Published: April 9, 2008
Updated: April 9, 2008
The lights of the houses crept by as the crowded commuter train braked for the last local stop at Floral Park. From there, it would be express the rest of the way to Plainview. Exactly 29 minutes. It was a chilly Friday evening in October with the promise of a long lazy football weekend ahead, and Clyde hoped Cindy remembered to get charcoal for the cook-out tomorrow night.
Clyde was a man of color. It would be incorrect to call him a black man because he was not. He was called “Duds” in the army. He is the color of Milk Duds – a light coffee color. He looked like a man of means in his three piece suit under his black overcoat and his black attaché case on his lap. He would never be seen on the train without the Wall Street Journal under his arm.
Of course he didn’t look like that in Vietnam. There he was only “Duds,” the Adjutant’s assistant and the best chess player in the battalion. He used to say chess saved him from a life in the gutter back home. “It teaches you to think ahead,” he would say. “To take responsibility for your moves. It helps me to think what’ll happen if I do this, and ‘life’ does that.” He often said, “Chess is like life. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. If you’re going to make it to the end you have to make the right moves in the beginning.”
The men never had a chance against him at chess, and he stopped playing with them, he said it was bad for his game. He played by mail. He had a dozen or more games going with people all over the world. Life was a game of chess to Clyde, a complicated game and one that he was determined to win.
Vietnam had moments of terror, but they were few and far apart. Ninety-nine percent of the war was waiting and training for the other one percent. There wasn’t much to do and when the men got together in a town bar at night, they talked about home. Clyde came from New York, and the men always wanted to hear stories about the ‘big apple’. He never let them down. When Clyde ran out of stories to tell, another New Yorker would take over, then when they ran out they’d pass the ball back to Clyde. The men got to know a lot about Clyde’s life in the housing projects, his single mother and his ‘uncles’ that came to stay for a time, then left and never came back. In turn, he learned about life in white America where basketball was played indoors on polished hardwood floors.
“I’m not going back there,” he’d say again and again. “I’m gonna be somebody – and I’m gonna live in a house with windows all around.” He would slowly beat his fist into his hand and look away. “You guys never lived in the inner city. I slept in a bed with four brothers – I never had a new pair of shoes. I lived in a project ... yeah, a city project. All I had was my body.
The thing that Clyde feared most was something happening that wasn’t part of the game, something outside his control. He could close his eyes and play a game of chess in his head from beginning to end and never lose track of the moves – planning them five or more steps ahead. There were a finite, (yes, he used that word often) number of responses to a move and he knew them all. “But what scares me,” he said, “Suppose I step on a land mine or a chip of shrapnel ricochets off a brick wall and knifes through my spine? How can I figure on that?” That was a move to which he had no answer, “How do I win the game if life doesn’t play by the rules?”
Luckily for him the question never came up. The Marines sent him home before the war was over. The war had been winding down for more than a year and the men were convinced that the public was sick and tired of seeing emaciated Vietnamese children crying in the street.
In time the ghosts of Vietnam grew quiet and there were long stretches when Clyde forgot he was ever there. He came home to find his family scattered. One brother shot and killed in an attempted burglary, another one doing time in Attica for attempted rape, a third missing entirely. His mother had moved to Atlanta. The old project looked smaller and dirtier than ever. He didn’t want any part of it. He got himself a job in a brokerage downtown and met Cindy, a white girl going to NYU. Inside of two years they were married and living in an integrated community in Plainview, Long Island.
With a contented sigh Clyde opened his briefcase and pulled out the Wall Street Journal. Life was good. He thought the life he and Cindy led in Plainview was better than he ever imagined. There was no way to compare it to life in the project, it was two different worlds. Short of playing basketball or football a black man couldn’t expect a better life than this. He opened his Wall Street Journal to the editorial page and before reading he looked at the man next to him, (a 40k man, he thought). Yes, life was indeed very good.
He looked down the length of the car before burying himself in the paper. It was a habit he developed after moving to the suburbs. How many black faces would he see? There were more now than there were a year ago. Halfway down the car he noticed two young girls sitting together, one white, one black. They were laughing together as if sharing a joke. “Did they work together? Were they neighbors?” Their closeness was plainly evident. “How things have changed.” He thought back to his childhood in the project. White people were a complete mystery to him then – people he only saw on television; as alien as creatures from another planet.
The man next to him lost interest when he saw the editorial page opened in Clyde’s lap, settled himself deeper in his seat and closed his eyes. From time to time Clyde would raise his eyes from the Journal and check on the two girls who still shared their secret between them.
One by one the passengers got to their feet as the train slowed for the Plainview station. Clyde put his newspaper back in his attaché case, clicked it shut, and stood up. He noticed the two girls were standing as well. Funny, he thought ... he had never seen them before. Whatever started them laughing earlier had simmered down a bit, but one would look at the other and the giggling would begin again.
The doors hissed open and the train slowly emptied. Everyone got off the train in Plainview, but no one was in a hurry. The doors would remain open until the conductor and the engineer walked the length of the train to check that no one was left aboard – it was Friday evening and some of the three Martini lunch crowd might still be asleep.
Clyde walked down the stairs to the waiting room, he opened his briefcase, withdrew the Wall Street Journal and dropped it in a waste basket. He noticed the two girls were still talking by the street door. They obviously hated to say goodbye until Monday. Just as he reached the exit, they broke apart and left, going in different directions, the white girl quickly walked in front of Clyde and he held the door for her. A whiff of scent, a clattering of her heels and she was gone.
It was evident she was headed in the same direction as he, and because of that Clyde wondered why he hadn’t seen her before. A new neighbor perhaps – or maybe a visitor for the weekend. He thought it might be a good idea to slow his pace a little and let her walk ahead of him, it was dark now and he didn’t want to alarm her. The clicking of her heels was the only sound in the street. She was invisible in the dark until she walked under a street lamp, then she would become brightly illuminated. He imagined he must appear the same to her.
When she reached the corner he noticed she picked up her pace a little. She turned her head and looked back at him from time to time. Her pace quickened even more and the rhythm of her heels was sharper. In a flash he read her mind – “I’m being stalked by a black man!” Under the street lamp he could see her eyes were wide with fright, then she began running. Ridiculous! He thought back to his chess games – this was an improper response. How did he let himself get into such a situation? He wanted to make her understand she was in no danger, they were neighbors! He lived here too! But he couldn’t change the facts – they were elemental. How many times had he seen it happen back on the mean streets of the project ... in lobbies ... elevators ... the black man was always someone to be afraid of. He should have known this would happen.
Suddenly it did happen. His ears caught the interruption of her stride and the scrape of her heels. She tripped and went down. He heard the contents of her purse spill and scatter on the sidewalk. Then she screamed! Her voice was loud and it echoed along the quiet street. “Don’t hurt me! Oh, God – please don’t hurt me!” He wanted to run to her, but checked himself as a front door opened and a shaft of light illuminated the girl lying in the street.
“What the hell’s goin’ on out here? You in trouble miss?”
“That man,” she cried. “That black man!”
Clyde turned and ran. There was no way to argue, no way to explain – for the next few moments he was more frightened than he had ever been in Vietnam. The thin veneer of equality that seemed so reassuring only a moment ago was suddenly stripped away, and he might as well have been a Southern black a century ago, running from the Klan.
He stopped running, thinking it would look suspicious if someone saw a black man running down this quiet residential street. It would be better to walk – walk quickly, but walk. But where? He couldn’t go home. He’d have to pass that girl again. Lord knows what they were doing now; dialing 911 probably. “He was a black man,” they’d say, “he was wearing a black coat and a black hat. He carried something black in his hand – you can’t miss him.” Then what? The police would pick him up, walking alone on this dark suburban street. “Mind holding it right there, fella? I wanna see you put both hands on top of your head.”
The lights of the train station appeared ahead of him. He walked quickly back into the station – he could call Cindy from the waiting room.
Except for one man asleep on a bench the station was deserted. He could hear the slow metronomic click of the large wall clock and the voices of the clerks behind the closed ticket window. Clyde walked to the pay phone and then paused for a moment to look at the man curled up on the bench. He was a black man ... no coat ... no hat. An idea came to him. Should he? He could tell Cindy his coat was stolen that afternoon. He put a ten dollar bill in the side pocket and covered the man gently with his coat. As an afterthought he removed his hat and placed it at the man’s feet. It was a way out. Maybe it wasn’t fair or just, maybe it was the cheap way out but it was the only escape he could think of and it wouldn’t change things or make them any worse than they were ... and after all he had been through ... he came so far ... he had so much at stake ... no one would ever know ... he walked back to the phone and called Cindy.
©Harry Buschman 2002
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