I recently finished Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley’s excellent hard-boiled mystery novel. Within the first third of the book there was a line that struck me like a solid swing of baseball bat to the abdomen. Mosley’s lead, World War II veteran Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, describes the fear that seized him during his introduction to combat.
“The first time I fought a German hand-to-hand I screamed for help the whole time I was killing him.”
As I made it through the rest of the novel, that line would to flash across my mind from time to time. There’s nothing aesthetically remarkable about the above line. It’s not meant to be poetic. It has no intention of showing off any metaphors or similes. But that one sentence captures the character’s experience with violence and presents a scene worthy of its own short story. Even with the novel done, questions born from reading that sentence persisted.
How did Easy find himself in the situation where he was fighting an enemy hand-to-hand? Where were his allies? Was he alone, in a building perhaps (the scene of Adam Goldberg fighting for his life in Saving Private Ryan comes to mind), or out in an open space surrounded by fellow soldiers all too busy fighting their own individual battles to hear or heed his cries for help? What was going through the German soldier’s mind as this black American soldier cried out during the attack? Was he able to understand anything that Easy was saying? Could he understand the meaning of the words without knowing the language, just by reading the panic in Easy’s eyes and soaking in the terror in his voice? Was the German soldier crying out for help as well, suffering a crisis of faith in the Nazi Übermensch concept he may not have believed in in the first place?
The next line, “His dead eyes stared at me a full five minutes before I let go of his throat,” almost seems redundant to me, but I recognize that this may just be on account of what I extrapolated from the preceding sentence. Not everyone reading the novel likely pictured Easy continuing to scream for help well after he had already killed his enemy; stabbing, punching, kicking and strangling a corpse.
I haven’t yet read the rest of the novels featuring Easy Rawlins. I don’t know if the conflict with the German soldier is referenced again or expanded upon. I do know that the image conjured by that single line is powerful enough to make me want for further explanation, but effective enough on its own to make me hope that it isn’t explored any further. I like to wonder about that other story, more perhaps than I would enjoy having its details revealed to me.