Authors: Chester Himes
Tags: #Police Procedural, #Detective and mystery stories, #Police, #Mystery & Detective, #African American police, #Police - New York (State) - New York, #General, #Johnson; Coffin Ed (Fictitious character), #Harlem (New York; N.Y.), #African American, #Fiction, #Jones; Grave Digger (Fictitious character)
BLIND MAN WITH A PISTOL
by Chester Himes
A friend of mine, Phil Lomax, told me this story about a blind man with a pistol shooting at a man who had slapped him on a subway train and killing an innocent bystander peacefully reading his newspaper across the aisle and I thought, damn right, sounds just like today's news, riots in the ghettos, war in Vietnam, masochistic doings in the Middle East. And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.
"Motherfucking right, it's confusing; it's a gas, baby, you dig."
A Harlem intellectual
I know what you want.
How you know that?
Just lookin at you.
Cause I'm white?
Tain't that. I got the eye.
You think I'm looking for a girl.
Chops is your dish.
Naw. Just right.
"Blink once, you're robbed," Coffin Ed advised the white man slumming in Harlem.
"Blink twice, you're dead," Grave Digger added dryly.
On 119th Street there had been a sign for years in the front window of an old dilapidated three-storey brick house, announcing: FUNERALS PERFORMED. For five years past the house had been condemned as unsafe for human habitation. The wooden steps leading up to the cracked, scabby front door were so rotten one had to mount them like crossing a river on a fallen tree trunk; the foundation was crumbling, one side of the house had sunk more than a foot lower than the other, the concrete windowsills had fallen from all the upper windows and the constant falling of bricks from the front wall created a dangerous hazard for passing pedestrians. Most of the windowpanes had long been broken out and replaced with brown wrapping-paper, and the edges of linoleum could be seen hanging from the roof where years before it had been placed there to cover a leak. No one knew what it looked like inside, and no one cared. If any funerals had ever been performed within, it had been before the memory of any residents then on the street.
Police cruisers had passed daily and glanced at it unconcernedly. The cops weren't interested in funerals. Building inspectors had looked the other way. Gas and electric meter readers never stopped, for it had no gas and electricity. But everyone on the street had seen a considerable number of short-haired, black nuns clad in solid black vestments coming and going at all hours of day and night, picking their way up the rotting stairs like cats on a hot tin roof. The colored neighbors just assumed it was a convent, and that it was in such bad repair seemed perfectly reasonable in view of the fact it was obviously a jim-crowded convent, and no one ever dreamed that white Catholics would act any different from anyone else who was white.
It was not until another innocuous card appeared in the window one day, requesting: "Fertile womens, lovin God, inquire within," that anyone had given it a thought. Two white cops in a cruiser who had been driving by the house on their normal patrol every day for the past year were proceeding past as usual when the cop beside the driver shouted, "Whoa, man! You see what I see?"
The driver stamped on the brakes and backed up so he could see too. "Fertile womens. . ." he read. That was as far as he got.
They both had the same thought. What would a colored convent want with "fertile womens"? Fertile womens was for fools, not God.
The inside cop deliberately opened his door, stepped to the sidewalk, adjusted his pistol in its holster and unbuttoned the flap. The driver got out on the street side and came around the car and stood beside his buddy, while performing the same operations with his own pistol. They stared at the sign without expression. They looked at the brown-papered windows. They examined the façade of the whole crumbling edifice as though they had never seen it before.
Then the first cop jerked his head. "Come on."
The second cop followed. When the first cop planted his big foot on the second stair with assured authority, it went on through the rotting wood up to his knee. "Jesus Goddam Christ!" he exclaimed. "These steps are rotten."
The second cop didn't see any need in commenting on the obvious. He hitched up his holster belt and said, "Let's try the back."
As they picked their way around the house through knee-high weeds dense with booby traps of unseen bottles, tin cans, rusted bed springs, broken emery stones, rotting harness, dead cats, dog offal, puddles of stinking garbage, and swarms of bottle flies, house flies, gnats, mosquitoes, the first cop said in extreme disgust, "I don't see how people can live in such filth."
But he hadn't seen anything yet. When they arrived at the back they found a section of the wall had fallen from the second floor, leaving a room exposed to the weather, and the rubble piled on the ground formed the only access to the open back door. Carefully they climbed up the pile of broken bricks and plaster, their footsteps raising a thick gray dust, and entered the kitchen unimpeded.
A fat black man naked to the waist glanced at them casually from muddy eyes which seemed to pop from his wet black face and went on with what he was doing. The old rusted iron floor from a Volkswagen had been placed on four bricks on one side of the warped board floor and a brick firebox had been raised in its center. Sitting on top of a charcoal fire in the firebox was a huge iron pot, blackened by smoke, of a type southern mammies use to boil clothes, filled with some sort of stew which had a strong nauseating smell, being stirred with slow indifference by the sweating black man. The torso of the black man looked like a misshapen lump of crude rubber. He had a round black face with a harelip which caused him to slobber constantly, and his grayish skull was shaved.
Large patches of faded ochre wallpaper, splotched with rust-colored stains and water marks, hung from gray plaster. There were several places where the plaster had fallen off, revealing the brown wooden slats.
"Who's the boss around here, Rastus?" the first cop demanded.
The black man kept stirring his stew as though he hadn't heard.
The cop reddened. He drew his pistol and stepped forward and jabbed the black man in the blubber over his ribs. "Can't you hear?"
Without an obvious change of motion, the ladle rose from the stew and rapped the cop over the head. The second cop leapt foward and hit the black man across his shaved skull with the butt edge of his pistol. The black man grunted and fell onto the old car floor beside the firebox.
A black nun came from another open door and saw the black man lying unconscious beside the stew pot and two white cops standing over him with drawn pistols and screamed. Other black nuns came running, followed by what seemed to be a horde of naked black children. The cops were so shocked their first impulse was to run. But when the first one leapt through the back doorway his foot gave way on the pile of rubble and he slid down into the high weeds of the back yard on the seat of his pants. The second cop turned about in the open doorway and held back the mob with his gun. For a moment he had the odd sensation of having fallen into the middle of the Congo.
The cop outside got up and brushed himself off. "Can you hold 'em while I call the sation?"
"Oh, sure," the second cop said with more confidence than he felt. "They ain't nothing but niggers."
'When the first cop returned from radioing the Harlem precinct for reinforcements, a very old man dressed in a spotted longsleeved white gown had come into the kitchen and cleared out the nuns and the children. He was clean shaven, and his sagging parchment-like skin which seemed but a covering for his skeleton was tight about his face like a leather mask. Wrinkled lids, looking more like dried skin, dropped over his milky bluish eyes, giving him a vague similarity to an old snapping turtle. His cracked voice had a note of mild censure: "He didn't mean no harm, he's a cretin."
"You ought to teach him better than to attack police officers," the cop complained. "Now I smell like I've been ducked in shit."
"He cooks for the children," the old man said. "Sometimes it does smell strange," he admitted.
"it smells like feces," the second cop said. He'd attended City College.
One of the nuns entering the kitchen at just that moment said indignantly, "It is feetsies. Everybody ain't rich like you white folks."
"Now, now, Buttercup, these gentlemen mean no harm," the old man chided. "They but acted in self-defense. They were ignorant of the reactions of Bubber."
"What they doin' here anyway?" she muttered, but a look from him sent her scampering.
"You the boss man, then?" the first cop said.
"Yes, sir, I am Reverend Sam."
"Are you a monk?" the second cop asked.
A smile seemed to twitch the old man's face. "No, I'm a Mormon."
The first cop scratched his head. "What all these nuns doing here then?"
"They're my wives."
"Well, I'll be Goddamned! A nigger Mormon married to a bunch of nigger nuns. And all these children? You running an orphanage too?"
"No, they're my own children. I'm trying to raise them as best the Lord will permit."
The cops looked at him sharply. Both had a strong suspicion he was playing them for fools.
"You mean grandchildren," the cop suggested.
"Great-grandchildren, more like it," the first cop amended.
"No, they're all from the seeds of my loins."
The cops stared at him goggle-eyed. "How old are you, uncle?"
"I believe that I am about a hundred to the best of my knowledge."
They stared at him openmouthed. From the interior of the house they could hear the loud shouting and laughter of children at play and the soft voices of women admonishing them to silence. A feral odor seeped into the kitchen, over and above the smell of the stew. It was a familiar odor and the cop racked his memory to place it. The other cop stared fascinated into the milky bluish eyes of the old man, which reminded him of some milkstones he had seen in a credit jewelry store.
The fat black man was beginning to stir and the cop drew his pistol to be prepared. The fat man rolled over on to his back and looked from the cop to the old man. "Papa, he hit me," he tattled in a voice made barely distinguishable by his slobbery drolling.
"Papa will send away the bad mens, now you go on playing house," the old man croaked. There was a strange note of benevolence when he addressed the cretin.
The cop blinked. "Papa!" he echoed. "He your son too?"
Suddenly the second cop snapped his fingers. "The monkey house!" he exclaimed.
"God made us all," Reverend Sam reminded him gently.
"Not them fifty little pickaninnies, according to you," the cop said.
"I am merely God's instrument."
Suddenly the first cop remembered why they had stopped in the first place. "You got a sign in the window, uncle, advertising for fertile women. Ain't you got enough women?"
"I now have only eleven. I must have twelve. One died and she must be replaced."
"Which reminds me, you got another sign in your window saying 'funerals performed'."
The old man looked as near to being surprised as was possible. "Yes, I performed her funeral."
"But that sign's been there for years. I've seen it myself."
"Of course," the old man said. "We all must die."
The cop took off his cap and scratched his blond head. He looked at his partner for advice.
His partner said: "We better wait for the sergeant."
The reinforcements from the Harlem precinct station, headed by a sergeant of detectives, found the remainder of the house in much the same repair as the kitchen. Potbellied coalburning stoves on rusted sheets of metal in the hallways on each floor supplied heat. Light was supplied by homemade lamps without shades made from whiskey bottles. The wives slept on homemade individual pallets, six to a room, on the top floor, while Reverend had his own private room adjoining furnished with a double bed and a chamber pot and little else. There was a large front room on the second floor with all of its windows papered shut where the children slept on loose dirty cotton, evidently the contents of numerous mattresses, which covered the floor from wall to wall about a foot thick.