“Safe!” my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children. “Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor nobody.”
He always went on like this, but he wasn’t, ever, really as bad as he sounded, not even on weekends, when he got drunk. As a matter of fact, he was always on the lookout for “something a little better,” but he died before he found it. He died suddenly, during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn’t ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always fighting with him. It doesn’t do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so much alike. Daddy was big and rough and loud-talking, just the opposite of Sonny, but they both had—that same privacy.
Mama tried to tell me something about this, just after Daddy died. I was home on leave from the army.
This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive. Just the same, this picture gets all mixed up in my mind with pictures I had of her when she was younger. The way I always see her is the way she used to be on a Sunday afternoon, say, when the old folks were talking after the big Sunday dinner. I always see her wearing pale blue. She’d be sitting on the sofa. And my father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of church folks and relatives. There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment
“s o n n y ’s b l u e s
nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. And my mother rocks a little from the waist, and my father’s eyes are closed. Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying on the rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody’s got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the kid s head. Maybe there’s a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in the corner. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop—will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room, talking about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve seen, and what’s happened to them and their
kinfolk. But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is
bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won’t talk any more that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more be cause if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.
The last time I talked to my mother, I remember I was restless. I wanted to get out and see Isabel. We weren’t married then and we had a
lot to straighten out between us. There Mama sat, in black, by the window. She was humming an old
church song. Lord, you brought me from a long ways o