“Because You Have Loved So Deeply” (1999)
By Jim DeBrosse
Up and down, up and down, the endless clanking and ratcheting of the gears sounded like the chains he felt around his heart.
It had been like that all morning long for Paul Laurence Dunbar, 19-year-old elevator operator at the Callahan Building downtown, as frantic lawyers and their clients finished last-minute legal matters on Christmas Eve day, 1891. Although Paul normally disdained tips as beneath his dignity, he had hoped for plenty in his cup that day – enough to buy that Christmas ham he had promised his mother for dinner. But everyone seemed too busy to reach into their pocket for a penny that morning. Too busy, alas, for the season of giving.
Still, he realized with no small measure of guilt that he had landed himself in this predicament: he was a quarter shy of what he needed for the ham, all because he had bought another poetry book for his small, beloved collection.
“Tenth floor!” Paul announced in his commanding voice as he brought the lift to a smooth stop at the building’s highest level. With the grace and ease that come from mindless repetition, he slid back the bronze mesh gate and the shiny mahogany door. “Watch your step, please!”
As the last of his passengers disembarked, Paul braced himself for the insistent buzzer that would send him plummeting again to the first floor. Miraculously, it was silent. He checked his watch – 11:02 a.m. – the calm before the lunch-hour storm. Some lines from Rossetti suddenly popped into his thoughts:
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragonfly
Hangs like a blue-thread loosened from the sky;
So is this winged hour dropt from above. . .
He settled down on his tiny operator’s stool and reached below it for one of his books, hoping he might be able to squeeze in a few lines of Shelley before the insanity began again. Paul sat ramrod straight as he read – a dignified and slightly built young man, with gentle, almond-shaped eyes. He was impeccably dressed in tie, coat and starched white collar. A moment later, his face lit up as he softly mouthed the lines:
Rhyme, Ballad-rhymer, start a country song;
Make me forget that she whom I loved well
Swore she would love me dearly, love me long,
Then – what I cannot tell!
God, how he ached to write poetry like that, to make the words leap off the page to their own music. And someday, he would. He would! Hadn’t many of his poems already appeared in the local papers? Only they didn’t pay much, if anything at all. Not enough, he thought drearily, to buy a Christmas ham in time for tonight’s dinner. If only one of the national magazines would buy his work instead of sending him so many graciously worded rejection letters.
He re-read the lines of Shelley, this time boldly and aloud, hearing how the rhythms captured the narrator’s bitter despair, the young beauty’s treacherous betrayal. . .
“Excuse me, boy!”
Paul looked up, startled to see the scowling mustached face of a middle-aged white man. He was wearing an expensive black business suit with streaks of cigar ash down the front.
“What is the meaning of this impudence, boy?”
Paul slipped the book below his stool and stood at attention. “Reading, sir.” And then, hoping to avoid further conversation: “Your floor, sir?”
“Never mind my floor. I’d like to know why a colored boy would be reading books instead of performing his paid duties. What are all those? Pulp novels?”
“No, sir. Poetry.”
“Poetry?” The man sneered. “Oh my, we do have an uppity one here. I might just consult with the building manager about this matter. A colored boy reciting poetry on the job! What can civilized society expect next? First floor, son, and no more mooning over your poetry books.”
The man was no sooner off the elevator than a younger man Paul recognized as a reporter for The Dayton Herald dashed in, notebook in hand.
“Fifth floor, please. Post-haste.”
“Yes, sir. The prosecutor’s office?”
“Indeed. They’re announcing charges this morning in the Hills murder case.” The reporter turned his head for a closer look at Paul.
“Say, I recognize you. You graduated from Central High last spring. I wrote that piece for The Herald . Editor of the school paper, am I correct?”
Paul nodded. “As well as president of the literary society,” he said proudly.
“I remember now. They called you `Deacon Dunbar’ – the best elocutionist in the class. What in the name of bejeezus are you doing running an office elevator?”
Paul grinned and shuffled a little. “Why massah, dat what I want to be doin’ mah whole laff.”
The reporter laughed heartily. He was a clean-shaven young man with clear blue eyes and hair shaved to stubble around his jutting ears. “Come on, now. Why don’t you apply at The Herald ? We could use another bright young reporter.”
“I did. And I was summarily rejected.”
“Nonsense, we hire fellows quite regularly who have never finished fifth grade.”
“The editor said it might upset the other reporters if he were to employ a man of color.”
“My, that’s harsh. He could be right, you know, but it wouldn’t bother me.”
“Well, I am certainly pleased to hear you share some small portion of my indignation,” Paul said, throwing back the mesh gate. “Your floor, sir.”
The reporter rushed from the elevator and, glancing back, said, “Good luck, Deacon, OK?”
Paul took a deep breath and sighed with longing as he watched the reporter disappear down the hallway. A young man on a mission, going somewhere, accomplishing something. Writing stories. Lord, he would do anything to be a writer someday – to let the words that filled his thrumming head find a worthy audience.
Yet he had other opportunities, he knew. A kindly lawyer in town, Mr. Charles Wesley Dustin, had offered him a job clerking in his office while Paul studied for the bar. How many Negro men had the chance to be a lawyer? Nonetheless, Paul could not bring himself to say yes to the offer. Not yet.
He was about to pick up his notebook, dash off some observations about the young reporter – more grist for his poems and short stories – but then the dreaded buzzer called.
On the first floor he was greeted by the smiling round face of Mrs. Blissenbaum, an older well-to-do woman who frequently came to the building to conduct business.
“And how are you today, Paul?” she said brightly as she stepped over the threshold.
“With you aboard my elevator, Mrs. Blissenbaum, life couldn’t be sweeter if it were dipped in clover honey.”
“And the same for your tongue, Paul. Tenth floor, please.”
They shared a laugh and then, as they both climbed slowly upward, the older woman said, “So, when might I look forward to seeing your next piece of poetry in the newspapers?”
“As a matter of fact, there is one set to appear next week – in The Herald.”
Mrs. Blissenbaum clucked her tongue happily. “Well, then, am I to be honored with a preview?”
“Why Mrs. Blissenbaum, I thought you would never ask.”
He stopped the elevator on the tenth floor, and as the insistent buzzer rattled away, he recited in a confident, rhythmic voice, tinged with melancholy:
“Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary
Which all the day with ceaseless care have sought
The magic gold which from the seeker
Ere dreams put on the gown and cap
And make the waking world a world of lies . . .”
When he had finished, Mrs. Blissenbaum was sniffling into a lace hankie.
“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry,” she said. “But your poetry always does that to me. Here,” she said, reaching into her enormous silk purse. “I want you to have this for Christmas.”
She pulled out a shiny new silver dollar and pressed it firmly into his palm.
“But Mrs. Blissenbaum, this is far too valuable. You can’t possibly . . .”
“Hush,” she said in a false stern voice. “It’s Christmas. Now get back to work!”
She bustled off the elevator, lace hankie firmly applied to her nose.
* * *
The chilled evening air rang with holiday revelry – faintly jingling bells and, somewhere on a distant street, carolers singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – but the sky was dark and threatening with winter clouds as Paul left the Callahan building that Christmas Eve. Even so, buoyed by the silver dollar in his pocket, and the memory of his poem’s stirring effect on Mrs. Blissenbaum, he decided to walk the mile or so home to Linden Avenue rather than take the trolley. The butcher shop on East Third Street, where he would buy the ham, was along the way.
He carried his four precious books in both arms as he followed the line of flaring gas lamps east along Third Street, their hissing like whispery voices calling him home. He couldn’t wait to see the smile on his mother’s face when he walked in the door with the biggest Christmas ham they’d ever had. There were would be plenty, too, for his half-brother Robert and his wife and their three small children to take home. Robert, who was unemployed now, faced hardships far more onerous than Paul and their mother.
He thought again about what the man with the mustache had said, how a colored boy should be happy to run an elevator, to have any job at all. Maybe the awful bigot had been right: how could a Negro ever expect to support himself from writing? Perhaps it was foolish pride on his part, stupid foolish pride. Maybe he should call Mr. Dustin first thing in the morning and ask to be his law clerk. The gent wouldn’t wait on him forever.
And yet, could he give up his poetry, his heart’s joyful song for the cold, hard logic of the law?
As if the weather had mimicked the heaviness in his soul it began to snow – giant, sticky flakes that splattered on the pavement as they fell. He quickly tucked his books inside his coat – the four he had scrimped and saved for – and began to run. There was a railroad overpass a block or two ahead on Third Street. If he could reach it in time, he might just keep his books dry. He ran and ran, until the front of his suit coat was plastered thickly with melting snow, his breath steaming.
He was just feet from the overpass, well beyond the glow of the big gas lamps downtown, when he felt the earth tremble beneath his running feet. My God, he thought, had the storm set off an earthquake? Suddenly, he heard from behind a hellish pounding and jangling coming fast upon him.
“WHOA, GINGER! WHOA! WHOA!”
He turned and jumped back just in time to escape the thundering hooves of a runaway draft horse. The man driving the beer wagon was standing in the rig, his whole body arched backward from the reins, straining to bring the beast under control. The wagon passed so close it spun Paul around, opening his coat and casting all four of his books into the mud and icy slush.
“No!” he shouted in horror, and dropped to his knees. He clutched in every direction for his lost treasures.
“Dear God!” he wailed. “Not my books!”
He gathered them dripping in his arms and raced the last few feet to the overpass, where in the dark shadows he strained his eyes to inspect the damage. How would he ever find the money to replace them? He was near tears as he wiped the sodden pages with his scarf. He would have cried, too, only he remembered the words of his mother, the words of an ex-slave to her first free-born son: “Never feel sorry for yourself, young man. Never give up the fight. You owe the many who have suffered and died in slavery before you, and the countless free-born of your race to come.”
He was stuffing his books back into his suit coat when, in the gloaming, a tiny face appeared before him – the soot-covered face of a little girl. And just behind her, huddled beneath a ratty blanket, were other white faces, a mother and a little boy, shivering in the dampness and the cold. Quite without realizing it, he had stumbled into the home of a squatter family.
“Please, mister,” the little girl said, cupping and lifting her two grimy hands. “It’s almost Christmas.”
Paul felt his heart melt in an instant, and without a second’s thought, he reached into his pocket for the silver dollar and placed it in the little girl’s hands. The little girl stared at it, not quite knowing what it was but sensing its value, and without a word, turned and ran and gave it to her mother. The woman reached out eagerly from under her blanket and, seeing in the dim light what she held, let out a tearful joyful gasp that seemed to rend Paul’s heart in two.
He buttoned up his coat and ran, straight into the stinging sleet. The wind was blowing fiercely now, almost horizontally, battling his every step. Still, he kept running, his heart overjoyed at what he had done, hearing the woman’s grateful gasp echoing in his ears, and in the next painful instant, remembering that he had needed the money for the Christmas ham.
You fool, he told himself. How could you have done that? How would he explain to his niece and nephews that there would be no Christmas ham?
He trudged on in misery now. His books ruined, his money gone. What would he tell his mother? And yet, he thought, wouldn’t she have done the same? When had Matilda Dunbar ever let a beggar go from her door without a loaf of bread, or a few of her hard-earned pennies, or an old coat she had mended?
The wind and freezing rain had become a terror now, burning into his eyes, boring like gunshot into his cheeks and ears. He must find a way to escape the worst of it, and that’s when he spotted the warm yellow light across the street, in the vestibule of Emmanuel Baptist Church. He dashed through the mud and slush, bounded over the trolley tracks and up the church steps when something on the announcement board happened to catch his eye.
Had he seen his name there?
He backpedaled down the steps and, his eyes watering from the storm, squinted to read these words:
Because you have loved so deeply
Because you have loved so long
God in His great compassion
Gave you the gift of song.
He shook his head violently, squinted again, but the words were still there. He bounded up the steps and into the vestibule, where an old woman in a hair net was lighting rows of candles. He tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around in surprise, hand clasped to her bosom.
“Tell me, ma’am,” he said, “who placed the message on the sign outside?”
“Why? Did I put the wrong service time again?”
“No,” he said. “The poem out there. It’s addressed to Paul.”
Impatient for an answer, he took her by the arm and dragged her toward the door.
“Now hold on here, young man. What are you doing? Help! Help!”
But he pulled her outside and down the steps and stood her in front of the sign, the wind and sleet swirling around them. Only now the sign said:
Christmas Eve Candle Light Service, 7 p.m.
Come All Ye Faithful
Paul stared at the message, disbelieving, as the woman, loose from his grasp now, wheeled in panic, rushed to the vestibule and immediately locked the door.
“How could it be?” he said aloud to himself. “Have I taken total leave of my senses?”
He turned and ran for home as fast as his legs would carry him.
* * *
The light was on in the tiny kitchen at the back of the house at 818 Linden Ave. – a beacon of his mother’s warmth and kindness – as Paul, drenched and shivering, made his way through the little wrought-iron gate and back along the limestone path to the side porch. He stood there a moment, sheltered at last from the freezing rain and wind, and set his books down on the milk box. They were a sopping, sorry mess that he prayed might be revived by a night beside a warm cook stove. He brushed and smoothed his soaking, rumpled suit as best he could, thinking about what he would say to his mother.
Should he tell her about the sign, or would she think his over-active imagination had at last transported him into the realm of pure fantasy?
It seemed to him now that the words on the sign were his own words – the same rhythms and patterns that stirred so restlessly in his brain. Was God trying to reach out to him, using Paul’s own voice to catch his ear? Or perhaps just as likely it was the devil, playing upon his foolish pride. His mother, he knew, would have something sensible and wise to say about all this – if only he could find the courage to tell her.
And what of the Christmas ham? What should he tell her about that? That he had squandered his tips on books again? That he had given away a whole silver dollar on a moment’s impulse? He had failed her, just as his own father had failed her, a broken, bitter man who had gone off to live in the veterans’ home when he could no longer support his family.
He was feeling foolish and guilty and giddy all at once, his heart beating wildly with fear and hope as he stepped quietly through the door. But the moment he was inside, he felt something inside him uncoil and release – a blessed calm that told him he was home. In that same instant, he was greeted by the delicious aromas of his mother’s cooking: greens, candied yams, biscuits and – could it be? – a savory ham spiked with clove.
He stripped off his wet suit coat and hung it on the coat tree. But before he could inspect the kitchen, his mother came rushing toward him – a mirror, it seemed, of his slight frame, his gentle, almond-shaped eyes – and greeted him with a fierce hug.
“Dear son, can you ever forgive me?” she said. “I simply couldn’t help myself – I had to open it! I had this wonderful premonition of what was inside!”
“Open what, Ma? What are you talking about?”
She slipped away from him and picked up an envelope from the planter stand by the door. She was smiling like he had never seen her smile before – bursting with pride and joy – as she handed him the envelope.
It was addressed to him, Mr. Paul Dunbar, from the Keelage Newspaper Co. of Chicago. He remembered vaguely sending them some of his writing, months ago, but he couldn’t recall exactly what. His hands trembled slightly as he held it.
“Go on, dear. Read what’s inside.”
He parted the open seal and pulled out a letter in rich creamy bond – like so many of the other rejection letters he had received. But when he unfolded it, he found a long gray check inside, written to one “P.L. Dunbar” – for the sum of $6!
He felt his knees go weak for an instant, his eyes swim with tears. “Ma, that’s more than I earn in a week!”
“I couldn’t help myself, dear. I went down to the grocer’s, showed them the check and bought a Christmas feast on credit. The Dunbar family is going to dine tonight as we have never dined before, young man. Now you just read what’s in that letter.”
Holding the check up in one hand like an offering, the unfolded letter in his other, he read out loud.
“Dear Mr. Dunbar:
We have accepted your short story, The Tenderfoot , for publication in our January issues. Please accept the enclosed check as full payment.
We hope to see further contributions from you in the near future.
Paul closed his eyes and whispered a prayer of thanks. When he opened his eyes again, he knew the rest of his life would never be the same. The sign at the church had prophesied as much.
“Ma,” he said, “I’ve made up my mind about something.”
“Yes, I know, dear,” she said, a quiet determined smile spreading across her face. “You’re going to be a writer, aren’t you?”
“If God is willing . . .”
“God is willing,” she said. “You have only to make it so.”
ABOUT THE STORY
For the past 10 years, the Dayton Daily News has offered a holiday short story as a Christmas Day gift to our readers. This year’s piece, once again by staff writer Jim DeBrosse, touches as well upon our area’s history. We hope you enjoy Because You Have Loved So Deeply. . ., and we extend season’s greetings to you and yours.
Copyright, 1999, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.