I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
He is Tom at the same time that he is too preposterous to be Tom. (Root distinction, difference: Juluster is a rare one, but he belongs. Tom never belonged. Tom never could belong. A challenge—what blind person isn’t?—Juluster is both cooperative and independent in ways that Tom never was, never could be.) He looks somewhat like Tom. A pure and simple brute, this negro with a narrow and sloped forehead, who bears in the middle section of his brain the signs of certain grossly powerful energies. The thinking faculties are poor or even null; therefore, he is possessed by his desire and also by his will, of an often terrible intensity.And physical differences between Tom and his double can be put off to aging—who will remember anyway? The public has not seen Tom for more than five years—although Juluster is Tom’s senior by a decade, having already reached thirty years of age. No. Even that is a lie. On his last birthday he achieved his Jesus year. But he still believes in his youthfulness. More importantly, he believes in the role that Seven has given him to play—game for the game—a role Seven mentally scripts moment by moment from memory—Lait—selling the shadow to support the substance. Since Juluster is game for the game teach him his name. The body is a habit he can break. Even now his flesh quivers, every inch of it, the skin coming unhinged. He seems to be drifting out of himself, becoming other, becoming Blind Tom.
The Original Blind Tom. Seven says the name (title) in a voice that doesn’t sound like his own but rather like the voice of a magician, a sorcerer. (Repeated practice will cause the name to come naturally. So he must remain aware of his tongue. Correct it when it errs, when he says or thinks “Juluster” instead of Tom. So, around the clock, practice saying it. Tom. The Original Blind Tom. Tom. The Original Blind Tom. Until it becomes second nature.) The Original Blind Tom. In the sounds of the name he thinks he hears a way for returning Tom back to the world, back to himself. Each word a twin of itself, telling two stories at the same time, his and Tom’s.I have become a name.
The room jiggles. A dozen scenes flash before him so quickly that he cannot remember anything distinctive about any of them. When does twelve years become now? He has the intimate past to think back to, his and Tom’s and Perry Oliver’s. A way of looking through himself. A past measured in the number of seats filled and the number of tickets sold. (Record setting. Unmatched as far as he knows.) Tom set him at an angle to the world. So as a way of regaining Tom he tries to think Perry Oliver’s thoughts, but he can’t get past the many facts of his present life that crowd out everything else. Stuck in the present even as his thoughts run backward. He gave his youth to Tom just as Tom gave his youth to Perry Oliver just as Seven expects Juluster and Vitalis to give their youth to him. Not quite boys, not quite men. (The flickering back and forth.) It’s not just what Seven did but what Seven did not do that haunts him. (Juluster slips back into his skin.) Tom an extension of Perry Oliver in a way Seven could not be. (Craning his neck, he hears something—Vitalis back from his errands or whatever the hell he has been up to?—and stumbles off to investigate.) Is that why he is here in the city, waiting to pick up where he left off? Is it because his mind has set wax-like around the first examples of industry and companionship that he accepted? Is this all a function of his waiting for that past to be resurrected, for Tom to come alive again? Counting days. Chasing the specter of his own significance. Funny almost, the way Tom flies back into Seven’s mind and stays for as long as he wants. Blind Tom living in his blood. Embedded in his cells. You did not choose me, Tom said. It was I who chose you.
* * *
Seven had expected the registration office to be located in some grand municipal building manned by a buzzing hive of clerks. Instead he finds a shabby little affair, a single-level frame house in serious need of upkeep, set right where the road ends amid a weeded-over garden in what used to be the nigger part of town. The door is open, so he makes a point of entering first, his niggers behind him,the driver who likes to change his name every day—before they started out this morning he christened himself President Washington—followed by Juluster and Vitalis, the driver the oldest of the four, somewhere between middle age (visible under his broad-brimmed shadow-forming hat a patch of gray hair at each temple), and them not old, not young. The further they go, the brighter it is, the more they can see the interior of the house a cave full of light, illumination spilling out. A canon shell or some other device of destruction had taken out an entire section of the house, leaving nothing behind but exposed beams and planks. Other signs of mayhem too: craters in the ceiling, walls bare and discolored in places where formerly a painting might have hung, and other walls stippled with projectile holes shaped like a cat’s paw, a cat that can walk sideways across walls.(He has heard about the city’s former troubles, about how all the niggers were either strung up and set ablaze or chased out during conscription.) In a confusion of setting, each room they enter carries the pine smell of turpentine, evidence of recent cleaning.
I didn’t touch it.
I only reached.
The hell you did. You touched the rook. Now move it.
Wait. I didn’t even reach.
I only raised my hand.
The hell. You cheating bastard. Move the rook.
I use to have better confidence in your eyesight.
I can see. You don’t think I can see?
The voices pull him to their source, two men hunched over a crude chessboard positioned between them, men who are not much older than himself but who have known war firsthand it would seem, as evidenced by the blue uniforms they wear. Then again perhaps the uniforms are cast offs, in this time of shortages—each day the newspapers’ skinny columns worded with such claims—the city using whatever is at hand to clothe its officials. After all, the war has been done for almost three years now.
One guard (the black pieces) looks up from the board—why has it taken him so long to register Seven’s presence?—giving Seven his countenance in full—his face looks almost flat, like a leaf—and finds Seven with his hard and shiny acorn-small eyes. Something alters in the air, but Seven affects to be completely unsurprised.
You have some business here? Those three can wait outside.
I am here on their behalf, Seven says. He hears his own voice beat back at him, bouncing off the ceiling and walls.
The soldier indicates with outstretched hand that Seven should take a seat, so Seven cramps down into the single chair placed before the long heavy table.
The other guard (the white pieces) continues to study the chessboard, while his cohort (the black pieces), not rude, not polite, just sits there looking at Seven. Seven tries to relax in his presence. Sits very straight, shoulders squared and hands in his lap. Then he remembers. Says, I have some documents here—his hands are moving, searching through his many pockets. Hands that find, produce, and present a bundle of documents, with the Freedman’s Bureau insignia stamped in the wax seal that secures the fold in place. The guard takes the bundle, scrapes away the wax seal with his fingertips, unfolds the bundle and holds the stack of documents out at arms length as if he is about to pronounce some decree. His head cants forward, eyes racing across paper—one, two, three—from top to bottom then he swivels his eyeballs—one, two, three—at each nigger in turn. Names?
Seven pronounces the name of each nigger, hearing himself slip into incoherence. The soldier repeats each name, drawling out the words in shameless confrontational mockery, as if the English language Seven speaks is a foreign tongue to Seven. Seven takes the insult as just that, because he knows that years of Perry Oliver’s lessons in enunciation—he never spoke like a Southerner and expected the same of Seven—and years of traveling the known world with The Blind Tom Exhibition had permanently retooled his tongue, lathed and shaved the South out.
Listen to him the other guard says. He does not lift his gaze from the chessboard. He sounds just like one of them contraband.
Haven’t you noticed? He even smells like one of them.
Seven feels a length of wind penetrate the crown of his head directly from above, feels it begin to draw down through him in a straight line—his skull, neck, thorax—making a place inside, like a hook pushed through a worm. He had expected to encounter antagonism, even affront, small practical concessions, but sitting there, his race questioned, his manhood challenged, he undergoes a curious process of invalidation. He feels reticent, almost timid.
The soldier refolds the documents then holds the bundle before the slot of a four foot high, six-foot square mahogany box, where it quickly disappears—swoosh—sucked inside like a thing preyed upon. Pulls a pen out from its fountain and holds it at the end furthest away from the stylus like a walking stick, an object foreign in his hands. They got to sign right here and right here. He points to the places on the passbook where the first nigger must subscribe his name. Vitalis steps forward and does just that then issues Juluster a call. Juluster gropes his way forward and Vitalis moves his hand in place over the passbook. He subscribes his new name—Thomas Greene Wiggins—his hand wandering like a sleepwalker across the book. Now it is the driver’s turn.
I don’t know no letters, the driver Lincoln says.
So Seven signs for him: James Bethune. Selling the shadow to support the substance.
The soldier starts to read the many pages of the city ordinance governing the use of the passbook—that the user must carry the passbook on his or her person at all times and present it upon request, that the passbook is not transferable to any other individual, that the city reserves the right to revoke the passbook should the user commit a criminal offense, that—Seven fastens on the one word that flies his thoughts to Tom. (The freshness of the time that was ours to live.)
Have you committed to an understanding of the particulars of this statute?
The driver, Juluster, and Vitalis maintain a dumbfounded silence. Understanding thus, Seven answers for them. The guard instructs them to place left hand over heart and raise their right hand. They do and he duly swears them in. Swearing done he stamps each leather bound passbook, piles them onto the table like a deck of cards, and turns back to his game.
And that’s all there is to it, although Seven still sits with expectations of some official closing to the interview. Closureless, he collects the passbooks and gets up from his chair to quit the office, leaving the colossal table to continue about its business.
The meeting has honed and sharpened Seven’s senses. In the months (years?) that he has lived (stayed) in the city he has come to know it in a way we can know few places—eyes opened, ready to believe anything—but the soldiers have shown him something he didn’t know about how the city feels about niggers. But he can’t decide one way or the other what he feels about the people of this city. As long as no one gets in his way, as long as he can keep on keeping on with his business, building Tom, bringing Tom.
Before Seven can reach the door, the driver swerves into the lead, putting it upon himself to be the first to reach their carriage, his business. For the first time Seven notices that the driver has a peculiar walk, stepping softly and delicately; looking at his feet, his hands, and the bend of his head, one might imagine that he was learning to dance the first figure of a quadrille. Arms and legs not quite working the way they should. He seems to be stumbling about in the way of the dead, but here is a man who doesn’t seem capable of falling, of letting ground smack him in the face. The physical laws that govern the universe don’t apply to him. He is keeping the planet in orbit. He can keep the sky up as easily as he can keep his broad-brimmed hat balanced on his head.
The road rises to meet them. The driver kisses the horse’s name fluently above the sound of the moving wheels as if speaking some pre-Babel tongue unknown to man. Seven lacks sufficient range of sight to take in the whole of Central Park. The park is so much, too much, for all of its durable beauty. The landscape changes with each intake of breath, the blind air coming into his chest expelled out into the light, revealing all there is to see. Trees huddling, listening to their own leaves. Leaves sparkling with insects, branches glowing gray with squirrels. A black snake descending slow as molasses down the trunk of a tree. Not that the driver is moving much faster. Keeps them at a steady pace, neither stroll nor trot. Nothing is hurrying him (them), just a vague threat that Seven feels hanging over him (them). Then a strange tree pops into view a number of yards ahead, the trunk rising smoothly for fifty feet or more above ground, far higher than any other in the park, before exploding outwards in thick foliage-covered branches, a green cloud (leaves). The trunk as wide as a house. The tree vanishes when they turn a bend in the road but reappears after a second bend. Stands flickering, drawing him forward until he finds himself parallel to the trunk and beneath that green cloud that seems to promise access to heaven. A brown shape pokes through the branches thirty feet above. Takes Seven a minute to realize that it is a human face, viewed as clearly as anything, a nigger face, a man, peering over the side of a colossal nest, a nest which is as wide and deep as a bathtub. Another brown face appears. And another. And still another. An entire family packed into the nest. Putting their heads around and between branches and twigs, their faces bursting with expressions. By what means did they come to perch in the tallest tree in the park and make it their home? Lifted up by some great black bird perhaps.
He knows that there are camps all around them—niggers disenfranchised, destitute, desperate, dangerous—but when he speaks to the driver or Juluster or Vitalis he tries keep the panic out of his voice. The reports he’s heard about the camps—calculated acts of robbery and murder, revenge enacted on anybody with a white face—have widened his sense of peril, of what can happen (to him). Human nature does not deliberately choose blood, at least not negro human nature. But the war has driven some of these niggers crazy. The fear of being chanced upon, found out. (Second thoughts. Hesitation.) They will just have to play it by ear, come what may, not that he thinks himself particularly brave. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. (The driver’s rifle positioned horizontally across his lap, cross-beam, cross.) Surely anyone who has been in a position to achieve something large would do the same. Indeed, he is afraid, but the violence, the hurt he knows exists but doesn’t see, can’t keep him away.
They escape the park’s green trap unmolested. Up ahead a pale rectangle, the illuminated trough of the horizon, pouring bright ocean out. He is thrown into astonishment. It makes a person hungry to travel in this light.
Deeds in hand, the niggers who had been run out of the city years ago during the conscription riots are calling for the right to return. They want their houses back and property left behind restored, the houses burned down rebuilt.
Are you not asking the same? The right of return. Give Tom back to me. Give Tom back to the niggers and the world, not that Tom ever thought of himself as a nigger in his own sightless eyes. Tom believed—you are still unsure, I am still unsure—either that he wasn’t a nigger, or believed that he was more than nigger or more nigger than nigger. Even a white man perhaps.
Rag working, the bootblack looks up from the leather shoes under his care, left foot then right, leaning in then backing away cautiously from these instruments of walking as if they are predatory things. Now he snaps his rag in the air like a dangerous weapon, signaling for his next customer.
But Tom won’t budge. He stays where he is. Says, Tom won’t have his boots blacked by no nigger.
* * *
Vitalis watches Tom moving in and out of a dream. The old folks at Plenty Plantation used to warn, never wake a dreaming person, although they never said why. (What they didn’t tell.) So he doesn’t. Simply remains in place, continues to stand there, the bedroom door at his back, waiting and watching—the blind eyeballs rotating under the closed lids, the mouth twitching out silent words in a soundless conversation and wondering—is Tom blind in his dreams, only hearing smelling touching and tasting the world or does he gain the power of sight?—until he observes the eyeballs and lips cease to move, a sign that the dream is done.
Act. Vitalis opens drawers, clears his throat, whispers, hums a little tune, but the nigger just won’t wake up. What now? He doesn’t know what to do. It might be a trick. The minute he leaves the room Tom will come stumbling out, saying, How come you didn’t wake me? You let me oversleep. Guess he’ll just have to wait. So he leans against the bedroom door, reluctant to leave until Tom is awake. What else can he do? (His labor shapes him.) He understands his duties. (Work is one thing a nigger knows.) He does not strive to enter a part, to play a role, but to escape it, to become someone else—Who was my mother? Who was my father? Take me to her. Take me to him—Vitalis, the navigator to Mr. Blind Tom, the most famous nigger in the world. Can’t do much better than that. The one thing you can count on each day is that Mr. Seven will start gumming on about Blind Tom, as if Tom ain’t right there in front of him listening. Blind Tom is the most famous nigger in the world, the most famous nigger that ever lived, more famous than all the kings, queens, and presidents living and dead, and all those counts and dukes, almost as famous as Jesus.
Mr. Seven stops just long enough—each shoe has two buttons at the ankles that make them look like two side-eyed fish, flounder and such—to give him a questioning glance that marrows every inch of his body with thinking, brains in his eyes, throat, chest, stomach, hands, balls, knees, feet.
Suh, I tried to awake him. I really did. But he jus wouldn wake up. The words are tight, just like his lips.
Mr. Seven doesn’t even bother to answer—talk is cheap—just walks past him right into the bedroom and two long steps later shakes Tom awake. Sleep on your time, he says. You on my time now. And he walks right out.
Tom—some black-headed animal under white sheets—yawns and stretches and grunts and farts. You made me oversleep.
Vitalis squirms against the accusation.
Tom pulls his upper body forward off the mattress, and stays that way for a time, sitting up in bed—no more reclining nigger, no more sleeping nigger—stewing (marinating) in his own salty sweat, with the wide bedsheet pulled all the way up to his chin, the sheet hanging like wet laundry from his broad shoulders, making his face seem quite independent of the body it is attached to. Giant insect shadows swoop along the walls and ceiling but the blind nigger can’t see shit. Can’t see his own shit, the cake-like color and consistency of his stool. (He need to wipe his ass and put some water on it.) This nigger’s eyes ain’t nothing like the other blind people he recalls seeing in his life. His eyes always somewhere else, two places at once, left eye cocked in one direction (west), while the right eye is cocked in another direction (north).
He’s a big nigger, tall and wide, but he looks smaller and thinner in bed. Still, his sheet-hidden body is all tensed up, his shoulders raised rather than relaxed—ain’t sleep sposed to unknot you?—making him look less like somebody propped up in his own bed and more like a man sitting in a saddle ready to gallop off.
Tom points his puffy catfish face at him. You country nigger, you tryin to smart mouth me?
I ain’t think so. You better watch how you talk to me. I ain’t gon warn you but this once.
Suh, I ain’t—
Now bring me my face. And put some speed into it.
Vitalis hurries over to the dresser and takes a black leather fold out of the top drawer, fits it over Tom’s crazy every-which- way eyes. Only he, Tom, and Mr. Seven know the man underneath the mask.
* * *
In a moment that seems slow and rehearsed, Juluster lets his plate of eggs slip off the edge of the table and fall shattering to the floor. He starts right in on his companion plate of steak and fried potatoes. To his credit Vitalis remains calm, although he will not only have to clean up the mess but cook Juluster a new batch of eggs, greasy with butter, yolk side up. Seven can intervene but chooses not to, simply continues to sit pretending to read his newspaper (troubles in Cuba) from the adjoining room while the smell of meat and milk floats nose high in the cooling air. Seated alone at the far end of the table the driver watches too, stealthy and sly, a tourist gazing out with the attitude of one who has seen it all before and isn’t much impressed with the sight. (All things weigh the same.) Juluster releases an unrestrained burp—it is within his right—letting the world know that stomach has found fitting what hands prepared. Vitalis cleans up the mess, towels the floor dry, rinses out a skillet, and starts frying eggs. Serves Juluster his eggs and another steak then takes a seat at the table with his own plate, but he does not start eating. Instead he sits in anxious anticipation—this excitable boy who Seven has observed twitching in his sleep—rubbing his hands together like a fly, and gazing thoughtfully at Juluster. The same freshness of eager sacrifice he emits every day, in the kitchen clattering pots, pans, and lids and unsettling the morning hour. Nothing is too much for Vitalis when it comes to Juluster, this man who he believes is Tom. He even thinks he can carry Juluster on his thin but able shoulders. (This odd-looking boy, long, curled, and emaciated in places where he shouldn’t be, like a seahorse.) And when he is not tending to Juluster (Tom), he has the habit of walking behind Seven, maintaining a respectful distance until Seven needs him to spring forward and mechanic some problem, a blur of intent like a speeding fish. Vitalis repeats every word Seven speaks—always with an edge of worry, uncertainty, in his voice—this parroting speech, Seven assumes, his way of letting Seven know that he has heard Seven and will follow Seven’s instructions (orders) to the letter.
When Seven chanced upon Vitalis those many months ago in the streets of Black Town, he recognized at once the immense potential of this hungry and penniless orphan, one of the many who sat in a lopsided circle around a lamppost or telegraph pole, speaking to one another in rushed city voices almost incoherent with excitement. They would speak out fast as Seven passed them, and when Seven said no, each would give Seven the same dark mean-eyed look. Seven knew that they would cut him open and eat him if they could, if given an opening. Animal murder. These were the ones who had either left or been expelled from the newly constructed five-story yellow brick Home for African Orphans only a short distance away from where the old building had once stood. (Creepy the way that the burned remnants bow, like someone tilted forward in sleep soon to awaken.) What was it that set Vitalis apart from the many seen, the many encountered? Some gesture of head or hand? Some flicker of face or the way he caught Seven’s glance? Or his pitiful courtesy perhaps? And how was it that the he and Seven struck up a conversation? More interview really than conversation, interrogation, although if Vitalis found Seven’s approach off-putting he gave no sign.
How come you left the Home?
Cause all that schoolin too hard on a nigger.
You would rather be shiftless?
No, suh. My head set on a profession.
What can you do?
Anything you want, suh, he said, his face young and smooth and fresh-looking.
How odd that this man-boy should think of Seven as family. On the other hand, perhaps not so strange at all. They were countrymen after all, united in defeat, that war lost. That’s when it dawned on Seven like some slow substance bleeding through cloth: this manboy was new even to himself.
What was your name before, when you were a slave?
Then you changed it?
I changed it.
So what is it now?
You can’t go around calling yourself that.
Mr. Papers then.
What was the name your first master gave you?
Okay. So you are Vitalis again.
* * *
Vitalis’ features are changing. His reflection in the window looks like someone else, darker, shorter, smaller, everything taking on (requiring) different dimensions. The air is cool and wet and has a faintly fishy smell, air that has its own city scent and its own city taste. He strains to hear any sounds out in the street where all of the finely dressed woogies move slowly as if they are sleepwalking, but only the sound of Tom’s breathing stands out clearly above the slight traffic, the carriages and horse-drawn street cars. The street and everything around it seems sealed in a pocket of silence, each house standing high and alone in an unsettling way on this street dotted with telegraph poles and lamp posts; Black Town a place where sound doesn’t belong on an afternoon laced with light, sun that comes unimpeded into the room, a palpable shimmering that seems to vibrate against the windows. Strange how this house takes light in. Shadows creating black angles where none should be. Vague sketches that suddenly appear on the walls. Behind him he hears Tom heave himself into song:
In the morning when I rise
Tell my Jesus, Huddy oh
Tom’s voice is half-moan, half-delight. Vitalis thinks about that one blind nigger back at the Home for African Orphans who everybody claimed was Blind Tom. That was nothing but a mouthful of lie. (Anytime they said something, it was likely something you couldn’t believe. Never trust a nigger.) Cause all that fat blind stupid nigger did every day was sit up at that piano all hungry lookin wit his mouth movin from side to side like he wanted to eat that damn piano. Anybody wit eyes could see he wasn no Blind Tom. But he had everybody at the Home fooled.
My sister Mary’s boun to go
My sister Nanny’s boun to go
My brudder Tony’s boun to go
And my brudder July’s boun to go
Everybody’s boun to go
He has that blind hungry nigger to thank for his leaving the Home because if it wasn’t for him he would never have had to fight another little shit-talking nigger with fat saddlebag cheeks who liked to cut people. He remembers how the argument took shape.
Call me a lie again.
Nigger, you better get out of my face.
Vitalis shoved the little nigger off of him, and the nigger’s eyes turned piglike and wicked. But before the nigger could reach into his pocket for his shank, Vitalis kicked him in the balls. He heard air escape from somewhere inside his would-be attacker, and the little nigger went down.
At that moment two matrons squeezed inside the room, attracted by the smell of fresh pain. One came as close as she could and gazed at him—he expected her to slap him; she didn’t—while the other attended to the ball-broken boy. She unbuttoned his pants and took his penis into the flat of her palm. Now her other hand started to run slowly across the surface of the penis in slow even strokes. She shut her eyes and moaned a prayer.
Her prayer did not encompass him. He knew he had to leave the Home. Knew that the nigger he had kicked in the balls would seek revenge sooner or later. So that night after the lights went out, he booked up out of there.
He has that fake Blind Tom to thank for that. If not for that fake Tom, he might still be at the Home.
* * *
Juluster’s hard angry teeth penetrate through meat, crunch bone, his strong puckered lips sucking the marrow clean out of each—that which makes the body makes the self—every mouthful he eats displayed on his tongue as if to mock Vitalis’s stiffening face. Each day this same solemnity, Juluster determined to give Vitalis a good sampling of the world’s griefs—Juluster sensing a weakness in Vitalis—is it the man-boy’s voice that betrays him?—and going after it. (For his part, how meagerly the driver opens his heart to the man-boy, to anyone, including Seven. Deliberate. Dry. Distant. He does not speak a word unless he has to. So feed him. Clothe him. Make sure that his feet are shod comfortably. Pay him and expect nothing more.) What compels this behavior is unclear. Seven puts it down to his inability to forget his history. Five years ago, a gang of roustabouts had cornered him in an alley and clubbed him about the head—another scrapple in the Apple—depriving him of both his purse and his vision. Surely the loss has left him bitter—no other way to say it—in a way that Tom, having never seen the world, could never be—yet another difference indeed between the original and his imposter—his organs of sight anything but gladsome, as memory—colors, shapes, textures—remain (ghosts), the unseen present constantly screened through the picture-remembered past, since the violence in no way put to an end that process of sighted recall which is so fundamental to our ability to measure and reason, to weigh and judge from one moment to the next. A bitterness brought on by uncertainty over whether or not Juluster will see the world again. The many medical experts who have examined him think it possible even if their opinions differ as to the likelihood of recovery (restoration). (And to think that the nigger surgeon at Black Town General had wanted to follow the common practice there for such injury and remove the orbs and replace them with marbles to keep the organless sockets round and natural looking.) The not knowing aggravates him, stirs up that wounded animal inside. So agitated, is it his intention to prey upon any vulnerable soul who crosses his path or does he believe he is actually doing Vitalis a service by attacking him? His desire to claw out every weakness and thus make Vitalis all the better (stronger) for it?
Seven hears the sound of Juluster’s night clothes falling to the floor. Released, his scent pulses out from the bathroom. (Every door holds a story.) Hears Vitalis set into the sounds of soaping and scrubbing. Not long after, he sees Vitalis bend down to shove Juluster’s thick feet—Tom never had feet like that—into wide shoes, Juluster leaning against Vitalis to steady his balance, the two of them braced against each other in sway and countersway. (Watching them struggle, some feeling fills him, almost as if he expects it all to take shape before him again—Seven, Tom, and Perry Oliver.) And thus shod and ready to step into the world he insists on his independence.
You country-ass nigger. Did I ask you to open that door for me?
Vitalis turns to the driver as if for support.
What you lookin at him fo? I’m the one doin the askin.
How you know I’m lookin at him? Unexpected speech beneath his puzzled eyebrows. Juluster has shaken the question out of him. He cannot hold his tongue. You blind.
Blind ain’t stupid.
Out in the world Juluster seems to become even larger—is it the sunlight that brings the quick growth? the air?—his entire body (head, torso, arms, legs, hands) craving the luxury of space, Vitalis staggering and stumbling under Juluster’s weight in his valiant effort to lead Juluster along the trampled edges of the street.
Nigger, can’t you see? Juluster’s question rises above the early morning sound of wheels creaking forward and the reverberating tones of hooves coming down on pavement.
The street is broke, Vitalis says. Sunlit, his hair spreads out in fiery points.
Nawl. You is what’s broke.
Vitalis works to assist Juluster with an indivisible attention, Seven trailing not far behind them, with Juluster’s piano-forte mounted high above them on the coverless carriage, the instrument shining like a burnished throne under the driver’s slow big-hatted command, his rifle (oiled and loaded) laden across his knees like weight committed to keep him affixed in place atop the wind-tossed road-bumped vehicle. Seems strange to see these valuable objects up there, to think about them up there, instrument and weapon. All they mean to guarantee, the security they mean (want) to provide.
Juluster is adept at shifting space, changing rhythm, augmenting time. Vitalis can’t keep up. Finds himself behind when Juluster is ahead, Juluster full of beats and breaths of his own. So he sets his charge free, Juluster happy to be so. His confidence is such that the black band encircling his eyes and head seems less like a respectful contrivance barring his unsettling eyes from the sight of others and more like a restrictive apparatus keeping uncontrollable powers in check. Should he look upon the world he would destroy it.
In many ways finding a new Tom has been the easiest part of the plan. How quick Juluster had been in the choosing, almost as if it was meant to be. It was I who chose you. Of course, his blindness combined with certain other physical characteristics commanded Seven’s attention; more than that, only he of the city’s many dozens of street musicians was afforded the luxury of possessing his own piano-forte that Seven saw him haul from one place to another, the instrument strapped across his broad back almost as if it belonged there, some natural tortoiseshell-like extension of his body. Such rare volition. And he seemed not to feel any loss of dignity in the burdensome act. Still, Seven gave considerable thought to the exact wording of his offer for the itinerant musician to join him in a grand confidence game, then put these words out, the criminal nature of the enterprise disguised in equivocal phrases, and let them linger, hoping they would do. Precisely under what impulse did he accept? What is the nature of his devotion, its true motives, its obligations? Clearly money was (is) not all that he was after. Whatever his reasons they all have their part to play. You want to know why I can Blind Tom so well? Juluster said. That one’s easy. I saw him at least a dozen times over the years, saw him every time he came to the city. That was of course before those little niggers—same as always. Much is the same, for Seven has encased himself in a set of principles and actions derived from his early training with Perry Oliver. Perry Oliver wanted to fill concert halls. Any lesser achievement he took as his due. Such is Seven’s desire. Expectation.
Near the jetty, Seven sees nigger men women and children cram by the dozens onto the deck of the morning ferry. The ferry tilts too far in one direction from the weight, now too far in the other direction, on the verge of capsizing like a man long into drink who takes to his feet too quickly. Soon Seven and his retinue find themselves wading into a market full of niggers, more niggers than Seven has ever seen in one place before. He takes unearthly delight in the sight. Merchants set up inside their stalls, who glow into words at the approach of a potential customer then become savagely still. Their wares crafted into the most startling shapes. Other merchants draped in vests of clinking vials filled with the scented oils of the Orient. Women seated behind tall barrels of buttermilk and manna and short urns of honey and molasses. Witches and sorcerers with pouches full of amulets, charms, roots, powders, and potions. Not to be outdone, a Baghdad carpet salesman sits Buddha-fashion on his aeronautical rug; to demonstrate how easy it is to command, he turns his face left and sends himself gliding off in that direction, then turns his face right and kites in the opposite direction before he causes all motion to cease.
No one could tell by looking at them that these niggers have had their share of trouble. They can drive a bargain to the end. All things are possible, any deal can be struck. And Seven gladdens at the recognition, feeling like the city has finally disclosed itself to him. Indeed, walking here on the city’s great wide thoroughfare, Broadway, he realizes that he, too, is now part of this complex circle of commerce, a network of streets and roads that shuttle people and goods back and forth through a dense landscape of buildings and houses, contracts and banknotes carried from hand to hand and mouth to mouth, each person a universe to himself but also a part.
Now loud voices punch through the air, demanding, Passbook, passbook, present your passbook. Where is your passbook? Passbooks open please. A phalanx of gendarmes river through bodies, each man dressed in a crisp black uniform with a red band encircling either bicep. Faces congealed, mouths pulled down sharply at the corners in grimaces of annoyance, they receive the niggers with authoritative importance, looking from passbook to face, passbook to face, to see if the subject under scrutiny bears resemblance to the description. An iron-plated carriage accompanies them at a slow squeaky crawl, the thickest smoke Seven has ever seen puffing from its smokestack. A locomotive-like vehicle follows them, plated in armor, puffing steam. This is trouble, Seven thinks. And the niggers think it too. Their eyes telegraph one another in panic. Seven is overtaken by a boundless sadness. Those who either lack a passbook or whose passbook is not in order suffer drawn out insults of the worst sort culled from the animal and vegetable kingdom that are applied to their person and lineage before they are rudely pulled aside and rounded up, their wares confiscated. And so detained, one side of the armored carriage draws open to gather them in, and one by one they are rudely and quickly shoved, clubbed, and kicked inside. Juluster, Vitalis, and the driver have no choice but to endure the inspection. Papers in hand, they do, and Seven and his retinue (are allowed to) pass.
Not long after the street snaps quiet, all sound closed up within the armored carriage. The gendarmes push forward, the moving body of their silence carrying them off Broadway, and into another section of the city. So Seven and the others walk promptly and obligingly for their destination, too promptly and obligingly perhaps, but what else can he do? Try to harden his mind and not give way to his feelings, Juluster’s audition foremost in his thoughts. Sensible and sober, the titles of songs repeat themselves automatically in his skull, expert counsel that he speaks softly (whispers?) in Juluster’s ear. Start off with… Go light on the pedals when you play… Only block chords during that cadenza. No arpeggios. Nothing too pretty, too fancy.
Nigger orphans waylay Seven’s party before the domicile where Juluster will audition, their mouths dark with opening, trying out questions that startle him (again) out of his set rhythm of passage.
Hell, nawl, Juluster says. He grabs one orphan by a fistful of hair and yanks the boy off his feet.
* * *
We are pleased to have with us on the recital arena a singular Negro virtuoso during this era which has been largely defined by virtuoso-frenzy. This sable personage is none other than Blind Tom, who has returned to the stage after an absence of five years or more, a murky period with much still unknown, unasked, and unanswered since we the public and the press had no clue as to his whereabouts or his well-being for half a decade. Notwithstanding these facts, his talents were on full display last night as of the days of old. He is all the musician of a Liszt and Rubinstein. Indeed, it goes without saying, his technique is superb. We expect nothing less of a virtuoso. Both hands share complete equality, the interaction and rivalry between them being a constant source of new inventions. He favors arpeggios over the whole chord, forever breaking up beautiful lines into amazing acrobatics, breaking up those acrobatics into a tender note, breaking up a tender note into a violent rhythmic approach. He pushes the beat around to suit himself. His conviction and sincerity inform the melody and rhythm of the renditions so completely that it sounds as if he is telling his own story. And his original compositions are full of graceful ascending steps, deep, aching, bent notes. It is evident that Nature has intended him for a pianist. He seems to be an unconscious agent, acting as he is acted on. His mind is a vacant receptacle where Nature stores her jewels to recall them at her pleasure. In the overall experience, he expresses an ardor that no saint has surpassed. Let us celebrate the return of the most famous musician, indeed the most famous celebrity in the world, who now tours under the name Original Blind Tom to distinguish himself from the many would-be imposters.
I have a new song, Juluster says.
No new songs, Seven says. Abide by the program.
Let me play it for you.
No new songs, he says. Who knows Tom better than he does? The person that he invokes when he thinks of Tom is accurate to the inch. He has memorized Tom’s measurements, knows all of Tom’s dimensions, the space between Tom’s fingers and toes and teeth. Knows. Tom walks when he walks, stops when he stops, talks when he talks. They had that between them. They devised all manner of delights and found in each other everything the world had lacked.
Not for nothing has he taken pains to come to this city where Tom gave his last concert and where he is thought to have died and may have died, probably did die. To the consternation or delight of many, he Seven will resurrect Blind Tom right here in the city. Do this in memory of me. What he can do for Tom. What he owes Tom is beyond action and expression. Tom has given his life a size and shape that no man can diminish. Tom would want this, he tells himself. Tom wants this. Tom wants this for me.
* * *
Several months later, a nigger preacher approaches Juluster backstage after a concert. He introduces himself as Reverend Wire. Juluster holds his hand straight out, Wire reaches and takes it, and Juluster tries to give it the same painful grip that he gives everyone, but the preacher’s hand is too large, large enough to grip a watermelon.
Blind Tom, Juluster says. Eighth wonder of the world.
Pleased to make your acquaintance. The nigger preacher releases Juluster’s hand.
Vitalis stands next to Juluster looking up at the preacher in astonishment, his hair angrily askew (so much, too much). Nature has afforded this Reverend Wire radical proportions, a very Hercules in stature, seven feet in height and nearly as wide as two men, a man too wide and too tall to squeeze his way through the average portal. And the black robe he wears splays out like wings in front and behind him and intensifies his colossal proportions.
I watched and listened tonight and after watching and listening, after what I saw and heard tonight, I had to bring myself here before you. The preacher’s voice is needlessly loud, as if he is addressing an audience. Judging by the wrinkles on his face, the preacher is over sixty years old, a bad sign. The old like to talk.
Seven figures that they will have to suffer the inconvenience (no way around it), but Seven hopes that the preacher will put decorum aside and hurry into the purpose of his visit—a donation for his church?—the sooner the better.
You’ve done a fine job—speaking to Seven now. The preacher lets his gaze drift over Seven.
And Seven stumbles in his thinking. Thank you. Trying to smile, the words carrying with their own insistence since Seven has no idea what the preacher means. And now he notices a faint but deep forest smell coming from somewhere inside the gallery, a wood and leaf and soil scent, green and brown against the marble floor and smooth granite walls.
Bemused, the preacher gazes steadily at Seven. But sometimes another is chosen in preference who by all rights should not even be considered your equal.
The meaning and importance of the words escape him, but Seven feels (detects) that something in the preacher’s vocabulary is rallied against him. Just who is this nigger preacher anyway?
Still, to your credit, your illusions and confidences and deceptions are of sufficient approximation to confidence most people, especially those least in the know. But the real Blind Tom was of the lowest Guinea type. Your boy is clearly an amalgamation.
It’s up to him now to talk this nigger preacher out of whatever it is he thinks he believes. Reverend, perhaps Tom could pay a visit to your church. Seven sees the old woman in the oil canvas behind the preacher, her hands stiff on her lap, the skin pale, the hurtful rheumatic veins—life as it is. Given the vagueness of this black body, this Blind Tom, surely the preacher is only drawing upon all he can remember or guess.
Out the mouth of babes, the preacher says. Do you really think so little of me?
It is hot inside the hallway and quiet, the air full of thoughts and things to say. Seven stares into the preacher’s impassive face. Gives the signal for Vitalis to take Juluster down to the driver and the carriage, but Vitalis does not move, only looks at Seven as if he has never seen him before. Stands there looking like a damn fool, with that tear-shaped rush of hair rising skyward from his forehead, six inches tall at the tip. Then Wire smiles as if to encourage Vitalis to follow Seven’s instructions. He touches Vitalis’ back, quick firm pats. Vitalis and Juluster hurry purposefully ahead. Juluster, his movement, constrained by the weight of Vitalis, accelerates to escape his navigator, and they disappear from sight, leaving Seven and the preacher staring across confrontational space. Words vie in Seven’s mouth.
Now Wire starts to walk away too, huge and lumbering, a black moving wall, and Seven sets off after him through the grandest structure in the city, all pristine neoclassical stone with an interlacing arcade. A marble labyrinth of stairways and galleries, gangways and corridors, pillars and porches, halls and dead-ends.
I see no reason why you can’t revive the name of Blind Tom on every tongue in the civilized world, Wire says, for the replica in your charge is no person of ordinary means. He is an extraordinary talent, the genuine article. Perhaps the spirit anointed him in this purpose. So I ask you, is it for me to stand in your way?
No it is not, Seven says. But you want something.
They exit the building and come down the wide grand staircase situated like a series of descending bridges between two stone lions, the memory of roar and kill long drained from mouth and claws. Walk past a little booth at the staircase foot, where earlier that evening hundreds had purchased tickets. His body acts without him.
Yes, I do.
Here it comes, Seven tells himself. He is leaning toward the idea that this preacher will take him for all he can.
In the receding light crowds of people walk in small groups by the sea, some of them holding hands. All of their movements seem identical, the same pace, the same stride, arms swinging. A dream. If anyone knows if Tom is alive or dead, this preacher does. Seven is sure of it. He feels powerless against this unforeseen enemy. The preacher’s mind remains against them, against him and “Tom.” Nothing good can come out of their time together.
And you will want to know that I seek nothing for myself since my private needs are few. However, the needs of my collective are wide-ranging and extensive, and will require means of both a material and an immaterial nature, in the present moment as well as long-term.
It is more than Seven expected, too much.
A ferry gulps broken water, green spume in its wake. And wind-touched sails seem to shrink and grow as the dhows attached to them bounce in the water, plying their trade. No two ways about it, he must lie to earn the preacher’s trust and to gainsay himself more time to devise a true course of action.
But already I am at fault in assuming that our goals are not at cross-purposes. Ignorant of your character, I should not pretend to understand your motives behind this venture let alone assume that we can arrive at a meeting of the minds.
The sun coming through the branches of the trees makes the sidewalk look reddish, like a river.
I will do all I can, Seven says.
The big nigger preacher looks down at him with eyes the size of plums. No, Wire says. You will do more than that. You will do whatever I tell you to do.
Seven hears the words like something coming from very far away, from the top of a hill or mountain. Things can change in a day. Beneath history is another history we’ve made without even knowing it. Blind Tom is a name that he can no longer claim, a name that perhaps no one can claim or that everyone can claim. A million Blind Toms.
Later, he will think that this nigger preacher was really worth killing.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank(Graywolf Press, 2014), which is loosely based on the life of Blind Tom, a nineteenth-century piano virtuoso and composer who was the first African American to perform at the White House. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the novel Rails Under My Back, which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short-story collection Holding Pattern, which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He is a Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the writing program at The New School and New York University.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee