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Promise of the North

Ossie leaned down to take off his shoes. Except for her movements in the water, Corinna was silent. He started to undress, looked up and noticed the snow had stopped. He crossed the room, longingly glanced at her wet, naked back on the way by, and stood to look out the windows at what he could see in the light from the street lamps. Then, he had the presence of mind to pull down the shades.

They’d call the police, he thought, the people in those apartment buildings. They’d claim a big black Negro man was exposing himself. Their word against mine, and guess who they’d believe? God almighty, what am I doing here?

He heard Corrie toweling dry and wondered if she’d taken a nightgown in with her. Then, knowing he’d be sleeping away from her, he stripped down to his undershirt and shorts. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should join the Negro community. There’s strength in being part of something, Corrie.”

She came out of the bathroom in her pajamas and walked to sit on one of the beds to comb and brush her hair. Ossie felt his face, knew he needed a shave and a bath, but decided there wasn’t much point because they’d be sleeping apart. He stepped away from the windows and sat down on the other bed.

“Honey,” she said gently. “We’d only be segregating ourselves more by doing that. That’s not why we came here. I think it’s wrong.”

“But how far can two of us go alone?” Ossie replied glumly.

“Maybe a long way. I mean, I’m not saying it will be easy, but if we don’t try, we’ll never know. It may take a while, but we can wait, we have each other. And you know, if we keep at it and make some white friends, we’ll know we’ve earned them.”

“Listen, Corinna…” he said. Aware of her unease at his use of her full name, he paused to temper the anger in his voice as she put the brush down and moved to sit beside him. Then, more moderately, and with his eyes down, he said: “I’ve spent years trying to be friends with whites. And all it taught me was that I’ve got no use for them as friends. Hell, baby, when I was a little kid, I thought Mister Bob Junior was my friend. I even called him Bob. But the minute he was old enough, he was telling me to do this and do that, and that was the end of us being friends. There were other whites who could have been my friends in Washington, in the Army, too. But it didn’t happen, and I gave up ever thinking it would. So, don’t try to tell me we have a chance at it. I know for a fact we don’t.”

“Well, I think we do,” she argued. “This is different. We can do it here.”

“God, Corrie…”

“No, Oscar, listen. Up here it’s all about equality: equal work, equal housing, and equal opportunity. We can earn those things just like everybody else. White friends, too, or at least some respect.”

“Yeah? And what about the other Negroes up here? How do you think they’ll feel about our staying off by ourselves and trying to mix with whites?"

“I don’t care.”

“Well, I do.”

“I don’t. I don’t care what anyone thinks.”

“Like your Ma?”

“What does Ma have to do with it?”

“She took up with Lucas and now she’s got no friends, black or white. Ever ask her if she cares about that? Or do you think she’s happy with a TV for company?”

“That’s not fair, Oscar,” she said quietly. “Ma made her choice. I–“

“And my mother never had one,” Ossie interrupted. “She held it all in, all the indignity and abuse, the hate. It ate her up inside. She died from it. And that’s why I’m saying, you have to care, Corinna. It’s easy to say you don’t. You have to understand what it means.”

She touched his hands but got no response. “It’s late, honey,” she said. “Let’s save all this for morning when we’re rested, huh?”

“Take a simple thing like a haircut,” he said, going on as if he hadn’t heard. “Where do I get one? Where do I find a barber who’ll look down on my black head and cut my hair? God, I’ll have to walk in blind to some place and ask a white man who’s never had a Negro customer if he’ll cut my hair! See? That’s where the Negro community comes in. They’ll know where to send me.”

“Do you want to turn around and go back, Oscar?” Corinna asked. “Is that what you’re telling me? You miss living with hate and misery and fear in Washington? Is that it?”

“Sounds like here…” he muttered.

“Give it a chance, Oscar.”

“Aw, hell,” he said and sagged.

She sighed. She needed a way to relax him, but was eye-burning tired. “Honey, take a bath,” she suggested. “It’ll help you sleep.”

“I’m too tired to take a bath. I’m too tired to sleep.”

He was infecting her with his attitude. She closed her eyelids and rubbed them, slowly recovered and said: “Honey, listen a minute. Forget what I said about being friends with whites. I want to be happy with you, I know that. How much more do we need?”

Ossie turned his head to look in her dark eyes. “Look, Corrie, you have to understand. This isn’t about you; it’s just that it happened so fast. I still don’t think I’m ready, but now that we’re here, I guess I can get up the guts to give it a try.”

She kissed him, pulled away and smiled. “If a building is burning, honey, you jump out a window, right?”

“Sure. We’re in the net now.”

“So, we’re out of the burning building and now we have to work to get out of the net, that’s all.”

“I guess that means you wouldn’t go back to Washington, no matter what. I mean, even if I did.”

She didn’t hesitate. “After what happened, I couldn’t, Oscar. I’m a good secretary. I’d stay here and work.”

There was the threat. She’d go on alone. She didn’t love him enough to go back with him. Was it true? He feared it was; that when he was away from her, she had learned to get along by herself. So, maybe it wasn’t simply a black and white problem. Maybe it was a matter of winning her back, proving that he was a man. Christ, he thought, it all boils down to that. So, what did I do? I spent the whole day acting scared, like a dumb nigger without an ounce of sense, a witless black field-hand. I acted like old Uncle Tom himself, sitting on the levee with a line over for catfish. But damn, damn, damn, I still have to walk in a white world here, watch every step and hide what I’m thinking. Corrie’s too young and light-skinned to know how it feels. She just doesn’t know. God knows, I hope she never will.

“Well,” he said quietly, “I won’t leave you, that’s all.”

I expected you wouldn’t, Corinna thought. Sorry, Oscar, but you should know that I can’t go back to living in a ghetto, even if it means a separation. I won’t pretend that I could love you there. It would be all I could do to love myself. But here, or in another city like it, there’s a chance for happiness, I’m sure of it. It will be hard. We may get hurt. But together, we’re strong enough to bear the pain, forget it when it’s past, and build a better life.

“Let’s get some sleep,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”

“I know, baby,” he said.

“Good night, Oscar.”

“Yeah, good night, baby.”

Minutes passed. Worried, Corinna waited. He seemed angry, despondent; either dead tired or ready to explode. She wanted to sleep alone but couldn’t bring herself to say it on a night when it was the worst thing for him. She strained for the right words, thought about crying, maybe kissing him, anything to put a peaceful end to the long day. I’m hurting her, thought Ossie. Why can’t I think of something to say?

He wet his lips with his pink tongue. He stared at his hands and, feeling his eyes burn, he imagined the hateful sight of the chalk-colored whites streaked with tiny red lines. He lowered his eyelids and thought of her, their differences, painful things: beauty and ugliness, courage and fear, hope and despair, love and loneliness, rebirth and death.

“What’s wrong, Oscar?” Corinna whispered. “You look so worried.”

“God, Corrie, I don’t know,” he moaned. “Did you ever see such a grownup baby?”

“Stop it, Oscar,” she scolded gently. “You’re a kind, gentle man with deep feelings. That’s why I love you. The fact that you need me makes me love you even more. And I’m here, honey. I’ll do anything you want.”

Close to tears, Ossie shook his head. He needed to run but couldn’t ask her to run with him. “Anything” didn’t include going back. “I’m a kid,” he said, “a thirty-three year old kid. Right now, I’m looking through a dark tunnel, damned scared of what I see ahead -- holes to fall into, hiding places for God knows what - and imagining the rest. That’s what it will be like; creeping through a dark, scary tunnel, not knowing what or when, but sure as hell something’s going to jump out at us. At least it’s honest in Washington.”

“Yeah!” Corinna spat. “I know how honest it is there!”