Two Trains Running - Excerpts from the Book

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1959 October 05 Monday 13:18

"You know how old Capone was when he went to prison?"

"Fifty?" Dave guessed.

"Just a little past thirty," Mack told him. "And when he was released, he was barely forty. So how come he didn't move right back in, take over the rackets again?"

"He was sick, I thought."

"He was sick all right, kid. Paresis, you know what that is?"

"Like, cancer?"

"No. His brain was all rotted out. From syphilis."

"Ugh. That's …"

"What? A nigger disease?"

"I didn't say—"

"I'm not accusing you of being prejudiced, Davy. But that is what you heard, isn't it? That only coloreds get it?"

"No. That's not true at all. In the army, they showed us this

"And gave you the short-arm inspection when you got back from leave, sure. But that's for the clap, gonorrhea. Syphilis, it's what the colored people call 'bad blood.' Compared to the clap, it's like a howitzer against a rifle."

"How come you know so much about this?"

"That's another story. Now you're hearing this one. So pay attention. Syphilis, it's a special disease. When you got the clap, you know it—it burns like hell when you take a piss. But the syph isn't like that. When you first get it, what they call the primary or the secondary stage, you get these sores on your body. Right at the same spot where you … made contact. They look like all holy horror, like leprosy or something, but they don't hurt. And here's the special thing about them: they go away. All by themselves."

"You only get it from having sex?"

"Yeah. No matter what else you might have heard, that is the only way. And it doesn't matter what kind of sex, okay? So even queers get it. Anyway, if you ever go into a neighborhood where it's all colored—not just a place where they let them live, where it's wall-to-wall black, businesses and everything—you'll find some of what they call 'men's doctors.' They're not real doctors. Not even witch doctors," Mack said, making a sound of disgust. "They're just con men. You come to one of them with syphilis sores and they'll sell you some potion supposed to be just the thing for it. So, when the sores go away—and they always do—you think you're all cured. Only you're not."

"But if the—"

"There's a third stage. They call it 'latent' or 'tertiary.' What that means is that you can't pass it along to anyone else. You're not what they call 'infectious.' But you're sure as hell infected. It's a freakish disease. The worse it looks, the less it's doing to you. And when you think it's gone, it's actually eating you alive."

"Killing you?"

"One way or the other, yeah. Sometimes, it goes after the heart. Sometimes, the liver. Paresis, what Capone had, means it went after the brain. By the time he got out of prison, he was a walking vegetable."

"With all his money, why didn't he just go right to the hospital?"

"He did," Mack said. "But by then it was too late. See, in those days, they used to treat it with all kinds of different drugs, like '606.' Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. Today, we have penicillin. For syphilis, that's the KO punch. Kills it, every time. But even if they had had it back then, it wouldn't have mattered. Because all it can do is stop the disease in its tracks—it can't repair any damage already done. Once syphilis gets to the brain, that's the end."

"Where would Al Capone get syphilis?"

"Well, the story is, he got it when he was working muscle for Johnny Torrio back in New York, when he was just a kid himself. Torrio was a major pimp, had a whole string of whorehouses, so Capone could have been dipping his wick anytime he wanted."

"Then he thought it went away, but, all the time, it was—"

"—killing him, yeah. That's the story. But it's not the truth. See, Al Capone had syphilis, all right. But he didn't get it when he was a kid—he got it in the federal penitentiary."

"How? If he was—"

"When he first got busted for taxes, he made some kind of a deal to plead guilty. According to him—and I mean him, not some rumor; that's what he said—he was supposed to draw a deuce in the pen, and cover all the charges with that. But he bragged to the papers about it, and the judge—a federal judge, remember—said he wouldn't go along. Hell, with all that press, he couldn't go along, or it would look like he was on the mob's payroll, too. Get himself investigated. So Capone went to trial. And he ended up with eleven years."

"You think, if he had kept his mouth shut—?"

"We'll never know. Anyway, they put him in the Cook County Jail while he was waiting to see how his appeals came out. And, kid, let me tell you, he ran the place. Had three private cells to himself, fixed up like a hotel suite. He ate steak and lobster, drank the best bonded booze, had all the 'visitors' he wanted, too.

"When he lost his appeals, he was sent to the federal pen in Atlanta. And he ran that place just like he ran Cook County. The man was a king inside those walls. And that's when it happened."

"The syphilis."

"Yep. Girl named Noreen Tisdale. Most gorgeous blonde you ever saw in your life. Face like a schoolgirl, and a body like Candy Barr—never mind, trust me, she was a real stunner. Visited that scar-faced greaseball five times, just to make sure."

"Wait! You're saying she knew—"

"Knew? That's what she was paid for, kid. First, she had to fuck a guy who had the syph—early stage. Then she had to be checked by a doctor, make sure she had it. And then she goes and lets Capone fuck her, any way he wanted it. By the time she was done with him, that was it."

"But couldn't a doctor—?"

"What? Fix him? Maybe … maybe … if he'd gotten to one in time. But, soon as they were sure they had him infected, they boxed him up and shipped him to Alcatraz. That's when Big Al stopped running the show. No more special treatment. No privileges, no nothing. And the only thing the doctors they had in there ever treated was stab wounds."

"Why would any woman do … all that?" Dave said.

"Her husband was sitting in the Death House at the Georgia State Pen. Bank robbery, and a guard got killed. He got a pardon from the governor when another guy confessed to the crime. Turned out her husband was innocent all along."

"Jesus Lord!"

"Yeah. She was some kind of woman."

"Her? I meant … an innocent man on Death Row. It's so …."

"He was guilty as sin, Davy."

"But you just said—"

Mack drew a long, deep breath. Let it out slowly. Turned to the younger man and said, "It was a business deal, son. All the way around. Noreen did the job, and she got paid what she wanted for it. And what we got, we got Capone."

"We? You don't mean—?"

"Yeah, I do. That was just an experiment, at the time. And it worked. Nobody knew exactly what would happen if a man got syphilis and never got any treatment at all. Not for sure, anyway. Can you imagine what you could do with something like that? A disease you get from sex? The Krauts had their mustard gas in World War I. This, this could be bigger than that by a thousand, a million times. If you knew how to keep it under control, use it only when you wanted to use it, you could own the whole damn world."

"Mack, how could you know all this?" Dave demanded.

"Because that was my job then."

"Al Capone?"

"No, kid," the older man said deliberately, as if the words were too heavy for his breath to carry them. "Noreen Tisdale."

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Two Trains Running by Andrew Vachss