EXCERPTS FROM END OF CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE & BEGINNING OF CHAPTER FORTY
HERE'S THE SETUP: These scenes are between Lt. Fred Wiley, IL State Police Homicide Investigator, and Elnora (Eliot) Ness, Cook County State's Attorney. Eliot, who is black, and Wiley who is white, had a torrid affair three decades earlier. Eliot refused to marry Wiley and never explained why.
Now Eliot has just buried her husband, Truman White, and Wiley has had a chance encounter with Kenny, Eliot and Truman's oldest son... and Wiley has discovered a devastating truth.
Wiley is now determined to learn why the only woman he has ever truly loved robbed him of something even more precious than his love for her...
Wiley found Eliot in her office.
She looked up and smiled slightly. She looked tired; he could see she still hadn’t shaken off the strain of Truman’s death.
“How ya’ doing?”
“OK. You know, just doin’ I guess.” She peered over her bright red reading glasses. “Thanks for the sympathy card. I appreciated it.”
“Tough break, Christmas and all.”
“Truly. We buried him on the 19th. It was very hard. Christmas was his favorite time of year.”
“I heard. Kenny told me.”
“C’mon in. Clear off that chair and have a seat.” She motioned to the one chair that was least covered with files. “Just put everything on the floor.”
“Naw, it’s OK, I can’t stay. Just had a court appearance and took a gamble to see if I could find you.”
“So, I was wondering when you were going to stop by.”
“Why? Is there something we should be discussing?”
“What do you think?” She was wary; wouldn’t give anything up until necessary. A good attorney.
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
They both fell silent and just stared at one another. Eliot removed her glasses and fumbled for a tissue to clean them. Wiley changed his mind and cleaned off the chair and sat down.
“Eliot, anything special you want to tell me about Kenny?”
“Special? What do you mean, ‘special?’ Everything about that boy is special, Fred.”
“I believe you’re right.”
Pointedly she said, “He was as much Truman’s pride and joy as mine, Fred. Just as much.”
“Of course. I’m sure that’s true.”
“But I’ll say this,” she paused and took a deep breath, as if she were ready to take a plunge off a high dive, “he’s just like his father. Likes action, not one to be a homebody. Always liked to play cops and robbers as a kid; always had to be the cop. Now he goes for fast cars and, I’m afraid, might have fallen in love with the wrong woman. Kenny never seems too smart when it comes to love. Like I said, just like his father.”
So it was true.
They sat in silence for at least ten minutes. She played with her glasses, then opened some mail. He never took his eyes off her.
Who is this woman, really? How could she have done this to me? To her son? Why?
All those years of loving you, he wanted to say, all those years of wanting you and praying for you and hanging on the sidelines to maybe get a glimpse of you, hear your voice, smell your perfume. All those lonely goddamn years of yearning.
You’ve committed a horrible crime, Eliot, a horrible crime. You robbed me of my own son. You robbed your son of his real father.
And you’re sitting here calmly, opening your mail. I’m dying inside, Elnora.
How could you have done such a thing to me?
It was beyond Wiley’s comprehension.
Did you hate me that much? You could have stolen anything from me, anything. I would have given everything I own. Hell, I would’ve died so you could have my organs if you needed them.
But you took from me the only thing in the world that could mean more to me than you. You stole my son.
“I’m not leaving until you tell me why.”
She said nothing.
“Eliot, I want to know why.”
She remained silent. She put her mail aside and stared out the window.
“I’m asking you a question and I demand an answer.”
“To save you. Maybe to save Kenny too.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“From the consequences of yourself. You’re far too white to ever humble yourself enough to play the nigger to save your life.”
He looked at her like she was genuinely insane.
“You’re just like my father, Fred. You’re just like him. Full of pride and confidence and righteousness. It ruined us, all of us. It works in the courtroom, but not the alleys or the backwaters. Not there.”
“Elnora, you better talk sense to me and you’d better be honest because I’m about ready to explode. I think I’m losing my goddamn mind here, I really do.”
“Not here, Fred. Please. Not here.”
He reached over and slammed her office door.
“Yes: Here. Now.”
Her face was a rigid inscrutable mask. “I said no, not here.”
“SCREW YOU NOT HERE!” Wiley jumped up and slammed a fist into piles of paperwork on her desk. Her files flew everywhere.
“Goddamnit, you robbed me of my SON, my ONLY child! You will tell me why, NOW. Right now!”
An attorney walking past her office heard Wiley and threw open the door. He looked seriously alarmed.
“Eliot? You OK?” He glared at Wiley.
“Get the fuck out of here, pal!” Wiley stood up, homicidal mania written all over his face. His hand was under his jacket, on his weapon.
Eliot jumped to her feet and ran between them. “Fred, sit down damnit!”
“I’m getting a sheriff,” the younger lawyer said.
“Ray, no, wait.” She grabbed her colleague by the arm and pushed him into the hall. “It’s alright, Ray, I have it under control.”
“You don’t look like you have it under control Eliot. Who is that big bastard?”
“Lt. Wiley, State Police.” The man’s eyebrows shot up. “An old dear friend. We go back over thirty years.”
He relaxed but only slightly. “You’re sure about this? I don’t care who he is, I could have his ass hauled out of here.”
“No, no, it’s OK, really. Just think of it as a family quarrel, will you?”
The man eyed her up and down. “Well, if you say so but I’ll be next door. If I hear anything I don’t like, he’s outta’ here.”
Eliot sat across from Wiley for several minutes before she spoke; he glared at her with what she could only suppose was pure hatred. Well, it’s come to this, she thought. And what did you expect, girl? Don’t the chickens always come home to roost?
“My father was white and his name was Myron Nessnik but everyone outside of his Jewish family called him Ron. After he moved to the south he shortened his surname to Ness.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
“He was a civil rights lawyer, an idealist. He should have been a Zionist living in a kibbutz in Israel or fighting in the Sinai but he wasn’t religious; didn’t even think of himself as a Jew. Maybe that was his first mistake. He should have married a nice zaftig Jewish girl who kept Kosher and then joined a law firm in New York or Chicago. He married my mother instead. That was his second mistake.”
“So your father’s Jewish? I don’t give a shit your father’s Jewish.”
“Was; past tense. He’s dead. Got himself murdered. It was his third mistake.”
“I’m sorry but I don’t understand how any of this…”
She stood up and put on her coat.
“Let’s get out of here. I need a drink.”
“Where the hell are we going to go around here?”
The area around 26th and California near the courthouse and Cook County Jail isn’t known for the ambience of its nearby eateries.
“I know a comfortable place where we can have privacy. I’ll drive.”
Eliot drove to Aztlan, a tiny Mexican restaurant a mile away. A short squat senorita with a warm smile fell all over Eliot when she walked in the door with a pasty-faced gringo. Eliot spoke in perfect Spanish and within minutes they were in a small homey parlor behind the kitchen. Wiley was surprised to find it was part of the family’s living quarters.
“Best real Mexican food in Chicago,” she said as she threw her coat on the couch. “These people are like family to me.”
“Yeah, apparently so.”
Wiley was still trying to take it all in when a beefy young man came in with a bottle of tequila, salt and a half dozen limes. He spoke excellent English and gave Eliot a big hug.
“My family’s honored to have you here, Ms. Ness. Mamma’s making you and your friend some food.”
After Jorge left Eliot explained, “We go back some. I helped the family out a little.”
“I’d say you helped them out a whole lot.”
Wiley looked around the tidy immaculate room. It was decorated with the typical Mexican accoutrements, including a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of burning votive candles, a poster of Emiliano Zapata, and various historical maps of Mexico, including one that showed Mexican territory when it included the entire southwest up to and including northern California.
“What’s with this place El? What have you got going here?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, maybe another time. But it works for us now, Fred, so take it for what it is.” She poured two shots of Oro Azul and cut up a lime.
“Here. Have some tequila.”
He picked up the bottle. “This is the good stuff. You don’t need the salt or limes.”
“Old habits die hard. Anyway, I love the salty-sour combo.”
Wiley downed his shot and placed the glass upside down on the tray. “Nice. I needed something.”
Within minutes they were sharing a large platter of homemade quesadillas and pork tamales and Wiley began to relax. The tequila worked wonders and the food was delicious. He opened his shirt collar and sprawled on a huge over stuffed couch covered with brilliantly colored serapes. An enormous white and black cat waddled over and slumbered at his feet. It was all a bit surreal.
“So now that we’re sitting in some wetback’s living room drinking tequila in front of Mary Queen of Heaven, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to explain to me why you broke my heart and robbed me of my own blood. You know, babe, these Latino types would kill you for stealing a man’s son.”
“Don’t call them wetbacks. Ever.”
Eliot performed the ritual with the salt and lime and knocked down the fire water flawlessly. She did it several times before she spoke.
“My mother was just a local girl, a black Georgia peach, but she was gifted. She went to Spellman College on full scholarship and returned to Metawaukee, her small town, to teach. She could have gone anywhere and turned down a chance to teach in Chicago. My father was running a one lawyer office for the ACLU in Atlanta and they met when he was driving back to Atlanta from a trip to Savannah. He stopped for something to eat sixty miles south of Atlanta, in the black section of town, at a local diner owned by my grandparents. That’s where he met my mother. They lost their minds and fell in love.”
“Like us, maybe?”
Eliot sighed, “Yes Fred, I suppose like us.”
“But they followed through on their love, didn’t they? They took the plunge and made the commitment, right?” It was a very thinly veiled reproach but it was a jab he couldn’t resist.
“If you want you can look at it that way, but you should know it cost them their lives.”
“But they had each other. Maybe they died happy.”
“They had each other but they didn’t die happy. My father died after he was strung up to a tree and tortured with a blow torch. It’s hard to say what he might have seen before he died because his eyes were eventually gouged out but not before four rednecks beat and raped my mother. They knocked out most of the teeth in her gorgeous sweet mouth, a mouth that was so pure it never uttered a swear word or took the name of the Lord in vain. But my father’s eyes were still in his head when they savaged her; we learned later he saw that much. Of course, I suppose, blind or not, he would have known what was happening because he could still hear. Everyone in the county could have heard my mamma’s screams.”
Eliot’s voice sounded very young and far away and remnants of her southern accent floated in the air.
“Jesus, Eliot.” Wiley lost his appetite and pushed his plate away; he poured himself another shot.
Eliot spoke without any passion; her face was a mask again, a shield.
“I was there. I saw it,” she whispered.
Wiley tried to speak but the words congealed like clots in his throat, ready to choke him.
“I was asleep under a blanket in the back of the car when our car was driven off a rural road between Birmingham and Montgomery by those four redneck monsters in two pick-up trucks. Both vehicles had gun racks and Confederate flag decals. It was December 10th, 1955. I was five years old.”
She poured herself another shot of tequila and downed it quickly, no salt, no limes.
“My parents had been up to Birmingham to lend support to the Birmingham Bus Boycott started by Rosa Parks ten days earlier. My father was taking us home and then was going to return to Birmingham. He knew everyone in the movement and was very close to the Kings, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins. Everyone.”
She paused and started sucking a lime. A single tear ran down her cheek and she caught it with one brightly painted finger nail. She studied it for a long moment, a solitary tear drop.
“See? No more tears. I’m all dried up, just one weak little drop left.”
Eliot put her finger with the tear in her mouth and made a popping sound as she sucked.
“Now I’ve had the salt. Pour me another.”
Wiley did as he was told and slid the shot glass across the table. She belted it down.
“The ACLU, NAACP and a coalition of Christians and Jews put so much heat on the county that those rednecks were finally rounded up and brought to trial but it was years before the feds started prosecuting the Klan for civil rights violations so they were tried in state court with an all white jury of like minded white trash on the tainted evidence of one allegedly crazy black whore and her piccaninny little brat.”
She poured another shot. Wiley had no idea she had such a tolerance for hard booze.
“My mother killed herself five months after those cock sucker rednecks were acquitted, exactly two days after she learned that one of those rednecks freely admitted in open court that they only intended to ‘rough up’ my father ‘because he wasn’t willing to share’ and he and his friends didn’t think ‘that was very white of him.’ Apparently, that line brought down the house. Even the judge thought it was funny.”
Wiley poured two more shots and drank both of them.
Twenty minutes passed, maybe thirty. Eliot spoke first.
“I read an article not too long ago that said a prominent black civil rights leader once commented that during the 60’s, during the voter registrations and the height of the movement, over ninety percent of the civil rights lawyers in Mississippi were Jewish. Isn’t that amazing? My father was working in the south as early as ’48.”
Wiley just listened.
“My father believed in law. He believed that good laws were the crowning achievements of civilized people.”
“He was right.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“What happened to you, Eliot? Did they find you?”
“No, because I snuck out of the car and hid in some tall grasses and shrubs. I was a little coward.”
“Coward? You were five!”
“Well, on one level I realize that, but on another I don’t accept it.”
“You couldn’t have done anything except get yourself killed or God knows what else.”
“Well, the fact is I never even tried.”
“Well, Eliot, I guess I need to digest this,” he said, “because obviously you’re telling me that what happened to your parents shaped you in such a way that you wouldn’t marry me because I’m white, and when you walked out of my life back in 1978 you knew you were pregnant with my child. You loved me and God knows I loved you but because of what happened on some godforsaken road in Alabama in 1955 you felt you were justified in denying me my child, my son – and denying him his real father. Is that what I’m hearing?”
Wiley spoke softly; he didn’t raise his voice and he didn’t even show much emotion. He was just exhausted.
“That’s what you think you’re hearing,” she whispered.
“What does that mean?”
Eliot didn’t answer.
“El, I cannot even begin to imagine what you witnessed. Honest to God, I can’t. And if you hated all white men after what you witnessed, I’d understand. I would. But you didn’t hate all white men, did you? No that couldn’t be.”
“I never hated you.”
“You’re right, you didn’t. I know that’s true because I know what we had together. I loved you with all my heart and soul and our bodies were one. You kissed every inch of me, every inch of me…”
“Please! Stop it, Fred, please.”
“No babe, I will not. Your mouth was all over me and mine all over you. We swapped spit and sweat and I filled you with semen and apparently even put life in your womb. You cannot tell me you could have done any of that, or even had my child, if when you looked at me you saw those redneck bastards on that goddamn dirt road….”
“Is that what you think?” she snapped. “I hate you because you’re white?”
He sighed and leaned back, devastated.
“Woman, I don’t know what the hell to think anymore.”
“I loved you Fred. Maybe I still do. But I was protecting you, baby. Protecting you.”
He’d never understand and she knew it. It was hopeless.
Wiley stood up and walked over to her; he pulled her up and looked into her eyes.
“Eliot, did you ever think that maybe we could have discussed it? Gotten you, me, both of us, some help, some therapy? Whatever it took, we could have done it. Do you think I wouldn’t want to know about you, all about you, every moment of your life? Do you think I wouldn’t work with you to help you overcome your fears.”
His voice was breaking.
“Eliot, I would have done anything. The only thing I never wanted to do is what you demanded I do: leave.”
“You don’t understand.” One more tear slalomed down her cheek. She let it fall where it may. It bounced off Wiley’s hand.
“You never gave me a chance to understand. I would have tried. I would have done anything. But now it’s thirty-two years beyond understanding.”
He let her go and walked over to the couch where he left his jacket.
“Where are you going?”
“To my car.”
“It’s over a mile away.”
“Good. I need the walk.”
“What are you going to do about Kenny?”
“I don’t know El, I don’t know. I’ve never been a father before. It’s new to me.”
“Please don’t do anything rash.”
He looked at her long and hard.
“I’ve lived for you Eliot, every day since the moment I first laid eyes on you. I married four other women under the pretense that I loved them when in my heart I knew I only loved you. I suppose they eventually figured it out; they weren’t totally stupid. But you had a life, Eliot. A real life. You had it all. A husband you loved and who loved you. You have three great kids.”
He paused and took a very deep breath.
“Yeah, you have three great kids, Eliot. The only problem is one of them is also mine.”
And he was gone.