The train was loaded with people. All those Texans headed north. The only car with room to stretch out in was the colored car in back. There was just a few of us.

Sitting across from me in the almost empty car was an elderly couple from Galveston. He had a bent back from working around the docks for so many years and she had the peaceful face of a woman who is most at home in church.

They were quiet and well dressed, though I suspected that the clothes they wore were their only good clothes. He was very black and thin. She was the color of light sand. Her head and shoulders were small but the rest of her body blossomed out into a bulb of a body.

I didn’t talk to them much at first; I was too busy feeling the sweet pain of leaving. But I looked past them at the door to the car once when a porter came in to sit down and smoke a cigarette. She caught my eye then.

Her name was Clementine and her husband’s was Theodore. Russell was their last name.

‘We goin t’live with our son in California,’ she said, and he smiled.

‘What’s his name?’

‘John Alvin is what we called him. He has three brothers and a sister, but she died last spring.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it.’

‘It was terrible. Her husband passed just three months before, it was that influenza. Cut young people down like wheat.’

Mr. Russell said, ‘It was a shame but John Alvin took his niece and nephew an’ now he sent us a ticket.’ He smiled, showing me at least three missing teeth. ‘Yeah, he’s some boy.’

‘Sounds like it,’ I said. ‘What is it he works at?’

‘They let him be a machinist at the Arthur airplane factory out there. They need smart boys in them places. You should meet John Alvin, I bet he could help you find some work too.’

California was a little too far away for me then. At least I had heard of people going to Dallas. No. California would have to wait.

I saw three people die the first week I was in Dallas; two car accidents and a heart attack. I didn’t get a good job but I got gardening work. I learned how to read just about well enough that when Uncle Sam called on me he put me in a tent with a typewriter, with a rifle under my desk.

But through all of that I dreamt about Reese and Clifton almost every week. They were always covered with blood, gasping as if they were just about to die. But they didn’t die. They grabbed at Mouse’s cuffs while he was sitting in a big chair counting out my three hundred dollars.

‘I don’t know what you worried ‘bout, Ease,’ he said as he rubbed a blister of blood with the corner of a five- dollar bill. ‘You ain’t done nuthin’, man.’

Now I’ve been through a world war and I’m on my way back home. They’ve given us three weeks R&R in Paris. I’ve got a room at the Hotel Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail. This hotel was recently vacated by the Gestapo and now houses our military elite. I got a room here because I saved a white major’s ass in the front lines and so he thinks I’m a hero.

I got tired of all the white soldiers calling me a coward for working behind the lines. So when the call came up for any soldier, black or white, to volunteer for Patron’s push I raised my hand. Maybe I thought I could make up for my failure in Pariah.

But being a white man’s hero doesn’t make any difference to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent the last two weeks remembering what happened in Pariah, and looking at the Eiffel Tower, rather than thinking about this white man’s war.

Maybe, if I have a son one day, and he asks me about the war, I’ll tell him about the time I had in Pariah. I’ll tell him that that was my real war.

When they asked me where home was I said Houston. It wasn’t until that night, hours after I was asleep, that I realised I had bought a ticket back to Etta and Raymond and everything I had left behind.

But it didn’t bother me. There were gangs of white American soldiers roaming the streets, killing solitary black enlisted men. There were gangs of black soldiers getting their revenge.

All over Paris there were thieves, escaping Nazis, and loaded guns in hungry men’s’ hands. I had a transport ship to survive and America yet to see again. Every step could mean death to a black man like me.

Why worry about the destination when the road is full of vipers? Mouse is probably dead by now anyway. How could a man so violent and reckless survive? And if he has endured, then married life has changed him. Maybe he’s fat now, working as a cook in some hotel.

There’s no way for me to tell the future from this room in Paris. All I can do is follow my footsteps, not at all like my father, and go back home.

The End

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