On the Road
He was not interested in snow. When he got off the freight, one early evening during the depression, Sargeant never even noticed the snow. But he must have felt it seeping down his neck, cold, wet, sopping in his shoes. But if you had asked him, he wouldn't have known it was snowing. Sargeant didn't see the snow, not even under the bright lights of the main street, falling white and flaky against the night. He was too hungry, too sleepy, too tired.
The Reverend Mr. Dorset, however, saw the snow when he switched on his porch light, opened the front door of his parsonage, and found standing therebefore him a big black man with snow on his face, a human piece of night with snow on his face-obviously unemployed.
Said the Reverend Mr. Dorset before Sargeant even realized he'd opened his mouth: "I'm sorry. No! Go right on down this street four blocks and turn to your left, walk up seven and you'll see the Relief Shelter. I'm sorry. No!" He shut the door Sargeant wanted to tell the holy man that he had already been to the Relief Shelter, been to hundreds of relief shelters during the depression years, the beds were always gone and supper was over, the place was full, and they drew the color line anyhow. But the minister said, "No," and shut the door. Evidently he didn't want to hear about it. And he had a door to shut.
The big black man turned away. And even yet he didn't see the snow, walking right into it. Maybe he sensed it, cold, wet, sticking to his jaws, wet on his black hands, sopping in his shoes. He stopped and stood on the sidewalk hunched over-hungry, sleepy, cold-looking up and down. Then he looked right where he was-in front of a church! Of course! A church! Sure, right next to a parsonage, certainly a church.
It had two doors.
Broad white steps in the night all snowy white. Two high arched doors with slender stone pillars on either side. And way up, a round lacy window with a stone crucifix in the middle and Christ on the crucifix in stone. All this was pale in the street lights, solid and stony pale in the snow.
Sargeant blinked. When he looked up, the snow fell into his eyes. For the first time that night he saw the snow. He shook his head. He shook the snow from his coat sleeves, felt hungry, felt lost, felt not lost, felt cold. He walked up the steps of the church. He knocked at the door. No answer. He tried the handle. Locked. He put his shoulder against the door and his long black body slanted like a ramrod. He pushed. With loud rhythmic grunts, like the grunts in a chaingang song, he pushed against the door.
"I'm tired ... Huh! ... Hongry ... Uh! ... I'm sleepy ... Huh! I'm cold ... I got to sleep somewheres," Sargeant said. "This here is a church, ain't it? Well, uh!"
He pushed against the door.
Suddenly, with an undue cracking and screaking, the door began to give way to the tall black Negro who pushed ferociously against it.
By now two or three white people had stopped in the street, and Sargeant was vaguely aware of some of them yelling at him concerning the door. Three or four more came running, yelling at him.
"Hey!" they said. "Hey!"
"Uh-huh," answered the big tall Negro, "I know it's a white folks' church, but I got to sleep somewhere." He gave another lunge at the door. "Huh!" And the door broke open.
But just when the door gave way, two white cops arrived in a car, ran up the steps with their clubs, and grabbed Sargeant. But Sargeant for once had no intention of being pulled or pushed away from the door.
Sargeant grabbed, but not for anything so weak as a broken door. He grabbed for one of the tall stone pillars beside the door, grabbed at it and caught it. And held it. The cops pulled Sargeant pulled. Most of the people in the street got behind the cops and helped them pull.
"A big black unemployed Negro holding onto our church!" thought the people. "The idea!" The cops began to beat Sargeant over the head, and nobody protested. But he held on.
And then the church fell down.
Gradually, the big stone front of the church fell down, the walls and the rafters, the crucifix and the Christ. Then the whole thing fell down, covering the cops and the people with bricks and stones and debris. The whole church fell down in the snow.
Sargeant got out from under the church and went walking on up the street with the stone pillar on his shoulder. He was under the impression that he had buried the parsonage and the Reverend Mr. Dorset who said, "No!" So he laughed, and threw the pillar six blocks up the street and went on.
Sargeant thought he was alone, but listening to the crunch, crunch, crunch on the snow of his own footsteps, he heard other footsteps, too, doubling his own. He looked around, and there was Christ walking along beside him, the same Christ that had been on the cross on the church-still stone with a rough stone surface, walking along beside him just like he was broken off the cross when the church fell down.
"Well, I'll be dogged," said Sargeant. "This here's the first time I ever seed you off the cross."
"Yes," said Christ, crunching his feet in the snow. "You had to pull the church down to get me off the cross."
"You glad?" said Sargeant.
"I sure am," said Christ.
They both laughed.
"I'm a hell of a fellow, ain't I?" said Sargeant. "Done pulled the church down!"
"You did a good job," said Christ. "They have kept me nailed on a cross for nearly two thousand years."
"Whee-ee-e!" said Sargeant. "I know you are glad to get off."
"I sure am," said Christ.
They walked on in the snow. Sargeant looked at the man of stone. "And you have been up there two thousand years?"
"I sure have," Christ said.
"Well, if I had a little cash," said Sargeant, "I'd show you around a bit."
"I been around," said Christ.
"Yeah, but that was a long time ago."
"All the same." said Christ, "I've been around."
They walked on in the snow until they came to the railroad yards. Sargeant was tired, sweating and tired.
"Where you goin'?" Sargeant said, stopping by the tracks.
He looked at Christ.
Sargeant said, "I'm just a bum on the road. How about you? Where you goin'?"
"God knows " Christ said, "but I'm leavin' here."
They saw the red and green lights of the railroad yard half veiled by the snow that fell out of the night. Away down the track they saw a fire in a hobo jungle.
"I can go there and sleep," Sargeant said.
"Sure," said Sargeant. "That place ain't got no doors."
Outside the town, along the tracks, there were barren trees and bushes below the embankment, snow-gray in the dark. And down among the trees and bushes there were makeshift houses made out of boxes and tin and old pieces of wood and canvas. You couldn't see them in the dark, but you knew they were there if you'd ever been on the road, if you had ever lived with the homeless and hungry in a depression.
"I'm side-tracking," Sargeant said. "I'm tired."
"I'm gonna make it on to Kansas City," said Christ.
"O.K.," Sargeant said. "So long!"
He went down into the hobo jungle and found himself a place to sleep. He never did see Christ no more. About 6:00 A.M. a freight came by. Sargeant scrambled out of the jungle with a dozen or so more hobos and ran along the track, grabbing at the freight. It was dawn, early dawn, cold and gray.
"Wonder where Christ is by now?" Sargeant thought. "He musta gone on way on down the road. He didn't sleep in this jungle."
Sargeant grabbed the train and started to pull himself up into a moving coal car, over the edge of a wheeling coal car. But strangely enough, the car was full of cops. The nearest cop rapped Sargeant soundly across the knuckles with his night stick. Wham! Rapped his big black hands for clinging to the top of the car. Wham! But Sargeant did not turn loose. He clung on and tried to pull himself into the car. He hollered at the top of his voice, "Damn it, lemme in this car!"
"Shut up," barked the cop. "You crazy coon!" He rapped Sargeant across the knuckles and punched him in the stomach. "You ain't out in no jungle now. This ain't no train. You in jail."
Wham! across his bare black fingers clinging to the bars of his cell. Wham! between the steel bars low down against his shins.
Suddenly Sargeant realized that he really was in jail. He wasn't on no train. The blood of the night before had dried on his face, his head hurt terribly, and a cop outside in the corridor was hitting him across the knuckles for holding onto the door, yelling and shaking the cell door.
"They musta took me to jail for breaking down the door last night," Sargeant thought, "that church door."
Sargeant went over and sat on a wooden bench against the cold stone wall. He was emptier than ever. His clothes were wet, clammy cold wet, and shoes sloppy with snow water. It was just about dawn. There he was, locked up behind a cell door, nursing his bruised fingers.
The bruised fingers were his, but not the door. Not the club but the fingers.
"You wait," mumbled Sargeant, black against the jail wall. "I'm gonna break down this door, too."
"Shut up-or I'll paste you one," said the cop.
"I'm gonna break down this door," yelled Sargeant as he stood up in his cell. Then he must have been talking to himself because he said, "I wonder where Christ's gone? I wonder if he's gone to Kansas City?"
End of On The Road by Langston Hughes