"He in a hospital. Ain't nobody sure if he gone get well or not, but he told people. He fingered you. Gunners from here to New York looking for your head."
"What's the price on it?"
"This Smoke say he pay five hundred dollars for a photograph of your corpse."
"What if Smoke dies?"
Uncle Hollis shrugged. "Whoever take over the Deacon's business, he going to have to make sure you dead."
Luther said, "I ain't got no place to go."
"You got to go east, boy. 'Cause you can't stay here. And stay the fuck out of Harlem, that's for sure. Look, I know a boy up in Boston can take you in."
Luther gave that some thought and quickly realized that thinking about it was a waste of time because there wasn't any choice in the matter. If Boston was all that was left of "safe" in this country, then Boston it would have to be.
"What about you?" he asked. "You staying here?"
"Me?" Uncle Hollis said. "I didn't shoot nobody."
"Yeah, but what's here anymore? Place been burned to nothing. I hear all the coloreds are leaving or trying to."
"To go where? Problem with our people, Luther, is they bite into hope and keep their teeth clenched to it the rest of their lives. You think any place is going to be better than here? Just different cages, boy. Some prettier than others but cages just the same." He sighed. "Fuck it. I'm too old to move and this right here, this right here is as much home as I know."
They sat in silence and finished their drinks.
Uncle Hollis pushed back his chair and stretched his arms above his head. "Well, I got a room upstairs. We'll get you situated for a night while I make some calls. In the morning . . ." He shrugged.
"Boston," Luther said.
Uncle Hollis nodded. "Boston. Best I can do."
In the boxcar, with Jessie's fine coat covered in hay to ward off the cold, Luther promised the Lord he would atone. No more card games. No more whiskey or cocaine. No more associating with gamblers or gangsters or anyone who even thought of doing heroin. No more giving himself over to the thrill of the night. He would keep his head down and call no attention to himself and wait this out. And if word ever came that he could return to Tulsa, then he would return a changed man. A humble penitent.
Luther had never considered himself a religious man, but that had less to do with his feelings about God than it did with his feelings about religion. His grandmother and his mother had both tried to drum the Baptist faith into him, and he had done what he could to please them, to make them believe he believed, but it had taken no more hold of him than any of the other homework he claimed to be doing. In Tulsa he'd grown even less inclined toward Jesus, if only because Aunt Marta and Uncle James and all their friends spent so much time praising Him that Luther figured if Jesus was, in fact, hearing all those voices He'd just as soon prefer silence every now and then, maybe catch Himself up on some sleep.
And Luther had passed many a white church in his day, heard them singing their hymns and chanting their "Amens" and seen them gather on a porch or two afterward with their lemonade and piety, but he knew if he ever showed up on their steps, starving or injured, the only response he'd get to a plea for human kindness would be the amen of a shotgun pointed in his face.
So Luther's arrangement with the Lord had long stood along the lines of You go Your way and I'll go mine. But in the boxcar, something took hold of him, a need to make sense of his own life, to give it a meaning lest he pass from the face of the earth having left behind no heavier footprint than that of a dung beetle.
He rode the rails across the Midwest and back through Ohio and then on into the Northeast. Although the companions he met in the boxcars weren't as hostile or dangerous as he'd often heard and the railway bulls never rousted or hassled them, he couldn't help but be reminded of the train ride he'd taken to Tulsa with Lila and he grew sad to the point where he felt swollen with it, as if there were no space for anything else in his body. He kept to himself in the corners of the boxcars, and he rarely trusted himself to speak unless one of the other men fairly demanded it of him.
He wasn't the only man on the train running from something. They ran from court dates and policemen and debts and wives. Some ran toward the same things. Some just needed a change. They all needed a job. But the papers, of late, had been promising a new recession. The boom times, they said, were over. War industries were shutting down and seven million men were about to hit the streets. Four million more were returning from overseas. Eleven million men about to enter a job market that was tapped out.
One of those eleven million, a huge white guy named BB, with a left hand mashed by a drill press into a pancake-flap of useless flesh, woke Luther his final morning on the train by throwing open the door so that the wind blew into Luther's face. Luther opened his eyes and saw BB standing by the open door as the countryside raced past him. It was dawn, and the moon still hung in the sky like a ghost of itself.
"Now that's a sweet picture, isn't it?" BB said, his large head tilting up toward the moon.
Luther nodded and caught his yawn in his fist. He shook the sleep from his legs and joined BB in the doorway. The sky was clear and blue and hard. The air was cold but smelled so clean Luther wished he could put it on a plate and eat it. The fields they passed were frozen and the trees were mostly bare, and it felt as if he and BB had caught the world at sleep, as if no one else, anywhere, bore witness to this dawn. Against that hard blue sky, as blue as anything Luther had ever seen, it all looked so beautiful that Luther wished he could show it to Lila. Wrap his arms around her belly and tuck his chin into her shoulder and ask her if she'd ever seen anything so blue. In your life, Lila? Have you ever?
He stepped back from the doorway.
I let it all go, he thought. I let it all go.
He found the fading moon in the sky and he kept his eyes on it. He kept his eyes on it until it had faded altogether and the wind had bitten clear through his coat.
BABE RUTH and the WORKERS
REVOLUTION chapter twelve The Babe spent his morning giving out candy and baseballs at the Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children in the South End. One kid, covered ankles-to- neck in plaster, asked him to sign the cast, so Babe signed both arms and both legs and then took a loud breath and scrawled his name across the torso from the kid's right hip to his left shoulder as the other kids laughed and so did the nurses and even some of the Sisters of Charity. The kid in the cast told Ruth his name was Wilbur Connelly. He'd been working at the Shefferton Wool Mill in Dedham when some chemicals got spilled on the work floor and the vapors met the sparks from a shearing machine and set him on fire. The Babe assured Wilbur he'd be fi ne. Grow up someday and hit a home run in the World Series. And wouldn't his old bosses at Shefferton go purple with jealousy that day? Wilbur Connelly, getting sleepy, barely managed a smile but the other kids laughed and brought more things for Babe to sign--a picture torn from the sports pages of The Standard, a small pair of crutches, a yellowed nightshirt.