The Cause
by George Dickerson
[Part Two of Two. See February issue, Archive. Ed.]

           It wasn't until Cliff had gone out the front door that he appeared aware that Sarah Jones was accompanying him. Her body moved with a maidenly, unself-conscious swaying. Her clothes rustled lightly, like magnolia leaves teased by the wind.
           Cliff couldn't see her features in the pervasive darkness, but she might have been expressing timidity or perhaps a deep contemplation, for her head was bent down as she walked.
           They didn't speak until they reached her home, and then Cliff asked, "Was Pharr only mocking me or will he really help?"
           "Mistuh Pharr, he's a good man, he's educated up Nawth. He's a good man," Sara said with conviction carried by the husky timbre of her voice, her dark face still hidden by the greater darkness.
           There was a moment of awkward silence, then Cliff said, "Don't come tomorrow night. Don't get involved with this." He started to move away briskly, but he turned and said in a strained voice, "Don't come! Do you understand?" And he left without waiting for her answer--moving like a vague white newspaper blown rapidly across the pavement.
           He spent many hours that evening in the Gulf Bar, this time getting drunk enough to break his usual silence. Leaning heavily across the bar, one suit elbow soaking in a spot of spilled beer, Cliff shouted at the bartender who stood not more than two feet away.
           "Know what? Know that old phil...philosophistry question about if a tree falls in the forest? And...and if no one's there to hear it fall. No one, you understand....if it's falling...if no one's...does the sound...?" His hand smacked the bar hard. "Does the sound exist? Does anything know what I mean, if no one's there...uh...if no one hears it?" His articulation slurred with alcohol. "Whaddaya think? Huh?"
           "Y'all best go home and get some sleep for yourself," the bartender said, while trying to wipe the spilled beer from around Cliff's elbow. He was a thin, narrow-shouldered, worn-out man of sixty, and he didn't want any trouble, particularly from drunken Yankees talking diddly-squat about trees.
           "Well, lemme clarifuse it for you," Cliff shouted, leaning closer, "I just figured it out. You tell me there's a tree..."
           A tall, bald farmer, still in his overalls, interrupted Cliff from the end of the bar. "He didn't say bullhockey about no tree. Y'all the one's talking about trees."
           "Sure 'nough, I didn't say nothing about a tree," the bartender agreed.
           Cliff ignored their protests and continued: "If you...if it fell...and you postulate...then, then you give it all its quantities...I mean qualities...qualities, you hear?...and that means it makes a sound. Tell me it doesn't make a sound and I...what?"
           "I never pustule...whatever...about it making a sound," the bartender said peevishly.
           "That's right, Yankee," the farmer chipped in. "He ain't said nothing about a sound, leastways that I heard."
           "No matter...tell me it doesn't" Cliff shouted, "and I'll tell you your goddamned tree didn't fall. Hell, it doesn't even exist." Cliff jabbed the bartender in the chest with his finger.
           "It's not my tree," the bartender said, backing out of reach.
           "Sure 'nough, it ain't no way his tree, Yankee," the farmer said, pulling out a tin and dipping some snuff.
           "All right. All right!" Cliff said, drawing himself up and looking
around, bleary-eyed. "You don't like trees? Trees don't interest you?"
           "We like trees fine, Mistuh," the farmer said. "We got nothin' against trees, 'specially if they ain't falling." The farmer sneezed and wriggled his nose.
           "All right, then," Cliff shouted louder. His grey eyes were filled with anger now. "I'll give you another one."
           "We ain't begging no favors," the bartender allowed.
           "I ask you," Cliff said, his voice suddenly much lower. "If the
heart...the heart, you understand...You both got hearts, haven't you? Well, no matter if you don't. If the heart cries out, I ask you, and no one hears it...even if it's because they're trying not to listen...but if the heart...and no one hears it...does that mean the heart doesn't exist? I mean...for freedom...or loneliness it or doesn't it?...If no one...No, don't tell me now...later...You think about it and...uh..."
           He waved his arms in a big circle, as if to encompass all the world that wasn't there, and staggered towards the door, the one elbow of his jacket wet where it was stained with beer. He turned at the door and said in a barely audible voice, "Some other time, tell me, you think about...If you both exist...if I exist...if no one hears us cry out...or fall, that's it, fall, like your damned tree."
           "We done told you, it ain't his tree," the tall, bald farmer said and reached into his overalls for his snuff tin.
           Outside, Cliff swatted at the June bugs that were slapping at the naked light bulb by the door. He could hear the bartender say, "Oughta keep them crazy fellahs from the Nawth up where they belong." Then he heard the farmer say, "That fella ain't nothing but a blivit...ten pounds of shit in a nine-pound bag." Cliff smiled and tottered off towards the rooming house.
           Back in his room, Cliff splashed cold water on his face and neck. Then he sat on the large, iron-framed bed, his hands dangling between his knees, and stared at a picture he had taped on the wall next to the sink. It was a reproduction of Picasso's Blue Period painting, "The Frugal Repast," that Cliff had carried rolled up in his suitcase since the late Forties, after the war, after he had been released from prison. Picasso's emaciated couple sat forlornly at their almost-barren kitchen table and stared back at Cliff. Their mute, secret dialogue lasted until Cliff felt almost sober. Then Cliff got up and went to his portable typewriter, which sat open on top of a card table.
           He had used the typewriter for press releases on strikes, newspaper stories about the conditions of the poor in Appalachia, articles against the draft and the Korean War and McCarthyism, and, since Kennedy had become president, letters to the administration containing his editorials on what might be done for the Southern

           But also, for the last few years, he had been writing what he called his "Combination Philosophical Diary and Pragmatic Textbook for Dealing with the Impact of Sociological Problems on the Inner Man," a long-winded title that could have been summed up in one word: "Wreckage."
           His mind still slightly blurred from drink, he sat at the old machine--his only companion--and pecked out random thoughts he could speak to no one else.
           "It has been nearly fifteen years since my wife deserted my cause. She accused me of utter selfishness...I who have given up my family wealth for my beliefs...accused me of deception, saying that I pretend to love and have compassion for the downtrodden because I have no feeling for individual suffering, because I could not truly love a single human being. I loved her. Maybe not sufficiently. Forced to make a choice between my calling and her, I could not choose. But I did love her. Whoever she was. Whoever I am."
           "Those good old boys in the bar were right...It wasn't their tree."
           "Dear Mr. Evans Pharr, sybarite and undertaker, you ask the same question as my former wife. What does it matter what my motives are as long as I can help you? I admire your taste in music. Bach is balm for the soul."
           "Dear Sarah Jones, you make me feel corrupt. For fifteen years I have felt no need for the companionship of a woman...other than an occasional evening's pleasure here and there, that was not so much pleasure as it was release. Raucous, bawdy bodies roiling up the sweaty night. Of tenderness, gentleness, grace, I know so little. My mother exhibited intimations of these qualities...if only in retrospect, perhaps prejudiced by my perceptions, my fading memories of her. I wonder if my father, arrogant tycoon that he is, valued these qualities when he spread her legs. Tonight, dear Sarah, your dark body--in your graceful simplicity and gentle directness perhaps--has created within me a profound and wretched...lust."
           Cliff tore the paper from the typewriter, lit a match and burned it. Then he took out a bottle of bourbon, swigged long drinks and--under the naked lightbulb--with his shirt and trousers still on, fell asleep on the large iron bed. Just before he dozed off, he could smell the acrid odor of burnt paper mixed with his sweat. His last thoughts were of a smouldering mound of refuse, a human compost heap of despair, and that gave him a momentary, befuddled sense of pleasurable finitude.
           If he had faltered during his bibulous ruminations, the five Black men who met to hear his impassioned exhortation at Evans Pharr's house the next evening did not suspect it. Sarah Jones was present despite Cliff's admonishments; yet he refused to let her presence affect him. In fact, Cliff had never felt so eloquent, so empowered to move men to action.
           His small, strong hands, small for such a big man, flew in all directions and attacked the air like ravenous birds. His flinty grey eyes gave off sparks when struck by other eyes. His voice was deep, vibrant, filled with what certainly sounded like a genuine concern for humanity as a whole and for the problems of the Black folk in particular.
           Within several hours, he had formulated plans for a voter registration drive and sit-in demonstrations at the various white establishments in town. A reluctant Evans Pharr agreed to participate.
           Not wishing to let their ardor be diminished by sleep and the harsh awakenings of morning light, Cliff urged the five Black men to stage their first demonstration at the Centralia Diner that very evening. They forced the women to stay behind and drove down Main Street in Evans Pharr's Cadillac and stopped outside the diner.
           The Black men hesitated. "Carpe diem!" Cliff said. "Seize the day! It's now or never." Then, with Cliff in the lead, they followed him in an orderly, but shuffling, hesitant manner into the Centralia diner, a place none of the Black men had ever entered before.
           The neon lights cast a harsh glow of uncertainty across the faces of the Black men, who huddled inside the door. Other than a rather elderly white couple occupying a booth at the far end, the scene was exactly the same as the first night Cliff had arrived in Centralia: Eula, the heavy blonde waitress was poised before the same two men, the one still in khakis and the other now in a sports shirt decorated with palm trees. Except, this time, with his reluctant cohorts in tow, Cliff had their immediate attention. The scrape and clink of silverware stopped. The sounds of chewing and swallowing died amid the buzz of neon and the whir of the huge overhead fan.
           "Waitress," Cliff said with a false amiability, motioning for the Blacks to join him at the counter, "my friends and I would each like a Coke."
           "We don't serve niggers," the waitress said, her face flushed with anger.
           "You colored boys better get your black asses out of heah fast," the man in khakis said without moving, speaking in a flat, matter-of-fact manner that was more threatening for the evenness of its inflection.
           "It's all right, men," Cliff said to the Blacks. "The new civil rights law makes it a crime for them not to serve you. Come on and sit down."
           Led by the undertaker, the Black men perched themselves rather uneasily on the stools fronting the diner's counter.
           "I ain't going to serve no nigger," Eula said, her voice trembling now with rage. "I'm going to call the sheriff and have the whole damn lot of you locked up."
           "Yankee," the man in the sports shirt said, "I done tole you, if you're looking for trouble, you jes get yourself over to Philadelphia. You done wrong, confusing these black boys into coming heah. You done a whole heap of wrong. Ain't he, Nick?"
           "That's right," Nick, the man in khakis, answered. "He better get them niggers out of heah fast."
           "Waitress," Cliff said, seemingly unperturbed, "we're going to sit here, peaceably, quietly, until you serve each of us a Coke."
           "Don't serve them nothin' but trouble, Eula," Nick said.
           The elderly white couple got up and left the diner, their meals only half-eaten.
           Eula, meanwhile, had edged down the counter past Cliff, moving toward the phone, apparently on her way to call the sheriff. But she never reached the phone. Just as Cliff turned to say something to the two white men, Eula lunged back and struck him on the head with a cast-iron skillet.
           He toppled off the stool. His eyes were closed and he seemed not to be breathing. Blood streamed down his face and pooled out on the linoleum.
           There was an awful stillness while everyone stared at the crumpled form on the floor. Then Nick said, "Good shot, Eula. Only I hope you ain't kilt him."
           "Don't matter if I did," the waitress said indifferently.
           The man in the sports shirt said to the five Blacks, "You boys better get him outta heah to a doctor...and don't come back. That Eula's a tough one."
           The Blacks looked questioningly towards Evans Pharr who motioned them to carry Cliff out to the Cadillac. When Evans Pharr looked back, he saw the waitress talking with her customers as if nothing had happened. Hip-slung, one arm akimbo, she might have been chatting about her aunt's bout of shingles.
           The Blacks loaded Cliff into the back seat of the Cadillac. Blood had soaked his shirtfront.
           Evans Pharr said, "If he's going to live, I'll take care of him. If he's dead, I'll bury him. You boys go on home now."
           The Black men shuffled off into the darkness, while Evans Pharr drove away.
           When Cliff regained consciousness, it was nearly dawn. Evans Pharr, whose house he was in, sat beside the bed, humming Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
           "I guess the waitress hit me," Cliff mumbled, holding the top of his bandaged head.
           "Fifteen stitches worth," Evans Pharr said. "Nothing broken, however. You either have a head of stone or it was just a glancing blow." He paused.
           "I guess you'll give up the whole project now."
           "No," Cliff said. "No, I'm not going to give up. As soon as my head feels a little better, we'll start again. It's cowardly to stop now, now that we've made an inroad into their complacency. We'll have a sit-in at the Gulf Bar. You're still with me, aren't you?"
           "Of course...of course. Only I can't speak for the others." The undertaker resumed his humming, a humming he habitually did while embalming an over-ripe corpse.
           Cliff rambled on about plans for the future and then fell asleep.
           It was late in the afternoon when Cliff awoke, and this time Sarah Jones was sitting quietly by the bed.
           "Ah'll bring you some soup and coffee," she said, getting up and walking towards the door. "Mistuh and Missus Pharr are out fixing up a funeral. They mightn't be back for a couple a hours."
           When she returned, Cliff asked, "Why are my things here?" His typewriter and suitcase were resting in the corner.
           "Ah suspicion Mistuh Pharr figured it wasn't safe for them no more at the rooming house." She stood uncertainly next to the bed.
           "Safe? It's never safe anywhere," he said. "That's no reason to
hide here. I'll move back tomorrow." He tried to make a joke of his
circumstances. "In the meantime, I guess I've integrated this house,
anyway." He smiled at her and proceeded to drink the coffee.
           "Y'all get that scar from being razored, Mistuh Dodds?" she asked, still standing.
           "The scar on my face?" Few people had bothered to ask him about the scar, but she had expressed a sweet concern that compelled him to answer.
           "No, my wife...I was married a long time wife cut me with a kitchen knife."
           "That's an awful thing," Sarah said.
           "Hatred is always a terrible thing. I suppose I gave her enough reason to detest me." Cliff shrugged. "Maybe she felt she was defending herself. It was probably my fault as much as hers."
           "Nawsuh. Y'all a fine man, Mistuh Dodds, a fine man. Weren't no cause to cut you up that way."
           "Maybe," Cliff said, and then he became silent, his mind shuttling back to the past and the fights between his wife and himself. Had he been drunk? Had he hit her? He couldn't remember. It was so long only the scarto remind him of what might once have been a terrible weakness for which a man of conscience could never forgive himself.
           How long he was lost in thought, he didn't know, but when he looked back at Sarah, she had started to undress, slipping the light blouse over her head. Maybe it was the rustle of starched cotton against her flesh that caught his attention. He motioned as if to stop her, but said nothing, watching almost casually as she took off articles of clothing. Finally, she stood before him simply, quietly, naked, her head bowed in the attitude not of sensuality or love but of submission.
           She waited for some sign of acquiescence from him, and when he pulled aside the sheet, she got into bed slowly, humbly. He lay still beside her for a few moments, feeling the heat of her skin, silkier than a white woman's. He took her in his arms and kissed her eyes, then her neck, just once. He felt so hungry for her, but something was restraining him, some bondage of circumspection that inhibits desire. He drew away from her.
           "Why are you doing this?" he said gently.
           She did not answer, but leaned her head down on his bare chest.
           "Why do you want to make love with me?"
           Her voice was a whisper. "Y'all a fine man, Mistuh Dodds. Ah just want to do something for your coming down heah to help us. Ah done talked it over with Mistuh Evans Pharr, 'cause ah didn't know for certain what to offer, and he said he thought you was coming here looking for some kind of caring."
           "He asked you to give yourself like this?"
           "Nawsuh, he just said Ah should look after you, which Ah felt obliged to do anyway."
           Cliff's lips worked silently. His face became suffused with blood as if he were about to be violently angry. The rise in blood pressure made his damaged head throb. He got out of bed and walked, naked, to the window and looked out, seemingly unconcerned as to who saw him there. There were scars over much of his body, including lash marks on his back.
           "Please go away," he said. "Don't debase yourself. Just get away from me."
           Sarah got out of bed and began dressing slowly, her head bent down in shame. "Is it 'cause Ah'm black?"
           "God no, I don't give a damn about black or white when it comes to..." He moved to the bureau and lit a cigarette, still not bothering to cover himself, unable to look at her. "The world disgusts me."
           "Y'all don't like me?"
           "Oh, I like you, Miss Sarah Jones. I just don't want contaminate you."
           "Ah never been with a man before."
           "That makes me even more...honored."
           She turned at the door, with tears glistening her dark cheeks. "Ah'm sorry, Mistuh Dodds. Ah'm sorry Ah couldn't please you."
           "You pleased me fine," he said, trying to smile at her, but his grey eyes had gone the color of slag heated away from good metal. "Forget me. Pretend I don't exist. Something's gone bad somewhere, that's all." He didn't try to explain.
           Sarah Jones never saw him again, nor did Evans Pharr find him when he returned from the funeral. No one in town noticed him leave, nor did they read about him trying to stir up trouble anywhere in the South after that.
           In fact, those who remember Cliff Dodds think that he might have died, being that he was never heard of in connection with any cause again. Some folks have a way of doing that, disappearing just the way they came, leaving behind a predicament.

© 1997, 2001 George Dickerson

(Formerly on the editorial staffs of The New Yorker, Time, Story, and Rattapallax, George Dickerson is a contributing editor to Big City Lit™.)

[Part One of this two-part story appeared in the February issue. (See Archive.) Ed.]