A fiction based on the life of William H. JohnsonBY CECILE GODING
Harlem," she said, or he thought she said.
Stopped dead outside the Jacobia Hotel's white porte cochere, William shaded his eyes and dared a glance up. Seems it had come from above. Seems it had come from the second-story balcony, but whoever was up there, whoever sat rocking in the little breeze the evening could afford, was already deep in shade.
It had been a woman's voice, if anything at all. Now all William heard was the clatter of wooden wheels and a rude-sounding horn as horse-drawn carriages and cars passed down Front Street. Through the open windows of the hotel dining room came the rattle of china and silver. He heard the low voices of the hoofers from Wilmington, and the sudden, sharp laughter of Northern tourist ladies bound for Miami, Florida. He heard the lower voices of the waiters quick-answering the ladies, joking too. He tried to pick out the big-throated tones of the head waiter, the strongest bass in his church. "With the clientele," Mr. Chance said, "you got to make it sound like you're sharing some big secret. They love that."
What would she look like? The woman on the balcony -- how would he draw her if he ever got a chance? He would do the woman in charcoal. He'd use the new soft paper from the principal's wife. He pictured the woman up there, staying cool, up there with no clothes on, large dark nipples. It wouldn't matter if she were ever real. It wouldn't matter if she started and ended with William H. Johnson. She'd be down on paper by the time she disappeared from his mind's eye.
William did not hear "Harlem" again until he got home across four pairs of railroad tracks, across dusty Palmetto Street, and down to his own road and his mother Allene's wood-frame house at the end of a row of smaller houses pulled close together. His father lived there too, had always lived there, but it had been Allene's mother's house, and even his father called it Allene's house.
"Willie," Allene called from the porch before he even got in the yard, "now here's your Uncle Benjamin Henry home from Harlem." She leaned forward in her ladderback chair, into the remaining light, and he saw her light-brown face, tired but smiling. She did not say, "Where have you been?" She didn't have to say it.
'Thought Mr. McCullough would never close up," he said, looking over her head to where her brother, the man he was named after, sat in the only rocker. "Hello, Uncle Henry. Come in on the 4:40?"
"Like clockwork." His uncle had a lap full of William's younger sisters, and did not stand up to shake hands. Evie had on Uncle's Pullman Porter cap. "Just like clockwork. How are you, boy?"
"Setting up bowling pins up at the Y," said William, as if that said it all. "Helping at the Transfer Shed when they need an extra hand." But then he remembered that it was his uncle who had put his name in at the railroad station. "Saving most of it."
"Look what we got." Evie and Edie couldn't be still any longer.
"Well, what do you got?" William bent down to their level.
"We got angels." Together, they thrust the little six-inch dolls in front of their brother's face, but still held onto them so tightly, all he could see were two pink celluloid faces with their painted yellow hair and their stupid bow-shaped mouths and their silly pink feet. Start with red, said the lady who taught him art, then add white little by little. Soon you get the shade you desire.
"Good." His uncle went on as if the girls had not broken in. "Keep saving. You're going to need clothes for when you come up." Uncle Henry lifted his tin hip flask to his lips, and took a long swallow.
"Willie," Allene said all of a sudden. "Your uncle's going to need ice for supper. Take these children and go borrow a chunk from Aunt Louise. Tell her I'll bring her back some tomorrow evening from the cafeteria. Go on now."
"Harlem," said Aunt Louise. When William walked in her house with the little girls, she didn't even look up from the pot she was stirring on the stove. "Is that man still trying to get you to go down there to that place?"
William wanted to say up there,' but he stood in the kitchen doorway of his aunt's shotgun house and did not say much. "Mom says why not go. She said maybe in a couple of years, why not?" William didn't know when it started, but here he was fifteen and finished school and hard-working and everyone said he turned out so good -- and his father's sister made him feel like a barefoot country child.
"So," she said. "Away from your family."
"Uncle is family."
"Comes and goes when he wants, if you call that family. Works on Sunday, and tries to get y'all to work on Sunday on that train right along with him. Likes his drink, dances outside of church, acts like he better than your own father, Lord keep him."
William knew there was nothing to say when Louise got started. So he waited for her to stop when convenient and cut him a chunk of ice from her squat, dripping icebox. The kitchen was at the back of the house and already darkening. His aunt turned up the wick on the smallest oil lamp, just enough to let her see what she was cooking.
William watched the light dance on his aunt's sweating cheekbones, her salt and-pepper head. What went through his mind was a painting by a Dutch man in a book at the principal's house. So simple -- a woman working, bent over, the light falling on her face and down to the wooden floor. The way color needs light to exist. The way there is nothing in the world without some bit of color.
Shadows played on the worktable with its one red tomato and its handful of green pepper fingers in a brown clay bowl. Still life -- what the principal's wife called it. He remembered that excitement, waiting to begin sketching afternoons after school. At the same time, he'd grow strangely calm. While she arranged oranges and apples, standing back to study their effect by sunlight, everything in life would slow down. Even the beat of his heart, the thumb pulse against his pencil, the white paper holding its breath. Still life.
A sudden breeze from the open front door swept down Louise's skinny hallway and settled on William's damp back and shoulders as he stood, looking. When it moved on out the back door, it left the smell of the ocean behind, and he felt even hotter than he was. He could hear Evie and Edie playing in the raked yard at the back of the house. They made the little pink dolls sing and speak for them. "Ezekiel saw the wheel," they sang. "Way up in the middle of the air."
"Harlem," was what Louise said, and handed him ice wrapped in a pure white cloth.
Someone said, "Harlem." But William Johnson did not look up from his easel outside the old Jacobia Boardinghouse. It was not so much that he ignored people when he painted. It was not that. He could hear the white men behind him on the sidewalk. He could understand they were talking about him. They just ceased to be very real.
And hadn't it been the same way ever since he'd gotten off the train at Grand Central? And the same way at the Academy, and on Cape Cod, and in Cagtnes-sur Mer. When he painted, everything slowed up. Birds stopped in their flight, cars became silent bronze statues, people sounded like gramophone records cranked by someone very tired. Even his sweetheart, the woman he'd met in France, turned to marble right in front of his eyes. But she understood. She had her own work to do. They would work, and then they'd come back to each other, always.
Only the sun did not slow up. It had carried him from this place and kept him painting for twenty years. No sign of slowing up now. Johnson stopped pacing in front of the canvas, straightened and stretched his back, and watched the red sun roll into Jacobia's rotting rooftops. He had to work fast. Soon the sun would move on past the boardinghouse and fall behind the new tall buildings to the west. Not that the round wheel of the sun would be in the picture. No, his painting would be of the moment right after the sun had passed over the building. As if she was a woman, here in this once grand hotel, who had finally given up on her man and told him to move on.
"Looks like one of those Indians to me," said a voice. "You know, Indian Indian. From India. You can tell from that long hair. That scarf."
The white porte cochere that had once protected salesmen and tourists was gone. The china and crystal, the holiday voices and the white-coated Black waiters were gone. In the last 20 years, while Johnson worked his way through art school, won prizes, and painted in France, the town had changed. Mom Allene had written him how the shops had turned their faces away from the railroad tracks and toward the new highway. How the balconied hotels with their ancient plumbing had fallen out of favor.
"Jacobia's full of prostitution and just about everything else," Allene wrote him. "Mr. Herbert Hoover says hard times will soon be over, and I'm telling you when they are, the Jacobia will fall to the wrecking ball."
"I'll tell you what he is," someone said behind him. "He's nothing but colored. That's all."
Johnson went on painting the peeling red door of the Jacobia. He painted her crazy drunk, leaning on the elbows of several gnarled trees, bare of branches. He painted her dark and full of color, sliding on slick red clay ground. With a thin knife, he drew her black phone lines to nowhere, her narrow windows. He painted her alone and swaying in the wind.
"I know him," someone said. "I know his mama. Good old colored woman."
Johnson painted in a Black man with a cap on his head, walking past the Jacobia, under its collapsing porches. The man moved on, past the dining room windows, turned left, headed north again.
Someone said, "Harlem. I told you once and I'll tell you again. The man's from Harlem."
A version of this story was first published in the Charleston Post & Courier and won a S.C. Fiction Project Prize.
Cecile Goding is a graduate of Furman University and is the executive director of the Florence Area Literacy Council. She has published a chapbook of poems, The Women Who Drink at the Sea.