Chester Himes

Originally published in Esquire, January 1946


when mac turned from 42nd onto Central Avenue, a gang of cats in front of the Down Beat had it and gone—“…cut that chump a coffin caper—a duster-buster … bust his heart-string two-way side and flat … two to one it was a broad; it was a broad what cut him, now I say it was a broad what shot him…”

Everywhere he’d been that day, they’d been talking about it—all up and down the Avenue, at the Dunbar Grill and the Chicken Shack, at Pogue’s Bar-b-coo and Sonny’s Billiard Parlor “…old slick got it at last….” Somebody had lowered the boom on one Harold Rivers, a slim dark boy with a mellow voice, L.A.’s gift to the juke boxers, idol of the tall tan blondes. Fifteen minutes after he’d done his final number at the Cotton Club, he was opening the door of his Kitty parked around the corner of 43rd Street, when somebody walked up behind him and played I’ll Walk Alone in his back with a .32. Now they were all gabbing, some crowing, some weeping—the slicks and the squares, the janes and the jills.

It did Mac good to hear them. Right back of him was the memory of Hal taking his fine banana skin chick away from him, and her slipping away in the dead of the night with his stash of hard-saved layers. It pacified his mind.

He whistled a sharp, high-breaking scale of “If You Can’t Smile And Say Yes … ”, shrugged his tan and green jacket snug about his thin bony shoulders, fingered the collar of his maroon sport shirt, hitched up his solid draped hunter’s green slacks, minced across the Avenue on his tan and white kicks like a hundred dollar winner in a penny crap game, pushed into the Last Word, straddled a stool and ordered Scotch.

They were talking about it there, the bartender and three jills perched on stools across the circular bar… “It was some old jealous nigger,” a jill was saying. “No woman would shoot that man…”

His little monkey eyes were glassy red in the dim bar light and his rough black skin was purple. But he had a wide sardonic smile that was white from jaw to jaw.

“You hear ’bout Hal?” the guy next to him asked.

“What about him?”

“He been shot! Ain’t you heard?”

“I heard that. What I wanna know is what about him now?”

The guy turned and gave him a look. “Ain’t nothin’ ’bout him now but he dead. Ev’body wanna know who done it.”

Across the bar a jill said, “The world’s gone mad…”

Mac paid for his drink and went out. Riotous colored people in their riotous colored garb surged up and down the sidewalk, in and out of the joints, jabbering and gesticulating, crowing and crying, all talking about it. A sudden yen for limelight needle-pricked excitement through the beat of Mac’s mind. Saucy brown mamas, bold-eyed, sway-hipped and provocative, switched by, filling the sultry summer night with a swelling sensuousness. The impulse to go tell the police what they all wanted to know, to grab the center of the stage and give out, grew in him, built up in his mind. All his life he’d wanted to be a crooner and now he could sing his song.

But he wasn’t ready yet. He suckered his knowledge like a dog a bone, savored it, chewed it like as cud, swallowed it and belched it up and chewed it again. Feeling nine foot tall. He’d tell ’em all right, but he wasn’t ready yet.

At the barbeque joint he turned in and ordered, “Skeleton of poke with the liquid fire.”

Next to him a guy pushed back his empty plate and said, “Look, poppa, I got two cubes of sugar here. I’ll give you one and I’ll keep one. Take airn one you choose. I’ll bet you ten bucks a fly lights on mine before it do on yourn.”

“It’s a bet,” Mac said, taking a cube of sugar.

When the fly lit on Mac’s cube first, he thought even the flies knew who he was.

Before the guy paid off he cursed out the fly, swatting at it with his hand. “Dare you goes, you black bilker. You been here drinkin’ my coffee and eatin’ my mean and suckin’ my blood for de past half hour and now when I wants you to have some of my sugar, what does you do? Go lookin’ somewheres else.” Then he had to laugh. “Somebody shot Hal Rivers and dey’ll swat you too.”

It built up in Mac again, stirred a crazy rashness in his mind—to go tell the police who done it. He could hardly wait to eat his ribs.

But outside again, he wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but he was waiting. Down the street was the red neon sign of Jack and Jim’s. He headed there.

A big tough dame sitting beside him began to tell him the history of her life …

“Yass, but Ah left dat nigger. Dat nigger was too much for me. Ah didn’t mind so much him kickin’ me in de face w’en he knocked me down but w’en he start chasin’ me up’n down de street wid de ax. Ah left ’im…”

Mac ordered another shot of rye with a beer chaser and asked politely, “Then what’d you do?”

“Den dare Ah wuz, done jes got rid of one no-good nigger. An’ what Ah do? Go git mahself anothern…”

Mac drank his rye and sipped his beer. “Then what’d you do?” he asked.

“Well, first Ah hit ’im over de haid with de iron skillet,” she said. “Dat stunned ’im. Den Ah stuck ’im with de butcher knife.”

“Did you hurt him?” Mac asked.

“Ah didn’ miss it,” she said.

“He didn’t die, did he?”

“He didn’t live/”

“I gotta go,” he said, getting up.

“Wut’s de hurry?” she asked, trying to grab hold of him.

“I gotta see a man about a grave,” he cracked.

It came back, ate into him, gnawed at him—go tell the police who done it…. But something held him.

He went out, walked up 42nd Street to Bessie’s. The house was full of people, gambling. He stopped at a table of six women. Two of them were showing down their hands. One had the seven of spades, the trey of hearts, the six of clubs, the nine of diamonds, and the queen of spades.

She said, “I got a royal spade flush.”

The other one had the five of hearts the king of clubs, the eight of hearts, the ace of spades, and the jack of diamonds.

“I got you beat,” she said. “I got a heart royal.”

“How you git that way?” the first woman challenged. “A spade royal is de highest.”

“Not in poker it ain’t,” the other one argued. “A heart is the highest in poker.”

The first one looked up and saw Mac. “What’s the highest hand in poker?” she asked him. “A spade royal or a heart royal?”

“Before I answers,” Mac replied. “Just what is you-all playing.”

“Oh, we’re playing poker, dealer’s choice,” the first woman replied. “I just dealt a hand with everything wild but the deuces.”

“In a case like that,” Mac said. “I better keep quiet. I ain’t gettin’ messed up with all you women.”

“You got more sense than Hal Rivers then,” a third woman said.

Everytime he heard the name, it put him on the go. He turned and started out. A crowd of guys at the door blocked his way. Two guys were arguing and the rest ringed them in.

One was saying, “I bet you a hundred dollars I can take ten cards out a coon-can deck and tee-roll it.”

“I bet you a hundred you can’t,” the other one said.

“Put up,” the first one said.

“Put yourn up,” the second one replied.

“Ifn you gonna bet sho nuff make it a fin.”

“You must a been in my pocket, man—”

Everybody laughed. Mac pushed through, opened the door, started out. He heard somebody say, “You niggers reminds me of Hal Rivers, more mouf than money—only y’all ain’t dead…” kept on down the stairs, down the street, turned back onto Central.

A chick coming out the Down Beat gave him a look then drew up sharp and did a double-take. She was a tall Peola with a pageboy bob, light, bright, but not quite white, dressed in a pink draped dress that cost forty bucks. He oughta know, he bought it.

“Lonesome?” he cracked in a signifying voice.

“Not for you, nigger,” she spat at him. “When I left you I was through burning coal.”

“I didn’t mean for me. I meant for your honey-boy, so tall and so sharp and—so dead!”

Suddenly she burst out crying. “Honey, don’t be so mean.”

Every time she used to cry, it used to cost him plenty. Now it wasn’t gonna cost him one red cent. He knew then that was all he’d been waiting for—to see that chick shed some tears for free. Sweat popped out on his face, underneath his naps, ran down his back and chest like the four rivers. He was ready now—solid ready.

He turned quickly, jumped into the black and white cab that had just unloaded, said to the driver, “Take me to the Central Police Station, Jaxon.”

There was drama in his swagger as he walked toward the desk, pride in his voice when he said, “I shot Hal Rivers, the bastard.” Boasting. He felt big, important, strictly fine, like a man on a tree-top gage.

But days of waiting for the gas up in San Quentin’s death row sobered him. There were nights he used to lie and wonder what it was that got in a man that made him tell on his own damn self.


Born Chester Bomar Himes July 29, 1909 Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S. Died November 12, 1984 (aged 75) Moraira, Spain. Pen name Chester Himes. Occupation Novelist. Nationality American. Period 1934 -1980, Genres Hardboiled crime fiction, detective fiction, autobiographical work and socio political novels. Spouse Lesley Himes. (Nee Packard).

Chester came from a struggling middle class family. At 17 he graduated from high school and worked as a busboy in a local hotel. When he was accepted into Ohio State University, where he scored 4th highest in aptitude and I.Q. tests, he became disillusioned with the on-campus racism and began transgressing local race laws. He was expelled. Chester then turned to crime and was eventually arrested for armed robbery and was sent to prison, aged 19. While he was there, he saw violence of unimaginable proportion. Urged by his mother, he wrote about these things in short stories that were initially published in Esquire Magazine. When he was released from prison he went to LA and after a very brief stint as a screenwriter, he was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said, “I don’t want no godamned niggers on this lot.” He then worked in the shipyards while he wrote Lonely Crusade. He became known as a WWII-era literary realist, a colleague of Wright and Baldwin, then as a crime novelist and a friend to Langston Hughes, Picasso, and Nikki Giovanni to name a few, and finally also as an African-American writer in his non-fiction and what he called his ‘serious novels’. Chester ended his 1976 autobiography, “That’s my life—the third generation out of slavery.”

To write a short bio of Chester Himes is hard, there are so many possible approaches. My experience of knowing him was from my very first memories of being on this planet, then off and on throughout my life until his last days. This makes it a fractured conflicting story. He was complicated but he radiated intelligence of the deepest kind, the anti-intellectual, no bullshit, life affirming, cynical and joyful kind. He sure was bittersweet, born a black man into one of the worst periods of modern history in those divided States, fraught with a searing race hatred that almost eviscerated his spirit. He was too smart, too handsome and too proud to slip under the wire of prejudice and bigotry, so the world and his family scarred him. In the mid forties, in a speech before a mixed audience at the University of Chicago on ‘The Dilemma of the Negro Writer in the United States,’ sounding remarkably like one of his models, Faulkner, Himes said:

‘There is an indomitable quality within the human spirit that can not be destroyed; a face deep within the human personality that is impregnable to all assaults … we would be drooling idiots, dangerous maniacs, raving beasts—if it were not for that quality and force within all humans that cries “I will live.’

And he persevered, relentlessly obstinate in his skewed vision of life. He didn’t pander to racists, or race politics, no Robeson hero, he was steadfastly himself, he bowed out of the culture-war, moving to France and diving into the most surreal and personal writing of his era. Here are some reviews of his work:

“One of the most important American writers of the 20th century. . . . [A] quirky American genius.” —Walter Mosley

“Chester Himes is one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition. His command of nuances of character and dynamics of plot is preeminent among writers of crime fiction. He is a master craftsman.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“He belongs with those great demented realists . . . whose writing pitilessly exposes the ridiculousness of the human condition.” —Will Self

“Outrageous, shocking, wonderful.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Hieronymus Bosch meets Miles Davis.” —The New York Times

“The greatest find in American crime fiction since Raymond Chandler.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Every one of his beyond-cool Harlem novels is cherished by every reader who finds it.” —Jonathan Lethem

When I decided to contact Mr. Lethem (as I had a hunch he liked Chester’s work) for a quote for the new Penguin imprint of his ‘Harlem cycle novels’ he said he did indeed love Chester’s fiction. The bigger surprise was that I found him through the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Lynn Nottage, the wife of a filmmaker friend, Tony Gerber, who grew up with Lethem in Brooklyn. Apparently they used to read his books, squirreled away in their backpacks, on the subway on the way to school and I can’t remember which one said, “It was our guilty pleasure, devouring his books on the way to school.” I can see them, these little smarty-pants artists, hiding the high camp covers from their parents and teachers. Guilty, I suppose, because as my mother would say “his books are very blue.” (I love the old school way this inferred garter belts and sketchy filmmaking in scratchy black and white films on super 8, pornographically dreamlike.) So yes, he was blue, but also a man birthed into an insane tension of contradictions that nothing rational could express, so he embraced the irrational obscenity, frailty and ambiguities of human nature with scathing intelligence, the absurdity of life, a post modern writer before his time, just as modernism was being born.

The early story included here is just a taste of his rhythm and irony from “The Collected stories Of Chester Himes.” Pease read his short stories, crime fiction and novels then decide for yourself what he is. Fasten your seatbelts; you are in for a bumpy, fantastical ride.

A new imprint of Himes’s Harlem cycle detective novels are being re-released by Vintage summer 2012.

—Sarah Pirozek, Brooklyn 2012


A Word on Chester Himes


By Sarah Pirozek, surrogate niece of Lesley and Chester Himes and Executor of the Himes Literary Estate.


New York:
I like facts. So yeah, death, and this is a fact, used to make me horny. Facts feel like something you can hang onto, stubborn certainties, like: Night. Hot. Down. Gravity. Death.

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