Bob Corbett notes: Langston Hughes is certainly not an Existential writer, rather is best classified within the Harlem Renaissance. However, this particular story, so centered on the hardships of human existence and this woman's realationship with death and suicide is very reminiscent of Camus's The Happy Death, the theme of suicide in The Myth of Sysiphus and other Existentialist's works. Thus I decided to include the story on this page.
Picture yourself a lone bird in a cage with monkeys, or the sole cat in a kennel full of dogs. Even if the dogs became accustomed to you, they wouldn’t make the best of playmates; nor could you, being a cat, mate with them, being dogs. Although, in the little town of Fall Rock, Montana, the barriers were less natural than artificial (entirely man-made barriers, in fact), nevertheless, to be the only Negro child in this small white city made you a stranger in a strange world; an outcast in the house where you lived; a part of it all by necessity, and yet no part at all.
Flora Belle Yates, as a child, used to shield herself from the frequent hurts and insults of white children with tears, blows, and sometimes curses. Even with only one Negro family, the Yatcses, in Tall Rock, race relations were not too good. Her father and mother had come up from Texas years ago. Flora BelIe had heard them tell about the night they left Texarkana, looking back to see their hut in flames and a mob shouting in the darkness. The mob wanted to lynch Flora Belle’s father. It seemed that, in an argument about wages, he had beaten up a white man. Through some miracle, her mother said, they had gotten away in the face of the mob, escaping in a rickety ford, crossing the state line and driving for three days, somehow making it to the Northwest. Her father had an idea of getting to Canada, fleeing like the slaves in slave days clean out of the United States, but gas and money ran out. He and his wife stopped to work along the way, and finally ended up by staying in Tall Rock. Nora’s father had gotten a job there, tending to the horses and equipment of a big contractor. Her mother worked in the contractor’s house as cook, maid, and washwoman. Shortly after their arrival, Flora Belle was born in a large room over the contractor’s stable.
She was never a pretty baby, Flora Belle, both her parents were not beautiful people. Poor food and hard work had lined their faces and bent their bodies even before she was born. The fear and strain of their hegira, with the mother pregnant, did not help to produce a sweet and lovely child. Flora Belle’s face, as she grew up, had a lugubrious expression about it that would make you laugh if you didn’t know her -- but would make you sorry for her if you did know her.
Then, too, from helping her mother with the white folks’ washing and her father to tend the horses, Flora Belle grew up strong and heavy, with rough hands and a hard chest like a boys. She had hard ways, as well. A more attractive colored girl might have appealed to the young white men of the town for illegitimate advances, but nobody so much as winked at Flora Belle. She graduated from high school without ever having had a beau of any kind. The only colored boys she had ever seen were the ones who came through Tall Rock once with a circus.
Just before her graduation, her mother laid down and died -- quite simply – “worked to death,” as she put it. Tired! A white preacher came to the house and preached her funeral with a few white neighbors present. After that Flora Belle lived with her aging father and cooked his meals for him -- the two of them alone, dark souls in a white world. She did the contractor’s family washing, as the new Irish maid refused to cook, clean -- and then wash, too. Flora Belle made a few dollars a week washing and ironing.
One day, the second summer after she came out of high school, her father said, “jus gonna leave here, Flora Belle.” So they went to Butte. That was shortly after World War I ended, in the days of Prohibition. Things were kind of dead in Butte, and most of the Negroes there were having a hard time, or going into bootlegging. Flora Belle and her father lived in the house with a family who sold liquor. It was a loud and noisy house, with people coming and going way up in the night. There was gambling in the kitchen.
There were very few Negroes in Butte, and Flora Belle made friends with none of them. her ways were exceedingly strange to her, since she had never known colored people before. And she to them was just a funny looking stuck-up ugly old girl. They took her shyness to mean conceit, and her high-school English to mean superiority. Nobody paid any attention to Flora.
Her father soon took up with a stray woman around town. He began to drink a lot, too. Months went by and he found no steady work, but Flora Belle did occasional house cleaning. They still had a little money that they had saved, so one day Flora Belle said, “Pa, let’s buy a ticket and leave this town. It’s no good.” And the old man said, “I don’t care if I do.”
Flora Belle had set her mind on one of the big cities of the coast where there would be lots of nice colored people she could make friends with. So they went to Seattle, her and Pa. They got there one winter morning in the rain. They asked a porter in the station where colored people could stop, and he sent them to a street near the depot where Negroes, Filipinos, Japanese, and Chinese lived in boxlike buildings. The street had a busy downtown atmosphere. Flora Belle liked it very much, the moving people, the noise, the shops, the many races.
“I’m glad to get to a real city at last,” she said.
“This rain is chillin’ me to the bone,” her father answered, walking along with their suitcases. “I wish I had a drink.” He left Flora Belle as soon as their rooms were rented and went looking for a half-pint.
In Seattle it rained and rained. In the gray streets strange people of many shades and colors passed, all of them going places, having things to do. In the colored rooming house, as time went by, Flora Belle met a few of the roomers, but they all were busy, and they did not ask her to join them in their activities. Her father stayed out a good deal, looking for a job, he said -- but when he came back, you could smell alcohol on his breath. Flora Belle looked for a job, also, but without success.
She was glad when Sunday came. At least she could go to church, to a colored church -- for back in Tall Rock there had been no Negro church, and the white temples were not friendly to a black face.
“I’m A.M.E., myself,” the landlady said. “The Baptists do too much shoutin’ for me. You go to my church.”
So Flora Belle went to the African Methodist Episcopal Church -- alone, because the landlady was too busy to take her. That first day at services quite a few members shook hands with her. This made Flora Belle very happy. She went back that evening and joined the church. She felt warm and glad at just meeting people. She was invited to attend prayer meeting and to become a member of the Young Women’s Club, dues ten cents a week. She in turn asked some of the sisters, with fumbling incoherence, if they knew where she could get a job. The churchwomen took her phone number and promised to call her if they heard of anything. Flora Belle walked home through the rain that night feeling as ii she had at last come to a welcome place.
Sure enough, during the week, a woman did call up to let her know about a job. “It’s a kinder hard place,” the woman said over the phone, “but I reckon you can stand it awhile. She wants a maid to sleep in, and they don’t pay much. But since you ain’t workin’, it might beat a blank.’’
Flora Belle got the job. She was given the servant’s room. It was damp and cold; the work was hard, and the lady exacting; the meager pay came once a month, but flora Belle was thankful to have work.
“Now,” she thought to herself, “I can get some nice clothes and meet nice people, ‘cause I’m way behind, growing up in a town where there wasn’t none of my color to be friends with. I want to meet some boys and girls and have a good time.” But she had only one night off a week, Sunday evening to go to church. Then Flora Belle would fix herself up as nice as she knew how and bow and bow in her friendliest fashion, fighting against shyness and strangeness, but never making much of an impression on folks. At church everybody was nice enough, to be sure, but nobody took up more time with her than brotherly love required. None of the young men noticed her at all, what with dozens of pretty girls around, talkative and gay -- for Flora Belle stood like she was tongue-tied when she was introduced to anybody. Just stood staring, trying to smile. She didn’t know the easy slang of the young people, nor was she good at a smart comeback if someone made a bright remark. She was just a big, homely silent woman whose desire for friends never got past that lugubrious look in her wistful eyes and that silence that frightened folks away.
A crippled man at the Sunday services tried to make up to her once or twice. He talked and talked, but Flora Belle could manage to say nothing more than “Yes, sir,” or, “No, sir,” to everything he said, like a dumb young girl -- although she was now twenty-five, and too unattractive to play coy.
Even the sporting men -- to whom women give money -- used to laugh about Flora Belle. “Man, I wouldn’t be seen on the streets with that truck horse,” was their comment in the pool halls.
So a year went by and Flora Belle had no more friends than she had had back in Butte or Tall Rock. “I think I’ll go away from here,” she said to herself. “Try another town. I reckon all cities ain’t like Seattle, where folks is so cold and it rains all the time.
So she went away. She left Pa living in sin with some old Indian woman and shining shoes in a white barber shop for a living He had begun to look mighty bowed and wrinkled, and he drank increasingly.
Flora Belle went to San Francisco. She had a hard time finding work, a hard time meeting people, a hard time trying to get a boy friend. But in California she didn’t take up so much time with the church. She met, instead, some lively railroad porters and maids who gave parties and lived a sort of fast life. Flora Belle managed to get in good with the porters’ crowd, mostly by handing out money freely to pay for food and drinks when parties were being arranged.
She was usually an odd number, though, having no man. Nevertheless, she would come by herself to the parties and try her best to be a good sport, to drink and be vulgar. But even when she was drunk, she was still silent and couldn’t think of anything much to say. She fell in love with a stevedore and used to give him her pay regularly and buy him fine shirts, but he never gave her any matrimonial encouragement, although he would take whatever she offered him. Then she found out that he was married already and had four children. He told her he didn’t want her, anyway.
“I’m gonna leave this town,” Flora Belle said to herself, “if the bus station still sells tickets.”
So the years went on. The cities on the coast, the fog cities of fruit trees and vineyards, passed in procession -- full of hard work and loneliness. Cook in a roadhouse, maid for a madam, ironer in a laundry, servant for rich Mexicans –Monterrey – Berkeley -- San Diego – Marysville -- San Jose. At last she came to Fresno. She was well past thirty. She felt tired. She wanted sometimes to die. She had worked so long for white folks, she had cooked so many dinners, made so many beds.
Working for a Fresno ranch owner, looking after his kids, trying to clean his house and keep things as his wife desired, passing lonely nights in her room over the garage, she felt awful tired, awful tired.
“I wish I could die,” she said to herself. By now she often talked out loud. “I wish I could die.”
And one day, she asked, ‘Why not?”
The idea struck her all of a sudden, “Why not?”
So on her Thursday afternoon off from work, she bought a pistol. She bought a box of bullets. She took them home -- and somehow she felt better just carrying the heavy package under one arm along the street.
That night in her room over the garage she unwrapped the gun and looked at it a long time. It was black, cold, steal-like, heavy and hard, dependable and certain. She felt sure it could take her far away -- whenever she wanted to go. She felt sure it would not disappoint her -- if she chose to leave Fresno. She was sure that with the gun, she would never again come to an empty town.
She put in all the bullets it would hold, six, and pressed its muzzle to her head. “Maybe the heart would be better,” she thought, putting its cold nose against her breast. Thus she amused herself in her room until late in the night. Then she put the pistol down, undressed, and went to bed. Somehow she felt better, as though she could go off anytime now to some sweet good place, as though she were no longer a prisoner in the world, or in herself.
She slept with the pistol under her pillow.
The following morning she locked it in her trunk and went down to work. That day her big ugly body moved about the house with a new lightness. And she was very kind to the white lady’s children. She kept thinking that in the tray of her trunk there was something that meant her good, and would he kind to her. So the days passed.
Every night in her little room, over the garage, after she had combed her hair for bed, she would open the trunk and take the pistol from its resting place. Sometimes she would hold it in her lap. Other nights she would press the steel-black weapon to her heart and put her finger on the trigger, standing still quite a long time. She never pulled the trigger, but she knew that she could pull it whenever she wished.
Sometimes, in bed in the dark, she would press the gun between her breasts and talk to it like a lover. She would tell it all the things that had gone on in her mind in the past. She would tell it all that she had wanted to do, and how, now, she didn’t want to do anything, only hold this gun, and be sure -- sure that she could go away if she wanted to go -- anytime. She was sure!
Each night the gun was there -- like she imagined a lover might be. Each night it came to bed with her, to lie under the pillow near her head or to rest in her hand. Sometimes she would touch that long black pistol in the dark and murmur in her sleep, I love . . . you.”
Of course, she told nobody. But everybody knew that something had happened to Flora Belle Yates. She knew what. Her life became surer and happier because of this friend in the night. She began to attend church regularly on Sunday, to sing, shout, and take a more active part in the week night meetings. She began to play with her employer’s children, and to laugh with his wife over the little happenings in the house. The white lady began to say to her neighbors. “I’ve got the best maid in the world. She was awfully grouchy when she first came, but now that she’s gotten to like the place, she’s simply wonderful!”
As the months went by, Flora Belle began to take on weight, to look plump and jolly, and to resemble one of those lovable big dark skinned mammies in the picture books. It was the gun. As some people had assurance in the Bible or in alcohol, Flora Belle found assurance in the sure cold steel of the gun.
She is still living alone over the white folks’ garage in Fresno -- but now she can go away anytime she wants to.
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