JUNE 14, 1830
Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. In my case, it was a spirited Boston schoolteacher named Isadora Bailey who led me to become a cook aboard the Republic. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison, a brief stay in the stony oubliette of the Spanish Calabozo (or a long one at the bottom of the Mississippi), or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment—especially if you knew Isadora. So I went to sea, sailing from Louisiana on April 14, 1830, hoping a quarter year aboard a slave clipper would give this relentless woman time to reconsider, and my bill collectors time to forget they’d ever heard the name Rutherford Calhoun. But what lay ahead in Africa, then later on the open, endless sea, was, as I shall tell you, far worse than the fortune I’d fled in New Orleans.
New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois—a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda—that I dropped my bags and a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue in a whispered, “Here, Rutherford is home.” So it seemed those first few months to the country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To the newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment. Mulattos colored like magnolia petals, quadroons with breasts big as melons—women who smelled like roses all year round. Home? Brother, for a randy Illinois boy of two and twenty accustomed to cornfields, cow plops, and handjobs in his master’s hayloft, New Orleans wasn’t home. It was Heaven. But even paradise must have its back side too, and it is here (alas) that the newcomer comes to rest. Upstream there were waterfront saloons and dives, a black underworld of thieves, gamblers, and ne’er-do-wells who, unlike the Creoles downstream (they sniffed down their long, Continental noses at poor, purebred Negroes like myself), didn’t give a tinker’s damn about my family tree and welcomed me as the world downstream would not.
In plain English, I was a petty thief.
How I fell into this life of living off others, of being a social parasite, is a long, sordid story best shortened for those who, like the Greeks, prefer to keep their violence offstage. Naturally, I looked for honest work. But arriving in the city, checking the saloons and Negro bars, I found nothing. So I stole—it came as second nature to me. My master, Reverend Peleg Chandler, had noticed this stickiness of my fingers when I was a child, and a tendency I had to tell preposterous lies for the hell of it; he was convinced I was born to be hanged and did his damnedest to reeducate said fingers in finer pursuits such as good penmanship and playing the grand piano in his parlor. A Biblical scholar, he endlessly preached Old Testament virtues to me, and to this very day I remember his tedious disquisitions on Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme. He’d wanted me to become a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint like the South American priest Martín de Porres—or, for that matter, my brother Jackson. Yet, for all that theological background, I have always been drawn by nature to extremes. Since the hour of my manumission—a day of such gloom and depression that I must put off its telling for a while, if you’ll be patient with me—since that day, and what I can only call my older brother Jackson’s spineless behavior in the face of freedom, I have never been able to do things halfway, and I hungered—literally hungered—for life in all its shades and hues: I was hooked on sensation, you might say, a lecher for perception and the nerve-knocking thrill, like a shot of opium, of new “experiences.” And so, with the hateful, dull Illinois farm behind me, I drifted about New Orleans those first few months, pilfering food and picking money belts off tourists, but don’t be too quick to pass judgment. I may be from southern Illinois, but I’m not stupid. Cityfolks lived by cheating and crime. Everyone knew this, everyone saw it, everyone talked ethics piously, then took payoffs under the table, tampered with the till, or fattened his purse by duping the poor. Shameless, you say? Perhaps so. But had I not been a thief, I would not have met Isadora and shortly thereafter found myself literally at sea.
Sometimes after working the hotels for visitors, or when I was drying out from whiskey or a piece of two-dollar tail, I would sneak off to the waterfront, and there, sitting on the rain-leached pier in heavy, liquescent air, in shimmering light so soft and opalescent that sunlight could not fully pierce the fine erotic mist, limpid and luminous at dusk, I would stare out to sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth’s rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom—all the bilge that made each day landside a kind of living death. I don’t know if you’ve ever farmed in the Midwest, but if you have, you’ll know that southern Illinois has scale; fields like sea swell; soil so good that if you plant a stick, a year later a carriage will spring up in its place; forests and woods as wild as they were before people lost their pioneer spirit and a healthy sense of awe. Only here, on the waterfront, could I recapture that feeling. Wind off the water was like a fist of fresh air, a cleansing blow that made me feel momentarily clean. In the spill of yellow moonlight, I’d shuck off my boots and sink both feet into the water. But the pier was most beautiful, I think, in early morning, when sunlight struck the wood and made it steam as moisture and mist from the night before evaporated. Then you could believe, like the ancient philosopher Thales, that the analogue for life was water, the formless, omnific sea. Businessmen with half a hundred duties barnacled to their lives came to stare, longingly, at boats trolling up to dock. Black men, free and slave, sat quietly on rocks coated with crustacea, in the odors of oil and fish, studying an evening sky as blue as the skin of heathen Lord Krishna. And Isadora Bailey came too, though for what reason I cannot say—her expression on the pier was unreadable—since she was, as I soon learned, a woman grounded, physically and metaphysically, in the land. I’d tipped closer to her, eyeing the beadpurse on her lap, then thought better of boosting it when I was ambushed by the innocence—the alarming trust—in her eyes when she looked up at me. I wondered, and wonder still: What’s a nice girl like her doing in a city like this?
She was, in fact, as out of place in New Orleans as Saint Teresa would be at an orgy with de Sade: a frugal, quiet, devoutly Christian girl, I learned, the fourth daughter of a large Boston family free since the Revolutionary War, and positively ill with eastern culture. An educated girl of twenty, she thought it best to leave home to lighten her family’s burden, but found no prospects for a Negro teacher, and female at that, in the Northeast. She came south by coach, avoiding the newfangled trains after reading an expert say that traveling at over twenty miles an hour would suffocate all aboard when the speed sucked all the air from the cars. Once in New Orleans, she took a job as a nursery governess for the children of Madame Marie Toulouse, a Creole who had spent her young womanhood as the mistress of first a banker, then a famous actor, a minister, and finally a mortician. Why these four? As Madame Toulouse told Isadora, she’d used the principle of “one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go,” and they’d left her generous endowments that she invested in a hotel at Royal and Saint Peter’s streets. But Isadora was not, I’m afraid, any happier living in a Creole household than I would have been. They were beautiful; she was bookish. They were society here; she was, as a Northerner, the object of polite condescension—the Toulouses, in short, could afford the luxury of stupidity, the blind, cowlike, chin-lifted hauteur of Beautiful People. And such luxury Isadora had never known. You had the feeling, once you knew her, that she’d gambled on knowledge as others gambled on power, believing—wrongly, I think—that she had little else to offer. She let herself get fat, for example, to end the pressure women feel from being endlessly ogled and propositioned. Men hardly noticed her, pudgy as she was, and this suited Isadora just fine. She had a religious respect for Work. She was a nervous eater too, I guess, the sort of lonely, intelligent woman who found comfort in food, or went to restaurants simply to be treated kindly by the waiters, to be fussed over and served, to be asked, “Is everything all right here?”
Yet she was pretty in a prim, dry, flat-breasted way. Isadora never used make-up. At age five she had been sentenced to the straightening comb, and since then kept her hair pinned back so tightly each glossy strand stood out like wire, which also pulled back the skin at her temples, pushing forward a nose that looked startlingly like a doorknob, and enlarging two watery, moonlike eyes that seemed ever on the verge of tears. No, she wasn’t much to look at, nor was the hotel room where she lived with eight one-eyed cats, two three-legged dogs, and birds with broken wings. Most often, her place had a sweet, atticlike odor, but looked like a petshop and sometimes smelled like a zoo. Isadora took in these handicapped strays, unable to see them left unattended, and each time I dropped by she had something new. No, not a girl to tell your friends about, but one reassuring to be with because she had an inner brilliance, an intelligence and clarity of spirit that overwhelmed me. Generally she spoke in choriambs and iambs when she was relaxed, which created a kind of dimetrical music to her speech. Did I love Isadora? Really, I couldn’t say. I’d always felt people fell in love as they might fall into a hole; it was something I thought a smart man avoided.
But some days, after weeks of whoring and card games that lasted three days and nights, I found myself at her hotel room, drunk as Noah, broke and bottomed out, holding a bouquet of stolen flowers outside her door, eager to hear her voice, which was velvety and light like water gently rushing nearby. We’d sit and talk (she abhorred Nature walks, claiming that the only thing she knew about Nature was that it itched), her menagerie of crippled beasts crawling over her lap and mine. Those afternoons of genteel conversation (Isadora wouldn’t let me do anything else) we talked of how we both were newcomers to New Orleans, or we took short walks together, or we’d dine at sidewalk cafés, where we watched the Creoles. My earliest impressions of the Cabildo, the fancy-dress quadroon balls and slave auctions arranged by the firm of Hewlett & Bright each Saturday at the new Exchange Market (ghastly affairs, I must add, which made poor Isadora a bit ill), were intertwined with her voice, her reassuring, Protestant, soap-and-water smell. Aye, she was good and honest and forthright, was Isadora. Nevertheless, at other times she was intolerable. She was, after all, a teacher, and couldn’t turn it off sometimes, that tendency to talk in propositions, or declarative sentences, to correct my southern Illinois accent, with its squashed vowels and missing consonants, and challenge everything I said on, I thought, General Principle.
“Rea-a-ally, Rutherford”, she said one afternoon in her sitting room, her back to a deep-silled window where outside a pear tree was in full bloom, its fruit like a hundred green bells draped upon the branches. “You don’t think you can keep this up forever, do you? The gambling and girl-chasing?” She gave her gentle, spinster’s smile and, as always, looked at me with a steadier gaze than I could look at her. “You have a mind. And, if what you tell me is true, you’ve lacked for nothing in this life. Am I right in saying this? Neither in childhood education nor the nourishment of a sound body and Christian character?”
I gave her a nod, for this was so. Though a slaveholder, Reverend Chandler hated slavery. He’d inherited my brother and me from his father and, out of Christian guilt, taught us more than some white men in Makanda knew, then finally released us one by one, except that Jackson stayed, more deeply bound to our master than any of us dreamed. But I am not ready just yet to talk of Jackson Calhoun.
“So you were,” Isadora asked, toying with her teacup, “blessed with reasonably pleasant surroundings and pious counsel?”
I nodded again, squirming a little. Always, and eerily, I had the feeling that Isadora knew more about me than I did.
“Then aren’t you obliged, given these gifts, to settle down and start a family so you can give to others in even greater measure?” Her eyes went quiet, closing as if on a vision of her and me at the altar. “My father, you know, was a little like you, Rutherford, or at least my aunties say he was. He stayed in Scolley Square or in the pubs, looking for himself in rum and loose women until he met a woman of character—I mean my mother—who brought out his better instincts.”
“What’s he doing now?” I rested my teacup on my knee. “Your father?”
“Well . . .” She pulled back, pausing to word this right. “Not much just now. He died last winter, you know, from heart failure.”
Wonderful, I thought: The wage of the family man was coronary thrombosis. “And,” I said, “he was how old?”
“Forty-nine.” Then Isadora hurried to add, “But he had people who cared for him, daughters and sons, and a wife who brought him down to earth. . . .”
“Indeed,” I said. “Quite far down, I’d say.”
“Rutherford!” she yipped, her voice sliding up a scale. “It hurts me to see you in such ruin! Really, it does! Half the time I see you, you haven’t eaten in two days. Or you’re hung over. Or someone is chasing you for money. Or you’ve been in a fight! You need a family. You’re not—not common!”
Ah, there it was, revealed at last, the one thing inside Isadora that made me shudder. It was what you heard all your blessed life from black elders and church women in flowered gowns: Don’t be common. Comb your hair. Be a credit to the Race. Strive, like the Creoles, for respectability. Class. It made my insides clench. Oh, yes, it mattered to me that Isadora cared, but she saw me as clay. Something she could knead beneath her tiny brown fingers into precisely the sort of creature I—after seeing my brother shackled to subservience—was determined not to become: “a gentleman of color.” The phrase made me hawk, then spit in a corner of my mind. It conjured (for me) the image of an Englishman, round of belly, balding, who’d been lightly brushed with brown watercolor or cinnamon.
“No, Isadora.” I shook my head. “I don’t believe I’ll ever get married. There’s too much to do. And see. Life is too short for me to shackle myself to a mortgage and marriage.” I was a breath away from adding, “And a houseful of gimped cats,” but thought it best to bite my tongue.
Her eyes took on a woebegone, persecuted look, a kind of dying-duck expression she had now and then: She stared at me for the longest time, then flashed, “You just won’t act right, will you?” Touching her handkerchief to the doorknob nose, she stood suddenly, her cat leaping from her enskirted knees and bumping blindly into a candlestand. Isadora took three paces toward the door—I thought she was about to throw me out—then turned to pitch her voice back into the room. “Suppose you have to get married, Rutherford Calhoun!” Now her eyes burned. “What about that?”
What Isadora meant by this was a mystery to me. She couldn’t be pregnant. Not her. At least not by me—she twisted my fingers whenever I reached for her knee. Have to marry her? It made no sense that afternoon, but less than a fortnight later her meaning became horribly clear.
Near the waterfront, after a day of dodging my creditors and shooting craps, I turned a corner and found myself facing a Negro named Santos, a kind of walking wrecking crew who pretty much ran things down on the docks for a Creole gangster known by the name of Philippe “Papa” Zeringue. Some masters, as you know, groomed their slaves to be gladiators: the Africans with a reach, or thickness of skull, or smoldering anger that, if not checked, would result in slave rebellion. So it was with Santos. He’d been a dirt-pit wrestler on a Baton Rouge plantation, and made his master, John Ruffner, a fortune in bare-knuckle fights he arranged for him with blacks from other farms. Freed by Ruffner, undefeated, and itching for trouble, he’d next come to New Orleans, and fell, as many did, into the orbit of life upstream. You have seen, perhaps, sketches of Piltdown man? Cover him with coal dust, add deerskin leggings and a cutaway coat tight as wet leather, and you shall have Santos’s younger, undernourished sister.
This upright disaster was in the oval light of a lamppost on Royal Street as I passed. He was gnawing a stolen ham. Behind him two policemen stood, tapping their nightsticks on their palms. “Come along now, Santos,” said one. “Don’t make trouble. That ham’ll cost you a month in the Calabozo.” Santos went right on chewing, his small, quick eyes half-seeled in gastronomic bliss. And then, without warning, both policemen smashed him full on both sides of his temples with their nightsticks. They’d each taken half steps back too, putting their waists and full weight into the swing. One nightstick broke with a sickening crack, the other vibrated in the officer’s hand as if wood had struck wood. As for Santos, he only looked up sleepily. Said, “Now what’d you do that fo’?”
No fools, the policemen flew past me, Santos’s eyes on their flapping waistcoats until his gaze lighted upon me. “Illinois!” he said—or, rather his sweaty voice rumbled and rattled windows along the street. “Ain’t you Rutherford Calhoun from Illinois?”
I shook my head and took a step backward.
“Dammit, you are Calhoun! Don’t lie! Papa been lookin’ fo’ you, boy!”
I touched my chest. “Me?”
“Yes, you, nigguh.” He came forward, seizing my arm. “He wants to talk to you ’bout somethin’ you owe him.” I told him that surely he was mistaken, that indeed I owed several people within a mile circumference of the city—my landlady Mrs. Dupree; Mr. Fenton the moneylender; and the vendors too—but I’d never met Papa. How could I owe him? None of this washed with Santos, a man with whom you didn’t argue, because he looked exactly like what he was: an athlete gone slightly to seed, with maybe thirty pounds of muscle alchemizing to fat on his upper body. He’d be dead by forty from the strain on his heart—the extra bulk had scrunched down his spine, I heard, shortening him by two inches, but no matter. He was bigger than me. Silently he steered me, his right hand on the back of my collar, to a tavern owned by Papa on Chartres Street, a one-story building of English-bond brickwork, with sunken, uneven floors, and windows with old, diamond-paned lattices, pushing me through the door to a table at the rear of the room where Papa sat eating a meal of drop-biscuits and blueberries with—my heart jumped!—Isadora! Of a sudden, I had that special feeling of dread that comes when you enter a café and stumble upon two women you used to sleep with—who you’d have sworn were strangers but were now whispering together. About you by God! She looked up as I scuffed jelly-legged to the table, and her eyes, I tell you, were indecipherable.
“Isadora,” I gulped, “you know these people!”
She gave Papa, in fact, a very knowing smile.
“We just met to discuss a business arrangement that affects you, Rutherford. I’m sure you’ll be interested to hear what Mr. Zeringue and I have decided.” Isadora touched a napkin to her lips, then stood up. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
She seemed to take all the available air in the room with her as she sashayed outside, mysteriously happier than I’d seen her in months. For an instant I could not catch my breath. Papa sat with a napkin tucked into his collar. He was holding a soup spoon dripping with blueberry jelly in his right hand when I extended my hand and introduced myself; this spoon he slapped against my palm and, having nothing else to shake, I shook that. Santos roared.
“Sir, you wanted to see me abo—”
“Don’t say nothin’, Calhoun.”
If there were musical instruments that fit this man’s voice, that would ring from the orchestra, say, if he appeared on stage, they would be the bull fiddle, tuba, and slide trombone (Isadora was all strings, a soft flick of the lyre), a combination so guttural and brutish, full of grunts and deep-throated notes, that I cannot say his voice put me at ease. Nor this room. It had the atmosphere you feel in houses where some great “Murder of the Age” has taken place. My worst fears about him were confirmed. He was, in every sense of the word, the very Ur-type of Gangster. Fiftyish, a brown-skinned black man with gray-webbed hair, he dressed in rich burgundy waistcoats and had a princely, feudal air about him, the smell of a man who loved Gothic subterfuges and schemes, deceits, and Satanic games of power. Yet, despite his wealth, and despite the extravagant riverboat parties I heard he threw—bashes that made Roman bacchanals look like a backwoods flangdang—he was a black lord in ruins, a fallen angel who, like Lucifer, controlled the lower depths of the city—the cathouses, the Negro press, the gambling dens—but held his dark kingdom, and all within it, in the greatest contempt. He was wicked. Wicked and self-serving, I thought, but why did he want to see me?
“I suppose,” said Papa, as if he’d read my mind, “you wanna know why I had Santos bring you heah.”
Indeed, I did.
“It’s simple—you owe me, Illinois.” I started to protest, but his left hand flew up, and he said, “First thing you gotta learn, I reckon, is that it’s rude to talk when I’m talkin’, and that I don’t mind gettin’ rid of people who have the bad manners to cut me off in mid-sentence. Most people are so confused, you know, ’bout life and what’s right that it ain’t completely wrong to take it from ’em.” He paused as a waiter came to the table, topping off his coffee, then drilled his gaze at me. “Now, you ain’t one of them people, I kin tell.”
“Nossir,” I said.
Papa’s brow went dark. “You just did it again, Calhoun.”
Quietly, biting my lips, I thought, Sorry!
“ ’Bout this debt now.” He began working a grain of food from his front teeth with his fingernail. “You know that li’l boardinghouse for cullud folks run by Mrs. Dupree?”
I didn’t like where this was leading, and found myself disliking him too, but gave him a nod.
“I own it.” His eyes narrowed. “Fact is, I own her, and she tells me you’re three months behind in yo’ rent. And that li’l moneylender Fenton—you know him?”
I bobbed my head.
“I own him too, so you might as well say I’m the one holdin’ the bad paper, promises, and IOUs that you been handin’ out like flyers. It comes to mebbe fifty thousand francs, I figure, and we all know a farthing-and-sixpence hoodlum like you can’t even afford the down payment on a glass of lemonade.” Looking square at me, he shook his head. “If all cullud men was like you, Calhoun, I ’spect the Race would be extinct by now.”
Papa offered me a cigar, but my hands trembled so violently that I used four locofocos before the flame took to the end. “Now, a man should pay his debts, it seems to me.” He placed a finger thoughtfully on one side of his nose and ordered me to sit down. “That’s how worldly things work, Calhoun. The Social Wheel, as I unnerstand it after forty years in business for myself, is oiled by debts, each man owing the other somethin’ in a kinda web of endless obligations. Normally,” he added, “if a man welched on me like you done, he’d find hisself on the riverbottom. But you are truly blessed, Calhoun. I daresay you have divine protection. You are indeed watched over and loved by one of God’s very own angels.”
This was all news to me. “I am?”
“Uh-huh. That schoolteacher Miss Bailey has saved yo’ behind. Out of the goodness of her heart, she has come forward and offered to liquidate yo’ debts with her meager savings, provided you agree—as I know you will—to the simple condition of holy matrimony.”
“But that’s blackmail”
“Yes,” said Papa, nodding. “Yes, it is. I’m acquainted with the technique, son.”
“She can’t do this!” I sat biting my fingers in rage. “It’s . . . it’s criminal!”
Santos raised his eyebrows. “Look who’s talkin’.”
“And it’s done,” said Papa. “Tomorrow you and Miss Bailey will be wed. I wouldn’t miss that ceremony, if I was you. It would cancel our arrangement, and I’d have to return Miss Bailey’s money, and you’d be in debt again.” His eyes bent slowly up to me. “You do wanna erase yo’ debts, don’t you?”
“Nossir . . . I mean, yessir!” I eased back off my chair. “But you say the wedding is tomorrow?”
“At noon. And I’ll be givin’ Miss Bailey away. Santos heah will be yo’ best man.” His factotum grinned. Papa reached his ringed fingers toward my hand and pumped it. “Congratulations, Calhoun. I know you two are gonna be happy together.”
For the rest of that day, and most of the night, I had cold shakes and fits of fear-induced hiccuping. Stumbling from the tavern, I felt light-headed, ready to fall, and slapped one hand on the wall outside to steady myself. Isadora came up behind me. She threaded her arm through mine, supporting me as I walked, dazed, toward the waterfront. Yes, I’d underestimated her. She’d wiped my nose with my own handkerchief; with my own bread she’d baked me a tart. “Tell me”—she squeezed my arm—“what you’re thinking.”
“You are not. . . hic . . . to be believed, Isadora!”
“Thank you.” She hugged my arm tighter and rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m doing this for your own good, Rutherford.”
“The hell you are! I’m not getting married! Never!”
“Yes, you are.” Her voice was full of finality. “And someday when we are very old, have grandchildren, and you look back upon this rackety free-lance life you’ve led from the advantage of the comfortable home and family we’ve built together, you will thank me.”
“I will . . . hic . . . despise you! Is that what you want? You’re twisting my cullions, but you haven’t won my consent!” I grabbed her arms and shook her hard enough to dislodge her hat and send her hair flying loose from its pins. “Why are you doing this?”
Bareheaded like that, with hair swinging in her eyes, the change came over Isadora, a collapsing of her lips inward against her teeth, the blood rising to her cheeks as if I’d suddenly struck her. One by one, she peeled my fingers off her arms, then stepped away from me, drawing up her shoulders, her hair wilder now than that of a witch.
“Because I love you . . . you fool! . . . and I don’t know what to do about it because you don’t love me! I know that! I’m not blind, Rutherford.” She began gathering hairpins off the boardwalk, sticking them any which way back into her head. “It’s because I’m not . . . not pretty. No, don’t say it! That is why. Because I’m dark. You’d rather have a beautiful, glamorous, light-skinned wife like the women in the theaters and magazines. It’s what all men want, someone they can show off and say to the world, ’See, look what I’m humping!’ But she’d worry you sorely, Rutherford—I know that—you’d be suspicious of every man who came to the house, and your friends too, and she’d be vain and lazy and squander your money on all sorts of foolish things, and she’d hate having children, or doing housework, or being at your side when you’re sick, but I can make you happy!” We were drawing a crowd, she noticed, and lowered her voice, sniffling a little as she tried to push her hat back into shape. “I’d hoped that you’d learn to love me the way I love you . . .”
“Isadora,” I struggled. “It’s not like that. I do love you. It’s just that I don’t want to marry anyone . . .”
“Well, you’re getting married tomorrow, or I’m taking back my money.” Isadora rammed her hat, hopelessly ruined, down over her ears, her eyes still blazing. “You choose, Rutherford Calhoun, whichever way you like.”
And there she left me, standing by the docks in a lather of confusion. Never in my life had anyone loved me so selflessly, as the hag in the Wife of Bath’s Tale had loved her fickle knight, but despite this remarkable love, I was not, as I say, ready for marriage. If you must know, I didn’t feel worthy of her. Her goodness shamed me. I turned into the first pub I found, one frequented by sailors, a darkly lit, rum-smelling room about fourteen feet square, with a well-sanded floor and a lamp that hung within two feet of the tables, stinking of whale oil. The place was packed with seamen. All armed to the eyeballs with pistols and cutlasses, scowling and jabbering like pirates, squirting jets of brown tobacco juice everywhere except in the spittoons—a den of Chinese assassins, scowling Moors, English scoundrels, Yankee adventurers, and evil-looking Arabs. Naturally, I felt pretty much right at home. I sat near the window beside an old mariner in a pair of shag trousers and a red flannel shirt, who was playing with his parrot, an African gray, and drinking hot brandy grog. I ordered a gin twist, then tried to untangle this knot Isadora had tightened around me.
She was as cunning as a Byzantine merchant—that was clear—but I couldn’t rightly fault her. She’d known her share of grief, had Isadora. Her mother Viola, she’d told me, died when she was three, which meant that she and her sisters had no one to teach them to think like independent, menless Modern Women—it was something you learned, she implied, like learning how to ride a bicycle, or do the backstroke. Certainly her father was no help. Isaiah Bailey was a wifebeater, that’s how Viola died, and once she was buried he started punching Isadora and her sisters around on Saturday nights after visiting his still. Yet, miraculously, Isadora had remained innocent. There was no hatred in her. Or selfishness. No vanity, or negativism. Some part of her, perhaps the part she withdrew when Isaiah started whaling on her, remained untouched, a part she fed in the local African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shored up with Scripture: a still, uncorrupted center like the Chinese lotus that, though grown in muck and mud, remained beautifully poised and pure. But shy too. Seeing horses defecate on the street made Isadora blanch. She was constitutionally unable to swear. When she was angry, her lips would form a four-letter word, then freeze, as if she’d been chewing alum. A part of me ached to be with her always, to see that only things of beauty and light came before her. Would marrying her be so bad? That night, a little before dawn, I had a vision of how that union would be in decades to come—eighteen thousand six hundred and ninety-three cups of watery sassafras tea for breakfast, and in each of these I would find cat fur or pigeon feathers. No, it was not a vision to stir a soul that longed for high adventure.
After the gin, five pitchers of beer emptied before me; the sailors thinned out, but still I sat, knowing that each hour brought me closer to the bondage of wedlock. Behind me, I heard first a burp, then the gravelly voice of the now drunken sailor in shag trousers. “Yo-ho, there, young un!” He held up a flagon of grog, his fifth, which he’d only half finished. “Ye can take this, my dear, if you’ve a mind to. Josiah Squibb’s had enough for one night.”
“Much obliged . . . Squibb, is it?” I took his flagon in my left hand and his thick, rough hand in my right. “You’ve put away quite a lot. A man would think you’re going to a hanging, friend.”
“Worse,” said Squibb. “I’m shipping out tomorrow with Captain Ebenezer Falcon. Good as a hangin’, that, to hear some men tell it. He’s a descendant of Colonel Blood who stole the crown jewels, some say, a buccaneer at heart, and proud of it.” Blearily he lit a long-shanked pipe and studied me through eyes too bloodshot, really, to see. “Ye drink a lot y’self, boy. Got problems, have ye?”
“Marriage,” I told him. “Tomorrow at noon.”
“Blimey!” Squibb sat back, stunned, his chair creaking. “Ye have got a problem. Oh, I know about wives all right. Got a couple myself—one in Connecticut, and one in Vermont. That’s why I ship out. What say I buy yuh a round?”
Josiah Squibb, I learned, had signed on as a cook aboard the Republic, a ninety-ton square-rigger that would up-anchor and sail eastward against the prevailing winds to the barracoon, or slave factory, at Bangalang on the Guinea coast, take on a cargo of Africans, and then, God willing, return in three months. “There she be.” Squibb stabbed his pipestem toward the window, and the ship he showed me from this distance was strikingly beautiful, a great three-masted, full-rigged bark with a roundtuck hull, grated hatches and bulkheads cut round the deck for circulation. As it turned out, these were the last words from Squibb. Halfway through our last drink, his forehead crashed down upon the table. And his papers . . . ah, these were rolled cylindrically inside his right boot. I thought, Naw, Calhoun, you can’t do that, but at that selfsame instant I remembered what awaited me at the altar, and I decided most definitely, Yes, I can.
“Bad move,” said the parrot. “Very bad move.”
I said, “Shut up.”
Transferring Squibb’s papers to my coat, I eased away from the table whilst he snored. “Thief! Thief!” shouted the parrot, but fortunately he could not shatter the cook’s heavy-headed sleep. I slipped outside into a shock of cool air and ran down the pier to a cluster of small boats rocking lazily to and fro on the water. I unfastened the rope to one, paddled out toward the Republic, then hauled myself hand over hand up a rope ladder to the topgallant bulwark, and over onto a broad empty deck. The crew had not come aboard yet. Standing aft, looking back at the glittering lights ashore, I had an odd sensation, difficult to explain, that I’d boarded not a ship but a kind of fantastic, floating Black Maria, a wooden sepulcher whose timbers moaned with the memory of too many runs of black gold between the New World and the Old; moaned, I say again, because the ship—with its tiered compartments and galleys, like a crazy-quilt house built by a hundred carpenters, each with a different plan—felt conscious and disapprovingly aware of my presence when I pulled back the canvas on a flat-bottomed launch and laid myself down in its hull, which was long and narrow, both hands crossed on my chest. And then waves lapping below the ship gently swung me left then right as in a hammock, sinking me like a fish, or a stone, farther down through leagues of darkness, and mercifully to sleep.
It is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is desperate to escape unscrupulous bill collectors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher. He jumps aboard the first boat leaving New Orleans, the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a daring voyage of horror and self-discovery.
Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and philosophical novel.
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Posted by Mark Sarvas
I was introduced to Charles Johnson’s novels by my writing teacher, Steven Corbin, who insisted I drop everything and read Middle Passage, which had recently won the National Book Award for fiction. I fell hard for the novel, swept away by the...