(First published 1972, William Morrow & Co.)
?Beckham is a masterful writer, and his novel is an emblem of contemporary
?This story of an aspiring black baseball player is skillfully written and
Runner Mack is the compelling story of young Henry Adams' road to self-discovery through his encounter and friendship with Runner Mack, a self-styled black militant. Rich with metaphor and symbolism, the novel portrays the "grand old game" of baseball as the symbol of America?for whites, a sanctuary where the American dream is a reality, for blacks, a nightmarish world filled with pain, chaos, and frustration.
AS HE CLOSED the door to his apartment, and before he scraped his hand up the wall for the light switch, Henry, in the dark for an instant, stood there and felt like kicking himself. ?Gotdam!? he said. ?Gotdam!? How could he have been so stupid? Here he had a new gig in a big place?not some small-time fish market or some lightweight meat-and-potatoes restaurant?and in his excitement he?d forgotten to find out what the pay was! Are they going to pay me? Of course. Much? Weekly? He walked into the other room and slapped his palm together when he heard the radiator banging. ?Good man, Alvarez,? turning on the lamp and picking up the small triangles, pentagons and other shapes of chipped ceiling from the bed sheet. He looked up at the brown ring of water on the ceiling, then sat on the bed. Then he leaned over to turn on the television and noticed the folded note. He lay back on the bed and unfolded it.
I went out for a walk and to make a phone call to my folks. I left some ham in case I?m not back before you.
Henry propped himself up with two pillows, rested the note in his lap and stared at the television. A woman in a gym outfit was smiling through exercises, her thighs up near the screen?s top. He went into the kitchen and made himself a sandwich with one slice of boiled ham and pulled out a beer from the refrigerator and sat on the edge of the bed, and (the tip of the can to his lip), watched the lady go through her exercises.
He didn?t think she was very good; she was without grace, like some players he?d seen who would swing at the ball with puffed cheeks and frowns, and if they missed, their follow through would be so awkward, instead of bringing the bat around to the top of the other shoulder with the lead knee bending nicely so they looked good even though the ball was in the catcher?s mitt (or if the catcher was fast enough and wanted to make you look bad, he?d be throwing the ball to the pitcher before you had straightened up), they?d lost balance and bang the bat against the ground, grunt ?Umph,? stumble, kick up dirt as their cleats went sideways, even fall. She reminded him of one of those ?killer? hitters who had murderous intentions toward the ball (and he?d heard them warn the catcher: ?I?ll knock the shit out of the next one?), lacked smoothness and ease, precision and order. She did knee bends too quickly, not up and down easily as if it came naturally. When she rolled on her back for the ?bicycle? she fell into trouble, rolling sideways and getting up, out of breath, hair in her eyes (Henry considered how they loved to throw their heads to the side like that, even if they had a crewcut), she smiled a forced, apologetic smile that begged for patience. She stood for a moment, perplexed, eyeballs skipping horizontally, as if forgetting the next exercise, then said, ?Well,? quickly, as if the word had only one l, and started running in place, and from above a microphone on the end of a pole was lowered and hit her in the head, then disappeared up again, and Henry thought he heard faint laughter in the background of the set as the gymnast stood there again doing nothing, face pointed to the side, off-screen, looking for directions.
Beatrice could work out on these exercises, he thought. She was so smooth, so naturally graceful. The way she walked, the way she moved, as when she stepped from one side of the room to another to pick up an ashtray and turned, catlike; uncon-strained, all of her; everything compliant, facile, from her hips to her shoulders, and her neck and stomach, too.
Now the exerciser had her back to the screen. Shouldn?t he tell her tonight that he loved her walk and was going to make her walk around the room for him at least once a week? With no clothes on? Her mom and pop would call him obscene. They didn?t like him that much anyway, especially because he was so dark. (He had heard her father refer to him twice as ?that blue nigger,? and once her father had asked Beatrice, ?Why are you dealing in coal, girl??) And she was tan, almost yellow. The exerciser was spreading herself out on toes and fingertips, feet toward the screen, and began push-ups, her head bending over her shoulder in an attempt to address the viewer, and she went down three times. On the fourth one, as she was suspended near the floor, not going up or down but suddenly in abeyance, there was a light ripping sound. Again, light laughter from somewhere in the television studio. Henry finished his beer and looked closer. There was a split in the rump. A narrow fillet of white ass showed. She put her hand over half of it (and Henry thought, to keep out the breeze), then she jumped up, turned around, disappeared from the screen, and a commercial appeared.
He wasn?t really there, wasn?t really concentrating on the show, so that the muffled snickering coming from the back of the television soundtrack didn?t seem unusual, nor did he find the microphone?s falling on the girl?s head out of the ordinary. His eyes were on the screen but his mind was on his past, and he kept seeing another screen behind the television screen, and this one was flashing scenes on which his mind was fastened.
A toilet flushed, startled him back to his apartment?he had been way down in Mississippi, had been going back for a long fly hall?and he saw coming on the screen a show that he and Beatrice watched frequently. It was that quiz show for newly marrieds, and this time there was a black couple sitting behind the booth, and Henry thought he might watch it, but he walked, got up, thinking one of those girls might still be in the bathroom. He dashed on his toes into the kitchen and pulled down a glass, tiptoed back to the other room, put the glass to the wall in back of the television and put his ear to the glass. He could bear the water running and guessed one of them was washing her hands. And he imagined her hands were soft and manicured. Sometimes both girls would be in the bathroom?the toilet seemed to flush every hour?and if Beatrice was out shopping on a Saturday, Henry would listen to them. He had accumulated facts on them: they were older than he, in their mid-twenties; worked as secretaries in a big firm; were black but sometimes dated white men; giggled a lot; were not looking for husbands; loved to stay out late; hated Alvarez; had lived in that apartment for two years. But he couldn?t find the apartment! He had been all over the fourth floor and would walk slowly down the tiled halls, ears pricked, trying to catch a trace of one of those porcelain voices he had heard in the bathroom. To know what they looked like, yes, but suppose?they were free, young?who knows what he would get into?
But the insidious design of the floor. Although the bathroom of those women was right behind Henry?s television wall, their apartment?s front door was nowhere near Henry?s apartment. And there were only four apartments on the fourth floor. And he had never seen a woman aged twenty or so enter or leave the apartment building since he and Beatrice had lived there.
He had been frightened by the first toilet flush, because the first night he slept in the apartment he had lain on the bed with the lights out, reviewing his trip up from Mississippi and his prospects for the future, and there was just the blare (like a faraway parade) of car horns in the air, when suddenly?the flush. He jumped off the bed, his heart was up against chest, his hands were clenched. Then the voices, hollow, metallic, spoke from the flush, and he was certain that the pressure of looking for an apartment had driven sense from his mind.
?Can you see my slip??
?No, but how do my eyes look??
?Okay. Hum hmmmm hmmm.?
?Hmm hmmm hmm.?
It took him a half-hour to conclude that it was someone?s bathroom, and the first week he had walked up and down the hall very slowly, putting first his heel down, then his toe; stood outside the door of each apartment on the floor, squinted his eyes to hear better. No one ever seemed to be in any apartment (except the Hurts?), or at least ever made any noise, and once, working ingeniously and smiling at his ingenuity, Henry was able to look under the crack at the bottom of one door?his nose scraping up dust on the hall floor?and could have sworn that the apartment was empty. Nothing but light. But hadn?t Alvarez said that there were no vacant apartments? Still, credit his genius. Walking down the hall another time in his patented, quiet, heel-and-toe manner; stopping outside the apartment door; bending over and throwing a penny under the opening; complaining loudly, ?Dammit, I dropped my key?; then bending down so he could look under the door. A beautiful maneuver, beautiful, until one day, his ears and right cheek burning from the scraping on the dusty floor, balancing fingers shivering as they supported the upper half of his body, knees aching a little, he heard this voice. Someone was in the apartment! The voice was light, floating and indistinct, and he squeezed his nose closer toward the door, and he was anxious. Maybe one of the girls. Then a harsh, grating noise; as if someone was scraping the floor near his ear, then a giggling, tittering. The little girl from the end of the hall! His eyes traveled up her height, from the dirty white socks to the diagonal scar on her knee to her eight-year-old face, covered now with her fingers. Her eyes were half-closed from the broad smile. Henry, getting up, bumped his forehead against the door. She laughed out loud this time, bringing down her hands from her mouth, and the laugh?s echo danced down the hall, and Henry had terrified visions of heads popping out of the doorways as he straightened himself out, brushed dust from his knees.