The Last Worthless Evening

BOOK: The Last Worthless Evening
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The Last Worthless Evening
Four Novellas and Two Short Stories

Andre Dubus

to Cadence

that whole hopeful continent dedicated as a refuge and sanctuary of liberty and freedom from what you called the old world's worthless evening…and He could have repudiated them since they were his creation now and forever throughout all their generations until not only that old world from which He had rescued them but this new one too which He had revealed and led them to as a sanctuary and refuge were become the same worthless tideless rock cooling in the last crimson evening

—William Faulkner,
The Bear


Deaths at Sea

After the Game

Dressed Like Summer Leaves

Land Where My Fathers Died



A Biography of Andre Dubus

Deaths at Sea

for William B. Goodman

2 July 1961

At sea

Hello Camille:

I suppose we fled the South. I still don't know. Maybe it was just time for us to leave, and be together away from Lafayette, where so many people have known us since we were babies. We've talked about this for four years, so why do I mention it again? Because of Willie Brooks.

And I think of you, alone in a quonset hut in Alameda, California, with officers' wives and not a Negro among them. And I'm on an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific, and Filipino stewards are the Navy's Negroes. They do the cooking and serving in the officers' wardroom, and they clean the officers' staterooms. It's like the life you and I, thank God, never had at home: those affluent people who had Negroes doing everything for them. Now, after my first months aboard the
, I believe my count is accurate: there are three Negro officers. Out of a ship's crew of thirty-five hundred men, and I don't know how many people in the Air Group we have aboard. Ah: I see you reading this, saying Wait a minute. And you're right. I did tell you there were only two, and both were with the squadrons, and were not part of the ship's company; and one is a flight surgeon, the other a personnel officer. No Negro pilot. But now we have a lieutenant junior grade of our own. He is in public relations. (He wants to work in radio or television when he gets out.) He is from Philadelphia. His name is Wilson Jason Brooks. And, Camille, he is my roommate.

Fate? God? Bill was transferred to a destroyer. That left a bunk in my room. Then Willie came aboard. So my flight from the South, if that's what it was, has indeed brought me further away. At first, when he knocked on the door and I opened it and saw his black face, hesitant but smiling, I believed I had come back full circle. But very soon, by the time I had shown him his desk next to mine, pointed out that we had our own lavatory and shaving mirror— which of course he could see, but I was talking talking
, in my shyness, my excitement, and yes: my fear—and by the time I had told him I slept in the upper bunk, but it didn't matter to me and he could sleep in whichever was more comfortable for him, I knew I had not come full circle. Because I was as far now from the South as I could imagine: I had a Negro roommate. Then I knew he would also be my friend, when he said: “I'll take the lower. You may have problems enough, without giving up your bed.”


“You didn't get that accent in New Jersey.”

“I'm Catholic,” I said.

He looked at me as if I had said I'm married, or I'm five-eleven, or I'm twenty-six years old. Then he laughed, a short one, but not forced: it came up from his chest, and he was smiling.

“Is that why you offered me your bed? Pope told you to?”

“I meant I was from south Louisiana. Cajuns and Creoles. French Catholics. I thought I talked like one.”

“Well, you don't sound like a cracker. But there
a trace, Gerry. Must've been some mean
hanging out in your neighborhood.”

“Are we going to shake hands?” I said. “Or stand here trying to guess how bad it could be?”

He extended his hand, a large one, and we squeezed each other, the way men do.
Never shake hands like a dead fish
, Mother told me. Why her, and not Daddy?

“Did I just get a cherry?” he said.

“Nope. Integrated college for my last three years. And in summer I worked construction with Negroes. And there was a man when I was a boy. Leonard. He mowed the lawn once a week. I liked him. And there
some mean Southern Baptists around. Mean Catholics too.”

“Calm down, man. It'll be all right. I'm scared shitless too.”

“Have you had trouble?”

“Who, me?”

Probably this sounds to you, reading a letter, more like a confrontation than a meeting. But it wasn't. You see—and you've told me that my face always shows what I'm feeling—he
how I felt. He could see it; almost smell it, he told me later. He said there was guilt in the very air of the room, and he knew from my eyes that I had not earned it but had simply grown up with it. Or, as he said later, in a bar in Yokosuka, I was like a man who had seen a lynching once and tried to stop it and got beat up and didn't get killed only because he was white and they already had a Negro to hang; and I blamed myself still, and could not stop blaming myself for throwing rocks at a wheatfield and not breaking one stalk.

We were at sea when Willie arrived. They flew him to the ship, and we stayed out for another week before going to Yokosuka. During the day, except Saturday afternoons and Sundays, we rarely saw each other. We woke together. We wake to his alarm now, because its ringing is softer than mine. That's almost a metaphor, isn't it? For—Oh, God, Camille; damn this distance and these letters. I want to hold you, let you hear me and feel me while I tell you this: I've told him all of it: about you, and me, and the two of us and Emmett Till and the night in the bar when I held my knife against that ignorant bastard's throat. Willie liked that. I mean, he was moved. But he covered it up quickly by saying: “And with a knife. I thought only my people carried blades.”

And I was relieved. For there was too much emotion between us that night, his fourth or fifth in our stateroom. Or too much of mine, as I told him of our sorrow and anger as witnesses, told this to a victim, but without guilt, as though we were talking about a disease he had survived, and I was telling of others suffering with it and dying, and I could do nothing for them but watch. That's it: we could have been talking of the flu epidemic in 1918. We were sitting in our desk chairs, the chairs turned so we faced each other. Then he said: “I'm glad you didn't kill him.”

He laid his hand on mine, resting on my desk. Then he lifted my hand and turned it, my palm to his, and squeezed.

“The old ten percent,” he said.


“People like you. When will it be ninety? And ninety of me, for that matter. We had no money, but my parents got us through college. I'm a Naval officer. You can't know what that means to them. They'll never have to put up new wallpaper. Not in my old bedroom, anyway. Unless they take down all those pictures of their boy Willie. In khakis. Blues. Whites. That's the funny one.”

“I understand.”

“I know you do.”

“But not about the ten percent like you.”

“That was bitterness. Sometimes you get so angry at the ones keeping you down, you get angry at your people who stay down. No. It's not ten percent. We're not Indians yet. They kept us alive.”

We wake together, and take turns shaving. He's a tall, broad man and, no, I haven't seen him naked yet, so forget that myth for a while. My devout Catholic and concupiscent Cajun wife. We have breakfast in the wardroom. Then I go to the Gunnery Department and he goes to the Public Relations Office and we meet again for lunch. I proposed this for the first few days, as I would to any new roommate, and at noon we wait for each other in the passageway outside the wardroom.

On the second or third day, as I waited for him, I realized that my excitement did not come only from finally having a chance to do more for Negroes than pray; I felt that redemption was at hand, for I could finally show my feelings, and the history of my feelings, to a Negro at close quarters. As close as his body is to mine. With only a smile, a greeting, a shared lunch. After work we get to the stateroom at four-thirty or so, and talk or read, then go to dinner at six. Since Bill left, I'm the senior lieutenant junior grade in the junior officers' wardroom; so, after the ringing of four bells, I must start the meal with the blessing. I say the only one I know, the Catholic one, and Willie enjoys this, sitting to my left or right—I sit at the head of the center table—and says he likes the prayer's brevity. And that I look like an aging altar boy when I say it.

26 July 1961

At sea

… and after eight days of it, two of those spent dry aboard ship because I was on duty, I do believe I'm still hung over. It's strange what being at sea does to you. Sometimes at sea, for even two weeks, I
of a beer once in a while. But I don't need one. Then we hit port and I go mad, drink as though I'm preparing for hibernation. Wonderful Japanese beer: Asahi, Kirin. Saki. Or Willie and I bring a fifth of Gordon's gin—for a dollar and a quarter— from the base to a bar where they sell us set-ups. Every time I go to sea I write you this, but I can't stop: like the need for booze, my loneliness is worse when I'm in port. Of course, because in every bar there are Japanese bar girls, and it is not their faces and bodies and their kimonos and obis, lovely as all of those are, that make my loneliness so deep that it approaches grief. It's their voices, whether in faltering and comic English, or chattering (or so it seems) in that rapid falling and rising like surf—if surf sang like a bird. I can read French and Spanish and Latin and can even converse, slowly, in all three, but even now, on my fourth Pacific tour, I cannot distinguish Japanese syllables, detect the end of a sentence or the start of one. Still, it is their voices. And, as I told you on my very first deployment out here, I do not feel lust. Lust would be easier to deal with. My hand. And I no longer confess it; I do not believe God concerns Himself with the built-up semen of sailors. I did
mean that as a pun. No, not lust: loneliness. And no hand can assuage it; nor could the body of another woman. I want to be home, and I wonder whether I can actually stay for twenty or twenty-five years in the Navy. But how else can I work on the sea? There must be a way. If there isn't, I'm afraid I'll become landlocked; or maybe I can teach history near at least a coast. Soon now I'll be a full lieutenant.

I think booze and loneliness are paradoxically much less of a problem at sea than in port because I change when I board the ship, knowing we'll be out for a week, ten days, two weeks. It's like taking a minor vow, like the senior retreat in high school, when for three days we could not speak, except to pray and to confess. Then we return to port and most of us drink too much and many husbands are unfaithful, and perhaps their wives or other wives are too in Alameda, and I cannot find blame in any of them. Willie is married, and they have a year-old son, and he and I do what my (faithful) married friends and I have always done: we don't drink with the women. Willie's wife is Louisa, and she's still in San Diego, his last port before coming to the
, and she won't move up to Alameda till we return from sea in January. I wish she would move there now. So you could meet her. Their son is Jimmy.

In Yokosuka Willie eased my loneliness. Not as my other friends do, by sharing it, by talking of their wives and children. (When will we have a child? We're the only practicing Catholics we know who don't even use rhythm and are still childless, while the others have babies year after year and are in despair and moving closer to a time when they will leave the Church. Everything is mysterious. Perhaps that is why I love the sea.) No, Willie eased my loneliness by being a Negro, giving me the blessing of drinking and talking with him, giving me a reprieve from my childhood when I could only watch them and listen. A reprieve too from our last three years in college when, finally integrated, there was too much history for us and the Negro students to overcome; we were overwhelmed by it, and we softly crept over its surface, by speaking politely to each other, by nodding and smiling in the halls and on the campus grounds. The Japanese girls want Willie: they are childlike, gleeful, and shy with him; and some want to press their small palms against his. He allows this, and courteously tells them he is married and a
and no butterfly boy. Too bad, they say, and tell him their names. Maybe next time
come Yokosuka you change mind. Then Willie and I drink.

BOOK: The Last Worthless Evening
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