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HEALTH CARD

 

Frank Yerby

 

            Johnny stood under  one of the street lights on the corner and tried to read the letter. The street lights down in the Bottom were so dim that he couldn’t make out half the words, but he didn’t need to: he knew them all by heart anyway.

            “Sugar,” he read, “ it took a long time but I done it. I got the money to come to see you. I waited and waited for them to give you a furlough, but it look like they don’t mean to. Sugar, I can’t wait no longer. I got to see you. I got to. Find a nice place for me to stay --- where we can be happy together. You know what I mean. With all my love, Lily.”

            Johnny folded the letter up and put ot back in his pocket. Then he walked swiftly down the street past all the juke joints with the music blaring out and the G.I. brogans pounding. He turned down a side street, scuffing up a cloud of dust as he did so, None of the streets down in Black Bottom was paved, and there was four inches of fine white powder over everything. When it rained the mud would come up over the tops of his army shoes, but it hadn’t rained in nearly three months. There were no juke joints on this street, and the Negro shanties were neatly whitewashed. Johnny kept on walking until he came to the end of the street. On the corner stood the little whitewashed Baptist Church, and next to it was the neat, well-kept home of the pastor.

            Johnny went up to the porch and hesitated. He thrust his hand in his pocket and the paper crinkled. He took his hand out and knocked on the door.

            “Who’s that?” a voice called.

            “It’s me.” Johnny answered; “it’s a sodjer.”

            The door opened a crack, and the woman peered out. She was middle-aged and fat. Looking down, Johnny could see that her feet were bare.

            “Whatcha want, sodjer?”

            Johnny took off his cap.

            “Please, ma’am, lemme come in. I kin explain it  t’yuh better settin’ down.”

            She studied his face for a minute in the darkness.

            “Aw right,” she said, “you kin come in, son.”

            Johnny entered the room stiffly and sat down on a corn-shucked bottom chair.

            “It’s this way, ma’am,” he said. “I got a wife up Nawth. I been tryin’ an tryin’ t’ git a furlough so I could go t’ rent me a room, ma’am. I doan’ know nowheres t’ ax.”

            “This ain’t no hotel, son.”

            “I know it ain’t. I cain’t take Lily t’ no hotel, not lak hotels in this heah town.”

            “Lily yo wife?”

            “Yes’m. She is my sho’ nuff, honest t’ Gawd wife. Married in th’ Baptist Church in Deetroit.”

            The fat woman sat back, and her thick lips widened into a smile.

            “She’s a good girl, ain’t she? An’ you doan’ wanna take her t’ one o’ these heah ho’houses they call hotels.”

            “That’s it, ma’am.”

            “Sho’ you kin bring huh heah, son. Be glad t’ have huh. Reveren’ be glad t’ have huh too. What yo’ name, son?”

            “Johnny. Johnny Green. Ma’am ---“

            “Yas, son?”

            “You understand that I wants t’ come heah too?”

            The fat woman rocked back in her chair and gurgled with laughter.

            “Bless yo’ heart, chile, I ain’t always been a ole woman! And I ain’t always been th’ preacher’s wife neither!”

            “Thank you, ma’am. I gotta go now. Time fur me t’ be gittin’ back t’ camp.”

            “When you bring Lily?”

            “Be Monday night, ma’am. Pays you now if you wants it.”

            “Monday be aw right. Talk it over wit th’ Reveren’, so he make it light fur yuh. Know sodjer boys ain’t got much money.”

            “No ma’am, sho Lawd ain’t. G’night, ma’am.”

            When he turned back into the main street of the Negro section the doors of the joint were all open and the soldiers were coming out. The girls were clinging onto their arms all the way to the bus stop. Johnny looked at the dresses that stopped halfway between the pelvis and the knee and hugged the backside so that every muscle showed when they walked. He saw the purple lipstick smeared across wide full lips, and the short hair stiffened with smelly grease so that it covered their heads like a black lacquered cap. Then went on downto the bus stop arm in arm, their knotty bare calves bunching with each step as they walked. Johnny thought about Lily. He walked past them very fast without turning his head.

            But just as he reached the bus stop he heard the whistles. When he turned around he saw the four M.P.s and the civilian policemen stopping the crowd. He turned around again and walked back until he was standing just behind the white men.

            “Aw right,” the M.P.s were saying, “you gals git your health cards out.”

            Some of the girls started digging in their handbags. Johnny could see them dragging out small yellow cardboard squares. But the others just stood there with blank expressions in their faces. The soldiers started muttering, a dark, deep-throated sound. The M.P.s started pushing their way through the croud, looking at each girl’s card as they passed. When they came to a girl who didn’t have a card they called out to the civilian policeman.

            “Aw right, mister, take A’nt Jemima for a little ride.”

            Then the city policemen would lead the girl away and put her in the Black Maria.

            They kept this up until they had examined every girl except one. She hung back beside her soldier, and the first time the M.P.s didn’t see her. When they came back through one of them caught her by the arm.

            “Lemme see your card, Mandy,” he said.

            The girl looked at him, her little eyes narrowing into slits in her black face.

            “Tek yo’ han’ offen me, white man,” she said.

            The M.P.’s face crimsoned, so that Johnny could see it, even in the darkness.

            “Listen, black gal,” he said, “I told you to lemme see your card.”

            “An’ I tole you t’ tek yo’ han’ offen me, white man!”

            “Gawddammit, you little black bitch, you better do like I tell you!”

            Johnny didn’t see very clearly what happened after that. There was a sudden explosion of motion, and then the M.P. was trying to jerk his hand back, but couldn’t, for the little old black girl had it between her teeth and was biting it to the bone. He drew back his other hand and slapped her across the face so hard that it sounded like a pistol shot. She went over backwards and her tight skirt split, so that when she got up Johnny could see that she didn’t have anything on under it, She came forward like a cat, her nails barred, straight for the M.P.s eyes. He slapped her down again, but the soldiers surged forward all at once. The M.P.s fell back and drew their guns and one of them blew a whistle.

            Johnny, who was behind them, decide ot was time for him to get out of there and he did; but not before he saw the squads of  white M.P.s hurling around the corner and going to work on the Negroes with their clubs. He reached the bus stop and swung on board. The minute after he had pushed his way to the back behind all the white soldiers he heard the shots. The bus driver put the bus on gear and they roared off toward the camp.

            It was after one o’clock when all the soldiers straggled in. Those of them could walk. Eight of them came in the meat wagon, three with gunshot wounds. The colonel declared the town out of bounds for all Negro soldiers for a month.

         


             “Dammit,” Johnny said, “I gotta go meet Lily, I gotta. I cain’t stay heah, I cain’t.”

            “Whatcha gonna do,” Little Willie asked, “go A.W.O.L?”

            Johnny looked at him, his brow furrowed into a frown.

            “Naw,” he said, “I’m gonna go see th’ colonel!”

            “Whut! Man, you crazy! Colonel kick yo’ black ass out fo’ you gits yo’ mouf open.”

            “I take a chance on that.”

            He walked over to the little half mirror on the wall of the barracks. Carefully he readjusted his cap. He pulled his tie out of his shirt front and drew the knot tighter aroung his throat. Then he tucked the ends back in at just the right fraction of an inch between the correct pair of buttons. He bent down and dusted his shoes again, athough they were already spotless.

            “Man,” Little Willie said, “you sho’ is a fool!”

            “Reckon I am,” Johnny said; then he went out the door and down the short wooden steps.

            When he got to the road that divided the colored and white sections of the camp his steps faltered. He stood still a minute, drew in a deep breath, and marched very stiffly and erect across the road. The white soldiers gazed at him curiously, but none of them said anything. If a black soldier came over into their section it was because somebody sent him, so they let him alone.

            In front of the colonel’s headquarters he stopped.  He knew what he had to say, but his breath was very short in his throat and he was going to have a hard time saying it.

            “Whatcha want, soldier?” the sentry demanded.

            “I wants t’ see th’ colonel.”

            “Who sent you?”

            Johnny drew his breath in sharply.

            “I ain’t at liberty t’ say,” e declared, his breath coming out very fast behind the words.

            “You ain’t at liberty t’ say, “ the sentry mimicked. “Well I’ll be damned! If you ain’t at liberty t’ say. Then I ain’t at liberty t’ let you see th’ colonel! Git tha hell outa here, nigger, before I pump some lead into you!”

            Johnny didn’t move.

               The sentry started toward him, lifting his rifle butt, but another soldier, a sergeant, came around the corner of the building.

            “Hold on there,” he called. “What tha hell is th’ trouble here?”

            “This here nigger says he wants t’ see tha colonel an’ when I ast him who sent him he says he ain’t at liberty t’ say!”

            The sergeant turned to Johnny.

            Johnny came to attention and saluted him. You aren’t supposed to salute N.C.O.s, but sometimes it helps.

            “What you got t’ say fur yourself, boy?” the sergeant said, not unkindly. Johnny’s breath evened.

            “I got uh message fur th’ colonel, suh,” he said; “I ain’t s’posed t’ give it t’ nobody else but him. I ain’t even s’posed t’ tell who sont it, suh.”

            The segeant peered at him sharply.

            “You tellin’ tha truth, boy?”

            “Yassuh!”

            “Aw right. Wait a minute.”

            He went into the H.Q. After a couple of minutes he came back out.

            “Aw right, soldier, you kin go on in.”

            Johnny mounted the steps and went into the colonel’s office. The colonel was a lean, white-haired soldier with a face tanned  to the color of saddle leather. He was reading a letter though a pair of horn-rimmed glasses which had only one earhook left, so that he had to hold them up to his eyes with his hand. He put them down and looked up. Johnny saw that his eyes were pale blue, so pale that he felt like he was looking into the eyes of an eagle or some other fierce bird of prey.

            “Well?” he said, and Johnny stiffened into a salute. The colonel half smiled.

            “At ease, soldier,” he said. Then: “Te sergeant tells me that you have a very important message for me.”

            Johnny gulped in the air.

            “Beggin th’ sergeant’s pardon, suh,” he said, “but that ain’t so.”

            “What!”

            “Yassuh,” Johnny rushed on, “nobody sent me. I came on m’ own hook. I had t’ talk t’ yuh, Colonel, suh! You kin sen’ me t’ th’ guardhouse afterwards, but please, suh, lissen t’ me fur jes’ a minute!”

            The colonel relaxed slowly. Something very like a smile was playing around the corners of his mouth. He looked at his watch.

            “All right, soldier,” he said, “you’ve got five minutes.”

            “Thank yuh, thank yuh, suh!”

            “Speak your piece, soldier; you’re wasting time!”

            “Its about Lily. suh. She my wife. She done worked an’ slaved fur nigh onto six months t’ git the money t’ come an’ see me. An now you give th’ order that none o’ th’ cullud boys kin go t’ town. Beggin’ yo’ pahdon, suh, I wasn’t in none o’ that trouble. I ain’t never been in no trouble. You kin ax my cap’n, if you wants to. All I wants is permission to go into town fur one week, an’ I’ll stay outa town fur two months if yuh wants me to.”

            The colonel picked up the phone.

            “Ring Captain Walters for me,” he said. Then: “What’s your name, soldier?”

            “It’s Green, suh. Private Johnny Green.”

            “Captain Walters? This is Colonel Milton. Do you have anything in your files concerning a Private Johnny Green? Oh yes, go ahead, Take all the time you need.”

            The colonel lit a long black cigar. Johnny waited. The clock on the wall spun its electic arms.

            “What’s that? Yes. Yes, yes, I see. Thank you, Captain.”

            He put down the phone and picked up a fountain pen. He wrote swiftly. Finally he straightened up and gave Johnny the slip of paper.

            Johnny read it. It said: “Private Johnny Green is given express permission to go into town every evening of the week beginning August seventh and ending August fourteenth. He is further permitted  to remain in town overnight every night during said week, so long as he returns to camp for reveille the following  morning. By order of the commanding officer, Colonel H. H. Milton.”

            There was a hard knot at the base Johnny’s throat. He couldn’t breathe. But he snapped to attention and saluted smartly.

            “Thank you, suh,” he said at last. Then: “Gawd bless you, suh!”

            “Forget it, soldier. I was a young married man once my self. My compliments to Captain Walters.”

            Jonny saluted again and about-faced, then he marched out of the office and down the stairs. On the way back he saluted everybody --- privates, N.C.O.s and civilian visitors, his white teeth gleaming in a huge smile.

            “That’s one happy darky,” one of the white soldiers said.

 

            Johnny stood in the station and watched the train running in. The yellow lights from the windows flickered on and off across his face as the alternating squares of light and darkness flashed past. Then it was slowing and Johnny was running beside it, trying to keep abreast of the Jim Crow coach. He could see her standing up. Holding her bags. She came down the steps the first one and they stood there holding each other, Johnny’s arms crushing all the breath our of her, holding her so hard against him that his brass buttons hurt through her thin dress. She opened her mouth to speak but he kissed her, bending her head backward on her neck, until her little hat fell off. It lay there on the ground unnoticed.

            “Sugah,” she said, “sugah. It was awful.”

            “I know,” he said, “I know.”

            Then he took her bags and they started walking out of the station toward the Negro section of town.

            “I missed yuh so much,” Johnny said, “I thought I lose m’ mind.”

            “Me too,” she said. Then: “I brought th’ marriage license with me like yuh tole me. I doan’ want th’ preacher’s wife t’ think we bad.”

            “Enybody kin look at yuh an’ see yuh uh angel!”

            They went very quietly through all the dark streets and the white soldiers turned to look at Johnny and his girl.

            Lak a queen, Johnny thought, lak a queen. He looked at  the girl beside him, seeing the velvety nightshade skin, the glossy black lacquered curls, the sweet, wide hips and the long. clean legs. Striding beside him in the darkness. I am black, but comely. Oh ye daughters of Jerusalem!

They turned into the Bottom where the street lights were dim blobs on the pine poles and the dust rose up in little swirls around their feet. Johnny had his head half turned  so that he didn’t see the two M.P.s  until he had almost bumped into them. He dropped one bag and caught Lily by the arm.The he drew her aside  quickly and the two men went by them without speaking.

            They kept on walking, but every two steps Johnny would jerk his head around and look nervously back over his shoulder. The last time he looked the two M.P.s had stopped  and were looking back at them. Johnny turned out the elbow of the arm next to Lily so that it hooked into hers a little and began to walk faster, pushing her along with him.

            “Wha’s yo’ hurry, sugah?” she said. “I be heah a whole week!”

            But Johnny was looking over his shoulder at the two M.P.s. They were coming towards him now, walking with long, slow strides, their reddish white faces set. Johnny started to push Lily along faster, but she shook off his arm and stopped still.

            “I declare, Johnny Green! You th’ beatiness man! Whut you walk me so fas’ fur?”

Johnny opened his mouth to anwer her but the military police were just behind them now. and the sergeant reached out and laid his hand on her arm.

            “C’mon, gal,” he said. “lemme see it.”

            “Let you see what? Whut he mean, Johnny?”

            “Your card,”” the sergeant growled, “lemme see your card.”

            “My card?” Lily asked blankly. “What kinda card mister?”

             Johnny put the bags down. He was fighting for breath.

            “Look heah, Sarge,” he said; “this girl my wife.”

            “Oh yeah? I said lemme see your card sister!”

            “I ain’t got no card mister. I dunno whut you talkin’ ‘bout.”

            “Look, Sarge,” the other M.P. said, “th’ soldier’s got bags. Maybe she’s just come t’ town.”

            “These your bags, gal?”

            “Yessir.”

            “Aw right. Ou got twenty-four hours to git yourself a health card. If you don’t have it by then we hafta take you in. Git goin’ now.”

            “Listen.” Johnny shouted; “this girl my wife! She ain;t no ho’! I tell you she ain’t ____”

            “What you say, nigger____”  the M.PO. sergeant growled. “Whatcha say?” He started toward Johnny.

            Lily swung on Johnny’s arm.

            “C’mon, Johnny,” she said, “they got guns. C’mon. Johnny, please! Please, Johnny!”

            Slowly she drew him away.

            “Aw, leave them be, Sarge,” the M.P. corporal said; “maybe she is his wife.” 

            The sergeant spat. The brown tobacco juice splashed  in the dirt not an inch from Lily’s foot. Then the two of them turned and started away.

            Johnny stopped.

            “Lemme go, Lily,” he said, “lemme go!” He tore her arm loose from his and started back up the street.  Lily leaped , her two arms fastening themselves around his neck. He fought silently but she clung to him, doubling her knees so that all her weight was hanging from his neck.

            “No, Johnny! Oh, Jesus no! You be kilt! Oh, Johnny, listen t’ me, sugah! You’s all I got!”

            He put both hands up to break her grip but she swung her weight sidewise and the two of them went down in the dirt. The M.P.s turned the corner out of sight.

            Johnny sat there in the dust staring at her. The dirt had ruined her dressl He sat there a long time looking at her until hot tears rose up back of his eyelids faster than he could blink them away, so he put his face into her lap and cried.

            “I ain’t no man!” he said. “I ain’t no man!”

            “Hush sugah,” she said. “You a man aw right. You my man!”

            Gently she drew him to his feet. He picked up the bags and the two of them went down the dark street toward the preacher’s house.