Nelson Algren

Two hungry bums in Texas, mopin' down the S.P. ties. On either side of the tracks stretched the Texas prairie, half unseen now under a fog. Within the fog a cowbell tinkled, near at hand and coming nearer. The black 'bo drew a battered pack of cigarettes out of his hip pocket.

"Say," he asked his white companion, "you know why they made Ol' Gol's in the first place?"

The white didn't know.

"To keep niggers an' Jews from smokin' Camels is why."

They both laughed, without strength, and moped on.

The Negro paused, stood on one leg like a heron, and slipped off his right shoe. His toes were encrusted with a fishlike scale; he rubbed them with gaunt knuckles until brownish chips brittled off onto the ties.

"It itches," he complained. "It itches like the crabs."

The white offered advice: "Y'all ought to wear a white sock on that. On anythin' like that."

When they reached El Paso the streets were deserted; but morning was breaking over Juarez, and an empty C.C.C. truck rolled past as though to herald an empty dawn.

Neither boy knew where this city's breadline, if any, was to be found; so they walked on aimlessly. Once they paused in a doorway while the Negro removed his shoe once more, and again scraped his knuckles against his toes. Overhead an unshaded night bulb still burned feebly, casting a sickly greenish glow across a staircase leading up to nowhere. A woman passed the doorway, head down and hurrying through the rain along the unlovely southern street.

"I'm tired as a old hound, ain't you?" the Negro asked as he scraped.

"Yeah," the other answered. "Bummin' takes all the tallow out o' mah pole. Ah ain't been eatin' so reg'lar o' late, neither. What's yore name, nigger?"

"Call me Mack. What's yours?"

"Call me Tex."

"If I jest had a sock like you said, Tex, do y' think it'd keep it from rubbin' some?"

Tex surmised that this must be a northern Negro, to judge by his speech.

The fog lifted a little, and the El Paso sun came through. They came to a park with a picket fence going around and around; there were teeter-totters for small children and swings for smaller children; and at one end was a net whereon two large men swung and belammed one small red ball. A stretch of grass looked dry for sleep here. The 'boes found a gate and entered.

The small grass bent itself between Tex McKay's fingers. Long shadows trembled in the light ....

"Ah better shake this shine," Tex counseled himself.

Surreptitiously, the Negro began bathing his foot by wriggling his naked toes beneath a dripping bush. He did this for several minutes, covertly, then declared his foot well.

"But a sock .... if oney I had a white sock now." His eyes closed even as he muttered, and in a moment he was sleeping soundly, one arm in a ragged sleeve outflung and the other shielding his eyes; as though fearing in sleep to be struck.

"Ah ought to got me a coat fo' the night that's comin'," Tex thought, watching sunshadow between half-closed lids. Sunshadow made him think of wet lengths of yellow ribbon stretched flat aslant the grass to dry. Some lengths were narrow and some were quite wide, some intertwined and became one, then wriggled away into many, all yellow-wet and delicate across green shadowgrass.

The Negro wriggled his toes, in sleep. Tex's own feet had gone sockless for months, he too was very tired; but even as he felt himself dozing off he became aware of someone coming toward him. Then a silver badge above small boots, a row of brass buttons and a neck on thighs swung up a winding cindered path twirling a club-on-a-cord like a swagger-stick. Tex saw him coming, shoved Mack, and ran. From behind the picket fence, safe outside, Tex watched. Boots budged Mack until he rolled over, moaning like a sick man. He was sweating in sleep, his mouth drooled saliva, then he woke with a start, his eyes bulging out; there was, for one moment, no flicker of understanding in his eyes.

"White folks' park, nigger. Git a-goin' 'for ah fan yore fanny."

He twirled his club-on-a-cord significantly, boy-fashion, threatening.

Tex waited on the street. He'd like to josh the nigger a little now. But when the Negro joined him they walked on silently, and Tex said nothing at all.

On a street lined with radios competitively blasting the air into splinters, they sat down on a Keep-Our-City-Clean box. Both were hungry enough to chew their tongues; but they were both too weary to think consistently even about food. Tex rested his feet on the curbstone and watched the gutterflow swirl past.

Much was being borne on that gutter-tide: a frayed cigarbutt came past first; then a red beer-cork; and then, its pages flung wide in a disgraceful death, a copy of Hollywood Gossip came floating by. It lay flat on its back, a whore-like thing. Tex sniped the cigar and the magazine, crushed tobacco onto a dry page, and rolled a rude cigarette. Smoking, he looked at the magazine's pictures. One page bore a picture of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in a stovepipe hat, hugging two girls in onepiece bathing suits. Out of Fairbanks's ears Tex fashioned four long cigarettes, but the figures of the girls in the bathing suits Tex McKay preserved, studying them as he smoked.

The cigarettes were strong, hence good; he offered Mack one, but the boy shook his head as though he were too tired even to smoke. To make a few more, Tex ripped one of the bathing girls up the middle. He had an odd feeling when he did that, and looked through the book for more bathing girls' pictures; but there was no other dry page, and he began to feel tired again.

As he sat Tex recalled that the last time food had passed his lips, he had been in some place where there was snow on the streets. But he could not remember the name of that place, though his mind sought sleepily and long. Somehow, much seemed to depend upon the remembering: Chicago, Little Rock, Memphis too. His brain stopped on Railroad Street in Baton Rouge and could go no farther. So he dropped the magazine in the gutterflow, wiped his nose on the back of his hand, and poked the Negro. Mack followed Tex mechanically. When Tex turned, he turned; when Tex paused, he paused; when Tex hurried forward, he hurried forward beside him. Only once as they went did he speak. "Bummin' takes 'most ever'thin' outen a feller, don't it?" he asked as they turned a corner.

Tex McKay nodded. "Sho' do. Knocks all the tallow outen yore pole." And to himself: "Ah better shake this shine. We might get picked up."

When they reached a second Keep-Our-City-Clean box Mack wanted to remove his shoe again; but his fingers slipped around his ankle like a little child's fingers. So McKay took it off for him, kneeling as the other sat; he pulled a wad of paper out of the box and wadded it into the shoe's torn places. Beside him a barefooted Mexican boy holding a small girl by the hand stood and watched with a cynic's air. A woman with furred shoulders went by on high heels, her head in the air and her nose sniffing elegantly at the sun, as though about to snort green phlegm skyward. As Tex struggled to get the shoe back on Mack's foot, someone behind him spat in the gutter across his shoulder; he saw the gob, like a speckled bug, being borne away on the stream. People were gathering behind him; it was time to be getting on.

They had not gone half a block when Mack stopped and complained, half-accusingly, like some petulant pickaninny: "It hurts. You just made it worse, you did. Now it hurts worst." But they could not stop here, there was no place here to stop; and Mack continued to complain with a rising irascibility.

"If oney I had a sock. A white sock, mind you. Hev you got that kind?"

That was the last thing he said to show he knew that Tex was still with him; after that he seemed slowly to lose awareness, he became like a man mildly drunk or doped. Tex had not known what havoc the simple fact of over-tiredness could wreak. Only a few hours before, he had picked up with a husky young buck; now there plodded beside him a half-helpless black boy who depended on him to put on his shoes. Tex began to feel a mild responsibility.

Mack stopped dead still and planted himself directly in front of a bespectacled white youth with books in both hands. The boy looked frightened at Mack's glance. When Tex looked at Mack it was not hard to tell why: Mack's eyes now were fever-bright, and burning hollowly. Tex took his arm, but he would not budge one inch.

"You. Gimme that sock."

He took the boy by the lapel, and the boy dropped a book.

"Saaaaay-I'll call a cop on you I will." The boy's voice quavered shrilly as a frightened schoolgirl's; his eyes besought pleadingly those of the crowd.

This time two silver badges; two rows of brass buttonstwo pairs of pointed black boots shining in the sun.

"Here, niggers - at it again? All right, Smitty, take 'em both along."

Tex McKay cocked his head, unable, for one moment, to believe what he had heard. Slowly then, he understood: A white man who walked with a 'nigger' was a 'nigger' too. He recognized the park bull as the other took his arm, and he said, "Ah'm no nigger."

Tex was too weary to feel keen fear; and going to jail was all a part of life anyhow. No one escaped it for very long, and he'd been lucky for a long time now. What he didn't like, what got him by the short hairs, was that crack about a nigger.

He saw the big park bull start reaching for Mack when Mack was still five feet away and Specs stood in between. Specs ducked wildly when the cop's paw came over his shoulder; the paw seized Mack's shirt and pulled him free of the sidewalk with a yank which ripped the sleazy cloth down to the navel. Mack came straight forward, so that his head would have rammed the cop's Sam Browne belt had not the cop stiffarmed him with his open palm.

Tex glanced at the cop who was holding his wrist.

"Ah ain't no nigger, mister," he said; but the bull didn't seem to hear.

It was shameful to see the Negro so, his shirt in tatters so that his navel showed thru.

A man in the crowd barked brief, hard laughter; a girl fled, titillated - " Ooooooo - What I saw!"

"Ah ain't no nigger, mister," Tex repeated; but the bull didn't look like he'd heard.

Mack's voice was a low moan. "You got no right!" he said, and his arms flailed stiffly against the brass buttons. The edge of his sleeve caught in the cop's star; the cop jerked away, and the star was left hanging lopsidedly.

"You got no right!" Mack's fingers clawed weakly upward again, the club-on-a-cord whizzed in a gleaming circle a foot above his head, Mack reached toward it, and the club came down. It cracked down slantwise across the temple with the hissing sound of a large stone thrown through a thin paper wall - a brief sound, sharp and ripping and cold. Mack stood still for one long moment. He had stopped screaming rather suddenly. A dark star appeared on his temple, and his head began sagging slowly; like a wounded fighting cock's head. Hands caught him under the armpits as he fell. White hands held him tentatively, offering him out to the cop like an unclean dishrag.

"My! Wasn't that brave!" a woman called from the crowd.

The big bull turned, for that voice had been mocking; but it was not repeated, so he turned toward his patrol.

"Oh, officer!"

A boy's voice this time.

The cop's eyes were shifting uneasily, for the eyes of the crowd were unfriendly. The cop remembered how, once when he was ten, he had been beaten by a smaller boy while other boys stood in a circle and watched: he remembered, seeing encircling eyes. So without fixing his gaze on any one face, he asked, "Well, who wants to see me?"

No reply, till he turned.

"No one, officer, my dear. Who would? You stink most awful vile." The woman's voice.

"Who said 'at to me?" he bluffed loudly. "Who said 'at - huh?" His big face looked ready to burst with its bluff. Then he saw laughter starting, and got inside the patrol just in time. The other officer followed with Tex, in front of a chorus of catcalls that sounded like the mad thousand applauding. But Tex McKay heard only one thing clearly. Just as the door slammed someone shouted in, "Niggerlickers - that's what cops is. That's all they do in this town. Big tough niggerlickers, an' that's all they do do."

Mack's eyes opened, he revived slowly. On either side of him sat a bull. Tex wondered whether Mack understood all that had happened. His own hands were free, but Mack's were handcuffed. Tex, watching him revive, was torn between regret for having walked with him, and pity for seeing him in pain. The Negro looked sickly gray.

From where he sat guarding the door, the bigger bull glanced over to Tex and spoke warningly. He was still out of breath, and a bit bewildered at something, it seemed.

"This'll go mighty hard with you two. Mighty hard, I can say that now. Almost a riot call it was, an' a riot call al'ays goes harder" - he gasped for breath - "Oh, lots o' trouble you boys made" - gasping - "trouble in the park first - "

His rump-like face was streaked with sweat. As though to reassure himself of the penalty they were certain to have incurred, he questioned the other officer.

"A riot call al'ays makes it twice as bad, don't it, Arthur - huh?"

Arthur nodded. He was thin, and freckled, and looked unhappy.

"See what Arthur says! - ya almost instergated a riot, that's jest what I'm sayin'. Ya'll get ninety days fer this" - gasping - "or elts I'm not yet witness."

In spite of exhaustion, Tex McKay went sick with fear.

"He jest wanted a sock on account his foot is so sore," he protested. "Honest, mister, that foot looks ready to drop off'n his laig."

The silver badge looked at Tex McKay with a huge, expressionless, and moon-like wonder. The big thick brain behind the eyes began to move slowly, painfully, like a heavy door opening onto a room long closed. Then his face looked somehow cunning-cruel, as understanding at last came into it. And he guffawed. Thwacking his thigh resoundingly, he yawped his face so near to Tex's that Tex smelled the foulness of his breath like a breath from a privy.

"He jest wanted a sock! He jest wanted a sock! Hey, Arthur, did y' get that, Arthur? He jest wanted a sock - an' ain't that jest what I given him?" - He went off into whole gales of laughter, his body shaking to its very fingertips. "Say - Art - D'ya get it? - He jest wanted a sock - an' that's what I given him." Arthur smiled a bit wanly, a bit indulgently, and said nothing at all.

"Ho! Ho! He wanted a sock - a clean sock! Ho! Ho!"

Outside, the late afternoon sun was waking trembling checkered patterns on low stone buildings rushing past.

They were going to jail; they were going to eat; they were going to have a place to lie down.

Tex said, "Ah ain't no nigger."

Mack looked up. "You'se ridin' - ain't yo'?"

early 1930s

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