“Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes

“Slice ’em Down”

by

Langston Hughes


In Reno, among the colored folks of the town, there are two main social classes: those who came to the city on a freight train, and those who did not. The latter, or cushion-riders, are sometimes inclined to turn flat noses high at those who rode the rods by way of entry to the city. Supercilious glances on the part of old settlers and chair-car arrivals toboggan down broad Negro noses at the black bums who, like white bums, both male and female, stream through Nevada on their way to or from the Coast, to remain awhile, if the law will let them in THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD—RENO—according to the official sign in electric lights near the station.

But, of course, the rod-riders get off nowhere near the station. If they’re wise, bums from the East get off at Sparks, several miles from the famous mecca of unhappy wives, then they foot it into Reno. (Only passengers with tickets, coaches or Pullmans, can afford the luxury of alighting directly in front of any station, anywhere.)

Terry and Sling came in on a fast freight from Salt Lake. Before that they had come from Cheyenne. And before that from Chicago—and then the line went south and got lost somewhere in a tangle of years and cotton fields and God-knows-what fantasies of blackness.

They were Southern shines. Sure, shines—darkies—niggers—Terry and Sling. At least, that’s what the railroad bulls called them often enough on the road. And you don’t deny anything to a railroad bull, do you? They hit too hard and shoot too far. And after all, why argue over a name? It’s only when your belly’s full and your pride’s up, that you want people to call you Mr. Terry, Mr. Sling . . . Mr. Man.

“What’s your name, boy?” asked a colored voice in the near-darkness.

“What you care? You might be a detective.”

Terry grinned from ear to ear at the compliment. He put one hand in a raggedy, pocketless pocket and scratched himself.

“You’s a no-name boy like me, heh, fella? Well, maybe you is equally as bad as me, too? Mean and hongry and bad! Listen, let’s me and you travel together since we’s on the road. What shall I call you?”

“Call me Sling.”

Freights were being made up in the Chicago railroad yards at dusk. Rattlers on rollers going somewhere—must be better than here, Lawd, better than here.

“I’m tough, too,” said Sling, eyeing a passing string of boxcars. “I eats pig iron for breakfast.”

“Huh! I uses cement for syrup on hot cakes made o’ steel,” said Terry.

“That’s why I’m leavin’ town,” said Sling, “’cause I spit in a bozo’s eye yesterday and killed him stone dead! I spits bullets.”

Just then they grabbed a West-bound freight on the wing, and lied all the way to Omaha as they squatted in the corner of an open, empty car where plenty of cattle had left plenty of smells on their various trips to the Chicago market.

“Why, man, I done killed me so many mens in my day that I’m scared I’ll kill myself some time by accident,” said Sling. “When I shaves myself, I tries not to look mean—to keep from pullin’ my own razor cross my own throat. I’m a bad jigaboo, son.”

“Huh! You ain’t nowheres near as bad as me,” Terry lied, long tall lies, all the way from Omaha to Cheyenne. “Lemme tell you ’bout the last duster that crossed my path. He were an Al Capone—machine gun and all—and I just mowed him down with my little thirty-two on a forty-four frame. Man, I made lace curtains out of his a-nat-toe-mie!”

“Why?”

“’Cause he were white, and I were mad ’cause he were messin’ with my State Street gal.”

“Man, you let women mess you up that way?”

“I did that time.”

“They ain’t worth fightin’ about.”

“I know it—but I does fight about ’em.”

“I does too, man, but I ain’t gonna no mo’. I’m through fightin’ ’bout women.”

“Me, too.”

“And me.”

By that time the cattle car they were in was running too slow for anybody’s good, nearing a town. What town? On the map, Cheyenne.

But no map ever made would have a dot on it for the alley where the garbage can was at the A-1 Cafe’s backdoor that gave up only a half-dozen rinds of raw squash, a handful of bacon skins, and a few breadcrusts to feed two long tall black boys named Terry and Sling.

“Let’s get on down de road, boy.” As the stars came out.

“Dust my broom, pal.”

“Sling your feet, Terry. Let’s make this early evenin’ rattler.”

Aw, do it freight train! Wheelers roll! Dog-gone my hard, unlucky soul!

Reno! The BIGGEST little CITY in the WORLD blazing its name in lights at night in a big arch of a sign all the way across the street. But they couldn’t read the sign none too well. Hunger and rain and a bad education all stood between them and the reading of that sign any too well.

Autumn in Reno! Dog-bite my onions! Stacks of shining silver dollars on the tables, wheels spinning in gambling places, folks winning, losing, winning. THE BANK CLUB: big plate glass windows on the main street. Stand right on the sidewalk and look in at the Bank Club. Dice, keno, roulette, piles of silver. Pretty sight.

“There must not be no law in Reno.”

“Must ain’t,” said Sling.

“Must be all the cartwheels in the world in Reno.”

“Must is,” said Sling.

“Here we stays in Reno.”

“Here we stays, Terry,” said Sling.

As luck would have it, they got jobs, settled in Reno, got a room, got gambling change, got girls. And there the trouble began—with the girls.

Terry was shining shoes at the stand in front of the station. Sling was elbow-greasing the floor of a Chinese lottery and dice joint, acting as general-janitor, bouncer, and errand boy all in one. Between them they made ten or twelve dollars a week. Suits on credit—$3.00 down. Two-tone shoes. Near silk shirts. Key chains—without keys. Who cares about keys? You wearthe chains. String ’em across your breast! Hang ’em from your pockets. Man, they shines like silver! Shines like gold—them chains! You can’t wear keys.

“Boy, you ought to see my gal! Three quarters cat and didn’t come here on no freight train neither,” said Teny, putting a stocking cap on his head to make his hair lay down.

“You come on a rattler, so hush,” said Sling.“My gal did, too, so don’t bring that up!”

“All right, pal! Take it easy! You know I’m a bad man.”

“Almost as bad as I is, ain’t you?” said Sling, spraying his armpits with rosecolored talcum from a tall ten-cent store box.

“You mean, as bad as you would like to be,” kidded Terry, at the same time wishing, in his heart of hearts, that he had a big knife scar somewhere on his body like the one Sling had half-way across his neck and down his shoulder blade—a true sign of battle. “You’d like to be tough,” kidded Terry.

But Sling let that pass. He was kinder tired and in no mood for joking, nor quarreling, either. A Chinaman sure can work you hard in one day! Poor hockaway gets worked hard everywhere by everybody. Almost too tired to wash up and go see my gal. Dog-gone! That’s why he used so much talcum powder, he was so tired.

Meanwhile, Terry put on his derby at a cocky angle, got that off his mind, and looked around under the bed for his shoes. As he tied his brown and white oxfords, he kept thinking in his mind how his sweet mamma didn’t come here on no freight train. No. sir! Not that dame o’ mine! Angelina Walls is her name, Mrs. Angelina Walls. Cooks for a white lady from Frisco who come to Reno to get unchained, and brought along her maid. And the maid done fell for me! Ha! Ha! Angelina! Fell for a smooth black papa with a deep Chicago line. Old young Terry’s done got himself a woman, sure enough.

“Boy, lend me your honey-brown tie, will you?”

“Aw-right,” said Sling.

Tonight, Sling’s thoughts were on his lady-love, too, tired as he was. Dark and Indian-looking, his particular girl. She didn’t work much, neither. Just rested. She made her living—somehow. Wore a rabbit’s skin coat and a gold wrist watch. . . . Sure, she come to town on a freight train—but she rode in taxis on rainy nights! Had a nice room. Had a good heart. Liked an old long tall boy by the name of Sling, with a razor scar across his shoulder. Hot dog!

Her name was Charlie-Mae. Charlie-Mae what? I dunno! Nobody was ever heard to call her by her last name, if she had one. She might have had one, maybe, who knows? Probably did. Charlie-Mae—Indian-looking girl in a rabbit skin coat with a gold wrist watch. Lawd!

“Let’s haul it to the club,” said Terry. “soon’s I go get Angelina.”

“I’ll pick you up,” said Sling, “by and by. You truck on down.”

So Teny tapped on down the steps in his derby hat and honey-colored tie to get Mrs. Walls.

Shortly thereafter, in a sly-blue suit with wide shoulders. Sling went looking for Charlie-Mae, key chain just a-swinging, shining and swinging.

Both boys realty looked hot in the gorgeous sense—but the sad facts were that it was late November by now and neither one of them had yet worked up to an overcoat to cover their outer finery. So it should be herein recorded that before donning their stylish suits and ties and hats, they had put on underneath various sweaters, sweatshirts, and other warm but unsightly garments from their meager store in order the better to face the cold Nevada wind.

Read the rest of “Slice ’em Down”

1 thought on ““Slice ’em Down,” a short story by Langston Hughes”

  1. With all due respect: ugh. If Sinclair Lewis had written this (not only racist, but not very good, extremely hokey) story, it would be considered an embarrassment… a racist anachronism at best. Zora Neal Hurston did the same thing (as did Gertrude Stein, by the way), writing for the same audiences: Whites and Bourgeois (“hincty” or “high yellow”) Blacks. Published in Esquire in 1936? Perfect.

    The main characters in this story are low-grade morons. Does that make them “authentic”? Reminding me of the famous set piece in Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in which two very Black gentleman have an argument about whether the Esso (brand name filling station) dinosaur logo is an actual living thing (kept out behind the filling station) and from “Egypt”. Ho ho, ha ha (those quaint Negroes)… but who cares? Hurston is an icon. Hughes is an icon. Did either produce hilarious literary vignettes of moronic Whites? I somehow doubt it, as each knew which side of the day-old toast the dirty butter (or pomade) was on. Who was in charge of the Literary Filter that this, and so many other Jim Crow Fantasias, pumped through at such volume that it all filled the trough of the “canon” of Black Lit? Imagine “Beloved Classics of Jewish Lit” commissioned, edited, published and taught in German Universities the same year this story was published. Such a canon couldn’t be any more grotesque.

    Sure, I know, Hughes and Hurston and every other member of the Black Kapo Class very famously advertised their “love of the Negro Race” and worked to “uplift” same. But those public sentiments merely satisfied the conditions of their Kapo contracts with the Dominant Culture; they were terribly divided people (I think I just heard Michael Jackson grab his crotch). There are closets and then there are closets in closets and it’s rare that such rooms feature mirrors. This story is ripe for analysis along those lines… as are the original illustrations (by Eric Lundgren: I’ve known quite a few Black people in my life, being Black, but I’ve never seen anyone who resembled those faceless caricatures… yet check out the dashing, lordly illustrations of “Whites” on the same pages). What a dissertation, in a parallel universe, a class/color-based analysis of this tripe would make. I mean, the racism, in this little fragment alone, is meter-pegging (I like those “shiny” teeth and the savage dames and the bloodthirsty crowd; is there one decent Black human in this fucking story?):

    “Folks had to hold Charlie-Mae to keep her from attacking Angelina, for two fights at the same time would have spoilt the fun.

    “You women wait,” everybody said.

    “Boy, I’m tellin’ you, I mean business,” warned Sling, his eyes red, his teeth shining, and his feelings hurt. “Don’t come a-near me!”

    “I done heard so much from you about how bad you is,” said Terry. “I just want to see. You been my pal, but I believe you’s lyin’ about your badness.”

    His long face was a shiny black under his derby. He was trembling.

    “I’ll cut you down,” said Sling, “like you warn’t no friend.”

    “Cut then—and don’t talk,” said Terry, “ ’cause I’m quicker’n greased lightnin’ and I’m liable to get you first.”

    It’s almost as good as an episode of The Wire, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

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