Authors: Caryl Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #General
He tells her that after Cripple Creek he and George decided to head east. He tells her this as part of his wooing narrative and she listens to her tall, handsome young man who always remembers to bring her flowers. Sitting together on one of the two benches in
modest city park, he admits that by the time the pair of them reached Detroit they both realized that they would have to try something new. He pauses and coughs, and then he looks all about them. They like to sit together and feel New York City licking past on either side, marooned in this small quadrant of concrete with the tattoo of horse’s hooves filling the silences in their sputtering conversation. He now looks her full in the face as a distant church bell strikes the hour and signals the onset of dusk. In Detroit we made the decision, at Moore’s Wonderland Theatre. Again he pauses, but he is careful to make sure that the smile never leaves his lips. He is tense and eager that none should
overhear, but there is nobody else in the park. She does not understand. You see, he continues, it made more sense to both George and myself that we exchange roles, so I became the clown and he became the straight man, and right away the laughs came more easily. She watches as he throws back his head and laughs out loud. Walker and Williams became Williams and Walker. You’d never believe it was George, stepping and prancing and throwing everybody those uppity looks, and our immediate success made us wonder why we had never thought of it before. It also made things a little easier between the two of us, although there had never been any real problems, just a little tension from the way things were working out, but it was not anybody’s fault, and neither one of us was blaming the other one. He pauses as though he has suddenly revealed too much, and she looks at him but says nothing. His mind is still full and he has not finished. They both know that there is something else. And so, having paused for as long as he dare, he continues. And the makeup. George was not happy but I tried the makeup and became somebody else. She watches his face struggle to hold the smile. The makeup. She places her hand on his arm and squeezes slightly. She understands that he is asking to be forgiven, but he is not an uncouth Ethiopian delineator, nor is he a shouting coon. He is no Ernest Hogan or Bob Cole in crude blackface. She understands that her suitor is a man who is playing a part. He is playing a shuffling, dull-witted, clumsy, watermelon-eating Negro of questionable intelligence. He is playing a character. He is a performer who applies makeup in order to play a part. Sitting in the small concrete park, his large hand now resting lightly on her left knee, she smiles and then decides that the less they talk about Detroit the better it will be for both of them. She takes her small hand from his arm and places it on top of his hand. And then, he says, his hypnotic voice as insistent as waves breaking against the
shore, we made our way to New York City and became the Two Real Coons and entered vaudeville, which meant no more medicine shows, no more Barbary Coast or Cripple Creek, we were in New York City doing vaudeville with George’s new dandified character and my own impersonation of a Negro. I was now the lazy, slow-footed half of the team, and I had adopted cork. She looks at the beautiful white roses in her lap. He always chooses the finest blossoms and these days her room is forever high with the aroma of freshly cut stems. Although she has said nothing to anybody beyond Ada, everybody knows that a gentleman caller is pursuing the recently widowed Mrs. Thompson, for the scent of flowers permeates the musty air of the otherwise dull boardinghouse. Again, he looks across at her. The light is beginning to fade now, but she can see that he is watching her closely as she reaches with her free hand and pulls the shawl closer to her shoulders. A casually draped arm would be acceptable, but she understands that he is not this type of a man. Up above, the wind begins to comb through the solitary tree, and she spies a slither of moon in the darkening sky. I have not talked about the cakewalk, he says. It was George’s idea to add the cakewalk to the act for he thought that it would make everything a little more tasteful. He opens up his smile now, and she smiles along with him. She knows all about the cakewalk, for these days everybody does the cakewalk in their act, but only Williams and Walker have the nerve to call themselves the world champions of this elegantly strutting dance and to challenge all comers. Only Williams and Walker possess such a high sense of themselves, but after all, this is why she is sitting right here with Mr. Williams. She admires his spirit, and she is at peace with everything that he has told her. As they fall again into one of their familiar silences, she feels happy that he has shared with her at least one small part of the story of his passage to New York, but already she understands that this
man’s heart is likely to remain a deep ocean of jeweled secrets, some of which, with time, he may well bestow upon her. As the tree finally fades to black and the streetlights are illuminated, this thought comforts her. But her suitor does not appear ready to leave just yet. He seems to be lost in his own thoughts, and she is reluctant to say anything that might disturb his reverie, and so, despite the cold that is piercing her shawl and tormenting her thin body, and the wind that is threatening to dislodge her small hat, Lottie sits in the gloomy park and says nothing.
“Lottie child, you really want to marry a colored performer? Girl, you scarcely know the man.” Ada tightens the straps on her shoes. “Your husband’s barely cold, but at least Sam was a businessman. This white man’s fool acts like he’s better than us, but you and me both know that he ain’t no better than any of us, even if people
know how to call out his name.”
Lottie looks herself up and down in the dressing room mirror, and then she picks up the powder brush. These days she finds it necessary to apply extra makeup, which both depresses and alarms her. She knows that at her age she ought to be thinking of taking up something other than hoofing and clowning, and her late husband always said as much. But what? She pivots and faces Ada, whose exasperated expression makes it plain that there is little point in Lottie saying anything further. Clearly, Ada understands that Lottie’s sail is already hoisted, and that she is moving inexorably in the direction of her young man, and this being the case Lottie decides to say nothing and simply finish applying her makeup. Perhaps, Ada should mind her business. Young Mr. Williams never said that he was better than anybody else, but she won’t bother to remind Ada of this fact. All young Mr. Williams does is
as though he is better than other folks, and this is good enough for her. This has made all the difference.
On the day of the wedding Lottie opens her door and discovers Ada standing before her with one hand planted firmly on her hip.
“Good morning, Ada.”
Lottie steps to one side to let her friend pass by. As she does so she smells the perfume and the lavender water that Ada loves to sprinkle about her neck and wrists in a poor attempt to mask the stench of the hair products that Mrs. McDonald from Jamaica sells Ada by the bucketful, foul-smelling creams and ointments that promote the so-called new colored beauty.
“You’re not planning on taking a seat?”
Ada sits with a theatrical heaviness that suggests unease. Lottie stares at her friend and then decides that whatever is on her mind, Ada must take responsibility for sharing it. She looks beyond Ada and out through the undraped window at the beautiful fall morning in New York City. This should be a day of joy, but Lottie is being forced to endure the irksome presence of her friend, who now slumps.
you want to marry to this man?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’m thirty-four years old, and nobody ever accused Charlotte Louis Johnson of not knowing her own mind.”
A silence descends between them and Lottie feels guilty for having spoken so sharply. She looks at Ada, who is now concentrating on the floor beneath her feet.
“Ada, if you’re concerned that I haven’t finished my grieving for Mr. Thompson, then you can quit your worrying. Sam was a businessman in all things, including his marriage. He took good care of me, and made sure that I didn’t want for anything, but Sam’s gone, and I’ve done my share of lamenting on account of my late husband.”
Her friend looks up and meets her eyes.
“Lottie, I only want what’s good and right for you, but since I started to see George I noticed something about the both of them. Fact is they’re already married to their work. All they ever think about is what they need to do to make Williams and Walker even more famous. I mean, do you think that either of them are really going to lose any sleep troubling themselves over us?”
The street noise begins to rise now as the day matures. She understands that Ada means well, and a part of Lottie wants to reach out and hug her. But on this most special of days what she desires more than anything else is for Ada to wish her unconditional joy and happiness. However, Ada continues to sit marooned in her own circle of frustration and Lottie stares blankly at her friend and tries not to let Ada’s words or behavior cloud her second wedding day. She already knows that her husband-to-be is an ambitious man, and she has already discovered that beyond his declarations of affection for her he has difficulty sharing his feelings. But he cares, that much she is sure of, and in spite of Ada’s words of caution she believes that the future is theirs for them to make together.
Ada walks briskly up Seventh Avenue, threading her way neatly through the morning rush of pedestrians. She feels guilty for she knows that her visit has unsettled her friend, but after the wedding there will be ample time for her to repair whatever damage she has wrought. Right now she must hurry and collect her new dress. When she reaches Fifty-third Street she looks up at the tracks of iron that stride through the air above her, and then she hears the sound of the train as it thunders its way in her direction. The smooth majestic turn to the east has already taken place on Ninth, and as it now enters the block between Sixth and Seventh it begins to slow down and make ready for the sharp turn south
on Sixth Avenue. Ada crosses the street, preferring not to walk beneath the train as its brakes begin to screech. Superstition, she knows, but she backs into a doorway and waits. As the train passes from view the acrid, soot-laden air blows into her face. Fifty-third Street may be the center of colored American life, the main street of black Bohemia, but Ada has never felt truly comfortable on these dark blocks that are shadowed with the latticework of the El.
He slips the ring neatly onto her finger, it requiring neither pull nor push for he has been careful to ensure that it is the right size. Whenever he held her hand he surreptitiously measured her ring finger with the tips of his own delicate fingers, and she smiled imagining that his subtle squeeze was nothing more than that—a subtle squeeze. She angles her face up toward his and he leans down and for the first time he publicly tastes those lips. Cherry. She tastes like cherries, and a smile lights up his face. He raises his eyes and looks across at George and Ada. He is kissing his wife, and on this special day she tastes like cherries and he is happy for he loves cherries.
His marriage surprises the ambitious colored men of Marshall’s Lounge, for they never imagined him to be a kinsman who revered women. In fact, nobody can remember a time when they’d ever witnessed him with female companionship, but George, who has known him longer than anybody, refuses to offer up an opinion on the subject even though Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan buy extra drinks and try to encourage him to talk. But George remains steadfastly silent, and the newly married couple move into a large room at the top of the hotel and thereafter pretty much keep to themselves. Sometimes Bert will sit out with George and smoke a cigarette and plan what their next move
might be, and occasionally they are joined by the industrious Will Cook and his impatient partner, Paul Dunbar. All four of them believe that legitimate musical entertainment is the way forward for the colored man, and they spend their days writing songs and sketches and their nights speculating about the future. An excitable George will sometimes whisper in his partner’s ear that Cook and Dunbar are the men who are definitely going to rescue them from the New York City vaudeville circuit, and if they are ever going to be more than Two Real Coons then they ought to listen to these men. And so they listen to Dunbar’s fiery talk, and they tune in to the silvery melodies that Cook hammers out on the piano in Marshall’s Lounge, but they are not the only ones who are paying attention. Bob Cole and Ernest Hogan sit around with their expensive drinks and their ostentatious cigars, and they also give ear to Cook’s melodies and Dunbar’s versifying for despite the crude limitations of their own minstrelsy they too have dreams of stardom. Bert is soon convinced that Cook and Dunbar are indeed the key to their future, and although he has recently married, he too learns to stay up late. As the men’s voices soar louder with each late-night round of drinks, Bert discovers how to make his own contribution to the proceedings, adding an erudite point here or a powerful suggestion there as he stabs the air with his cigarette. He is avoiding something; they all know it, but nobody, not even George, will speak of this directly. Together with Cook and Dunbar, the four men intensify their planning and arguing, and they squabble over the virtues of the cakewalk, and which theaters a colored performer ought best to avoid, and whether coon songs really do bring down the race, and how much a man can think or feel beyond the mask, but nobody asks Bert why he is not upstairs with Lottie, who they know regards the habitués of Marshall’s Lounge with a barely disguised contempt. Bert’s world is dividing into two, and it is clear that at some point
a decision will have to be made, but this is his own private business and it has nothing to do with anybody else; not these men, not George, nobody.