Today's Reading

FIRST PART

CHAPTER ONE


In the main ward of the great hospital Lafala lay like a sawed-off stump and pondered the loss of his legs. Now more vividly than ever in his life he visualized the glory and the joy of having a handsome pair of legs.

Once again in the native compounds of the bush with naked black youth, he was baptized in a flood of emotion retasting the rare delight the members of his tribe felt always by the sight of fine bodies supported by strong gleaming legs.

The older tribesmen appraised the worth of the young by the shape of their limbs. Long legs and slender made good swimmers. Stout legs and thick, good carriers. Lithe and sinewy were runners' legs. And long swinging monkey arms marked expert climbers of palms and jungle trees.

The lads fancied the girls by the form of their legs, the shape of hips and firmness of thighs in symmetrical motion with coral-covered arms poised at oblique angles steadying burdens on their heads.

Lafala as a boy was proud of his legs, participating in all of childhood's leg play, running and climbing and jumping, and dancing in the moonlight in the village yard. He remembered lying down naked under the moon and stars while his playmates traced his image with pieces of crockery. And when they were finished they all held hands and danced around it singing "The Moonshine Kid." He remembered the fine shock of wading through the tall grass in the cool early morning after the hot night, the heavy dews bathing his naked skin. ...

As a kid boy, the missionaries brought him from the bush to the town where they lived and taught. His legs were put in pants and soon, soon he learned among other things the new delight of legs. ... Legs like a quartette of players performing the passionate chamber music of life. Loud notes and soft, notes whispering like a warm breath, a long and noiseless kiss, flutes and harps joined in enchanting adventures, in ritual unison, trembling and climbing together in the high song of life and leaving unforgettable sensations in the blood, in the brain.

Legs of ebony, legs of copper, legs of ivory moving pell-mell in columns against his imagination. ... Dancing on the toes, dancing on the heels, dancing flat-footed. Lafala's dancing legs had carried him from Africa to Europe, from Europe to America.

Legs. ... Feet that were accustomed to dig themselves into the native soil, into lovely heaps of leaves, and affectionate tufts of grass, were now introduced to luxuries of socks and shoes and beds of iron.

Lafala had gone on wandering impressionably from change to change like a heedless young pilgrim with nothing but his staff in his hand and playing variations on the march of legs. Come trouble, come worry, blue days without a job, without food, without love. ... Dance away. ... Think not of age, of accident, the festering and mortification of youth and poisoned worms corroding through the firm young flesh to the sepulchral skeleton. His dancing legs would carry him over all.

Suddenly they were jerked off and there he lay helpless.

• • •

On an impulse of self-disgust Lafala had stowed away from Marseille leaving at Quayside pals and wenches, frustrated feelings and dark desire. For there he had met the Negroid wench Aslima, a burning brown mixed of Arab and Negro and other wanton bloods perhaps that had created her a barbaric creature.

It was a time of universal excitement after the war and even among Negroes there were signs of a stirring and from the New World a dark cry of "Back to Africa" came over the air.

Lafala was a child of black bush Africa. The missionaries had brought him out of the bush to educate in the mission school of the town. But Lafala had not remained a missionary credit. He left the school to ship as a sailor boy. He reached the land of the missionaries and stayed there, spending himself in the low-down places of many ports.

There Lafala heard the other Negroes discussing the Back-to-Africa news and wondering what would become of it. Lafala listened and was stirred too. Return. ... Return. ... Turn away from strange scenes and false gods to find salvation in native things. ...

Then Lafala met Aslima, a near-native thing, and there found a way to go back too, he thought, if he could ever wrench free from the fascinating new idols native to go again. Aslima was a striking girl with a face that looked as if it was hewn out of hard brown wood into beauty. And like a magnet she drew Lafala to herself. Day and night they spent together, eating, drinking and sleeping together. Dancing together in the bars down at Quayside. Going boating together in the bay, their faces moistened by the salty spray, happy little brown and black birds together.

Ah! It was the happy meaning of a dream. Aslima was the real thing, Lafala thought. Not just a transient piece of luck of a moment only. But alas he awoke one morning to find that Aslima had snatched all his material assets and left him with the dream.

An object of ridicule and an object of pity at Quayside, Lafala had no desire to remain there and join the gang of dark drifters until his only suit was worn to rags. And so, disgusted and chagrined, he had stowed away as soon as he found an accessible ship.

Being very black, Lafala had hoped to escape detection in the gloominess of the bunker. But they found him. He was locked up in a miserable place. It was very cold crossing the Atlantic. When the mess boy brought him food, Lafala tried to explain that he was freezing to death. But they could not understand each other. It was a foreign ship and the mess boy did not think that Lafala's signs were serious enough to call an officer.

By the time the ship docked, Lafala's legs were frozen stiff. From the ship he was taken to the immigration hospital. There the doctors told him that they could save his life only by cutting off his legs.

Lafala passed out from hearing or feeling anything. He had a confused vision of childish impressions of the bush country and then all was blank. When he came back to the reality of himself and his environment, his dependable feet were gone.

Oh, that he had not been brought back from the state of oblivion! In a strange land, without home, without friends, without resources, without his greatest asset—his faithful feet! Why had the doctors saved him? He had often heard his ignorant companions say that hospitals were the final passage to the grave for poor and unknown persons. The black drifters were superstitiously afraid of hospitals. They said the doctors never had enough corpses for laboratory work and would not worry about the life of a poor unknown beggar when a body was wanted for dissection.

All that talk was just so much bunk, he mused now. The doctors had been so assiduous attending to him, the nurses so kind. Terrible attention and kindness, for what was he going to do with himself when he was better and discharged? With the crutches in his armpits would he have to squat down on the hard-hearted city pavement and beg, he who had gone so headlong proud through life?

Better he had not come back to this reality. Life was now behind him. In the future there was no hope. Peering, exploring, the world that he saw was a ball heavy with mist with no light or warmth.

Oh, God! He whinnied like a sick pony in a paddock and buried his face in the pillow, his stump of a body twitching under the long white nightshirt.

• • •

Lafala was in heaven. There were no black things there. The terraces were paved with gold and beautiful flowers of every hue spilled their scents everywhere. There were pretty woodlands with spotless pools where birds of the richest tropical colors nested and were ever singing. The palaces were wonderful creations of marble and crystal and rarest glass reflecting white the saints and angels in attitudes of heavenly voluptuousness. Lafala was transfigured beyond remembering what complexion he was, but his legs were all right there, prancing to the lascivious music of heavenly jazz.

Oh, what a welcome there. ... All the jazz hounds who raised hell in the mighty cities of earth were summoned here by the Almighty to welcome him. All the saints were strutting their stuff and the angels fluttering their wings for him, the center of attraction. A beautiful angel child was floating toward him. What magnificent wings! Many were the birds that Lafala had known on earth, but none with wings like this argent gorgeousness. The angel child was certainly coming to take him to the Prince of Heaven, to the throne above all thrones in the Holiest of the holy places.

The wings were enveloping him. He was lifted up. The music now far away reached him as from a celestial broadcasting station. On, on through heavenly space!

Angel wings! Salvation. How comforting to be warmly folded.

A sudden stop. Arrival. Was that the Prince of Heaven bending down to welcome him?

• • •

Lafala opened his eyes and saw a huge black face, yellow teeth in a badly-molded mouth, bending over him. Black things in heaven! Good God! And he was black in hell. A block of blackness in a hospital shirt. Why was he dumped down so violently upon the fact of himself and what did this other black want fooling over him?

Lafala had never liked him although they were the only two Negroes in the ward. The other black patient irritated him.

It seemed to Lafala that he was jealous of him because he was a favorite among the nurses and even the doctors took more than an ordinary interest in him.

Lafala was really handsome. A shining blue blackness, arresting eyes, a fine protruding forehead topped by a mat of closely-weaved black hair. Sometimes the nurses asked him to say something in his tribal language and one day he sang a little song of his people that they all liked. He was happy that he could do something to please them. Then suddenly he remembered his legs and was sad and tears stole down his face. He was very agitated and shuddered thinking of the future. The nurse that always attended to him patted him gently and Lafala kissed her hand and held it against his cheek. ...

The other black, whose cot was on the side of the ward opposite Lafala, observed them with a grin and later in the day when the nurse approached him to do something, he grabbed her hand and kissed it. She gave him a slap and cried "Insolent nigger!" And he became very angry and morose.

What did he want with his objectionable mug hanging over me? thought Lafala.

"I jest want to say bye-bye and good luck, ole fellah, 'cause they done told me I can quit this shop today and although we ain't been no best buddies"—he hesitated a little—"I bin thinking right hard ef I kaint do some'n' on the outside foh you."

"No, nothing. You know they are going to ship me back to the port I stowed away from as soon as I am better," Lafala replied impatiently.

"But it's that there case o' yourn," the American black insisted. "You oughta get some good money with you laigs chopped off and throwed away like trash. I been thinking big about you' case as I done heared it told and I believe theah's good money in it."

"Money," sneered Lafala. "I stowed away on the white man's boat. Do you think they're going to pay me for getting cold feet?"

"We got laws ovah heah can see about that better'n them in the woods you come out of, fellah," the America said with a friendly grin.

He told Lafala that there were lawyers in the mighty city who knew how to squeeze money out of all kinds of accidents. He made Lafala relate all the details of his stowing away, how he was discovered, how he was treated, the kind of cell in which he was locked up. ...

"It was a toilet," Lafala said.

"You mean a lav'try?"

"No, a real WC."

"But that ain't possible in Gawd's kingdom. They wouldn't do that to a hog."

"They did it to me all right though, and they knew what they were doing too, for after they fed me they didn't even think it was necessary to let me out to take the air."

The American shook his head with a ripe giggle.

"You nevah can tell what a white man will do. But all the same I'm going to take this business a yours to a white lawyer. I don't trust no nigger lawyers. They'll sell you out every time."

Lafala wanted to defend Negro lawyers.

The American Negro grinned. "Race ain't nothing in this heah hoggish scramble to get theah, fellah, wif the black hogs jest that much worser because them is way, ways back behind. Ise gwina get you a go-get-'im-skin-and-scalp-him of a lawyer and take it from me that when him done get through fixing you up youse gwina have you a pair of legs to walk on and good dollars in you pocket."

"You think so?" asked Lafala.

"I done think, I knows it."

Alone, Lafala wondered if anything would come from the talk of Black Angel. It was the first sign of hope for the future that he had seen. He had never before thought of gaining something from such a loss, never dreamed there was the slightest chance. The hospital staff had avoided talking to him about the subject of his future. Doctors and nurses. "Poor boy!" a doctor would ejaculate, passing his cot. Sometimes he noticed a group of visiting doctors and internes and students talking with sympathetic glances towards him. He knew they had been told about his case. The nurses, even his nurse that called him "my boy," could not grant him that essentially feminine word of encouragement that always works such a miracle on the masculine mind. In their eyes, in their silence about his future, he saw only pity, that terrible dumb pity that can sweep the fibers of feeling for a fine man or beast that has fallen from self-sufficiency into a hopeless case.

Now from the thought of the other black whom he had avoided as a fool, he saw himself again facing existence. Suppose the shipping company came across with something! A thousand dollars!

I wonder if they could give that much for a pair of black feet on the shelf. I could go back to one of those ports where all the seamen know me and open up a little grogshop. A kind of seamen's shelter without the chaplain and the hymns. Do something and make something and live again.

How ironical it would be if by the intervention of his ignorant fellow black, whom he had disliked, he should strike the way to good fortune. But there could be no greater irony now than his own macabre self in the hands of fate. The surprising fact of himself was so terribly real, he felt that nothing in life could ever give him the fine moving shock of surprise again.


CHAPTER TWO

It was early afternoon, three days since the departure of Black Angel. Lafala lay speculating about the future, his thoughts alternating from sugar-sweet to sour, between hope and doubt, when the lawyer appeared to him.

So warmly and heartily he shook Lafala's hand that he pulled him right up off his butt of a self, and before Lafala, confusedly thinking of showing some native warmth himself, was settled again, his visitor had plunged into business.

Lafala had to rake up all his recent past to give precisely the details of his stowing away and he was deftly handled and steered into giving only such details as could form the basis of a lawsuit with favorable results. Lafala, for instance, seemed to have a grievance against some individual of a little importance whom he said he had paid to protect him if he were found.

"How much did you pay?" the lawyer asked.

"About five dollars."

"Five dollars. You expected protection for five dollars? Now listen to me. Don't ever mention that at any time to anybody. What we are after is the company and no individual to spoil the big game. I'm going to tell you what to say and you must never say anything more than that to anybody. Get me? Right. And don't talk too much about your case. You're in my hands now."

One hundred thousand dollars was what the lawyer said he intended to sue for. Lafala was struck dumb by the idea of such a sum. The shipping company would either compromise or go to court. In a case like his, the lawyer told Lafala, it wasn't necessary to get the judge and jury to think. It was straight heart stuff. Poor African boy without any relatives taken away from his people when he was so young he did not even remember them, without family, without country even, without legs.

He did not know how much he would get. Maybe not more than ten thousand dollars. All depended on the company's lawyers and the kind of fight they could put up. But it was better to ask for a big sum.

Then the lawyer said that before he touched the case Lafala would have to sign a paper giving him half of whatever he obtained as damages. Frankly he explained that he was not going to handle the case for sympathy only, although he sincerely sympathized with Lafala. He was asking a half of any amount that was paid because he was as much plaintiff as lawyer. Lafala did not have the means nor the influence to procure a lawyer and in all such damage suits lawyers' fees were enormous. He didn't want Lafala to think that he was taking a mean advantage of him. All cases like his were handled on a fifty-fifty basis. He would give Lafala two days to reflect.

When the lawyer was finished, Lafala said "I don't need two days to make up my mind. Just give me that paper and I'll sign it right away."

The lawyer produced the contract stipulating that he should receive as a legal fee one-half of any payment that he obtained from a certain company for the loss of Lafala's legs. Lafala signed. The lawyer produced a little camera, made Lafala pull up his night shirt to show his stumps and photographed him. Lafala had a photograph of himself before the accident and this the lawyer also took.

The lawyer had visited Lafala on a Wednesday. On Saturday morning the nurse approached him smiling with a tabloid in her hand. Lafala had achieved publicity. The tabloid contained an account of his accident, written in pointed modern sentimental sentences, and his two photographs. Under the first was printed "Before"; under the lawyer's snapshot "After."

That same evening another paper carried a pathetic story with the photographs of Lafala.

The next day the lawyer visited Lafala and cautioned him never at any time to talk to anyone about his case unless he was present and that he should refer all interviewers to him.

Thus began a new outlook for Lafala. It was the first time that he had ever appeared in print and that impressed on his mind the assurance that out of his trouble he would win something tangible. His lawyer kept in close touch with him by visits and by correspondence. Twice he was visited by an official of the shipping company, but he refused to talk. Vigilantly his nurse stood by to see that he didn't. The lawyer had shrewdly seen and enlisted her sympathy.

She despised those people who could treat any human being, even a black, like that—locking him up in a water-closet until he was frozen.

One day an official of the shipping company came with the lawyer. The official tried to make out that Lafala might have had some disease of the feet before he stowed away. He couldn't freeze like that if he were in good health, for the ship had a fine heating apparatus.

"What disease you think?" Lafala asked. "I was a dancing fool in the port I came from. You can go there and ask the gang."

The official left. The lawyer stayed for a while to talk with Lafala. He told Lafala that the newspaper stories had stirred up the officials and that they wanted to avoid further publicity and he was going to work them for a handsome compromise. A compromise was better than going to the courts. For a lawsuit of that kind was like a strike. The employers will go their limit to compromise a strike, but once it is on and the works dislocated, they don't care if the workers starve. So the lawyer told Lafala that his business was to work the publicity scare to obtain the best settlement from the company. Better not to go to the courts where the company's big lawyers may start in to wear them down on legal points and a callous judge cut down the damages to nothing.

Lafala listened and thought his lawyer's argument was good.

During the long interval of negotiation a pretty friendship sprung up between Lafala and his lawyer. Lafala's spirit was lifted up and like a feather in space, he felt himself floating in the delightful realm of futurity. A desire for activity seized him again and it found outlet in his nimble hands. He obtained some hemp and varicolored wool and began weaving girdles,1 the only clothing that his tribeswomen used to wear when he was a boy in the bush. The first one finished he presented to his nurse and she told him it was the nicest gift that she had ever had and it made her happy to be a nurse. Lafala sent the second girdle to his lawyer with a note by the hand of Black Angel who had been to see him.

Lafala wrote "This is the only thing I remember my tribeswomen wearing in the bushland when I was a kid. I began making them because I was so nervous wanting to do something. I remembered I could make them and so I got the stuff and set to work. I hope you like it. The wool is my own invention. They used to put the color in with specially dyed straw."

The lawyer replied "The girdle is very pretty. My wife appropriated it at once. It carried me back to very ancient times. I mean the times when my people were also divided into tribes and wore girdles just as your people do today.

Our case is progressing nicely. It may seem a long time getting done to you, but these legal affairs can't be got through in a hurry. Don't worry. You're going to get all out of that company that I can possibly get for you. So give them time and keep cheerful."


CHAPTER THREE

In the meantime Lafala was pronounced officially better and thus due to leave the hospital. In a sense he was not a patient only, but technically also a prisoner held for deportation to the port that he had left clandestinely.

And one morning an official of the shipping company appeared in the ward and announced to Lafala that he had orders to ship him back to that port.

"And what about my case?" Lafala asked.

"That will be settled on the other side."

"But the immigration officials?"

"They know all about it. You're discharged from the hospital and out of their hands now and we'll be getting into more trouble if we don't take charge of you and take you back where you stowed away from."

It was the international usage. ...

Lafala said he would like to see his lawyer.

"All right, we'll see about that for you."

His little bundle of clothes was brought. He dressed and was lifted into a waiting taxi-cab and whisked away.

The nurse had stood by in helpless agitation. Frantically now she rushed to the telephone to call the lawyer, only to learn that he knew nothing of Lafala's being sent away. The lawyer got busy in a hurry. He got out an injunction to prevent Lafala's sailing before his case was settled. He looked up which of the company's ships was sailing and likely to take Lafala. He did not telephone the company's office, but sent someone to see, without asking, if Lafala was there. He was not, so the lawyer instituted a search and finally found the helpless black on the company's pier. He snatched him up and the game was won.

"I'll squeeze something more out of the company for this," he said, "or I'll get this straight into the papers. And when I get your money, I'll see that you don't go back to the port you stowed away from, for you never can tell what they might do to you there."

That night Lafala slept in the lawyer's apartment. The following afternoon he was at the lawyer's office when Black Angel walked in.

"See youse looking better," Black Angel said, his features glowing with a large smile.

"Feeling better, too," Lafala grinned back.

"And you'll soon be walking bettah, so that the chippies meeting you in the street will jest think youse got a sprain ankle."

"Why not take him up among your folks tonight and show him a good time? He needs it after so many months in the hospital," the lawyer said with a wink.

The lawyer advanced Lafala some money. But Black Angel had money of his own and it appeared to Lafala that he was very much in the lawyer's confidence. Lafala was curious and Black Angel explained that he was due to get his runner's reward from the lawyer, about five hundred dollars more or less, according to the final amount obtained in damages.

That evening for the first time Lafala had a glimpse of the life of Harlem. In the basement kitchen and dining room of Black Angel's house a woman was preparing a feast for Black Angel and Lafala. It was a big dinner of celery soup, fricassée chicken and mashed potatoes. After the dinner Black Angel gave a party in his room for Lafala.

"Ise got a buddy working for a big bootlegger," he said, "and I'm gwine have him heah tonight wif some good liquor. You can play the phonograph theah, if youse tired waiting befoh I git back."

Lafala cushioned his butt of a body in an old Morris chair and biting off the point of a cigar, he lit it.

Black Angel returned with a brown girl and a bottle of gin. A little later his buddy appeared with two girls, a dark-brown with rouge in her cheeks that gave her an exotic maroon color and a lemon-colored one. He deposited a package on the chiffonier, which contained two bottles of gin and two bottles of wine.

"Gwina make a little cabaret a this heah joint foh you special benefit," Black Angel assured Lafala.

The buddy made a strong punch. Black Angel started the phonograph.

"Don't think no affliction of you'self that you kaint dance as we do," said Black Angel to Lafala. "Ef you kaint dance on the floor, you can dance in the bed."

While they were dancing somebody knocked on the door and another girl entered, a warm satin-skinned mahogany brown.

"One plus, gotta do some figuring," muttered Black Angel. He introduced the girl. And now Lafala had two girls, one on each side entertaining him when the others danced. He was the center of the show, with Black Angel and his buddy replenishing the glasses. He was pitied and praised and beamed upon and his stumps of legs were fondled and caressed as if they were honeysticks. It was a great evening for Lafala. Black Angel had taken care all right that the company should know that there was a fortune in Lafala's misfortune. ...

Said Black Angel to the lawyer when they met again "I done gave him a sweet souvenir a high life, boss, and he sho' will remember it all them days that he's gwine spend chasing chimpangees when he scootles back to jungle-land."


This excerpt ends on page 17 of the paperback edition of Romance in Marseille.
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