Commentary Magazine


Luther

Luther arrived at Booker T. Washington Junior High School (Columbus Avenue and 107th Street, Manhattan) in September of 1955, six months before I did. I met him at the end of February, the third week I taught there, when one of the assistant principals asked me to cover the cafeteria during fifth period for a teacher who had to be at a conference. “Good luck with the animals,” I remember him saying.

I was on my guard when I entered the cafeteria; perhaps even a trifle scared. The stories I had been hearing in the teachers' lounge had prepared me to expect anything. During the winter months the students were not allowed to leave the lunchroom and the results of keeping them penned in—the fights, the food-throwing, the high-pitched incessant chattering in Spanish, the way the Negro and Puerto Rican boys and girls chased each other around the tables—such things did, I had to admit, give the room a zoo-like quality.

The day I was assigned, however, was a Catholic holy day and many of the students were absent. Those who remained filled a little less than half of the large room and though they were noisy, it was relatively easy to keep them in order. Luther sat at a table by himself, near the exit to the food-line. Occasionally, I noticed, a few boys would come and sit next to him. The third time I patrolled his area, however, his table was empty and he stopped me.

“Hey, man,” he said, poking me in the arm to get my attention, “you new here?”

He had a stack of about ten cookies in his other hand and he put one into his mouth as he waited for an answer. When I told him that I was not new, he nodded and looked at me. “You have any trouble yet?”

“No,” I said, as sternly as possible. Despite my feelings of sympathy for the students, I knew that if I ever hoped to get anywhere with them, I had to appear tough and confident. “No,” I repeated, almost, I recall, as if I were challenging him. “I haven't.”

Luther cocked his head to one side then and smiled slowly. “You will,” he said, and went back to his cookies.

In the teachers' lounge, the first time I told the story, somebody asked if the boy who had stopped me was a little Negro kid, very black, with a slight hunchback. I said he was. The teachers laughed. “That's Luther,” one of them said.

“He's batty,” said another. “Just leave him be.”

I repeated the story endlessly. It was the first anecdote of my teaching experience that excited admiration and some sort of reaction from those I told it to, and this was important to me then. I had no more direct encounters with Luther that term, though I did see him in the halls, between classes. I always smiled at him and he would smile back—or at least I thought he did. I could never be sure. This bothered me, especially the first time it happened. Through my retelling of the story, I realized, he had become so real to me, so much a part of my life that I think I took it for granted that our encounter had assumed equal significance in his life. The possibility that he had not even repeated the story to a single one of his friends disturbed me.

Once or twice during the term I spotted him wandering around the halls while classes were in session, slouching down the corridor, his body pressed against the tile walls. When I asked the other teachers if he was known for cutting classes, they told me again to just leave him be—that the guidance counselor had suggested that the teachers let him do what he wanted to. He was harmless, they said, if you left him alone. Those teachers who had him in their classes agreed with the guidance counselor. Left alone, he didn't annoy them. When he wanted to, he worked feverishly—and did competent work; but when he did not want to work he would either sit and stare, or just get up, walk out of the room, and wander around the building. He was, they concluded, a mental case.

I returned to Booker T. Washington Junior High School the following September, and Luther turned up in one of my English classes. He had changed. He was no longer small, having grown a good five inches over the summer, and he was no longer quiet. When classwork bored him now he would stand up, and instead of leaving the room, would begin telling stories. Just like that. He had his favorite topics, too—his cousin Henry who had epilepsy, Willie Mays, what was on sale at the supermarket, the football team he played on, the stories in the latest Blackhawk comic book. When he ran out of stories, he would pull The National Enquirer out of his back pocket and begin reading from it, always starting with an item in the “Personals” columns that had caught his eye. I never knew what to do. When I would yell at him to sit down and be quiet, he would wave his hand at me, impatiently, and continue. Moreover, no expression on his face, nothing he ever said, indicated that he thought he was doing anything wrong. An hour after disrupting a class, if I would see him in the corridor, he would give me a big smile and a hello. After a while, of course, I gave up even trying to interrupt him. I listened with the other students—laughing, fascinated, amazed.

_____________

I tried to remember some of his stories, but when I retold them they never seemed interesting, and so I purposely gave Luther's class a lot of composition work, trying to make the topics as imaginative as possible—with the hope, of course, that he would use one of them to let loose. But all of the topics, he declared, were “stupid” and he refused to write on any of them. Then, when I least expected it, when I assigned the class a “How To—” composition, he handed one in. It was typewritten on a piece of lined notebook paper, single-spaced, beginning at the very top of the page and ending just at the first ruled line. It was titled: “How To Steal Some Fruits”:

How To Steal Some Fruits, by Luther Go to a fruit store and when the fruitman isn't looking take some fruits. Then run. When the fruitman yells “Hey you stop taking those fruits” run harder. That is how to steal some fruits.

The next day he sat quietly in class. When I looked at him, he looked down at his desk. When I called on him to answer a question, he shrugged and looked away. At three o'clock, however, no more than five seconds after I had returned from escorting my official class downstairs, he bounded into my room, full of life, and propped himself up on the edge of my desk.

“Hey man,” he said. “How'd you like my composition? It was deep, wasn't it?”

“Deep?”

“Deep, swift, cool—you know.”

“I liked it fine,” I said, laughing.

“Ah, don't put me on, man—how was it?”

“I liked it,” I repeated, my hands clasped in front of me. “I mean it.”

His face lit up. “You mean it? I worked hard on it, Mister Carter. I swear to God I did.” It was the first time, I remember, that he had ever addressed me by my name. He stopped and wiped his mouth. “How'd you like the typing? Pretty good, huh?”

“It was fine.”

“Christ, man,” he said, stepping down from my desk and moving to the blackboard. He picked up a piece of chalk and wrote his name, printing it in capital letters. “How come you so tight? Why don't you loosen up? I ain't gonna do nothing. I just want to know about my composition. That's all.”

I felt I could reach him, talk to him. I wanted to—had wanted to for some time, I realized, but he was right. I was tight, uncomfortable, embarrassed. “Where'd you get a typewriter?” I offered.

He smiled. “Where I get fruits,” he replied, then laughed and clapped his hands. I must have appeared shocked, for before I could say anything, he was shaking his head back and forth. “Oh, man,” he said. “You are really deep. I swear. You really are.” He climbed onto my desk again. “You mind talking?”

“No,” I said.

“Good. Let me ask you something—you married?”

“No,” I said. “Do you think I should be married?”

“It beats stealing fruits,” he said, and laughed again. His laugh was loud and harsh and at first it annoyed me, but then his body began rocking back and forth as if his comment had set off a chain of jokes that he was telling himself silently, and before I knew it I was laughing with him.

“I really liked the composition,” I said. “In fact, I hope you don't mind, but I've already read it to some of the other teachers.”

“No shit.”

“They thought it was superb.”

“It's superb,” he said, shaking his head in agreement. “Oh, it's superb, man,” he said, getting up again and walking away. His arms and legs moved in different directions and he seemed so loose that when he turned his back to me and I noticed the way his dirty flannel shirt was stretched tightly over his misshapen back, I was surprised—as if I'd noticed it for the first time. He walked around the room, muttering to himself, tapping on desks with his fingertips, and then he headed for the door. “I'm superb,” he said. “So I be rolling on my superb way home—.”

“Stay,” I said.

He threw his arms apart. “You win!” he declared. “I'll stay.” He came back to my desk, looked at me directly, then rolled his eyes and smiled. “People been telling stories to you about me?”

“No.”

“None?” he questioned, coming closer.

“All right,” I said. “Some—.”

“That's all right,” he said, shrugging it off. He played with the binding of a book that was on my desk. Then he reached across and took my grade book. I snatched it away from him and he laughed again. “Oh man,” he exclaimed. “I am just so restless!—You know what I mean?”

He didn't wait for an answer, but started around the room again. The pockets of his pants were stuffed and bulging, the cuffs frayed. The corner of a red and white workman's handkerchief hung out of a back pocket. He stopped in the back of the room, gazed into the glass bookcase, and then turned to me and leaned back. “You said to stay—what you got to say?”

The question was in my mind, and impulsively I asked it: “Just curious—do you remember me from last year?”

“Sure,” he said, and turned his back to me again. He looked in the bookcase, whirled around and walked to the side of the room, opening a window. He leaned out and just as I was about to say something to him about it, he closed it and came back to the front of the room. “Man,” he exclaimed, sitting on my desk again. “Were you ever scared that day! If I'd set off a cherry bomb you'd have gone through the fan.” He put his face closer to mine. “Man, you were scared green!”

“Was I scared of you, Luther?” I asked, looking straight into his eyes.

“Me? Nah. Nothing to be scared of.” He hopped off the desk and wiped his name off the blackboard with the palm of his hand; then he started laughing to himself. He looked at me, over his shoulder. “Bet I know what you're thinking now,” he said.

“Go ahead—.”

“You're thinking you'd like to help a boy like me. Right? You're getting this big speech ready in your head about—.”

“No,” I interrupted. “I wasn't.”

He eyed me suspiciously. “You sure?”

“I'm sure.”

“Not even with compositions? Oh man, if you'd help me with compositions, before we'd be through with me, I'd be typing like a whiz.” He banged on a desk with his palms, and then his fingers danced furiously on the wood as he made clicking noises inside his mouth. “Ding!” he said, swinging the carriage across. “Ain't it fun to type!”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Maybe I was thinking that I would like to help you.”

“I knew it, man,” he said, to himself. “I just knew it.'

“You have a good mind, Luther—much better than you let on.”

“I do, I do,” he muttered, chuckling. I stood up and went to the closet to get my coat. “Okay. What do I get if I work for you?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Nothing, maybe. I can't promise anything.”

“I like that, man,” he said.

“Could you call me Mister Carter?” I asked, somewhat irritably. “I don't call you, ‘hey, you’—.”

“Okay, Mister Carter,” he said. He took my coat sleeve. “Let me help you on with your coat, Mister Carter.”

We walked out of the room and I locked the door. “You ain't a real social worker like the others,” he commented as we started down the stairs. He held the door open for me. “I do like that.”

I nodded.

“Playing it close to the vest again, huh? Tight-mouthed.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

When we were outside he asked me what he had to do.

“For what?” I asked.

“To get you to help me to be somebody, to educate myself—all that stuff.”

“Do what you want to do,” I said. “Though you might start by doing your homework. Then we'll see—.”

“I know,” he said, cocking his head to one side again. “If I play ball with you you'll play ball with me. Right? Okay, okay. I know.”

Then he was gone, running down the street, his arms spread wide as if he were an airplane, a loud siren-like noise rising and falling from him as he disappeared from view.

_____________

The next few months were without doubt the most satisfying to me of any during the eight years I've been a teacher. Luther worked like a fiend. He was bright, learned quickly, and was not really that far behind. He did his homework, he paid attention in class, he studied for tests, and he read books. That was most important. On every book he read I asked him to write a book report: setting, plot, theme, characters, and his opinion of the book—and once a week, on Thursday afternoons, we would get together in my room for a discussion. During the remainder of the term he must have gone through at least forty to fifty books. Most of them had to do with sports, airplanes, and insects. For some reason he loved books about insects. All the reports came to me typed, and on some he drew pictures—“illustrations” he called them, which, he claimed, would be a help to me in case I had not read the book.

When we would finish talking about books, I would help him with his other subjects, and his improvement was spectacular. I looked forward to my sessions with him, to his reports, to just seeing him—yet from day to day, from moment to moment, I always expected him to bolt from me, and this pleased me. Every time he came to me for a talk I was truly surprised.

When the term ended he asked if I would continue to help him. I said I would. He was not programmed for any of my English classes during the spring term, but we kept up with our weekly discussions. As the weather improved, however, he read less and less; I didn't want him to feel as if he had to come see me every Thursday, and so, about a week before the opening of the baseball season, I told him that I thought he had reached the point where he could go it alone. “When you feel like talking, just come knocking—” I said. “We don't need a schedule.” He seemed relieved, I thought, and I was proud that I had had the sense to release him from any obligation he might have felt.

Then, suddenly, I didn't see him anywhere for three weeks. I asked his home-room teacher about him and she said she hadn't seen him either; she had sent him a few postcards, but had received no reply. That very night—it was almost as if he had been there listening, I thought—he telephoned me at home.

“Is this Mister Carter? This is Luther here.”

“Hi, Luther,” I said.

“I looked you up in the telephone book. You mind me calling you at home?”

“No, no. I don't mind.”

“Okay,” he said, breathing hard. “I just wanted to let you know not to worry about me because I'm not in school. Okay?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

“I had some things to take care of—you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Man, you know you're itching to ask me what?” He laughed. “You are deep. I'll be back Monday.”

That was all. On Monday, as he had promised, he returned to school and came to visit me in my room at three o'clock. We talked for a while about the way the pennant race was going, and then he said, “Okay, let's cut the jazz, man. I got something to say to you.” He seemed very intense about it and I told him that I was listening carefully. He pointed a finger at me. “Now, we stopped our sessions, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“And the day after we stopped, I began to play the hook for three straight weeks, right?”

“Right.”

“Okay. Now you can tell me it ain't so, but I'll bet you'll be thinking it was your fault. It ain't. If you want the truth, I ain't done a stick of work all term for any teacher—so don't go thinking that I stopped being a good student cause we stopped our meetings.”

He let out a long breath. “I'm glad you told me,” I said.

“Shit, man,” he said, getting up and going to the door. “Don't say anything, huh? Why you got to say something all the time?” He came toward me. “Why?” He was almost screaming and I slid my chair back from the desk. He shook his head frantically. “Why, man?” he said. He reached into his side-pocket and I started to stand up. Abruptly, he broke into laughter. “Oh man, you are deep! You are just so deep!” He clapped his hands and laughed at me some more. “Ra-ta-tat-tat!” he said as he banged on a desk. “You're real sweet, man! Just so sweet! Ra-ta-tat-tat! Comin' down the street!” He sat down in one of the seats. “But don't you worry none. I got seven liberry cards now and books growing out the ceiling. I got a liberry card for Luther King and one for Luther Queen and one for Luther Prince and one for Luther Jones and one for Luther Smith and one for Luther Mays and one for Luther B. Carter.” He banged on the top of the desk with his fist, then drummed with his fingers again. “But don't you worry none—ra-ta-tat-tat—just don't you worry—.”

“I'm not,” I said.

“That's all,” he said, and dashed out of the room.

He attended classes regularly for about two weeks and then disappeared again for a week. He returned for a few days, stayed away, returned. The pattern continued. In the halls when we saw each other he would always smile and ask if I was worrying and I would tell him I wasn't. Once or twice, when he was absent, he telephoned me at home and asked me what was new at school. He got a big charge out of this. Then another time, I remember, he came riding through the schoolyard on a bicycle during sixth period, when I was on patrol. “Don't report me, man!” he yelled and rode right back out, waving and shouting something in Spanish that made everybody laugh.

_____________

Near the end of May, the assistant principal in charge of the eighth grade called me into his office. He knew I was friendly with Luther, he said, and he thought that I might talk to the boy. For the past six or seven months, he told me, Luther had been in and out of juvenile court. “Petty thefts,” the assistant principal explained. I wasn't surprised; Luther had hinted at this many times. I had never pressed him about it, however, not wanting to destroy our relationship by lecturing him. The assistant principal said he didn't care whether I said anything to Luther or not. In fact, he added, he would have been just as happy to get rid of him—but that before he was shipped off to a 600-school or put away somewhere else, he wanted to give me an opportunity to do what I could. More for me, he said, than for Luther.

About a week after this, on a Friday, Luther telephoned me.

“How've you been?” I asked.

“Superb, man,” he said. “Hey listen—we ain't been seeing much of each other lately, have we?”

“No—.”

“No. Okay. Listen—I got two tickets to see the Giants play tomorrow. You want to come?” I didn't answer immediately. “Come on—yes or no—tickets are going fast—.”

“I'd like to,” I said. “Yes. Only—only I was wondering where you got the money for the tickets?” I breathed out, glad I had said it.

Luther just laughed. “Oh man, you're not gonna be like that, are you? You been listening to too many stories again. That judge from the court must of been gassing with you. Tell you what—you come to the game and I'll tell you where I got the tickets. A deal?”

“A deal.”

“Meet you in front of the school at eleven o'clock—I like to get there early to see Willie go through batting practice. Batting practice—that's more fun than the game, sometimes. You know?”

He was waiting for me when I got there a few minutes before eleven the following day. “Let's go,” he said, flourishing the tickets. “But don't ask me now, man—let's enjoy the game first. Okay?”

I did enjoy the game. The Giants were playing the Cardinals and to Luther's delight, Willie Mays had one of his better days, going three-for-four at bat, and making several brilliant plays in the field. For most of the game, I was truly relaxed. Along about the eighth inning, however, I began to think about the question again—to wonder when would be the best time to ask it. Luther, it seemed, had forgotten all about it. The Giants were winning 5-2.

“Oh man,” he said. “If only that Musial don't do something, we're home free. Look at Willie!” he exclaimed. “Ain't he the greatest that ever lived. He is just so graceful! You know? How you like to see a team of Willie Mayses out there? Wow!” Wes Westrum, the Giant catcher, grounded out, short to first, and the eighth inning was over. “One to go, one to go,” Luther said. Then he jabbed me in the arm with his finger. “Hey, listen—I been thinking. Instead of an All-Star game every year between the leagues, what they ought to do one year is have the white guys against our guys. What you think?”

I shrugged. “I don't know,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “Listen—we got Willie in center. Then we put Aaron in right and Doby in left. He's got the raw power. Some outfield, huh? Then we got Campy catching and Newcombe pitching. You can't beat that. That Newcombe—he's a mean son of a bitch, but he throws. Okay. I been thinking about this a long time—.” He used his fingers to enumerate. He was excited, happy. “At first base we put Luke Easter, at second—Junior Gilliam, at short—Ernie Banks, and at third base we bring in old Jackie Robinson just to give the team a little class—you know what I mean? Man, what a line-up! Who could you match it with?”

When I said I didn't know, Luther eyed me suspiciously. “C'mon—Musial, Mantle, Williams, Spahn—you name 'em and I'll match em, man for man, your guys against ours.” He stopped and cheered as a Cardinal popped out to Whitey Lock-man at first. “What's the matter—don't you like the idea? Ha! Face it, man, we'd wipe up the field with you. Swish! Swish!” He laughed and slapped me on the knee. “Hey, I know what's bugging you, I bet—.” He leaned toward me, cupping his hand over his mouth, and whispered in my ear. “Tell the truth now, would you have ever offered to help me if I wasn't colored?”

“Would I—?” I stopped. “Sure,” I said. “Of course I would. Of course—.”

Luther smiled; triumphantly, dubiously. “Look,” I said. “As long as we're asking questions, let me ask you something.”

“About the tickets, right?”

“No,” I said. “Forget the tickets. No long lectures, either. Just a question. Just one: how come you steal?”

“Oh man,” he said, laughing. “That's an easy one!—Because I'm not getting what I want and when you don't get what you want, man, you got to take. Don't you know that?”

I stared at him, not sure I had heard right. He winked at me. “Enjoy the ballgame, man! Say hey, Willie!” he shouted, as Mays caught a fly ball, bread-basket style, for the second out. “Ain't he the sweetest!”

A minute later the game was over and the players were racing across the field toward the clubhouse in center field, trying to escape the fans who scrambled after them. “They won't get Willie,” Luther said. “He's too swift, too swift.”

When we were outside I thanked Luther and told him how much I had enjoyed the game. “How about a Coke or something?” I offered.

“Nah,” he said. “I got things to do.” He extended his hand quickly and I shook it, the first time we had ever done that. “Okay. You go get spiffed up and get a wife. Time you were married.” He tossed his head back and laughed. “Ain't you married yet? No, no. Smile, man—how you gonna get a wife, never smiling.” He started away, through the crowd. “Stay loose,” he called back. “Don't steal no fruits.”

_____________

I never questioned him again about stealing, but even if I had wanted to, I wouldn't have had much opportunity. He did not come to see me very often the rest of that year. When he returned to school in September of 1958 for his last year of junior high school, he had grown again. But not up. He never did go higher than the five-five or five-six he had reached by that time. He had taken up weightlifting over the summer, however, and his chest, his neck, his arms—they had all broadened incredibly. Instead of the dirty cotton and flannel shirts he had worn the two previous years, he now walked through the halls in laundry-white T-shirts, the sleeves rolled up to the shoulder, his powerful muscles exposed. There were always a half-dozen Negro boys following him around now also and they all dressed the way he did—white T-shirts, black chino pants, leather wrist straps, and—hanging from their necks on pieces of string—miniature black skulls.

The guidance counselor for the ninth grade came to me one day early in the term and asked me if I could give him any evidence against Luther. He claimed that Luther and his gang were going around the school, beating and torturing those students who refused to “loan” them money. All of the students, he said, were afraid to name Luther. “The kid's a born sadist,” he added. I told him I didn't know anything.

The term progressed and the stories and rumors increased. I was told that the police in Luther's neighborhood were convinced that he and his gang were responsible for a series of muggings that had occurred. I tried not to believe it, but Luther all but gave me conclusive proof one afternoon, right before Christmas. He came into my room at three o'clock, alone, and said he had something for me. He said he trusted me not to tell anybody about it or show it to anyone. I said J wouldn't.

“Okay, man—here it is—.” His eyes leapt around the room, frenzied, delirious. He took a little card from his wallet. “You might need this sometime—but don't ask me no questions. Ha! And don't you worry none. I'm doing okay. Expanding all the time. Don't you worry.” I took the card from him. “See you now, Mister Carter. See you, see you.”

He left and I looked at the card. Across the top was printed: The Black Avengers, and below it was written: “Don't touch this white man. He's okay.” It was signed by Luther and under his name he had drawn a skull and crossbones. I put the card in my wallet.

In January, to no one's great surprise, Luther was sent away to reform school in upstate New York. I was never exactly clear about the precise event that had led to it—the policeman assigned to our school said it had to do with brutally beating an old man; Luther's friends said it had to do with getting caught in a gang war. They claimed the fight was clean but that the cops had framed Luther. There was nothing in the papers, Luther had not contacted me, and I did not find out about it all until he had already been shipped off.

I received a postcard from him that summer. It was brief.

I hate it here. I can't say anymore or they'll beat shit out of me. I hate it. I'm reading some. I'll visit you when I get out and we'll have a session.

I answered the card with a letter. I told him I was sorry about where he was and that I'd be glad to talk to him whenever he wanted. I gave him some news of the school and included some current baseball clippings. I asked him if there was anything he needed and if there was anybody in his family he wanted me to get in touch with. I told him that in return for the time he'd taken me to the baseball game I had ordered a subscription to Sport magazine for him.

He replied with another post card.

Visiting day this summer is August 21. I'd like for you to come.

When I arrived, he seemed glad to see me, but I remember that he was more polite than he had ever been before, and more subdued. I wondered, at the time, if they were giving him tranquillizers. I was only allowed an hour with him and we spent most of that time just walking around the grounds—the school was a work-farm reformatory—not saying anything.

The visit, I could tell, was a disappointment to him. I don't know what he expected of me, but whatever it was, I didn't provide it. I wrote him a letter when I got home, telling him I had enjoyed seeing him and that I'd be glad to come again if he wanted me to. He didn't answer it, and I heard no more from him for a year and a half.

Then one day in the spring of 1961, just about the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, I remember, he popped into my room at school. He looked horrible. His face was unshaven, his clothes were filthy and ragged, his eyes were glazed. Underneath his clothes, his body had become flabby and he bent over noticeably when he walked. At first I didn't recognize him.

When I did, I was so glad to see him, I didn't know what to do. “Luther—for crying out loud!” I said, standing up and shaking his hand. “How the hell are you?”

He smiled at me. “I'm superb, man—can't you tell from looking at me?” He laughed then, and I laughed with him.

“You've gotten older,” I said.

“Past sixteen,” he said. “That means I don't got to go to school no more—”

He waited, but I didn't offer an opinion. “How about going down with me and having a cup of coffee? I'm finished here for the day—just getting through with mid-terms.”

“Nah,” he said, looking down and playing with his hands. “I gotta meet somebody. I'm late already. But I was in the neighborhood so I thought I'd come let you know I was still alive.” He came to my desk and looked down. He shook his head as if something were wrong.

“What's the matter?” I asked.

“Don't see no wedding ring on your finger yet.” He looked straight into my face. “Hey, man—you ain't a fag, are you?”

“No,” I said, laughing. “Not that I know of—.”

He laughed, his mouth opening wide. “Okay. That's all the gas for today. I'll see you, man.”

During the next few months he visited me several times. Sometimes he looked good, sometimes bad—but I never could find out what he was doing with his days. He never gave a straight answer to my questions. More and more, I felt that he was asking me for some kind of help, but when I would touch on anything personal or even hint that I wanted to do something for him, with him, he would become defensive.

I didn't see him over the summer, but the following fall he came by periodically. He seemed to be getting a hold on himself, and sometimes he would talk about going to night school. Nothing came of the talk, though. In November he was arrested and sent to Riker's Island—to P.S. 616, the combination prison-school for boys between the ages of sixteen and twenty. His sentence was for eighteen months and during the first three months I visited him twice. Both times all he wanted to do was to talk about the English class we had had, and the stories and compositions he had made up. He said he was trying to remember some of them for the English teacher he had there, but couldn't do it all the time. He seemed to be in terrible shape, and I didn't have much hope for him.

So I was surprised when I began getting postcards from him again. “I am studying hard,” the first one said. “There is a Negro who comes here to help me. I like him. I will be a new man when I come out. Yours sincerely, Luther.” It was neatly and carefully written. The ones that followed were the same and they came at regular intervals of about five weeks. He told me about books he was reading, most of them having to do with Negro history, and about how he was changing. “Improving” was the word he used most.

I answered his cards as best I could, and offered to come see him again, but he never took up any of my offers. When his eighteen months were up, I expected a visit from him. He never came. Sometimes I wondered what had become of him, but after the first few months passed and I didn't hear from him, I thought about him less and less. A year passed—two since we had last seen each other at Riker's Island—and then we met again.

I spotted him first. It was a beautiful summer night and I had gone up to Lewisohn Stadium for a concert. It had been good, I was relaxed and happy as I walked out of the stadium. Luther was standing at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 138th Street. He was wearing a dark blue suit, a white shirt and a tie. He was clean shaven, his hair was cut short and he looked healthy and bright. He was stopping people and trying to sell them newspapers.

“How are you, Mister Carter?” he asked, when I walked up to him. His eyes were clear and he seemed very happy to see me. “Interested in buying a newspaper to help the colored people? Only a dime—.”

“No thanks,” I said. The paper he was selling, as I had expected, was Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Black Muslims. “You look fine,” I added.

“Thanks—excuse me a second.” He turned and sold a copy to somebody. People snubbed him but this didn't stop him from smiling or trying. I waited. When the crowd had gone, he asked me where I was going. “Home,” I said. “Cup of coffee first?”

“No thanks,” he said. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“When did all this start?” I asked, motioning to the newspapers.

“At Riker's Island,” he said. He put up a hand, as if to stop my thoughts from becoming words. “I know what you're thinking, what you hear on TV and read in the newspapers about us—but don't believe everything. We're essentially a religious organization, as you may or may not know.”

“I know,” I said.

“And it's meant a lot to me—I couldn't have made it without their help. They—they taught me to believe in myself.” His eyes glowed as he twisted his body toward me. “Can you understand that?” It seemed very important to him that I believe him. “Can you?” He relaxed momentarily and shrugged. “I don't believe everything they teach, of course, but I follow their precepts: I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't curse, I don't go out with women who aren't Muslims—I feel good inside, Mister Carter. Things are straightening themselves out.” He paused. “It hasn't been easy.”

“I know,” I said, and smiled.

He nodded, embarrassed, I thought. “I'm going back to school also—.”

“I'm glad.”

“Even my body feels good! I'm lifting weights again, too.” he said. Then he laughed and the sound tore through the warm night. His eyes were flashing with delight. “Oh man—someday I'll be the head of a whole damned army! Me and my old hunchback.” He laughed again, pleased with himself. Then his laughter subsided and he patted me on the shoulder. “Oh man, you are still so deep, so deep. Don't worry none, Mister Carter. I don't go around advocating no violence.” He chuckled. “I've got to go,” he said, extending a hand. “It's been good seeing you again. Sure you don't want to buy a copy?”

“I'm sure,” I said, shaking his hand. “Good luck to you, Luther. I'm glad to see you the way you are now—.”

“Thanks.” We looked at each other for a minute and he smiled warmly at me. Then I started toward the subway station. When I had crossed the street he called to me.

“Hey—Mister Carter—!”

I turned.

“Let me ask you something—do you still have that card I gave you?” He howled at this remark. “Oh man, I'd save that card if I were you! I'd do that. You never know when you might need it. You never know—.”

I started back across the street, toward him. He tossed his head back and roared with laughter. “You never know, you never know,” he repeated, and hurried away from me, laughing wildly. I stared at him until he disappeared in the darkness. Then I just stood there, dazed, unable to move—I don't know for how long. Finally I made myself turn around, and as I walked slowly toward the lights of Broadway all I could feel was the presence of his muscular body, powerful, gleaming, waiting under his white shirt, his clean suit.

About the Author




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