Later that day, Charlie was on his bed resting. He had a long, grueling day. After he had showered, he was finally able to relax. He felt better knowing they finally had some money in their pockets.
Zach was reading his newspaper in the chair by the window when he saw an article about the 1936 World’s Fair. He began to read it out loud to Charlie.
“The Great Lakes Exposition is commemorating the centennial of Cleveland’s incorporation as a city, and had conceived the fair as a way to energize the city hit hard by the Great Depression. They are expecting millions of visitors from around the Midwest and beyond. They will have a lakefront industrial fair and also feature a ‘Streets of the World’ district featuring 200 cafes and bazaars, a midway with rides and sideshows, a Court of the Presidents, a Hall of Progress, an Automotive Building, an art gallery, horticultural gardens, and a Marine Theater that will display ‘Aurora Borealis’ lights with moving beams that project into the sky. It will surely be the most impressive and stimulating visual display.” He looked over at Charlie who was fascinated. “Sure sounds like fun don’t it?”
“Sure does. What’s Ara Boris?”
“It’s pronounced AU-ROR-RA BOR-E-AL-IS,” Zach said. “Way up in the northern hemisphere, near Alaska and Canada, there’s these colorful lights that shine up in the sky and nobody knows for sure why.”
“I’d like to see that, ya think we can go?”
“I don’t see why not,” Zach said. Suddenly a knock came from the door. “Now who that could be?”
“Only one way to find out,” Charlie said. He rolled to his side and sat up.
“Ya rest, I’ll get it.” Zach folded his paper and opened the door slightly. The suspicious looking man that was following them was standing in the hallway. “Can I help ya, Mack?”
“Yes, my name is Smitty,” the man said. He removed his hat, ready to say something.
“Look pal, we ain’t interested in what ya selling,” Zach said and started to close the door.
“But you don’t understand. I’m not selling nothing. My boss wants to meet the fella who won the wrestling contest.”
“Look buddy, he’s restin’ right now. Come back later.” Zach became suspicious and thought the guy was there to swindle them out of their prize money.
Charlie suddenly appeared at the door with a concerned look on his face. He was wondering who Zach was talking to and what it was about.
The man stuck out his hand to Charlie. “My name is Smitty,” he said smiling. “Ya did a fine job today, mister...” He was hoping to get Charlie’s name and keep the conversation going since Zach ended his so abruptly.
“Franklin, Charlie Franklin,” He shook Smitty’s hand. He noticed he had a firm grip and his knuckles were scarred and callused. He obviously wasn’t a salesman.
“My boss would like to meet you,” Smitty said. “You’re welcome to come along too, mister...”
“Zach Mullins,” He shook Smitty’s hand as he scrutinized him. Zach noticed the scars on his hand too, and his flattened nose. He realized he must have been telling the truth. Perhaps his boss really did want to meet Charlie. But for what reason?
“I’m sorry for interrupting ya,” Smitty said. “My boss, Mr. Graziano sent me. He wants me to invite ya to dinner ... it’s on him of course. Can I inform him that he can expect ya?”
Zach studied Smitty as he spoke. Why does this guy’s boss want to buy us dinner? Something smells fishy. What’s he up to?
“They have the best barbecued steak in all of Tennessee,” Smitty said. “Their t-bones are fat and juicy, and fall right off the bone.”
Zach noticed that Charlie was rubbing his stomach. Smitty had him at “best barbecued steak.”
Charlie was practically drooling. “It’s fine by me.” He turned to Zach.
“Well, if your boss is buying, it’s fine by me too.”
“Excellent then,” Smitty said. “I’ll tell Mr. Graziano the good news. We’ll send a car for ya ... say seven o’clock?” He put his hat back on, smiled and left.
Zach checked his watch, it was almost 7 o’clock. He was changing into a clean shirt and couldn’t stop wondering why this Graziano fella wanted to meet Charlie. It obviously has to do with winning the wrasslin’ matches, he thought. But how do the two connect? He figured they’d find out soon enough. He glanced at Charlie and noticed the look on his face. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know if I want to go,” Charlie said.
“What? Why not?”
“Look at me,” Charlie said. “All I got are these here dirty old clothes.”
“Don’t sweat it. Ain’t like we’re dining with the President. Besides, this Graziano fella must know we ain’t got no money since we’re staying here and ya wrasslin’ for ten dollars.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Charlie said.
“C’mon, let’s go and see what this Graziano fella wants. Besides, it’s a free dinner ain’t it? Steak!”
When Zach checked his watch again, it was seven o’clock on the nose. He checked the window and saw a shiny black car pull up to the hotel. “I think the car’s here. Sweet baby Jesus, look at the size of it.”
Charlie rushed to the window to see it. “Wow, that’s some vehicle.”
“I’ll say,” Zach said. “Make sure ya eat up tonight.”
“Eat up?” Charlie asked. “What do ya mean?”
“This guy’s probably loaded, so eat as much as ya can. Who knows when we’ll eat steak again ... for free.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“That true,” Zach said. “C’mon, let’s go.”
When Zach and Charlie opened the hotel door, a long black car was parked waiting for them by the curb. It gleamed with the sunset reflecting off it. The driver held the rear passenger door open for them.
Zach climbed in first, then Charlie. They were amazed with the car. It was enormous and much bigger in person than from the window. Neither of them had ever sat in a modern car before, especially a new, plush Packard Twelve.
They sat in the enormously spacious rear compartment behind the divider window, inspecting the interior. The seats were made of black leather upholstery. The gorgeous carpets were thick and soft, and the seat cushions were firm and extremely comfortable. The car was filled with many luxury features. It had hinged footrests, folding jump seats, a roll up divider window, and even a rear seat microphone for communicating with the driver. They couldn’t believe they were sitting in such luxury as the driver closed the door. When the driver got in and drove the monstrous vehicle, it was smooth and quiet as if they were floating.
Zach still couldn’t get the dinner invitation off his mind. This Graziano guy didn’t even see Charlie wrassle, and now he wants us to join him for dinner. Good thing this fella has money. Then he began to chuckle out loud.
“What’s so funny?” Charlie asked.
“I was just thinking,” Zach said. “This Graziano fella doesn’t know what he’s in for.”
“What do ya mean?” Charlie asked.
“He hasn’t seen ya eat.”
They both chuckled briefly until the large car turned onto a dark road. They were in total darkness. The only lights were from the headlights that illuminated the road just ahead of them.
Zach wasn’t laughing anymore and started to get nervous. Suppose this is some kind of setup. We’re in a stranger’s vehicle in the middle of nowhere. Suppose these people are psychopaths, or serial killers? He realized his imagination was getting the best of him—the result from reading too many H.P. Lovecraft horror novels. He tried to relax and not think about it. At least he had one thing going for him, he had Charlie by his side. He began to rest easy when he saw lights in the distance. From what he could make of it, it looked like a small tavern out in the middle of nowhere.
The car pulled up to the old tavern and parked. It was a run-down looking place with four other cars and two pickup trucks in a dirt lot.
Zach glared out the car’s window. The sign on the roof above the door read CLYDE’S BAR & GRILL. It was illuminated by a single floodlight, invaded by hundreds of bugs. “Well, Charlie,” he said, “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about how you’re dressed.
When they got out of the car all they heard were crickets. It was pitch black. The only lights were the floodlight above the door and the one in the parking lot. They had no idea where they were. All they knew was they were far from town, in the desolate country, in the middle of nowhere.
Zach and Charlie climbed the steps to the tavern. When they opened the door, they immediately heard Gene Autry singing Nobody’s Darling on the radio.
They walked in and made their way through the bar area. It was dark and rustic inside. It looked like an old hunting lodge made of knotty pine. There was an enormous sixteen-point buck mounted above the bar. A smokey haze floated throughout the room. It smelled like stale beer and cigarettes. Two old men were sitting at the bar slouched over their drinks, smoking cigarettes, and talking amongst themselves.
Along the walls were dimly lit booths. As they passed one of the booths, they saw four men huddled inside. They appeared to be engaged in an under-the-table conversation. They paused abruptly when they noticed Zach and Charlie. They leered in silence until they were out of sight. Then they continued their conversation from where they left off.
Suddenly Smitty’s head stuck out from the last booth. “Ah, there ya are.” He was happy to see them. “C’mon down, fellas.” He exited the booth and shook their hands. He introduced Zach and Charlie to Mr. Graziano, who was sitting in the booth, smoking a cigar.
Mr. Graziano raised his body a few inches off the bench as he shook their hands. His voice was stern, yet appeasing. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you’ll have to forgive me, it’s difficult to stand in these booths. Please, make yourselves comfortable.” He was in his mid-thirties, a handsome man with neatly combed black hair. Zach thought that he resembled Tyrone Power the actor. He wore a custom tailored black pinstriped suit and an expensive gold watch.
They all sat together, smiling politely. Zach and Charlie were impressed with Graziano’s appearance and style. He presented himself with confidence and seemed to have an appealing quality about him. Then he got straight to the point. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I would like to thank you for meeting me for dinner. I assure you the food here is excellent. Would you care for a drink?”
Charlie was unusually shy and quiet. This was new to him, and Mr. Graziano intimidated him. He was obviously a man with money and power, and Charlie was about to have dinner with him. He didn’t know what to say, so he just sat in silence and waited until he was spoken to.
Zach was the first to speak up and said, “I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
“And you?” Graziano asked Charlie.
“Oh, yes sir, just water for me please, thank you,” Charlie said. He spoke the formal way his parents taught him to when he was young. He could still hear his father’s voice as though he was sitting beside him. Don’t make no eye contact with white people, especially white women, and always be polite.
Graziano acknowledged Charlie’s formality with a nod. “Smitty, two bourbons on the rocks and a glass of water please.”
“Sure, boss,” Smitty replied.
Graziano studied Zach and Charlie closely. It was an important task that he always practiced when he met new acquaintances. He learned quickly that, in his line of work, it was something he had to do.
Zach studied Graziano as well. After his experience with Sullivan, he didn’t want to make any mistakes again. He had his suspicions on why they were there for dinner, but he was going to let things play out. He wanted to see where this would go. “Ya must be from up north,” he said. “Ya have no southern drawl.
“You have a good ear, Zach,” Graziano said. “Excuse me, may I call you Zach?”
“I’m originally from Chicago,” Graziano said.
“Oh, Chicago,” Zach said. He immediately thought of Paul Muni and George Raft, in the 1932 gangster movie picture Scarface. The image of guns and people being brutally murdered flashed before him like in the movie. “I imagine Chicago ain’t as hot as it is here, huh?” Zach didn’t know what else to say. It was his best attempt to hide his nervousness and suspicions about Graziano.
The corner of Graziano’s mouth raised slightly, just shy of a grin. He sensed Zach had gotten the big picture—Chicago and his line of business. Graziano was a private man and liked to keep things that way. He usually shared enough information on a need-to-know basis, especially when it came to his business. He explained that he had been doing business in Tennessee for about seven years, and a few times a year he traveled north to Chicago for a few weeks to conduct business meetings.
At that moment, Charlie innocently asked the question Zach had been curious of, but was reluctant to ask. “What type of business ya in, Mr. Graziano?”
“I’m glad you asked, Charlie. Let’s just say I’m a business man, and that I have many associates here and in Chicago.”
Zach’s suspicions were nearly confirmed. Could this Graziano guy really be a mobster? Zach thought. He didn’t seem the type. He seemed polite and subdued. Zach needed a little more proof before he could label him a mobster.
“And may I ask what you gentlemen do for work besides enter wrestling contests?” Graziano asked.
“Well,” Zach said, “we’re kinda in between jobs at the moment.”
Suddenly Smitty arrived with their drinks and placed them in the center of the table. Graziano raised his glass. “Gentlemen, here’s to good health and prosperity.” They all touched glasses and drank. Then Graziano stared at Zach and Charlie for a brief moment and then became very direct. “What type of association do you have with each other?”
“We’re traveling companions, friends, and I handle all the finances,” Zach said.
“You handle all the finances, I see,” Graziano said rotating his glass on the table as he spoke. “And how are your finances today, Zach?”
Without thinking, Zach fired back. “That’s really none of your business!”
Zach’s sudden outburst caused Graziano’s eyebrow to raise. He also paused momentarily, then continued rotating the glass. Zach immediately realized how rude he must have sounded. It even caused Smitty to turn around briefly on his bar stool.
After a moment of silence Graziano spoke. “I admire your boldness, Zach.”
“I’m sorry, it just slipped out,” Zach said. He was relieved Graziano didn’t seem to take offense to his outburst.
“So, you have a business relationship with each other, is that it? I apologize if I seem obtrusive,” Graziano said looking directly at Zach. “I’ll get straight to the point. I want to offer Charlie a business proposition, and I wanted to understand your situation first.” He took another sip from his drink and waited for their reaction. He wanted to see what Charlie would do. Would he sit there quietly and let Zach talk on his behalf or would he speak up for himself.
“What kinda business proposition?” Charlie asked.
Graziano was pleased that Charlie spoke for himself. It proved that he had a mind of his own, and he wasn’t a fool.
“I want you to work for me, Charlie,” Graziano said. He looked Charlie straight in the eye. “I need a new fighter, Zach can still manage your finances. I’ll pay you twenty-five dollars a fight.”
“Twenty-five dollars a fight?” Charlie said. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Yes, you would be well paid, well trained, and taken care of if you accept.”
“No disrespect to ya, Mr. Graziano,” Charlie said, “but I don’t fight.”
“But you fought today.”
“Yeah, that’s because we was broke,” Charlie said.
“Well, let me ask you this,” Graziano said. “How much money do you have in your pocket ... right now ... between the two of you?”
“Around ten dollars I suppose.” Charlie said.
“Ten and a quarter to be exact,” Zach added.
“Ten and a quarter,” Graziano said. “And how long do you think that’s going to last between two grown men? You have to eat don’t you? Where are you going to sleep? Or were you planning on sleeping in the woods, like tramps, when you run out of money?”
“We was planning on finding small jobs as we travel,” Charlie said.
“It’s the Depression, Charlie. Where are you going to find work? People are out of work everywhere. And these small jobs you’re referring to ... do you realize how many hobos come through this town alone looking for work? They’ll do anything ... and for pennies. It’s just not here, it’s all over the country. Where are you going to get another offer like this, Charlie? Twenty-five dollars a fight.”
There was a moment of silence before anyone spoke again. “Just asking,” Charlie said. “How many fights are ya talking about?”
“Ten fights to start,” Graziano said. “Maybe less, maybe more, it would depend on your performance.”
“Over how long?” Charlie asked.
“One fight per week.”
“That’s two hundred and fifty dollars in ten weeks,” Charlie said.
“That’s correct,” Graziano said. He was impressed with Charlie’s quick calculating.
Zach looked at Charlie wondering what could be on his mind.
“I’ll tell you what,” Graziano said. He glanced at his watch. “I have to make a phone call. Why don’t you gentlemen discuss this with each other while I go use the telephone. Think about it, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Graziano exited the booth and disappeared into the back office and closed the door.
Zach could hardly wait for Graziano to leave. “What are ya thinking, Charlie?”
“Mr. Graziano is right,” Charlie said. “The money we got now ain’t gonna last long, and I don’t wanna travel like a hobo no more, it’s too dangerous. What if one of us gets hurt? How we gonna take care of the other? We need the money.”
“Well, the money is a good deal,” Zach said, “but what about fighting? Ya gonna be able to do it?”
“I have to if we wanna travel.”
“Okay then,” Zach said. “Only I’d ask for fifty a fight. If he needs ya that bad he’ll pay more. At least make it worth your while. Besides, he looks like he could afford it.”
“Okay, fifty dollars then,” Charlie said.
Zach and Charlie sat quietly and waited for Graziano to return when Charlie began cracking his knuckles. Zach saw the look on Charlie’s face and figured something must have been bothering him. “What’s the matter?”
In the Deep South, it was typical for blacks to accept whatever white folks offered to pay them. Charlie felt uncomfortable asking for more money.
“Do ya want me to tell him?” Zach asked.
Charlie looked relieved and nodded his head.
When Graziano returned to the booth, he was eager to hear Charlie’s response. Zach took a sip from his drink and swallowed hard before speaking. He looked Graziano straight in his eye. “Mr. Graziano, as Charlie’s manager, my client says he is willin’ to fight for ya, but he wants fifty dollars a fight.”
Graziano slammed his hand hard on the table. “Done!” He smiled and then raised his glass.
Zach and Charlie raised their glasses too. The deal was done. Fifty dollars per fight, ten fights.
“I’m very pleased,” Graziano said. “You made the right choice, Charlie.” He ordered another round of drinks. “Welcome to the family. Now let’s eat. They have the best steaks here, and you look like a man with a healthy appetite, Charlie.”
Zach winked at Charlie.