All the guy wanted was a twenty-cent stamp. That's all he wanted, but when he slid his dollar bill across the post office counter at 34th Street in Manhattan, the diamond in the gold ring on his finger was so huge that postal clerk Hector Negron wanted to see whom the finger was connected to. Hector normally never looked at the faces of customers. In thirty years of working behind the window at the post office, he could think of maybe three customers whose faces he could actually remember, and two of them were relatives. One was his sister, whom he hadn't talked to in fourteen years. The other was his cousin from San Juan, who had been his first-grade teacher. Besides those two, the rest didn't count. They melded into the millions of New York schmucks who staggered to his window with a smile, hoping he would smile back, which he never did. People did not interest him anymore. He had lost his interest in them long ago, even before his wife died. But Hector loved rocks, especially the valuable ones. He'd played the numbers every single day for the past thirty years, and he often fantasized about the kind of diamonds he would buy if he won. So when the man slid his dollar bill across the counter and asked for a stamp, Hector saw the huge rock on his finger and looked up, and when he did, his heart began to pound and he felt faint; he remembered the naked terror of the dark black mountain towns of Tuscany, the old walls, the pitch-black streets as tiny as alleyways, the staircases that appeared out of nowhere, the freezing rainy nights when every stirring leaf sounded like a bomb dropping and the hooting of an owl made him piss in his pants. He saw beyond the man'sface but he saw the man's face, too. It was a face he would never forget.
Hector always carried a pistol to work, and the next day, when the newspapers ran the story of how Hector pulled the pistol out of his front pocket and blew the man's face off, they talked about how Hector always carried a gun to work because he lived in Harlem and Harlem was dangerous. Hector was old. He lived alone. He'd been robbed before. He was afraid. The New York Times and the Post carried the requisite interviews of fellow postal employees gathered around a taped-up doorway saying he'd seemed about to snap and that he was ready for retirement and how they couldn't understand it all, but only one person, a rookie reporter from the Daily News named Tim Boyle, wrote anything about the statue head. It was Boyle's first day on the job, and he got lost going to the post office, and by the time he got there, the other reporters had left and all of Hector's co-workers had gone. Boyle panicked, thinking he was going to get fired-which if you're a reporter for the Daily News and you can't find the main post office in midtown Manhattan is about right-so he talked the cops into letting him ride with them up to Hector's ramshackle apartment on 145th Street. They went through Hector's things and found the head of a statue, which looked expensive. Boyle rode with the cops to Forensics, who checked it out and found nothing. But one of the cop's wives was an art lover, and the cop said this thing don't look normal, so they took it to the Museum of Natural History, who sent them to the Museum of Modern Art, who sent for a man out of NYU's art department, who came over and said, Shit, this is the missing head of the Primavera from the Santa Trinita.
The cops laughed and said Is that the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria?
The guy said, Hell no. It's a bridge in Florence.
And that's how Tim Boyle saved his job and Hector Negron made the front page of the International Herald Tribune, which on that December morning in 1983 was tossed from a tenth-story window of the Aldo Manuzio office building in Rome by a tired janitor named Franco Curzi who wanted to get home early because it was almost Christmas. It floated down and pirouetted in the air a few times and finally landed on a table at the sidewalk cafe below, as if God had placed it there, which He, in fact, had.
A tall, well-dressed Italian man with a well-trimmed beard was sitting at a table having his morning coffee when the paper landed on the table next to his. He noticed the headline and grabbed the paper.
He read holding the coffee cup in his hand, and when he was done, he dropped the coffee cup and stood so abruptly his chair skidded out behind him and the table slid forward three feet. He turned and began to walk, then trot, then run down the street. Passersby on the sidewalk gawked as the tall man in the Caraceni suit and Bruno Magli shoes tore past them at full tilt, his jacket flying behind him, his arms pumping, running down the crowded tiny streets as fast as he could go, as if by running he could leave it all behind, which was of course impossible.
On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.
He was standing on the bank of the Cinquale Canal, just north of Forte dei Marmi, in Italy. It was dawn. The order was to go. One hundred and twenty black soldiers from the Ninety-second Division bunched behind five tanks and watched them roll toward the water, then clumsily waded in behind them, rifles held high. On the other side, just beyond the river plains and mostly hidden in the heavy mountain forest of the Apuane Alps, five companies of Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring's 148th Brigade Division, seasoned, hardened German troops, watched and waited. They sat silently. Hardened, seasoned, exhausted, they sat burrowed into the sides of the heavily wooded mountain, peering into their scopes, watching every move. They'd been there on the Gothic line six months, a thick line of defense that stretched across the Italian peninsula, from La Spezia all the way to the Adriatic Sea, planting mines, building concrete bunkers, laying booby traps and tripwires. Exhausted, starving, knowing the war was lost, most wanted to run but could not. There were reports that many were found dead, chained to their machine guns. The orders were straight from the Fuhrer himself. Any man who deserted, any man who gave an inch would be shot without ceremony or trial. Their orders were to stand firm. There was no backing away.
Train watched as the first of the tanks hit a mine on the other side of the beach and the Germans opened up with everything-mortars, .88's, and machine -gun fire. He heard a frightened voice behind him screaming, "Kill me now! Kill me now!" and he wondered who it was. The smell of cordite and gunpowder drifted into his lungs. He felt his heart seize and stop. Then he heard someone yell, "Go, soldier!" and felt a shove, and he ran, splashing, to his own death.
He had no choice. He didn't want to run. He didn't trust his commander. The man was from the South. Train had never seen him before that morning. He was a replacement for the old captain, who'd transferred out two days before-whose name Train couldn't remember either. The men were strangers to him, but they were white, so they had to be right, or maybe not, but Train was from North Carolina and he didn't know how to stand up to white people like the coloreds from the North did. Train didn't trust them. They brought trouble with their high falutin' ways and long words and college degrees, always making the captain-what was his name? -mad. He remembered the first colored soldier he'd ever seen, back home in Highpoint, North Carolina, just before he was drafted. It was his first-ever bus ride in the city, and the man had spoiled it. The soldier got on the bus wearing a crisp army uniform with lieutenant's bars and a shoulder patch with a black buffalo on it. He took a seat down front. The bus driver said, "Move to the back, boy." The Negro opened his mouth, outraged, and said, "Fuck you." The driver slammed on the brakes and got up. Before the Yankee could move, there was a chorus of hissing and cursing from the rear of the bus. It was the other blacks next to Train. "Cut it out," one hissed. "You makin it bad for the rest of us." "Whyn't you go home, you mooley bastard," shouted another. Train, stunned, tried to look away, the slight bit of shame that washed over him replaced by relief as the Yankee soldier glared at the blacks next to him, flung open the rear door of the bus, and stomped out, huffing and muttering at them in furious disgust. The bus roared away, blowing black diesel fumes in his face.
And now Train was following one of those light-skinned, know-it-all Northern Negroes into the drink, a lieutenant from Harlem named Huggs. He called himself "A Howard University guy, ASTP," which Train guessed had something to do with reading but wasn't sure since he couldn't read himself. It was something he had a mind to learn one day because he would like to read the Bible and know his verses better. He even tried to think about his Bible verses as he drove his legs into the water and the din around him grew louder, but he couldn't remember a single verse so he began singing "Nearer My God to Thee," and as he sang the metal shrapnel and bullets began to ping off the tanks around him and he could hear their treads snapping as they hit mines that blew up. He waded slowly up to his hips in the clear canal and suddenly felt quiet and peaceful, and then --just like that -- he was invisible. He could see better, hear better, smell better. Everything in the world became clear, every truth clairvoyant, every lie a blasphemy, all of nature became alive to him. At 6'6", two hundred seventy-five pounds, all muscle, with a soft-spoken charm, tender brown eyes, and deep chocolate skin that covered an innocent round face, Sam Train was everything the army wanted in a Negro. He was big. He was kind. He followed orders. He could shoot a rifle. And most of all, he was dumb. The other men laughed at him and called him "sniper bait" and "Diesel" because of his size. They placed bets on whether he could pull a two-ton truck or not, but he never minded them, only smiled. He knew he wasn't smart. He had prayed to become smart, and suddenly here he was: smart, and invisible. Two for one.
He stopped completely still in the water as the sounds of death and machine-gun fire seemed to die all around him, as if someone had turned down the volume and replaced it with the peaceful crowing of a rooster that he could hear all by itself as if it were singing solo. Standing in the water as men rushed past him, falling, screaming, weeping, he gazed upward at the mountain before him and marveled at the lovely olive trees that lay in the groves above the German batteries, which he could see as clear as day. He saw the bobbing green of the Germans' helmets as they raced from one smoking artillery cannon to another. The helmets blended perfectly with the shorn leaves and rocks and ridges of the mountains behind them. He marveled at the sun peeking over the ridge as if for the first time. Everything seemed perfect. When Train saw the smarty-dog Huggs from New York spin back toward him with his face shot off, then flop into the water like a rag doll, he felt no fear. He was happy, because he was invisible. Nothing could touch him. Nothing could happen to him. He decided it had to be the statue head.
He'd found it in Florence the first day he'd arrived, next to a river where the Germans had destroyed a bridge. Everybody in the army wanted souvenirs, but for some reason nobody was interested in it. There must have been four companies that marched past that marble head, but no one grabbed it, maybe because of the weight. But Sam Train had carried a forty-six-pound radio in training camp for six months and that had never bothered him. He picked it up because he wanted it as a gift for his grandmother. He kept it in a net bag laced to his hip, and before the day was over three guys had offered him ten dollars for it. "Naw," he said, "I'm keeping it." That night he changed his mind and decided to test the market. He wanted to see if the Italians would buy it because he'd heard they would pay twenty dollars for a carton of cigarettes. Before digging his foxhole outside Florence, he walked into town to look for an Italian, but he couldn't find a soul. The streets were empty, barren, save for an occasional rat that leaped out of the wreckage and quickly disappeared into the rubble again. Finally, Train found an old woman wandering down a deserted street. She was the first Italian he had ever met. She was ragged and filthy, with her head wrapped in a scarf and her feet swathed in rubber inner tubes worn like sandals, even though it was winter. He held the statue head out as he approached. He offered it to her for fifty dollars. She smiled a toothless grin and said, "Me half-American, too." Train didn't understand. He dropped the offer to twenty-five. She turned around and staggered away as if drunk. He stood, blinking in misunderstanding. Halfway up the block she straddled the curb, spread her legs, held her dress out, squatted, and pissed, steam coming from the piss as it hit the ground. He was glad he didn't sell it to her. It would have been a waste.
He was thinking about the woman squatting over the curb, pissing, as the murky parts of Huggs's face floated past him in the water. Then he heard a soft plop and felt a sucking inside his chest and a pain in his head. Suddenly, he no longer felt peaceful. He could feel his invisibility slipping off like a cloak, so he ran like hell, past two burning tanks, past a bobbing arm connected to a bobbing body, straight across to the other side of the canal, where a group of soldiers cowered behind a rock in a grove of trees, a man named Bishop among them.
He flopped on the canal bank and heard Bishop say, "Oh shit. You been hit in the head."
Train wiped the moisture from his face, glanced at it, realized it was blood, and lay on his back and died. He felt his spirit leave his body. It was as if his spirit had drained out of the bottom of his shoes and floated away. He was truly invisible now.
"Thank you, Lord," Train said. "I'm prepared for Thee." He waited to feel the sweet nothingness of death. He opened his mouth to taste the sweet smell of heaven and felt instead stinking, hot chicken breath blowing down into his lungs. It tasted like dog shit and hog maws mixed together. He opened his eyes and saw the big, black, shiny, eel-like face of Bishop's stuck to his - Bishop stuck to his mouth. He sat up straight.
"Goddamn, you crazy?" Suddenly, the booms and din around Train seemed to screech to an unbelievable roaring pitch. He heard moans and screams of death. He heard fire crackling as nearby tree limbs and branches snapped under the thunderous slams of .88 shells that whirred past, blowing branches and bark down on them like rainwater. It was as if some giant, inhuman beast had broken loose and was out to destroy the world. He looked across the canal and saw the unit retreating, the dozens of bodies in the canal, a white captain waving them back in, and then his view was blocked by Bishop's huge, black, shiny face and several glistening gold teeth, which adorned the front of Bishop's mouth like a radiator grill. Bishop grabbed him by the lapel and roared at him over the din, "You owe me fourteen-hundred dollars!"
It was true. He did owe Bishop fourteen-hundred dollars from poker and craps, but that was before today. Before he'd learned to become invisible.
Just as suddenly, it got quiet. The screaming meanies quit, the German machine guns quit, the American ack-ack guns quit, and the only sound Train could make out was the crackling of a burning tank in the canal just short of shore and the soft murmuring of someone who was obviously burning to death inside it. He suddenly remembered where he was and what had happened to him.
"Wasn't I hit?" he asked Bishop.
Bishop was a minister from Kansas City. They called him Walking Thunder. He was a short, trim man with smooth skin that covered a handsomely sharp, coal-black face, with dimples and devilish laughing eyes that seemed to wink all the time. His uniform always appeared starched and neat, even in battle. His voice was like silk, his hands slender and delicate, as if they had never held dirt, and his gold-toothed smile was like reason itself. He had a church of two-hundred parishioners back home who sent him care packages every week, full of chicken and cookies, which he used to barter at poker. Train had heard him preach once at training camp and it was like watching a steam pump sucking coal on a hot July day. He could make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up on end.
"You was hit and you was dead and I brung you back," said Bishop. "Don't nobody know about it but me, and that's fine. But you owes me some money, and until you pays it, you ain't goin nowhere."
"You puttin a mojo on me?"
"I ain't doing no mojo. I wants my money. Now you go git that white boy out that haystack over there yonder. He's yours to deal with. I sure ain't goin."
"What white boy?"
"That one." Bishop pointed to a stone barn about two hundred yards off and fled, splashing back across the canal as the bombs and artillery splashed around him and didn't touch him.
Train turned on his side and watched as a haystack the size of a small bush crept along the barn wall, then stopped. Underneath it were two tiny feet clad in wooden shoes.
-- from Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride, Copyright © February 2002, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by permission.