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Authors: James Baldwin

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Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

BOOK: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
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Copyright © 1968 by James Baldwin

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by The Dial Press, New York, in 1968.

“In the prison of his days …” by W. H. Auden: Reprinted from
The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden
, copyright 1966 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.

“Mad About Him, Sad Without Him, How Can I Be Glad Without Him Blues” words and music by Larry Markes and Dick Charles: Copyright 1942 by MCA Music Publishing, a division of Universal Studios, Inc. Copyright renewed. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of MCA Music Publishing.

Waiting for Lefty
by Clifford Odets: Copyright 1935, copyright renewed 1962 by Clifford Odets. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

“Stormy Weather” by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen: Copyright 1933 by EMI Mills Music, Inc., copyright renewed 1961 by Arko Music Corporation. All rights for the extended term in the United States administered by Fred Ahlert Music Corporation on behalf of Ted Koehler Music and administered by S A Music Company on behalf of Harold Arlen Music. Rights outside the United States administered by EMI Mills Music, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Fred Ahlert Music Corporation, S A Music Company, and Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc.

“Dark as a Dungeon” by Merle Travis: Copyright 1947 (renewed) by Elvis Presley Music, Inc., and Unichappell Music, Inc. All rights administered by Unichappell Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc.

“River, Stay 'Way From My Door,” lyric by Mort Dixon, music by Harry Woods: Copyright 1931, copyright renewed 1958 by Olde Clover Leaf Music and Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc. All rights on behalf of Olde Clover Leaf Music in the United States administered by Fred Ahlert Music Corporation. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation and Fred Ahlert Music Corporation.

“You're Driving Me Crazy” by Walter Donaldson: Copyright 1930, copyright renewed 1957 by Donaldson Publishing Company. International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Sussman & Associates on behalf of Donaldson Publishing Company.

Baldwin, James, 1924–
Tell me how long the train's been gone : a novel / by James Baldwin.—1st Vintage International ed.
p.      cm.
eISBN: 978-0-8041-4970-9
1. Afro-American actors—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3552.A45T4    1998
813'.54—dc21    97-35625

Random House Web address:

Cover design by Marc Cohen
Photography ©Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos Inc.


for David Leeming

and David Baldwin

and Engin Cezzar


Never seen the like since I been born,

The people keep a-coming,

And the train's done gone.



In the prison of his days,

Teach the free man how to praise.



was strange—fear is strange. I knew I had been working too hard. I had been warned. But I have always worked too hard. I came offstage at the end of the second act. I felt hot and I was having trouble catching my breath. But I knew that I was tired. I went to my dressing room and poured myself a drink and put my feet up. Then I felt better. I knew I had about twenty-five minutes before I was due onstage. I felt very bitterly nauseous and I went to the bathroom but nothing happened. Then I began to be afraid, rather, to sit or lie down again and I poured myself another drink and left my dressing room to stand in the wings. I had begun to sweat and I was freezing cold. The nausea came back, making me feel that my belly was about to rise to the roof of my head. The stage manager looked at me just as I heard my cue. I carried his face onstage with me. It had looked white and horrified and disembodied in the eerie backstage light. I wondered what had frightened him. Then I realized that I was having trouble finding my positions and having trouble hearing lines. Barbara delivered her lines. I knew the lines, I knew what she was saying, but I did not know how to relate to it, and it took an eternity before I could reply. Then I began to be frightened and this, of course, created and compounded the nightmare, made me realize that I was in the middle
of a nightmare. I moved about that stage, I don't know how, dragging my lines up from the crypt of memory, praying that my moves were right—for I had lost any sense of depth or distance—feeling that I was sinking deeper and deeper into some icy void. “Shall we ring down the curtain?” Barbara whispered, and “No!” I shouted or whispered back. At one point in the scene I was called upon to laugh and when I laughed I began to cough. I was afraid the cough would never stop, some horrible-tasting stuff came up, which I was forced to swallow, and then, suddenly, everything passed, everything became as clear and still and luminous as day. I got through a few more lines, and I thought,
Hell, it's over, I'm all right,
and then something hit me in the chest, tore through my chest to my backbone and almost knocked me down. I couldn't catch my breath to deliver my lines. They covered for me. I knew we were approaching the end of the act. I prayed that I could stand up that long. I made a few more moves, I delivered a few more lines. I heard the penultimate line, Barbara's, “So you've come home to stay?” and I answered, “I think, dear lady—but I do not wish to grieve you—that I may have come home to die.” The line seemed terribly funny to me at that moment. The curtain came down. I heard the crash of applause, like the roar of a cataract far away, and for the first time I heard the sound of my own breathing, it was louder than the cataract. I took a step and fell to my knees, then I was on the floor, then I was being carried, then I was in my dressing room. I was trying to speak, but I couldn't speak. It was Barbara's face above me that told me how ill I was. Her brown hair fell over her face, half hiding it, and her storm-colored eyes stared into mine with the intention of communicating something which I
had to know, but did not know. “Be still,” she said, “don't move. Don't speak.”

But I wanted to ask her to forgive me for so many errors, so many fears. She took my hand. “Be still,” she said, “be still.” And this hand held on to me. All my weight, the weight which scales measure, and the weight no scale can measure, seemed pulling downward against that hand. I seemed to be hanging in the midde of the hostile air, ready for the mortal fall, with only the frail white hand of a frail white woman holding me up. It seemed very funny. I wanted to laugh. Perhaps I did laugh, I don't know, everything hurt so much. Barbara's face did not change, her grip never relaxed. My eyes did not leave her face, which now seemed suspended in the middle of the light which filled my dressing room, which fell down on me from everywhere. Behind her face were other faces, shapes, sounds, movements, but they had nothing to do with me. I saw the face of Pete, my dresser, dark, vaguely Oriental, staring at me with the same concentration I have known him to exhibit when watching a light cue being changed or a move being modified. It was a look which asked,
If they go about solving the problem this way, how many more problems will they have created?
I like Pete very much, he's a very good man, we've worked together for years and I wanted to tell him not to worry. But, still, his face seemed very funny. Oddly enough—or maybe it isn't odd at all, I don't know—I wasn't frightened; or perhaps I simply didn't know that I was frightened. I thought,
My God, this is no way to play a death scene, the audience would never be able to see me.
Then I decided that it was a death scene being played not onstage but on camera and pretended that the camera was placed in the ceiling, just above my head—a
huge, long close-up, with lights, and, eventually, music, to heighten my ineffable, dying speech. But I could think of nothing to say, though I turned to Barbara with my mouth wide open. The pressure of her hand increased very slightly. I felt tears roll out of my eyes and into my ears and onto my neck. I heard my breathing again, scratchy and loud, as though each attempt at breathing were creating a sandstorm. There was a movement far from me, a movement all around me, all the faces except Barbara's disappeared, and a strange face, utterly isolated in the light, stood above me. It was a broad face, with brown hair and blue eyes, a big, aggressive nose, and fleshy lips. I recognized him immediately as the doctor. He reminded me—or, rather, his nose reminded me—of a Harlem barber who had sometimes cut my hair when I was a kid; this barber had had the biggest hands, the biggest fingers I had ever seen. One of his fingers, or each one of them, seemed bigger to me than my penis. I was only beginning to be terrified of this imperious bit of flesh, which was only at the beginning of its long career of blackmail.

The doctor said that I could not be moved; he instructed them to put my feet up on pillows; he wanted the room emptied. All this I heard, or, rather, divined—from far away. Everyone left but Barbara. She stood just behind the doctor. She had let go my hand and now the doctor took it, loosened my belt, looked at me as though to say,
It's pretty bad, but don't worry.
I couldn't speak, but the ham in me wanted to prove that I was no crybaby, that I was not afraid, and so I smiled. I watched him prepare the needle; then I sought Barbara's face. She was standing very straight and still, far from me; I realized that she had neither removed her makeup, nor changed
into street clothes; I wanted to reprimand her for that. My eye returned to the needle. I knew that there was no point in asking what was in it. I thought of Harlem and all the needles I had seen there. “Make a fist,” said the doctor, as who should say,
Come on, now, be a man.
I thought of all the boys I had seen making fists. I made a fist. He swabbed my arm and plunged the needle in. The needle remained in my arm for a long time. Abruptly, he pulled it out, put cotton on the vein, and forced my fist up against my chest. “There, now,” he said, “don't move.” He said to Barbara, “He must not move for at least half an hour. Then we will see.” He had a foreign accent. “I will call my hospital. Can you stay with him?” Barbara nodded. “Remember,” said the doctor, “don't let him move. He must not move at all.” Barbara nodded again. She sat down and took my hand, the hand against my chest, again. The doctor went out.

Now, for the first time, I began to be aware of my heart, the heart itself: and with this awareness, conscious terror came. I realized that I knew nothing whatever about the way we are put together; and I realized that what I did not know might be in the process of killing me. My heart—
it was my heart—seemed to be rising and sinking within me; seemed like a swimmer betrayed by an element in which, by an unanswerable tide, it was being carried far out, by an unanswerable pull, being carried far down; and yet struggled, struggled upward, yet one more time. But the sea is stronger than the swimmer. How many more times could I hope to hear it labor up again?—that labor which caused such a roaring in my breath. And how many more times could it fall far from me, far beneath me, so that I breathed harder than ever, and in an awful panic, to coax it up again? The
sound of my breathing was the only sound there was. My own panic, at once stifling like a cloak, and distant like the wind, made me realize how frightened Barbara was, and how gallant. I would not have liked to change places with her. We had known each other for many years; starved together, worked together, loved each other, suffered each other, made love; and yet the most tremendous consummation of our love was occurring now, as she patiently, in love and terror, held my hand. I wondered what she was thinking. But I think she was not thinking, not at all. She was concentrated. She was determined not to let me die.

BOOK: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
11.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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