Deep in the middle of the twentieth century, it was still a tough game to be an honest Negro in the Land of the Free. Nebb never managed to get himself called James or Carlson, his real names. Not once since he got to California. He ran a liquor shop and never broke the law but that did not stop the cops from picking him up at his store one summer night. He was lucky it never happened until he was almost twenty-eight.
He was cuffed and taken to the interrogation room where two white cops in plain clothes began to question him. Well, one of them did. The other just stood in the corner and twisted his whitened knuckles on a big old Billy club with his fists so tight you could almost see the juice squeezing out through his fingers. The other sat across the table and smiled a friendly smile. Nebb knew right away that if he gave one wrong answer that Billy club would swing and crack his skull.
“How you feeling, Nebb?” the Good Cop asked.
“Fine, sir,” he answered trying to sound calm but not too calm. A Negro too calm always angered white people.
“We don’t want to hurt you, Nebb. You give us some answers and I swear we send you right home without a single bruise”
“Thank you, sir”
The older cop turned to the stone-faced younger cop standing with the club.
“Didn’t I tell you he’d be a smart boy?”
The big man with the club did not even return the smile to the man who was obviously his superior. He merely kept twisting his knuckles on the Billy club. His face looked more ready than ever to beat the living daylights out of Nebb.
“You will help us, won’t you Nebb?”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
He put an elbow on the table and leaned forward. Then his friendly smile faded.
“Where is Dennis Keenan?”
His first impulse was to ask “Who?” but he stopped short. Nebb had never heard of Dennis Keenan. He did not know who he was. He did not know where he was. But if he said so, he would be beaten to a pulp and thrown out with the garbage. If he died during the brutal interrogation that was to follow, the cops will always have a good reason why a Negro had to be killed. It was so easy to pin a crime on a dead black man.
The room smelled bad. It was as if they used engine grease to wash away the blood and guts of countless colored suspects. Brutality stained the plastered brick walls and the paint that peeled from it. The table in front of Nebb had a plywood tabletop nailed on over the original, probably in a rushed repair job after someone’s face was forced into it once too many times. The corners were worn and rounded and the plywood splintered there. The table’s corners had seen heavy use. The splintered corners looked cleaner, the wood being fresher.
Nebb searched his mind for the right answer. There was not much time. If it took too long, the old cop would give the young cop the signal to break him in half. But he could not ask who this Dennis Keenan was. The cops would think he was playing dumb and give him the beef. He could not ask any other question either. Any question that meant “I don’t know” would instantly be interpreted as “I don’t want to tell you”. It was suicide to say “I don’t know”. But he could not answer where this Dennis Keenan was because he did not know. What to say? He had to think fast.
Finally, after long seconds, he came up with a reply.
“I’ll find him for you.”
The cops were silent. It was silence so solid you could hear the paint peeling off the walls. There was no way to tell if the answer was the right one or the wrong one. Nebb waited, thinking as fast as he could the next thing to say. He could hear a voice talking down the hall complaining loudly about the lousy coffee in the diner down the street. Someone with an Italian accent was discussing baseball. There was an electric fan somewhere sputtering into a steady buzz. A typewriter was tapping away unsteadily. The walls were like an echo chamber and everything sounded cold even through the hot summer air. But the next sound he would hear could be the breaking of his own bones. Cold sweat crawled down Nebb’s face. He did nothing to deserve this. He had never been on the wrong side of the law. Yet he knew instinctively that his number was up.
Then suddenly the older cop broke into a big smile and turned to his younger colleague.
“I told you he’s a smart boy,” he said triumphantly. Then he turned back to Nebb.
“How long will it take to find him?”
“Depends,” he said. Then he added “Dennis Keenan might have friends.”
“But not as many as you, right?”
Who do they think I am? Nebb thought. The cops must have thought he was the leader of the mafia or something when all he ever did was run a legal liquor store in Vermont Square, South L.A. After he returned from the war Nebb moved to Los Angeles to take the factory job that was supposed to be waiting for him. He was hired and fired in a matter of months for no reason at all. After that he took up a construction job and worked for a while in the California housing business. Just when he thought he was learning his craft as a carpenter, he was fired again for no real reason and he spent his spare time helping out at Drake’s Liquor Store. Mister Drake was an old white man who realized early that he needed an African face for his store in a neighborhood that was rapidly turning black. He did not care for black folks any more than the rest of them and it took him a while to find a black store keeper he could trust. But he was a fair man who knew his business and knew it well. After a rough start, he took to calling Nebb his “good nigger boy” and taught him everything about his business. Nebb learned quickly and a few years later mister Drake receded into semi-retirement. He now barely showed up at his store once a week to check the books and left the store for Nebb to run.
“Maybe,” answered Nebb, trying to sound neutral. He may have pushed it, but he had to fish for clues. He added “Trouble is I don’t know who Dennis Keenan’s friends are or where they’re at”.
That was when it happened. It was hard to tell what happened, but it was heavy and it happened fast. Whatever was happening Nebb knew that big Billy club was rushing toward center stage. And it would have cracked right through his face if the older cop had not shouted something at the younger cop to stop him.
Nebb did not know when he closed his eyes. But when he dared to open them again the young cop was standing much closer with his club swung up and the old cop had his open hand outstretched to halt him. The two cops where frozen in this awkward pose until the young cop slowly lowered the club to his side. Nebb was frozen. He could barely make out what the older cop was yelling. “Stand back!” he seemed to be saying, “Get back there!” or something along those lines. He could not be sure.
When the young cop returned to his post at the corner of the room, the old cop straightened his jacket collar and collected what was left of his easy manner. He looked over Nebb with a mix of suspicion and respect he did not show before.
“So,” said the old cop slowly, not the Good Cop any more. “You know that Dennis Keenan hangs with white people. Do you know what kind?”
“You better not. And whatever you know you better forget…for your own good”
The older cop stood up and stood directly in the face of the younger cop.
“We’re done here,” he said.
The young cop protested silently. His already stone face ever so slightly stiffened and he did not move another muscle, his eyes blazing.
“We’re DONE here!”
The young man angrily paced to the door, grabbed the doorknob like he was trying to tear it out and he left the room. Nebb noticed for the first time that the cop’s shirt was soaked in sweat under the suspenders.
“There” said the old cop, stretching out his arms in a big deliberate shrug. “I told you I’ll let you go without a bruise. I’ll walk you to the door just in case”
He regained his smile as he said this.
“Are you afraid of Dennis Keenan, Nebb?”
“A little, I guess”
“Can’t blame you. Where’d you get that nickname Nebb?”
“Sergeant gave it to me in the army” Nebb answered honestly.
“Is that so? What did they call you before that?”
“Well Junior, you got two days to bring me Dennis Keenan or bad things will happen to you. You don’t want bad things happening, do you Junior? When you come back, ask for Lieutenant Northam. Jack Northam. See you in two days”
Northam left Nebb at the front stairs of the police office. Nebb knew he was in trouble. But at least he had a clue. Dennis Keenan was a black man who hung out with white people. Not just ordinary white people, but the kind of white people the likes of Nebb were not supposed to know about. That did not narrow things down much. But it was a start.
He started down the stone stairs. It was a hot night. And Nebb had a long way to walk home.