By Ruthie Marlenée
Author’s Note: ‘Brothers on a Train’ is an excerpt from my novel, ‘Amish in the Hood,’ a literary work-in-progress. Set along the bucolic outskirts of Philadelphia, my novel is also a story about more than brotherly love. It’s about how the differences in the color of skin even within a family can change the trajectory of their lives for generations. In this excerpt, it’s early 1920s and brothers Abraham and Benjamin are introduced and then separated at a crossroads until their paths intersect again.
Racism, which leaves a shadow
on one’s sense of accomplishment,
can make one feel like a perpetual outsider.
— Alvin Ailey
Benjamin is dead. In later years, this is what Abraham Newman got used to telling others, his self included.
The Newman brothers were as diametrically different as night and day. Their mother Maisie reckoned nature had forgotten to hang out the moon the evening she gave birth to a boy child on August 11, 1899. After a quick labor, Abraham emerged high-speed from the tunnel, dark as the night, eyes like nuggets of coal and voice screeching like a tortured soul in search of light. And then the earth started vibrating once more and she felt a new rumbling in her womb like another train coming down the tracks. And, as the morning sun scratched its golden fingers over the horizon, burning away the haze, out came Benjamin, Abraham’s twin, reluctant, fair skin, alert wide eyes, the color of a noon sky and quiet as a church mouse. Except for the date of their birthdays, there was nothing identical about them. Independent they grew, like parallel train tracks, neither casting a shadow on the other.
After only a few short years, while little Abraham shadow-boxed outside like a dancing fisticuffed fool, Benjamin sat inside at the kitchen table with their older sister Cora. “Okay, Benny, now sound it out,” she said as he licked his lips and took a deep breath. He loved the sound and taste of words like hard sugar candy as they tumbled across his tongue. With his insatiable desire to learn, even though she couldn’t read or write, his mother was also a constant support and instrumental in the orchestration of his academia. Benjamin attended some formal schooling, but unfortunately, their father Jedidiah thought his time would be better utilized working on the family’s little plot of land they sharecropped in South Carolina. Sadly, after Jed died of tuberculosis, Maisie saw no reason to stay on working in a system worse than slavery, always in debt to a white master, and so the family hopped a ride to Philadelphia, their first train trip. Hobo hearts pumping like steam engines, both boys giddy as they watched their futures come into focus from the slats in the wood frame freight car.
In the land of brotherly love, Benjamin was just nine years old when he delivered his first speech to a positive reception at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. When asked by Reverend Jones if he would speak again, Maisie didn’t need to ask her young son twice, he was eager to grace the audience with his youthful orations. “‘Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me thrice.’” Ben’s twin Abe, in the meanwhile, twitched in the pew, wrestling with the word of God as it flowed freely like a bloodied cut from his pale brother’s lips.
Inculturated by the language of the northern lords – prayers full of thee and thou, thine and thy — Benjamin would grow to be eloquent and loquacious, but not verbose. Home at the dinner table, he’d close his eyes and pray, “Family, bow thine own head and look into thine own hearts.” Lifting his hands, he would add, “Heavenly father, help guide our hands and our hearts that we may be true to thee and thy heavenly goodness to us. We ask this in thy name. Amen.” Neither pompous nor pretentious, he would grow at times taciturn and yet tempered rock-solid. Benjamin definitely had a calling. But then in 1917, both boys were summoned by the Army. Cora would have to hold up her devastated mother, overcome as she was watching her sons board the train to basic training. The twins would spend time in Europe.
Full of pluck and pride and ready to fight, Abraham, like a well-oiled machine, got to do some boxing in boot camp before being shipped overseas – by now with a broken nose and some missing teeth. But those injuries were nothing compared to what the Buffalo Soldier would experience out on the French front lines. During the assault at Bois Frehaut, Abraham, voluntarily left shelter, crossing an open space fifty yards wide, a “no man’s land” swept by shell and machine-gun fire, engulfed by the acrid smell of smoke, to rescue an injured soldier. Although wounded in his leg and right arm, he continued to cut the wire with his left hand, and was able to pull the suffering soldier through and carry him back to safety. His company commander ordered Abraham to the dressing station where he was awarded a medal for extraordinary heroism in action. Afterward, he was sent home.
In the meanwhile, his brother Benjamin, however vociferous, when given the opportunity to speak up, had lost his tongue as the recruiters sent him off to Europe with the white boys, separating him from his twin — from his brothers. And pacifist though he was, he couldn’t bring himself to voice an opinion about his conscientious objection and so he would use his sermonary skills to preach God’s word; ever struggling to reconcile war and peace with his pastoral. But he was no safer conducting some of the shortest services he’d ever do, praying for the dead soldiers on the front line. “Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours.” By the end of the war, Benjamin was stationed at the rear in the army hospital, counseling and giving last rites to white soldiers.
Back on American soil, another battle had been brewing even before the war started. With the Great Migration of Blacks to the north, and now with the end of the war, the jobs were scarce. But after a time of healing, Abraham, strong as steel and still full of zeal, was left standing on a shorter leg (he’d wear a platform shoe) for the rest of his life. Fortunately, an uncle was able to get him a job as a sleeping car porter in Philadelphia where he served rich, white people, including a couple of American presidents who, when it came to tipping, were notorious tightwads. It was during one of his trips back and forth to Lancaster that Abraham met Zandie Nixon, who stoked the firebox of his heart and with whom he married and then moved into a little house over on 25th Street in South Philly. They had only two children, but nearly a dozen grandchildren who would, all but one, go to college.
And, by the time his brother returned from Europe, Abraham had some clout as a porter and was able to bring Benjamin onboard, however assigned to a different berth. “All you gotta do, Ben, is remember the three Ls,” Abe told his brother. Easy enough; look, listen and learn were exercises Ben had practiced growing up, but now because passengers were more comfortable being served by porters black as pitch, dark as a shadow so as to be almost invisible to the surreptitious white man (what happened in the sleeping cars, stayed in the sleeping cars), and because he could pass — possibly getting confused for a passenger – light-skinned Benjamin was quickly moved on up as a club car manager. Not ungrateful with the promotion, but he was dissatisfied. A career with the railroad had not been the glimmer in his eye. And then one evening on the night train, just to tip the scales of injustice, survivor’s guilt weighed on him like a load of luggage when he looked down through the club car window and spotted his brother humping heavy baggage on a bum leg. Not just shell-shocked, Ben also suffered some shame, cursing God for making him different. When next he witnessed more of his brother’s humiliation, it would be for the last time.
The train’s whistle had blown when Benjamin pulled back the velvet red drapery of the club car window to see Abraham reaching out to help a dapper-looking white gentleman with his valise. Benjamin leaned closer to the open window, rubbing the luxurious velvet between his fingers as he watched his brother dare to look the man in the eye. Benjamin strained to listen.
“Hey George, I see you couldn’t wait to get your soldier uniform off,” the man said. “At least you didn’t have to put your overalls back on, nigger.”
Abraham had recognized his former army commander and as if it took Herculean strength, Abraham plastered on a silly, fake – dentures comically large – smile like an indentured servant.
“Nigger” was a word even more scathing to Benjamin’s delicate ears than it was to his brother’s cauliflowered ones, and now the term “George” stung even more as he watched his black-skinned sibling suffer the derogation. George Pullman was the inventor and owner of the sleeping car patent and while the porters possessed very few things, they did own their individual names; names that would later proudly be displayed like medals of honor on their uniform jacket pockets and spit-shined like the gold-plated Pullman Porter name seared onto their caps. Still smiling like a befuddled punch drunk, Abraham picked up the luggage and like a good soldier, followed the man aboard the iron horse and into the stall where Benjamin waited to greet the commander.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” Benjamin said, noticing, beyond the man, his brother’s bright smile like a waxing moon in an inky sky. But Ben averted Abe’s gaze, no longer able to bear the sadness and hurt buried deep in his twin’s eyes. Sadness, like you see in beasts of burden, part of the DNA. Pain, like the black pupil beneath the muddy iris, always there — pain enough to kill him, ironically, when the war hadn’t.
Benjamin had witnessed the injustice inflicted upon his people — a bunker mentality not only common to soldiers — but sometimes he simply buried his head, staying silent as a whisper on the wind, a whisper that he wished would now just blow away. And then when another whistle blew, the scripture Matthew 26:34 was not lost on Benjamin: “…before the whistle blows [sic] tonight, you will deny me three times.” And by the time it blew again, jawbones working like pistons, Benjamin was steaming like an engine full of coal as he walked up to the retired white commander, blue eyes to blue eyes, ready to take a stand. He then extended a hand before spouting,
“Sir, even though we live in America, the greatest country in the world, where a liberal education is available to anybody, yet there are still so many people who are so endowed with dire traits or morbid scrupulosity that they allow ignorance to supersede intelligence. His name isn’t George. Nor is it Nigger.”
A rich bouquet of roast sirloin of beef smothered in Madeira au jus and Alaskan king crab a la Newberg wafted through the dining car as Benjamin entered. Some of the guests and other porters had gathered around to congratulate Benjamin on the elegant manner in which he handled the commander. His gut churned and he choked on the cloying scent of Cuban cigars also clouding the diner. The whistle sounded again but while Benjamin had stood up for his brother, he had not acknowledged him as kin. And, even though Abe was the spitting negative image of Ben, no one would have believed they were siblings. He wasn’t denying it; he just didn’t see the need to tell anyone that Abe was related, much less his twin. Besides, aren’t we all just brothers in God’s eyes? Benjamin wiped his damp brow with the back of his white-gloved hand. Too sick and tired to speak anymore, he couldn’t stomach further trouble defending his kind. As refined a lecturer as he’d become, he couldn’t imagine continually and tactfully coming to the aid of his brother much less his fellow coloreds. Except that, unfortunately by the next stop, the damage was already done. Benjamin had spied the discomfited passenger reporting him to the conductor. Benjamin would have some explaining to do.
But then late that evening, as the train chugged along the valley of dark shadows, divine intervention split the rails before the conductor would ever be able to discipline Benjamin. A group of union organizers out of Chicago, together with some fired and disgruntled railway employees, had planted a stick of dynamite further up the tracks, hoping to derail the locomotive. The conductor got word and put the brakes on near the Lancaster station until the problem could be rectified. Stranded, no one was going anywhere that evening except for the porters who had given up their bunks, unable to sleep on the train. They’d have to find lodging elsewhere, and still be ready to go. As it was, porters were always on call, rarely getting more than three hours of sleep per night. Abraham suggested they might stay with his in-laws, but it was a warm August evening, Benjamin insisted, and except for the June bugs, they’d be fine sleeping out under the stars in this bucolic countryside where conscientious objectors had sprouted like tobacco and corn.
Through the years, even though Benjamin was the caboose, arriving hours after Abraham had been born, Abraham thought of his brother as the pilot with a beacon that lighted his way. With Benjamin around, things were clear – the path was always illuminated. And the more he glowed the clearer the journey was. But lately, he’d reached a junction and as bright as Benjamin was, it was he who also had a shade of gloom, and that worried Abraham as he followed the silhouette of his brother to a dry patch of wild grass rising too close to the edge of the tracks.
“Again, we can stay with Zandie’s folks,” Abraham said, as he lie down on the ground.
“Go, if you’d like,” Benjamin said, hands cradling his head, staring up at the sky. Nature had hung out a bright moon and a cool northern breeze was clearing away the clouds.
But Abraham didn’t budge, except to try and get comfortable. “I’m not leaving you, Brother.” Juxtaposed next to Benjamin and yet feeling sadly uncoupled, Abraham looked up, too.
“Strange,” Benjamin said, a shadow eclipsing his face, “Grandpa Newman fled the south on the ‘Underground Railroad’ so he could be free. Well, we’re free now, Abraham, we even fought for our country, and this is what freedom looks like – tied to the tracks.” He wondered how he’d be able to go the distance.
“Brother, it’s not so bad,” Abraham said, and then using one of his brother’s Bible quotes, he added, “For this too shall pass.”
Masking his face with a smile, Benjamin then turned to try and comfort Abraham, “Brother, let us recite a Psalm of David.” And together the men lifted their heads, closed their eyes and began to pray: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
Benjamin ran his hand across the cool grass. “He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Benjamin sensed the mugginess leaving the night. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Benjamin swallowed a deep breath, swelling his lungs with the fuel of sweet aspirations. He wheezed, wheels of a plan set in motion, gauging the time, and then when he saw a shooting star cross over toward the north, something inside him, coursing along the trajectory of his life’s destination, switched tracks. Like in the Book of Exodus, where the burning bush was the location at which Moses was appointed by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Benjamin took the star as a fiery omen engineered by God. And so by the next whistle, he’d kissed his brother and had taken off like a runaway train.
Before the break of dawn, a white smoke billowed from the chimney stack above the cab. The whistle blew once more. “All aboard!” shouted the conductor, waking Abraham who swiped his cheek, still damp from the buss of his brother. Snapping open his eyes, he turned to see that Benjamin was gone. He’d pulled up stakes and abandoned Abraham like a broken train car in the yard. Abraham rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t being deceived. He then reached out to trace the cool spot where Benjamin had lain, but there was no denying that his brother had vanished like a cloud puff in the night breeze.
Boarding the Pullman, Abraham continued looking all about, silver bullet tears sliding down his face, like water over onyx stone. As the whistle raged, Benjamin was only a memory, a murmur carried in a zephyr. And, by the time the train got to Chicago, for all Abraham knew, Benjamin was dead, having been dragged off, lynched and left hanging from a tree like Judas somewhere.
But later rumors were that Benjamin had just kept tumbling west, leaving a trail of silver coins. Wherever he ended up, he never contacted the family again. What kind of person could do that, Abraham wondered? What kind of brother would leave his twin in the dark?
Note: Jimmy Kearse, as quoted in Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, by Larry Tye (Holt Paperbacks 2005)
Copyright 2023 Marlenée