Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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 Chapter 21


Things are better this morning. My legs, such as they are, no longer prevent the bed from being cranked into a sitting position. I again have my familiar lapboard and am scribbling away with a purpose which is, as usual, obscure to me.

Sister Harkins again suggests that I'm trying to explain and justify my life. I usually reply that nothing could explain and justify my life. She suggests that I wouldn't otherwise put so much energy into my writing. I reply that I do it only because there's nothing else for me to do. She suggests, with a little smile, that I could play solitaire, and offers to fetch cards for me. I refuse angrily and return to my narrative.

After a short trip to Chicago to settle some pressing labor problems in connection with the Milwaukee Road, I arrived back in Huntington in the late afternoon. Hurrying to our building in order to catch Odie, I happened to meet Sam Hanks as he was leaving. I hardly had a chance to greet him before he button-holed me and said quietly, with no warning,

"We've had some trouble with John Henry Jamieson. He got into a fight with a man here in Huntington and practically killed him. In your absence, Odie appealed to me for help. I've done a few things, but, of course, he's your responsibility."

Sam only spoke the truth. He did me many favors over the years, more than I was able to do for him, but there was never any ambiguity as to how far he would go.

John Henry, now the well-established president of the GER company union, spent most of his time going around the system, from bunkhouse to bunkhouse. He was still in my command, but, since he was the last person in the world who could function as an undercover agent, his reports consisted of analyses of trends and developments.

Virtually all the employees, of all races and all our various ethnic groups, knew who he was. While he wasn't universally loved, there was no one else who could even begin to compete with him.

John Henry sometimes spoke to large groups, and, despite his youth, he had managed to develop a kind of demagoguery which was religious in style, but not in content. That style must have come originally from Mississippi preachers, but John Henry instead preached what amounted to a revolutionary doctrine, Mac being cast as the chief revolutionist.

Mac did once ask him humorously in my hearing,

"Now son, you aren't making me out to be a Marxist, are you?"

At times, John Henry probably did just that. But, whatever the aptness of a comparison between Mac and Marx, it was true enough that Mac was running the railway in such a new and different way that non-revolutionary metaphors tended to fall short.

Not only that, John Henry may have seen something about Mac that the rest of us missed. In the end, it did turn out that the leftist political implication, so seemingly at odds with the motivation of our hell-for-leather capitalist individualist, wasn't so misleading after all.

Whatever doctrines John Henry put forward to his followers, it was undeniable that he could get them very excited, often in a way that was frightening to others. I assumed that there had been some sort of ruckus, and that John Henry, very possibly in self defense, had hit someone. One such blow could knock a man down hard enough to split his head.

Sam couldn't enlighten me on that point, but he had sent John Henry away immediately, and had put it out that a black man, known to us only by his first name, had perpetrated the assault and then disappeared. That sounded like a good start.

Odie was still in his office, and I immediately asked him for more information. He replied,

"I first heard about it from the police Tuesday morning. They said that one of our blacks had practically killed a man in the street the night before. I told them I'd investigate. Then John Henry came in a little later. He said something had happened, and that there'd been some kind of scuffle. He seemed real confused, but it didn't take me long to realize that he was the one. I couldn't reach you, so I went to Sam Hanks. I didn't want to try to obstruct justice all on my own."

It was then Thursday, and John Henry had been sent on his way two days previously. As soon as he was out of the way, Odie had found a man named Willie who really had disappeared without telling anyone anything. That was the way men often did quit. The police accepted that Willie was the culprit, and, while Odie actually had no idea where he had gone, he told them that friends of Willie had said that he'd gone back to Georgia.

Knowing that I wanted to go to Cincinnati, Sam told John Henry to go there, and to send back his address. John Henry's letter didn't arrive until Friday, giving only an address in Cincinnati, but I was off within the hour.

It was never easy to get anywhere from Huntington on a passenger train, and it was quite late when I arrived in Cincinnati. I checked in at one of the principal hotels of the city, near the downtown station, and went to bed immediately. When I awoke the next morning, I suddenly remembered that the man John Henry attacked had been listed in serious condition when I left. For all I knew, he might have died overnight. In that case, Odie, Sam, and I would all be accessories after-the-fact to murder.

I called Odie immediately, but he was way ahead of me. He had been checking the man's condition frequently, and reported that he was now listed in good condition. Fortunately for us, the victim came from a large family of criminals, whose name was well known in Huntington, and he himself had been in jail. Under those circumstances, no lynch mobs had formed, and there had been almost no anger in the streets.

I took a taxi only part-way to my destination. I wanted to arrive quietly, and taxi drivers are likely to make such a commotion. I was dropped on what turned out to be the main street of the black section of the city, in front of a store which had below its name the legend,

"If we don't have it, you don't need it."

It was a fine warm day, and many people were standing along the sidewalk, simply watching cars and pedestrians as they went by. As the only white pedestrian within sight, I was an object of interest and curiosity, but I felt no hostility.

Turning off the main street, and then on to one that paralleled it, I found the sidewalk flanked by a low stone wall, with front yards raised several feet above the street. The houses, while not large, had touches of elegance. Although they had all been sub-divided for more than one family, there were often rather dignified people sitting on the stone porches.

My next turn took me into what was really an alley, albeit a fairly neat and clean one paved with brick. There were little houses tucked along both sides which didn't front on a street at all, and which had probably once housed servants.

The architecture here was irregular, mostly wooden, and it was hard to distinguish front doors from side doors and back doors, particularly as there were subsidiary alleys branching off the main one. At this point, I asked directions of a man who was carrying a large basket of eggs. He didn't seem to mind lingering with his eggs, and he paused to consider.

"There really ain't no Jackson Alley off Poplar Alley, but people gen'rally mean a little passage up ahead there. If you tell me who you want and give me your name, I'll go find out for you."

I stood by the basket of eggs while the helpful stranger disappeared. It wasn't long before he returned, smiling, and gave me detailed instructions. I thanked him, turned through a couple of passages and found myself involuntarily looking in the window of a small frame house. The room was the kitchen, and, even before knocking at the door, I could see John Henry Jamieson seated at the table. An older woman answered the door, and I inquired for John Henry loudly enough so that he would be sure to recognize my voice.

John Henry was eating, and, even though it was a bit early for lunch, a place was immediately set for me. John Henry, still not knowing whether he had killed a man, stood and welcomed me. He then apologized for leading me such a trail. Not wanting to compromise him in front of the lady of the house, who presumably didn't know of his predicament, I assured him that everything was all right back in Huntington. He replied by asking,

"You mean ....?"

"Yes. Well on the road to recovery. A member of a track crew ran off, and they were looking for him. I'm sure they've given up by now."

I was then introduced to the lady of the house, a Mrs. Hawkins. Large and imposing, she appeared to be in late middle age, and, although friendly to the point of offering me several choices for lunch, there was something about her that I couldn't place. I guessed, despite her willingness to produce food without charge, that she was actually running a boarding house.

She wasn't maternal, as many women would have been with John Henry, but instead treated him with understatement and a touch of humor. For my part, I was sure that she had guessed something like the true state of affairs in Huntington from the brief exchange John Henry and I had had. That was perhaps the reason why she left us alone together after serving me a heaping plate of stew and greens.

John Henry immediately explained,

"It was after a union meeting, out in the street. A group of men who were fairly hostile came up and some accusations were made. Then, in the scuffle, I think I must have hit a man who went down hard. After that, the fight broke up and we cleared out. I wasn't too worried until the next day, when it looked as if the man I had probably hit might die."

"Well, it looks as if we're mostly in the clear. The man and his friends might recognize you and want to sue for assault, but they're sleazy people without money or influence. Mac and his lawyers could defeat hem easily."

Just then, a young woman appeared in the kitchen and went to the ice box. Almost six feet with an erect imperious posture and a cool black-eyed glance, she was obviously very young, hardly more than a girl. She nevertheless reminded me of Vignis. That is, despite the many dissimilarities, she was also a complete princess momentarily without her sword and shield. As it happened, she was, not Nordic, but African.

John Henry introduced her casually, adding,

"Sidonie's a student at the college here."

I knew that she was much more than that. Her smile, and the sound of her voice, shook me severely. Her accent was unusual, but I could hardly guess what exotic place she might have come from. When I got her full name, Miss Sidonie Toussaint, I knew exactly who she was.

By the merest chance, I had recently read a magazine article on Haiti. I remembered that Toussaint l'Overture was the George Washington of the country, the liberator of the slaves from the French in the seventeenth century. In the time since, there had grown up in Haiti a class of highly educated French-speaking blacks who read Descartes and Voltaire, and who, for a hundred and fifty years, had supported playhouses in which the works of Moliere were performed.

The young people were usually sent to France for their educations, and the young lady in front of me was as much a Parisienne as a Haitian. On that occasion, she lingered only long enough to drink a glass of orange juice, give John Henry a highly ambiguous look, and take her leave of me quite charmingly.

John Henry and I have always communicated easily enough. He knew, without being asked, that I wanted to know as much as possible about the young lady. He began by telling me what I already knew. He then added quietly,

"She's really quite wild. She's very bright, but she's been thrown out of every school she's ever attended, including one in Paris. More or less in desperation, her parents sent her here to stay with their cousin, Mrs. Hawkins, and go to the University of Cincinnati. I think they hope that she'll calm down by the time she graduates, and then go home to marry."

"Have you been going out with her?"

"Some, but she's a little too dangerous for me. I'm in enough trouble as it is."

"What dangerous things does she do?"

"She puts a turban on her head and goes to white restaurants and night clubs. She gets away with it. Africans can do things American colored people can't. She wanted me to do it, too. She was all set to make me a turban."

I could see that such a course of action was natural for Sidonie. She really didn't look American, and she could have passed for many different kinds of princess. On the other hand, I had trouble imagining John Henry in a turban. Not only that, even his radio announcer's voice was indisputably the voice of an American radio announcer. People wouldn't have believed him if he had told them that he was from the Senegalese consulate.

It was, of course, not a bad idea to keep John Henry right where he was for another week or so. Few places could have been safer. Sitting in Mrs. Hawkins' kitchen, I had the feeling of being deep within a nation, largely different from the main American one, and also largely impervious to it. If any white investigator tried to find John Henry, or even myself, he would be met with blank stares, mumbled irrelevancies, and directions that led around in circles.

When Mrs. Hawkins returned later, I asked her if it would be possible for me to take lodging for a week. While she did have a room, she said it was very small and hinted that it was hardly appropriate for a man such as myself. At that point, John Henry spoke to her in still another of his many languages. It wasn't standard English, nor was it the language that he used when he addressed the men. Nor yet was it Mrs. Hawkins' native French. It seemed to be some sort of West Indian creole which was entirely unintelligible to me. Whatever he said, she gave me a quick look and raised no objections about the room.

I was almost as interested in finding out about Mrs. Hawkins as her relative, and she was communicative enough. When young, she had married an American soldier, apparently a white man. Her family had been scandalized, and no one had objected when she disappeared with him. Mrs. Hawkins had herself not been prepared to be treated as blacks were in the United States. She had kept up correspondence with some members of her family, who urged her to go back, but she had stuck it out. Despite the discrimination, she liked America in many ways. When her husband was killed by an errant taxi, she had used the life insurance money to buy the little boarding house. She indicated with a gesture that she managed well enough. But, then, she burst out laughing and said,

"When the family produced another wild one, they couldn't think of anything to do but send her to the original wild one."

We laughed with her. John Henry and I both understood that Mrs. Hawkins had herself been intended for a different sort of life, and that her relatives had been profoundly shocked when, as they saw it, she had forsaken brilliant prospects to marry a soldier. They had then concluded that any other girl who shocked them must be the same, and that the two would get along well together. It was the sort of naivite which is possible only among sophisticated people who have become a little rigid over the centuries.

John Henry and I then went out for a walk, and, of course, we ended up inspecting the extensive set of railway junctions which brought together a half dozen railways. The situation between us reminded me of that earlier meeting at the Railway Cafe in Scranton.

On that occasion, John Henry had believed that I was helping him while I knew that he was helping me. This time, he was finding my help useful, while I needed his help to a much greater degree. I asked,

"Could a man in my position marry without everything eventually coming out?"

"Probably, if he was careful, and he associated only with certain kinds of people. I can live with the possibility of being recognized whenever I'm in Huntington, and you could probably live with some other risks. I wouldn't conceal anything if I didn't have to, though."

"Don't I have to?"

"Maybe not. She's been extremely rebellious. She still is. If something's forbidden, she'll do it. She may even have done the same things you have."

"Do you think a man's crazy to go near her?"

"She doesn't really know much about America. She's only been in Cincinnati. If she were with a black man in the south, she might get him killed or lynched. No telling what might happen to her. A rich white man might be all right as long as he kept her out of the south."

"What do you think of Vignis Garner?"

John Henry laughed. He would never discuss a white woman with a white man, and, if he ever did so with a black man, it would be under conditions of utmost secrecy. He had learned that much in Mississippi, too deeply to ever forget it. I should have known better, but I was in an extremely abnormal state. He did ask,

"You've only been with this young lady about five minutes, haven't you?"

"Yes, but life's a matter of bargaining. Each of us has only so much to trade. She's miles above me, but she's in a precarious position. She's in trouble at home, she can't go back to France, and her opportunities in America are very limited. Vignis is about the same in terms of beauty, intelligence, and spirit, and it got her Mac. I had no chance. But here, it might be different. I think she may have liked me."

John Henry nodded. I gathered that he thought Sidonie might be crazy enough to marry a man on the basis of a few days' acquaintance. I said to him,

"I think I'll leave it to you to tell her what she needs to know about me."

It was a desperate chance, of course. It was an extremely delicate matter, and I was depending on a man who was twenty one years old. But I nevertheless thought that, in certain areas, he could do better for me than I could do for myself.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
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