Sign me up for all the latest razzmatazz about the Chronicles books and the 1920s and get the novella DESTINATIONS for FREE!!Don't miss out!

The Unstopable Jennie Justo: Episode Two

Episode Two: Death Corner ©

Nothing but time. Fields and farmhouses, frame by frame, a camera shutter effect of the train’s movement. Every minute, further from my former cellmates at the Milwaukee House of Corrections. Every second, closer to my family. Past the rural landscape, I see Mama’s small kitchen on Spring Street, back home in Madison. I remember. Bad times.

I try knitting to distract me, but the damn (sorry, Father. Hail Mary, Full of Grace) tension is too tight. I jam the needle into the wool to finish the stitch, then put the mess away.

* * * *

Bad times. First, the April night that Mama and Papa learned that Dom had ratted out the son of a local Cosa Nostra boss. And then, an even worse night was to come.

I wasn’t there that ‘worse’ night, at the corner of Murray Street and Desmond Court. Had folks in Madison already been calling it Death Corner by then? People had been shot, stabbed, choked, and murdered there long before Papa was.

Prohibition created dangerous circumstances. I’m not sure the government thought through the consequences of it. Money to be made. Angles to be covered, and paid for. And where there was money to be made there were criminals.

So, you see, prohibition created business, even if it was criminal business. There were no contracts or legal agreements between parties, no “I’ll see you in court”. With criminals, petty rivalries, gang violence, disputes over territory—heck, disputes over anything—most were usually resolved with a gun or a knife. Some preferred more traditional methods like boots and fists, while others liked to make a statement with feet in cement that weighed a body under water. Prohibition made for some fierce times.

It had been the year after Dom and Tony Corona had been arrested. A blustery and icy February night. I can see it as clearly as if I’d been walking alongside Papa. It was getting close to supper time. Papa would have been headed home along Murray Street. Past the dark windows of the closed butcher shop and corner stores. He would have passed houses with their lights glowing through pulled curtains.

He was probably tipsy from the whiskey he’d consumed wherever he was coming from. Maybe he was thinking about the business he’d just left, or maybe he was thinking about what would be on the table at home.

The snow would have crunched under his boots, his coat collar up to keep his neck warm, hat pulled low over his ears, his hands in his pockets—pockets that usually held a sweet for me.

At the corner, he would have stopped to light his cigarette, cupping the match to avoid the wind blowing it out. There would have been a sound behind him, then cold metal against his neck. He would have started to turn. Bang.

Only Mama, Pepe, and I were at the supper table. Joe was still at reform school, Waukesha Industrial School it was that year. Dom was in prison for the bank heist. Papa’s empty chair was pulled up in front of a clean plate.

Mama kept glancing at the clock. Papa missing dinner? It had never happened,

The knock on the back door had a clock-stopping harshness; the same effect, then, as a phone ringing in the middle of the night, now. Pepe and I shared a worried look.

Mama hurried to the door where one of Papa’s friends stood, hat in hand. I couldn’t hear what was said, but Mama fell to the floor, wailing, her apron covering her face. She rocked while she howled and called for Papa.

Pepe and I froze in place. Papa’s friend lifted Mama. “Jennie,” he said. “Come and help your Mama. Something terrible has happened to your Papa. Pepe, get your coat and come with me.”

I’m not sure what is scarier for a kid than seeing her Mama like that. Her sobbing made my stomach twist and shook me to my core. I helped her to the sofa in the living room. I knew she wouldn’t settle until she heard what happened.

Later that night, I learned that my father had been found in a snow bank on Murray Street. He’d been shot in the head.

I wondered whether he’d had time to think about us, his warm, red blood cooling in the white snow. Did he know how much we loved him? Did he picture us waiting at home? Did he look up at the stars? Did he wonder about God?

On the day of Papa’s funeral, Joe got a day pass from reform school. It was probably just as well that Dom didn’t come home; as the coward who set all this in motion, I’m not sure what Mama would have done to him.

Life went on. Somebody stepped up to look after the Regent Street territory. The booze continued to flow, the money continued to change hands.

Papa’s death left a massive hole in our family. Nothing could fill it. Given Papa’s business—our family business—it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was a shock. The day we buried Papa was the last day of my childhood.

With Papa gone, and two of my brothers sent up, that left me, Pepe, and Mama at home. Dom, the oldest, was in prison so he couldn’t fill Papa’s role. Joe was in reform and was too young. Pepe wasn’t old enough to take over for Papa either. And I was a girl, so no one even put me on the list. Mama became the central force that drove what was left of our family business, the little speakeasy downstairs.

Nobody was ever charged with Papa’s murder, but everybody knew who did it, and why. Tony’s papa got his revenge.

Just in case you missed it, here’s links back to the previous episode.

Episode One