L.A. '56

A Devil in the City of Angels

Joel Engel

Thomas Dunne Books


Willie Roscoe Fields stops hammering for a moment and wipes his brow. It’s hot in South Los Angeles in the summer, especially on the tar-paper roof of a new house. Still, this is nothing compared to the cigarette-tip heat back home in Louisiana. In California, no matter how hot the day, the cool evening breezes change the tune. They always remind him of how good it feels inside a woman. But then, so had the sweaty bayou nights and the cold and the rain and every other kind of weather. Everything reminds Fields of poon, and when you’re talking to him and he drifts off for a moment, as he usually does, you can bet he’s lost in thoughts of dipping his wick in some well—maybe the woman’s across the street, the one who stiffed him up just by walking by. She doesn’t know what she’s missing, he thinks, and that’s how it starts. If she knew, she’d be happier than any woman alive and could never live without that good thing he can give her whenever and wherever she wants it. And she’ll want it all the time and everywhere. Because to have Willie Fields do you is to pop your cherry all over again.
Too bad some women don’t know what that kind of happiness is worth. Like Linda Harris, the pretty young lady who recognized him on a Los Angeles street in the heart of black L.A. seven years ago.
“Ain’t you from New Orleans?” she asked, stopping him as he smiled at her when they passed each other crossing Central Avenue and Thirty-ninth.
He doesn’t like remembering that day anymore, and in fact forgot about it long ago, but at the time he thought she’d pegged him as the real deal. He gave her that big I-like-what-I-see-and-I-think-you-like-what-you-see grin and said “Yeah, I am” on the assumption that his reputation had preceded him; either they’d met before or she’d recognized him as that big, handsome, hung stud everybody was always going on about. At least in his mind.
Linda told him what a happy surprise it was to run into a familiar face, a friend of a friend of a friend from the same neighborhood, especially since this was only her second week out here and she was feeling kind of lonesome and homesick and overwhelmed by so many people going to and fro.
“It’s like Mardi Gras here all the time,” she said. And compared to 2 million strangers, Willie might as well have been an old dear friend.
“How long you been out here?” she asked.
“Since the war. I was in the army, in Europe.”
True, Fields had been a soldier. And yes, he’d been mostly on the West Coast since the fighting ended. But he’d never made it to Europe, never fired his rifle at a German. He’d gone AWOL after basic training at March Field, down in Riverside, looking for action in a part of the world where big black men wandering around out of uniform in white cocktail lounges may as well have had neon signs flashing ARREST ME on their foreheads, so he spent most of 1944 in the stockade. The army, wondering why the hell this moron hadn’t been weeded out at the induction center—even considering he was a Negro—discharged him on a Section 8. And if you asked Fields why the military cut him loose without a trial, he couldn’t tell you the reason, which pretty much explains the Section 8.
“Oh, goodness,” Linda said. “You weren’t wounded or anything, were you?”
“Oh, no, nothin’ too serious.”
“And so once the army discharged you, you just stayed out here.”
“Yeah, guess so. Just stayed.”
Like a lot of other young men assigned to California bases, Fields had come to believe home was the past, California the future.
Linda said, “I talked to a lady the other day that told me she used to recognize almost every face she saw on this street. Now she feels like a stranger in her own city.”
Being black, Fields didn’t have much choice but to locate himself in that part of L.A. where he was supposed to be—he and thousands of others with the same skin color. It was the kind of migration that had already been going on all over the country for decades. Negroes wanting to make a living and raise families and reduce their odds of swinging from a willow tree had been fleeing Jim Crow for points north and west, with most settling in New York and Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia and a few other cities. But in Los Angeles before the war, there hadn’t been a sudden wave as much as a steady trickle, slow enough to allow for smooth absorption in this new place where both Negro newsweeklies, the Eagle and the Sentinel, devoted half their pages to society doings and churchgoing. The war changed that. These new fellows, too many were bad apples.
Old-timers on Central Avenue had begun complaining about all the “low-class Negroes” crowding their streets, fighting and whatnot, forming gangs, not dressing properly, driving Cadillacs they couldn’t afford. It was polluting their little bit of paradise from the way it had been when people behaved themselves and went to church and worked hard and listened to the sweetest jazz and blues this side of Harlem in smoky dark nightclubs up and down Central. And the police left them alone. Mostly. Now there were more cops than ever, sometimes even for good reason.
“I know a juke,” Fields volunteered.
“Yeah, that sounds fine. I could use to hear some music,” she said.
He led her around the corner, where his ’38 Plymouth Roadking was parked. It looked like it hadn’t been painted since the day it was introduced, and some of the dents were from the owner before the owner before the owner he’d bought it from, but it usually started up and had plenty of room in the backseat for whatever he needed plenty of room for.
Linda climbed in and at first didn’t wonder why they were leaving all the bright lights behind—the area where you’d think live-music joints would be—for the quieter streets of courtyard apartments and small homes on postage-stamp lots. She wasn’t worried, though. In L.A., she already knew, the business districts and residential streets were mixed like squares on a big checkerboard. But then the Roadking slowed and Fields parked on a neglected cul-de-sac where the streetlamps managed only to flicker in front of an apartment building that hadn’t been painted since the first war or had its lawn watered since the last rain.
“This is a nightclub?” she asked, not needing to.
“My place,” he said, smiling, expecting her to be glad. “Let’s have a drink.”
“No, no drinks, I don’t want to, I want to go back.”
“Baby, you won’t know what you been missin’ till you had old Willie here.”
“I won’t be missing nothin’. Take me back.”
But Fields didn’t want to take her anywhere but inside, and if not there, then the car would work just fine. He wanted her naked, and he was going to have her, and she’d thank him for it later.
He grabbed her close and forced kisses on her face and neck, stifling her screams and fighting off her swinging arms with one hand while the other moved up her dress and between her legs. She slammed them shut, but he was so much bigger and made a fist, twisted it sideways, and cleared space in there. The ease with which he was gaining ground said that he’d had to do this before.
Linda kept looking for someone passing by but saw no one. Now, instead of trying to hold him off, she managed to poke him in the eye, which surprised him. She took advantage and jumped out of the car, then ran but without her purse. She didn’t care. She just kept running, kicking off her heels and sprinting barefoot down the middle of the street and screaming.
For hurting him, and on general principle, Fields felt entitled to her wallet and watch.
Of course, Linda now knew where he lived and the car he drove.
When the police came calling, he gave his name as Thomas Adams but had a bank passbook with him that said James Lonnon. He tried explaining how he wanted to keep his various girlfriends from knowing where he was or with whom when he wasn’t with them.
In any event, it was Willie Roscoe Fields who was found guilty of attempted rape and grand theft person, for which he was sentenced to all of ninety days in a county work camp and five years’ probation, both the prosecutor and judge agreeing with the public defender that this young man was essentially good-natured but dumb as a shovel and could easily have misinterpreted a young lady’s acceptance to go for a drive as something more. And she wasn’t actually raped, was she? He hadn’t even made it safely to third base. What good would be served by a long incarceration at state expense when a little education was all he needed?
Besides, the woman was black, not white.
Two years on, after moving to another boardinghouse farther away from his probation officer, Fields forgot one Tuesday to report. It was an honest mistake. And then when nothing bad happened, he decided it was too much trouble to keep checking in, and anyway why should he have to? He went back to New Orleans, got married, had a kid, left them and returned West, found another job pounding nails, then went back to New Orleans before trying L.A. one more time and finding this job that lets him drive the power buggy sometimes. It’s a good job, a union job, and pays pretty well, but that’s no big deal because he’s always made a decent living, being big and strong and not afraid of hard work, especially if there’s something to reward him later. Sometimes still he calls himself James Lonnon, sometimes Thomas Adams, sometimes James Leonard, depending on which bank account he deposits his paychecks to and which name people know him by. He might not remember which is which until someone shouts out to him.
One thing never changes. His best friend is always his “love rod,” as he calls it. He sometimes stares down at it in awe, carrying on one side of the conversation but hearing the other, saying how it’s just the two of them against the world. He believes he’s been blessed with an ecstasy wand and doesn’t understand why he can’t make a living by using it, like those white men in stag films. It just ain’t fair. Big as they are down below, those white fellas can’t stand up to his three-hander. Nobody can. The way he figures it, if you want to do right by those women and all the people who pop to watch the films—if you want them to see a real show—all you got to do is put him naked in front of the camera and there’d be no need for any other men. He’ll fill and satisfy all those actresses and never lose a minute in recovery, and then the word’ll get out and pretty soon ladies who don’t even do that for a living will line up to be in these films with him, and he’ll be the king of the stags, and that’ll make him richer than Rockefeller.

Copyright 2012 by Joel Engel