And a Child Shall Lead Them

 

By Jim DeBrosse

HE STARED AT the blank page for what seemed like the thousandth time that morning, but the words wouldn't come. He riffled his fingertips over the keys of his well-worn Remington, believing the mere mechanical act of moving his fingers might invite inspiration. But there was nothing. He was dead inside, and his novel was only half-finished.

He had begun the book with such lofty ambition - no homespun Negro dialect, no poignant tales from the plantation. He would paint a multihued world with characters he knew and understood - educated, middle-class people of color like himself, who had struggled out of poverty and against racism and had tasted both the joys and sorrows of success.

He tried to draw a deep breath in the overly warm room, until the familiar heavy thickness in his lungs forced him to cough. He braced himself for the piercing spasms that usually followed, but not this time. He felt lucky.

Even so, he wanted to reach down into his bottom drawer for his wine bottle. It seemed the only thing that could warm him now and put at bay the microscopic demons burrowing ever deeper into his lungs.

Paul put his hands in his pockets and stared into the worn wooden floor. It seemed like hours until a small woman with rose-colored cheeks came bustling out of the stock room.

She smiled and said, "May I 'elp you, sir?"

There was a nervous musical quality to her voice, like a small bird singing on a bare branch.

He cleared his throat and repeated his request, but before he could add his apologetic "for medicinal purposes," the woman suddenly brightened and said, "Aren't you that famous poet - Paul Laurence Dunbar?"

"No," he said tersely.

"Really? I could swear by it. I 'eard him recite once at the library, I did. He was quite the elocutionist. You look the spittin' image o' him, if I do say so myself."

"I'm sorry. Now if I could have my wine, please."

"I wish't I could, sir - 'onest. But there are Blue Laws in these parts, you know."

OUT ON THE STREET again, he pulled his collar around his throat and felt the cold pierce clear to his heart. He looked up and down the busy thoroughfare, full of pedestrians, horses and streetcars, wondering where to turn next.

There was a sign for a restaurant up ahead, across Broadway, called Selma's, where he might find some warmth and at least a hot cup of coffee.

He crossed Broadway, passed a hardware store, Hamburger's, and came to an undertaker's, Fetters and Shank, where open caskets beckoned from the storefront to weary pedestrians. He stopped a moment and stared into their silk-lined oblivion.

Not yet, he thought. Not yet.

He moved on, but in a few steps, he stopped again. Bicycle frames hung in the window of the next storefront, and above them the sign, Wright Cycle Co.

Ah, so this is where their new store was. He wondered if he should step inside and see if Orville was there. But no, he thought, he wasn't ready for that. He wanted to be alone, and he wanted a long sip of wine to still the aching in his chest.

He hadn't ventured two steps beyond the shop's front door when it burst open and there was Wilbur, his white collar starched as high as ever and his bald pate shining like a street globe.

"Paul Dunbar? Is that you?"

Paul smiled faintly like someone caught in the act of a petty crime.

"Well, by all means, come in," he said, waving him toward the door. "Orville's in the back. We'd heard you were back in town."

Wilbur took his coat as Paul glanced about the storefront. It was the same orderly, sane establishment the Bishop's boys had always operated, with the same beautiful bikes, as sleek and elegant to the eye as they were practical and efficient. That was the essence of the Wright brothers: life subdued to order and grace.

"Would you like some tea or coffee?" Wilbur said. "I've got some hot water going."

Paul rubbed his hands together briskly. "Some tea would be nice. Thank you."

"Go on back. I'll bring it. Orville will be keen on seeing you."

Paul stepped back through the middle room, where Charlie Taylor was delicately tapping here and there with a ball-peen hammer on a badly bent rim.

He looked up and fairly shouted. "Paul Dunbar! Why you must be the ghost of Christmas!"

"Christmas present, I should hope."

Charlie jumped from his work and pumped Paul's hand with the same brisk firmness that he had wielded his hammer.

"Orville! Look what the cat drug in!"

Orville came out of the back room wiping his hands on a rag. His work apron, as always, was immaculate, his white collar just as high and stiff as Wilbur's.

"My word, it's the return of the Prodigal Son!"

Orville stepped forward, and with that mischievous glint in his eyes that Paul had known since their high school days, Orville grabbed his hand and clasped his shoulder so hard it triggered one of Paul's coughing spells.

He quickly pulled out his red handkerchief - the color and hue carefully selected to hide the evidence of his disease - and turned his head. He hoped it would be mercifully short this time, but it wasn't. His whole body shook with the exertion.

When it had finally passed, Orville took him by the elbow. The mischievous glint was now a look of concern. "Come into the work shop. I've got the stove blazing back there."

The shop was no bigger than a church parlor and filled with machinery - a lathe, a drill press and an odd contraption that looked like a washtub and fan attached to one end of a narrow wooden coffin. Each machine was connected by belt to a system of overhead shafts, all of them driven by a single gas engine.

Orville had him sit on a long bench by the stove, its coals glowing red through the grill.

Just then, Wilbur arrived with the tea, served on a saucer, with two lumps of sugar.

"Thank you," Paul said. "If the bike shop should ever fail, you two could always open a tea room. The Wright Brothers Tea and Sassafras Parlor. Serving refined ladies and gentlemen since 1899."

The brothers laughed. "Only if you promise to give daily recitals for the ladies," Orville said.

"My recital days, I'm afraid, are at an end." He coughed softly, putting his fist to his closed mouth.

"Posh," Orville said. "You have a nasty cold. Mother Matilda will have you cured in no time."

Paul sat straight. "I have consumption," he said.

The brothers looked a moment at each other in silence.

"Excuse me," Wilbur said finally. "I think I'll leave you two old friends alone for a while. I've got the books to attend to. I'll look forward to seeing you another time, Paul."

"Indeed," Paul said.

"And while you're up, dearest brother of mine," Orville said, "would you be so kind as to bring me a cup of tea as well?"

"I'll see if I have enough sugar left," Wilbur said. "The last time I checked, we had but a barrel full."

Paul laughed this time. Orville was famous for his sweet tooth.

Orville sat beside his friend. "How long have you known?" he said.

"Since spring of two years ago."

"Have you tried a more suitable climate?"

"Colorado. But it was lonely, and mother didn't care for all the cowboys yippy-yie-yaying."

Orville slapped his knee. "I'm delighted you haven't lost your sense of humor."

"I believe I've just recovered it."

"There's so much to catch up on." Orville said. "Wilbur and I have made incredible progress in our flying endeavors. You must come for dinner tonight. Bring Alice and your mother."

"There is no Alice."

Orville's eyes widened. "You can't mean. . ."

"No, she's not deceased. She simply left. She'd had enough of living with a moody, cantankerous writer. And I said and did things in anger I should not have said or done."

Orville set down his tea. "Paul, you know I'm not the best man to ask for advice on women. I've always felt the fairer sex was more trouble than they're worth, and if it's companionship I need, I have God, my family and my work. But I know you to be a man of deep conscience, Paul. Could you not ask her forgiveness?"

"I have, many times. But it's finished. She has stayed in Washington to teach."

"Then you must forgive yourself. "

"If she cannot forgive, then how can I?"

"God has forgiven you. That is sufficient."

"You sound exactly like Ma. But nothing, not even my deepest faith, remains unshaken."

"Paul, I wish I knew how I might help you. I'll pray for you."

Paul sipped his tea and stared out the back window to the alley. "It's ironic. I've often envied my siblings their children. Now I am grateful that God has spared such an unlucky child our broken union."

"But you have countless children, Paul. Every time a mother sits down with a son or daughter to read your poetry, you become a part of them."

"Oh, please, Orville. Don't think me so vain that flattery will soothe me."

"Flattery?"

Orville was rescued by the entrance of Wilbur, who brought with him a cup of hot tea and six sugar cubes evenly spaced around the edge of the saucer.

"Thank you, Wilbur. You may be dismissed."

Wilbur bowed deeply. "As you wish, your most royal potentate."

The two men sipped a moment before the glowing oven. The warmth of the tea and the room seemed to spread like the spirit of Christmas itself through Paul's chest, loosening the tightness there.

He thought of the first Christmas with Alice, reading poetry by the fireplace, the orange light dancing in her eyes . . .

"Paul?" Orville said. "Did you hear me?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you say something?"

"Would you like to see a doctor I know here? I hold him in the highest regard."

"No," Paul said. "I've had enough of doctors, enough of cures. What I want now is peace."

"Are you writing?"

"I'm trying. I'm not sure I have it in me any more."

"Do you remember what you wrote to me a few years ago, when it seemed Wilbur and I would never get off the ground?"

"No, but I'm certain it was uplifting. Pun intended, of course."

Orville began to recite:

"No bird will ask in flight,

What hath God in blessing wrought?

Nor man to ask, as long as such dreams are wrought,

By faith and craft and endless schemes

In the hearts of the brothers Wright."

"Bravo. At least my critics can't claim it's a mere trifle writ in shuffling dialect. That's all the editors will pay me for, it seems. The white world dearly loves a minstrel show."

"Paul, you could no more quit writing than Wilbur and I could quit making contraptions."

"And our addictions will be the death of us all, I fear."

"And our legacies. What if I told you one of our gliding contraptions held Wilbur aloft for nearly three minutes?"

"I'd say, by staying on the ground, you had shown yourself of superior intellect to your brother."

Orville stuck out his chin. "Let me show you something, oh ye of little faith."

Orville got up and started the gas engine by the wall, then went over to the coffin-like device and engaged the belt drive. The fan inside the washtub began blowing air out the other end of the coffin and circulating it around the room. The sudden rush of wind felt like an indoor hurricane.

"Wilbur and I have been using this to test our wing designs," Orville shouted over the engine noise. "We call it a wind tunnel."

"Aptly named, I must say," Paul shouted.

"We have this balancing instrument here," he said, holding up a rectangular structure of rods and measuring needles, no bigger than a shoebox.

"We simply attach our wing foil here." He clipped it to one of the rods on the rectangle. "And insert it like so into the wind tunnel, and observe the results here."

Orville brought him closer to peer down through the glass plate at the top of the wind tunnel. Inside, the two measuring needles swung back and forth as Orville changed the pitch of the wing. It was a remarkably precise instrument, delicately poised to ride with the wind.

Orville disengaged the belt drive and switched off the engine.

"Wilbur and I have achieved the most exact measurements thus far on the lift and drag of wing designs," he said.

He turned to Paul with the very fire of his soul burning in his brown eyes. "With these new measurements, we believe we will be able to achieve powered flight, perhaps within the next year."

"I have no doubt," Paul said. "You and your brother were always destined to take flight - in one form or another."

"Paul, you must come to dinner. Katharine will insist on it."

"I know better than to spurn Miss Katie's wishes, but at present, I am in no temper to socialize."

"I see," said Orville. "And when will that time come?"

Paul sighed. "I don't know."

"Will you send a note when you change your mind?"

"By courier pigeon, my flying friend."

THAT NIGHT, THE fevers came on again. Ma was in and out of his room, putting cold compresses to his forehead, changing his damp sheets, forcing water and homemade potions through his cracked lips.

Too weak to cough, he wheezed and sucked for air through the liquid in his lungs. She knelt by his bedside and prayed with a desperate abandon she had never known before.

The next morning, she was near to calling for Dr. Burns. He might at least open Paul's chest and drain the fluid that was near to drowning him.

But just before noon, he sipped some hot broth and, when she took his temperature again, it had broken. The wheezing eventually eased and he was at peace at last.

He slept for the next two days.

On the third day, Matilda brought him downstairs and put his bed in the living room, where she could tend to him and keep house as well.

By Christmas morning, he was sitting up again, but he felt more lifeless than ever.

It seemed to him God had worked only half a miracle.

THAT AFTERNOON, there was a knock at the door and Matilda, humming "Hark, the Herald . . .," answered it and came into the living room with a sheaf of telegrams in her hand.

"A half a dozen more, Paul. All wishing you well."

He pointed to the fireplace. "Add them to the file," he said.

"Paul," she scolded, "you can't go on like this, child. You're killing yourself as sure as if you'd put a gun to your head."

"So be it."

"If you won't see anyone, then at least write. God has given you a gift, son."

"He giveth, and He taketh away."

"Paul, I will not have blasphemy under my roof, especially on Christmas Day."

"I'm sorry, Ma. I'd just like to be alone for a while."

"If I let you be, will you have some soup when I return?"

"Yes, Ma."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

She went upstairs to her sewing room and in a minute or two he could hear the steady rhythm of her foot on the treadle. It was a homey, comforting sound he had known since his youth.

It lulled him into a deep sleep in his wing chair, until another knock came at the door and startled him awake.

"Ma!" he shouted - with what little wind he could muster. "Ma!"

The rhythm on the treadle didn't stop.

The knock came again. But this time it seemed softer, almost tentative.

He wondered with a sudden pang if it might be Alice.

He got up from the chair and walked on wobbly legs to the door. He pulled back the lace curtain, holding his breath against hope, but saw no one there.

The knock came again - the suddenness of it nearly knocking him backward off his feet.

"Who's there?"

He pulled open the door to discover a tiny boy, no more than 9, with thick black curls and toffee-colored skin. He looked so angelic he seemed to belong at the top of a Christmas tree.

The boy looked up at Paul, his eyes wide and frightened.

"Mr. Dunbar, sir?"

"Yes."

"I brought my Christmas present for you to sign, sir."

"Your Christmas present?"

"Yes, it's a book of yours." He held up a copy of Oak and Ivy . "My mother gave it to me for Christmas. She knows how much I love your poems. She's been reading them to me since I was a baby."

"Are you from the neighborhood?"

"I took the trolley car, sir."

"Does your mother know?"

"Oh, yes. She talked to our neighbor, Mr. Wright. He said today would be a good day to visit because you couldn't turn me away on Christmas."

Paul laughed out loud. "He did? What's your name, child?"

"Theophilus. Theophilus Martin."

"Come in out of the cold, Theophilus. I will gladly sign your book."

Paul stepped over to his wing chair and sat. Beside the chair was a small stand with a writing pad and pen - a not-too-subtle hint from his mother. He picked up the pen and opened the boy's book.

"What should I inscribe for you?"

"I know exactly, sir," the boy said. "I want you to write, `Dear Theophilus, someday I hope you will be as good a poet as I am. Keep writing and never give up.' "

Paul stared at the boy and felt his eyes go hot and watery. The great glacier inside his chest seemed to stir and break.

"Do you write poetry, child?"

"Yes, all the time. My teacher said I have talent. But I mostly do it because it makes me feel good."

Paul felt a sudden kinship with the boy. "May I see some of your poetry sometime? I mean, if you don't mind, that is."

"Mind? That would be terrific, sir! Can I bring you some tomorrow?"

"I won't be going anywhere."

Paul quickly inscribed the words the child had asked for, and added. "And thank you, dear child, for leading the way . . . With Highest Regard, Paul Laurence Dunbar."

"Thank you, Mr. Dunbar."

The boy took his book and shook Paul's hand in great gleeful pumps.

"Go on home now. Before your mother thinks you ran away to join a poetry colony."

"I will, sir. And I'll be back tomorrow, 10 o'clock sharp."

"Good."

Paul was closing the door when his mother came down the stairs.

"Who was that?" she said, looking surprised.

"A Christmas visitor," he said, smiling.

Paul walked past his mother and started up the stairs, one slow step at a time.

"Can I help you, dear?"

"No, Ma. I must do this on my own."

He reached the top of the stairs and entered his beloved den. He sat down at his flat-top desk, where he pushed aside the Remington and picked up his pen and writing tablet.

Alice seemed to be there in the room with him as the words came rushing forth onto the blankness of the page:

All the World is so sweet, dear

And matters so little to me-

You are the whole and the all, dear

The bride for eternity-

Life is so gray and so brief dear

And it is so hard to live

Why should we neighbor with grief, dear

Better to love and forgive.

Even tho' I miss you today, dear

Miss you and pass like a breath-

Love is puissant in serving dear

Far past the portals of death.

Copyright, 2002, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.

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