Mr. Sam Thompson, that once they were married he would choose not to press any serious claim upon her body. And being a gentleman, Mr. Williams has chosen not to do so.

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