Sunday, February 15, 2009
Chapter Fifteen - The Hangman's Knot
I had to admit to myself that I burned with a kind of inner fire once I stepped off the stage and stood in the wings.
“Billy Reed’s my name,” the minstrel said to me, as he grabbed my hand. “I saw your whole act. You’d make one hell of a partner.”
I smiled and nodded, but I wasn’t really listening to his offer. Another of the blackface dancers tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s go Billy,” his stage partner said. They cakewalked onto stage, and Billy began to sing a song with an irregular rhythm, and the two men danced a high-stepping, knee-bending strut that had the audience cheering.
“Ol massuh got a whip, but I got my smile,” Billy sang. “And it bite his soul like a crock-o-dile.”
Billy’s voice was strong, but not pure. There was a gravelly raggedness that made it stand out from the other singers who vainly attempted to reach operatic levels.
“His missus got charm, and a spy-glass figguh. But massuh don’t know, how she like us niggruhs.”
The audience howled as Billy thrust his hips spectacularly.
I watched his entire routine and realized that I was looking at a headliner in the making.
After the number they cakewalked back into the wings to thunderous applause, and then took two curtain calls during which Billy tapped a pattern with his shoes, that his partner imitated, until it became a dancing duel.
The men bounded into the wings sweating and breathing hard.
“What do you think?” Billy asked me.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” I answered.
“That’s because it’s mine,” he said. “For now. Only ones know these steps are me and Seamus.”
Seamus was blotting a towel to his forehead. It came away stained with blotches of black greasepaint.
“Pleased,” Seamus said. “This is one smart coon.”
Seamus spoke with a brogue as soft as the warble of a brook in July, as he hooked his thumb at his partner.
“We could use a partner. A smart partner,” Billy said. “What’s your name – McDonough?”
“Oh no, that’s the boss’s name,” I replied.
“Boss? You got a boss?” Billy asked.
“He’s not really my boss. I work with him. He pays me.”
“Sound’s like he’s your boss.”
“You interested in partnering up?”
I didn’t know what to say. Before my own performance I was ready to head home to Middletown. I was anxious to stop my wandering. But the response of the audience was so seductive. I didn’t know my mind. So I didn’t say anything.
“Come on back to the dressing room while we get these things off,” Billy said, pulling at his damp shirt. “We’ll talk.”
I followed Billy and Seamus through the cramped backstage, avoiding set pieces and half-dressed dancers. I saw McDonough in a chair, his head tipped forward into his chest. He was snoring loudly.
“There’s McDonough,” I said to Billy.
Billy laughed and clapped Seamus on the back who, then turned and threw a few harmless punches Billy’s way.
Their dressing room was in a far corner of the theater. It was dark, cramped and dirty. We entered the tiny room which was stacked with two traveling wardrobes, opened to reveal a bouquet of stage clothes, and dressing mirrors.
Each man stripped the damp stage clothes and stood in their underwear as they dipped hands into vats of white cold cream which they massaged into their blackened hands and faces.
As Seamus rubbed the black greasepaint from his face into a quickly blackening towel, he pulled his nappy wig from his head, and removed a black stocking which revealed a shock of bright orange hair. Beneath the makeup his skin was pale and freckled.
“Have you heard of Elmo and Harrison?” Billy asked me.
“No,” I said, turning toward him. He seemed to be having a more difficult time removing the black greasepaint. His towel was as black as widow’s veil, but his face didn’t seem to be getting any cleaner. Then I realized the problem.
“You’re a negro,” I shouted.
Billy face looked shocked. He touched his face, turned to the mirror then turned back to me.
“Dear lord,” he cried. “When did that happen?”
Then he and Seamus and they fell into one another’s arms, laughing.
“So you don’t know Elmo and Harrison?” Billy asked, ignoring my stupid revelation.
“No,” I said.
“They brought us up. Seamus and meself,” he said affecting an Irish accent. “We were doing our act on a street corner in Baltimore, and they asked if we wanted a job in a real troupe. They were working for Dockstader and they got us a job in his troupe. That is, until he saw me one day without my greasepaint.”
“He said the same thing you did,” Seamus said pointing at me. “You’re a negro.”
“Now, Dockstader don’t have nothing against negroes, or so he says,” Billy explained. “But he was afraid to travel the south with a real negro. The stage nigras were all right, Dockstader told me. But he was liable to be run out of town if anyone found out they were watching a real nigra sing and dance.”
“It’s all the rage in California,” Seamus interjected. “San Francisco is crawling with real negro blackface minstrel troupes.”
“Dockstader told me to go to California,” Billy said. “I told him to go to hell. Or at least back to Hartford.”
“He fired us before we could quit,” Seamus added.
“So, we’re independent. But we could use a frontman. Someone to do the talking. A storyteller. A jokester.”
“You’re a negro,” I said, again.
“You’re right. Now are you interested?”
I didn’t know what to think, or to say.
“Don’t like negros?” Seamus asked. “I don’t much meself, but Billy here’s a different sort.”
“I don’t have anything against negroes,” I protested.
“You wouldn’t believe the money we make,” Seamus said. He opened a leather valise a pulled out a fistful of bills. “When the money isn’t going to the producer, it comes right here,” he said, and patted his pocket.
“Why me?” I asked.
“You’re good. I’ve been around this business long enough to know who’s good and who isn’t. And you’re good. You had them in the palm of your hand right now, and your material is excellent.”
I could feel my vision begin to clear, and suddenly my future was not as certain as I had thought it was four hours ago.
“How much would you pay me?” I asked.
“Three-way split,” Billy said. “In a bad week we each make fifty dollars.”
That was more than McDonough paid me in a month.
“In a good week we’ve each walked away with $300,” Seamus said.
“Where do I sign up?”
Billy clapped me on the back and laughed. Seamus pulled a half-pint from his pocket and tipped it to his lips. Then he passed it to Billy who did the same.
“How old are you,” he asked.
“Eighteen,” I lied.
He handed me the half-pint and I took a swig and came away coughing.
“More like sixteen, I reckon. But between me and the truant officer, who cares,” Billy said, and we all laughed. “One more thing,” he had suddenly grown serious. “I’m a negro.”
I laughed and Seamus laughed, but Billy’s face remained dead serious.
“I know you’re a negro,” I said.
“But you never traveled the countryside with one,” he replied.
“I’ll show you how to land a sucker punch,” Seamus hooted. “You can clock a three-hundred pound blacksmith with a head butt aimed just so. Stick with me. I’ll teach you to survive, that is, as long as you’ve got some good foot speed.”
“The audience will clap and shout for us good and hard when we’re onstage,” Billy said. “But we’ll spend more than one night sleeping in a stable or under the stars. On the stage I’m a negro. On the street I’m a nigger. And you, if you come with us, you’re a friend of a nigger. A nigger lover. You may as well be a negro yourself.”
“Or an Irishman,” Seamus added.
“I wouldn’t wish that on my dog,” Billy laughed. “Are you with us.”
What I could do with three hundred dollars a week.
“When do I start.”
I left the theater with Seamus and Billy, and we stood outside the stage door.
“Would you like to join us in our room?” Seamus asked.
“We’ve got a camp down by the river,” Billy said. “Wasn’t a hotel that could find us a room. But you’re welcome to join us by the campfire for a drink and a plate of beans. And we’ve got an extra bedroll.”
It sounded like home to me. I spent so many hours sitting by the Connecticut River, that a log by the campfire sounded comforting.
We soon left the lights of Sing-sing behind us as we walked a steep and curving path from the heights to the river. I felt happy, and I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey or the fact that I had a new job.
I noticed first Billy, then Seamus turning anxiously and listening carefully as we walked.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
“Keep walking,” Billy shushed.
Now I was sensitive to the impenetrable underbrush on the path beside us and I was sure I heard rustling there as well.
“What is it?” I asked again. But before either could respond, I got my answer as three men stepped from the shadows.
“Evening,” Seamus said. He never stopped smiling. “What can we do for you gents?”
“We’ll relieve you of your cash,” the largest of the three said.
“What makes you think we have any money,” Seamus replied. “We’re hoboes.”
“Not dressed like swells, you aren’t” said another of the men, and he raised a pistol in our direction.
“Don’t go getting nervous with that gun,” Seamus said.
“We won’t have any trouble if you give us the money, mick,” the big man said.
Ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, Billy was backing into the shadows. I wouldn’t have noticed it myself except that I had been standing parallel to him on the path, and now he was a step away and into the brush. Each time Seamus spoke, Billy moved.
“Now, how much would satisfy ye,” Seamus asked, almost cheerily.
“All of it,” the man with the gun said.
“What’ll that leave us?” Seamus asked.
“Your skin,” the man said. “If you’re lucky. I’m getting impatient.”
“Not so fast nigger,” another voice came from the shadows behind us.
We all turned to the voice and we saw a fourth man emerging from the brush, with a substantial hunting knife at the back of Billy’s neck.
“Drop the club,” the man with the knife said.
I don’t know where he had it hidden, but Billy had a three-foot length of polished oak in his hand, which he dropped when asked.
“I think they need some convincing,” the big man said. Then he hammered his fist into Seamus’ kidney from behind. Seamus buckled at the knees and grimaced.
“Get me some rope,” the man with the gun said.
Two men walked into the dark stand of hemlock and returned with a rough length of rope. The big man fashioned a noose and placed it around Billy’s neck. He threw the other end around a thick branch over our heads.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
I didn’t see where the fist came from, but I felt the pain at my temple, and next I knew, I was watching the scene, flat on my back with a boot on my chest.
“Okay, harpie, you want to hand over the money, or would you like to see your partner dancing in thin air,” the man with the gun said.
Seamus reached into his coat and pulled out a large worn leather wallet bound with coarse twine.
“There you go, laddy,” the man with the gun said as he took the wallet. Then he kicked Seamus in the jaw, and Seamus shot backward in a storm of blood and saliva.
“Hang the nigger,” the man with the gun said.
“What about the others,” the big man said.
The man with the gun drew his forefinger across his own throat, and the man with the knife coughed a murderous laugh.
I struggled against the boot as I saw the two men pull on the rope and realized Billy feet were dangling. His hands, which they had failed to secure, were trying to find room beneath the noose.
Then the man with the knife fell. He was obviously unconscious before he hit the ground, for he hit like a sack of coal. And his knife, which he had been holding threateningly in his hand, sliced the nose right off of his face.
“Whore’s breath,” the man with the gun said as he saw one, than the other of the men hauling on the rope fall as well, both dropping to the ground like sides of beef. Between them stood old man leather, his walking stick raised in the air, and now bloody from the scalps he had just walloped.
“Sweet Jesus,” Billy said as he looked up at old man leather.
“Don’t worry,” I shouted. “He won’t hurt you.”
“Like hell,” Billy said, as he rolled into the underbrush. “He just brained these two, and neither of them will be taking another breath.”
That’s when I heard the shot, and I saw old man leather stagger back and fall.
The man with the gun lifted his boot from my chest and ran to his friends.
He bent down to check them.
“He’s kilt them,” the man with the gun said. “He kilt them sure.”
The man with the gun stood wild-eyed. Then he walked deliberately to the brush where Billy was still struggling with the noose around his neck.
“Billy,” I shouted. But before I could get to my feet, old man leather was standing behind the man with the gun, his walking stick extended to it’s full length above his head. He drove the great carved ball at the end of the stick toward the man’s head. The man with the gun must have had some instinct that someone was behind him and he shifted just before the stick landed. It missed his head, but hit his shoulder with a terrible crack. The gun dropped from his hand, and his arm spasmed horribly as he screamed and fell to the ground.
“Are you all right,” I said. I was addressing old man leather but I heard Billy then Seamus say, “Yeah, you?”
Old man leather stood back from us. He undid the rough button of his great shingled leather coat, and I swear I saw a wisp of smoke rise from his chest. He reached his thick grisled fingers into the great leather overalls and plucked the crushed bullet from a crease in the leather. He held it close to his eyes to examine it, then dropped it on the man with the gun, who was now without a gun, and writhing on the ground.
“Skedaddle,” Seamus said to me. “That’s act four, scene five. This drama is over. Curtain’s down.”
“But what about being partners?” I asked.
“Partners in crime?” Billy asked back. “There are three dead white men lying here, and one who can still speak. There’s a negro and an Irishman, both actors. There’s some crazy lunatic dressed in saddles, and there’s an orphan boy. Who would you blame for the murders?”
“It was in self defense,” I shouted.
“Tell that to the judge,” Seamus said.
He and Billy shook hands.
“It was great while it lasted,” Billy said.
“I’ll miss you, ya great buck coon,” Seamus said tightening his grip.
Then they let go and ran separate paths into the night.
I looked around and old man leather had made off too. I was the only one left standing, and when the man on the ground screamed again, I ran back towards town.
I awoke in bed and the room buzzed as if I had coated the furniture with honey and the flies and bees had gotten in through an open window. I was, daresay, surprised to find it was the snoring of a young women, of whom I had no recollection, snoring.
For a moment, I felt fine, for the woman was a fine looking woman. Then a sharp pain wracked my head from the stem of my skull to my cheek. I rose and looked in the mirror and saw the bruise on the side of my face, and I remembered what happened in the woods by the river the night before.
The woman in bed snorted loudly, and I jumped.
I recalled making it back to town, hiding in an alley for what seemed like hours, and upon emerging bumping into members of my company who pulled me into McGear’s Tavern where I filled myself with cheap whiskey.until I awoke here.
It was not the first time I slept with a woman. But this was the first time I slept with one so close to my own age. I paid to sleep with most, and those whom I had not paid felt they were giving me a gift, when indeed I felt I was granting them an obligation of respect.
This young woman was none of those. As I watched, she shifted from her back to her side, the snoring ceased and the sheet fell to reveal that she had come to my room without sleeping garments. Her hair was a cross between honey and a autumn maple's leaf, and she had eyebrows that barely showed. Her nose was straight, but not long, her lips thin, but chiseled in a fine geometry. Her neck was long and begged nuzzling. Her eyes were closed.
I wish I could enjoy the loveliness, but the images of the night before swept her beauty from my head.
I rose, and I pulled on my trousers and looked at my pocket watch. It was a quarter to ten and the hanging had been scheduled for seven. I missed it.
I finished dressing, and wrote a short note to my bedmate. I was afraid to wake her lest she be frightened and realize that she made some dreadful mistake by sharing her bed with me. Then I went to breakfast but found I had no hunger.
The streets were empty.
I walked toward the center and found all the stores closed. It was a Saturday morning, and I wondered for a moment if this was some quaint provincial habit. I then realized that I had been in Sing-sing on several other Saturdays when the stores were indeed open.
I walked out of town and toward the prison grounds. Sure enough as I got closer I found human activity. Boys chased each other down the streets while others clung to the branches of neighborhood trees like monkeys from the yardarm.
In fact a large crowd was gathered around the site of the gallows. Perhaps I had not missed the hanging after all.
I stopped a well-dressed couple and I asked if the hanging was done.
"Well, first try, anyway," the man said. "Pardon?"
"Hangman missed first time through," he explained.
"I'm sorry to bother you," and I was. "But how could he miss?"
"Henry let me explain," the woman interrupted. "You see, the murderer was up on the scaffold at seven with the rope around his neck. But then the lieutenant governor had to speak, and the mayor, and two selectmen. By then it was nine, and somehow, someone had gotten under the gallows and loosened a knot so when the trap door was finally engaged a few minutes ago, the murderer fell through the floor and kept going."
"We'll see two hangin's today," the man offered cheerily.
"Two dyin's I suspect too."
"He should've thought of that when he was killing them poor innocent children. Serves him right. Maybe they ought to hang him three times for good measure," the woman was getting red in the face, so I decided to excuse myself.
“And with a triple murder by the river…” the man interjected.
“Just last evening, laws,” the woman gyrated as if a swoom were imminent.
“May as well live in Manhattan,” the man said.
“Lawsy” the woman agreed.
“They’re after some nigger,” the man said confidently. “They’ll find him and we’ll have another hanging party in a few weeks.”
I shuddered and took my leave, drawn inexplicably, toward the site of the hanging.
The crowd grew thicker as I approached the scaffold. There was a holiday atmosphere among them, which I suspect, was heightened by the failure of the hangman's knot to put a murderer to rest on the first try.
When I got closer I could see much of the activity on the raised platform. I saw the hangman, hood still in place, sitting solemnly on the steps to the scaffolding. On the platform itself I saw the two carpenters I spoke with yesterday, and though they probably had nothing to do with the loosened knot, they were doing their best to inspect the rest of their work, so that the killer could be dispatched once and for all this time. Behind the scaffold, in the wall of the prison, faces peered from behind bars at the crowd, and I suppose, at the scaffold itself, and on the thick wall of the prison, above, guards with rifles, and what I could only guess to be city and state officials and their families, stood, patiently waiting for the final approval by the woodworkers.
I missed the sign, but I knew it was time when the crowd began to applaud. Was this the same applause they gave me in the theatre last night? If not what distinguished it from that spontaneous outburst.
Before I could ponder further, the hangman brought the accused up onto the scaffold. The murderer was handsome, in a way, and had a roguish smile upon his face, as if he would beat death in the end. Suddenly he broke from the somber procession of priest muttering chapter and verse from the bible, and hangman, head shrouded and hung in respect of prayer, and stepped toward the front of the platform.
"The gov'nor promised he'd pardon me if the rope don't take this time."
The crowd was, at first, stunned into silence, and then a ripple of laughter spread, and eventually saturated the throng.
The condemned man made his way back to the procession, and was blessed by the priest then hooded by the executioner.
Nearly all in the crowd had smiles on their faces still when the rope went taut, and there was an expectant moment when they, as I did, hoped the rope would snap, or come loose, and this man, who had killed his family and shown no remorse, would stride among us, look back at the scaffold and wonder aloud how a man could escape twice in a day from his own death, and how it surely meant that he wasn't supposed to die.
But the rope swung back and forth, ringing the opening to the trap like a clapper to a bell, and it never became loose. There was not even a motion on the line, like the motion you would feel when you were fighting in a particularly feisty bass. It hung taut and still, the body unseen in the bowels of the scaffolding, swinging back and forth.
I turned away and looked into the crowd and saw that most no longer had any trace of humor on their faces. For many, the smile had turned to a grimace. Others held their faces in their hands. Many of the women who were mothers wept.
Then I saw McDonough. He was decked in his finery, and the only man in the crowd smiling, at me.
"Jack," he called. "You're the toast of the town."
He came over and embraced me, and with my chin tucked into his shoulder I looked through the crowd and saw a face I had seen last night. The face of the man with the gun. His arm was bandaged and hanging from a sling tied around his neck. He saw me too, and as McDonough pulled me to arms’ length, I lost sight of that man’s face.
“Let’s get out of this ugly town,” I said to McDonough as I pulled him toward our hotel.
I turned and walked with the crowd down the streets that headed toward the train station, the docks and the river. As it turned out, many boarded trains north and south. This hanging had been a regional attraction, and if I had been thinking I would have known that the street in front of the scaffold held far more bodies than had been in Sing-sing at any one time in many years.
“Death is the only thing that pulls them in more readily than dancing women,” McDonough said. “And women and children can enjoy a hanging. Shame.”
We climbed onto the train and I slunk low into my seat and pressed my face to the window, where I could get a good view of the Hudson and not be seen well myself. The river was wide and grey under the lowering sky.
I thought about my own river, the Connecticut, and how narrow it seemed in comparison to this great giant that flowed to the sea with the mountains as its handmaidens. I watched a negro casting a line from the shore. He didn’t rest long after each cast, hauling in fish nearly as quickly as he could cast. He was catching some kind of bass. Riverdogs they called them up here. They looked like any other fish to me. I stared at the river until it's slow, steady, strong movement carried me from my worries, carried me from my thoughts of death, from my thoughts of lost friends, and of family I'd never know. Carried me as sure as if I were some flat-bottomed boat. Soon even the black man was gone with his skein of fish, and the train began to move, in the direction of the water’s flow and it was me and the river.
There was something hypnotic about watching it. I sometimes talked to other people about it. Vinny used to like fires. He'd go out the back of the building and start a campfire and watch the flames lick the shadows for hours. He told me about men who loved to watch the motion of the ocean’s waves. To sit in the bow of a great boat as if it were a cradle and be rocked into tranquility by the movement of that great unfathomable body of water.
For me it was a river, the great and relentless movement forward. The constant push and pull of currents. The subtle and invisible strength. And the color that could change from slate gray to the shade of a robins egg. I sat for hours watching that Hudson carry ships and shavings and sticks and foam, down past the levies and the waiting train passengers, and thought that just a small stick, thrown into the current at Sing-sing, will flow past the great warehouse on the great city's of Manhattan’s west side. Past the docks, and past the stevedores, and past the great ocean riggers. And while I'm still sitting in this train, this stick will sail toward lands that I can only dream of.