JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987)
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn't believe it, and I read it again.
Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging
lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared
It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And
at the same time I couldn't doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got
settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of
ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened
and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would
always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.
When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it;
and he'd had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been
picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment down-town, for peddling and using heroin.
I couldn't believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn't find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept
it outside me for a long time. I hadn't wanted to know. I had had suspicions, but I didn't name them, I kept putting them
away. I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn't crazy. And he'd always been a good boy, he hadn't ever turned hard
or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn't want to believe that I'd ever
see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I'd already seen so many
others. Yet it had happened and here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I
knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.
I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now. These
boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against
the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness
of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness,
and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.
When the last bell rang, the last class ended, I let out my breath. It seemed I'd been holding it for all that time. My
clothes were wet-I may have looked as though I'd been sitting in a steam bath, all dressed up, all afternoon. I sat alone
in the classroom a long time. I listened to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting and cursing and laughing. Their laughter
struck me for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which-God knows why-one associates with children. It
was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also, lay the authority of their curses.
Perhaps I was listening to them because I was thinking about my brother and in them I heard my brother. And myself.
One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he
were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all
those other sounds.
I stood up and walked over to the window and looked down into the court-yard. It was the beginning of the spring and the
sap was rising in the boys. A teacher passed through them every now and again, quickly, as though he or she couldn't wait
to get out of that courtyard, to get those boys out of their sight and off their minds. I started collecting my stuff. I thought
I'd better get home and talk to Isabel.
The courtyard was almost deserted by the time I got downstairs. I saw this boy standing in the shadow of a doorway, looking
just like Sonny. I almost called his name. Then I saw that it wasn't Sonny, but somebody we used to know, a boy from around
our block. He'd been Sonny's friend. He'd never been mine, having been too young for me, and, anyway, I'd never liked him.
And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block, still spent hours on the street corners, was
always high and raggy. I used to run into him from time to time and he'd often work around to asking me for a quarter or fifty
cents. He always had some real good excuse, too, and I always gave it to him. I don't know why.
But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn't stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child.
I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school courtyard.
He sort of shuffled over to me, and he said, "I see you got the papers. So you already know about it."
"You mean about Sonny? Yes, I already know about it. How come they didn't get you?"
He grinned. It made him repulsive and it also brought to mind what he'd looked like as a kid. "I wasn't there. I
stay away from them people."
"Good for you." I offered him a cigarette and I watched him through the smoke. "You come all the way down
here just to tell me about Sonny?"
"That's right." He was sort of shaking his head and his eyes looked strange, as though they were about to cross.
The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair.
He smelled funky. I moved a little away from him and I said, "Well, thanks. But I already know about it and I got to
"I'll walk you a little ways," he said. We started walking. There were a couple of lads still loitering in the
courtyard and one of them said goodnight to me and looked strangely at the boy beside me.
"What're you going to do?" he asked me. "I mean, about Sonny?"
"Look. I haven't seen Sonny for over a year, I'm not sure I'm going to do anything. Anyway, what the hell can I do?"
"That's right," he said quickly, "ain't nothing you can do. Can't much help old Sonny no more, I guess."
It was what I was thinking and so it seemed to me he had no right to say it.
"I'm surprised at Sonny, though," he went on-he had a funny way of talking, he looked straight ahead as though
he were talking to himself-"I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I thought he was too smart to get hung."
"I guess he thought so too," I said sharply, "and that's how he got hung. And how about you? You're pretty
goddamn smart, I bet."
Then he looked directly at me, just for a minute. "I ain't smart," he said. "If I was smart, I'd have reached
for a pistol a long time ago."
"Look. Don't tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I'd give you one." Then I felt guilty-guilty, probably,
for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one, and I asked, quickly, "What's
going to happen to him now?"
He didn't answer this. He was off by himself some place.
"Funny thing," he said, and from his tone we might have been discussing the quickest way to get to Brooklyn,
"when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with it. I felt sort
I began to listen more carefully. The subway station was on the corner, just before us, and I stopped. He stopped, too.
We were in front of a bar and he ducked slightly, peering in, but whoever he was looking for didn't seem to be there. The
juke box was blasting away with something black and bouncy and I half watched the barmaid as she danced her way from the juke
box to her place behind the bar. And I watched her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still
keeping time to the music. When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath
the battered face of the semi-whore.
"I never give Sonny nothing," the boy said finally, "but a long time ago I come to school high and Sonny
asked me how it felt." He paused, I couldn't bear to watch him, I watched the barmaid, and I listened to the music which
seemed to be causing the pavement to shake. "I told him it felt great." The music stopped, the barmaid paused and
watched the juke box until the music began again. "It did."
All this was carrying me some place I didn't want to go. I certainly didn't want to know how it felt. It filled everything,
the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with menace; and this menace was their reality.
"What's going to happen to him now?" I asked again.
"They'll send him away some place and they'll try to cure him." He shook his head. "Maybe he'll even think
he's kicked the habit. Then they'll let him loose"-he gestured, throwing his cigarette into the gutter. "That's
"What do you mean, that's all?"
But I knew what he meant.
"I mean, that's all." He turned his head and looked at me, pulling down the corners of his mouth. "Don't
you know what I mean?" he asked, softly.
"How the hell would I know what you mean?" I almost whispered it, I don't know why.
"That's right," he said to the air, "how would he know what I mean?" He turned toward me again, patient
and calm, and yet I somehow felt him shaking, shaking as though he were going to fall apart. I felt that ice in my guts again,
the dread I'd felt all afternoon; and again I watched the barmaid, moving about the bar, washing glasses, and singing. "Listen.
They'll let him out and then it'll just start all over again. That's what I mean."
"You mean-they'll let him out. And then he'll just start working his way back in again. You mean he'll never kick
the habit. Is that what you mean?"
"That's right," he said, cheerfully. "You see what I mean."
"Tell me," I said at last, "why does he want to die? He must want to die, he's killing himself, why does
he want to die?"
He looked at me in surprise. He licked his lips. "He don't want to die. He wants to live. Don't nobody want to die,
Then I wanted to ask him-too many things. He could not have answered, or if he had, I could not have borne the answers.
I started walking. "Well, I guess it's none of my business."
"It's going to be rough on old Sonny," he said. We reached the subway station. "This is your station?"
he asked. I nodded. I took one step down. "Damn!" he said, suddenly. I looked up at him. He grinned again. "Damn
it if I didn't leave all my money home. You ain't got a dollar on you, have you? Just for a couple of days, is all."
All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn't hate him any more. I felt that in
another moment I'd start crying like a child.
"Sure," I said. "Don't sweat." I looked in my wallet and didn't have a dollar, I only had a five.
"Here," I said. "That hold you?"
He didn't look at it-he didn't want to look at it. A terrible, closed look came over his face, as though he were keeping
the number on the bill a secret from him and me. "Thanks," he said, and now he was dying to see me go. "Don't
worry about Sonny. Maybe I'll write him or something."
"Sure," I said. "You do that. So long."
"Be seeing you," he said. I went on down the steps.
And I didn't write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just after my little girl died,
and he wrote me back a letter which made me feel like a bastard.
Here's what he said:
You don't know how much I needed to hear from you. I wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt
you and so I didn't write. But now I feel like a man who's been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole
and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.
I can't tell you much about how I got here. I mean I don't know how to tell you. I guess I was afraid of something or
I was trying to escape from something and you know I have never been very strong in the head (smile). I'm glad Mama and Daddy
are dead and can't see what's happened to their son and I swear if I'd known what I was doing I would never have hurt you
so, you and a lot of other fine people who were nice to me and who believed in me.
I don't want you to think it had anything to do with me being a musician.
It's more than that. Or maybe less than that. I can't get anything straight in my head down here and I try not to think
about what's going to happen to me when I get outside again. Sometime I think I'm going to flip and never get outside and
sometime I think I'll come straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I'd rather blow my brains out than go through this
again. But that's what they all say, so they tell me. If I tell you when I'm coming to New York and if you could meet me,
I sure would appreciate it. Give my love to Isabel and the kids and I was sure sorry to hear about little Gracie. I wish I
could be like Mama and say the Lord's will be done, but I don't know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never
does get stopped and I don't know what good it does to blame it on the
Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it.
Then I kept in constant touch with him and I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet him when he came back to New
York. When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally,
to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside. This life, whatever it was, had made him older and thinner
and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved. He looked very unlike my baby brother. Yet, when he
smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I'd never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal
waiting to be coaxed into the light.
"How you been keeping?" he asked me.
"All right. And you?"
"Just fine." He was smiling all over his face. "It's good to see you again."
"It's good to see you."
The seven years' difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these years would ever operate between
us as a bridge. I was remembering, and it made it hard to catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and I had
heard the first words he had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I caught him
just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world.
"Just fine. She's dying to see you."
"And the boys?"
"They're fine, too. They're anxious to see their uncle."
"Oh, come on. You know they don't remember me."
"Are you kidding? Of course they remember you."
He grinned again. We got into a taxi. We had a lot to say to each other, far too much to know how to begin.
As the taxi began to move, I asked, "You still want to go to India?"
He laughed. "You still remember that. Hell, no. This place is Indian enough for me."
"It used to belong to them," I said.
And he laughed again. "They damn sure knew what they were doing when they got rid of it."
Years ago, when he was around fourteen, he'd been all hipped on the idea of going to India. He read books about people
sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather, but mostly bad, naturally, and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving
at wisdom. I used to say that it sounded to me as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could. I think
he sort of looked down on me for that.
"Do you mind," he asked, "if we have the driver drive alongside the park? On the west side-I haven't seen
the city in so long."
"Of course not," I said. I was afraid that I might sound as though I were humoring him, but I hoped he wouldn't
take it that way.
So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward
the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn't changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now
like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from
which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks.
But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found
themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.
Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate
a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that
Sonny had, he hadn't lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to
darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny's face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our
separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It's always at the hour of trouble and confrontation
that the missing member aches.
We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I'd known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again,
as it had seemed on the day I'd first heard about Sonny's trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of
"We almost there," said Sonny.
"Almost." We were both too nervous to say anything more.
We live in a housing project. It hasn't been up long. A few days after it was up it seemed uninhabitably new, now, of
course, it's already rundown. It looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless life-God knows the people who live in it
do their best to make it a parody. The beat-looking grass lying around isn't enough to make their lives green, the hedges
will never hold out the streets, and they know it. The big windows fool no one, they aren't big enough to make space out of
no space. They don't bother with the windows, they watch the TV screen instead. The playground is most popular with the children
who don't play at jacks, or skip rope, or roller skate, or swing, and they can be found in it after dark. We moved in partly
because it's not too far from where I teach, and partly for the kids; but it's really just like the houses in which Sonny
and I grew up. The same things happen, they'll have the same things to remember. The moment Sonny and I started into the house
I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
Sonny has never been talkative. So I don't know why I was sure he'd be dying to talk to me when supper was over the first
night. Everything went fine, the oldest boy remembered him, and the youngest boy liked him, and Sonny had remembered to bring
something for each of them; and Isabel, who is really much nicer than I am, more open and giving, had gone to a lot of trouble
about dinner and was genuinely glad to see him. And she's always been able to tease Sonny in a way that I haven't. It was
nice to see her face so vivid again and to hear her laugh and watch her make Sonny laugh. She wasn't, or, anyway, she didn't
seem to be, at all uneasy or embarrassed. She chatted as though there were no subject which had to be avoided and she got
Sonny past his first, faint stiffness. And thank God she was there, for I was filled with that icy dread again. Everything
I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I said sounded freighted with hidden meaning. I was trying to remember everything
I'd heard about dope addiction and I couldn't help watching Sonny for signs. I wasn't doing it out of malice. I was trying
to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe.
"Safe!" my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for
children. "Safe, hell! Ain't no place safe for kids, nor nobody."
He always went on like this, but he wasn't, ever, really as bad as he sounded, not even on weekends, when he got drunk.
As a matter of fact, he was always on the lookout for "something a little better," but he died before he found it.
He died suddenly, during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn't ever got
on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father's eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and
was frightened for him, that he was always fighting with him. It doesn't do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves
back, inside himself, where he can't be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so
much alike. Daddy was big and rough and loud-talking, just the opposite of Sonny, but they both had-that same privacy.
Mama tried to tell me something about this, just after Daddy died. I was home on leave from the army.
This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive. Just the same, this picture gets all mixed up in my mind with pictures
I had other when she was younger. The way I always see her is the way she used to be on a Sunday afternoon, say, when the
old folks were talking after the big Sunday dinner. I always see her wearing pale blue. She'd be sitting on the sofa. And
my father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of church folks and relatives.
There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can
see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling
beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it's real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody's talking, but
every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. And my mother rocks a little from the waist, and my father's eyes are closed.
Everyone is looking at something a child can't see. For a minute they've forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying on the
rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody's got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the lad's head. Maybe there's a kid,
quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in the comer. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces
frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop-will never die. He hopes that
there will never come a time when the old folks won't be sitting around the living room, talking about where they've come
from, and what they've seen, and what's happened to them and their kinfolk.
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will
get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won't talk any more that day. And when
light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he's moved just a little closer
to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It's what they've come from.
It's what they endure. The child knows that they won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to
them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him.
The last time I talked to my mother, I remember I was restless. I wanted to get out and see Isabel. We weren't married
then and we had a lot to straighten out between us.
There Mama sat, in black, by the window. She was humming an old church song. Lord, you brought me from a long ways off.
Sonny was out somewhere. Mama kept watching the streets.
"I don't know," she said, "if I'll ever see you again, after you go off from here. But I hope you'll remember
the things I tried to teach you."
"Don't talk like that," I said, and smiled. "You'll be here a long time yet."
She smiled, too, but she said nothing. She was quiet for a long time. And I said, "Mama, don't you worry about nothing.
I'll be writing all the time, and you be getting the checks...."
"I want to talk to you about your brother," she said, suddenly. "If anything happens to me he ain't going
to have nobody to look out for him."
"Mama," I said, "ain't nothing going to happen to you or Sonny. Sonny's all right. He's a good boy and
he's got good sense."
"It ain't a question of his being a good boy," Mama said, "nor of his having good sense. It ain't only
the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under." She stopped, looking at me. "Your Daddy once had a
brother," she said, and she smiled in a way that made me feel she was in pain. "You didn't never know that, did
"No," I said, "I never knew that," and I watched her face.
"Oh, yes," she said, "your Daddy had a brother." She looked out of the window again. "I know
you never saw your Daddy cry. But I did-many a time, through all these years."
I asked her, "What happened to his brother? How come nobody's ever talked about him?"
This was the first time I ever saw my mother look old.
"His brother got killed," she said, "when he was just a little younger than you are now. I knew him. He
was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn't mean nobody no harm."
Then she stopped and the room was silent, exactly as it had sometimes been on those Sunday afternoons. Mama kept looking
out into the streets.
"He used to have a job in the mill," she said, "and, like all young folks, he just liked to perform on
Saturday nights. Saturday nights, him and your father would drift around to different places, go to dances and things like
that, or just sit around with people they knew, and your father's brother would sing, he had a fine voice, and play along
with himself on his guitar. Well, this particular Saturday night, him and your father was coming home from some place, and
they were both a little drunk and there was a moon that night, it was bright like day. Your father's brother was feeling kind
of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he had his guitar slung over his shoulder. They was coming down a hill and beneath
them was a road that turned off from the highway. Well, your father's brother, being always kind of frisky, decided to run
down this hill, and he did, with that guitar banging and clanging behind him, and he ran across the road, and he was making
water behind a tree. And your father was sort of amused at him and he was still coming down the hill, kind of slow. Then he
heard a car motor and that same minute his brother stepped from behind the tree, into the road, in the moonlight. And he started
to cross the road. And your father started to run down the hill, he says he don't know why. This car was full of white men.
They was all drunk, and when they seen your father's brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car
straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk.
And I guess the boy, being drunk, too, and scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late. Your father
says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard
them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain't stopped till this day.
And, time your father got down the hill, his brother weren't nothing but blood and pulp."
Tears were gleaming on my mother's face. There wasn't anything I could say.
"He never mentioned it," she said, "because I never let him mention it before you children. Your Daddy
was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that
road after the lights of that car had gone away. Weren't nothing, weren't nobody on that road, just your Daddy and his brother
and that busted guitar. Oh, yes. Your Daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died he weren't sure but that
every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother."
She stopped and took out her handkerchief and dried her eyes and looked at me.
"I ain't telling you all this," she said, "to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I'm
telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain't changed."
I guess I didn't want to believe this. I guess she saw this in my face. She turned away from me, toward the window again,
searching those streets.
"But I praise my Redeemer," she said at last, "that He called your Daddy home before me. I ain't saying
it to throw no flowers at myself, but, I declare, it keeps me from feeling too cast down to know I helped your father get
safely through this world. Your father always acted like he was the roughest, strongest man on earth. And everybody took him
to be like that. But if he hadn't had me there-to see his tears!"
She was crying again. Still, I couldn't move. I said, "Lord, Lord, Mama, I didn't know it was like that."
"Oh, honey," she said, "there's a lot that you don't know. But you are going to find out." She stood
up from the window and came over to me. "You got to hold on to your brother," she said, "and don't let him
fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him. You going to be evil with
him many a time. But don't you forget what I told you, you hear?"
"I won't forget," I said. "Don't you worry, I won't forget. I won't let nothing happen to Sonny."
My mother smiled as though she was amused at something she saw in my face. Then, "You may not be able to stop nothing
from happening. But you got to let him know you's there."
Two days later I was married, and then I was gone. And I had a lot of things on my mind and I pretty well forgot my promise
to Mama until I got shipped home on a special furlough for her funeral.
And, after the funeral, with just Sonny and me alone in the empty kitchen, I tried to find out something about him.
"What do you want to do?" I asked him.
"I'm going to be a musician," he said.
For he had graduated, in the time I had been away, from dancing to the juke box to finding out who was playing what, and
what they were doing with it, and he had bought himself a set of drums.
"You mean, you want to be a drummer?" I somehow had the feeling that being a drummer might be all right for
other people but not for my brother Sonny.
"I don't think," he said, looking at me very gravely, "that I'll ever be a good drummer. But I think I
can play a piano."
I frowned. I'd never played the role of the oldest brother quite so seriously before, had scarcely ever, in fact, asked
Sonny a damn thing. I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn't really know how to handle, didn't understand. So
I made my frown a little deeper as I asked: "What kind of musician do you want to be?"
He grinned. "How many kinds do you think there are?"
"Be serious," I said.
He laughed, throwing his head back, and then looked at me. "I am serious."
"Well, then, for Christ's sake, stop kidding around and answer a serious question. I mean, do you want to be a concert
pianist, you want to play classical music and all that, or-or what?" Long before I finished he was laughing again. "For
Christ's sake. Sonny!"
He sobered, but with difficulty. "I'm sorry. But you sound so-scared!" and he was off again.
"Well, you may think it's funny now, baby, but it's not going to be so funny when you have to make your living at
it, let me tell you that." I was furious because I knew he was laughing at me and I didn't know why.
"No," he said, very sober now, and afraid, perhaps, that he'd hurt me, "I don't want to be a classical
pianist. That isn't what interests me. I mean"-he paused, looking hard at me, as though his eyes would help me to understand,
and then gestured helplessly, as though perhaps his hand would help-"I mean, I'll have a lot of studying to do, and I'll
have to study everything, but, I mean, I want to play with-jazz musicians." He stopped. "I want to play jazz,"
Well, the word had never before sounded as heavy, as real, as it sounded that afternoon in Sonny's mouth. I just looked
at him and I was probably frowning a real frown by this time. I simply couldn't see why on earth he'd want to spend his time
hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. It seemed-beneath
him, somehow. I had never thought about it before, had never been forced to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians
in a class with what Daddy called "good-time people."
"Are you serious?"
"Hell, yes, I'm serious."
He looked more helpless than ever, and annoyed, and deeply hurt.
I suggested, helpfully: "You mean-like Louis Armstrong?"
His face closed as though I'd struck him. "No. I'm not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap."
"Well, look, Sonny, I'm sorry, don't get mad. I just don't altogether get it, that's all. Name somebody-you know,
a jazz musician you admire."
"Bird! Charlie Parker! Don't they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?"
I lit a cigarette. I was surprised and then a little amused to discover that I was trembling. "I've been out of touch,"
I said. "You'll have to be patient with me. Now. Who's this Parker character?"
"He's just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive," said Sonny, sullenly, his hands in his pockets, his back
to me. "Maybe the greatest," he added, bitterly, "that's probably why you never heard of him."
"All right," I said, "I'm ignorant. I'm sorry. I'll go out and buy all the cat's records right away, all
"It don't," said Sonny, with dignity, "make any difference to me. I don't care what you listen to. Don't
do me no favors."
I was beginning to realize that I'd never seen him so upset before. With another part of my mind I was thinking that this
would probably turn out to be one of those things kids go through and that I shouldn't make it seem important by pushing it
too hard. Still, I didn't think it would do any harm to ask: "Doesn't all this take a lot of time? Can you make a living
He turned back to me and half leaned, half sat, on the kitchen table. "Everything takes time," he said, "and-well,
yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don't seem to be able to make you understand is that it's the only thing
I want to do."
"Well, Sonny," I said gently, "you know people can't always do exactly what they want to do-"
"No, I don't know that," said Sonny, surprising me. "I think people ought to do what they want to do, what
else are they alive for?"
"You getting to be a big boy," I said desperately, "it's time you started thinking about your future."
"I'm thinking about my future," said Sonny, grimly. "I think about it all the time."
I gave up. I decided, if he didn't change his mind, that we could always talk about it later. "In the meantime,"
I said, "you got to finish school." We had already decided that he'd have to move in with Isabel and her folks.
I knew this wasn't the ideal arrangement because Isabel's folks are inclined to be dicty and they hadn't especially wanted
Isabel to marry me. But I didn't know what else to do. "And we have to get you fixed up at Isabel's."
There was a long silence. He moved from the kitchen table to the window. "That's a terrible idea. You know it yourself."
"Do you have a better idea?"
He just walked up and down the kitchen for a minute. He was as tall as I was. He had started to shave. I suddenly had
the feeling that I didn't know him at all.
He stopped at the kitchen table and picked up my cigarettes. Looking at me with a land of mocking, amused defiance, he
put one between his lips. "You mind?"
"You smoking already?"
He lit the cigarette and nodded, watching me through the smoke. "I just wanted to see if I'd have the courage to
smoke in front of you." He grinned and blew a great cloud of smoke to the ceiling. "It was easy." He looked
at my face. "Come on, now. I bet you was smoking at my age, tell the truth."
I didn't say anything but the truth was on my face, and he laughed. But now there was something very strained in his laugh.
"Sure. And I bet that ain't all you was doing."
He was frightening me a little. "Cut the crap," I said. "We already decided that you was going to go and
live at Isabel's. Now what's got into you all of a sudden?"
"You decided it," he pointed out. "I didn't decide nothing." He stopped in front of me, leaning against
the stove, arms loosely folded. "Look, brother. I don't want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don't." He was
very earnest. He looked at me, then over toward the kitchen window. There was something in his eyes I'd never seen before,
some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own. He rubbed the muscle of one arm. "It's time I was getting out of here."
"Where do you want to go. Sonny?"
"I want to join the army. Or the navy, I don't care. If I say I'm old enough, they'll believe me."
Then I got mad. It was because I was so scared. "You must be crazy. You goddamn fool, what the hell do you want to
go and join the army for?"
"I just told you. To get out of Harlem."
"Sonny, you haven't even finished school. And if you really want to be a musician, how do you expect to study if
you're in the army?"
He looked at me, trapped, and in anguish. "There's ways. I might be able to work out some kind of deal. Anyway, I'll
have the G.I. Bill when I come out."
"If you come out." We stared at each other. "Sonny, please. Be reasonable. I know the setup is far from
perfect. But we got to do the best we can."
"I ain't learning nothing in school," he said. "Even when I go." He turned away from me and opened
the window and threw his cigarette out into the narrow alley. I watched his back. "At least, I ain't learning nothing
you'd want me to learn." He slammed the window so hard I thought the glass would fly out, and turned back to me. "And
I'm sick of the stink of these garbage cans!"
"Sonny," I said, "I know how you feel. But if you don't finish school now, you're going to be sorry later
that you didn't." I grabbed him by the shoulders. "And you only got another year. It ain't so bad. And I'll come
back and I swear I'll help you do whatever you want to do. Just try to put up with it till I come back. Will you please do
that? For me?"
He didn't answer and he wouldn't look at me.
"Sonny. You hear me?"
He pulled away. "I hear you. But you never hear anything I say."
I didn't know what to say to that. He looked out of the window and then back at me. "OK," he said, and sighed.
Then I said, trying to cheer him up a little, "They got a piano at Isabel's. You can practice on it."
And as a matter of fact, it did cheer him up for a minute. "That's right," he said to himself. "I forgot
that." His face relaxed a little. But the worry, the thoughtfulness, played on it still, the way shadows play on a face
which is staring into the fire.
But I thought I'd never hear the end of that piano. At first, Isabel would write me, saying how nice it was that Sonny
was so serious about his music and how, as soon as he came in from school, or wherever he had been when he was supposed to
be at school, he went straight to that piano and stayed there until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano
and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Then he bought a record
player and started playing records. He'd play one record over and over again, all day long sometimes, and he'd improvise along
with it on the piano. Or he'd play one section of the record, one chord, one change, one progression, then he'd do it on the
piano. Then back to the record. Then back to the piano.
Well, I really don't know how they stood it. Isabel finally confessed that it wasn't like living with a person at all,
it was like living with sound. And the sound didn't make any sense to her, didn't make any sense to any of them- naturally.
They began, in a way, to be afflicted by this presence that was living in their home. It was as though Sonny were some sort
of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn't like theirs at all. They fed him and he ate, he washed himself,
he walked in and out of their door; he certainly wasn't nasty or unpleasant or rude. Sonny isn't any of those things; but
it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn't any way to reach
At the same time, he wasn't really a man yet, he was still a child, and they had to watch out for him in all kinds of
ways. They certainly couldn't throw him out. Neither did they dare to make a great scene about that piano because even they
dimly sensed, as I sensed, from so many thousands of miles away that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life.
But he hadn't been going to school. One day a letter came from the school board and Isabel's mother got it-there had,
apparently, been other letters but Sonny had torn them up. This day, when Sonny came in, Isabel's mother showed him the letter
and asked where he'd been spending his time. And she finally got it out of him that he'd been down in Greenwich Village, with
musicians and other characters, in a white girls apartment. And this scared her and she started to scream at him and what
came up, once she began-though she denies it to this day-was what sacrifices they were making to give Sonny a decent home
and how little he appreciated it.
Sonny didn't play the piano that day. By evening, Isabel's mother had calmed down but then there was the old man to deal
with, and Isabel herself. Isabel says she did her best to be calm but she broke down and started crying. She says she just
watched Sonny's face. She could tell, by watching him, what was happening with him. And what was happening was that they penetrated
his cloud, they had reached him. Even if their fingers had been times more gentle than human fingers ever are, he could hardly
help feeling that they had stripped him naked and were spitting on that nakedness. For he also had to see that his presence,
that music, which was life or death to him, had been torture for them and that they had endured it, not at all for his sake
but only for mine. And Sonny couldn't take that. He can take it a little better today than he could then but he's still not
very good at it and, frankly, I don't know anybody who is.
The silence of the next few days must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever played since time began. One
morning, before she went to work, Isabel was in his room for something and she suddenly realized that all of his records were
gone. And she knew for certain that he was gone. And he was. He went as far as the navy would carry him. He finally sent me
a postcard from some place in Greece and that was the first I knew that Sonny was still alive. I didn't see him any more until
we were both back in New York and the war had long been over.
He was a man by then, of course, but I wasn't willing to see it. He came by the house from time to time, but we fought
almost every time we met. I didn't like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn't like his
friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.
Then we had a fight, a pretty awful fight, and I didn't see him for months. By and by I looked him up, where he was living,
in a furnished room in the Village, and I tried to make it up. But there were lots of other people in the room and Sonny just
lay on his bed, and he wouldn't come downstairs with me, and he treated these other people as though they were his family
and I weren't. So I got mad and then he got mad, and then I told him that he might just as well be dead as live the way he
was living. Then he stood up and he told me not to worry about him any more in life, that he was dead as far as I was concerned.
Then he pushed me to the door and the other people looked on as though nothing were happening, and he slammed the door behind
me. I stood in the hallway, staring at the door. I heard somebody laugh in the room and then the tears came to my eyes. I
started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself. You going to need me, baby, one of these
cold, rainy days.
I read about Sonny's trouble in the spring. Little Grace died in the fall. She was a beautiful little girl. But she only
lived a little over two years. She died of polio and she suffered. She had a slight fever for a couple of days, but it didn't
seem like anything and we just kept her in bed. And we would certainly have called the doctor, but the fever dropped, she
seemed to be all right. So we thought it had just been a cold. Then, one day, she was up, playing, Isabel was in the kitchen
fixing lunch for the two boys when they'd come in from school, and she heard Grace fall down in the living room. When you
have a lot of children you don't always start running when one of them falls, unless they start screaming or something. And,
this time, Gracie was quiet. Yet, Isabel says that when she heard that thump and then that silence, something happened to
her to make her afraid. And she ran to the living room and there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up, and the reason
she hadn't screamed was that she couldn't get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that
she'd ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a
low, moaning, strangling sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against
me seems a mortal wound.
I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the living room in the dark,
by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.
One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks, I found
myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer, and trying to work up courage to search Sonny's
room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly
I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny's room made
me still. I scarcely dared to admit to myself what I'd be searching for. I didn't know what I'd do if I found it. Or if I
On the sidewalk across from me, near the entrance to a barbecue joint, some people were holding an old-fashioned revival
meeting. The barbecue cook, wearing a dirty white apron, his conked hair reddish and metallic in the pale sun, and a cigarette
between his lips, stood in the doorway, watching them. Kids and older people paused in their errands and stood there, along
with some older men and a couple of very tough-looking women who watched everything that happened on the avenue, as though
they owned it, or were maybe owned by it. Well, they were watching this, too. The revival was being carried on by three sisters
in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. The brother was testifying and
while he testified two of the sisters stood together, seeming to say, amen, and the third sister walked around with the tambourine
outstretched and a couple of people dropped coins into it. Then the brother's testimony ended and the sister who had been
taking up the collection dumped the coins into her palm and transferred them to the pocket of her long black robe. Then she
raised both hands, striking the tambourine against the air, and then against one hand, and she started to sing. And the two
other sisters and the brother joined in.
It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these meetings all my life. So, of course, had everybody
else down there. Yet, they paused and watched and listened and I stood still at the window. "'Tis the old ship of Zion,"
they sang, and the sister with the tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, "it has rescued many a thousand!" Not
a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had
they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them. Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the
three sisters and the brother, they knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the tambourine,
whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching
her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo's nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings,
and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each
other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change,
the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away
from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of
their last. The barbecue cook half shook his head and smiled, and dropped his cigarette and disappeared into his joint. A
man fumbled in his pockets for change and stood holding it in his hand impatiently, as though he had just remembered a pressing
appointment further up the avenue. He looked furious. Then I saw Sonny, standing on the edge of the crowd. He was carrying
a wide, flat notebook with a green cover, and it made him look, from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy. The coppery
sun brought out the copper in his skin, he was very faintly smiling, standing very still. Then the singing stopped, the tambourine
turned into a collection plate again. The furious man dropped in his coins and vanished, so did a couple of the women, and
Sonny dropped some change in the plate, looking directly at the woman with a little smile. He started across the avenue, toward
the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he's imposed on this his own half-beat.
I had never really noticed it before.
I stayed at the window, both relieved and apprehensive. As Sonny disappeared from my sight, they began singing again.
And they were still singing when his key turned in the lock.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey, yourself. You want some beer?"
"No. Well, maybe." But he came up to the window and stood beside me, looking out. "What a warm voice,"
They were singing If I could only hear my mother pray again!
"Yes," I said, "and she can sure beat that tambourine."
"But what a terrible song," he said, and laughed. He dropped his notebook on the sofa and disappeared into the
kitchen. "Where's Isabel and the kids?"
"I think they want to see their grandparents. You hungry?"
"No." He came back into the living room with his can of beer. "You want to come some place with me tonight?"
I sensed, I don't know how, that I couldn't possibly say no. "Sure. Where?"
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. "I'm going to sit in with some
fellows in a joint in the Village."
"You mean, you're going to play, tonight?"
"That's right." He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a sidelong look. "If
you can stand it."
"I'll try," I said.
He smiled to himself and we both watched as the meeting across the way broke up. The three sisters and the brother, heads
bowed, were singing God be with you till we meet again. The faces around them were very quiet. Then the song ended. The small
crowd dispersed. We watched the three women and the lone man walk slowly up the avenue.
"When she was singing before," said Sonny, abruptly, "her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin
feels like sometimes-when it's in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And-
and sure." He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. "It makes you feel-in control.
Sometimes you've got to have that feeling."
"Do you?" I sat down slowly in the easy chair.
"Sometimes." He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. "Some people do."
"In order," I asked, "to play?" And my voice was very ugly, full of contempt and anger.
"Well"-he looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would tell me things
he could never otherwise say-"they think so. And if they think so-!"
"And what do you think?" I asked.
He sat on the sofa and put his can of beer on the floor. "I don't know," he said, and I couldn't be sure if
he were answering my question or pursuing his thoughts. His face didn't tell me. "It's not so much to play. It's to stand
it, to be able to make it at all. On any level." He frowned and smiled: "In order to keep from shaking to pieces."
"But these friends of yours," I said, "they seem to shake themselves to pieces pretty goddamn fast."
"Maybe." He played with the notebook. And something told me that I should curb my tongue, that Sonny was doing
his best to talk, that I should listen. "But of course you only know the ones that've gone to pieces. Some don't-or at
least they haven't yet and that's just about all any of us can say." He paused. "And then there are some who just
live, really, in hell, and they know it and they see what's happening and they go right on. I don't know." He sighed,
dropped the notebook, folded his arms. "Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time.
And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them. But of course," he picked up his beer from the floor and
sipped it and put the can down again, "they want to, too, you've got to see that. Even some of them that say they don't-some,
"And what about you?" I asked-I couldn't help it. "What about you? Do you want to?"
He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. "Me," he said. Then:
"While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering
she must have had to go through-to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much."
I said: "But there's no way not to suffer-is there. Sonny?"
"I believe not," he said and smiled, "but that's never stopped anyone from trying." He looked at me.
"Has it?" I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or
forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence-so long!-when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the
window. "No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top
of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. You know?"
I said nothing. "Well you know," he said, impatiently, "why do people suffer? Maybe it's better to do something
to give it a reason, any reason."
"But we just agreed," I said, "that there's no way not to suffer. Isn't it better, then, just to-take it?"
"But nobody just takes it," Sonny cried, "that's what I'm telling you! Everybody tries not to. You're just
hung up on the way some people try-it's not your way!"
The hair on my face began to itch, my face felt wet. "That's not true," I said, "that's not true. I don't
give a damn what other people do, I don't even care how they suffer. I just care how you suffer." And he looked at me.
"Please believe me," I said, "I don't want to see you-die-trying not to suffer."
"I won't," he said flatly, "die trying not to suffer. At least, not any faster than anybody else."
"But there's no need," I said, trying to laugh, "is there? in killing yourself."
I wanted to say more, but I couldn't. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be-well, beautiful. I wanted
to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather, wasn't that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would
never fail him again. But it would all have sounded-empty words and lies.
So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it.
"It's terrible sometimes, inside," he said, "that's what's the trouble. You walk these streets, black and
funky and cold, and there's not really a living ass to talk to, and there's nothing shaking, and there's no way of getting
it out- that storm inside. You can't talk it and you can't make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and
play it, you realize nobody's listening. So you've got to listen. You got to find a way to listen."
And then he walked away from the window and sat on the sofa again, as though all the wind had suddenly been knocked out
of him. "Sometimes you'll do anything to play, even cut your mother's throat." He laughed and looked at me. "Or
your brother's." Then he sobered. "Or your own." Then: "Don't worry. I'm all right now and I think I'll
be all right. But I can't forget-where I've been. I don't mean just the physical place I've been, I mean where I've been.
And what I've been."
"What have you been, Sonny?" I asked.
He smiled-but sat sideways on the sofa, his elbow resting on the back, his fingers playing with his mouth and chin, not
looking at me. "I've been something I didn't recognize, didn't know I could be. Didn't know anybody could be." He
stopped, looking inward, looking helplessly young, looking old. "I'm not talking about it now because I feel guilty or
anything like that-maybe it would be better if I did, I don't know. Anyway, I can't really talk about it. Not to you, not
to anybody," and now he turned and faced me. "Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the
world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play or I didn't really have to play, it just came
out of me, it was there. And I don't know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times,
sometimes, to people. Or it wasn't that I did anything to them-it was that they weren't real." He picked up the beer
can; it was empty; he rolled it between his palms: "And other times-well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to
lean, I needed to clear a space to listen-and I couldn't find it, and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible
for me." He began pressing the beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played
with it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing. "Oh well. I can never tell you. I was
all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink,
and I thought I'd die if I couldn't get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking
me in with it. And I didn't know," he paused, still flattening the beer can, "I didn't know, I still don't know,
something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn't think that that was what I'd been trying
to do- and-who can stand it?" and he abruptly dropped the ruined beer can, looking at me with a small, still smile, and
then rose, walking to the window as though it were the lodestone rock. I watched his face, he watched the avenue. "I
couldn't tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when
I ran away, that's what I was running from-really. When I came back, nothing had changed I hadn't changed I was just-older."
And he stopped, drumming with his fingers on the windowpane. The sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall. I watched his
face. "It can come again," he said, almost as though speaking to himself. Then he turned to me. "It can come
again," he repeated. "I just want you to know that."
"All right," I said, at last. "So it can come again. All right."
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. "I had to try to tell you," he said.
"Yes," I said. "I understand that."
"You're my brother," he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling at all.
"Yes," I repeated, "yes. I understand that."
He turned back to the window, looking out. "All that hatred down there," he said, "all that hatred and
misery and love. It's a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart."
We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. We squeezed through the narrow, chattering, jampacked
bar to the entrance of the big room, where the bandstand was. And we stood there for a moment for the lights were very dim
in this room and we couldn't see. Then, "Hello, boy " said the voice and an enormous black man, much older than
Sonny or myself, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny's shoulder. "I been sitting
right here," he said, "waiting for you."
He had a big voice, too, and heads in the darkness turned toward us.
Sonny grinned and pulled a little away, and said, "Creole, this is my brother. I told you about him."
Creole shook my hand. "I'm glad to meet you, son," he said and it was clear that he was glad to meet me there,
for Sonny's sake. And he smiled, "You got a real musician in your family," and he took his arm from Sonny's shoulder
and slapped him, lightly, affectionately, with the back of his hand.
"Well. Now I've heard it all," said a voice behind us. This was another musician, and a friend of Sonny's, a
coal-black, cheerful-looking man built close to the ground. He immediately began confiding to me, at the top of his lungs,
the most terrible things about Sonny, his teeth gleaming like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning
of an earthquake. And it turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone-some were musicians, working there,
or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangers-on, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of
them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny's brother. Here, I was in Sonny's
world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.
They were going to play soon and Creole installed me, by myself, at a table in a dark corner. Then I watched them, Creole,
and the little black man and Sonny, and the others, while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light
from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the
feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they
moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small
black man, moved into the light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums. Then-being funny and
being, also, extremely ceremonious- Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to the piano. A woman's voice called Sonny's
name and a few hands started clapping. And Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he
could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and
bowed from the waist.
Creole then went to the bass fiddle and a lean, very bright-skinned brown man jumped up on the bandstand and picked up
his horn. So there they were, and the atmosphere on the bandstand and in the room began to change and tighten. Someone stepped
up to the microphone and announced them. Then there were all kinds of murmurs. Some people at the bar shushed others. The
waitress ran around, frantically getting in the last orders, guys and chicks got closer to each other, and the lights on the
bandstand, on the quartet, turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there. Creole looked about him for the
last time, as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he-jumped and struck the fiddle.
And there they were.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something
opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.
But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order
on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant,
too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled,
he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for
him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them
all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes
half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted
Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not
the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the
keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.
And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how
awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath
of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood
and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find
this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
And Sonny hadn't been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn't on much better terms with his life, not the life that
stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked,
marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny
I'd never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned
in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.
Yet, watching Creole's face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something
I hadn't heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant's warning, Creole started into
something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began
to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the
drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now
and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family
again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano.
It seemed that he couldn't get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him
that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.
Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them,
he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to
tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new,
at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of
how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other
tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country,
and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny's blues. He made the
little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn't trying any longer to get Sonny
in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion
that Sonny speak for himself.
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny's fingers
filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began
with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because
it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we
had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help
us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard
what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line,
of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through
death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had
walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else
back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin
to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble
stretched above us, longer than the sky.
Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and
some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause,
while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for
Sonny. He didn't seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and
nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's
head like the very cup of trembling.