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school board and Isabel’s mother got it—there had, apparently, been other letters but Sonny had torn them up. This day, when Sonny came in, Isabel’s mother showed him the letter and asked where he’d been spending his time. And she finally got it out of him that he’d been down in Greenwich Village, with musicians and other characters, in a white girl’s apartment. And this scared her and she started to scream at him and what came up, once she began—though she denies it to this day— was what sacrifices they were making to give Sonny a decent home and

how little he appreciated it. Sonny didn’t play the piano that day. By evening, Isabel’s mother

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school board and Isabel’s mother got it—there had, apparently, been other letters but Sonny had torn them up. T
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had calmed down but then there was the old man to deal with, and Isabel herself. Isabel says she did her best to be calm but she broke down and

 

 

JAMES BALDWIN

started crying. She says she just watched Sonny’s face. She could tell, by watching him, what was happening with him. And what was happening was that they penetrated his cloud, they had reached him. Even if their fingers had been a thousand times more gentle than human fingers ever are, he could hardly help feeling that they had stripped him naked and were spitting on that nakedness. For he also had to see that his presence, that music, which was life or death to him, had been torture for them and that they had endured it, not at all for his sake, but only for mine. And Sonny couldn’t take that. He can take it a little better today than he could then but he’s still not very good at it and, frankly, I don’t know anybody who is.

The silence of the next few days must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever played since time began. One morning, be­ fore she went to work, Isabel was in his room for something and she suddenly realized that all of his records were gone. And she knew for certain that he was gone. And he was. He went as far as the navy would carry him. He finally sent me a postcard from some place in Greece and that was the first I knew that Sonny was still alive. I didn’t see him any more until we were both back in New York and the war had long been over.

He was a man by then, of course, but I wasn’t willing to see it. He came by the house from time to time, but we fought almost every time we met. I didn’t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike all the time, and I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.

Then we had a fight, a pretty awful fight, and I didn’t see him for months. By and by I looked him up, where he was living, in a furnished room in the Village, and I tried to make it up. But there were lots of other people in the room and Sonny just lay on his bed, and he wouldn’t come downstairs with me, and he treated these other people as though they were his family and 1 weren’t. So I got mad and then he got mad, and then I told him that he might just as well be dead as live the way he was living. Then he stood up and he told me not to worry about him any more in life, that he was dead as far as I was concerned. Then he pushed me to the door and the other people looked on as though nothing were happening, and he slammed the door behind me. I stood in the hallway, staring at the door. I heard somebody laugh in the room and then the

“s o n n y ’s b l u e s ”

tears came to my eyes. I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself. You going to need me, baby, one of these

cold, rainy days.

I read about Sonny’s trouble in the spring. Little Grace died in the

fall. She was a beautiful little girl. But she only lived a little over two years. She died of polio and she suffered. She had a slight fever for a cou­ ple of days, but it didn’t seem like anything and we just kept her in bed. And we would certainly have called the doctor, but the fever dropped, she seemed to be all right. So we thought it had just been a cold. Then, one day, she was up, playing, Isabel was in the kitchen fixing lunch for the two boys when they’d come in from school, and she heard Grace fall down in the living room. When you have a lot of children you don’t always start running when one of them falls, unless they start screaming or something. And, this time, Grace was quiet. Yet, Isabel says that when she heard that thump and then that silence, something happened in her to make her afraid. And she ran to the living room and there was little Grace on the floor, all twisted up, and the reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a

mortal wound. I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was

buried. I was sitting in the living room in the dark, by myself, and I sud­

denly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.

One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or, anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks I found myself wan­ dering aimlessly about the living room drinking from a can ofbeer, and trying to work up the courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front o f the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dated to admit to myselfwhat I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.

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