The Flame was Zenith’s premier restaurant. Situated on the waterfront with a sparkling view of the bay, it featured fine food, a casual but well-dressed atmosphere and the reputation as the place to be seen in the port city.
Johnny and Harry Sloan arrived in separate cars, one behind the other. Harry in his brown Chevy sedan and Johnny in a dark blue 1956 Olds four-door hardtop. They parked in the lot and walked together towards the two-story, white block building, FLAME running vertically down the front wall in red neon.
A biting wind whipped across the ice-covered bay. The temperature hovered slightly above zero. The cold helped Johnny revive. Numbed the pain in his face a little. That and the three Empirin with codeine tablets he’d swallowed.
The fighter and his manager went through the glass doors together, glanced briefly into the dark piano bar on the left, where voices and smoke mingled with soft lights and the murmur of slow jazz. Moving up the carpeted staircase, Johnny peered out the smoked-glass at the blinking lights of Bay City, across the water, the town where he was born. He smiled at the memory of his mother, how she’d kept the secrets of his birth locked up inside her for all those years. How he’d found out the truth from his people in Chicago, after the war. Aunts and uncles who’d laughed as they told him the story one sticky summer night over jugs of red wine.
Johnny and Harry reached the top of the stairs and their shoes hit the thick burgundy carpet. Melodic mood music and low voices backed by the tinkling of ice in glasses soothed Johnny’s soul.
They gave their coats to the pretty brunette coat-check girl who was smiling behind the dark wood counter. The maitre d’ greeted Johnny by name and with a smile. Several diners turned from their tables to look at the victorious pugilist. Some were fans; some were gawkers. Johnny was well known and, for the most part, well liked in town. He smiled and waved and responded politely to various congratulations.
Promoter Bob Nash was sitting in a black leather booth along the wall with Jimmy Lambert, the owner of several taverns in Wisconsin and a big fight fan. Both men had a large-breasted woman at their side, a blond for Nash and a redhead for Lambert. Nash, a Manhattan glass in his hand, nodded at Johnny and Sloan and pointed to an empty table nearby.
Johnny was glad to see Lambert there. He had a few things he wanted to discuss with the man. Some ideas he had. Thought the two of them could make some money together.
“Your table is ready Mr. Beam,” the maitre d’ said, respectfully. “View of the harbor, as always.”
“Thanks, Kenneth, I appreciate it,” Johnny said, flashing the million-dollar smile and slipping Kenneth a five spot.
Kenneth bowed slightly, “Right this way, gentlemen.”
“What about Bob, Johnny?” Harry whispered.
“He can come over to our table if he wants to talk, Harry. I ain’t gonna tag after him like a puppy dog.”
Johnny smiled as they walked by Nash.
Bob Nash looked up at him, quizzically. “Johnny… Harry…” he said, wiping his mouth with a white linen napkin.
“Nice fight, Johnny. How you holding up?” Lambert said as the fighter and his manager lingered.
“Fine, Jimmy, fine. Right as rain all the time, you know. I just need a nice steak and a stiff drink and I’ll be as good as new.”
“Let me buy you a drink, Johnny,” Lambert said.
“That would be real nice of you, Jimmy. Why don’t you come over to our table a little later? If you got a minute, I’ve got some business ideas I’d like to discuss with you.”
“You bet, Johnny. What are you drinking?”
“I’ll have a scotch,” Johnny said, tugging on the cuff of his fine white shirt.
“Make that two scotches,” Harry Sloan said, with a wink.
“Sure Harry, I’ll buy you a drink,” Lambert said, grinning like a jackal. “Soon as you pay off your debt from football season.”
“Come on, now Jimmy,” Sloan said. “This is no time for that stuff. Haven’t I been good?”
“Yeah, you have been good, Harry,” Lambert said, laughing and wrinkling his eyebrows at the redhead sitting next to him. “Just kidding around. Two scotches it is.” He spied a waitress and gestured in her direction.
Johnny kept smiling as he glided over to the table where Kenneth was patiently waiting, manicured fingers holding two glossy red menus.
Harry Sloan followed behind, his face slightly flushed. He tugged at his green, bargain-basement sport coat and sat down across from Beam, who was gazing distractedly out the window.
Kenneth placed the menus in front of them. “The waitress will be with you shortly. Enjoy your meal.”
“Why did you go and invite that bastard Lambert over, Johnny,” Sloan whined, shifting uncomfortably. “You know I don’t like him.”
“Sounds like you like him enough to bet with him,” Johnny said, grinning.
Harry saw through the smile to the fatigue on Johnny’s face. “Christ, that was way back in football season, Johnny. I haven’t done anything lately.”
“Lambert must be a pretty good guy to let you slide this long.”
“I’ve been paying him regularly, for the Christ sake. And it sure as hell isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it’s that he’s smart. Smart enough to know that if there’s any rough stuff, he’ll never get his money. And he’ll go to jail, besides.”
“For assaulting you? I don’t know, Harry, cops just may congratulate him. That is if any of them ever bought a used car from you.”
“Very funny, champ. You should go on the stage. And there’s one leaving any minute now.”
Beam laughed softly at Harry’s same old routine, his permanent response when the joke was on him. But on this occasion, Harry was right. In this town, too much violence and the cops shut you down in a hurry. The way Johnny saw it, if you stayed away from the stupid strong-arm stuff, you could get away with a lot around here.
A busboy in a white linen coat came to the table and poured ice water from a silver pitcher into short-stemmed crystal glasses. Johnny drained his glass before the boy was finished pouring Harry’s.
“More, sir?” the boy asked.
Johnny liked being called sir. “Please,” he said.
The scotches arrived shortly thereafter, followed closely by Lambert and the buxom redhead. Lambert sat down next to Harry, who slid as far away as he could get, wedging himself against the window.
The redhead slid in next to Johnny.
He didn’t budge an inch.
“Hey Johnny,” Lambert said, gesturing toward the woman. “Hope you don’t mind me bringing Gloria, here, she really wanted to meet you. She likes boxers.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gloria,” Johnny said in a mellow baritone.
“The same, I’m sure,” Gloria said, smiling, her lips crooked.
Her large mouth and large teeth, red lipstick and hair were joined together in unison, shouting, Fuck me. At least that’s the way Johnny was reading it.
“That cut on your eye must be nasty, Johnny,” Gloria said, hormone-induced concern oozing from her husky voice as her long red fingernails slid over his shoulder. “And this awful bump…”
“I’ll be all right, darling. I’m a big boy. I recover fast.”
“I just bet you do,” she said, slowly sliding her hand from his shoulder.
“We just came over to say we enjoyed the fight, Johnny,” Lambert said, slightly slurred. “Didn’t we, Gloria?”
“Of course, Jimmy—it was a wonderful fight,” she said, admiration flowing like clover honey from her big browns.
“I thought you were gonna put the guy out there a couple of times,” Lambert said, lighting a Lucky Strike and letting the smoke disperse in a cloud around his head. “You had him on the ropes more than once.”
“Sparks was tough, he knew all the tricks,” Harry Sloan snapped. “He’s had a lot of fights.”
Then the waitress returned and they hadn’t even looked at the menus. Johnny sipped on his scotch and told her to come back in a minute. “Thanks for the drink, Jimmy,” he said, warmly.
“My pleasure, Johnny. You deserve it after a fight like that. That guy Sparks was pretty tough, eh?”
“Plenty tough, Jimmy. He hit like a kick from a horse and he fought dirty. You saw the bastard head-butt me, didn’t you?”
“That stuff is low down, all right,” Lambert said.
“You ever been kicked by a horse, Johnny?” asked Gloria, her eyes twinkling as she elbowed him lightly in the ribs.
“Can’t say as I have ma’am,” Johnny said like John Wayne; his grin so deep it made Gloria nearly swoon. “But I can well imagine. I’ve been hit by many a horse out on the football field.”
Gloria giggled and fell into him, brushing her breasts against his thick-muscled arm.
“Well Johnny, just wanted to say hello,” Lambert said, staring at Gloria, his lips and eyes narrowing. “We better get back to Nash before he thinks we’re plotting something.” Lambert liked Johnny. A man’s color had never meant anything to him, as long as his money was green. That was one of his little jokes.
“Listen Jimmy,” the boxer said. “You got a few minutes? I’ve got some things I want to discuss with you. Some business ideas I’ve been tossing around. Things I think you’ll be interested in.”
Lambert was always ready to listen to a business proposition. He had irons in many fires and a diversity of investments. As well as bars in Bay City, he owned several establishments in remote rural areas, boondocks buildings on dark tree-lined back roads that housed after-hours clubs. Some called them blind pigs, others, roadhouses. “Good citizens” called them the scourge of the county.
Whatever you called them, these establishments housed after-hours drinking, gambling and, sometimes, prostitution. A local legend had it that carloads of women would occasionally show up at the clubs unannounced. Girls who worked the Wisconsin strip-bar circuit and wanted to supplement their income with a little lying-around money—or so the story went. Just this possibility, the vague dream that someday this might happen while you were in the building, was enough to keep the honkytonks hopping with horny hayseeds on many a dark and frigid night. These were the places that held Johnny’s interest. Something he’d seen in Chicago seemed just right for such establishments.
He’d learned a lot in Chi-town. It had taken getting drunk with his Uncle Charlie (Mama’s brother) to find out about his daddy. Mom had never said much about his father, summing up his existence with: “He was a good man who died when your were three.” Old Charlie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans but he was too honest a person to hold back. At least after he and Johnny had knocked off a gallon of Red Mountain wine. Then the floodgates had opened and the story came rushing out like rainwater down the side of a mountain.
The truth was a shock to Johnny at first, but also a relief of sorts. Here was something to explain the parts of him that had railed against his mother’s teachings in spite of his good intentions. These traits clearly came from his daddy’s side of the family, the people his mama never wanted him to know about. The part of him that, among other things, wanted to make moonshine—in the tradition of the old Chicago gangsters—and sell it in Lambert’s joints.
“What kind of things you talking, Johnny?” Lambert asked.
“I bet you sell a lot of liquor, what with all your taverns—right, Jimmy?” Johnny smiled, eyes twinkling.
“That’s right, Johnny—quite a bit, I s’pose….”
“What if I could save you lots of dough on the booze? Would that interest you?”
“Of course it would, Johnny. But I don’t see how you could do that. I mean, you know, you should see the rotgut I sell already.” His snaky body folded forward into a raspy, cackling laugh.
“I can beat any price you get—guaranteed,” Johnny said. “Good quality stuff, too. Is there maybe some time we can discuss this in more detail, Jimmy?”
“Say, listen ah, Johnny,” Lambert said. “We gotta get back over there with Bob. But how about if you come over to the Bayside tonight, say about midnight? I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk business. Just tell the bartender you’re there to see me, and he’ll show you back to my office. I’ll tell him to expect you, so he ah… doesn’t get… isn’t… Ah fuck, I’ll just tell him Johnny Beam is coming.”
“I can do that, Jimmy. In the meantime, give some thought to the things I said, I think this could be a good deal for both of us.”
Lambert stood up, holding his cocktail glass and coughing. His lips curled down at the edges as Gloria continued to flirt. Impatience creased his shaggy eyebrows.
“Sure nice to meet you, Mr. Beam,” Gloria said, putting her hand on Johnny’s large forearm as it rested on the table.
“My pleasure, Gloria honey,” Beam said, oozing warmth.
Lambert coughed into his fist and walked awkwardly away.
Gloria got up and followed slowly behind, her heart and just about everything else she possessed full of lust for Johnny Beam.
“Jesus, I’m glad he’s gone,” Harry Sloan said, sliding away from the window and flexing his shoulders. “And what’s this shit you’re feeding him about cheap booze?”
“I know some people in the wholesale liquor business,” Beam lied, stretching his arms along the back of the booth and watching Gloria wiggle away and glance back at him. “Down in Minneapolis, that’s all. People I met while I was in college. I get around, you know.” This was partially true. He knew some guys that ripped off delivery trucks.
“You were only down there for a year.”
“I make friends in a hurry, Harry, you know that.”
“I sure do. Like that broad with Lambert. She was looking for a hunk of dark meat tonight.”
“And I sure aims to please, Mr. Manager bozz.”
“Shut up Johnny, and look at your menu. Here comes the goddamn waitress.”
“I know what I want.”
The restaurant filled up and stayed that way. The grill smoked. Cocktail glasses jingled and the room hummed. The kitchen pumped out steaks and chops and lobster and the famous shish kebabs that were set aflame in full view, the white-coated kitchen staff carrying the skewers to the tables like burning swords, orange flames shimmering in the darkened windows.
Over the course of the evening, admirers sent drinks to Johnny’s booth.
Others in the restaurant wondered who the nigger was.
After the meal, Johnny lit a cigar. Bob Nash and his girl Sheila went downstairs to the piano bar and Harry decided to go home. Lambert told Johnny he’d see him at the Bayside and departed with the jiggling, redheaded Gloria in tow.
Johnny joined Bob Nash in the piano bar. They didn’t say much to each other; just Bob’s same old line about how Johnny could hold his state title for another ten years, easy. How there was no one out there that could touch him. Always avoiding the question about any big fights or the chance to get a shot against a national contender.
Johnny had a good load on and he began to flirt with Bob’s blond bombshell. He could have left with her, but that night he was more interested in business than pleasure. He was only flirting with the broad to get Bob Nash’s goat. Most of all, he wanted to think about making corn whiskey. A young fighter he knew name of Big Cat Edwards had bragged about making corn whiskey and bathtub gin good enough for a true boozehound. At least that’s what he’d said one night, and Big Cat wasn’t the type to bullshit. Johnny believed him, anyway, and you just had to go with your hunches.
Around 11:45 Beam said his goodbyes, pumping Bob Nash’s hand and maybe squeezing a bit too hard and planting a big smooch on Sheila’s full, fleshy lips. The parking lot was dark and quiet as he went to his car, the only sound the dull clack of his heels on the frozen pavement. He could see the lift bridge looming in the vague light. The car door moaned as it slid open and the wind bit at the back of his neck. The leather seats were ice-stiff. The throbbing in his head had faded into the background. The ignition fired and the engine roared to life. Johnny looked out at the frozen grayness of the bay and felt like good things were about to happen. For some odd reason, it seemed life was about to start going his way.
Bay City was dark and dirty as it always was. Sooty snow and greasy black ice filled the gutters and clung to the curbs. Hunks of paper and flattened plastic cups danced and pinwheeled across the pavement, driven by the snarling wind.
Johnny considered what it might be like if he still lived in this town and shook his head. All he could remember about his childhood here was a couple of sunny spring days, just a few months before he and his mother had left for Minnesota.
Warm days in the springtime were a rarity on the shores of the big lake; that’s why you remembered them. Having a dying rat flying at your face was another reason to remember.
His mama had been feeling good that day and she’d let him go off with some of the neighborhood boys, even though they were a little older, white and scruffy. The group spent the afternoon walking along the railroad tracks that ran through town, looking to smack rats with a hockey stick. They had two sticks and plenty of targets.
The system worked like this: the older boys held the sticks and walked alongside the tracks while Johnny and another boy walked through the weeds in an attempt to flush out the rodents. When a rat scurried in front of a stick bearer, he attempted to swat the filthy beast, a slap shot being the preferred method.
On Johnny’s day in the sun, the boys developed a new twist to the game: “Hit it at the pickaninny.”
He never forgot the sight of those filthy things flying at his face after a hard slap shot, sharp teeth sticking out like fangs. Enough to make him afraid of rats forever.
Goddamn state boxing champion afraid of rats…
The memories made him feel the same things again: the dread, the fear—like he was a scared little kid again. He squeezed the steering wheel a little harder and inhaled deeply, felt his boxing wounds throb.
The rest of his Bay City memories consisted of dark mornings and cold nights spent with his mother in a small apartment in a brick building that smelled of cabbage and dust and pine-scented cleaner. One of his favorite things was dropping the table scraps down the second-floor incinerator chute after his mom had wrapped them in newspaper. He’d had a radio, a football and a basketball. He remembered bouncing the basketball behind the building on the cracked concrete in the cold, wet spring. No images of his father reached his consciousness.
Color entered his memories after he and his mama moved across the bridge into Minnesota. It had been summer and the little house with the small backyard had filled the two of them with joy and a feeling of freedom. Something new for his mama, this freedom thing. She instilled in him the need for it.
The circular dashboard clock on the Olds read a little before midnight. To kill some time, he decided to take a ride around the town and soak up some of the atmosphere. Lambert couldn’t think he was overanxious—you didn’t want that.
Bay City repelled and attracted him at the same time. It was a great place for chasing pussy and drinking on the cheap and that was about the extent of it. The trouble was that a black man was like a fly in a bottle of milk over here. It wasn’t hard for anyone to spot you, and when they did, they usually hated what they saw.
Not that Johnny never got around. He could handle himself and had the championship belt to prove it. Duking it out with some drunken fool wasn’t what worried him. It was the strange feeling he got in Bay City, a feeling of uneasiness coming from no identifiable source.
He toured the dark and decaying north end of town and took a little trip along the infamous John Avenue, aptly named, considering the number of brothels it had held over the years. He wondered if perhaps he’d somehow driven by his birth home without knowing it.
His mother had once been a whore.
The knowledge had hurt him at first. Burned him from the inside out like he’d swallowed hot charcoal. He’d only known her as a saint. She’d been a beautiful woman, that part was true. He’d seen the old photos. She’d carried herself tall and straight, and even when she’d gotten heavy in her later years she radiated a noble quality, like royalty.
Whatever she’d done in her past, Johnny didn’t hold a thing against her for it. And over time, he accepted it. He knew that folks sometimes had to do things to get by. Things that the straights and the self-righteous looked down upon. But Johnny had the utmost respect for his mother and everything she’d done for him. It hadn’t been easy for her around here; he knew that. She’d heard the word “nigger” more times than she cared to, that was for sure.
One thing he deeply regretted was not being there the day she died. Poor woman dropped dead from a heart attack in church while he was living in Chicago. After coming back to Minnesota for the funeral, he’d wanted to stay. Didn’t need any more of Chi-town. One thing had led to another, and after some coaxing his wife Ruby said she’d give it a try, thinking anything would be an improvement over the old neighborhood and the way it was going downhill.
Johnny moved back to Zenith in 1957 with his statuesque bride Ruby and their unborn child in tow. With the help of some fans of his past gridiron prowess, he managed to land a job at the steel plant in western Zenith.
They attempted to play house.
Sadly, John couldn’t control his wandering eye or the other body parts that followed, and Ruby quickly got fed up. She walked out of the house with John Jr. and hopped a Greyhound bus headed for Chicago in March of 1958. Somewhere south of Madison, Wisconsin, Ruby was heard thanking the lord for giving her the strength to escape from a “town more drab and gray than the darkest night Chicago ever seen and a man who made an alley cat look like a saint.”
Liquor and pain pills had him giddy; the streetlights had blurry circles around them. No wonder his mind was drifting a little, wondering about what it was like for his mama in this old town, thinking about things that went on thirty-plus years ago in this vulgar little place.
* * * *
Walking the streets of Bay City, Wisconsin, in the year of our lord nineteen hundred and twenty-seven, one might wonder as to why this side of the bay was once expected to become the larger and more populous of the two port cities. The “Chicago of the North,” some had boldly predicted.
Conventional wisdom at the turn of the century had it that the tip of the great lake and its two ports would prove to be a hub for the shipping industry, with the railroads meeting the shipping traffic at a natural vortex of goods from all directions.
The region did indeed prove to be a hotbed of commerce. By 1920 the port cities were being serviced by fourteen railroads, bringing in over thirty million tons of iron ore and nine million tons of coal yearly. Lumber from the forests and grains from the western prairies also rolled into the ports in great quantities, and by the mid-twenties, the Twin Ports boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the U.S.
Unfortunately for Bay City, the majority of the new citizenry, and almost all of the wealthy, chose to make their homes in the tree-covered hills of Zenith, on the Minnesota side of the lake. There was something about the hills and the rocky cliffs and brooding pine forests on the North Shore of the lake that made it special.
The port town on the Wisconsin side of the bay was soon filling the role of tawdry little sister to the lovely and virtuous Zenith. Bay City was the homely one resigned to collecting the runoff. Like algae to a stagnant pond, the lost, the lonely and the otherwise disenfranchised floated to this low point on the geographical survey where the speakeasies, the gambling joints and the sporting houses waited with open doors. There was always a drink to be found, a card to be turned or a skirt to be lifted. The railroaders, the truck drivers and the seamen, along with many “good citizens” of Zenith, came to pursue pleasure and release in a town known to many around the region as “Hell.”
Walking down Main Street, Bay City didn’t look much different than many Wisconsin towns. Markets and furniture stores and hardware, mostly low buildings with hastily assembled storefronts. Snowbanks, a few cars and brown-brick structures that made the dark days darker and the sunny days seem dirty. Black and white and shades of gray.
Leaving the main drag and heading toward the railroad tracks, one would come upon the cracker-box houses of the citizenry. Tap on the window of the right ones and a woman would appear, a woman who would take money for sex. Other stops in the jungle of bungalows might provide a jar of corn liquor in a paper sack or perhaps more exotic means to loosen the bonds of the imprisoned soul.
Down by the waterfront were greasy cafes, cheap rooming houses and boarded-up, sagging buildings with faded signs touting now-illegal imbibing pleasures. Good names like Budweiser and Schlitz and Seagram’s turning gray with age. Closer to the docks, it was mostly flophouses: two-story flops that were perfect if you were between jobs or riding out a binge, either short-term or permanent. Hobo hotels where the desk clerks knew the right houses in the right neighborhoods to find what was needed to make it through another day.
Hell of a place to be born in, Johnny thought. It was after midnight and he was rolling by the High Times Saloon and the Heartbreak Hotel. Wanting to stall a little longer, he decided to cruise over by the viaduct and see if he could find the apartment building that he and his mother had lived in.
He didn’t remember his old man, only the stories.
It was said that Clarence Walker Brown knew all the right places and all the right faces. He was a gambler, a bon vivant and the keeper of a few professional ladies: a Negro making a buck in the very cold, very white North. One may wonder what a black man was doing in northern Wisconsin in 1927. Clarence often pondered that question himself.
He had learned the various scams in and around Chicago from his daddy and his uncle. They had worked the dock and warehouse districts with their women and their cards and their dice. Success eventually had bought them a small club out near the truck stops and the mills. All was fine until prohibition hit and Al Capone and his boys appeared on the scene with a strong interest in corn liquor and the connected rackets.
Then came the fires and the shootings.
Escaping on the run, Clarence had ridden the railroad north, hoping to find a place where the ready cash might flow without the loss of his precious blood. Booming Bay City was the end of the railroad line and the beginning of a new life for him, as well as several other Negroes that had traversed the trail of the tracks.
As always in boomtowns, with the flow of cash and commerce comes the flow of vice. With vice, comes corruption. Bay City had it all. And it was so damn cold the competition was sparse.
The cold equalized things. In the long winters, the main concern was warmth. Everyone is on the same page when it’s ten below zero. Few like to fight when they’re shivering.
Post-1920, as the aftershock from a racially motivated lynching in Zenith reverberated through the region; racism in the Twin Ports became mostly a verbal thing. The Scandinavians and the Bohunks gradually learned how to live with the “coloreds,” generally allowed them to fill a niche.
One Bay City sporting house featured black ladies exclusively, for servicing a strictly white clientele, and most of the other houses featured at least one black prostitute. A black piano player was a fixture on the speakeasy circuit in the infamous North End, and some superb Negro jazz combos occasionally arrived to play all-night gigs. The black gamblers were allowed to ply their trade without interference as long as they played it straight and paid their bills.
Shortly after arriving in town, Clarence had stumbled into a real sweet deal, the good fortune of which reaffirmed his lifelong belief and reliance on luck and circumstance. It had gotten him this far, after all. The circumstances coming into play here being the shortage of healthy “sporting ladies” in Bay City, and the luck, being the three young prostitutes who accompanied Clarence on his journey from Chicago.
Destiny came into play when the foursome chose to make their first stop at the Douglas Hotel. After a round of introductions in which the ladies strutted their stuff and made their nicest, Clarence and the hotel proprietor quickly struck up a deal. In exchange for a small rental fee, the occasional free lay for the proprietor, and a cut of the take, Clarence was allowed to run his ladies out of the upstairs of the Douglas Tavern, currently languishing in disuse next door, and host dice and card games in the backroom.
The local cops pretty much kept their eyes turned away as long as their pockets were lined. On occasion, when the mood struck them or too many ministers had complained to the chief, the boys in blue would bust a card game and scrape a big pot into their coats or maybe make a few nominal arrests of known prostitutes.
In an effort to keep the raids at a minimum, the gamblers often sent turkeys to the police station at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and many on the force were known to fight the winter’s chill with a bit of local moonshine, free of charge.
Clarence didn’t like giving money to cops; it went against his upbringing. As far as he could see it, the only difference between the cops in Bay City and those in Chicago was that up North they were dumber and cheaper to bribe. They were, however, just as brutal. Nevertheless, he marched along with the band, kept his mouth shut and greased the right palms when necessary.
Things went pretty well on the edge of civilization. He wasn’t exactly getting rich, but he had enough to eat and drink and smoke and gamble, put warm clothes on his back and coal in the stove during the six months of winter. He was extremely popular with the ladies, both black and white, and was considered a prized catch among the working girls.
For a time Clarence enjoyed relatively easy living in Bay City, even doing some fishing and playing a little golf in the all-too-brief summers. By 1929, his stable of women had grown to ten and his gaming salon was the most popular in town, attracting many influential and wealthy patrons.
Then the Great Depression hit the country like a razorblade rainstorm.
Railroad and shipping traffic slowed to a near standstill and the mines followed suit. Survival became the watchword. Money got tighter. The poor no longer had anything extra for the occasional bet. Savvy Scandinavians knew how to hunker down and batten down the hatches. The lowlife sunk lower and the ladies of the night, faced with dwindling clientele, moved southward to Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and points west.
To complicate matters, Clarence was growing soft. At least that’s the way he looked at it. He’d always maintained a policy of never getting close to any of his ladies. If they got knocked-up, it was a trip down to the yellow shack by the railroad tracks where the wrinkled old veterinarian would take care of things. Either that, or leave town.
The new, soft Clarence not only had settled down with one of his stable, he was going to be a father. And he never would’ve been in that situation if Ethel Mae weren’t such a fine-looking woman with a good head on her shoulders, as he told anyone willing to listen.
He was now over thirty and the idea of a son didn’t sound that bad to him, except it meant he was going to have to feed, clothe and put a roof over their heads. The mother of his child wouldn’t be a whore no more.
As the fear of the Depression sank further into the fabric of the nation, the gambling crowds grew even smaller. Cash flow slowed to a half-frozen trickle. Clarence felt a little panic now and then. Like maybe it was time to pack up and leave. On to greener pastures, as the Swedes liked to say in that particular sing song way of theirs: On tuu greenah pastuhs….
Being adaptable, he soon tapped into a growth industry: bootleg liquor. In the years after the introduction of the Volstead Act, the sale of illegal alcohol kept the wolf away from many doors across America. Clarence was able to develop a steady income by hawking booze provided to him by a former customer from his brothel days.
The new decade came in cold, dry and dark. The expected birth was only a few months away. Ethel was getting fatter every day. Clarence had never seen anyone eat like that, let alone a woman. They had a little boxy house in the North End. All the working girls were gone and the only gambling to be had was strictly high-stakes poker with the elite.
Clarence had found poker to be a horse of a different color. Sadly, cards were not one of his strengths. Big on feelings and hunches, he never quite felt it with the cards, and the other players were too smart and too rich. When their cards were bad they played it close to the vest and folded. When their cards were good they could buy Clarence out of a pot, overwhelm his limited personal resources.
Best he could do was break even, or, on a good day make enough scratch for a week’s food. He took solace in the fact that he was still close to the guys with the dough. When you were close to the fire, there was always a chance to get warm.
Clarence Walker Brown Junior came into the world at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Bay City, Wisconsin, on March 2, 1930, a healthy strapping baby with his father’s muscles and his mother’s good looks.
Clarence couldn’t help but stare at the boy and feel his fatherly pride swelling. This here was some boy.
The new father proceeded to give family life his best try. He changed his ways some and took jobs doing favors for some of the big wheels from the card games. Little paid favors—whatever they might request. He did the collecting for Jimmy Fuller’s pinball and bowling machines. He chauffeured for Zenith businessman, James P. Baker, who had taken pity on Clarence one night after winning a large pot in which Clarence was holding the better hand but was forced to fold because of a lack of funds.
The reformed pimp continued his effort at family life for close to two years, spending a good chunk of dough to rent a house out in the South End of town so Ethel Mae and little Clarence could get away from the seedy side of things.
Sometimes he’d sit in the kitchen and stare mournfully out the windows at the miles and miles of flat empty land. Land that once was expected to hold the streets and neighborhoods of the future “Chicago of the North.” Any hope for a real city on that tundra had been lost October of 1929 when the stock market crashed.
Clarence often felt an emptiness inside him, a longing for the big city. Busy streets, downtown traffic and smoky nightclubs. An environment in which he could thrive.
Denied this, he gamely went through the teething and the diapers and being cooped up with Ethel Mae when she wouldn’t stop yammering. He lived through the cold winter months and the frigid, damp, non-existent spring. Got through the bouts of claustrophobia and Ethel’s drinking binges and the looks of superiority from his employers.
December of 1932 brought change along with the snow. Prohibition was over and tavern owners were dreaming of the sights and sounds of a full barroom, while the citizenry was busy figuring what items they could go without to afford alcohol. For Clarence, repeal of prohibition proved to be a double-edged sword. First there was the decline in profit from the sale of illicit alcohol, which, when all had been tallied, had proven to be a source of income that, if not for his frequent gambling losses, would have been considered quite good for the time. On the other side of the coin, the new liquor-fueled optimism in the air—or perhaps recklessness—brought his dice games back in favor. With the addition of some new players, a ten-percent rake off the top began to look pretty fine, especially when he could make it grow by playing in other hustlers’ games.
And then came the Big Losing Streak.
The faster he made it, the faster he lost it, longest such streak of his life. His debts grew faster than the snowbanks. Every gambler knows—at least the good ones—about the ups and downs, but he’d never seen nothing like this. The strain began to get to him. He was drinking heavily and his head hurt most of the time.
Then one frosty February night, when there seemed to be no end to the torture, the idea—The Plan—came to him. A scheme to make one big score. Fleece the suckers and escape this hole he’d somehow fallen into. The time and the mood were right.
Clarence had been around long enough to be accepted in Bay City, at least to fellow gamblers. He was part of the scene. His speech, his clothes and his mannerisms had become more Wisconsin than Chicago and his peers treated him accordingly.
As he’d come to grips with this change from big-city smoothie to small-town hustler, Clarence often battled with disgust and self-doubt. His overwhelming need to escape what he now saw as a slow road to the grave allowed him the moral distance to plan a con of his long-time associates. He actually did struggle with feelings of guilt, at times. He believed himself an honest man but could usually find a sufficient rationalization to ease any concerns that might rise to the surface of his mind.
Some of the guys… well, he knew he’d feel kind of bad if they got fished. But the rich guys, he’d gladly take to the cleaners like a pile of cheap suits.
He fed the flames of anticipation among the locals with stories of dice games run by cash-laden Negroes from Chicago with fancy suits, hair straightener and manicures. How these big-time gamblers would cover any bet you could make and smile if they lost. Clarence sold the tales like you sell a kid on the circus, with wild yarns of gigantic pots and of empires won and lost on a single roll of the bones. In the throes of a dull, tedious winter, the brethren were easily led, as the only way to reach Florida back then was a damn long train ride.
It took Clarence a month of phone calls and letters and telegrams to put it all together. He had hyped, cajoled, wheedled and promised, and by the time all was said and done, a series of big-dough games in Zenith and the Minnesota Iron Range had been arranged for a four-day, Friday-to-Monday span.
The final game was to be on a Monday evening in the East End of Zenith at the mansion of J.P. Baker.
A house full of whiskey-addled titans of commerce and industry and enough money to retire to New Orleans in antebellum style would be waiting.
(End of Chapter Three)
T.K. O’Neill’s newly release crime novel Fly in the Milk is available as an ebook for 99 cents at online bookstores, including Barnes and Noble, ebookit, Google, iBookstore (Apple), Amazon, Sony Reader Store, Kobo (Borders) and Ingram Digital.