Thursday, April 14, 2011
John Nobel and the Mac Camp Boy (a short story)
John Nobel and the Mac Camp Boy John Nobel [Voyage down the Mississippi, from St. Paul, on down to New Orleans—1925] Part one of two Parts A t a little after seven, John Nobel came downstairs from the upper deck of the riverboat after a brief greeting from one of the other guests; he leaned over the vessel’s railing. A few other folks wondered through the door, once such fellow the porter, called “Dinner is being served!” He had rather expected that, looked about to see who might be listening then added “…cocktails will also be served!” John—for the moment, had put these thoughts back into a corner of his mind for later, figured the lounge would not disappear, turned his attention to some black folks in the distance, near the shore,
“Well, what do yaw make of that Niggers singing and dancing on that woodened raft,” pointing “must had drifted down the Ohio to the Mississippi I bet, must be at least twenty of them on that little raft,” he said with a grimace for an expression on his face, loud enough for whomever might be walking by to stop and look—then squinting his eyes, showing more now of a smirk—or rather what tried to be a smirk, turning out to be a grotesque smile, “By gosh, they know how to have a shindig.” He was a Midwestern boy. There were Negro babies, women, young healthy men, old folks, and a good sample of the breed he thought, on that raft. Obediently, they paid little attention to him, jammed tight together, one bowed his head, as if to say hello, when John Nobel looked closer, staring as if they were some odd looking creatures from down under the surface of the Mississippi River. A little girl was standing up, arms spread out wide, eyes lifted up toward the stars. The nose of the riverboat, bumped into a drifting raft, two other black souls were on it, had been on it, they had jumped off, had been sleeping evidently, woken up in time to jump overboard, it made some noise, and the raft tilted rakishly, as they swam to the other raft already half sinking with the weight of the others. He, John Nobel, continued standing on deck, holding a book, “Windy McPherson’s Son,” by Sherwood Anderson, in his hand—the book had a marker in it, on page thirteen, as the boat got closer to the shores—closer to the point, so close one could see the moss growing along the banks, stacks of sugarcane and cotton and more Negro’s doing laborious shores.
John got thinking of all the books he wanted to read, and had heard were coming out, or just had recently been written: such as, Anderson’s new book: “Black Laughter,” and the new writers such as William Faulkner’s, “Soldiers Pay,” already out, and Hemingway’s ”Torrents of Spring,” along with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “The Great Gatsby.” He had read pomes by Juan Parra Del Riego, he liked them, and a new book was out, poems to his wife, and knowing he was ill, if not dead by now, the book would be scarce the very month this year it appeared (1925). He was short of time, no time to read them not all of them, if any, yes, even at forty-seven years old, he could sense life was like a seagull flying out to sea on its last flight, and “Fast it’ll go…” he murmured.
If you would have asked him, he would have said he needed more time, maybe fifteen more years would do, but what would he do with those added years: read, read and read more books? It was a rhetorical question. He was the lone stone, in the valley no one ever hears when it falls and breaks off from a higher peak: cracks and rolls down the hill to the bottom, there it rests; people walk by and pay no attention to it, as if it was there a million years. Yes indeed, he was looking into an endless gulf of water, as far as you could see, or not see, the day now had turned into night as the Mississippi Queen chugged along, going down this endless river—empty except for water, his inner voice telling him what he knew, ‘Time was short, very short.’ He saw a pretty woman walk by, said to himself, ‘She has no form,’ then turned the opposite way, saw another, ‘That one has a nice figure,’ he looked at her mouth as she walked by, passionate vitality in her walk and balance, and the mobility of her mouth gave a constant impression of change, unrest, intense life, what he wanted, what he was now lacking.
He thought about his wife, it was night, of the next day—his wife, no children, Rosalina Ann Lee, she died from childbirth, as did the child, years, and years ago—how many years past, he had forgot (he yawned, but he didn’t move, just stared into the black river). Rosalina was his life, he called to the waters, several times, “Rosalina, Rosalina!” looking at the moon now a tinge slanted, or so it seemed to him, as it faded in and out of drifting gray clouds—mystic shadows, it was full dusk. The Riverboat went down the river string-straight: slowly, slowly tugging along, through: frogs, fireflies, and crickets: he could hear them all yawning, and dogs yelping along the river banks, as the riverboat folks, slept in their rooms turning over those big cow-eyes, deep into dreams of what they’d be doing once they arrived in New Orleans, he saw a few fish jump out of the water alongside the boat, ‘…curiosity even hits God’s dinner food,’ he chattered in the deep dark of the night, only the stars and moon for light, a world of near perfect ecstasy, and quiet. The more he looked the more he knew, the wonderer of life was living, and perhaps a little more appreciated if you know you are dying.
Ever since he was a kid he had a notion to travel down the Mississippi like Mark Twain, right on down to New Orleans, only now he was dying and doing it, and when he thought of it he was quite young. Rosalina Ann Lee was quite young also; Rosalina his wife was the sister to Ella (Mrs. Ella Sillvc: something similar to that, he couldn’t remember the name clear, or pronounce it—it was Russian, everyone pronounced it and wrote it differently). He had noticed one of the Mac Camp boys were on the boat going to the same location he was: perhaps he was nineteen-years old he told himself, perhaps twenty, no older. His family came up from the South, or was it, a few of them went to the south, and the rest stayed there in the Middle West, or as they were starting to call it, the Midwest. They saw one another a few times, both acknowledging the other on the boat, both going about their day-dreaming, as daydreamers often do—in half dazed mode; He, Mr. Nobel at this moment had been thinking about writing the Great American Novel—but he knew now, time would not allow it, had often thought of it though; and Mac Camp, about other things, and possibly reading that Great American novel Nobel would have wished he wrote. Later that night, early morning, the moon went down with an unruly churn under an umbrella of gray and doom like clouds, left a rustling in John’s chest. It was a darkish-blue black night, and the pilot was a bit nervous; so John had noticed, observing him in the pilot’s cabin above him. He knew that the Captain was acquainted with the Mississippi like the back of his hands, but this river could change from one steam boat trip to the next, and there the old coot was, pacing the square cabin as if he was talking to a ghost. “By Godfrey!” he yelped in a whisper, “they ought to put some of these crazy pilots, to rest, before they put the vessel off its course, it is getting to be outrageous to watch him pace, and not pay attention to the river, talking to a ghost, as looks like.”
Out of the deep-dark, came voices, Negro voices, that came in whispers to Nobel: thinking it was that raft of blacks he saw before, singing away, laughing as if not to have a damn care in the world: almost envious, or is it jealousy, the way they lived, free as a bee it seemed. Old man Günter Gunderson from St. Paul, Minnesota, had given him a loan; it was nice of him, he thought, it would come in handy, perhaps never get paid back, but Mr. Gunderson knew that. He kept the $500-dollars hidden for this very thing, this trip. Not in the damn bank, but in his sock, underneath the wooden steps that went down into the basement of his rooming house. No one knew it. He sold him his shack of a house on the levee, a shanty, it wasn’t much, but the old man said he’d use it for someone he was thinking about, who might need it. He knew John had only a limited time to live; cancer was eating him up slowly, like a garbage worm, a maggot, his liver or kidney, the doctors didn’t know but he was excreting blood, peeing it out, and he was weakened from it, evidently his red blood cells were not duplicating themselves for some odd reason. He could have taken the railroad down along the river, faster, but this was more scenic he thought, more mystic, silent. Down to St. Louis, now down to New Orleans.
“Here I am!” John said not to anyone in particular, just said it as the port of New Orleans was in sight (it was impossible to determine whether this question was a question, or a statement: ingenuous or malicious, but he said it cheerfully).
When John arrived at the Port of New Orleans, the place of his boyhood dreams, the place where he never thought he’d get to go to, he got off the boat slowly, and onto land, and walked right over to Jackson Square (Park): he still had over $400 on him. “It’s a curious day,” he slashed suddenly out of his mouth, feeling like a trespasser, but who was bored with life, now this, an enormous thing had happened he had a slice of a dream, and it hit him in the stomach! He looked back at the boat, up the river then to the park, said “One minute I’m on the ship, the next here in the park, will death be like that?” He had hidden in his socks, in his pockets, big pockets, his money now, where he also kept four bottles of homemade brew, strong whiskey he bought on the boat. With his book in his hands, now on page 204, and with the wind blowing through his hair he found a place to sit in the sun, in the park. It was 11:00 a.m., John Nobel had purchased a few sandwiches before he got off the boat, to eat for lunch, and so he sat in the park, looking back at the boat, the Mississippi River, taking a drink of his whiskey, eating his ham and cheese sandwich, and putting down another shot of whisky after each bite; looking at his book and the people in the park. A boy came who pointed out a café, said they served a good lunch in an hour or so there, and left to meet other prospects for the café. “Jack London,” he said out loud, “I would liked to have read more of his stuff,” he liked especially the book, “Before Adam,” it was his favorite of London’s, then he ate his second sandwich, with another shot of whisky. He had fallen to sleep now, for a spell, than woke up again, took a few more shots of whiskey, looked to where the boy had pointed out where the café was, he had to push, push hard, very hard the food down, the sandwich he had started to eat, but couldn’t finish, it outwardly didn’t go down well—it squeezed inside his heart, pained him to push it down farther, he looked at his book, opened it, it was on page #204, his face tired, and sleepy, almost drooping like a dogs, tired-droopy, he took another shot of whisky, the food now sloshed down, saw a young black woman with a baby, called her over, took out the little envelope he had hidden in his sock with the $400-dollars, gave it to her, said “Make me a fine funeral please.” She looked about, didn’t want to take the money, she could see it as the envelope was opened, put he pushed it into her hands, “Please do it!” then she took it, sat down a bench away from him to breast feed her child, she had put the money into her pocket pouch, within her dress. He rested his book on his lap, laid his head back caught some of that fine bright sun seeping through the leafier part of the trees, and never woke up again. The Negress, quickly got up, and slowly walked away, walked towards the steam boat that brought John Nobel to New Orleans, and bought a ticket for St. Louis.
The Mac Camp Boy [1925—New Orleans] Part Two of Two Parts
The young lad, by the name of Mac Camp, had gotten off the boat just like Mr. Nobel had, but he went his own way, slim, milky-white skin from those long winters in Minnesota, blond hair, not tall, nor short, deep blue eyes. He hung around Bourbon Street drinking and doing what pleased him; going into the bars and listening to the Jazz Age come alive, the Fitzgerald age had come alive, so some had called it; walking drunk down side streets giving tips to the street players that rested against the walls of the buildings playing their saxophones and trumpets, trombones, and drums; sleeping here and there, at houses—new friends he’d met in the bars. A few women ended up taking him in for a week or two, taking their share of his money during the encounters: his glance and glare for the hookers fell more than casually on each and everyone he passed, women—became like loose branches from a tree, he had no end in trying to grab them, picking them up, he was like deep crusted ice; often he’d go over to the park, scan it, pick up tramps, so drunk at times his eyes squinted to see them, against the hard dimensionless glare of the moon.
It looked as if after several weeks of this dauntless city life—in the City of Night— wore his welcome out, as often we do when we have no more to offer the recipients, the so called friends—and thus, the doors were being closed to him, one right after the other. He got a few drinks though, from recent acquaintances, but only a few, as he was now down to the last few dollars, something dismal about this lad, just as he knew there was something gorgeous about life, it became dusty, he seemed self destructive, or caught up in the exhilaration of every moment of his day being filled with pleasure, drink and rich foods, becoming restless, and discontent he gave it his all.
Consequently, he was becoming a burden to his friends, those friends he knew for only a few months, friends that had already been settled, in New Orleans—on this note his friendships ended. And he found himself increasingly alone, with no means to eat, drink or able to find shelter. He looked for Mr. Nobel, but could not find him either (unaware he had died, and had to be buried by the city proper); nor was he told by anyone of his death. In consequence he had no place to go, nor knew anyone to help him, that would help him—yet he found a few dimes and nickels to buy a pint of whiskey, begging here and there, going to those old friends, beckoned them and yawned at them and started to respond with bitterness and narrowed eyes, he became to many of them an intolerable spirit.
Walking stiffly past the outskirts of the City, rigid faced with pride, unbecoming. He had been looking for an abandon house, or its equivalent: possibly an open door to an outside basement, potato cellar would also do, so he told himself. His posture and face was in despair, pale and thin, he seemed to have aged over night; it was vanity and stupidity that got him into this mess; yet he kept a jonquil-colored voice to the situation. And like Mr. Nobel, he had nearly four-hundred dollars: I say had. A sum not to laugh at, yet he had nothing left to provide for his survival until he found work, and an apartment. He wanted to be a writer, and so, carried a pencil and pad of paper always writing poetry or something on it. It had come into sight that after a while he forgot the days, the names of the days to the week he was living in a stupor [a trance]; He even forgot the names of foods, but not for the taste.
It was close to 2:00 a.m., and he had just found a barn door open, a little ways outside the city—he had walked long and steady, past an old cemetery that had old tombs made out of cement and brick and seashells of all things, molded into its marble like substance, crushed into its masonry to create mausoleums— ‘…evening in a barn, is better than on a park bench…’ he told himself. He looked hard and steady at the barn, from a distance, he was interested, with encouragement, and no malice intent, with indifference, and no disdain, he took innumerable little stops to the barn, convinced there would be no trouble should the owner see him enter it. The wind must have opened the door, he thought. He could hear horses in there (he breathed deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffused, becoming one with the hay and loft, and horses, he was so very tired). The sky was building up to a storm behind him, there in the countryside, where dark was as black as the crows black wings. With no lighting except for the moon, and the house, a house that, was about three hundred feet from the barn, perhaps more…had no light in it either. But you knew someone lived there, it look so. It had curtains in the windows; he could see that from the refractor of light of the moon beaming on them. Then suddenly it started to rain (as expected), not pour, just a medium to heavy rain, a few sparks of lightening, and a roar now and then that accompanies such lightening—called thunder.
(He looked about as with a tremendous effort, as with a tremendous effort to find a place to rest, sleep, “Yes, O yes,” he said, in a whisper, with his suffocating voice, looking up to where the loft was.)
He climbed up the ladder onto and into the loft, it was filled with hay, and laid back, listened to the horses, two of them, letting them know he was there, they moved a bit to see who had entered, the wind woke them, disturbed them more than he did, as did the crackling of the door with old hinges. Then he laid back and fell to a half sleep deep into the hay, covered a portion of his body with it, his mind had lost orderliness, space and time was oblivious to him: except he knew it was raining, for he could hear it—it was a blur, but he knew it, and it was dark, very, very dark, so it had to be night.
It must not had been but thirty-minutes, and the lad was woken up to the singing voices of Negroes, so was his notion, that is what it sounded like, and so he laid back down again to sleep, giving it not much thought— whereupon, he ended up pushing his body up a bit, like a turtle coming out of a shell, most of the hay falling off his legs, his bare shoulders and unbuttoned pants, his shoes off, and his long neck showing. But no sooner had he rested his head back on the hay, no sooner than five-minutes or so, the voices of the Negroes had entered the barn, and now the horses got a little more aroused, unsettled you might say, not all that much, to wake the people in the house up, but then the storm covered that noise pretty good, so everything remained stone-silent under the sounds of the storm. All three of those huge middle-aged, black-bucks were stumbling about, drunker than a mule on local-weed, then one saw something move in the loft. Said the tallest of the three black men, “I done heard a noise up in the loft, Lucas? Whut youall think it is?” “The rat?” said Silas. They all started laughing, voice deliverable. For the young Mac Camp boy, it was loud and clear, matter-of-fact, he pushed himself back a bit to get out of their focus, but he looked even more like a female to the stumbling drunk Negroes, the more he moved, for the more he uncovered himself, he was still half drunk himself, and clumsy at that. His hands now trembling as six-eyes stared up into the loft. He told himself, ‘be quiet,’ but out of fear and terror of being raped or death, he couldn’t help himself. Lucas caught a glimpse of his milky white skin, and didn’t think of how the white folks would treat him should they find out what he was thinking: hang him for raping a white women, he just started climbing up the ladder like a bulldog after a cat, like a cat after a bird—drunk as anyone can be or get: in the heat, and saturated with alcohol, lust seeped out of his pours, like sweat on the back of a horse—to the boy, when he saw the huge Blackman he was but a flea on a bears tail—what man can be talked to or reasoned with—when intoxicated with both alcohol and lust, indomitable, he continued up the ladder with his two huge buck friends behind him.
Said Silas with a burning tongue, “…I ain’ never mess up ‘round white folk kaze da hang ya ef-in dey catch yaw wit’ a white woman…I goin’ to see things I ain’ wantin’ to’ see…she sho look white.” Tad right behind Silas, saying, “Some niggers is mighty fool, dey is one, you Lucas, wes best get on out of her…!” Lucas, likened to a camel in heat didn’t heed a word, saying, “Some women sho’ do a heap of breathen… cuz I hear her cryin’ I hears it….” Silas (knowing now he was going to go along with whatever Lucas did), whispered, “Don’t youall forget me! Oh, Lawd, have mercy on my soul…” Tad, “Yawl bunch of helpless niggers, cuz you git a mind for murder…I knows it.” Lucas, “White folks git my body; ef-in day finds me now, day lynch me anyway.”
The horses were now standing—curious as to what the commotion was all about, and then all of a sudden, Locus had the young figure, framed within his vision. Long blond hair, covering his ears, and he must had shaved, or couldn’t shave yet, for his face was smooth, no one could tell, for his skin looked as smooth as a woman’s. The boy, near nineteen, had forgotten for a moment on how to reason, he was thinking on how to rationalize his way out of this situation, but his head wouldn’t work, it was blank, as if he fell down some stairs, knocked himself out, he was in a daze looking into big black faces, big eyeballs—white and red, then he suddenly woke up a tinge more, more and more: something grabbed him…poignant, unforgivable, like a turbulence—it was like one of those rare times you are caught in a stupor, wordless, and he was being handled like a bushel of discontent,
“I’m no female,” shouted the boy, “Stop, stop,” but the big Negroes just jumped on him as if he was: He was already laying somewhat on his back trying to pull his pants up, as they had already pulled them halfway off him, and the other two, holding his hands, his legs—successfully, pulled his underclothes to his knees—and turned him over onto his belly, —Lucas, and the other two men, saw he was now just a pretty white boy living like a nigger in a loft, he grabbed him, which infuriated the boy, but what could he do…? “You is a white fox, boy—” said Lucas, “…you is a pretty boy… an’ I jes’ a fool nigger…” said Lucas with a sacrilege tone to his voice, turning the boy completely on his stomach, all peering over this young lad…thus started the sexual taboo; thenceforth was his boyishness broken, completely gone, feminized with fear, brooded fear…! Notes: interlinking Chapters, written for the novelette ‘Look at Me,’ subtitle, Mississippi shanty Town, written, 2003 (the year the author’s mother died): these two linking stories were written: July, August and September of 2005, reedited and revised 11-2008 (book originally called, “Mississippi Levee” Revised 11-2009 (Reedited and slightly revised, ending for John Nobel, 4/2011) The Author had visited New Orleans, in the September of 2000.