Jef­fery Re­nard Allen

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He is Tom at the same time that he is too pre­pos­ter­ous to be Tom. (Root dis­tinc­tion, dif­fer­ence: Ju­lus­ter is a rare one, but he be­longs. Tom never be­longed. Tom never could be­long. A chal­lenge— what blind per­son isn’t?— Ju­lus­ter is both co­op­er­a­tive and in­de­pen­dent in ways that Tom never was, never could be.) He looks some­what like Tom. A pure and sim­ple brute, this ne­gro with a nar­row and sloped fore­head, who bears in the mid­dle sec­tion of his brain the signs of cer­tain grossly pow­er­ful en­er­gies. The think­ing fac­ul­ties are poor or even null; there­fore, he is pos­sessed by his de­sire and also by his will, of an of­ten ter­ri­ble in­ten­sity. And phys­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween Tom and his dou­ble can be put off to ag­ing— who will re­mem­ber any­way? The public has not seen Tom for more than five years— although Ju­lus­ter is Tom’s se­nior by a decade, hav­ing al­ready reached thirty years of age. No. Even that is a lie. On his last birth­day he achieved his Je­sus year. But he still be­lieves in his youth­ful­ness. More im­por­tantly, he be­lieves in the role that Seven has given him to play— game for the game— a role Seven men­tally scripts mo­ment by mo­ment from mem­ory— Lait— selling the shadow to sup­port the sub­stance. Since Ju­lus­ter is game for the game teach him his name. The body is a habit he can break. Even now his flesh quiv­ers, ev­ery inch of it, the skin com­ing un­hinged. He seems to be drift­ing out of him­self, be­com­ing other, be­com­ing Blind Tom.

The Orig­i­nal Blind Tom. Seven says the name (ti­tle) in a voice that doesn’t sound like his own but rather like the voice of a ma­gi­cian, a sorcerer. ( Re­peated prac­tice will cause the name to come nat­u­rally. So he must re­main aware of his tongue. Cor­rect it when it errs, when he says or thinks “Ju­lus­ter” in­stead of Tom. So, around the clock, prac­tice say­ing it. Tom. The Orig­i­nal Blind Tom. Tom. The Orig­i­nal Blind Tom. Un­til it be­comes sec­ond na­ture.) The Orig­i­nal Blind Tom. In the sounds of the name he thinks he hears a way for re­turn­ing Tom back to the world, back to him­self. Each word a twin of it­self, telling two sto­ries at the same time, his and Tom’s. I have be­come a name.

The room jig­gles. A dozen scenes flash be­fore him so quickly that he can­not re­mem­ber any­thing dis­tinc­tive about any of them. When does twelve years be­come now? He has the in­ti­mate past to think back to, his and Tom’s and Perry Oliver’s. A way of look­ing through him­self. A past mea­sured in the num­ber of seats filled and the num­ber of tick­ets sold. ( Record­set­ting. Un­matched as far as he knows.) Tom set him at an an­gle to the world. So as a way of re­gain­ing Tom he tries to think Perry Oliver’s thoughts, but he can’t get past the many facts of his present life that crowd out ev­ery­thing else. Stuck in the present even as his thoughts run back­ward. He gave his youth to Tom just as Tom gave his youth to Perry Oliver just as Seven ex­pects Ju­lus­ter and Vi­talis to give their youth to him. Not quite boys, not quite men. ( The flickering back and forth.) It’s not just what Seven did but what Seven did not do that haunts him. ( Ju­lus­ter slips back into his skin.) Tom an ex­ten­sion of Perry Oliver in a way Seven could not be. (Cran­ing his neck, he hears some­thing—Vi­talis back from his er­rands or what­ever the hell he has been up to?— and stum­bles off to in­ves­ti­gate.) Is that why he is here in the city, wait­ing to pick up where he left off? Is it be­cause his mind has set wax- like around the first ex­am­ples of in­dus­try and com­pan­ion­ship that he ac­cepted? Is this all a func­tion of his wait­ing for that past to be res­ur­rected, for Tom to come alive again? Count­ing days. Chas­ing the specter of his own sig­nif­i­cance. Funny al­most, the way Tom flies back into Seven’s mind and stays for as long as he wants. Blind Tom liv­ing in his blood. Em­bed­ded in his cells. You did not choose me, Tom said. It was I who chose you.

Seven had ex­pected the reg­is­tra­tion of­fice to be lo­cated in some grand mu­nic­i­pal build­ing manned by a buzzing hive of clerks. In­stead he finds a shabby lit­tle af­fair, a sin­gle-level frame house in se­ri­ous need of up­keep, set right where the road ends amid a weeded- over gar­den in what used to be the nig­ger part of town. The door is open, so he makes a point of en­ter­ing first, his nig­gers be­hind him, the driver who likes to change his name ev­ery day— be­fore they started out this morn­ing he chris­tened him­self Pres­i­dent Washington— fol­lowed by Ju­lus­ter and Vi­talis, the driver the old­est of the four, some­where be­tween mid­dle age (vis­i­ble un­der his broad-brimmed shadow-form­ing hat a patch of gray hair at each tem­ple), and them not old, not young. The fur­ther they go, the brighter it is, the more they can see the in­te­rior of the house a cave full of light, il­lu­mi­na­tion spilling out. A canon shell or some other de­vice of de­struc­tion had taken out an en­tire sec­tion of the house, leav­ing noth­ing be­hind but ex­posed beams and planks. Other signs of may­hem too: craters in the ceil­ing, walls bare and dis­col­ored in places where for­merly a paint­ing might have hung, and other walls stip­pled with pro­jec­tile holes shaped like a cat’s paw, a cat that can walk side­ways across walls. ( He has heard about the city’s for­mer trou­bles, about how all the nig­gers were ei­ther strung up and set ablaze or chased out dur­ing con­scrip­tion.) In a con­fu­sion of set­ting, each room they en­ter car­ries the pine smell of tur­pen­tine, ev­i­dence of re­cent clean­ing. Touch move. I didn’t touch it. I only reached. The hell you did. You touched the rook. Now move it.

Wait. I didn’t even reach. I only raised my hand.

The hell. You cheat­ing bas­tard. Move the rook.

I use to have bet­ter con­fi­dence in your eye­sight. I can see. You don’t think I can see? The voices pull him to their source, two men hunched over a crude chess­board po­si­tioned be­tween them, men who are not much older than him­self but who have known war first­hand it would seem, as ev­i­denced by the blue uni­forms they wear. Then again per­haps the uni­forms are cast offs, in this time of short­ages— each day the news­pa­pers’ skinny col­umns worded with such claims— the city us­ing what­ever is at hand to clothe its of­fi­cials. Af­ter all, the war has been done for al­most three years now.

One guard (the black pieces) looks up from the board— why has it taken him so long to register Seven’s pres­ence?— giv­ing Seven his coun­te­nance in full— his face looks al­most flat, like a leaf— and finds Seven with his hard and shiny acorn-small eyes. Some­thing al­ters in the air, but Seven af­fects to be com­pletely un­sur­prised.

You have some busi­ness here? Those three can wait out­side.

I am here on their be­half, Seven says. He hears his own voice beat back at him, bounc­ing off the ceil­ing and walls.

Reg­is­tra­tion? Yes. The soldier in­di­cates with out­stretched hand that Seven should take a seat, so Seven cramps down into the sin­gle chair placed be­fore the long heavy ta­ble.

The other guard (the white pieces) con­tin­ues to study the chess­board, while his co­hort (the black pieces), not rude, not po­lite, just sits there look­ing at Seven. Seven tries to re­lax in his pres­ence. Sits very straight, shoul­ders squared and hands in his lap. Then he re­mem­bers. Says, I have some doc­u­ments here— his hands are mov­ing, search­ing through his many pock­ets. Hands that find, pro­duce, and present a bun­dle of doc­u­ments, with the Freedman’s Bureau in­signia stamped in the wax seal that se­cures the fold in place. The guard takes the bun­dle, scrapes away the wax seal with his fin­ger­tips, un­folds the bun­dle and holds the stack of doc­u­ments out at arms length as if he is about to pro­nounce some de­cree. His head cants for­ward, eyes rac­ing across pa­per— one, two, three— from top to bot­tom then he swivels his eye­balls— one, two, three— at each nig­ger in turn. Names?

Seven pro­nounces the name of each nig­ger, hear­ing him­self slip into in­co­her­ence. The soldier re­peats each name, drawl­ing out the words in shame­less con­fronta­tional mock­ery, as if the English lan­guage Seven speaks is a for­eign tongue to Seven. Seven takes the in­sult as just that, be­cause he knows that years of Perry Oliver’s lessons in enun­ci­a­tion— he never spoke like a South­erner and ex­pected the same of Seven— and years of trav­el­ing the known world with The Blind Tom Ex­hi­bi­tion had per­ma­nently re­tooled his tongue, lathed and shaved the South out.

Lis­ten to him the other guard says. He does not lift his gaze from the chess­board. He sounds just like one of them con­tra­band.

Haven’t you no­ticed? He even smells like one of them.

Seven feels a length of wind pen­e­trate the crown of his head di­rectly from above, feels it be­gin to draw down through him in a straight line— his skull, neck, tho­rax— mak­ing a place in­side, like a hook pushed through a worm. He had ex­pected to en­counter an­tag­o­nism, even af­front, small prac­ti­cal con­ces­sions, but sit­ting there, his race ques­tioned, his man­hood chal­lenged, he un­der­goes a cu­ri­ous process of in­val­i­da­tion. He feels ret­i­cent, al­most timid.

The soldier re­folds the doc­u­ments then holds the bun­dle be­fore the slot of a four- foot high, six-foot square ma­hogany box, where it quickly dis­ap­pears— swoosh— sucked in­side like a thing preyed upon. Pulls a pen out from its foun­tain and holds it at the end fur­thest away from the sty­lus like a walk­ing stick, an ob­ject for­eign in his hands. They got to sign right here and right here. He points to the places on the pass­book where the first nig­ger must sub­scribe his name. Vi­talis steps for­ward and does just that then is­sues Ju­lus­ter a call. Ju­lus­ter gropes his way for­ward and Vi­talis moves his hand in place over the pass­book. He sub­scribes his new name— Thomas Greene Wiggins— his hand wan­der­ing like a sleep­walker across the book. Now it is the driver’s turn.

I don’t know no letters, the driver Lin­coln says.

So Seven signs for him: James Bethune. Selling the shadow to sup­port the sub­stance.

The soldier starts to read the many pages of the city or­di­nance gov­ern­ing the use of the pass­book— that the user must carry the pass­book on his or her per­son at all times and present it upon re­quest, that the pass­book is not trans­fer­able to any other in­di­vid­ual, that the city re­serves the right to re­voke the pass­book should the user com­mit a crim­i­nal of­fense, that— Seven fas­tens on the one word that flies his thoughts to Tom. ( The fresh­ness of the time that was ours to live.)

Have you com­mit­ted to an un­der­stand­ing of the par­tic­u­lars of this statute?

The driver, Ju­lus­ter, and Vi­talis main­tain a dumb­founded si­lence. Un­der­stand­ing thus, Seven an­swers for them. The guard in­structs them to place left hand over heart and raise their right hand. They do and he duly swears them in. Swear­ing done he stamps each leather­bound pass­book, piles them onto the ta­ble like a deck of cards, and turns back to his game.

And that’s all there is to it, although Seven still sits with ex­pec­ta­tions of some of­fi­cial clos­ing to the in­ter­view. Clo­sure­less, he col­lects the pass­books and gets up from his chair to quit the of­fice, leav­ing the colos­sal ta­ble to con­tinue about its busi­ness.

The meet­ing has honed and sharp­ened Seven’s senses. In the months ( years?) that he has lived (stayed) in the city he has come to know it in a way we can know few places— eyes opened, ready to be­lieve any­thing— but the sol­diers have shown him some­thing he didn’t know about how the city feels about nig­gers. But he can’t de­cide one way or the other what he feels about the peo­ple of this city. As long as no one gets in his way, as long as he can keep on keep­ing on with his busi­ness, build­ing Tom, bring­ing Tom.

Be­fore Seven can reach the door, the driver sw­erves into the lead, putting it upon him­self to be the first to reach their car­riage, his busi­ness. For the first time Seven no­tices that the driver has a pe­cu­liar walk, step­ping softly and del­i­cately; look­ing at his feet, his hands, and the bend of his head, one might imag­ine that he was learn­ing to dance the first fig­ure of a quadrille. Arms and legs not quite work­ing the way they should. He seems to be stum­bling about in the way of the dead, but here is a man who doesn’t seem ca­pa­ble of fall­ing, of let­ting ground smack him in the face. The phys­i­cal laws that gov­ern the uni­verse don’t ap­ply to him. He is keep­ing the planet in or­bit. He can keep the sky up as easily as he can keep his broad-brimmed hat bal­anced on his head.

The road rises to meet them. The driver kisses the horse’s name flu­ently above the sound of the mov­ing wheels as if speak­ing some pre-Ba­bel tongue un­known to man. Seven lacks suf­fi­cient range of sight to take in the whole of Cen­tral Park. The park is so much, too much, for all of its durable beauty. The land­scape changes with each in­take of breath, the blind air com­ing into his chest ex­pelled out into the light, re­veal­ing all there is to see. Trees hud­dling, lis­ten­ing to their own leaves. Leaves sparkling with in­sects, branches glow­ing gray with squir­rels. A black snake de­scend­ing slow as mo­lasses down the trunk of a tree. Not that the driver is mov­ing much faster. Keeps them at a steady pace, nei­ther stroll nor trot. Noth­ing is hur­ry­ing him (them), just a vague threat that Seven feels hang­ing over him (them). Then a strange tree pops into view a num­ber of yards ahead, the trunk ris­ing smoothly for fifty feet or more above ground, far higher than any other in the park, be­fore ex­plod­ing out­wards in thick fo­liage- cov­ered branches, a green cloud ( leaves). The trunk as wide as a house. The tree van­ishes when they turn a bend in the road but reap­pears af­ter a sec­ond bend. Stands flickering, draw­ing him for­ward un­til he finds him­self par­al­lel to the trunk and be­neath that green cloud that seems to prom­ise ac­cess to heaven. A brown shape pokes through the branches thirty feet above. Takes Seven a minute to re­al­ize that it is a hu­man face, viewed as clearly as any­thing, a nig­ger face, a

man, peer­ing over the side of a colos­sal nest, a nest which is as wide and deep as a bath­tub. Another brown face ap­pears. And another. And still another. An en­tire fam­ily packed into the nest. Putting their heads around and be­tween branches and twigs, their faces burst­ing with ex­pres­sions. By what means did they come to perch in the tallest tree in the park and make it their home? Lifted up by some great black bird per­haps.

He knows that there are camps all around them— nig­gers dis­en­fran­chised, des­ti­tute, des­per­ate, dan­ger­ous— but when he speaks to the driver or Ju­lus­ter or Vi­talis he tries keep the panic out of his voice. The re­ports he’s heard about the camps— cal­cu­lated acts of rob­bery and mur­der, re­venge en­acted on any­body with a white face— have widened his sense of peril, of what can hap­pen (to him). Hu­man na­ture does not de­lib­er­ately choose blood, at least not ne­gro hu­man na­ture. But the war has driven some of these nig­gers crazy. The fear of be­ing chanced upon, found out. (Sec­ond thoughts. Hes­i­ta­tion.) They will just have to play it by ear, come what may, not that he thinks him­self par­tic­u­larly brave. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suf­fer. ( The driver’s rif le po­si­tioned hor­i­zon­tally across his lap, cross- beam, cross.) Surely any­one who has been in a po­si­tion to achieve some­thing large would do the same. In­deed, he is afraid, but the vi­o­lence, the hurt he knows ex­ists but doesn’t see, can’t keep him away.

They es­cape the park’s green trap un­mo­lested. Up ahead a pale rec­tan­gle, the il­lu­mi­nated trough of the hori­zon, pour­ing bright ocean out. He is thrown into as­ton­ish­ment. It makes a per­son hun­gry to travel in this light.

Deeds in hand, the nig­gers who had been run out of the city years ago dur­ing the con­scrip­tion ri­ots are call­ing for the right to re­turn. They want their houses back and prop­erty left be­hind re­stored, the houses burned down re­built.

Are you not ask­ing the same? The right of re­turn. Give Tom back to me. Give Tom back to the nig­gers and the world, not that Tom ever thought of him­self as a nig­ger in his own sight­less eyes. Tom be­lieved— you are still un­sure, I am still un­sure— ei­ther that he wasn’t a nig­ger, or be­lieved that he was more than nig­ger or more nig­ger than nig­ger. Even a white man per­haps.

Rag work­ing, the boot­black looks up from the leather shoes un­der his care, left foot then right, lean­ing in then back­ing away cau­tiously from these in­stru­ments of walk­ing as if they are preda­tory things. Now he snaps his rag in the air like a dan­ger­ous weapon, sig­nal­ing for his next cus­tomer.

But Tom won’t budge. He stays where he is. Says, Tom won’t have his boots blacked by no nig­ger.

Vi­talis watches Tom mov­ing in and out of a dream. The old folks at Plenty Plan­ta­tion used to warn, never wake a dream­ing per­son, although they never said why. ( What they didn’t tell.) So he doesn’t. Sim­ply re­mains in place, con­tin­ues to stand there, the bed­room door at his back, wait­ing and watch­ing—the blind eye­balls ro­tat­ing un­der the closed lids, the mouth twitch­ing out silent words in a sound­less con­ver­sa­tion and won­der­ing— is Tom blind in his dreams, only hear­ing smelling touch­ing and tast­ing the world or does he gain the power of sight?— un­til he ob­serves the eye­balls and lips cease to move, a sign that the dream is done.

Act. Vi­talis opens draw­ers, clears his throat, whis­pers, hums a lit­tle tune, but the nig­ger just won’t wake up. What now? He doesn’t know what to do. It might be a trick. The minute he leaves the room Tom will come stum­bling out, say­ing, How come you didn’t wake me? You let me over­sleep. Guess he’ll just have to wait. So he leans against the bed­room door, re­luc­tant to leave un­til Tom is awake. What else can he do? ( His la­bor shapes him.) He un­der­stands his du­ties. ( Work is one thing a nig­ger knows.) He does not strive to en­ter a part, to play a role, but to es­cape it, to be­come some­one else— Who was my mother? Who was my fa­ther? Take me to her. Take me to him— Vi­talis, the nav­i­ga­tor to Mr. Blind Tom, the most fa­mous nig­ger in the world. Can’t do much bet­ter than that. The one thing you can count on each day is that Mr. Seven will start gum­ming on about Blind Tom, as if Tom ain’t right there in front of him lis­ten­ing. Blind Tom is the most fa­mous nig­ger in the world, the most fa­mous nig­ger that ever lived, more fa­mous than all the kings, queens, and pres­i­dents liv­ing and dead, and all those counts and dukes, al­most as fa­mous as Je­sus.

Mr. Seven stops just long enough— each shoe has two but­tons at the an­kles that make them look like two side- eyed fish, f lounder and such— to give him a ques­tion­ing glance that mar­rows ev­ery inch of his body with think­ing, brains in his eyes, throat, chest, stom­ach, hands, balls, knees, feet.

Suh, I tried to awake him. I re­ally did. But he jus wouldn wake up. The words are tight, just like his lips.

Mr. Seven doesn’t even bother to an­swer— talk is cheap— just walks past him right into the bed­room and two long steps later shakes Tom awake. Sleep on your time, he says. You on my time now. And he walks right out.

Tom— some black- headed an­i­mal un­der white sheets—yawns and stretches and grunts and farts. You made me over­sleep. Vi­talis squirms against the ac­cu­sa­tion. Tom pulls his up­per body for­ward off the mat­tress, and stays that way for a time, sit­ting up in bed— no more re­clin­ing nig­ger, no more sleep­ing nig­ger— stew­ing (marinating) in his own salty sweat, with the wide bed­sheet pulled all the way up to his chin, the sheet hang­ing like wet laun­dry from his broad shoul­ders, mak­ing his face seem quite in­de­pen­dent of the body it is at­tached to. Gi­ant in­sect shad­ows swoop along the walls and ceil­ing but the blind nig­ger can’t see shit. Can’t see his own shit, the cake-like color and con­sis­tency of his stool. ( He need to wipe his ass and put some wa­ter on it.) This nig­ger’s eyes ain’t noth­ing like the other blind peo­ple he re­calls see­ing in his life. His eyes al­ways some­where else, two places at once, left eye cocked in one di­rec­tion (west), while the right eye is cocked in another di­rec­tion (north).

He’s a big nig­ger, tall and wide, but he looks smaller and thin­ner in bed. Still, his sheet-hid­den body is all tensed up, his

Seven lacks suf­fi­cient range of sight to take in the whole of Cen­tral Park. The park is so much, too much, for all of its durable beauty. The land­scape changes with each in­take of breath, the blind air com­ing into his chest ex­pelled out into the light, re­veal­ing all there is to see.

shoul­ders raised rather than re­laxed— ain’t sleep sposed to unknot you?— mak­ing him look less like some­body propped up in his own bed and more like a man sit­ting in a sad­dle ready to gal­lop off. Break­fast ready? Been ready. Tom points his puffy cat­fish face at him. You coun­try nig­ger, you tryin to smart mouth me? No, suh. I ain’t think so. You bet­ter watch how you talk to me. I ain’t gon warn you but this once. Suh, I ain’t— Now bring me my face. And put some speed into it.

Vi­talis hur­ries over to the dresser and takes a black leather fold out of the top drawer, fits it over Tom’s crazy ev­ery­which-way eyes. Only he, Tom, and Mr. Seven know the man un­der­neath the mask.

In a mo­ment that seems slow and re­hearsed, Ju­lus­ter lets his plate of eggs slip off the edge of the ta­ble and fall shat­ter­ing to the floor. He starts right in on his com­pan­ion plate of steak and fried pota­toes. To his credit Vi­talis re­mains calm, although he will not only have to clean up the mess but cook Ju­lus­ter a new batch of eggs, greasy with but­ter, yolk side up. Seven can in­ter­vene but chooses not to, sim­ply con­tin­ues to sit pre­tend­ing to read his news­pa­per (trou­bles in Cuba) from the ad­join­ing room while the smell of meat and milk floats nose high in the cool­ing air. Seated alone at the far end of the ta­ble the driver watches too, stealthy and sly, a tourist gaz­ing out with the at­ti­tude of one who has seen it all be­fore and isn’t much im­pressed with the sight. (All things weigh the same.) Ju­lus­ter re­leases an un­re­strained burp— it is within his right— let­ting the world know that stom­ach has found fit­ting what hands pre­pared. Vi­talis cleans up the mess, tow­els the floor dry, rinses out a skil­let, and starts fry­ing eggs. Serves Ju­lus­ter his eggs and another steak then takes a seat at the ta­ble with his own plate, but he does not start eat­ing. In­stead he sits in anx­ious an­tic­i­pa­tion— this ex­citable boy who Seven has ob­served twitch­ing in his sleep— rub­bing his hands to­gether like a fly, and gaz­ing thought­fully at Ju­lus­ter. The same fresh­ness of ea­ger sac­ri­fice he emits ev­ery day, in the kitchen clat­ter­ing pots, pans, and lids and un­set­tling the morn­ing hour. Noth­ing is too much for Vi­talis when it comes to Ju­lus­ter, this man who he be­lieves is Tom. He even thinks he can carry Ju­lus­ter on his thin but able shoul­ders. ( This odd-look­ing boy, long, curled, and ema­ci­ated in places where he shouldn’t be, like a sea­horse.) And when he is not tend­ing to Ju­lus­ter ( Tom), he has the habit of walk­ing be­hind Seven, main­tain­ing a re­spect­ful dis­tance un­til Seven needs him to spring for­ward and me­chanic some prob­lem, a blur of in­tent like a speed­ing fish. Vi­talis re­peats ev­ery word Seven speaks— al­ways with an edge of worry, un­cer­tainty, in his voice— this par­rot­ing speech, Seven as­sumes, his way of let­ting Seven know that he has heard Seven and will fol­low Seven’s in­struc­tions (or­ders) to the let­ter.

When Seven chanced upon Vi­talis those many months ago in the streets of Black Town, he rec­og­nized at once the im­mense po­ten­tial of this hun­gry and pen­ni­less or­phan, one of the many who sat in a lop­sided cir­cle around a lamp post or tele­graph pole, speak­ing to one another in rushed city voices al­most in­co­her­ent with ex­cite­ment. They would speak out fast as Seven passed them, and when Seven said no, each would give Seven the same dark mean- eyed look. Seven knew that they would cut him open and eat him if they could, if given an open­ing. An­i­mal mur­der. These were the ones who had ei­ther left or been ex­pelled from the newly con­structed five- story yel­low brick Home for African Or­phans only a short dis­tance away from where the old build­ing had once stood. (Creepy the way that the burned rem­nants bow, like some­one tilted for­ward in sleep soon to awaken.) What was it that set Vi­talis apart from the many seen, the many en­coun­tered? Some ges­ture of head or hand? Some flicker of face or the way he caught Seven’s glance? Or his piti­ful cour­tesy per­haps? And how was it that the he and Seven struck up a con­ver­sa­tion? More in­ter­view re­ally than con­ver­sa­tion, in­ter­ro­ga­tion, although if Vi­talis found Seven’s ap­proach off-putting he gave no sign. How come you left the Home? Cause all that schoolin too hard on a nig­ger. You would rather be shift­less? No, suh. My head set on a pro­fes­sion. What can you do? Any­thing you want, suh, he said, his face young and smooth and fresh-look­ing.

How odd that this man- boy should think of Seven as fam­ily. On the other hand, per­haps not so strange at all. They were coun­try­men af­ter all, united in de­feat, that war lost. That’s when it dawned on Seven like some slow sub­stance bleed­ing through cloth: this man­boy was new even to him­self.

What was your name be­fore, when you were a slave? Name. Name? Name. Then you changed it? I changed it. So what is it now? Free Pa­pers. Free Pa­pers? Free Pa­pers. You can’t go around call­ing your­self that. Mr. Pa­pers then. What was the name your first master gave you? Vi­talis. Vi­talis? Vi­talis. Okay. So you are Vi­talis again. Vi­talis’ fea­tures are chang­ing. His re­flec­tion in the win­dow looks like some­one else, darker, shorter, smaller, ev­ery­thing tak­ing on (re­quir­ing) dif­fer­ent di­men­sions. The air is cool and wet and has a faintly fishy smell, air that has its own city scent and its own city taste. He strains to hear any sounds out in the street where all of the finely dressed woo­gies move slowly as if they are sleep­walk­ing, but only the sound of Tom’s breath­ing stands out clearly above the slight traf­fic, the car­riages and horse- drawn street cars. The street and ev­ery­thing around it seems sealed in a pocket of si­lence, each house stand­ing high and alone in an un­set­tling way on this street dot­ted with tele­graph poles and lamp posts; Black Town a place where sound doesn’t be­long on an af­ter­noon laced with light, sun that comes unim­peded into the room, a pal­pa­ble shim­mer­ing that seems to vi­brate against the win­dows. Strange how this house takes light in. Shad­ows cre­at­ing black an­gles where none should be. Vague sketches that sud­denly ap­pear on the walls. Be­hind him he hears Tom heave him­self into song:

In the morn­ing when I rise Tell my Je­sus, Huddy oh

Tom’s voice is half-moan, half- de­light. Vi­talis thinks about that one blind nig­ger back at the Home for African Or­phans

who ev­ery­body claimed was Blind Tom. That was noth­ing but a mouth­ful of lie. (Any­time they said some­thing, it was likely some­thing you couldn’t be­lieve. Never trust a nig­ger.) Cause all that fat blind stupid nig­ger did ev­ery day was sit up at that pi­ano all hun­gry lookin wit his mouth movin from side to side like he wanted to eat that damn pi­ano. Any­body wit eyes could see he wasn no Blind Tom. But he had ev­ery­body at the Home fooled.

My sis­ter Mary’s boun to go My sis­ter Nanny’s boun to go My brud­der Tony’s boun to go And my brud­der July’s boun to go Ev­ery­body’s boun to go

He has that blind hun­gry nig­ger to thank for his leav­ing the Home be­cause if it wasn’t for him he would never have had to fight another lit­tle shit- talk­ing nig­ger with fat sad­dle­bag cheeks who liked to cut peo­ple. He re­mem­bers how the ar­gu­ment took shape. Call me a lie again. Nig­ger, you bet­ter get out of my face. Make me. Vi­talis shoved the lit­tle nig­ger off of him, and the nig­ger’s eyes turned piglike and wicked. But be­fore the nig­ger could reach into his pocket for his shank, Vi­talis kicked him in the balls. He heard air es­cape from some­where in­side his would- be at­tacker, and the lit­tle nig­ger went down.

At that mo­ment two ma­trons squeezed in­side the room, at­tracted by the smell of fresh pain. One came as close as she could and gazed at him— he ex­pected her to slap him; she didn’t— while the other at­tended to the ball- bro­ken boy. She unbuttoned his pants and took his penis into the flat of her palm. Now her other hand started to run slowly across the sur­face of the penis in slow even strokes. She shut her eyes and moaned a prayer.

Her prayer did not en­com­pass him. He knew he had to leave the Home. Knew that the nig­ger he had kicked in the balls would seek re­venge sooner or later. So that night af­ter the lights went out, he booked up out of there.

He has that fake Blind Tom to thank for that. If not for that fake Tom, he might still be at the Home.

Ju­lus­ter’s hard an­gry teeth pen­e­trate through meat, crunch bone, his strong puck­ered lips suck­ing the mar­row clean out of each— that which makes the body makes the self— ev­ery mouth­ful he eats dis­played on his tongue as if to mock Vi­talis’s stiff­en­ing face. Each day this same solem­nity, Ju­lus­ter de­ter­mined to give Vi­talis a good sam­pling of the world’s griefs— Ju­lus­ter sens­ing a weak­ness in Vi­talis— is it the man- boy’s voice that be­trays him?— and go­ing af­ter it. ( For his part, how mea­gerly the driver opens his heart to the man-boy, to any­one, in­clud­ing Seven. De­lib­er­ate. Dry. Dis­tant. He does not speak a word un­less he has to. So feed him. Clothe him. Make sure that his feet are shod com­fort­ably. Pay him and ex­pect noth­ing more.) What com­pels this be­hav­ior is un­clear. Seven puts it down to his in­abil­ity to for­get his history. Five years ago, a gang of roustabouts had cor­nered him in an al­ley and clubbed him about the head— another scrap­ple in the Ap­ple— de­priv­ing him of both his purse and his vi­sion. Surely the loss has left him bit­ter— no other way to say it— in a way that Tom, hav­ing never seen the world, could never be— yet another dif­fer­ence in­deed be­tween the orig­i­nal and his im­poster— his or­gans of sight any­thing but glad­some, as mem­ory— col­ors, shapes, tex­tures— re­main ( ghosts), the un­seen present con­stantly screened through the pic­ture-re­mem­bered past, since the vi­o­lence in no way put to an end that process of sighted re­call which is so fun­da­men­tal to our abil­ity to mea­sure and rea­son, to weigh and judge from one mo­ment to the next. A bit­ter­ness brought on by un­cer­tainty over whether or not Ju­lus­ter will see the world again. The many med­i­cal ex­perts who have ex­am­ined him think it pos­si­ble even if their opin­ions dif­fer as to the like­li­hood of re­cov­ery (restora­tion). (And to think that the nig­ger sur­geon at Black Town Gen­eral had wanted to fol­low the com­mon prac­tice there for such in­jury and re­move the orbs and re­place them with mar­bles to keep the or­gan-less sock­ets round and nat­u­ral look­ing.) The not know­ing ag­gra­vates him, stirs up that wounded an­i­mal in­side. So ag­i­tated, is it his in­ten­tion to prey upon any vul­ner­a­ble soul who crosses his path or does he be­lieve he is ac­tu­ally do­ing Vi­talis a ser­vice by at­tack­ing him? His de­sire to claw out ev­ery weak­ness and thus make Vi­talis all the bet­ter (stronger) for it?

Seven hears the sound of Ju­lus­ter’s night clothes fall­ing to the floor. Re­leased, his scent pulses out from the bath­room. ( Ev­ery door holds a story.) Hears Vi­talis set into the sounds of soap­ing and scrub­bing. Not long af­ter, he sees Vi­talis bend down to shove Ju­lus­ter’s thick feet—Tom never had feet like that— into wide shoes, Ju­lus­ter lean­ing against Vi­talis to steady his bal­ance, the two of them braced against each other in sway and coun­ter­sway. ( Watch­ing them strug­gle, some feel­ing fills him, al­most as if he ex­pects it all to take shape be­fore him again— Seven, Tom, and Perry Oliver.) And thus shod and ready to step into the world he in­sists on his in­de­pen­dence.

You coun­try-ass nig­ger. Did I ask you to open that door for me?

Vi­talis turns to the driver as if for sup­port.

What you lookin at him fo? I’m the one doin the askin.

How you know I’m lookin at him? Un­ex­pected speech be­neath his puz­zled eye­brows. Ju­lus­ter has shaken the ques­tion out of him. He can­not hold his tongue. You blind. Blind ain’t stupid. Out in the world Ju­lus­ter seems to be­come even larger— is it the sun­light that brings the quick growth? the air?— his en­tire body ( head, torso, arms, legs, hands) crav­ing the lux­ury of space, Vi­talis stag­ger­ing and stum­bling un­der Ju­lus­ter’s weight in his valiant ef­fort to lead Ju­lus­ter along the tram­pled edges of the street.

Nig­ger, can’t you see? Ju­lus­ter’s ques­tion rises above the early morn­ing sound of wheels creak­ing for­ward and the re­ver­ber­at­ing tones of hooves com­ing down on pave­ment.

The street is broke, Vi­talis says. Sun­lit, his hair spreads out in fiery points. Nawl. You is what’s broke. Vi­talis works to as­sist Ju­lus­ter with an in­di­vis­i­ble at­ten­tion, Seven trail­ing not far be­hind them, with Ju­lus­ter’s pi­ano-forte mounted high above them on the cov­er­less car­riage, the in­stru­ment shin­ing like a bur­nished throne un­der the driver’s slow big-hat­ted com­mand, his ri­fle (oiled and loaded) laden across his knees like weight com­mit­ted to keep him af­fixed in place atop the wind-tossed road-bumped ve­hi­cle. Seems strange to see these valu­able ob­jects up there, to think about them up there, in­stru­ment and weapon. All they mean to guar­an­tee, the se­cu­rity they mean (want) to pro­vide.

Ju­lus­ter is adept at shift­ing space, chang­ing rhythm, aug­ment­ing time. Vi­talis can’t keep up. Finds him­self be­hind when Ju­lus­ter is ahead, Ju­lus­ter full of beats and breaths of his own. So he sets his charge free, Ju­lus­ter happy to be so. His con­fi­dence is such that the black

band en­cir­cling his eyes and head seems less like a re­spect­ful con­trivance bar­ring his un­set­tling eyes from the sight of oth­ers and more like a re­stric­tive ap­pa­ra­tus keep­ing un­con­trol­lable pow­ers in check. Should he look upon the world he would de­stroy it.

In many ways find­ing a new Tom has been the eas­i­est part of the plan. How quick Ju­lus­ter had been in the choos­ing, al­most as if it was meant to be. It was I who chose you. Of course, his blind­ness com­bined with cer­tain other phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics com­manded Seven’s at­ten­tion; more than that, only he of the city’s many dozens of street mu­si­cians was af­forded the lux­ury of pos­sess­ing his own pi­ano-forte that Seven saw him haul from one place to another, the in­stru­ment strapped across his broad back al­most as if it be­longed there, some nat­u­ral tor­toise­shell-like ex­ten­sion of his body. Such rare vo­li­tion. And he seemed not to feel any loss of dig­nity in the bur­den­some act. Still, Seven gave con­sid­er­able thought to the ex­act word­ing of his of­fer for the itin­er­ant mu­si­cian to join him in a grand con­fi­dence game, then put these words out, the crim­i­nal na­ture of the en­ter­prise dis­guised in equiv­o­cal phrases, and let them linger, hop­ing they would do. Pre­cisely un­der what im­pulse did he ac­cept? What is the na­ture of his de­vo­tion, its true mo­tives, its obli­ga­tions? Clearly money was (is) not all that he was af­ter. What­ever his rea­sons they all have their part to play. You want to know why I can Blind Tom so well? Ju­lus­ter said. That one’s easy. I saw him at least a dozen times over the years, saw him ev­ery time he came to the city. That was of course be­fore those lit­tle nig­gers— same as al­ways. Much is the same, for Seven has en­cased him­self in a set of prin­ci­ples and ac­tions de­rived from his early train­ing with Perry Oliver. Perry Oliver wanted to fill con­cert halls. Any lesser achieve­ment he took as his due. Such is Seven’s de­sire. Ex­pec­ta­tion.

Near the jetty, Seven sees nig­ger men women and chil­dren cram by the dozens onto the deck of the morn­ing ferry. The ferry tilts too far in one di­rec­tion from the weight, now too far in the other di­rec­tion, on the verge of cap­siz­ing like a man long into drink who takes to his feet too quickly. Soon Seven and his ret­inue find them­selves wad­ing into a mar­ket full of nig­gers, more nig­gers than Seven has ever seen in one place be­fore. He takes un­earthly de­light in the sight. Mer­chants set up in­side their stalls, who glow into words at the ap­proach of a po­ten­tial cus­tomer then be­come sav­agely still. Their wares crafted into the most star­tling shapes. Other mer­chants draped in vests of clink­ing vials filled with the scented oils of the Ori­ent. Women seated be­hind tall bar­rels of but­ter­milk and manna and short urns of honey and mo­lasses. Witches and sor­cer­ers with pouches full of amulets, charms, roots, pow­ders, and po­tions. Not to be out­done, a Bagh­dad car­pet sales­man sits Buddha-fash­ion on his aero­nau­ti­cal rug; to demon­strate how easy it is to com­mand, he turns his face left and sends him­self glid­ing off in that di­rec­tion, then turns his face right and kites in the op­po­site di­rec­tion be­fore he causes all mo­tion to cease.

No one could tell by look­ing at them that these nig­gers have had their share of trou­ble. They can drive a bar­gain to the end. All things are pos­si­ble, any deal can be struck. And Seven glad­dens at the recog­ni­tion, feel­ing like the city has fi­nally dis­closed it­self to him. In­deed, walk­ing here on the city’s great wide thor­ough­fare, Broad­way, he re­al­izes that he, too, is now part of this com­plex cir­cle of com­merce, a net­work of streets and roads that shut­tle peo­ple and goods back and forth through a dense land­scape of build­ings and houses, con­tracts and ban­knotes car­ried from hand to hand and mouth to mouth, each per­son a uni­verse to him­self but also a part.

Now loud voices punch through the air, de­mand­ing, Pass­book, pass­book, present your pass­book. Where is your pass­book? Pass­books open please. A pha­lanx of gen­darmes river through bod­ies, each man dressed in a crisp black uni­form with a red band en­cir­cling ei­ther bi­cep. Faces con­gealed, mouths pulled down sharply at the corners in gri­maces of an­noy­ance, they re­ceive the nig­gers with au­thor­i­ta­tive im­por­tance, look­ing from pass­book to face, pass­book to face, to see if the sub­ject un­der scru­tiny bears re­sem­blance to the de­scrip­tion. An iron- plated car­riage ac­com­pa­nies them at a slow squeaky crawl, the thick­est smoke Seven has ever seen puff­ing from its smoke­stack. A lo­co­mo­tive- like ve­hi­cle fol­lows them, plated in ar­mor, puff­ing steam. This is trou­ble, Seven thinks. And the nig­gers think it too. Their eyes tele­graph one another in panic. Seven is over­taken by a bound­less sad­ness. Those who ei­ther lack a pass­book or whose pass­book is not in or­der suf­fer drawn out in­sults of the worst sort culled from the an­i­mal and veg­etable king­dom that are ap­plied to their per­son and lin­eage be­fore they are rudely pulled aside and rounded up, their wares con­fis­cated. And so de­tained, one side of the ar­mored car­riage draws open to gather them in, and one by one they are rudely and quickly shoved, clubbed, and kicked in­side. Ju­lus­ter, Vi­talis, and the driver have no choice but to en­dure the in­spec­tion. Pa­pers in hand, they do, and Seven and his ret­inue (are al­lowed to) pass.

Not long af­ter the street snaps quiet, all sound closed up within the ar­mored car­riage. The gen­darmes push for­ward, the mov­ing body of their si­lence car­ry­ing them off Broad­way, and into another sec­tion of the city. So Seven and the oth­ers walk promptly and oblig­ingly for their des­ti­na­tion, too promptly and oblig­ingly per­haps, but what else can he do? Try to har­den his mind and not give way to his feel­ings, Ju­lus­ter’s au­di­tion fore­most in his thoughts. Sen­si­ble and sober, the ti­tles of songs re­peat them­selves au­to­mat­i­cally in his skull, ex­pert coun­sel that he speaks softly (whis­pers?) in Ju­lus­ter’s ear. Start off with...Go light on the ped­als when you play...Only block chords dur­ing that ca­denza. No arpeg­gios. Noth­ing too pretty, too fancy.

Nig­ger or­phans way­lay Seven’s party be­fore the domi­cile where Ju­lus­ter will au­di­tion, their mouths dark with open­ing, try­ing out ques­tions that star­tle him (again) out of his set rhythm of pas­sage.

Hell, nawl, Ju­lus­ter says. He grabs one or­phan by a fist­ful of hair and yanks the boy off his feet. We are pleased to have with us on the recital arena a sin­gu­lar Ne­gro vir­tu­oso dur­ing this era which has been largely de­fined by vir­tu­oso-frenzy. This sable per­son­age is none other than Blind Tom, who has re­turned to the stage af­ter an ab­sence of five years or more, a murky pe­riod with much still un­known, unasked, and unan­swered since we the public and the press had no clue as to his where­abouts or his well- be­ing for half a decade. Notwith­stand­ing these facts, his tal­ents were on full dis­play last night as of the days of old. He is all the mu­si­cian of a Liszt and Ru­bin­stein. In­deed, it goes with­out say­ing, his tech­nique is su­perb. We ex­pect noth­ing less of a vir­tu­oso. Both hands share com­plete equal­ity, the in­ter­ac­tion and ri­valry be­tween them be­ing a con­stant source of new in­ven­tions. He fa­vors arpeg­gios over the whole chord, for­ever break­ing up beau­ti­ful lines into amaz­ing ac­ro­bat­ics, break­ing up

those ac­ro­bat­ics into a ten­der note, break­ing up a ten­der note into a vi­o­lent rhyth­mic ap­proach. He pushes the beat around to suit him­self. His con­vic­tion and sin­cer­ity in­form the melody and rhythm of the ren­di­tions so com­pletely that it sounds as if he is telling his own story. And his orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions are full of grace­ful ascending steps, deep, aching, bent notes. It is ev­i­dent that Na­ture has in­tended him for a pi­anist. He seems to be an un­con­scious agent, act­ing as he is acted on. His mind is a va­cant re­cep­ta­cle where Na­ture stores her jewels to re­call them at her plea­sure. In the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence, he ex­presses an ar­dor that no saint has sur­passed. Let us celebrate the re­turn of the most fa­mous mu­si­cian, in­deed the most fa­mous celebrity in the world, who now tours un­der the name Orig­i­nal Blind Tom to dis­tin­guish him­self from the many would- be im­posters.

I have a new song, Ju­lus­ter says.

No new songs, Seven says. Abide by the pro­gram. Let me play it for you. No new songs, he says. Who knows Tom bet­ter than he does? The per­son that he in­vokes when he thinks of Tom is ac­cu­rate to the inch. He has mem­o­rized Tom’s mea­sure­ments, knows all of Tom’s di­men­sions, the space be­tween Tom’s fin­gers and toes and teeth. Knows. Tom walks when he walks, stops when he stops, talks when he talks. They had that be­tween them. They de­vised all man­ner of de­lights and found in each other ev­ery­thing the world had lacked.

Not for noth­ing has he taken pains to come to this city where Tom gave his last con­cert and where he is thought to have died and may have died, prob­a­bly did die. To the con­ster­na­tion or de­light of many, he Seven will res­ur­rect Blind Tom right here in the city. Do this in mem­ory of me. What he can do for Tom. What he owes Tom is be­yond ac­tion and ex­pres­sion. Tom has given his life a size and shape that no man can di­min­ish. Tom would want this, he tells him­self. Tom wants this. Tom wants this for me. Sev­eral months later, a nig­ger preacher ap­proaches Ju­lus­ter back­stage af­ter a con­cert. He in­tro­duces him­self as Rev­erend Wire. Ju­lus­ter holds his hand straight out, Wire reaches and takes it, and Ju­lus­ter tries to give it the same painful grip that he gives ev­ery­one, but the preacher’s hand is too large, large enough to grip a wa­ter­melon.

Blind Tom, Ju­lus­ter says. Eighth won­der of the world.

Pleased to make your ac­quain­tance. The nig­ger preacher re­leases Ju­lus­ter’s hand. Like­wise. Vi­talis stands next to Ju­lus­ter look­ing up at the preacher in as­ton­ish­ment, his hair an­grily askew (so much, too much). Na­ture has af­forded this Rev­erend Wire rad­i­cal pro­por­tions, a very Her­cules in stature, seven feet in height and nearly as wide as two men, a man too wide and too tall to squeeze his way through the av­er­age por­tal. And the black robe he wears splays out like wings in front and be­hind him and in­ten­si­fies his colos­sal pro­por­tions.

I watched and lis­tened tonight and af­ter watch­ing and lis­ten­ing, af­ter what I saw and heard tonight, I had to bring my­self here be­fore you. The preacher’s voice is need­lessly loud, as if he is ad­dress­ing an au­di­ence. Judg­ing by the wrin­kles on his face, the preacher is over sixty years old, a bad sign. The old like to talk.

Seven fig­ures that they will have to suf­fer the in­con­ve­nience (no way around it), but Seven hopes that the preacher will put deco­rum aside and hurry into the pur­pose of his visit— a do­na­tion for his church?— the sooner the bet­ter.

You’ve done a fine job— speak­ing to Seven now. The preacher lets his gaze drift over Seven.

And Seven stum­bles in his think­ing. Thank you. Try­ing to smile, the words car­ry­ing with their own in­sis­tence since Seven has no idea what the preacher means. And now he no­tices a faint but deep for­est smell com­ing from some­where in­side the gallery, a wood and leaf and soil scent, green and brown against the mar­ble floor and smooth gran­ite walls.

Be­mused, the preacher gazes steadily at Seven. But some­times another is cho­sen in pref­er­ence who by all rights should not even be con­sid­ered your equal.

The mean­ing and im­por­tance of the words es­cape him, but Seven feels (de­tects) that some­thing in the preacher’s vo­cab­u­lary is ral­lied against him. Just who is this nig­ger preacher any­way?

Still, to your credit, your il­lu­sions and con­fi­dences and de­cep­tions are of suf­fi­cient ap­prox­i­ma­tion to con­fi­dence most peo­ple, es­pe­cially those least in the know. But the real Blind Tom was of the low­est Guinea type. Your boy is clearly an amal­ga­ma­tion.

It’s up to him now to talk this nig­ger preacher out of what­ever it is he thinks he be­lieves. Rev­erend, per­haps Tom could pay a visit to your church. Seven sees the old woman in the oil can­vas be­hind the preacher, her hands stiff on her lap, the skin pale, the hurt­ful rheumatic veins— life as it is. Given the vague­ness of this black body, this Blind Tom, surely the preacher is only draw­ing upon all he can re­mem­ber or guess.

Out the mouth of babes, the preacher says. Do you re­ally think so lit­tle of me?

It is hot in­side the hall­way and quiet, the air full of thoughts and things to say. Seven stares into the preacher’s im­pas­sive face. Gives the sig­nal for Vi­talis to take Ju­lus­ter down to the driver and the car­riage, but Vi­talis does not move, only looks at Seven as if he has never seen him be­fore. Stands there look­ing like a damn fool, with that tear- shaped rush of hair ris­ing sky­ward from his fore­head, six inches tall at the tip. Then Wire smiles as if to en­cour­age Vi­talis to fol­low Seven’s in­struc­tions. He touches Vi­talis’ back, quick firm pats. Vi­talis and Ju­lus­ter hurry pur­pose­fully ahead. Ju­lus­ter, his move­ment, con­strained by the weight of Vi­talis, ac­cel­er­ates to es­cape his nav­i­ga­tor, and they dis­ap­pear from sight, leav­ing Seven and the preacher star­ing across con­fronta­tional space. Words vie in Seven’s mouth.

Now Wire starts to walk away too, huge and lum­ber­ing, a black mov­ing wall, and Seven sets off af­ter him through the grand­est struc­ture in the city, all pris­tine neo­clas­si­cal stone with an in­ter­lac­ing ar­cade. A mar­ble labyrinth of stair­ways and gal­leries, gang­ways and cor­ri­dors,

In­deed, walk­ing here on the city’s great wide thor­ough­fare, Broad­way, he re­al­izes that he, too, is now part of this com­plex cir­cle of com­merce, a net­work of streets and roads that shut­tle peo­ple and goods back and forth through a dense land­scape of build­ings and houses . . .

pil­lars and porches, halls and dead- ends.

I see no rea­son why you can’t re­vive the name of Blind Tom on ev­ery tongue in the civ­i­lized world, Wire says, for the replica in your charge is no per­son of or­di­nary means. He is an ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent, the gen­uine ar­ti­cle. Per­haps the spirit anointed him in this pur­pose. So I ask you, is it for me to stand in your way?

No it is not, Seven says. But you want some­thing.

They exit the build­ing and come down the wide grand stair­case si­t­u­ated like a se­ries of de­scend­ing bridges be­tween two stone lions, the mem­ory of roar and kill long drained from mouth and claws. Walk past a lit­tle booth at the stair­case foot, where ear­lier that evening hun­dreds had pur­chased tick­ets. His body acts with­out him. Yes, I do. Here it comes, Seven tells him­self. He is lean­ing to­ward the idea that this preacher will take him for all he can.

In the re­ced­ing light crowds of peo­ple walk in small groups by the sea, some of them hold­ing hands. All of their move­ments seem iden­ti­cal, the same pace, the same stride, arms swing­ing. A dream. If any­one knows if Tom is alive or dead, this preacher does. Seven is sure of it. He feels pow­er­less against this un­fore­seen en­emy. The preacher’s mind re­mains against them, against him and “Tom.” Noth­ing good can come out of their time to­gether.

And you will want to know that I seek noth­ing for my­self since my pri­vate needs are few. How­ever, the needs of my col­lec­tive are wide- rang­ing and ex­ten­sive, and will re­quire means of both a ma­te­rial and an im­ma­te­rial na­ture, in the present mo­ment as well as long-term.

It is more than Seven ex­pected, too much.

A ferry gulps bro­ken wa­ter, green spume in its wake. And wind- touched sails seem to shrink and grow as the dhows at­tached to them bounce in the wa­ter, ply­ing their trade. No two ways about it, he must lie to earn the preacher’s trust and to gain­say him­self more time to de­vise a true course of ac­tion.

But al­ready I am at fault in as­sum­ing that our goals are not at cross- pur­poses. Ig­no­rant of your char­ac­ter, I should not pre­tend to un­der­stand your mo­tives be­hind this ven­ture let alone as­sume that we can ar­rive at a meet­ing of the minds.

The sun com­ing through the branches of the trees makes the side­walk look red­dish, like a river. I will do all I can, Seven says. The big nig­ger preacher looks down at him with eyes the size of plums. No, Wire says. You will do more than that. You will do what­ever I tell you to do.

Seven hears the words like some­thing com­ing from very far away, from the top of a hill or moun­tain. Things can change in a day. Be­neath history is another history we’ve made with­out even know­ing it. Blind Tom is a name that he can no longer claim, a name that per­haps no one can claim or that ev­ery­one can claim. A mil­lion Blind Toms.

Later, he will think that this nig­ger preacher was re­ally worth killing. Jef­fery Re­nard Allen is the au­thor of five books, most re­cently the novel Song of the Shank ( Gray­wolf Press, 2014), which is loosely based on the life of Blind Tom, a nine­teenth- cen­tury pi­ano vir­tu­oso and com­poser who was the first African Amer­i­can to per­form at the White House. Allen is the au­thor of two other works of fic­tion, the novel Rails Un­der My Back, which won the Chicago Tri­bune’s Heart­land Prize for Fic­tion, and the short- story col­lec­tion Hold­ing Pat­tern, which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Ex­cel­lence. He is a Pro­fes­sor of English at Queens Col­lege of the City Univer­sity of New York and an in­struc­tor in the writ­ing pro­gram at The New School and New York Univer­sity.

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