One More River
For Frank and Freda,
who know all there is to know of love
Contents I Vietnam, 1965
II Guilford, Mississippi, 1931–1943
III Guilford, Mississippi, 1944–1952 IV Greenville, Mississippi, 1962 V Memphis, Tennessee, 1904 VI Guilford, Mississippi, 1962 VII Memphis, Tennessee–Saint Louis, Missouri, 1918–1923 VIII Guilford, Mississippi, 1962 IX Saint Louis, Missouri, 1925 X Greenville, Mississippi, 1962 XI Cincinnati, Ohio–Saint Louis, Missouri–Memphis, Tennessee, 1925–1926 XII Littlefield, Tennessee, 1962 XIII Memphis, Tennessee, 1926–1927 XIV Memphis, Tennessee, 1962 XV Memphis, Tennessee–Saint Louis, Missouri–Kansas City, Kansas, 1927–1930 XVI Memphis, Tennessee–Guilford, Mississippi, 1962–1964 XVII Saint Louis, Missouri–Memphis, Tennessee–New Orleans, Louisiana–Guilford, Mississippi,
1930–1941 XVIII Nah Trang, Vietnam, 1965 Acknowledgments A Biography of Mary Glickman
One More River to Cross
Oh, better love was never told One more river to cross Tis stronger than an iron hand One more river to cross Tis sweeter than honey comb One more river to cross Oh, wasn’t that a wide river River of Jordan, Lord, Wide river There’s one more river to cross Oh, the good old chariot passing by One more river to cross She jarred the earth an’ shook the sky One more river to cross The good old chariot passing by Oh, wasn’t that a wide river River of Jordan, Lord, Wide river There’s one more river to cross
MICKEY MOE LEVY MANAGED HIS war, kept himself from going stark raving mad, by comparing everycrazy, foreign, messed-up thing he saw or touched or smelled or heard to something familiarback home. He’d take those affinities and weave them around himself like a cloak in which hehid like a bandit or a child, and the cloak kept him whole. Sometimes this was challenging andother times not. He figured his age and experiences had something to do with that. He was theoldest of his platoon. Most of the men were ten years younger than he, baby-faced and raw atleast for the first week or two. Mickey Moe was raised a country boy, he’d had his backwoodsadventures. 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, eventhe 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 ofVietnamese. And the ones who were dirt-poor farmers from anywhere at all, with those he feltblood brother to each.
It was just before Chu Lai, the first major bleeding of American troops in the war. All the menon patrol were jumpy. Everyone felt something was coming, and each mustered his nerve in hisown way. Mickey Moe looked across marshland terraced in rice paddies, shrouded in fog, andconjured up Mississippi, conjured up the Pearl River in August at dawn, and it didn’t seem sodifferent. 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, theirsmall backs bent, their pointy hats tilted down hiding their faces, and he thought of LauraAnne: Laura Anne in her broad-brimmed garden hat the day they met, her sweet, lovely facesmiling 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, thesun 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 ofbullets, helicopter blades, boots hitting mud: Laura Anne, Laura Anne, Laura Anne, they sanguntil he had to stop it, until the method he’d found to keep from going nuts threatened toturn 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 ina battlefield. He would not do that to his son. He would not leave him with a great questionmark 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 hesaw the Nazi coming toward him, taking aim. Helpless, he watched the squat peasant legs rushforward. 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 triggerand shoot him first. On such things hang the fate of man, Mickey Moe reminded himself. Not oncourage or capability or even being right. Something like the weather, a thing that changeswith the wind, can be the only reason a Bernard Levy fails to take advantage of the moment andblow out a Nazi’s brains instead of suffer his own spread like a crimson flower over the pureFrench snow.
Nothing like that would happen to Mickey Moe. He wasn’t going to die, not on this alien groundhe’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 mobilehomes 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 herdirective, he found that severed foot from the backwoods, the one he never got out of hisconscious mind no matter how many babies he saw wailing at their dead mamas’ breasts orbuddies 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 inmonsoon mud. It looked like it might right itself and walk straight up to him demanding in itsdead severed foot way why he hadn’t done more that night, that hot Mississippi night, toavenge itself. I did what I could, he told the thing. I did all that I could at the time. Nowtoday I could do a lot more. Thanks to the Armed Forces of the USA, I’ve got the skills. But Ididn’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 topop up in his dreams. He never once dreamt of it back home. Maybe he didn’t have to, it was sooften in his mind.
Funny what haunts a man, he thought. Laura Anne and that chopped-off foot. Two things onopposite extremes of human experience. Yet, they’d always be linked in his head and for goodreason. The foot was a part of the life he and his wife shared. It was their first secret, onethat pitched them head on against murderous Klansmen. They didn’t have to speak of it. It wasjust 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 hiswar came, especially as he was a charming man by all reports, a talker. But Daddy’s ability tokeep a secret was so strong that he had to find out everything he knew about his father on hisown. Finding out about Bernard Levy was the hardest thing he ever did, including going off towar, but in the end, since he wound up with Laura Anne, he thought that was alright. His wifewas worth the price.
During the downtime of military life, he liked to review every second of his relationship withLaura Anne from glorious beginning to the painful separation caused by this insane war. WhenSarge told them all to take a break while he conferred with the signal officer, he removedhimself 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 withtheir cousins and neighbors could meet appropriate, marriageable women from all over thetristate area of Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Mickey Moe, a reluctant attendee, keptapart from the festivities. He drank spiked lemonade from a mason jar and told the other boysstories from his sales route for Uncle Tom-Tom’s insurance agency. He ignored the ladies. Itoffended him he was asked to attend the party at all. He was not some hard luck swain whocouldn’t get a girl on his own. Mama made him promise to go or else Aunt Missy would pitch aholy fit. He’d gone affecting an I-could-care-less manner until the moment he saw Laura AnneNeedleman sitting beneath a massive oak wearing a peach-colored dress and a large-brimmed strawhat. He didn’t know it yet, but all the men of his family were suckers for love at firstsight. True to his forebears, he took one look at Laura Anne Needleman, at her fine-boned faceand figure, at her long honey hair, and his course was fixed. He could not have lookedelsewhere if a horde of men yelled “Fire.”
Unaware she had met her destiny, Laura Anne Needleman glanced up and caught sight of a handsomeyoung man with a square jaw and a thick black forelock falling over almond eyes that studiedher with a starstruck, puppy-dog gaze. She watched him turn red when she favored him with asmile. She patted the spot next to her with a slender hand, then fluttered fingers tipped inthe same color as her dress, tapping them gracefully against the ground as if she were playingthe piano. He nearly tripped over himself rushing to her side and seemed unable to catch hisbreath 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’sCounty 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 thegrave. He feared her opinion of Aunt Missy might taint him.
She laughed outright. Her laughter, gently bubbling up from some warm, knowing place insideher, enchanted him. Between the way she filled out the peach-colored dress and that deep, softlaugh, he was a goner, plain and simple.
There was a pause in conversation then, a silence hard as a block of cement. His mama hadtaught him that too extended a pause in conversation was cruel as a slap to a young girl, so hebegan to talk and once revved up could not stop. All the while, he cursed himself for acting afool, 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 atall.
Well, Miss . . .
He leaned over to study her name tag just as she leaned forward to study his. Their headsbumped 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 andBirmingham the Jubilee. It’s also a fact that the members of our tribe are too spread out tomeet each other on a regular, more casual basis. I think it’s a sign of restraint that AuntMissy organized these tea parties. I am deeply grateful to her that rather than requirin’ usto spend the entire weekend in some stranger’s house goin’ to forty-two events in a row, allwe boys got to do is make sure for two or three hours we don’t get pastry crumbs stuck to ourchin whiskers and don’t spill tea onto anyone’s party dress. Yes, it’s a remarkable sign ofrestraint, 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, accustomedto spinning a spiel tailored to the situation at hand, he found himself at a loss in thiswoman’s presence, and he could only guess why. Laura Anne Needleman put two incredibly softfingers 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 everycorner of the South. I don’t know if it matters much which ones yours are. I am sick of allthis 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’sside—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 theperson settin’ right there in front of me, not all the old ghosts. When I say tell me aboutyour people, I want to know about the ones closest to you in blood. What are they like? What dothey 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 athome and never seemed to interest anyone else. He told her about his mama and how it was hisjob 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 grassunder his hand and sighed and told her what he knew and then, because he was a goner, whathe’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 intoxicatingwhiff of her scent, one of lavender soap and fresh linen dried outdoors in the sun. Sheregarded him intently. The gold flecks in her eyes glittered. There was a fierce heat in hergaze. 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 hischeek. It took all he had to keep himself from grabbing her right there in front of everyoneand planting a smack, hard and wet, on that sweet little mouth this close to his own. To coverevidence of his struggle, he paused, mopped his brow and neck with a pocket handkerchief, and
Daddy claimed he came from a prominent family in Memphis, but only three cousins of his, twomale 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 forhis granddaddy and would not attend a celebration, even their own son’s wedding. Now, Mama’speople had never heard of such a ban, but they assumed the Levys were more observant Jews thanthey were. Daddy told them his people were from somewhere or other along the Rhine, which fromthe Sassaport perspective, bein’ of Portuguese descent, was so foreign a place the river mightas well have flowed through China. In those days, people didn’t have long engagements. Once acouple declared their affections, you married them off right quick before they had a chance todishonor 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 thatthey 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 Memphisto visit them, but he always left us home. Mama said he was pavin’ the way, pavin’ the wayfor our eventual presentation, which I believe she put some faith in. She shouldn’t have. Itnever happened.
Then the war came. Daddy got killed sittin’ in a foxhole half-froze to death. His buddy toldus 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 longedfor her to keep it there. He swallowed hard to embellish his misery. He dipped his head to makehis forelock graze his eyes, a pose he knew women found difficult to resist, and dropped hisvoice to a soft, sad, seductive hum.
. . . Mama hired a detective to track down Daddy’s family so she could let them know their sonand heir was dead. It was a considerable expense for a war widow with a sparse income, but shewas 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 bothhands 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 hecome from. I only know the falsehoods he told. I don’t remember him. But I have afeelin’—and there’s some fact to this, because when I was a bit younger I looked intothings—those Memphis Levys lied, lied as outright as my daddy, about who he was and wherehe’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 hisso-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 morecould 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 begunto 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 thedeck of a riverboat on a sparklin’ day in spring. I might take a little study, but there is nodeception in me. I’ve made my life a devotion in plain talk and honest proposal to atone forwhatever 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 themost 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.
Fates have been sealed on less.
Stuck in the heat of a Vietnam about to erupt in its first full-scale battle, Mickey Moe wasreluctant to let go of his memories of meeting his wife. Reliving them brought her so close asudden waft of tropical breeze felt exactly like her breath against his neck. It sounds like afairy tale now, he thought. Who would have thought that summer day amid the sweet tea andlittle cakes that tribulation would be born? It should have been all Saturday night dinners anddrive-in movies, but what we got were the sufferings of Job himself. Blood, agony, and loss alltied up in a bow. He shook his head, then smiled. It turned out alright, though, even if shedid find out she was pregnant the day before I shipped out. We made it through the backwoods.We’ll make it through this. But who would have thought? Who?
Crackah Mick! Crackah Mick! Wake the fuck up! his buddy called out. We’re on the move!
Mickey Moe shook himself and snapped to with a big country grin. Sorry, Wiry, he said. I’mcomin’.
He knew the boys thought him slow-minded when he was only a dreamer. Most of ’em were Yankeesor city boys who couldn’t figure him out with a map. Seemed to him they had very peculiarideas of what a child of the South might be. When he was polite in speech, they called him apansy-assed born-again. When he emphasized no, no, he was a Jew and proud of it, sometimes theyjust laughed, half unbelieving. When it came to things like skinning a wild pig someone shot toimprove on the cees, they gave him the task of butcher when he’d never touched game his wholelife. No one noticed how he’d tuck his head into his chest to hide the retch he choked downwhen he split some critter’s hide, or how putting his hands into steamy innards made his eyestear up. They jumped to conclusions. They thought him a good old boy, hard to blood and guts bybirthright. He took on that role with courage for the sake of the unit, but in his heart heknew he was never anything but a good old boy, more or less. He wondered if he ought to setthem straight, if their misperceptions made him a danger to others. In wartime, a man has to bewho he is, no bullshit, stand up or stand down. Lives depend on knowing what another man isgoing to do and how he’s going to do it. It wasn’t his fault, he figured, that these Yankeeblacks and Midwest whites stuck him in a round good-old-boy hole he didn’t fit, a square-pegSouthern Jew in the middle of a war no one understood, least of all him.
On that day, as they marched single file up the side of the latest godforsaken hill, he saw awoman in distress stopped by the side of the trail they patrolled, her belly big with child anda broken wheel on the cart she pulled. He left his line and walked toward her calmly, pattingthe air with his palms to reassure her, smiling, nodding his head and showing his teeth so shewouldn’t be afraid.
Mick! his buddies yelled. Get your Jew-ass back here!
He waved behind himself to let them know he didn’t care what they yelled, he was going forwardand sure, it didn’t make much sense, but after his reveries he wanted more than anything tofix the woman’s wheel as a way of making up to Laura Anne that she was pregnant and on herown. What did the hippies call it? Good karma.
So he smiled huge with plenty of teeth just as he hoped people back home smiled at Laura Anne,when suddenly the Cong mama pulled an automatic out from under a bundle of rags in her cart.That’s where he thought it came from anyway, but Oh Lord, he really didn’t know where shepulled it from, it was that quick. Showing him her own pointy little teeth to scare him, shegrinned then screamed a yell as hard, as high as any rebel yell his ancestors marching toVicksburg ever let rip and shot him. He didn’t even know where, it happened so fast.
Then everything got real slow.
He sank to his knees, keeled over on his side, and his eyes, weighted with iron bars, startedto shut against all the will he had left. Before everything went dark, he watched her bodyflail helplessly about with the impact of his buddies’ payback fire. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Herlegs went in all directions, her arms pinwheeled, her torso seemed to have a thousand joints asit bent unnaturally to one side and then the other. Drops of blood fanned out around her in
spirals of fine, long threads as she rose up in the air then fell down in the dirt. Likefirecrackers, Mickey Moe thought, on the Fourth of July or New Year’s.
Stay with me, Mick, someone far away said.
How can I? Mickey Moe tried to answer from the dark, I’m here, and you’re not. But his mouthdidn’t work or if it did, he couldn’t hear himself.
From where he was, he wondered where the baby went, where the Cong baby went, because last hesaw of its mama flip-flopping on a current of gunshot, she didn’t have a baby-lump anymore.Maybe it was never there at all. Maybe he just imagined it, because he was that fresh fromconjuring Laura Anne. Or it could have been where the gun came from. He pondered the optionsawhile, there in the dark, in the nameless dark. Why was it so dark in the middle of the dayanyway? he wanted to know. And then he decided he liked it, this quiet dark place, this warm,pulsing cave you could burrow into deeper and deeper without moving a muscle. He hadn’t knownsuch quiet for the longest time. Certainly not since he landed in Saigon. He might have stayedthere forever, but the medic injected him with some kind of happy juice and the drug tookinstant effect. Light broke through dark, and the world came back to him. He was in it againbut apart also, as if he was watching from somewhere else. His buddies barked orders at oneanother and moved around very fast, going nowhere except in circles around him. Then he noticedthat he could not feel his legs, which were covered in bandages leaking blood. He wondered ifthe cause of his paralysis was the injection or if two dead limbs would be his ticket home.Somethin’ extreme has happened to my extremities, he tried to tell the boys as a joke, but allthat came out of his throat was a high-pitched, hysterical laugh like a crazy person’s. Thenhe heard the whup-whup-whup of the helicopter arriving from somewhere far off to evacuate him.On hearing it, whup-whup-whup, faint like wings of a bird in a summer’s still meadow, hishead, wherever it was, sang Laura Anne, Laura Anne, Laura Anne. The sound of her name made himfeel that she was there beside him, and because she was so near he spoke to her. No, darlin’,he whispered. Do not worry. I am not going to die here. You are not at all my mama. And I amnot my daddy. We are ourselves. We could never be those two.
Guilford, Mississippi, 1931–1943
BEATRICE DIANE SASSAPORT’S LIFE DID not turn out in the manner she anticipated. The privilegeand promise of her youth encouraged her to have expectations. First off, Mickey Moe’s mama washands-down the beauty of the Sassaport family, and beauty is its own calling card, embossed ingold. Beadie’s eyes were Tartar eyes, hazel and widely set, framed by a pair of archedeyebrows delicate as a Japanese brushstroke. Her face was oval-shaped, sweetly rounding at thechin as if the hand of God had cupped it in its formative stage. Her nose was straight,assertive but modest enough to allow her cheekbones and mouth to make more prominentstatements. Such remarkable harmony was enhanced by a head of hair considered a marvel ofshining black density too well behaved to frizz up in the heat. Her parents kept her out of thesun. Her skin was a rich amber and if six rays of sun got to her at the same time, hercomplexion went a shade darker than was prudent for a girl-child to sport in Guilford,Mississippi, at that time. From the cradle on, her family called her the Infanta as she lookeda proper princess of Portugal, from whence her people had come to the South more than twohundred years before. She developed the figure and carriage for the evocation as she grew.Under the weight of constant praise, she could not help assuming a regal manner. The woman hadairs. Etiquette was for her the very substance of civilized existence, what separated man frombeast. If she experienced a situation for which none of the customary cues of proper behaviorapplied, she became so distressed, she invented her own with determined and startlingcreativity.
Opposites attract must have been among her more conventional wisdoms. Mickey Moe’s daddy hadbeen a short, stocky man, round and hard as a stew pot, with a peddler’s rough hands andplodding feet. If taken one by one, his features were handsome enough, but they settled in abundle at the center of a globular head and were framed by a pair of jug ears. His large buttoneyes were capped by thick red eyebrows of a northward slant, and between them emerged a thin,straight nose that flared at the nostrils as unexpectedly as a trumpet vine in an arctic plain.Beneath that was a dainty but impeccably shaped mouth. All of it together made his adult face atableau of something so innocent, so childlike that whomever he met in the course of a daycould not help but look at him and smile. This was not the worst luck. Given a lifetime ofgenial regard from strangers and intimates alike, the man developed a radiant good humor thatthe Sassaports decided must be the source of his wife’s attraction to him.
When questioned on the matter, Beadie would demur. I believe he’s a good man, she’d say, andhe’s entertainin’ and he’s kind, very kind, to me. One of the things she liked best abouthim was that he was respectful from the first, unlike other men who’d come to call. Even afterhis death, when all the world discovered Bernard Levy was a bounder, she revered his memory onthat score.
Unfortunately, their daughters had not turned out like their celebrated mother, being more onthe pleasant-looking side if you were kind about it. When they complained about their flaws,she’d tell them not to fret about themselves so. Be grateful, she’d say. Beauty is a curse.Men everywhere bother you, even the ones who seem so nice before they get you alone. They’reall hands and their eyes violate you a thousand times an hour. Now your daddy kept his hands tohimself while we courted and his eyes where they belonged—on mine. That went a long way withme.
What she didn’t say, perhaps because it never really penetrated her consciousness, was thatbeautiful women are often the most self-critical, far worse than their pleasant-lookingdaughters. In secret, great beauties demonize every blemish. When such a woman appreciates afunny-looking man or an ugly man, the unworthy one is so astounded his affections can veertoward worship. That’s a heady tonic for an insecure beauty. Bernard’s respect, his nearknightly devotion, most likely won her.
Or it could have been his money.
Bernard Levy, grandson of the founder of Levy Agricultural Supplies headquartered in Memphis,Tennessee, looked to have heaps of money when he first came to town, bags and bags of gold coinin weights sufficient to seduce every Israelite girl in Hinds County, including a half-educatedbelle socially crippled by her innumerable requirements and borderline skin tone. Bernard’smoney worked its seductive magic for his son’s generation as well. Despite his familyconnections, Mickey Moe might never have been invited to the garden party where he met LauraAnne Needleman if his family had not been from the swell part of town. No matter that Daddy andhis money were long gone or that his six-columned house peeled paint from every slat and saggedon its foundations into mud that had never dried out entirely since the flood, their addresswas old, important. The very best people lived on Mickey Moe’s street. It was a street so finethat when his daddy first moved in, everyone in the town whispered Bernard Levy must have madea deal with the devil to wind up there. At the very least, he must have bribed or blackmailedsomeone. Imagine that. A Jew on Orchard Street, they’d said, what do you all think he’s goton whom? No one could accept there was that much honest money in pitchforks, feed bags, andplow blades in 1931. In those days, farmers around sold their produce and cotton at bargainbasement rates or saw them rot. They bartered what was left over for essentials they couldn’tgrow or raise. They didn’t buy equipment. They repaired what they had or went without andtilled the soil the way their grandfathers did, with their own two hands and the hands of alltheir women and children, using the sharpest implements they could scavenge, or jerry rig, orsteal. They furnished their own seed and their animals, if they could keep any, ate what natureleft around for them to find. Yet Bernard Levy made money hand over fist at the family trade.Imagine that, they’d said the day he moved in, inventing unsavory explanations for how a Levymight accomplish such wealth off the souls of the poor.
Of course, the public solution Bernard Levy put forth to the puzzle of his resources lacked thecolorful drama of pirated land and dispossessed widows the good Christian men of Guilford madeup. When Beadie decided to ferret out the source of his wealth on their second date at theRialto Cinema all the way over to Jackson, she chose phrases she thought would flatter him intocandor.
You’re such a young man, Mr. Levy, she said, to have accomplished so much in the materialsense. Everyone in Guilford is impressed by your industry. I suppose you worked after school asa child and all the summers from dawn to dusk, spending more time learning the art of commercethan your ABCs.
Bernard laughed and leaned back so hard in his fourth-row orchestra seat it cracked, startlingtheir chaperone, Beadie’s brother Ben, into spilling soda pop all over the aisle. He commencedto lie as easily as a rougher man might cough or belch. I’m very sorry to disabuse you of thatcharming notion, Miss Sassaport, but the source of my riches is more mundane. I had nothing mywhole life, and then one day my granddaddy died.
Beadie did not respond with the amusement his riposte encouraged. That’s terribly sad, shesaid, then favored him with a studied look of empathy, peeping up through her eyelashes androunding her luminous almond eyes. She’d practiced the pose in the mirror ever since she’dseen Norma Shearer perform the same trick in The Devil’s Circus five years earlier. Beadie did
It took all the self-control the man possessed not to gasp. No, Miss Sassaport, he managed,elaborating the falsehood that would steer his family for two generations, it is not.Granddaddy was ninety-seven year old and hadn’t known his given from his surname for sixyears. It was a blessing.
Four months later, Beadie and Bernard were united in matrimony. Between that happy day and thebombing of Pearl Harbor, Beadie refused to investigate the source of her husband’s wealth anyfurther. Her reason was rooted in conviction. Beadie believed a woman’s job was to feather thenest, a man’s to provide the feathers. As long as Bernard allowed her to acquire dazzlingplumage for the neighbors and relations to see, she asked no questions.