Mamma owned a small grocery store on the corner of Keller and Howard. Howard was the main street and paved with asphalt. Kellar was just a side street and paved with crushed oyster shells. The smell lasted for about a year, gradually fading away. Or maybe we’d just grown used to it.
Kellar was all white folks until the railroad tracks; then it was all blacks until Division Street. After Division Street, it became white again. Division Street was aptly named.
There wasn’t much difference in the houses. Almost all were built shotgun style with a hall up the middle and bedrooms and a bath on one side and a kitchen and living room on the other. Every house, black or white, was about two feet off the ground and set on cement-block pillars. All the roofs were tin. The sides of the houses were wood and in desperate need of paint.
That was all looking north. To the south of Howard, it was all whites. That led to the beach and the Mississippi Sound. And the closer to the beach, the better the houses. When you reached the beach itself, it was as if you’d been beamed back to the antebellum aristocracy south. The houses on the beachfront were mansions. Very few were owned by locals.
Most of Mamma’s customers were black, but preference still had to be given to white customers. Blacks had to silently wait until white customers had been served. Mom was an immigrant herself, and she and her family had fled the caste system that existed in Italy to one not unlike it in Mississippi. The only difference was she, as a white small business owner, had moved from peasant status to the lower rungs of middle class.
A clever businesswoman who never forgot her roots, she never pretended to be above blacks or look down on them. She understood the distinction between rich and poor but could never fathom why southern whites who didn’t have a dime had the right to look down on southern blacks who didn’t have a dime. Although she adhered to southern ways on the surface, she very much identified with blacks because she’d once been in similar circumstances.
If she detected need, especially children who were going without food, she would assist blacks to the best of her ability. She was sympathetic but knew they were proud. She could always find some work for them to do around the store to partially pay for her assistance.
Except for Dominic, who was also Italian, her suppliers were not her friends. She never paid top dollar and always drove the asking price down. She bought only what she expected would sell. If something didn’t sell, the supplier who sold it to her was asked to take it back.
When I graduated high school, I had no say-so as to my future. I was going to college. She decided I was too dumb and lazy to be a doctor or lawyer, but thought I might have enough brains to be a pharmacist. I never asked how she came to that conclusion. I just shut up and did as she said. Even if Papa had still been around I couldn’t have complained to him. He shut up and did what she told him to do, too. Mamma couldn’t tell him not to die, though, and one day he was stocking shelves and just keeled over. Never made a sound. He was dead before he hit the floor.
I saw a lot of that in the war I went to after his death. A guy would be just standing by a tree. I’d hear a pop and he’d simply collapse. I was in combat for nearly three years, and I’d tell my guys my rule to live by.
“Never stand if you can take a knee, and never take a knee if you can get prone.”
I was nineteen and had a year and a half of college when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I enlisted on the day after Christmas and was soon in basic. Halfway through basic, they pulled me out and sent me to OCS. Despite my mamma’s somewhat low estimate of my IQ, the Army apparently thought otherwise. They were desperate for officers, especially company grades like lieutenants and captains. I got a commission, and although I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to go, they sent me to paratrooper school.
Being raised by Mamma prepped me for Army life. I never argued, I just shut up and did as I was told. I suddenly found myself a first lieutenant and in charge of a company of paratroopers. One day a general walked in and said, “Make Delgretti a captain. First lieutenants don’t command companies.”
We were sent to North Africa and were among the first Americans to fight the Germans. We got our asses kicked at first, but once we accepted the fact we were probably going to be killed anyway, we stopped being scared and stood up to them. I just hoped that when my time came it would be quick. A shot to the head, complete darkness, and I wouldn’t even feel it when I hit the ground. That didn’t mean I was going to stand when I could take a knee, or take a knee when I could get prone.
We were of modest help to the Brits in throwing Rommel’s ass out of Africa and eliminating the threat to the Suez canal, but the shit really hit the fan when they sent us to Italy. We invaded Salerno first and then Anzio. We were mostly up against Germany’s best, their airborne brigades. They simply wouldn’t quit. Even though I went on to jump on D-Day and fight in the Battle of the Bulge, nothing was as bad as the combat we saw fighting our way up the Italian peninsula. I almost welcomed D-Day.
I’d been hit in North Africa. Nothing bad. Just a leg wound. Then I got hit again at Anzio. Again, no big deal. A shrapnel wound in the shoulder. I’d been lucky. Then, during the Battle of the Bulge, I violated my own rule. Some Germans were advancing on us. It was misty and snowing. Very hard to see. Instead of being patient and waiting, I stood up to see what was coming at us. No shot to the head and a painless death. I got gutshot. I hit the ground and I’ll never forget trying to reassemble my entrails and shove them back into my stomach.
A gutshot wound is usually fatal, but I got lucky. My guys threw the Germans back, but it was hours before they could attend to me, not that there was much they could do. Meanwhile the temperature had dropped to zero, and as miserable as that was, the intense cold stopped the bleeding and saved my life. The battle had been the German’s last gasp, and, as the weather cleared, they retreated. A lot of Americans would still lose their lives, but the war in Europe was drawing to a close.
They evacuated me, and as good luck would have it, a surgeon from the Mayo Clinic with superb operating skills happened to get me for a patient. He very patiently cut and stitched me back together again. A general toured the hospital and questioned me.
“You get hit in Africa, son?”
“You got hit at Anzio?”
“And you got hit again at Bastogne?”
The general turned to the Mayo surgeon who’d saved my life. “You get him well, Major, and then see to it this boy goes home. Three strikes, and you’re out of this game.”
It didn’t happen overnight. I required a few more procedures. They flew me to Andrews AFB and held me at Walter Reed for some final patchwork and rehab. Then it was a flight to New Orleans and a train ride home.
Mamma was waiting for me. “You fight any Italians?” she asked.
“You kill any?”
“Any of your cousins?” She didn’t smile, but I knew she was joking.
“One, I think.”
“How you know it was Antonio?”
“He looks like the picture Aunt Marie sent you.”
“Bugiardo,” she said, using the Italian word for liar. “That’s a picture of Mario.”
“My mistake, Mamma. All you Italians look alike.”
She shook her head as if I were stupido, but she was smiling now. I knew she’d worried about me and was glad to have me back. Not much had changed much during the three years I’d been away. She still dressed like the Contadina, or peasant, she still believed herself to be. Black stockings and black dresses, although she had white stockings and a white dress she wore to mass on Sunday. Her hair was as black as her stockings, and, although she was fifty, I could only see a spec or two of grey. She was still tall and slim and could have been a beautiful woman if she chose to be. Her food supplier, Dominic, or Nick as she called him, certainly thought so. He asked her to marry him on almost a weekly basis.
”La mia bella Sophia,” he’d say again and again.
It was great to be home, but Mamma had never heard of Rest and Recreation, or R & R, as we G.I.’s called it.
“What are you going to do now, Marco? Back to college?”
“I think so, Mamma.”
“Something exciting, where I get to shoot people. Maybe a private detective.”
Another shake of her head. “Pazzo,” she said, using the Italian word for crazy.
I grinned at her.
Yeah, college was in my future, but after three years of assuming I would very likely be dead the next day, I kind of looked forward to just looking forward to the next day. I joined the 52/20 club, which was part of the GI Bill they passed for us vets. I got $20 a week for fifty-two weeks as long as I signed a piece of paper periodically saying I’d been looking for a job.
I helped Mamma out around the store and went to the VFW occasionally to have a few beers and regale some of the old-timers with my adventures. I was one of the first to come back, and I got a lot of attention. The local paper even sent a reporter out to interview me. The reporter was a girl, a really good-looking one. Her name was Dani, short for Danielle. She was about my age and an Ole Miss grad, where she’d studied journalism. She was the opposite of me. I was Italian dark, with brown eyes and black hair. She was blonde with Carolina blue eyes. Her eyelashes were so long they almost needed trimming. I was tall and stocky. She was tall and slender like a magazine model. She noticed me noticing her and quickly let it be known she was engaged and not interested.
“I need a picture of you in your uniform. With all your medals, if possible.”
“Not possible. First thing I did was burn all my uniforms.”
“Don’t lie, Captain. I already talked to your mother. She’s pressing your uniform now.”
“Are you really engaged, or is that something you just tell guys?”
She dangled a finger with a ring on it. “Satisfied?”
“You call that a ring? It looks like something you bought at Woolworths.”
Her face turned a little red. Either from embarrassment or annoyance. Or maybe both. She took a deep breath and soldiered on. “Look, Captain, I know you haven’t been in civilization for three years and are trying to remember how to behave like a normal person, but ease up. I’m not on the market.”
Mamma appeared at that moment holding up my uniform. “Marco,” she commanded, “I got your uniform ready. Go put it on so Danielle can take your picture.”
I groaned and climbed out of the chair I’d been sitting in. Dani smiled at how quickly I’d responded to Mamma’s orders. She and Mamma exchanged one of those looks only women understand. I took the uniform and went to my bedroom. They give officers medals for practically anything in the Army, and I had a chest full of them.
I reappeared in my military finery and could tell Dani was impressed. She actually stood up and saluted. I grinned and returned it. “Got to teach you to salute properly,” I commented.
Mamma came up and straightened my tie, then stroked my coat. “There,” she said proudly, “Isn’t he handsome, Danielle? And all those medals?”
Dani turned that same color red again but said she agreed.
The lighting wasn’t too great inside, so Dani asked to take the picture outside. We walked out to Kellar and I stood on the crushed oyster shells with the side of the grocery store as my backdrop. She took four pictures, two with my service cap on and two without. She liked the ones with my service cap on better but said it would be her editor’s call. Back inside she asked me a lot of questions, mostly about what could I possibly have done to earn all the medals. She had to drag it out of me.
“Cooperate, Captain, or I’ll complain to your mother.”
I cooperated. She got her story. Mamma showed her out.
“Danielle gave me her phone number in case you have any questions,” Mamma smiled.
The paper came out the next day, and I was front-page news.
I thought about calling Dani but held off. I didn’t want to bother her if she really was engaged. I’d seen too many sad paratroopers reading Dear John letters. Only a low-life lower than me would hit on an engaged girl while her fiancé was off somewhere getting shot at. I hadn’t ruled it out, though. More thought, and perhaps a little investigation, and we’d see.
I was in the kitchen having my pre-breakfast coffee. It was almost noon.
Mamma walked in. “You still want to be a private detective?”
“Either that or a doctor or lawyer.”
“I’m serious, Marco. A real client is outside.”
“A black lady.”
“Remember Miss Grace?”
I did remember her. “The school teacher? She had twins my age, Luke and Matthew. We were good friends. We played basketball together out behind the high school until the cops caught us and beat up Luke and Matt. Last I heard they were at Grambling. Right?” I inquired.
“Correcta.” She loved to punctuate her near-perfect English with Italian declaratives.
“What’s Miss Grace’s problem?”
“I’ll let her tell you, but you should know Matthew was killed in the war.”
“Jesus, Mamma, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“You’ll try to help her?”
“If that’s what you want.”
Mamma returned with Miss Grace. A tall, distinguished-looking lady, Miss Grace was very light-skinned and could, if she’d cared to, pass for white. Originally from Bermuda, she had an accent totally unlike us southerners. She was principal of the separate but equal black high school. All the blacks called her Miss Grace, and even some of us whites, or at least those of us who found it difficult to look down on a beautiful lady with a Ph.D. in education. Smiling fondly at me, she stepped forward to give me a hug.
“Welcome home, Mark. I read about you in the newspaper. You were quite the hero. You’re as handsome as ever, except for your eyes. They’ve seen far too much for a man of twenty-three.”
I knew the look she was talking about. I’d seen it in other soldiers, but I didn’t realize I had it, too. “I was so sorry to hear about Matthew, Miss Grace. He was a good friend. I remember saying goodbye to Luke and him when they were leaving for Grambling. How did it happen?”
“You ever hear of the Tuskegee Airmen? They call them the Red Tails.”
“The all-black fighter pilot squadron? They flew P-51’s and escorted the B-17’s on bombing missions over Germany. Hell, yes, I’ve heard of them. They were famous where I was.”
“I’m happy to hear that. Matthew and Luke volunteered to join them. Mrs. Roosevelt personally advocated its creation of the Tuskegee Airmen. When Matthew and Luke finished their second year at Grambling, they applied, but were rejected. They wanted applicants with flying experience. So they went to a flying school and got their licenses. Then they practiced flying every day until they could meet the Red Tails’ requirements. The commanders knew an all-black squadron of fighter pilots was a test to prove black men could handle one of the toughest jobs in the military, and they were accepting only the best applicants.”
I offered her a seat and some coffee. She accepted the seat but declined the coffee.
“How’d they do?”
“They were two of the best, Matthew especially. He shot down six German planes. Luke told me that made him an ace. But Luke worried about his brother. He kept telling Matthew he took too many chances. Luke was right. Two German fighters had gotten in among the bombers one day and were causing a lot of damage. Matthew went after them. He got one, but the other one got him.”
“Maybe he parachuted out.”
She shook her head. “No, Luke said it was a big explosion. He didn’t have time.”
“Where’s Luke? Still flying?”
“He was, but then he got wounded. Wrecked his shoulder, and they gave him a medical discharge. He got a pension. He’s been back home a few months with me, now.”
“I’ll have to drop by and see him.”
“That’s why I’m here, Mark. Luke’s in jail.”
“Jail? For what?”
“He took a job over at Barq’s Root Beer. He was doing accounting and bookkeeping work. First black man they ever hired as a white-collar worker. Somebody broke in the plant one night and robbed the safe. Mister Roberts, the man Luke worked for, said that Luke had been in his office and had seen where he kept the combination to the safe. They searched Luke and found an envelope with $100.”
“How much was stolen?”
“They search your house?”
“Yes, but they didn’t find anything.”
“Miss Grace, I don’t know what Mamma told you, but I’m not a private detective.”
“I know, Mark, but you’re his friend and a town hero. People will listen to you.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start, Miss Grace.”
“You might start with the reporter who wrote about the robbery in the paper.”
“What’s his name?”
“It’s she. The same girl who wrote about you. Danielle Broussard.”
Fate? Wouldn’t know unless I called her. So I called her.
“I told you I was engaged, Captain.”
“To a local boy? What’s his name? I probably know him,” I asked, thinking to myself that if she hesitates, she’ll be lying.
She hesitated. Then, “He’s not from around here.”
“Is he in the service? Or is he 4-F?”
“Of course he’s not 4-F. He’s a Marine.”
I got a little worried. Maybe she was engaged. Good-looking girls like her didn’t lack for male attention, even in times of war when men were scarce. Somebody would’ve been after her for sure. She’d hesitated, though, so I pressed on. “Where is he now?”
I knew when I saw that cheap ring she’d been lying. She was a reporter, and she was good-looking and wanted to be taken seriously. A guy sees her, and the last thing he wants to do is answer a bunch of questions she’ll be asking. He’ll be thinking of questions to ask her. A ring signals that a claim on her has already been staked out. Hands off, pal. So she bought the ring herself. The only question I had was whether she’d bought it at Woolworth’s or Kress. So I asked her.
“Kress,” she admitted. “How’d you know?”
“The marines are in the Pacific. No marines in France.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Obviously. Non e problema. Not why I called anyway.”
“Why did you call?”
Did I detect a little disappointment? Hopefully, yes. If so, I could fix that. But business before flirting. I told her about Miss Grace asking me to look into her son’s dilemma.
“What can I do?”
“Get all your notes together and meet with me. Tell me everything you know.”
“The sooner the better. How about tonight?”
She was still living with her parents. They paid reporters shit in those days, especially girl reporters. They knew, or assumed, they’d only be there for a short time. They’d get married, and then they’d do what women were supposed to do. Stay home and take care of babies. They hadn’t heard the wake-up call WW II had made to women.
I met the parents. Dani got her good looks from her mom. Her dad had been a doughboy in The Great War and was anxious to swap war stories. Dani explained my visit was work-related and maybe we could do that some other time. They let us have the kitchen table, where Dani had strewn out everything she had with respect to Luke.
“Read my stories first, Captain. Then you can ask me questions.”
“No more captain stuff, Dani. Call me Mark.”
“Does that mean I shouldn’t salute you anymore?”
“Not sure I want to go that far. I kind of liked it. Shows deference to men.”
She was beautiful even when she frowned.
I read the original story, which was only a report of the robbery. Next some follow-ups on persons of interest and then the arrest of Luke, a twenty-three-year-old colored man. Finally, some comments from the chief of police, who took a few bows for the brilliance of his investigators, with assistance from him, of course. I was very impressed by Dani’s writing.
“Did you interview Luke?”
She shook her gorgeous head. “I asked, but they wouldn’t let me.”
“Figures. All they wanted you to say about him was that he was colored. As soon as the people around here read that, he’s guilty. Would’ve been nice if you could’ve said he was a fighter pilot with a shattered shoulder whose twin brother had been killed six months ago protecting white guys flying bombers over Germany. That might have created a little empathy.”
“I’m sorry, Mark. I didn’t know that. She looked a little wounded.
“It’s not your fault, Dani. They probably wouldn’t have let you put it in anyway.”
I went on to tell her everything I knew about Luke and Matthew and the Red Tails. She took notes, as I had suggested we might be able to create a little public sympathy if she wrote a story detailing what two local black kids had done for their country.
“I’ll write it now and show it to the editor tomorrow.”
“Great, but don’t show it to him until I ask you to. I want to talk to Luke first. The Luke I knew would never do anything like this. But war changes people. I want to be sure before we go out on a limb for him.”
I took her hand and squeezed it. “We’re a team, aren’t we?”
“I’ll go where the facts go, Mark. You’re the private detective.”
Nonetheless, she was writing the story as I left.
I put my uniform on and went to see Luke the next day. I knew it would be an unusual request, a white man, who wasn’t an attorney, wanting to see a black inmate. But I’d been pleasantly surprised since my return at the beguiling effect a uniform and medals had on people .
It sure worked on the sergeant at the desk. He was an older guy and was mainly interested in what my sundry medals represented and what it felt like to jump out of an airplane. I patiently explained what all the medals were for and told him I really didn’t know what it was like to jump out of a plane.
He gave me a puzzled look. “You’re a paratrooper, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I always had my eyes shut when I jumped.”
He laughed and asked me what he could do for me. I told him about Luke and got lucky.
“I heard about them Red Tails,” he said with a little awe.
“In the newspapers?”
“No, my youngest son. He’s in the Army Air Corps.”
“Where’s he stationed?”
“He a flyer?”
“No, thank God, just a mechanic, but he works on B-17’s. He wrote me that the pilots all raved about the Red Tails. Said they was some hard-nosed sons of bitches. Never said they was colored, though.”
“The guy you got in jail now, Luke Harris, was one of their best. He had a brother, his twin, who was killed going after a Messerschmitt ME-109 fighter six months ago. Luke got a medical discharge after he got his shoulder shot up. Came home and went to work for Barq’s.”
“You ain’t here then just to say hello, are you, Captain?”
“No, I’m not.”
“You don’t think he done it, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But he’s a colored. You know how they are.”
“Next time you write your son ask him if his pilots care what color a Red Tail pilot is.”
“Follow me, Captain. You gonna have to talk to him through the bars, though.”
“No problem, Sergeant.”
He led me past the white cells to the black cells. There were four blacks, including Luke, in the one he stopped at. I could see Luke lounging on a bunk in the rear. A toilet with no lid was in a corner. I could smell it from twenty feet away. I’d seen some dirty latrines, but this was one of the worst.
“Luke Harris,” the sergeant called. “Somebody here to see you.”
The blacks in the cell were studying me curiously.
“Hey, man, you a paratrooper?” one asked.
“Only when they kick my simple-ass out of the plane.”
They all laughed.
“What you get all them medals for? You kill Hitler or something?”
“Show a little respect, gentlemen,” Luke said, as he came walking up. “You’re talking to a captain in the U.S. Army.” He studied my ribbons. “Wow, a silver star. And what, you been shot three times? Didn’t anyone ever tell you to keep you head down, Mark?”
I laughed, as we shook hands through the bars.
“How you doing, Luke?”
He grinned and gestured around him. “Not too bad. Least I don’t get shot at in here.”
“Your mom came to see me. She told me about Matt. Really sorry to hear it. He was a great guy and a good friend. Heard you took a hit, too. How’s the shoulder?”
“Hurts. They were supposed to give me another operation. I was low on their list anyway, but I suspect after this I’ll never get it.” His brown eyes were friendly, but they had that weary look all us combat vets seemed to have. Miss Grace had noted it in mine. He had the air of a fighter pilot, though, cocky and sure of himself. Good-looking like his mamma.
“We’ll see about that. I’ll help you anyway I can, Luke, but first—”
“But first you got to ask me if I stole the money,” he interrupted.
“What would you do if I said I did?”
“I’d be very disappointed.”
“I swear on my brother I had nothing to do with it, Mark.”
“That’s good enough for me. Tell me what you know.”
His eyes took on a serious look, and he began to tell what had transpired. Dani had been thorough in her reporting and much of it I already knew. Not much help so far.
“Did you know where Mr. Roberts kept the combination?”
“I had a suspicion. I walked into his office one day just after the guard had brought up the day’s receipts. He was putting a card in the top right drawer of his desk. The safe was open, and the bag of money the guard had delivered was behind him. I remember thinking he was a little careless in how he handled money. None of my business, though. I just put some paperwork in his inbox and walked out.”
“Anything else? What was Mr. Roberts like? Decent guy?”
“Well, he wasn’t crazy about Barq’s hiring a black to work in the office. But the work was easy, and I think he was impressed with how easily I picked it up. He got annoyed with me once in a while when I made suggestions. He asked me once if I was bucking for his job.”
“What’d you say?”
“I just laughed.”
“What about the envelope of money they found on you?”
“That’s easy to explain. It was in a bank envelope. I’d gone to the bank at lunchtime to make a withdrawal. They saying it was part of the stolen money?”
“Sure are, but I think you just took it off the table. Anything else?
Luke thought for a few seconds. “Only thing I can think of is Mister Roberts was crazy for a new car. He’d heard that Ford was starting to take orders for new cars. He wanted to make sure he got his order in.”
It was April of 1945. FDR was dead, and the war, at least in Europe, was effectively over. Ford knew it and was already looking to its post-war future. I’d heard about their early-order plan. They wanted $500 up front to get on the list, then another $500 when the car was delivered. I had over $2,000 in mustering-out pay and had been thinking about putting my name on the list. Mamma didn’t have a car, and I was getting tired of hoofing it or taking a bus.
“So, what do you think, Mark?”
“I got a couple of ideas. I’ll try them out first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll get the best lawyer I can find. It all sounds circumstantial to me. Bet half the office knew where Roberts kept the combination.”
We talked some more, and he told me something that really pissed me off. The Air Corps brass fought against letting black fighter pilots fly combat missions, and, when they finally agreed to do so, required them to fly seventy combat missions before they could go home. White fighter pilots only had to fly fifty. Matthew had been killed on his 53rd mission. Luke was hit on his 68th. Where the fuck did all this prejudice come from?
I got a list of things he needed.
“See you later, Luke.”
“Glad you made it back okay, Mark.”
The Ford dealership was just down the road. I stopped in, ostensibly to ask about signing up for future delivery, but I had another reason.
“Might be six months or a year away before they come rolling off the line,” the manager advised me, “but they’re coming. People are tired of driving their old clunkers around. Sure be nice to start selling cars again instead of repairing them.”
“List getting long?”
“More so in the big cities, but things are starting to pick up around here. Had a few sign up recently, as a matter of fact.”
“Bet I know who one of them was.”
“A friend of mine, George Roberts. Works over at Barq’s. Said he was thinking about it.”
“Yeah, he got on the list.”
“I get to pick a color if I sign up?”
He laughed. “You got three choices. Black, black, and black.”
“No exceptions for returning war heroes?” I gestured to my medals.
“Well, I could ask. What color you after?”
“Light blue, and I want a convertible with a white top.”
“Sign up, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’ll drop by tomorrow.”
“Read about you in the paper, Captain. What’s it like to jump out of an airplane?”
I gave him my standard eyes-shut answer.
I was waiting for Dani when she came out of The Daily Herald building.
“Come on, Beautiful. I’ll buy you a Coke.”
She had her story about Luke. She let me read it.
“Great job, Dani, but I’ve got a few headlines for you.”
She took out a note pad and sat pretty and poised, pen at the ready.
“Here’s your headline. Thrice-Wounded Vet Complains of Treatment of Fellow Vet. A Rush to Judgment Captain Marco Delvetti Claims in Daily Herald Interview.”
Her beautiful blues opened a little wide. “And is the captain so claiming?”
“Sure is. This is our way to get the story published. And, when it’s published and the public sees they’ve been dumping on a war hero, albeit he’s black, it will at least make them think twice. What do you think, Gorgeous?”
She gave me a disapproving look. “I think you shouldn’t address girls you just met as Beautiful and Gorgeous. My name’s Dani.”
“Just met? This is our second date.”
“A ten-cent Coke is a date?”
“How about I take you to dinner at the Officer’s Club at Keesler AFB tonight? I heard through the grapevine that they might even have steaks for a returning hero and his girlfriend. Your ration book had any room for a steak lately?”
“Steak,” I reminded her.
“For a steak, I’ll be your girlfriend. But it’s just for the night.”
My claiming foul with respect to a black created some pushback in town. While most of it was bad and tarnished my hero image, I did get a call from the district attorney prosecuting the case. His name was Eugene Guice. He was in his fifties and had been the district attorney for as long as I could remember. He sounded agitated.
“What’s this about the money they found on him was in a People’s Bank envelope?”
“The truth,” I replied.
“Since when does a colored have an account at a white bank?”
“Since he opened one with his mustering-out pay.”
“Well, I’m going to have to verify that.”
“Do that, Mr. Guice. And while you’re at it find out how many other people at Barq’s knew George Roberts couldn’t remember the combination to the safe and kept it on a card in the top right-hand drawer of his desk. And did you know old George just forked over a $500 deposit on a new Ford that won’t be delivered for six months? Might be a good idea to ask him where he got that much money. That’s a lot of root beer.”
“You saying Roberts stole the money?”
“I’m just throwing out some questions you should be asking. I heard a lot of good things about you, Mr. Guice. One was you were a hard-nosed prosecutor, and another was you’re also a very fair man.” I’d heard he was hard-nosed all right, but the latter was a flat-out lie. He was Judge Roy Bean as far as black people were concerned.
“I try to be fair, but a colored man,” he said in his raspy, courtroom voice, “veteran or not, stealing from one of the town’s biggest employers is something that can’t be tolerated. I don’t know why Barq’s ever hired him in the first place. It’s okay for coloreds to work on the trucks and all, but in the front office with a white professional? Never heard of such a thing.”
A dumb-ass white man who couldn’t remember the combination to his fucking safe didn’t sound very professional to me. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “But it’s okay for them to fly fighter planes and protect white bomber pilots?”
“That’s up to the Air Corps. From what I hear they were forced to let coloreds do it by that damned Elanor Roosevelt. Hell, she likes coloreds better than whites.”
“You do know Luke Harris’ twin brother was killed protecting white fliers?”
“I know that’s what you been going around town saying, but I don’t know that. And even if it’s true it’s not pertinent to what he’s been charged with.”
He was getting a little heated up. That wasn’t going to help. Time to calm him down a little. “You’re right, Mr. Guice. It’s not. But I do respectfully suggest that you verify the colored man you charged does have a bank account and that that money y’all found on him was money he’d withdrawn from it. Maybe if you paid your cops more they could open up a bank account of their own and would know what a bank envelope looked like. And unless you’ve got a witness who saw Luke Harris taking the money out of the safe, I don’t think you’ve got enough evidence to prove he did shit.”
“We’ll see about that in court. The war sure changed you, Delgretti. Never thought I’d hear a local white boy taking up for a colored man.” I could just picture him shaking his head disapprovingly.
“I have changed, Mr. Guice. But my war’s just about over. You’re still fighting yours.”
“The one you lost eighty years ago. Or have you forgotten all about Appomattox?”
Click. The son-of-a-bitch hung up on me. Hell of a way to treat a war hero.
Time for another Dani exclusive.
“You want me to repeat everything Mr. Guice said to you?”
“Word for word. And here’s your headline. Biloxi War Hero Advises Daily Herald of Phone Call with DA Guice. Money Found on Suspect Was in Bank Envelope.”
“You’re not going to be very popular around here.”
“Might get you a Pulitzer, Dani.”
“I’d settle for another steak.”
“Is that all I am to you, a provider of steaks?”
My hero vet status was waning but still good enough for her paper to print my latest revelations, although they insisted Dani check with the bank and ask DA Guice for a comment. The bank knew who the power brokers were in town and gave her a song and dance about revealing information about its depositors. She persisted, and they did confirm that Luke Harris had an account there. Nothing else, though. The DA admitted he’d talked with me but declined to comment on an on-going investigation.
I wanted to take Dani out again, but Mamma thought it unwise for the two of us to be in public together. Dani had to be seen as an objective reporter simply following up on a story. Sage advice. She did ask Dani over for dinner, though. No steak, but no one could make spaghetti and meatballs like la mia bella mamma. I was invited, too.
I hadn’t hired a lawyer for Luke yet. I hoped I wouldn’t have to. I had my mustering-out pay. Didn’t have much occasion to spend money where I’d been, and I was prepared to use it all on Luke if I had to. I went down to the jail and inquired about bailing him out until his trial.
They were shocked. I think Luke was the first black man in town history to be bailed out of jail by a white man. The good news was the bail was only $250. The bad news was that if he were convicted he’d be looking at five to ten years in Parchman, the second worst prison in the country. The worst was Angola in neighboring Louisiana. We white southerners had so many things to be proud of.
I didn’t intend to let it get that far, though. If I saw things going really south for Luke, no pun intended, I’d forfeit the money and encourage him to skip bail. Bermuda sounded good.
While I was paying for Luke’s bail-out, I asked about the blacks in the cell with him. They were charged with misdemeanor crap like drinking or getting into fights. The sergeant told me the Judge would probably fine them $25 when they showed up for their hearings. If they didn’t have $25, he’d sentence them to ninety days on the road gang.
For lack of $25, a colored would have to work ninety days on a road gang? That sounded a bit harsh to me for just blowing off a little steam on Saturday night. I knew they didn’t have the money to pay their fines. Otherwise they’d have been long gone. So, I paid their fines and got them a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I tend to like guys who laugh at my lame-ass jokes.
Our next step was for Dani to interview Luke.
I needed to vet him first. “Be modest,” I suggested, “but make sure you say things like It was a privilege to fight for my country. And kind of casually mention your brother was an Ace and you were working on number five yourself when you got shot down. Say positive things about Barq’s hiring you, and no, you don’t think it was Mister Roberts who stole the money. You don’t know who did, but you’re convinced it wasn’t someone from Barq’s.”
He kind of shook his head. “Momma’s thinking about getting the NAACP involved, Mark, maybe even appealing to Mrs. Roosevelt.”
“Not a good idea. I know this town, Luke. They’d only dig their heels in. But they’re not gullible either. I personally think Mister Roberts cooked this whole thing up so he could get himself a new Ford car down the road. That might occur to some other folks, too, folks who’d like a new Ford themselves, but don’t happen to have $500 lying around to plunk down on it and another $500 to pay for it when it’s finally delivered.. You need to get these people on your side.”
Luke smiled. “You outrank me, so I guess I’ve got to do what you say.”
He came through like a champ with Dani, driving home all the points I’d hoped he would. He was a Hollywood handsome guy, and Dani took some good pictures of him to accompany her story. She included a snapshot of Matthew and his Distinguished Flying Cross citation.
I was so proud of Luke and Matthew.
The AP and the New Orleans and Mobile papers had been picking up snippets of the story. But when Dani did such a terrific job on the interview and made it so emotionally compelling, the story went viral. Papers all over the country, including The New York Times, jumped on it.
Barq’s got a lot of credit for hiring a black professional, and no criticism had fallen on them. Most of the heat came down on the police for a botched investigation and then good old DA Guice for not holding their feet to the fire. It was possible for Guice to salvage whatever credibility he had left if he did the right thing and reopened the investigation. He did eventually, but started slowly. He started the bidding with a traditional prosecution gimmick, a plea deal.
He offered Luke six months in the county jail if he pleaded guilty.
Luke said no.
Then it was a suspended sentence if he pleaded guilty.
Luke said no again.
This was all reported nationally now, and Guice was really starting to get heat. I heard one report, but never could get it confirmed, that President Truman himself had called the Governor of Mississippi and said President Roosevelt’s widow was beating him over the head with the story, and he wanted Luke exonerated so he could attend to more important national matters. Still Guice and the police hesitated. Rebel pride. They just couldn’t admit they’d made a mistake. Completely exonerate a colored man? Unheard of.
Then the improbable happened. The pressure of reporters hounding George Roberts night and day broke him down, and he confessed. He was able to get the $500 back from Ford, and he’d spent very little of the rest. So, he made full restitution, and Barq’s, at the behest of DA Guice, agreed to drop all charges. Roberts was fired but would do no time. Guice, although he conceded it hadn’t been one of the police Department’s finest hours, chastised the federal government and the liberal media for not letting Mississippi do the job he and his police officers were sworn to do. Preserve the Confederacy. All the charges against Luke were dropped, and my $250 in bail money was returned to me.
Luke and Miss Grace knew they would be persona non grata in town after that. She retired and she and Luke moved to Bermuda. I heard from him regularly, and he had a job with an airline that flew people back and forth to Miami. After the Nazi Luftwaffe, the Bermuda Triangle didn’t scare him a bit.
Mamma told me she’d decided to finally say yes to Nick, her persistent suitor. As I was the man of the family he came to me to sanction the wedding. I was happy for her, but I felt I should give Nick fair warning.
“Mamma’s not going to be an obedient little casalinga like you knew back in Italy who fills your wineglass every night and makes sure the spaghetti’s el dente,” I cautioned him. “And she won’t let you eat Sunday dinner in your undershirt.”
“I know, Marco, I know. I have great respect for her. La mia bella Sophia.”
“He’s afraid of you,” Mamma told me later. “I told him you killed a lot of Italians.”
Dani was nominated for a Pulitzer. Alas, she didn’t win. She got a consolation prize though, a big one. The New York Times offered her a job.
We’d gone out a few times publicly, and there was rumor of our affiliation and perhaps more. The perhaps more was conducted discreetly, given our mutual unpopularity as a result of our efforts on behalf of the NAACP. That’s how much of the town viewed it anyway.
Dani hadn’t fooled me. I knew she liked me from the start. Italian men know.
When she hesitated about taking the job, I asked her why.
“I think you know why, Mark.”
I played dumb. “You’ll never get another offer like that again. Dani. The Times recognized your skill as a reporter and is giving you a chance to climb to the top of your profession. I think you’ve got a great future ahead of you. You’d be crazy not to take it. Now wire them you’re on your way and start packing.”
I’m a good poker player, and I revealed no emotion as she studied my eyes, searching to find what she hoped I might be hiding. Her eyes grew soft as she fought back tears. “You really mean that? You want me to go?”
I was waiting for her at the train station. I helped her check her bags, and we sat on the bench until the train arrived. She was crying. We held hands as we walked to the train.
“I’ll help you get settled in on the train, Sweetheart.”
We found a vacant seat, and I sat down with her. The tears were still flowing. I’d given her my handkerchief long ago. It was so wet a rainbow had formed over it.
“Do you love me?”
“That’s a silly question. Of course, I do. More than anything in the world.”
She gave me an exasperated look. “Then how the hell can you let me go?”
The tears stopped as if a floodgate had been shut. “What the hell do you mean?”
I pulled out a train ticket from my coat. “Because I’m going with you.”
He eyes opened wide as a pair of Carolina-blue saucers. “But—”
I shushed her and reached into another pocket and extracted a ring box. I opened it and kneeled on the train floor. “Dani, light of my life, will you marry me?”
“Yes, yes, of course, I will. But why did you wait so damned long to propose?”
“Because I was afraid you’d feel like you had to stay in town and then you’d always wonder what the hell would’ve happened if you’d gone to New York. Now, we’ll find out.”
“What are you going to do in New York?”
“Go back to college on the GI Bill, be a pharmacist, a doctor, or a lawyer. Maybe even a private detective. We’ll see. Meanwhile you can be Brenda Starr, girl reporter.”
“You son of a bitch, I should strangle you.”
“Put the ring on and be quiet.”
”Is this from Kress?”
She put it on and admired it. “ It even has a fake diamond. Bet it cost at least $20.”
“You’d win that bet. There is, however, one little problem you should be aware of.”
“These aren’t our seats. I changed everything to Pullman.”
“That’s great news. I can’t sleep sitting down anyway. What’s the problem?”
“The honeymoon will precede the wedding ceremony. Capisce, la mia bella Dani?”
She smiled knowingly. “Non e problema il mio bel Marco.”
“You’ve been hanging around my mamma too much.”
She rose and gave me a long kiss. “Let’s go check out our accommodations.”
I was trained to shut up and do as I was told.