October 11, 2020: “Of Cabbages and Kings” by James Alan McPherson

What’s happening, Story366?

The Karen and my older boy have had a chest cold for about a week now, though both of them are finally recovering. My son started last Saturday, missed a couple of days of school (which, now, is the entire week), and has been coughing since. He’s felt better every day—we’ve been hiking—and he even swam today, doing most of his laps. I think he’s on his way back.

Karen caught it early last week and felt sick enough to schedule a coronavirus test. She didn’t think she had it—not the right symptoms—but since there was chest congestion, it was better to be safe than sorry. We, as a family, drove to the drive-through testing facility on Thursday, Karen waited anxiously, then got nose-swabbed by a woman who reminded me just a little of her recently passed mom, an ER nurse for nearly sixty years; the fact this woman was a little Elsie-like did not make Karen any less nervous. The whole thing was over in a second, and yesterday, she got her results. She did/does not have COVID. Yay!

I have seasonal allergies, and often, those will get bad enough to incite a cold. These mini-colds entertain an extremely stuffy nose, some weariness, and once in a while, a slight fever. I’ve never thought too much of them in the past—aside from how annoying they are—but this year, all the bells and whistles go off each and every time. I have the sniffles—is that COVID? I’m feeling tired, in a sick sort of way—is that COVID? So far, I’ve not had a fever this year, and my lungs/breathing have been fine. Have I been worried, anyway? Sure.

The family has survived so far, proven with an actual test. To be safe, we had gone to the shady side of Springfield, the docks—I actually had to stab a guy—and bought all kinds of illegal steroids, ready to pump Karen until she was dancing, climbing mountains, and picking fights with MMA fighters. Luckily, we have that stash in our pockets now, prepared for the next scare, ready to president our way back to the White House.

Today I read from the late James Alan McPherson‘s collection, Hue and Cry, rereleased in 2019 by Ecco, but originally coming out in 1968. I’m sad to say I’ve never before read anything by McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, so once again, Story366 comes through.

“On Trains” starts when a woman gets on a train in Chicago and rides all the way to South Dakota. She’s enjoying her time, spending a particularly long period in the dining car. The waiters have to shoo her out so they can clean up for the next meal and eat something themselves—she’s enthusiastic, if not pesky. When she goes to her car for the night, she’s outraged that the black porter is going to sleep in her car as well, at his post, where he always sleeps. She’s having none of it, but neither is the entire train staff.

“An Act of Prostitution” is set in a court house. We start with a lawyer, a public defender named Jimmy Mulligan who’s been assigned to a well known prostitute, Philomena Brown, who gets arrested about once a month. A fellow DA, Ralph, asks Jimmy to put Philomena up in front of the judge first, as she always gets him to laugh, and Ralph wants the judge to be in a good mood when he brings his client up for trial. The plan may have worked, except a few cases come before Philomena, cases that do not leave the judge in a very good mood. The whole scene—switching POVs to whomever McPherson needs—reveals a lot of the racial bias in the court system, black defendants not getting any breaks. Philomena doesn’t get much of a break, either, because she’s married to a black guy, but that’s not how any of the white officials refer to him throughout.

The story I’m focusing on is “Of Cabbages and Kings” and is about Howard, a young man who moves in with Claude Sheats. Claude knows Howard through a secretary at Howard’s work. They seem to get along, two black young men, rooming up.

Howard discovers a few things about Claude. The first is that Claude wants to leave the Brotherhood, a service fraternity/Civil Rights-type organization that everyone the two men belong to. Next, Claude, when in the presence of other Brotherhood members, has a black girlfriend named Marie, whom everyone likes, whom everyone thinks he should marry. Finally, when not around the Brotherhood, Claude likes to engage in the company of ladies, usually white.

An early scene, right after they move in together, sees Claude go out and bring two women home, one for himself, one for Howard. Howard’s not interested—and neither is his “date”—so he takes off, saying he has to go to the drug story (for rubbers, it’s implied). Claude is furious and grows suspect of Howard. It’s like, how could he not want to enjoy this woman? What’s wrong with him? This plants a seed of tension between the two men.

Claude continues to entertain women, nearly one a day—and sometimes two—while Howard just works his job and comments, via interior monologue, on the kind of person Claude is.

This more or less turns the story into a moral showdown between Howard and Claude. The men have two opposing viewpoints, both believe they’re right, and both give reasons for us to think they are. It’s an interesting set-up, a first-peripheral observation of a man living his life with the peripherator not approving, and I enjoyed it.

I enjoyed all three stories I read from Hue and Cry, James Alan McPherson’s debut collection from 1968. These stories depict the racial struggles of its black protagonists, portraying an era of racism that’s different from it is now, but at the same time, much too similar. These are powerful stories, early constructions of a master, and I’m glad to have come across this book.