HEROIC AND KNIGHTLY CHAMPION

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I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land.

by Dell Franklin

Verona, Italy 1966

I figure somebody lookin’ after Paladin Johnson when they send his black ass to the 25th Army field hospital in Verona, Italy, the summer of l966, when troops is gettin’ bumped off by the bushel in ‘Nam.

I don’t know nothin’ about Italy. I only know my ghetto in Cleveland, Hough. I runnin’ in the streets, always in trouble, a mess for my momma to deal with, a bigger mess for my teachers to deal with, so finally they kick my ass out of school and judge tell me either I get my ass in the army or go to the slammer.

In the army, I bring with me some cocky street jive, wantin’ everybody know I’m a bad dude, but it ain’t long ‘fore them drill sergeants beat my ass down like I some kind of turkey, though I would never be a punk.

First time I get off post I just walk. It’s nothin’ like I picture in my head. So old, and crumbly, some places still broken up from bombs in the war. And the folks, these Italians, they like to sit around these cafes called TRATTORIAS and gabble and wave they hands, getting ’all riled, like everything a big deal.

Walkin’ through Verona nothin’ like walkin’ through white Cleveland, or downtown, where niggers all over the place and everybody look at you like you gon pull a job, snatch a purse, you know, bad news dude. In Verona, I one of the only black dudes walkin’ around, and Italians gawk at me like they curious, not scared, like they maybe wanna find out who I am and what I’m about.

Ain’t long before First Sergeant McCray got me trained all over the dispensary and put me in charge of the shot room, and that’s where I meet new trooper Thomas, we bros right off, he difficult, always scowlin’, actin’ bad, angry at white folks, readin’ Malcolm X. He bitch to McCray about honkies getting’ better duty and promotion, thinkin’ cuz McCray black he gonna give him a break, but Top don’t stand for no jive. Top treat me good, and he treat my white buds, Ruffner and DeSimone, good, too, cuz they stand-up and cool.

In fact, I got to know Maria DeRia, little lady work the post snack bar and bowlin’ alley, through these two honkies. When I go to the snack bar with Ruff and Dee for a burger, I got my eye on DeRia, workin’ behind the counter. She what you call pixie-cute, so tiny, not 5-foot-tall, older lady, maybe 30, but got her a fine little ass in that white uniform, and I always practice my Italian on DeRia, try and impress her, and I guess cuz I butcherin’ the language she think it funny, you know, cute, and she laugh, and give me extra fries with my burger, and when she smile and laugh them little lines around her eyes crinkle up and her whole face light up. She ain’t got perfect features, and she got a crooked tooth, but she beautiful and I know she sweet inside.

DeRia married, got her a 12-year-old girl. I find this out askin’ in my Italian. I don’t ever speak English to DeRia, though she speak some cuz she been workin’ this post snack bar 10 years.

Sometime Tom join me and Ruff and Dee at the bowlin’ alley, where they got dime beers. None of us bowl. Only four lanes. We go cuz DeRia workin’ at night. She give out bowlin’ shoes and sell beer and pop and snacks and make burgers. Only four stools at her little bar, and some time we all talkin’ to DeRia at the same time, butcherin’ Italian, teasin’ her, tellin’ her she sexy, and beautiful, I love you, caro mia, bella amore, and she laugh and tease back, she wear a nice skirt and sweater when she work the alley, and comb her short black hair and put on make-up, she know we like her a lot and all want her and we all bettin’ who gon sleep with her first, though ain’t no GI slept with this fine lady, so is the word on post. She a church woman. Catholic.

Well, one night I come in alone while everybody else working and bring her roses. DeRia look at these flowers, sniff them, hold them to her heart, and almost cry, and she say, “Johnson, you really love me, caro bello?”

“Si, Maria DeRia, mi bella.” I say. “Amore molto.” Then I make her laugh. She glowin’. I make her laugh again, and she still smellin’ them roses, and she look deep in me, and she say, “We make love tonight, Paladin. I like you very much. You are nicest American boy I know in all my time I work here.”

I go to the dispensary and get hold of Ruff and Dee, workin’ the graveyard, ask can I borrow the Ford Fairlane they own together and Dee flip me the keys. They don’t believe I got DeRia. I been in Verona a year and only been to two whores, both downtown. Ain’t no Italian chick goin’ out with me less I take the whole family along and they watchin’ like a hawk I don’t touch her.

So after DeRia close the alley she walk off post and I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land, and we got out two army blankets my two buds keep for such occasions, and DeRia and me make love. Man, she is a biddy thing, but all woman, and one hot kisser, she kiss me like no woman has, no tongue or anything like that, but just kissin’ and holdin’ and scratchin’ and bitin’ my lips, and when I inside her and kissin’ her pretty face she talkin’ to me, she yell AMORE, AMORE, oh, Paladin, AMORE, screamin’ that word when I come, and I know DeRia love me and I love her.

We start talkin’. She say her husband over 40 and fat, all he do is go to soccer games and argue soccer and drink espresso all day and vino at night and eat pasta in the little trattoria they own in their neighborhood. He too lazy work the trattoria. DeRia work days and nights on post and then she work the trattoria nights off while fatty drink and argue soccer, like this kind-a carryin’ on better than a woman.

Anyway, I drop DeRia off a block from home and I feelin’ so fine. I got my shot room where I boss. Topkick McCray in my corner. I get on with everybody, got two honkey friends like brothers. They slam my back and grinnin’ at me when I back after midnight, almost like family.

But Thomas, he angry, and scowlin’, sulkin’, say DeRia nothin’ but a white bitch, and we got at it, I pin his ass and wag a finger and he know I fuck him up, so he sag, and he angry with me, but that’s okay, cuz if he ain’t got nothin’ good to say, well, stay away.

Dee and Ruff, they let me borrow the Fairlane when I got nights off and DeRia sneak off, and we go to our hill and sip some vino from her bar and she cuddle right up to me, like she mine, and she is sweet, and so clean, and she love me and ain’t afraid to say so, she love me so much she cry every time after we make love, cuz she got to go home to old fatty, don’t touch her, don’t care about nothin’ but hangin’ out with his soccer buds.

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So now I diggin’ Verona. It is beautiful. A river run through it, and there’s this old coliseum downtown been bombed in the war. Across from this big old wide street with all kind-a traffic, you can sit at a café or trattoria on the Piazza Bra, which is like a promenade, and look at the coliseum, and hear the opera on summer nights. Piazza Bra go for blocks and ain’t nothin’ on it but cafes and trattorias with tables and chairs outside, and folks crowded up in ‘em. Folks walkin’ up and down the Piazza Bra past the tables, like they frontin’ at a parade. Girls arm and arm, girls and moms arm and arm, old folks and young folks arm in arm, even men arm and arm, jabberin’, wavin’ they hands. Back and forth.

Sometime, when the weather nice in the evening, I walk back and forth, only black dude, they all watchin’, but I don’t care, I diggin’ the ALFRESCO VIDA, big time, lookin’ for an empty table, though I can’t afford one, and one evening, when I paradin’, I hear a voice I know callin’ out: “Hey you, heroic and knightly champion, get your ass over here!”

I look over and it’s Dee and Ruff drinkin’ vino. They know me so well they call me heroic and knightly champion, which mean Paladin, the reason momma name me so.

I sit down. They drinkin’ Bardolino red vino cuz they makin’ cash on the side sellin’ smokes and gas and oil and whatever they get their hands on to Italians on the black market. I am their guest. A stiff waiter, all proper and dressed, puts a glass in front of me and pours me some vino. I am a black dude with two honkies and ain’t nobody else like us here and ain’t nobody got a problem with us. We are tight and cool. We talk and carry on. We get another bottle and feel the buzz and decide to visit DeRia half a mile away at her trattoria in the poor part of town.

The trattoria jammed with soccer crazies screamin’ at each other and wavin’ at the TV. DeRia see us and she look unhappy and worried, shake her head, but we go on up and order Bordolino and she ignore us. We see her hubby, fat, bald, loud, need a shave. We leave and DeRia won’t look at us, so next night at the alley I bring her red roses and she cry and that night we go to our hill and make love and she tell me she love me so much it break her heart. I feel the same. I wonder if when I go home there will ever be another woman in my heart like DeRia. I don’t think so, cuz there ain’t no woman in America like these Italian women. When they love you there ain’t no maybe so and it run deep, they don’t care about your color or how much bread you make or how cool your threads are or what you drivin’ down the street, they don’t be frettin’ over circumstances, they just love your ass forever.

Couple months before my discharge I’m thinkin’ about DeRia. She is my true love but she ain’t leavin’ her husband and kid. She a Catholic. I can’t take her home and I can’t stay here cuz there’s nothin’ in Italy if I ain’t in the army. Dee go home and Ruff go home and they GIVE me the Fairlane, cuz it ain’t worth much and they can’t afford take across the ocean. So DeRia and me, we goin’ hot and heavy. She get a day off and I get a day off and we take the Fairlane out to Lake Garda and drive all around this beautiful romantic lake, hills and mountains and terraces with vineyards all around us, stop and have vino in little towns like Riva and Garda City and Sermione, sit outside at cafes on the lake, everybody nice to us, and we take a blanket on some hill above the lake and make love under the sun, and DeRia, she cry and tell me, “Paladin, caro mio, you so bello, you like a Michelangelo statue in Rome, mi vida.” She cryin’, and cryin’, cuz I got to go home to America, and when I think about leavin’ Verona, and my gig in the shot room, and my car, and Lake Garda, and DeRia, it bust up my heart, cuz there ain’t nothin’ go home to that I like in Hough but momma, and family, but that’s all, ain’t nothin’back there but trouble, but I got no choice.

What I gon do? I can stay in the army, but then I go to Nam and get my ass shot, and I ain’t stayin’ in the army anyhow, cuz you got to kiss too many asses and they own your ass, all they do is fuck with you, like Topkick McCray tell me.

Top and Doc Graves, they say I should go back to school and be a nurse. “Use the GI bill,’ says Graves. “You are a smart man, Paladin. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Week before I leave I got no duties and DeRia cryin’ all the time. She cry when she see me in the snack bar, she cry when I come in the bowlin’ alley, she got to leave work and go cry, won’t come back ‘til I’m gone. We make love the night before I leave and she cryin’, hug me so hard it hurt, tellin’ me her life was rotten before she met me and since we been lovers she happy all the time, and now she got to be unhappy again, and she think her life be lonely and sad from here on, like there nothin’ to look forward to anymore, just her fat old husband don’t touch her, and I feel so bad for DeRia, cuz there ain’t nothin’ I can say make her stop cryin’, and I’m cryin’, too, cuz I know what I feel for her ain’t gon happen again the way it happen with us. Oh, it will happen again, but it won’t be so perfect and funny and peaceful and deep like it is with DeRia, who I call my “poverina.” Poor little thing.

But I got to leave. Next day I’m gone. Everybody I know well gone home, just Thomas hangin’ around, got four months left, still grumblin’ and scowlin’ and bitchin’ about how he from South Philly and he a bad-ass. He carry my duffel bag and walk me to the bus take me to Milano for the airplane to America.

“My car is yours, good bud,” I tell him. “Y’all start smilin’ an’ get yo’ sorry ass some leg and sweet lovin’, good brother.”

“I do that now I got the pussy-mobile. Thank you, my man. Love.”

“Love you too.”

I take the lonely bus to Milano and I’m so sad. I already missin’ DeRia. I get to New York and then fly to Cleveland and go to the ghetto and it so strange, I wish I got me my DeRia. But I ain’t got no DeRia. I never will again. Italy is over for me. I get a job drivin’ an ambulance, pickin’ up the bleedin’ and broken folks, the dyin’ and the dead. I go to school nights and get my high school diploma and start nursin’ school, gon be a nurse, and do good, gon have a life, right here in Hough. It’s poorer, sadder, everybody angry, wantin’ burn the mothafucker down. I ain’t the same dude runnin’ in the streets, getting’ in trouble. I’m a man. Thank you, sergeant McCray, and all my cool buds I never forget, and thank you, Maria DeRia, I love you little thing, my poverina, ‘til they take me away. §

Dell Franklin worked many years as a bartender at Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay, once considered one of the roughest fishermen’s bars on the West Coast. He’s the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice, and author of The Ball Player’s Son.

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