One always thinks there’s a landing place coming. But there aint.— VIRGINIA WOOLF
In front of the Celestial Theater sat an old africano woman who covered her long bald pate with a yellow scarf that trailed down her back like a tail. Each morning she washed the scarf in the Collosso Fountain in Mecklenburg Square and put it on again, wet, over her brown, speckled head. Across the city she pulled a small cart stacked with books, every page of which was crossed out in heavy charcoal strokes. She sang church songs to herself and lived on pieces of fruit and chunks of stale bread she picked up behind groceries. On her arm she carried a basket filled with worked-over letters she’d written to her daughter who had died years before of the Spanish flu. An old black man with a leg stump worn white as snow hailed her every day from the courthouse steps but she would not speak to him. The old man begged pennies from passersby and ate raisins one by one from a paper sack. Down the street at the old stone jail an aged white lady in clothes made of rice sacks waited for her son to be let out but her son had been burned up in the jailhouse fire years before. A deaf man who passed her every day yelled at everyone he passed that it was too late to save themselves, from what he never said. He carried a sleek black duck under his arm. A young girl sold conjuries from a bucket. She gave the money she received to her father who got drunk and crawled on all fours before her begging forgiveness. An old man in a nappy top hat, an ex-opera singer whose voice one night on stage disappeared like a raccoon into a thicket, tried in a whisper to explain to a skinny man looking for his no ’count son that time would embellish and modify all things. “The Executioner,” as he was called, a remittance man from the Maritime Provinces, condemned everyone he met to a gruesome death. He prided himself on never sentencing anyone to the same death twice (he was mistaken about this because he easily lost count and didn’t remember who was who). He carried on his belt a noose that was blackened with years of grimy handling. He pressed the drunks and streetwalkers he passed not to hurry, for the Reaper, he said, was the only one at home. An old man each evening tried drunkenly to sell his mule a hat. His friend, with a face pop-eyed like a victim of strangulation, also drunk, explained to any who asked that the mule was an old friend from childhood. In the lobby of the Peacock Hotel the goldfinches sang their tinny songs. Each was attached to the perch with a thin silver chain. An old woman, sad for years, stared into her hands. In those days we were all birthed into a world of make-believe, so profoundly and intricately conceived that we took it for real, and lived accordingly.
He was born on the shaded back porch of the board and batten house, cabin really, that smelled in every room of pork fat and greens and of Miss Mamie’s Coconut Oil Soap his mother used to wash down the floorboards. The back porch because that was as far as his mother got on the hot July day in 1913 exactly fifty years after the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a day uncelebrated in Chattanooga. His mother, Capable Florence, called Cappie, a good-time gal who worked sometimes as a domestic but hated the work and made most of her money processing one of the back rooms at the Emporium — former slave quarters of the old grocery exchange, then a cookshop and hotel for negro folks passing through Chattanooga, and now the city’s main brothel — in a big narrow vestibule divided by curtains into a half dozen smaller rooms that could be rented for two dollars an hour.
When her water broke as she was coming through the backyard carrying a sack of oranges given to her by a oldtime customer, her children had tried to help, but the gushing stinking swirling unexpected secret waters of her body — her agony and the way her eyes momentarily rolled back in her head — had scared them near to death. As she hauled herself up the back steps they stood out in the yard screeching. Cappie didn’t have time or the inclination to tend to them. As she staggered on the first step, feeling the animate, resolute, massacree push of her own body ejecting itself or attempting to, experiencing in this moment the extremity of panic as her body told her — shouted — that such crudesence was in fact impossible, followed immediately by the give in her muscles that let her know that was a lie, the gummy little bushy-haired head poked forth. She was still climbing the steps as the baby’s shoulders jimmied their way through, yelling as she came (while Coolmist yelled Git down! git down! and the twins crouched at the base of the little chinaberry tree, clasping hands around the trunk), not willing anything but surrendering to some power in herself that compelled her, or allowed her, she said later, to raise herself, like a wreck being raised off the floor of the Tennessee river, some old wedding cake of a riverboat, lifted streaming and creaking — and bellering, her daughter said later — and keeping her feet like a woman wading through biting snakes, crouched, bowlegged, staggering on the sides of her delicate high-arched feet, making the top step, her trailing leg weighing suddenly a thousand pounds so that she felt as if the cradle of her hips was cracking as she raised her foot and lurched forward, attempting to make it to the big rocker — why was it leaned face-first against the side of the house with its skinny legs sticking up like an old man praying? — yelling at Coolmist to pull the God almighty chair out, that she never made it to, at least not before the full compact bundled body of her fourth child squirted out, falling not straight down but in a slant off to the side but not so quickly that she wasn’t with one hand able to catch the baby by the arm and keep it from hitting the floor, which at the time was the most important thing.
As for Delvin, though he didn’t remember this episode until they told it to him, first his sister Coolmist and then the twins and then his mother when he came crying to her, he always had a sensation of falling or of being about to, an emptiness in his gut as if he had just let go or been let go of. The little twitch that comes to everyone just at the border of sleep and wakefulness, the start or jump, was for him a powerful kick; he felt himself thrown backwards from a height, falling into a deep pit that had no happiness at the bottom of it; and he lashed out from it; he fought back.
“Shoo, it was just this world snatching at ye,” the old man John William Heberson, called J W, told him, clucking his stony laugh, speaking of the fall from his mother’s womb. “But she cotched ye, didn’t she?” he’d add, his eyes sparkling. J W was the old africano storekeeper down the road who paid his mother to visit him, every Saturday evening after he closed up. “Yessir,” he said, “she cotched ye.”
And she did, Delvin would think, marveling. He liked to walk off by himself along the grassy ravine that separated Red Row from white town. The ravine or gully was deep and craggy with outcroppings of gray mica-flecked granite. At the bottom flowed a constant stream that ran thin and rusty in dry times and heavy, clumsy and milky with mountain runoff, after a rain. The ravine ran up through neighborhood and woods until it folded itself back into the mountains where among the sassafras and laurel slicks Delvin liked to lie down and dream about his life. His mother read to him from a book of French kings — another customer gift — and he saw himself not as one of them exactly but as one of their company, a gallant lieutenant of kings, the one sent out into the wilderness to find a place for people to settle, some sweet land that had grapevines and wild strawberries and blueberry bushes growing in clumps and sweet apple trees you could pick little striped apples from and carry around in your pockets to munch on. In the dusk of a summer afternoon he would walk down the center of the street carrying a stalk of sugar cane or a bottle of buttermilk given to him by Mr. J W for his mama and he would caper as if the street was a rope he was balancing on — he was always teaching himself how to stay upright, keep from falling — and he didn’t want to tell his mother that the good things he brought her were gifts from somebody else.
All around him was a world intricate and rich with smells and sounds that fascinated him. He loved the look and feel of the rusty dust kicked up out in the street whenever an automobile passed and he loved the smell of the mules parked with their wagons in front of Bynum’s and he loved to sit on the wooden bench out in the yard in front of the Azalea Bethany church on Slocum street to listen to hymns being sung and he loved the smell of baking in Miss Consolia Dikens’s outdoor oven that was big as a little cabin and stoked with wood from a pile that smelled of apples and he loved the swaying of the bulrush cane down in the gully and he loved the other kind of cane, sugar cane, that was stacked like broom handles in the big wooden barrel outside Heberson’s and liked to buy a stalk for a penny and strip the snakegreen hide off with his teeth and gnaw off a chunk and chew the sweet iron-tasting juice into his mouth. He loved the sound of the little girls’ voices as they passed on their way to school and even liked the way they mocked him as he sat in his tiny yellow rocking chair on the little front porch. Four years old and rocking up a storm and telling his little two-year-old neighbor about how French kings lived in the hills up the gully and kept great castles and palaces stocked with fresh fish and sweet potato pudding and big jars of strawberry soda.
“What’s the difference between a castle and a palace?” his older brother Whistler asked, laughing at him.
He was teaching himself to read from the funnypapers he got from stacks at the back of Heberson’s store, getting old J W first to read them to him then again while he moved his fingers through the words. After that he could read the panels himself.
“He’s got em learnt by heart,” J W said to Cappie, who was sitting beside Delvin on the plank back steps of the store eating canned oysters out of a little white china dish, giving every fourth one to Delvin who didn’t care for them and surreptitiously put each one in his pocket. She was fascinated by what her chappie could do, even if he was reciting. Reciting was even better than reading. Any fool could read — she could read and wasn’t a fool, but many others were — but how many got the natural head power to keep all those words in order inside his brain?
“He’s a wonderanemous child,” she said licking the small plump body of an oyster before forking it into her mouth.
Not that time, but three times later, reading the adventures of the Katzenjammer Kids, he told his mother what was true — that he really was reading. He went more slowly and his mother at first didn’t like it — she liked better the zippy way he had when he memorized the words — but he explained to her that now he could take a piece of paper with writing on it and didn’t have to have somebody read it to him first before he could tell her what was there. “It’s like I can tell the secrets now,” he told her. She lay in her bed late at night after she came in from the Emporium thinking about this. She had long believed that life was a secret thing, built on secrets, most of which she had no idea how to learn. That boy’s building him a key, she thought. He’s going to establish hisself.
Just beyond the crossing of Bynam and Adams streets was the oakwood bridge that led to the world of the white folks. Huge and ponderous, all powerful, it squatted over there.
“Like a big old hog,” Cappie told her children. “It’ll eat you up — unless you’re quick. And eat anything else it takes a mind to,” she said, her dark yellow eyes burning. “You got to be mindful every minute,” she told them. “You got to study their ways and not slip up. Or they’ll get you.”
But Delvin felt called to the territory on the other side of the gully bridge. He was sure he could make his way.
One day he sneaked out of the yard and crossed over — he could see the bridge from the house, and see the church steeples and the big square commercial buildings and the indecipherable flags on top of the Courtney Hotel — and made his way along Adams street past the Sinclair station and the printing plant and the big white stone post office that looked like a fortress and past the other buildings of stone and brick masonry with their big glass front windows behind which were potbellied washing machines and silver tubs and birchwood iceboxes with big silver handles and couches like the ones over at the Emporium except without the gold tassels and buckets and dynamic-looking water pumps and big glass-covered pictures of people riding horses.
What particularly drew him was a store he came on that had spangly colorful dresses in the front window, dresses that were buttoned onto dummy bodies with small painted white women’s heads on them. These dresses were yellow like sunshine and sky blue and honeydew green and had tiny colorful stones sewn into them. The stones were like the precious gems in the stories of kings, the booty and priceless possessions of kings and queens right here in this marvelous place just over the bridge that after all was like a bridge in the story of great King Charlemagne that he had to cross in the Alp mountains to get to the terrible vandals who were demeaning the empire, and here he was, nearly five years old and feeling fine, looking right at such preciousness.
Though he could hear his mother’s voice saying no, he could not keep himself from climbing the two white marble steps and ducking into the store.
He headed straight for the dresses and knew no better than to scramble up the little wooden step into the window. He began to run his fingers over the jewels. One of them, a green shiny wonder he hadn’t even noticed from outside, the size of his thumbnail, came off in his hand. He slipped it into his pocket. There were so many who could mind? He ran his hands over the soft fabric. It made a faint hissing sound under his fingers. He would like to take this dress home to his mama. Maybe there was some way. But then there were jewels on this other cascade of smooth green cloth, jewels of dark yellow like his mother’s eyes, red jewels and a few that were clear — diamonds he knew they were called, the most precious of all, though not the prettiest. He began to pick the stones like berries and put them in his pockets.
He thought his heart might give out. It was hard to draw breath. His body tingled. But he was a brave boy and would not falter. He believed he had strength in him.