It’s been ten years since I drove through that neighborhood and ran across the old man, sitting in the window and staring out into the bleak winter street. Ten years, and I can still remember him as clearly as if it had happened only yesterday, as if I am right now driving up to the old yellow townhouse on Van Buren and seeing him there in the window, his black face ringed with a fringe of snow white hair cut close to his head, not moving at all.
“This is Blue,” the man who answered the door said.
I pulled up to the curb, parked, got out of my car, and walked up to the door. The old man’s eyes followed me, eyes that watched but didn’t move.
“He’s only been here since yesterday,” the man explained; “Been in Menard State Pen for thirty years.”
Not a ripple of movement from the old man in the window, except for his jaw, which had a tremor.
“He ain’t even been here long enough to get new clothes,” the man said; “Still wearing what they give him when he got out.”
The old man got to his feet, turned, and moved across the floor toward me, holding out a gnarled black hand. “I seen you come up the walk,” he said.
It was February, and the sky had settled down over Chicago and held everything in its grip. It hung over the city like a shroud; its dampness seeped into my bones. Getting out of the car, I turned my coat collar up and hurried across the sidewalk to the house. “This is the right one,” I said, looking up at the address, “625 Van Buren, that’s where I’m supposed to be.”
“It’s an old yellow townhouse,” the priest had said, “at the end of a row, nearest the corner. We haven’t got around to painting it yet.” He came around his desk and shook my hand. “I’ll call ahead to Pete Graves and let him know you’re coming. He’s the house manager.”
I thanked him and left.
The door was painted a deep chocolate brown. I pushed the bell and waited.
“What you here for?” the old man asked, sitting down in the easy chair across from me and sipping the cup of coffee Pete had poured.
“To do research,” I said. “Talk to people like yourself find out what brings you here, and what you think about it.”
“Don’t know what I think. didn’t know I was coming till day before yesterday. They just up and tells me: ‘Blue you can go home now. You’re outta here tomorrow.’ Christ! Just like that! Ain’t had time to think.” He set his cup on the coffee table and looked up at me.
I pushed the bell again and hunched down into my coat, wishing I had brought a hat along. I didn’t hear the footsteps. Suddenly the door opened and a short black man with almond eyes was saying: “You must be the man Father Mac called about. I’m Pete Graves.”
I held out a hand. “And I’m George,” I said, “Dixon.”
“Ain’t no one here but me and Blue,” he said; “the others are all out. But you can talk to him.”
“What do you want to know?” the old man asked.
“Anything you want to tell me,” I replied, taking the cup of coffee Pete Graves held out to me, sipping it and letting the warmth take hold. “Who you are, how long you spent in prison, what you think about being out; that kind of thing.”
“He’s an old fellow,” Pete said, taking me down the hall and into the living room where the old man sat on a chair by the window. “In the Joint for thirty years. Murdered somebody. He’s still a little new at being out.”
“Thirty years!” the old man said, running a hand through his white hair and scratching the bald crown of his head. “Ain’t that a long time to spend in the Joint!” He shook his head and looked toward the window. “I’d give up on getting out. Then, two days ago, the warden comes and calls me into his office and says: ‘Blue, you’re going home!’ Ain’t that fine! Fine!” He shook his head. “I give up on it years ago, it was killing me wanting to get out. Tried killing myself several times, back then, too, for it. Studied law. Tried every which way to beat that rap, but nothing worked. Not even killing myself. Just couldn’t do it. So I give up and just did my time. And now …” He shrugged. “I’m out. To what? Ain’t nothing I know no more; nothing I’m good for but sitting.
“Well, Blue,” Pete said, clearing his throat.
“Well, they ain’t!” Blue said, pulling up his pant legs and showing me his swollen ankles.
“Got a bad heart, so what can I do but set and look and walk up to the hospital for medicine? Can’t work. Sure can’t chase around none.”
“You’re too old for that anyway,” said Pete.
“Well, I’m only fifty-nine, and that ain’t old! My daddy …” and he fell silent and looked at the floor. “Prison’s what made me old. I got old in the Joint.” He held one gnarled hand in the other and was silent. Then he looked up, jabbed a finger at me, and said “So you want to hear? Well, I want to say!” And, pouring himself another cup of coffee and lighting up a cigarette, he began.
“Pete tells me he’s got a new man in the house,” the priest said; “A Lifer. Don’t expect him to say too much.”
“Sent me up for bumping off a guy what was fooling with my girl!” he said.
“We’ve been watching you, Blue,” the cop said. “And now we’ve got you dead to rights, and we’ll make it stick!” He took Blue out to the car and put him in the back, handcuffed.
“Thirty years!” Blue said,” for bumping off a guy that deserved to get what he got! I come home, and there was this cat in bed with my woman, and I grabs the butcher knife from the kitchen and cuts him good. The damn fool died, and that no account woman called the cops, screeching like a wildcat and shouting: “Help! Help! He’s killed Charley!” She never was no good, and I should of never come back from Indianapolis where I had me a good woman.” He pointed with a finger toward the Congress Expressway. “Happened right down there, where the street’s running.” He took another drag from his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke. “House ain’t even there no more. Ain’t nothing around that I recognize except this house. Ain’t changed a bit, except got older, like me.”
“Gutted him,” the cop said, pushing Blue into a chair. “Stuck the knife in the guy’s belly clean to the handle! Well, we’ll put him where he won’t do any more harm.”
”Ain’t never harmed nobody,” Blue said, the smoke from his Camel curling up around his face. “Never in my life, except that damn guy! Those cops was wrong. Never did nobody no harm. Of course, I was a good-living man!”
Pete let out a guffaw and said: “Yeah!”
“And the cops didn’t like that none.” He shook his head and scratched its bald crown. “My daddy told me once that folks got larceny in their hearts, and all I ever did was take advantage of that larceny.” His eyes got a twinkle in them, and he went on. “Oh, I had me some good times in them days! Used to take money off them smart guys, no trouble at all! Had me some good women, too!” He chuckled and scrubbed his chin with a hand. “I remember one girl down in Urbana, where the University is. She worked for some professor. I used to go down on the train once a week to see her. That girl, she loved me so nice!” He shifted in the chair and went on. “I used to get down there while she was still at work, go into her house and hide in the closet and wait. I’d leave my hat on the settee, so she’d see it right off, of course. Well, when she comes home she sees it there and hollers: ‘Blue, baby, where’s your skinny bones? Come outta there so I can see you!” And I’d step outta the closet and she’d grab me in a hug that’d near bust my ribs. Oh, she was some fine girl, that one! And big!”
“We’ll put him away for good,” the cop said to the one sitting behind the desk. “The girl said he busted in and cut this guy she was with. Claims Blue’d been bothering her.”
“Shee-it!” Blue said with a snort; “I was living with that girl, right on down the street there, where the road’s running! She lied in her teeth! Never should of give up that girl I had in Indianapolis. No sir! Never should of give her up! Stupidest thing I ever did was leave her and come back up here.”
“Blue,” she said, “If you don’t quit your drinking, we’re through! Damn your hide, anyway! All you do is sit around here all day and drink while I’m out working! I won’t have it anymore!”
“Ain’t no woman telling me what to do!” Blue said. “I was a bullheaded young buck back then! And dumb! Best woman I ever had, and I up and leaves her for that no account bitch up here what never did me nothin’ but trouble!” He wagged his head and took a sip from his cup. “Coffee’s cold, Pete.” He put it down and went on. “Sometimes young folks don’t have no sense. I was too damned smart for my own good. Oh, but I usedta be a wild-living man! Usedta have such good times around here. Before they tore all the places down.” He waved an arm.
There was Pinkoe’s Place. And Jim’s and the Blue Spot. “Over there where them buildings is,” he said, pointing toward the Congress Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. “I usedta have some good times at the Blue Spot! That’s where I got my name, you know. I hung out there so much, folks began calling me ‘Blue’.” He laughed, throwing his head back and slapping his hands on his knees. “Oh, yeah…!”
The preacher stood on the corner in front of the Blue Spot, holding a red leather Bible in the air. He was shouting: “Repent of your sins and come to Jesus!” The cords in his neck stood out and the veins throbbed as he spat the words into the street. People went on their way; went in and out of the Blue Spot, paying him not the slightest bit of attention; except for Blue, who stood in the doorway of the bar with a grin on his face, watching. “That man, he sure could shout! Was there every evening, never did no good. One night he spots this drunk coming up the street, a bottle in a sack, paying no never mind to anything but his walkin’, and this preacher hits him square in the face with his Bible words, and that drunk man was so scared he near messed his pants, this preacher standing on top of him shaking that Bible and spitting words out like they was bullets. That man lit out running. Ran right past me and into the bar and got stinking drunk. Never saw anything so funny in my life! Preacher used to do that every evening, and nobody did pay him no never mind, the whole time he was there. that was a evil corner, and we was all inta having us some good times, and I didn’t want to hear no preacher talk at all. Oh, I was a wild-living young man back then!
He reached into his suit coat and took out a pack of Camels, lit one and blew smoke in rings. Leaning back in the hair, he let out a sigh and closed his eyes. “I met her first night I was in Indianapolis. Never been there before, and decided I needed to see something else besides Chicago. So I took the train down there. Got in at night, around eight or nine, and went into this bar. Oh, weren’t nothing that woman wouldn’t do for old Blue!” Tears welled up in his eyes, and he wiped them away with a finger. “Yeah … that girl! She was the nicest woman I know in all my life. Never did one bad thing to me, not one. Right from the start, she was nice to me.”
“I’m Blue,” she said; “What’s your name?”
“Pearl. That’s a nice name. You by yourself?”
“Sure. Pull up a stool and set your skinny bones on it.”
“Oh, she was purty and nice, that girl!” he said; “I went home with her when the place closed up. Stayed for two years, too, right with her, never wanting nobody else; not one time.”
“Where you staying?” she said.
“No place yet,” Blue replied; “I just got into town from Chicago.”
“Oh,” she said, giving him a sideways glance and smiling. “Well, have another drink and come on home with me.”
“That’s the way it was,” he said. “That girl was so nice. And she dressed so fine, too; and had her a nice butt, too! And lips just so nice!” He sighed. “Thinking about her kept me alive in the Joint all these years. Sometimes I wants to die, and I gets to thinking about her, and I’d feel good again. She always made me feel good, that girl.” He looked mournfully down at the floor. “It was my drinking made me dumb,” he said. “I’d get so stubborn about it, I wouldn’t listen to no one. Not even her.”
“Blue, if you take one more drink, it’ll kill you.” Blue buttoned up his shirt and pretended not to hear what the doctor was saying.
“I don’t need no doctor!” he shouted at her.
“Oh yes, you do!” she shouted back; “And you’re going today, to se my doctor, and that’s that!” She glared at him. “I want to know what he has to say! You been drinking so much lately, you been sick. If you won’t go, we’re through, and that’s no fooling!”
“My, she could make a point, she could!” he said, cackling.
“Your liver is enlarged,” the doctor told him. He turned to the woman and said: “Be sure he doesn’t drink. Another drink’ll kill him.”
“And you know what I done?” Blue said, opening his eyes wide and looking at Pete and me.
“Soon as Pearl went back to work, I run down to the liquor store and buys me a fifth of whiskey, then goes to the bar-bee-que place and gets me some of the best bar-bee-ques in town, and goes back to her place, thinking, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die happy!’ I goes to her house, goes into the bathroom, fills up the tub with hot water, and gets in. I gets me a chair and puts it right upside the tub, and I puts the whiskey and the bar-bee-ques on it. Then, while I’m sitting and soaking, I eats the bar-bee-ques and drinks the whole damn fifth! Then I gets out, dries myself off, and goes and gets into bed. Next thing I know, Pearl’s there, hugging and kissing and biting me on the jaw!” He threw back his head and laughed until the tears came. “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven! She’s saying: ‘Oh, Honey! Blue, you ain’t dead, are you? You ain’t really dead!’ All the while weeping and hugging and carrying on. Sweet Jesus! I thought sure I’d died and waked up in Heaven, it was so nice!”
“Then she gets ma at me when she sees I’m alive and looking at her, and she commences beating on me and shouting because she’s found that damned bottle in by the tub, where I left it. Man, is she upset! Whooooeeee!
“Well, we made up and I quit drinking,” Blue went on. “Then, don’t know why, two, three years later, I up and left and came back up here, and got mixed up with that other girl, who did me nothing but trouble, whole time I know her.” He wagged his head. “Young folks do foolish things, sometimes, and I guess I had the itch to travel. Had to get me on the road. Just a damn fool itch. Heh!” He looked up at Pete and me. “Sometimes, sitting in the Joint, I’d get to wondering what happened to that Pearlie girl. I used to wonder if she thought about me the way I thought about her.” He took another sip from his cup and set it down. He looked down at the floor and scratched his head. “Probably not,” he said in a low voice, as if he were talking to himself; “I just up and takes off on her one day while she’s at work. Not much to remember about old Blue.”
“There was blood all over the place,” the cop said; “Guy never had a chance. Blue must’ve surprised him in bed with the woman.”
“And where did you find him?” the other cop said, indicating Blue with a nod of his head.
“In a closet.”
“Well, the judge’ll put him away for good for this one.”
“Yeah, and that’s good. The guy’s no damn good.”
The judge told him he’d spend the rest of his life in prison, and the bailiff took him by the arm and led him away. The girl told the court Blue had been pestering her for weeks. “He’s always hanging around,” she said; “I met him down at Pinkoe’s. Went out with him once, and he’s hanging around my place like a rat.” She didn’t say anything about Blue having lived with her for six months. “He busts in my place and kills my man, shouting and screaming and saying he’s gonna kill me, too, when he gets through with Charley.”
The old man got up and went over to the window and looked out into the street. “Ain’t nothing left,” he said, “but memories.” He pulled the curtain back to see better. “All them houses and street: gone!” He let the curtain drop and walked back and took his seat again. “I’ll have more coffee, if you don’t mind,” he said to Pete. Then he looked at me. “Don’t know why they lets me out. Don’t make no sense. Everything I know’s gone. No place to go. Don’t know nobody. Nothing left but my memories, all them things.
“The governor let all you old timers out,” I said.
He looked at me. “Don’t make no sense to me.”
“That’s the end of him,” the one cop said.
“Well, Blue,” Pete said; “you’re here now. And you wouldn’t want to go back to the Joint, would you?”
The old man opened his eyes wide. “Oh, No!” he said.
He was driven to the prison in a bus, with about twenty other men. It was winter. The bleak winter trees lifted their branches up to the gray sky looking like skinny bare arms. He looked out the window at the countryside rolling by. Alongside the highway was the railroad track. Tears welled up in his eyes. The tracks were going to Indianapolis.
Blue said: Well, now you know how I got here and what I think.” He held out his package of Camels. “Have one?”
I shook my head. “No; thanks anyway, but I don’t smoke.”
“Stay for lunch?” Pete asked.
“Sure, I’d love to.”
I went out to a bakery and got some sweet rolls, enough for us and for the rest of the men in the evening. I invited Blue to go along, but he wouldn’t. When lunch was done, I said good bye and left. It was all the time I had.
“Nice to talk to you,” Blue said, holding out a hand.
As I got into the car, I noticed he was back in his window. I switched on the ignition, put the car in gear, and pulled away from the curb. At the corner, I made a U-turn and went back down Van Buren. Blue was looking out into the street. I waved and he lifted a hand to me.
“We put him away for good this time,” the other cop said as the bailiff went out the courtroom door with Blue. The door swung shut and Blue was gone.