On this same avenue down which he hurried now, he had once walked with his father on bright Sunday mornings and vibrant Sunday nights. Church-goers and heretics passed them, dressed in their brightest clothes. On Sunday the sun never failed to shine; on Sunday nights the stars were brighter and the sky was a deeper blue. When they turned the comer that led to the church, they saw the lighted windows and heard, with a fierce excitement, the sound of tambourines and singing and the clapping of hands. Then they hurried to reach the house of God. So had his father lived in the Southern cotton fields; so had his mother lived before him; who, born a slave, and with no knowledge—“as men call knowledge”—yet turned, sobbing, on her final pillow, “A mighty fortress is our God.” When Johnnie was very young, though he feared his father and was frightened and troubled at church, he did not doubt that the gospel his father preached, to which the church bore witness, was the truth; that under the shadow of His everlasting wings was all love and all power and the assured redemption of his soul. One wintertime, while his mother was again pregnant and his father had no job, and they lived, his mother and his father and his two brothers and himself, in two cold rooms at the top of a tenement where rats whispered behind the plaster and harlots made love behind the stairs, Johnnie had cursed God. But to curse God is not to doubt Him. His father stripped him naked and beat him until he lay on the splintery floor, in feverish sobbing and in terror of death.
In a hospital in Long Island his father now lay dying. He had been ill a long while, but Johnnie, who no longer lived in Harlem, had never been to see him. And he hurried unwillingly now, only because his mother was ill and had called him at his downtown rooming house to beg him, for her sake, not to let his father die with only strangers at his bedside. By strangers she meant white strangers; she surely knew that Johnnie was a stranger in his father’s eyes.
According to the vision of their church, in which, at length, he became a burdened hope, the son of a prophet, all that was in the world was sin. He was not allowed to go to movies or to plays; smoking and drinking were forbidden. It was not thought wise to read more at school than was absolutely necessary, for schools also, it had been revealed, might function as the anteroom to hell. One read the newspapers only to remark how exactly, how relentlessly, the Word of God approached fulfillment. From his pulpit his father warned them of the wrath to come. “Behold, in the last days there shall be wars and rumours of wars; nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.” Many an ancient throne shall topple and many a king, like Nebuchadnezzar, crawl raving in the dust. But all these things (and Amen! cried the church and once his own heart had cried. Amen!) should bring rejoicing to the hearts of the redeemed. For it meant that their trials on earth were nearly done, their salvation was at hand: in the twinkling of an eye that same power which raised Jesus from the dead would lift them from the guilty earth and, for their reward, they would triumph over death and hell and reign forever with the Father and the Son. But by this time Johnnie was a child no longer, but an eighteen-year-old about to leave high school where he had read too much. What he had read undermined his faith and, equally, what his faith had been distorted all that he had read. His faith was nothing but panic and his thoughts were all confusion. Then he hated his father. He fought to be free of his father and his father’s God, now so crushingly shapeless and omnipotent, Who had come out of Eden and Jerusalem and Africa to sweeten the cotton-field and make endurable the lash, and Who now hovered, like the promise of mercy, above the brutal Northern streets.
He began to backslide as an angel falls: headlong, furious, anxious to discover the utmost joys of hell. The joys of hell are as difficult to discover as the joys of heaven and are even more over-rated. He began to smoke, though it made him dizzy, and he began to drink, though it made him sick. He forced his tongue, which had shouted Hallelujah! and Praise the Lord! to use a more infernal language. The boys he knew then, in his last year at high school, were more civilized than he and more worldly. He listened to their version of the Scriptures. Yet when one of them, a boy named David, one afternoon took him to a movie (he had said very casually, Yes, I’d like to go) he sat in the dark and trembled, waiting for the ceiling to fall, for the awful light of the second coming to fill the theater, and the wrath of God, unloosed, to hurl him into the lake that burned forever with brimstone fire.
David and his father met once, just before Johnnie left home. David called for him one Saturday afternoon to take him downtown somewhere. As David, very hot and uncomfortable in the little living room, rose to leave, his father held out his hand and said, “Are you a Christian?” David reddened and tried to smile. “No,” he said. “I’m Jewish.” His father dropped his hand and turned away. Johnnie opened the door quickly and pushed David in front of him into the hall. When he pulled the door shut behind him he looked into his father’s eyes. His father looked on him with that distant hatred with which one considers Judas; and yet with more than that, for, his father’s eyes told him, he was henceforth damned by his own wish, having forsaken the few righteous to make his home in the populous Sodom and entered into an alliance with his father’s enemies and the enemies of the Lord.
The conductor called out his station and he walked to the door, waiting for the train to stop. There were trees along the road he took to the hospital and a few neat, characterless houses, with here and there a hedge, clipped into a round shape, as unreal looking and as fragile as the glittering baubles that hang from Christmas trees. This was a world he might never enter, the world his father had despised. The world had rejected his father as it now rejected him. But “Fear not,” his father had preached, “them that are able to kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” When his father spoke from the pulpit one did not ask whether he spoke with the fire of bitterness or the fire of love. In the leaden days, the wintry days, in their several, precarious homes, when they were alone with no singing, and no transfiguring light made his father’s head majestic, was he sad? When he wept and trembled on his knees before God in the overwhelming joy of his salvation did he also weep to see that his children grew thin and surly, that he was not always able to provide their bread? Then for the first time he tried to imagine his father lying helpless on white sheets, among strangers, being handled and ruled by strangers, his own will being set at naught.
He passed through the gates and began a half run up the walk, for suddenly he had to look at his father’s face again. At the end of the walk stood the great silent building in which his father lay; silence covered these grounds and all the buildings, a silence that frightened him unreasonably.
The nurse considered him with cold, almost hostile detachment. “Yes?”
He realized that his face was wet He stammered: “Is Gabriel Grimes a patient here?”
“Are you a relative?”
Without a word she opened the door so that he could enter and, as he entered, locked it behind him. Then she turned and he followed her. The corridor was much longer than it had seemed when he peered in from the outside and the white pressed on his temples. The floor was white, of some material like marble, slippery and veined with gray. They opened a door and mounted a flight of steps, marble like the floor and whiter. At the top of the staircase was a series of doors, secret, dark-brown, against the pressing white. The thin fall sun crept in through opaque windows; it was like an old house in mourning.
The nurse opened one of the doors and they faced a tall man, nearly bald, who wore a white coat and gray trousers. He was standing in a very small room, which seemed to have no windows and was of a dull, smoke-like color. On the desk, in an ashtray, was a smoking cigar.
“Yes?” said the doctor.
“Grimes,” the nurse replied. It was as if some secret signal for his destruction had been exchanged over his head. She left, closing the door behind her.
“Have a seat,” the doctor said; very kindly, so that Johnnie knew that the doctor was uncomfortable. He sat down in the soft leather chair, looking about the room for some object which would engage his attention. The doctor sat down behind the desk, facing him; he opened a folder.
“You’re his oldest son?”
The gray-green eyes looked at him sharply. He looked away.
“You’ve never visited your father here before?”
“No.” He coughed. It sounded obscene, diseased, in the antiseptic room. “I—I haven’t been living at home.”
The doctor turned back to the folder. “He was admitted here nearly two years ago. Had you left home then?”
“Did you know he’d been admitted?”
Again the gray-green eyes whipped him lightly, pursuing some conjecture of their own. Johnnie looked down at the smouldering cigar. The string of his loins threatened to snap.
“Do you know what it was your father suffered from?”
“No. I—my mother told me something—it wasn’t very clear.” He tried to smile; the doctor ignored it.
“It was a kind of paranoia. He was always religious, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. He was.”
The doctor looked at him. “He may have brooded about this. You left very shortly before he was brought here?”
“You and he had quarrelled?”
“Your father stopped working and stopped preaching, stayed at home and read his Bible and prayed. He refused to eat because he said his family was trying to poison him. Your mother has told us that he would steal out of the house and buy a bag of fruit, oranges or the like, and come back and sit in a corner and eat them, rind, pulp, and all.”
He said nothing and watched the doctor. The doctor picked up the cigar and put it down.
“We had a great deal of trouble with him here. When he had been here a short while we realized that he was tubercular. We did what we could—” He paused and looked at Johnnie. “He is in a coma now. Would you like to see him?”
“Yes,” he said.
The doctor rose from the desk and, standing, crushed the cigar. Automatically, Johnnie rose too, bracing his shaking legs. The doctor moved to the door. “He is just down the hall,” the doctor said.
He followed the doctor out of the door. He stared at the doctor’s moving back and looked away, for the doctor’s jacket was white and the motion made him sick. He felt that he was being slowly, irrevocably trapped.
They entered a small room, with curtained windows. There was a shaded bulb high in the ceiling. There was nothing in the room except a bed and a chair and a screen around the bed. The shaded bulb was black-gray in the socket.
“He has been quite ill,” the doctor said.
He nodded, but did not move. The doctor looked at him kindly for a moment and motioned for him to follow behind the screen. He moved slowly behind the doctor. At the edge of the screen the doctor stopped; he looked at the doctor, wondering what was wrong, and realized that the doctor was being tactful. He did not feel that he should be present at the last meeting of a son and his father.
So he reluctantly stepped behind the screen. He was overwhelmed by the bed; but he did not look at the bed directly. As though he were wading in deep water he held his head very high and braced his body. He saw the white bedposts, he was aware of a body’s outline on the bed; then, with a wrench, as though some strong hand had grasped the back of his head and turned it roughly, as though his father were forcing him to look down on the evidence of some misdemeanor, he forced himself to look down on the bed. There lay his father, black against white sheets.
And his gorge rose. This could not be his father. The heavy skull pressed into the pillow; the deep eye sockets pressed into the skull. The eyes were open, black, and varnished, the straight nose flared and trembled above the purple lips. The mouth was open and foam-flecked. The neck stretched like a phallic column, obscene and secret, with a very slow, indifferent pulsation. The skeleton, beneath the twin, inadequate coverings of the white blankets and the black skin, rose in sharp, sardonic edges, like blunted knives pushing through leather. The wrist was now a polished bone, the fingers were of ebony, with blue nails. From beneath the blanket a wild thigh and ankle showed. The thigh was no thicker than the forearm. All over the room suddenly there was a sick sweet sour smell.
It was his father that he watched dying; and no more would this violent man possess him; this arm would never be raised again. The ragged edge of sound which now issued from the throat would be silence soon or singing behind the far-flung stars. Now he was the man, the conqueror, alone on the tilting earth.
He felt thrown without mercy into everlasting space; or as though some door on which he had been knocking with all his weight had been, without warning, rudely opened; and now, like a two-year-old, he sprawled on his face and belly and burning knees, into an unfamiliar room, screaming with that unutterably astounded, apocalyptic terror of a child.
He moved nearer to the bed and murmured Daddy. And the sound stopped, the skeleton became perfectly still. Then it seemed that there was no sound being made anywhere on earth. Now communication, forgiveness, deliverance, never, the hope was gone. He’s gone to meet the Lord.
He laughed to himself at the phrase and again he called his father. A voice said, Here now Here now. He felt hands on his shoulders and he tried to break away, screaming for his father. But he knew, in the awful, endless silence at the bottom of his mind, that it was himself who cried and himself who listened, that his cry would never be heard; it would bang forever against the walls of heaven and he would live with his recurring cry, the force of his anguish powerless to defeat the force of time and death. He wanted to run, to hide, to run out of the world and be forever hidden; but hands were holding him, a white face overwhelmed him, shooting out gray-green lights like signals for his destruction. He beat against the whiteness until his arms seemed bleeding in their sockets. Then the hands stapled his arms behind him; he sweated with the pain; and the gray-veined, marble floor opened up and dropped him a long way down.
They made him drink cocoa and rest and they wiped his forehead with an evil-smelling ointment. He took from their hands the brown paper bundle of his father’s clothes and walked the long corridor to the door. The door crashed behind him and he ran down the walk to the iron gates which reared and glittered against the black, descending sky.
But the stars were out and the moon, a crescent, hung fanged and evil, gleaming through the passing clouds. He walked the railroad platform, carrying the bundle of his father’s clothes, waiting for the train to the city. Far behind him stood the hospital buildings, sprawling and sinister and all the windows dark.
Tomorrow a wagon would arrive from the city to take his father’s body away. For three days he would lie in state in a shabby velvet funeral parlor; men and women from the church would come and look down on his father and whisper and leave. They would look on his son, his oldest son, and warn him of the enormity of the danger in which he had placed his soul.
Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. He paced the platform, carrying the bundle, listening to the sharp crack of his heels on the wood. He lit a cigarette; the brief flare lit up the night around him and he held the match until it burned his fingers and then dropped it and ground it beneath his heel.
A cloud uncovered the moon again. He watched it move slowly across the sky, impossible, eternal, burning, like God hanging over the world.