Two Chapters from "Romance in Marseille"
By Claude McKayFebruary 9, 2020
Purchase the book here.
To receive the Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase at our bookstore.
From the thought of having an irresponsible gay time in Quayside with Lafala, Babel turned to work. The loss of both legs to which Lafala was now quite reconciled was a fresh and terrible shock to Babel. On Babel’s mind was painted a picture of the day when he and Lafala stowed away on the same boat, both of them poor and ragged but robust and happy, sound of legs. He imagined himself painfully in Lafala’s place, his huge body without legs. He couldn’t imagine how comfortable Lafala felt with his thousand-dollar bonds. . . .
Early the next morning Babel went down to the docks and secured a job with a gang of Senegalese unloading copra. . . . In the evening he looked up Big Blonde. Big Blonde lived near the cathedral midway between Quayside and the breakwater. He was sprucing himself up in his best suit when Babel entered.
Big Blonde was mighty glad to see Babel out of prison and to hear that Lafala was also free. He was sorry he had missed last night’s party, but he had gone to bed early to be fit for a hard day’s work, for tonight he was going on a special private party himself. Babel said he was hoping Big Blonde could join them that night. Lafala wanted to treat him and St. Dominique and Falope to a little get-together between them only to celebrate their coming out of prison.
But Big Blonde replied that he was engaged for the night with Petit Frère and he became quite lyrical about it. Nothing could make him break that engagement. Not for the love of a drinking party which always delighted him, nor the bouquets of the rarest wines, nor the music of hymen though sweet with the honey of the queen bee and glorious like the songs of Solomon’s loves, no not for the virgin stars of the sky nor a brighter shining moon.
And in the midst of his lyricism Petit Frère arrived, fascinating with his pale prettiness and challenging, deep, dark-ringed eyes and insolent mouth. He had departed from La Créole because of some disagreement with Madam and was now engaged as a bar boy at the Domino café and this was his night off.
Babel’s being present was opportune, for Petit Frère had a story to tell. At the Domino he had overheard a little of a conversation between Titin and the Grand Maquereau, who was also entitled the Duke of Quayside. The conversation was about Lafala and the scheme of Aslima to despoil him. Petit Frère hated Titin. For it was Titin who had been instrumental in getting him the place at La Créole and he had had to pay Titin at regular intervals for it.
Big Blonde was inclined to take the thing lightly, saying that Lafala had experience enough to look out for himself, but Babel insisted it was a serious matter, for Lafala was losing his head over Aslima. He wanted Big Blonde and Petit Frère to go with him to see Lafala. Big Blonde said it was common knowledge that the protectors were well organized and he couldn’t believe that Lafala would easily allow himself to fall into a trap. Babel replied that it wouldn’t be so hard to believe if Big Blonde was less interested in petit frères and more in petites filles.3 Big Blonde guffawed and excused himself from joining Lafala and the others that night for just that reason. He and Petit Frère were going to dine together and afterward resort to a certain little café. . . .
Babel felt that he was no longer bound to silence after what Petit Frère had said. Aslima’s intentions would soon be common underground knowledge in Quayside. Babel decided to go right then to St. Dominique and ask him to try to talk Lafala out of the crazy idea.
He found St. Dominique with Falope in a little restaurant near the Seamen’s Club. St. Dominique was not surprised at Babel’s revelation. He had seen enough into Lafala’s amorous feelings to understand that he might do something just like that. He said that he didn’t think Lafala was wise. Falope thought he was a fool.
Meanwhile Lafala had quite made up his mind about it. He had known a girl or two in his life and Aslima was the only one he had ever felt he could live with. Under her coarse and hard exterior there was always that rare green and fruity quality which had so intoxicated him when they first met. Something was always burning, never consuming itself and going out, but always holding him.
The night before they had talked over a perfect plan of stealing away from Marseille. It would be the easiest thing to accomplish without anybody being aware.
Thus Lafala was full of sweet thoughts and dressing to go to visit Aslima when his room was invaded by Babel, St. Dominique and Falope. . . . Petit Frère’s tale did not make much impression upon him. He was aware of the differences and mistrust existing between Titin and Aslima and it seemed natural to him that Titin should seek the counsel of other members of his fraternity. He did not say this to his friends but he was displeased with Babel for revealing his plans to St. Dominique and Falope. Lafala was more apprehensive of Titin getting information from other sources which might stir up new suspicions and endanger his plans.
Babel defended himself: “I didn’t say a thing to you’ friends heah until the kid done told me and Big Blonde. What was the use keeping me mouth shut when other folkses talking about it?”
“But you’re joking, Lafala,” said Falope. “You can’t really mean to do such a thing.”
Lafala said he did.
“Impossible!” said Falope. “Pardon me butting into your private affair, but you don’t seem to have any idea of your proper position. You don’t seem to realize you’re a different man than before your accident—a better man, a bigger man. How could you think of taking a girl like Aslima back to Africa now? You ought to have a colored woman that can stand up against the best European women over there—a woman that can be an example to the native women.”
“I think Aslima is all right,” said Lafala.
“She gypped you for a white tout once and she’ll do it again,” said Babel.
“I can’t understand you, Lafala,” said Falope. “You must be spoiled by civilization. What you’re planning to do isn’t right at all. It isn’t African. It’s a loving white way.”
“Oh, no, I’ve passed all through that already,” said Lafala. “But you weren’t cured,” said Falope.
“Yes, I went crazy once, black fool that I was, but I got over it.”
“Better you’d stayed on the crazy side,” said Falope, “than doing what you’re planning to do now.”
“Shut up, you,” said St. Dominique. “You’ve got no feeling for anything. I understand what Lafala is talking about. I’ve been through the same experience myself.”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Falope. “Now I know why you’re a red.”
“Oh, go on!” said St. Dominique. . . . “Look here, Lafala, I thought you were doing a crazy thing at first, but now I feel that if you love Aslima it’s all right. I can’t see anything so awful happening. Just go right ahead if you love her.”
“Love! What is this thing called love?” said Falope.
“Jest a funny little word with four letters,” said Babel, “the same as rope with which you hang yourself.”
“It’s four in your language and Petit Frère’s, but it’s five in mine,” said St. Dominique.
“Five French letters and four English to make love,” said Falope. “Enough, my friends, enough for tonight.”
“Youse all getting too high-classish literally for me,” said Babel. “Guess tha’s some moh you’ civilization.”
“Yes,” agreed St. Dominique. “I prefer to think of love without letters.”
“Like the time when it was naked and we were too, before we went to school to learn our letters,” said Falope. “No, Dominique. You can’t be primitive and proletarian at the same time. We can’t go back again. We have studied our figures and learned our letters. Now we are civilized.”
At that moment a boy knocked at the door and entered with a letter for Lafala. He opened it and read: “Look out, they’re trying to get you with your own plan. Take warning from Insider.”
Lafala’s face went blank. He passed the note to St. Dominique who read it aloud.
“That tells its own tale,” said Falope. “Better let’s go and find Big Blonde so Lafala can hear the story from the kid himself,” said Babel.
Big Blonde and Petit Frère went to dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Petit Frère was a hearty eater and they ate plenty of several dishes: chopped pork and celery, chopped chicken, fish with thick sauce, rice and tea. Finished feeding they went to the Petit Pain, a little café bar that was Big Blonde’s favorite place when he was in a sentimental mood and wanted to spend a quiet evening with his little friend.
The bar was in another quarter of Marseille far removed from Quayside and its hectic atmosphere. It was located in the vicinity of the principal railroad station in a narrow and somber alley. Like the street there was something a little sinister and something very alluring in this café, but difficult to define. It was a quality strangely balancing between the emotions of laughter and tears, ribaldry and bitter-sweetness.
The bar was run by a rather young man and his middle-aged paramour. The man was tall and very thin and his bloodless skin was like parchment upon his flesh and looked as if it were drawn away from his mouth. The woman was a spreading type in happy relief against the sharp harshness of the man.
A few clients were there when Big Blonde and Petit Frère entered. Two men of middle-class respectability were throwing dice for a game called “Pigs” with three lads evidently of the slum proletariat. Two fine and handsome sailors were sipping cognac and sugar with a young man slickly dressed in black like a professional dancer. They soaked the cubes of sugar in the cognac and ate them and the right cheek of the young man twitched at regular intervals like a poor fish out of water and gasping for breath. A soldier was sitting alone over a small beer. And also alone at a table in a corner there was a woman with half a glass of coffee perfumed with cognac between her sad elbows stuck at a weary slant into the table, her fingers crossed over her eyes.
A phonograph at one end of the bar was wheezing out a popular bal-musette song, but the music sounded plaintive as if it were asking why more attention was not being paid to it there.
Big Blonde ordered two coffees and two glasses of cognac and asked for the checkerboard. He and Petit Frère began playing checkers. Petit Frère was a poor player and Big Blonde made bad moves to give him a chance and make the game interesting. Petit Frère won the game and was elegantly preening himself over it when a taxicab slowly negotiating the narrow alley stopped before the Petit Pain. Babel alighted and helped out Lafala who was followed by St. Dominique and Falope. They entered the café adding to the uniformly pale atmosphere a touch of that exotic color for which Marseille is famous.
Petit Frère could add nothing more to what Babel had already said. Lafala asked him about the Grand Maquereau and his relationship with Titin. But Petit Frère did not know anything specific. He was a simple kid and knew nothing of the extent and ramifications of the métier by which he ate his daily bread.
And now Falope tried every way to scare Lafala away from his infatuation, magnifying the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the protectors, telling how they outwitted and bribed the police, victimized women, terrorizing timid men and always evading the law which was powerless against them. It sounded frightful, especially as Falope, spending his time between his office and a cheap respectable pension in Marseille, knew nothing about the romantic gentlemen. Lafala knew more because he had lived all of his civilized life in their milieu without ever minding them and how they lived behind their well-dressed facade. There were quite a number of Negro protectors down at Quayside since the Great War, who were seriously competing with the white natives. Only the Negroes were not as closely knit in relationships with the bars and the loving houses as the old natives. Lafala himself had had his chance of being a protector or some approximate thing in well-kept ease. But he had not taken advantage of it, not feeling equal to the job of remaining forever a black god consecrated to the worship of phallicism.
“Let’s forget the damned thing,” he said, and proposed standing a treat and paying his respects to Big Blonde for his part in helping to get him and Babel out of jail.
They gathered in a circle round two tables and Lafala ordered spumante wine. They drank many bottles. Big Blonde was a heavy, good-natured drinker. Now that the lads had invaded his retreat, he gave himself willingly to the enjoyment of the party. He didn’t want to impose Petit Frère upon them when he was invited. But it was all right to have him in the crowd since they had come themselves to find him. And Petit Frère was pleased.
The other clients had left excepting the soldier and the old woman in the corner with her still-unfinished glass of coffee perfumed with cognac. Two little brunettes resembling twins and dressed alike in soiled black frocks and red belts and brown canvas shoes looked in at the door of the café. They were just out on a cruising from a little bal-musette in a neighboring alley.
“There is Petit Frère!” said one.
Petit Frère lifted his hand in greeting and the girls entered. They kissed him ostentatiously and one of them drained his glass of wine. Lafala poured the other a drink.
“Play the phonograph and let’s dance,” she said. The proprietor said they couldn’t dance for he had no dancing license.
The girls glanced around and patted their hair and cheeks looking in a mirror.
“Come on down to the dancing when you are finished,” said one of them to Petit Frère and they ran out again.
“I never understand why the girls are so affectionate with their little brothers,” said St. Dominique to Babel in English. “I should think they would be jealous.”
“Lawd no!” said Babel. “They are all young and jolly and working together at the same trade.”
“But the little brothers steal business away from them,” said St. Dominique.
“And their men too sometimes,” Babel laughed. “That’s why the little sisters keep on the good side of the little brothers.”
“Quayside, it’s business above everything else,” said Lafala. “Our little brothers are liked and tolerated, because they’re good business.”
“You’re right,” said Babel, putting his hand round Petit Frère’s shoulder.
Big Blonde removed it playfully, saying, “Keep your hand off that, old man.”
Laughing, Babel said, “Lemme sing you all a little song. My song is entitled ‘Moonstruck’:
I was stricken by the moon,
I was smitten by the moon,
Crazy for the fairy moon,
It lighted my heart and it caused me to roam
Far away from my loving wife waiting at home.
The tune was slow and pretty and sounded like a sentimental tango.
The others began humming to Babel’s singing.
“Come on, Big Blonde,” said Babel. “Let us dance to this thing.”
Big Blonde got up and he and Babel began an ungainly shuffle. “Boss,” said Babel, “the police can’t interfere for this ain’t no dancing. We just swaying to the music of the moon.”
“Look out the moon madness don’t get you too,” said Lafala to Babel.
“I’m crazy all ways bar none,” replied Babel.
And while they were joking and drinking an old woman entered with a basket of dolls and such baubles that are hawked around all-night cafés and cabarets. She was prematurely grey and her skin was wrinkled and her mouth twisted and she looked like an old cocotte4 to whom time and people had been cruel.
She offered her wares to the men, dangling a doll by the leg. Big Blonde, happy in his environment and a little maudlin, was going to buy something to be rid of the poor hag but Petit Frère stopped him with a nudge that she did not miss. Babel roughly told her that they didn’t want anything, she was in the wrong place.
“Indeed I am, there’s no doubt I am when you have that thing there between you,” she said fixing Petit Frère with a malevolent finger.
“Whether I was here or not, old cow,” said Petit Frère, “it wouldn’t make any difference, for you’re too God-forsaken old and ugly.”
“And you’re so pretty, like a doll,” said the woman. “You all ought to buy him a doll. He’d be more darling with one in his arms.”
“Yes, I’d look better than you selling them,” said Petit Frère. “Old useless and jealous has-been.”
“Petit cul-cassé and dirty mouth!” the woman cried at Petit Frère. “Little sucking pig!”
“Better to be a sucking pig than an old good-for-nothing sow,” said Petit Frère.
Discomfited, the woman left the café and the men laughed hilariously. Big Blonde complimented Petit Frère: “Fine! You were a match for her.”
“Come on, let’s do the moon-song, again,” said Babel. And he began singing:
“I was stricken by the moon. . . .”
But after an interval the woman returned, looking along the floor as if she had forgotten something. Passing by the group she quickly took a paper full of filth from her basket and slapped it in Petit Frère’s face. “There! That is your life,” she cried.
Big Blonde jumped up and knocked her sprawling to the floor and flung the basket through the door of the café, scattering the contents. The paramour of the proprietor came from round the bar and picked the woman up and pushed her out of the door. The woman stood in the street, swearing and picking up her wares and demanding payment for them. But the proprietor threatened to telephone for the police and she quickly disappeared. . . . Meanwhile Petit Frère had slipped away to the lavatory to clean himself up.
“Well, that’s a pretty ending to your moon song, fellows,” said St. Dominique. “I am going home now.”
“Oh, don’t break the party up yet,” said Babel. “Let’s finish it up at Quayside. I feel like going up the rags.”
Petit Frère returned, well-washed and looking none the worse for his ordeal. “If I ever run across that old sow again I’ll cut her twat out and give it to the dogs,” he said.
“Here, have a drink on that,” said Babel to Petit Frère, “and let’s sing the moon-song.”
Babel began singing and shaking Big Blonde who had his head down on the table as if he were drunk: “Come on, let’s sing together.” But he discovered that Big Blonde was crying softly.
“He’s drunk!” said Babel.
“Let’s go,” said St. Dominique.
Lafala called the proprietor and paid the bill. Petit Frère shook Big Blonde.
“He’s drunk! Leave him alone till he’s sober,” said Babel. And the four of them went out, leaving Big Blonde and Petit Frère alone.
Claude McKay (1889–1948), born Festus Claudius McKay, is widely regarded as one of the most important literary and political writers of the interwar period and the Harlem Renaissance.
From ROMANCE IN MARSEILLE by Claude McKay, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by The Literary Estate for the Works of Claude McKay.
LARB Staff Recommendations
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25 To receive the Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase at our bookstore. ¤ Terrorem Every night, I go back to ...
Exclusive fiction from the Catharsis issue...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.