Beauty is Truth by Anna Guest

At 125th street, they all got off, Jeanie and her friend, Barbara, and a crowd of other boys and girls who went to the same downtown high school. Through the train window, Jeanie thought she saw the remaining passengers look at them with relief and disdain. Around her, the boys and girls pressed forward with the noisy gaiety. They were all friends now. They were home again in Harlem.

A tall boy detached himself from a group, bowed low and swept his cap before him in a courtly salute.

“Greetings, Lady Jeanie. Greeetings, Barbara.”

Jeanie bit her lip. Frowning, she pulled her coat closer and shrugged. Barbara smiled and dimpled, pleased for her friend.

“I told you he likes you,” she whispered. “Look, he’s waiting. Want me to go on ahead?”

Jeanie really was wasting an opportunity. Norman was keen. She saw Jeanie’s head, slightly bowed and thrust forward. It was no use. She was an odd girl, but Barbara liked her anyway. The boy swung gracefully back to his group.

“Coming t the show tonight?” Barbara asked.

“No I can’t. I’m so far behind in my homework, I’d better try to do some before they decide to throw me out.” Jeanie still frowned.

“Want a Coke or something?” asked Barbara as they passed the big ice-cream parlor window, cluttered with candy boxes and ornate with curly lettering. They could see the jukebox near the door and some boys and girls sitting down at a table. It looked warm and friendly.

Jeanie shook her head, one brief shake.

“I think I’ll stop in. I’m awful thirsty,’ said Barbara.

Jeanie shrugged.

“So long then.”

“So long.”

She walked along the busy street, aimlessly looking in the store windows, turned the corner, and walked the few blocks to her house. Though it was chilly, each brownstone or gray stoop had its cluster of people clinging to the iron railings. Some children on skates played desperate game of hockey with sticks that were not hockey sticks.

When a car approached, they did not interrupt their game until it was almost too late. Amid shouts from the driver and wild jeers from the children, the car passed, and the game was resumed in all its concentrated intensity.

Her little brother Billy was playing in front to the stoop with three or four other kids. They were bending over something in the sidewalk, in a closed circle. Pitching pennies again, she thought with repugnance. She was going to pass them and started up the three stone steps to the doorway. A window on the ground floor opened, and Fat Mary leaned out, dressed only in a slip and a worn, brown sweater.

“Now you’re going to catch it, Billy Boy. You sister’s going to tell your mama you been pitching pennies again.”

Jeanie did not pause.

Billy sprung up, “Hi Jeanie. Jean, gimme a nickel. Billy needs a nickel.”

The other little boys took up the chant. “A nickel, a nickel. Billy needs a nickel.”

She threw them a furious glance and went in. Two little girls sat on the second landing, playing house. They had a set of toy dishes spread out on the top stair, and held their dolls in their laps. She stepped over them, careful not to disturbed their arrangements.

The kitchen smelled dank and unused, and the opening of the door dislodged a flake of green-painted plaster. It fell into the sink, with a dry powdering. A black dress someone had given her mother lay over the chair before the sewing machine. It reminded her that her sleeve had torn half out, dressing after gym. She really should sew it, but the sight the black dress waiting to be made over made her dislike the thought of sewing. She would just have to wear her coat in school tomorrow. Lots of kids did.

She hung her coat on a hook in the room she shared with her mother, and stood irresolute. Her mother would be coming in soon, and would expect to find the potatoes peeled and the table laid. She caught sight of a comic book and, unwillingly attracted by the garnish colors, read one side. “Ah!” she thought in disgust. “Billy!” She thought of her homework. She was so far behind in social studies that she could probably never make it up. It was hardly worth trying. Mercantilism. She would probably fail. And gym, all those cuts in gym. Miss fisher, her grade adviser, had called her down yesterday and warned her. “Ah!” she said again. Miss Fisher was all right. She had even been encouraging. “I know you can do it,” she had said.

She sat down on her bed and opened her loose-leaf notebook at random. A page fell out. She was about to jam it back in, when the freshly inked writing caught her eye. Today’s English. Some poem about a vase, and youths and maidens. Miss Lowy had brought in some pictures of vases with people on them, dressed in togas or whatever they wore, spinning and reading from scrolls. Why did everybody get so excited about the Greeks? It was a long time ago. “Wonderful!” “Wonderful!” Miss Lowy exclaimed. How could anybody get so stirred up over a poem> She meant it too.

You could tell from her expression.

“Listen, boys and girls. Listen.” A lifted arm enjoined them.

Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, –– that is all.

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

There it was, copied into her notebook. Caught by something in the lines, she tried to find the poem in her tattered anthology, not bothering about the index, but riffling the pages to and fro. John Keats, at last ––“Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The poem, all squeezed together in the middle of the page, looked dry and dusty, withered and faraway, at the bottom of the dry well. She saw, not so much words, as an interesting meandering pattern. The big THOU at the opening repelled her. She turned the page to find that the poem went on. Recognizing the last lines, she heard them again, falling so roundly, so perfectly, from the lips of Miss Lowy. She turned back to the beginning. Why “Grecian,” why not “Greek”? With an effort, she began to dig the poem out of its constricted print.

“Thou foster child of silence and slow time,” its soft susurrus carried her on. She read the poem through the end, trying to remember her teacher’s cadences.

“Write about beauty and truth. Write about life,” Miss Lowy had said.

She tore a page out of her notebook and opened her pen. Pulling over a chair, she rested her book on the sooty window sill. She stared out at the dusk falling sadly, sadly, thickening into darkness over the coal yards.

A crash of the kitchen door caused a reverberation of the window sill. The notebook slipped out of her hands.

“Where’d you get that bottle of pop?” she heard her mother’s voice, hard and sounding more Southern than usual.

A high-pitched, wordless sniveling came in reply. “I asked you, where’d you get that pop? You better tell me.”

“A lady gave me a nickel. A lady came down the street and asked me ––“

“You lying. I know where you got the money. Gambling, that’s what you was doing.”

“I was only pitching pennies, Ma. It’s only a game, Ma.”

“Gambling and stealing and association with bad friends. I told you to stay awat from them boys. Didn’t I? Didn’t I?” Her mother’s voice rose. “I’m going to give you a beating you ain’t going to forget.”

Billy wailed on long descending note.

Jeanie could hear each impact of the strap and her mother’s heavy breathing.

“I just want you to grow up good, not lying and gambling and stealing,” her mother gasped, “and I’m going to make you good. You ain’t never going to forget this.” When it had been going on forever, it stopped. A final slap of the strap. “And you ain’t going to get any supper either. You can go now. You can go to bed and reflect on what I told you.”

He stumbled past her, whimpering, fist grinding into eyes, and into the dark little alcove which was his room. Jeanie heard the groan of the bed as he threw himself on it. She felt a pain in her fingers and saw them pressed tightly around the pen.

Her mother appeared in the doorway. She wore her hat and coat.

“Come help me get supper, Jeanie. You should have got things started.” Her voice was tired and tremulous, and held no reproach.

“I don’t want any supper, Ma.”

Her mother came in and sat down heavily on the bed, taking off her hat and letting her coat fall open.

“I had a hard day. I worked hard every minute,” she said. “I brought you something extra nice for dessert. I stood in line to get some of them tarts from Sutter’s.”

Jeanie rose and silently put her mother’s hat on the shelf. She held her hand for her mother’s coat, and hung it up.

Together they opened the paper bags on the kitchen table. She set the water to boil.

As they ate in silence, the three tarts shone like subtle jewels on a plate, at one end of the chipped porcelain table. Her mother looked tired and stern.

“You better fix your brother up a plate,” she said, still stern. “Put it on a tray. Here, take this.” And she put on the try the most luscious, the most perfect of the tarts. “Wait.” She went heavily over her swollen black handbag, took out a small clasp purse, opened it, and carefully, seriously, deliberately, picked out a coin, rejected it, and took out another. “Give him this.” It was a quarter.

After the dishes were washed, Jeanie brought her books into the kitchen and spread them out under the glaring overhead light. Billy had been asleep, huddled in his clothes. Tears left the dusty streaks on his face.

Her mother sat in the armchair, ripping out the sides of the black dress. Her spectacles made her look strange.

“Beauty is truth,” Jeanie read in her notebook. Hastily, carelessly, disregarding margins and doubtful spellings, letting her pen dig into the paper, she began to write: Last night my brother Billy got a terrible beating…”

Scramble to borrow the social studies homework from a girl in her homeroom, say hello to Barbara, undress for gym, dress again, the torn sleeve, bookkeeping –– a blot, get another piece of ledger paper. “This is the third I’ve given you. You might say thank you.” Get to English early. Don’t bother me. I am in a bad mood. Rows and rows of seats. Rows and rows of windows opposite. She could even read the writing on some of the blackboards, who cared? A boy leaned far out of the window before closing it. Other heads turning. Would he fall? No, he was safe. Heads turned back. A poem about skylark. From where she sat, she could see about a square foot of the sky, drained of all colors by the looming school walls. Miss Lowy read clearly, standing all alone at the front of the room in her clean white blouse and with her smooth blonde hair.

Miss Lowy, maybe you see the skylarks. Me, I’d be glad to see some sky, she thought and nearly uttered it. Around her, students were writing in their notebooks. Miss Lowy was about to speak to her. Better start writing something. Sullen, Mr. Maclever had called her last week. She felt about for her notebook and pen. It had been a mistake to write as she had done about her brother’s beating. They would laugh if they knew. Shirley, who was the class secretary, and Saul, with the prominent forehead. No, he would not laugh. He was always writing about space ships and the end of the world. No danger, though, that her story would be read. Only the best manuscripts were read. She remembered keenly the blotched appearance of the paper, the lines crossed out, and other words whose spelling she could never be sure of. Oh, well, she didn’t care. Only one more period and then the weekend. “Lady Jeanie, what are you waiting for? Jeanie’s waiting for a Prince Charming with a red Cadillac to come and take her away.” If Barbara asked her again, she would go with her, maybe. There was going to be a party at Norma’s Saturday night, with Cokes and sandwiches and records and dancing, everybody chipping in. “Jeanie, I need a nickel. Mama, I need a dollar. I need, I need.”

The bell rang, and the pens dropped, the books were closed with a clatter. She slipped out ahead of the pushing and jostling boys and girls.

Monday, miss Lowy had on still another perfect white blouse. She stood facing the class, holding a sheaf of papers in her hand. Most of the students looked at her expectantly. Marion, who nearly always got ninety, whispered to her neighbor. Michael, who had but recently come from Greece ––grumbled and shifted in his seat. He would have to do his composition over. He always did.

“I spent a very enjoyable time this weekend, reading your work,” said Miss Lowy, waiting for the class to smile.

“Seriously, though, many of your pieces were most interesting, even though they were a trifle unconventional about spelling and punctuation.” A smile was obviously indicated here too, and the class obeyed. She paused. “Sometimes, however, a piece of writing is so honest and human, that you have to forgive the technical weaknesses. Not that they aren’t important,” she said hastily, “but what the writer has to say is more significant.”

The three best student in the class looked confused. It was their pride not to have technical errors.

“When you hear this,” Miss Lowy continued, “I think you’ll agree with me. I know it brought tears into my eyes.” The class looked incredulous.

“It’s called Evening Comes to 125th Street.” Her face took on that rapt look.

Jeanie’s heart beat painfully. She picked up a pencil, but dropped it, so unsteady were her fingers. Even the back of Shirley’s head was listening. Even the classes in the other wing of the building, across and courtyard, seemed fixed, row on row, in an attitude of listening. Miss Lowy read on. It was all there, the coal yards and Fat Mary, the Stoop and the tarts from Sutter’s, Billy asleep with tears dried on his face, the clasp purse and the quarter.

“The funny part of it was, when I woke him, Billy wasn’t mad. He was glad about the quarter, and ate his supper, dessert and all, but Mama never did eat her tart, so I put it away.”

A poignancy of remembrance swept over Jeanie, then shame and regret. It was no business of theirs, these strange white people.

No one spoke. The silence was unbearable. Finally, Marion, the incomparable Marion, raised her hand.

“It was so real,” she said. “You felt you were right there in that kitchen.”

“You didn’t know who to feel sorry for,” said another student. “you wanted to cry with the mother and you wanted to cry with Billy.”

“With the girl too,” said another.

Several head nodded.

“You see,” said Miss Lowy, “It’s literature. It’s life. It’s pain and truth and beauty.”

Jeanie’s heart beat so, it made a mist before her eyes. Through the blur she heard Miss Lowy say it was good enough to be sent in to Scholastic. It showed talent, it showed promise. She heard her name called and shrank from the eyes turned upon her.

After school, she hurried out and caught the first train that you could catch only if you left immediately and did not stroll or stop at least little bit to talk to someone. She did not want to meet anyone, not even Barbara.

Was that Billy among the kids on the stoop?

“Billy,” would she say to him? Beauty is truth, truth is beauty?

“Billy,” she called again urgently.

Billy lifted his head, and seeing who it was, tore himself reluctantly away from his friends, and took a step toward her.


Anonymous said...

I like it. Very cool story! I remember reading it one day in my English class in high school, and it really inspires me, too. :)

Anonymous said...

I relly did not get it

Unknown said...

Haha i dont get it either, i just read it in English class like, yesterday. I'm only in seventh

Fan of Variety said...

I like it. Very cool story! I remember reading it one day in my English class in high school, and it really inspires me, too. :)

M. Alexander said...

This story meant a lot to me too.

Unknown said...

i read it in english today! such a great story with a lot of history of harlem : including old harlem , and why she wrote about her brothers beating!