A Long Line Up There

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  "A, B, C," Coy said, wagging his forefinger like the white conductor did on odd Thursdays in the summer when the white people's marching band stopped in front of the town hall and performed old southern favorites.

  That was the beginning of Li'l Pea's informal education. Form A to L were accomplished that very afternoon.

  After he could say all the letters, Coydog stole some paper from the store and showed his student how to make the sounds with pencil lines.

  "Ain't it wrong to be stealin' that paper from the white man's sto'?" Li'l Pea asked his aged friend.

  "Wrong?" the wiry little man exclaimed. "Hell, it ain't wrong, it's a sin."

  "But if you do a sin, ain't you goin' to hell?"

  "That all depends, boy." Coy's long dark face cracked open at his mouth, showing his strong, stained teeth. "The Catholics profess that all you got to do is say you're sorry and the Lord will forgive. Other peoples say that Saint Peter's got a scale where they put all the bad you done on one side and all the good on t'other. An' if the good out weigh the bad they got a cot for you in heaven.

  "So if I steal this here tablet an' pencils but then I teach you how to read an' write an' from there you invent a train that go from here to Venice . . ."

  The German alto was warbling about love and Ptolemy remembered the name of the city with rivers for streets. He wanted to go to the bathroom and call the girl out to tell her what he'd accomplished but Coydog wouldn't stop talking.

  ". . . well, if I do that, then maybe the good beat out the bad."

  Ptolemy recalled watching his friend study him with a calculating eye.

  "But you know, boy," Coy said, "I don't believe any'a that."

  "What do you believe?" the boy asked, the ABC's whirling around his head.

  "I think that there's a long line up there in heaven an' yo' place in that line is predicted by what you done wrong. The worser thing you did puts you that much further to the back of the line. The people done the lesser is up toward the front.

  "Now, the line start in downtown heaven and goes all the way to the barracks of hell because the two places is connected, just like good an' evil in the same man. So anyway, when you die you get a number that stands for what you did wrong. So if you had two mens, a black one and a white one, and the black man stole the white man's pig to feed his kids and then the white man shot the black man's son because he couldn't find the thief . . . well, the white man gonna get a much bigger number for murder than the black man will for stealin'. So, forgettin' any other misdemeanors, the white man will have a hotfoot at his place on line and the black man will hear harp music comin' from just up the way."

  "But what about the boy?" Li'l Pea asked.

  "What boy?"

  "The one that the white man killed."

  "Him?" Coydog said with a pained grimace. "They ain't no special numbahs for the victims. Just 'cause they grabbed you and chained you, just 'cause they beat you an' raped your sister don't mean a thing when it come to that line. God don't care what they did to you. What he care about is what you did."

  Ptolemy was Li'l Pea looking up at the man who had just opened the alphabet for him, the man who stole for him, sacrificing himself to the judgement of the great beyond.


The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, P61~63
Walter Mosley
ISBN 978-1-59448-772-9



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