Monday, June 22, 2009

The Death of the Shroud

"Like a Winding Sheet" is a short story by Ann Petry. It is about a black man in the forties who has gotten sick to death of racism and starts to see it everywhere - even where it does not exist. His rage builds until he snaps and beats his loving wife mercilessly. In reading the story I felt that the author attempted to make it appear as if the protagonist had no control over his actions. However, I believe that there is absolutely never an excuse for behavior that extreme. And I do not buy into the notion that he was wrapped up, "like a winding sheet" in his emotions and that the sheet now controlled his actions. Society may influence our emotions and behavior but it is an abdication of responsibility to claim that it totally controls us.

My assignment was to write a short story in response to the original piece. Here is the result:

The Death of the Shroud

By Grant Robertson

Written September, 2005

The old man sat on the stoop where he always sat, watching the world go by. Watching the people come and go. Some stop just long enough to say hello but most barely notice or acknowledge him. Dark and cracked like the dirty old concrete he sits on, over the years he has begun to blend right in with the stoop itself. As if he were simply another part of the crumbling building. The little girls play hopscotch. The boys just chase each other around. Not much to watch most days. Still he sits there watching.

It’s not often that a taxi-cab comes past this block, let alone stops. Leaning over to spit, the old man looks up as the cab pulls to a stop at the curb.

As the young man climbs out he looks around for something familiar, something to remind him that this was once home. But all these brownstones look the same and only the name of the street tells him the driver has taken him where he asked to go. Taking a deep breath he pays the cabbie and lugs his only possessions out of the back of the cab. Not much will fit in a couple of old suitcases and one beat up trunk. But that’s OK. He didn’t want to bring much with him anyway. Nobody he wanted to be reminded of, that’s for sure.

Strangers don’t usually move into this neighborhood. Most are trying to get out. But there is something familiar about this stranger that the old man can’t quite put his finger on. That something is just enough to get him up off his stoop. As he walks toward the curb he leaves his shadow behind. A white space on the step where the grime hasn’t been allowed to accumulate. The girls stop their game and watch as he passes by.

“Need a hand?” he asks, extending his to the stranger. You can tell a lot about a man from his handshake. A good handshake is firm and solid; planted squarely and evenly palm to palm. Some, playing one-up, grab your fingers early, leaving no opportunity for you to meet them on even terrain. Others just squeeze too hard, as if they have something to prove. Still others just let their hand lie there like a dead fish. But this young man just stood there staring at the hand extended before him as if he had never seen one before in his life. Finally, he wiped his palm on his pants leg and reached out to accept the greeting. His large, meaty hand could have easily overpowered the old man’s grasp but, instead, it just hung there in the space between them. Not much shake to this handshake. It was almost like trying to shake hands with a statue.

“Need a hand?” asked the old man again.

“Oh. … Sure. Thanks.” He said blankly. Who was this old man? Why did he seem so eager to help?

“You movin’ in? Not many folks move in these days.”

“Uh, yeah. Guess so.”

The old man tucked one suitcase under his left arm and picked up the other with his right. “What floor you on? The elevator works but I don’t trust it. The damn thing creaks and groans so much it sounds like it’s gonna drop to the cellar any day now.”

Picking up his trunk as if it were a box of air, the powerful young man follows meekly up into the building; past the white shadow on the stoop and into the dark entryway. “Three, I think. … 308.”

As the old man placed the cases on the floor just outside the doorway he extended his hand again. “Franklin.” he said, giving his name. “And you?”

“Huh? … Oh. James. Call me James.” “Thanks for the help.”

“Well, I’ll leave you to get settled in.” Said the old man as he left. “Looks like you got a lot on your mind so I’ll just let you be.”

Not that there was a lot of settling to be done. The big man drug his belongings into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. The shadows crawled across the room and crept up the wall and still he sat there. What was he doing here? He had been looking for something familiar and yet it all seemed strange to him. Who was that old man? There was something about the look on his face as they shook hands that just didn’t sit right. What did he expect anyway?

From his perch on the stoop the old man watched as the young man left the building and made his way down the block every afternoon. Slow and painful. Almost as if he were walking to his execution. He never came back either. He just kept leaving. Every day, leaving. Every day another slow march. Another execution. One Saturday morning he finally came back.

“Where you go to every day?” asked the old man as the younger started working his way slowly up the steps of the stoop.

“Work. I work the night shift. I hate it. But a man’s gotta work.”

“What do you do?”

“I push a cart.”

“That’s it? You push a cart? Sounds like an easy job to me.”

Who was this old man? Was it because the young man was wanting something, anything to feel familiar or was it just that the old guy was always sitting there on that damn stoop watching. Every day, just watching him walk off to work. It was kind of creepy. “You try pushing a cart on a hard concrete floor for ten hours a night and see if it don’t get to you.”

“So why don’t you do something else?”

“ I don’t know. … Jobs are scarce now that everybody’s come back from the war. You don’t push your luck.”

“OK. Well sit a spell then. Rest your legs. It’s a nice morning. Enjoy the sunshine for a change.”

With a groan that reminded the old man of the elevator, the younger man eased himself down onto the stoop. “What was your name again?”

“Franklin.” said the old guy, reaching across to his left pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. “James, right?” he asked as he dug in his right pocket for his lighter. “Wanna smoke?”

“Yeah. Thanks again for helping me with my bags. No thanks, though. I don’t smoke.”

“Nasty habit. It’ll be the death of me. I guess you got your concrete floor for that.”

“Guess so.” It was almost as if he had accepted that sentence a long time ago and was simply waiting for it to be finally carried out.

They talked about the weather and they talked about the neighborhood. What used to be where and when it was replaced with what.

“You seem to know a lot about this neighborhood for a guy who just moved in.” observed Franklin.

“Yeah, I used to live here when I was a kid.”

“So that explains it then. I thought you looked familiar. I used to live here too, about thirty years ago. I moved back myself about ten years ago after my wife died.”

“I would of just been a kid back then.”, said James, “You must be thinking ‘bout sombody else.”

And a light went on in Franklin’s head. Why this young man looked so familiar yet not quite. “What’s your last name anyway?”

Washington. Why?”

“And your daddy’s name?”

“Samuel. He’s dead now. What you getting at?”

“Boy, I knew your father!”

“Don’t you be callin’ me ‘boy’, now. I don’t care who you are, nobody calls me ‘boy’.”

“Oh come on. I knew you when you were a boy. Your father and I were friends together in that building around the corner. When they called us into the war they put us in the same platoon. We fought the Germans together. That is till they caught us and put us in that god-forsaken camp. I’m just exactly old enough to be your father.”

“Well, you’re not. So don’t be callin’ me that.”

“OK, ok.” Franklin tries to settle James down a little. “You know I got some pictures of your daddy from the war, up in my room. We had some good times together. Wanna see ‘em?”

James hadn’t been told too very much about his father during the war. His mother didn’t seem to want to talk about it much. He didn’t know what to expect. So it was with more than a little trepidation that he agreed to go up to Franklin’s room.

After a little digging around, Franklin came out of the bedroom with some old photographs. “Here he is. See how much you look like him. Same big face. Same big hands.”

“My mother never told me…” said James, taking the photos, carefully.

“Your father was a good man.”, said Franklin. If it wasn’t for him I would have lost this hand completely.”, he said, holding out his left hand.

James hadn’t noticed before but the hand before him, while still there, was almost lifeless. As Franklin turned his wrist to expose his inner arm, James could see the scars where the shrapnel had torn through the muscles and severed the nerves.

“When the mortar went off it knocked me right out. If your father hadn’t carried me in when he did they said they would have had to cut this hand clean off. I told them I would rather have a hand I can’t use than have a stub for people to stare at. Had you fooled didn’t I?”

They got together on Saturday afternoons and Franklin told James about his father. All the fun things they did together when they were young. War stories. Even some stories about James himself when he was little. Everything except how Samuel died. James never asked and Franklin never brought it up. Between stories James would look at all the ship models crowding the shelves of Franklin’s apartment. “Just something to keep me busy.” Franklin had said. “Yeah, it takes me more time than others. But that’s the point anyway.” Some days they sat on the stoop together, and not just on Saturdays. James was starting to develop a shadow of his own there next to Franklin’s.

Another thing they never talked about was James himself and what he had done before the day he moved in. Franklin knew that men don’t move back home to neighborhoods like this unless they’ve got something they want to leave behind. He could still make out the dent in James’s left ring finger where a ring had been. You didn’t see that very often either. So one day, when he was feeling brave, Franklin had to ask, “So what happened to your wife?”

“Don’t got one.” James replied. What’s it his business anyway?

“Well, I can tell you don’t got one now. But you had one before and you don’t got one now, so somethin’ must of happened.”, said Franklin pointing to James’s finger.

“None of your business.”, pulling his hand away.

“Oh, come on, James. I can tell it’s been eatin’ at you. I see you rubbin’ that finger like it hurts sometimes.”

“It’s just that damned cart.”

“Yeah, right. The cart.”

“OK, so I was married before but she divorced me.”

“Must a been serious.”

“It was…” And James told the whole story about that day. He told Franklin about the racist supervisor at work and about the waitress who wouldn’t give him any coffee just because he was black. How his wife knew how he hated that word more than anything but she called him it anyway. He explained how his hands had been making fists all on their own and how he had tried to make them relax but just couldn’t any more. And how they just started hitting her and he couldn’t make them stop, like he was wrapped up in a winding sheet with no control over his hands or life or anything.

“Don’t give me this outta control crap. A man’s hands don’t control him; he controls his hands. You beat your wife cause you were mad at someone else. Don’t ask me to excuse it.”

“Oh shut up old man. You don’t know what it was like.”

“Don’t know what it was like? Don’t know what it was like! You the one who don’t know what it was like. Your problem is you ain't never fought in any real fight. You ain't never fought for anything that mattered. Just your own miserable pride."

“What do I care about some Jews in Germany for anyway? They never done nothin’ for me. Fighting in somebody else’s war is what got my father killed in the first place."

"Don’t you get it boy? Them Jews were ole Hitler's niggars. Just somebody to blame all their troubles on. We let them do that to the Jews, we might as well let them do it to us and our families!"

There were those words again. James couldn’t stand to hear either one of them. “I told you never to call me ‘boy’.” Was the only thing Franklin could make out as James left the room.

“Always leaving…” thought Franklin.

The next Saturday James didn’t come by to sit on the stoop, though his shadow was still there to keep Franklin company. How could a man give up so much control of his life that he thought he wasn’t responsible for what he had done with his own hands. Those hands that had never done much of anything but push a cart and clinch a fist. Maybe if those hands had been made to do something else, something more, then they wouldn’t have gotten minds of their own. “Idle hands …” he thought.

But those hands weren’t idle for long. Franklin had sat on the stoop later than usual that night. He was just getting ready to go in when he saw James coming up the sidewalk. He had been in a fight. Franklin could tell by the way he held his arms, slowly clenching and unclenching his fists. Testing them to check the damage. Reliving the pain as the cuts were stretched open again and again. “You been in a fight.”, and it wasn’t a question.

“What of it?”

“You were mad at me and you went off and picked a fight with somebody else.”

“I wasn’t mad at anybody till that bastard went and called me a nigger.”

“So you let him have it.” And that wasn’t a question either. “Son, you’re better than that. At least I had hoped you were by now.”

“You ain’t my father! Besides, it felt good giving that guy what he deserved. Smashing that smart-assed face right in.”

“Is that how it felt when you beat your wife?” And in less than two seconds James had the old man pinned to the wall with his already bloody fist drawn back, ready to deliver all his rage and frustration in one massive blow. “So, you gonna beat me too now?” asked Franklin with little more than idle curiosity. He had been through worse than this one man could do and survived. “It would be ironic wouldn’t it. You doin’ me the same way the Germans did your father.”

“What?” loosening his grip.

“That’s how he died you know. They beat him to death for no other reason than someone else had pissed them off. I had to sit there and watch. I was in the cell next to him and I couldn’t do a thing to stop them.”

The big man staggered backwards as he released Franklin.

“Don’t you see? What you’re doing makes you no better than the animals who killed your father.”

The fists went limp on their own for the first time in a long time.

This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

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