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One More River
By Mary Glickman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2011 Mary Glickman
All rights reserved.
Mickey Moe Levy managed his war, kept himself from going stark raving mad, by comparing every crazy, foreign, messed-up thing he saw or touched or smelled or heard to something familiar back home. He'd take those affinities and weave them around himself like a cloak in which he hid like a bandit or a child, and the cloak kept him whole. Sometimes this was challenging and other times not. He figured his age and experiences had something to do with that. He was the oldest of his platoon. Most of the men were ten years younger than he, baby-faced and raw at least for the first week or two. Mickey Moe was raised a country boy, he'd had his backwoods adventures. It helped that the sight of death, the smell of gunpowder were not unknown to him. He was glad he felt easy with Negroes, or blacks as they'd started calling themselves, even the ones from New York and New Jersey, who all talked like they came from the South anyway, using down-home expressions in accents that seemed as queer to him as the seesaw chatter of Vietnamese. And the ones who were dirt-poor farmers from anywhere at all, with those he felt blood brother to each.
It was just before Chu Lai, the first major bleeding of American troops in the war. All the men on patrol were jumpy. Everyone felt something was coming, and each mustered his nerve in his own way. Mickey Moe looked across marshland terraced in rice paddies, shrouded in fog, and conjured up Mississippi, conjured up the Pearl River in August at dawn, and it didn't seem so different. The bugs and leeches were the same, even in number. So was the heat, heavy and wet. He watched the women working the fields, their long shirts caught up between their legs, their small backs bent, their pointy hats tilted down hiding their faces, and he thought of Laura Anne: Laura Anne in her broad-brimmed garden hat the day they met, her sweet, lovely face smiling at his lame conversation, her butterscotch eyes large with good humor and kindness; Laura Anne bent over as she worked the vegetable patch back of Aunt Lucille's big house, the sun and her labor making damp ringlets of honey hair that clung to her cheeks and her neck. Once he got going on his wife, everything sang her name. The rain, the far-off rat-a-tat-tat of bullets, helicopter blades, boots hitting mud: Laura Anne, Laura Anne, Laura Anne, they sang until he had to stop it, until the method he'd found to keep from going nuts threatened to turn on him. He hit his helmet hard with his handgun. Clang, clang, clang. The Jersey boys, annoyed maybe, or worried about him, said, Your brains gonna stick to that thing, Crackah Mick. But he kept it up or he ran the risk of ending up like his daddy, dead against a tree trunk in a battlefield. He would not do that to his son. He would not leave him with a great question mark of a father. Not his son. Not that boy growing in Laura Anne's belly.
Mickey Moe's daddy died in the Ardennes, his hands too frostbit to pull the trigger when he saw the Nazi coming toward him, taking aim. Helpless, he watched the squat peasant legs rush forward. He saw the boy's bright blue eyes, wide with fear, the way he stopped, stock-still, to raise his rifle and shoot the daylight out of a G.I. too dang cold to squeeze his trigger and shoot him first. On such things hang the fate of man, Mickey Moe reminded himself. Not on courage or capability or even being right. Something like the weather, a thing that changes with the wind, can be the only reason a Bernard Levy fails to take advantage of the moment and blow out a Nazi's brains instead of suffer his own spread like a crimson flower over the pure French snow.
Nothing like that would happen to Mickey Moe. He wasn't going to die, not on this alien ground he'd related so much to home. Last night, as usual, his sleep was disturbed by hybrid dreams. He dreamt of Aunt Lucille's farm full of rice fields instead of cotton, of the battered mobile homes in his hometown's Negro village transformed to Vietnamese huts. Laura Anne was there. She wore black pajamas. She stood at the jungle's edge and pointed. When he followed her directive, he found that severed foot from the backwoods, the one he never got out of his conscious mind no matter how many babies he saw wailing at their dead mamas' breasts or buddies with bones poking out the side of their legs. In his dream, the foot nested in thick brown vine and palm fronds, not the oak and dogwood leaves of Mississippi. It floated in monsoon mud. It looked like it might right itself and walk straight up to him demanding in its dead severed foot way why he hadn't done more that night, that hot Mississippi night, to avenge itself. I did what I could, he told the thing. I did all that I could at the time. Now today I could do a lot more. Thanks to the Armed Forces of the USA, I've got the skills. But I didn't then, and there ain't nothin' I can do about it now.
When he woke, it confounded him that the severed foot waited until he was deep in country to pop up in his dreams. He never once dreamt of it back home. Maybe he didn't have to, it was so often in his mind.
Funny what haunts a man, he thought. Laura Anne and that chopped-off foot. Two things on opposite extremes of human experience. Yet, they'd always be linked in his head and for good reason. The foot was a part of the life he and his wife shared. It was their first secret, one that pitched them head on against murderous Klansmen. They didn't have to speak of it. It was just there, uniting them, part of the changing times no one saw coming.
Mickey Moe wondered how Daddy kept his secrets during the life he shared with Mama before his war came, especially as he was a charming man by all reports, a talker. But Daddy's ability to keep a secret was so strong that he had to find out everything he knew about his father on his own. Finding out about Bernard Levy was the hardest thing he ever did, including going off to war, but in the end, since he wound up with Laura Anne, he thought that was alright. His wife was worth the price.
During the downtime of military life, he liked to review every second of his relationship with Laura Anne from glorious beginning to the painful separation caused by this insane war. When Sarge told them all to take a break while he conferred with the signal officer, he removed himself from the gripes and antics of the men and remembered the day he met his future bride.
Aunt Missy Fine Sassaport had arranged an afternoon tea so that the Sassaport men along with their cousins and neighbors could meet appropriate, marriageable women from all over the tristate area of Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Mickey Moe, a reluctant attendee, kept apart from the festivities. He drank spiked lemonade from a mason jar and told the other boys stories from his sales route for Uncle Tom-Tom's insurance agency. He ignored the ladies. It offended him he was asked to attend the party at all. He was not some hard luck swain who couldn't get a girl on his own. Mama made him promise to go or else Aunt Missy would pitch a holy fit. He'd gone affecting an I-could-care-less manner until the moment he saw Laura Anne Needleman sitting beneath a massive oak wearing a peach-colored dress and a large-brimmed straw hat. He didn't know it yet, but all the men of his family were suckers for love at first sight. True to his forebears, he took one look at Laura Anne Needleman, at her fine-boned face and figure, at her long honey hair, and his course was fixed. He could not have looked elsewhere if a horde of men yelled "Fire."
Unaware she had met her destiny, Laura Anne Needleman glanced up and caught sight of a handsome young man with a square jaw and a thick black forelock falling over almond eyes that studied her with a starstruck, puppy-dog gaze. She watched him turn red when she favored him with a smile. She patted the spot next to her with a slender hand, then fluttered fingers tipped in the same color as her dress, tapping them gracefully against the ground as if she were playing the piano. He nearly tripped over himself rushing to her side and seemed unable to catch his breath to speak, so she spoke first.
These get-togethers are awkward, aren't they? Whoever's idea was it to throw every young, unmarried Delta Jew of good family into a great lump on a sweltering afternoon in Hind's County and watch them knock together until a match or two emerged?
That would be my aunt, Missy Fine Sassaport, Mickey Moe said, his expression as serious as the grave. He feared her opinion of Aunt Missy might taint him.
She laughed outright. Her laughter, gently bubbling up from some warm, knowing place inside her, enchanted him. Between the way she filled out the peach-colored dress and that deep, soft laugh, he was a goner, plain and simple.
There was a pause in conversation then, a silence hard as a block of cement. His mama had taught him that too extended a pause in conversation was cruel as a slap to a young girl, so he began to talk and once revved up could not stop. All the while, he cursed himself for acting a fool, as if he'd never romanced a woman in his life, as if he hadn't had four lovers already. At age twenty-five, in l962 Guilford, Mississippi, this was not a bad batting average, not at all.
Well, Miss ...
He leaned over to study her name tag just as she leaned forward to study his. Their heads bumped lightly. When they looked up, their lips nearly met. He coughed to regain control.
... Miss Laura Anne, it's a fact that the folks over in Atlanta started this kind a thing, with that Ballyhoo weekend they got over there. Then Montgomery's got that Falcon weekend and Birmingham the Jubilee. It's also a fact that the members of our tribe are too spread out to meet each other on a regular, more casual basis. I think it's a sign of restraint that Aunt Missy organized these tea parties. I am deeply grateful to her that rather than requirin' us to spend the entire weekend in some stranger's house goin' to forty-two events in a row, all we boys got to do is make sure for two or three hours we don't get pastry crumbs stuck to our chin whiskers and don't spill tea onto anyone's party dress. Yes, it's a remarkable sign of restraint, a quality for which Aunt Missy is not known.
He took a deep breath, as he'd run out of air. Although a salesman of some skill, accustomed to spinning a spiel tailored to the situation at hand, he found himself at a loss in this woman's presence, and he could only guess why. Laura Anne Needleman put two incredibly soft fingers against his lips.
Hush. I am not interested in your aunt Missy. Everyone in the county knows a Sassaport or two. I take it your mama's another one? And Levy. Why, there are Levys sprinkled about in every corner of the South. I don't know if it matters much which ones yours are. I am sick of all this focus on the ancestors!
Mickey Moe considered for a moment that Laura Anne Needleman might have a rebellious nature. The thought excited him. The idea that he—a man of questionable family history on his daddy's side—might escape the culture's obsession with lineage, made him tongue-tied with gratitude. So he said, Pardon me?
My, oh my. That did come out funny, didn't it? I only mean I like to find out first about the person settin' right there in front of me, not all the old ghosts. When I say tell me about your people, I want to know about the ones closest to you in blood. What are they like? What do they do? I mean your mama, your daddy. Your siblings. You have siblings?
He told her about his three elder sisters, which didn't take long, because the first two, married and living out-of-state, didn't interest him and the third, whom he loved, lived at home and never seemed to interest anyone else. He told her about his mama and how it was his job to take care of her ever since his daddy died in the Battle of the Bulge.
She asked him the question he most dreaded. And before the war? What did your daddy do?
Buying time before he answered, Mickey Moe Levy looked down. He played with the blades of grass under his hand and sighed and told her what he knew and then, because he was a goner, what he'd come to suspect in his heart.
My daddy, he began, was a man of mystery.
Laura Anne straightened up at that. She leaned in close to him, giving him an intoxicating whiff of her scent, one of lavender soap and fresh linen dried outdoors in the sun. She regarded him intently. The gold flecks in her eyes glittered. There was a fierce heat in her gaze. It was like being watched by torchlight. When a sudden breeze passed by, her honey-colored hair lifted so that a few silky strands escaped the fetters of her sunhat to graze his cheek. It took all he had to keep himself from grabbing her right there in front of everyone and planting a smack, hard and wet, on that sweet little mouth this close to his own. To cover evidence of his struggle, he paused, mopped his brow and neck with a pocket handkerchief, and continued.
Daddy claimed he came from a prominent family in Memphis, but only three cousins of his, two male and one female, were in attendance at the wedding. Mama's family thought that pretty odd. He explained it away. Told them his mama and daddy had not finished the year's mourning for his granddaddy and would not attend a celebration, even their own son's wedding. Now, Mama's people had never heard of such a ban, but they assumed the Levys were more observant Jews than they were. Daddy told them his people were from somewhere or other along the Rhine, which from the Sassaport perspective, bein' of Portuguese descent, was so foreign a place the river might as well have flowed through China. In those days, people didn't have long engagements. Once a couple declared their affections, you married them off right quick before they had a chance to dishonor themselves.
Laura Anne shook her head in vigorous agreement. A wise program, she said.
Mickey Moe shot her a mischievous glance. Think so? he asked, wondering if her blood was hot.
She blushed, clamped her upper teeth against a plump lower lip. His hopes soared.
When my sisters and I were born, Daddy's family was invited for the name days and the bris, but no one showed. They sent letters and bank drafts, but that's it. Mama put it about that they were dismayed he'd married a girl out of their sect, a notion the Sassaports accepted, remarking it was a dang shame his people were so hard. Twice a year, Daddy traveled to Memphis to visit them, but he always left us home. Mama said he was pavin' the way, pavin' the way for our eventual presentation, which I believe she put some faith in. She shouldn't have. It never happened.
Then the war came. Daddy got killed sittin' in a foxhole half-froze to death. His buddy told us he saw that Nazi comin', but his fingers were so numb he couldn't pull his trigger.
Laura Anne reached over and pressed his knee in empathy, which felt so good Mickey Moe longed for her to keep it there. He swallowed hard to embellish his misery. He dipped his head to make his forelock graze his eyes, a pose he knew women found difficult to resist, and dropped his voice to a soft, sad, seductive hum.
... Mama hired a detective to track down Daddy's family so she could let them know their son and heir was dead. It was a considerable expense for a war widow with a sparse income, but she was hopin' for an inheritance. They wrote back and said they had no idea who she was talkin' about. There was no Bernard Levy in their kin or ken. Mickey Moe slapped his thighs with both hands in a gesture of finality.
So you can say everything I know about my daddy is a lie. I don't know who he was or where he come from. I only know the falsehoods he told. I don't remember him. But I have a feelin'—and there's some fact to this, because when I was a bit younger I looked into things—those Memphis Levys lied, lied as outright as my daddy, about who he was and where he'd been. He was one of them alright, but one of them they did not care to acknowledge. Why, I do not know. I like to think maybe he was a bootlegger. That'd explain a lot. Explain his so-called trips to Memphis and why the flow of money stopped once he was gone to war.
Laura Anne frowned and gave a little shrug in response to his conclusion, as if nothing more could possibly be said. Her eyes looked sad and damp. He was gratified his story moved her. Mickey Moe rose to his feet and threw up his hands, pointed them toward the moon that had begun to rise in the afternoon sky, boldly asserting itself just below the bright and burning sun.
I am a child of mystery, he said, but I am as easy to decipher as a semaphore waved from the deck of a riverboat on a sparklin' day in spring. I might take a little study, but there is no deception in me. I've made my life a devotion in plain talk and honest proposal to atone for whatever drops of my daddy's lying blood flow through my veins. Do you find this upsettin'?
And because love, wherever it happens, whenever it happens, is a miracle even when it is the most natural thing in the world and obvious to every fool in its purview, Laura Anne said, No. I do not. I rather think it makes me like you more, Mickey Moe Levy. A whole lot more.
Excerpted from One More River by Mary Glickman. Copyright © 2011 Mary Glickman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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