Clarence Potter walked through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, like a man caught in a city occupied by the enemy. That was exactly how he felt. It was March 5, 1934—a Monday. The day before, Jake Featherston of the Freedom Party had taken the oath of office as president of the Confederate States of America.
“I’ve known that son of a bitch was a son of a bitch longer than anybody,” Potter muttered. He was a tall, well-made man in his late forties, whose spectacles made him look milder than he really was. Behind those lenses—these days, to his disgust, bifocals—his gray eyes were hard and cold and watchful.
He’d first met Featherston when they both served in the Army of Northern Virginia, himself as an intelligence officer and the future president of the CSA as an artillery sergeant in the First Richmond Howitzers. He’d seen even then that Featherston was an angry, embittered man.
Jake had had plenty to be bitter about, too; his service rated promotion to officer’s rank, but he hadn’t got it. He’d been right in saying his superior, Captain Jeb Stuart III, had had a Negro body servant who was also a Red rebel. After the revolt broke out, Stuart had let himself be killed in battle rather than face a court-martial for protecting the black man. His father, General Jeb Stuart, Jr., was a power in the War Department. He’d made sure Featherston never saw a promotion for the rest of the war.
You got your revenge on him, Potter thought, and now he’s getting his—on the whole country.
He turned the corner onto Montague Street, a boulevard of expensive shops. A lot of them had flags flying to celebrate yesterday’s inauguration. Most of those that did flew not only the Stars and Bars but also the Freedom Party flag, a Confederate battle flag with colors reversed: a star-belted red St. Andrew’s cross on a blue field. Few people wanted to risk the Party’s wrath. Freedom Party stalwarts had broken plenty of heads in their fifteen-year drive to power. What would they do now that they had it?
The fellow who ran Donovan’s Luggage—presumably Donovan—was finding out the hard way. He stood on the sidewalk, arguing with a couple of beefy young men in white shirts and butternut trousers: Party stalwarts, sure enough.
“What’s the matter with you, you sack of shit?” one of them yelled. “Don’t you love your country?”
“I can show how I love it any way I please,” Donovan answered. That took guts, since he was small and skinny and close to sixty, and faced two men half his age, each carrying a long, stout bludgeon.
One of them brandished his club. “You don’t show it the right way, we’ll knock your teeth down your stinking throat.”
A gray-uniformed policeman strolled up the street. “Officer!” the man from the luggage shop called, holding out his hands in appeal.
But he got no help from the cop. The fellow wore an enamelwork Party flag pin on his left lapel. He nodded to the stalwarts, said, “Freedom!” and went on his way.
“You see, you dumb bastard?” said the stalwart with the upraised club. “This is how things are. You better go along, or you’ll be real sorry. Now, are you gonna buy yourself a flag and put it up, or are you gonna be real sorry?”
Clarence Potter trotted across Montague Street, dodging past a couple of Fords from the United States and a Confederate-built Birmingham. “Why don’t you boys pick on somebody your own size?” he said pleasantly, stowing his glasses in the inside pocket of his tweed jacket. He’d had a couple of pairs broken in brawls before the election. He didn’t want to lose another.
The stalwarts stared as if he’d flown down from Mars. Finally, one of them said, “Why don’t you keep your nose out of other people’s business, buddy? You won’t get it busted that way.”
In normal times, in civilized times, a swarm of people would have gathered to back Potter against the ruffians. But they were ruffians whose party had just won the election. He stood alone with Donovan. Other men on the street hurried by with heads down and eyes averted. Whatever happened, they wanted no part of it.
When Potter showed no sign of disappearing, the second ruffian raised his club, too. “All right, asshole, you asked for it, and I’m gonna give it to you,” he said.
He and his friend were bruisers. Potter didn’t doubt they were brave enough. During the presidential campaign, they’d have tangled with tougher foes than an aging man who ran a luggage store. But they knew only what bruisers knew. They weren’t old enough to have fought in the war.
He had. He’d learned from experts. Without warning, without tipping off what he was going to do by glance or waste motion, he lashed out and kicked the closer one in the crotch. The other one shouted and swung his bludgeon. It hissed over Potter’s head. He hit the stalwart in the pit of the stomach. Wind knocked out of him, the man folded up like his friend. The only difference was, he clutched a different part of himself.
Potter didn’t believe in wasting a fair fight on Freedom Party men. They wouldn’t have done it for him. He kicked each of them in the face. One still had a little fight left, and tried to grab his leg. He stomped on the fellow’s hand. Finger bones crunched under his sole. The stalwart howled like a wolf. Potter kicked him in the face again, for good measure.
Then he picked up his fedora, which had fallen off in the fight, and put it back on his head. He took his spectacles out of the inside pocket. The world regained sharp edges when he set them on his nose again.
He tipped the fedora to Donovan, who stared at him out of enormous eyes. “You ought to sweep this garbage into the gutter,” he said, pointing to the Freedom Party men. The one he’d kicked twice lay still. His nose would never be the same. The other one writhed and moaned and held on to him- self in a way that would have been obscene if it weren’t so obviously filled with pain.
“Who the dickens are you?” Donovan had to try twice before any words came out.
“You don’t need to know that.” Serving in Intelligence had taught Potter not to say more than he had to. You never could tell when opening your big mouth would come back to haunt you. Working as a private investigator, which he’d done since the war, only drove the lesson home.
“But . . .” The older man still gaped. “You handled them punks like they was nothing.”
“They are nothing, the worst kind of nothing.” Potter touched the brim of his hat again. “See you.” He walked off at a brisk pace. That cop was liable to come back. Even if he didn’t, more stalwarts might come along. A lot of them carried pistols. Potter had one, too, but he didn’t want anything to do with a shootout. You couldn’t hope to outsmart a bullet.
He turned several corners in quick succession, going right or left at random. After five minutes or so, he decided he was out of trouble and slowed down to look around and see where he was. Going a few blocks had taken him several rungs down the social ladder. This was a neighborhood of saloons and secondhand shops, of grocery stores with torn screen doors and blocks of flats that had been nice places back around the turn of the century.
It was also a neighborhood where Freedom Party flags flew without urging or coercion from anybody. This was the sort of neighborhood stalwarts came from; the Party offered them an escape from the despair and uselessness that might otherwise eat their lives. It was, in Clarence Potter’s considered opinion, a neighborhood full of damn fools.
He left in a hurry, making his way east toward the harbor. He was supposed to meet a police detective there; the fellow had news about warehouse pilferage he would pass on—for a price. Potter had also fed him a thing or two over the years; such balances, useful to both sides, had a way of evening out.
“Clarence!” The shout made Potter stop and turn back.
“Jack Delamotte!” he exclaimed in pleasure all the greater for being so unexpected. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in years. I wondered if you were dead. What have you been doing with yourself?”
Delamotte hurried up the street toward him, his hand outstretched and a broad smile on his face. He was a big, blond, good-looking man of about Potter’s age. His belly was bigger now, and his hair grayer and thinner at the temples than it had been when he and Potter hung around together. “Not too much,” he answered. “I’m in the textile business these days. Got married six years ago—no, seven now. Betsy and I have a boy and a girl. How about you?”
“Still single,” Potter said with a shrug. “Still poking my nose into other people’s affairs—sometimes literally. I don’t change a whole lot. If you’re . . .” His voice trailed off. Delamotte wore a handsome checked suit. On his left lapel, a Freedom Party pin shone in the sunlight. “I didn’t expect you of all people to go over to the other side, Jack. You used to cuss out Jake Featherston just as much as I did.”
“If you don’t bend with the breeze, it’ll break you.” Delamotte shrugged, too. “They’ve been coming up for a long time, and now they’re in. Shall I pretend the Whigs won the election?” He snorted. “Not likely!”
Put that way, it sounded reasonable enough. Potter said, “I just saw a couple of Freedom Party stalwarts getting ready to beat up a shopkeeper because he didn’t want to fly their flag. How do you like that?” He kept quiet about what he’d done to the stalwarts.
“Can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” Delamotte answered. “I really do think they’ll put us back on our feet. Nobody else will. . . . Where are you going? I want to get your address, talk about old times.”
“I’m in the phone book,” said Potter, who wasn’t. “Sorry, Jack. I’m late.” He hurried away, hoping Delamotte wouldn’t trot after him. To his vast relief, the other man didn’t. Clarence wanted to puke. His friend—no, his former friend—no doubt thought of himself as a practical man. Potter thought of him, and of all the other “practical” men sucking up to Featherston’s pals now that they were in power, as a pack of sons of bitches.
He met the detective in a harborside saloon where sailors with a dozen different accents got drunk as fast as they could. Caldwell Tubbs was a roly-poly little man with the coldest black eyes Potter had ever seen. “Jesus Christ, I shouldn’t even be here,” he said when Potter sat down on a stool beside him. “I can’t tell you nothin’. Worth my ass if I do.”
He’d sung that song before. Potter showed him some brown banknotes—cautiously, so nobody else saw them. “I can be persuasive,” he murmured, as if trying to seduce a pretty girl and not an ugly cop.
But Tubbs shook his head. “Not even for that.”
“What?” Now Potter was genuinely astonished. “Why not, goddammit?”
“On account of it’s worth my badge if I even get caught talkin’ to you, that’s why. This is good-bye, buddy, and I mean it. You try to get hold of me from now on, I never heard of you. You’re on a list, Potter, and it’s the shit list. I were you, I’d cut my throat now, save everybody else the trouble.” He jammed his hat back onto his bald head and waddled out of the saloon.
Clarence Potter stared after him. He knew the Freedom Party knew how hard he’d fought it, and for how long. And he knew the Party was taking its revenge on opponents. But he’d never expected it to be so fast, or so thorough. He ordered a whiskey, wondering how he’d crack that pilferage case now.
After a lifetime of living in Toledo, Chester Martin remained disbelieving despite several months in Los Angeles. It wasn’t just the weather, though that helped a lot. He and Rita had gone through a winter without snow. They’d gone through a winter where they hardly ever needed anything heavier than a sweater, and where they’d stayed in shirtsleeves half the time.
But that was only part of it. Toledo was what it was. It had been what it was for all of Chester’s forty-odd years, and for fifteen or twenty years before that. It would go right on being the same old thing, too.
Not Los Angeles. This place was in a constant process of becoming. Before the war, it hadn’t been anything much. But a new aqueduct and the rise of motion pictures and a good port had brought people flooding in. The people who worked in the cinema and at the port and in the factories the aqueduct permitted needed places to live and people to sell them things. More people came in to build them houses and sell them groceries and autos and bookcases and washing machines. Then they needed . . .
Chester had to walk close to half a mile to get to the nearest trolley stop. He didn’t like that, though it was less inconvenient here than it would have been in a Toledo blizzard. He could see why things worked as they did, though. Los Angeles sprawled in a way no Eastern city did. The trolley grid had to be either coarse or enormously expensive. Nobody seemed willing to pay for a tight grid, so people made do with a coarse one.
A mockingbird sang up in a palm tree. Martin blew a smoke ring at it. It flew away, white wing bars flashing. A jay on a rooftop jeered. It wasn’t a blue jay like the ones he’d always known; it had no crest, and its feathers were a paler blue. People called the birds scrub jays. They were as curious and clever as any jays he’d known back East. A hummingbird with a bright red head hung in midair, scolding the jay: chip-chip-chip. Hummingbirds lived here all year round. If that didn’t make a place seem tropical, what did?
Hurrying on toward the trolley stop, Martin ground out the cigarette with his shoe. A motion caught from the corner of his eye made him turn his head and look back over his shoulder. A man in filthy, shabby clothes had darted out from a doorway to cadge the butt. Things might be better here than they were a lot of places, but that didn’t make them perfect, or even very good.
Some of the eight or ten people waiting at the trolley stop were going to work. Some were looking for work. Chester didn’t know how he could tell who was who, but he thought he could. A couple, like him, carried tool chests. The others? Something in the way they stood, something in their eyes . . . He knew how an unemployed man stood. He’d spent months out of work after the steel mill let him go, and he was one of the lucky ones. More than a few people had been looking for a job since 1929.
The trolley clanged up. It was painted a sunny yellow, unlike the dull green ones he’d ridden in Toledo. By the way they looked, they might almost have been Army issue. Not this one. When you got on an L.A. trolley, you felt you were going in style. His nickel and two pennies rattled into the fare box. “Transfer, please,” he said, and the trolleyman gave him a long, narrow strip of paper with printing on it. He stuck it in the breast pocket of his overalls.
He rode the trolley south down Central to Mahan Avenue, then used the transfer to board another for the trip west to a suburb called Gardena. Like a lot of Los Angeles suburbs, it was half a farming town. Fig orchards and plots of strawberries and the inevitable orange trees alternated with blocks of houses. He got off at Western, then went south to 147th Street on shank’s mare.
Houses were going up there, in what had been a fig orchard. The fig trees had been knocked down in a tearing hurry. Chester suspected more than a few of them would come up again, and their roots would get into pipes and keep plumbers away from soup kitchens for years to come. That wasn’t his worry. Getting the houses up was.
He waved to his foreman. “Morning, Mordechai.”
“Morning, Chester.” The foreman waved back. It was an odd wave; he’d lost a couple of fingers from his right hand in a childhood farm accident. But he could do more with tools with three fingers than most men could with five. He’d spent years in the Navy before returning to the civilian world. He had to be close to sixty now, but he had the vigor of a much younger man.
“Hey, Joe. Morning, Fred. What’s up, José? How are you, Virgil?” Martin nodded to the other builders, who were just getting started on the day’s work.
“How’s it going, Chester?” Fred said, and then, “Look out—here comes Dushan. Get busy quick, so he can’t suck you into a card game.”
“What do you say, Dushan?” Chester called.
Dushan nodded back. “How you is?” he said in throatily accented English. He came from some Slavic corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; his last name consisted almost entirely of consonants. And Fred’s warning was the straight goods. Dushan made only a so-so builder (he liked the sauce more than he might have, and didn’t bother keeping it a secret), but what he couldn’t persuade a deck of cards to do, nobody could. Chester would have bet he picked up more money gambling than he did with a hammer and saw and screwdriver.
“Come on, boys. Enough jibber-jabber,” Mordechai said. “Time to earn what they pay us.”
He wasn’t the kind of foreman who sat on his hind end drinking coffee and yelling at people who did stuff he didn’t like. He worked as hard as any of the men he bossed—probably harder. If you couldn’t work for Mordechai, you probably couldn’t work for anybody.
Nailing rafters to the ridgepole, Chester turned to José, who was doing the same thing on the other side. “You know what Mordechai reminds me of?” he said.
“Tell me,” José said. His English was only a little better than Dushan’s. He’d been born in Baja California, down in the Empire of Mexico, and had come north looking for work sometime in the 1920s. Chester didn’t know whether he’d bothered with legal formalities. Either way, he’d managed to keep eating after things fell apart in ’29.
“You fight in the war?” Martin asked him.
“Oh, sí,” he answered, and laughed a little. “Not on the same side as you, I don’t think.”
“Doesn’t matter, not for this. Had to be the same on both sides. If you had a good lieutenant or captain, one who said, ‘Follow me!’—hell, you could do damn near anything. If you had the other kind . . .” Martin jabbed his right thumb down toward the ground. “Mordechai’s like one of those good officers. He works like a son of a bitch himself, and you don’t want to let him down.”
The other builder thought about that for a little while, then nodded. “Es verdad,” he said, and then, “You right.” He laughed again. “And now we talk, and we don’t do no work.”
“Nobody works all the damn time,” Chester said, but he started driving nails again. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to let Mordechai down. He didn’t want to get in trouble, either. Plenty of men wanted the job he had. He was every bit as much a part of the urban proletariat here as he had been at the steel mill back in Toledo.
After a couple of nails went in, he shook his head. He was more a part of the proletariat here than he had been in Toledo. The steel mill was a union shop; he’d been part of the bloody strikes after the war that made it one. No such thing as a construction union here. If the bosses didn’t like anything about you, you were history. Ancient history.
We ought to do something about that, he thought, and suddenly regretted voting Democratic instead of Socialist in the last election. He held the next nail to the board, tapped it two or three times to seat it firmly, and drove it home. Another election was coming up in a little more than six months. He could always go back to the Socialists.
Rita had packed him a ham sandwich, some homemade oatmeal cookies, and an apple in his dinner pail. Sure as hell, Dushan riffled a deck of cards at lunch. Sure as hell, he found some suckers to play against him. Chester shook his head when Dushan looked his way. He knew when he was fighting out of his weight. Two lessons had been plenty for him. If he’d had any real sense, one should have done the job.
“Back to it,” Mordechai said after a precise half hour. Again, he was the first one going up a ladder.
At the end of the day, all the workers from the whole tract lined up to get their pay in cash. A fellow with a .45 stood behind the paymaster’s table to discourage redistribution of the wealth. The paymaster handed Chester four heavy silver dollars. They gave his overalls a nice, solid weight when he stuck them in his pocket. Cartwheels were in much more common use out here than they had been back East.
He walked to the trolley stop, paid his fare and collected a transfer, and made the return trip to the little house he and Rita were renting east of downtown. The neighborhood was full of Eastern European Jews, with a few Mexicans like José for leavening.
On his way back to the house, a skinny fellow about his age wearing an old green-gray Army trenchcoat coming apart at the seams held out a dirty hand and said, “Spare a dime, pal?”
Chester had rarely done that before losing his own job in Toledo. Now he understood how the other half lived. And, now that he was working again, he had dimes in his pocket he could actually spare. “Here you go, buddy,” he said, and gave the skinny man one. “You know carpentry? They’re hiring builders down in Gardena.”
“I can drive a nail. I can saw a board,” the other fellow answered.
“I couldn’t do much more than that when I started,” Martin answered.
“Maybe I’ll get down there,” the skinny man said.
“Good luck.” Chester went on his way. He’d keep his eye open the next couple of days, see if this fellow showed up and tried to land a job. If he didn’t, Martin was damned if he’d give him another handout. Plenty of people were down on their luck, yes. But if you didn’t try to get back on your feet, you were holding yourself down, too.
“Hello, sweetheart!” Chester called. “What smells good?”
“Pot roast,” Rita answered. She came out of the kitchen to give him a kiss. She was a pretty brunette—prettier these days, Chester thought, because she’d quit bobbing her hair and let it grow out—who carried a few extra pounds around the hips. She went on, “Sure is good to be able to afford meat more often.”
“I know.” Chester put a hand in his pocket. The silver dollars and his other change clanked sweetly. “We’ll be able to send my father another money order before long.” Stephen Douglas Martin had lent Chester and Rita the money to come to California, even though he’d lost his job at the steel mill, too. Chester was paying him back a little at a time. It wasn’t a patch on all the help his father had given him when he was out of work, but it was what he could do.
“One day at a time,” Rita said, and Chester nodded.