I came to the city in late 1948. I think it was Fall, but it might have already been Winter. Not that it makes much difference here, because the place, to me, has always been gray and drab and cold, no matter what time of year it is. The people, anyway; they’re always cold. Cold eyes, cold hands, cold hearts; like blocks of icy steel the whole sorry lot of them.
The first thing I encountered were the snide remarks. “You must be some yokel, with that accent,” they’d say. I’d stare back at them like they were indeed lumps of metal. Blockheads. Usually, when I’d hear that stuff my hands stayed in my pockets or at my sides. “Hey! Johnny Reb is here! Sounds just like that dumbass from the funnies … whatsisname … Little AB-ner!” Haha. I’d turn back the glass and swallow the whisky and wonder if I could catch the funny man as he left the place. In the dark. In the parking lot. Without warning.
Sometimes I did. Usually, I didn’t. I had learned to save up my rage by then.
For a while, I paid my rent and bought my booze with odd jobs here and there, with the money I’d saved up when I’d been in the Army. The dirt of France and half of Germany, all gone up in flames and caught like black grease in the palms of my hands. It had been mashed under my boots. Unlike most, I enjoyed war. I loved it. You wouldn’t think a quiet boy from the Georgia flatlands, more accustomed to fields of corn and cotton, would have taken so well to warfare. But I had.
“Howdy, Jack Crack,” my lieutenant had said. I don’t know what the guy had against southerners, but he had laid it on thick. As usual I just took it and pushed my little rages back to the farthest, darkest corners of my mind. It was better to save it up and transform it than to use it right there and then where it really wouldn’t do any good. I’d discovered that my accent and my ways set me apart from the rest, that they looked upon anyone from south of that Mason and Dixon Line as less than human. “You southern boys all talk like niggers.” And then the laughs. Those Yankee laughs.
That was all right. Oh, I cared. I ground my teeth when they weren’t looking and balled up my fists. But I saved it up, for the important work. I let my gun do the talking: my Springfield 1901 30–06. Those German boys paid for the abuse I suffered at the hands of my own countrymen. German boy stick his head up from behind a hedgerow: bang. German fellow stand in a window at 500 yards, thinking he was okay: bang. German soldier run and dodge and try to make it to cover: bang. German boy here, German boy there: pow. By my own count, I had maybe sixty Aryan souls notched in my memories; lots of blonde heads turned to red mush. Bang, bang, bang.
No one was giving me credit for it, though. There’s something about a sniper that no one wants to reward. Yeah, you get your sharpshooters notice; but that’s about it. There’s something cowardly, they say, about a sniper. Of course they always asked for me when they thought I could do them any good. Pop, pop, pop. Three less krauts.
By the time we rolled through Paris and on to Germany, I was good at what I did. Better than good. Probably the best any of them had seen. The fire team I was a part of was in high demand to be the better half of a squad whenever anyone could wrestle us away from whichever outfit had us. Or, rather, had me. “Get me that southern kid that talks like a nigger,” they would say. And along I’d come. Bang.
Finally, when Hitler shot his own brains out in his filthy bunker, I know I had a hundred dead men under my belt. It didn’t bother me. In fact, I had grown to like it. Toward the end, they were throwing little boys at us; little boys with rifles, marching in front of Panzers. It had been like shooting fish in a barrel, for me. Every time I shot some German kid’s face off I thought about my own fellows. The Looie: bang. Some Yankee captain from another platoon: bang. All of that abuse was just fuel for my aim.
So. After the war I went home and found I’d accumulated a bit of pay. I gave some of it to my folks, but most of it I had saved up and had on deposit in a little bank in my home town. When I pulled out of there in 1948, I had a good seven grand. For a couple of years I had sat in my home place, doing odd jobs and turning down all those offers from the GI Bill. But after a while my own folk had started getting on my nerves, and I’d see my dad’s face making like a red blossom whenever he would say something I didn’t like or do something I didn’t want him to do. I realized my time killing Europeans had done something to me. So I left. I took my money out of the bank and I pushed off.
I think I was always headed for this city. Maybe I didn’t exactly know it, but here I was headed. It was Fate. I believe that. Fate making decisions the way I had when I’d enlisted, lying about my age and other things, to get in.
For six months, from the first half of ’49, I’d been working as a supervisor on a loading dock at an outfit called Hiram Trucking. That half a year passed without any big event. My co-workers knew me and respected me, despite my quiet ways and my southern accent. I’d get an occasional comment about “cornpone” or “grits” or something like that. Nothing worth shooting anyone over.
And then Rosato had come onto the dock. He was Italian, was fond of telling us that and reminding us of it. I didn’t give a damn what he was. I’d shot some Italians who’d been part of a German squad, once. That was all it meant to me.
But Rosato, Vince his name was, went on and on about what an Italian he was. Well. If it made him happy. Being part of a group never meant that much to me. Then, I didn’t understand.
Finally, toward June, he had come to me to tell me what to do. It was a night shift. I was alone on the dock with nothing to do for most of the night, waiting for some trucks to arrive just before dawn. Or I’d been alone until Rosato showed after everyone else had left.
“Watkins,” he told me, “my uncle is going to come by here tonight. We’re going to come by here with a truck, and you need to be gone. Somewhere else. Down the street. Upstairs. In the crapper. I don’t care. Just somewheres else.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked him.
Rosato had sneered at me, just a sideways, half-hearted sneer followed by a breath that was probably meant to be a short laugh. “You don’t know crap,” he said. “You’re just a dumbass southern boy. That, I know. Lemme fill you in.” And then he had put his hand on my shoulder and had come in close, breathing his garlic-oniony breath in my face. I imagined a .45 round opening up his forehead and a big halo of red mist coming up like a fountain from the back of his skull. I had pulled back a little, but he had hung on and moved with me. He was a big guy, maybe a head taller than I am. But I wasn’t scared of him—I just don’t like to be touched. He went on my list.
“Listen to me good, cracker boy. Home boy. Georgia boy or Alabama boy or whatever backwater swamp you came out of. My uncle is coming by here tonight to pick up a load of these refrigerators and radios that came in today. You are going to be gone and when you come back and the stuff isn’t here no more, you are not going to say anything about it. Capice?” And then he had jammed a fifty dollar bill in my hand. “There,” he’d finally said. “My uncle don’t expect you to walk away with nothin’.”
I looked at the fifty bucks and then I looked at Rosato. “I don’t need your money, Vince. I don’t want your uncle’s money.” I handed it back to him.
“Have it your way. Just don’t be around here when the truck comes.” He stuffed the fifty back in his pocket and turned to leave.
“But your uncle ain’t takin’ nothin’ from this dock unless he has a freight bill and an order for it.”
Rosato froze. He stopped like somebody had shot him. I’d seen guys freeze up like that when you put a round into the base of their skulls from fifty or a hundred yards. They’d go solid, like a tree trunk or a two by four, and then they’d go down in a heap like a sack of sweet potatoes. But my Italian co-worker didn’t go down like a sack of anything. He’d just turned around and had stared at me for a second.
“You know,” he said. “You really don’t understand. Listen up and listen good. My uncle is going to take this stuff. He is going to steal it. He likes to steal things. He loves to steal things. He makes his living stealing things. And tonight he and some other boys are going to come up here with a truck and steal all of this stuff. And you are going to let them.” He waved his arm at forty pallets. Half were loaded with refrigerators and half with new console radios.
“I ain’t going to let you or your uncle steal anything,” I told him. “If he comes up here, I aim to call the police.”
Being a big man sometimes isn’t good for a fellow. Being big, you sometimes go around thinking you can whip anyone, for the simple reason that you have beaten everyone you’ve fought, or scared them with your extra pounds. It’s not a good way to think, in the long run. I could tell right away that it was the way Vinnie Rosato thought, and I was ready for him because I long ago learned about such bullies.
He came at me straight on, like he was a steam roller and I was a little bitty mound of tar. I let him get really close, closer than the length of his reach, and that let me know right off that he was no boxer. And then I let him have it—a strong kick in the gut, my heel coming in fast with the full weight of my body behind it. My leg was straight, like a rod, and I gazed down the length of it as if I were gazing down the barrel of my old Springfield. The Italian bent in half, a wet loaf of dough, and I pulled my foot out, planted it on the dock where we were standing. Then I wound up and kicked him (a good one) in the right side of his face with my left boot.
He went all the way down. Rosato reminded me of a guy I had plugged with my .45 sidearm; a young German soldier who had almost caught me by surprise when we were fighting room to room in a French village near the German border in early ’45. Rosato doubled up on the floor just the way that German soldier had done. Rosato’s groans were almost the same. You’d think he’d been mortally wounded, like the long dead German.
Because he’d reminded me that I had once almost let a German kill me, I kicked him again, in the ribs with the steel toe of my right boot. I heard some ribs crack. He whimpered.
“When you get up, I think you should call your uncle and tell him not to come here. Not tonight or any other night. Understand?” Rosato was too busy groaning to answer, so I kicked him in the same spot again. “Understand?” This time, he nodded. That was good, I didn’t want to mess up my boots.
After that, I went back to my small office just off the loading dock. There’s a light in there. It hangs down from a long stem in the ceiling and you pull it on with a string that comes down to about six feet off the floor. I went back there, sat and waited until Rosato slowly rose to his feet and limped off. After that, I reached up, turned off the light.
I was green, then. I didn’t know about wise guys like Rosato and his uncle. I’d been all over Europe, killing its natives, burning its towns, shattering its monuments, but I was so naive I didn’t know anything about something called the Mob. All I knew was that a slime named Rosato had thought I was going to betray my employer by taking fifty bucks and allowing someone to drive away with thousands of dollars in merchandise. The city was a strange place, and I was still trying to understand it. I kicked back in my chair and dozed, taking one of my catnaps. There was a truck due in five hours and I’d have to sign for the contents before they could be unloaded. Night work. I closed my eyes and waited.
An hour, maybe more passed. Because I’d learned to doze without really sleeping, I heard the steps out there, in the dark. Some people were coming from the back of the warehouse. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in there. I’d also heard a scraping that meant there was also at least one other person out on the dock. I knew it wasn’t Rosato, because the steps had been measured, taken by a man who wasn’t trying to walk around with two or three broken ribs. Slowly, making as little sound as possible, I slid off my chair and crouched in the corner of my office. There was a big window in front of me, glass reinforced with chicken wire. I had two possible exits; a door either to my left or right. One led into the warehouse, and the other went out on the dock. I waited to see who was out there.
Three shots exploded in the darkness. From the muzzle flash, I saw a guy, a big guy about the same size as Rosato, shooting into the office. His shots made a nice pattern from about five feet up and down to the floor. If I’d been over there, I would probably have taken at least one of those slugs. The glass made a sharp cracking sound, but the hardware cloth sandwiched between the layers did its job and the big pane held as a single, if shattered, piece. Just like old times.
I grabbed the chair I had been sitting in and slid it to the left, toward the warehouse. The goon on the other side of the window heard the sound and fired three more shots there. Those were not as neatly patterned as before, but pretty good. While he was firing his last shot, I was already out of the office and into the short hallway leading out to the dock. Just as I got to the end of the hallway, I ducked, dove, rolled. And I came up with my old .45 cocked and aimed, drawing it from behind my belt where I’d tucked it after leaving Rosato out on the dock.
You weren’t supposed to take those babies out when you left the Army. But I’d managed to smuggle mine. I was used to it. It had grown to be a solid and familiar part of me. Government issue, and spoiled by constant cleaning, it was a reliable weapon. In an instant I saw that the man who’d been waiting out there was also armed, holding a .38 like he knew how to use it, and was going to kill me, if I let him. He had that look in his eyes. I’d seen it before, in the faces of those few enemy soldiers who had gotten close enough to me to see.
I shot him through the left eye. He made no sound at all and merely fell down, no more alive than the concrete on which he lay.
“Jesus,” someone blasphemed. “He’s carrying heat! Nobody said he was carrying!”
“Damn,” someone else said before I heard him being slapped in the face. It had been Rosato before he’d been shut up. At least one of them had a brain.
I went to the edge of the dock, where it dropped off and a rusted loading plate aimed down at a 15-degree angle. Carefully, I jumped into the shadows down where the trucks had left their trailers, some of them empty and some of them full. I faded into the black, into familiar territory. Until I knew how many of them were out there, I had to retreat.
Moving carefully, quietly, the way Uncle Sam had trained me, I edged away from the dock. The warehouse stretched around us, wings of the building embracing our central location like the arms of some giant; it loomed like a nearby mountain. I knew that all of the doors, save the ones through my office, were locked. There was only one way out, and that was through the wide fence that gaped for the big trucks that brought us a never-ending variety of our nation’s manufactured goods. My momma and daddy had not raised a fool. I had two options: fight or flight. And I knew I was outgunned. Flight it was.
Using the trailers as cover, I moved slowly along, dodging from time to time just in case someone had a bead on me. Even if I was just a shadow in bigger shadows, a guy who knew what he was doing could make me out. My green khakis were pretty decent cover in the night, but for once I regretted my fair complexion. At least my hair was pitch-black.
“There he is,” Someone yelled. It was Rosato, and I again heard the distinct, (and this time louder), impact of a hand against his face. If my life hadn’t been hanging by a thread I would have laughed. As it was, I saw again the muzzle flash of a gun. By the sound, I recognized it as a .45 probably not much different from mine. The wall behind me exploded and chips of brick speckled the back of my head. I knew some of the chips had cut me. The stinging pains had been sharp.
Before I could do much more than leap back, a second and then a third shot boomed out. Similar pattern; yeah, it had been the same shooter, and yeah, he was good. His only mistake had been in assuming I’d move like anyone else. But I had neither dropped nor dived forward. I had turned and run back, ducking beneath one of the trailers and using it as cover. The fence was less than thirty feet away.
It’s now or never. I sucked it up and burst out from the trailer, running full tilt. Just like shooting, another thing I could do better than most was sprint. In a blink I was speeding out of there, out into the alleyway the trucks used to drive into the complex.
The next shot was a good one, and the bullet grazed me as it skidded along the top of my shoulder. Well, it had either hit me because I was running so fast, or had only torn skin since I was gifted with speed. I’d think about the differences later. A small spray of blood had left a warmth across the right side of my face, and it was already cooling in the night air. By the time I heard an engine fire up I was at the end of the alley and had already ducked into another alley that led through the next maze of warehouses adjacent to Hiram Trucking.
If I was lucky, they would all climb into that car and go searching for me where I wouldn’t be, or maybe they’d just go home.
I wasn’t lucky.
In the place I’d just left, to climb a chain link fence, I heard the car stop, its motor shut down, doors slamming shut. Those slammed doors sounded completely final. My breath was already labored. This night job had been too soft on me. I couldn’t hear any voices, now. No Italian voices to tell me what they were doing. But the footfall told me there were three of them.
What I had to do was get through the next maze of alleyways. Beyond that was the residential area I knew well. It was a poor section, and not heavily populated, but if I could wake someone up I stood a good chance of getting out of this. I moved into the darker shadows. The warehouse adjacent to Hiram was vacant; the wholesaler who’d had it had moved to other quarters across town. If I was smart, I’d get through.
Behind me, someone ran into the metal stairway I had dodged. My pursuer wasn’t so vigilant and ran into it. I heard a muffled curse. Turning, I raised my .45, my faithful weapon. In the dark, with only those brief sounds to guide me, I aimed and fired. The old gun roared, spitting my last bullet.
“Jesus! He hit me! Oh, God, he got me in the knee!” And then the oaf began to scream.
“I’ll get you outta here, man. I’ll get you outta here!”
I sucked in a breath, reached out until I felt the wall behind me, and then I ran. I purely hauled, making tracks. Only the most stubborn of men would follow me, now. I wondered what a Rosato would do. The only one I’d known until that moment hadn’t been much. But someone had been slapping his mouth shut.
In a few minutes I left the screaming man and the one promising salvation far behind. There was nothing else to hear, except the faraway growl of airplanes and the constant hum of automobile and truck engines from Highway 136 to the north. There weren’t many who would be tenacious enough to follow me on, into the poor district I was in, but I’d made some people awfully angry. You never knew.
Ahead, I could see the first streetlamp. Most of them were out—nobody cared about the people here—but there were a few still shining. Boldly, I went into the vague pool of light underneath it, then quickly moved into the dark beyond. I had taken an instant to glance back, to search the shadows, and another to look at my shirt; it was speckled with dark stains. Already, my shoulder was growing sore, and the bits of brick imbedded in the back of my scalp were beginning to burn and nag. Home was what I needed. In a big way.
At the next light, I dashed across the street, away from it, and I turned again and took a long, hard look back the way I had come. There was no movement I could see, and no car moved down the deserted street this early in the a.m.. Everyone around here was either too poor or too tired to get into mischief. This I knew.
A building away I could see lights on in an apartment block. I headed there. The main entrance gaped like a black wound. No light shone in the archway, but there were people there, some life. I pushed into that blot of ebony and opened the door. For an instant, for just a split second, I was silhouetted against the yellow glow of a bare bulb at the end of that cigarette-smoky hallway. And that instant was all he needed to draw a bead and fire.
The guy was good. I had to give him that. He was good and I had been just a bit too cocky. The only thing that had saved me was that his window of opportunity had been too brief, or his aim just wasn’t quite sharp enough. For whatever reason, the slug merely went through the meat of my left thigh, enough so that I was aware it wasn’t a life threatening wound. A shower of my own blood spattered out as the door closed behind me, adding a new scent to go with the smoke and the urine and the spilled booze.
I called out.
Around me, I could hear second locks clicking down, latches being thrown, chains being drawn, bars being dropped. “Help,” I called. Yes, help. Knowing I had only a few seconds, I hobbled to the stairwell and started up. By the time I made the second floor, the door downstairs opened and I got a good look at my pursuer as he dashed through, a pale blur in that yellow light.
“All right, Georgia boy. You can stop running and take your medicine,” he screamed. “Ain’t nobody here but darkies and ain’t a one of ’em going to mess with helping your southern ass!” He was coming up the stairs, his big Italian feet thumping in time to my fists slamming on a door. My toothless gun was tucked into my belt, I used both fists to hammer away.
“Open up,” I screamed.
“Time’s up, boy.” He was there, at the top of the stairs, turning toward me.
My fists were actually splintering the hardwood barrier.
The door gave. A woman’s scream. I was at her feet, her black face looking down at me and then into the hall. Her billowing nightgown fell over my face.
That Italian voice spoke, “These niggiz ain’t going to help you, cracker.” Through the fabric of her gown I could see him, big and white, his blue shirt and tie still tacked nattily down despite the chase. He was bringing the gun up, his white face smiling.
The roar. That familiar roar.
My old Springfield 1901 30–06. I’d smuggled it out, too.
The Italian’s face exploded in a shower of red as the rest of him went down in a dead heap. I looked up as the Springfield seemed to vanish again into Cindy’s billowing gown.
She knelt to caress my face and weep and examine my wounds as I smiled back at her. But I knew she was angry, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
“Oh, baby,” my wife said. “You got to stop passing for white! It just flat pisses the Man off.”