Elbow Room

Boone’s genius was to recognize the difficulty as neither material nor political but one purely moral and aesthetic.

—William Carlos Williams,
“The Discovery of Kentucky”

Narrator is unmanageable. Demonstrates a disregard for form bordering on the paranoid. Questioned closely, he declares himself the open enemy of conventional narrative categories. When pressed for reasons, narrator became shrill in insistence that “borders,” “structures,” “frames,” “order,” and even “form” itself are regarded by him with the highest suspicion. Insists on unevenness as a virtue. Flaunts an almost barbaric disregard for the moral mysteries, or integrities, of traditional narrative modes. This flaw in his discipline is well demonstrated here. In order to save this narration, editor felt compelled to clarify slightly, not to censor but to impose at least the illusion of order. This was an effort toward preserving a certain morality of technique. Editor speaks here of a morality of morality, of that necessary corroboration between unyielding material and the discerning eye of absolute importance in the making of a final draft.

This is the essence of what he said :



Paul Frost was one of thousands of boys who came out of those little Kansas towns back during that time. He was one of the few who did not go back. When he came out it was easy moving forward by not going to the war. But after a while it got harder. Paul was in school up in Chicago when he determined to stand pat and take his blows. He returned home briefly and confronted his family and the members of a selective service committee. These were people who had watched him growing up. They were outraged at his refusal. Watching their outrage and remaining silent made Paul cry inside himself. He went back up to Chicago and did alternate service in a hospital for the insane. He began attending a Quaker meeting. Nights in the hospital, he read heavily in history, literature, and moral philosophy. Soon he began to see that many of the inmates were not insane. This frightened him enough to make him stop talking and begin watching things very closely. He was living, during this time, in a rented room out near Garfield Park. He went out only for work, meals, and to the library for more books. He knew no women and wanted none. Because he lived inside himself, he was soon taken by other people for an idiot. Their assumptions enabled Paul to maintain and nourish a secret self. He held conversations with it nights in his room. His first public speech, after many months of silence, was to a mental defective one evening at the hospital over a checkerboard down in the recreation room. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” he whispered to the man. “So what are you doing here?” This patient looked warily at Paul and then smiled. He had that wistful, wide-eyed smile of the uncaring doomed. He leaned across the board and looked directly into Paul Frost’s bright brown eyes. “What are you doing here?” he said. This question unsettled Paul. The more he thought about it the more nervous he became. He began walking LaSalle Street during his free time, picking conversations with total strangers. But everyone seemed to be in a great hurry. In the second year of his alternative service, he secured a transfer to another hospital out on the Coast. There, in Oakland, he did a number of wild things. Activity kept him from thinking about being crazy and going back to Kansas. His last act as a madman was to marry, in San Francisco, a black girl named Virginia Valentine, from a little town called Warren outside Knoxville, Tennessee. 



Virginia Valentine had come out of Warren some ten years before, on the crest of that great wave of jailbreaking peasants. To people like her, imprisoned for generations, the outside world seemed absolutely clear in outline and full of sweet choices. Many could not cope with freedom and moved about crazily, much like long-chained pets anticipating the jerks of their leashes. Some committed suicide. Others, seeking safety, rushed into other prisons. But a few, like Virginia, rose and ranged far and wide in flight, like aristocratic eagles seeking high, free peaks on which to build their nests.

Virginia’s quest was an epic of idealism. At nineteen she joined the Peace Corps and took the poor man’s grand tour of the world. She was gregarious in a rough and country way. She had a talent for locating quickly the human core in people. And she had great humor. At twenty she was nursing babies in Ceylon. At twenty-one she stood watching people in a market in Jamshedpur, India, learning how to count the castes. Deciding then that Hindus were more “black” than anyone she had ever seen at home, she began calling herself “nigger” in an affirmative and ironic way. She developed a most subtle and delicious sense of humor. In Senegal, among the fishermen, she acquired the habit of eating with her hands. On holiday, in Kenya, she climbed up Kilimanjaro and stood on its summit, her hands on her hips in the country manner, her eyes looking up for more footholds. In the sweaty, spice-smelling markets of Cairo, Port Said, and Damascus she learned to outhaggle conniving traders. Seeing slaves and women still being sold, she developed the healthy habit of browbeating Arabs. There are stories she tells about old man Leakey, about squatting beside him in a Masai compound in north Tanzania, about helping herself to a drink of milk and cow’s blood. The old man, she says, was curt, but eager to show his bones. The drink, she says, was not bad. The Masai did not dance. She entered the areas behind the smiles of Arabs, Asians, Africans, Israelis, Indians. In the stories they told she found implanted different ways of looking at the world.

When she returned home, at twenty-two, she was bursting with stories to tell. There were many like her. In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and all parts of California, people gathered in groups and told similar stories. They thought in terms new to them. In conversation they remarked on common points of reference in the four quarters of the world. The peasants among them had become aristocratic without any of the telling affectations. The aristocrats by birth had developed an easy, common touch. They considered themselves a new tribe.

But then their minds began to shift. In the beginning it was a subtle
process. During conversation someone might say a casual “You know?” and there would be a hesitation, slight at first, denying affirmation. Virginia has painful stories to tell about increases in the periods of silence during the reacculturation. People began to feel self-conscious and guilty. If pushed, she will tell about the suicide in her group. People saw less and less of each other. Soon they were nodding on the street. Inevitably, many people in conversation began saying, “I don’t understand!” At first this was tentative, then it became a defensive assertion. It took several months before they became black and white. Those who tried to fight grew confused and bitter. This was why Virginia, like many of the more stubborn, abandoned the East and ran off to California. Like a wounded bird fearful of landing with its wings still spread, she went out to the territory in search of some soft, personal space to cushion the impact of her grounding.



I went to the territory to renew my supply of stories. There were no new ones in the East at the time I left. Ideas and manners had coalesced into old and cobwebbed conventions. The old stories were still being told, but their tellers seemed to lack confidence in them. Words seemed to have become detached from emotion and no longer flowed on the rhythm of passion. Even the great myths floated apart from their rituals. Cynical salesmen hawked them as folklore. There was no more bite in humor. And language, mother language, was being whored by her best sons to suit the appetites of wealthy patrons. There were no new stories. Great energy was spent describing the technology of fucking. Black folk were back into entertaining with time-tested acts. Maupassant’s whores bristled with the muscle of union organizers. The life-affirming peasants of Chekhov and Babel sat wasted and listless on their porches, oblivious to the beats in their own blood. Even Pushkin’s firebrands and noble brigands seemed content with the lackluster: mugging old ladies, killing themselves, snatching small change from dollar-and-dime grocers. During this time little men became afflicted with spells of swaggering. Men with greatness in them spoke on the telephone, and in private, as if bouncing safe clichés off the ear of a listener into an expectant and proprietary tape recorder. Everywhere there was this freeing of a grotesque sadness far, far past honest tears.

And the caste curtains were drawn, resegregating all imaginations. In restaurants, on airplanes, even in the homes of usually decent people, there was retrenchment, indifference, and fear. More than a million stories died in the East back during that time: confessions of fear, screams of hatred orchestrated into prayers, love and trust and need evolving, murders, retribution, redemption, honestly expressed rage. If I had approached a stranger and said, “Friend, I need your part of the story in order to complete my sense of self,” I would have caused him to shudder, tremble, perhaps denounce me as an assailant. Yet to not do this was to default on my responsibility to narrate fully. There are stories that must be told, if only to be around when fresh dimensions are needed. But in the East, during that time, there was no thought of this. A narrator cannot function without new angles of vision. I needed new eyes, regeneration, fresh forms, and went hunting for them out in the territory.

A point of information. What has form to do with caste restrictions?


You are saying you want to be white?

A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology.

You are ashamed then of being black?

Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s straitjackets.

Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?

I was cursed with a healthy imagination.

What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?


A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?

Unrestricted access to new stories forming.

Have you paid strict attention to the forming of this present one?

Once upon a time there was a wedding in San Francisco.

Virginia I valued for her stock of stories. I was suspicious of Paul Frost for claiming first right to these. They were a treasure I felt sure he would exploit. The girl was not at all pretty, and at first I could not see how he could love her. She was a little plump, had small breasts, and habitually wore Levi’s and that flat, broad-brimmed type of cap popularized by movie gangsters in the forties. But the more I looked into her costume, the more I recognized it as the disguise of a person trying to deflect attention away from a secret self. When she laughed, it was loudly, and behind the laugh I heard a hand reaching out secretly to tug down loose corners of the costume. Even her affection of a swagger seemed contrived to conceal a softness of heart. Listening to the rough muscles of her voice, when she laughed, I sensed they were being flexed to keep obscure a sensitivity too finely tuned to risk exposure to the world. She employed a complicated kind of defensive irony. When her voice boomed, “Don’t play with me now, nigger!” it said on the underside of the very same rhythm, Don’t come too close, I hurt easily. Or when the voice said, “Come on in here and meet my fiancé, and if you don’t like it you can go to hell”, the quick, dark eyes, watching closely for reactions, said in their silent language, Don’t hurt my baby! Don’t hurt my baby! She spiced her stories with this same delicious irony. Virginia Valentine was a country raconteur with a stock of stories flavored by international experience. Telling them, she spoke with her whole presence in very complicated ways. She was unique. She was a classic kind of narrator. Virginia Valentine was a magic woman.

Paul Frost seemed attracted to her by this outward display of strength. I am convinced he was by this time too mature to view her as just exotic. He was the second generation of a Kansas family successful in business matters, and he must have had keen eyes for value. But because of this, and perhaps for reasons still unclear to him, his family and the prairies were now in his past. I think he felt the need to redeem the family through works of great art, to release it from the hauntings of those lonely prairie towns. I know that when I looked I saw dead Indians living in his eyes. But I also saw a wholesome glow in their directness. They seemed in earnest need of answers to honest questions always on the verge of being asked. This aura of intense interest hung close to his face, like a bright cloud, or like a glistening second coat of skin not yet thick enough to be attached to him. It seemed to inquire of whomever his eyes addressed, “Who am I?” But this was only an outward essence. Whatever else he was eluded my inspection of his face. And as I grew aware of myself in pursuit of its definition, I began to feel embarrassed, and a little perverse. Because the thing that illuminated him, that provided the core of his mystery, might have been simple guilt, or outright lust, or a passion to dominate, or a need to submit to a fearful-seeming object. All such motives enter into the convention of love.

And yet at times, watching Virginia’s eyes soften as they moved over his face, I could read in them the recognition of extraordinary spiritual forces, quietly commanded, but so self-assured as to be unafraid of advertising themselves. I am sure he was unaware of his innocence. And perhaps this is why Virginia’s eyes pleaded, when he openly approached a soul-crushed stranger, Don’t hurt my baby! Don’t hurt my baby!, even while her voice laughed, teased, or growled. She employed her country wits with the finesse and style of a magic woman. And after I had come to understand them better, I began to see deeper into their bond. She was an eagle with broken wings spread, somewhat awkwardly, over the aristocratic soul of a simple farm boy. Having his soul intact made him a vulnerable human being. But having flown so high herself, and having been severely damaged, she still maintained too much grace, and too complete a sense of the treachery in the world, to allow any roughnesses to touch the naked thing. Paul Frost was a very lucky innocent. Virginia Valentine was protecting him to heal herself.

This wedding was a quiet affair in a judge’s chambers. Paul’s brother was best man. A tall, strapping fellow, he had flown out from Kansas to stand beside his brother. He held the ring with a gentle dignity. Paul’s parents did not attend. They had called many times making the usual pleas. When these failed they sent a telegram saying BEST. But Virginia’s parents were there from Tennessee. They were pleasant, country folk who had long begged her to come home. But when they saw they could not change her mind, they flew out with country­cured hams, a homemade cake, and a wedding quilt sewn by Virginia’s grandmother, who was a full-blooded Cherokee living far back in the Tennessee woods. They also brought a handful of recipes from well-wishing neighbors. The mother wore a light blue dress and a white hat. A very dark-skinned little woman, she sat on the judge’s leather chair looking as solemn as an usher at Sunday church service. Mr. Daniel Valentine, the father, a large-framed, handsome, brown man, smiled nervously when the judge had finished, and shook hands all around. He had the delicate facial features of an Indian, with curly black hair and high cheekbones. Virginia’s color was deep reddish brown. She wore a simple white dress with a red sash. She smiled often and reassuringly at her brooding mother, as if to say, “It’s all right. I told you so.” Paul, in a black suit and black bow tie, looked as responsible and as sober as a banquet steward in a plush private club.

At the reception, in a sunny corner of Golden Gate Park, Mr. Daniel Valentine offered around cigars. Then he strolled slowly about the grounds, his hands in his pockets. It was a warm November afternoon, much warmer than his body said it had a right to be. He was out of his proper environment and was obviously ill at ease. I walked along with him, smoking my cigar. In his brown face I saw fear and pride and puzzlement. He felt obliged to explain to himself how one of the most certain things in the world had miscarried. He had assumed that color was the highest bond, and I think he must have felt ashamed for someone. “We told her many the time to come home,” he said while we walked. He stared at the late-blooming flowers, the green trees just starting to brown, the shirtless young men throwing Frisbees. He said, “I don’t pretend to know the world no more, but I know enough about the lay of the land to have me a good, long talk with him. I laid it right on the line, too. My baby come from a long line of family, and her mama and me’s proud of that. Right there in the South, there’s plenty white women that have chase me, so I know a little something about how the world go round. But I ain’t nobody’s pretty plaything, and my baby ain’t neither.” He swelled out his chest and breathed deeply, inspecting closely the greenness of the grass, the spread of the trees. I sensed that his body was trying desperately to remember the coolness of the Tennessee autumn. He was sweating a little. He said, “Now, I don’t give a damn about his family. They can go to hell for all of me. But I care a lot about mine! And last night I told him, ‘If you ever hurt my baby, if you ever make her cry about something that ain’t the fault of her womanly ways, I’m gonna come looking for you.’ I told him I’ d wear out a stick on him.” He said this to me as one black man to another, as if he owed me reassurance. And I had no way of telling him that his daughter, in her private mind and treasured, secret self, had long ago moved a world away from that small living room in which conventional opinion mattered. “That’s just what I told him, too,” Mr. Daniel Valentine said. Then he averted his eyes, puffed his cigar, and nodded toward where the others stood crowded around a eucalyptus tree. Mrs. Valentine was unpacking the lunch. Paul was laughing like a little boy and swinging Virginia’s hand. “But they do make a fine couple, don’t they now?” he asked me.


They made a very fine couple. Paul rented an apartment in the Mission district and brought all their possessions under one roof. Virginia’s posters, paintings, and sculpture acquired while traveling were unpacked from their boxes and used to decorate the walls and end tables. Paul’s many books were stacked neatly in high brown bookcases in the small living room. The few times I saw them after the wedding they seemed very happy. They seemed eager to pick up and mend the broken pieces of fragmented lives. Virginia worked as a clerk for a state agency. Paul worked for a construction company during the day and studied for his degree nights in a community college. Paul worked very hard, with the regularity and order of a determined man. I think the steady rhythms of the prairie were still in him, and he planned ahead with the memory of winter still in mind. But they made special efforts to live in cosmopolitan style. Both of them were learning Spanish from their Chicano neighbors. They chose their friends carefully with an eye on uniqueness and character. They were the most democratic people I have ever seen. They simply allowed people to present themselves, and they had relationships with Chicanos, Asians, French, Brazilians, black and white Americans. But they lived in a place where people were constantly coming and going. And they lived there at a time when a certain structure was settling in. It was not as brutal as it was in tl1e East, but it was calculated to ensure the same results.

During this time Paul’s father, back in Kansas, was putting on the pressure. I think the idea of Virginia had finally entered his imagination and he was frightened for the future of his name. He called long-distance periodically, vowing full support for Paul when he finally reconsidered. He seemed to have no doubt this would occur. They argued back and forth by telephone. The father accused the son of beginning to think like a Negro. The father accused the son of being deluded. The son accused the father of being narrow-minded. The son accused the father of being obtuse. Nothing was ever resolved, but the discussions were most rational. The father was simply a good businessman. In his mind he had a sharp impression of the market. I am sure he thought his son had made a bad investment that was bound to be corrected as soon as Virginia’s stock declined. There was, after all, no permanent reification of color. From his point of view it was this simple. But from Paul’s point of view it was not.

When they invited me to dinner in early December, Virginia said, “That old rascal thinks that one day he’ll have to kiss a pickaninny. If I had a cold heart I’ d send him one of them minstrel pictures.” She laughed when she said this, but there was not the usual irony in her voice. She pushed her hands into the back pockets of her Levi’s and leaned her butt against the kitchen stove.

Paul was at the kitchen table drinking wine. He seemed upset and determined. He said, “My father is a very decent man in his own way. He just knows a little part of the world. He’s never talked seriously with anybody that’s not like him. He doesn’t understand black people, and he would have a hard time understanding Ginny.” He laughed, his clear eyes flashing. “She’s a bundle of contradictions. She breaks all the rules. All of you do.”

I sat down at the table and poured myself a glass of the red wine. Virginia was baking a spicy Spanish dish, and the smell of it made me more relaxed than I should have been. After draining the glass I said, “I can understand your father’s worry. According to convention, one of you is supposed to die, get crippled for life, or get struck down by a freak flash of lightning while making love on a sunny day.”

Paul laughed. He sipped from his glass of wine. “This is real life,” he said, “not the movies. And in any case, I don’t have to worry.”

Virginia was stirring a dish of red sauce on the stove. The air was heavy with the smell of pungent spices.

I said to Paul, “The producers in Hollywood are recycling.” 

Paul laughed again. “This is real life,” he told me. But he was getting a little drunk. He sipped his wine and said, “In this house we pay close attention to reality. By public definition Ginny is black, but in fact she’s a hybrid of African, European, and Indian bloodlines. Out in the world she roughhouses, but here at home she’s gentle and sweet. Before anybody else she pretends to be tough, but with me she’s a softy. It took me a long time to understand these contradictions, and it’ll take my family longer. My father has a very unsubtle, orderly mind. I’m willing to wait. I see my marriage as an investment in the future. When my father has mellowed some, I’ll take my wife home. As I said, I don’t have to worry.”

Virginia called from the stove, “That old rascal might at least speak to me when he calls.” 

Paul fingered his wineglass, looking guilty and cornered.

It was not my story, but I could not help intruding upon its materials. It seemed to me to lack perspective. I poured myself another glass of wine and looked across the table at Paul. Above us the naked light bulb reflected eerily in my glass of red wine. I said, “Time out here is different from time in the East. When we say ‘Good afternoon’ here, in the East people are saying ‘Good night.’ It’s a matter of distance, not of values. Ideas that start in the East move very fast in media, but here the diversity tends to slow them down. Still, a mind needs media to reinforce a sense of self. There are no imaginations pure enough to be self-sustaining.’’

Paul looked hard at me. He looked irritated. He said, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’’

I said, “Someone is coming here to claim you. Soon you may surprise even yourself. While there is still time, you must force the reality of your wife into your father’s mind and run toward whatever cover it provides.’’

He really did not understand. I think he still believed he was a free agent. He sat erect at the kitchen table, sipping from his glass of wine. He looked confused, hurt, almost on the edge of anger. I felt bad for having intruded into his story, but there was a point I wanted very much for him to see. I pointed toward a Nigerian ceremonial mask nailed to the wall just over the kitchen door. The white light from the bulb above us glowed on the brown, polished wood of the mask. “Do you think it’s beautiful?” I asked.

Paul looked up and inspected the mask. It was an exaggeration of the human face, a celebration in carved wood of the mobile human personality. The eyes were mere slits. Teeth protruded from a broad mouth at unexpected angles. From the forehead of the face, curving upward, were appendages resembling a mountain goat’s horns. Paul sipped his wine. He said, “It’s very nice. Ginny bought it from a trader in Ibadan. There’s a good story behind it.”

I said, “But do you think it’s beautiful?”

“The story or the mask?” Virginia called from the stove. She laughed with just a hint of self-derision, but the sound contained the image of a curtain being pulled across a private self.

“The mask, of course!” Paul called to her coolly. Then he looked at me with great emotion in his eyes. “It’s nice,” he said.

I said, “You are a dealer in art. You have extraordinary taste. But your shop is in a small town. You want to sell this mask by convincing your best customer it is beautiful and of interest to the eye. Every other dealer in town says it is ugly. How do you convince the customer and make a sale?”

Paul’s eyes widened and flashed. He started to get up, then sat back down. “I don’t like condescension,” he said. “I don’t much like being talked down to!” He was angry, but in a controlled way. He started to get up again. 

Virginia shouted, “Dinner!”

I said to Paul, “You have enlisted in a psychological war.”

He looked trapped. He turned to face his wife. But she had her back to him, making great noises while opening the stove. I think she was singing an old Negro hymn. He turned toward me again, a great fear claiming control of his entire face. “Why don’t you just leave!” he shouted. “Why don’t you just get out!

I looked past him and saw Virginia standing by the stove. She was holding a hot red dish with her bare hands. She was trembling like a bird. In her face was the recognition of a profound defeat. She cried, “Go away! Please, go away! No matter what you think, this is my husband!”

I left them alone with their dinner. It was not my story. It was not ripe for telling until they had got it under better control.


Analysis of this section is needed. It is too subtle and needs to be more clearly explained.

I tried to enter his mind and failed.


I had confronted him with color and he became white.

Unclear. Explain.

There was a public area of personality in which his “I” existed. The nervous nature of this is the basis of what is miscalled arrogance. In reality it was the way his relationship with the world was structured. I attempted to challenge this structure by attacking its assumptions too directly and abruptly. He sensed the intrusion and reacted emotionally to protect his sense of form. He simply shut me out of his world.

Unclear. Explain.

I am I. I am we. You are.

Clarity is essential on this point. Explain.

More than a million small assumptions, reaffirmed year after year, had become as routine as brushing teeth. The totality guarded for him an area of personality he was under no obligation to develop. All necessary development preexisted for him, long before his birth, out there in the world, in the images, actions, power, and status of others. In that undefined “I” existed an ego that embraced the outlines, but only the outlines, of the entire world. This was an unconscious process over which he had little control. It defined his self for him. It was a formal structure that defined his sense of order. It was one geared unconsciously to the avoidance of personal experience challenging that order. I tried to enter this area uninvited and was pushed back. This was his right. A guest does not enter a very private room without knocking carefully. Nor does a blind man continue moving when he hears an unfamiliar sound.

Clarity is essential on this point. Please explain.

I think he understood enough to know that he was on a moral mission.


After Christmas, Virginia contacted me by telephone and said, “No matter what you think, he has a good heart and he’s sorry. But you did provoke him. One thing I learned from traveling is you accept people the way they are and try to work from there. Africans can be a cruel people. Arabs I never did learn to trust. And there’s a lot of us niggers that ain’t so hot. But them raggedy-ass Indians taught me something about patience and faith. They ain’t never had nothing, but they still going strong. In Calcutta you see crippled beggars out in the street, and people just walk on around them. Now a Westerner would say that’s cruel, but them fucking Indians so damn complicated they probably look at that same beggar and see a reincarnated raja that lived in us a thousand years ago, ate too much of them hot spices, and died of gout. Shit! He don’t need nothing else! So they don’t worry about how he looks now. But patience is a Christmas-morning thing. You have to accept what’s under the tree and keep on believing there’s a Santa Claus. Both you and that nigger of mine have to learn that. I ain’t giving up on nothing! I ain’t giving up on shit! So why don’t you heist up your raggedy ass and come with us to Mass on New Year’s Eve?”

I have said Virginia Frost was a magic woman.

The cathedral was massive, chilly and dark. Huge arched stained-glass windows reflected the outlines of sacred images in the flickering lights of red and yellow candle flames. Two Episcopal priests, in flowing white albs, stood in the chancel and read invocations from their missals. Little boys in black cassocks paced reverently up and down the aisles, censing from gray-smoking thuribles. Seated on the benches around us were people—young and old and middle-aged, the well dressed and the shabby, the hopeful and the forlorn. Young men with great scraggly beards sat silently with lowered heads. Beside them were young women, pale and hard-faced, looking as beaten and worn as pioneer women after too many years of frontier life. Single girls wore sequined denim jackets over long frocks with ruffled bottoms. Many wore leather boots. Here and there, almost invisible in the crowd, men and men and women and women, segregated by sex, sat holding hands with heads bowed. Virginia was wearing her mug’s cap, and it sat rakishly on her strong curly hair. I sat on her right, Paul on her left. We sat close together. The place projected the mood of a sanctuary.

Above us, in the balconies, two choirs in black and white robes sang a mass. Their voices cried like wounded angels bent on calling back to earth a delinquent God. The effort was magnificent. But all around us, people looked abstracted, beaten, drained of feeling. There was a desperate concentration on the choir, an effort of such intensity it almost made its own sound. It seemed to be asking questions of the songs floating down from the choir. We closed our eyes and said private prayers. It was nearing midnight, and we heard the faith of Bach insisted on in the collective voices of the choir. And in response, breathing in the stillness of the people, one sensed a profound imploring. But then a voice behind us imposed itself on the silence. “Young man,” it rasped, “if you’re too dumb to take your hat off in church, get out!” From all along the two rows came the sounds of stiff necks creaking. “Young man,” the voice demanded of Virginia, “did you hear me? Or are you too dumb to know the English language?” I opened my eyes and turned. Beside me, Virginia was closing her eyes tighter. Beside her, I saw Paul lift his own head and turn fierce eyes on the old gentleman’s face. In his voice was a familiar arrogance from a source he had just begun to consciously tap. “You old fart!” he said, his tone disrupting the harmony floating down from above us. “You old fart!” he said. “This is my wife. If you don’t like what she’s wearing, that’s tough!”

The choir lifted their voices, as if bent on erasing the incident with the strength of their sound. Around us people coughed softly. Paul put his arm around Virginia’s shoulder. He closed his eyes and whispered in her ear. I closed my own eyes and tried to lose myself in the music. But I was made humble and hopeful by that other thing, and I thought to myself, This one’s a man.


From January on, Paul began confronting the hidden dimensions of his history. Something in his mind seemed to have opened, and he was hungry for information. He read books hungrily for other points of view, sifting through propaganda for facts. He underlined a great deal, scribbled questions in the margins, asked questions openly. He discarded much of what he read, but what stuck in that private place in his mind made him pensive, and silent, and a little sad. I watched him closely, though I kept my distance. I admired him for his heroic attempt to look back.

But in early February, while he was with Virginia in the parking lot of a supermarket, a carful of children called him nigger. Their dog barked along with the singsong rhythm. “I just laughed at the little crumbsnatchers,” Virginia said.

She said she could not understand why Paul became so upset.

In late February, when he was walking with Virginia in the rain through the Sunset district, two younger children called him nigger.

“What’s a nigger?” he asked me on the telephone. “I mean, what does it really mean to you?”

I said, “A descendant of Proteus, an expression of the highest form of freedom.”

He hung up on me.

I did not call him back. I was convinced he had to earn his own definitions.

In early March Virginia found out she was pregnant.

That same month Paul disclosed that his father, during one of their arguments, had mentioned to him the full name of the black janitor who swept out his office. But the old man was most upset about the baby.

During the months after Christmas I saw very little of them. I had become interested in a man recently paroled after more than fifty years in prison. He had many rich stories to tell. I visited him often in his room at a halfway-house, playing chess and listening while he talked. He sang eloquent praises to the luxuries of freedom. He detailed for me the epic nature of the effort that had got him sprung. He was alive with ambition, lust, large appetites. And yet, in his room, he seemed to regulate his movements by the beat of an invisible clock. He would begin walking toward the door, then stop and look puzzled, then return to his chair beside the bed. His window faced the evening sun just where it sank into the ocean, but the window shade was never lifted. He invited me once to have lunch with him, then opened a can of peaches and insisted that we share a single spoon. He invited me to attend a party with him, given in his honor by one of his benefactors. There, he sat on a chair in the corner of the room and smiled broadly only when a curious stranger expressed interest in his recollections. He told the same stories line for line. Late in the evening, I spoke briefly with the hostess. This woman looked me straight in the eye while denouncing prisons with a passionate indignation. Periodically, she swung her empty martini glass in a confident arc to the right of her body. There, as always, stood a servant holding a tray at just the point where, without ever having to look, my hostess knew a perfect arc and a flat surface were supposed to intersect. I saw my own face reflected roundly in the hostess’s blue-tinted spectator’s sunglasses, and I began to laugh.


The above section is totally unclear. It should be cut.

I would leave it in. It was attempting to suggest the nature of the times. 

But here the narrative begins to drift. There is a shift in subject, mood, and focus of narration. Cutting is advised 

Back during that time there was little feeling and no focus.

Narrator has a responsibility to make things clear.

Narrator fails in this respect. There was no clarity. There was no focus. There was no control. The hands of a great clock seemed to be spinning wildly, and there was no longer any great difference between East and West.

This thing affected everyone. There was the feeling of a great giving up. I sensed a bombed-out place inside me. I watched people clutch at bottles, pills, the robes of Jesus, and I began to feel cynical and beaten. Inside myself, and out there in the world, I heard only sobs and sighs and moans. There was during this time a great nakedness, exposed everywhere, and people dared you to look. I looked. I saw. I saw Virginia Frost losing control of her stories. As her belly grew, her recollections began to lose their structure. The richness was still there, but her accounts became more anecdotal than like stories. They lacked clarity and order. She still knew the names, the accents, the personal quirks of individual Indians, Asians, Israelis, but more and more they fragmented into pieces of memory. There was no longer the sense of a personal epic. She no longer existed inside her own stories. They began bordering dangerously on the exotic and nostalgic. At times, telling them, she almost became a performer—one capable of brilliant flashes of recollection that stunned briefly, lived, and then were gone. She had inside her an epic adventure, multinational in scope, but the passion needed to give it permanent shape was obviously fading. One part of her was a resigned mother-to-be, but the other part was becoming a country teller of tall stories with an international cast.

I have said it was the nature of the times.

Something was also happening to Paul. In his mind, I think, he was trying desperately to unstructure and flesh out his undefined “I.” But he seemed unable to locate the enemy and, a novice in thinking from the defensive point of view, had not yet learned the necessary tactics. Still, he seemed to sense there were some secrets to survival that could be learned from books, conversations, experiences with people who lived very close to the realities of life. He cut himself off from the company of most white males. He got a job with a landscaping crew and spent most of his days outdoors. His muscles hardened and his face grew brown. He grew a long black beard. He read the Bible, Sören Kierkegaard, abstract treatises on ethics. He underlined heavily. The beard merged with his intense, unblinking eyes to give him the appearance of a suffering, pain-­accepting Christ. During this time he flirted with the clothing styles of the street-corner dandy. Often in conversation he spoke bitterly about the neglect of the poor. He quoted from memory long passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, the book of Lamentations. He denounced his father as a moral coward. He was self-righteous, struggling, and abysmally alone. But his face still maintained its aura. His large brown eyes still put the same question, though now desperately asked, “Who am I?”

And many times, watching him conceal his aloneness, I wanted to answer, “The abstract white man of mythic dimensions, if being that will make you whole again.” But the story was still unfinished, and I did not want to intrude on its structure again. The chaos was his alone, as were the contents he was trying desperately to reclaim from an entrenched and determined form. But to his credit it must be said that, all during this time, I never once heard him say to Virginia, “I don’t understand.” For the stoic nature of this silence, considering the easy world waiting behind those words, one could not help but love him.

Then, in early June, both sets of parents began making gestures. Virginia’s people called up often, proposing treasured family names for the baby. Paul’s mother sent money for a bassinet. She hinted, in strictest confidence to Paul, that more than European bloodlines ran in her veins. But the father was still unyielding. His arguments had grown more complex: If he recognized the baby he would have to recognize Virginia’s family, and if he ever visited the family they would have to visit him. From this new perspective the objection was grounded in a simple matter of class distinction. His mind lacked subtlety, but one had to admire its sense of order. On his personal initiative, he told his son, he had engineered the hiring of a black employee by his company. Paul told his father this would not do. The mother told Paul the father would think it over, and after he had thought it over Virginia and the baby would be welcome in their home. But Virginia told Paul this would not do either.

They had never seen the problem from her point of view.

Virginia said, “I don’t want my baby to be an honorary white.”

She said this to me toward midsummer, in the park, during a conversation at the Japanese Tea Garden. Around us under the pavilion sat tourists munching cookies, sipping warm tea, huddled against the coolness of the morning mist. Virginia now wore a maternity smock over her pants, but her mug’s cap still rode defiantly atop her curly hair. Her belly protruded with the expanding child. Her brown cheeks were fleshy and her eyes looked very tired. She said, “I’m black. I’ve accepted myself as that. But didn’t I make some elbow room, though?” She tapped her temple with her forefinger. “I mean up here!” Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. “When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain’t nothing new. But shit, wouldn’t it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?” She laughed. Then she said, “That would have been some nigger!’’

We sipped our tea and watched the mist lifting from the flowers. On the walkways below us the tourists kept taking pictures.

I said, “You were game. You were bold all right. You were some nigger.”

She said, “I was whiter than white and blacker than black. Hell, at least I got to see through the fog.”

I said, “You were game all right.”

A tourist paused, smiled nervously, and snapped our picture.

Virginia said, “It’s so fucked up! You get just two choices, and either one leaves you blind as a bat at noon. You want both, just for starters, and then you want everything else in the world. But what you wind up with is one eye and a bunch of memories. But I don’t want my baby to be one-eyed and honorary white. At least the black eye can peep round corners.”

Inside myself I suddenly felt a coolness as light as the morning mist against my skin. Then I realized that I was acting. I did not care about them and their problems any more. I did not think they had a story worth telling. I looked away from her and said, “Life is tough, all right.”

Virginia was turning her teacup. She turned it around and around on the hand-painted tray. She looked out over the garden and said, “But I’m worried about that nigger of mine. I told you he had heart. In his mind he’s still working through all that shit. Underneath that soft front he’s strong as a mule, and he’s stubborn. Right now both his eyes are a little open, but if he ever got his jaws tight he might close one eye and become blacker than I ever thought about being. That’s the way it’s rigged.” 

I did not feel I owed them anything more. But because she had once shared with me the richness of her stories, I felt obliged. I looked at the tourists moving clumsily between the hanging red and purple fuchsia. They knocked many of the delicate petals to the ground. The pavilion was completely surrounded by tramping tourists. I looked down at Virginia’s belly and said, “Then for the sake of your child don’t be black. Be more of a classic kind of nigger.”

She laughed then and slapped my back.


I walked with Paul around the city before I returned East. This was in the late summer, several months before the baby was due, and I felt I owed him something. It was on a Sunday. Paul had attended a Quaker meeting that morning and seemed at peace with himself. We walked all afternoon. Along the avenues, on the sidewalk paralleling the beach, down the broad roads through the park, we strolled aimlessly and in silence. The people we saw seemed resigned, anomic, vaguely haunted by lackluster ghosts. My own eyes seemed drawn to black people. In Golden Gate Park I watched a black man, drunk or high on dope, making ridiculous gestures at a mother wheeling a baby in its carriage. The man seemed intent on parodying a thought already in the young mother’s mind. I stopped and pointed and said to Paul, “That’s a nigger.” On the Panhandle we paused to study an overdressed black man, standing in a group of casually dressed whites, who smiled with all his teeth exposed. His smile seemed to be saying, even to strangers, “You know everything about me. I know you know I know I have nothing to hide.” I nodded toward him and said to Paul, “That’s a nigger.” Paul looked about more freely. On Lincoln Way, walking back toward the bus stop, he directed my eyes to a passing car with stickers plastered on its bumpers. They boosted various mundane causes, motor lubricants, and the Second Coming of Jesus. In the middle of the back bumper there was a white sticker with great black letters reading, BE PROUD TO BE A NIGGER.

Paul laughed. I think he must have thought it a subtle joke. 

But a few blocks from the park I nodded toward a heavily bearded young white man on a sparkling, red ten-speed bike. He was red-faced and unwashed. His black pants and black sweatshirt seemed, even from a distance, infested with dirt and sweat and crawling things. As he pedaled, crusty, dirt-covered toes protruded from sandals made from the rubber casings of tires. He seemed conscious of himself as the survivor of something. He maneuvered through the afternoon traffic, against all lights, with a bemused arrogance etched into the creases of his red face. When he was far down the block, I said to Paul, “That one is only passing. He is a bad parody of a part-time nigger.”

He did not laugh. He did not understand.

I said, “Imagine two men on this street. One is white and dressed like that. The other is black and seems to be a parading model for a gentleman’s tailor. In your mind, or in your father’s mind, which of them would seem unnatural?”

Paul stopped walking. He looked very hurt. He said, “Now it’s finally out in the open. You think I’m a racist.”

I felt very cool and spacious inside myself. I felt free of any obligation to find a new story. I felt free enough to say to Paul, “I think you were born in a lonely place where people value a certain order. I saw a picture on a calendar once of a man posed between the prairie and the sky. He seemed pressured by all that space, as if he were in a crucible. He seemed humbled by the simplistic rhythm of the place. I think that in his mind he must have to be methodical, to think in very simple terms, in order to abide with those rhythms.”

But he still thought I was accusing him, or calling him to account. He said, “People do grow. You may not think much of me, but my children will be great!”

I said, “They will be black and blind or passing for white and self-blinded. Those are the only choices.”

Paul walked on ahead of me, very fast.

On Nineteenth Avenue, at the bus stop, he turned to me and said, “Don’t bother to come all the way back. Ginny’s probably taking a nap.” He looked away up the street to where several buses were waiting for the light to change. The fog had come in, it was getting darker, and in the light of the traffic his eyes looked red and tired. I was not standing close enough to him to see his face, but I am sure that by this time his aura had completely disappeared. He looked beaten and drained, like everything else in sight.

We shook hands and I began to walk away, convinced there were no new stories in the world.

Both buses passed me on their way to the corner. But above the squeaks and hissing of their brakes I heard Paul’s voice calling, “At least I tried! At least I’m fighting! And I know what a nigger is, too. It’s what you are when you begin thinking of yourself as a work of art!”

I did not turn to answer, although I heard him clearly. I am certain there was no arrogance at all left in his voice.

Almost two months later, when I called their apartment before leaving for the East, the telephone was disconnected. When I went there to say goodbye they were gone. A Chicano couple, just up from LA, was moving in. They spoke very poor English. When I described the couple I was looking for they shook their heads slowly. Then the husband, a big-bellied man with a handlebar mustache, rummaged in a pile of trash in the hall and pulled out a sign painted on a piece of cardboard. He held it up across his chest. The sign said, WE ARE PARENTS. GO AWAY.

I went back to the East resigned to telling the old stories.

But six months later, while I was trying to wrestle my imagination into the cold heart of a recalcitrant folktale, a letter from a small town in Kansas was forwarded to me by way of San Francisco. It was the announcement of a baby’s birth, seven or eight months old. Also enclosed were three color pictures. The first, dated in October, was a mass of pink skin and curly black hair. The second, a more recent snapshot, was of a chubby brown boy, naked on his back, his dark brown eyes staring out at the world. On the back of this picture was printed: “Daniel P. Frost, four months, eight days.” The third picture was of Virginia and Paul standing on either side of an elderly couple. Virginia was smiling triumphantly, wearing her mug’s cap. The old man looked solemn. The woman, with purple-white hair, was holding the baby. Paul stood a little apart from the others, his arms crossed. His beard was gone and he looked defiant. There was a familiar intensity about his face. On the back of this picture someone had written: “He will be a classic kind of nigger.”


Clarify the meaning of this comment.

I would find that difficult to do. It was from the beginning not my story. I lack the insight to narrate its complexities. But it may still be told. The mother is, after all, a country raconteur with cosmopolitan experience. The father sees clearly with both eyes. And when I called Kansas they had already left for the backwoods of Tennessee, where the baby has an odd assortment of relatives. I will wait. The mother is a bold woman. The father has a sense of how things should be. But while waiting, I will wager my reputation on the ambition, if not the strength, of the boy’s story.

Comment is unclear. Explain. Explain.



Reprinted from Elbow Room (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1977) by permission of Rachel McPherson. 


James Alan McPherson (1943–2016), a native of Savannah, Georgia, was recently selected for induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. He won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his second short-story collection, Elbow Room, and in 1981 he was in the inaugural group of MacArthur Fellowship recipients. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences added McPherson to its membership in 1995, and in 2000 his “Gold Coast” was included by editor John Updike in Houghton Mifflin’s Best Short Stories of the Century. McPherson was educated at Morgan State University, Morris Brown College, and Harvard Law School—after which he decided to get an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1971). Elbow Room was preceded by the fiction collection Hue and Cry (1969) and followed by two nonfiction works, Crabcakes: A Memoir (1998) and A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile (2000). Beginning in 1969, McPherson taught briefly at the University of California–Santa Cruz, Harvard, Morgan State, and the University of Virginia; he returned to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a faculty member in 1981, and he was associated with that program for the rest of his life.